Main Characters: Chris, Ezra
Summary: Judge Travis sends Chris Larabee and Ezra Standish to Denver to testify in court.
Disclaimer: The Magnificent Seven and characters are the property of MGM Television, The Mirsch Corporation, Trilogy Entertainment Group and CBS. No profit has been made off of this work. No copyright infringement is intended.
This work is dedicated in the memory of Susan Fulton, who's heartwarming and supportive reviews helped fuel the muse. August 2011
The banging on his bedroom door slowly brought him to full awareness. With his fingers still clutched around a bottle of cheap rye, his eyes partially glued shut and crusty, he was not ready to face the day. And from the amount of sunlight sneaking through the curtains he’d bet it was not yet eight in the morning.
Turning onto his back he shook the empty bottle free from his still sleeping fingers and squashed a pillow over his face hoping and praying whoever was on the other side of the door would give up and go away. Alas it was not in the cards.
“Standish, get your lazy, good for nothing hide out of that bed. You are due outside, down at the stage office in twenty minutes!” The unmistakable growl that could only belong to their resident gunslinger shot through the wood door. His statement was punctuated by several more well placed blows to the innocent door.
The man had no tact. It was not in good form to drag decent people from their comfortable beds before ten in the morning, especially not by banging on their bedroom doors and screaming at levels only fit for the out of doors.
Ezra lay there pretending not to be in the room, hoping maybe Chris would think he’d missed Ezra, and he’d leave to check. He waited in the sudden silence. Maybe it had worked, he thought to himself. Mere seconds later his bedroom door was viciously kicked in from the other side, part of the door’s locking mechanism sliding across the wood floor to bounce off the far wall. He shot up in the bed as the Angel of Death descended, and here he was sitting helplessly tangled in his nightshirt and bedclothes. Attempting to make a valiant effort to exit the bed with a modicum of decorum, Ezra landed in a heap on the floor with the down filled duvet.
Chris stood at the end of the bed with a scowl on his face and his hands on his hips watching as the gambler untangled himself from linens and sheets. “Mr. Larabee, I must protest the manner in which you tried to roust me from my slumber.” Ezra pouted as he gathered up the rumpled bedclothes and threw them into the center of his luxurious four poster bed.
Going over to the wardrobe, Chris reached in and pulled out Ezra’s clothing, which he tossed at the gambler. “Ez, we have a stage to catch and then a train.” Ezra glared at Chris as the gunslinger dug through his chest of drawers pulling out his underclothes which he tossed onto the bed. “If you make the stage late with your dilly-dallying we may miss the train and then I’ll--,” Chris recited as he dug out the gambler’s carpetbag from the bottom of the wardrobe and threw that onto the bed.
“You’ll have to shoot me. Yes, yes I know.” Ezra sighed as he neatly folded his clothing and piled it on the bed. “We will not be late, but I still don’t understand why I have to go on this farce of a journey? I’m sure they can find plenty of good Samaritans closer to Denver who would be willing to testify against Joseph Hines. We had the unfortunate luck of running into him over two months ago. It is not our fault that he escaped incarceration in our humble little town. He’s being charged as a horse thief and they’ll hang him anyway, whether we are there or not.”
Narrowing his eyes at the gambler for the space of a heartbeat Chris pulled a toothy grin, “Just think, the big city. I’m sure there are plenty of gamin’ tables you can visit while we’re there.”
“If that is supposed to placate me it isn’t working.” Ezra flopped dejectedly onto the bed and rubbed his aching temples. They hadn’t even gotten on the stage yet and he was already dreading the journey.
Cocking an eyebrow at the gambler Chris stood at the foot of the bed and waited.
Ezra shot the gunslinger a scandalized look. “I will not perform my morning ablutions while you remain in this room.” He could be just as stubborn as Four Corner’s stalwart gunslinger, he thought to himself. Ezra just hoped he possessed the same fortitude as Mr. Larabee.
Chris waited and waited some more but Ezra did not budge. Perhaps he should back off so they could at least make the stage. Chris realized he was going to have to pick his battles carefully since it appeared the gambler was just as stubborn as he was. At this rate they’d never get out of the saloon. Chris decided to concede this battle. “Fine, do what you want. The stage leaves thirty minutes with or without you.” Chris left the room without further comment.
“Wonderful.” Ezra plodded over to the door and pushed it shut. And since Mr. Larabee had seen fit to destroy his lock he had to use a chair to keep it closed. “I foresee an eventful excursion and am dreading every mile of it.”
The stage driver looked down from his seat at the gunslinger standing nearby. “I can’t wait here all day, got a schedule to keep. Maybe your man changed his mind?”
“He’ll be here. Just be ready to go when he shows up,” Chris called up at the driver and glanced up the street in the direction of the saloon. Ezra was nowhere to be seen. Chris started pacing back and forth waiting for the gambler to make an appearance. He had specifically told Ezra the stage was leaving in thirty minutes. How long did it take to get dressed? Next time he’d just drag him down here in his nightshirt, kicking and screaming all the way. Chris smiled, an evil glint in his eye at the thought. It’d be no one’s fault but Ezra’s.
“If it was me, I wouldn’t be getting wound so tight at the beginning of a long trip, cowboy.” Vin flicked a gaze up the street trying to ignore Chris’s obvious tense mood. “You’ll have yourself so twisted up by the time you get to Denver, you’ll be walking hunched over, scaring off all the women folk.”
“I’m not going to get all twisted up.” Chris huffed and rubbed at the back of his neck.
Little dust devils blew up when a light breeze meandered around the thoroughfare out in front of the stage office. The breeze did little to dispel the heat radiating up from the hard-packed street and Chris impatiently wiped at the sweat beading up on his face. He wasn’t looking forward to the claustrophobic confines of the stage; the driver had informed him they would be traveling with an almost full compliment of passengers heading on to Ridge City. Just his luck, he thought, not only did he have to pass the time with a gambler who was reluctant to travel, he’d have to put up with no leg room and being squashed amongst the other passengers. This day was just getting better and better.
“Hey cowboy, I see Ezra now.” Vin smirked as he stepped down from the boardwalk in front of the stage to the street. “Looks like you can start your trip now.”
“Blessed be,” came a retort from inside the crowded stage. “I thought we were all meant to expire while waiting in this forsaken one horse town.”
“Hush yourself, man,” the irritated driver called down. “Or I’ll be forced to hit every bump and rut on the trip.” Indistinguishable grumblings drifted from the interior of the stage and fell on deaf ears.
Ezra trotted down to the stage, huffing for breath, while carrying two carpet bags. “Never fear gentlemen, for I have arrived and we may depart without further delay.”
In and effort to hurry Ezra along Chris snagged his carpetbags and threw them up to the man riding shotgun who secured them to the roof. “Are you ready? If we miss the train--.”
“Never fear, my grim faced Mr. Larabee. When was the last time you knew a train to leave precisely on time?” Ezra brushed at some lint or other piece of fluff on the sleeve of his hunter green coat.
Chris yanked open the stage door and motioned for Ezra get into the stage ahead of him. “I wouldn’t know. Not my preferred method of travel.” Chris sighed as he climbed up and pulled the door shut behind him. Leaning out the window he called out to Vin, “Keep an eye on things while we’re gone. Should only be a few weeks, at the most.”
“Everything will be fine, don’t worry. Good luck you two. See ya, Ez,” Vin called as the stage driver clucked the horses into motion. Vin stepped further out to watch the stage head out of town. Ezra leaned out the window and waved. Vin waved back as it got smaller in the distance.
Josiah wandered up to Vin who was still standing in the middle of the street. “They get off all right?”
“Yup. I wonder who’ll kill who first? Those two never been on a long trip together.” Vin turned and clapped Josiah on the shoulder. “Too early for a drink?”
“Never too early. We’ll just add it to the coffee and call it breakfast,” Josiah laughed as they headed up to the saloon. “It is going to be awfully quiet around here without those two bickering all the time.”
“Better enjoy it while it lasts,” Vin sniggered as they walked through the saloon doors and out of the hot morning sun.
Ezra looked around the confines of the stagecoach, observing his fellow passengers. Across from him sat a rather large woman who seemed content on taking her half out of the middle of the seat. She had dark curls shoved up under an impossibly wide bonnet covered in pink ostrich feathers. Her son, who was squashed between Chris and her, seemed to be suffering from some strange digestive malady that caused him to belch and break wind insistently.
The gambler sat next to a traveling salesman who used too much pomade, constantly blew his nose, and wore a moth-eaten Houndstooth coat that had probably never been cleaned. Their final passenger was a stick of a woman with the most severe features Ezra had ever laid eyes on. He was almost positive if she even attempted to smile her face would crack. She had dressed all in gray and it looked as if all the life had been sucked out of her small figure.
Chris was slumped in the corner with his hat pulled down over his face trying to avoid contact with the other passengers.
“Mister? Hey Mister, you a gunfighter? My ma says that all gunfighters are the spawn of the devil.” The boy poked Chris viciously in the side trying to get his attention. “Are you the devil’s son?”
Quick as a snake the gunfighter’s hand shot out snagging the boy’s hand in his, “You shouldn’t talk to strangers, it’s not safe. You shouldn’t poke at people either. It’s not polite.”
The boy’s mother gasped in indignation. “How dare you take my child to task! He was only asking a question. You were rude to ignore him.”
Chris sent a withering gaze her way. “Ma’am, I taught my son to respect his elders and pay heed to what they say. Maybe you should think twice about how you teach yours.”
Ezra shook his head in amusement as he pulled his hat low and tried to catch a short cat nap, his hangover pounding roughly behind his eyes.
Chris watched as Ezra succumbed to the rocking of the coach and wished he could fall asleep that easily but he didn’t feel he could let his guard down yet. He was unfamiliar with this driver and his associate so he wasn’t sure how capable they were. He wished they could have traveled by horseback but it would have been impractical to leave Pony and Chaucer in Ridge City until their return.
The gunslinger could see smoke on the horizon. Apparently, the next way station on their journey so at least he’d be able to stretch his legs for a few moments before continuing on with a fresh set of horses. He hated traveling by stage; it was the most uncomfortable mode of travel, especially when they tried to fit as many people into it as possible. Sometime over the past two hours the youngster sitting next to him had fallen asleep and had come to rest against his side. Chris had finally given up pushing him over to his mother after the fifth time. It was too hot in the stage to have a warm body pressed up close to his, he felt as if he would melt into a puddle on the floor.
Ezra woke as he felt the coach slowing and peered out the window, the way station coming into view. “How much further to Ridge City?” he asked on a jaw cracking yawn.
As the coach pulled to a stop Chris jumped out. “Glad you’re getting your beauty sleep there, Ez.” The gunslinger walked around trying to get the blood flowing through his legs again, groaning as he felt a twinge in his back. “You’d think by now someone would have figured out a way to make these things more comfortable.”
As Ezra joined Chris on the side of the coach he replied, “They did; it’s called a train. Now I don’t believe you answered me. How much further?”
“How about you go take a look at the stage routes posted on the wall over there and tell me.” Chris clapped Ezra on the shoulder before heading around behind the building where the privies were located.
As Chris came around the front of the way station, Ezra was heading around back with a medium sized satchel in his hands, “Mr. Larabee, if you would be so kind to hold this for me I be will more than willing to share. I need to take care of a pressing matter.” He handed it off to Chris without a glance back. Chris set the bag down on a nearby barrel and perused the contents. He had to admit there was a benefit to traveling with Ezra; the man liked his creature comforts. Somehow the gambler had appropriated a small bottle of Kentucky Bourbon, a bottle of Rye, two apples, six fluffy biscuits, cheese, and what appeared to be a small jar of strawberry preserves. Would wonders never cease? This trip may not be so bad after all.
“Though we may be far from home there is no need to go without simple comforts. I will have you know, though, that bag did not come cheap. I hope you will appreciate all I had to give up to acquire our dinner.” Ezra sent Chris a large grin as he sauntered past. “I’ll let you carry the bag.”
“Shake a tail feather folks! Daylights burnin’, got a schedule to keep!” The driver yelled from where he was checking the team of horses over.
As the men waited for the women, Chris could hear feminine chatter nearing the stagecoach, actually wishing that they would hurry up so that they could complete the next leg of their journey.
The coach shook roughly as Rupert’s mother made her way inside, bouncing around until she found a comfortable position, “Rupert, don’t dawdle. The stage coach will only wait so long. Momma will give you something to eat once we get under way.”
Grinning widely, Rupert climbed up into the coach and plopped down next to his mother.
“Back into the box,” Chris groaned as he pulled his lanky body up into the coach behind the skinny woman and slouched into his corner, placing the bag behind his feet.
Ezra dropped into his own seat across from Chris and replied, “Only fifteen more miles to go. We are almost home free.”
“Praise be,” the traveling salesman murmured as he pulled himself in. “I don’t cotton to traveling by stagecoach at night. Too many ne’er do wells along this portion of the route. I’ve been robbed twice over the last year.”
“Twice you say? Why would you continue to travel this line if you have been robbed that many times?” Ezra inquired as he looked out the window for anything out of the ordinary.
The salesman frowned. “Cost of doing business. I’ve got some loyal customers here abouts.” He held out his hand to Ezra, “I’m Silas Mathers.”
Ezra took his hand and shook it lightly. “And what do you sell?”
“Oh this and that, whatever I can get my hands on that might be interesting to folk who can’t always get to town. Right now I’ve got ladies undergarments made of the softest silk. Lavender soap, various spirits, elixirs, etc.,” he explained as he tried to get comfortable once again.
A finger tapping him in the arm had Chris looking down and he realized the child had some type of sticky substance all over his face and hands. Chris contemplated two seconds suggesting Rupert not touch him with his messy hands but thought by mentioning it, it would happen all that much sooner.
“Hey mister, you ever see a real live pirate?” Rupert looked up at Chris and smiled, holding out a piece of rock candy on a stick. “Here, I got this for you.”
Chris gingerly took the offering from the child smiling softly as he placed it in his pocket. “I’ll save this for later. And no, I’ve never met a real live pirate but you may want to ask Mr. Standish here because he used to ride the riverboats on the Mississippi.” Chris sent a leer at the gambler as he turned the child’s focus onto his traveling companion.
Chris and Ezra grimaced as Mrs. Brooks shot both of them the evil eye. “Don’t be filling the child’s mind with nonsense. There are no pirates anymore, they are just fairy tales.”
Ezra looked sternly at the woman, “Madam, I fear you are misinformed. They are still very real. They are not as glamorous as Long John Silver or Blackbeard, but they do exist.” Ezra looked at young Rupert and pitched his voice lower, “Mr. Larabee was correct. Up until a few years ago I did ride the steamboats along the Mississippi and the Missouri. Why I once rode a steamboat all the way from St. Louis to New Orleans and my pockets were much fatter once I debarked.”
“Don’t see how much has changed.” Chris smirked as he straightened his legs out before him.
The stage took off like a shot throwing its occupants around in the interior. As the stage tilted precariously to one side Ezra watched as Rupert and his mother slid into Chris, pinning him to the side of the stage. Ezra grimaced as Chris grunted in pain and Rupert squealed from being squashed between the two adults. As the stage righted itself Ezra reached across to help the woman right herself.
“Oh! Unhand me, sir! I do not need your assistance!” The large woman cried as she slapped at the gambler.
Ezra pulled his hands off the woman’s arms and flopped back into his seat. “My dear woman, I was just trying to assist you. You were effectively squeezing the breath from your son and my traveling companion.” The gambler looked down and straightened his cravat that had been knocked askew in the melee. “By the way, my name is Ezra Standish and my companion is Chris Larabee. We’ve already met your son Rupert and Mr. Mathers. Perhaps you and this young lady would like to share your names so that you may be properly addressed?”
Rupert’s mother fixed Ezra with a beady-eyed stare and to the best of her ability tried to look down her nose at him; a feat in itself considering the woman’s short stature. “You may address me as Mrs. Brooks.” She flicked a careless wave to the woman sitting next to Mr. Mathers. “She is my traveling companion, Adelaide Wolcott.”
Ezra glanced at Ms. Wolcott and tipped his hat in greeting. She kept her eyes downcast but nodded in acknowledgment. As Ezra studied her he realized that if she actually wore something with a touch of color and did not sport such a severe hairstyle that it would soften her features.
