Shortly after Chris passed out, Ezra managed to work his way out from under his colleague’s body and onto the cot he’d been resting against. He reached for the kerosene lamp, increased its flame and brought it to rest on the floor between the two cots. The flicker of lamplight seemed oddly comforting but there was little time to get lost in its illusion of warmth; there was work to do. He heaved a sigh and wearily set about moving Chris from the floor and onto the makeshift bed furthest from the door.
Shifting the unconscious man was a monumental task. He was taller and heavier than Ezra; he was also dead weight. Furthermore there was the painful fact the gambler’s hands were now bleeding to the point of being slippery which made it difficult to maintain a grip. He’d worked the better part of twenty minutes before he had Larabee settled on the cot and covered with a blanket, and through every pull and tug, Chris never made a sound.
So tired he could barely think straight, Ezra settled himself on the tatty bit of padding meant to be his bed. He knew he needed to tend Chris, to check him for injuries, but his hands had once again begun to cry out for attention. He needed to get them wrapped so he could at least use his fingers to help Chris without bleeding all over him. He looked at the bucket in the corner longingly. I pray there is indeed water in that pail.
The gambler got to his feet, crossed the floor and knelt down to put his nose to the bucket. No smell -- that was a good sign. He picked up the ladle hanging off the back of the container, scooped up a small amount of liquid and brought it to his lips. The cool wetness that slid past his cracked lips and down his dry throat didn’t taste at all peculiar so he drank again, deeply.
Temporarily sated by the drink, he steeled himself to do what had to be done. He dished water from the bucket, held up a trembling palm, and carefully poured the ladle’s contents over his bloody sores. The cool water felt more like streaming fire as it filled the open holes in his flesh and drained off his fingertips. He hissed through the pain. “Grin and abide,” he muttered to himself as he gently switched the ladle from his right hand to his left and repeated the dousing. It was an arduous task that sent a shudder down his spine, but he blew through the pain and continued. Ignoring his lightheadedness, he reached down to tear the bottom of his shirt into strips. Once he had enough material to wrap both hands, he began the miserable process of bandaging himself. It took every ounce of his strength, but he eventually finished.
All right, Ezra, you’ve seen to yourself. Now it’s time to see to Chris. Focus. He sat quietly on the floor a moment as his mind seemed to pull away from his body in a seductive, dreamlike fugue. He was suddenly overwhelmed by the lingering effects of the past couple of days and felt a heavy fog settle in his brain. The fog crept into his chest as his arms and legs began to prickle with the feeling of pins and needles. He shook himself, resisting the temptation of collapse, and reminded himself he had a friend just two feet away who needed care. Unfortunately, he lost the battle to remain upright and blacked out where he sat.
The warden sat in his office pondering the new information about his latest inmates. Overall he didn’t really think much of the threat they presented but he did know from experience he should go ahead and take care of the men before they became a problem. Larabee was little more than an irritant in the beginning; now he seemed to be growing into a severe pain in the ass. He took another sip of the whiskey he’d poured himself and smiled. Some pains are more fun tending than others, he thought. A knock on the door interrupted his train of thought. “Enter.”
The deputy from Jericho eased around the door and cautiously came into the room. “You been lookin’ for me, warden?”
“No, I’m actually ‘lookin’ for Sheriff Quince. Where is he?”
“I think he’s in town, sir.”
“Uh, he is in town, sir. He said somethin’ about checkin’ out the Larabee brothers.”
Crenshaw shook his head in disbelief; the fool still hadn’t grasped the truth about the inmates. “Get out of here. And find Quince! I want him back here by morning,” he shouted.
“Yes, sir! I’ll get him for ya.” The deputy gratefully took his leave and headed for his horse. “Those Larabees have been nothin’ but trouble. Don’t know why the warden just don’t put ‘em outta our misery,” he fussed.
The warden looked out his window and watched the deputy mount and ride off. He shook his head again then turned his attention to the small stone building across the way. Yes, he was going to have to think on those two a little while longer.
