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Strange Bedfellows

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(1) Vin

The iron post hits Ezra on the head so hard, so hard ...

The noise of the impact is shocking, makes Vin's teeth hurt. A thick spray of blood shoots out where Ezra's ear should be.

Not ten seconds ago Chris'd murmured, "Damned if he hasn't cornered the both of them all by himself."

Coming out of the trees into bright sunlight, they'd seen Ezra on a slow walk towards the Palmer brothers, taking it easy, just like Chris'd told him. One moment Ring Palmer's standing with his hands raised in surrender and Gabe's crouched a few feet away. Next moment, Ring Palmer's made a move for his gun and his brother's sweeping something from the ground.

Vin and Chris just don't have time to get the warning up and out of their mouths.

"Atcha back, Ezra!" Vin means to holler.

From forty yards and closing they see Ring Palmer winged by a shot from Ezra's gun. At what seems like almost the same moment, Gabe's blow to the back of Ezra's bare head drives Ezra sideways through the pile of wood and iron railings, gun flying from his hand. He ploughs into the dust like a felled tree, coming to rest face-down, body hunched as if the bones inside have concertina'd one on top of another.

Gabe Palmer takes one step after him, then two, feet crunching through the wreckage. He hefts the bloody iron in both hands.

Chris fires, hits Gabe halfway between his leading hand and elbow. Gabe shrieks like a banshee, drops to his knees and Ring yells at him, "Ya idjit, Gabriel! Ya giant fuckin' idjit!"

Vin slides to a halt at the side of Gabe, presses the muzzle of the Winchester right under his chin. Lord save him, he wants to bludgeon the man to the ground, not even shoot him. Just take him down with a blinding blow to the skull, just like he done to Ezra. Vin has to breathe deep to stop himself.

Chris is already dangling the handcuffs in front of Ring's sweaty face, one boot on his arm, which makes Ring screech like a demented baboon.

Vin can hear himself breathing loud, feel sweat trickling down his spine. Gabe eyes him mutely and Vin likes the fear he sees there.

"You sonofabitch ... you sonofabitch bastard. Stay down."

"Leamy alone! You cain't touch me. Get your dirty paws off me, Tanner, you ain't gonna push me around!"

"I said ... stay ... down." Vin punctuates his words with small jabs of the rifle, jerking Gabe's head backwards each time.

Doesn't quite shut him up though.

"I think he's killed, Ring!" Gabe babbles, near hysterics and clutching at his wounded arm. "Think I killed the fancy sonofabitch. I hit him good ... cracked his brains clean out, did ya hear it?" The post is still at his feet, one end bent and bloody.

Vin can't stop himself. He up-ends the rifle, catches Gabe under the chin with enough force to knock him into the dust.

"Vin ..." Chris's voice is ragged, but calm.

Air's coming into Vin's lungs in harsh sucks. His head is spinning.

"Vin ... easy now."

Chris gets through, like he always does. He's got Ring Palmer's wrists cuffed behind him even though the man's whimpering that he's hurt. Ezra's shot went clean through just above the clavicle.

Vin doesn't have handcuffs, but he's got rope. He rolls Gabe with his foot, congratulates himself silently on being a goddamn hero for not kicking the sonofabitch in the belly, and gets on his knees to rope him up. Both the brothers are bleeding some and Nathan won't be pleased. Vin leaves the younger Palmer sitting crossed-legged, hunched over his bound hands and mumbling obscenities.

Vin moves away, crunching fast through the debris of the fence. He lays the rifle down next to Ezra, squats there, one hand hovering.

"Here."

Chris drops down on the other side, slides a hand under Ezra's chest and rolls him over so he falls against Vin's knees, one limp arm slapping the earth.

"Ez?" Vin says. "Ezra ... aw shit."

Chris tips his hat out of his eyes, uses his sleeve to wipe at the tracks coming from Ezra's nose and mouth, just succeeds in smearing more red across his upper lip and chin. Ezra's head looks the wrong shape and there's a wound that starts somewhere by his temple and they can't see where it ends. The blood crawls down his cheek and jaw thick as lava. They can't see his ear properly, or his left eye. Just flesh and blood and mess and splinters.

Chris touches his hand down on the sticky hair.

"Swear to God, Ezra," he says.

