Disclaimer: Without prejudice, the characters of "The Magnificent Seven" belong to MGM, Trilogy, etc and are used here without permission. No copyright infringement is intended.
Notes: 1) Happy birthday to all the October birthday people. 2) Many thanks to Marnie for her great beta work. 3) A big thank you to Linda for the wonderful collage.
Buck pressed harder against the wound and did his best to ignore the blood that welled up, covering his hands and fingers in a warm bath. He had to get the bleeding stopped, but was worried he had already waited too long.
Glancing up, he felt a small sense of relief at the gentle rise and fall of his friend's chest. Taking some comfort from the sight, he glanced over toward the fire where he was boiling water and heating his knife.
A chill ran through Buck's tall, lanky frame as he thought of what he must do to his friend, but he knew he had no choice. He had removed the bullet several hours ago when they first thought they lost the group following them, but the blood was still flowing, though more slowly. Since the tourniquet had failed and he had no needle and thread, his only option was to cauterize the wound; a process he knew to be exceedingly painful.
Tearing his eyes away from the fire, he caught sight of his friend's face and gasped, his heart squeezing and tears prickling at the back of his eyes. The normally animated face was slack and deathly pale. There was little to nothing Wilmington could do other than get the bleeding stopped.
Turning his attention once more to the wound, he felt frustration and despair warring with each other in his heart as the blood continued to flow. The pressure he applied slowed it, but did not stop the exodus. He would have to act quickly if he was going to keep his friend from bleeding out.
Turning his eyes once more to the knife resting in the coals, he could only hope it was ready. Buck had no idea how much longer he had before blood-loss killed his friend, but he feared every second counted.
As he removed his hands from their position and tossed aside the blood-soaked rag, he picked up a nearby stick and slipped it under the bandana he had been using as a tourniquet earlier. Twisting the stick, he tightened the cloth until the wood began to slip through his blood-slicked hands. With a tilt of the stick so it would be stopped by the bloody cloth, Wilmington released his hold on the implement and moved toward the fire to retrieve his knife.
Drawing the blade from the coals, Buck was unable to shift his eyes off the glowing metal. A shiver ran down his spine as the horror of the situation began to overwhelm him. His friend was lying on the floor of an abandon house slowly bleeding to death from a wound he never should have received. It was Buck who should be lying there suffering after all it had been his own carelessness that had caused the problem.
Shaking himself out of his fugue, Buck turned and knelt once more by his friend's side. Lifting the bottle of whiskey he had found in his saddlebag, he poured the alcohol over the blade, swallowing back bile as it hissed, knowing there was worse to come.
As he settled the bottle on the ground, Wilmington drew a deep breath and braced himself as best he could. Leaning forward, he slowly lowered the still-glowing blade to the wound, nearly vomiting at the hiss of the knife and smell of burning flesh.
Finally pulling the knife away, Wilmington almost threw it back into the coals in his hurry to rid himself of the hideous implement of torture. What had disturbed him more than the act of cauterizing the wound was the fact that it had failed to garner even the slightest response from his friend.
Closing his eyes, Wilmington took several deep breaths, ignoring the stench of his ministrations and focusing on nothing. He had to finish this; his friend's life depended on it.
Feeling calmer, he pushed himself to his feet and walked to the table where he had left their saddlebags. Nathan had asked them to pick up some herbs for him while they were away. At the time JD had been pestering the healer, demanding to know what each of the herbs did. Right now he was grateful for the young man's curiosity.
As he reached for the bags, the late afternoon sunlight illuminated the crimson color of his hands. Swallowing back a wave of nausea, Buck rushed outside to the small stream that ran behind the house and quickly began scrubbing his hands until all trace of blood was gone.
Resting his wet hands on his legs, he closed his eyes and breathed deeply, trying desperately to calm himself and his breathing. He had seen many horrible things in the war and since then, but of all the horrible things he had seen, nothing was as awful as what he had just gone through.
A shudder ran through him as the hiss of the hot knife echoed in his ears. Unconsciously releasing a cry of dismay, he shook his head, desperately trying to remove the sound from his mind.
Another series of deep breaths brought about a false calm, a delicate shield against reality and what he had just done, what he still had to do. "Tea," he said to himself, taking one last deep breath before opening his eyes and rising.
Scanning the surrounding area, he was pleased with the location and even more so with the fact that he could not spot anyone else around. As he steeled himself for his return to the small cabin, he began running through the supplies he had on-hand as well as what he would need to do.
First, he would need to finish tending Ezra and get some tea into the man to help with the pain and fever. Next, he would need to make sure they had plenty of water on-hand. The horses would need tending and he should probably set some traps and some lines to see if he could catch a rabbit or fish for dinner or at least for breakfast the next day. Some sort of fresh meat would make for a much better broth than the dried meat in his saddle bags.
Intent upon his course of action, Buck opened the door to the small cabin and paused. The odor of burnt flesh and blood still lingered in the enclosed space. Fighting off a need to leave, he set his shoulders and stepped inside. Before he even thought of the herbs, of covering Ezra's wound or of making tea, he needed to air the place out.
Leaving the door open, he strode over to the window and threw open the shutters. He nodded in satisfaction as a slight breeze swept into the stagnant room, beginning the cleansing process.
+ + + + + + +
Ezra was confused. He didn't understand the world in which he found himself. Nothing made sense, nothing was familiar, and fear began to manifest. As he became more agitated, he became more aware of what was around him and was nagged by the thought that there was something he didn't want to face, something horrible, but at the moment, he couldn't remember if the horrible thing was with him where he was now or if it was some other place he'd been.
His question was soon answered, however, as the pain began. At first it seemed to surround him, engulf him, making him lose track of where he was and what was happening. He was lost in a sea of agony that seemed to intensify by the second leading him somewhere, but he couldn't tell where. His only hope was that it led away from the pain.
Buck's eyes flew over to where Ezra lay. Something had drawn his attention to that area. He soon spotted the source of the sound as his friend's head turned from side to side.
Resting the spoon he had been using to stir stew he was making from the rabbit he had caught, Wilmington moved to his friend's side where he quickly checked Standish's forehead to check for fever. A frown marred his handsome face when he found Ezra warmer than he had been a few minutes ago. Sitting back on his heels, he waited to see if the gambler would wake up.
When Ezra's head began moving more determinedly, Buck took his friend's hand in his own and began a soft litany of soothing words, trying to calm the injured soul.
Ezra was fighting. Something wasn't right. He felt trapped, weighed down and yet, oddly light. It didn't make sense. He needed to find a way out of this place, he needed...
His frantic thoughts ceased as a faint sound caught his ear. It was little more than the rise and fall of a gentle wave lapping at the shore. If there were shape or form to it, he couldn't find it, yet it was soothing to him nevertheless.
As his curiosity regarding the sound grew, Ezra tried to figure out how to get closer to it. He wanted to hear it more clearly, having decided it sounded less like the lap of water than the rise and fall of a voice. He wondered who could be speaking to him.
