Author's Note: This story was inspired by NotTasha's "Devil's Hand"
story. Sorry for the resemblance, but I had to write it to get it out of my
head. Also thanks to NotTasha's fabulous editing skills.
The lashes came fast and furious, barely giving him time to breathe. He arched and tried to pull himself up and away from the pain. A lash struck between his shoulder blades, slicing through skin and muscle and sending a searing agony rippling throughout his body. He clamped his mouth shut, holding back the scream that desperately wanted to escape. The lash hit again and tears formed at the corners of his eyes as he squeezed them shut. The strikes came with more force as if the person was trying to slice him in two. He couldn't catch his breath and felt lightheaded. He thought he was going to die, the skin flayed from his body. He needed to hold on, someone would come, he just needed to hold on a little longer. The whip tore at his shoulder and he couldn't hold back the agony any longer.
"Pleeeease stoooopppp!" he yelled out as forcefully as he could, the pain stealing away the strength of his voice and making it plead. Tears coursed freely down his cheeks and he gasped for some much needed air.
It must have been what they wanted, because the whipping stopped and the night grew harshly quiet.
Discordant whispers broke the silence and Ezra opened his eyes as someone swore, "Oh dear God, what did we do?" He gazed at the oak tree in front of him. The old bark partially stripped away like his skin. He shivered from the cool breeze that seemed to enter his body. He could feel his blood oozing down his back. He hung limply, his legs unable to hold him up, his hands tied to a branch over head. His back and shoulders throbbed, and he tried not to breathe too deeply as it caused his beaten and bruised ribs to ache.
Ezra jerked slightly when he felt hands untying him and gently lowering him to the base of the tree. He couldn't quite comprehend this turn of events, this sudden compassion. A canteen of water was brought to his lips and he drank the liquid greedily. He warily eyed the dark shadowy forms around him. As the canteen was removed he felt a hand on his head and a whisper on his ear. "I'm so sorry."
Ezra thought maybe the torture had thrown him over the edge. Did his assailant actually apologize? Ezra remained still, wondering if this was some kind of trick. The three men had seemed determined to kill him, now they were sorry. Ezra chortled slightly which then turned into a cough wracking him with more pain. He felt utterly miserable, and then the first drops of rain hit his face. Ezra would have laughed if he had the strength; instead he rested his cheek upon the cool ground as everything vanished.
"Five more minutes, I'll give him just five more minutes," Buck mumbled as he anxiously paced just inside the stable. The sudden downpour had finally lessened and he tried again to peer through the veil of black at the edge of town. His fingers tapped the butts of his guns, and he started pacing again, trying to decide whether to wake the others. Ezra was late returning from patrol. There could be a reasonable explanation; the cardsharp hated rain. He probably holed up somewhere to stay dry. "Damnit, Ez, where are you?" Buck breathed a sigh of relief when a horse and rider broke through the darkness to enter onto the dimly lit street of town.
Ezra fought to remain in the saddle as his horse's slow plodding steps reverberated throughout his body. He tried to ignore the burning pain that caused his hands to shake, and his vision to blur. He swallowed back the nausea, something that was not doing his stomach any good. His clothes were soaked and stuck to his body. He had no idea how much time had passed.
"Hey, what happened?" Buck yelled out as Ezra neared the stable. "Your patrol was over an hour ago."
Ezra took a deep calming breath. He could pull this off. He pulled up his horse and stiffly dismounted, grateful for the dim light. Buck cocked an eyebrow as he scrutinized the shadowy figure. Ezra knew he had to say something or risk rousing his friend's suspicion.
He took another deep breath and tried to keep his voice even. "I'm afraid Chaucer lost his footing and I sort of took a spill," Ezra easily lied, hoping the tale explained his stiff movements.
"Are you alright?" Buck asked, concern coloring his words. "Maybe you should go and see Nathan." The gregarious cowboy could see that Ezra was hurting.
"No!" Ezra snapped, eliciting a frown from Buck. "I mean, it's not necessary to wake our esteemed healer at this hour," Ezra calmly explained. "I'm fine."
"Are you sure?" Buck questioned, taking a step forward.
Ezra circled around to the other side of Chaucer's head. "Nothing that a hot bath won't take care of. Could I impose on you to put Chaucer up?"
"Sure, no problem. You go and take care of yourself," Buck replied as he took hold of the horse's reins. He kept his eye on the elusive gambler.
Ezra tipped his hat and headed toward the bathhouse with as steady a gait as he could manage. He knew it was late, but hoped he could convince the proprietor of the necessity of a hot bath and maybe a bottle of whiskey. Ezra patted his vest feeling the large wad of money. He was sure there was enough there to be convincing.
Buck patted Chaucer. "What isn't your owner telling me?" Buck asked as he led the horse inside the stable.
Ezra stood stripped to the waist before the recently prepared tub. The water wasn't as hot as he would have liked, but he would make the best of it. He was alone, having promised Mr. Crenshaw that he would clean up after. There was no way for Ezra to see the damage done to his back and, honestly, he didn't want to. He held the whiskey bottle in one hand and grabbed the side of the tub with the other. Ezra took a long pull from the bottle then, stealing himself for what was to come, he poured the remainder down his back. The searing pain brought him to his knees and he gasped and clenched his teeth, waiting for the fire to abate. With trembling fingers, he removed his trousers and eased himself into the water. He hoped this would be sufficient to clean the wounds. He looked down at the dark circles of color forming on his chest and stomach. He didn't think any ribs were broken.
The water relaxed him somewhat and he began to wonder why he had reacted the way he did to Buck's offering to get Nathan. He and Nathan had come a long way toward understanding each other, but lately it seemed like the old animosity had returned. He had caught the kindly healer glaring at him with suspicion and disgust, usually after returning from the Grangers. He'd been introduced to Hiram and George two weeks ago and had felt the underlying hate. He had since decided to make himself scarce whenever one of the family members came to town. He thought he was being gracious, but Nathan had cornered him a few days ago and demanded to know why he left every time one of the Grangers came to town. It was an accusation and Ezra's pride had bristled. He didn't feel he owed the healer an explanation and the two men got into a heated argument with Nathan accusing him of not wanting to be around dirty N*****. Ezra wondered if the others had noticed the change in their friendship. He closed his eyes and sunk further down into the water trying to drown the embittered thoughts.
