"Been rainin' a lot."
"You don't say?"
"It's kind of strange, this time of year."
"Well, fellas, ya need the rain to make those pretty blossoms grow."
"You talkin' plants?"
"Not necessarily, old pard."
"I hope no one out o' town gets hurt or sick. It's a muddy mess out there."
"You have been peculiarly quiet on the topic at hand, Josiah." The gambler had been observing what wasn't necessarily an especially quiet Josiah Sanchez - the man could go for long periods without saying word one - but most certainly a more surly one than usual.
The rains started about three weeks ago with a welcome, soaking two-day affair. The late winter saw good snowfall to the surrounding higher elevations, another thick layer on top of the already substantial snow from the foothills on up, leaving in its wake beautiful, snow-capped mountain vistas and the promise of excellent melt, a by no means regular event that would benefit Four Corners and the neighboring farms and ranches outside of town.
The melt had mostly come and gone with the pleasant arrival of spring, but then the heavy rain came, followed by rain every other day until three days ago, when the rain began anew and now, half a week later, had only offered an occasional short lull, a hint of sun that brought folks out of homes and businesses in town, hopeful, only to be forced within a few short minutes back inside.
And just because there was torrential rain that did not mean that the regular spring winds were on holiday. Those winds forced the rain to reach well under the protection of the narrow rooftops covering the boardwalks. If you stepped foot out of a door, you were likely to be wet within seconds.
"Josiah?" Chris Larabee asked as the former preacher ignored the gambler's query. Ezra Standish hadn't been the only one among the men who counted themselves members of the now famous Magnificent Seven who observed Josiah's changed demeanor of late. It was timed to the start of these rains. The man had been virtually mute in that time. He'd refused to engage in conversation, and even avoided most of the meals that the seven men, when they were all in town, would take together. The only reason they all sat together for this meal was that Josiah sat alone – not at their normal table – and Buck Wilmington decided he'd had about enough of not spending time with his friend. There was something wrong with the big man, and the kind ladies' man, with the aid of his other friends, was going to figure out what it was. Buck had been the first to join Josiah at the table, and the others trickling in ended up surrounding the preacher despite the unmistakable signals that he wished to be left alone.
"Josiah, if there's something wrong, we're all here to help," Nathan Jackson, the town's healer and Josiah's closest friend said.
"Yeah, siah, I mean, if you got somethin' needs fixin', or if ya just need to talk, well, you should just talk," J.D. Dunne offered. The preacher sent back a steely glare to the young easterner. Vin Tanner sat back and observed quietly what looked like nothing less than one of those volcanoes that the tracker read about in the book he borrowed from Ezra earlier in the week. What he saw before him, personified by Josiah Sanchez, were those threatening puffs, a warning sign that a volcano planned far worse to come. It was only the festering of a volcano's gases coming from the rupture that the preacher represented right now. Vin sat ready to do what he could to lessen the damage of a full-blown release from the simmering giant of a man.
"Ah do not believe a leak in a roof has precipitated our associate's unpleasant behavior of late, though one would not be surprised from one … so inclined, that our man of the cloth might believe that with these torrents of rain that Armageddon had found its way to our, until recently, formerly dusty municipality, as was told in that poorly written tome … "
The former con man had no more to say at the moment as Josiah took the back of his fist and slammed it hard into Ezra's cheek. The poker player had not been the only one who was taken off guard by the silent man's actions. The speed of the punch was shocking, the force of it even more so. It was the subsequent sounds, though, that brought the most concern, the sound, first of the sharp slap of fist against flesh, then of the chair falling over, including the snap of one of the legs splitting in two, then the southerner's fancy boot striking the bottom edge of the table, and finally and most concerning, the hard knock of Ezra's head into the unforgiving floorboards of the saloon.
"God damn it, Ezra!" Chris Larabee said as he jumped to stop the preacher from inflicting further harm to his downed friend, or anyone else for that matter. The former gunslinger and leader of The Seven caught Josiah' eyes. The lean man was pretty sure he saw regret pass over the man's face, but it was immediately replaced by the unreadable visage that they had all grown familiar with seeing on the man over these past weeks. Before any of them could get Josiah to explain his actions, he had stormed from the room and out into the pouring rain.
"Ezra didn't do nothin' to deserve that," Buck said as he rushed with Nathan to their downed friend.
"What happened?" Inez called anxiously as she joined the healer and the ladies' man on the floor beside her man.
