To Lethe and Tartarus
The men gathered in the saloon the next day and had a quick breakfast. Ezra was with them but he looked tired and worried. He'd been introduced to the rest of the men and Nathan thought he'd found it a bit hard to cope with. More strangers to deal with and more names to try and remember. The healer watched the gambler pick nervously at the bandage on his injured hand as he stood quietly amongst the group of men.
Chris walked over to Ezra and took him to one side. The gambler shook off Chris's hand and backed away quickly, scattering chairs and tables in his haste to escape the man who had shot him. The gambler ended up sprawled on the floor as he lost his balance and fell over a table. He landed hard and looked over at Buck frantically with tears in his eyes. The gambler then scooted along the floor on his ass in a continuing effort to escape while shouting, "Get away from me. Don't touch me."
The ladies' man had turned as he heard the commotion and when he saw the look on his friend's face he hurried over to him. "Are you okay, pard? Did ya hurt yerself? You ain't got splinters in yer butt, have ya?"
Nathan squatted next to the gambler as well and checked his hand to make sure he hadn't done any harm to it. He reached out and helped the con man to his feet when he'd finished and smiled at him and said, "No harm done. Just try not to knock yer hand or you could make it hurt worse."
Chris stepped forward once more and Ezra again backed away from him quickly until he bumped into Buck. He leant back against the gunman nervously, like a child seeking protection from his parent. The ladies' man patted the man's back comfortingly and said, "It's alright, Ez. Chris ain't gonna hurt you."
"Ezra?" Chris said and the gambler slowly turned his head toward him. "I just wanted to apologize for hurting you yesterday. I lost my temper and I'm sorry for scaring you." The blond wasn't used to saying sorry and he wasn't sure he sounded very sincere. He smiled at the gambler to try to ease his obvious fears but he could see it didn't have the desired effect either.
Chris turned away with a sigh and led the group of men out to the livery and they mounted and rode out of town. Buck helped Ezra get on his horse and then rode on one side of him while Nathan took up position on the other. The gambler yawned and rubbed his eyes continually and Nathan knew the man should have stayed in town. He kept passing him food and drink to try to keep his strength up but he could see Ezra was becoming increasingly tired.
After some hard riding they eventually reached the ranch where Ezra had been found and Chris rode up to the house and dismounted. An older man came out onto the porch and Chris introduced himself and explained what they wanted. The man headed to the bunkhouse and called one cowboy out.
"Charlie was one of the men who found your friend. He'll take you to the exact spot," the rancher said helpfully.
"Thanks. I appreciate your help." Chris put a finger to his hat brim and remounted.
Charlie collected his horse and led the group of men a few miles from the house and showed Chris exactly where Ezra had been picked up. Vin dismounted and studied the area intently while his friends dismounted too to ease their aching bodies.
"Has anyone else been out on foot in this area recently?" the tracker asked.
"Na. We haven't been out here for a while. We've got the cattle in nearer the house as we're getting ready for the cattle drive to Denver. Your friend was lucky we happened to be out yesterday."
"Okay, thanks. These must be his tracks then. We'll follow them and see where they take us," the tracker said as he swung up into his saddle.
Ezra stood staring at Charlie and he eventually reached out a hand and touched the red neckerchief the cowboy had on. A flicker of a memory popped into Ezra's mind and was gone again in an instant. Ezra raised his injured hand to his head and rubbed his forehead trying to get the memory back. He winced at the pain the movement caused and he dropped his hand to his side again. Charlie reached out and grabbed the gambler's other hand that was still clutching his neckerchief and he was quite rough in doing so. Ezra frowned and tried to back away from him but he couldn't go far because of the man's hold on him. He raised his gaze to find Charlie smiling at him. The cowboy let go his grip and Ezra looked down at his hand. He could see where Charlie had held him tightly and he flexed his fingers to get the feeling back. Buck apologized to the cowboy and placed a hand on Ezra's arm to pull him away.
"Sorry. I didn't mean to be rough with him but I didn't know what he intended," the cowboy said. "It's just a bit off-putting to have someone reach near yer throat."
Buck nodded and turned to the gambler. "Okay, Ez?"
Ezra nodded distractedly while still staring at Charlie. Buck turned him round and led the gambler back to where the other men were waiting.
"What was all that about?" Chris asked curiously.
"I've no idea. He seemed fascinated by Charlie's neckerchief for some reason," Buck said as he shook his head and helped Ezra remount his horse.
Chris thanked the cowboy again and Charlie rode back to the ranch house after watching the men set off in a northerly direction toward the hills. Vin followed the tracks slowly for several hours and the others trailed behind patiently.
Buck looked at Ezra and asked, "Do you remember being here, Ezra? Did you remember the cowboy?"