A sharp pain in the hip wakened Ezra when his back disapproved of the awkward position in which he lay. He straightened slowly; careful not to force his limbs into something they weren’t prepared to do and braced against the cot. Momentarily bewildered by his surroundings, he sucked in a few shallow breaths and prepared his body to rise. He had just made it to his knees when he heard a sound come from behind. Peering through the dim light, he made out Chris Larabee tossing restlessly in his sleep. Chris? Oh no. Ezra, you idiot! He crawled on all fours across the dirty floor, climbed the frame of his cot until he was seated and scooted the bed closer to his cellmate. When he reached a hand out to stop the gunfighter’s head rolling back and forth, he felt the heat of fever penetrate his bandages. “Chris, can you hear me?” he asked as he touched the man’s chin with his fingertips.
“Don’t…” Chris answered.
“I assure you, you are quite safe at the moment. Just rest easy. I need to take a look at you.”
“Don’t…” he repeated.
“Good, as long as we’re in agreement,” Ezra sighed. He raised sore hands to unbutton what was left of Chris’ prison shirt and peeled the material away from his skin. He trailed his fingers toward the wound he knew he would find on his lower left side and raised the lantern over Larabee’s abdomen to see what he had touched that first night in the prison’s hole. He grimaced when he found what looked like a four-inch knife wound recently sewn closed. It wasn’t as fine a job as he’d seen Nathan perform, but it did for the most part appear to be holding up. A couple of the stitches had given way near the outside edge of the slice, but he supposed that was to be expected given the aggressive moves he’d seen Chris make.
Leaning closer to the injury, he again ran his fingertips across it. There was very little moisture now, but he did see a trail of dried blood leading away from the torn stitches and into the top of Chris’ pants. There was a slight pucker and a hint of redness around the wound as well which explained the gunfighter’s fever – it was infected.
He moved the light to examine the rest of Chris’ stomach and chest. There were an unbelievable number of cuts and bruises covering his upper body, but when he pressed against the discolored ribcage, the lawman pushed at his hands but didn’t jerk away in pain. Excellent, no broken ribs, at least you were saved that injury.
A moment later, a mumbled “I’m sorry” could be heard among Chris’ low moans.
“I’m sorry. I…” the gunfighter tried to raise himself off the cot.
“Careful now, you need to rest.” He pushed him back down.
“He followed me… I told him to go home. Just keeps following me. He wouldn’t listen… never listens.”
“Damn. You’re still not quite with us, are you?” Ezra said disheartened. “I have got to get you out of here.” He looked back at the bucket of water, wishing it were closer. Realizing it was indeed not going to come to him, he went to fetch it. When he returned, he noticed Chris’ eyes, worryingly glassy and out of focus, were attempting to track his movements.
“Why did you have to follow me?” he asked hoarsely.
“Easy,” the gambler shushed.
“You know they don’t like it when you’re with me… always said I was trouble…”
Ezra tore a piece of cloth from the bottom of Chris’ shirt, soaked it with water and wrung it out as the gunfighter continued to stare at him. “I have no idea where you are right now, but I wish above all else you were here, even if it was to browbeat and harass me.” He began to wipe Chris’s face and neck.
“Bear should have killed me,” the blond said as wells of moisture began to cloud his eyes even more.
Ezra was stopped by the overpowering despair in the man’s voice.
“I should have died; not you. I’m so sorry, Adam.” Tears fell from eyes that refused to blink. “It was my fault.”
The Southerner was so overwhelmed he hardly knew what to do. He finally got hold of himself, wet the cloth again and wiped away the tears. He then used a bandaged hand to reach up and cover Chris’ eyes. “How many times can a man’s son die?” he asked aloud.
Somehow the sadistic bastards in the prison had managed to get to him, had cracked open the fragile shell Chris had built around his past and resurrected some of his most painful memories. Ezra leaned near his ear. “Heed my words, this is not how it’s going to be. You will not surrender. Do I make myself clear? You will fight this,” he declared with a conviction that surprised even him.
Waiting for his words to sink in, he slowly removed his hand to reveal a pair of very wet, very tortured eyes. Then, as if a river of pain had finally breached his self-control,the gunfighter wept. Ezra tried to remove himself from the situation; tried to see, hear and think about anything other than the personal agony of his leader, but no matter how hard he tried to convince himself it wasn’t his business he couldn’t separate himself from his friend’s grief.
