Nathan arranged for Mary to keep an eye on Buck, who was now in the clinic sleeping, while they went looking for Ezra. The four men wore grim expressions as they departed Four Corners, not knowing what condition they'd find Ezra in, but expecting the worst. It didn't take them long to reach the spot where Buck described. Chaucer was still ground tied, waiting patiently, and the rope down the rock face was still there. Vin dismounted Peso and stretched out on his stomach as he peered over the ledge. The other three lawmen followed Vin's lead and also looked over the edge, but they couldn't make out anything in the darkness. Chris stood up, being careful to move back from the edge before doing so, and tested the rope. "Let's get down there," Chris gripped the rope in his hands and was first to go over the edge, followed by Josiah, Nathan and finally Vin.
As soon as Chris felt the earth beneath his feet again he started searching for signs of the missing gambler. As the other three joined him he motioned them to spread out and search the area. Ten minutes later Josiah called out, "I've got his hat," boomed the giant of a man, and he held onto it tightly, fearing if he let go he'd lose his only link to the Southerner.
"Reckon there's been a skirmish over here, Chris." Vin called out not too long after Josiah found Ezra's hat, his tracking skills were the best and Chris was grateful that he had this man at his side. Chris proceeded to where Vin was crouching down inspecting the ground. Nathan and Josiah also made their way over to Vin. "Reckon this is his blood and plenty of it," and he waved his hand over the darkened area to show the others.
Still holding the black low crowned hat by the brim flat against his stomach, Josiah expressed an audible sigh of relief. In a low rumble of a whisper he thought to himself, "That's good news then." Unfortunately he realised too late that he must have spoken the words out loud, when he saw the three stunned looks from his companions that were directed at him.
Chris, Vin and Nathan turned as one to stare slack jawed in disbelief at Josiah's callous statement. Chris was the first to regain his wits, and focused his astonishment into anger at the larger man, "How is this good news Josiah?" Larabee fairly hissed out the words.
Josiah bowed his head in acknowledgment of their misunderstanding him. Talking quietly to hopefully mollify the angry man he explained, "I only meant that he ain't here, so he ain't dead." Chris was somewhat satisfied with the explanation and reluctantly nodded his head in agreement. He had to admit he was also relieved that they hadn't found a dead body.
"Don't mean he ain't in a whole passel of trouble. He's lost a lot of blood too by the looks of it," and as an afterthought he added, "head wounds tend to bleed a lot." Nathan informed the sombre group, silently cursing Buck. He wondered just how hard the man had hit the gambler, and what state they were going to find him in.
"He was layin' here for a good part of the day, tracks lead off in that direction." Vin pointed in the direction Ezra had taken.
Chris was getting frustrated, and didn't care that he was showing it, "where the hell is he? And why the hell'd he go that way?"
"I'm guessing he's a mite confused. Probly got a concussion and he don't know where he's heading." Nathan offered the gunslinger in way of explanation. "We gotta find 'im."
Chris rubbed his hand over his tired eyes, "Vin can you follow him?"
"Reckon I can, he's weaving all over the place, be real easy trail to foller."
Chris then addressed the former preacher, "Josiah you get a fire started, so when we find 'im Nathan'll have more light to check 'im over." Turning back to Vin, "lead the way."
In the end they all helped to establish a fire, then fashioned torches for the three of them to carry. Although the moon was out, and a full one at that, once they entered into trees, which was the way Ezra was heading, the light wouldn't filter through the foliage and seeing in the dark would become impossible.
Vin found the spot where Ezra had fallen and become ill, from there it was an easy line to follow. Raising the torches high the three fanned out once entering the thicket of trees. There was no path through the trees, so they had to forge their way through. Chris went to the right, Vin the left, and Nathan straight ahead. Stepping tentatively in the undergrowth Tanner blinked in the darkness, lowering his torch down to the ground so he could see the darkened floor. The glow of the fire spread only a short distance, so he worked slowly, not wanting to miss any signs if they were there. Twenty minutes after searching his area he was beginning to think the gambler was not here. Unable to see any signs, he was about ready to head back and look in another direction. Stepping over a fallen tree he felt the ground on the other side give way, and moved strangely beneath his foot. Bringing the torch to bare its light on the unstable ground, he allowed a small smile to come to his lips at the sight his eyes now beheld.
