Disclaimer:  I do not own the Magnificent Seven, or any of its characters.  I am making no money from this.

Notes:  Nettie finds her quiet evening disturbed by an unexpected guest.



Never A Burden



Part Two



Nettie Wells was clearing away the dinner plates when she heard a banging out front.  The storm outside had been raging
all afternoon, dampening sounds, but she was sure that she could hear a man's voice in the din.  "Casey, get the gun.  I
heard some banging on the porch, and I want you to be ready in case it's someone looking to cause trouble."

"Yes, Nettie!"  Her young niece quickly did as she was told as Nettie grabbed her Spencer Carbine and checked to
make sure it was loaded.

The older woman opened the door and stepped out into the storm.  Even at her door the rain was hitting her, the wind
throwing it her way.  She saw a horse at the end of her porch, but no rider.  Cautiously stepping closer to the rail, she
leaned out over to get a better look.  She blinked at the sight that met her.

"Oh, my Lord!  Forget the gun, Casey and help me here."  She set her rifle aside and rushed down the short set of stairs
toward the man lying curled up on the ground.  She wasn't always good with faces, but some details tended to stick out
in her mind and no one in the area wore a jacket of such a bright color or fine material like a certain gambler from town.  
Ridiculous to wear something so completely unsuited to the climate, but the gambler persisted to do just that.

Ezra, that's what Vin Tanner had called him.  She knew his reputation from the gossip in town.  Gambler, conman, the
sort of deceitful, immoral, criminal that was generally run out of town by the seven lawmen who protected them all.  But
she also remembered that he had helped her to keep her home, and for that she would remain grateful.  The boy weren't
no ranch hand, dressed in his fancy clothes with that shiny flask full of liquor, but he had come through when he was
needed.  And she wouldn't turn her back on him now when he was in need.

"Mr. Standish?" She called out, getting down on the ground next to him and pressing her hands to his back.  "Ezra?  Can
you hear me?"  The relentless rain soaked clean through her clothes in mere moments.  This was no weather to be
traveling in.  What was he doing out here in this?  Didn't he have any sense in that thick head of his?

A harsh groan was the only reply she received.  Carefully, she rolled him over onto his back, noting the crude sling and
the way he cradled his left arm close to his body.  He'd apparently seen some trouble.  He was hurt, but Nettie couldn't
tell how badly without getting a closer look at him.  His eyes, when they looked at her, seemed unfocused and distant, as
if he wasn't really seeing her.  She could see a deep cut on his forehead, just below his hairline, that could have
contributed to his dazed state.  It was oozing blood, the rainwater washing it away as it ran from the wound.  That alone
needed tending to soon, but she was sure there were more injuries to find.  Either way, they had to get him inside, dry
and warm.

"Get under his other arm.  Help me get him up," she told her niece.  She stayed on Ezra's left, wrapping her arms around
his middle to avoid touching his injured limb.

As they got him to his feet, he cried out in pain and listed toward the right, pressing more of his weight on Casey.  
Another injury to worry about, Nettie realized, but nothing to be done about it out here in the pouring rain.  Together, the
two women struggled to help him indoors.  He whimpered with each step, biting back louder cries whenever his weight
landed on his left leg.  Nettie didn't like causing him pain, but there wasn't any other way.  They needed to get him into
the house if they were to take care of him.  The storm was too bad to go for help.  She wouldn't risk sending Casey out
to town.  Ezra would just have to make due with her limited skills instead of Mr. Jackson's more talented hands.

The gambler was panting harshly as they dropped him into a chair.  Nettie lifted off his hat - surprised that it had stayed
on despite how precariously it had been perched on his head - and tossed it onto the table.  She grabbed his chin and
tilted his face up, hoping to meet his eyes.  He blinked at her, slowly focusing on her.  The stare that met hers was
vacant.  Thankfully, his pupils were even, so while she may have to worry over a minor concussion, she didn't have to
deal with something potentially fatal.

"Don't you have better sense than to go out in a storm like that?" she asked him.