Chris watched the passing terrain, hoping the fifteen miles would pass quickly.
As the stage crested the hill, Ridge City spread out below them, its buildings bathed in the reds and ambers of the encroaching sunset. In the distance the train approached the town and the driver whipped the horses into a frenzied clip, wanting to beat the train to the depot.
In the stage, the passengers were thrown around willy-nilly as they were caught unaware and were thrown to the floor when the stage hit a particularly bad bump. Mr. Mathers’s solar plexus made an uncomfortable acquaintance with Chris’s knee. Chris grunted in pain as his outstretched hand came into hard contact with Chris’s inner thigh as the salesman tried to halt his descent to the floor. “Sorry,” he gasped out as he quickly pushed away and levered himself back into his seat.
Ms. Wolcott pulled herself back into her seat with as much decorum as she could while bearing up under Mrs. Brooks scathing glare.
“Ridge City!” the stage driver yelled as they entered on the outskirts of town, the stage slowing to a more sedate pace as they neared the train depot. As the stage came to a stop the driver hopped down and pulled the door open, coming face to face with his scowling passengers. “Train will be here in a few minutes, better shake a leg.” He laughed and spat a wad of tobacco out on the dirt. Mrs. Brooks gasped and put a hand to her breast before turning her head away in disgust.
Mr. Mathers hastily climbed out and proceeded to assist the ladies out of the stage. Rupert jumped out of the stage with an ear splitting screech, laughing as he landed in the dirt. Chris and Ezra were the last to exit, and Ezra thought if looks could kill, their stage driver would have been dead ten times over at the glare Chris gave the man.
Chris favored his right leg and was walking with a slight limp. The gambler grimaced as Chris stopped mid-stride, stood stock still for a moment, before continuing to the rear of the stage where the luggage was housed.
“Guess I got a little closer to his bits and pieces than I thought,” Silas Mathers groaned, clapping Ezra on the shoulder. “I hope he’s not the type to hold a grudge.”
“Depends on the day,” Ezra grumbled as he sauntered to the rear of the stage to procure his bags. “This is going to be a very long trip.”
“Go get the tickets. I’ve got the bags,” Chris snapped as he scooped up their bags.
Ezra nodded. “I’ll meet you on the platform after I procure our passage.”
Chris grunted in acknowledgement as the gambler ambled down to the ticket window.
The train whistle blew as it pulled in and slowed to a stop. Ezra joined Chris on the platform. “So begins the next leg of our journey, may it be uneventful.”
“We can only hope.” Chris stepped up on the train and a child’s shriek pierced the air. He knew that shriek and had hoped he’d heard the last of it. With one foot on the step he looked down the platform and saw pink ostrich feathers coming their way. “Get on the train, Ezra. Now.”
Ezra followed Chris’s gaze and saw Mrs. Brooks, Rupert, and Ms. Wolcott bearing down on them. He hopped up the stairs behind the gunslinger. “So much for an uneventful trip.”
Chris Larabee stared out the window as the sun set leisurely in the distance. The reds and pinks coloring the sky gradually changed to the cool blues of twilight as Chris listened with half an ear to the low murmurings of his fellow passengers as they settled in for the long trip to Denver and beyond.
“I do hope you enjoy the accommodations as they did not come cheap. These first class appointments are more comfortable than traveling all the way to Denver on a hard bench.” Ezra sighed as he leaned back into the plush seat. “Don’t worry about paying me back all at once. I know you’re good for it.”
Scowling at Ezra for the span of a moment Chris turned back to the window in frustration. He’d been saving as much as he could to buy more material for his cabin and now he’d have to pay for the first class ticket. If he’d been the one buying the tickets they would have ridden in the cheaper seats. It was only fifteen hours to Denver.
“Our traveling companions booked their seats in the other section.” Expecting some form of an answer Ezra looked away from the paper he was reading. “Would you prefer to continue the journey with them? I’m quite sure it could be arranged.”
Contemplating his choices for a moment Chris quipped, “I’ll stay here.” He enjoyed the calm atmosphere in the first class car and could imagine how excited Rupert would be with everything going on around him. The boy would probably be up half the night as any child would.
“I actually find sleeping on a train to be comforting. The gentle rocking and the clacking of the wheels along the track can be quite hypnotic.” Ezra turned his attention back to the paper effectively ending the conversation.
Staring out the window Chris watched as their next stop came into view and his stomach growled in anticipation of the meal they would be wolfing down while the train refueled. He hoped there was a saloon nearby so he could have a drink and a smoke before they had to continue on to Denver.
Distracted by his thoughts Chris didn’t hear Ezra calling his name until he waved the paper in front of his face. Snatching the paper he glared at Ezra. “What?”
“Were you planning on having supper this evening? I suggest we depart so that we may get a decent seat. Unless of course you don’t mind eating what’s left from the last stage stop. I for one am ready for a hot meal.” Rising from his seat Ezra waited for an answer.
Sighing, Chris pushed his lanky frame from the seat and ushered Ezra on. “After you.”
The first dining establishment they passed was full with a line of patrons waiting on the front porch and the second appeared to be no less crowded. Standing on the edge of the street Chris glanced first up one way and then down the other. There had to be somewhere else nearby, maybe even a nice saloon.
“We have less than an hour before the train departs so we had best make a decision before we must settle with what I purchased at the last stage stop.” Ezra pointed out while picking at a piece of string that hung from his coat sleeve. “I really wanted a hot meal this evening instead of biscuits and fruit.”
Scowling darkly as he tuned out Ezra’s complaints, hopping off the boardwalk he followed the tinkling notes of an out of tune piano that floated on the evening air. It wasn’t long before they were turning down a dark and seedy alley to stop before a saloon which had seen better days.
Looking up at the weathered building with trepidation Ezra sighed. “Excuse me, Mr. Larabee. Do you think it’s prudent to visit this establishment?” Raucous laughter and feminine squeals poured out into the alley along with the heady aroma of stale cigars and alcohol as he peered through the batwing doors into the dimly lit, smoky interior. Wrinkling his nose in distaste Ezra stepped back hoping Chris would re-evaluate the situation.
Pushing through the doors without a backward glance Chris entered the bar. Heaving a heavy sigh Ezra reluctantly followed the black clad gunslinger inside.
Scanning the room Chris noticed an available table in the corner away from the table games and early evening crowd. “Come on. We don’t have all night.”
“I am aware of that but I had hoped to actually enjoy my meal. Now I must keep an eye out for the trouble that seems to cling to your very coattails.”
Before Chris could comment a buxom barmaid sidled up to him. “What can I get you, Sweetness?”
Pulling his eyes from Ezra he looked at the barmaid as he dropped down into the available seat. “Whiskey, beer and whatever you got on special tonight for supper.”
“We’ve got fried chicken with all the fixin’s.”
“I’ll take it.” Chris smiled as the barmaid fussed with her bodice.
“It’s gotten rather warm in here if I do say.”
Ezra rolled his eyes as he watched the woman practically throw herself at Chris when he smiled at her. Clearing his throat Ezra raised his voice. “Excuse me but could you take my order please. We have a train to catch is less than an hour.”
Reluctantly turning her gaze to Ezra she asked, “You want anything, Hon?”
Brushing the table off before him Ezra sighed. “I’ll have a beer and by any chance would your establishment have roast beef this evening?”
“Yes, butchered fresh this morning.” At Ezra’s nod of acceptance she turned her attention back to Chris. “I’ll be right back with your drinks.”
Watching her move back through the saloon Ezra leaned forward and whispered to Chris, “If she offers you anything else I’d politely decline. By the looks of these soiled doves they are probably very dirty and I do not believe the strongest soap or anything Nathan has hidden within his clinic would make you clean enough.”
“I have no intentions of sampling the local flavor this evening. All I’m interested in getting from this place is a drink, dinner and a smoke.”
Ezra noticed the barmaid wending her way back through the crowd. “Just so we understand one another because I for one have no intention of having to wait for the next train.”
“We’re not going to miss the train.”
“I thought you said we weren’t going to miss the train,” Ezra shouted as they ran up the street putting on more speed as the train’s whistle blew. Scowling as the distance between he and Chris grew, damn the man’s long legs, he lengthened his stride.
“It’s early.” Chris huffed back as he turned the corner heading toward the train platform.
Gaining the platform a few moments later Chris stopped to rub at a stitch in his side while waiting for Ezra to catch up. Chris groaned as his overfull stomach voiced its displeasure over the hell bent for leather run from the saloon to the train platform by flip flopping several times.
“Are you okay?” Ezra wheezed out as he pulled himself up onto the platform.
Chris just nodded and moved toward the train as it started pulling out of the station. He was just about to pull himself onto the train when the sound of a child yelling had him spinning around. Squinting in the low light he could see Rupert Brooks running up from the far end of the platform yelling for his mother.
Hearing Rupert’s calls Ezra groaned as he realized waiting for the child would cause all of them to miss the train.
“Go! Get on the train. I’ll catch up.” Chris called to him as he ran toward Rupert.
Shaking his head in amazement Ezra turned and ran to hop on the train knowing that Chris would need his help to get the wayward boy on board. Pulling himself inside he almost bowled into Mrs. Brooks who was near the entrance screaming for her son.
Turning back to the bottom stair Ezra leaned out hoping Chris hadn’t fallen too far behind. To their advantage the train had not yet picked up too much speed and Chris was catching up with Rupert tucked neatly by his side.
Securing himself as best he could Ezra reached out to grasp the boy’s out raised hand. With Rupert safely inside he moved away so Chris could swing himself up onto the train.
Once on the train Chris dropped onto the nearest seat to concentrate on breathing. The ringing in his ears almost drowned out the people cheering and laughing as Rupert sang his praises.
Ezra grinned as Mrs. Brooks hugged Chris and thanked him profusely for saving her young boy. “I think we’ve all had enough excitement today. Are you ready to head back to our seats, Mr. Larabee?”
Without a word Chris levered himself up and followed Ezra to the end of the car, before he could step out a small hand grabbed his. Looking down he saw Rupert smiling up at him.
“Your welcome, Rupert,” Chris grinned before stooping down to the child’s eye level. Grasping him by the shoulders he continued. “You need to mind your mother so things like this don’t happen. Next time there might not be someone to pull you out of the fire.”
Looking down at his shoe Rupert sighed, “Yes, sir. Sorry for being a bother.”
Reaching out a hand to ruffle Rupert’s hair Chris gave him a genuine smile. “You’re not a bother. Now go and enjoy the rest of your train ride.”
Smiling back at Chris he waved goodbye and ran back to his seat.
Chuckling to himself Chris stood and exited the train car and made his way back to his seat.
Ezra bit his lip before raising a tentative hand and tapping on the water closet door before him. “Um. Mr. Larabee are you quite all right?” Waiting for a few moments and when no answer was forthcoming, knocked again. “Chris, do you need assistance?” Grimacing when his only answer was the sound of Chris being violently ill.
“Go away,” Chris groaned as he dropped to the floor wrapping his arms around his abused midsection. There can’t be anything left. On the last bout of sickness he’d expected to see his boots come up. Should have eaten what was left over from the stage. Against his better judgment he’d opted for the gravy laden fried chicken dinner with mashed potatoes and now here he was curled up on the floor praying for relief as the swaying of the train again forced bile back up his throat. He cursed roundly in agony as he was forced to abuse his stomach muscles yet again. He should have waved the dinner off when he’d noticed how greasy the chicken had been.
The sound of the water closet door being yanked open almost had him turning around. The knowledge that it could only be Ezra kept him focused on his current objective of keeping his stomach inside his body.
Ezra bemoaned his lot in life as he found Chris hunched over the seat spewing his guts onto the tracks racing by below. He had tears streaming involuntarily down his face and not a hint of healthy color about him. I hope it’s not catching. Watching as Chris dropped back onto the floor and rested his head on his upraised knees Ezra tentatively stepped forward. “Do you think you are finished? You’ve been in here for forty-five minutes and I dare say there can not be anything left. You didn’t eat that much today.”
Without even raising his head Chris groaned, “Go away and close the door.”
“Sorry. I can’t do that. You’d feel much better lying down on the bed than sitting here.” Ezra squatted down trying to catch his friend’s attention. “The steward has been kind enough to provide me with a glass of water and some peppermint candy. Perhaps it’ll help settle your stomach?”
Cracking a red rimmed eye Chris peered at Ezra. “Just get me off this train.”
“Sorry, Chris. That’s not going to happen. Besides it’s only six hours until we reach our destination and there’s nothing but snow and ice around us.
“Snow? That’s why you’re freezing.” He hadn’t considered the temperature outside had changed. Steeling himself as he moved to his knees he waited for his stomach to clench. When nothing happened he let Ezra’s assist him to his feet and he staggered from the water closet.
The trip back to their train car seemed to take forever and by the time they were stopping by their sleeping berths Chris was sweating profusely and shaking like a leaf in high wind.
Reaching forward Ezra pulled the blankets back so Chris could lie down on his sleeping berth. Looking around he noticed that all the other curtains were still pulled shut but he’d bet his gold tooth that they had an audience.
Kicking his boots off Chris curled onto his side taking the blankets as Ezra tucked them over his feet. “Thanks Ez.”
In the semi-darkness of the car Ezra whispered, “Your welcome.” Removing his own boots Ezra levered himself up onto the overhead bunk. He really would have preferred the lower bunk but if Chris happened to get ill again in the night he didn’t relish the possible outcome.
Turning onto his back he pulled his blankets to his chin, listening to the sounds of the train clacking along the tracks. He yawned as the swaying of the train lulled him to sleep.
The cacophony of twisting metal, splintering wood, and the screams of terrified passengers rudely yanked Ezra from a deep sleep. Before he could make sense of the confusion around him his world became weightless for the span of a few heartbeats only to come crashing back to earth with all the pain and finality of hitting a brick wall.
Ezra came to awareness with a strangled gasp and the feeling of a solid heavy weight pressing down onto his chest. When his world came back into focus and the buzzing in his ears transformed into the keening cries of those injured around him he realized something horrific had occurred. Pre-dawn light and snow filtered in through the shattered windows above where his flight through the air had ended. Drawing in a ragged breath, Ezra raised his head and looked down at his chest only to find the sightless eyes of a fellow passenger staring back at him. Yelping in fear he scrambled desperately to rid himself of the lax body pinning him to the side of the train. Swallowing deeply once he’d freed himself he turned back to look at the poor soul who’d lost his life. “I hope it was a quick and painless death, my friend,” Ezra whispered quietly as he reached out a shaking hand to close the sightless eyes.
He realized he had a shallow gash and blood was running freely from his palm. Digging into his pocket for his linen handkerchief he gritted his teeth as he secured it over the wound as best he could. It would have to do.
Hissing in pain as glass shards tugged at his clothing he got to his feet and squinted into the semi-darkness. Where’s Chris? Ridding his hair of debris as he carefully picked his way through the wreckage he came across a woman sobbing hysterically as she rocked back and forth cradling her mangled arm. With alarm Ezra realized blood was pooling in her lap. He spied a carpetbag lying nearby. Digging through it frantically he found some relatively clean clothing. As he tore the fabric into strips he tried to calm the woman. “Ma’am it’s going to be all right. I’m going to get you out of here. My name’s Ezra and I’m glad to make your acquaintance Ms.--”
The woman quieted as Ezra’s voice penetrated her sobbing. Sniffling she looked up at him. “My name’s Anne Thomas. Do you really think we’re going to get out of here?”
With gentle hands he took her battered arm and started binding her wounds. He plastered on his gold-toothed smile as he realized she was missing two fingers. Hoping to keep her attention focused on him he replied, “We will be getting out of here because I have an appointment to keep and I don’t plan on missing it.” Once he tied off the bandage he grabbed a blanket, shook it out, and settled it about her shoulders. “Have you seen anyone else moving around?”
She nodded and wiped at her nose with the blanket. “Those that could walk went out that way,” she pointed to the other end of the car, “Some said they would bring help.”
Looking toward the murky darkness that encompassed the other end of the car Ezra replied, “I shall be right back. If you should have need of me you only need to call. I won’t be far.”
Ms. Thomas nodded and pulled the blanket tighter about her as she watched him move further down the aisle.
