The lone rider cautiously directed his grey horse, Brutus along the ledge that was carved out of the side of the cliff face. Known as Tuggets Bluff, the cliff soured high into the air in one direction, and dropped a hundred yards sharply below the trail that had been forged out of the hard rock. The horse snorted as its hooves came down on a loose piece of ground, causing the horse and rider to stumble. The man who sat astride the majestic beast gently murmured to his horse while giving him a reassuring pat. The trail had fallen away in some places making it almost impossible to pass, but the man had faith in his friend, and because of this faith he assumed he would be safe. Buck Wilmington had taken the first patrol this morning, and was now on his way back. He knew he was late, but that couldn't he helped. He was looking forward to returning back to Four Corners and having a belated breakfast, preferably in bed, with Lulu Belle, before doing whatever duties had been assigned to him for the day. He paused for a moment, and viewed the path again, contemplating whether or not he should take his horse over this particular spot. Buck decided to dismount and lead the animal over this unstable ground. Stones and rubble slide under his feet, and he instinctively held onto the reigns a little tighter. He peered over the side and watched in fascination as the debris tumbled down the viscous slope, gathering speed, and other loose materials along the way in the rapid decent to the final destination. Taking a deep refreshing breath Buck led the animal along past the area, and once he was convinced the ground was once more solid beneath his feet he remounted and continued on at the deliberately controlled pace.
The ferocious storm that had ripped through the town two nights ago had obviously been the precursor to the ravaged trail. The wind alone caused major damage to surrounding farmhouses, with sheds and barns having been unroofed, crops also had been ruined. This was one of the reasons why Chris had wanted additional patrols, to assess how much damage had been caused in the surrounding area. The lightning display had lit the darkened sky and the wind had howled its fury. The rain pelted down relentlessly, soaking the parched earth, overfilling tanks and turning the once dry earth into a slurry of thickened sticky mud.
He'd best hurry back and warn the others of the dangerous path, and recommend that another trail be taken while doing patrols. He wasn't worried about Ezra, who was to take the patrol after him, as a matter of fact the Southerner should have by all rights left and started his patrol already. Thats it he woke up in time. Buck knew that Ezra always did a reverse patrol, going in the direction that the other had just come from. So he assumed that within a short time that they would meet up with each other and he could prevent the gambler from continuing in this direction.
So intent on his thoughts that he neglected to see the snake sunbaking on a rock in the middle of the path. His horse snorted its protest and side stepped nervously, slipping on the roughened eroded edge. Being a good horseman, Buck managed to bring the nervous horse back away from the dangerous ledge, but unfortunately straight back at the snake, which again reared its head and spat its venom and rage at the interruption.
This time Brutus reared up on its hind legs and jostled its rider from the saddle. The tall man fell from his horse this time. But instead of being met with the hard earth, he continued to fall, tumbling headlong down the side of the face of the ridge. He grabbed fruitlessly at the slope, trying to stop his sudden decent, but coming up empty handed. He continued on down, tumbling over rocks that bruised his side, along his arms and his back. Wilmington cried out in pain at the abuse his body was subjected to. For one fleeting moment his mind pleaded in vain hope that the gambler wasn't too far away, and would come to his rescue, but this thought was cut off abruptly as his head hit a protruding rock, and all conscious thought was now gone. His unconscious body now slid the remaining distance to the bottom of the ridge without resistance. Landing ungracefully in a heap.
The snake had slithered away, back into its hole, and Buck's horse hung it head and nickered over the side waiting patiently for his master. Brutus remained where he was, he was a faithful horse, and he'd wait until his master was ready to resume his journey.
Ezra Standish rolled over in his bed, attempting to untangle the sheets that were wrapped around his legs. Growling in frustration, he ripped them from the bottom of the bed until his feet peeped out the bottom uncovered. He glanced about his room, and squinted at the brightness, he raised his arm across his tired eyes. The worn curtains that were draped, ineffectively so it seemed, across the window blocked none of the stringent rays that the early morning sun beamed unmercifully on his window. Swearing under his breath, he rolled onto his side away from the window, and facing the door in the hope of getting a few more precious moments asleep in his feather bed before he was forced to leave it. "Deplorable," the gambler moaned, piqued that he could hear noises in the saloon below, and with a dejected sigh of defeat, knew he would get no more sleep this morning.
