Disclaimer: Don’t own ‘em, don’t profit on ‘em, just want them
to keep ridin’!
Warnings: Not much. Some language, lots of H/C
Notes: Written for Jenn as a belated birthday story. HAPPY
Characters: Ezra and Chris
It had seemed like a simple proposition.
Chris Larabee had chosen Ezra Standish to accompany him on an assignment
for Judge Travis while the other five peacekeepers remained in Four
Corners. There was a large payroll scheduled to come through sometime
in the next week, and he wanted to make certain that the town was
well protected. So, leaving Vin Tanner in charge, he had ridden
out with the Southerner on what promised to be a week long journey.
Arriving in Clemson after a day on the trail, they received a telegram
that informed them that Travis had added a second leg to their journey.
After some consideration they agreed to split up, each man taking
one part of the assignment. Then they would meet back up in the
little dust hole they had stopped in and return home. The next
morning they rode out in separate directions. Ezra rode toward
Serenity to take a deposition while Chris left for Bellflower to
identify a prisoner being held for trial.
The next day the blond had arrived back in Clemson in the afternoon,
heaving a sigh of frustration when Standish was nowhere to be found.
By the time he finished dinner, his emotions were swinging between
frustration, anger and concern. If the gambler had found a profitable
game of chance it wasn’t too far fetched to think that he’d stay
over an extra day. If not, he or his horse could be ill or injured
out on the trail. For the Southerner’s sake, Larabee hoped it was
one of the latter.
Going to the telegraph office, he sent a message to the sheriff
in Serenity, inquiring after the missing man. A short time later
he received the reply. Standish had left that morning shortly after
sunrise. With a curse he crumpled up the telegram and strode toward
his room. It would be a new moon that night, leaving him without
the light to search for the man. Deciding that waiting until sunrise
would also give Ezra a chance to show up without his having to chase
him down, he went to bed.
Waking just as the gray light of dawn touched the single window
in his hotel room, Chris dressed and went downstairs. Learning
from the hotel clerk that Standish had not checked in during the
night, he hurried back to his room, gathered up his things, and
left the hotel. He was soon riding out of the livery, heading along
the trail of the missing Southerner.
He rode through the morning, hazel eyes scanning the landscape
from beneath the flat brim of his hat. The longer the prairie remained
empty, the more concerned he became. Ezra Standish was not fond
of the outdoors and would not tarry on the road any longer than
he had to.
Topping a rise, the blond let out a hard breath. Down below, moving
slowly along the trail on foot was a figure in a scarlet coat.
Shaking his head and wondering where the younger man had managed
to lose his horse, Larabee coaxed his black gelding forward.
Nearing the obviously footsore man, Chris frowned when the usually
wary man didn’t acknowledge his approach. “Ezra?”
Standish shuffled to a stop, looking up with a slightly puzzled
expression. “Mr. Larabee?”
Leaning forward and crossing his arms over the horn of his saddle,
the blond said, “Lose something?”
Heaving a sigh, the gunman said, “Where’s your horse?”
Green eyes flashing as the question rekindled indignity and anger,
the gambler spat out, “that villain! I was attacked on the trail
by a despicable and unkempt villain who absconded with not only
my beloved horse, but all the belongings I had brought along as
well! We must hurry if we’re to capture him before he dispenses
of my property!”
Larabee dismounted, coming to stand before the irate man. “Now
hang on, Ezra, let’s don’t go off half-cocked. We’ll go back to
Clemson and get you another horse – “
“NO! That would delay us; keep us from going after him until tomorrow.
We must go after him now! There’s no time to lose, Chris. Please,
I have to retrieve my possessions!”
“Ezra, you can make up whatever winnings you made off with when
we get back to town. We –“
“There are things more important than gold. If you won’t aid me,
then I’ll go after the robber myself!”
He was red-faced with anger, his admission shocking Larabee. He
couldn’t remember a time that he had seen the smaller man this upset
and quickly realized that whatever he had lost had to be very valuable
to Standish. Wondering what the grifter could have that he valued
above money, he said, “Take it easy. All right, if it’s that important
to you, we’ll go. You get in the saddle; I’ll walk for a while.”
Obviously torn, Ezra finally nodded. As he limped toward the big
black, his legs started to give way, his knees buckling. He felt
the bigger man catch him, but fought to right himself.
“You okay?” Chris asked with concern in his voice.
“Fine… I’m fine,” Standish muttered. “Nothing a good night’s rest
Nodding, Larabee watched as the other man mounted, his movements
stiff and sluggish. He straightened in the saddle, however, taking
up the reins as he prepared to move out.
The two men moved back along the path Ezra had taken as quickly
as possible. Chris walked part of the time, riding behind the Southerner
the rest. Standish offered to take his turn walking, but it was
obvious that he was already in pain from his journey in boots not
made for walking any farther than the nearest saloon. Larabee insisted
he stay in the saddle, unable to shake a nagging concern at the
other man’s gray complexion.
“You sure you’re all right?” The blond asked once again.
“My physical state has not changed since you last asked… approximately
three minutes ago,” Ezra said in an annoyed tone. Then, nodding
toward a small copse of trees he said, “That’s where I was attacked.”
They rode to the trees, Chris dismounting and searching the area
for signs of their quarry. “You know which way he went?”
“Alas no. I was rendered insensate by the scoundrel and, when
I recovered my faculties, he was no where to be seen.”
Nodding, Chris continued his search and soon found the man’s trail.
Pointing, he said, “looks like he rode that way.” Climbing back
up behind Ezra, he finished, “let’s go.”