He had often wondered how Chris must have felt when he was away from his fellow lawmen, when he went home and found himself in the company of ghosts. It was no secret Chris had always felt guilt for the death of his wife and son, but Ezra had never known how caustic that guilt must have been. Now he not only knew, he was witness to it.
“I shouldn’t have put you there,” Chris said, almost too softly for Ezra to hear. “I didn’t know… I swear, I didn’t know.”
“Of course you didn’t,” the gambler answered reassuringly despite the fact he didn’t understand the fevered plea.
“Hold on to me… hold on… I won’t let him have you… you can’t let go…”
Ezra listened as Adam’s name was mumbled over and over.
“C-c-cold. It’s getting cold.” The two men sat so close, the shiver running through the gunfighter shook them both.
He stopped bathing Chris, closed his shirt and brought the blanket lying across his legs up to his chin.
“So cold… leg hurts. My leg hurts.”
Ezra silently kicked himself for not looking for further injuries. “Your leg?”
“Hurts.” Chris twisted on the cot and tried to move his feet.
Ezra watched, noticing his friend was trying to reach a hand to his left leg. The limb stiffened under the blanket and his hand slid uselessly off the cot. “It’s alright,” he said. “Just hold still and let me take a look.” Gently tugging at the blanket he’d just tucked closer around Chris’ body, he pulled until the limbs fighting against their cover lay exposed. There were no outward signs of injury so starting at his left ankle Ezra lightly ran his fingertips up and around Chris’ lower leg. There was too little illumination to see clearly, but he knew by touch there were many cuts and scrapes. He moved slowly up Chris’ shin and to his knee but was stopped by the prison pants the gunfighter wore. Since there didn’t appear to be any breaks or punctures, he pulled the thin material back to his ankle and continued moving up the limb, feeling as best he could through the fabric. When his fingers reached the outside part of the upper thigh and lower hip, the gunfighter cried out and tried to roll away. Ezra caught him just before he managed to throw himself onto the floor. “I’m sorry, Chris. I’m sorry.”
“No, leave it. Leave me be.”
“I don’t think that would be advisable. I need to find…”
“Leave it. I can take care… of myself,” Chris panted.
“Certainly, and right now I believe that about as much as I believe Buck Wilmington is a bashful man. Now lie still and let me tend to what needs doing,” he answered firmly.
Chris didn’t respond; he just laid wheezing and shaking, coiled as tightly as Ezra had ever seen a man. Aware there might well be repercussions to his next move, the gambler carefully reached down to again press his fingers against Chris’ upper leg. The gunslinger didn’t disappoint him. With a groan and a yell, Chris came up swinging. “I said no!”
Ezra quickly pulled out of reach and when Chris fell back with the swing, restrained him with little effort. “And I said yes.”
Fever bright eyes looked up with resignation. Chris lay as he was pinned and didn’t try to get up again. “Please, no more,” he begged.
Stopped by the sheer helplessness of the request, Ezra leaned back and pulled his hands away from those he’d captured. Realistically there was little he could do to repair the wound so he decided to side with the emotional appeal and leave his friend in peace. He touched Chris’ arm, returned to his own cot and lay down on the filthy thing that imagined itself a bed. He rolled to his side, rubbing at his eyes to ease the headache that had gathered behind them. Then he folded an arm under his cheek and settled into watching the gunfighter struggle with his delirium. There’s more going on with you than meets the eye, my friend, but what? What the hell have they done to you? What the hell do they plan to do next?
It had been a long ride back from Jasper Creek. Vin and Buck had made decent time but it still had taken nearly two days. It was dawn when they arrived in Four Corners and although tired, they were anxious for news of their missing leader. They made straight for The Clarion only to find Mary running out of the building behind a fast-moving JD.
“JD, please! Wait for the others to get back,” she pleaded.
“I can’t, Mrs. Travis. I shoulda started looking for Chris when you first brought it up that he was late. Now Ezra’s gone missing,” he shouted as he headed for the horse tied to the hitching post in front of his office.
“But it could be dangerous.”
“Mrs. Travis, please, just let me do my job,” he replied and turned around to stop her from chasing after him.
