Kaliope



Chewing idly on the end of his cigar, Ezra sat alone in the darkened saloon, the rest of the patrons and most of the staff having already left for the night. His hands busily placed his poker winnings into tidy piles, stacking the coins by denomination and organizing the bills in the same fashion.

Absently rubbing weary eyes, the gambler shoved his chair back, the scuff of wooden legs on the floor echoing loudly in the silent saloon. Sighing, he tucked his newly acquired cash into his right boot, except for a few small bills and some loose change, and rose. Donning his jacket, he headed out of the smokey saloon and into cool night air. Pausing on the wooden porch, the gambler struck a match against the railing and lit the cigar, taking a long, satisfying drag before blowing the smoke out into the air.

As he wandered through the dusty town, getting a bit of air before retiring for the night, the gambler reflected on the day's events. It had been a profitable night at the poker tables; several new arrivals on the noon stage had graced his table for a game of chance, only to leave the saloon a few dollars short of what they had started with.

A slight scuff of noise from the alley caught his attention. Ezra spun toward the sound in time to see one of his earlier gambling opponents, a scruffy ranch hand with more money than sense, stagger out of the shadows. The man stumbled to a halt a few feet away, weaving slightly as he stood and glared at Ezra.

"Okay, gambler man, I came to get m' money back," the fellow slurred drunkenly. His hand clutched a wicked looking knife and he waved it in the Southerner's general direction. Despite the distance between then, Ezra could smell the whiskey on his breath.

Ezra snorted, waving his hand in front of his face as if to clear the air, his expression distasteful. "Surely you must be joking."

The man's hand whipped out, the knife slicing the lapel of Ezra's favorite green jacket. "I ain't joking, mister. That's my money you cheated me outta, an' I aim to get it back. One way or t'other."

The gambler looked disdainfully at his assailant for a moment before his gaze dropped to the ruined lapel, then swept up to meet his eyes once more. He cleared his throat. "First of all, I do not cheat. And secondly, even if I had been inclined to return your money to you, which I am not, I'm afraid I would have to deduct the amount equivalent to some new haberdashery . . ."

"Drop the ten-dollar words, you dandy. Jus' hand my money over, and I'll be on my way."

"I will not."

With a roar of frustrated rage, the cowboy launched himself at Ezra, tackling him and sending them both sprawling into the dirt. The gambler bolted to his feet, coming up swinging to defend himself. Despite his drunken state, the cowboy managed to get past Ezra's guard and land a few good punches. Ezra's head reeled with the force of the blow that caught him in the side of the face; he stumbled back, kicking out one foot and hooking it behind his attacker's knee, taking him down.

"You cheatin' sonuva --" Lunging forward, knife poised to strike, the drunkard slashed out with all his strength. A faint glint of light on the blade was Ezra's only warning; he rolled to the side, yelping in pain as the knife grazed his arm and sent a sharp bolt of pain through him.

Gasping, Ezra flicked his wrist and the tiny Derringer tucked in his sleeve popped out into his hand. Letting instinct take over, the gambler snapped the gun up and fired off a single shot. His aim was true; a moment later his attacker stumbled, clutching his stomach tightly with both arms, then slumped to the ground.

Lurching to his feet, the gambler fought to retain his balance as the world tilted crazily and darkness threatened. Blinking rapidly to clear his head, Ezra checked his attacker, ensuring the man wasn't going to come after him again.

A few seconds after the shot rang out, Vin burst out of his wagon, his mare's leg cocked and ready, scanning the dimly lit street for the source of the gunfire. He spotted Ezra cautiously bending over a prone figure, gun in hand.

The tracker crossed the street, stopping beside the other man. "You all right, pard?"

Ezra straightened, wincing slightly as he did so, dabbing gently at the split in his lower lip. "I am for the most part undamaged, Mr. Tanner," he lisped.

Vin poked the prone man with the toe of his boot, then turned a critical gaze on the gambler. "Wanna tell me what happened?"

"This loathsome miscreant accosted me as I left the saloon and attempted to misappropriate the funds he tendered to me for an evening's gambling."

Vin bit back a smile at the longwinded response, kneeling to press his hand against the cowboy's neck. "He tried to rob ya, huh?"

Grimacing, Ezra nodded. "Precisely."

"Well, he ain't gonna be robbing anyone else," the tracker stated matter-of-factly as he climbed to his feet. "Need a hand gettin' him over to the undertaker?"

Ezra nodded again, tucking the small gun into his pocket. Vin grabbed the robber's feet and Ezra gripped his arms. Together, the two men hefted the dead man up and hauled him away.

Depositing the body into the care of the sleepy undertaker, the two men headed back out onto the street.

"Thank you for your assistance, Mr. Tanner. I believe I am going to call it a night."

"Need me to walk ya home in case there are any more dissatisfied customers lurkin' out there?" Vin teased, eyes twinkling with merriment at the gambler's predicament.

Ezra arched one eyebrow, glaring slightly. With frosty courtesy, he tipped his hat. "I do not require a babysitter. Good night, Mr. Tanner."

Vin smiled and shook his head as the Southerner crossed the street and headed towards the saloon. The tracker remained where he was, watching until the light came on in Ezra's room, before meandering back to his own bed.

Carefully closing the door behind him, Ezra fumbled in his vest pocket for another match. He struck it, quickly lighting the oil lamp on the dresser. The wick guttered and spat for a moment before the flame began to burn steadily, and a soft, yellow light chased the shadows to the corners of the room.

With a weary sigh, Ezra slipped his jacket off, wincing as the movement revealed blood on the sleeve of his white linen shirt. Fumbling with the buttons, the gambler shucked his vest and went to work on the shirt. He shrugged out of the shirt, cursing under his breath at the sight of blood welling from a long cut across his biceps, another matching one along his ribs.

'Doesn't look too bad,' Ezra thought to himself. 'Mr. Jackson should be able to patch this up with minimal effort.'

As he took a step toward the door, ready to go in search of the town's only medical man, Ezra paused, gazing for a long moment at the blood running down his arm and side.

The thought of asking Nathan to look after his injuries suddenly didn't sit well with the Southerner. Not that he didn't trust the man's abilities; if ever there was a natural-born doctor, Nathan Jackson was it. Ezra struggled to identify the sudden surge of emotion. Was it regret? The gambler hesitated, feeling the faint heat of embarrassment coloring his face as he recalled their heated exchange over the refugees from Wickes Town.

