Keppel's head swung up as he heard the yell. The man knew his name. He frowned in fury. No one knew him, not here. He had been careful masking his tracks. Leaving only hints. HE had been certain that no one could trace him. He had dealt with everyone that had tracked him before. Keppel turned, ignoring Kate who was struggling valiantly against the raw hide that bound her to the four stakes. The rain pelted down, turning the ground to mud.
Straining to see through the rain, Keppel could just make out the form of the man riding down towards him. Keppel was unaware of the man in the green coat approaching stealthily from behind him. The roar of the rain masked the approach of the sodden gambler. Keppel's attention was focused solely upon the man that rode towards him on the black horse. The man reined in the horse fifteen feet away from him, and Keppel's eyes widened with recognition.
"Tannerm," he breathed out softly. Keppel nodded to himself. 'Yes indeed.' It was the same man from so long ago. The bounty hunter had tracked him, but Keppel had waited for him and Keppel smiled ruefully. He should've finished Tanner back then; in fact he thought he had. The smile was wiped from his face as fury took hold.
"Vin Tanner," he repeated his eyes clouding with anger, the bound whimpering woman forgotten as he focussed his rage on the tracker. Vin Tanner had nearly killed him and the bastard had made sure that he could never go home, that he was an outcast among his people. His eyes darkened and his face distorted with malice: now was the time for retribution.
The blue-eyed man didn't acknowledge as he slid gracefully from his horse. Keeping his eyes on his prey, Tanner slapped the horse on the rump. The horse snorted and trotted off as if realising the fight her master was about to begin. He noted the knife in Keppel's hand and noted that there was no blood on it, that was a relief. It meant that the sadistic son of a bitch had not begun his murder dance, yet. Vin frowned, remembering the woman that he and Ezra had found the day before, ankles broken, far from home and alone. Keppel had brutalised for nothing more than his pleasure. Vin's gut twisted at the thought, and he smiled blackly.
"Let's finish this," Vin Tanner declared, his voice colder than Kate had ever heard it and she shivered involuntarily. She had heard the same tone in Dell Spivak's voice before he pulled a job.
The two men approached each other warily. A knife materialised in Tanner's hands and Kate blinked, wondering how it had appeared there so quickly. She hadn't even see him move his hands.
They circled each other like animals.
Both men looking for any sign of weakness.
Both men sensing none.
With an inhuman yell, Keppel charged the former bounty hunter. Vin pivoted on his heel, dancing out of the way. As Keppel charged past, Vin slammed a heel down on the man's knee making the man cry out with pain. Keppel swiped desperately at Vin with his knife, it met the air as the tracker danced smoothly away. Vin circled the fallen man who eyed him with murderous intent.
Kate bit back the scream that almost erupted from her throat, feeling a hand touch hers and then the bracing coolness of metal. Her head was turned and abruptly she was gazing into the concerned green eyes of the gambler. Kate went to speak, but he motioned for her to be silent and quickly cut the petite woman free.
Ezra gestured for her to run to safety, his eyes cautiously watching the two men move in front of him. Kate nodded slowly; she didn't like not being able to help; it was not in her nature to run. But the soaked muddied dress was heavy and cumbersome. She would not be able to help anyway she determined, the dress was too much of a hindrance. She patted Ezra on the back as she began to slowly back away to shelter. Kate didn't want to distract Vin in this fight. Ezra nodded acknowledgment of her decision. He watched her move away for a moment before turning to back up the bounty hunter.
Vin knew Kate was free. He had watched Ezra move back letting him fight his demon. He would have to thank him later for that.
The rain mingled with sweat on Keppel's skin. He was tiring. He was old and Tanner had learned far more than he had ever remembered. Still they danced underneath the falling rain.
Then the killer watched in unabashed delight as Vin slid in the mud. Quickly Keppel parried forward, cutting through Tanner's jacket. Keppel grinned, he knew he had hit flesh. But Vin rolled as his feet slipped, somersaulting sideways along the ground before leaping to his feet.
Ezra dashed forward seeing Keppel about to throw a small hunting knife at Vin. He saw Tanner wave him away and he paused, falling back. Ezra didn't see the gleam that came into Keppel's eyes. The girl no longer mattered. To Vin Tanner she was of no value to his adversary, an innocent. But this fancy dressed man? Now, he would be useful.
