PG for some language
CATEGORY: Challenge - OW
MAJOR CHARACTERS: Ezra
DISCLAIMERS: This is fanfiction. No profit involved. This story is based on the television series "The Magnificent Seven". No infringement upon the copyrights held by CBS, MGM, Trilogy Entertainment Group, The Mirisch Corp. or any others involved with that production is intended.
NOTE: January 2003 Magnificent 7 Challenge Offered by AngelaB: Write a story in which one (or more) of the guys horses goes missing.
SUMMARY: When Ezra is found out in the desert, alone, one of the questions must be -- where's Chaucer? A bit of mayhem as the boys try to track down some answers.
ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS: Kristin supplied the name for Ezra's horse
FEEDBACK: Yes please! comments and suggestions are greatly appreciated.
APPEARS IN: Fanzine The Magnificent Seven #1
DATE: January 26, 2003
Following the Fence Home
Winner of the 2003 Diamond Ezzie Award for Best Old West Fic - General - Medium
By NotTasha...don't fence me in
By NotTasha...don't fence me in
The oppressive heat rolled over the desert, creating visible shimmers in the heavy air. They moved through it, the twohorsemen, crossing the sun-blanched land, following the fence away from Four Corners. The dry weather aggravated their nostrils, drying them to the point where it was almost painful to breathe in. The hot air made them dreadful thirsty. It was the type of day where one stayed close to home, where one found a cool mug of beer and a shade-tree, where one snuck over to Ol’ Mr. Johnston’s Pond for a dip. It was not a day to be out-and-about, but these lawmen had duties that needed attending.
It was times like these that made them ponder their line of work.
"Damn hot," Buck muttered, pulling his horse to a stop as he blinked at the land around them. He touched his canteen, but resisted the temptation for a bit longer -- no sense in using it up too fast.
Nathan pulled off his hat to fan himself for a moment. “Figure we were fools to come out today. Supposed to be cooler tomorrow.” He glanced at the eastern sky, seeing no sign of clouds. With a chuckle, he wondered how, exactly, Vin was able to make such determinations.
“Don't know what the hell we're doin' out here,” Buck grumbled.
"Followin' the fence," Nathan reminded, getting a scowl in return.
"Agh," Wilmington responded. "Don't know why Ferguson was so fired up about this today. Seems that there ain’t a chance of catchin' anyone after his cattle in this heat." He gestured. "Hell, can't even see any cows!"
Mopping his brow, Nathan added, “Should ‘ave waited ‘til evening. Not a good idea to be out now.” He ran his bandana along the headband before replacing the hat on his head. His gaze followed the long lonely fence-line that they'd been sent to investigate. So far, they'd seen nothing but a stretch of uninterrupted barbed wire that ran from somewhere outside Four Corners to the great open nothing.
"Seems a shame," Wilmington uttered, "T'be cuttin' up the country like this. Used to be a wild place. If it keeps up like this, soon it'll be nothin' but a citified eyesore." He narrowed his eyes. "Houses and streets and buildin's as far as the eye can see." He gestured with an open hand.
"Nope," Nathan responded. "Don't see it. What would anyone want with the land out here? Nothin' here but cactus, tumbleweeds and barbed wire -- and too damn hot. Even the cattle know better than to be out in this."
"Mark my words," Buck continued. "Someday, there'll be all kinds of folks livin' here. It's just the way of things. We're runnin' out of room!"
"Got nuthin' but room, Buck," Nathan said with a smile. "This is a mighty big country. President Lincoln made sure of that -- made sure it stuck together."
"Mighty big country with plenty of folks needin' some elbow room,” Buck responded quickly. "Mark my words!"
Nathan gazed about in all directions. "By the looks of things, it ain't gonna happen anytime soon. Ain't a soul in site, 'cept you and me."
"'Ey, I don't know 'bout that, Nate," Wilmington stated, nodding in the direction they were headed. "Seems it's gettin' more peopled by the second."
Just appearing amid the undulating heat waves, something moved along the fence-line, tall enough to be a man. Nathan furrowed his brow. "Think it's that trouble we were lookin' for?" he asked. "Might have somethin' to do with those rustlers Ferguson’s been worried about."
"Could be," Buck replied, encouraging Clyde to a walk. The big grey complied with a snort. The long-legged bay followed. The shape quivered in the heat, walking along the opposite side of the barbed wire. They hadn't figured on finding the perpetrators on this too-hot day. They'd been only looking for damage -- hanging wires – a break in the fence. "What kinda fool comes out here on a day like this?" he asked his companion.
Nathan just smiled at him, a reminder of who else was out in the heat. "How's that sayin' go? Mad dogs and Englishmen?"
"Well, blimey," Buck said in an atrocious accent. "Seems that bugger's on foot. Cheerio and London Bridge and what rot, eh?"
"Buck, I figure you’d best leave English alone and stick to…ah, English," Nathan responded. "Still, it’s not a day to be walkin'." He searched for any sign of a horse near the man. They were an awful long way from anywhere. Maybe the man was just walking along that length of fence, doing the same thing they were -- checking it for damage. Maybe he was repairing it. Maybe he was destroying it. His horse should be nearby -- maybe just out of sight.
A man was as good as dead in this country without a horse.
They brought their mounts to a jog, trying to close the distance. The figure lurched suddenly. One hand grabbed hold of the wire as the man went to his knees. He struggled for a moment, using the fence for support, bowing the wires, and managed to find his feet, to continue his dogged journey.
"Damn it," Nathan muttered, taking Badger to a quicker pace, careful not to tax the big animal too badly in the heat.
The man continued walking, slower now, the hitch in his gait more evident as they drew closer. They were nearly upon him when his feet went out from under him again. He'd managed to catch hold of the wire before he hit the ground, but this time he didn't struggle upward. He didn't move at all, laying face down in the sand.
"Mister! Hey, mister, we're comin'!" Buck shouted as they came to a halt beside the man. The stranger was dressed in a simple shirt that had once been white, the color of his pants and hat was disguised under a layer of dust. One hand still clutched the fence, but his other arm curled around his head, a saddlebag clasped in his hand. His sides heaved with the effort of breathing.
Buck dismounted and tugged his canteen free. Nathan stepped to the fence, taking hold of the clutching hand – the only part of the man easily accessible. His careful gaze took in the torn palm, cut by the barbed wire. "Sir," the healer said quietly. "Kin ya hear me?"
The man made a feeble sound, but his head turned toward the ground, and his words were unintelligible.
Buck stepped on the wires, stretching open a hole for Nathan, nodding the healer through. He tossed the canteen after Jackson, before going back to the horses for more supplies.
"Ya picked a damn hot day for a walk, pard," Wilmington muttered as he grabbed a blanket, Nathan's canteen and medicine bag.
Nathan crouched down beside the gasping body. "I'm gonna roll you over, okay?" he warned as he placed a hand on the man. "Gonna see what we can do to help ya, okay?" Already he was planning what to do, what methods to follow, what course of cures might help. Carefully he settled the man onto his back, his eyes first searching for signs of blood – finding none. The gaze traveled, taking in the man’s face. With a sharp intake of breath, the healer uttered, "Dear God!"
Buck turned at Nathan's exclamation. "Nate?" he questioned.
With a steady hand, Nathan carefully wiped away the sand from the sunburned and familiar face. "Ezra," he whispered. "Ezra, oh God." Standish’s eyelids fluttered but didn’t open.
Wilmington strode up to the fence as if he might walk right through it. His heart went out to the blistered man, his lips so dry they cracked but wouldn't bleed, his eyes -- sunken and shut. "What the hell?" The ladies' man tossed the equipment over the fence and forced an opening through the wires. "What's he doin' out here?"
Moistening a handkerchief, Nathan shook his head. "I have no idea. He's supposed to be in Roosterville, checking up on that telegram we received." He raised his eyes to meet Wilmington's. "Help me wet him down."
Wordlessly, Buck pulled off his bandanna and picked up one of the canteens. The simple white shirt seemed crisp in the heat. When he touched the hurt hand, Ezra jerked it away, cradling it against his chest. "We gotcha now, Ezra,” the big cowboy soothed. “Don't worry none. Yer gonna be okay." Wilmington ran the wet cloth over the sun-blistered hands as Nathan worked at his face. "Aw, hoss," the cowboy muttered, turning Ezra’s left hand and getting a good look at where the barbed wire had cut the palm. "Ya gotta take better care of yerself." The other hand refused to release the saddlebag and Buck had to force it.
