Travails of a Summer Storm

Written as a birthday gift for Doggy J, November 2006

Part 1

Hot. That was the only word to describe it. Unceasingly, unbearably hot. It was barely past dawn, and the heat of the day was already making itself known. Not a breath of air stirred, so the open window in Ezra's room provided no relief. He didn't want to be awake this early. He didn't want to be sweating, either, but there seemed to be little choice in the matter, what with the summer heat and the added humidity of the rainy season.

With a sigh, Ezra sat up and swung his legs off the side of the bed. Looking around his room, he considered his options. First, he could lie back down and try to sleep, but he was reasonably sure that the increasing heat wouldn't permit that. Second, he could dress and look for somewhere in town that wasn't hot and damp. Laughing to himself, he shook his head. No, neither one was likely, but since he was already awake and up, he decided that he'd see if there was someone with whom he could share his misery.

The water for his wash stand wasn't even cool enough to be comforting, but it was what he had, so he shaved and then wet a cloth and wiped down his chest and arms, knowing it wouldn't cool him, but at least it removed some of the stickiness.

Dressing was simple. He'd given up wearing his wool jackets and decided propriety could simply accept him in a clean cotton shirt and his vest with a string tie. It did mean he couldn't wear his shoulder rig or his sleeve gun, but it was a sacrifice he was willing to make. Pulling on his boots, he smoothed his pant legs down over them, then straightened up to check his reflection in the mirror. Acceptable. The last thing was to buckle on his gun-belt and put on his hat. With that, he was as ready to face the day as he was likely to get.

Downstairs, the saloon was sparsely populated, not that he expected a crowd at this early hour. Vin was sitting alone at one table, breakfasting on coffee and biscuits. At another table a couple of drummers were sharing tales of selling on the road. Behind the bar, Inez poured coffee into cups on a tray, presumably for the drummers. As he stepped off the bottom stair, she pulled another cup from under the bar and filled it as well, leaving it for him as she took the tray to the drummers.

The coffee was rich and black and Ezra closed his eyes and smiled as he tasted it, then topped up his cup from the pot on the bar before joining Vin at his table.

"Hot enough for you?" Vin's dry drawl hinted at humor and the twinkle in his eye and twitch of his mouth confirmed it.

"That ceased to be funny days ago." Ezra sat down across from Vin and sipped his coffee.

"Ain't nothing we can do about it, so no point in grousing."

"I suppose there's some truth in that," Ezra conceded.

"More than some," Vin said, shoving the plate of biscuits toward Ezra. "Have a biscuit and then we'll take a turn round the town."

Yielding to Vin's good sense, Ezra took a biscuit and spread jam on it. A walk around town was also a good idea. Heat did things to people -- shortened their tempers, but also left them without the energy to keep up a fight. If they kept an eye on the town, they could keep the fights from starting. So far, with more than two weeks of sweltering weather, they'd been lucky. Only three fist fights and no major damage to any of the combatants. Still, if it didn't break soon, tempers could flare to the point where guns were drawn and people could be killed.

Spreading jam on a second biscuit, Ezra looked up at Vin. "Is this heat and rain standard summer weather in these parts?"

Vin nodded. "Yeah, it is. Brings flash floods up in the canyons and miserable heat down here in the plains." When Ezra sighed, Vin smiled. "Rain don't usually last more than a month, though. Then it's just hot."

"How reassuring," Ezra said dryly. "Reminds me of summers in New Orleans. Humidity, rain and insects."

"Least all we got here is hot and wet," Vin answered with a smile.

It was hard for Ezra to keep his bad mood in the face of the playful grin on Vin's face. And it wasn't as if he hadn't grown up in the hot summer climes of the South. He knew perfectly well how to survive in the heat, he just didn't like it.

"And hallelujah for that," Ezra said with a smile. "Shall we take that tour of the town now?" He stood up and waved a hand toward the door.

"Good idea." Vin pushed back his chair and stood up, settling his hat on his head.

They walked out the bat-wing doors and to the edge of the boardwalk, stopping to look up and down the street. There was a little more activity outside; people doing their best to get business done before the worst of the afternoon heat arrived. From where they stood, nothing looked out of the ordinary, but it would still be sensible to make sure.

Ezra started to walk down the boardwalk, but hesitated when Vin didn't follow. "Something wrong?"

Pointing to the south-eastern sky, Vin nodded. "Don't like the look of that. That's more than a little rain coming in." Overhead, the sky was still blue and clear, but where Vin pointed was dark gray with darker gray behind it, and definitely headed their direction. "If it goes north of us, could see flooding up in the small canyons."

"And if it doesn't?"

"Let's just say you better hope the roofs are solid."


Vin turned and patted Ezra on the shoulder. "We got plenty of time to look things over before it gets close enough to be a real worry."

Ezra wasn't convinced. There had been storms off and on for weeks, but this was the first one that Vin had made any special mention of. That in itself had Ezra concerned. While he wasn't a native of the desert areas, he knew what damage a flash flood from a bad storm could cause. Seemed like the day was starting out bad and heading for worse. But for now, all they could do was watch the town and wait for the storm to arrive.

As they passed the hardware, Mr. Watson called out, "Hold up a minute. You boys going down by the church?"

"Yes, sir," Vin answered him.

"Good. Good." Mr. Watson looked a bit flustered, and scurried back into the store-room, reappearing with a small keg, which he handed to Vin. "Josiah's been waiting for these nails. You mind taking them down to him?"

Ezra turned away to hide his smile. Hard to refuse when the man had already handed off the keg.

"Be happy to." Vin touched his hat and shifted the keg to the crook of his left arm. "Everything okay here, Mr. Watson?"

The shopkeeper looked up, confused at first, then shook his head. "No. No. It's just with all the rain, it's hard keeping everything dry. The Lesters from up Salt Creek Canyon way haven't been in to pick up their order and it's taking up a lot of the store-room." Mr. Watson looked up at the sky. "But it's only been a couple of days. Probably got held up by the rain like everybody else."

"Most likely," Vin agreed.

"Well, that's my problem, not yours. Thanks for taking the nails." Mr. Watson nodded, then turned back into the store.

Ezra looked at Vin, a smile lurking around his mouth. "Looks like we're heading for the church."

"Appears so."

They walked slowly along the boardwalk, checking the various shops, listening to the conversations, finding nothing out of the ordinary. Despite the ongoing heat, the town was calm for the moment. The worst to be heard were the mild curses from folks trying to walk across the muddy street.


Chris's shout from across the street stopped them, and at his wave to join him, Vin handed the keg to Ezra. "Looks like you get to take these to Josiah." He stepped down to the muddy street and picked his way across, avoiding the sloppiest holes. Ezra watched the two, knowing from the look on Chris's face and how he held himself that something wasn't right. Still, if it needed the rest of them involved, they'd know soon enough. In the mean time, he had a keg of nails to deliver.

As he got closer to the church, he could see Josiah on the roof, fighting his ongoing and seemingly losing battle with the shingles, doing his best to keep the interior of the church dry. The only other disturbance at that end of town was the two wranglers fighting to hold on to a young paint horse, doing their best to keep him still enough for Tiny to shoe him. Their battle seemed to be a losing one as well.

With a sigh, Ezra stepped down into the street, grimacing at the mud and puddles. When he was close enough that he didn't have to shout, he called up to Josiah. "Mr. Watson sent this along for you." He held up the keg of nails.

Josiah grinned broadly. "Hallelujah! I may yet finish this roof!" He moved toward the edge of the roof where a ladder was leaning. "Can you bring it up here?"

Sidestepping a large puddle and the churned mud, Ezra started up the ladder. The rungs were slippery and he went slowly, not wanting to lose his balance. At the edge of the roof, he reached up to hand the keg to Josiah, but stopped the motion when he heard the shouting at the livery. The paint horse was rearing and plunging and the wranglers were barely hanging on to him.