"I've got him!" Vin called out to the other two. He knelt down beside the motionless form, propping his torch upright, he pulled the man away from the tree and rolled the man onto his back stretching out his legs. The tracker noticed the slackness of his friend's features and felt the heat radiating from him. He glanced up as he heard the rustle of undergrowth and saw the torchlight's blink towards him.
The former slave was the first to reach Vin's side, followed close on his heels by the black clad gunslinger. Nathan Jackson knelt down beside Vin and checked the gambler for a pulse, relieved to find one, but alarmed at how fast and thready it was. He felt the heat coming off the unconscious man and rested his large hand to his friend's forehead to gauge just how hot the gambler was. "Damn it all to Hell!" Nathan's unusual use of profanity confirmed Vin's fear that the man was in serious trouble.
"He gunna be okay?" Chris asked. Vin looked from Chris to the healer, thankful that Chris had voiced the question that he wanted an answer to, though unable to ask himself, passed the lump of apprehension that had settled in his throat.
"Dunno." Nathan told the two men truthfully. "Lets get 'im back to Josiah so I can check him out better." Nathan ordered. Chris lifted the unconscious man under his arms, letting his head fall back against his chest, while Vin carried his legs. Nathan extinguished the other two torches and led the way back, lighting the way for the other two to follow.
Josiah had kept himself busy while the others were looking for Ezra, climbing back up to the top of the Bluff and retrieving the blankets, canteens, Nathan's bag and the coffee. He didn't know how long they would be staying here before they headed back to town. Once he got back down he set about laying out the blankets, and setting the water on to boil. He'd only just finished doing this when he heard the arrival of the others coming back. Looking blindly into the darkness, the older man couldn't see past Nathan's large form in the front. "He alive?" The big man anxiously asked.
"Yeah," Nathan confirmed, "though I cain't tell ya anymore'n that at the moment till I check 'im out proper like." Chris and Vin carried the limp from over to the bed of blankets and gently lowered the gambler down. "Turn him on his side, so I can fix that head wound," Chris helped turn him over while the healer searched through his bag pulling out the things he needed, "Josiah is the water ready?"
"Yeah. You want it now?" Josiah positioned himself in front of the Southerner and with his large callused hands held him on his side.
"Thanks," the healer leant over the gambler and cleansed the wound. As he did it began to bleed once more. The dark coloured man wadded up a bandage and used it to apply pressure to the ragged cut, evoking a groan from Ezra. Nathan eased back on his haunches, while keeping pressures on the cut, and spoke gently trying to coax the Southerner awake, "Ezra come on, time to wake up." Ezra groaned again and tried to roll away from the pain Nathan was causing him, but Josiah held him steady. "Ezra Ezra?" Nathan disappointedly shook his head at the expectant gazes of the other three men. "Don't look like he's ready to come back to us just yet. Vin can you hand me that bandage, and I'll wrap this up."
"You ain't gunna stitch it up?" Vin asked perplexed. He'd seen how much blood had soaked into the ground from the wound, and how much covered the Southerner's shirt and jacket.
"Nah, I'll wait till we get him back to town. Have better light, and I can clean it better."
Vin knelt at the Southerner's head, supporting it while Nathan wrapped a white bandage around it. Once it was bandaged Vin lowered it back to the blankets. Concern for his friend spread across his features. Not trusting his voice, he looked up at the healer, and waited for his verdict. Nathan saw the silent plea, but couldn't bring himself to give the man false securities, so he just shrugged his shoulders, and handed the tracker a damp cloth to place on the gambler's heated brow.
