Title: Spring Water

Author: Tipper

Archive: sure

Disclaimer: MGM and Walter Mirisch own the Magnificent Seven, and they were developed from the original movie for TV by John Watson and Trilogy. There is no infringement intended and no money will be made.

Notes: Written initally for the February Challenge offered by Heather F, then revised and polished for posting here. Basically, some of the guys are on one side of a body of water and the others are on the other side. For some reason, one side won't cross to the other despite the fact that there are bad guys coming. Almost everyone who answered this challenge used a river, and, know what? I ain't no different. :)

Acknowledgements: Thanks Heather.

__________________________________

 

Vin sat lonely atop the butte, peering into the spyglass across the valley down below. Peso snorted and shifted behind him, bored. He pawed the ground a little, then shook his head. Vin ignored him.

 

There they were.

 

The tracker's shoulders tensed, watching as four figures clad in light brown and gray appeared on the dirt road leading to the prison, heading in the opposite direction from the old structure. They came out of the woods running for all they were worth, following the road for as long as possible while they made their escape. Vin smiled at the fact that none were shackled...good old Ezra. Man knew his locks.

 

He turned the spyglass to the left, looking on this side of the valley floor to where Chris and JD were waiting on this side of the river at the rendezvous point. They sat with the other's horses on this side of a fjord the only one along the wide river's course. It was as swollen as the rest, but the rocks were denser here underfoot and the water not quite as deep. It was the only place that wouldn't require swimming. The tracker took off his hat, preparing to wave it to signal them to get the horses across to meet Buck and the others. He stopped mid-movement, his sharp eyes seeing something more on the other side of the river.

 

Placing the spyglass to his eye again, he frowned darkly. Men on horses were riding towards the prison on the road the corrupt prison Warden and his flunkeys. He was early.

 

Buck and the others were running straight for them.

 

"No..." the tracker whispered, fingers clenching around the metal as he lowered it. There was no way to warn them. He could only hope.... He placed the spyglass to his eye again, finding Buck, Ezra, Nathan and Josiah still running. Suddenly Buck stopped dead on the road, and Nathan ran into him. Vin watched as the ladies man then pointed them into the woods. All four quickly hid themselves.

 

Seconds later, the Warden rode past their hiding place, oblivious to the escapees under his nose.

 

Vin shut his eyes in thanks. Buck had heard them coming in time.

 

Then the prison bells began tolling.

 

Grey eyes flew open again. The prison had found out about the escape.

 

The Warden stopped in his tracks, looking around, the seven men with him also looking around, horses dancing in circles. He had to be only about twenty feet from Buck and the others, if that. Fingers gripped the spyglass tightly again.

 

The Warden rattled off orders as Vin watched. Six men turned and rode back towards town. The Warden and his remaining man then began galloping for the prison. Vin turned his sightline to the old fort, watching as the doors opened to reveal more men on horseback...and dogs.

 

"Damn it," Vin hissed. Buck and the others would have to head down to the river sooner. Turning the spyglass, he tracked the Warden's six other men heading back to town, and hissed in annoyance as four broke off and headed in the direction of the fjord. So much for Buck and the others getting across there. They'd have to change the rendezvous point.

 

Vin put his hat back on and raised the spyglass, waving the shiny object back and forth.

 

On the ground near the crossing, Chris looked at JD, his expression dark. Vin's signal had been seen. They needed a new plan.

 

Back on top the Butte, Vin quickly mounted Peso and roughly forced the horse to climb down the steep, rocky side towards the forest below. Buck knew about the dogs, he'd head the others towards the river. They'd just have to cross a little earlier, that's all.

 

He just wished it weren't spring.

_________________________________

 

"Aw, hell!" Buck stopped running, his heels skidding to a stop at the top of the bank leading down to the fast moving river.  At the edges, black rocks peaked out from above the yellow-white foam, and not for the first time, the ladies' man wished it weren't spring.