Reaching for his timepiece, he fumbled with the catch before flicking it open. Staring at the timepiece in disbelief, he shuddered. Running a distracted hair though his uncombed hair, again the man swore. "Nine o'clock, nine? Hell! Larabee's gunna have me for breakfast if I don't get out of here." Hastily grabbing his pants and stepping into them. The Southerner grumbled his way through his morning ritual, shaving and making himself presentable.
Half an hour later the Southerner was pushing his arms through the sleeves of his favourite red jacket as he opened the door and headed down the stairs. Adjusting the gunbelt that hung snugly around his narrow hips, he descended to the room below. He could feel the presence of the men below as they scrutinised him. Shivering inwardly he stole a brief glance in their direction. As he feared, five of the peacekeepers were stationed at their usual table, and all were watching him. Damn!
"Hey Ezra!" The exuberant youth loudly exclaimed as he spied the errant gambler descending the stairs.
"Morning Ezra," Josiah boomed, but smiled openly at the tardy man. Vin gave the gambler a nod of recognition, which was probably all that could be expected of the quiet tracker. Nathan forever the healer gave the gambler the once over before offering a chair to him. Chris Larabee sat back in his chair, and sipped his coffee, holding the mug high in front of his face, hiding the smile that tugged at the corners of his mouth. He'd been watching the time, knowing that Ezra had the patrol following Buck that morning, and wondered if the Southerner was going to appear in time or not. Still the gunslinger had to admit he was surprised to see Standish this early, particularly as no one had woken him. They all knew that the gambler had a game going last night and that it was still in progress when they had retired for the night. Any wonder the man disliked mornings so much, he was awake more than half the night and needed the morning to recover.
Ezra saw the chair proffered by the former slave, and waved a hand in refusal. Heading towards the bar instead the man grabbed a mug and sloshed some coffee into it, and drank a few mouthfuls. "Morning Gentlemen," he addressed them all leaning his lithe body against the bar.
"You got patrol this morning." Chris brusquely reminded him.
"Thank you Mr. Larabee for that timely reminder, I may have been hard pressed to remember had you not the foresight to reacquaint me with that piece of information." The Southerner gave his salute to the men and took the mug with him as he departed the saloon and headed for the livery. At the smug reply Chris shook his head and fought to keep the smile under control, couldn't have the others suspect that he was susceptible to the gambler's dry wit.
"Don't know how he can manage to get through a day on just coffee." Directing his attention to the leader of the odd group Nathan admonished him; "you shoulda at least let him get something to eat before sending 'im out on patrol."
"Nathan he's a big boy, if coffee is all he wants, than who am I to stop him? Besides, if he was up earlier than he'da had a chance to have breakfast like the rest of us."
"Breakfast is the most important meal of the day," the healer mumbled to himself.
Sanchez clapped his friend on the back, "try convincing Ezra of that."
Josiah followed close on the heels of the Southerner out of the saloon, catching up with him as he entered the livery. Ezra acknowledged the former preacher's presence with suspicion while he set about saddling Chaucer, curious just the same as to his purpose. He talked gently throughout this procedure, stroking and patting the animal. Josiah smirked at the loyalty that the gambler showed his horse. Upturning a bucket and seating his large frame down onto the small seat he stretched his long legs out in front of him. "You know Nathan's worried you'll fade away to nothing if you don't eat better?"
The conman raised a quizzical eyebrow at the older man. Positive that he was mistaken he almost snorted out loud. Not wanting to offend the man though he restrained himself. "You pursued me out here to inform me of this?" the disbelief evident in his accented words.
"Thought you'd like to know."
"I'll consume a repast when I return from my vigilant safeguarding of this humble town." Seeing the older man was satisfied with his acquiescence Ezra continued in his task of preparing Chaucer.
It was mid morning by the time Ezra was prepared to leave Four Corners and he took the road that led south out of town, intending to do a circuit, then return via the northern entrance. He'd noticed Brutus wasn't back in his stall therefore Buck had yet to return from his patrol. Ezra anticipated that he would encounter the ladies man not too far from town. Standish settled Chaucer into a steady rhythm with an even stride, knowing that his horse was enjoying the exercise. Although he wouldn't admit it, especially if any of the others were present, he was also enjoying his ride this morning. A refreshing breeze swept over him as he and Chaucer galloped along the dusty road that was riddled with potholes.