"Anything else?" Ezra had questioned, schooling his face to a neutral expression as the former slave rounded on him.

The healer's words rolled through his mind, "'Bout makin' profit off the back of another human being, hell, yeah, I got a lot to say . . . but it'd be wasted on you."

The anger in the former slave's eyes burned its way into Ezra's soul, and for the first time in his life, he felt ashamed. Him, ashamed! Conning people and making a buck any way he could was the life he'd grown up with, and until now nothing had gotten to him the way that one man's anger had. He'd been on the receiving end of countless attempts to redeem his self-serving ways and always managed to shrug it off, moving on to the next town to start all over again. What did he care about one person's opinion of his business practices?

The truth was he cared plenty, and the thought bothered him more than he cared to admit. What good is a gambler that can't keep his emotional detachment? Damn it, he was losing his edge; he knew it by the way these men had somehow slipped past his guard, becoming important to him. The quest for the almighty dollar was fast losing its appeal in the face of something bigger than himself -- a feeling of belonging. An unsettling concept, to be sure. Ever a solitary person, Ezra couldn't comprehend how he came to consider these men friends.

Perish the thought. He realized he was staying in town because he wanted to. Shaking his head, Ezra snapped himself back to reality and away from the unsettling road his thoughts were taking him down. Turning his attention back to his arm and side, he realized he was making quite a mess, his blood dripping slowly but steadily onto the floor. The wounds were shallow, thankfully, but he had to get the bleeding stopped. Stepping over to the armoire, he rummaged in a drawer until he found an old, slightly worn shirt to use for bandages. Quickly tearing a few wide strips from the cloth, Ezra fumbled in his coat pocket for his flask of whisky. Taking a quick pull from the flask, he gasped as the alcohol stung the small cut on his lower lip, then poured a liberal amount of the amber fluid onto one of the cloths.

Taking a deep breath, Ezra dabbed the whiskey-drenched cloth over the wounds, hoping the knife that got him was cleaner than its owner but somehow doubting it. He hissed in pain at the contact as the alcohol sent a sharp flare of agony through him.

"Damnation!" he swore through gritted teeth.

Bandaging his ribs first, Ezra tied off the strip of cloth before turning his attention to the arm. Using his teeth to hold one end, he wrapped another bandage around his arm and tied it securely. Satisfied with his handiwork, Ezra slipped out of the rest of his clothes and donned his nightshirt, climbing into bed.

Taking a couple of gulps of whiskey, he hoped the liquor would ease the throbbing in his side. Reaching over the bed, he lowered the wick on the oil lamp and plunged the room into darkness, then lay back against his pillows. With darkness came the return of his earlier disturbing thoughts.

"Oh, Mother. If only you could see me now," he whispered to the empty room. Ah, yes. His mother. Dear Maude. The best in the business, she could con the English royal family out of their crown jewels, then thank them for their generous contribution. She truly was a marvel, that woman. Too bad she had such a disgrace for a son . . .

With that thought echoing in his mind, Ezra closed his eyes and prayed that sleep would claim him.

 

 

 

A loud banging intruded into Ezra's consciousness. Groaning, the gambler open his eyes and winced as bright sunlight assaulted him. His head felt muzzy, like his brain was shrouded with cotton, and his muscles ached, a testament to the fight he got into last night.

The insistent banging repeated, followed by a loud, "Ezra, open the door, damn it!"

The gambler glared blearily in the general direction of the door. He muttered an uncharitable, "Go away, Mr. Wilmington!" and buried his head under a pillow, settling in to sleep once more.

Despite the muffling effect of the pillow over his ears, the gambler could still hear Buck pounding on the door. "Ezra! I know you're in there! Open this door!"

Cursing in a decidedly ungentlemanly fashion, Ezra threw back the covers and sat up. He instantly regretted the action as the unwise movement tore at the tender scabs over the painful cuts.

Grimacing, his right hand clutching his side, he stumbled out of bed and hurried to the door. The gambler opened the door enough to peer out at Buck's livid face. "Mr. Wilmington! Are you attempting to raise the dead with the sheer volume of your voice?"

Buck opened his mouth to reply, but as he got his first good look at Ezra, his eyes widened in shock. "What the hell happened to you?" He shoved past the gambler, spinning around to get a better look at the man's battered face.

"What?" Ezra asked stupidly.

"Nice shiner. Did someone try an' use you for a punchin' bag?" Buck teased. "I hope you got a few good shots in yourself."

Ezra pursed his mouth, frowning. "The fellow that inflicted this upon my person is now in need of the undertaker's services."

"Oh." Buck grinned, suddenly remembering why he had come up to the gambler's room. "Hurry up an' get dressed. Chris wants us all downstairs for a meetin'."

"Now?" A frown of irritation crossed the gambler's face.

Buck grinned, stepping towards the door, pausing with one hand on the knob. "Yep, now. You'd best hurry. Chris ain't in the best of moods right now."

As Buck pulled the door shut behind him, he heard a faintly muttered, "When is he ever?" His grin widened and he hurried down the stairs to join the rest of the men already assembled in the saloon.

 

 

 

"All right. We heard from Nettie Wells that these boys crossed her property, heading east." Chris stabbed his finger onto the map spread out on the table, indicating the direction on the yellowed sheet he'd borrowed from Mary Travis. "Vin here figures they've got no more than 12 hours on us. If we ride hard, we can probably catch 'em by this time tomorrow."

Chris looked up as a flash of bright color descended the stairs. He grimaced, acknowledging Ezra's approach with a glare.

"Good morning, Mr. Larabee, gentlemen," Ezra drawled, settling into a chair beside Josiah. He waved off the preacher's curious look, accepting the mug of coffee Buck thrust in his direction.

"Wow, Ezra! What happened to you?" JD questioned, his eyes huge as he stared at the gambler.

"Hear you got into a fight last night," Chris said dryly, taking in the gambler's scuffed appearance.

Ezra shot Vin a glare. "Good news travels fast," he muttered.

Vin smiled at the grumbled comment, trying to hide the grin behind his cup of coffee but failing badly.