“I’m sure the others will be back soon.”
“JD!” Buck yelled.
Dunne looked over Mary’s shoulder to see Buck and Vin quickly dismount and run to the sidewalk. “Buck, am I ever glad to see you two.”
Vin nodded to Mary and turned to speak to JD. “What’s goin’ on? Where are you off to in such a hurry?”
“Chris still ain’t come back and now Ezra’s disappeared.”
“What do you mean Ezra’s disappeared?” Buck asked. “Where’d he go? He’s supposed to be watchin’ the town.”
“He was watching the town, Buck. It was me who left. Damn, why’d I ever agree to leave him alone?” JD slapped at his knee. “I knew better.”
“JD, it wasn’t your fault. You couldn’t have known,” Mary said supportively.
“Tell us what happened.”
Mary rubbed her hands together and took a deep breath. “Mrs. Welles was having a problem with a prowler out at her place. Someone had been sneaking around there for several days. Mr. Standish and JD decided it would be best if JD were to stay with her for a little while just to check it out. As it turned out, it was just a couple of schoolboys playing pranks.”
“Good job,” Buck said proudly and patted JD on the back.
“In the meantime,” Mary continued, “I got a telegram from a town called Jericho.”
“Yes, it seems there’s a prison there where Chris is being held. He’s been arrested.”
“What?” Buck moved his hand from JD and let it drop absent-mindedly to his gun.
“The telegram was a request for bail money. They want five hundred dollars to secure his release.”
“What the hell is Chris doin’ in prison? What’d they say he did?” Buck asked.
“They didn’t. They simply said he would be released on bail if his brother showed up with the money.”
Vin looked up sharply. “Brother? Chris ain’t got a brother.”
“The telegram was addressed to Vin Larabee,” she added.
Vin Tanner looked down, his heart feeling as though it were being squeezed in two. “I knew I should o’ come back sooner.”
Mary touched Vin’s arm and continued. “I took the message to Mr. Standish. He felt it was a setup and went to get Chris. He was planning on posing as Chris’ brother himself to find out what was going on.”
“How was he plannin’ on gettin’ Chris out of prison alone?”
JD spoke up, “He was gonna pay Chris’ bail.”
“His bail is five hundred dollars. Where in Hades could he get his hands on that kind of money?”
“It’s probably the money he’s savin’ for his saloon,” Vin put in quietly.
“Damn fool. He could get himself killed goin’ in there on his own.”
The tracker looked at JD. “Where are Nathan and Josiah?”
“I reckon they’re still at the Indian Village. I just got back in town myself an hour ago.”
“Mrs. Travis, how long ago did Ezra leave?”
“Not too long after you left with that prisoner. More than three days ago. What are we going to do? How can we help them?”
“Don’t you be frettin’ none. We’ll get ‘em out, rest assured,” Vin said. He motioned for Buck and JD to follow him back to their horses. “JD, ride out and get Nathan and Josiah. Tell ‘em what’s goin’ on and ya’ll meet up with us outside Jericho. In fact, run on over to the clinic before you leave and gather up a few of Nathan’s things. Chris and Ezra might be needin’ some doctorin’ when we find ‘em.”
JD nodded and ran down the street towards the clinic.
“Buck, let’s you and I get some fresh horses and a couple of extra guns. We got a long ride ahead of us.”
Buck moved to where Mary stood and reached out to take her hand. “Don’t you worry none now. We’re gonna bring those boys back home,” he promised as he wrapped his fingers around hers.
Mary took a deep breath and nodded as she watched the two men hurry away.
Another night spent in this God-forsaken place, Ezra realized when he saw tiny shafts of daylight splinter their way into the building where he and Chris had been confined. He could hear movement outside; the sounds of prisoners’ feet skidding across the hard earth, orders being shouted by over-confident guards and the clank and rattle of yard tools being put to use. No one had come for him yet but he knew it was only a matter of time. He would be taken away from Chris and forced to work even if his hands were unable to hold a shovel for very long. He didn’t want to think about what the gunfighter would be put through this day.