 

So far, between Ezra's allergies and Josiah's wasp stings, nothing had gone right in this damned prison escape. The first time they'd hunkered down to hide from their pursuers, Ezra had started sneezing ferociously almost immediately because they'd disturbed a bunch of powder mushrooms, the brown spores driving the poor gambler to almost faint from lack of air as the others held him down.  He was still sniffling now.  Josiah, meanwhile, had stepped onto a wasps' nest just moments later as they'd moved deeper into the woods.  Despite his thick prisoner's clothing, the man had welts all over his hands and face, and he'd been moving slower and slower with each step. It was amazing he was still moving at all.

 

Only he and Nathan were still moving without complaint, but, upon seeing the river, that was about to change.

"How deep is it?" Nathan asked nervously, nearly colliding again with the stalled Buck.

 

"What does it matter," Ezra sniffed, coming up beside them.  "We have to get across."  He sneezed again, part of him actually happy with the prospect of washing some of the mushroom spores off of his clothes.  Not that he wouldn't mind burning the prisoner uniform, but for now he'd at least settle for it being clean.

 

"Amen," Josiah said, lumbering past Nathan and Buck to slide down the muddy bank and lean over to touch a hand to the icy water.  It felt wonderful on the swellings.  He nearly fell over when the lethargy from the stings caught him, but Ezra jumped down and grabbed the back of his jacket before he could.

 

"You okay?" the gambler asked quietly, looking at Josiah's heavy lidded eyes.  The preacher smiled and nodded.

 

"The swim will help," he replied.  Ezra gave a crooked smile and patted him on the back.

 

Nathan bit his lip, and looked at Buck.  The ladies' man looked about as thrilled about the prospect of swimming this river as he was.

 

Ezra, meanwhile, looked across to the far side, then stood up and waved. The other three looked up as well, and grinned.  Vin jumped off of Peso's back and waved at them.  He shouted something, but it was lost in the river.

 

Ezra shook his head, and cupped his hands to his mouth.  "What?" he yelled.

 

"...behind you....saw them from the ridge... minutes...dogs...."

 

It was all of Vin's words they heard, but it was enough.  Buck looked behind them, as if he could see their pursuers through the thick trees.  Vin was still shouting, but it was lost in the rushing water.  Finally, he gave up and just made a motion indicating they needed to get across the river there.  Then he jumped up onto Peso's back and disappeared back into the trees.

 

"Well gentlemen," Ezra said, sitting down to take off his boots.  "Looks like we're going swimming."

 

"Swimming?" Buck's voice caught, and he looked at the swollen river again.  "You think it's that deep?  We can't wade across?"

 

"In that current?" Ezra espied the ladies' man from the corner of his eye. "Even if it was shallow, which I can tell you its not, It'd bowl you over and you'd be swimming anyway.  But a few well pulled strokes and we'll be on the other side.  Hopefully, Vin will return with our mounts and Mr. Larabee and Mr. Dunne by then."  He sneezed again, and covered his eyes, wishing the headache he'd gotten from sneezing so much would go away.

"A few well pulled strokes...." Nathan repeated slowly, his eyes watching a dead branch floating down the river, alternately sinking and rising as it was spun around.  It was making him feel a bit nauseous as he watched. Josiah looked back at him.

 

"What's the matter?" he asked, unconsciously itching a spot on his arm beneath his shirt.  Nathan frowned at him, and Josiah dropped his hand. Then the healer looked back at the river.

 

"It's cold.  We could freeze in that.  It's snow run off," Nathan said, waving at the river.  "And look how fast it is moving."

 

Buck nodded, "Yeah. That current is strong, as you said.  Josiah, you're still weak from being bit so often.  It could pull you under."

 

"I'll make it," Josiah said calmly, his eyes measuring his two friends carefully.  "And one of you can help me if I falter."

 

Ezra uncovered his eyes, and looked at Buck. "Look, I don't see as we have any choice.  If Vin says we need to cross here, then we need to cross here."  He saw a glance of fear in Buck's eyes, and suddenly sighed.