Ezra looked uneasy but shook his head slowly and stifled a yawn. "No. I don't remember anything."
Buck studied the gambler and wondered whether he was telling the truth but before he could question him further Nathan spoke.
"Chris? Ezra's beat. Can't we stop again for a bit," the healer asked as he noticed the gambler's continuous yawning.
"We'll lose what's left of the daylight. Another couple hours, Nate and I promise we'll stop for the night."
The men traveled on and Nathan looked across and saw that the gambler had his eyes closed. Ezra found the motion of his horse relaxing and he couldn't help dozing. He was so tired he just couldn't keep his eyes open any longer. He hoped his horse would follow the others without any directions for him so he relaxed and fell asleep. Nathan reached out and grabbed the horse's reins and made sure the gambler stayed in the saddle. After a while Vin called a halt near some trees and Nathan took advantage of the break. He woke Ezra and helped him out of the saddle. He sat him on the ground and gave the man some more water before sitting down beside him to watch over him.
Vin, meanwhile, studied the ground and turned back to Chris. "This is where Ezra fell off his horse. There's a bit of blood there from his head wound. The horse's tracks lead that way and it looks as though there was someone else here. Better follow after the horse I s'pose to see who took it. Looks like a straightforward horse thieving to me."
"Okay. Mount up, everyone," Chris called.
Nathan helped Ezra back into the saddle and the men turned to follow Vin. Buck suddenly realized that Ezra wasn't beside him and he turned round in the saddle and saw the gambler heading in the opposite direction.
"Wait up, Chris. Ezra's not with us," Buck said as Vin turned and accompanied him to collect the gambler while the others stopped and watched.
"Ez? Where ya going, pard?" the ladies' man asked as he drew alongside.
"Wrong way. This way," Ezra said determinedly, now wide-awake.
"Why this way? Do you remember something?" Vin asked quietly as he saw the expression on the man's face.
"No," the gambler said forcefully.
Vin reached out and pulled Ezra's horse to a halt. He pulled the creature round so it was heading back to Chris and the others. Ezra yanked the reins from Vin's hand savagely and turned round again to head back in the other direction.
"No! This way. I don't wanna go that way," Ezra shouted angrily as he kicked his horse forward. He didn't know why but he felt compelled to go in the direction he was heading. It was like there was an invisible thread pulling him onwards and he couldn't resist.
"Perhaps it's just instinct. Better follow him in any case. He seems pretty determined," Vin said. The tracker waved to the other men and saw them kick their horses to catch up.
"What's going on?" Chris asked as he drew near.
"Ez seems to think we should go this way. Won't turn round," Buck explained with a shrug.
"Does he remember something?"
"Says not but I figure he does," Vin replied.
They rode on and let the gambler set the pace and direction. After a while he stopped abruptly and would go no further. He wouldn't talk and he wouldn't move. Vin frowned and pulled out his telescope to look into the distance. He scanned the surrounding area but could see no other people so he turned his attention back to what he thought Ezra had seen. He sighed and removed the telescope from his eye as he turned round and looked for the blond gunfighter. He saw the man talking to Josiah some distance away. Vin dismounted and walked to the two men quickly. He drew alongside Chris and tapped him on the shoulder. "Chris? Can you look at what I think Ezra saw? What do you think?" the tracker asked as he headed back to where he'd been standing previously.
The blond took the offered eyeglass and looked through it in the direction Vin indicated. "Looks like a wagon. Do the tracks head that way?"
"Seem to. He musta remembered somethin' to have insisted we come this way. He led us right to it."
"Okay. Let's ride. Nate? Buck? Make sure Ezra comes with us this time, will ya?"
The gambler resisted their efforts at first but was finally persuaded to move and accompany the men over to the wagon. They saw the dead team horses and someone's belongings scattered on the ground. Ezra started mumbling as he stared at the dead horses. He frowned in confusion and looked around desperately.
"Ez? What's up?" Buck asked as he saw the look on his friend's face.
Ezra shook his head and dismounted slowly before waiting for any help. Buck got off his own horse quickly and followed the gambler as he walked to the back of the wagon.
"Dead, dead. All dead," Ezra muttered over and over again, his voice getting louder and more distressed as he spoke.
"Ezra? What's that you're saying, pard?" Buck asked as he drew alongside the man.
"Shot, killed, murdered."
Chris joined the two men at the wagon and he pulled back the tarpaulin and looked inside. "Shit."
"What is it?" Vin called from where he was studying the ground nearby.
"Three people. One woman and two children, boy and a girl, all shot dead." The gunfighter turned to Ezra and asked gently, "Ezra, do you remember something? You seemed to know they were dead."
