RATING: PG for some language.. not too bad.
MAJOR CHARACTERS: Ezra and Buck
DISCLAIMERS: this is in response to a challenge thrown down to me by Tipper: The story must start with a parade, then move on to a market, and end with music. JBrooks added that the guys are looking for a 'bad guy'. This is my response.
FEEDBACK: Yes please! comments and suggestions are greatly appreciated.
DATE: November 15, 2013
By NotTasha... good for what ails you
"They're havin' a parade?" Ezra stated as he met the wall of people, blocking their path.
"It's their Founders Day celebration. 'Parently, they're pretty proud," Buck responded, as he gazed about at the hanging banners and buntings, all of them printed with CARVERTOWN in big black letters.
"Crossin' to the main courtyard just became more difficult," Ezra muttered, pulling his watch from its pocket as he elbowed his way forward.
"A few minutes won't hurt," Buck said. "Couldn't cross now if we wanted. We'll get to him soon enough."
"True," Ezra responded and smiled. "I've always enjoyed parades."
Buck grinned widely. "You and me both! I love a celebration! They're the miracle cure for an unhappy soul." And he gestured to the marching band that clamored toward them. "Seems like an overabundance of horns," he muttered.
"Founders Day?" Ezra stated. "I didn't think so many people lived in Carvertown."
"They must be in from all over," Buck speculated. "It's the big event for the year. Don't see the like of it 'round Four Corners."
They both waited as the second band went past. Their melodies clashed into cacophony. "Seems like overkill," Buck stated in Ezra's ear to be heard over the brass.
Ezra winced as an instrument in the latest group let out a loud 'honk'. "Quite the spectacle."
The next band played a familiar tune. Ezra winced, knowing what would happen. "Dear God, no…"
And, as expected, Buck broke out in an even bigger smile, singing along with gusto, "Buffalo Gals won't you come out tonight! Come out tonight! Come out tonight…"
"Not again," Ezra muttered.
"Come on, Ezra, join in! 'And dance by the light of the mooooon.'" He drew out the last syllable like a cow lowing.
"If it isn't Buffalo Gals, it's…" and Ezra stopped himself before mentioning the dreaded 'Oh, Susannah'.
"Can't help myself, Ezra. I just gotta sing along. 'As I was walking down the street, down the street, down the street, a pretty little girl I chanced to meet, and she was fair to see!'"
The melody carried over the next group, puppeteers reenacting the founding of Carvertown. One puppeteer carried a papier-mâché rock on a stick, and another puppet looked as if it was trying to mate with it.
Still humming the tune, Buck paused long enough to say, "From what I've heard, the fella who started this place was pretty full of himself."
"Doug Carver," Ezra supplied, nodding. "Yes, he claimed was kin to the royalty of England." He dipped his head a little, adding, "It's doubtful."
The folks around them pressed closer as the puppeteers frolicked past, and the next group approached. Ezra leaned out into the street to see.
Buck grasped the conman by his collar and jerked him back, nearly knocking him into a row of spectators. "You're blockin' my view," Wilmington complained.
"Of this?" Ezra gestured emphatically up the street, where men on horses approached. "Hardly worth the trouble."
Buck made a face, and then draped an arm over Ezra's shoulder so that he could turn him in the correct direction. "No," he said in a low voice. "That's what I'm tryin' to see." And a smile spread as he gazed across, unhindered, at the three lovely ladies on the opposite side of the street. "Now, that's a sight worth coming out for." He waggled his fingers in a little wave at them.
Ezra chuckled and took in the view. "On this, I must emphatically agree." And he turned his most beguiling expression on the ladies.
But the women paid them no mind. They were eagerly watching the boisterous parade. They twittered among themselves, drinking from bottles and waving little flags.
"I don't really mind the mustache," Buck said, pointing to the shortest of the three.
"It becomes her," Ezra stated running a finger over his upper lip, and then turned as the next group came alongside them.
Buck frowned and leaned his weight on Ezra. "Are they supposed to be knights or something?"
"Or something…" Ezra repeated, as he shook off Buck's arm.
The group wore facsimiles of armor – pieces of tin partially wrapped around their legs, arms and chests, tied on with twine. Miners' helmets crested their heads with plumes of chicken feathers. They rode with a stiffness that could either be explained as 'regal' or maybe they couldn't move at all in their makeshift finery.
"Is that what armor looks like?" Buck asked in a low voice. "'Cause, I wouldn't want to go up against anyone in that."
"I worked for a short time in a museum devoted to armory," Ezra stated, "Just a short soirée between more lucrative causes. And I can attest that this is nothing close to authentic." He smiled wistfully as he remembered. "It was a place jam-packed with all manner of armor and, for some time, I had led patrons astray, sayin' that the Maximilian style of armament was created because a certain Emperor Maximilian had six toes on each foot, and required the extra room in his…"
The crowd sent up a round of "Huzzahs". The three women were shouting at one of the men, an apparent "Sir Vincent".
The 'knights' bobbed their heads, accepting the adulation. One of them lifted his helmet and waved it, but he lost his grip and it clattered to the ground. He looked embarrassed, and kept up with his position in the procession.
Next, an overburdened dray trundled toward them, pulled by four beautiful Percherons. The crowd put up the largest cheer yet.
"What's that all about?" Buck asked, peering at the festooned wagon.
"A rock," Ezra muttered. "It's just a big rock." And indeed, a big gray rock sat in the midst of patriotic drapery and CARVERTOWN banners.
"Must be the Founder's Rock," Buck decided.
"Ah yes, as the puppet show was trying portray, Mr. Carter stepped onto that rock to survey the land, and proclaimed the area suitable for his town," Ezra filled in. "So they take this important stone on rides through the town on Founder's Day. Doesn't seem that wise. It is, after all, a rock. A very big rock."
The band behind the dray starting playing Buffalo Gals, and Buck sang with glee, "Buffalo Gals won't you come out tonight, and dance by the light of the moon. I stopped her and we had a talk, had a talk, had a talk, but her feet took up the whole sidewalk and left no room for me."
Buck grinned across at the ladies as he bellowed out the song. One of women may have heard him because she raised an eyebrow at him.
"Would you please stop that?" Ezra snipped.
"I can't. I really can't," Buck responded. "Once that song gets into my noggin' there ain't no gettin' it out. 'Buffalo Gals won't you come out tonight…'"
"I can find ways to make you stop," Ezra grumbled. "A crowbar might work."
The big horses strained to keep moving on the slow slope of the street, and the driver, spotting the dropped helmet, adjusted the path to avoid it.
It was then that the rock shifted. Onlookers let out a startled gasp as the wagon tilted and the rock pressed against the wooden slats that ineffectually surrounded it. The boards shattered, going off like gunshots. The horses reared in surprise, jerking the wagon to a stop. A wheel collapsed and, inevitably, the big rock rolled off the side of the wagon, where it smacked to the ground.
People ran, screaming as if they'd seen one of the signs of the apocalypse.
The force of the fall was enough to cleave the relic, splitting off one side – and a sending out a smattering of shards that rolled out over the street.