Nathandid what he could to cool Ezra's face. The gambler's hat must have done its job and kept him in some shade, but the intensity of the sun reflected off the pale sand and back at him. The dark color of the Stetson hadn't helped Ezra any, probably trapping in the heat.
"Kin ya hear me, Ezra?" Nathan asked expectantly. "It's Nathan. Nathan and Buck. We got you now."
Ezra's eyebrows moved, but he gave no further sign that he heard.
"His hands are cold, Nate," Buck said with a tone of wonder.
"He ain't sweatin' neither," Nathan added. "Musta been out in this for some time. This ain't good, Buck. Ain't good at all." The healer wet down the cloth again and applied it to the card sharp's cracked and parted lips. He squeezed, letting a few drops fall to his too-dry tongue. In response, Ezra pressed his colorless lips together for a moment, as if desperate to keep that tiny bit of moisture inside.
"That's right, Ezra, nice and slow," Nathan encouraged.
"Gotta get 'im outta this heat," Buck declared as he wiped down any visible skin on the southerner. "This ain't doin' him no good a'tall if he we can't get 'im into some shade."
Nathan nodded, carefully dripping precious water into Standish. "Let's get him through this fence and on a horse. Once we get 'im movin', we’ll just get him all the way to town so we could look after him proper."
"Not much in-between to speak of," said Buck with a shake of his head. "Can't think of a good cool place to rest him."
Jackson bit his lip, watching as Ezra's thick tongue tried to deal with the water that Nathan carefully doled out. "He should 'ave been in Roosterville," the healer commented. "'Spose to be findin' out what that wire was all about, some stupid nonsense about a bunch of cowboys hangin’ ‘round town."
"Would 'ave been movin' on to Red Rock today." Buck glanced in the direction of that town. "Maybe someone bushwhacked him on the way."
"We’re a long way from there. He ain’t even got a canteen with him," Nathan muttered with a frown, as he continued his careful ministrations. "If someone ambushed him out there, why the hell did he walk so far? Would 'ave been closer to go to either of those towns if he was in-between 'em."
Wilmington moved until he was across from Nathan, beside Ezra's head. Gently, he ran the wet cloth over the gambler's blistered face, and across his eyes. "What the hell happened, Ez?" he whispered huskily. "Who left you out here, huh? Where's your goddamn horse?"
The lids beneath the cloth moved and the green eyes beneath them showed as Buck pulled away the moist bandanna. Nathan kept his shadow across the gamester's face as he blinked dully at them. A look of sheer relief crossed Ezra’s dry face. He might have cried if he'd had the tears to spare. One arm reached out, searching and Buck grabbed for it.
"Hey, pard," Buck greeted softly, clasping the strangely cold hand. "How're you doin'?"
Ezra’s mouth moved as if he were trying to speak, but no words formed. Nathan quickly hushed any further attempts. "No talkin' now, Ezra. Keep quiet."
"That's right, jus' keep yer yap shut, hoss," Buck said softly. "We got ya now. Know it’s hard for a man like you, but ya gotta do like he says this time.”
Ezra’s mouth tried to twist into a smile, but failed.
Nathan poured a tiny amount of water in a cup and Buck sat the gambler up. He was so hot and stiff. Ezra tried to cough at the movement, but made nothing more than a dry rasping sound.
"Hang on there, big guy," Buck said softly, as he adjusted himself under the unresisting man. God! He was as brittle as chalk. Wilmington feared he’d break the gambler in two if he didn’t move slowly enough. His skin felt so strange, like a dried out corpse. “I gotcha,” he murmured, trying to wipe that idea from his mind.
How long had Standish walked? Had he actually hoped to reach Four Corners on foot? In this heat? In this goddamn heat?
God, it must have been a damn hopeless walk.
Nathan managed to get some of the water past his dry lips. Ezra's tongue finally seemed to be functioning correctly and he licked at the water. He struggled to swallow, coughing instead, until Nathan made him stop. He’d have to settle for merely wetting down his mouth. When Jackson pulled back the cup, Ezra’s eyes followed its movement, turning his gaze back on the healer and croaking out, "More."
The healer laid a gentle hand on his shoulder. "Not just yet, Ezra." It broke the healer's heart to see the pleading look on the usually implacable gambler. "Ya just ain’t ready yet. We're gonna get you out of here now, okay? Start home. We’ll stop in a bit and try again."
Ezra eyes still yearned toward the cup in Jackson’s hands.
Nathan headed back toward the fence as Buck continued to hold up the man. "What happened, Ezra?" Wilmington whispered. "Why're you out here all alone? Someone after you? Someone tryin’ t’hurt cha? Where's your horse?" That damn Chaucer wouldn’t have left him… not if he could help it.
Ezra'seyes, which had been closing in a doze, opened again.
“Where’s yer horse, huh, Ezra?” Buck asked intently.
With a sad glance to Buck, Standish let out a miserable sigh. "Dead," he managed to say as he closed his eyes in a pain-filled grimace. As Buck held onto him, he felt Ezra go limp, falling into unconsciousness.
Chris Larabee was mad. He stood in the clinic, with arms folded across his chest, watching as Josiah and Nathan tried to cool down the gambler. They'd been washing him with wet rags, smoothing salve over his burnt skin, trying to force a few spoonfuls of water past his parched lips.
Ezra was more asleep then awake. His eyes would flutter open from time to time, and gaze about in surprise at those around him, try to swallow what was offered, and drift off again. Buck and Vin brought up pails of water, filling the tub that they'd procured from the bathhouse. Fear of shock had kept Nathan from submerging the southerner in it until they'd been able to bring his temperature down a little. The water they were using was drawn from the trough and fairly warm -- but Ezra was hotter.
"Come on, Ezra," Nathan said in a low voice. "Stay with us. Keep openin’ those green eyes." The healer was desperate to get Ezra to drink more water, and it wasn't for lack of trying on Standish's part. Ezra's face took on a frustration expression every time he failed to manage even a simple spoonful of water, or a look of defeat as most of the water just dribbled down his chin, resignation as he slipped back into his exhausted sleep.
He lay nearly naked as they tried to cool him. One leg was propped up where Nathan had discovered a twisted knee. For the most part, he seemed oblivious to the movement around him. The room thrummed with activity; water was sloshing everywhere. Chris chewed his cheroot, keeping out of the way, glowering, waiting, wanting answers. Who had done this? Who was responsible? Why was Ezra out there without his horse? What was he doing out in the damn desert for so long? Someone would pay.
The door was thrust open and JD burst into the chaos, drawing himself to an instant stop as Vin barreled past. The tracker dodged to avoid the sheriff and tore down the stairs again with an empty pair of buckets.
"What you find out?" Larabee directed the question at Dunne.
JD pushed his hat back and held the telegrams out. "Well, Chris, seems he left Roosterville yesterday morning. Never got to Red Rock." The telegram they’d received five days ago had mentioned those two towns, had said that some sort of trouble was afoot. What kind of trouble exactly? They didn’t know. A bunch of tough-looking customers had taken up residence and someone had become worried. So Ezra had been sent to find facts – he had a way of digging up information. It was going to be simple. Ezra had quickly agreed to the idea, seeing it as an opportunity to relax.
And then, he came home like this.
With a nod toward the telegrams, Chris asked, "They have anything to say about what went on while he was in Roosterville?"
"Nothin'," JD answered. "The telegraph operator didn’t have no answers. But, I'm probably not askin' the right folk. You know Ezra." He looked toward the southerner who still gasped irregularly. "He don't usually talk to anyone obvious to find answers."
"Buck," Chris turned toward his old friend, stopping him before he left the room again. "You, me and Vin are headed to Roosterville and Red Rock. Gonna get some answers."
Buck nodded curtly. "Nate, you still need us?"
Nathan pursed his lips, and then lay the back of his hand across Ezra's forehead. "Think we can dunk him now. Still too damn hot, but we got him cooled a bit. It’ll be easier if I have a few of you to get him in and out of there." He shook his head, furious at the state the gambler was in. "Yesterday mornin'?" he asked JD. "He been out there since yesterday?"
JD nodded solemnly. "That's the last the telegraph man seen of him." He glanced at one of the wires. "Never saw him leave though. Was pretty busy with other stuff I reckon."
