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The sun rose over the guest accommodation at the Seven's sporting center and lit everything with a pleasing yellow glow. It looked as though it was going to be a nice day - perfect for the vacationing guests to indulge in some of their favorite sports. There was certainly plenty on offer - horseback riding, canoeing, all-year skiing on the dry ski-slope, swimming and much more. The center definitely catered for all tastes, ages, and abilities.
Buck Wilmington, mustache bristling, strode purposefully across the yard from his cabin. He entered the ranch house's kitchen and almost salivated at the heavenly smell he encountered there.
"Mornin', all," he said as he nodded to the six other men in the room. "The sun's shining, the birds are singing and all is right with the world," he boomed as his handsome face was bathed with a broad grin.
"Mr. Wilmington," drawled Ezra, the former attorney. "Have you overdosed on the happy pills again?"
"No, pard," Buck said as he moved to lean against the door frame. "Days like this just put me in good spirits. It's good to be alive." He threw his arms wide and high, and he resembled a fire-and-brimstone preacher who'd just finished a rousing sermon.
He then looked around the room and smiled. It wasn't always possible for the group to eat together, so it was extra special when they could. It raised his spirits even more.
"Everyone want a cooked breakfast?" Chris, a tall blond, called from where he was feverishly frying eggs and bacon.
"Yes, please," was the unanimous reply from his business partners.
"Take a seat then. It's almost ready."
Chris flipped over the last piece of bacon to make sure it was cooked and then turned out the heat. He picked up the pan and headed to the table where he dished out an egg and two slices of bacon to each of his friends. He returned to the stove and collected some fried potatoes and baked beans which he also shared amongst the men.
"Looks good, pard," Buck said as he picked up his knife and fork, ready to dig in.
Chris smiled and took his seat at the head of the table. "Dig in," he encouraged, and watched in satisfaction as his friends did just that. The blond let his gaze wander round the table to each man, and not for the first time thanked his lucky stars that he had such good friends and co-workers.
"What you lookin' so self-satisfied for, cowboy?" Vin, the long-haired, ex-bomb disposal expert asked. He'd caught sight of the look on his best friend's face and regarded him quizzically.
The black-clad man transferred his gaze to the younger man. "Just thinking. It's been two years since we started this venture and it's taken off better than I could ever have imagined. That's all due to you guys."
"Hey," piped up JD, the group's youngest member. "Ain't it the anniversary of our opening this weekend? Why don't we do something to celebrate?"
Josiah, a tall man whose hair was turning gray at the temples, nodded enthusiastically. "Yeah. Bet Mary and Nettie could help out with our guests while we go out."
Chris pursed his lips in contemplation and then smiled broadly. "What a great idea. What does everyone else think?"
"As long as it's something restful and relaxing, I wholeheartedly concur," Ezra said as he wiped his mouth on his napkin.
"Why don't we go to The Saloon and get smashed?" Buck suggested with a grin.
JD shook his head. "We can do that any time. Let's do something we don't get to do often."
Nathan, the center's medic nodded. "How about an overnight camping trip? That would be relaxing and it's not something we do a lot of. The few times we go camping, it's always with clients. It'll be good to have some quality time to talk to each other properly. The weather forecast is supposed to be good as well so it won't be a washout."
'Nothin' like sleeping under the stars," Vin agreed dreamily.
"We can go horseback riding too," JD said enthusiastically, really warming to the idea. "We usually hike, don't we?"
"Everyone agreed, then?" Chris asked.
"As long as I can take my tent," Ezra said. "I must have some creature comforts and protection from the elements."
"You wuss," Vin said with a grin as he slapped his friend's back boisterously.
"Sticks and stones, Mr. Tanner. Don't expect to be granted shelter in my tent if it should rain."
Chris smiled as the two men continued bickering. He knew that all his friends needed the break and would really enjoy some time to themselves. The blond then stood and cleared the dirty plates into the dishwasher with Nathan and Josiah's help.
"I'll contact Nettie and Mary later today to make sure they can cover reception duties here," the black-clad man said. "I'll let you know what they say tonight."
Nettie lived on a nearby homestead with her niece Casey. The elderly lady quite often helped out when Chris needed assistance. Mary was Chris' girlfriend and tended to spend most of her spare time at the center anyway.
With that, the men spilt up and went to get on with their regular duties and see to their clients.
That weekend, mid-morning on the Saturday, the group of seven men met up in the barn. They each groomed and saddled their own horses ready for the coming ride. Ezra carefully packed his equipment, including his tent, making sure it didn't weigh down Lincoln too much. The large sorrel took it all with ease though and the dapper man smiled in relief.
Vin led Peso out of his stall and adjusted his girth once more before heading outside. One by one the rest of the men followed.
"Everyone ready, then?" Chris asked as he looked at his friends in expectation.
"Can't wait," JD enthused as he leapt up on his horse's back. "Been looking forward to this all week."
Buck smiled indulgently at his young colleague. JD always approached everything he did with vim and vigor. It made him wish he was young again.
"Where we heading?" Josiah asked, as he shielded his eyes from the bright sunlight.
"I thought we'd head to Baker's Hollow," Chris said. "It's sheltered and got good water nearby. What do you think?"
"Sounds good to me," Nathan said as he rubbed his hands together in anticipation.
Vin, though, pursed his lips dubiously. "I'll take the rifle with me, 'coz that old cougar's been hanging around up near there. Better take some protection, just in case of trouble."
"Okay, Vin. We'll probably be glad of it to catch some game for the pot anyway," Chris agreed. He watched his friend head off to the ranch house to collect the weapon from the gun cabinet.
Finally they were all ready, so those not already mounted swung aboard their saddles, and they all headed out of the yard toward the east. In the distance, the hills they were heading for stood up against the sky like a hand - with fingers beckoning them onwards invitingly.
"Well, I can't get off of my horse. All day and night I ride among the cattle. No, I can't get off of my horse, 'coz some dirty dog put glue in my saddle. In the saddle, in the saddle. Yes, some dirty dog put glue in my saddle," Buck sang jauntily. He looked at Ezra and grinned. "Now, don't you go getting any ideas there, Hoss. I see that look in your eye. My song's just given you an idea for a prank, ain't it?"
"Mr. Wilmington, you wound me," the former attorney said as he put a hand to his heart. "I'd never contemplate sticking you in your saddle. That's more of a Vin-like trick."
"Hey," Vin objected. "You leave me out of this." The young man had a knowing grin on his face despite his supposed upset. Ezra had hit the nail on the head with his observation.
Buck pursed his lips. "I'll be keeping my eye on you just the same, pard."
The rest of the group laughed before pushing their horses into a lope to race across the piece of open ground.
After the exhilarating change of pace they slowed down to a walk again to give their mounts a breather. All the horses were tossing their heads and prancing about, apparently enjoying what was a treat for them too.
"Soon we'll be there," Chris said as he pointed up to their destination.
They still had to negotiate a river, go through a small wooded section and then pass along a path next to a ravine. The path would eventually take them up to the small plateau where Baker's Hollow was situated close by. It would prove to be the perfect campsite. It was a nicely sheltered spot with a fresh water supply nearby.
"Well, let's get on up there, because my ass needs a break," Buck said as he stood up in his stirrups and rubbed his backside meaningfully.
Chris smiled and urged his horse onward toward the gurgling river. He looked up and down the bank speculatively as he searched for the best place to enter the water. He moved upstream slightly when he spotted a shallow section and gently kicked his horse into the water. He heard his companions follow him and he rode on over to the other side safely.
After another hour and a half of riding, the seven men emerged onto the plateau from where they rode down into Baker's Hollow. They dismounted and tied their steeds to nearby trees before stretching the kinks out of their aching bodies.
"Good choice, cowboy," Vin commented as he looked around and nodded. "We'll be snug as a bug in a rug here."
"Keep your bugs to yourself, pard," the ladies' man replied with a grin. "Better yet, put 'em in Ez's tent!"
Ezra pursed his lips unhappily as he turned to the tall man beside him. "What have you got against me today, Mr. Wilmington? First you accuse me of plotting to glue you in your saddle - now you want to infest my tent with bugs."
