The firefight was over, the seven protectors of the dusty western town soundly defeating the gang of thieves that had chosen to rob the bank. The blue haze of smoke and the sulfur stench of black powder lingering in the still air were testament to the violence that had erupted -- and ended -- only moments before.
One by one, the lawmen regrouped in the saloon after the robbers had been safely ensconced in the dusty jail. As Nathan waited for the rest of his compatriots to join him, he made his rounds, ensuring that everyone was all right.
Chris was the only casualty; a close call with a bullet had left a small crease on his left arm. As the town's healer examined the wound, Buck sipped his beer and looked on in concern. A flashy red jacket entered their peripheral vision as the last member of the seven entered the saloon. None of them had looked up when Ezra appeared beside them, though Nathan gave a mental sigh of relief that they were all accounted for. The healer finished tying off the bandage around their leader's arm, smiling in satisfaction at his handiwork.
Ezra paused at the table, watching for a moment the easy camaraderie between these men, his newfound friends. Grimacing slightly, he was unable to keep a flicker of pain from showing. The gambler reached out, placing a steadying hand on the back of Chris' chair, his knuckles white from the effort of keeping himself upright. "Mr. Jackson, I believe I am in need of your serv . . . ."
Before Ezra could complete the sentence, his knees went out from under him. Buck lunged forward, his beer mug and its contents flying, and caught the smaller man before he could crack his head on the table. The tall cowboy eased the gambler to the sawdust floor. He felt the hot, slick wetness of blood soaking into Ezra's wool jacket and his stomach lurched.
Nathan bolted from his chair and knelt beside Ezra a second later. "Damn, Buck, what happened?"
Shrugging, Buck studied the gambler's slack expression before turning worried eyes on Nathan. "Hell if I know. He's out cold."
The healer shook his head, quickly appraising the situation. He peered under the gambler's coat and a worried frown crossed his expressive face. "Looks like he's been shot. We need to get him to my room, Buck. You'd best hurry."
Scooping his friend into his arms, Buck staggered to his feet and hurried from the saloon, the others on his heels as he climbed the steps to Nathan's room. After carefully lowering Ezra to the bed, Buck allowed himself to be shoved aside as the healer got to work.
He floated in a void, surrounded by all encompassing warmth and a soft diffused light, free from pain, free from loneliness and self-loathing and despair. He couldn't begin to fathom where he was or how he came to be in such a safe, sheltered place, but he was never one to question the hand he was dealt. One thing his mother had taught him was to roll with the punches, so he allowed himself to drift contentedly in the ageless, peaceful emptiness.
Time passed in the soothing nothingness. As minutes flowed into hours, sensations crept into his existence, sounds rippling across the calm like the wave caused by a pebble dropped into a pond. A faint, throbbing ache burned in his belly and he wondered at the cause of it. There'd been a bank robbery, he remembered. His mind searched for answers but came up empty, save for a vague memory of devastating pain exploding through his body and the feel of the hard packed dirt road against his face. He clung to the memory, struggling to sort through the fog of light and pain that enveloped him. Had he been shot? Were the others all right? God, no . . . what if the others had been hurt, or even killed, during the gunfight? He panicked, trying to find a way out of the void, encountering nothing but emptiness the harder he searched. A vague, unsettling thought nibbled at the edge of his consciousness: what if there was no way out? What if he was trapped here in the silence, alone?
Please, God, don't let me be alone . . .
Pushing away the gloomy thought, he let the soothing emptiness envelop him again.
Several hours after the gunfight, Buck, JD and Nathan sat in worried silence inside the healer's small clinic. They looked up as the gambler moaned. After hours of silence, the soft sound had startled them from their reflections. As they watched, Ezra slowly tossed his head from side to side, murmuring unintelligible snippets of words.
Nathan rose from his chair, crouching over the gambler and checking him for fever. His patient was burning up, his hair plastered to his forehead, a light sheen of sweat covering his skin. "Easy," he soothed, lightly patting Ezra's shoulder to reassure him. Nathan rinsed out a clean cloth in a basin of water and mopped Ezra's face with it.
Buck's mouth tightened into a thin line. "How's he doin'?"