Ezra woke with a start, the water having cooled considerably. He slowly pulled himself out of the tub. He managed to get to his room without being seen and questioned. He ripped up several shirts and wrapped them around his torso the best he could. Ezra gently lay down on his side, and hoped that sleep would soon take him away from the constant burning pain. His thoughts went directly to the evening's horrid incident. He was returning to town after patrolling the eastern borders when he heard drunken laughter. He didn't recognize the voices and only wanted to make sure nothing was amiss. He knew he was near the Granger homestead. Ezra had stopped his horse upon seeing three black men sharing a bottle and apparently celebrating. He noticed another man passed out under a tree. He was a bit annoyed, realizing he'd probably have to make sure the men got home alright, or risk facing Larabee's wrath if anything should happen to them. He had been hoping to have some time for a game or two when he got back to town since yesterday was payday. "What do you think you boys are doing out here?" The drunken men glared at him, and even in the dark Ezra could see and feel the revulsion on their faces. He made to go for his gun, but hesitated. He was then grabbed and pulled off his horse. He was quickly disarmed and then beaten to the ground. He then heard George Granger say something that made his heart skip a beat.
"That's right, boy, let's show him what it's like. Give 'em a taste of his own medicine."
Ezra saw the young black man holding a whip in his hand and fear driven adrenalin filled him, as he tried to fight his way up. A sharp kick to his ribs had him curling up on the ground. He was roughly stripped to the waist and hauled to his feet. He ignored the slurs and insults made about his heritage. His ribs screamed as his arms were stretched up over his head. The first lash had unearthed childhood memories long buried. Ezra stared, unblinking at the far wall, sleep pushed aside as the recent assault raised up more than just the welts on his back. A young boy who'd runaway once too many times tied to a banister and listening to a step-uncle refer to him as no-good and useless and it was time to beat the devil out of him. Ezra pulled the quilt up to his chest. He could feel the fever building and shivered as a chill chased itself through his body.
Chris scowled up at the stairway as he drummed his fingers on the table. Ezra was ten minutes late for duty. Chris was letting his anger build toward the irresponsible cardsharp. Josiah and Vin sat across the table, watching their leader's anger grow. Josiah was thinking he should go work on the church and wondered how far Ezra would push Chris's ire. The southerner always seemed to know Chris's boiling point. Josiah thought he might be pushing it a bit this time.
Buck strode in, his easygoing air colliding with the dangerous mood filling the saloon and keeping customers away. "Hey, boys, who died?"
"Standish, if'n he don't get his ass down here," Chris growled.
Buck chuckled. He was used to his friend's dark moods. He sat down next to the irritated cowboy and looked across at Josiah and Vin.
"What's wrong?" Buck asked only to further Chris's anger.
"Ezra's late," Josiah offered.
"Again," Vin added, smiling as Chris's scowl deepened.
Buck's smile fell slightly, and he leaned back into his chair and removed his hat. "Well, I don't know if'n Ez is going to like me tellin' you this, but I reckon it's better then you shootin' him."
Chris's deadly gaze shifted over to the mustached cowboy. "Ez was late coming off patrol last night. It was rainin', so I waited. He said his horse slipped and he fell."
Josiah's eyes widened. "Was he hurt?"
Buck rubbed the back of his neck. "Well, it was dark out, but I could tell he was movin' kinda gingerly. He said he was fine."
Chris took a deep breath and digested what Buck was saying then glanced back up the stairs, his anger dissipating a little.
"How late was he?" Josiah asked Buck, worry floating on his words.
"About an hour."
Josiah's face darkened. "And you didn't think to get us?"
"Listen, Josiah, it was raining cats and dogs for awhile. I just figured ole Ez took cover 'til it was over," Buck quickly explained.
The four lawmen's attention was suddenly diverted at the sound of a closing door. Ezra stopped momentarily at the top of the stairs and straightened his jacket. He knew he looked like hell. He hadn't slept a wink. He hoped he could sneak into Nathan's clinic later and get some laudanum. He didn't know how he was going to manage rounds.
Chris's anger fizzled when he saw the gambler. Ezra looked awful. He was pale and his eyes were sunken, attesting to a very restless sleep. He watched as the southerner stiffly made his way down the stairs holding tightly to the rail. Ezra was breathless when he reached the bottom.
"Gentlemen, I apologize for my tardiness."
Silence filled the barroom as the lawmen all looked toward Chris.
Ezra swallowed. "I assume that Mr. Wilmington has informed you of my mishap last night, but I can assure you that..."
"Vin, take Ez's rounds," Chris interrupted. "Ez, go and relieve JD at the jail." Chris could see that the conman was in no shape to go walking around town.
Ezra was about to object but then decided against it. He was mildly surprised at Larabee's apparent concern. "I thank you." Ezra nodded and slowly made his way out of the saloon.
"Damn, he looks terrible," Buck voiced.
"Josiah, where's Nathan?" Chris demanded.
"He's out at Hiram Grangers', where else?" Josiah good-naturedly stated. Three weeks ago the black family had bought the old abandoned ranch just east of town. The family kept to themselves mostly, but seemed friendly enough when they visited town. Nathan had taken it upon himself to help them fit in. The other lawmen were glad that the black healer had someone to relate too. They knew he sometimes felt isolated and alone even though he considered them his friends.
"As soon as Nathan gets back, have him look at Ezra," Chris continued as he stood up.
"Might be a problem there, cowboy," Vin stated.
"Why?" Chris asked.
"Don't think Nate and Ez have been hitting it off to well lately," Vin explained. The perceptive tracker had seen and felt the growing tension between the healer and gambler.
"Yeah, I don't think I've seen them speak more than three civil words to each other in three weeks," Buck added. They had all seen the change in the two men, but had hoped they would work it out.
Chris released a long breath. "Well, they need to get over it." He hoped his precaution wasn't necessary but when he got a look at the southerner, a bad feeling settled into his stomach. Chris turned and strode out of the saloon leaving behind three very concerned men.
Nathan raised the axe and let it fall, splitting the log in two. He stopped and mopped his brow with his bandana as he looked upon all the wood he had chopped that morning. That should be enough to last through the winter. He looked over at two black men who were clearing a field for planting. "Hey, Hiram, when's dinner? Thought I was being paid for this?" Nathan called out.
A very large man with muscles brought on by years of working metal and shoeing horses straightened and smiled. He took a deep breath and looked toward the setting sun. It had been a long but productive day. "Should be right soon, Nate. Guess we could mosey on up and see if Gracie and Ruth have things ready." Hiram Granger was highly intelligent, having benefited from an owner's expansive library and the nicety of his previous master's niece who thought it a game to teach him how to read and write against her uncle's wishes.
"Sounds good to me. I'm hungry, and I can already smell my Ruth's apple pie," George Granger answered, moving out of the way of his older and considerably larger brother.
Hiram glanced over at a much younger version of himself and smiled as the youth grunted under the weight of a large rock. "Hey, Will, where did Tad get off to?" Hiram asked.
The young man dropped the rock and smiled toward his father. "He's up that tree over there, pa," Will explained. Will was the same height as his father, and even though he didn't have his bulk, his lean frame was deceiving.
Hiram pressed his lips together and sadness came to his eyes. "Go tell 'em if he wants to eat, he best come down."
