Ezra regained consciousness slowly. Well, perhaps consciousness was a little over optimistic. He regained a subliminal awareness to sound and touch. Mumbled words swam past his ears, just outside of actual hearing, and an indistinct pressure gripped his arms and legs. He even had the vague impression of being lifted upwards.
Easy…now…careful…someone muttered, then there was something warm holding his head. Before he could figure out what it was, the warmth disappeared and he was settled atop something hard. When an uncomfortable dizziness pushed him downward, he sent a searching hand into the air to steady himself. The straining fingers were grasped firmly, squeezed and returned to his side.
He wanted to answer but his lips were so numb they could do little more than press into a pained grimace. Helpless, he began to panic.
Settle down now. We got ya.
Got me? He thought. No, no, no. The warden. I have to get up. Chris, where’s Chris? He twisted and tried to rise.
Stop it now. Be still.
Powerful fingers grabbed him and pinned him to the hard surface beneath his back. He resisted, more in his mind than in his body, and sadly had to surrender when more hands grabbed his elbows and knees. “Chris!” he cried.
Easy, it’s all right.
He needed to get to his feet but he was so damned weak he could barely move. His shoulder and hands throbbed, his head felt like it had been kicked in and his skin burned as if he’d been set on fire. No damn it, he had to find Chris; he had to stop the warden before the bastard killed him. “Get away, leave him alone,” he screamed at Crenshaw.
“Get your hands off him!”
Ezra, damn it, listen to me!
“NO!” he roared, freeing his hand and swinging wildly. The fist missed its intended target and was immediately captured and pressed to his chest. It was over. He had nothing left with which to fight. “Please,” he pleaded softly, “don’t.”
It’s all right. You’re safe, his captor said ahead of a crowd of angry voices now yelling in the distance.
He listened, endeavoring to separate the calmer voice from the others. It seemed determined to penetrate the thick mud caked around his brain so he stopped struggling and met it halfway. Pulling several painful breaths of air into his lungs, he leaned into the cool hand holding his face and allowed the deep voice to wash over him.
You’re safe, Ezra. It’s Nathan. I’ve got you.
Nathan? That wasn’t possible. “C-can’t… be…” he replied. When he made to squirm away, the hand on his face tapped his cheek.
“Come on. Open your eyes.”
“Listen to me. Open your eyes. You’re safe.”
Open his eyes? Seemed a logical idea; why hadn’t he thought of it? He was so confused and God help him, there was so much pain. He doggedly pushed the hurt aside, calmed his panicked breathing and cracked his eyelids open. Damn, he still couldn’t see. “I c-can’t…”
“Take your time.”
The hand holding his squeezed tighter, allowing him to pull every ounce of strength from it he needed. Slowly, the dark face above his became clear. “Nathan?”
“Yeah, it’s me. You’re all right. We found ya and we’re gonna take ya some place to fix ya up.”
He swallowed the lump in his throat. “Where?”
“Outside the prison near Jericho. We got ya loaded up and we’re nearly ready to move. Just lie still and rest.”
He shook his head. The menacing shouts he had heard before were getting closer, which could only mean Chris was in trouble. “No… where is he?”
“Don’t be worryin’. Just rest.”
“Where is Chris?” he insisted as the yelling grew louder. Something was definitely wrong. When no one answered, he struggled to sit.
Nathan, against his better judgment, helped him. “You need to take it easy, Ezra.”
“Oh God,” he whimpered with a gag when his world tilted.
“Whoa now, you’d better listen to Nathan before you fall,” a young voice recommended.
Fall? He looked at the wooden sideboard he was propped against and realized what Nathan meant when he said he was ‘loaded up.’ He was in a wagon.
“You gonna stay put?” It was JD.
His mind whirled as a kaleidoscope of color stole away his sense of up or down. He knew he was close to passing out again when the colors began to darken, but he bravely battled the oncoming gloom. Then a hand grabbed his elbow and his addled brain somehow grasped the fact his young friend was the only thing preventing him from falling off the back of the wagon. “I’m quite all right, Mr. Dunne,” he slurred and swayed once again. “However, if you could see your way to holding the wagon still, I would be much obliged.”
