Savha the Cree called it; that instant between lightning and thunder, the heartbeat between reaction and realization, the breath between pulling the trigger and watching the bullet strike. Chris snapped his head around, already knowing his bullet had hit the mark, needing to see where the one his victim had unleashed had gone. The bank robber behind him crashed in a boneless heap to the rain soaked boards. Chris whirled back around, lightning flashing to reveal his target now lying face up and still in the cold rain. The breath, the instant, the heartbeat passed and Chris realized what had happened– even as Ezra had shot the robber that was going to shoot Chris in the back, Chris had turned – and shot Ezra.
“Chris?!” Buck’s voice, over the thunder, as he splashed through the mud toward them. “You okay?”
Chris stared at his old friend, then his eyes returned to the still body only a few feet from him. Fifteen feet. He couldn’t miss at fifteen feet. He wanted to go to Ezra, wanted to yell for Nathan, but both were beyond him.
“Shit!” Buck yelled, realizing what he was seeing. “Ezra?”
“Is …” Vin’s came up next, rain running in rivers off his slouch hat. “Nathan! Where’s Nathan?”
Buck was kneeling beside the gambler, one hand spread on his chest, the other pressed against the side of his neck. “He’s alive,” he exclaimed to the world in general.
The words broke the chains around Chris, allowing him to move shakily to his two men. Pounding footsteps sounded behind them and suddenly Nathan was there, easing Ezra’s head gently to the side, working passed Buck’s hand, opening the gambler’s soaked coat. The world and four men held their breaths.
An eternity later, Nathan said, “One shot to the throat. Let’s get him upstairs, see how bad it is.”
A hand touched Chris’s shoulder. “You okay, cowboy?”
Chris took a deep breath. He should have known it would be Vin to notice his silence. “Yeah. Ezra got the one behind me …”
“Bastard must have fired before he fell,” Buck finished, guessing from what he had seen through the dark and rain.
Swallowing, Chris wanted to tell them the truth, but it stuck in his throat. “Where are Josiah and JD?”
“Taking two of these owlhoots to jail,” Vin supplied. “Other two only need the digger, two got away..”
“Slow now. Buck, you just keep you hand right there,” Nathan urged as he picked up Ezra’s shoulders. “Vin, run on ahead and turn down the bed, then put on a kettle.”
Automatically, Chris picked up Ezra’s legs. He walked quietly, refusing to look at the pale, still form in their strong hands. He knew if he told them what had happened they would all say it was an accident. It was dark. It was raining. It had happened fast. Chris knew the truth – a glance behind him, a raised gun and holding it a man he didn’t trust. No accident. Chris had known it was Ezra when he had pulled the trigger.
“Easy,” Nathan ordered. “Buck keep your hand there.”
They laid Ezra down. In the glow of the lamps Chris could see the blood that had, in only seconds, completely soaked the front of Ezra’s vest and shirt, splattered in the dark hair. Chris took a sharp breath, realizing how fast the man could have bleed to death. Unable to look at the blood and pale face of the gambler, he glanced at Buck. Another shock went through him as he realized that Buck’s fingers weren’t just pressed to Ezra’s throat, they were pushed into his neck, squeezing the vein off.
Nathan moved into his sight, his hands loaded with supplies. “Vin, there’s a bottle of ether on the second shelf. Chris hold that lamp up.”
“He’s already out,” Buck questioned.
“If he starts into trashing around while I’m sewing him up he could bleed out before you could get your hand back in place,” Nathan explained patiently.
Forcing his hands to be steady, Chris moved closer and raised the lamp, making sure the light fell on the bloody hole. In the shifting light Ezra looked very pale and far too still. The guilt Chris was fighting transferred itself to his hand and the lamp shook. Buck glanced up at him, trying to smile, mustache still dripping rainwater..
“It’ll be okay, pard. Nathan’ll take care of him,” he drawled softly.
Vin now appeared in Chris’ view, kneeling at the head of the bed, holding a cloth and a brown bottle. He’d taken his hat off, shook out his long hair. “I’m ready, Nathan.”
“Okay, two drops to start, then we’ll see.”
Footsteps pounded on the steps behind them, barely heard over the thunder that rattled the small room. Chris turned as Josiah and JD appeared in the still open doorway, concern written on both faces, though more visible on JD young countenance.
“How is he?” JD questioned breathlessly.
Silence answered him. Chris wanted to grab Nathan, wanted to hear everything was going to be okay, needed for everything to be alright. Silence. Lightning flashed close by, making everyone but Nathan jumped. The black healer was concentrating so hard on his patient that Chris was sure a stick of dynamite could have gone off and his hand would have remained steady.
“Buck, move this finger just a little,” Nathan’s quiet voice ordered.
“Damn,” Buck countered, swiping at the blood that suddenly hit him in the face.
The others gasped, cringing.
“It’s okay. It’s okay,” Nathan muttered to himself. “I got it.”
More silence, more thunder.
“Now the other one,” Nathan said firmly.
