Webmaster Note: This story was riginally posted in the June of 1999, and was relocated to this site in May 2001
Author's Note: The characters in this story are not mine (no matter how much I wish they were.) And no money is made by me for the use of them in this story. This is for pure entertainment purposes and writing practice. It's also the only way to get my Mag 7 fix.
Men poured out of the saloon into the mid summer evening air, at the sound of someone shouting, "FIRE! FIRE AT THE STABLES!" Seven of those men stopped just outside the saloon doors. They stared at the flames reaching out from the loft of the town's stables. People were coming from all directions to aid in extinguishing the blaze, everyone aware at what a fire could do to their town.
Larabee, who stood beside Ezra, heard the gambler moan. He turned to see the anguish, which had replaced the fancy-dressed lawman's usual placid expression. "Oh, God no, not my horse!" He then pushed between Buck and Vin and raced across the street. Chris and the others knew how much Ezra cared about his beautiful chestnut stallion. They also had a fondness for their animals, but nothing compared to Ezra's. His horse was probably the only thing he truly loved. They all raced across the street to help. JD, Nathan, Josiah and Vin took up the bucket brigade. Someone had placed two ladders up against the side of the stables, and people were already lined up to the top. Josiah took over the pumping from an older gentleman, who looked about ready to collapse from exhaustion.
Standish ignored the chaos around him and ran into the stables. Chris and Buck paused a moment outside the burning building. They looked at each other in disbelief, shrugged, and followed their friend into the inferno. It appeared that the loft was the only thing burning at the moment. Bits of burning straw rained down upon frightened animals that whinnied and pranced in fear. Ezra began opening stalls until he saw Buck and Chris doing the same. He made his way to the back, where he kept his horse. Ezra reached the stall, the smoke rolling above his head causing his throat to burn and his eyes to tear. The exquisite horse pranced in fear until Ezra entered, talking quietly to the frightened animal. "Easy, boy, easy." He stroked the horse's soft nose, which nuzzled his shoulder, breathing in his familiar scent. Ezra grasped the halter and started to lead the horse out, when he caught movement in the far corner. At first he thought it was just a trick of the flames, but then he saw a definite form. Someone was hiding, and it crossed his mind that this person could be the one who started the fire. Ezra grew angry at the thought of anyone trying to destroy helpless animals, especially his. He pointed his horse in the right direction and slapped him on the rump sending him loping out. The smoke was starting to get thick, making it hard to see and small fires were cropping up all around. Ezra approached the form that seemed to try and crouch further down into the corner. He couldn't get a good look, due to the smoke and the shadows, but he appeared to be about his size, maybe a little heavier and younger.
"Come out, Now!" Ezra yelled at the stranger, ready to spring his derringer at the first sign of a weapon.
"Did we get them all?" Chris shouted to Buck as he coughed and gagged, his eyes watering from the smoke.
"I think so, where's Ezra?" Buck gave a muffled replied, holding a handkerchief over his mouth and nose. Chris and Buck turned to the back of the stables. They could just make out something through the dense smoke.
The young man realized that he had been spotted. He searched around for any avenue of escape, spotting an open stall window behind Ezra. This was the first time he had ever been caught in the act. He enjoyed setting fires. He liked to watch things burn and no one was going to stop his fun. He recognized the fancy dressed man as the gambler, and one of the seven lawmen who protected Four Corners. Like a cornered lion, he did the only thing he could, he attacked. He sprung out taking Ezra to the ground.
Ezra's shoulder took the brunt of the fall. He managed to get his feet under his attacker and throw him off, sending him into an empty stall. Ezra leapt up, but the younger man was quickly on him, seeming to materialize out of the smoke. He punched Ezra in the stomach, bringing him to his knees gasping for breath in a place seriously lacking in oxygen. The young man looked up to see Chris and Buck making their way towards them. He quickly dove out the stall window. At the same instant Ezra heard a crack from above. He looked up as a large flaming beam came crashing down upon him, pinning him to the floor.
Chris and Buck saw Ezra struggling with someone. They saw him fall to his knees. The other, leaping out the window. Their eyes went wide in horror, as the beam came crashing down. They were brought out of their stupor at Ezra's scream. The two men raced ahead, and without the lightest hesitation grabbed the ends of the burning timber and lifted it off Ezra's back. Buck removed his coat and threw it on top of Ezra, extinguishing his burning jacket. They quickly grabbed under gambler's arms and headed for the doors.
Chris and Buck staggered almost falling, coughing and sobbing for breath. They carefully laid Ezra down in the street and kneeled beside him, trying to get some much needed fresh air into their smoke filled lungs. People were still in chaos, but the fire was slowly being brought under control. Nathan Jackson rushed over and knelt beside the unconscious conman. He checked for a pulse then lifted up Buck's jacket to take a look. Nathan inhaled sharply. Luckily, his dark skin hid the blood that left his face. He placed the jacket back before anyone else could see and looked over at Chris, whose eyes were red and teary from smoke.
"Chris, what happened?" he asked, placing a hand on Chris' shoulder to get his attention. He looked over at Buck who seemed to be getting his breath back.