"And Chaucer?" Buck asked. "Any sign of him in town?"
"Had him check the livery just to be sure," JD said reluctantly. "Ain't a sign of him."
They followed the trail back along the barbed fence. First, they rode along the tracks of the two horses. They found the place where Nathan had cut through the wires so that they could bring the southerner across. They spotted the gear, abandoned in their frantic need to get Ezra home quickly. Well, there'd be time to pick that crap up later.
They rode their horses through the hole, Buck shaking his head, wondering what Ferguson would say about the matter, and not caring. They followed Ezra’s footsteps along the opposite side of the long lonely fence.
The day had lengthened into evening, tempering the heat, and a pleasant breeze had kicked up, promising cooler days to come. Still, they found themselves pausing often to rest their horses, to drink.
The three men rode in silence. Vin and Chris, both quiet by nature, kept their eyes downward, following the trail the gambler had left as he trod across the desert toward home. Buck kept his gaze forward, marveling at the distance that had been traveled. 'What the hell got into him?' Buck wondered as he continued. 'Why did he even think he could do this?'
Wilmington was the first to spot something shining in the sun. They picked up their pace until they came upon the abandoned pile of canteens -- three of them.
They dismounted to examine the find -- empty containers left in the sand. "This ‘un's been smashed," Vin said, turning the ruined vessel in his hands. "Figure he fell here." He tossed the broken container to the ground. "Must 'ave had the others empty by then and just lef' 'em all." He touched the soil beneath the canteens. “The broke one lost some water.”
"Figure that’s what fell him?" Chris asked, nodding to a rock protruding from the sand.
Vin nodded and pointed to the tracks, both before and after the fall. “It’s what ruint his knee.”
Dusting his hands on his dungarees, Buck commented, "'Least he came prepared. Weren't out here with nothing."
"Not hardly enough to get a man so far," Larabee barked. Chris turned to the tracker. "Empty canteens don't weigh much. Should have kept the sound ones in case he came across any water."
Catching Peso's reins, Vin responded, "Might 'ave known there was no more to be had. Might have been too damn tired to carry anythin' extra by that point.” He pulled himself into the saddle. "The day's long, but if we want to get to that town before night, we'd best get movin'."
"Three canteens," Chris commented, looking at his own battery of water vessels. "That was more than he'd need to travel from Roosterville to Red Rock."
Vin nodded in agreement. "He was goin’ on a longer trip. Comin' home."
"He must 'ave found something," Buck said, rubbing his chin. "Must 'ave found out something in Roosterville and come back early. Probably what caused the mess he ended up in."
"He do draw trouble," Vin agreed. "Could 'ave been a game gone awry."
"He was on business," Buck reminded. "He tends to mind himself when he's got a job to do."
They'd traveled for a short distance when Vin finally asked a question that they'd all been worried over. "What about Chaucer?"
"Said he was dead," Chris muttered looking to Buck for confirmation.
Wilmington sighed, pulling off his hat for a moment to fan his face. "Yeah, and it'd explain why Ez was out here all by himself. Something must 'ave happened to Chaucer when he was pretty far from home." He shook his head. "What are we gonna do with Ezra?" Buck asked in a low voice. "Ya know, when he wakes up and remembers about Chaucer?" When neither Vin nor Chris answered immediately, he continued, "He loved that animal, trusted it more than anythin'."
"It was a damn fine mount," Chris stated, and then added. "Damn irritating, too."
"Always causin' trouble," Buck added. "Makin' to bite folk and pretendin' like he was gonna kick 'em. Well, he didn't bite too many," he conceded. "Just liked makin' people think he would. Didn't kick anyone who didn't deserve it." He smiled. "Remember all the tricks ol' Ez taught him? I think that horse was more educated than most of the folks in town."
Vin and Chris kept their eyes on the trail, so Buck continued talking, needing to say something. "He was always pullin' pranks; knockin' hats offa folk, gnawin' at their hair, pullin' at their clothes. Think Ezra got the worst of it. Heck, I don't think the man could go near the animal without it harrassin' him in some way or another. Remember how he was always tryin' t'squeeze Ezra up against the railin' in his stall? Couldn't hardly leave him alone when he was gettin' saddled or brushed." Buck rubbed at his mustache. "Ornery beast."
"Ezra never could raise a hand against Chaucer," Vin commented in a low voice. "And that horse obeyed anythin' that Ezra asked of 'im. Only got away with misbehavin’ b'cause Ezra let 'im. Think Ez liked it, in a way."
"Never seen a more loyal creature," Larabee added, remembering how protective the horse could be.
"Figure it was one of the few things that ever showed Ezra any affection," Vin continued, not raising his gaze from the trail. "He could love that thing and not be pushed away. He couldn't disappoint Chaucer." His voice remained low, little more than a whisper. "Figure he treated Chaucer with such care 'cause maybe he wished someone had done the same with him when he was a kid."
The other two remained quiet as they continued along. They'd all felt the same way when they saw the man and horse together. The parental pride was obvious when Ezra showed off Chaucer's tricks. When the horse acted up, he never received anything more than a word or a gentle correction.
Memories struck Buck: of the horse prancing down the main street, with his rider astride, resplendent in their finery, looking the picture of perfect gentlemen. And the way Ezra would laugh during 'horse washing' time when the southerner ended up as wet as the sleek chestnut. He recalled how the gelding could race the wind, with Ezra low on his neck, whooping and grinning with excitement. And how the horse would escape from his stall, to just wander the streets looking for his owner so that he’d get a scratch behind the ears – then go back to the livery on command. And there was the gentle way Chaucer behaved around children. Kids just flocked to that circus-horse and Chaucer seemed to love their attention -- nearly as much as his owner.
He could picture how the horse would nuzzle Ezra and press close to him whenever he had the chance, how Ezra would hold entire conversations with the animal, how Ezra would talk to the chestnut about the things that no one else would hear. Chaucer heard all his owner's secrets, knew his every thought, listened to all his worries, and never shunned him once. He remembered when Chaucer caught a cold and Ezra spent days in his stall, tending him with a worried and pale face – losing sleep, not eating, driving all of them to distraction.
Buck sighed as his gaze took in the lonely open land, divided by a fence, wondering how they were going to deal with their enigmatic con man when he awoke and came to grips with the fact that his dearest companion was gone.
“He looks starved,” JD commented, noting Ezra’s sunken cheeks and strangely deep-set eyes.
“Nearly all the water’s gone out of ‘im,” Nathan commented.
"So, why can't we just keep him in the tub?" JD asked as he watched Nathan carefully spooned more water through Ezra's parched lips. "Figure he could soak it up like a sponge."
"Don't work that way, JD," Nathan said. He then changed his tone from instructive, to a light coaxing as he said, "Come on, Ez, just a bit more."
Ezra was barely awake, doing his best to swallow what Nathan was giving him, but not opening his eyes. Josiah had left to keep an eye on the town after they'd settled the gambler in the bed, but JD remained, steadfastly, to watch over his friend.
After the dunking, Ezra seemed to have improved, but he was still running a fever. The day remained insufferably hot. They'd be back to bathing him with wet rags in a little while to attempt to cool him, but for now Nathan was struggling at the task of getting Ezra to drink something.
"There ya go, that's a good little gambler," Nathan coerced, dabbing up the liquid that had spilt down Ezra's chin and then smiled at the irritated grimace that followed. "You with us, Ezra?"
Standish blinked wearily and glanced toward Nathan. "Nathan?" he ground out.
"Yeah, it's me. Me and JD." Jackson grinned. JD stood and hovered over the gambler, waving to make sure he was seen.
"Thirsty," Standish managed to say, his voice still wretched, sounding like rocks rattling about in a box.
"I know, Ezra. I know," Nathan replied, laying a hand on the card sharp's shoulder. "But I can't give ya too much right now. Yer gonna feel a mite poorly for a while and your belly ain't gonna be behaving."
Ezra raised an eyebrow, seeming to accept this statement. His hands moved from beneath the covers, slow lethargic movements. He drew them out and stared.
"Ya cut up your left hand pretty good on the fence," JD stated, seeing Ezra examine the bandaged appendage.
"Don't worry none," Nathan commented, giving Ezra's shoulder a pat. "Don't see no damage done. Got a bit of an infection, but we got it cleaned up proper."
"Remember," Ezra uttered and closing his eyes as his hand twitched.