A small amount of blood fountained out of the hole as Buck removed his finger. Nathan was there, fingers holding Ezra’s life in while the other hand took fast, tight stitches in the vein. Chris watched, unable to take his eyes off the desperate operation. Nathan dabbed the blood away and leaned back. Chris knew the healer was holding his breath, praying, like the rest of them, that the thread could hold their companion’s life together. No blood leaked passed the barrier. Nathan sighed, wiping the back of his hand over his forehead. He leaned back down and pulled the skin back across the stitches he’d already made, once more sewing carefully.
Finally, he sat back. “Got it.”
“He’s gonna be okay, right Nathan?” JD asked again.
Nathan’s raised his dark eyes toward Chris. “I think so. Main worry’s gonna be the swelling.”
“Swelling, Nathan?” Vin asked.
“Graze like that’s gonna bruise and swell. Too much swelling around that wound could cut off the blood supply or even his air,” Nathan explained.
“The ice house,” Chris somehow found his voice. “Wrapping it in ice would keep the swelling down.”
“I’ll get it!” JD yelled, sprinting out into the slackening rain.
“We’ll need to keep him still and quiet too,” Nathan spoke again, raising to take the bottle of ether from Vin.
“Well, the still part might be tough,” Buck said with a smile. “But the quiet part is gonna be near impossible.”
“We’ll take it in shifts,” Chris said, surprised to sound so normal.
“Okay,” Nathan said. “But first everyone gets some dry clothes. I don’t need a bunch of pneumonia patients.”
Chris sat down the lamp, his eyes still on Ezra’s slack features. How did he apologize for nearly killing him? How did he even begin to tell the others the truth? He needed a drink. Without a word, he turned and walked out of the suddenly too small room. He didn’t notice the look Vin and Buck exchanged.
The bottle was half gone by time his clothes had finally dried in the saloon’s warmth. He had seen Buck come and go, arranging to take the next spell. He had also noticed his old friend’s return. The man had watched him for a minute before disappearing upstairs again. It was a quarter of a bottle later before he came back down. JD picked that moment to join them.
Unlike Buck who knew when to leave well enough alone, JD came straight over and sat down. “Boy, it’s a good thing Ezra saw that guy behind you.”
Chris ignored the comment. “You get plenty of ice?”
“Yeah,” JD reached for the bottle. “Mr McQuire said he would carry some more down in a couple of hours.”
Now Vin, ignoring the warning signs that JD hadn’t even noticed, joined them. “Don’t know whether Ezra is the luckiest or unluckiest bastard alive,” he observed.
“What?” JD questioned.
“Well, just getting clipped by that bullet instead of taking it clean through is pretty lucky,” Buck said, joining them and picking up along Vin’s thinking. “But having the man you just plugged getting off a shot…”
“I shot him.”
Chris uttered the words over the edge of his glass, staring straight ahead, seeing only Ezra’s pale face and Buck’s blood covered hands. Stunned silence answered his comment. A breath later and, just as he had predicted, Buck and JD started talking.
“Damn, Chris, that’s rough.”
“Gosh, Chris, it was dark. I mean, it happened so fast,” JD stammered. “Hard to see in that rain and all.”
Very slowly, Chris shook his head. “I saw him.”
The other two came to a quick stop, exchanging puzzled glances. It was Vin that voiced the question. “What happened?”
“What happened,” Josiah’s deep voice cut in, “is that he saw a man he didn’t trust with a gun pointed at him.”
Concern filled the somber air around the table. Chris reached for the bottle again. Buck’s strong hand pinned Chris’ to the table. Jerking away, Chris glared at him. “Leave it,” he ordered quietly.
“No,” Buck countered. “I want you to tell me what the hell you were thinking? Did you really think Ezra would shoot you in the back? Is that what you thought?”
Chris controlled his flinch, controlled his anger. “He ran out on us at the Seminole village. It was only luck nobody died while he took his time deciding to come back. ”
“That was nearly two months ago,” Vin added quietly.
“He’s not given us a reason to doubt him since his return,” Josiah added.
Jerking his hand away from Buck, Chris poured another drink while trying to control the thoughts running circles in his head. He couldn’t tell them why he hadn’t trusted the Ezra. It was just there, a nagging suspicion that he just couldn’t let go of until now, until that moment when he turned and saw the robber fall. More amber liquor splashed into his glass.
Silence claimed the table. Taking a deep breath, and another drink, Chris forced himself to look up from under the black hat. Vin was the only one still sitting across from him.
Vin’s blue eyes were filled with sorrow, and a hint of anger. “What you gonna do now, cowboy?”
That was an easy question. “Get drunk,” Chris said, voice already slurring. He poured another round.
Ezra woke to soft voices, darkness, pain and cold. It was the cold that confused him; it encircled his neck like a snake. He reached for it, only to find his arm held down by a strong hand. His eyes snapped open and he found himself looking into Nathan’s concerned, dark gaze. He took a breath to speak and found Nathan’s other hand over his mouth.
“Don’t move! Don’t talk!” It was the real fear in the deep voice that stopped Ezra from protesting, from jerking away. He held still, blinking to somehow let Nathan know he understood. Giving a short nod, Nathan removed his hand.