A full hour had passed and the gambler and horse had slowed their pace to an idle walk. He was becoming concerned that he had not as yet met up with Buck. Chaucer was becoming more nervous on the narrow trail that slipped away at a dangerous slope. Ezra himself was a little unsure of the sturdiness and safety of the path he was persisting with. "We will persevere with this wretched trail a little further my friend," he patted the horse reassuringly, "if it gets any worse we will return and take an alternate route." Worry lines creased his handsome face, distorting the fine features, as still no sign of the ladies man could be seen. 'Perhaps Mr. Wilmington found this course unsuitable and returned the way he came.' Unconvinced of this theory he persevered on the treacherous path. A feeling of dread had settled low in his stomach.
Ten minutes later the Southerner encountered the ladies man's horse alone untethered along the trail. Standish dismounted and cautiously approached the skittish animal, talking quietly to the animal as he grasped the reigns. "Where's Buck, old boy?" Ezra asked, patting the horse. Looking back along the track for signs of the missing man, but seeing none. "Buck?" Standish called out, expecting the ladies man to reply, he was unprepared for the silent response. Hesitantly he peered over the side of the trail as he searched the basin floor for Buck. He'd seen the crumbled edge of the path that had fallen away leaving a gaping hole, separating his side from the other. He would have been unable to proceed any further in this direction in any case. Lowering his gaze and scouring the base below the hole, he followed it down to the bottom, finally resting on the missing unmoving form of his friend.
"Good Lord!" The two words revealed all the foreboding the gambler felt. 'Surely he isn't dead?'
"Buck!" the Southerner shouted down at the still form lying sprawled at the bottom of the ravine. "Buck?!! Don't do this to me. God damn it Buck! Answer me!" the gambler frantically called out from his position high above. His heart was racing and a large knot settled in his stomach as panic spread throughout him. Galvanised into action the gambler flew back to Chaucer and pulled the rope from his saddle and also from Buck's. Joining them together he looked for a suitable place to fasten it. He ended up looping it around a small tree that had grown at an odd angle from the wall face. Securing the line he tugged down on the rope testing the tree's ability to hold his weight and determined it would have to suffice, as there was nothing else to attach the rope to. Wrapping the rope around his leg he slid precariously over the side and slowing climbed down to the ladies man. Standish felt the dire of the situation as he descended to the ground. Protruding rocks and debris scrapped against him as he slithered past them, increasing his uneasiness about the condition he'd find his friend in. If he'd fallen, as it appeared he did, he could have numerous injuries. It was probably best if the gambler didn't consider that until saw first hand how badly injured Buck was.
The Southerner's feet finally touched the bottom and he raced towards the prone Buck calling out to the man desperate for some response. "Buck?" The uncertainty of his tone sent goose bumps down the gambler's spine. Kneeling down beside the ladies man Ezra felt for a pulse at the man's neck, breathing a deep sigh of relief at finding one. "Okay, Mr. Wilmington, let's see how you fared after your untimely leap." Running his unsteady hands over first one leg and then the other he continued to search the man for broken bones. Ezra rolled Buck onto his back and gently checked the ribs as well. "You certainly do have the luck of the devil. Other than that hideous lump that is on the back of your skull, and probably numerous bruises you seemed to have escaped the fall practically unscathed." Ezra announced to the still unconscious man. "I would appreciate you regaining your sensibilities as how I'm going to get you back up that incline escapes me at the moment." The humorous tone Ezra effected belied the seriousness of the situation. How was he going to get Buck out of here if he didn't wake up? Possible scenarios filtered through his mind but were rejected in turn. "Damn!"