The sun was heading toward the Western horizon when they spotted
the ramshackle little homestead. Standish pulled up, watching from
atop the other man’s horse. Larabee, on foot at the moment, studied
the house then let his gaze drift toward the corral. The gambler’s
chestnut stood out amongst the rest of the stock, all of them too
thin and uncared for.
“Looks like we found your man,” Chris said softly.
“Indeed,” Ezra replied as he moved to ride closer. He looked down
with a frown when the blond took hold of Pony’s bridle.
“Hold up. We can’t just ride in there all piss and vinegar.”
“But – “
“Slow down, Ezra, we’re gonna watch the place for a while, figure
out the lay of the land.”
With an angry huff Standish dismounted, grunting when his blistered
feet hit the hard earth. Although he was obviously aching to ride
in shooting, all he said was, “fine.”
They studied the shack for nearly an hour, watching for signs of
life. When no one appeared they began to make their way toward
the little house, Ezra slightly behind Chris. Larabee carried his
yellow handled Colt, while Standish carried his borrowed rifle.
As they drew near, the blond cursed as the door was thrown open.
A warning shot whistled past them and a voice called out to them.
“Who th’ hell are y’ and whattaya want?”
“You’ve got some things that don’t belong to you,” Standish announced.
“We’ve come to reclaim them.”
“I take it then that someone placed my horse in your corral without
your knowledge.” The Southerner replied dryly.
“Ain’t nothin’ in that corral that don’t b’long t’ me!”
“Then you’ve got a bill of sale for the chestnut.” Chris stated.
“That ‘n… that ‘n jist wandered in here last night,” came the
“He could be telling the truth,” Larabee admitted.
Shaking his head, Standish said, “No, it’s him. I recognize his
Glancing over at the other man, the blond said, “you sure?”
Returning the look with an unwavering one of his own, Ezra said,
Nodding, the gunman said, “All right then, let’s go.”
They moved forward, using whatever cover was available. They hadn’t
gone more than half a dozen steps when another shot rang out, followed
by several more in rapid succession. The two men returned fire
and for nearly a minute the air was filled with the sounds of a
gun battle. Then Larabee signaled a halt when the sounds became
decidedly one sided.
When no shots came from the shack, the blond said, “stay here and
cover me, I’ll go check it out.” Receiving a nod from the other
man, he moved toward the open doorway, watching for signs of a trap.
Reaching the shack he looked inside the door and saw a body sprawled
on a floor. Moving forward warily, he kicked the man’s weapon aside
and then nudged the body. Receiving no response, he knelt down
and felt for a pulse. Satisfied that the man was dead, Larabee
straightened, turned and waved the all clear for the Southerner.
When there was no response, he called out “Ezra? Standish!”
With a frown, Chris moved quickly back the way he’d come, calling
to the other man as he walked. “Ezra? Where are you? I thought
you were supposed to be covering… Ezra!”
Standish lay sprawled against a tree stump, the rifle across his
lap. Kneeling beside him, Larabee gently shook a shoulder. Getting
nothing more than a grunt he said, “Ezra? Ezra, what’s wrong?”
Green eyes blinking open in confusion, the smaller man said, “Chris?
What… I… oooooh.” He cried out as he tried to move. Slumping back
against the stump he said, “I’m… sorry.”
“Nothing to be sorry for. Did you catch a bullet?”
“Bullet… I… no. Earlier…” Standish’s eyes rolled back in his
head as he passed out.
“Ah, hell,” Chris growled. He looked around as if expecting someone
to appear and help him. Then he pushed to his feet and strode
toward the shack. Quickly pulling the dead body out into the yard,
he entered the dead man’s home.
He found the inside of the house just as decrepit as the outside.
There on a rickety table lay saddlebags and a bedroll which he identified
as the gambler’s. There was a canvas cot shoved in a corner, covered
in ratty, worn blankets. He moved to it and tossed the blankets
aside. The cot was stained and dirty, but at least it would give
Standish somewhere to lay his head.
Retrieving the man’s bedroll, Larabee quickly spread the blanket
over the cot. Then he sprinted back outside and went to where Ezra
still lay. Kneeling beside the smaller man he tapped a cheek.
“Come on pard, we need to get you inside.”
Although his eyes blinked open, they were dark and unfocused.
Standish stared at the blond, but it was painfully obvious that
he wasn’t really conscious. Carefully Chris pulled him to his feet
and half-carried him to the shack. Other than the occasional grunt
or groan of pain, the Southerner made no comment. He stumbled along
beside the bigger man, struggling to keep his feet under him.
Inside the little house, Larabee lead the gambler to the cot, settling
him on the blanket covered bed. As the green eyes closed, he tapped
a cheek. “Don’t go out on me yet, Ezra. What happened? Where
are you hurt?”
“Hurt? I… oooh… hurts.” Standish muttered. When the other man
once more slapped the side of his face, he frowned, but came closer
to consciousness. “I… Chris, what ha… happened?”
“You tell me.” The gunman’s patience, never long on a good day,
was running out. In measured tones he said, “Where are you hurt?”
“My side… I… he cut me… a knife.”
“Cut you!? Ezra why didn’t you tell me earlier? Damn it!” Then
he took a deep breath. “Never mind, guess you’re as stubborn as
the rest of us. Where’s the cut?”
Auburn brows drew down into a frown. “Cut me… on the left… ribs…”
“Okay, I need you to help me, okay? I need to get your clothes
off.” Receiving a brief nod the blond helped Standish sit up.