Pushing his way past another broken berth he found two men who’d met an unseemly end. One unfortunate soul had been apparently skewered and appeared to have passed recently, if the warmth of his skin was any indication. Probably the man who was screaming. The other man had broken his neck and Ezra counted himself lucky for not having fallen to a similar fate. “Damn it, Chris! Where are you?” he shouted as he dropped down to look into a dark corner.
“Over here,” a voice called weakly from somewhere near.
Spinning on his knee and squinting into the darkness Ezra took a step forward. The car had begun to brighten and he could now make out a shape propped in the corner. It was not light enough to distinguish any of the person’s features. Crossing his fingers, Ezra rushed toward the person and praying all the while he’d found his friend.
“Chris is that you? How did you get to this end of the car?” Ezra asked as he dropped to his knees and reached out a trembling hand to figure before him. Leaning closer Ezra could see blood flowing freely from a gash on Chris’s temple and jumped as a blood slicked hand grasped his wrist in a crushing grip.
“Broken,” was all Chris ground out between clenched teeth as he shivered in pain, his ashen complexion looking all the worse in the pale, early morning light.
“Wha-what’s broken Chris?”
“Are you sure? Maybe you just twisted it badly.”
Coughing harshly, Chris moaned, “I’m sure. I don’t think I’ve ever hurt this bad before.”
Pulling his wrist from Chris’s grasp Ezra dropped back onto his haunches. “So much for an uneventful trip.”
“Are you all right?” Chris peered blearily at Ezra looking for obvious wounds. Thankful the man seemed alive and whole.
Looking down at himself, Ezra smirked. “It appears that I have somehow escaped serious injury. I have some bumps, bruises and I must have cut my hand at some point. But for the most part I’m unscathed. It’s a good thing considering the trouble you’ve landed in. Nathan would have a field day with you.”
“Don’t make me laugh. It hurts too much.”
Shaking his head Ezra sighed, “I wish Nathan were here. He is much better equipped to handle these situations.”
“He’s not here. It’s you and me.”
“I realize that but I’m hesitant to try and set your leg. I should try and find a doctor.”
Moving his hand from his side Chris looked down at his blood covered fingers and closed his eyes. Holding his hand up to show Ezra, he bit out, “I don’t think I have that long.”
Watching as the blood ran in rivulets down Chris’s hand to his wrist in morbid fascination Ezra leaned forward to look at the wound. Biting his lip to keep from cursing Ezra lifted the saturated fabric away from the ugly, seeping gash that was just below Chris’s ribcage. He was afraid to touch it knowing it would cause his friend even more pain and the almost constant tremors racking the lean frame told him it was excruciating.
Standing quickly, Ezra glanced around the immediate area looking for something to use to bind the wounds until they could be taken care of properly. Seething in frustration when he couldn’t find anything clean enough to use he called out, “Don’t go anywhere. I’ll be right back.”
“Wasn’t plannin’ on it.”
As Ezra hurried through the car digging through scattered carpet bags and gathering up the cleanest linens he could find he stumbled across their own possessions. With a quick thank you sent up to Lady Luck he collected Ms. Thomas and returned to Chris’s side.
“Ms. Thomas, this is Chris Larabee. Chris this is Ms. Thomas,” Ezra made the proper introductions as he carefully set down his finds.
Chris nodded at the woman before turning his attention to the carpet bag Ezra had set down near him. “Is that what I think it is?”
“Ah, yes it is and you are in luck because,” Ezra dug around in the bag pulling out a full bottle of Rye, “our spirits have remained intact. Now take a bracing drink and I’ll set about putting you back together so we may figure a way out of this mess.”
Chris reached for the bottle Ezra had opened and took three healthy chugs before Ezra pulled it away. “Thanks, I needed that.”
“Don’t think on it. I am, of course, keeping tally of all the inconveniences during our little sojourn.” Ezra crept closer as he soaked a pad of cloth in Rye and placed it over the gash. Grimacing as Chris jerked and hissed he tuned back to his carpet bag and pulled out a sewing kit.
Cleaning the wound as best he could, Ezra threaded the needle and took a quick swig of whiskey, grimacing as it burnt all the way down.
Watching as Ezra drizzled the liquor over the needle and thread, Chris asked, “You ever sew someone up before?”
“Do you wish to do this yourself?” Ezra asked as pulled the saturated pad from the wound and looked at the ragged tear. Setting the pad back in place as he stared at the little snow piles growing on anything lying flat, Ezra smiled. “I may not be as practiced as Nathan but even I know snow will numb the flesh. Oh!” standing swiftly, he gathered up some snow in his cupped hands, “As luck would have it we appear have an abundance of it.”
Shaking his head, Chris sucked in a ragged breath, “Just make it quick.”
Nodding in agreement, Ezra placed snow in a linen square and held it to the wound and after waiting several moments he pulled it away.
Piercing the over sensitized flesh with the needle, Ezra took a steadying breath. This is nothing close to mending a shirt. If you were not my friend you would be out of luck.
Breathing slowly through his mouth Ezra fought to control his stomach as he felt the needle and thread tugging at the skin. Looking up he noticed Chris’s pale complexion. “Let me know if you feel as if you’re going to be sick.”
“I’m not going to be sick,” Chris growled as he opened his eyes to glare at the gambler.
Ezra sighed in relief as he was able to tie off the last stitch. Carefully inspecting his handiwork he smirked, “It may not be as pretty as Nathan’s but at least the stitches are neat.”
Chris bit back a grunt of pain as he sat up so Ezra could wrap the wound in his mid-section properly. Once Ezra was done Chris sank back against the wall of the train which happened to have been the floor when the train was in its natural position.
“Someone’s coming, Mr. Standish,” Anne announced excitedly as she stood to look around the seats. “I can hear them, they’re right outside.”
Pulling his gunbelt from the carpetbag Ezra hastened to strap it on. “Ms. Thomas, please lower your voice. We do not yet know if they are friend or foe.”
“Who else could it be? They are probably checking the cars for survivors as we speak.”
“You can never be too careful. We don’t even know why the train derailed. Someone could have done it deliberately for all we know. There are nefarious individuals who specialize in this sort of endeavor.”
“No. I refuse to believe that. I just want to get back home and end this terrible nightmare.” She stumbled past Ezra and Chris toward the voices. She called out, “Hello! Hello, we’re here!”
“Ms. Thomas!” Ezra hissed as he rose to his full height. “Please. Be patient and as soon as I finish tending Mr. Larabee’s wounds I will scout the area.”
“You better hope whoever coming is friendly because she’s just let everyone know where we are,” Chris gritted out as he wiped at the blood that trickled from the cut in his scalp.
Rolling his eyes at Chris, Ezra huffed, “I am perfectly aware of that. Did you not hear me tell her?”
“Well go on and stop her.”
“It wouldn’t do any good. They’re here.”
A man with a scrubby beard and dark unruly hair stuck his head through the window above. “Howdy there, Miss. We’ve been checking for survivors. Is there anyone else with you?”
“Yes there are two men, one is injured. The others are either gone or dead.”
“We’ll get you out in two shakes of a lamb’s tail. I’ll be right back.”
Ezra watched in silence as the man disappeared once more and Ms. Thomas haltingly made her way back over to them.
“He’s bringing assistance,” she replied as she sank back onto the floor and cradled her injured hand. “I’m a little dizzy. I think I’ll sit here until they return.”
“Yes. You do that,” Ezra sighed as he knelt down next to Chris and looked at his scalp. “If you would stop touching this it would probably stop bleeding on its own. I’m going to wrap it for now and see what happens.”
“Well don’t talk about it. Wrap it up.” Chris grabbed the bottle and took another large gulp.
Snatching the bottle back Ezra growled, “Don’t drink it all. I need some of this for the wound.”
Ezra soaked another piece of cloth in the whiskey and dabbed at the wound.
“Ouch!” Chris snapped pulling away from Ezra’s firm touch. “You did that on purpose!”
“The cut was filthy,” Ezra explained as he prepared the bandage, “and you don’t want it to putrefy.”
A loud crash behind them had Ezra jumping and turning around with his gun drawn. The man he’d seen earlier slowly stood with his hands in the air.
“I don’t mean any harm. I came to help get ya’ll out of the train. Should be some wagons showing up in a few hours and we’ll take you to town.”
Looking the man over and deciding he didn’t appear to be too much of a threat Ezra lowered his gun. “My friend has a broken leg. Could you find something I could use as a splint or perhaps find me a doctor?”
The man scratched at his beard. “I can find you some splints but the doctor is out with the injured and dying.”
“All right, we can wait here until your return. I’ll assist you with getting Ms. Thomas out of the train and you can come back with the splints.”
“Sounds like a good idea to me.”
Come along, Ms. Thomas,” Ezra coaxed as he took her good arm and helped her from the floor, “you’re rescue is at hand.”
“Be careful! Can’t you see the man is injured?” Ezra called from his precarious position on top of the upended sleeper car. Shivering as the frigid wind whipped down the steep slope, Ezra watched in consternation as the gunslinger was settled rather unceremoniously onto an improvised stretcher. “I’m surrounded by bumbling fools.” Buttoning his coat he reached for his carpetbag, the other two bags would stay behind for ease of travel. Though he’d wanted to bring all three it wouldn’t have been a prudent choice in light of their current circumstances. He’d been able to consolidate the three bags down to one. They’d just have to buy new when they got to safety.
Looking up the tracks he could see several train cars lying about haphazardly, like forgotten children’s toys. Some passengers were milling around as if in a daze while others appeared to be helping the more grievously injured. It took a few moments of examining what he was seeing before he realized part of the train was missing. “Where is the engine?” Ezra called out to the men who had been assisting them.
The scruffy, dark haired man glanced up from where he’d draped a blanket over Chris and called, “Down the hill. Couple cars went with it! Be glad you weren’t on one of them!”
“What caused the derailment?” Chris asked pulling the blanket tighter about him.
“Something blockin’ the tracks would be my guess.”
“Are we going to be stuck out here much longer?” Ezra asked as turned his attention back to the task at hand; getting himself and the carpetbag to the ground safely.
“Iffin you weren’t taking so long getting down outta the train maybe you could help. It’d go faster that way,” the scruffy man growled as he turned toward the wreck to watch Ezra re-check the contents of his carpetbag.
Satisfied the bag’s contents were as protected as possible, Ezra leaned over as far as he dared and dropped it to the snow covered ground below. Carefully making his way down, he failed to notice the dark haired man snatch up the bag and yank it open.
“What’s you got in here that’s got you bein’ all careful?” Pawing through the contents, he let out a whoop when he found the bottles of Rye and Bourbon. “Henry! Henry, come quick! We got us some high falutin’ spirits!”
Dropping the remaining foot or so to the uneven ground Ezra lunged for the bag. “Leave off! That’s mine!” Managing to snag one strap he pulled for all he was worth. “It’s strictly medicinal.” Luckily the man had only noticed the liquor and not Chris’s rig stashed in the bottom of the bag.
Holding on all the tighter to the carpetbag the man refused to turn loose. “You owe Henry and me. Ain’t nothin’ for free and as I see it we saved you from certain death.”
Ezra yanked again, pulling “Scruffy” slightly off balance. “Certain death?” Ezra guffawed. “I hardly think so. We would have made our way out with or without your so called help.”
Scruffy leered at the gambler as he suddenly released the bag and pushed Ezra backward.
Unprepared for the abrupt feeling of freedom, Ezra toppled heavily to the snow packed ground. Wheezing as he tried to draw a decent breath, he lay there as Scruffy dug out the bottle of Rye and downed a healthy slug. “You, sir, and I use the term loosely, are a miscreant.”
Wiping his mouth on his grubby sleeve, Scruffy squatted next to Ezra. “Now as I see it you and you’re friend here are in dire straits.” Glancing over his shoulder at Chris, who was struggling to get up, he continued, “I think you need me and Henry’s help to see that your friend over yonder makes it to one of them wagons. Train tracks are a dangerous place. No telling what could happen as he seems pretty stove up to begin with.”
Ezra watched as Chris pushed Henry away and in obvious pain managed to struggle to one knee. “Why offer assistance and then demand payment? We have nothing.”
“Though me and Henry are, what’s the word?” Scruffy scrunched his face, apparently in thought.
“Charlatans,” Ezra huffed in frustration.
“Ha! No.” Scruffy laughed as he slapped Ezra on the cheek. “We’re good Samaritans.”
Ezra burst out laughing. “I’m sorry but good Samaritans don’t demand payment for helping people. That’s why they’re called good Samaritans.”
“Don’t give them anything,” Chris’s growl ended in a grunt of pain as Henry kicked him in the back, knocking him back to the ground.
“Shut your trap or I’ll break the other one,” Henry snapped as Chris glared up at him.
“Try it and see what happens,” Chris bit out loudly enough that no one mistook its meaning.
Ezra watched Henry back off at the heated glare the gunslinger sent his way. Turning his attention back to Scruffy he tried to discern what the man’s intentions were. He did not relish the thought of being left dying in the snow to be feasted upon by the local wildlife and he was sure Chris would fight them as long as he was able.
Grinning down at the gambler as he took another long pull from the bottle, Scruffy stared off into the distance before glowering back down at Ezra. “Nothing? Really?” and At Ezra’s headshake, he continued. “Well you sure were riding in comfort for someone who ain’t got nothin’. I guess you two yahoos will just have to stay here then. Permanently.”
Scruffy slid a large Bowie knife from the scabbard tucked inside his boot, made sure Ezra saw how large it was, and calmly went about cleaning the grit from beneath his nails.
“W-Wait! There’s no need for such drastic measures,” Ezra choked out as he tried to sit up. The cold glint in Scruffy’s eyes stopped him. “I’m sure we could come to some type of accord.” He should never have let his guard down. Now he and Chris were at a disadvantage and he was stuck on his back like a damn turtle. If he tried to shoot Scruffy, Henry would take Chris out and if he took Henry out then Scruffy would shoot him and then Chris. This whole situation was heading south quick like and he needed another plan of action.
“I’m listenin’.” Scruffy huffed and moved the blade closer to Ezra’s face.
Enthralled by the sun glinting off the deadly blade Ezra almost forgot where he was. Shaking himself mentally he replied, “You get me and my associate to town, unharmed mind you, and I’ll make it worth your while.”
“How are you gonna do that? You just said you didn’t have nothing,” Scruffy sneered as he pointed the blade at the gambler. “You tryin’ to trick me?”
Cringing as the blade was placed beneath his chin, Ezra slowly raised his hands in supplication and croaked, “Now why would I do such a thing? You hold all the cards and I vow on my poor, sweet mother’s grave that I won’t try to dupe you.”
“On your mama’s grave.” Setting the bottle of Rye carefully on the ground Scruffy quickly slid Ezra’s Remington from its holster and stuffed it into his coat pocket.
Cautiously sitting up as Scruffy backed off, Ezra raised his right hand in oath, “I swear on my mother’s grave. May she rest in peace.”
“I’m holdin’ you to it.” Scruffy stood up and handed Ezra his carpetbag. Holding the bottle of Rye up for all present to see, he smirked, “I’ll take this as a down payment.”
Tucking the bag under his arm Ezra wiped at the blood that dripped from beneath his chin, “You do that.”
“He has your gun,” Chris sighed in disbelief as he settled back onto the stretcher and closed his eyes.
Touching his empty holster Ezra agreed. “Yes, and he has the Rye.” Setting the carpetbag next to the stretcher Ezra patted its side and smiled secretively as he knelt down next to the wounded gunslinger. “He doesn’t have the bourbon or your weapon. Fortunately for us he was blinded to the rest once he found the Rye. Maybe we’ll be lucky and he’ll pickle his brains before long.”
“Small miracles. You been thinkin’ of how we’re going to get ourselves out of this one?” Chris asked gritting his teeth as he adjusted his broken leg on the stretcher.
“Oh, why yes I have been. I was also able to get you patched up, gather our belongings, and lift your crippled carcass out through the window,” Ezra groused as he wiped at tired eyes. “I then had to climb out on my own where I was brutally manhandled and disarmed. I’ve had plenty of time to form a plan of escape.”
“That’s all you have to say?”
“Uh, thank you?” Chris asked with a questioning look.
Shaking his head in frustration Ezra made a show of straightening Chris’s blanket as he glanced quickly to his left where Scruffy and Henry were gulping down the Rye. “It appears as if these two take to liquor as if it’s mother’s milk. We may be in for a long wait, a wait that I, and most especially you, can ill afford to take.”
