Part Six (Epilogue)
Ben leaned into the doorway, checking on the men inside the shack. Chris and Vin had placed Ezra on the cot, just sleeping now. The two men were talking softly, obviously discussing what to do next.
“How is he?” Ben asked, trying to tell from the gambler’s face. It looked peaceful, but, if Ben was being honest, it would have looked just as peaceful if Ezra was dead. Two weary faces turned in his direction.
“Hangin’ on,” Chris sighed, looking back at Ezra, “for now.”
Vin’s jaw tensed slightly, and he patted Chris’s arm once as he stood up from where he’d been sitting on the cot near Ezra’s feet.
“Reckon the doc will be able to tell us better,” he declared, meeting Ben's eyes steadily.
“Yes,” Ben agreed, “I suppose he will.”
The older man crossed the threshold then, heading over to look down at Slade. After a moment, he knelt down to see the body more clearly, taking in the damage, clicking his tongue slightly. When he looked up again, he saw a pair of exhausted dark green eyes looking back at him—Chris was standing on the other side of the body, obviously waiting.
“So how do you want to do this?” Chris asked softly, deferring to Cartwright now that the heavy lifting was over.
“Well,” the older man frowned, “I need to get back down the mountain to check on Adam, and I imagine Josiah and Hoss are pretty anxious to know what’s happening.”
Chris nodded and turned away, looking to where Vin was now rooting around near the small black stove, checking out the utensils. Finding a fairly large bowl, the tracker held it up and used it to indicate towards the door--telling his leader he was going to get water. Chris acknowledged him with a slight shrug and shifted his gaze over to the cot, making sure he could still see the rise and fall of Ezra’s chest where he slept. Only when he was sure did he return his eyes once more to the oldest Cartwright, who was pushing himself back up to his feet. Ben leaned back a little, sorting out a crick in his back, then added to his previous statement.
“We’ll tie Slade and the old scout to their horses, and Joe and I will ride back down to the meadow with them. Hoss and Joe can then take the outlaws into town for the sheriff to lock up, and I’ll have Joe come back with the doctor to the meadow. After he sees Adam, I’ll bring the doctor up here to you. I’ll also send Josiah up as soon as I see him.”
Chris made no response--his eyes were back on Ezra. Soon after Ben started speaking, Chris had heard a hitch in the gambler's breathing, and was debating whether it needed checking up on. Ben frowned slightly, wondering if he'd just been heeded. Looking down, he nevertheless felt the need to make one more point, whether the gunslinger was distracted or not.
"Just to warn you, Mr. Larabee: the, uh, the sheriff will probably want to speak with you as well. It’s possible he’ll come along with the doctor.”
“The sheriff,” Chris mused, his eyes still on Ezra, “I've heard he is a good man.”
“He is.” Ben’s eyes focused on Chris’ profile, “I promise you, he is.”
As if finally sensing the scrutiny, Chris frowned. After a moment, he shook his head, and the focus returned to his eyes as he turned to look once more at Ben. “On second thought, Mr. Cartwright, I’ll ride down with you--I’d prefer to meet your sheriff sooner rather than later and get this sorted out. Plus, I need to telegraph home and our judge, let them know what’s happened.”
Ben’s eyebrows lifted at the idea that Chris would willingly leave Ezra, though inwardly he wasn't really surprised. Man was obviously not the type to hide from trouble. A creak from the doorway had both men turning around to look in that direction.
“You know, Pa,” Joe was leaning on the doorframe, having
heard the tail end of the conversation, “Me n’ Hoss could probably check in
with the railroad office in town too, see what happened with the real deeds, if
the money got to those families in
Chris gave a small smile in response, having expected that. Joe smiled more broadly and walked further inside, placing the bowl down on a table and then opening one of the bags to pull out a small, black leather satchel. He tossed it to Chris.
“Bandages and a tincture of something, looks like,” the young man explained. “Looks like that Toby fella was used to getting into scrapes.”
Chris thanked him with a nod, opening the satchel to see the clean, bandages inside and a small glass bottle of whitish liquid with a rubber stopper. As he was about to pull the bottle out, he found Ben Cartwright’s hand resting lightly on his wrist.
“Joe and I know a little about wrapping wounds,” Ben said softly, patting the black clad arm. “Why don’t you join Mr. Tanner in getting some air.”
Chris didn’t look up, simply stared down at the hand for a while as it continued to rest on his wrist. Finally, after what seemed like hours, he eyes lifted, meeting Ben’s dark gaze coolly.
