Gamblers Don't Bounce
Nettie walked in from the kitchen and ambled over to the bed after smiling at Vin who was on nursing duty. The old woman held out a hand and placed the palm on Ezra's brow to see how his temperature was. She looked down at him and saw him staring with bright, wide eyes and looking quite frightened.
"Ezra? What's the matter, honey?" she asked as she sat on the bed.
Ezra pulled the blanket up over his head and refused to reveal his face to her again. "Ghost," he mumbled from under his cover.
"A ghost? In my cabin? Where honey?" The old lady looked around but couldn't see anything that could have scared the injured man.
"At the bottom of the bed." Ezra put his uninjured arm on top of the blanket and pointed in the general direction of what he'd seen.
Nettie followed the finger and saw Vin was sitting exactly where Ezra was indicating. The tracker was lounging in a rocking chair and was partly in the shadows. "What does he look like, son?" she asked curiously, although she knew what the answer would be.
"It's Vin, honey. You know he ain't no ghost. He's flesh and bone just like you and me. Touch him yerself and see."
Vin rose and walked to the bed to allow Ezra to see that he was human after all but he didn't even get near before Ezra reacted.
"No! No! Ghost," Ezra shouted hysterically before starting to cry.
The old lady inclined her head and asked Vin to leave with a flick of her eyes. She turned back to Ezra and pulled the blanket down so she could see his face. She reached out a hand and gently wiped the tears from Ezra's cheeks. "He's gone, son. He weren't gonna hurt ya. He was watching over you to keep you safe."
"No friendly ghosts," Ezra disagreed as he wiped his eyes and sniffed loudly before rubbing his nose on the blanket.
"Yes, there are, Ezra." With the gambler's child-like mind Nettie didn't want him to be scared of Vin. It would make their job a lot more difficult so she needed to make the tracker seem like a safe figure. She stayed sitting on the bed and ran her fingers through Ezra's hair. "If he was here to hurt you, Mr. Larabee wouldn't allow him to remain, would he? Nor would I, okay?"
Chris frowned when Vin ambled out into the kitchen. "What's up? I heard Ez shouting. Is he okay?"
"He thinks I'm a ghost. Scared shitless he was. Hid under the covers and started cryin'."
Chris studied the tracker and thought that the man seemed highly unsettled at the reaction of his injured friend. The gunfighter stood up and patted his shoulder before walking into the bedroom to see how Ezra was. "Hey Ezra. You alright, son?"
"Saw ghost. Long-haired ghost."
"Really? What was he doin'?"
"Sitting in the chair watchin' me. Didn't like it."
Nettie looked at Chris and smiled. "I was just telling Ezra that the ghost was taking care of him, making sure he was safe."
The blond nodded, understanding what Nettie was trying to do. "Yeah, he was, Ez. He's helping me and Nettie out. Did he scare ya?"
"Well, if you see him again, don't you fret. We're both here too," Chris said encouragingly.
"I won't. Nettie says he's a friendly ghost." Ezra stared up at the blond with wide, pleading eyes as he willed Chris to confirm what he'd been told.
"Yeah, that's right, son." Chris patted Ezra's shoulder and wandered back to see Vin after Nettie had taken a seat next to the bed to watch over the gambler.
"He better?" the tracker asked as he looked up from cleaning his gun. The weapon was already spotless but Vin had begun the task in an effort to keep his mind occupied.
"Yeah, he should be okay when he sees you. Nettie told him you were a friendly ghost and he seems happy with that." The blond shook his head worriedly as he ran his fingers through his hair distractedly. "Sure hope he gets his mind back soon. It's strange talking to a grown man like a kid. I expect him to talk like he usually does, all long words and bullshit, you know? It's odd hearing him talking normal."
"He can't help it."
"I know, Vin. It's just hard to know how he's gonna react to things. Hell, if he thought you were a ghost what's gonna frighten him next?" The blond looked up as he heard footsteps and saw Nathan. "Hey Nate."
