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Chris put his right foot on the bottom step of the clinic stairs. He stopped and looked upwards, wondering how many more times he was going to climb them that week. This was about his tenth visit in five days. Ten times to check on someone he'd come to care deeply about - someone who meant the world to one of his men. He sighed and started the upward climb with slow heavy steps.
He stopped again at the top and surveyed the view as he shook his head sadly. The blond then turned and knocked lightly on Nathan's door before pushing on into the room. He acknowledged the healer's presence with a slight nod of his head before turning his attention to the bed. The motionless form still lay under the covers exactly as he had for the past five days. The only sign of life was the gentle rise and fall of his chest. Chris pursed his lips and looked at the last of the room's occupants. Ezra sat at the side of the bed in the old rickety chair that Nathan kept there for just such occasions. He looked unkempt and was still wearing the same clothes as he had at the start of the affair. He looked worried and at the end of his rope.
"Hey, Ez. How's Joseph doin'?" the gunfighter asked quietly as he put a caring hand on the man's shoulder.
"No change." Ezra just about managed to get the words out of his mouth without breaking down. He knew he was losing the battle to remain in control but he didn't want to show any weakness in front of his friends.
"Nate?" Chris said, turning to the healer hopefully, seeing how upset Ezra was.
"I can't add anything, Chris. Head injuries are never easy. He could wake tomorrow or..." Nathan shrugged helplessly.
"Dammit." Chris looked back at Ezra. "Do you want me to take over for a spell, Ez?" he asked kindly. He'd asked the same question every day and always received the same answer.
"I need to be here."
The blond studied the gambler carefully and let his gaze wander over him from top to toe. "Well, at least let me bring you a change of clothes and something to eat."
Ezra balled an angry fist. "I'm not hungry."
"You've gotta eat, Ez. You won't do Joseph any good if you make yourself sick," Chris replied in something close to exasperation.
"I said I'm not hungry," Ezra reiterated, sounding annoyed.
Chris looked at Nathan with raised eyebrows. Short of force-feeding the man there was nothing much else they could do. Ezra hadn't set foot outside the clinic since Joseph's admission and his moods were fluctuating greatly. Both his friends knew that the circumstances surrounding Joseph's injury had a lot to do with Ezra's current fragile mental state. The gambler blamed himself for it and nothing any of his friends said made any difference.
Chris sighed and thought back to the day when it had all kicked off.
Five days earlier
It had been a day like any other - at the beginning at least:
Chris strolled along the boardwalk, the stiff breeze tugging insistently at his hat brim. He spotted Vin ambling across the street to join him with thumbs hooked nonchalantly on his gun belt.
"Hey, cowboy," the tracker greeted as he smiled lopsidedly. He was wearing a dark blue shirt and for once was without his battered buckskin coat.
"Vin. Join me for breakfast?"
The lopsided grin became a full-blown smile. "Sure, I'm starving."
Chris smiled too and led the way into the saloon. "Morning, Inez," he called to the manageress who was tidying up from the previous busy night behind the bar.
"Senors," the dark-haired lady replied with a dazzling smile. "Breakfast?"
The two peacekeepers strode to their usual table and took up residence. Vin took off his hat and ran his fingers through his long wavy hair. He then hung his headgear on the back of his chair and licked his lips at the prospect of the coming meal. He always enjoyed his breakfast and as Josiah had once said, it was the most important meal of the day.
Chris sat opposite him going over in his mind what needed to be done that day. He nodded to himself in satisfaction as he realized that he had all duties covered. Vin and Josiah were going to patrol outside town, Buck and JD were taking care of the jail, and Nathan had his duties to attend to in the clinic during the morning before helping Chris patrol town in the afternoon. Ezra was not on duty - having been granted a day to spend with his son, Joseph. The blond knew that he could call on the gambler's services if anything cropped up, but it seemed as though everything was in hand.
"Here you go, gentlemen," Inez said as she placed two plates of steaming food in front of them. "Enjoy."
"Sure will, Inez," Vin agreed as he picked up his fork and dug in immediately.
Silence reigned and the only sounds in the room were that of cutlery striking plate. The two men were halfway through their meal when Josiah appeared in the doorway.
"How soon before you're ready to leave, Vin?" he called as he leaned on the top of the batwing doors.
Vin looked up and spoke round a mouthful of egg. "'Bout twenty minutes."
"Meet you at the livery then," the preacher said as he touched his hat brim in acknowledgment and continued along the boardwalk.
The blond then heard two sets of footsteps coming down the stairs in the saloon. He looked over his shoulder and smiled in pleasure. "Hey, Joseph, Ezra."
"Gentlemen," Ezra greeted. "May we join you?"
"Sure, but we've nearly finished," the blond said as he pulled out a chair for Joseph.
"Oh, well, we're going to enjoy a leisurely breakfast before engaging in our pursuits," Ezra said with a smile as he put a protective hand on his son's shoulder and guided him to the chair Chris had indicated.
"What ya got planned?" Vin asked Joseph as the youngster took the seat beside him while fisting his eyes and yawning extravagantly. *Like father, like son - not morning people,* he thought to himself wryly.
"Pa and I are gonna go riding this morning, then we're gonna play with my toy soldiers," Joseph replied shyly.
"Sounds great," the tracker enthused as he patted the six-year-old's back gently.
Vin knew how much Joseph enjoyed his soldiers. Ezra and Chris had spent hours whittling the little human forms for the boy to play with. He now had quite a collection and liked to recreate battles with them.
"Senor Standish, what can I get for you and Joseph?" Inez asked as she appeared soundlessly by his side.
"Same as usual, senorita, if you please."
Inez nodded and left to fill the orders.
The gambler watched her leave and then turned to his leader. "Are you sure you can manage without me today?"
"Sure I'm sure," the gunfighter said with a placating smile. "We've got an easy day for once. You two go have fun."
He looked at Joseph and Ezra and studied them for a moment or two. *Like two peas in a pod,* he thought to himself. Joseph had the same hair and eye color as his father and there was absolutely no doubting his parentage. Chris couldn't help a pang of regret that he hadn't got the opportunity to play with Adam, his late son, any more. He knew he was exceedingly privileged though that Ezra had invited him to have some involvement in bringing up Joseph. He'd enjoyed many a day with the youngster, but somehow it would never make up for the loss of his own son.
