April 27, 2011
Chris Larabee entered the clinic and walked over to look at his injured man. He shook his head, still finding it hard to believe that something like a chair across the back could keep a man unconscious for two days. Of course, said chair had hit him in the back of the head and broken into a couple dozen pieces.
That had instigated a few crude comments about the hardness of Standish’s head, but the worry when he failed to get up quickly dispelled the jokes.
Nathan looked up from the book he was reading and met Chris’ eyes.
“Any change?” the blond asked.
“No,” Nathan said, concern evident in the tone of his voice, “hasn’t even twitched.”
Chris sighed. So much had happened in the last two days. He really could have used Ezra’s sharp mind. “Take a break, Nathan, I’ll stay with him for a while.”
“You sure, Chris?” Nathan asked, setting his book down as he stood and stretched.
“Yeah. I need some quiet anyway. Go get something to eat, maybe you can check on Billy for me?” he asked, his throat tightening.
Nathan swallowed and nodded. He took one more look at Ezra, pressed his lips together in a worried frown and left with a quiet, “I’ll be back shortly.”
Chris sat in the chair Nathan had vacated. He picked up the book then quickly set it back down when he realized it was a medical text. He sighed and turned the chair enough so that he could put his feet up on the bed. Chris waited, expecting to hear a complaint. When it didn’t come he sighed again. “If you want me to remove my boots from your bed, you’ll have to tell me, Standish,” he said gruffly.
No sound emanated from the bed. Chris huffed, folded his arms across his chest and let the events of the last few days play through his head.
It had all started when Governor Hopewell decided to pay the territory a visit. Mary… Chris’ thoughts faltered, well, she had been the one to endorse statehood and that just riled up people on both sides of the debate. The governor’s arrival stirred things up further. The brawl in the saloon was only the first of many ‘debates’ that had gotten physical.
They were lucky so few people had been injured and killed, even if two of them were people Chris cared about.
Yet the physical injuries and deaths were only part of the backwash. Buck was mourning the loss of his ‘true love’, Vin was castigating himself for not finding Stutz soon enough, and Chris was blaming himself for not seeing the truth, not being able to save Mary.
Chris ran his hand through his hair. “Could have used you, Ezra,” he said softly.
A small moan from the bed had him on his feet and hovering over the still form. “Ezra? You waking up?”
Chris smiled slightly as Ezra’s eyes moved under his eyelids. The gambler’s lips parted. Chris grabbed a cloth from the bedside table, dipped it in the pitcher and pressed it gently to Ezra’s mouth allowing him a few drops of water. Ezra unconsciously sucked at the cloth, his body desperate for moisture after two days. His eyes fluttered open, but didn’t focus on anything.
Chris lightly tapped Ezra’s cheek. “You in there?”
Ezra blinked rapidly and seemed to focus on Chris. He frowned, his eyes wandering around the room as he tried to figure out what was going on. Finally he tracked back to Chris.
Chris smiled as he saw recognition in those green eyes, he opened his mouth to speak, but was interrupted.
“I’m sorry, Chris,” Ezra croaked, his throat dry.
Chris slipped a hand behind Ezra’s head, lifting as he grabbed the cup sitting on the table. He offered Ezra a sip of water. “Nothin’ to be sorry for,” he said distractedly.
Ezra drank, stopping only when Chris pulled the cup away. “Didn’t want to run… couldn’t…”
“Easy, Ez, you’re a bit confused from that knot on the back of your head.”
Ezra frowned. “Head?” he asked, brow wrinkling in confusion. “I was shot,” he said, his hand moving to his side.
Chris’s eyes widened. “Not that I know of. That chair must’ve rattled your brains harder than we thought,” he said with a gentle grin.
Ezra licked his lips, confused at the lack of pain in his side and by the pounding in his head. “Everyone okay?” he asked, trying to get his bearings. “Mary?”
He watched as Chris’ smile fell and his eyes darkened.
“She didn’t make it, Ezra.” Chris frowned. “How did you know she was shot? You’ve been out this whole time.”
Ezra gasped. “Shot? But… I… No! I saved her,” he said, struggling to sit up.
Chris put his hand on the gambler’s chest and held him down. “That’s probably not such a good idea, Ezra, you’ll just get sick. Now what are you talking about? You got knocked out in that brawl in the saloon and haven’t opened your eyes ‘til now.”