"Just funnin', pard. Thought you might get lonely in that little tepee of yours, so, me being a real generous fella and all, I guessed the bugs would keep you company."
The former attorney sighed. "So kind."
"That's just what I thought," Buck beamed as he thumped Ezra on the back heartily.
Ezra sighed and untied the tent from his saddle as he scanned the area for a suitable place to pitch it. The rest of the group got their bedrolls and put them down in a circle where they had chosen to sleep. Vin got a fire going and put a pot of coffee on to brew. The seven men then unsaddled their horses and hobbled them so that they couldn't stray.
"Bring yer mugs to the fire 'cause the coffee's ready," Vin said as he hunkered down near the fire and looked into the pot. The smell that arose was wonderful and the long-haired man soon had a queue formed behind him.
After collecting their much needed refreshment they sat round the fire contentedly. It was so peaceful, with just the sound of running water and birdsong to disturb them.
"Oh, this is the life," Buck said as he looked around him. "What could be better than beautiful surroundings and good company?"
"I thought in your case it would be a leggy blonde," Vin commented wryly with a grin.
"Well, you could be right at that," the ladies' man agreed, returning the smile.
The rest of the men laughed as Vin teased Buck about his legendary love-life. Yanking his chain on that particular subject was an endless round of fun for them all and Buck took it in good heart.
Vin stood and drank the remnants of his coffee. "Well, I'm going to catch us something to eat. Don't wanna survive on grass myself. You coming, kid?"
"You bet," the younger man agreed eagerly. He enjoyed going on hunting trips with Vin. He always learnt something useful. Vin had infinite patience and took his time explaining things to JD.
"See ya later, guys," the long-haired man said. He picked up the rifle and set off into the trees with JD running to catch up.
Ezra stood up and moved to where he'd laid his tent. It was near the fire, but not too close. He didn't want to get hot during the night. "Well, I'd better start to erect my accommodation," he said as he looked down at the equipment at his feet.
"I'll help you, son," Josiah offered as he got to his feet and stretched his long legs.
"Why, thank you, Mr. Sanchez. How kind."
The two men set to work and soon had the tent secured and ready for use. Ezra crawled inside and set out his bedroll on the softest piece of earth he could find. Remembering Buck's words, he couldn't help but look around for creepy-crawlies. When he was satisfied that he was relatively insect free he went back outside.
He'd just reached his friends when he heard the sound of a gunshot in the distance. The five men naturally all looked toward where the sound had come from. The echo of the report bounced around the area until silence reigned again.
Nathan smiled. "Vin caught something for the pot, I reckon. How about we get the vegetables ready for when he gets back?"
Chris nodded and got up. He walked to his saddle and collected the bag nearby. He took it back to the fire and emptied the contents onto the grass. The fresh vegetables looked appetizing and the men set about preparing them to eat. Josiah collected the cooking pot and the food was placed directly into it along with some water from the stream.
"Jeez, I'm starving now," Buck complained.
"You're just gonna have to wait," Chris said as his own stomach growled. "As am I! But maybe not much longer," the blond commented as he nodded to his right.
The men turned to look in the indicated direction and saw JD and Vin appeared in view and amble toward the fire. Josiah waved and JD returned the greeting.
"Hey fellas. Rabbit stew suit ya?" Vin asked as he held up three of the creatures.
"Sounds good to me," Buck said as he licked his lips in anticipation.
"Help skin 'em then."
"I'll watch if you don't mind. Peeling vegetables is one thing, but gutting a rabbit is a step too far," Ezra insisted.
"Bet you'll eat it when it's done, though," Vin said as he picked up a knife and selected one of the rabbits.
"Of course," Ezra replied with a grin.
Nathan, Josiah and Vin did what was necessary to the rabbits and added the meat to the pot. After putting the pot to hang over the fire, the men sat back to wait for it to cook. As the saying goes, 'A watched pot never boils,' and soon the men were sighing with impatience.
"Would a game of poker be in order?" Ezra suggested.
"Sure, why not," Chris agreed. "It'll keep my mind off of food."
The men gathered together outside Ezra's tent and the former attorney dealt the cards. They played steadily, Vin getting up every so often to check on their dinner.
"Reckon it's ready, guys," he said eventually.
"Great. My stomach thinks my throat's been cut," Josiah said with a grin.
The men left their cards scattered on the ground and collected plates and cutlery. Josiah served them their meal along with more coffee. They then sat down around the fire and began to eat.
"Jeez, this is delicious," Buck said as he licked an errant strip of carrot from his lips. "Nothing like fresh, home-cooked food."
"You can say that again," Nathan said.
Silence permeated the campsite as the men ate every scrap of food. Afterwards, they sat chatting as they allowed their meal to settle. They were certainly relaxed and all of them commented on what a good idea the camping trip had been.
Once they'd eaten their fill, they washed their implements in the nearby stream and packed everything away. It was now quite late, the campsite only being lit by the fire and a lamp hanging outside Ezra's tent.
"See you in the morning, Ez," Vin said as he saw his friend heading toward his abode.
"Sleep well, gentlemen," Ezra replied as he saluted and entered the tent, zipping it up behind him.
The rest of the men settled on their bedrolls and looked up at the night sky.
"Beautiful sight, ain't it?" Vin murmured in contentment as he picked out some of his favorite constellations.
"I love camping under the stars," JD agreed. "It's kinda like the feeling when you enter a church. There's a special sorta quiet and it'd be wrong to break it. Makes you all quivery."
"Know what you mean, son. That's why I always call the great outdoors at night-time God's Cathedral," Josiah noted as he lay down on his back with hands behind his head.
"Night everyone," Chris said as he snuggled down under his blankets. The night had turned a bit chilly and the heat from the fire and the thick bedding was very welcome.
"Night," his friends replied.
Morning came with birds bursting into song at first light. The sun rose slowly over the horizon, spreading its warmth and light across the land. The campsite came to life with men disappearing at intervals to wash, shave and see to nature's needs. Laughter and chat filled the air as the friends greeted each other.
With their ablutions complete, they gathered for breakfast round the fire where Josiah was cooking eggs, beans and bacon.
"Thanks, big fella," Vin said as he was passed a plate of food.
"Nothing like the smell of bacon in the morning," JD said from where he was already chowing down ravenously. "Seem to be hungrier than ever today. I could eat a horse.'
"That's what good ol' fresh air does to you, kid," Buck said with a grin.
"Wonder how Nettie and the others are coping," Chris pondered.
"Sure they're fine," Buck placated, knowing Chris always worried when they left the business in someone else's hands. Nettie and Mary had stood in for them on many occasions, but the blond still fretted.
"We heading back straight after breakfast?" Nathan asked, before putting a forkful of egg in his mouth.
Chris nodded. "We can take our time though if you want. The girls said they'd stay all day at the center. They've arranged a pool party for the clients today, so they're catered to."
"Well, it's sure been nice to get away on our own like this," Nathan said as he stood up and brushed his clothes down.
"Maybe we can do it again," Josiah agreed with a grin. "What can we celebrate next?"
"Sure we can find something," Vin said as he smiled too.
Ezra nodded and stretched. "Well, I booked the next two days off. I may stay here a bit longer if that's okay with you, Chris?"
"Sure. It's your time. Do what you'd like with it, Ez."
Vin pursed his lips. "I'll leave you the gun, Ez, just in case of the cougar, but you'll probably want it for hunting too. Though the way you wouldn't touch those bunnies last night until they were cooked, makes me think that's unlikely."
Ezra grinned and took possession of the weapon. "Thank you, Mr. Tanner."
The six homeward-bound men began packing up their equipment and seeing to their horses. They envied Ezra being able to spend more time at the camp. It sure had been enjoyable.
"Sure you'll be okay, Ez?" Buck asked as he turned to look at his friend after saddling his horse.
"I'm certain I can take care of myself. I've been out of diapers for quite some years now," the former attorney replied earnestly with a grin.
