The Past Redeemed
Parts 1-4 | Parts 5-8 | Parts 9-13 | Parts 14-17
Parts 18-21 | Parts 22-25 | Parts 26-29 | Parts 30-33 | Parts 34-37
Pony was growing tired of waiting, but she was even more frightened of what would happen when the waiting was over. For the hundredth time she looked down at Ezra, but he had not moved or made a sound since the fight. He still lay where he had fallen, curled on his side, eyes closed, his sweat - slicked skin pale against the angry red wounds covering him. He was still breathing, but it was very light, almost imperceptible, and more than once Pony thought he was dead. But he seemed too stubborn to die just yet.
She cast a glance back at the campsite; there had been some gunfire, probably Lew and Gray finishing things off. Vaguely she wondered who had won, but it would matter little to her. There was no reason to think Larabee's gang was any different than her own.
She coughed a bit and wiped the blood from her mouth. Her whole body ached, and she knew she needed to fix her wounds. If only she could get to the bag of supplies she always carried, but her horse was tethered with the others back at the campsite. Not much chance of getting to it without being shot by someone...
The gunfire subsided. She shifted a little and glanced over to where Trent's horse was browsing on the dry vegetation. She could always make a break for it and ride away, but there was nowhere to go. Without supplies and water, she'd only be choosing a slow death over a quick one. And she was so damn tried of running.
Besides, she thought as she looked down at Ezra, she didn't want to just leave him here. He might need her help - what if they tried to kill him? She'd seen men in gangs turn on each other and shoot those who could no longer pull their load. She couldn't do much to stop them but at least he wouldn't have to die alone.
A loud groan reached her ears. She sat up quickly, but was disappointed to see that it was only that big fellow, Josiah, coming around. She swallowed -maybe now he'd try to finish her off - but stood her ground, ready to protect Ezra.
"God Almighty," Josiah moaned, sitting up slowly and rubbing the side of his head. He blinked and looked around, and Pony tensed when she saw his blue eyes fall on her.
But he only asked, "Lord! You all right, miss?"
She coughed a little, trying to hide her surprise, and wiped at the blood on her face. "Oh, yeah. Just got knocked around a bit."
Josiah took a deep breath and looked around at the churned-up dust and Trent's bloodied body. A sigh escaped his lips. "Guess he wouldn't listen to reason, huh?"
Pony grunted. "Nope. Never could, really."
"Mm," Josiah nodded, then glanced down at Ezra. He made a small move towards him. "Is he - "
Pony inched a little closer to Ezra and glared at Josiah. "I ain't gonna let you hurt him, mister, just so you know."
Those blue eyes widened at her, and Pony was startled to see surprise and sadness mingling in those azure depths. "You got my word I ain't gonna hurt him, Miss," Josiah finally said slowly. "Just want to make sure he's all right, is all."
"Well, he ain't all right," Pony snapped. "An' it's no thanks to you an' them other men. You just about broke his heart."
Pony expected the man to hit her, or start swearing like Hanley always did when something vexed him. But instead, this man just looked at her with those great big sad blue eyes and backed away, a heavy expression of sorrow settling on his face. Pony had never seen anybody look like that, except maybe her pa when her mother died. That's what this man's face looked like. It was a look of grief.
Finally he nodded slowly, as if regret weighed him down. "I'm afraid that's the truth, Miss," he said, looking at Ezra, then at her with those sad eyes. "An' I can see you're takin' good care of my friend there, so I'll just leave you be. Maybe you can help him come back to us, an' then we can get all this worked out."
With that, he sat back and pulled out his bandanna, dabbing at the small stream of blood trickling from the cut on his head and glancing back at the campsite.
Pony felt overwhelmed with confusion. He didn't yell, or get mad. He might be one of those types that got real quiet, then went crazy, like Dark Sun. But he didn't seem to be that way. And the way he looked at Ezra, like he was all broken up inside over what had happened, that was unfamiliar to her as well. It was almost like he was really sorry for it. But maybe he was just pretending, to get her off guard.
She looked at him through narrow eyes, suspicious. "What kinda game you playin' here, mister?"
He looked at her, and appeared to be honestly confused. "Game?"
Pony gasped to herself at the sound of the shout, coiling up inside as someone else approached. The fact that it was that kid caused her to relax a bit, but her guard was still up. Now that the fight was over and she was a prisoner, anything could happen.
He was running, covered with sweat and exhausted.
"You all right, preacher?" JD asked as he got close.
Josiah nodded as he stood. "Yeah, just a close call. Still not rightly sure what happened."
"Everything's over back at the camp," JD announced. "Buck went to look for Chris an' Vin. How's Ezra?"
They both looked at Ezra, and Josiah moved toward him. Pony scooted forward a little, shielding him and fixing them with a cold, menacing glare.
Josiah read the warning in those brown eyes and held up his empty hands. "It's all right. We just want to know about our friend."
Pony hesitated, studying their faces. This could all be a trick so they could get their hands on Ezra, but since they had guns and she didn't, they didn't need trickery to have their way. None of them had tried to shoot her yet, but that didn't mean they wouldn't. Still, it was probably stupid to make them mad.
"All right," she said reluctantly, inching aside. "Just - I don't want him to get hurt no more."
"Neither do we, miss, believe me," Josiah said as he moved forward and bent over Ezra.
Pony watched sadly. *I'd like to believe you, mister,* she thought, *but I can't.*
Her suspicion was soon mingled with surprise as she watched them gather around Ezra. The preacher touched his shoulder gently and called his name, trying to rouse him. And the kid, JD, he seemed to be the most busted up of all.
The young girl was amazed at this. Of all of the men she'd ever ridden with, she had never seen any of them get so broken up over something like this. The wounded were usually shot, or patched up roughly, just enough so they could ride. And it was made perfectly clear that giving a damn about anyone else was dangerous. But these guys...Pony could only frown in puzzlement.
"He's still alive," Josiah finally announced, "but he needs doctorin' mighty bad."
