A few days later Buck, Vin and Ezra were having breakfast together, or rather Buck and Vin were. Ezra wasn't hungry and he sat fidgeting as he waited for them to finish.
"Sure you ain't hungry, Ezra? From what I recall you didn't have much last night either," Buck said as he looked up and studied his friend.
"Couldn't eat a thing, Mr. Wilmington. Appetite seems to be somewhat lacking of late. I'll have something later, I expect. Think I overindulged on Inez's lovely food the other day."
"Take something with ya. Can't have you falling off yer horse through hunger," the ladies' man smiled.
Ezra didn't answer but looked up as a shadow fell across the table and he saw Chris standing beside him. The gunfighter had finally decided to trust the two men to go out on patrol together again. Chris hoped that they had put their joking spree behind them as they had behaved fairly well over the past couple of days. He sat down between Ezra and Buck and turned a stern look on them. He wanted to give the two pranksters a talking to before they left, to make it very clear what was expected of them.
He talked seriously for quite a while and finished his lecture with a warning. "One more joke and I'll geld the pair of ya with Josiah's rusty saw. Understand?"
"Yes, Chris," they meekly agreed as they cringed and looked down toward their manhood worriedly.
"Right. Now we understand one another, get outta my sight."
Chris smiled and followed them out onto the porch and watched as they mounted up and headed out of town to the Johnson ranch. It was currently unoccupied and the blond had arranged for a patrol to ride by every few days. There had been reports of rustling in the area and he wanted to make sure the ranch wasn't being used by the outlaw gang.
The three men rode out of town in silence. Neither Buck nor Ezra felt like joking at the moment after Chris's lecture. After a few hours of slow riding, the ranch finally came into view. Vin stopped and pulled out his telescope and checked the area first to make sure it was safe before giving the go-ahead to approach the buildings. They rode in and dismounted outside the ranch house. All three men stretched to get the kinks out of their bodies after the long ride.
"You two go and search the barn and I'll go to the house," Vin instructed after he'd yawned loudly. He watched as his two companions went to do their job and then turned and stepped up onto the porch. He looked around inside but could see no sign that anyone had been there recently. He stepped back outside after a few minutes and saw Buck running toward him.
"Don't start, Bucklin. He was perfectly alright when we got here. Do ya think I'm stupid? Just give it a rest. Didn't ya listen to a word Chris said? Just 'cause he ain't here don't mean I'm gonna take any crap from you."
"Vin. I'm serious."
"Leave it, Buck. I ain't listening to any more. I'll meet ya back in town." Vin swung up onto his horse angrily and kicked it away from the ranch.
"Vin! Shit!" The ladies' man threw up his hands in exasperation before turning and hurrying back to the barn. He saw the gambler curled up on the floor not moving.
Buck quickened his pace and knelt down beside his friend and saw the man's eyes were closed. He reached out a hand and touched the gambler gently. "Ez?"
The con man stirred and groaned loudly as he clutched his belly. He opened his eyes and looked at Buck with pain-filled eyes.
"Did ya pass out?" the ladies' man asked anxiously.
"It would appear so. I'm sure I was upright a moment ago," the gambler said tiredly.
"Vin wouldn't believe that you were sick, Ez. He thought I was joking again. He's gone back to town on his own."
The gambler stayed where he was with his arms circling his stomach. "It seems Mr. Larabee's prediction came true, Bucklin. Never figured him for a soothsayer. I cried wolf once too often, as he said. God, I don't think the ride out here was very conducive to my condition, Bucklin."
"Why didn't ya say something? You don't usually keep quiet when ya want some sympathy."
"Mr. Larabee didn't look as though he would take a refusal from me very well. After his warning this morning, I was hardly likely to protest, was I?" The gambler winced and put a fist to his side.
"Does it hurt bad?" The ladies man reached out a hand and felt his friend's brow.
"Hurt isn't quite strong enough. I think the correct term I would use is agony, Bucklin."
"I'll get you into the house but I'll have to leave you on yer own while I go and get Nate. Just hold on, okay?"
"Yes, Mr. Wilmington. What do you suggest I hold on to? My sanity?"
"God. Don't you ever shut up?"
"It keeps my mind off the pain, Bucklin."
Buck picked the gambler up gently and walked slowly to the house. The man in his arms moaned with every stride he took and became very pale. Buck laid him on the floor and made him as comfortable as possible and then ran to get on his horse.