"Glad to hear it, 'cause I sure ain't changing ya." Buck laughed. "See ya later then, pard. Have fun and don't shoot yerself in the foot with that damned rifle."
Ezra stood up and watched his friends mount their horses and set off toward home. The dark-haired man waved until they were out of sight before turning back to survey the campsite.
"A spot of fishing is called for I think," he said out loud.
He wandered under the trees for a few minutes before finding a nice straight, supple branch to use as his fishing pole. He pulled a piece of thin string from his backpack and tied it to the end. With a smile he rested the pole against his shoulder like Dick Whittington and set off to the stream. He frowned in thought as he studied the bank to find the likeliest spot to catch something edible. He chose a small pool with a nearby boulder that he could use as a seat.
He settled on his perch and after finding a worm to bait his line he cast it into the water. He sat back and sighed contentedly resting the pole against his thigh so he could feel any fish that nibbled his worm.
"This is the life," he said with a smile as he closed his eyes.
The sun blazed brightly and warmed the skin on his face and arms as it shone through the trees. He dozed contentedly, taking pleasure in the sounds of nature. A couple of hours passed in this fashion before he felt an insistent tug on his line. He sat up and carefully brought his catch in.
"What a beauty. You'll make a lovely meal," he said as he held the fish up to admire it. After killing it with a blow to the head, he collected his possessions together and headed back to camp.
He stoked up the fire again, added some more wood and put his pan on it ready for the fish. He expertly de-scaled it, took out its innards and removed the head and tail. He didn't like the thought of the fish's eye looking up at him as he ate it. That would be just too unnerving.
After a very leisurely meal, he tidied up and then sat by the fire playing solitaire. It had been a long time since he'd spent time on his own and he was relishing it. Not that he didn't like his friends' company, but it was always nice to do as you wanted.
Ezra looked up at the sky and stretched while yawning loudly. He stood up and took a few paces round the fire to loosen his body up.
"Perhaps a bit of exercise is called for. I think I'll go exploring," he mused as he bent and picked up the gun.
He studied his surroundings and then set off in the direction that interested him most. With the rifle held loosely in one hand he ambled along breathing in the different smells he encountered. Some he could place, but others he couldn't. It didn't matter though, they all added to his pleasure and he sighed happily.
He looked up through the trees and saw the blue sky above, as he listened to a bird whistling nearby. It really was the most beautiful day. As he continued on his way he noticed a ravine nearby. He changed direction and studied it with interest. It would make a perfect place to practice his climbing skills, but t activity would have to wait for another day when he had the proper equipment.
The former attorney decided he'd gone far enough, not wanting to go too far from the camp and his horse. He started back wondering what he could eat for supper. He hadn't seen one rabbit on his walk so he'd have to survive on the supplies he brought with him.
Ezra stepped back into the clearing where his camp was and looked over at Lincoln. The animal was fiddle-footing about and snorting in fear. Ezra heard a slight noise behind him, but before he could turn he was knocked off his feet by a golden skinned attacker.
"Shit," he cried as he fell to the ground with the animal on top of him and the gun gone. Why the hell didn't you take more care, Standish? You knew this creature might be nearby but you were negligent in your observations. Now you've lost the rifle - your only possible savior.
He cried out again as he felt a sharp pain in his upper right arm. He looked over and saw blood flowing freely from where the cat's jaws clamped round it tightly. He did the only thing he could think of - he punched the cougar on the nose with his free hand.
The six men arrived back in the yard and dismounted, tying their horses to the hitching rail. Vin looked back over his shoulder in the direction of the campsite and shivered in trepidation. He then leaned against his saddle and stared sightlessly into the distance. Something had stirred in his gut and he felt unsettled and worried about the friend they had left behind.
"Vin? You okay?" Chris asked as he walked up behind the man and put a caring hand on his shoulder.
Vin shook himself and turned to his best friend with a shrug. "Just hoping Ez will be alright up there on his own. I'm just being a worry-wort, I guess, but I can't help it after everything he's been through."
The blond nodded in understanding. "I know, bud, but we can't lock him up to keep him out of trouble. He's got the rifle for protection and Lincoln's a pretty good watchdog - for a horse."
Vin smiled. "Yeah, sorry, Chris. I just care about him." He snorted and laughed, "I'm getting to be an old mother hen, ain't I?"
"Reckon we all are where Ez is concerned, Vin. He's had more than his fair share of injury and illness, but that's the nature of the job we do. There are always risks involved and that's why we work here - the adrenaline rush. Sometimes that will inevitably lead to getting hurt," Chris stated.
Vin ran his fingers through his hair and sighed. "I know, but quite often it hasn't been anything to do with the sports we do. Take his heart problems and the business with Jed."
"Well, you can always go back up there to check on him, but you know what he'll say if you do."
"Yeah. Fuck off, or words to that effect. 'I'm not a child, Mr. Tanner. Please absent yourself this instant and molly-coddle someone else,'" Vin said in a perfect imitation of Ezra's voice.
Chris patted Vin's back while grinning and the man nodded to say he would be okay. The blond knew exactly how Vin felt. He always experienced the same sense of worry about Ezra no matter what he was doing.
Back up at the campsite, Ezra acknowledged that this would be one time he would gladly have a friend turn up to check on him. If I survive, I will be more tolerant of their overbearing concern," he promised.
He tried to scramble away from the cougar who had released the hold on his arm after being stuck on the nose. Although the animal staggered like a drunk he wasn't deterred for long. The cat growled and pounced, landing on Ezra's chest. The prone man put his hands against the animal's belly and tried vainly to push it off. He bent his legs up and managed to get his feet on the cat's hips. With all his strength he heaved with arms and legs and rolled the cougar away to the right. As he watched his foe he caught a glimpse of the rifle lying not too far away. If only he could get to it.
He jumped to his feet as the cat regained his rather unsteadily. Ezra sidestepped toward the gun, but the cougar was on him before he could get it. Down he went again on his back, his right arm between the slavering jaws once more. The two of them rolled around on the ground in a jumble of arms and paws. The cat let go its hold and tried instead to clamp its teeth around Ezra's throat, letting out a fetid blast of breath as it did so. The former-attorney had been expecting the move and quickly moved his hand under the cat's bottom jaw and held it away. Ezra loosed one hand and this time poked a finger in his attacker's eye. The cat howled and stumbled away.
Ezra took the opportunity to dive toward the gun. He scooped it up, turned toward the cat and took aim. He got off one shot which creased the animal's side and made it ten-times angrier. It approached him on wobbly legs and Ezra hastily adjusted his aim and prayed that he'd be luckier this time. The bullet took the cat in the chest and it went down in a heap, snarling and growling in pain. Ezra got to his feet and regained his balance before backing away in case the animal was only playing possum. He shakily reloaded the rifle with two shells from his pocket, the task made difficult because of the blood running down his right arm which made his grip slippery.
After making sure the weapon was ready he edged toward the cougar carefully. He flicked a quick look over his shoulder to see if Lincoln was okay. The horse was still jittery but had not loosed itself from the tree where it was tied. Turning his full attention back to the cat he got close enough to prod it with his toe. No movement and no sound. The former-attorney sighed in relief but still kept his wits about him. He was taking no chances after his earlier lack of attention. He moved even closer, keeping the gun aimed at the cougar's body, but when he saw the cat's head he knew it was dead. The eyes stared into nothingness, the saliva-soaked tongue lolled onto the grass a small amount of blood leaking out of its mouth.
Ezra went over to his horse and gave it a reassuring pat, the feel of the animal's hair under his hand calming him too. Lincoln snorted at him, nostrils flaring at the smell of blood on his master. Ezra looked down at his arm, wincing as the pain suddenly flared tenfold. He put down the gun, rolled up his sleeve and inspected the damage better. The skin on his upper arm was torn deeply in several places and the wounds bled profusely. Ezra pulled out a handkerchief awkwardly from his pocket and placed it over the numerous teeth-marks. He got up slowly and went to the stream feeling increasingly dizzy and faint. He knelt down and dampened the handkerchief before tying it awkwardly round one injury. As soon as he'd finished he keeled over backward in a dead faint, the pain suddenly too much to bear.