Vin didn't like the calculating look that flashed across Keppel's face, and he dodged the quick parry and thrust the older man threw at him with his hunting knife. Keppel's eyes went to Ezra and Vin frowned, sensing what Keppel might do.
Tanner moved forward abruptly, catching Keppel off guard. Vin knew that he needed to reverse the situation and the dominance Keppel appeared to have. His knife flew out, slashing Keppel across his abdomen. It was hard to tell if it was a deep cut, but blood coloured his knife for a moment before being washed away in the rain. Moving back, he heard the angry yell that tore from the murderer's mouth.
Keppel lunged at Vin, throwing his full body at him. Ducking, Vin rolled away; a hand on his back propelled him forward. Vin stumbled slightly as Keppel pushed him further away from Kate and Ezra. Standing. Vin stepped back quickly as Keppel suddenly changed tactics. flying at Ezra, who pushed Kate back and out of harm. She grunted as she landed heavily on the ground.
Ezra fought frantically to keep the murderer away from Kate, and protect himself. He staggered, his gun aimed at Keppel. Cocking the weapon, Ezra prepared to fire. His eyes never left Keppel's as he pulled the trigger, but their was no blast and his eyes widened as Thomas smiled a cold terrible smile, one that sent shivers up Ezra's spine. The man was insane.
The gun was ripped from Ezra's hand as he was thrown down on the ground. He felt the man's foot slam down on his ribcage and he gasped in agony as white fire lanced through his side.
Then suddenly the pressure was gone. Opening pain filled eyes, Ezra could see two figures struggling before him. A tangle of bodies rolling along the ground.
Then they were still. Ezra struggled painfully to his feet, one hand wrapped around his ribs. He felt Kate come to support him. Ezra couldn't pull his eyes away from the two sprawled figures. Kate shakily reached out a hand around his waist. She let out an involuntary gasp of fear as one of the two figures moved. And they held their breaths wondering if they were about to die.
Yet it was Tanner who pulled himself to his feet; his chest heaving with effort. He had felt the knife slide in through Keppel's chest and had heard above the rain the crunch of bone as he jerked upward. Keppel had laughed softly as Vin pushed the knife in. "Looks like you win, Tanner."
Vin moved away from Keppel with the catlike grace of an enraged animal. This man had hurt his family. A knife protruded from Keppel's chest. Vin shook his head as he watched the dying man breathe his last.
An odd look of peace came over the man's face as his hands clawed at the ground around him. His were hands clawing in his blood. It seemed fitting in a way for this man to die in his own blood. But somehow, it didn't pay for what he had done to those women, what he had been about to do to Kate and what he had done to Buck.
Vin meant the glazing eyes and saluted the man as Keppel breathed his last.
Vin's eyes met Ezra's; it was over. Keppel was dead. The sadistic bastard couldn't hurt another human being ever again. It would remain to be seen how many lives he had already taken.
Kate let out a small, relieved sigh sagging limply against Ezra who grimaced with pain as he felt the increase in pressure on his ribs.
Tanner grinned at Ezra, each taking stock of the other man's injuries. Vin read the unspoken question on Ezra's face: could they make it back to town tonight. Both men needing to know what was happening with Buck and if he was still alive.
Walking over to Kate and Ezra whistled his horse over. "We could try." Tanner said softly. His hand clasped tightly over the large knife gash on his arm. Vin knew that in the scramble on the ground, Keppel had dislocated his shoulder, he could feel it.
Moving away, he rested against the wall of one of the huts in the Village. An old friend had taught him this trick a long time ago. Taking a deep breath, he slammed his shoulder into the wall, giving a harsh muffled yelp as the bone slid back into place. Breathing hard, he cradled his injured arm against his body as he turned around.
Standish shook his head sadly. "Barbaric," he muttered seeing the quirk of the lips from Tanner as he looked back over at them.
The rain was easing off slightly, but the sky was darkening with the coming of the evening. The two men sighed. They wouldn't be heading back tonight.
"We go at first light," Vin nodded. His eyes resting on Kate who bit her lip, understanding the decision. She wouldn't know if Buck was alive yet, but these men understood her pain. Perhaps felt the loss more keenly than she did. But damn it, like them, she didn't have to like her decision.
'Fool girl.' She berated herself heading back tomorrow will be soon enough. 'Buck was alive.' She wouldn't let herself or these two honourable men think otherwise, Buck wouldn't want them too. Straightening her shoulders, she hurled up her skirt and led the way towards one of the huts.
