The next several hours were as difficult and unnerving as Nathan had predicted. Chris combated a horrifying delirium, alternately mumbling gibberish to himself and screaming a litany of threats towards a drug induced bear. One moment he gripped the blanket lying atop him as if it were his last hope for defense, the next he resisted the stifling cover and tried to scramble away. Josiah and Vin had their hands full, each trying to hold and reassure him and both repelling the occasional blows he somehow managed to land.
The night wore on and with it his battle. It wasn’t until just before dawn Josiah noticed a change in his fight. The early hours of struggle had been about an imagined bear and the only name called in the darkness was Adam’s. Now the anger was directed more towards the warden and he cried frantically for Ezra. What had been a desire to escape had changed to a desperate need to find. Josiah made every effort to set the gunfighter’s mind at ease, to persuade him Ezra was safe if not sound, but he was nearly impossible to convince. It wasn’t until Vin helped Ezra leave his bed to sit next to Chris that he calmed, and it wasn’t until the sun finally peeked out above the horizon that he wakened. He fell unnervingly silent and for the most part stared out the window beside his bed, seeing nothing save the simple panes of glass. But it appeared to provide an adequate distraction from the terror of the night so he was left in peace; detached, alone and visibly anxious.
Nathan was summoned minutes after it was discovered he’d regained consciousness and although his examination was brief it was thorough and he came away shaking his head.
Buck, who had arrived hot on his heals, stepped close and whispered, “Did he say anything to ya, Nathan? Does he know where he is; that he’s back with us?”
“He grunted at me a couple times but I ain’t real sure if he was trying to answer me or not. Right now I don’t reckon he understands much of anything. He hears voices but he can’t make out the words and he seems to see things movin’ but he don’t really know what he’s lookin’ at. We’re just gonna have to wait and see what happens over the next couple of hours.” He went back to Chris and put a cool rag to his face.
Buck looked on as everyone in the room chose a vantage point to keep watch. Even Phillips, who had returned just before dawn with JD, remained to hold vigil. There was no shortage of folks who cared; he just wished he could make it known to the poor soul who needed it most.
The ladies man looked up when he heard his name and moved to sit next to Chris. “Right here, buddy.”
“We need to head on back now.”
Confused, Buck glanced over at Vin and Ezra. “Whatever you wanna do is fine by me.”
“Need to head back to town… too blame hot out here,” Chris complained as he pushed at his blanket.
Reaching back for the cup of water Vin offered, Buck propped the gunfighter’s damp shoulders against a pillow. “How ‘bout we get us a drink first. You thirsty?” He waited patiently for glassy green eyes to wander his way.
The blond head bobbled but his mouth finally reached the water. He drank greedily for several seconds before he drained it completely and fell away from the empty cup. A few exhausted pants later, he squinted at the mustached face hovering close. “You don’t look so good, Buck.”
Wilmington grinned. “Only to the ladies, pard. How’re you feeling?”
“Hot. Where are we?” He reached to pull the covers away.
“Whoa there, what’re ya doin’?”
“Gotta get movin’.”
“You might wanna hold off leavin’ that bed for another minute or two. You ain’t got a stitch on.”
It took a moment for the advice to sink in, but once it did, he raised the blanket twisted around his hand and took a long look down the length of his body. “Where are my pants?” Then he caught sight of the bandage on his stomach and a brief flash of memory returned. “The prison,” he said hoarsely and snatched the blanket back to his chest.
Vin moved to place a hand on his arm. “Do you remember what happened to ya?”
Sharp pain drew his attention to the white strips of cloth wrapped around his wrists and he remembered seeing another pair of bandaged hands reaching out to help him. “Ezra,” he wheezed and moved suddenly to wiggle past the two men on the bed.
“Here, Mr. Larabee.”
He froze at the sound of the weary Southern voice and spotted the gambler sitting on a bed next to his own, working in vain to pull a shirt onto one arm.
Vin was on his feet in an instant to help pull the shirt over his bound shoulder. “Ezra, if you’d holler I’d be happy to help ya out.”
“I can do it…” he blanched, “myself.”
“Yeah, I can tell that by the way your eyes are crossin’.”