Surprise settled around Standish as he found all he had to do to get closer to the voice was focus on it. As he drew closer to the voice, the pain that had enveloped him began to drift away and gather in one location. Unfortunately, as it gathered in one location, the pain increased in intensity, until, just as Ezra reached the voice and opened his eyes, the piercing spear of pain settled in his leg causing him to gasp.
"Easy, there, Pard," Buck soothed. "Take it easy. Just take a deep breath."
Standish struggled to regain control of his body and his faculties. His breaths were short and panting as he attempted to process both his surroundings and the pain. "Buck," he finally managed to gasp out as the sharp agony in his leg reduced to a painful throb.
"Yep, it's me," Buck replied, relieved that Ezra was finally awake, but worried by his friend's pale color. He shook himself from his worried thoughts and lifted up the mug he had set beside Ezra earlier. "I have some fresh water here I need you to drink." Lifting the mug, he turned back and felt the air knocked out of him at the pain reflected in his friend's green eyes. That pain was his fault.
Blinking up at his friend and current nurse, Ezra saw the guilt in Wilmington's eyes and puzzled over it. In a moment, the events that led to his current predicament came to mind. "It was... an unfortunate bit of... timing on my part," Standish informed, wondering why he felt so weak. Seeing his friends eyes look away, the gambler frowned. "Don't." he ordered, too tired to soften the word or use his normal eloquence.
Buck's eyes flew back to meet his friend's. "If it's not my fault then exactly whose is it?" he demanded.
Ezra sighed. He didn't have the energy to fight Buck right now. Even more than that, he didn't have the energy to fight Buck's guilt, something the ladies' man wore like a comfortable hat. "It was an accident," he defended, hoping that Buck would believe him. As the other man lifted the cup of water, Standish nearly sighed in relief, not only for the break this afforded him from their conversation, but for the quenching of his thirst which had been increasing with each passing moment.
When he had taken enough water, Standish turned his head to the side and sighed in relief as Buck settled him back. The twin threads of exhaustion and pain were tugging him into a well of unconsciousness, but he knew he had to convince Buck this wasn't his fault. Eyes blinking sleepily, he said, "If this... is your fault, then... Brighton Ridge was mine." With those final words, Ezra surrendered to his body's needs.
Buck settled on the floor next to his friend, his guilt not eased in the least. "It's not the same," he whispered to the sleeping man. After a few minutes he went back to the food he was cooking, making sure it didn't burn. "It's not the same at all."
+ + + + + + +
Night had long since fallen outside, but the tall form by the window seemed oblivious to the darkness, his own memories consuming every ounce of his concentration. His eyes saw not the gentle sway of the tree branches, but the flickering light of the saloon in Morriston. The sounds Buck heard were not the gentle rustle of the leaves, but the rise and fall of voices, the tinkling laughter of the saloon girls and the deeper rolling laughter of the men. He could smell the beer and whiskey as well as the perfume of the women and the unwashed bodies of the men.
His mind drifted over the scene once more, wondering if he shouldn't have been more attuned to what was going on, wondering if there hadn't been a warning sign. But it had all seemed so normal, so usual...
The Previous Night
Buck leaned back in his chair, smiling at the blonde who had just flitted away in a mock huff. Gentle laughter escaped him as she looked back over her shoulder and boldly winked at him. Lifting his beer to his lips, he scanned the room. Ezra was deeply into his card game and most of the women were involved with other men.
Relaxing into the hard, wooden chair as much as possible, he idly wondered with which of the girls he would be spending the night. It was true, he was tired after the long ride here, but with the prisoner delivered, he needed to find some way to unwind and spending the night pleasuring a beautiful woman seemed just about right.
"Hey, there, cowboy," a sultry voice cooed near his ear.
With the slightest turn of his head, Buck felt his smile broaden. Here was a woman of unusual beauty. "Well, hello, darlin'," he returned, settling his chair onto four legs. "Why don't you have a seat?" he offered, nodding toward the other chair at the table. He wasn't completely surprised when she decided to forego the chair in favor of his lap, but he hadn't been expecting a bundle of softness and scent to settle on top of him. "Comfortable?" he asked, sliding his beer onto the table and wrapping his arms around his new friend.
"I know where we can be even more comfortable," she offered, a suggestive smile on her lips as her sapphire eyes drilled into his.
A knowing smile graced Wilmington's face as he replied, "Reckon I do, too. Name's Buck Wilmington."
"Moira," was her simple reply as she leaned in and began trailing kisses down his neck.
"Well, Miss Moira," he began, clearing his throat before continuing, "I have a nice comfortable room already waiting for me if you like..."
"I think I'll like that just fine," she whispered in his ear, standing and offering him her hand.
Buck closed his eyes against the memories of that night. At the time it had been wonderful. Certainly it wasn't the most memorable night he'd ever had, but was right up there on the list. Moira had been shy at first, almost uncertain in what she was doing, but once that initial shyness was gone...
Leaning his head forward, he rested his forehead against the window frame. It should have been enough of a warning. He should have picked up on it - the aggression in the saloon and the shyness in the room. There should have been something... But he'd been tired after the ride, not thinking things through.
That had changed the next morning.
Stretching his long body, Buck felt a smile grow as he thought about the previous night's events. Moira had seemed to enjoy herself and that was always Buck's goal. A soft sound drew his attention away from his happy contemplation.
Looking across the room, he spotted his bedmate just finish buttoning up her dress. "Mornin'," he greeted. Her hands froze in place and then continued on their path. She didn't turn to look and Buck felt his smile fade. It didn't happen often, but he knew what this was - regret.
Pushing himself into a sitting position, he moved until he was leaning against the headboard. "You okay over there, Moira?" he asked, concerned.
"I'm fine," she insisted, turning to face him with what was obviously a false smile on her face before turning away again.
The remnants of Wilmington's good mood evaporated at that response. He was about to say something more when he saw a glint of light on her hand. Eyes widening in shock, it was several moments before he accused, "You're married." Though he had been with married women before, they had always been open about it. The fact that she had not been wearing the ring last night but had it on this morning left him feeling betrayed and used.
The delicate hands paused in their task and the thin shoulders slumped. "Yes," she said softly.
"Why didn't you say so?" Wilmington asked, though what he really wanted to know was why she had used him.
A heavy sigh escaped her. "My husband has been very open about the affair he's carrying on with one of the local widows," Moira admitted.
"So, you thought that if you had an affair of your own, he would see how much he still wanted you and leave her," Buck filled in, having heard of similar things. His sense of betrayal slowly changed to one of pity. He knew it wouldn't work and apparently all she'd managed to do was to make herself fell miserable. "You didn't think it would hurt so much to betray your vows," he continued.
Moira's loose hair swayed as she shook her head. "I didn't..." her voice was choked off by a sob she refused to allow to escape. "I'm sorry," she finally breathed out. "I didn't mean to hurt you."
Setting aside his own pain at the sight of hers, Buck swung his legs over the side of the bed and reached for his pants. Slipping them on, he fastened them and slipped into his shirt as well. In truth, this was one of those rare situations with a woman where he didn't know what to say or do. Had she been upset for another reason, he could have just gathered her in his arms, but this... How do you comfort someone for deceiving you and betraying their own beliefs. Stepping closer, he quietly offered, "I could have said no."