Nathan didn't miss the movement. He'd hoped that Standish was too out of it to register the painful process. There was the fear of lockjaw from the rusty wound, but Nathan hoped his scrubbing would keep the gambler from the terrible disease. A mild infection seemed to be the worst of it, and Jackson could combat that, at least. "It's gonna hurt for a bit, but you'll be back to your underhanded dealin' sooner than I'd care to see it."
"Don't cheat," Ezra said with effort. "... much."
"Well, ya don't need to talk either," Nathan chided, and them smiled warmly, glad that Ezra was coherent. Now maybe he could get a decent amount of water into him. His fever didn’t seem to be abating. Willow-bark tea might be helpful, but pure water was what he needed most.
Ezra sighed, looking at his left hand, then his gaze traveled to his unencumbered right. He opened closed the hand, his expression a puzzle, as if he were trying to remember something. His face clouded and his hands clenched.
"Ya okay, Ez?" JD asked, sliding into the chair beside the cardsharp. "Something wrong?"
Ezra's tongue nervously darted at his damaged lips and his eyes searched. His hands moved about on the bed, roving over the soft quilt.
Nathan leaned forward, pressing a hand against Ezra's chest. "Don't get yourself upset, now," he murmured. "Ya gotta rest."
"Where izzit?" Ezra croaked out.
"Where's what?" JD asked helpfully, already looking around the room, wondering at what Ezra could be after.
With trembling hands, Ezra felt about. Disgusted, he tried to sit up, as his gaze searched the room.
"Hang on there, Ez," JD said, sitting forward to help.
A look of confusion crossed the gambler's sunburned face. He seemed determined to find something, but the lost look on his face revealed he didn't quite know what he was searching for. He closed his eyes and pressed his uninjured hand to his forehead as if that might help him recall.
"You okay, Ezra?" Nathan asked, concern coloring his rich voice.
Suddenly, Ezra head jerked up as if he'd heard a shot, and a wretched expression crossed his face. He glanced first to JD, then to Nathan, his mouth open in horror. "Lord…" he uttered, his voice like sandpaper.
"What's wrong?" JD's voice was desperate, wishing he could do something to help his friend.
Ezra seemed to be getting more agitated by the minute. Nathan moved closer, pressing against the gambler with a gentle but firm hand. "Calm down, Ezra."
A look of total despair crossed his face as Ezra muttered, "M'horse." Again, he looked to JD. His eyes had a pleading look to them, begging the young man to understand. "Mercy," he rasped, his eyes wide with pain and sorrow. “Hurt…” He took in Nathan next. "Had to…" His voice was disappearing into dry gravel and Nathan didn’t miss the grimace and the unsuccessful attempt to swallow.
"I know," Nathan whispered, feeling moisture come to his eyes at Ezra's plea for understanding, his mournful eyes. "Weren't nothing you could do."
Ezra nodded, his expression reminding the healer of a child, a little boy who'd just lost something dear.
"I need you to know we understand, and it's okay." Nathan nodded, too, hoping to calm the excited man.
"Tried…" Ezra gasped, obviously forcing his voice too far because the word trailed off to nothing. 'Tried,' he mouthed, one hand clasping Nathan's wrist. 'I really did,' he mouthed again. ‘So hard.’
"I know, I know," Nathan responded, not knowing, wishing he understood completely what had happened. "I'm sorry," he said as he adjusted Ezra into a more comfortable position and then grabbed hold of Ezra's good hand. "It'll be okay. You're with us now."
Ezra nodded tightly, his gaze fastened on their clasping hands. He glanced about again, his eyes still troubled. He tried to say something to Nathan, but the healer couldn't understand the unvoiced words. There was an urgency in his expression, as if he had something imperative to impart, but he was losing his grip on reality again. The gambler was already blinking against his weariness and fighting to stay awake.
"Go t'sleep, Ezra. Go on," Nathan whispered. "You can tell us when you wake up."
Too tired to fight any longer, Ezra fell asleep almost immediately, his hand going lax in Nathan's.
The healer looked up, seeing JD sitting across from him. The young man dabbed at his eyes with his handkerchief, obviously shaken. "What are we gonna do, Nate?" the sheriff asked seriously.
Jackson shook his head, not knowing, not even able to form an idea of how they'd handle Ezra in regard to Chaucer.
The horsemen were making good time, getting closer to Roosterville, and would be there before nightfall at this pace. The day was cooling rapidly, switching from unbearable to almost pleasant.
Vin calculated, counting backward in time and realizing that the tracks they were following were created in the dead of night. Walked right through, Vin figured. Smart. Cooler at night. Probably hoped he’d make it back b’fore it got too hot the next day. Didn’t figure on a bum knee slowin’ him down.
They kept traveling and the long fence finally ended, taking a sharp turn to hem in the Ferguson property. They continued toward Roosterville. Then, shortly after the fence completely disappeared from view, the tracks disappeared as well. "Damn," Buck muttered, searching for any further sign, but it was as if the gambler had touched town from the sky.
"Slippery little weasel," Chris muttered.
"Someone was after him," Vin noted. "Hid his tracks. Night must ‘ave been fallin’ and he figgured no one was followin’ by the time he got here." He turned in his saddle. "Just a bit more and he'd find that fence. Even in the dark he’d run into it. Could follow it home."
"Well, where the hell do we go now?" Buck asked irritatedly.
"Roosterville," Chris responded, pointing in the direction of the town. "He must have come from there."
"Or Red Rock," Vin reminded. "Either way, we'll be headed in the right direction.
They came to a little spring and were able to water the horses and fill their canteens. The day had cooled appreciably, almost comfortable in the evening. They saw no sign that Ezra had stopped at the pond. Musta missed this place, Vin thought sorrowfully. On foot, he hadn’t the height to see it. The spring was a new one; the green growth around it was hardly worth mentioning. It’d probably dry up in a month or two, leaving this refreshing place as barren as the rest of the land around it.
After resting the horses, they continued on their trek. Some time later, movement in the distance caught their attention. They continued toward it until the shapes became obvious -- buzzards. The blackish birds huddled together, hopping and fighting -- feasting.
Angrily, Wilmington kneed his horse to a gallop. "Hah!" he shouted as he charged toward them on his big grey. "Get on! Hah!" He swung his arms as he rode into them, and the fearful birds took wing, revealing a bloody carcass as a magician might reveal the results of his trick.
Vin and Chris rode up beside him, flanking him as they gazed at the horrible sight -- an animal, torn apart by predators. There was little left to identify the beast, its dark coat was shredded and discolored with dirt and blood, its twisted posture further disguised it, but clearly it had once been a horse.
Buck raised a bandana to his nose as the stench enveloped them. "Damn," he murmured. "Damn it all." He closed his eyes, not wanting to have found this.
Chris took in the sight, feeling a hopeless reach him, finding it hard to fathom that this would be the end of that irksome, clever, noble creature -- ripped to pieces by carrion eaters, stinking to hell. It didn't seem right -- it wasn't right at all.
Vin dismounted and kept his gaze moving, not wanting to look directly at the remains. Hell, he'd liked the horse, too. Got a kick out of his antics. Had a deep appreciation for the devotion of the animal. Figured it was a good match to the furtively loyal con man.
He needed answers – how, when, why? He was a man who followed signs.
As he searched about, he found the horse's trail that had preceded this scene. His eyes followed the hoof-prints, seeing that the animal had been limping when it came to this sad place. He noted that someone had walked alongside.
Further tracks were jumbled around in the area, both coming and going -- tell-tailing that there’d been others here before them, searching. They’d fanned out or turned back, but none had traveled toward Four Corners. Vin set a grim mouth, understanding.
He continued his examination, spotting something ‘wrong’, just barely visible, pushed up under a small ledge of rocks. Tugging at a piece of cloth used for camouflage, he pulled away a black jacket to reveal a familiar saddle.
"Ezra's?" Chris asked as Vin pulled the expensive and custom-made device free.
The tracker nodded. "Chaucer musta been alive at the time for Ezra to get this off." He frowned, realizing that Ezra was the one that killed the horse, to put it out of its misery. Damn, he thought, narrowing his eyes as he imagined it. Damn sorry, Ezra. Musta torn you inside-out t'do that to Chaucer. Sorry I weren’t here. Sorry you were alone. Sorry it had t’be like this.