Chris' stern voice brought everyone back to the task at hand. "All right. Any questions?"

"I have a question," Ezra piped up.

Chris glared at the late arrival, standing up and placing his hat on his head. "Since you were late for the meeting, Buck can fill you in on the way. Everybody saddle up. We leave in an hour."

The men got to their feet and followed Chris from the saloon. Buck reached down and tugged on the gambler's sleeve. "Come on, let's get our gear an' I'll fill you in on what's goin' on."

"Another splendid, carefree day in this dusty backwater metropolis," Ezra grumbled as he followed Buck out of the saloon.

 

 

 

The seven rode hard, struggling to make up the lead the rustlers had. Come nightfall, Chris called a halt and the men set up a makeshift camp.

As Ezra rode his horse into the clearing, he was relieved to hear that Chris had decided to call a halt for the night. Vin was an excellent tracker, but the seven couldn't afford to lose the trail in the dead of night and have to backtrack. They would break camp at first light and head out after the rustlers once more.

Feeling woozy, he slipped from the saddle, one hand clutching the saddle horn for balance as he swayed lightly on wobbly legs. Groaning softly, he pressed his forehead against the cool leather of the saddle and waited for the spell to pass. The musky scent of his horse helped ground him, allowing his jumbled thoughts to coalesce into a plan of action.

"You all right, pard?" a soft voice spoke close to his ear.

Too bone-weary to be startled, Ezra opened his eyes and peered at the man beside him. "Thank you, Mr. Tanner, I am indeed." Straightening, he winced slightly as he met the tracker's gaze.

Vin eyed the gambler appraisingly. Ezra was pale, with the beginnings of dark circles under his eyes. "You don't look all right."

One corner of Ezra's mouth twitched as he bit back a wry smile. "Why, Mr. Tanner, if I didn't know better, I'd say you were worried about me." The sarcasm would've worked much better if it hadn't been for the small shudder that ripped through him at that moment.

The tracker shrugged lightly. "Just callin' 'em as I see 'em."

With difficulty, Ezra dragged his attention away from Vin's penetrating blue gaze. "I'd better see to my horse." He tipped his hat, effectively declaring the conversation closed.

Vin watched for a moment as Ezra unsaddled his horse, pointedly ignoring him. Shrugging again, he walked away and left the stubborn gambler to his own devices.

 

 

 

As the seven settled into the camp for the night, Josiah took on the self-appointed task of cook. He made a large pot of beans, throwing in a little salt pork to add flavor to the otherwise bland meal. When the beans were cooked, the preacher served his companions, dishing out generous portions to each of the men. Josiah sat down with his own plate, enjoying the camaraderie as the men joked with each other during the meal.

Nathan plunked himself down in the dirt beside Josiah. "Good beans, Josiah. You're a mighty fine camp cook," the healer complimented as he dug into his meal.

"It seems that not everyone shares your opinion of my cooking," the big man replied. "Ezra's been using his fork to chase the beans around on his plate. I don't think he's taken two bites."

Nathan followed the preacher's gaze, studying the man sitting by himself on the other side of the fire. "He ain't being very sociable, either. Hasn't hardly talked the whole trip."

"Some would say that is a blessing, Brother Nate," Josiah grinned, his eyes twinkling in the light of the fire.

Nathan laughed at the statement. "Ain't that the truth." He sobered, his gaze lingering on the Southerner. "Wonder what's eatin' at him?"

"A man's got to deal with his own demons, Nathan. Lord knows we all have our share of them."

The healer nodded thoughtfully, then shrugged, returning his attention to his supper.


Later, as Nathan and Ezra drew dish duty together, Nathan took the opportunity to study his companion up close. He'd always thought of Ezra as the odd man out. His impeccable manners and fancy dress made him stick out like a sore thumb in their tiny frontier town. Ezra made no pretense about his line of work, which made the others wary of trusting him. Usually, though, he was friendly enough, despite his companions' mistrust, but tonight he was oddly silent.

"Just about got those dishes done?" Nathan asked conversationally.

"Almost."

Not wanting to pry into the gambler's business, Nathan nevertheless found himself wanting to draw him out of whatever mood he was in. His curiosity finally got the best of him. "How're you doing, Ezra?"

The gambler finished rinsing the plate he held in the small stream, then cast a quick look at Nathan. "I am fine, Mr. Jackson. Why do you ask?"

"You sure? You're being kinda quiet. I'm not used to this; you got me wonderin' what you're up to," Nathan teased.

Ezra managed a small smile. "Thank you for your . . . concern . . . but all is well. I am not currently planning on robbing you blind or selling you out to the ruffians we are following."

Nathan winced at the blunt tone. This wasn't going well, not well at all. He met Ezra's gaze, a faint apology etched into his expression. The gambler nodded his acknowledgment, then bent to gather his share of the clean dishes and walked quickly back to camp. Nathan sighed, picking up the rest of the dishes and following the gambler back to camp.

 

 


In the center of the clearing, a small fire burned brightly, the yellow-orange flames dancing over the burning hardwood as Ezra took his turn at watch. The bright light penetrated the inky darkness a few feet, casting crazy shadows in the tree branches swaying gently in the breeze above. Flickering firelight danced along the barrel of the rifle propped up beside the gambler, a second's grab away.

As he sat in quiet vigil, listening to the soft snores of the sleeping men, Ezra squinted into the darkness and scanned the area around them for signs of trouble. So far, a half-hour into his shift, the night was calm, the stillness broken only by the occasional plaintive cry of a lone coyote.

Despite the warmth of the small fire, the gambler shivered, drawing his jacket in tighter around him. He fervently wished he had brought his blanket with him; the warm wool coat wasn't enough to fight the chill of the evening air. Josiah's beans didn't sit well on his queasy stomach, either. Ezra fought down another bout of nausea with sheer determination. The last thing he needed was to embarrass himself by losing his supper and waking the others.

A movement in the shadows caught his eye and he reflexively snatched up his rifle and took aim.

"Just me, pard."

Ezra smiled humorlessly, lowering the rifle. "Mr. Tanner. To what do I owe this particular honor?" Remarkably, he was able to keep his teeth from chattering as he spoke.

Vin settled into the dirt on the other side of the fire, shrugging. "Just checkin' up on ya."