Ezra lay back and closed his eyes, his head swimming, as he tried not to throw up. What was going on? He recalled it all so clearly. “The governor?”
“Yeah, damn politician,” Chris growled. “Swept in here spouting off, deriding the benefits of statehood, riled Mary up good, riled the whole town up. Hell, that woman he brought with him was as bad as Mary…” Chris trailed off. “Stood nose to nose with her too a couple times. Damn near convinced Buck to go back east with her.”
“Stutz?” Ezra interrupted.
Chris frowned again, taking a good long look at Ezra. A fine layer of sweat coated the gambler’s brow. He lay with his eyes scrunched closed and breathing shallowly. Chris thought he looked a little green.
“Let me get Nathan, I’ll be…”
“No!” Ezra said loudly, gasping at the pain the effort brought. “I need… I need to understand. Did you get Stutz?”
“Yeah,” Chris sighed. “Vin killed him when he tried to use Buck’s new lady as cover to escape. Now we’ll never know who hired him.” Chris stood and started to pace. “Damn it! We all thought Stutz was after the governor. If only…”
“Hopewell,” Ezra stated, opening his eyes just a bit.
“He’s fine!” Chris spat. “Son of a bitch headed to his next stop this morning.”
“No, it was Hopewell,” Ezra hissed. “He hired the Stutz’s to kill Mary and anyone in the territories prominent enough to help statehood get pushed through.”
“How the hell would you know that, Ezra?” Chris asked, perplexed by the confident tone in the gambler’s voice. “You’ve been unconscious this whole time, thought we were going to have to bury you too.”
Ezra started to shake his head, but stopped when his stomach rumbled a protest. “I don’t understand, Chris. When did you say I got hurt?”
“In the saloon. You got hit over the back of the head with a chair. Knocked you out cold.”
“Buck was with the red-head?”
Ezra’s frown deepened. “I got up. You and Vin were with me on the porch when Heidegger asked us to check Stutz’s room. Vin found the rifle, you recognized Stutz senior and I found the money.”
Chris’ eyebrows rose. “Vin went to get Nathan. I was the only one who went with Heidegger. Yeah, there was a rifle, but there wasn’t any money.”
“That damn money,” Ezra cursed. “That’s… Check, Chris, in the closet… on the shelf. It’s got to be there.”
The gunslinger frowned, but rose and went to the door. He went out on the porch and looked around for one of the others. He spotted JD, caught his eye and waived him over.
“Need Nathan, Chris?” JD asked concerned.
“Yeah, Ez is awake, but I need you to ask Heidegger to let you into Stutz’s room. Check the shelf in the closet and bring me whatever’s there,” Chris instructed.
JD frowned, but nodded and jogged off.
Chris watched him go, then hollered down to one of the townsfolk passing by. “Hey, ask Nathan Jackson to come to the clinic. He’s in the saloon.” The man, one of the local farmers that Chris knew by sight, though not by name, nodded and headed for the saloon. “Thanks,” Chris called as an after thought.
He went back inside to find Ezra trying to sit up again. Chris grabbed the basin and slipped it under Ezra’s mouth just as he lost the battle with his stomach.
“Told you to stay down,” Chris said softly. He waited to make sure Ezra was done then pushed the basin under the bed. He dipped the cloth into the pitcher again and wrung it out before wiping Ezra’s face. “JD’s gonna check the closet and Nathan should be here in a minute. You just relax. Don’t want you throwin’ up all over me,” he said, grinning at the grimace Ezra offered at the last comment.
“What happened?” Ezra asked. His head hurt, but he had to know, had to understand why what he remembered was so different from what Chris was telling him.
Chris pulled the chair closer to the bed and sat down. “Mary and… Louisa, the governor’s aide, went at it over the pros and cons of statehood. Buck was head over heels for Louisa, hardly saw one without the other. The day you got hurt, someone took a shot at the governor while he was eating dinner…” Chris paused. “I guess maybe that was Stutz Junior trying to get Mary, she was with Hopewell at the time. We had another man, Jones, in custody, thought he might have been a threat…”
The door opened and Nathan came into the room followed by JD, Josiah and Vin. Chris stood and backed away to give Nathan access to the patient.
“Hey, Ezra,” Nathan said, sending a quick questioning look at Chris who just shrugged. “’bout time you woke up.”
