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

Notes:  Nettie and Casey take turns watching over Ezra.



Never A Burden



Part Three




Standing beside the bed, Nettie looked down on her guest with worry.  Ezra was sleeping, but it wasn't peaceful.  He moved
about fitfully, head thrashing from side to side, his arms raising and lowering as if trying to reach out for something only he
could see.

With a sigh, she drew the blankets up and over him.  He moaned weakly as she placed a hand against his face, jerking away
from the gentle touch.  His skin was too warm for her liking.

"Is he going to be all right?" Casey asked anxiously.

"I don't know," Nettie answered honestly.  She went to get herself a change of clothes.  There was no need to let herself get
sick when they already had to worry about Ezra.  A loud peal of thunder made her pause.  "In the morning, so long as the
storm is broken by then, I want you to ride out to town.  I have a feeling he's gonna need more doctoring than I can offer.  
Stay with him.  I'm going to get out of these wet clothes."

"Yes, Nettie," Casey nodded.  She stepped closer to the bed, fidgeting nervously before she sat on the very edge.

Nettie went into the other room, trusting her niece to watch over the injured and sick gambler for a few minutes.  She changed
out of her wet clothes and went about tidying up.  Picking up Ezra's clothes, she hung them out to dry, doing her best to
salvage his fine boots.  Then she finished cleaning up the remains of the evening meal.  When the front room was cleaned to
her satisfaction, she blew out the lights and returned to the bedroom.

"Better get some sleep while you can, Casey," she advised.  She had a feeling that Ezra would be having a rough night.

Casey grabbed a pillow from the bed and found herself a place to sleep on the floor.  "What about you?" she asked, shaking out
a blanket.

"Someone needs to keep a watch over him.  We'll take it in turns.  I'll wake you in a few hours."  With that, Nettie settled in for
what promised to be a long night.



*****



She was disheartened, but not surprised, when her prediction proved true.  Ezra spent most of the night moaning and shaking,
battling with the inner demons of his fevered imaginings.  At times, he seemed to wake, but it became clear quickly that he
wasn't seeing his surroundings as they really were.  He was lost in some dream, or perhaps the past.  In either case, his
delirious ramblings worried her.

She had been called by no less than six different names, all with the honorific 'Aunt' placed before them.  It made Nettie wonder
just how often Ezra had been left in the care of others, if his mother wasn't the first woman he sought out while in the throes of
sickness.  Each time he spoke, he begged her pardon, for encumbering her with his plight.  Apologetic and trying to rise, to go
off and see to his own care without bothering anyone else.  What kind of an upbringing had he had, if he saw himself as a
burden when he needed help?  Had many of those aunts cast him aside when he became too troublesome?  Had his mother done
the same?  Nettie didn't know the woman, but so far she didn't like what she could piece together about her.

She placed the back of her hand to his cheek, pretending not to notice the way he flinched away from her touch.  It felt as if
there was a fire burning under his skin; he was terribly hot.  There wasn't much she could do about it except try to keep him
comfortable and cool.  She knew a few remedies, but she was reluctant to wake him just to swallow down some tea.  He
needed rest most of all.  In a bit, she'd make some, but for now, she wanted him to sleep.

Nettie plucked up the damp cloth she had laid over his brow earlier.  It was warm now, so she exchanged it for another that
she'd left soaking in a basin of water on a table beside the bed.  She wrung out the excess wetness and dabbed the cool cloth to
feverish skin, hoping to soothe him.

The touch seemed to rouse Ezra somewhat and fever-bright green eyes flicked over in her general direction.  He blinked, but no
clarity seemed to enter his glazed eyes.  Licking his lips, he spoke, his words a weak and slurred mumble, "I feel that I must
ask that you excuse me for my infirmity ... Aunt ... Aunt," he wavered, blinking and trying to focus on her face.  "I'm sorry, I
can't seem to recall your name.  Most discourteous of me, I assure you.  But Mother does leave me with so many relations."  
He frowned, eyebrows drawing together.  "I'm not feeling so well."

