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m7rpg - Part 9

The Story Continues

Everything was off. Just a shade or two. Not enough that he could point anything out, but it was enough to make him uneasy. He groped for some sort of proof he could hold up and examine, but only came up with nagging emotions and a weary forlornness that had set in.

He latched onto Buck's efforts at stirring. Eager to avoid the conversation he'd started and now couldn't end. Only to have Buck start questioning him. He scowled darkly for a moment, suddenly unwilling to talk when a moment before it was all he wanted. "Someone almost did die, remember? Now would you hold still? We don't have time to stop and sew you back up if we're gonna make it to Four Corners tonight."

Ezra was relieved to get out of the wagon, and true to his supposition, even double on a horse was better than being crowded into that wagon a moment longer. Someone would have to find a way to make those things more comfortable.

Now that he was here, however, Vin's silence held a tension not usual for him. Ezra began to suspect that Vin was more devious than he had at first suspected. Never one to back down, however, he refused to be the first to speak.

The ride continued in strained silence so long that Ezra had finally begun to relax again, sure that his first impression had been false. Then he began to think about what Nathan would do should he wake up. He quickly realized that though at a slight distance from the wagon, far enough to speak without being overheard, Vin had positioned them in such a way that the first thing Nathan saw, should he awaken, was the two of them. Now he knew that Vin was devious.

Josiah hadn't realized that he'd dozed off until the wagon lurched, jolting him awake. He shook his head in an effort to clear it. The trail here certainly was rough, he thought. Then the wagon lurched again, and he realized with panic that he'd allowed the big vehicle to get too close to the side of the road. The mud started to give way under the weight of the wagon, and the right rear wheel started to slide off the road.

Alarmed, Josiah snapped the reins in an effort to get the horses to pull harder, and keep the wagon on the road. But the animals balked, and Josiah felt the whole back end of the wagon start to slide sideways off the rim of the canyon.

Ezra grayed out for only a moment as he hit the ground. He had been unprepared for the swift turn that Vin had excuted as the wagon started to drift, and so he had been thrown hard to the left. Through the pain of his once again opened wound, he felt the snap of broken ribs.

"Aw hell!!" he gagged out as he struggled to sit back up and find out just what had happened now. He could hear the creaking of the wagon, and the poorly constructed harness, and though he wouldn't have believed it possible, he was once again galvanized into action. Fighting to breath, he hurried over to where the wagon was precariously balanced on the edge.

"...have an idea..." Ezra panted.

Fighting to maintain control of the frightened horses, Josiah afforded Ezra a brief glance before returning his attention to the task at hand.

"If you got an idea, then spit it out," he shouted. Time was running out. The rear of the wagon was dangling precariously over the edge of the cliff, and the horses were having trouble maintaining their footing. He wasn't sure how the passengers were faring, and he wouldn't abandon the wagon until he knew that they were safe.

Nathan woke with a start as he was thrown against the side of the wagon. His shoulder was jarred painfully. He let out a gasp, then grabbed for a handhold as the back of the wagon began to swing around and tilt crazily downward. He noticed JD and Buck, closer to the rear of the bed, trying desperately to cling to anything. Beyond them was the vast open drop to the valley floor.

Nathan looked around again. Someone was missing. Then it hit him. The gambler had been next to him.

*Oh, God* "Ezra!!"

Ezra heard Josiah from a fog, but Nathan's cry cut through like a knife. Realizing there was no time to try and explain, he pulled the rope off of Vin's saddle and ran towards the tilting wagon. As loudly as he could, he tried to reassure Nathan.

"Nathan!...fine...over here!"

The rear of the wagon was sliding sideways and down, and despite the urgency his mind found time to note in detachment that if he had still been in the wagon when it went over, he certainly would have fallen to his death.

But there was no time to dwell on his escape, as he slid half under the wagon, he felt the ends of his ribs grate together. The pain caused him to fumble the rope a little as he tied the end to the front axle. He felt rather than saw someone's hands take the other end, and someone else pulled him out. Pushing them away...seeing that the wagon was tilting more, he ran to the horses and gave the reins a vicious jerk, seeing the rope he'd tied tighten as the horse on the other end began to back up, that the front was lowering, and the others tossing ropes to the occupants of the wagon--but the front wheels were back on the ground.