The gambler turned away without answering and walked unsteadily toward an arroyo. He walked as if there was a purpose in his journey and was not just wandering aimlessly. Buck ran to catch up again and saw the fixed stare on his friend's face as he pulled up alongside him. Buck kept up with the man as he wondered where his friend was off to now. Ezra stood on the rim of the arroyo and looked down before carefully making his way down the slope. Buck followed along behind and joined him at the bottom. He saw Ezra looking toward the right and turned his gaze to see what the man was looking at with such intensity.
"Burned. Burned alive," the gambler mumbled as he stood rooted to the spot. He repeated the same words over and over again like a mantra. He couldn't tear his gaze away from the horror that he could see. In his mind he was reliving the events that had led up to the death of the family as he stared at the body that was lying near him. My fault, my fault, he said to himself. He tried to make the images disappear by closing his eyes but that didn't help. It just made him feel dizzy and he swayed suddenly as he reopened his eyes.
"Jesus Christ," Buck gasped as he saw what Ezra had shown him. The ladies' man turned back quickly as he heard a muffled groan and watched as Ezra crumpled to the ground. He tried to catch him but the man fell hard in a heap at his feet.
"Nate! Get down here," the ladies' man shouted as he dropped to his knees beside his friend. He loosened the gambler's clothing round his neck and waist and then sat back on his heels. What did you remember, Ezra? he wondered. The man seemed to know where all the bodies were and the method of their execution.
The healer hurried over and slid down the slope until he reached the prone figure of the gambler. He knelt beside the unconscious man and started to check him over. Buck turned away from the two men and nearly threw up at the sight before him. What he'd first thought was a rotten log now showed itself for what it truly was. A body, burned beyond recognition, was lying not too far away. Buck couldn't tell whether it was male or female but he was pretty sure it was male and the husband and father to the family in the wagon. He shook his head as he wondered what had happened to these people and how Ezra fitted into the picture.
"He alright, Nate?" he asked as he turned his attention back to his prone friend.
"Yeah. Just passed out. Didn't hurt himself none in the fall thankfully. I think he probably started to remember what happened and he couldn't deal with it so he may be unconscious for a while. His body's probably telling him to get some rest too 'cause he's gotta be shattered. Can you help me take him back up?"
The two men lifted their friend and took him slowly back to the top. They laid him on the ground while they decided what to do next.
"These people need burying. Nathan? Why don't you make camp up in those trees and take Ez up there now? Buck, you'd better go with him to help," Chris suggested.
"I'll take Ez on my horse if you can pass him up to me," Buck volunteered. The other men waited until the ladies' man had mounted and then passed the gambler up to him. He put Ezra sideways in front of him and held him tight. The con man showed no signs of waking up so Buck hugged him closer to his chest.
Nathan mounted his own horse and got hold of the reins to Ezra's loose horse and the two men rode away into the trees. Nathan got off and tied the two horses to a tree before moving to Buck and taking Ezra from him. The ladies' man set about making a fire while Nathan took care of the gambler.
"Hey, Ez. Didn't expect to see you so soon," the healer said with a smile as Ezra stirred and opened his eyes with a low moan. "Do ya feel okay?"
"Tired," Ezra whispered as he avoided the healer's eyes.
"Well, you've done a lotta traveling today. Can you eat something for me before you catch up on some sleep?"
Nathan passed him some bread and Ezra sat up and ate it slowly and then satisfied his thirst afterwards. The gambler stayed silent and as soon as he finished his meal he lay down, closed his eyes and fell asleep quickly. Nathan collected a blanket from his horse and laid it over his friend. He looked round as the rest of the men returned after their unpleasant chore and Buck handed them plates of food that he had prepared.
"How's Ez?" Chris asked as he wandered over to the healer.
"He woke up but he's exhausted. I really don't know how he is, Chris. He seemed very subdued. I just can't get used to him being like this."
"Yeah, I know what you mean. Look, Vin found some tracks at the wagon which must have something to do with the family's murder. We want to follow them tomorrow. Will he be up to it?"
"He should be more rested but it's hard to keep moving him from pillar to post like this. He needs some time in one place to recover fully but he must've remembered something significant to make him pass out like that. Whether he'll remember what it was when he wakes up again is another matter. The mind is a funny thing," Nathan said.
"See how he is in the morning. We'll decide on what to do then."
Ezra woke the next morning but kept his eyes closed as he tried to decide why his feather bed felt so hard. His ears picked up a slight rustling noise and when he inhaled deeply through his nostrils he didn't recognise the odour that his nose detected. He opened his eyes reluctantly and blinked as the sun shone directly on his face. He shielded his eyes and then looked round his unfamiliar surroundings in puzzlement. He saw Buck lying on the ground nearby sound asleep and he frowned. I don't remember meeting the others. I was on my way home from visiting Maude, wasn't I? What happened? Where am I?