“Okay, just lay there and I’ll do the talking,” Nathan said with a smile, obviously trying to ease Ezra’s fear. “You took a bullet across the throat. It ain’t bad but it did nick the vein and you lost a lot of blood. Swelling’s causing your throat to feel tight. Talking’s gonna to pain you. Nothing’s hurt permanent but I don’t want you talking or moving. ou rip those stitches out and you could bleed to death before we could get ‘em back in.”
Closing his eyes, Ezra tried to remember what had brought him to this condition. He remembered the mud, the cold rain that made him shiver as he chased one of the six banker robbers. Chris had stepped from around the corner – Ezra jerked up, only to be held down by Nathan’s strong hands on his shoulders, as if he expected the reaction.
“Chris is okay,” Nathan said evenly. “You got the guy that was about to back shoot him.”
Once more, Ezra closed his eyes. He had brought his gun up, sliding on the wet boards, both Chris and the robber, turning to face him, there was a flash, then darkness. With a sigh, he gave up trying to remember what had happened. Opening his eyes again, he found Nathan watching him closely. Once more habit made him start to talk, Nathan’s frown stopped him. Moving carefully, he raised both hands and made the motion of writing. It prompted a hearty laugh from Nathan.
“Damn, Ezra, can’t you let it go for a day or two?”
Ezra’s answer was a wide-eyed glare. With a smile still on his face, Nathan nodded. “Okay. I’ll run over to the Clarion tomorrow and see if Mary can spare some paper.”
A small gasp escaped Ezra as pain ripped under the cold wrap. He closed his eyes against it, swallowing hard, which only made him more uncomfortable as the slight movement pulled on the stitches. A hand slipped under his head, and he brought his eyes once more up to look at Nathan. A warm ceramic cup was pressed against his lips.
“Drink this slow, Ezra, it’ll help with the pain and sleeping,” Nathan explained, as he trickled the tea into Ezra’s throat.
Despite the twinge of discomfort Ezra drank all of it. As he did, Nathan continued talking. “Don’t worry none, Ezra. All of us are gonna take turns sitting with you. Make sure you don’t thrash around, undo all that nice sewing I did.”
Blinking, Ezra looked at Nathan to see if he had heard correctly. Someone was going to sit with him? If he had been able to, he would have protested that he was not a child that needed someone to scare away the dark. At the same time, he remembered the last time he had been injured, knifed over a poker game, hurt much worse than now. The doctor had patched him up, suggested he pay one of the saloon girls to help him and left. It had been a long, trying, painfilled week before he could even move. What had hurt more was the fact that there was no one to even ask for help. Now, seven men were going to offer help without being asked.
Something in his stare must have given away his surprise. “Ezra, you’re a no-good, conniving card cheat,” Nathan smiled, “but you’re our no-good, conniving card cheat.”
Despite the pain and the sleep pulling him down, Ezra smiled. Everything was going to be fine. The last thing he thought about was trying to remember what had happened after he had pulled the trigger.
Chris rolled away from the dawn light, groaning as he recognized the signs of a massive hangover. He had been through enough of them. He recognized his room, the walls bare and the curtains thin. There was no memory of getting to the room. For long blessed minutes, he also couldn’t recall why he had gotten drunk. But, as so many times before, the memories came rushing back – Sarah and Adam being dead, then a slow replay of pointing the gun at Ezra and pulling the trigger. Putting his hands over his face, he moaned again.
“You alive there, Chris?”
His reflexes were too far gone to let him jump, so he rolled to his back and stared up at Buck. “Damn, Buck, don’t do that.”
Buck’s normally cheerful face was serious, nearly grim this morning. “Do what? Sit with one friend who got shot by another? Or sit with the one whose only answer was to drink himself stupid?”
Not even pretending to hear, Chris closed his eyes again, now catching the stink of stale whisky and sweat. “I need a bath.”
“You ain’t even asked,” Buck said with a sigh.
There was no pretending he didn’t know what Buck was talking about. “Ezra must be okay,” Chris said. “Else you woulda killed me by now.”
The drunken logic brought a slight, humorless chuckle from Buck. This was followed by a long, patient sigh, the likes of which Chris had heard many times before. For years after his family died Buck would sit this kind of vigil. A strong hand went under his arm, helping him sit up, another familiar move.
“Okay, grab some clean clothes and I’ll see you down to the bathhouse.”
Swallowing against the sand in his throat, Chris said, “How is he?”
“Been awake a few times,” Buck answered. The deep brown eyes connected with Chris’. “He don’t remember getting shot.”
Wild hope flared in Chris’ mind and must have reached his eyes. Buck started slowly shaking his head.
“Don’t think so, pard. You’re going to face this one,” Buck said. His tone was one that Chris rarely heard from his easy-going friend, one that warned him there would be no arguments, no discussion. “You’re going to go over there and tell him the truth. Then you’re going to beg his forgiveness and hope he takes it.”
Buck tugged him up into a standing position, though he had to lean for a minute against his old friend. “Buck, I don’t…”
His support vanished and he sank back down to the bed with a crash of rusty springs. Buck was leaning over him, inches away, anger radiating off the man. “You don’t what?! Know how to tell him? Don’t trust him yet? What?”