Ezra glanced at Vin and shrugged his shoulders painfully. Both had seen the internal battle and the decision that Kate had made; they stood by it. For they were thinking the same thing. Buck had to be alive. He just had to be.
Vin rubbed his brow tiredly as he led his horse to some shelter. At least they could get out of some of this rain. Ezra whistled and his white horse soon trotted up, nudging her owner in recognition. Ezra smiled, his tooth gleaming dully in the light of the fire that Kate had started in the hut a few feet away. Vin and Ezra tended their horses for a moment before exiting the makeshift stable. As he passed his horse, he patted the elegant animal softly. "At least you aren't injured, my dear."
Vin chuckled as he helped Ezra tend to the horses. "Yeah. Keppel didn't leave a stone unturned..." he trailed off, unwilling to finish the sentence.
The two men shared one last disgusted look at the killer's body before they followed after Kate, entering into the inviting warmth of the small home.
+ + + + + + +
The large brawny man made his way down the sodden wet street- it was empty now. No one ventured out into the torrents of rain that now poured down from the blackened sky. His footsteps were heavy on the steps as he pushed open the door to the church, his sanctuary.
But it brought no peace now, his heart twisted in his chest as a tears burned his eyes. He slammed shut the door, its echo vibrating around the dusty cold church. Cold, so very cold like his heart now, for they were loosing their family.
It would never be the same again, Buck was dying, and Vin was missing confronting a murderer alone in order to bring justice. He should have his comrades, his brothers to back him up, but they had failed him. It would remain to be seen how far the failure went, and then there was Ezra. Dead.
He felt hollow, and a sense of disbelief swam around him. Josiah shrugged out of his saturated coat, his clothing clung to him, and the water only served as a reminder of his failure. Struggling with himself, Sanchez knelt on the pew, resting his arm on the wooden front. He could not speak; no words would form as memories of Ezra played through his mind. Instances when he had made them laugh, made them weep for him, and proud of him.
It hurt physically to think of the charismatic gambler as gone, never to see him play cards or make a flippant remark to remove tension or con them out of trouble. Never to share a drink with them at their table in the saloon after a long day.
And he knew that a piece of himself would never heal with this loss. Josiah closed his eyes, finally letting himself succumb to the bitter anguished tears that washed down his cheeks. His rasping fervent sobs reverberating in the empty church. For one of their own was dead, and nothing would ever be the same again.
+ + + + + + +
Buck blinked several times as he slowly woke up. His eyes flew about the dimly lit clinic. There was a small lamp that lit the room. It flickered with the gentle breeze that came in through the window that was near the bed.
The clinic was silent; only the quiet gentle snore of the man to his right broke through the quiet. Buck suppressed a groan as a movement sent a swamp of pain cascading up through his body. He shivered a little as he felt the cool breeze caress his skin.
He squinted as he tried to shift his head to make out the man beside him. Nathan. A tired, drawn, grief-weary man sat beside him and Buck's heart went out to him.
Buck frowned suddenly as his mind tried to bring fragmented memories together. His hands clutched at the sheets that covered him, as he felt more than remembered Josiah's words. Ezra dead.
Buck shook his head trying to raise himself up and letting out an agonised groan that mixed physical and emotional pain. Nathan woke with a jerk.
"Easy, Buck. Easy," he said a soft litany of reassurance as he pressed the ill man back onto the sheets. Buck didn't fight him; mind and body both too tired to resist.
"Nathan?" Buck whispered hoarsely through a dry mouth. Nathan looked at him quizzically waiting for him to continue. "Ezra?"
Nathan sighed heavily, then shrugged his shoulders in a defeated manner. "No one knows about them all yet...."
Buck looked at him bewildered. "What happened?"
Nathan sighed. "He may have drowned."
Buck groaned, shutting his eyes as a few tears slid out and fell down his cheeks. "Damn." His mind flying back to that talk in the cemetery with Ezra, then vibrant Kate. "Nathan, how are you doing?"
Nathan smiled, his teeth flashing at Buck. "Much better now that you're more lucid." He swallowed hard, his hand catching Buck's as he reached out to him offering silent support. "I couldn't lose you as well as Buck."
Buck grinned. "I was just trying to make sure you didn't quit healing. You do it real good you know."
Nathan shook his head. "Sometimes I wonder."
