Strength in Numbers
by Helen Adams
Author's Note: Written for Donna with wishes for a Happy Birthday. Her request was an h/c featuring Ezra, with the whole gang (emphasis on Buck) as caregiver. Because of that, I decided to go with a good old-fashioned illness and lots of simple TLC. J
The early autumn sky was dark over the town of Four Corners, giving everything a dank, colorless appearance, as though the streets themselves had become as tired and depressed as the people who walked them. The rain had been falling for nearly two weeks straight. Not enough to put any of the small farms and homesteads in the area in danger from flooding, but just a slow steady drizzle that leeched at everyone's spirit.
The patter of raindrops hitting the rooftops and an occasional rattle of a cart or wagon traveling through the muddy streets were the only sounds filling the chill mid morning air. The shops and saloons were mostly empty and the few citizens who had ventured outside seemed too dispirited to travel at anything more than a plodding walk.
From the boardwalk in front of the jail, one man watched this scene with a pensive expression. It just didn't seem right, having everyone and everything so quiet. He was tempted to head over to the saloon and start a fight just to liven things up. For a brief moment, Buck considered the idea seriously, but then shook his head. There was no point in busting up somebody else's property just to relieve his boredom. That'd be plain mean, and besides, as one of the town's seven peacekeepers it was his duty to break up fights, not start them.
A movement to the left caught his eye, and Buck's gaze shifted towards the livery stable. Ezra Standish was emerging from the building, leading his horse. The man's head was down and his shoulders were hunched against the rain, as though fearing that the material of the slicker he wore would not be enough to keep the moisture from soaking into the clothing beneath. He looked cold and miserable, and Buck frowned as he watched a violent shiver quake through Ezra's body just before he hauled himself up into the saddle with an unusual display of effort.
Not bothering to go back inside the jailhouse to retrieve his own slicker, Buck pulled his hat down more firmly and jumped down off the boardwalk. Jogging across the street, he called out, "Hey, Ezra, hold up a minute."
Ezra gasped and jerked slightly as he felt a hand touch his arm, and turned to find Buck Wilmington standing next to his horse with a look of concern upon his face. Ezra had not even noticed that anyone else was in his vicinity. Attempting to cover up his reaction, he said, "Good morning, Buck. What brings you out on such a cold and miserable day?"
"Just hoping to find some excitement," he replied amiably. "It's about as lively as a funeral parlor on Sunday night around here. How about you?"
"Patrol," he replied tersely, the expression on his face giving ample evidence of his feelings on that subject. "Heaven forbid some farmer's milk cow takes it into her head to go wandering into a bog without one of our number on hand to record the event."
Buck chuckled. "Well, can't be havin' the folks around here saying that we're not earning that dollar a day, right?"
A soft derisive noise was Ezra's only reply.
"Mind if I ride along with you?" Buck offered.
"In this?" he asked in disbelief, sweeping his hand through the raindrops. "Why on earth would you want to do that?"
Buck smiled and smoothed the fingers of his right hand over his mustache. "Why not? Haven't seen you for a few days, figure it's gonna be pretty quiet out, so we might as well catch up a little. You can tell me all about the pretty ladies and good card games you ran into over in Cedar Ridge."
"You want to catch up? All right, let me see. The females of Cedar Ridge were all unattractive, married, or far too young to excite any interest," he returned bluntly, "and the card games were even more dismal than this confounded weather. Not that I had much opportunity to test that fact, given that I spent two days trudging through the muck with that idiot bank-robber, only to end up spreading my blankets over moldy straw in a mildew-infested barn for two more nights guarding him. Evidently, the jail was too filled with other reprobates to hold another prisoner, due to the fact that the judge hadn't been through in several months. Oh, yes, and the only hotel in town burned down recently so there was no alternate place of rest. I'm lucky I managed to find the barn, and put together enough time and resources to eat once a day!"
"Least the trip back was quiet," Buck tried.
"Small favors. I still cannot believe that Mister Larabee found it inconvenient to alter the present duty-roster and then left for Eagle Bend, necessitating my taking a morning patrol after only a few hours back in town." Looking Buck squarely in the eye, he growled, "Still want to come riding with me?"
Buck hesitated only a moment. Ezra was in a rare mood today, but the weariness in his challenging eyes and the raspy softness of his words told Buck that there was another reason for it than just a bad duty assignment.
"Sounds like you might be coming down something," he observed. "Reckon you could use some company, just to make sure you don't pitch out of the saddle and land on your head or something."
Ezra seemed poised to protest, then abruptly turned away from Buck and covered his mouth with a gloved fist as he began to cough. "It's just a cold," he said when he could speak again. "Hardly unexpected given the state of the local climate. I'm only surprised it hasn't happened sooner."
Buck nodded. "You should go ask Nathan for some soothing syrup. He gave JD some for that little sore throat he had last week and the kid had a good nap and felt fit as a fiddle afterward. Said the medicine didn't taste half-bad either, for once."
"Mister Jackson must have mixed an incorrect ingredient into this batch then," Ezra replied sourly. "Our good healer seems to hold a firm belief that if medicine doesn't taste utterly foul, it isn't doing its job properly."
"Still ought to take some," Buck pressed; brow furrowing as Ezra unsuccessfully attempted to suppress another cough.
He sighed. "I suppose you're right. It would be best to nip this in the bud before it grows any worse."
"That's the spirit. You ought to just stay inside for a day or two to recover. No morning patrols or riding out in the cold and damp. Just stay warm and cozy, and let other people wait on you."