"A...beam...fell on him," the blond lawman managed to gasp out between painful breaths of air. He stared at Nathan, hearing something in the black healer's voice, something that a shiver of dread up his spine.
"Did you two pick it up?" the dark healer asked. Buck and Chris regarded each other momentarily, then looked down at their hands, which were red and beginning to blister. "Here you're going to need this." Nat tossed Chris a jar of salve, which he grabbed in the crook of his arm.
Vin, Josiah and JD suddenly appeared, their faces slick with soot and sweat. JD kept smelling his jacket and wondered if the smell would ever come out. He suddenly noticed Buck's hands and knelt down beside him, concern coming quickly to his boyish face. "Buck, are you okay?"
Buck tried to clear his raw throat long enough to answer. "Yeah...kid, it's nothing." Buck grimaced, as he tried to make a fist.
Nathan stood up. His sober appearance focused everyone's attention on Ezra, who was still unconscious. "Vin, Josiah, we need to get Ezra up to my room now!" He turned to JD who was wiping his face. "JD, I need lots of boiled water and clean cloths." The gravity of the situation started to sink in. When Nathan took control things were bad, very bad.
Vin and Josiah placed Ezra gently on his stomach on Nathan's bed. Buck's coat still draped over his shoulders. Ezra moaned slightly, but didn't regain consciousness. Nathan turned around to face Chris and Buck who had followed them up and Mary who had entered behind them. "Ms. Travis, can you take care of Chris and Buck's hands."
"Certainly," Mary replied. She took the salve from Chris and began coating Buck's hands with the soothing ointment. Wilmington's face was uncharacteristically sedate. His eyes locked on Ezra's motionless body.
Nathan sat down next to his injured friend, who was starting to stir. He first checked Ezra's pulse and breathing, which was quick and shallow. He then took a deep breath and removed Buck's coat. Everyone gasped at the sight; Mary dropped the salve she was using to treat Buck's hands, and didn't even attempt to pick it up, all the color having left her face. JD walked in almost dropping the pail of water he carried. Vin fell back against the wall.
"Oh sweet mother of God," Josiah whispered.
Everyone stared at Ezra's blackened back. Mary turned away and continued attending to Buck's hands. Buck's dark eyes were drawn to the dark swathe on Ezra's green jacket. Both Chris and he were beginning to feel the pain of their hands, and started to imagine what Ezra was going to feel. The ladies man looked over at Chris, whose face was impassive, but his eyes; something in his eyes brought a feeling of dread to Buck's heart.
No one said a word as Nat examined the charred skin of their friend's back. He ran a dark hand down his face, not sure what he could really do for him. The burns were extensive. He chased away the doubt. Everyone was depending on him, especially Ezra. "Okay." Nathan swallowed, as he tried to keep his voice steady. "While he's still in shock and unconscious we need to clean this. I'm going to have to cut his jacket off."
"He ain't goin' like that, that's his favorite one," Vin remarked in a breaking voice, trying to lighten the mood.
Buck held back a slight chuckle. Chris just continued to stare like he was seeing a ghost. The dark-clad gunslinger kept a pain just below the surface. That pain held a memory, the memory of the charred bodies of his wife and son. That pain was threatening to come to the surface once again.
The ex-slave had seen this sort of thing many times before. When he was a slave it was nothing for a master to take a slave, douse him with kerosene and light it. Sometimes they let the slave burn until he was dead; other times they would extinguished it after a minute. The burned man would survive a couple minutes or a couple hours in excruciating pain that would not end, most would go mad and look for any way to end it. Nathan had helped a good friend end his suffering. He never forgot the look of relief on his friend's face when he gave him the poison. Ezra wasn't near as bad, but the pain was still something most men never experience, if they're lucky.
Jackson stood up and put his hands in a bowl of water. He grabbed some soap to thoroughly clean them, knowing infection was Ezra's greatest danger. "Josiah, Buck," he called out, "I need you close incase he comes to. He's going to be in extreme pain and I need him still."
JD stepped closer with the water and cloths. He couldn't take his eyes off Ezra. He had never seen anything like this before.
Mary finished with Buck's hands and smiled into his grateful eyes. She turned to Chris and started putting salve on his blister hands; he winced slightly. She could see the pain in his blue eyes and knew it wasn't from his hands. This pain went deep into his soul. She quickly wrapped his hands. Chris abruptly turned and walked out, never saying a word. Mary followed, knowing there was nothing she could do to ease Chris' suffering. Buck watched as his friend left, knowing the reason.
Nathan carefully cut away what he could of Ezra's green jacket then started pulling out bits of burnt cloth. JD watched as Nathan peeled away strips from Ezra's back. What he first thought was material; his eyes went wide when he realized it was skin. The young gunslinger raced out into the hall and threw up. Buck had to swallow back the bile that was rising in his own raw throat. The smell of burnt flesh drew up into his nose and stayed there. Nathan continued to pull cloth and blackened skin off Ezra's back.