“Of that, I am not so certain, Nathan,” Ezra said wearily. He pressed a hand to his forehead wishing the pain would go away.
“Sounds like normal,” Josiah said with a grin.
“Sure am glad you’re all right, Ezra!” JD added.
“JD!” Ezra exclaimed, remembering just in time not to sit up. “Did you find it?”
“Find it?” JD asked. “Oh! You mean this satchel?” he asked holding up a leather bag. “Yeah, how’d you know it was there? Oh… and Chris, you won’t believe what’s in it.”
“Money?” Chris asked, taking the bag.
“Ten thousand dollars,” Ezra said disgustedly as Nathan examined him.
Everyone’s eyes snapped to Ezra.
“You will find ten thousand dollars in there,” Ezra reiterated softly, then closed his eyes again letting the sound of the others talking wash over him unheeded.
Ezra opened his eyes slowly. His head hurt and his stomach roiled threateningly. He looked around, wondering where everyone had gone.
He sat up quickly. “Where the hell?” Ezra said aloud, unable to comprehend what he was seeing.
Instead of Nathan’s clinic, he seemed to be in a generic hotel or boarding house room. And a fairly cheap one at that, with only a bed, a rickety table with a chipped porcelain wash basin and a single chair that didn’t look sturdy enough to hold his weight. His red jacket lay carelessly draped across the flimsy chair along with a crumpled newspaper.
Ezra stood up only to sit down abruptly as his foot slipped on a bottle. He bent down and picked up the empty whiskey bottle and noted that another empty bottle sat on the floor beside the chair. He frowned and licked his lips, realizing that his mouth tasted of the horrible brew.
What could have possessed him to rent such a room and drink himself into oblivion? How did he get here when the last thing he recalled was being in Nathan’s clinic?
Ezra rubbed his forehead, confused and concerned. What was happening to him?
He shook his head to clear it. First he needed information. He went over to the chair and picked up the paper in one hand and his coat in the other. Growing suspicion sent tendrils of dismay through his gut as he dropped both items on the bed.
Ezra flipped back the front of the coat exposing the ripped inner lining and the money stuffed inside. He frowned, fingering his side, but finding no painful gunshot wound.
He smoothed the paper and examined the front page. It was dated a few days after Hopewell had visited. The headline caught his attention.
ASSASSIN MISSES GOVERNOR, KILLS NEWSPAPER EDITOR
Ezra sank down onto the bed as he read the article that explained how Mary Travis had been killed by a bullet meant for Governor Hopewell. He squeezed the bridge of his nose allowing the paper to slip from his hand.
What was happening to him? He remembered so clearly stuffing the money in his coat lining, heading for the livery and then running into the younger Stutz. Why did he remember getting to Stutz and taking the bullet meant for Mary and yet now he found himself here, where ever ‘here’ was, with the money and damning proof that he had left his post?
And where had that other memory come from, of waking up to find he’d missed the whole event due to a head injury? Mary had still been killed, but at least he hadn’t run out on his friends.
Ezra flopped back to lie on the bed. He recognized these symptoms – a sore head and a woozy belly equaled a hangover. The two empty bottles backed up that theory. The only problem was he had no recollection of any of the events leading up to the moment he’d awoken here.
He closed his eyes and took a deep breath. Perhaps a short nap. Then… he paused. Should he go back to Four Corners? That would surely be a fool’s errand if he did indeed run out with the money. Which apparently he had. They’d blame him for not being there, for Mary’s death.
Ezra draped his arm over his face wishing he understood what was going on. He was so confused. Sleep dragged at him and finally he gave in, hoping that everything would make sense again when he awoke.
A soft noise in his room woke Ezra. He kept his eyes closed as he tried to evaluate the situation. He couldn’t help the frown that furrowed his brow as he recognized the unique combination of odors, herbs, freshly laundered linens and the sharp smell of lye that he associated with Nathan’s clinic.
Cataloguing his own aches and pains didn’t add much clarity to the situation. There was a headache and general stiffness and soreness all about his shoulders and upper back as well as a dull pain across his left side that sharpened when he inhaled too deeply.
Where was he? Back in Four Corners? But when? Or rather in what reality? Had he saved Mary from Stutz’s bullet or left with the money? Or had he missed the whole event entirely due to a concussion?
Ezra sighed not wanting to open his eyes to another, as yet unknown possibility.