 

"Oh Lord, you can't swim, can you," he stated unhappily.

 

"No," both Nathan and Buck said simultaneously.  They looked and each other in surprise, then smiled weakly.  Ezra looked at Nathan, also surprised.

 

"What, you can't either?"

 

The healer shrugged, "Not much call on a plantation to learn.  Weren't much water around and no free time."

 

Buck gave a nervous laugh, "The rivers where I grew up were too small to bother about.  I come from farm country, remember. It had irrigation canals and that was about it."

 

"There is the Mississippi," Ezra said.

 

"Mississippi has boats."

 

"And you've never had to jump off of one?"

 

Buck just stared at Ezra, "Why would I have to jump off a boat?"

 

The former riverboat gambler opened his mouth to answer, then changed his mind.  He shook his head.

 

"Okay, okay, what do we do; what do we do," he looked at the river, and rolled his shoulders in anticipation of swimming.

 

"Me and Nathan could keep heading north, if you think you can make sure Josiah gets across," Buck suggested.  "Look, we got off track from where Chris said to meet them.  He knows I can't swim.  He must have picked a place where the horses could get across and fetch us."

 

"Or maybe he didn't bank on the thickness of the river this time of year," Ezra mumbled, looking upstream.  Then he looked back at Buck, "First, you know perfectly well Josiah and I won't leave you.  Second, Vin must have been monitoring us from above.  He told us we need to cross here.  He must have had a reason.  Maybe we're cut off from that upper point on the river. Maybe his mention of "minutes" was to tell us we don't have many."

 

"Or maybe he was saying Chris and JD were only a few minutes behind him," Nathan said hopefully.  Ezra looked at him, shaking his head.  The healer grimaced, and felt an urge to hit the know it all attitude off of the gambler's face.

 

"So, what do you propose?" Buck demanded, "You carry us across?"  He meant it as a mocking retort, so was surprised when Ezra swallowed, and looked at Josiah.

 

"I'm not strong enough," Josiah said. "I'm almost asleep on my feet now.  I may need help myself."

 

Ezra groaned, and looked up at the sky.  And promptly sneezed again.

 

Buck smiled at the man's discomfort, then quickly wiped it away as he instantly felt guilty.  It wasn't Ezra's fault that this river was between them and safety -- Buck just hated being ordered around.

 

"I'll follow Josiah across, then come back for each of you.  Perhaps, by that time, Chris, Vin and JD will have arrived and can help," Ezra said, shaking his head.

 

"You're not serious," Buck said, his mouth open.  "You can't carry me and Nathan!  We're both over a head taller than you."

 

Ezra smiled, "I won't be carrying you per se, Mr. Wilmington, though I will agree that you are definitely both heavier than I am." He grinned wickedly, patting his stomach, and Buck's eyes narrowed.  The gambler raised a hand to forestall a retort, "That is to say, I will be dragging you.  Trust me, I've dragged much larger objects with me in the water before.  The two of you will be a piece of cake."

 

Nathan did not look pleased, and Buck continued to scowl, sensing a ribbing in Ezra's statements.  Josiah's smiling to the side only reinforced it.

 

"I still think we should move further on," Nathan said.  "There has to be a shallower place."

 

"And I don't know if any of the others know how to swim either," Buck said. "I mean, Chris, he fishes, but I ain't never seen him go in the water after one.  And Vin grew up as landlocked as me."

 

Josiah smiled, remembering the time JD and Casey had returned sopping wet from the watering hole together and laughing about something.  At least he knew one of them swam.  He was about to say so when Ezra interrupted him.

 

"Well, it's a risk we'll have to take," the gambler said, taking off the prisoner's jacket he was wearing. 

 

Wrapping the boots inside the coat, he proceeded to hand it to Buck.

 

"What?" the ladies man asked.

