"Buck?" A soft voice broke the quiet of the clinic. Buck sat up in the chair and reached over to grab a glass of water. JD blinked slowly, and locked eyes with the tall gunslinger.
"Easy, JD," Buck soothed, gently helping the young man up so he could take a sip of water. He returned the half-empty glass to the table as JD settled back and tried to get comfortable.
"You were shot, JD."
JD's brows furrowed as he tried to recall what had occurred. He remembered the gunfight. The last thing he could picture was Ezra running toward the newspaper office.
"Is everyone alright?" JD asked. "I was with Ezra..."
"Yeah, everyone's fine," Buck's eyes fell to a small spot of dirt on his pants. "Ez caught one a them outlaws in the Clarion. He saved Mary."
JD smiled and closed his eyes. "I was wonderin' why he took off. Figured he had a good reason."
Buck gazed out the window. At least you had faith in him, he thought as his eyes began to fill with tears.
"Where is he now?" An overwhelming fatigue drained JD's strength and he struggled to keep Buck's face in focus. The bullet wound throbbed without mercy. "Tell 'im...I wanna see him, Buck."
"Ah... he's out on patrol," Buck lied. He slumped back into his chair and watched as the young easterner began to lose his hold on consciousness. "You rest, pard, and I promise, Ez will be up to see you when he gets back from his rounds." Buck reached over and pulled the quilt to JD's chin, wishing he could keep his promise.
Vin rode back into town at a gallop. It was full dark but small fires along the boardwalk illuminated his route. Chris was nearly invisible in the shadow except for the tip of the cheroot he held in his teeth. The tracker rode toward him and nodded to Josiah and Buck as they descended the clinic stairs. The four men met in the street with a silent, shared conviction.
"Found 'em." There was barely a nod from the other men as Vin spoke. They assumed Vin would succeed in tracking Rosen and they listened in earnest to his soft words. "The tracks lead north of here. Rosen has four to five men. Didn't want to get too close." Vin flipped the reins of his horse over the rail and pulled it tight. "I think they might be holed up at Granger's pond."
Chris leaned on the adjoining post and crossed his arms over his chest.
"Let's go." Buck said, shifting his weight impatiently. "Let's get him back."
"Ain't that easy, Bucklin," Vin answered. "There's lots a places to hide and lots a cover. We can't risk Ezra getting shot in the crossfire. Hell, if they see us movin' in on 'em they might just shoot 'im outright."
"And we're short handed with JD wounded," Chris added.
"We can't just let them kill Ezra," Buck shifted his weight again.
"We're not going to." Chris would never allow one of his men to die for the piece of scum that resided in the jail. "We gotta do this right, Buck. We may not get another chance."
"Bryce Rosen is wanted for the murder of John Berman. His widow and the citizens of this town want to see him hang," Josiah said. "Some of these people don't think Ezra's worth the trade. And I don't think the judge will look kindly on us letting him go."
"Well, the judge ain't here," Chris quipped. "And the hell with those people. We'll get Ezra back first, then we'll deal with Rosen."
Josiah smiled. "My sentiments exactly, brother." If Chris or any of the others had decided against releasing the young outlaw, he would have taken matters into his own hands. "Then we ride at dawn."
The other men agreed and Chris grasped Vin shoulder. "Thirsty, tracker?" Vin nodded and the group began moving toward the saloon.
"I'll take this watch at the jail, boys." Buck drifted off. "But save me a bottle. I'm gonna need it."
Buck finished reassembling his gun. It was clean and well oiled. He had stocked as much ammunition as he could carry. Exhaustion weighted his limbs as he rocked back in his chair and flipped open his watch. Ten o'clock. As if on cue, the front door to the jail clicked open and Buck smiled.
"There better be whisky left in that saloon, Junior. Between JD and Ezra I 'bout worried myself dry." He stood and stopped short.
Edie Berman was alone. Her hands were clasped neatly together at her waist. She wore neither hat nor gloves but carried a small bag at her elbow. Strands of hair floated loose from her bun but she looked oddly composed and purposeful.
"Ma'am, you really shouldn't be here." Buck felt sorry for the widow. He liked the Berman's; they were good, hard-working folks, the kind of people the town needed. He had heard that Robert Guthridge had offered to buy the dry goods store, enabling Mrs. Berman to return east. Seemed for the best.
"I have to see him. I have to know why." Buck towered over the woman but she stood tall and straight ready to defend her decision to confront the murderer.
Buck nodded in understanding. He would love to give Chris the opportunity to face the man who had killed his wife and son; the least he could do was give Edie Berman that chance.
She stepped closer to the cell, trembling as she stared at the outlaw. She intended to speak to him if it was the last thing she ever did. "You."
Bryce lay on the cot. He turned and raised indifferent eyes to the diminutive woman. "What the hell you want?"
Buck gripped the bars of the cell and snarled at the man threateningly. He said nothing. Mrs. Berman needed to do this. She needed to challenge this scumbag and spit in his face. Buck admired her strength. Bryce Rosen sat back and grinned as Edie Berman watched him.
"Why...why did you have to kill my husband?" She asked, trying to keep her voice steady. "He was a peaceful shop keeper. He wanted nothing to do with you."
Bryce cocked his head to the side. An amused smile formed on his face. He recalled the man who had tried to stop him from entering the store. He had gunned him down without a second thought.
"He was a fool." Bryce lay back on the cot and put his hands comfortably behind his head. "He had to play hero. He'd still be walkin' if'n he just minded his own business and let me do what I wanted."