Ezra rolled his eyes. "Thank you for y-your concern, but as you can see, I'm f-f-fine."

Damn it! Why did his traitorous body choose this particular instance to start shivering again?

The tracker gazed at him through narrowed eyes. "You cold?"

Resignation flitted across Ezra's features. "A little."

"Thought so. Brought your blanket," Vin commented, tossing the blanket at Ezra.

"Thank you," Ezra said, his expression softening at his companion's kindness.

Vin nodded as he gazed thoughtfully at the gambler. "You feelin' all right?"

"I am fine. I am not an outdoor sort of person, Mr. Tanner. I find the whole idea of 'roughing it' to be distasteful. I prefer the comforts of our local saloon to the great out of doors."

"No, I don't suppose you've had much of a chance to enjoy nature," Vin agreed, gazing up at the canopy of stars overhead.

An owl hooted nearby, making Ezra jump at the sudden sound. "Or the inclination," he corrected with a sheepish grin.

Vin nodded in understanding. "Well, I'm gonna go back to bed. 'Night." He touched his hat brim, then got to his feet and wandered back to his bedroll.

"Good night, Mr. Tanner. Pleasant dreams," Ezra called after him, wrapping the blanket around himself and settling in for the rest of his watch.

 

 

 

Chris made his way through camp, nudging everyone awake with an impatient tap of his foot. "Up and at 'em, boys. Coffee's on."

Mumbled protests greeted Chris' announcement. Obeying their leader, though, the men crawled out of their bedrolls and began preparations to break camp, packing up their gear in record time.

After a quick breakfast of biscuits, cheese and coffee, the seven mounted up. With Vin in the lead to follow the trail, they made good time, riding hard to catch the rustlers before their lead got bigger.

As the horses galloped along the rough trail, Ezra shivered, drawing his wool jacket tightly about him. His side throbbed and he felt nauseous. Perhaps he should have bowed out of this little excursion. If he had, though, the other me would doubt his already questionable loyalty to them. Having run out on them once before, Ezra vowed he'd never give them another chance to question his place within the group. Above all, he wanted to live up to the second chance Chris Larabee had given him. Another shudder ripped through him, dragging him away from his depressing thoughts, and he gritted his teeth against a sudden flare of pain.

Without warning, the world tilted sickeningly, the landscape weaving and bobbing despite his attempts to focus. Ezra's shivering grew to such an intensity he could hear his teeth chattering above the dull roar of blood rushing through his veins. He blinked up at the haloed sun, then turned his gaze back to his fog-shrouded surroundings. Funny, when did the fog roll in? He remembered the morning being clear, the sky cloudless and a deep blue. Now everything looked fuzzy, indistinct . . .

Puzzled by the drastic turn of events, Ezra looked down at his hands. He couldn't feel the tight grip he had on the saddle horn, though he could see with his own eyes that he was indeed clinging to his horse. Another wave of gut-wrenching nausea rolled over him, taking away any remaining balance. With a groan, he closed his eyes and let the darkness take him.

As they galloped along, JD gasped, startled, as Ezra tumbled gracelessly out of his saddle and landed in a sprawled heap on the ground.

"Whoa!" JD cried as his horse gave a sharp whinny and danced sideways to avoid the man suddenly in his path. Ezra's horse bolted down the narrow path between the trees, its ears pinned back against its head in confusion. Josiah, bringing up the rear, took one look at the gambler slumped on the ground, then spurred his mount and set off after the chestnut.

"What's going on?" Chris demanded, turning in his saddle at the commotion behind him and pulling up hard.

Buck reined his horse to a halt beside Chris. "Looks like Ezra's passed out."

Nathan leapt off his horse, handing his reins to Vin. The tracker quickly dismounted, passing the two sets of reins to Buck before hurrying to join the healer.

Dismounting from the large grey, Buck pulled the three horses toward a stand of low scrub bush and tethered them to a couple of sturdy branches. JD followed his lead, joining the older man as he went to check on Ezra. Josiah trotted up a moment later, Ezra's horse in tow. He joined Buck and JD, the men forming a silent circle of support around their fallen comrade.

"Ezra? You awake?" Nathan dropped to his knees beside the smaller man. He felt for life signs; Ezra's pulse was fast and weak, his face flushed.

"How is he?" The concern in Vin's voice came out as a quiet growl.

"I don't know. He's got a helluva fever. We need to get him cooled off right quick."

With the skill borne of long practice, Nathan slipped his arm under Ezra's shoulders and lifted. Even through the heavy wool of his gambler's jacket, Nathan could feel the heat of his fever. The heat radiating off him was incredible, rivaling the warmth of the morning sun beating relentlessly down on them.

As Vin finished straightening out Ezra's legs, Nathan instructed, "Help me get his coat and vest off."

The tracker nodded, quickly pulling the sleeves from the prone man's arms, then unfastened the buttons on the fancy vest and slipped it off.

"I need my saddlebags and canteen," the healer said as he carefully eased his patient back onto the ground. Nodding, Vin retrieved the items and returned to Nathan's side. Folding up the discarded clothes into a makeshift pillow, Nathan tucked them under Ezra's head. His large hand lingered on the gambler's forehead for a moment.

The soft jingle of spurs drew Nathan's attention away from his patient. He paused, looking up into Chris' expressionless face.

"What's wrong with him?" The black-clad gunman clearly wasn't pleased by the delay, no matter what the cause.

"I don't know exactly. He's out of it, and he's burnin' up with fever." Nathan shook his head worriedly

"Damn. We can't afford to stay here long," Chris needlessly reminded Nathan, glaring over his shoulder at the flushed face pillowed against the red jacket.

"I know." Nathan opened his saddlebag and retrieved a roll of bandages. After dousing it with water from his canteen, Nathan laid the sopping wet cloth on Ezra's forehead. The gambler shivered at the touch of the icy water on his skin.

"Easy, now. Just relax."

"Could he be sick because of that fight he got into?" Buck questioned, kneeling beside the healer.

"Not from a black eye," Nathan mused. "Unless . . . "

With practiced efficiency, Nathan ran his large hands over the gambler, checking his arms and legs for injuries. Ezra flinched slightly when Nathan's gentle touch grazed over the cut on his arm. The healer exchanged curious looks with Buck, then bent to undo the buttons on Ezra's shirt. As he pulled the fabric open, he found the bandage wrapped tightly around the man's ribs.

