Disclaimer: I don't own them, but I sure would look after them if I did!!
Ezra hated the sun, hated his horse and particularly hated Chris Larabee. He hated the sun because it was shining down on his uncovered head and making him feel sick and dizzy; hated his horse because the dumb animal had thrown him and then fled into the distance; and hated Chris Larabee because the damned man had insisted he ride to Fort Bridger to check on a prisoner they had there... and to add insult to injury the man had looked nothing like the description they had put out over the wire.
Now he was afoot, and the situation did not bode well for the injured man. He had no water, no food and no protection from the sun, and his left shoulder had popped out when he had landed awkwardly, so he was also in a lot of pain.
He glanced back up at the sun and knew that he still had a few hours to go before night offered him any shelter from the heat, but once the sun dropped so did the temperature. He knew that he still had many, many miles to go before he reached Four Corners and, with no water or shelter, he was in serious danger of getting sunstroke. He once again cursed his horse and the hat that was tied to his saddle horn; he had removed it to catch the breeze while he rode.
He had been walking for several hours now and was surprised to suddenly find himself lying flat out on the ground. His shoulder flared and he felt intense pain as he realised that he had fallen; his feet had just given out under him. The urge to just lay there was great and he had to fight to get back onto his feet. Once he was upright, he slowly continued to walk in the direction he hoped Four Corners laid.
Yosemite flew into the saloon and barged over to Larabee's table where he, Vin and Nathan were sitting enjoying an afternoon drink of coffee.
"Mr Larabee… Mr Larabee," he called, coming to a stop beside the gunslinger, out of breath.
"What's the problem, Yosemite?" Nathan asked, sitting upright in his chair. He knew for the man to be in such a state something bad must have happened.
"It's Mr Standish's horse… he's back."
"Ezra made good time," Vin commented, not sure why Yosemite had rushed to impart that news.
The man shook his head and rushed on, "Not Mr Standish, just his horse… all lathered and bothered… looks like he's run a fair spell."
Vin was instantly on his feet and saying, "I'll check the horse… see if I can find his tracks."
Larabee was right behind him. "I'll let the others know we're riding out."
Nathan brought up the rear, thanking Yosemite and informing the others, "I'll get my kit and see you in the stables."
Yosemite nodded and followed the other three men from the room. If Standish was afoot, then he was in serious trouble.
Vin checked over Ezra's horse and was pleased to note that it was not injured, just lathered up as Yosemite had said, but the canteen and Ezra's hat on the saddle were not good news, as they meant that the gambler was afoot without water or cover.
Moving his search outwards, he found the fresh tracks of the horse and then went back to saddle four horses, borrowing one from Yosemite for Ezra if… no, when they found him. He was ready and waiting by the time Chris and Nathan joined him.
Vin quickly explained what he had found and, without further discussion, the three men rode out. The chances of finding Ezra were very slim, and his survival depended on Vin being able to backtrack his horse and a silent prayer that Ezra had not strayed too far from where the horse had lost him. They all knew that he would try to make his way back to Four Corners, but they also knew that if he was headed in the wrong direction the chances of finding him were next to nil.
Ezra slowed to a stop and looked out from under his jacket. He had taken to using it as cover over his head several hours ago, yet it did not seem to be doing much good as he felt stifled and hot under its weight. He knew he needed the shade, however, so he pushed onwards.
Thirst was now his biggest problem and he knew that he had stopped sweating a while ago and was now constantly dizzy. His walking had become erratic and his mind would wander, and several times he had found himself lying or sitting on the floor, clutching at his raging shoulder.
He stopped again and awkwardly got out his watch. He had been afoot for nearly nine hours now and the sun was just starting to slip behind the distant hills. He paused, his mind telling him something was wrong. He blinked his eyes as he fought to remember: The hills, it had something to do with the hills. Suddenly it hit him... he should not be heading towards the hills but away from them. Four Corners was away from the distant hills! He fought down an urge to cry out his despair and instead took a moment to gather his bearings. He needed to head away from the hills, which meant that he needed to keep them behind him. Slowly he turned around and, making sure he was heading away from the hills, started to walk back the way he had come.