A sad, but real, smile appeared on Moira's face and she looked up to meet the blue eyes staring at her with such compassion. "I wouldn't have given you the chance," she replied, eyes dipping in shame at the admission. Releasing a heavy sigh, she explained, "We don't get many visitors to our town and I couldn't risk a liaison with anyone here. Orville, my husband, is a very jealous man."
This revelation did nothing to ease Buck's mind and he felt a nervousness begin to gnaw within his stomach. "Exactly how jealous does he get?" Buck asked.
Moira turned away with a sigh and crossed to the window. "He won't follow you out of town," she answered. Then turning to face him, she added, "But it wouldn't be wise for you to stay."
Buck nodded, accepting the trouble he hadn't sought - not this time, anyway. He would have to go get Ezra and get out of town as soon as he could and hope they made it out before word got back to Oriville. With any luck they would make it out of town and back home unscathed, as they had promised Chris. "Reckon I best get my friend and get going, then," he said, buttoning his shirt and making sure he looked presentable.
As he finished with his own preparations, he noticed Moira looking at him and easily read the regret in her face. Walking over, he gently lifted her chin until her eyes met his. "Hey, there," he said, his voice gentle. "Don't go regretting this," he told her, knowing it wouldn't be easy for her to overcome this. "The reasons why you sought me out may not have been good ones, but you've added sunshine and life to an otherwise dreary, boring trip. You are a beautiful woman with a beautiful heart and your husband is a fool if he can't see that." A smile crept across his face as Moira smiled up at him, tears brimming in his eyes. "He gives you any trouble about anything, you just let me know and I'll come back and handle it," he promised, knowing he would never refuse to help a lady in trouble.
Moira felt her shame fade at the gentle words and the kindness with which she was being treated, rather than the anger she had expected. Afraid to speak for fear of crying, she nodded her head and smiled. Finding herself drawn forward into a hug, she relaxed against the strong chest, reveling in the protection of his arm. "Thank you," she whispered once she felt she had enough control. Feeling stronger for having gotten the words out once, she stepped back when he released her and stared directly into the warm blue eyes. "Thank you," she repeated.
Buck smiled down at this woman, and reached up to brush a stray hair off of her forehead. Turning he offered his arm and asked, "Shall we?" He was pleased when she accepted his gallantry.
Buck was pulled from his memories by the smell of nearly burned soup. Rushing over to the fire, he reached for the pot, pulling his hand back as the heat of the fire struck it. Reaching over for a remnant of the shirt he'd torn earlier as bandages for his friend, Wilmington wrapped the cloth around the handle of the pot he had found in the shack and pulled the soup away from the heat.
Setting it aside, he turned and walked across the room to where Ezra lay. A frown marred his handsome face as he noticed a sheen of sweat covering Ezra. As he reached down, a milder heat than that of the fire assaulted his sense of touch, but he knew that this heat was every bit as deadly as the one that heated the soup; it was the heat of fever.
Letting a curse slip, he reached over and shook Ezra, cursing again when he failed to garner any response. With a bit more effort, he managed to get semi-coherent grumblings from the gambler and coaxed a half-glass of water into him. From his own experience helping those with fever, he knew it wouldn't be enough, but he also suspected he wouldn't have much more success until this fever was brought down.
With long strides, he crossed the room to the table on which he had set a bowl for soup. There had only been one bowl in the cabin and Buck had tried not to use it for anything other than the soup, but circumstances had changed. Filling the vessel with water, he grabbed the scrap of cloth he had used to remove the soup from the fire and dipped it into the cool water. A quick wring removed most of the water from it and he began running it over Ezra's face and neck, hoping to cool the man and help break the fever. "Hang in there, Ez," he encouraged. "You're going to beat this fever."
In his unconscious state, the words Buck spoke filtered through, but their speaker changed, it was no longer Buck saying the words to him, but him saying the words to Buck. Somehow Ezra Standish had ended up back in one of his own worst nightmares - Brighton Ridge.
+ + + + + + +
Fever burned through Ezra's body. He felt hot and uncomfortable. The world around him was filled with pain and nothing seemed to make sense. Vaguely he had been aware of someone trying to rouse him and of the heavenly experience of sipping cool water, but now he wasn't sure if that had been a dream or if that was reality.
Voices spoke in his head and images surrounded him. They didn't make sense. Nothing made sense here. One moment he was hearing Buck's voice and the next he was hearing Maude's. A moment later he was lost somewhere in the past, living with some relative he had never heard of and who only kept him out of some misguided sense of familial obligation.
The scenes around him changed as well. First he was in Georgia, then New Orleans. Saint Louis and Kansas City followed. Then he found himself in the dusty little berg that had become home. But that image, too, faded as new words penetrated his confused mind, "You're going to beat this fever". He had said those words; he could feel them echoing fear and hope in his heart.
A low groan escaped him as his mind formed the town of Brighton Ridge around him, offering no escape. Every sound, every smell was there just as it had been before. Standish wanted nothing more than to escape this nightmare, but somehow knew he couldn't. And knowing he couldn't escape the nightmare, he surrendered to it, allowing it to become real once more.
Months Ago - Brighton Ridge
Ezra smiled and allowed a low chuckle to escape. He and Buck had had a long, dry ride to Brighton Ridge and the journey had not been made more pleasant by their prisoner. That situation, however, had resolved itself satisfactorily with the application of a few lengths of rope and the surrender of one of Mr. Wilmington's bandanas. Of course, the sheriff might not be too pleased with their treatment of the prisoner, but right now all Ezra could generate concern for was the thought that the town housed a first rate saloon and that the bath house was open.
"Let's drop him off and see to the horses," Buck suggested, his eyes following a light female form as the woman in question paused before the dressmaker's shop. "Looks like this town might have something in the way of entertainment to offer," he added with a smile.
A sigh of agreement escaped the gambler. He was tired and sore after the long trip, but had to admit, he was looking forward to spending time at this particular saloon. If the rumors he had heard were true, an old friend of his was the resident gambler. That meant that he would be guaranteed a fair and honest game if there were others present and a challenge of his own skills if there wasn't. "By all means," Ezra replied, lifting his hand, "lead the way."
After dropping off the prisoner and stabling his horse, Ezra made his way first to the bathhouse where he luxuriated in the hot water and the feeling of being clean, and then on to the saloon. True, the purchase of a room would be a wise choice, but if he was correct in his assumption, he would be spending the night at the poker tables.
A broad smile crossed his face as he stepped into the saloon and his eyes immediately fell on his old friend. Walking over to the table where four men were sitting playing poker, he stood behind the fifth chair and inquired, "Is this seat available?"
Standish's smile was met with a broad smile from one of the men seated. The gentleman's peacock blue coat set him apart from the others. "Why, Ezra Standish," he greeted, laying down his cards and standing, offering his hand to his old friend. "I never expected to see you out here."
"Well, Oliver," Standish replied, taking the other man's hand in his own and shaking it warmly, "I never thought you would either." Soft laughter escaped both men as Oliver sat in his own seat and Ezra took the empty one, placing his saddlebags under his chair.