"I'll find Nathan," JD said quickly, and ran off.
As JD's pounding footsteps faded away, a gentler noise reached their ears. Ezra was moving a little, his eyes still closed. Josiah and Pony looked at each other, hope glimmering in their eyes, and the preacher leaned over the stirring form of his friend.
A sleepy grunt escaped Ezra's throat, and after a moment he managed to blink open his eyes, just a little. Squinting against the brightness and dust, Ezra seemed confused for a moment; then his green eyes cleared, and he turned them to rest on Josiah's anxious face.
"Josiah," he whispered, a smile barely tugging at his dry lips. "Still...among the living, I see."
"That makes two of us," Josiah replied in a soft, highly relieved tone, as he placed a steadying hand on Ezra's shoulder. "You just hang on now, we got things under control."
"Hm." Ezra had stopped moving, but his eyes darted around fitfully. "Is Pony all right?"
"I'm right here," she said, scooting into his line of vision. He looked at her carefully, then seemed to relax a bit, as if assured now that she was safe.
"She's fine, Ezra, don't fret," Josiah promised, giving the girl a reassuring look. She shifted a little, unsure how to interpret it.
Ezra winced against a stab of pain. "And the rest...of her comrades?"
The preacher glanced back at the now-quiet camp and sighed. "Don't reckon t hey were as lucky." He looked back at Pony, and she read the sympathy in his blue eyes.
"Don't be sorry about it, mister," she said quickly. "I sure ain't."
Understanding flickered across the man's face, and he nodded. He bent his head down to check on Ezra, but the gambler's eyes had closed again, indicating that he had fallen once again into unconsciousness.
Josiah rose, grimacing as his stiff, sore muscles protested the movement. "We best get Ezra back to camp," he said, and with great care lifted the injured gambler in his arms.
Pony stood too, wiping her dirty hands on her even dirtier pants. Josiah glanced back at her, as if assuring himself that she was following him, then he turned and began walking swiftly back to the camp.
She paused - it would be easy enough to make a break for it now, when they would all be occupied - but after a moment's thought she ran after Josiah. She had to make sure that Ezra was going to be all right, and she was becoming very curious about these friends of his as well.
The hot dust swirled and sifted in their wake, drifting through the stifling air to settle gently on the twisted body of Trent. Pony threw him one last glance as she hurried away, then turned her eyes forward, leaving him and the life she had known behind.
Chris gasped as he hauled his leg over a rough patch of the trail. It had been a long, hot walk back from the river, and he knew he and Vin weren't even halfway back yet. They had been moving slowly, supporting each other as they inched along, hobbled by wounds but too stubborn to give it up.
His own head was spinning from the pain and blood loss, but his concern was more for Vin. It seemed each time he looked at the tracker, the younger man's skin was a little paler, his blue eyes more glazed.
"Wanna rest a bit?" he asked, clutching Vin's shoulder; Vin looked about ready to fall over.
Vin took a deep breath and nodded. "Reckon so, pard," he gasped, and they made their way to a large rock nearby, situated in the shade of a shallow stand of trees.
Chris carefully eased Vin onto the rock, then sat beside him, exhausted. Both men sat panting for several minutes, without words, gulping water from their canteens.
"God," Vin grimaced, clutching his ribs. "Feel like I been run over by a stampede." He looked up the trail, back towards the camp. "Wonder how the fight's goin'?"
Chris listened carefully as he swallowed a mouthful of water. "Don't hear no gunfire. Maybe it's over."
The tracker grunted. "Sure hope we won." He paused, still rubbing his ribs. "I owe ya one, pard, for comin' after me. You saved my life."
Chris thought of Yates going over the falls, taking with him Vin's last chance of freedom. His expression hardened, but he said nothing.
Footsteps caught their attention, and they both looked up to see Buck running down the rocky trail towards them. He was covered with dust and a little blood, but other than the wound in his arm, he appeared unhurt.
"Hey!" he greeted his two friends. "God'lmighty, what happened?"
"Later, Buck," Chris groaned, standing up very slowly. "Ain't much in the mood for stories right now."
Buck glanced in the direction of the river. "Yates?"
Chris looked at him somberly and shook his head.
Buck sighed. "Damn," he spat, and holstered his gun. "And that other guy?"
"Same," Vin replied, as he slid off the rock onto his feet with deliberate slowness. "How'd we do? Everyone all right?"
"JD went to check on Josiah an' Ezra," was Buck's response. He sighed, his dirty, sweat - slicked face growing serious. "Ezra wasn't lookin' too good, last time I saw 'im, but I reckon he's stubborn enough t'hang on. I passed Nathan on his way back to the camp. Guess he'll be patchin' up the lot of us."
"He's gonna start chargin' if this keeps up," Chris said through clenched teeth as he steadied himself. "Any of Eli's gang survive the fight?"
"Just an ol' man an' a gal," Buck replied. "They fought like hell, that's for sure."
Chris nodded. "Hell's a pretty good word for it," he said, and with Buck's help, they resumed their walk back home.
The campsite was quiet when Josiah, Ezra and Pony finally arrived. The smell of gunpowder still hung heavily in the air, its sharp stench almost overpowering. The shattered debris of rocks and trees lay strewn about the ground, indicating the ferocity of the battle. Here and there, small smears of blood on the rocks and ground marked the places where the guns' deadly missiles had found their targets.
Pony glanced around, then saw a small figure huddled next to the wagon, one wrist handcuffed to the wagon wheel.
"Gray!" she exclaimed, surprised, and went to him while Josiah lay Ezra carefully down on the softest-looking spot available.
The old man didn't look at her as she ran up. She stopped a few feet from him and stared at him, puzzled. His clothes were torn and bloodied some, but he didn't look too badly hurt.
"Hey, Gray, it's Pony," she prodded him, but there was no response. He continued to sit and stare morosely at nothing, an expression of disappointed anger etched into his dusty face.
