Lazy Gamblers and Wizened Crones
June, 6 2015
Nettie Wells stepped off the boardwalk and put her bag of goods into the wagon. Just a step or two behind her, Vin and Josiah carried a crate each filled with supplies. As they got the items secured and covered with a tarp, Ezra walked by giving them all a cheery smile and a tip of his hat.
Nettie frowned at the gambler as he went past and shook her head. “I don’t know why you fellas put up with that no-account, lazy gambler.”
Vin grinned, leaning against the side of the wagon. “Ah, Ezra’s not that bad. Kinda grows on ya.”
The woman rolled her eyes. “Wouldn’t think he’s the type you’d trust to watch your back.”
Josiah chuckled. “My back, yes, my wallet… well, the jury’s still out on that one.”
Nettie huffed. “So long as he don’t mess with me and mine.” She looked up at the sky. “Speaking of mine, I’d better get back home. Don’t want to leave Casey all by herself for too long. Thank you kindly for your help.” Nettie looked at Vin. “See you in two days.”
Vin nodded and tipped his hat. “Yes, ma’am. Looking forward to it.”
“Good day, Mz. Nettie,” Josiah said as he gave her a hand into the wagon. They watched her drive away and Josiah smiled. “Quite a woman.”
Vin smiled back. “Yep, sure is.”
Two days later
Vin watched Mz. Nettie’s wagon roll into town. He pressed his lips together, uncertain what her reaction would be to his news. He was supposed to go with her to Eagle Bend to pick up some building supplies she needed for her ranch, items unavailable in Four Corners. Unfortunately, he’d had some news that made going to Eagle Bend too hazardous for his health.
He nodded a greeting at the older woman as she pulled on the reins and brought the horses and wagon to a stop beside him. “Mornin’, Mz. Nettie.”
“Hello, Vin. Why are you looking so grim?” she asked.
Vin took his hat off and ran his hand over his hair before replacing the hat on his head. “Heard tell there are a couple of bounty hunters out Eagle Bend way,” he said softly. “Men I knew in the past. Ain’t exactly safe for me to head that way right now.”
Nettie frowned. Vin had told her about the bounty on his head soon after they’d met. She’d believed he was innocent, but couldn’t let him risk running into bounty hunters. “That’s all right, son. The trip's not that long. I was mainly interested in the company,” she finished with a smile.
Vin shook his head. “No, ma’am. I’m not letting you go without an escort. There’ve been too many attacks on travelers out that way lately. The law ain’t had no luck catching the bast… er bandits. No, I got someone who’s willing to ride with you, there and back.”
Nettie raised an eyebrow. “And who would this someone be?” she asked, suddenly suspicious.
The tracker glanced across the street where Ezra was leading Chaucer out of the livery.
“You’re kidding,” Nettie said, giving Vin a look of disbelief.
Vin shook his head. “Ezra’s all right, Mz. Nettie. I trust him to watch out for you. You just got to get to know him better.”
“What about one of the others?” she asked hopefully.
“Everybody’s busy. ‘Sides, Ezra has some things he needs to do in Eagle Bend. He was right happy to accompany you,” Vin added.
“I bet,” Nettie grumbled.
Ezra had mounted Chaucer and rode their way, stopping beside the wagon. “Good day, Mrs. Wells, Mr. Tanner. I see Mr. Tanner was correct in assuming you would wish to be away early.” He squinted up at the early morning sun and sighed.
Vin chuckled at the grimace on Nettie’s face. “Was just telling Mz. Nettie it weren’t no imposition,” he pronounced the word Ezra had used the day before carefully, “for ya to ride to Eagle Bend with her since you were going there anyway.”
Ezra grinned and nodded, seemingly unaware or at least ignoring the woman’s obvious distaste at the idea of his company. “Indeed. I have some items to pick up and hear there is a new shipment of shirts at one of the mercantiles. I find myself in need of a few replacements for ones that have been damaged ‘in the line of duty,’ he explained wryly causing Vin to grin again.
Nettie sighed. “Very well, then. You can ride along. But don’t you be expectin’ me to bail your behind out of jail over some poker game, ya hear?”
Ezra’s eyebrows rose in innocent dismay. “I would never presume such a thing, Mrs. Wells.” He cast an asking glance at Vin at the same time Nettie did and the tracker just laughed.
“You two behave yourselves,” Vin said with a wave as he walked away. He was pretty sure those two wouldn’t kill each other, and hoped they’d find some sort of peace during the trip.
Ezra watched Vin walk away and swallowed a sigh as Mrs. Wells turned, leveling a look of barely disguised disgust on him. He smiled gallantly and motioned with one hand. “Whenever you are ready, ma’am.”
Nettie nodded and clucked at her team, urging them to movement with a tap of the reins.
Ezra did sigh as she moved out in front of him. This was going to be a long trip.