The suggestion seemed to improve Ezra's mood, for he smiled as he said, "I like that prescription, Doctor Wilmington. I'll take it under advisement."
Buck grinned and slapped Ezra lightly on the leg. "Let me go get my slicker and saddle up. Sooner we get going, the sooner we can get in out of this shit and you can start takin' my good advice."
Ezra looked surprised by the renewed offer, then embarrassed as he murmured, "I'd be pleased to have the company." Then, with a smirk, he added, "In fact, I'd be pleased to have a substitute, but given that I'm already up, dressed, muddy and damp, I suppose I might as well make it worthwhile."
The weather seemed to get worse the further out they rode. Or, Ezra thought to himself, it could have been the simple fact that he was feeling more wretched with every step his horse took away from the relative comforts of town. There were those who preached the gospel of fresh air and exercise for whatever ailed a body, Nathan Jackson among them, but what was the point of fresh air when one could not manage to draw a single breath deep enough to enjoy it?
As though conjured by the thought, Ezra felt his lungs contract. Pulling up his horse, he pressed one hand flat against the surface of his chest and tried to suppress the terrible choking sensation without resorting to another coughing fit, but the attempt was a vain one and he was quickly overcome.
"Agh, God," he gasped when the spell at last came to an end. Hacking one last time, he spat a mouthful of thick greenish fluid into the mud and grimaced, feeling utterly disgusted for giving in to that impulse. Spitting was behavior he normally derided as low and uncouth, but he hadn't been able to stop himself. "What the hell is wrong with me?" he muttered.
"Was kind of wondering that myself," Buck said seriously. He had nudged his own mount closer to Ezra's, watching and waiting for some way to help him. "You know, just because Chris forgot to shift the schedule around doesn't mean he'd want you riding out in the wet if you're sick. Even he ain't that ornery."
Ezra gave a weary nod. "I suppose you're right."
Encouraged by the response, Buck urged, "Why don't we get on home? There's nothing happening out this way today anyhow." Ezra's lack of argument was answer enough for Buck, who nudged his horse into motion and turned the animal back towards town. "Let's go."
The horses moved slowly over the churned earth, and it took nearly an hour before the two men made it back to town. By the time they stopped in front of the livery, the animals seemed as glad to see shelter as their riders were.
Buck dismounted quickly, never taking his eyes from Ezra, who had remained mostly silent as they rode.
Ezra left his own saddle slowly, but still nearly lost his balance when his boot slid on the wet ground. He was saved from meeting the muddy street by the quick action of Buck, who reached out and grabbed him before he could fall.
"Thank you," he murmured, steadying himself and adding an apology for his show of clumsiness.
"You all right?"
"Tired," the gambler admitted softly.
"Why don't you go on up to your room and tuck yourself back into bed," Buck said sympathetically. "I'll see to the horses, then get Nathan to come by and have a look at you."
"There's no need," Ezra protested, deliberately drawing his body up straighter. "I am capable of progressing to the clinic under my own power."
"Yep, but then you'd probably run out of steam before you got halfway up all them stairs of his," Buck cut in, grinning a little at the dismayed look on Ezra's face as he recalled the double flight leading up to Nathan's place of business. "No, you just do what ol' Buck tells you to for once. I don't mind lending a helping hand and I'm sure Nathan won't mind making a house call."
Ezra looked startled at the reassurance. He stared for a moment, as though unsure what to say, then gave his hat brim a half hearted tug that caused rainwater to spill down like a tiny waterfall. Without another word, he turned and trudged toward the saloon.
"How long you been feeling sick?" Nathan asked, frowning slightly as he touched Ezra's overly warm cheeks and forehead with the back of his hand. "You got a little fever going here. Any pain? Headache? Stomach miseries?"
Ezra shook his head. "None. Only the coughing is a bit painful, and my throat has been scratchy for several days."
"Would've been a good idea to ask someone else to take your turn on patrol this morning," Nathan scolded mildly, touching his fingertips probingly along the underside of Ezra's jaw and tugging his chin to encourage him to open his mouth so he could get a look inside. "I told Buck to wait downstairs while I took a look at you, and when I left he was pacing around and fretting as bad as a daddy waiting on a new baby. You must've worried him pretty good. Told me he thought you were gonna keel over a time or two out there. You got some redness and swelling back here in your throat."
Patiently submitting to having a lamp moved close to his face while the healer continued to tilt his head this way and that so that he could peek inside his eyes, ears and nose, Ezra ignored the interjected comments. "Mister Wilmington exaggerates. I was in no such danger, and perfectly capable of fulfilling my assigned duties. I refuse to be accused of not pulling my weight in this town."
Nathan glanced up in surprise, then paused to take a good look at Ezra, not as a healer with a patient, but friend to friend. "Somebody been talkin' out of turn again?"
Most of the townsfolk had come to accept the seven men who kept their town safe, but there were a few who made no secret of their disdain for a gambler, a black man, a wet-behind-the-ears boy and a former man of the cloth acting as law-enforcement. Oddly, few of those people seemed to object any to Buck, Vin or Chris doing the same job. Or perhaps they simply weren't brave enough to voice their displeasure within easy hearing distance.
Ezra shifted a bit, the small show of discomfort giving away more than he had likely intended. "Not that I know of, but you know as well as I that they're only waiting for an excuse." He tossed his head dismissively. "It hardly matters anyway, so long as the honorable Judge Travis has no complaint."