Chris Larabee had stood out of the way and watched with preoccupied foreboding while Nathan attended the Southerner. He approved of Josiah and Vin assisting, but he didn't actively partake in helping the gambler. Chris had been surprised at how troubled Hell worried in fact he'd felt when Buck admitted to hurting the enigmatic man. It even frightened him. Chris hadn't realised that Ezra had managed to form a bond of friendship, six in fact, within the tight-knit group that had even resulted in the beginnings of trust. After that first time at the Seminole village when Ezra had run out on them Chris figured he'd never really trust the man, and always intended to keep it that way. Vin he trusted with his life from that first moment they were drawn together to save Nathan from being hung. The others fell neatly into an orderly pattern, becoming almost like brothers to one another. The gunslinger was brought out of his reverie when he heard the gambler groan. Chris watched as the man frowned, and he winced in sympathy at the pain he must be suffering.
Vin continued to wipe the damp cloth over the man's face and down his neck. The healer had placed all the blankets over him but the unconscious man struggled to throw them off. Ezra groaned as he lifted his arm out from under the covers, "Ezra, ya gotta keep it under the blankets," Nathan gently admonished as he tucked the arm back beneath.
Ezra's head hurt and he felt as though he was in a whirl pool swimming, struggling to remain above the surface, while the tug of the swirl continued to pull him down. He thought he heard voices, Nathan's perhaps, Josiah's and Vin's, but he was unsure of this and couldn't comprehend why he'd be hearing their voices anyway. The sharp throbbing pain at the back of his head was similar to a red-hot glowering poker piercing a hole through his skull. His stomach contents were rolling about in time with the whirl pool sensation, creating an uncomfortable queasy sensation. His dry throat and parched tongue beckoned for some moisture and he felt as though someone had lit a fire under him and was stoking it to keep the fire blazing. He wanted to get out of the heat, and tried to lift the heavy covers off him that seemed to be smothering him, but for some reason he was unable to do that. His arms and legs felt heavy, and his twisted ankle still throbbed persistently inside his boot. He could feel the rise of bile again from the pit of his stomach but could not manage this time to keep the tidal wave that forcefully leapt from his mouth.
"Josiah, Vin quick roll him on his side!" Nathan's abrupt command echoed and bounced back at the men who promptly repositioned the gambler onto his right side, just in time for the torrent of gastric juices to flow from his mouth. "Hold him there for a minute, wait till he finishes," Josiah rubbed the gambler's back with one hand and held him on his side with the other while the spasms continued. Vin moistened the cloth and wrung it out before placing it at the back of the Southerner's neck. When the spasms finished he cleaned the remains away from his mouth but this time they kept him on his side. "We need to get him back. Ain't nothin' more I can do for him here."
"Lets do it then." Chris spoke for the first time since bringing the man back into camp.
The energetic young man with unruly black hair flew up the last few steps and without knocking vigorously pushed open the door to the clinic. In his haste to get inside the youth stumbled over his feet as he entered the semi-darkened room. Seeing his best friend and brother laying asleep on the bed he instantly came to a stand still. Breathing hard JD stared transfixed at the man, as confusion and pain washed expressively across his face. A softly whispered feminine voice from the corner of the room brought him out of his reverie and alerted him to the widow's presence in the room. "He's sleeping at the moment, but I sure he'd like to talk to you when he wakes up." Mary reassured him.
"Ah thanks Mrs. Travis I can stay with him now it you'd like?"
The widow nodded her acceptance and motioned to leave. "JD?" the easterner looked anxiously at the owner of the Clarion Newspaper, "you do know that he doesn't have any memory of who you are?" at the youngster's lethargic nod of acceptance Mary continued, "and what he did to Ezra?"
"Yeah, Inez told me." JD sighed heavily.
"Would you like to talk about it JD?" Mary inquired, knowing of the brotherly bond these two men shared, and she wondered how this incident would affect their relationship.
"Nah, that's okay, Buck and me'll have a talk when he wakes up. Thanks all the same, Mrs. Travis. Could I walk you back home? It's kinda dark out tonight."
"Thank you JD that would be very kind of you."
+ + + + + + +
JD returned to the clinic after escorting Mrs. Travis home. Although the street fires had been lit, it wasn't so late that the drunken revellers had either passed into oblivion or wandered home, so he felt obliged to escort the lady home in safety. Knowing that Chris would string him up if anything untoward happened to the blond widow.