Supporting him as he quickly but carefully removed the man’s coat,
he followed that with the heavy brocade vest. He saw it then, a
dark crimson stain that surrounded a ragged slash in the man’s linen
shirt. Removing the shirt he saw that the injured man had bound
the wound with a thick pad of boiled muslin, held in place by a
strip of cloth.
Laying Ezra back, Chris shook his head. What could be so important
that the younger man would ignore such a wound in order to go after
the man who had attacked him?
Putting aside his questions, Larabee set to the task at hand.
Retrieving his knife, he cut the crude bandage and gently removed
it. Coming to the place where it was sealed to the wound, he moved
slowly and cautiously to keep from making the injury worse. Despite
his care Standish cried out several times as the actions brought
“Sorry, pard. Just hang on, I’m almost done.” A hand came up,
grabbing at his wrist to stop him. Placing his other hand over
the grasping one, he squeezed briefly in reassurance. Then, prying
the clenching fingers from his arm he moved the man’s hand to the
edge of the cot. “Grab hold, Ezra, hang on.”
“Stop… please… pl-please stop.” The gambler was begging now, the
pain growing too great to bear.
Just then the cloth pulled free and Chris tossed it aside. Placing
a reassuring hand on the man’s shoulder, he said, “I’m done.”
Standish relaxed, blowing out a long breath. His eyes blinked
open slowly dark and glazed they roamed the unfamiliar surroundings.
Finally his gaze settled on the figure beside him. “Thank… you.”
Managing a grim smile, Larabee said, “Don’t thank me yet. I’ve
still got to clean it out and dress it.” With that he looked around.
There was very little in the shack at all, and what little was there
wouldn’t be much help. Leaving the smaller man where he was, Chris
hurried back to where he had left Pony earlier. Bringing the horse
back to the homestead he quickly untacked him and turned him out
in the corral with the others. He carried his saddlebags, bedroll
and canteen back to the shack.
Adding his things to what lay on the table, he sorted through them.
Carrying those things he would need to where Ezra lay, he placed
them at the foot of the cot. With quick, efficient movements, he
gently bathed the angry looking wound. Infection was already making
its presence known, the edges of the cut red and swollen. Twice
he guided the Southerner’s hands to the sides of the cot, coaxing
him to hold on while he tended the knife wound.
Beneath the other man’s touch, Standish struggled to lay still.
The pain, which he had been able to put aside for so long, surged
and burned through him. His mind screamed, begging for the torture
to end, but his tightly pressed lips didn’t utter a sound.
Pressing at the wound, Chris drew out as much of the infection
as he could, wiping the gore away until all that welled up in the
open gash was blood. He could feel the body beneath him tense,
muscled trembling as the other man fought to keep from moving.
In a soft voice he said, “You’re doing great. I know it hurts like
hell, but I’ve got to get this as clean as possible.”
He couldn’t relax his hold enough to speak, but the smaller man’s
eyes slanted open, searching the other man’s face. He blinked,
tears of pain spilling down his face as he managed a single nod.
Reaching next for a small amber bottle, Chris warned, “this will
be the worst, Ezra, but you’ll be able to rest then.” With that
he cleaned the wound with carbolic acid. Standish did scream then,
his body bucking and arching off the bed. The blond pressed down
against the thrashing form, trying his best to keep the injured
man from doing any more harm. Then, after what seemed to be an
eternity, Ezra collapsed, falling unconscious.
“About damn time,” Larabee whispered. Sorting through the things
Nathan made a habit of sending with them, he found the herbs he
needed and pressed them into the wound. That finished, he bound
the wound once more then did what he could to make Standish comfortable.
Chris covered the unconscious man with his own bedroll, tucking
it around the limp body. Reaching out he felt the clammy flesh
and the underlying heat of a growing fever. Dampening his kerchief,
Chris gently stroked it over the pale features. Standish moaned
breathlessly, but didn’t return to consciousness.
Dragging the one chair he found over to the cot, the gunman settled
in to watch over his friend.
Night had fallen before the body on the cot began to stir. Chris
had tended the horses, both the ones they had ridden, and the poorly
maintained creatures they shared the corral with. That taken care
of, he turned to the shack, doing what he could to make it habitable.
He had found a small stream near the shack that guaranteed them
a small but steady supply of water.
Larabee kept a close watch over the injured man, keeping damp cloths
on the sweat-soaked forehead in an effort to cool him down. He
was just changing the cloth when the younger man’s lids fluttered
open, settling at half mast. The pain-filled eyes moved restlessly
before looking up at him.
“Welcome back,” Chris said softly.
“What… where… where are we?”
“Some lowlife’s shack. Do you remember what happened?”
Ezra frowned then slowly recognition dawned. “Yes… I was a… attacked.
He took… took my horse… my be… longings.”
“Right. I cleaned out the wound, but you’re running a fever.
We’re going to have to stay here for a day or two until you’re feeling
Standish nodded weakly, his eyes drooping closed. Then they shot
open again and he looked up at the blond with a panic-stricken expression.
“Where… where is it? Wh-where? I need to see… see it!” Reaching
out he grasped the man in black’s arms. “I need… need to see… need
“Take it easy… calm down. What are you talking about? Ezra!
Calm down!” Chris’ voice rose as he tried to get through to the
other man. Pulling out of the smaller man’s grasp he easily held
the writhing body still. “Ezra! Listen to me pard. Whatever it
is, it’s safe. Okay? Your stuff’s all here.”
“Safe?” He dropped back against the cot, chest heaving from the
“Yeah, safe. You need to lay still now, okay? You need to rest.”
As if responding to the man’s suggestion, the Southerner went
limp, eyes closing once more.