Behind the wagon, two bands came to a halt in a hail of blats and bellows.
"Now's our chance," Buck said, grabbing Ezra by the arm, "Let's go find our guy before someone tries to get us to help with the cleanup. Time is wasting!"
Ezra heartily agreed and the two hurried across the street. The ladies, sadly, had disappeared.
They dodged through the remainder of the crowd, and then found the way to the main courtyard of Carvertown, where the weekly market was in full swing.
Booths had been set up throughout the courtyard. Some vendors had pulled in their wagons. Others had placed tables and a few permanent structures had been built along the edges. Sellers looked up in surprise at the unexpected influx of jabbering potential customers now that the parade had come to an abrupt end.
Ezra and Buck moved through the market, past a woman who was selling scarves, and then a man selling pocket watches. Here was a man displaying warm woolen socks, and there a women vending amber jewelry. Ezra paused when they came across a man who was selling clever boxes that were disguised as books, but Buck pulled him onward.
There were apple carts everywhere, and someone was selling what appeared to be medieval weapons. "Is that a dagger which I see before me?" Ezra quipped as he passed, and seemed to think he was very clever.
Buck hummed Buffalo Gals in response. That shut Ezra up.
There were banners that declared that an Oktoberfest was in progress, but the two saw very little sign of anything German when they went through the food sellers.
Someone was trying to sell lobster rolls and was attracting no business whatsoever.
Finally, they reached the far side of the courtyard, and there, they found the permanent structure owned by Ned Higgins. The sign above his window stated "Crazy Ned's Donuts". He was looking out of his serving window, watching the muttering crowd flowing into the area.
A delicious scent wafted from his business.
"What's going on?" he asked when the pair drew near. "The parade is supposed to be going on for a while yet." He cocked his head. "All that honking and hooting stopped, too. Is it over?"
"Over and finished," Buck said, leaning against the display area. "Along with your Founder's Rock."
Ned didn't look as if he understood, but he nodded, trying to look intelligent. "Oh," he said. "Did you want doughnuts?" He nodded to his fryer. "Fresh and hot!" And then he pulled a tray from under his counter – showing off a half-dozen of the delicacies.
Both of the law keepers paused and gazed at the tray of amazing looking pastries, so recently fried and perfectly powdered. They glistened in their wonderfulness. "There's real maple in the frosting, and I use a little bacon in the mix," Ned said confidentially with a little wink. "Salty and sweet. It brings out the flavor."
The doughnuts looked ambrosial, daring the two hungry lawmen to partake. So close…so easily taken and eaten.
Ezra cleared his throat to break the spell and stated, "We are here on business. We need to speak to you about Joshua Sommers."
All pretense of amiability fell from Ned's face. "Don't know him," he bit off, and hastily returned the tray of doughnuts to its place below the counter. Both Buck and Ezra gasped a little to see the pastries disappear so quickly.
"What about his fiancé, Amy Davis?" Buck added. "We hear that you're related."
Ned lowered his eyes. "Leave my cousin out of this," he muttered. "She didn't know how slippery he could be. He's a thug."
Buck casually leaned one elbow on the little counter, and spoke confidentially, "We understand that they're travelin' together. We just need to talk to him. No need to involve your cousin in the matter."
"We might be able to disentangle her from him if he causes any trouble," Ezra included.
Ned raised his gaze finally and told them, "You'd get him locked up and let her go?"
Buck and Ezra exchanged a glance. "If that is appropriate…" Ezra responded.
Ned harrumphed. "He's up to no good. Selling potions and mixes. Telling lies. He deserves to get taken away."
"And do you know where he is?" Ezra asked.
"They've got their wagon set up down yonder," he finally said, gesturing toward the other side of the Market, "behind the Union Hotel. They sell all sorts of nonsense there, none of it good. You get him, but keep Amy out of this."
"We'll do our best," Buck stated, touching the brim of his hat and turned to go.
"Wait a minute," Ned said quickly. "Doughnuts? You'd like one, wouldn't you? I have some of my best ones right here."
Ezra pulled a coin from his pocket and set it on the counter. "We'll take two," he stated with a grin.
Ned looked under his counter. "Hang on a tick," he said as he moved things about, clattering about. Finally pulling a small tray free. "These are made with caramel and bourbon. Some say, they're the best. I just have these two left. Will have to make some more, but you guys lucked out."
Ezra's eyes lit up as he pulled one from the tray. There was so much glaze, they sat in a puddle of the gooey stuff.
Buck regarded the remaining doughnut a moment before saying, "I want one of those maple and bacons." He jabbed at the counter. "And hurry it up, we gotta get moving."
Buck and Ezra paused a moment to eat the pastries as they watched from beneath a big oak tree. Josh was working from a wagon while Amy wandered nearby, looking rather useless. He was trying to drum up interest in his wares, but nobody seemed very interested in the purported capabilities of his concoctions.
"Not bad," Buck said as he poked the last of this doughnut into his mouth. "Mmmm, delicious."
"If a bit overly sweet," Ezra commented. "And sticky."
"Should've gotten the maple one," Buck said, brushing at his sugar-speckled mustache with the back of his hand. "Nothing is better than bacon."
"Bourbon?" Ezra tried, but he didn't look entirely enthused about his choice. "I usually enjoy caramel…"
Buck said, "We'd best send a wire to Nathan. Find out how things are going, and let him know that we've tracked down the guy that sold the elixir. He can call the others home while we figure it out here."
Ezra licked his coated fingers before pulling a bottle from his pocket "We haven't seen Mr. Sommers sell the item in question," Ezra stated. It was a pale blue bottle with a label that read 'Special Marvelous Miracle Cure Elixir – guaranteed to cure sleeplessness, brain fever, headache, neuralgia, toothache, impaired vision, stomach ailments and dysfunctions.'"
"The image resembles him somewhat," Standish said, running his thumb over the simple print of a good-looking man with shortish hair. "Could be me for that matter, maybe even you." He held up the bottle at Buck, and peered at him with one eye, then frowned and shook his head. "Maybe not."
With a shrug, Ezra put the bottle back into his pocket and continued to consume the doughnut. "Sleeplessness, of course, is a bit of an understatement. I am hoping that Mr. Jackson has found something to help with those poor souls stricken in his clinic. It didn't appear as if anything would awaken them." And he licked his fingers again. "Sticky," he remarked. He sucked at his thumb.
"Hopefully we can get the cure from these folks, and wake those fellows up."
Ezra shuddered a little. "I can't imagine how horrible it would be in such a state, asleep and unable to wake."
"Well, Nate's hoping they'll wake up on their own. Still, we'll find out if this fella can tell us what's in it," Buck said. "It don't look as if he's gonna be showing it off to just anyone."
Ezra nodded. "He did seem to choose his targets carefully in Four Corners. He particularly singled out Mr. Walden and the Mr. Charles," Ezra said. "And then he fled town immediately afterward. His actions were suspicious. His manner is, indeed, somewhat slippery."
"Yeah, he meant to do what he did," Buck confirmed.