The healer took his seat, scrubbing one hand over his stubbly chin. "Not good. His fever's high."
"Damn," Buck murmured, his gaze returning to the injured gambler. "Can't you do anything for him?
"Not much I can do, Buck. The wound's infected. He's got to fight it off himself."
Nodding his understanding, Buck settled back in his chair. "JD, why don't you go get us some coffee? Looks like it's gonna be a long night."
"Right, Buck." JD cast another quick glance in Ezra's direction, then jammed his hat on his head and left the other two to watch over their compatriot.
The door creaked, then clicked shut, and silence once more settled over the small room.
Vague snatches of words floated out of the ether, the voices oddly familiar, yet he couldn't quite place them. The sounds were muffled, far away, echoing as if bouncing off the walls of a deep mine shaft before fading away into silence.
" . . . Fever's high . . ."
" . . . Can't you do anything . . .?"
The last voice held a plaintive tone, the words sounding like Buck's worried drawl.
Thoughts of Buck Wilmington, the town scoundrel and self-appointed ladies' man, sent a wave of warmth through his soul. If Buck was here, he wasn't alone. The tall cowboy was perhaps the closest thing he had to a friend in this town. Over time, a brotherly sort of companionship had developed between the two, resulting in the kind of light-hearted teasing and rough housing he imagined brothers did. Growing up alone, left with relatives who didn't particularly want to be burdened with another mouth to feed, had forced him to grow up too fast to engage in the normal games of childhood. With Buck, he had a taste of that brotherly rapport he'd longed to experience as a child.
Ezra smiled as another thought occurred to him. If Buck was here, he'd place even odds that his tagalong little brother, JD, was here, too. The town's teenage sheriff was young in spirit and full of life. Had he ever been that young? Probably only as a babe in his mother's arms, when she'd bothered to hold him at all, he reflected. A lifetime of running cons, of lies and deception, and the grim, dangerous game of relieving his marks of their cold, hard cash had robbed him of his innocence. He felt a strange surge of regret at the loss, and a more than a little envy for JD's precious gift. Until he'd met JD, he hadn't realized what was missing in his own life. He hoped the boy managed to hang onto his innocence and sense of adventure. It would be a sad day indeed when young JD Dunne ceased to care about the world around him.
He felt suddenly tired as the uncharacteristic introspection wearied him. The bright, misty fog grew dimmer as oblivion claimed him. Only this time, thoughts of his two brothers went with him into the darkness.
They watched, sitting in quiet vigil as their compatriot stubbornly clung to life, his heart still beating, lungs still drawing breath despite the odds stacked against him. Buck reflected that Ezra never was one to worry about the odds, charging willy-nilly into the fray with a gleeful sort of determination to give Lady Luck a run for her money.
Buck blinked, remembering the feel of the gambler's blood on his skin as he carried him to Nathan's clinic. Moving of their own volition, his hands dropped to his pant legs and he absently wiped the memory away on the rough material of his clothing. He couldn't erase the image from his mind, though -- the sight of the gambler's dark blood streaking his pale skin as Nathan and Josiah pulled his ruined clothing off was too vivid to deny.
Buck's eyes focused on the wall above Ezra's head as he ran through the day's events in his mind. Guilt settled like a lump of coal in his stomach, guilt for the way the botched robbery had turned out. He should've watched out for Ezra, but he hadn't. His concern had been for Chris, his longtime friend, and for JD. But Chris had Vin to watch out for him, Josiah had Nathan, Buck and JD had each other. Ezra had no one looking out for him, no one to guard his back. Of all the members of the seven, the elusive gambler was the hardest to get to know, keeping his feelings and his thoughts hidden behind the polite, poker-faced façade he wore. Buck realized he knew very little about his friend. As his gaze dropped to Ezra's face, he hoped he'd have a chance to remedy that situation.
The soft, yellow glow of the oil lamp lit the small room and the man leaning uncomfortably in the hard, wooden chair. Nathan was alone with Ezra, having long since sent the others to their beds with the promise he would wake them should the gambler's condition change.