"Mm, hmm," Nathan said blandly, his tone making it clear that he was unconvinced. "Well, they got no cause to be unhappy with you for doin' your sworn duty in spite of bein' sick, but I can't say the same for me. You need to take better care of yourself than that."
Ezra raised a sardonic eyebrow. "I didn't know you cared."
"Sure I do. If you ain't around, who am I gonna argue with?"
The healer chuckled. "You know I can't keep up with him when he gets all wound up talkin' philosophy and such. You're the only one who can. You feelin' a chill?"
Unable to prevent it as a whisper of cold air drifted through a crack in the sealing around his window, Ezra had shivered. He had followed Buck's advice as far as removing his outer trappings and boots, but had not quite been able to bring himself to change into his nightclothes and allow the indignity of being examined while lying in bed like an invalid.
"It is rather frigid in here," he conceded, then choked on the words and burst into a fit of coughing that left him clutching his chest and struggling for air as Nathan helpfully pounded his back to help clear the breathing passage.
Ignoring the patient's weak protest, Nathan began to unbutton Ezra's shirt and fished his nightshirt off the pillow. "I don't want to hear no squawking, now," he ordered gently. "You just get yourself changed and under these quilts. You got a real nasty cold going and you ain't gonna be fit to be out of bed for at least a couple of days."
"That's what Buck though as well."
Nathan harrumphed. "Maybe I ought to ask if he wants to become a partner over at the clinic. Course, I suppose Buck would only be willin' to examine the female patients. Here, let me help you with that."
A grunt came from the layer of flannel that Ezra was working down over his head as he struggled into the nightshirt. It seemed to take a great deal more effort than it should have and as soon as he was properly dressed; he climbed wearily into bed, allowing Nathan to settle the covers around him.
"Take a swallow of this syrup for your cough," the healer ordered, pulling a small brown bottle and a spoon out of his medicine kit. "I'll go downstairs and ask Inez to make some broth and heat a kettle of water to make tea for that fever. Unfortunately, there ain't a whole lot else I can recommend against a cold. What you need most is just a lot of sleep."
"I'll take it," Ezra sighed and closed his eyes, sinking into the softness of his feather mattress. Licking his lips, he said absently, "JD was right. Your latest batch of syrup doesn't taste bad at all."
Nathan frowned at the bottle in his hand. "Must've got something wrong in the recipe."
Rays of dull sunlight filtered in through the curtains, drawing a grunt of sleepy protest from the occupant of the bed as they slanted across the room to shine in his face. Ezra squirmed a bit trying to shift out of reach of the light but found that he could not move. Struggling up through the last layers of sleep, he squinted down to see what held him.
The bedcovers had twisted around his body until he was wrapped inside a cocoon of fabric. It was pleasantly warm but the feeling of confinement was intolerable, and so, pushing and kicking, he worked his trapped limbs free, only for the small amount of exertion to leave him gasping and spent.
"This cannot be good," he muttered, then paused, startled by the thin whisper that had emerged in place of his normally smooth voice. He tried again, but this time all that came out was a reedy croak. Lovely.
Ezra lay staring at the ceiling for several minutes, contemplating the wisdom of just going back to sleep and hoping for better luck next time. Unfortunately, though tired, he wasn't actually sleepy anymore. It seemed a waste of a perfectly good duty free day to just lie here. After all, how ill could he really be from just a little rain and some uncomfortable living conditions? Surely such a small thing as weather couldn't be responsible for making him feel as though he'd gained forty years in a day! He was made of sterner stuff than that.
Hoping that perhaps he would feel better if he was up and moving, Ezra hauled himself into a sitting position and stood, only to find himself sitting back down rather abruptly when his legs refused to hold him. The sudden motion left him dizzy and he closed his eyes, waiting for the world to right itself again.
"Damn it, I will not give in to this!" he rasped.
He made a second attempt, this time moving carefully and gripping the night table for support. The effort was successful but a voice in the back of his mind was already chastising him for it, telling him that he was a fool to be out of bed.
Stilling the logical voice, which sounded annoyingly similar to Nathan's, Ezra moved slowly to the window and looked outside. He was surprised to see that the sun was setting. Hadn't he and Buck arrived back in town just before noon? Apparently, he had slept most of the day away!
Well, at least the rain had stopped for the moment and the warmth of the fading sun felt good against his chilled body. He sighed, pressing his hot forehead against the cool glass and closing his eyes. How was it that a person could feel too hot and too cold at the same time? That made no sense at all.
Ezra could not have said how long he stood there, but when his eyes reopened he saw that the sun had finished setting and the street fires had been lit. He wondered what he should do. On the one hand, he was already up so it seemed as though he should find something better to do with his evening than stand at a window, staring out at nothing. On the other, it was pleasant here, if a bit cold, and he no longer felt any great desire to go anywhere. What entertainment could he really find anyway? Any fellow gamblers would clean him out in a heartbeat if he couldn't pay proper attention to tells and strategies. There was no point in seeking his fellow peacekeepers' company either. With his voice gone, what good would it do to try and join in their conversation? Besides, nobody would want him around in his present condition, knowing he might just pass on whatever ailed him.
No, it would be better to just stay here alone.
The sound of a light knock against the door interrupted Ezra's thoughts and he pressed a hand tightly against his chest as his small gasp of startlement threatened to start another round of that wretched coughing. He struggled for a moment, taking small breaths through his nose until the urge passed.
"Come in," he whispered when the knock sounded again, then scowled at the realization that whoever it was could not possibly have heard him. Perhaps they would think he was still asleep and go on their way if he ignored them.