Blinking dully, it took him several moments to answer her.  "Wasn't raining when I left Eagle Bend."  He looked around,
his brow furrowing in confusion.  "How did I get here?  And where am I, exactly?"  He closed his eyes before Nettie
could reply, his chin falling to touch his chest.

"Is he going to be okay?" Casey asked, nervously wringing her hands.

Nettie didn't have a good answer for her niece.  Instead, she gently began to remove the sling from his left arm.  She
knew a dislocation when she saw one.  Her husband had gotten a few over the years and with no competent healer
nearby, it had often fallen to her to treat his ailments, and then Casey's as well when the girl had come to live with her.  
Nathan was a godsend to the area, but even now it was sometimes easier to do the tending herself, than to trek all the
way out to Four Corners to get his help.

"Hold him steady," Nettie said, guiding Casey's hands to hold onto Ezra securely.  She took a firm hold on the gambler's
arm and paused only a moment to say, "This is going to hurt."  Whether she was warning Casey or Ezra, she wasn't sure.

There was a sickening crunch as Nettie manipulated his arm to put his shoulder back in place.  Ezra screamed, eyes
opened wide now as he was brutally yanked back into consciousness.  He would have fallen from the chair if not for
Casey's hold on his bucking body.  He settled quickly, biting at his bottom lip and shivering in cold and pain.  His eyes
remained open.

Nettie let out a sigh and set his limp hand over his lap.  "Casey, get me some towels and a blanket and then go out and
take care of his horse."

"Yes, Nettie," the girl said and hurried to do as told.  Casey left the requested items in a heap nearby, then darted out the
door into the lashing rain.

As soon as Casey was gone, Nettie went to work.  She tugged loose the ribbon tie from around his neck.  She dragged
the water-sodden coat off of him, careful of his left shoulder.  Next went the brocade vest.  She was careful in removing
the derringer rig from his arm, taking the same care with the remains of the shoulder holster he had taken apart for his
sling.  Both weapons were laid out on her table.  She dropped his shirt onto the growing pile of wet clothing.

When she went to unbuckle his gun belt, his hand fell on top of hers.  She looked up into his face, seeing a flush to his
features.  "Don't," he murmured, trying to push her hands away.

Nettie shook his hand off of hers, then went back to unbuckling his belt.  "You don't got nothing I ain't never seen
before," she said, putting the belt on the table with the rest of his weapons.  "You need to get out of these wet clothes."

"I assure you, Madam, that I can take care of that myself," he tried to argue, his voice slurring considerably.

Nettie ignored him.  She picked up one of the towels and quickly, yet gently, ran it over his upper body, taking special
care around his injured shoulder and any of the livid bruises standing out in stark contrast to his pale skin.  She left the
towel around his faintly trembling shoulders after lightly running it over his hair, wary about aggravating the head wound
by scrubbing too vigorously.

She pulled his boots and socks off, taking special care in removing the left as she remembered the way he had been
limping.  A carefully folded wad of cash dropped out of the boot as she was removing it.  She picked it up, thinking that
it had to be several hundred dollars.  It wasn't every day she got to hold this much money in her palm.  She wasn't
surprised to find it, but looking at his face, she could see that he was uncomfortable about the fact that she was holding it,
his fingers twitching as if he wanted to snatch it away from her but was valiantly fighting the urge.  Nettie set it aside,
giving it no further thought.  He followed it with his eyes, staring at it even as she dropped it onto the table with his other
belongings.

"I won't steal from you," she said, as if it were a perfectly normal observation.

He didn't respond, other than to clear his throat and look away from her.

She slipped the sock off, frowning at the state of him underneath the finely crafted footwear.  The ankle was bruised
badly and swollen.  "You hurt anywhere else?"  She tenderly felt around the injury and was thankful to find the bones
intact.

Ezra flinched away from the tentative touch.  "Nothing of consequence," he replied, teeth gritted as she felt around the
bruising to his ribs.  Again, she was grateful to find nothing broken.

