Disclaimer: Don't own 'm, don't make money off 'm. If it weren't so, I'd be rich and they'd still be on TV.
Warnings: Some pain (Ezra's), some comfort (Vin and Chris), some language. It's pretty straight forward H/C.
Written for LC. Thanks to LunaDey and Jeanne for their invaluable help in birthing this fic! The plot bunny came from Luna and the background came from Jeanne. Any faux pas are mine!! THANKS LADIES!!!
The poem "Shiloh" by Adelia Wall Gilbert can be found at:
Webmaster Note: This story was previously hosted at another website and was moved to blackraptor in June 2007.
"I was not put on this earth to engage in menial labor," Ezra Standish grumbled under his breath. He shot yet another angry look toward one of his companions, but as with the others, the glare had little effect on the man in black.
'Probably because he offers so many of them, himself,' Standish thought to himself. Chris Larabee seemed to have perfected the art of glaring others into submission. The gambler decided then and there that he would study the man's technique more closely. Later. For now, he had been relegated to wood gathering detail while Larabee took care of the horses and laid out their midday camp. The third member of their group, Vin Tanner, had gone off to look for game. Standish couldn't understand why the sharpshooter hadn't just dispatched any number of creatures to their death while they were riding. He'd seen the man do it before, many times. That thought just added to his growing belief that the wily Texan had planned this all along. If he were out stalking unsuspecting desert dwellers, he would be exempt from the drudgery of gathering the means of their cook fire.
The Southerner continued his internal litany as he carefully loaded his arms with mesquite. He had been enlisted on this fool's mission along with the gunslinger and sharpshooter. They had been on the trail for over a week, having delivered two loud mouthed miscreants to Fort Laramie for trial. Dispatching their duties, they had spent the night there, giving him the chance to sit in on a few games of chance in a plain but pleasant saloon. The next morning, red eyed and weary, he had been forced to accompany the other two on the road back toward the little backwater town he had come to think of as home.
Pulling himself from his thoughts, the Southerner sighed. At least it was spring. The usually barren landscape of the dessert was alive with a wide variety of flora and fauna. Buoyed by that thought, he gathered an armload of mesquite. Then, wearily, he trudged across the ground, heading for their campsite. Dropping the wood unceremoniously in the place the gunslinger had cleared, he started toward the nearest patch of shade, intent on stretching out in it for a brief respite.
"Where do you think you're going?"
Casting a sideways glance at the blond, he said, "I have fulfilled my duties... I've gathered the wood."
With a derisive snort, Larabee said, "That's not enough. We need at least that much again."
Turning to try a glare on the unresponsive man once more, Standish said, "forgive me. I wasn't aware that we were building a bonfire this afternoon."
"Ezra," Larabee said, his tone making it clear that he wasn't going to be putting up with the conman's penchant for trying to get out of anything that could cause him to work up a sweat or get his hands dirty.
Throwing his hands up in surrender under the quiet tone, the smaller man took a step back. "Fine. I'm on my way. Your wish is my command. I live to serve... "
His hand moving to the butt of his Colt, Larabee repeated, "Ezra."
Closing his mouth, the gambler turned away to fulfill his duties. He moved back to the clutter of mesquite bushes and began once again to fill his arms. The well dressed man knew, of course, that the gunman wasn't actually going to shoot him. He was at least relatively certain of it. Then of course, the cagey gunman was difficult to figure out all too often. With a wary frown, Standish kept one eye on the lean blond as he continued to gather up the firewood.
Chris Larabee watched the red-coated dandy, shaking his head as the man picked his way through the mesquite as if he expected something to attack him. Then, just as he turned away he heard a scream. Turning back quickly, he saw Standish on his knees, half in and half out of the brush. Another earth shattering scream split the air even as he took across the ground at a dead run.
Reaching the other man, he dropped to his knees, grasping Ezra in preparation for pulling him out of the mesquite. "What is it?"
The smaller man felt a pair of hands tugging at him and cried out, "NO! Please, don't!"
"Chris? What's goin' on?" Vin Tanner called out as he came sprinting toward the other two men.
"I'm not sure. He just started hollering, and he won't let me help him out of the brush."
"It has me... it has a hold of me." Standish said, his voice breathless with pain.
"What?" Larabee tried to see what the smaller man was talking about, but couldn't see past Ezra.
Vin climbed around the brush, searching for the cause of the Southerner's problem. After a minute, he said, "ah, hell."
The blond looked at the Texan. "What is it?"
Shaking his head, Tanner said, "git hold of 'im."
Chris put his hands on Ezra's back, taking hold of the red jacket. He could feel the smaller man tremble, and he breathed in harsh moans of pain. Then another cry was wrenched from the Southerner just as Vin climbed out of the brush, holding a thrashing creature in both hands. As he moved, Standish did as well, literally falling into the blonde's arms. With a grunt, Larabee fell back, carrying the smaller man with him. As they fell, Tanner was hard pressed to keep up with their movements.
The gunman realized that the creature in Vin's hands was attached to Ezra, it's mouth wrapped around the side of his hand. As they came to a rest in a tangled mess, the yellow banded lizard continued gnawing at the flesh of the gambler's hand.
Recovering, Chris settled himself on the ground, supporting the pain-racked smaller man against him. He could feel Standish's body tense, nearly rigid against him. He wrapped an arm around the Southerner, steadying him as well as he could. Speaking loudly enough to be heard above the sharp cries of pain, he said, "take it easy, Ezra."
"Be... believe me, I'm... trying," the gambler's words were punctuated by groans.
Looking up at Tanner, Larabee said, "What are you waiting for? Get the damn thing off."
With a grim expression, the lean man said, "Ain't that easy. Seen one a these bastards latch onto a feller once. Took at least ten minutes ta git the damn thing ta let go. Hurt so bad the fella was screamin' his head off for damn near half an hour."
Standish managed to focus on the other man's words, but couldn't spare the energy to respond. All he could do was writhe in the gunslinger's hold. Slowly he willed himself to calm down, the cries of pain losing volume as he did.
Larabee looked more closely at the man he was holding onto. Ezra's jaws were clenched tight, the flesh around his tightly pressed lips white from the tension. His left hand was knotted into a tight fist at his side, but it didn't seem to be helping the pain he was obviously feeling. Carefully, so as not to jostle the pain-racked Southerner, Chris reached down and took the man's hand.