Time seemed to slow as he watched the horse break away from them, dragging his lead rope, still plunging and kicking, avoiding all the people who ran to catch him, driving him into the base of the ladder Ezra was standing on. The ladder pulled away from the roof, throwing him in an arc toward the ground and the panicky horse. Not enough time. He tried to twist around so he could control his landing, but it wasn't working. The keg hit the ground before him and he landed hard on it, feeling the crack that could have been ribs or wood, felt the leg twist that was still caught in the ladder, tried to curl away from the paint horse's flying feet, but felt one impact his back, hard. Breathing became a problem and his hearing narrowed to distant shouts heard only over the roar in his head.

Part 2

Shouting, loud, coming closer. Ezra tried to turn, to identify the voices, but it hurt too much. A touch on his shoulder, and he winced away.

"Easy." Vin's voice, right next to him. "You okay?"

He wanted to laugh. Okay? Not a chance. He'd fallen from the roof, landed on a keg of nails, been kicked by a horse and was covered in mud. It would be a long time before he was okay.

The shouting around him went on: Josiah shouting for someone to put up the ladder so he could get down from the roof, Vin and Chris shouting for Nathan, Tiny shouting at the wranglers to go catch their damn horse.

"What the hell happened?" Nathan. More hands touching him, finding injuries. "This ain't good. Cuts all smeared in mud." Nathan stood up. "Give me a hand, Vin. We gotta get him upstairs."

Vin gripped under his right arm got him sitting upright, but when Nathan took his left arm to lift him up, it was too much. Gasping at the pain in his side, and again at the pain of breathing too deeply, it was all he could do to simply stand there, his arms wrapped around himself. They gave him a moment to recover before starting toward the clinic stairs, only to discover that the ankle he'd caught in the ladder wouldn't hold him up. The trip to Nathan's clinic went very slowly, Vin doing his best to support him on the right side without further aggravating his ribs, and Nathan doing the same on his left. The minute they were inside the door, his wet clothes were stripped off, leaving him in his socks and drawers.

"Indignity heaped on injury. How lovely." Ezra swayed a little, only to be rescued by Vin and held upright and carefully helped to the cot. Sitting was worse than he expected, his ribs protesting sharply.

As Nathan tended to him, he cataloged his injuries. Sprained left ankle. Punctures from the nails along with a cracked rib on the right side of his back. Just above that, a gash from being kicked by the horse. Although no one mentioned it, he imagined the bruising would be quite spectacular.

He was lucky. None of the injuries were serious, but Nathan still looked worried. "We're going to have to scrub out those wounds every day and treat them with carbolic. You weren't in that mud for long, but I don't want to take any chance on infection."

Ezra nodded. "Sound advice." He looked around at Vin, Chris and Josiah, all of whom had gathered while Nathan looked him over. "Would one of you gentlemen do me the favor of fetching me some dry clothes? Despite the heat, I daresay the citizenry would not approve of me walking around in my drawers."

Chris and Vin shared a look, then Vin headed for the door. "Be right back."

By the time Vin came back, Nathan had finished bandaging Ezra's wounds and wrapping his ankle. With a little help, Ezra dressed, but discovered he couldn't pull his boot on over his swollen and damaged ankle.

"Thought this might help." Vin held out a polished dark wood cane.

"I expect it will," Ezra agreed. Using the cane and a hand from Nathan, Ezra stood, testing his balance. He ached all over, his ankle protested every step, but he could get around. All things considered, he felt he'd been very lucky.

"What became of the horse?"

That question brought a grin to Vin's face. "Last I saw, they was headed out of town chasing him. I expect it'll be a few miles before he slows down enough to get caught." He looked at Ezra, instantly worried. "You ain't gonna blame the horse, are you?"

"No, of course not."

Vin relaxed and his smile returned. "Good. Those fool wranglers should have known how to handle him, he's just young and scared."

"An affliction we all suffered from at one time or another." Ezra limped toward the door. Pulling it open, he gestured to the others. "I don't know about you gentlemen, but I'm going to go find a little medicinal whiskey."

"You go easy on that, Ezra," Nathan warned.

"Just enough to dull the pain," Ezra answered.

The two flights of stairs down from Nathan's clinic were a challenge, but with Vin going down just ahead of him, offering a shoulder for balance, and Chris behind him, Ezra felt reasonably secure.

They'd worked their way slowly up the boardwalk toward the saloon, along the way assuring the few townsfolk who had witnessed the fall that Ezra would survive, when they heard shouting and a galloping horse on the edge of town. Assuming it was the wranglers chasing their paint horse, Ezra and Vin shared a grin. Their grins faded when the horse came into view. It was a big bay ridden at top speed by young Davy Lester.

"Help!" Davy was shouting, "you gotta come! Floods took down the barn and Papa's caught inside!"

"Aw, hell." Vin turned to look at Chris and Josiah, who were a few steps behind them. "Knew that canyon was at risk."

Chris's expression told them he was already making plans. "Josiah, go round up Nathan and J.D. I'll roust Buck. We better get out there fast. No telling how much the water is rising." He looked straight at Ezra. "Hate to leave you on your own, but--"

"Don't even think about it, Chris," Ezra interrupted him. "I'm perfectly fine, just a few cuts and bruises, and the town is quiet. I, and the town, will be fine." He waved his hand, shooing Chris along. "Go help those people." Chris nodded and turned on his heel, striding away purposefully.

Now Ezra turned to look at Vin. "Are you going to stand here all day?" Vin had the grace to blush a little. "I said I'd be fine. You and Chris and the others go take care of the Lesters and the other families in the canyon."

Watching as Vin turned away, heading toward the livery, calling to Tiny to help him ready the horses, Ezra understood Vin's hesitation. If the tables were turned, he'd have done the same thing. Leaving behind a wounded friend as one rode off into more danger, well, it wasn't ever easy to do. He snorted at his use of the word friend. Much more than friend. Or friends. An odd, but comforting threesome they'd become, Vin and Chris and himself.

It wasn't more than a few moments before the six men were gathered at the hardware store, selecting extra rope and axes to take with them. When the tools were safely strapped to saddles, they all mounted and rode out to the northeast, waving at Ezra as they passed. Now all he had to do was watch over the town and wait and worry about his friends and the families they were going to look after.

Salt Creek was high and pushing over its banks as they neared the canyon. Vin knew it would be worse in the canyon where there wasn't enough land to get far away from the flood waters. He knew why the families chose to build there, plenty of water, fertile soil, protection of the canyon walls, but he also knew the dangers of the high desert when storms hit.

"Chris!" He shouted to be heard over the rushing water. "There's a trail off just west of the creek, should be high enough to be safe." Without waiting for an answer, he headed that direction, knowing the others would follow.

The trail did turn out to still be passable, but they had to make one stop to remove a fallen tree. Every moment they delayed worried Vin, it'd been almost half a day's ride to get there, and the water was still rising. He hoped they'd be in time to save the families who hadn't been able to get out.

The trail opened out into the canyon, and they could see where the creek had flooded onto the farmland. The Lester place was further up the canyon, so Vin led them around the western edge, hurrying where he could, but it was still another hour before they got to the ranch. When the house came in sight, Davy Lester spurred his horse ahead of them, calling for his father.

"Davy!" Vin called after him, "let us go in first!" Shaking his head, he spurred his horse, trying to catch up with the boy. No telling what he'd find when he got there, and it wouldn't be good for the boy to be the one to find his parents if they were dead.

Davy's horse was too tired to keep up the pace, and Vin caught him easily, grabbing the reins and pulling them both to a halt. "You wait here." Davy's expression was a combination of fear and determination. "We can't help your folks if we're worried about you, too." The boy's lip quivered, but he nodded. "We'll get them out, don't you worry."

The Lester ranch house was still in one piece, but water was edging to the foundation. The barn, closer to the creek, had taken the brunt of the storm's wrath, and looked like the walls had been collapsed and the roof was on the ground, the peak still holding up through the water.

Vin pulled up, wanting to take stock of the situation before heading into the water. Pulling out his spyglass, he looked over the water, the flooded corral and on to the barn. Looked like the animals had all gotten out, there were cows and goats that would have to be caught eventually milling around on the dry ground west of the house, but they were the least of their worries. The one thing he saw that gave him some hope was Sam Lester's head and arm poking through the roof of the barn. Sam was moving!

