by Jean Williams
Sadly Jean is no longer with us, but we're sure her daughter, Jenn, would love to hear from you if you enjoy this story
Disclaimer:Ah, if only they were mine, but, alas, they're not. Unfortunately, the privilege of ownership of "The Magnificent Seven" characters belongs to the Mirisch Corp., Trilogy, and MGM, and no infringement on the copyrights held by them is intended. I merely wish to dust the boys off occasionally and bring them out to play for the entertainment of those of us who still miss them dearly.
Warning:Parts of this story are rather violent with some intense physical and psychological torture and a great deal of h/c and smarm.
Completed:September 6, 1999
It was getting late and the saloon was emptying out. The only ones left were the Seven, who were seated at the corner table quietly sipping their whiskey and talking amongst themselves. Chris and Vin had just returned from escorting a prisoner to Ridge City to stand trial for murder and were relieved to finally be back home after having been gone over a week.
"So how was your trip? Must have gone okay since you made it back earlier than you thought ya would," Buck commented as he finished off the whiskey in his glass and reached for the bottle to pour himself another.
"Quiet. Never even met anyone else on the trail," Chris answered, leaning back in his chair wearily. "I think everyone's staying near shelter because of the weather. It's been way too calm for this time of year and everybody's expectin' a big storm to hit any time."
"So how were things here? Anything we should know about?" Vin asked, glancing around the table at the others.
Buck leaned back in his chair and looked thoughtful. "Well, let's see... Nathan set Mr. Anderson's broken arm after his wife threw a fryin' pan at him... she caught him drinkin' behind the barn again." Everyone shared a quiet laugh over that one. Poor Mr. Anderson could hardly breathe without his wife getting madder than a wet hen over it.
"Couple of little brawls here and there, but nothin' too serious. That's about it." Buck shrugged and glanced at the others to see if they had anything to add.
JD glanced over at Ezra who was quietly sipping his whiskey. "Well... Ezra did have a little trouble with a card sharp."
Chris and Vin looked at Ezra expectantly, waiting for him to elaborate.
Ezra frowned at JD and shook his head slightly. "It was nothin' I assure you, gentlemen. The miscreant was cheating, I politely pointed that fact out to him and he returned my money and left."
JD scowled at him and then spoke to Chris. "Yeah, he left all right. After threatening to 'get' Ezra for accusing him of cheating. And he sure looked like he meant it, too."
"I gotta admit Ezra, I agree with JD. That man was definitely a mite upset with you," Buck added, glancing at the gambler. "And he was big, Chris. Taller'n me n' three times as heavy. I wouldn't want to mess with him. Good thing Ezra keeps that derringer up his sleeve or things could've gotten nasty."
"He was all bluff, I assure you." Ezra drained the last of the whiskey from his glass and stood up. "Well, since none of you gentlemen are in the mood for a game, I think I will retire to my room early for a change."
"Early?" Nathan looked at the gambler in surprise. "Heck, Ezra, it's almost two o'clock."
"I know, Mr. Jackson. Much earlier than my usual bedtime." Ezra smiled slightly at Nathan, retrieved his coat and hat from the back of the chair and headed for the stairs.
Chris watched Ezra climb the stairs to his room over the saloon and then spoke to the others quietly. "You sure this incident with Ezra and that card sharp is over or should we be expectin' trouble?"
Buck and JD shared a thoughtful look and then Buck said, "I don't rightly know, Chris. He sure was mad, and if he did come back for him and caught him off guard, he'd probably wipe the floor with him. Hell, he made about four of Ezra. One of the biggest men I've ever seen. And mean lookin', too. There was just somethin' about his eyes... gave me the shivers."
JD nodded in agreement. "He sure looked serious when he said he was gonna get Ezra, too. I think maybe we should all kinda watch his back, at least for a little while."
"You might be right, JD. We'll have to make sure one of us sticks close to him for the next week or so, just to be on the safe side," Chris said as he headed for the door. "He'll be all right for tonight but whoever's here first in the morning, make sure you keep an eye on him when he comes down. We'll work out some kind of schedule tomorrow, but for God's sake, don't tell Ezra. You know how he'd react to being babysat."
"Brother Ezra would definitely not take kindly to the notion that he needed looked after," Josiah agreed as they all headed home to get some sleep.
Ezra walked slowly down the hall to his room. He noticed that two of the lamps had not been lit that evening, leaving the hall shrouded in darkness. He shook his head as he fumbled in the dark for the doorknob. I'll have to speak to someone about that in the morning, he thought to himself. He turned the knob and just as he started to push the door open, he sensed someone moving toward him out of the shadows. He glanced up, but before he could react he was shoved hard from behind, propelling him through the door and into his room. Ezra had left a lamp burning on the night table beside his bed and caught a glimpse of the huge man he had caught cheating at poker a few days before... just before the man's fist connected with a devastating blow to the gambler's jaw. Ezra was thrown back into the arms of the man who had shoved him and was lowered, unconscious, to the floor.
"Not quite so high and mighty now, are you Mr. Standish," said the rough looking man who had pushed Ezra into the room. He swiftly removed all of the gambler's weapons and personal belongings, including the money he found stuffed in his left boot. This was his payment for helping the card sharp. 'Not bad for just a half-hour's work' he thought as he slipped Ezra's ruby ring and the roll of bills into his pocket. Not bad at all.
The large man bent down and easily picked Ezra's limp body up, slinging him over his shoulder. Then they hurried down the back stairs of the saloon to the alley where two horses were saddled and ready to go. Ezra was lifted into the saddle of one of the horses and tied securely in place.
The huge man struggled onto his horse and then looked down at his accomplice who handed him the reins to Ezra's mount.
"Do you need me for anything else, Mr. Parker?" The smaller man looked around nervously, wanting to leave before they were spotted.
"No, you can go, Randall. Just make sure you show up at the cabin in two days like we planned, or I will come looking for you." The other man nodded and ran off down the alley. Then Parker looked back at Ezra's still unconscious form and smiled. This young man was definitely going to regret crossing Robert T. Parker. He laughed quietly and led the horses behind the buildings to the edge of town, urging them into a gallop as they reached the open road heading west.
It had begun to rain sometime during the night and was still coming down fairly heavy when Buck made his way to the saloon shortly after seven the next morning.
"Whooee, it's nasty out there," he announced as he entered the saloon. Shaking the water off his hat, he walked toward the table where Nathan and Josiah already sat enjoying their breakfast.
"I know. It's turnin' colder, too." Nathan commented as he looked up at Buck. "Bet this is gonna turn to snow any time now."
"Wouldn't be surprised," Buck took a seat at the table and poured himself a cup of coffee from the pot sitting there.
"Well, it had to turn sooner or later, it is February after all," Josiah slid his now empty cup over for Buck to refill.
Buck turned back from giving the barmaid his order and nodded at Josiah, "I reckon that's so, but it sure wouldn't have hurt my feelings none if it had just stayed warm all winter."
The three men spent the remainder of the morning in the saloon playing cards and talking. There wasn't much else to do on such a miserable day. Hell, even the usual assortment of drunks weren't venturing out in this weather.
Chris and Vin wandered in around noon, having finished their patrol. Removing their rain gear, they headed over to the table where Nathan, Josiah and Buck were still whiling away their time playing poker.
"Pretty quiet in here today," Chris commented as he sat down, poured himself a glass of whiskey and passed the bottle to Vin.
"Been like that all mornin'," Buck responded. "Not many folks wanna come out in this rain."
Vin glanced around the bar and frowned. "Ezra been down yet?"
"Naw, but he should be comin' down soon. This is about the time he usually drags his butt out of bed." Buck threw his cards down in disgust and glared at Josiah. "Playin' you is gettin' to be almost as bad as playin' Ezra."
"Why thank you, Buck. I'll take that as a compliment." The preacher shot his friends a satisfied grin as he added the pot to his growing pile of winnings.
"Maybe you oughta go check on Ezra, Buck," Chris suggested, glancing up the stairs.
"Oh, no... not me! Disturbin' Ezra before he's ready to get up can be a downright dangerous thing to do," Buck answered, shaking his head. "He's meaner than a grizzly if he's . . . "
Buck stopped as JD came running through the doors and hurried over to the others. He was dripping water on everyone, but was too agitated to notice.
"I think we got trouble. Look at this," he announced as he handed Chris a wanted poster. "I was over at the telegraph talkin' to Jimmy, and this just came in."
Chris glanced at the poster. "Yeah, so who's this?"
Buck leaned over and took the poster from Chris then swore softly, "Damn... "
Chris and Vin looked at him, waiting for an explanation. "Well, who is he?"
"It's that card sharp Ezra had trouble with. Says here his name is Robert Parker and he's wanted for the kidnapping and murder of ten people in four different states." Buck read further and his face paled. "It says he beat and tortured them for weeks before he finally killed 'em."
The six men looked at each other nervously. Chris rose and headed up the stairs to Ezra's room, the others right behind him. They all froze when they reached his room and saw the door hanging open.
"Damn it!" Chris exclaimed bitterly when they entered the room and noticed Ezra's bed, which obviously hadn't been slept in... and his coat and hat lying in a heap on the floor. Vin took one look and pushed past the others to race down the back stairs. He was standing in the rain, staring intently at the ground and scowling when the others emerged from the saloon.
"Nothin'. Damn rain's washed any tracks that were here away." Vin walked back and forth in the alley trying to find some clue, anything which would tell them what direction to start looking.
The others looked at Chris and shivered involuntarily at the look in his eyes. "I should've set up a watch over him last night," the man in black said angrily.
"Well, heck Chris, even Ezra didn't take this guy seriously," Buck said, trying to ease the guilt he saw growing in Chris' eyes... the same guilt that he knew each one of them was feeling.
"Ezra wouldn't've told us even if he was worried," Nathan said, glancing at Vin as he walked up shaking his head.
"No sign of 'im at all. Now what are we gonna do?" he asked, looking worriedly at Chris.
"We start searching. We'll fan out and cover the area around Four Corners first. Stop at every farm or ranch you come to and ask everyone you meet if they've seen him. If we don't get any sign of him that way, we'll have to start checking the other towns," Chris ordered as he looked at each of his men. "And if you do hear anything, get the rest of us before you take off after 'im. One person going in alone would probably just get himself and Ezra killed. We'll meet back here before dark."
Everyone headed to the livery to saddle their horses. Chris put a hand out and stopped JD as he turned to go. "JD, I want you to stay here in town."
"Stay here?! Why do I... " JD started to protest but Chris stopped him.
"Now listen. We need someone here in case Ezra is able to make it back. And besides, you can hit all the houses and stores in town. Ask everyone if they've seen him and have them keep a look out for him or that Parker fella."
Chris noticed JD's dejected but resigned look. "And if this doesn't work and we have to start hitting the other towns, I'll have someone else stay here and you can go."
JD looked at Chris for a minute then nodded. "All right. I guess someone needs to be here, but I sure wish it wasn't me." He started toward Mrs. Potter's store then stopped and looked back at the gunslinger. "I sure hope you find him, Chris... before that guy has a chance to do anything to 'im."
Chris just nodded and headed for the livery. He knew the same thing was running through all their minds... the words from the wanted poster. Beaten and tortured for weeks. How long did they have before it would be too late for Ezra?
Ezra regained his senses gradually. He felt the first drops of rain hit his face and stirred slightly. Then the movement of his horse and the sensation of being cold entered his subconscious. Slowly he raised himself into a sitting position and blearily looked around. He saw the huge form of Parker on the horse in front of him; he had the reins and was ponying Ezra's horse. The gambler started to speak but the pain that shot through his jaw when he opened his mouth caused him to close it again quickly. He tried to raise his hands to his face, but found they were bound to the saddle horn. Ezra tugged, testing the bindings but was unable to move them at all. In fact, they were so tight he was beginning to lose the feeling in his hands all together. The weather had worsened considerably in just the short time Ezra had been conscious. The rain was coming down much harder, plastering his hair to his head and thoroughly soaking his clothes. On top of that, the wind was really starting to pick up. The gambler began to shiver uncontrollably as the cold seeped into his bones.
Parker glanced back and saw Ezra was awake. The big man slowed his horse and drew Ezra's up beside him. He could see the gambler shivering and smiled at the pain and anger he saw in the green eyes that glared back at him. "Enjoying this fine weather, Mr. Standish?" Ezra merely stared at him, the pain in his jaw keeping him from responding with the biting retort that was on the tip of his tongue. "What's the matter, jaw a little sore?"
Suddenly the larger man's hand shot out and grabbed Ezra's face in a powerful grip, forcing an involuntary groan of pain from the smaller man. Ezra gripped the saddle horn with numb fingers and tried to ignore the waves of agony washing over him. Parker released him with a vicious shove, causing the conman's head to whip back and wrenching another small moan from his lips. Ezra fought to stay awake but the pain and the cold combined to pull him back into the blackness and he slumped once more over his horse.
Parker stared at the unconscious man and laughed, enjoying his misery. "That's right, rest while you can Mr. Standish. You're going to need all your strength soon. This is only a small taste of what I have planned for you."
After checking to make sure Ezra was still tied securely to the saddle, he urged the horses into a gallop. He was anxious to get to the cabin he'd prepared and get the game he had planned for his prisoner underway.
JD had gone to every store and house in town with no luck. No one had seen either Ezra or the man in the wanted poster. He headed slowly back to the saloon, trying desperately to think of somewhere else he could look, anything else he could do to help find him. He was really worried about the gambler and hated not knowing if he was all right or not. There was only about another hour of daylight left... maybe one of the others would return with some good news. Or better yet, with Ezra himself.
Vin was about a mile from Four Corners when he heard someone riding up hard behind him. He pulled his horse to a stop and waited for Chris to catch up, hoping the gunslinger had some news about Ezra's whereabouts. Vin himself had found absolutely nothing... no tracks, no clues, nothing. It was as if Ezra and Parker had vanished into thin air. And he could see by Chris' face that he hadn't fared any better. Chris looked expectantly at Vin as he rode up, but the bounty hunter merely shook his head.
"Damn... " The gunslinger swore softly, looking away. The guilt was eating at him, and he knew he was going to have a hard time dealing with it if they didn't find Ezra in time.
Vin knew what his friend was feeling because the same guilt was gnawing at him. If it was any one of them but Ezra they probably would have posted a guard on them last night. But the conman was so damned independent you tended to forget he could be vulnerable, too. And now he was probably in some serious trouble with no one to back him up.
"We'll find 'im, Chris. Somebody has to have seen or heard somethin'. Maybe the others had better luck," Vin said, trying to reassure the gunslinger... and himself.
Chris looked at the tracker, started to say something but then only nodded and spurred his horse toward town. Vin followed behind, eager to get to the saloon and see what the others had found out.
Buck, Josiah and Nathan had all made it back to town within a few minutes of each other. JD was waiting for them in the saloon and each time one of them entered he looked up hopefully, only to be disappointed once more. They were all sitting around their usual table when Chris and Vin came in. No one had to ask... the looks on their faces said it all. They grabbed a couple of glasses and another bottle of whiskey from the bar and joined the other men. Everyone stared morosely at Ezra's conspicuously empty chair.
"What are we gonna do now?" JD sounded near tears. He had become really fond of Ezra over the last few months. The gambler had shown him a lot of patience... more than any of the others, even Buck. He was always willing to listen and usually took the time to help try and solve his problems. He couldn't believe there was nothing they could do to help him when he needed it. "Who knows what that guy is doing to him! We can't just sit here!"
"JD, there isn't much we can do right now. We're just gonna have to hope Ezra makes it through the night okay, and we'll get back out there lookin' tomorrow. We're not givin' up on 'im." Buck assured the younger man.
"That's right," Chris said, his voice hard as steel. "We won't quit until we find him and bring him home." The gunslinger didn't say it, but everyone was thinking the same thing. They were all praying they would be bringing him home alive.
Ezra was still unconscious when Parker led the horses out of the trees and into a clearing where a small dilapidated cabin stood. He dismounted, tethered the horses to the porch rail and approached Ezra's still form with a large knife in his hand. He reached out and quickly severed the ropes holding the gambler in the saddle, then gave him a shove that sent the smaller man tumbling to the ground. The impact brought Ezra around with a jolt. Before he could figure out what was going on, Parker had grabbed him by the collar of his shirt and jerked him to his feet. Ezra staggered, trying to stay upright, but the long cold ride coupled with the tight ropes had left his legs almost completely numb and he started to sink once more to the ground.
"Fine my friend, we'll do this the hard way." The huge man tightened his grip on Ezra's collar and dragged him painfully up the steps and into the cabin. Realizing for the first time that his hands were now free, Ezra reached up and tried to break the big man's hold on his shirt. Parker, who was still holding the knife he'd used to cut Ezra's bonds, reached up and plunged the knife into the smaller man's arm just above the elbow. Ezra gasped and would have fallen if Parker hadn't still had a grip on his shirt. The card sharp wrenched the blade out and releasing his hold on Ezra's collar, grabbed his injured arm instead. The gambler was forced to his knees by the pain and by the pressure Parker was exerting on his arm.
"Hold still while I bandage this," Parker ordered. "Can't have you bleeding to death on me... not yet anyway." He cut away part of Ezra's sleeve and wrapped it tightly around the wound, eliciting a satisfying moan from the southerner and causing his vision to dim.
"Why... are you doin' this...?" Ezra mumbled, wincing at the pain in his jaw. "You cheated me... remember?"
Parker released Ezra and let him slump to the floor. "That's right, I did. And if you were smart, you would have kept your mouth shut about it and cut your losses. I can't have people standing up to me like that, it'll ruin my reputation."
Ezra looked up at the huge man in defiance. "The only reputation you seem to have... is as a cheater... and a bad one at that."
Parker roared in anger and wrapped his hands around Ezra's throat. He smiled grimly at the look of fear in the gambler's eyes and squeezed tighter. Ezra's vision dimmed and his last conscious thought was that he was going to have to learn when to keep his mouth shut.
The card sharp felt the smaller man go limp and immediately released his hold on him. He checked to make sure he was still breathing, tied Ezra's hands behind him and tossed him onto a cot in the corner of the room. Then he left the cabin to take care of the horses, mumbling to himself as he went. "I'm going to have to control my temper, or this little game will be over much sooner than I'd hoped."
The six men met back in the saloon at dawn to make their plans and grab some breakfast. It was obvious by their weary faces that none of them had slept. Between worrying about Ezra and the noise from the escalating storm, sleep was pretty much impossible.
"So what's the plan for today?" Buck asked as he stared at his plate. He managed a few bites and then dropped his fork on the table. "Guess I'm just not hungry this mornin'."
The others did the same and looked at Chris expectantly, waiting for his orders. He stared back at them, not really sure what they should do. "Well, what do you all think? Should we spend time hitting all the other towns, or should we keep concentrating on the area around Four Corners?"
Nathan looked at the others and said, "I can't rightly see him takin' Ezra into one of the towns where someone might recognize 'im."
Vin hesitated to say what he was thinking, but it needed to be brought up. "Besides... if Parker is intendin' to torture 'im... he'd want to get him somewhere secluded, some place where no one could hear what was goin' on."
JD paled and was visibly shaken by the idea of Ezra being tortured by that mountain of a man. Buck, who didn't look much better, put a hand on the boy's shoulder to calm him. "How much searchin' are we gonna be able to get done in this storm? You can't hardly see across the street."
Josiah drained the last of the coffee from his cup. "May not be able to find anything, but we've got to at least give it a try. Ezra's out there somewhere, probably hurting... and as much as he hates this kind of weather himself, you know if it was one of us missing he'd be out there looking too."
They all nodded in agreement. Josiah's words might not have been true in the beginning, but Ezra had definitely changed since joining the group, more than any of the rest of them. He still had a hard time expressing his feelings toward the others, but they all knew how he really felt. He made it quite clear by his actions. After his one mistake at the Seminole village, he had never given them another reason to doubt his loyalty. It hadn't been easy, but he had slowly regained their trust and earned their friendship by always being there when they needed him no matter what. And now Ezra needed them. And there was no way they were going to let him down.
"Okay, we'll keep searching the woods and hills around here for any signs of a trail. Keep an eye out for any old cabins, caves... anyplace Parker might have holed up with Ezra. We'll meet back here before dark. And keep an eye on the weather, if this storm gets much worse I want you all to hightail it back here. Nathan, I want you to stay here and get your supplies ready. When we do find him, he's probably going to be needing some doctoring and I want you here to take care of 'im." Chris looked at each of them, hating to send them out in the storm, but knowing he had no choice. They needed to find Ezra soon... he had a bad feeling time was running out for the gambler.
The rain had changed to snow by morning and it was really starting to pile up. Parker looked out at the swirling flakes and smiled knowing the storm would probably keep Standish's friends from looking for him. Ezra had only woken once briefly during the night. He'd struggled against the ropes that held him and hoarsely uttered a few choice curses at his captor demanding to be released until Parker had angrily rushed at the southerner and backhanded him, slamming his head against the wall and knocking him out.
Parker left the window and went to check on Standish. Seeing he was still unconscious, he decided that now was a good time to get everything ready for the cocky gambler's next lesson in humility. He picked up the satchel he'd brought to the cabin the day before and walked over to the cot. Parker stared at the large dark bruise that ran the length of the man's jaw and the bruises that now ringed his throat and smiled. He raised the smaller man up, untied his hands and removed his vest, suspenders and shirt. The gambler moaned slightly but didn't waken. Then he checked under the bandage on Ezra's arm and saw the wound was red and swollen, but had finally stopped bleeding. After retying the bandage, he opened the satchel. The first thing he removed from the bag was a leather belt that buckled in the back and had two leather handcuffs attached by short bands to its sides. He strapped it around Ezra's waist, placing his wrists in the cuffs and fastening them securely. He could only move his hands a few inches up or down now and would not be able to reach the next piece of specially made equipment Parker pulled from the satchel. It was a wide leather strap with thick padding that he intended to use to blindfold Ezra. When it was fastened in place, it would fit tightly over his eyes blocking out all light. But first he wanted him awake. He wanted to see the look in his eyes just before he put the blindfold on him.
Parker lightly slapped Ezra's face. "Standish! Come on, I need you awake for this."
Ezra stirred slightly and his eyelids fluttered open. He stared up at the man towering over him, trying to remember where he was and what was happening. Parker jerked him into a sitting position and held him there until the gambler seemed to regain his senses. Then he released him and stepped back, watching with a satisfied smirk as Ezra discovered the handcuffs. He jerked on the leather binding his wrists and winced at the pain that shot through his wounded arm. Struggling to rise off the cot, he stopped suddenly when he looked up and saw the card sharp dangling the leather strap in front of him. Swallowing painfully, he whispered, "What, if I may inquire, is that?"
"I just thought you would like to help me conduct a little scientific experiment. I've read that being blind heightens your other senses, so I decided we would put it to the test. This should be fun, don't you think?" Parker stood there for a moment, savoring the glimmer of fear he saw in Ezra's eyes... then he raised the blindfold and moved toward him.
Vin was combing the woods near the foothills west of town. He knew the search was pointless now because the blowing snow was making it pretty much impossible to see, but he just hated to give up. He was the tracker of the group... he should have been able to find some sign of Ezra by now. But he'd found nothing. Vin wasn't used to feeling this helpless and he hated it. Ezra had been right there for him when he had gone after Eli Joe, and he felt like he was letting his friend down now. Vin gazed off into the woods and shook his head wearily. "Damn it Ezra, where the hell are you?" Then he turned and headed reluctantly back to town. If it hadn't been for the snow that had fallen all morning, he would have seen the trail Parker and Ezra had taken through the woods... not more than twenty feet away.
Chris had given up searching and was headed back to town as well. He pulled his coat tighter around himself and thought about Ezra who hated the cold with a passion, out there somewhere without even his jacket. He knew Parker wouldn't care if the gambler froze or not. At the thought of Ezra helpless in the sadistic card sharp's clutches, a fresh wave of guilt washed over Chris. Why the hell hadn't he checked on Ezra sooner or started someone on watch over him the night before? He knew the answer, but just didn't want to admit it to himself... they all tended to leave Ezra alone because it was easier than trying to get close to him. The gambler made it clear that as far as he was concerned, this was just a working relationship... nothing more. But deep down inside, Chris knew Ezra was just afraid to let anyone behind the walls he kept up. He'd spent his whole childhood being shuffled from one unwilling relative to the next while Maude was off running some con. Never having experienced any close friendships as a child had left him totally at a loss as to how to handle them now. Ezra needed to be convinced he was a member of this family that the group was slowly evolving into, and none of them had taken the time or patience to do that. And now maybe it was too late.
Nathan was standing in the window of the saloon watching for some sign of the others. He'd made sure there was coffee and some hot food ready for their return, knowing that after a day riding in this cold they were all going to need it. Lord he hated this waiting! Several of the townspeople had stopped in to see if there was any news about Ezra and to express their concern for his welfare. Even though it would probably surprise Ezra to know it, he had earned the trust and respect of most of the people in Four Corners. They knew he had worked just as hard as the rest of the group to bring about the peace that the town was finally experiencing. Mary Travis had even stopped in offering to have telegrams sent to the neighboring towns asking for any information on the whereabouts of the gambler. Nathan told her they hadn't thought about doing that and that it seemed like a good idea, so she hurried back out and headed down to the telegraph office, wishing there was more she could do but happy to at least be doing something.
Nathan returned to his vigil at the window, straining to see through the heavily falling snow. Shortly after noon, he saw three riders coming down the street. As they rode by headed for the livery, he recognized Buck, Josiah and JD and could tell by the way they were slumped in their saddles that the news wasn't good. 'Well, there's still Chris and Vin out there, maybe they had better luck' he thought as he turned to pour coffee for the three men he knew would soon be headed for the saloon. As he turned, his eyes fell on the table where Ezra should have been seated by now; laughing and beating them all at round after round of poker. He and the gambler had gotten off to a rough start, but after all these months of working together, a mutual respect had developed between them and their feelings of friendship were now slowly growing. Nathan could see how hard Ezra was working to change and appreciated him for the effort he was making. It was too bad that he'd never told the other man just how much.