Glancing down the Southerner caught a flicker of an eyelid opening, "thats it Buck, come on, time to wake up." The gambler rambled, trying to encourage semiconscious man back to consciousness. Ezra continued talking to Buck while his eyes fluttered and finally staying open. He greeted the man with an honest smile that reached his eyes, "It is good to see you awake. How do you feel?" Ezra questioned him. Buck just gazed blankly back at the conman; blinking and trying his best to focus on the red blur that knelt beside him. "Buck " he got no further, unexpectedly the Southerner was hoisted from his crouched position and thrown bodily over Buck landing flat on his back on the hard rocky earth. Stunned for a moment the gambler shook his head in astonishment before attempting to get up. Reaching around his back to where he knew a bruise was already forming he massaged the tender spot. Gingerly regaining his feet he approached Buck. "Buck? Ah You feeling okay?" Ezra approached the man, who was now on his feet, albeit swaying, while gingerly rubbing his own bruised back.
Unsure what was going on, Ezra was unprepared for the look of vehemence that Buck was pointedly aiming at him. "If I did something to offend you Buck, perhaps we can come to some agreement once we have extricated ourselves from this predicament?" Confusion showed on the younger man's face as he was at a loss as what to do. This decision was taken out of his hands when Buck drew his weapon from his holster and aimed it at the Southerner's heart. "Hey, reb it's your day to die." The viciousness of his words bit into the gambler, his eyes had widened to saucers at the savagery of Buck's words. Certain of nothing anymore he watched Wilmington's eyes that were filled with hate and loathing and in a flicker of a moment he knew his supposed friend was going to pull the trigger.
Lunging at his tormentor Ezra grabbed hold of Buck's firing arm with both of his hands and pushed the weapon upwards only seconds before the bullet left the chamber. The forward momentum that Ezra had produced in grabbing the gun caused both men to fall backwards to the ground. The Southerner fell on top of Buck, but still managed to hold onto Buck's right arm, keeping the gun's barrel away from him. "Get the hell off me, you son of a bitch!" Buck screamed at Ezra while attempting to dislodge the smaller man off him. Ezra maintained a tight hold, afraid if he let go that Buck would kill him. Standish moved off Buck and put all his weight onto the armed hand, pressing one knee onto the man's biceps and shoulder, and the other pushed down on the ladies man's chest, while desperately attempting to pry open the fingers that would release the gun. Buck twisted and squirmed under the gambler and tried in vain to hold onto his gun, but he knew his grip was loosening. He swore vocally at the man in the red jacket, insulting his heritage and his birth parents.
+ + + + + + +
"Buck what the hell are you trying to do to me?" Ezra gasped out between raged breaths, confusion was paramount. The enraged man didn't acknowledge him. Instead, he groped along the ground with his free hand desperate for something, anything he could use. Suddenly he had it. Feeling the cold hard rough surface that fit snugly in his large hand. Calculating the arc of the swing his arm needed to take, Buck betrayed his plan when an evil grin crossed his face. Ezra looked down to see the smile and knew that Buck was up to something, but he didn't have any further time to ponder the situation as Buck smashed the rock hard onto the back of the Southerner's head. Ezra's eyes rolled upwards as he instantly slipped into unconsciousness collapsing heavily onto Wilmington, while still holding limply onto the gun in Buck's hand.
Buck heaved a large sigh of relief and effortlessly rolled the Southerner off him. Securing the weapon back in his own hand he stood up and nudged the Southerner with his boot. He could see the growing puddle of blood that was coming from the wound, and felt a sudden pang of guilt that he'd caused that. Dismissively shaking his head at this uncomfortable feeling of remorse he smiled to himself as he raised his gun and pointed it at the unconscious man, but for some reason he couldn't pull the trigger. Using both hands on the gun he again brought it level on the Southerner. His hands began to shake and he could feel the sweat running down his back. Once again he was unable to pull the trigger. Turning the weapon away from directly pointing at the still form he pulled the hammer back and squeezed it closed. Dirt flew up from the ground where the bullet hit inches from where the gambler's head rested on the hardened earth. The shattering noise of the weapon as it echoed around the cliffs made the ladies man wince at the explosion of pain it caused. His head ached so badly. Satisfied with the result he reholstered the gun and looked for a way out.
Noticing the rope for the first time, he ambled over to it and without a backward glance climbed up towards the top. Panting heavily as he finally reached the ledge he pulled himself over the side. He left the rope and stumbled over to where Ezra had tethered the two horses. Eyeing them suspiciously, he intuitively selected the grey, mounting the animal, he left the chestnut horse tied where it was and headed down the trail.