Still, the thought of company, even for just a moment or two, was appealing.
Decision made, Ezra moved to the door, sparing a moment to hope that it was one of his compatriots on the other side. There was a possibility that it could be Inez Recillos, come by to deliver more hot water for the tea Nathan had left. The idea of the woman seeing him like this, nightshirt clad, barefoot, rumpled, sick and weak as a kitten was more than he felt up to dealing with.
Pulling the door open just a crack, he was relieved to see Buck Wilmington's smiling face on the other side. Opening it more fully, he nodded a greeting.
"Evenin'!" Buck said jovially. "You must be feeling better if you're up and around already."
With a shrug, Ezra pointed from Buck to the door and pantomimed a knock, whispering, "No voice."
"Oh," Buck replied, deflating a little. "Sorry. I just came by to see if you felt up to some supper."
Ezra shook his head.
"Not hungry?" Buck guessed. "You sure? I could bring you up another bowl of Inez's broth."
Again, he shook his head, but as Buck tugged his hat brim in acknowledgement and wished him a good night; Ezra croaked hopefully, "Stay awhile?"
Buck looked surprised by the invitation but readily came inside, heading straight for the rocking chair by the window. "Thanks, don't mind if I do. Guess you were getting a little bored up here all alone, huh?"
Ezra offered a rueful smile. Bored wasn't exactly the word, but he wasn't about to admit that he had been teetering on the brink of a serious case of self-pity. He was a social person at heart and usually preferred company to entertaining himself.
As he glanced around the room, Buck's eyes fell upon the bed and he frowned. Following his gaze, Ezra felt himself flush. It was a mess. Covers flung askew or piled up in the middle and the pillow hanging over one side, nearly on the floor. He wished he had taken the time to straighten the covers before opening his door, but truthfully, even if he'd had the time Ezra was no long sure he had the energy.
It was as if Buck could read his thoughts. Jumping up, he urged the sick man to take his place in the rocker with a gentle grip on his arm, then pulled the top quilt free from the disarranged pile and flipped it over Ezra's legs.
"Lemme just give you a hand with this here. Looks like you must've already had some company this evening," he teased. "Judging by the state of this bed, she must've been a real wildcat!"
Pulling the blanket up around his shivering torso, Ezra smiled in appreciation for both the assistance and the kindly attempt to spare his pride.
Buck made quick work of his task, spreading and tucking the sheets with efficient hospital-worthy precision and fluffing each blanket out before settling it where it belonged. Turning back the covers, he patted the mattress invitingly. "There you go."
Ezra did not get up immediately. He wished he could ask how it was that Buck had come by his show of domestic skill but had to settle for raising a questioning eyebrow.
Correctly interpreting the curious look, Buck grinned. "Oh, I got lots of experience making beds. Nearly as much as I do rumpling 'em up." He picked up the pillow and gave it a vigorous plumping. "When I was a kid I used to help out with the laundry and changing the linens in all the rooms every morning. My ma and the other ladies wanted everything to be kept as clean as possible, no matter how much extra work it took."
"Hotel?" Ezra guessed.
"Whorehouse," Buck said simply, helpfully giving his friend a hand up and flipping the blankets back over him once he had gotten into bed. He chuckled at the dumbfounded expression on Ezra's face. "I guess the subject hasn't ever come up, huh? Yep, my ma had to do what work she could to keep food on the table and a roof over our heads. She did right by me, though, and I ain't one bit ashamed of where I was raised, or how."
Ezra's attempted reply was curtailed by a catch in his throat that turned into a deep hoarse-sounding cough.
"You all right?" Buck asked him concernedly.
"Damn it," Ezra said breathlessly as the spell passed. Surprised to hear that clearing his lungs had seemingly made his voice audible again, he finished what he had wanted to say earlier. "You have no reason to be ashamed. Your mother obviously raised you very well, in spite of her circumstances."
Buck looked pleased. "You're right. Never understood the sense in condemning people for making a living, especially if they're just providing a service that other folks are willing to pay for. Little surprised to hear you say it, though."
Ezra shrugged. "I spent my life in saloons with a mother who made a habit of marrying for monetary gain. I'm hardly in a position to condemn."
"Well, if you ask me, both of our ma's must've been all right or we wouldn't be where we are today, right?"
"I suppose," he replied vaguely.
Watching Ezra fight to keep his eyes open as he settled further down into the bed, Buck smiled at him. "Guess I don't have to ask if you're comfortable. Want me to tell you a bedtime story?"
Ezra snorted softly at the teasing question. "Thank you, but I'd rather not dream about your romantic exploits."
"I got other stories," Buck protested. "Those are the best ones, but I could tell you about the old days when Chris and me was riding together, or about my days with the Texas Rangers, or some of the adventures I had traveling the country when I was about JD's age."
"If you insist," Ezra said, giving him permission to continue without actually admitting that he wanted him to do so.
Buck smiled and pulled Ezra's rocking chair close to the bed before taking a seat. "Well, now. There was this one time I'll never forget . . ."
Ezra woke the next morning wheezing painfully. It felt as though some large weight was pressing down on his chest, squeezing until it seemed that none of the air soughing in and out of his throat was reaching far enough to fill his lungs. He rolled to the right and levered up on one elbow, trying vainly to loosen the obstruction and draw a deep breath. A thrill of panic seized him when he felt himself choking with the effort. He was going to suffocate!
An unexpected weight dipped the mattress behind him and Ezra felt himself being lifted into a sitting position as strong hands began to rub briskly over his back, aiding him in his effort to cough. Dimly, he heard a voice encouraging him. "Come on, you can do it. Slowly now, get yourself a good deep breath and force it out."
