Notes: Sorry for the delay in getting a new story posted, but I've started my own business and it's really keeping me busy. I'll try and have another out soon! Having been a fan of westerns since The Big Valley reruns, I've always wanted to see more of the *unseen* aspect of life. This idea came to me while reading some fanfic in another AU and I thought I'd play with it. Hope you enjoy!
Please send comments to: firstname.lastname@example.org
Ezra coughed, hunched his shoulders, and pulled his jacket closed. With his hat pulled low onto his brow he kept his eyes focused on the path before him. Wind and rain pelted his horse, his back, and sent small waves across the growing puddles. His horse moved gallantly through the brush, his head moving up and down at an easy pace, each hoof clipping stones and splattering mud onto his legs, belly, and chest.
Lightning flashed across the darkening sky, followed quickly by a deep roll of thunder. The moon was hidden behind murky clouds that rolled with smooth grace. The branches of trees swayed and snapped with wind gusts, sending leaves and twigs to the ground; dancing without rhythm or harmony.
Ezra could feel the rattle in his chest; and the tightening of his lungs. Every punch, kick, and solid blow continued to torment him, despite the passing hours. He knew what it meant-the coughing and the pain, but he chose to ignore it, opting instead to continue home. Every ounce of his energy was spent staying astride the big chestnut; swaying gently from side to side they progressed forward. He gripped the saddle-horn as another wave of pain-wracked coughs struck him. He leaned forward, wrapping an arm around his waist and hanging onto the saddle horn.
His horse moved off the trail, snapped a bite to eat and continued his trek forward. Ezra never noticed the bushes slapping his legs, the tree limbs hitting his back, and he never saw the small cabin come into view.
Chris slammed the shutter closed and quickly moved toward the next window. His black duster slapped and billowed around his legs as gusts of wind slipped against and through the material.
"I hear this is supposed to be a bad one," Buck said, holding the shutter closed as Chris locked it into place.
Chris nodded, looked across the street as Vin and JD finished shutting up the saloon. He could hear Nathan and Josiah working on the church, and he knew they weren't underestimating nature's wrath.
"I know we need the rain, but damn, didn't think it'd hit like this-hope to hell the telegraph stays up." Buck wiped the dust from his eyes and looked toward the west as the wall of rain, lightning, and thunder headed their way.
"You wire Eagle Bend, let them know what's comin'?"
Buck nodded and pulled his bandana over his nose as a wall of dust entered town. "Hope they got it We should get inside before this hits," he said.
Chris nodded, covered his nose and mouth with a handkerchief and jogged with Buck toward the church.
There wasn't a soul in sight. The horses had been locked inside the livery. All the windows had been covered with shutters and doors locked and secured. Tumbleweeds rolled through town, catching on hitching posts and watering troughs. Dust continued to build in corners, crevasses, and at the bottom of steps.
The smell of dust combined with rain spread through town, seeping between cracks in doors and walls. Josiah held the door to the church open as JD and Vin sprinted down the boardwalk, followed quickly by Chris and Buck.
Josiah shut the door as the first drops of rain hit the roof.
Buck pulled his bandana down and around his neck, dust flickered, but still lay evident in the crows feet at the corners of his eyes.
"Here it comes," JD said, smiling as the rain hit the roof in droves. He watched Josiah place a bucket next to the wood stove to capture the drips falling from the ceiling.
Vin took a seat in the back pew, crossed his arms over his chest and tilted his head back. "Might as well wait it out," he said.
"Think Ezra's out in this?" JD asked, wishing he could look out a window. He glanced toward Buck. "He was due back this morning."
The horses in the corral nickered when the strange horse stepped onto the property. Despite the wind and rain they walked toward the fence and waited for the stranger. The big chestnut nickered in return, but stopped to grab a bite of hay stored beneath the lean-to.
Another flash lit the sky, quickly followed by several more. The lightning had a life of its own, its heartbeat echoing the thunder that rolled and boomed across the land; the wind expelled its breath.
Ezra remained hunched over the horn, with his chest on fire, he concentrated on breathing. No longer paying attention to their destination, he could feel the chills enter his bones, dampen his skin, and send spears into his lungs. He squeezed his eyes closed, flared his nostrils and clenched his jaw as the pain hit again. He coughed to the point of dry heaves, and he threaded his fingers through his horse's mane and groaned when the clenching of his chest stopped.