 

(2) Buck

"They're coming in."

Buck doesn't say more than that. He stands up, knees stiff, adjusts his hat. There's only one rider. It's Chris Larabee, his horse following the progress of a cart at a cautious trot. Some stranger's in charge of the cart, and there's two riderless horses tethered behind.

Vin's, and Ezra's.

Buck feels a sickly apprehension gnaw at his gut. Hell no. That's bodies in the cart. That ... aw hell no.

JD's up at his shoulder now, squinting into the sun.

"Where's Vin?" JD asks, that little hitch in his voice. Buck kind of hates that the kid still always expects things to turn out well, loses his way some when they don't. "Where's Ezra?"

Buck leads them off the boardwalk and they break into a jog, coming up alongside the cart.

"Chris?"

Larabee looks straight ahead, eyes on the far end of the street. "Got the payroll," he says shortly, "need you to fetch Josiah, open the jail."

"Chris?" Buck says again, ignoring the order. He's at a fast walk now, staring into the back of the cart. Gabe and Ring Palmer are trussed up on the floor, hog-tied. One of them, or both, has bled a little on the tarp that lies in the bottom. Ring has his eyes closed, like he's in a faint. Gabe looks nervous when he sees the welcome party.

At the other end, Vin is poised behind the man at the reins, and now Buck recognizes that it's Charles Weedon who has a farm south of Baker's Pass. Ezra's lying stretched out on the tarp and Vin's holding Ezra's head in his hands like he's trying to stop it rolling off his neck. Buck's first thought is that Ezra's hair looks uncommonly wild. His vest is split open, the white frill of shirt underneath stained red and brown.

"Dintcha hear me, Buck?"

Chris sounds angry, and Buck doesn't need any more telling. He breaks away from the group, goes running across the street to find Josiah. He doesn't know for sure if Ezra's dead or alive, couldn't tell from Vin's face.

"Trouble," is all he says when he finds Josiah in the church with Mrs Potter, a member of the flock who drops by often, still in her widow's weeds. She has a bible in her hands, a tear-stained face which seems somehow appropriate. Buck feels kind of bad for interrupting, but good because Josiah reacts to him so quickly. Something's gotta be right with all this shit, Buck thinks, if one word is all it takes.

By the time the two of them get back up the street, JD's trying to get his balance climbing into the cart. Nathan's on the steps urging them to get Ezra the hell inside and he only ever speaks so harshly when he's juggling life and death and needs everyone to take notice.

"Bad?"

Buck's sorry to be such a champion of the dumb question, but he figures it doesn't have to be bad. Even minor head wounds bleed like nothing else - that's a fact.

"Hit him hard," Vin says in answer, and Vin's "hard" doesn't come any way close to a minor head wound. Buck turns to the Palmers, wondering which one of them it was. Gabe tries to stare him down and fails. When Vin's hands release Ezra's head, Buck and Josiah can see they're painted red, and how Ezra's all smashed up on one side.

Buck hears a squeak of leather as Josiah draws his gun, finding no other way at present to express his feeling.

"Go on," Chris chides them both. He sounds at the edge, not able to deal with anyone else's sensitivities right now. "Get 'em outa my sight. Ready, JD?"

It's not easy getting Ezra out. Nathan's telling them to be real careful but there's new blood dripping fast on to the steps.

"Damnit," Chris says. He's got Ezra under the arms and JD and Vin have one leg apiece. "Damnit, Ezra, ya pockets full of rocks?"

Buck clambers into the cart. Mr Weedon's clucking softly to his horse who seems spooked by all the activity. When the ropes are cut at his ankles, Ring Palmer comes to. He looks up at Buck and the knife, whines that he's near dead and needs a doctor.

"You can whistle," Buck tells him. "Git up."

He and Josiah're looked at with the usual mix of curiosity and fear when they herd the Palmer brothers down the street to the jail. Buck doesn't catch anyone's eye. They take just enough care that the prisoners don't fall down in the street before they get there, because sometimes folk in Four Corners take it into their heads that even lowlifes need to be treated with goddamn kid gloves.

Behind the closed door of the jail, Josiah takes a look at the wounds, just a little look, slings both brothers a towel and says they'll do for now. Then he and Buck lock them in the cells with a cup of water each. Gabe sits down on his cot and mutters while his brother stands at the bars, shaking them with both hands.