The healer smiled at Chris and then nodded a greeting to Vin. "Any improvement?" he asked.
"Na, not much. He's awake for the moment and ain't puked since yesterday but he's still like a kid," Chris replied in defeat.
"Okay, I'll go check him over."
Chris caught the healer's arm first and held him back. "Any word from Buck?"
"Na. Still out looking. Ain't seen 'em since they set off yesterday," Nathan replied before heading into the bedroom to see his patient.
+ + + + + + +
"Tracks head to that cave," the tracker declared as he pulled his horse to a halt just to one side of the track. It was just past dawn and the men were pleased to have caught up with their quarry so soon.
"Jeez. How we gonna get 'em out?" JD asked. "Are the horses in there too?"
"No. Over there, see them?" Buck pointed to a small corral, which contained several equines just to the side of the cave and nearly hidden from view. "As to gettin' the outlaws into the open where we want 'em, well I've got a plan, kid. Brought somethin' along that might persuade them to surrender too." Buck produced several sticks of dynamite with a flourish as he smiled devilishly.
"Seem to recall you didn't have much success when you used some of that before," JD replied disparagingly. "Couldn't even light it properly if I remember rightly."
"That was then, this is now, kid," Buck said as he waggled his eyebrows up and down comically.
JD looked at the mustached gunman skeptically as he shook his head in exasperation. "Yeah right. What ya gonna do then?"
"Well, you set them ponies free for starters. Make it nice and noisy, kid. Hopefully the outlaws'll come to have a look-see and I'll be here to meet them."
"Okay." JD snuck across to the horses and opened the gate. He walked round the outside edge of the corral until he was at the back. "Yee haa!" he yelled suddenly as he waved his arms in the air energetically. The horses leapt forward into a lope and filed out through the gap to freedom.
"Hey! What the hell's goin' on?" a voice from the cave shouted. "Did you secure the gate proper, you halfwit?"
"Thought I did," a high-pitched male voice answered as two men finally came into view from the cave's entrance.
Buck coughed and said, "Well, you know what Thought thought, don't ya? He thought his feet were hangin' out the end of the bed, but when he got out to look, they weren't."
Both men swung round in surprise with guns drawn and cocked. One man had a bandaged midriff and held one hand across the wound carefully as he stood staring at Buck.
"I wouldn't if I were you." Buck smiled as he waved the dynamite's short fuse near a lighted match. "Put yer guns down, boys. Even if you shoot me you won't get far before this baby goes off." The ladies' man looked thoughtful. "You might lose a leg, an arm or yer life so you'd best give up and stay alive unless, of course, you wanna die."
The two outlaws didn't look convinced at Buck's sincerity in completing his threat.
"You reckon I'm bluffin'?" Buck shouted as the match almost lit the fuse. "Put down yer guns 'cause I ain't tellin' ya again."
Both men complied without question and stood with their arms in the air after laying their weapons in the dirt. Buck blew out the match and put the dynamite in his pocket.
"Where's the other one?" JD asked as he hurried back toward his friend. "There were three of 'em, weren't there?"
Buck quickly cuffed the two prisoners, not caring whether he hurt the injured one more or not. He moved them to one side and left them in the tracker's care so he could concentrate his full attention on the missing outlaw.
"Let's see if this gets his attention. He don't seem to be listening at the moment, does he?" Buck lit the dynamite and threw it just outside the cave entrance and dived for cover. There was a terrific explosion followed by the sound of someone coughing.
Buck stood up and easily caught the man who stumbled out into the daylight wiping his eyes and struggling for breath. The man had just escaped before the partial collapse of the cave's entrance.
Buck looked triumphantly at his young friend. "There ya go. Easy as beating ya at poker, kid."
"Oh, ha, ha." JD scowled at being reminded of how much money he'd lost to the ladies' man the previous week.
Buck secured the prisoner to the others and then moved toward the cave's slightly blocked entrance. He called back to the tracker, "Hope we get a reward for this, pard. Caught the outlaws and retrieved yer gold without much fuss."