The ride to Eagle Bend would normally take about two hours on horseback. With a wagon it was closer to four. Ezra settled Chaucer into a sedate amble alongside the wagon, not expecting any conversation, but not wanting to be too far away to hear if Mrs. Wells did say something.
He wasn’t sure why he’d agreed to accompany the older rancher when Vin asked. Of course, he did have some things he needed to get from the slightly larger, more settled town of Eagle Bend, but it was nothing he couldn’t do without for a while longer. And he had heard tell of a shipment of new haberdashery. Ezra took a deep breath and had to admit to himself that it was the news of the bounty hunters that had brought him to this place.
He’d learned of the bounty on Vin’s head quite by accident just a few weeks ago. He was fairly certain Chris and probably Judge Travis were aware of it, but Ezra wasn’t sure which, if any, of the rest of their band knew. One of his contacts in Eagle Bend had sent him the news about the shirts and added as almost an afterthought that several bounty hunters were in town. The names were unfamiliar to Ezra, but when he’d casually mentioned them and their location to Vin, there’d been an immediate tenseness to the tracker’s lean frame.
Shortly after that, Vin had asked Ezra to go with Nettie.
He glanced over at the rancher. He couldn’t really blame her for disliking him. Ezra had been less than courteous on their first meeting and his background did not engender trust in most God-fearing folk. Still, Ezra had hoped she might be able to look past the flashy exterior and… Ezra snorted, then reached down to pat Chaucer’s neck when Mrs. Wells looked at him questioningly.
“He’s not used to all this walking,” he explained. “Chaucer wants to stretch his legs a bit.”
She nodded, but quickly turned her attention back to her own horses who plodded along without complaint.
A small grin crooked the corner of Ezra’s mouth. No. There was no reason for her to like him.
After a brief stop to rest and water the horses, the rest of the ride was quiet and they arrived in Eagle Bend a bit before noon.
Nettie climbed down out of the wagon without waiting for assistance and started to remove the tack from her horses. Ezra had led Chaucer to the nearby trough and let him drink.
“I want to be heading home within two hours,” Nettie advised. “That’s plenty of time for the horses to rest, for us to get our errands done and grab a bite to eat. So no lolly-gagging around, gamblin’ man,” she said firmly as if speaking to an errant child.
Ezra clamped his lips down on a smile and nodded.
Nettie paused then asked, “Will you take care of the horses?”
Ezra’s eyebrows rose in surprise and he simply nodded again. Nettie nodded her approval and handed him the reins for her team. He took them, bemused and led the three horses toward the livery.
Nettie watched him go. Maybe he’s not a complete lay-about after all, she thought, then frowned as she watched him pay the livery man to take her two horses. She snorted as the livery man had one of his boys come out and start rubbing the horses down as they drank. At least they’re taken care of, even if the gambler didn’t do a lick of work himself.
Nettie looked at her pappy’s pocket watch, closed the cover and slipped it back into the pocket on her skirt. Ezra wasn’t to be seen and there was only fifteen minutes left to her deadline. She turned back to watch the men loading her wagon. She needed to get her horses hitched back up still, but didn’t want to leave her purchases that constituted a major portion of her earnings this year.
Boxes of nails, a new plow blade, and a brand new glass window to replace the broken one in the kitchen were among the items she’d be taking home. Some of the items were luxuries, for sure, but now that she owned her property outright, all the money she’d been paying on the mortgage could be put into improvement with a little left over. Like the two bolts of brightly patterned fabric she’d bought to make Casey and herself some new clothes.
Nettie frowned. Standish had played a large part in that freedom. Where was the man?
Just then, the livery man’s son led her team over to the wagon. “You want me to hitch them up for you, ma’am?” he asked politely. “It’s paid for.”
She opened her mouth in surprise and just nodded. When he was done, she pulled a penny out of her purse. “Here you go, son. Thank you.”
The boy smiled broadly. “Thank you, ma’am!” with the nickel the fancy man had paid him, he could get twice the candy for all his sisters and himself. He ran off happily.
Nettie looked around for Ezra again and did a double take when she saw him leaning against the post on the boardwalk beside her wagon. “When did you get here?” she asked sharply, not liking that she hadn’t seen him arrive.
Ezra smiled. “Only just,” he said simply, tossing a toothpick he’d been chewing on into the street.
The men loading her wagon stepped back and one of them spoke. “I think that’s it, ma’am.”
Ezra cleared his throat. “Isn’t that crate part of Mrs. Wells’ order as well?” he asked nodding toward a crate that had somehow gotten pushed back, partially hidden under a bench on the boardwalk.
The man stammered a moment, but nodded under the flinty green stare and went to retrieve the crate. Once it was secured within the bed of the wagon, Ezra nodded and offered Mrs. Wells his hand.
“I do believe we can be on our way,” he said, assisting her onto the driver’s seat.