+ + + + + + +
Vin was sitting outside the saloon with a glass of beer in his hand and saw Buck ride in alone. He looked into the distance and tried to see the gambler but there was no one else in sight. He switched his gaze back to Buck and watched as he got off his mount and hurried up the stairs two at a time to the clinic. He then reappeared quickly with Nathan following behind with his medical bag in his hand. The ladies' man ran toward the livery.
"Bucklin? What's going on?" the tracker asked worriedly as he hurried to intercept the tall gunman. Vin kept his head turned to the right and watched Nathan run away up the street.
"I told ya. Ezra's real sick. I wasn't joking. Nate's gone to find that doctor who's staying at the hotel."
"Why can't Nate deal with it?"
"He thinks Ez has got appendicitis. If that's right he'll need surgery and Nate wants help to do it. He's not a qualified doc, Vin. Nate just told me Ezra'd been to see him last week saying he was in pain but he couldn't be sure what was causing it." The tall gunman talked as he saddled Nathan's horse and then got another one ready for the other doctor.
"Shit. I'm sorry. I thought you were joking. Is he sick 'cause I caught him in the guts with my knee last week?" Vin asked.
"No. Don't feel responsible. I think Ezra'd been feeling under the weather for a few days before that happened. The fact he hadn't been eating recently just confirmed things."
"I'll go back to the ranch now, shall I, while you wait for Nate? Where did you leave him?"
"I moved him to the house."
Vin got on his horse and loped out of town and he arrived at the ranch in half the time it had taken them to get there that morning. He jumped off his horse and left it in the yard with its reins dangling while he ran inside.
"Ez?" he called anxiously. He got no reply.
He checked each room and finally found the gambler on the floor in a room at the back. The tracker knelt beside him and touched his shoulder gently. The gambler groaned and curled up even more as he put a fist to his stomach and vomited.
"Ezra?" The tracker put out a hand and felt the man's brow. It was warm but not over hot.
"Mr. Tanner? Sorry for the manner of my greeting. It was beyond my control, I'm afraid," Ezra whispered.
"Bucklin's coming back with Nate and the other doc from the hotel. They won't be long, Ez. How ya feeling?"
"Less than my usual perky self. I've never felt such pain."
Vin stood up as he heard the sound of hooves outside. Nathan hurried inside and sat down next to the gambler.
"Ezra? Does it hurt in the same place as last week?"
"Let me see. Can ya lay out flat?"
"I can't. It hurts too much to move."
"Okay. Don't fret."
Nathan moved Ezra's arm aside and felt his side and stomach gently. Ezra flinched and moaned loudly as the tender area was touched and tried to curl up even more. The gambler vomited again and Nathan wiped his mouth gently and patted his shoulder. The healer looked up and indicated for the other doctor to check the symptoms for himself. The man carried out a few tests of his own and then nodded his head in confirmation.
"Appendix definitely. We'll have to be quick if he's in this much pain. Temperature's getting quite high too. How long has he had the pain?"
"For the past week, on and off."
"Hope we haven't left it too late," the doctor said anxiously.
"Is there a table in the house, Vin?" Nathan asked.
"In the kitchen, I think."
"Scrub it down. We brought some things from town to do it with. You'll have to use the water from the well out back. Boil it first okay and put some aside to put these instruments into, will ya? Take the bag with ya and then lay the sheet that's in there over the table."
"Sure. Come on Bucklin." The two men hurried off to do their task.
The two healers started preparing their patient and then waited for Vin to return. It took some time to get the water heated and the table scrubbed but eventually the tracker hurried back. He helped move Ezra into the kitchen and onto the table and then stood back to give Nathan room to work. The gambler remained curled up and he groaned continually.
Nathan picked up his bag again and found the bottle of ether and a rag. He moved to the gambler's head while the other doctor selected the instruments he would need to perform the surgery.
"Just relax, Ez. It'll be over before ya know it," Nathan said as he smiled at the anxious man on the table.
The other doctor, Patrick, nodded to Nathan and the healer put the ether soaked rag over Ezra's nose and mouth. The gambler finally closed his eyes when the anaesthetic got into his system and Nathan checked his pulse and breathing. He looked up and smiled nervously at his fellow healer. The two men laid the gambler out flat now he was unconscious and Nathan patted his shoulder.
Patrick picked up a scalpel and lowered it to Ezra's abdomen and cut him. He started probing around inside and when his fingers came into view again they were dripping blood. Buck took one look and disappeared outside onto the porch to get some air. Vin watched him leave and then followed him out to make sure he was alright.