“I decided to dress before anyone could object.”
“You know Nathan’s gonna have a fit. You ain’t well enough to be up yet.”
“Then let’s not tell him.” As if on cue, a razor-sharp pain traveled from his shoulder to his chest, nearly doubling him over. Vin squat down in front of him and offered him his hand.
Chris stared as Ezra’s eyes squeezed against the pain and his teeth gritted against a curse. When a low growl escaped his lips, an image of him nailed to a tree flickered in the gunfighter’s memory. “Your shoulder… the spear…”
“Efficiently separated, thanks to you,” Ezra pushed past clenched teeth. “I apologize for allowing myself to stumble into the warden’s trap… Had I been more careful, I’m certain we could have escaped a second capture.”
Buck instantly saw bewilderment on his friend’s face. “The warden and a couple of his men caught up to you after you got out of the prison.”
He pulled himself higher against his pillow. “I remember sneaking out. A guard was harassing Ezra… pissed me off.”
Vin felt a shudder tighten the hand he held.
“We got around the son-of-a-bitch and found a way through the fence. We were running. I heard Ezra scream; there was a damned spear pinning him to a tree.”
Another shudder and Vin raised an eyebrow. “A spear?”
Ezra looked away.
Chris continued, “Damnest thing I’ve ever seen… I remember tryin’ to hold him up, but that’s it. There’s nothing else. Why can’t I remember?”
“You’ve been through a lot,” Buck reassured him. “Right now, you two just need to rest up. We’ll get ya home just as soon as you feel up to it.”
“You never said. Where are we?”
“We’re still in Jericho, Mr. Larabee,” Ezra informed. “Disgusting little backwater.”
“Why’re you doing that, Ezra?” he asked, resisting the heavy weariness in his body.
“Doing what, Mr. Larabee?”
“Callin’ me mister… you ain’t done that for a while now,” he mumbled as he backed against his pillow. “Reckon there’s no need to start it up again.”
“And just how is it you can remember the way I’ve been addressing you?”
He tried his hardest to fend off the overwhelming fatigue settling inside him, but he simply didn’t have the strength. “A man who risks his life to save my ass,” he slurred, “don’t need to be callin’ me mister.”
Buck grinned at the pleased look on Ezra’s face. “The man’s got a point, you know.”
The Southerner’s pleasure fell into a frown when Chris began trembling with the effort to stay conscious. Without saying another word, the gunfighter’s blond head fell forward and he quickly passed out.
Buck barely moved in time to stop him falling off the bed. “Chris? Chris?”
Nathan pulled at the blanket wound around Chris’ legs then leaned over and put a hand to his forehead. “He feels cooler. Let’s go ahead and get some clothes on him, Josiah, he’s tiring himself out fightin’ the covers. We’ll keep bathin’ his head and neck ‘til his fever’s completely gone.”
Sanchez motioned to Vin for help, and the two of them set about dressing the struggling figure on the bed.
Buck stood near Jackson at the dresser as he gathered up his supplies. “Come on, Nate, we need to be takin’ these boys home. Ezra insists he’s ready and Chris seems much better.”
“Just because he seemed better the last time he was awake don’t mean he’s through this yet. He’s gonna have some good moments, he’s also gonna have some real bad ones. Since we don’t know what the warden gave him, we got no way of knowing how long it’ll take for him to shake it off. And let’s not forget all those hits he took to his head.”
“I know all that, but he was nearer to normal last night than he’s been since we found him. When he talked with us he sounded almost himself. ”
“Almost, you said he only stayed awake a few minutes.”
Buck eyed Chris, who now wore pants and was about to receive a shirt. “Yeah, I know. To tell ya the truth, I just don’t like this town. He ain’t safe here, neither is Ezra. These people lied to us about knowin’ ‘em and they haven’t lifted a finger to help us rescue or tend to ‘em.”