On arriving at the town of Four Corners Buck Wilmington had a vague sense of déjà vu, but as he searched for anything familiar that he could readily recognise he began to dismiss this feeling as nothing came to mind. A middle aged man leaned on a broom in front of the general store, while he talk amicably with another man, whose face Buck couldn't see as he had his back facing him. He saw a couple of cowhands enter the saloon, talking raucously, an elderly man sitting in front of the telegraph office oblivious to the comings and goings around him as he concentrated on whittling a piece of wood held tightly in his gnarled hands. A wagon lumbered passed him on its way out of town, and he'd noticed a few of the town folk giving him a friendly greeting. Probly a real friendly place, he thought and didn't dwell on the subject anymore.
A boy with wild scruffy black hair raced along side of him, as he rode up to the saloon. Correction, as he got a closer look he could tell he wasn't a boy but a young man. His head felt fuzzy and his vision was blurred, and all he could clearly hear was a high pitched buzzing in his ears. The throbbing from the back of his head aggravated the headache that was piecing his skull in two. He smiled awkwardly at the young man and hoped he'd stop his incessant prattle and disappear soon. He was in no mood for idle chatter.
JD raced out of the saloon when he saw Buck returning to town. He had been starting to get worried about the big lug of a man. Sure he knew that he could take care of himself, but Buck was like a brother to him. All of them were really. The young man didn't know what he'd do if something should happen to the charismatic womaniser. After losing his mother, Buck and the other's had filled the void that she left in his life. JD held onto the bridle and led Brutus to the saloon, looping the reigns over the hitching rail for the older man. "You get lost this morning Buck? Or did ya meet up with Ezra and have a game of cards or something before ya came back? I know, ya met up with Lulu Belle didn't cha? Man oh man Buck! What iffin her husband catches ya? Then you'll be up to ya armpits in bullet holes." The young easterner didn't pause to take a breath between sentences and also didn't take in the battered and bruised appearance of the man in front of him, or the confused vacant stare the older man bestowed on him. "Anyway can ya let Chris know I'm heading over ta Casey's place today, then we're gunna go riding," the young man slapped the white horse affectionately, and not waiting for a reply from Buck he bounded away, leaving a confused Buck Wilmington in his wake.
The ladies man dismounted, and walked unsteadily inside the saloon. Picking up a bottle of whisky on the way past, he retreated to a table in the far corner and filled the glass to the brim. After draining the glass he hung his head low and rested it on the table. 'Did that kid mention Chris?' his thought processes were working in slow gear, mumbling to himself that he didn't really care anyway, 'if it was Larabee, then hell, let him find me!' The confused man closed his eyes, 'only for a moment' but sleep took over his cognisance.
It was late afternoon, almost twilight, and long shadows were beginning to stretch across from one side of the street to the other. It would be dark within the next hour. Chris Larabee was sitting outside the jail with his legs extended and crossed at the ankle, propped up on the railing. His hat sat low over his brow and this image demanded that people should keep their distance. Every now and again he'd tilt his head a fraction of an inch and scan the street. Other than the local citizens going about their daily chores he found nothing amiss. Locating the other six men he worked with was another thing entirely. He could see Buck's grey hitched to the rail outside the saloon, and presumed that the ladies man was inside. JD? Damned if he knew where that boy was. Josiah, by the sound of the hammering was at the church making repairs. Nathan he could presume was at his clinic, although that was only a guess, as he'd not seen the dark man since they'd shared breakfast together that morning. Ezra? He paused in his thoughts. He hadn't laid eyes on the gambler since his return from his patrol. In all probability he had a game or a scam going on somewhere and was likely staying clear of him in case he disrupted his plans. Which brought him to the real reason he was pondering everyone's whereabouts, a certain tracker was overdue from his patrol. Assuming a relaxed pose in the uncomfortable wooden chair, he chewed the end of the cheroot while he allowed the tracker some more time to return before heading out after him.
Chris didn't have all that long to wait, as he saw Vin riding in from the northern end of town. Larabee frowned in puzzlement, knowing Tanner should be returning from the other direction. Vin saw Chris and directed Peso up to the front of the jail, he heard Chris ask, "you get lost?"