"You okay, Bucklin?" he asked in concern as he put a hand on the man's shoulder.
"Yeah fine. Don't know why I feel sick. I've seen enough blood to last a lifetime but I think it's more the fact that Ezra's being cut deliberately. Seen that a time or two as well but I just can't face it today somehow. Guess I feel guilty." He lit a cigar and inhaled deeply as he shivered.
Back inside, Patrick had found what he was looking for and did what was necessary. Nathan checked that Ezra was still alright and then passed a needle so the doctor could sew the wound up. When they'd finished, Nathan called out to Vin.
The tracker appeared in the doorway and Nathan said, "Can you put some blankets on the floor in the other room if there isn't a bed. We need to move him."
"Sure." Vin looked in each room and finally found a bed they could use. He picked up an armful of blankets and laid them on it and then hurried back to the kitchen.
"All done and I found a bed."
"Great. Lead the way will ya while we carry Ezra?"
Vin took them to the appropriate room and the doctor settle the gambler on the bed and covered him with a sheet. Nathan checked him over again and then sat down to wait for the man to wake.
"Do you need me? I thought I'd head back to town and tell Chris what's happened," Buck asked as he wandered back inside looking slightly less green.
"Sure. Can you come back after though?"
Buck hurried back to town and found the blond in the saloon looking angry. He sat down beside him and the gunfighter asked, "Where the hell is everyone?"
"Ezra's sick. We're all out at the Johnson ranch. I had to come back and get Nate and he took the doc from the hotel with him."
"How sick is he?" the blond asked as he frowned.
"He had appendicitis and the doc had to take it out. I came to tell you what had happened."
"Is he gonna be okay?" Chris asked his friend worriedly.
"They'd only just finished when I left, so I can't say for sure. Nate asked me to go back though after I'd seen you. Vin thought I was joking again when I said Ezra was sick. He came back to town without us so I had to leave Ez alone while I came back to get Nate. I'm sorry for being childish this week. I didn't think about the consequences."
"I did try to warn ya. I don't mind you having fun Buck but just temper it with a bit of common sense next time, will ya? Ezra coulda died because of your stupidity. He's gotta take a lotta the blame too admittedly. You both take things too far and don't know when to let up. Just learn ya lesson and grow up. Come on, I'll go back with ya and see how Ez is getting on," Chris said. He regretted his harsh tone of voice but his friend needed to see the error of his ways. The gunfighter rued the fact that he hadn't stepped in earlier to put an end to matters once and for all but he'd hoped the two men would've called a halt themselves before now.
The two friends rode back to the ranch and Chris walked inside and called out to Nathan.
"In here, Chris," the healer said as he showed himself in the doorway.
Chris wandered over and looked inside at the man in the bed. Ezra was still unconscious and looked very pale. "He alright?"
"Hope so. We just have to pray he don't get an infection. It was a good job Patrick was in town. I couldn't have done it on my own, Chris. It's times like these that I really wish I was a proper doctor. Ezra'd be dead if I'd been alone."
"Well, you weren't and he'll recover. You did a good job, Nate. Do ya need me to stay or shall I come back and spell one of ya tomorrow?" Chris asked as he squeezed Nathan's shoulder.
"Can you come back tomorrow? I want Patrick with me until we know Ezra's gonna be okay but we could do with someone else being here. I'll keep Buck tonight and if you can take over tomorrow that would be great. Can you bring some food and other things with ya? I'll give you a list of what we need."
"Sure. See ya later." The blond gunman left after he got the list and rode back to town with Vin.
+ + + + + + +
Buck sat next to Ezra while Nathan and Patrick caught up on some sleep. The ladies' man sat and stared at the ceiling until he heard a groan from the gambler.
"Hello, Ez. How ya feeling?"
"Sore and stupid."
"Why stupid? Thought that was a normal state for ya," Buck said with a big grin.
"Very droll, Mr. Wilmington. What I meant was, I deserved what happened to me after my behavior this week."
"Well, this was a bit of a severe punishment for having a bit of fun, Ezra. What the hell's in store for me then? We were both in it together. Chris has already told me off so expect a sermon from him at some point too. We'll just have to content ourselves with one joke at a time from now on, won't we?"
"I don't know what got into us really. I don't think I could've stopped myself even if I'd tried. I think I was having my second childhood. I haven't enjoyed myself so much in ages."