"What's that for, son?" Josiah's tone is mild. "Attempted murder, robbery, grave desecration ... you boys aren't going anywhere."

"And if he dies," Buck adds, but he can't finish his thought.

Ring rattles the bars. He's raging with injustice. "He shot me, whatcha 'spect Gabe to do? Stand there and take it? That goddamn southern bastard tried to kill me! My brother was defending my life ... you can't hold us for that! I'm tellin' ya, he did what anyone woulda done." He takes a breath. Huffs a sudden laugh. "God damn! Never saw a man hit so hard in all my days!"

Buck's fit to be tied, but he lets Josiah get a hand round the back of his neck, steer him towards the door.

"Buck ... tell Chris I'm here keeping 'em entertained."

"If he dies," Buck says again, looking back over his shoulder.

"Buck, go get us some news."

He lets Josiah push him out on to the boardwalk, shut the door.

 

(3) JD

JD thinks he's just going to walk right back out of Nathan's as soon as they get Ezra laid on the bed, but he ends up staying by the door somehow, hands laced behind his neck.

Vin pulls off Ezra's boots one at a time, dumps them to the floor. Chris looks like he wants to leave, too, but JD knows he won't.

"It was iron," Vin says. "Heavy, crooked end. Hit him once, but real hard. Real hard, Nathan."

"I can see." Nathan's voice is flat, businesslike. JD knows Ezra's a problem for him, but he doesn't doubt that Nathan's sick at heart. Anyhow, it must be weeks since Ezra really pushed his luck with any of them. He's been quite the model law-man of late. And he's made them all bust out laughing more than once, even when they thought they were too weary to stand up for another moment.

Nathan begins to clean up so he can see what he's dealing with. JD feels nauseous as the pile of sodden rags on the night-stand gets ever higher and still Ezra bleeds. Even more when Nathan takes a cutthroat razor to Ezra's hair, hacks off great clumps of bloody thatch, shaves from crown to temple.

The wound is deep, four inches long or more.

"Shit," Vin says. "This isn't good, is it?"

"Nope." Nathan fingers the edges of flesh, screws up his face. "Don't take much of a crack on the head to kill a man. Always thought Ezra had a thick skin, but I'm not so sure about his ... damn ... need more light here."

The drapes are drawn in the sick-room, even though it's still broad daylight outside. JD picks up a lamp burning on a side table, brings it near, leans his knees on the side of the bed, holds it up. His stomach turns right over. Looks suspiciously to him like Ezra's brains are leaking out all over the pillow. He's relieved when Nathan lays a big wad of gauze over the mess, presses down hard.

God's sake, Ezra hasn't moved a muscle all this time. Not so much as an eyelash.

Not even through the stitching. Vin says he's glad about that. It wouldn't do to have Ez complaining and thrashing about while Nathan's pulling the needle through. JD tries to stand completely still so the lamplight doesn't flicker and distract Nathan from his task. Every so often he glances up at Vin who's trying to hold Ezra's head quiet.

"Steady," Vin says once or twice and JD doesn't know if he means him or Nathan.

When Ezra's all sewn up and bandaged, JD lets his breath out. He didn't like to see Ez with half a head of hair. Didn't seem right somehow, knowing how it'd cut him to the quick. Ezra'll be mad enough, having had his vest and shirt sliced right off him, even though the items were already torn and splattered from collar to hem.

JD wishes he'd open his eyes now and say something about it.

Finally, when Ezra's out of all his dusty clothes and lying there on the bed like he's already in his winding sheets ready for the grave, they leave him be.

Nathan's tight-lipped as he washes his hands.

"Someone needs to stay close, I'm going to the jail."

Vin just plumps himself down in the chair by the bed. JD's comforted by this somehow, by the idea that Ezra will have someone with a tender touch nearby. It's kind of peculiar that he should think of Vin Tanner in this way. He doesn't want to stay a moment longer himself, although he kind of does, too.

Chris looks down at his own hands, turns them over. "Out there are two more brothers, two uncles, and three cousins. We need to be ready for the family reunion."

JD does a labored calculation and decides it seems a neat ratio of one to one, but Chris has worked it out different. He hands JD his hat, motions to the door.

"We're only six, kid."