Night was now fully on them and Vin could go no further without fear of losing the trail, so he begrudgingly called a halt. It was a solemn group that settled down to eat their dried food and then to sleep that night. ***
As the temperature fell so did Ezra's ability to cope with the cold, until finally he collapsed, unable to go any further, and lay huddled and shivering, trying vainly to protect his shoulder, drifting off into fevered sleep and hoping that he would awake in the morning to continue his walk towards Four Corners.
Chris, Vin and Nathan were up at first light and racing to continue their search for their lost friend.
Several hours later Vin called a sudden halt and slipped from his horse. He wandered around a little, scanning the ground, and then explained, "This is where Ezra got thrown. His horse went that way." He pointed back the way they had come. He spent a moment more looking around before he added, "Ezra followed after, that way." The direction he pointed was several degrees off from the direction the horse had headed.
Vin remounted and was soon following the shuffling tracks of his friend.
Ezra woke with a start and a stifled groan as he wrenched his shoulder. At first he could not understand where he was or why he was sleeping on the ground, but slowly his memory returned and he attempted to rise. His body was working against him, however, and he was unable to get to his feet, so he struggled onto his knees for several painful minutes until finally he fainted.
As the sun rose higher the heat beat down on the unconscious man and his exposed skin began to burn and slowly blister.
Vin threw himself from his horse and began to slowly walk about, his frustration at losing the trail clear. "Damn it…" he muttered under his breath again and again, then his shoulders slumped in relief and he swung back up on his horse, pointing off and saying, "He's changed direction."
"Why?" Chris asked in confusion. "He's heading away from Four Corners if he goes that way."
"Sunstroke," Nathan said, unable to hide his concern. Seeing the looks the other men threw him, he added, "Some of the symptoms are confusion and disorientation. If Ezra's at that stage...." He let his words hang; all three men knew that if Ezra was at that stage then he was in serious trouble.
"Damn it," Vin suddenly exploded again, "we need to go faster!"
"Vin!" Chris snapped, drawing the other man's eyes towards him, "We go as fast as the trail allows…. Better to go slower than lose the track."
Vin slumped in his saddle and said, "I know that Chris, but Ezra… he's dying out there… somewhere." He waved his hand in the direction of the desert that surrounded them.
"We'll find him, Vin," Chris replied quietly, his tone clearly showing his own concern.
Slowly nodding, Vin once again set off in search of his friend.
One part of Ezra's mind knew that he was dying, another part fought against it as he slowly dragged his body along with his uninjured arm. He was no longer sure where he was going, he was only aware of the burning need to keep moving.
Vin suddenly saw something dark laying on the rough earth in the distance and urged his horse into a gallop. Reaching it, he threw himself from his horse and swept up Ezra's jacket. As the others thundered up beside him, he held up his prize for them to see.
Looking around and reading the signs, he said breathlessly, "He's on his knees. He has to be around here… he can't have gone far." So saying, he launched himself into his saddle and raced off, following the clear trail of his friend.
Minutes later, they came across the huddled form of Ezra Standish. Immediately, all three men were off their horses and racing towards him. Vin reached him first and, grabbing a shoulder, pulled him over and held him in his arms while Nathan quickly checked him over.
"He's alive," the healer announced with relief, and then he added, "Chris, get me my canteen." The gunslinger hurried to do the other man's bidding and returned with the water.
Nathan pulled the stopper out and gently turned Ezra's face so he could dribble the water over the cracked lips and into the parched mouth. Ezra gasped and coughed at the same time and began gulping the trickle of water, his right arm weakly flailing as he tried to catch the canteen, but Nathan held it out of reach and sternly informed him, "Take it slow, Ezra… sips only." His words were ignored, however, as Ezra once more slumped back into unconsciousness.
Nathan stood up and went to his horse. Pulling off his saddlebags, he took out a cloth and began to soak it with water from his canteen, then he moved back to Ezra and began to wipe his face and neck, trying to cool the man down. As he did so he said, "We need to get him back to town and out of this sun." Stopping, he realised that Ezra's left arm was laying at an odd angle and swore as he added, "But first I need to relocate his shoulder."