Vin thoughtfully scratched at the day-old growth of beard on his chin. "He didn't say anything about needin' doctorin' the other night."

"He didn't come to me for this," Nathan admitted, his voice soft. Shoving aside his hurt feelings for the moment, the healer peered under the bandage. His expressive dark eyes widened and he muttered a faint curse. Pulling a knife from the hidden sheath on his back, Nathan neatly sliced open the crude bandage and pulled it away from Ezra's chest.

"Shee-it!" Buck swore.

"Yeah," Nathan agreed, bending over to examine the wound.

"What did you find?" Chris questioned.

Nathan briefly met the leader's gaze. "Looks like he got knifed, and the wound's infected. The good news is that his fall opened the wound some, so I don't got to lance it," he sighed, sitting back on his haunches.

"And the bad news?" Chris questioned.

"Fever's got a mighty strong hold on him."

"Great. He gonna be waking up any time soon so we can get going after those rustlers?"

Shaking his head, Nathan answered, "He likely ain't going to be fit for travelling for awhile, Chris."

"Damn!" The curse exploded out of Chris and he whirled around to face the healer. "We can't go up against these cattle rustlers short handed."

"Looks like we ain't got a choice now, does it?" Buck drawled.

Nathan stood, facing Chris' dark gaze. "I'll stay here with 'im and the rest of you can go after the rustlers."

"I don't like the thought of us splittin' up," Chris glowered. "We're going to need all of us to bring these rustlers down."

"Like Buck said, looks like we ain't got much of a choice," Nathan shot back, standing firm against Chris. "I won't leave him here alone. If we don't get this fever down, he ain't gonna make it."

The black-clad gunman thoughtfully chewed on his lower lip for a moment, finally nodding his head. "All right. But you'll be on your own. We won't be able to help you."

"I know. I'll be fine."

Chris sighed, removing his hat and running one hand through his hair. He settled the hat back on his head. "All right. Let's get you set up then."

Working quickly, Vin and Nathan laid out Ezra's bedroll, then carefully moved the man to his bed. Josiah and Chris gathered a large pile of firewood and started a fire to heat up some water. Buck and JD took care of the two horses, removing their saddles and giving them a quick rubdown before tethering them in a small, grassy clearing.

"You gonna be all right?" Chris asked the healer, his eyes lingering on Ezra for a moment before returning to meet Nathan's.

"Yep. I figure that when I get this infection cleared up, it'll still be a day or so before he'll be able to stay in the saddle."

"When you're able, head back to town. We'll catch up to you in a few days."

Nathan nodded, watching as the man in black mounted his horse. "You guys take it easy now. Don't go gettin' shot while I ain't there to take care of ya," he called out as the others followed Chris out of the clearing. Vin and Buck raised their hands in farewell as they rode past. Josiah nodded, his twinkling blue eyes expressing the faith he had in the healer's abilities. Nathan nodded his gratitude at the unspoken message. JD followed last in line, his youthful face pinched with worry as he looked over his shoulder at Nathan. The healer waved, watching for a minute as his colleagues rode away, before turning back to tend to his patient.

When the water began to boil in the small pot, Nathan grabbed a battered metal basin from his saddlebag and filled it with the hot water. He set the basin in the dirt beside the gambler and knelt beside him. As he pulled off Ezra's shirt, Nathan discovered the second bandage wound around the smaller man's arm.

"Dang it, Ezra, you got yourself worked over good. You get into more than your share a' trouble with them cards a' yours," Nathan tsked, murmuring a steady litany of comfort as he cut the second bandage from the gambler's arm.

With a gentleness that belied his large size, Nathan cleaned the dried and crusted blood from the edges of the infected wound. The cut was swollen, the edges puffy and a deep, angry red. Crimson streaks radiated out from the edges of the wound and spread across the gambler's torso. Thankfully, the cut wasn't deep enough for Nathan to worry about internal damage. The infection was more than enough to deal with. Unchecked, the toxins could spread through a person's system, slowly poisoning the whole body. Nathan had seen enough infections in his duties as a stretcher-bearer to know the danger.

Grimacing, Nathan glanced up at Ezra's face, irritation at the man's stubbornness making him grit his teeth. How could Ezra have let this go untreated? The gambler had experienced enough in his life to know that wounds left untreated often went bad. Damn him and his stubborn Southern pride.

Nathan swallowed a surge of resentment. Didn't Ezra trust him, or trust his abilities enough to want him to help? Surely even someone as pigheaded as Ezra could tell when he wasn't well. Unless it was more? Had the gambler's obvious distaste at having a former slave in their midst clouded his judgement, allowing his prejudice to overcome his good sense? Nathan had to consider the possibility that Ezra couldn't get past his deeply ingrained Southern upbringing.

Shoving anger aside, Nathan turned his attention back to the task at hand. He had to clear up the infection and remove the poisons from Ezra's system or he would surely die. Falling back on lessons learned from Rain's people, Nathan rummaged in his saddlebag until he found the ingredients for a poultice. Working quickly, he mixed the herbs together and added some hot water to moisten the mass. Plastering the mushy mixture over the wound, Nathan wrapped Ezra's torso with clean bandages. Just to be on the safe side, the healer slathered some salve on the other cut and rebandaged it.

His work done for the moment, Nathan pulled a blanket up over Ezra's chest and settled back to wait.

 

 

As morning passed into afternoon, Nathan sat beside Ezra, his expressive eyes dark with worry. Ezra's fever showed no sign of abating, and with the fever came unsettling dreams. The gambler moaned, caught in the grip of another vision, tossing his head and muttering incoherent phrases and bits of words.

"Easy, easy," Nathan soothed, wetting the cloth he pulled from Ezra's forehead. He patted the cool water over Ezra's face and throat, fighting the heat that radiated from his patient.

As if in answer, Ezra moaned again.

"Now, now, Ezra. I'll have none of that," Maude scolded, her eyes hard and angry as she firmly disengaged the sobbing child from her skirts and settled him on the steps of the low, wooden porch.

"I don' wan' you to go, mama," the pint-sized lad sobbed, his green eyes liquid with unshed tears.

"You know it'll only be a short while, darlin'," Maude soothed impatiently.