Edie scrutinized the man in the cell like he was some strange new animal. Was that the reason? Because her husband tried to protect what was his? Because he had the bad luck to get in the path of this piece of shit? She tried to wrap her mind around this, to understand, but it was impossible. This man...this monster, had murdered John on a whim. Her husband was dead and buried while this beast napped peacefully.
Edie's satchel fell from her loose fingers, dropping at her feet. She slowly knelt down and picked it up. Her eyes remained locked on the amused smirk of the prisoner. When she stood, a small pistol was settled in her hand. Bryce had only a moment to register the widow's intent before two bullets tore through his heart. She would never forget the surprise that wiped away his smug smile.
Nathan Jackson pushed open the bat wing doors and joined the other men at the table. A pot of warm stew sat between them and Josiah scooped up a plate for the healer.
"I'm coming with you," Nathan said as he ate a spoonful of the food. "I saw the shirt Rosen gave y'all and it's clear Ezra's been shot. There's no tellin' what condition he's in." Nathan smoldered with regret over his treatment of the southerner. He was determined to straighten things out between himself and the conman.
Chris watched Nathan closely. Each of the men struggled with their own guilt. Only getting Standish back could make it right.
"What about JD?" Vin asked. "Will he be alright left alone?"
"He's hurtin' for sure, kinda restless--but he's been sleepin' pretty well all evening. Inez came up to watch him so I could eat." Nate explained. "I'll ask her to stay with him until we get back."
"Someone needs to watch the town," Chris said. He looked at the three men sitting at the table and knew it would be more trouble than it was worth to make any one of them stay. A crooked smile lit his face. "Think Inez could take care of the whole town, too?"
"I reckon she could at that." Vin chuckled. He slid his chair back from the table. "I guess I'll go relieve Buck. I'm sure he's sick of Rosen's hogwash by now."
The unmistakable crack of a gun firing galvanized the lawmen into action and they raced out of the saloon.
"It came from the jail," Josiah said. The four men ran across the street, their weapons ready.
Chris sucked in a breath and held it. If Rosen was trying to break his son out now it meant Ezra was dead. He gripped his gun tight. He waved Vin around the corner as he flattened himself next to the jail house door. It had gone silent after the shots, and dread raked its claws through his gut. They waited silently and listened. Vin circled back and the four lawmen quickly pushed through the door.
Buck sat on the floor, his long legs folded beneath him and Edie Berman held gently in his arms. The shadowy figure of Bryce Rosen lay still on the cot in his cell. Beneath him heavy drops of blood fell disturbing a dark puddle on the floor in a quiet rhythm.
Chris grabbed the keys from the desk and unlocked the cell door. Nathan pushed past the gunslinger and laid two fingers aside the outlaw's neck.
"He's dead." A stunned silence met Nathan statement.
Chris was furious. "What the hell happened?"
"I killed him...I did it...I did it..." Edie Berman murmured in a singsong voice. She looked up at Chris and the others; her wide eyes sparkled in the lantern light. "I killed the devil."
Buck looked up at Chris from his place on the floor. "She just showed up. I thought she wanted to confront him. I had no idea she would shoot him. I didn't even see the gun."
Edie began rocking back and forth, crying. Buck smoothed her hair as Josiah reached out to touch her arm, "Let me take her, Buck." The preacher bent down and gently helped the distraught woman to her feet. She was visibly trembling and held tight to his hand.
"Bring her to the clinic, Josiah," Nathan intoned. "I'll give her something to help her sleep." Josiah gently urged the traumatized women from the jailhouse.
Buck got to his feet. "She killed him." He stated. "She just took out the gun and shot him." He pointed at the dead body of Bryce Rosen as he tried to make of sense of it.
"And she might have just killed Ezra, too." Chris bent down and picked up the small gun the woman had dropped. He didn't blame her at all. Sweet revenge. He'd give anything to kill the man who murdered his family. But how would they get Ezra back now?
"Shit! What are we goin' to do, Chris?" Buck asked.
"We're going to make that trade for Ezra," Chris replied and walked out of the jailhouse.
Josiah stood patiently at the bottom of the clinic staircase. He held one elbow of the new widow firmly, supporting her. "One step at a time, Ma'am." He paused as she studied the next riser and convinced herself to move ahead. Nathan was a few steps up and waited quietly.
Edie Berman clung to the big man next to her. She knew she would simply float away without the anchor of his faith. She felt completely lost, as if the world had exploded, throwing her off her feet and setting her in a new direction all together. She had worked hard all her life and took pleasure in the small accomplishments life offered. Her instinct told her she should get back to work, that there was much to do, but she could not find her bearings. She looked up at Josiah, then lifted her foot and took another step.
"Yes, Ma'am." Josiah deep voiced rolled over her. "We'll go upstairs for a bit and sort this out." The group started to move more deliberately but before they reached the clinic door, it flew open.
"Nathan! Thank God!" Inez darted down the few steps that separated her from the healer and grabbed his arm as if she could lift him and carry him up to the clinic. They raced back inside.
"Something's wrong, Nathan! He's burning up!" Inez was frantic. "He can hardly breathe!"
Nathan threw off his coat and quickly moved to the bedside. He placed his large cool hand across JD's hot forehead. The young man was soaked in sweat and gasping for air. His eyes searched Nathan's face with intense anxiety.
"My Lord! What's this?" Edie Berman sank down on the other side of the bed and grasped JD's limp hand. Nathan put his hand on both and squeezed. "Stay with him, Miss Berman."
Nathan got up and went quickly to the dresser. "Miss Inez, you calm down now." He paused for a second and looked her in the eye. "You done all right. Now please, get to the pump and bring up more water. If you got any boiled, that would do." Inez flew out the door and the preacher started after her. "Wait, Josiah!" Nathan called to him over his shoulder. "I'm gonna need you."