"Nah, the trails all fallen away at Tuggets Bluff. Couldna get through, hadda come back the same way." The anger in the usually quiet man had been steadily building for some time now, and he was ready to strike out. "Geeze Buck or Ezra coulda let me know!"
"Buck's at the saloon, been there all day, ain't seen Ezra though." Standing to his feet, he flicked the butt of the cheroot away and the gunslinger followed the man to the livery where he unsaddled his horse and fed and watered the animal. Larabee could tell that the normally quiet tracker was angry at his two fellow peacekeepers. Although he was mystified that neither man had informed Vin of the broken trail, he was grateful that Tanner was gunna confront the two wayward men and not leave him to do it. Being the leader of these seven men with such diverse personalities was quite trying at times.
"Hey Buck!" Vin angrily called out to the man who was still slumped over the table in the far corner, where he'd been since returning just prior to midday. The ladies' man paid no head to the man that strode up and stood before him. "D'you and Ezra plan this between yer's?" Vin scowled at the man, while shoving his shoulder to gain his attention.
Buck Wilmington looked up startled at the interruption. Chris stood behind Tanner and he also waited for his oldest friend's response. "What the hell you babbling about?" the moustached man growled back at Vin. Noticing Chris standing behind him though, made Buck pause for a moment before directing his attention to the only man he recognised, he asked, "he with you?"
Chris wrongly assumed that Buck was drunk. Though the question that Buck asked was reminiscent of the time when the Seven first came together. "You had a bit too much to drink Buck?"
Tanner didn't wait for his reply before pushing his way back into the conversation, "Why dinya tell me about Tuggets Bluff? It's too dangerous to get through there!"
Buck abruptly stood up, causing the chair to fall back onto the floor, and he viscously grabbed hold of Vin's buckskin jacket with both hands and pulled him close, almost lifting the smaller man off the ground. "I don't know you!" The older man growled impatiently at him, emphasising each word clearly, "and I sure as hell don't know what ya belly aching about. So why don't you get the hell out of my sight!" And the big man released his hold on Vin's clothing and pushed him roughly away. Vin steadied himself and stared shocked at Wilmington's actions.
Chris frowned as he contemplated the words he heard Buck say. "You don't know who he is?" Chris indicated the tracker, as Buck's shook his head in denial, Chris continued, "but ya know who I am, don't ya Buck?"
"Well sure I do Chris you and me have been friends for years."
Chris stared hard at Buck, and continued to stare at him as he directed the words over his shoulder to the man he knew was standing there, "Vin can you go and get Nathan?" Chris took his oldest friend's arm and led him back to the table, and pushed him into a chair, he could see the confusion that marred the man's face.
"Sure Chris." Vin Tanner hurried out of the room.
+ + + + + + +
Buck was resting back in his chair while Nathan examined him. The dark man expertly ran his hands over the man's head and he felt the large knot at the back; "You got a headache, feeling sick, dizzy, anything like that?" The healer asked, giving the man what he thought was a reassuring smile.
"Yeah," was the gruff reply.
Nathan faced Chris and spoke over the top of the befuddled man, "we need to get him lying down, he's got a concussion, just look at his eyes, and he seems to have lost some of his memory. He don't know any of us, acceptin' you. He musta hit his head pretty hard, that would explain the obvious lump and also the memory loss."
"He gunna get it back?"
"Hard to say, he might, but there's no guarantees."
Josiah had followed Nathan and Vin back to the saloon and was rather bewildered by the whole situation. While he stood with his tall frame leaning heavily against the bar watching while Nathan examined Buck and listened to his conclusions he found that he couldn't get rid of the rising feeling of dread. Not that he thought they had anything to do with Buck, but watching him only seemed to reinforce that feeling. The ex-preacher scanned the room, JD wasn't here, but he knew the lad had gone riding with Casey. Feeling the knot tighten around his chest as the realisation dawned on him, "Anyone seen Ezra?"
At Josiah's query Chris was reminded of his earlier thoughts concerning the Southerner. Shaking his own head he looked to Nathan who also shook his head no. Chris already knew Vin hadn't seen the Southerner so he focused his attention to the confused man, wondering once again how he'd received his injury, "Buck, you see Ezra this mornin'?"