Then he turns back towards the bed for a moment, stoops low over it, leaning one hand on the pillow. He speaks real quiet but JD hears him anyway.

"We know the goddamn cards are stacked, Ezra, and you're probably fixin' to leave. But you just listen to me, it's time to fight for it now, you hear? You told me you would, you promised me."

There's hurt in his voice, like Ezra's somehow let him down again, in some way Chris wasn't expecting at all. JD wants to pat his shoulder as they leave, but he doesn't dare.

 

(4) Nathan

There's warm, morning sunshine when Nathan leaves Mary Travis in charge the next day.

Mary feels a custodial sense of duty towards Ezra, he knows. Something to do with him having been under Judge Travis' jurisdiction once ... and the fact that he took a bullet for her of course. Before he goes out, Nathan checks Ezra's still breathing. It's almost impossible to tell by just looking at him.

A bunch of folk are talking weather outside the Mercantile and one or two acknowledge him. They'll do that with Nathan because he's not the one who walks round town with his coat tucked back behind his six-gun. Some of them know one of their lawmen is lying in Nathan's sickroom fighting delirium and a hole in the head. Some of them don't.

There's the smell of paint and the slap of wet washing in the wind out back of the hotel. Faded white bedlinen drying on long lines. That time of year.

Kind of a beautiful day.

Nathan takes the steps up to the boardwalk outside the saloon in a single stride, enters the batwings with more confidence than he ever thought he'd be allowed.

Chris has taken to gathering them all together sometimes, sitting them round to drink beer and whiskey, smoke a cigar or two like it's Thanksgiving or Christmas. He doesn't say thank you to any of them, although Nathan knows that's what he means by it.

When Nathan comes in, Chris pulls out a chair for him and he sits down.

"No change," is the first thing he says. Buck pushes a cup of coffee across the green baize because they all know Nathan won't take liquor right now. Chris begins to pour Highland Pure into the five glasses set in front of him.

"Does that mean he's doing better?" JD asks.

"It means there's no change." Buck's tone is the cranky one he uses when he's exhausted. "He's not dead yet but he's not waking up yet, right, Nathan?"

"Right."

"Tell us what you're thinking," says Chris.

Nathan knows they're not going to like it, anymore than he does himself.

"Chance is high," he says, "that even if he throws off the fever and wakes up, he won't wake up the same."

There is a joke in there somewhere, about how this would be a godsend. Nathan even sees it flit over JD's face.

"Brain don't take kindly to being knocked about. Lot of things can go wrong. Could be damaged, permanent-like. That's all I'm sayin'."

There's the sound of Vin's shot glass slamming back on the table. He pushes it across for Chris to re-fill.

"Hell," Chris says eventually. "As if he's not already a difficult patient."

Nathan almost smiles into his coffee cup.

"Naw," he says, "not Ezra. Now Karl Grearly ... he's what I'd call a difficult patient."

There's an unguarded ripple of mirth around the table and then Buck's impersonation of Ezra trying to protect his coat from a man having a fit causes full-blown shouts of laughter. "I will not be pleased, Mr Jackson ... if this ... specimen ... presents me with anything other than ... due gratitude and remuneration."

"Now," Vin says, the first to quiet down. "We know Ezra. Reckon he'll be back."

"He's ornery enough," Josiah agrees. "Question is, is he tough enough?"

And that sobers them all up, because Josiah's hit the nail on the head as usual.

They've none of them got the answer.

 

(5) Josiah

Josiah has often told Ezra that he's only trying to save him from himself.

He means it, too. Questioning Ezra's every motive sometimes seems like the only way to keep him anywhere near the straight and narrow. Josiah knows he's hard on Ezra - maybe harder than any of them. But then, he feels the most wretched when Ezra lies and swindles himself out of favor, and then the most triumphant when he confounds them all with some random act of altruism.

It does makes him wonder, though, what Ezra's still doing here in Four Corners when he could be conning people out of their hard-earned money in a dozen other places without getting battered on the head with an iron railing for a dollar a day.

"That is a most pertinent question, Josiah," Ezra had said when Josiah'd taken a chance to ponder it out loud. They'd been patrolling town late at night, had just got back to the saloon, empty and quiet. Ezra was behind the bar in a second, searching out a bottle and two glasses. "All I can say is, misery acquaints a man with strange bedfellows."