“Thank you, Ben, but no. It is good of you to offer, but Ezra is one of my men. I’ll take care of him. If you’d like to help me, I won’t turn that down, but I’ll wrap his shoulder.”
A tiny frown creased Ben’s forehead, but he didn’t disagree as Chris took his hand back and turned to head in the direction of the cot.
Josiah was pacing, his boots squelching in the wet grass of the meadow. He pivoted on one foot, leaving a muddy divot--not his first--and looked to where Adam was sitting down on a root under the old cedar, leaning against the tree, his hurt leg propped up on a saddle. The young man’s eyes were closed--he was asleep, the rifle in his arms loose. Not too far from him, Hoss kept one eye on his older brother, worry etched into his features every time he turned in Adam’s direction, and another on the three outlaws that they’d tied together in the middle of the meadow, snarling at them whenever they glanced his way. It was a very effective means of keeping them quiet.
Josiah smiled as Hoss actually emitted a growl when Nash opened his mouth to say something, probably another plea to be moved to a drier part of the meadow. Nash instantly lowered his eyes and Hoss grunted, pleased.
Adam woke with a start, wincing as the pain radiated down his body. A tiny groan left his lips, involuntary, and Hoss was instantly there.
“What’s the matter?”
Adam blinked up at him, obviously confused for a moment. Then he got his bearings and shook his head.
“Nothing,” he admitted, “Nothing, I…,” he looked around for a moment, then nodded, “I felt something. The earth is trembling. Sounds bizarre, but I think it means horses coming in, fast.”
Hoss didn’t question, he simply stood up and headed in the direction of the hills, pressing his rifle to his shoulder, ready to fire. Adam pushed himself up on one foot, using the tree for support, and set the rifle on against his own shoulder. Josiah walked behind the outlaws and crouched down, intending to use them as cover if need be, also shouldering his rifle. The outlaws' expressions all soured, not appreciating the idea of being human shields. Nervously, they turned their faces to watch Hoss continue striding towards the open end of the meadow, ready to fire on anything that didn’t look like his father and Joe.
A moment later, Hoss bellowed a fabulously loud “Yahoo!” and Adam and Josiah both grinned, relaxing their grips on their weapons. Josiah stood back up, leaning on one leg and ignoring the sighs of relief the outlaws at his feet all gave. They all watched as Hoss waved at whoever approached.
Seconds later, Ben, Chris and Little Joe appeared, galloping into the meadow, leading two horses with men slung across their backs. Ben jumped off his horse first to check on his eldest, while Little Joe dropped off his own horse next to Hoss and started in on what was obviously an animated tale of derring do, arms flailing with his descriptions.
Still covering the outlaws, Josiah’s own smile fell as Chris dismounted more slowly and headed over, the gunslinger’s eyes drifting to the outlaws first before returning to meet the preacher’s concerned eyes. There was no expression on the gunslinger’s face, which frightened the older man.
“Ezra?” Josiah whispered as Chris reached his side.
Chris turned away to survey the field, “He's alive, Josiah. Vin's watching him, but…," he shrugged, not completing the statement. After a moment, Chris sighed, “Gambler's walking a fine line, Josiah, I won't lie to you. Even if he doesn't die of blood loss, the damage to his shoulder….” He trailed off, not feeling the need to finish.
Josiah’s eyes softened.
“Can I go to him?” the preacher asked, "Or do you need me here."
“No, I don't need you.” Chris gave a tiny smile, "So go on, get out of here."
The preacher needed no further prompting. Hoss and Joe stopped talking to watch as
Josiah ran past them to
“Can you ride?” Ben asked, peering into Adam’s eyes, looking for the answer there rather than in Adam’s voice. The oldest son gave a small shrug, meeting his father’s gaze levelly.
“Think so. Leg might be a problem, and my balance is off.”
"Sport'll compensate, Pa," Hoss said, stepping up. "And Adam's leg's not bleeding no more, not badly, anyhow. I think you can probably get him home."
Ben glanced at Adam for confirmation, and got a small smile in return.
"Okay," the father turned, taking in all his sons
with his gaze. "Joe, Hoss, the two
of you and Chris will take these men into town, along with the bodies for the
undertaker, and find
"Pa," Adam was still leaning heavily against the tree, "I'm sure Ezra needs doc more than me. Joe should just…."
"Ranch is on the way son, and if you saw your face, you'd know exactly why I want the doc to see you. No arguments, now." Spinning around, he glared down at the three trussed men on the ground. "Now let's get these men off my property."