Ezra watched with dread as Parker approached with the blindfold held out in front of him. His mind was racing, trying to figure a way out of this mess. He tensed his legs as Parker drew closer, knowing he had to try something now because if his captor got that blindfold on him, there would be no chance of escape. When Parker was directly in front of him, Ezra pushed off with his legs and drove his head and shoulder into the larger man, knocking him off balance. Then Ezra whirled and dove through the window onto the porch outside, gasping as shards of glass penetrated his bare skin. He managed to get his feet under him and raced down the steps out into the snow-covered yard. Adrenalin and his desperate will to live were the only things keeping him going as he stumbled toward the cover of the trees. He could hear Parker thundering down the porch steps, shouting for him to stop. Ezra's back tensed as he ran, waiting for the bullet he knew was coming.
Chris and Vin were the last to return to the saloon. Chris headed straight for the bar, grabbing a bottle of whiskey and taking it to the table, not speaking to anyone as he sat down. Vin glanced at him and sighed, shaking his head slightly at a look from the others. Nothing was said for a long time, they all just sat there drinking their coffee or whiskey and trying to avoid thoughts of Ezra and what he must be going through. Every once in a while JD would look at the gunslinger out of the corner of his eye, but he knew better than to say anything to him. As for Chris, he sat and stared at Ezra's chair as he drank from the bottle he clutched in his hand.
Parker was stunned by Ezra's attack and it took several minutes for him to regain his feet and get to the door. He didn't think Standish had that much strength left in him and was amazed to see him already at the edge of the woods. Parker yelled for Ezra to stop, pulled his gun and aimed at the gambler's retreating back... then hesitated. If he killed him, his little game was over. He'd just have to follow the smaller man until his strength finally gave out... it was only a matter of time given his weakened state and the cold he was now experiencing. So the huge man followed quickly after Ezra, keeping him in sight but not attempting to catch up to him. He would wait until the conman was too weak to put up much of a fight, then close in.
Ezra ran through the snow, trying desperately to keep his balance but his arms fastened to his sides made it nearly impossible. He wondered why Parker hadn't shot him, but he wasn't about to stop and find out. After a few hundred yards he tripped over a rock hidden by the snow, stumbled and fell, landing on his injured arm. He emitted a hoarse cry of pain and struggled to his knees only to find Parker towering over him. Ezra closed his eyes and sank slowly back to the ground, realizing his one chance at freedom was gone.
Chris finished the bottle and his head started to nod. Vin sighed, went around the table and took the empty bottle out of the gunslinger's hand. He nodded at Buck who was standing on Chris' other side and the two men helped him to his feet.
"I don't need any help," Chris mumbled as he staggered toward the door with Buck and Vin right behind him, waiting to grab him if he fell.
"So that's it? We're just going to give up looking?" JD looked at Josiah and Nathan in astonishment. He couldn't believe they weren't doing more to find Ezra... that Chris could just sit here and get drunk all day when they should have been out looking.
"JD, none of us are giving up. We've got to wait for this storm to die down," Nathan tried to explain.
"But it's been two days already! Ezra's got to be convinced that we're not coming by now, that we aren't even looking!" JD exclaimed as a tear trickled down his cheek. "He needs us and we're just sitting here!"
Josiah put an arm around the boy, trying to quiet him. "If we tried searching in this storm, all we would do is wear ourselves out for nothing. We need to get some rest so we can make a fresh start in the morning. The best thing you can do right now is pray that God will watch out for Ezra until we can get to him."
JD nodded slowly, "I guess you're right, but it just feels like we're abandoning him when we sit here doing nothing." He stood and headed for the door.
"I don't think Chris and JD are going to make it through this if we don't find Ezra soon," Nathan said, as he watched the boy cross the street and enter the jail.
"I'm not sure any of us will, Nathan," Josiah said as he walked toward the door. "I think I'll head to the church and do a little begging on Ezra's behalf. I'm afraid he probably needs all the help he can get right about now."
Nathan rose and followed after the preacher. "I think I'll go with you. Can't hurt to add another voice to that prayer."
"Amen, Brother Nathan. Amen." Josiah solemnly answered as they walked out into the storm.
Parker stared down at Ezra seeing the defeated look on his face and realized the fight had gone out of the younger man. He was shivering violently from the cold and his arms, chest and back were covered with blood and bits of glass.
"Standish." He spoke quietly and waited. Ezra finally looked up at the savage card sharp and was rewarded with a back handed slap that whipped his head around and caused a new ache to form in his already throbbing jaw. "That's for trying to get away."
Parker reached down, grabbed Ezra by the hair and hauled him to his feet. He shoved the smaller man who began to stagger back toward the cabin. He saw Standish look back into the woods, as if he expected to see someone coming to his rescue. "You don't actually think they're looking for you, do you? Hell, they're probably glad you're gone." He saw a flash of doubt cross Ezra's face and realized he had struck a nerve. With that seed of doubt planted, he knew Randall's visit in the morning would be all he needed to tip the younger man over the edge into total despair.
Several times Ezra stumbled into trees as he tried to stay on his feet, reopening the wound in his arm. By the time they made it back to the cabin, the bandage on his arm was soaked with fresh blood and it had begun to slowly trickle down his side.
Parker had to practically carry Ezra up the steps and into the cabin where he dumped him back on the cot. The conman was on the verge of passing out from the intense cold and the large amount of blood he had lost. He moved his head weakly as Parker came at him with the blindfold, but could offer no real resistance. His captor grasped Ezra's face, jerked it roughly around to the side and fastened the blindfold in place.
"We'll just let you get used to the darkness for awhile, and then we'll start our little experiment in the morning. And to make sure you don't try any more escapes, we'll put you on a leash." The huge man pulled a length of rope from the satchel and tied one end tightly to the belt around Ezra's waist and the other to a metal loop he'd fastened in the wall. Then he left Ezra lying on the cot trembling, whether from the cold or fear he wasn't sure... but he hoped it was the latter. He laughed quietly as he left the cabin to get some firewood and find something to cover the broken window. He couldn't have the gambler freezing to death just when the game was finally getting underway.
JD was the first one in the saloon the next morning and he was disappointed to see no one else was up and ready to go. It was still snowing, but nowhere near as hard as it had been yesterday. He yawned as he grabbed a cup of coffee and ordered an egg and some biscuits. He wasn't actually hungry, but he knew he had to eat something. He sure needed that coffee though, seeing as how he only slept maybe an hour all night. The young sheriff couldn't stop thinking about Ezra and what that Parker fella was doing to him. It actually made him sick to his stomach when he thought about it... his imagination was coming up with some pretty awful things Ezra could be suffering through. Chris and Vin came in just as JD was finishing up his breakfast. They both grabbed coffees and came and sat across from him, noting the boy's tired expression. Obviously he hadn't slept any better than they had. JD started to ask Chris what the plan was for today, but one look at the gunslinger's face told him it would be better to wait until after he had a few cups of coffee in him. Chris' head was probably a mite sore this morning after all the whiskey he had drunk the night before. Besides, JD thought, they might as well wait for the others before they made any decisions. But they didn't have long to wait because the others had all filed in within the next half hour, all looking like they hadn't slept and all anxious to get back to the search. The only problem was they were running out of places to look, and that thought was starting to scare them. Nobody wanted to bring it up... to bring the thought out in the open... but each one knew that the odds of finding Ezra alive were getting smaller with each day that passed. And it was killing each and every one of them to realize that if he died, he would probably die thinking that none of them had cared enough to try and find him. They all knew that Ezra still felt like he didn't fit in, felt that he hadn't proven himself to the group even though he had done so time and time again. He just couldn't see how much he'd changed, how important he had become to each and every one of them. Chris looked around the table at the others and knew these same thoughts were running through all their minds and knew they were all as determined as he was to change all this if Ezra .... no, when... Ezra came home.
After much discussion, it was decided that they would split up into three groups of two men each and head out to the three nearest towns. It was the only place left to look. They knew Mary had sent telegrams asking for information about Ezra, but they still wanted to search each town and question everyone they could. It was decided that Nathan would go on the search too, because the likelihood of Ezra getting back on his own after this much time had passed was slim to none. They hated to leave the town totally unguarded, but things had been fairly quiet since the storm and they decided the townsfolk would be able to handle anything that came up. They agreed to try and meet back here by this time tomorrow if the weather didn't worsen, and each one left knowing that this could be their last chance of finding Ezra alive.
Jacob Randall had stood at the bar keeping one eye on the six men at the table while nursing his drink. He knew Mr. Parker would appreciate knowing what they were doing to find their friend and he was hoping it might bring a little bonus his way. He overheard them say they were going to check the surrounding towns and smiled. Good, that would keep them busy for a day or two; Parker would be glad to hear that. He'd waited until they'd left before getting his horse and heading for the cabin. He hated having to go while it was still snowing and so damn cold, but he knew better than to cross the card sharp. Besides, he couldn't wait to see what kind of games he'd been playing with Standish. He'd had a few run-ins with the lawmen and he loved seeing one of them get what was coming to him. As he rode to the cabin, Randall went over in his mind what Parker had told him to say when he got there. He knew he better get it exactly right or he might be the next victim of the madman's games... and that thought sent a shiver of fear up his spine.
Parker sat quietly watching Ezra. He could tell by the way he had his head tilted that the gambler was trying to listen for any sound that would tell him if he was alone in the room or not. After many years of playing this particular game with his victims, the big man had gotten quite good at being able to move around without making a sound. He was just waiting for Standish to feel safe enough to move off the cot before he started toying with him.
Ezra had been awake for a while now. He'd heard Parker moving about at first, but hadn't heard a sound for quite some time. He thought maybe his captor had gone out, but he just couldn't be sure because without his sight it seemed like his own breathing and heart beat were a hundred times louder than usual. God, he hated this blindfold! The constant darkness was giving him the worst case of claustrophobia he'd ever experienced. He held his breath and turned his head from side to side straining to hear any sounds at all, but there was nothing.
Ezra decided he had to take a chance and began rubbing his face on the wall, trying to loosen the blindfold enough to move it up over his eyes. It took several minutes of scraping and rubbing and considerable pain to his already sore face before he thought he could finally feel it move a little, but not enough to see anything yet. He jerked his hands against the leather cuffs in frustration, but there was absolutely no give to them at all. Ezra stopped suddenly. Was that a noise? He listened for several minutes, but it was still quiet. Determined to rid himself of the loathsome device, he continued working at the blindfold. Wait... did it seem lighter? Or was it just wishful thinking. No, he definitely could see a glimmer of light near his right eye.
Ezra turned around to try again and was stunned when he felt a large hand suddenly grasp a handful of his hair. He was jerked backwards off the cot and thrown to the floor, where he lay gasping for breath. He hadn't even heard the man coming, and he didn't hear the kick he received next coming either. Ezra cried out as Parker's huge boot caught him square in the thigh; he hated giving him the satisfaction of seeing him react, but the pain was just too great to be ignored. He could already feel the bruise forming and the muscle started to cramp so severely that Ezra thought he was going to be physically sick from the pain of it. He lay perfectly still, breathing deeply to try and control the waves of nausea, and soon he felt the cramp ease a little and the sick feeling begin to leave him. He flinched as Parker reached down and jerked the blindfold back into place and tightened the band on it. Ezra's head felt as if it were caught in a vise as the leather dug into his skin.
"Now that wasn't too wise of you, Mr. Standish," the card sharp whispered inches from Ezra's ear. He smiled as he watched the gambler jump at the sound of his voice. "Try that again and I'll just have to blind you permanently instead of using the blindfold. That's not very nice of you to try and ruin my little experiment."
Ezra managed to keep his fear of the man hidden... he didn't want to give him the satisfaction of knowing how much his words actually terrified him. He lay on the floor, listening... trying to sense where the next attack was coming from.
Parker was disappointed at the lack of a reaction on the gambler's part. He thought sure the threat of actual blindness would have him cowering in fear. That's all right, this little game was just beginning. By the time I'm through with him, the huge man thought, he'll wish I'd just gone ahead and killed him. He reached down, grabbed the rope still attached to the conman and jerked him to his feet. Ezra gasped and fell against the cot as his leg started to cramp again. Parker jerked him back up on his feet and this time held him upright until he could balance most of the weight on his other leg. "You better stay up this time, or you won't be able to get off that floor when I get through with you," he growled menacingly in the gambler's ear.
Ezra felt him untie the rope from the back of the belt and wondered wearily what the hell he was going to do next. He wished he knew how long he'd been here, but he'd lost all sense of time since he'd been blindfolded. He knew the others were probably looking for him and wished they would hurry up and effect his rescue before the madman could think up any other sadistic games for him. At least... he hoped they were looking for him. Parker's words kept coming back to him... 'Hell, they're probably glad you're gone.' What if he was right? What if they weren't coming after him? Ezra shook his head slightly and willed himself to stop thinking like that. He couldn't let the man get to him... he knew it was just part of his game. But the insecure little boy in him who had been shuffled from one relative to another, never being wanted by any of them, just couldn't shake the doubt. Nobody'd ever wanted him around before, why should this time be any different?
Parker stared at the streaks of blood and tiny shards of glass dotting the gambler's skin where he'd gone through the window. He reached out and ran his gloved hand lightly across Standish's back and grinned as he heard the man's sharp intake of breath and felt him try to pull away from the pain. He stared at him thoughtfully for a moment and dragged him over to a chair he had placed in the middle of the room and forced him to sit. Ezra sank onto the chair in relief, his leg was still cramping painfully and he didn't know how much longer it would have supported him. He heard Parker pouring water and he unconsciously wet his lips as he suddenly realized how thirsty he was. He hadn't had anything to eat or drink since this whole ordeal had begun and he could feel himself getting weaker.
The sadistic card sharp saw Ezra lick his lips in anticipation of a drink and his mouth formed a cruel smile as he shook a large amount of salt into the pan of water he'd just poured. He knew he'd get a reaction out of the stubborn young man this time.
"Well, Mr. Standish.... I do believe it's time to start on our little experiment," Parker said as he walked over and placed the pan on the table near Ezra. He watched the gambler frown slightly and continued talking as he proceeded to soak a towel in the salt water. "We're going to see if you have a heightened awareness of pain since your sight was taken away from you. Now if you'll just let me know how this feels... I'm going to wash the glass and blood off all these little cuts you received when you broke my window. And I'm warning you, if you move one inch out of this chair before I tell you to, I'll follow through on my threat and you will not need the blindfold anymore to help me with my experiment."
Ezra tensed when the towel first touched his back, but felt the water and realized the man indeed was washing out the cuts. He had just started to relax when the salt began to penetrate each one of the dozens of sores and an incredible burning sensation spread to every inch of his back. Ezra's back arched as he tried to escape the agony of the salt soaking into the open wounds and a ragged scream forced it's way out of his throat as wave after wave of excruciating pain washed over him. It took every bit of willpower the smaller man had left to remain in the chair, but Parker's threat to his sight helped him hold on. One scream after another was ripped from his throat as the sadistic bully continued to roughly scrub the towel across every inch of the southerner's skin until most of the bits of glass were washed away. Ezra felt as if his body were on fire as the salt ate its way into every scratch and cut. For Parker, the screams were music to his ears. He'd finally gotten the reaction he'd wanted out of his victim.
Randall rode into the clearing just as the last of Ezra's agonized screams ripped through the air. The blood drained from his face at the sound and he seriously considered turning around and leaving. But his fear of Parker was far too great to let him do it, so he slowly dismounted, walked up on the porch and opened the door. His eyes immediately went to the center of the room and the man seated on the chair. He gulped as he took in Ezra's bruised and battered appearance. He'd wanted to see him get knocked down a peg or two, but this.... my God. The man was soaked with sweat... the part of his face the blindfold didn't cover was a mass of bruises and the skin of his chest, back and arms was flushed a bright red. His arms were fastened to some kind of belt around his waist and he was gripping the chair seat tightly with his fingers as his body looked like it was on the verge of collapse. Randall stood frozen by the door, wishing he'd never gotten into this mess in the first place. He looked up at Parker who was standing in front of the gambler holding a cup of water.
"Come on, son... you've got to drink this, you're getting dehydrated and if you die on me, how will I ever finish my experiment?" Parker asked as he tried to get the smaller man to drink the water.
Ezra wanted that water more than anything he could think of right then, but he just didn't trust the crazed card sharp. God only knew what was in that cup. He jerked his head back as he felt the cup touch his lips, but the huge man grabbed a handful of Ezra's hair and held his head still while he poured the liquid down his throat. Once he knew it was actually water, Ezra gulped every drop down and prayed for more.
"Still thirsty?" Parker asked, his voice deceptively friendly. When Ezra nodded gratefully, he turned and poured another cupful.
Randall watched as the other man turned back around and frowned when he saw he had a salt container in his hand and was pouring a huge amount of it in the water. He swished it around to dissolve the salt and then moved the cup to Ezra's lips.
"Here you go. Have some more, you need to keep your strength up." Ezra leaned forward eagerly, his incredible thirst driving any reasonable thought from his mind. If he hadn't been so in need of that water, he probably would have been able to smell the salt. But Parker had the glass to his lips and was pouring it forcefully down his throat before he realized what it was.
Ezra began to gag as soon as the salt water entered his mouth, but the larger man just held his head in place and continued to pour. He stepped back as soon as the water was gone, knowing what would be coming next. The gambler promptly threw up, ridding his body of the water and anything else that was left in his stomach. He slumped weakly in the chair, gasping and choking as his stomach slowly stopped rolling. Ezra had never felt this bad in his life and he wanted nothing more at that moment than to roll up in a ball and cry like a baby. His body was in constant pain and his mind just kept going back to one thing... why hadn't the others come for him yet? Surely they knew he'd been kidnapped, and he didn't think they had traveled all that far from Four Corners to get to this cabin. Vin should have been able to track him by now. Were they even looking for him? Ezra shook himself mentally, trying to get that thought out of his head. 'Stop it, Standish. Quit feelin' sorry for yourself... you know they're coming and it's only a matter of time before you're rescued'... he kept telling himself this, but he just couldn't shake that niggling little doubt that Parker had planted.
"Well, son... it doesn't seem like your sense of smell has been heightened any or you would have smelled the salt in that water before I even got it to your mouth," Parker said as he cleaned up the mess his little experiment had just caused. "We'll just have to wait a little longer and test it again. Maybe you just need more time in the dark, and you're definitely going to have plenty of that since it doesn't seem like your friends are in any hurry to rescue you. Sure seems like they'd have found you by now, don't you think?"
Ezra couldn't help the tremor that rippled through his body at that last statement. He opened his mouth to speak, wanting desperately to assure Parker that he thought no such thing, but his exhausted mind just wouldn't come up with the words he needed. He let his chin drop to his chest and tried to focus instead on controlling the urge to vomit that was rapidly building again. The lingering taste of the salt water and the rising fear of not being rescued were keeping his stomach churning and all he really wanted at that point was to lay down and rest.
Parker saw the tremor and an evil smile slowly appeared on his face... it was time to inject more doubt into Mr. Standish's flagging spirit. He nodded at Randall who reluctantly turned and shut the door loudly... then looked at Ezra slumped weakly in the chair. 'God, I wish I didn't have to do this now'. He'd never expected to feel sorry for the gambler, but to his surprise he did.
Ezra jumped at the sound of the door slamming, his whole body tensed... was it them?... had they finally found him?... his heart pounded as he waited to hear a familiar voice. But his hopes were crushed when he heard Parker greet whoever had come through the door and he collapsed weakly back in the chair, a single tear escaping from behind the blindfold and slowly trickling down his cheek.
"It's about damn time you got here... what took you so long?!" The huge man spoke to Randall but kept his gaze on the gambler, nodding with satisfaction as he saw the dejected slump of his body and that tear glistening on his bruised face. He shot a glare at the other man and motioned for him to continue with his story, then quickly turned back to watch Standish. He didn't want to miss it when he heard what was coming next.
Randall kept his eyes averted from the beaten man clinging to the chair and began the speech Parker had made him memorize. "Well, I was in the saloon having one last drink and just as I got ready to leave the other six lawmen came in and started talking about Standish. So I figured I'd stay at the bar and see what information I could get for you."
Ezra turned his head slightly, waiting anxiously to hear what the others were planning in the way of a rescue.
"So what'd you find out? Are they searching for him?" Ezra's torturer moved silently closer to the blindfolded gambler, eager to see his every reaction to Randall's next words... he knew just how badly they were going to psychologically wound his victim.
"Searching for him? Hell, they were celebrating the fact that he was gone. The one dressed all in black... I think they called him Larabee... said he always knew the little coward would run out on them. Then they all started talking about how useless he'd been to them... always gettin' in one scrape or another with his gambling and con jobs... nothin' but trouble. The kid even stood up and made a damn toast... said at least now everyone'd have a chance at winning when they played cards... instead of all their money goin' to that lyin' cheater. You haven't got to worry about that bunch showing up here... they wouldn't walk across the street to save that worthless piece of trash."
'coward'... 'useless'... 'cheater'... 'worthless'... the words echoed loudly in Ezra's tortured mind as he tried desperately to control his spiraling emotions. It couldn't be... he was sure he was finally being accepted as one of the group... as one of the family they'd formed. How could he have been so wrong? But then again... he'd known all along that he was all of those things... it's what his mother had drilled into his head from the time he was a child... no one would ever like him... no one would ever want him and absolutely no one would ever love him. Ezra clutched frantically at the chair as his breathing quickened and his heart raced... he was totally alone... no one was coming to help him... no one cared that he was in the hands of a sadistic madman. His stomach rolled violently and he knew he was going to be sick if he couldn't get control of his fear. He tried taking deep breaths in an effort to stop the rising flood of bile but just as he thought he was going to win the battle, Parker leaned in close to him and spoke softly. "You're all mine, Standish... no one's coming for you... no one cares what the hell I do to you."
And that was all it took to push Ezra over the edge. The smaller man retched and spewed a hot flood of vomit over the towering form of Parker... soaking his pants and boots before he had time to react.
His torturer was stunned at first and then with a low growl reached down and grabbed Standish by the arms, dragging him out of the chair and throwing him violently to the floor. Ezra groaned as pain tore through his wounded arm and he tried desperately to move out of Parker's reach as the blows from his meaty fists rained down on him. Finally, he just curled up in a ball and prayed for it to end... oblivion... death... it didn't really matter any more to the physically and emotionally battered man. He just wanted the pain to go away.
Randall couldn't take it anymore... he finally screamed at Parker to stop. The enraged man ignored him until he heard him say that the game would be over if he killed Standish. The huge man delivered one last kick to the prone figure on the floor before him and stormed out of the cabin, growling at his accomplice to take care of the bastard as he strode past him. Randall stared in horror at the gambler as he lay in a crumpled heap... unmoving. He was sure Parker had finally killed him until he heard a soft whimper and saw Ezra move his head slightly. He moved quickly to kneel beside the smaller man and rolled him gently over onto his back, gasping at the damage that had been done to him. Blood trickled from Ezra's nose and mouth and a cut on his left temple, just above the blindfold, oozed a steady stream down the side of his face. There was hardly a spot on Standish's body that wasn't either cut or bruised and Randall was amazed that he was still alive.
"Let's get you back on the cot and I'll clean some of this blood off you." Randall got Ezra under the arms and lifted him to his feet... he winced at the smaller man's cry of pain as he put weight on his left leg.
One of Parker's powerful kicks had connected directly with his ankle and Ezra was certain it was broken, he could already feel it beginning to swell. The pain was excruciating as he was half-dragged, half-carried back to the corner and he was barely clinging to consciousness when he was lowered onto the cot.
Randall walked to the table and poured some water in a bowl, grabbed a fresh cloth and moved back over to Standish's side. The conman was moaning softly as he shifted on the cot, trying to find a position that didn't hurt.
"Easy now... don't move around or you'll do more damage to yourself." The man wet the cloth and gently cleaned Ezra's face, pressing down on the cut at his temple in an attempt to stop the flow of blood. Ezra rolled his head weakly, trying to move away from the pain. He tried to speak but only a hoarse croak came out of his parched throat. "Hang on a minute... I'll get you some water." Randall took the cup that Parker had used earlier, rinsed all the salt out and poured fresh water into it. He gently lifted Ezra's head just enough to allow him to drink without choking.
"No... please..." Ezra moved his head fretfully, trying to get away from the cup, remembering the taste of the salt water all too clearly.
"Shhh... it's all right... it's just water. Come on now... you need this." Randall held the smaller man's head until he got a taste of the water and then held it to his lips while he gulped the soothing liquid down. "That's enough for now... don't want to upset your stomach again."
He eased Standish's head back down on the cot and finished cleaning as much of the blood off his body as he could. He ripped up part of the sheet the battered man was lying on and used it to re-bandage his arm, frowning as he noticed how swollen and inflamed the wound had become. Randall could tell infection was setting in by the heat radiating off the gambler's body and he knew if he didn't get real medical attention soon... he wouldn't be leaving this cabin alive. Not that Parker would ever let Standish live after this. Damn... he hadn't known the card sharp was going to carry things this far... if he had, he never would have agreed to help.
He felt Ezra shiver and pulled the overhanging part of the sheet over him as best he could, wishing he had something warmer to cover him with. He rinsed out the cloth and gently wiped the beads of sweat off the smaller man's face.
"Please... who are you? Can't you remove this blindfold? I can't stand the darkness anymore... please...." Ezra pleaded, his voice so weak that Randall had to strain to hear him.
He stared down at the broken man and realized that he just couldn't be a part of this anymore. He was going to have to help him anyway he could... and the first way was to tell him that he had lied about his friends. He needed to know that they 'were' searching for him and that help was on it's way.
"Mr. Standish... I have to tell you something... can you hear me?" Randall gently touched the gambler's face, but he didn't think he was alert enough to understand. "Mr. Standish... please... you've got to listen to me... I lied when I said..."
Randall leaped to his feet when the door crashed open and Parker walked back into the cabin carrying an armload of firewood. He threw the wood down by the fireplace, brushed the snow off himself and then walked over to stare down at Ezra.
"He still alive?"
Randall nodded. "Barely. His arm's infected and he's running a fever. And I think his ankle might be broken."
"I don't give a damn about that as long as he stays alive awhile longer... I haven't finished with him yet." He stared at Randall suspiciously. "He say anything to you?"
"Nope... just some feverish ramblings... didn't make much sense." Randall eased away from the other man and moved slowly toward the door. "Well, I guess I better get back to town... if I don't show up for work in the morning, Mr. Hastings is liable to get suspicious about my whereabouts."
Parker searched his face, his steely gaze taking in his accomplice's nervousness. "You better remember to keep your mouth shut... or what's happened to Standish here will be nothing compared to what I do to you. And you make sure you come back in a couple of days with those supplies or I'll be coming after you."