"You'll have to wait until the next hand," Oliver informed.
Ezra nodded. He had expected that to be the case, but sitting this hand out would offer him the opportunity to evaluate his fellow players. And evaluating poker players was something he excelled at.
He was deep into the second game of cards when he noted Buck walk into the saloon. He was almost immediately beset by one of the working girls and Standish couldn't help but smile and think how like moths to a flame the ladies were when it came to his friend.
One of the other players raised and that drew Standish's attention back to the game at hand.
The rest of the night passed pleasantly in the game. A few of the players rotated out and by dawn there were only three people left at the table, Ezra, Oliver and Morton Acme, a businessman passing through town. The stakes had continued to grow through the night until there was now a very substantial pot sitting in the middle of the table. The games had been kept fair and honest throughout thanks to the skills of both Oliver and Ezra, an eventuality that helped to keep things relaxed and enjoyable.
Now, however, tension was thick at the table and the men were silent, contemplating the cards they held. Mr. Acme had very few chips left, but had shown himself to be an excellent card player. Unfortunately, he had some tells which both Ezra and Oliver had identified. Currently the man felt he had the winning hand.
Glancing across at Oliver, Standish almost smiled. Oliver never seemed any different to the casual observer. He always appeared calm and cool, never excited or acting in any manner unusual when playing. It had taken Ezra several years to finally figure out Oliver's tell. When his friend was worried or bluffing, he would twist the ruby ring he wore halfway around his finger. He only did so once and then wouldn't touch it again, but Standish had seen the subtle move and had to fight a smile. He wondered idly if he should inform his friend of the habit, but decided against such a course of action.
A moment later, his silent musings were broken by one single word, "Call."
Straightening in his chair, Ezra watched as Mr. Acme laid out his cards revealing a full house of three tens and two sevens. Oliver's hand landed face down on the table. He had been beaten.
Ezra glanced at Morton Acme and tried to judge the reaction he would get to what he was about to reveal. The man had a good poker face and hadn't shown any violent tendencies, but it still never hurt to keep your focus on a potential loser.
With businesslike precision, Ezra revealed his five cards, a three, four, five, six and seven of diamonds, a straight flush. There was no gloating on his face or in his demeanor. The game had been challenging and fair. He offered a small smile of thanks toward his companions and reached for the pot.
His motion was halted a moment later by the sound of a gun cocking. Releasing the money and slowly sitting back in his chair, Standish kept his hands resting lightly on the top of the poker table. His eyes were locked, not on the gun aimed at him, but at Morton Acme's face; a face he had learned to read well over the course of the night.
"Mr. Acme," Oliver said, his voice betraying only the slightest hint of tension, "this is not the way to handle a dispute."
"It's not a dispute," Morton growled. "I'm taking the money," he informed, reaching out with his unoccupied hand.
"I'm afraid I can not allow that to happen," Ezra said slowly. "We played a gentleman's game and you lost fairly. "
"I am aware that it was a fair game," the businessman said, stuffing bills and coins in his pockets. "But that doesn't change the fact that I'm walking away with the money." Having taken the last of the money off the table, he rose from his chair and stepped back from the table, his gun still trained on Standish and keeping an eye on Oliver. "Now if you gentlemen will excuse me, I'll be leaving," he said, tipping his hat.
"I don't think you'll be going anywhere," Buck said from right behind the businessman. Ezra and Oliver had seen him coming up quietly behind Mr. Acme, but neither had given any sign of acknowledging his presence.
For his part, Morton Acme was so startled by the sudden voice appearing behind him that he spun around and inadvertently pulled the trigger on his gun. The gunshot was deafening in the saloon and was made even louder as it was followed almost instantly by another shot, this one from Oliver's gun.
In the echo of the gun blasts, there was a dull thump as not one, but two bodies fell to the floor.
Buck wrung out the cloth, sighing in exhaustion and wishing he had another blanket to put over Ezra's shivering form. The low, incoherent mumbles of his friend had been keeping him company for several hours as the night deepened. Wilmington had no idea about what his friend was dreaming, but it seemed to have picked up in intensity as the fevered man began to move his head.
As he turned back toward his friend, the subject of Ezra's dream suddenly became apparent as the gambler gasped and cried out, "Buck! No!"
A curse slid from Wilmington's lips. Ezra was dreaming about the last time they'd delivered a prisoner. That time it had been to Brighton Ridge where Buck had been shot and injured. Shaking the other man's shoulder, the rogue started speaking to Standish in soothing tones, "It's alright, Ezra. I'm fine. Come on, now. Wake up just a bit." Seeing the fevered man begin to rouse slightly, Buck almost sighed in relief. Unfortunately, Ezra never woke entirely and soon had slipped off to sleep. "Of all the things you could have remembered," Buck said softly, brushing a stray lock of hair from Ezra's stubble covered cheek, "you had to remember that one." A sigh escaped the ladies' man as he tended Ezra, never realizing that his own eyes were slowly closing and his head falling forward until he, too, was asleep.
Months Ago - Brighton Creek
Ezra paced outside the door to the doctor's operating room. He couldn't quite remember how he had gotten here or why it felt like he'd done this before, but those feelings were quickly shoved aside as the sound of a curse being uttered filtered through the door. Ezra felt his heart jump into his throat as he reached for the doorknob, only to draw his hand back at the last moment as the doctor's directive to not be disturbed echoed in his mind.
With uncharacteristic viciousness, Ezra shoved his hands into his pockets and began pacing. This whole situation was unacceptable. The game had been honest and he had won fairly, yet his friend had gotten shot just the same. It was all his fault. It had to be. If he had read Acme better, if he had stopped one hand sooner, if he hadn't pushed things to the limit, then neither man would be in this predicament.
Extracting his hands from his pockets, Standish withdrew the deck of cards he always kept on him. He hadn't even gotten as far as squaring them, however, when he stopped dead in his tracks and blanched in horror. Thrusting the cards back into his pocket, he chose instead to look out at the town, though he didn't see any of it. Guilt was writhing around inside him like some insidious beast attempting to consume his very soul; it was winning. His eyes slipping shut, he leaned his head against the window and indulged in a rarity - he prayed.
A gentle murmuring drew Buck from his sleeping state. As soon as he realized he'd fallen asleep, he sat up with a jerk and stretched. His eyes fell immediately upon the prone form before him and a curse slipped from his lips as he noted the sheen of sweat covering the fever-stained cheeks. "Sorry, Ez," he said softly. "This whole thing is all my fault. If I'd just gone when I got down..."
Wringing out the cloth he'd been using before, Buck wiped down his friend's face and neck as his mind wandered back to the previous morning.
The Previous Morning
Buck and Moira arrived downstairs with a minimum of fuss. Being the gentleman he was, Buck walked the lady to the door and bid her good day before returning to the saloon to meet up with Ezra and get some breakfast. Moira had suggested he skip breakfast and leave town as quickly as possible, but he knew Ezra would have been playing late and wanted to be sure his friend was ready to go as well.