She nodded, watching him non-plussed as he picked up a brown paper package that compressed some when he started to tie it onto the back of Chaucer’s saddle. “You can put your package in the wagon,” Nettie said.
Ezra lifted an eyebrow and smiled his thanks, then settled the package into an empty spot toward the front of the bed. He mounted Chaucer and they headed out.
Nettie had a lot to think about as they rode. She had expected Ezra to be overly chatty and whiny during the trip, but he’d only spoken when she’d asked him something or he needed to explain something to her, like when that spoiled horse complained about ‘walking.’ Once in town, Nettie thought he’d get into some trouble, and although he’d pretty much disappeared, she’d seen no sign of a disturbance. She was actually a little disappointed that he hadn’t offered to eat their mid-day meal together, but then again, she hadn’t exactly been welcoming, so why would he?
The rancher woman prided herself on being open minded. After all, it wasn’t many women who stayed on and ran a ranch when their husband was gone. Most remarried or moved back home to allow a male relative to rule their life. Not Nettie Wells, though. So she thought she was open minded when it came to people. She tried not to judge a book by its cover.
However, when it came to the gambler, she somehow couldn’t help herself. He fairly flaunted his lifestyle, his lack of morals and disdain for hardworking folk. Nettie frowned. No, that wasn’t true, he didn’t seem to want to get his hands dirty, but she’d never heard him talk down to or bad about those who labored for their living.
She thought about what she had seen of Ezra this trip. He’d kept alert and right by her side the entire ride to Eagle Bend. Even though he hadn’t physically cared for her horses himself, he’d seen that they were cared for properly, to the point of paying money to see it done. Not what she would have done, but the end result was the same.
And he had been watching out for her, making sure she wasn’t cheated. True, he didn’t make a big fuss over the last crate, but there wasn’t any real proof that the loader had tried to hide it, so Ezra’s way of dealing with the matter made sense and they were able to leave on schedule.
Nettie sighed. Vin was right. She hadn’t given the man a chance. And now she wasn’t sure how to start getting to know him better.
Ezra pulled Chaucer a bit closer to the wagon. “Mrs. Wells…” he said quietly, waiting for her attention. “We are almost to the halfway point where we rested the horses earlier today. Do you have extra ammunition for your Spencer handy?”
She shot him a sharp, questioning look, but nodded. “Right under my seat. Why?”
“I believe we are being followed and I fear the watering hole will be the perfect place for an ambush,” Ezra paused. “Of course, since we will be ready for them, it is they who will be ambushed,” he added with a grin that showed his gold tooth.
“How many are there?” she asked, a bit nervously.
“Four or five,” he replied seriously. “I believe we can handle them. When you pull the rig into the clearing, run it all the way back to the trees that grow along the hillside. They won’t be able to flank us, at least not without making a lot of noise. Set the brake and tie the reins so the horses can’t bolt, then get your weapon and ammunition and get behind the wagon. I will join you forthwith.”
“We could just keep going,” Nettie suggested, knowing it wasn’t an option. The horses needed water and there were worse places to be stopped further along the trail.
Ezra shook his head. “This is the most defensible position nearby and I fear they are growing restless and ready to pounce.”
Nettie nodded. “All right, we’ll play it your way.”
Ezra let Chaucer fall back behind the wagon as they neared the watering hole so as to give Mrs. Wells time to position the wagon. The small pond lay at the bottom of the rocky hills within a circle of trees. And while that would provide them some protection from the men following them, it would also give those men cover if they were indeed up to no good.
Ezra gave Chaucer the signal to ‘act up’ making a show of trying to calm the horse as he danced around as if something had startled him. After a short time, and a glance at the wagon to make sure Mrs. Wells was ready, Ezra instructed Chaucer to settle and rode up beside the parked wagon.
He dismounted, keeping himself between Chaucer and the wagon to hopefully cause the men following them to delay their attack for a clear shot. Once he had removed his saddlebags and rifle, Ezra gave Chaucer another command and a slap on the rump. The Chestnut horse bolted away as Ezra ducked behind the wagon with the rancher.
He met the woman’s eyes. “Are you ready?” She nodded. “If they fire at us, they mean to kill us. You need to shoot to kill as well.”
Nettie nodded gravely. “I may just be addin’ a few notches to my Spencer today,” she agreed.
Ezra nodded and peeked over the top of the wagon. “We know you are there. We are armed and unafraid to protect ourselves. It would be best for everyone if you just moved on. We have nothing of sufficient value to equal your lives,” Ezra said, projecting his voice to be heard across the clearing.
“You best come out, fancy man. You and that old woman ain’t no match for five guns,” a rough voice replied from the trees giving Ezra the location of one of the men at least.