Pushing himself up, Chris hissed quietly, “Then give my gun and we’ll go. The Rye’s not going to last long.”
“You are in no condition to handle a gun. You can’t even stand on your own two feet without pitching face first into the snow.” Ezra pointed out as he took in the peaked look that had suddenly come over the gunslinger.
“Give me my gun. I don’t have to stand to shoot.”
“Ssh. They’re coming over here. Lie back down and act helpless.”
“It may not be an act.”
Ezra sat down on the edge of the blanket next to Chris and looked up in apprehension at the afternoon sky. “Hopefully the wagons are on their way. I don’t relish the idea of spending the night in the snow and the way the clouds look there may be some weather on the way.” Jamming his hands under his arms and hunching his shoulders against the cold, Ezra shivered violently.
“Here take the blanket, my coat’s thicker than yours.” Chris started to pull the blanket off but Ezra stilled his hands.
“You need it more than I. Just remember the next time you’re vexed with me, I let you keep the blanket.” Ezra grinned and rubbed at his arms in an effort to generate some heat. “I wonder how long it will take us to get to town?”
“Don’t know. Right now I’m more concerned with our friends over there. They’ve just finished off the bottle,” Chris whispered as he pulled the blanket up over his shoulders, “and they know you’ve still got the bourbon and we’re unarmed.”
Settling the carpet bag between his knees and opening it, Ezra carefully dug down through the supplies and gripped Chris’s rig. Keeping a cautious watch on their two antagonists, he slowly pulled it from the bag and lifted the edge of the blanket.
Chris snaked a hand out to pull the rig to his side. Ezra watched Chris grimace as he tried to slip the belt beneath his lean hips without jostling his broken leg.
“If I were you I’d just hold it. There’s absolutely no need for you to aggravate your injuries.”
“Just keep an eye on them and I’ll put it on.” Chris took several steadying breaths before continuing. “Don’t worry I can do it in my sleep,”
“I know. I wasn’t sure you’d be able to do it in light of your current situation.”
“Ez, the day I can’t strap my gun on is the day I’m dead.”
Sighing dramatically, Ezra looked on as Chris hissed in pain while strapping on his gun belt and if possible the man paled further. It makes me hurt just watching you. “Apparently, I have underestimated your determination.”
“Yup. Now let’s get the hell out of here.” The gunslinger flipped back the blanket with a shaky hand and made to get up.
Pushing Chris back down Ezra snapped, “How exactly do you plan on accomplishing that. Lest you forget you’ve got a gash in your side, a cut on your head, and oh yes, a broken leg!”
“Get me something to use as a crutch.”
Patting down his coat pockets Ezra shot a frosty glare at his companion. “Sorry, fresh out. Now relax and close your eyes. You should rest while you have the chance.”
“Don’t make me shoot you,” Chris quipped as he propped himself up on his elbows to stare at the gambler.
“Don’t waste your bullets. You may need them for these two.”
“You should have shot him when you had the chance. For all we know these two caused the derailment.” Chris threw a quick glance over at Henry and Scruffy. “By the way, if you haven’t noticed, your damsel in distress is not here.”
With a perplexed look Ezra stood and took in the area around them. “Wha…? No, unfortunately I have been preoccupied with helping you and keeping us alive.” Laughter drew his attention to the two men sitting several feet away. “I hope they wouldn’t have taken advantage of that poor woman.”
Squinting up at the gambler Chris asked, “Where have you been? You sure you didn’t hit your head?”
“I’ve been right here.” Scratching at his head Ezra looked around once more. “Damn it! Stay right here and don’t move.” Straightening his coat, Ezra stalked off in the direction of Scruffy and Henry.
Ezra waved him off and stopped a few feet from the two inebriated men. Shaking his head in displeasure Ezra growled, “Where is Ms. Thomas?” When he only received confused looks he asked, “And how exactly are you going to assist my friend and I in your current condition?”
“Tom who?” Scruffy slurred as he tried to push himself to a more upright position.
Lord save me from fools. Sighing in frustration Ezra explained, “Ms. Thomas is the woman you pulled out of the train wreck.”
“Oh. The lady.” Scruffy belched loudly and laughed. “She didn’t have money neither. Funny y’ all sitting in the best car and no money.”
Squatting down in front of Scruffy, Ezra grabbed him by the lapels of his coat. “I will not ask again. Where is Ms. Thomas?” In his anger Ezra did not see Henry crawling to his knees.
Henry reached over and grabbed Ezra’s arm in a surprisingly firm grip. “Turn loose, Mister.”
“What have you done with that woman?” Ezra growled, ignoring Henry’s grip. Shaking Scruffy only made his head loll and laugh drunkenly. “You better not have hurt her.”
“I warned you!” Henry shouted and clumsily pulled Ezra’s gun, aiming at the gambler.
Ezra turned loose Scruffy and held his hands up. Men with guns were dangerous and inebriated men with guns were more so. “There’s no need to shoot. Just tell me where the woman is.”
Henry squinted at the gambler. “Over yonder. Don’t worry none cause you and your friend will be joining her directly.” With shaking hands Henry cocked the gun. “Now stand up, slowly, and move over that way. Don’t want to drag you further than I have too.”
Ezra noticed the trembling in Henry’s hands had increased and, praying to fickle Lady Luck, he threw a quick jab knocking the man to the ground. Ha! See what happens when you tangle with Ezra P. Standish.
As Ezra squinted down at the motionless man he noticed a small hole, which had somehow mysteriously appeared, just below Henry’s left eye. Leaning down to get a closer look he gasped when the snow beneath Henry’s head quickly turned red. What in the world? His right bicep flared with pain and he reached up to grasp the arm.
“Jesus, Ez. He almost killed you!” Chris huffed out as he collapsed at Ezra’s feet. “Tie the other one up before I pass out.”
Pulling his shaking hand away from his arm he looked at the blood coating his palm. “You shot me!” he complained glaring icily at the gunslinger lying at his feet.
“Just tie him up,” Chris wheezed as he gestured at the other man who had apparently already passed out.
“I’m standing here bleeding and you want me to tie him up? You tie him up, you shot me.”
Pushing himself to a sitting position Chris wiped at the cold sweat that had broken out across his upper lip. “You moved and besides, I can’t tie him up.”
“Why ever not? You managed to limp your way over here.” Ezra cut the rope Henry had been using to hold his pants up and stomped over to where Scruffy lay. Turning the man over Ezra tied his hands behind him.
“Not feeling too well,” Chris mumbled before falling back into the snow, his eyes fluttering closed.
Jumping to his feet Ezra rushed over to Chris and dropped to his knees. Tapping the gunslinger on the cheek and calling his name didn’t get him any response. “I should have stayed in bed!” Ezra yelled up into the gray skies. Throwing his arms up in exasperation he flinched in pain. “Ow,” he moaned clutching his arm.
“You look a lot lighter than you actually are.” Yanking Scruffy another three feet Ezra stopped to catch his breath. “I should just shoot you and be done with it, but I feel Mr. Larabee would whole heartedly disapprove,” Ezra grunted breathlessly, wiping at the sweat that had broken out across his forehead.
Sizing up the large tree not four feet from where he’d managed to drag his unconscious nemesis, Ezra plotted the best way to secure him. What to do? What to do?” Ezra mumbled under his breath, his brow furrowing in deep contemplation. Glaring down at Scruffy and back at the tree he suddenly realized how to solve his problem and chuckled evilly. “Mother would be proud of you, old boy.”
Using the short length of cord he’d found in the debris Ezra tied it securely around a tree branch.
Grabbing Scruffy by the right leg he dragged him over to lie beneath the branch and yanked off the drunk’s boot. “Good God! Have you ever changed your socks?” Ezra gagged as he began wrapping the length of cord around Scruffy’s foot in such an intricate pattern there would be no way of slipping his foot out.
Once complete, Ezra stepped back to admire his handiwork. Scruffy was currently lying flat on his back in the snow, his leg at an almost ninety degree angle to his body, and his foot attached to the tree branch about six feet in the air. Unless Ol’ Scruffy was extremely flexible it was going to take some effort to free himself of his bindings.
Trudging back over to where Chris was stirring once more, Ezra squatted down and helped pull him to a sitting position. “Welcome back. I wasn’t sure how long you’d be out.”
Glancing around blearily Chris’s nose twitched and he wheezed, “What’s that smell?”
“What smell?” Frowning, Ezra slowly brought his hands toward his face and sniffed cautiously. Jerking his head back he held his hands away from his body. “Blech!”
Thrusting a hand beneath Chris’s nose Ezra asked, “Is this what you smell?”
Chris’s eyes practically bugged out of his head before narrowing to mere slits. Slapping Ezra’s hand away he growled, “Get your fingers out of my face before I break every one of them. I will shoot you, don’t think I won’t.”
Pulling his hand away Ezra wiped them in the snow before wiping them on the blanket. “You already did.”
“If you hadn’t moved you wouldn’t have gotten shot.” Looking around the clearing he noticed the tree and Scruffy. “Interesting setup you got going over there.”
“Wanted to make it difficult for him,” Ezra quipped as he dug around in the carpet bag for the bourbon and some cloth to use as bandages. Holding the items out to Chris he stated, “I require your assistance.”
“Fine. Then we get out of here.” Chris took a quick swig from the bottle Ezra handed him and waited for the gambler to remove his coat.
A short time later Chris had Ezra’s wound bound and was anxious to meet up with the other survivors Ezra had seen. Without any material for a proper crutch, Chris was forced to lean on the gambler for support and what little strength Chris had depleted quickly.
“You can do it. It’s not much further,” Ezra ground out as Chris trembled in exhaustion next to him. “I can see the others and they have a fire going.”
Staring straight ahead, the gunslinger grunted his acknowledgement and stumbled along beside the gambler, his jaw visibly clenched against the pain.
“Just think. In the next few minutes we’ll be warming ourselves by the fire as we wait for the good citizens of a nearby town to come and rescue our collective souls.”
“Someone’s coming,” Chris mumbled as he swayed in place and his grip tightened on Ezra’s shoulder.
Ezra turned his attention from the paling, increasingly heavy gunslinger to the two men hurrying toward them. “Our salvation I hope.”
The men who stopped before them were bruised and bloody but apparently not seriously injured. The younger of the two apparently noticed Chris was faltering and stepped forward to take Ezra’s place.
“Sorry,” the young man apologized as Chris gasped in pain and squeezed his eyes shut.
Wincing in sympathy Ezra rubbed at his sore arm. “Do you know when the wagons are coming?”
The older man looked at Ezra in confusion. “Wagons? I don’t know anything about any wagons. Next town’s about a day away on foot and we’re fresh out of horses.”
“We were told there were wagons on the way,” Chris bit out as he wiped at the sweat coating his brow.
“Well. By my calculations we’re about five hours late for the Henderson stop. Not sure how late the train would have to be for them to be overly concerned to send out someone to look. Me’n Jake were on our way back home. Took the train down to Ridge City last week. Schedules were all off then. Lot’s of bad weather up north. Oh, name’s Asa Jones and that’s my little brother, Jacob. We call ‘im Jake for short.”
Nodding in thought Ezra replied, “Ezra Standish, Chris Larabee. Well that’s disappointing to say the least.” Looking over at his friend, he noticed Chris’s eyes were now barely open and his jaw was clenched tightly against the pain. I wish Nathan was here. “If you would assist us we would be grateful. My travelling companion is a little worse for the wear and needs somewhere to lie down. Broken leg and a sundry of other maladies.”
“Ha! A train wreck’ll do that. We believe there are at least forty-six lost souls. Wait. Forty-four with you and your friend still breathing.” Asa took Chris’s other arm and they began trudging through the snow to where the others were waiting.
“How many survivors?”
“Fifty-some. Maybe a little more, little less. There are a few up ahead who may not make it through the night,” Jake puffed as they neared the group of people.
Hesitating as they drew near, Ezra grimaced at the moans and cries of the wounded and dying. “Do you think there could be a rescue soon?”
“Maybe, maybe not. It depends on when the town realizes something’s wrong. Some men checked up the track a piece and found evidence this was probably not accidental,” Asa grunted as they neared the remaining cars that had been left undamaged on the track.
“This is a horrible turn of events,” Ezra choked out as he realized there was only a passenger car, baggage car and two box cars left untouched.
“We’ve set up some additional pallets in one of the box cars. The passenger car is already full.” Jake and Asa led Ezra and Chris back to an open box car. “Not the best accommodations, but at least it’ll be out of the weather.”
Chris looked up at the box car and groaned, “Oh, shit.”
“Um, are you sure there’s no room on the passenger car?” Ezra asked eyeing the distance from the ground to the opening in the box car dubiously. “If we have to lift him all that way the pain will be excruciating.”
“Sorry. This is the only one with any room.” Asa adjusted his grip on the gunslinger as Jake pulled himself up into the car. Once Jake was ready he said, “We’ll make it as quick and easy on you as possible.”
“Just do it,” Chris grunted and closed his eyes, obviously preparing for the inevitable.
Asa shared a look with his brother and with Ezra’s assistance lifted Chris into the box car.
Ezra would swear later, Chris’s bloodcurdling scream could be heard all the way back to Four Corners.
Leaning back against a wall of the car, Ezra pulled his blanket tighter about himself and looked down at Chris who was fitfully dozing on a nearby pallet. Ezra had told Asa and Jake about Scruffy and they had informed him they and a few of the others would handle the cretin. Ezra had grinned at that and hoped Scruffy got his just reward.
As Ezra was finally starting to drift off a commotion outside drew his attention. One of the passengers near the door spoke quietly to whoever was there and the conversation seemed to be getting louder by the moment.
“What’s going on?” Chris asked groggily as he tried to lever himself up to look about.
Placing a hand on Chris’s shoulder, Ezra whispered, “I’ll check. I’d like to get a little sleep myself.”
Cautiously stepping over his friend, he worked his way through the other sleeping passengers. As he neared the door he asked, “Whatever is wrong?”
The woman sitting near the door hissed, “They want to put this little boy in here. Apparently his mother just passed and he’s now alone.”
“Why here?” Ezra asked, not comprehending.
“He keeps crying for his mother and keeping the other passengers awake.”
Poking his head around the door he looked down at the man and sniffling child. “Rupert?” Ezra gasped as he looked closer.
“You know him?” The man asked in a loud whisper.
“We were travelling companions for a short time. There was another woman travelling with him and his moth... Uh, do you know where she is?” Ezra asked as he knelt down by the doorway.
The man shrugged and pushed Rupert toward the car. “Guess he’s your responsibility now.”
Ezra was about to say that he wasn’t prepared to care for a child, but one look at Rupert’s tear-streaked face and he knew he’d have to take the child in.
“Come on Rupert. Mr. Larabee and I have a nice corner staked out for ourselves and there’s plenty of room for one more.” Ezra smiled softly down at the child as the other man lifted him up.
Once Rupert was safely within the car, Ezra grabbed up a blanket from a nearby pile and led him over to their corner.
“What’s going on?” Chris asked as Ezra drew near.
“It appears that we have been charged with Rupert’s wellbeing,” Ezra explained as he ushered Rupert into the corner. At Chris’s confused look he replied, “I’ll explain later.”
Rupert curled up in the corner and at a loss as to what to do, Ezra draped the blanket over the small frame.
Sliding down the wall, Ezra brought his knees up and rested his head on them. It was going to be a long cold night.
Moonlight slipped between the spaces of the boards that made up their temporary refuge. The light was welcome as it kept the darkness at bay, but the cold wind that blew through those same cracks was bone chilling. Many huddled together for comfort as much as for warmth and prayed for a speedy rescue.
Jerking awake, Ezra peered into the dimness and tried to discern what had pulled him from his fitful slumber. Before he could wrap his sleep deprived mind around it a chill racked his body. Pulling the blanket tighter about himself he breathed warm air into his hands and glanced into the corner Rupert had curled into. Chris’s red-rimmed, dull green eyes stared back at him. Glancing at the pallet near his feet Ezra realized his eyes were not playing tricks on him and Chris had indeed moved into the corner. When and how were you able to do that without me being the wiser?
“What are you doing up?” Ezra asked the obviously exhausted gunslinger.
“You had a nightmare? Are you feverish?”
Shaking his head Chris whispered, “No. Rupert was having nightmares.” Moving the blanket away Chris indicated the child who was curled into his uninjured side.