When Ezra woke it was dark and the air was chilly. He lay on his back blinking in confusion as he tried to remember where he was and what had happened. He could smell the distinct aroma of grass nearby and he realized his clothes were slightly damp.
Why am I outside? he wondered as he saw the light of the moon reflecting on the creek.
He rolled onto his side and bent his right arm in order to lever himself up, but whimpered when pain erupted in the forgotten injured limb. He reached up and tried to discover what was wrong. His palm came away from his sleeve covered in blood.
Oh God, cougar, he remembered, shocked. His mind replayed his fight for life with the cat and he was assaulted with vivid images of the injuries he'd received.
He carefully moved onto his knees, using his left arm for balance. He kept in that position as a wave of dizziness swept over him. Ezra bent over as he tried to remain conscious, closing his eyes as lights flashed at the edge of his vision. He felt sick and wondered whatever he was going to do. Stuck in the middle of nowhere, injured, sick and alone. No way of contacting his friends and possibly unable to make it back to the ranch.
"You're just gonna have to make it, dammit. Make it...or die," he whispered, although with determination.
After about fifteen minutes, he made the next move to get to his feet. Kneeling on his right knee he moved the other leg so his foot was flat on the ground, knee bent. He pushed up with his foot and left arm until he'd gained his feet, albeit bent at the waist with the knuckles of his hand on the ground. Carefully he straightened up, letting his feet take his weight, his arm now stretched out to the side to aid his equilibrium. He kept the injured arm folded across his chest to try and protect it.
"Made it," he gasped as he swayed gently like a sapling in the breeze.
He turned carefully but the campsite and Lincoln were out of sight.
"Lincoln?" he called weakly, before managing to whistle his usual summons to the horse.
He heard an answering whinny so he whistled again. "Come on," Ezra pleaded quietly.
The equine had been taught to stay where he'd been tied unless his master called him. Even when confronted by the cougar he had remained in position, although he no doubt would have fled if the creature had really threatened him. Now though, on hearing Ezra's call, he pulled back and released the slipknot on his rope. He then headed off toward his rider, trailing the rope with him.
The horse snorted as he drew near and came to a halt side on to Ezra. The faint-feeling man gladly grasped the saddle horn and rested his head.
"Thank you, Lincoln. I really need your help," he whispered.
The horse turned his head and reached out to nudge Ezra's arm with his nose. He then snorted and nodded his head as if talking to the man. Ezra seemed to understand what he meant anyway.
"I don't think I can get on you like this even if I found a piece of higher ground. You'll have to help," Ezra said as he reached out and tapped Lincoln's front leg.
The horse, knowing the sign, bent the leg as he stretched the other one out in front of him and bowed like a circus horse. This position brought the stirrup down to ground level and Ezra managed to crawl aboard the saddle. Lincoln only rose when he felt his master was able to stay on.
"Good boy," Ezra mumbled as he patted the animal's neck gratefully before clinging again to the saddle horn. "Now go home, Lincoln, but take it steady, please."
Ezra kicked the animal onward and tried to pick an easy route that wouldn't jostle his arm more than necessary. He knew that it was going to take a long time to get back to the ranch at this speed, but better late than never. The sun was just rising and the man couldn't help but think of his friends who would be getting up to see to their clients, unaware of his predicament.
At the ranch, the six men met in the kitchen for breakfast. Chris looked at what activities were booked for that day and began to assign his friends to them.
"Vin, can you stay and staff the desk seeing as Ez is not here? Can you help JD get the horses ready for this afternoon's ride?"
"Sure, fancy a lazy day. Still ain't back in working mode after our trip," the long-haired man grinned.
"Know the feeling, pard," Buck agreed with a loud yawn.
"Well, you can damned well wake up with a ten-mile hike," Chris said with a devilish look on his face. "You can go the opposite way to our weekend ride. That should get you going."
"Gee, you're all heart," the mustached man complained. "That's all water and hills."
"I know," the black-clad man laughed. "Josiah and Nate. You can head off skiing all day. There are two groups - one this morning and one this afternoon. I'll see to the canoeing this morning and then go out with JD on the ride this afternoon. JD can you do the four-wheelers with those kids 'til lunchtime?"
"Yeah, that sounds great," the younger man agreed. "Hey," he said, face lighting up. "I get to sit down all day!"
Buck shook his head. "Well, after being in the saddle on the weekend, I'll be glad to be standing up for the day 'cause my ass is killing me. You've obviously got a fatter butt than I have if you still want to ride today, kid."
JD scowled and looked round at his ass, taking Buck's comment seriously. He then smiled. "Nah, you're just old and decrepit. Old guys like you just can't take the pace. You lose muscle tone and your skin starts to sag when you reach your age. You just got a baggy butt, that's all. It's nothing to be ashamed about, Buck."
"I'll give you baggy butt," the older man said as he stood and then chased his young friend out of the room.
"Jeez. It's like running a kindergarten here sometimes," Chris complained as he shoveled a slice of toast in his mouth. "Have a good day everyone!"
The group of men split up and headed off to do the tasks they had been set. As he wandered to the guest accommodation, Vin looked off toward their weekend campsite. He wondered what Ezra was up to. Probably still asleep, he thought with a smile.
Ezra had yet to even start down the mountain. Lincoln was picking his way carefully along the pass, occasionally tripping on the uneven ground. The horse obediently stopped when his rider pulled weakly on the reins.
"Just need a minute, Lincoln," Ezra muttered.
He wiped a hand across his brow and shivered. He felt dreadful and wondered whether making for home was really a good idea. If he didn't arrive at the ranch, his friends would eventually come looking for him. Perhaps he should just give up and wait for them. The thought of another day and night out in the open though made him decide to carry on. He needed help, and he needed it now.
He looked down at his arm and saw that the wounds were no longer bleeding. His arm felt tight and uncomfortable though. He was frightened to move it in case he did more damage.
"Come on, Lincoln. No use waiting here," he said as he kicked the horse onward again.
He clung with his good hand to the saddle horn, swaying from side to side in semi-consciousness, jolting awake with every stumble his horse made. He had to stay upright. Lying along the horse's neck would do his injured arm no good at all if he kept it against his chest. He could let his arm dangle by Lincoln's neck if he did lie down, but there was the chance of knocking it, so he made an effort to sit up properly. He looked into the distance and groaned as he thought of the journey ahead of him.
The day had passed fairly quickly for Vin so far. He had been occupied all the time dealing with little maintenance jobs around the ranch and answering the phone at reception. He'd just seen JD and his clients off on their afternoon ride and he was tidying up from the morning's activities. He was on his own again, which didn't bother him at all. Although he enjoyed the company of his friends, he loved having his own time and space. It gave him time to think and relax.
He wandered back into the barn and set about hosing down the four-wheelers and checking them for mechanical problems. He discovered that one had a fuel leak so he removed his cell from his belt in case he got it dirty and set it on a nearby upturned bucket. Vin then sat on the ground and made himself comfortable as he spent the next hour tinkering with the machine. He had grease and dirt all over his hands and lower arms when he'd finished and he wiped them distractedly on an old cloth. It only smeared the grease further up his arms.
"Jeez, I need a damned good scrub," he chuckled to himself.
As he walked from the barn toward his cabin to have a wash his gaze was drawn to a lone figure riding toward him. He squinted and recognized Lincoln and it seemed as though Ezra was in difficulties. The long-haired man started to run to meet his friend. Why the hell didn't I listen to my gut yesterday? he cursed to himself.
Ezra had endured a terrible ride home. He'd made it sooner than he'd thought, but he knew that every step of it would be etched in his memory for all time. He felt weak beyond belief and even the thought of the last few strides into the yard was too much to contemplate. He had never been so pleased to see Vin in his whole life. He'd had a terrible feeling that the center would be deserted.
Vin came to a sliding halt beside him. "Ez? What's happened, pard?" he asked, not daring to touch his friend until he knew the problem.
"Cougar," Ezra gasped out.
