Author's Note: Thanks to Wyndewalker for sending me the poetry I used. "I wandered lonely as a cloud" and "Tyger, Tyger" And to NotTasha for the poem "Jenny Kissed me" and also for being one of the best beta's. I also need to thank Kathy T. for her medical input and everyone who gave me the name of the jeweler's loupe that I used.
Webmaster Note: This fic was previously posted on another website and was moved to blackraptor in June of 2004.
Darkness had shrouded the quaint frontier town, but did nothing to silence the gunfire that filled the air. Eight men had entered the town of Four Corners earlier. At first they hadn't done anything more than try and drink the town dry, but now they were bent on wiping out the peace officers who protected it. Most of the town's folk had fled to safety, more than willing to allow their hired guns to dispense western justice.
Horace Welby, the leader of the outlaw band, was a sleepy-eyed, fleshy face man, who had accomplished nothing in his thirty-three years. He had been a farmer for most of those years, barely scraping out a living, so it was easy enough to walk away from the farm and take up the life of an outlaw, at least the work was easier. Unfortunately, even as an outlaw he failed to achieve any fortune or fame. Horace found these thoughts amusing for a moment, realizing that although at present he wasn't dying, he was seeing his uneventful life pass before his eyes. Horace looked out from his position in the loft of the town's livery. His right-hand man lay by his side, unmoving and oozing blood from several holes in his upper torso. Horace swore under his breath, his tongue darting nervously across his lips, as he peered out into the night hoping to get a shot at one of the lawmen. This was not how it was supposed to happen. When he and his men had entered the town it was only to cool their heels, waiting to join up with his older brother. They all had heard of the seven hardened and professional gunslingers who protected the town. When Horace learned that they were one man short and had been idle for some time, he believed this would be the most opportune time to earn that notoriety he craved by wiping out the Magnificent Seven-he learned too late that fame isn't everything.
Tanner lay stretched out under his wagon, keeping two of the outlaw gunmen pinned in the alleyway next to the saloon. Vin had taken a bullet in the leg early on and finally had to give in to it. Josiah had stopped the bleeding and wrapped the leg before moving out toward the church to help Nathan. The tracker mentally checked the whereabouts of his comrades, something they all unconsciously did. Josiah and Nathan were positioned over at the church, blocking any retreat the outlaws might attempt. Chris was in the hotel behind him, and Buck was across the street holed up in the post office. Vin's eyebrows knitted together in a deep frown and he rolled over to try and get a look down the street. He wasn't sure where JD was. He knew that Buck would keep track of the young, and at times foolhardy lawman. Buck was like a mother cougar when it came to the young easterner. Vin rose up slightly and fired. He grinned as his bullet found a home in one of the two men in the alley.
Vin shifted when he felt someone slide in at his feet. "Ay, cowboy, how we doin'?" Vin asked the man who had appeared wraith-like out of the darkness.
"Not good. I got one, and Buck got one...," Chris began then was interrupted by a blast from Buck's gun, causing both men to look across the street to see one of the outlaws dropping to his knees then pitching forward into the dirt. "Two," Chris corrected, the hint of a smile playing across his face. Larabee hated the violence and gunplay, but it was really the only time he felt alive, although, since meeting up with the six other gunslingers he was starting to cherish and enjoy the quiet times they spent together.
"Well, I got the one that plugged me, so that leaves four more," Vin noted. "Too bad Ez ain't back yet, we could sure use his night vision." It was an inside joke between them that Standish was part owl and could only see at night, although, it had also been alleged that he was raised by wolves. Either way the nocturnal cardsharp seemed to abhor direct sunlight, especially the early morning variety and would usually sleep to noon just to avoid it. At least then it was out of his line of sight.
"I don't think Ezra would agree with you on that," Chris replied as he fired a shot, causing a skulking outlaw to retreat back into the alleyway. There was no way Chris was going to allow any one of these outlaws to escape and have a chance to try again someday. These men had started this, Chris and his fellow lawmen intended to finish it.
Standish was nearing the town he had been calling home for almost two months. For his whole life home had been such an ambiguous term. He was never sure where he belonged. Most of the time wherever he was he was not welcome, even when he was in the company of his mother he, at times, felt like a burden. Now, for the first time, he actually had a place that felt like home. Ezra was returning from Cedar Ridge where he had gone to testify against a drover, who murdered a homesteader. Needless to say, the homesteader's family had taken matters into their own hands and Ezra was able to leave earlier than planned. This in itself was uncharacteristic for the abiding conman. His way of life had always dictated that he stay on and try and make his wealth through games of chance. But instead, Ezra found himself wanting to return to the familiar surroundings of his home and friends--and anyways tomorrow was payday.
When Ezra heard the gun shots echo up from the town he pulled up his horse and quickly dismounted, ground tying his mount. Ezra shook his head in mock dismay as he checked his guns. "Well, Chaucer old boy, it appears they can get in trouble even without my assistance," he chuckled. He'd have to remember this one; he was sure he could use it to raise Buck and Chris's hackles, given the right opportunity.
After a long hot day in the saddle, this was not what he had hoped in way of a welcome home. His mauve jacket was dust covered from the trail and blended with the surrounding darkness. Ezra was grateful for the cooling darkness, which finally allowed his sweat soaked pants to free themselves from his legs. The quarter moon that tried to force some of its luminosity through the low hanging clouds gave the night an eerie ambiance. Chaucer snorted and threw his head up and down, not liking the idea of being left behind. Ezra patted the horse reassuringly on the neck then cautiously made his way toward the town.