Will nodded and jogged off toward a copse of oak trees. Nathan's eyes followed the youth and watched as he yelled up for his younger brother. A young man, dropped from the tree next to Will. Tad was younger by two years, but his face showed the ravages of a hard life, and he had eyes that had seen way too much brutality. Nathan had tried to engage the young man in conversation, but was only able to get one-word responses. The young man kept his head bowed and wouldn't look anyone in the eye.
Hiram moved alongside Nathan and continued to watch his two boys, on the verge of becoming men, walk toward them. Nathan noticed the man's sadness. "Tad feels safe up in the trees," Hiram off-handedly exclaimed. Nathan bowed his head as Hiram continued. "He saw his ma raped and killed by our owner's brother. They found out he saw and whipped him to within an inch of his life." Hiram paused and Nathan raised his head wondering if he was going to continue. "He's never been the same."
Nathan swallowed the sudden lump in his throat; surprised that Hiram was telling him something so personal. He had heard similar stories before but this one touched him on a deeper level. He had been coming out to the Grangers' farm since the family moved in. Hiram had only alluded to his family's abuse. As southerners realized that their way of life was coming to an end, many took out their frustrations and anger on their slaves.
"I'm sorry. I know how he feels. My mother took her life after being raped," Nathan quietly explained.
"He's my son," Hiram exclaimed, his voice cracking slightly. "I shoulda been able to protect him. I live with the guilt every day."
"There's no reason to feel guilty. There was nothing you could have done except get yourself killed, then where would your boys be?" Nathan stated wanting desperately to convince the older man. He had gone through that same guilt, blaming himself. It didn't do any good. "You and your family are free and things are going to get better."
Hiram forced a smile. "I was lucky to meet Gracie. She saved me, but I don't know what's going to help my boy." Hiram ground his teeth and glanced over at his youngest son walked morosely beside his older brother. "Sometimes that boy scares me, Nate. He keeps everything bottled up inside."
"He just needs time and understanding," Nathan said. He didn't want to admit to Hiram that Tad made him uneasy.
Hiram shook his head and slapped Nathan on the shoulder wanting to lighten the mood. He trusted the healer and was glad he told him about Tad. "Well, looks like we came to the right place. C'mon lets get up to the house before the women feed our dinner to the hogs."
Ezra sat forward in the chair with his arms folded on the desk and his head resting on top. He was cold, and he had started a fire in the potbelly stove, much to the only prisoner's dismay. The man had complained until Ezra removed his gun and sat it on the desk, his vibrant, fever-ridden eyes conveying the threat. His feverish thoughts continued playing over the events of the previous night. Ezra felt the hand on his shoulder and jumped out of the chair, his eyes darting wildly around the room as he went for his gun.
"Whoa, there, pard. It's only me," Buck quickly explained before the gambler realized that his gun was sitting on the desk. Ezra's heart beat hard and fast in his chest and his head throbbed. He closed his eyes for a moment to stop the room from spinning.
Buck frowned. "Ez, you alright?" He could see Ezra's body quiver slightly.
Ezra's eyes flashed open and he stared at Buck, not seeming to recognize the man at first. Quickly, a casual façade fell in place. "I'm fine, Mr. Wilmington."
"Damn, Ez, no you're not. You can't even lie good," Buck stated. "Let Nate.."
"No! I do not need Mr. Jackson's services, thank you."
Buck took a step back; this was the second time the gambler reacted angrily to the healer. Ezra grabbed his gun, holstered it, and suddenly walked out of the jailhouse. Buck made to follow his friend but stopped realizing he had a prisoner to guard. He reluctantly took up his place behind the desk, but continued to stare toward the door. He hoped that Nathan came back soon. He would drag Ezra's sorry ass to the healer himself if he had too.
Nathan stretched and made his way out to the living area, where several rough hewn chairs shared space with a worn sofa and small table. "Ruth, that was some of the best cookin' I've had in a long while."
"Why, thank you, Nathan. It's always a pleasure," the older woman exclaimed. "It's nice to be appreciated." She truly enjoyed the healer's company and saw the effect he had on her husband. Hiram had gained a more positive and relaxed attitude. Maybe they could make a life for themselves here.
"Hey, I appreciate you," Hiram laughed and wrapped his arms around his wife.
"It would be nice to hear it once in a while." Gracie broke free. "You men just relax as Ruth and I clean up. Will, go out and get me some water."
Nathan smiled at the closeness of the family. It was good to see black people making a life for themselves. His smiled dropped slightly when he spotted Tad in the corner of the room. The boy seemed more haunted than usual tonight and had Nathan thinking about what Hiram had told him.
Nathan walked over to the other side of the room. His eyes drifted across the braided leather whip that was pushed under a table. He bent down and picked it up. His brow furrowed when he noticed the dried blood embedded between the braids.
"Sorry, I musta brought this into the house by mistake," Hiram stated with strained humor as he took hold of the whip and then noticed the blood. "Those plow mules are a little stubborn this is the only thing that gets them movin' sometimes."
Nathan felt the discomfort rise and he glanced over to see Tad staring back at him with a faint smile on his face one that sent a cold shiver down his spine. He noticed Hiram's nervousness, and he suddenly felt like he was an intruding stranger. "You don't have to be so rough on them, you need those animals to help plant," Nathan warily said.
"You're right. I know, I know, I'll go easier on them," Hiram humbly explained as he shoved the whip back under the table.
Hiram liked the healer, someone as intelligent as himself. He would be a good model for his boys, show them that they could do or be anything they wanted. He didn't want to alienate this man. Nathan had made it. He was his own man and a healer and lawman to boot. He was respected in town by most of the people and by all the other regulators. Hiram wanted desperately to be his friend to have the same life. He hoped Tad got the chance to benefit from Nathan's experiences and outlook.
"Where'd you get it?" Nathan off-handedly asked. He knew the store in town didn't sell whips.
Hiram smiled slightly and appeared a little ashamed. "I took it from our master's house before we left. I guess I just wanted a reminder."
"I don't ever want to forget what was done to us," Hiram looked over at his youngest son who had moved off to stare out the window. "I wish I could have done something to get revenge on those white, arrogant sonsofbitches."
Nathan was momentarily taken aback by Hiram's vehemence, which reminded him of his own recent attitude toward a certain arrogant southerner.
Hiram bowed his head. "I'm sorry, it's just sometimes "
"We all had it bad," Nathan said. "but it's over now. We're proof that we can start over and have good lives."
"Yeah, but.." Hiram paused and rubbed a shaky hand down his face. "Sometimes the past has a way of raising its ugly head and..."
"Anyone for some dessert," Ruth called out as she stepped out from the kitchen. She could tell that she interrupted something and looked toward her husband, George, who smiled.
"Sounds good to me," George stated, relieved for the interruption. He was afraid his brother was going to say something he might regret.