"You'll be lucky fella."
"We'll just keep the gold then," Buck said as he began carrying the hoard awkwardly from the cave. He started loading it onto the wagon that stood nearby while JD chased after the scattered horses.
"Now hold on a minute. You can't do that!" the tracker protested.
Buck turned to the man sternly and poked him on the shoulder with an outstretched digit. "You tell yer boss that unless he gives us monetary reimbursement we're keepin' the gold. Maybe then he'll take note."
"He won't be happy."
Buck snorted before growling menacingly, "Don't give a shit. He nearly killed a friend of ours and we expect a bit of gratitude for our help and an apology for Ezra."
The tracker pursed his lips and headed off angrily on his own. Buck watched him leave and then secured all the prisoners to the side of the wagon. He was going to make them walk home in punishment for what they'd done.
"Can you do that? Keep the gold, I mean?" JD asked as he hitched a couple of horses to the wagon.
"Worth a try, ain't it?" Buck grinned as he slapped the kid's back heartily.
+ + + + + + +
Vin and Chris sat playing poker in Ezra's bedroom as they watched over their friend as he continued his recuperation. Ezra had been asleep for hours but mumbled continually under his breath because of his feverish state. He woke after a while, however, when the muffled voices of the poker players disturbed him.
Chris triumphantly laid down his cards and smiled from ear to ear.
"God Larabee! You getting help from above?" Vin protested as he checked his friend's cards with disbelief and suspicion. "What you just done ain't possible."
"You accusing me of cheatin', cowboy?" Chris asked, sounding deadly serious although Vin could see a flicker of humor in the man's eyes.
Vin picked all the cards up from the table and began shuffling them. "God no! More than my life's worth. I want my place in Heaven when my time comes."
"Mr. God?" Ezra whispered as his eyes focussed on the two men sat at the far side of the room.
Both poker players turned round after hearing the quiet voice.
"Who ya talking to Ez?" Chris asked with a frown as he stood up and walked over to the bed.
"You. Ghost called you God."
"No Ezra. My name's Chris, not God," the blond replied patiently to the child-like man.
"No. God...God. He said you're God," Ezra said insistently as he shook his head.
Chris shrugged and gave in rather than arguing and upsetting the injured man. He held up his hands and said, "Okay, okay, I'm God."
"Oh no," Vin groaned from where he still sat quietly. "Always knew you thought you were the Lord Almighty, Larabee."
Chris smiled at the tracker before looking back at Ezra. "You want anythin, Ez? A drink maybe?"
"Okay, here ya go." Chris sat the man up and poured some of the clear liquid from a pitcher nearby. He held the glass to the man's lips and watched as he thirstily drank the contents. He removed the glass once it was empty and held out a hand to check Ezra's fever once more. He pursed his lips when he found his friend's skin still hot but he thought it wasn't quite as bad as the day before.
The blond heard footsteps and he smiled when Nettie entered the room to take over from the two men. She sat at the table and played a few hands of poker with them before checking on Ezra again after they'd gone to bed.
+ + + + + + +
Buck and JD arrived back in town late in the day. They headed to the jail where Josiah was currently on duty. The ladies' man pulled the dusty horses to a halt outside and jumped down to secure them to the hitching rail.
"Hey boys," Josiah said as he ambled out onto the boardwalk. "Caught the bastards then, I see."
"Yeah. Weren't much competition, pard. What shall we do with the gold?" the tall man asked as he escorted the prisoners up to the preacher.
"Well, what are Banks for, do ya reckon, Buck?" Josiah asked with a raised eyebrow.
"Robbin'?" the gunman replied wryly with a grin.
Josiah let out a deep belly laugh. "True," he admitted in amusement. "Okay. Pile it in the other cell. These fella's will just have to bunk together."
"Sounds cozy. Come on JD, we ain't finished yet, kid. Might be done by midnight if we're lucky," Buck said as he put an arm round the kid's shoulder and herded him to the back of the wagon to begin unloading.