Sanchez watched the young, black man's face and could see the concentration he was trying to maintain. Trying to separate the fact that he was peeling a man's skin off, and even more so a friend. Josiah placed a comforting hand on Nathan's shoulder and felt the shudder that went through his body. Nathan looked up into the huge gunslinger's aged blue eyes. The confidence they showed renewed his own self-assurance. He took a deep breath and continued. Ezra started to stir and tried to rise, Buck and Josiah immediately restrained him.
All of a sudden the gambler's green eyes flew open. An agonizing scream escaped his lips, a scream that ripped into the very hearts of everyone around. Jackson gritted his teeth, sweat beaded upon his forehead, as he continued removing burnt cloth and skin, trying to ignore Ezra's pain. He knew this was only the beginning of his torment. Ezra thrashed, kicked and screamed more violently.
"HOLD HIM!" Nathan yelled.
Buck and Josiah repositioned their grips on the thrashing man trying to hold down his shoulders. Vin moved in, grabbing his legs. Chris rushed back in, his heart going out to the injured man. "Don't you have anything you can give him?" Buck shouted at Nathan. His anger thrown at the only person close enough to receive it at the moment.
Nathan's dark eyes glared up at Buck as he snapped, "Don't you think I would..." he stopped, biting his lip. He realized getting angry and out of control wouldn't do Ezra any good. Buck bowed his head, getting control of his frustration. He slowly raised his head to meet Nathan's dark, rueful eyes. His own sorrowful gaze showing Nathan all he needed to see. Nat looked over his shoulder at Chris. "Chris, Ezra needs morphine."
Tears streamed down Ezra's agonizing face and he started yelling. "For pity's sake someone shoot me!" This stunned everyone, not so much for what he said, but how he said it, very serious. Nathan understood the pain he was feeling, he knew it could drive a man crazy. Ezra's wild pain-filled eyes locked on to Chris, his voice full of anguish. "Kill me! Kill me! You've always wanted to, since I ran out on you at the Indian village. Now I'm giving you your chance you son of bitch, shoot me!" This shocked and dismayed everyone. In the beginning, Larabee had actually threatened to shoot the egotistical conman if he ever ran out on him again. Everyone realized it was the pain talking, but it was still hard to hear. Chris stepped forward, and for a moment Josiah thought that he might actually do what Ezra wanted. Instead, the stoic gunslinger removed his gun and slammed it into the back of Ezra's head, knocking him mercifully unconscious.
The tension eased and everyone relaxed a little. Jackson checked to be sure that Ezra was okay and turned to Chris. "We can't keep doing that," he remarked.
"I know, but I had to do something," he stated, in a voice strained with emotion. He placed a hand tenderly on Ezra's head, pushing back the sweat soaked hair. He then walked back over to Mary, who smiled up at him. In Chris' own harsh way; he had shown compassion.
Buck and Josiah released their hold on the unconscious man, but stayed close incase he recovered. Wilmington fell exhausted against the wall, closing his eyes. He never felt so emotionally drained. His hands throbbed, but the pain felt distant.
Josiah sank to the floor, his hand still resting on Ezra's shoulder. Nathan continued to remove burnt fabric and skin from Ezra's back.
Larabee looked over at Vin, who stood silently in the corner. His arms crossed, an abiding sadness covered his face, trying to distance himself from his friend's pain. "Vin, go to Eagle Rock, beg, borrow or steal all the morphine you can. I don't care if you have to shoot somebody."
Tanner nodded, slightly relieved to get out of the sight and smell of burnt flesh and to be able to help in some way. Chris and Mary quietly walked out, as the room was crowded and the smell of sweat and burnt flesh was starting to get a little overwhelming. JD staggered past, with another pail of sterile water, surprised at the quiet that had descended upon everyone. He looked at Buck, who appeared drained of his usual jovial humor. Dunne quietly placed the bucket of water next to the dark healer, who had his head in his hands. He hoped that Vin got back soon with some morphine, Ezra was going to need it.
Nathan, I got more water," JD whispered, breaking the spell of silence. Jackson raised his head to look up at the young man's worried face. "Thanks, JD," was all he managed to say. JD stared down at Ezra's pink and raw flesh, the bile in his throat threatening to come up again.
+ + + + + + +
It took hours to clean the foot wide strip across the top of Ezra's back. He remained unconscious, but continued to moan and toss. The pain invading even his deepest sleep. It would be a long time before he had a restful, painless sleep. Nathan placed a light sheet over the wound and prayed it didn't become infected, that was the greatest danger for a wound this large. The weary ex-medic was completely drained. He almost lost his balance when he stood. Buck grabbed him, even though he was far from steady. JD volunteered to stay and watch over Ezra while everyone took a much-needed break and got something to eat, not that anyone was very hungry. The sight and smell of burnt flesh still permeating their senses.
The remaining lawmen sat downstairs in the near empty saloon each lost in his own private thoughts. Buck and Josiah had chased all the other patrons out, making up some obscure holiday. When Nathan finally came down he plopped into a chair across from a very inebriated Chris, who was just finishing his tenth beer.