Stepping into the saloon, a smile graced Wilmington's face as he took in the sight of an exhausted and slightly rumpled Ezra raking in a pot. It had taken him over a month to convince Ezra that what had happened in Brighton Ridge wasn't the gambler's fault and the man should go back to playing poker. It had taken Ezra a month after that before he allowed himself to be tempted into an all-night, high-stakes poker game. Now it looked like Standish was walking away all the richer for the time he invested.
Making his way to a table at the side of the bar, Buck soon had his order placed. Ezra was having a few parting words with the local gambler when the doors to the saloon burst open, drawing Wilmington's attention. In the doorway was an enraged man about the same height as Buck but half again as wide. Somehow, the rogue knew this was Moira's husband.
The man in question scanned the room, his eyes taking in every face, three men standing behind him almost like an honor guard. Most of the men looked quickly away, some cowered. Ezra and the other gambler noted him and looked away. Buck met the gaze, nodded and then turned his attention to the meal that had just arrived. If Larabee didn't scare him anymore, there was no way this man would.
Buck had just swallowed his first forkful of eggs when the sound of Moira's husband crossing the room drew his attention. Shifting slightly in his chair, he made sure he had easy access to his gun and took another bite of eggs.
"You," the new arrival said.
Though he knew it would only anger the man, Buck chose to ignore him for the moment. It was a risky play, but one that allowed him to maintain control of the situation. He swallowed the bit of eggs he'd taken and then took a sip of coffee. As he set the cup back on the table, a large fist came crashing down, spilling the coffee and shaking the plate.
"I will not be ignored!" the man shouted.
Lifting his napkin from his lap, Buck carefully wiped his mouth and finally looked up at Moira's husband. Meeting the man's eyes, Wilmington saw nothing but ugliness in the man's soul. "Some men are born to be ignored," he said softly. "Reckon you're one of them."
A roar of rage tore from the large man. He took a step back and lifted the other chair at the table, hefting it across the room and taking a small bit of satisfaction as it smashed into kindling. "You seduced my wife!" he accused loud enough for the whole town to have heard him.
Buck knew that wasn't true, but he would never besmirch a lady's name by saying so. "Maybe if you spent a little more time trying to seduce her yourself, I wouldn't have had to," he offered, feeling his anger and protective streak rise. Moira may not have been completely forthright with him, but she deserved better than this lout before him.
Moira's husband roared in anger and reached for his gun.
In a heartbeat, Buck's revolver was in his hand and aimed at his foe. He hadn't stood, not wanting to waste the time. After he had his gun trained on his assailant, he began to rise from his chair.
As he stood, two things happened that he hadn't expected. First, the three men who had followed Moira's husband into the saloon, drew their guns, and second, Ezra stepped between Buck and his assailant, obviously trying to make peace.
Standish's sudden appearance seemed to spook Moira's husband and when Ezra lifted his hands to calm the men, the husband pulled the trigger.
Buck watched as his friend crumpled to the ground in front of him and felt a roar of rage escape. Before he could think things through or fully register the shock on the other man's face, Buck fired at Moira's husband and watched him drop to the ground, a bloom of crimson on his chest.
Dropping to his knees, he reached out for Ezra who was struggling to gather himself against the pain. "We need... to go... now!" Standish managed as Buck took hold of his arm and shoulder and helped him up.
Luck was with them as they escaped from the saloon. The three men who had come in with Moira's husband were shocked at having seen their leader fall. They had rushed forward to be with him, allowing Ezra and Buck a few unguarded moments to escape.
When they arrived at the stable, Buck was surprised to find both of their horses saddled and ready to go, but didn't question it. They needed to put some distance between the town and themselves before the three from the saloon gathered their senses about them and decided to pursue.
As he helped Ezra up onto his horse, Wilmington saw the blood flowing freely from the leg wound. Letting out a curse, he did the only thing they had time to do; he took off his bandana and tied it around Standish's leg, pulling as tightly as he could. "Gotta hold on," he instructed the Southerner, his voice gruff from the emotions and urgency of their situation.
"Indeed, Mr. Wilmington," Ezra managed to reply as he wrapped the reins around his hand once and kept pressure on his leg with the other.
Turning toward his own horse, Wilmington caught sight of the form in the shadows. His hand dropping to his gun. "Show yourself," he commanded.
The sound of rustling fabric indicated movement. A few seconds later Moira came into view. "I..." she began before tears started to flow.
With a step forward, Buck wrapped the distraught woman in his arms. "It will be fine, darlin'," he soothed.
"I'm sorry," the woman said, her voice soft and sounding small in the livery.
"Shh," Buck said softly. Stepping back slightly, he placed a finger under her chin and tilted her face upward. "You're going to be fine, Moira. Don't you worry about any of this."
Swallowing back her tears and regrets, the woman straightened her shoulders and nodded her head. "Is there anything I can do to help?" she asked.
It didn't take him long to come upon a task. "I need you to send a telegram for me," he informed. It took only seconds to explain what he wanted it to say and where to send it. Placing a quick kiss on Moira's cheek, he ushered her out of the livery.
With Moira gone, Buck mounted his own horse and led the way out of the livery and out of the town. Just as they cleared the last building, the sound of gunfire exploded behind them combined with angry shouts. The rogue knew they didn't have much of a lead, but hopefully it would be enough.
The two peacekeepers had ridden away from town, going on and off trail in the hopes of confusing and losing any men who might be following. After an hour, Ezra cried out, unable to continue on.
Finding a well-wooded area near a stream, Wilmington had stopped and that was where he had removed the bullet. The sound of horses riding nearby combined with the voices of men that had been in town had been enough to spur Buck onward in his search for a safer place.
Checking on the wound, he had been disturbed to find it still bleeding. Making a quick tourniquet, he had applied it and gotten Ezra back up on his horse. As he searched the area, he was satisfied the men had moved on and quickly chose a direction opposite that of his pursuers.
It had been several hours later when he had come across this recently abandon cabin.
"If I could go back and do it all over again, I would, Pard. You gotta know that," he said softly.
On the bed, the feverish man heard the words. They sank through the haze of confusion and brought one word to his lips, a question, "Buck?"
"Yeah, Pard," Wilmington confirmed, squeezing his friend's shoulder. "It's me."
But Ezra was already once more lost in his fevered memories.
Months Ago - Brighton Ridge
"Buck?" Ezra asked, having hurried over to the small man who came out of the operating room.
Doctor Goodfrie looked up at the gambler, his face serious. "Your friend has lost a lot of blood and is already developing a fever." Releasing a sigh, the doctor indicated that Ezra should sit down. When they were both seated, Goodfrie continued, "The bullet entered low, near the hipbone. It caught part of the bone and tore through some muscle."
Ezra felt the blood begin to drain from his face. This was bad. How would he ever live with himself if Buck didn't make it?
"The wound is serious," he said, not wishing to mislead the man. "In many cases it could cause problems, but with proper care and rest, he should be able to make a full recovery. It will take time, however."
"Whatever it takes, Doctor," Ezra replied, not even hesitating at the though of what care might entail.