+ + + + + + +
In the middle of the night Ezra started yelling, "Monty? Monty?"
Chris started awake at the call and put his feet back on the floor from where they'd been resting on the bed.
"Ez? What's up?" The blond got up and sat on the edge of the bed and looked down at Ezra worriedly.
The con man grabbed Chris's wrist. "He's gone. Monty's gone."
Chris put out a hand and patted the injured man's shoulder. "Okay, calm down, Ez."
"Where is he? I want him." Ezra tried to get up as he looked around frantically.
"Who's Monty, Ez?"
"He's Monty, Monty," Ezra said as if Chris should know what he was talking about. The gambler struggled against Chris's restraining hand and got increasingly upset.
Chris patted his hand. "Alright, I'll look for him. Just calm down," he said as Ezra began crying. Chris stood and walked out into the kitchen where he saw Vin watching quietly from the shadows.
"Who, or what, the hell is Monty?" the blond asked irritably as he shut the door behind him. Chris was finding Ezra's condition increasingly difficult to deal with. He decided the only way to cope was by thinking of him as Adam and speaking to him accordingly. He needed to forget the fact that Ezra was a grown man.
Vin shrugged and said, "God knows."
"Whatever it is Ez wants it bad and won't calm down. What we gonna do?"
Vin frowned and pursed his lips. "Wait a minute. A coupla weeks ago we were talking about things from when we were kids. It might be a toy he had now I think of it. Soft, not carved he said it was. Small, stuffed, made outta scraps of cloth, or some such, you know? Don't really know what it was though. If it comes to that I don't think Ez really did either," Vin said as he tried to jog the blond's memory.
"Yeah, I remember somethin' but I weren't really listenin'. We're just gonna have to improvise, ain't we?" Chris grabbed a shirt from his saddlebag that was sitting on the table. He scrunched it up and used the arms to tie it into a bundle. "There ya go. Meet Monty, Vin," he said as he held it out and waved it in front of the tracker as if it was alive. "Just hope Ez accepts it as the real thing."
The blond wandered into the bedroom quietly feeling slightly stupid. "Here's Monty, Ez. He hadn't gone far." He handed over the shirt and waited anxiously for Ezra's reaction.
"Thank you, God." Ezra hugged the shirt tight in the crook of his elbow and smiled. He snuggled down in the bed and sighed contentedly as he closed his eyes.
Chris smiled back in relief and ran his fingers through the deluded man's damp hair. He stayed and watched as the gambler fell asleep before heading back to the kitchen.
Vin looked at him as he entered and raised his eyebrows questioningly. "He okay?"
"Seems happy for the moment. God knows what he's gonna think when he gets his mind back and finds he's been hugging a shirt though."
"Poor Ez. He was plum attached to the real Monty so he told me. Feel kinda sorry for him."
"Why?" Chris frowned.
"I think that in some ways I had a better early childhood than he did," Vin shrugged. "I know I had it rough after Ma died but I reckon I had a good life with her. We never had much money but we had each other. She even got someone to make me a toy to call my own so I weren't no different from the other kids. It was a carved horse and I took it everywhere with me. Real proud of it I was. Talked to it and everythin'," Vin laughed at admitting such things. "All things considered I ain't got anythin' to complain about."
"How can you say that?" Chris asked, mystified. With the life Vin had endured he couldn't understand how the man could feel sorry for Ezra. The gambler had always had a roof over his head, unlike Vin. Maybe just 'cause you got the creature comforts don't mean yer life is any better. Can still feel lonely even when yer surrounded by other people. Hell, that covers me too, don't it? Alone in a crowd. Chris thought to himself.
Vin shook him out of his thoughts when he began talking again. "Well, least my Ma was always around until she died. I always knew she loved me 'cause she told me so every day. Ez was handed round his relatives like a package and I think he wondered whether Maude cared for him at all or whether he was just a burden to her. Staying with all those different people, most of 'em strangers really, woulda been real hard for a young kid to deal with. I reckon he musta been real quiet and shy when he was young. I know I roamed around a lot but I was welcomed by the Kiowa and I felt right at home with 'em. I didn't feel an outcast or nothin', which I think Ezra did and that was with people who were supposed to be his kin."