Ezra let go of the reins and wrapped his arms around his ribs. *One step...* he chanted mentally as he hobbled to the rear of the wagon.

"Nathan!" Ezra grabbed Nathan with the strength of desperation. "" he panted.

Lee watched in horror as he saw the wagon start to tilt over the edge of the ridge they had been riding on. Out of the corner of his eyes he saw Ezra rush past with the speed and strength that only desperation can fuel.

Quickly accessing the situation and what Ezra was attempting to do he quickly dismounted and crouched down and took the rope from Ezra’s fumbling hands and tightened it. Once that was finished he reached for the coil of rope he brought with him and tossed it down to the occupants that were desperately clinging to the sides from sheer terror.

Josiah watched in horror as Ezra grabbed Vin's rope and slid under the wagon. What was the man trying to do?? Frantically, he jumped to the ground, realization dawning on him. Ezra was securing the rope to the front axle. The wagon started to slide again, and without a second thought, he grabbed the gambler by the ankles, pulling him clear before the heavy vehicle could crush him. He stood, stunned, as Ezra broke free and ran to the horses, coaxing them to throw their weight into the makeshift harness.

The wagon settled with a crash and Ezra ran past him, yelling for Nathan. Josiah doubted that the southerner even knew he was there, but when the man's adrenaline rush ran out, Josiah was there to catch him.

Ezra saw the questioning look on Nathan's face before everything stopped. He felt someone's arms around him, catching him--was he falling He tried to say so, but his lips weren't responding. And though the black and colored sparkles whirling around the edges of his vision were interesting, they did make seeing hard.

But he saw JD leaning over him. He couldn't lift his arm, but he finally managed to make his lips work.

"JD--I 'pologize. You..'rn't the...only one can swim an' fly." He struggled to push the words out through numb lips, hoping they made sense--his head was swimming. And then there was nothing.

When the wagon had finally stopped sliding, Nathan grabbed the rope that had been thrown toward him. He wrapped it around his good arm, then turned to help JD and Buck. But before he could move away from the side of the wagon, he felt someone grab him and haul him to the ground. He landed hard, groaning at the pain that shot through his shoulder. He heard the man who had grabbed him grunt in surprise, then struggle to breathe.

Nathan glanced over his shoulder, seeing Ezra, and behind him, Josiah.

"Graceful," he muttered.

Josiah sat in the mud, clutching Ezra, who was clutching Nathan. Any other time, he might laugh, but right now his heart was still pounding in his chest. Ezra was mumbling something about swimming and flying to JD, who was hovering over them. *Great,* Josiah thought. *Now he's incoherent, too. More than usual, anyway!*

From his position on the ground, Josiah could see under the wagon. He shook his head. The rear axel was broken. The wagon was useless.

*How could I have fallen asleep?* he wondered. *I almost killed half of us, and now the wagon is useless.*

"Now what?" he asked wearily.

Vin shook his head at the pile of men laying in the mud. He tried to supress the smile from his face at the sight, but was unsuccessful. And the smile grew into a chuckle.

Chris was standing next to him. Both of the men had manned another rope, looped over the back wheel. Chris saw teh expression on Vin's face. he was having a hard time controlling the grin on his face also. When Vin began to chuckle, and Josiah had sent glaring daggers at the tracker, Chris had to turn his head to keep from looking at his friend. But the laughter burst out of him. Vin's laughter joined his, followed by JD's, Lee's and finally Josiah's. Even Buck managed a chuckle or two.

Poor Nathan looked confused as to what was going on and Ezra...well Ezra slept through the whole thing.

The tension released, the men of the Seven began to reassess their situation.

Buck was growling in pain as he tried his best to keep from yelling something awful at Josiah.

He was no longer tired, now he was as awake as they come. And for good reason. Not only had he just about died with the rest of the men in the wagon, but having to hold on for dear life, had just cost him the use of his lungs. The pain in his arm was so immense now, he couldn't catch his breath. Josiah couldn't help but laugh along with the others. The tension had been so high the past few days, and the laughing was contagious. When he finally caught his breath, he scooted out from behind Ezra and helped Nathan to his feet.