"Best leave 'im be for now, miss," Josiah advised her as he took off his jacket. With one swift move he shook it out, then folded it and slipped it beneath Ezra's head. "Reckon he's a bit wore out. Losin' the fight might've rattled him some, too."
"Reckon so," Pony replied in an uncertain voice, moving back to where Josiah sat with Ezra. She crouched on the other side of Ezra, placing her hands on her knees as she looked him over. He was still unconscious, but the fact that he had come around once caused them both to hope he might wake up again.
"You got time for that story now?" Josiah asked as he soaked a cloth from his canteen and began gently wiping the blood and dirt from Ezra's face with it.
Pony frowned at him. "Story?"
He looked up at her with patient eyes. ""Bout how you an' Ezra wound up together. We all thought he was headin' for St. Louis."
Pony hesitated, unsure where to begin. As she thought about it, she heard some rustling in the trees nearby. She tensed, her weary nerves taut and apprehensive. A colored man appeared, someone Pony had never seen before, along with JD, and at the sight of Ezra they broke out into a run to where they all sat.
"Think that'll have t'wait for now, mister," Pony muttered reluctantly. "He got like this tryin' to save your lives. That's all I got time to say right now."
She wanted to tell them what happened and to keep asking questions, to find out why Ezra did this. But things were still too muddled and crowded with all of these new folks around, and she was still unsure how much to tell them. As the colored man joined them and began looking Ezra over with great concern, her instincts told her that now was not the time for questions. So she sat and watched, and wondered.
Ezra felt himself being pulled out of the comforting darkness, and deeply resented it. He had no desire to return to the blinding sunlight and searing pain of the conscious world. It would be much better for him, he thought, not to have to feel the small, sharp rocks digging into his back, or the hot desert air drying out what little moisture still clung to his lips.
But he had to resign himself to the situation as he slowly emerged from the soothing black void. And it wasn't all bad: someone was there, wiping at his burning skin with a cool cloth. The water against his dry, torn skin felt wonderful, and eased his reemergence to the land of the living.
His fuzzy mind began to clear, and as he did not have the strength yet to open his eyes or talk, he instead tried to remember what was happening. They had won the fight, thank God. Pony was all right, so were Josiah, JD and Buck. With any luck, the others had survived as well.
Ezra realized an explanation for his appearance would be asked of him sooner or later. He had to be ready. He could say he simply got sidetracked, assuming Pony hadn't told them already what happened.
But then, he mused in a sleepy haze as the soothing cloth continued to wipe away the blood and dirt, perhaps the truth would be better. But could he bring himself to confess such a private matter to them? His pain over their betrayal was his own affair. But that pain was lesser now, almost gone, replaced by a more powerful willingness to confirm their bond rather than sever it. JD had said he didn't trust them enough to let them know when he needed help. Could he start now?
The noise of shouts reached his ears, and the thudding of approaching footsteps. The cloth disappeared, and other hands took over, carefully pulling aside his stiff, bloodied cloths. One of his eyelids was gently pulled open, and he blinked against the blazing daylight, even though he was in the shade. A blurry form was bending over him, its indistinct shape quickly collecting itself as his squinting eyes adjusted to the light.
It was Nathan.
Ezra lay still, not listening as he heard Nathan's voice rattle off reassuring words. He barely felt the healer's quick movements as he looked over the worst of Ezra's many wounds. An overwhelmingly strong tide of anger swept over him, the pain of Nathan's earlier betrayal rushing anew to his heart. He had heard Josiah and JD regret the pain they had caused Ezra, but Nathan...
*Nathan said Ezra was just bein' stubborn*
*Good thing you don't have that saloon no more, else you'd be fleecin' every man in town!*
The old hurt filled Ezra's soul again; he was too weak to fight it off. His recent suffering had laid his emotions bare, and he could not control the trembling which seized his weary frame. Every angry word of their last conversation filled his mind; Nathan didn't apologize, he didn't sympathize with Ezra's misfortunes, or admit the part he played in them. He had only sat back smugly, practically gloating in his downfall.
And now here he was, daring to put his hands on Ezra's person.
Nathan must have noticed the change in Ezra's state. Ezra could see him look into his face, pretending to be concerned.
"Ezra?" he heard him say. "Can you hear me?"
Ezra could feel his eyes burning with anger, and he mustered enough enough strength to mutter in a sharp whisper, "Kindly...take your hands...OFF me!"
The small group around Ezra started at the fury behind Ezra's feeble words.
JD stood behind Nathan, his hazel eyes confused. "Nathan, is he - ?"
Nathan leaned closer to Ezra, putting one hand gingerly on his shoulder. "Hey, take it easy, now - "
To their surprise, Ezra's arms flew up, knocking Nathan's hand away. It fell quickly back, but the fire in Ezra's green eyes was unmistakable. The Southerner was incensed.
"I will not...'take it easy'," he hissed, his breathing becoming labored, "and I will not consent...to being tended to...by a man who has no concern...for my well-being."
"Ezra, what're you sayin'?" JD said in alarm. He looked to Josiah for help, but the preacher was only watching sadly and not moving.
Nathan hesitated, his expression a tumbling mix of understanding, hurt and resentment. An angry response seemed to be on his lips, but he shook his head quickly as if to fling it aside.
"Don't go talkin' nonsense, now," he said, reaching for him again.
"NO!" Ezra cried, the steely tone of his voice stopping Nathan dead.
The healer sighed with exasperation. "You'll die if you don't let me see to them wounds!"
"No, he won't. I can take care of 'im."
The groups eyes all turned to Pony in surprise. She stared back with calm strength as her hand tightened gently around Ezra's arm.
"You know healin'?" Nathan asked.
Pony nodded. "Course, someone had to stitch up the fellers. A lot of 'em got banged up worse'n this. If Ezra won't let you...if you need someone else to fix 'im up, I can do it. Just need the bag from my horse over yonder."
There was quiet for a moment.
"That all right with you, Ezra?" Josiah asked.
Ezra's eyes flickered between Pony and Nathan. "Infinitely," he said firmly.