The blond wiped his mouth after finishing his meal and stood up. "Have a good day, kid," he said to Joseph as he ruffled the child's hair affectionately.
"I will, Uncle Chris," Joseph replied as he looked up at the tall gunfighter in something close to admiration.
The blond touched his hat brim and headed on out.
"What delights can you look forward to today, Mr. Tanner?" Ezra asked with a mischievous grin.
"Oh, I got patrol out of town with Josiah."
"Happy trails," Ezra said as Vin stood up and put his hat back on.
"You, too. See ya later."
"Bye, Uncle Vin."
Ezra smiled at his son indulgently. He still couldn't quite believe his good fortune in having had Joseph returned to him the previous year. After enduring five years of torture when his son had been missing, the last year had been a pure joy. He now had a proper family, including Mrs. Turner, Joseph's grandmother, who lived nearby in Four Corners. Maude, Ezra's mother, visited whenever she could and Joseph was spoiled rotten by both women.
"Here you go, gentlemen," Inez said as she approached them with a laden tray. She carried it with ease though and settled it on the table beside Ezra. She lifted off the smaller plate first along with a cup of milk and placed both items in front of Joseph with a warm smile. She then served Ezra his larger plate of food and placed a mug of coffee beside him too. "Have you got everything you need?"
"What a veritable feast, senorita. I thank you kindly," Ezra said with a nod of his head.
She smiled again and left her customers to enjoy their meal.
"All right, Joseph?" Ezra asked after a few minutes of silent eating.
Joseph nodded, poking another forkful of food awkwardly into his mouth as he looked at his father. "Nice," he said around the food in his mouth.
"Now, now, a gentleman never speaks with his mouth full," Ezra reprimanded. "I'm glad you're enjoying it though," he continued, to soften the rebuke. He reached out and patted at his son's mouth with his napkin when he noticed an errant piece of egg yolk rolling down his chin.
Father and son finished their meal companionably and rounded it off with a last sip of their drinks, leaving the younger of the pair with a milky mustache. Ezra smiled and leaned over once more to clean his son up.
The gambler stood up and put his hat on ready to go outside. He waved to Inez and then escorted Joseph onto the boardwalk. They turned and headed toward the livery and were just in time to see Vin and Josiah set off on patrol. The tracker touched his hat brim in acknowledgment of their presence, while Josiah just bowed his head and grinned.
Ezra and Joseph went on inside the livery to find Yosemite leading a small pony to the hitching rail.
"Hey, Poncho," Joseph called as he hurried toward his mount. The paint eyed him calmly and blinked slowly.
Joseph patted the pony's neck and smiled up at Yosemite. The older man handed over a brush and the child moved into position to start grooming the pony ready for the coming ride.
Ezra left his son in Yosemite's capable hands and went to get his own horse ready.
Half an hour later, the two of them rode out of the barn and set off out of town. As soon as they reached open space, Ezra could tell his horse would like nothing better than to run freely. The gambler kept a tight rein though and made sure the animal proceeded at a walk. If he'd been on his own he'd have let the horse have its head and gone at speed across the grass. As it was, he had his son to consider and he didn't want any harm to come to him through recklessness. The boy was a good rider but even so, Ezra was always cautious.
"Shall we ride out and see Miz. Nettie?"
"Yeah! I like Auntie Nettie!" came the enthusiastic reply.
"That's settled then," Ezra said as he changed direction toward the old lady's cabin. "Fancy going a bit faster?"
"Yes, please," Joseph agreed as he kicked Poncho into a trot and set off with gusto.
"Wait for me," Ezra called with a smile.
He pulled alongside his son and they continued at the steady pace for a while before Ezra pushed on into a lope. Joseph squealed in delight and did the same, his little pony's legs going fast as he tried to keep up with Ezra's much larger horse.
Nettie's cabin came into view on the horizon and Ezra pulled back to a walk. Two horses could be seen in the nearby corral, one sorrel and the other gray, both lazily flicking at flies with their tails. Smoke drifted slowly upward from the cabin's chimney and the scene had a homely feel to it.
They ambled into the yard and dismounted in front of the porch, tying their mounts to the hitching rail.
Nettie came out to see who it was and her face lit up when she saw Joseph. "Well, if it isn't one of my favorite people. Hello, Joseph."
The youngster looked up and beamed from ear to ear. "Hello, Auntie Nettie. Have you made any cookies?"
"Joseph," Ezra said in despair at his son's forthrightness.
Nettie smiled broadly at the gambler. "It's all right, Ezra. I've always got cookies in case I get visitors. Come inside."
Joseph and Ezra climbed the few steps onto the porch and followed her into the cabin where Ezra looked around curiously.
"No Casey?" he asked with a raised eyebrow.
Nettie shook her head. "She's gone to visit a neighbor who's not well," she said as she indicated that her guests should sit down.
"All the more cookies for me," Joseph said mischievously as he clambered onto a chair.
Ezra laughed and ruffled his son's hair affectionately.
"Take a seat, Ezra," Nettie said as she moved to see to her guests' needs.
She placed a glass of milk on the table next to Joseph and a plate of freshly baked cookies. The youngster took a bite from one and smiled. Nettie was a really good cook. He then took a sip of his drink. He sat with the glass in one hand and a cookie in the other and alternated the two between his mouth.
Nettie brewed a strong coffee for Ezra and then sat beside him. The two adults traded news while Joseph worked his way through the plate of cookies. The youngster ended the feast with a resounding belch.
"Beg pardon," he said as he put a hand over his mouth.
"Good Lord, Joseph. I can't take you anywhere, can I?" Ezra said good-naturedly.
The child giggled and licked his lips to rid them of a few leftover crumbs.
"Well, thank you for feeding my son, Miz. Nettie. What have you got to say, Joseph?" Ezra asked.
Joseph turned to his host and rubbed his tummy. "Thank you, Auntie Nettie, the cookies were great."
Nettie smiled and touched Joesph's cheek gently. "You're welcome, son."
Ezra rose and put on his hat and headed to the door. "I expect we'll see you in town sometime," he said as he turned back and smiled, beckoning Joseph to join him.
"You surely will. See you, Joseph," Nettie said as she followed them out on to the porch.
"Goodbye, Auntie Nettie."
Ezra helped his son mount Poncho and handed him his reins before climbing aboard his own horse. He saluted Nettie while Joseph waved goodbye enthusiastically.