Not wanting to agitate him, she continued to dab away at his face and neck before folding the cloth and laying it over his
forehead, just below the bandage she had applied earlier.  "Don't worry yourself none, Ezra, just rest up."

Ezra shook his head, dislodging the damp cloth and causing it to slide away.  "No," he said, fisting his hands in the bedding.  
"I've been enough of an inconvenience."  He struggled to push himself up, panting before he could even make it halfway.  "I
don't want to be any more of a burden on you."

With very little effort, she pushed him back down.  Any words of reassurance she wanted to say remained unspoken.  He had
already fallen back into unconsciousness, pale murmurs escaping his lips every now and again.  Nettie replaced the damp cloth
over his fevered brow and carded her fingers through the gambler’s sweaty hair.  Despite the lack of an audience, Nettie felt
she still had to say what was on her mind.  "You will never be a burden in this house, Ezra Standish."



*****



Dawn broke after an eternity.  At least it seemed that way to Casey, who sat at Ezra's side trying to offer whatever help she
could.  So far, she didn't feel like she was doing much of anything to ease his suffering.  His fever raged on despite the cooling
cloths and medicinal tea Nettie had cooked up halfway through the night.  Casey grimaced at the thought of that brew.  Willow
bark tea was a vile concoction.  Without honey or sugar to sweeten it, it was just horrible.  She never liked drinking it herself,
although she couldn't deny that it did help.  That proved to Casey just how sick Ezra was.  To tolerate drinking that tea with no
bitter remarks, or even a reflexive look of disgust, he must be terribly ill.

Nothing seemed to be helping.  In fact, the Southerner looked worse than ever.  His skin was waxy and pale and dark shadows
had begun to show under his eyes.  He looked tired even while he slept.  Then again, it wasn't a restful sleep.  He tossed and
turned fitfully, his body shaking near-constantly.  Frail words fluttered from his lips, too softly to be understood.

Sighing, Casey set the backs of her fingers to Ezra's cheek, feeling the blaze under his skin.  The effect of her touch was
immediate.  Ezra gave a gasp, his eyelids flickering open a sliver.  His hollow gaze turned on her, but who knew what he was
really seeing anymore.  He'd rambled on deliriously for most of the time she'd been watching over him, and probably for as long
as Nettie had been sitting at his side too.

He looked at her now, licking at his chapped lips.  "Has the storm passed us over yet, cousin?" he asked, his voice weak and
tired.

Casey sighed and plucked one of the cloths out of the waiting bowl of cool water.  She rung it out and began to run it over his
face and down his neck, trying to cool his heated skin.  "Where do you think you are now, Ezra?" she wondered aloud.  The
last time he'd been awake he'd called her Aunt Eugenia and had apologized for breaking some vase of hers.  The words he'd
used and cracking tone of voice had her convinced that Aunt Eugenia wasn't the forgiving type.  The way he'd flinched away
from her touch only a moment later sealed those thoughts in her mind and made her wonder if he'd stayed with that Aunt or
others like her very often.

A furrow creased his forehead as he considered her words, trying to understand her.  "We're in Louisiana.  Houma.  Mother
dropped me off last month."  He licked his lips again.  "I'm sure she'll be back for me soon."  He didn't sound all that convinced
of his own words.

A loud rumble of thunder made the gambler flinch.  He gave a gasp.  His widening eyes conveyed fear, but no comprehension
as to his actual surroundings.

Casey lightly touched his chin, trying to turn him her way.  She wasn't sure she was doing the right thing, wasn't sure of
anything at all.  She only knew that she didn't like that look of terror in his eyes.  "What's my name?" she asked him, trying to
get his focus on her.

He blinked, eyes darting around wildly before coming to rest on her.  "Nadine.  C-Cousin Nadine."  Ezra lifted a hand and
shakily tucked a few strands of fly-away hair behind her ear.  "I'm sorry you got saddled with caring for your ill relation.  A
lovely young woman such as yourself must have many suitors clamoring for a ghost of attention."