The young man pulled up a chair and sat it beside his friend, and replayed over in his mind the conversation he had with Inez about Buck and what he'd done to Ezra. He tried to recall the brief one-sided conversation he'd had with the ladies man earlier in the day and realised, with hindsight, that he didn't really get a satisfactory response from the man. He cursed himself for being late back from Casey's, but Nettie had insisted he stay for supper, so the other's had already gone by the time he'd gotten back. JD wondered if Buck had even passed on his message to Chris, and came to the conclusion that he probably hadn't. Perhaps Josiah mentioned where he was and why he wasn't with them to help them find Ezra.
JD rubbed a hand agitatedly over his face, sighing past the tight lump in his throat. Feeling guilty that he hadn't recognised Buck's condition earlier, and therefore enabling a search for the gambler to begin much sooner. The boy was not patient when it came to waiting, and looking down at Buck asleep on the bed, he pushed out of the chair and began to pace in the small room. Mumbling incoherently as he strode backwards and forwards, he sort through possible scenarios, but only became more frustrated. Turning a bewildered scowl at the bedridden man he asked, "why'd ya do it Buck? Ezra'd never've hurt ya." The young man was almost close to tears and didn't expect any reply from the man.
"I'm sorry JD, if I knew I didn't mean hell kid I'm sorry." Buck stumbled to a stop; he'd raised himself up on his elbows and implored the boy to listen. Regret and remorse were evident in his tone. "Kid, you know I'd never intentionally hurt any of yer's. It's just I wasn't in my right mind I didn't recognise 'im and hell when he spoke to me all I heard was that accent it reminded me of another time I didn't mean to hurt him "
"You hit him with a rock!" Disbelief and shock echoed back at him. "And then tried to shoot him! How is that NOT meaning to hurt him?" JD shouted his pain and confusion at the older man. His pacing had stopped, and he pointed a defiant finger at the guilty man.
"Kid it's not like that. Sure at the time I meant to do it," JD's mouth fell agape and his eyes widened in shock with this revelation. Buck seeing JD's reaction to his words rushed on to continue his explanation, "but I didn't want to kill him. I swear! I couldn't do it." The ladies' man paused for a breath before continuing, "JD, son, I had my gun levelled at him, point blank, I wouldna missed, but I couldn't pull the trigger, not till I'd moved the gun away from him."
"Dammit Buck, you still hit him with a rock! That alone coulda killed him! Hell we don't know that it didn't, till the other's get back." JD started pacing again, throwing his arms up into the air in defeat, "you're gunna haff to hope that he can forgive you for that, I sure hope you can live with what you've done."
Buck nodded his head in agreement with the young man, and let it drop forward down onto his chest. "I did a bad thing and I hope Ezra's gunna be okay. He's a good friend," Buck admitted, "and I hope I haven't spoilt what we have between us. I'll make it up to him." He promised the kid.
JD wasn't totally convinced, but Buck sounded sincere. JD was worried how Ezra would react to Buck's declaration of continued friendship. "Let's hope Ezra's as forgiving as I am."
"Ya mean that kid? Ya forgive me?" JD gave the man a lopsided grin and nodded his head then held out his hand, and the older man clasped it firmly in his and shook it, returning the smile.
"So I was told you'd lost ya memory and wouldn't know me." JD suddenly realising that Buck had regained his memory.
"Well kid, what can I say, when I hit the sack, I couldn't remember anything, why I was here or nothin'. When I woke up and saw ya pacing back and forth across the room, it all came back.
"You remember everything?"
"Yeah, pretty much." The moustached man raised a hand to cover the yawn that passed his lips and lying back down on the bed he closed his eyes. "Think I'll get some more shut eye before the other's get back to town," and as an after thought, "before I get tossed outta this bed, and haffta sleep on that," indicating the cot by the window.
"You do that Buck, I'll just sit over here, keep you company."
The saloon had long since emptied out closing it's doors and ushering out its last patron. The main street had taken on an eerie quality as a fog had settled over the town, cloaking it in a hazy blanket. The fires that lined the edges of the street had insects dancing merrily on the yellow light. It had reached two o'clock in the morning when the four weary men finally arrived back in Four Corners' with the gambler. With his free arm wrapped tightly around the smaller man's waist, the former preacher pulled the unconscious form back against his broad chest, allowing Ezra's head to loll on his shoulder. Other than the occasional muffled groan, the gambler had shown no signs of returning to consciousness.