"I was hoping you would feel that way," Goodfrie replied. "You will need to take him somewhere else. I don't have room to keep him here, but I can get several of the men in town to carry him to wherever you will be staying."
Standish blinked, not having thought of staying, not sure where to go. "Perhaps there is a boarding house?" he asked, uncertain.
"Mrs. Reston runs the boarding house here in town. You can see her about a room. She runs a very clean place and is a very good cook," the doctor said with a smile as he stood.
"May I..." Ezra began, also rising.
Turning back, Doctor Goodfrie easily read the question in the man's eyes. "Of course," he agreed. "Come with me and you can see your friend. That way you'll know what to expect and I can tell you what to watch for and what to do."
"Thank you, sir," Standish said, unable to find the words that normally flowed so easily from his lips. "Thank you."
"Don't do this to me, Ez," Buck whispered as he wet the cloth in the fresh water he'd just brought up from the creek. He had little choice but to leave Ezra for a short time while he went to check on the traps and the lines he'd placed the day before. He also brought back fresh, cool water from the stream.
Unfortunately, upon his return, he had found Standish lying perfectly still, his breath shallow and the fever higher. He checked the wound, but couldn't see anything wrong. Of all the times he could have used Nathan's help, this was one of the most important. Doubt began to creep into his soul as he wiped his friend's face. Had he done enough? Had he done the right thing? Would he know the right thing to do at the right time?
Lifting his eyes skyward, he simply said, "Could use a little help down here, Lord. Reckon neither Ezra nor me are regular attenders at church, but we both believe in you in our own way. I'm not going to make any promises I won't keep, but if you could send some help, I'd really appreciate it."
Finished with his prayer, Buck turned his attention to his friend, hoping that the Lord would find a way to answer and answer soon. He wasn't sure how long they had.
Months Ago - Brighton Ridge
Ezra lay on his bed, exhausted. He had managed to get a room on the first floor in the back of the boarding house that had two beds in it. With some help from Oliver, he was able to gather together a few men to help him carry his unconscious friend to the new location.
Unfortunately, the fever the doctor had mentioned was still raging and Ezra was drained. He had been up at his friend's side almost constantly. He had wired the others, but knew it would still take them several days to arrive. At least he assumed it would take several days, he had lost track of time at some point between his attempts to cool Buck. The fact that he had acquired a few bruises during some of Wilmington's more violent fever dreams was taking a toll as well.
Though he would never admit it to anyone, not even the good doctor, he was rapidly beginning to despair. Nothing seemed to be helping and he sometimes imaged he could feel the cold hand of death reaching over his shoulder, trying to steal Buck's life, something he would never allow to happen.
With a heavy sigh, he forced his exhausted body up from the comfort of the feather mattress and headed over to the ill man's bedside once more. He had tried to sleep, but each time he closed his eyes, he could only see the bullet leaving Acme's gun and entering Buck, and each time he saw it, the results got worse and worse. Most recently he had awoken when the dreamed bullet ripped through his friend's chest leaving only a gaping hole where his heart should be.
A shudder ran down Ezra's length as he tried to get that image to leave his mind. Seeing the strong ladies' man laying weak and unmoving on the bed didn't help. "This is all my fault," he whispered softly as he reached for the rag soaking in the cool water. "If I had only left the table earlier..." His voice trailed off as the increased heat of Buck's fever registered.
"No," he whispered, dropping the damp rag by his friend's head. It was getting worse. All this time fighting and the fever was increasing. Panic at the thought of losing his friend screamed through the normally level-headed gambler.
Franticly, he folded the cool cloth and placed it on Buck's forehead. Then, racing for the door, he tore it open and went charging down the hall and out of the building.
Paying little attention to his surroundings, Standish darted across the street, not even registering the angry shout of the man on the rearing horse as he charged toward the doctor's office.
With great fear and little ceremony, he threw the door open, causing it to crash into the wall as he shouted, "Doctor!"
The door to the exam room opened and Dr. Goodfrie stepped out, wiping his hands. "Mr. Standish!" he exclaimed, worried by the man's appearance and panicked look. "Has something happened?"
Reaching out, Ezra grasped the man's wrist and started pulling him, "You must come, Doctor," he pleaded. "Buck's fever had gotten worse. I think.... I..." Unable to continue, he just tugged the other man.
"Mr. Standish," the doctor said. When he received no response, he pulled against the restraining hand and called louder, "Mr. Standish!"
The gambler stopped, spun on his heel and caught himself just short of snapping at the man. The last thing he needed to do was alienate Dr. Goodfrie, but the urgency and near-panic that was consuming him over Buck's current state combined with exhaustion was overwhelming his normal self-control. "You must come!" he cried out, knowing he was begging, knowing his eyes were showing his need. So much for appearances, Ezra Standish was a desperate man and wasn't afraid to show it.
"I will, Mr. Standish," the doctor affirmed. "But I need to finish with this current patient and clean up. In the meantime, I will need you to return to your room and continue the cooling bath." Seeing the man about to protest, the doctor assured, "I will be there within thirty minutes. Your friend needs you, go."
Not happy, but at a loss as to what he should do, Ezra simply nodded and replied, "I'll return to him, but if you don't come within thirty minutes, I'll come find you."
Leaving the doctor's office, Standish took slightly more care in crossing the street than he had before, worry for his friend still consuming every thought, intensifying every emotion. Buck had to get better.
Entering the room at the back of the boarding house, he found his friend thrashing weakly and moaning as his the sweat-soaked head tossed from side to side.
A small cry escaped Ezra as he charged across the room and dropped onto the chair beside Buck's bed. "I'm sorry, my friend," he apologized, reaching out and quickly dipping the cloth into the cool water. Wringing out the excess liquid, he quickly mopped Wilmington's face and neck, fearing that the fever had gotten even higher in the few minutes he'd been gone. "Calm, my friend," he soothed, searching for something to say, something he hadn't already said a hundred times during the other man's fever. Nothing came to mind.
"The others are coming, Buck," he finally related. "I telegraphed them to let them know what happened. I'm sure they'll be showing up any time now. And Doctor Goodfrie is coming over as well to take a look at you." Dipping the cloth in the water once more, Ezra twisted it viciously, allowing this one outlet for his feelings of frustration and helplessness. "You just need to hang on," he advised, wiping Buck's face once more. "Just hang on," he repeated softly, more to himself than his friend.
"Hang on, Ez," Buck whispered, fighting the despair and fear which was assailing him. In the past hour or so Standish's fever had risen causing much concern for the ladies' man. He had been able to coax some cool, fresh water into his friend, but not much, not nearly enough.
Dropping the cloth into the water once more, Wilmington allowed his head to drop into his hands. "Wish Nate was here," he said softly, feeling the pull of fatigue that he had been fighting for over a day. "Wish any of them were here," he admitted with a sigh. "I just don't think I'm good enough to get you through this one, Ezra," he despaired.
Buck's head snapped up and his eyes locked on his feverish friend. The words had been weak, had been almost inaudible, but they had been heard. Somehow the words made a connection in his mind to Brighton Ridge where he had been shot and spent several days wracked with fever. Where Ezra had sat by him and did everything he could to help Buck get through that time. He could do no less for Standish.