The hands increased their pace, occasionally pausing the vigorous rubbing long enough to deliver a few hearty flat palmed whacks to his back. Ezra gagged and wheezed, but finally succeeded in dragging in enough air to produce a good strong cough.
A handkerchief appeared before his face and Ezra took the cloth with a shaking hand, thankfully clearing his mouth and wiping away the sweat beading his skin. He was panting too hard to thank his rescuer verbally but he reached back and gratefully squeezed the hand that had come to rest on his left shoulder.
"You're welcome," Josiah Sanchez said quietly. Continuing to rub one hand up and down his friend's back in a gently soothing rhythm, he asked, "You all right now?"
Nodding, Ezra scooted back so that he could rest against the headboard and closed his eyes. Catching his breath at last, he rasped, "Your timing was most fortuitous."
Josiah settled himself more comfortably with one leg crooked upon the mattress and his elbow resting on his thigh. "Not really. I've been here awhile. Took over from Buck around dawn."
Ezra's eyes opened, a puzzled expression creasing his brow. "Dawn? But . . . he left last night. Didn't he?"
He frowned more deeply, trying to remember. He had started falling asleep before Buck had reached the end of the tale he'd been telling about a time when he and Chris Larabee had conned a gang of outlaws into surrendering a fortune in looted money and jewels. According to Buck, they had infiltrated the gang and staged a mock gunfight in the middle of their camp. Ezra remembered something about Larabee out shooting the leader of the gang only to be outdrawn in turn by Buck, who had shot him full of blanks and impressed the outlaws into appointing him their new leader and turning over their stash of purloined treasure. It had been a very good story and Ezra had been inclined to believe the part about the gunfight, given that it would explain the reason Larabee had recognized his own con using a gun full of blanks on their first meeting, but the rest had been rather suspect.
But he remembered that Buck had wished him a good night, so surely that meant the other man had gone home.
Reading the ill-disguised thoughts playing over Ezra's face, Josiah told him, "He stayed to keep an eye on you. Nathan was here too up until about an hour ago. Buck told me he came by last night just to make sure you were sleeping soundly, but then your fever rose up all of a sudden and you started having a lot of trouble breathing so he stuck around. You had 'em pretty worried. Me too, when Buck came by to ask me to spell him while he went to get a little sleep."
"I don't remember," Ezra said, stunned. As far as he had known, there'd been no unusual interruptions to his rest, much less three people tromping in and out of his room!
The older man shrugged. "Doesn't surprise me. I don't think you ever really woke up last night. You might be okay now that you're fully awake but Nathan doesn't want you left alone in your condition. After what just happened a minute ago, I understand why."
"My condition?" he repeated dully, the words emerging as little more than a hoarse squeak.
Giving him a pat on one blanket covered leg, Josiah told him, "Your cold has developed into a pretty bad case of lung fever. You're a sick boy, I'm afraid."
Ezra was shocked by the news. He had only had a simple, stupid case of chest congestion caused by being stuck out in the rain! You couldn't catch pneumonia from such a thing; a doctor he'd once challenged over a poker table had told him so! Some foreign material invading the lungs that did not belong there caused it, and he hadn't been in any position to . . .
Suddenly, his rebellious thoughts ground to a halt. The barn; that horrible mildew-laden barn with its musty air and moldy straw, where he had lain for two nights guarding that wretched bank robber. He recalled now that he had told the prisoner that they would likely both catch their death of cold living under those conditions, but he had only meant to be facetious. Surely, it couldn't be true!
"Dear God," he mumbled.
"Don't worry," Josiah told him, his pleasant baritone voice taking on a soothing note. "With any luck, we've caught it before it had time to get very bad, and you're already doing the best possible thing by staying in bed where you can be warm and take long naps, good food, lots of water, and whatever else Nathan says you need. You just let us take care of everything."
Ezra made a face and the other man smiled. "Yeah, I know how you feel, but trust me on this one. I've had the lung fever myself and you're not going to feel like doing anything for awhile that somebody else can manage for you."
Feeling a wash of shame over the idea of being unable to take care of himself, even for a short time, Ezra whispered, "Don't want to be a burden."
"You're not a burden," he was reassured, "just a friend in need. Besides, with six of us to split the looking after, you won't hardly have time to be a bother, and you won't have time to get sick of seeing any of us."
Ezra sighed wearily. He was already uncomfortable with the arrangement. In the few months that he had been a part of this band of peacekeepers, he had never suffered any injury serious enough to require more than the lightest attention and, fortunately, he tended towards natural good health otherwise.
Even if he had been prone to illness, he would have done his best to hide it. That was the Standish way. His mother was an independent person with little patience for physical maladies and Ezra had been raised from the cradle to be the same way. His mother had treated the lighter ailments of his childhood with casual dismissal, and he had been passed off to relatives for the more serious ones to be dealt with. Knowing his mother's disdain for personal weakness, he had learned that if he became sick, he should simply avoid human company until the condition passed. When hurt, he would pay a doctor to treat the injury, then retreated to some safe place until he was healed enough to bluff others into thinking he was hale and hearty.