"Josiah got mad," Buck replied.
"Ezra went too far," Chris added.
"No he didn't," Vin challenged as he stood above his unconscious friend, waiting for direction from Nathan. "He did it on purpose, figured nothin' else was workin'. He knew that what he said would get a reaction."
"It doesn't seem to have done us any good," J.D. suggested. "Still don't know what his problem is, and now Ezra's hurt."
"Ezra," Nathan said as he felt the back of the gambler's head. He brought his hand back; it was covered in blood. "I need hot water and clean cloths for bandages." Inez started to stand, but Buck put his hand on her shoulder.
"Just tell me where to find the cloth. Me and J.D.'ll work on the hot water, too," the lean gunman said with a sad smile.
Inez blinked rapidly, trying to keep the tears at bay. "Thank you Buck. They are in the large cabinet, at the back of the kitchen, bottom left." Buck squeezed her shoulder, Inez grasped his hand in gratitude, and then he was gone.
"Ezra?" Nathan asked again as he felt his unconscious friend's cheek and jaw. "Don't feel like anything's broke, but he's gonna have some bruisin' and feel sore for a while."
"Here's your spare bag," Chris said. The healer had started to keep a bag at the saloon; between the lawmen spending so much time here, and the fights that routinely broke out in the drinking establishment, it seemed a sensible thing to do.
"Thanks," Nathan replied. He pulled out the bottle of medicinal alcohol, rubbed some on his hands, and then opened Ezra's mouth to look at any damage not obvious by the external examination.
"Should one of us go check on Josiah?" Vin asked worriedly. They knew that their friend could be volatile when drinking, but it had been a very long time since anyone saw the former preacher in his cups. None of them witnessed Josiah drinking more than one or two glasses of whiskey since the rains began. They all knew that flooding was a real concern; no one was willing to not be ready should they be needed in case of an emergency. These men made a commitment to this town and they would, every one of them, be ready to risk their lives in order to save their fellow citizens.
"I'll go," Chris said.
"Not alone, you ain't," Buck assured his old friend when he returned with an armful of rags. "I'm goin' with ya."
"Ezra's got two ponchos up in 'is room," Vin said. "Best get as covered as ya can in case 'siah ain't at the church." The Texan headed up to his hurt friend's room to collect the protective outerwear.
"I poured what was in the big kettle on the stove into this," J.D. said as he set the steaming pot beside the healer. "I filled the kettle back up and put the flame up a little higher to get it hot faster."
"Thank you, J.D.," the pretty Mexican said as she held Ezra's right hand.
"That's fine, J.D.," Nathan said as he opened Ezra's mouth and looked in as best he could, and felt around for any loose teeth. "Hell," the black man said. "Chris, can you hand me that lamp over at the end of the bar?" Nathan asked. "Too damn dark," he complained as his fingers came back bloody. "I think his teeth just broke the flesh inside," he added as he wiped his fingers and went back in. "This is loose," he mumbled. "Just gonna … pop it out and hold on to it 'til he's feelin' better." He handed the gold tooth to Inez. "Could you put this some place safe for now?"
Inez's eyes grew large, and then they shed sudden tears. "He will not wish me to," she said.
"I know," the former slave said. "Just hold on to it until I get him settled upstairs. Then I'll take it."
"Here you go," Chris said. He'd remained back as the two spoke, not wanting to interrupt the quiet moment, or upset Inez any more than she already was. The pretty Mexican took the lamp and held it close so that the healer could get a better look.
Boots echoing a quick beat heralded Vin's return. "Wind's a bitch," Vin said as he handed the garments to Chris and Buck. "Don't know why he needs two ponchos."
"One is a gabán," Ezra spoke with Nathan's fingers in his mouth.
"Ezra?" the healer asked as he removed his hand.
"A what?" Buck asked.
"Yes," Ezra first acknowledged Nathan. "A gabán," he added for Buck's sake.
"Thank god," J.D. said.
"How are you feeling?" Nathan asked.
"Like hell." The former con man didn't look much better. "Mah head … " he added as he lifted his hand, though the movement was abbreviated when he found Inez's hand clutched in his.
"Yeah, you hit it hard when you landed on the floor."
"And why am Ah and mah haberdashery restin' on this dusty floor?" He appeared to try to remove himself from where he lay, but his head refused to consider it.