He shifted noisily and Buck started awake. He looked over at his friend and said gently, "Ezra? How do you feel?"
"Where am I? How did you get here?"
Buck didn't quite know what to say now his friend seemed not to remember what had happened the day before. He decided to be direct and asked, "What do you remember?"
Ezra's face suddenly lost its color and he shuddered as his memory kicked in. He gasped and put a hand to his chest. "I don't want to remember," he managed to whisper before he started shaking in earnest.
Buck stood up and shouted, "Nathan!"
The healer hurried over and sat down beside the gambler. "Ezra? What's wrong?"
"Don't wanna remember. Too painful. I can't breathe. God, I can't breathe." Ezra started gasping and Nathan hugged him tight after loosening his collar again.
"It's alright, Ez. Calm down, it's alright. Try to relax and breathe slowly, will ya?" He could feel the man in his arms still shaking as if he was freezing cold. "Get me another blanket Buck, will ya?"
Buck turned and stooped to pick up his own blanket. He put it round Ezra's shoulders and rubbed the man's back comfortingly. Ezra at last stopped gasping but he continued to shudder periodically. Nathan rocked him gently and when he looked down he saw the gambler had fallen asleep in his arms. The healer held him for a while longer and then settled him back on the ground carefully.
"What happened, Nate?" Josiah asked in a quiet voice.
"He remembered somethin' I think. It upset him whatever it was."
"We'd better stay here for a bit longer. Do ya think he's gonna be like this every time he remembers things, Nate?" Chris asked worriedly.
"I can't say, Chris. We need to get him to tell us what happened as soon as we can. It won't do him any good holding back."
The men sat back down to wait and see how Ezra was when he woke next time. Chris and Vin decided to go back to the wagon to see whether they could find anything of significance there that might help tell them what had happened. Just after they left, Ezra woke up again and sighed loudly.
Buck heard him and sat down beside him and smiled. "Ezra? Do you wanna talk? Tell me what you recall." The ladies' man wondered whether Ezra knew who he was when the gambler stared at him blankly again.
Ezra sat up and drew up his legs. He wrapped the blanket round his shoulders tightly and whispered, "I can't tell you. I don't want to."
"We found the wagon, Ez. Is it somethin' to do with that?"
"Oh, God." The gambler dropped his head and rested his brow on his knees.
Buck reached out a hand and rubbed the gambler's back. "Come on, Ez. We need to know."
Ezra took a deep breath that he exhaled slowly. He looked at Buck and then dropped his gaze to the ground. Buck moved closer and put his arm right round the gambler's shoulders and pulled him close.
Ezra shifted slightly and began talking in a voice so quiet that Buck had difficulty hearing him. "I was on my way home after visiting Mother, as you know. I joined up with a family who was going to take over a homestead near Four Corners. Seeing as we were all traveling in the same direction I said I'd show them the way. The children were delightful. Really excited about the new life they were starting." Ezra stopped and looked upset as he remembered what happened next.
"Ezra? Take your time. We know something bad happened. We saw how the family was killed."
"Shit! shit! shit!" Ezra yelled angrily as he pounded his fists against his thighs before raising his uninjured hand to his brow in anguish. He laid his palm flat against his forehead as if he was testing his temperature and slowly ran the hand down his face as his body shook again.
Buck hugged him as Nathan had done previously. While he held him he studied the man's bandaged hand to see if he'd done any more damage with the rough treatment he'd just given it. "Ezra, calm down. Come on, pard. It's alright." Buck held the gambler as he lay shaking in his arms.
"No, it's not alright. They're all dead."
Nathan came running over. "Buck? Is everything alright?" he asked as he looked over at Ezra and saw how upset he appeared.
"Yeah. I'll handle it, Nate. Can you just get me some bandages? He's hurt his hand again."
Nathan returned with his bag and left it on the ground by the ladies' man. "Are you sure yer alright dealing with this?" the healer asked.
"Yes, Nate. I'm sure. Can you leave us alone?" Buck asked insistently.
"Okay," Nathan replied reluctantly as he moved away. The healer took the other men away to give the gambler some privacy, including Chris and Vin who had come running on hearing the shouting.
Buck turned back to Ezra and dealt with his hand gently. The gambler groaned as he was touched and Buck smiled apologetically and asked, "Alright, pard?"
Ezra didn't answer. He was going over in his mind what he'd witnessed at the wagon. Buck waited patiently until his friend raised his gaze again. "I didn't help them," he whispered eventually.
"Can you tell me about it? It might help and we need to catch the bastards that killed that family," Buck said persuasively.