Sighing with weariness, Nathan bent over the still figure on the bed, one large hand coming up to rest on the flushed forehead. Ezra's fever hadn't abated. Nathan wasn't sure, but he suspected it was higher than it had been earlier. Despite his care, Ezra's wound had become infected. It hadn't helped that Nathan had had to dig the bullet out of his stomach, a serious turn of events that had left the gambler prone to a bout of wound fever.
"Come on, now, Ezra, ya gotta wake up. I got the bullet outta ya and got the bleedin' stopped. You should be wakin' up now, ya hear?" Nathan got no response, but he hadn't really expected one.
Blotting the gambler's sweat-slicked face with a wet cloth, Nathan paused, looking down at the man lying so still in his bed. When had the normal healer's concern about losing a patient turn into a friend's worry? They had nothing in common, he realized, yet Nathan found himself genuinely upset by the thought of the gambler's death. He swallowed hard and gently dabbed the cool cloth over Ezra's brow. "Don't you get no thoughts in your head about dyin', Ezra," he warned softly. A twinkle came into his eye as he studied his patient's face. "We lose you, and who knows what kind of lyin', cheatin' cardsharp we're gonna have move in here to take your place . . . ."
A soft, baritone voice murmured to him, rousing him from the darkness once more. Nathan? Only one man had a voice like that, one moment stern and commanding when he felt the urge to speak out against the world's wrongs, the next soft and compassionate when he was comforting the sick or injured. The voice continued, the soothing tone blanketing him with feelings of safety and warmth.
Ezra thought about the town's healer and their odd relationship. Their differences were as obvious as the colours of their skin. One was born into slavery, the other born into the racism of the Deep South. Nathan's compassion ran as deep as Ezra's self-absorption. Having seen the healer at work, helping others with no thought to payment or his own comfort, Ezra realized Nathan's capacity for caring was boundless. The example Nathan set caused the gambler to question his own motives on numerous occasions, though he would never admit that to the healer.
Ezra sighed. Despite his upbringing, he had come to care for the people in this dusty backwater, the first place he dared to call home. His mother would be mortified if she knew what this place meant to him. He smiled; it was always good to keep mother on her toes.
Nathan gently placed the wet cloth on Ezra's forehead, then moved back to his chair beside the bed. Reaching out a callused hand, the healer adjusted the wick on the lamp. He picked up a heavy hardcover book from the cupboard and began to read.
A short while later, the door slowly inched open and a grizzled head peered inside the room. Nathan smiled at the intrusion. "Come on in, Josiah."
"If you were sleeping, I didn't want to wake you," the big man admitted, softly shutting the door behind him. He stepped across the room, pausing at the foot of the bed to study the still form lying there. "How is he?"
The healer sighed, reaching for a bookmark and carefully placing it between the pages of the book he held in his hands. He closed the book, almost reverently placing the tome on the cupboard beside him. "He's no better. His fever's climbing an' I don' know what to do about it. I've tried cold compresses and they don't seem to do the trick. If I could get some water into him, and maybe some herbs to help with the infection, I think it would help some."
Josiah nodded solemnly, moving around to the other side of the bed. He sat on the edge of the mattress, peering intently at his friend. "I think I may know something that will help." With a gentleness that belied his large size, Josiah placed his hand on Ezra's head.
"Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be Thy name . . ."
The ex-preacher's rich, powerful voice boomed like thunder through the soothing, misty emptiness, jolting him from the silent reverie that had become his existence. Josiah's presence suffused his cold, aching body with warmth.
" . . . Give us this day our daily bread, and forgive us our trespasses . . ."
Ezra recited the prayer along with Josiah, the words dredging up memories of one summer spent on a small farm outside of St. Louis. The God-fearing aunt he'd been forced to stay with had beaten the verse into him, making him pray every day for redemption for his bastard's soul. Coming from Josiah, the words brought comfort, not shame. He smiled at the thought. Of all the men, Ezra found he was instantly comfortable around the ex-preacher. Something about the larger man's unconditional acceptance of him made Ezra try his hardest to live up to Josiah's expectations of him. It was a hard road to follow, but Ezra was determined to see it through to the end.
When awareness returned, his world had changed. The soft light had colour. Sounds were louder, intruding into the peacefulness of the void. What was going on? Ezra stared around him, uncertain of when the change had occurred, but changed it had. He heard voices, louder this time, more distinct. He was certain he could hear Chris' clipped tones and Vin's raspy drawl. He could sense Chris' powerful presence around him. Voices broke into his reverie once more:
" . . . He any better . . .?"