Nathan hung back as the family headed for the kitchen. He had the feeling that Hiram was about to tell him something. He hoped in time the older man would trust him enough to tell him anything. They both could benefit from sharing their past and their feelings. The six other lawmen were his friends but they could never understand what he had gone through as a slave--not even Ezra. Nathan shook off his unease and joined the others.
Everyone's mood lightened after dessert and conversation drifted toward future plans for the farm and buying cattle. Gracie asked numerous questions about his healing talents which seemed to impress everyone even Tad, but Nate couldn't help noticing something more lying behind Tad's dark eyes and heartrending demeanor, something that put him very ill at ease. He chalked it up to now knowing something of the boy's past. He hoped in time that Tad was able to put the past behind him and start living.
It was early evening by the time Nathan returned to Four Corners. "Nathan, good to see ya back," Josiah yelled as he strode down the street toward the healer.
"Hey, Josiah, how's it been here?" Nathan worried that he was neglecting his duties, but the others seemed to understand his need to help the Grangers.
"Well, Chris wants you to take a look at Ezra," Josiah explained.
Nathan frowned. "What fer?"
"He took a fall from his horse last night. Says he's okay, but well, you know."
Nathan rolled his eyes. "Yeah, let me get my bag. Where is he?"
"I think he's up in his room."
This caused Nathan's eyes to widen. It was prime poker time and the southerner wasn't at the tables. "Just give me a minute."
+ + + + + + +
"C'mon, Ez, open up!" Buck yelled as he banged his fist on the door. He turned his head when he heard Josiah and Nathan coming up the hall. "He won't open his door."
"Ezra," Josiah bellowed. "Let Nathan see ya!"
"As I've told Mr. Wilmington I don't need Mr. Jackson's so-called services!" Ezra yelled out from the other side of his door.
Nathan heard the slight and felt the contempt in the southerner's voice. An image of what Hiram and his son Tad had gone through flashed before him and his brow furrowed in anger.
"Listen, Josiah, if the stubborn ass doesn't want my help, he's probably fine," Nathan bit out as he made to leave, but was stopped by Josiah's hand on his arm.
"Sorry, Josiah, I'm tired of having to fight him to help him. He can suffer if that's what he wants." Nathan broke free and headed down the hallway.
Buck shook his head. "Damn stubborn cuss."
"Which one?" Josiah quipped.
"C'mon, Josiah, maybe Ezra will come around later. I have to go out on patrol."
Ezra listened for a moment, then sighed in relief as his friends left. He didn't understand where the animosity toward Nathan was coming from. He knew the healer wasn't responsible, but the Grangers were his friends. Ezra wasn't sure how the healer would react if he knew what had happened. Maybe he would inwardly rejoice, thinking that the gambler had got what was coming to him or maybe he and the others wouldn't believe him. Ezra couldn't face that, that men whom he considered friends would think he was responsible somehow. He needed to take care of this on his own. His hand shook as he clasped the glass of water. He couldn't quiet the voices or the images of the previous night. He could still hear the threats and see the young man holding the whip. His legs shook and he sat down on the bed his face flushed with fever.
Josiah sat down at the table across from his oldest friend. Nate nursed a beer and didn't acknowledge the ex-preacher's presence. "So, how are the Grangers doing?" Josiah asked.
"They're getting that farm in shape," Nathan replied, staring at his beer.
Josiah could tell there was something on his friend's mind. "Are you okay?"
Nathan released a long held breath and slumped a little in his chair. "Just tired and " Nathan raised his head to look at the older man. "They've been through a lot. Hiram told me some things I now wished he hadn't."
Josiah smiled at his friend's concern for others. It's what made him a good healer. "What about Ezra?"
"What about him?" Nathan's voice rose with anger. He glanced over to see the worry on Josiah's face. He didn't know where this anger was coming from. He wasn't sure how to put into words how he was feeling. He remembered the deep-rooted feeling of vengeance forming in the pit of his stomach while Hiram told him about Tad. "I just feel bad for the Grangers sometimes, you know?" Nathan tried to explain. "They've been through hell and Hiram's working so hard to do what's best for his family. And then Ezra won't let me see him and I remember all the things that those southerners did to the Grangers and to me."
"Ezra hasn't done anything to you, or the Grangers," Josiah calmly replied.
Nathan slumped back into this chair realizing he might have been a bit unfair toward the southerner recently. He had thought he'd put his own prejudices aside, now he wasn't so sure.
"Don't be to hard on yourself, Nate, it's hard to push aside a life time of abuse and injustice," Josiah said.
Nathan chuckled and a smile lifted the corners of mouth. "I know, and I'm sorry. I'll try later to check on Ez. I think we need to talk anyway."
Ezra didn't know what he planned on doing. His fevered brain had him making his way to the stable. He had decided to go to the Grangers and arrest them. Maybe he should get Buck or Vin. No, they would tell Nathan and he would convince them that the Grangers couldn't have done this. He had to do this on his own and prove to the others that he wasn't responsible. Ezra leaned against the back wall of the saloon trying to come to grips with the pain and his growing weakness. His head pounded in time with his beating heart, he pushed away from the wall and kept his eyes on the stable entrance.
Buck and Josiah stepped out of the Mercantile to see Ezra staggering toward the stable. The gambler had kept himself isolated all day yesterday and all night, only furthering the other lawmen's suspicion and concern.
Josiah's brow furrowed as Ezra appeared drunk and only barely able to stay on his feet. He stepped off the boardwalk with Buck right on his heels. They had both had enough of Ezra's foolishness.
Ezra stepped up to Chaucer's stall and patted his horse's head. "Just a little ride, boy "
"Don't think that's very wise, son," Josiah said, stepping up behind the southerner. Ezra was too tired and sick to even jump. "We're taking you to see Nate."
"No, no," Ezra murmured, shaking his head.
"Damnit, Ez, this is ridiculous," Buck stated. He jumped forward and grabbed Ezra on the shoulder prepared to force the man up to the clinic, what Buck wasn't prepared for was the conman's reaction.
Ezra screamed as Buck's hand pressed on tender flesh. His knees buckled and Buck quickly grabbed at the collapsing conman and followed him down to the hay-strewn floor. "What the hell happened?" Buck exclaimed looking up at Josiah with fear in his eyes, and his arms wrapped around Ezra's shivering form.
Josiah rested a large hand on Ezra's brow. "He's hotter than a griddle. Let's get him up to Nathan's."
"Guessin' he can't protest now," Buck quipped and the two men wrestled to lift the limp form of their friend.
"Chris," Vin called into the jailhouse from outside on the boardwalk. Chris and JD stepped outside. "Looks like Ez is going to see Nate after all."
"Aww hell," Chris murmured, seeing Josiah and Buck carrying Ezra's lifeless body toward the clinic.
"Nathan, open up," Buck yelled as he kicked at the door with his foot.
Nathan opened his door and moved aside as Buck and Josiah carried Ezra's limp form in. Chris, Vin and JD quickly followed.