"You okay, Nate?" he asked.

The healer looked at him a moment before replying. "Nope. Never knew a man could hurt so much and not be dead."

Josiah chuckled. "Amen to that, brother." He knelt beside Ezra's still form, gently placing his hand on the man's brow. He was pleased to find that it was cool and the gambler's breathing was regular. Nathan knelt beside him.

"How is he?" he asked.

"Alive," Josiah replied. "Which is the most any of us can claim right now." He grinned wryly, receiving a smile in return. "Can you look out for him while we decide what to do?" He didn't want to be leaning over Ezra when he woke up, afraid at what the reaction might be. Nathan nodded. Josiah turned his attention to JD.

"What about you, son. Can you help out?" He kept his gaze down, avoiding the boy's eyes.

Vin coiled up the section of rope as the laughter died down. He still shook his head a few moments in disbelief. Handing Chris back his rope, he coiled up his own and attached it to his saddle. Then he joined Chris and Lee at the wagon. Josiah soon followed.

"What d'ya think?" Vin asked the others. JD followed Josiah with his eyes for a long moment. Things had seemed so. . . normal for a moment. Not that it was normal for them to be trapped in a desperate situation, miles from any assistance, rolling around in the mud, laughing hysterically. He frowned as he followed that thought through.

Okay so it was. But the mud was something new.

But if things were normal, why had Josiah avoided his eye. Had he done something wrong. JD grimaced. Better to ask if he'd done anything right. Shorter list.

He wished he could just make things right, but he didn't know how. Josiah said to help out. That's what he'd do. The wagon wasn't going anywhere. That was obvious, even to him. But they still had horses. He could probably ride. Nathan too, if he doubled up with someone. That just left Buck and Ezra.

Plenty of trees in the area, and they had rope. He'd seen Vin make a travois before, even helped once or twice. If he started gathering the branches now, they could still make it home by nightfall. And JD desperately wanted to go home.

He moved over to one of the horses and retrieved a knife from the saddle bag. He hated to dull the blade doing this, but they weren't exactly in the position to be picky.

Tucking the knife away, and mindful of how close he got, he went back to where Nathan sat with Buck and Ezra. "Nathan." He waited until he had the healer's attention. "I'll just be over there. If you need anything, call. Okay?"

"It looks like it's going to take a little bit longer to get back to town than we anticipated," Lee answered. He knelt down to examine the undercarriage of the wagon.

"This thing's useless now, the axel's broken," Lee spoke again. He looked up at the three men gathered around. As he attempted to stand up his muscles prostested loudly at the maneuver they were not use too. He looked back up and commented, "I never though I'd see the day I'd ask for help in gettin' up."

Vin looped a hand under the older man's arm and helped him stand upward. Lee smiled greatfully as his hand went to the small of his back, working out the kinks. Then Vin turned toward Chris.

"So now what? Double up?" Vin asked as he watched JD walk over into stand of trees. When Chris nodded, vin headed off to join the younger man. A travois needed to be made for Buck at least.

Josiah watched as JD shuffled over to the trees and started hacking at them with the knife. He didn't know what the kid had in mind, but couldn't stand watching him struggle with the saplings alone. He walked over to the small stand of trees, noticing that Vin had also moved to help JD.

Josiah hesitated briefly, then turned back toward the wagon. Methodically, he started untangling the ropes and harness that Ezra had used to hitch the horses to the wagon. He wanted to do whatever was necessary to expedite their return to Four Corners, and a hot meal and soft bed.

JD swore as the green limb twisted in his grasp, pinching his fingers. The knife slipped, narrowly missing the newly scraped knuckles. "Damn it." He shook the injured digits trying to ease the sting and glared at the tree as though the attack had been intentional.

There was a soft chuckle from behind him. A low voice asked, "Need a hand?"

Even as JD's mind registered the sound, his body was reacting to it. Gripping the knife tightly, he spun to face the source. The motion caused a hitch in his breath and a blaze of pain tore through his side, but he held his ground doggedly. He glared at the man standing before him.