 

"Think you can get that over to the other side?" Ezra asked.  "You can throw farther than me, and I like my boots. I'd rather not get them wet."

 

Buck grimaced and tried to measure the width of the fast flowing river with his eyes. It was wide, perhaps twenty yards across. He'd thrown baseballs farther than that when playing. Rolling up the shoes and coat into as tight a ball as he could, he leaned back and pitched it as hard as he could across the river.

 

It sailed high....then fell like a stone. It hit the water with a sucking kind of splash, and sank into the flowing depths. Buck's throw had been short a good three feet.

 

"Oh, great," the gambler said, sniffing.  "Thanks a lot, Buck," he said sullenly.

 

The ladies man grinned; it hadn't been on purpose, but he'd enjoyed the result.

 

Meanwhile, Josiah had also taken off his boots and tied them to his belt.  Ezra turned to follow as the preacher waded into the water.  In moments, Buck and Nathan were watching as the two men swam swiftly across the water.  Josiah was fine almost the whole way, but he slowed near the other end.  Then he stopped swimming altogether, his body going limp in the water, face down.  Ezra caught up to him, grabbed him by his jacket, and turned him over.

 

"Oh God," Nathan muttered, gripping his hands into fists.  Josiah had passed out.

 

Ezra got an arm under the preacher's neck, all the time fighting the current that was threatening to pull them further down stream.  Josiah had made it past the worst of the current, but it was still strong.  Ezra grimaced, got Josiah in a good hold, then started moving again with deep strokes towards the other side.

 

"Wow," Buck nodded, impressed.

 

Ezra clambered up the slope, pulling Josiah with him.  He propped the unconscious preacher against the muddy bank and leaned over to make sure Josiah was breathing.  Blowing a deep breath from out his cheeks, he stood up and gave Buck and Nathan a thumb's up sign.

 

Buck whooped, and Nathan returned the gesture with a salute.  Then they watched as Ezra lifted Josiah up and pushed him up and over the muddy bank. He had some difficulty -- Josiah was not a small man by any means --  but somehow the smaller gambler managed it.  Then Ezra sighed, looked off into the woods for a moment, as if hoping to see Vin, Chris and JD come out of it.  After a moment, he turned and jumped back into the river, disappearing from sight under it.

 

"Whoa, where'd he go?" Nathan said, stepping forward. Buck frowned, scanning the frothy water.

 

Suddenly, Ezra reappeared, standing up and holding up his found shirt and boots proudly. Buck shook his head as Ezra tossed it over next to where Josiah was stashed. Then the gambler dove back into the water and swam back over to their side. After a few moments, he crawled out of the water in front of them and shook his head.

 

"Damn that's cold," he said shaking his arms, pins and needles racing up and down them.  Then he grinned up at Nathan and Buck.  "So, who's next?"

 

"Buck," Nathan said.

 

"Nathan," Buck said, at the same time.

 

Ezra sighed, then looked at Nathan.  "Maybe it should be you.  Josiah might need you.  I think he's just asleep, but..." he shrugged.

 

Nathan swallowed, but sat down and took off his shoes.  Ezra backed up into the water, as he had already begun to shake from the cold, the cool spring wind not helping.

 

"When you get to your waist, just settle into the water and try to lie on your back," Ezra instructed.  "And relax.  Okay?"

 

The healer tied his shoes to his waist, as he had seen Josiah do, and nodded at Ezra. He shivered as he touched the water and the wet slimy rocks beneath his feet, but gamely kept moving. 

 

Just before the water reached his waist, he slipped.

 

With a sharp cry, he went under.

 

"Nathan!" Buck yelled, his eyes watching as Ezra instantly went after him. In seconds, Ezra had Nathan's head out of the water, holding him up as Nathan grabbed at the gambler as if he were a life preserver.

 

"Stop thrashing!" Ezra yelled at him, "I can't hold you if you're thrashing!"

 

Nathan barely heard, his only thought as they slipped deeper into the center of the river, drawn by the current, was that he was going to die here.