“It’s only fair to warn you,” Ezra said, hoping they would take the warning, “I am one of the seven peacekeepers hired to protect Four Corners. You may have heard of us and our leader, Chris Larabee? And as for this ‘old woman,’ she is no slouch with a rifle. I can assure you, gentlemen,” he said the last word with a roll of his eyes toward Nettie. She grinned. “She has more than proven herself capable of hitting what she aims at. Do not let appearances fool you.”
There was a murmuring and rustling while the bandits apparently conferred, then Ezra and Nettie heard one of them quite clearly.
“They talk too much and I want to get home ‘fore dark. Let’s just shoot ‘em and be done with it.”
They had just enough time to cock their weapons before a barrage of bullets peppered the wagon. In the brief silence while the bandits reloaded, Ezra and Nettie stood and fired into the trees, ducking back down quickly. One of the bandits yelped in pain.
“Don’t think that was a fatal shot,” Nettie said as she reloaded her Spencer.
Ezra shook his head slipping bullets into his revolver. Although his other guns were still loaded he wanted to take advantage of the lull to keep them all ready to fire. He flinched as another round came their way.
Surprisingly, the bandits learned pretty fast and they were soon alternating, taking turns reloading instead of allowing Ezra and Nettie a chance to fire at them unopposed. Besides the initial wounding, Ezra had hit one other man, and was pretty sure the shot had either killed or severely incapacitated him. So far he and Nettie had been lucky and remained unscathed.
He looked at Mrs. Wells as they waited for another chance to fire. “We’ve been going over the top solely since this began. I believe we might surprise them by firing from the ends of the wagon.” Ezra was confident that this action wouldn’t be putting Nettie in harm’s way since the horses would provide her more cover, though he hated the idea that they might be injured, it was more important that the two of them survived.
Nettie’s eyes narrowed as she considered the idea. “Okay, but no heroics. Get your fancy pants back behind this wagon but quick.”
Ezra grinned so broadly that his cheeks dimpled. He wasn’t sure why, but he really liked this old woman. “Yes, ma’am,” he said, tipping his hat with the muzzle of his revolver. He pulled out his other gun and got up into a crouch, edging toward the back of the wagon. He waited for Nettie to get into position then nodded.
They both moved together, firing at the same time, then moving back to cover. Ezra heard a man’s scream of pain and took advantage of their distraction to step back out and fire again.
Several things happened at once. His foot landed on a rock and slipped out from under him. Ezra dropped the gun from his right hand as he grabbed at the wagon for balance. A line of fiery pain sliced along the outside of his left thigh as he caught the wooden top edge of the wagon bed. Bullets thudded into the wagon and he felt a deep wrenching agony in his shoulder as he managed to pull himself out of the line of fire.
Mrs. Wells’ Spencer sounded two more times, then there was silence.
Ezra grimaced at the pain in his leg and shoulder. He must have wrenched his arm badly. He glanced up and saw a hole in the wagon. That was close.
“Think we got them?” Nettie asked making sure her rifle was ready to go again.
Ezra started to shrug, but thought better of it as they heard the sound of several horses galloping away from their location. “If we didn’t, then it would appear that at least some of them have left.” He moved to rise and winced, pulling his right arm close to his side and grasping his leg with his left hand.
Ezra leaned back against the wagon wheel, not quite repressing a gasp of pain. He closed his eyes and took a deep breath. When he opened them again, Mrs. Wells was kneeling beside him.
"Well, Fancy Pants, looks like you didn't follow my instructions very well."
Ezra gave her a slight grin. "My foot slipped on an inconvenient rock. I do apologize for disobeying."
She harrumphed as she gently pulled the torn material away from the crease on his leg. "It's not deep, just long."
Ezra nodded. "If you would be so kind as to bring my saddlebags to me, I can wrap it and then go check on our attackers."
Nettie frowned at him, but rose to retrieve the bags. When she returned, Ezra reached with his left hand to take them, only to have his hand lightly slapped away.
"Just sit still, and let me bandage that leg," Nettie growled. She watched him from the corner of her eye as she ripped the pant leg open down to the cuff and began the process of cleaning and bandaging the wound.
Ezra let his head fall back against the wagon wheel, his eyes closed. Sweat beaded on his brow, and she could see that he was in pain, but he never uttered more than a gasp as she proceeded.
Ezra opened his eyes and licked his lips nervously as the older woman worked. He knew she didn’t think much of him, but he did owe her one thing at least. “I owe you an apology,” Ezra said softly.
His words caused Nettie to stop and look up at him, a bloody piece of cloth in her hand. “What on earth for?” she asked in surprise.
“I believe I made a comment when we first met that was… unkind and… uncalled for,” Ezra said slowly.
Nettie grinned suddenly. “So, what, now you don’t think I’m a ‘wizened crone’?” she asked, her voice full of amusement.
Ezra let his head fall forward in mock despair. “My dear lady, are you aware of the literal meaning of those words?”
“I get the drift,” she said.