“Oh.” Ezra peered at the blonde tuft of hair resting against Chris’s chest. “You could have woken me.”
“I was already awake. Besides, you need the sleep just as much as I do.”
“Yes, but I am not as injured as you are.”
Chris frowned and hissed, “Just drop it. We still have to get to Denver and we’ll need you more when we have to travel.”
Ezra watched Chris grimace in pain as Rupert whimpered and burrowed closer. “I’ll take him now. He’s obviously hurting you.”
“Leave him be,” Chris gritted out as he rubbed soothing circles on the child’s back. “He’ll settle down in a moment.”
Knowing once Chris had set his cap on something it was no use trying to change his mind, Ezra crawled onto the empty pallet. Well, if Chris won’t use it I will, no sense in letting a perfectly good pallet go to waste. After a few moments Ezra realized the pallet was just slightly more comfortable than the floor.
Ezra lay on the pallet listening to the people around him, a few were moaning or shifting restlessly where they lay, trying to get comfortable. Every once in a while he would hear Chris whispering to Rupert. Straining to hear what the gunslinger was saying he realized Chris was spinning some childhood tale in an effort to keep the nightmares at bay.
A hard kick in his back brought Ezra out of a deep sleep. Jerking upright he looked around for the culprit, he came face to face with Rupert. “Did you kick me?” Ezra asked incredulously.
“He told me too,” Rupert frowned as he pointed back at Chris. “Tried to shake you awake but you were snorin’ so loud people were starting to complain.”
Rubbing at his sore back Ezra grouched, “I do not snore. It must have been someone else.”
Rupert shrugged and quipped, “I was only doin’ as I was told.” Rupert bent down close to Ezra and whispered in Ezra’s ear, “I don’t think Mr. Chris is feeling too well. I was one hot potato sitting next to him. I asked if he was okay. He just said he was fine.”
“Mr. Larabee has a tendency to be rather peckish when feeling under the weather. I’ll check on him in a little bit,” Ezra whispered back as he sat up a little straighter. Noticing the sky was lightening he pushed off his blanket. Standing up stiffly, he groaned when his back protested the hard bed he’d been sleeping on. Judge Travis was going to get an ear full when he finally laid eyes on the man. Stretching as far as he could, he sighed when his back cracked audibly. While stretching the remaining kinks out Mother Nature suddenly demanded his attention. Not wanting to brave the outside twice he asked Rupert, “Do you need to go?”
“Go? Where would I go?”
“No, do you need to go?” Ezra asked as quietly as he could.
It finally seemed to dawn on Rupert as to what Ezra was referring. “Oh. No I can hold it.”
“Let’s take care of it now so that we can give Mr. Larabee our full attention later,” Ezra whispered and pulled the child to the entrance.
When Ezra and Rupert had returned to the impromptu camp, they found a large group of people milling around the central fire where the aroma of cooking meat was strong in the air. Ezra and Rupert’s stomachs had set to growling and fifteen minutes of standing in line had earned them a small bowl to share at the fire. Knowing there was no way Chris could make it out to the fire Ezra had begged a small bowl to take back with the promise of a quick return.
“Do you think someone will come and get us soon?” Rupert asked as they neared the box car, “I really want to go home.”
Placing the bowl safely away from the door Ezra grunted in pain as he lifted the child up into the car. “Help will be here before you know it, Young Rupert.” Once he managed to get himself inside he snatched up the bowl and they wended their way through the injured and exhausted.
They found Chris lying in the corner on the pallet wrapped up in the three blankets, apparently sleeping. Setting the bowl down Ezra reached out and gently shook Chris’s shoulder. “Mr. Larabee? Chris we have some hot stew for you.”
Chris’s red-rimmed eyes shot open and he reached for his gun. “Don’t touch me,” he growled darkly seemingly unaware of where he was.
“Chris, it’s Rupert and I,” Ezra whispered urgently as he pulled his hands away not wanting to startle the gunslinger. I never should have let you have your gun back, fevers and guns have never been good bed partners.
“I told you he wasn’t feeling well,” Rupert whispered by Ezra’s ear as he moved to stand behind the gambler. “Is he gonna die like momma did?”
Ezra shook his head and patted Rupert on the leg. “No. I won’t let that happen.”
Chris ran a hand over his eyes and sighed, “Sorry. I must have drifted off and didn’t realize it.”
“That’s quite all right.” Ezra helped Chris to a sitting position and held out the bowl of stew. “Do you think you can eat some of this stew? Well, actually it’s more like broth.”
Squinting at the bowl held before him Chris rasped, “Not sure I can stomach that right now.”
“You ought to try. You haven’t had anything to eat since the day before yesterday and you left most of that on the tracks if you remember.”
“Don’t remind me.” Chris swallowed convulsively before continuing. “Ezra, I don’t feel well right now, maybe I can try later.”
“If you’re sure I’ll just set it over here out of the way,” Ezra replied with a concerned frown on his face. Chris must be feeling really bad if he just admitted to it.
Chris laid back on the pallet and pulled the blankets around his shoulders as he shivered violently.
Reaching out a tentative hand, Ezra lightly touched Chris’s forehead. “You have a fever,” Ezra sighed quietly and grabbed the blanket to pull it back. “Let me take a look at your side and see if that’s what causing this.”
“Just leave it be. All I need to do is get some sleep and I feel better,” Chris croaked, tightening his hold on the blanket.
Pulling a little harder Ezra was able to take the blanket from Chris. “Rupert, my boy, would you kindly bring my bag over here. I need to tend to Mr. Larabee’s wound. ”
“Yes, sir. I can do that,” Rupert crowed excitedly before moving around the two men and yanking at the bag. “Gosh, this thing sure is heavy.”
“Do you need help?” Ezra asked without looking up from where he was removing the soiled bandage.
“I have it,” Rupert huffed as he stumbled back to the two men. “Eww. That’s gross. And look, it’s got puss oozing out.” Dropping the bag, Rupert leaned closer to look at the wound.
Glancing at Rupert, Ezra replied, “I can see that.” Grabbing the carpet bag, Ezra pulled out bandages and the bourbon. “This is going to hurt, but I’ve got to clean it as best I can.”
Draping an arm over his eyes Chris ground out, “Just be quick about it.”
Taking a steadying breath Ezra set about the task of cleaning and bandaging the wound.
Chris jerked and moaned several times but said nothing.
After several minutes Rupert took a seat up near Chris’s head and patted him on the shoulder, trying his best to offer words of comfort.
After what seemed an eternity, Ezra finished his task and as he sat back, letting out a long breath. “We really need a doctor. The bourbon is almost gone and you need proper pain management if you are to get any rest. And to top it all off, I’m worried about your leg. It hasn’t been set yet. How do you even set an upper leg bone?”
“We’ll have to do with what we have. Hopefully we’ll be able to get out of here soon and find a doctor,” Chris replied tiredly as he pulled the blanket up around his neck higher.
Ezra nodded and closed the bag. He sat there quietly wishing for the umpteenth time they’d never responded to Travis’s telegram. Right now he could be sitting in the saloon enjoying an easy game of cards or having a savory lunch prepared by Inez. But instead he was sitting in a frozen box car with an injured friend and a child who’d just lost his mother. This was totally unfair and when he saw Judge Travis he was going to let him have it with both barrels.
Biting the inside of his cheek to keep from groaning out loud, Ezra worked the bandage free of the wound on his arm. Using the late afternoon sun slipping through the cracks in the walls, he looked in dismay at the linen which seemed to have fused to his flesh. Perfect. Reluctance to let the minimal amount of warmth trapped within their temporary, but pitiful refuge escape had him all but chained to their corner unable to replenish their dwindling supply of water. Cold was their enemy and even though he’d managed to scrounge a few extra blankets he was concerned Chris would die before help arrived.
Ezra forced himself back to the task at hand as he noticed Chris’s restless movements from the pallet. “Please cooperate,” he whispered as he gently picked at the adhered bandage. Neglecting the wound for too long had been a bad decision and the once trivial graze was now hot to the touch, oozing pus, and partially crusted. Blowing out a breath in frustration Ezra reached for the bottle of bourbon and held it aloft. There was less than two finger widths left. Yesterday, he’d given Chris as much as he could spare to help him through the agony of setting his leg. It hadn’t been enough. Cursing Scruffy for drinking all their whiskey, Ezra poured a very small amount onto a linen square and laid it over the wound. As Chris’s quiet moans the joined those around him Ezra hurriedly snatched up a length of linen to re-bandage his arm.
Reaching for his discarded shirt he scowled at its torn and stained condition. Even the most skilled laundress would be unable to clean it to his standards. Pulling it on over his wounded arm had him breathing deeply through his teeth as he waited for the pain to dissipate.
Chris had spiked a fever this morning and had been moving downhill ever since. When he shivered in cold Ezra piled the blankets on. When he was so hot he couldn’t take even a light covering, Ezra bathed his brow. He’d even gone so far as leaving Rupert with Chris to go to the other car to find someone, anyone to assist him. He hoped never again to witness the pure misery the passenger car held.
Dawn had not yet broken the horizon and it felt as if they were in the coldest part of the night when Ezra reluctantly hopped from the box car hoping to find assistance for the gunslinger. Every breath felt as if sharp knives were slicing into his nose and lungs and his fingers were painfully stiff with cold. A short distance ahead loomed the passenger car which held the more seriously wounded and dying, its darkened interior and the pitiful moans coming from within making it seem all the more forbidding. There was no way he’d bring Chris to this car no matter how bad off the gunslinger was.
Slipping on the ice Ezra shortened his stride as it would do them no good if he injured himself further. As Ezra neared the passenger car a figure approached him.
“Mr. Standish?” Asa Jones asked as he joined the gambler. “What in pray tell brings you out in this cold?”
“I fear I am in need of assistance. You see, my friend has developed a fever and nothing I seem to do will bring it down.”
“We’re all doing the best we can. Unfortunately there are no doctors or even someone close to a doctor in this group. You can check and see if they have anything to spare,” Asa explained as he moved back to tend the fire.
Looking up at the dark hulk, Ezra cringed as he pulled himself up into the car. The unhealthy smells which emanated from the car almost knocked him off his feet and he gagged repeatedly. Turning away and leaning out the door to take in a few quick breaths Ezra yanked a handkerchief from his pocket and placed it over his nose and mouth.
"Close the door. You're letting the cold in!" a rough voice growled from the darkness.
Squinting, Ezra tried to discern the owner of the voice. “My apologies. I need assistance for my friend who has developed a high fever.”
Ezra started as a figure rose to his left. “Everyone needs help and there aren’t enough able hands to do it. Not sure how many of us will be left by the time help arrives.”
“Do you happen to have anything to help with a fever?” Ezra looked around the dimly lit car seeing the many wounded tended by the few trying to make them more comfortable.
“Only thing you can do is keep wiping you friend down and try and get some water into him. Your best bet is to pray to the Almighty and hope for a rescue soon,” supplied a woman sitting nearby. “We have nothing to ease their suffering and a few may not even see the rescue.”
Ezra nodded and turned to leave, feeling despondent. “Thank you.” Turning back he addressed the person sitting back in the shadows and the woman. “I do have one last request. My friend appears to have broken his femur and it has not yet been set. How would I go about doing this without permanently maiming him?”
The tired voice from the darkness grumbled, “Get a few strong men and some sturdy branches. Now here’s where it gets a little complicated…”
“Wagons are coming!” an excited voice called from outside setting off anxious murmurs and rumblings from those around.
Pulling himself to his feet as he heard his name being called, Ezra hurried to the door someone had slid open. Looking down at Rupert he asked, “Are you all right?”
“Mr. Ezra, did you hear? We’re going home!” Rupert cried joyfully as he hopped up and down on the snow covered ground.
“I’ve heard something of the sort. Have you seen the wagons? How many have they brought?” Ezra asked almost breathlessly as he realized their nightmare would hopefully be ending soon.
“I saw ‘em. They even brought stuff and the men who came are up by the fire talking about what to do with everyone,” Rupert blurted as he fidgeted in excitement.
“Rupert, I want you to come up here and sit with Mr. Larabee while I go see about getting us out of this...,” Ezra stuttered to a stop when he realized he’d been about to use some rather course language. “I’m going to see about shortening our stay at our current locale.”
“Is he still sick to his stomach?” Rupert asked as he hesitantly moved closer and held his arms up for Ezra to grab.
“He’s sleeping at the moment and I really do not think there is anything left to come up.” Ezra smiled in understanding. The broth had been a mistake and they should have stuck with the water.
Ezra tried pulling the boy up into the car with only one arm but it was too difficult. Luckily there was someone standing nearby and they helped bring Rupert into the car without incident.
“Okay, you wait here with Mr. Larabee and I’ll be back before you know it. If he gets restless again, try wiping his brow. If it doesn’t help and you need assistance, ask for it.” Giving Rupert a supportive pat on the shoulder Ezra headed out to find the wagons.
Ezra doubted there was ever a more welcoming sight as what appeared to be at least eight wagons and at least two of them were weighed down with supplies.
Noticing Asa Jones standing on the edge of the group, Ezra hurried forward. “What news do we have?”
Keeping his gaze on the wagons Asa replied, “Made mention that the seriously wounded would be transported back to town first and they would leave supplies here for those they don’t have room for. Those of us who are left behind will probably have another two days out here.”
“Mr. Larabee may not have another two days. He’ll have to go on this trip,” Ezra stated as he crossed his arms defiantly.
Asa quirked a brow at Ezra. “They brought a doctor. He’ll be the one to decide who goes and who stays.”
Ezra snorted and stared into the crowd. “I think I speak for all of us in wanting to put as much distance from this place as possible.”
A stiff, frigid breeze whipped through the center of camp, chasing several souls back to the comfort of the campfire. Pulling his coat about himself, Ezra watched the man he assumed was the doctor, enter the passenger car. “The man has his work cut out for him,” Ezra grumbled as he ducked his nose into his coat and wrapped his arms around himself. in an effort keep warm.
“He has more patients than he needs. Your friend still sporting the fever?” Asa asked as he turned back to Ezra.
“Yes. He’s declining and needs to be in a comfortable bed in a proper shelter. Not some box car sitting in the middle of nowhere.”
“It’s been hard on all of us, Mr. Standish. You best be counting your blessings he’s still alive. There’s many a poor soul who’d wish to be in your position right now, stead of lying dead in the wreckage,” Asa reminded as he moved away to help with the wagons.
“I didn’t say I wasn’t thankful,” Ezra mumbled as he rubbed at his sore arm. “I just want this to be over already.”
If patience was a virtue then Ezra was as far from virtuous as you could get. It had taken three hours for the doctor to make his way around to their little group and now Ezra was miserable. The doctor had looked Rupert over, declared him healthy, and had then insisted on examining Ezra.
Despite Ezra insisting that Chris be seen to first, the doctor had rationalized tending Ezra’s wounds would take much less time and then he’d be able to devote his time to the injured man.
So wounds thoroughly scrubbed, medicated, and rewrapped, Ezra now hovered nervously as the town doctor looked Chris over.
Snuffling quietly, Ezra hid a grin behind a bandaged hand as he watched Chris refuse to cooperate and even threaten to shoot the doctor if he didn’t leave him alone. You shouldn’t be laughing, you are a horrible friend. Nathan would not have tolerated any of Chris’s stonewalling.
“I suggest you listen to the good doctor, Mr. Larabee. He is quite put out with your shenanigans and I for one am ready to move on.” Ezra watched as the doctor touched a particularly sensitive spot on Chris’s side causing him to hiss and jerk in pain.
“Get me my gun,” Chris choked out as he grasped the front of the doctor’s coat and glared daggers at the man.
“You should save your bullets for a more worthy cause,” Ezra chirped in over the doctor’s grumblings of ungrateful fools, “I would like to remind you, Mr. Larabee, the doctor has been more than sympathetic to our plight. He’s brought medicines and supplies to make the situation a little more tolerable and we owe him our gratitude. Ezra strained to hear the almost inaudible response from Chris but realized he’d actually thanked the doctor when the man chuckled.
After spending an inordinate amount of time draining and cleaning the side wound, the doctor sewed Chris back up, and gave him another dose of laudanum. Piling the blankets back over his pale, shivering patient, the doctor levered himself up off his knees and motioned Ezra over.