"We should contact the local sheriff," the gambler stated. "This may get ugly, and you know how we all dislike ugly."
"Keep an eye on him," Buck stated. "I'll go find the law."
Ezra nodded and leaned back against the tree. "I'll be ever watchful," he replied.
And Buck walked off, singing "Buffalo Gals, won't you come out tonight…"
"Enough, Mr. Wilmington!" Ezra shouted after him.
"…And dance by the light of the moon," Buck mumbled as he moved through the street.
He took long enough to stop at the telegraph office to send off a message to Nathan, letting him know that they'd located the man who'd sold the tainted concoction. Chris and Vin had headed west that morning, following a different lead. Josiah and JD had searched closer to town. Now that they'd located Mr. Sommers, it was time to regroup.
After sending his message, Buck hurried to the town's jail, finding it empty. With that, he made his way up the street through the remains of the parade and the crowd that hadn't entirely dispersed. Musicians wandered about, looking lost. Puppeteers and a few errant knights chatted. A man with a dragon on his back was scaring children.
The wreckage of the big rock and cart still filled the center of the street, blocking easy travel. It didn't look as if the stone would be moving in the near future. The heavy wagon was destroyed, and the one they'd brought in to replace it didn't look up to the job. They'd need some sort of hoist to lift the rock, and unfortunately, whatever had been used in the first place, was probably back where the stone originated. At that moment, all they'd managed was to further block the main street.
Wilmington found the local law keepers standing around, looking annoyed as they listened to everyone offering suggestions on how to move the thing. An old man was shouting the people who were rushing in to grab a souvenir, telling them that they were stealing their heritage.
That must have been Doug Carver, Buck figured, the founder himself.
Sidling up to one of the peacekeepers, Buck said, "I need your help in apprehending a man."
The deputy gave him a slow look. "I'm kinda busy," he mumbled. "Just look at this mess." He gestured, slowly raising one hand to the issue.
"You want to help clean it up?" Buck asked the man. "Or you want to investigate something worthwhile?"
The deputy glanced to the shattered rock and then hitched his belt as he turned toward Wilmington, "Who's this person you need to 'apprehend'?"
Buck nodded gratefully and headed back toward the market. "His name is Josh Sommers."
"Don't know him," the man replied, following.
"He's not from around here. He's traveling with a woman who's kin to Ned Higgins."
"Crazy Ned, the Doughnut Man?"
"That's the guy."
"Hmmm," the deputy responded. "I'm Phil, by the way. Phillip Parker."
"Buck Wilmington," the ladies' man replied, extending a hand. "I'm here with Ezra Standish and we're the law from Four Corners."
Phil shook Buck's hand and let out a low whistle. "I've heard of you all," he drawled.
"Yeah," Buck responded, not knowing what to say about that. "Seems like word gets around..."
Phil furrowed his brow. "What did Sommers do?"
"He sold a miracle cure to some folks in Four Corners. Two men took it, and they fell into a sleep. Nobody can wake 'em. We got a mighty fine healer in town, and he's done just about everything, but it's been two days now and it's worrying."
"That's not good," Phil summarized.
"Nathan figured that the man who sold it might know the cure. If nothing else, he can tell us what was in the bottle so that Nathan'd have a means of figuring out what to do. It'd help if we could get Sommers locked up. Be easier to question him that way."
Phil nodded, but said, "Don't know if we can hold a man for that, but I 'spect I can help you as much as I can. Where is he?"
"The market," Buck replied, pointed toward the area. "Fixed up with a wagon full of snake oil and such."
Phil grimaced, "I hate those sort. Wish we could just lock him up for that."
A kid clattered down the boardwalk. He held up his hands to stop the pair and flapped a piece of paper at them.
"You're tall!" the kid shouted when he reached Buck. "Good thing you're tall. I could see you all the way down from the telegraph office." He held the paper toward Buck, but close enough to his chest to make it obvious that he expected something before he'd give it up.
Buck fished a coin out of his pocket and handed it to the kid before the message reached him. The boy ran off, dodging through the remainder of the crowd.
"Hell," Buck muttered as he read the note. "Damn…"
"What's wrong?" Phil asked as he started toward the market again.
With a discontented look, Buck shook his head. "We had two people sick in Four Corners. Two folks who just wouldn't wake up. One of them died this afternoon. Just stopped breathing after a while."
Phil stopped a moment, his face slack. "That's murder then," he said. "We can lock Sommers up for that."
Buck nodded with conviction. "Let's go get him. Their wagon's just over here."
The wagon was still in place, but its occupants were gone when they arrived. Buck glanced to the oak tree, searching for Ezra, he was missing as well.
A movement caught his eye, and Buck turned to find Ezra gesturing to them from the rear entrance of the hotel. Once he knew that he was spotted, Ezra ducked inside.
Phil mumbled as he followed Buck, "Those folks definitively ain't from around here."
When Buck reached the doorway, he turned to Phil. "Why you say that?"
The deputy chuckled. "Place is haunted by some accounts. Most of the locals won't set foot in the Union."
"You believe in that?"
Phil shrugged. "Plenty think it's hogwash, but most folks steer clear. We get called here all the time. People are always thinkin' that someone is in their room. I'll tell ya, I prefer to only go in durin' the daylight."
They caught sight of Standish at the entrance to the lounge. When Phil and Buck reached him, the gambler said, "It appears they acquired enough ill-gotten gains to allow for a repast." He met the deputy's gaze and nodded a greeting.
Josh and Amy were enjoying a cup of tea and some small sandwiches in the otherwise empty parlor. Amy had found a pretty couch and was enjoying its comfort. It was a peaceful scene, and as far as Buck was concerned, the hotel seemed like a pleasant-enough place.
When the three men approached the table, the pair looked up quickly, Josh with an expression of defiance while Amy smiled and said, "Hello."
"Josh Sommers?" Deputy Parker said. "We need to ask you some questions."
Josh tensed and dropped his hands from the table to his sides. Ezra and Buck's hands instantly settled on their guns, while Phil fixed Josh with a stern look. Amy bit her lip and hunched her shoulders as if she could disappear into the couch.
"Mr. Sommers, we need to discuss a certain elixir that you have been selling," Ezra stated. "A potion that you sold recently in the town of Four Corners has caused harm to our citizens."
Josh went white. "I had nothing to do with that!" he stated.
Ezra put on a look of befuddlement. "How strange," he said, reaching into his pocket to proffer the pale blue bottle, "because your likeness is printed right here." He pointed to the image. "It does resemble you…somewhat."
Amy smiled. "I drew it up," she said proudly. "I'm an artist."
Josh rolled his eyes. "We make lots of labels. Lots of bottles. We sell something for everyone. And someone might have faked that one to make us look bad. That could be anyone."
Amy helpfully stated, "I drew it right after you had your haircut and you looked so nice and neat." She reached a hand to his head. "You could use a trim, honey."
Buck leaned on the table and stared down at the two. "What we're asking about is the contents. You put something in that bottle that killed a man, that's gonna kill another. We need to know what you did."