"This floor is as clean as any floor in Four Corners these days," Inez returned. Her worry for the man before laying there, his hand in hers, forced her fiery Latin roots to make an appearance, despite the fact that during the spring one could never keep a floor clean for very long, this spring more with mud than swirling dust. The floor was as unimportant a discussion as existed between the couple; Inez' worry had her dwelling on that rather than on how serious Ezra's injuries might be.
"Ah meant nothin' … " he slurred, falling unconscious once more.
"Ezra!" Nathan called. "Damn."
"Is he all right?" Buck asked as he donned the poncho … or the gabán. He couldn't tell which was which; he wondered how anyone could.
"I don't know," the black man said. "I think he's passed out, but it's good he was actin' like hisself."
"Come on, Buck. I hope Josiah's just over at the church feelin' sorry for himself, and not drinkin' and feelin' sorry for himself," Chris said as he put on the other protective garment.
"The latter ain't too pleasin' to think on," Buck agreed. "Let's get this done, old pard."
As Chris and Buck left the building, Nathan said, "J.D. and Vin, help me carry him upstairs. Might as well get 'im comfortable. There's not much actual doctorin' to be done. He's just gonna need rest and time to heal."
"Do you think he, you know, will he re … remember … "
Nathan, J.D. and Vin knew what Inez was asking. There was a time last year when the southerner had gotten hurt and he'd forgotten all about the fact that Ezra and Inez had taken their relationship to the next step.
"I don't know. I hope so." There was little doubt that they all hoped for the same thing.
"I'm leavin'," the preacher said as he finished saddling his horse.
"No ya ain't. Least not today," Buck said as he stepped up to Josiah and reached over to loosen the cinch.
"No!" the big man yelled as he turned his attention heatedly to the ladies' man.
As Chris and Buck left the saloon, they determined that the first place they should check for their upset friend was the livery. They weren't disappointed in making that call, but in every other possible way they were disappointed to see the man who had become one of them so readily preparing to leave. They knew Josiah wasn't thinking clearly if he was planning to head out in this weather. The downpour should normally have kept all of them at the saloon, would normally have guaranteed that they would have found their friend at the church, drinking to oblivion. The two long-time friends would have preferred that to this.
"Josiah, you ain't leavin'," Chris said.
"You got no say in what I can or cannot do," the older man said as he checked the cinch, and then that his bedroll and saddlebags were tied down and properly positioned for travel.
Buck reached over as Josiah was distracted by the saddlebags and quickly loosened the cinch. As Josiah realized what had happened, he turned to the former Texas Ranger and pushed him away, his considerable might tossing the leaner lawman well out of the stall and into the one across the way. Buck had fully expected some form of assault from Josiah in his present state of mind, and managed to put his arm out to stop his momentum, catching his feet and avoiding crashing into a wall or the floor.
Chris Larabee pulled his gun and aimed it at the preacher.
"What's this?" Josiah asked.
"You've assaulted two peacekeepers," Chris explained. "And now you're tryin' to flee. I'm well within my rights to arrest you."
"Why Chris, you sound a little like Ezra," Buck said with a wry grin.
"Yeah, well, hopefully only the good parts are rubbin' off." To Josiah, Chris said, "I'm afraid you can't be trusted to stay just 'cause I'm askin'. Need you over in the jail, Josiah."
Josiah and Chris sent each other steady, steely glares the likes of which no sane man would ever want to be in receipt of … or get in the middle of. Buck might be nuts about women, but in every other way he considered himself pretty sound, and stayed back and let them work through the moment. The man who had spent three years now getting the old church back into shape walked slowly toward the livery exit, leaving his horse saddled. Buck caught Tiny's eye, the kind liveryman indicating with just a nod that he would take care of things there.
"Don't I get a chance to explain myself?" Josiah asked as he was shadowed on either side by the other two lawmen.
"Do you have an explanation?" Chris asked. The downpour changed moments before they left the livery to a steady drizzle. They were all getting wet, and Josiah's coat was already soaked from his earlier escape from the saloon. He ignored the tall blond's question and asked one of his own.
Buck snorted, a sarcastic sound, but Chris responded. "You care?"
"Of course I care."
"Well then why don't we head back over to check on him and you can explain yourself there?"
Josiah made the decision to do just that as he made the turn to head over to the saloon. As they finished their walk in silence, their first steps into the drinking establishment had that silence broken right quick.