The front door to the small home opened, casting light onto the darkened ground. "Who's out there?!"
Ezra's chestnut raised his head and perked his ears forward, but went back to eating when he didn't find the older woman holding the shotgun a threat.
The woman cocked her riffle and cradled the stock between her arm and her breast. She stepped off her narrow porch, the wind catching her skirts and her apron. "You best git off my property!" She held her weapon steady, and slowly walked toward the strange horse. "Hey, you dumb or somethin'?!"
The big chestnut raised his head again, maneuvering hay between the shanks of the bit and his tongue. He looked toward the woman, swiveled his ears at the sound of flapping material against the wind.
"Listen," she said, "I shoot just as good as any man-now would be a good time to turn that rank animal around and head outta here!"
Ezra slowly sat up, turned toward the woman and then slipped from the saddle, landing in a heap by his horse's front legs.
Having dragged the stranger across the barnyard, up the stairs, and into her meager home, she dropped his arms onto the floor and stood placing her hands onto her back and stretched. She jumped when the stranger rolled onto his left side and started to violently cough.
The rattle instigated it. Feeling as though rain drenched cobwebs had taken up residence in his chest, Ezra forced himself to turn to his left and he coughed, slowly at first and then hard enough to send his muscles into fits. He felt someone grab his shoulders, shove him upright and forcefully remove his jacket.
"No," he said, and then gasped for air. He clumsily reached for a weapon, but he gave up, too tired and in too much pain to care.
"Don't worry," the woman said, removing the weapons, holsters, and then his vest and shirt, "I don't want nothin' you've got-well," she paused and then rolled her eyes, "not nothin'." She chuckled and grabbed the pillows from her bed. She shoved them behind him and gently laid him back.
The woman stood, shoved more wood into her stove and walked toward the kitchen where she removed several tins, herbs, whiskey, and a cup. "I'd get you up onto the bed, but I'm not as young as I used to be." She knelt beside him and patted his cheek. "Look at me, handsome."
Ezra cracked his eyes and looked at her. He moved his lips to speak, but was quickly hushed.
"Don't try talkin', you'll just start coughin' again. You've got yerself a fever, an' by the looks of ya-someone or someones beat the shit outta ya." She opened a tin and scooped her fingers into the fragrant salve and applied it to his chest. "My folks, an' my dead husband called me Meg-I don't answer to Mrs., ma'am, or hey." She smiled when he nodded. "My momma used to use this on me when I was a child-it'll cure a cough faster 'an a bullet."
Her hands, wrinkled by time, weather, and hard work, worked their magic one circular motion at a time. She watched his eyes close, and then listened to the leveling of his breathing. She drenched a cloth into the steaming water rang it out and then wiped his face. He was handsome, and far too young. His weapons told a story that his clothing didn't, and the book he could write was full of hidden chapters. Despite the roaring fire behind him, he shivered as his fever took hold.
Meg shook her head, slowly got to her feet, wincing when her back cracked and moved to the bed. It was shoved in the corner, covered with quilts made from pieces of material that spanned her time in the west. She could tell a story about each piece, and she remembered the men in her life that wore them. The shirt her husband had worn to propose, the jacket her son had shot his first buck in, and the dress she wore on her wedding day. She tossed the blankets back and then reached for the bed warmer and placed the plate on the wood stove and the she moved back to her patient.
"I hope you ain't shy, cuz I ain't puttin' you to bed in wet britches."
"Whoowhee, I should've gone to Miss Abby's an' had her show me that new dress she's been talkin' about," Buck said, wishing the rain would stop. Sitting in the back pew he threw his arms over the armrest and sighed.
"She don't make dresses," JD said, lowering his dime novel and peeking over the top to look at Buck. "What are you talking about?"
"Miss Abby's new dress, boy. She's got frilly things on the most important parts... damn you've got to get past this innocent charmin' bit-do you think the girls like that act? Cuz they don't-they like men that know the important things-"
"This is a church, Buck," Vin said, never moving from his comfortable position on the pew. He kept his heels crossed on the armrest, and tipped his hat farther over his eyes to avoid JD's lantern.
"Since when did you get religion?" Buck peeked through a crack in the door and winced when he spotted a narrow stream in front of the steps.
"Sure hope it stops raining soon," JD said, lying his book on the table and moving to stand by Nathan who was reading a book intensely.