Buck was pissed. He had planned on a quiet evening taking pleasure in a few hands of cards with his friends and then ending up in the sweet, warm embrace of some lucky barmaid. Now he was taking cover from men, who were trying real hard to end his life--he took exception to that. Buck wiped at the blood that ran down the side of his face. His head pounded from the bullet that had grazed his skull. And on top of all that he had lost track of JD, which was starting to greatly concern him. That boy would be the death of him for sure. Why JD wanted to grow up so fast Buck was having a hard time understanding. Buck smiled with relief when the familiar sound of JD's twin Colts permeated the air. He saw his young friend racing down the boardwalk across the street. Buck added to his friend's gunfire, covering as JD leapt sideways into an open doorway. That boy was going to get his fool head shot off. What was he thinking taking such chances? Buck's thoughts were interrupted as gunfire forced him to retreat further back.
Chris knew that Buck was probably swearing a blue streak at JD's antics. He had to admit, seeing the young gunslinger running down the boardwalk put a cold ball of fear in his own stomach. He had audibly exhaled when the young man reached the relative safety of the open doorway.
"Think we can wrap this up soon? It's getting past my bed time," Vin asked, the pain in his leg starting to grow uncomfortable and the thought of one of Nathan's pain-relieving concoctions was starting to sound pretty good.
Chris looked over his shoulder at the nearby stables. "If I can just get a clear shot at their leader."
Tanner rolled over onto his back. Well if'n you can get 'im to show himself a little more I'll take care of the rest," Vin replied, cocking his rifle.
"And why do I end up as decoy?"
"Bum leg," Vin glibly remarked.
Chris knew the tracker was grinning from ear to ear. Sometimes the ex-bounty hunter was an arrogant as Ezra.
Buck was reloading his gun when he saw the shadowy figure creeping down the walkway, hugging the building fronts, across the street. Damn, where had he come from? Buck thought he had accounted for the whereabouts of all the outlaws. He watched as the dark outline made its way down the wooden path and toward JD. For a second Buck thought he should try and get a better look, but then he didn't think that JD was aware that someone was sneaking up on him. Guess I'm just going to have to save his skin again, Buck silently mused.
Diffused moonlight shined off the huge plate glass window of the Assayer's Office. Buck raised his gun and fired as the figure passed in front of it, a black silhouette against the glimmering glass. The skulking figure spun halfway around, and then fell backward through the plate glass window.
'Shit,' Buck thought, 'That'll probably come out of my pay.'
Chris turned momentarily when he heard the crash, then he jumped out from behind the wagon and ran toward the livery. Horace Welby was also momentarily distracted by the sound of shattering glass. When he saw the dark figure running toward the stable he leaned out and took aim. He never felt the bullet that went through his skull. Horace Welby fell forward and his rifle fell to the ground.
The gunfight reached a crescendo, and then abruptly stopped. Dust and the smell of gun smoke hung over the street like a death shroud. After the noise of the gunfire the sudden silence was unnerving. The moon peeked out from behind its shield of clouds as if knowing it was now safe to come out. The gentle glow revealing a grisly scene. Buck stepped out from between two buildings, his eyes scanning for any hidden danger. He looked up to see Horace Welby's body hanging half out of the loft window.
Vin had dragged himself out from under the wagon then felt a hand grab up under his arm and haul him to his feet.
"Good shot," Chris praised as he steadied his friend.
Vin looked up at the limp body. "Like lickin' butter off a knife."
Both men looked down the street to see Josiah's huge form breaking through the night and throwing down a quick prayer as he passed a body. Nathan stopped and knelt alongside the motionless form checking for any life. Josiah smiled as he saw that all his friends were alive. He looked up into the charcoal gray sky and in the most humble of voices whispered a solemn, "Thank you."
Dunne had stepped out from his place in the dress shop, holstering his guns. He tugged his bowler back on his head then promptly removed it, checking it for bullet holes and relieved to find none. JD picked up a lantern and sauntered down the boardwalk, fiddling with the wick as he neared the Assayer's Office. When the lamp finally sputtered to life JD took in the large shattered window. Mr. Lawson would not be pleased. JD stretched the lantern out into the dark interior of the office. He stared at the dark pin-striped pant legs and fancy calf skin boots. His heart started to race, and he fumbled again with the wick, almost dropping the whole lantern on the floor. JD's brain had to process what he was seeing for a few seconds before it accepted the reality.
"Well, hot damn, that sure gets the blood pumping!" Buck yelled out from across the street, the adrenaline rush still coursing through his body. It was still early, and he figured his evening wasn't a total loss.
Vin and Chris grinned at the ladies' man as he joined up with them at the wagon.
"You alright?" Chris asked, noticing the dark color of blood on the side of his long-time friend's face. Buck gingerly touched the wound on the side of his head and pulled his hand back with a hiss.
"Yeah, nothing a little tender lovin' care from Miss Melissa can't cure," Buck exclaimed with a gleeful and shameless glint in his eye.
Chris shook his head at the incorrigible gunslinger. Only Buck could turn a gunfight into an excuse to make himself more familiar with the latest love of his life.
"Who you reckon' these boys were?" Buck asked as his gaze took in the dark, still forms that lay strewed about the street.
"Don't know. I'll have JD do some checkin' in the mornin'. Probably just some gang trying to make a name for themselves," Chris casually answered. It seemed like every two-bit gunslinger thought they could make a name for themselves by trying to take out the Seven. Chris inwardly smiled, the only name most made was what was written on their tombstones.
Chris started to feel more of Vin's weight within his grasp and shifted his arm around the tracker's waist. "Let's git you over to Nate's."
Standing up had caused Vin's wound to throb incessantly and the pain was beginning to wear on the tracker. He thought maybe he was getting soft. Buck came up on the other side of Vin to give Chris a hand.
JD's panicked filled voice caused everyone to jump, the fury of the gunfight still racing through their veins and keeping them tense.