He heard a giggle… then a scream.
“What’s happening?” he asked. Again no one answered so he scooted his backside forward and pulled himself up with his one good arm.
“Don’t you be tryin’ to get off this wagon,” Nathan commanded.
“Well, then perhaps you will tell me what is going on. Where is Chris?”
“Those feet of yours touch the ground, and I’ll tie ya down. Now be still.”
He closed his eyes and paused. “Answer my question. Where is Chris?”
The healer hesitated. It wasn’t until he saw the Southerner move to leave the wagon a second time that he responded. “We’ve got Chris.”
“What do you mean ‘you’ve got Chris’? Where is he?” The voices from before came again and this time he figured out to whom they belonged: Buck, Vin and Josiah. So, they were all together again -- that was a relief, but there was still something not quite right. “Answer me, Nathan.”
“Ezra?” A voice deeper than Nathan’s said his name as if testing the sound of it. “Your name is Ezra.”
Lidded green eyes wearily moved in the direction of the unexpected hail. “Mr. Phillips?”
“Yes, sir. I’m sorry. I never heard your name before I met your friends.”
He stared at the man in disbelief. “You made it back. You found them.”
The hand attached to his healthier arm came up. “I am in your debt, sir.”
The guard looked at Nathan briefly before he reached out to take the twitching hand he was offered. “I don’t hardly think so. I should’ve done somethin’ sooner to help. It shames me to think what I let you and your friend here suffer. What I’ve let other men suffer…”
“Chris? Where?” He startled and snapped his head around when a blood-curdling scream sounded from just outside his field of vision.
“No! Get him off! Get him off that thing! He doesn’t belong there!”
Ezra’s eyes widened as everything began to fall in place. He suddenly knew where they had Chris and he reasoned that where he was sitting was the last place on earth the delusional man needed to see him; not with Adam so fresh in his mind. “Damn!” He reached deep for strength and forced himself to his feet. JD and Nathan nearly missed him as he rocked back against the wagon after the unexpected dismount.
Jackson threw his hands around the gambler’s shuddering shoulders. “What the hell are you doing? You wanna start bleedin’ again?”
“I cannot be on that wagon. He can’t see that,” he mumbled as he pushed at Nathan’s clutching fingers.
Another pair of hands offered support and he looked up to find Phillips aiding him as he clumsily fought for balance.
“Let me go!” the gunfighter cried.
“What’s gotten into you, pard? Calm down,” Buck replied worriedly.
Ezra made out Buck and Vin holding on to Chris as he struggled between them. Every move they made forward, he planted his feet and started peddling backwards. The nearer they came to the wagon, the harder he tried to break free. “Get him away from there!” the gunfighter demanded in a state of hysteria.
“Don’t be fightin’ us. We’re here to help,” Josiah said as he stepped from behind Chris, where he had obviously been pushing him along. But the closer Chris got to Ezra, the more desperate he became.
JD was stunned into silence at the sight. Nathan and Phillips remained steadfast at Ezra’s side. And Ezra, he stared at the whole bunch of them as if they had lost their minds. This was Chris they were dragging along like some animal. What the hell were they doing? He straightened as best he could and mustered enough moisture in his mouth to speak. “Stop this.”
Nathan almost didn’t hear him.
“Stop,” he said again.
“Please, tell them to stop.”
“Ezra, we have to get him back to town.”
“I’m begging you. Don’t do this. Not now.”
Nathan saw genuine fear travel across the gambler’s face. Without taking his eyes off him, he waved a hand in the air and hollered, “Buck, Vin, wait up.”
“What?” they asked in unison.
“Just hold up and give him a minute. Hang on to him though.” He looked back at the man he was supporting. “All right, I’m listenin’. Do you have some idea what’s the matter with him?”
Ezra closed his eyes and nodded.
