A Few Years' Difference
Previously published in Nothing to Chance 2 (2004)
One of the few things a pocketful of money couldn't do for you was keep you warm.
He should have bought a heavier coat in Eagle Bend, Ezra mused as he pulled his own thin jacket a little more tightly around him. It had been downright balmy when he'd left Four Corners, but a cold snap had blown in with a vengeance two days later, as it was wont to do in those godforsaken parts. He'd already caught himself dreaming of Inez's steaming chili, and the warm down comforter on his bed. Sleep was sounding better and better, too - he hadn't gotten much in Eagle Bend, certainly. It would be good to be home. Ezra clucked to his horse, picking up the pace.
Still, the ride home was less than a day, and he could stand a little discomfort for that long. Especially with that lovely roll of bills in his pocket to keep him company. The pickings in Eagle Bend had been even better than reported, with the recent local gold strike bringing a lot of entertainment-starved, dust-rich miners into town. There had been a line at all three of the houses of prostitution each time Ezra had passed them - lonely miners looking for entertainment of the horizontal variety - and the saloon had been similarly packed. Ezra hadn't been able to play poker fast enough to keep up with the demand. A very profitable few days, indeed.
His one shock had been Chris's willingness to let him go. Although it sometimes chafed, Ezra still asked the Seven's leader for permission for his travels each time, and as often as not Larabee turned him down, citing some growing crisis around town that required his presence. Ezra complained and sulked, but he had to admit, Chris usually turned out to be right, and the resentment of requiring consent for his actions had faded with time and experience. Ezra never would forget the time he'd been on the point of rebellion, of striking out for Tucson despite Chris's forbidding it, only to find himself a day later saving Nathan Jackson's life in a shootout with would-be bank thieves. The thought of not having been there to do so had shaken him badly, and remained with him still. There had been no more serious thoughts of insurgency after that.
So when Chris had calmly asked him how long he'd be gone and then gave Ezra's trip his blessing, it had come as a pleasant surprise. Yes, it still meant he had to be back that evening as promised or else face Larabee's wrath, but that was a restriction Ezra could live with. It had nevertheless allowed him to collect that fat wad in his pocket and to indulge in his former livelihood and be out on his own again, however briefly.
The river he'd been riding alongside turned east, and Ezra veered the other direction, heading toward the distant hills, pulling the collar of his jacket up against the rising wind. His horse stumbled on the rough terrain, and Ezra loosened the reins fractionally, giving it leeway to pick its way through the loose shale.
The real truth was, being on his own had lost a great deal of its charm in the previous two years. It was fun for a few days, especially without the desperation that had once accompanied that life, and it had been good for him to go, but Ezra was actually looking forward to going home again now. He shook his head. He never would cease to marvel at the thought that he had a home, a place he belonged, and those who would notice if he wasn't there. And still gambling on the side - well, truly the life he led now had become the best of both worlds, and for the first time in his life, he was comfortable in both.
Who would have believed it?
His horse lurched suddenly, then again even harder, and Ezra glanced down just in time to see a flat rock tilt under the front hoof, setting the horse off-balance. The animal gave an unhappy snort as it slid off and landed hard enough to nearly throw Ezra from the saddle. And then the horse stopped altogether, its foot raised delicately.
Frowning, Ezra dismounted, patting the dark neck before he bent to examine the foot. "What have we here?" he muttered softly. No obvious break that he could see or feel, but the joint was warm to the touch. The horse shied away from his hand, hopping once, foot still lifted.
Ezra chewed on his lip. That didn't look good. A sprain, maybe? Something painful enough the creature didn't want to put weight on its foot. Already it looked a little swollen.
Well, whatever the verdict, it was clear he wouldn't be riding any more that day. Ezra rocked back on his heels with a sigh. "Would it offend you if I wished you'd saved this little surprise until we were closer to home?" he asked his horse plaintively.
A neigh and another skip away from him; an agitated eye watched him warily.