"No sense in lying to me," Nettie warned him.  With all the dirt caked on his clothes and the numerous tears, she couldn't
tell for certain where else he might be hurt.  "I'll find out whether you tell me or not."  She wasn't surprised when he kept
his mouth shut.  Obstinate man.

Giving the gambler a quick look, she decided she had better do something about that head wound.  Casey would be
back soon so Nettie needed to get him out of the rest of his wet clothes and redressed into something dry before then.  
Casey had no need of seeing any man's nudity before her wedding night.

Ezra's eyes were drooping again as she finished binding his head wound.  She didn't think he'd be able to stay awake for
much longer.  He was in a bad way, but he'd be worse off if she didn't get him dried off and into a warm bed soon.

She slid the towel from his shoulders.  "I need you to stand up now, Ezra.  Think you can manage that?"

That confused daze was settling into his pale eyes again.  "I don't know.  My ankle ... knee ... hurts."  His words were
soft, a murmured slur, but Nettie understood enough to know that he had been keeping further injuries from her.  It didn't
matter though, she'd see them all in a few moments time.

With her help, Ezra got up.  He stood there unsteadily, leaning most of his weight on his right leg.  His arm shot out,
groping about blindly until it met the back of the chair he'd been sitting in and he held onto it with a white-knuckled grip.  
By the tensing of his muscles and the fact that he'd screwed his eyes tightly shut, she could see that it was taking him a
great deal of effort to remain upright.  This knowledge spurred her into action and she swept up the blanket Casey had
brought in.  Shaking it out, she threw it around Ezra, making sure it covered his shivering body completely.

Nettie watched his face as she slid her hands between the folds of the blanket.  He flinched when her fingers found his
belly, her touch dancing across the top edge of his trousers to find the fastenings.  The material was wet and clung to
him.  It had to be uncomfortable.  Yet, he inched away nonetheless, undoubtedly disagreeable with the notion of being
bereft of clothing in her presence.

She sighed.  "You are a gentleman, to be sure, Mr. Standish.  But even gentlemen should know to take off their wet
clothes before they get ill, and to accept help when it is needed and offered."

Ezra grimaced, his eyebrows knitted together tightly.  When he spoke, his words remained delicate, yet his wit was fully
intact.  Perhaps the pain of standing had awakened his senses again.

"Knowing and accepting are two very different things, I assure you Mrs. Wells."  He groaned, but bit back on the sound,
teeth gnawing at his lower lip.  "I am dismayed by my apparent weakness.  However, I suppose I must acquiesce to your
tender administrations."  He swallowed and a deep shudder coursed the length of his body.  "I don't think I will be able
to remain upright for much longer.  May we please hurry along my degradation so that I might be permitted a place to lie
down for the night?"

Nettie ignored his continued ramblings.  His accent was thicker than normal, which made it more difficult to understand
him, and his voice was already weak to begin with.  With the intention of getting him to bed as quickly as possible, she
unfastened his trousers and let them fall around his ankles.  His undergarments quickly followed.  She made quick work
of running the towel over him, being sure to keep the blanket wrapped around him to offer a modicum of his remaining
modesty.  When she was done, she dropped the damp towel into the pile of wet clothes.

He looked away from her as she slipped an arm around his waist and helped him hobble into the bedroom.  His eyes
never met hers as she settled him on the bed, even as he objected over his placement there.  "I shall be fine with a
bedroll," he'd insisted.  She of course ignored him.  And he continued to avoid eye contact when she found an old
nightshirt of her husband's packed away in the bottom of a trunk.

She understood though.  He was embarrassed by his injuries, by needing help, with the state of undress he found himself
in while in the presence of a woman.  To try and ease the mounting tension that hung in the air around them, she asked a
question that had been plaguing her.  "How'd you get yourself hurt?"