"It's okay JD. Let me help. It'll go faster if we work together." Vin consoled the jumpy young man. Vin could see the combination of pain and fear in the boy's eyes and watched as it slowly bagn to fade, but not disappear entirely.

Together the two men worked at downing some nice green sapplings and then locating some larger branches that were already down. As Vin lugged the heavier branches back to the others, JD went in search of some strong vines to use to tie the travois together. Vin didn't want to cut up their ropes unless they had to. They might just have need for them intact yet again. Nathan settled into the bed of the wagon beside Ezra and Buck. Chris and Lee had insisted that they stay there, where it was relatively clean and dry until they were ready to continue their journey. He looked at the men beside him. Buck gave him an encouraging grin, but was too weak to talk. His wound looked clean, and he didn't seem to have a fever.

Ezra, on the other hand, was unconscious, breathing raggedly. Nathan had checked him over and found broken ribs. His lungs seemed okay, but even comatose, breathing was hurting the gambler. And his wound was looking infected.

"Josiah, I need some help here," he muttered to the big man who was working with the horses. Josiah climbed slowly into the back of the wagon.

"What do you need, Nate?"

"I got to bandage Ezra's shoulder and wrap his ribs. I need you to hold him up for me."

Nathan noticed Josiah's hesitation. He still wasn't sure what had happened over the past few days. Most of it was a fevered blur. But he knew they it hadn't been good.

Finally, Josiah maneuvered the unconscious gambler into a sitting position, and Nathan started cleaning the wound.

"You be careful now, ya hear...finding those guys ain't worth it if you go 'an git yerself hurt" Nettie yelled after her head-strong neice, who was currently riding off.

Casey frowned inwardly and didn't even look beack when she yelled "Don't I always?"

She urged her horse on down the path away from Four Corners. JD and the guys had been away from town for a mighty long time now, and things were staring to get nervous. Mary suggested that someone ought to check on the guys so she naturally voulenteered.

”Just wished I had thought to bring someone with me// Casey thought as all was quiet around her.

For a while, she saw nothing but bare road, but when she decided to head back, something behind some trees caught her eye. file://I've just got to check that out// she thought, her curiosity getting the better of her...

Vin glanced at Chris as he uncocked his mare's leg and put it away. The others were doing the same. He went back to work on the travois as Casey and JD moved into sight.

JD couldn't help but grinning as he set the wood down and moved to hold the reins for Casey while she dismounted. He was relieved that she wasn't another of Elaina Noonan's hired gunmen; thrilled at the saddle bags she unloaded; and - if he were honest with himself, just plain happy to see her.

"We're. . . Well, we're all still alive. That's somethin' anyway. The other's are back this way," he said. He stopped to regather the vines and wood he'd collected, then lead her to the wagon. It was a struggle, but he managed to walk without shuffling or favoring his ribs. Though the effort left him breathless by the time they reached the temporary camp.

"What are you doing here anyway?"

"What's it look like? I was looking for you guys," she told him.

What he meant to say was that he worried about her, and that it was dangerous to be riding alone- particularly into a situation you knew nothing about, but he was still glad she'd come looking for them. Unfortunately, as usually happened when he tried to talk to her, the words seemed to twist themselves.

"Did you stop to think that if something happened to us, it might happen to you too?"

Casey visablly bristled at his almost reprimanding tone. She turned to meet his gaze, indignantly replying "I can take care of myself!" file://OOh...that hadn't come out right//, Casey said to herself as she saw JD's look. file://There goes the idea that he'd be happy to see me.//

JD sort of snorted and half chuckled. "Yeah, right...what about..."

"Stop sqabbling you two and get over here to help" came a familiar voice nearby, cutting off JD's remark.

Lee slowly relaxed when he found out it was the neice of Nettie Wells. He had noticed the young teen soon after he arrived in town. He did not think much about her, but could tell she was like a younger sister to the group.

After holstering his Winchester he moved over to his horse and threw an arm over the saddle in an attempt to relax. He gave a quiet snort when he heard someone call out for JD and Casey to quit squabbling.