"You two did a lotta talkin' about it, didn't ya?" Chris had always thought that Ezra had always been brash and confident but what Vin was telling him made him re- evaluate his thoughts on the gambler.
Vin smiled sadly. "Yeah, we did. Think he wanted to get some things off his chest and I was more than happy to listen. Don't often spend much time talkin' with him but he seemed real upset and in need of a friend. Bet that's why he's thinkin' of Monty now with our conversation still being so fresh in his memory. He told me Monty was the first thing that was truly his and Maude made him throw it away. He loved it and she broke his heart I reckon."
"Why did she do that?" Chris asked as he thought he could never have done that to Adam.
"She said that there weren't no room in his life for trinkets. Money was what was important and she made it sound like some sort of God." Vin sighed. "I know you shouldn't judge yer life by what you own but everyone has a favorite possession, don't they? Hell, just look at me with my harmonica and eyeglass. Don't go nowhere without 'em and I'm an adult! You remember the toy horse I mentioned earlier? Well, I lost it in the river one day and I know I cried for a week afterwards. It was my fault I lost it but I know how bad I reacted. Just imagine how Ez musta felt being made to throw somethin' he loved away. It was just plain cruel." Vin stopped talking and took a quick sip of water from the glass in front of him to moisten his dry mouth. "One of Ezra's aunts apparently made Monty for him when he was stayin' with her. He was finding it hard to settle in at her house and he wouldn't go to sleep at night. Had nightmares somethin' awful. He didn't know the family real well and was pinin' for Maude, I reckon, though Lord knows why. Monty wasn't really anything much, sorta like a small pillow I s'pose but Ez loved it just the same. Maude was furious when she found out about it and said the aunt was making Ez soft by giving him such things. That day he went to school as normal from his aunt's house but was met by Maude and carted off to live with someone else at the end of the day. Never saw his aunt again. He'd only just got used to living with her and he was uprooted because of Maude's pettiness. Ez never settled anywhere else properly after that and he never even bothered unpacking his bag of clothes. He knew he could be moved on at a moment's notice and he says that's why he never sticks at one job or stays in one place for too long. Feels he has to move on 'cause that's the only way of livin' he knows." Vin shook his head sadly. "He said the only constant thing in his life was school so he threw himself into his education. Maude, at least, made sure he went to the same school all the time, so that's one thing she did right. Didn't get much else right though, did she?"
Chris had watched Vin throughout his long speech and could tell he was thinking of his own mother. It had been a long time since Chris had heard Vin talk so much. He patted his friend's knee sympathetically. "Na. Money ain't much of a substitute for love and it sure don't make ya happy, does it? S'pect Josiah would quote the Bible at us about it. Money is the root of all evil, or somethin' like that."
"Yeah, dare say he would at that. All I know is that you ain't happy if ya got too much and yer damned miserable if you ain't got any but Maude brought Ezra up to worship it. Can't wonder that he's always gamblin' or scheming to get his hands on the stuff."
"Don't do him much good though, does it? He ain't got any more money than we have."
"No he ain't but he says it's hard to break a habit of a lifetime." Vin sighed and continued, "Ez told me that when Maude was teaching him all the tricks for gamblin' it was the only time she really paid him any attention. He always felt like he'd been a constant disappointment to her and that he never lived up to her hopes. Fancy her letting him believe that it was true too."
"Poor Ez. No wonder they have such a strange relationship."
"Strange ain't quite the word I'd use, cowboy," Vin said with a grimace as he stood up and stretched. All Vin had known in his younger days was a loving parent and he couldn't understand how Maude could have treated Ezra in such a way. He sighed and went out onto the porch for a bit of air.