Pushing aside his fatigue and worry, Buck reached down, wrung out the cloth and began trying to bring down Ezra's temperature once more. "That's right, Pard," he agreed as Ezra repeated the words once more. "You just hang on. Ol' Buck's on the job now and there's no way a measly little fever's going to get the best of either of us."
Months Ago - Brighton Ridge
Ezra watched in frozen horror as the ladies' man stilled. The fever was high at this point and Dr. Goodfrie had yet to arrive. One thought played through the gambler's mind over and over; he couldn't lose his friend, not like this.
Shaking himself out of his stupor, Standish dipped the cloth into the room temperature water, wondering when it had warmed so much. Reaching up, he wiped the small beads of sweat from his forehead and turned suddenly when the door opened. "Doctor!" Ezra cried in relief, placing the rag in the small basin. "You have to do something."
Dr. Goodfrie walked over to the bed and patted the worried man on the arm. "Let me take a look," he said, gently moving Standish out of the way.
Ezra fought off his impatience and the angry retort that had risen to his lips. He knew his ill temper came from worry about his friend and since it had been his own pleas that had brought the doctor here, he couldn't attack the man for doing what he asked.
Though it seemed an eternity, it was, most likely, only a few moments before he saw the doctor stepped away from Buck's body and turned to rinse his hands in the bowl beside the bed. Unable to restrain himself any longer, Ezra asked, "Well?"
Doctor Goodfrie looked at the anxious man and smiled. "Sometimes when the body fights a fever, just as the fever is about to break, the temperature will rise. If this rise is only of a short duration and not too high, it won't hurt the patient."
"But what of Buck's fever?" Ezra asked, not sure what the information had to do with his friend. Seeing the smiling doctor tilt his head toward Wilmington, Standish moved forward and reached out a hand, resting it on the ladies' man's forehead. It took a moment for his mind to fully comprehend what had happened. Spinning to look at the doctor, eyes wide with wonder and relief, Ezra exclaimed, "It broke! His fever broke!"
A small chuckle escaped the doctor at the reaction. "Yes, it did," he agreed with a smile. "Your friend should be fine." The doctor's smile faded as he watched the young man before him lose all color and his eyes begin to roll back in his head. He took a step forward.
Ezra was exhausted. He heard the doctor say Buck would be fine, but the man's voice sounded so very far away. There was a slight rushing sound near his ears and a peaceful darkness calling to him, promising him rest and sleep. It was too tempting and he gave in.
Frustrated that his ministrations didn't seem to be making much difference, Buck tossed the cloth into the cool water and shot to his feet, knocking the chair he'd been using over with a loud clatter. There was no reaction from the man on the bed. Running a hand through his hair, Buck walked over to the open window and rested his arm against the casing. With a tired sigh, he leaned his head forward to rest on his arm.
The blue eyes slid closed and he found himself praying once more, this time for the arrival of his friends. In truth, he had done everything he knew how to do, everything he had learned from Nathan and it just didn't seem like enough.
In some respects, this situation struck too close to home for Wilmington. Though not a physical ailment, for years he had tended Chris' wounded soul, doing everything he knew how to help his friend heal after the loss of Sarah and Adam, but it had never been enough.
He straightened slightly and lifted his head at that last thought. It was true, at the time, it seemed his actions had no impact on Chris whatsoever, that the man just stayed in the dark hell he had fallen into and couldn't be moved. Yet not so long ago, Chris had admitted that Buck's efforts had not been in vain and had actually kept him caring enough to go on living; all of Buck's care had made the difference.
Taking the lesson from his past, Buck turned and headed back to Ezra's side, determined to get some tea into the man. His efforts in helping Ezra fight the fever might not seem to be making a difference now, but when the fever finally broke, it would have made the difference.
Lifting up the sweat-soaked head and cradling it in one arm, Buck lifted the warm cup with his other hand and began speaking softly to the unconscious man. "Hey there, Pard," he began. "Don't know if you can hear me or not, but I need to get some more of this here tea into you." He received no response from the ill man, but he hadn't really been expecting one. "I'm going to just rest the cup on your lips and maybe tip a tiny bit into your mouth. I want you to swallow it, okay?"
With great care, Buck gently tipped the cup, allowing some of the contents to pour into the other man's mouth. A soft curse escaped Wilmington as the liquid began running out of Ezra's mouth. Quickly setting the cup down, he took his newly-freed hand and lifted Standish's lower jaw to close his mouth, hoping his friend wouldn't choke on the small amount of tea.
Not realizing he'd been holding his breath, Buck released a huge sigh of relief when he saw Ezra's neck muscles moving as the fevered man swallowed the brew. Almost laughing in relief, he once more lifted the cup to the ill man and tipped a bit more into his mouth. It would be slow going, but it wasn't in Buck's nature to give up on a friend.
The hours passed slowly for Wilmington. Ezra alternated between perfect stillness and furious movement. Buck did what he could to calm and soothe his friend and had managed to get another mug of tea and a cup of water into the ill man.
Unfortunately, the long hours, lack of sleep and intense worry were taking their toll on Buck. Even the trip out to check his traps and fishing lines had failed to rouse him. He tried eating some of the fish he'd caught and gutted and drinking the almost day-old coffee he'd warmed for the third time, but nothing could stave off his body's need for rest and soon he gave in to the siren's song of sleep.
He woke with a start. Buck had no idea how long he'd been asleep, but the stiff muscles in his back and neck let him know it had been too long. With great care, he slowly straightened and stretched until he felt he could move without hurting something.
It was as he was twisting to ease the tension in his back that he paused to wonder what had waken him. His eyes widened as worry assailed him. Ezra! Something must have happened to Ezra.
Rushing back to his friend's side, Buck reached out and rested a hand on the Southerner's forehead, letting out a soft laugh and grinning widely as he felt how much cooler his friend was. The fever had broken. His eyes rose heavenward and he smiled as he offered, "Thank you", before turning his attention back to wiping down Ezra one last time and making sure he was alright.
When he was finished tending his friend, Buck walked to the window once more and smiled out at the night. It was still several hours before dawn, but things hadn't looked this beautiful in a long time. He hadn't given up and the fever hadn't won. True, Ezra had done most of the fighting, but Buck had done his part, too.
With one more deep breath, Wilmington turned and walked back into the room. He unrolled his bedroll and placed one of his saddlebags on the floor to use as a pillow and stretched out beside Ezra's cot, not willing to go too far from his friend. For the first time in too many days, he closed his eyes and rested without worry.
Sunlight was streaming through the window when he next awoke. Stretching, he felt the smile grow on his face as he remembered Ezra's fever had broken. Sitting up, he winced slightly as his body let him know he had been pushing things the past few days.
Once on his feet, he stretched again and then turned toward the bed only to be met by a pair of green eyes. "Well, hey, there," he greeted, grinning broadly and trying not to laugh in his relief.
"Mr. Wilmington," Ezra greeted softly. The green eyes began to take in the surroundings, clearly showing the man's puzzlement.