Heaving a relieved sigh, Larabee straightened the blankets back
over the unconscious man. Shaking his head he muttered, “I hope
whatever it is you’re worried about is worth what you’re putting
Despite the gunman’s attention, the fever continued to build, burning
through Standish like a wildfire. He moaned softly, tossing and
turning restlessly on the cot. Larabee kept vigil at the man’s
bedside, bathing the flushed features and tending to the infected
wound. Whenever he could, he lifted the sweat-soaked head from
the blankets and coaxed a few sips of water past slightly parted
lips. From time to time Ezra’s eyes slanted open slightly, moving
restlessly and unseeing from side to side.
“Take it easy, you’re all right,” Chris said reassuringly. He
watched as the man’s lids drooped once more.
As the fever continued to build, Standish began to mutter. Incoherently
at first, but as he continued, Larabee began to make out some of
hat he said.
“No… please, Mother… I don’t want to. I… don’t like this… please…
don’t be angry… Mother, please. I’m so… so scared.” His voice
was small and frightened.
Larabee found himself picturing a very young Ezra, once more left
by a mother more interested in money than her son.
“Yes… Mother, all… all right. Yes, I can… I can do that. Will
we make lots of… of money then… Mother? Will you be… proud of me?
Will you… love me?”
Chris felt his heart drop at the innocent and hopeful words delivered
in a trembling voice. In a sad whisper he said, “No wonder you
set so much store in money, pard.”
As he stroked a rag over the handsome face he studied the Southerner’s
features. He had never noticed just how young the gambler looked.
Chris realized that there weren’t that many years between Ezra and
JD. He found himself wondering what it must have been like for
the boy Standish had once been.
He had been around enough to know something of the lives of grifters.
They lived out of suitcases, flush one day and bust the next. They
were loyal only to gold and saw others only in terms of potential
profit and gain. That was true for any children they might have
The gunman recalled an incident that had occurred a few months
earlier. Three people had gotten off the stage; a man, a woman
and a young boy of about five. To the rest of them, it looked like
a young, fairly prosperous family.
Ezra, however, had seen something different. He had quickly warned
the other six peacekeepers to keep an eye on the trio.
Thanks to his warning they were quickly able to pick up on things
that would have otherwise gone unnoticed. The couple realized before
day’s end that their cons wouldn’t work in Four Corners. They had
spent a miserable three days there, waiting for the next stage out
He had seen Ezra with the couple’s boy here and there around town.
When asked about it, the Southerner insisted that he was only gathering
information from the boy. He had taken the man at his word, but
knew better now. Recalling the man’s attention to the child from
his present standpoint, he saw things in a different light.
He recalled the trips to the restaurant, candy and small trinkets
from Potter’s store. He saw the sad smiles, the brief hugs and
gentle touches. Ezra had gained little information from the child
and none of it had helped them to bring charges against the con
artists. The family had left on the next stage, going to run their
He recalled with far greater clarity than before the days that
followed. Standish had been quiet, hardly coming out of his room
unless necessary. He hadn’t given it much thought at the time,
the gambler often kept odd hours. Now, though, he saw the sadness
and the wistful gazes in his mind’s eye. Ezra had to have seen
something of himself in the little boy; had done his best to give
the child a few good memories.
Larabee heaved a frustrated sigh. What else had he over-looked
and taken for granted about the Southerner?
Morning dawned and the sun moved slowly across the sky with maddening
normalcy. Chris opened the door and windows to coax fresh air into
the cabin. He dragged the former owner’s corpse farther away from
the cabin and dumped him unceremoniously into a shallow gulley.
He didn’t have the time, energy or interest in making an effort
to bury the man properly. The only thing he cared about was keeping
the predators and carrion that had already come to visit away from
He tended to the horses, fuming silently at the poor condition
of the stranger’s animals. After looking them over, he slipped
a rope around one beast’s neck and led it toward the gully where
he had left the poor thing’s dead owner. The animal was old, toothless
and blind. He could count every bone of its skeleton through sore-riddled
Bringing the poor thing to a stop, he reached up and stroked its
matted mane gently. After a few moments he moved back and drew
his Colt. With a murmured “sorry boy,” he fired a bullet into the
suffering creature’s brain. Dead instantly, the horse dropped to
Most of the time, the blond sat at the fevered man’s side, doing
what little he could to tend him. Throughout the day, Standish
suffered through more bouts of delirium. More of the fever talk
gave Larabee insight into the man’s past. And very little of it
was happy. Ezra often called out to his mother, begging her not
to leave him, or to come get him from one place or another. At
those times his voice was small, vulnerable and frightened.
At other times he spoke with anger, berating Maude for the things
she had done. He raged at the woman’s callous treatment, cried
out to her and asked over and over why she had ever given birth
Chris did his best to comfort Standish. He talked to him any time
the words seemed to be getting through to the fevered man. When
words had no effect he stroked the cooling cloth over the waxen
features and across his chest. From time to time he stroked the
damp auburn locks back. Anything he could do to bring comfort he
did without pause or embarrassment. It seemed little enough to
do for a friend who had been given so little in his life.
Just before nightfall the gambler’s fever broke. Chris managed
to feed a mug of herb tea to the insensate man before he drifted
into a deep, healing sleep.
Satisfied that Standish was sleeping, Larabee left the cabin long
enough to check on the horses and bring in a fresh bucket of water.
He fixed himself some dinner, realizing he couldn’t remember eating
since the day before. After that he made himself a pallet on the
floor, wrapped his duster close around his lean frame, and dropped
off to sleep himself.