The two of them then enjoyed a sedate ride in the open air as they headed back to town. Poncho trotted amiably beside Ezra's horse having enjoyed himself immensely. Without the need for words, the look on Joseph's face was enough to assure Ezra that the youngster had had a good time too.
On arrival back in town, and after seeing to their steeds' needs, Joseph took up position at a quiet table in the saloon. He pulled his toy soldiers from the box that he'd collected from his room and set them up in a line before him. He then quite happily began to play with them, conjuring up battle scenes and making the appropriate noises to accompany his play.
Ezra sat with him for a while but realized his presence wasn't really required. Joseph was well and truly submerged in his game.
"Is it all right if I go and see Chris?" he asked as he watched his son move the soldiers around the table and knock one or two over who had been 'killed'.
"Stay put and behave yourself, won't you?" the gambler said seriously.
"I know. You're a good boy, Joseph." Ezra bent over and planted a kiss on top of his son's head.
The gambler headed on outside and was just in time to see Chris and Nathan begin their rounds of the town. He stepped down into the street and ambled over to meet them.
"Good afternoon, gentlemen."
"Hey, Ez. Where's Joseph?" Chris asked as he looked around curiously.
Ezra grinned charmingly. "Battling the forces of evil with his toy soldiers. He doesn't require my services so I came to see if I could be of assistance."
While the peacekeepers talked, three well-dressed strangers rode into town and stopped outside the bank. The tallest of the trio dismounted first and brushed down his clothes to rid them of the trail dust. He then reached up to his saddle and pulled down a bag. Meanwhile, his companions, one dark and the other blond, had also dismounted and were waiting for their leader's next move. The leader, Jude, looked up and down the street before heading to the bank with the other two following in his wake. Jude, and his oldest friend, Carrick, joined the queue with the other customers, while the final man, Peyton, hung around by the door. He looked around calmly taking in the scene before him with a practiced eye.
At last, his two friends were called to the teller. They approached normally enough, but all of a sudden, they drew their guns and aimed them unerringly at the unfortunate man. The teller raised his hands and looked around helplessly as his heart began to beat fiercely in his chest.
"Hand over all the money from your drawer, if you'd be so kind," Jude ordered politely as he held the bag ready to put in their ill-gotten gains.
The other customers screamed and turned to make a hasty exit through the door. However, they found their way barred by Peyton who waved his gun at them to keep them back.
The black-clad gunfighter whirled round as he heard a gunshot ring out from the bank. That sound, combined with the screams from the customers, could only mean one thing - a robbery was taking place.
He indicated for his friends to spread out to cover the bank's entrance. Chris then crouched low and scurried across the street to get closer to the building. He found a safe place to hide which also provided him with a good view of the door to the bank. He looked back over to the opposite boardwalk and saw Nathan duck down behind some sturdy boxes. Ezra was crouching nearby, his gaze fixed on the bank's door.
The blond turned his attention back to the bank, relying on his men to sort themselves out. He settled in to await developments. If only he could get along to untie the robbers' horses to rob them of their means of escape. He did not dare be so bold in the circumstances though. The men inside the bank were obviously not afraid to use their weapons and Chris didn't feel like dying today.
The healer looked out from his vantage point and realized he'd picked a pretty good place to hide. He could see up and down the street well and he was almost opposite the bank's door. At the moment he had a clear shot if the robbers should decide to emerge from the building.
Nathan looked to his left and right for any signs of danger nearby. There was always the chance that lookouts had been left outside to deal with any intervention from the law. The healer's eyes narrowed as he spotted two people further up the street who were moving closer to the bank. The town's citizens were all moving in the other direction, so it piqued his curiosity. He caught Ezra's eye and indicated that they might have others to contend with. He pointed to the two men, Miguel and Robert, and raised his eyebrows. Ezra nodded and indicated that he'd work his way round so that he would approach them from behind. Nathan nodded in reply and then settled back to see what would happen next. He just wished that all seven peacekeepers were present to deal with the situation. There were Lord knows how many men in the bank as well as the two out on the street. They could well find themselves outnumbered and that was a situation that he didn't relish.
Ezra crouched low on the boardwalk as he looked across at the bank's entrance. He was out in the open and he hoped that the robbers wouldn't choose that moment to effect their escape.
Ezra quickly stood up and ran to the corner of the building. He stepped off the boardwalk and set off at speed along the alley until he reached the road at the back that ran parallel to the main street. He looked up and down anxiously but saw that it was empty. He sighed in relief and took the opportunity to check his weapons before he went any further.
Chris was still watching the door of the bank intently and was tensed ready for action. A hush of anticipation had descended upon the town and when he looked around there were very few people in sight. He was glad to see that two of those people were Buck and JD who had been alerted to possible trouble by a civic-minded local. The two peacekeepers were carefully making their way down the boardwalk on the opposite side of the street, guns drawn.
The bank door suddenly opened and the three robbers came storming out, shooting as they came and aiming right at Chris and Nathan, unaware that JD and Buck would soon have them in their sights.
"Damn," Chris cursed as a bullet came exceedingly close to his head. "They musta spotted us." He hunkered down and waited for a lull in the shooting. Before that happened though he was alarmed to discover that he was also being fired on from behind. "Shit, surrounded."
"Damn," Ezra cursed as he heard the sound of gunfire, realizing he may well be too late.
He holstered his gun and ran along the street until he estimated he was now behind the two strangers. He walked quietly up the next alley until he reached the end. He then flattened himself against the wall and took a deep breath before poking his head round the corner carefully. He saw that he was indeed behind Miguel and Robert, who seemed to have found good protective places to hide. He cursed when he took in the fact that both men had their guns drawn and were firing relentlessly at Chris, who could do no more than cower behind an overturned table on the boardwalk. Ezra scowled as he realized that he couldn't get a clear shot at either of his friend's assailants. He knew he couldn't tackle both men at once, but if he could distract their attention away from Chris for a moment it would be a start. Hopefully that would even things up a bit and mean that Chris could tackle one of the men himself while Ezra dealt with the other.
He looked across the street and realized that he might have a better vantage point from over there. He bent double and ran for all he was worth until he came up against a couple of large beer barrels that were outside the saloon. He now had Miguel in his sights and he aimed carefully and fired. His bullet knocked the man's hat off his head and made him duck behind his barricade. Miguel, a heavy-set man in his forties, turned his attention to his new foe, while the other man continued firing at Chris.