Buck and Josiah gently laid Ezra down on the bed. Nathan moved to his side, resting a hand on his brow and then checking his pulse. "Damn, he's got a hell of a fever." Nathan ran his hands down the front of Ezra's torso eliciting a small moan. "Might have cracked a rib or two, but I don't understand why the fever." Nathan stood and scratched the back of his head. "Take off his jacket and shirt." Nathan turned his back and started picking up small vials on his dresser and reading their labels.
Buck and Josiah sat Ezra up and quickly removed his jacket.
"What the hell is this?" Buck exclaimed after removing Ezra's shirt. Everyone could see the rough bandages wrapped around his middle that only partially covered his ruined back and shoulders.
Nathan turned at the exclamations and felt his stomach turn. He dropped one of the vials, hardly noticing as it rolled under the dresser. He stared at the dirty white linen, streaked with blood, wrapped around Ezra's torso. Buck and Josiah continued to hold up the gambler as Nathan grabbed a pair of shears to remove the bandages. 'Lord, don't let it be true,' Nathan thought as he quickly cut through the cloth, his thoughts turning to a bloody whip.
"Oh, sweet mother of God," Josiah exclaimed upon seeing the raw, torn flesh.
"Sonofabitch," Vin breathed.
JD turned away for a moment and took a deep breath. Even Nathan had to swallow back his rising bile. Chris's face hardened as he glared at the conman's brutalized back, there were as many as ten lashes, red and oozing, criss-crossing the conman's pale skin. Everyone could feel the heat of infection.
"JD, I need lots of hot water and linen," Nathan suddenly exclaimed, energizing the whole room into action. "Josiah, go to Mrs. Collier and see if she has any of that poultice and laudanum left." Josiah and JD quickly left on their assign tasks. "Vin, help Buck make him comfortable, but don't lay him on his back." Nathan returned to his medicines, trying to decide what would help. He had to get rid of the infection and he needed something for the pain that that was going to cause. His eyes began to water, making it difficult to read the tiny print on the bottles.
Chris stepped up alongside the healer, noticing the man's sudden distress. "Nate, how bad is it?"
Nathan started and his hands moved nervously through the bottles. He couldn't look at the gunslinger. He turned and watched as Vin removed Ezra's boots. "He's got a high fever, and he's real weak and that infection is strong. I'll do everything I can. Why the hell didn't he come to me?" Nathan went back to his vials.
Chris frowned. Nathan hadn't looked him in the eye, which had never happened before.
"Hold 'im!" Nathan yelled as he laid another heated cloth across Ezra's back and pressed down, trying to clean out the infection. The conman screamed into the pillow and tried to break free, but Vin, Buck and Josiah maintained a tight hold on their struggling friend. "Okay, one more." Ezra suddenly went still and Nathan laid two fingers aside his neck. "He's passed out again."
"Good," Vin exclaimed as he tried to work out the cramps in his arms. "That man is stronger than he looks." Josiah rolled his shoulders in response.
Chris sat in a chair, watching the painful procedure and ready to help if needed. "What the hell happened to him?" he suddenly voiced, looking at his men for answers.
"It musta happened that night he was late on patrol," Buck explained, sitting in an empty chair. He regretted not having done something sooner. Ezra just made it so damn hard to help him.
"He musta been ambushed or somethin," Vin added.
Nathan rinsed out a cool rag and wiped down the back of Ezra's neck.
"Yeah, but why didn't he tell us?" JD asked.
Chris looked over at Nathan who continued to minister to the gambler. A melancholy had settled over the kindly healer. Chris's jaw tightened. Nathan was hiding something.
"Nathan," Chris said. "Any ideas?"
Nathan shook his head. "No...I mean, it's probably like Buck said." Nathan turned his head and blinked back his tears. "I'm going to need to stitch these up and try and get some medicine down him." Ezra groaned softly. "Shhh, easy, Ez. It's alright now," Nathan soothed.
Chris stared at the conman imagining what he must have gone through and stoking his infamous Larabee fury. Someone was going to pay for this.
Chris leaned against the balcony outside the clinic, smoking a cheroot. The night was clear and crisp and he needed some air. Nathan had managed to get Ezra's back cleaned and stitched, but the fever still raged. Chris raised his eyes as Nathan stepped outside. The healer came up alongside the gunslinger and looked out over a town that had become his home. This place and these people had given him a chance to be his own man. The six men he worked with treated him as an equal, even Ezra. He was torn between two worlds, two peoples, but as he tended Ezra's wounds he knew who had earned his devotion.
"Chris, I think Hiram Granger has something to do with this," Nathan reluctantly stated. He had thought long and hard on whether to reveal what he believed to the blond leader. Ezra's pain finally pushed him to the only thing he could do.
Chris switched the cheroot to the other side of his mouth. "Why?"
"Don't know why, but I found a whip the other day and it had blood on it." Nathan bowed his head. "I'm so sorry."
"You don't have anything to be sorry about," Chris said. "You're not responsible."
"Well, ah " Nathan stammered. "Maybe a little, Ezra didn't come to me because I ain't been treatin' him so well lately."
Chris glanced over at the healer. "Well, we all know how obstinate Ezra can be so I wouldn't take all the blame."
Nathan chuckled slightly. "I can't believe that Hiram would do such a thing. There has to be an explanation."
"Ezra was almost whipped to death, Nate. I can't think of any good explanation for that," Chris angrily exclaimed then exhaled.
Nathan raised his head. "No, I can't either. Ezra didn't deserve this."
Chris bowed his head a moment. The Grangers had become important to Nathan. He would control his anger and give Nathan the chance to discover the truth. "We're going to have to bring him in."
"I know, but could you wait until I can come with you?" Nathan asked.
Chris chortled, was the healer afraid he'd shoot Hiram. "Yeah, that's probably a good idea."
"Thanks Chris," Nathan said. "I don't want anyone else hurt."
"Neither do I but if Ez dies," Chris paused not able to finish the sentence. He knew that Nathan had grown close to the family, but Ezra was one of them.
"Ez ain't going to die," Nathan strongly stated, then thought a moment. "And if he does, we'll do what has to be done. Ezra's my friend, too."
Chris nodded. He needed to know where Nathan's allegiance lay.
Throughout the night, the six lawmen fought to keep death from their friend. By morning, Ezra's fever still raged and he was weak and delirious. Nathan tried to get some medicine down his injured friend. Ezra opened his eyes and tried to scramble away from the healer. "No, no, please stop, please no more."
"Ezra it's alright," Nathan assured, backing away. He couldn't believe the fear he saw in those green eyes.
Buck and Vin grabbed the terrified conman and eased him back into bed mindful of his wounds.
"I need to get this medicine down him," Nathan exclaimed.
Josiah moved to the edge of the bed. He put his arm under Ezra's shoulders lifting the suffering man up. "Give it to me, Nate." Nathan handed Josiah the small cup of herbs and water. "Son, listen, you have to drink this, okay?"