"Where are you hurt?" Vin managed to ask as his skin erupted in goose bumps at the news.
"Okay. Can you get down?"
"Let's get you into the yard," Vin said as he led Lincoln to the nearest hitching rail.
"Tap his front leg," Ezra mumbled, before Vin could tie the horse up.
"Tap his front leg."
Vin frowned but did as he was told. Ezra hung on for dear life as Lincoln did his party trick. Vin reached out quickly, taken by surprise by the horse's actions, and caught Ezra as he toppled off Lincoln's back. He laid Ezra carefully on the ground and tied Lincoln up away from the prone man.
"Let me look at you," Vin said as he knelt beside his friend and eased him into a sitting position.
He could see that Ezra was crying and guessed that he must have knocked his injured arm in his ungainly dismount.
"Hey, bud. Just hold still for me."
"Please don't touch me. It hurts so much and I don't want to start it bleeding again," Ezra pleaded as he grabbed Vin's t-shirt in a weak grip.
Vin kept an arm around his friend as he held him against his chest. "Okay, but can you tell me if you were just scratched, or what?"
Ezra gasped and sobbed, "Bitten."
"Shit. How bad?"
"Three wounds. Deep," Ezra managed to say before groaning softly.
"When did it happen?" Vin asked gently as he wiped a few tears from his friend's face.
Vin gave the upset man a hug and managed to move him onto a bench near the barn. "Jeez, Ez, I felt something was wrong with you when we got home. Shoulda checked on you. I'm sorry. Look, let me call Nettie to tell her what's happened and get her to come over and then I'll get you to the hospital."
Vin turned to go and find his cell, but he looked back when he heard Ezra call to him in a panic.
The younger man hurried back and stopped Ezra from toppling from the seat in a dead faint. He was careful not to touch his injured arm. He gently patted Ezra's face until he was sure he was conscious.
Vin made a hasty change of plans. "Okay, bud. I'll call Nettie on the way. Are you okay if I leave you to get the jeep?"
Ezra nodded weakly and clung to the bench with his one good hand.
Vin ran to get his jeep and got in, driving it to where Ezra drooped on the seat. He got out and helped his friend into the front of the vehicle taking care when securing him in with the belt. He tried his best not to hurt the man, but he wasn't sure if he succeeded.
"All right, pard?"
Ezra didn't reply but just sagged in the seat looking white and shaky. Vin frowned worriedly, closed the door softly and ran round to get back in the driver's side. He resisted the urge to floor the accelerator knowing he needed to drive smoothly so as not to cause Ezra too much distress and pain.
He drove very slowly down the track to the road, noticing that even at that pace Ezra seemed to turn even whiter. He pulled out onto the main road and set off hoping for a less bumpy trip now they were on properly surfaced roads.
They'd been travelling for half an hour when Vin remembered he should have called Nettie. He reached out to his belt and cursed when he didn't feel the familiar shape of his cell there. His mind pictured the upturned bucket in the barn where he'd placed the cell earlier. He shook his head in despair at forgetting to pick it up. Just wasn't thinking straight after the shock of seeing Ezra in such a bad way.
"Dammit, I left the cell behind. You got yours, Ez?"
Ezra managed to shake his head. "No," he whispered. "I didn't take it camping."
Vin pursed his lips unhappily, cursing that he hadn't been able to call Nettie before he'd left. He tried to be philosophical about it, not wanting to upset Ezra. "Well, can't be helped. I'll phone when we get to the hospital. It's no biggie, is it? The boys will be back soon, I reckon, so the center won't be unstaffed for long. Getting you treated is the most important thing right now."
Vin continued driving toward town, but it started raining hard and visibility worsened. He put his windshield wipers on fast and squinted into the distance. It didn't make much difference.
"How ya doin', Ez? Feel okay?" Vin looked over at his companion worriedly when he heard him moan.
Vin reached blindly into the back of the jeep and pulled out a coat he always kept there. He passed it over to his friend. "Put that round you and I'll put the heater on too."
Ezra did the best he could with his makeshift blanket, but with only one working arm it was hard to position it properly. It kept slipping off one shoulder and he eventually gave up trying to put it back. He shivered and closed his eyes as a wave of nausea and dizziness swept over him.
"Ez? Stay awake, pard." Vin reached out and patted Ezra's face awkwardly. "Need you to talk to me."
"I know, but I need you to tell the doctor exactly what happened and how you're feeling when we get to the hospital. I can only tell him so much," Vin said, hoping that the sound of his voice would give something for Ezra to concentrate on.
"I hate hospitals," Ezra mumbled.
"Yeah, with good cause, buddy." Vin tried to think of a topic to get Ezra talking at length. "Hey, why don't you tell me about one of your cases when you were a hot-shot lawyer? Were there any gruesome ones, or funny ones?"
Ezra rolled his head to look out the side window hoping the passing scenery would keep him alert. Not that he could see much with the rain. Something he'd rather not have seen filled his vision instead. A large SUV headed directly toward him, looming like a behemoth out of the gloom. The driver was traveling at speed, talking on his cell, and had failed to stop at the intersection.
"Vin!" Ezra yelped, knowing a hard collision couldn't be avoided. "Shit."
"Mr. Larabee? Mr. Chris Larabee?" the voice on the phone asked.
The blond had just sprinted, head down, to reception upon hearing the continuously ringing phone as he'd dismounted after the very wet ride with JD's group. The yard was scattered with ever-growing puddles and he did his best to avoid them. After picking up the phone he leaned against the desk and tried to get his breath back. Where the hell's Vin?
"Yes," he spluttered as he wiped some of the rain from his face.
"I am calling from Mercy hospital. We have had two of your friends admitted after a serious car wreck," the sympathetic female voice informed him.
"Two?" Chris queried with a frown.
"Yes, um... Could you hold the line, please?"
Chris could hear paper rustling and the woman muttering.
"A Mr. Vin Tanner and Mr. Ezra Standish," she finally said.
Chris was stunned. "God...okay. How are they?" he asked, feeling shivery.
"Can you come, and we'll update you then? The doctor would rather talk to you face to face."
Chris really didn't like the sound of that at all. "Sure," he agreed, his mind racing. "I'll be about an hour."
He put down the phone and then made another call. "Nettie? Can you come to the center? Vin and Ez have had an accident and I need to go to the hospital right now."
"Of course, honey. You go. Leave everything to me," the elderly lady instructed worriedly.
"Thanks. Can you send the others to Mercy as they get back? It's a real bad accident from what the hospital say," Chris said tightly.
"Alright, son. Go take care of those boys. Make sure you drive safely getting there too," she requested. "Don't want anyone else hurt."
The blond had a quick look on the desk to see if Vin had left a note to say why he'd been going to town. He also checked the answer machine hoping for a message - all to no avail.
Chris shook his head and then sprinted back out to the barn. On the way he noticed Lincoln tied up in the yard. Dammit, how could I have missed seeing him? Too busy rushing to the phone, along with the fact that Ez wasn't supposed to back until this evening - so I wasn't looking. Trying to get out the damned rain too.
"JD?" he called as he entered the relative dark of the barn. His eyes flicked around the large space as he quickly searched for his colleague amongst the steaming horses and soaked guests.
"Yeah? What's up?" the dark-haired man called, materializing like a ghost at Chris's side.
The blond took him out of hearing range of the clients and kept one hand on his shoulder. "See to the horses and guests, then come into town. Vin and Ez are in Mercy after a car wreck."
"I wondered why Lincoln was out in the rain. I was just gonna get him in. Why was Ez back so early?"
"I don't know, kid," he said as he squeezed his friend's shoulder in encouragement. "Will you be okay? Nettie's coming to see to reception."
"Alright. I'll be as quick as I can," JD agreed, knowing it was going to take quite a while to see to the horses alone.
Chris nodded and headed to the Ram, not even thinking of changing out of his wet clothes. He set out of the yard like a bat out of hell before Nettie's words came back to him. At least it had stopped raining, but the roads were wet so he knew he had to take care. He wouldn't do his two injured friends any good at all if he hurt himself too.