"That's what you said the last time, an' it was months before you came back," Ezra said accusingly.

Maude cast a pained look at her cousin and his wife, smiling wanly. "Children have no concept of time." She bent to look the boy in the eyes. "You listen up, Ezra. I'll be back soon, I promise. Give me a little while to get settled in St. Louis, then I'll be back to get you. Before you know it, we'll be together again."

"You always say that," Ezra sniffed, wiping his eyes with his sleeve.

"It's true, darlin'. Trust me, all right?" Maude flashed her best smile at her son and was rewarded by a hesitant, almost hopeful, smile in return.

"That's my boy. Remember what I taught you, son," she reminded him as she stepped into the waiting carriage.

 

Remember what I taught you, son . . .

As Ezra tossed his head, Nathan sighed worriedly, gently wiping the cool, wet cloth over the gambler's flushed face.

"Mama, no . . ." Ezra's voice was a weak, harsh rasp against the stillness of the afternoon.

Nathan started, listening to the first coherent words his patient had uttered all afternoon. "Ezra?" he whispered, resuming his soothing ministrations with the cool cloth.

"Mama, please . . . don't leave me again . . . "

The whispered plea was so full of childlike hurt that Nathan felt his throat constrict in sympathy. Though it was obvious the gambler was dreaming, Nathan knew fever dreams often had a basis in real life. He knew little about the gambler's background and could only guess at the circumstances of his youth. Nathan himself had been born into slavery, but he had no doubt his mother cared for him. He couldn't imagine growing up any other way.

"Hush, Ezra. I'm here -- you're not alone. Now get some rest."

 

 

Day passed quickly into night as Nathan sat in quiet vigil. Ezra's temperature was still high, an inferno burning inside the slender form that couldn't be cooled. Nathan's worry increased with each passing hour as Ezra's condition worsened.

Taking a minute to get a cup of coffee for the long night ahead, Nathan replaced the coffeepot near the edge of the fire to keep it warm. He settled onto the ground beside the bedrolls, his gaze wandering up to the darkening sky as he allowed himself a moment to relax.

Without warning, Ezra gave a startled cry and lurched upright. Nathan scrambled back in surprise, nearly dropping the full mug of coffee. Some of the hot liquid sloshed over his fingers and he yelped in pain.

"Dang it, Ezra, don't you go scarin' a man like that!" the healer scolded as he stuck his burnt fingers in his mouth. "Ezra? You all right?"

When the gambler didn't respond, Nathan carefully set the coffee on the ground and knelt beside him. He reached out to grasp the trembling shoulders in his hands.

"Ezra? You awake?" The smaller man stared at him with wide green eyes but didn't answer. "Ezra, it's Nathan. Talk to me."

Glassy eyes finally focused on the concerned face inches from his own. "N-nathan?"

The healer smiled in relief. "Yeah, it's me. How're you doin'?"

"How am I --?"

"Yeah, you know. You hurtin' anywhere?"

Ezra stared at Nathan for a long moment before his eyes glazed. His trembling increased, teeth chattering together violently.

"Ezra, you should lie down an' get some rest," Nathan urged.

Whatever lucidity Ezra had was just as quickly gone as the fever clouded his brain once more. "Don't touch me!" he snarled, scrambling back from the startled healer.

"Easy, Ezra, it's me. I ain't gonna hurt ya."

"No! Can't trust anyone -- Mother said so."

Sympathy colored Nathan's voice. "Your mama is wrong, Ezra. Not everyone's out to hurt ya."

"No! My mother wouldn't lie to me -- she wouldn't!"

Nathan cautiously advanced on the smaller man, one hand held out in a non-threatening gesture. "It's all right, Ezra. You're sick. You need to lay down and get some rest." The healer kept his voice light and easy, a calm, unworried expression on his face.

Moving closer, Nathan tentatively put his hand on Ezra's shoulder, afraid of how the gambler would react to the physical contact. Ezra jumped as Nathan's hand moved down his shoulder, coming to rest on his back. Murmuring faint words of comfort, the healer gently rubbed his hand up and down Ezra's back, his long fingers massaging the fevered skin.

"Easy, now. Jus' relax," Nathan murmured. His expression softened as Ezra slowly relaxed into the contact, finally allowing Nathan to touch him, to soothe him. He sagged slightly, leaning into the healer's shoulder. Even through his clothes, Nathan could feel the heat of the man slumped against him. He continued to rub Ezra's back for several minutes until his ragged breathing calmed.

"Ezra?"

"Hmm?"

"I'm going to give you some tea. It'll help you feel better an' maybe help you get some sleep," Nathan said. "Think you can sit up on your own for a minute?"

A weak nod. "I'll try."

"Good. Okay, up we go." Carefully straightening up, Nathan propped Ezra up until he was sure the man could stay up on his own, then wrapped a blanket around him. Without the shared warmth of Nathan's body heat, Ezra was shivering hard. "I'll be right back. Don't go anywhere."

"'M not."

Nathan smiled as he got to his feet and hurried to the fire. He grabbed Ezra's mug from his saddlebag, then retrieved a small pouch from his medical kit. As he knelt beside the fire, Nathan dumped a small amount of dark powder into the bottom of Ezra's mug and added warm water to it. Nathan stirred the contents of the mug until he was satisfied the tea was steeped to its proper strength, then hurried back to the gambler.

Nathan pressed the mug into Ezra's hand. "Drink this." The gambler stared at the mug, clearly puzzled by the dark beverage inside. "It's just tea. Drink up," Nathan repeated, smiling in reassurance. He guided the mug to Ezra's mouth and watched as the man took a tentative sip. Ezra wrinkled his nose at the pungent flavor, turning a questioning gaze to Nathan.

Nathan laughed at his expression. "It's willow bark tea. I know it ain't as good as that fancy brandy you're used to, but you gotta drink it."

Ezra nodded and obediently downed the contents of the mug, shuddering slightly at the bitter taste. Nathan retrieved the mug from the shaky grasp and placed it on the ground. He eased Ezra back onto his bedroll, settling him in.

"Sleep," Nathan commanded gently. Ezra stared up at him for a long while, his eyes growing heavy as the soporific tea began to work. Finally, his eyes drooped shut and his breathing changed to the slower, deeper rhythm of sleep.