“It’s pretty obvious he’s been beaten up; I checked him myself and that head o’ his has been hit too many times to count. Even at that though, I reckon there’s something else goin’ on. If you know, you need to tell me.”
The pale Southerner raised his chin and announced grimly. “He’s been drugged.”
“I’m not sure what they used the last time.”
“The last time? You mean he’s been drugged more than once?” the healer asked incredulously.
Ezra let his head drop. “From what I could gather,” he started to say as a wave of nausea threatened to send him to his knees. He regrouped and started again. “From the warden’s boast, I gathered Chris had been given peyote several times before my arrival. He didn’t react well to the drug, but he was beginning to recover during the time he and I were locked up together.”
Nathan and Phillips noticed the ghastly color Ezra had turned and tried to sit him down.
He waved them off and continued. “I’m alright, just listen to me. After we escaped, the warden and his men caught up to us. They held Chris down and gave him something else. They used a needle on him, injected him… with something stronger.”
“Ezra, think. Did they say what they were using?”
“N-no. I’m sorry, I don’t know...”
“Damn,” Jackson swore.
“Nathan, the peyote did horrible things to him… made him see things, remember things, but he was coming out of it, becoming more lucid, I watched him and I saw...” He realized he was rambling and sucked in a long breath to steady his rattled nerves. “I watched him… I saw how the drugs worked on him. I know what they gave him the last time was different, but we can pull him back from this too.”
The man sandwiched between the healer and the guard turned to face the latter. “Mr. Phillips, call your prisoner.”
Phillips looked as if he’d been slapped. “What? I ain’t callin’ him that no more. The man’s been through enough and rememberin’ that hell ain’t no way to help. Just leave ‘im be.”
“Please, understand, where Chris’ body has been is nothing compared to where his mind has been residing. He’s re-living something more horrible than the prison and we have to bring him back. The only way to do that is to make him understand where he’s been and what’s been happening to him. I know it’s cruel to say, but you’re part of that.”
The guard flinched and considered the soft words. He had seen first hand how far this man would go for the other and knew beyond question he meant no harm.
Ezra patted the rifle leaning against the tail of the wagon. “Please… call your prisoner.”
Phillips nodded slowly before he let go his hold on the gambler. He turned to his rifle, picked it up and walked away from the wagon. Standing alone, he cocked his weapon and pointed it skyward. “Prisoner 78,” he called half-heartedly.
Chris ignored the summons.
The dark man raised his gun and fired, then ordered in a deadly tone, “Prisoner 78! Stand down!”
The sound of the rifle shot exploded in Chris’ mind, forcing him to turn and look for the source of the unforgiving noise. When he found it, he froze.
“78! Stand down now!”
Chris lowered his eyes to the ground, an argument resting behind his cracked, bloodied lips.
“I won’t say it again. You mind your place, 78, and stand down.”
Vin and Buck felt the gunfighter stiffen and shudder, but he remained silent.
“You know the drill,” Phillips continued. “Raise those hands and be ready.” He saw the flicker in his prisoner’s dull, green eyes and knew he understood. For an inmate, the order meant he was about to be punished. It rarely failed to defuse an unruly prisoner and Phillips prayed it would have the desired effect on the gunfighter despite the man’s usual stubborn streak.
A twitch in Chris’ left eye threatened to destroy the guard’s hope, but after several long moments of deliberation he finally did the unexpected and offered his hands for binding. He timidly turned his head to the side and stared at the guard with the gun as a flood of images poured through his mind. Vivid images from nightmares past streamed across his vision in rapid succession: Adam… the bear…the wagon… the prison… the warden… the pit… He couldn’t keep up, couldn’t decipher what he was seeing and when his brain refused to process one more image, his body reacted as if to say ‘enough.’ His muscles clenched, his limbs went stiff and after several seconds of straining against the invisible ropes binding his wrists, his head snapped back and he screamed. Strangled protests gurgled in his throat just before a final howl, a foreboding wail much like a wounded mountain cat, was ripped from his chest.