For Ezra, it was a little like déjà vu. He was lying once again in the soft bed in that first floor room in the Ponderosa, listening to someone fiddling with a deck of cards. However, this time, he also heard the distinct sound of someone sleeping…and snoring…next to him. The snore was not his usual discordant cacophony of wheezes and snorts, but even so, Ezra knew it was Josiah. It was almost always Josiah.
The thought made him smile a little. There was a time when he'd wake up after a bad night, maybe after a brawl or a con that turned on him, in a strange room…oftentimes with bars…and no one to tell him where he was or what was happening. It was a cold and depressing reality that marked most of his youth and adult life. Lately, though, it was a rare thing to wake up hurt without Josiah nearby.
Ezra smiled more. His friends had changed his life, and home was where they were, it didn't matter really where that was. Not that he'd ever admit it to Josiah himself. Please. Sacrilege.
With some effort, he managed to peel back his eyelids and bring the room into focus. Bits of scum floated off his eyes as he blinked a few times, trying to clear his vision. He could see that sunlight was pouring into the room from the window, showing it to be quite late in the day.
Question was, which day was it?
Last thing he remembered, he was sitting on that cot in the line shack, talking about how he got the better of Slade, and now he was here. He hated losing time.
He was tucked pretty securely under the soft linens of the bed, propped up slightly on a pillow, but nonetheless effectively cocooned. Turning his head, he saw Josiah sitting on top of the covers on the other side of the bed, propped up against the headboard, feet crossed and his chin resting against his chest. His snore was steady.
Turning his head the other way, Ezra saw Little Joe sitting in the soft chair in the corner, playing with his cards again. Something must have alerted him then, because, suddenly, Joe looked up, meeting Ezra's eyes. He broke into a huge grin.
"Hi!" he said cheerfully.
Ezra smiled back, "Hi." His voice was unnaturally soft—coarse from lack of use.
Joe stood, putting the cards down on a nearby table, and headed over to pick up the pitcher of water on the dresser. Pouring it into a glass, he carried this over to Ezra.
Somehow, despite the tightness of the covers, Ezra managed to free his right arm and take the glass. Joe kept his hand close by as the gambler tipped his head forward, took a couple of sips, then handed it back.
"Thank you." His voice was stronger now.
"How are you feeling?"
Ezra's eyebrows lifted, and he tried to shift more under the tight covers, most of which were being held down by Josiah's not inconsiderable bulk.
"Uncomfortable," he admitted. Joe laughed.
"I can imagine. But, you'll be happy to know, you still have two arms." Flashing a winning smile, Joe turned away to put the glass down, and, as such, didn't see the startled expression on the gambler's face at the statement.
Ezra blinked, and fear washed down his front. "I'm sorry…what? Did you say… still?"
"Oh," Joe froze, turning towards him, blushing a little, "Ah, heh, I wasn't supposed to…Nuts. Uh…well…see…the doc…he…um…."
"Nearly took your left arm, boy," Ben Cartwright informed calmly from the open doorway to the living room. "It's only by a miracle that you still have it. You can thank your friends for that. After everything you’d been through, you were very susceptible to infection, and, well, the wound got infected. You were very sick there for a long while. But your friends made our doctor swear not to amputate your left arm unless there was no chance at all, and there very nearly wasn't. In fact, Doctor Martin had given up hope—but they didn't. Your Mr. Larabee even drew on him, made him swear to wait just a little longer, and, though I don't like how he made it happen, we're all glad your friends forced us to wait."
"Well, doc ain't. He doesn't like guns much," Joe added, chuckling. Ben arched a sardonic eyebrow at his son and stepped further inside, glancing at the still slumbering Josiah before moving to stand over Ezra. The gambler blinked up at him, not sure exactly what to make of the steel-eyed gaze he was getting. Joe seemed puzzled as well, watching his father then Ezra then his father again, as if trying to make sense of the coldness.
Suddenly, without warning, Ben Cartwright smiled. It transformed his face, infusing it with incredible warmth. Joe grinned then as well, relieved. Ben knelt, so that his eyes were level with Ezra's, and he patted the man's right arm.
"Your friends care for you a great deal, son, and, I
will admit, for a while there I did not totally understand why. But I got my answer a few days ago, when a
long letter was delivered to you via the local rail office, courtesy of my
ranch, from those families you helped back in
Ezra grimaced, "Mr. Cartwright—"
"Please don't interrupt, Mr. Standish, I'm not finished."