Randall gulped and nodded as he backed out the door. He hurried through the snow to his horse and mounted quickly, positive that Parker was going to come through that door at any minute to stop him. Finally when he was out of sight of the cabin, he breathed a sigh of relief... and said a silent prayer for Mr. Standish to hang on... he was going to bring back help somehow. No one deserved to have those things done to them and he was going to do everything in his power to stop it.
Parker watched Ezra as he mumbled incoherently, his head moving restlessly back and forth on the cot. He decided to let him be for the moment while he had something to eat and got a few minutes rest, but then he was going to step up the torture... Standish was almost there but almost wasn't good enough. He wanted the cocky gambler completely broken... his will to live gone... his only wish not for rescue but to die. Then and only then would he know his game was over... and then he would end it by granting the man his wish.
By the time Randall had gotten back to Four Corners, the storm had worsened considerably. He knew Standish's friends wouldn't be back before tomorrow... maybe later if the weather didn't improve. Knowing there was nothing he could do for the gambler until the other lawmen returned, he decided to stop at the saloon for a drink or two and then get some sleep. Several of the townsfolk were in the saloon playing cards, drinking and talking. As far as Randall could tell, the two main topics of conversation were the storm... and Standish's disappearance. Most of the talk about the conman seemed to be centered around what they would all like to do to whoever was responsible for his kidnapping. Their vivid descriptions of their desired method of punishment was enough to make Randall have second thoughts about revealing his part in the whole mess to the lawmen when they returned. He finally decided it might be better to just write a note telling what had happened and describe where Standish was being held and by whom... of course, leaving his name completely out of it. He wanted to help the man, but not at the cost of his own life... and the way these people in the saloon were talking... that was a very real possibility.
Randall decided to have one more beer before he went to deliver the note. When Inez placed the glass of beer in front of him, he pulled the money out of his pocket to pay for it and watched in horror as the ruby ring he'd taken off of the gambler's finger when they'd kidnapped him dropped out and rolled across the floor, coming to rest by one of the townsmen's feet. The man bent and picked it up and stared first at the ring and then at Randall, an angry glare replacing the look of surprise that had been on his face a moment before.
"Inez... isn't this Mr. Standish's ring?" the man asked as he walked over and laid it on the bar in front of her.
Inez's hand shook as she picked up the ring. She looked closely at it and then stared intensely at Randall. "Where did you get this?!"
Randall's face paled as he saw everyone in the saloon closing in on him and he started to make up a lie about finding the ring in the alley... but suddenly the image of the gambler's pale, battered face appeared in his mind and he just couldn't ignore it. His shoulder's slumped as he told the crowd what had happened... how Parker had hired him to help kidnap Standish and that he'd had no idea how evil the man truly was. He finished by telling them that he had planned on leaving a note at the jail describing how to find Standish and that he was truly sorry for his part in what had happened.
The longer he talked, the angrier the crowd got and they were ready to lynch him by the time he got to the end of his explanation. Randall started backing across the room as the crowd closed in on him, his eyes searching frantically for a means of escape.
"Wait!" Inez yelled and hurried to move in front of Randall to try and keep the crowd back. "Yes, it was awful what he did... but at least he came here to try and help Senor Standish. And Mr. Larabee and the others will need this man to take them to him!"
There was a lot of grumbling but they finally agreed that she was right and took him over and locked him in one of the jail cells. Inez went to tell Mary about Randall and she immediately hurried to the telegraph office to send messages to Chris and the others. Now all they could do was wait until the men returned and pray they would be in time to help Ezra.
Ezra was drifting in and out of consciousness when Parker decided it was time to continue the game.
"Standish... wake up!" He grabbed the smaller man by the arm and shook him roughly.
Ezra could hear someone calling his name but chose to ignore it... leaving the void he was in would mean a resurgence of the pain and fear he'd been experiencing. He much preferred the darkness and quiet he floated in now, but suddenly the peaceful void was shattered by the return of the painful words he'd heard earlier. Only this time it was his friends' voices he heard repeating them... 'you little coward'... 'he's useless'... 'lying cheater'... 'worthless piece of trash'. Every one of them cutting through his heart like a knife. Suddenly the pain and fear of the real world seemed preferable to this tearing apart of his soul and he finally allowed the voice calling his name to pull him back.
Parker had his hand raised to slap Standish when he felt him try to pull out of his grip and realized he was finally awake. "It's about damn time you came to. Now come on... we've got some more experiments to run." He jerked the smaller man up off the cot and smiled in satisfaction at the cry of pain that was wrenched from the gambler's mouth as he was forced to stand on his injured ankle. "Well, it seems being blind has increased your sensitivity to pain... or have you always been weak when it came to that? No wonder the others were glad to see you go... probably got tired of hearing you whine about every little ache and pain. You must have been quite a liability to them in a fight... having to protect you and make sure the little mama's boy didn't get hurt. Mama's boy... hell, your own mother probably didn't even want a poor excuse like you for a son."
Ezra clamped his mouth shut as he felt the bones in his ankle grind together, refusing to give his torturer the pleasure of hearing him cry out again. But he couldn't stop the tremor that rippled through his body at the man's cruel words. Well, there was no arguing with that one, Ezra thought wearily... his mother definitely hadn't wanted him. In fact she'd shoved him off on any relative she could find... anything to keep him away from her.
Parker felt him tremble and laughed as he realized he'd stumbled upon another weapon to use against him. "What's the matter, little man... mommy didn't love you enough? Is that your excuse for the way you turned out? Hell, it's a wonder your so-called friends let you hang around as long as they did... must have been something you could do that they needed. Let's see, was it your ability to lie and cheat? Or did they need you to run some con for them. No... that can't be it... they're honest, upstanding lawmen. Well, hell... that only leaves one thing that I can think of. They must have kept you around for the laughs."
Ezra stiffened and tried to pull away from Parker as his words continued to hit home, but the larger man just held on and continued to drag him across the floor to the same chair in the middle of the room that he had occupied earlier. Ezra tried but couldn't smother the cry of pain that escaped his lips as he was thrown back in the chair, striking his ankle against the chair leg. He would have fallen to the floor if Parker hadn't hung on to him. The pain was so intense it made his head swim and he was sure he was going to pass out again, but he fought it with every ounce of strength he had left, knowing another beating would surely follow if he left that chair.
"That's it, isn't it? They laughed at you... thought you were just a joke. Laughed at your fancy clothes... laughed at your condescending way of talking... laughed at the fact that you thought they were your friends. Did you know they were laughing behind your back? Or was it worse than that... did they do it to your face." Parker leaned close to the gambler who clutched desperately at the chair, his whole body trembling with the emotions that were threatening to overwhelm him. Parker circled Ezra, whispering first in one ear and then the other... leaning in until he was practically touching him... constantly re-enforcing the gambler's feelings of betrayal and loneliness. "Do they know about your mother, Standish? How much she loathes you? Did they laugh at that, too?"
Parker saw Ezra flinch at the mention of his mother and knew he had him. He pressed harder... wanting to make him lose that control he was trying so hard to maintain.
"You hate her for that, don't you, little man... hate her for abandoning you the same way your friends have abandoned you now... hate her for not being a mother to you." He saw the gambler's chest heave as he struggled against the rising tide of hate that his words had started. Parker thought he was prepared for when the gambler broke... but nothing could have prepared him for the explosion of emotion that drove Ezra up out of the chair and straight into him.
The force of Ezra's body hitting him threw him off balance and they both landed in a heap on the floor. Even with his hands strapped down and all his injuries, the gambler was still a force to be reckoned with. He was driven by all his pent up feelings over what his mother had done to him all these years... the way the other six had treated him... never including him in the group as an equal... always making him feel that one wrong move on his part would have him tossed out on his ear. Discarded like he was nobody. Ezra was so enraged he had no idea what he was doing... didn't feel the pain of his ankle banging against Parker's legs... didn't think about what was going to happen when the other man finally got a hold of him... and didn't realize he was sobbing uncontrollably the whole time he was trying to hurt the bastard lying beneath him.
By the time Parker realized what had happened and managed to get his arms wrapped around Ezra, he'd already received several bites and finger gouges from him. Furious with himself for not anticipating the attack and underestimating the gambler, he turned his wrath on his victim. Clutching Standish tightly against his chest, he drew back his foot and placed a vicious kick to the conman's broken ankle. The scream of pain that exploded from Ezra's mouth stunned Parker momentarily, but he soon recovered and managed to drag the now half-conscious man off of him. He took several minutes to catch his breath and then stood, hauling Ezra's limp body up with him and slamming him violently back into the chair.
"That's it, Standish... do you hear me?!" Parker pinned the smaller man in the chair with one hand and back-handed him with the other. "I said do you hear me, damn it?!"
Ezra nodded his head weakly... an occasional sob still shaking his body and his face still wet with tears.
"Stay in that damn chair... I'll be right back. Move one inch and everything you've gone through so far will seem like nothing compared to what I'll do to you. You got it?" Parker gave the smaller man another slap for good measure and moved away.
Ezra tried to rein in his rampaging emotions... he hated letting that miserable sonofabitch get the better of him, but he just couldn't seem to stop crying. He had never felt so scared and alone in his whole life... and nothing he'd ever been through had prepared him for this lost and desolate feeling that threatened to destroy him. Everything he'd thought he'd gained by trying to turn his life around had been ripped away from him... had all been a huge joke. Ezra shook his head to try and clear it of the self-pitying thoughts he kept having and tried to concentrate on something else. But the fever burning within him kept his mind clouded and he found it impossible to focus on anything but the pain in his body and the even bigger pain in his heart.
Parker kept one eye on the gambler as he worked on his next phase of the game. Time to test his victim's sense of sound. He opened the chamber of his gun and removed all but one of the bullets, snapping it back into place with a loud click. He watched Standish's head swivel in his direction at the sound and moved slowly and quietly back to his side.
Ezra jumped when Parker clamped a hand down on his shoulder and spoke. He'd never even heard him coming.
"Okay, Mr. Standish... it's time to test your hearing... let's see if it's been heightened any by your lack of sight. Now... can you identify this sound?" Parker watched the color drain from the other man's face as he held the gun lightly against his temple and pulled back the hammer. "I see you recognize it. Now we're going to play a little game that has nothing to do with my experiment. I just thought you might enjoy it. Have you ever heard of Russian roulette, Mr. Standish?"
Chris and Vin climbed wearily up the hotel stairs to their rooms. They'd questioned almost everyone in the town of Eagle Bend with no luck... no one had seen Ezra or Parker.
"Well, what do you think? Do we head back in the morning or do we keep lookin' here?" Chris glanced at Vin as he spoke and noticed the dark circles under the tracker's eyes. None of them had slept much since Ezra disappeared and it was starting to take its toll on their minds and bodies.
"Hell, I don't know Chris... I'm runnin' out of ideas. I can't think of anyplace we haven't already looked. He has t' have taken Ezra somewhere around here and holed up but damn if I can figure out where it could be." Vin took his hat off and raked his hand through his mop of hair in frustration. "I just know I feel damn useless not being able to find even a trace of 'em."
"Well, let's get some sleep and we'll start back after breakfast." Chris turned to enter his room but was stopped by Vin's quiet voice.
"Do you think he's still alive, Chris?"
Vin didn't think he was going to answer him but finally Chris spoke... his voice cold enough to send a shiver up the tracker's spine. "He'd better be."
Vin watched Chris as he went in his room and closed the door. Shaking his head, one thought ran though his mind... 'Parker better pray Chris Larabee never catches up to him if we don't find Ezra alive.'
Ezra froze when he felt the cold metal touch his skin and his heart almost stopped when he heard the soft click of the hammer.
"I asked you a question, Mr. Standish... I would strongly suggest you answer it." Parker increased the pressure of the gun.
Ezra felt the barrel of the gun grind against his temple and after swallowing painfully several times managed to answer his tormentor. "As a matter of fact I have, Mr. Parker... interesting game." His voice was hoarse but steady... he was determined to not let the bastard see any fear.
Ezra's heart leaped into his throat. He thought he'd prepared himself for it, but even though he managed to hold his body still, he couldn't control the white hot fear that rushed through him.
"Very good, Mr. Standish... an admirable job of hiding your emotions. Of course, being a gambler you would be practiced at it, wouldn't you? Being a gambler myself, I know about building those walls... hiding behind them so no one knows what you're up to. But you let yours down, didn't you? That's how your so-called friends managed to get to you, wasn't it? You made the ultimate mistake of letting them see how you felt... letting them know how much you needed to be accepted by them. They're probably still laughing at what a fool you were..." He saw the gambler tremble... good...
This time Ezra couldn't hold back the shudder that tore through him at the sound of the hammer striking. He tried to drag his mind away from thoughts of his friends and to concentrate on... no...wait... not his friends... they'd abandoned him... left him here to suffer at the hands of this madman... but ... they wouldn't do that to him... would they? Ezra groaned softly as he tried to focus his thoughts but his fever was worsening and he just couldn't seem to think straight. He swayed slightly as the darkness threatened to take him again.
Parker saw him weaving in the chair and knew he was on the verge of passing out. Grabbing a handful of Standish's hair, he jerked his head up and gave it a hard shake... the gun scraping across Ezra's skin leaving a thin line of blood in it's wake.
Parker leaned in to hiss in the gambler's ear. "You better stay with me, little man... or I'll have to tie you in this chair. I'm sure the ropes biting into that wound on your arm and squeezing those bruised ribs will keep you awake. Can't you just imagine the pain from it scraping across all those nasty cuts on your back and chest?" The card sharp ran his hand roughly across Ezra's chest, reawakening the burning sensation in his skin.
Ezra gasped as the pain seemed to envelop every fiber of his being. His fingers clutched frantically at the sides of the chair as he forced his rapidly weakening body to remain upright. His head swam as an incredible wave of dizziness swept over him, his thoughts tumbling uncontrolled through his mind. 'Where were they?... my friends... why don't they come for me?'... taunting laughter... their faces blending together in his feverish mind... Parker's voice calling him 'little man'... his mother walking away... laughing at him... ridiculing him.
A hoarse cry tore it's way out of his throat as his body jerked upright in the chair. His heart thundered in his chest as he gasped for breath... the fear threatening to consume him. The combination of the incredible tension and the fever were rekindling the sick feeling in the pit of his stomach and he wanted nothing more than to sink back into the void. To not feel anymore... not feel the pain... the fear... and especially to not feel the despair that clutched at his heart. Oh God... why wasn't someone there to help him. He'd always been so sure no matter how strained their relationship, that Chris Larabee would be there if any of them really needed him. He was their leader... their protector. And he needed him now... why wasn't he here? Then Ezra's thoughts shifted and he heard Chris's voice echoing in his head... 'little coward'... 'run out on us'... no... wait... it was another voice that had said that, wasn't it?... not Chris... not his friend... someone else... and that voice had said something else. He tried to remember what it was... then he heard the voice say... 'I lied'. Lied?... about what?... but his mind was just too tired to think anymore.
"Chris... help me... please..." Ezra's voice shook as he whispered plaintively.
Parker pressed the barrel of the gun tighter against the gambler's head as he leaned over to whisper in his ear. "Beg all you want, Standish... no one's coming to help you. No one cares what I do to you. You're going to die here all alone... and no one will even notice you're gone."
Ezra stiffened and then slumped in the chair with his head resting wearily on his knees. His body shook as the incredible tension drained all the strength out of him. "No more... please... no more."
Parker stared down at the gambler and shook his head in disgust... he'd thought sure the man had enough backbone to make it to the end of the game before breaking. He nudged him roughly with his boot. "Sit up, Standish... this isn't over yet." But Ezra was just too emotionally drained to respond to the demands made on him to rise.
"Your 'friends' were right then, weren't they? You are a sniveling little coward." Ezra's tormentor smiled as he saw the other man slowly stop shaking and heard the mumbling grind to an abrupt halt. "I'll bet they'd love to see you now... to watch you whining and begging like the worthless little piece of trash you are."
Ezra was aware enough to hear the hateful words the sadistic man was hurling at him. He knew he should be getting angry and trying to fight back but he was just too sick and tired of it all to even try. It wouldn't stop anything... no one was coming to help him... to stop his tormentor from playing his little game. Ezra knew it would only bring him more pain if he fought back... more torture... he just wanted it all to end. He was just so tired.
Parker saw that he had nearly broken the man and wasn't going to get a rise out of him with words so he reached down, grabbed the smaller man by the neck and roughly sat him back up in the chair.
He leaned in close to the gambler's face and tried once more to penetrate the apathy that had settled over his victim. "Are you ready to die now, little man?" He saw Ezra tremble and continued. "You're a gambler, Standish... you know what your odds are now... fifty-fifty."
Ezra tensed as he felt the gun being pressed once more to his head. He moaned softly as the cold metal settled once more on the bruised and tender skin. The click of the hammer being drawn back made his blood run cold and he held his breath as he waited for the...
Ezra's whole body shook violently as his nerves finally snapped. Ignoring the agonizing pain in his ankle, Ezra stood and began screaming at Parker to end it.
"Shoot me, you sonofabitch... just shoot me and get it over with!! I don't care anymore.... do you hear me?! I want to die... shoot me, damn it!!"
Parker looked down at the smaller man in amazement. He didn't think he'd had the strength left to stand much less expend this much emotion. He had to admit... he was impressed with the gambler's toughness, but now he had to decide whether to use the bullet left in the gun to end the game or to subdue him and continue it later. If Standish had this much left in him then he obviously wasn't completely broken yet. Maybe some more physical torture was called for... so he chose to continue the game and see just how low he could drive the man.
Stepping up to the still screaming man, Parker raised the gun and slashed it viciously across his face... the force of the blow sending him crashing into the wall. Ezra felt himself falling back into the void and welcomed it. Finally... a respite from the pain. As he lost consciousness his body slid slowly down the wall and sprawled limply on the floor.
Vin and Chris were up early the next morning, eager to get back to Four Corners to see if there was any news about Ezra. They were in the hotel dining room having a bite of breakfast when the Sheriff came in and walked over to their table.
"I was hoping you were still here. This telegram came in last night, but I didn't get it until this morning. I hurried over here as soon as I read it... it's about your friend." The Sheriff handed Chris the piece of paper and watched him as his eyes scanned quickly over the words.
"Return to Four Corner's immediately... have Parker's accomplice in jail... wants to help Ezra... Mary Travis." The gunslinger read the telegram out loud for Vin's benefit before tossing it back at the startled Sheriff.
"Damn it! Why the hell didn't they get this to you sooner?! We've wasted the whole night!" Chris exclaimed as he stood, grabbed his gear and headed for the door, knocking his chair over in his haste to leave.
Vin followed him out, tipping his hat to the Sheriff as a silent apology for Chris' outburst. He had to run to catch up as Chris made his way hurriedly through the snow to the livery.
"Chris!... Chris... wait up." Vin struggled through the huge drifts of snow trying to keep up with the long-legged gunslinger. He glanced at the sky and saw the threatening gray clouds rolling in. Just what they needed... more snow.
Chris stopped and waited for Vin to catch up and shot him an apologetic look. "Sorry, Vin. I just can't believe that damn telegram's been sitting there all night... we could've been back home and on our way to get Ezra by now."
"I know... and if this storm hits before we get back to town it's gonna be even longer before we'll be able to go after him." Vin pointed at the clouds as they hurried into the livery.
"Like hell! I don't care if it's a damn blizzard... we're grabbing that sorry sonofabitch that helped take Ezra and we're going after him. God only knows what Parker's doing to him!" Chris saddled his horse and loaded on his gear then turned to wait for Vin to finish with his.
"Or what's goin' through his mind at this point... he's got to be thinkin' we're not comin' after 'im by now," Vin said as he shot a worried glance at Chris. He could see that Ezra's possible feelings of abandonment had occurred to him, too. They led their horses out into the street, glanced one last time at the threatening sky and headed at a gallop for home.
Ezra came to slowly, unsure of where he was or what had happened to him. All he was certain of was that he hurt everywhere and he was hot. He lay on the floor sweating, trying to gather his thoughts before slowly opening his eyes. Panic set in as he realized he couldn't see and it was a few seconds before his memories of the last few days came crashing back and he remembered the blindfold. He was suddenly overwhelmed by an acute feeling of claustrophobia and started frantically scrubbing his face along the floor trying to release himself from the smothering darkness. He could feel the blood oozing from the wound on his cheek where Parker had hit him with his gun... the pain from it bringing tears to his eyes. But he couldn't stop himself... he had to get it off. Suddenly he felt it slip... the sweat dripping down his face had finally given him the edge he needed in his fight to be rid of it.
And then Ezra remembered the last time he'd almost been free of the hateful device. The memory of Parker's threat to blind him for real and of the beating he'd received made him pause in his efforts to remove the blindfold. He held his breath and listened... silence... and then he heard a noise from outside. He recognized the sound and realized his tormentor was out chopping more wood for the fire. His mind raced as he tried to decide whether to risk removing the blindfold or to just lay there and do nothing. How long had Parker been out there... if he got caught the beating would surely be worse than the last one... but it could be his only chance to escape... maybe if he waited the others would come. But then he remembered they weren't coming, they were glad he was gone. The fever made focusing on any one thought for long nearly impossible. Finally, Ezra could stand the inky blackness no longer and returned to the task of removing the blindfold. Ignoring the searing pain in his cheek, he scraped his face harder and harder across the floor until the blindfold finally slid the rest of the way off. He gasped and squeezed his eyes shut as even the muted light in the cabin shot bolts of pain through his eyes after the constant darkness. He waited a few minutes and when the throbbing started to ease he opened his eyes gradually, letting only a little bit of light in at a time. The pain was still there although not as intense, but his vision was blurry because he couldn't get his eyes to stop watering. Even so, it was still a huge relief to have that confining contraption off and to be out of the darkness at last.
Ezra blinked rapidly, trying to clear his vision while he listened for signs of Parker's return. He could still here the thump of the axe so he knew he was safe for a little while longer, but he also knew what would happen when the man returned and saw him without the blindfold. Ezra tried to turn his whirling mind away from the fear that thought brought with it and concentrate on finding some way of removing himself from the madman's game.
Chris and Vin rode into Four Corners shortly before noon. They'd hoped to make better time, but the snow had started falling heavily again shortly after they'd left Eagle Bend slowing them down considerably. They headed directly for the jail, anxious to talk to the man who claimed to know where Ezra was.
The two men hurried into the jail and upon entering were relieved to find Buck and JD waiting for them. Buck took one look at the cold gleam in the gunslinger's eyes, tossed him the jail keys and pointed to one of the cells. They watched as he caught the keys and stalked over to the cell holding their prisoner all in one fluid motion. His eyes locked onto those of the man sitting nervously on the bunk and never left them as he unlocked the door and entered the cell.
"Where is he?!" Chris growled as he grabbed the man by the coat, jerked him up off the bunk and slammed him into the wall. Randall was so shaken by the gunslinger's hate-filled eyes staring into his that all he could do was whimper in response to his question. "I said... where... the hell... is he?!"
Randall stifled a groan as he was pulled away from the wall, dragged around and slammed up against the bars of the cell. "Wait... please... I just..."
Vin rushed in to grab his friend's arm just in time to prevent him from driving his fist into the face of the helpless man he had pinned against the bars.
"Chris, don't... we need him to lead us to Ezra." The tracker spoke softly as he held on to his friend's arm, trying to diffuse some of his anger. "Let him go, pard."
Chris resisted for several minutes but finally allowed Vin to pull him off of the prisoner.
Vin kept his hold on the gunslinger's arm as he glanced at Randall. "You better answer 'im ... I can't keep 'im off a' ya' forever."
Randall swallowed a few times and never taking his eyes off of Chris, opened his mouth to speak. But just as he started to tell him the directions to the cabin, the door to the jail slammed open and Josiah and Nathan rushed in accompanied by a cold blast of wind-driven snow. Forcing the door closed behind them, they turned and stared at the others expectantly.
Buck waved his hand at the terrified man still pressed against the bars and told the newest arrivals, "this piece of low life scum was just about to tell us where Ezra is. And I figure he better hurry before Chris rips his heart out."
Randall, after sneaking a quick look at the other lawmen in the room, looked back at the man still hovering over him and began to speak. He haltingly told them of his part in their friend's kidnaping and where they'd taken him, explaining quickly how he'd felt sorry for the gambler after what Parker had done to him and how he'd promised Mr. Standish he'd get help for him. "I didn't know what kind of a man Parker was... I swear. I thought he was just going to rough the guy up a little. I didn't know he was going to... well... torture him."
"What all'd this Parker do to Ezra?" Nathan demanded, wanting to know just what kind of injuries he was going to be dealing with.
The others paled as Randall started listing off the various beatings, the blindfold, the salt water... right down to describing the screams he'd heard when he'd first arrived at the cabin. And then he repeated what Parker had had him say to add to the gambler's psychological beating.
With every word the prisoner spoke, Vin could sense Chris' anger growing until finally... after hearing how Ezra's faith in his friends had been totally destroyed... he'd lunged at the man, desperately trying to get his hands around his throat. Buck rushed into the cell to help Vin pull the crazed gunslinger off of Randall, talking constantly to him as they moved him away from the terrified man.
"Chris... stop... think about this..." Buck could see he was listening so he continued. "We can find Ezra a whole lot quicker if we take this bastard with us. Ezra needs us... and he needs us fast... let's quit wastin' time here and get movin'."
Chris took a deep breath and got control of himself. "All right... we're gonna need fresh horses. Josiah, you and JD go to the livery and tell Sam what you need and why... saddle them up and get back here as fast as you can. Buck... you run over to the General store and get some supplies. Food... extra blankets... anything you can think of we might need." After the three men had left, he turned to the healer. " Nathan... think we should take a wagon?"
Nathan looked at Randall and asked, "How bad is he hurt?"
The frightened man glanced nervously at Chris and then spoke. "Pretty bad. He's got a knife wound in his upper arm that's badly infected, cuts and bruises all over his body, possibly a concussion... he was pretty out of it, but that could have been because of the fever. And I'm pretty sure his left ankle is broken, he seemed to be in a lot of pain when he stood on it. I tried to explain to him that I lied about what you all had said... but I'm pretty sure he couldn't understand what I was saying... and besides, Parker came back in before I could finish."