The Southerner rubbed his eyes once more before he rose from his protective position at Chris’ side. Earlier in the night, he’d pushed the two cots close together and leaned up against the wall so he could be ready for anything that happened should he doze off. He’d slept with a hand on Chris so every time the sleeping man shifted, he was alerted. This worked each of the five occasions it happened. Each time the gambler comforted his charge and each time Chris fell again into an uneasy sleep.
He ached from head to toe but didn’t focus long on his discomfort. He had to plan a way out. It seemed apparent the guards would be coming for him soon; he was of little use to the warden as a babysitter. Then again perhaps that was exactly the warden’s intention -- he needed someone to keep Chris calm. The gambler smiled when he thought of how difficult it must have been for Crenshaw to control the lawman. Chris Larabee, submit to captivity? He imagined the warden to still be waiting for hell to freeze over.
A noise just outside the door caught his attention. He moved closer to Chris and waited for the guard he knew would try to force him out of the cell. His mind raced, trying to think of anything that would keep him and the gunfighter together but no ideas came to mind. Then the door opened and a man’s silhouette poured into the room ahead of a huge rush of light. He shaded his eyes from the onslaught and waited for them to adjust. It wasn’t until the door closed again he realized someone had entered and stayed. “Who’s there?”
“Name’s Simmons. I’m the doctor ‘round here,” the shadow answered.
“I reckon I’m as near to it as you’ll find in this place.”
“Well then, I ‘reckon’ I’m grateful. My associate here could benefit greatly from any medical assistance.”
A gray-haired man sporting a tall black hat and a confused look on his face paused as he clutched a small bag to his chest.
Ezra raised his eyes upward. Why me, Lord? “Help, sir. My friend needs help,” he clarified.
“I figured on that. 78’s been in need of tendin’ since he arrived. Started with the lickin’ he took five minutes after he was brought in,” Simmons said as he moved to the far side of Chris’ bunk.
“Five minutes? He may have broken his own record,” Standish replied as he moved to kneel opposite the older man.
“He’s been takin’ a beatin’ pretty regular. I’ve sewed and patched him up a few times now. It’s a wonder his head’s still sittin’ on those shoulders of his.”
“So the stitches are your handiwork?”
Simmons laid his bag on the ground and reached to open Chris’ shirt. He pulled the dirty fabric away from his abdomen and inspected the uncovered wound. “Yeah, I sewed him up after he got knifed by one of the other prisoners. Don’t think it tore into anything important inside, but it went deep. He didn’t holler too much when I took a needle to him.”
The gambler flinched at the thought.
The doctor poked around the ugly wound until it elicited a groan.
Ezra reacted immediately, taking hold of Simmons’ wrist. “Don’t,” he warned.
“I have to find out if there’s fever in there. He’s tough enough. Believe me, I’ve patched him enough to know,” the man answered calmly.
He released Simmons and settled even closer to Chris.
The healer returned to his work. “It looks like he split some of them stitches. He’s also got a touch o’ fever. I should probably fix ‘em back but I don’t have much time. Warden only gave me a few minutes to see to him.”
“Why would the warden suddenly enlist medical attention for Chris?”
“Don’t rightly know. Just told me to get in here and see that he’s made fit. Maybe the warden wants him back out in the yard.”
“I doubt that, Mr. Simmons. I doubt that very much. From what I’ve seen, there is more going on between the warden and Chris than meets the eye,” Ezra offered.
“Oh, there’s plenty going on between those two, has been since this one arrived. Things got worse though when the warden couldn’t back him down after he protected another inmate.”
“Yeah, 46 was in awful shape; ‘bout like he is now,” he said with a nod towards Chris. “The warden decided 46 needed to get back to work, but that was crap because the man couldn’t even stand on his own. 78 here stepped in and stopped ol’ Crenshaw from ‘administering punishment.’ Well, at least he stopped him from administering it to 46. This one took a few good licks before the rest of the prisoners made a show of support and the warden backed down.”
“Sounds like our Mr. Larabee was being true to form, helping those who can’t help themselves.”
“Family trait?” Simmons inquired.
Ezra looked up, puzzled by the question.
“Looks to me like you’ve been doing a bit of helpin’ yourself. I understand ya wantin’ to help your brother, but you took an awful chance tryin’ to free him from this place. Didn’t work quite like you planned, did it?”