"He won't remember even if he had Chris, cause he don't know who Ezra is." Nathan informed the gunslinger.
"What if we describe him?" Josiah asked Nathan.
"That'd depend on iffin he saw Ezra before or after he was hurt. Cain't hurt none though."
Chris knelt down in front of the ladies man, "Buck, you see a fella dressed real sharp, red jacket, black hat "
"Don't forget the Southern accent," Vin interjected. The group of four men that hovered around their friend didn't miss the flash of recognition that the description yielded.
"When d'ya see him Buck?" Chris asked, concern for the gambler was multiplying by the minute.
"He a friend of yours too?" The ladies man nervously asked, dipping his head down, and mumbling his words. Feeling guilty at what had happened between him and the gambler Buck allowed his anger to resurface.
Feeling the dread that was creeping up on him worsen Chris hissed back at Buck, "he's your friend too!"
Buck lowered his head and sighed. Feeling the weight of the world on him, he was so tired, even though he'd slept most of the day. Having Chris angry with him was nothing new but realising all these people were supposed to be his friends and not being able to remember them was terrifying him in the worst possible way. Feeling annoyance at his friend he reflexively blurted out, "Hell he's a god damn reb Chris!" Raising his voice he added, "Chris we're s'posed to kill 'em." Seeing the look of horror in Chris' eyes the ladies man queried, "Ain't we?" The uncertainty drained the rest of his anger.
Chris brusquely grabbed the bigger man up from his chair, "Buck the war's over! What happened? What'd ya do to 'im Buck? What the hell did ya do?" An irate Larabee yelled at him, not even attempting to hide his anger.
Nathan put a restraining hand on the gunslinger, "this ain't gunna help any Chris."
Larabee turned on the healer and levelled his anger at him, "well what the hell is gunna help? Buck's as much admitted he's killed Ezra." With disgust the black clad gunslinger pushed the man back into his seat.
Josiah felt sick in the stomach, knowing that one of their own was dead, and by the hands of Buck. "Buck what happened?" Josiah scrapped a chair out and heavily lowered his large frame into it.
Buck's face had paled, loosing its entire colour, at Chris' violent reaction. He told the group what he remembered, from the time he woke up and found Ezra hovering over the top of him. He concluded the narrative with the firing of his gun, but vehemently denied shooting him. By the time he'd finished he had four very angry men staring at him.
"I gotta go pack some supplies, bandages and herbs " Nathan couldn't finish, feeling tears at the corners of his eyes, he rubbed the back of his hand over them to wipe them away, then strode purposely out and up to his clinic.
"I'll git some blankets." Offered the quiet tracker, unable to look at Buck.
"I'll go and git the horses saddled could be lucky there's a full moon out tonight." Josiah dejectedly sighed and left the two men alone at the table.
"I can show you where " Buck didn't finish, stopping mid sentence when he recognised that the Larabee glare was directed at him.
"I think you've done enough. Stay here!" With that the gunslinger strode out of the saloon, a fierce determination in his eyes, and grim loyalty to bring Ezra back.
Ezra groaned, the white blinding pain that lanced through his head was throbbing unmercifully. He tried valiantly to open his eyes but they remained closed, as they were much too heavy lift. He could see the blackness and it beckoned him to stay within its grasp, unable to fight it's restraining hold the Southerner lost the battle to come back to consciousness. The sun's rays shone down on the unconscious form throughout the day, heating the body and syphoning his strength as his fever began to grow.
It was some hours before any more movement came from the man and this time the sun was in its zenith. Once again a low moan was heard as the man struggled with regaining consciousness. His fingers twitched in the dirt, but other than that he didn't reclaim his awareness. The blackness pulled him back down before he even attempted to open his eyes. The bleeding from the ragged wound eventually stopped but not before the ruby red blood had run around his neck discolouring his shirt and jacket and soaked into the earth below where he lay.
The day was coming to an end when the Southerner made another attempt to escape the darkness of oblivion. He opened his eyes, and blinked them closed instantly, laying as still as possible the gambler dragged his uncooperative hand up to the wound, pulling it away as he felt the sticky mess that matted his hair. Taking a deep breath the man slowly rose onto his elbows, fighting the nausea and the rising bile back down. Reopening his eyes only reconfirmed the feelings of dizziness, and his blurred vision.