Ezra sighed. “Well, for one thing, they are a bit redundant, and for another, quite inaccurate. I can only hope you will accept my apology and forgive my ungentlemanly behavior.”
Nettie ducked her head and went back to wrapping Ezra’s leg as she spoke. “I suppose I can do that. ‘Specially as I owe you an apology as well.” Ezra’s eyebrows rose, but he remained silent. “I may not have said anything to your face, but I wasn’t exactly kind to you and made some uncalled for comments about you myself,” she admitted candidly as she tied off the cloth and patted him gently on his good leg.
“My dear woman,” Ezra sighed, “You are not the first and will hardly be the last person to do so. You owe me no apology.”
She glared at him. “Well, I say I do, now are you going to accept it, or not?”
Ezra was a bit taken aback by her ferocity, until he saw the glint of amusement in her eyes. He bit his lip, then nodded. “I accept your apology, my lady,” he said as straight faced as possible.
Nettie nodded. “Good. Now let’s get you up and we can check on those bandits. I don’t think they’re going to be a problem since we haven’t heard a peep from them in a while, but one or two might be alive and needin’ help.” She grimaced at the thought, but rose to her feet and offered Ezra a hand.
Ezra grasped her hand with his left, braced his right leg and started to rise. He knew before he was halfway up that he was in trouble. The earth began to spin under him and darkness clouded his eyes. When they cleared, he was back on the ground, a worried Nettie patting his cheek.
“You must have lost more blood than I thought,” she said with a frown. “You just wait here while I check on those men.”
He grabbed her arm as she rose. “No. Not alone.”
Nettie shook his hand away. “I know what I’m doing, Fancy Pants. Ain’t lived out here for this long without learnin’ a thing or two.” She grabbed her rifle and headed around the wagon.
“Mrs. Wells!” Ezra protested, but didn’t have the energy to get up and follow. He looked at the small pile of bloody cloths by his leg and frowned. He really hadn’t lost that much blood had he? The wound itself ached, but wasn’t life threatening, as long as he kept it clean. Nathan would probably want to stitch it up.
His shoulder hurt fiercely though, and he feared he’d dislocated it, or worse. Ezra gingerly felt along the area that pained him most and was surprised to feel moisture. He pulled his hand away to look at it and saw blood.
“How?” he said to himself, looking down at the shoulder for the first time. He couldn't really see anything, just his red jacket, not even a hole. Ezra gingerly lifted the edge of the jacket. The motion sent pain shooting through his shoulder and darkness claimed him.
Nettie headed back toward the wagon, starting up a conversation to let Ezra know it was she who approached and not the enemy. That gambler is a good man to back you up in a fight, but more dangerous than you would think.
“They hauled everyone out of here,” she said reaching the wagon. “Injured and dead. Just as well, that way we don’t have to take care of the bodies,” Nettie added rounding the end of the wagon. She stopped at the sight of Ezra, sitting slumped against the wagon wheel, his head lolled to one side.
Nettie hurried over to the gambler, knelt and felt for a pulse. She sighed as she felt one. He was still alive, but obviously not doing well. Nettie checked the bandage on his leg, but it was clean, no blood. She frowned remembering the way he’d been holding his right arm, not using it when he tried to stand earlier.
The rancher felt along Ezra’s right arm starting from his wrist and working up. When she got to his shoulder, she felt a wet spot and her fingers came away bloody. “Hell, boy, why didn’t you say something?” Nettie groused as she lifted the jacket lapel away to expose the bloody shirt below.
She shook her head. He’d lost a lot of blood. And what was that in the wound? She needed to get his jacket and shirt off to get a better look and clean the wound. Nettie felt around on his back, but it was dry. The bullet was still in there.
Ezra moaned, his eyes fluttering open.
“Hey there, Fancy Pants,” Nettie said lightly. “You didn’t tell me you had a hole in your shoulder, too.”
Ezra took a breath and exhaled it slowly trying to control the pain. “I didn’t realize,” he replied through gritted teeth. “Thought it was just wrenched,” he added at her lifted eyebrow.
Nettie nodded. “I need to get your coat and shirt off to see what the damage is, think you can help?”
Ezra gave a slight nod and used his left hand to push himself away from the wheel.
“Good arm first,” Nettie said, helping him ease his left arm out of the coat. By the time his shirt was off, Ezra was pale and panting from the pain. “Easy, son,” Nettie soothed, pushing him back gently to rest against the wagon wheel once again. “Let me just take a look at this.”
Ezra gritted his teeth and closed his eyes. It felt like he had hot knives in his shoulder.
Nettie sighed as she finally saw the wound. Multiple splinters of wood stood out from the bullet damaged flesh. “Looks like that bullet came through the side of the wagon there,” she informed Ezra with a nod of her head toward the jagged hole in the wood above his head. “The wood splintered and there are some pieces stuck in there with the bullet. Not sure I can get them out, or even if I should.” She paused a moment. “May be best to let Nathan do it.”