"Chris! Sam Lester's on the barn, hanging on to the roof!" He jumped off his horse, quickly grabbing the extra ropes and the axe, leaving the reins looped around the saddle horn to allow the gelding to find safety if the water rose more. The rest of the rescue party joined him, looking over the expanse of water to what was left of the barn.

"How are we going to get there?" J.D. was the first one to speak, voicing what was on all their minds.

Buck was the first to start moving. "Give me all the ropes. We'll have to tie them together and then tie it to one of us to go through the water to the barn."

"And they have to climb up and get Sam out." J.D. was nodding. "With the barn being weak, it should probably be me who climbs up there."

"How do you figure that, kid?" Buck stopped tying ropes together to stare at J.D., who was already unbuckling his guns.

"Simple. I'm the smallest, so I have a better chance of getting there without the roof collapsing any more." He grinned up at Buck. "Besides, I'll need all you big guys holding the rope just in case you need to pull me out."

"He's got a point, Buck." Chris picked up the end of the rope. "What we got to do is tie it around you so it won't tighten up like a noose." He started at J.D.'s waist and wrapped it a few times around before tying it off. "Buck, give him your knife in case anything goes wrong and he needs to get loose in a hurry."

"And take this." Vin looped a small coil of rope over J.D.'s shoulder. "You can use it on Sam if he can't hang on himself."

"Anything else, guys?" J.D. was starting to look nervous, but no less determined to go through with the task.

"Just don't do anything stupid," Buck admonished him. "If something goes wrong or the water's too deep, you say so and we'll pull you back and think of something else."

"Got it." J.D. nodded. "I'm ready."

As J.D. started across the water, Vin put a hand on Chris's shoulder. "I'm going in the house and check for the missus," he said quietly.

"And the other kids," Chris answered, just as quietly.

Vin worked his way across the wet yard to the porch, standing for a moment to watch as J.D. got deeper into the water while Buck, Chris and Josiah played out the rope. He hoped the rescue would work. He also hoped to find a safe, if scared, Mrs. Lester in the house with her girls.

Part 3

Chris glanced over at Vin, who was standing on the broad porch, and watched him raise his hand and rap on the door as he called for Mrs. Lester. He didn't hear if there was an answer, but Vin opened the door and disappeared inside.

A shout from J.D. brought Chris's attention back to the rescue attempt, and he cringed as J.D. lost his balance, falling into the water. For a moment they lost sight of him, but after only a few tense seconds, J.D. popped up through the water not ten feet from where he'd fallen, sputtering and cursing.

"You okay, kid?" Buck shouted at him.

"Yeah," J.D. shouted back. "Tripped over a big rock. I'm going on now."

"Kid's got more guts than brains," Buck muttered under his breath.

"He isn't doing anything any of us wouldn't do," Chris answered. To be more secure on the rope, he took a belaying hold, wrapping the rope halfway around his body and bracing back against the pull of the water. No one would be lost to the flood if he had anything to do with it.

J.D. carefully worked his way to the barn, scaling the submerged corral fence and edging along the downstream edge of the roof until he got to the point just below Sam Lester. Now the hard part began -- crawling up the wet, slick shingles to get to Sam. Come on, kid, Chris urged him silently, you can do it, you got that far. J.D. kept staring up the roof at Sam, and Chris held his breath, hoping J.D. would make the right decision.

"Gimme some slack!" J.D. shouted, pulling on the rope. They let out a few extra feet of line, watching as J.D. pulled out Buck's big hunting knife and swung hard, stabbing it into the roof then pulling himself up out of the water. Splayed out like a turtle, J.D. worked his way up the roof, inching along on his belly, moving the knife up farther each time until he got to the peak. He took a moment to rest at the very top, draped across the peak of the roof. After catching his breath, he sat up and started inching toward the hole where Sam Lester was doing his best to hang on.

When J.D. got close enough for Sam to reach out to him, Chris let out his breath, grinning hugely at Buck, Josiah and Nathan. It looked like the rescue was going to succeed. As slowly as J.D. had made his way up the roof, he pulled Sam out through the hole. From where they stood, they could see that Sam was protecting his left leg. If it was broken, it would make the trip back through the water more difficult, but no matter what, Chris figured alive and hurt was better than drowned.

After tying the short piece of rope around Sam and to himself, J.D. started them back down the roof, controlling the slide so they wouldn't end up under water. Working together, Chris and the others slowly took up the slack in the rope, leaving enough for J.D. and Sam to keep their feet, but not letting the rope get pulled away in the water as they made their way back. The trip back was slow and painstaking, but when they finally made it, J.D. collapsed on the wet ground with a huge grin on his face.

"We did it!"

"You sure did!" Buck picked J.D. up and pulled him into a huge bear hug.

Josiah and Nathan took charge of Sam, helping him up to the relatively dry ground closer to the house. Nathan immediately eased off Sam's boot and started looking at his leg. Chris, Buck and J.D. gathered around them, ready to offer help.

Nathan looked up with a smile. "It's broken, but not real bad. Just needs a splint till it's healed, probably a month or so."

Sam Lester, covered in mud and straw, grinned up at them in happy exhaustion. "You boys are the best sight I ever seen."

Anything else he might have said was interrupted when they were tackled by a whirlwind named Davy. "Pa! Pa! You're all right!"

"I sure am, son," Sam assured him, hugging Davy tightly, "and I got you to thank for that. Mighty brave of you to ride out on your own for help." Sam looked up again at the men around him. "And mighty brave of all of you to come out here and look after us."

Josiah ignored Sam's praise and reached down to help him up. "How about we see to getting you in the house and cleaned up?"

With one of Sam's arms over Josiah's shoulder and the other over Nathan's, the group started to the house, only to stop dead in their tracks when the boom of a shotgun blast rattled the windows of the house and echoed in the canyon.

How could one body hurt so much? When Ezra waved goodbye to his friends as they rode out to Salt Creek Canyon that morning, he could feel a few aches and throbs, but as each hour passed, the pain increased, his muscles tightened up and the mere thought of moving hurt. It's not that bad, he kept telling himself. Bruises and cuts and a bandaged ankle. Of course it isn't, his cynical self answered. Nothing but falling off a roof to be jabbed by a keg of nails, kicked by a horse, and landing in a cesspool of mud and manure. Any movement hurt, hell, even breathing hurt.

Catching Inez's eye, he raised his empty beer glass. Perhaps the internal application of more alcohol would have some medicinal effect. If not, it would at least slake the never ending thirst this hellishly hot weather brought on.

A full glass of beer appeared next to his empty one, and he looked up at Inez, her concern evident in the expression on her face. He tilted his head, letting a smile touch his mouth, inviting her to speak her mind.

"You don't look good, senor." She reached out and touched his forehead with the backs of her fingers. "And you feel too hot."

Ezra reached up and gently took hold of her hand, drawing it away from his head. "I appreciate your concern." He squeezed her fingers before releasing them. "However, I'm quite sure after a day or two of rest I'll be right as rain."

"If you say so."

He knew from her expression that she was humoring him and he wasn't sure if he was annoyed or comforted to know that she would very likely be keeping a close eye on him.

"Salud." He raised the glass in salute to her, and then sipped the beer. Inez shook her head at him and went back to the bar.

He nursed this last beer until the shadows started to lengthen and a slight breeze brought some small relief from the oppressive heat. Since he was nominally expected to keep an eye on the town, he decided it was time to make an appearance outside, even if it was only so he could look at the mud in the street and the inactivity the heat fostered in the townspeople.

Standing up took more work than he expected, every motion bringing stabbing pain to his ribs and back, but with the combination of the cane and using the table and chair to lever himself up, he managed. Maybe, he thought, he shouldn't have sat in one place so long. He ached, and every step he took pulled stiff muscles in places he hadn't known he had muscles. And it was just possible that Inez had been right about him being too hot.

Too slowly for his own liking, Ezra made his way outside. Leaning against one of the porch posts, he looked up and down the street, seriously hoping not to see anything that might require his intervention. Down the street, a wagon sat in front of the mercantile, half loaded with sacks of feed. Further down, the bank manager was just in the process of locking the door for the evening. At the end of the street, he smiled to see Tiny hand feeding and patting the paint horse where it was tied in front of the livery. Idly, he wondered what had happened to the wranglers, but he was pleased that the young horse had someone gentler to take care of him. Up the other direction, all that could be seen were a few people relaxing in chairs on the porch in front of the hotel. This day, at least, he was thankful for the heat, as long as it kept the town quiet.