Chris hunkered behind the table unable to defend himself at all. He was pleased when he heard gunfire coming from the direction of JD and Buck. Slowly the number of bullets being sent his way from the bank
got less and less as his friends garnered the robbers' attention. He was still being attacked from behind though and he turned to face that way. He was just in time to see Ezra run across the road behind the two men and take up position on his side of the street. He looked back toward the bank and saw that Nathan, Buck and JD had indeed gotten things fairly under control there.
He heard Ezra start firing at Miguel and it gave Chris the opportunity to fight back now that his assailants' attention had been drawn elsewhere. He fired off a few shots of his own, making the second man duck instinctively.
In the saloon itself another gang member had gained entrance through the back. He stepped through the curtain with gun drawn and shouted to gain the customers' attention.
"Do as I say and no one will get hurt," he said as he waved his gun about as he walked forward indicating that the clientele should move to the back of the room.
Joseph had been startled from his game by the shout and he dithered, unsure of what to do. He stood up from his chair and looked around him in fright. He wanted his father's company at such a time and he looked out the window just in time to see Ezra creeping along the boardwalk outside. He sighed in relief and bit his lip apprehensively. He then looked back at the gang member and saw that he was concentrating on the adults in the room. The child realized this was his chance to escape and he ran toward the batwing doors intent on joining up with his father outside.
Ezra was oblivious to what was going on in the saloon. His concentration was totally focused on the man in front of him. He'd made his way closer and he stopped behind a table to see what action his foe was going to take next. Miguel stood up slowly, looking round for a means of escape. He saw a nearby alley and he began to back toward it. Ezra, though, had Miguel in his sights and he aimed his gun at him, getting his gun lined on the man's chest.
He fired just as Joseph burst through the saloon door, shouting "Pa! Pa!"
Nathan raised himself up a bit and fired over the top of the boxes. The three robbers were on the boardwalk firing at him, seeming now to have dismissed Chris as a threat, having now come under attack from JD and Buck too. It was three on three and a fairer fight. The healer took a quick look to where he'd last seen his leader and he saw that Ezra and he were engaged in a gunfight with the two strangers. He turned his attention back to the immediate problem of capturing the bank robbers.
The robbers' horses were getting skittish as shots sounded around them. They jog-trotted from side to side, interfering with Nathan's aim. Just as a gang member was in his sights a horse moved to block the shot.
Nathan saw that Jude had now moved and was standing in amongst the horses. He was trying to mount his horse so Nathan took careful aim, knowing that he couldn't allow him to escape. He squeezed off a shot, knocking the man from the saddle before he'd even settled into it. Jude landed with a thump in the dirt and lay unmoving.
*One down, two to go,* the healer thought to himself.
He raised his gun again, but saw the man he was aiming at shudder as he was hit in the shoulder by a bullet from Buck's gun.
"Put your gun down," Nathan shouted to Peyton, the only uninjured man left. "We've got you outnumbered."
He saw Peyton look down the street to where his comrades were supposed to be watching his back. He saw that they were otherwise engaged so he wisely decided to give up. It seemed that the whole gang was surrounded. It was only a matter of time before they had all been subdued and he was wise enough to know when he was beaten. He cursed, dropped his gun and put his hands in the air.
Nathan rose from his hiding place and covered the robbers while Buck and JD went towards them to cuff and arrest them. The two that were still alive that is.
Nathan was just about to go and offer his services to the injured robber when he heard Joseph shout. He turned just in time to see something that would haunt him for the rest of his days.
Chris heard that the gunfire from the bank had now ceased. He nodded in satisfaction that things were under control in one quarter. He continued firing at Robert, seeing that Ezra was dealing with Miguel efficiently.
He took a quick look at his friend and saw Ezra working his way toward Miguel who was now standing. He saw the gambler aim his gun at the man, but the blond's attention was distracted from the scene when he saw Joseph run out onto the boardwalk between his father and the gunman.
"Oh, God, no," he whispered as he watched in disbelief as events unfolded.
Ezra stood stunned after firing his gun. His son uttered a small 'umph' sound and collapsed on the boardwalk. He'd run straight into the path of Ezra's bullet.
"No! Joseph!" the gambler cried in horror as he saw his son fall. His attention was held by the vision of his son's lifeless body lying on the boardwalk in front of him. Nothing else registered with him at all and he didn't see his own danger. Miguel smiled ferally, realizing that Ezra had frozen. He fired at the gambler - missing, but not by much.
Nathan acted quickly, shooting and killing Miguel who had his gun trained on Ezra again. Chris, meanwhile, stopped the second man on the other side of the street from intervening. Robert had stood up to try and defend his colleague, but he'd left himself wide open to being shot. Chris took advantage of the man's lack of thought and snapped off a quick shot and caught him in the stomach. He watched as he bent double and fell to the ground.
Nathan stood up and raced across the street to join up with Ezra but it was at this point that the man in the saloon made his presence felt. He smashed a window and fired out onto the boardwalk narrowly missing the hastily approaching healer.
"Stay down, Ez," Nathan called as he dived behind the boxes where Miguel lay. He kept his head down as the man continued to fire in his direction.
Chris didn't dare fire at the window because he didn't want to hit any innocent civilians inside.
Suddenly there was a lull in the firing as the man was forced to reload. Nathan popped his head up from where he was hiding, but before he could do anything he heard a gunshot from inside the saloon and the man came tumbling out of the window to land dead at his feet.
"I got him," Inez called unnecessarily, having used the rifle she kept hidden behind the counter for just such occasions.
Ezra snapped out of his trance-like state and ran to his son's motionless body. Nathan arrived seconds later and knelt beside the boy. He turned the child over gently and could see immediately that he'd been hit in the head.
"Bring him to the clinic," he ordered Ezra after checking that Joseph was indeed still alive.
The gambler stooped and pulled his son's body into this arms and blindly set off after Nathan. He was shaking in shock and it took all he had just to keep on his feet. He really wasn't concentrating on what he was doing, all he knew was that he had to follow Nathan.
The healer reached the clinic steps and he raced up them two at a time. Ezra followed as fast as he could with his precious burden. He was more careful on the stairs, going one at a time while replaying events over in his mind.