Nathan rode his mount closely beside the pair, snaking out his dark hand every so often he pressed it against the Southerner's heated brow to monitor the fever that coursed through his body. His hair was damp and hung limply around his face, and his cheeks were flushed with a red sheen. Ezra's once pristine shirt and jacket was saturated with sweat and dried blood, and although he was wrapped in a blanket the warmth emanating from his body seeped out and heated the man who held him.
Once during the trek back to town the gambler had become ill and Josiah leant him forward in the saddle, but mostly it was just dry retching. Nathan tried to get him to drink something after this but he wouldn't swallow the water, and it just dribbled down his chin.
They led the horses on a direct path to the clinic. Nathan dismounted first to help Josiah as he lowered Ezra down, then he dismounted himself. Once the larger man was down he effortlessly picked up the smaller man cradling him like a child he carried him up the outside stairs that led to the clinic, with Nathan bringing up the rear.
Chris and Vin wordlessly led the five horses, Ezra's included, over to the livery and settled them in for the night, before returning to the clinic themselves.
JD was still wide wake, unable to sleep when he heard the procession of horses returning to town. He fervently hoped that the Southerner was okay. He'd hustled a disgruntled Buck out of the bed and into the cot while he straightened the linens for Ezra. Then he rushed to open the door as he heard the heavy footfalls of the men climbing the stairs.
Josiah manoeuvred sideways through the opened door, nodding his thanks to JD as he stepped into the small room. Carrying his charge over to the bed he gently deposited him on it. Nathan followed the giant of a man into the room, "JD we need some water on to boil," he brusquely ordered, "Josiah you wanna get his boots off, then we'll get his shirt and jacket off so's we can make him more comfortable."
Josiah complied and proceeded to the foot of the bed where he removed the first of the boots. Taking the second in his large callused palms, he felt the tightness of this boot compared to the other one. "Nate," the ex-preacher waited until the healer had looked up from what he was doing before he continued, "think he's done some damage to 'is foot, ya wanna take a look before I pull this boot off?"
Nathan took over from Josiah's position and expertly moved the foot back and forth, to determine if the limb was broken, "probly just twisted it, I'll wrap it up once the boot's off."
By the time Chris and Vin had made their way up to the clinic Nathan was just finishing wrapping the gambler's foot. He'd cleaned the head wound and rebandaged that as well and laid a damp cloth on the man's heated brow. The southerner had remained deathly still during the whole procedure.
Buck stared solemnly at the man with ominous foreboding, as Nathan and Josiah treated the gambler. He lay down on the cot and stretching his legs out, he remained silent, content to just watch and keep a vigil over him.
It had been four days since Ezra had been brought back and fought his way back through the haze of confusion, fever and delirium. Nathan had remained at his side almost the entire time, vigilant in his care. Both Josiah and JD had been regular visitors, and even Chris and Vin had stayed with the enigmatic man while he fought his demons. His fever broke on the second morning, and then it was only a matter of time before he fully regained awareness.
During that same time Buck had not returned to the clinic since leaving it the morning after Ezra had returned, deciding that it was his fault that the gambler was in that predicament in the first place, the guilt at what he'd done to his friend ate away at him. JD had tried to convince him that it wasn't really his fault and he shouldn't be shouldering the blame, as he wasn't in his right mind at the time it happened. But he still couldn't get passed those feelings, and was sure he'd lost his chance at a friendship with the cocky Southerner because of this. After everything was said and done he wasn't sure that Ezra would want to see him anyway.
Between the youth and the healer Buck had been kept well informed of how the enigmatic man was progressing. And although both men encouraged him to go and see Ezra for himself he had stoically refused.
Buck had kept to himself during those four days, trying to avoid the other five men, and their wrath, he spent virtually all of his days closeted away in his own room of the boarding house. And if it hadn't been for JD bringing him meals and staying with him while he ate he probably wouldn't have eaten. Nathan popped in from time to time to check on him, although he didn't stay very long, claiming he had previous appointments.