Buck's voice caught everyone's attention, and they all looked to see Buck coming up the trail with the dusty and bloodied pair of Chris and Vin.
"Merciful Father," Josiah breathed. He looked at Pony, his expression serious. "Do what you can for him, Miss. Much obliged," he said quickly, then jumped up to go and help Buck.
She watched him run off, then turned her large brown eyes to Nathan. He was frowning at Ezra, who was returning the expression with equal ferocity.
"If he wants t'be a stubborn fool, I can't do nothin' about it," Nathan said, getting to his feet.
He paused, glancing down at Ezra for just a moment. Ezra's eyes were closed again, but Pony could feel him still trembling beneath her hand. For just a moment the anger on Nathan's face disappeared, replaced by something close to sadness. Then he turned and hurried away to the others.
JD appeared and handed her the well-worn canvas bag she carried her kit in. "Here you go, miss. Can you help him?"
"I'll try," she replied, reaching into the bag and assessing its contents. "He's beat up pretty bad, though."
After a few moments of silence, she looked up to see JD looking down at Ezra's unconscious form, trying to speak. Powerful emotion seemed to be strangling his voice.
"You all right?" she said, taken aback.
With a start, he looked up at her, somewhat thrown. "Oh yeah," he finally gasped. "Just - I'd really be grateful if you could help him. I...got some things I wanna say to him. That's all."
She thought of the pain that had been in Ezra's green eyes when he had spoken to her so long ago, about wanting his friends to live despite the pain they'd caused him. She still didn't understand such thinking, but she did want Ezra to survive this, and perhaps mend whatever had been broken between himself and these men. He deserved that much.
Looking up at JD, she said, "Can you help me carry him to the river? Them cuts need cleanin' powerful bad."
JD nodded, and as carefully as he could lifted Ezra by the arms while Pony carried his feet. Together they made their way down to the river, Pony hoping that she could restore the wandering gambler to his friends while he still had life enough in him to appreciate it.
"Dang it all, Vin," Nathan was saying as he looked at Vin's bare, bloodied chest," you done ripped out every one of them stitches."
"Reckoned as much," Vin panted as he sat next to Chris on the shaded rock, his breath coming in gasps. One hand clasped a canteen, already mostly drained of its contents.
"Yates must've put up one hell of a fight," Josiah observed as he helped Chris drain another canteen.
Chris nodded as the canteen was taken away, still trying to catch his breath from the pain and exhaustion. "Yeah, he did," he said, wiping his mouth on the back of his hand. "Damn fool, wouldn't even let me save his life."
"Some men ain't as afraid of dyin' as of livin' - OW!" Vin winced as Nathan placed a treated cloth against one of his scrapes. "Damn, that stings, Nathan!"
"Blood poisonin' stings worse," was the sharp reply, as Nathan continued to apply his medicine. "Now hold still."
"So what now?" Buck asked quietly, looking back over the scene of the gunfight.
Chris sighed and rubbed his face hard, being careful of the bruises and cuts. "We'll wait til we can all travel, then...head back home."
Silence fell over the group, a sad blanket of disappointment shrouding them all.
"I'm sorry, Vin," Buck finally said in a somber voice.
Vin glanced at him, then let his blue eyes travel over the small group. Weariness etched every line in his handsome face, but the eyes shone with more resolve now than pain.
"I ain't gonna lie an' say this is what I wanted," he said softly, his voice rough with fatigue, "but the way I see it, as long as I got breath, an' you fellers to fight with me, I got hope. This here ain't the end of the trail, just a...just a restin' spot."
"Amen," Josiah whispered.
"You know we'll back you, Vin, no matter what comes," Buck chimed in, his blue eyes firm.
Vin nodded, a small smile playing on his lips. "I'm sure grateful to you fellers for that," he said.
Chris looked at them all seriously. "Judge hired us to ride together," he stated simply, "an' I reckon that's what we ought to do, long as we can."
They fell silent again, each man occupied with his own private thoughts.
"How you figure that Ezra?" Buck finally said. "Showin' up out of nowhere like that. Scared the tar outta me, I can tell you that."
"Nothin' Ezra does ever surprises me," Chris confessed, pulling his bloodied black shirt from his bruised body in a very slow manner. "He say what happened to him?"
Nathan grunted as he finished cleaning Vin's torn stitches. "Crossed somebody gamblin', most likely."
He pursed his lips, shaking his head, and lifted his eyes. To his surprise, he found Josiah looking straight at him, an expression of sadness on his long face.
"That gal Pony told me he got that way tryin' to save us," he said slowly.
"Pony?" Chris looked over as he tossed his ruined shirt away, his bruised chest glistening with sweat and ruby-red drops of blood.
"One of Eli Joe's gang," Buck explained, leaning against a tree. "Saved JD's life, I reckon we can trust 'er."
"I don't," Nathan said as he began to stitch up Vin's wounds. "Only reason I let 'er look after Ezra was he didn't want me touchin' him."
"Did she say what happened?" Vin asked through clenched teeth.
Josiah shook his head. "She's mighty suspicious of us, an' scared."
Buck sighed. "Hell, she's young an' alone now. That'd scare anybody." he glanced back to the campsite, at the lone figure of Gray, still cuffed to the wagon wheel, unmoving and heedless of his surroundings. "Guess we'll have to find a jail to put the ol' man in on the way back."
"Or a hospital," Josiah offered, gazing at the man himself. "He don't look right in the head at the moment."
"That whole gang must've been crazy," Nathan said with a sad shake of his head as he stitched. "That blonde Indian-lookin' fella I chased up into the hills, he had the wildest eyes I ever seen on a white man."
Vin nodded. "Reckon you're right, Nathan."
"Well," the healer shrugged as he broke off the thread and knotted it, "he jumped off that cliff before he'd let me help 'im, so I don't spose we'll ever know what drove 'im."
Josiah shook his head. "What drove 'em all, I guess. Madness for revenge -against us, or God, or the world, might not have mattered much to them."