“Chris and I are not brothers, that was a ruse to gain entry to your facility. And no, it didn’t work as I had planned.”
“Well, the accents may be different and you may say you’re not related, but I’d say actions speak louder than words. You took a powerful risk for him.”
Ezra didn’t know how to respond so he changed the subject. “My friend needs help, Mr. Simmons. Shall we see to him?”
The gaunt old man reached into his bag and brought out a bandage and a small bottle of whiskey. Popping the cork from the bottle, he took a swig then poured the amber liquid over the stitches in his patient’s side. The only response from Chris was a soft moan and a weak attempt to move away. Simmons stopped him with a hand across his middle before he wiped at the edges of the wound and replaced the bandage. Apparently happy with his work, he had the Southerner help him tie the clean dressing in place.
Ezra slid his fingertips across his friend’s forehead. He frowned when Chris unconsciously pushed into the touch and whispered, “Sarah?”
“No, Chris. Sarah’s not here.”
“Sarah,” Chris insisted, “I saw him. I saw Adam.” He licked at dry lips.
Ezra took the cloth he’d used earlier and soaked it in the small amount of water remaining in the pail. He then touched the rag to Chris’ mouth, but the blond didn’t indicate he felt the soothing coolness.
“Wait… why’s he there… he shouldn’t be there… Adam?” He reached to grab at the air in front of him as his agitation grew. “Get him off.”
Ezra reached for the outstretched hands but couldn’t convince them to stay down.
“You’re not takin’ him like that…not on a death wagon… he ain’t dead… get ‘im off…”
The gambler gave Simmons a nervous glance. “Death wagon? What’s he talking about?”
“He could be talking about a hearse. The town I was brought up in didn’t have no proper hearse to speak of, just used a wagon from the livery. Some folks called ‘em death wagons. Seems once you carried a body or two on ‘em, no one ever wanted to use ‘em for much else,” he answered as he too reached for Chris’ groping hands.
“I’m beginning to seriously worry about my friend’s disturbing behavior,” Ezra said in a low voice.
“Whereas Mr. Larabee has been known to display a severe temper at times, one could not accuse him of behaving irrationally. Since I’ve found him though he’s been out of his head suffering extreme delusions and nightmares.”
“Well I’d say that’s pretty normal for anyone locked up in this place,” Simmons replied.
“Not for Chris. He’s one of the strongest men I’ve ever known, but since my arrival he’s been… frightened and confused,” Ezra put it as delicately as he could. “This behavior is not normal to him. And now he appears to be hallucinating. What would cause such a thing?”
The gray head leaned forward to better see Chris’ face. He touched his twitching brow, checked his eyes and ears and then settled back on his haunches. “It’s hard to say what’s causin’ his seein’ things. It’s so dark in here, can’t tell if he’s bleedin’ from any place on his head. He’s warm, so it’s a good guess he’s workin’ on a fever. And like I said, he’s taken a beatin’ or two, probably more, knowing the guards around here. That head of his has been knocked around pretty good. In fact, I’d say that’s most likely why he’s seein’ something that ain’t really there.”
Ezra finally grabbed the flailing hands out of frustration. Chris tried to pull away, but the tired gambler was determined to stop whatever was happening in the fevered dreams.
“Let go. Listen to me. He doesn’t belong… on the wagon. Please get him off. He’s just a boy.”
Ezra held tight.
“What d’ya you reckon he’s rememberin?” Simmons asked sadly.
The gambler hesitated before he spoke. “I believe he’s recalling his son’s death.”
“Lordie, how’d the poor young’un die?”
“The boy and his mother were both murdered. What concerns me is the details of their deaths appear somewhat confused in Chris’ mind. He’s interchanging events with another tragic memory, which apparently involved a bear attack. From what he’s been saying, the animal ripped the child apart. The mention of the death wagon would indicate to me he’s now seeing his son carried away on that horrid contraption.”
“He’s surely seen his share of sufferin’, ain’t he?”
Ezra nodded and watched as Chris began to weaken and gradually surrender to an uneasy slumber. At least the violent episodes were lessening in severity and length, for that he was grateful.