"Farmers need the rain, JD," Josiah said, wiping his nose on his handkerchief. He tossed the piece of sandpaper toward a pew and took a seat to rest his aching back. He could smell dust, combined with rain, as well as the scent of horseshit. He turned a little to his right and spotted Vin's boots staring him in the face.
"How much? Damn, Josiah, seems like they'd have enough rain to last 'em 'til next year."
"It'll be gone in two days, JD," Vin said, sitting up. He pushed his hat up so his eyes were visible. "Sun 'ill come out an' dry it all up, better be thankful we got some now-could be dry the rest of the year."
A crack of thunder shook the windows; it was followed by two more less violent roars. A gust of wind slammed the already closed shutters against their frames.
Josiah looked toward the door as it flew open, slamming against the stair railing, and cracking the hinges. He and Chris jumped from their positions and quickly closed the doors, tying them into place with a strong rope. Both doors pounded against the frame as the wind whipped past.
Josiah looked at Chris with a steady gaze: "Think he's out there in this?"
Chris clenched his jaw: "Ezra's his own man, he can take care of himself." He turned and walked toward the front of the church where he stood warming his hands by the stove.
"That horse of yours has a mean streak, tried to steal my apple while I was unsaddlin' 'im." Meg continued to knead her dough. White power blemished the front of her apron and freckled her face.
Ezra remained in bed, propped up with pillows and covered with blankets. His fever raged, but his fits of coughing had lessened through the night. He never spoke, but quick erratic movements continued to torment his fitful sleep.
"My late husband Mister used to eat every ounce of bread I'd make-he was an unpredictable bastard 'til it came to food." She shook her head and slapped her hands against her thighs and then wiped her brow with her forearm. "He was a big man, bumped his head on the top of the doorframe every Tuesday night when he came home after huntin', after 23 years you'd think he'd 'ave learned." She placed the dough into a bowl and covered it with a wet cloth.
Rain pelted the windows and pooled before streaming toward the ground. The wind had slowed, gently causing the tops of the trees to sway to and fro. The gray sky was quickly turning black as night descended.
"I sure hope you got friends," Meg said, turning toward her patient, "sure hate to think you're out here all alone." She turned back toward her window and waited for her bread to rise.
Daybreak brought with it fresh clean air. Puddles of mud decorated the street like pimples on a teenager. Mud splattered onto boardwalks, onto pants, skirts, and saddles as the townsfolk continued their day. Tumbleweeds and tree branches littered the street, having collected in crevasses and between wagons and railings.
Chris slipped the latigo through the D-ring and finished tightening the cinch. He removed his stirrup from the horn and let it fall into place before grabbing his horse's reins and heading toward the door.
"You gonna be gone long?" Vin ask, keeping his position against the stable door.
Chris stopped, looked at him and said, "Don't know."
Vin nodded, reached into his pocket and tossed Chris a small package. "When you find 'im, give 'im those, figure a new deck of cards 'ill set 'im right." He turned and pushed the door open.
"I ain't gonna rat you out " Vin sighed, " but you ain't foolin' anyone." He turned and headed for the saloon.
Tracking a man after a storm was nearly impossible, and Chris knew it. He could see as far as the horizon, and unless a spot of Ezra's red jacket appeared, he knew he was in for a long ride. The wind had died down, and a cool breeze was all he could feel against his skin.
His horse moved gracefully beneath him, his hooves striking the ground with even moist ridden clops that echoed. Broken branches, flattened weeds, and rain drenched leaves littered the ground, some floating on puddles, some broken and hanging from their perches.
Chris took a deep breath, guided his horse west. Ezra was headed back to Four Corners after aiding the judge in an endeavor to justify the hanging of a cattle thief who had murdered a family of four. Chris shook his head, finding it irrational as well as absurd that a man of Travis' position would have to explain his actions to a man who held a significant enough position in the community to warrant the governor's involvement.
Ezra had seen it, and he had been the final nail in Elwood's coffin. He was supposed to have been back three days ago-before the storm-before today. Ezra understood more than anyone how to make an entrance, and making an entrance did not entail being early. However, after spending four days with Judge Travis, Chris knew Ezra would have been back in time to con them all out of their hard earned cash for his weekly poker game.
But he had not made it.