"Just lookin' for a fight, I reckon," Buck sighed. "An' now it's over."
Josiah leaned forward thoughtfully, his eyes going to the path where JD and Pony had carried Ezra.
"This fight's over, Buck," he said quietly. "But there's still others goin' on."
Ezra sighed as he idly watched Pony rinsing out a bloodstained cloth in the river. Amazing to think, he mused, that it was all over now.
He closed his eyes and tried to relax. It was very soothing to lie here propped up against a rock in the shade by the cool river, he thought. Everyone was safe, the fight was finished, and while it did not have a perfect resolution - there was no telling what Vin would do, now that Yates was gone, and he still had to explain to the others how he came to be here instead of in St. Louis - at least there had been no casualties among their small group. Now he would be able to recover from his ordeal, and decide what to do next.
Pony, it turned out, was quite skillful in the art of nursing. Once she and JD had gotten Ezra to the river, the girl had wasted no time cleaning the angry red wounds disfiguring Ezra's body. Ezra had only a vague memory of this, being only partly conscious at the time, but he remembered the remnants of his torn and bloody clothes being carefully removed, and the indescribably soothing feeling of cold clean water rinsing off his dirty skin. All that remained on him now were the somewhat tattered remains of his summer underwear, which now resembled a pair of sliced - up knee breeches.
JD was gone now, and Pony had finally finished stitching and bandaging the cuts and gashes. Sore and weak, Ezra had little strength to do much besides try to stay awake, and feel eternally grateful that they had all survived.
"Here you go," he heard Pony say through a hazy, heat-induced doze, and he opened his eyes to see her walking towards him with a dripping canteen, the falling droplets sparkling like diamonds in the sunlight. She crouched next to him and helped him drink, steadying the canteen with one hand.
"Them bruises will take a while t'heal," she was saying, looking over his battered body with an experienced eye. "An' don't go pullin' out them stitches. You're as sewed up as a rag doll right now."
Ezra coughed a little and gently pushed away the canteen after he'd had enough. "Thank you, my dear," he said, leaning back and licking his lips. "I'm quite familiar with this routine."
She looked at him with a crooked smile as she recorked the canteen. "Been through this before, huh?"
Ezra groaned and rubbed his eyes. "Quite often - association with Mr. Larabee and the others seems to invite this sort of abuse."
"Huh," she chuckled and set the canteen aside, settling down in the grass next to him. "Bet you're happy. I mean, you're back with your friends now. It all worked out."
"Yes," Ezra said in a sleepy voice, gazing at the river through half-open eyes. "It appears Fate has smiled on our imperfect band once again. Now I must simply decide on my place in it." He opened his eyes a little and looked at her. "My thanks for your help, Pony. At least two of my comrades would be dead right now, were it not for your intervention."
She shrugged, wrapping her arms around her knees and looking away. "Shit, Ezra, I ain't no hero. Just - didn't seem to me they ought to die like that. Once I thought they did, but..." Her voice trailed off, and she shrugged again.
Ezra smiled. "A bewildering lot, aren't they?"
She looked at him and smiled back a little. "Sure are. Nothin' like Eli Joe's gang, that's for sure. Reckon they'll take some gettin' used to, til they decide what to do with me."
There was a moment of silence as Ezra pondered the question. "That will be up to Judge Travis and Chris, but I believe JD and Josiah will be able to at least put in a good word for you. And I will do all in my power to assure you a fair sentence."
Pony grinned at him and very lightly slapped his arm. "Knew I saved your life for some reason," she said. Then a more serious light came into her brown eyes. "Hey, who's that Nathan feller? You sure cut him dead, back there."
Ezra shifted a bit, uncomfortable at the thought of discussing his anger with Nathan right now. "You need not concern yourself with him, my dear. He and I have...a difference of opinion on some matters, and I prefer that they stay private."
She snorted. "Must be a hell of a difference. Is he a doctor?"
"A healer," Ezra corrected her, "not a doctor, although he has had a brief memory lapse in that regard recently."
"That why you're so riled at him?" she inquired, leaning back on her elbows in the grass.
A baby headache sprang up behind Ezra's eyes, and he massaged them weakly. "Forgive me, Pony, but there is little that I wish to discuss about Mr. Jackson. Ours is a quarrel which may never be settled, and I believe we are both content with that."
Pony looked at him in surprise. "You are? Even after all you went through to save their necks?"
Ezra sighed. "I will never regret what I've done, Pony, but there is a gulf between myself and Nathan that is well nigh unbreachable."
She cocked her head. "'Cause he's colored, an' you're a Southerner?"
He paused. "At one time that may perhaps have been true, but not any longer. It is because he has acted dishonorably, and has refused to admit his failings while continuously upbraiding me for mine. And while I am no angel, I am also not a hypocrite."
He frowned and leaned back again, watching the river and desperately hoping she would close the subject.
"He sure didn't look like he blamed you for nothin' when he saw you was hurt," he heard her offer almost timidly. His eyes snapped open and he studied her, his mood bordering on irritation.
"Pure reflex, I assure you," he replied. "LIkely he planned to lecture me while binding my wounds."
He gave her a steady, conversation-ending gaze, and leaned back once more, closing his eyes. A nap sounded perfect right about now.
He heard a soft rustle as she stood. "Well, you wanna throw it away, that's up to you," she said.
He opened one eye and looked at her. "Throw what away, I pray?"
She was looking down at him, wiping her dusty palms on her pants. "Your friendship, with that Nathan."
"I would hardly call it a friendship," Ezra countered, both eyes open now. He was going to win this argument if it killed him. "It is a business arrangement."
"Yeah?" Pony crouched back down, her own eyes wide. "Well, you can call it what you want, but all's I can say is, I wish to Hell I'd been able to find a 'business arrangement' like that when I was scared an' alone after Pa died. Instead I found Eli Joe, an' a mean bunch of bastards who'd just as soon shoot you as look at you. I been around hard men like that most my life, an' I know what it's like t'have folks around you that don't care. But this Nathan feller, he ain't one of those."