The touch slowly made itself known to the dazed man. Without conscious thought, he grasped the offered hand, squeezing it tightly. The tension began to ease as the warm hand squeezed back gently. Then he trembled and gasped as the creature clamped down even harder in response to the sharpshooter's attentions.
"Damn it," Tanner growled as he watched the Gila Monster's heavy jaws flex as he tried to coax it loose. Grabbing a stout branch, he tried once more to pry the lizard's jaws open by slipping it into the creature's mouth.
Arching his back against the man in black, Ezra cried out as the pain grew steadily worse. "Dear God! Get it... off!"
Holding the struggling man more firmly Chris said as calmly as he could, "take it easy, Ezra. Vin's doing the best he can."
He knew that, but it did little to ease either his mind or the pain. Words, so often his shield against the world, failed him as he was consumed by searing agony. He lay rigidly in the bigger man's embrace, panting as he waited for the pain to subside. To his horror, it only continued to build.
Larabee looked up from the trembling body and caught his friend's eye. In a near whisper, he said, "Vin?"
Tanner locked eyes with the older man, nodding curtly. "Takes some time."
"How long?" Chris asked.
Shaking his head, the sharpshooter said, "Cain't tell. Jist gotta convince the bastard ta let go."
"Oh... Lord," was Standish's contribution to the conversation.
Gently squeezing the injured man's shoulder, Larabee said, "Hang on, pard."
The conversation ended then, the three men concentrating on their roles in the drama. As Chris continued to restrain Ezra in a firm hold and Standish did his best to lay still in that comforting grasp, Vin continued to struggle with the lizard. When it became clear that he wasn't going to be able to force the strong jaws opened, he reached for the big knife hanging from his belt. Sliding it from its sheath, he grabbed the Gila in a fierce grip.
"Hold still pard," Tanner said, catching a pain glazed, jade shaded eye. As Ezra nodded, he tightened his hold on the lizard with one hand and quickly slit its throat with the other. The creature's thrashing became more frantic for several seconds - as did the gambler's cries of pain - then stopped suddenly. As it fell silent, Vin carefully pulled the creature's jaws loose, tossing it aside in an unusual show of anger.
He saw the yellow banded monster release its hold, saw it tossed away to fall in a graceless sprawl nearby. But even though he saw this happen, Standish still felt as if the hell spawn demon continued to dangle from his right hand. The intense, burning, pain radiated from the bite, seeming to spread up his arm and down his fingers. He cried out again, feeling the blonde's hands tighten their grip.
"Let's git 'im over ta the spring," Vin said, nodding toward the little water-filled pit near their camp.
The tracker took Ezra's legs, while Chris grabbed him under the arms. Try as he might, the smaller man found it difficult to bear their attentions without crying out loudly. Together the two men lifted him, carrying him across the desert floor. Settling him back to the ground, Larabee continued to hold the smaller man, while Tanner led the horses around to the other side of the spring. Having taken care of the animals, he filled one of the canteens with water before returning to where the other two men waited.
With the blonde's help, the sharpshooter took the Southerner's red coat off. Next came the derringer's rig, the mechanism of metal and leather dropped on top of the man's fancy coat. Tanner carefully unfastened the cuff of Standish's shirt, folding it back away from the bloodied wound. Then, holding Ezra's hand steady, he began to pour water into the wound. Ignoring the smaller man's barely hoarse cries of pain he continued washing out the puncture wounds. Pressing the flesh, he forced the blood up from each tiny hole.
Standish leaned rigidly against the man in black, eyes and lips squeezed tight enough that the flesh whitened. His world diminished to the point that all it contained was pain. He only vaguely felt the warmth of Chris' arms holding him but slowly the steady heartbeat made its presence known to his semi-conscious mind. Focusing on the sound, he allowed it to carry him from the pain.
Larabee felt the Southerner slump against him and tightened his grip as the weight grew heavier against him. Then, along with Tanner, they lifted him between them, carrying Standish to the camp. Ezra lay listlessly between the other two men now, exhausted and moaning softly as the pain continued to course through him.
He felt them lower him to the ground, his injured arm carefully draped across his midsection. Then he felt his hand lifted gently and something soft but somewhat coarse placed beneath it.
Nearby, Tanner was digging through his saddlebags, obviously looking for something in particular. As he did, he called to Chris, "Start some water boilin'."
Opening a packet, he poured some of the powder it contained into a mug before filling it with some of the water. Setting it beside the fire he let it steep while he turned back to his work. He carefully examined the puncture wounds, counting them as he did. There were fifteen ragged holes running along the outside of Ezra's right hand, from just below the knuckle of his little finger, to the knot of bone at his wrist. Seven on the back and eight buried in the softer flesh of his palm. He counted at least six teeth embedded in the wounds, cursing under his breath as he found each one.
Without pine pitch, used to draw things like this out of flesh, the broken teeth would have to stay put for now. He wasn't going to try and pull them out without it. Better they waited for Nathan to take care of it.
Sitting back on his heels, the tracker surveyed the landscape. It was spring, the dessert alive with the various flowers and plants that would disappear in a few weeks. Vin rubbed a hand over his chin as he sought his memory for the best way to proceed. Turning to Chris, he said, "I'm gonna go git some plants... Apache Plume and Chicalote. Reckon there should be some over 'long them hills. Let that tea brew another few minutes, then give it to 'm. It'll help with the pain 'n keep the swellin' down."
"All right," the gunman agreed. "How long you reckon you'll be?"
Studying the terrain and then the follow, the younger man said, "'Magine I'll be back some time 'fore sundown. There's more a the willa bark ta make tea if he needs it."
The conversation was carried on around the Southerner who lay on the ground, his body taut as he fought the pain. It burned through his hand, the pain incredibly intense along the edge where the Gila Monster had bitten him, but spreading along his arm and into his shoulder. He was drenched with perspiration, but at the same time suffered increasingly violent chills. Movement was out of the question as dizziness and nausea coursed through him at the slightest shift of his head. And, even if that weren't so, he felt so weak at the moment that he doubted that he could even lift his head from the ground. The cries of pain continued, but he was losing his voice, the sounds growing softer and softer.
Tanner looked down, taking in the pain glazed eyes and pale features of the Southerner. Managing a smile, he said, "I'm gonna go get some things that'll help ya out, pard. Ya jist gotta hang on fer a bit."