"I should never have left you alone. It would never have happened if I'd stayed with you. I'm so sorry, son," he mumbled forlornly.
Nathan barged through the clinic door and held it open as Ezra maneuvered through behind him.
"Put Joseph on the bed, Ez," the healer ordered.
Ezra did as he was told and then just stood beside the bed holding his son's hand tightly. Earlier in the day father and son had held hands as they'd walked along the street. Then, Joseph had gripped Ezra's hand tightly and the gambler had felt the life flowing through the small appendage. Now, that same hand was limp, immobile and seemed to be cold in his grasp. For the first time in ages he desperately sent up a pleading prayer to God. *Please don't take away my son. He's all I have left to live for in this life.* He couldn't bear the thought of losing his only son. He'd lost his fiancee and it was more then his heart could stand if he had the result of that union taken away from him as well. The gambler was numb at the tragic turn of events and all he could do was stare at the bullet wound in Joseph's head as he continued praying hard.
Nathan quickly washed his hands and then moved to stand on the opposite side of the bed from Ezra. He reached out tentatively and probed the wound and Joseph's skull. He sucked his lower lip and blew out a breath.
"I think he's been damned lucky. The bullet deflected somehow and has run along the side of his skull by the feel of it. It doesn't seem to have penetrated into his brain at all, but I'll only know for sure when I get the bullet out."
He received no answer from the child's father. He flicked a concerned look at Ezra and saw he was standing statue-like, face immobile. The healer didn't think he'd heard a word he'd just said.
"Ez?" Nathan called gently. "Do you really need to be here while I do this?"
Ezra heard the voice as if from afar. He didn't react to it, just continued staring at his son.
"Ezra? If you're gonna stay, I'll need your help," Nathan said.
The healer heard the door of the clinic open and he turned round to find Chris just inside the room.
"I don't think Ezra is up to helping you right now, Nate. Tell me what needs doing and I'll do my best," the blond said as he took off his gun-belt and hat and put them aside safely. He then walked to the bowl of water and washed his hands as well.
Nathan nodded and smiled gratefully. "Can you hold his head steady for me?"
"Sure," the black-clad gunfighter said quietly as he moved to the bed. He moved Ezra to one side slightly and climbed on to the bed, settling himself as comfortably as he could. He reached out his hands and clasped the child's head in a firm grip.
"Ready, Chris?" the healer asked as he traded glances with the man, knowing he must be suffering too.
The blond nodded curtly, not trusting his voice as emotion overwhelmed him.
"Can you twist his head to the left? The bullet ran along the right side of his head under the skin."
Chris did as he was told and adjusted his grip again.
Nathan bent over the small body and held out his scalpel. He took a deep breath and lowered the instrument to the boy's skin. He made an incision over the child's ear and eased the lump of metal out carefully. The resulting cut set about bleeding profusely and Nathan picked up some clean rags to staunch the flow.
"Hold this in place, will ya, Chris?" he asked, feeling the blond take over the grip on the bloody rags.
Nathan then probed in more depth the main wound in the child's forehead and winced. After his initial optimism, his heart now dropped at what he'd discovered. *Why didn't I keep my mouth shut?*
"Nate?" Chris asked tentatively when he heard the healer's intake of breath.
"He's fractured his skull where the bullet originally entered his head. There's nothing more I can do but hope it heals with no ill effects. He's gonna be unconscious because of the impact of the shot, but I can't say for how long. Head injuries are always worrying."
Chris looked down at the boy he held and clenched his jaw. He'd lost his own son and didn't know if he could cope if he lost another child who'd become so close to him. He looked up at Ezra, knowing it was much harder for him. Joseph was his flesh and blood after all. The blond vowed to help Ezra through the coming hours which would be the most difficult he'd ever have to face.
"I'll just stitch and bandage him up and then it's in God's hands," Nathan said, interrupting Chris's thoughts.
The healer found a needle and thread and set about the painstaking task of stitching the wounds closed. He then covered them with thick bandages to afford a bit of protection to Joseph's damaged head.
Ezra hadn't moved an inch throughout the procedure and he'd clung tightly to Joseph's hand all the time. He hadn't made a sound and seemed trapped in his nightmare.
Chris stood up and pulled over a chair. "Take a seat, Ez," he said as he reached out to his friend's elbow and eased him down onto the seat. "Is there anything I can do for you?" he asked gently.
Ezra bowed his head, tears finally springing to his eyes. Chris reached out his arm and put it round the man's shoulder when he saw that he was finally succumbing to emotion. He didn't know what to say to the man, so he just stayed beside him, hoping his presence gave him some comfort.
Ezra was experiencing a lot of different emotions. Fear, guilt and anger all vied for supremacy and he was finding it hard not to let loose a heartfelt scream to release some of the tension he was feeling.
"Nate? Can I leave Ez in your hands while I go and tell the others what's happened?" the blond asked as he looked up at the healer.
"Sure," Nathan said as he moved to take Chris's place by Ezra's side.
The blond stood and walked to the door after collecting his belongings. He looked back at the scene hoping it wasn't real, but it was no dream. He sighed and shook his head before opening the door and setting off to the jail where he knew JD and Buck would be. He took his time, not relishing the task of telling his friends the sad news. He stopped for a minute outside the jail with his hand on the door handle. He knew he couldn't put it off any longer so he pushed on in to find JD and Buck sitting at the desk with Josiah and Vin who had returned from their patrol. Chris heard Buck filling the two men in about the bank robbery and subsequent gunfight.
"Hey, pard. Wondered where you got to. We've cleared up the mess and got our friend behind bars safely. Seen to his wound as best we can, but Nate better look at it, I reckon." The ladies' man then saw the look on his oldest friend's face and frowned. "Pard? What's happened?"
"Joseph's been badly hurt."
Buck sat up straight, heart pounding. "What? How?"
"It was an accident, but during the gunfight earlier Ezra shot him in the head," the blond said quietly.
"Jesus Christ. How's Ezra?"
The black-clad gunfighter sighed. "How do you think? He's devastated."
"How did it happen exactly?" JD asked as he stood up, fidgeting as he always did in situations he didn't know how to deal with.
Chris explained what he'd seen and he watched the faces of his friends pale as he talked.
"Is Joseph gonna live?" Vin asked in shock, standing hipshot.
