Chapter 7: Waiting In The Shadow Of The Noose - Night 1
As night fell, Chris grew concerned. Ezra had awoken briefly around sunset, but after drinking some water and talking for a short while, fell into a agitated sleep.
Chris felt his worry increase as he sat watching his friend. All afternoon heíd waited to hear some sound from the outer office that would indicate the sheriff had returned. He had been greeted by nothing but silence.
Finally, just as he was giving up hope, he heard the door to the sheriffís office open and someone move around. Forcing his sore body to move, Chris stood and made his way to the door of the cell. "Hey! Can we get some help back here?" he called out. Hearing a gasp behind him, he turned to find Ezraís emerald eyes focused on him.
"Is that noise truly necessary Mr. Larabee?" Standish rasped
Relief at hearing Ezraís voice filled Chris. Walking over, he knelt beside the cot and smiled at his friend. "Just finally heard someone out there," he informed the Southerner. "How are you doing?"
"Just wonderful," Ezra said as a wave of pain washed over him.
Seeing the pain flowing over Ezraís face, Chris reached out and took his hand in his own, wincing slightly at the intense pressure Ezra applied. Taking a closer look, he could see a slight flush on Ezraís face. Reaching out, he smoothed the hair off of Standishís face, frowning slightly at the heat he felt there.
As the pain receded to more manageable levels, Ezra tried to regulate his breathing. Finally, when he felt he was once more in control, he opened his eyes and found himself looking straight into the concerned face of Chris Larabee. Embarrassed by showing such weakness and need before the man, Ezra extracted his hand and looked away, not missing the slight smile on Chrisí face.
"Itís OK to hurt, Ezra," Larabee assured softly as he stood and made his way over to the water pitcher. Pouring some of the tepid water into a mug, he made his way back toward Standish. Kneeling down beside the cot once more, he tapped Ezra shoulder. "Hey, I brought you some water," he said.
Ezra turned at the soft voice, the same voice heíd heard fathers use when comforting children. He would never be able to admit how soothing he found that voice at this moment. "Thank you," he managed, reaching out for the mug while trying to sit up.
Ezra made it up a few inches before he gasped in pain.
Chris hastily put the mug down on the floor and reached out to help Ezra. "Easy, Ez," he cautioned in the same soothing voice. "Youíve been sleeping in the same position all day, and after the beating you took, youíve got to be sore."
"My back," Ezra ground out through clenched teeth as severe, very specific points of pain made themselves known.
Chris sighed. He needed to check the wounds and change the bandages. Now that Ezra was in a sitting position, he supposed it was as good a time as any. "I know. I need to check it, Ez." Standing, he moved over toward the windowsill where heíd placed the carbolic and cloths.
Taking what he needed, he walked back and stood before Ezra. "Youíve got a choice," he began. "I can do this with you sitting up or you can lie on your stomach."
Ezra looked up at the man in black and sighed. He was not looking forward to having his bandages changed and, if he was correct in his assumption, the small bottle contained carbolic. "Is there anything left in my flask?" Ezra asked hopefully.
Chris tilted his head to the side. "I never even checked," he said, wondering at his own forgetfulness. Of course, he had been busy trying to tend Ezraís wounds and then waiting for the man to awaken. Shifting everything to one hand, he flipped the pillow over and rummaged through the pile of rags, his hand finally coming into contact with the metal flask. Pulling it out, he handed it to Ezra.
Ezra released a sigh of relief as he took the flask. Opening it, he took several drinks, recapped it and set it on the bed beside him. Closing his eyes, he waited for the alcohol to take effect.
Chris watched his friend, a frown forming on his face. Ezra did not look well.
Feeling Chris staring at him, Ezra peeled open his eyes and released a sigh. "Very well, Mr. Larabee. We might as well begin." Turning slightly on the cot, he waited as Chris sat behind him and began working on the knots that were holding the bandages.
As Chris freed the final knot, he turned quickly. His hand automatically reached for his gun, not realizing it wasnít there.
"Well isnít that sweet," the liveryman drawled from the doorway. He watched the gunslingerís eyes narrow. A small portion of his mind was grateful for the bars standing between them.
"What do you want?" Chris demanded. "Whereís the sheriff."
Hank looked over his shoulder. "Sheriffís still out. I came to see if you needed anything," the man offered.
Ezra turned to look at the man in the doorway. There was something in the manís manner that didnít sit well with him. Something was a little off about the man.
Seeing the doubt in the injured manís eyes, Hank hastily assured, "Donít worry, I wonít tell the sheriff nothing. I just feel bad for how I behaved earlier and thought Iíd make it up to you."