"What the hell?" Buck muttered, seeing JD standing just inside the Assayer's Office. Buck's brow furrowed as he stared at the broken window. That was the place where he had shot the outlaw trying to sneak up on JD. He couldn't imagine what his young friend was so excited about, but a sour feeling started to develop in the pit of his stomach.
"JD, what's wrong?" Nathan called out as he jogged toward the office, wondering what could possibly be the matter. He was with Josiah so he knew the ex-preacher was okay. He saw Buck, Vin and Chris standing together; Vin appeared to be favoring his left leg and leaning on Chris, but he was standing. Nathan had seen JD walking down the boardwalk, only moments before, and he appeared sound. The thought that an innocent bystander might have gotten caught in the shooting quickened Nathan's pace.
The bewildered healer peered through the shattered remains of the window, cautious of any glass that still remained in the frame. The orange glow of the lantern that JD held revealed a sight that stopped his heart and caused his mouth to go dry.
"Oh, God, no," Nathan breathed.
JD squatted down on the balls of his feet among the multitude of glass shards, staring with fright-filled eyes at the slack features of Ezra. Nathan stretched his long legs over the window ledge, his foot skidding and crunching on the broken glass that covered the floor. He could see the growing dark spot on the gambler's chest and didn't think the man could possibly be alive.
"Dear Lord," Josiah voiced as he climbed over the window frame to help.
Nathan squatted down next to Ezra's head. He laid a hand on Ezra's chest, feeling the slight rise and fall that told him there was still life going on inside. The healer suddenly went into action, ripping open Ezra's clothing, buttons lost amongst the glass. Nathan ignored the hollow sounds of boots on the boardwalk and then the gasps of disbelief.
"Ah shit!" Vin exclaimed. He turned his head to look at Chris who still had an arm around his waist to support him. Chris's jaw clenched, and he closed his eyes at the sight of one of his own injured.
Nathan applied pressure to the bleeding wound, ignoring the shock from the others. Buck was the last to step up to the window. He stared down at what had everyone's attention. His eyes stared at the ruined window then back at Ezra's motionless form sprawled out amongst the scattering of glass. Like JD, it took a moment for his brain to register what his eyes were seeing. At first he tried to deny it, hoping it wasn't true. Buck's breathing quickened and the blood drained out of his face. Buck reached out, grabbing hold of the window frame and barely missing a shard of glass, as a sudden sense of vertigo swept over him.
"No, it can't be," Buck breathed.
"Buck, what's wrong?" Chris had heard the tremor in Buck's voice as Buck stepped over the window ledge and into the office. Seeing Ezra lying on the floor was a shock, but something in Buck's voice told Chris that there was something more.
Buck was silent for a moment, taking in what he was seeing, hoping it was all just a nightmare and the familiar form that lay on the floor would suddenly disappear or stand up.
"Vin, gotta put you down, pard." Chris eased the tracker down to the boardwalk, and then stepped inside the Assayer's office, coming up alongside Buck, who couldn't remove his eyes from the gambler's still body.
Buck's heart was pounding so hard it felt like he was inside one of those huge drums he'd seen at a parade once. He watched as Nathan worked frantically on Ezra, seeing the healer's mouth moving, but not hearing any words over the ringing in his own ears. Buck watched as Nathan's hands applied pressure to the bullet hole, trying to stop the steady flow of blood from the hole that his very own gun had made. Nathan's hands went slowly up and down as Ezra's chest struggled to rise. Buck thought he heard someone shouting his name rather urgently.
"Buck, look at me!" Chris snapped, grabbing Buck's arm and breaking him from his fantasy of denial and horror. Chris's mouth went dry as the flickering lantern light revealed the horror-stricken features of his friend's face.
Buck raised regret filled eyes to stare back at Chris, not sure what he should say, his mouth opened and closed a couple times before the words finally managed to come out.
"I shot Ezra."
Nathan froze at his ministrations upon hearing Buck's admission. He looked over his shoulder at Buck's face, and a sudden chill of dread and remorse flowed through the healer. If Ezra died...Nathan quickly returned to his work; he didn't even want to think about it.
JD stood up breaking the silence as his boots crunched the glass underneath.
"You what?" Chris's voice was low, and he was trying to keep it calm, but anger was slowly clawing its way to the surface.
Buck turned his eyes to JD as he stepped up alongside Chris. He saw the disbelief in JD's dark eyes and the scowl that was slowly forming on his young face.
Larabee took a deep breath and wiped his hand down his face, reining in his growing rage. It wouldn't do anyone any good, especially Ezra.
"What happened?" Chris asked, his voice calm and even. He glanced over to his right to see JD chewing on his bottom lip his fists clenched down at his sides.
Buck swallowed and glanced back down at Ezra, knowing that as long as Nathan was still working on him Ezra was alive. "I thought he was one of the outlaws...I thought he was sneaking up on JD."
No one saw it coming or was able to stop it when JD suddenly exploded and leaped out at Buck. His raged filled body throwing both of them against the nearby wall. They scrambled to keep their feet on the glass slick floor. Buck didn't fight back as JD pinned him to the wall.
"How could you mistake Ezra for one of them?" JD shouted. "Damnit, Buck, I can watch out for myself. How many times do I have to tell you that!"
"I was just watching your back," Buck countered.
"This is how you watch my back? What about Ezra?" JD berated as Chris stepped up behind him and placed a hand on the young man's shoulder.
JD shrugged out from under the hand and went back to his place beside the gambler. He now felt partially responsible. It had always been a source of amusement, Buck's big brother attitude. The older gunslinger had taken the young easterner under his wing, watching out for him, teaching him, and at times smothering him. JD had tolerated most of the mothering without too much rancor. But now someone had suffered due to Buck's overprotective nature. If he were more of a man, they wouldn't feel the need to coddle and protect him.