Chris lowered his eyes. God, he hated this. With a sigh and a nod, he looked back up, meeting Buck’s angry glare. “Give me a couple of hours. I’m still too drunk to think straight.”
Seeing the obvious truth in that, Buck leaned away. “Okay. I’ll see you down to the bath and back up here but if you ain’t at Nathan’s by noon, I’m coming for you.”
Chris nodded meekly.
“Ezra,” Vin said patiently, “you’re going to end up wearing that if you don’t let me help.”
The gambler managed to find enough energy to glare at him. He was not happy this morning. Nathan, then JD, then Josiah, then Buck had all insisted on waking him at odd hours to make him drink tea and water. To add insult to injury, after all the liquids, he had not been allowed to walk to the privy but been offered a jar instead. The only good thing was that they had actually let him sleep until almost noon. Then Vin had come in with a supper of broth. The tracker had taken away his borrowed chalk tablet, promising to return it only when he finished eating. Now, eating was proving to be a challenge as he was too shaky to hold the bowl.
Reaching out, Vin took the warm bowl away from him. “Now, I ain’t never had no siblings, so I don’t know much about feeding other folks but I reckon we can figure it out.”
Ezra decided to ignore his comments which only caused Vin to give him a slight smile. After a moment though, Vin grew quiet, a look of sorrow coming over his handsome face. Worry crept into Ezra’s stomach. During the night, he had only barely been awake. Now, he remembered the strange looks all of the men had worn. They all seemed to be thinking about something. And he had not seen Chris since the shooting. The idea that the others had lied to him about their leader’s condition killed his appetite. Pushing the spoon Vin held aside, he gestured toward the slate. Vin only shook his head.
“Eat first, write later.”
Seeing the determination in Vin’s blue eyes, Ezra relented. He finished the soup as well as some soaked crackers and two glasses of water. Just as he was finishing, Nathan returned, coming in to the accompaniment of a distant roll of thunder and carrying a small bucket of ice. Ezra looked up, immediately pointing to his writing instrument. The healer looked at Vin, who smiled.
“I told him he couldn’t have it lessen he finished supper.”
Nathan glanced at the cleaned tray. “Guess he believed you.”
Ezra snatched the black slate and chalk out of Nathan’s hand, quickly scribbling one word – “Chris?” There was no missing the glanced between the two. “Injured?”
With a deep sigh, Nathan said, “No, Chris is fine. There’s just something he needs to be the one…”
At that moment the door opened and Chris stepped inside.
Chris felt the three sets of radically different colored eyes look toward him. His own gaze was caught on Ezra, who was propped on several pillows, looking pale and tired. To his shame, the emerald eyes were filled with relief at his entrance. New guilt doubled the quesiness in his stomach. Vin and Nathan stood up. As Vin walked passed, the slender tracker gave a single quick touch to Chris’ shoulder.
“I need to check those stitches,” Nathan said more to Chris than Ezra. Chris only nodded.
He couldn’t see the wound from where he stood but he saw all too clearly the tightening of Ezra’s lips as Nathan’s gentle hands still brought pain. Once that was finished, Nathan shifted the gambler back down and once more wrapped the ice soaked clothe around his throat. Ezra suffered through this in forced silence. A fleeting smile touched Chris at the thought of how much Ezra was probably hating the silence more than anything. Nathan pulled the blanket up to Ezra’s chest, receiving a glare for his efforts. He ignored it with practiced ease.
Seeing the weariness in Ezra’s half-closed eyes, Chris took a deep breath. “Nathan, should I come back later?”
The ex-slave turned a sharp look on him. “No. This needs taking care of.”
Chris met the hard glance and nodded.
With that, Nathan patted Ezra’s arm, much to the gambler’s surprise and left, closing the door firmly against the building wind. Chris half-glanced over his shoulder, considering, for the hundredth time, how to say what needed to be said. When he looked at Ezra, he once more found those sharp green eyes watching him. He took his hat off, taking the chair that Nathan had been using.
“Ezra,” he started. “Ezra, do you remember what happened?”
He received a very subtle shake from the younger man. Spinning the hat in his hand, Chris took a deep breath. He could face down men twice his size with a single glance; why was this so hard? Finally, looking up, he met Ezra’s gaze.
“I’m the one that shot you.”
Ezra stared into the carefully guarded eyes, eyes that now revealed everything Chris was feeling. There was guilt mostly, compounded with anger and shame. For just a minute Ezra closed his eyes, desperately trying to see the flash of the gun that nearly killed him. There was only darkness. When he opened his eyes, Chris was still staring at him, swallowing, obviously trying to say something else. A cold, dead feeling started in the bottom of Ezra’s stomach.
He reached for his slate. “Accident.” He printed firmly, yet he couldn’t hide the slight shake in his hand as he held the small square out to Chris.
Chris took the slate, staring at it. Very carefully he laid it on the night stand next to the bed. Ezra held his breath without realizing it, waiting, knowing that Chris’s answer meant more to him than anything he could remember, wanting desperately for the man to affirm what Ezra hoped was the truth. Chris’ jaw tightened. When the cold blue eyes glanced away then back, Ezra had his answer. The pain along his throat disappeared compared to the disappointment and sorrow that filled his stomach. The world turned dark and lonely around him in one quick instant.