 

Ezra was doing his best, but Nathan kept fighting him, refusing to stay on his back and still searching for his feet for something to stand on.  Buck had crossed his arms, watching them with a dropped jaw and wide eyes.

 

"Lie still, damn it!" Ezra screamed, getting desperate as Nathan dunked them both again.  He came up spitting water out of his mouth and dragging Nathan's head up, using all of his strength to manage it.

 

"Lie still, Nathan!" Buck yelled, feeling utterly useless.  He was so intent on the scene in the river, that he didn't hear the sound of dogs in the distance.

 

"You have to trust me!" Ezra begged, using his failing breath as Nathan continued to fight. "Nathan, please!  I know you don't want to, but you have to.  Please! Oh, damn it!"

 

Nathan went under again, and Ezra went after him.

 

They were well down river now, a good fifteen yards from Buck and Josiah's positions.  The preacher had woken at the yells, and was struggling to stand as he peeked over the bank's edge to the men fighting down river.  Buck jogged downstream, trying to keep up with them.

 

When Ezra came up again, he had Nathan securely in a headlock.

 

"Listen, you either trust me, or you die.  You get that?" he barked hoarsely, one hand pinching Nathan hard on the shoulder to get his attention.

 

The trick worked. Nathan's eyes were rolling in his head, but the pinch and Ezra's words registered at the same time in his panicked mind.  Somehow, he gained enough control to calm down, and he finally felt Ezra's hold on him, keeping him up.

 

Ezra had him.  Ezra actually had him.  Why had that been so hard to believe?

 

The gambler closed his eyes in thanks, and getting a more effective hold on the semi-conscious healer, somehow managed to start swimming again.

 

In a few long minutes, he was at the other side.  Slowly, he dragged Nathan up onto the muddy bank with him, lying the healer on his side.  Then Ezra fell to his knees in the mud, every muscle aching and his chest feeling like someone had punched him.

 

Josiah got to his feet, and promptly fell again.  He shook his head, the angry buzzing behind his ears not subsiding.

 

Buck watched, his arms now tightly holding his sides.  After a moment, Ezra struggled to his feet, leaving Nathan still lying down on the bank, the healer's panting breaths a good sign that he was alive and conscious.  Ezra slowly waded back into the water, a grimace on his face at the thought of having to repeat that performance.

 

Buck watched as Ezra swam much more slowly back to his side of the river. Whereas before the current hadn't affected him much, now Buck saw a definite drift in the man's movements.  He walked down to meet him.

 

That was when he finally heard the dogs coming up behind him.

 

"Oh crap," he whispered, trying to judge how much time they had. Not much.

 

When Ezra finally touched the stones beneath his hands that marked the other side, he found Buck already wading into the water.

 

"Dogs," the ladies' man said.  Ezra stood up and looked towards the woods, hearing the same cacophony of barking hounds.

 

"Too close," he whispered. He took in another shaky breath.

 

Buck looked to the far side as he waded, watching as Josiah skidded down the bank and stumbled towards Nathan.  The healer was sitting up, a hand to his forehead as he regained his bearings.  When the Warden and his men showed up, those two would be sitting ducks on the other side of the river, he realized worriedly.  Not to mention him and Ezra. Where the hell were Vin and the others?

 

Buck got to his waist and stopped, looking back at Ezra.  The gambler was taking some deep breaths, and shaking his head.

 

"Okay?" the ladies' man asked, not liking the man's pallor.

 

Ezra nodded, wishing the world would stop spinning.  He knew it was because he'd nearly drowned several times getting Nathan across.  Well, at least he didn't feel so cold anymore. He covered up his tiredness by smiling at Buck.

 

"Just don't let me forget my boots," he ordered quickly, pointing a finger at the ladies' man. "They cost me more than your entire wardrobe. And if you ruined them with that horrible throw...."