“So?” Ezra asked as he joined the doctor. Looking down at Chris, he could see the shivers running up the lean frame. The pain was clearly evident in the lines of his face and the sunken appearance of his eyes.
“He’s in bad shape, but I’ve seen worse,” the doctor explained. “I know you don’t want to hear this…”
Ezra held up his hand to stop the doctor. “Don’t even say it. You can’t leave him behind.”
“I’m sorry, my hands are tied. There are only so many wagons and there are many worse off than he is.”
“Pray tell me, how much room can one person take? I’ll pay,” Ezra rasped out desperately, “The boy and I will wait for the next trip. He needs to get out of here. He needs proper accommodations.”
Shaking his head the doctor looked on sympathetically. “We don’t have the room. Besides, the best thing for your friend is to lie still. I’ll give you medicines to help with the fever and pain. You won’t be alone, there will be others left behind with you.”
“Is it fair to leave the injured and sick behind to fend for themselves in these elements?”
The doctor reached into his bag and pulled out several bottles. “I’m sorry, life’s not fair. Believe me when I tell you the last thing I want to tell anyone is they’ll have to wait even longer.” Pushing the bottles into Ezra’s hands he continued, “Make sure you keep after your arm. You won’t do your friend any good if you’re ill also.”
Staring unseeing at the bottles in his hands Ezra grated out, “So we must wait two more days for our liberation.”
Ezra followed the doctor to the door of the boxcar, hoping he would have a change of heart and let them go with the first group. “Mr. Larabee and I are very important witnesses at a trial in Denver. Judge Orrin Travis sent for us and was expecting our arrival several days ago.”
“Your friend won’t be attending any trials any time soon and I’m not familiar with Judge Travis. And why if it was so important for you to be in Denver has he not sent someone for you?” Not waiting for an explanation the doctor climbed down out of the box car. Jumping the remaining distance from the last rung to the ground the doctor grunted, “It’ll probably be at least three days. You’ve been left extra blankets, food, and other provisions. Make use of them. Keep your wounds clean, and stay positive.”
“Easy for you to say,” Ezra hissed as he turned away from the door. “You get to leave.”
“Ez?” Chris rasped out as he clutched the blanket close.
“Relax, Chris. I’m right here.” Ezra hurried over to sink down next to his friend. Picking up a damp cloth, Ezra wiped at the perspiration coating Chris’s face.
Swallowing audibly, Chris asked, “When are we leaving? Rupert said the wagons were here and we’re leavin’.”
“Soon. We’ll be leaving real soon.” Patting Chris’s hand Ezra put his best poker face on. “Why don’t you try and get some rest. Sleep is the best thing right now.”
“Can’t Ez. I’m too uncomfortable or maybe the floor’s too hard. I’m not sure which.” Chris sighed as he tried to shift to a different position which only caused him to gasp and pant through the pain. His eyes squeezed tightly shut and his fists grasping at the blankets.
Ezra beat the floor in frustration. “I can’t do this anymore!” he cried, jumping to his feet. Practically hurling himself from the box car, he staggered out into the snow mumbling, “What am I supposed to do?” Staring down at his shaking hands, he bit back a groan of frustration. We’re leaving with the first group, even if I have to build a wagon and pull it to town myself.
Pushing to his feet, Ezra hurried to where the wagons were being loaded, hoping to find the doctor and plead his case. Moving among the people clustered about the wagons Ezra came upon Scruffy. The man was tied and sitting in the corner of a wagon surrounded by two burly men. Highly incensed that the reprobate was taking up valuable space in the wagon, Ezra moved off to find Asa Jones to find out what was going on.
“Rupert, get ready we’re leaving,” Ezra huffed out as he climbed up into the boxcar. Grimacing as his arm protested the abuse, Ezra hurried over to their corner.
“We’re leaving? I thought you said we’d have to stay?” Rupert asked in confusion as he watched Ezra stuffing their meager belongings into two carpetbags.
Ruffling the child’s hair, Ezra smiled. “Lady Luck has decided to smile on us today. A wagon suddenly freed up and with a little persuasion I was able to secure our passage.”
“How much did it cost you?”
Turning to glance down at the gunslinger, Ezra frowned, “A paltry sum I assure you.”
“Did you come by it legitimately?” Pulling the blankets up tighter under his chin Chris leveled a red-rimmed stare at Ezra.
Mouth gaping open, Ezra gasped, “You think I would stoop so low as to cheat some poor individual out of their possible salvation from this, this existence?”
“I know how much you want to get out of here.”
“I’m flabbergasted that you would think so low of me after all I’ve done for you,” Ezra bit out as he continued to shove things into the bag. “And Rupert. I’ve watchdogged you both.”
Scrubbing at his face Chris sighed, “That’s not what I meant. I know what you’ve been doing for me and the boy. I’d be toe up if you hadn’t taken charge of the situation.”
Suddenly realizing Chris was trying to make light of a bad situation, Ezra squeezed Chris shoulder in understanding. “We’ll be heading to the wagon in about twenty minutes. You ought to try and rest until then because I’ve heard this will be a hard trip on all of us.”
“Did you expect anything different?”
Ezra just snorted and straightened the blankets that were piled on and around the gunslinger. “It seems our trip was cursed from the outset.”
Ezra trudged along beside the wagon, fearing never to be warm again. They had been plodding on toward the town for what had seemed like days, though Asa had assured him it had only been six hours. The short fifteen minute respites every couple hours did nothing to reenergize worn bodies and flagging spirits.
“Mr. Ezra, we’re stopping again. Come sit on the tailgate and keep us company.” Rupert peered over the side of the wagon at the weary gambler. Rupert’s face was red from the cold despite the blankets he was wrapped in.
Pulling himself slowly and painfully along the side of the wagon, Ezra stopped as he rounded the back. “How is Mr. Larabee fairing?” Ezra asked wearily, slumping against the wagon bed.
“A little moaning and groaning, but nothing much since you gave him all that stuff.”
“I did not want to give him so much laudanum, but there wasn’t any way around it. He’s got to be in agony.”
Squinting down at the man in question, Rupert grimaced. “He’s not doing much of anything.” Crawling to the end of the wagon to sit next to Ezra, he asked quietly, “Do you think he’s dead?”
Ezra jerked around to stare at Chris hoping the child was wrong. He watched with baited breath until, finally, he saw a slight movement from his friend. Clapping Rupert on the back, “Boy, don’t do that again. At this rate I’m going to be old before my time.”
Rupert giggled and slapped at his knee. “You’re funny Mr. Ezra.” Rupert quieted and looked at his toes before whispering soberly, “I’m really glad they let me stay with you and Mr. Chris until we get to town.”
Ezra’s breath hitched at the sudden flutter in his chest. Could this child actually like him for who he was? Unfortunately he’d not been his usual self for quite a while and he couldn’t imagine anyone wanting to spend time with someone as frazzled as he’d been.
Looking down into Rupert’s upturned face Ezra gave him a small smile and panted him on the leg. “Sorry. I was wool-gathering. I am also glad you were able to stay with us.”
“Do you think Grams will be at the town when we get there?” Rupert asked as he picked at a thread on his blanket.
“Well, let me tell you something. If for some reason your Grams has not arrived in town once Mr. Larabee is settled I will personally take you to her,” Ezra declared ruffling Rupert’s hair. “And I will be sure to tell her how you helped Mr. Larabee and myself get back to town.”
“We’re here,” Asa called as he slapped Ezra’s right leg from where it hung over the side of the wagon.
“What?” Ezra moaned as he wiped at gritty eyes and pulled himself up to look around. He felt as if he’d been on a week long bender with no relief in sight. His head was pounding mercilessly and his vision was blurry.
“I said, we’re here,” Asa chuckled as he dropped the tailgate on the wagon. “We made good time.”
Realization dawned as Ezra stared at the buildings on either side of the street with his mouth hanging open. “Where are the other wagons?”
“They’ve gone up the street a bit. Figured this was the first stop into town and Ms. Millie has some of the softest beds around. The hotel’s up the way a piece if you’d rather stay there.”
Ezra peered at the woman standing on the porch holding a lantern aloft. She had a kind look about her and she was as round as she was tall. “How many you got?”
Clearing his throat, Ezra called out as quietly as he could and still be heard, “There’s three of us.”
Nodding, she moved down the three steps and carefully made her way to the wagon. Patting Asa on the back she smiled. “Glad you and your brother made it. It’ll do you mother’s heart good. We weren’t sure who’d survived.”
“Ma’s a strong woman. She’d a been ok.” Asa smiled sadly and gestured to the occupants of the wagon. “Like he told you, we got three. Little boy here is fit as a fiddle, lost his mama though. Mr. Standish here’s been watch doggin’ his friend and the boy. The fellow lyin’ in the wagon is Mr. Larabee and he’s feeling pretty poorly. He’s got a broken leg, a gash in his side, and arm. Running a fever also.”
Ezra gingerly slid off the tailgate and stretched as best he could, pulling up short as pain shot through his arm. Noticing Ms. Millie’s concerned look he explained, “A minor inconvenience I assure you. The young man and I are for the most part fit as two fiddles. We really need only concentrate on getting Mr. Larabee settled and comfortable.”
Patting Ezra on the arm she smiled gently, “Asa brought you to the right place. My boarding house may be on the outskirts of town but it’s quiet and I keep it clean. You won’t find any lice or bed bugs within these walls.”
“I sincerely appreciate you letting us stay here.” Turning to Asa, Ezra inquired, “I think we should get Mr. Larabee inside and settled before the current dose of laudanum wears of. I fear we are running low.”
“You best be careful with that the laudanum Mr. Standish. I’ve seen people get hooked on it pretty quick.”
“I am aware of its addictive properties but it could not be helped,” Ezra replied heatedly, “Though he is rather stoic when it comes to pain this had become even more than he could bear.”
“Boys, there’s no sense jawing out here in the cold when we’ve a nice warm fire going inside. The boy looks plum frozen through and you two don’t appear far behind,” Ms. Millie interrupted as she stepped up to help Rupert down from the wagon.
“Please excuse my outburst ma’am, we’ve had quite an arduous journey and are far from home.”
Coughing, Chris rasped, “Ez, you think you could hurry things along? I’m freezing and like you, I’d really like to sleep in a real bed.”
Trudging around to the other side of the wagon to look in on Chris he scowled. “You, sir have the worst timing. It would have been quite helpful if you had remained asleep for the next part.”
“Let’s get this done and over with, then we can call it a night.”
Snorting loudly Ezra moved back down to the tailgate, “Fine.”
“Go to bed. I don’t need a nursemaid,” Chris snapped irritably as he twisted his fists in the quilt. His fever was up but not as high as before.
Placing a cool cloth across Chris’s forehead Ezra sighed, “Well I’m afraid you are stuck with me. Has the pain in your leg lessened any?” Ezra and Ms. Millie had elevated Chris’s leg and redressed his other wounds after finally getting him settled in a vacant room on the main level of the house.
“I know it’s there if that’s what you mean.”
Ezra handed Chris the bottle of laudanum. “I seem to be lacking a spoon so you’ll have to drink it from the bottle.”
Chris took a very small sip and handed the bottle back grimacing, “Tastes like piss. Whiskey’d be better.”
“I agree but laudanum’s more effective.” Placing the bottle on the bureau Ezra moved to the window to stare out at the street. “Later this morning I’ll find the telegraph office and send word back home and to Judge Travis in Denver. They’ve probably heard about the train wreck and have no idea if we’re still alive,” Ezra mumbled absently. “Probably ought to inquire about young Rupert’s relatives also.”
Pulling the cloth from his forehead, Chris flipped it into the basin. “Fine, do that, but first get some sleep. There’s no need to make yourself sick. The boy and I are fine, we’re safe now and comfortable, or as comfortable as possible.”
Ezra yawned widely and rubbed at his gritty eyes. “You’re positive you don’t need anything?”
“Ezra,” Chris sighed, “go to sleep. I don’t plan on doing much more than sleeping myself.”
“Fine. But if you need anything I’ll be across the hall.”
“I’ll be sure to holler. You know me.”
“That’s what I’m afraid of.”
Silence greeted Ezra as he stepped into the hallway and pulled the door to Chris’s room shut behind him and as he leaned back against the door his eyes closed with weariness. Taking a steadying breath he pushed off the door and forced his heavy feet to carry him the four steps it required to reach his own room. Turning the door knob gently and lightly pushing the door open, he silently slipped into the room only to cringe as the lock clicked into place as he shut the door.
Though not as grand as some hotel rooms he’d stayed in, the room was cheery and warm. Unlike the smaller beds found in most boarding houses Ms. Millie had outfitted hers with larger frames boasting feather beds and down comforters. She’d told him travellers appreciated the subtle touches and as a result she had many repeat customers. Of course, Ezra would attribute some of her success to the woman’s motherly personality and was thankful for it since it appeared they would be enduring an extended stay until Chris was fit to travel.
Moving with slow measured steps to avoid waking Rupert, Ezra shucked his vest and boots before blissfully sitting down on the edge of the mattress. Rupert had been sent to bed several hours earlier and the boy was sleeping deeply under a mound of blankets. Reaching for the quilt laying across the foot of the bed, Ezra laid back into the clean smelling pillows. No use getting too comfortable. I’ll have to get up in an hour or so anyway to send those telegrams and look into finding Rupert’s family. Tiredly sinking further into the bed, he closed his eyes and soon drifted off into a much needed sleep.
He jerked upright as the sound of screeching metal and splintering wood filled his consciousness. Gasping for air and clutching at his chest he looked around frantically expecting to be back on the train, but all he could see was brightly colored wallpaper and the room’s modest furnishings. Ezra flung the quilt back and slid to the edge of the mattress as he wiped at the sweat coating his face.
A squeak of the door hinges brought Ezra’s head up. “Who’s there?”
“It’s just me, Mr. Ezra.” Rupert sidled into the room and reached for the book Ms. Millie had given him the night before. “I wanted to get my book.”
“By all means,” Ezra yawned as he stretched the kinks from his back.
With the book clutched to his chest, Rupert rushed from the room without a backward glance. “Thanks.”
The sound of the door across the hall opening and closing quickly brought Ezra’s head up. He scowled and hurried on stocking feet to grab Rupert before he woke Chris. What was the boy thinking? Grasping the doorknob tightly, Ezra hesitated as he first heard Chris’s voice and then Rupert’s. He could barely make out what Chris was saying though the heavy wood door but he decided he’d best intervene. Chris was anything but jovial when he was under the weather. He’d just have to take Rupert with him when he went to run his errands. It would do the boy good to have a distraction.
Pushing open the door, Ezra huffed, “Rupert you’re going with me to the telegraph office. Chris needs…,” the sight that greeted him stopped him in his tracks.
Chris was propped up with a large book in his lap and Rupert curled up next to him. “He’s fine, I’m bored, and it’s snowing. I’m sure you can handle the telegraph office on your own,” Chris stated as he picked the book back up and turned the page.
“You’re supposed to be resting.”
“Reading is not resting.”
“It is to me. Besides it helps me keep my mind off my leg.”
Ezra was about to retort but Chris scowled darkly at him and asked, “Aren’t you supposed to be sending some telegrams?”
Without a backwards glance Ezra stalked to the door. “It’d serve you right if you had a relapse,” he grumbled under his breath as he stepped back into the hallway.
“I heard what you said, Standish,” Chris called as Ezra was shutting the door behind him.
“I meant you to,” he snapped back as he pulled the door closed and stomped down the hallway. He was halfway down the stairs when he realized he didn’t have his boots on. “Damn it,” he cursed, turning on the stairs and making his way up to his room. It had all the makings of a long day and he wanted nothing more than to languish in bed for at least a week.
Ezra smiled at his reflection as he turned to face the mirror. The navy blue jacket fit like it was made for him and the blue silk brocade vest needed only slight alterations. “To feel human once again,” he sighed, turning to admire the tailor’s handiwork.
“Did you want to wait to have these bundled up or did you want them delivered to the boarding house?” the tailor asked as he and his assistant folded Ezra’s purchases.
Picking up the sheepskin coat he’d purchased with his rapidly shrinking funds, Ezra smiled. “Please deliver them. I have a few other errands to attend to.”
“Certainly, Mr. Standish,” the tailor replied as he followed Ezra to the door. “They will be delivered before nightfall.”
