Someone To Watch Over Me
by Luna Dey
Fourth story in the Second Chances series
Spoilers: References to the Love And Honor episode, and liberties have been taken to give more background for Inez. Also, brief references to the Obsession and Chinatown episodes.
Back to: Heat Lightning
Ezra sagged in the saddle and wished fervently that he had decided to stay in Eagle Bend when he realized he was falling ill. His stomach cramped and he fought off a wave of dizziness that threatened to send him plummeting to the ground. It was still several more hours before he would reach Four Corners, and he realized that there was no way he would make it that far. Every step Chaucer took caused his insides to churn. If he could just hang on a little longer, he could stop.
Another mile or so up the road there was a cutoff that led to a small wooded area, which was an ideal stopping place. It offered protection from the blazing heat of the sun, and it had a natural spring, so there was water even in the driest times. Fortunately, the drought had finally broken a couple weeks after that narrow escape from the wildfire, when rain rolled in and lasted for two days with little letup. At least this time he wouldn't have to avoid a campfire.
The gambler wrapped an arm across his stomach and grimaced as another cramp seized him. He honestly didn't think it could feel much worse if someone were trying to pull his entrails out of his body through his belly button. A groan escaped his lips and he fidgeted in the saddle.
"Of course, I would have to be alone. Ohhhh... damn... Ezra you are a complete idiot," he mumbled, trying to distract himself. "Had to happen out here in the middle of nowhere." He patted the broad neck in front of him. "No offence, my friend. I am aware that I have you here with me, but I doubt that you can assist me with what I fear is going to befall me this time."
They reached the cutoff and Ezra sighed in relief. The stand of trees was roughly two hundred yards ahead. A couple minutes later they ducked into the welcoming shade and headed toward the spring. It took him only moments to slip from the saddle and loop the reins over a nearby branch, before he scrambled a short distance from where he would camp, dropped his pants, and let nature take its course.
After the initial urgency was relieved, he forced himself to keep moving long enough to remove Chaucer's saddle and settle him where he could reach both the small pool where the spring water collected and some of the new grass that had sprung up since the rain. He had barely finished when he found himself scrambling again to relieve the pressure in his bowels.
Ezra groaned as he struggled up from sleep. It was starting to get dark and he needed to get a fire started, but he just didn't want to move, he ached so much. The all too familiar pain in his abdomen forced him into motion. He struggled to his knees and staggered as far as he could until he could go no farther. He had taken to leaving the fastenings on his pants open to save time and made quick work of dropping them yet again. It was all he could do to keep from toppling over as dizziness and weakness washed over him.
There had to be some way he could manage that without squatting. He was shaking hard from the effort of staying upright and he was losing strength at an alarming rate. Daylight was fading fast, so he didn't have much time to come up with a plan. He looked around and finally saw something that might help. After grabbing his bedroll, he moved a little deeper into the small woods to a fallen tree. There was one limb that was not quite perpendicular to the trunk of the tree that might be just about right for him to lean against if he was seated on the trunk. There was no doubt in his mind that at this rate he would be getting too weak to do much for himself before much longer.
Water was one thing he had to have. Nathan was always forcing water on anyone sick with the flux or vomiting. He clearly remembered him saying that a person could die if their body lost too much water. After laying the blankets on the log, he managed to make it back to get his canteen and the saddlebags. The canteen was nearly empty. Strange, he didn't remember drinking that much, but he must have since he had filled it from the spring soon after stopping there. Well, Nathan would be pleased with him for that, at least. He refilled the canteen and started back to his fallen log. A wave of light-headedness nearly caused his knees to buckle, but he leaned heavily against a tree for support until it passed.
When he did make it back to where he had left the blankets, he laid the saddlebags next to where he planned to situate himself and hooked the canteen over a branch within easy reach. One of the blankets ended up wrapped around him like a shawl, and the other one would cover his legs if he needed it. There was nothing more that he could do. A fire was out of the question at the moment. It was too dark to see to gather the wood, and he knew he wouldn't be able to keep it going all night. He swayed on his feet and nearly bent double when his stomach clenched again. With a groan he dropped his pants just enough to be clear of his backside, but still far enough up that they would protect the back of his legs from the rough bark. He sat with his posterior extended past the curve of the tree trunk and straddled the branch so he could lean forward against it for support. Situated as he was, he felt like he could even sleep without falling over, and he wouldn't have to try to drag himself up off the ground when he had to answer an urgent call of nature; he could just stay where he was. As humiliating as it would be to be found like that, it would be worse to soil his clothes and then have to lie there in them because he was too weak to get up.
Mary went straight to the saloon after she woke up. She didn't know whether to be concerned or angry that Ezra had stood her up last night; at least she thought he had. He had sent a wire before leaving Eagle Bend telling her that he had found what she had asked him to look for, and that he would give it to her when he got into town, hopefully before suppertime. Since she hadn't asked him to look for anything, she had assumed he was trying to tell her, without fueling more gossip in town, that he wanted to have supper with her. Mealtime had come and gone with no sign of the gambler, and a quick check at the livery when she headed home from the hotel restaurant told her he hadn't made it back to town yet.
She entered the dimly lit barroom and looked around for any of the peacekeepers. The room was empty except for Inez. "Good morning."
Inez looked up at the sound of the greeting and smiled. "Buenos días. Can I get you something?"
"No, thank you. I was just wondering if you have seen Ezra." Mary tried to sound indifferent, but she had a good idea that the pretty Mexican woman knew a lot more about everything that had happened during the past few weeks than she let on. She would undoubtedly realize that it was more than just a casual question.
"No, Señora. I don't believe he has returned yet." At Mary's puzzled expression she continued, "Is something wrong?"
"He should have been back yesterday evening," the blonde answered.
"Well, perhaps he was delayed and had to stay longer," Inez offered.
"No, he sent a wire just before he left yesterday morning. He should have been here before dark." She didn't know what to think, other than that something was wrong. She had gotten to know him well enough in the last few months to know that he wouldn't deliberately leave her wondering like that. If he had had a change in plans and stayed in Eagle Bend, he would have sent another wire, she was sure of that.
Inez shook her head and frowned. "I don't know what has delayed him, but if he comes in, I'll make sure he knows you are looking for him."
"Thank you, I would really appreciate that," Mary said, smiling at the raven-haired woman.
She went back out into the street and looked around, hoping to see one of the men. None of them were around, so she made a quick check at the livery to be sure if Ezra's horse was there or not. The last thing she wanted to do was raise any kind of an alarm if he had gotten in late last night without being seen and was now sleeping up in his room. Not only was Chaucer's stall still empty, but now several of the other horses were gone as well. Mary rushed from the stable, fighting back the fear that was taking hold of her. She was sure now that something was wrong, and she hoped that the others had gone to help Ezra.
Chris looked up from the pile of new Wanted posters he was studying when he heard the door open. Mary Travis stopped abruptly upon seeing him there. She started to turn and leave, but she paused at the sound of his voice.
"Mary, wait!" Larabee rose from behind the desk and took a few steps toward her. "What's wrong?"
He was the last person she wanted to talk to, but right now he was the only one she could find. "I'm looking for Vin or Josiah," she said flatly.
"They aren't here. Josiah and Nathan rode out early for the Seminole village. Vin and JD went out to do some work for Miss Nettie. They'll all be back sometime tonight."
"What about Buck?" she asked hopefully.
"On patrol. Mary, I'm the only one here. If there is something wrong, let me help you." Chris caught and held her gaze.
Her posture slumped slightly as she resigned herself to having to deal with Chris. "Have you heard from Ezra?" she asked stiffly.
Larabee shook his head and looked at her with a frown. "No. Why, should I have?"
"He was supposed to be back last night." Mary glared at the man in black, upset that he seemed unconcerned about the fact that one of his men was missing.
"He probably just decided to stay an extra night. Most likely saw a good prospect for a poker game." Chris leaned back against the corner of the desk and watched her.
She thrust a hand into her pocket and held out the telegraph message to him. "He sent this yesterday morning right before he was supposed to be leaving town."
He read the message and thought about it for a moment. "You sure he was planning to leave right then? It doesn't say so here."
"It says he thought he would be here before supper. You should know that to get here by that time he would have to be starting out early," she said in total exasperation. "Something is wrong," she insisted.
"Mary, I wouldn't worry. I am sure something came up that kept him from getting away when he thought he would. You know, if he had the choice, he would rather stay there in a soft bed than to have to sleep out in the rough," Chris tried to reason with her.
"He would have let me know. I know you probably don't believe that, but I know it," she said adamantly. "I don't care what you do, but I'm going to go look for him."
Chris stared open-mouthed at the door as it slammed shut behind her. In just a few strides he was out the door to try and catch her, but she was already halfway across the street, headed toward her home.
Mary heaved the heavy saddle onto Rosie's back and secured the cinch. She attached the fully stocked saddlebags, making sure to pad the recently healed burn on the mare's haunch so the leather wouldn't rub it. A sound outside the stall caught her attention and she looked to see Chris standing there with Pony. The gelding was saddled and ready to go. "Where do you think you're going?" she snapped.
"I am going with you," he responded firmly.
She whirled around to face him, her blue eyes turning to ice as glared at him. "No, you are not!"
"Yes, I am!" he bellowed back at her, and reached out to take hold of her arm when she started to turn away from him. She yanked her arm loose and hugged her arms across her middle as she shrank away from him. Chris jerked back from her as if he had been slapped. The fear and pain that still haunted Mary's eyes when she looked at him was more devastating than any physical blow he had ever experienced.
She looked away from him and swallowed hard before responding in a strained voice, "I don't want you there. I don't want you near me."
"I know you don't," he said softly, not wanting to upset her any further. "But, I can't let you go alone. There is no way of knowing what you could run into." He sighed and looked at her sadly. "Right now, I'm the only one here to go with you. Do you think Ezra would want you out there alone?"
Mary knew he was right. Ezra would not want her risking herself in any way for him. As much as she hated to admit it, she knew it really wasn't safe for a woman alone out there. Not only that, but she might run into something she couldn't handle on her own. Reluctantly, she looked at the brooding blond and nodded. She really didn't want to talk to him unless there was no other choice.
They led the horses outside before climbing into the saddles and starting out toward Eagle Bend. Mary rode slightly ahead of Chris. He might have to be there, but that didn't mean she had to look at him as she rode.
Usually Larabee was totally content with silence, but that was when it was of his own choosing. It was wearing thin very quickly, and after a couple hours of getting the silent treatment, and eating dust, he rode up beside his traveling companion. She visibly tensed when she caught sight of him out of the corner of her eye.
"Mary, you can avoid talking to me if you want, but this is one time it will be hard for you to avoid listening to me. Please, hear me out." He waited until he saw a slight nod before he continued, "You can hate me if that's what you want. I know I deserve it, but don't be afraid of me. I would never deliberately hurt you." When she looked at him accusingly, he rushed on. "I know I did hurt you, but it wasn't intended for you. I didn't even know you had stepped between us until I saw you just as you fell. I am sorry! But, there isn't enough sorry in the world to make up for the loss you've suffered at my hands. I know how you feel, whether you believe that or not." He swallowed hard, and tried to hold back the tears that threatened to spill, but one escaped to run down his cheek. "I feel that same hatred for Ella Gaines. She took my wife and son from me, and I can never forgive her for that... but there is one difference. What she did was cold-blooded and deliberate, what happened here was an accident."
"You killed my baby," she said, barely louder than a whisper, as she let the tears flow freely and made no effort to hide them. "It doesn't matter that you hadn't planned to hit me. You intended to kill that day; I could see it in your eyes."
"I thought he had taken advantage of you," he offered in way of explanation.
"So, what if he had? You think that would have justified killing him?" she raged. "Do you really think that I would have had anything to do with him at all when we got back to town if he had forced himself on me?" She just couldn't believe that he hadn't even considered that possibility.
"I wasn't thinking; I was just reacting. The thought of him doing that to you, after I had trusted him to keep you safe..."