He turned around and decided to help Vin with the travois he was currently working on. He moved to the opposite side and grabbed the vine Vin had tossed over and started tightening his side. "We're probably going to have to use Casey's horse," he commented to Vin. Vin looked across the travois at Lee.

"Yeah, her horse has to be in better shape than ours." Vin stood and approached the young woman where she stood with JD.

"Casey, glad ta see ya. We need ta move Buck and our horses are pretty tired. Mind if I hook the travois up to yours? It's fresher." Josiah smiled when he recognized Casey's voice. It seemed, perhaps, that the good Lord had sent them an angel, albeit a spunky angel in pigtails and pants. The banter between the young girl and the sheriff was the closest thing to normal that he'd experienced in days. Maybe things were really looking up.

"Josiah?" The preacher looked up at Nathan. "He moved at all?" the healer asked, nodding toward Ezra, who was still held in Josiah's protective embrace.

"No," he answered slowly, dread starting to creep back into his consciousness. What was wrong with the gambler? He'd been out for an awfully long time. His color was bad and a thin sheen of sweat covered his skin, despite the unnatural chill.

"We need to get him and Buck to shelter. We all need food and rest. I'm afraid they might not make it..." Nathan's voice trailed off. He sat back heavily, and Josiah could see that the healer was not in very good shape himself. His words were too true.

"The Wells' place is closer than town," Josiah said. "Maybe we can make it there before dark." Casey turned from JD to the quiet tracker. "Of course, Vin...she's all yours. Who's hurt?" Casey looked around and her gaze fell upon Josiah, who was close by a still figure on the ground.

"It's Ezra. He's hurt real bad." JD walked with her over to Josiah while Vin got her horse.

Josiah looked up at the two of them from where he was examining Ezra. "Casey, we need to gt him to your place. It is closer than town."

Casey grimaced when she saw Ezra's condition. file://He didn't look like he was barely alive// she thought, but decided to keep her comment to herself.

"What can I do?"

We've almost got the travois finished up. You wanna bring your horse on over and I'll get it harnessed in. It's gonna have to pull two from the looks of things." Vin motioned to the unconscious Ezra and to Buck, who lay nearby.

Casey and JD followed the tracker toward Lee, who was finishing up securing one of teh brace poles of the travois.

Chris stood back and watched the activity that went on around him, for the first time allowing himself to feel the bone weariness that had been dogging him for days. He watched as the travois was prepared and despite the fact that Casey arriving gave them all someone else to worry about he could see that already just her precense had lifted the spirits of his companions.

Casting his gaze a little further he watched as Ezra lay in Josiah's strong arms, he didn't want to voice the words but he couldnt help but think that Ezra didn't look good. It didn't take a genius to figure out that he wasn't gonna last much longer out here.

Walking across the short expanse between them he crossed to Lee and Vin and leaned lightly on Casey's horse, patting its neck as he spoke

"What can I do to help fellas?" he asked

Vin looked up from where he worked. His friend looked dog tired and Vin knew he must look the same. He certainly felt it.

"We're just about done here." Vin said as he stood and began to attach the travois to Casey's horse. Lee had taken several bedrolls and was spreading the blankets over the travois frame. "How 'bout getting those two loaded on here so we kin go home?"

Chris nodded, a weary smile on his face as he walked over to help Buck.

Soon both men were loaded on the travois, the other injured men on horses. Vin chose to walk along side the travois, just in case.

They were headed home. At last.

Ezra woke coughing violently, the burning of his side a minor and unnoticed counterpoint to the agonizing stitch of broken ribs. Try as he would, he couldn't seem to still the coughs, and they were exacerbated by the inability to draw a breath.

He realized vaguely that something was wrong, but he couldn't grasp a thought for long, everything around him seemed distorted, and thinking was...slippery, somehow, as if he had been playing a childs spinning game.

He continued to fight for consciousness, reaching desperately for anything that could help him to regain control. Finally he managed to stop the coughs, and his eyes focused for a moment--long enough for him to see Josiah. Frantically, he gripped the other man as he tried to move away, and in spite of lacking the breath to speak, he managed to keep his hands tight on Josiah's sleeve, pulling himself into an upright position. That was when he began to cough again, and this time even his fevered brain noticed the blood he was coughing out.