Ezra's vibrant eyes stared wildly up at the ex-preacher. Josiah gently placed the cup to Ezra's lips and coaxed the man to drink, softly reassuring him like a father to a child. Ezra finished the medicine and his eyes slowly closed.
The others were amazed at the large man's gentleness toward the southerner and how well Ezra responded. "Damn, Josiah, how'd you get him to listen to ya?" Buck asked.
Josiah smiled and pushed stray hairs off Ezra's brow. He felt a parental bond toward the southerner, and even though Ezra loathed to admit it, somewhere deep down the gambler yearned for that type of connection.
"Okay, Josiah, he probably won't come to, but if he does, make sure you get more water down him," Nathan explained. "I'll get back as soon as I can." He hated to leave while Ezra was still so sick, but Chris and the others wanted to go.
"I'll see to our brother. Go do what you have to." Josiah knew that Nathan was hurting at the thought of having to bring in a friend. He liked the Grangers, too, and hoped that things weren't as they seemed.
Chris nodded as Nathan rode up beside him outside the jail. JD was staying behind to guard the prisoner. "Nate, are you sure about this?" Chris asked.
"Yeah, I don't want anyone else hurt and I need to know why," Nathan explained. "I think they'd get scared unless I come along."
Chris thought this over a minute and then seemed to agree. He only hoped that if things went south Nathan would back them up.
"Don't worry Chris, I'll do what has to be done," Nathan assured.
Chris nodded and spurred his horse forward.
Hiram glanced up from the well to see four riders coming down the road, with Nathan in the lead.
George came up beside him. "Had to know they'd find out sooner or later," his brother said. "They ain't takin' me without a fight."
"Git everyone inside," Hiram said as he pulled the pail out of the well and headed for the house. He had hoped this day would never come, he was surprised it had taken so long. The thought that the gambler might have died had filled him with regret and relief. Now he had to make a decision, he would protect his son this time.
+ + + + + + +
Hiram and George were out on the porch as the four lawmen approached. George held a rifle that he kept pointed to the ground. Gracie, Tad, Will and Ruth stood in the doorway.
Chris scanned the area as they neared the house. He didn't want a shootout and he hoped that Nathan could diffuse the situation.
"Pa, what's happening?" Will asked, stepping up behind his father. He had been with his father, George and Tad that night, but had passed out before Ezra had arrived. He had only a fuzzy recollection of being pulled to his feet and hurried away. He remembered seeing a dark form lying at the base of a tree. When he asked his father about what had happened, all his father said was he was better off not knowing. Tad had disappeared up a tree for the remainder of the night and it took him an hour to coax his younger brother down in the morning.
"Git inside with your brother," Hiram ordered.
Nathan and the others stopped a few feet away. Nathan had hoped he was wrong, that it was all a mistake. He thought maybe Hiram had found the whip after it was used on Ezra, but the look in the man's face told him that was not the case.
"Guessin' you know why we're here, Hiram," Nathan said.
"Yeah, reckon I do. Don't know why it took so long."
Gracie frowned. "Nathan, what's going on?" she asked from behind Hiram's shoulder.
"You might want to ask Hiram, because that's what I'm here to find out," Nathan replied.
Gracie stepped up beside her husband. "Hiram?" She didn't like the feel of things and she didn't like the look of the men behind Nathan. She had met the other lawmen in town a couple of times, and they were always cordial, but now they looked dangerous, and she suddenly feared for her family's life.
"It's not what you think, Nate," Hiram stammered. He didn't want this man to think badly of him. Hiram was actually glad they'd been found out. He hadn't slept a night without seeing Tad maliciously whipping that man, and then hearing the gambler pleading for them to stop. "We didn't mean "
"What?" Nathan angrily interrupted. "Mean to almost whip Ezra to death! What the hell were you thinking? I trusted you, considered you a friend."
"What the hell did he ever do to you?" Buck yelled out. Nathan glared back at Buck, he had asked them to let him handle things.
"Buck," Chris snapped. He didn't want any blood shed, but he wanted justice for Ezra. He would let Nathan handle things for now.
Buck settled back into his saddle, keeping an eye on George. Vin didn't like that he couldn't see what was going on in the house. He rested his hand on his mare's leg that lay across his lap.
Nathan nudged his horse closer and prepared to dismount.
"Don't get off your horse, Nate," Hiram threatened and placed his hand on his revolver that was strapped to his hip. It was the first time Nathan had seen the man wear a gun.
"George, what's going on?" Ruth fearfully asked.
"Go inside, woman," George snapped, keeping his eyes on the gunslingers. He wouldn't be taken without a fight. He wouldn't hang.
Nathan could feel the tension building and tried to relax back in his saddle. "Just tell me why?"
Hiram shook his head and looked sadly up at the healer. "Me and George were celebrating our new life. We were drinking and having a good time." Hiram paused and glanced over at his brother hoping he went along. He returned his attention to Nathan. "That gambler..."
"Is my friend," Nathan interrupted.
Hiram breathed deep then exhaled. "Your friend happened upon us. He wanted to know what we were doing. He looked down on us with his high-an-mighty attitude, like he was better than us. I don't know what happened then, something in me just snapped. Next thing I know me and George grabbed him off his horse and started beating on him. We had been playing with the whip earlier." Hiram looked over at his wife and saw her disappointment and horror, his voice cracked and he looked pleadingly back at Nathan. "You got to understand, your friend represented everything that we hated. I wanted him to suffer like my son had." Hiram bowed his head seeing Tad's wild eyes and hearing his screams of anguish as he brutally struck the gambler. Hiram was sure his son was seeing the man who had killed his mother and whipped him. They had to physically hold back the young man. Hiram had no doubt that his son wouldn't have stopped until the gambler was dead. Hiram looked past Nathan and saw the look of disgust in the eyes of the gunslingers.
Will stood silent behind his father knowing he was lying to protect Tad. He glanced over his shoulder at Tad who was staring past him at the gunslingers. Was his brother capable of such brutality? Yeah, Will thought, they all were, having seen all too much cruelty and torment in their own lives.
"Ezra never did anything to you," Nathan quietly said. "He never even owned slaves."
"It don't matter," Hiram tried to explain, as much to himself as to Nathan. "He reminded us of that time. We all have this rage that has slowly built up in us over the years and simmers just below the surface. People think, now that we have our freedom, everything's forgiven, but it ain't true."
"Not good enough, Hiram," Nathan exclaimed knowing exactly what Hiram was saying. But it wasn't justification to almost kill a man, everyone had some demon they had to fight and keep control of. "You nearly killed a man who had done nothing to you."
"Is he okay?" Gracie suddenly asked. She was finding it hard to believe the man she loved could do something so cruel.
Nathan smiled sadly. "He's in a bad way, but we're taking care of him."