This place; these people, were different but the instincts of a lifetime were not so easy to dismiss. Still, it was not as if he had a choice! The new day had only just begun and already his head was pounding, every muscle in his body felt weak and trembling, and it seemed as though his very bones had been filled with ice. If that was not enough, the tightness in his chest was enough to tell him that the attack he had just suffered was only a warning of things to come. He was going to need all the help he could get. He hated knowing that, and yet, a part of him reveled in Josiah's reassurance. The same part that had unexpectedly reached out to accept Buck's offer of companionship and aid the previous day was now rejoicing in the idea that perhaps these new friends he had found would willingly stand by him.
Ezra's attention was diverted away from his private musings by Josiah's voice saying, "I could be wrong about Buck, though."
"Why?" he asked, instantly worried that perhaps he had missed something while allowing his mind to wander. Had Buck already expressed unwillingness to assume any further care of him?
Josiah ran a hand through his salt and pepper curls and chuckled. "Because from the way he was acting when I came to relieve him, I get the feeling you 're going to be seeing a lot more of him than you're used to."
Ezra's puzzled look drove Josiah to explain further. "You ever noticed the way he is when somebody needs help? You don't think the woman all flock to him just because of that so-called animal magnetism, do you? Buck is like a personal guardian angel for every woman in this town. He can't help himself, and it's become the same with all of us. He took on the job of big brother for JD, natural as breathing. Chris goes on a bender, Buck is right there to see he don't hurt himself. That time Nathan got himself shot in the arm? Buck spent the whole time he was hurt fetching, carrying and generally driving Nathan to drink, all in the name of helping out. And that impulse is just as strong toward you as any of the rest of us. Trust me, you'll be seeing a lot of him over the next few days."
Relieved, Ezra slumped further against the headboard. Wanting to continue the conversation, he tried to take a deep breath, only to moan softly in frustration when the action only produced a weak cough that left his chest aching.
Watching with sympathetic eyes, Josiah pulled a pocket watch from his coat and checked the time. "Think I'll see if anyone's around who can talk Murphy down at the bathhouse into opening up a little early. You shouldn't really be out of bed, but when I had the lung-fever, nothing felt better to me than a good hot bath. It'll warm you up and the steam should help loosen that cough some."
"Excellent suggestion," Ezra agreed softly. The idea of exerting himself enough to get up, dressed and walk the three hundred or so yards between his room and the public bathhouse felt incredibly daunting, but sinking into a hot tub of water sounded just too wonderful to resist.
"You just stay right where you are until I come back to help you get ready," Josiah ordered him.
Closing his eyes, Ezra sketched a sloppy salute. He had no energy to argue, much less disobey.
Josiah smiled at the easy acquiescence and stood up. "Good man," he said giving Ezra's hair a friendly ruffle as he hurried from the room.
Frowning, Ezra lifted a hand to smooth the locks back into place. Some people had no sense of propriety.
When Josiah returned, Vin Tanner was with him. Vin tugged at the floppy brim of his hat in greeting. "Heard tell you weren't feelin' so good," he said, moving over to the window and slouching down to take a lightly balanced seat on the sill.
"You heard right," Ezra returned, stifling the impulse to laugh as he realized that the soft raspy drawl with which he had delivered those simple words made it sound as though he was mocking his visitor.
Fortunately, Vin either did not notice or chose to ignore the coincidence. "JD ran over to Murphy's to get a tub ready for you. The old guy owes the kid five dollars from last night's game, so I don't reckon it'll be any trouble for JD to get him workin' a little early."
Ezra was astonished. "JD won a card game?"
Josiah chuckled. "Just because he can't beat you don't mean he hasn't been paying attention. Kid bluffed Murphy and me both with nothing more than a lousy pair of threes."
The gambler felt a swell of pride over the young man's accomplishment. He had been trying for months to teach JD how not to give his hand away through body language. "Sorry I missed it."
"You wouldn't have been fooled," Vin said with a grin. "I was watching from the side and the second Josiah folded, the kid started tapping his foot like crazy. Knew he was bluffin' then."
"Still," Ezra said simply.
Josiah nodded. "He did all right. You ready to get up and dressed? Figure by the time we get you across the street the water ought to be just about ready."
Not bothering to reply, Ezra braced himself and climbed out of bed. As before, the world tilted slightly, but this time he had been expecting it and had taken a good grip on the headboard. When he was steady, he moved to the dresser.
"What are you doin'?" Vin asked incredulously, watching the sick man gathering together shaving supplies atop the surface of the bureau.
Not understanding, Ezra gestured toward the bowl and razor strop. "Preparing?"
"You're planning to shave before you go down for a bath?" Vin clarified. "Ain't that kind of silly?"
Ezra looked doubtfully at the razor. "Silly?"
Josiah lightly laid a hand on his shoulder. "Not much need to bother is what he means. You aren't setting out to impress anyone, are you? You're just going for a hot soak and then coming straight back here."
Ezra scratched unhappily at the prickly reddish brown whiskers lining his jaw. It did seem like he would be expending a great deal of energy for little gain, but still.
"Ain't so bad," Vin said, rubbing at his own ever-present stubble. "If you take it off now, you'll just have to do it again tomorrow. Seems to me you might as well wait until you're feelin' spry again."
Ezra hated having to agree with such a plebian assessment, but as he was overtaken by a sudden spasming cough, he knew that he would have to give in on this point. With the way things were going, he would probably start coughing in the middle of a razor stroke and cut his own throat!
"Very well," he choked out. "I'll forgo the ritual this one time."
Vin smiled and moved over to the wardrobe. "Now you're talkin' sense. Let me just grab you some britches and a clean shirt and we'll get going. Think you can do without the drawers?"
Unable to help himself, Josiah started laughing at Ezra's horrified expression. Gently steering him to take a seat on the bed, he said, "We'll take that as a 'no'."