Images came to Vin, of Ezra laughing as Chaucer went through his tricks, of the fierce way the gelding would protect his owner if he felt threatened. He recalled how the horse would knock off his owner's hat, to have the gambler catch the Stetson and replace it with a flourish. He remembered Ezra carefully and patiently teaching new tricks to the animal, always quick to praise, – the horse joyfully tossing his head when he’d accomplished the feat. He remembered how the creature would lay its head on the card sharp’s shoulder, and the contemplative way Ezra stroked that long head when that cold-hearted conman was sad or bothered by some trifle.
Tanner glanced to his own mount. Peso waited in the waning day, twisting his ears, wary at the scent of blood. The tracker didn’t even want to imagine anything happening to the ill-tempered, blazed black. With a twitch of his nose, Vin reminded himself that he was too old to cry, too hardened, too worldly and world-worn. He placed the saddle behind Buck’s and the tall cowboy moved to secure it. The black jacket still trailed in his hand and Chris raised a hand to take it. Vin handed it over without really thinking.
Continuing a quiet search of the area, Vin moved toward the carcass. He paused as he rounded the head of the dead horse, and his eyes followed the trailing reins, ignoring the flies that swarmed around its nostrils. It's a shame, he thought, a damn shame. A fucking worthless shame that never should 'ave happened. Goddamn it! Ezra don't need this! He's got one thing that truly loved him in the whole world and it gets taken from him like this. He had t'shoot the only thing that ever loved him without conditions.<
Goddamn shame! He shook his head as he gazed at the once proud head, and his mouth opened in wonder. "Chris, Buck," he said in a calm voice.
"Yeah, Vin?" Chris replied.
"It ain't Chaucer."
"What?" Buck sat tall in his saddle, eager to hear any bit of good news
"Got a blaze. Ain't Chaucer."
Buck smiled for a moment, grinning wide beneath his mustache, but the expression dropped as he shouted, "That son of a bitch! He told me Chaucer was killed!"
Vin smiled, as he turned to Wilmington. "What he tell you, Buck?"
Buck opened his arms and declared, "Said his horse was dead!"
"His horse," Chris caught on. "Didn't say 'Chaucer'?"
Buck frowned, replaying the incident. "I asked after his horse and he told me it was dead. He wasn’t up to sayin’ much and I didn’t quiz ‘im!"
"‘His horse’?" Chris reiterated and Buck nodded. "It’s probably some rental from the livery, not Chaucer!" Larabee decided.
"Well, goll-dumb it!" Buck shouted. "Why he act so torn up about it?"
"Well," Vin drawled as he strode back to Peso. "He weren't exactly well at the moment and you know how he is about animals. Probably broke his heart t‘shoot it."
Chris nodded tightly, knowing that for all his bluster and cool facade, Ezra felt deeply about innocent things -- animals, children, even the very un-innocent creatures he worked with. Yeah, he was probably beating himself up about the poor horse and its sad end.
Larabee shook his head as he held the jacket, examining the black thing. “Don’t look like something Ezra would wear,” he commented.
Buck agreed, “Yeah, looks like the sort of thing you’d see on an undertaker.”
Chris cocked his head, examining the narrow cut of the innocuous piece of clothing. “I think you’re right.” He tossed it to Vin after the tracker mounted.
The tracker caught the cloth one-handedly and brought it to his nose, taking a deep breath. Both Chris and Buck winced, wondering how the ex-bounty hunter could smell anything over the odor of decay.
“Yeah, I’d bet ya two-bits this came off some lily-wearin’ bone-man,” Vin commented. “Got the smell of one.” He flipped the jacket about in his hand. "Got blood on it. The horse, I reckon." With a disgusted move, Vin jammed the jacket into his saddlebag. He nodded toward the extra saddle on Buck’s horse. "Missing a saddlebag," Tanner commented.
"Ezra had it," Buck recalled. "Carried it the whole way. Left behind canteens but kept that." The cowboy rubbed his chin as he contemplated this fact.
"You look in it?" Chris asked pointedly.
"Goddamn it, Chris!" Buck burst out. "Ya think we had time to check Ezra's handkerchiefs and hair-soap when we were tryin' t'save his life?"
Larabee raised his chin a fraction, watching his friend, understanding his anger. "Where'd it end up?"
"We didn't have time to pick up everything," Buck responded. "We left it by the fence."
The three men were silent, regarding each other.
"Figure the answers we need are back there," Chris finally voiced. “Figure we’re fools to have gone this far when Ezra brought the answer to our doorstep.”
Buck and Chris turned and started back, only to stop when Vin didn’t follow. Chris glanced over his shoulder, looking a question at Vin.
“Gonna see what else I can dig up,” Vin responded.
Chris nodded, wanting a resolution, wanting to find who was responsible.
Vin continued, “Gonna find Chaucer, too.”
“Need help?” Chris asked.
Vin shook his head.
With a chuckle, Buck commented, “Bet that little weasel got Chauce stashed away real good.”
“I’ll find ‘im,” Vin promised, turning toward Roosterville.
“Someone ambushed Ezra,” Chris reminded. "Might still be out there."
“I’ll be careful,” was Vin’s response. “‘Least I know what’s comin’.”
Night was falling in Four Corners when Ezra woke again. He blinked blearily at the room. Things blurred and twisted and it took him a minute to recognize the space -- Nathan’s clinic. Strange, because he never knew that the room had wheels. It was rocking back and forth like a wagon underway.
Josiah’s voice reached him, “Nathan, he’s awake again.”
“Let’s see if you can’t get some of this into him,” Nathan replied, appearing in the con man’s hazy vision. “Hey, Ezra,” he said with a smile. “How’re you feelin’?” Laying the back of his hand against Ezra’s brow, Jackson frowned, the expression changing his face. “Fever’s still there. He's mighty hot.”
Ezra tried to move his tongue, finding it thick and sluggish. God, he felt like crap! After a quick clearing of the throat, he asked, “What the hell’s goin’ on? One moment, I’m in Roosterville, minding my own business and now I’m here! Can anyone explain to me the process by which I arrived here in Four Corners, in this odious state?” Well, actually, he meant to say that, but after a disastrous attempt to cough, all he managed was, “What?”
“Drink this!” Nathan said. For some reason, he was already sitting up with Josiah at his side with one big arm wrapped around him. “S’okay, Ezra. Just concentrate on drinkin’ this down,” the healer uttered.
He choked and sputtered and tried to drink as the room swam. God, if Josiah wasn’t holding him, he was certain he’d start spinning in time with the room. Thirsty, he was so damn thirsty! But his throat felt swollen shut. With effort, he managed to swallow everything in the cup. His stomach roared for a moment.
“Careful, careful,” Nathan cooed, pulling away the cup. “Doin’ okay?”
“Yes, yes, of course,” he tried to say. “I can’t understand why I’m so blastedly thirsty, why I’m so damn tired that I can’t even sit up, why I feel like a tenderized piece of beef. Why do my lips feel as if they’ve been ripped by fiddler crabs? I feel like a boiled lobster! God, my stomach’s doing flips, and why is it so damn hot in here? Nathan, there’s no cause to stoke the wood stove in this weather.” Instead, he just said, “Yes.”
His vision fluttered in and out as Josiah lay him back on the bed. Incredible colors flashed past him. What a spectacle! He watched as Josiah dissolved into a puddle and Nathan grew to fill the room. He blinked at the strangeness.
“Ezra? Ezra… son?” he heard the Josiah-puddle burble.
He was vaguely aware of Nathan dabbing him with a wet cloth that turned into a sheep and leapt away, spreading daisies and chrysanthemums in its wake. “Fever,” the healer said. "Bad one."
The door to the clinic opened, splitting the room in two. The two halves floated apart as JD Dunne glided up the middle, his hat hovering a good foot above his head. “Hey, Doc,” Dunne said, the words turning to letters in the air around him. “He’s up!”
“Yeah,” Nathan responded. He totally filled his half of the room, crammed into it like Alice in the lizard’s house. “If we can knock this fever down, he should be okay.”
“Hey, Ez, how’re ya doin?” The letters still hovered around JD’s head, slithering and sliding under the floating hat in the black space between the two halves of the room.
“Don’t think he’s really with us, brother,” the puddle blurped in the chair by the bed.
Dunne sighed, and the letters didn’t know how to spell it, so they started buzzing around his head like angry hornets.