"He's in good hands if'n you're seein' to him," Gracie said.
"NO!" Tad yelled out, pushing past his father and grabbing his gun in the process.
Chris pulled his six-shooter.
"Chris, wait!" Nathan yelled as he stared down at the young man who now pointed a gun at him.
"Tad, don't!" Hiram yelled out.
"He needs to die," Tad exclaimed, glancing over at his father who looked beseechingly toward him. "You shoulda let me kill him. Why didn't you let me kill him? Why didn't you kill him after he killed our mother?" Tad screamed at his father who raised his hands and looked at his son in astonishment.
"Tad, this is not right," Hiram whispered.
"You never did anything, even after everything he did to me you just stood by and let it happen," Tad yelled.
"Tad, that ain't true. I tried " Hiram's voice cracked and he stepped toward his son.
"I thought you were our friend." Tad turned angry dark eyes up at Nathan. "Why are you helping him?"
"Tad, Ezra didn't have anything to do with what happened to your mother or you," Nathan calmly explained. Chris kept his gun on the youth ready to fire if the boy put any more pressure on the trigger. He would not let Nathan die.
"Sure he did, they all did," Tad exclaimed with a slight laugh that sent chills down everyone's spine. "They're all guilty."
Chris fired hitting Tad in the arm. The young man yelped and dropped the gun. Hiram grabbed his son as he crumbled to the ground. Nathan jumped from his horse and pulled a bandana out of his pocket wrapping it around the wound. He looked over at Chris with grateful eyes. Tad shook and cried in his father's arms.
"Shhh, son, everything is going to be okay," Hiram soothed. He looked over at Nathan then up at Chris. "Thank you for not killing him."
Chris nodded. He had seen his chance and taken it, grateful that he hadn't had to kill the young man, but he held little sympathy for the man who had hurt one of his men.
"We need to take you all in," Nathan said.
"What's going to happen to them?" Gracie asked, standing firm, but her eyes glistened with fear.
Nathan turned to look at Chris.
"It's going to depend on what the judge says and " Chris paused. "How Ezra does."
"Hiram, Judge Travis is a fair and honorable man," Nathan assured.
Hiram looked lovingly at his wife and Will. George released a tired sigh and lowered his rifle. He hoped his brother knew what he was doing. "Nate, I need to ask a favor," Hiram said. "Can Will stay with the women. He was there, but he didn't know what was going on." Hiram glanced over at his oldest son and smiled. "Boy, just can't hold his liquor."
Nathan looked over at Chris who nodded.
"Pa?" Will said.
"Will, you need to stay and take care of things here. You didn't do anything wrong. I need you to stay in case " Hiram let the words fade as he continued to hold on to his youngest. He looked back at Nathan.
"I'm sorry, Nate, I just didn't want my son to be scared anymore. I had to protect him, I guess I failed again."
Nathan rested a hand on the larger man's shoulder. He understood a father's need to protect his son, but he couldn't come to grips with what they had done to Ezra. Hiram saw the loss of trust in the healer's dark eyes.
Hiram, George and Tad walked into the jail cell and quietly sat down. "I'll get you all something to eat," JD said as he locked the door.
Nathan stood before the door. "Tad's arm ain't too bad I'll get him something for the pain." Nate glanced over at the compliant young man who sat silently in the corner. He hadn't said a word the whole ride back, which was probably for the best. Nate didn't know what would become of the young man.
+ + + + + + +
The night was bad for Ezra with the five other lawmen a constant parade through the clinic, trying to help Nathan ease their friend's suffering. Anger would ignite in the gunslingers whenever Ezra screamed out for the pain to stop. They knew he was reliving the horrific episode. By morning Ezra's fever finally broke and he appeared to be resting comfortably. Nathan had managed to get some medicine down him and put salve on his back. He had chased the others out telling them to get some rest. A knock on the door got Nathan's attention and he went to open it. He was surprised to see Gracie Granger standing before him.
"Nathan, I'm in town to find out what the judge is going to do to the men. I thought maybe I could help somehow," Gracie said as she entered the room.
Nathan had forgotten that this morning Judge Travis was going to decide on the men's guilt. There would be a trial if the three men disputed the charges, but Nathan didn't think they would. He knew he should be there, but
Gracie handed Nathan a jar. "Here, this is something that Ruth made up. It helps reduce the scarring."
"Thank you," Nathan said taking the jar. "Ez, will appreciate that."
Gracie crossed the floor and sat down beside the bed. She pressed her lips tight, and her eyes watered at the sight of Ezra's back which was still red and tender. She'd seen this kind of abuse many times, but to realize that Tad, a boy she thought of as her own, could do such a thing made it seem worse. Ezra moaned slightly but remained unconscious. "Nathan, have you noticed these scars before?" Gracie asked.
"Scars? What scars?"
Gracie pointed to several very faint lines on Ezra's lower back. They were hard to see and it was the redness of the recent lashes that made them stand out.
Nathan's brow furrowed as he traced one of the long scars with his finger. They were old whip marks, probably made when Ez was no more than a boy.
"It seems that Mr. Standish has more in common with us than we thought," Gracie stated.
Nathan continued to stare at the old wounds wondering more about the cardsharp's secretive past.
Gracie remained for awhile allowing Nathan to get cleaned up and something to eat. She mopped the back of Ezra's neck to keep him cool and applied the salve to the southerner's back. Finally, the time came for her to go to the jailhouse. She understood why Nathan didn't wish to go to the jail and she hoped someday the caring healer could forgive Hiram and Tad.
"Guilty," Travis stated from behind the desk of the jailhouse. Will wrapped his arms around Gracie and Ruth and pulled them close. Chris, Vin and Buck remained silent.
Travis looked the three accused men in the eye as he continued, "Hiram, Tad and George Granger, you are guilty of attempted murder of a peace officer. Mr. Jackson assures me that Mr. Standish will make a full recovery, but due to the brutality of the act I have no choice."
"What happens now?" Gracie asked in a shaky voice. Ruth sobbed quietly into Will's shoulder.
"I'll decide on sentencing tomorrow," Travis explained.
"What could they get?" Will asked.
Travis bowed his head for a moment. He had looked in on the gambler earlier and was appalled at the cruelty he had endured. "Up to ten years in Yuma prison."
"Nooooo," Ruth cried out as her knees buckled. Gracie took hold of the other woman and led her to a chair that Buck offered.
"I'm sorry," Travis curtly stated as he stood up and walked out of the jailhouse.
Gracie went to the cell and clasped her husband's hand. "Hiram, what are we going to do?"
Hiram stood silently accepting the judge's decision. He was more worried about his son who still hadn't said a word and seemed to be somewhere else. Hiram just hoped wherever his son was he felt safe.
"Easy, Ez, take it slow," Buck soothed as he helped the gambler sip some water.
Ezra's back was wrapped and padded, and he was propped up with several pillows. "Lord, it's good to see them eyes open," Buck said.