JD turned toward Edie Berman. He watched as her face swam into his line of vision. The room was a blur of color and any structure or form seemed to move independently of it. He was terrified. There was a sharp pain in his chest that spiked when he pulled air into his lungs, but he fiercely wanted more. His head ached and a sound rang inside it, confusing him. He felt sure someone was there that could help him get out of this nightmare. He fought to stay awake-there was somewhere he thought he needed to go---home---he had to get back home.
Edie leaned forward and placed both her cool hands on JD's hot face. "Shhh. It's OK, son. We'll take care of you now." His terrible plight hemmed in the shattered pieces of her mind and she put her cheek to his and kissed him.
Josiah heard the faint plea, too. He watched Edie as she pressed her cheek to the young man's again, then leaned back and efficiently opened the loose shirt he wore. JD teetered on the edge of consciousness and could only manage that one word, but Edie's spirit revived. Josiah continued to listen. If sound alone could heal a man, he thought, JD would soon be cured. The woman delivered a whispered homily of soothing rhetoric for JD alone as she pushed the shirt behind his shoulders and slid her fingers between the top of the bandage and his smooth chest. Encountering no wound she moved to the bottom of the wide compress and slid her hand beneath it, along the flat plane of his belly. Nothing.
"Mr. Jackson? He's not even bleeding."
"He was shot in the back."
Without hesitation, she pulled the quilt to his hips and gripped him there. Nathan and Josiah held his head and shoulders and they lifted and turned the sheriff onto his chest. He grunted and gasped. His ashen face turned to the side and he clutched the damp sheets beneath him. Edie removed the shirt completely. Nathan produced a knife, slit open the bandage and pressed a fresh cloth to the wound. By smell alone, Edie knew it was infected.
Nathan pulled his tray of supplies closer. He couldn't bear to tell JD that he was going to cut open the stitches and clean the wound. The kid was in such pain already. As he peered under the fresh cloth he heard Edie's voice. She was desperately needed and she responded in kind. She spoke to JD as she gently massaged his bare shoulders. Little by little, she repositioned JD's arms until his hands rested above his head.
"Hold him, Mr. Sanchez." The big preacher nodded to her and knelt on the floor at the head of the bed. He grasped JD's wrists in his large fists. Edie sat on the edge, leaned on JD's legs and gripped his lower body. Nathan began cutting the original stitches. JD struggled as Nathan worked. His fingers splayed open as he tried in vain to free his arms from the preacher's hold. Sweat soaked his hair and it hung in tangled clumps.
"Please, Josiah...let go...let me go..." He still labored to breathe.
"Just a little longer, son... just another minute."
JD's hips pressed into the mattress as he tried to escape Nathan's touch. The healer worked quickly and methodically, cleaning the infection that nourished the burning fever.
Josiah took a deep breath and blew it out slowly as if he could remind JD how to breathe again. He looked at Nathan, puzzled.
"The bullet must have weakened his lung, Josiah. Once it's injured it don't take much more than a hard cough to collapse it. We gotta pray it's only a small part of it that ain't workin'." Nathan began closing the clean wound with a neat row of stitches.
"Can't do nothin' for that lung right now, JD. But it can heal right back up again if you stay still. You gotta rest, do you hear?" Although he spoke to the young man he could tell JD was well past comprehending anything.
Inez returned with fresh water and Edie wiped the area around the wound. Together they turned JD on his side to wrap a fresh bandage around his chest. He was so weak that Josiah could hold both his wrists in one hand. They positioned him as comfortably as possible and coaxed him to drink some of the healer's tea.
"You're going to be OK now, JD. Breathe slow...breathe shallow." Inez whispered as she smoothed the hair from his forehead.
JD struggled with every gasp but his earlier terror of suffocation was gone. Josiah finally released his hold and Edie moved in to grip JD's hand instead. JD felt the room shift and slide, but the hands that held him were steady. He sensed an oddly familiar presence that was deeply comforting.
Rosen threw back the rest of the whiskey in the small flask and tucked it inside his jacket. One more night sleeping on the ground and then he'd be riding back to Mexico. He hoped Bryce would be well enough to ride because he sure as hell wasn't staying here any longer. He stood and stretched his stiff back. Just getting' too old for this, he reminded himself.
The gambler lay in a heap outside the ring of firelight. Rosen walked over and tested the state of his prisoner with an experimental kick in the ribs. Ezra's body lifted and sagged without resistance. He was stripped to the waist and the bandage across his shoulder was clearly stained with blood. Rosen leaned in close and saw the slight rise and fall of his chest. "Good," he thought, "Still alive."
Rosen barked at the men around the small fire. "Make sure he ain't goin' nowhere, boys-tie him up or somethin'." Then he moved to the far side of the camp and threw down his bedroll. He lay on the blanket, pulled his hat over his eyes and tried to picture the little Mexican villa where his senorita was waiting. "Should have brought more whiskey," he thought as he sank into sleep.
McClure stood over Ezra and nudged him with the toe of his boot. "He ain't goin' nowhere, Farley," He muttered. "And his hands are already tied. What the hell is the boss talkin' about?"
"How am I suppose to know? Let's just tie his feet, and be done with it." Farley moved to where the horses stood grazing and searched for rope. "It's too dern dark. I can't see a dern thing!" He ran his hands over the row of saddles and pile of gear until he felt the thick coil of a leather whip. He threw it and it sailed out of the darkness and fell at McClure's feet.
"There!" Farley yelled. "Tie him with that!"