Chris wasn't sure when it happened, when the desire to be more than he ever anticipated accompanied keeping all of them together as a surrogate family, brothers bound by survival and friendship. Ezra was that brother always getting into trouble, the first to complain-but he was also the first to step into the line of fire.
Meg sat on the edge of the bed and applied the heavy salve to Ezra's chest. "Looks like someone took a club to ya." She smiled and then covered him with her quilt.
"Wh where am I?" His voice was rough, unused, and he seemed out of breath.
"Out in the middle of nowhere," she said, folding her hands in her lap. "Near as I can figure it, your horse brought you here-don't think you was real capable to doin' much other than stayin' on But, it looks like you lost the battle with whoever or whatever you was fightin'-ya got two broken ribs, an' I'd be willin' to bet a few more are bruised." She placed her hand on his brow. "Don't go tryin' to explain to me what happened, you can barley speak as it is."
Meg stood, dusted the front of her apron with her hands, and took a deep breath. "I'll fix ya up some grub; you should be able to keep some broth down."
Ezra closed his eyes and then reopened them. He watched her move around the room, collecting items. Her gray hair was tied into a loose bun at the base of her neck. Her face, weathered by time and the elements, knew more of life than he could ever guess. The home was simple, but a home all the same. Above the fireplace rested several small items, knickknacks made by children; clumsy and awkward but precious. Ezra could see his clothing hanging off the back of a chair, a silver needed was pinned to his jacket sleeve. He lifted his covers and sighed.
"Don't worry none," Meg said with a chuckled, "you ain't got nothin' I haven't seen before." She tossed a pinch of salt into a caldron and took her long wooden spoon and stirred. "I had four boys and three girls-most of 'em are livin' in California now, except William-he's in New York with his wife an' four daughters."
" Thank you "
Meg turned and smiled: "Ain't nothin' to be thankful for, other than makin' it here 'fore that storm hit." She returned to her broth. "After Mister passed a couple years back-things 'round here haven't been the same. We was married for 33 years they was tough, but worth every minute." She looked toward the bed and found her patient asleep, she smiled, looked out the window as the sun peeked through the clouds and continued with her soup.
Chris wished he had brought Vin along. The man could track a pinto through a herd of paints and not blink an eye. After two days of continuous riding and failing to find even a hint of Ezra's trail, he was ready to pack it in maybe even head back to Four Corners and see if Ezra had by chance arrived, but his gut was telling him he hadn't.
He pulled his mount to a stop and looked over the vastness of ground. If it wasn't for the horizon touching the sky the ground looked as though it could go on forever, and Chris knew it could. He knew the possibilities of finding a man, and the odds were not on his side.
Ezra would bet against him.
Chris had stopped at every farm and ranch between Four Corners and Westfalls. He nudged his mount's sides and headed east, taking the trail he had been avoiding.
The west had been his, it always had been. He had left his home as a boy, moved west and made a life for himself. He had found and married a beautiful woman, had a child, and started a ranch of well bred horses. That is what he had been known for. He had been a family man, a father, and a husband. He had built his home with his own two hands while Sara stood beside him. The land had been theirs, and they had tended it with the intentions of passing it on. It would have been rewarding, seeing Adam take over and build the ranch into something more.
It had not been his goal, none of it had been, but that was what made it worth while. Every expectation he had for himself had been placed there on his own-no conditions. He missed it. He missed coming home after a long day and sitting at the kitchen table knowing he would have to get up in a few hours and work twice as hard. Instead of calluses on his gun hand he had calluses on his palms and fingers, at times they had cracked and bled. He missed having dirt caked beneath his fingernails, and the smell of horse sweat embedded on his clothes.
Chris remembered the first time he had come off a mare and landed in the fence, Sara had run from the house and Buck had picked him up. It was the first in a series of unwanted dismounts, but like everything else he got used to it; the bruises, cuts, and breaks. It had been worth it all of it, all the pain and discomfort. It had been time with what counted most in his life his family.
The hours seemed to pass slowly, and the sun was slowly starting to make its decent. He pulled his horse to a stop, debating with himself if he should not turn around and ride toward Four Corners. The need to check the eastern trail was in direct conflict with his want to leave. His ranch, the land where he had buried his family was just a few miles to the west. He had ridden this trail more times than we wanted to remember.