Vin put his hand on Chris's arm as he saw his face tighten in anger again with each new injury that Randall listed. The gunslinger glanced at Vin and then turned back to Nathan, waiting to hear what he thought they should do.
"Well, it sure would be a lot easier on him travelin' in a wagon, but I doubt we'd be able to make very good time tryin' to get it through all this snow. And if this wind and snow keep blowin', we're probably gonna have to jist stay there with 'im until it eases up. He's not gonna be up to no hard ridin'." Nathan looked at Vin who nodded his head in agreement and then after another quick glance at Chris, hurried out to gather together what he thought he'd need to care for the injured gambler.
"He's right, Chris. Ezra's not gonna be able to take this cold if he's in as bad a shape as 'he' claims," Vin said, nodding at Randall. "Best thing for Ezra would be to stay there with 'im and keep him warm and dry til the weather breaks."
Chris dreaded the idea of forcing Ezra to stay any longer than he had to in that hell hole after what he'd been through there, but he understood the necessity for it. He just hoped and prayed Ezra would.
Ezra tried to sit up, but the waves of pain that crashed over him forced him back to the floor. He tried to ignore it but it seemed to be coming at him from everywhere... every single part of his body hurt. Tears trickled down his face as his tired mind urged him to just give up... just let Parker find him and finish him off... then the pain and torment would finally stop. But with that thought came the voices again... 'sniveling coward'... 'worthless'... the mocking laughter of his so-called friends tore through his mind. And then it faded as his mother's voice added to his pain ... 'nobody wants you... nobody loves you'. Which was quickly followed by Parker telling him he was going to die alone. Of course he would die alone... he'd been alone his whole life. 'Are you ready to die now, little man?' Ezra gasped as those words tore through his mind and he was hit with the realization that he didn't want to die yet. He didn't want to give all those hated voices tumbling through his head the satisfaction of seeing him give up.
With a new determination to live driving him, he ignored the screams of pain from his body and pressing himself against the wall, managed to force himself into a sitting position. He let his gaze travel around the room as he sat trying to get control of the pain again before attempting to stand. His vision was still a little blurry and the sweat still dripped down his face burning his eyes, but he could see well enough to make out the details of the cabin's layout. Ezra sighed in relief when he spotted the door leading outside and found it to be only a few yards away... it wouldn't be easy but he had to try for it. Steeling himself against the excruciating pain he knew was coming, he tucked his good leg under him and leaning heavily against the wall, slowly pushed himself up... careful to keep as much weight as possible off his injured ankle. The room spun as his battered body protested every move he made and he had to close his eyes to keep from passing out again. The fever still burning through his body and the fact that he'd eaten almost nothing in four days was making it hard for him to focus his mind, but the thought of more torture and pain if Parker found him still here and without the blindfold was enough to help him concentrate.
As the spinning stopped, Ezra opened his eyes slowly and found himself staring at the simple wooden chair sitting in the middle of the room. His breathing quickened as he realized that that chair was where he'd endured most of his torture... where Parker's depraved game of Russian roulette had taken place. The sound of those five terrifying clicks echoed through his mind, paralyzing him for a moment until finally he was able to wrench his gaze away. His eyes settled on the table beside it and his heart almost stopped as he saw the gun lying there. The gambler stared at it... remembering again the five clicks... thinking of the bullet that must still be in there. He looked down at the leather cuffs pinning his arms to his waist and flexed his wrists... testing to see how far he could move his hands. He groaned as the movement reawakened the pain in his arm and he knew he'd have to use his left hand... his right would never support the weight of the gun now. He'd never be able to get any kind of accurate shot off at this angle, but he might at least wound the bastard and slow him down. Ezra raised his head and had to close his eyes as the darkness threatened to close in around him again. After a few deep breaths the feeling faded and after listening to make sure Parker was still wielding the axe, he made his slow painful way over to the table.
Ezra's hand shook as he carefully maneuvered the gun around on the table so he could pick it up. He had to get it just right because once it was in his hand he wouldn't be able to adjust his grip on it. Blinking rapidly, he tried to clear the sweat from his eyes wishing for the hundredth time that his hands were loose so he could rub them. They still ached from being covered for so long and it was hard to focus on one object for any length of time without them getting blurry. He finally got the gun the way he wanted it and lifted it off the table, carefully slipping his finger over the trigger. Ezra looked down at the gun in his hand and realized that it gave him a small feeling of control back, that is until a horrifying thought occurred to him... what if there was no bullet in the gun? What if Parker had just faked the whole Russian roulette scenario and the gun had actually been empty the whole time? Ezra's hand began to shake uncontrollably as he stared at the weapon... the fear trying to invade his mind once more. He closed his eyes and ordered himself to stop thinking that way... after all, it didn't really matter... it was the only chance he had and he had to take it.
Opening his eyes again and taking a deep breath he moved away from the table and began limping painfully toward the door. The pains shooting through his ankle were beginning to make him sick to his stomach, but he fought the feeling and kept moving. Ezra finally reached the door and leaned against it weakly... resting his good leg for a minute which was shaking from the strain of supporting most of his weight. He stared down at the doorknob... he wanted to get out of the cabin more than anything in this world but his fear of Parker and what he was going to do to him if he caught him made it almost impossible to reach his hand out and open the door. 'Come on, Standish... it's your only chance... no one's going to help you. You're on your own again... same as always'. Ezra took a few quick breaths to steady himself and slowly opened the door a crack and listened. He could tell from the sounds of the chopping that Parker was on the opposite side of the cabin, so he swung the door open wider and cautiously moved out onto the porch.
The storm had worsened considerably and Chris and the others were having a hard time seeing where they were going.
Vin leaned in close to Chris so he could be heard over the wind. "We can't keep goin' in this! We better hole up in those woods over there until this wind dies down!"
"No way! Ezra's waited long enough for us to come after him... I'll be damned if we'll stop now when we're so close!" Chris tried to keep riding but Vin grabbed his arm and forced him to stop.
"We ain't gonna do Ezra no good if we lose our way in this storm and have t' backtrack to find 'im! I can't see the trail anymore and Randall ain't got a clue where we are now!" Vin wouldn't let go of Chris and was urging him toward the trees.
"Come on, Chris... Vin's right... we're not gonna be able to help Ezra if we can't find him! Let's wait a little while and see if this storm eases up... and if it don't... then we'll try and go on!" Buck was relieved to see Chris angrily turn his horse and head into the shelter of the trees. He knew how much the gunfighter hated this delay... hell, they all did... but they didn't have any choice. He just hoped that Ezra could outlast the storm and hold on til they got there.
Ezra gasped as a frigid blast of wind-whipped snow struck him and he quickly moved back into the shelter of the doorway to try and gain control of his now violently shivering body. The cold air striking his fevered skin was quickly draining what little strength he had left and he was finding it increasingly hard to retain his grip on the gun. To make matters worse, his eyes were tearing and aching so badly from the unrelenting glare of the snow that he could barely stand to keep them open. And the longer he stood in the relative safety of that doorway, the harder it was to leave it. He glanced back in the cabin and knew he was going to eventually die if he stayed there... but he also knew his chances of survival were no better out in that storm. It was just a matter of how he wanted to die... as a helpless victim... or fighting. He didn't know how much fight he had left in him... but he decided he had to at least try, so he tightened his grip on the gun and forced himself to move away from the door.
Parker angrily wielded the axe, taking his anger at Standish out on the pile of logs instead. He knew if he didn't, his temper would get the best of him and he'd end up killing the gambler before he was ready to give up on the game. He'd worked too hard setting this whole thing up to let it end so soon. Besides, the southerner had turned out to be a better adversary than he'd thought he would be and he was enjoying himself too much to give it up now. With his anger passing, Parker finally began to feel the cold and decided to go back in and resume toying with his prey. He drove the axe back in the chopping block and began gathering up the wood.
Ezra stumbled across the yard, careful to keep the cabin between himself and Parker. He could see the outline of a small barn out back of the cabin and assumed that was where he'd sheltered the horses... but he knew with his arms tethered and his ankle in the shape it was, that he'd never be able to mount one of them anyway so he kept heading in the direction of the woods. Glancing back, he was thankful to see that the wind and snow were filling in his footprints. Hopefully, once he reached the cover of the woods he'd be able to find some kind of shelter to hide in while he recovered some of his strength. Somewhere in the back of his mind he knew he didn't stand a chance in hell of surviving out here in this storm, but he refused to give up and kept moving toward the trees.
He was half way across the yard when he heard it... or rather stopped hearing it. The chopping sound of the axe. Ezra froze in his tracks and stared back toward the cabin, desperately trying to get his eyes to focus. All he could see were shapes in the blinding whiteness of the whirling snow... and every one of them looked like Parker closing in on him. His finger tightened on the trigger and he had to force himself to calm down before he wasted the only bullet he had. Ezra turned and tried to move faster toward the shelter of the woods, but his whole body was numb from the constant cold and he knew he was dangerously close to passing out. He staggered and almost fell several times as his injured ankle nearly gave out on him, but each time he managed to stay upright and move forward again as he concentrated every ounce of his being on getting away.
Parker came around the end of the cabin with his armload of firewood, looked up at the porch and stared in anger at the door hanging open. Throwing the wood down, he whipped around to look for any sign of the southerner... he couldn't possibly have gotten far in the condition he was in.
"Standish! You're going to die when I catch you!"
Ezra's steps faltered when he heard Parker's voice and his heart raced as the fear threatened to overwhelm him again. He glanced up to see how close he was to the cover of the trees and was startled to see that the snow had stopped and the force of the wind had lessened. He'd been so focused on putting one foot in front of the other and maintaining his grip on the gun that he hadn't noticed the storm diminishing. Ezra wanted to look back to see where Parker was, but he knew if he saw him he'd never be able to get himself moving again, so he pushed on for the trees which were thankfully only a few yards away.
Parker glanced down at the ground, but any tracks the conman had left were covered over now. He contemplated the shed with the horses in it, but dismissed it almost immediately knowing Standish wouldn't be able to pull himself up on a horse with his hands bound to his waist. That meant he had to be headed for the shelter of the trees. His anger mounting with every minute that passed, Parker gazed around the large clearing trying to catch a glimpse of the gambler. Suddenly he caught a movement near the tree-line out of the corner of his eye. Turning his head quickly, he finally spotted Standish just before he disappeared into the woods. An evil sadistic grin slowly spread across his face as he began moving toward the trees.
Ezra huddled against a tree trying to shake off the numbness that was spreading through his body. He had to keep looking down at his hand to make sure he was still holding the gun... his fingers were so cold he couldn't feel a thing and he could only pray that he'd be able to squeeze the trigger if he needed to. The exhausted gambler closed his eyes and fought back tears of frustration as he tried to focus his feverish mind on what he should do next. His captor had only given him just enough food and water to keep him alive and it was now making it almost impossible for him to concentrate on anything. What little strength he'd had left was almost gone and he needed to find somewhere to rest soon. With a weary sigh, he opened his eyes... and let out a startled scream as he found himself staring at the hulking form of Parker standing only a few yards away.
"Where'd you think you were going, little man?" Parker smiled at the fear he saw shimmering in the gambler's eyes. "You didn't actually think you'd be able to get away from me, did you?"
Ezra's whole body began to tremble at the realization that his nightmare was never going to end. His mind was on the verge of shutting down completely when suddenly he remembered the gun in his hand. It was shielded from Parker's sight by his body leaning against the tree and he had to remind himself not to look down... not to draw the man's attention to it. He tightened his grip on the gun as he saw the huge man start to move closer... forcing himself to wait until the last possible moment to use it... knowing it was his only hope.
Parker saw something other than fear flash across his victim's eyes and paused for a second... defiance? Did the man actually still have that much left in him? Laughing softly in anticipation of destroying completely the man standing before him, he moved slowly forward.
Ezra felt his body break out in a cold sweat as he watched the huge man move closer and closer. Shifting all his weight to his good leg, he tilted his body backwards slightly to give him the best shot at Parker he could manage. Ezra waited until the towering figure was within arm's reach of him before twisting his body to the right and firing.
Parker stared at Standish in amazement as he fired the gun and realized he had underestimated him again when he felt the bullet tear through his side. The force of the impact caused him to stagger back several feet but failed to knock him down and the pain from the bullet only fueled his anger to a blinding white-hot rage.
Ezra stared in horror as Parker touched his side, looked at the blood on his fingers and then brought his eyes back up to lock onto his. The hate radiating out at him filled him with a paralyzing fear that drove all thoughts of escape from his mind. Letting the gun slip from his trembling fingers into the snow, Ezra pressed himself back against the tree and watched numbly as Parker rushed towards him... only having time to utter one soft "please" before the man was on him.
The huge man grabbed Ezra's arms, lifted him off his feet and slammed him viciously against the tree twice before finally tossing him on the ground at his feet. Ezra lay there moaning softly as he fought to hold out against the blackness that threatened to take him, wanting to move away from his tormentor but not having the strength left to do so. He gasped as Parker flipped him over onto his stomach and struggled weakly as he felt him fumbling with the buckle of the belt his arms were fastened to. He wanted to ask his captor what he was going to do but couldn't quite get his whirling mind to formulate his thoughts into words.
Parker finally managed to get the snow-packed buckle undone and grabbing the conman around the waist, lifted him off the ground and started walking. "I think we need to fix it so you can't try to run out on our little game again, Mr. Standish." Ezra tried to squirm out of the larger man's arms, but he merely tightened his hold and warned him to be still or it would go worse for him. The southerner wearily wondered how it could possibly get any worse than it was, but stopped his futile attempts to escape, not wanting to waste what little strength he had left.
Parker finally found a tree that would suit his needs. He held the smaller man under a low hanging branch and forcing his arms in the air, looped the belt they were handcuffed to over the branch and buckled it in place. Ezra tried to fight him, but the sudden upward movement of his arms which had been in the same position by his sides since the ordeal had begun, sent pains shooting through his shoulders sharp enough to take his breath away. Hanging there gasping for air, he looked down and saw that his feet barely touched the ground and realized there was nothing he could do to defend himself in this position. He looked back up at Parker and saw that his shirt was soaked with blood from the bullet wound and wondered how the man could still be on his feet, much less able to manhandle him the way he had.
Ezra began to shiver uncontrollably as the adrenalin rush he'd been functioning on suddenly left him. Every inch of his exposed skin was numb and even the fever burning through his body couldn't keep the cold from settling in and sapping his meager supply of strength. He stared at the huge man standing in front of him and straining to keep his voice from shaking asked, "What game are we playing now?"
Parker gazed silently back at the gambler for a few minutes before answering him. "No game this time, little man... we're just going to make sure that you can't try to run anymore." With an evil smile spreading across his face, he removed the belt from around his waist and began slowly swinging it back and forth. Ezra stared in horror at the huge buckle on the end of the belt as he realized what the man intended to do.
Ezra's whole body tensed as he tried to brace himself for the beating he was about to receive, but nothing could have prepared him for the pain that exploded in his leg as the buckle sliced through the material of his pants and buried itself in the flesh beneath. Ezra's jaw clenched as he struggled to hold back the scream of pain that tried to force it's way out of his throat, knowing that it was exactly what Parker was waiting to hear. Ezra jerked and kicked as his tormentor concentrated the blows on his legs, sometimes using the buckle, sometimes just the leather belt to inflict the damage. The groggy conman felt something wet hit his shoulders and looking up saw blood dripping from under the cuffs where his skin was rubbed raw by the twisting and turning of his body. His fingers tightened around the leather strap that he was fastened to as he tried to take some of the weight off his torn and bleeding wrists. His body jerked as the next lash of the belt wrapped itself around his left leg and the scream he'd been holding back finally erupted as the buckle connected just above his injured ankle. The leather of his boot kept the metal from breaking the skin, but did nothing to soften the jarring impact to his broken bones. The searing pain that tore up his leg and enveloped his body pushed Ezra to the edge of the void. His mind felt it coming... recognized it as the dark peaceful place he'd been to before... the place where there was no pain... no fear. As his eyes drifted shut, Ezra saw the belt whipping toward him one more time... knew the pain was coming for him... and with one final anguished cry that echoed only in his mind... 'Chris...for God's sake help me!!'... Ezra let himself slip over the edge into the welcoming darkness.
Chris peered out from the shelter of the trees, saw that the wind had died down some and decided they couldn't afford to wait any longer. After some arguing on Buck and Vin's part he told them in no uncertain terms he was going whether they went with him or not. He led his horse out of the trees, mounted and turned to wait impatiently for the others.
After looking around and confirming with Randall that they were indeed still on the right trail to the cabin, Vin mounted and moved up to talk to Chris.
"How long's he think it'll be til we reach the cabin?" Chris asked as he glanced over at the tracker.
"Hour... maybe two. Depends on how bad the trail's snowed in." Vin knew it wasn't what the gunslinger wanted to hear, but it was the best guess Randall could give them under the circumstances. "You know, he can't... Chris? Somethin' wrong?" Vin had seen his friend shiver and get a tense, almost frightened look on his face.
Chris stared at him as he debated on whether he should tell him what he thought he'd just heard. Finally he shook his head. "No, nothin'... Let's just hurry, we've wasted enough time." How could he tell Vin that he'd swear he just heard Ezra's voice... 'Chris, for God's sake help me!!'
Parker watched his victim's body go limp as he slipped into unconsciousness, smiling in satisfaction at the sight of the blood dripping from his torn legs staining the pure white snow beneath him a deep crimson. He bent and used a handful of snow to wipe the gambler's blood from his belt before replacing it around his waist, staggering slightly as he straightened back up. Glancing down at the bullet wound in his side, he frowned to see that he was still bleeding heavily and realized Standish had done more damage than he'd at first thought. He moved slowly over to the still figure turning slowly at the end of the leather strap and wrapped his arm tightly around the slender waist before reaching up to unfasten the buckle, grunting as the conman slumped limply over his shoulder. Then he slowly made his way back to the cabin, his blood mingling with his victim's to leave a gruesome trail through the snow.
By the time he made it back to the cabin, Parker had weakened considerably from the blood loss and it took several tries before he was able to make it up the steps onto the porch. He stumbled through the door and dropped Standish on the chair, propping him forward against his large stomach as he refastened the belt around his waist and pushing him roughly back against the chair when he finished. He paused to catch his breath... the thought that he should see to his wound and try to stop the bleeding came to him but was just as quickly pushed aside by his insane desire to crush his victim. Grasping a handful of the smaller man's hair, he jerked his head up and slapped his face sharply several times until he finally started to come around. He watched with a perverse pleasure as the horror of having been returned to the hated chair after all he'd been through washed over the gambler's pale features.
"No... oh God no..." Ezra whispered as he became aware of his surroundings once more and realized that all the effort and pain he'd put into trying to escape had been for nothing. The terror of what he knew was coming flooded through him and he struggled weakly to stand, crying out sharply as the movement reawakened the incredible pain in his damaged legs. He looked up into Parker's face and gasped at the pure evil that shone in the man's eyes. Breathless with fear, Ezra watched as the huge man walked over to the sink and opened one of the drawers, his eyes never leaving his prey. His hand slipped into the opening and reappeared with a long, razor-sharp knife... the light glinting off the blade drew Ezra's gaze and held it as his sadistic tormentor slowly tapped it on the palm of his hand. His eyes stayed focused on Parker as he began to move across the cabin, his head swiveling to keep him in sight as he passed behind him on his way over to the opposite wall. Ezra felt the blood drain from his face as the madman bent and picked the discarded blindfold up from the floor, holding it out in front of him as he shook his head slowly back and forth.
"You don't listen very well, do you, little man?" Parker said softly as he stared first at the blindfold and then at Standish. "I warned you, didn't I?"
Ezra started to shake as his torturer began walking toward him, his eyes darting frantically between the knife and the blindfold. "Please... I'm sorry... I'll never... don't... please." He heard how pathetic he sounded and hated himself for begging, but the mind-numbing horror of what the man was about to do made it impossible for him to stop. His heart hammered in his chest and his fingers clutched at the chair seat as the huge man stopped in front of him and just stared into his terror-filled eyes.
Parker winced as a fierce pain stabbed through his side, but he knew he had Standish right at the breaking point and refused to give in to the weak feeling that washed over him. He held the blindfold up in front of the gambler's eyes and sighed dramatically. "Now what did I tell you I would do if you tried to get this off again?"
Ezra's eyes were riveted on the hated piece of leather dangling in front of his face. He could feel the fear welling up in his throat and swallowed convulsively as he struggled to bring his emotions under control... one thought repeating over and over in his mind... 'God please... not again... I can't go back into that darkness.'
Parker watched the raw emotions play across the smaller man's face and knew he had him. While his victim's attention was focused on the blindfold, he shifted his body to the left and slowly brought the knife up until the point of the blade was pressed against the gambler's cheek. Ezra's breathing stopped as he felt the cold steel biting into the skin just below his right eye.
"I asked you a question, little man... and I want an answer now! What did I tell you I would do if you ever tried to get that blindfold off again?!"
Ezra jumped when his tormentor yelled and felt the blade of the knife slice the delicate skin below his eye. He felt the blood trickling down his face as he struggled to answer Parker's question. "You... you said that...." His voice was choked with emotion as he felt himself losing the battle against the total despair that was threatening to overwhelm him. "That you'd... blind... blind me perm..." As tears flooded his eyes, Ezra's head fell weakly back against the chair and he began begging for his torment to stop. "oh God... I can't take anymore... please... I just... can't... take... any... more."
Parker smiled grimly as he watched Ezra helplessly crying... his spirit crushed... his will to fight gone. Tossing the knife over on the table, he moved back in front of the gambler and held the blindfold up again. "Get up here, Standish... now."
Ezra slowly raised his head up and stared straight ahead, the tears streaming unchecked down his cheeks... not caring anymore what happened... just wanting it to all be over.
"Right here, little man." Ezra never even blinked... he just obediently moved his head forward and pressed his face against the padded leather.
His tormentor saw the vacant look in his eyes and knew the game was over. As soon as he gathered up his things and saddled his horse, he'd kill Standish... leaving his body for his friends to find... a taunting reminder of how much he'd suffered before he died.
After fastening the blindfold tightly in place, Parker started packing his things back in the satchel and in his saddle bags. He was finding it harder and harder to breathe as he moved around the cabin and the air seemed to be getting warmer. Wiping the sweat from his eyes again, the large man finally decided he had to get outside and get some fresh air. The room spun as he wove unsteadily toward the door and he had to lean against it to catch his breath before he could finally open it and move out onto the porch. He shivered as the cold air hit his body and realized he was in serious trouble. Looking down, Parker frowned at the amount of blood soaking his clothing... now how did that happen? He slowly pulled his coat back and looked in amazement at the still bleeding wound. His mind tried to focus on how he'd gotten hurt... and he finally remembered. 'Standish... shot me with my own gun... underestimated the little bastard.' Staggering weakly and leaning heavily on the railing, he made his way slowly down into the yard. His chest heaved as he struggled to draw air into his failing lungs and his legs finally gave way as his strength left him, toppling him over into the snow. Parker knew he was dying.... he could feel the life flowing out of him... and as his chest rose and fell one final time his last conscious thought was of the man he'd left totally broken back in the cabin. 'Damn it... never got to finish the game... and watch Standish die.'
Ezra had listened as Parker moved around the cabin and felt the cold blast of air as he opened the door and went outside. He tipped his head back wearily against the chair and let his mind wander as he waited for Parker to return. 'Wonder what's takin' him so long... don't hear him choppin' wood... maybe he left?' But the gambler knew even in his fevered mind that that would never happen. He shivered as the cold air pouring through the open door swept continually across his feverish skin. 'Could've at least closed the door... s'cold... maybe I should go close it...' but then a voice surfaced through his confusion... Parker warning him of what would happen if he left the chair again... his hands clutched tighter at the seat and his heart began to pound... 'no... can't leave the chair... said it'd be worse than before.' Ezra shivered harder and turned his head toward the door, listening for any signs of Parker's return.
The storm was getting worse again by the time Randall finally motioned for them to stop. He waited until the others were all circled around him before pointing to a slight gap in the solid wall of trees that lined the side of the road. "It's through there... follow that path for about two miles or so and you'll find the cabin."
Chris just stared at him coldly before finally saying, "Lead the way."
"What?! I'm not going back there! Parker'll kill me for sure!" Randall tried to turn his horse away from the path, but Chris grabbed the reins and held him there.
"Parker's not the one you have to worry about."
Randall stared first at Larabee and then let his eyes touch each man who now circled his horse. He slumped in his saddle as he finally realized he had no choice... these men were not going on without him. He nodded once and as soon as the man in black released his horse, he turned and rode into the forest... the others anxiously following behind him.
Ezra felt himself getting weaker and forced himself to sit up straighter. His hands clung desperately to the chair and he strained to focus his mind on anything that would help him stay awake. He shifted in the seat and cried out sharply as pain shot through his legs... shuddering as he remembered the whipping he'd gotten for trying to run. 'Won't try that again... didn't do any good to run anyway.' Suddenly Chris' voice floated across his mind. 'Don't ever run out on me again.' Oh, God... what if Chris and the others didn't know he'd been kidnapped... what if they thought he'd run instead? Ezra's eyes filled with tears as Chris' voice echoed through his head... 'run out on me.' Could they actually believe he'd do that again? Is that why they hadn't come after him? One lone tear escaped from the confines of the blindfold to trickle slowly down his cheek as he whispered, "didn't run this time, Chris... wasn't my fault... you've got to believe me."
The seven men had ridden silently through the trees, each lost in their own thoughts and worries about what they'd find when they got to the cabin. Suddenly Vin reined in his horse and moved off the path into the trees.
"What is it?" Chris called after him as he saw him dismount and stoop down to look at something in the snow.
Vin looked back at the other men and hesitated for a second before answering. "Blood... lot's of it, maybe a couple hours old. Trail of it follows alongside the path."
The others saw him look around at the snow for a minute and then stare up at the branch hanging overhead. He reached up and touched the branch, then remounted his horse and hurried back over to his anxiously waiting friends.
"Well, what'd you find?" Chris knew by the look on Vin's face that it wasn't good.
"Branch overhead's had something... or somebody... tied to it recently." Vin watched as understanding dawned on all of their faces.
Without another word they turned and began moving once more along the path. A new sense of urgency quickened their pace and within minutes they were at the edge of the clearing. They immediately spotted the body lying in the snow near the cabin and knew by its size that it was probably Parker.