Nettie watched as Ezra’s lips pressed firmly together and he nodded slightly. She could try to clean the wound, remove the splinters and bullet, but without anyone to help it would be hard. Either way the risk of infection was high. “I’ll leave it up to you, son.”
Ezra opened his pain-filled green eyes and met her faded blue ones. “I am not your son, madam,” he protested softly.
“No, you certainly aren’t,” Nettie said with a slight grin. “None of my sons would be so rude as to point that out.”
Ezra chuckled then winced when his movement jarred his shoulder. “I do apologize. I will bow to your expertise in the matter of my wound. Either way, I doubt the trip back to town will be very enjoyable.”
Nettie shook her head agreeing with him. “Let me rearrange things in the wagon a bit. You can lie down back there. We can tie your horse,” she paused, looking around for the Chestnut. “Hope he knows his way home, Fancy Pants.”
“Chaucer is nearby,” Ezra said, following up his words with a soft whistle. A moment later the horse was standing at the end of the wagon snuffling Ezra’s hair.
“Got him trained, don’t you?” Nettie asked as she stood and started to rearrange her purchases.
“Some,” Ezra sighed. “I really shouldn’t just sit here while you do all the work, it’s unseemly.”
Nettie grinned to herself. “Be more unseemly if you keeled over and forced a poor, little old woman like me to pick you up and put you in the wagon.”
Ezra snorted and couldn’t help but grin at the idea. “I know people who’d pay money to see that.”
“I bet you do,” Nettie replied, amused. “Think there’s enough room for you now. Leastwise you won’t fall off that horse of yours.”
“That would be unseemly,” Ezra agreed, levering himself away from the wheel, but waiting for Nettie’s help to stand. He really didn’t want the older woman to have to get his dead weight into the wagon on her own.
“All right, just lean on me,” Nettie encouraged as she helped him stand and take the few steps around to the end of the wagon.
Ezra eased himself up onto the tail of the wagon and scooted back to rest against the bolts of cloth Nettie had arranged to cushion the side boards. He paused for a moment, surprised at how tired he was all of a sudden. When he looked up, Mrs. Wells was holding out a canteen for him.
“You need to drink. You’ve lost a lot of blood.” Ezra nodded. “Would you rather lie down?” Nettie asked.
Ezra took a swig from the canteen and shook his head. “I’ll keep an eye out for those miscreants. Make sure they aren’t following us.”
Nettie looked at him skeptically, but just nodded.
“If you’ll loop Chaucer’s reins up over the saddle horn, he will follow us,” Ezra said, motioning for the horse to come closer.
Nettie complied, closed the tailgate of the wagon giving Ezra another side to lean on and then took a few moments to make sure they hadn’t forgotten anything. She picked up Ezra’s second weapon and her rifle as well as the bloodied clothes and handed Ezra his things.
He checked the gun and reloaded it. “I am ready when you are,” he said.
Nettie nodded, but had her doubts about how long he’d last. She climbed up onto the driver’s seat, gathered the reins and guided the team over to the pond. They still needed to drink before the next leg of the trip. When all three horses had had their fill, Nettie turned the team back to the road and set them to a faster walk than the one she’d been happy to keep them at before.
It would be unkind to Ezra to go faster and unwise to tax the team of horses. Ezra couldn’t afford to be stranded away from medical help. As it was, Nettie was worried that the few hours they had to travel before they reached Four Corners would be too long.
She glanced back over her shoulder and saw Ezra slumped to one side. She debated stopping, but decided it was kinder to let the man remain unconscious and unaware of the pain for as long as possible.
Ezra’s world was hot, then cold. A searing, throbbing agony in his shoulder brought him out of the dark periodically with sharp jolts. Finally the uncomfortable jostling stopped and he thought he heard voices… Mrs. Wells, Nathan, and then the world tipped and tilted like he was on a boat in choppy water. Only this boat was going uphill. The pain dragged him back toward the darkness and he didn’t fight it.
Nettie pulled the team to a halt in front of the livery and Nathan’s clinic having already drawn the attention of several of the seven as they entered town.
Vin and Chris strode up to the wagon as Nathan hurried down the stairs.
“Mz. Nettie? What happened?” Vin asked, lowering the wagon’s tailgate.
Nettie accepted Josiah’s hand down from the seat as she spoke. “Bandits. Tried to ambush us at the pond ‘bout halfway home. The ones we didn’t kill took off draggin’ their dead and injured,” she said as her worried eyes settled on the gambler. “Mr. Standish was shot though. Bullet’s still in his shoulder.”
Chris turned to JD and Buck as they approached at a jog. “JD, send a telegram to the nearby towns to be on the lookout for wounded men looking for a doctor. Buck, help us get Ezra up to Nate’s.”