Chris nudged his horse forward and they continued their trek. He could see the top of a roof come into view and he felt a sudden burning in his gut. Ezra should not have come this way, unless he had been running from something. Chris could see Elwood's clan doing whatever they had to in order to get back at the men who slipped a rope around their boss's neck. Travis had been traveling light, but he had been smart enough to bring help along in case he had needed it. Part of that help had been Ezra.
But what happens when the help becomes the target?
The big black stepped into a puddle of mud, sending droplets in all directions. Chris clenched his jaw when the front of the old house came into view. A corral was attached to a rickety barn that had survived the storm, but barely. The horses had gathered in the far corner, but when the lean chestnut nickered and walked toward the intruder, Chris knew he had found Standish.
"I've had me enough visitors for the day!" the woman said, holding her riffle in the crook of her arm, ready to fire.
Chris clenched his jaw and dismounted. "I ain't here to fight, Meg!"
Meg pressed her lips together and lowered her riffle. "Hell." She turned and entered her home, leaving the door open.
Chris dismounted and led his horse to the hitching post located beside the front steps. Hesitantly, he tied him and then he stepped onto the porch. He stomped the mud off his boots before entering the small home.
"Close the door behind you," Meg said, reaching for two cups from her pantry.
Chris looked toward the bed. "How is he?"
Meg sighed and poured some coffee into the cups. "You the one that beat 'im?" She motioned for him to take a seat at the table and she placed one of the cups before him.
"I haven't been for hire in a long time, Meg."
She nodded and slipped into the chair at the end of the table. "Then why're you here?"
Chris wrapped his hands around his cup, feeling the warmth. "Things have changed " he took a deep breath and glanced toward the bed, " I'm working as part of the law in Four Corners."
"Didn't think you'd work for anyone what happened?"
"A lot of things How is he?"
"Sleepin' off a bad case of lung fever after someone took a club to his ribs. He's busted up, but better than he was." She rested her elbows on the table. "He one of the men workin' with you?"
Chris nodded: "Thought you would've moved further west?"
"Mister's buried out back," she sighed, "and, if you don't remember-I moved here first."
Chris took a deep breath and felt the heaviness of the air. "I wasn't the one who forced you down here." He looked at her with his jaw clenched.
"I'm the bastard, Chris, not you." She stood and turned toward the stove to pour herself another cup of coffee. "I was the one who had to fight for the Larabee name, you were born with it." She turned and looked at him. "What made a man like you come all the way out here-friend or not?"
Chris sighed, and then took a deep breath: "I don't know."
Meg nodded, turned, and then leaned against the counter. "You remarry?"
"You're a damn fool." She slammed her cup onto the counter, sending coffee over the lip and onto her hand. "You always have been, runnin' around like some godforsaken lost soul. You had it good back east, real good-an' you know it-"
"I really don't want to-"
"-You've never wanted to talk about this. Face it, you left Indiana because I showed up on your daddy's doorstep demandin' a name, an' you couldn't face the fact that he was with someone other than your momma. Poor Chris Larabee. So what do you do, you leave because your daddy's got a bastard, pretendin' you wanted to be adventurous-half the damn country moved west before you were a glint in your momma's eye. You didn't do nothin' that ain't been done 'fore, an' you still ain't done nothin' different. Everyone loses someone, Larabee-everyone. I bet if'n you'd ask 'im your friend over there's lost someone too, but he ain't dressed in black killin' folks because he can."
"I've never had a choice in what I've done, Meg." He stood, clenching his fists. Though his voice was calm the aura of anger surrounding him became suddenly deadly.
"That's just it!" Meg said. "You've always had a choice. You're here now because you've chosen to be!"
"I did not chose for Sarah and Adam-"
"No shit! But you did chose to start killin', you chose to leave, you chose to stay an extra day-"
"I'm warnin' you, Meg," he said, lowering his voice and standing back.
"Or what, you gonna add me to your belt You've always been six clicks away from death, Larabee, maybe you've got a bullet for each of those friends of yours-it's six right, six friends you've never found that strange?" She crossed her arms over her chest and shifted her weight to her left leg. "Maybe after you shoot them you'll have to reload an' do yourself in maybe that's the way you like it." She clenched her jaw. "I watched my husband wilt away to nothin' before he died-took him months-nose bleeds, headaches, pain so bad he couldn't make it to the privy I would have given anythin' to let him die quick anythin'."
"I'd give anything to have one more minute with them."