Nathan was still growing, tipping his half of the room with his size. “Got some tea into him this time. Should help.”
JD nodded. His hat didn’t move, but the letters got all jumbled as he said, “I ain’t lookin’ forward to talkin’ to him about Chaucer.”
The puddle oozed about, shifting and changing. “Neither am I, JD,” it gleeped. “I’m afraid our brother will be devastated when he remembers that his horse is dead.”
He remembered something about a horse. It had been wounded. He’d ridden for a while… dismounted… walked the beast for a piece… shot it.
What did I do?
He can't be… he can't. How will I…?
“Ezra!” Nathan’s voice sounded alarmed as his giant face hovered over his. “Damn it, Ezra!” The healer’s face was transfiguring, growing darker by the moment, becoming indistinct as he shouted, “He ain’t breathin’!”
The room slammed back together with a horrible sound and then everything went black.
Vin traveled toward Roosterville – watchful. He backstepped in time, seeing how often Ezra had stopped to rest the horse, to care for it. Further back in time, the gambler dismounted after a ride – the trail augmented by the horse’s blood. With caution, he continued onward, spotting ahead of him the place where the ambush must have occurred. The sky was dimming. Night was falling. He wasn’t going to be caught there, too.
Judiciously, he changed his path, leaving the trail and heading to the spot where some sharpshooter must have done his job. It didn’t take long to find the little nest – or the body still contained within. The predators had done their job here as well, but with night falling, the buzzards had flown along with those less scrupulous.
The man was an older gentlemen, obvious by his graying hair. He’d been stripped of his rifle and probably anything else of worth. Glancing about, Vin had a good idea that Ezra had shot the sniper. It would explain how the southerner had been able to get away without immediate pursuit. He knew that Standish wasn’t the one who had looted the corpse. No, there were other unfamiliar footprints here – probably some folk coming to check on the sharpshooter, to see if he’d done his job.
Vin toed the ravaged body over, doubting he’d find anything of use to his quest. The man’s pockets had been turned inside out. Whoever put him to this task didn’t want any evidence left.
He made a face, then walked back to Peso, mounted and headed on to Roosterville, leaving the body to the scavengers that worked at night.
Buck had wanted to hurry back toward Four Corners, but Chris had realized a certain wisdom to Ezra’s previous actions. Carefully, slowly, the men did what they could to erase their tracks as they retraced their steps.
A wind was kicking up to further assist in their endeavor, but Ezra had wanted no one to follow him to Four Corners – there must have been a good reason. Chris and Buck did what they could to ensure that his efforts weren’t for nothing. Far enough along to have dissuaded pursuit, they stopped the tedious activity of hiding their tracks and got to riding again.
It was night by the time they reached the little pond. They rested the horses, replenished their water and took a break. Tomorrow, the weather promised a change, but their best bet was to travel the desert in the cool darkness. They’d get as far as they could. It would be easy. All they needed to do was follow the fence.
It would take them home, to that forgotten saddlebag, and to the answers they needed.
Nathan sat beside the con man’s bed, carefully mopping Ezra's brow as he overheated. Standish twisted and turned, muttering in his hoarse and ruined voice. One black-and-blue cheek was evident where Nathan had slapped him hard enough to get him out of whatever fit had taken his breath.
Damn, that had scared the crap out of the healer.
“Easy, Ezra,” Jackson murmured. “Come on, calm down, okay?” He sighed. “Can ya help me, Josiah? We gotta do something about this. He’s just getting worse.”
“Certainly,” Sanchez rumbled. He sat forward and helped him get the gambler upright again to drink down more of the bitter tea. Ezra gagged, but managed to swallow most of it.
“There ya go,” Nathan cajoled. “You’re doin’ good.”
“No,” the gambler rasped. “Can’t…no.” He blinked at Josiah, his eyes bright with fever and distress.
“It’s okay, son,” the preacher muttered. “We’ll get ya through this. Don’t worry. It’ll be okay.”
“No,” Ezra gasped. "Oh God, I'm sorry... Please… I can't…"
Nathan frowned, not understanding what the hell was going on. The wound on Ezra's hand seemed to be clean enough, the infection minimal. Dehydration was still a worry, but not enough to put the southerner in this horrible state. It made no sense.
JD hung his head as he stood against the wall, watching them try to get Ezra to drink a little more, but Standish kept turning his head and saying, “No.”
Dawn was breaking as the two horsemen followed the fence. It was simple to keep a straight path, and with regular rests, they easily kept up the journey through the night. They found the cut wires just as the sun broke the horizon, bringing light to the little pile of forgotten bags and blankets.
Buck dismounted, and searched for Ezra’s missing bag. He tossed it to Chris as he continued to pick up the other items that they had left behind.
Chris waited a moment, for Wilmington to finish his work. Once Buck had stashed the goods, Larabee undid the clasps and opened Ezra’s bag. The gunslinger whistled long and low when he saw the contents.
“Well, what is it? Why’d that fool come all the way from Roosterville on foot!”
Without saying a word, Chris pulled a handful of greenbacks from the bag. “It’s stuffed full,” Larabee commented.
“Whooo-heee!” Buck exclaimed, crowding close to have a good look. “Lordy, how much you figure is in there?” He poked a finger in the bag, trying to find out how deep the money went.
“Can’t even begin to know,” Larabee frowned, looking at the individual bills. “Lots of small stuff here. Ones, Fives, here’s a ten.”
Buck fished out a bill and smiled. “$20! I win!” He scratched his chin as he looked at the money in his hand. “Must be a couple thousand here if nothing else. No wonder he run so far. No wonder he hid his trail.”
Chris frowned. “Where the hell did he get it?”
“He steal it?” Buck pondered.
Larabee’s frown increased and he contemplated a moment before he answered. “Wouldn’t have come back home if he had, would he?”
“Must 'ave taken it from somewhere,” Buck decided, still digging through the bag in Chris’ grasp. “Might not have been from ‘decent’ folk, but he took it from someone.”
Chris nodded in concession, then, with a quick motion, Larabee plucked the bill from Wilmington’s grasp and shoved it back with the rest He fastened the clasp and secured the bag to his saddle, saying, “Wonder what this money was supposed to buy and how did he get his grimy mitts on it?”
Morning dawned and Roosterville lived up to its name. Vin was awakened by the crowing of dozens, if not hundreds, of roosters. The town was known for its cock-fighting, and tended to draw the bad element. If something drew attention in that rough town, it must have been significant.
Vin had spent the night just outside of the town, not wanting to enter until he had a clear view of things. As he stood on the main street he noted that, even in the early hours, Roosterville was bustling with activity. There was something strange about that. Folks like this usually weren’t early risers. He watched the movements carefully.
There was too much bustle, too much energy here. Something had happened. Lots of men were loitering about, unhappy, jaded men. There was grumbling, disappointment, ire. Some looked troubled – some annoyed – some looked ready for blood. One or two lost roosters strutted about in the midst of it all.
He watched as two cowboys came together in front of the livery. Suddenly, the milling crowd came to attention, watching. The two talked. One of them gestured violently. Another pointed toward a nearby saloon and the other nodded. One of the men, Tanner noticed, wore a badge.
They moved across the street and disappeared inside the tavern. Tanner threw Peso’s reins over the nearest hitching post and followed.
He took a minute to survey the room, easily finding the men who’d caught his attention. Morning business was well underway. Cowpokes, wranglers, gamblers, storekeepers and townsfolk were starting their day with coffee, eggs, bacon and gossip.
The two men were huddled at one table, talking, gesturing, pounding fingers on the wood surface. The other men in the saloon watched them carefully, as if they, too, were waiting for something. Men from the street drifted in, crowding the tavern.
Vin sat down at the bar. He didn’t need to sit nearby; although they were trying to talk in hushed voices, the urgency of their words traveled. He ordered a mug of coffee, and did his best to mind his own business, while keeping his ears open.
Ezra was beside himself, and nothing seemed to calm him. “Please no,” he muttered. “He can’t be gone…” His voice was still hoarse, so low it was almost comical, but the words he spoke had nothing to do with humor.
“Ezra!” Nathan said sternly, giving the gambler a solid shake. “Stop this! Ezra! Wake up!”
“Please. He can’t be...What did I do?”
“Come on, Ez,” JD cried, trying to keep the southerner from throwing himself out of the bed again. “Wake up, okay?”