Chris looked with bleary eyes, across the table at Nathan, whose own face was slack from the physical and emotional exertion he had put forth. "How is he?" he slurred, having trouble focusing.
Nathan shook his head. "I don't know, it's not good. The greatest danger is infection and shock from the pain," he paused raising his voice for everyone to hear. "I wouldn't go in there with a gun. Ezra might try and grab it and shoot himself." Everyone turned to their dark friend, unbelieving. "I've seen it happen before, they're in so much pain they just want it to stop, some just loose their minds." Chris passed his untouched beer towards Nathan who took it thankfully and tosses it back. He set the glass back on the table staring back at the man across from him, recognizing the torment on his face and realizing what he was thinking. "Chris," he quietly uttered, "your wife and son were overcome by smoke long before the fire ever reached them. They didn't feel a thing." Nathan hoped this helped. Chris gave him a small thankful smile and motioned for another beer.
At that moment Vin rushed into the bar room and by everyone's mood thought he was too late. Nathan ran up to him, a sudden adrenaline rush of hope reviving him slightly. "Nathan, all I could find was two vials and that was under protest." Jackson took the precious vials of liquid and ran upstairs.
Vin walked over to Chris noticing the condition he was in and was pretty sure he knew why. Larabee forced his head up and met Vin's concerned blue eyes. "Get some rest, tomorrow go scour all the towns you can and try and find some more, Ezra's going to need it," he said flatly. Vin nodded in agreement. He headed upstairs glancing towards Buck who was leaning against the bar, probably using it to hold himself up.
Buck came over to keep Chris company whether he wanted it or not. He understood better than anyone what Chris was going through, and like last time he was not going to let him go through it alone.
Standish was conscious, trying to get control of the pain, when Nathan entered. He had never experienced anything like this. He always believed he could suppress any emotion, hide any pain, until now. The agony he felt now was constant, burning, unrelenting, it felt like someone was tearing strips of his skin off his back. Ezra's fingers dug into the bedding and he threw his face into the pillow to muffle a scream as Nathan removed the sheet that covered his back. JD swallowed and turned away, the wound looked like it was still on fire, red and pulsing. Nathan quickly filled a syringe and jabbed it into Ezra's thigh. It took several moments, but he seemed to relax a bit.
"I can't give you much, we don't have a lot and it could kill you," Nathan stated taking Ezra's pulse, which was way to fast. Ezra chuckled slightly, "At this point Mr. Jackson, that would be a blessing." The pain becoming a little more bearable, but the memory still resided and the fear of it when the morphine wore off. He couldn't even move his arms without pulling at the skin on his back, which had become very tight. Ezra was at the mercy of the pain.
JD stood aside not knowing what to do or say. He hated seeing anyone suffer, but especially a friend and he did consider Ezra a good friend. "I'm sorry Ezra," he muttered, it seemed so contrite so utterly useless.
Ezra knew the young sheriff was very much effected by someone else's suffering. He tried to regain some of his usual glib self to put the young man more at ease. "Mr. Dunne, your concern over my temporary affliction is much appreciated."
A confused expression appeared on JD's boyish face.
"He said thanks, JD," Nathan interpreted.
As the night wore on everyone eventually managed to get some sleep. Chris passed out at the table, and Buck and Josiah helped him up to his room. Buck knew Ezra's injury was trudging up torturous memories, memories Chris had tried to forget. It was a year before Chris stopped having nightmares about finding the burned bodies of his family. Wilmington only hoped the nightmares wouldn't return.
Chris woke screaming his wife's name; cold sweat soaked his hair and glistened on his bare chest. Two doors down, Buck heard the scream and knew his fears had been realized.
Chris sat on the edge of the bed trying to calm his rapid breathing. The full moon hung centered in his window throwing a slice of eerie light into his room. He stared at his revolver, which glowed in the moonlight. He walked over to the holster and pulled out the gun, testing the weight of it in his hand. He felt so hollow, so empty, so utterly done in. He casually checked the chambers, all loaded. The pain was back. Did he want to go through it and the nightmares again? He almost didn't survive when it first happened and a part of him hadn't. Buck had inadvertently stopped him and then never left his side. Now he had six men who looked up to him and who he considered family. But he kept seeing the charred remains of his wife and little boy, their bodies still smoldering when he found them. The memory as vivid as if it had happened yesterday, instead of three long years ago. He grasped the gun tightly and spun the cylinder, his jaw clenched. He barely heard the knock on the door. Chris didn't take his eyes off his gun. "Chris, are you okay?" The familiar voice called, breaking him out of his deadly reverie.
"Yeah, Buck I'm okay," he replied in a low voice as he holstered his gun.
+ + + + + + +
Chris, Josiah and Nathan met up at the church around mid morning. Buck had relieved JD earlier that morning from his vigil over Ezra. JD had then retired for a few hours sleep. Vin had headed out at dawn to search for more morphine. Nathan didn't hold out much hope of him finding much, if any. Most people held on tightly to what they had. Morphine was hard to come by. Chris sat quietly down in one of the pews placing his hat to one side. Nathan slid in next to him. He could tell Chris got about as much sleep as he did. Chris laid his arms across the front pews and bowed his head down. "So Nathan, what can we do for him?" the somber gunslinger asked, his head still bowed.