Buck bit back a gasp of pain as he shifted on the bed. He had to get his point across before he passed out again. "No Nathan. You have a gift. You do the best you can every damn day with this job. That's all anyone can ask of ya."
Nathan nodded slowly accepting the words, but the healer knew that when Buck walked out those doors of his clinic healed, then and only then would he believe him. His eyes narrowed as he saw Buck trying to fight the waves of pain. "Let's get you something for that pain."
Buck grunted a nod. He closed his eyes, Ezra possibly dead. Kate maybe dead, Vin? JD? And Chris. He had to fight for the seven, for life, for his friends. Buck breathed out heavily, raising a shaky hand to cover his eyes. Oblivion was a much-preferred state right now to reality. Reality only brought pain. But he would fight. That's what he had always done, he wouldn't run.
As darkness swamped him, he was barely aware of Nathan raising him up and helping him swallow some gawd awful concoction, that vaguely made him remember a time when Inez had given him some vile coffee. He had woken up in Chris's shack after that. As Nathan gently laid him down again, Buck thought he heard the black man say something, but he couldn't quite make it out.
Nathan patted him gently. "Rest, Buck. Ya safe. Don't worry, everyone's gonna be just fine." Nathan ducked his head, scratching his forehead wearily. If only he could believe that himself.
+ + + + + + +
The sun was just lighting up the sky, the brilliant colours of the sunrise fading as it moved further into the morning. The three riders were tired. They had slept little, each lost in their thoughts. None of them wished to remain a moment longer in the Seminole village.
Ezra wrapped an arm around his ribs, sweat beading on his forehead. It hurt badlyl his ribs- he imagined he could feel the bones grinding together. And he shivered in the breeze as his horse trotted behind the tracker. Tanner's arm rested in a makeshift sling, and though his body burned and the cut was deep, he had had worse.
Kate rode Keppel's horse, the large grey mount behind the two men. Her blonde hair matted as she pulled the gambler's coat tighter around her. She knew the man was cold, it was obvious in the minute shivers that ran through the figure in front of her. But he was a gentleman, and the gesture made her feel more like a lady.
"Well the town seems a little too quiet." Ezra drawled as they moved down main street towards the clinic.
"Probably because the sun ain't too high yet, and we've been travelling since early this morning." Tanner drawled as they reined their horses in. Still it was disconcerting to have no one moving about; even Chris should have been keeping watch.
They all dismounted; all three exchanging rueful smiles as their injuries made themselves known.
"Come on." Tanner grinned, as he noted the trepidation on Ezra's face, "Nathan don't bite," he chuckled at the venomous look that the gambler shot him.
+ + + + + + +
JD swung the door to the Clarion open and motioned for the two women holding the trays of steaming food to go ahead of him. Mary smiled a thanks, the tray was heavy and her bruises from yesterday were beginning to wreak their vengeance upon her petite frame. Maude also nodded at the young man as she passed. JD gave a half smile to her, what could he say to her really? The news that Ezra may have drowned had hit her hard, and JD could not remember a time when he had seen the woman look.... Well so unkempt. He sighed grabbing the two large jugs of coffee- he probably didn't look too good either.
Walking several steps behind Mary and Maude, he wondered at the twist of fate that had brought him to Buck's bedside all night. Nathan said he wasn't sure yet, and that they would just have to wait. Well damn it, JD mused his liquid brown eyes flashing, that was unacceptable. He frowned, he could vaguely remember Buck sitting beside his bed when he'd been shot and apologising. He shook his head slightly wondering at the stillness of the street. He'd thought that he heard horses before when he was inside with Mary and Maude, but had dismissed it as part of his imagination.
Rounding the corner of the clinic, Mary and Maude stopped in shock. Both women nearly dropped their trays in shock. "Oh thank you lord." Maude breathed out shakily.
JD frowned hearing the whispered words as he too arrived at the doorstep too the clinic. He glanced at Mary worriedly. The blonde woman had turned a shade pale, but had a look of such relief that confused him for a moment. "Mrs Travis?" He asked softly, before following her gaze towards the foot of the clinic's steps.
Three horses stood tethered and lathered in sweat, but it was the three bemused people beside them that had JD let out a whoop of delight before hurrying over to his friends. There looking very dirty, tired and worn, but so alive were Vin, Ezra and Kate.