“Ezra,” Chris started, “I don’t know what happened. I just… I’m…”
“Get out!” He tried to shout the words, but it came out a painful, hoarse whisper. Ezra wanted to say more, wanted to tell Larabee what a bastard he was but the two words cost him too much pain.
“Ezra, I know there ain’t no way I can make up for what…”
He didn’t want to hear any more excuses, didn’t want to know how Chris was going to rationalize shooting him. So, he turned his back to the one man he had respected enough to follow. Raising an arm, he pointed to the door, refusing to look at Chris.
“Give me a chance…”
It was more than Ezra wanted to hear. Still without turning over, he snatched the small slate square and threw it hard at Larabee. The man avoided it easily enough, but he got the message. Ezra snapped his eyes closed as he heard the door pulled shut.
Why had he even thought things might change? Even more importantly, why did he want them to? He had been perfectly happy on his own. The ache in his chest told him that was a lie but he ignored it. Swallowing against the pain, he told himself that Larabee’s reaction only proved what he had known all along - no one trusted anyone or could trust anyone.
He stiffened as the door creaked open, letting in a rain laden breeze. Despite not wanting to he turned awkwardly over to avoid anymore pulling on the stitches. Josiah smiled at him, putting the tea cup on the table. Ezra sighed. So, that was how it was going to be, everything was fine and normal.
“Ezra,” Josiah said quietly. “Let me help you sit…”
God, he wanted to talk! To yell! Instead, he merely pointed to the door. Refusal flashed in Josiah’s eyes, followed by sorrow which Ezra choose to ignore. Josiah frowned at him for a minute and Ezra found himself wondering if the ex-priest were trying to figure out a Biblical quote to cover this situation. The tent-meeting cons had taught him a few quotes as well. With a hard, icy glare, he pointed to the now chipped slate laying on the wood floor. Josiah retrieved it and handed it over without a word. Ezra wrote down “Psalms 41:9”, handed it back and once more rolled away.
Behind him he heard a soft sigh, then Josiah quoted softly, "Even my close friend, someone I trusted, one who shared my bread, has turned against me."
Ezra waited patiently for Josiah to leave but there was no movement from the big man. Ezra stayed still, willing his thoughts away from the betrayal that cut him, thinking only of when he would be able to run away from the hurt.
“Ezra, I can’t tell you what Chris was thinking when he pulled the trigger.”
Josiah’s deep voice, as always, calmed some of his anger. Rolling all the way back over, Ezra held out his hand for the slate. “What about you?”
He had to give the big preacher credit, he was still for a minute thinking it over. “No, I wouldn’t have fired.” The blue-gray eyes met his, letting Ezra see the truth in his statement.
Once more he wrote out, “The others?”
This one made Josiah smile. “No man can speak for another in those circumstances, Ezra.”
Before Ezra could write something else out, Josiah slapped him on the knee. “Come on, Nathan sent this up. Good for your throat and help build up all that blood you lost.”
Dropping his gaze to the tray, Ezra reached for the cup. He knew if he met Josiah’s eyes the man would know he didn’t plan on staying long enough to have Nathan fuss at him. He finished the bitter tea and handed the cup back to Josiah. The older man took it, then handed him back his slate. Printed on it were the words: Psalms 25:16.
Just as the first two nights, they all sat with him. While he slept through most of the night he was aware of their presence, though there was no comfort in it this time. Buck and Vin had come and gone, answering his silence with their own. JD, as he had known, when he had awakened him for some more water, tried to make excuses for Larabee. Ezra endured it quietly, all the while wondering what would make the boy realize that trust was an illusion, even for him. One day he would make a mistake and that would end it all.
Toward dawn, Nathan came to take his turn. Ezra once more faked sleeping, though he knew Nathan would wake him eventually for more water. If things followed as they had the previous morning he would not be left alone until after one of them forced him to eat something. That’s when he would leave. He didn’t think about where he was going to run, only that what he thought he had here was gone, there was no reason to stay.
The door slammed open, startling him, though he hid it well, only opening his eyes a slit to see Nathan whirl around, gun coming out. Vin was standing in the pre-dawn light. Ezra could see there was blood on the tracker’s hands and anger in his eyes.
“Nathan, Chris passed out drunk and hit his head. Needs a few stitches, I reckon,” he said breathlessly.
“Where is he?” Nathan said with a hard sigh.
“Man’s gonna get hisself killed,” Nathan grumbled, grabbing for some supplies.
“I ain’t never seen anyone stay drunk this long,” Vin commented. “’Cept for when he told Ezra, he ain’t seen nothing but the bottom of his glass since it happened.”
“Let’s go,” Nathan said.
“Should I stay here with Ezra?” Vin questioned.
Nathan was silent a moment, then he said, “He’s been sleeping good but it might be an idea.”
As soon as the door closed, Ezra slowly pushed himself up. The room spun for an instant but he ignored it. Vin moved over next to him.
“Can I get you anything?” the tracker asked.