Mary huffed in indignation. "It wasn't even really about my soiled virtue," she said sharply. "It was about him breaking your trust! You trusted him, and you thought he had made a fool of you."
Chris hung his head in shame. "I didn't think so at the time. I really thought I was defending your honor. It took a lot of talkin' from Josiah before I realized that part of it was that whole broken trust thing." He looked up at her, took a deep breath, and continued, "There was some of both, defending you and getting even with him." He let her think on that for a while before adding, "I guess another part of it was that I just couldn't believe you would choose him over me, so in my mind he had to have forced you."
She sighed deeply and considered his words. "For Billy's sake, I'll accept your apology. Despite how I feel about you right now, I do know you would not hurt him, and he still looks up to you. I don't intend for him to ever find out exactly what took place, but after what has happened, I'll never be able to feel the same way I used to about you."
Ezra had spent a fitful night, dozing between bouts of stomach cramps and chills. He forced himself to drink some water each time he woke, but he had little energy for anything else. When at last it began to get light out, he didn't know whether to be relieved or more worried. His head felt like a giant hand was trying to crush his skull, and the heat of the day would undoubtedly be hard on him.
The canteen was empty again and crossing those hundred feet or so between his tree and the spring seemed impossible, but he had to try. He rummaged weakly through his saddlebag and pulled out his spare shirt, thankful that it was one of his older ones. After fumbling with his pocketknife he finally managed to cut some pieces out of the cloth. He hissed in pain when he touched tender skin when he tried to clean himself off.
It was a struggle to manage to get both legs back on one side of that limb, but on the third try he finally managed. He grabbed the branch and used it to help pull himself to his feet. His legs shook violently from the sudden weight on them, and he felt sure that they were not going to hold him up. With one hand braced to support him, he pulled his pants up and fastened one button to keep them from falling down. Finally, the shaking eased enough that he took a couple tentative steps toward the spring. He reached it by making his way from one tree to another, pausing to cling to each rough trunk for support for a few moments before pushing on to the next one.
Ezra landed hard on his knees next to the small pool and gasped for breath, exhausted from the effort of walking that short distance. He filled the canteen partially, and then tipped it up to drink. He forced himself to drink as much as he could hold, then filled it completely. Before making the trip back to his tree, he felt around in his jacket pocket for a piece of the shirt he had just destroyed and soaked it in the cool spring water.
It was a short crawl to the closest tree, which he used as leverage to get back to his feet. He staggered back to his perch. Getting resituated astride the limb wasn't easy, but he managed to get arranged as he had been earlier, minus the blankets since it was getting quite warm already and the sun hadn't been up for long.
He used the wet cloth to wipe his face and hands before he decided that he had to eat something even if it didn't seem to even pause at his stomach on its way through his body. He hadn't brought much with him, since it was only a day's ride between the two towns. A local woman sold baked goods, and he had bought a couple small round loaves of fresh bread. There were also some jerky strips and the ever-present tin of beans. The gambler eyed the tin suspiciously and decided against it, well aware of the effect beans had on him. He shuddered to think of adding that to his current problems. Finally, he decided on breaking one of the small loaves in half and trying to force that down. He could chew on a strip or two of the jerky later, if the bread stayed down.
It stayed down for him, but it seemed that it hadn't much more than filled his stomach when he doubled over in pain. He groaned and leaned forward against his limb as he resigned himself to a continuation of the flux he had been enduring for nearly a full day.
Mary's heart sank when she heard Chris tell her that Ezra hadn't been seen in the saloon since he left it two nights before. They hadn't seen any sign of him between the two towns. "Someone must have seen him since then," she insisted.
"Let's check the livery. Maybe someone saw him leave." Now he was starting to worry. He had been sure they would either find him still in town, or discover that he had left that morning, and somehow they had managed to miss him along the way.
They quickly made the rounds of all the places where they thought someone might have seen the gambler. The man at the stable hadn't seen him leave. He said Ezra had paid his bill the night before he planned to leave because he wanted to get an early start the next morning. The man at the telegraph office remembered sending the wire and said that the man who sent it seemed anxious to leave. When they left that office, Mary pointed toward the hotel and they headed there next.
Chris nodded to the aging woman behind the counter. "Ma'am," he said in greeting. "We are looking for a friend of ours. His name is Ezra Standish. Did he stay here earlier this week?"
"He sure did. I couldn't ferget that young man... such a gentleman." She smiled back at the handsome blond.
"Could I possibly get you to check your book and see when he left?" He returned the smile and gave her a small wink, causing her to blush.
She flipped back a couple pages and pointed to his name. "Six yesterday morning."
"You're sure of the time?" the gunman asked. It was very out of character for the gambler to get out of bed before mid-morning unless he was forced to, and Chris found it hard to believe that he voluntarily woke up that early.
"Yes, Will and me always write down the time, so we know when the room is empty fer the next one who needs it."
"Thank you, Ma'am." Chris started to lead Mary away from the counter so they could talk more privately.
"I told him he oughtn't to go," the woman continued.
Larabee pulled up short and turned back to face her. "Why?"
"Looked like he was feelin' kinda peaked, all pale and hollow-eyed," she said, concern evident in her voice.
"Chris, we have to go back. He's out there sick and we have to find him." Her eyes pleaded with the peacekeeper to agree.
"We can't. Look out there." He pointed out the small window a few feet away. "We can't find him in the dark."
"No, I can't just leave him out there. He could be dying for all we know." She tried to push past him, but he blocked her way to the door.
"Listen to me!" he said sternly. When she looked up to meet his eyes he continued, "We can't go chasing around out there in the dark. We could pass within a few yards of him and probably never see him. We have to wait until we have light!"
Mary pressed a shaky hand to her mouth and choked back a sob. Chris started to wrap his arms around her to comfort her, but she jerked away from his touch. "Don't!" she snapped. Unwillingly, she turned back to the old woman. "Do you have any rooms for the night?"
Ezra forced gritty eyes open and blinked at the brightness of the sunlight. He raised his head enough to look around, but his strength deserted him, and he laid his cheek back against the rough limb. It was an effort to keep his eyes open. Even breathing seemed to take more energy than he had. He rolled his eyes to look at the canteen that hung on the branch just a few inches away and licked dry, cracked lips. If he could have raised his hand to grasp the tantalizing object, it would have done no good. The last of the water had been consumed around dawn, and there was no possibility of him making it to the spring again. Because he had wanted to avoid soiling his clothes, he was facing the very real possibility that he could very well die there like that.
Ezra chuckled weakly at the thought. Not that he wanted to die. But, how ironic for someone so fastidious in nature to be found perched on a fallen tree with his bare ass hanging out for all to see, having passed from the world because he shit himself to death.
Chris had both horses saddled and ready to go as the first hint of dawn showed in the east. He had done some investigating around the town after he had coaxed Mary into having something to eat. What he found out left him more than a little uneasy for a couple of reasons. The local doctor was tending to several people, most of them travelers, who were desperately ill, all with a sudden onset of the flux. He was baffled as to what caused it, but he suspected it was caused by something they had eaten, since they had all dined at the hotel restaurant the evening before it hit them.
He had seen a couple of those who were afflicted, and the sight haunted him as he thought that maybe Ezra was that sick too. Added to that, he also had to worry about whether Mary or he would be facing the same fate, since they had eaten supper at the same restaurant. The doctor had given him some advice on things that might help if they did find him and he was sick too; Chris had picked up some supplies so they would be prepared, just in case.
The gunslinger glanced at the woman riding beside him and wondered if he should tell her any of that. She was already worried enough and it could just make her even more frantic. So, he decided not to tell her until he found out if there was actually a reason for her to have to know. The doctor had told him that the first ones had come to him around mid-morning, so he felt sure if Ezra had left the road it would be before the halfway point. Now that he knew that, he had an idea where Standish might be.
This was one time that he wished he was as good as Vin at reading signs. He had reached the cutoff he had been thinking of and sat studying the bare trail ahead of him. It looked like someone had traveled that path recently, but he wasn't certain. The hard-packed earth wasn't holding much of an imprint, but he could see what looked like partial horseshoe prints.
He urged Pony on up the path toward the copse that sat back from the road a couple hundred yards. Silently, he hoped that he found the gambler there. At least there was a good water source, and the doctor had stressed that he had to make sure he drank plenty of water.
"Chris? Why are we going this way?" Mary was obviously concerned about leaving the main road.
"There is a spring in those trees back there. We all know about it, so if he was feeling sick, he might have gone in there."
Rosie tossed her head and flicked her ears and her rider had to physically hold back on the reins to keep her from racing toward the small woods. Then Mary heard it too, a horse's neigh. She slacked off on the reins and let Rosie choose her own speed.
Chris kicked Pony into a faster pace to catch up to the other horse and rider, but they slowed as they reached the first of the trees. He caught a glimpse of motion and heard a very agitated whinny. When he moved on ahead he saw a distinctive patch of red. "Wait here," he told Mary, as he slid down to the ground and heard her do the same.
"I'm going too," she insisted.
"Partway, and then you wait until I check things out." He held firm on that and received a reluctant agreement. After looping the gelding's reins over a branch, he headed straight for where he had seen the red spot. He couldn't see anything from that angle.
When he cleared a clump of brush, he froze. Barely ten yards ahead of him, Ezra's limp form lay against a branch on the fallen tree he sat on. There was no sign of life, no movement in response to the sound of Chris's approach, nothing to give the gunslinger any hope that they had found him in time.
Larabee rushed to the gambler's side and felt for a heartbeat against the side of his throat. He let out the breath he hadn't realized he had been holding, when he felt a weak beat. There was no doubt that Ezra had fallen victim to the same ailment as those people back in town. A quick check of the canteen found it empty, and from the look of things it had been empty for a while. Chris dashed to the spring with the empty container and partially filled it; he could finish filling it later.
Shaking the younger man did nothing to rouse him, so Larabee resorted to using pain as a means of reaching into that darkness the gambler now hovered in, waiting to see if he would live or die. He had been there himself on more than one occasion, and he knew how hard it was to drag yourself back to the hell that could be waiting on the living side. The gunman was vaguely aware of noise behind him as he roughly pinched Ezra and was rewarded with a faint groan.
A loud gasp from behind him jerked Chris's attention away from the gambler, and he whipped around to see Mary standing where she had just come around the thicket. He moved quickly to her and placed himself in her line of sight, blocking her view. "Please, go back and wait," he urged.
"Is he...?" She couldn't bring herself to finish the question.
"He's alive, but he wouldn't want you to see him like this."
"See him like what?" She tried to get around him, but he stopped her. "Let go of me!"
"No! Mary he's very sick, and he is in a rather... indelicate situation." He could tell when she realized what he was trying to say; he could see it in her eyes.
"You forget... there isn't an inch of him that I haven't seen or touched." She shoved her way past him and rushed to Ezra's side. The scene in front of her had her rattled, but she forced herself to stay calm. He needed her.
"Ezra... open your eyes... look at me." There was no response and she closed her eyes as she gathered her thoughts.
"Pain, Mary. Sometimes pain is all that gets through." He reached around and forcefully pinched the gambler again, and this time was rewarded with a groan and a slight shake of his head. "Talk to him, give him something to draw him back." He pinched him again, harder that time.
She took his face in her hands and begged him to wake up. "Please... you have to try... Open your eyes!" she shouted at him when he roused slightly after another hard pinch. "Ezra, I need you... please open your eyes."
A pair of green eyes fluttered open, and Mary gently tipped his head so he could see her. He blinked several times and tried unsuccessfully to speak. She took the canteen and held it to his parched lips. The first touch of the water to his lips left him momentarily confused, and then his mind kicked in. He opened his mouth seeking more and was rewarded with a mouthful of the cool spring water.
"Slowly, drink it slowly." Mary desperately wanted to allow him to have all that he wanted, but she knew she didn't dare. He had to let his stomach accept the first offering, before she could let him have more. She waited a couple long agonizing minutes before giving him another mouthful. After repeating that a few times, she started allowing him to have a little more with each swallow.