"What happened?" Ezra hoarsely asked.
"What happened?" Buck exclaimed. "You didn't tell anyone that you got whipped and you got sick, and almost died. You ever do a fool thing like that again I'll kick your ass all the way to the Pacific."
"Thought I could handle it," Ezra breathed.
"Well you couldn't," Buck quipped with a smile on his face.
"You've been out of it for three days. Had everyone plenty worried," Buck replied. "We got the ones who did it."
Ezra's eyes widen. "How?"
"Nathan told us."
"Not right off. He found the whip," Buck explained. "Hiram, George and Tad are in the jail right now awaiting sentencing." Ezra looked at Buck in disbelief. Nathan was actually willing to turn them in? Maybe he couldn't read the healer as well as he thought.
Nathan entered the room and grinned when he saw Ezra awake and coherent. "Oh, thank God you're finally awake."
Ezra eyed the healer suspiciously. "Why, so your friends don't hang for killing me?"
Nathan's grin evaporated with his shock. He couldn't blame the conman for his mistrust, but he thought the remark unjust.
"Ez, you're way off," Buck exclaimed. "Nathan hasn't hardly left your side, and was with us when we brought in the Grangers."
"Ezra, I'm glad you're okay because you're my friend," Nathan said. "You think I'd condone what they did to you?"
Ezra dropped his gaze and a flush of embarrassment colored his cheeks. "I apologize, Mr. Jackson."
Gracie's lithe form quietly entered the clinic. "Mr. Jackson could I have a word with Mr. Standish alone."
Nate glanced over toward Ezra who nodded his assent. "Don't over do it now, ya hear," Nathan reminded as he and Buck walked out.
Gracie stared at the door for a moment nervously smoothing her skirts. She wasn't sure what she wanted to say.
Ezra patiently waited, impressed with the woman's courage to face him.
Gracie cleared her throat and turned to face the injured southerner. "Mr. Standish, I want to apologize for what my family did to you," Gracie began, trying to get the words out quick. "I don't even begin to understand why or how my family could do such a thing, but only to say they've been through more than their share of heartbreak and abuse. I'm not sure how much Mr. Jackson has told you, but Tad watched his mother being raped and then killed. He was then whipped almost to the point of death. The boy hasn't been the same and I don't think he ever will. But what they did was unforgivable. Now, I love Hiram and I'm only asking that you maybe try to understand and maybe forgive them someday." Gracie stared at Ezra knowing that he understood better than most.
"They're good men," Gracie continued, seeing that she had the gambler's attention. "who did an evil thing, and they'll live with that guilt for the rest of their lives. I just wanted you to know that." Gracie smiled and turned toward the door.
"Mrs. Granger," Ezra said.
Gracie turned to face the southerner. "Thank you for coming and speaking to me. I won't lie, I'm not sure I can ever forgive them, but I will try and understand."
"Thank you, Mr. Standish, I believe you understand better than most." Gracie smiled and walked out, not seeing the gambler's surprised look.
Ezra closed his eyes for a moment. He couldn't forgive what those men had done to him. He was surprised that Mrs. Granger didn't beg for their freedom or ask him to drop the charges. Ezra couldn't silence the niggling feeling that Mrs. Granger knew something more about him. He must have dozed off because when he woke Nathan was at his side.
"We need to change those bandages. This salve that Mrs. Granger gave me is really helping your back to heal."
Ezra nodded and started to push himself up only to feel Nathan's arm helping him. The healer surprised him, too. Nathan never once blamed him or asked that he forgive the Grangers. "Mr. Jackson, when you're through, could you inform the judge that I'd like a word with him."
Nathan halted removing the bandages. "Sure, Ez."
Early morning found six of the lawmen present in the jailhouse with the Grangers, awaiting the judge's decision.
Judge Travis cleared his throat and looked at the three accused men before him. All three looked tired, even Tad appeared older than his seventeen years. A measure of sympathy settled upon the esteemed magistrate and his face softened. "Hiram, George and Tad Granger I sentence you all to one year in Yuma prison, sentencing to start immediately."
Hiram stood tall, but swallowed hard. It could have been worse, but what would one year in prison do to Tad?
Nathan bowed his head to hide the sudden tears that welled up in his eyes. He knew it could have been worse, and knew that Ezra had something to do with the lighter sentence.
"Mr. Larabee, you and your men will see to these men's transport," Travis explained as he stood. "Mary's expectin' me, so if you'll excuse me."
Chris nodded, satisfied with the sentence.
Gracie and Ruth grabbed hold of their husband's arms.
"I'll wait for you Hiram," Gracie pledged.
Hiram patted his wife's arm and looked over at Will. The young man seemed to have grown into a man over night. "Will, I want you to find a buyer for the farm then take Gracie and Ruth to Alabama and stay with my sister."
"Pa, are you sure?" Will asked.
Hiram looked over at Nathan and the other gunslingers. They would never be welcomed here again he could see that. Nathan remained silent, he knew it would be for the best if the family moved on.
"Do as I say, son." Hiram glanced back at Nathan. "Please thank Mr. Standish, I know he probably had something to do with our sentence."
Nathan gave Hiram a tight smile. "I'll tell him."
"Why would he help us. We almost killed him," George stated. Everyone saw Tad flinch and bow his head. Hiram wrapped an arm around his son. He had told the young man that they were all to blame. He wasn't sure if Tad listened or not, but he wouldn't let his son bear the guilt alone. They carry it together.
"Let's just say, Ezra believes in giving second chances," Nathan replied.
+ + + + + + +
Nathan stepped out onto the balcony to find the conman sitting in a padded chair manipulating a deck of cards. He was still pale, and weak, but his back was healing nicely. Nathan sat on the edge of the railing and looked off down the street. He had been wondering all day what part he might have played in this. "Judge went easy on the Grangers," Nathan exclaimed. "I'm guessin' 'cause of what you said to him the other day."
Ezra continued to shuffle his cards.
"The family is selling the farm and moving back to Alabama," Nathan nervously continued. "I want to apologize."
Ezra stopped shuffling and looked up at the healer. "Whatever for, Mr. Jackson?"
"I've been letting the Granger's terrible past influence my feelings. I know better."
"We're all guilty of a little prejudice, Mr. Jackson."
"Yeah, but you were almost killed because of it. I won't let that happen again, Ez, I promise."
"I'm sure we'll both be more tolerant in the future, Mr. Jackson. Now I would rather put the whole ordeal behind us."
Nathan smiled at the conman, someday he would ask Ezra about those old scars on his back, but not today. They both had to work at reinenforcing that bridge of understanding and repairing the damage done to their growing friendship. Nathan knew the others would be on hand to help.
"Care to join me in a game of chance?" Ezra asked his smile widening to show his gold tooth.
"Sure, why not, what use do I have in money," Nathan quipped with a smile on his face.