Chris took off his hat and wiped his forehead. "He's unconscious and has fractured his skull. Nate's done all he can so all we can do is wait."
"And pray," Josiah said as he looked up to Heaven. "Do you think Ezra needs me up there now?"
"Yeah, he certainly needs somebody with him. Nate's still there, but he needs to watch over Joseph so can't devote so much time to him," Chris said as he accepted a hot sweet coffee from Buck.
"Okay, I'll do my best for him," the tall preacher said as he left the jail.
He hurried across the street and made his way to the clinic. He thought about that morning when he'd seen Ezra and Joseph before they'd set off for their ride. The youngster's face had been alight with anticipation and it was hard to imagine what had happened later in the day. Would he see that dazzling smile again? He sure hoped so.
He knocked on the clinic door and entered when he heard Nathan call out. He stopped just inside the door and surveyed the scene before him. Ezra was hunched over in the chair by the bed. Joseph was lying terribly still on the mattress and Josiah couldn't help but fear the worse. He looked at Nathan and received a sad shrug from him.
"Ezra?" the preacher called as he moved to stand beside his friend. "I'm so sorry to hear about what happened. Do you want to talk about it?"
Ezra sniffed and shook his head. He clenched his jaw and then stroked the back of Joseph's hand gently, willing him to wake up.
Josiah watched his friend worriedly. He really feared for his mental health. When Joseph had been kidnapped all those years ago, it had broken Ezra. The gambler had become a changed character, morose, depressed - almost suicidal - through those bleak years. The preacher feared the same would happen again if his son died. Maybe Ezra would even take it that extra step by actually taking his own life.
"It wasn't your fault, you know," he said quietly as he laid a gentle hand on the man's shoulder.
"I pulled the trigger. Who else is to blame?" Ezra asked, with an angry edge to his voice.
"It was an accident, son. You didn't set out to harm Joseph. He was just in the wrong place at the wrong time," Josiah said reasonably.
"Doesn't take away the guilt, Josiah," Ezra whispered as he wiped his eyes slowly. "Whichever way you look at it, I shot him."
Nathan appeared in view as he checked his patient over. He knew he was facing his biggest challenge yet. He really didn't want to lose the battle to save Joseph's life. Ezra, he knew, would never forgive him. Hell, he'd never forgive himself. He looked over at Ezra and saw how upset he was. He cursed because he knew that at the moment there was nothing he could say or do to ease his pain.
The healer sighed and then wandered round the room and started to light the lamps that were scattered round. Dusk was fast approaching and the room was becoming dark. The muted light the lamps gave off reflected the atmosphere in the room - subdued.
The three men stayed together in the clinic - Nathan and Josiah doing all they could to support Ezra through the bleakest time of his life. The night stretched ahead of them, each hour dragging by with no sign of life from Joseph at all.
The sun finally rose and shone brightly through the clinic's windows bringing a cheerfulness that wasn't echoed by the room's occupants. Josiah stood up and stretched before setting off round the room to blow out the lamps. Nathan rose too and headed to the bed to check on his patient.
There was a knock at the door and Vin entered with a tray laden with food.
"Hey, fellas. Thought you could do with something to eat," he said as he put the tray down on a nearby table.
He looked across at the bed and shook his head as he saw Joseph just lying there not moving. He then looked at the child's father, knowing he must be going through hell.
"Ez? If there's anything I can do, you just say the word."
"Can you make sure my son doesn't die?" Ezra asked quietly but forcefully.
"No," the tracker answered honestly.
"Then there is nothing you can do for me," the gambler replied sullenly.
Vin sighed at the defeat he heard in his friend's voice. It was as if he had already given up. Vin looked at Josiah and Nathan and left the room without another word.
"Have something to eat, Ez," Josiah said as he rose to get a plate of food for his friend.
"I'm not hungry."
"Well, you must have a drink." The preacher poured a strong coffee and handed it over.
Ezra took it without a word of thanks and sat sipping the hot liquid as he continued to stare at Joseph. He really didn't want the drink, but he hoped the caffeine in the brew would keep him awake. That was the only reason he accepted it. He didn't want to fall asleep in case something happened to Joseph.
Meanwhile, out on the balcony, Vin met up with Chris who was making his way to the clinic to check on Joseph.
"How are they both?" the blond asked as he eyed his friend curiously. The tracker looked tense, but given the circumstances, that was hardly surprising.
Vin shrugged and rubbed his eyes with his right hand wearily. "Joseph is still unconscious, but it must be good that he survived the night. Ez is real bad. He don't seem to be coping at all."
Chris nodded unhappily. "I'll go and speak to him. Josiah still there?"
"Yeah, and Nate."
The two friends exchanged glances and nodded goodbyes. Vin continued on his way to get his own breakfast, while Chris knocked on the clinic's door and entered. He stopped just inside the door and studied the three strained occupants. Nathan and Josiah were eating breakfast, although neither man looked comfortable doing so in front of Ezra. The gambler sat slumped in the chair by the bed. He hadn't touched the plate of food that had been placed beside him. He looked defeated, tired and in the depths of despair.
"How ya doin', Ez?" Chris asked as he moved to stand beside his upset friend.
"It isn't me you should be concerning yourself with," Ezra replied quietly without looking up.
"Yes, it is. You may not be physically hurt, but you're still suffering," Chris said as he laid a gentle hand on the gambler's shoulder and gave it a squeeze. "Shall I send a telegram to get Mrs Turner to come home?" he asked.
Ezra was silent for a moment, having forgotten all about Joseph's grandmother and the fact that she had gone away to visit relatives. He sighed and ran his fingers through his hair. "No. She's still traveling and won't reach her destination for another couple of days."
"We could have a message left for when she arrives," Chris suggested.
"We might as well wait until she gets there."
"Okay, we may have more positive news to give her then as well," Chris said in encouragement. "What about Maude?"
"I don't even know where she is at the moment, but you know what she's like. She disappears for weeks on end and then turns up on the other side of the country," Ezra admitted as his voice cracked with emotion. "I'm still waiting to hear from her."
Chris sighed. It seemed as though it was down to the six of them to manage the situation then. Not that it was a problem, but Ezra's mother was never around when there was a crisis. She was very rarely around to support her son in any capacity. Presents arrived at regular intervals for Joseph, but she visited infrequently. This was a time when having other members of his family around would have meant everything to the gambler, but both grandparents were out of reach and would be for quite some time.