Ezra tried to reach out to her, but he didn't have the strength. He managed to lift his hand a few inches, only to have to give up and drop it back to his lap. Gently, she lifted his hand to her face and leaned her cheek into his palm, helping him to cradle her face as he had done in the past.
"Mary." His voice rasped in his throat.
"Shhhh... Don't try to talk. I'm here," she said softly.
He nodded slightly and sighed deeply as Mary leaned closer and kissed him lightly. His breathing evened out as he drifted off to sleep.
Chris motioned to Mary to move away where they could talk without Ezra hearing them if he wasn't fully asleep. "We need Nathan. I want you to head out for town now and you can get there before dark. You'll have to wait for daylight to bring a wagon."
"I'm not leaving." Her tone was eerily controlled.
"You have to. He needs Nathan."
"Then you go. I am not leaving."
"You can't handle him by yourself, and I can't leave you here. Besides, the doctor in Eagle Bend told me some things to do for him." Larabee hoped that would persuade her to go.
"You knew what was wrong, and you didn't tell me?" she fumed.
"I knew it was a possibility. Several other people were sick like this, but there was no way to know if Ezra was too until we found him." He saw her grit her teeth and close her eyes tightly as she struggled to keep from screaming at him.
"You should have told me," she hissed through clenched teeth. She locked eyes with him and demanded, "What's wrong with him?"
"Doc thinks it was from something they ate."
"All of them? How could they all eat the same thing?"
"At the hotel restaurant. They all ate there the night before they got sick." He waited to see if she would realize what his other concern was.
Mary's eyes grew wide as the implication struck home. "We ate there." She glanced back over at Ezra and turned pale.
He nodded. "That is another reason I didn't tell you. I thought you had enough to worry about right then."
"There is no way either of us dares to leave here until we know we aren't going to get sick too. How long did it take for it to hit the others?" She said a silent prayer that neither of them succumbed to the sickness. Without their help, Ezra would surely die.
"He said he started treating people a little before lunchtime, and most of them were there before midnight. A couple made it in a little later, but they had tried to take care of it on their own, and went to him only when they realized they were getting worse not better." Chris grimaced at the thought. "You're right. Either, or both of us could still get sick. But, if we both do, and we are all still here, we might not get help in time. One of us needs to try to make it to town."
Mary sighed. "You go. If it hits me, I don't know if I could keep riding. Just help me move him before you go. I want us both close to the water, so I can reach it, and him, even if I get sick."
"I'll do what I can to clean him up a little before I move him. You set things up where you want them." He still didn't like the idea of leaving her there on her own to take care of the gambler, but she had made a good point. Of the two of them, he would be the most likely to be able to keep going if worse came to worse.
Mary set about fixing their bedrolls next to the spring along with the saddlebags. She turned to Chris when he carried some of the cloth from Ezra's destroyed shirt over to soak it in the water. "I need you to tell me what the doctor said to do."
"Let me get him settled and then I'll show you." He went back to the task he had set for himself, that of washing the mess off the younger man as well as he could under those conditions. It was not all that easy since it had been exposed to the air and had dried to his skin. The worst was fighting away the flies that swarmed around the ground below him, and around his exposed backside.
The shock of the cold wet cloth jolted Ezra awake and had him hissing in pain. "Easy," Chris tried to calm the startled man. "Don't mean to hurt you; just want to get you settled somewhere more comfortable. You'll feel better when I get you cleaned up some."
The gambler groaned. "Just shoot me now. It is preferable to death by humiliation." His voice was very weak, but his sarcastic comment was music to the gunman's ears.
Darkness surrounded him with its welcoming embrace. There was no thirst, no body that was too weak to move, and best of all no pain. Ezra floated in the sea of black, not sure of where he was, but he was glad to be away from the discomforts of the last two days.
Pain! Where the hell did the pain come from? He just wanted it to go away and leave him in the comfort of the darkness. Slowly, he drifted back down away from the sensation. PAIN! He groaned and tried to move away from it. A faint voice seeped into the void with him, and he listened, straining to hear it again. The voice was familiar, but going to it would mean returning to his ravaged body. She called to him again, and this time he didn't hesitate to follow her back into the light.
He struggled to open his eyes and then blinked several times to try to focus in the sudden brightness. The first thing he saw was a pair of beautiful blue eyes, filled with worry and fixed on his. Cool water touched his lips, but his mind was sluggish and it took a moment for him to remember what it was. Then he opened his mouth and felt that first sweet moisture slide down his throat. He wanted more, but she kept telling him to drink it slowly. Finally, he was given another swallow, and then another. Soft hands held him as he drank; whose hands? "Mary..."
Sleep claimed him away from her, but he knew she was there and he rested easier. His next conscious thought was again centered on pain, but in a different area. He realized that someone was trying to wash him and that tortured part of his body screamed in agony. He felt certain that if it were possible to die from total humiliation then he certainly would not be long for the world.
Mary checked the pan she had on the fire and stirred its contents. It was finally ready, so she put some of the sticky rice onto a plate and blew on it to cool it enough that it wouldn't burn Ezra's mouth.
She set the dish down long enough to wake him. "Hey..." she gave him a gentle shake. "I need you to wake up." Green eyes opened sluggishly and then drooped shut again. "Ezra, I have something for you to eat."
The gambler groaned. "No, please."
"The doctor in Eagle Bend says this might help slow down the runs," she said casually, as if it was a topic she discussed every day. "Come on, let me help you turn over and you can lean on the saddlebags," she coaxed.
"No. It hurts when I lay on my back," he complained.
"All right, then just stay like you are, but you have to eat this." She sat on the ground beside him and held the plate on her lap. The first spoonful was met with some resistance when he refused to open his mouth. "Ezra, please."
Reluctantly, his lips parted and she managed to spoon the rice awkwardly into his mouth. He wrinkled his nose and scrunched up his mouth when the bland sticky substance registered on his taste buds.
Mary couldn't help but snicker quietly at his obvious dissatisfaction with the rice. "Just swallow it if you can't stand to chew it a little." She watched while he forced that mouthful down, and then spooned up another before he could balk again. He grimaced again and worked hard to swallow it.
He hurried to speak up before she could shove another spoonful into his mouth. "Did you taste this?"
"No. It is just rice. How bad can it be?" The look on his face said volumes. Tentatively, she took a taste and wrinkled her nose. "That is pretty bad. Hold on, I think I can make it a little better." A quick trip back to the saddlebag of supplies near the fire produced some salt. She sprinkled some over the gooey mass on the plate, gave it a stir and tasted it again. It was better... not great, but at least tolerable. She couldn't remember tasting anything that bland before. "Here, this is a little better. It might not be fine dining, but you need to eat it, whether you like how it tastes or not."
Ezra resigned himself to forcing down the unpalatable fare. The serving of rice wasn't really that big, but by the time he had eaten it all he was exhausted. He closed his eyes and prayed that what he had eaten stayed in his body, and didn't make a dramatic exit in one way or another.
He lay there on his side with his knees drawn up to keep the cramping at bay, if possible. It was somewhat surprising that the rice had stayed down since his stomach was bound to be completely empty.
Something started nagging at his thoughts, but it took him a few minutes to place what it was. "Where's Chris?" he asked.
"He went after Nathan and a wagon," Mary answered after a slight hesitation.
"He shouldn't have left you alone here," he fretted.
She still sat beside him, gently rubbing his arm. "One of us had to get help. There is a chance we could get sick too, and if we were all here..."
The gambler nodded his understanding, even before she finished the explanation. It was true. If they were at risk, someone had to let the others know where to look. "I see." He paused and drew a deep breath. "So, what I have could be passed on to you?"
"Probably not. The doctor doesn't know for sure, but he thinks it was from something you ate. Others got sick too," she said honestly. "Everyone who got sick had eaten at the hotel restaurant the night before. Chris and I ate there last night," she added.
"Oh no... " He shook his head, not wanting to even consider the possibility that his rescuers might end up going through what he was.
Mary moved around until she was where he could rest his head on her lap and use it for a pillow. She ran her fingers lightly through his hair. "We'll be all right. If we make it to midnight without getting sick, then we probably won't get it. It is getting close to dark now, and I am still feeling fine."
Ezra sighed in relief. Not much longer to wait to see if she stayed well. Her fingers felt so good stroking through his hair. It was such a comforting sensation. His eyes drifted shut, and he relaxed in sleep.
Chris frowned in worry as he urged his horse to go just a little faster. Ezra was really in bad shape, and he hoped Mary could handle the situation. He knew she was a strong woman in many ways, but it was her physical strength that had him concerned at the moment. Ezra wasn't a large man, but he was still heavy. As weak as he was it was doubtful that he could be much help to Mary if she needed to move him, and she almost certainly would need to.
Larabee slowed Pony to a walk to give the animal some rest, without actually stopping. It would take another hour or more to reach the town, and he couldn't push the horse so hard for that whole time. He forced himself to be patient and tried to think of other things than the two people he had left behind in the small woods. His thoughts were rudely interrupted by an ominous gurgle in his stomach.
"No, not now," he grumbled to himself.
Mary woke from the light doze she had slipped into when she felt Ezra trying to get up. "Hang on and I'll help you." She got quickly to her feet and reached down to help him to stand. No matter how she tried she just couldn't pull him to his feet.
He impatiently waved her hands away and struggled to his knees, then reached up for her. "Let me hold on to you," he instructed. She moved closer and he grabbed her waist to try to pull himself up. That time when she got hold of him under his arms, their combined efforts succeeded in bringing him to his feet.
Mary slipped in beside him and wrapped her arms around him to steady him when he swayed on his feet and nearly went down again. "Just stand here a minute until you get your balance," she suggested.
"I don't have a minute!" he snapped.
"All right, but lean on me. Where do you want to go?" She ignored his harsh tone, knowing that he was in severe discomfort. "Let me just get you a little ways away from where we are sleeping."
"No! I have to sit. I can't... I can't squat down on my own..." He grimaced in pain and then continued, "...and you can't hold me up."
"Then where? Back to the tree? I can hold you up if you are sitting there." She started moving him in that direction as quickly as she dared with him so shaky and weak. They paused when a really bad cramp hit him, and he clutched his stomach in pain.
Mary held him as tightly as she could, and he leaned heavily on her as they started moving again. When they got there he tried to open the fastenings on his pants, but he couldn't manage it with one hand, and he knew he would fall if he let go of her to use both.
"Help me, please!"
"Hold on to me," she slipped in front of him and had him lean against her so she could use both hands to work at the fastenings. In one swift motion she pushed down his pants and underwear, then held onto him as he lowered himself to sit on the fallen tree and scooted back.
He moaned loudly, both from relief and pain, when he was finally able to just let it go. By that time he was shaking violently from his exertions, and he had broken out in a cold sweat. Mary still held onto his shoulders to steady him, and he leaned forward slightly to rest his head against her. A soft whimpering sound escaped him, when yet another spasm struck.
She stepped a half-step closer so she could let him lean more fully against her, and cradled the back of his head with one hand, while she rubbed his back lightly with the other. "It's okay," she soothed. "You'll be okay. I'm right here."
He drew a shuddering breath and then let it out in a heavy sigh. "That's part of the problem. It is so humiliating to have this happen in front of you."
Mary looked down at his bowed head. He wouldn't even try to look at her. There was very little light left to see by, but even knowing that he still looked away from her. "Ezra, you have no reason to feel humiliated. It isn't like this is something you have any control over. You're sick, and you have to give in to what your body needs." She slid a hand under his chin and tipped his face up toward her. "If things were turned around and I was the one who was sick, you would be helping me, right?"
"Would you be disgusted or end up thinking any less of me because of it?"
"No! I would do anything you needed," he answered, and he meant it.