Ezra shook his head very slightly. They sat in silence, though Ezra could feel the awkwardness. Once more he desperately wished he could talk. To his surprise, it was Vin who broke the quiet.
“Reckon you’re pretty mad at Chris,” he said in his usual, soft Texas accent.. “Reckon you got reason.”
Not sure what the younger man was trying to say, Ezra merely stared at the ceiling, waiting.
“Figure you’ll be wanting to move on.”
The insight startled Ezra and he looked up to meet the bright blue eyes. Vin glanced away. “If’n it was me, that’s what I’d be thinking. Be wrong though.”
That statement caused Ezra to carefully raise an eyebrow. “Why?” he rasped.
The azure gaze held him. “’Cause the rest of us trust you. We may not always like you, but we trust you. That ought to count for something.”
Ezra sighed. At that moment, he truly hated what Larabee had done. Not because of the pain that radiated down his throat but because of the confusion making him dizzy. There were men here who trusted him – and one who did not. Did he want to stay, to try and convince Larabee and himself that they could work it out? What more would he have to do to convince the dangerous gunslinger that he could be trusted? He rolled over on the cot, pulling the cover up and ignoring Vin until sleep took him.
Chris wondered how much worse he could feel if he kept drinking. So far it wasn’t enough to take away the guilt that assaulted him everytime he got sober enough to remember why he was drinking. The strange thing was that the guilt didn’t seem to stop with Ezra, it seemed to move backwards to the day he had found Sarah and Adam gone. He lay in bed for a long time, trying to remember how he had gotten there.
“You look like shit,” Vin said quietly.
Knowing better than to argue with the truth, Chris made to sit up. His head was pounding with more than just a hangover and he cast a quick glance at Vin, wondering if one of them had finally hit him.
Shaking his head as if reading his thoughts, Vin said, “You fell down the stairs.”
The sight of blood on his shirt confirmed that, as did the slight ridge of stitches he could feel when he gingerly touched his temple.
“Water?” he croaked.
Vin handed him the glass, watching to make sure he didn’t spill it. Chris finished the drink in one breath, feeling the coolness ease the dryness in this throat but do nothing for the hot guilt. He closed his eyes, remembering the hardness of Ezra’s green gaze. After a couple of deep breathes, he looked up toward the window, trying to figure out what time it was.
“How long was I out?” he asked.
“Well,” Vin said slowly, “it’s Thursday. You shot Ezra Sunday night.”
Laying back, Chris rubbed tiredly at his eyes. “How is he?”
“Leaving,” Vin said levelly.
Chris’ head snapped up and he met Vin’s quiet eyes. “Leaving?”
The tracker nodded sadly. “Hell, Chris, what’d you expect him to do? You don’t trust him.”
“I do thrust him,” Chris argued. Honesty forced him to add, “Now.”
Standing, Vin said, “Better make him understand that, ‘cause he’s planning on riding out after dinner.”
“How?” Chris nearly pleaded. “I tried to apologize. He wouldn’t let me!”
Silence claimed the room. Finally, Vin said quietly, “Ezra had let himself get settled. He was getting use to having friends. Chris, you were drunk and mad. Just how hard did you try to make him understand? Might help to remind him that you’re human.”
“Ezra, this is stupid!” Nathan tried again. “You’re gonna get out there, get caught in one of these godforsaken storms and die.”
Ignoring him, Ezra continued to pack his bags, wondering how he had managed to collect so much stuff in the short time he had been in Four Corners. A hand grabbed his arm, dragging him around to face Nathan’s anger.
“Damn, Ezra….” Nathan took a deep breath, stopping himself. To Ezra’s building amazement, the healer’s look changed to one of regret. “All right, I can’t stop you, but at least stay and eat, then let me look at those stitches again.”
The defeat and sincerity in Nathan’s voice made Ezra nod carefully. “Very well,” he whispered.
A shadow blocked the door to the room and both men turned to find Vin standing there. The tracker slouched against the door, glanced at Ezra, then down at the floor then back up to hold the gambler’s eyes. “Thought I’d buy you a drink before you ride out.”
Once again the catch in his throat made Ezra curse Larabee. Over the passed day though his anger had abated slightly, dampened by the knowledge that he had proven to be unreliable at first. He had tried to tell himself that maybe he deserved what had happened. It hadn’t worked, the anger and disappointment were still there. . Despite the concern and friendship he could see in the other two men, he couldn’t stay if he wasn’t trusted by Larabee.
Buck’s voice proceeded his sliding arrival in the hall, JD only a few feet behind him. “Those two robbers from Sunday, ranchhands from the Flying R spotted them out that way this morning. Let’s ride!”
As a man they turned to look at Ezra. He took a deep breath. It was time. Steeling himself, he reached for a second bag, laying it out on the bed. He glanced back up, not sure what he would find. Buck smiled at him. JD peered over his shoulder, looking lost by what was transpiring.
“Take care, pard,” Buck said. .”Don’t let any of them southern belles catch you too easy.”
Slapping Vin on the shoulder to hurry, Buck ran back downstairs. JD started to say something, stopped, shook his head and finally muttered, “Take care, Ezra.” He followed Buck.