Ezra also looked surprise at the news.
Josh waved his hands frantically. "It wasn't me! I had nothing to do with it!"
"You sold it to those men!" Buck growled. "They told us that you were very particular in selling them that bottle. That you sought them out harangued them until they took it from you."
Ezra examined the bottle in his hand as he said, "Mr. Charles suffered from cataracts, and you told him that this was the miracle cure for his issue, would give him clear eyes and perfect vision. Mr. Walden suffered from a difficult stomach, and you informed him that this would cure all ailments of the alimentary canal. You knew what they suffered from, and sold particularly to that infirmity."
"I was told to," Josh said and he gazed at Amy. "I was told to sell them that particular mix."
"It was the witch!" Amy said, jumping to her feet. "The witch told him to do it!"
"The witch?" Buck repeated, looking between the two.
"Wanda?" Phil asked, his hands on his hips as he glared down at the two. "Was it Wanda the Wooster Witch?"
"Yes!" Amy shouted, nodding earnestly. "Wanda made us do it. She told us to bring it specifically to Four Corners and give it specifically to those two folks. Told us to do it. Told us what to say and do and everything. She's evil. She's a witch!"
Phil seemed to chew on this idea for a moment before he confirmed. "Word is, Wanda learned all sorts of medicine from the local tribes and from a Caribbean woman."
"She's a witch?" Ezra repeated, and leaned against the back of one chair.
Phil grimaced. "Aw, I wouldn't call her that. She helps when she can. She's a healer, I guess."
Buck and Ezra both nodded, knowing that a healer was sometimes the best thing you could have.
"She made us do it!" Amy said again, waving her hands around.
Phil shrugged. "She probably made the stuff, if it actually worked. Can't think these two could manage anything on their own."
Josh stood, and grasped Amy's arm. "So, yeah, you should go after Wanda and leave us out of it."
"Put your hands up," Phil ordered. "You're coming with me."
Josh scowled, but did as he was told. Amy did the same, smiling prettily at them. Phil and Buck moved forward to corral them. Ezra paused, his hands on the back of the chair as he watched Amy.
Josh and Amy were moved to the jail under the watch of another of the lawmen, while Ezra and Buck followed Phil to the telegraph office, where a message was sent to Wooster to detain Wanda.
"Who?" Ezra asked Buck quietly. "Who did we lose?"
"Charles," Buck responded.
Ezra sighed. "All he wanted was to see the world clearly again. It's a pity." After a moment, he asked, "And what about Mr. Walden?"
Buck shrugged. "Cam's still asleep. Nate's worried. He was hoping he's snap out of it by now."
"His poor children," was all Ezra could say.
A telegram came back very quickly from Wooster, saying that the witch was very angry and claiming innocence, saying that Sommers had come to her and specifically requested three bottles of the sleeping potion. She stated that she would travel to Four Corners immediately with the cure.
Ezra sent a missive to Nathan, informing him of Wanda's approach, and to warn him to be wary of her. Phil had vouched for the woman, but there was no telling who was truly guilty at that moment. Perhaps she was going to Four Corners to finish off the last of her victims?
With that complete, the three headed back toward the jail.
Buck started singing again, his voice just over a whisper, "'I asked her if she'd have a dance, have a dance, have a dance. I thought that I might have a chance to shake a foot with her.'"
Ezra scowled. "What did I tell you about that song? Enough, Mr. Wilmington!"
"I can't help it. It's stuck in my head. It ain't goin' away until something dislodges it."
"Then dislodge it, please."
"Doesn't work that way," Buck said. "Somethin's gotta work its way in there and… supplant it." And he grinned widely at Ezra. "Supplant!" he said again.
"Wonderful," Ezra grumbled. "Now to find something large enough to knock a Buffalo Girl out of your head."
"It'll take a miracle. 'Buffalo Gals, won't you come out tonight, come out tonight, come out tonight…' OOF!" his song was bitten off by an elbow to the ribs.
"Not nice!" Buck declared, rubbing his injured torso.
"Not likely!" Buck shot back, as they trailed behind Phil. He hummed a little before changed the subject and asked, "What do you think about the news from Wanda?"
"Three bottles and only two victims."
"Yeah, so there's another still out there."
"Sommers might've used it in another town," Ezra commented. "If one person had fallen into this sickness, it might not have been so obvious. We had two instances in Four Corners, so there was reason for concern," and he yawned into his hand.
"We gotta find out what happened to that other bottle." Buck shook his head. "What do you think they're up to? What is this all about?"
Ezra shrugged. "Hard to say. I do think that Amy knows more than she's saying," Ezra said, slowing in his stride. "I think they're both more aware… than they're letting on."
"Yeah," Buck responded. "They're definitely up to something."
"At least the cure is on the way to Four Corners." Ezra stumbled a moment, catching himself on Buck.
Wilmington stopped, taking a moment to steady Ezra and gave him a good look.
"What?" Ezra returned. "What's the matter?" His pupils were too large and his eyes unfocused.
"Damn it, Ezra," Buck mumbled. "Damn it!" He'd seen Mr. Walden in Nathan's clinic. He'd seen Mr. Charles – had seen those same unfocused eyes. "What the hell did you do?"
"What did I do?" Ezra repeated, sounding a little lost. He blinked. "I'm only a little tired."
"Like hell," Buck muttered, his voice filled with concern.
"What happened?" Phil asked, turning to find out why they had fallen behind.
"It's got him, too," Buck said, perplexed, and then he grimaced at a realization. "The bottle! He was holding that bottle when he ate the damn doughnut! There must have been some of the stuff stuck on the outside! Licked his fingers. Damn it, Ezra!"
Ezra frowned, and he blinked as he tried to explain, "My fingers were sticky… I had to do something."
"We'll need to call Wanda back to Wooster," Buck proclaimed. "There's no stops between Wooster and Four Corners, so they can't reach her by telegram along the way. She's the only one who knows about this stuff. If we send a runner, they can turn her 'round."
"But what about Mr. Walden?" Ezra asked. "He's in greater need than I. He has three motherless children." Standish sat in the telegraph office with his head on the counter, nestled in his arms. "We cannot leave them orphans."
Buck let out a breath. "We send someone to get the recipe from her, and that person can get back to Wooster and relay it to us."
Ezra's eyes blinked slowly. "Mr. Charles died this morning. Mr. Walden came down with the … sickness very shortly after Charles." He yawned cavernously. "If I know anything about these sorts of potions, it will take some time to describe how to make another batch. We cannot delay Miss Wanda another moment if we mean to save Walden. We delayed enough in getting this far."
"She's well on her way and can relay the recipe once… she reached Four Corners." Ezra gave Buck a sleepy smile. "I have taken in only a small amount of this potion, only the residue on the bottle. A tiny fraction of what the others consumed. I am merely a little sleepy. It took the better part of a day for either man to completely fall asleep, and two days for Mr. Charles to give in. I have plenty of time."
"You look pretty damn sleepy."