Chris slid his eyes over toward Ezra. The manís assurance sounded false, stillÖ they needed help and he doubted heíd get it from the sheriff. After all, from what theyíd seen the sheriff and the deputy were both in on whatever was going onÖ. "Would you get us some more water?" Chris asked politely.
"And a shirt, if it wouldnít be to much difficulty," Ezra added, having seen the shredded remains of his own shirt when Chris was searching for the flask.
Chris winced. He hadnít even thought of that. He owed Ezra a shirt.
Hank eyed the two men carefully.
Chris and Ezra exchanged a glance. Hank was up to something.
"Give me the pitcher," the liveryman finally said, approaching the cell. "Iíll see what I can do about a shirt."
Nodding, Chris handed everything to Ezra and walked over to the pitcher. Approaching the man, his eyes narrowed slightly. Something was definitely not right with this man, but they would have to wait to see what it was. Passing the pitcher through the bars, he nodded at the man. "Thanks."
Hank smiled at the man in black. It wasnít a pleasant sight. "Iíll be right back," he assured as he turned toward the door and headed out.
"I donít trust him," Ezra said from the bed.
Chris turned and met the gamblerís eyes. "Neither do I, but we need the water," Chris said settling back on the bed. He took the mug that still contained some water and began to wet the cloth where it had stuck to the wounds. "And the shirt," he added, receiving a smile for his comment. As Ezra turned to face forward once more, Chris frowned. His friend was not looking well. Maybe he should see about getting the doctor back in.
Removing the last of the bandages, he hissed out his breath. One of the injuries was inflamed. Touching it gingerly with his fingers, he heard Ezraís soft cry of pain and quickly reached to squeeze the conmanís shoulder. "Sorry, Ez," he said softly. "It looks like one of the cuts is infected. Maybe we can get the doc to come back and remove the stitches so he can clean it out again."
Trying to take a breath, Ezra tried to convince, "Not at all, Mr. Larabee. I assure you I am quite fine." The fact that he didnít want to be awake for the removal of stitches, the cleansing of the wound and the re-application of stitches, however, was the real impetus for the comment.
Chris snorted his disbelief, unable to suppress the smile on his face. "And you say Vinís a lousy liar."
Ezra felt the corners of his mouth tug up into a tight grin.
Quiet reigned in the cell for a few minutes as Chris washed down the cut and bruised back. "I know youíre hurting, Ez," he said, feeling a tremble of pain course through the other man. "Itís OK to show it," he assured, resting a hand on Ezraís arm. "Thereís no one here but me and I already know youíre human."
Ezra let out a bark of bitter laughter. "Of course you do," he said, self-accusation evident in his voice. "The number of times Iíve let you downÖ"
Chris frowned. "Thatís not what I meant, Ezra," he snapped. "We all make mistakes. We all have shortcomings. We all feel pain. And we all bleed," he finished, his voice growing softer with each word. "You havenít failed me any more than Iíve failed you, in fact, probably less." Feeling a slight relaxation of the tense muscles under his hand, Chris continued. "Weíre just men, Ezra - all of us. We all have our weaknesses and failings. Itís only together that weíre strong. So stop blaming yourself for things no one else does and start being the man we know is in there." Embarrassed by his words, Chris cleared his throat and turned his attention to the injured back before him.
Ezra swallowed several times. Could what Chris said be true? Had he and the others really forgiven him for his failures? The question that had plagued him since the start of the journey floated to the fore of his mind. He wanted to ask, knew he probably wouldnít have another chance to ask, but something held him back. Vin would be coming for them soon. Maybe when they got home he would ask ChrisÖ
Out in the main office of the jail, Hank was returning. He figured he would have a little fun with the men in the cell. After all, they would be hung in two dayís time. Then he would take his cut of the $40,000 they had discovered in the strangersí saddlebags and leave Dry Gulch forever.
Picking up the pitcher, he wandered back to the cell. Moving toward forward, he watched the man in black finish tying the cloth to hold the bandages in place. "Hey, mister," he said to catch the manís attention. The fancy dressed one wasnít looking so good, and that would make this even better. Waiting for the man in black to approach him, he passed the water through and held out the shirt.
He had gone and gotten one of his own shirts, one that was clean but certainly not his best. The collar and cuffs of the shirt were frayed, two buttons were missing and, in truth, heíd been about to throw it out. "This is the only clean shirt I have," he said forcing the man to take it. "But your friend there needs it more than I do." It was a lie, but he wanted to see the fancy-dressed one suffer just a little more.
"Obliged," Chris thanked, still not comfortable with the man.
Hank hovered by the cell as he watched the blond help the other one into the shirt. If he didnít know better he would swear they were brothers. "Wish there was somethiní I could do to help you. Sad thing that happened today," he observed.
"You didnít seem to think so earlier," Ezra observed bitterly, reflecting upon the manís behavior at the hotel, in the jail and at the trial.