"Then don't go getting it in your head that I am in any way disgusted with you, or that I think any less of you because you're sick. You have no reason to be humiliated. I seem to remember someone who showed up and waited in a chair in my room for several mornings because you knew I would be sick when I woke up. You sat there next to me and held my hair out of the way while you held the bucket for me." She looked directly into his eyes in the faint light. "You were there for me when I was hurt, too. Every day you were there, but no matter how disagreeable something was, you stayed. Now, I'm going to be here for you. Got it?"
"Got it," he replied.
"Good! You ready for me to help you back to the blankets?" She rubbed his back again as she spoke.
"Not yet." He sighed. "It's still very embarrassing," he added.
Mary smiled warmly at him. "You can be embarrassed, just no more being humiliated. I'm sure I would be embarrassed too." She wrapped her arms around his shoulders and held him until he felt it was safe to go lie back down. She had tucked some scraps of that torn up shirt in the pocket of the trousers she wore for riding, and she offered one to him. "Can you do this, or do you need me to help?"
Ezra took the offered cloth and managed to clean himself, before he let Mary help him with his clothes. He leaned so heavily against her as they made their way back to their bedrolls that more than once Mary thought they would both end up in a heap on the ground. By the time she got him settled again, her own muscles quivered from the strain.
The gambler lay there panting for breath as he recovered from the ordeal. "Could I trouble you for some water?" he asked.
Mary had the canteen filled and ready for him. She held it to his lips and he drank greedily. She knew that his body craved water and would for some time to come, so she let him drink as much as he wanted.
"I don't believe I will ever be rid of this thirst," he said sadly.
"You will, but it will take some time. Now, you aren't going to want to hear this, but you need to eat some more of that rice." The small fire gave just enough light for her to see him grimace. "I know you don't want it, but look at how much better you are already. You couldn't even raise your own head when we found you, so you are improving. "
"Unfortunately it hasn't improved the one thing it was meant to," he complained.
"Give it time. You've eaten it only once." She dipped some onto a plate and noticed that it was even stickier than before. "Ezra, I know this is going to be pretty bad, but if you'll eat some of this, I'll make some fresh and try to do something to make it taste better."
"You wouldn't do that if I refused to eat this?" he asked, with a hint of his old impishness.
"I always tell Billy, 'if you don't eat what I fix for you now, I'll save it for you to have for your next meal.'" She kept her tone stern, but if he really refused she would make him a new batch. It did look pretty unappealing.
"You are a cruel, heartless woman," he said and obediently opened his mouth to accept the spoonful of mushy rice.
"Uuugghh... cruel and heartless isn't severe enough."
"Call me all the names you want to, but you still have to eat some of this."
Chris climbed back in the saddle and kicked the horse into motion. He was nearly home, but he had already had to make two stops to answer nature's call. He just hoped he could get the rest of the way without having to stop again.
It was already starting to grow dark when the gunman rode into town. He headed straight for Nathan's, but detoured out back before going up the stairs.
Nathan opened the door and looked out to see who was coming up the steps. "You find Ezra?" he asked, when he realized it was Chris.
"Yeah, and he's really in a bad way. You'll need to take a wagon to go back and get him. He is in no condition to ride."
"What happened? Come on in and I'll get what I need so we can get started back." The healer headed back inside and began gathering bandages and other supplies.
"Don't think you'll need those. He's got what the doctor in Eagle Bend called the flux. Thinks it was from bad food he got at the hotel restaurant. He had several people there with it. The woman who worked at the hotel said Ezra looked sick when he left."
"Damn! How long ago was that?" He started gathering more supplies and some extra blankets. "Did he have water?"
"Yeah, but he ran out, and he was too bad off to try to get more. He left the town Wednesday morning, early. So, he's been like this for three days and two nights so far. When we first found him, I thought he was dead, but we finally got him to come around and started getting some water into him. We got him settled and Mary stayed with him." Chris filled the healer in on all the details he had while he watched him packing saddlebags.
"Okay, I got what I need. Come on, let's go," Nathan said impatiently.
"You really plan to try to go after them in the dark?" Chris was surprised by the dark man's actions.
"We'll have a bright moon, and if he ain't far from the road, we can find him. Come on!" he urged.
"I can't go," Chris admitted. "I think I got it too. I had to stop twice in the last hour and thought I wouldn't make it to the outhouse in time when I got here." Chris's point was made for him when his stomach gurgled loudly.
"I'll get Vin to stay and help ya 'til I can get back. Josiah can come with me to help with Ezra. Where can we find him?"
"They are in that little woods with the spring a little over halfway to Eagle Bend," he informed the healer.
Nathan nodded, indicating he knew where to find the place. "I want ya to stay here. I'll tell Vin what to do fer ya, and I want ya here, so I don't have to run all over to take care of the two of ya when we get back." His tone said that he would accept no arguments.
Josiah flicked the reins to keep the horses moving. It had been slow going because of the darkness, but the full moon was at least making travel possible. "You think he's that bad?" the preacher asked.
"A body can't go too long with the flux, without gettin' plenty of water. It just dries the body out so bad ya can die from it. The way Chris described Ezra he was damned near dead when they found him."
They grew quiet for a few minutes, concentrating on the road ahead of them. "Chris has the same thing? You sure it isn't something catching?"
"Don't sound like it's catchin', and I ain't sure he's got what Ezra's got. I've seen people sick with the flux, and he didn't have the right look about him," Nathan explained.
"Then what else could it be? Don't make a lot of sense that they would both have the same problem and not have the same ailment." Josiah flicked the reins again when the horses started to slow down to barely a steady walk.
"Not rightly sure why, but sometimes when someone gets really worried or worked up over somethin', it messes up things in their body. But, it could still be the same thing because they ate in that same restaurant that Ezra did. Might just be that Chris won't get it so bad, or that it is too soon for it to be hittin' him full force yet." The concern for both of his friends was evident as he spoke.
"Between it being dark and hauling this wagon it is going to take a good part of the night. Why don't you crawl into the back and see if you can get a little sleep," Josiah suggested. "From the sound of it, you'll have your hands full when you get there."
"Not sure if I can sleep with all the jostlin', but I reckon I probably should try. If ya get too tired, be sure ya let me know, and I'll take over fer a while." The healer climbed over the seat and into the back of the wagon. He rolled up in one blanket and used the others as a pillow. It took a little while for him to fall asleep, but the preacher knew he had when he heard the sound of soft snores.
Ezra landed heavily on his bedroll after another trip to what they had jokingly started calling the privy tree. He groaned as he settled himself, and he noticed Mary stood close by in case he needed her. A glance up in the dim glow of the campfire showed her standing there with the canteen in her hands, and he reached up for it. "Thank you." He let his fingers lightly caress the back of her hand as he accepted the water, and managed to hold the canteen on his own that time. After several deep swallows, he handed it back to her. "Is there more of that last batch of rice?" he asked, sounding almost hopeful.
"You are asking for more? You sure you haven't suddenly become delirious?" she teased while she moved to get the plate.
"As indelicate as it may sound, I do believe it is finally helping."
"You have gotten a little stronger," she agreed.
"Yes, well... uh... it has finally helped somewhat in other ways too." He could just make out the questioning look she gave him when she added a couple new chunks of wood to the fire. He cleared his throat and forged ahead. "Shall we say that things are coming out a little less fluidly." The gambler was glad that it was too dark for her to see him blushing.
"Really?" She saw him nod yes, and grinned. "That is really good to hear. More rice coming right up."
"I had never heard of eating rice for such an ailment," he commented while waiting for Mary to bring the plate to him.
"Neither had I, but the doctor in Eagle Bend told Chris that it should help at least slow things down some." She sat down beside him fed him the first bite.
"I can most likely manage to feed myself now," he informed her.
"Probably, but I intend to be sure you save all the strength you can. Besides, I don't mind doing it." She scooped up another bite and had it ready for him when he opened his mouth.
"I wonder why it helps. For that matter, I wonder how he knew it would help?" the gambler pondered aloud, after he swallowed that mouthful.
"Chris said the doctor told him he learned it from an old China-man. He didn't put much faith in it, but one time when he had some people who were really bad off he decided to give it a try. He said it helped, and now he makes sure he has some on hand to make if it is needed." She had fed him a couple more bites while she talked and had noticed the fleeting look of sadness at the memories caused by the mention of the China-man. He really had cared for that China-girl... Li... 'What was her last name?' Mary thought.
"I am sure this will be of interest to our own Mr. Jackson," he commented. "I am curious about something."
"What's that?" She paused before feeding him another bite.
"What did you use to make it taste better? Although, it would not be high on my list of preferences, it is a considerable improvement over the first that you made," he said, his voice shaking. He accepted the last bite, while he waited for her to answer.
She laughed softly and grinned at him. "I didn't have much to use, but I tried boiling a few pieces of your jerky in the water for a few minutes before putting the rice in. It made sort of a weak broth."
"Very resourceful," he commented. "It did make it somewhat more palatable." The gambler found himself stifling a yawn, and then sighed deeply. "I feel like a three week old kitten could take me with one paw tied behind its back."
Mary gently rubbed his arm and saw his eyes flutter open at her touch. "I'm sorry, I didn't mean to keep you awake," she apologized.
"You didn't." He looked at her with concern. Even in the dim firelight he could see the dark circles forming under her eyes, and he could tell that she was exhausted. He patted the blanket next to him. "Why don't you get some rest?"
"I will, only if you promise to wake me if you need to get up. No trying to manage on your own yet," she stated firmly.
"I promise. Now, lie down here with me and get some sleep." He wrapped his arm over her and pulled her snuggly against him, laying spoon fashion, when she stretched out beside him. The last thing he remembered as he drifted off to sleep was Mary flipping the blanket over them and the feel of the warm soft body he hugged against him.
Nathan jolted awake when the wagon turned off the main road and bounced up the trail that led to the wooded area. He yawned and rubbed his eyes, then looked around trying to figure out where they were. "Josiah, why didn't ya wake me up so ya could get some sleep?" the healer asked accusingly.
"You said to wake you up if I got too sleepy, and I didn't. Besides, I can get a little sleep while you take care of Ezra, if you don't need my help right away. But, you need to be awake and alert." The big man watched his friend as he climbed back up over the seat to settle in beside him.
"As soon as we get there and see how he is, I want you to try to sleep. I'll probably have to ride with him in the wagon, so I won't likely get to help ya up front on the way back."
"You'll get no argument from me on that. I wouldn't look forward to several hours for the trip back with no sleep at all." Sanchez took a deep breath and released it slowly as he fought to stay awake. He finally succumbed to a huge yawn and shook his head to try to shake off the sleep that was trying to claim him.
"Thought you said you didn't get too sleepy?" Nathan asked.
"I wasn't until I realized we were almost there," Josiah admitted. He pulled the horses to a halt up close to the tree line where it would be shaded from the morning sun. "Think once I see how Ezra is, I'll stretch out in the wagon where it will be quieter."
The two men climbed down, gathered up the supplies, and carefully made their way through the trees, working their way toward the faint glow of a small campfire. The fire had burned down low and didn't cast much in the way of light, but it was enough to guide them, and enough so they could see the two figures curled up together.
Nathan put a finger to his lips to keep the older man quiet. He didn't want to wake them yet. After setting his burden down close by, he surveyed the scene. Mary had made rice for the gambler, like the doctor had said to do. His healer's mind was anxious to see if it really did any good, but right then he was concerned about Ezra's condition. He looked him over with a practiced eye and was relieved to see him breathing regularly.
Jackson felt like he was invading their privacy, standing there watching the two of them as they slept together. It was doubtful that they had expected anyone back so soon, or they most likely wouldn't have been caught in such a position.
Josiah added some more wood to the fire to give Nathan more light to work by. He moved up close and whispered to the younger man. "What do you think? They both look like they have been to hell and back to me."
There was no doubt that Ezra was extremely ill, but that at least he wasn't knocking on death's door any longer. He wasn't sure about Mary, but he felt like she wasn't sick, simply worn out from caring for someone so ill. "Yeah, I would say they have. Why don't ya go get some sleep, and I'll wait here for 'em to wake up? Sleep is one of the best things for him right now, and I don't want to wake either of 'em. I'll just sit over here," he pointed to a large flat rock, "and keep watch."