Vin grinned seeing JD hurry over, the heavy coffee placed heedlessly on the ground. "JD, glad to see you're okay," he drawled softly, kicking his leg out a lean and pulling his arm closer to him. JD grinned in return, his hand flying up to the large bruise on his forehead.
"Thank god you're here!" JD exclaimed.
Ezra smirked, his eyes twinkling as he locked gazes with Vin and then met the former sheriff's eyes. "Where else would we be?" He laughed, his smile fading slightly as he looked past the smaller man and met Maude's gaze. His green eyes darkened taking in her haggard appearance.
Their eyes met for a moment and Maude nodded at him, and Ezra realised that she was going to leave him so that he could be with his friends. Placing the tray down on the steps to the clinic, the southern belle, forced a smile at Ezra as she walked away. She waited till she had past Mary's sympathetic gaze and had walked around the corner and was hidden from view before she raised an unsteady hand to the wall and let herself cry the tears of relief that she had been fighting. Ezra wasn't dead he was alive. 'Oh thank god.' She cried, her body slowly sinking to the ground.
Ezra watched Maude's retreating figure for a moment before he was drawn back by a gentle nudge from JD. "Ezra, you okay?"
"I'll be fine," he answered softly, trying to get Maude's expression of relief out of his mind. He winced slightly as he shifted his weight and his ribs flared once more with pain.
Mary smiled a radiant smile at the four people as she walked forward. "I'll take these up to Nathan and Chris." The bruises forgotten at the joy in realising that they were alive.
Vin's brow furrowed, "Buck?" asking the one thing that none of them had been game to ask. The idea that Buck might be... well it was not something Vin could deal with, after saving Buck from himself last time - to have him taken away so soon. He ducked his head readying himself for the blow before snapping his eyes up to pin the widow's.
Mary's features sagged slightly with worry, "He's holding his own so far... we won't know for some time." Her eyes were drawn up to the door that the wounded man lay behind and Mary wished their homecoming had had better news than that.
Ezra rubbed his features tiredly. "I'll help you with the trays." Kate stopped him with a gesture of her hand. Ezra stepped back in surprise and then smiled conceding defeat. The bounty hunter hadn't been fooled, she knew he had hurt his ribs, where as she had abrasions and a few bruises and was more than able to handle a tray laden with food.
Kate raised an eyebrow cheekily at the gambler realising the tangent his thoughts had taken. Her soft blue eyes were drawn upstairs as she began to mount the steps followed by JD, Vin, Ezra and Mary. She could still see Buck being thrown down on the ground, the sadness and regret in his eyes had spoken volumes. She shook her head. No, Buck was going to be fine.
+ + + + + + +
Nathan crushed the herbs together in the old ceramic medicine bowl. The drawn curtains making the room seem a lot darker than it should be, pulling the blinds back a little, the light filtered in brightening the two still figures by the bed. Buck slightly restless on the bed, his eyelids flickering in his sleep. The man was dreaming, of what Nathan had no idea. He just hoped they weren't nightmares. The man seated, his head bowed beside him was a forlorn figure.
Shaking his head, Nathan crushed the herbs with more violence than necessary. The creaking of the door being opened made both Nathan and Chris turn towards the door in surprise. Mary peeked her head around the door, smiling at the two men with such radiance that they frowned. "Is it all right if I come in, I brought a few guests, they were desperate to see Buck," she said, nudging the door with her hip, she grimaced as it hit a bruise on her side, before walking in and placing the tray on the bedside table.
Chris was about to ask her if she was fine, when his mouth dropped open in surprise. "Vin, Ezra? You're alive," he said before he could stop himself, standing up so abruptly that the stool was knocked over with a clatter.
"What... you think we couldn't handle an old man like Keppel?" Vin said with a wry grin, easing himself down onto the spare bed.
"To be fair to the man," JD chuckled quietly, "We thought Ezra was dead, or at least Josiah did."
Ezra swallowed hard, suddenly understanding what Maude hadn't been saying earlier, she had grieved, and had rejoiced at his homecoming and had left him with his friends so he wouldn't have to deal with her. "Oh, mother," he whispered, running a hand through his hair. "Why didn't you say something?"
Mary touched his elbow guiding him towards the bed and a seat beside Vin, "She didn't want to impose after you ordered her to leave," she said meeting Ezra's gaze with a sympathetic shrug. "She loves you more than you can imagine, hear her side," she said softly, smiling gently as Ezra nodded slowly.