Ezra blew out a hard breath and pushed himself to his feet, then slowed his motions as he reached out to pet the skittish animal on the nose. "Don't worry, you ornery beast, I won't hurt you. You seem to have done that quite well enough for us both already." He glanced up at the hills, which hadn't gotten any closer during their pause, and made a face. "I suppose we should start at once, though, if we have any wish to reach town before the end of the week." The horse danced where it stood, still avoiding the hurt foot, and Ezra gave the bridle a shake. "May I remind you a warm stall and a fresh bucket of oats await you there, as well?"
A soft neigh.
"I thought not. Let's go, then."
They set off at a brisk walk, side by side. Apparently the discomfort of the chapping cold would have to be endured a little longer than a day, Ezra thought mournfully.
The silent, long walk stirred memories.
+ + + + + + +
"I want your horse, Mister."
Ezra stared at the man, then at his gun, with cool disdain on the outside, real panic on the inside. "Sir, I would be most glad to send back help from the next town, but I cannot give up my horse. You see-"
"'Nuff talk. Get off the horse, gambler." The gun had jerked in tacit warning.
He dismounted reluctantly. It was an abominable place to be held up, halfway between Carson City and the mining town of Rufus. The geography was unforgiving, the heat unrelenting, and his canteen was tied to his saddle. A man without a horse out there was, for all purposes, a dead man.
Which, of course, also served to motivate the thief who was slowly mounting Ezra's horse, never shifting his gaze from the gambler. The gun didn't budge until horse and rider were a shrinking blot on the horizon, too far for Ezra to go for his guns now.
With a frustrated sigh and determination that outweighed uneasy fear, Ezra set off toward the shimmering horizon and the town just beyond that would mean survival.
+ + + + + + +
The blustery weather, as it turned out, had been a precursor to a storm. Dark, wind-whipped clouds rolled in overhead, oblivious to the baleful glares Ezra sent their way.
"Wonderful," he mumbled to himself, then to his horse when the animal looked at him. "You do realize we are going to be drenched soon? I hope this will teach you to look more carefully where you're going in the future." A soft nicker answered him, and Ezra shook his head. "Regardless, you could have been more vigilant."
Another sharp blow cut through his jacket as if it weren't even there, and Ezra moved closer to the horse, trying to use the broad side as a windbreak. The wind was coming from the north, however, and to turn into it would have meant heading away from Four Corners. No help there. He huddled down, trying to make himself a smaller target for the wind, and muttered a curse as his hat nearly blew away in the next blast.
And then the heavens opened and rain began to pour.
Ezra had hoped to have more time to find shelter, but apparently the deck was stacked against him that day. And the only thing worse than being out in the cold in unsuitable clothing, was being out in the cold and rain in unsuitable clothing. The water quickly leached away what warmth Ezra had managed to trap within the layers of his jacket and vest and shirt, and chilled him to the skin, then started to move in deeper.
Lightning cracked above, spooking his horse, and Ezra fought to calm the animal for a minute with soothing words and strokes. This was a lost cause. As anxious as he was to eat up some of the miles between them and Four Corners, they would get nowhere this way. The cold was numbing, his horse was ready to bolt at a moment's notice even on its bad leg, and Ezra had begun to shiver, losing his grip on the reins. It was past time to seek shelter.
Only trees dotted the landscape around him, however, not the safest of havens during a lightning storm. The hills were still far too distant to be of help, and there were no homesteads out that way Ezra knew about or could see. Rises of land sloping gently around him were the only possibility for shelter, perhaps offering a cave or outcropping to hide in. It would be a detour, but there were no other options Ezra could think of.
Setting his jaw against the shudders of cold that racked him, he turned and headed for the closest knoll.
+ + + + + + +
It took nearly an hour more of searching before Ezra found a likely candidate, a small indentation in one hillock. He tied off his horse tightly to a nearby tree - at least the lightning had passed by - and wearily climbed inside the meager shelter. The rain poured relentlessly throughout, and his clothes were a soggy, plastered mess. Far worse was the chill that had settled into his muscles and bones, tightening them into a painful rigor that spasmed with every shiver. If he'd been that cold or miserable before, Ezra didn't remember.
But there was little to be done for it now. The rain had soaked everything remotely flammable, and his saddlebags held only a change of shirt, also damp from the deluge. He hadn't even packed a blanket, not intending to be out overnight.