The preacher yawned again and nodded. "Think I'll do just that. Can you spare one of the blankets?"
"I left one in the wagon fer ya," Nathan informed him.
"Thank you... you be sure to yell if you need help." Josiah eased away from the campsite and made his way back through the black shadows of the trees. He wasted no time in climbing into the bed of the wagon and settling himself for sleep. One arm served as a pillow when he lay on his side and pulled the blanket over him. Even the hard, rough boards did not deter his quest for sleep.
Mary woke to the smell of coffee. How could she smell coffee? Ezra was still curled up against her back, and he wasn't well enough to be up on his own yet anyway. She pried gritty eyes open and looked out across the fire to see Nathan sitting there sipping on a cup of the strong brew.
The healer looked up to see a pair of pale blue eyes fixed intently on him, as if unsure that what they were seeing was real. "Good mornin'," he said softly.
She smiled at the sound of his voice, relief washing through her as she realized that help had arrived. "You are a sight for tired eyes," she replied quietly.
"How 'bout some coffee?" He poured her a cup and brought it to her. "How's he doin'?"
Mary raised up on one elbow and accepted the cup. "Better, but still really bad." She looked up at the healer, worry written clearly on her face. "I was so afraid he was going to die and there wouldn't be anything I could do to stop it."
Nathan nodded and squatted down beside her so they could talk more softly. "I know just how ya felt. I felt that way lots of times myself. I see ya been tryin' that doctor's remedy. Has it done any good?"
"Yeah, it has," she said; somewhat surprised that it had actually helped.
"You two do know it is rude to speak of someone as if he wasn't actually there, don't you?" Ezra grumbled.
"Well, if I had any doubts, I don't now. You'll live," Jackson said with a grin.
"You couldn't have convinced me of that yesterday," the gambler muttered. "I would have even wagered against myself." He groaned and hugged his stomach. "Will this never stop?"
Mary jumped up and reached out to help him up. The trip to the privy tree had turned into a well-choreographed routine after so many trips since they found him the day before. She could tell that little by little he was getting stronger, but he was still far too weak to manage on his own. His recovery was also slowed by the fact that they couldn't completely stop his affliction. Once at the tree, she let him lean on her while she took care of getting his pants down and getting him settled.
Nathan watched the two from his place next to their bedrolls. The gambler was usually the most uncooperative of all of them when he was sick or hurt, and this situation would have had him in a particularly foul temper under other circumstances. But, here with her, it was a different story. He would have fought all of them if any of them had tried to help him in the way Mary was. Eventually he would have had to accept the help, but only when he realized that he had no other choice.
When they made it back to the blankets, Nathan helped her get him settled again before starting to ask questions. "How are things going?" he asked, trying to be as delicate as possible in front of Mary.
"If by that you mean, how am I going, the answer is still profusely, but not as often." Ezra watched Jackson's reaction to his coarseness.
"Yes, well... that is what I meant, and since ya are bein' so generous with information, I want to know what effect that rice has had." As badly as he felt for the gambler being so sick, he was still glad to find out about something that might help in the future.
The gambler blushed slightly and glanced at Mary. "Ummm...well..." he hesitated.
Mary smiled at his discomfort. "I'll tell him if you don't want to," she teased.
"You most certainly will not!" Ezra quickly turned back to face the healer. "If you really must know, it happens less often now and it is more solid; not like it should be but better."
"That's good to know," Nathan said thoughtfully. "I'll be sure to keep some of that on hand, just in case. Never thought of somethin' like that bein' good for the flux. Wonder what they would use on a baby?"
"Chris might know," Mary offered. "He was the one who talked to the doctor."
"I'll be sure to ask him when we get back." The healer looked at the gambler appraisingly. "Ya think you'll be able to travel in the back of the wagon after lunch?"
"Mr. Jackson, I would endure the fires of hell to get back to civilization."
Nathan grinned at the comment. "Sounds like yer feelin' enough better to get yer mouth workin'. I'd say that it's time to haul yer sorry butt back to town."
"Oh, Mr. Jackson, you have no idea how sorry it is right now," Ezra said with a dramatic sigh.
It was after dark when the wagon rolled into town. The constant jostling had Ezra needing to make more frequent stops the longer they had traveled. He was so exhausted that he had actually fallen asleep on the hard boards of the wagon, even with all the bouncing and bumping of the wagon over the bumpy, hard-packed road.
They stopped as close to the base of the stairs to Nathan's clinic as possible and woke the gambler to move him inside. Josiah bent to lift the gambler to carry him up the steps, but he stopped short when he saw the look in the younger man's eyes.
"Mr. Sanchez, I appreciate your kind intentions; however, I would prefer to walk." The southerner eased himself forward so he could get his legs over the back edge of the wagon-bed and started to push himself upright. His knees buckled before he had made it halfway up. He landed heavily against the rough boards and groaned as pain shot through his backside at the harsh treatment of such a tender part of his anatomy.
"Ezra, let me help you," Josiah offered. "Maybe if you lean on me you can manage the steps."
"Thank you, Josiah. It appears that I do need some assistance." He allowed the larger man to slip an arm under his and then wrap it around his back. The preacher easily pulled him to his feet and allowed him a moment to steady himself before they started up the long flight of steps.
Halfway up, Ezra started to sag as his legs once again gave out on him. His sad green eyes caught Josiah's and the older man saw the call for help in their depths, and he knew that Standish was too stubborn to admit that he needed more help. "Brother, I know you want to do this on your own, but I really don't want to take a tumble back down these steps. Like it or not, you're getting a lift." He easily picked the smaller man up and carried him up the last of the stairs. When he saw the look of gratitude in Ezra's eyes, he knew he had made the right decision. Standish would accept the help if it would reduce the chance of Josiah getting hurt, but he wouldn't ask for it for himself.
Nathan already had the door open and stood back to let the others go in before him. Ezra was settled onto a cot under the healer's watchful eyes. Mary stood over out of the way while they got him settled.
"How is he?" Chris asked from the other cot.
"I will survive," Ezra answered on his own behalf.
Chris leaned up on one elbow and looked around Nathan to where the gambler lay on the other cot. "You sound a mite stronger than when I left you."
"The two of ya can catch up in a while." Nathan stopped the two men before they could continue the conversation. "What I want to know is, how are you doin'?" he looked at Chris and asked.
"I think it's all over for me," the blonde answered. "Haven't had to run out back since this morning."
"And yer still here?" The healer studied the gunman with a critical eye, looking for anything that would say the man wasn't telling the truth.
"I didn't want you to worry about where I was. You have enough on your hands with Ezra being so bad off," Larabee explained.
Nathan smiled at him. He knew there was more to it than that. Chris had been genuinely worried about the gambler, but he wouldn't come right out and admit to the bond that had formed between the two of them. It had been a rocky road to friendship from day one, and Chris's role in the loss of Mary and Ezra's baby had nearly destroyed the bond completely. But, the two men had worked through that and become even closer than before. "I appreciate that," the healer said, while thinking that it was more likely that he wanted to be there to see if Ezra was going to be all right.
"Put him in my room," Mary instructed.
Two sets of eyes stared at her in surprise, but it was Ezra who broke the silence. "Mary, your reputation is already in jeopardy if someone discovers that I am here at all."
"I can stay in Billy's room. He won't be back for several days yet. I sent a wire and the judge is gong to bring him back on the stage next week." She left the men as they made their way slowly up the stairs, with Ezra leaning heavily against the healer. Just before she ducked into her room to get things ready for her guest she added. "Besides, my bed is softer and it is airier in my room. You have been through enough, and I want you to be comfortable."
Nathan grinned at the obvious deception, not believing for a minute that that arrangement would last through the first night. "Don't think I'd be arguin' with the lady if I was you, Ezra. Ya ain't got the strength to win the fight yet."
"I have no intentions of depriving her of her bed," Standish insisted.
Nathan leaned closer and whispered conspiratorially. "Don't think ya will be if my guess is right."
"Mr. Jackson, I assure you..."
"Ezra, I saw the way you two were curled up together when we found ya. I sat there for a good couple of hours before either of you woke up. It's all right, I won't tell no one," the healer reassured him, as he allowed him to catch his breath at the top of the stairs.
"Why would you accept that now? It wasn't that long ago that you threw me around my own room for touching her." The gambler was confused by the change in Nathan's attitude.
"I thought you had done her wrong back then. I know better now. What happens between ya is yer business, and I'll not condemn ya for it," he replied.
"Thank you, Mr. Jackson." The gambler leaned heavily against the healer while they waited at the top of the steps for him to rest a few moments.
"I know how ya feel 'bout her. I heard the things ya said to her when she was hurt. She has feelin's fer you too, even if she won't admit it yet." He urged the smaller man through the open door into Mary's room.
When they got into the room, Mary already had the lamp lit and the bed turned down. "Here, let me help," she offered when she saw Ezra struggling to get his boots off. She tugged them both off, followed by his socks. She wondered why he had bothered with them just to walk from the clinic to there.
"Thank you." His eyes expressed his gratitude. He was still as weak as a kitten but too stubborn to ask for help.
"You only need to ask if you need help with something. You know that," she admonished. She glanced up at Nathan and sighed heavily, knowing that he knew the gambler's stubborn streak on a first name basis. "Thank you, Nathan. I can get him settled now."
"Ya sure?" the healer asked. "I don't mind stayin' to help."
"Yes. I'll just get him settled in and then we'll both get some sleep. I'll see you out so I can lock up." Mary followed him, but turned back to the man sitting on her bed before going on down the steps. "I will be right back. You stay put and wait for me to help you." She didn't give him time to answer before she followed Nathan down the stairs and let him out the back door.
"You sure about this, Mary? I'd sure hate fer someone to find out he's here and start spreading rumors about ya," he commented.
"I know what could happen, but he was there for me when I really needed him. I won't turn my back on him now. Besides, I think people are already talking, so let them." She sighed heavily and lifted sad eyes to meet his gaze. "I feel so horrible that I used to be one of the first ones to think the worst of people."
"I know what ya mean. I've done it too; 'specially where Ezra's concerned. Reckon folks like us can change, 'specially if he can change his ways." He tipped his head to indicate he meant the man inside and gave Mary a wink.
"He has changed, hasn't he?"
"He sure has," Jackson agreed. "Night, Mrs. Travis. Ya be sure to send fer me if ya need me. I'll check on him tomorrow, but not too early. I know how he likes to sleep late."
"Good night, Nathan. Thank you so much for your help." She watched as he started walking away and then closed and latched the door.
A couple minutes later found her standing in her bedroom door, hands on her hips, with a glare on her face that would have made Larabee proud. "Just what do you think you're doing?"
Ezra was standing and holding onto the bedpost, while he tried to untangle his feet from his pant legs. He jumped at the sharp tone of her voice and started to totter off balance.
Mary rushed forward and managed to push him in the direction of the bed just as he started to fall. He landed heavily on the bed with a grunt as the air was knocked out of him. "Why didn't you wait?" she asked, and helped him turn over and sit up.
"I have been dressing and undressing myself since the age of three. I see no reason to cease doing so now," he grumbled.
Mary sat down beside him and took his hand. When he turned to look at her, she smiled and then shook her head in frustration. "Ezra, what am I going to do with you? How can I get you to realize that it's okay to ask for help when you're sick or hurt?"
The gambler looked away and swallowed around a sudden lump in his throat. "I am not accustomed to having someone who willingly offers assistance." He paused a moment and focused his attention on her hand that still held his own. "Growing up as I did, I had to become self-sufficient at a very young age."
"I'm not your mother, Ezra. I don't see it as some flaw that you have to hide if you get sick," she reassured him.
"Old habits are difficult to break," he replied with a soft sigh.
"I know, but this is one I will keep onto you to break." She squeezed his hand and stood up. "Now, are you going to let me help you, or not?"
"I would be most appreciative of your assistance, thank you," he responded.
