Disclaimer: The Alphabet Brigade hold the deed, I just keep sneakin' over the fence and playin' with 'm when they ain't lookin'. Don't make no money off this stuff, or I'd have that new car by now;)
Warnings: A little language
Notes: Written for Luna to celebrate her birthday. She's an Ezra woman, but don't hold that against her... she never was quite right;) There's an Ezracentric bent in this little fic, but Chris and Vin are present and accounted for, delivering the "c" in healthy doses. Happy (late) birthday cuz... may the year ahead be magnificent!
Ezra Standish was missing.
The gambler had ridden out for a few days, claiming that the recent lack of visitors in town was forcing him to seek other avenues of potential revenue. When he failed to return within a two days of when they expected, the others began to worry. They suspected at first that the grifter had simply become bored with his duties as peacekeeper and had left for greener pastures. However, they found the bulk of his belongings in his room above the saloon. He was missing.
Chris Larabee decided that he and Vin Tanner would go in search of the Southerner, leaving the others in town. If they found that they needed help, they would wire them. As morning dawned, the two men rode out with a vague idea as to where the young man had gone. But, as always, Ezra played his hand close to the vest.
For three days, Chris and Vin searched the surrounding towns for signs that the gambler had been there in the week since he had left. They were rewarded in Ashton, when the saloon owner recalled the handsomely dressed man being there five days before. Finally, with a little of Larabee's special brand of questioning, the man recalled Standish heading to the East.
"Closest place I r'call in that d'rection's Orlie," Vin frowned and rubbed his chin as he considered the opportunities in that direction. "Reckon he's followin' th' stage route, lookin' fer some unsuspectin' trav'lin' salesmen."
Nodding, Chris said simply, "let's ride."
With a soft, pain-filled groan, Ezra forced his body to move. He managed to roll to his back, rubbing a roughened hand over his battered face. That part of his mind concerned with such things bemoaned the state of his usually immaculate face and hands. His tongue probed tentatively along the hole where his gold tooth had been, and he winced as the ragged flesh of his gum sent arrows of pain shooting through his mouth.
He knew he was in bad shape, far beyond the cosmetic disaster of his handsome face and well made clothing. The entire left side of his abdomen throbbed, and he recognized the feel of broken ribs. Those few times that he had been forced to stand, he was unable to put any weight on his right foot. During those times, too, he had watched as his body expelled bloody urine into the filthy bucket that served as a chamber pot in his just as filthy accommodations. The fact that his lower back screamed in pain when he did use the barbaric facilities told him quite clearly that his kidneys had been damaged.
'Hell', he thought to himself, 'the list of what isn't injured is far shorter than what is.' It had been three days since he had been beaten and locked away in what served as the local jail. Three days of drifting in and out of consciousness, of growing pain and rising fever, of failing hopes that he would be rescued. He had ridden in just four days earlier, deciding to try his hand at fleecing... no, of providing entertainment to the locals... at the gaming tables. He had spent some time getting the lay of the land, but had obviously missed something significant. Only two hours after settling in at one of the roughly made tables, he was accused of cheating. His declaration that he abhorred gambling fell on deaf ears. The inbred boar of a sheriff stood by passively while the other men at the table drug him out into the street and began beating him. He stood his ground for some time, even managing to get off both shots from his derringer, but soon succumbed to the sheer weight of bodies attacking him.
Sometime later, he awoke in the same little cell he had yet to leave. Once a day the sheriff shuffled to the cell, shoved a plate and mug beneath the door, and went back to dozing in his chair. There was a bucket of tepid, fetid water in one corner of the cell, but Standish opted to leave it untouched and made due with his meager meal.
The long hours of being neglected were wearing on him, and he knew that the chances of his seeing more than one or two more days were slim to none. His only chance of surviving this particular incarceration depended completely on his fellow peacekeepers finding him.
If they even looked.
Always the odd man out, Standish found himself holding out very little hope that he would be rescued. He decided that the chances were far greater that they would simply write him off, deciding that he had grown tired of their pauper-like existence in Four Corners. Chris would more than likely conclude that he had, indeed, run out on them again, and the others would agree.