“I can’t deny this town has a mean streak.” Jackson stared at Buck’s hopeful face. “Honestly I don’t know which is more dangerous, their fevers or these damn people. But I have to take care of ‘em best I can. Where Chris ain’t really able to argue with me yet, Ezra keeps trying to make out he’s healed. The man’s got fever in him and he still won’t rest. If he ain’t careful he could get so sick there won’t be anything I can do to help him. ”
“So why don’t we give him what he wants and let’s head for home. Maybe he’ll rest some once we get him back to that nice feather bed of his.”
Nathan seemed to weigh his options. “Tell you what, if they do better tonight and I can get everyone in this room to eat and sleep, we’ll take the wagon and start back to Four Corners in the mornin’.”
Well that was something but Buck was still worried.
“What?” the healer asked irritably.
“You know how Chris acted the last time we tried to put ‘im on a wagon.”
“He was out of his head then, Buck. I’m hopin’ he won’t remember much of that. He can’t sit a horse; neither can Ezra. It’s the wagon or we stay on another day or two.”
“No, no, that’s fine, as long as we get ‘em home.” He gave Chris a pitiful look. Sorry, pard. I’ve got a feelin’ you ain’t gonna like it, but I’d agree to anything to get ya out of this place.
JD sighed in frustration as he left Chris’ side. He’d elected to take a turn sitting with the injured while the others went to eat but there seemed little he could do except get in the way. He’d tried to get Chris to eat and drink, on the rare occasion he was awake, but the gunfighter simply wasn’t interested.
“Don’t take it personally, JD,” Ezra rasped in the darkness.
Dunne sighed and gathered a fresh cup of water. “Hey, how’re you feeling?”
“Somewhat less than energetic.” Ezra eyed the cup nearing his face and mentally protested being treated as an invalid until he felt the pain in his shoulder remind him he didn’t have a choice. JD waited patiently for him to get situated before he put the dish to his lips. The Southerner managed drinking fairly well until some of the water went down the wrong way and began him choking and coughing. He grabbed hold of the young man’s arm and held tight until the burning in his chest receded.
“Better now?” JD asked as he patted Ezra on the back.
“I’ll let you know once I retrieve my lungs.”
“I’m only joking,” Ezra replied around the tickle in his throat.
Ezra considered JD carefully; he was uncomfortable nursing the two men on his own and looked ready to crawl out of his skin. “You must be getting hungry,” he said softly, trying to distract.
JD shrugged his shoulders. “It’s alright, I’m sure Buck’ll be back soon with some supper.”
“There really is no need for you to be here. I can look after Chris; he hasn’t done much more than fight with his pillow in the past few hours.”
“I think he’s gone to sleep again.”
“Yeah, he hasn’t gotten much rest since we found ya. Neither have you.”
Ezra would have shrugged back had he had the use of both shoulders. Instead he opted for a simple nod. An awkward silence filled the room and he became more and more aware of Dunne’s uneasiness. He was too tired to reassure him, so he decided busywork was the answer. “I may be tired, but I’m getting hungry myself. Perhaps you could go get us both something to eat.”
“Really?” JD perked up at the possibility of something to do.
“What is it?”
“It’s just that I shouldn’t be leavin’ you two here alone. Nathan said I should stay until he came back.”
“Well, if Nathan thinks starving me will help me heal faster then I need a new doctor.”
“It’s not that. It’s just…”
“We’re big boys. I think we can handle a little quiet time on our own. Go, get some food up here before I pass out from hunger.” Ezra smiled convincingly.
“Are you sure?”
“Positive. Now go. I’ll keep a close eye on Chris until you get back.”
“Okay, but I’ll only be gone a few minutes.”
“Take your time,” he said as JD grabbed his hat and left the room.
At last, time alone.
“W-what…” Larabee mumbled drowsily.
“It’s alright, Chris, go back to sleep.”
“Can’t, there’s too many,” he said. “Too damn many.” The gunfighter painfully maneuvered himself upright, slid his legs over the side of the bed and dropped his head into his hands
Ezra followed his lead and moved to sit on the edge of his own bed. “Too many what?”
“Things going through my head. I can’t understand ‘em… can’t seem to grab a hold of ‘em. Wish I could make sense…”
His words were muffled, but Ezra understood his distress. “A lot has happened these past couple of weeks. It might be more prudent to take some time and don’t try to understand everything at once.”