Buck watched in horror. “Nathan, what the hell is goin’ on?”
The healer came running when he saw Buck cling to and lower a rigid Chris to the ground. Just as he hit his knees, the gunslinger jerked in convulsive spasms between them.
“What the hell’s wrong with him?”
“He’s been drugged!” Nathan answered harshly.
“Ezra told me the warden at the prison has been usin’ drugs on him.”
“Damn it, that son-of-a-bitch,” Buck roared as he held onto his friend. “We gotta do somethin’. We gotta help him!”
Jackson didn’t answer; he was too busy wrestling Chris into a position to support his neck. The angle his head and back had taken was much too dangerous to permit.
“Nathan, for God’s sake, help him!”
“There ain’t nothin’ I can do! Just keep hold of him!”
Wilmington fell silent, pulled Chris closer and watched as his friend’s face tightened and paled. When his lips grew ashen against clenched teeth, he begged, “Hang on, Chris; please, just hang on.”
Vin and Josiah stayed close, loosely holding the gunfighter’s arms and legs as he fought the evil possessing them. Neither let go until they felt the muscles beneath their hands quiver rather than tighten. “Somethin’s happenin’,” the tracker stated. “He’s gettin’ tired I think.”
Nathan released the neck he’d been cradling and moved his hands carefully over his patient. Parting Chris’ eyelids, he looked into large black pupils before he rested both his palms over a racing heart. “Chris? Come on, Chris. Can you hear me?”
Buck looked between the healer and the man on his lap. “Is it over?”
“I think he’s through the fit but he’s got a ways to go before this’ll be over. He’s out cold, but that could be a good thing. We can put him in the wagon with Ezra and get ‘em both back to town.” He put a hand to Chris’ forehead. “Aw, hell.”
“What is it?” Josiah asked from his position over the gunfighter’s knees.
“On top of everything else, he’s got hisself a fever. Could be from that knife wound in his side. Or it could be from any one of the other dozen or so cuts he’s got on him. The man’s a mess.”
Sanchez put a large hand on Jackson’s shoulder. “He’ll be alright, Nate. We’ll get him through this.”
Nathan glanced back and nodded before he turned further to gaze at a semi-conscious Ezra. The gambler hadn’t been able to remain upright and was now lying on the ground with Phillips propping him up.
Josiah followed his eyes. “We’ll get them both through this.”
“Yeah,” he answered wearily as his gaze fell upon Chris’ torn wrists. “I need to bandage his hands and cover that belly wound. Once we’re in town, I’ll sew him up again.” He stood up. “Alright, let’s get ‘em outta here. It’ll be dark soon.”
Josiah moved to take Chris from Buck’s arms but met resistance when the ladies man refused to let go. “Come on, Buck. We need to get him loaded onto the wagon,” he said gently when he saw fear in the cowboy’s eyes. He still wasn’t willing to give Chris up, but Josiah managed a solution. “Why don’t you ride with him back to town. We wouldn’t want him wakin’ up without someone there to explain things. All right?”
He didn’t answer, but he did relinquish hold and allow the older man to take Chris from him. Once Josiah’s arms were secured around the Seven’s leader, he stood and moved towards the gathering at the wagon. Buck followed, watching Chris’ hand dangle loosely against the preacher’s back.
Vin, Nathan, JD and Phillips huddled on the ground around Ezra and listened to his unrelenting questions about Chris. “How is he? Did it work?”
“It worked, Ezra. It worked just fine,” Vin said reassuringly.
“Is he alright? You didn’t hurt him.”
“He should be fine. Now drink some of this,” answered Nathan, holding a canteen to his lips. Tired eyes fluttered closed as the liquid filled his mouth and streamed down his throat. It was a wonderful sensation, but it was too much, too soon, and he strangled.
“Sorry, I shouldn’t of let you have so much,” Nathan apologized, raising him up enough to swallow.
“’s quite… cough… alright. Haven’t had much to drink. Chris will be… needing some too.”