 

Buck gave a short laugh, "Why am I not surprised," he said. Then, blowing out a shaky breath, he knelt down in the water and rolled onto his back, fear prickling at his skin as much as the freezing ice water.  He shut his eyes, and tried to take comfort when Ezra snaked an arm around his torso.  Lifting his feet up was one of the hardest things he'd ever done.

 

Then they were moving.  He could feel each of Ezra's strokes like a sharp tug.  As the reached the center of the river, his understood Nathan's fear. His feet swung down river, and Ezra's hold suddenly felt too loose to hold him.   He tried to push against the pull of the current, and he felt Ezra's arm tighten.

 

"Please don't move," the gambler whispered.  "Trust me, please."

 

It was all Ezra could manage between gasping breaths.  His vision was starting to blur.

 

Buck, however, had seen what had happened to Nathan.  Though it was against every survivalist bone in his body, he forced himself to do the unthinkable.

 

Completely put his life in the hands of someone else.

 

Ezra continued to pull, but Buck could feel that the man's strength was waning.  Each stroke was less powerful, each tug less strong.

 

Every muscle in Buck's frame itched to fight the current, to get out of Ezra's hold and get himself across. Not that he could, of course.

 

It was agonizing.

 

Worse, he could feel Ezra fading. Water sloshed around his head, and for a second he went under. Ezra pulled him up, and Buck gasped for air.

 

Suddenly, he heard Ezra yell, and they both went under.

 

Buck fought then, unable to understand what was happening.  He never heard the shots fired overhead, or the returning fire as Chris and Vin gave them cover.  Instead, his legs sliced the freezing water, his arms beating up and down for all they were worth.  His eyes opened wide and he looked around at the inky green water all around him.  He opened his mouth to scream, and it filled with water, choking him.

 

Then he felt someone grab his right arm and start lifting him up towards the light.

 

Then someone else was also there, grabbing his other arm.  Together, the two men pulled Buck upwards.

 

Gunfire peppered the air around his head as he surfaced, and he spat out the water in his mouth.  Craning his head to the right, he saw Ezra pulling on his right arm and swimming.  Turning the other way, he saw JD holding onto his left arm.

 

"I got him!" the kid yelled, reaching under Buck and getting an arm around his chest.  "Get to shore!"

 

Ezra nodded, and let go.  In moments, the gambler was crawling up the bank, and sliding over the muddy earthen shield while Chris, Vin, and a recovered Nathan gave them cover.

 

The gambler turned and watched as JD easily reached shore with several strong strokes, pulling the much larger Buck behind him as if he weighed no more than a rag doll.  In seconds, the two were crawling up the muddy bank.

 

On the other side, the Warden and his men continued to fire, while the hound dogs jumped up and down, barking madly at their lost prey. They kept firing even after the prisoners and their helpers disappeared into the woods.

 

Ezra pulled himself up onto Chaucer's back, totally exhausted, and the bullet lodged in his shoulder that he received while swimming wasn't helping.  Vin reached down from off Peso's back and grabbed Chaucer's reins, then both were off and running, while Ezra merely tried to hang on to consciousness.  The others were soon around them, Chris pulling Josiah, who was also out of it.  Buck and Nathan were both recovering quickly, and easily controlled their own mounts, while JD brought up the rear, his gun in hand in case the corrupt Warden and his men crossed the river on their mounts. 

 

Which was highly likely.

 

They had proof of his corruption now. They just needed to get to the army to tell them.

 

The army Colonel in charge of a nearby fort had had his suspicions about the Warden, when too many prisoners were showing up dead and others disappearing, and he'd told Judge Travis. The judge then drafted the seven's help in finding out for sure. Last night, the Warden had learned from an army turncoat in town that four of his prisoners were actually informants. Of course, the Warden immediately instructed that Buck, Ezra, Nathan and Josiah be shot this morning at nine for their "crimes." On the outside with Vin and JD, Chris had been trailing the army turncoat, not trusting him, so had learned of what was going to happen. Luckily, they had worked out a contingency plan in advance, just in case. When the Warden rode into town at dawn to get the necessary "paperwork" for the execution, Buck and the others were to escape and meet Chris and JD at the fjord. They did, but they hadn't counted on the Warden returning so quickly, and cutting off the only safe crossing point, or the prison discovering of their escape so quickly.