"I'm sure it wasn't brother Buck's intention to bring harm to any one of us," Josiah solemnly stated for all to hear. "It was an accident. Ezra isn't suppose to even be here and with the darkness and all, it would be easy for any one of us to mistake him for one of the outlaws," Josiah tried to explain, hoping to bring some sanity to the situation. Secretly, Josiah hoped that he wouldn't have made the same mistake, that somehow he would of known that it was Ezra. He always believed that there was a bond between the seven of them; he didn't want that belief shattered.
JD glared up at Buck. He believed that if Buck hadn't been so determined to protect him he would have recognized that it was Ezra.
Chris also secretly hoped that he would have known it was the wily cardsharp. Chris looked at Buck, seeing the head wound that probably blurred his vision and gave him one hell of a headache, and his concern for JD would have also caused Buck to act rashly.
Vin stretched his neck to try and see through the broken window. His heart sank at the sight of all the blood around the suave southerner. He took in as much of the room as he could, noticing the bags of rock sitting by the counter. The room was covered in dust and dirt from prospectors who would bring their ore finds in to be analyzed. Vin reached over and gently fingered a piece of glass that was still stuck in the frame. He looked down at the dust that now coated his fingers, and then wiped them down his pants leg.
Chris stood silently next to Buck, figuring he was feeling guilty enough without the Larabee wrath coming down on him. How could this of happened? They were a team, each one knowing instinctively what the others were doing. It was how they had all managed to survive as long as they had. Everyone was well aware of Buck's excessive concern for JD, but would this concern cause him to act recklessly?
The healer knew the question Buck was silently asking. "I got the bleeding stopped."
"Shouldn't we get him out of this glass?" JD suddenly asked.
"He's still alive, so the bullet missed his heart, but I don't know by how much." Nathan paused a moment as he seemed to consider something. "If we move him we could kill him," he sadly explained. Nathan looked over at the broken window. "He's lucky he fell through backward, saved his face and throat from being seriously cut." Nathan turned his head and looked up at Chris. "I need to get the bullet out here and now."
Chris released a frustrated breath and swiped his hat off his head. "Do it."
"Josiah, go to the clinic and get my bag. JD, go with him and make sure I have plenty of clean bandages and clean the extra set of tools I have."
JD was up and out without saying a word, but Buck didn't miss the hate-filled glance from his young friend before he left and it felt like another knife had been thrust into his heart. Josiah gave Buck a reassuring pat on the back and followed after the young gunslinger.
Nathan turned to Buck and softened his voice. The normally gregarious cowboy looked like a deer ready to run at the slightest provocation. "Buck, I need water and lots of it. Have Inez start boiling some for later." At first he didn't think the distraught gunslinger heard him, but then Buck stood and walked out.
Nathan glanced over to see Vin peeking over the ledge. "Vin, you alright?"
"Don't worry 'bout me. The bullet went through, just take care of Ez."
Nathan stood and removed his coat and folded it over, placing it under Ezra's head. He hoped Ezra remained unconscious he didn't want to have to hold him down in all this glass. Chris had grabbed a broom and was trying to sweep away the larger pieces of glass. He wished there was more he could do, for both Ezra and Buck.
Nathan was grateful that the night was warm. He silently watched Ezra's chest struggle to rise for the twentieth time and wondered if fluid was building up inside. If so, it was only a matter of time before his struggles ceased.
Josiah and Buck returned within minutes with all the needed supplies. Buck carried a basin of water, rags and a couple of blankets, setting them down on the table that sat next to the bed.
"Inez is boiling the water. This is all I could come up with," Buck informed Nathan. His voice was as far off as his gaze.
"That's okay. This should be enough for now," Nathan replied. His hand lashed out and grabbed Buck by the arm forcing him close. "How's your head?"
Buck pulled out of Nathan's grasp, disgusted at the show of concern for his meager injury. "It's fine."
"Any dizziness, headache..."
"I said it's fine, just see to Ezra," Buck angrily replied.
A low moan breathed past the gambler's lips, causing everyone's breath to catch somewhere in their throats.
Nathan knelt down on a folded blanket that was placed next to Ezra's head. "Ezra, don't move around," he whispered into his friend's ear.
Ezra's eyes fluttered halfway open. Buck believed he could see the pain riding in those green orbs and another knife ripped at his heart. He squatted down on the other side and laid a hand on Ezra's shoulder. "Easy, pard. Nathan'll fix you up, good as new," he tried to assure the gambler as much as himself, swallowing the catch in his voice.
Standish tried to bring his gaze into focus, but everything kept blurring. Lord, he hurt.
"Ezra, how do you feel?" Nathan asked.
"It feels like I've been kicked by a mule and the obstinate beast is now sitting on my chest," Ezra complained, wincing as he tried to draw some air into his aching chest.
Nathan smiled, at least Ezra's droll sense of humor wasn't damaged in anyway, and he had enough air to answer a simple question with as many words as would fit into a sentence. Buck lifted Ezra's head and allowed him a few sips of water, then carefully laid him back down. Ezra's brow creased at the stinging sensation coming from his back and legs. He couldn't figure out what it was, but it was getting damn uncomfortable.
"Ezra, you've been shot, and I need to get the bullet out," Nathan calmly explained, hoping the confused-looking gambler understood.
Ezra slowly nodded his head. His eyes widen as Chris stepped into his limited field of vision. "Mr. Larabee." Ezra's voice was raspy and growing weak. "I hate to admit...that I apparently miscalculated...the whereabouts of the miscreants," Ezra gasped out, his eyes falling closed.