Hot tears filled swollen, jade eyes and, too tired to fight them any longer, Ezra wept. Feelings of loneliness and abandonment, once as familiar as the cards he carried, threatened to overwhelm him. Thoughts of dying here, alone and unmissed, tore at his heart and soul. It wasn't fair, not now when he found that there was something more to Ezra Standish than his ability with cards.
"It's not fair," he said again in a hoarse whisper.
They rode into Orlie just as the sun touched the Western horizon. The two men looked around them at the mixture of rough wooden structures and weather-beaten tents, wondering if the Southerner would even give this dingy collection of dwellings a second glance. Looking at one another and shrugging in tandem, they reined their horses in at the bedraggled sheriff's office. Stepping from their saddles stiffly after the long hours there, they made their way into the dark building. They found the filthy, piggish man slumped in his chair, his short, pudgy legs propped up on the corner of the desk.
Too tired for even his brand of diplomacy, Chris shoved the man's feet from the desk, watching impassively as they dropped suddenly to the floor, nearly taking their owner with them. As the scruffy man jumped up, startled, Larabee grinned wolfishly.
"We're looking for a friend," he said as way of introduction.
Taking in the lean and dangerous look of the man before him, dressed all in black, Clovis Hatch moved his hand from his sidearm. "Ain't been no one new 'round here fer days."
Slightly behind his friend, Vin was slowly studying the surroundings. At the back of the building, in the tiny cell, he saw a slight movement. Stepping a little closer, he saw that the cell was occupied. Frowning, he strode across the dimly lit room, leaning against the bars. The body on the narrow, wooden bunk moved again, and a soft groan announced that the figure was in pain. Gripping the bars hard, Tanner pressed his face against them as he caught sight of a red jacket beneath the tattered blanket.
"Ezra?" He watched as the figure stirred once more, then turned to call across the room, "Chris! He's in here!"
Glaring at the lying man, Larabee drew his Colt with his usual lightening speed. "Give me the keys," he growled.
Clovis considered his options, but found that he had only one. Pulling himself up, he fumbled for the cell keys, tossing them to the man in black. "L-look... he w-was caught cheatin'."
"Shut up," Chris growled. He stormed across the room and quickly unlocked the cell door. While he kept his gun trained on Hatch, he watched as Vin hurried into the barred room.
"Ezra?" The Texan said softly as he knelt beside the narrow bunk. Gently he turned the smaller man's face toward the dim light, wincing at the sight of the battered features. "Ah, hell. Reckon y' run up ag'inst more'n y' bargained fer."
"How is he?" Larabee asked.
"Pretty rough," Tanner answered. He saw that the man was struggling to open his blackened eyes. He smiled down at the gambler and said softly, "hey Ezra."
"Yep. Never would a pictured y' as bein' the one t' spend time in such a... a rustic place as this."
Managing a small smile, the gambler said, "I b... believe you have... cor... corrupted me, Mr. Tanner."
With a chuckle, the sharpshooter did his best to examine the man in the dim light. His expression changed quickly, growing somber and then angry as he saw what shape Standish was in. "How long's he been like this?"
Clovis jumped at the angry growl, but didn't answer right away. The solid click of a hammer being drawn back on the man in black's weapon changed that. "H-he's been here... th-three days."
"And you didn't even tend his injuries?"
"W-well, we... that is... I," Hatch stuttered.
"What did he do?" Larabee said in a deceptively soft voice.
"He... uh... well..."
Storming across the room, Chris grasped the shorter man's collar, yanking him to within an inch of his own handsome face. "What... did... he... do," he spit out the words.
"Th-they said he's cheatin'!" The sheriff cried out.
"He don't cheat," Larabee said with conviction.
"But... they... Mr. Thomas, Mr. Leary... they said --"
"I don't give a damn what they said," Chris could recognize the set-up quickly. This pitiful excuse of a human being had been foisted into the position as sheriff because he would do whatever those who really ran the town wanted. The gambler must have run afoul of them, and now they were bent on making an example of him.
"Where's th' doctor?" Vin asked from where he continued to kneel next to the Southerner.
"Ain't g-got one," Clovis stuttered.
Chris dropped the sheriff back to his chair and strode to where Tanner continued to examine the gambler. "Vin?"
Shaking his head, Vin said, "ain't sure. Looks t' have some busted ribs... his face ain't much more 'n raw meat... got a fever. Ain't certain what else."