There was some food in his saddlebags, some bread and dried meat, but teeth chattering and stomach cramped from the cold, Ezra wasn't hungry. He only fumbled his flask out to take a long draw - liquid heat, at least - then curled on his side on the ground to watch the rain puddle only two feet from him.
It was still relatively early, although the gloom of the overcast sky hid any sign of the sun. It would be a few more hours until twilight, and the time Ezra was due back in Four Corners. Would they assume he'd stayed to play longer, unable to resist the lure of loaded tables? It wouldn't be the first time he'd been a bit . . . liberal with time, but he'd never willingly broken a promise, either. His fellow peacekeepers should know something was wrong if he didn't show up that evening.
Then again, how long had it taken them to figure out something was wrong when Chris hadn't come back from his trip to the town where they'd imprisoned and tortured him, while his friends made excuses for his absence?
He could always let his horse go on ahead. Even lamed, the beast knew its way home and would make the trip far more quickly than Ezra, and that would be certain proof something was wrong. But then he would have to carry his bags, and there would be no warm body to walk with or support him when he tired. No, he still faced better odds with the injured animal than without it. He would need those odds if no one came looking for him.
Ezra shivered. They would come looking for him, probably not that evening but before long. He knew they would. A small warmth kindled inside his frozen body at the thought.
+ + + + + + +
It hadn't taken long for the heat to get to him.
He'd shed his coat and vest some time back, dropping the fine garments with little remorse as he went. The shirt he kept on because of the needed protection against the sun, but his hands were already red and blistering from the beating rays.
He was so thirsty, though, he didn't even notice.
His tongue was swollen and dry in his mouth, making breathing harder, and his shirt was soaked with sweat he couldn't afford. Heatstroke was surely soon to follow.
But a man could go miles in this country without seeing another living soul, human or animal, and there would be little chance of rescue. Nor would anyone look for him until it had occurred to his mother he'd been silent an unusually long time, or one of his former partners searched in vain for him to take part in a new venture. No, no one would miss him for a long time, and then they would never find him.
His throat tightened at the thought, but it also stiffened his resolve. Ezra Standish would not die anonymously and ignominiously in the desert. Not as long as he had any say in the matter at all.
It wasn't hope, but it was all he had.
And so, exhausted and alone, he'd staggered on.
+ + + + + + +
The coughing woke him.
It came deep from his chest, a welling pressure that didn't relent even when he'd used up all his air trying to hack it out. Ezra lay on his back, trying to take shallow breaths until the black spots faded from his vision and his lungs no longer felt like chunks of lead. But they were still a weight against his back, heavy with the moisture that had seeped into him overnight.
Wonderful. Illness had been one of the few things still missing on that trip, and how nice of it to make an appearance. All he needed now was a broken bone or a bullet in the gut and it would truly be the perfect nightmare trip.
"Don't tempt fate, Ezra," he told himself wearily as he sat up and promptly broke out into another coughing fit.
Well, at least he would give Nathan the satisfaction of saying, "I told you so." Standish had been sick a month before - bronchitis, the healer had said - and Nathan had impressed it severely upon him that he would relapse if he didn't take care of himself for a while. And Ezra rather doubted sleeping in the cold in wet clothing without a blanket counted as caring for himself. Jackson would probably be delighted to have been proven correct, again.
But then, when had Nathan ever been anything less than worried about any of them when they were ill? Even at first, when things had been so tense and even unpleasant between him and Ezra, the healer had never hesitated to offer gentle, selfless care for any injury or sickness. And he'd nursed Ezra through the bronchitis the month before with only real concern.
"I meant you no disservice, Nathan," Ezra whispered, finally making it to his feet.
It was an effort. His limbs were sluggish, and seized with cold. His clothes were still damp but stiffening from the chilly wind that had picked up once more, slicing through his lungs.
Another bout of coughing left him hunched and weak. Actually, bronchitis hadn't felt like this, like his lungs were drowning and his back hurt from the ache of them. That had been a dry cough, a constant irritation he couldn't stop succumbing to. This felt more like he was trying to cough his lungs clear of the water they'd soaked up like a sponge. Nothing came out, though, except for the violent hacking.