Having done his duty, he stood there a few more minutes, trying to decide if standing hurt more or less than sitting. Careful consideration brought him to the conclusion that standing was worse, if only minimally, and blamed that on his bad ankle.

With a sigh, Ezra turned to go back inside the saloon. All he really wanted to do was lie down and sleep until he didn't hurt any more. The only thing that stopped him was the thought of having to climb the flight of stairs up to his room. Pushing open the bat-wing doors, he looked at the stairs. If he'd had the energy, he'd have glared at them. At that moment, they could have been one of the Rocky Mountains, but the goal at the top of this particular mountain was one very comfortable bed, and he was going to achieve that goal if it was the last thing he did.

Part 4



Chris dashed to the porch, fear roiling in his belly.

"Vin!" he called again through the open door, waiting for an answer, a sound, any sign of what was going on in the house.

"Anything?" Buck stood at the bottom of the porch steps.

Chris shook his head. "Not a sound. I'm going in."

"You be careful," Buck warned him, "you got a scared woman in there with at least one more shot left."

He nodded. "I know." Taking a deep breath, Chris stepped inside. There was an eerie silence in the house. He stopped at the bottom of the staircase, looking up. "Hello? Mrs. Lester?" He waited for a moment, but still heard nothing. "It's Chris Larabee from town, ma'am. Davy brought us out to help Sam." The silence stretched out longer. "Ma'am? Sam's okay. We got him off the barn roof and he's going to be just fine."

Finally, Martha's tremulous voice answered him. "Sam's okay?" There was the sound of a door opening, and her voice was louder. "Sam? Where are you?"

Chris motioned for Nathan and Josiah to bring Sam inside. "Talk to her, Sam, she's scared out of her wits."

"Martha? I'm down here. Can you come out?"

On hearing his voice, Martha rushed to the top of the stairs, still holding the shotgun. "Sam!" Two small girls clung to her skirts behind her.

Sam grinned up at her. "Martha, put down the gun and come down here."

She looked at the gun as if just realizing she was holding it, and released the hammer on the second barrel. "There was a man up here, I..."

"It's okay, ma'am," Chris said as he started up the stairs. "You go down to Sam and I'll see about the man." She'd shot at Vin, that much was clear. Now to find out if she'd hit her target. He gently took the shotgun out of her hands as Martha and the girls sidled past him on their way down the stairs.

"Vin?" Chris called out, "Martha's downstairs with Sam. I've got the shotgun."

"In here." Vin's voice came from the next room.

Chris found him on the floor, holding his left arm, the sleeve of his shirt torn and bloody. "What the hell happened?"

"My own damn fault," Vin ground out from between clenched teeth, "I came up without talking to her and then when I heard her cock the gun I didn't duck fast enough." He sat up awkwardly, still holding his arm. "Ain't real bad, caught some shot, but it hurts like the devil."

"I'll bet it does." Chris held out his hand to help Vin up. When Vin was on his feet, Chris pulled him into a quick embrace. "You scared the crap out of me, you know that?"

"I know." Vin pulled free, again cradling his injured arm. "Scared me, too."

"Okay. Let's get Nathan to have a look at you."

Downstairs, Nathan had his hands full trying to take care of Sam's leg while Sam was being hugged and tugged at by Martha and Davy and the girls. Assistance came in the form of Buck and J.D., who took charge of the girls, holding and reassuring them that their father would be fine, but that Nathan needed room to work. Davy settled for helping hold the splints and bandages.

Chris smiled at the returning normalcy of the Lester family. "Nathan, when you're done with Sam, we got one more patient for you."

Martha blanched at his words. "I'm so sorry. I didn't mean..."

"Ma'am," Vin interrupted her, "weren't your fault. You were defending your home." He sat down, taking care not to jar his arm. "I'm going to be fine, and next time," he smiled at her, "I'll know to talk first."

By the time Sam and Vin were taken care of and the Lester family reunited, it was nearly dark. Martha had recovered her equanimity and was working to light her stove. "You will be staying tonight, won't you? I'm putting on a pot of coffee now and I'll be starting dinner and I won't take no for an answer."

Chris let the sounds of the house wash over him as he stepped outside onto the porch. He was looking out over the ruined barn and corrals when he felt a shoulder brush against his. Buck.

"We staying?"

He looked at Buck, then into the house, then back again at the flooded barn. "Yeah. Too late to head back tonight, and we can check the folks downstream on our way out tomorrow."

"Good idea." Buck turned to look inside, calling out. "Hey, J.D., come on out and give me a hand with the horses." He looked at Chris with a grin. "Hope they ain't too hard to catch."

Chris watched for a few minutes as Buck and J.D. eased up to the horses and caught each one, tying them to trees or what was left of fences.

"They havin' any trouble out there?" Vin handed him a cup of black coffee, managing to juggle two cups evn with his left arm in a makeshift sling.

"Nah. They had a taste of freedom but now they're done with it."

"Looks like the water's starting to go down, too." Vin went down into the yard and examined the sky with a practiced eye. "Clouds are breaking up. Wind's changing direction. Looks like it's over."

Chris joined him and scanned the horizon for himself. "That's good." He took a few more steps toward the barn. "I can see why they settled here. Hope this doesn't happen to them again."

"Probably won't, at least not anytime soon."

"You two done philosophizing?" Josiah's voice rolled out from the porch. "Mrs. Lester has dinner on and it looks delicious."

"I don't plan to turn that down," Vin said with a smile.

The Lester's dining room was crowded with extra chairs around the table, everybody sitting elbow to elbow as plates were passed. Chris could see that she was favoring Vin with extra butter for his bread and gave the man she wounded more meat than the rest. He hid his smile, knowing it was her way of apologizing.

After dinner, with bedrolls on the floor and a few comfortable chairs pushed together, sleeping arrangements were soon sorted out. Even allowing for the hardness of the floorboards, it was better than trying to find a dry spot out in the canyon, which would have been their only other option.

Chris lay awake for a few minutes, listening as each of the other men fell asleep, the light snores and steady breathing a comforting sound in the darkness.

"Mr. Standish?"

He started at the touch on his shoulder, instantly regretting the move as pain shot through his rib cage and back. "Who?" he gasped.

"It's me, Mr. Standish, Bobby."

Bobby. The boy who emptied the chamber pots.

"I knocked, but you didn't answer. You feeling okay?"

Blinking away his preoccupation with his pain, Ezra looked up into the face of twelve year old Bobby. Dark eyes, dark hair, and a very worried expression on his face. "Just a bit sore this morning." He tried to sit up, but only managed to squeeze his eyes shut and grimace at the pain.

"Let me help." Bobby was careful as he helped Ezra sit up and pull on his clothes. "You want to go downstairs?"

The idea of a flight of stairs was daunting, but maybe if he moved around some that his muscles would ease up. "I believe downstairs and some coffee would be the best plan."

Bobby nodded. "You can lean on me. I'm real strong."

Ezra wasn't too proud to refuse the youngster's offer of help, and with one hand on his cane and the other on Bobby's shoulder, they made their way slowly down to the saloon. By the time they were at the bottom of the stairs, Ezra was dizzy and swaying and fell into the first chair he came to.

"You ain't okay," Bobby said sternly. "Sure wish Mr. Nathan was in town."

"I'll be fine," Ezra said, attempting to be equally stern. "Would you ask Inez to bring me some coffee?"

When his coffee came, it was brought by both Bobby and Inez and Bobby pointed at Ezra. "He's sick. Won't admit it, but he is."

Inez nodded. "Let me take care of him. You go finish your chores."

Bobby looked uncertainly between Inez and Ezra before turning to leave.

"Bobby," Ezra stopped the boy, digging into his pocket for a coin. Handing the quarter to Bobby, Ezra did his best to smile. "Thank you for your help this morning."

"I don't need money to help."

Ezra closed Bobby's fingers around the coin. "No, but you need money for your mama. Take it with my thanks."