Feeling as though he had fallen into a mirror like the one in Lewis Carroll's new book, Ezra watched helplessly as his two cohorts rifled through his underwear drawer and closet, pulling forth mismatched items with seemingly no regard at all for appearance or style.
"Hey, you got a dressing gown," Vin announced, gleefully pulling a red wool robe with black quilted trimming free from the wardrobe. "Slippers too. Seeing's how you're gonna strip off again once we get you into the bathhouse, why don't you just wear these for a few minutes?"
Indignity growing stronger with every word, Ezra drew himself up straight and declared, "I will not!"
Looking puzzled, Vin asked, "Why not?"
Ezra felt his frustration mount as his voice again came out as nothing more than a reedy squeak, preventing him from listing in detail all of the reasons why a gentleman should never appear in public at less than his best, or at the very least, completely and properly attired. The uncomfortable knowledge that Vin Tanner had once witnessed him striding through town in a tablecloth after a humiliating defeat at the hands of a fellow gambler only made the desire to argue his point stronger. That had been a matter of honor. This was something else. To appear in public less than fully dressed would advertise his current disability to everyone. He could not allow that. It was humiliating enough to appear weak and helpless before his fellow lawmen without half the town being aware of his condition!
Josiah's eyes narrowed. When he was not deliberately hiding them, every emotion that Ezra felt showed clearly in his eyes, and it was obvious that they were somehow causing him to feel even more miserable than he already did. Trying to spare Ezra the embarrassment of knowing that he was giving his feelings away, Josiah looked at Vin and said simply, "Would you wear that in public?"
Vin too had caught the play of emotion. Glancing down at the robe, he shrugged. "Probably not." He reached back into the wardrobe and withdrew a plain white shirt and a pair of charcoal gray trousers, adding Ezra's red wool jacket to the mix. "How about these?"
With a sense of relief so profound that he felt a bit light-headed, Ezra eagerly accepted the alternative, voicing none of the protest he would normally have offered as Josiah added a few more items, including his tall black boots, to the mix and moved to assist him in getting dressed.
Settling Ezra's low crowned hat firmly atop his disheveled hair, Vin said, "There you are. All set. And don't even bother askin' for your guns. The way your hands are shaking, if a ruckus broke out, you'd probably wind up blowing off some part of me I'm partial to keepin'."
Ezra wasn't sure he would have the strength to draw a weapon at this point, much less fire it accurately. It was going to take all he had just to walk out to the bathhouse without leaning too heavily on either of his companions. Steeling himself, he nodded. "Let's go."
Ezra's hopes for reaching the bathhouse without creating a scene were dashed the moment he reached the bottom of the saloon stairs. JD was just coming inside, Buck Wilmington and Nathan Jackson hot on his heels. Both of the latter immediately voiced noisy protest at finding Ezra out of his room.
"Are you crazy?" Nathan demanded. "You ain't in no shape to go gallivanting around town. You shouldn't even be out of bed yet."
Buck had turned accusing eyes on Josiah. "I told you to keep an eye on him, not take him downstairs for a drink and a game! Didn't you hear me say that he was feverish and coughing himself into a fit last night?"
Raising his voice to be heard above the din made by the other two, JD said, "The tub is ready when you are, Ezra. Nice and hot, just like you wanted."
"A bath?" Nathan sputtered. "You got up out of your sickbed and decided to take a walk out in the cold and rain because you felt like you were overdue for a bath? Ezra, I know you're big on appearances, but I ain't about to let you catch your death just to pamper your vanity!"
By this time, every person in the saloon was staring. Luckily, the place was less than half full but even one pair of curious eyes was too much as far as Ezra was concerned. A rush of weakness hit as the other men continued to argue around him and he reached out to grab the back of a chair to steady his balance.
Vin, who had not relinquished the casually supportive grip he had taken on Ezra's elbow as they descended the stairs together, noticed the shift in posture instantly and strengthened his hold. Raising the other hand to his lips, he gave a piercing whistle that stopped all of the other men mid-word.
"Can we just take this across the street like we planned on and argue about it later?" he said into the sudden silence. Looking Nathan in the eye, he subtly jerked his head to indicate those listening and explained in a slightly louder than necessary voice, "Ol' Murphy owed JD some money and since JD owes Ezra and me both from last week's game we decided to take out the difference in kind. Sort of a lawman's special, just for today. Get it?"
Josiah did some quick harsh whispering in the healer's ear and Nathan's indignant posture instantly drooped. "Sorry, Ezra. I wasn't thinking. Reckon a nice hot bath is just what the doctor ordered."
Realizing that the other two had only been attempting to help, Buck draped a friendly and unobtrusively supportive arm around Ezra. Looking Josiah in the eye, he said, "I'm sorry too. Didn't realize what was going on or I'd have kept my mouth shut. Reckon I could use me a bath too, if Murphy's havin' a special."
Grateful for the support that his friends were providing, both physical and otherwise, Ezra played along. Pulling his face a bit farther away from the close proximity of Buck's armpit, he said, "An excellent idea, Mister Wilmington."
The wry comment was hoarse and barely audible, but it was enough to make the other men laugh and the quick end to the budding confrontation that had been building seemed to kill the interest of the other saloon patrons.
Not trusting the strength of his voice any longer, Ezra cast his forearm out gracefully, palm up in a classic 'after you' gesture, hoping his companions would take the hint and cease making a spectacle of themselves and him.