After talking to the kid that first night, he and JD had resumed their easygoing friendship. Wilmington had not seen or spoken to Chris or Vin about what had happened until just that morning. Four days after he had knocked Ezra senseless by hitting him with that damn rock. Risking the scorn of his friends he had ventured out that morning from his enforced confinement and headed for the saloon. Knowing it would be too early yet for the regular patrons to be frequenting the saloon, he did hope he'd find Chris and Vin there.
Striding confidently across the street and onto the broadwalk, his boots echoed on the wooden planks as he strode purposefully to the saloon. Adjusting his hat before pushing through the batwing doors, he steeled himself for the unknown.
As his eyes became accustomed to the dull lighting he gazed around the room looking for his friends, he found all bar Ezra sitting at their usual table. In that same instant all his confidence plummeted to his boots. He watched in awed fascination as they all turned as one and gaped at the moustached man. He imagined this was how a cornered animal felt just before the slaughter. Taking a steadying breath, he crossed the room and pulled out a chair and sat wearily into it.
Bowing his head against his chest, he shielded his eyes beneath the brim of his hat, against the accusing stares he assumed would be directed at him. "I'm goin' ta see Ezra, anyone have any objections to that?" and the big man tilted his head back and defiantly questioned the five men.
"I's been telling ya all week to do jest that Buck," and JD raised his mug of milk up in a salute to the womaniser. Buck nodded his thanks to the youth, expecting that he'd get that response from the boy it came as no surprise. He directed his attention to Josiah, who sat beside the youth.
"He's been asking to see ya," came the deep rumble from the former preacher's mouth. With a sigh of relief tarnished with remorse Buck moved on to the next man.
Chris Larabee had watched his oldest friend enter the saloon with a mountain of trepidation in his wake. He'd known Buck had not visited Ezra, and initially that had infuriated him. But as the days slid by his anger at his friend had dissipated and now he tended to agree that it was better that Buck had kept his distance. Chris knew Ezra needed an explanation, and the only person able to do that was Buck. He regretted his own heavy handed actions towards the ladies man knowing that he'd suffered a head injury and lost his memory he shouldn't be held accountable for the unfortunate incident. Forcing a small reassuring smile to his lips, Chris pushed the bottle of whisky across the tabletop as a good will gesture. "You'd best do it soon, as Ezra's getting real antsy staying in that room. My guess is he'll be outta there by midday."
Snaking his hand around the bottle he tilted it up towards the ceiling as Buck drained a good measure of whisky down his dry throat. Grimacing as he felt the bite of the whisky kick in, he never the less grinned his appreciation at Chris while he listened to Nathan's vocalistic reply to the gunslinger, "he better not be going anywhere, until I give him the say so." The stubborn determination of the ex-slave formed doubts in the minds of the six men present as to whether or not the gambler would win this argument with the healer. Nathan wiped his hands on his pants in resignation and stood to leave, "Buck git on over and talk to that stubborn Southerner, that way at least I'll know he's gunna be stayin' a while longer." Nathan paused in resignation as laughter erupted around the table. "Now I gotta go take a visit with Mrs. Martin, she's due any day now."
Staring at the sharpshooter who'd yet to pass comment on the situation. "Geez Buck nobody here blames ya for what happened, least of all Ezra. Reckon he'll forgive ya, he won't hold it against ya." Smiling wickedly at Wilmington he added, "might make ya squirm some though. Reckon we's were all pretty pissed the night it happened, but guess what we're all trying to say is that we can forgive ya. Can you forgive yerself Buck?"
Buck looked around the group of remaining men and saw their agreement with what Vin had said. He started to feel some of the heavy weight that wrapped around his heart begin to lift off him. "Guess I'll be going to see Ezra now."
Buck hesitantly negotiated the stairs leading to the small room above. As he stood on the precipice of Nathan's room, come clinic, he contemplated everything that had been said to him at the saloon. Grateful that the five men he shared an allegiance with supported him and didn't hold him responsible for Ezra's condition. He alone shouldered the blame for that unfortunate mess. He hoped he could convince the slippery Southerner that he regretted his actions, and although he had hurt the gambler he could not have killed him.