Chris heard him sit on the chair there with a groan. The blond was always amazed by how much sympathy Vin could deal out to others. He always had time to try and help others but was very reluctant to accept help himself. The man was certainly an enigma and Chris still hadn't worked him out.
+ + + + + + +
The following day Nathan arrived to check Ezra once more. "Hey Ez. Let's have a look at you."
Nathan pulled back the blanket and found the balled up shirt. He threw it to one side to give himself room and began his examination. He checked the gambler carefully and then covered him once more with the warm blanket. "Get some rest. Yer doin' just fine, Ez."
The healer wandered out to see Chris and Vin when he'd finished and he washed his hands in the bowl of water that Nettie had set out for him. He dried his hands and then passed over some supplies that he'd brought from town.
"How is he?" Chris asked as he opened a parcel of food.
"Physically he's improving quite well. Arm's still a bit swollen though."
"Monty?" Ezra yelled in distress. "Where are you?"
"Jeez, not again," Vin mumbled as he rose from his chair hurriedly. He ran into the bedroom and looked around on the floor by the bed thinking that Ezra had just dropped it. He eventually found the shirt on a chair nearby and picked it up quickly and offered it to Ezra. "He's here, Ez. It's alright, he was just hiding from ya," Vin said as he cupped the gambler's face in his hand and smiled.
"Thank you, ghost. Friendly ghost," Ezra said as he hugged the shirt like a long-lost friend.
Nathan frowned and turned to Chris. "What's with the name?"
Chris smiled wryly. "Ez thought Vin was a ghost a few nights ago. So he's called him ghost ever since."
"What about you? Do you have a name?" Nathan asked curiously.
"Oh yer gonna love mine, Nate. I'm God," Chris told his friend as he grinned broadly.
"How come?" Nathan inquired after snorting with laughter.
"He overheard Vin and me playing poker. Vin swore and said God Larabee and so Ez thinks I'm him." The smile on Chris's face faded and he became serious again. "Look Nate. Have you told the others about Ezra's state of mind?"
"Yeah, course. Just told 'em to stay away 'cause it might upset him seeing too many people."
Chris fixed the healer with a stern stare. "How long do you think until he gets back to normal?"
"No way of telling, Chris. Maybe weeks, maybe never. I have to be realistic about it," Nathan said as he shrugged unhappily.
"Shit." Chris sighed and looked up to the ceiling before returning his gaze to Nathan. "Buck come back yet?"
"Yeah. Sorry shoulda told ya sooner. They caught them all and got the gold too. Buck's holding on tight to that until he gets a reward and an apology," Nathan smiled.
Chris laughed grimly. "Good ol' Buck. Oughta get somethin' outta those bastards for the trouble they caused."
"Yeah, that was Buck's line of reasonin'," Nathan agreed with a slight smile.
+ + + + + + +
"Come on, Fancy-pants. Let's get you fed. I got some broth all ready for you," Nettie said the next morning when she discovered Ezra's fever had virtually gone. The man hadn't eaten since he'd arrived at Nettie's and the lady knew it had hindered his recovery.
"Egg. I want egg," Ezra disagreed with a scowl as he fiddled with the sheet covering him.
Nettie shook her head in disagreement. "You'd best start off with somethin' that's easy on the stomach, son. Don't want you getting sick again by bein' too ambitious. Maybe you can have an egg tomorrow, alright?"
Ezra smiled and nodded shyly.
"Egg and ham for you, boys?" Nettie asked as Vin and Chris emerged from the kitchen.
"Sounds good to me, Mz. Nettie," Vin said as he took the seat next to Ezra's bed and smiled at the gambler.
The lady disappeared and returned almost straight away with plates piled high and passed Chris and Vin theirs first. She then came back with a bowl and balanced it on Ezra's lap and held out a spoon.
He reached out and took it before aiming the implement at the steaming food immediately. He scooped some up and poked it in his mouth hungrily. He swallowed slowly and then smiled, almost in raptures.