"Yeah, Ez," Little Joe grinned, eyes sparkling, "don't interrupt. It's a rare and beautiful thing when my father admits he's wrong about something. In fact, can I go and get Hoss and Adam?"
Ben shot a glare at his son, to which Joe just grinned more brightly. Ezra, meanwhile, had switched his gaze to Joe.
"Did you just call me 'Ez?'" he asked, a strange tone in his voice.
Joe pursed his lips, mentally replaying his words, "Oh, yes, sorry 'bout that. Just picking up on Vin and Chris's speech, I suppose. In fact, I think Vin did tell me you were a bit touchy about that."
"Touchy?" Ezra's eyes narrowed, "Do me a favor, and call him Tannerkins or something equally embarrassing, will you?"
In response, Joe just grinned.
Ben cleared his throat, "Ahem, now, if I may, I'd like to finish," he said, looking once more at his son, "and no, you may not get Adam and Hoss. Now...."
"Speaking of Adam, how is he?" Ezra asked then, looking again at Ben, who blinked a little at being interrupted.
"Grouchier than a grizzly cause he's bored," Joe groused, his expression souring. "You'd think he'd like bein' waited on, but he just snaps and snarls. He's complaining because he was supposed to get a new shipment of books, and they didn't come, so he's rereading his old ones, but he's really upset because he was sweet on this new girl in town and she hasn't—"
"Son," Ben interrupted with a sigh, "I think he was asking after Adam's physical health, not his mental health."
"Oh," Joe shrugged, "Yeah, he's fine. Doc said he was damn lucky about his head. But, then, as we all knew, Adam's got a thick one." He chuckled, "Runs in the family, don't it, pa?"
"At least among the younger generation, it does," Ben muttered. Heaving a breath, he turned back to Ezra, "Now, about my—"
"And Chris and Vin?" Ezra asked.
"Outside, with Hoss and some of our hands, breaking horses. Your friends are both pretty good at it, you know that?"
Ezra gave a small smile to indicate he did, and looked up at Ben. The Cartwright patriarch looked slightly peeved, but when he saw he had Ezra's focus again, he opened his mouth to finish his apology.
"Would it be possible for me to go outside?" Ezra asked, before Ben could utter a word.
"Sure!" Joe answered. "We can set you up next to Adam," he grinned. "He's been dying for some company, sitting in the chair on the porch, watching Hoss and them having all the fun." He patted his father's arm, "I'll go get you a seat ready. Can you watch him, Pa?"
Ben just gave him a nod, somewhat discombobulated now. Still grinning, Joe turned and bounced out of the room.
The Cartwright father heaved a sigh, then looked down again at Ezra. His expression was more relaxed now—almost resigned. Ezra shifted a little more, then looked over at Josiah. The preacher was still oblivious to the world around him.
Ben smiled, "He needs it. Been in here with you almost the entire time, except to eat. Hasn't been in the room we prepared for him these last two weeks at all."
Ezra's eyebrows lifted as he glanced back at Ben. Two weeks?
"In any event," Ben sighed, "I'd like to finish what I was saying about having made a mistake—"
"I appreciate it, sir, I do," Ezra said, shifting again, "but right now, I'd appreciate it more if you could release me from the cocoon of these sheets and then wake and insist that my watcher there go find a real bed to sleep on. His neck will feel terrible tomorrow and, frankly, it'll put him in a bad mood. Josiah in a bad mood is not a pretty sight."
Ben smiled, unable to help himself. Without a word more, he pulled out the covers and the sheets from their tucked position, then helped Ezra sit up. Once done, he placed a hand on Ezra's head, ruffling the hair slightly, unaware of the annoyed look Ezra gave him because the elder Cartwright was watching Josiah. Why did people always feel it necessary to mess with his hair? Ezra wondered.
"You be good to him," Ben said softly, indicating Josiah, "I know something of how he felt, seeing you fighting these past days. Let him know that you appreciate it, will you? After all, I'm guessing he deserves your affection as much as you deserve his."
Ezra had absolutely no response to that. He just blinked slowly.
With another pat to the younger man's head, Ben Cartwright stood then and walked around the bed. He shook Josiah's arm gently, then more forcefully, calling his name. The preacher awoke with a start, left hand grasping for a gun that wasn't there. Blinking away tiredly, Josiah finally focused on Ben standing over him, then quickly turned to Ezra.
The gambler gave him a wry smile.
The relief on Josiah's face went deep. Ezra had "woken" several times in the past couple of days, but this was the first time the preacher could see the man's intelligence behind the green eyes.
"You're okay," he said, his tone laced with gratitude.