"Good! Let's get you out of these clothes and into something more comfortable to sleep in, or do you usually sleep in your underclothes?" She gave him a puzzled look when she realized that she had no idea how he really preferred to sleep. Her past experience with him had him either fully clothed or totally naked when he slept.
"When circumstances allow, I prefer to sleep au natural, a fact that would have my mother totally mortified," he said with a chuckle and a glint of mischief in his eyes. "However, under current circumstances, perhaps undergarments would be more appropriate."
"Why? It isn't like I haven't seen you undressed before," she pointed out.
"My dear, if I am discovered here, especially if I am discovered naked in your bed, it will not bode well for your reputa..."
She stopped him before he could finish the sentence. "I can look after my own reputation. If people want to talk, they can go ahead and talk." The blonde leaned down and tugged Ezra's pants off his feet and then helped him get his shirt off. "Do the under-drawers stay on or come off?"
The gambler hesitated. He had been so uncomfortable for these last few days and she could tell by the way he that acted that he hurt in places that it took only the lightest of touches to cause them to scream with pain.
"Off," Mary said, resolutely. "You are going to be comfortable. Being sick is enough of feeling bad for anyone. You shouldn't have to be more miserable because of what you wear to sleep in." She untied the waist of the underwear. "Lean, so I can get these down."
The con man obediently leaned one way to raise one hip so the thin garment could be slid down on that side. Then he shifted to lift the other hip. She had it pulled down and off of him in a matter of seconds, leaving him sitting there completely naked. He had lost so much weight during the last week, his normally impressive body showed the signs of his close brush with death.
"Lie down," she instructed him. "You need sleep. I'll leave the lamp down really low, and I'll get a straight-backed chair to sit the chamber pot on so you don't have to try to get down so low for it."
Mary went about getting things ready for the night and saw that he was asleep almost before she had stopped talking. She glanced across the hall at the small, cramped room that her son usually slept in and then back to her bed where the gambler slept. One hand pushed her door shut at the same time that the other one pulled the clip from her hair. It didn't take long for her to climb out of the dress and into her cotton gown. She lay down and pulled up the sheet, then turned over to curl up against Ezra's back, losing the fight against sleep almost as quickly as he had.
Mary steadied Ezra as he headed back up the stairs. He had insisted that he needed to start moving around more or he would never regain his strength. She had helped him down to the kitchen to have a late breakfast, and he had sat with her while she cleaned up the dishes. Now he was obviously exhausted but still stubbornly refusing to admit it. It had taken a threat of keeping him in bed a couple more days to get him to agree to rest.
Ezra slipped out of his shirt and pants and crawled back into bed. He had wanted to dress fully, but she had convinced him that the shirt and pants were enough. She had no intentions of letting anyone back into the living area; the door from the Clarion office and the back door would stay latched.
The gambler sighed wearily when Mary pulled the sheet up over him. "I am so tired of being tired," he said with a groan.
Mary sat down on the edge of the bed and looked at him intently. "You are doing much better than I would have thought you would be this soon. We just found you four days ago. That isn't very long to get over what you went through." She brushed the hair out of his face and let her hand caress his cheek as she drew her hand away. "You nearly died. You can't expect to be up to a foot race after only four days."
"I can expect it, but that doesn't mean I'll get it," he said with a weary chuckle.
"True," she agreed. "I'm going to go get some work done on the paper while you rest. I'll check on you in an hour or two."
The sound of the bell on the door pulled Mary's attention away from the sample page she was proofreading. She was surprised to find Inez entering the office. "Good morning!" she said cheerily. "May, I help you?"
Inez made sure the door was closed behind her before she spoke. "Could we talk in private please?"
"Yes, of course. Is something wrong?"
"Yes and no; it depends on how you look at it, I guess." She held up the basket she carried and smiled. "I brought us a treat to share if you would like."
"I would like that very much. Come on back." She opened the door to her living quarters and let her guest go in first. A quick glance up the stairs reassured her that she had closed the door to the bedroom.
"Please have a seat. I have a fresh pot of coffee. Would you like some?" Mary offered.
"Yes, please," Inez took a seat at the table and pulled the cloth off the top of the basket, allowing the scent of warm apple pie to escape its confines. She pulled out a whole pie and set it out on the table. "I'm afraid I didn't think to bring plates," she said apologetically.
"That is easy to fix." Mary gathered the two plates and utensils that had been left to dry on the sideboard and took them to the table along with the coffee. "This looks and smells wonderful. Would you like to serve?" She offered the knife to her guest who accepted it with a smile.
"I hope you like apple. I know it is Señor Ezra's favorite." She glanced at Mary, who looked at her in shock. "Mrs. Travis, I don't mean to pry into your private matters, but I am sure he is here with you since he is no longer at Señor Nathan's or in his room. There is nowhere else he is likely to be."
Mary sighed and nodded. "Yes, he's here. I didn't think he should be alone yet, and Nathan has already done so much." She looked straight into those intense brown eyes, trying to determine the woman's feelings about Ezra being there, and she relaxed when she saw no hint of censure there. "I'm sure he will really appreciate the pie. I have been so busy that I haven't had time to do more than the basic meals."
"It is good that he has someone to watch over him. I worry about him sometimes because he keeps pushing people away," Inez confessed. "He is a good man; he just doesn't see it in himself."
"You are right about that," Mary agreed. "So, what is it that you wanted to talk to me about?"
"I wanted to warn you that there are rumors around the town. I know how harsh some people can be." The pretty Mexican woman never let her gaze waver from the blonde's as she spoke.
"Thank you," she responded and blushed hotly at the reminder of her own past participation in the gossip mill in town. "I appreciate the warning, although I am not sure that I deserve it."
"Señora, just as Señor Ezra has changed, so have you. Both of you are becoming the people you should have been. I wanted you to know that if you need anything, or need someone to talk to, I am here." Inez looked at her hostess and smiled reassuringly. "Señora, I too have had my share of troubles in my life. I think that you have had more trouble recently than you let people know about."
Mary's breath caught in her throat for a moment when she looked into the intelligent brown eyes that scrutinized her from across the table. Again she had the feeling that her guest knew more than she let on.
"Thank you. Sometimes it would be nice to have a woman to talk to," she admitted.
"Mrs. Travis, I understand that you most likely feel that you cannot trust any of the women in town to keep anything secret, but you can trust me. To show you how much
I feel you can be trusted now. I am going to tell you something that no one here knows." She took a deep breath and continued. "Remember when Don Paulo came to town and tried to force me to return with him?"
"Yes. I don't think anyone in Four Corners could forget that."
"Si. Everyone knows that I ran away from him to keep from marrying him, but no one knows exactly what caused me to want to get away from him." Inez offered.
"It was assumed that it was because he was a cruel man."
"That he was, but his cruelty was even more extreme than you could imagine. I know that I told you that he got drunk and tried to force himself on me, so I cut him and took a horse to escape. That was only partly true, but I could not tell you all of it then. It was something I never wanted anyone here to know. Don Paulo knew I did not love him, but he refused to let me go. There was a young man I loved and he discovered us together one night." The pain of remembering the past left her face pinched with the strain of telling it. "The next morning he decided to make an example of us, and announced to everyone that my infidelity was the cause of what was to happen." Her eyes sparkled with unshed tears, but she pushed on with her story. "He publicly castrated Antonio for daring to touch me."
She swallowed hard and squeezed her eyes shut tight until she was able to continue. "After that, he stripped me naked and tied me bent over a hitching post. He raped me in front of everyone and left me tied there all day in the sun, then threatened to kill anyone who let me go or covered me." The tears now rolled freely down her cheeks as she spoke. "One older woman took pity on me and brought me water, but the others would not come near me. Most of the men were either too afraid of Don Paulo to come near or they came only close enough to spit on me. There were a couple who looked like they wanted to help, but they did not for one reason or another. Most wouldn't risk Don Paulo's anger, especially after what they had just seen happen to Antonio."
Tears ran down Mary's face and she mentally recoiled from what she had just heard, not because she thought less of Inez, but because of the viciousness of the man's attack on the two young lovers. She slid over into the chair next to Inez and wrapped an arm around her shoulder, holding her while she got herself under control again. "I am so sorry that happened... I don't see how you kept on going after that." She gave the barmaid a comforting squeeze.
"I did because I wanted to see him pay for what he did," she confessed. "Seeing Raphael stop Don Paulo from cheating by killing his man, and then seeing him die like he did seemed fitting." She allowed herself a hint of a smile. "Raphael was one of those who might have helped me, if he had not been bound to serve Don Paulo. He was always a man of honor."
"You are a brave woman. I don't think I could have held up nearly as well as you did," Mary said.
"But you could," Inez insisted. "You have survived worse I think," She looked at her hostess intently. "Señora, women don't bleed from being hit in the stomach unless there is a reason for it."
Mary hung her head and sighed. She realized that Inez could have been spreading rumors already if she had been going to. "You said there are rumors going around town. Will you tell me what they are?"
"Some express their concern about you becoming involved with someone of questionable character. Others are making comments about all the time you have spent alone with him," Inez answered. "No one has commented on your injury except to wonder what happened."
"Thank heavens for that, at least." Mary was relieved at the barmaid's last comment. "And, thank you for not saying anything about what happened."
"I will not mention it to anyone. I know how much it hurts to have people talking about you. It took me several days to get a chance to get away from Don Paulo. The things people said behind my back, and sometimes to my face, were terrible."
"I am sure they were."
"I am right that you lost a bebé?" Inez pressed for a response.
Mary nodded as her eyes teared up.
"It is hard when you have someone to help you through it, but it must have been much more difficult when you had to go through it alone." Inez took hold of Mary's hands to stop her from wringing them. "I know Señor Ezra would do all he could to help you, but that has not been enough has it?"
"No it hasn't. He has really tried, and I know he hurts too, but a man can't completely understand how something like that affects a woman."
"Then tell me about it," Inez encouraged. "I will not tell anyone what you say."
Mary believed her and poured out the whole story with only one pause to start a fresh pot of coffee. Once she opened up, she couldn't have stopped if she had tried. With each new part of the tale, more of the burden she had been carrying was lifted from her. By the time she had told it all, she felt better than she had in the past two months.
Mary peeked in to see if Ezra was awake and saw him blinking rapidly as he tried to focus after suddenly finding himself awake. She slipped inside and sat on the edge of the bed. "Did you rest well?"
"I did until a door opening invaded my slumber," he grumbled, still groggy from his long nap.
"Then you were ready to wake up anyway. You have been sleeping so soundly that I could fire a gun in here and it wouldn't wake you." She laughed at the sour expression her teasing caused. "Are you up to a visitor?"
"A visitor?" He was suddenly very alert. "Since when do you need to announce any of my associates?"
"Since it isn't one of them who came to see you," she said with a grin.
"Who?" he tried to ask, but Mary was already up and opening the door for the person who waited outside. The gambler smiled when he saw Inez step into the room. "Miss Recillos? How did you know to find me here?" he asked, looking from one woman to the other in confusion.
"A little womanly intuition, Señor," she replied.
Ezra looked at Mary with a silent question in his eyes. Could Inez be trusted? He visibly relaxed when he saw her nod and smile in answer. "Remind me to me more careful around you in the future, my dear. What brings you here?"
"I wanted to see that you are getting well again, and I brought you something as a get well offering." She had been holding one hand behind her back while they talked and now moved it around to let him see what she had been hiding.
Ezra's eyes lit up when he saw the large slice of his favorite pie. "My dear lady, you are truly a saint." He started to sit up on the side of the bed but stopped short when the sheet shifted exposing his bare chest and one hip. One hand grabbed the edge of the cover before it could slip any further and pulled it back in place as he quickly lay back down.
Mary smiled when she saw the bright blush that colored his cheeks. "Here, let me help you." She reached across him to grab the other pillow and urged him to sit up enough for her to position it behind his back. A little maneuvering on his part had him sitting propped against the headboard, with the sheet pulled up as high as possible and yet still be able to tuck it under his arms. "How's that?"