Despite driving carefully, the blond still reached Mercy Hospital in record time. He parked as close as he could and then hurried to the ER. He spoke to a nurse at reception and he was asked to take a seat while the attending doctor was found. The worried man sat down but fidgeted incessantly. Finally, after what seemed like hours a tall dark-haired man approached him.
"Yes, "Chris said as he studied the acne-marked face of the doctor. If not for those scars he would have been handsome.
"I'm Dr. Mitchell and I've been assigned the care of your friends while they're in the ER."
"How are they?"
The doctor smiled sympathetically and pointed down the corridor. "Would you come to my office so we can talk in private?"
"Okay," Chris agreed nervously as he stood up.
He walked alongside the doctor silently, wondering what bad news he was going to hear. He took a seat on the couch once they reached the office and Dr. Mitchell pulled another chair round to face him.
"I'm afraid your friends were in a serious accident. They were hit from the side by a vehicle that failed to stop at an intersection from what I've been told. Mr. Standish took the brunt of it as it was his side that was struck. He's sustained injuries to his right side including numerous broken bones, internal bleeding and some very nasty lacerations. He also has various head injuries."
Chris sat quietly as he digested the news.
"Mr. Tanner also has serious head injuries, which has led him to being comatose. He broke some ribs and his left leg. They will both be in ICU for the time being. Mr. Standish is being prepared for surgery as we speak. We had to stabilize him before proceeding."
The blond licked his lips. "Will they recover?"
"I think we need to take it one day at a time," Dr. Mitchell advised softly. "They're in good hands, but as I say their conditions are serious."
"Thank you for your honesty." He sighed. "I think I need some fresh air." He stood and shook the doctor's hand before leaving the office, his head spinning. He passed the waiting room and saw that the rest of his friends had arrived. He walked on by, just nodding to acknowledge their presence.
Buck and the others exchanged worried glances. It was not a good sign if the blond didn't even come in to update them about Vin and Ezra's conditions. It had been plain from the expression on his face that Chris had a lot on his mind. He was obviously taking time out to get his thoughts and emotions under control before facing them.
Chris, meanwhile, headed outside and called in a few of his part-time staff to cover duties at the center until he could think straight and get a schedule in place. He just wanted all his business partners to be able to be at the hospital at such a critical time. He also quickly called Maude and informed her of Ezra's condition. She promised to visit as soon as she could get a flight.
Chris then went back to join up with his anxious friends. The solemn group was still sitting exactly where he'd left them and none of them were talking. Josiah though was looking thoughtful as he sipped from a cup of coffee. They all looked up and greeted Chris's return with either waves or small worried smiles. They'd been briefed about Vin and Ezra's condition by Dr. Mitchell while Chris had been outside. The men, after making sure that Chris was okay, left him to stare out the window blindly, knowing he needed some time to himself.
"Mr. Larabee?" a voice called from the door several hours later.
"Yes?" Chris said as he turned to face a man he recognized as a doctor who'd treated Ezra in the past. "Dr. Bentley, isn't it?" he queried.
"That's right. I didn't think you'd remember me," the man replied with a smile. "Both your friends are in ICU now and I've been assigned their care. Would you like to sit with them?"
The group of men stood and moved to the door, all nodding in agreement.
"Shall we split up and then swap rooms in a couple of hours?" Buck suggested.
"Good idea, son," Josiah praised. "I'd like to sit with Ez first, if that's alright."
"I would, too," the ladies' man said.
"Okay, the rest of us will go see Vin," Chris said.
"Well, if you'd like to follow me, I'll show you to their rooms," Dr. Bentley suggested as he pointed down the corridor.
The five men ambled along behind him and separated when they reached Ezra's door. Josiah and Buck entered and took seats on either side of the bed. The three remaining men were taken to a room further along, on the opposite side where Vin was located. Chris looked down at his friend and winced as he studied the man's battered face. JD moved to the window and looked out. He never felt comfortable in a hospital - it always reminded him of when his mother died. Nathan, meanwhile, was studying the chart hooked on the end of the bed.
"What's it say?" the blond asked as he lowered himself into a chair.
"Blood pressure's up. He's got a low-grade fever. Oxygen-saturation level's not great. They're doing 15 minute checks on his level of consciousness as well as checking his general condition at regular intervals," the therapist told him. "He's being well looked after and they're doing all they can for him. It's all down to Vin now."
"What does it say about his coma?"
"He's noted as being about eight on the GCS. He's on the cusp of unconsciousness and being comatose."
"Glasgow Coma Scale, right?" JD asked quietly from where he still stood.
"Yeah, well done. He's responsive in some respects but not all. He's obviously not awake and he doesn't respond to voice stimuli, but he seems to react when touched," Nathan explained.
Chris immediately reached out and took hold of his friend's hand. He felt a slight movement in response from Vin's hand. The blond looked up, smiled and nodded.
"Will he wake soon then?" JD asked.
"Can't say for sure, bud. It may take quite some time till he's ready to face the world again. His head injuries are real nasty. The fact he is a bit responsive is good news though."
Along in Ezra's room, his two friends were just sitting and studying him. They took in every bandage, bruise, scrape and suture.
"Jeez, poor Ez. He's sure gonna hurt like hell when he wakes up." Buck shook his head in despair. "I'd still like to know why him and Vin were going into town. I just can't understand what they were up to."
"We'll find out when they wake, Buck. Hope they won't keep us waiting too long though. I don't think I'm gonna be able to sleep until I know they're on the road to recovery," Josiah replied.
"Yeah, I know what you mean, pard," Buck said as he rubbed a hand over his face wearily. "Do you know exactly what happened to them? That other doctor didn't give too much detail. I know it was a car wreck, but how did it happen, was another vehicle involved, and if so what happened to that driver?"
"I had a quick word with one of the nurses 'cause Chris didn't seem too talkative when I approached him. It seems they were hit side-on by another car which failed to stop at an intersection. The driver might have been on his cell at the time and wasn't paying attention. Anyway, Ez took the full impact, but the jeep was shunted into a tree which is how Vin came by his injuries. The driver of the other vehicle wasn't wearing a seatbelt and he went through the windshield, flew right over the jeep and landed in the undergrowth. He was killed outright. Luckily another driver passed by the site soon after and called it in."
"Damnit. They're hurt all because of some moron. When are people gonna learn to just concentrate on driving and nothing else? It makes me so damned mad," Buck growled.
"I know, son. This one paid the ultimate price for his stupidity though."
"At the cost of our friends' health," Buck whispered. "Bastard."
Josiah had no answer to that, so he just patted Buck's back in sympathy and stayed silent. He had to admit that if the driver had survived, the man would have received a visit from five very angry men.
As agreed, a couple of hours later, the two groups moved rooms. They were both freshly shocked by their friends' injuries. They knew that Ezra in particular was lucky to be alive after having taken the full force of the collision.
Days passed and the men got into a routine. Two of them were always at the hospital - day and night. The rest helped out at the center, or caught up on sleep if they'd been doing the night duty in town. Chris called in all available staff and left most of the daily decisions to Nettie whom he quite often left in charge.
Three days later, the blond received a call from Nathan who was at the hospital with Ezra.
"Chris? Ez is awake. Thought you'd like to know. No sign of Vin joining him though."
"That's real good news about Ez, Nate. The guys will be thrilled. Is there anything else about his condition I can tell them?" Chris asked.
"Well, his memory ain't too good right now. Hopefully things will come back to him, but the last thing he remembers is the day we left him at the campsite."
"Damn. Oh well, when Vin wakes, perhaps he can shed some light on why they were heading to town. Vin's okay, ain't he?"
"Yeah, not much change. Least he's getting a chance to heal and get rid of the pain before he wakes up. I think he's doing the sensible thing to be honest. I know it's worrying that he ain't woke yet, but he's showing all the signs of wanting to," Nathan said reassuringly.
"Yeah, I know. I woulda expected Ez to be the one lolling around - not Vin," the blond replied with a sad smile.
"I'll keep you posted, Chris, and try not to get too downhearted."