"Ah, Ezra, I..." Buck began then stopped when he caught the sharp shake of Chris's head. There was no telling how Ezra would react to the news that Buck shot him, now was not the time to find out.
"Why are you back early?" Chris quickly interjected, keeping his eyes on Buck for a moment.
Ezra licked his lips and bent his right leg up, trying to alleviate the discomfort coming from his back. "The family of the murdered homesteader... decided it would be...more efficient...to be judge, jury and executioner...My services were no longer needed."
Nathan was becoming concerned with the growing weakness in Ezra's voice. "That's enough save your strength," Nathan reprimanded, glaring at the others and daring anyone to ask any more questions. "I don't think the bullet went in too deep, but it's going to hurt like hell. I can't wait to give you something for the pain."
"Don't worry, Mr. Jackson, I shall-- how do you say-- bite the bullet on this one."
Jackson couldn't hide the faint grin, he didn't think the gambler realized how badly injured he really was. Sanchez stepped around to the other side and squatted down next to Ezra, taking hold of the younger man's shoulders, the pressure caused Ezra to hiss as glass pieces were driven deeper into his back.
"Sorry, son," Josiah murmured.
Wilmington moved down and lightly straddled Ezra's legs. "Ez, you need to focus on my ugly mug, pard. I'll get you through this." Buck watched Ezra's jaw clench as Nathan began to cut into the bullet wound. Ezra arched his back slightly and Buck had to apply pressure to the conman's legs to keep them still. He watched the veins on Ezra's neck protrude and turn a bright red.
Chris grabbed hold of Ezra's hand, to keep him from pushing Nathan away, and almost cried out at the vise like grip that wrapped around his fingers.
"Almost done, Ez," Nathan said.
Ezra's whole body trembled with the exertion of trying to stay still against the agonizing violation it was enduring. Nathan pulled the bullet out as a heart-wrenching scream erupted from Ezra's lips. The scream snapped off as Ezra's eyes rolled back into his head and his whole body went limp. Nathan swore and put two fingers to the conman's neck.
"Nathan?" Chris barked out as fear gripped and strangled his heart. Ezra's scream had caused the hairs on the back of his neck to stand straight up. Buck looked liked someone had suddenly punched him in the stomach.
"He's still with us," Nathan quickly assured. He applied a compress to the bleeding wound as everyone took deep breaths to calm their racing hearts.
"The worse is over, right?" Buck asked.
Nathan turned sad brown eyes toward Buck's hopeful expression. He listened to Ezra's shallow and struggling breaths. "He was lucky. If the bullet had gone a little more to the left." Nathan paused. "But we have another problem."
"What?" Buck snapped, guilt and fear making him terse.
"Look." Nathan nodded to the floor where a pool of blood was slowly growing out from underneath the unconscious conman.
As soon as Nathan got the bleeding under control Josiah reached down and got under Ezra's shoulders, unmindful of the glass that cut at his knuckles.
"No, Buck," Nathan said as the gunslinger was about to grab hold of Ezra's legs. "Let Chris do it. I don't need you dropping him if you get dizzy."
Buck jerked back from Nathan's reach toward the wound on the side of his head. "I told you, I'm fine."
Larabee stepped up and put a hand on his friend's shoulder, feeling the muscles tense. "Give Vin a hand," he calmly suggested.
Buck's shoulders slumped, knowing that Chris and Nathan were right. He just wanted to do all he could; guilt was eating him alive. He looked down at the southerner's limp body and felt like he was going to be sick. How could he have shot Ezra-a friend?"
Josiah and Chris carried Ezra up to the clinic, going through the now deserted saloon and up the stairs. Chris looked across Ezra's body at Josiah, whose blue-gray gaze was intent on the gambler's slack face. Chris couldn't remember ever having seen such fear on the huge gunslinger's face before. Just as they reached the clinic Nathan rushed past them, banging open the door and hurrying forward to pull back the blankets on the bed. "Put him on his side with his back on the edge," Nathan instructed.
JD jumped as the door to the clinic banged open. His nerves frayed by his growing frustration and dwindling patience. He stood by the dresser, having just finished cleaning all of Nathan's instruments, which were now all laid out on the small table beside the bed. Ezra looked worse then when he left him.
Buck entered the clinic supporting Vin. He guided the tracker over to the other cot and lowered him down. Vin winced as his leg throbbed from the exertion. Buck released his hold and prepared to help out when Nathan's hand stopped his progress and forced him down on the cot next to Vin.
"Don't move, either of you," Nathan hurriedly said, stabbing a long finger in both men's faces. "I don't want to have to deal with you all right now, understand?" Nathan threw a deadly glare at the two men, stressing his orders. He didn't have time to treat their wounds at the moment; Ezra was in more dire need.
"JD, I need you to sit on the other side of the bed and keep an eye on his chest wound, make sure it doesn't start bleeding again, and keep him on his side," Nathan instructed as he washed his hands in the basin on the dresser. His mind was swirling with procedures, possible problems, solutions as his mouth continued to give out instructions. "Josiah, I need his clothing cut off him." Nathan paused a moment and bent down to stare at the back of Ezra's legs. "I need his pants taken off too."
"Nathan, I'm fine. I gotta help," Buck pleaded from his spot on the cot.
Nathan turned his head to see Buck's remorse-filled eyes. "Sorry, Buck, I can't have you falling flat on your face, there wouldn't be anyone to catch you."
Buck slumped down into the cot. His head felt like someone was using an ice pick to break open his skull. But the pain in his head was nothing compared to the ache that seared his heart and ate at his gut. He watched as Josiah carefully cut away at Ezra's clothing. God, Ez, would be pissed. He had just bought that jacket. Buck saw the concern etched on JD's face. The young gunslinger kept a hand on Ezra's shoulder and helped Josiah as much as he could in removing the clothing. Glass bits rained down on the wooden floor as the clothing was pulled from Ezra's back.