Chris took up the mug of willow bark tea, carrying it to where Standish lay. He settled down beside the other man, nodding when the stricken eyes turned his way. Holding up the warm mug, he slid a hand beneath the sweat soaked head. Lifting Ezra slightly, he slowly fed the tea to him. He smiled at the contorted face the Southerner pulled.
"Yeah, I know, tastes like boiled skunk. It'll help with the pain though, so I reckon it's worth it."
The injured man considered arguing the fact until the tea began to work. While it didn't completely kill the pain it took the edge off, allowing him to relax. When the mug was empty, Larabee settled him back on the blanket, and he looked up at the other man. He found himself somewhat shocked that the hazel eyes weren't looking back with anger or their customary glare. Rather, they looked at him with compassion and understanding.
"It's gonna be fine, Ezra. Vin will be back soon. Next to Nathan, he's got the most know how on what to do with things like this."
"I have... ev... every faith that our... our intrepid plainsman w-will return with... with the cure," he managed in a voice that sounded weak, even to his ears.
True to his word, Tanner returned before nightfall, carrying his coat bundled up before him. He hailed the camp with a whistle, riding in to find Ezra calmer than he had been, although the young gambler was obviously still feeling the pain of the big lizard's bite.
Chris was at the spring, filling the canteens to bring water to the camp. He had spent the afternoon tending the injured Southerner. The pain had slowly subsided, although it didn't seem to leave completely, as testified to by the set of the man's jaw.
Dismounting, Vin carried the buckskin to the fire, carefully dumping a jumble of plants onto the ground. Pulling a tall, prickly plant from the bunch, he cut it up and tossed it into a pan of water Larabee had set aside for him. Putting it close to the fire, he left it to cook while he turned to other business. Laying a cloth on a large, flat stone, he picked up several white flowers. Laying them on the cloth, he began mashing them, making a thick poultice from the blooms.
When the pan at the fire had heated for a while, he carefully poured some of the water into one of their plates. Letting it cool to the point the liquid wouldn't scald, he carried it to where Standish lay. With a short whistle, he got Larabee's attention, canting his head to let the blond know he would need his help.
Once the gunman moved to sit next to Standish, he carefully lifted the injured hand from where it rested on his chest. "Ezra, this is gonna hurt like hell, but we need ta clean out the wound."
Taking a deep breath, the gambler nodded. Then his hand was placed in the still steaming water, and he bucked against the pain. He felt strong arms holding him down, and looked to see Larabee leaning over him. The man's lips were moving, but he couldn't concentrate long enough to make out the words.
They kept the Southerner's hand in the water until it cooled, than carefully lifted it back to rest against his chest. After he had acclimated to this newest pain, Ezra had slowly relaxed. While Chris released his hold, he didn't move, lending silent support to the pain-wracked man.
Letting the air dry Standish's hand, Vin went back to where he had left the poultice of mashed flowers earlier. Carrying the cloth back to where the others waited, he gently wrapped it over the wound. Once that was done, he used another length of cloth to bind Ezra's arm to his chest, to keep the injured limb from moving.
Placing a hand against the man's neck, Tanner checked his pulse. It was racing, but not as badly as it could have been. Satisfied that he had done all he could, he said, "that should hold ya, pard. Now, ya just lay quiet 'n rest."
Exhausted, the Southerner closed his eyes and allowed himself to drift. The pain receded, thanks to the sharpshooter's potions as well as the simple fact that he felt safe in the midst of these men. They would see to it that he was fine. A smile flickered across his face as he let a single thought comfort him. He had friends.
Ezra stared up into the evening sky, trying very hard not to think about the pain that continued to pulse through his bandaged hand. He heard the other two men talking softly as they moved around the camp, but a suddenly appearing and incessant ringing in his ears kept him from making out the words. His left hand came up, trembling as it wiped the perspiration from his face before running through his thick chestnut hair. Draping his uninjured arm over his eyes, he moaned softly.
Vin came over, squatting next to the smaller man. Gently placing a hand on Standish's shoulder he said softly, "how ya feelin', pard?"
He considered a variety of replies, but settled on "frankly? Like hell."
"Reckon ya do. I've got some more tea fer ya. Can ya sit up fer me?"
Letting his arm slide away, he looked up at the other man. "Is it another of those abominable concoctions our intrepid healer continues to foist upon us?"
Grinning crookedly, Vin said, "well, ya sound better anyway."
Managing a frown, the smaller man weakly began to push himself up one-handedly. Half way up, his arm began to violently shake. He would have fallen back to the ground had Tanner not slipped an arm around his shoulders and lifted him up. Standish leaned gratefully against his companion. He found himself with his head cradled against a buckskin clad shoulder without the strength to move it. His head spun, a feeling of light headedness causing him to nearly pass out.
"Don't be goin' out on me now, Ezra," Tanner scolded. "ya need ta drink this."
With a resigned sigh, the gambler allowed himself to be fed the bitter tasting brew. His nose wrinkled and, as the tea caused his stomach to roll, he fought to keep it from making a return visit. With little choice, he drank down the medicinal drink as it was slowly fed to him.
It took some time to get the herbal medication down the Southerner. That accomplished, Vin slowly lowered him back to the ground. He touched a hand to the flushed forehead, feeling the fever that poured forth. "Know ya feel damned awful, Ezra, but it ain't gonna be ferever. Them Gila's don't have enough poison in 'm ta kill a full grown man, so don't go on the worry 'bout that. All this 'll pass, ya jist gotta give it some time. Pain won't last but a few more hours at the most."
Managing a heavy sigh, the smaller man said, "I appreciate that bit of information, Mister Tanner."
Watching as Standish rubbed a hand across his eyes, the Texan asked, "head hurtin'?"
"Tea ought ta help with that, too. It's good fer pain. Takes a little time ta take hold."
"That seems to be the way of things... they take time," Ezra muttered miserably as he let his eyes close.
With a small smile, the tracker patted the Southerner on the shoulder, but said nothing more. Instead he took up a piece of cloth from their medical supplies, and wet it with water from the canteen. Wringing it out, he wiped it across the feverish features. He was somewhat taken aback at the reaction. Green eyes snapped opened, looking at him with an expression of shock and confusion. He continued slowly, as if he was gentling a green colt. "Sorry, didn't mean ta catch ya off guard."
With a sheepish smile the gambler said, "no need to apologize. I'm just not used to people... doing... for me."