Vin’s response was also to smile, though it didn’t reach the clear blue eyes. “You be careful, Ezra.” He touched his hat, nodded and moved away.
Ezra turned to Nathan, waiting for him to be told that he was giving up, running out, again.
Nathan said quietly, “Get someone to take those stitches out for you in a week or so. Keep ‘em clean. Why don’t you wait until after the rain? Leave in the morning? All that blood you lost, getting caught in a gully-washer ain’t gonna help you feel any better. You should try to eat….”
“Nathan!” Buck’s voice echoed in the saloon.
A quick, sad smile, a touch to his arm and Nathan was gone.
“Should I get Chris?” JD yelled from somewhere in the building.
“Leave him,” Buck answered harshly. “He’s no good to no one right now.”
There was the sound of boots on rough flooring, then horses galloping out of town. Silence claimed the small room. It seemed to extend out, muffling the normal afternoon sounds from below. Ezra took a shaky breath and finished his packing without thinking about the men who had ridden away into the darkening afternoon.
Chris heard Buck’s grating reply to JD, heard the others thunder off. His old friend had been right, his head throbbed and the room was still doing interesting half-spins. Still, he knew it was time to do something besides sit there and feel sorry about what had happened..
Once more though his first thoughts were on cleaning up a little. Ezra would probably be more likely to listen if he didn’t smell so bad. He grabbed some clean clothes before making the mistake of looking in the mirror that hung over the dresser. Nathan had cleaned the blood away from the cut but they had obviously thrown him into bed after that since he was still wearing the bloody shirt. He couldn’t blame them; he had made a mess and except for one feeble attempted hadn’t tried to fix it. ow, he was going to set Ezra straight on where they stood and convince him to stay. He would make Ezra forgive him
With a confidence that belied his unsteady step, he headed downstairs.
Ezra sat in his usual chair. Outside, tied to the rail, his horse was loaded and ready. He had filled his flask and there was no reason he should have been sitting there. Reaching over, he poured himself another drink. The saloon was crowded but no one spoke to him or paid any attention when he raised his glass in a toast.
“To things lost,” he whispered softly. “Or perhaps never owned.”
He stiffened at the voice behind him. The sorrow he had been fighting over his departure now disappeared into anger at the man who had taken away the one place in a very long time he had started to feel comfortable with. He stood, started for the doors. A shaky hand touched his arm.
“Ezra, I need to talk to you.”
He kept walking, ignoring the pleading in the tone.
In nearly three months together, Ezra had never heard that word from Larabee. Without really wanting to, he stopped but still didn’t turn. The saloon had fallen silent around them. Ezra imagined they made an interesting pair; Larabee had been on a three day drunk, while he still wore several layers of protective and restrictive bandages around his throat.
The soft voice behind him said, “We need to talk.”
Once more anger warred with that growing part of him that wanted to believe in something. A twinge down his neck and a sudden tightness in his throat reminded him that the old responses still held the high card. He turned, meeting the blood-shot, hazy blue eyes. Chris looked worse than he felt. Taking a slow breath, he motioned back to the table.
They sat down, unmindful of the first roll of thunder that echoed along the street. He poured himself another whiskey, didn’t bother offering any to Larabee. Sipping slowly, he waited.
Chris took a deep breath. He had been surprised to find Ezra already packed and moving out. Equally surprising was that the man was willing to give him a chance. Now, all he had to do was convince him that he did trust him, did want him to stay and get the man to accept his apology.
“Ezra, I’ve thought about what happened. As soon as I pulled the trigger I knew I had made a mistake, knew that I was wrong about you.”
He watched the gambler’s eyes. Despite Ezra’s poker face when he was working, the others had learned that he gave away a lot with his eyes. The hard green gaze was unforgiving. Chris would feel his anger growing, at himself, at the stubborn gambler, at the whole situation.
”This may come as a surprise but I’m human,” he tried to say lightly. “I made a mistake. You paid for it.”
Still no response from the other man and more anger touched Chris. “Damnit, Ezra, it’s not like I’m the only one to mess up. You ran out on…”
Even as he said it he knew he had just killed his one chance at getting Ezra to stay.
Ezra stood, glaring at Chris with an icy anger strong enough to match his own. Without so much as a nod or any expression, Ezra headed for the door, slipping into his slicker. Chris sprang up, ignoring the spinning that started.
“Wait, Ezra! That came out all wrong. Give me a chance…”
He was right back where he had been the first night. The anger kicked in harder. Why did he care? The man had saved his life but he had done the same for him! Maybe he wasn’t trustworthy anyway. Maybe it was better to let him go. Even as those thoughts ran through his head, he was following the small gambler through the swinging doors, out into the rain just starting.
“Ezra, you saved my life. I want you to stay.”
There was the slightest falter in Ezra’s stride, then he was moving again, unwrapping his reins and mounting. Chris stepped forward, lay his hand on the man’s leg.
A quick kick to the chest knocked him backwards. He stood, watching the big gelding chestnut disappear into the storm, refusing to admit how much it hurt to watch.