Hank hung his head. "Iím sorry about that. Guess I just got riled up and wasnít thinking right. I feel bad about all I did and would like to make up for it if I can."
Chris looked at Ezra. The almost imperceptible nod he received only confirmed his own suspicions. Still, they didnít have many options. "Can you get a wire out for us?" he asked, turning back to Hank.
Hank winced and stepped back. "Thatís askiní an awful lot. There are still a few people who are none too happy with you. I could be bringing down a lot of trouble on my head," he explained.
Chris gritted his teeth.
"What if we paid you?" Ezra asked, looking to verify his suspicions.
Hank looked up, the gleam of greed evident in his eyes. "IÖ I donít know," he hedged.
Chris shot Ezra a look. Ezra frowned.
"If you give me a pencil and paper, Iíll give you the money to send it and some besides," Chris offered.
Their conversation was cut short by the sound of the outer door opening and feet walking across the room. A few moments later the sheriff and the deputy appeared.
"What are you doing here?" The sheriff directed at Hank.
Hank scowled at the man. Heíd been just about to get some money from these two and the Sheriff had to go and interrupt. "Just bringiní them some water and a shirt, Sheriff," he said, staring the man in the eye as if daring him to say something.
The sheriff narrowed his eyes and tilted his head to the side. Hank stared at the man a moment longer and then left. Turning his attention to the prisoners, he faced Chris who had moved to stand by the cell door, feeling only an echo of guilt at the manís black eye and bruised jaw. Prisoners under his watch had always been treated fairly and never beaten. This had gone all wrong from the start.
Chris eyed the man coldly, as if daring him to say anything, do anything more than what had already been done.
The sheriff couldnít hold the steady gaze, so, allowing his eyes to sweep around the cell, he saw the tray containing food that had been eaten and the bandages. "I see Docís been by," he observed.
"Indeed," came the reply from Ezra.
"ĎRound noon," Larabee informed, his disgust for the sheriff evident in his voice.
The sheriff nodded. It was after eight now. Turning toward the deputy, he ordered, "Get them something to eat."
"And the doc," Chris added. "One of his wounds is infected."
The sheriff looked at the blond. "Youíre pushing your luck, Mr. Larson," the sheriff warned. He suspected that the three hadnít used their real names, but it didnít matter. The plan was already in place. "Youíll be dead day after tomorrow." His eyes slid away from the burning green ones, unable to maintain eye contact, knowing these men were about to hang fro something heíd done.
"Get him," Chris ordered.
The sheriff nodded. Maybe it would ease some of his guilt. He had never intended things to get this far. Howard at the bank wasnít supposed to die, heíd been in on it... And then the fight.... "Iíll send Fred for him when he gets back with the food." Then, turning to go, he was stopped by the blondís comment.
"We wonít be hanging. Our friend will be coming back with help."
The sheriff turned once more, eyes downcast, unwilling to meet the green gaze. "No one will be coming," he said softly. "Your friendís dead." And with that, he turned and left the room, not seeing what a terrible blow heíd wrought.
Chris staggered backward, collapsing on the floor, the weight of those words a killing blow.
Ezra felt the color, strength and hope drain from him. Vin, dead? A portion of his mind screamed its denial. It couldnít be. Surely there had been a mistake. Surely they were wrong. The emotional pain, along with his growing fever and sore muscles finally combined to overwhelm the man and he slumped onto the cot, not quite unconscious, but longing for that oblivion.
Chris heard the figure behind him collapse. "Ezra," he called out, turning and finding the man slumped against the bed. Shoving aside the black pain that threatened to completely consume him, Chris moved over to the cot. Checking the barely conscious man, he was grateful to see none of the wounds had broken open. Ezraís fever, however, seemed to be increasing. "The doc will be coming soon," Chris soothed, vowing silently to himself he would not lose another friend this day if he had to fight all the hounds of Hell to do it. "Youíre going to be fine."
Ezra heard the words, but could only nod his agreement, the pain in his soul aching and throbbing in concert with the wounds on his back.
Neither man was aware of the passage of time nor heard when the deputy came in with their food. Ezra was lost in pain, physical and emotional, and a rapidly rising fever; Chris was focused on Ezra.
The doctor came, tended Ezra, informed Chris that the fever should pass, he was confident all the infection had been drained. And then left.
The night passed slowly for the two men, each fighting his own battles. Chris refused to allow his mind to think on the devastating news heíd received, taking cold comfort in the knowledge that they would soon be joining Vin. In the meantime, he did his best to fight for Ezra, running damp cloths over the manís face and whispering soothing words into the fevered ear. At times Chris would surprise himself with fragments of poems or stories that heíd recited Adam and even Sarah when they were sick. Somehow, though, repeating them to Ezra wasnít a betrayal of his memory, but rather a confirmation to Chris of what heíd long resisted - his six friends were becoming his new family.