Ezra glanced up the street toward the center of town where he could barely make out what appeared to be a saloon through the driving snow. Debating whether to turn back to the boarding house or continue on to the saloon he paused. The large sum of money he’d just spent on clothing and coats for he, Chris, and the boy had taken a huge chunk of his reserves. Ezra knew Chris was good for it but until the got back home they were dependent on his bankroll and it needed replenishing. So pulling his coat tighter he strode up the street to the saloon and through the batwing doors. Ezra had to admit he was pleasantly surprised to find the saloon so well attended in the late afternoon. “I’ve died and gone to heaven. New clothes and gaming tables are just what the doctor ordered.”
Sauntering over to one of the tables, Ezra asked with a lecherous grin, “Room for one more?”
It was after midnight as Ezra made his way back to the boarding house and Lady Luck had been on his side. His pockets were fat with the evening’s winnings and the liquor he’d consumed still warming his insides. As he meandered along the dark storefronts he came to an abrupt stop in front of the telegraph office and cursed quietly. “Forgot to check for any replies,” he mumbled crossly before moving on, stumbling slightly.
Ezra stepped into the street to cross by an alley when he thought he heard his name whispered. The street behind him was empty and the alley was dark as pitch. He heard nothing as he listened intently and figuring it must be the fuzziness in his head, turned to continue his trek.
“Hey, Ezra,” a harshly whispered voice called from the alley.
Squinting into the darkness, Ezra couldn’t make out any figures so he stepped closer and called, “Who’s there?”
“Come closer. I’ve got a message for you.”
Ezra ignored the uneasy feeling in the pit of his stomach, chalking it up to an over abundance of drink and moved into the darkness. “All right, I’m here. Is it from Denver or Four Corners? What did it say?”
The glint of light off an upraised blade caught Ezra’s attention and before he could react it had begun its downward arc. With an inarticulate gasp Ezra twisted away, catching the blade in his shoulder, his momentum carrying him to the ground. He lay on the ground stunned as his attacker stepped forward to finish the job, his face lit by a nearby street fire.
“I thought you were dead?” Ezra choked out, as the man he knew as Silas Mathers, the travelling salesman from the stage, straddled his prone form.
Silas shook his head and grinned evilly. “No. I got off the train before those bumbling idiots could derail it. You and Larabee were supposed to go with the train. Now I’ve got to get my hands dirty.”
Ezra tried to struggle but his strength waned as his blood colored the snow beneath him at an alarming rate.
“You were never supposed to make it this far,” Silas chuckled and patted Ezra’s face. “Well, you won’t be making it any further. Oh and don’t worry. I’ve got something special planned for your partner. Your days of testifying are over.”
Ezra came close to passing out as Silas yanked the knife from the wound. He watched in horror as Silas raised the blade to make the killing blow. “Wait!” Ezra gasped, “I’ll pay you.”
Silas shook his head. “You know money can’t buy you everything you want. Besides, this one is free.”
As Silas brought the blade down, Ezra struggled to bring his derringer up. A single shot filled the night air.
“Where the hell is the law when you need them?” Ezra grunted as he weakly pushed at the dead weight pinning him to the ground. Ice crunching under foot brought Ezra’s head around and he glanced up worried that Silas had help.
“Can’t you stay out of trouble?” Asa asked as he pulled Silas off of Ezra and turned the body over. “Friend of yours?”
“This is not the time for levity,” Ezra gasped as he tried to sit up. “That man was sent to keep me and Mr. Larabee from testifying in Denver. I need to get back to the boarding house.”
“You need a doctor and I need to get the sheriff.”
“Later. We need to get to the boarding house before it’s too late.”
“You sure are a glutton for punishment,” Asa stated as he pulled Ezra’s good arm across his shoulders.
Ezra could only nod as the pain seemed to increase with each step they took toward Ms. Mille’s.
“Not much further now,” Asa huffed as he readjusted his grip on Ezra. “Just keep putting one foot in front of the other.”
“Easy for you to say. I’ve been skewered like a prized ham,” Ezra mumbled around a tongue that seemed thick and uncoordinated. “He’s ruined my new waistcoat and jacket.”
Asa chuckled at Ezra’s lament and shuffled him along the deserted street. As they turned the next corner the boarding house came into view. It was dark except for a solitary light flickering softly on the upper floor. The light was a welcome sight, but Ezra frowned as he noticed the curtain move and a small face appear in the window. A face belonging to a small person who should have been in bed hours ago.
“Appears someone has been awaiting your arrival,” Asa chuckled as they entered the yard. “Need to work on those parenting skills of yours, Ms. Standish.”
Before Ezra could answer, the front door burst open and Rupert charged off the porch. “Mr. Ezra, where were you? I waited all day for you to come back and you missed supper and everything.”
Pulling himself up straighter, Ezra grimaced slightly and replied, “You should be in bed, Rupert. Not traipsing around in the cold.”
“I was bored. There’s no one to play with and Mr. Chris has been sleeping since after supper.” Drawing in the snow with the toe of his shoe, Rupert innocently looked up at Ezra from beneath his lashes and whispered, “Ms. Millie said she’d tan my hide if I didn’t stop pestering Mr. Chris for stories. I swear, he said he liked reading ‘em.”
“Enough!” Asa barked, stopping Rupert’s breathless explanation. “Get back in the house and wake Ms. Millie. Mr. Standish has had a run of trouble tonight and needs a doctor.”
Staring wide eyed at the two men a light of understanding suddenly lit the boy’s eyes. Shouting Ms. Millie’s name at the top of his lungs Rupert hit the porch at a dead run, banging into the house, and making enough noise to wake the dead.
“Subtle,” Ezra croaked out as they struggled across the yard to the bottom of the stairs.
“He’s going to wake the whole house,” Asa grumbled as he pulled Ezra up the stairs and into the foyer. The door made a soft click as it was pushed closed and the two adults made their way to the upper floor.
A few moments passed before Ms. Millie’s voice drifted up from below and the boy and woman raced up the stairs to the room Ezra had been given. Bursting into the room, her hand clutched to her chest, Ms. Millie panted, “What in the name of heaven is going on? Rupert said Mr. Standish had been in a shootout.”
“There wasn’t a shootout. I was stabbed,” Ezra sighed as he fought to remove his outer garments which seemed to be working against him. “And my new clothing has been ruined.”
“Here, let me help.” Ms. Millie rushed forward and gently pulled Ezra’s wounded arm from the coat. As she reached for the buttons on his waistcoat Ezra pulled back. “I was a nurse during the war. I’ve seen men in all states of undress. There’s no need to go all modest on me,” Ms. Millie explained as Ezra’s blush deepened. Knocking Ezra’s fumbling fingers away, Ms. Millie called over her shoulder, “Asa go after the doctor. He mentioned he was going to the hotel earlier to check on some patients.”
“That was my intention. Figured I’d collect the sheriff while I was out too. Mr. Standish seems to think there maybe some mischief afoot and he and Larabee are targets.”
His shoulder aching horribly, Ezra wiped at the sweat beading his lip. “My attacker said Mr. Larabee and I should have perished on the train. We didn’t and he was supposed to finish the deed himself.”
“Goodness!” Ms. Millie clasped her hands together and stared at Ezra in confusion. “Why would someone want you and Mr. Larabee dead?”
“We were supposed to testify in a Denver courtroom. Our testimony would have sent a man to the gallows and believe you me, he deserved it.”
“I better round up the doc and sheriff. Don’t let anyone into the house.” Asa hurried from the room, brushing past Rupert who was standing silently in the doorway, and out into the night.
“I apologize for the imposition, ma’am. This was supposed to have been an easy trip north and it has been anything but easy.”
Pushing her bulk up from the floor, Ms. Millie squeezed Ezra’s hand. “Don’t worry, honey. The good Lord only puts those burdens which we can bear on our shoulders and you must have some pretty big shoulders.”
He awoke to the feeling of having been trampled by a herd of buffalo and the simple act to lift his arm seemed to deplete all his energy. His eyelids felt as if they were made from lead and his mouth tasted like, well it didn’t bear thinking on. Forcing his eyes open he squinted into the grayness of the room and realized the curtains had been pulled closed against what he assumed was the late morning sun.
Coughing harshly, Ezra groaned as his shoulder protested the sudden jarring of his arm. When his shoulder calmed down he became aware of many more annoying aches and Ezra began to wonder how long he’d been lying in the bed.
Footfalls sounded outside the bedroom door seconds before the door quietly opened and Ezra knew he looked like the fool with his mouth hanging agape. “Am I dreaming?”
“Well at least you didn’t ask if you were having a nightmare,” Nathan chuckled as he set a tray on the bedside table. Looking Ezra over critically he asked, “How are you feeling?”
Contemplating the question for a few moments, Ezra mumbled, “Wretched. Why are you here?”
“You sent the telegram. You can’t think someone wouldn’t have come and it’s a good thing I did too.” Nathan scowled as he strode to the windows and opened the curtains, letting bright sunlight into the room.
“I believe I mentioned everything was in order and we would return as soon as Chris was fit for travel,” Ezra croaked shading his eyes from the sun’s glare. “Do you think you could shut the curtains? It’s much too bright.”
“I need to be able to see to work. Your eyes will adjust.” Nathan returned to the side of the bed and pulled the blankets back. “I need to check your shoulder.”
Jerking upright suddenly Ezra gasped, “What about Chris? There are people trying to kill us!”
“Vin came along and he’s keeping watch. Just relax and everything will be fine.”
“I just sent the telegram yesterday, how did you arrive so quickly?”
Nathan gently pushed Ezra back into the pillows. “Ez, we got here three days ago. You’ve been out of your head with fever for four. You almost earned a spot on Boot Hill.”
“No. That’s not right. I couldn’t have lost four days, it was only a knife wound for God’s sake.” Ezra shook his head in disbelief and fought the lethargy seeping into his bones. “What about Chris and the boy?”
“They’re fine. Just lie back and rest. It’s the best thing for you right now. I’ll explain everything later.”
When Ezra next awoke he was alone and it was much later judging by the pinks and oranges painting the sky outside his bedroom window. “Where is everyone?” he mumbled quietly as he pushed the blankets off and swung his legs to the floor.
The boarding house seemed usually quiet for this time of day considering for the last two days Ms. Millie had been running around trying to keep up with all the new boarders. Word had spread like wildfire about how one of the culprits responsible for the train wreck had been apprehended. The towns folk were baying for blood and intended to see Robert Shaw, aka “Scruffy” hang until dead.
Curiosity piqued, Ezra prepared to stand when suddenly the room spun. Desperately, he clutched at the bed post to keep from pitching onto the floor in an ungainly heap. Taking slow steady breaths and using pure dogged determination he managed to stay upright while keeping his stomach contents in place. “Get yourself together, Ezra. It was only a small stab wound for pity’s sake.” Peeking around the empty room several moments later, he allowed himself a small smile when the dizziness did not recur.
There was no way Nathan was not going to force him back into bed over a small dizzy spell, and as far as Ezra was concerned Nathan need not know about this little episode. Ezra was more than ready to head back to Four Corners and secretly hoped Chris’s recovery was a speedy one.
Not seeing any proper clothing within easy reach, Ezra shrugged and purposefully pulled on his boots, stood, and took a few shuffling steps forward. Catching a glimpse of his reflection in the mirror, Ezra sighed. He looked like an absolute fright wearing a too large nightshirt, boots, and hair sticking up in all directions. His mother would succumb to a fit of apoplexy if she even suspected he’d leave his room in such a state. Too damn bad. Grinning, Ezra yanked the bedroom door open.
An empty hallway greeted him as he stepped from his room and looked into the dark foyer. No sounds came from below and house felt empty. Was he alone? Certainly, Chris should still be here. Breath hitching in his throat when he thought something may have happened to his friend, Ezra stumbled forward, rapped on the door and pushed inside.
“That’s a good way to get shot!” Chris snapped, lowering his gun to his lap. “You’re supposed to be sleeping.”
Ezra waved him off as he slowly made his way to the chair positioned next to the bed. “I was, but I’m awake now. I needed to get up and move around. Where is everyone?”
“There’s a memorial service at the church. How’s the shoulder?”
“I know it’s there if that’s what you mean,” Ezra groaned as he sank down onto the seat. “Has there been any word on Rupert’s family or the trial?”
“Rupert’s grandmother arrived yesterday while you slept and she had him move up to the hotel with her,” Chris explained as Ezra nodded and abruptly turned his gaze out the window. “She said she’d bring him by before they left town.”
Ezra felt a knot form in his throat and swallowed tightly before replying, “It’s for the best. It’ll be good for him to be back around his own again.”
“Yes, it will,” Chris agreed. “And just so you know, his grandmother seems like good people.”
“Good.” Turning his gaze back on Chris, Ezra asked looking at his friend’s pale features, “How are you feeling?”
“Tired of lying around in this bed and tired of being tired all the time.”
Ezra snorted quietly, “I heartily agree. I am ready to get back home and return to some semblance of normalcy.”
The rattle of china on the other side of the door brought Chris’s head up and Ezra twisted to get a better look at whoever was about to enter and to Ezra’s relief it was only their hostess, Ms. Millie. She stepped into the room bearing a tray leaden with food and stopped short when she spied the gambler. “Oh, I thought you were still sleeping. Let me get Mr. Larabee settled and I’ll make you up a tray. I’m afraid Mr. Jackson is still insisting on broth, but not to worry.” She whispered conspiratorially, “I’ll sneak you a little treat.” Ezra couldn’t help blushing when Chris grinned and shook his finger while Ms. Millie had her back turned.
After ensuring the tray was settled securely on the bureau, Ms. Millie bustled over to fuss over Chris, plumping his pillows, and readjusting the blankets while she prattled on, “I’m so glad to see you up and about, Mr. Standish. We were all beginning to worry when your fever lasted so long. Poor Rupert was beside himself. He’ll be so happy to know you’re on the way to recovering.”
“I am feeling much better,” Ezra sighed as he pushed himself carefully out of the chair, the thought of broth putting a damper on his appetite. “I’ll leave you to your dinner, Mr. Larabee. I find I am a little tired and would like to lie down.”
“You all right?” Chris asked in concern as Ms. Millie set the tray over his lap.
“Fine. Fine,” Ezra yawned, shuffling slowly toward his own room. “Just more tired than I thought.”
“I’ll be back in a moment with some supper for you, Mr. Standish.” Ms. Millie turned to follow Ezra out the door.
With a long suffering look Ezra groaned, “Honestly, I’m not really hungry. I think sleep would better for me.” Peering around Ms. Millie’s bulk, Ezra noticed Chris grinning as he dug into what appeared to be mashed potatoes and fried chicken. “Enjoy your dinner, Mr. Larabee.”
“I will. Night, Ez.”
“Honestly, Vin. I’m feeling a lot more like myself this morning.”
“Fine. I’m still goin’ with you when you go out.”
Glaring at Vin’s reflection in the mirror, Ezra sulked, “I’m only going as far as the hotel and should be back directly. Your time would be better served looking after Chris.”
“Nathan’s here. Chris is fine. In fact, he’s been as antsy as a cat in a room full of rockers. Bein’ stuck in the bed is wearin’ on him something fierce,” Vin sighed as he looked down onto the street below. “Nate doesn’t want you over-doin’ it and I need some fresh air.”
Ezra snorted as he settled his gun belt about his hips. “You know very well the real reason they insist you sticking close is the town’s current attitude.”
“Ez, don’t forget about the mob that overran the jail a couple nights ago. These town folk seem to have no problem with taking the law into their own hands.” Vin let the curtain drop back into place and turned to watch Ezra smooth his waist coat. “I’d feel a hell of a lot better with this place behind us.”
“Not until I see Rupert and his grandmother off on the stage. I promised him I’d come down and see him off.”
“Couldn’t they stop by the boarding house? I’ll even escort them here to see you and Chris. We don’t need to be rilin’ the town folk anymore than they already are.”
“Mr. Tanner, I will not be run off like a mongrel dog. Mr. Larabee and I were just as much victims of this tragedy as anyone else. No one knew there were assassins about and besides, the trial in Denver went on without us in attendance. Despite our absence, the cretin was still afforded a quick drop and sudden stop.”
Rubbing at his neck, Vin strode to the door and yanked it open. “You about ready? Day lights burnin’ and I’m not getting any younger.”