"I'm awake," Ezra protested. "I had a long night, and was awakened ridiculously early this morning to begin this journey." Ezra opened his eyes wide to prove Buck was wrong, and sat up stiffly. "I'm fine," he told him. "And if she proves to be the culprit in all this, I'll be spared her 'cure'. She can test it on Mr. Walden." And he gave Buck a crafty smile, but it fell into a sad expression. "Three children… Lord, I hope she's the real thing."
"Phil thinks she's okay, and he seems like a decent sort," Buck responded. "She has a cure. I'm counting on that. When she reaches Four Corners, she can wire us what we need to know."
"I suppose that means we have to tell Nathan what happened…" Ezra said with a reluctant tone. "He won't be pleased with me."
"Not at all."
And with a sigh, the gambler stood. "Later, though. No need to pester him with this news until Wanda reaches town, which won't be for a few hours. What good will it do at this point besides vexing him? Our time is better spent elsewhere."
So, the two headed back to the jail.
The questioning of Josh and Amy brought little new information. The pair stated that they'd been peddling their healing potions when they stopped in Wooster. It was there that Wanda approached them, acting secretive and mysterious. She was very interested in what they were selling and asked many questions.
"She wanted to learn our secrets," Amy provided.
When Wanda heard where they were headed next, she asked them to bring the bottles with them, asked that they be sure to give them to a Mr. Walden and a Mr. Charles. They were instructed to be devious about it, to put it in the hands of those men, but make it seem as if the men had a choice in the matter.
They said that she never explained why she wanted Walden and Charles to receive the brew. Questioning about the third bottle brought mixed results, and soon the two were so confused they didn't seem to remember how many bottles were in their possession at any time.
Realizing that they had retrieved all they could from the pair, Ezra and Buck moved to the boardwalk in front of the jail, leaving Phil to try again.
"We'll send that wire to Nathan now," Buck said.
"Agreed," Ezra said with a yawn as he checked his watch. "I don't trust either of those two in there. They are definitely hiding something. If Wanda is behind this, then why did she insist on three bottles when there were only two?" Ezra asked. "I believe she is innocent in all this, but I don't see how Sommers and Davis are behind it entirely. There is some other …" and he stopped speaking.
"Some other what?" Buck tried. The gambler was staring now, out into the distance. "Ezra, you need to sit down?"
Ezra blinked slowly. "Might be... a good idea… " he muttered. "I'm not so bad… there hasn't been enough time for…" He blinked again, slower, then moved as if he meant to return to the jail, but he made a quiet, "Oh…" and collapsed entirely.
Buck shot forward, snagging Ezra by the arm before Standish fell entirely to the boardwalk, saving him from cracking his head.
"Ezra!" Buck shouted. "Ezra!" and he slapped the gambler's face lightly, and then with a heavier hand, but there was no response. Ezra didn't stir.
"Damn it!' Buck snarled. "It was only a trace! He only got a trace of it!" He looked around wildly for help, finally pounding on the jail door to call for Phil.
The door jerked open as Buck sat down on the boardwalk. He pulled Ezra's head into his lap.
The town's doctor was already busy with the aftermath of failed attempts to remove the rock (many strained backs), parade performers injuries (several twisted ankles and a tuba player with heat stroke), and food poisoning (from the few people who'd managed to find a bratwurst seller at the market and one unfortunate soul who had sampled the lobster roll). The doctor had no time to deal with a mysterious sleeping sickness.
Wilmington considered settling Ezra in the jail to keep him nearby, but the cells with cots were filling up with drunks from the celebration. There was no bed in the holding cell within the jail office.
So, Buck booked a room at the only place that still had space, and settled Ezra into the Union Hotel.
Ezra hadn't moved in the slightest, had shown no sign of waking.
The town was busy with everyone in town for the festivals, so Buck could find no trustable soul to sit with Ezra. All of the whores were already occupied, and the hotel staff was having one of the few busy days of the year.
Reluctantly, after ensuring that the conman was comfortable, Buck left. He knew from Nathan's experience with the others that Ezra would sleep quietly now.
Buck had no explanation. If Ezra had been poisoned merely from the residue on the bottle, then why had it affected him so quickly? Of course, Ezra had been carrying the bottle all day. It had possibly been poisoning him slowly all the time they were traveling.
Buck went to search Josh's wagon for the last bottle, and if he couldn't find it, hopefully he'd find something in their supplies that could be used to make the cure.
The wagon was where it had been left, although the market had buttoned up for the night. The entrances to the courtyard had been chained shut for the evening to keep out the drunks, but Buck entered easily from the rear of the Union Hotel, knowing that the wagon was conveniently parked just outside.
Buck pulled on his gloves before touching anything. He wasn't going to run into the same pitfall that had captured Ezra. In his search, he found, along with some personal belongings, a small printing press for making labels, dozens of empty brown bottles and a good amount of concoctions ready for sale – all in the same simple bottles. The elixir was in a pretty blue bottle, and nothing matched that style.
Also, hidden in a compartment, he found ingredients, rot-gut whiskey and a series of packets containing various herbs. Most of them were quickly identifiable as rosemary, mint, lavender, sage, bay leaf. They were items that would add flavor and scent and little more. Nothing that would cause someone to fall into a wakeless sleep, and nothing that could apparently pull them out of it.
There was no sign of the third blue bottle, no sign of the cure.
Of course, nothing could be easy.
He was about to step down from the wagon, when a voice called out.
Buck startled at the sudden appearance of Ned Higgins, standing beside the wagon with a lit tin lantern in one hand, and a tray in the other.
"Where'd you come from?" Wilmington asked.
Ned nodded toward his doughnut shop. "Just shut down. I was going to bring the leftovers to the restaurant. They'll serve them up there." Then he asked, "Did you catch him?"
"Josh?" he asked. "Yeah, we got him. A man died in Four Corners because of what he did. He's going to be tried for murder."
Ned nodded at this news. "And Amy?" he asked.
Buck shrugged. "Well, the law usually goes easier on the ladies. We don't know how involved she was, but she knows something."
"Doesn't seem right. She doesn't deserve to suffer for what that man did. You said you'd protect her."
"We'd keep her safe from Josh if that was the case. If she had anything to do with poisoning those men, then she'll go to trial, too."
Ned grimaced. "That wasn't what I wanted."
With a frustrated movement, Buck slammed the little cupboard shut. "Well, this isn't what anyone wanted."
"Where's your friend?" Ned asked.
Buck furrowed his brow. "He's sick, too. Dammit, that concoction got to him, and if I don't this figured out, he's going to die, too." He shook his head, not wanting to consider losing Ezra like that.
"It's a pity," Ned said with a nod. "Wish I could help."
"Yeah…" Buck responded, not knowing what else to say. Fed up, he stepped down from the wagon.
Ned gave Buck a commiserating look. "I can offer you a doughnut. It's not much, but you're probably hungry." He held the tray out to Buck, caramel bourbon donuts. "The one in front is fresh."
Buck nodded and smiled. "It'd certainly be welcome. You make damn fine pastries."