Ezra sighed and he started talking in a flat tone as he tried to remain detached from what he was saying. "I took them as far as an arroyo and I heard some gunfire behind us. A gang of men came out of the trees and surrounded us." Ezra stopped and took a deep breath before continuing with a trembling voice. "They shot the team of horses so the family couldn't escape and then disarmed me. It all happened so fast, I didn't have time to react. I should have killed some of them at least but I just froze. They shot the children and the woman and dumped their bodies back in the wagon. They'd already killed the father. They. . . Oh God, Buck," Ezra faltered but continued after taking a deep breath. "They took him to the rim of the arroyo. I heard him scream and I saw the flames and smoke engulf him. The smell was truly appalling. He fell and was still screaming but the men just laughed."
Ezra stopped again and wiped a hand over his face as he sobbed and then hugged the blanket tighter round his shoulders. "I escaped and felt a bullet graze my head but I managed to stay on my horse and get away. They came after me but I had a good lead and managed to hide from them in some trees. When they passed by, I rode in the opposite direction to the one they went in. My head was pounding by then and I suppose I just fell off. I don't remember any more after that until waking up here."
"Jesus, Ezra." Buck patted Ezra's leg but he wasn't sure that he'd heard the whole story. Ezra seemed to be holding something back but Buck didn't want to pressure the man into telling him before he was ready. He decided instead to tell Ezra what had happened to him after the cowhands had found him. He watched the gambler closely as he talked. Ezra still had hold of the blanket in his hands and he clutched it tightly as he listened to what Buck told him. The gambler really couldn't understand how he now remembered what he had previously not known but had now obviously forgotten something else.
"What day is it?" Ezra asked suddenly.
"So I was found yesterday?" Ezra asked quietly as he tried to get things into perspective in his mind. Buck nodded in confirmation. "The family was killed last Saturday then. What have I been doing since then?"
"God knows, Ezra," Buck said as he shook his head. "Would you recognize the men again?"
"I expect so."
"You okay on yer own while I tell the others what you just told me?" Buck asked gently.
"Yes." Ezra lay down and curled up on the ground. Buck stood up after patting his back and wandered over to his other friends.
"Bucklin? What was Ezra shouting about earlier? Is he alright?" Chris asked.
"No, he's not. He saw them all killed. He saw that man burnt alive and he feels responsible." Buck related exactly what Ezra had told him and the men listened in silence and growing anger.
"Would he know them again?" Josiah asked slowly as he flicked a concerned look in the gambler's direction.
"So he was wandering around for four or five days before being found. What was he doing all that time?" Nathan wondered.
"He doesn't remember and he now no longer remembers the past few days. I'm not really sure whether he's told me everything either. He seems to be hiding something but I don't want to force it out of him."
"Give him time. It's all been a shock for him. Well, the only thing we do know for sure is that he didn't spend his missing time eating or drinking much. He was, and still is, in poor physical condition never mind his mental state," Nathan said worriedly.
"What do you wanna do now?" Buck asked his oldest friend.
"We follow the sign that Vin found. Is Ezra up to coming with us? He's the only one who can identify the murderers. If we don't go soon it's gonna be too late 'cause Vin says it's gonna rain and we'll lose the tracks," Chris said.
"I'll go and see if Ezra's well enough to come with us," Buck said as he walked back to the gambler. He'd hardly got there when Ezra spoke to him.
"What happened to my hand?" the gambler demanded. He hadn't taken any notice when Buck had re-bandaged it earlier. His mind had been elsewhere then but his attention had been drawn to it now because it was throbbing painfully.
Jesus. How do I explain that one? Buck wondered. He thought honesty was the best policy and said, "Chris shot you."
"Why?" the gambler asked anxiously.
"You drew on him."
"I beg your pardon!? Was I delirious?"
"Yeah, you could say that. You didn't recollect who he was and he was a bit rough with you. He was angry 'cause you hadn't come back to town. I'd collected you from Eagle Bend and left you at the livery with Yosemite while I went to see if I could find one of the others. Chris got back from his patrol and found you before I could tell him what had happened. He confronted you and you drew on him. He was sorry for hurting you afterwards when I told him what was wrong with you."
"Not half as sorry as I was, I'm sure," Ezra said quietly with a bleak smile.
"You fit to get up? Chris wants to go back and see if Vin can find where the gang came from or went to."
"Yes, okay." Ezra really didn't want to move but he didn't want to stay at the camp either.
"Here's yer coat," Buck smiled as he passed the gambler the coat he had been found in. Although the ladies' man had seen to getting Ezra's hair cut he'd totally forgotten to give him his own clothes.
"You're not serious, are you?" the gambler said indignantly as he held the item up between one finger and thumb and studied it with a look of disgust.
Buck smiled and thought, That looks and sounds more like the Ezra we know. He patted the gambler's shoulder and said, "It's what you
turned up in at Eagle Bend. God knows where you got it or the rest of yer clothes though. Your horse is missing too."