Kate hovered at the door, her eyes anxiously looking over Buck's still form. He hadn't move in all this commotion... he hadn't moved. She was so afraid that he might be-
"Is he okay?" She asked clearly walking over to the black man who was still staring at the new arrivals with a bemused smile of relief.
Nathan glanced at the bedraggled woman and sighed. Walking over to the bed, he leant over Buck checking his fever and his wounds. "He's not out of the woods that's for sure... So as much as I am enjoying this reunion, all those who don't need to be here... out," He said with a smile.
Chris smiled as he manoeuvred around the bed, squatting in front of the two returned members of his team. He met Mary's reassuring gaze and unwittingly his hand reached and encircled hers for comfort. Vin threw Ezra a raised eyebrow, but neither man commented; it was obvious their resurrection was a shock. "What happened out there?" He asked finally.
Ezra shrugged painfully, drawing a sharp gaze from Nathan. "We tracked Keppel to the Seminole village where he had tied Ms Stokes to four stakes and was about to... ahem" he coughed, uncomfortable as Kate stepped back her arms folded across her front at the mention of what had nearly happened to her. "Vin rode in and while they fought, I attempted to free Ms Stokes and after quite a struggle Keppel died," he said succinctly.
Chris rubbed his jaw; it was obvious there was more to it than that. But all that really mattered at the moment was that they were back, they had survived, and he thank god that no one had been taken from him again.
Vin nodded at Ezra's description, wincing a little when Nathan began to poke and prod him to see where he was injured.
Nathan grimaced when he felt Vin's shoulder. "Pulled it out of the joint I see, well that's going in a sling and this wound on your side needs stitching," he paused as his gaze shifted to the reticenct gambler. "How about you, Ezra?"
"I am fine," he drawled, beginning to try and emancipate his escape from the clinic as he took a couple of steps towards the door, but Vin caught his arm stopping him even as JD effectively blocked his exit.
"It's his ribs." Kate answered, her gaze still on Buck. "Keppel kicked him and stood on him ... like-" She trailed off abruptly, no one missing the inference to that attack Keppel had made on her and Buck.
Mary brushed her hair back with her spare hand, she felt Chris squeeze her other hand and she glanced down and he motioned with his head towards the shivering woman. Mary nodded subtly and answered with a squeeze. "Kate, how about I get you changed out of that dirty dress, god knows you must be dying for a nice hot bath. How does that sound?" She said with a lilt, leading the woman out of the clinic and pulling the door shut behind them.
JD watched them go with a frown, his mind on what had happened so long ago. Maybe Kate was different from Mady... maybe this had been one god-awful mistake. Kicking his heel around the chair that Chris had upset, he sat down beside Buck. Taking in the pallid colour of his skin and the bruises that marred his forehead and chest not to mention that huge bandage around Buck's mid-riff. With a sudden flash, JD remembered that time when he had first visited the Seminole village and how Buck had saved his life. Nearly at the expense of his own life. Shaking his head, JD leaned forward brushing the matted hair back off his best friend's forehead, "Buck," he whispered softly, not really seeing anyone else in the room anymore. He didn't see Ezra glare at Nathan when he began to wrap his ribs, nor Vin's grimace when Chris forced him to remain seated on the bed.
"Buck," He repeated his voice nearly breaking. "Keppel's dead, Vin killed him. Kate's alive as well. And well you can't die yet Buck, I need you... we all need you. Ezra, Chris and Vin. I don't know what we would do without you..," he whispered, closing his eyes as tears began to seep out of the corner of his eyes. He felt a strong hand squeeze his shoulder and glancing up he saw Chris standing there with a grim look of reassurance.
"Buck's a fighter JD, he won't give up," Chris said, his own eyes full of unshed tears.
"I know, Chris... it's just," he sighed, rubbing a tired hand across his face.
"Just what?" came the soft whispered words of an unmistakable drawl.
"Buck!" Five voices said in unison.
Buck's eyes slowly blinked open and he gazed about the room for a moment. "Who else would it be?" He said with a ghost of a smile, as his eyes took in the five worried expressions around him.
Ezra laughed, his gold tooth gleaming in the sunlight that now flowed in through the window. Vin grinned, trading a look with Nathan as he smiled, hurrying over to Buck's bedside. "You up for some more medicine?"
Buck grimaced slightly as he shifted on the bed. "Please," the pain of the stab wound and cracked ribs causing him to suck in a deep breath against the pain, squeezing his eyes shut he groaned a little. 'Ezra's not dead.' He thought.