McClure smiled and straightened the leather coil in his hands. It was a smooth yet substantial thing. He suddenly pulled back and cracked it across the exposed skin of the gambler's back, impressing Farley with his accuracy. Ezra jerked into consciousness and frantically clawed at the ground as he tried to scramble away from the sudden torment. McClure saw him move and brought the lash down again with another swift blow. This time he swung too high and the end of the lash whipped up, slicing Ezra's face from cheek to chin.
Farley whooped with laughter. "Better stick to your rifle, McClure!" Ezra's body arched in pain and he crashed to the ground. "Ain't as easy to hit your target with that thing!"
"Oh, I can hit 'im all right!" McClure smiled and drew the lash back for another try. He raised his arm and jerked the whip again, this time etching a deep line from shoulder to hip. He grunted in satisfaction and prepared to try again. But when he lifted his arm he was pushed off balance and the whip yanked from his grasp. Rosen furiously coiled it in his hands.
"You idiots!" He stomped off toward the horses and threw the whip back onto the pile of gear. "What do you think you're doing?"
"Just clippin' his wings, boss!" McClure sulked. "You said to make sure he don't go no where!" The men moved in close to examine their prisoner. Ezra lay sprawled on his chest. His forehead rested on the knots of rope that trapped his wrists. Farley squatted, grabbed a handful of damp hair and twisted the gambler's face around. Ezra gasped, struggling for air. His body trembled violently but his limbs were slack. His hands remained securely tied in front of him.
"Looks like he's still among the livin'. No harm done," Rosen stood and walked back to his bedroll. "You take the first watch McClure. And then you Farley. Don't let him outta your sight."
The moon was only a sliver in the clear night sky. McClure circled the camp and nudged Farley awake. Farley dragged himself from his bedroll. He pulled out his gun, positioned himself next to the prisoner, and watched McClure lay down in the spot he had just vacated.
"Hey! Git yer own bedroll, McClure!"
"Shut up. You ain't usin' it."
Farley was too tired to argue. The other man was instantly asleep anyway. He leaned back against a boulder and took stock of the prisoner. The gambler was a mess. He lay on his side, his bound arms pulled tight to his chest. The bloody streaks left by the lash glistened in the weak moonlight. The whip had cut through the makeshift bandages and nothing covered the bullet wound. Farley leaned close and saw that Ezra's eyes were squeezed shut and he was breathing hard. Sweat rolled off his back, tracing the path sliced by the lash.
"Think them lawmen will trade for your dead body?" Farley laughed quietly and leaned his head back against the rock. His contented snoring soon vibrated in his chest.
He'd probably prefer it, Ezra thought as he lay still and waited for the camp to quiet. He struggled to sit up. Chris and the others wouldn't trade for him, he was sure of it. He would die here at the hands of these two-bit thieves. He wondered if someone would write to his mother and inform her of... what? That his empty existence had ended? Lord, his fever and pain were making him maudlin. He sucked in another breath and confirmed his decision again: I will go back. He held fast to that one thought. He could smell death. The closer it infringed on his sensibilities the greater his determination.
The outlaw was sleeping comfortably, emitting a satisfied melody of sound. Ezra dragged himself to his knees and raised his head. He pushed himself up on his elbows. His body screamed with a barbaric agony but he pressed on. He picked up the gun that lay at Farley's side. That was too easy. He wanted to leap on his horse and ride. For once in his life he was sure of where he was going. Larabee can't stop me. Even Death will not rob me of it.
Ezra knew the outlaws would saddle up at dawn. His right leg was completely useless. He feared he would be incapable of getting on his saddle or wake the camp trying. He headed away from the horses. He could hear running water beyond the camp and moved, slow and steady to the creek.
Chris buttoned the top of his duster, trying to keep out the early morning chill. He watched a feeble glow break through the low clouds to the east as he entered the stable.
"Okay, Josiah, is this thing going to work?" He watched the preacher place a makeshift saddle on a horse. The saddle sported a wooden vertical brace.
"It'll work, brother, just have faith," Josiah assured. "We'll tie young Rosen to the post. It should hold him up without assistance and hopefully fool his father long enough to get Ezra." Josiah finished tightening the cinch and checking the bindings. He turned to see Buck and Vin carrying Bryce Rosen's body out of the jail.
"Damn, he's heavy," Buck complained.
"Just throw him over the saddle until we reach Devil's Rock. It'll put less strain on the post," Josiah said.
Chris flashed a glaring look at the preacher.
"I said it would work. I didn't say how long," Josiah quipped. "Let's not push our luck." He reached over the saddle and took Rosen's body from the other men, tying it in place.
Buck watched Nathan pack medical supplies into his saddlebags. "How's JD doing?"
"He had a real bad time of it last night, Buck, but he's doin' better. He was even awake for a bit this mornin'."
Buck froze in place. Maybe he should go up and see the kid before he left. He could catch up with the others if he rode fast.
"I told him we were going after Ezra. Seems he got a different story from you all together, Buck." Nathan chuckled, "He was so riled when I left without him that I think the ladies were 'bout to tie him to the bed! "
Buck paled. He had some explaining to do and decided he had best ride now and do the explaining later.
"And he wants a word with you when we get back." Nathan continued.
"Better make sure he ain't got his guns, Buck." Vin smiled as he tightened the cinch.
"Alright, let's saddle up," Chris looked east. The first sliver of sun was coming up over the horizon. He wanted to get this done and get Ezra back. He was surprised at the fear that ate at his gut for the suave gambler. Normally, he wanted to shoot the man, but now he understood that Ezra was a part of them. He wanted Ezra to know it, too.