Vin looked up and saw the look on the gambler's face and he smiled. "Alright, is it, Ez?" he asked in amusement.
"Yeah, real good," the gambler replied round the food he'd just put in his mouth.
He continued eating contentedly but ended up with broth dribbling down his chin. He automatically put up his hand and wiped his mouth up his sleeve. He looked down and realized he now had a dirty stripe up the arm of the nightshirt. He flicked his gaze to Nettie, thinking she would be mad.
"I'm sorry. Didn't mean it, Ma." He lowered his eyes to his lap unhappily.
"It's alright, honey. Got plenty more where that came from. You finish the rest of yer meal and then we'll change it afterwards just in case you feel like evening things up by putting a stripe up the other arm too."
Ezra smiled and giggled. "Can't. Only got one arm. Other one's poorly."
He finally finished his meal and had indeed made himself a bit dirtier in the process. Nettie found a clean nightshirt and Chris helped her get the gambler changed. They then settled the man back in bed and pulled the covers up over him. Chris reached out a hand and felt Ezra's brow.
"Not hot," Ezra said decisively.
"No, you ain't, are ya? Ya feel better?" the blond smiled. He was glad the man's fever had finally gone. The blond had started to get worried when it had lasted for so long.
Ezra nodded but pouted too as he avoided the blond's gaze.
Chris narrowed his eyes and asked, "Yer arm still hurt?"
The gambler scowled, knowing what would happen if he admitted to the pain.
"Ez? Tell me," Chris persisted when he got no answer.
"Yes, hurts," the con man mumbled sulkily.
"Drink some of this then. Nate left it for ya," Chris said as he reached out and picked up a glass from the nightstand.
"Don't want it. Tastes rotten," Ezra said as he turned his head away in disgust.
"I know. I don't like it neither but it'll help yer arm mend and take away the pain. You wanna get better, don't ya?" the blond asked reasonably.
Ezra eventually drank the liquid reluctantly and coughed exaggeratedly afterwards. He held his hand over his mouth and continued coughing forcefully while staring at Chris intently to make sure the blond understood his message properly.
Chris laughed as he ruffled the gambler's hair. "I hear ya, Ez. Loud and clear."
+ + + + + + +
"Mother?" Ezra mumbled as he woke the next morning.
"Yes son?" Nettie replied automatically.
"You, madam, are not my mother," Ezra stated indignantly as he studied Nettie in confusion.
"Really? You been callin' me that for the past few days and I kinda started believin' it."
"God in Heaven."
Nettie smiled as she patted his leg. "You ain't the type of man I'd choose for a son. No offense."
"Thank God for that. Although you are of the same demeanor as my own sweet mother you wouldn't be my first choice as a parent either."
"Glad we got that sorted, Fancy-pants."
Ezra smiled broadly and Nettie couldn't help returning the grin as she patted the man's cheek. He is kinda appealin', Nettie thought to herself.
"Hey Ez. You talking sense yet?" Vin asked as he ambled in after hearing the two voices.
"You been delirious for days."
"I beg your pardon?" Ezra said as he furrowed his brow as he looked first at Vin and then at Nettie.
"Jeez, you gone deaf now instead of daft?" Vin asked in exasperation. "Did Nettie tell ya that you've been talking like a little kid, Ez? Quite cute really, it was."
Ezra threw his eyes up to the skies before fixing the tracker with a hard glare. "You tell any of the others and I'll chop your wagon up for firewood."
"Now, that ain't the way to talk to me, Ezra. I've nursed you, I have. Anyway it's too late for threats 'cause they already know."
Ezra screwed up his eyes in defeat. "How did I get here?"
"We found you and brung you here seeing as it was nearer than town and you were puking everywhere. Right mess you got yerself in."
Chris walked in and smiled. "Hello Ezra. You feeling any better?"
"Marginally, thank you, Mr. Larabee."
"Good. My horse is still waiting for your apology, you know."