Josiah had smiled in recognition at that and Ezra'd suddenly smiled back, a warming flash that made his gold tooth glint once in the candlelight. Josiah couldn't help scolding, even then.

"One may smile, and smile, and be a villain, Ezra."

But Ezra just wouldn't be scolded on that occasion.

"I might have guessed that you would be on nodding terms with the Bard, Josiah, and, what is more, that you would choose to quote from the pinnacle of the great man's achievements, which indicates to me a most refined and intellectual taste. I take my hat off to you, sir. For myself I find Hamlet a little harsh and tragic. My own preference is for something of a more romantic bent, the stuff of magic and illusion if you will."

Josiah suspects that Ezra could probably quote every succulent phrase ever written by any literary giant worthy of the name. He has that kind of magpie mind, likes to collect shiny things.

He's got a lot to say now, out of his mind with fever, but none of it's very shiny.

It's wrought from whatever murk hides in Ezra's mind and Josiah would wipe it away if only he could. He wrings out the cool cloth, paces the room a little when Ezra won't be hushed.

"Come on now, son," he says, but it's hard to convince Ezra that he might want to live.

 

(6) Chris

When Ezra wakes up the first time, Chris is asleep in a chair at the bottom of the bed.

He's sat there for an hour or two every day for the last ten days but this is the first time he's actually gone to sleep.

It's probably because Ezra is quiet at last.

Seven long days of fever, Ezra talking plain nonsense, pleading for help and threatening bloody murder. Begging not to be left. He didn't quite split his stitches under the grim-faced hold of Nathan and Vin, but he damn near tried. Quite put Karl Grearley's fits to shame. Been burning like a furnace day and night, every breath a grudging effort.

And now Ezra is quiet and his exhaustion has settled on the room like a shroud.

Chris opens his eyes when Nathan nudges his foot and he sits up straight, blinking.

"He may be ..." Nathan begins and Chris steadies himself for the blow. "No, look. He may be trying to wake up."

Chris edges forward on the chair. Ezra has threatened this before and nothing came of it. He's twitched a lip, frowned a little and then nothing. Chris finds himself looking across to Vin, sitting awkwardly on the stool right at Ezra's shoulder. Vin has proved the least queasy guardian of the seven, a sentry at the gates, and none of them are quite sure why this should be. Chris supposes they might get to find out, if Ezra really is going to wake up this time.

"Ez?" It's Vin who says his name, which makes sense since Vin's must be the voice Ezra's heard most often in his struggles.

Ezra fights his way out, and they know he truly hates these kinds of fights. Although Chris feels ashamed of him much more often than he feels proud, there's a little gut-punch of pride right now.

But it's no good.

Ezra makes some signs he might open his eyes. There's ten or twenty minutes between each attempt. When he finally does, Chris doesn't care for the look of it at all. It's not the bright stare of fever Ezra had given them for the last eternity, like a cat mad for a hunt. It's opaque and calm and - oh sweet jesus - quite, quite empty.

Nathan offers some water. Makes Ezra sick as a dog.

"Hell, where's this coming from, Ace? You ain't eaten in a week."

Nathan's dismayed, nearly drops the cup of water on the bed in the rush to get a basin.

The blankness of Ezra's stare is frightful. Chris pushes back into his chair, aware his hands are clutched against the arm-rests.

"Ezra?" Vin tries again when Nathan nods to him. "Ezra, it's Vin. You know me, dontcha?"

"Try again," Nathan whispers. "It'll take time, it's gonna take time."

"Come on, Ezra," Chris says and he injects his voice with the kind of force he sometimes needs to get a useful response.

Ezra clears his throat, makes an inarticulate sound that scares the shit out of all three of them, and closes his eyes.

Chris looks at Vin and Vin stares back.

"Next time," Nathan says, shoulders sagging, "maybe next time will be better."

 

(7) Ezra

Even if he never wakes again, even if this is the end, the absolute end of his woeful life, he wants the pain to stop. It's been encroaching on his consciousness for a while now. He's not sure if the pain is coming because he's awake, or if he's awake because of the pain.

God knows it's real enough - and savage enough - to convince Ezra he's no longer dreaming.