Ezra eyed her keenly. "And you figured that out, in the two minutes you spent with him?" he said in a skeptical voice.
"Hell, yes!" she replied, becoming angry. "I can read a person right quick - had to learn that fast. This Nathan might be a hypocrite or whatever, but there weren't no lyin' in his eyes when he saw you was hurt. He looked scared to me, like they all did. An' I guess - "
Her voice faltered, and she sat back on the grass, pulling at it idly as she struggled to find the words. Her eyes looked off into the distance as she spoke.
"I guess I just can't figure," she finally said, in a sad voice, "why you'd have someone like Nathan, who wanted to help you out so bad, an' you'd just push 'im off. That sort of carin' ain't so common that you can just toss it away with both hands like that, Ezra. Believe me, I know."
She looked up at him. "Course I don't really know nothin' about you. Maybe you had a good time growin' up, with a nice home an' lots of friends an' folks who loved you. Maybe you never had no trouble findin' a home an' fittin' in. I never had none of that, maybe that's why, if I had what you got, I'd fight for it with everything I had, even if I was riled. He might turn his back on you, but you'll know you didn't let it go without a fight."
She looked up, sniffed, and wiped her nose on the back of her hand. "Well, anyway, I'm probably just shootin' my damn mouth off an' meddlin' where I shouldn't. But you asked why I gave a damn an' that's why."
There was a long silence, during which they both sat in thought, watching the river shine and flash in the afternoon sun.
"Very noble sentiments, my dear," Ezra finally said quietly, torn between his anger at Nathan and his desire for peace. "They may be easier spoken than put into practice, however."
She gave a slight shrug and looked away. "Yeah, well. After all you been through for them already, I reckoned you was up to the fight." She stood. "You rest up, I'm goin' to finish washin' out the rags."
She turned on her heel and walked back to the river. Ezra watched her go, still bewildered by the girl's simply spoken words. It was a lot to think about, and Ezra mulled over the question in the cool afternoon shade until he once more fell asleep.
The setting sun was casting its rosy light across the quiet campsite as Nathan set himself down on a rock with a weary sigh. It had been a hard day - first the gunfight, then the aftermath. Vin and Chris had both been seriously wounded, and he had nearly worn himself out stitching the two of them up.
He rubbed the back of his neck with slow, aching movements and let his tired gaze drift past the small campfire to where the two men were resting. Chris was sitting up against a rock, still awake (despite his recommendation to get some sleep, Nathan noted with slight irritation) and keeping watch over Vin. Removing the bullet from Chris's leg and treating his cuts and bruises had gone as well as could be hoped; their leader had endured it all with only the occasional grunt, and a good deal of sweat, as the only clues to the amount of pain he was in. He was weak, now, but knowing Chris it would not be long before he was back in the saddle.
Vin had been more chancy, Nathan recollected as he sipped at the tin cup of coffee he held in one hand. Chris had insisted that the tracker be treated first, and it had taken Nathan quite a while to sew up Vin's torn stitches. Almost every one of them had been ripped out - it must have been one hell of a fight. But what else could you expect from Vin, the healer mused with a small smile. After all, he was fighting for his life...
Now Vin was asleep near the campfire, unbothered by the hustle of Buck trying to fix dinner. They'd have to be careful on the way back home, Nathan realized as he finished his coffee - Vin would have to ride in the wagon again, and he sure wouldn't like that. But he was in no shape to ride. And Ezra would have to travel in the wagon too, until he was strong enough to saddle up.
Ezra. Nathan frowned at the jumbled feelings the name conjured up, frustration mixed with pain over the Southerner's angry rejection of his help. Bullheaded to the end...
"Enjoyin' the moment of peace, Nate?"
Nathan looked up to see Josiah walking towards him from the campsite, hat off, blue eyes shining in the last pink rays of the setting sun.
Nathan smiled and nodded as Josiah sat himself on the rock next to the healer. "Yup. Done enough today, I spose."
"That you have," Josiah agreed, and waved a hand towards the pot simmering over the campfire. "Buck says dinner'll be ready soon."
A chuckle escaped Nathan's lips as he set down his empty cup. "Lord, I been so busy, didn't even notice I was so hungry. Right now I could even eat Buck's cookin' an' like it."
"After a day like this one, I think we can all share that sentiment," Josiah agreed, rubbing his eyes. "A hot day, my brother, a very hot day."
Nathan sighed, his eyes glancing at the battle debris that still littered the landscape. "They gave us a fight, that's for sure." he paused, then looked at Josiah. "Did you an' Buck get 'em all buried?"
Josiah's eyes were clouded as he leaned back on his hands, his expression pensive. "Buried the men we found dead on the mountain, an' the boy who attacked me." He looked slowly at Nathan. "But we searched all over, an' couldn't find a trace of Yates or that white Indian - dressed man you went after. It was like they were snatched up whole into the afterlife."
Nathan's face grew serious as he watched the sun slip below the horizon. "Guess Yates must've been washed downriver. Hard to believe he'd survive a fall like that. An' that fella I was chasin' - he must've been dragged off by animals."
Josiah took a deep, exhausted breath. "Perhaps, brother. Most likely we'll never know. All we can do is pray that their evil ways have won them their just rewards."
Nathan nodded. "Amen," he said quietly. He didn't like to think that the wild madness he'd seen in that blonde man's eyes was still alive somewhere, waiting to recover and strike again. He wanted to believe that it was over.
They were silent for a while, watching Buck as he stirred the dinner pot.
"You see Ezra?" Josiah finally asked in the twilight stillness.
Nathan gave a short sigh and shook his head. "I know he's restin' up over yonder an' JD's keepin' an eye on him an' that gal from Eli Joe's gang. But he don't want nothin' to do with me, so I'm keepin' my distance."
"Hm," Josiah replied, with a nonjudgmental grunt. "Don't reckon he'll be up to stackin' the deck for a while. Pony fixed him up but he's got a long road ahead of him."