“Ezra?” Nathan’s deep voice asked, sounding concerned. “You wake up now, you hear? Need you to drink this.”
A warm hand squeezed his shoulder encouragingly.
Ezra licked his parched lips, but kept his eyes firmly shut.
“Are you awake?”
Ezra grunted earning a chuckle from Nathan.
“Here, let’s get you up.”
While Nathan helped him sit up and fussed to get the pillow behind him, Ezra kept his eyes tightly closed, hoping to avoid any unpleasant truths.
“Does your head hurt?” Nathan asked, putting a cup in one of Ezra’s hands.
Ezra could feel the heat of Nathan’s hand staying near his as he lifted the cup to his lips and took a swallow. Ezra shook his head slightly. “A bit of a headache,” he said, then cleared his throat to get rid of the frog that had settled there.
“Something wrong with your eyes?” Nathan asked. Ezra shook his head. “Then why don’t you open them?”
Ezra took another drink. “Hopewell?” he asked, not sure what answers he would get or which he wanted.
Nathan snorted. “Man paraded out of town just like he came in. Too bad we don’t have any proof. Mary’s beside herself trying to figure out a way to let people know he hired the Stutz’s with nothing but conjecture to back her up.”
“Mary’s alive?” Ezra asked, his eyes popping open to meet Nathan’s questioning gaze.
“Yeah, thanks to you,” Nathan shook his head. “Damn near killed you though. Thought I got that wound all cleaned out, then you came down with a fever. Rambling out of your head about Mary being dead and runnin’ off with that money.” He gave Ezra a cryptic look. “You must have been having some mighty interesting dreams.”
Ezra snorted and met Nathan’s eyes briefly. “More like nightmares. Let’s just say, I am thoroughly pleased to find events played out the way I remembered them in the first place.”
Nathan smiled. “You’ll have to tell me about them sometime.”
“I’d rather not relive them, Nathan.” Ezra finished the water and reached to set the cup on the side table only to flinch as his wound pulled painfully.
Nathan took the cup, shaking his head. “Are you feeling up to eating? Inez has some soup on. Once your fever broke last night, we’ve just been waiting for you to wake up.”
“That sounds wonderful,” Ezra said, his stomach rumbling at the mention of food.
“I’ll get you some. You need any help getting to the chamber pot?” Nathan asked knowing how little his friends liked having to rely on others for that sort of help. He and Josiah had built a small closet into the back room where patients could have at least a little privacy if they were ambulatory. It saved a lot of fussing and arguing.
Ezra considered for a moment, then shook his head. He was a bit weak, but not dizzy. “Thank you, Nathan.”
The healer nodded and headed for the door. “I’ll be back.” He paused and looked back at Ezra. “It’s good to have you back,” Nathan said then pulled the door closed behind him.
Ezra listened to Nathan’s footsteps, tracking him across the porch and part way down the stairs by the sound before pushing back the blanket and swinging his legs around to hang off the side of the bed. He was dressed only in a night shirt, but that was preferable to nothing at all. Bless Nathan for considering his sensibilities.
He made quick use of the chamber pot, then shuffled over to the window not quite ready to get back into bed. He pulled the curtain back with one hand and leaned against the wall as he looked out. The usual traffic filled the streets. Townsfolk about their normal business. The odd ranch hand in town to make purchases or perhaps have a pony shod. Travelers waiting for the stage to carry them off to their next stop.
Ezra saw familiar faces. Mr. Watson was on his porch talking to the young man he’d recently hired to help in the store. He thought he caught sight of a flash of blue skirt that probably belonged to Mary Travis, heading into the jail.
Familiar sounds wafted up from the street as well. The ring of the smithy’s hammer below the clinic, the clop-clop-clop of horses on the street. The laughter of children playing. And the sound of voices he’d heard almost every day for the last few years.
Odd to think he could become so accustomed to those sights and sounds in such a short time. Ezra swallowed hard. The lack of those familiarities in his nightmares had left a hollow feeling in his gut. Somehow, it didn’t matter so much that he’d made a fool of himself trying to take off with that money. It was more important that he still had these people and the feelings they engendered in him. He wasn’t quite sure what those feelings were, but having them was better than not having them. Of that, he was certain.
“It’s good to be home,” he said softly to himself, letting the curtain flutter closed as he went back to lie down. He closed his eyes, unafraid of what he would find the next time he woke.
Feedback is welcome. JudyL