Nathan looked at the weary lawman, trying to think of an answer. "I don't know, we can't keep giving him morphine, even if we do get more, to much could stop his heart." Nathan looked up as Josiah approached, then continued, "You'd think with all the advances in Medical science they would have something for burns."
A thoughtful frown appeared on Josish's long face. "There might be something that is more advanced than medical science." Chris raised his head. He and Nathan both looked at Josiah with confused expressions. "Mother Nature," Josiah expressed thoughtfully to his bewildered friends.
Suddenly something struck Nathan, he slapped his forehead. "The Kiowa tribe, why didn't I think of that before."
Chris turned to Nathan, the confused expression still on his weary face. "What are you talking about, Nathan?"
"The tribe that I helped last month when everyone came down with food poisoning from the food that the army sent to them. One of the children was severely burned by a cooking fire. The medicine man gave him some kind of herbs and made a poultice to put on the burn. It was amazing, the child quit crying and in a couple days was back to playing like nothing had happened. I checked the wound before I left and it was almost completely healed."
"Is the tribe still in the same place," Chris asked allowing a little hope to seep into his voice.
"I don't know sometimes they move in search of food," Nathan answered. "Chris, this may be Ezra's best hope. Josiah and me have to try and find them and see what they can do," Nathan pleaded.
Chris didn't like this. He had one wounded man, Vin was gone, and now he was going to loose Nathan and Josiah and they still had a firebug on the loose. The memory of Ezra screaming in pain was enough to convince him.
"Okay, but I'm giving you three days then I want you back here."
"Great!" Nathan excitedly exclaimed as renewed hoped suddenly filled him. "Josiah get horses and supplies I'll go and show Mary what to do. She can take care of Ezra until we get back." Josiah and Nathan hurriedly left the church to complete their tasks, heedless of the dark-clad gunslinger who remained. Chris stood and looked upon the rugged cross which hung above the crude altar, and did something he'd hadn't done in years, said a prayer.
The two men left soon after Nathan showed Mary how to administer the morphine and what to watch for incase of infection. She also had to try and keep giving him water so he didn't become dehydrated.
Larabee entered the saloon and saw Buck coming down the stairs. He sat down at the nearest table and Chris joined him. "How's Ezra doing?" He always seemed to be asking this.
Wilmington let out a breath. "I was only with him a couple hours when Ms Travis took over. JD said he tossed and turned all night. He was pretty much out of it when I took over this morning." Buck paused a moment. "God, Chris I can't imagine the pain he must be going through. This should never of happened."
Anger started pushing to the surface. With Chris anger was something that grew very well in him and was always just below the surface. Buck was right, Ezra should not be going through this and Chris was determine to catch the person responsible and make him pay. Everyone seemed to be doing something to help it was time he did too. "Buck, we need to find that fire bug."
"I'm with you, I can't stand doing nothing while Ezra is up there suffering and I'm dying to get my hands on the little..."
"You'll have to wait your turn," Chris cut in, the venom in his voice making Buck a little sorry for whom ever started those fires.
"C'mon," Chris slapped Buck on the shoulder and the two headed upstairs. Chris entered the darkened room, the smell of burnt flesh not as prominent, but still hung in the air. Mary was at Nathan's make-shift medical table preparing another syringe of morphine. She turned her attention to Chris as he closed the door. Chris nodded towards her, then went over and knelt down beside Ezra who looked drawn and pale. "Ezra," he whispered, placing a hand on his shoulder.
The prone form under his hand stirred weakly, then green eyes fought to open. "Ah, Mr. Larabee, I don't believe I'll require anymore of your pain relief technique, it gives me a headache," Ezra said softly. A faint smile came to Chris' face. Even in pain the obnoxious conman managed to maintain a sarcastic edge. "Please forgive my earlier outburst," he quietly added.
Chris cut him off. "Already forgotten. Can you describe the man who attacked you in the stable?"
Ezra's face contorted in agony, and sweat started to stream down his face. He closed his eyes and for a moment Chris thought he had passed out. Then he heard the voice, barely above a whisper. "He was about my height..." Chris could see that even a few words were tiring him out; he was as pale as the pillow and looked awful. "...heavier with brown hair and I believe dressed in overalls." Ezra went silent for a moment. "Chris, I think he was only a kid." The blond lawman hadn't expected that. Mary came over and Chris saw Ezra wince as she administered the morphine. He waited until he was asleep then stood up and walked back over to the medical table.
Mary's face was etched with concern. "Oh, Chris he's still in such pain. He's able to hide it with the morphine, but he's hardly slept or ate since the accident, he's exhausted. I hope Nathan and Josiah can get something to help him."
"So do I Mary, so do I," he answered softly.
Chris left and met up with Buck, who was waiting just outside the door. He recounted the description that Ezra had given him.
"A kid?" Buck repeated rubbing the back of his neck. "By the description it sounds like a farm boy," he added.