Gripping the knob tightly he turned it smoothly opening the solid wood door inwards. He was greeted with the sight of the gambler sitting crossed legged on the bed. Still sporting a white bandage around his head and another wrapped up his right foot. Laid out on the bed in front of him were the ever-present deck of cards.
Standish looked up from his game of solitaire and scrutinised the new arrival to the room. Fully expecting it to be Josiah or JD he was momentarily astounded when he found that it was Buck. Quirking an eyebrow upward, he found the effect was lost as the eyebrow disappeared amongst the bandage. His green eyes travelled the path of the man as he entered the room. He didn't voice a greeting, but neither did he tell the man to remove himself from his presence. He'd wanted to talk to Buck since he had become aware and requested constantly that the ladies man came for a visit. Only having the say so of the others that the man had recovered, he still wished to view for himself that the womaniser had escaped serious injury from his untimely fall.
Ezra had little trouble remembering what happened but was confused by the events. He didn't have any memory of what occurred after he was hit with the rock, or of the others finding him and bringing him back to Four Corners. Josiah had explained that Buck had lost his memory and didn't recognise him at the time, and didn't really mean to hurt him.
Buck hovered at the end of the bed, shifting his weight from one foot to the other in nervousness, while he fiddled with a book in his hands turning it over and over.
Standish couldn't help but inwardly smile at the womaniser and the current image he was presenting to the gambler. "Is there something I can assist you with Mr. Wilmington?"
Buck lifted his gaze from the floor and appealed to Ezra, hoping he'd understand. "Hey Pard," he hoarsely croaked, tensely passed the lump of despair that lodged in his throat. "Um how ya doing Ezra?"
"Quite recovered, thank you for asking. I'm told I have phenomenal recuperative powers. And how have you prospered?"
Buck shook his head in disbelief, amazed that this perplexing man could show even a shred of concern for him. "Hell I'm fine Ezra." An awkward pause followed while Buck sorted his thoughts. "Geez I'm real sorry fer what I did to ya " he held his hand up as he saw the Southerner was about to respond, "ya gotta let me say this. I don't know what come over me. When I woke up and you were standing over me and talking, I felt like I was back in the fighting for the Union and just couldn't stop myself. All those memories flooded back, the fight for survival, the unnecessary waste of human life, death and the god-awful fear. Never knowing one day to the next if it was gunna be my last. We got to a point where it didn't even feel bad killing all them people. Some of the fellas used ta have notches on their rifles as to how many rebs they murdered. I couldn't do that." Wilmington looked into the sombre pools of emotion of Standish's green eyes, which reflected his own hurt and anguish. "Damn it all Ezra, I pulled a gun on ya. You're my friend I didn't mean to do it." He hung his head in compunction, shameful at what he'd done as a lone tear ran down the side of his face.
Standish understood the torment and suffering that Buck was currently going through, and although the man had crushed a rock to his skull, he found he held no grievance with the man. In a way he found it quite refreshing to ascertain that his friendship was valued among these six men as had been proven to him over the course of the last few days. Gathering up his cards he then rubbed his hand over his stubbled chin, glancing up at the apprehensive man, Ezra flashed a broad grin, showing the gold tooth and the dimples in his cheeks. "Well I'd just like to say I'm glad your aim was off that day."
"Yeah me too pard." Buck heaved a sigh of relief and remembering the leather bound book he held numbly in his hands he held it out offering it to Ezra.
The Southerner accepted the gift with some confusion but read the title aloud, "'The Life and Adventures of Robinson Crusoe' by Daniel Defoe," he had to admit he was surprised at the ladies man's selection.
"Just a piece offering, in case you were gunna shoot me before I could explain." And in addition, "was one of my favourites as a kid." He shrugged his shoulders uncertainly, "thought you might enjoy it."
"Why thank you Mr. Wilmington, I must admit I have not had the pleasure of reading this work of fiction, I will endeavour to return it as soon as possible."
"Nah, you can keep it."