"Kid... neys," Standish grated out.
"Shit," the buckskin clad man whispered with a shake of his head, "he ain't gonna be able t' ride 'is horse."
Nodding in agreement, Larabee said, "I'll go get a wagon, some supplies and his horse, you keep the sheriff here company."
"Alright," Tanner shifted, pulling his sawed off and aiming it toward the frightened man. With a glare that rivaled his friend's, he said, "git on in here, sheriff. Don't fancy y' bein' outta m' sight."
With a grin, Chris waved the fat man into the cell and pointed toward the corner where the bucket half-filled with waste sat. Clovis grimaced and started to protest, but a single look at the two angry men closed his mouth. Covering his nose and mouth with one pudgy hand, he crouched miserably against the wall.
With a brief nod, the blond strode purposefully from the sheriff's office. He stood outside on the hard-packed dirt street, studying the town. There were very few people outside, but candles and lanterns glowed in most of the dwellings. He finally located what passed for the general store and moved quickly to the door. Finding it locked, he pounded on the splintered wooden frame. After a few moments a gnarled, stooped old man opened it, peering up at him through rheumy eyes.
"I need to buy some supplies," Chris said quietly.
"I'm closed... come back t'morra," the man groused.
Larabee was at the end of his patience. Pulling his gun, he repeated, "I need to buy some supplies." The shopkeeper's eyes flew open, he nodded hurriedly, and pulled the door open to admit the big man. Ten minutes later Chris left the store with a half filled burlap sack. As the door was slammed and bolted behind him, he smiled grimly and headed toward the dilapidated livery.
Back in the dank cell, Vin divided his attention between the cowering lawman and his injured friend. Ezra drifted between wakefulness and sleep, muttering in his pain. The young bounty hunter put a hand on the man's shoulder, rubbing it gently. "'S'okay, Ezra. Yer safe now, 'n soon 's Chris gits back with th' wagon we'll head home."
"Home?" The word still sounded foreign to the young Southerner. He blinked up at the lithe man beside him, one hand reaching up to touch the apparition. His fingers closed on the rough, filthy buckskin coat, but it felt as wonderful as the richest silk to the man. "Vin? You... you are here. I d-didn't dream..."
"Yep, I'm here," Tanner said with a cocky grin. "Don't rec'lect bein' anyone's dream b'fore. Least ways not a man's."
Ezra chuckled, despite the pain. "I pray you... do not disclose that to... to the... others."
Reaching up to idly brush the damp auburn hair from the pale forehead, Vin continued to tease. "We'll d'scuss that later... over a game a cards."
"Ah... Mr. Tanner. I always sus... suspected that you were a... rogue at heart."
They sat quietly then, the injured man drinking in the unexpected comfort he felt at having the unkempt man's hand on his shoulder. He kept his own, trembling, hand on the other man's arm, his fingers clinging to the fringed jacket. Then they both heard the sound of an approaching wagon. A minute later Chris Larabee entered, standing just inside the door.
"Vin, can you get him out here? We've got company coming."
Deciding any questions could wait, the buffalo hunter nodded and holstered his gun. Carefully he lifted the battered man from the bed and settled him into his arms. Carrying Standish out of the cell, he paused only long enough to kick the barred door shut, then continued on across the room. In the process, Ezra lost his hold on consciousness, and lay limply in the other man's arms.
Tanner slipped past the gunslinger and made his way to the wagon. A handful of men stood outside the canvas walled saloon down the street, watching them. Gently he lifted the smaller man into the wagon box, onto a bed of straw that was covered with a blanket. Then he tethered both his and Chris' horses to the back, joining Ezra's little chestnut. Vaulting into the wagon, the sharpshooter braced himself against the wagon seat and pulled his sawed off once more.
Larabee bounded into the wagon then, taking up the reins without lowering his weapon. Slapping the leather across the back of the mules yoked to the wagon, he sent them all tearing down the dusty road as quickly as possible. Behind them the gathering group of townsfolk grew, all of them grumbling and yelling at the escaping men but, as the wagon disappeared into the gathering darkness, none of them made a move to follow.
They rode deep into the night, relying on the animals to choose the route much of the time. While Chris handled the team, Vin crouched down next to the Southerner, trying to keep the injured man from being jostled as much as possible. On his part, Standish remained blissfully unaware of the trip, couched in the darkness of unconsciousness.