Nathan pulled the blanket up and tucked it under Ezra's chin, lightly patting him on the shoulder. "Sleep well, Ezra."

 

 

The soothing effect of the tea didn't last long, and Nathan catnapped between bouts of Ezra's delirious dreams. Nathan kept up his quiet ministrations well into the night, wiping the gambler's face with the cool cloth, trying to ease the fever that still burned within him.

Despite the healing poultice and the strong tea, Ezra's fever stubbornly refused to break. The infection had a strong hold on the smaller man's system, sapping his strength and, Nathan feared, his ability to fight. He'd replaced the poultice twice, hoping the powerful mix of herbs would clear the infection. Each time he reapplied the poultice, he made Ezra drink more tea.

As Ezra continued to fret, Nathan found himself humming a soothing tune. His rich, baritone voice calmed the irrational mutterings, quieting the man for short periods and allowing him to rest. The healer smiled, thinking of Ezra's outraged reaction when he found out Nathan had sung him to sleep with an old lullaby, one his own mama sang to him when he was a small boy on the plantation.

Finally, just before sunrise, the exhausted healer succumbed to the siren call of sleep, settling onto his bedroll and closing his eyes.

When he awoke, no more than an hour later, he found glassy green eyes gazing back at him. Nathan sat up, stretching to ease the kinks in his back. "Hey. You're awake."

"Mr. Jackson?"

"Yeah?"

"What happened?" Ezra's tone was puzzled, his words slightly slurred.

"I was hopin' you could tell me. First we knew of you being sick was when you fell off your horse," Nathan scolded.

The gambler's eyes widened. "I'm . . . sick?" He didn't seem to be fully aware of his surroundings, glancing around the clearing in bewilderment.

Nathan had seen this kind of mental confusion before in patients with bad infections. He held up his hand. "How many fingers am I holdin' up?"

Ezra squinted up at the hand above his face. "Uh . . . seven?"

"Uh huh. Worse than I thought," Nathan muttered under his breath. "That wound in your side's infected, Ezra. If we hadn't caught it when we did, you'd be on your way to an early grave."

Ezra had the good grace to look sheepish. "I must apologize, Mr. Jackson, for placing you in this uncomfortable position."

"No need to apologize. You ain't puttin' me out."

"Thank you."

The words were uttered softly but with the utmost sincerity. Nathan grinned at the honest response; truthfully, he wasn't sure if the gambler was capable of a sincere emotion if it wasn't in his advantage to react that way. He was pleased to find out he was wrong.

"You're welcome, Ezra."

An almost companionable silence fell between the men. Finally, Nathan broke the mood, suddenly all business again. "I want to check your bandage. You just lie still; I'll be quick."

Ezra nodded, closing his eyes as Nathan pulled the blanket down from his chest. The healer gingerly cut the bandage, pulling it away from Ezra's side. A careful examination revealed the wound was still swollen but not as badly as it had been the night before. The dark red streaks were fading -- a good sign. Nathan reached his hand up and placed it on Ezra's forehead, relieved to find the fever had decreased, though it was still high.

As Nathan rewrapped Ezra's torso with a clean bandage, he cast a critical eye on the gambler. "How're you feeling?"

"Truthfully, I feel as if I have been thrown from my horse and dragged across a rocky plain," Ezra murmured woozily, the words coming out in a hurried rush. He looked up at Nathan with a gaze that couldn't quite focus.

Nathan smiled at the image the gambler's words painted for him. "You gave us quite the scare."

Ezra looked surprised at the comment, his eyes widening. The uncharacteristic emotion flitted across his face for the briefest of moments before he clamped down. Nathan wasn't sure he'd seen the response -- it had come and gone so quickly.

The gambler cleared his throat self-consciously, gazing around the small clearing. "Where is the rest of our illustrious party?"

"They've gone after the rustlers."

"Without us?" A nod. "When?"

"Early yesterday."

Ezra moved to sit up. "If we make haste, we could overtake them . . . " His voice trailed off, face blanching, as his weakened body betrayed him. He swallowed hard against the sudden overwhelming urge to throw up.

Nathan clucked his tongue at the foolish move, catching the smaller man's shoulders and easing him back against the bedroll. "You jus' lay down and rest. You ain't goin' anywhere until at least tomorrow."

"But we can --"

"No buts. You ain't strong enough. If you don't rest, the infection will kill ya, plain and simple. I ain't having all my hard work undone because of your stubborn pride."

Ezra shot him a look of glassy-eyed exasperation. "I assure you, Mr. Jackson, that I am fine."

"You're fine, are you? All right. Saddle up your horse and go. I won't stop you."

Ezra looked over toward the tethered horses as if gauging the distance between his bed and them, then turned back to the healer. "Thank you."

Nathan's harsh words stopped him cold. "But I also won't help you again. You'll die alone out there somewhere . . . " Nathan waved his arm expansively, gesturing toward the open prairie that surrounded them.

A faint, humorless smile tugged on Ezra's mouth and he struggled to meet his companion's gaze. "As I have been for most of my life, Mr. Jackson. A fitting end for one such as I, should it come to that."

Nathan's expression softened. "Hush, now. That's just the fever talkin'."

"But it's true . . ."

"It don't have to be that way, Ezra."

An uncomfortable silence fell between them, settling like a heavy cloak around the two men. Finally, Nathan asked the question he'd been wondering about all night. Wondering, hell -- it had plagued him to the point of distraction. "Why didn't you tell me or one of the other guys you'd been hurt?"

Ezra winced, dropping his eyes away from Nathan's probing gaze. "You wouldn't understand, Mr. Jackson."

Nathan studied his companion's flushed face, trying to read the man before him. He didn't have much luck; Ezra had reined in his feelings again, closing his inner self off from prying eyes. Trying a different tack, Nathan said, "If ya don't trust me, that I can understand."

Startled green eyes snapped up to meet brown. "It's not that."

"Then what?"

Ezra clearly heard the challenge in the other man's tone. He swallowed, struggling to come up with a flip reply, some pat answer to deflect the conversation away from this rocky ground. For once, the quick answers deserted him. His fever-fogged brain was simply unable to bend the truth to sit his needs. "I . . . " Nathan stared at him, his face expressionless. Damn it, he wasn't going to make this easy. "Depending on others is a hard concept for me to embrace," he confessed.