"Reckon it does take some gittin' used to. You jist lay back 'n relax, though... let me 'n Chris take care a ya fer now."
Standish looked up into the boyishly handsome face, taking in the warmth that flowed from the large blue eyes. Just as Larabee's touch had earlier, he found comfort in those eyes. These men were his friends and, just as they would for the others, they were going to see to it that he was all right. Feeling himself relax as the younger man continued his ministrations, Ezra let loose a long, low sigh. Not one of pain, but of contentment. With a wan smile, he said, "thank you... Vin."
"How's he doing?" Chris asked as Vin hunkered down near him, just outside the firelight. He could hear the smaller man still occasionally moan as the pain rose too high for him to ignore.
"He'll feel a lot better in the mornin'. We'll have ta stay over, least a day, he don't need ta be movin' around."
Nodding, Larabee wasn't thrilled by the observation, but accepted it without comment. In things such as this, he bowed to the buckskin clad man's expertise. "Well, at least we've got water and supplies."
"I'll go out in the mornin' and see if I can git us somethin' ta eat. He's gonna need ta git 'is strength back 'fore we head on fer home... git plenty a Chicalote and Apache Plume, too."
They sat silently then, enjoying the peaceful night. It didn't remain peaceful for long, however. A painful groan broke the stillness, followed closely by the sounds of someone being ill. Vin was quickly on his feet, hurrying across to where Ezra lay, followed closely by Larabee.
Standish was on his knees a few feet away from his bedroll, balancing himself on one hand as he retched in pain-filled heaves. Over and over again his back arched and he trembled almost convulsively. The two men flanked him, one on each side, kneeling beside the wretched form. Chris, on his left, leaned forward slightly. Placing his hand against the clammy forehead, he let Ezra lean against him. On Standish's right, Vin carefully supported his injured arm, rubbing the sweat soaked back that arched and slumped between them.
Finally, the Southerner calmed, nearly falling to the ground as his strength left him.
The other two men carefully moved him back to his bedroll. Chris kept him propped up, while Vin fed him a little water. Once more Tanner took up a cloth, wiping the gore from the smaller man's face.
Finally managing to focus his weary mind on the world around him, Ezra opened his eyes. The tip of his tongue ran along dry lips and he whispered, "thank you."
Grinning, Vin said, "yer welcome."
"I'm sorry. I've become quite... bothersome. I'm certain that I'll be fine now. Please, don't trouble yourselves any more."
Frowning, the gunman said, "Man doesn't look on helping a friend as trouble."
Blinking rapidly, Standish could only mutter, "thank you... Chris."
They settled him back in the bedroll, sitting with the ill man until he drifted off to sleep. After he did, Larabee climbed into his own bedroll, leaving Vin to keep an eye on things for the first half of the night.
Ezra drifted in and out of an uneasy sleep through the long hours. Each time he woke, he took comfort in the nearness of one of the other two men. The pain continued to decrease becoming more of a dull throb by the time morning came. He even managed to rise shakily to his feet and shuffle away from camp to take care of his morning needs.
Returning to camp a few minutes later, he found Chris stirring something over the fire, while Vin was still curled up in his bedroll. The Southerner walked to the fire, easing himself carefully to the ground, nodding as Larabee reached out to steady him. "Thank you."
Nodding in reply, the blond returned to fixing their breakfast. Ezra watched him for several minutes, taking in the quiet strength that seemed to exude from the lean man. He found himself filled with a growing sense of amazement that this man had referred to him as 'friend' so nonchalantly the night before. It surprised him even more that he felt the same about Larabee. About them all if he was being completely honest with himself.
Lord, would Maude have a fit if he were to share his revelation with her!
Chris looked up at the soft chuckle that came from the smaller man. With a faint frown, he said, "feeling all right, Ezra?"
"Quite well Mister Larabee... thank you."
After Vin had wakened and the three of them had eaten breakfast, the sharpshooter dragged out the supplies and prepared to tend to Standish's hand. After he carefully unwrapped the brutalized flesh, he heard a sharp inhalation from the other man. Looking up, he saw the gambler's eyes had grown wide as he stared at his own hand.
"Sorry, Ezra, didn't mean ta hurt ya," Tanner apologized.
"No... no, it isn't that." He could only look at the hideous black and purple mottling along the edge of his hand. "What's wrong? Why does my hand... why does it look like that?"
"Take it easy, pard. This is normal. The bite'll rot out in a few - "
"Rot!?" He heard nothing more, that one, small word echoing in his mind. "Lord, help me... no. It can't... it' won't..."
The other two men watched as his breathing became irregular, the blood draining quickly from his face. Tanner reached out to offer his hand in comfort, but Ezra jerked away. That little, three letter word consumed him, threatening to send him into shock. He stared down at his ruined hand, the discoloration seeming to grow beneath his gaze. He could almost see it eating away at the healthy flesh around it. With a strength born of panic, he pushed himself to his feet, staggering away from the camp. He stopped only when he fell against a large boulder, the chili and beans they had eaten for breakfast making a gruesome reappearance.
Chris climbed to his feet, nodding to Vin as he moved to where the shaken man hunched miserably against the warming stone. Carefully he placed a hand on the smaller man's shoulder, grateful that Ezra didn't fight the attention this time. In a soft, soothing voice he said, "I can only imagine what you're thinking, but don't jump to conclusions. A bite like this tends to rot out. It don't mean you're gonna lose the use of your hand, pard."
"Can you say that for certain?" The panic was loud and clear in his voice.
Taken aback by the hopeless tone in the gambler's voice, Chris said, "I'm not a healer. When we get back to town, Nathan will know more about what to do."
"Then, I'd like to leave... as soon as we can." He turned pain-filled eyes toward the other man. "Please."
"We'll leave first thing in the morning. We need to give you a chance to rest up."
"I'm fine now... no need to waste a day simply sitting here." His voice trembled as his anxiety rose.
"You're not fine," Chris took in the pale features, still tinged by the flush of fever. The usually bright green eyes were dulled by hours of pain, the flesh around them bruised dark from a night of uneasy rest.
"I am!" Ezra pushed away from the boulder, only to sway as sickness threatened to once again overwhelm him. Suddenly dizzy, he practically fell into the bigger man's arms. Vin was there then, and the two men helped the him back toward his bedroll. Settling him once more, Tanner finished tending the wounded hand.