He decides he has to get a hand up to his head. He's very afraid that there's not much left to speak of. Certainly the wretched thing seems to have become untethered somehow. As his hand lifts he's aware of the strange sensation that all eyes in the room are on him, which, come to think of it, seems like a very bad dream indeed. A cold sweat breaks out on his face.

And then yes. He touches down near his eyebrow. The effort makes his hand tremor and his eyes squeeze shut tighter than ever.

"Ezra, can you hear me?"

Ezra's really not sure where the voice is coming from or who it belongs to. There are many people in the room, certainly. When he drags open his eyes and looks, all of them are dancing back and forth in a veritable tango. His fingertips explore the rough texture of layers that appear to be making his head such agony.

And why would that be?

And why - dear Lord why - are they all in here looking at me? All six of them, like he's an exhibit they've paid damn good money to visit.

He's pretty sure that there's something which would explain his presence here in Nathan's sickroom and the crowd who have come to witness his distress. But he can't for the life of him remember what it is, and he suspects he won't recall it for some time, if ever. Ezra knows something is very wrong with his head though.

"A hit," he says, peeved that he can hardly get any clarity or volume in his voice. It's a scratchy whisper, doesn't seem his own at all. "A palpable ... hit."

"Aw no," he hears JD say. The boy sounds utterly lost.

"Damnit, Ezra."

Ezra thinks he has definitely not said the right thing at all because there's Mr. Tanner sounding so very disappointed in him.

He spies Chris Larabee, standing still as stone on the far side of the room. Mr. Larabee is looking right into his eyes, like he often does. Looking for the devil inside. Looking for Ezra to explain himself and, as usual, Ezra can't.

"I believe," rumbles a voice from the other corner and Ezra slides his eyes painfully to the right, his gaze overshooting the mark at first, and then finally focusing on Josiah, head nearly on his chest in thought. "I believe our brother is quoting Shakespeare."

Ezra really hasn't got it in him to say a single word more but he feels like Josiah has just leaned over the gunwale of a boat and scooped him out of a stormy sea.

My God but he's nauseous. He sincerely hopes they're all going to leave before he disgraces himself.

"Is that good?" Buck asks Josiah, sounding alarmed.

There's a silence in the room, and then Ezra thinks he hears Chris Larabee give a low laugh.

"I'd say that's good."

Chris takes a few paces out of his corner, comes up close so Ezra can see his face. And it looks less forbidding than Ezra's ever seen it.

"Can we get back to work now, Ezra?"

Ezra wants to lift his hand to motion a polite invitation for Mr Larabee to take his leave. He can't seem to do anything but pluck gracelessly at the thick bandage on his head, however. Chris gets a hold of the hand for him, puts it back on the bed.

"I don't think it's a good idea to keep pawing at yourself, Ez."

The very act of trying to respond to this causes Ezra to blink fiercely against his increasingly heavy lids.

"You've seen him," Nathan interjects, "you've seen him and heard him and now he needs to rest. You all're not welcome in here anymore."

Vin Tanner swings into view. He's rubbing his face. "Look at you," he says by way of greeting.

Ah, Mr. Tanner. A man of few words. Ezra feels profoundly grateful for them anyway.

"We're keeping your seat warm for you, pard," Buck Wilmington assures him, looming large from the shadowy furthest reaches of the room. He presses a big hand down on the top of Ezra's shoulder. Behind him, young Mr. Dunne tips his hat.

A parade of well-wishers such as he's never had in his life.

Ezra sighs.

"He'll be fine now?" he hears Chris ask as his eyes shut themselves without permission.

Such hope in that question. Such determination that it will be so.

Ezra's not sure he'll be able to live up to it.

He doesn't hear Nathan's reply but actually he already knows. Whatever put him in this position in the first place, it was certainly not a trifle.

Something is very wrong with his head.

Luckily for Ezra, when he has his first blackout several weeks down the line, someone makes it lightning-fast across the saloon to catch him.

Luckily for Ezra, one of them is always there.

-ends-

A/N: Ezra quotes from Shakespeare's The Tempest "misery acquaints a man with strange bedfellows" (II ii 42); Josiah responds with "one may smile, and smile, and still be a villain" (I v 105) from Hamlet. When he wakes up Ezra quotes Hamlet too ... "a hit, a very palpable hit." (V ii 295)