"Much better, thank you." He still looked slightly embarrassed by his close call with total exposure.
"Good. I'll leave you two to visit. I'll be downstairs in the office if you need anything." She left, pulling the door nearly closed behind her.
"So, Señor, can you manage this yourself or would you like some help?"
"I am sufficiently recovered to feed myself." He patted the edge of the bed beside him. "I am aware that it is not entirely proper to suggest it, but if you would like to sit here with me, I would appreciate the company."
"Ah... you know me, Señor. I do not overly concern myself with what is proper." She patted the side of his leg and gave him a wink. "Scoot over and give me a little more room." She sat so the leg nearest to him was partially on the bed so she could face him better.
"Now that we are both adequately situated, are you going to simply tease me with that pie or let me have it?" He gave her a very good imitation of JD's lost puppy look.
Inez handed him the plate and laughed. "I see that you are well on your way to being yourself again. You have your sharp tongue back." She handed him the plate and smiled warmly when he wasted no time in digging into the pie.
The gambler moaned in pleasure at the first taste of the sweet pastry. "I do believe I have died and gone to heaven."
"How's he doin'?" Nathan asked.
"A lot better than I thought he would be. But, he's still really weak," Mary replied.
"I'm not surprised to hear that. I did some checkin' about the flux when it's caused by bad food and about what happens to the body when it loses too much water. By all rights he should be dead. Stubborn cuss, reckon it is a good thing he don't know when to give up." The healer said with a wry chuckle. "Think I'll go check on him, if ya don't mind."
"Not at all. He might be getting a little tired though. He had a long nap, but he just had a long visit with Inez."
"I though it was meant to keep his bein' here a secret?" Nathan asked.
"It is. But she figured it out and promised not to tell anyone else," Mary replied.
"You can count on her. Inez don't spread tales," Nathan said in reassurance as he headed for the door to the back and the stairs.
"How ya doin'?" Nathan asked Ezra as soon as he entered the room.
"Besides dying of boredom? I am doing quite well, Mr. Jackson," the gambler quipped.
"Well ya sound better, and you look better. I reckon Mrs. Travis has been takin' good care of ya," the healer said with a wink as he settled onto the edge of the bed. "I think it is about time ya got yer sorry ass outta that bed fer a little bit, a couple times a day."
"Thank you, Mr. Jackson," Ezra responded enthusiastically. "For once we are in total agreement."
"Just don't overdo it, or you'll end up right back in that bed. Yer just lucky ya don't have the good sense to know when ya should be dead," Nathan admonished.
The con man took on a serious expression. "I am aware of how fortunate I am to have cheated the reaper, but I had a special incentive to keep him from his goal of claiming my person."
"Yeah, and I'd be willin' to bet that incentive has blond hair," Nathan observed.
"Yes it does."
"I thought so. It is lucky she insisted on lookin' fer ya. From what I hear she put her foot down to Chris and said she was goin' after ya, and she didn't care if he helped or not. Now, that is one scene I would like to have seen," the healer said with a sly grin.
"She did that? I had no idea." Ezra looked thoughtful.
"She cares a lot about ya. Give her time to figure it out fer herself," Nathan suggested.
"I appreciate the advice, Mr. Jackson. I'll make every effort to heed it."
"You do that, but fer right now, I hear you had a busy morning. Get a little sleep and then ya can get up fer a while later. Maybe go downstairs fer supper, and I think you'd feel a mite better if you had a bath. I'm sure Mary wouldn't mind getting one ready fer ya." Nathan patted the gambler on the knee and got up to leave. "I'll check in on ya again tomorrow."
Ezra sighed as the door closed. "Wonderful! More sleep," he muttered under his breath.
Mary finished dumping the last bucket of hot water into the tub and gradually added some cold water to finish filling it enough for a good soak. She tested the temperature and found it was still hot, but not unbearably so. "All ready," she told Ezra. "I'll wash your back if you want after you've had a chance to just soak awhile," she offered.
"My dear, how could I even consider refusing such an enticing offer?" He couldn't resist pulling her into his arms for a hug and planted a light kiss on her lips.
"Then don't consider it." She gave him a quick kiss in return. "Now, get out of those clothes and into that tub."
The gambler was still moving a bit slower than usual, but he shed his clothes and stepped gingerly into the steaming water. He hissed in pain when the hot water touched his still tender backside, and paused to let himself adjust to the heat of the water before lowering himself the rest of the way down. He sighed contentedly as the warmth seeped into his aching body, and he leaned back to enjoy the sensation. As the steam rose up around him, he leaned his head back on the edge of the tub and closed his eyes.
Twenty minutes later he drifted lazily up from sleep to feel someone slowly washing his chest. "Ummmmm....that feels good."
"Hello sleepyhead," she teased. "I thought if I didn't get your bath started the water would be getting too cold. I did put a little more on to heat to warm it up some for you, since it is already feeling kind of cool."
"You truly are an angel." He lifted her hand from his chest and lightly kissed the back of it.
"Careful. You might get a mouthful of soap."
"I'll take my chances," he said and kissed it again. Without warning, he shivered because of the rapidly cooling water.
Mary reluctantly reclaimed her hand and went for the bucket of hot water. "Pull your legs back so I can pour this in without burning you." She emptied the bucket, careful to avoid pouring it directly over his legs. When he started to stretch back out she stopped him. "Wait, let me swish that around some so you don't hit a hot spot." After a quick stir with her hand, she finally let him straighten out again.
"Much better." He laughed when he raised one foot and saw the wrinkled skin on his toes. "I think I am turning into a prune."
"Well, that's what you get when you fall asleep in the tub." She lathered up the washcloth again and pressed against his shoulder to get him to sit up so she could reach his back. Arms and legs soon received the same attention, but washing his feet had him dissolving into a fit of giggles. "You're ticklish! Ahhhh... now I have a weapon to use to get you to behave." She taunted him with her newfound knowledge and ran a fingernail lightly up the sole of his foot, causing him to yelp and try to pull away.
"My dear, you seem to forget that I also know all of your sensitive places. Keep in mind that I give as good as I get." His green eyes lit up with mischief. "As for my ablutions, I do believe you missed a spot." He took hold of the hand that held the soapy cloth and led it to the area in question.
Mary felt the evidence of his arousal when he slid her hand over his privates, helping her wash the one part of him she had stayed away from. She let him guide her hand until he was satisfied that he was clean, but with each touch of her hand he grew harder. His need was undeniable, but she knew he wasn't strong enough for something too strenuous. She let the cloth slip from her fingers and settle to the bottom of the tub as she wrapped her slender fingers around his engorged manhood. Ezra groaned and let his head loll back against the rim of the wooden tub.
Slowly, she began to caress the length of him, paying special attention to the flared head and the sensitive spot beneath it. After each few strokes she let her thumb rub lightly over the tip, causing him to twitch and moan as his need continued to grow stronger. She increased her tempo and added a bit of a twist on the down-stroke, leaving Ezra gasping for breath the closer he got to his release. A second hand joined the first, and it slipped down to cup his balls and give them a light squeeze, while she let a couple fingers reach back to rub that sensitive spot just behind the sac. He pressed up into her hand and she knew he wouldn't last much longer. She tightened her grip slightly and made sure her thumb skimmed the underside of his shaft on each stroke. He started to thrust into her hand and groaned loudly when he came, lost in the sensations that coursed through his body as she continued to stroke him until she felt him begin to soften.
Mary looked up to see him watching her through eyes darkened with passion. She let her hand slip up from his groin, sliding over wet skin until she reached his chest. A small gasp escaped her when his hands captured hers and pulled her closer to him, causing her to have to lean over the tub to meet his kiss. He let go of her hands and slid his down her sides before letting them slide behind her back to pull her even closer. Before she could realize what his intentions were, he pulled her off balance and she ended up sitting on his lap in the tub.
"Shhhhh... " he said, and claimed her lips with his. His tongue teased her lips and they parted willingly, granting him the right to explore the depths of her mouth.
She sighed contentedly when the kiss ended, and he began his assault on her neck and ears. With considerable difficulty, she pulled herself back to reality. "Ezra, you aren't ready for this yet."
He pulled his lips away from her neck and turned her head with one hand so she would be looking him right in the eyes. "I might not be able to make love to you in the way I wish to right now, but I have no intention of leaving you unfulfilled." Nimble fingers worked at the buttons of her bodice and the lacing of her chemise until he could spread them open enough to have full access to her breasts. His lips quickly claimed one taut nipple and immediately had her arching up to meet his mouth. One arm held her where he wanted her, while the other worked at pulling up her dress to allow him to slip his hand up her thigh to her womanhood. She let him press her thighs apart to give him easier access.
"Ohhh..." She drew in a deep shuddering breath. "Yes...right there....ohhh." Coherent thought was impossible while his fingers worked their magic. They tickled, teased, and stroked that supersensitive nub, then they slipped inside to urge her even closer to the edge. At the last, he concentrated all his efforts on that small button of flesh, increasing the pressure and the tempo of his finger strokes when he felt her begin to tremble, which he knew was a sure sign she was on the brink. A few more strokes and she bucked against his hand, sending a wave of water splashing out of the tub. She groaned loudly when her much-needed release claimed her body.
Ezra captured her lips drinking in the sound of her orgasm as he let his tongue dance with hers, not wanting to lose that intimate contact with her. He folded his arms around her, cradling her to his chest while he let her catch her breath. They snuggled against each other, both pleasantly sated. "If I lived to be a hundred, I would wish for a hundred more, if I could spend them pleasing you." Ezra whispered as he nuzzled against her hair.
Mary drew back enough to be able to look at him and reached to caress his face. He leaned into the touch and turned to kiss the palm of her hand, sending a slight shiver through her with that simple act. "You say the sweetest things, but sometimes I wonder how much of what you say is real," she admitted.
"My dear, where you are concerned, it is all real," he confessed.
If she had any more doubts, the look in those green eyes that gazed adoringly into hers would have pushed them away. She pulled him to her, letting her kiss say the things she felt, but that she was still not quite able to tell him.
The sound of the bell on the front office door barely registered until a masculine voice intruded into their privacy. "Mary? Are you back there?"
Ezra quickly pulled his lips from hers and looked at her wide-eyed when he heard the doorknob rattle and the door from the office start to open.
"No! Don't come in!" Mary shouted back.
The door stopped opening but didn't close. "Is something wrong? Are you all right?" the man asked, sounding concerned.
"No, I'm fine. Just please wait out there." She tried to sound calm even though it felt like her heart was going to beat its way right out of her chest. "You caught me at kind of a bad time. I was just taking a bath and I need a few minutes to get dressed."
"Oh! My apologies. I'll just look at some of the pages you have printed while you make yourself presentable," he said.
"I won't be long," she promised and was relieved to see the door close. She took a deep breath and let it out as she leaned her forehead against Ezra's in relief.
"Who is that?" Ezra whispered.
"Mr. Carson from the bank. He wanted to talk to me about putting an add in the Clarion."
"What's he doing here now?" the gambler asked.
"I told him to stop by sometime and we could discuss it over coffee," she sighed. "Of all the times for him to take me up on the offer."
Ezra rubbed his hand nervously over his mouth and tried to stay calm. "All right, what do you propose we do?"
She pushed herself up until she managed to sit on the edge of the tub. Quickly, she worked the last of the buttons open on the dress and maneuvered it out from under her so she could pull it over her head without getting water all over the floor. Once out of it she stuffed it and her chemise into the empty bucket. "Come out of there. We need to hurry," she whispered.
Mary handed him a towel and while he dried himself she quickly wet her hair and wrapped it in a towel. A quick trip to the pantry resulted in a dry, but somewhat wrinkled dress from the pile she had put there to be washed the next day.
"How am I supposed to get upstairs? I might be able to slip past someone who is asleep, but I doubt I can manage without him hearing me," the gambler asked and looked to her for suggestions.
"The pantry," she said and gave him a slight push in that direction. "Take a chair, and whatever you do, be quiet," she warned.