Sanchez removed the last of the southerner's upper attire the thick blood underneath causing it to stick. Josiah murmured a prayer at the sight now revealed to them all. Ezra's smooth muscular back was coated with blood, and within the sea of blood, jagged pieces of glass glistened in the orange glow of the nearby lantern. Silence engulfed the room as everyone was frozen for a moment, staring unbelieving at the mutilated back of their friend. Nathan's thoughts went to the glass he couldn't see-There had to be dozens of tiny shards embedded deeply in those cuts-How would he get it all out? JD wiped at eyes that threatened to lose focus. Buck's face had paled even more, and he laid his face into his hands.
"I NEED MORE LIGHT!" Nathan yelled out, breaking everyone from the dreadful silence that had befallen them all. He was also trying to expel his building anxiety. Nathan drew up closer to Ezra's back as Chris brought the lantern up over his shoulder. The inadequate light sputtered, casting eerie shadows that danced across a blanket of blood and torn skin. Nathan chewed on his bottom lip as he picked up his forceps and slowly started pulling out some of the bigger slivers of glass, causing Ezra to moan slightly. "Shhh, Ez," he soothed.
Chris winced as Nathan pulled out several long slivers of glass. The wounds began to bleed profusely and Nathan reached over and grabbed some rags. He gently wiped away the blood, afraid to apply too much pressure for fear of forcing bits of glass deeper into Ezra's back. Nathan squinted as he tried to locate more big pieces of glass; some of the pieces were in too deep and some had broken off at the skin. The probing of his forceps caused the gambler even more discomfort. The healer knew he would have to cut into Ezra's back to get the glass pieces out.
Josiah had gotten Ezra's boots and pants off and said a silent thank you that the southerner's legs didn't appear to badly cut, and his buttocks had somehow avoided getting cut altogether. Nathan slid his chair down to the end of the bed after Josiah had removed the pants and proceeded to examine Ezra's buttocks and legs. He managed to pull out two slivers of glass that were imbedded in the gambler's upper thighs. Nathan quickly washed the wounds and wrapped them. He would have to check them again later. The room had become deathly quiet as Nathan diligently worked on the conman.
Nathan suddenly exhaled and fell back into his chair. He lay his forceps aside and rested his hands, which were covered in blood, on his knees.
"I need to wait. I can't do anything more right now..." Nathan began.
Buck jumped up so fast he thought his head would explode. "What? What do you mean there's nothing you can do?" he yelled, taking an unsteady step forward, until his progress was impeded by Chris's imposing form. He didn't need Buck doing anything rash-again.
"I DON'T HAVE ENOUGH LIGHT!" Nathan bit back jumping out of his chair. What did they think? That he didn't want to help Ezra? That just because they didn't always see eye to eye that he wanted to see the devious southerner suffer.
Buck's eyes shined with impending tears. Nathan audibly exhaled; nerves were frayed and tempers were flaring. "I need to wait until morning," he calmly explained.
"Sit down, Buck," Chris said in a low voice that broached no discussion or protest. Chris knew that Buck was suffering, but at the moment there was nothing he could do for him.
"I didn't mean to shoot him," Buck uttered, his words so full of sorrow they could have wept. Buck looked into Chris's impassive face. He couldn't tell if Chris blamed him or not. They had been friends for most of their lives and at that moment Buck couldn't read what was going on behind Chris's somber visage.
Jackson leaned over, seeing that Ezra's right arm also had a long jagged tear running from the wrist to the elbow. Someone was definitely watching over the hapless conman. It was a miracle that a major artery wasn't severed.
"Josiah can you clean up his arm and wrap it while I check on Vin and Buck?" Nathan asked.
"Sure," Josiah replied, taking the bandages that Nathan held.
Nathan then turned and stepped up to the cot. He knelt down at Vin's injured leg. The tracker hissed as Nathan straightened out the leg and removed the bandana that was wrapped around it.
"Owww, hey take it easy," Vin yelped and tried to push himself into the wall as Nathan probed the wound.
"Looks clean. You wanta take off your pants or should I cut them?" Nathan asked, his deep voice flat and unemotional. He looked over his shoulder, wondering what the morning sun would reveal and what, if anything, he'd be able to do. Nathan shook the thoughts away and decided to focus on the two men he could help.
"You ain't cuttin' anymore of my pants lessen you plan on payin' for 'im," Vin retorted, only half kidding and struggling to stand on his one good leg. Chris grabbed the tracker by the arm and steadied him as he dropped his drawers to the floor.
Nathan glanced over at Buck, who now sat silently on the cot, his eyes fixed on Ezra's pale form. He didn't know what to say to ease the man's burden of guilt, and he had to admit he harbored a little anger toward the ladies' man. He really couldn't justify the anger. He knew it was an accident, but right now anger was better than fear.
Jackson spent the next hour dressing Vin and Buck's wounds. Buck never said a word, even when Josiah cleaned the graze on his head. The cowboy was numb, completely exhausted of all feeling.
JD had remained at Ezra's side, using a damp cloth to wipe his brow hoping to give some measure of comfort. The gambler had remained unconscious, which was definitely a blessing. The healer handed Vin and Buck each a cup of water and herbs, not bothering to demand that they drink it. He was too tired. Both men downed the noxious brew without complaint. Nathan stepped up to the bed and checked over Ezra's wounds. There didn't seem to be any more bleeding; the bandages around Ezra's arm and legs were still clean. Nathan placed a light sheet over the gambler then a blanket. He was worried about shock.