"Tell me something I don't know," Nathan replied easily.

Ezra raised one eyebrow at the chiding tone in the healer's voice. He cleared his throat, still clearly uncomfortable with the way the conversation was going. "I never intended to malign your indomitable skills. That was the furthest thing from my mind."

Nathan heard the quiet apology in the tone. Feeling guilty, but realizing he'd probably never get another chance to speak to Ezra while his guard was so relaxed, he relentlessly pressed for a further explanation. "But?"

Ezra sighed, running one hand through his hair. His jaw clenched, and to Nathan's eyes it seemed he was fighting an internal battle. When the gambler finally spoke, his voice was soft, his words carefully enunciated. "But you have been the catalyst for a great deal of soul-searching on my part, Mr. Jackson. Our confrontation in Josiah's sanctuary has caused a tiny part of me, a part I had thought to be long buried, to resurface."

Nathan scratched his head, puzzled by the quiet admission. "What part is that?"

"My conscience."

Nathan bit back the sarcastic response that immediately sprung to mind, not wanting to interfere with the confession. His reaction to the statement was still obvious to Ezra, a man who prided himself on his skill at reading people.

"Don't look so surprised, Mr. Jackson. I do indeed have a conscience," the gambler said defensively.

"If you say so," the healer replied dubiously.

"You don't believe me."

"It don't matter what I believe. I ain't the one that looks back at you in the morning when you shave," Nathan gently admonished his companion.

Ezra nodded, acceding the point. "Touché." He yawned, feeling suddenly exhausted from the verbal sparring match.

Nathan read the sudden weariness in Ezra's face. "Why don't you get some more sleep? When you wake up, we'll see how ready you are to travel."

"I believe that is a fine idea, sir," the gambler said, his eyes already closing. Nathan sat beside Ezra until he was sure he was asleep, then quietly set about making preparations for the journey home.

 

 

A day later, Nathan was satisfied his patient was strong enough for the ride home. Nathan saddled both horses, then helped the still-woozy gambler mount up. They began the trek to town at a slow walk, Nathan keeping a close eye on his charge as Ezra dozed off and on in the saddle.

After a brief rest stop and a quick lunch of hardtack and beef jerky, the two men sat in companionable silence on the bank of a shallow creek, basking in the warm, relaxing rays of the sun. It wasn't often they could take time to just sit and enjoy life, and they were going to take advantage of this rare opportunity.

Pulling his hat low to shield his eyes from the bright morning sun, Ezra frowned pensively; he was trying to sort through the events of the last couple of days and not having much luck fitting the pieces together. Time flowed together in his memory; jumbled images of his meeting with the six men who would become his compatriots mingled with memories of growing up with Maude and his time spent gambling on a Mississippi riverboat. Bits and pieces of the last two days were coherent, but the rest seemed to be a long, drawn out dream. Nathan had told him he was delirious for part of that time. A shiver of dread coursed through him and he wondered if he had talked during his feverish sleep. The frown deepened as he turned to look at his companion.

"Mr. Jackson?"

Ezra's voice had an odd, tentative tone to it. Nathan glanced up from his lunch, seeing the thoughtful expression on the other man's face. "Yeah, Ezra?"

"Did I -- did I say anything to you while I was -- er -- indisposed?" the gambler asked, his face slipping into an unreadable mask as he waited for the answer.

"Did you say anything? Like what?"

To his considerable dismay, Ezra felt the faint heat of a blush creep across his cheeks. "Like something of a somewhat delicate nature regarding my past?"

Nathan read the tinge of panic in the smaller man's eyes. He shook his head, smiling in reassurance. "Nah, Ezra, you didn't say much. Just a lot of mumblin' while you were delirious. I didn't pay it no mind."

Relief washed over his pale face as Ezra sighed in relief. "Just checking."

Nathan nodded, smothering a smile as he turned his gaze away and looked back at the running water.

Ezra saw the look, his eyes narrowing in suspicion. "You are hiding something from me, Mr. Jackson."

"Really, Ezra. It's nothing," his companion smirked.

"Now, Nathan, you wouldn't be prevaricating, would you?"

Still trying to stifle the grin, Nathan turned to look Ezra in the eye. "Well, if you really must know . . . "

"Dear Lord," Ezra sighed in resignation, his shoulders slumping. "All right, tell me."

"Well, you did talk about that purty purple dress you was wearin' over at Wickes Town," Nathan said seriously. "You mentioned somethin' about wanting to have another made, but the same color as that fancy red coat of yours."

Ezra stared at the healer, his mouth dropping open in shock. "I -- I didn't. I couldn't possibly . . ."

The stunned expression on Ezra's face was just too much for the healer and he couldn't keep up the charade any longer. Humor sparkled in his dark eyes and a wide grin split his face. As Nathan's rich laughter rang out across the open prairie, Ezra realized he'd been well and truly had.

Scrambling to his feet, Ezra glared in exasperation at the man still laughing heartily at his expense. Pointing his finger at the healer, he vowed, "I will have retribution for this, Nathan. That is one wager you can count on!"

The promise only served to redouble Nathan's mirth. Ezra couldn't help but smile as he sank back down on the bank of the creek, shaking his head in amazement at his companion's good mood. He couldn't put a finger on it, but he sensed something had changed between them. Though a long way from being friends, there was an unspoken pact of understanding between them. Ezra smiled at the thought. It was a damn sight better than butting heads over every little difference of opinion.

Finally, Nathan's laughter subsided and he reached up to wipe streaming eyes. He looked at Ezra, fully expecting the gambler to be angry at his outburst, but instead a smile played over the man's face.

"Have you finished amusing yourself at my expense?" Ezra retorted, his grin widening.

"Hell, Ezra, I haven't laughed so hard in a long time. The look on your face . . . ."

"I'm sure it was highly entertaining," the Southerner sniffed in mock irritation. He stood, indicating their patiently grazing horses with a graceful sweep of his hand. "Shall we?"

Nathan climbed to his feet and followed Ezra to the horses. Mounting up, they shared a last look before Ezra tipped his hat, a gesture of respect. Nathan nodded his acknowledgement, his eyes reflecting the emotion back to the gambler.

Spurring their horses, the unlikely traveling companions began the long journey home.


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