Ezra reluctantly put the coat on and looked down at himself before checking his face in the shaving mirror that Buck passed to him. "Good God, what a sight. Least my hair's tidy."
"Well, I hate to tell you this but it was longer and you had a beard and mustache when I collected you. I sorted that part out but forgot yer clothes."
Chris wandered over and asked, "You fit to go Ezra?"
Ezra smiled sadly and said, "I don't know what I'm fit for dressed like this. I hear my hair was a sight to behold too. I hope it wasn't as long as our dear trackers. I often feel like tying his in ribbons like a little girls."
"Don't let Vin hear you say that, Ez. He wouldn't appreciate being called a girl," Chris laughed.
Ezra turned away with a sigh and put a hand over his mouth as he thought of one little girl who would no longer have ribbons in her hair. He gave up his pretence of cheerfulness and sobbed as he let the depression descend again.
"Ez? What's wrong?" Buck asked as he put a hand on his friend's shoulder to turn him round to face him again.
"I just remembered the little girl in the wagon had ribbons in her hair. She was so pretty. How can I be joking when they're all dead?"
"There were too many of them in the gang for you to tackle on yer own. You couldn't have killed them all. Come on. Let's see if we can track those bastards down."
The three men collected the rest of their group and went to saddle their horses. They rode back to the wagon and Vin started following the tracks. Ezra wouldn't go near the wagon and sat on his horse some distance away waiting for Vin to move on. He joined the group when they were well away from the scene of devastation and he pulled in next to Buck. The ladies' man looked over and smiled encouragingly.
Vin found it fairly easy to see where the gang had gone as their horses had made quite a trail. It started to rain heavily just as the tracker spotted a building in the distance. He studied the area with his telescope and pointed. "Tracks head right there."
"Wonder if they're in there now?" JD said.
"We'll wait and see. No windows, so we can't see anything inside. We can't just ride in without some sort of plan. Let's find some cover out of this rain first," Chris decided.
The men moved to the trees where they could keep an eye on the building. Vin stood watching for some time and then turned back to Chris.
"I'll go nearer. Once it gets dark we won't be able to see much from here. They might sneak in or out and we wouldn't know."
"Watch yer back."
"Always do. See ya later." The tracker walked off into the gathering gloom.
Ezra wrapped himself in a blanket after watching Vin leave and Nathan gave him something to eat and drink. The gambler wasn't really hungry but ate all he had been given to prevent Nathan making a fuss. He felt shattered again and he stared into space as his mind wandered. He hadn't spoken for hours but the rest of the men knew he wanted to be left alone. After a while he curled up on the ground and tried to get some sleep while he listened to his friends talking quietly. Chris arranged to have someone on watch all night but didn't include Ezra in the duty.
Buck woke at midnight and he checked on the gambler before taking over from Josiah. He could see that the con man was still awake. "Ez? You okay?"
"Yes. Can't sleep." The gambler shivered as he spoke.
Buck noticed and handed his blanket over. "Here ya go. Have my blanket too. Are you feeling alright?"
"I'm just cold and wet."
"Hopefully it won't rain for too much longer. Try to get some rest, pard." Buck walked away and started his vigil. He was still worried about Ezra and he checked on him periodically. The man had witnessed something awful but Buck still couldn't help wondering what Ezra hadn't told him. There was a niggling thought in the back of his mind that he hadn't been told everything. Could it be any worse than what he'd already heard? His mind kept wandering to the burnt body and he couldn't shake the image from his mind. If he was having trouble with it, Ezra must be suffering ten times worse as a witness to the horror.
JD came to relieve him a few hours later and asked, "Anything happening?"
"Na. Not a twitch. They won't come back at night. See ya in the morning, JD. Can I borrow yer blanket? I lent mine to Ezra and I don't wanna take it off him. He was shivering."
"Sure. Is he gonna be alright, Buck?"
"I don't know, kid. He's got his memory back but I don't know if that's a good thing or not. He might have been better off not knowing."
"It nearly made me sick just looking at that man's body. It musta been awful to see him die like that," JD said as he shuddered.
"Yeah. I know. I was just thinking the same thing. See ya later." Buck checked on the gambler again before lying down nearby to catch up on some sleep of his own.
In the morning it was still pouring with rain. Vin returned and said, "I've done a recce of the area and there's no one there now. It looks like they will return though. There's a good supply of food that I can't believe they'd just leave behind."
"We'll stay here until they come back then. At least it gives us time to set something up in the way of a welcome," Chris said.
Vin and Chris disappeared to study the building in more detail. They'd been gone for an hour when Buck looked into the distance and saw a blob on the horizon. He narrowed his eyes and stared hard.
"Josiah? Does that look like a group of riders to you?"