"Yeah, where's JD?" Chris asked running his hand through his blond hair.
"I think he's over at the jail."
"We'll need his help with this, I want a constant watch especially on this saloon."
All day Buck, Chris and JD searched the town and helped Mary tend to Ezra. They're greatest fear was realized when Ezra developed a fever and became delirious. Chris and Buck had to hold him down as Mary cleansed the wound. Even in his weakened condition Ezra was giving them a fight. Suddenly he went white and closed his eyes tight. He drew in a quivering breath, which Chris thought was his last. Mary checked his breathing and gave Chris a faint smile of reassurance. She picked up a cool cloth and placed it on the back of Ezra's neck, then placed a new clean sheet over the wound.
"I don't know how much more of this he can take," she quietly murmured, tears streaked her cheek. Ezra was a hard man to get to know and he made a lousy first impression, but she had come to like and even admire the sometime egotistical gambler. He had shown everyone, including himself what he was really made of. And everyone, including Chris had come to trust and count on him.
After two days Chris and Buck were no closer to catching the arsonist. There had been no more fires, and they feared that maybe the person had moved on to another town. The saloon was staying pretty empty these days. Most people were staying close to their homes and businesses, incase the notorious firebug struck again. Chris and Buck had just finished making rounds and were preparing to go out again when Vin entered. The tracker looked like he hadn't slept since he left. He went behind the bar and grabbed a bottle of whiskey, pouring himself a shot and downing it. Vin pulled out three small vials and placed them on the bar as the two friends approached. "That's it! All I could find in a ten mile radius. I lost two month wages for two of them." Vin poured another shot.
"Maybe Ezra will let you win it back in a poker game," Buck joked. Vin smiled knowing that would never happened, but hoped for the chance.
"What about the other?" Chris asked as he picked up the vial and stared at the pain relieving medicine it contained. If only it could numb the ache in his own heart.
"Oh, that was in the form of a more pleasurable payment," Vin stated smoothly, a hint of a smile on his lips. "It seems a rather respectable and lovely madam at Cedar Ridge kept some on hand incase patrons roughed up her girls and she had to shoot them."
Buck couldn't hold it in and busted out laughing, it felt good. Chris tried to hold back a smile, but finally gave in to it, lifting some of the despair he had been feeling for the last couple days. "Where is everyone, how's Ezra?" Vin suddenly asked. The somber mood returned and Vin almost regretted asking the question.
"He's worse and in a lot of pain. Mary's been tending him. Josiah and Nathan went to search for an Indian tribe, there was a medicine man who they thought might be able to help," Chris replied, still staring at the vial, his blue eyes turned inward. Ezra appeared as his normal, healthy self, shuffling a deck of cards and smiling back at Chris. His wife appeared and bent down to pick up his son, both smiled back at him. Suddenly flames consumed them all. Chris shook the image away. He raised his head and was met with Vin and Buck's concern gaze. "Buck, JD and I have been searching the town for our fire bug, without much luck," Chris stated flatly.
"I'm all for that," Vin angrily declared, just give me a minute to remove this trail dust.
Suddenly a shout from outside, "FIRE, FIRE at the Mercantile!"
Buck, Chris and Vin looked at each other and raced out. Instead of helping with the fire the three quickly scanned the area. "Buck, go around the back and up the alley ways. Vin, get up there on the top of that building and watch for anyone running away from the fire. I'm going to search the other side, incase our fire bug likes to watch things burn."
The three split up and headed down the street. Vin raced up to the roof of the bank building. His keen eye sight scanning the chaos below. With people running back and forth trying to put the fire out, it was difficult for Vin to discern who should or shouldn't be there. Then something caught his attention. A shadow appeared, then disappeared between two buildings. It looked to Vin like someone was trying to stay hidden, but at the same time watch what was going on. He searched for Chris and saw him on the other side of the street. He got his attention the only way he could. Vin raised his mare's leg and waited until his searching friend was across from the mysterious form. He then shot the corner of the building, startling the person. Chris turned towards the shot just as the man bolted out. Vin was tempted to shoot the fleeing man in the back, but instead swore and raced downstairs. Chris chased the running man down the street for several yards. He tackled the fleeing suspect, slamming him into the ground. Buck and Vin came running up as Chris hauled the person up. All three stared at the youth, who was dressed in overalls.
"Lord, it's just a kid!" Vin exclaimed, his anger dropping to a simmer instead of a full out boil.
"Let me go! I didn't do anything. My pa ain't goin' like this," the boy yelled.
"Really?" Chris remarked, cold hard anger on his face.
+ + + + + + +
JD stood up as a young man was thrown through his doorway and slid across the floor. Vin, Buck and Chris entered.
"JD, it looks like we have our fire bug," Buck exclaimed, the disgust not hidden in his voice.
JD looked down at the youth, unbelieving. The boy was of medium height with straight-brown hair. His eyes held an arrogance that made Buck seem like a shy schoolboy. The boy sat up on the floor and gave the four men looking down at him an evil grin.