"Do you have no sense?" Inez Rocios demanded. "He does not, to this day, expect your respect. But some common decency from his friends … " She paused as she looked up, her neck strained in order to look into the face of the man who towered over her. "He has earned it, even if you will not give it," she said, staring at Josiah. "His other friends have been more willing to show their respect," she added as she looked first to Buck with a smile, and then to Chris. She turned back to the preacher. "You could not have done more damage … " The pretty Mexican stopped her rant. "I have to get this up to him," indicating the mug of tea on the small tray she held. She moved around the town's sole man of the cloth.
"Is he all right?" Josiah asked.
"I will send Señor Nathan down. Coffee is on the stove. I suggest you have some, Señor Sanchez." She was quickly to the staircase's first landing before Josiah responded.
"I'm not dr … "
"Don't bother, 'siah. She ain't gonna believe you," Buck assured him. The big man, in his current state, would have a hard time convincing anyone that he wasn't drunk, considering what he'd just done to someone he considered a friend.
"I'm headin' up," Chris said. Josiah started to follow. "No. You stay here," the leader of The Seven said, giving Buck a meaningful glance.
"Let's get a cup of that coffee," Buck suggested. The handsome, mustachioed gunman waited for the preacher to head to the kitchen before he followed along with a shake of the head at his friend's behavior. "Take that coat off and get in front of the stove," he added.
Chris ran into Inez as she left Ezra's room.
"Where're you goin'?" he asked.
"I am alone today. Tommy is only watching the bar. He is a good extra hand, but he does not know how to pour profitable drinks."
"Is there anyone I can get to help you?" Normally, as the evening progressed and things became too busy for one person to handle, when her regular spare bartender was unavailable, which was the case now as the most recent one – Jim Harvey – was at home with his wife and their newborn twins, their second set, Ezra would give up his seat at the poker table and give her a hand. That would not be happening today.
"Buck?" she asked.
"He's watchin' Josiah. Are J.D. and Vin in there?" he asked, cocking his head toward Ezra's door.
"J.D. is at the jail." Chris was glad to hear that. "Vin is inside helping Señor Nathan."
"All right. I'll send him down to relieve Buck."
"Do you know what happened?" Inez asked sadly.
"Other than Ezra forcing Josiah into facin' what's bothering him?"
"And Ezra deserved to be punched for that?" the saloon manager asked, her hackles raised.
"The way Josiah's been acting? Ezra chose exactly the subject to mock to get a rise out of him."
"A rise and assaulting him are two different things." Chris did not disagree as he took the several strides needed to reach the gambler's room. He let himself in without knocking.
"How is he?"
"Other than that gold tooth gettin' knocked out, his mouth's a little tore up inside, his mouth and jaw are swollen and bruised … "
"Josiah put everything into that hit," Chris noted.
"He did do that," Nathan said with a shake of his head. "That knock he took to his head when he landed has kept him in and out of consciousness. Mostly out." The healer tossed the bloody rag to the corner, his action proving his anger. Nathan Jackson was mad and he didn't care who knew it.
"Ah could no've said i' bettah mahself, Mistah Lar'bee," the southerner slurred.
Nathan turned back to his hurt friend. "You back with us to stay?" he asked warmly.
"Ah doubt it." Nathan could tell that the former con man was having trouble focusing.
"You dizzy?" the former slave asked.
"Mostly?" Chris asked.
Ezra made an extra effort to focus and see just one of the notorious gunslinger, but failed. "Yes. For instance, Ah'm seein' three o' you, Chris."
"Feel sick?" Nathan continued to evaluate his patient who was finally conscious for more than just moments.
"N … Not yet," the gambler replied, knowing that there was still that likelihood.
"Vin, head on down and keep an eye on Josiah. Inez needs Buck behind the bar." Vin nodded to Chris and left the room with a snort of laughter at Ezra's reaction.
"Good lord," the card sharp groaned at the thought.
"He'll do better than Tommy, according to Inez."
"Ah s'ppose." Ezra wrinkled his brow and then moved his tongue over where his gold tooth should be. He tasted blood and then he sighed. The metallic taste made him feel nauseous. He rested his throbbing head back into his soft pillow, which brought on a sharp pain. He moaned, but then asked, "Why does Vin have to look aftah J'siah?" He frowned, this time for several reasons: the discomfort inside his mouth, the taste of blood and the pain in his jaw that the simple act of talking caused.
Nathan stopped pulling together the makings of a tea to help Ezra settle his stomach and ease his pain. He saw the confused look on his hurt friend's face, and then looked over to the man dressed in black. Chris did not hide his concern, or the fact that anger would soon take over.