As the group headed out Buck suddenly twisted in his saddle and stared at Nathan with alarm. "Ladies! What ladies?"
"Get up, Farley! "Rosen's voice was shrill. "What did you do with him? He better still be alive, you moron!" Rosen kicked wildly, hitting Farley repeatedly. "Where is he?"
Farely jumped to his feet, immediately reaching for his gun. He stopped short and yanked his coat over the empty holster. He circled in place, stunned that the gambler was gone. "He was near dead! He can't be far!"
He peered at the horses and saw that the gambler's mount was still with the other animals, grazing peacefully. The men were saddling up.
They heard McClure call from a short distance. "Tracks lead down to the creek."
Farley saddled his horse quickly, wishing he kept a second weapon with his gear. He couldn't let Rosen know the gambler had his gun. He trotted down to the stream where the others were gathered.
"Tarnation!!" Rosen pounded his fist against his thigh. "He went into the water here. There's no tellin' which way he went after that!" The rocks near the edge of the creek were colored with a dark blood that ran into the cool water as the horses splashed. Rosen's animal danced excitedly under him.
"Gawd damn you, Farley!" Rosen edged over and smacked him with a small quirt he kept on his saddle. "You find him, you fool! Find him and shoot him."
Rosen turned his horse and started back to the camp. "Timmons!" He called to one of the men. "Yer about the right size. Git back there and switch to the gambler's horse." Rosen pictured Timmons on the horse and nodded, warming to the idea. "And put on his hat and that fancy red coat. They won't know it ain't him until it's too late."
The sun rose in the space of an hour, and colored the rocks and cliffs with an amber hue. Chris raised his arm halting the group's steady progress. "Let's get Rosen ready here before we get much closer. Don't want 'em to spot us."
With Buck and Vin's help, Josiah managed to secure Bryce Rosen's dead body to the saddle. They tied his hands together and pulled his hat down low to cover his face. Josiah stepped back and looked at the horse and rider. He couldn't see Bryce's face. That might make the old man suspicious, but at least it looked like the boy was sitting on his own in the saddle.
"We can't let them get too close," Josiah reminded.
"I'm going to ride 'im out there," Chris said mounting his horse. "As soon as I'm close to Ezra, start shootin' and Ez and I will take off. I'll be able to cover our escape."
As Chris reined in the horse carrying Bryce Rosen's body the other men moved into positions around the small enclave. They watched as Larabee began the ride out to Devil's Rock. He kept the pace slow. It was clear he was trying not to glance back at the body that bobbed awkwardly behind him.
"Dern it, Preacher! That body don't look the least bit natural!" Buck was worried. He felt Ezra was close now and one wrong move would tear the man from them forever.
"Pipe down, brother." Josiah held his breath and took aim with his gun. "Here comes Ezra."
Vin laid his long rifle in position on a rock and extended his spyglass to watch the exchange. It was Ezra all right. His head was bowed but the red jacket and low crown hat were easily recognizable. He watched carefully. As Larabee's entourage drew near to the gambler Chris suddenly pulled his gun and shot Ezra square in the chest.
"NO!" Buck was on his feet instantly. Vin leapt up and wrapped his arms around Buck throwing him to the ground. Buck fought wildly. Josiah and Nathan stood in stunned silence watching the two men wrestle.
"It ain't him, Buck!" Vin managed to pin the lanky cowboy beneath him long enough to make him listen. "That ain't Ezra!"
Buck stared at Vin trying to comprehend what had just transpired but Vin didn't wait. He leapt off his friend and grabbed his gun, firing almost before he took aim. The horse that Bryce was tied to reared and bolted to escape the chaos. Bryce's body fell sideways, hanging limp from the saddle causing the horse greater distress. The alarmed animal began to buck and Josiah's contrivance quickly collapsed. The post snapped off and Bryce Rosen's body tumbled to the ground.
Chris was riding back at full gallop, his black coat flapping like a cape in the wind. The four lawmen instinctively moved into position and laid down a wall of fire to cover him.
Chris suddenly jerked forward in his saddle and nearly lost his perch as he closed the distance. "He's hit!" Vin yelled. It was an extremely long and very precise shot. "They got a sharp shooter!"
"Well do somethin' 'bout it, Vin!" Buck yelled as he returned fire.
Vin smiled and brought his rifle up to his shoulder. He could just make out the shooter's position. He steadied his weapon, held his breath and seemed to go into a trance. He slowly applied pressure to the trigger.
"That's two." Josiah shouted watching the man and his rifle tumble to the desert floor. "There's at least two more."
Chris finally reached the rocks and jumped from his horse. Nathan pulled him to a safe location.
"Where is he?" Chris gasped. "Did anyone see Ezra?"
The others heard his question clearly in the sudden silence. The shots from the far camp had stopped. Vin held his position. The tip of his rifle swung a slow, smooth angle to the east and he squeezed the trigger again. The shot hit its mark and a man escaping on horseback pitched to the ground.
"That was Rosen."
"How many are left alive?" Chris gripped his upper arm tightly and looked around at the men.
"Two." Buck replied. "The skinny one that got away from the hold up yesterday and Ezra." He glanced at the faces of his friends looking for any doubt that Ezra was still with them. He didn't see it.
"Let's split up and circle back." Chris grunted as Nathan tied a bandana tightly around his bloody sleeve. The five men gathered their weapons. As they mounted their horses a single shot rang out, echoing off the rocks. No one spoke. They broke into two groups and rode quickly through cover toward the sound.