Back at the river, the Warden had signaled his men to stop firing into the trees. He looked at one of the larger men to his left.

 

"Ben, you and three others meet Chuck and them up at the fjord, and get across the river to the road up there," the Warden instructed, yelling to be heard over the river. "We'll cross here. Maybe we can trap them between us." With a nod, he kneed his horse forward. The animal took a few steps and balked at the cold river. The Warden merely just kicked him harder. The horse went in this time. The current instantly forced the animal downstream a little, but he slowly swam his way across. Three others followed. The rest headed back into the woods to ride up to the crossing.

 

Still not far enough away, Vin looked over at Chris as the rode, his worry clear. They were moving much too slowly because of Ezra and Josiah. The gunslinger caught his look, but shook his head. Don't give up yet, he told the tracker with that one gesture. Vin nodded.

 

They crashed out of the woods and onto the road, and pulled up hard. Ezra barely held on as Chaucer skidded to a stop.

 

Fifty cavalrymen sat in front of them, the army Colonel at the head. The Colonel smiled at the surprised Chris.

 

"Judge Travis told us we shouldn't interfere with your plans, Mr. Larabee, that you'd find us when you had something definite. But when you didn't return last night, I thought maybe it might be a good idea for my men to practice maneuvers in this area this morning," the Colonel said. He looked at Ezra, and frowned. "Looks like I was right."

 

"Yes, you were, Colonel," Chris nodded. "Both about us, and about the Warden. Thank you. You should know, he's not far behind us."

 

The Colonel's expression developed into a wicked grin. "Well, how nice," he said darkly. "If you would let some of my men escort you back, Mr. Larabee, I think the rest of us should be able to take it from here."

 

Chris nodded, and the seven circled around the cavalry.

 

Not too much later, the seven heard rifle fire behind them. The Warden never had a chance.

 

Over near the fjord, Ben, Chuck and the other members of the Warden's gang heard the firing...and turned around. The sound of multiple cavalry rifles firing was distinctive. Flunkeys though they may be, they weren't stupid. They returned to the fjord and moved to disappear themselves after they crossed it.

___________________________________

 

A couple of hours later, the seven rode into Fort Castor.  Ezra was limp on the saddle.  He and Josiah were quickly carried to the infirmary, with Buck and Nathan following close behind. Chris, Vin and JD, meanwhile, went to make a record of what had been learnt at the prison.

 

Buck moved to sit next to Ezra as he was lain on his stomach on the cot. The gambler blinked up at Buck, his eyes filling with water as the army doctor peeled back his shirt to look at the bloody wound.

 

"I'm sorry, Buck..." Ezra whispered hoarsely.  "When I was hit....in the river...I let you go...."

 

Buck shook his head, "Nah, you didn't," he smiled, "Thanks Ez." He touched the gambler's hair lightly, the gesture telling Ezra more than words ever could.

 

A tear slid down Ezra's cheek, and, as he finally succumbed to unconsciousness, a small smile crossed his features. Buck shook his head and looked over at Nathan, who was watching Josiah sleep as well.

 

Feeling the scrutiny, the healer looked back and smiled.

 

"Think we can ever pay him back for this?" the healer asked, looking at Ezra.

 

"Nope. But I guarantee he'll sure as hell make us try," Buck replied, grinning wryly.

 

Nathan laughed. Then the smile turned to a frown as he noticed Ezra's stockinged feet. He looked sharply at the ladies' man.

 

"Hey, did you remember to grab Ezra's boots?"

 

Buck's eyes widened.

 

"Aw hell...."

 

The End