"I need to get some sleep," Nathan tiredly announced. "But someone has to stay with him, and keep 'im real still so those wounds don't start bleedin' again. And if'n he comes to try and git some water down him."
"Don't worry, brother, we will see to Ezra's welfare," Josiah remarked. "You go and git some rest, you deserve it."
Nathan looked over at Ezra, knowing things might be worse tomorrow. Him and Ezra had their differences, and at times, those dissimilarities in character threatened their fragile friendship. Now, Nathan would give anything to hear Ezra's smart-mouth southern drawl, even if it was just to condemn him for his sanctimonious attitude, or to grumble about how much he hated being in the clinic and fussed over.
"I need you all to get some sleep too, cus I'm going to need all your help tomorrow." Nathan locked eyes with each of the men in the room trying to make his meaning clear. He wouldn't be able to do this one alone.
"I ain't leaving," Buck growled quietly. Nathan rolled his eyes as he watched Buck try and stand, the herbal mixture starting to take effect on the stubborn cowboy. Buck staggered over to the corner of the room and slid down to the floor. His head bobbed momentarily as his eyes fought to stay open. Chris chuckled quietly as Buck's chin fell to his chest, finally released from all the anguish and frustration of the day, at least temporarily. Vin's soft snores from the cot told everyone that he had also given up his fight with the medicine and now rested comfortably. Josiah threw blankets on both men, even though the night was warm.
Seeing that everything was under control Nathan stepped out the door and stopped in the hallway. He rubbed at his tired eyes and knew he had to try and shut his brain off or he'd never get any sleep. He remembered something that Ezra once told him when he asked why the cardsharp played solitaire. Ezra had told the healer that it relaxed him, and allowed him to shut off his so-called devious mind as Jackson was apt to point out. Nathan knew Ezra kept a deck of cards behind the bar and thought he'd try a few games of solitaire.
Nathan was woken just before dawn by JD's incessant pounding on his door. He had ended up playing solitaire for two hours last night, time had just seemed to slip away, but he had been grateful for the distraction. "Nathan, are you awake?" JD yelled.
"Yeah," Nathan sleepily replied as he swung his long legs over the side of the bed.
"Ezra's developed a fever!"
"Shit." This caused all residual sleep to fall away as Nathan hurriedly dressed. "I'll be right there, JD." He heard the young man take off back down the hall of the boarding house. He knew this was going to happen all the glass and dirt in those cuts. Nathan shook his head; this was going to be a long day.
Nathan barreled into the clinic, allowing his hand on the doorknob to stop his rushed progress-Everyone was waiting. He shoved the last bit of bread he held into his mouth. He noticed that Vin was now stretched out on the bed next to Ezra. The tracker was sitting up with his upper body relaxed against the headboard. Ezra was still on his side; his right arm draped limply over Vin's leg. The tracker looked up at Nathan's concerned visage.
"Figured I'm stuck in bed anyway might as well be useful," Vin said, a smile coming to his lean face.
Nathan looked at the others seeing that they all were in the same clothes they had on yesterday. "Did anyone get any sleep?" Nathan stepped up to the bed and placed a hand on Ezra's brow feeling the high fever that was now raging through his body.
"We all managed a few hours," Josiah informed the healer.
"Did he come to at all?" Nathan then asked.
"Yeah, a bit. I got some water down him," Josiah explained. "Don't think he was fully conscious though."
JD had stood vigil over Ezra most of the night. Once JD had succumbed to sleep Josiah and Chris had moved the steadfast gunslinger to the cot and placed Vin in his present position next to the gambler. Josiah and Chris had then taken turns watching over their injured friend. Buck had slept most of the night thanks to Nathan's medicine and the concussion.
Nathan cocked his head down toward the sleeping gambler then slowly bent down bringing his ear next to Ezra's face. He rested a hand on the gambler's chest.
The mutterings in the room stopped as the others noticed what Nathan was doing.
"What is it, Nathan?" Chris asked, fear giving him a sick feeling in the pit of his stomach.
"He's having trouble breathing. That bullet must 'ave done some damage," Nathan sadly explained.
Buck shifted back and forth and wiped a nervous hand down his face. What more could go wrong? He was starting to fear that Ezra wouldn't make it, and he wasn't sure he could live with that. "What can we do?" Buck asked, pulling it together.
"Part of the problem is him being on his side, but that can't be helped right now. We have a bigger problem." Nathan turned around and stared back at everyone. When no one prompted him to continue. "I can't give him to much pain medicine if he's struggling to breathe."
No one said a word, the implication taking a moment to settle in. Ezra would have to endure hours of pain as Nathan removed the glass, piece by piece, from his back.
The sun's fingers of early morning light were starting to creep there way onto the window ledge and into the dimly lit clinic. Street noise rose up and wafted into the open second floor window, informing the six gunslingers of a coming new day, and telling them that life still continued on around them.
Nathan gently removed the blanket and sheet that covered the gambler. Ezra's back looked worse in the bright light of day. The healer stepped back and fell heavily into the chair. He heard the gasps and curses of the men next to him as they all stared at the ravaged skin of their friend's back. The glass pieces had cut ragged trails through muscle and skin leaving bloody paths that criss-crossed Ezra's whole upper torso. The cuts were angry, red and swollen.
Nathan shook himself out of his shock and cleared his throat. "I need some way to wash his back as I remove the glass?" Everyone tensed when Ezra stirred weakly, then was still.
"I guess it's too much to wish that he'd stay unconscious," JD innocently remarked. Nathan turned poignant dark eyes toward the youth, but didn't answer. He shifted his gaze over to Josiah, who had his eyes closed and was mouthing a silent prayer.