"You don't remember what happened?" Chris asked.
"Ah do not. Is somethin' wrong wi' our devoted man of the cloth? And wha' happ'n'd to mah mouth tha' ev'ry word is comin' out strangely and ev'ry utt'rance hurts?" Nathan and Chris shared a look, which Ezra caught. He glanced down at his hands, but they had clearly not suffered from any recent fisticuffs. Thinking hurt, though, as much as his head and mouth and jaw, and he felt sleep calling to him. He closed his eyes, no longer caring for answers to his questions.
"Ezra, I need you to stay awake," Nathan pleaded.
"He's out," Chris said.
"Damn. Damn it. He took a serious hit to the back of the head. Can't stay awake."
"He's been hit that hard before."
"First off, that ain't sayin' nothin' good. Second, it all depends on just where ya get hit as to how severe the damage is. But I agree, him not rememberin' what happened isn't as bad as him not rememberin' us."
"Yeah, I know I'd rather he only forgot Josiah punched him than go through him not knowin' who we are,"Chris agreed.
"Yeah." Chris combed his hair from his eyes with his fingertips. "Can he be left alone?"
"Josiah wants to explain himself."
Nathan shook his head disgustedly. "I need to hear that. Ez knew just what to say to get Josiah to react." The healer looked into Chris' eyes with concern. "You know he said what he said on purpose."
"Ezra figured we'd be waitin' a long time before Josiah told anyone anything, makin' us all miserable, sufferin' through his bad behavior," the former slave said.
Chris nodded, knowing that he'd done that with Buck many times, and his six friends here in Four Corners more than once. "Sounds like he let you in on his plan," Chris wondered out loud.
"He didn't. Ezra's not like that. Maybe he used to be, but he ain't gonna let anyone be an accomplice to anything without their permission."
Chris eyed the town's man of medicine. He may have lived as a slave, but he hadn't let that start in life stop him from educating himself and become a good and admirable man, his own troubles with Ezra early-on notwithstanding.
"I know." Chris headed to the door. "Let me see if I can get Mary or Gloria to come sit with him."
"Give me another half hour or so before you send anyone up."
"Not exactly sure it's right to have this talk just yet." It was nearly two hours before all five men were seated and waiting on Josiah to start explaining himself. Ezra had woken again, this time sick, painfully ridding himself of his earlier meal. Nathan was able to get the tea into him this time, and then left him in the capable hands of Gloria Potter.
J.D. nodded. "I have to agree with Vin. Seems that Ezra's the one of all of us that has a right to know." Brave words spoken by the young man as he sat beside the large man who had caused all of today's grief.
The six men sat in a small room in the back of the building that housed the saloon downstairs, rooms for let upstairs, and a large room that was routinely used as the site for indoor activities for the town's annual Christmas festivities.
"I'll be sure to talk with Ezra when he's feelin' … when he's recuperated from the injury I … I caused. I … I didn't realize I hit him like … well, hit him bad enough that he lost some memory."
"It ain't just that, Josiah." These two men – the preacher and the healer – they shared a special bond, but Nathan Jackson had found their friendship sorely tested these last hours.
"Reckon at least one of us will be with ya when you finally get to talk to Ezra 'bout all this," Buck suggested. Josiah did not respond verbally to the recommendation, an idea it was clear, as the big man canvassed the expressions of his friends, was uniformly agreed was required. Josiah's initial reaction was anger, but that emotion was quickly tempered. He nodded his head to Buck in agreement to the terms. The men sat, staring at Josiah, who sat with one leg crossed over the other at the knee, his head down, an untouched glass of whiskey in front of him. They waited for the man to begin his story. They all knew who among them would demand that the reckoning get started.
"Well?" Chris queried, much more a demand, no sign of a request.
"Yesterday," Josiah started, paused with a heavy sigh, and then continued, "Yesterday was the anniversary of the birth of my father. As I know some of you are aware, my father … he was a real son-of-a-bitch." J.D.'s eyes grew wide as Josiah added, "No offense to my grandmother." He lifted the shot of whiskey, touched it to his lips, thought better of it and put the glass down without imbibing. "I didn't know my grandparents, on either side, least I don't remember 'em. But I'll say this: on my paternal side, something went very wrong."