"No, I'm not." Ezra said emphatically, standing and grabbing Buck's other hand to help him ride through the pain. "Never was... and hopefully not for a long time yet, my friend."
"Am I your friend?" Buck whispered to himself, his thoughts confused as his brain tried to cope with the pain. JD frowned, his eyes meeting Chris's who shook his head.
"Easy Buck, easy... remember to fight it," Chris whispered to his friend as he squatted, kicking his bad knee out to the side as he made sure he was level with Buck's head. Buck nodded slightly, then groaned as Nathan forced the vile liquid down his throat. He gulped and sputtered then relaxed once more into sleep. Four eyes landed on Nathan as he gently wiped the mixture from Buck's face and checked the stab wound.
"I said he wasn't out of the woods yet, he can't move- not with that wound and those ribs. Be a couple of days before we know for sure." Nathan said as he helped the gambler to his feet who swayed slightly with exhaustion. Nathan raised an eyebrow. "Ezra will be staying in the clinic as well." He raised a hand at the protest he saw coming. "You're exhausted, cold and have some cracked ribs. it's bed for you and I need you in a place where I can keep an eye on you." He shook his head at the unspoken question. "Vin ain't as bad as you... he didn't go for a swim in the river, did he?"
Vin nodded, leaning against the bedpost. "He's right about that. But say Nathan how about you stitch this wound, then I can get out of your hair."
Nathan slapped his head, berating himself. "Damn Vin, I'm sorry. Should of been..."
Vin raised a hand and grabbed Nathan's arm as he walked by. "You're one man, Nathan with three injured... no, make that five injured men in your care. You're not god. You're a single man who's under a great deal of stress."
Nathan froze at the words, unsure at how to take them, meeting Vin's gaze he nodded finally. They understood he realised the stress he was under. He felt himself shudder suddenly and willed the grief away with a force that surprised him. He needed to work and he couldn't be distracted by his grief over Rain.
Vin nodded slowly then bit his lip in pain as Nathan placed a wad of alcohol over the deep gash to sterilise it. Taking a swig of the proffered bottle of ale from JD it was still morning but hell with Nathan stitching his side he needed a drink. JD gave him a sympathetic pat on the shoulder as Vin handed the bottle back to the former sheriff.
+ + + + + + +
Josiah studied the weeping woman who sat at the back of his church.
"Maude," he said softly, coming to sit beside her. He had felt all of his 50 years this morning, his heart aching at the loss of a man he had considered to be a son.
"He's alive, Josiah," She whispered between her muffled sobs. His arm came to rest on the shaking shoulders as she wept with joy.
"Alive," he whispered bewildered, a smile stealing across his face, as he felt the heavy weight he had been carrying lift slightly.
+ + + + + + +
Nathan sat next to the injured man, whose eyes were closed but he was listening to the soft murmur of words next door in the small kitchen of the clinic.
"How long?" Buck asked, cracking an eye open to gaze at the man who sat beside him.
"Little while," Nathan said in answer to the question his, mind flicking back to when the con woman had arrived; her heels clicking on the board walk. Gone was the unkempt appearance of that morning, her clothes were pristine, she looked untouchable. But they all knew better.
Ezra had seen his mother in the doorway hovering, and he had risen from his bed in the corner and shuffled into the kitchen. Chris had disappeared then; no one wished to intrude upon the discussion between mother and son, and it was time that everyone got a little rest.
Vin had looked at Maude warningly as she entered into the kitchen with the gambler. He knew she had suffered, but he also knew that her words spoken in anger, as well the pain her actions had caused him would take a long time to heal. She had nodded, a smile crossing her face as she touched the tracker on the arm as he turned to leave. "Don't you ever stop doing that for my baby," he looked at her wondering if he understood the meaning, then he recognised what she wanted, "I'll..," he began before pausing his eyes stealing around the room. "We'll look after him, he's one of us," he had said firmly and quietly before tipping his hat and exiting the room.
Buck's soft drawl drew him back to the present as he whispered, "Hope she doesn't drop another bombshell."
Nathan laughed, both seeing the humour in the moment his thoughts had also been travelling down that path.
"Me too," he responded as they both lapsed into silence as they heard the louder sound of Maude's voice. And the healer couldn't stop himself as he reached for Buck's hand in support, both hoping that this time everything would be all right between mother and son.