"Anybody in there with him?" Chris asked their prisoner, never taking his eyes off the cabin.
"No. He was working alone... except for me." Randall added the last part guiltily after Buck shot him an accusing glare.
Tethering the horses to the trees, and with guns drawn, the men made their way slowly and cautiously across the clearing. Nathan bent to check the body of Parker, found the bullet wound and no pulse and shook his head at Chris. As one they moved toward the cabin. Quietly they moved up onto the porch and lined up on both sides of the open doorway. Chris glanced over at Vin and with a quick nod of his head they stepped quickly into the cabin... and stopped dead in their tracks at the horrific sight that met their eyes.
They felt the others pushing in behind them and heard their soft curses as they saw the bruised and bloodied form of Ezra seated on a chair in the center of the room. They could see him turn his head slightly and tremble as he heard them enter the room, but he never spoke a word or attempted to move from the chair.
Chris and Vin took a step towards Ezra but Nathan grabbed them and pushed everyone quickly back out of the cabin and quietly closed the door.
"What are you doin', Nathan? Let's get him outta there!" Buck started to move back toward the door, but Chris stopped him.
"What do you think we should do, Nathan?" Chris asked as he kept his hold on Buck's shoulder.
"Well... he's scared, he's probably confused, and he thinks we left him here not caring what Parker did to him . This might sound crazy, but I think Randall should be the one to go in first." Nathan got the reaction he expected to his announcement.
"Randall?!" Buck and Chris exclaimed at the same time, staring at Nathan as if he'd lost his mind.
Nathan raised his hands to calm them before answering. "Ezra knows he's workin' with Parker, and he helped 'im the last time he was here... so he'd probably listen to him before he would any of us. You gotta remember, he's had it drilled into his head that we're glad he's gone and ain't comin' for 'im. He's either gonna be scared to death of us or madder'n hell. Either way he's liable to react badly if he hears our voices first. "
Chris scowled at Nathan, but knew he was probably right. He turned to Randall and nodded toward the cabin. "All right... we'll go along with what Nathan says... but you'd better get him convinced that you lied to him before or you're gonna wish Parker had gotten his hands on you after all."
Randall nodded nervously and looked at Nathan for any instructions he might have.
"Talk quiet to 'im and remind 'im who you are. Then before you do anythin' else... get that damn blindfold off a 'im. And then explain to 'im what Parker made you do." Nathan nodded toward the door, indicating that he was done and that Randall should get going. He was anxious to get in their and examine Ezra and see what kind of damage had been done to his friend. He could already tell by the small glimpse he'd had that it was bad... real bad.
Randall moved slowly into the room, stopping a few feet away from Standish and staring in horror at the additional injuries he'd incurred since he'd last seen him. Finally, after an angry whisper from Larabee to get going, he moved a few steps closer and finally spoke. "Mr. Standish? Can you hear me?"
Ezra had heard someone come into the cabin before and was sure Parker had finally returned to continue the torture. He had listened in confusion as whoever it was left again without saying a word. He trembled and clutched at the chair as he listened to the voice... it sounded familiar... but his feverish mind was having trouble remembering where he'd heard it before. "Do I know you?"
Randall moved closer when he heard the gambler's shaky voice respond to him. "I was here before, Mr. Standish... I helped you after Parker beat you. Do you remember?"
Ezra vaguely recalled someone helping him up off the floor and over to the cot. Then kind words and a gentle touch as his wounds were tended to. He nodded slowly as the man asked him again if he remembered.
Randall saw the nod and moved over to place his hand on the smaller man's shoulder. He felt Ezra jump at his touch and spoke soothingly to calm him. "It's all right, Mr. Standish... I'm here to help you. Let's get this blindfold off of you, okay?"
Randall reached for the buckle at the back of the gambler's head but was startled as he jerked his head away and whispered a soft "no."
"It's all right... Mr. Parker told me to take it off of you. He wants it removed now."
Ezra thought about what he'd said and finally moved his head back to allow Randall access to the strap. He moaned softly as the buckle dug into his head but didn't move until the blindfold was off. Blinking rapidly to clear his vision, Ezra looked up at the man who was helping him and whispered, "thank you."
Randall merely nodded, his guilt at being partially responsible for the gambler's ordeal making it impossible for him to respond. He eased the smaller man forward and reached down to undo the belt that held his arms in place before carefully unfastening the manacles from around each torn and bloody wrist. Then he knelt in front of the chair and began speaking gently, telling him how he'd lied about his friends because Parker had forced him to. That they'd actually been looking frantically for him since the day he was taken.
Ezra's eyes never left Randall's face as he explained that everything he'd been told was lies. He shook his head in denial... but listened as Randall again told him that it had all been lies... that his friends were here now to help him. Ezra wanted to believe him, but his mind was so clouded by his fever and everything he'd been through that it was hard for him to concentrate on what the other man was saying. Did he actually mean that Chris and the others were here? They hadn't abandoned him? He stared intently into Randall's eyes, trying to see the truth there and didn't see him motion for Chris to come closer.
Ezra's eyes followed Randall as he moved off to his right and he never realized Chris was kneeling in front of him until he felt a touch on his arm and heard his name spoken softly. Ezra turned his head at the sound of the familiar voice, his eyes widening in shock at the sight of his friend's face. "Chris?" Ezra breathed as he lifted one tentative hand to touch the figure before him, afraid it was just a dream.
"I'm here, Ezra," he whispered as he felt the shaking hand brush across his cheek and saw the familiar green eyes fill with tears.
"Oh... God.. Chris..." Ezra's shaky hold on his emotions finally gave out and he collapsed with a heart-wrenching sob into his friend's waiting arms.
Chris wrapped his arms around Ezra and held him as he sobbed uncontrollably. His overwhelming relief at finally being rescued released a flood of emotions that were literally tearing him apart inside. His hands clutched frantically at Chris' shirt, afraid to let go lest his friend disappear and he awoke to find his rescue to be just a cruel dream.
"It's all right, Ezra. You're safe now... you're going to be okay..." Chris continued to murmur softly, trying to reassure the gambler that the nightmare was finally over. Glancing over Ezra's shoulder, he could see the others moving slowly forward, not wanting to startle the man crying in his arms, but needing to be near him. And every one of them had the same stricken look on their face... an overwhelming sadness mixed with a bitter anger at what had been done to their friend.
"Ezra? We're all here for you, pard... no one's gonna hurt you anymore." Buck knelt down beside Chris and reached out to lay a comforting hand on Ezra's leg. He felt him flinch away and pulled his hand back thinking he'd scared him until he glanced down and saw the blood on the palm of his hand. He looked closer at the gambler's legs and was shocked to see that his pants were practically shredded and that blood had soaked the material and pooled on the floor beneath him. "Nathan... you better get over here." Buck spoke quietly so as not to frighten Ezra and moved around to the side of the chair to give the healer room to check out his injuries.
"Sweet Jesus..." Nathan swore when he saw the amount of blood covering his friend's legs and the floor.
Chris leaned over to see what had Nathan so upset and immediately looked away as he felt his stomach roll at the grisly sight that met his eyes. He'd been so focused on comforting Ezra that he'd never noticed the blood, now he wondered where the gambler was finding the strength to endure the unending flood of emotion that still had him in its grip. Glancing up, he noticed the stricken look on JD's pale face and knew it would probably be best to get him out of the cabin while Nathan worked on Ezra.
"Vin... why don't you and JD get Nathan's medical supplies and then see to the horses. There's a small barn out back, should be big enough to hold 'em all." Chris caught Vin's eye and nodded slightly at the boy.
Vin shot a quick look at JD and seeing the whiteness of his face, nodded back at Chris. He turned and put his hand on the boy's shoulder. "Come on, JD... help me with the horses." JD tore his eyes away from the still sobbing gambler and allowed the tracker to push him gently out the door.
Nathan walked around behind the chair and grimaced when he saw the condition of Ezra's back and arms. They were covered with dozens of small cuts and puncture marks that were swollen and red, probably most of them were infected, but it could wait until after he took care of his legs. He bent over and put his hand gently on the back of Ezra's head, smoothing his hair soothingly as he whispered softly in his ear. "Ezra? Can ya hear me?" He could feel the smaller man shudder as he fought to get control of himself, but the sobs continued to wrack his body and all he could do to let Nathan know he'd heard him was nod weakly against Chris' shoulder. "It's all right, Ezra... this is the best thing for ya, don't ya even try to stop until ya feel you're ready. Now I just want ya to know everythin' I'm doin' so's I don't startle ya none. I'm gonna have Chris shift over here to the side a little bit so's I can get to your legs and see how bad they're hurt... he's not gonna let go of ya, he's just gonna move over a little, okay? Just nod if ya understand what I'm tellin' ya." He felt the almost imperceptible nod of Ezra's head under his hand and after one last comforting touch to his shoulder, moved back around to kneel in front of the chair.
Vin came in long enough to hand Josiah Nathan's saddle bags and after a worried glance at Ezra, hurried back out to help JD bed down the horses.
Buck moved around and stood behind the chair to give Josiah room to help Nathan while Chris shifted around to the side. The gunslinger could feel Ezra's fingers tighten their grip on his shirt and he hurried to reassure him that everything was all right. "Easy, Ezra... I'm not going anywhere, I promise." He felt the smaller man shiver slightly in his arms and glanced up at Buck who had seen it too and was already headed toward the fireplace to build a fire.
Ezra could hear Chris' words of reassurance, could feel his arms holding him and knew that he was safe now, but he just couldn't seem to stop crying. All the hateful words Parker had continually spouted, all the pain he'd inflicted, all the fear he'd instilled in him had come crashing back to replay themselves in his tortured mind. "Can't... stop...." Ezra gasped for breath, his chest heaving as the sobs continued unabated. "S...sorry..."
Chris hugged him tighter, his own voice choked with emotion as he spoke. "You just let it all go now, Ezra. Take as long as you need." It made him sick to think about what all Parker must have done to the gambler to have destroyed his usually indomitable spirit so completely. And it made him even sicker to realize that they might have been able to prevent the whole nightmare if they had only taken the insane man's threat seriously and protected him.
Buck got the fire going and then moved back to Ezra's side. One glance at Chris' face and he knew he was thinking the same thing... they should have ignored the southerner's stubborn pride and set up a watch over him sooner. They'd let their friend down and the guilt of that was burning in every one of them. He knelt down beside the chair again and began stroking Ezra's hair while murmuring softly in his ear. "We're all sorry we weren't here for ya, Ezra... we tried to find ya sooner but the weather made it impossible for Vin to find your trail. But you need to know that we never gave up lookin'... not once since you've been gone." Buck heard the intensity of Ezra's sobs finally lessen as he shifted his head on Chris' shoulder to turn and look at him... the pain and doubt radiating out of those glistening green eyes hit him like a blow, bringing an instant flood of tears to his own eyes. "I swear, Ezra... Parker lied to ya... we never said those things he told ya we did. We never once gave up on you!" Ezra stared intently at Buck for a few seconds and then nodded slowly before untangling one hand from Chris' shirt and reaching out to him. Buck latched onto his hand and gripped it tightly and continued to soothingly stroke his hair as Ezra buried his face in Chris's shoulder and began to cry again... but it wasn't the wrenching sobs of before... now it was simply a gentle sound of release.
Nathan was relieved to hear the change in Ezra's weeping... it would be much easier to take care of his injuries now that he was calming down. He wanted to get him moved onto the cot, but he still didn't think he was ready to relinquish his hold on Chris yet. He'd placed a basin of water with some healing herbs mixed in, some clean cloths and what medical supplies he'd be needing on the floor near the chair and he and Josiah were ready to take a look at Ezra's legs. He decided to start on the left leg because he wanted to see if the ankle was actually broken and get it splinted if it was. After warning Buck and Chris to hang onto him, Nathan slowly straightened the leg out, resting it on his own leg to keep any weight off of the ankle. He felt Ezra jerk slightly and heard him cry out as he repositioned the leg but he quieted as soon as he had it settled.
Josiah carefully pulled the blood-soaked material away from the skin giving Nathan room to slide his knife slowly up the pants leg until they had it completely removed. Both men gasped and felt tears well up in their eyes as the damage that had been done to Ezra's leg was revealed. Deep, still-bleeding gouges and long narrow bruises ran up the front and back of his entire leg and Nathan was amazed that the gambler was still conscious considering the incredible pain he must be in.
"Josiah, would you take these herbs and boil them in some water? I want to give Ezra somethin' to help with the pain before I start workin' on 'im." Nathan handed Josiah the packet of herbs and then looked up at Buck who was staring at Ezra's wounds, anger burning brightly in his eyes. "Buck, see if ya' can get 'im to tell you what Parker used on his legs."
Ezra heard Nathan's words and whimpered softly as the memory of the whipping tore through his mind once more. Buck and Chris felt him begin to shake as he relived every agonizing burst of pain that came with each blow. "His belt... it was his belt...." he moaned through clenched teeth as he buried his face deeper in Chris' shoulder trying to escape the pain of his memories. Buck winced as the smaller man's fingers tightened around his and he began gently rubbing Ezra's neck in an effort to calm him.
"Shhh... it's all over now, Ezra... just hang on to us... you're gonna be all right." Chris whispered soothingly in his ear as he shot a warning look at Nathan... the gambler was definitely still in too fragile of a state of mind to answer any questions about his ordeal.
Vin and JD had come back in just as Nathan asked the question and Vin nodded when he heard what Ezra said. After setting down the bedrolls and saddlebags he was carrying, he walked over and picked up the discarded restraint that had been buckled around Ezra's waist and examined it closely. Carrying it over to the others, he squatted down by Nathan and showed him the strap, pointing out the bits of bark still embedded in the leather. "Must have been what was fastened to that tree branch out in the woods."
"Damn..." Buck swore softly and leaned his head against Ezra's as he began to realize just what his friend had endured... the image of him being strung up and whipped like that burning in his mind until he could almost feel the pain of every lash himself.
Josiah brought over a cup of the herbal mixture and handed it to Buck, then turned to Randall who stood quietly off to the side. He was desperately trying to think of a way to escape since he knew once they were through caring for their friend they'd remember he was there and take their anger out on him. He'd done all he could for the gambler by bringing them here and now he just wanted to get away before he ended up in jail... or worse.
"Come on, Randall... you can help me bring in some firewood before it gets dark." Josiah grabbed him by the arm and jerked him toward the door when he didn't move quick enough to suit him. He needed to vent his rage over what had been done to his friend... his brother... at someone... and since Parker was dead, Randall would have to do.
"Ezra? Can you raise your head up for me, pard? Nathan wants you to drink these herbs, it'll help ease some of the pain." Buck smiled sadly at the smaller man as he slowly raised his head, releasing his grip on Buck's hand to wipe the tears from his face. After several shaky breaths he nodded that he was ready and Buck held the cup to his lips while he slowly sipped the herbal brew. Nathan had him stop after every few sips to make sure the liquid was going to stay down, not wanting to touch off a bout of vomiting from putting too much too soon into Ezra's empty stomach. Chris held a steadying hand at the back of his neck and as soon as the gambler had finished he gently eased his head back down against his shoulder, resuming the gentle stroking of his hair to help him relax.
Buck set the empty cup down and took hold of Ezra's hand again, then nodded at Nathan that they were ready. He noticed how warm the smaller man's hand felt and glancing down at his face lying against Chris' shoulder, saw the rosy flush of fever beneath the bruises and streaks of dried blood. "Vin... ya' want'a wet one of those cloths and give it to me?"
Vin soaked one of the cloths, wrung it out good and handed it up to Buck. He then picked up the handcuff belt and the blindfold, opened the door of the cabin and threw them both as far as he could out into the snow. He didn't want Ezra to ever have to see the damn things again. He turned to go back inside and caught a glimpse of something moving around the side of the cabin. "Josiah!" he exclaimed as he saw that it was the preacher staggering across the yard, holding his head.
Back in the cabin, the others heard him call out the preacher's name and JD ran to find out what was wrong. Seeing Vin struggling to support Josiah as they made their way to the cabin, he hurried down into the snow to help. Nathan was waiting at the door when they finally got the big man up on the porch and he took the preacher's arm and helped him the rest of the way into the cabin, sitting him down on a chair near the fireplace.
"Josiah... what the hell happened? You all right?" Chris demanded in a low voice, trying not to disturb Ezra who had drifted off into a restless sleep. "Where's Randall?"
"I'm fine, just got a knot on my head. I didn't figure he'd try anything with the storm picking back up the way it is, but he surprised me and nailed me with a chunk of wood." He winced as Nathan ran his fingers over the lump, jerking his head away and scowling up at the healer.
Nathan grinned and patted him on the shoulder before moving back to Ezra. "He'll be all right. His head's too hard for a little thumpin' like that to hurt him much."
"Vin, you and JD go look around, see if you can find any signs of Randall." Chris ordered and then turned his attention back to Ezra who stirred restlessly in his arms. "Shh... it's all right... just go back to sleep now."
Buck ran the damp cloth lightly across the gambler's face trying to wash off the bits of dried blood without pressing too hard on the deep bruising on his temple and cheek. "Easy, Ezra... everythin's okay... just rest now." He reached up and stroked his hair, soothing him back into sleep.
Nathan knelt back down in front of the gambler and gently eased his leg up into his lap again. Taking one of the cloths that had been soaking in the water, he carefully began cleaning out the lacerations. He was relieved to see that only a couple of them were actually deep enough to need stitches, but they all were an angry red and beginning to swell with infection. Glancing up to make sure Chris and Buck had a good hold on him, Nathan quickly stitched up the deepest gashes and then covered all of them with a thick coating of salve before wrapping them tightly with bandages.
Vin and JD came back in and hurriedly shut the door against the blowing snow. "He's gone, Chris. Took one of the horses and lit out," Vin explained as he brushed the snow off his clothes and then moved around by Buck to look down at Ezra's face. "How's he doin'?"
"Finally fell asleep." Buck was holding the cool cloth against the back of his neck, trying to bring the fever down some.
"You notice that?" Vin asked pointing to the small perfectly round bruise on Ezra's right temple.
"Yeah... what's it look like to you?" Buck asked as he saw Chris lean forward slightly to see what they were talking about.
"Looks like the barrel of a gun t'me... must've been pressed against his skin a long time t'leave a mark like that." Vin ran a finger lightly across the bruise and frowned as reasons for it being there teased at his mind... none of them very pleasant.
"Vin... could ya help me here, please?" Nathan asked as he finished tying off the last of the bandages.
Vin ran a hand lightly across Ezra's head before going to kneel down across from the healer. "What do ya need, Nathan?"
"I need ya to try and keep his ankle from movin' around too much while I cut his boot off. His foot's swelled up so bad I don't dare try just pullin' it off." Nathan waited until Vin had a firm grip on Ezra's foot and then began carefully cutting through the leather until he finally could ease the boot off. He cut away Ezra's sock and he and Vin both winced when they saw how swollen and bruised the ankle was. There was no longer any doubt in his mind about whether it was broken or not. He ran his hands lightly over the foot, relieved to feel the warmth radiating from it. At least the circulation hadn't been cut off by the break. He pressed a little harder around the ankle itself, trying to find the exact location of the fracture and knew he'd found it when Ezra moaned sharply and tried to pull his foot out of Vin's hands. Chris and Buck quickly tightened their grip on Ezra and began talking softly to him, trying to calm him back down as he struggled in their arms. "Easy, pard.... just hang on... Nathan's fixin' up your ankle so it won't be hurtin' so bad." Josiah and JD hurried over to help, placing their hands firmly against Ezra's shoulders to keep him from throwing himself back against the chair and doing more damage to his back.
Chris glanced down at the healer and scowled at him. "Hurry up, Nathan... you're hurtin' him!"
Nathan tried to ignore Ezra's cries of pain as he quickly and expertly manipulated the bones until he had them lined back up. He then took the splints Vin handed him and wrapped the leg tightly until he had it completely immobilized. It took longer than usual because he had to be careful to pad the wounds where the splints might rub, but he finally had it done and lowered the leg back down to the floor. He stood and went around to where he could see Ezra's face cradled once more on Chris' shoulder. The healer's eyes filled with sadness when he got a look at the pain and exhaustion evident in the green eyes staring back at him. He reached out one large hand and ran it lightly down Ezra's cheek, tenderly wiping away the tears that were slowly running down his face. "I'm sorry, Ezra... the worst of it's over now. I'll let ya catch your breath before I bandage your other leg, okay?"
Ezra struggled to push back the pain so he could speak and finally managed to gasp out a few words of reassurance for his friend. "It's... all right, Nathan... do what you've... got to... do. I'll be... okay."
Nathan closed his eyes for a second against the ache that settled around his heart with the knowledge that he'd added to his friend's pain, and then nodded at Ezra before moving around to kneel by his other leg. He and Vin worked quickly to remove the boot and then the pants leg, groaning softly when they saw that this one was in even worse shape than the other. Most of the gashes would need stitches and practically every inch of the leg was bruised. Nathan felt someone looking at him and glanced up to see Ezra staring over the top of Chris' shoulder... his eyes huge as he took in the incredible damage that had been done to his legs. Nathan saw the emerald eyes fill with tears and spoke softly. "Chris..."
The others were so busy watching Nathan that they hadn't realized that Ezra had raised his head up to see what they were staring at. "Aw shit." Chris cupped his hand around the back of Ezra's head and pushed his face gently back down against his shoulder. He blinked back tears of his own as he looked down into the gambler's face and saw his eyes squeezed tightly shut against what he'd seen, the tears flowing freely down his cheeks. He moved his hand down to gently stroke the smaller man's tear-stained face as he spoke softly to him. "It's all right, Ezra... Nathan'll fix 'em up good as new. Don't you worry now, okay?" Chris felt him trembling but he did finally nod and the tears slowly stopped falling.
Nathan cleaned and stitched the wounds as fast as he could, but there were so many of them that it still took him twice as long to finish as it did with the other leg. About half way through, Buck looked down at Ezra and saw that his face was paler except for two bright spots of color on his cheeks and his eyes were half-closed. "Nathan... you better hurry it up. He's not lookin' too good."
The healer had Vin start spreading the salve over the wounds while he rose to check on Ezra. He took his pulse and then felt his forehead, frowning as he felt the fever burning even hotter beneath his hand.
"Nathan...." Ezra spoke so softly, the healer had to practically put his ear to the smaller man's lips to understand what he was saying. "I'm not feelin' very well..."
Nathan rested his forehead against Ezra's for a second and then raised up to look into his eyes. "I know you're not, Ezra... you just hang on though. As soon as I get your leg bandaged, we'll get ya out of this chair and lay ya down and then you'll start feelin' better."
Nathan wasn't sure he'd heard him right. "What, Ezra?"
"I said... no." The gambler's eyes were opened wide now and he raised his head up to stare at them as his body began to shake.
"It's all right, pard... we're goin' to be right here with ya still... we're just goin' to stretch ya out on that cot over there so ya can get some rest." Buck spoke softly, trying to quiet him down, confused as to why he was reacting the way he was.
Ezra startled them by pushing violently away from Chris and leaning back in the chair. "No!" They watched in shock as his arms went rigid at his sides, his fingers gripping the edge of the seat tightly. Vin went sprawling backwards as the gambler jerked his legs in toward the chair, seemingly oblivious to the extreme pain the movement must have caused him.
Vin could see that several cuts on his leg had started to bleed again and reached out to put pressure on them, but stopped dead as Ezra began screaming.
"Ezra... what's wrong?" Chris tried to get the hysterical gambler to look at him, but every time he made a move to touch him, Ezra screamed at him to leave him alone. "Nathan? You got any idea what's going on with him?"
Nathan shook his head in confusion and tried once more to get close enough to get a hand on Ezra... he was worried that he was going to hurt himself if they didn't get him calmed down. "Ezra... listen to me now. You got to tell us what's wrong... let us help ya."
Ezra's eyes stared wildly around the room as if searching for something, finally settling on the door leading outside. The others watched in puzzlement as he seemed to focus his complete attention on it, his gaze never wavering, his eyes never blinking. It was as if he expected someone to come through it at any moment.
Chris motioned everyone back and knelt down next to the gambler, blocking his view of the door until Ezra's eyes shifted down to look at his face. He saw the frown come over the smaller man's face and knew he was getting ready to scream again. "Easy, Ezra... I'm not going to touch you... I just want you to tell me what's wrong. Please?"
Ezra stared at him in confusion until finally Chris saw a glimmer of awareness come back into his eyes. "Chris?"
"Yeah... it's me, Ezra... you gonna tell me why you're so upset?" Chris saw him shudder with the strain of keeping himself on the chair and thought he now knew what was happening. Ezra's next words confirmed his suspicions.
"Can't leave the chair." His voice shook as he spoke and Chris saw his eyes drift back over his shoulder to stare once more at the door.
"Why, Ezra?" Chris saw the southerner look at him questioningly. "Why can't you leave the chair?"
Ezra's emerald gaze fastened on Chris' and the gunslinger's heart ached as he saw clearly the absolute terror that his friend was feeling. "He'll beat me... said it would be worse than all the others..."
Chris stared at him in amazement. "Ezra... Parker's dead. He was shot and's lying dead out in the yard."
Ezra shook his head. "He's not dead! I shot him... but he just kept comin'... caught me 'n whipped me for runnin'... he's comin' back... gotta be in the chair..." His voice trailed off to a whisper as his eyes shifted to the door and back to Chris again. Chris saw the terror change for a moment to a deep sadness and watched Ezra's eyes flood with tears as he whispered softly, "I just don't want him to hurt me anymore."
Chris wanted nothing more at that moment than to bring Parker back so he could kill him himself. He was finding it almost impossible to control the anger that was raging through him as he realized just how much damage the man had done to Ezra... both physically and mentally.
Vin knelt down beside him and placed a calming hand on his shoulder as he saw him clench his fists in anger. "Easy, cowboy... you don't want to scare him more than he already is."
Chris took a deep breath and nodded his thanks at Vin. He looked back at Ezra to find his gaze locked on the door once more and motioned for Vin to follow him over to where the others were standing. "Did you hear him? He's absolutely terrified to leave that damn chair!"
"What the hell could that bastard have done to him to make him that scared?" Buck growled angrily.
"Shit... look at him, Buck... he's been beat half to death!" JD exclaimed as he stared at Ezra's bruised and battered body with tears in his eyes.