Standish nodded his head in acceptance and opened the cover of the worn book and examined the yellowed paper inside. He noted the inscription that Buck had scrawled on the inside cover, 'Ezra, As we live and die let us remain pards forever. Buck.' He closed the book and nodded his approval of the message. "I'll treasure this, thankyou." As the serious mood lightened he grinned mischievously at the older man, "Buck I need to vacate this place of confinement, preferably before Mr. Jackson returns. Are you willing to assist me in this endeavour?"
"Sure Pard, where'd ya have in mind?" the older man grinned conspiratually.
Rubbing the rough stubble he replied, "Bath house and then the saloon."
"Come on," and he grabbed the gambler by the upper arm and pulled him to his feet.
The gambler turned and shrugged into his jacket, pocketed his cards and newly acquired gift, and then donned his boots. Although the right one was a bit tight with the bandage wrapped around it.
Exiting the room was a matter of ease, as the gambler was steady on his feet and only exhibited a slight limp. Buck felt he'd been conned somehow, but didn't risk speaking this out loud.
"Where the hell is he?" Nathan bellowed as he pushed his way through the doors of the saloon.
Buck nudged the man in the ribs, and spoke in a whisper, "told ya it weren't a great idea ta stay down here."
Nathan barrelled further into the room and headed straight for the table that Ezra and Buck were sitting at. "I thought I told you to stay put?'
"I did not know when to expect you back so I commandeered the assistance of Mr. Wilmington," in exasperation Ezra pleaded, "Nathan I'm fine." The gambler appealed for help from the other five men with whom he'd been playing poker, albeit without monetary gains. When none was forthcoming he proceeded, "has Mrs. Martin graced us with another youngster?" The lady in question already had a brood of nine children; this one made the tenth child of Ted and Gladys Martin, seven boys and three girls.
Throwing both of his arms dramatically up into the air in frustration he growled, "stop changing the subject, and yes she had a boy, named him Samuel Nathan," Jackson smiled proudly as he reminisced. "Ah geez, ya might as well stay now that ya here." Reluctantly agreeing to allow the man to remain out of the clinic.
"Why thank you Mr. Jackson, care for a game of chance?"
One Week Later
Ezra was relaxing outside the saloon with his legs crossed at the ankles and resting on the hitching rail reading the novel that Buck had bequest him. He was about three-quarters of the way through the book and was thoroughly enjoying it. So enthralled in the tale, the Southerner didn't hear JD's approach until he tapped him on the shoulder, and repeated his question.
"What cha reading Ezra?"
"Mr. Dunne, this is the fictional tale depicted by Daniel Defoe. The Life and Adventures of Robinson Crusoe which he penned in 1719."
"Yeah? What's it about?"
"A shipwrecked sailor, Alexander Selkirk is marooned on and island off the coast of Chile. As the title suggests it is about his adventures and survival whilst on this island."
"So ya gunna read it?" and the boy excitedly scraped a chair nearer the gambler waiting in anticipation.
"I suppose I must start at the beginning?"
"Well I ain't read it before Ezra so's it'd be better if ya did."
Sighing in resignation Standish flipped back to the beginning and began retelling the story to JD.
On the opposite side of the main street Buck Wilmington bared a toothy smile as he observed JD and Ezra's interaction. Chris Larabee soundlessly stepped up beside the preoccupied gunslinger and gave his shoulder a friendly squeeze. The pair stood watching for a few more moments when they were joined by Vin Tanner, "What cha doing?"
Buck looked over his shoulder at the buckskin clad man; "jest watchin' is all."
Vin acknowledged this with a brief shrug, "What's he reading?"
"Ever heard of Robinson Crusoe?"
"Nope, don't reckon I have." The tracker immediately left the small group and headed casually over towards the saloon, calling over his shoulder to the two men, "see ya," as he departed.
"Where do ya spose he' off to?" Buck puzzled over the abrupt departure of the sharpshooter.
"Guess he's going ta hear that story too." Chris offered his friend. "Come on let's join 'em." And Chris pushed the ladies man out in front of him towards the gambler.
Ezra raised both eyebrows as he witnessed the newest arrivals pull up a chair. "I don't have to recommence again pray tell?" He groaned having had to restart the novel again when Vin had joined the group; he vacillated at doing so once again.
"Nah, Ezra jest keep going." Buck prompted the man.
"By all means Mr. Wilmington."
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