Standish lay on his bedroll, his eyes darting back and forth frantically and his chest heaving as he struggled to catch his breath. His mind was racing even faster, trying desperately to find a way to convince the other two men of the necessity of their leaving immediately. His eyes caught those of the gunslinger, and hope died beneath that compassionate but cool gaze
"Ezra, if we take off before you've got your strength back, we'll have more to worry about than your hand. Now, we're gonna stay over today, and we'll see if you're up to leaving tomorrow."
He might have appreciated the long-winded speech from the normally laconic man in black some other time. That said speech was directed toward him with something other than anger or simple frustration would have meant something under other circumstances. But at this time, in this place, and under these circumstances, he wanted to blow the unnaturally caring look from the blonde's face with whatever gun he could get hold of. In measured tones, through clenched teeth, he said, "I have conveyed that I am fine. I find it impossible to understand just why the two of you feel you know the state of my well-being better than I do myself."
"Maybe 'cos ya've got yerself in a state, pard," Tanner said as he finished putting away their dwindling medical supplies.
"And by that you mean...?"
"By that, I mean ya ain't thinkin' straight, Ezra. Now, like Chris said, we'll light out t'morrow if yer feelin' up to it."
"I feel 'up to it' now." To prove his point, he pushed himself up, struggling to get to his feet. While neither of his compatriots assisted him, neither did they hinder him. It took nearly a full minute to stand, but stand he did... right up until he swayed dangerously and nearly fell to the ground. He barely registered the fact that Vin and Chris got him back to the blankets once more. Suddenly the Southerner realized that he was, once more, looking up at the sky. "Ah... hell."
Patting the man's shoulder, Tanner said, "reckon that puts a fine point to it."
Vin left a short time later, going in search of food. Chris was settled back in a small pool of shade, reading a small, leather bound book. Ezra lay restlessly on his bedroll in another patch of shade, uttering an occasional curse when he moved the wrong way or put weight on his injured hand. Each time he did, the blond would look up briefly, making certain that the gambler was all right.
After a while, Standish made his way to his feet and shuffled over to where Larabee lounged. Chris looked up as he approached, blond brows furrowed in a frown. "You're supposed to be resting."
"My back is killing me from lying on this hard earth. If I don't get up and move a bit, I'm going to end up crippled."
With a wry smile the gunman said, "Just don't overdo it."
"I assure you, I do not intend to do anything that will jeopardize our leaving tomorrow." He lowered himself to the ground near the cook fire, idly poking through the plants and flowers Tanner had left drying on one of the larger stones.
"Looking for something?"
Shrugging, the smaller man said, "just wondering what our intrepid plainsman has been using to help in healing me."
Nodding, Larabee said, "the big one is Apache Plume, the other is Chicalote, or Prickly Poppy. Not for certain what he used for what, I never was one to understand all that herbal stuff."
"I'm thankful for the fact that Vin does understand their use." Ezra said sincerely.
Chris simply nodded and went back to his reading. A few minutes later he was drawn back from his reading by the soft Southern drawl. Looking up, he found Standish standing over him. The younger man had one mug in his left hand, another tucked between his injured right and his body.
"I thought we might finish off the pot."
Larabee reached up, taking the mugs and setting them aside in time to help the smaller man sit down nearby. Taking up the mugs, he held them out, allowing Ezra to claim his before taking a drink from the other. His face drawing together in a disgusted expression, he cursed softly. "Jesus... did Tanner make this?"
With a small smile, Standish said, "it would seem so. Perhaps this would help?"
Chris smiled widely as the gambler retrieved his flask, pulling the cap loose with his teeth. He knew the silver container held some of the smoothest scotch whiskey this side of the Mississippi. He held out his mug, watching as a very generous amount disappeared inside the metal cup. After Standish recapped the flask, he nodded his thanks, tipping the mug in salute. Taking another swallow, he smiled at the vastly improved taste. The two men settled into a companionable silence, staring off into the distance as they finished off the coffee.
Setting aside his empty mug a short time later, Larabee stretched and yawned, rubbing a hand over his eyes. He wasn't going to say anything to the other man, but he was looking forward to being on the move again. He wanted to get back to town, take a long hot bath and then take a bottle of whiskey to his room. 'I'm getting too old for all this riding around and sleeping on the ground', he admitted to himself.
"Mr. Larabee? Chris?"
The gunman blinked owlishly, realizing with embarrassment that he had dozed off. Clearing his throat and pushing himself up straighter, he said, "yeah?"
"I asked if you were feeling all right. You look a bit peaked... perhaps a nap might be in order?"
"I'm a little young to be taking afternoon naps," the blond growled. Then he blinked rapidly as his vision blurred. He looked over at the other man, frowning when the Southerner seemed to be much farther away than he remembered, although he was able to reach out and touch his arm. Chris tried to voice his confusion, but suddenly his tongue seemed to have grown a coat of wool. He reached out to touch the gambler's sleeve once more, only to find himself falling face first toward the ground.
Standish looked down at his friend, an expression of regret crossing his handsome features. Reaching out with his left hand, he felt for a pulse, rewarded with a fairly strong and regular one. He heaved a sigh of relief, at least he hadn't given the man too much of the natural sleep aid. Chris Larabee might not know a lot about the Prickly Poppy, but he had learned of its value as an opiate some time ago.
Pulling himself to his feet once more, he looked down at the drugged blond. In a tone of regret he said, "I am sorry, Chris... I truly am." Standing up straight, the gambler strode off toward the horses. He was going home.
"Chris? Larabee? Chris!"
The blond frowned, brows furrowed over closed eyes, as he tried to decide just who it was that was foolish enough to interrupt his sleep. As the darkness began to lift, he tried to remember just when he had gone to sleep, failing miserably. Had he gotten drunk and passed out? He couldn't remember drinking, but his head certainly throbbed like it tended to do after a bender.
"Damn it, Larabee, wake up!"
Tanner. What the hell did he want? If that damn fool was waking him up before the sun rose again... but he could feel the sun on his face, see the light through closed lids. And the last thing he could recall was eating breakfast, and then -
"Hold on there, cowboy," Vin ordered as the other man sat bolt upright. He barely managed to catch him as he watched the blood rush from the handsome face. "Take a deep breath, Larabee... nice 'n slow."