"It's more than that, JD." Vin said quietly. "Ezra's taken beatin's before and stood up to 'em. It would take more than the threat of another one to do this to 'im. Parker has to've messed with his mind pretty bad to put that look in his eyes."
"Vin's right, JD... he's been torn up inside so bad that his spirit's broke... and he may never have the strength to tell us what exactly was done or said to him to make that happen," Josiah explained. But he truly hoped he was wrong since he knew Ezra's complete emotional recovery would depend on him being able to tell at least one of them what had been done to him... to release all the hurt and fear that was filling his soul at the moment.
"I don't get it though. Ezra said he shot him, he's got to know he's dead... why's he still act like he's comin' back?" Buck asked as he watched Ezra. His eyes never wavered from the door for even a second.
"He might've shot 'im, but that don't mean he knows he's dead. Ezra was still in the chair with that damn blindfold on when we got here and Parker died out in the yard." Nathan said. "The thought that he might be dead probably hasn't even crossed his mind."
"Well, what the hell are we gonna do then? We can't just leave him in that damn chair! We need to get him lying down so you can finish taking care of him." Chris struggled to keep his frustration under control, but he was finding it harder and harder to do.
"What if we wait til he passes out and then take him out of the chair? Look at him, he's not going to be able to hold on much longer." JD nodded at Ezra who was now slumped weakly on the chair, his white-knuckled grip on the seat the only thing that was keeping him from sliding to the floor.
"That's not going to solve anything though. Finding himself out of that chair when he wakes back up could be more than his mind can handle." Josiah was sincerely worried that Ezra's mind had already had more than it could take and didn't want them to do anything that might push it completely over the edge.
They were all quiet for a minute, watching Ezra and trying desperately to come up with a way to help him, when suddenly Vin stated softly but firmly, "He needs to see the body."
Five pairs of eyes turned to stare at him.
"You actually think he needs to be layin' eyes on that bastard again?!" Buck exclaimed. "He's already terrified, that would probably finish him off for sure!"
"Besides... he won't leave the chair... how the heck would we get him out there?" JD asked, shaking his head at the crazy idea.
But Chris, Josiah and Nathan were looking at Vin speculatively. "You might be right, Vin... it might be the only thing to make him believe he's actually safe now." Chris looked at Josiah and Nathan for support and saw they both agreed.
"I just don't think he's gonna believe Parker's dead unless he sees it with his own eyes." Vin told Buck and JD.
"Maybe you're right... but like JD said, he won't let us take 'im out of that damn chair. How the hell are we gonna show 'im the body? No way could we drag it in here!" Buck looked at Vin to see if he had any answers for that one.
Vin only shrugged, but Chris knew what they'd have to do. "So we carry him out there... chair and all."
They looked at each other and then at Ezra. None of them knew how the gambler was going to react to seeing Parker again, but something had to be done to get him out of that chair. So after a short discussion, it was decided that Chris would try to explain to Ezra what they were going to do and then Nathan and Josiah would carry him and the chair out of the cabin.
Chris walked slowly up to Ezra and knelt down in front of him. He reached his hand out slowly and laid it on the gambler's arm ready to pull it back if he started screaming again. But Ezra never even acknowledged his presence... his eyes stayed focused on the door.
"Ezra? Can you look at me for a second? I need to talk to ya." Chris waited patiently, his hand gently rubbing the younger man's arm to try and keep him calm. After a few minutes, Ezra finally tore his eyes away from the door long enough to glance at him and let him know he was listening. But the minute Chris started talking again, his eyes went right back to the door. "We're gonna take you outside..." he saw Ezra's fingers tighten their grip on the chair and heard his breath catch and hurried to add, "it's all right, you don't have to leave the chair... I promise. Nathan and Josiah are gonna carry you and the chair outside."
Ezra stared doubtfully at him, not sure if this was what Parker would want him to do. "Can't leave the chair."
"I know you can't, Ezra... we're not gonna make you leave the chair. We've just got something to show you outside and then we'll bring you right back in here, okay?" Chris held his breath as he waited for the gambler's answer. If this didn't work, he didn't know what they'd do.
Ezra stared at Chris for moment and finally nodded his head weakly. They were his friends and he trusted them not to get him hurt again. He wondered briefly what they wanted to show him, but couldn't quite find the strength to ask.
JD and Vin went quietly out the door to clear the snow off of Parker's body while the others gathered around Ezra getting him ready for the trip outside. Josiah grabbed one of the blankets Vin and JD had brought in from the barn and draped it around Ezra's shoulders before bending down to get a grip on the chair. As soon as Nathan was ready, they tipped the chair back slightly and then slowly stood up, lifting the chair and Ezra until he was suspended between them. Chris stood behind him with his hands on his shoulders to keep him calm and to make sure he sat still and didn't try to lean forward. He leaned his head in next to Ezra's and spoke softly to him. "You okay, Ezra? We're not hurtin' you, are we?"
Nathan knew Ezra's legs had to be paining him something fierce, but the gambler merely shook his head and reassured Chris that he was all right. They slowly started walking toward the door, Buck in front guiding them to make sure they didn't bang his legs on the door frame, and Chris in back keeping Ezra steady in the chair. Nathan glanced down at the smaller man's face to see how he was doing and saw that he had his eyes squeezed shut and his mouth clenched against the pain that their movements were causing him. "Just hang on, Ezra... we're almost there."
JD and Vin had moved back up on the porch and were standing on either side of the door, ready to help if needed. It took several minutes of careful maneuvering to get him through the door without hurting his legs but they finally got him outside. They stopped at the top of the steps where he could get a good view of Parker's body lying in the snow and waited for him to open his eyes.
Buck reached up and tightened the blanket around him to protect him from the wind and snow while Chris leaned in close to talk to him.
"Ezra? You have to open your eyes now... you need to see this." Chris smiled gently at the gambler as his eyes slowly opened. He kept his hands on the smaller man's shoulders as he watched his gaze travel haltingly from one face to another until he finally looked out over the yard. Chris felt him tense as his eyes fell on the body lying half-buried in the snow and tightened his grip on his shoulders as he began speaking softly in his ear. "Easy now... he's dead, Ezra... he can't hurt you any more." Chris could feel him trembling and heard his breaths coming in quick sharp gasps and knew he was in trouble. "Hang on to......"
But before he could finish the warning to the other men, Ezra screamed and virtually exploded out of the chair taking them all completely by surprise. Josiah and Nathan dropped the chair as the force of Ezra lunging forward jerked it out of their grip and then they and Chris were thrown backwards into Vin and JD. Buck stared in shock at what was happening, too surprised to react as Ezra ran into him, knocking him back against the railing. He never even noticed that the gambler had grabbed his gun until he saw him limping slowly down the steps with it held out in front of him, pointed at Parker's lifeless body.
Chris recovered his senses first and after waving everyone else back, moved quickly to stand behind the gambler as he staggered down the steps. "Ezra... easy now... you're all right... he can't hurt you now... he's dead, Ezra." But he realized Ezra was beyond hearing anything he said... his whole being was focused on his tormentor's lifeless body... and everything the man had put him through.
Chris put his hand on Ezra's back to steady him as he stepped down into the snow and moved with him as he slowly approached Parker. He could feel Ezra trembling beneath his hand as he screamed out every single thing the demented sadist had done to him... firing bullet after bullet into the corpse in repayment for all he had endured. Every one of the men paled as they heard the long list of abuse that Parker had put their friend through. Vin and Buck exchanged a knowing look when he mentioned the Russian Roulette, both thinking about that perfectly round bruise on Ezra's temple.
"That's for the beatings.... for the blindfold.... for the whipping.... for the lies.... for that damn chair...." Ezra's voice was hoarse and he was starting to sob hysterically as he got down to the last bullet. "And this... this is for your... little game of... Russian... roulette. You... lose." Chris reached around the smaller man and gently took hold of his arms, giving him the support he needed to aim the gun at his torturer... and place the final bullet right between Parker's unseeing eyes.
The surge of rage and adrenaline that had pushed Ezra from the chair and down the steps finally left him and he collapsed weakly back against the gunslinger. Chris wrapped one arm around his chest to keep him from falling and eased the gun out of his hands with the other. Buck hurried down the steps to take his gun from Chris and after putting it back in its holster, helped lift the gambler up into the other man's arms.
"Chris..." Ezra sobbed weakly against Chris' chest as he carried him across the yard.
"Shhh... it's all over now, Ezra... you took care of him... he'll never hurt you again." Chris could feel the gambler shivering violently from exhaustion and the cold as he hurried to get him back into the warmth of the cabin.
Buck watched as the others followed Chris and Ezra inside and then stalked up on the porch and grabbed the simple wooden chair that symbolized all the pain and torment Ezra had been through in the last few days. Carrying it out to the wood pile, he took the axe to it and chopped and cursed and cried until there was nothing left of the chair to remind his friend of the nightmare he'd just been through.
Chris stood near the fireplace holding tightly to Ezra, letting the warmth from the flames wash over his chilled body while constantly reassuring him he was all right now. Nathan took one look at the narrow rickety cot against the wall and had JD and Vin spread out several bedrolls on the floor near the fire. As soon as it was ready, Nathan motioned Chris over and reached to help him lower the gambler onto the makeshift bed.
"Let's keep him sittin' up til I can get his back cleaned up and bandaged... you wanna hang onto him while I finish with his leg and check that ankle again?" Nathan asked and then smiled slightly as he glanced over at Chris and saw Ezra's fingers still clutching his shirt. "Guess ya' got no choice, huh?"
Chris settled himself down beside the smaller man and eased him over to lean against his chest. "That's okay... Ezra and I'll just sit here and prop each other up." He looked down and was thankful to see the flow of tears was slowing. Chris smoothed the southerner's hair off his forehead and frowned at the numerous bruises that marred his handsome features. His guilt at allowing this to happen to one of his own still ate at him. He couldn't let go of the idea that all of Ezra's pain and torment could have been avoided if he'd only worried more about him, but the gambler had a way of making that an extremely hard thing to do. He'd had to take care of himself his whole life and was finding it nearly impossible to accept help from anyone now... even his friends. His present emotional state revealed exactly how thoroughly Parker had demoralized him. He never would have allowed them to see how much he needed them otherwise or never would have accepted the touch he was actively seeking out now. And he definitely would never have let them see him cry.
Nathan gently unwrapped Ezra's ankle and was thankful to find that though the swelling was worse, the bones didn't need to be reset. He replaced the splints and wrapped it back up before returning to the task of caring for the gambler's right leg. Some of the wounds had to be stitched again, but it only took him a few minutes to finish that chore and turn the bandaging over to Vin, leaving him free to tend to all of Ezra's other injuries.
Buck and JD made several trips for firewood knowing they'd need to keep the cabin as warm as possible for the gambler, then positioned themselves on either side of Chris... comforting Ezra with an occasional gentle touch and the knowledge that they were there for him. Josiah busied himself at the fire... making a broth to help Ezra regain his strength, simmering more herbs to help ease his pain and lower his fever... anything to keep himself from dwelling on the guilt he felt for not being there when his friend needed him. Every whimper and cry of pain Ezra uttered cut through his heart like a knife, just as he knew it did with each one of the other men present.
Vin gently took Ezra's hand and held his arm out for Nathan to work on... cleaning and bandaging the scrapes on his wrist and the multitude of cuts and scratches that covered his skin. He found several pieces of glass still embedded in the wounds and glanced at the boarded up window and then back at the gambler. Ezra nodded weakly and whispered, "Seemed... like a good... idea at... the time." He tried to smile but it immediately turned to a grimace of pain as Nathan began unwrapping the dirty bandage that covered the knife wound in his upper arm.
"Josiah, could you hand me another cup of the herbs." One look at the red, swollen flesh that surrounded the wound and Nathan knew this wasn't going to be pleasant for the gambler. He held the cup to Ezra's lips, waiting patiently while he sipped slowly, stopping several times to let him catch his breath. The healer could see he was getting weaker and knew he needed rest but he had to try and get as much of the infection out of the wounds as he could if he hoped to bring his fever down. While he waited for the herbs to take effect, he took care of Ezra's other arm and his face. Nathan gently washed the southerner's face, shaking his head at the assortment of cuts, scrapes and bruises that marred his pale skin. He took special care with the small scrape on his temple, making sure not to press on the bruise Nathan now knew Ezra had probably received from Parker's evil game of Russian roulette. He stared long and hard at it, imagining what it must have been like for his friend and had to blink away the tears that suddenly filled his eyes before continuing. By the time he finished, Ezra finally seemed to be feeling the effects of the herbs and Nathan began to clean out the knife wound. Vin and Buck held the arm tightly while he carefully reopened the laceration and continually ran the cloth through it, painstakingly removing all of the sweat and dirt that had built up in it. Even with the numbing effects of the herbs in his system, the gambler still struggled to get away from them, crying out weakly at the pain that tore through his arm.
"Nathan... please... it hurts..." Ezra felt fresh tears welling up in his eyes as the pain intensified with every touch of the healer's hands and quickly buried his face in Chris' shoulder to hide them. He didn't know what was wrong with him... crying like this in front of the others. He hated it and wanted desperately to stop, but just couldn't seem to get control of himself.
Chris knew the gambler was ashamed of his continued display of emotion because his whole life had been built around his ability to hide his feelings from the world. And now the nightmare he'd just been put through had torn down the walls he'd so carefully built around them and exposed them for everyone to see. Chris bent his head, resting his cheek against the younger man's sweat-soaked hair. "This is nothing to be embarrassed about, Ezra. It's just a natural reaction to all that you've been through in the last few days."
JD knelt down beside them and ran his fingers tentatively over the hand Ezra had fisted in Chris' shirt. Tears flowed openly down his face as he listened to the strangled sobs of his friend, knowing instinctively how much it was hurting the gambler to be seen in this condition. "We're your family now, Ezra... it's okay to cry in front of us. It'll make you feel better to get it all out, I promise."
Josiah had knelt to press gently down on the smaller man's legs, holding them still as he tried to move away from the pain in his arm. He smiled and nodded at his young friend in approval of what he'd said before adding his own reassurances to Ezra. "JD's right, son... you don't need to hide your feelings from us, we're not going to think less of you... we just want to help if you'll let us."
Ezra's sobbing slowed as he thought about their words. Family. It was a new concept for him, one he'd been trying to come to terms with over the last few months. He thought that was what he was beginning to feel... a sense of family... but he just wasn't sure. He'd never had anyone that actually cared about him before. Maude had drilled it into his head since he was a child that he had to remain detached from everyone around him otherwise he'd never be a successful conman. And he'd done exactly that... kept people firmly at a distance and become quite proficient at her chosen career for him. Until he'd come to Four Corners and met the six men he now lived and worked with... and considered friends. He wanted more than anything to let them behind the walls he'd been forced to build to make it through his lonely life, but in all honesty he was scared. Scared they'd see the real Ezra Standish and push him away like everyone else had, leaving him on his own once more... just as he'd been his whole life. But now he was so beaten and lost, he decided he had to take that chance... decided he needed to let them past his defenses in order to make it through this nightmare in one piece. He was finally able to admit to himself that he needed and wanted their help. Nathan speaking softly in his ear brought him out of his pain-filled haze and he turned his head slightly to stare into the healer's worried eyes.
"You still with me, Ezra?" Nathan saw him nod weakly, but he could tell by the dazed look in his eyes that he wouldn't be for much longer. "You just hang in there. We're gonna take a little break and try and get some broth into ya before I take care of your chest and back and then ya can lay down and get some rest." He saw the gambler frown and shake his head slightly. Nathan knew after going so long without much food the mere thought of it probably was turning his stomach, but the longer he went without eating the harder it would be to start again. "Just a little, Ezra... we've got to get your strength up so we can get ya back home."
Chris felt the smaller man tremble slightly in his arms and heard him softly whimper "home". He looked down quickly to see if he was all right. "Ezra?"
Tears trickled slowly down his bruised cheeks as he mumbled, "want'a go... home..." Chris saw his eyes slowly drift shut and his fingers loosen their grip on his shirt until his hand fell limply into his lap. The gunslinger felt his heart stop as Ezra slumped against him. "Nathan?!"
But the healer already had his fingers pressed to Ezra's neck... then checked his pupils and smiled up at the others. "He's just sleepin'," he announced, his voice shaky with relief. He smoothed back the few damp strands of hair that clung to the smaller man's forehead before moving to refill the basin with more of the herbal concoction. Kneeling back down beside Ezra, he began washing out the cuts on his chest. "I'm gonna try and get this done while he's asleep... maybe spare him at least some of this damn pain." Nathan knew that everything he had done to the gambler had been necessary to save his life, but that didn't ease the guilt he still felt at being the cause of him hurting so much now.
He'd just about finished with the wounds on the conman's chest when he suddenly stopped, throwing the cloth into the basin in disgust. "Damn... will you look at this?" Nathan said, his voice tight with anger as he tipped Ezra's head back slightly so the others could see what he'd just discovered. Chris had been holding the gambler almost every minute since they'd found him so nobody'd noticed the marks before, but now everyone stared at the line of purple bruises that encircled his throat. "The sonofabitch must have tried to strangle him... and judgin' from the looks of these, he almost succeeded."
JD reached out a shaky hand and gently touched the bruises, sickened by this latest evidence of the inhuman torture that the gambler had been subjected to. "I don't understand... why would he do this to him? He was the one who cheated... not Ezra. How could anyone do things like this to another person for no good reason? Can someone really be that evil?" JD's voice dropped to a horrified whisper as he waved his hand at Ezra's battered body. "To do... this... just for the fun of it?"
Buck tried to put his arm around the boy to calm him, but JD just threw it off and stood up, tears streaming down his face. "And why didn't we do anything to stop it?! Why didn't we believe his threats and guard Ezra?! Take care of him... like a real family would have!!" The boy's voice shook as he continued to demand answers from the other men. He was almost shouting now in his desperate attempt to find a reason why Ezra had had to go through this nightmare.
Chris felt the gambler stir in his arms and quickly pulled him tighter, whispering softly in his ear and stroking his hair as he tried to lull him back to sleep. He caught Buck's eye and motioned sharply with his head toward the door.
Buck and Josiah both saw him and quickly grabbed JD's arms, pulling the boy gently toward the door while warning him to lower his voice before he upset Ezra. He glanced worriedly at the southerner and stopped shouting, but he was still pelting them with questions, sobbing now as they led him outside. "Why, Buck? Why didn't we take it seriously... just because it was over a poker game? Or just because it was Ezra?"
Nathan, Vin and Chris all winced as JD's words hit home. He was right and they all knew it. They also knew they all had a lot to make up to their friend once they got him home. Ezra was going to be pulled into their newly developing family... kicking and screaming if need be... but he was definitely going to know he belonged there. And they were sure he was going to need all the support and help they could give him... this was all just too much for him to have to deal with on his own.
Ezra raised his head up off Chris' shoulder and peered groggily up at him. "s'JD all right?" Chris stared down at him for a minute before answering... wincing at the pain and exhaustion he saw etched on his face .
"Yeah, he's gonna be okay. He's just worried about you." Glancing up he saw Nathan walking toward them with a cup of broth and with Vin's help, sat the gambler up. Ezra clutched at Chris' shirt as he felt himself being pushed away and the gunslinger quickly wrapped his arm around Ezra's shoulders to reassure him. "Easy now... it's all right. Nathan's just going to give you that cup of broth now... you need to get some food in your stomach."
Ezra shook his head and tried to pull away as Nathan moved toward him. "'m not hungry..." he mumbled weakly as he turned his head away from the proffered cup.
Chris and Vin held him still as Nathan cupped the smaller man's chin in his hand and gently turned his head back around. "Come on now, Ezra... you'll feel better once we get some of this in your stomach. We'll go nice and slow so's t' not make you sick... okay?"
"You better do as he says, Ezra... you lose any more weight and none of your fancy clothes'll fit ya. I'll have ta loan you some of mine til ya can get more made." Ezra stared at Vin for a second while his words slowly penetrated his sluggish thoughts and then trembled as what he was suggesting finally registered. Vin chuckled as he saw the look of horror that passed over the gambler's face at the vision of himself dressed in the tracker's clothes.
"Good Lord..." Ezra turned to Nathan and allowed him to slowly feed him the broth, his eyes straying back to Vin when he felt his stomach churn at the forgotten sensation of food. One look at the buckskin clad tracker and he was able to force himself to finish the cup. It took a slight struggle and a few more glances at Vin, but he finally managed to get his stomach to stop rolling.
"You okay now?" Nathan wiped the sweat from the smaller man's face as he waited to make sure the broth was going to stay down. He could feel the tremors of exhaustion running through Ezra's body as he ran the cool cloth down his neck and across his shoulders and knew the gambler had used up the last of his energy forcing the nourishment down. He set the cloth back in the basin and had Vin help him get the gambler turned around so he faced Chris, leaning him against the gunslinger so that his back was fully exposed for him to work on.
Nathan stared at the dozens of angry red sores and shuddered as he thought about the agonizing pain Ezra must have felt when the salt water began soaking into his exposed flesh. Glancing at Vin, he saw his feelings of sympathy for the gambler reflected back at him and taking even more care to be gentle, they started working together to get the wounds cleaned and bandaged as quickly as possible.
Ezra moaned and clutched at Chris as the water soaking into his sores ignited the searing pain from the salt all over again.
"Hang on, Ezra... the pain'll ease up soon as I get them all washed out... just a couple more..." Nathan finished cleaning the last cut and then moved up beside Chris. Ezra's teeth were clenched against the pain as he fought to keep the screams in... refusing to give into it this time. The gentle healer reached out and stroked the smaller man's face, smoothing back the sweat- soaked hair that clung to his forehead in an attempt to calm him. "It's all right, Ezra... the burning should stop now... I got all the salt rinsed out of 'em... just try and take some deep breaths and it oughta help ease the pain."
Chris felt him tremble as he struggled to get his breathing under control and tightened his hold on the younger man's shoulders. "Easy now... you're gonna be okay. Take it easy."
Ezra rested his head weakly against Chris' chest and eased his grip on his shirt as his breathing slowly returned to normal. He turned his head to the side, saw Nathan watching him anxiously and gave him a small tired smile. "I'm all right, Nathan... you can finish now."
The healer gave him a relieved smile in return and patted his shoulder softly before working on his back again. He had to stitch up a few of the cuts, but after the pain he'd endured before... this was nothing to the gambler. Soon Nathan and Vin had the wounds all covered in salve and began wrapping bandages around him, covering him from just under his arms to his waist. "Okay, Ezra... we're gonna lay ya down now and let you get some rest. Don't try and help none, just let us do all the work." The three of them eased him back on the bedrolls but the minute they got him lying flat he cried out in pain and they had to immediately sit him back up.
Chris held him as he gasped for breath, waiting for the pain to recede. "Hang on, Ezra... it'll pass in a minute... just ride it out."
"It's too much pressure on those cuts, we're gonna have to figure somethin' else out." Nathan stared worriedly at Ezra trying to think of a way they could lay him down that wasn't going to hurt some part of his body.
"His stomach?" Vin suggested. "He ain't got quite so many sores on the front of 'im."
"But then what do we do about that?" Chris said as he motioned to the splints holding his broken ankle immobile.
"He can't lay any other way but on his back with that leg." Nathan stared at Ezra as he lay cradled against Chris' chest and finally thought of a possible solution. "What if we got one of the saddles from the barn for you to lean up against? Then you could just let him lay across ya and sleep. Think you'd be able to manage if we switch and let someone else hold him after awhile?"
"Fine by me. You okay with that, Ezra?" Chris looked down and smiled as he saw that Ezra had snuggled his face against his shoulder and was sound asleep. "Well, I reckon it's okay with him, too. You mind grabbing a saddle for me, Vin... and check on JD while you're out there."
Vin nodded and headed out the door just as Buck, Josiah and JD came up on the porch. "You okay, JD?"
The young man blushed and nodded his head. "Yeah, sorry for the way I acted... is Ezra all right?"
"Yeah, he's doin' better. And don't fret about it, kid... we're all worried about him and feelin' guilty... you just had the guts to admit to it." He turned and started off the porch.
"Where ya goin'?" Buck asked before heading into the cabin.
"Gotta grab a saddle for Chris to prop hisself up against. Couldn't find a comfortable position for Ezra to lie in so we're gonna take turns holdin' him tonight so's he can get some sleep," Vin explained as he moved toward the barn.
Buck entered the cabin closing the door behind him and walked over to where everyone was huddled in front of the fire. He squatted down beside Chris and Ezra and ran a hand gently over the smaller man's sweat-soaked hair. "How's he doin'?"
"Better'n he was. Got everythin' bandaged and even got some broth into him with a little coaxin' on Vin's part. He fell asleep while we were discussin' how to lay him down. Guess he decided he was fine right where he was." Nathan smiled at the others as he continued to wipe Ezra's face and neck down with a cool cloth. His fever was still high but at least it wasn't getting any worse and hopefully now that his wounds had all been cleaned and he could rest, it might even start coming down.
Vin came in lugging the saddle and JD hurried to close the door behind him. Chris looked at the boy and then at Buck. "JD okay now?"
Buck glanced up at the youngster who was now being enlisted by Josiah to help fix some supper and frowned. "Yeah... he just needed to let all the worry out. You know, Chris... this just isn't something he should have to deal with at his age... the fact that there's this kinda evil out there."
Chris stared down at Ezra's battered face and spoke softly. "None of us should, Buck... not at any age."
Vin carried the saddle over, placed it behind Chris' back and piled some blankets on it to make it more comfortable for him. He watched as Nathan and Buck held onto Ezra while the gunslinger shifted back against the blankets and then motioned for them to lay the younger man across his chest. Ezra stirred slightly but settled back into a deep sleep almost immediately when Chris ran his hand gently down his cheek and spoke softly to him.
Nathan placed one of the folded up blankets under Ezra's left foot and then covered him up with another one, tucking it around his shoulders as Chris moved his arms to hold it in place. The healer rested his hand once more on the sleeping gambler's forehead and after making sure his fever wasn't any worse, he went to get something to eat.
"You want me to bring you some food?" Buck asked Chris as he stood and stretched.
"Naw... I'm not that hungry and I don't want to take a chance on disturbing him," he answered as he stared down at the younger man's face. "I'll grab some later." Chris just wanted Ezra to sleep as long as possible before the nightmares he knew would be coming started.
Everyone finished eating and after checking on Ezra once more, they all began finding a spot near the fire to stretch out in and get some sleep.