Ezra looked at her like she had completely lost her mind. "Surely you can't be serious? This might be something Mr. Wilmington would do, but..."
"Shut up and go!" Mary hissed under her breath as she pulled the dress on over her head and buttoned it. She grabbed one of the kitchen chairs and carried it into the pantry. One more slightly stronger shove had the gambler inside the tiny room with the door closed securely behind him.
A quick survey of the kitchen sent her dashing around to toss a couple towels down to sop up water, and she spied a pile of clothes that were quite obviously a man's. She gathered them up and without thinking tossed them inside the cabinet near where she picked them up. One more look around didn't find anything else suspicious, but she did see the rest of the pie Inez had brought over and there was no way she was giving someone else Ezra's pie. That got stashed inside a door on the sideboard.
On her way through the small sitting room, she picked up a hairbrush she kept there within easy reach, for those times she needed a touch-up during the day. She pulled the towel off her hair and draped it around her shoulders. When she pulled the door open to the office she was still working on combing out her wet hair.
"I'm sorry to keep you waiting," she told her visitor when she rushed into the room.
"Nonsense, there's no need to apologize. After all, I was the one who dropped in unannounced," he responded graciously.
"Thank you. Come on back to the kitchen. I have coffee left from supper and we can talk. I have to ask you to please excuse the mess. I didn't want to leave you waiting any longer, so I am afraid the tub is still in the middle of the floor," she explained.
"That is quite all right. I can help with it, if you'd like," he offered.
"I can take care of that later, but thank you for offering. Have a seat and I'll get the coffee."
Finally! Mary thought when she closed the door behind Frank Carson. That time she made certain the latch was on the door and all the lamps were out before heading back to the kitchen. She made a beeline for the pantry and yanked open the door to let Ezra out.
The gambler had been sitting there, half-asleep and naked except for the towel he had wrapped around his hips. The creak of the door as it opened abruptly had him lurching to his feet, but his towel had other plans, and it landed in a heap at his feet.
After the tension of entertaining the bank manager while her naked lover hid in the pantry only a few feet away, Mary was unprepared for the sight that greeted her. She totally lost it, and burst out laughing. She sagged weakly against the doorframe and struggled to regain her composure, but she was fighting a losing battle. The longer she stood there and laughed the redder Ezra got, and the funnier the whole scene became.
"I fail to see the humor in this situation," he quipped. "And, I must say it does nothing for a man's confidence to have the object of his affection burst out laughing upon seeing him naked." He tried to regain some of his lost dignity by taking on a serious attitude, but it only succeeded in making Mary laugh harder. Finally, in self-defense he bent to grab the towel, but before he could reach it he found himself pressed back against the wall.
A pair of soft warm lips crushed down against his with a force that left his head reeling. He let her take control and felt her tongue probe against his lips, which he parted willingly, allowing her access. Her fingers curled in his hair holding him in place while she ravaged his mouth with hers. A moan rose unbidden from him when her free hand slid around his side to tease at the ticklish spot at the top of his hip. When she released his lips, she smiled smugly at the flustered expression on his handsome face.
"I have no idea what prompted that reaction, but I would love to know so I can repeat it as frequently as possible,'' he said with a sigh.
"Sometimes you can just be so irresistible," she said with a passable imitation of Buck's eyebrow waggle.
Ezra laughed and grinned, showing off his dimples. "Ahhh... so now you try to flatter me."
Mary winked at him as she released her hold on him. "You, sir, have been out of bed long enough. I think we need to get you tucked back in, and then I'll take care of clearing things out of the kitchen."
"I would prefer to wait until you can join me," he said hopefully.
"Only if you promise to sit and let me take care of things. I know you, Ezra Standish. You are itching to do more than you should."
"I give you my word, madam. I will behave myself," he swore.
"Oh, I forgot something," Mary said, just before crawling into bed. She dashed out of the room and down the stairs, her bare feet making little noise on the bare boards. It seemed like she had hardly left when she returned carrying the last piece of Inez's apple pie and a fork. "I thought you might want to finish this while it is still nice and fresh, especially after I hid it from Mr. Carson."
Ezra didn't need to be asked twice to accept the pie and took a large bite while Mary climbed into the bed beside him. "If you were anyone else, I would be greedy and save this all for myself, but since you rescued this delightful pastry from your unannounced visitor, I will share with you. Open up." He lifted the fork to her lips and watched in fascination as her lips parted to wrap around the utensil and then pulled back to slide the contents into her mouth. The tip of her tongue flicked out over her lips to clean away a bit of the sugary filling.
The pastry didn't last long with the gambler alternately taking a bite and then feeding Mary one. He planned it so she would get the last bite, and before she could lick her lips he leaned in for a kiss, licking her lips clean in the process.
"Ummm... nice, but you really need to sleep. You were up for a long time today."
"I hate to admit it, but I do find my strength failing me," he admitted. He twisted around to put the empty plate on the nightstand and turned down the lamp, before gathering her in his arms. She laid her head on his shoulder and rested one arm across his chest. "Good night, Love," he said softly, as he settled down to sleep.
Mary lay awake for a while. Her mind just wouldn't shut down to let her sleep. More than once tonight he had made comments that had her thinking that he really did have feelings for her, and that he wasn't simply playing a role like he did in a con. He had referred to her as the object of his affections, and just now he had called her Love. She had tried to convince herself that what they had been sharing was no more than a dalliance for him, and that she shouldn't let herself get too used to having him around. It hadn't worked. Now, she had reason to rethink the situation, and deep down inside she felt that he really meant the things he said.
She looked at the profile of his face in the dark, and felt the warmth of him there in her arms. Tentatively, to avoid waking him, she reached up to lightly touch his face, as she placed a soft kiss on one cheek. "I love you, Ezra P. Standish," she whispered, and lay her head back on his shoulder.
In the dark, Ezra opened his eyes and smiled.
"Evie, I've been thinking. Why don't you go with me to take Billy back to Four Corners? You haven't been out of this town in months, and I am sure Mary would like a chance to see you again before winter sets in." Judge Orin Travis tousled his grandson's hair and smiled affectionately at the boy.
"Grandma, please?" the young boy begged. "Come with us, please?" he urged again, while nearly bouncing out of his seat at the breakfast table.
Evie Travis smiled at her grandchild and acted like she was giving it some serious thought. "Well...I suppose, if it means that much to you, I can go."
"Yea!" Billy jumped up, jarring the table in the process, and went to give Evie hug. "Can I go out and play now?" he asked, switching gears in that way only kids seemed to be able to do.
"May I," she corrected him. "And, yes you may."
"I am going to miss him." She sighed and looked sadly at her husband. "Do you think Mary is doing all right now? If she needs more time, we could keep Billy through the winter," she said hopefully.
"Now, Evie, you know we go through this every time he goes home. The boy belongs with his mother. We are just very lucky that she is willing to share him with us." He got up and went to her to kiss her good-bye. "I need to take care of things at the office since we'll be leaving in a couple days."
Orin stopped outside to watch Billy playing with one of the neighbor's children and admitted to himself that he was really going to miss the boy too.
"Mornin' Jake. I heard a rumor going around about you," Travis said with a hint of a smile.
The young man blushed but still smiled broadly. "Yes, sir. Callie said she'd marry me."
The judge held out his hand to shake the man's hand. "Congratulations. Callie is a fine young lady. When is the big day?"
"Her folks won't let us rush into it, so they said we needed to wait until spring."
"You'll survive until then," Orin insisted. "That isn't that far away. Give Callie my best, will you?"
"Sure will, Judge."
Travis smiled and thought back to when he had first asked Evie to marry him. They had both been so young, and her parents wouldn't let them get married until she turned seventeen, which meant they had to wait more than a year. He really hadn't thought he could wait that long to claim her as his, but he had, and he was glad That year and a half had allowed Evie and him time to mature. At twenty-one he was much more settled than he had been even those few months earlier. Now, they had been married thirty-five years, and he had never regretted one minute of it.
The hinge on the office door squeaked when he pulled it open, and he made a mental note to be sure to bring some grease for it. He hung up his jacket and hat and went to work on the stack of paperwork he had waiting for him.
The door creaked and pulled his attention away from the document he had been engrossed in. Maybe that squeak is a good thing, he thought. At least it made it harder for anyone to sneak up on him. He glanced at his watch and was surprised to see that he had been working for several hours with out a break. "Good afternoon, Charlie," he greeted the twelve-year-old boy. "What do you have for me today?"
"Got a bundle of Wanted posters and a letter," he announced and handed the items to the judge.
"Thank you, son. How is your mother doing?" He fished into his pocket and pulled out a dime for the boy.
"She's doin' some better, but..." he paused and hung his head. "...she still misses pa somethin' awful."
"I am sure she does. She is lucky to have you to help look after things. You know I could use a little help around here, if you don't mind doing a little sweeping up." He really hoped the boy would take the offer. His family wasn't faring too well after his father died, and the boy was too proud to take a handout. It had taken some fast-talking on his part to convince him that it was worth ten cents to have someone collect his mail and bring it to him. It wasn't much, but he knew it helped a little. "I have a hard time finding time to sweep and straighten things up. I can't very well have people coming in here with business for the judge and have the place looking like a pig sty, can I?"
"No, sir. That wouldn't be fittin'. I can do that fer ya. I don't mind sweepin'."
"Good! That's a big load off my mind. If you could come by in the mornings, I'll pay you two dollars a week for the cleaning and getting the mail," the judge offered.
"Two dollars! Yes, sir. I'll do a good job fer ya, I promise," the boy answered, his excitement showing clearly on his young face.
"I know you will, Charlie. You come by in the morning to get started. Mrs. Travis and I will be going out of town for a few days, so you won't be able to get into the office while we are gone. But, I have something else I would like for you to do on those days if you will, so you can still earn your pay. I want you to go by my house every morning and every evening until we get back and check to see that the doors are locked and that no one has bothered anything. Can you do that?" Orin waited for the boy to respond.
"Yes, sir. What do I do if something don't look right?" he asked.
"Tell the sheriff, and he can come and check things out, all right?"
The boy nodded solemnly at the responsibility he had been given.
"Good. I'll make arrangements with Mr. Cooper at the bank to see that you get your pay while I am gone. I'll see you in the morning."
"I'll be here first thing, thank ya, Judge." The boy hurried out the door, and Orin was sure he would probably run all the way home to tell his mother about his important new job.
Travis picked up the bundle of posters and laid it aside for the moment. The letter intrigued him. There was nothing to indicate who it was from or where it was sent from. The only thing on the outside was his information. He broke the seal and started to read.
"Good heavens, Orin. What's wrong?" his wife asked when he stormed into the kitchen.
"I'm heading to Four Corners first thing in the morning. I've made arrangements for you to go ahead and come the next day with Billy." He struggled to keep his tone as even as possible.
"Why? We were both going to take him together. Do you really need to leave a day early?" she asked, trying to figure out why their plans had suddenly changed.
"There is something I have to take care of, and I want it dealt with before Billy gets there," he insisted. "Will you get my things ready tonight so I can get an early start? I'll be working late to finish what needs to be done before I leave."
"Of course, and I'll bring you some supper later." She looked at him with a question in her eyes, still hoping he would tell her more.
Travis knew he had upset her, but he didn't want to give her any details until he found out if the information in that letter was true. He hugged her reassuringly. "I'm sorry. I can't tell you more yet, but I will explain when you get there with Billy. Trust me on this."
"I always trust you," she said without hesitation. "You should go finish your work, or you won't get much sleep tonight."
He kissed her on the cheek and left to go back to the office. He pulled the letter out of his jacket pocket as he sat down and opened it to read it again. Nothing had changed; he hadn't misread it. His face colored with anger and he had to fight the urge to break something.
"Get a hold of yourself," he murmured under his breath. "You are a federal judge and you go on facts not hearsay," he admonished himself. He would wait to pass judgment until he could find out the truth, but if the accusations in the letter were true, God help Ezra Standish.
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