"Well, seeing as how you've got things under control here," Josiah said quietly, "I think I'll see if I can get Inez to rustle up a couple of extra pillows to take upstairs. Lying flat isn't something I'd recommend right now."
Nathan nodded and smiled as he said, "I'll go with you. Want to air out that room a little and make sure Ezra ain't been lacing my cough syrup with extra alcohol the way Chris does."
"Man, you really know how to take the fun out of being sick," Buck quipped.
Leaning closer, Nathan gave his patient a serious look and said softly, "You need me for anything, you just send one of the others. Meantime stay in that hot water as long as you can stand to, breathe deep and don't try to hold it back if you get the urge to cough. It's what your body needs to do."
Knowing that he had to get moving before his trembling legs decided to buckle, Ezra nodded once in acknowledgment and started walking.
Moving toward the batwing doors, JD said, "I'll go ahead and make sure nobody else is there. Murphy gave me the key and permission to set everything up. I'll stand outside and keep an eye on the door for you; make sure nobody else tries to go in."
He gave Ezra a quick grin and jogged across the street. Ezra smiled after him. His fellow peacekeepers were good men, every last one of them.
It wasn't far from the saloon to the bathhouse, but by the time he reached the building and got inside where he could let down his public pretense of good health, Ezra felt as though he had run ten miles. Gasping shallowly, face and body damp with perspiration, he all but collapsed on the bench seat where customers normally waited their turn for a tub.
"You shouldn't try so hard to make everyone think you're feeling good," Vin scolded, having some idea of the effort it had cost Ezra to stride through the rain drenched streets standing as straight and confident as if he had the strength of ten men.
Ezra could not draw breath enough to answer. His face had gone pale and pinched as the pain of dry wracking coughs tore through him. His left hand trembled as he lifted it to his mouth in an attempt to stifle the sound.
"Easy now," Buck said, rubbing his back much the way Josiah had earlier. Lifting his eyes to meet Vin's, he suggested, "Let's get him settled into the bath and see if that doesn't help some."
"Right," Vin agreed.
Between the two of them, they managed to get Ezra on his feet and over to the tub that JD had filled half way with steaming hot water. JD, who had followed them inside to make sure he wasn't needed, told them, "There's plenty more water heated when you're ready. I wasn't sure how much he'd want."
"This is great, kid. Thanks," Buck said, throwing him a smile.
With a tug of his bowler hat, JD closed the door to begin his stint of self-appointed guard duty.
Buck began at once to remove Ezra's hat, coat and the string tie Josiah had grudgingly allowed him. Ezra had finally stopped coughing but he had little strength left to help, barely even enough to form a token protest as Vin Tanner unceremoniously opened the closure of his pants and yanked the garment down his legs. Buck lowered him to sit on another bench and helped him out of his shirt while Vin worked to remove his boots and socks.
"Now ain't you sorry you insisted on them drawers?" Vin asked, blue eyes twinkling as he gave the second boot a vicious tug to get it to come free. "You could be jumpin' in that hot water right this second if you didn't have to undo all them buttons."
Frowning down at the lightweight cotton of his union suit, Ezra applied his trembling fingers to the long row of closings. "Some of us have standards," he whispered.
"And some of us got sense," Vin fired back, slapping his hands away and popping the tiny buttons open with brisk efficiency, seeming not at all embarrassed as he and Buck finished stripping their sick friend to his skin and all but lifted him into the tub.
"Barbarians," Ezra muttered, his indignant protest fading into a long sigh as the heat of the water washed over his chilled body. Settling against the high back of the tub, he slid down a few inches, nearly moaning with pleasure when his two helpers each added another steaming bucketful of water to the bath.
Buck swished his fingertips in the far end of the tub. "Feels pretty hot. Too much for you?"
"Oh, no," Ezra sighed blissfully. It was the first time in days that he had felt truly warm and the feeling was almost overwhelming. "It's divine."
Smiling at the response, the other men again added water, bringing the level up to the middle of Ezra's chest. Gripping the sides, he ducked down for a moment to fully immerse himself, then came back up and stretched out fully in the tub.
"Reckon you got things covered here for the time being, Buck" Vin said. "I'm gonna go see if Chris made it back in yet; tell him what's going on. I'll be back in awhile to help you get Ezra back up to bed."
"Stop talking about me as if I weren't present," Ezra rasped.
Vin smiled at him. "You just pipe down and relax. I'll see you in a bit."
Ezra simply lifted a hand from the water and wiggled his fingers in silent dismissal, closing his eyes as he settled back.
It took only minutes for the steam to begin working its magic. Breathing deeply was painful but Ezra forced the extra air in anyway, and was almost immediately assailed by deep coughing.
Buck appeared at his side with a metal container, which he offered expectantly. When Ezra simply frowned at it, he explained, "It's a spittoon."
"I know that," Ezra grated; his words punctuated with more coughs. "Surely . . . you don't intend . . . for me to expectorate . . . into that."
"Might as well," Buck told him. "That's what they're made for."
Realizing that he did not really have a choice, Ezra leaned over and gingerly made use of the receptacle. "Revolting," he murmured.
"But useful," Buck concluded cheerfully.
Ezra sighed and lay back once more, struggling to stay awake. He didn't want to fall asleep. It was too pleasant to simply revel in the sensation of being warm and almost comfortable. Fingers absently drifting up to scratch his bestubbled chin, he frowned slightly. Almost. It would have been nice to take this chance to get cleaned up properly, but beggars couldn't be choosers.
Against his will, his heavy eyelids slid closed. For now, warm was enough.