It was the edge of town before Ezra slowed his horse. The rain seemed to sense his mood, coming down in wind swept waves, turning the afternoon as dark as his thoughts. He had been so close to forgiving Chris, so close to believing he had gained the man’s trust finally, even though it had nearly cost him his life. But the specter from the Indian village had risen again, proving that he would never fit in, that Larabee would never really forgive him for that.
His horse slowed to watch two men riding at a fast trot toward town. Ezra, like his mount merely glanced at them as they passed. His mind kept drifting back to what Josiah had said, back to the hoarse voiced confession from Larabee that he was human and had made mistake. At the Seminole village Ezra had ridden away, watching out, as always, for himself before anyone. Yet, something had drawn him back, had made him ride into overwhelming odds to help six men that he barely knew. Slowing his gelding to a walk, he shivered at the cold rain that was running off his slicker.
The shiver and rain flashed him back to the near deadly afternoon of his shooting – and he suddenly straightened in the saddle. The men who had passed him were the two missing bank robbers the others were chasing! While the other lawmen were out on a false trail they must have circled back, trusting the rain to cover their moves until they had hit the bank.
Ezra whirled his horse, kicking it into a gallop – and slid to a stop. Larabee was guarding the town; it was his responsibility. The deadly gunslinger didn’t need help. The words echoed though Ezra’s mind. Larabee had admitted he made a mistake. Larabee had been the first person to ever give him a second chance. Chris had said he wanted him to stay. Chris was back there alone.
Mud splattered from under his horse’s hooves as Ezra rode back to town at a dead run.
He galloped by the first building in time to hear gunshots over the first roll of thunder. His horse slid forty feet in the heavy mud as Ezra jerked him to a stop, dismounting, hitting the ground running. There were shouts from ahead of him as the few people who had been on the streets ran for cover. He stayed in the cover of the stores, running toward the bank.
Highlighting in the flashes of white lightning, he watched the world repeat itself. Ahead of him he could see Chris step out of the cover of the general store, aiming down the street and the man across the street raise a gun. Bringing his gun up, Ezra aimed at the robber even as Chris turned. It was impossible to see the deadly blue eyes through the dark and rain but Ezra knew he had been seen. Part of Ezra wanted to laugh, part flinched, hoping that Chris would miss again. He fired. Chris fired. Both shots hit the man on the opposite side of the street.
Chris motioned toward him, gesturing toward the livery. Waving slightly to signal he was ready, Ezra lay down a barrage of bullets as Chris sprinted across the street. Ezra waited, squinting in the dark as he watched Chris reload, then signal. Without pause, he ran across the street toward where Chris was on one side of the double doors.
He was twenty feet from the doors when they flew open with a crash. A horse leapt toward him as the remaining robber made a break for freedom. There was no where to go, no cover Ezra could reach. Ezra brought his gun up, the horse slammed into his shoulder, then Chris shouted.. Something hit him hard, taking him down in the street at the same time as two guns sounded through the pounding rain.
The world took a minute to right itself, when it did, Ezra found himself sitting in the cold mud, the dead bandit only two feet from him – and Chris Larabee laying across his legs, bleeding.
“Chris!” Once more it was a hoarse whisper instead of the cry of outrage it should have been.
The man in black moaned softly, eyes blinking open, then closing against the rain. Ezra eased Chris up a little, pressing his hand against the wound in Chris’ upper arm. He met the dark blue eyes, seeing for the first time the pain in the older man’s expression. It was an ache that had nothing to do with the gunshot wound.
“Ezra,” Chris said quietly, eyes never leaving Ezra’s. “I’m sorry.”
Wiping the mud off Chris’ face, Ezra whispered, “Apology accepted, Mr. Larabee. There was no need to be so melodramatic about it.”
The pain in the hard eyes faded and a slight smile took some of the edge off Chris’ haggard face. “Shut up, Ezra.”
It was near sundown when Chris looked up from his dinner to hear heavy boots rushing toward him.
“Chris, the bank robbers doubled…” JD stammered to a stop as he caught sight of the sling around Chris’ neck.
The others all came to a stop behind the young sheriff, staring from Chris to Ezra sitting next to him. Nathan came forward immediately, kneeling next to Chris and pulling at his shirt. “What happened?”
“Bad guys came back,” Chris said shortly. “I’m fine. Ezra took care of it.”
“Ezra?” Nathan questioned, looking over at the smaller man.
Ezra raised his glass of whiskey to the healer. Picking up the black slate off the table, he scribbled on it for a moment before handing it to Nathan. “I believe I may have popped a stitch, Mr. Jackson. Mr. Larabee was kind enough to bandage it for me.”
“He even writes like that,” JD said in wonder.
“You boys going to join us or stand there?” Chris questioned slowly.
Smiles flashed around the table, as the other men pulled out chairs. Josiah walked to the bar, returned with a full bottle. As he sat down, Ezra shoved the slate toward him. The ex-priest glanced at it, then smiled over at Chris.
Softly, he read, “Psalms 25:20. Let me not be afraid, for I put my trust in thee.”
Startled a little, Chris raised his glass to Ezra, acknowledging the words and the promise.