Casey blushed.  She grabbed his wrist and tucked his hand back under the blankets.  "Lie back and rest now," she said.

Another boom of thunder had Ezra abruptly upright.  "The house, it'll collapse!" he announced.  He turned, grabbing at Casey's
shoulders with a shaking grip.  "You need to get out of here, Nadine.  It's not safe!"

His shouting woke Nettie and the two women struggled to get him settled back into bed.  He was sure the house would come
crashing down around them.  "We'll be fine," Nettie tried, prying one of his hands off of Casey.

"No, no."  He shook his head, face ashen.  "Nadine...Aunt Corrine, we're not safe here.  The house will fall."  He paused,
blinking repeatedly and there was a subtle shift in the pale green eyes.  "It did fall.  The wind and the rain, it was too much.  
Everything came down around us.  I don't understand."

"I assure you that my house is sound," Nettie said.  "It's withstood worse storms than this."

Ezra narrowed his eyes, attention solely on her.  "Mrs. Wells?"

"You're sick, Ezra, and confused.  Lie back and rest.  We'll take care of you."

"I don't understand," he repeated.  "I thought you were Aunt Corrine."  He sank back to the bed, allowing the two women to
guide his way.  He bonelessly slumped back into the bedding.  He looked around blearily, eyelids beginning to droop again.  "I
don't understand."

Nettie let out a long breath.  She looked to the window, eying the weather outside.  The rain had eased off during the night, but
it hadn't stopped.  Nor did it look like it would be stopping any time soon.

Worry niggled at the back of Casey's mind and she couldn't help asking one of her concerns.  "What happened to your Aunt
Corrine?" she inquired softly.  She couldn't look at Nettie, expecting to see an expression of reproach on the older woman's
face for bothering the ill man.  She looked at Ezra instead, trying to catch his dwindling focus.  "And your cousin Nadine?"

"House was ruined," Ezra said with a haunted voice and a frail smile.  "They moved to Virginia.  A relative was kind enough to
take them in."  The fragile smile crumbled.  "No room for me though.  Never is.  They couldn't find mother."

Nettie was checking the bandage around his knee, but from her expression Casey knew that she was absorbing every word the
gambler said.  Unthinkingly, Casey ran her fingers through his sweaty hair, trying to offer some form of consolation for the
long-past pain he had suffered.

He rolled his head toward her, pale eyes barely cracked open.  "If the house falls, will you send me away, too?  I didn't like the
orphanage.  The beds were hard and it was so cold.  The hospital was better.  Nurses were nice to me."

"Hospital?"

Nettie threw the blankets back over Ezra's leg.  "Enough of that, Casey.  Let him go back to sleep."  She moved around Casey
and leaned over Ezra, checking his head wound.  "Don't you worry about being sent away.  It ain't happening."  She patted his
cheek.

Ezra murmured something, but Casey couldn't understand.  Then his eyes slid the rest of the way closed and his body relaxed
into unconsciousness again.

"I don't think he's doing so well, Nettie," Casey hissed, watching the slumbering gambler.  "His fever's up and he kept tossing
and turning all night."

"He's a stubborn cuss.  He'll be all right," Nettie replied with conviction.  She smoothed out the blankets over Ezra.  "You go on
now and get to your chores.  I'll get breakfast started.  Maybe we can coax some into him."

"Yes, Nettie."  She stood up and headed for the door.  Standing in the doorway, she turned back, fingers gripping the wooden
frame.  "Should I ride for town?"

Nettie glanced over at the window again.  "Still coming down strong.  We'll give it a few hours."  Ezra moaned, tossing his head
to the side.  Nettie placed her hand on his head, fingers sifting through the damp hair.  She gave her niece a reassuring smile.  
"Don't worry none.  He won't be giving up on us.  We won't let him."

Placated, Casey nodded.  She still wasn't too sure about Ezra's health, but she did know that Nettie would do everything she
could to take care of him.  They both would.



To Be Continued ...