Farley dismounted and walked his horse along the stream. Exhaustion hung on him like a thick robe. He was tired of this fight-tired of it all. The cold water filled his worn boots quickly and he grimaced at the discomfort as he splashed further down the creek. He made a feeble attempt to track the gambler but felt sure the man was likely dead already.
Before long the echo of gunfire rolled down the little river. It reminded him that Ezra had taken his gun.
"A man could sure get to missin' his side arm." Farley fretted over the loss of it and began looking for signs of the gambler along the creek's edge. The shooting to the west became more intense and then abruptly ended. Farley stopped and listened to the creek bubble over rocks. A warm breeze rustled trees around him. The quiet made his skin prickle. He decided to take his chances alone. Rosen owed him two month's wages but suddenly it didn't seem worth the risk. He turned to mount his horse, putting one foot in the stirrup.
Farley froze. The distinct sound of his own gun cocking clicked behind him. He lowered his hands from the saddle and began to turn around slowly.
"I said don't move."
Farley stood stock still, facing his horse. The gambler's voice sounded shaky. Farley remembered that the man was half dead-he probably couldn't see straight. He began to doubt the gambler's ability to pull the trigger at all.
"You ain't so low as to shoot a man in the back, are ya?" The outlaw spoke without moving.
"No, but you probably are."
Farley's memory of the subverted bank robbery flashed in front of him. He could smell the burning gunpowder and picture the young lawman as the bullet hit him from behind and smashed his face into the overturned wagon. The vivid image clinched Farley's decision to make a run for it. He quickly leapt on his horse, kicking the animal fiercely.
Ezra could still shoot. He had crawled into a natural crevice near the edge of the creek and sat with his ravaged back to a smooth rock wall. He pulled his knees up and balanced the gun on them. The ropes that still encircled his wrists steadied his hands. He pulled the trigger once with exceptional accuracy and watched the outlaw's body flop in the water and the horse run riderless from the scene.
"That was for you, JD," he whispered. "I'm sorry I didn't do it sooner."
"All right! Good shot!" JD's voice rang out. Ezra blinked and tried to locate the sound. It seemed to come from all directions at once. If JD was here-then it must be safe...safe for them to go back. He'd enjoy a game of chance with the young sheriff-under the circumstances he may let the kid win a few hands. He smiled weakly.
"JD?" He listened despairingly, hoping to hear the sound of the young man's voice again. A hoarse groan filled his ears. He realized with alarm that he had emitted the sound himself. He observed his roped hands still holding the gun steady and felt detached from his own body. His right leg throbbed. He held very still, afraid that any movement would shatter his grip on reality. It was not JD's voice, Ezra told himself. I am alone.
Without warning, Chris Larabee stood in the creek before him. Another apparition? The black clad man bent slowly and squatted to better meet Ezra's gaze. Chris' empty hands rested on his knees.
"Ezra?" Chris' voice was soft but firm. It seemed to come from a single source, unlike JD's. "Ezra, it's me. It's Chris. Put the gun down."
Ezra aimed the gun carefully. No one would stop him from going back. Not even Larabee.
"No." He curled his finger around the trigger. "You will not force me to leave...I'm...I am going back."
"Good Ezra, that's good. I'm going back, too." Chris opened his hand and reached out. "C'mon. Let's go. You can ride with me."
Ezra stared at the outstretched hand. Confusion immobilized him. Had Chris really come for him? As he struggled to understand, his arms were suddenly gripped in gloved hands and his aim redirected to the cloudless sky. He threw his weight back trying to get free but was no match for the two men that held him. Farley's gun was pulled from his hands and dropped on the creek bed. Chris still stood in front of him, moving closer. Familiar voices seemed to soak into his saturated mind and he tried to distinguish them from his waking nightmare. He had to get to the gun; no matter what happened, he knew his aim was true.
"Ezra, it's me. It's Chris. Put the gun down."
Josiah and Vin stayed back as Chris had asked, but Nathan and Buck crept up on the delirious man from either side. The gambler kept his gun trained on Chris. He was trembling but no one doubted he could shoot. They could hear him talking to Chris in the same faltering voice they had just heard call out for JD.
When the hammer clicked back both men reached down and pulled Ezra's arms up. Buck took the gun away and tossed it on the creek bed. Ezra fought them with surprising strength. Buck moved behind Ezra, wrapped his long arms around the man and held tight. He could feel the heat of the gambler's fever and his own shirt was soon wet with blood.
"I'll get your things, Nathan." Vin offered, jogging quickly back up the creek.
Chris stayed in front of Ezra, talking continuously in a soft voice. He held Ezra's arms still so that Nathan could slit the ropes that cut into his skin. As soon as his arms were free the gambler tried to break away again, but Buck held on.
"Ezra! It's over! Listen to me, will ya? It's done now." Chris pulled off his gloves and grasped Ezra's face with both hands. "You have to stop fighting us. We're your friends. I know that ain't always clear but it's true." Buck could not remember the last time he had heard Chris Larabee string so many words together.
"It's done now." Ezra repeated, his eyes bloodshot and watery. The four men leaned in close to hear him. "What's done?" He asked, bleary with confusion.
"The trade." Chris settled back on his heels, his gaze never leaving Ezra's face. "The trade is done. Don't you remember the man you left tied up in the Clarion? Rosen wanted to trade. His man for you."
"Unfortunately, his man got dead," Buck added, "And he didn't take very kindly to that at all. Things got complicated. That's how all the shootin' got started."
"Y'all traded for me." Ezra began to list forward but Nathan reached across and supported him. "I was traded for a dead man...I suppose I'm worth that price." They all heard the disappointment in his soft southern drawl. He believed himself worth no more than a dead man.