Chris woke as the early morning sun peered in at him through the
cracks in the shack walls. He groaned as his sleepy mind slowly
processed where he was and why he was sleeping on the hard packed
earth. As it did he pushed himself up off the dirt floor and padded
to where the other man lay. He frowned as he saw how still Ezra
was lying. Reaching down, he felt the man’s forehead, satisfied
that it was cool. Standish was just asleep his body doing what
it could to recover from the injury and infection.
Letting Standish sleep he went about fixing them both something
to eat. It was meager at best, but would have to do. Finishing
the preparations, he moved to the cot and gently shook the younger
man’s shoulder. Rewarded by a slightly confused gaze, he said,
“morning. Got some breakfast for you.”
Chestnut brows furrowed and the gambler continued to stare up at
him long enough to concern the gunman. Leaning a little closer,
Larabee said, “Ezra? You with me?”
Running the tip of his tongue over dry lips, the Southerner blinked
and then seemed to truly come awake. “Chris? Breakfast? Morning?”
His voice was a faint, raspy whisper.
Grinning, the blond said, “There you go, all the basics. Think
you can eat something?”
Managing a nod, the conman started to rise, only to fall back
with a groan.
“How about some help?” Without waiting for a response, Chris carefully
helped the injured man sit up, propping him up against the wall.
He saw the green eyes squeeze tightly closed as perspiration broke
out on the gray-cast features. “Take it easy. Just take a breath.
Slow and easy. That’s good.”
Finally feeling that he wasn’t going to shatter into a thousand
pieces, Ezra opened his eyes. He focused on the other man, surprised
to see concern in the gunman’s face. Then he registered the fact
that his fingers were clamped tightly around one black clad arm.
With an apologetic expression, he loosened his hold. Surprise returned
when the gunman smiled and patted his shoulder.
Larabee dished up a plate of beans, added some hardtack and a spoon,
and carried it back to the cot. Handing it to the gambler he watched
to make certain that the injured man was able to handle things on
his own. After Standish managed a few bites he left to fix his
After breakfast, Chris took a look at the wound on Ezra’s side.
Satisfied that it seemed to be okay, he re-bandaged it and helped
the injured man settle back on the cot. Seeing that the Southerner
was resting easy, he went to tend the horses.
A short time later he re-entered the cabin, carrying a bucket.
“Brought some fresh water, I though – Ezra! What the hell?”
All but dropping the bucket, he hurried the few steps to where
the smaller man was slumped to his knees. He was leaning against
the table, one hand pressed against his injured side. His other
arm was stretched across the tale, his hand clenched tight atop
Kneeling beside the Southerner, he took him by the shoulders.
In a worried tone, Chris said, “what did you think you were gonna
do, pard? Come on let’s get you back to bed.”
“No… where…” Ezra mumbled breathlessly. “I want… need to… please…”
“Come on, let’s get you back to bed, then you can rest.” Larabee
lifted the semi-conscious man to his feet and all but carried him
back to the cot. Getting his friend settled then retrieved the
fresh water and a rag. Bathing the perspiration from the waxen
features he watched as the man slowly relaxed. Chris thought he
was sleeping until green eyes, glassy with pain, blinked open.
Standish nodded, then said, “sorry, thought I was… stronger. Sorry…
please I need to see… is it… safe?”
Larabee remembered the man’s incoherent ramblings of the day before.
He realized that there was only one way to keep the man from injuring
himself further. “Okay, what is it, Ezra? What are you so worried
Running his tongue across his lips again, Standish said, “In my…
saddlebag… a red vel… velvet… pouch…”
“Okay, lay still and I’ll find it.” The blond patted the man’s
shoulder companionably. Going to the table, he carefully went through
the other man’s things. Tucked way at the very bottom of one leather
bag he found a small, worn velvet pouch. Resisting the temptation
to open the drawstring top, he carried it back to the cot.
Standish opened the top, peered inside, and smiled. Closing his
hand around the pouch, he settled back with a sigh. Relaxing on
the cot, he drifted off to sleep with a sigh.
Chris shook his head, wondering once more what it was that was
so important, he moved away from the sleeping man.
The Southerner slept most of the day. He woke from time to time,
taking water or eating, going back to sleep almost immediately.
Eventually, however, he needed to take care of another basic need.
Larabee saw the look of discomfort on the handsome face. “Problem?”
“Yes. I fear that I am in need of… whatever passes for… facilities…
“Ah,” Chris said with a small smile. “Well that would be a tree
“Lovely.” He allowed the bigger man to help him from the cot and
across the small shack to the door.
The two men moved slowly over the dusty ground. Larabee kept one
arm around the Southerner’s back and his hand beneath the man’s
elbow. He walked with him until they reached one of the hardscrabble
trees. Letting go, he made certain that Standish was all right
before moving away. He allowed the man his privacy, scanning the
horizon more out of habit than concern of unwanted visitors. Then
a sound drew his attention back to matters at hand. Ezra was moving
slowly and unsteadily toward him.
Cursing under his breath the gunman hurried over, catching the
injured man just as his knees buckled. “You know, giving me a heads-up
would have been good. Save us both having to pick your ass up off
“S-sorry, I thought… sorry,” the gambler apologized, his voice
tight with pain.
Drawing the other man’s arm over his shoulder Larabee said, “Stop
“I just… don’t want to be a nu… nuisance.”
“Now, you decide not to be a nuisance,” the blond said sarcastically.
When the other man turned to look at him he said in a more serious
tone, “Look, let’s make a deal. I’ll tell you when you’re being
a nuisance and you just concentrate on getting batter. Deal?”