The Southerner propelled himself to a sitting position and held his head down between his knees. Drawing in deep breaths did nothing to assuage his nausea and rising stomach contents. Unable to focus, or comprehend what had happened to him he clumsily staggered to his feet, swaying unsteadily on his weakened wobbly legs. Holding one arm outstretched in front of him to maintain his tenable balance, he found negotiating that first step was the hardest, but once accomplished the man continued on. Away from the rope, and away from his horse above, away from where soon the four riders were going to start looking for him.
The Southerner stumbled over the loose rocky surface, almost losing his precarious balance. With his head bent forward resting almost on his chest, he made his way to a group of trees. He lifted his head to gauge the distance away he still had to traverse, but found judging the distance was beyond him at the moment. He wasn't even sure if it was a group of trees he was heading to, or whether his blurred vision was playing tricks on him. He didn't care. The Southerner could only think of getting out of the sun. His shirt and jacket was caked with dried blood, but now since he'd woken, the wound had restarted to bleed and ran down his neck and under the already stained shirt, pooling at the top of his trousers.
The man continued on, what to him seemed liked hours, was in fact only minutes. Ezra closed his eyes for a moment, and sucked in a ragged breath, 'must get to the trees', 'must keep going', were the only thoughts going through his confused mind. 'Hot, he felt so hot', 'got to keep going, then I can rest.'
Ezra could not concentrate; the head wound was taking its toll on him. Sweat and blood mingled together as it continued to run down his neck. His head ached and the ground swam beneath him. He stumbled over the rocky ground on uncooperative legs as he sort to reach the group of trees. White pain lanced through his head, and the groggy gambler brought a hand up to the jagged wound. Nausea swirled around turning the empty stomach contents over and over, throwing bile upwards. The Southerner lowered his hand and pressed it against his stomach in an effort to keep the contents inside him.
A rock moved beneath his right foot as he placed it down and caused the Southerner to lose his precarious balance and fall heavily to the ground, twisting his ankle in the process. Standish cried out in pain as the foot turned on the unstable rock throwing him to the ground. Groaning wearily he pulled his leg up to his chest and rubbed his throbbing foot. The damage had been done, and the limb was already swelling in the confines of his boot.
The ungainly fall and the manipulation of his foot was the antecedent for the gambler loosing his tenable hold on his stomach contents. Unable to fight with the rising flood, he leant to the side and heaved, his back arched as wave after wave exploded from his mouth. When the last of the spasms finished the exhausted man fell forward resting his head on the ground, holding his stomach with his right hand wrapped tightly around it. He then wiped the sleeve of his jacket past his mouth, wiping the remains his retching caused off his mouth.
Grimacing, as the pain continued to wreck havoc through his head, and now added to that was the throbbing ache coming from his foot, he slowly rose again to his feet. Keeping as much weight off the swollen ankle as he could, he gritted his teeth together as he took a step. Although it hurt to walk on it, the Southerner pushed it aside, and continued to move towards the trees.
It was a further fifteen minutes of agonised limping and stumbling, until he reached the edge of the tree line. Ezra stretched out his hands to use the smaller saplings as a balance and guide to steer his way through the cluster of trees. He only managed to walk a few yards into the canopy of trees where relief from the sun was at hand. Ezra lifted his weary legs over the large tree trunk that the lay fallen on the ground blocking his path. He could go no further. Breathing hard from the exertion, 'Just need to rest for a while before I head home', thought the Southerner and he slid down behind the fallen tree and closed his eyes for a moment. But succumbing to the effects of the concussion he again lapsed into unconsciousness.
+ + + + + + +
The gambler lay on the ground hidden behind the fallen tree trunk. Enveloped in the shade, the coolness of the undergrowth seeped through his clothing causing him to shiver. Curling his legs up towards his chest he tucked them up, instinctively to keep out the cold air of the approaching twilight. Darkness once again took over his conscious thought. Now that he'd reached his destination his motivation for staying conscious had gone. The bleeding from the wound had stopped once again, but a fever now ravaged his body. The man lay still, and as the fever grew the chill of the surrounding air only heightened his predicament.
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