"Nathan!" Josiah called out in alarm. Ezra had come to abruptly, wracked with coughing. The gambler had started to struggle to get away, but Josiah held him tightly, afraid that he was going to hurt himself. Then he noticed the blood. That couldn't be good.

The healer shifted away from Buck, turning to look at the preacher. He was taken aback at the panic in the normally steady man's voice.

"What?" he asked, then noticed the blood at Ezra's lips. Nathan swore softly to himself. He ran his hands gently over the gambler's ribs. Ezra swatted at him, and Josiah caught his arms.

"Hold still a minute and let Nathan take a look," he chided.

Nathan continued his exam. The gambler was ghastly pale. At least he wasn't cyanotic. That was good, right? Or it could just mean that the man no longer had sufficient blood circulating to turn his skin blue.

Nathan grimaced. Josiah looked hard at him, and he averted his gaze.

"What?" the older man demanded. Nathan shook his head silently.

"Chris!" Josiah yelled. They had to something, and soon. Nathan shook his head, as much to clear the haze as to express his frustration. They were nearly to the Wells' farm, but Ezra's coughing fit had caused them to stop. He and Josiah had been riding double behind the travois and had been the first to reach his side. Now, as Nathan looked at the gambler, he was truly afraid that he might die. Even if they were in town, at the clinic, he wasn't sure that he had the knowledge or skill necessary to help. And right now, he was having trouble staying alert. The gambler was running out of luck.

Nathan looked down at Ezra, wondering if the man believed in miracles. Chris looked at Nathan and knew that he was having trouble holding on. His face giving away every emotion that passed through his mind, Chris knew that he was terrified for their gambling friend. But Chris knew something that Nathan had not yet noticed. The smoke from Netties fireplace was billowing happily from just over the next rise.

Maybe just finding thmselves inside a warm house, with hot food and clean dry clothes would things look brighter for them. Maybe then the southerner would find the will to fight whatever malais it was that was pulling him away from them. Chris kneeled beside the healer and patted him on the back gently "Look Nathan" he pointed toward the smoke "Netties is just over the rise"

He stood and began to walk again "The sooner we get to Nettie's the sooner we can help Buck and Ezra" he spoke loud enough for everyone to hear.

Nettie Wells met them on her front porch, her front door open wide. Casey and JD had riden on ahead of them to let the woman know they would be coming, and she had put on strong coffee, heated up a stew she had made, put out bread and butter, and had turned down their bedcoverings in preparation of the two more wounded of the men.

"Hey Miz Nettie, 'preciate the help." Vin's drawl brought a brief smile to the woman's face.

"Nonsense. Of course I'll help. Now get those men inside here. The rest of you look worse for wear yourselves."

"That might just be true, Miz Nettie, that might just be true."

Buck and Ezra were soon settled into beds and Nathan pulled together enough strength to tend to Ezra with Josiah's help. JD sat with Buck, falling asleep in a chair himself before he could even eat a bite.

Lee and Vin hauled water in to heat and Nettie insisted that the others clean up just a bit after they ate. The combination of a warm meal, full stomachs, and a roof over their heads let the small group start to relax for the first time in days.

Nettie booted Josiah and Nathan out of the bedroom, insisting that they both get some rest. She would sit with the feverish Southerner and call the bone-tired Nathan should anything change.

Vin wandered in to the room after the others had fallen asleep.

"How's he doin'?" He asked the older woman.

"He appears to be sleeping, but his fever is still very high. Pull up a chair Vin, and tell me what all happened here. The whole lot of you as though you've been run over by a herd of wild mustangs."

"Pretty close Nettie." Vin pulled a chair over near the woman and began to tal

Even the soft sounds in the room were enough to awaken the edgy tracker. His head jerked up with a start and he looked around, seeing Nettie and Lee moving about quietly. Nettie came over and placed her hand on his head as he laid it wearily back into the cradle of his arms. There was something about this lady that made him feel comfortable.

Casey yawned from her chair at the kitchen table as she cleaned up her snack. Her bed seemed to be occupied by someone else, so she opted for the hammock out back.

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