The semi-pious gunslinger opened his eyes to find everyone looking at him. "Thought I'd give it a try."
Josiah forced a gentle smile on his face. "I do think I might have an answer to your problem, brother Nate."
Josiah stepped up and knelt down beside the healer. "What about a long wash basin placed underneath, then we can just pour pitchers of water down his back. Only the edge of the bed might get wet," Josiah explained.
"Yeah, that might work and it'll help remove glass bits. Inez has been boiling water all night, so there should be plenty," Nathan added, rubbing at his chin.
"I'll find a basin," Josiah said and headed out the door.
"I'll get the water," Buck suddenly said from the back of the room. He had been trying to get JD's attention, but the young gunslinger only turned his back. Buck strolled out the door of the clinic, feeling very much alone, his guilt stranding him among the other's anger and frustration. He knew now was not the time to try and talk things over with JD. He'd have to wait until Ezra was out of danger.
Nathan studied Ezra's back; much of the blood had caked and dried, but as soon as he started removing glass a new flood of blood would flow. He hoped Ezra wasn't in danger of losing too much. They would have to try and get some fluids in him. Every inch of the southerner's back would have to be cleaned and assured that there was no glass left. A soft moan parted Ezra's lips, and he stirred, trying to roll over onto his stomach. Vin grabbed Ezra by the shoulder and gently eased him back to his side.
"Ezra, can you hear me?" Nathan calmly asked.
Ezra's eyes fluttered somewhat and then were still.
Standish's first coherent thought as he raised up from the darkness was why was he in so much pain? There was a sharp ache in his chest, a sensation he was familiar with. He knew he had been shot. The other unpleasant feeling was a little harder to deal with. His whole back felt like a mountain cat had ripped it to shreds and the claws were still there. He tried to remember what had happened to result in such a deplorable condition, but images and sounds eluded him as waves of pain washed them away. Ezra finally managed to force his eyes to open. His first sight was that of Vin's buckskin-clad leg, the smell of which was not something Ezra was partial too. Ezra's soft accent broke through the concerned voices that filled the room.
"Mr. Tanner, is there a valid reason for the two of us to share a bed?" The words were slow to come and strangled with pain. Ezra tried to take a deep breath, but found the process difficult.
Vin smiled lightly. Even hurt Ezra was always concerned with decorum. "Just keepin' you company, pard. You sorta ran into a passel of bad luck."
Ezra frowned in confusion at the Texan's explanation.
"You were shot and you went through Mr. Lawson's plate glass window," Vin clarified.
"Good Lord, I hope I don't have to give restitution," Ezra chuckled, which brought forth a coughing fit that left him breathless.
"Don't be worrin' 'bout no window and stop makin' jokes," Chris admonished, his heart had picked up an extra beat when Ezra had started coughing.
Ezra's face scrunched and he hissed as Nathan's hands began checking the wounds on his back.
Nathan pulled back. "Sorry, Ez. Now listen, you have a lot of glass in you, which I'm going to have to remove." Nathan paused a moment in thought then absently remarked. "I wish I had something to help me see these small pieces of glass."
JD's eyes lit up. "I think I might know of something. Be right back." Before anyone could ask, the young gunslinger was out the door.
"Ezra, you still with us?" Nathan asked, leaning over and seeing that the gambler's eyes were closed.
"Yes, Mr. Jackson, unfortunately I am." Ezra swallowed and Nathan could see that he was having a hard time breathing.
"Does your chest hurt?"
"How does it feel? Nathan came around to the other side of the bed and leaning over Vin checked the bullet wound in Ezra's chest.
"Like someone of great tonnage is sitting on it and poking a pointed stick in it."
Ezra smiled through the pain-filled expression on his face. He could feel Vin's hand absently rubbing his shoulder. Normally, the familiar contact would bother him, but instead he found himself concentrating on the soothing feeling that it educed.
Nathan stood up. "Well, the bullet wound seems okay, no sign of infection. Maybe the bullet nicked a lung or something."
"Or something?" Ezra quipped.
Nathan dropped his hands to his side. "Hell, Ezra, I'm no doctor. I'm doing the best I can." Anger tinged the healer's words and he instantly regretted it. "I'm sorry."
"No...apologies necessary," Ezra replied as he tried to regain some of his complacent nature. He didn't want the others to see how really worried and scared he was.
Buck entered the clinic, juggling four ewers of water. Chris quickly moved in and relieved him of two of his burden. When Buck noticed that Ezra was awake he was quickly at the conman's side.
"Ay, pard how you doing?"
"Just dandy, Mr. Wilmington," Ezra acidly replied. Buck bowed his head.
Nathan pulled Buck back out of the way and sat back in the chair. Ezra couldn't see the healer's face, but he could hear it in the nervous exhale of his breath, there was bad news.
"What is it, Mr. Jackson?" Ezra drawled.
Vin, Chris, Buck and Nathan all regarded each other at the same time.
"Well, as I said, you have a lot of glass in you and I'm going to have to cut some of it out." Nathan paused a moment. "I won't be able to give you much pain medicine with your breathing being so difficult."
Ezra's impassive façade fell. He felt the healer squeeze his arm. The pain in his back was almost unbearable now, what was it going to be like when Nathan started cutting and pulling out glass. A small shudder went through him.
Everyone turned as JD rushed in. The young gunslinger was completely out of breath. JD bent over and put his hands on his knees then straightened and took in a couple deep breaths, trying to get enough air inside to talk.
"Here, will this help?"
JD opened his hand to reveal a jeweler's loupe. It was basically a very small spyglass or rather-a magnifying glass designed to fit in the user's eye socket like a monocle. Nathan stared at the instrument that jeweler's used to examine fine jewelry. His face lit up as he realized the benefit of such a tool.