"You'll never be able to convince me that my pain is any less then yours I've lost a child too-I know what it's like." She turned toward the closet and removed a small bundle. "It ain't the misery ya cause yourself that defines ya it's the way ya handle it." She paused a moment. "Sarah an' Adam used to come by here-Oh, don't look so damn surprised!" she said, furrowing her brow. "She knew you like the backside of her hand, an' she knew that one day you'd have balls enough to come by here an' say hi to your sister-she didn't use those words exactly, but close enough. Anyway, she said when ya finally came by to give ya this." She handed him the bundle and moved to stand by the edge of the bed. She pressed the palm of her hand against Ezra's forehead and winced when she still felt his fever. "Don't figure she knew it'd be three years after the fact."
Chris opened the bundle that had been wrapped in linen. He choked and then laughed.
"I never asked Sarah what it was, but I figure you'd know What is it?" Meg asked, she had calmed herself by taking several deep breaths, frustrated.
Chris sighed, rubbing his fingers along the braided leather. "I was always losin' my watch hell, I'd lose it four or five times a day. It'd end up in the dirt, hay stack, even the tack room Sarah got so fed up with me she said she was goin' to tie it to my wrist, that way it'd always be in sight-but it was the ugliest thing I'd ever seen." He chuckled. "I hid this in the bureau an' told her I lost it."
"She did have a peculiar sense of humor."
Chris nodded: "Yeah she did."
"Why'd you stop killin'?"
Chris squeezed the braid in his hand: "The money wasn't good enough anymore."
"That the real reason?"
"That one not good enough?"
"No it isn't."
Chris looked toward the bed and then pulled the chair out from beneath the table. "The last man I killed for money was a year ago, George Torrez. I was told he'd stolen the virtue of the daughter of the man who hired me turned out George Torrez was his bastard son and he didn't want it known." He continued to toy with the braid, rubbing his thumb over the curves of the leather. "Torrez had a wife and three daughters and I shot him while he begged for his life."
"Is that when you decided to stop?"
Chris shook his head: "I stopped because the money wasn't that good anymore." His voice was firm and unwavering. She would not hear the real reason nobody would.
Meg could guess.
Meg nodded: "I don't know if I believe that, but it'll have to do for now." She tucked the blanket around Ezra's shoulders. "Your friend's too sick to travel."
Chris nodded and looked toward the bed. "Has he said anything?"
Meg shook her head: "Afraid he'd give away a few of your secrets?" She sighed and then applied a damp cloth to Ezra's forehead. "You were six the first time I met you You an' your sister were out playin' in your mother's garden-helpin' her weed, I think." She grabbed a tin from the nightstand and toyed with the lid before capping it and replacing it next to the kerosene lamp. "I had the audacity to demand the Larabee name goin' to his home an'-"
"-I didn't leave because you showed up I left because our father refused to take responsibility for the things he'd done." Chris cleared his throat. "My mother knew I think she's the one that made him send you that money."
"I never got it."
"He probably drank it."
Meg nodded and then pulled the washrag from Ezra's forehead. "What happened to him?"
Chris shrugged; "I don't know. I left after my mother passed."
Meg rang the washrag and then reapplied it. "I always wondered what he was like-wanted to know if I was like 'im in any way." She shrugged and ran her fingers along Ezra's cheek. "My eldest boy looks like 'im-at least I think. I don't remember much of that day "
Ezra stirred, moving onto his right side facing them, but never woke.
"He's a sound sleeper." She chuckled.
Chris nodded: "He'd sleep through a damn train wreck, but pick up a weapon an' he's quick as lightenin'."
"Is that respect I hear?" Meg said with a smile and stood.
" Maybe "
"Why didn't you ever come see us while Sara was alive?" She moved toward the stove and poured some fresh coffee into her cup.
Chris took a deep breath and rang his hands together, while they hung between his knees. He sat hunched at the shoulders, his elbows resting on his thighs. "I don't know, Meg maybe it was easier."
She nodded and then walked to her bureau. "David, my eldest sends me letters an' sometimes cutouts from the papers there in New York-he left before you an' Sara were married, but he remembered me talkin' about her." She removed several handfuls of letters that had been tied together with shoe strings and placed them before her as she took a seat at the end of the table. "There was this one about seven lawmen tamin' the west." She smiled when she spotted the thin newspaper cutout. Meg pulled it from the pile and pushed it toward Chris.