The men went into action, Chris, Buck, Vin and Josiah each took a hold on Ezra and lifted him out of the wagon. They followed Nathan up to the clinic and laid him on the bed. Nettie followed.
“He’s got some splinters of wood in that wound,” Nettie advised as Nathan cut away the rough bandage on Ezra’s shoulder. “I didn’t want to do more damage trying to get them and the bullet out.”
Nathan nodded. “I need some more light here,” he said lifting the bandage from the wound.
Ezra’s eyes flew open and he gasped in pain as one of the splinters, stuck to the material, pulled out of the wound. He struggled to get away from the pain, only to be held down.
“Get me the ether!” Nathan demanded.
Ezra’s world was hot and then cold with flashes of pain. He could hear voices around him, urgent, low, familiar voices, most often Nathan’s, but sometimes Chris, or Josiah or one of the others. There was also a woman’s voice that he couldn’t quite place. He struggled to reach her, to open his eyes and find out who she was. Could it be his mother?
He was so hot and the voice soothed him. Mother? But then the pain hit again and he spiraled off into blackness.
Nettie looked up from sponging Ezra’s brow to meet Nathan’s worried, brown eyes.
“I thought I heard his voice,” the healer said, moving to check Ezra’s pulse.
“Just fever-talk,” Nettie replied. “I think he was trying to wake up, but the fever's still got him in its grip.”
Nathan nodded. “I hope I got all those splinters out. Nasty wound,” he murmured almost to himself.
“You did a fine job, Mr. Jackson,” Nettie assured. “It was a tricky bit of surgery.” She didn’t see him straighten in surprise at her words as she had turned her attention back to the enigma on the bed. “I must say, Mr. Standish surprised me some out there.”
Nathan gave a small snort. “He does that to me all the time. Just when I think I have him figured out, the man goes and does something completely contrary to his previous actions.” He paused and shook his head. “I just don’t understand him.”
Nettie refreshed the wet cloth and laid it on Ezra’s head. “I think that’s the way he likes it. He keeps folks off guard and at arm’s length so they don’t get to know him and he doesn’t get to expecting too much from them.”
Nathan frowned. “You sure seem to have figured a lot out about Ezra in a short period of time, Miz Nettie.”
“Well,” she said, standing and stretching the kinks out of her back, “when you’re fighting for your life and you have to rely on someone to watch your back, you pick up a thing or two.”
“Funny, I rely on him in life or death situations all the time and I never saw that in him before,” the healer said his frown deepening as he considered the older woman’s words.
“Ah, but you have six other men to watch your back, so it’s easy to discount Mr. Standish' s more honorable qualities as a fluke when they do make an appearance.” Nettie smiled. “He doesn’t make it easy, either, constantly putting on a show with all that frippery and bluster.”
Nathan chuckled. “Yep, he does that.” He settled into a second chair that had been brought in and watched his patient breathe for a few moments. Ezra seemed to be resting better now, still fevered, but not in danger from it at this point. Nathan sighed. “He does make a bad first impression.”
Nettie chuckled, remembering her first encounter with the gambler. “That he does. Good thing we are willing to look past the cover of the book,” she said, catching Nathan’s eyes with her own.
He nodded slowly as he realized what she meant and that he, too, had decided that there was more to Ezra Standish than the man let people see.
Ezra blinked, tried to swipe the cold wetness away from his forehead and gasped as his shoulder erupted in pain.
“Wouldn’t try to move that shoulder too much just yet, young man,” a voice came from his right. “Nathan is going to put your arm in a sling once you’re ready to be up and about, but I imagine it’ll hurt something fierce to move it right now.”
Ezra nodded, his lips pressed together as he tried to regain his composure against the pain. It was subsiding now that he wasn’t trying to move the arm, but the memory of the pain kept his eyes clamped shut and his breathing coming in short gasps.
“Easy there, son. Drink some of this, it will help,” the voice said as he felt a hand under his head and a cup brought to his lips.
The expected taste of one of Nathan’s teas filled his mouth. A welcome taste only because he knew that the foul brew would bring eventual relief from the pain. But… who was this woman doing Nathan’s job?
“Nathan?” Ezra managed to whisper.
“He’s asleep. It’s the middle of the night. Now just lie back and relax. Let the tea work and you’ll feel better in the morning.”
“Who?” Ezra said, but he fell asleep again before he got his answer.
Ezra woke to sunlight streaming across his face. He grimaced, eyes clamped shut against the rays, certain that there was no reason for him to be up at such an ungodly hour, but not quite sure of why he was so certain. Something had happened to land him here; his brief glimpse had shown that he was in Nathan’s clinic.
It took a moment, but he finally remembered the trip to Eagle Bend and… “Mrs. Wells!” Ezra exclaimed as he sat bolt upright in bed, or tried to anyway. About halfway up, his shoulder protested the abrupt movement sending a wave of pain that threatened Ezra’s consciousness.