"Glad she was there," Nathan said, a touch of anger in his voice. "The man was willin' t'bleed to death before he'd let me help 'im." He paused, then looked at his old friend. "Never saw a man that stubborn, Josiah."
The other man smiled a little. "Me neither, but that's good. It's probably what's kept him alive this long." He turned his eyes to Nathan. "Leastways, now you can patch things up if you want."
Nathan scowled, his manner becoming edgy. "He don't wanna listen to a word I say, Josiah. Hard to mend fences with a man that won't talk to you."
"I know that," was Josiah's thoughtful response as he looked down at his hands. "But I also know it ain't right to let a quarrel go without tryin' to end it. The bad blood just keeps festerin' til nothing on God's earth can cure it - an' before you even know it, it's too late. It's a terrible burden to bear, my friend. A terrible burden."
Nathan could see sad memories lurking behind Josiah's blue eyes, of his father perhaps, or some other rift in his life that was never mended. Nathan eyed Josiah with confused skepticism. "What, you mean I should go crawlin' to Ezra an' beg his forgiveness when he's the one causin' the fuss? I tried to apologize to 'im for what happened, back before we left town. He practically threw me out of the saloon."
Josiah eyed him carefully. "An' that was all Ezra's doin'?"
The healer hesitated, remembering their fight, how Nathan had brought up Ezra's failed saloon and thrown it in his face. He recalled how ashamed he was of himself afterwards, how he'd blamed it on Ezra's stubbornness. But he knew in his heart it wasn't all Ezra's fault, that Nathan had allowed his pride to get the better of him.
Josiah sat up, stretching as he gazed at the deepening night sky. "I'm sorry, Nate, I know I shouldn't be interferin' in matters like this that ain' t none of my business. But it's my job to help souls in pain, an' I can tell that you an' Ezra are both in need of a healin'." He turned to Nathan and put a hand on his shoulder, his face serious in the dim light of the flickering campfire. "You're my friend, Nate, an' Ezra's my friend too. So I hope whatever needs to be fixed between you gets worked out, so you can both have peace, before the day comes when it won't be possible."
"Come an' get it, boys!" Buck's shout rang across the campsite, stirring both men from their reverie. They glanced in Buck's direction, then looked back at each other. Josiah patted Nathan's shoulder, then rose and walked towards the glowing fire.
Nathan sat where he was for a few moments longer, his dark eyes deep in thought as they glistened in the fire's glow. Then he rose, still wrapped in contemplation as he went to join his friends, wondering if he could mend his own pain as skillfully as he had mended theirs.
Pony sat some distance away from the campfire and watched the men as they got their dinner. Drawing her knees up to her chin, she folded her arms and rested them on her knees, idly wondering what was going to happen to her.
After a few moments she looked over at Ezra, who lay sleeping under a tree only a few paces away. Ever since Pony and JD had carried him there a few hours earlier, Ezra had done nothing more than get some much-needed rest. Now he lay, half-curled up on his side beneath a thin blanket, his face almost hidden by the folded blanket which was serving as a pillow. He was still pale and weak, but at least he was still breathing as well. Pony felt slightly surprised at this; most other gangs she'd known would have pegged Ezra as deadweight and shot him hours ago.
She heard footsteps crunching on the gritty desert ground, and whirled, half-convinced that they were coming to kill her after all. But it was only JD, carrying nothing more dangerous than a plate of food.
"Hey!" JD said with a nervous smile, stepping back at her sudden movement. "Don't worry. I was just bringin' you some food."
She regained her breath and managed to force a wan smile onto her face. "Thanks," she muttered as she accepted the plate. Suddenly she looked at it again, and paused.
"Uh, it's okay," JD prompted, unsure why she seemed so hesitant. "Just a mess of beans an' some chili."
She looked at him and shook her head, an expression of amused embarrassment on her face. "It ain't that, I was just thinkin' - this is the first meal I've had for a long time that I ain't had to cook up myself. Makes for kinda a nice change."
JD grinned. "Wait til you taste it before decidin' that. It *is* Buck's cookin', after all."
Pony chuckled a little, trying to relax. She picked up the fork. "Thanks."
The young man nodded. "Sure." He turned, then turned back, struck by a thought. "Say, you don't have to sit all alone out here. If you want to come by the fire I'm sure it'll be okay."
She grinned at him, her mouth full. "You sparkin' me, city boy?"
"Oh, no!" JD said quickly. "No, I got a gal. I just mean - you might be kinda lonely out here, an' it's gettin' cold. That's all."
Pony gazed up at him, more confused than ever. She was their prisoner, and JD was offering her food and a fire. It was unheard of. "Ain't you afraid I'll attack you, or run off?"
JD shrugged. "You ain't done that yet. An' you saved my neck, an' Buck's an Ezra's too. If anyone says anything, they'll have to deal with us." He nodded his head once, to affirm the idea, then looked over at the still figure still dozing under the tree. "How's Ezra doin'?"
"Still sleepin'," Pony said as she shoveled in another forkful of food. It really wasn't bad, but JD was right, Buck was no cook. "He's still plenty tuckered. Probably won't be right for a while."
JD's gaze grew pensive and he shook his head. "He sure looks awful. What happened to him?"
"Long story," was the answer as Pony put down her fork and looked up at him. "I don't feel right in talkin' on it just yet. But he was tryin' to help you, I can tell you that. He sure sets a store by you fellers."
JD nodded sadly. "Well, things wouldn't be the same without Ezra, that's for sure. We're sure glad you helped him."
She looked down at the half-eaten plate, embarrassed, then lifted her head, her brown eyes serious in the faint firelight. "Don't guess even your gratitude's enough t'keep me outta jail. You gonna lock me up like Gray?"
Pony's gaze drifted over to the huddled, motionless figure still seated next to the wagon. He was uncuffed now, but his plate of food sat next to him untouched as he continued to stare dispiritedly into the darkness.
JD looked back at her. "I don't rightly know what's gonna happen, Miss Pony. That'll be up to the judge. But we'll put in a good word for you, you can count on that."