" . . . He ain't woke up yet. Nathan's gettin' awful worried 'bout it."
" . . . We're gonna have to get a telegram off to Maude . . ."
The seven's leader and the tracker, the last members of his newly acquired family. Ezra still found it hard to believe that such diverse people could form a cohesive group and work together at the important task of protecting the town.
Ezra thought about Vin. Their philosophical differences were vast, but the gambler didn't feel they were insurmountable. They were both loners in their own right, one choosing the solitary path of a buffalo hunter and tracker, the other forced into a solitary existence to protect himself from the wrath of those he'd conned. While Vin preferred the smoke of a campfire, Ezra was quite content with the smokey confines of a crowded saloon. Vin was one with nature; Ezra detested roughing it. Despite those differences, their relationship had evolved into something unique: not quite a friendship, but a mutual respect for each other's talents. Ezra knew he could count on Vin, and he hoped the tracker felt the same about him.
Chris was another story. The hired gun had a way about him, able to cow a man with a cold, harsh glare. That glare had been turned on him a few times, and he suppressed a shudder at the memory of the haunted look in Chris' eyes.
Until he had met Chris Larabee, there had been no second chances. His rather abrupt departure at the Seminole village had placed the others in grave danger, yet when he had returned and managed to free them, Chris had merely berated him for it. Ezra had been speechless. He knew that rare gift could not, would not, be forsaken. He would walk to hell and back for this man, the one who had provided him with the opportunity to redeem himself. He knew he didn't fully have Chris' trust, but he was trying damn hard to earn it.
As he thought about the last of his adopted brothers, the misty fog surrounding him cleared, replaced by a rush of light and sound and sensation. Pain throbbed anew.
Ezra groaned once, softly, and moved his head. His eyes slowly opened, the gaze distant and unfocused. He blinked, lucidity gradually returning to him and he recognized his surroundings. He was in Nathan's clinic, lying on the healer's lumpy bed. He must talk to the man about getting a better mattress . . . .
The gambler blinked again, shifting his eyes to gaze up at the figure bending over him.
Words came out as a raspy croak. "Yes, Mr. Jackson?"
Grinning, Josiah brought a glass of water to the bed. He slipped a large hand under Ezra's shoulders, lifting him slightly and bringing the glass to his lips. Ezra managed a couple of small sips, coughing slightly when he was finished. Josiah eased him back and gently grasped his shoulder, giving it a brief, reassuring squeeze before retreating into the corner.
Nathan placed a hand on his patient's forehead, pleasantly surprised to feel the fever gone. He smiled widely at the others. "Fever's broke." Turning back to the gambler, he questioned, "How you feelin'?"
Ezra lifted his head slightly, looking at the men gathered in the room, meeting each of their eyes briefly before moving on to the next. Buck stood with JD, both of them grinning from ear to ear. Vin gazed placidly back, one hand coming up to touch the brim of his hat. Chris gave a small nod of welcome, his eyes twinkling in the low light.
With a faint sigh of exasperation, Ezra lowered his head to the pillow. "May I inquire as to what it is you all are starin' at?" he drawled weakly.
"You, pard," Buck teased, his grin even wider.
"Good Lord. Surely there are some loathsome miscreants about for you to apprehend, rather than having you standing here gawking at me?" The voice was whispery soft, but there was enough indignation in it for them to be certain he was going to be all right.
"Yep, he's gonna be fine," Nathan said, joining the others in their relieved laughter. "Best let him get some sleep." He ushered the lawmen from the room, closing the door behind him.
Ezra felt Nathan tuck the blanket under his chin, heard him lightly admonish, "Rest now. You need sleep to heal."
As he followed the healer's advice, a ghost of a smile curved Ezra's mouth. He sensed his friends had been here keeping watch until he woke, and the realization touched him in a place he'd thought long buried. He felt his companions' friendship, their concern almost tangible in the disinfectant-laden air. Settling into his pillow, he cocooned himself inside their caring and drifted off into a deep, dreamless sleep.
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