“I can’t understand anything right now. What the devil happened to me?”
Ezra looked away, wondering how much he should reveal. It appeared Chris was back from the dreams, but if he triggered the wrong memory, he knew he wouldn’t be able to handle the rattled gunfighter on his own. Still, he deserved to know what had been done to him. Ezra glanced at the trembling hands his friend failed to hide beneath folded arms. “Maybe you should start by telling me what you do remember,” he suggested. “Do you recall your time before the prison?”
Chris didn’t look up. Instead, he stared at the rug on the floor and tried to force a single thought to settle in his mind. “I was in Landon, just passin’ through. I came in to Jericho for a drink. I was plannin’ on staying one night and then head back to Four Corners, but… he tried to sell me a watch.”
Ezra raised an eyebrow. “A watch? Who tried to sell you a watch?”
“A peddler, he didn’t mean any harm. The sheriff came in and tried to arrest him. The law in that town was a joke.”
“This town, we’re still in Jericho.”
Chris, visibly startled by the information, got to his feet and staggered to the door before he realized he didn’t know where he was going. Then a wave of dizziness poured over him that left him groping for the support of the wall. “Damn, why the hell do I feel like this?”
Ezra pressed his free hand against the pain in his shoulder and got to his feet. He was at Chris’ side offering support before the gunfighter had time to argue.
An image of a dark, bulky figure hovering over him flickered through Chris’ mind. “No,” he snapped and jerked away from the gambler’s touch. He instantly regretted the sudden movement when he felt his stomach tighten and burn. “Aw, shit, I’m gonna be…”
Ezra immediately read the lawman’s body language and kicked one of the empty water buckets nearer. Chris managed to fall to his knees and grab the pail just before the gag in his throat gave way to a hot stream of vomit. He groaned between every spasm his body made as it tried to rid it’s self of what looked like a combination of bile and one of Nathan’s teas. When the hell did I drunk that horse piss? He wondered briefly as another gag led to another bout of puking. Eventually, everything his body had to offer had been expelled, felling him into the most painful dry heaves he could remember. Spent, he crawled on hands and knees to the center of the room.
Ezra took a cloth from the dresser and dipped it into the water basin. He wrung it out as best he could with one hand and moved to help his friend to the bed. “Easy, Chris,” he said as he laid the rag against the gunfighter’s neck.
Just as Chris’ breathing slowed and the tide of fire in his chest eased, a sudden barrage of images streamed through his memory-- vivid images, unspeakable images. Then a throbbing ache grew in the center of his brain which forced his eyes shut and quickened his heart’s pace. He wiped an unsteady hand across his face and drew in as much air as he could. Eventually, the chaos in his mind began to trickle away, leaving him exhausted and confused and barely able to hear his name being called. He opened his eyes to find the gambler gripping his neck and speaking to him. “What?”
“I won’t be long. Can you hold on ‘til I find Nathan?”
“No. No, I’m fine now.”
“Apparently, which is probably why, how did Mr. Tanner put it, you’re eyes are crossing. I tried that one, remember?” Ezra replied as he pushed Chris further onto the mattress. When he turned to walk away, the gunfighter caught him by the wrist.
“No. I said I’m fine,” he insisted hoarsely and then quickly added, “just thirsty.”
Ezra didn’t answer, he merely fetched some water. Chris quickly drained the contents of the cup he was offered then let it dangle from his fingers as he dropped his face into his hands. The gambler grabbed a piece of bread from a tray of food that had been brought up earlier and put it in Chris’ hand. “Eat,” he said, his voice brooking no argument. Then he grabbed a piece for himself and returned to his bed.
Chris studied the bread and bit into it despite his lack of appetite. He let his eyes drift around the room before he spoke again. “We’re still in Jericho.”
“Why are we here?”
“You were taken by the sheriff and dumped in the prison outside of town. Do you remember the prison?”
“Yeah,” he answered hesitantly.
“How much do you remember?”
Chris paused when his stomach rolled again. “The inmates, the guards, the work… the warden.”
“Do you recall what the warden did to you?”
An angry look crossed his face. “He beat the shit outta me and kept me in the hole more often than not.”