As Buck reached toward the freshest doughnut, Ned asked a low voice, "Which one of those men died?"
Buck paused in his motion and his gaze drifted up to meet Ned's. "Why should you care?" Buck asked.
"Just curious. Curious is all," Ned responded. But his hands trembled.
Buck glanced at the 'fresh' doughnut, the one in front, so thick with glaze, so tempting, so sticky. He looked again at Ned, and saw fear.
"You son of a bitch!" Wilmington growled and lunged for Ned.
Ned let out a yelp as he flung the tray at Buck and dropped the lantern under the wagon where it rolled away. He ran, darting across the courtyard.
"You poisoned Ezra!" Buck shouted as he sprinted after Ned. The doughnut… the damn doughnut!
Ned grasped the top corner of a booth, slamming it down behind him. Buck shouted in frustration at the barricade and stumbled over it.
Ned dodged him, upsetting an apple cart. Wilmington stumbled through the jumbled globes, falling to his knees as he almost twisted an ankle.
The doughnut man ducked down another row, fleeing toward the other side of the courtyard. He snagged a crowbar as he ran, prepared for the chained gate at the end of the row. When he reached the gate, he lifted the crowbar, jamming it into the gate, and gave it one terrific shove and absolutely failed to pry open the door.
And then Buck was on him. Wilmington slung him down hard against the wall. Outside the gate, people peered at them, curious about the commotion.
Ned fought, but Buck wasn't about to let him loose.
Back at the jail, the cells were filling up. The three culprits in the miracle cure situation were placed in a holding pen in the jail office, away from the other cells that were currently loaded to capacity with rabble-rousers from the celebration.
After dropping Ned at the jail, Buck finally sent the wire to Nathan and Wanda telling them about Ezra. He begged for any help they could offer.
Then, since he had to wait for an answer, he made his way to the hotel, to Room 5, finding Ezra still sleeping peacefully.
For several minutes, Buck sat on the side of the bed, trying to wake Ezra without any luck. No jostling or cajoling would do the trick. Ezra's hands felt cool to the touch, and his face was so slack and emotionless.
Ezra breathed slowly and deeply, and when Buck lifted an eyelid, the pupil beneath didn't move.
"We'll get this figured out, Ezra," Buck promised. "Don't fret. I won't let this thing get you. I promise you that. I'll make sure you wake up okay." And he patted Ezra on the shoulder.
He waited another moment before he finally stood. "I'll be back soon as I can," he promised before slowly leaving the room.
Outside, it was growing dark and Buck groaned, wondering if he'd waited too long to send the wire. He knew Winston in Four Corners would be willing to send a message after hours, but he wasn't sure if the man at the Carvertown telegraph office would remain at his position to receive the response.
It took two days for Charles to die. Considering that, they had plenty of time to get the cure to Ezra. But Ned had poisoned Ezra this afternoon, and it had affected Standish much quicker than the other two men. Walden and Charles had each taken a spoonful of their elixir. There was no telling how much of it was soaked into that doughnut. And Buck remembered Ezra's low tolerance for medicines. They always seemed to affect him more than anyone else.
Finally with a sigh, Buck stood to return to the jail to get answers.
Amy looked annoyed at her cousin. She crossed her arms over her chest and stood in the corner so that she didn't have to look at him. Josh paced. Ned grumbled.
"So, you gonna tell us what's going on?" Buck asked. "You care to tell me why my friend got poisoned? You'd better hurry up, 'cause I need to go back and keep an eye on him, and I got no patience left."
"It wasn't our fault!" Amy wailed.
"It was his idea!" Josh said, pointing a finger at Ned. "Crazy Ned! I never should have gotten mixed up with his family."
Ned glowered. "It wasn't me."
"You poisoned my friend!" Buck repeated.
Ned looked away. "You all were gettin' too close. I would've gotten both of you, but you insisted on the maple bacon. I figured the caramel bourbon would hide the taste better. Bourbon would be good for covering up a medicine taste."
"Ned!" Josh shouted. "What the hell? Why are you telling them everything?"
"How could you be so stupid!" Amy shot at him. "Stupid Ned! So very stupid! I bet you even pointed us out to them!"
"I was trying to get you out of it, Amy!" Ned said. "It's all Josh's fault. He put you up to this."
"Stop lying, stupid Ned!" Amy said again. "I don't need your help."
"Really? What have you done besides run away and hide whenever things got bad?" Ned shot back at her. "You're useless, Amy."
"Just stop it," Josh said, making placating gestures as he backed away from them.
But both Ned and Amy said, "Shut up, Josh!" at the same time.
Josh was close enough to the bars for Buck to snag him, and he did, grasping hold of the snake oil salesman's shirt and yanking him toward the bars.
"Why did you do this?" Wilmington snapped.
Josh looked from his paramour to her cousin and sighed. "It wasn't our idea. It wasn't any of us."
Ned made a disgusted sound. Amy cowered.
"Who!?" Buck snarled. "Tell me now, because I can't wait around for an answer." And he yanked hard, pulling Josh's face into the bars. Neither Amy nor Ned did anything to help. Josh was on his own.
"If I tell you, will you go easy?" Josh tried. "Honest…" his voice cracked, "We thought it would just make them sleep. We didn't know it'd kill anyone. Wanda said they'd need the cure to wake up, but he told us it wasn't necessary. He said it would look wrong if we gave them a cure and they'd just wake up on their own eventually."
"Who told you to do this?!" Buck demanded again, pulling even harder on Josh's shirt so that his face was indented with the bars.
"Ned!" Josh gasped.
Ned put up his hands when Buck gave him a furious look. "I was just telling them, what Doug told me."
"Doug?" Buck tried, recalling hearing the name earlier.
"Doug Carver?" Phil tried. "Senior or Junior?"
"Junior," Josh told him. "He's the one."
Ned shook his head, looking unhappy. Amy fretfully wrung her hands and hid behind her cousin. Josh closed his eyes and tried not to look afraid of the angry lawman.
"The town's founder?" Buck asked.
"The founder's son," Phil amended. "Senior is plenty powerful in town. Junior is nothing but trouble."
"What's he got against Walden and Charles?" Buck asked, keeping Josh's face pressed tight.
"I don't know!" Josh wailed. "We did it 'cause Ned told us to."
Ned glared. "He was gonna pay us good if no one talked. Told me that if anyone found out, there'd be hell to pay."
"We're the ones that took the risk!" Josh cried.
Ned lifted his arms and said, "And look at where we all ended up!"
"That's your fault!" Josh pointed out. "You shouldn't have pointed us out! You shouldn't have tried to dose these guys!"
"If they were asleep, they wouldn't be coming after us, would they?" Ned countered.
"We better get Doug," Phil stated, grabbing Buck's arm. "We got what we wanted from these folks."
With a shake of his head, Buck released Josh, and headed to the door. He'd stop at the hotel, and then go in search of Doug Carver Junior. Phil went with him.
They sky was dark as they left the jail, but the town remained busy with celebration, and the street was still choked.
"That's him," Phil said, pointing.