"So it would seem," Ezra admitted.
And Josiah's tone changed abruptly, turning sarcastic, "Well thank God! Now I can go to bed. I'll see you all at dinner!" Grinning a full toothed grin at the Cartwright elder, the preacher stood up, stretched, and walked out of the room, a definite spring in his step. Ezra laughed, holding onto his still sore shoulder, while Ben just shook his head in amazement at the speed by which Josiah had disappeared. The bed was still bouncing from his abrupt rise.
"Well," Ben said, putting his hands on his hips. "Well, well…." He trailed off. He had nothing else to say. Thankfully, he didn't need to, as Joe took that moment to bound back into the room and grin at Ezra.
Chris leaned against the corral with Vin, the two men watching the horses being turned around. Chris had a slightly dreamy look on his face, his arms crossed atop the highest railing, his chin resting on them. Vin glanced sideways at his friend, then turned around, leaning his back against the same railings. Tucking his hands inside his jacket pockets, he took in the ranch house again and the area around it.
He saw Ezra and Adam on the porch, talking animatedly. Adam had his leg propped up—the slight fracture the bullet had caused (discovered by the doctor after they brought him home), forcing him to stay off it for a little while longer—but the bruising had faded from his face and it was lit up with whatever subject he was discussing. Ezra, meanwhile, was shaking his head, disagreeing by waving his right arm about.
Must be a good talk. The chess game they had been playing looked forgotten on the table between them.
Turning his gaze further out, he saw Little Joe, Hoss and Josiah all working on something near the barn. Josiah was hammering out some iron over the fire, and Hoss was watching, making suggestions every so often. Joe, meanwhile, looked like he was piling the supplies he'd brought in earlier this day into difference stacks.
Vin considered heading over to help.
Turning his head some more, he finally caught sight of Ben Cartwright standing on this side of the house, watching him in return. The older man nodded at being caught watching, and tipped his hat. Vin tipped his back.
"We should think about leaving soon," Chris said suddenly, drawing Vin's gaze back. He found the gunslinger still watching the horses. "Don't want to get too comfortable," Chris added. "Ezra is probably rested up enough now."
"I know," Chris smiled, "It's nice here."
"They're very lucky," Vin agreed.
"Took a lot of work," Ben added, walking up to them. Vin turned to look, not surprised that the older man had headed over to join them. "But yes, I feel very lucky." He looked at them both out of the corner of his eye, "I also want to let you know that you are all most welcome to stay for as long as you want. Adam hasn't been this stirred up intellectually, as he is by your gambler, in a long time, something which I know he's enjoying immensely, and both the two of you and Josiah have done much to help us while you've been here. We'd be more than pleased if you decided to stay on a while."
"Thank you," Chris smiled, "And we are grateful, Mr. Cartwright, but, well, we should get home." He sighed, finally turning away from the horses. "The others need us."
"Ah yes," Ben grinned, "the rest of the Magnificent Seven."
Chris rolled his eyes, but Vin chuckled. He was beginning to get used to the strange notoriety Jock Steele had given them. Joe's discovery of the dime novel in town had resulted in an entire evening's entertainment for the Cartwright clan.
"Yes," Chris admitted, "them."
Ben smiled, then grinned. After a moment, he started to laugh. He only stopped when he saw the strange looks he was getting from Vin and Chris.
"What?" Chris asked.
"Oh, something Little Joe said. That there are seven of you to only four of us—that you have us outnumbered."
"Outnumbered?" the gunslinger shot a bewildered look to Vin, who shrugged in return. "At what?"
"Oh, just, if we got into a fight, who would win?" Ben laughed again, and Chris, still puzzled, smiled in response. Then, slowly, the smile on Chris's face grew deeper as the thought become more ingrained, and he arched an eyebrow.
"Well, tell you what," he held out his hand to the
Cartwright patriarch, "next time you head down south, stop by
Ben grinned at that and took the hand, shaking it firmly. Challenge offered and taken. Both men gave each other confident looks, each certain in their minds of the outcome, and Ben laughed again, reaching over to slap Chris on the back. The gunslinger grinned back.
Vin turned and leaned back against the rails of the corral fence, facing the horses again, shaking his head. After a moment, he started to laugh as well. Unbidden, the image of Chris trying to explain to Buck, JD, Nathan, Josiah and Ezra just how he'd gotten them into a fight with the Cartwrights had entered his head. He could hear just hear Chris's voice now:
"Well, boys, all I can say is, it seemed efficacious at the time…."
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