"Lovely," Ezra murmured to the world at large, and uselessly hugging himself for warmth, crept out from his small shelter to set out for home once more.
At least his horse remained where he'd been left, and gave him an aggrieved look as Ezra untied him.
"Don't even think about it," Ezra tiredly drawled back. "We wouldn't be in this predicament if not for your carelessness."
The horse tossed its head.
"Yes, well, we'll see about that. Those oats aren't a guarantee, you know."
They started out again, the sun on their backs providing some small comfort of heat. Yet it seemed to get colder as they went. Ezra eventually paused to pull his spare shirt on underneath his drying clothes, but the moment of exposure as he dressed cost him. The coughing was regular exertion now, as the cold settled into his chest like a steady pain, pressing against his aching lungs, slowing his heart, twisting his stomach. His head was heavy, his hands and feet numb, and still the cold hurt. And as Ezra finally wiped a hand over his face, he realized why.
"Joy." Breathing was a chore. "Whatever have I done . . . now to displease . . . You?" he asked the sky in breathless pants. And here he thought he'd been on good behavior of late.
The thought made him chuckle, an unpleasant, cracking sound. Ezra sobered just as quickly. The fever was starting to creep into his mind, which meant lucidity might not last. He had to make some decisions now while he could.
Pausing often to cough, Ezra took a slow drink of water, bliss on his abused throat, then gathered the reins. He wound both several times around his right wrist, then gripped the reins in his hand. That would keep him tethered as long as he stayed on his feet, but give the horse its freedom if Ezra collapsed. Surely then it wouldn't matter much, anyway. Ezra leaned wearily against his companion's side.
"There. I trust . . . you will lead us home . . . if I cannot."
The soft whinny made him smile despite circumstances.
"Good. Then shall we?"
His mind wandered as the vile hawking soon started again. It was creeping on toward midday, and Chris had probably long decided Ezra had met trouble somewhere. Maybe he would ask for volunteers to ride out to look. Vin would speak up, as would Buck and JD probably. Nathan would also volunteer, in case his services were needed. Josiah - there was still some distance between after the harsh words spoken over money and temptation - but Ezra believed the former preacher would still be concerned for him. The reverse was certainly true. Which left Chris, but even Larabee had softened those last few months, more at ease in his role as the leader of the Seven, less guilt-ridden and angry than when Ezra had first met him, and less prone to suspicion. Even if some doubts remained in him as to Ezra's reliability, the gambler believed Chris would still offer him some benefit of those doubts.
Some would have to stay behind to watch the town, of course. But surely two or three of them would venture out after a missing comrade, as they had done a few times in the past for one of the others. Surely. . .
Ezra's throat closed, and it wasn't from a cough. Was he still just fooling himself, looking for what wasn't there? Who was he to six men who lived by the law of the West: look after yourself because you're the only one you can trust. The same law Ezra had lived by half his life already.
But it was likely now he wouldn't be able to make this trip alone, which meant death somewhere out in that wasteland if he wasn't found, or if no one bothered to look. He'd never thought to or dared rely on anyone but himself before, but still, what if this was all just wishful thinking, something to keep him putting one foot in front of the other, to give him hope?
To fill the hole inside him even the cold couldn't touch.
No. Ezra lifted his chin as he staggered on. He wasn't wrong. He'd seen Nathan's selfless caring toward his patients, the affection in Buck's eyes and the loyalty in JD's, Josiah's sorrow at the hurting of someone he cared for, Vin's nonjudgmental concern, and even Chris's anger when one of his men was under attack. They cared, and would come looking, Ezra believed it.
He had to.
+ + + + + + +
Water shimmered in the desert heat, only to disappear as he drew near. Houses rose and fell; men waving in the distance wavered and vanished.
It was the heat, the shrinking functional part of Ezra's mind knew, but it didn't soften the keen disappointment each time the saving grace shimmered and died.
He didn't want to die out there alone with it.
There would be no clever con to get out of a fix this time. Ezra no longer had any idea how far away the town was, but the answer had become clear: too far. He wouldn't make it, not before his brain cooked and his heart gave up. Even now he could feel it struggling against his ribs.
God, he was hot.