"Got you out of town and found this place," Buck said when the eyes once more came to rest on him. "Seems someone must have left pretty recently, I'd say no more than six months ago." He could see Ezra wasn't fully listening, but it didn't really bother the ladies' man. It was just good to have him awake again, something he feared might never happen. When he saw the slow, heavy blinking, Buck knew that he only had a few more minutes before Ezra was asleep again.
Pouring out a cup of water, Buck sat down next to his friend. "Need you to drink this water, Ez," he informed, reaching out to help his friend. He figured he'd get the water into the gambler before letting him know about the tea sitting ready near the fire.
"Thank you," Standish said, gratefully reaching for the cup, though both knew he was too weak to take it on his own.
With Buck steadying the cup, Ezra managed to drink it all before settling back against the pillow once more. Before his eyes could completely close, however, another cup appeared before his eyes. Reading the question clearly, Wilmington couldn't help the broad grin that appeared on his face. "Figured you'd feel more at home if I had you drink some of Nathan's tea," he informed, laughing out loud at the face the other man made.
"I assure you," Standish replied, pausing to take a breath. "I am quite fine without it."
"That may be," Buck agreed, softly, "but it doesn't change the fact you're going to drink every last drop of this tea."
Ezra looked into Buck's eyes and opened his mouth to protest. The determination, relief and fatigue he read in his friend's face silenced all his protests. Releasing a heavy sigh, he simply nodded and reached out for the cup.
Though he was a little surprised by the easy acquiescence, he was too relieved at having avoided a fight to look a gift horse in the mouth. When that was finished, he set the cup aside and let his friend lay back. Adjusting the covers over his friend, Buck soothed, "Rest easy, Ezra. I got your back." He was rewarded with a small smile as Standish fell into a healing sleep.
With Ezra resting comfortably, Buck decided to take care of those things he'd been putting off, like checking on the horses, rather than just looking out to make sure they hadn't run off.
He had just finished that task and was off to check on his traps again when the guilt he had shoved aside began to resurface. It was true that Ezra's fever had broken, but it would be a long time before he was completely over the blood loss and injury - an injury from a bullet meant for Buck.
That thought stopped the ladies' man in his tracks. The bullet had been meant for him and Ezra had suffered instead. In fact, the gambler was lucky to be alive and it was all Buck's fault. What if Standish had died because he had been too involved in his own thoughts, in his own need to be with a woman? It never should have happened. He knew better than to fall into a trap like that. It was obvious to a blind man Moira wasn't a saloon girl and yet he'd gone ahead and bedded her anyway, only to have Ezra pay the price.
A string of curses fell from his lips as he berated himself for his own stupidity. He'd nearly gotten Ezra killed. With self-anger in every step, Wilmington strode across the ground to where his traps were. There was nothing in them, so he turned and headed back to the small cabin.
As he reached the door, he paused, his guilt rising up and nearly choking him. How could he face Ezra knowing that he was the cause of the man's suffering? What could he say to the man that would ever make this right?
A low moan from inside, spurred him into action.
Opening the door, he stopped in his tracks at the sight of Ezra sitting up and struggling to get out of bed. "And what, exactly, do you think you're doing?" he demanded.
The injured man struggled to regain his breath. When he felt he had sufficient control of himself, he looked up at the angry man standing before him. "That's a very private question, Mr. Wilmington," he offered with a smile.
Buck swallowed hard, angry that Ezra was pushing things so soon. He'd fought so hard to try and keep Ezra with him, to make sure his friend wouldn't die because Wilmington had proven too stupid to see past one woman's lies.
"You are not... a foolish man," Ezra assured, gathering his strength and trying to ignore the beads of sweat that broke out on his forehead as his leg burned with pain. "This..." he gritted out, waving at his injury, "is not... your fault." Seeing the protest rise in his friend's eyes and knowing he had only moments before it reached his lips as well. "Brighton Ridge," he said quickly, in one breath, only closing his eyes in relief when he saw the guilt fall away.
The name of the town was like a slap to Buck's face. He knew his friend had been thinking about that piece of bad luck, but he couldn't see what that had to do with this. Unconsciously lowering his hand to where the scar remained, he opened his mouth to protest when he heard Ezra speak again.
"My fault," Standish claimed. He wished he didn't feel so weak. If he had more energy it would be easy to convince Buck that he was innocent in this matter. Right now, he would have to do the best he could and hope it was enough.
Buck frowned at his injured friend. "Now, Ez," he began. "We've been over this before. No one's to blame but that fool who did the shooting."
"Exactly, Buck," he replied. "The only one to... blame for this," he said, indicating his wound, "is the... fool who did... the shooting." Ezra locked his green eyes on Buck's blue ones, refusing to look away and trying to force his own strength of will into his gaze. He watched and waited as protest after protest rose in Wilmington's eyes only to die out as the ladies' man remembered Ezra's words.
Buck wanted so desperately to deny Standish's words, but knew he couldn't. This injury was no more his fault than his injury in Brighton Ridge was Ezra's. Slowly, he accepted the truth that his friend didn't blame him because there was no blame to be apportioned, and slowly, Wilmington released his own guilt.
Feeling tension ease from his shoulders as he watched the guilt seep out of his friend, the cause for his moving to a sitting position in the first place came to light. "If you will... show me the way... to the facilities..." he said, gathering his strength to push himself up.
It took a moment or two for Buck to understand about what his friend was talking, but when he did, a smile broke out on his face. Placing a hand on the injured man's shoulder, he commanded, "Wait right there." With a smile on his face he reached underneath the bed and pulled out the chamber pot that had been left behind. He had to suppress his laughter at the look of horror on Standish's face.
"Certainly... You can not... I..." Ezra stammered, staring at the object in question, even as he struggled to deny the growing exhaustion in his body. He'd done too much too soon and knew it.
His expression growing more serious, Buck waited for Ezra's eyes to meet his. "I came way too close to losing you," he admitted, releasing a shaking breath. "I'm not going to lie to you, Ez, it scared me," he admitted, feeling the familiar grip of fear reaching up to claim him. Shaking it off, he grew more serious as he continued, "And whether I have to carry you in my arms all the way back to Nathan or make you use a chamber pot instead of the outhouse, I am going to make sure you get better and don't hurt yourself worse."
Tears began pricking the back of Standish's eyes at the intensity and honesty of Buck's words. Cursing his own weakness at allowing his emotions to take so easy a hold, Ezra responded in the only way he could, "As you wish, my friend."
Buck's stern expression softened at the words and their tone. He inhaled deeply, for the first time knowing that they would truly be alright.
Several hours later, Buck was dozing lightly as Ezra slept. The sound of horses drew him out of his slumber and he walked to the window, peering out. A sense of relief swept through him as he recognized the riders coming in. "Hey, Ez," he called, startling the other man out of his slumber. "Looks like Nate, Vin and JD are here."
"Lovely," Standish replied drolly as he shifted slightly and closed his eyes, praying for sleep to take him before Nathan could start fussing over him and JD's enthusiasm sucked what little energy he had from him.
Buck smiled brilliantly at the typical reply before heading to the door to greet the new arrivals. Things were going to be just fine.