"That's Dirk Hendricks' kid, Jesse," JD said. "I went with Ms. Travis and took food out to his farm when his wife was sick. He's got a pretty large spread just north of here."
Larabee grabbed the boy by the shirt and hauled him to his feet. The insolent smile still on his face, which Chris desperately wanted to remove. Instead he clenched his fist tightly causing them to tremor. "Here, throw him in jail then get his father." Chris shoved Jesse towards JD who dragged him to a cell and threw him in.
"Hey that store went up real pretty didn't it," Jesse yelled as Buck, Chris and Vin were leaving the jail. Buck turned ready to administer some much-needed discipline, until he was stopped by Chris. "Wait until tomorrow to get his father," Chris added.
The next morning brought JD racing into the saloon to find the three cowboys sitting around a table eating their first real breakfast in days. The whole town was more relaxed since Jesse Hendricks was now safely behind bars.
"Whoa, whoa there JD where's the fire?" Buck asked, instantly regretting the remark when he noticed the glares from Vin and Chris, even JD was not amused by his friend's callous remark.
"Chris, Dirk Hendricks is here and he's fit to be tied. Says we had no right to lock up his boy."
"Well, we'll just have to explain things to him," Chris replied nonchalantly, placing his hat on his head. A devilish grin appearing on his face. The four walked back over to the jail where they were confronted by a huge, heavyset man.
"Okay, I want to know why my boy's in jail? Why didn't someone come and get me yesterday or bring him home? His mother is worried sick," Mr. Hendricks angrily demanded of the four men standing silently before him. Chris could see the smug smile on Jesse's face behind his father.
"Well, Mr. Hendricks," Chris exclaimed. "It appears your son is in quite a bit of trouble."
"Look," Mr. Hendricks cut in, "If it's this fire thing I'll pay any damages, it's just a phase my boy's been going through." The lawmen couldn't believe what they were hearing. Mr. Hendricks was aware, but seemed unconcerned with his son's abhorrent and dangerous behavior.
"It's a little more complicated than that. JD read Mr. Hendricks the charges," Chris said his voice carrying a strong note of disgust.
"Arson and attempted murder," the young sheriff replied, probably a little more glibly than was necessary.
The color left Mr. Hendricks's face. "What!..wait just a minute, attempted murder? What are trying to pull Larabee!" Dirk Hendricks' blustered, his face turning a bright shade of red.
Chris squeezed his fists tight, trying to control his growing anger and hatred of this man. "One of my peace officers was seriously wounded trying to apprehend your boy when he tried to burn down the stables a couple nights ago." By the look on Mr. Hendricks' face this was news to him. The huge rancher turned to the cell where his boy sat, the smug smile gone from his face.
"Is that true boy?"
Jesse squirmed under his father's gaze. "Pa, I didn't know anyone was hurt. He was fine when I jumped out the window." Mr. Hendricks turned back to Chris and the others and pulled out his wallet.
"Okay, how much to get him out?" Hendricks asked, refusing to meet Chris' gaze. Larabee peered over Dirk Hendricks' shoulder and saw that the smug smile return to Jesse's face. JD looked over at Mr. Hendricks; he did not want to just release Jesse. He glanced over to Chris hoping for an answer. The esteemed leader walked over to the desk and grabbed the keys heading for Jesse's cell.
"Don't you touch my boy, Larabee!" Mr. Hendricks yelled at the stone- faced Chris. Jesse backed against the wall of his cell as the dark- clad gunslinger entered.
Fear finally came to Jesse's face, as he saw the look in Chris Larabee's eyes. "Pa, help me, keep him away from me!"
Chris grabbed the youth by the collar pulling him up and out. Vin and Buck kept Mr. Hendricks at bay as Chris dragged the boy out the door and headed towards the saloon. Jesse was barely able to stay on his feet, trying to keep up with the lawman's long determined strides. Vin, Buck and JD followed, keeping Mr. Hendricks at a distance. They had an idea about what Chris was about to do and were not about to let Mr. Hendricks interfere in any way. They were all going to enjoy this.
Ms. Travis jumped when Chris barged his way in, dragging Jesse behind him. She took one look at Chris' face and knew not to say a word. Buck and Vin entered stopping Mr. Hendricks just inside the doorway. Vin gave the anxious father a cold hard glare, which caused the larger man to step back.
"I'll have your badge for this Larabee," Hendricks' hollered over Vin's shoulder. Chris ignored the man's ranting and forced Jesse towards Ezra, who was in a morphine induced sleep. He raised the shade slightly, allowing the mid-morning sun in. He then removed the sheet that covered Ezra's back. Jesse tried to back away at the sight of the gambler's scorched back. Chris maintained a firm grip on his arm, which he twisted behind him. He forced the young man closer.