Would anyone find his pile of bones to give it a decent burial? Not that it mattered, really - he wouldn't be there to know it, after all - but somehow it seemed important. To be remembered in death as he hadn't been in life, to show he'd passed through this earth, even if he hadn't made a difference along the way. To pretend someone cared he was gone. . .
Maude might shed a tear. Maybe. She would surely toast his memory, lamenting the passing of her protégé, but her sorrow would last as long as the next game. Then there'd be no one.
How was that for a reason to keep going?
But something in him wouldn't quit, not even against those odds, just the hope that someday it would be different, perhaps. But he wanted that chance almost as much as he wanted a drink of water. Hopeless romanticism, his mother would scoff, but there it was. Ezra Standish had always dreamed silently, secretly, of more.
He stumbled on toward the blurring horizon of reality and delirium, and didn't even realize it when the town rising out of the heat didn't fade as he reached it.
+ + + + + + +
His horse leading the way, Ezra could concentrate solely on moving his feet, which was a good thing, because that required all his concentration.
The last time he'd checked, those hills were still impossibly far away and he hadn't bothered to look again since. It didn't matter anyway. This was no longer about getting somewhere, just about going on for as long as he could, until . . . until . . . the something happened, he could no longer remember what. And yet he clung fiercely to that remaining bright spot of hope in him.
The coughs racked him constantly now, but he'd ceased paying attention to that as well. It was simply the way it was, just like the rock that had settled in his chest. He couldn't remember anymore a time it hadn't been there.
One foot in front of the other; it had become his whole world.
And then something appeared in front of his feet, blocking his way.
Ezra lurched to a stop and frowned stupidly at the obstacle. Boots. Not his own, unless he had more feet than he thought. They danced out of his path when he took another step but didn't go away. Strange. He couldn't make sense of it.
His gaze lifted, following those boots up the dusty pair of jeans that disappeared under a heavenly thick coat. And then above that, a face he knew.
The movement of its lips focused his hearing. "Ezra? You with me?"
He shivered, coughed, and whispered lightheadly, "No need to yell, Mr. Wilmington." And then started coughing again and couldn't stop. His legs were unable to support the convulsions any longer, buckling under him.
His arm jerked as the reins caught it, then he was free . . . and caught again, under his arms, around his ribs, even supporting his cumbersome head. Hands that kept him from curling around his abused lungs, and that wrapped something around him that at least cut the cold wind.
Muffled tones, drowned in the awful barking he was pretty sure came from him, then another voice right next to him.
"Try to take it easy, Ezra, we got you."
They came. The thought was involuntary and made no sense except that he knew it was important. And that it was a tremendous, saving relief.
The tightness loosened in his chest and Ezra took the reprieve and let himself fall away into darkness.
When someone was there to catch you, it wasn't giving up, it was giving in.
+ + + + + + +
He'd woken alone, in a bathtub, still in his underclothes.
"You got his head?"
"Yeah. Get those buttons first. JD, you got that water boiling yet?"
He was being manhandled ten different directions, but none of it hurt until an icy breeze brushed against his bare, damp skin. He'd tried then, hacking, to wrap his arms around himself to ward off some of the chill, but was restrained and rubbed until his skin started to tingle with warmth. And then one layer after another of warmth was swathed around him.
Confused and his head ready to split, he'd nearly drowned himself trying to climb out on legs that weren't steady and a floor that refused to stay still.
"I know it hurts, Ezra, but this'll help in a few minutes. Just try to lie still."
His head was lifted and something sweet and bitter at once and wonderfully hot trickled into his mouth. The warmth spread inside and out as a thick heat was spread over his chest, too. The coughing instantly eased, his strain on his lungs lessening. It felt so good, he nearly slipped back into sleep in relief.
"You can sleep in a minute, Ez, just drink this down first. Nate says it'll help with the fever."
He was willing. Fingers massaged the back of his neck as he drank the cup dry, then moved down to his shoulders when he was lain back down. Muscles stiffened and cramped from cold and the strain of coughing slowly began to loosen, and he made a small sound of relief.