“What'll I do without him?”
“Ezra, son,” Josiah pleaded, keeping the gambler’s legs still. “You have to relax. This isn’t doing you any good.”
Still, Ezra, fevered and in obvious distress, shook and tossed in the small bed, begging for answers that no one had. There was no calming him. “What will I do? How can I? He can’t…no.”
“Ya gotta calm down, Ezra,” Nathan implored. “Yer just makin’ yourself sicker. Ya just gotta stop this, Ezra. Please!”
The door to the clinic swung open, bringing the three conscious men to silence. The semi-conscious one in bed continued to moan and thrash about.
“Damn,” Buck gasped.
Chris shoved the saddlebag at Buck and strode to the bed. JD and Josiah stepped back as Larabee sunk down to one knee beside the troubled man. “Ezra, Ezra…” he called, running one hand over his fevered brow, noting his pale and bruised cheek. He’d ask Nathan about that later.
“What the hell’s goin’ on?” Buck asked quietly. “Ain’t he any better?”
“Should be… should be…” Nathan said, throwing up his hands and pacing away in distress.
“He just seems to be getting worse right along,” Josiah said solemnly. “He’s just getting worse.”
“It’s about Chaucer,” JD said knowingly. “He’s really upset. What with that fever he's got, he just can't get over it. Can't think straight about it and it's eatin' him.”
“Chaucer?” Buck asked. “What about him?”
Nathan and Josiah threw Wilmington curious glances. JD looked hopeful.
“He’s dead,” Nathan reminded.
“He ain’t!” Buck insisted.
“Ezra!” Chris said firmly, clasping Ezra’s churning head in his hands. “Listen to me. Chaucer ain’t dead. He’s wherever you left ‘im. Vin’s gone to get him.” He leaned in close, reiterating slowly and distinctly, “Vin will bring Chaucer back.”
The southerner opened his fever-bright eyes and sought Chris’. “Vin?” he whispered.
“Yeah, Vin went to get him. Vin will bring Chaucer back. I swear.”
Ezra blinked, and smiled slightly, hindered by his cracked lips. The smile slipped as an anxious look took its place.
Chris cut him off before he could speak. “We got the bag, too. Don’t worry. Go to sleep. You can tell us what this is all about later.”
Ezra licked his lips and took a deep breath as if he meant to say something, but Larabee placed a heavy finger on his chest. “Sleep. That’s an order. Stop scaring Nathan. Rest, and then follow that fence on home.”
Another smile fought to form, as Ezra whispered, “Yes, sir,” and he fell almost immediately to a relaxed sleep.
Josiah, Nathan and JD all shot the two newcomers questioning looks. Wilmington shook his head, chiding them, “Now, ya’ll should know better than to put ideas into Ezra’s head when he’s poorly. He’ll take every word you say as gospel and make himself crazy over it.”
Josiah was the one to ask, “So, do you two gentlemen care to tell us what you found out?”
Buck grinned widely and pointed to the object in his hands. “It’s in the bag.”
Vin, having heard enough to satisfy his curiosity, sauntered across the street to the shop at the edge of town. He glanced up at the sign that hung over the door, recognizing its meaning – “Undertaker”. On the window was etched a few words that took a short time for the tracker to decipher, “Fox and Son.” He glanced through the window, finding no one within.
Slowly, he walked around the side of the building, finding a little stable. There was a black hearse, with a one-horse hitch, but the stall was empty. He looked about for any sign of recent equine inhabitants, finding nothing that would have been left in the past 24-hours. He was just heading back along the side of the building when a shadow came around the corner.
An elderly gentleman stepped toward him, short and wiry, with a bottlebrush of white whiskers on his chin. Vin subdued the desire to draw on this sudden but apparently harmless apparition.
“Kin I help ya?” the man asked the tracker.
His dour dress told Vin what he needed to know. Tanner held out the black jacket that he’d found. “This yours?”
The undertaker reached out a hand and took the jacket without looking at it. His gaze remained on Tanner’s face. “You’re Vin?” After the tracker nodded, the man continued, “He said you’d come. I’m Virgil Fox.”
They shook hands and Fox asked, “So Ezra made it?”
“Yup,” Vin responded. “We got him home now.”
Virgil nodded. “Good, good.” He glanced toward the street, watching as a small group of cowpokes left town. The men scowled and grumbled as they rode off. “Done what he promised,” Fox muttered.
“What’d he promise?”
Fox gave Vin a sharp look. “Said he’d keep my business to a minimum. Didn’t he tell ya anythin' about it?”
Vin grimaced. “He wasn’t exactly up to talkin’ when I seen him last. But we got him home and are takin’ care of ‘im.”
"Been in the sun too long."
“Sorry to hear that,” Fox responded. “Seems like a good enough fella.”
“You find out what’s goin’ on?” Fox cocked his head, indicating the town.
Vin nodded. “Heard enough in the saloon.”
“Yeah,” Virgil returned. “Figure there’s lots of talk goin’ on now, after what happened with that money. They were pretty closed lip't b’fore,” he said with a smug look. “Hear Ezra spirited all that money right out from under Rawlin’s nose. The windbag didn’t even know what happened.” Fox smiled foxily. “Folks might have recognized him, so Ezra borrowed some of my stuff t’do it. Figured no’un would confuse us."
"Why he come to you for help?" Vin asked, curious.
With a sigh, Vigil stated, "Don't know really. We played a hand or two. He’d heard a bit about what was goin’ on. Guess I talked, too. I weren’t too happy ‘bout it. He told me I had an honest face. Must be true 'cause he won enough off me."
"Sounds about right," Vin responded. “You the one who sent that wire?”
Shoving his thumbs into his waistband, Fox thrust out his chin and stated, “Didn’t say that, did I?”
“Nope,” Vin returned.
“Maybe I did send it. Anyway, don’t matter. Least this nonsense is over. Rawlin and Cabot’s got nothin’ left to do but stew on it.” Sucking his lip for a moment, Virgil looked contemplative. “I heard that one of Mr. Rawlin’s men took a shot at yer friend. Heard he killed my Maisey.”
Vin nodded somberly.
“Good horse, that Maisey. Didn’t have her for long, but she was a good girl. Had a peculiar sense of humor.” He shrugged and looked away. “Talk is, that Ezra shot down the man that did it. Rawlin and Cabot found the body. They tried to track ‘im, but he plumb disappeared. Just like he floated off into space.”
“More or less,” Vin replied.
“Made 'em crazy. Rawlin’s got men looking for him all over Red Rock and Roosterville, but they don’t know who the hell to look for. Only description they got is a man in a black jacket on a dark horse.” Fox chucked. “Think it scared ‘im a bit. Thought maybe some dark spirit took that money away.”
“Figure Rawlin and Cabot’s gonna stay put for a bit?”
With a nod, Fox commented, “Where else they gonna go? Rawlin’s got no money. Cabot’s supposed to be the Law. They figure they’re safe enough.” Then, with a raised white eyebrow, he asked, “‘Spect your lookin’ for something?” When Vin nodded, Fox said, “The horse’s at my son’s place. ‘Bout a mile to the north. Nice little ranch he’s got there.”
“So your boy’s ranchin’?” Vin inquired. “Not…” He nodded his head toward the shop.
“He got no interest in the business,” Virgil admitted glumly.
“So who’s the son?” When the undertaker looked confused, Vin asked, "Yer place is called, 'Fox … and Son'."
Virgil smiled, his whiskers bristling even further. “Me,” he said as he pointed one thumb to his chest, and commented, “Pappy still dabbles from time to time.” He watched as a few more cowboys rode past, heading out of town. “They’re goin’,” he commented.
“Nothin’ to hold ‘em,” Vin responded.
“Good riddance,” was Virgil’s conclusion.
The day had been appreciably cooler than those that had preceded, but Vin still waited until the hottest part of the day was past before he began his journey. He found another route, avoiding the place where Ezra had been ambushed, where Standish had lost the good horse, where he’d shot down the man who’d tried to kill him. No sense in leading those men to Four Corners. Still, there was no avoiding the long fence, and he followed it home.
Chaucer pranced alongside him, apparently enjoying the exercise. The horse had been well cared for during his short stay at Colby Fox's ranch, and didn't appear to have missed any meals. Vin gave the beast a long lead and Chaucer took advantage of it, often pulling it to full length and yanking it before trotting closer. He bumped into Peso several times, until the blazed black gave him a warning snort and bared his teeth.