The five men he spoke to sat quietly. Some of them were well aware of Josiah's difficult past with this father. That tortured relationship had been used against him when the Pinkerton man, Cyrus Poplar, accused the preacher of murder. Poplar himself turned out to be the killer of Four Corners' own Irene Dunlap and all of those women whose lives had been lost leading up to the vicious murder in their town. Josiah could see in the eyes of his friends that he had some work to do to convince them that Ezra deserved this sudden, vicious attack. The fact was, all of these men had painful moments in their pasts, but none of them were going about hurting people because of those difficult times. Josiah Sanchez understood better today than any other day since those dark times when he was suspected of causing the death of the seamstress how very lucky he was to have these men who believed in him, even when he gave them no reason to, as happened after Miss Irene's death, especially after having known him for such a very short period of time.
It was now three years since he'd made the acquaintance of these fine men. What reason could he possibly give to justify attacking a man he called friend, who he considered, along with these other men, his family? Ezra most certainly did not deserve what Josiah handed him earlier this day. How could he explain his actions? How could he have done what he had done to one he cared so deeply about?
Sudden footsteps coming their way from the saloon forced stillness among the men and a hush to the conversation.
"I'm not going to say it again, young man." Gloria Potter, sounding like a woman disciplining her son. They all knew, though, who the 'problem child' was to whom she spoke.
"Ah would suggest then, dear lady that you should not." Ezra stood, with the aid of the chair back before him, and continued, "As you can see, and as per our agreement, Ah have made it to mah compatriots without, and Ah quote, 'fallin' flat on mah face'." Buck and Vin laughed out loud; Ezra joined in with a wry grin. J.D. looked happy beyond belief to see the poker player sounding like himself, in spite of the fact that the southerner still needed to speak carefully, both to avoid pain and to make himself understood. Everyone seemed happy to see him moving about, even if he did seem far from steady on his feet.
"Well," Gloria said as she rubbed her hand on her favorite lawman's back, "I did agree to that."
"That's only because she thought you shouldn't make it," Nathan said, obviously unhappy with this turn of events. "Which you shouldn't have. Shouldn't have tried."
"Yet here Ah am, nonetheless." Ezra turned to Gloria and offered a barely heard, "Mah apologies for bein' difficult." Gloria Potter and so many of the other mothers in town would be forever in Ezra Standish's debt for the care he showed to their children and the commitment he had made to them to teach these most precious of citizens what he could in the absence of a regular schoolteacher in their town. The owner of the mercantile leaned in and gave him a fond hug.
"You are how you are, dear," she said softly, but loud enough for them all to hear. Nathan snorted, 'That's the truth' and was completely ignored by the kindly woman. "I would not have it any other way." Chris rolled his eyes as he could think of any number of instances where he would have had it quite another way where Ezra was concerned. Gloria kissed Ezra's cheek. "Don't stay long," she said as she could feel, and helped him to hide from his friends, the unsteady trembling. "Sit," she ordered. Chris kicked the chair beside him out from under the table and Ezra, with a grateful glance, sank into it with a gratifying groan.
"Gentlemen," the widow said in simultaneous greeting and goodbye as she turned for the door. Assorted words of appreciation were sent her way from all but Josiah, who remained mute, his eyes fixed on his still untouched glass of whiskey.
"Why do you have to give everyone a hard time?" Nathan chastised, though with nowhere near the venom that he used to use in the same situation. The healer gave his friend the once-over, then shook his head with exasperated affection.
"Perhaps that could be a discussion for another day. Ah believe Josiah had the floor prior to mah arrival?" the southerner questioned, knowing full-well the answer to what was not truly a question. He was easier to understand as he spoke around his fat lip, favoring his jaw and took extra care to be understood. With his jaw growing stiffer since he'd received Josiah's knuckles to his face, he remained hard to comprehend even to his own ear. He found himself feeling uncomfortable as Nathan continued to stare. He turned to the black man, waiting for whatever complaint was clearly at the tip of Nathan's tongue.
"You should be resting," he said firmly. His concern dripped from each word. "You're still shaky, I can see it in your eyes." Ezra blinked and did not deny what the healer said. "Do you remember anything?"
"Ah do not remembah, per se. And yes, Ah am feelin' as though on a raft on the mighty Mississippi."
"How come you're here, Ez?" Chris asked.
"Ah will only admit to overhearin' a conversation. Ah will not be a party to holdin' anyone responsible for mah newly-gained knowledge."
"That doesn't answer my question." Chris looked to Nathan, reminded of the former slave's comments about Ezra's reluctance to implicate others.