Finally satisfied that they weren't being followed, Larabee slowed the mules to a walk, keeping an eye out for somewhere to stop. After a time, he guided the mules into a shallow ravine, and found a sheltered camp beneath an outcropping of rock. Reining the team in, he dropped to the ground and moved to the back of the wagon. Loosening the reins of their three horses, he moved the animals away. By the time he returned, Vin was easing Ezra to the edge of the wagon bed.
"Let me get this bedroll spread out and I'll help get him settled," Larabee said.
Vin nodded and left Standish lying on the thick mat of straw. He slipped over the edge of the wagon and found the sack of supplies the blond had gathered earlier. When the blond returned, they carefully lifted the insensate young Southerner and carried him to the blankets. Stretching him out on the ground, they set about making him as comfortable as possible. While Vin made a fire, Chris laid out the bandages and salves that he had managed to find at the general store. As the fire warmed the air nearby, they slipped Standish out of his clothing so they could look for injuries. There were many. Fortunately most of the grifter's injuries consisted of deep bruises and shallow cuts. They were most worried about the broken ribs and Ezra's report of kidney damage. His best bet would be to remain quiet for a few days, but that didn't seem to be a possibility for now. They needed to get him back to Four Corners and Nathan's care, and there continued to be a threat of their being followed by the angry residents of Orlie.
Tanner held the limp body in a sitting position while Chris bound the damaged ribs. That finished, they splinted the man's right ankle and bathed the various cuts on the trim body. Binding some of the deeper cuts, they tended to the damaged face as well. Both men noticed the swollen jaw, and found the hole where the man's gold tooth had been.
"Reckon he's gonna be a mite put out at havin' t' r'place that," Vin said with a faint smile.
"He's probably got enough winnings tucked away in his room to take care of it," Chris returned the smile. Then he shook his head as he glanced over the firm body. "Never realized he was in such good shape."
"Reckon it pays t' be, in his line a work, what with havin' t' git outta town quick."
Sobering, Larabee said, "reckon it didn't help him much this time."
His own smile disappearing, the sharpshooter said, "reckon."
"Vin?" The name was called in a hoarse whisper.
Looking down to see the man's green eyes half-opened, Tanner said, "hey Ezra, y' d'cide t' join us ag'in?"
"I su...suppose so," Standish tried to rise, only to have a hand press him against the ground. Moving his head slightly, he saw first a familiar black duster, then the gunslinger that had become their leader. "Ch... Chris?"
"Take it easy, Ezra," Larabee said softly. "You just lay still and let us take care of you. We're going to get you back to town, let Nathan fuss over you for awhile."
Managing a smile that turned to a grimace as pain shot through him, Standish gritted out, "th-thank you."
Patting the man's shoulder, the blond said, "you just rest easy, all right?"
Chris hadn't been able to locate any of Ezra's belongings other than his horse and tack. The clothing they had removed was torn and bloodied; not fit to put back on the battered body. He went to his own saddlebags and returned with his own extra set of clothing. With Vin's help, he pulled the black pants and striped shirt onto the gambler. Much smaller than the blond, the clothing hung loosely from the Southerner's frame.
Vin set about making dinner, while Chris bedded down the horses for the rest of their stay. The smell of beans and coffee drew him back to the fire, and they settled in to eat. Nearby, Standish slept fitfully, the pain of his injuries causing him to moan softly from time to time. When they had finished their own meals, the two men went to his side once again. Vin carefully lifted the limp body up, settling Ezra against his chest. He wrapped an arm protectively around the gambler, supporting his head against his shoulder.
Larabee spooned up the thick gravy from the beans and touched the bloodied lips gently.
"Ezra? I need you to wake up and eat some of this."
"Wh... what?" The swollen eyes opened slightly and the gambler stared toward the voice.
"You need to eat," Chris tried again, pressing the spoon once more against the man's mouth.
Staring at the familiar figure in confusion, Standish instinctively opened his mouth, tasting the rich broth that the blond fed him. His eyes never left the other man throughout the entire process, as Larabee spoon fed the Southerner. Only when the man's eyes drooped closed and his body went limp did Chris stop. He helped Vin settle the gambler back on the blankets, tucking them in carefully. That done, Larabee found a clean cloth and dampened it to gently bathe the man's face.