"Hell Nathan, we're a day's ride from town," Vin said, still holding tightly to his friend.
"Best we can do is ride relay and get him back as quick as we can," Chris advised. "If we ride hard we might make it back by late tonight."
Nathan told Vin to hold Ezra tightly as he felt around the injured shoulder and then, with a sharp twist, he pulled the shoulder back into alignment. Ezra was pitched from unconsciousness for a tormented cry then he slumped back, fainting once more. Nathan noted this, but quickly and efficiently tied the arm tightly to Ezra's side and then continued to tear some clothes into squares and soaked them in water. Placing the cloths in Ezra's armpits and around his neck, he said, "We need to get moving."
As Nathan mounted his horse, Chris moved forward and, with Vin's assistance, placed Ezra in front of Nathan. Within moments the men were heading back towards Four Corners.
Ezra was hot; his very skin felt on fire and he was unable to escape his hell, which was made worse by his continual movement. Every so often relief would come from a splash of coldness that would float across his body and under his arms, and small amounts of liquid that were dribbled into his parched mouth, but it was never enough and it would always dry up, and soon he was back in his world of heat and hell.
They reached Four Corners in the early hours; men and horses alike were exhausted, but they had no time to rest as Nathan all-but fell from his horse and started banging on the door to the bathhouse.
Vin leaped down and carefully took Ezra's limp weight from Chris while Larabee climbed from his horse. Between them they carried the gambler past the stuttering owner of the bathhouse as he opened his door to see who was knocking at such a late hour.
Buck appeared at their side, having heard the commotion from the Sheriff's office. "How is he?" he asked, his tone filled with concern.
"Fill up a bath with water, but make sure it's warm, not cold," Nathan advised, watching as Henderson, the bathhouse owner, rushed to comply by banking up his fires again.
Soon the bath was filled with lukewarm water and Nathan and Vin were lowering a naked Ezra into the water. Vin could feel the heat that radiated from the sick man and he knew that his friend was still in danger of dying. He had seen men die from exposure to too much sun.
"Come on, Ezra… come on," Nathan was saying almost under his breath as he washed the water up and over the sick man's upper body, neck and face, willing the other man's temperature to drop.
After several minutes Ezra spasmed in the water and let out a groan as he weakly tried to raise his uninjured arm, as if pushing the water from him. He let out another groan and his eyelashes fluttered as Nathan leaned in closer and said, "Ezra, you with me… you with me now?" Not sure if Ezra could understand or not he continued, "You're safe and going to get better. Just stay with me…." The sick man blinked owlishly at the healer, then his eyes slid shut and he slipped once more into unconsciousness. Nathan seemed satisfied with his brief period of awareness, however, and went back to bathing the other man.
Finally, Larabee could stand it no longer and asked, "Nathan, will he be all right?"
Nathan shot the other men a concerned look before he answered, "He's still got a high fever, Chris, but if we can bring it down and keep it down then he should be all right." Resting his hand on the sick man's forehead, Nathan added, "Let's get him out of here, dry, and up to the clinic."
Willing hands assisted him as he lifted Ezra from the water and soon the man was being dried while Buck went off in search of a nightshirt, then Ezra was tucked up in the bed in Nathan's room above the stables.
Vin and Buck left to attend to the horses and Chris to take one last patrol around town before he and the others turned in for the rest of the night. Nathan continued to sit by Ezra's bedside, bathing the man's face and neck while the gambler fought the villains of his fevered dreams.
Two days passed while Ezra fought his fever. Each of the other six regulators took turns sitting with him and making sure he was kept as cool as possible, with a return trip to the bathhouse the next day to allow him to soak in tepid water again.
Finally, as the sun set on the second day, Ezra blinked open his eyes and blearily looked up at the faces that surrounded him. He swallowed hard and gratefully accepted the water that Nathan held to his lips and drank deeply of the cool liquid.
He did not attempt to say anything, but smiled weakly at his associates before he slipped into the arms of Morpheus once more, knowing that he had survived the odds yet again because of his friendship with these men.
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