“You’re a pest,” Vin told the chestnut gelding. But, the black forgave him and soon they were affably trotting side-by-side in the afternoon.
Night was falling when he returned to Four Corners. Chris stepped out of the jail as the tracker rode past. They met at the livery.
“Give you any trouble?” Chris asked, looking at the chestnut.
Vin responded with a snort. “What d’you think?” He dismounted and gave the animal in question slap on the flank. Chaucer responded by dancing away from him and pretending to nip him.
“Nothing but,” Chris replied.
“Took a turn, but he's better. Gonna be even better when he knows you got this creature back.”
“You find the bag?”
“Yup,” Chris nodded. “You know what’s in it?”
Vin nodded. “Payroll,” he replied.
“Payroll? What for?”
“Darrell Rawlin’s men.” When Chris gave him a questioning look, Vin continued, “Been savin’ up I figure. Overheard Rawlin talkin’ to the sheriff ‘bout what their plans should be now that the money’s gone.”
“Sheriff Cabot? He in on it?” Larabee asked, rubbing his chin. After Vin nodded, Chris commented, “That makes sense.”
“Sounds like they’ve been pullin’ small robberies all over the area for whatever they could get. Takin’ a little bit here and there from places from here to Clarksville.”
“That explains the list,” Chris responded. When Vin raised an eyebrow, Chris explained, “Found a list at the bottom of that bag -- business names and dollar amounts. Guess Rawlin kept track of what he took and who it came from.”
“Mighty helpful of him,” Vin said with a grin.
“Idiot,” Chris said. “Should be able to tie the robberies on him if the handwriting matches and the business owners confirm what was taken.”
“Makes things easier on us. Think he’ll give up Cabot?”
“Should,” Chris responded. “With the right persuasion.”
With a shrug, Vin continued, “Guess he finally got enough to money to hire him a gang of fellas. Wanted to take over Red Rock. Hear he didn’t care for the Law there. Cabot didn’t much like 'em either.” Vin made a face as he stated, “Seemed t’have some problems with the women folk, too. Would have been a dreadful thing.”
With a shake of his head, the gunslinger asked, “So Ezra found out about the money and just run off with it?”
Vin shrugged again. “I ‘spect he figured we might be called in to help take care of things if Rawlin had his way. You know how he is about extra work.” He smiled. “Rawlin’s got his panties in an awful twist. When all those cowboys he’d hired t’do the job heard the money was gone, they lost interest. Problem solved.”
Larabee shook his head, wondering at the simplicity. “Slippery little weasel.”
“Yeah, ain’t he?” Vin said with a laugh.
“Yeah, and he’s ours,” Chris said as he reached out toward the chestnut gelding. “Wouldn’t want it any other way.” He stroked Chaucer’s long head as the horse gave him a curious look. Then, defiantly, Chaucer jerked back his head, dodging Larabee’s hand to whack off his hat with a deft move. The gunslinger chuckled and said, “Same goes for you. Good to have you back, Chaucer.”
“Hello, my friend,” Ezra uttered as he ran his bandaged hand along the horse’s velvety muzzle. The other rested easily on the bridle. “Did you miss me? Were you lonesome? Did you miss your friends? Were you treated well?” The horse murmured as if responding to each question. Standish leaned against the animal, pressing the side of his face against Chaucer’s.
The horse chortled and tossed his head, nearly shoving his owner off his feet. Josiah and Nathan’s firm grasp kept him from disaster.
“Now, sit down, you fool!” Nathan demanded. “Before you kill yourself. Figure you still need a few more days in bed.”
Ezra grinned at his helpers as they eased him into the chair in front of the saloon. Chaucer bobbed and weaved like a boxer, playfully avoiding Buck’s hands that tried to grasp his reins. Vin, JD and Chris stood back, enjoying the antics of the horse.
“Thank you, gentlemen,” Ezra spoke sincerely. “I truly appreciate you arranging this for me. I was concerned about him. Foolish, I know, but seeing is believing.”
“Concerned? That’s one word for it,” Josiah said with a sigh.
Buck finally grasped the horse’s reins, knowing better than to trust tying him to the hitching post. “Ya gave us a fright, Ez. Gotta say, it’s damn good to see you up and around,” he told the southerner.
“I couldn’t agree more,” Ezra replied. “I think I’ve seen enough of the clinic.” He ran a thumb over his healing bottom lip, remembering some of his fever dreams and the strange behavior of that room. “Fresh air is a definite improvement.”
“Well, you’d best take it easy or you’ll be goin’ back in there,” Nathan commented. “Yer still gettin’ your strength back and that knee ain’t gonna be any good to ya if ya push it.”
“Of course, of course,” Ezra complied, carefully positioning his hurt leg on a convenient crate. “I will follow your every order.” He winked at his horse who responded with a nod, seeming to agree with the statement.
The other men didn’t believe either of them.
“Just be careful, Ezra,” Nathan sighed.
With a wistful expression Standish asked, “So the payment has been sent to Mr. Fox?”
“It was sent off this morning,” Josiah told him. “You might have waited until the judge came back with a ruling. What with that list and the money, they’ve got a pretty good case against Rawlin and Cabot. And now that they’re in custody, it’s only a matter of time. Restitution will be made.”
Ezra sighed. "He loaned the animal to me in good faith, and I was the one who lost it. One cannot drive a hearse without a horse to pull it.” He smiled then, his gold tooth flashing, “And it’s possible the amount awarded by the judge will surpass what I was able to dole out at this point.”
“We’ll see,” Chris returned. “If so, you’ll get what’s yours and the rest’ll go to Fox.”
“Pity,” Ezra responded. His smile dropped as he continued, “It was unfortunate, about the horse. Maisey really was a fine animal, and Mr. Fox had been so gracious to offer her.” He reached up a hand and rubbed Chaucer’s nose thoughtfully. “A damn shame. I did what I could to help her, but her wound was more than I could handle. Perhaps if we weren’t in the middle of nowhere or if I’d simply turned back. Perhaps if I had been better equipped. Perhaps…”
“You did all ya could, Ezra,” Chris told him. “And you gave her mercy in the end.”
Ezra nodded, his gaze down. “There was no way around it,” he admitted. “But it was a horrible pity nonetheless. She was a sweet creature.”
Josiah laid a hand on Ezra’s shoulder, wanting to break the black mood that had settled on the gambler. "Care to tell me why you risked your life for that bag of money?"
"They planned to kill innocent people, to do terrible things to the women of Red Rock." Ezra shook his head. "Something had to be done. And I am always willin’ to handle large amounts of money. It wasn't my intention to risk anything. I only meant to make a clean get-away. Once I lost my mount, I had to follow the most logical path."
"Heading across a desert at the height of summer? Can't call that logic," Josiah commented. "More like ill-logic."
"Made no sense, Ezra," Nathan added.
With a flick of his hand, Ezra said, "Exactly, which is why I chose that course. No one would suspect I'd try it, thus it made the most logical choice. No one followed, did they?" He grinned when the others shook their heads and muttered. “I came well prepared,” Ezra reminded them, holding up three fingers. “Three canteens!”
“Ya broke one,” Nathan reminded him.
“Exactly,” Ezra responded. “If I hadn’t, I would have been in fine shape, traveling only at night and during the coolest parts of the day.”
“You were out at high noon,” Buck reminded him.
“Was I?” After a perplexed look, Ezra decided, “I must have been only lookin’ for shelter. I did not intend to cause myself any harm.” He pressed a hand to his chest at this comment and was rewarded with the unbelieving glances of his compatriots. “And of the money?" he continued, to change the subject. "Certainly there’s plenty to spread around? I'm familiar with someone who could find a use for it.”
Chris smirked. “It’s goin’ back to the folks Rawlin stole it from. You provided us with a nice list to follow.”
Ezra grimaced. “I know I should have taken my cut at the beginnin’.”
“Maybe next time,” Larabee added.
Buck turned to take Chaucer back to the livery. The horse balked and reared, but Ezra cocked his head and said softly, “Behave, Chaucer,” and the animal immediately complied to amiably follow Wilmington to the stable.
“It’s a fine horse you got there, Ezra,” JD commented.
“Yes, a mighty fine horse, indeed,” Ezra agreed.
THE END - by NotTasha
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