When Bobby had disappeared out through the back door of the saloon, Inez turned to Ezra with a scowl and placed the back of her hand on his forehead. "You have a fever. You should be in bed."

"I can have a fever just as well in this chair." Thankfully, she recognized that his stubbornness was at least as strong as hers and left him his coffee and went back to the kitchen. The worst of it was that she was right. He knew he was feverish, he ached throughout his body, with the ribs and back where he'd landed on the keg throbbing constantly. He also knew that Nathan had left carbolic for him to use, and maybe if he looked, he could find some laudanum. The only problem was getting up to Nathan's clinic.

He felt a little less dizzy after sitting for a few minutes and drinking his coffee, but he knew it wouldn't last long. If he was to get up to Nathan's, he had to start now. Bracing himself on his cane and the arm of the chair, he gritted his teeth and stood up. So far, so good. He made slow and painful progress to the doors and out to the boardwalk. Looking up the street, it seemed like a very long way to Nathan's. However, he told himself, the longest journey starts with a single step. He took that first step, then another and another, stopping to lean on the porch posts when he needed, and finally found himself at the bottom of the stairs leading up to Nathan's clinic.

As sick and sore as he was, the stairs looked insurmountable, but the medicines he needed were up there, and he was down here. One step at a time, bracing against the railing, using the cane to support his bad ankle, he made it to the first landing, pausing to catch his already-labored breath and to wipe the streaming sweat from his face. One more flight and he'd be there. That was all he had to do. After a moment's rest, he went on the same way, one step at a time to the top. Making his way to the door was much easier, leaning on the side of the building and shuffling along until he got inside.

The dark interior felt cooler, even though he knew it was an illusion. He found a small basin and a pitcher of water, although his hands were shaking so badly he spilled a portion of it setting it on the worktable. The carbolic was in a jar on the sideboard and he'd decided he wasn't going to look for some laudanum until he was finished cleaning his wounds. Now all he had to do was get his bandages off and manage to reach around enough to do a proper job with the carbolic.

He pulled a stool to the worktable and sat down to work. Getting his shirt off wasn't bad, and thankfully, Nathan had tied off his bandages in the front. Pulling the knots loose was harder, any pressure on his ribs brought agony shooting through his chest, but he kept on, easing it loose until the ends fell away.

The last bandage stuck to the punctures on his back, and it took all his will to pull it loose, and an embarrassing whimper escaped his lips. The cloth was moist from the oozing wounds, and, from the foul smell, Ezra knew there was no doubt that infection had set in. He'd tried to rationalize away the fever as the hot weather, the dizziness as the bump on his head from the fall, but now, with the evidence of the bandages, the ugly fear of infection settled like lead in the pit of his stomach.

To do this right, he needed help. If he'd been thinking clearly, he'd have asked Inez before he left the saloon, but he didn't, and now was faced with going back and finding someone.

He slipped his shirt back on, buttoning it only enough to keep it closed. It was going to be a long walk down those stairs and back to the saloon. Maybe a shot of laudanum would ease the trip. He had to search through half a dozen cupboards before he found the bottles, but there they were. He uncorked one and held it up, swallowing twice, grimacing at the burn as it hit his stomach. Ezra braced himself on the table and after a few seconds he felt steadier and stood up straight to start his way back to the saloon.

He stopped at the balcony railing, hoping to see someone he could call to on the boardwalk, but there wasn't a soul to be seen. Standing at the top of the stairs, he stared down, waiting for the dizziness to clear and took the first step. That one moment of clarity gave way to sheer panic as his ankle collapsed and he tumbled down to the landing, hitting his head hard against the last step and drowning in darkness.

Part 5

Vin wasn't sure if it was the aroma of coffee or the sizzle of frying bacon that woke him, but either way, it was welcome. Because of his arm, they'd let him sleep in the one overstuffed chair in the house, and he was surprised how refreshed he felt. At least, until he sat up and stretched. Then the stitches Nathan had put in his arm pulled and he sipped in a pained gasp of air and curled around his arm, cradling it close to his chest.

"Morning, Vin." Buck was still stretched out on the floor in front of a small settee, his arms stretched up and folded behind his head. "Chris and Josiah went out to see to the horses. J.D.'s helping Mrs. Lester with breakfast and Nathan's looking after Sam. They told me not to let anyone wake you, so I've been standing guard."

Buck's grin was infectious, and Vin grinned back at him. "Standing?"

"They weren't all that specific how I was supposed to guard, so I figured this would do." Buck sat up, leaning back against the settee. "How's your arm?"

Vin moved it a little, grimacing. "Not too bad," he lied, getting a dubious raised eyebrow in return.

Heavy footsteps on the front porch heralded Josiah and Chris's entrance to the house. "Horses are fine," Josiah said, "and it looks like our Sleeping Beauty has awakened."

"I didn't know you'd noticed," Buck preened, running his fingers through his hair.

"I think he meant our other Sleeping Beauty," Chris said with a grin. "How you feeling, Vin? Up to the ride back to town?"

"You get some me some of that bacon and coffee I smell and I'll be right as rain."

As if on command, J.D. came in from the kitchen, carrying a tray of cups and a pot of coffee. "You fellas ready for some breakfast? Mrs. Lester's been teaching me how to make biscuits." He sat the tray on the dining table at the other end of the house's main room. "She wouldn't let me near the coffee, though."

"And just as well, after hearing how you wanted to make it," Martha chided. "Get started on these biscuits and I'll have the bacon out in a jiffy." She left a basket of steaming hot biscuits on the table and scurried back to the kitchen.

"How's Sam doing?" Vin asked.

"Sam," said the man in question, hobbling in through the kitchen, "is doing just fine. Nathan and Davy found some stout branches and made me this fine crutch so I'll be able to get around on my own."

"You just make sure you don't overdo it," Nathan warned him, following behind him.

"The only thing I'm going to overdo right now is eat," Sam said, sitting down at the head of the table. "I'm mighty grateful to you men for coming out here. If there's ever anything I can do for you, just let me know."

They all mumbled their thanks and accepted Sam's offer with nods and smiles.

After eating his fill and noting the others were merely sipping the last of their coffee, Chris stood up. "Time we were heading out," he announced, and turned to Sam and Martha. "Sam, Mrs. Lester, I want to thank you for your hospitality."

"You're welcome any time," Mrs. Lester answered him.

Quickly gathering up their blankets and bedrolls, they went out to saddle their horses and pack their things for the ride back to town. With the weather now clear, it shouldn't take as long as the ride out, but they did want to stop and check on the other homesteaders in the canyon as they went, so the sooner they got going, the better.

Once mounted, they tipped their hats to Mrs. Lester and waved goodbye to Davy and the girls. Vin and Chris rode out in the lead, watching the trail for washouts and poor footing. Stopping at the other two homesteads in the canyon didn't add more than an hour to their trip, and they were pleased to find everybody safe and well.

The trail through the canyon entrance was still clear, and out on the open land they could see Salt Creek was well back into its banks. The worst of the flooding from this storm was over.

Pushing the horses into a ground covering jog, they made good time back to town, coming over the last hill by mid-afternoon. It was comforting to be back home, and from what they could see at the top of the hill, things were calm and quiet.

Twenty minutes later they were in front of the livery, and it was anything but calm and quiet.

"Nathan!" Tiny rushed up to take the gelding's reins. "We found Ezra on the stairs. He's real sick. Inez is with him, but you best get up there quick." Nathan slid off his horse and grabbed his bag, running to the stairs and up.

How could this happen, Vin wondered, half in worry and the other half in irritation. They'd only been gone a day and when they left yesterday, Ezra seemed fine. Riding straight in to the stable, Vin quickly stripped the tack off his horse, barely taking time to see that there was water in the stall before closing the door.

Taking the stairs two at a time, Vin was barely ahead of Chris and they stopped shoulder to shoulder inside Nathan's clinic. Ezra was on the bed, rolled to his side so Nathan could work on the wounds on his back, plus he already had a new bandage around his head, and Vin wanted to know when that happened.

Inez was talking to Nathan. "We found him unconscious on the landing, bleeding from his head. He must have gotten dizzy and fell from the top." She shook her head. "I knew he was sick, but not this sick."