He looked behind him towards the fire. "Now I gotta go - Buck's food tastes even worse when it's cold."
With a half-smile and a tip of his bowler hat - a gesture which took Pony by complete surprise - JD walked back to the fire, leaving Pony to her thoughts.
She finished her food in silence, watching the men as they ate in the growing brightness of the campfire. She could hear them talk, and laugh a little. The leader, Larabee, was there, but that Vin guy wasn't. Probably sleeping like Ezra, she figured. They moaned about their wounds with mocking words, except for Larabee who seemed pretty quiet and thoughtful. A good hour passed as Pony observed them, looking for some sign of the monsters Eli Joe and Hanley had painted these men to be. There had been nothing so far, but her wary heart was still waiting for the truth to emerge in a word or gesture. The truth that men were all the same, and she was right to have given up on believing any different.
After a while she shivered; the air was becoming biting with the sun gone. A movement in the fire caught her eye, and she saw Josiah coming towards her, his figure looming in the fire's glare.
"Doin' all right?" she heard him say; it was hard to see his face.
She nodded, unwilling to admit that she was getting cold. "Sure am. I been out in worse'n this."
She saw the shadow nod, and he walked over to Ezra's unconscious form.
"What're you thinkin' on?" she asked nervously, a fear rising in her chest, that they really were going to kill him now.
"Don't fret," Josiah replied as he bent over and very carefully lifted Ezra's sleeping body in his arms. "Just movin' Ezra closer to the fire where it's warmer." He turned so she could see his face, and she saw the unfamiliar expression of compassion there. "You're welcome to join us if you want to keep an eye on him. Don't guess he'd want you to freeze."
With that he turned and made his way back to the fire, carrying Ezra's blanket-wrapped form with great care. Pony hesitated, then rose and followed him, almost hoping the men would do something to prove her suspicions were correct. It would make hating them - as she knew she should do - so much easier.
She crept slowly into the warm circle of firelight, reading each expression as she approached. Most of them were friendly, Larabee's was slightly suspicious, Nathan's even more so. But nobody raised a word or hand against her as she sat down, and after a few uneasy moments the air around the fire relaxed, the men beginning to talk quietly once again.
She watched as Josiah gently placed Ezra down close to the fire, but far enough away so that their talk would not disturb his slumber. He looks so damn pale, she thought; even worse in the full firelight. She noticed the men were watching with concern too, and saw Nathan in particular eying Ezra with a mixture of anxiety and regret.
"He gonna make it?" she heard Buck ask her.
She looked over to where he sat on the ground, his back against a rock. "Reckon so, if he gets rest an' good care. I did all I could for 'im, it's his fight now."
"A man can fight back from the brink of hell, if he's got a mind to," Larabee offered, then returned to drinking his coffee. The other men nodded solemnly.
"So can a gal," Pony replied softly, staring into the fire. "I done it enough to know."
"That how you got mixed up with Eli Joe?" Josiah asked as he sat down with the others.
Pony grunted, wishing she hadn't brought it up. "Pert near. Lost my baby brother an' ma an' pa an' decided life wasn't worth carin' about. But it ain't somethin' I like to talk on, so don't mind me. I'm just gonna sit by the fire for a spell."
With that, she shut her mouth, hoping they'd ignore her. She really didn't want to give them her life story, it was all in the past and pretty damn pointless. She just wanted to rest and see what would happen next.
The talk started again, soft and amiable, and she began to relax a bit as she realized they were respecting her wishes and leaving her alone. As she sat watching the fire, she felt eyes on her, and lifting her head saw Larabee eying her intently. She saw him studying her with those green eyes, for just a moment, before looking away, his face now thoughtful rather than suspicious.
She shivered, recognizing the pain in Larabee's green eyes, a pain even the darkness couldn't hide. It was an expression of deep loss and understanding, something she never dreamed she'd see in anyone's eyes but her own. *He lost someone*, she realized, *and it tore him up too.* A curious thought, that she and Larabee would have anything this side of Hell in common. But what lay beneath that bitter pain in the gunslinger's eyes, she couldn't tell.
The night wore on, and the time came to bed down. The fire was doused to a dim glow, and bed rolls and blankets were produced. Pony sat quietly, waiting; surely now, she thought, one of them would insist on being with her, just like in Hanley's gang. She was ready; one bed was like another, after all.
JD came up to her, holding out a blanket. "Got this from your horse, Miss. Thought you might need it."
She took it from him warily. "Thanks," she said, thinking, *Now he'll say he wants a different kind of thanks, I bet.*
JD smiled. "Sure. Night." He turned and walked away, hoisting his own bed roll onto his shoulder carefully, to protect his wounded arm.
She hesitated, then lay down, unfolding the blanket and looking around. None of them were even looking at her. Nathan was taking care of Gray; Pony noticed he didn't chain him back up before leaving the old man for the night. Josiah was checking on Ezra, and it almost looked to her like he was praying over him or something. Then he stood and looked down at Pony.
"He's still with us, thanks to you," he said. "Hope you have a good night." A tug of his hat brim, and he too was gone.
The talk died down, and quiet fell over the moonlit scene. Pony lay down, but was too nervous and confused to go to sleep right away. She strained to hear expected noises, the approach of bootsteps, a fumbling hand on her in the darkness, a rude suggestion - no, command - whispered roughly in her ear.
Nothing. Only the sound of gentle snores broke the midnight silence.
Pony's open eyes searched the darkness, bewildered by the truth. *Just wait*, her mind warned her, unwilling to fully give in. *It'll happen later -when you're asleep - when you can't defend yourself. Trent would laugh at you for being such a fool.*
Part of her believed that, and the sleep which finally eased her exhausted mind was of the light, half-awake kind she was used to. But there was another corner of her soul, long hidden and neglected, that stirred ever so slightly, reaching weakly at the slight glimpse of hope offered to it. The hope that she'd been wrong.
I guess we'll see, she thought, and went to sleep.