The world spun, taking his stomach with it. He allowed his friend to steady him, as he fought to quell the storms that were battling him from all sides. Several deep breaths and Tanner's strong grasp finally helped him regain his equilibrium. Blinking open unfocused eyes, he looked up at his friend. "What the hell happened?"
"Ain't fer certain. Rode in an' found ya laid out here on the ground. Ain't no sign a Ezra 'r Diamonds. Looks like he got the best a ya and lit out."
"Am I bleeding? If that cocky sonofabitch got the best of me, I'd better be bleeding."
"Nope," Tanner replied evenly as he picked up the coffee mug Larabee had used earlier. He sniffed at it, nose wrinkling. "Smells like a helluva dose a whiskey."
Shaking his head, and regretting it immediately, the blond said, "Didn't put that much in, just enough to cut the taste of the coffee. You can't make coffee for shit, Tanner."
Vin sniffed at the cup again, then pushed himself to his feet and stalked over to where the medicinal plants lay. Looking over the drying foliage, he returned to here Chris was. The man in black had managed to push himself up, sitting slumped against the tree he had been using earlier. Squatting down in front of the older man, he picked up the cup, pushing around the dregs that had dried in the bottom. With a frown, he looked into the glassy, still slightly unfocused eyes that shown beneath drooping lids. In a quiet voice, he said, "yer woostered, pard. He put some a the poppy berries in yer coffee."
"God damn, son of a bitch..." Larabee continued cursing as he struggled to get up, sagging against the tree when he finally gained his feet.
While the angry gunman was railing against the missing gambler and fighting off the effects of the natural drug, the tracker quickly gathered up their belongings and headed toward the place where the horses were picketed. He had Pony nearly saddled by the time Chris had finished stomping around, growling as he tried to force the last of the drug out of his system. The two men were soon on the trail, Vin following the signs left by the injured Southerner.
It had been a bad idea. A very bad idea. He should have stayed in the camp... should have stayed with the others. His friends.
The word still had a foreign sound.
That might very well be in the past tense, however. If he didn't kill himself in his current state, Chris Larabee might just take care of that little oversight the minute he and Vin caught up to him. He had no doubt that they would catch up to him, either. Tanner could track a raindrop down the river, there was no doubt in his mind that the Texan could track him across the open land.
There was no 'if'... only 'when'.
Lord, he hoped it was soon. His hand was throbbing again, sending tendrils of pain up his arm. He was hot, too, recognizing the fact that he had a fever. He wanted to find shade where he could rest out of the afternoon heat. He had gone through the water in his canteen sometime earlier, and knew he needed to find water soon.
"You're a fool. An ignorant... impulsive... fool." He growled his frustration when, once again, his vocabulary deserted him.
He tried to focus his blurred vision on the landscape around him, hoping to find some sign of water, but found nothing that gave him a great deal of hope. He wasn't certain what he would do if he did find water. He was fairly certain that, if he dismounted, he wouldn't be able to climb back onto his horse anytime soon.
The feverish man sought out any landmark that would point him home. He wasn't helpless beyond the confines of town, but his strengths did not include navigating a course through the wilderness. He settled for using the sun's position and heading in the general direction of Four Corners.
He had not been able to pull his jacket in, and he felt the sun burning through the thinner cloth of his shirt. He could feel perspiration soaking both shirt front and sleeve where his arm was bound to his chest. In short, he was miserable.
"Most queenly of rivers, the Tennessee sweeps... by low, sunny banks where her smooth water keeps... and the brown thrush's call to its mate soft and low... goes echoing over the silvery flow." He frowned as he belatedly realized that he was reciting a poem from his time as a soldier for the confederacy. Despite the dryness of his parched throat, he continued.
"By fields, where the daisies peep out from the grass... and kiss the gay sunbeams as, laughing, they pass... to play on the water a rainbow of light... that breaks into jewels, all sparkling and bright... to rest on her majesty's robe of dull brown... and laughingly fleck themselves over the ground..." he shook his head. "Good lord, I am most assuredly losing my mind. Spouting poetry in the middle of the desert... alone... well, save for you, my old friend."
Lady Diamonds blew a breath as he reached out and stroked her mane. He managed a smile, then took up his recitation. "All nature was blooming in sunshine and shower... of sweet April days, and dreamed not the dark hour... of Shiloh approaching; but dark clouds of war... were throwing their shadows anear and afar. And soon the deep silence of woodland and glen... was broken by thread of an army of men. They came from the lowland, they came from the hill... they came by the river, so peaceful and still... 'til her bosom was beaten by paddle and wheel... and her jewels were changed into iron and steel..."
Larabee rubbed at the headache that had accompanied him since climbing onto Pony's back several hours earlier. Allowing himself a drink of water, and hoping it stayed where he put it, he frowned over at his companion. "How much longer before we catch up to the idiot?"
Tanner allowed himself a smile before turning to the blond. Chris had called Ezra every derogatory name he could think of, and Vin was pretty certain the testy gunman had made up a few along the way. "He's movin' slower 'n we are, so reckon we'll catch up to 'm directly."
Looking into the sky, Larabee said, "it'll be almost sunset."
"What if we don't find him by then?"
"Best hope we do. Won't be enough moon to track tonight. We'll have to make came and take up the search in the mornin'."
"Will he be all right? You're more familiar with this sort of thing... what about the bite?"
Shaking his head, Vin said, "depends."
"A lotta things. He could git a fever... infection could set in... ya never can tell. Like I told 'm, the bite itself usually ain't deadly."
"There's a whole lotta other things could make 'im mighty sick... might even kill 'im."
Heaving a sigh, Larabee said, "great."
Nodding toward a nearly invisible figure in the distance, the tracker said, "leastways we don't have ta worry 'bout findin' 'im."
"Sure that's him?"
Taking out his spyglass, the slender tracker trained it on the moving speck. After just a few seconds, he nodded. "Yep, thats him."
"Let's get after the damn fool."
Spurring the horses to a gallop, the two men started after the third member of their group.
"Once thousands had met... where the Tennesse rolls... and... and... and her banks were crowded with living souls... they.... They are crowded still... but... the forms are now dust... and the emeralds... no, emblems of war are cover.... covered with rust. Rust? Yes, that's it. Where white stones are gleaming on Mother Earth's breast... breasts. I must say, Inez has a lovely pair. Have you noticed that? No of course you haven't... you're a horse." He stopped and looked around at a sound of someone giggling. "What? Oh lord... was that me?"