"Never mind second childhood, I'm still on my first and I don't ever intend to give up joking. It was fun while it lasted, wasn't it?" the gunman said as he smiled and got up from the chair. "I'd better just tell Nate yer awake. You okay in yer own?"
"Fine." Ezra listened to Buck's footsteps fade away and then heard the sound of two sets of feet coming back.
Nathan smiled at the gambler as he entered and reached out to feel the sick man's brow. "Feel okay, Ez?"
"Better than before, I can tell you that for nothing, Mr. Jackson."
"You get some rest but yer gonna be stuck out here for a few days until you've recovered enough to be taken back to town."
Ezra closed his eyes as ordered and the next time he woke, Chris was beside him. The gambler winced and apprehensively returned the smile that the gunfighter sent him.
"You learnt yer lesson?" the blond asked with a raised eyebrow.
"Well and truly, Mr. Larabee. I promise to curtail my merry-making in future although I cannot guarantee that a joke or two won't slip through my guard. Life's no fun without a few hoaxes."
"I know but don't target me and make me cranky. I'm not nice when I'm cranky."
"You don't have to remind me. I know all about your cranky demeanor," the con man agreed solemnly.
"How do ya feel anyway?"
"Better, thank you."
"Well, yer stuck with my company today. Can ya manage a hand of poker to help pass the time?" Chris asked.
"Are we betting?"
Chris sighed and smiled, "I s'pose."
"There's a deck of cards and some money in my jacket pocket if you'd be so kind as to collect them."
Chris stood and searched the pockets and yelped when he felt something furry. He pulled the item out from the pocket and saw it was a dead mouse.
"What the hell is that doing in there?" the gunfighter asked as he turned a scornful look on the gambler. "You weren't gonna use it for another joke, were ya?"
Ezra blushed and stuttered, "Well, as a matter of fact, I was going to use it on Josiah. He made me work so hard last week I felt some revenge was in order."
"Tell me what you were gonna do," Chris instructed as he sat down again.
Ezra told him and said, "I obviously won't be doing that now, of course." Chris couldn't help laughing.
The two men settled down to playing poker but even before the second hand was over, Ezra had fallen asleep again. Chris collected the playing cards off the bed covers and put them away in Ezra's jacket. He went out to the kitchen and made himself a cup of coffee and then wandered back to the bedroom. He drank the hot brew slowly, taking pleasure in the strong, sweet taste. He then put his feet up on the bed and joined the gambler in a long sleep.
+ + + + + + +
After a week's recovery at the ranch, Ezra was finally allowed home. Josiah brought a wagon with him from town and Nathan and Chris helped load the gambler in the back. Once back in town Nathan got them to take Ezra to the clinic for safekeeping so he could continue his recovery in peace. Although he was feeling better he was not well enough or strong enough to be left on his own. The man was still on a liquid diet and he felt slightly queasy most of the time. The wound in his stomach had not quite healed and the stitches were still in place. The gambler felt sore, unsettled and totally bored.
Buck and Vin kept him company the day after his return because Nathan had to go out of town on a home visit.
"You haven't suffered the wrath of God then, Bucklin? I expected to see you with an axe through your skull. Why am I the only one who had to suffer for our sins? It's most unfair," Ezra complained when he saw Buck was still in one piece.
"I got Josiah to put in a good word for me. My lucky gold nugget must have helped too."
"Well, it wasn't very lucky last time you used it, was it? I seem to remember getting the shit kicked out of us by the good citizens of this fair town."
"Oh, that was just a one off, Ezra. The mistake I made was using it on behalf of three people. It couldn't handle that amount of luck all in one go, I reckon."
"Crap. You really talk a load of bullshit sometimes, Mr. Wilmington."
"Language, Ezra!" Buck reprimanded. "I've never heard you swear so much before. What's eating you?"
"I just needed to get some of the anger and frustration out of my system."
"Did swearing help?" Vin asked with a grin. He always found it funny when Ezra swore. Bad language and the fancy-dressed gambler just didn't seem a likely mix at all.
"No, unfortunately not. I could still knock your head off with one blow if I had the energy but I'll get over it when I can get out in the open air. I find standing at the end of the street and yelling at the top of my voice does wonders for my sanity when I'm feeling below par."
"That's what I've heard late at night, is it? I always thought it was a coyote with constipation," Vin said laughing.
Ezra laughed and then put a hand to his side gently. "Don't make me laugh, Mr. Tanner. It hurts too much."