Ezra saw worry etched on the gunfighter’s face and decided he had no choice but to tell what he knew. “Chris, the warden at the prison did more than beat you and lock you away.”
Ezra took a deep breath and chose his words carefully. “He wanted to make sure he had control of you.”
“Well, it wasn’t like I was goin’ anywhere.”
“Personal control. He drugged you,” Ezra stated tentatively and waited for a response. None came so he continued. “Before I was captured, Crenshaw had had time to devise a very special way to keep you in line by dosing you with peyote. When I was thrown in with you, you were… not yourself. I didn’t learn what he’d done until after we escaped the prison together and the drugs began to wear off.”
Chris’ mind tried to process the information despite the pain building in his head. “We escaped.”
Realizing the gunfighter wasn’t keeping up, Ezra scooted to the end of his bed and reached for Chris’ arm. He took it carefully in his hand and pushed the black sleeve of Chris’ shirt past his elbow. When he did, a dark purple bruise shone against the inside of his arm, just over the largest blue vein. “Yes, we escaped, but we ran into the warden and his men again.”
“You were screaming,” Chris mumbled, seemingly lost in the concern on the gambler’s face.
“There was a trap, you helped me.” Ezra tapped the bruise on Chris’ arm trying to get him to look down and see it. “You were being dosed with peyote inside the prison. After we escaped, they caught up to us and injected you with something else.”
Chris finally looked at the discolored skin. “No,” he replied, pulling his arm away and unconsciously rubbing the injection site. “You were nailed to a tree. There was a spear going through you.” He reached up to touch the bandaged shoulder.
Ezra didn’t move away. “You got me off the tree.”
“Crenshaw and his men arrived as you were patching me up. They grabbed you, held you down and…”
Pictures flashed through his brain again. The speed at which they came and went was sickening, but he forced himself to breathe deeply through the nausea. Suddenly the nagging ache behind his eyes quickly exploded into the worst headache he’d ever know and he buried his face in hands and groaned. “I told you, there’s too many.”
“I apologize. We’re moving much too fast.”
“I keep seein’ things in my head, things I can’t understand. Things I don’t want to understand.”
“It’s alright,” Ezra said. “You’re safe here. None of those things can touch you now. Just try to focus on one thing you’re seeing; just one thing at a time.”
The gnarled imagery of nightmares clawed its way into his brain and each passing moment they became more and more gruesome. He saw trusting blue eyes plead with him for rescue, he saw a small body torn and bleeding at his feet, he saw… then an excruciating pain returned behind his eyes, digging its way into his brain, tearing its way through his sanity. “Oh my God,” he groaned before he pushed himself off the bed and staggered across the room to the window. “I can’t do this.”
Ezra followed him. “Do what? Tell me what you’re seeing.” At first he didn’t think the gunfighter heard him.
“Chris, look at me.” The Southerner physically turned his friend from the window. “Answer me! What is it? What are you afraid of?”
The gunfighter grabbed for Ezra’s upraised bandaged hand and clung to it as if his life depended on it. “I can’t do this again. Can’t you understand? I can’t do this.”
Ezra grimaced at the pain. “I don’t understand.”
His eyes pleaded for help. He truly couldn’t handle the memories as the past came in a rush, filling his skull to the point he was sure it would crack.
“What can’t you do, Chris?”
“I can’t,” he gasped. “I can’t watch him die.”
“Die? Who?” Ezra was at a complete loss as to what to do next, but he tried his best to maintain control. “Talk to me. Tell me what you see.”
So many faces and voices crowded his mind Chris felt himself on the verge of blacking out. He couldn’t do this, but before he realized he was speaking, words began to tumble from his mouth. “It was all so stupid, so damned stupid. He followed me; he had a bad habit of doin’ that. I sent him back, but not soon enough. The bear, we were running to get away but it came after us. We headed for higher ground. It came at us so fast…Oh my God.”
“I have to go.”
“I have to go,” he insisted as he picked up a light coat hanging over the chair and stepped towards the door.
“Chris, wait!” Ezra called. “Damn it!” He took a deep breath before he followed the limping man into the hall.