"Nathan?" Vin's fear kept his voice to a whisper.

"I don't know yet, but it looks bad." He waved at the basin and carbolic on the table. "Looks like he was trying to clean the wounds, but I just don't know."

"What can we do?" The stronger voice was Chris's.

"Get me some hot water. Try the bath house or the laundry or anywhere. I've got to clean out these punctures."

"Stay here with him," Chris told Vin, "I'll get the water."

Vin moved closer to the bed, fear gripping his chest as he saw Ezra's pallor and the sheen of sweat on his body. This couldn't be happening. All he did was fall in the mud and he had been walking around and making jokes when they left.

"Here, Vin, you take the chair." Inez took his hand and guided him to the chair she had just vacated. "Senor Nathan, what can I do to help?"

Nathan looked up from the instruments and cloths he was readying. "This is going to be pretty ugly, I've got to cut the infection out of him."

At the word 'cut', Vin looked up at Nathan. "He'll have to be held down."

Nathan nodded. "You and Chris will have to do it. Inez, if you're up to it, I'll need help with the instruments."

"Anything you need, I can do," Inez said with determination.

"Nathan," Vin had to ask, "how did it go bad so fast?"

"Had to be the mud. Mud and manure and heat, and Vin, you need to know, it would have done this even if we were here in town. Only difference would be he wouldn't have fallen down the stairs."

Vin nodded, swallowing the dryness in his throat. He had to believe that. Just as he had to believe that now that they were back, Nathan could take care of Ezra, and he'd be okay.

"Now where the hell is Chris with that water..."

As if conjured by Nathan's words, Chris came in the door followed by Buck, each of them carrying two buckets of steaming water.

"Good. Now pour some in here." Nathan indicated the basin on the stool next to the bed. "Chris, you've got to hold his legs. I need him still while I clean out the infection."

For most of the hour it took for Nathan to open the punctures on Ezra's back and force the infection to drain out, Vin kept his eyes closed. The smell was bad enough, but he couldn't watch each cut and the blood that mingled with the pus, so he held Ezra's arms still and talked to him when the moans broke through his unconsciousness. He finally looked up when a strong hand touched his shoulder.

"It's over, Vin. You can let go now." Nathan looked exhausted but not as worried as when he started the procedure.

"He gonna be okay?"

"Still don't know." Nathan finished tying the last bandage. "Going to need to get the fever down, and that's going to be hard in this heat. Means bathing him with water and fanning him to keep him cool."

Vin nodded. "I'll get an oilcloth to keep the mattress dry."

It took a few minutes to get the bed set up with the oilcloth and a clean sheet and when Ezra was again settled, Vin took up a cloth and started bathing Ezra's face and chest. A week old copy of the Clarion served as a fan, and Vin and Chris traded off the duty for hours, alternately wetting Ezra's skin, then fanning to keep him cool.

When dark fell, Vin lit a lamp, then sat across the bed from Chris, both of them working on cooling Ezra.

"It ain't working. He's still too hot," Vin murmured in worried frustration.

"We got to keep at it. You know fevers can be unpredictable."

Vin nodded and continued even though his arm ached and his whole body was worn out and aching. Through the afternoon and evening they'd gotten no response at all from Ezra, and if it hadn't been for the shallow breathing, he'd have thought they were working on a corpse.

It was close to midnight when Nathan came in to check on them. "You two go get some sleep, I'll watch him overnight." When they would have refused, Nathan held up a hand. "I slept while you worked this evening. I figured he'd need me tonight. Now go."

Chris managed to express Vin's own thoughts as he stated firmly, "We'll be back in the morning to help you look at the wounds."

Part 6

At an hour past dawn Vin was at Nathan's door, opening it quietly and slipping inside. He couldn't hold back a smile at the incongruous sight that greeted him. Nathan was sitting close to the bed, a book on his knees, turning pages with one hand, with his other hand he was fanning Ezra with a frilly black lace ladies' fan.

"Where the hell did you get that thing?" Vin asked, still smiling.

Nathan looked up, then at the fan and smiled back at him. "Buck brought it by. One of his lady friends donated it to our cause." He folded it up and tossed it to Vin. "Works better than the Clarion, so I ain't arguing."

Vin pulled up another chair and continued with the fanning. "You find anything to help in your book?"

Snapping the book shut, Nathan threw it onto the worktable. "Not a thing. We're already doing everything it talks about." Nathan rubbed his face. "Can you watch him for a few minutes? I need to see to something."

"Of course," he answered, and watched as Nathan left, briefly letting the dawn light in as the door opened and closed. It was unsettling to see Nathan so tired and frustrated, and it reaffirmed Vin's feeling that Ezra was in real trouble.

"You got Nathan worried, pard," he spoke to his unhearing patient. "Got Chris and me worried, too. It'd be real nice if you'd wake up and help us in this fight." Dipping the cloth in water, he held it over Ezra's mouth, wishing the man would manage to drink a little, but it only ran off the side of his face. "I'm sorry. I should have taken those nails for Josiah. Should have seen the stupid horse acting up. This ain't right, you lying here so sick on account of a fall." He put the cloth aside and laid the back of his hand on Ezra's forehead. "You're getting warmer, not cooler, and it don't sound like your breathing is right, either. You stay there and I'll see if I can find a pillow to prop you up a mite."

He found two pillows but realized that with his bad arm he couldn't pull Ezra up and slide them in behind him. He'd have to wait for Chris or Nathan to show up. Or maybe not. Sitting on the edge of the bed, he carefully pulled Ezra up to lean against him. His arm was good enough to be able to hold Ezra in place while he moved the pillows with the other. Satisfied with where they were, he gently lowered Ezra down against them and listened for long moments.

"Yeah, that's a bit better. You keep breathing and we'll keep cooling you down and we'll get through this."

Nathan came back shortly with a new look of determination on his face.

"You thought of something."

Nathan nodded. "Remembered something, more like." He took the cloth from Vin and wiped off Ezra's face. "Was his breathing bad?"

"Yeah." He put a hand on Ezra's chest. "Sounded pretty rough. Found the pillows in the back."

"Damn. Probably his broken ribs not letting him breathe deep." Nathan leaned down to listen to Ezra's chest. "Don't sound great, but at least he's getting air."

"Nathan, tell me straight," Vin said. "Is he going to be okay?"

"You want it straight?"

Vin nodded.

"I don't know." Nathan threw the cloth into the basin with a wet slap and walked out, slamming the door behind him.

"Aw, hell," Vin cursed softly.

Picking up the cloth, he went back to cooling Ezra. He stopped briefly when he heard Chris on the balcony talking to Nathan, trying to make out what they were talking about, but they were too quiet. He went back to work, looking up only when the door opened and Chris slipped inside.

"How's Nathan doing?" Vin asked.

"He's tired and blaming himself for not knowing more," Chris answered. Picking the fan out of Vin's hand, he said, "I see Buck's been by."

"Yeah," Vin said, his mouth barely twitching in a smile. "I think Ezra'd appreciate the style."

They both looked up as the door opened and Nathan came back inside. "Time we cleaned out those wounds again." He went to his worktable and gathered instruments and bandages, then sat at the side of the bed. "Lie him flat, Vin, and turn him on his side. Won't be good for his breathing, but we can't twist his ribs, either. You two hold him, I'll work out the infection."

Vin did as he was told, moving so he could hold Ezra's hands and shoulders. Chris again took his position at Ezra's legs. Nathan peeled away the bandages, revealing the red, swollen, oozing tissue of Ezra's back. Vin would have sworn it looked worse than the day before.

Nathan sat back and let a breath hiss out from between his teeth. "You better hold him good, I'm going to have to do more cutting."

As before, Vin wouldn't watch the cutting, simply held Ezra still and murmured softly to him. When Nathan was finished, Vin helped prop Ezra on the pillows again, and went to pull his hand free, only to realize he was being held in a weak but definite grip.

"Ezra?" Vin stared at the hand gripping his own, not sure he was really seeing the small movement in Ezra's fingers. "You see that?" he asked, looking from Chris to Nathan.