Josiah looked and nodded. Buck whistled loudly and Vin and Chris hurried away from their perusal. They came back to the camp and Buck pointed out the group of riders.
"Do ya think it's them?" he asked.
"Ezra? Have a look at them, will ya? I don't wanna attack an innocent lot of people," Chris requested.
"Well, if they return to the building it's gotta be them, ain't it?" Vin said.
"Yeah, but I'd like to be sure."
Ezra took Vin's telescope and studied the men intently. He nodded as he passed the eyeglass back. "I can confirm they are the same men but I'm not sure if they constitute the whole gang or not."
"What do you mean?"
"I didn't count how many men there were in the gang when they attacked us. I had other things on my mind at the time," Ezra said apologetically.
"Don't fret, Ez. We can't let this lot escape now you've confirmed that they are at least part of the gang. We've got the element of surprise but let's wait until they get inside. They like fire, so let's not disappoint them," Chris said.
Ezra frowned and asked worriedly, "You're going to burn them?"
"Just the building. I only want to flush them out. I don't wanna take them now 'cause they could scatter and we'd lose them."
Ezra nodded sadly and walked away. He didn't think he wanted to see anything or anyone burnt again. He watched nervously as the gang rode to the building and disappeared inside after seeing to their horses. Chris left them alone for an hour and then four of his men walked to each corner of the building and set fires and waited for the flames to take hold. They then moved to the front of the building to join the rest of their friends and spread out to await developments. They didn't have long to wait before the door was suddenly thrown open and the gang stumbled out coughing and yelling.
Chris shouted a warning and the gang had the choice of surrendering or being burnt. Needless to say they all surrendered and stood still with their hands in the air after throwing their weapons away. Chris's men approached cautiously with weapons trained on their prisoners. They herded them together and tied the men to one another so it was more difficult for any one individual to escape. The gang wasn't treated kindly and one man soon learned not to complain about their rough treatment. He shouted angrily at Chris and got a fist in the face for his trouble as well as a few more well placed strikes to his body. The black clad man walked away silently when he'd finished, leaving the man lying groaning in the dirt. The blond then calmly arranged for four of the peacekeepers to stand guard while the others went to collect their horses from the campsite.
Thankfully the rain had now stopped and Chris started to saddle the horses with Nathan's help. Ezra tagged along and helped where he could although he found it difficult to do much with his injured hand. The healer looked across at the gambler and narrowed his eyes as he studied him intently. He finally wandered over to the man and stood beside him.
"You look a bit pale, Ezra. Are you feeling alright?"
"I'm just hot and tired," the gambler replied quietly as he stood next to his horse. He held onto the saddle tightly with his uninjured hand as he spoke and rested his forehead on the cool leather.
Nathan reached out a hand and pulled him upright before feeling his brow. "I knew you shouldn't have come with us. You're not well," he said sympathetically.
"What's up, Nate?" Chris said as he walked up to join the two men.
"Ezra's not well and that rain didn't help. He's feverish. He was susceptible to sickness in his condition."
"Can he make it back to town or do ya wanna go to the ranch instead?" Chris asked the healer as he flicked a quick look at the gambler.
"The ranch. I don't want him traveling far and I certainly don't want him camping out again."
Chris nodded and went to tell Buck and the others what was happening. He returned after sending the other men back to Eagle Bend with the prisoners. Ezra mounted his horse slowly with Nathan's help and the three men rode back to the ranch. Ezra shivered uncontrollably and hunkered down in his saddle while pulling his coat tighter. After being so hot, he now couldn't get warm and he felt as if he was in a tub of ice. He wobbled in the saddle occasionally but managed not to fall off on the long ride back. Nathan rode close to him and put out a hand to steady the gambler whenever he swayed. The healer was very relieved when the ranch house finally came into view.
"We didn't expect you back," the rancher said as they rode into the yard.
"Bring him inside and use the first room on the left. Let me know if ya need anything."
Nathan and Chris helped the gambler off his horse and supported him as they took him inside and laid him on the bed. The healer stripped the sick man of clothes and pulled the covers up over him. Ezra wrapped himself in the blankets with a sigh and fell asleep within minutes.
Nathan went to try and get some food organized for when the gambler woke. He then walked outside and collected his medical bag from his horse after taking it and the two other mounts to the barn for safekeeping. Chris stayed in the bedroom and took a seat next to the gambler. He took off his hat and hung it on the back of his chair before removing his poncho and gun belt. He then leant back in the chair with a contented sigh and closed his eyes and dozed fitfully. Ezra tossed and turned and mumbled for the rest of the day and all through the night. Nathan checked on him periodically and cooled him down when necessary but Ezra did not wake up.