Junior was standing on what was left of the Founders Rock, giving a rousing speech to workers who were setting up a fence around the rock. Apparently, someone had decided that the best idea was to cage the rock and leave it where it was.
It would be easier than moving it.
"Let's get him!" Phil declared.
Buck tried to stop the deputy, needing the chance to check on Ezra and the telegraph office, but Phil was already off, drawing a gun with each of his hands as he ran.
Doug saw them coming. He looked startled, and then a realization seemed to come over him. He jumped from the rock and darted away.
"Not again," Buck muttered as he took chase.
The man dodged through the crowd and through the alley alongside the bank. Doug picked up something as he moved, an axe. He swung it over his head as charged the chained gate at the rear of the alley.
"I'm getting sick to death of this!" Buck bellowed as he drew his gun and fired over the head of the fleeing man before he could reach the gate.
Tired and fed up, Buck helped Phil drag Doug to the jail.
The founder's son had given up as soon as the shot was fired. Now, he wouldn't stop talking. Apparently, Walden and Charles had been planning to buy up a big chunk of Carvertown, seeing that the place was doing so well.
Carver was afraid his family would lose their lion's share of the town. "They were going to change the name!" Doug lamented. "Walden and Charles didn't like the sound of Carvertown! Thought it sounded too rough! Wanted to call it something softer, like Sleepy Hollow or something ridiculous like that!"
They jammed him in with the rest of his group, and Buck would let Phil take care of things so that he could finally check on Ezra to make sure that all was well.
He'd stop by the telegraph office to see if Wanda had reached Four Corners, to see if the recipe for the cure had been sent to him, and to go back to the Union to see if …
Buck stopped in his tracks as he exited the jail.
Everything had changed. Where earlier the streets were clogged with merry celebrations, now everyone was running.
"Fire!" the cry went up. "Fire! The Union is on fire!"
The hotel was yellow with flame. Fire licked at the windows of the first floor, smoke belching out into the night. It lit the street like daylight.
Holy Mother of God!
Phil and the rest of the lawmen came rushing out of the jail. They took a moment to assess the situation then, immediately started shouting out orders.
Buck ran toward the flames.
"Ezra!" he shouted. "Ezra! Damn it!"
Someone tried to stop him. "Everyone's out," the big man said. "We knocked on every door. We got 'em all."
"Room 5! Room 5!" Buck shouted at him. "Did anyone go into Room 5?"
The man looked perplexed. "We knocked on every door," he said again.
Buck shoved the man away. "He can't wake up! Damn it!" Buck kept running.
"If he was in Room 5, then he's a goner," the man shouted after him. "The fire started in the back. A wagon caught fire. If he was in that part of the hotel…"
Buck didn't listen. He could already see that the first floor of the hotel was being consumed.
Damn it! Damn it! Never should have left him alone. He couldn't wake up! He couldn't respond. He wouldn't stand a chance.
Buck stopped when he reached the front door, finding it filled with flame. There was no way in. He could go around back, maybe, just maybe…
People were running everywhere. The lawmen were directing the bucket brigade. They weren't even trying to save the building and were instead dousing down the structures next door. The night rang with shouting, the air filled with smoke and heat and the fire so bright it was blinding to look at it.
I left him there. I left him alone. Defenseless. He couldn't wake up.
Buck ran down the smoke-choked alley next to the bank, picking up the axe as he ran. He cleaved the gate open in one easy movement and ran into the courtyard behind.
He could see the Room 5's window. The pane was shattered and the window area was black. Inside, only yellow and red and smoke. There was so much smoke. He pounded on the building, uselessly, unable to do anything else.
It was so damn hot. He could feel the scorching heat through the wall. The air burned his lungs, singed his hair.
Damn it… damn it to hell… Aw, Ezra.
Knowing there was no hope of anyone being alive in that inferno, Buck backed away, running his hands over his tearing eyes. His face was hot, his cheeks burnished.
I'm so sorry, Ezra. Damn, sons of bitches!
He glared in the direction of the jail, where Ned and the others waited.
Just because someone wanted to change the name of the town? Ezra had to die for that? Sons of bitches! Goddamn sons of bitches! They'll pay for this.
And as he moved away, shaking with horror, he paused beneath the big oak tree where he had stood with Ezra earlier that day, and frowned at a shape resting against the tree.
Someone was sleeping there, a shape illuminated by the light of the fire.
Impossibly, unexplainably, miraculously, it was Ezra, slumbered against the sloping trunk.
Buck fell to his knees and grasped the gambler by his shoulders, laughing with his discovery. "Ezra!" he shouted. Oh, Thank God! Thank you, Jesus!
Ezra was safe! Buck gave him a shake, but he still showed no sign of waking. Still completely asleep, but not in the fire! Not in that horrible fire.
Someone must have dragged him out. He'd have to kiss whoever had managed it, but for how, he just pulled the sleeping man into an embrace.
"Good to see you, hoss," Buck muttered, thumping his back. "Damn good to see you."
"See, it worked," Wanda said as she gathered up her skirts and stepped down from the wagon. "Like I said."
And Buck grinned as Ezra scrunched his face and his eyelids fluttered.
Buck had loaded Ezra into the wagon at first light, immediately after receiving word from the others. The cure was too complex, required too many ingredients for a mere layman to concoct on the spot. Wanda had the cure in hand, so the best solution was to meet up mid-way.
Buck had kept the wagon at a punishing pace throughout the journey, heading to a spot between Carvertown and Four Corners. Ezra's breathing had become deeper by morning, and during the trip, each breath was slow and labored, terrifying the easy-going ladies' man.
Chris and Josiah had accompanied the young woman to the meeting place, and they'd all crossed the distance in record time.
Upon their arrival, Wanda took one look at Ezra, and used one green bottle of 'cure' on the conman, carefully coaxing it down his throat. After a minute of impatient waiting she'd broken out the second bottle.
And only then, did Ezra's breathing miraculously return to normal. Slowly, he stretched, opening and closing his hands.
"Took more than it should've," Wanda said thoughtfully. "Good thing I had two bottles left. He's problematic, ain't he?"
"That he is," Josiah responded, and Chris just smirked.
"He'll be sleepy for a while," Wanda said, pulling at her stockings. "After that, might be awake for a couple days, 'cause I had to give him so much of the cure. Hope you can handle that."
"Fantastic…" Larabee muttered.
"Come on, Ezra," Buck said, giving him a punch in the arm. "Open up. Get those eyes open."
Josiah shook his head, still looking worried. "I find it hard to believe that a simple elixir could have done this to a man. To have put him into such a deep sleep…"
"Sleeping Death," Wanda said. "It's a concoction that I discovered myself. Mixed up a couple of different medicines together to make it just right. Works like a dream. And, like I told Mr. Jackson, if they did it right, nobody was supposed to die."
She described that Josh had told her that the potion was needed for a prank, and that the remedy would be applied before anything became too dangerous.
"A doctor fella thought me it might be good for surgery, but it's not," Wanda told them. "Folks might be asleep, but they still feel everything that happens to them."