Ezra was quiet.  She risked a glance at his face as she shook the nightshirt out.  He was frowning intently, a look of
concentration melting into confusion.  "I don't remember, actually," he said after a moment.  "I left Eagle Bend early.  It
looked like rain, and I thought I could make it back to Four Corners before the worst of it.  I do remember it raining
harder.  After that, well, things seem a bit blurry."  He raised a trembling hand, fingers brushing the bandage around his
head.  He winced at his own touch.  He blinked a few times.  "I'm feeling tired."

Nettie reached out and grasped his shoulder as he began to sway.  He jerked at the touch, as if not realizing that he was
in danger of falling over.  "Better stay with me a mite longer," she warned.  "Let's get you dressed before you go to sleep."

He merely nodded in reply.  That was far more alarming to her than his mumbled and slurred speech from earlier.  That
he was calmly and quietly accepting her help now, was a frightening prospect.

With care, she helped him into the nightshirt, turning her back so he could remove the blanket and cover himself
completely.  He murmured an approval when he was ready.

When she turned, Nettie had to bit back a gasp at the sight of him.  Ezra looked so much younger without all of his
finery, wrapped up in a nightshirt far too large for him, like a child wearing his father's clothes.  The sleeves hung long
over his hands, but then her husband had been of a larger stature than Mr. Standish, broader in the shoulders, as well as
a bit heavier and taller.  The garment hung off of the gambler, but it would do well enough.  He wasn't going to do
anything but sleep in it.

The front door crashed open and Casey rushed in.  She was soaked to the bone with rainwater.  But then, Nettie wasn't
much better off herself after running out to get Ezra earlier.  They both could do with a change of clothes.  Nettie wanted
to see to Ezra first though.

"Casey, go on and get changed out of those wet clothes," she told her niece.

She heard the girl moving around, but didn't pay her any mind.  Casey would do as told, she had no worry about that.  
Ezra on the other hand, could be quite ornery.  If she didn't keep an eye on him, he might curl up on the floor and go to
sleep, and that just wouldn't do at all.

He was leaning forward on the bed now, left arm wrapped around his middle, his other hand braced on the bed.  His
grip was harsh, fisting in the mattress.  He needed to be lying down, not forcing himself to remain upright.

"I'm going to take a look at your knee, and then you can lie back," she said, remembering him mentioning an injury that
she hadn't yet taken a look at.

Ezra shook his head, then seemed to regret it as he winced.  "There's no need.  It's nothing."

"I think I will be the judge of that," she retorted.

She bent to grasp the bottom of the nightshirt, and frowned even before her fingers could grip the cloth.  There was
blood dripping onto her floor, not a great deal of it, but enough to be alarming.  She lifted the garment, following the thin
trail of blood up along his bare leg until she reached his knee.  "Dear Lord," she breathed, eying the damaged joint
critically.

The skin around his knee was mottled with a bad bruise.  But more concerning, was the wound to his flesh.  There was a
deep gouge on the outside of his knee.  Reaching out, she pulled a fragment of jagged stone from it, a trickle of blood
following it.  She didn't see any more, but that didn't mean she could leave it.  That wound would need to be cleaned,
and probably stitched.  The head wound would need better treatment as well.

"Casey!  I've got a wound needs cleaning.  Bring me bandages and clean water!"  There was dirt in the wound, it was
likely to get infected.  Mud was caked around it, probably why she hadn't noticed it earlier if it had managed to staunch
the blood flow.  Drying him off had probably opened it up again.  "And get to work making up a poultice."  They
generally used them on the horses when they got injured, but it worked just as well on people.



*****



Ezra couldn't say he was completely aware of what was going on around him.  His focus kept drifting, fading in and out.  
He knew that he was in pain, that he was hurt, and he was oh so tired.  All he wanted to do was to lie down and rest,
but Mrs. Wells seemed intent on keeping him from the blissful reprieve of sleep.

He didn't even recall how he had gotten to her residence.  He remembered rain and riding up to her house, and falling.  
Then her hands on him and she and Casey helping him.  Everything else remained as blurry as his vision.