Chris took over from Nathan in the morning while the healer caught up on some sleep of his own. The gunfighter could hear some of the ranch hands talking quite loudly on the porch outside the bedroom window. He stood up and wandered over to pull the window shut so they didn't disturb Ezra. Chris looked back over at the bed as the gambler suddenly started talking loudly. He walked back to the bed and tried to distinguish what the man was saying. He seemed to be repeating something and the blond leaned closer but couldn't really understand what his friend was saying. He thought the words were 'one more man' and 'masked man' and he hoped that Ezra was just talking nonsense but he had a feeling the gambler had remembered something important. Chris retook his seat but found the time passed slowly as he listened to the con man repeat the same words over and over again until his fever broke midmorning.
"Hey, Ez. How do you feel?" Chris asked when he saw the man's eyes open.
"Can you face something to eat?" Nathan asked from where he was sitting by the window.
"No. I don't think I can. Maybe later."
"Well at least have some water. You need to replace what you've lost." Nathan passed a glass of water to him and watched as he drank the contents thirstily.
"He okay?" Chris asked as Ezra went back to sleep immediately.
"He just needs to get his strength back. He coulda done without all the riding he's done lately. He wasn't ready for it. I'll go and get some more food ready in case he's hungry when he wakes up next time."
The healer rose and disappeared. Chris sat quietly listening to the sound of his sick friend's raspy breathing and he looked up as he heard a knock on the door. He walked over and opened it to discover Buck standing in the hallway.
"What are you doing here?" Chris asked. "Is there trouble in town or with the prisoners?"
"No. We left them in Eagle Bend and came back to see how Ezra was."
"Let's go outside. He's asleep and I don't wanna wake him. He's still mighty poorly." Chris walked outside and indicted for Buck to go out on the porch.
A man had been waiting for days to get Ezra on his own. Ever since the gambler had been found and brought to the ranch the man had been biding his time. Now he had the perfect opportunity to act. Ezra hadn't been left on his own until now and it was too good a chance to miss.
Ezra slept soundly and didn't hear his friends leave or the man who soundlessly entered his room after they'd gone. The first he knew of the man's presence was the touch of cold steel against his neck. He opened his eyes to find a knife held to his throat and a hand covering his mouth. He looked at the person who was standing over him and discovered it was Charlie, the cowboy who had helped them the other day.
"Get up and don't make a sound or I'll slit your throat." The man transferred a hand to Ezra's hair and pulled him upright roughly.
The gambler struggled to his feet and swayed dizzily. Charlie held Ezra upright and gagged him before putting his hat on and pulling it down so the man's face was shadowed. The cowhand then dressed him, knowing that he would not be noticed if he had a properly dressed man with him rather than one clad in a night-shirt. He pulled the collar of Ezra's coat up so the bottom half of his face was obscured. When he was ready he led Ezra out of the room after checking the hallway was still clear. The knife was now being held against the con man's side and he could feel the tip digging into him. He didn't dare try to escape although he wouldn't have stood much chance with the way he was feeling anyway. Charlie took him out the back of the house and across to a couple of horses tied at the hitching rail. He made Ezra mount one of the horses and then tied his hands to the pommel. Ezra moaned as his injured hand was knocked. Charlie mounted the other horse and then caught hold of Ezra's reins and led him away from the ranch.
Chris, meanwhile, went back along to Ezra's room and opened the door quietly. He immediately noticed the empty bed. He looked around the room to make sure Ezra hadn't just got up to look out the window. Not seeing his friend, he wandered back out into the hall with a frown.
"What's up Chris?" Buck asked.
"Well, he can't have gone far being so sick. You check down here and I'll go upstairs."
The two men met up again after finding no trace of their friend inside. Chris hurried out onto the porch and called the rest of his men together urgently. "Ezra's gone. Look around out here, will ya? He's not in the house."
The men split up and searched all the buildings. Vin wandered round the back of the house and saw the horses had gone. He knew they had been there when they had arrived from Eagle Bend and he scratched his chin thoughtfully.
He found Chris and said, "Two horses have gone from out back. They were there not long ago. Do you think someone could have taken Ezra?"
"Why would someone want him?"
"I don't know but he ain't here, is he?"
"Okay. Find the boss and see if all his men are here."
Vin returned from his mission and said, "The rancher says all the men except Charlie are here. They'd finished work for the day so they should all have been in the bunkhouse."
"We have to assume Charlie's got him then. We'll follow them. JD, Buck stay here, will ya in case we're wrong and he turns up again?"
The four other men mounted quickly and headed off after the tracks. Vin found them easy to follow because they were fresh. As they rode over a small rise a few miles away from the ranch they saw an abandoned homestead spread out below them in the valley. From one of the buildings came the sound of tortured screaming. The only problem was they couldn't tell exactly which building the sounds were coming from.