"No, Chris, it does not. Unless Ah am mistaken, we are heah gathered to listen to Josiah explain why he felt compelled to let loose his anger on mah person," Ezra said as he carefully felt his mouth and jaw and made a concerted effort not to move his head too much. Nods of assent from several of his friends told the gambler that he was right. Silence from around the table forced the injured man to move the conversation forward.
"Josiah?" he asked. The big man remained fascinated by his glass of whiskey. "Josiah," Ezra said demandingly, and with a slight wince at the pain the effort caused. "Might Ah surmise that all of … this," the card sharp said, indicating the damage to his face with a wave of his hand, "is due to the remembrance of your father's birth?"
The preacher raised his head quickly, shooting his eyes to Ezra at the question. "That was yesterday. How did you know?"
"Ah did not know the exact date, but Ah do recall, as Ah am certain our compatriots will confirm, that this time of yeah is always a tryin' time for you."
"Yes it is," Josiah said as he rubbed his forehead. "I'm old enough that you'd think I could be mature enough to deal with it."
"We all got stuff that tears us up sometimes, Josiah," Vin said with sympathy.
"I get that, Vin," the former preacher responded angrily. "But the fact that you lost your mother when you were but a baby, or that J.D. watched his mother die only three years ago, or that Nate lived his life as a slave for so long," he cried, "does any of that make you haul off and attack people?" he demanded. Josiah looked at Ezra and added, "And not just any people. People who mean everything to me." The man who'd been attacked looked away, uncomfortable with the scrutiny, the passionate words, and perplexed with how they could possibly make sense in light of what happened earlier in the day. Tears gently rolled down the grizzled face of the keeper of the town's church as he continued watching Ezra, who no longer was watching him. "God, Ezra." The southerner turned back, and the two men kept that pose for long moments before anyone spoke again.
"I used to take my anger out on Buck."
"Now, Chris. That ain't the same. You know I'd've done anything to help you through losing Sarah and Adam," Buck admitted.
"You shouldn't've had to be a punching bag."
"I survived. More importantly, so did you. For that, it was worth it."
"Seems ta me, it's pretty much the same. Ezra, what you said, jest b'fore 'siah wailed on ya, ya knew what kind o' reaction ya might get."
"Yes, Mistah Tanner, what Ah said was meant to provoke. Ah thought Ah might shock our friend here out of his guilty stupor once and for all and possibly convince him to speak of his troubles as opposed to drowning them in the bottom of a bottle. Again." Ezra rubbed his jaw carefully. "A tactical error on mah part," he lamented tiredly.
"It kind o' worked," J.D. observed. "'siah ain't drunk yet." They all, even Josiah, laughed at the simple truth. In the process of expressing his amusement, though, Ezra swayed precariously in his chair. Nathan, ever vigilant with his patients and his friends, was there to steady him.
"You really ain't up to this," the healer spoke softly to the gambler.
"Josiah," Ezra said as he patted Nathan's leg in appreciation of the concern, but ignored the sentiment for now, "might Ah ask, was it the Armageddon reference or mah contempt for the Good Book that took you to the point of violence?"
"Neither one, Ezra. It wasn't anything you said. Do you think you're the only man who has criticized my faith?"
"Ah have nevah, evah done such a thing, Josiah, and you know it." Ezra's face turned red with anger and embarrassment at such a declaration from a man that he thought knew better. "Ah am mortified that you would … say such … a thing." Ezra took a breath and rubbed his forehead once more.
Softly, as he could see that Ezra was in pain, Vin said, "I don't know, Ez. Armageddon?"
"And bein' critical of the Bible?" J.D. questioned. "That offends me some, too."
Ezra rubbed his forehead some more as he took a long, calming breath. Nathan was still nearly on top of the former con man. The healer could feel the vibration as Ezra struggled to stay seated and not 'fall flat on his face' as Gloria had hinted of earlier.
"Ezra, you ain't up to having this argument right now," Nathan insisted.
"It is not an argument, it is a disagreement. It correlates nicely to how Ah was not bein' critical of anyone's faith. Ah was expressin' mah contempt for an organization that would choose to frighten its adherents with Armageddon and other lies and fairy tales from a book that does great injustice to the teachings of a good man. Just a man. If Christianity could speak of the man and his deeds without all of the nonsense, the outlandish hyperbole, Ah believe men like Josiah would not have borne the brunt of the pain from an overbearing, and far too literal preacher, which his father was. He would be able to use all of the good from the Good Book and not be tortured by the rest. Hell, even Ah might be among the converted if that could happen."