Vin sat back, watching the unusual display of tenderness without comment. While the others had come to accept Standish as part of their group, he never expected Chris Larabee to show such compassion toward the Southerner. When the gunman caught him watching, he simply returned the glare with a broad smile. Chris Larabee hadn't frightened him the first time he tried that glare on him, he didn't see it happening now.
The blond sat watching the young gambler as he slept. He had thought far enough ahead to add a couple of bottles of whiskey to the supplies he picked up in Orlie, and had fed the injured man enough to ease his pain. That accomplished, Standish lay quietly in the blankets, although the pain never completely left his face. From time to time the gunman dabbed a cloth over the battered features, cooling the fever for a few minutes at least.
He would be glad to get back to town and turn the injured man over to their healer. The fact that he was so worried about the gambler had taken him by surprise at first, but he was slowly accepting the phenomenon. While Ezra Standish had proven to be an asset to their peacekeeping force from time to time, Chris never expected to truly accept him as part of the group. There were still far too many questions in his mind, and Ezra had at times given him cause to regret his decision to allow the man to remain with them.
Still, those times were less and less frequent. And none of them had occurred for several months. The last time Larabee's suspicions about the Southerner had surfaced had been when the Governor had visited and Mary Travis' life had been threatened by the devious government official and his hired men. Even then, though, Ezra had surprised him. While the grifter had admitted some time later that he had - indeed - been leaving town with the assassin's money, he had been the one to save Mary's life. And it had nearly cost him his own.
And, if he were honest with himself, Chris had to take some of the blame for Standish almost leaving with the blood money. He had distrusted him immediately, expecting the man to follow his darker nature. How could he not take some of the blame for that situation?
Startled from his thoughts, Larabee saw that the man was once more awake. "Hey, Ezra."
"Wh-where are we?"
"On the road. Figure we'll have you in town in a day or two."
"Two... days. I fear I cannot foresee... surviving m-my... injuries that long... perhaps you and Mr. Tanner - "
"Ezra, shut up. You're going to be fine." Picking up the whiskey bottle nearby, he lifted the damp head and pressed the mouth of the bottle to the swollen lips. "Take a drink, it'll help with the pain."
Standish obliged, drinking the bitter liquid slowly. When he had his fill, he turned his head slightly. As Chris lowered the bottle, he rasped, "not th-the best stock... but tolerable." That said, his head lolled against the blond's chest.
Lowering the once more unconscious man to the blankets, Larabee said softly, "you're going to make it, Standish. I swear it."
They stayed in the ravine until mid-morning, giving Ezra a chance to recover some of his strength. While Chris stayed in camp with the gambler, Vin backtracked to look for signs that they had been, indeed, followed. He lounged back against a boulder, keeping an eye both on Standish and the landscape.
Ezra drifted in and out of consciousness throughout the morning hours. At times he was confused and unable to understand what was going on, while at others he was lucid. And in pain. At one point, he moaned, looking sheepishly up at the man in black. "I fear I must... ask your... assistance. I need to... relieve myself... the pain..."
Smiling compassionately, Larabee said, "no need to explain. Let's get you up and over there." Carefully he lifted the smaller man up and carried him to a nearby cluster of bushes. There he lowered him to his feet, making certain to help keep the man's weight off his broken ankle. Holding the gambler steady, he allowed Standish to take care of business. Checking the sandy ground, he saw that the man was still bleeding. They needed to get him back to town soon.
Ezra managed to close the borrowed clothing, then slumped heavily against the bigger man. While he was uncomfortable at the thought of having the blond care for him so much, he hadn't the strength to argue the point. Standish felt himself lifted once more into the strong arms and carried back to his blankets.
Just as Chris settled the gambler back into the blankets, he heard the sound of hoofbeats coming their way. He listened, but was finally satisfied that it was a single horse, moving at a quick but casual pace. Larabee stood and watched, rewarded a minute later by the sight of Vin entering the camp.
"Reckon they wasn't so bent on hangin' Ezra that they'd come after us," Tanner informed him as he dismounted.
"We'll let him rest a while longer, then, before we head out again."
"How's he doin'?"
Shaking his head, Larabee said, "still pissing blood. Wish I knew something to do for him."