Reality came crashing down around him when the pain in his leg spiked intensely.  It felt as if a searing hot poker had
been stabbed into his knee and was at this moment being twisted in a cruel torture.  He jerked, crying out despite his
attempts not to, and reached down to try and stop the violence being done to his person.  His hands were caught and
held by slim callused palms.  He looked up, frightened and still confused.  Casey stared back at him, her own eyes wide
and full of worry.

"Calm yourself.  Nettie's taking care of you," Casey said in a failed attempt at a soothing tone.

He became aware of the fact that he was shaking, but he couldn't seem to stop himself.  He opened his mouth, then
closed it again, for once in his life at a loss for words.  Instead, he looked down to see what Nettie was doing and found
her sewing a ghastly wound to his knee closed.  A poultice followed, then bandages.  The pain was fading now, leeched
away by whatever remedy Nettie had applied to the injury in his knee.  He was starting to feel tired again.

Casey kept hold of his hands.  She was bent somewhat awkwardly, leaning over and holding his palms away from
Nettie's work.  It took a moment for the significance of her presence to seep through the fog surrounding his addled
brain, but when it did his neck began to warm with embarrassment.  That Casey was there when he was in such an
abominable state of undress was humiliating.  Bad enough that Nettie was there; having Casey there as well was worse
indeed.  If JD ever learned of this, Ezra might find himself at the wrong end of one of those twin Colts of his.  Hell, Buck
would probably be willing to hold him in place to make him an easier target to shoot.

He had to get out of here.  "This is inappropriate," he mumbled, attempting to shift away.

Casey's hands tightened around his and Nettie braced one of her hands on his calf and her other on his thigh, an attempt
on her part to keep him from moving.  "Keep still," the older woman chided.

If anything, the feel of her hand grasping his thigh made him want to do the exact opposite.  He'd been a fool and now
these two ladies were being forced to attend to his needs.  It was appalling.  They shouldn't have to do this.  It was all his
own fault.  He should be taking care of himself.

"Let go," he urged, trying once again to draw his hands away.  He couldn't comprehend why he was having so much
difficulty.  Casey wasn't even holding on that tightly.  Yet, he couldn't get her to relinquish her grip.  "Kindly release my
hands," Ezra said.  "I will see to my own injuries."

"Nonsense," Nettie replied sharply.  She efficiently wrapped a bandage around his knee and tied it off.  "Be easier if
you'd tell me where else you're hurting so you can get to sleep."

Ezra frowned in thought.  He didn't want to burden Mrs. Wells with more work.  But the lure of sleep was too sweet a
temptation to resist.  He wanted the oblivion that came with unconsciousness.  To be asleep and unaware of all the aches
and pains plaguing his body sounded very much like heaven at the moment.

"Nothing of any consequence," Ezra tried, flashing a watery smile that was meant to be charming.

Fingers gripped his chin and turned his head.  The world spun alarmingly.  He let out a low groan, his empty stomach
flipping unpleasantly.  He swallowed the saliva filling his mouth, worried that he may retch.

"Ezra!"

He blinked repeatedly, suddenly becoming aware that Nettie was speaking to him.  He hadn't heard her.  Her face was a
blurry swirl in front of him.  "I'm sorry," he apologized, trying to keep his senses while the world around him twisted and
turned.  "Were you saying something?"

Nettie released his chin and slid her hand up and over his cheek.  "You're starting to feel warm," she murmured.  Then in
a louder voice, she asked, "Are you hurt anywhere else?"

"I don't ... I'm not-" he broke off, not sure of anything anymore.  With resignation, he admitted, "Everything seems to
hurt."

"Well, let's get you lying down," Nettie advised.  To Casey, she said, "Help him."

Hands guided him.  He didn't know whose were where.  One of them wrapped an arm around his shoulders, another
hand supporting his head.  The other set of hands swung his legs up onto the bed, keeping his left leg straight as he was
shifted around.  Despite his best efforts to hang on to awareness, he was asleep before his head touched the pillow.



To Be Continued ...