The gambler looked from one of his friends to the other in confusion. "I believe I'm still delusional as I have no idea what you are referring to. Why am I expected to apologize to your beastly equine?" Ezra asked with a deepening frown.
"You promised, Ez. He'll be awful upset if you don't say sorry."
"Sorry for what?" Ezra asked in exasperation.
"Puking all over him. It's taken me ages to get the vomit out of his coat and make him smell nice again."
Ezra lay with his mouth open.
"Shut yer mouth Ez before you catch a fly," Vin teased as he sat on the bed next to the astounded con man.
"I don't understand," Ezra stuttered.
Vin smiled. "When we found you Chris carried you back here on his horse. We hadn't gone far and you woke up and puked all over the horse. While you were feverish you said you'd apologize to the poor horsey."
"You don't expect me to complete the task, do you? It's only a horse, Mr. Tanner. It hasn't got feelings."
"Has. He looks all sad and upset," Chris disagreed.
"Good grief!" Ezra suddenly frowned and lifted up the sheet covering him as something nudged his leg. He kept the sheet up by putting it over his head and then reached underneath with one hand. He emerged holding the shirt that had been acting as surrogate Monty. "What in Heaven's name is that doing in my bed? It's yours isn't it, Mr. Larabee?"
"Yeah, wondered where that had gone," Chris said slyly as he took the shirt and untied it.
Ezra narrowed his eyes. "What are you not telling me?"
"Don't wanna embarrass ya, Ez. Trust me, you won't like it," Chris said with a shake of his head.
"Please enlighten me," Ezra begged.
Vin smiled. "Well, you kept calling for Monty one night. I remembered it was something you had when you were young so Chris screwed his shirt up and told you it was Monty. You been huggin' that shirt for days, Ez," the tracker informed his friend with a broad grin.
The gambler stared back at him absolutely speechless as he turned bright red.
"Told ya that you wouldn't wanna know," Chris said as he patted Ezra's shoulder.
"Come on you two. Stop annoying the patient. He needs to get some strength back into that beautiful body of his," Nettie scolded.
"Madam!" Ezra protested as he looked at the sprightly lady in surprise. Vin snickered and the gambler looked at him quickly before looking back at the approaching lady in trepidation.
"A change of nightclothes is in order, I think. Here ya go, son. Let's put this nightshirt on instead. Freshen you up a bit." Nettie got hold of the sheet to pull it back but Ezra held on tight with one hand.
"What? You're not....I..Vin?" Ezra stammered as he looked pleadingly at the tracker.
"Gee, Ez. She's seen it all before. Several times in fact, if truth be told."
Ezra paled and pulled the sheet right up to his chin. "I'll stay as I am thank you, Mz. Nettie."
"What's the matter, son? I've seen a lot of bodies through the course of my life. One more ain't gonna kill me."
"No but it may result in my demise." Ezra shivered. "The thought of you ogling my flesh is quite unnerving."
"Don't know why. You oughta be pleased you been blessed with such a fine physique in every respect," Nettie replied with a glint in her eye.
Ezra turned bright red again and flicked his eyes at each of his companions.
Vin finally took pity on him and put a hand on Nettie's elbow and winked at her. "P'rhaps you'd better leave him to us. Him being so shy an' all."
"Suit yerself but you oughta be ashamed of yerself, Fancy-pants. Yer denying an old lady her pleasures. Don't get to see many young men in the all- together when you get to my age."
"Mz. Nettie, please," Ezra complained as he felt himself getting hotter under her scrutiny.
Vin pushed Nettie out the door quickly and then burst out laughing. "Your face, Ez. She was only kiddin'."
"Yeah, 'course she has. She helped us take care of ya, didn't she? Anyway you didn't mind parading round town with nothin' much on when you lost to that cheating, one- legged cardsharp. What's the difference now?"
"Least I had the bare essentials out of view then. This is entirely different." Ezra shivered again and said, "Oh, it makes my skin crawl just contemplating the notion that my sexual attributes have been admired by a..a...an elderly lady. Uggghhh."
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