He sighed, picked up his canteen and opened it. He tipped up the container, waiting for the water to splash over his tongue. When nothing came, he growled and tossed the skin aside. Reaching for his pockets, he realized that he wasn't wearing his coat... and his coat held his flask. Cursing under his breath he realized that he must have left it behind. He wasn't quite certain as to where 'behind' was, but wherever it was, that was where his jacket and flask were.
"Her sons and heroes are lying at rest... O Shiloh! Said Shiloh! The gray and the... and the... blue... wait, I believe I missed something there. Ah well. Gave life for their country... what more could they do? What more? Indeed. They could have... drawn for it. Yes, wouldn't that have been a sight? Lincoln and Davis deciding the fate of the country... over a hand of cards. Quite the sight... ah hell, there's that infernal tittering again. Good lord I wish whoever that was would stop."
"What? Was that you my lady?" He reached out a trembling hand, stroking a hand through the horse's mane.
"Ezra! Wait up!"
"No... not you. I shouldn't have to wait up for... someone I'm atop."
"God damn it Standish, stop!"
Frowning, he looked up, then swiveled around in the saddle... promptly falling from the back of his horse. He lay in a heap, staring into the late afternoon sky. Suddenly two figures stood over him, shadowing his burning eyes from the brightness. Drawing a trembling breath, he asked, "did you call me?"
One of the two shadows chuckled and moved nearer. "Yep, we did."
The other shadow moved nearer as well. "What the hell did you think you were out to prove, Ezra?"
"Prove? I don't re... remember. Was I trying to prove something?"
Chris sighed in resignation. He carefully lifted Standish up from the right while Tanner got the left. They lifted the delirious man into their arms and carried him a few yards to a stand of trees. Moving into the middle of the stand they laid him down near a small spring. While Chris left to bring the horses in, Vin began checking the gambler over.
"Again, in sweet April days, flowers are springing... all through the green wood where light birds are singing... what exactly is a 'light' bird? Mr. Tanner?"
Vin looked up from where he was unbinding the other man's wounded hand. "What?"
"What, may I ask, is a light bird?"
"Hell, Ezra, I don't know. Now lay still. Looks like ya got some infection in yer hand. I'm gonna have ta open up them bite marks."
"Yes, well I thought it might be infected, when - GOD DAMN IT TO HELL!" He cried out as Vin began to purge the puncture wounds.
"Sorry pard." He continued pressing on the wounds, mindful of those holes still containing broken teeth. By the time he had finished, Standish was nearly unconscious, moaning weakly. He looked up to see Larabee nearby, the blond busily setting up camp in the late evening light.
Chris looked up when he sensed someone watching him, nodding toward the injured man. "How's he doing?
"Gonna need a fire quick 's ya can set 'er up. Gonna need ta brew up more tea 'n wash. If ya git that goin', I'll git the poison drained."
With a quick nod of acknowledgement, the blond set to work. He looked up to see Tanner working on the gambler's injured hand, offering soft words of support or apology from time to time. By the time he had the fire lit and water heating, Vin was breaking up another of the Chicalote. Adding it to the water, he then began mashing up more of the white flowers of the Apache Plume into another poultice. Palming some of the Poppy's berries, he handed them over to Larabee. "Here, go have 'im chew on these, it'll help with the pain 'n put 'im ta sleep. Think of it as payback fer yer headache."
Smirking as he saw the sly smile gracing his friend's face, the gunman took the berries. Stepping over to where Ezra lay, semiconscious and muttering feverishly, he knelt beside the smaller man. Carefully lifting the sweat soaked head, he said, "come on, Standish, wake up. I need you to chew on these."
He was trapped somewhere between wakefulness and sleep, the world filled with confusing shadows and distorted voices. Suddenly his mouth was filled with a strange taste, which he tried to rid himself of. To his shock, he felt something covering his mouth, and a stern voice broke through the fog.
"No you don't. Chew."
His face contorting into an expression of displeasure, the smaller man nonetheless began to chew up the berries. As the drug began to take effect, he felt himself drifting farther into the fog of unconsciousness. Leaving the fever and pain behind, he settled into the peaceful place provided by the drug, and he sighed contentedly.
Looking up at the younger man, Chris nodded. Then he accepted the steaming mug the tracker handed him. Lifting Standish up to cradle his head and shoulders against his chest, he said softly, "Ezra? Need you to drink this."
Slack lips parted and the gambler accepted the hot tea without comment. Larabee fed it to him slowly, making certain the liquid didn't make a return visit. When the mug was empty, he set it aside and settled the smaller man back on the ground.
With Tanner's help, Larabee moved the gambler to a waiting bedroll. Vin covered the bite wounds with poultice then re-wrapped the injured hand. Securing the injured limb to Standish's chest, he pulled a blanket up over the other man. Chris was sitting near the unconscious man's head, carefully bathing the ashen face with a cool cloth. The two men looked up, locking eyes with one another.
They had done all that they could do.
The night passed slowly, the two men caring for the third. They forced water on the Southerner several times each hour, as they worked against the effects of dehydration. He never quite regained consciousness throughout the night, but managed to mumble words of gratitude when they comforted him and of apology when he was unable to hold down the water or teas they fed him.
Vin unwrapped and purged the putrid wounds every couple of hours, using more of the white flowers to make a fresh poultice each time. Slowly the swelling and redness receded, giving the men hope that the infection was losing ground. The flesh around the marks continued to show signs of rot, the injured body working to purge itself of the dead flesh.
Just as dawn broke, so did Standish's fever. He drifted into a healing sleep, his weary body growing still beneath the woolen blankets. His face was still the color of adobe and dark smudges ringed his closed eyes, but there was a faint hint of color creeping across the lax features.
"Think he'll make it?" Larabee looked from the sleeping man to the sharpshooter.
"Reckon he will, long 's we can keep the damn cuss still."
"Got a rope," Chris suggested, only half jokingly.
With a snort, the Texan said, "hard ta keep a rope on a rattler. Best bet 'd be ta git 'im ta Nathan."
With a nod, the younger man said, "keep 'im quiet an' git us back ta town."
"I'll work on it."
Still under the effects of the medicinal herbs they had fed him throughout the night, Standish was unable to make much of a fight when they informed him of his means of transportation. The other two men lifted him onto the contraption formed of limbs and blankets, settling him onto the travois that would be dragged to town behind his horse. They set off, Diamonds lead attached to Pony's saddle, moving toward Four Corners at a slow, steady pace.