"Sorry, Ez. Can I get you anything?"
"A new body wouldn't go amiss. Perhaps you'd go down to the store and see what sort of selection they have. Don't choose something with a big butt and don't think you can fob me off with a woman's physique either." Ezra burst out laughing at the image his words conjured up in his mind. Despite his own warning of the pain laughing created he giggled until tears of pain and joy ran down his cheeks. He doubled up and held his stomach but couldn't stop laughing.
"Ezra. Calm down. You'll bust yer stitches," Buck said worriedly.
Chris happened to come in at that point to see how the three men were getting on. He saw Ezra helpless with laughter and he stepped inside and walked over to Buck.
"What's so funny?" the gunfighter asked.
"He wanted us to buy him a new body and now he's got the giggles and can't stop laughing. It hurts him but he's just lost control."
Chris sat on the bed and pinched Ezra's arm hard. It certainly had the desired effect and Ezra yelped in pain but at least did stop laughing.
"Thank you Mr. Larabee. I was liable to laugh myself to death. Come to think of it that wouldn't be such a bad way to go, would it?"
"Whatever ya say, Ezra. Are you in pain?"
"Rather. Could you pass me some of Nathan's concoction that he left over there? Better drink it or he'll give me twice as much next time in punishment. Couldn't interest one of you gentlemen in drinking it for me, I suppose?" Ezra looked at each man hopefully but received a firm negative in reply.
Chris passed him the indicated cup and Ezra drank it in one go with a look of absolute horror on his face.
"God that was repulsive. Usually drinking it in one swallow makes sure you miss the taste but he musta put something extra in it this time, damn him. He enjoys his job way too much for my liking. There must be something mentally wrong with him for him to take such pleasure in other people's discomfort."
"Ain't that the truth?" Vin laughed.
"Thought his brews were supposed to make you feel better but they have the opposite effect on me. Always produces dire results in my digestive system for hours after, so watch out. You have been warned," Ezra said with a belch of amazing volume.
"Jeez, Ez. That was loud enough to wake the dead," Vin complained.
"Think yerself lucky it hasn't affected his lower half yet," Chris said with a smile.
"Talking of the deceased reminds me of an epitaph I once saw on a tombstone, 'Wherever you are let your wind go free, for not doing so was the death of me.' I certainly intend to stay alive and if that means you lot suffering my eructation and flatulence, then so be it."
"Eruc....flatu..... What?" Buck asked.
"Belching and farting," Ezra enlightened them with a smile.
Vin quickly put a hand over Ezra's mouth to try and stop him laughing again but the gambler was tired out. Even as his friend's watched, the man's eyes flickered and closed and he fell asleep with a contented belch.
+ + + + + + +
It was Sunday morning and Josiah was standing at the pulpit ready to give a reading from the Bible. Ezra had been back in town for a couple of weeks and was allowed to attend the Service under close supervision. He sat next to Chris in the front row along with the rest of his friends.
Josiah reached out a hand and opened the Bible on the lectern. He leapt backward with a yell and then looked accusingly at Ezra. "Brother Ezra? Are you responsible for this?"
The preacher held up the Bible and the small furry creature that had leapt from it for everyone to see. The congregation laughed as they saw a hole had been cut in the pages to form a hollow which was just deep enough to hold the body of the mouse. A spring had been fitted under the mouse's body and when the Bible had been opened the mouse had flown through the air toward the preacher.
"Mr. Sanchez, I assure you I am not to blame. It was my idea but I had promised a certain person, who is sat not too far away from me, that I would not carry out the deed. He has obviously taken it upon himself to do it instead."
"Are you going to tell us who this prankster is?"
"Oh no. I don't think he'd take too kindly to that. He told me not to make him cranky and I intend to obey his orders for once. Not that I'm a coward but I think the proverb 'A cowardly man don't tote no broke bones' is particularly apt at the moment. I don't want any injuries in my present condition," the gambler smiled.
"Very wise, Ezra," the preacher said as he found another Bible and proceeded to read from that instead.
As Josiah's voice droned on, Ezra turned to the blond gunfighter at his side and saw him smiling broadly.
"Are we back on good terms now I've kept your identity secret, Mr. Larabee?"
"I think everybody knows it was me who did the joke from the description you gave of my character. Not that I think anyone would dare say anything."
"You are probably right. They do say the Devil looks after his own, Mr. Larabee."
"He sure does, Ezra and that's a fact," Chris agreed smugly.
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