“Easy there, hoss,” Buck’s voice soothed.
Ezra felt a hand on his chest, gently holding him down. Once the pain subsided, he was able to open his eyes and saw the smiling lothario.
Buck patted his chest. “Good to see you awake, pard. Been worryin’ some folk around here.”
“Mrs. Wells?” Ezra asked.
“Yep, she’s been right worried, spent the last couple of days hovering over ya like a mother hen.”
Ezra shook his head, “No, Buck, I mean, is she all right?”
Buck frowned. “Yeah, why wouldn’t she be?”
The gambler closed his eyes and sighed. “The last thing I truly recall is getting into the wagon after I was shot. I just wanted to make sure she did not encounter any further trouble.”
Buck chuckled. “You’re an old softie, Ezra. Yeah, Mz. Nettie is fine. Nathan shooed her off to get some rest last night after your fever broke. She’ll probably be here any min…”
The door to the clinic opened, interrupting Buck and proving his point as Nettie and Nathan entered. Nathan carried a cloth-covered tray and had a bemused look on his face. Both of them smiled when they saw Ezra was awake.
“’Bout time you woke up, Fancy Pants,” Nettie said gruffly, taking the tray from Nathan and indicating with a tilt of her head that he should check on his patient.
Nathan pressed his lips together to keep from smiling, but a small grin still quirked the corners of his mouth. Ezra had found himself a new keeper, whether he wanted one or not. Never-the-less, the healer went to do as he’d been instructed.
“How you feelin’, Ez?” Nathan asked, doing a visual exam on his patient, pleased to see no signs of fever this morning.
Ezra lifted his good shoulder in a shrug. “As well as can be expected, I suppose, Mr. Jackson.”
“Yeah, well I expect you to follow my instructions,” Nathan warned with a gleam of humor in his eye. “I have extra helpers to keep you in line now,” he added enigmatically.
Ezra frowned, not quite sure how to respond as Nathan helped him sit up so he could check his wound. Once he was done, Nathan re-bandaged it and nodded, pleased with the results.
“It looks good, Ezra, but I don’t want you moving that arm too much for a while, have to give it time to heal. I brought your favorite sling,” he added with a grin as he held up a strip of cloth.
Buck and Nettie chuckled, but then Nettie stepped up to the bed with the tray. “Hush, now Nathan, don’t pick on your patient,” she admonished throwing a wink at Ezra. She set the tray on the confused gambler’s lap and removed the cloth covering the food.
He was too surprised to stop her from sitting down beside him and tucking a napkin into the neck of his nightshirt, but drew the line when she brought a spoonful of stew to his lips.
“I can feed myself, madam, thank you,” he said firmly, taking the spoon from her hand.
Nettie sat back. “I’m glad to hear it, Fancy Pants, I was beginning to worry that that fever had affected your mind,” she said, her tone sharp but with an overtone of humor that Ezra heard clearly.
He narrowed his eyes as he chewed. Nathan and Buck were watching with amused fascination. Ezra did not want to share his new-found truce with Mrs. Wells and from the gleam in her eye, he presumed that she would also enjoy keeping the others guessing as to the true nature of their relationship.
Ezra swallowed and dipped the spoon back into the stew. “My dear woman, I believe we have already had the discussion concerning the composition of my maternal parentage.”
Nettie pursed her lips to hide her grin. “True enough. It’s still rude to point it out though.”
Ezra brought the napkin up to wipe his mouth and hide his own grin. His friends were obviously confused by the cryptic conversation. He nodded. “I’m glad we’re in agreement.”
Nettie ducked her head, covering her mouth with one hand causing Buck to frown.
“Now, Ezra, no need to be rude to the lady,” he said hesitantly, not really sure exactly what the two had been talking about, but taking Nettie’s behavior to mean she was upset. He shared a concerned glance with Nathan who shrugged.
Nettie looked up, her features under control. “Nonsense, why don’t you and Nathan take a break? I’ll make sure Ezra eats and gets his rest.” She stood as she spoke and ushered the two much taller men toward the door.
Ezra managed to hold his laughter in until she closed the door behind his friends. The looks of bewilderment on their faces had been priceless. “You, my dear, are quite the little tyrant,” he said fondly.
“Yep,” Nettie agreed with a grin, “you better finish eating or I’ll help you,” she teased.
Ezra held up a hand. “No need, no need,” he proclaimed, filling the spoon and taking another bite to prove he could indeed feed himself.
Nettie retook her seat, nodding to herself. “Good to see you’ve learned to do as I say.”
Ezra choked, barely refraining from spitting his food out. He met the sparkling blue/gray eyes as he swallowed and wiped his lips. He would have to stay on his toes with this one. He grinned. “Wizened crone,” he said, fondly.
Nettie smiled and patted his leg. “Lazy gambler.”
The end J
Feedback is greatly appreciated. JudyL