The black print had faded, nearly blending with the yellowish paper, but the meaning was still there. It was a brief article, and most of the facts were wrong, but his name stood out like a beacon in the night and Chris sighed while reading it. Fame was not what he wanted, nor recognition. Yes, he and six others had helped clean out a town, but those townsfolk had done a lot as well. Many had put aside their prejudices, and others had given their lives.
"I thought it was one of them made-up stories those papers put out for entertainment or somethin'-then I started hearin' things around here. I thought for sure some damn fool had gotten you confused with some kind of lawman."
"That why you asked me if I was still a hired gun?"
"Stories is just stories 'til they come from the horse's mouth-an even then you best be careful who you believe." Meg gathered her letters and clippings into a pile and retied them. "I'll put us some soup on." She stood and replaced the letters into her bureau.
Chris watched her move back and forth from the counter to the large kettle she had hooked in the Dutch oven. She tossed carrots, onions, potatoes, corn, and ham into the water and let it simmer, slowly cooking and filling the air with the scents of home. She didn't own much, but what she did have had been made with care.
Ezra coughed, and then gasped before covering his mouth with his hand. He squeezed his eyes shut to ride out the pain as the heaving continued. Muscles clenched and his throat grew tight as he wheezed for breath.
"Take it easy, Ezra," Chris said, forcing pillows behind his shoulders.
"He should drink this," Meg said, forcing a cup of steaming tea into his hand. "Have 'im take it slow." She squeezed Chris' shoulder before returning to her soup.
Ezra lay against the pillows with his head tilted toward the ceiling. He turned toward Chris and found him sitting on the edge of the bed.
Ezra nodded and took the cup. "How'd you find me?"
Chris shrugged: "I took a chance and it paid off."
Ezra nodded and then closed his eyes. Slowly, he lifted the cup to his lips and took a sip before turning his attention toward Meg who wore a smile while stirring her soup. The air hung heavy as the spices and vegetables blended. Meg reached for a basket that was covered and sitting on the counter. She pulled the day-old bread from the basket and started slicing.
Chris remained on the bed, his attention focused on his sister while at the same time he made sure the tea Ezra was drinking didn't end up on the floor. He turned just as Ezra tried to put the cup on the nightstand.
"You see who nailed you?" he asked, taking the cup.
Ezra shook his head and then rubbed his eyes. "Three I think."
Ezra shook his head again. "Friends of Elwood's ?"
Chris nodded, not expecting more. "I'm ridin' back tonight, but I'll come back in the mornin' with a wagon-figure you'll ride easier."
Ezra shook his head, but kept his eyes closed. "I'll ride out with you in the morning."
Meg chuckled from the large kettle. "He's right, Chris you shouldn't ride back tonight-I'll wrap his ribs in the mornin' an' as long as you take it easy back he should be fine." She grabbed three soup bowls. "Make sure he stays warm," she looked toward him, "you know what to do."
Chris held the reins to Ezra's horse and then mounted his big black. The weather had cleared, but a brisk wind continued. Meg stood beneath the porch awning, having supervised breakfast and helped Ezra make the trip from his bed to the back of his horse.
Chris cleared his throat and adjusted his grip on his horse's reins. He looked toward Ezra who sat hunched at the shoulders. One hand held onto the saddle horn and the other kept his jacket clenched closed. He looked miserable, but assured Chris he could ride back.
"If he starts lookin' worse for wear, take an hour and rest up Don't push 'im, Chris." Meg placed her hands on her hips, looking stern and motherly.
Chris nodded, and paused. He looked as though he wanted to say something, but for unknown reasons he couldn't.
"When you get a wild hair " Meg sighed. She smiled and shrugged her shoulders. " Come on out an' see me-I'd like to finally have the chance to get to know my brother."
Chris nodded, tipped his hat, and then nudged his horse forward. Ezra's big chestnut tossed his head when his reins were pulled forward, but he slowly got into step beside the big black. Meg remained on her porch until both men were out of sight. She took a deep breath, smiled and turned to enter her home. She paused in the doorway, looking at the braided watchband Sarah had made Chris.
Meg stepped forward picked the item up and ran her fingers over the rough braid. She chuckled, walking toward her bureau where she wrapped the leather into a cloth and replaced it on the same shelf she had kept it on for three years.
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