"Yeah." Nathan reached over and slid open one of Ezra's eyelids, getting a soft moan in reaction. "He's coming around. I thought he was out from the infection, but it must have been the head wound."

"That's good, right?"

"I still don't know, Vin." Nathan let Ezra's eye close. "But what it does mean is that as long as he's awake we can get him to drink water and some herbs to make his breathing better."

Vin nodded. He still wasn't going to get much reassurance from Nathan, but he'd supply his own if Ezra was waking up. "I ain't going anywhere," he told Ezra softly, "but if I'm going to keep you cooled off, I need both hands." Ezra's grip eased, and Vin pulled away, again taking up the wet cloth and fan.

The rest of the day was spent much as the day before had been, cooling Ezra with water and the fan, in his lucid moments giving him water and medicinal teas, but by nightfall Vin had lost some of his optimism. Nothing seemed to be helping. He didn't argue when Nathan sent him to get some sleep, wondering, as he left, what he'd find the next morning.

A little food, a little whiskey and some sleep helped Vin regain some of the hope he'd lost the night before, and as the sun cleared the eastern horizon, he was back at Nathan's, determined to stay with Ezra until he either got better, or... Vin wasn't going to think about the alternative.

Nathan took a cup of coffee and went outside to sit on the balcony, leaving the door open to let what slight breeze there was drift in to help cool things down. When Vin had scanned the sky that morning, it looked like the weather was changing, and maybe the weather changing was a sign of change in the wind for Ezra, too.

Vin worked steadily at his nursing tasks, doing his best to convince himself that Ezra's fever was dropping, not willing to accept anything else.

The clomp of boots on the stairs along with the jingle of spurs alerted him that Chris and Buck were on their way up. Chris came in, taking the cloth from Vin. "You better today?"


Chris nodded and sat, taking up the job of wetting Ezra's face and chest. They sat in silence, their attention on Ezra until there was a shout from Buck.

"What the hell are those for?"

Chris got up and handed Vin the cloth. "I better see what's going on."

Buck was loud enough to be heard inside. "You out of your mind?"

"Easy, Buck, no need to shout."

"What's the matter, he ain't dyin' fast enough for you, you want to do this to him? Dammit Nathan, I know you've had your differences with Ezra, but this is low."

"What the hell are you two going on about?"

"Hell, Chris, he's gonna put maggots in Ezra!"

"Not inside him. On the wounds. To eat the infection."

"To kill him, more like."

"Goddamn it, Buck. If Nathan wanted him dead, there's probably a dozen different things he could have already poisoned him with and we'd never know it. Get your head together! He's trying to help Ezra; we all are."

"With maggots?" Vin shuddered at the image. Maggots ate dead things, they weren't something you put on live people.


"It was during the war. Sometimes there was soldiers too wounded to take to the field hospitals, so they'd leave them on the battlefield to die. But they didn't. Flies got in their wounds and the maggots ate them clean. I asked one of the doctors about it, and he said he thought it was that the maggots ate the infection before it went to gangrene." Nathan came to the door and pointed toward Ezra. "I don't want that man to die, and this is the last thing I know to try."

Chris pulled Buck to the doorway. "You know anything better to help him?" Buck shook his head. "No? So, worst thing that happens is Ezra dies faster instead of slow. That might not be such a bad thing, if it comes to it."

A hand gripping his sleeve snapped Vin's attention back to Ezra. "I don' wan' to die..." Ezra's eyes were barely open, his breathing raspy and harsh, but his intention was clear.

"You want Nathan to put them on you." Vin studied Ezra's face, wanting to be sure he understood. When Ezra nodded, Vin called out. "Nathan!" The healer looked his way, and Vin went on. "We heard it all. He wants you to try it."

Nathan didn't look happy or vindicated at the decision, more like it was just something he had to do. "Listen, I know it seems contrary to common sense. I just know what I've seen." He scrubbed a hand over his chin. "I'm going to Mrs. Potter's. There's a few things I need to make this work."

After Nathan left, Buck opened his mouth to speak, then shut it abruptly when Chris glared at him. "Buck, you keep your yap shut if it isn't to be of some help."

"Chris." Vin stood up, easing out of Ezra's grip and going out on the balcony and away from the door. "You ever seen what Nathan was talking about?"

"No. But it don't mean it might not work." Chris stepped close to Vin, keeping his voice low. "It might be Ezra's only chance."

Part 7

Two days. Two long days of watching and waiting, of seeing Vin get more and more exhausted as he refused to leave Ezra's side, of Chris keeping his frustration to himself. First, he watched Nathan make a bandage to keep the maggots in place, watched them squirm, then watched Ezra squirm as they crawled over the wounds. He watched Vin hold Ezra's hands both as comfort and to keep him from ripping off the bandages. Then, finally, he watched their moment of celebration when Nathan declared that Ezra's fever had broken. That was when Chris left the room, having realized he was extraneous to the proceedings.

In spite of not being needed, he worried. Worried about Ezra, worried about Vin, worried about the three of them and wondered if they were three any longer. Sleep evaded him. He was up before dawn, sitting outside the jail nursing a cup of coffee in the relative cool of the morning. The dark and silence were comforting as long as he didn't allow himself to think too much.

The sky was barely beginning to lighten when Vin came down from Nathan's and stopped in the middle of the street, facing the sunrise and letting the light breeze wash over him.

Chris sat, giving Vin the moments alone he needed, but as the sun came up and over the edge of the hills, he got up and walked up beside him, draping an arm over Vin's shoulder. "'Bout time we got some good news."

Vin smiled. "Yeah." He bumped Chris with his hip, then moved a half step away, just far enough for propriety's sake and Chris's arm to fall off his shoulder. "Nathan's going to take the maggots off today."


They stood there until the sun was over the buildings and warm on their faces, comfortable in their silence.

"Morning, boys!" Their silence was broken by Buck's exuberant arrival, coming up behind them and hooking an arm over each of their shoulders. "There a reason you two are standing here staring at the sky?"

"Just waiting for you to buy us a cup of coffee." Vin poked Buck in the ribs with his elbow.

"Well, then, let's go." Buck nudged them forward toward the saloon. Inside, they were the only customers, but Inez had fresh coffee and biscuits ready. As they sat, Buck looked from one to the other. "Guess I was wrong about the maggots."

"Guess you were." Chris returned Buck's look.

"Don't matter who was wrong," Vin interjected, "what matters is Ezra's going to be all right." He glared at Chris and Buck, his exhaustion and anxiety from the past week spilling over into his voice. "I'm going back up to Nathan's." Pushing back in his chair, Vin stalked out of the saloon, ignoring the calls from Buck and Chris. Chris got up and went after Vin, his boots pounding on the boardwalk as he ran to catch up, and Vin stopped, his hands balled into fists. When Chris's hand fell on his shoulder, Vin turned sharply, his right fist in Chris's face. "What the hell do you want?" Chris stood impassively, saying nothing, waiting. "Aw, hell." Vin dropped his fist. "Sorry, Chris. I'm just so damn tired, been so damn worried..."

"I know." Chris laid his hands gently on Vin's shoulders. "You been doing most of the sitting with Ezra, but we've all been worried."

"I know that!"

"Easy, Vin. I know you do." Chris nodded his head toward Nathan's. "Why don't we go up and see if he's ready to change the bandages."

Vin sighed and nodded. "Sorry," he said again. "Don't know what's got into me. All I can think about is that it's somehow my fault Ezra got so sick."

"You know that ain't so," Chris told him. "And anyway, he's going to be fine, right? Let's go make sure of that."

They found Ezra awake, propped up against a pile of pillows, looking pale and gaunt but definitely like a man on the mend.

"You look like hell, pard," Vin said with a grin.

Ezra's mouth twitched in a smile. "You looked in any mirrors lately?"

Chris let Vin take the seat next to Ezra, and moved to stand by Nathan at his worktable. "How's he doing, really?" he asked in a low voice.

Nathan glanced at Ezra, then looked Chris in the eyes. "He's beat the odds, Chris. It ain't over yet, he's got to be careful with his lungs till the ribs are healed, but right now, I'd say he's a man who's going to live."