Vin took one last look out the door and smiled when he turned back around. "Finally quit snowin'. We can get Ezra outta here in the mornin' if he's up to the ride."
"Don't worry, he'll be up to it. No way in hell are we making him stay here another minute longer than necessary." Chris' voice was soft but determined. One way or another they were getting Ezra out of there in the morning... taking him home where he belonged.
The others had been asleep for an hour and Chris' head was nodding as he unsuccessfully fought off the sleep that threatened to overtake him, when suddenly they were jolted awake by a scream.
Chris jumped, his heart pounding rapidly in his chest as his arms automatically tightened around Ezra who was now thrashing about wildly and screaming. He struggled to retain his grip on the smaller man while he tried to get him to open his eyes so that he could see he was safe. "Ezra!! Easy now... it's all right! I'm right here... I've got you and no one's going to hurt you!! Calm down and open your eyes!!"
Vin was lying closest to the two men and was awake the instant the scream left Ezra's lips. Quickly he rolled over and got a firm hold on the gambler's legs... pinning them to the floor to keep him from re-injuring himself. The others were all forced awake by the panicked screams of their friend and rushed to his side, each one trying to help bring him out of the nightmare that had him in its grip.
Josiah reached him first and cupped his face in his huge gentle hands and held his head still as he leaned over to speak softly into his ear. "Ezra... it's Josiah... I know you can hear me... focus on my voice and let all the others in your head go." He felt the younger man tremble as his words forced there way through the panic that was threatening to overwhelm him. "Nathan... grab one of those cloths and start wiping his face... Buck, JD, touch him... stroke his arm... his hair... anything to let him know you're here with him."
Chris bent to whisper in his ear, begging him to open his eyes while Nathan gently ran the cool, soft cloth continually across his feverish brow. Buck and JD did as Josiah had suggested... Buck smoothing his hair and reassuring him that they were all there for him while JD held one of his hands, running his fingers across the back of it in a soothing motion.
"It's all right now, Ezra... you know we're all here with you... you can feel us here... it's safe... let it all go and come back now... open your eyes, Ezra." Vin felt the gambler's legs go limp as he finally quit struggling against him and looked up to see Ezra's eyes slowly flutter open.
"Josiah?" Ezra couldn't understand why the preacher was holding his face, or why everyone was gathered around him. His mind was still fogged with fever and sleep and it took a few minutes of concentrating before it all came flooding back to him... Parker... he was back... he was doing it all over again! Ezra jerked his face out of Josiah's hands, his eyes wildly searching around the room for his tormentor. "Parker!! He's here... he's going to... he's..."
"He's not here, Ezra... it was just a nightmare. Shhh... you're all right now. It's all over... he's dead and can't hurt you anymore." Chris whispered soothingly in his ear, his arms still wrapped tightly around the younger man as he tried to calm him. "You killed him, remember?"
Ezra stared into Chris' eyes as he finally pulled himself out of the dream. "He's dead?"
"Yeah, Ezra... he's dead. It was just a bad dream... you're safe now." Chris eased his grip as he felt the gambler relax against him.
"Seemed so real..." Ezra whispered as he stared up at his friends who were all still gathered around him protectively.
Chris leaned back against the saddle again, settling the smaller man across his chest and cradling his head against his shoulder. He looked down and saw him struggling to keep his eyes open. "Don't fight it, Ezra... you need your rest." Chris smoothed his hair gently until his breathing evened out and sleep claimed him once more.
"You want one of us to take your place now?" Buck asked the gunslinger.
Chris shook his head and assured them he was fine, his eyes never leaving Ezra's face. He knew he wouldn't be able to sleep now anyway. Besides... he wanted to be right here when the gambler's nightmare returned... and he knew from experience that it would.
The others laid back down and tried to sleep, but Chris had been right... three more times their sleep was interrupted by the sounds of Ezra's terrified screams and each time they had to repeat the process of letting him know they were with him as Josiah talked him awake.
Morning found everyone in the cabin exhausted and anxious to get Ezra away from that evil place. Hopefully when they got him back to town and safe in his own bed, the nightmares would ease.
While the others got everything ready for the trip home, Nathan fed Ezra a combination of the broth and some herbs to try and help make the ride a little more bearable for him. Then he checked over all his injuries one more time, padding his legs and torso with an extra layer of bandages to help protect the wounds as much as possible.
The last thing to be loaded on the horses was Nathan's saddle bags. Before Vin left the cabin with them, the healer removed his spare pair of pants and a shirt and moved toward Ezra with them. They had eased the smaller man onto the cot before checking him over once more so that the others could pack up the bedrolls and blankets he'd been lying on... and now he sat there, eyes closed, leaning heavily against Chris as he waited to be taken out to the horses. His total exhaustion and the fever were playing havoc with his emotions again and he struggled against the tears that threatened to fall at the prospect of finally getting out of this hell hole and going home. Chris could feel him draw an occasional shuddering breath, knew the battle he was waging to stay in control of himself and tried to help by talking softly to him... carefully avoiding all mention of his ordeal. He looked up and saw Nathan walking toward them with the clothes in his hands and knew this would prove a needed distraction for the younger man and a source of amusement for the rest of them... a welcome relief from the depression that had gripped them all since the gambler had first been kidnaped. He saw Buck glance at them as he re-entered the cabin and motioned for him to quickly get the others. The scoundrel saw the clothes in Nathan's hands and a huge smile broke across his face as he turned and hurried to bring the others in for the confrontation he knew was about to happen.
Nathan touched Ezra's shoulder to get his attention and watched in amusement as his eyes fell on the change of clothes he held in front of him. Ezra's eyes went quickly from the clothes to Nathan's face and then to Chris, who was trying desperately to contain the smile that tugged at his lips.
"You can't be serious?" He stared once more at Nathan in disbelief. "You can't possibly expect me to return home in those!" He saw the healer's quick frown and backpedaled quickly as he realized the insult that was implied by his last statement. "No offense, Mr. Jackson... um... not that there's anything wrong with your excellent choice in apparel but..." He paused upon hearing the loud snickers and snorts of laughter that emanated from the other end of the cabin, and leaning around Nathan's imposing form glared at the other men who were thoroughly enjoying his predicament. Looking back up at Nathan who had not moved and who was still scowling down at him, he used the only other argument his exhausted mind could come up with. "Besides, they're much too large for me..." He realized his mistake as soon as the words were out of his mouth and knew they had him when Nathan's face broke into a huge grin and he felt Chris' body shake with laughter.
"And that's just why you're gonna wear these... they'll fit over all those bandages you're wrapped up in." Nathan and Chris took advantage of Ezra's shock at losing an argument and quickly pulled the healer's shirt on him before he had time to react. The glimpse of the old Ezra had definitely been a welcome relief, but by the time they got his pants cut off of him and Nathan's slipped on, he was leaning weakly against Chris and struggling to stay awake.
They'd discussed the best way to transport him back and after ruling out a travois due to the snow on the ground, they decided they would try laying him across Josiah's lap and let him cradle him against his chest while one of the other's ponied his horse, switching off with Nathan or Buck should he get tired.
They wrapped Ezra tightly in a couple of blankets and carried him out to the horses, Nathan and Chris holding him while Josiah got settled in the saddle. Then carefully supporting his injured legs they eased him up into the preacher's waiting arms and helped make the southerner as comfortable as possible. Josiah pressed Ezra's face gently against his shoulder and pulled the blanket up over his head to keep out as much of the cold as he could. Looking down, he saw the handsome features contorted with the pain caused by all the jostling and reached up to gently stroke Ezra's cheek as he spoke softly to him. "Just hang on, son... we'll get you home as quickly as possible. You just let me know if the pain gets too bad and we'll stop and let you rest, okay?" Ezra nodded slowly and raised a hand to wrap it in Josiah's shirt, his fingers clenching and unclenching with every stab of pain.
Josiah gripped the saddle horn with his free hand and looking up at the others, nodded that they were ready. Each man moved close to their injured friend and gave him one last touch of comfort and reassurance before they turned and rode away from the cabin. They all knew this ride was going to be another nightmare for the gambler... and they just wanted it to be over and to have him back home again.
Chris rode beside them and just before they turned away he saw Ezra take one last look at the cabin and the mound of snow where Parker's body lay. His eyes locked with Chris' and the gunslinger's heart broke at the overwhelming pain he saw shining back at him. Moving closer he reached out to wipe away the one lonely tear that trickled down the pale bruised cheek and held his hand there until the exhaustion finally won out and Ezra drifted off to sleep. The gunslinger tucked the blanket tighter around the younger man and then positioned himself beside him where he could keep watch over him until they had him safely back home.
Buck took the reins to Josiah's horse and after looking at them once more to be sure they were ready, turned their horses toward the woods and moved off across the clearing after the others.
They'd known the trip home was going to be hard on Ezra, but they'd had no idea it would be this bad. Nothing they could do helped alleviate the agony in his legs and back caused by the constant movement of the horse. By the time they were halfway home he was exhausted and sick to his stomach from the constant pain and Nathan finally had to have them stop and let him rest. Ezra protested that he was all right and just wanted to get home, but Josiah barely had the horse stopped before the gambler was twisting around in his arms and vomiting violently, almost toppling them both to the ground.
Nathan quickly reached out to grab him as Josiah struggled to keep both of them on the horse. "Hang on, Ezra... it'll be over with in a minute." Chris managed to get his arm around the smaller man's waist so that Josiah could reach up and support his head until he finished. It seemed to go on forever but finally the retching stopped and Ezra coughed weakly and spat several times trying to rid himself of the foul taste left in his mouth. Nathan grabbed his canteen and gave the southerner several small sips of water so he could wash his mouth out and then eased him back into Josiah's arms. They walked the horses down the trail a ways to get Ezra away from the sight and smell of the vomit before it could trigger another attack and then stopped again to let him catch his breath before continuing on.
Nathan dug a cloth out of his saddlebag and wet it with some of the herbal mixture he had in one of the canteens. Reaching across Josiah's arm he gently wiped the sweat from Ezra's face and then frowning, pressed the back of his hand against the gambler's too pale cheek. "Fever's up. We need t' get him home soon."
Ezra moaned and began to struggle in Josiah's arms, his hand reaching up to push Nathan's hand away from his face.
"Take it easy, Ezra." Nathan took the southerner's arm and attempted to tuck it back down in the cocoon of blankets but Ezra jerked it away and turned his face up to the healer and urgently mumbled "... sick...".
"Shit..." Nathan quickly grabbed him and turned him away from Josiah just before he began retching again. He grimaced as he felt Ezra's shoulders heaving beneath his hands, knowing how much pain the violent spasms were causing him. The attack was mercifully brief this time because there was nothing left in his stomach to bring up, but it was long enough to leave the weakened conman trembling and gasping for breath as they bundled him back up in the blankets and settled him back in Josiah's arms once more.
Nathan waited until Ezra's breathing evened out and then leaned over to give him a few sips of the herbal water from the canteen. He wiped his face down again, noticing as he did so how hard Ezra was fighting to control his emotions. His usual poker face was gone and everything he was feeling was right there in his eyes for everyone to see. All the pain. All the fear. All the doubts. None of his usual self-assurance and confidence were there... they had been totally stripped away by the vicious abuse he'd been forced to endure the last few days. Nathan knew what that kind of treatment could do to a man and it wasn't something he'd wish on anybody... especially someone like Ezra who's whole life was built around being in control. The least he could do for his friend was pretend not to notice.
"Well, if you're done disposin' of that fine broth Josiah made... how 'bout we get goin' again. I don't know 'bout you, but I'd rather sleep in my own bed tonight... not out here in this damn snow." Nathan met Ezra's eyes and nodded slightly at the gratitude he saw revealed there.
"Sounds... like an... excellent idea... Mr. Jackson." Ezra's voice was weak as he thankfully responded to the healer's distraction. He held Nathan's gaze for a second longer before finally succumbing to the exhaustion that was draining every ounce of strength he had left.
Nathan reached over and settled the smaller man's head more comfortably against Josiah's shoulder and tucked the blanket gently around his face.
"You want me to take him the rest of the way, Josiah? You've gotta be gettin' tired." Buck knew the answer he'd get, but he figured he'd at least volunteer.
"Nope. Brother Ezra and I've made it this far, I guess we can make it the rest of the way just fine. Besides, I don't think he needs to be jostled around any more than he has been." Josiah responded exactly the way Buck had known he would and after making sure that the gambler was wrapped up tight again, they moved on down the trail toward home.
It was snowing again and nearly dark by the time they arrived back in Four Corners and the streets were deserted. This was a relief to all of them because it gave them a chance to get Ezra up to Nathan's clinic without any fuss. They knew the townspeople had been worried about him and would be glad to see him home, but they also knew he wasn't up to dealing with any of it at the moment... not physically or emotionally. They did want Mary and Inez to know that they were back, so they sent JD over to tell Mary at the Clarion and told him to have her go and tell Inez. Nathan and Chris helped lift Ezra down out of Josiah's arms and carried him carefully up to the clinic, grateful that he stayed asleep until they had him up the stairs. Buck helped Josiah down off his horse and made sure he was okay. It had been quite a strain on him holding Ezra the whole way home, but he insisted he was fine and made his way slowly up the stairs to the clinic as Buck and Vin hurried off to take the horses to the livery before they were noticed. They tipped the stable boys a little extra to keep quiet about their arrival back in town until the next day figuring that by then they'd be better able to fend off the well-meaning visitors and keep them from getting too close to Ezra. They fully intended to tell him how much he'd been missed and how much he had come to mean to the people of the town, but not until he was ready to handle that information. Right now he was in an extremely fragile emotional state and their immediate focus was going to be on getting him well again.
Buck and Vin arrived back at the clinic just as Mary, Inez and JD were going up the stairs. They exchanged a few words of greeting and then hurried on up to check on Ezra, quietly entering the room and standing against the wall out of the way. Mary and Inez had to stifle a gasp as they got their first glimpse of him and their eyes immediately filled with tears as they saw how badly he was injured.
Ezra was sitting on the edge of the bed being supported by Chris and Josiah while Nathan carefully removed the bandages that were wrapped around his middle. He wanted to make sure none of the stitches had gotten ripped out on the ride home and clean his wounds one more time before settling the gambler in the bed. Nathan hated putting him through it all again, but some of the wounds were infected and he needed to get them taken care of now if he was ever going to get his fever down. Ezra cried out weakly and tried to pull away as soon as the wet cloth touched his skin, his fever and exhaustion sending his thoughts back to the cabin and the vivid and painful memory of the salt water. "Please... don't... no more..."
Nathan was forced to stop as Chris gathered the trembling southerner into his arms and began stroking his hair and whispering in his ear. "It's all right, Ezra... it's Nathan not Parker... we're in the clinic now, remember? We're home, Ezra... no one's going to hurt you any more."
"Home?" Ezra stared around him in confusion. Could it be true... was he finally home? He blinked several times to bring everything into focus... his eyes gazing slowly around the familiar room. His tenuous hold on his emotions dissolved and he began to sob helplessly in relief as he realized that Chris was right... he wasn't in the cabin anymore... he was really home.
Nathan left Josiah and Chris comforting Ezra and moved over to stand in front of the two women, effectively blocking their view of the gambler. He knew the last thing Ezra would want would be to have them see him in this condition. "He needs to get somethin' in his stomach... do you think you ladies could get some broth up here without anyone seein' you?"
Mary and Inez exchanged a look of understanding and nodded at Nathan. They knew he was just protecting the southerner and they admired him for it. And they knew Ezra needed to be alone with his friends now, they had just wanted to see for themselves that he was really home and going to be all right. "Of course we can, Nathan... and we'll bring up some food for the rest of you, too. You all look like you could use a good hot meal. Please just tell Ezra that we're glad he's back and safe and that we'll come and see him when he's feeling better, okay?"
Nathan smiled, relieved that they weren't offended by his obvious attempt to get them to leave. "I'll tell 'im and thank you for gettin' that food for us."
Inez placed her hand on his arm before he turned away and looked worriedly into his eyes. "He is going to be all right, isn't he Nathan?"
Nathan's expression sobered and he glanced back at Ezra, who was still crying softly in Chris' arms before he answered her. "It'll take a while, but his wounds should heal up just fine in time... it may take a mite longer for 'im t' get over it emotionally though. The things that man did to 'im... well... no one should ever have t' go through somethin' like that."
They nodded in silent agreement and turned to leave, their eyes welling up with fresh tears as the sound of Ezra's quiet weeping followed them out the door.
Nathan moved back over to Ezra and put his hand gently on the smaller man's shoulder. "I'm sorry, Ezra... I should've explained what I was doin' before I started. I didn't mean t' scare ya none."
The gambler shook his head weakly as he looked up at the healer. "No... I'm sorry, Nathan... I don't know... what... came over me." His eyes still held a dazed, confused look and his voice shook with the strain of trying to control his emotions.
"Don't you be apologizin' for nothin', Ezra." Nathan knelt down so he could look into Ezra's eyes. "You been through hell the last few days... you got a fever and you're hurtin' and ya jist ain't gonna be reactin' to things the way you normally would. And there ain't no way you're gonna be able t' deal with all these emotions you're feelin' on your own anyway, so you're jist gonna have to let us help ya fer a change. Okay?" They all watched Ezra struggle with what Nathan was saying to him, each one of them fully expecting him to deny needing their help.
The part of Ezra that usually hid behind his walls just wanted to tell them he was fine and would get through this on his own. But it was the newly discovered part of him who desperately wanted to lean on these six men... these six friends... his family... that finally won out. He was just too exhausted and hurt to fight the need to belong that he'd been feeling lately and it was with a sense of overwhelming relief that he finally decided to give himself over to their care. He reached one shaking hand up and placed it over Nathan's, his fingers wrapping tightly around the healer's comforting hand and nodded at him. "Thank you, Nathan. I think you may be right... I might need some... help with this one." His voice was weak but the emotion in it spoke volumes. Every man in the room knew what it had cost Ezra to utter those words... to actually relinquish the control he thought he had to have at all times to survive in this world.
Josiah reached up and stroked Ezra's sweat-soaked hair and smiled softly at him. "Welcome to the family, Brother... it's about time."
Nathan had just finished wrapping the bandages around Ezra's chest when Mary and Inez dropped off the food they'd promised. Chris held the younger man while Nathan slowly fed him the broth... stopping occasionally to make sure he was going to be able to keep it down. It was a struggle, but Ezra finally managed to get the whole bowlful eaten. The healer decided to let him rest while he and the others ate their food and then he'd take care of his legs and get him settled in the bed. Chris pulled the gambler back against him and kept one arm around him while he ate and then while Nathan cleaned up his legs again. Two of the deeper wounds needed to be restitched and he had to loosen the bindings on the splints, but he finally finished and moved to ready the bed for him.
After layering several blankets beneath him, they were finally able to get the southerner comfortable enough that he was able to lie on his back. They folded two more blankets and placed one under his injured ankle and one under his right arm to cushion the painfully swollen stab wound and then covered him with two more to ward off the chill that was accompanying his high fever. Nathan settled himself beside Ezra on the bed, constantly bathing his now sleeping patient's face and neck with a cool cloth.
"Why don't y'all find someplace to stretch out and get some sleep. You look dead on your feet and I don't need no more patients to be takin' care of." Nathan scowled at every one of them to let them know he was serious and just pointed his finger menacingly at Chris when he opened his mouth to argue.
Chris glared at him for a minute and then shook his head as he settled himself on the floor near the bed. "You just make sure you wake me when you get tired... and don't wait too damn long to do it. We don't need you gettin' sick either."
Nathan nodded and turned his attention back to Ezra who was tossing his head fretfully back and forth on the pillow, mumbling incoherently as the fever burned even hotter. "Shhh now... it's all right..." The healer gently ran the cool cloth across the smaller man's face while murmuring softly to him, soothing him both with his touch and his words. "Just rest now... we're all right here with ya." Ezra's anxious muttering slowed and then stopped altogether as he finally drifted off to sleep. The others scattered around the room all sighed in relief and let themselves sink into the same exhausted sleep... all except Nathan who continued to wrestle with the fever that was slowly draining every ounce of strength the gambler had left. For three days and nights the six men took turns fighting to keep their friend and brother with them. Constantly bathing him with cool water, forcing broth and the healing herbs down him whenever he was lucid enough to swallow them, and soothing him through the nightmares that still ripped him from sleep... leaving him trembling and sobbing as he relived all the horrible things that had been done to him.
The townspeople all knew the battle that was being waged for that one precious life and respectfully kept their distance. Mary and Inez kept a supply of food and coffee coming to the clinic and kept the men informed about what was happening in the town, but otherwise did not try and intrude on the vigil the men kept over Ezra.
Early on the fourth morning after they'd returned home, Chris was sitting beside the bed... one hand holding the book he was reading, the other wrapped around Ezra's limp hand. His fever had finally broken the night before, but he had yet to regain consciousness. The others were all still sleeping, still scattered around the room... refusing to leave until they were sure the southerner was going to make it. Chris' thumb was idly moving across the back of Ezra's hand, stroking gently... hoping to reach through the darkness the younger man was lost in to provide some small amount of comfort. Suddenly he let the book fall to his lap and looked up, staring intently at the hand resting in his. There it was again... a slight flexing of the fingers as they seemed to try to wrap themselves around his. His eyes moved up to scan the gambler's face, searching for any sign that he was finally awakening.
Chris had just about decided that the movement of the conman's fingers had only been a muscle spasm when he saw his eyelids flutter. "Ezra... can you hear me?" He leaned forward and gently stroked the younger man's face as he encouraged him to wake up. "Come on, Ezra... open your eyes for me." He watched as the gambler struggled against the darkness for several moments and then finally eased his eyes open.
"Chris?" His voice was raspy, his throat raw and sore from the screams that had erupted from him during his nightmares. He blinked several times, trying to bring the gunslinger into focus.
"Here, Ezra... this should help." Chris slipped his hand beneath the gambler's head and raised it up slightly before placing a cup of Nathan's herbal brew to his lips.
Ezra sipped slowly, grimacing at the taste but thankful for the soothing relief it provided his parched and scratchy throat. When Chris saw he'd had enough, he took the cup away and eased his head back down on the pillow. Taking the damp cloth lying on the bed table he began wiping the sweat from the younger man's face and neck while he waited patiently for him to get his bearings. When he finally saw the dazed look begin to leave his eyes, he smiled and spoke softly to him. "You with me now, Ezra?"
The gambler stared at him a moment longer and finally managed a small tired grin in return. "I think so... how long have I... been asleep?"
"Well, we've been back four days and you've pretty much been out of it the whole time." Chris glanced across Ezra and saw Nathan quietly picking his way across the sleeping bodies on the floor. He'd been lying on the cot on the other side of the room and had been roused by their voices, the huge smile on his face expressed his obvious joy at seeing his patient finally awake. The healer lowered himself carefully to sit beside Ezra and reached out a large gentle hand to feel his face and neck, checking for any sign of the fever's return.
Relieved to find none, he dropped his hand down on the bed beside him and gently wrapped it around Ezra's, squeezing it lightly. "How ya feelin'?"
"Better... I think... so damn weak..." Ezra fought against the incredible weariness that just wouldn't let go of him... he was just so tired of feeling bad.
Nathan and Chris could see the struggle he was putting up just to keep his eyes open.
"You're bound to be weak, Ezra... it's gonna take time t' get your strength back. You're gonna need lots a sleep... don't be givin' me that look..." Nathan grinned as Ezra scowled at the mention of sleep... the gambler hated to be laid up in bed for any length of time no matter how bad he felt. "And we need t' get some food in ya. Think you could manage a little broth if I got it for ya?"
Ezra started to say he wasn't hungry but he saw the worried look on their faces and merely nodded instead. And he was glad he did when he saw the huge smile of relief that appeared on Nathan's face before he left to fetch the broth.
Chris smiled as he watched the healer hurry out of the clinic then chuckled as he looked back at Ezra. "Well, you just made his day."
Ezra returned the smile. "It's the least I could do after all the worry I seem to have put him through." He turned his eyes down to stare at his hand which still rested in Chris'. He thought briefly about pulling his hand away, but he was surprised to realize that he really didn't want to... he enjoyed the warm feeling it gave him. Then he turned his head on the pillow and gazed around the room at the other five sleeping men. "They been here the whole time?"
"Yep. Wouldn't leave til they knew you'd be all right." He saw Ezra frown slightly and look around the room again. "What's wrong?"
"I seem to remember someone else being there when you found me. The one who took the... the blindfold off me." He paled slightly at the memory of the cabin and squeezed the gunslinger's hand to remind himself that he was safe.
Chris returned the squeeze and watched Ezra's face carefully as he told him about Randall. "Yeah... he was working with Parker. He helped him grab you from your room." He saw the gambler's eyes glaze over at the mention of Parker and reached up to place a reassuring hand on his shoulder, rubbing gently to soothe him. "You okay?"
Ezra nodded and closed his eyes, concentrating on the gunslinger's voice as he struggled to block out the fear that coursed through him at the mention of his tormentor.
"His name was Jacob Randall and he said he didn't know what Parker had planned for you. He's the one that came to the cabin and told you the lies about overhearing us in the saloon. Parker had told him what to say and by then he wanted out, but he was too afraid of that sonofabitch to not do what he said. He says he helped you after one of the beatings... do you remember that?"
Ezra nodded again and shuddered at the memory of that particular beating and of the pain he'd suffered afterward. He could feel the tears welling up in his eyes again and struggled to keep them from falling. "He tried to tell me he lied, didn't he?"
"Yeah, but he thought you were too out of it to hear him." Chris saw the sweat beading up on the younger man's face and moisture glistening on his lashes as he fought the emotions that were threatening to get away from him again.
Chris dampened the cloth and began gently wiping the sweat off Ezra's face as he talked. "He decided he couldn't take what Parker was doing to you and came back here to let us know where you were. He's the one that lead us to the cabin." He saw the gambler flinch as he mentioned Parker and the cabin again but he still didn't open his eyes. Chris knew he was just trying to keep the tears from starting again.
"And where is Mr. Randall now?" Ezra asked softly, his voice shaking with the effort of trying to keep the memories of what had happened from flooding his mind.
"He managed to knock Josiah out and get away while we were still at the cabin. We'll get him back though, don't worry." Chris put the cloth down but continued to smooth the younger man's hair back, trying to calm him.