+ + + + + + +
Maude stepped back from Ezra, a stricken expression on her face. "Fine. You wish for me to depart. I will. But there is one thing, Ezra," she said, her voice sounding raw with the pain this rejection was causing. First, her mother, her baby had died, her husband, now Ezra. She licked her lips, staring at the young man before her, willing him to listen. "I'll miss my baby everyday." Ezra flinched at the words, his green eyes locked with hers. "But I am glad you are my son. I couldn't have wished for a better child."
The words rang in his ears and Ezra swallowed convulsively. His limbs suddenly drained of all anger and disgust. Maude looked at him a moment longer as if committing his face to memory. "Goodbye, Ezra," she whispered, no longer trying to stop the tears.
Turning, she gracefully walked to the door. "Wait," he called out.
Maude stopped, afraid to turn around. Afraid to face this rejection.
Ezra crossed the room and taking her hands in his, he grazed one palm with his lips. "I'll miss you, Mother."
Maude's eyes burned and she gulped back a sob. For so long she had thought she had lost him, to have this olive branch dangled in front of her. It was almost too much. Ezra smiled cheekily. "At a loss, Mother?"
Maude smiled, rolling her slim shoulders delicately. "No, dear. Just overwhelmed."
Ezra sighed, and for the first time in many years drew her into a hug. "That makes two of us," he declared quietly. Stepping out of the embrace, he tapped a finger to his chin. "But perhaps one day soon, we can talk about this more in depth?" He asked, ducking his head, before snapping his eyes up to meet Maude's.
Maude touched his cheek gently. "I'd like that, Ezra." It was a start to bridging the river of pain between them. Maude could only hope she had the answers to the questions he wanted to know.
Ezra looked at her and smiled, his gold tooth flashing. "I am sure you will be able to answer any questions I have."
Maude's startled look made him laugh. "I learnt from the best..," he paused for dramatic effect. "My mother."
She laughed then, a happy sound as she gazed at him, patting him lightly on the cheek she led in towards the other room.
"Yes you did, now I want you to get to bed; you look half dead my dear," she said as she took in the fact that her son was wearing an oversized blue shirt that made him appear as if he was underweight.
"Yes well about that, Mother." Ezra began, stopping their progress to the other room.
But the petite woman shook her head as she smiled charmingly. "You are alive and that is all that counts," she looked at him steadily as taking in the hurt that lay hidden beneath the calm facade that he was exuding. She knew it would take time to heal all the wounds that had been created between them, and she knew that distance between them would be the best solution.
"My dear boy, I shall be leaving on the first coach in the morning and if I see you up and about, I'll hog tie you to that bed," she began seeing a small smile appear on the face she loved so much.
"I just bet you will," he retorted enjoying the repartee between them. They moved into the next room, noting the worry and concern on Nathan's face, and the more restful repose of Buck, as he lay asleep.
"Gentlemen, it's been a pleasure," she drawled, nodding at them all, she disappeared out the door. Ezra watched her go, his head bowed slightly as he licked his lips, obviously fighting to conceal his emotions.
"You okay, Ezra?" Jackson asked, coming to stand beside the other man, as he looked sideways at him, his eyes sparkling just a bit brighter than normal.
"I will be, Mr Jackson" he responded, a smile curving his lips slightly before he shuffled over to the cot, huddling under the blankets, eyes closing slightly as a chill racked through him.
Nathan nodded his head as he poured the pot of tea and medicine he had mixed for the Southerner.
"Here. Drink this," the healer urged as Ezra sat up again this time unable to suppress the shiver that tore through his frame, making his ribs burn as he inadvertently placed strain on them.
"I do believe good sir, you are trying to cause me serious injury," Standish muttered as he finished the foul tasting tea.
"Only if you don't be quiet," Nathan said, a small grin tugging at his mouth, enjoying the fact that the Southerner was making his sarcastic quips again.
"Fine," Ezra murmured as he huddled under the blankets again. His eyes drifting shut as he finally gave into the exhaustion of that day.
"Sleep, Ezra". the healer whispered, rising to his feet, hearing the creak of the floorboards as the door was pushed open revealing Vin and JD who smiled.
"We'll stay up with them, you need to rest," Tanner drawled in his quiet manner that brooked no argument. The healer nodded his head as he headed into his room, falling onto his bed he was soon asleep.