The black-clad gunfighter sighed again before sitting on the bed close by and watching over his friend and Joseph.
...And so it continued for the next four days. Ezra's friends took it in turns to sit with him and tried, but failed, to get him to eat. The hours of waiting dragged by and Joseph showed no signs of waking.
Chris ran the fingers of his right hand through his hair and turned to leave. "I'll be back shortly, Nate," he said to the healer.
The gunfighter then left the clinic and made his way over to Ezra's room in the saloon. He entered and moved to the closet where he picked over the clothes inside until he had a complete set of everything Ezra would need. His eyes lingered on the smaller clothes that were kept alongside Ezra's. He reached out and got hold of the sleeve of one of Joseph's shirts. He thought of the last time he'd seen the boy wearing it. Joseph had been running about in the street with some of the other children from the town. Chris smiled as he remembered Joseph laughing out loud as he was chased. He wondered if he'd ever hear that cheerful sound again. He closed the closet door and shook his head sadly before picking up the pile of clothes and hugging them to his chest tightly.
He went downstairs, spurs jingling as he walked, and stepped out onto the boardwalk. His gaze fixed on Mrs. Potter's store and he pursed his lips thoughtfully before changing direction toward it.
"Hello, Mrs. Potter," he said on entering the store.
"Oh, Mr. Larabee, how's young Joseph?" she asked, with a concerned smile.
The black-clad man shook his head and shrugged. "Still no change, I'm afraid. I'm actually here about Ezra, though. He hasn't been eating since the accident and I happen to know he's rather partial to your fruit cake. You wouldn't happen to have any to spare? I'm trying to tempt him with something."
"Why, of course I have. Wait just a moment." She disappeared into the back of the store and emerged a while later with a large slice of cake on a plate. "Is that enough?"
"Perfect. Let's just hope it does the trick."
The blond took the offered treat and then continued on his journey to the clinic. He didn't have a free hand to knock the door when he arrived so he called out to the healer inside instead.
"Nate? Can you let me in, please?"
The ex-slave duly obliged and Chris stepped inside carefully.
"Here ya go, Ez, some clean clothes for you. I bumped into Mrs. Potter and she sent over this for you too," Chris said as he placed the cake in plain view.
Ezra eyed it as his mouth watered at the sight of it. He licked his lips in anticipation of eating it. His stomach chose that moment to grumble and he pursed his lips in indecision. He was past actual hunger and he felt rather sick as a result. He was constantly faint and dizzy because he'd gone so long without food.
"How about a cup of coffee to go with it?" Nathan asked temptingly.
"I'd like a cup of coffee, please," Ezra agreed, still not having said that he'd eat the cake with it.
Chris decided not to push it and to let Ezra make up his own mind. The blond sat on the bed and patted Joseph's leg instead.
"Hey, kid. How ya doin'? Maybe when you're better you can have some cake too. I know how much you like it. You're your father's son all right."
Chris could see Ezra out of the corner of his eye and he saw the gambler keep glancing at the cake. Nathan put a cup of coffee down beside it and stepped back.
"There you are, Ezra. Hot, sweet and strong."
"Thank you, Mr. Jackson."
Ezra picked up the cup and took a sip. His eyes once more moved to stare at the moist, succulent cake. He then looked over at Joseph and bit his lip. Neither Chris nor Nathan said a word. They just continued their vigil. They had the feeling Ezra was wavering and they didn't want to put him off. Silence reigned as Ezra sat and consumed his drink and alternated his gaze between his son and the cake.
Ezra's stomach rumbled again as the cake's aroma wafted under his nostrils. He clenched his jaw before reaching out with a shaking hand and breaking off a small segment. He looked up at his companions and put it in his mouth. It really was too hard to resist, even given the current circumstances.
"Okay, Ez?" Chris asked as he watched his friend chewing.
"Yes, it's very nice. Please relay my gratitude to Mrs. Potter for me."
"Gonna eat the rest?"
"Presently," Ezra said as he washed the cake down with a mouthful of coffee.
Slowly, over the next half an hour, Ezra ate the rest of the cake. Chris was immensely pleased to have got some food into the man, but he didn't make a fuss about it. He just patted Ezra's shoulder gently.
Josiah entered the room soon after and Nathan left to catch up on some rest. The preacher saw the empty plate covered in crumbs and he looked over at Chris and raised his eyebrows. Chris nodded in reply and Josiah smiled. He knew that Nathan in particular had been getting increasingly concerned that Ezra had refused to eat. The lack of food had begun to show in the gambler. His cheeks had hollowed slightly and he'd looked increasingly pale as each day had passed. He hadn't shaved at all and the unkempt whiskers completed the sense of neglect.
"Gonna get changed?" Chris asked quietly as he patted the nearby pile of clothes.
"I really wish you wouldn't fuss," Ezra said irritably.
"It will make you feel better."
The gambler turned a scathing look of the gunfighter. "I won't feel better until Joseph is well," he snapped.
Chris winced, knowing he'd said the wrong thing. "I'm sorry, Ez. I know you won't. I just thought you might like to freshen up."
"I'm perfectly all right as I am," Ezra said shortly as he turned his attention back to the bed.
He sighed and shook his head as he thought back over events. The gambler had never felt so helpless. The situation was totally out of his control and it terrified him. He knew that Nathan had done everything possible for his son, but the uncertainty was killing him. His friends had been unstintingly supportive to him throughout the ordeal, overbearingly so on occasion. Even though he'd always had company he'd never felt so alone in all his life. He was due to have more company soon too. Mrs. Turner had been summoned home and was due to arrive on the stage the next day. Of Maude, though, there was still no word.
He looked over at Joseph and studied him minutely for any change. The boy was pale, his medium-length hair laying limply on the pillow under his head like a halo. It was just as if he was sleeping and would wake at any minute demanding milk and cookies.
Ezra reached out and picked up Joseph's hand. He rubbed the back of it gently and looked up at his son's face again to see if there was any reaction to the touch. His heart sank further when he detected none.
The guilt that Ezra felt over Joseph's plight was still as sharp as ever. He played the scene over and over in his mind, unable to stop the terrible images. Each replay struck to his very soul, a never ending nightmare.