There was a chuckle above him. "That feels good, huh?"A man he didn't know had found him there, sprawled disorientedly on the floor, and had clucked at him in annoyance as he and another stranger trundled Ezra up long stairs to a dirty bed in a closet of a room. And then left him there on the bed, still soaking wet, with a pitcher of water, to "recover."
A fire was crackling and spitting nearby. Heat poured off it, but it didn't feel like it would ever be enough. Even under the heavy layers on top of him, Ezra tensed against the shudders of cold that still shook him.
One side of his blankets was suddenly lifted and Ezra pulled away from the chilly draft, only to realize it was gone just as quickly, replaced by more heat. Cautiously, he felt for the new source of warmth. Cloth-wrapped but hard: a heated rock, most likely from the fire. Ezra gratefully wrapped himself around it, finally feeling the dead cold in his bones start to thaw.
"Don't get too close to it or it'll burn ya," came the quiet admonition from nearby, but Ezra just smiled and swallowed as the heat also melted the numbness of his raw throat.
His head was lifted again, pleasantly cool water at his lips. "Just a few sips."
And for the next twenty-four hours, until the pain in his head cleared enough that he could stumble off to nurse his own wounds, Ezra had lain alone in misery and wished he'd died out in the desert.
He was still coughing, but it no longer felt like his chest would tear apart from the strain. A sympathetic hand gripped his shoulder until it passed, then offered him a little more water before another pulled the blankets up to his ear.
"Get some sleep, Ez."
Comfortable and comforted, he didn't need to be told twice.
+ + + + + + +
The labor of breathing woke Ezra in fear.
It was dark, the outdoor noises foreign and frightening, and he had no memory of how he'd gotten there, not to mention the boulder that was sitting on his chest. He gasped, thrashing for a minute, trying to escape a danger he didn't even know.
"Hey, take it easy, Ezra, it's just us."
Ezra stilled. He knew that voice. Young Mister Dunne. What was he doing in Ezra's nightmare?
Nathan's voice, approaching. Ezra frowned, and finally forced an eye open. It felt as heavy and tired as the rest of him.
Faces floated above him, creased between the eyes but smiling. Faces that automatically slowed his racing heartbeat and eased his breathing, braking his fear; faces of those he'd trusted.
And who'd come looking for him. He remembered now: the lame horse, the cold, illness.
Ezra opened his mouth to speak to them and started coughing again instead.
"And that's why I don't want you talking," Nathan said sternly, but he was already lifting Ezra up, leaning him forward so he could breathe. JD was on his other side, fumbling with something behind Ezra's back. As the painful hacking slackened, Nathan leaned him back to rest against something that propped him up so he was half-sitting. It eased the weight on his chest and made breathing easier, but was comfortable enough that sleep was already tugging him back.
"Ezra, not talking?" an amused voice asked from above him. "Nathan, I don't think even you have a potion to do that."
He peered through slitted eyes with weary annoyance at Buck, who stood smiling in front of Ezra as he watched the proceedings. The man was insufferable. And the best sight Ezra had seen all week.
"Don't pay attention to him, Ezra, he's just sore 'cause you called him 'ma'am' before," JD confided.
"Am not," Buck broke in indignantly.
"He was delirious - probably thought Nathan was his horse."
"That why he also called you a-"
"Hey, now! Let's not-"
"Would you two cut it out?" That was Nathan's hiss, and Ezra's mouth pulled into a wan grin at the sound of it. "I swear, you two are worse than Ezra's been. JD, get me some more water, and Buck, bring me that soup. I wanna get some into him while he's awake."
Too late for that, Ezra thought hazily. Hot soup sounded glorious, but sleep even more so, and he was already slipping away. The sound of JD and Buck's friendly bickering, the feel of Nathan's hand on his forehead, then the blankets being tucked in more securely around him, all faded into a vague, cozy contentment. Whatever happened next, Ezra knew he'd be all right now.
He'd been found.
+ + + + + + +
A scarce month after his brush with death, he rode into yet another small town, broke, discouraged, and soul-weary. Reduced to scamming drunken miners in the saloon, Ezra had finally reached the end of his long and tangled rope.
Then a man in black had offered him an impossible job at ridiculous pay.
And although it would take a while for it to dawn on him, Ezra Standish had finally found his home.