"Ezra, please! That ain't what I'm tryin' to tell you." Frustration filled Chris' words. Riding into a gun battle seemed a hell of a lot easier than trying to communicate with this man. "You're my friend. There ain't any price on that."
You're my friend. Ezra wasn't sure if he had said it out loud. He weakened, falling against Buck for support. Nathan tilted back a canteen, encouraging him to drink.
"Ezra, I'm sorry." The healer wet a cloth in the stream and placed gentle pressure on the bullet wound in his chest. "I didn't trust you and I shouda." He began to examine the extent of the injuries. He put his arm across Ezra's chest and leaned him forward.
"You're still bleedin'. We're not that far out. Let's get you back."
When he set Ezra back against Buck, the gambler collapsed. Buck panicked and held him tight but Nathan was calm. "It's OK, Buck. Let's get him home now."
Vin returned shortly. His arms were full of Nathan's supplies. He gripped the gambler's red coat and dark hat in his hand. They set to work preparing Ezra for the trip back. When Nathan saw the awkward lay of his leg he braced it. As a result it was difficult to situate him on a horse. Josiah held him in both arms and Vin led the preacher's horse behind his own.
The horses moved at an agonizingly slow pace toward town. It was well past noon when Four Corners finally appeared on the horizon.
"I'm gonna ride ahead." Nathan said, turning in his saddle. "I'll get things ready for him in the clinic."
"I'm going with you, Nate." Buck's expression was serious. "I've got some explaining to do."
Inez heard the footsteps on the stairs and stepped out of the clinic, quietly shutting the door behind her. She gasped when she saw Buck's bloodied shirt.
"Senor Buck! Are you all right?! Did you find Ezra?"
"Yes, Darlin'," Buck smiled tiredly. "Yes to both."
"They're right behind us, Inez," Nathan said trying to move past her. "He's hurt. That's his blood on Buck's shirt. We want to get things ready for him."
Inez grasped the lapels of Nathan's coat. "Wait, please! Leave your dusty things out here. It's so painful for JD when he coughs. It was very difficult to coax him to sleep." She led them to a basin of water out on the porch where they washed up.
"He wanted very badly to go with you. We hid his guns. We hid his clothes." She handed Buck a towel and he tried to wipe the blood off his shirt. "I'm afraid our young sheriff is not so happy with you, senor."
They entered the quiet clinic. Edie Berman was sitting in a chair next to JD's bed. She stood and nodded to Buck, indicating the chair and went to help Nathan. Buck sat down wearily. He leaned forward, rested his elbows on his knees and took a good look at his friend. A vivid bruise above JD's right eye angled down the side of his face intersecting his dark eyebrow. Buck traced it gently with his finger wondering what had caused it.
JD lay on his side, sleeping deeply. His hands were together at the edge of the bed. A weak smile crossed Buck face when he realized the kid's wrists were tied to the bed frame with a soft bandage.
"Now this here," Buck's voice was barely a whisper, "is what I call a sissy knot." He held one string between his thumb and forefinger, pulled, and the bindings fell to the floor. JD's hands shifted slightly.
"And if you can't git out of that, than it's sure testament that yer sick as a dog." He looked at JD sadly then gently plowed long fingers through the kid's tangled hair. JD stirred. His heated skin still glistened with sweat. He opened his eyes slightly. Buck smiled, waiting for him to wake fully.
"Buck?" JD inhaled with difficulty and grasped Buck's arm. "Buck, wait! I'm going with you..." He tried to raise up. "I can ride."
"Yeah, I know you can ride, JD." Buck spoke softy, pressing JD back to the bed. "Ain't met a man yet that can ride better than you. And we sure could have used your help. But you can rest easy; it's over-- we managed to get Ezra back on our own." The youngest lawman lifted himself again, wincing with pain, and looked around the clinic.
"No, he ain't here yet. The others are bringing him." Buck shifted the chair forward until his knees were touching the bed. "I rode ahead with Nathan so I could talk to you."
JD sank back into the pillow. The side of his face was engulfed in the soft material. He regarded Buck carefully with one eye, and pulled in another hard breath.
"You lied to me."
Buck sat back and sighed heavily. "Yeah, I did. I'm sorry I hurt you, JD." He scrubbed a hand over his face and tried to think of a way to explain what had happened. "But that ain't the worst of it. I hurt Ezra even more."
JD stood behind the overturned wagon. He held a gun in each hand and fired directly into the bright sun. Ezra squinted into the glare. He was desperate to clear his vision but could not keep his eyes open. He heard close gunfire and saw the shot hit JD square in the back. JD burst into flames and then shattered, as if made of glass. "NO!" Ezra screamed and reached out to catch the falling glass. It rained down, slicing into his skin. "JD!"
"Hang on now!" Nathan commanded. "Almost there." He tied off two stitches in Ezra's chin. Josiah held the gambler's head firmly and watched as his features twisted with his nightmare.
"JD is right here, Ezra." The preacher's baritone voice was filled with compassion. "Ya gotta stop fightin' us now."
Buck was across from Nathan. He held Ezra's arms above the bandaged wrists and tried not to lose his grip on the sweat soaked limbs. Ezra struggled fiercely, pulling his hips up and nearly throwing Vin off his legs.
"I think I got all the bleedin' stopped now." Nathan turned and handed the needle and scissors to Edie Berman who stood behind him.
"Look at his shoulder, Nathan." Buck could feel Ezra favoring his left side as he battled to keep him on the bed. He stood up and used his weight to pin Ezra's arms to his sides. Nathan examined his shoulder carefully, running his thumb along the fine bones.