Simmons tore his eyes from the two men and looked down at the bag he carried. Out of it, he pulled a cloth haphazardly wrapped in a bundle. He looked at it pitifully and extended his arms to pass it to the man across from him. “I know it ain’t much, but maybe it’ll help a mite,” he apologized then motioned towards Chris. “Since the warden’s interested in gettin’ him up, I’ll see to havin’ some broth sent in.”
Standish, now convinced the lawman’s hands would not return to their search, reached to accept the tiny offering. He pulled the corners of the cloth away to find two small pieces of bread. “Doctor, please do not ask pardon for such a kind favor. We’ve had precious little to eat since we arrived and this food is much appreciated. I thank you kindly.”
The worn old face beamed for a very brief moment before his eyes returned to the bag on the floor. “I don’t know what the warden is up to, but I have a feeling you and your partner here are in for some rough times. Just know that most of the men here are beholding to seventy… uh, Chris, here. If it’s at all possible, any one of us will be glad to sneak you help if need be. Course there ain’t much we’re able to do, but if the moment comes and we see a way clear, we will help ya. He stood up to that animal and protected one of our own. We won’t be forgetten that.”
Ezra sat, stunned by the strong voice of commitment, and watched as the dirty little man gathered his bag and clutched it to him. “It would appear Chris can instill loyalty in the strangest places,” he stated with a small grin.
“Not so strange.” Simmons smiled back. “We’re all still men here, well most of us anyway, and we can tell a good thing from a bad one. He’s a good’n, your friend. Still has his self-respect. That goes a long way with those who thought they’d lost their own.”
“I take your point, sir. Thank you.” Ezra rose to offer his hand.
Simmons glanced down at his own dirty fingers, and embarrassed by the grungy stains of blood and filth, started to wipe them on his shirt. Ezra stopped him with a hand to the wrist and slid the work-ravaged grip against the bandaged palm of his other hand. Filthy teeth flashed at him in a large smile as the prison doctor stood a little straighter.
The gray head leaned forward when he noticed the wrappings on his fellow inmate. “You’re hurt,” he said in quiet surprise. “Let me take a look.”
“I am quite alright, I assure you. I’ve just been overpowered by a yard implement,” Ezra said as he tried to tuck his hands behind his back.
“Boy, you do like them fancy words, don’tcha? Don’t change nothing though. Words ain’t gonna help you heal none. Come on.” He motioned for the Southerner to sit on the cot.
He did as he was instructed but was not forthcoming in presenting his wounds to the physician.
“If you’re bashful, I could turn my eyes away,” Simmons said sarcastically. Then he sat down next to Ezra on the ratty mattress.
Ezra reddened but finally produced his hands.
The doctor didn’t say a word as he loosened the bindings. He simply aimed the torn palms towards the lantern, grimaced, and reached into his bag to pull out a jar and a couple of dingy bandages. “You said you cleaned these hands?”
“Yeah, well I reckon there ain’t much around to work with. They’ll do. I’ll just put some of this here salve on ‘em and wrap ‘em back up.” Simmons went about his work, passing the minute or two it took with distracting conversation. “I seen plenty of this kind of injury ‘round here. A man ain’t meant to hold a shovel twelve hours a day.”
“I have to confess I am in complete agreement with you,” Ezra said. “Honestly, I see no need to hold the ridiculous thing at all.”
Simmons laughed as he finished. “Now that I think about it, you’re right. Screw the shovel and the asshole who invented it.”
Now it was Ezra’s turn to laugh although it seemed strange to find humor in the midst of all this misery.
Just as he was about to reply to the doctor’s wisdom, Briggs yelled out behind the closed cell door, “21, your time’s up! Get your ass over to the door now! Inmate 93, back away!”
The doctor heard his prison number called and did as he was told. Hanging his head, he faced the door. As it opened, he looked back over his shoulder. “Luck to you…” he began.
“Ezra,” Standish supplied when he hesitated.
“Luck to you, Ezra, and to Chris.”
“And to you, sir,” came the reply as Briggs grabbed the tired-looking man and yanked him out of the cell. The door swung hard and slammed.
Ezra stared into the semi-darkness that had become his world and curled his aching hands over his chest. “And to you.”