"Don't. Just let him go. If it weren't for him... you might never have found me in time." Ezra's voice broke as he uttered those last words and he finally opened his eyes and stared up at Chris, the tears he'd worked so hard to hold back falling as the realization of just how close he had come to dying finally hit him.
Chris stared into those emerald eyes and saw the horror of what had almost happened shining brightly through the tears. Without a word he leaned forward and gathered Ezra carefully into his arms, rocking him gently back and forth as he cried. Chris felt his own eyes burn with unshed tears as he felt the younger man clinging to him, his shoulders shaking with the sobs that tore through him again. "I am so sorry we weren't there to stop it, Ezra. We're all going to do everything we can to make it up to you... I promise."
Nathan entered with the broth just as the others woke and hurried to help the gambler. One by one they joined Chris in whispering a heartfelt apology for not being there for him when he needed them... each of them stroking his hair, gently rubbing his shoulders, or just giving the comforting touch of their hand on his.
It took a while but they finally got him calmed down and after sternly calling a halt to his apologies for his outburst, they even managed to help Nathan get most of the bowl of broth into him. Chris settled him back down in the bed, tucking the covers snugly up under his chin and they all breathed a sigh of relief as he immediately drifted into a deep and thankfully, dreamless sleep.
Ezra was sitting outside Nathan's clinic, enjoying the feel of the sun beating down on him. The weather had slowly improved after they'd returned to town, and the town was now enjoying an early spring. It had been a month since his ordeal and this was the first time he'd ventured outside. He'd had to use a crutch because of his still mending ankle, but he still had made it out to the bench under his own power with Nathan following right behind him, ready to help if he needed it. The healer had fussed over him after he'd gotten settled making sure he was warm enough and instructing him to call out when he wanted to go back to bed, not to try walking on his own. Ezra had smiled and reassured Nathan that he would be fine, all the while gritting his teeth against an uncontrollable urge to shout at the healer to stop smothering him.
It was three long weeks before Nathan would even allow Ezra out of bed, and then for only short periods of time. He wasn't about to let him out of his control until he had his weakened body built back up. The gambler had never been a big eater and left to his own judgement, he would never consume enough food to put back the weight he had lost. He was surprised that Ezra hadn't put up more of an argument than he had, but just assumed it was because his injured legs were still too painful to support him for very long.
Ezra knew everyone was amazed at his quiet acceptance of Nathan's orders for him to stay at the clinic. Usually by now he would have been driving the healer slowly insane with his incessant demands that he be allowed to recuperate in his own bed. He also knew they thought it was because of his legs that he willingly stayed where he was... and he was perfectly happy to allow them to go on thinking that.
Ezra had absolutely no intention of telling them that it was actually because he was afraid to go back to his own room... that just the thought of walking down that hall and reaching for the door knob made him break out in a cold sweat. He could still feel Randall's hands on his back, pushing him into that room... still see Parker's evil glare just before his world went dark and his nightmare began. He knew it would just give them one more reason to hover over him... one more thing to try and protect him from. And he'd pretty much had his fill of both of those. He knew he needed to talk about what he was feeling and what had happened to him, but he just couldn't do it with all of them there staring at him... worrying about him. And if he personally singled out just one of his friends to confide in, the others would surely be hurt. He'd had no idea having a family would be this complicated.
The first week of his convalescence he'd welcomed their constant attention, in fact he'd hungered for it. Having them around him at all times was the only thing that made him feel safe, the only thing that helped keep the nightmares at bay. But now that the dreams were coming less and less frequently and his health was improving, he was beginning to feel stifled by their unrelenting presence. Every time one of them asked him how he was, could they do anything for him, is anything wrong... he simply wanted to scream at them to leave him alone.
The gambler found the whole concept of belonging to a family extremely heartwarming now and was touched by their efforts to make sure he knew how much they cared for him, but it was simply a case of too much too soon. He needed time to adjust to the idea... time to get used to having people who actually wanted him around and cared what happened to him... time to make himself believe that it could possibly be true. He wanted to tell them to please let him have a little space to breathe, but he couldn't bear to hurt their feelings. Not after all they'd done for him.
Ezra had been on the bench for less than an hour when the first of the townspeople had noticed him and stopped to chat. The other men had told him how concerned everyone in town was when he was missing and how they'd continually inquired about his health while he was recovering. He'd had no idea that anyone in Four Corners other than Mary and Inez had any thoughts about him one way or another... just as one of the peacekeepers of the town... one with a decidedly checkered past. It had definitely added to his new-found sense of belonging... to his actually feeling that he had finally found a place to call home.
But as the afternoon wore on and one person after another stopped to talk or just to ask about his health, Ezra began to feel his newly reacquired hold over his emotions start to slip. He couldn't pinpoint the reason for his sudden nervousness, he just knew he needed to get away from all this well-meant attention. It had been over a week since his last bout of uncontrolled weeping and he'd hoped that was all behind him. No matter how many times they explained that it was perfectly natural, it still shamed him to have them see him helplessly sobbing into his pillow. It made him feel so weak and out of control. And now after nine blissful days of no tears, they were threatening to fall once more.
Chris was standing on the boardwalk in front of the sheriff's office watching Ezra. He'd seen several of the townsfolk stop to speak to the gambler and at first had been pleased that they were letting him know that he had been missed while he'd been gone. But he began to notice that Ezra seemed to be enjoying the experience less and less. He kept glancing back at the clinic door, nervously fidgeting on the bench every time someone walked past. Chris saw Mrs. Potter headed toward the stairs and watched as Ezra began to struggle with his crutch in an attempt to rise from the bench. He hurried over to intercept her and kept her busy talking while the conman made his slow and painful way back inside. Then as soon as he'd assured her that he'd tell Mr. Standish she'd been by, he went up to the clinic to talk to Nathan.
Chris walked in to find Nathan helping Ezra into bed, scolding him the whole time for not calling for him to help like he'd been told. The gunslinger watched Ezra's face closely and saw the strained look in his eyes, the clenched jaw and realized that the gambler was just about at his breaking point. He hurried to distract the healer before he pushed the smaller man into saying something he would regret later. Ezra shot him a watery look of gratitude as he slumped back in the bed, exhausted by the emotions that he was trying so hard to control.
Nathan followed the gunslinger outside after giving Ezra one last warning to stay in the bed. Chris glanced back at the southerner before closing the door and was not surprised to see him already curled up under the blankets, his head buried in the pillow. He could tell he was battling his feelings again and it was taking it's toll on his still fragile health.
"I swear... that man just won't listen to me!" Nathan began complaining the minute the door was closed. "You'd think he'd want to do anythin' he could to get outta here and back to his room and the saloon."
"I don't think he's ready for that yet, Nathan. Have you watched his face when anyone mentions him goin' back to his own room? I think he's scared." Chris sat down on the bench and stared up at Nathan as he talked. "And I also think he's having a problem with everyone crowding him too much."
"Why would he be scared of his own room? And I thought he was enjoyin' all the attention?" Nathan sat down beside Chris and thought about what the gunslinger had said. "But now that you mention it, he ain't been beggin' me to let him go back to his own bed like he usually would. You think he's havin' flashbacks to when Parker and Randall took him?"
Chris nodded. "Yeah, I think that's exactly what's happening. And I was across the street watchin' him while he was sitting out here... he started out fine, talking to anyone that stopped. But the more people he had to deal with, the more nervous he seemed to get. When he saw Mrs. Potter coming I saw him trying to get up and get back in the clinic, so I got her talking and gave him a chance to get inside. I think it's just all too much for him to handle at one time."
Nathan shook his head, disgusted with himself for not noticing Ezra was having problems. "I guess I was just hopin' he'd make it through this whole thing in one piece and I just didn't want to see that he was havin' trouble dealin' with it all."
"Don't beat yourself up over it, Nathan. You know Ezra's pretty good at hiding his feelings... the only reason I noticed was because I've been through it before. I saw those same looks he's getting on his face every time I looked in the mirror." Chris hesitated for a minute and then glancing at Nathan, continued. "You know... I might have an idea that would help him. Why don't you let me take him out to my cabin for awhile. It would give him a chance to get away from everyone and catch his breath. Maybe talk about what happened."
Nathan stared at him, thinking. "That might be just what he needs... some peace and quiet. But do ya think he'll talk to ya?"
Chris shrugged. "I don't know, but it's worth a try. We've got to do something to help him, he can't keep goin' on like this. And I actually think he wants to get it all out, just not in front of all of us. That might be just too overwhelming for him. Especially since he's not used to talkin' about his feelings."
"You could be right. And he does seem to've connected with ya since we found 'im... he might just open up to ya." Nathan looked at the door to the clinic and then back at Chris. "You want'a ask 'im or do ya want me to?"
"I'll do it. Just keep everyone else out til I'm finished... he's had enough company for one day." Chris stood up, took a deep breath and entered the clinic.
Chris stood just inside the door and stared over at Ezra still curled up in the bed. He hoped like hell his idea worked, something had to give with the gambler... and soon. He definitely couldn't keep going on the way he was, he needed to get his life back.
The gunslinger walked over and sat on the edge of the bed. He was surprised to see that Ezra was still awake. "You okay?"
Ezra looked up at him and slowly shook his head. He sighed wearily as he carefully rolled over onto his back. "And please don't ask me what's wrong because I have absolutely no idea."
Chris straightened the blankets when the younger man got settled, stalling as he figured out the best way to make his suggestion. It was never easy to predict how Ezra would react to anything, and now with his emotions in the mess they were it was even harder.
"Well, for one thing Nathan and I think maybe you need to get away from all the attention you've been getting here. Just to have a little quiet time for awhile... maybe do some talking." Chris watched his face, trying to gauge his reaction to the idea. "What do ya think?"
Ezra stared at the bedcovers as he thought over what Chris had said. "Where did you have in mind?"
"My place. It's not much, but no one would bother you out there and maybe we could talk if you feel like it." Chris reached out and rubbed the younger man's arm. "You need to talk about it, Ezra... or you'll never be able to put it behind you."
Ezra nodded and looked up at Chris, his green eyes swimming with tears again. "I know... you're right. I want to at least try... I can't live like this." He reached up to brush the tears off his cheeks and gave Chris a crooked grin. "Hell, I couldn't even make a living playing cards in my present condition. How would I ever be able to run a bluff if I'm goin' to burst into tears every time I get a bad hand?"
Chris laughed and gave Ezra's arm a squeeze before getting up. "Get some rest and we'll go out to my place first thing tomorrow."
"Chris?" The gunslinger turned and looked back at Ezra as he opened the door. "Thanks."
Chris smiled and gave Ezra a small nod. "No problem. That's what family's for."
The next morning, after much arguing on Nathan's part, Ezra was helped up onto his horse.
"Don't know why you gotta be so damn stubborn. Wouldn't've killed you to take a buggy out to Chris'. If you mess this ankle up again, don't even think 'bout comin' to me to fix it for ya." Nathan grumbled as he adjusted the stirrup for the third time, making sure the gambler was as comfortable as he could be. He fastened Ezra's crutch to the saddlebag, glared up at him one last time and stepped back up on the boardwalk with the other men.
"I assure you Mr. Jackson, I'll be just fine. I have no intention of doing anything that would undermine the excellent care you've given me. " Ezra smiled down at him, trying to erase the worried look on the healer's face.
Nathan shook his head at the conman in exasperation, then shot Chris a warning look. "You make sure he stays off that foot as much as possible, and make sure he eats and takes the medicine I gave you." He looked back at Ezra and pointed his finger at him. "If I come out there and you're not doin' exactly what I told you to, you're comin' right back here to the clinic and stayin' til you're completely well."
Ezra stared at the healer for a moment, trying hard not to laugh at the sight of him standing there shaking his finger at him. He finally got control of himself and solemnly told him, "I promise, Nathan. I'll do everything you told me to. Don't worry."
"Well, you ready?" Chris asked as he mounted his horse.
Ezra nodded and with a tip of his hat to the men standing on the boardwalk, he turned his horse and rode slowly down the street beside the gunslinger.
They'd only gone a few yards when Ezra turned, glanced back at Nathan and the others, shot Chris a grin and suddenly urged his horse into a gallop. Nathan's angry shouts and threats followed him as he raced down the street and out of town.
Chris didn't even look back at Nathan, he didn't dare. He knew the hell he'd pay if the healer saw him laughing at what Ezra had done. He just threw his hand up as a sign to Nathan that he'd take care of it and hurried to catch up to the conman and slow him down before he really did hurt himself.
Ezra was waiting for him just on the outskirts of town. The gambler had a huge satisfied grin plastered on his face when Chris caught up to him.
"You realize you're going to pay for that when Nathan comes out to check on you." Chris couldn't help but smile at the boyish look of pure pleasure that adorned the younger man's face. It had been too long since he'd seen him happy, and it was worth any amount of chastising they'd have to suffer from Nathan just to witness that look.
"Oh, I know Mr. Larabee, and I will humbly apologize and beg his forgiveness when I see him again," Ezra laughed. "But the opportunity to tease our overly conscientious healer was just too tempting for me to resist."
Chris glanced back toward town and then looked back at Ezra. The conman was still grinning, but he could see the quick flash of pain that swept across his face as he reached down and absently rubbed his injured leg. He was far from being a hundred percent and Chris knew that by the time they arrived at the cabin, he would be feeling the effects of the ride. "Well, let's get on out of here before Nathan decides to come after us. If he catches you, he'll have you back in that clinic and hog-tied to the bed before you can even begin to apologize."
They eased their horses into a slow walk and headed out, quietly enjoying each other's company and the soothing warmth of the beautiful spring day.
Ezra had never been out to Chris' cabin before and he was mildly surprised at the hominess of it. The cabin itself wasn't very large, but it had a nice peaceful feel to it that made up for it's lack of size. Chris stopped the conman as he struggled to dismount and ordered him to sit still until he could help him down. Ezra sighed in exasperation but waited while the gunslinger eased his injured foot out of the stirrup and untied his crutch from the saddlebag. Then leaning heavily on Chris' shoulder he lowered himself to the ground and took the crutch that he held ready for him.
Chris glanced at Ezra out of the corner of his eye as he helped him up on the porch, steadying the smaller man as he eased himself down onto one of the chairs and was a little worried at the way he looked. His face was unusually pale beneath the now yellowing bruises and was coated with a light sheen of sweat. He was breathing heavily and Chris could see his hands shake as he leaned the crutch against the house behind him.
"You okay there, Ezra?" The gunslinger reached out and placed his hand against the gambler's forehead and cheek, frowning when he felt the warmth of his skin. "Fever's back."
Ezra leaned his head back against the wall and closed his eyes. "I must admit, the ride was a bit more tiring than I had anticipated." His eyes sprang open and he looked quickly up at Chris. "But if you attempt to inform Nathan that I said that, I'll firmly deny every word."
"Tell you what... I'll keep my mouth shut if you'll let me take you inside and get you settled for a nap after I get the horses taken care of. Deal?" Chris fully expected the younger man to argue with him and took it as a sign of the extent of his exhaustion when he didn't. He merely nodded and closed his eyes again.
Chris carried the saddlebags inside and then led the horses over to the corral, unsaddled them and turned them loose, closing the gate behind them. He'd finish taking care of them while Ezra was sleeping.
"Ezra? Come on, pard... let's get you inside." Chris roused the conman and helped him up, settling his crutch under his arm and following along behind as he limped into the cabin.
Ezra was so tired, he didn't even have the energy to examine his new surroundings. Chris led him over to the bed, sat him down and proceeded to help him undress. Once he got his outer clothing and his guns removed, he helped him lay back on the mattress and removed his one boot. Then after propping his injured foot up on a pillow he covered him with a light blanket, closed the curtains to darken the room, and left to finish with the horses. By the time he returned, the younger man was sound asleep. Chris picked up a book, and leaving the door ajar in case Ezra woke and needed him, went out to settle himself on the porch to read.
Ezra'd only been asleep for a short while when he began to move his head fretfully back and forth on the pillow, his breaths coming in short, sharp gasps. << His heart thundered in his chest as he felt the cold metal of the gun barrel pressed once more against his temple. 'No... oh God... no... not again... this can't be happening again!' His mind raced frantically as he heard the hammer being drawn back... 'I'm dreaming... I know I'm dreaming... why can't I wake up?'... 'Oh God please... someone wake me up!!' Then he heard it... Parker's voice hissing in his mind... 'Are you ready, little man?'... 'It's time to die now.' Ezra gasped for breath as the hammer fell... >>
Chris dropped his book and bolted for the door as Ezra's terrified screams ripped through the cabin.
Ezra was sitting up in the bed, his hands clutching wildly at his head, his screams turning to heart-wrenching sobs as he fought to pull himself out of the dream. Chris grabbed his arms and shook him lightly. "Ezra!! It's all right... it's just a dream. Come on now... you're all right!"
"Oh God... he shot me... the gun went off..." Ezra moaned as the sound of the gunshot echoed through his brain.
Chris managed to pull the smaller man's hands down away from his head and wrapping his arms around his trembling body, began to whisper softly in his ear. "Hush now. It's just a dream, Ezra... Parker's dead and the gun never went off. You've got to calm down now before you make yourself sick. Shhh... it's all right."
Ezra raised his head up and stared at Chris in confusion. "Chris? What happened? Did I..." Raising his hands up he felt the tears on his face and angrily brushed them away as he jerked himself out of the gunslinger's arms. "God, not again... I thought it was finally over."
Chris put his hand on the younger man's shoulder and began rubbing it slowly, trying to calm him down. "Ezra, it's gonna take time. After seeing what he did to you, we're all amazed that you've come as far as you have. And this nightmare was probably just caused by the stress of making the trip out here."
Ezra shook his head and whispered, "I just want it to stop. I don't know how much more of this I can handle."
"You want to tell me about your dream? It might help."
Ezra looked at him, his eyes still swimming with tears. "Did it help you?... to talk about yours, I mean."
Chris looked away as he thought about the question. He looked back at the younger man and saw the doubt in his eyes, the fear that nothing would help and the nightmare would never end. "Yeah, eventually. The dreams didn't stop right away, but it was easier to deal with them once Buck got me talking."
Ezra stared at him a moment longer and then uttered a shaky laugh as he ran a hand through his hair. "Well, I've sure got nothing to lose by at least trying. It can't be any worse than waking up crying on your shoulder all the time."
"Something wrong with my shoulder?" Chris looked down at his still damp shirt and back at Ezra with a hurt look on his face and a twinkle in his eye.
"Um... no, of course not... a bit bony perhaps..." Ezra smiled as he rubbed a hand lightly over the fading bruises on his cheek.
"Well, will just have to fix it so you don't have any need to be grinding your face against it again. You want to sit here and talk or would you rather grab a cup of coffee and sit out on the porch?"
Ezra thought a moment and decided it might be easier to relive his nightmares out in the bright sunlight. "The porch and coffee sound good to me."
Chris helped him slide off the bed and balance himself with his crutch before going to grab a couple of cups of the coffee he always had brewing when he was home. He went outside, handed one of the cups to Ezra and settled himself in the chair next to him.
He sipped from the steaming mug and looked over at the younger man. Ezra was staring down into his cup, trying to find the words to describe the nightmare that still lingered in his mind.
Chris decided to help him along. "I take it your dream was about the Russian roulette incident?"
Ezra flinched at the mention of Parker's terrifying game that was the subject of most of his nightmares. He nodded and took a shaky sip of his coffee to settle his nerves.
Chris saw the southerner's hands shaking and stood up and walked back in the cabin, reappearing a moment later with his silver flask. He handed it to Ezra, who took it gratefully. He poured a large dose of it in his coffee and after offering some of it to the gunslinger, set it close by on the floor. Then he closed his eyes, took a long draw of the calming brew and hesitantly began describing the dreams that plagued him.
"The... dreams... are mostly the same. Either the Russian roulette episode or my last miserable attempt at escape ending with the... with the whipping." His hand absently rubbed his thigh, feeling the bandages that he still wore hidden beneath his trousers. "With some of Parker's other sadistic games making an occasional appearance, of course."
Ezra began to go into the details of his dreams... slowly at first, but soon the words were practically tumbling over each other as he tried to rid his mind of all the cruel and hateful things Parker had done and said to him. By the time he finally got to the part of his ordeal where he was being threatened with the loss of his sight, the tears were flowing unnoticed down his cheeks. His eyes were staring off at the distant mountains, but Chris could tell he wasn't seeing them.
"By that time, I'm ashamed to say, he had me completely convinced that you weren't coming... that all of you were relieved I was gone. I knew I was goin' to die... any hope I had that you all would show up to save me had been destroyed by Parker's constant reminders of what Randall had said he heard in the saloon. And by his statements as to the flaws in my disreputable character. By then I was convinced I wasn't worth saving... that it was just as well you'd all given up on me." Ezra turned his liquid green gaze on Chris as his voice lowered to an agonized whisper. "Chris, I've never felt so lost and alone in my entire life. Nothing in all my years of keeping people away, of being totally on my own, compared to that feeling of complete and utter desolation that seemed to devour my soul when I finally realized that absolutely no one cared what happened to me. That no one on this earth would miss me when I was gone."
Chris hadn't wanted to touch Ezra in fear of stopping him from finally getting all the pain of his nightmarish ordeal out. But the total despair and loneliness that shone in his eyes and filled his voice was more than the gunslinger could take. He left his chair and knelt before the younger man. After taking the coffee out of his hands and setting it on the floor, he wrapped his arms around the gambler and hugged him tight. "It's not true, Ezra... you were never alone because our hearts and minds were with you constantly." He pulled back slightly so he could look into the gambler's eyes. "I can understand you're believing his words then, with everything you were going through, but you do know now how wrong he was, don't you? We never would have stopped looking because it would have killed us to lose you!"
Ezra stared back at him, his eyes searching Chris', needing desperately to believe that what he said was true.
Chris returned his gaze unflinchingly, willing the gambler to believe him. "You know I've never lied to you, Ezra." Finally Chris saw acceptance at what he'd said appear on the southerner's face and a look of wonder brighten his eyes. "You believe me now? I know how hard it is for you to understand this whole family thing, you haven't exactly had the best examples of it in your life... but just give us a chance and we'll prove to you that you are a part of one now."
Ezra felt a deep sense of relief wash over him at Chris' words. He had wanted to believe that he was truly part of this family, that they really did want him here but his life long insecurities and everything Parker had drilled into his head kept him from really accepting it. He had been afraid they were just doing all they did for him out of a sense of guilt over what had happened.
Chris grasped Ezra's shoulders firmly and gave him a little squeeze. "Okay, have we got all that straight now? You are a part of the family... we do want you here... and we will probably drive you completely crazy with our efforts to prove it to you. Especially Buck and JD."
Ezra sat back in the chair and laughed as he wiped the tears off his cheeks. "They have been a bit over zealous in their attempts to pull me into the fold."
Chris stood to go after more coffee and smiled down at Ezra. "Well, if they get to be too much for you, just tell me and I'll try and rein them in a little."
"Actually, I have to admit that their enthusiasm for having me in the family is quite touching. But if they do begin to overwhelm me with it, I'll definitely let you handle them. I wouldn't have the heart to say anything for fear of hurtin' their feelings."
"Don't worry, I wouldn't let them know you said anything, I'd just distract them with a job or something til they calmed down some. And once they're sure they have you convinced you're a member of the family, they'll ease up on you." Chris patted him on the shoulder and went after the coffee.
When he returned, he had Ezra's deck of cards along with the fresh coffee. He handed the gambler the cup and then held the cards out to him. "Thought you might like to play a few hands of cards while we talk. Strictly for fun... I have no intention of losing what little money I have while you're here."
Ezra stared at the cards for a moment and then hesitantly reached out and took them. He was wondering if anyone had noticed that he hadn't touched them since he'd returned home... apparently Chris had.
"Mind telling me why you haven't asked for them since you've been feeling better?" Chris watched Ezra's face carefully while he moved the table he kept on the porch closer to the gambler. He grabbed his chair and sat down across from him sipping his coffee, waiting for an explanation.
Ezra set his cup down and slowly removed the cards from their box, riffling them stiffly through his fingers. It had been over a month since he'd handled them and he was definitely out of practice. He glanced up at the gunslinger and then quickly back down at the table. "I'm... I'm not really sure."
"Maybe the same reason you prefer staying at the clinic rather than going back to your own room?" Chris saw him flinch and knew he had pegged it right. "You're scared. Nothin' wrong with admitting to that."
"It's not something I even want to admit to myself." Ezra sighed and looked over at Chris. "I'm not even sure why I feel this way."
Chris stared down at the table, thinking, and then looked back up at Ezra. "You having any flashbacks to when they took you from your room? Or to the poker game that started the whole nightmare?"
Ezra nodded reluctantly. "It's been in some of my dreams. And now every time I think about walking down that hall to my room..." he shuddered slightly and had to take a deep breath to calm his racing heart before continuing. "I swear I can still feel Randall's hands on my back, shoving me into my room... still see Parker's face just before he hits me. And the game itself... I keep thinking back over all the other times I've caught someone cheating during a game and I wonder how close I've come over the years to having this same thing happen. And then I start worrying that it'll happen again... how long before the next Parker comes into my life." He set the cards down on the table and scrubbed his face roughly with his hands in an attempt to drive the memories away. "I just don't know if I can shake this fear now. It seems to have such a deep hold on me."
Chris reached over and picked up the cards, shuffling them slowly before dealing them out. "You can't live your life second-guessing yourself, Ezra. Believe me... I know. There's no way you could have known Parker was crazy or that he'd do what he did. Just like there's no way of knowing if it could ever happen to you again. The best you can do is live your life to the fullest and pray it doesn't." He looked up to see Ezra staring intently at him. "But next time, don't assume a threat against you is a bluff. You wouldn't brush off the fact that someone might be bluffing in a card game... don't do it with your life. We all made that mistake this time... but I promise you, it won't ever happen again." He paused and watched as some of the fear seemed to leave the gambler's eyes. With a silent prayer that his words had helped, he picked up his cards and shot a knowing grin across the table at Ezra. "Tell you what... how 'bout a little wager. If you lose this hand, you do the dishes the entire time you're here."
The gambler smiled confidently at him as he picked up his cards. "And if I win?" Ezra glanced down at his hand, frowned and then stared in amusement at the gunslinger. "Been practicing while I was gone, Mr. Larabee?"
Sadly Jean is no longer with us, but we're sure her daughter, Jenn, would love to hear from you if you enjoyed this story.
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