“We’ll take good care of Chris,” he replied quietly and put the canteen aside. “Now just be quiet and let us get you back on the wagon.”
Ezra put a hand on his arm, not quite trusting the tone behind the words. “Where is he, Nathan?”
“He’s where you’re gonna be if you’ll just settle down and let us move you.”
He pulled his fingers away and submitted to the transfer from the ground to the bed of the wagon. Vin and JD picked him up as carefully as they could, but still he felt the pain in his shoulder blossom into his chest. He cried pitifully, bringing Nathan immediately to his side.
Josiah held Chris close until he reached the wagon then laid the trembling body alongside Ezra’s. Buck helped, peering over the sideboard as Nathan worked to ease the Southerner’s pain. He wished he could help but the truth was there was nothing he could do but get in the way. His eyes wandered sadly back to Chris. “I wish I knew what that was all about,” he said.
“What?” Josiah asked.
“When Chris was fighting us before. What was he so torn up about when we were trying to get him to the wagon?”
“H-he was remembering…” the gambler replied despite the grating ache in his throat.
“Hush up, Ezra,” Nathan advised as he applied more pressure to the bleeding shoulder.
“Rememberin’ what?” Buck noticed Ezra’s bone white complexion and rapid breathing, but couldn’t stop himself asking.
“Buck,” Jackson warned over his shoulder.
“It’s alright.” Ezra worked to keep his eyes open. “He’s remembering the attack on his son.”
“Attack?” JD repeated. He stood against the side of the wagon opposite Buck.
Ezra nodded and inhaled raggedly. “The bear attack,” he gasped, “on Adam.” That was it; that was all he could get out before another searing pain traveled his body and twisted his words into a groan. He fumbled with Nathan’s probing hands then fell back into blessed unconsciousness.
The remaining men in the group fell silent. Not one word was uttered until Buck turned a startled look toward Vin and announced with certainty, “Adam was never attacked by a bear.”
Vin glanced down where Chris lay curled in a fetal position. The man was shaking so hard he could nearly hear his teeth rattle, and the tracker wondered if the tortures he had suffered might have actually taken him over the edge. The sight unnerved him. The question angered him. In the end, it was his rage that motivated him. “Load up, Buck. We’re takin’ these boys outta here. Then we’re gonna find us a lowlife warden.”
Encouraged by the plan, Buck replaced Nathan in the wagon and sat between his fellow peacekeepers. The healer took the reins of the team and started them moving towards Jericho.
The ride back was slow and worrisome. Ezra murmured deliriously in and out of consciousness, Chris suffered tremors so severe his entire body shook. Buck watched over both but could do little more than busy himself adjusting blankets and offering soothing reassurances with a hand on each man’s arm. In the end there was simply no real comfort to be had.
He heard Ezra moan again and reached to touch the top of his head. Staring at the look of distress on the gambler’s face, he reflected on how far he’d gone to save Chris’ life. The man had risked himself, all alone, on the slim chance of rescuing a fellow peacekeeper. Buck would have thought he’d feel surprise at his actions, but deep down in his heart he knew Ezra would do it all over again if he thought he could help one of his own. He sighed a laugh. One of his own. Yep, I reckon that’s what we are.
Buck turned his attention to the man on his right, who jerked uncontrollably and pushed at the blanket atop him. Despite his attempts to calm the gunfighter’s trembling and still his clenching fists, the quivering muscles declined surrender and the grasping hands refused to be laid to rest. “It’s alright, buddy. You made it, and I’m not gonna let anything happen to you now.” He reached for the discarded blanket again only to be stopped by the sight of his friend’s bony shoulder and heaving chest. He looked thin and frail, and ready to cave in. What the hell had he suffered? How had things gone so wrong for Chris so quickly? Covering the visible ribs and pallid skin, he prayed with all his might the blond’s spirit wasn’t in the same condition. “I ain’t lettin’ you give up, pard. You just hang on, you hear me? Just hang on.”