The blond gunslinger bent close to Jesse's ear and sneered, "Look Damnit! See what fire does to a man's skin. Rips it right off, so there's nothing but muscle and bone and raw nerves exposed. So the slightest breath of air or movement causes unbearable pain." Jesse tried to close his eyes, but Chris yelled, "LOOK!" Tears began to roll down the youth's face. Larabee glanced over his shoulder and noticed that Dirk Hendricks had closed his own eyes. "Do you smell it! Burnt flesh!" Chris continued to force Jesse's head down to within inches of Ezra's back. The boy started to gag and Chris let him up slightly. "My only regret is you can't feel the pain he's going through." Chris leaned down closer to Jesse's ear so only he would hear. "But I promise you, if you light another fire you will," he menacingly whispered into the fearful boy's ear, causing his face to pale. Jesse remained frozen, to scared to move until Chris released his hold on his arm. "Get out of here." Jesse ran to his father who motioned him out the door.
Dirk Hendricks turned to leave, then turned his head over his shoulder and looked at Chris and the others. "I'm sorry," he said in a tired voice. Chris just stared silently.
Everyone heard the low moan and surrounded Ezra's bed. "Do you always have to be so melodramatic, Mr. Larabee?" Ezra grimaced as he tried to force a faint smile.
At that moment Nathan and Josiah entered the room. Nathan going directly to Ezra's side.
"What's going on?" Josiah asked, noticing the self satisfied grins on his friend's faces.
"That's a long story my friend. More importantly did you and Nathan get what you went after?" Chris asked.
Nathan approached, opening a small bag. "We did, the medicine man was very helpful." Nathan turned and handed the bag to JD who had just returned. "Here JD burn this and let Ezra breathe in the smoke." JD took the bag. "Now I need something to make a poultice, I have all the herbs I need I just need something large enough to place on Ezra's wound."
Mary stepped forward. "I think I can help, I have something that I think will work. It'll just take me a minute to run and get it."
"I'll come with you," Chris added smiling at the attractive woman.
Nathan returned to Ezra's side. He was weaker than when he left and looked tired. The morphine was enabling him to bear the pain, but Nathan could tell he was almost at his end. "Well Mr. Jackson... was your little excursion... rewarding," he gasped.
"Yes, Ezra very rewarding I think we can help you."
Ezra smiled and exhaled in relief. JD came over with a bowl filled with green leaves, which he had lit. He placed the bowl next to Ezra and started waving the smoke in Ezra's direction.
"Inhale deeply, Ez," Nathan ordered. Mary and Chris returned and Mary handed Nathan a sheer, white case with embroidered flowers stitched on it. Nathan took the bag then looked at Mary with stunned silence. "Miss Travis this is beautiful, are you sure?"
"Nathan, I'm sure my mother would love that her European pillowcase was being used for the greater good."
"I promise I won't tell her," Nathan exclaimed with a glint in his eye.
"Thank you, I'm going to hold you to that." She smiled.
"Mary I'll need your assistance, everyone else out," he ordered.
Josiah, Chris, Buck and Vin waited downstairs in the saloon. "What are they doing up there, its been over three hours?" Buck complained. He turned in his chair to see JD coming down the stairs a big smile on his face. The young gunslinger sat down between Buck and Chris. Everyone waited anxiously for JD to say something, but he just sat and grinned. "JD, what's going on up there?" Buck finally blurted out. His patience running thin as he stared at his young friend's grinning visage.
JD shook his head.
"Oh yeah, I've been burning these leaves and Nathan and Miss Travis mixed all these herbs then soaked them and put them in Miss Travis's fancy pillow case and placed it on Ezra's back." JD barely took a breath as he explained what Nathan was doing. Chris and Buck returned bewildered looks as JD continued, "It was just a few minutes, but Ezra said his back felt much better and he fell asleep. And Nathan said it was a good sleep or something like that, hey Buck you want to get something to eat I'm starving."
Buck and Chris just stared at the young gunslinger who was acting very strange. It was a moment before Buck comprehended all that JD had said and stood up.
"Ah, yeah, sure kid, are you all right?" he asked.
"Yeah I'm fine ever since I started burning those leaves though I'm real hungry."
Nathan came down the stairs as Buck and JD left. He sat down in the chair across from Chris. "Okay, Nathan I'm going to ask this for the last time and I want a good answer. How's Ezra?"
"I think he's going to make it." Jackson smiled, proud of himself. "Between the poultice and morphine we should be able to get him through this. I think he's having his first real sleep in days and before he fell asleep he said he was hungry. Mary's going to fix him up some soup for when he wakes up."
Chris finally relaxed and allowed a faint smile to form. Things were back to normal and that was the way he liked it. Chris' reverie was broken by Nathan's plea, "Hey Chris, you want to get something to eat I don't know why, but I'm starving."
It was another week before Ezra could get out of bed. The herbs the medicine man had given Nathan were remarkable. They helped to keep the burned skin soft and pliable. Ezra was able to stop taking the morphine, which was good since they had run out, even though Vin and Buck had both offered to go and get more from the madam over at Cedar Ridge. Standish was back to playing cards within two weeks. Since Nathan couldn't stop him from this, he rigged a harness so the stubborn gambler could continue wearing the poultice under his clothes. They heard that Mr. Hendricks had sent Jesse back east to some private school, which he promptly tried to burn down.
Comments to: Adamskm@aol.com