Chris searched for any hint that Nathan was only telling him what he wanted to hear, and he knew instantly it was foolish to even think that. It was the simple truth. Once more, with a little help from Nathan, Ezra had beaten Fate at her own game.

Nathan pushed off the worktable, scissors in his hand. "You ready to get rid of the creepy crawlers?"

"I have never been more ready to do anything in my life," Ezra answered.

"I figured as much." Nathan smiled. "Sit up and let's put this cloth over the bed to catch any that get out of the bandage." Vin helped Ezra sit up while Chris held Nathan's instruments. In a matter of minutes, the bandages and maggots were removed, wrapped in the cloth and shoved in a bucket. Nathan carefully inspected the wounds, making sure they were completely clean of infected tissue.

"Well?" Ezra prompted.

Sitting back, Nathan grinned. "You are one lucky son of a bitch. I don't see any sign of the infection."

"Your skill, Nathan, and my luck. An unbeatable combination."

"You still got healing to do. We need to keep carbolic and bandages over the wounds till they're healed." He got up and pulled out a stoppered bottle and a roll of cloth bandage.

Ezra held up a hand. "While I agree with you in principle, I categorically refuse to be bandaged until I have had a bath."

Nathan shook his head. "Too soon--"

"Nathan, I have been here, sweating and feverish for more than a week. I have had maggots crawling on me and chewing on me, and I am going to have a bath."

"You're too weak. You'll never make it down the stairs, much less to the bath house."

"We'll help him," Chris said quietly. Nathan glared at him, Vin smiled at him, and he thought for a moment Ezra was going to cry.

"All right," Nathan put his hands up in surrender. "But you make sure that tub is scrubbed out and filled with fresh water, boiled to be clean."

Vin helped Ezra stand and pull on his pants. A not very clean shirt followed, then socks and boots. He wasn't his normal well dressed self, but it was enough for the trip to the bath house.

Chris took Ezra's left side, Vin his right, and they started the slow trip down the stairs. Nathan called after them, "And no frilly soaps! Lye soap. Scrub him clean and rinse every bit off. I don't want to see any problems because you can't stand a little dirt and smell!"

"Worse than an old mother hen," Vin said softly.

Nathan had been right about one thing -- by the time they got to the bath house, they were practically carrying Ezra. While they cleaned and filled a tub, Ezra rested on a bench, his eyes closed and breathing shallowly.

"You ready for this?" Chris asked.

"More than you know." Ezra started undoing his buttons, only to have his hands pushed aside.

"Let me do it." Chris had him undressed quickly and together, he and Vin helped Ezra into the tub. "You help him wash," he told Vin, "I'll see about fetching some clean clothes."


He stopped with his hand on the door, looking back at Ezra. What the man wanted to say was clear on his face, so Chris saved him the embarrassment. "I know." Then he looked at Vin, who met his eyes and nodded. More was left unsaid, but not unknown. They were still three.

In Ezra's room, Chris rifled through the chest of drawers, finding clean clothes, then looked at the bed. He knew Ezra would be more comfortable in his own bed, but the sweat-stained sheets wouldn't pass muster with either Nathan or Ezra. With the clothes rolled up and under one arm, Chris went in search of Bobby.

He found the boy behind the saloon, taking in the day's laundry. "Hey, Bobby."

The boy looked up. "Hi, Mr. Larabee. How's Mr. Ezra?"

Chris smiled. "He's much better. In fact, I think he'd like to come back to his room."

That brought a grin to Bobby's face. "That's great!"

"Yeah," Chris agreed. "You think you could put clean sheets on his bed for me?"

"Right away, Mr. Larabee." Bobby picked up the laundry basket and headed inside.

"Bobby." The boy turned back and Chris tossed a quarter in the basket.

"Thanks, Mr. Larabee."

Bobby ran up the steps into the saloon, slamming the door behind him. Chris stood for a moment staring at the door, then shook his head and smiled. Ezra had more friends than he knew.

When Chris got back to the bath house, Ezra was out of the tub and Nathan was already there wrapping a fresh bandage around his ribs.

Vin came over and stood close beside Chris. "Ezra don't want to go back to Nathan's."

"Figured he wouldn't. Had Bobby put clean linen on his bed." He looked at Ezra, then back to Vin. "We'll back him against Nathan."

"Figured we would."

"I heard that, Chris," Nathan called to him. "I ain't happy with him not being where I can keep an eye on him."

"I am in the room," Ezra said quietly, "and I assure you that no unnecessary risks will be taken."

Nathan looked at the three men, then shook his head. "You be sure about that. We got you through this once, and I don't aim to have to do it again." He gathered up his things, packed them in his bag and headed for the door, stopping just inside and looking back at them. "I want to check the wound every day."

"You have my word on that," Ezra assured him. Nathan nodded and pulled the door shut as he left. Ezra turned to Chris. "Now that you've managed to free me from Nathan's clutches, what did you find for me to wear?"

Chris pulled out the bundle of clothing, starting with a pair of cotton drawers and clean socks. He'd selected a blue and white striped cotton shirt and gray slacks. "It was this or your linen night shirt," he told Ezra with a grin.

"This will do fine."

A few minutes later, Ezra was dressed, and, flanked again by Chris and Vin, was on his way across the street to the saloon and his own room. Navigating the stairs took longer than Chris expected, and for a moment, he wondered if they were right to let Ezra move back to his room and not be closer to Nathan, but he shook off the uncertainty, knowing that Ezra would not be left on his own until he was truly healed.

In Ezra's room, Chris smiled at what they found. Not only had Bobby changed the linen, he had filled the pitcher on the wash stand, and laid out clean towels.

"It's good to be home," Ezra said with a sigh, settling on the edge of the bed. "I fear I'm not much company at the moment, though."

"Don't expect you to be," Chris said, "in fact, you and Vin both look dog tired. Time you both got some sleep."

"I don't want to leave--"

"I meant here, Vin. Settle in with Ezra for a nap. Ain't no one going to think twice about us keeping watch today."

Vin thought a moment, then looked at his clothes. "Nothing I'd like more, but not like this. I'm as ripe as Ezra was, and I ain't messing up those clean linens. I'll be back in two shakes, clean as a whistle."

"Chris," Ezra began once they were alone, "I appreciate what you did for Vin, letting him work out his guilt this week."

He looked at Ezra, wondering at the comment.

"I was aware enough," Ezra went on, "to know that most of the time it was Vin at my side. I also remember him talking about how he thought my illness was his fault."

Chris nodded. "That's so."

"It can't have been easy for you to be pushed aside."

"No, it wasn't," Chris said, "but it was what was best for you and for Vin."

Ezra held his gaze for a long moment, then the serious mood was broken as he yawned widely.

Laughing softly, Chris leaned in and kissed Ezra on the forehead. "You need to rest. Let me help you get settled in." With the pillows stacked and Ezra lying down comfortably, Chris figured he'd sit in the rocking chair and wait for Vin to come back, but Ezra's hand on his wrist held him.

"Stay here." Ezra touched the bed next to him.

Hesitating only briefly, Chris lay down next to Ezra, moving carefully to hold him without hurting his ribs. Within minutes, Ezra's breathing had settled into the steady rhythm of sleep. The comfort and security Chris felt drew him into sleep as well.

The snick of the door opening startled Chris awake, momentarily cursing that his gun was too far away to reach.

"Easy, cowboy, it's just me." Vin. Back from his bath. Chris relaxed and smiled, then started to move off the bed. "Stay put, Chris. There's plenty of room for all of us." Vin moved around to the other side of the bed and slid on, taking Ezra's hand and linking their fingers. "Been too long since we had a chance to do this, anyway."

Probably true, Chris thought. They had moments alone, but rarely an excuse for all of them to be together like this. "Yeah, that's so."

"Gentlemen," Ezra said softly, "I surely hope it doesn't take one of us to be injured before this can happen again."

"Thought you were asleep," Chris said.

"I was, until you woke me up."

"Sorry, pard. Didn't mean to."

"Vin, shut up."

"Yes, Ezra."

Within minutes, Chris was the only one of them still awake, and he listened contentedly to the soft sounds of their breathing. Sometimes he wondered what had drawn the three of them together, and other times, moments like this, he didn't care or question, he simply accepted and enjoyed it.