“Deal,” Standish grated out. He was quiet then, focusing his attention
on putting one foot in front of the other.
They got back into the shack, Chris lowering the smaller man back
onto the cot. Lifting Ezra’s legs onto the narrow bed, he noticed
that the man’s hand was fumbling at his trousers pocket. Standish
managed to find what he was looking for, and retrieved the little
pouch. Pressing his hand against the pale face he said, “Your fever’s
still coming down. Think you’ll be able to ride tomorrow if we
take it slow.”
“I’ll be happy to… see home,” Standish said with a wan smile.
Then, noting the other man’s attention returning to the object he
held, he opened his hand as he said, “I do owe you… some sort of…
“Don’t owe me anything, Ezra,” Larabee said with a shake of his
“On the contrary… I owe you… everything.” The green eyes glowed
with unexpressed gratitude.
“Yeah, well remember that next time you rope me into a card game,”
the blond quipped.
The smaller man’s smile widened. “We shall… see. If you would
allow me to… rest a bit I promise… I’ll explain my… preoccupation
with this pouch.” As he finished speaking, his eyes drooped, closing
as the gambler drifted off to sleep.
Grinning, the gunslinger said, “Yeah, okay. Get some sleep.”
Ezra smiled as he realized where he was. In all his fourteen years,
this was the only place he had ever felt safe and at ease. The
only place he had ever felt loved.
A familiar sound, a soft creak and pop, drew his attention and
his smile grew wider. With hurried steps he moved toward the sound,
anticipation causing his heart to race. Excitedly he entered the
small but comfortable sitting room. Seeing the big, wooden rocker
by the window, he quickly crossed the room. Moving around its broad,
bowed back, he cried out when he saw her sitting there. She looked
up at the sound with a sweet smile. Reaching toward him, she said
lovingly, “Hello, my sweet treasure.”
He could only stand there, smiling despite the tears that coursed
down his cheeks. He felt her touch his face, wiping at the dampness.
Her smile faded, replaced by a frown. “Why child, why are you
Ezra fell to his knees in front of her, dropping his head to her
lap. “I’ve missed you… missed your touch.”
Her withered, knotted fingers stroked gently through his hair.
“It’s all right now, my treasure. It’s all right.”
With a sigh, he murmured, “It’s all right.”
Larabee was called to the narrow cot by a faint sound. Unable
to see anything in the darkness, the blond lit the lantern nearby.
He frowned as he saw tears coursing down Standish’s face, juxtaposed
against the blissful smile that lit his pale features. He reached
out to wake the Southerner, but stopped short as the sleeping man
released a long, drawn out sigh.
In a voice filled with joy, the
injured gambler murmured, “It’s all right now… you’re here.”
Chris knew that, in his mind, Ezra was speaking to someone from
his past. Someone who had brought him some measure of peace. Moving
away, he left the sleeping man to his dreams.
Morning came none too soon for the gunslinger. He waited until
he had fixed breakfast before going to wake the gambler. Gently
shaking an exposed shoulder, he called out, “Rise and shine, pard.”
Blinking emerald eyes open owlishly, the grifter grumbled “It
is far too early to be that cheerful.”
With a snort, the taciturn man said, “been quite a while since
anyone called me cheerful.”
“Yes, well there’s a first time for everything I suppose.” He
threw an arm over his eyes, making no effort to get up.
“Ezra, stop stalling. Let’s get some breakfast in you and see
if you’re up to traveling today.”
“I’m sure I’ll be fine… no reason for us to tarry here any longer.”
Standish dropped his arm and looked up at the other man with a serious
Folding his arms as he stood over the supine form, Larabee growled,
“We’re not going anywhere if you’re not up to it. I’m not going
to pick your ass up when you fall out of the saddle.”
Eyes growing dark, the prone man stared at the ceiling. “It seems
I’m a bother in any event. My apologies.”
“Standish, I thought we had an agreement. You worry about getting
better and stop apologizing. Now, get that hangdog look off your
face and let’s get the day started. Deal?”
With a thankful smile and a nod, Ezra said, “Deal.”
They were able to move out by mid-morning, Chris turning the dead
man’s horses loose before helping Ezra into the saddle. The two
men rode slowly to accommodate his weakened state. The blond called
a halt every couple of hours and insisted that Standish lay down
to rest when they did. The smaller man protested, but lay down
anyway, falling asleep almost every time.
Sitting in the saddle for so long took its toll on the grifter.
By the time they stopped for the night, he was weaving atop his
chestnut. All but falling from the broad back, he dropped to the
ground, he’s knees buckling. Only a pair of strong arms kept him
“Come on; let’s find you someplace to stretch out.” Chris coaxed
as he led the smaller man toward a nearby tree. Ezra muttered
a reply, stumbling along beside the taller man.
The blond helped the injured man settle with his back against a
tree trunk. Standish groaned as he relaxed. His eyelids fluttered
as he tried valiantly to keep them open.
“I’ll see to the camp.” Larabee said simply.
Taking that as a directive to sleep, Standish nodded. Letting
his head drop back against the tree, he allowed his eyes to close.
“Mamaw?” Ezra called out in his cracking, teenage voice. “Mamaw,
where are you?”
“I’m right here, my treasure,” She
called soothingly from the shadows.
Relief washed over him as he moved toward the sound of her voice.
He found her ensconced in her rocking chair. He dropped to his
knees before her, a willing servant to the queen of his heart.
Reaching out, he took her hand.
She smiled down at him, dark brown eyes sparkling warmly with life.
“I’m so glad you’re here, my little treasure.”