"It's bruised bad, but I don't think it's broke." Buck held on while Nathan studied the other bruises that colored Ezra's torso. He pressed gently on purpled flesh just below Ezra's ribcage and another wound at his waistline. "I can't be sure there's no internal bleedin' but it looks favorable."
Buck sat down and relaxed his hold a bit. Ezra was weakening.
"His leg is broke for sure." Nathan moved to Vin's position and together they started to remove the makeshift brace that held Ezra's leg in place. "Let's git the rest of his clothes off and git it cleaned up."
"Ezra?" Chris stood behind Josiah studying the gambler's expressions. He had watched the progress of a nightmare pervert his friend's features. Now they seemed distorted purely by pain.
"Ezra, wake up." Chris bent low, keeping pressure on the wound in his own arm. Josiah released his hold and smoothed back the hair from Ezra's face.
"C'mon, pard. Open your eyes." Chris said gently.
The five men watched as Ezra tilted his head toward Chris and his eyes fluttered open. He licked his dry lips and swallowed hard. Nathan responded by producing a cup of his tea, laced with laudanum. They lifted him and he drank it without complaint.
He looked slowly around at the other men and a sudden terror seized him. "JD!?"
"Here, Ez. I'm right here." JD spoke before anyone else could answer Ezra's plea. He stood next to Buck, trembling with the effort of walking across the room. Edie and Inez supported him on either side. Inez had wrapped a quilt around his waist and held it securely. Except for the wide bandage that circled his chest he was naked. As they helped JD sit on the edge of Ezra's bed Buck felt a playful kick from Inez.
"I'm sorry but we couldn't stop him," She said to Nathan, "Someone untied him."
"Glad you made it back, Ezra," JD reached out and grasped the gambler's hand affectionately.
Ezra blinked and studied JD hopefully. He tightened his grip on the warm flesh of JD's hand. "Mr. Dunne..." Ezra whispered, "It's good to see you."
"You, too," JD's trembling increased and he drew in a hard breath. Still, he managed a genuine smile. "Ezra, you look terrible."
"Course he does, kid," Buck laughed and helped Inez gently guide JD back to bed. "That's just 'cause he don't have a fancy outfit like that one yer wearin'. Maybe you could lend it to him?"
"Mr. Larabee? Sit here, please. Take off your shirt."
Chris moved away from the group around Ezra's bed. He slumped in the chair Edie Berman had set near a dresser of supplies. Glimpses of Ezra appeared and disappeared in the spaces between the other men as they shifted around him.
The ache in his right arm radiated tendrils of pain across his chest. He pulled at the buttons of his shirt with one hand. Edie's fingers quickly worked the buttons around his and she stripped the shirt off. The bullet had gone into the back of Chris' arm and come out only inches away. He grunted as she cleaned the wound but held still.
"This side will need a few stitches." Chris watched her examine the torn tissues carefully and then hold pressure on the still bleeding injury. She looked at Nathan.
"Ma'am." Chris brought her attention back. "Nathan's busy. Can't you do it?"
She regarded Chris thoughtfully for a moment. "Yes, Mr. Larabee," she said warmly. "I can do it." She positioned Chris' hand to grip the little wooden arm of the chair and without hesitation began to repair the wound.
"You don't have to sell it." Chris spoke through gritted teeth. "We'll help you. You can stay."
Edie blinked away tears and kept her focus on the job at hand.
"Thank you. I appreciate that...truly." She tied off a small knot and wiped the area clean. "But the dry goods store was John's dream, not mine." They fell silent as Edie began to wrap the gunslinger's arm firmly. Chris turned to watch her as she worked.
"What's your dream, Ma'am?"
Although her eyes met Chris' her mind was far away. The aching despair of her husband's murder sat heavy in her chest. She thought back to a time before John's hopes had become her goal. When she finished Chris' bandage she draped a soft blanket around his shoulders and tucked it across his chest. She put the back of her hand gently to his face, noting the lack of fever there.
"St. Louis," She said to him, smiling. "Mr. Guthridge has offered a fair price for the store. I think I may use the money to go to St. Louis...to nursing school." It was the first time she had shared her dream with anyone and she felt a quick joy in expressing it. Chris relaxed further into the chair and nodded once. The idea rang true.
"No!" JD lay on his chest in bed, his arms under his pillow. Chris had not realized he was awake and listening. The others were absorbed in helping Nathan set the stubborn bone in Ezra's leg. The gambler cried out in pain when Nathan snapped the bone in place and then he lost consciousness completely. Now they strapped his leg to strips of wood and tried to shift his body to a position that could be considered comfortable.
Edie was at JD's bedside in three quick steps. She squatted to his level, her skirt billowing around her. She held his face in her hands.
"No, Ma'am." He repeated, touching her arm. "That don't sound right to me."
The clinic grew quiet. Inez tossed a blanket over Ezra; pulling it up to cover his bruised body and then smoothed the hair from his forehead. Ezra was unconscious but Inez quietly scolded him anyway, forbidding him to ever leave town again. Nathan stood and stretched his stiff back. He saw Chris bandaged and resting. He walked over to check on JD.
"Why not, JD?" Chris said. Josiah joined Nathan and Edie at JD's bedside. He sat down on the edge and the wooden bed creaked beneath his weight. He squeezed JD's shoulder gently and winked at Edie.
"What don't sound right about that, JD?" Josiah knew why JD took such comfort in Edie's presence even if JD did not recall. He assumed the young man did not want her to leave.
"No. Not nursing school." He rested his head again, the soft pillow muffling his words. "A doctor. You and Nathan both. You were meant to be doctors."