The black-clad man went off in search of his friends and gave them the good news. Having one of their injured team-mates showing improvement was a real boost for them.
Since his release from the hospital, Ezra had been staying in the main ranch house with Chris. He had been home for a week after being confined to the medical facility for two weeks. He was still not totally healed and Nathan was keeping a close eye on him to make sure he didn't overdo it. Not that it was really a possibility because the injured man seemed to spend most of his day quietly indoors.
The therapist answered his cell after stepping out onto the porch so as not to disturb a sleeping Ezra. " Jackson."
"Nate, Vin is awake...well, kinda. He's sorta only half with us, if you get my meaning. He's real foggy and sleepy still, but he knew who I was," Chris informed his friend from the hospital.
"That's good news."
"I haven't asked him anything about why they were heading to town. Don't think he's quite up to thinking straight yet. Maybe tomorrow we'll get some answers," the blond said.
"Yeah, perhaps. It may not have been anything important anyway. 'Spect Ez just got the munchies for some Twinkies."
Chris snorted in amusement. "He'd sure developed a taste for them recently, hadn't he? How's he doin' today?"
"He's asleep by the fire in the living room." Nathan shrugged. "I don't know...he's just real quiet. I know he was hurt bad and he's still not one hundred percent, but it always worries me when he ain't yakking his head off. He kinda gets angry if I fuss about him. You know how he is."
"Yeah, well, if you need anything give me a ring. I can always get someone out to visit him if you think it's necessary," Chris pointed out insistently.
"Okay, speak to you later and give my regards to Vin," Nathan said.
He ambled back inside and checked on his patient. Ezra stirred and opened his eyes as Nathan put a hand on his brow.
"Hey, Ez. Feel okay after your sleep?"
"Tired still. Could I have a drink, please? I seem to be rather thirsty."
"Sure. Do you want water or something hot?"
"A nice cup of tea would go down a treat, with plenty of sugar," Ezra said.
Nathan smiled and nodded. "Coming right up. You warm enough?"
"Yes, thank you," Ezra replied as he sat up and wrapped himself up again in the blanket.
Nathan soon returned with Ezra's drink and handed it to the recovering man. Ezra took a sip and smiled as the heat made its way down through his body. Despite having been in front of the fire all day, Ezra realized it was only now as he was consuming the hot brew that he felt truly warm.
The next day, Ez was lying on the couch in the den to try and get some peace and quiet. He didn't like to admit it, but he really didn't feel very well. He'd been suffering pain and numbness in his right arm for a while, but now he was starting to get hot and cold as well as being tired and achy all over.
"Hey, Ez. You okay?" Chris asked, as he poked his head round the door. "Do you need anything?"
"No, thank you." Ezra sighed. "I'm not feeling myself actually. Probably just old age," he said with a weak grin.
"What's the matter?" the blond said as he stepped into the room worriedly. Nathan's observations yesterday had been correct.
Ezra reeled off his symptoms. Chris leaned down and felt his friend's brow and frowned when he felt the heat there. His concern increased when he saw Ezra shiver.
"How long have you felt like this?"
"Maybe you got a virus or something. There's a lotta 'flu about right now. I'll catch Nate when he gets back and get him to check on you, okay? Do you want a blanket or a drink?"
"No, thank you. I'll just try to get some sleep and hope I'm better when I wake up," Ezra replied as he rubbed his arm distractedly.
Chris nodded and backed out of the room, closing the door quietly behind him. He checked his watch and saw that Nathan should be back from his four-wheeler session in half an hour. Good, the sooner my mind is put at rest the better.
Ezra, meanwhile, closed his eyes and tried his best to drop off to sleep.
Nathan drove his four-wheeler toward Chris when he saw the blond beckon him over urgently.
"Is everything okay?" he asked.
Chris shook his head. "Ez ain't feeling too good. Can you take a look at him?"
"Sure. I'll just wash my hands. Where is he?"
"In the den," Chris said as he took charge of Nathan's mode of transport.
The therapist cleaned up and headed to see his ailing friend. He entered the den and studied the sleeping man before attempting to wake him. He could see that Ezra had beads of sweat on his brow, and he heard Ezra moan in distress as he shifted on his makeshift bed.
Nathan bent down and gently shook the man's shoulder. "Ez?"
Ezra opened his eyes and groaned some more when he saw Nathan hovering above him. He squinted at his friend who seemed to have multiplied in number. Ezra could see at least three of him. "Mr. Jackson? It seems I have not recovered my health in the time I have been resting."
Nathan smiled sympathetically. "What's wrong exactly?"
Ezra listed his ailments again as he tried to sit up a bit. He wiped a hand across his forehead and then shivered as a wave of coldness swept over his body.
Nathan took his temperature and checked his still-healing injuries for sign of infection. "Well, I'll give you something for the fever and pain and see if that does the trick. In your condition you're susceptible to picking up viruses easily, but if we need to I'll get the hospital to check you out to be on the safe side. Give it a couple of days and see how you feel then."
Ezra nodded wearily. "Thank you, Nathan. I hope your potions will be beneficial. For once I will not refuse any of your home-made remedies."
"Glad to hear it, bud. I'll get what I need and be back in a minute."
"I'll be timing you," Ezra retorted with a faint grin.
"Nate?" Chris called when he saw his friend in the kitchen. The blond had been out on the porch trying to remain calm.
"Hey, Chris. I think it's 'flu. I'll give him something for his symptoms and then if he ain't better by Monday I'll take him to the hospital."
"Okay. I just get worried when Ez is sick. Knee-jerk reaction, I guess, after everything he's suffered since we've worked with him," Chris said ruefully.
"We all feel the same, Chris. It's totally natural."
"I know I've said this before, but I'm damned pleased you decided to join our partnership. You've been a godsend, Nate, you really have," Chris said gratefully.
"Well, if you hadn't got me, I dare say you'd have employed another medic," Nathan pointed out in embarrassment.
"Maybe so, but it is you we got and it's my thanks you're getting."
"Thanks, Chris. That means a lot." Nathan smiled shyly as he headed back to see his patient.
"Two seconds late, Mr. Jackson," was the greeting he received on entering the den. "My symptoms have multiplied tenfold in the time you've been lolly-gagging."
"Lord, Ezra, give a man a break," Nathan laughed. "It takes skill and precision to brew my famous potions you know. Wrong timing either way, and they can kill not cure."
"Truly? I thought they were designed to poison us anyway. They definitely taste deadly. The smell is enough to shrivel one on the spot too," Ezra complained.
"Shrivel one what?" the therapist asked with a grin.
"Wouldn't you like to know," Ezra replied shortly.
Nathan shook his head and poured out his chosen medication. He handed each to his friend who drank them without a word.
Josiah was visiting Vin and filling him in on what he had missed at the center since his accident.
"By the way, we're real curious about why you and Ez were heading to town when you had your crash," he said casually. "Ez is still having memory problems, so I wondered if you remembered. Were you both off for a secret rendezvous with a woman?"
Vin frowned and looked thoughtful as he rubbed his brow. "No, I don't think that was why, big fella," he said wryly.
"What's the last thing you can recall?"
"Gee, I don't know." Vin stayed quiet for a while. "I think I was in the barn, but I don't know what I was doing. Had I just seen JD off on a ride?"
Josiah nodded. "Yeah, JD did take out a group of riders that afternoon. You don't remember Ezra coming back?"
"Nah, I'm sorry, Josiah. My mind's kinda like scrambled eggs right now," Vin admitted.
"Don't worry, son. It'll maybe come to you later. Probably wasn't anything worth remembering anyway. You just rest and get better, Vin."
Two days later, Nathan checked on Ezra's condition. He was not pleased to discover that his friend was no better - in fact he was worse. Ezra's fever had now increased and he'd become very lethargic and slightly confused.
"Chris?" Nathan said as he tracked the blond down to the barn. "I need to take Ez to the hospital. He's getting worse."
Chris cursed. "Okay, you get him ready and I'll call the hospital to let them know we're on our way."
"Right. I'll probably need your help to get him to the car," Nathan said.