"Not much to do other than let him rest and heal. We can take it slow the rest of the way, that should help."
"Still, I'll be glad to get him back to town so Nathan can take care of him."
Noting the sound of worry in the man's voice and the look of concerned on the handsome face, Tanner said, "he's tough Chris."
With a sigh, Larabee said, "I just hope he's tough enough."
"Where... where am... where am I?" Ezra struggled to make himself heard.
"You're in a wagon, Ezra, we're on the way back to town."
Standish looked around, finally finding the speaker. Vin was holding him, his upper body cradled against the lithe young man. They were indeed in a wagon, the wooden vehicle creaking along at a slow pace. He leaned heavily against the buckskin-clad man, taking comfort in the casual embrace that kept him from being jostled too much. More than the immediate comfort, he felt a deeper comfort, one of friendship and concern.
"H-how... long b-before we... "
"We'll be in town by mornin' I reckon. You rest easy, pard, me 'n Chris 've got'cher back."
Standish once more felt hot tears welling up in his abused eyes. However, this time they were those of joy, not self-pity. He did have friends... people who cared whether he lived or died, who were concerned as to his well-being. It seemed incredible to the once self-absorbed and insensitive young man that any of it was true. With a contented sigh, he allowed the gentle rocking of the wagon lull him back toward sleep, held in the grip of friendship.
As the sun rose over the dusty little town, three weary men rode down the street. Vin was at the reins now, slouched in the seat as he allowed the mules to pick their own speed. Behind him, Chris cradled the injured gambler against him, keeping the younger man from being bounced around as they moved down the rutted dirt road. Ezra lay pale and listless in the black clad arms, unaware of the fact that they had made it home.
Standish was struggling to stand his ground, the revelation that he had people who cared about him giving him an added incentive to survive the brutal attack. However, his injuries, the days of mistreatment in Orlie, and the fever were slowly gaining the upper hand.
Stopping below the clinic, Vin pulled his weary body from the wagon and slowly climbed the stairs. He returned a few minutes later on Nathan's heels, as the former slave bounded quickly to the ground and hurried to the wagon. By that time, the other peacekeepers had joined them.
"Damn stud," Buck Wilmington whistled at the sight of the battered man.
"What happened?" JD Dunne asked in a hushed tone.
"Had some trouble over in Orlie," Chris answered tersely.
"Let's get him upstairs," Jackson said quickly.
Buck and Josiah eased the smaller man from Larabee's arms and carefully transported him up the long staircase as the others followed. Once inside the little clinic, they lowered him to the bed, then stood back to allow Nathan to take over.
The dark man examined his patient, nodding approvingly at how well Vin and Chris had taken care of most of his injuries. With the others help, he stripped Ezra out of Chris' borrowed clothing and set about spreading salve over the various cuts on the lean body. They rewrapped the injured ribs, drawing a weak cry from the unconscious man as they tightened the bindings. Then, while Jackson was busy setting the man's broken ankle, he guided Josiah while the older man made up a cup of herbal tea.
"It should help with his kidneys, but 'bout all we can do there's make sure he lays quiet," the former stretcher bearer said.
"What do you think Nathan?" Larabee asked softly.
"I think you and Vin did a damn good job of keeping him alive. If we keep him quiet, he should be fine in a few weeks."
"Th-that won't be dif...ficult," came a weak voice from the bed. The others turned to see that Standish was awake. "I fully intend to... lie abed as... long as... possible."
Smiling down at him, Nathan said, "yeah, well I'll believe that when I see it. You're just as stubborn as the others when it comes to taking care of yourself."
"I beg to differ... Mister Jackson. I am only t-too happy to... see to my own needs."
"Yeah," Wilmington joked, "ain't no one 's good 's ol' Ezra at takin' care a hisself."
The men laughed, and even Standish smiled at the jibe. Josiah brought the tea over and lifted the injured man enough to drink it. While he made a variety of disgusted faces at the taste, Ezra drank the brew down. In addition to its healing powers, it relaxed him, sending him back toward the comforting darkness. He heard Nathan shooing the men out, and called out to the two men who had saved his life.
"Chris, Vin... I'd like you to stay a minute."
Nodding to the gunmen, Jackson ushered the other three out to the landing.
"What'cha need, Ezra?" Vin asked with concern.