“I wish I had the opportunity to watch both hangings and Shaw’s was much too quick. I can assure you,” Ezra muttered wistfully as he checked his reflection one more time. Grabbing his hat he moved past Vin without further comment.
Vin stared after Ezra as he breezed by and pointed out, “Never knew you to be the type to enjoy a hanging.”
Looking back from the staircase with a bored expression Ezra asked, “You coming?”
“Yeah, right behind you.”
Ezra tried to ignore the stares as he and Vin made their way down to the street. “You needn’t suffer the venomous glares directed our way, Vin. I am perfectly capable of finding my way to the stage office.”
“Told you I needed the fresh air and I don’t care what people think,” Vin replied, his breath showing in the cold late morning air. “Just so you know. Chris is planning on heading home before the end of the week.”
“Is Nathan aware of this planned escape?” Ezra asked as they stepped up out of the street and onto the boardwalk.
Vin chuckled and slowed his stride to match Ezra’s swagger. “What do you think?”
“I think Nathan is going to have his hands full.”
“Yup. Can’t blame Chris though, he’ll be able rest easier once we get home.”
As they meandered down the boardwalk Ezra’s attention wandered and he found himself chest to chest with a hulk of a man. Mumbling an apology while trying to step to the right, he found his way blocked by another.
Vin glared at the two men but held his tongue as Ezra held up a staying hand.
“Please let us pass,” Ezra said, staring up into the glowering face of the largest man. He’d only wanted to see Rupert off, grab a quick card game and a drink at the saloon before heading back for a nice dinner at Ms. Millie’s.
“How come you ain’t left yet?” The hulk of a man snapped as he looked Vin and Ezra over with a critical eye.
“I wasn’t aware you were in charge of the town’s business,” Ezra deadpanned, staring up into the man’s fierce expression. “Are you the mayor?”
“Of course not. Why?”
“Well then you have no say over how log we stay.” Ezra dropped his hand to rest on the butt of his gun. “We have paid for our board and have every right to stay here in town.”
Glaring down at Ezra and Vin the large man and his companion purposely crowded the two men. “This is our town and we don’t want you here. We lost some good folk on that train and you’re the ones that caused it.”
“Really? I want you to think on this for a moment. Why would I stay on a train I intended to wreck?” Waiting for the space of two seconds Ezra continued, “I know it’s a stretch but I feel you can muddle through.” Ezra looked up innocently into the man’s mottled red face as he realized he’d been insulted.
Taking a deep breath and stepping forward the man opened his mouth to retaliate when Vin’s quiet words gave him pause.
“Back off before you say something you’re gonna regret,” Vin growled evenly, glaring up at the two men from beneath his hat.
The hulk snorted and clapped his friend on the shoulder. “He thinks I’m afraid of him.” Leaning down closer to Vin he snarled. “Why don’t you run on back home and put on your short pants.”
“He thinks I wear short pants?” Vin grinned slyly at Ezra and struck quick as a snake, kneeing the man in the balls and dropping him to the ground. The second man sent a wary look Ezra and Vin’s way as he knelt next to his friend trying to offer sympathy.
Stepping around the prostrate form of his aggressor Ezra followed Vin down the boardwalk. “I have to say, Mr. Tanner. I did not expect that tactic,” Ezra laughed as he glanced back over his shoulder at the two men crouched on the boardwalk.
“You wanted to make the stage didn’t you? He’d a kept yammering all day.”
“Well yes, but a punch to the jaw could have sufficed.”
“Nope, it’d take too much energy and he’ll think twice about messing with us again.”
“Remind not to get on your bad side, Mr. Tanner.”
“Mr. Ezra!” Rupert called happily from where he was waiting with his grandmother. Excitement getting the better of him, Rupert ran up the street to meet Ezra and Vin. “You came, you came!”
Catching Rupert up before he could barrel into him, Ezra grimaced, before squatting down to look the child in the eye. Smiling, Ezra replied, “Yes, I did. I always like to see my friends off on their travels.”
Rupert gave Ezra a quick hug and whispered, “You are my best friend.”
“You are mine also. Now, you have a long trip and I come bearing gifts. Chris regrets not being able to come, but he has sent along something to remember him by.” Ezra pulled a small book and deck of cards from inside his coat. “He said it was one of the stories you requested read over and over again with while staying with us.”
“Oh yes, it’s got pirates and buried treasure, oh and sword fights!” Rupert cheered as he clutched the book to his chest. Glancing up at Vin, Rupert gave a small grin. “I know he said not to tell, but he even did the voices.” Looking back over his shoulder at his grandmother Rupert whispered, “She won’t do the voices.”
“I’d have never suspected, but your secret is safe with me and Mr. Tanner. Now, this,” Ezra sighed as he held out the worn pack of cards, “Well, these are my lucky cards.” Vin took the book from Rupert so he could take the cards Ezra held out. “They have served me well and I want you to have them.”
Rupert looked down at the well-worn cards clutched in his hands and back up at Ezra. “You want to give me your lucky cards?”
“Yes, I want you to have them. Maybe they’ll bring you the same luck as they have me.” Waving Vin off as he heard the man chuckle, Ezra added, “In fact, I know they will.”
“Rupert! Hurry, boy. The stage is preparing to depart.” Rupert’s grandmother called from where she and the other passengers stood by the stage.
Waving to his grandmother, Rupert turned back to Ezra and Vin. “I’ll never forget you or Mr. Chris,” Rupert cried, as he energetically hugged Ezra around the neck, “You’ll have to come to Denver and visit, grandmother has plenty of room.”
“I’m sure we will. Now I believe our time is drawing to a close and the stage master wants to get your journey started.” Ezra put the cards into Rupert’s coat pocket, “Keep them safe and they will serve you well.”
Vin handed Rupert his book and shook his hand. “Thanks for keeping ‘em out of trouble until me and Nate got here. You’re a good friend.”
“Thanks,” Rupert chirped as they started down the street to where his grandmother was waiting.
Fishing a piece of paper from his pocket Ezra handed it down to Rupert. “I almost forgot. Here’s where you can write us and tell us all about your adventures.”
“I’m just a kid, Mr. Ezra. I don’t get to have adventures yet.”
“Yes, well you can tell us about all the adventures you want to have.”
“Rupert! Come along, they want to start,” Rupert’s grandmother called again as she climbed up into the stage.
“Yes’m.” Rupert waved at Vin and Ezra and took off at a run down to the stage.
Ezra and Vin watched from the street as the stage left town heading off toward Denver.
Vin clapped Ezra on the back as they turned to head back the way they’d come, “Kid kinda grows on you. You did good, Ez.”
“Thought you were coming right back?” Chris asked as he put down the book he’d been reading. He looked Ezra over and shook his head. “You couldn’t pass up the game could you?”
“I admit I have a weakness for a good card game,” Ezra wheezed, as he held a handkerchief to his bloody nose. “I did not start the fight, but I did feel the need to defend my honor.”
Chris turned a critical eye on Vin, who just shrugged. “You have anything to say for yourself?”
“They deserved it?”
Nathan glared at Ezra as he paced back and forth. “We were supposed to be keeping to ourselves. You’re barely ready to travel and Chris, well he should be kept in bed for a while longer yet.” Stopping in front of Vin, Nathan glowered darkly. “I thought I told you to keep him out of trouble.”
“Ezra’s perfectly capable of taking care of himself. These townsfolk are just spoiling for a fight.” Vin stretched out across the end of the bed, being mindful of Chris’s leg. “Let’s just go home, Nate. Chris’ll be fine, you’ll see.”
“Do you think you can make the trip back to Four Corners? It’s going to mean going back on the train, the stage would take days.” Nathan looked pointedly at Chris and was about to continue when there was a knock at the door.
The men turned as one as the door creaked open and Asa Jones stepped in, his hat in his hands and a solemn look upon his face. “I fear I bring bad tidings.”
“Pray tell us,” Ezra sighed as he sank down into the overstuffed chair sitting near the bed, “it’d be just the thing to round out the perfect afternoon.”
“Apparently, you fellas have over stayed your welcome.”
“What do they want?” Chris asked Asa as Vin got up to look out the window.
Turning his hat around in his hands, Asa frowned. “They want you gone by sun up. I tried to change their minds but they wouldn’t compromise.”
Rubbing at his temples Ezra felt a horrendous headache coming on. “Mr. Larabee can not be expected to travel yet. Would it satisfy the town if I left?”
“No, they insist that all of you leave, you’re no longer welcome. I’m sorry my hands are tied. Tomorrow’s stage will take you down to Bristol where you can catch the train or even hole up there for a while.”
“Understood. It’s time to be getting home anyway.” Chris gave Asa a reassuring smile before turning his attention to Nathan. “Nate, get what supplies you need before the shops close up for the evening.”
“Come on, Vin. We’ve got a lot to do over the next few hours.” Nathan tapped Vin on the arm as he hurried out of the room. Vin nodded to Asa before following Nathan at a hurried clip.
“We appreciate everything you’ve done, Mr. Jones. We will be forever in your debt,” Ezra replied as he crossed the room and held his hand out.
Grinning as he shook Ezra’s hand, Asa replied, “Do me a favor and stay out of trouble and maybe steer clear of here for a while.”
“Don’t worry. Thank you for everything.” Chris grinned also and held out his hand as Asa stepped up to the bed.
Once Asa had exited the room Chris turned his attention to Ezra. “Stay in tonight and get some rest. I mean it.”
Crossing his arms, Ezra growled, “This is not my fault. These townsfolk have been baying for blood for days now and I’m happy for an excuse return home. The game wasn’t all that exciting anyway.”
“I understand. You just wanted to have some fun, but these people are on edge,” Chris explained, “and they want someone to blame.”
“The wreck wasn’t our fault. We were just as much the victims as they were.” Ezra spun away in frustration taking particular interest in a painting on the wall.
“I know how hard this trip’s been on you, hell it’s been hard on me.”
Ezra glanced at Chris from over his shoulder, his brow furrowing in confusion.
“Thank you,” Chris huffed, his cheeks coloring. “Rupert and I wouldn’t have made it if you hadn’t been looking out for us. Heck, I’d be a rotting corpse in the wreck.”
“I tend to doubt that. You are very resourceful and would have found some way to get out.”
“Ez, just take it for what it is. I’m trying to thank you for all you’ve had to do since starting this trip.”
Turning to face Chris, Ezra smirked. “If you’d really like to thank me, I could think of no better way than leaving at a more hospitable hour tomorrow. Oh, say the afternoon?”
“Nope, we’re leaving in the morning, early morning. In fact, just be ready to leave at sun up.” Chris grinned as he turned back to the page he’d been reading. “I know that shouldn’t be a problem for you,” Chris called to Ezra’s retreating back.
Ezra scowled darkly as he pulled the door shut behind him and stomped down the stairs to find something left over from lunch.
Morning came too soon as far as Ezra was concerned, but he held his tongue as Chris cursed roundly when Nathan continued to fuss over him. This was going to be a long trip home. Ezra secretly envied Vin, who’d jumped at the opportunity to take what belongings they possessed down to the stage office.
“Are you sure you’re ready for this?” Nathan asked as he helped Chris to stand. “We can carry you down to the stage office.
Chris’s glower halted any further discussion. “I can do it.”
“Chris, perhaps if Nathan and Vin carried you down the stairs, Nathan would compromise and let you use the crutches to get to the stage?” Ezra peered out the window as a commotion drew his attention. Turning to grin at his friends he chuckled, “Never mind. It appears they are so desperate to rid themselves of our presence they’ve had the stage brought up the street.”
“How you doin’ in here?” Vin asked, stepping into the room, taking in his three traveling companions. “Apparently we’ve got the stage to ourselves.”
“Give me a hand here Vin. This hard head is insisting he can get there under his own steam,” Nathan growled as he draped one of Chris arms over his shoulder.
“Very convenient, we having the stage to ourselves,” Ezra mumbled as he watched sweat bead on Chris’s brow as Nathan and Vin helped him toward the door. Grabbing the crutches leaning against the bed, Ezra followed the slow procession to the top of the stairs.
“This is gonna hurt,” Chris groaned as they stopped and Vin and Nathan adjusted their grips.
Looking down the long flight of steps, Ezra swallowed and squawked, “I’ll meet you three outside. There’s not much for me to do here and I’ll just be in the way.” Sliding by his friends he took the stairs at a quick pace.
Once outside, Ezra breathed deeply of the cool fresh air and tried to calm his racing heart. He could just imagine the pain Chris was going to be in on his way down the stairs and the stubborn man had refused Nathan’s offer of laudanum.
“It’s a shame to see you go, Mr. Standish. I don’t care what the town says. I know you boys are a good sort.” Ms. Millie trundled up the stairs to join Ezra where he stood at the edge of the porch. “You’re welcome to stay at my boarding house anytime you’re in town.”
Thankful for the distraction, Ezra smiled brightly. “You have been a godsend, Ms. Millie. Mr. Larabee and I can’t thank you enough for taking us in.”
“No one should be left out in the cold. How is Mr. Larabee faring this morning?”
“Messer’s Jackson and Tanner are bringing him down as we speak.”
Ms. Millie and Ezra turned at the sound of the approaching men, taking note of Chris’s pallid complexion and clenched jaw.
Nathan halted their forward momentum and stated, “Let’s rest here a moment, Vin. Chris we’re gonna set you down on the bench and let you catch your breath.”
“No! I’m fine. Let’s keep going,” Chris gasped as he bit his lip against the pain. “I can rest once we’re on the stage.”
“Gotta agree with Chris, Nate. It’ll be harder to get him moving again.” Vin readjusted his grip on the gunslinger and took a step forward, forcing Nathan to keep up.
As Ezra was about to hurry down the stairs after his friends Ms. Millie gave him a quick hug. “Have a safe trip.”
Taking Ms. Millie’s hand, Ezra lightly kissed the back of her hand, grinning when she giggled like a school girl. “Again, thank you from the bottom of my heart. And I’ll be sure to spread the news that Ms. Millie’s is the best boarding house in the area.”
Blushing deeply she sighed, “You sir are a real charmer.”
“Ez! Come on, we’re leavin’,” Vin called from inside the stage.
Waving goodbye, Ezra trotted down the path and climbed up into the stage.
Snickering quietly, Vin reached around Ezra and pulled the door shut. “You said all your goodbyes?” Vin waved to Ms. Millie as the stage drew away from the boarding house.
“It was the polite thing to do,” Ezra snorted as he readjusted his seat. “I hate sitting backwards in the stage. Is there some reason Chris gets to lounge on the forward facing seats?”
“Because I’m injured and it was my choice.” Chris growled as he lowered his hat down over his eyes.
Ezra’s mouth dropped open in astonishment and gesturing wildly he blustered, “But I’m hurt also and I have to be squished by Vin and Nathan. Don’t I get the same consideration?”
“Ez? You gonna be complaining the whole trip? Cause if you are I might take my chances and ride topside.” Grimacing as the stage bounced Vin re-wrapped his scarf around his neck and tucked his hands under his arms.
The stage hit a particularly nasty bump and pitched violently causing Chris to curse loudly and clutch at the seat to keep from falling to the floor.
Banging loudly on the roof with his fist, Nathan shouted, “Watch where you’re going! We’ve got injured people back here!” They heard nothing but an intelligible grunt in response.
“Thank you, Mr. Jackson. I believe I am now deaf,” Ezra sighed as he dug in his ear. “Do any of you know how long it’ll take to get to Bristol?”
“As long as it takes,” Vin mumbled around his scarf.
Pursing his lips together, Ezra huffed, “An estimate perhaps?” He was going to be rattled to pieces at the rate the driver was hitting the bumps and dips in the trail. Any thought of napping was out of the question.
“Could be several hours,” Nathan supplied, closing his eyes and trying to get comfortable.
“I guess it is unavoidable. Let us hope for an …” Ezra started and Chris interrupted him.
“Don’t. Just don’t make any comments about the trip. I just want to get home in one piece,” Chris pinned Ezra with a glare, though it lost some of its effectiveness as he yawned widely.
Ezra laughed, “We’ve had enough misfortune this trip. It would be quite unfair if any more were to be heaped upon us.”
“Ezra, don’t make me…”
Rolling his eyes and waving his hand in the air, Ezra pouted, “Yes. I know. Don’t make you shoot me.”
“Exactly.” Grinning evilly, Chris again lowered his hat over his eyes and tried to sleep.