"No problem. I'll be along soon to help you," Chris agreed as he pulled out his cell and put in the call while pacing back and forth.
Nathan headed to the living room where Ezra currently was. "Come on, bud. Got to get you looked at in the hospital. Put this blanket round your shoulders."
Ezra struggled upright, but Nathan had to secure the blanket in place because Ezra didn't seem to understand that he should keep it on. He kept pushing it away and shaking his head.
Chris hurried in and the two men managed to get Ezra up between them. Chris put his arm round Ezra's waist and Nathan supported him under his arms. The sick man seemed hardly able to put one foot in front of the other. Chris had a hard time keeping Ezra upright as he also tried to open the Ram's door to get him inside. Between them they finally managed to get Ezra settled and belted in safely. Nathan climbed in beside him, while Chris ran round to the driver's side and jumped in.
Vin looked at Chris and saw the worry on his face.
"Hey, Vin. How ya feeling?"
"Better than I was. Kinda ache still, but on the whole not too bad."
"That's good," the blond replied distractedly.
"Ez ain't too good. He's back here and the doctor doesn't seem to know what's wrong. He's doing a load of tests and we've gotta wait for the results. They think one possibility might be encephalitis."
"Try not to worry. Don't need you getting sicker again as well."
"Hard not to be concerned," Vin said quietly.
"I know, bud."
Ezra was being examined by a new doctor. Currently he was having his reflexes checked and they seemed fine. However, when Ezra was made to stand, he couldn't maintain his balance and he told the doctor that his right leg felt weak. He managed to perform simple commands but it was obvious to all involved that something was seriously wrong.
The following night Vin had a nightmare. He was back at the camp site and he kept hearing a sound like the roar of a lion. It was pitch black with only the light of the fire to see by. The roaring noise kept moving from one side of the camp to the other and then getting closer then farther away. Vin then felt a hand on his shoulder. He turned, only to find it was a cougar touching him with his paw. The animal then opened its jaws and lunged for his neck.
Vin woke with a gasp and covered with sweat.
"Easy, Vin. Just a bad dream," Chris said soothingly.
"No, no. It's Ez. I remember." Vin screwed his eyes up as he tried to recall what he wanted to say to his friend. He knew that Ezra was in serious trouble.
"What about it?"
Vin rubbed his brow as he started to hyperventilate.
"Breathe slowly, Vin. Calm down."
"Shit. It's bad, Chris. I need to remember," Vin said in distress.
"Close your eyes. Relax and try to think back." Chris reached out and ran his hands through Vin's hair. He felt the man slowly calm.
"It bit him. Jeez, Chris it bit him." Vin sobbed. "That's why we were coming to town to get him seen to. Didn't they see the bites after the wreck?"
"Where was Ez bitten?"
"On his right arm."
Chris' skin erupted in goose-bumps as he did some quick calculations. Shit, cougar bite a month ago, now Ez is sick. Fucking hell.
"I need to speak to the doctor right away. I'll be back," the blond said as he hurried out of the room. He went to the nurses' station and made them put out a call for Ezra's doctor.
"Mr. Larabee? What can I do for you?" the medic asked.
"I think I know what's wrong with Ez. He was bitten by a cougar before the car wreck - that's why they were coming to town. The bite was to Ezra's right arm, where he was injured in the wreck. The bites musta been hidden by his injuries from the wreck. I think Ez has got rabies. The timeline matches when he'd start to show symptoms," Chris finished breathlessly.
The color had totally drained from the doctor's face as Chris had been speaking. "Right. Thank you for the information. I need to run the tests to determine things for sure, but I'm afraid what you've told me sounds correct."
"What tests are involved and how long until you know for sure?" the blond asked desperately.
"We need to send off samples of Ezra's blood, skin, spinal fluid and saliva. We should have the results tomorrow. You are obviously aware that if it is rabies, now that symptoms have shown, Ezra is critically ill."
"Yeah, I know he won't survive," Chris whispered.
The doctor patted Chris' arm in sympathy before turning away to see Ezra.
Nathan chose that moment to arrive to swap duties with Chris. He saw the look of devastation on his friend's face.
"Chris? What's happened?"
"It's Ez." Chris filled Nathan in about what Vin had told him. "The doctor is pretty sure Ez has got rabies. We're gonna lose him. After everything he's been through..." Chris' voice hitched.
Nathan didn't know what to say. He just took the blond in his arms as they both tried to come to terms with the dreadful news.
The rest of the men arrived at the hospital after Nathan had called them. No one knew what to say or do.
Chris walked into Vin's room knowing he was going to have to do one of the hardest things in his life.
Vin looked up at him and his face drained of color. He detected the fear and sorrow emanating from the man. He also noticed the red-rimmed eyes which was never a good sign. "Chris? Tell me. What's happened?" he pleaded in trepidation.
Chris sat by his friend's bed and took his hand, giving it a distracted rub. He was going to try and break the news gently, but how the hell could he? There could be no pussy-footing around, but he'd do his best.
"I'm sorry, Vin. I've got some real bad news about Ez. I told the doctor what you said about him being bitten by the cougar. They're doing some tests to confirm things, but he's pretty convinced that Ez has got rabies. He's got all the symptoms."
Chris reached out and gently wiped the tears from Vin's cheeks as the man started crying.
"Does Ez know yet?" Vin sobbed. He knew he was going to lose a good friend, someone with whom he'd shared such great times. He'd already lost one best pal during the Gulf War and now it was going to break his heart when Ezra passed away. He didn't think he would be able to bear it.
"Not yet, bud. He's sleeping a lot at the moment. He's got much worse since he was admitted, but we want to wait for the test results before telling him." Chris shook his head. Telling Vin had been hard - how difficult was it going to be informing Ezra of his imminent death? He didn't want Ezra to hear it from a doctor. He needed to hear it from a friend. To let him know he would not be alone during his final days.
"What about Maude?" Vin asked quietly. He wiped his eyes and hiccupped. To lose a friend was terrible, but to lose an only child would be unbearable.
"She's coming tomorrow. She could hardly talk when I called her earlier." Chris knew firsthand how she felt. When Adam had died he'd so very nearly cut himself off from the world and sunk into a life of recrimination and anger. Somehow, he'd pulled himself back from the brink, but he'd never fully recovered. There would always be a hole in his soul, which losing Ezra would only deepen.
"Poor lady." Vin sighed deeply. "I'm so sorry, Chris."
Before the long-haired man could continue, Chris interrupted, "Hey, bud. I want none of that. It was not your fault - none of this is. You hear me?"
Vin didn't reply.
"It's just fucking bad luck - wrong time, wrong place and all that shit. If you need to talk, we're all here for you but please don't blame yourself. Been there - done that, and I'm telling you it don't help," Chris said as he ran his fingers through Vin's hair.
"How do people believe in God?" Vin whispered. "Why does He let such things happen?"
"You're asking the wrong person, bud. Don't reckon even Josiah knows where to turn right now. We've just gotta be there for each other, but at the moment, the most important thing is to support Ez."
"Mr. Larabee? Could I have a word?" Dr Marshall called to the blond in the waiting room twenty-four hours later.
"Yes, of course."
"We have had the results back from Ezra's tests. I am afraid you were correct in your diagnosis." The doctor studied Chris seriously. "I need to ask you something. Do you remember the rabies case of the girl in Wisconsin who survived? I think our only option is to try the exact method of treatment that was given to her. I've looked up the details and called the doctors involved to make sure I have all the information I need to proceed. There are no guarantees that it will work for Ezra. Other people have been treated in other parts of the world and none have survived. However, we are not sure that they did the treatment properly or completely. I need to know if you happy for me to go ahead?"
Chris stood and chewed his lip. "Can I talk to the others first? I don't wanna make this decision on my own."
"Sure. Do you want me to come in case they have any questions?"
"That would be good."
After a thorough discussion, the six men decided to allow the doctor to proceed with the radical treatment. They knew it was the only chance of Ezra's survival - even if it was the slimmest possible. There was no way they were going to deny him the chance of life.
To be continued...