Young Ezra drank in her voice, rich and full with its thick French
accent. “I’m glad I’m here, too, Mamaw. I wish I could stay with
“Oh, my treasure, so do I. But we both know she’ll need you again.
Besides, you’re life is still ahead of you. It would be a waste
for you to sit here with an old lady whose life is behind her.”
“No, Mamaw! You’re not old and you still have so much life to
“Sh, hush now, boy.” She pressed narrow, knotted fingers against
his lips. “Denying a truth doesn’t make it any less true. I was
a girl before your grandpapa was born.”
“But you’re still a girl in my eyes, Mamaw.” He smiled, green eyes
She chuckled and shook her head. “Oh my treasure. My sweet angel.
Whatever shall I do with you?”
“Love me, Mamaw. Promise you’ll love me forever.”
Stroking her fingers through the thick chestnut hair, she whispered,
“forever, my sweet, sweet treasure.”
Ezra blinked as his eyes drifted open. He looked around; finding
the only break in the blackness was the little campfire nearby.
Letting his eyes shift upward he found only a few faint stars in
the black velvet sky.
“Thought maybe you were gonna sleep
through the night.”
The grifter’s eyes searched the darkness, locating the speaker.
Managing a wan smile, Standish murmured wistfully, “I was having
the most wonderful dream.” Then, realizing what he’d said, the
reclining man stammered, “I… um… that is to say…”
With an understanding expression,
Larabee said, “sometimes those dreams are the only things that make
waking up worth while.”
Standish’s eyes widened then he relaxed. “Yes, indeed they do.”
Chris easily recognized both the looks of longing and the aura
of peace that had crossed the other mans features over the course
of the past few hours. They were the same feelings he had so often
awakened with after he’d dreamed of this wife and son. Whoever
had populated his sleeping mind was someone very important to the
Pulling his mind back to matters at hand, the tall blond said,
“I’ve got dinner ready. Are you hungry?”
Nodding, Ezra replied, “Famished.”
A short time later the two men were settled in with plates of beans
and cups of coffee. They ate in near silence, only the occasional
comment passing between them. Finishing their meal, the two men
sat near the fire with a second cup of coffee. Chris pulled his
flask from the pocket of his duster and added a dollop of whiskey
to each cup.
Smiling his thanks, Ezra took a sip. Then the injured man said
quietly, “if I remember correctly, I promised to explain my… earlier
preoccupation after I’d rested.”
“You don’t have to.”
“Yes, but… well, I’d like to.”
With a nod, the blond leaned back
against his saddle and simply waited
Standish pulled the worn pouch from his pocket, holding it lovingly
in his hand. Staring at the faded cloth, he began to speak. His
voice was so soft that Larabee had to strain to catch all the words.
“I know that you’re aware of some of what I went through as a child;
that my mother frequently left me with one relative or another at
any time I wasn’t needed to help her with a con. I was left behind
for weeks… even months at a time. She wasn’t especially concerned
as to who she left me with… anyone would do. And she never gave
a second thought as to how I was… treated… while in the care of
whomever she had… persuaded… to take me in.”
“I take it you weren’t treated well
very often,” the gunman guessed
With a sigh the Southerner said, “Indeed. I was frequently used
as a servant, even a slave. I was often… well, shall we say, mistreated
by many of those whom I was foist upon.”
Larabee studied the words then his mind drew up a memory. He remembered
seeing several old scars on the man’s torso when he had tended his
wound. Without thinking, he stared hard at Ezra, his eyes clearly
showing his shock.
Dropping his gaze, the gambler said, “I thought perhaps you had
seen the… the mementoes I carry from those years. I believe that
the first one…” unconsciously he rubbed a spot on his shoulder as
he locked eyes with the blond. “I believe I was six when I received
Finding it suddenly difficult to meet the other man’s gaze, Chris
looked away. He tried to imagine what Ezra had suffered through,
but decided quickly that he couldn’t stand the thought. In a voice
filled with anger, the older man said, “Maude… did she ever ask…
ever wonder about the scars?”
With a derisive snort, the green-eyed man said bitterly, “I doubt
Mother would have noticed had I been missing a limb. And, had she
noticed… well, I’m certain she would have incorporated it into one
of her cons. At any rate, that’s not important – “
“The hell it’s not!” Chris growled. Then his voice softened at
the look of shock on the other man’s face. “You didn’t deserve
that sort of treatment, Ezra, no child does.”
Finding himself momentarily speechless at the gunman’s words, Standish
finally nodded. After an awkward silence, he picked up his tale.
“A few times I was left with my Uncle Claude and his family. While
they didn’t exactly welcome me with open arms, they weren’t especially
mean to me. Part of the reason they didn’t mistreat me was because
Larabee could see the other man’s features soften and his voice
was filled with love. “Sounds like she was pretty important to
“Yes,” Standish responded. “She was the grandmother of my uncle’s
wife, Mabel. Her name was Anabella Grace but I always called
her Mamaw. She treated me as if I were truly her grandchild. While
my uncle and the rest of the family might ignore me most of the
time, Mamaw was always kind to me.
“She was quite elderly, unable to walk and her eyesight was failing.
She was tended by the maids, quite lovingly I might add. I was
not the only person she treated well. She spent her days sitting
in a rocking chair in a little sitting room. She would sit there,
watching out the window although she saw little more than light
“She had the occasional visit from
Mabel but, otherwise she depended upon the house servants for companionship.”
“And you,” Chris added.
Nodding, the Southerner said, “Yes, me, too. I spent most of my
time there in her rooms. I could sit for hours and listen to her
tales of times past. She had lived quite an interesting life.