Dusk descended and Nathan started lighting the lamps around the clinic. Ezra watched him distractedly before turning his attention back to his son. The hours of darkness stretched ahead interminably and the gambler didn't know how much more he could take. Five days was a long time to wait for a loved one to wake. He began to wonder if his son would ever resurface.
The green-eyed man rubbed his chin wearily and sighed, despair descending once more. He shook his head and looked up at Joseph's face and he was just in time to see Joseph's eyelids flutter.
The gambler stood up hastily, knocking the chair over as he leaned over the bed. "Joseph? Joseph, can you hear me?" he called as his heart starting beating fast in his chest.
"Ezra?" the healer said as he spun round at the sound of his friend's anxious voice.
"He opened his eyes a bit," Ezra said as he looked up at Nathan hopefully.
"Are you sure? The light's not too good in here," the healer commented dubiously.
"I'm sure," Ezra stated emphatically.
He reached out a gentle finger and tenderly stroked his son's cheek while watching for any facial movements. Joseph moaned and moved his head slightly, eyes opening and closing once more.
Nathan looked across at Ezra and smiled. "Looks like he might be on his way back to us."
This had been the moment that they had all been wishing for. The days of waiting and worrying may well be over. Ezra could hardly contain his excitement, but he knew that things were not cut and dried yet. Until Joseph woke properly they wouldn't know how he had been affected by his injury. He pushed any doubts he had to the back of his mind and tried to think positively. It wasn't easy, though.
Vin entered the clinic at this point and saw the hopeful looks on his friends' faces.
"Our prayers may have been answered. Joseph seems a little bit more animated," Ezra said quietly.
The tracker strode to the bed and studied the occupant closely. He couldn't really see any change in the boy himself. He pursed his lips and was about to speak when he saw Joseph's hand move.
He reached out quickly and picked it up. "Hey, little pard. Your Pa's here," he said as he let Ezra take over the grip.
"Joseph? Please wake up, son."
Slowly, and with what seemed great effort, two small eyes opened in reply to the request.
"Hello, Joseph," Ezra said as unashamed tears spilled down his cheeks. He was overcome with relief to see his son awake again.
Nathan reached out and patted the boy's arm to gain his attention. When Joseph looked at him he smiled reassuringly.
"Do you know who I am?" he asked tentatively.
"Uncle Nate," came the quiet reply.
The healer sighed in relief. The boy seemed to be reacting well all things considered. He'd expected him to be groggy and a bit confused. "That's right. Can you tell me how you feel?"
There was silence for a moment while Joseph considered an appropriate answer. "My head hurts."
"Yeah, well, you had an accident, son."
"Pa?" Joseph said as he turned to look at his father.
Two eyes fought to stay open. They closed briefly before opening wide again. The youngster yawned and rubbed his eyes. "I'm tired."
"Well, go to sleep and we'll talk more when you wake again," Ezra said as he leaned over the boy and kissed his cheek.
Joseph sighed and closed his eyes, safe in the knowledge that his father was nearby. His headache didn't stop him from falling asleep immediately.
"Well, it looks as though Mrs. Turner is going to have a happy homecoming," Vin said as he patted Ezra's back heartily. He couldn't suppress the huge smile that had settled on his face.
"It does, doesn't it?" Ezra replied with a rare smile in reply.
"I'll go and update the others. They'll be so pleased, Ezra," the tracker said as he headed to the door.
Hours passed and the three men continued their vigil, Vin having returned from his errand. A yawn sounded from the bed and Joseph opened his eyes again. He appeared much more alert as he looked around him with interest.
Ezra sat up in his chair and leaned forward so that Joseph could see him. "Yes, darlin'?"
"When can I go home?"
Nathan laughed out loud. "Just like his father. Can't wait to be out of here even though he's sick."
Ezra smiled. "You'll have to be patient, Joseph. You can leave when you're better."
The child looked around the room and then frowned. There was someone he wanted to see and he didn't seem to be there. "Where's Uncle Chris?"
"I'll go get him, kid. He called by earlier but you were still asleep." Vin stood and stretched before heading off to find the gunfighter.
"How long have I been here?" Joseph asked.
"Five days in all."
Chris came hurrying into the room having been already on his way to visit again. "Joseph? I hear you're feeling better," he said as he stood by the bed and studied the young boy as if to satisfy himself that he was really back with them - that it wasn't a dream.
"My head hurts."
"Well, that's to be expected. You had us all worried." The blond felt the tenseness that he'd been feeling for the past few days fade away. Joseph was back with them and they could all relax. The sense of relief at Joseph's recovery was almost overwhelming. He knew that Ezra must be feeling the same thing - but ten times more potently.
Joseph turned to his father. "I had a really funny dream while I was asleep," he said. "I dreamt that you shot me."
Ezra felt his heart contract. He'd known that his son would want to know how he'd come to be hurt, but he still hadn't prepared a suitable explanation. He looked up at Chris nervously and received an encouraging smile in return.
The gambler picked up his son's hand and patted the back of it. "It wasn't a dream, Joseph. I shot you during a gunfight. You ran out of the saloon just as I fired my gun and, well... that's how you ended up here."
The child was silent for a while as the events surrounding the shooting began to make themselves known in his mind. "I'm sorry, Pa," he said eventually.
"Whatever for?" the gambler said with a frown.
"If I'd stayed put like you told me it wouldn't have happened. I was frightened though when the gunman came into the saloon. I saw you outside and wanted to be with you."
Ezra felt his heart break. "Oh, baby, it wasn't your fault. You mustn't blame yourself."
Joseph looked at his father and said in a most grown-up fashion, "Only if you don't feel bad about shooting me either. Promise, Pa?"
The gambler smiled and moved to sit on the bed. He lay down beside his son and drew him into his arms. The youngster snuggled against the man and sighed contentedly as Ezra rubbed his back.
"Come on, guys. Let's leave them alone," Chris said as he gestured to the rest of his friends.
Nathan, Chris and Vin met up with the rest of their friends on the balcony.
"He really okay, pard?" Buck asked anxiously.
"Yeah, he seems fine." The blond smiled. "Ez could do with some time alone with his son now though so let's go and have a celebratory drink."
The six men headed to the saloon feeling relaxed and very happy. Things had worked out as they had hoped and life could start getting back to normal again. It would still take time until Joseph was truly well, but he had taken the first step. They would all be there to help him on the journey to come.