And Buck grimaced, realizing what would have happened to Ezra if he hadn't made it out of the hotel. He would have been burned alive, unable to move and yet feeling everything
"I think some folk like to use it for religious ceremonies and such," Wanda said with a shrug. "I don't ask. Also, magic tricks, stuff like that. If someone is willing to pay, I can get it mixed up for them, but they need to buy the cure, too, or I'm not doing it. Folks won't wake without it. I told Josh, but he thought he knew more than me. What am I supposed to do if he was dumb as a rock?" Wanda shrugged. "The sleep just keeps getting deeper until they forget to breathe. It's a good potion. Works every time."
She went on, "I made sure that he bought the cure, but the day after he left town, someone found the three green bottles. He'd just left them at the tavern, as if for payment of his drinks. I think he's an idiot."
Buck watched as Ezra worked his face. He poked him repeatedly. "Come on, sleepyhead. Wake up."
But Standish showed no sign of pushing it any further than a few grimaces and twitches.
"Ezra," Larabee said, leaning in close. "If you don't wake up right now, you'll be pulling double-duty for the rest of the week. Time's wasting."
"I'm up," Ezra murmured and finally gazed up at them, squinting at the light. "Mr. Larabee, I am up."
"See, he's awake," Wanda said. She reached over the wagon's edge and gave Ezra a jab. "You okay now?"
Ezra groaned. "I feel like the undead," he said, his voice rough.
Wanda made a sour face. "You weren't dead. If you were dead, you'd be a zombie now and I wouldn't be hanging around if you were a zombie." She glanced at the others. "I've had too much trouble with those things before. Now that I've fixed everything, I'm leaving."
"We'll escort you the rest of the way home," Josiah told the young lady.
But Wanda smiled. "Don't worry. Nobody messes with me," she told them as she made her way to her horse. She mounted, nodded, and turned toward Wooster. She set off at a gallop without another word, her skirts ruffling behind her.
"Ezra?" Buck asked. "How you feelin'?"
"Groggy," Ezra admitted as he pushed himself into a sitting position. "Dizzy… Frightfully dizzy."
"Glad to see that you're awake," Josiah stated, settling a fatherly hand on Ezra's shoulder. "When we received word that you'd fallen victim to this elixir, well... we were all very concerned. Nathan was somewhat…alarmed."
"Pitched a fit," Chris included.
"Hmm," Ezra said, rubbing his head. "Yes, it was terrible. Of that there is no doubt. I'm glad to hear that Mr. Walden made it through this ordeal."
"Yes, he did," Josiah responded. "Thank God for that."
Chris frowned. "How'd you know?"
Ezra continued to rub his head, his eyes closed. "I heard you, I 'spect." He paused then, sniffed and grimaced. "Good Lord," he grumbled. "I smell like a campfire. Buck, what have you been doing to me while I slept?"
"Dammit, Ezra! You almost got burned to bits because of me," Buck stated.
"You were using me as firewood?"
"No," Buck closed his eyes and stated in an apologetic tone, "I left you alone at the Union Hotel when you were deep asleep, and the place burned to the ground. Probably happened because of stupid Ned and his lantern. He dropped it at Josh's wagon and that's where the fire started. Never did find who pulled you out of there."
Ezra froze then, his hand still on his head. He slowly lowered it and looked to Buck, then to Chris and Josiah.
"Mr. Walden's wife was named May, wasn't she?"
"Yes, she was May," Josiah told him. "A beautiful flower of a woman. She died in a fever last year. It's a blessing that their children still have a father."
"May," Ezra repeated. "She woke me up."
"That was Wanda," Buck said, turning in the direction where the witch was still riding into the distance.
Ezra said quietly, "It was like a dream. I was asleep, unable to move or open my eyes, but someone came to me, a young woman. She told me that her name was May and that I was to follow her. I wanted to tell her that I couldn't even lift an arm, let alone walk, but she wouldn't take 'no' for an answer."
Ezra kept talking, his voice soft and his expression remote. "I don't think I ever opened my eyes, but I remember seeing her. She was pretty, with dark hair and eyes, and she took my hand and led me. It was very difficult. I had no strength and my legs didn't want to move correctly, but May insisted. She wouldn't let me sit down until she told me it was 'safe.' She thanked me… and you," he paused to nod at Buck. "…for saving her beloved Cam. She told me that he was awake and with their children, and that's the last thing I recall until now."
Buck sat back and said, "They said that the hotel was haunted." He looked up to Josiah, "But May didn't die there."
Josiah shrugged. "Some places are almost like magnets for the spirit world. It could be that she was drawn to you, Ezra. She must have purposefully gone there to find you, to help you, to thank you. It was a miracle."
Buck felt a shiver run down his spine.
Ezra frowned. "I don't believe in such things," he said. "It's all poppycock. Certainly, Mr. Larabee, you don't think that a ghost rescued me from a burning building." His tone sounded as if he was trying to convince himself. "Certainly, you don't believe in ghosts."
Chris looked off into the distance and didn't respond. His expression grew tight, as if there was much to be said.
And for a minute or so, the four men said nothing, each pondering on what Ezra had told them. When Buck yawned, the rest looked at him with alarm.
"Good Lord, Mr. Wilmington. Not you, too!" Ezra exclaimed.
Buck just ducked his head and chuckled. "I haven't slept! I ran all over Carvertown yesterday and spent the night looking after you!"
Ezra looked surprised and didn't seem to know what to say.
"Let's get home," Chris finally declared as he turned his horse toward Four Corners.
Buck brought the wagon in behind Chris. Josiah rode alongside, keeping an eye on Ezra who lay back in his blankets to doze.
And Buck was happy. Goddamn, he was happy! Cheerily, he started singing, "Buffalo Gals, won't you come out tonight, come out tonight, come out tonight."
Ezra moaned out a, "Good Lord, save us all."
"Buffalo Gals, won't you come out tonight, and dance by the light of the moooooooon!"
"Josiah!" Ezra called out, reaching toward the man riding beside him. "Make him stop! For the love of all that is holy!"
Josiah grinned and joined in, "I danced with a gal with a hole in her stocking…"
"That's it!" Buck shouted. "That was the part I forgot!"
And together, Josiah and Buck sang, "And her heel kept a knockin' and her toes kept a rockin'. I danced with a girl with a hole in her stocking, and we danced by the light of the moon."
Ezra sat up. "Mr. Larabee!" he cried out. "Make them stop!"
But Chris just grinned, saying nothing.
Not finding any support from Larabee, Ezra pulled a blanket around his shoulders and drunkenly, sleepily, he crawled to the front of the wagon, where, with some effort, he found his way into the seat beside Buck.
"Buffalo Gals, won't you come out tonight."
Unsteadily, Ezra punched Wilmington in the arm, which only made Buck sing louder, with Josiah crooning along.
"Come out tonight, come out tonight."
And Ezra pulled the blanket up over his head. He leaned against Buck, and Wilmington leaned against Ezra. They both yawned.
"Buffalo Gals, won't you come out tonight, and dance by the light of the moooon!"
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