By nightfall, Ezra was more aware of his surroundings. He managed to get to his feet with the help of the other two, and walked with slow and unsteady steps to take care of nature's call. They settled him in for the evening, letting him sleep naturally now. He roused long enough to eat a little of the beans and hardtack offered for dinner, then returned to sleep.
The next morning brought some protest from the normally self-sufficient Southerner, but he spent the early hours lying on the travois, watching the sky pass above him through half closed eyes. When they stopped to rest during the heat of the afternoon, he managed to get off the carrier alone and walked to the nearest shade. After they had eaten and rested, he announced that there was no way in hell he would return to 'that infernal contraption' again. Studying the pale but determined face, the other two men exchanged looks. With twin nods of agreement they removed the travois from Lady Diamonds' back and dismantled it in order to put the bedrolls back in place behind their saddles. Ezra mounted with their assistance, sitting atop his horse with a look of satisfaction on his handsome face.
Satisfaction waned quickly as the afternoon passed. They reached town just after nightfall, Standish flanked by the other two men as they rode slowly down the street. He was half-asleep as they helped him from the saddle and up the long flight of stairs that led to the clinic.
Just as they guided him inside, finding the little room empty, hurried footsteps announced the presence of the healer. Settling the smaller man on the bed, they turned to greet Jackson.
Vin quickly filled the dark-skinned man in on what had happened over the course of the previous few days. Before he finished, Nathan was already warming some pine pitch. Enlisting the assistance of the tracker to help hold Standish still, he set about removing the embedded teeth. On his part, Ezra managed to stay quiet, although the pain of having the still raw wounds prodded as the former slave pressed the warm pitch against the holes to extract the broken teeth was hard to bear.
Finally satisfied that he had removed them all, Jackson cleaned the wounds, looking them over in the lantern light. He clucked at the residual redness and drew out small amounts of pus, but didn't appear to be overly concerned about the injury.
Without looking up at the Southerner, the big man said, "yeah?"
"The discoloration... Vin calls it 'rot'."
"Will it... that is to say... will I... "
"It'll take a bit of time and some exercisin', but you'll be cheatin' at cards with both hands in a few weeks," Jackson said in a reassuring tone.
The gambler settled back on the pillows with a sigh. He felt the fears of the past few days slowly dwindle. He had discovered some time ago that if the healer responded in such a direct manner, the answer was almost always true. His eyes drifted closed and he relaxed on the bed, a slight smile on his face.
Over the next several days, the Southerner remained quiet and hidden away in either the clinic or his own room. The others checked on him at least once a day, more often if town was quiet enough to allow for more visits. Under Nathan's keen eye he slowly recovered from his ordeal. The complications brought on by his foolhardy stunt left him weak for some time, although he did his best to hide the fact. They could all see it though; could see the weariness creep in as the normally bright green eyes dulled, the handsome face paled, and the honey dipped voice trembled as he neared the end of his endurance.
His stubborn nature shown thought one evening, when he insisted on sitting at a corner table of the saloon. Despite Nathan's encouragement, he refused to go to his room, even when he came to the point of wanting nothing so much as the chance to lay his head down on the table. He was surprised to suddenly see the black clad gunman standing beside his table. Looking up, he saw that Larabee was holding a bottle and two shot glasses. "Good evenin' Mr. Larabee."
"Evening, Ezra. Thought I'd see if you'd like to join me in a drink?"
"I'd be delighted," he drawled.
Settling into one of the other seats at the table, Chris set the glasses down, opened the bottle, and poured each nearly full with the deep amber liquid. Pushing one across the wooden table, he nodded as he lifted his in a salute. As Standish did likewise, he said, "to good friends."
"To good friends," Ezra echoed before tossing down the drink. Sitting the empty glass down, he said softly, "I'm not certain I properly thanked you and Vin, Chris."
A smile tugging the corners of his lips upward, the blond said, "several times, Ezra. And you're welcome."
The gambler looked into the hazel eyes and saw sincerity. He looked into the handsome face and saw friendship. Drawing in a quivering breath, he let it out and drew in another. Unable to find words to respond to what he saw in the other man's face, he simply smiled and nodded.
Lifting the bottle, Chris filled each glass again. Lifting his, he tipped it slightly, nodded back at the other man, and drank. They drank nearly half the bottle, Ezra sliding farther into a tired slump with each drink. Larabee monitored the smaller man's condition without seeming to, hazel eyes gauging just how close the gambler was coming to passing out.
Finally he saw his opportunity. "Ezra?"
"Yes?" The Southerner squinted across the table, trying to focus an uneven green gaze on the other man.
"Time for bed."
Pushing himself to his feet, Larabee came around the table and held out his hand. As Standish took it, he pulled him up, steadying him with a firm grip. Once the gambler seemed ready, he guided him across the saloon toward the stairs. Sensing eyes on him, Chris looked to see Vin watching him from the bar. With a wink and a subtle smile, he continued walking the younger man toward his room.
It had been almost two months since they had returned to town with the injured Standish. The events had faded into memories for all save one. Ezra had lived with the reality every minute of every day, hopes and fears riding his shoulders as he worked to recover the full use of his hand.
Chris and Vin sat at their regular table, in the far corner of the big room, watching the action at a nearby table with interest. Ezra Standish sat holding court, surrounded by four cowboys fresh from the trail. His face was devoid of emotion as he dealt out the cards and raked in the money, but the two men could read it in every movement and gesture... shear ecstasy at being able to use his hand once more. He paused every few minutes to flex the fingers of his right hand, the pink of new flesh visible in the lantern light.
They watched as he raked in another pot, an expression of surprised innocence on his face. One of the cowboys muttered something, leading the grifter to respond in his most congenial Southern tone.
"Reckon he's gonna git 'isself shot t'night?" Vin looked over at the blond and then back at the gambler.
Seeming to think over the comment for a minute, Chris finally said, "no."
With a wry grin, the sharpshooter said, "dunno... them boys don't look real happy ta be losin' to 'im."
Looking at each of the strangers in turn, Larabee gauged their intent. "Nope, but there's one thing he's got goin' for him... and they can sense it."
With a puzzled expression, Tanner said, "yeah? An' what's that?"
Turning toward his companion, Chris said in an honest tone, "He's got people to watch his back, and they can sense that. He's got friends."