Mabel hated to have any of it brought up, as Mamaw had evidently
not been a genteel and refined a woman in her youth. It was not
exactly the background that my dear, devious aunt wished to have
made common knowledge.
“I found it all very thrilling, though, and asked her to retell
those tales every time I visited.” He paused then, a look of sadness
darkening his expression. When he began to speak a few minutes
later that sadness had leached into his voice.
“I was fourteen the last time… the last time I saw my dear Mamaw.
She was far more ill than she would admit to me but I knew that
something was wrong. She wasn’t able to sit in her chair any longer
and she had lost what faint vision she’d had. She slept most of
the time, but I did my best to be there any time she woke.
“She told me many of her stories again, although by that time I
could repeat them all verbatim.” Once more he paused. Sadly he
continued, “I worry at times that some day I’ll forget them myself.
And when that happens… I will have lost her completely.”
Larabee looked away, blinking rapidly as the hot sting of tears
burned his eyes. It hadn’t been that long ago that he had realized
that his own memories of Sarah and Adam had begun to fade.
Oblivious to the other man’s response, Standish continued. “It
was my last day to visit that time. Mother had arrived the evening
before, announcing that I would be accompanying her to New York.
I’m not certain if I was truly aware that this would be the last
time I would see Mamaw, or whether that knowledge came with hindsight.
I do know that I was heartbroken at the thought of leaving. I ran
to her room as quickly as I could to tell her I would be forced
to leave the next day.
“I was overjoyed to see her in her rocking chair. She was bundled
in several quilts, staring sightlessly out the window…”
“Mamaw! You’re up!” The young boy dropped to his knees before
her once more. He reached out to clasp one withered hand that had
slipped from beneath the covers.
Smiling, the ancient woman said in a faint voice, “Yes, my treasure,
I’m up. Marie told me that your mother has arrived to take you
away. I did not want you to remember me lying abed.”
Not everything registered with the distraught boy. He dropped
his head to her lap and shed tears of absolute sorrow. His voice
muffled by the thick quilts he cried, “I don’t want to leave you,
Mamaw! I want to stay here with you!”
“Hush now, child. There’s nothing to be done for it. You must
leave with your mother, my treasure.”
Sniffling noisily, Ezra lifted his head and studied the withered,
lined face. She was so fragile, her flesh translucent. In a wistful
tone he said, “I wish, then, that you could go with me.”
Reaching out, she unerringly touched his chest with a trembling
hand. “I’m always with you, my sweet treasure. I’m always right
He wrapped his hand around hers. “And you always shall be, Mamaw.”
Her other hand slipped from the covers now, clutching something
with gnarled fingers. “Hold out your hand, dearest Ezra.”
He did, placing it beneath her hand. She opened her fingers and
a tiny velvet pouch dropped into his palm. He frowned, looking
the object over carefully. “What is it, Mamaw?”
“It is something to remember me by, my sweet angel.”
His frown deepening, the boy said, “but I could never forget you,
With a smile, the aged woman said, “I’m glad of that, child. I
know I shall never forget you.”
Standish lifted the little pouch, holding it up to study it against
the firelight. “I’ve kept it hidden… safe… ever since. When I
thought of that… bastard… taking possession of it…”
“It’s safe again,” Larabee assured softly.
The smaller man nodded. Opening the little pouch, he emptied the
contents into his hand. “No one else has seen this in all these
years. My mother has no idea of its existence; I knew even then
that she would have found a way to take it from me, although the
intrinsic value is negligible.” With that he held it out, silently
offering to show it to Chris.
Momentarily shocked by the gesture of trust, the blond took the
object with all due reverence. Leaning toward the fire, he studied
the tiny, gold, heart-shaped locket. Handing it back, he said,
Swallowing past the lump in his throat, the gambler said, “It
is simple and elegant, just as she was.”
Carefully handing the trinket back to the other man, Chris caught
the other man’s eye. In his usual, straightforward manner, the
blond said simply, “Thank you, Ezra.”
The ride back to Four Corners took several days, the recovering
man suffering from a return of the infection along the way. By
the time they arrived, he was running a fever and needed help dismounting.
Fortunately Nathan was able to bring the injured man back around
within a few days. He was moved from the clinic to his room, ordered
to stay in bed for at least three more days.
Staring morosely out the window, the gambler almost didn’t answer
the knock at his door. He wasn’t especially in the mood to entertain
guests. However, after the second repetition, he called out, “Come
The door swung open slowly, admitting the blond gunman. He nodded
at the prone man, a smile tugging at the corners of his broad mouth.
“Well, you still look like shit, but at least you’ve got a little
color to you.”
Rolling his eyes, the auburn haired
man said, “thank you, I appreciate that.”
With a brief chuckle, Larabee said, “Thought you might. How’re
“Rather bored to be honest. I believe Mr. Jackson’s… instructions…
are a bit overzealous.”
“Yeah, well, he takes the job seriously. I brought something for
you… thought it might keep you entertained while you’re healing
up.” With that he drew a parcel from behind his back and handed
it to the other man.
With a frown, Standish pulled the twine lose and opened the brown
paper wrapping. Inside was a large, leather bound, journal. His
frown deepening, he looked up questioningly.
“It’s a journal,” the blond said softly. “I thought perhaps you
could write down some of those tales your Mamaw told you.”
Tears welled up in the bright green eyes. Ezra ran his hand over
the smooth cover then opened it and gazed at the empty pages. Swallowing
the emotion that threatened to overwhelm him, he looked back up
at his friend. The normally verbose man could only find one thing
“Thank you, Chris.”