"I simply wished to say... thank you... to you both," the gambler said softly. "I h-had given up hope of... surviving my ordeal. Your rescue... the care you gave me... I just..."
he drifted off, the emotions threatening to overwhelm him once more.
Seeing the man struggling, Larabee said in a rather stern voice, "what we did, we would have done for any of the others Ezra. Now I don't intend to make a habit of chasing after you and pulling you out of these kind of scrapes. I suggest that, in the future, you take one of us with you when you decide to piss off an entire town." With that, he nodded to the gambler and finished with, "get some sleep."
As Chris strode out the door, Vin looked down at Ezra, who seemed somewhat taken aback at the man's words. "Y' scared th' hell outta both of us, pard. Now, do 's yer told 'n get some sleep, okay?" With a wink, he followed the blond from the room.
Standish smiled as understanding sank into his foggy mind. They did care, whether they could admit it or not. Whether Chris could admit it or not. He settled beneath the blankets, a sigh of contentment escaping him. He was home... home among some of the first true friends he had ever known. For the first time in his life, Ezra Standish belonged.
Ezra lounged in a pillow-lined rocker on the landing outside Nathan Jackson's clinic, his splinted ankle propped up before him on the bench. It was the farthest he had been in the past week since his return to Four Corners. The first three days were a blur to the gambler, having passed them in delirium. JD, never one to hold back, had told him later that they had all taken turns sitting with him. He had vague recollections of hearing Chris Larabee reading to him... of Vin Tanner reciting some of his wonderfully earthy poetry. He could hear Josiah Sanchez reading from the bible, and JD from one of his notorious novels. He could even remember Buck Wilmington regaling him with stories of his amorous exploits. He could also remember Nathan Jackson's gentle touch as he fought back the fever and fed him those horrible teas of his.
But those were vague memories that were mixed up with feverish dreams of demons and lynch mobs. Since he had come round, having finally fought back the specter of death, his visitors had all but disappeared. Only Nathan and JD came around, along with Mary Travis and Gloria Potter. The other peacekeepers had returned to business as usual it seemed.
Standish tried not to allow the self-pity to gnaw at him, but it was difficult at best. Had it been one of the others lying abed, he had no doubt that the rest of the group would have been making daily visits to keep the invalid entertained, himself included. Wouldn't he? At times he wondered if he had really come as far as he thought he had. Exactly how much attention did he give the others when they were stricken with some malady?
"Good lord, it's far too beautiful a day to be so melancholy," he groused to himself.
"Talkin' to yourself Ezra?"
Standish looked up to see JD leaning against the banister. "Simply remarking on the bright sunshine. Lord knows it will wreck havoc on my complexion."
Rolling his eyes, the young sheriff changed the subject. "So, how're you feeling?"
"Mr. Jackson feels it prudent that I continue convalescing under his watchful eye for another day or so, then I'll be allowed to return to my own simple abode."
"Um, okay then," Dunne's brow furrowed as he translated the man's words into something he could work with. "Glad to hear you're getting better. Gotta say, we were all mighty worried for a few days."
Standish smiled with genuine warmth, "I do appreciate the concern, Mr. Dunne."
The sound of horses coming down the street came to the two men. Ezra leaned forward to look over the rail, seeing the other four peacekeepers drawing their horses to a stop at the livery. They all dropped wearily from their saddles, dust pluming around them as they did. Yosemite came out of the livery and took up the reins, leading the tired horses back inside.
"Where, prey tell, have our compatriots been?"
"Hm? Oh, they've been over in Orlie," JD said with a shrug. "They went to take care of the fellas that worked you over."
Struck by the young man's nonchalance at the statement, Ezra felt himself flush, and had to gulp several times before he could speak. Then it was only, "they did?"
Looking back at the Southerner, JD said, "sure. You didn't think they were gonna let something like that go did you?"
"Well, I... " for once, Ezra Standish was speechless.
Oblivious, Dunne continued. "Wish I could have gone, but they said someone needed to stay back here and keep an eye on things. Sometimes I wish I hadn't taken on the job of sheriff..."
The young man continued talking, but Standish wasn't aware of anything he said. His mind reeled with thoughts of what JD had so casually revealed. Here, in this dusty, dirt poor, backwater frontier town, he had found something he had never known before.