Ezra struggled against the raging pain. Tossed from peak to peak of pained consciousness before plunging into the nightmare depths of bitter torment and darkness, the whole time burning ever hotter as the heat of fever increased. There was no haven, no place that offered the soothing comfort of oblivion that had been his friend earlier. The only thing that kept him from being completely lost was the soothing thread of words Chris offered. The gentle tone and comforting rhythm chased away the nightmares that threatened to consume him and deflected the fear that overwhelmed.
Chris continued to tend Ezra deep into the night, only allowing himself to rest when, in the darkest part of the night, in the small hours before dawn, the fever finally broke. By the time the fever broke, he was too exhausted to do more than slip into a dreamless sleep.
Vin didnít know what time it was, it didnít really matter. He only had one job, one thought. He had to get the boys and get back to Chris and Ezra.
The exhausted man was listing atop the tired horse, but pushed onward.
When his horse stopped, he lifted his head and looked around. An anguished cry escaped the man as he realized how far he was from town. He knew he wouldnít make it, couldnít make it. The beating heíd taken had gone untended and after so many hours on horseback with no food and minimal water stops, he hurt more than they had initially. But he had to get through. Chris and Ezra were depending on him.
Trying to think things through, the sound of a dog barking drew his attention. He was close to the Taylor farm. He knew they would help.
Turning his exhausted horse toward the farm, he nearly cried in relief when the house came into sight. He was just trying to moisten his mouth to call out when the front door opened and a man with a rifle stepped out.
Drawing the horse to a stop, he tried to call out, frustrated by the soft rasp that escaped. "Help," was all he got out.
The figure stepped out onto the porch, "Mr. Tanner?" Ephram Taylor asked. Seeing the figure nod and then start to slump, he rushed forward to catch the faltering form as Taylor called over his shoulder, "Carter, William, come help me. Margaret, get up, Mr. Tanner isnít well" He was more than willing to help one of them men who had gone out of their way to help him.
Two teens came out of the house and up to their father. Following his instructions, Carter helped his father guide Vin into the house while William tended to the horse. As he led the exhausted animal to their barn, he was puzzled. He, like most of the youths in the area, were well aware of their heroes and their heroesí horses. This was most definitely not Peso.
Inside, Margaret Taylor had been uncertain what was necessary, but preparing a basin of water and grabbing some clean rags, she also pulled out some bread, butter, preserves and cold meat. When her husband and oldest son helped the faltering man into the house, she was unable to stop the gasp of shock. "You poor man," she said, quickly taking in the pale color, the bruises and exhausted appearance. "Sit him over there on the couch. Caleb, get him some water. Nancy, bring me one of those rags. Mr. Tanner, you just rest there while we fix you up."
"Need to get to town," he rasped out, nodding his thanks to Caleb as the boy brought him a glass of water.
"Youíre not going anywhere," Mrs. Taylor informed him sternly.
"Have to, maíam," he disagreed, trying to build the energy to move. He looked up when Mr. Taylor chuckled.
"Donít argue with her son," Mr. Taylor spoke with the voice of experience, accepting the slap on the shoulder his wife provided.
Vin couldnít stop the small smile the exchange brought. The moment passed quickly, however, as he thought of his friends. Struggling to sit up, he fought against the hands. "Have to get to town. Chris and Ez are in danger."
A gasp of dismay escaped Margaret. Ephram frowned. Turning to find the eye of his older son, he ordered, "Carter," saddle up your horse and go get Mr. Wilmington and the others. Bring them back here as quick as you can." Then, turning toward Vin, he asked, "Good enough?" Seeing the man nod, he advised. "They should be here about an hour before dawn. In the mean time, you let Margaret tend you and rest up. I have a feeling youíre going to need all the sleep you can get."
Vin nodded and settled back, asleep before Mrs. Taylor finished tending him.
About an hour before dawn, Vin was awakened by a small hand patting his cheek. Prying open his eyes, he found himself looking into the wide, brown eyes of a very small girl who was smiling at him. "Hello," he said, smiling back as he tried to figure out where he was.
"Daddy says you need to get up. Your friends are here," Nancy said.
"Thank you darliní," Vin replied.
Nancy looked indecisive for a moment before leaning over and placing a gentle kiss on the manís cheek.
Warmed by the girlís action, he rewarded her with a brilliant smile. "Thank you," he said again. "What was that for?"
Nancy looked seriously into the blue eyes. "Whenever I have a boo-boo, Mommy gives me a kiss to make it better. I gived you a kiss to make your boo-boos better, too," she explained.
Vin reached up and gave the girl a quick hug, wishing all his problems could be so easily fixed
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