Ezra's friends sat and absorbed all that he'd just said. Even J.D. was nodding his head at the end. And Ezra watched as each man took a glance to Josiah, waiting for a reaction from the man who the card sharp had so obviously been speaking to directly, even as Ezra worked the room in his engaging way in what was clearly, so far, a one-sided discussion.
"Josiah?" Ezra asked.
"You make good points, Ezra. And I do try to take the best of Jesus' teachings … "
"Ah believe you sell yourself short, Josiah. You are not your fathah. His legacy is not yours. You have shown this with your decency and thoughtful guidance to the people of this town, over and over again, and with your kindnesses to the natives."
"Except for on your daddy's birthday," Nathan said as he scooted his chair closer to Ezra, knowing that a fall was coming, the move guaranteed to prevent any injury in the event of the inevitable, which the frustrating man assured the longer he remained upright.
"I guess … I mean, I worry about becoming him," he said, having looked to Nathan when he spoke, frowning as the healer moved closer to his bruised friend. "I don't have fond memories of my father, not one fond memory, really, not like you do with Obadiah. He was a fine man, your father."
"Josiah, if you were gonna become like your father, you'd've been him by now. But you're not," Buck said kindly. J.D. remained quiet on the subject. He had no experience with having a father in his life. Vin had said what he wanted and would remain silent for the remainder of this part of the conversation.
Josiah's blue eyes seemed less clouded with worry when he said, "Maybe."
"No, Josiah. You are your own man. You aren't your father, at least not the man you describe," Chris said.
"Then how do you explain what I done ta Ezra today?"
"Hell, J'siah, we all want to punch Ezra at some point during the day." The card sharp grinned at Buck's big smile.
"Very funny … " Ezra started to say, but Josiah's bellow cut his self-deprecating retort short.
"There ain't nothin' funny about this, Buck!"
The ladies' man put his hands up in surrender. Ezra and J.D. both jumped, just a little. Vin put his hand to his mare's leg, Chris did the same with his Colt. "Now, now, J'siah. It was a joke."
"It ain't funny, Buck." Josiah's glower showed everyone just what was what.
"Uh, well," the gambler started, rubbing his thumb lightly on his split lip, "it could be funny, so long as you don't hit any of us again."
"No. What I done, hitting you like that, with no thought about how much I could've hurt you. That ain't funny."
"Josiah … " Buck started, but Ezra raised his hand to stop him from continuing.
"Our friend here is not sayin' what happened today is funny, or that you wanting to hit me was funny, though I think the sudden aspect of it tells us all that it was much less about want than it was about something that we likely should still talk about at some point." Ezra stared at Josiah until the big man offered the nod of agreement that Ezra sought. Nathan was sitting so close to his hurt friend that no one noticed how the southerner was now leaning into his trusted friend's shoulder. "Buck was just makin' the point that each and every one of you gentlemen have wanted to punch me, in the face, at some time during these last three years."
"That ain't right, Ezra."
"It's not, Mistah Dunne?"
"No. Chris here has wanted to shoot you," J.D. said, pointing his thumb to his side and over toward the former gunslinger.
"But I haven't wanted to do that in at least a year," Chris said, offering his own big smile to the card sharp.
"And Josiah, no one is sayin' here that what you've been feeling isn't serious," Nathan said. "But I still have times when I wonder how I make it through the day without hittin' him."
"And to think Ah allow you to treat mah injuries and illnesses," Ezra said dryly.
"Yer lucky ta have him. We all are," Vin offered.
Ezra turned to Nathan. They were face-to-face, their shoulders touching. The southerner patted Nathan's thigh, as he'd done earlier, and said, "There is nothin' truer in this life." He smiled at the healer, who blushed deeply but embarrassingly obviously before his fellow lawmen. "The friendship of fine men like all of you present comes a close second, though it is near enough the same to make it a tie." Josiah had his eyes fixed on his shot glass once more. "Mistah Sanchez, you are included in that alliance, Ah hope you know that, or Ah trust you will come to know it."
Josiah nodded faintly. They were a strange alliance, indeed. How they had gotten together was unusual and resulted in a wild adventure to rid good people of the terror of a crazy former Confederate soldier. They returned to town, a town that many of them were just passing through, to help save it from its lawless existence and a family who thought they owned it. Hired by a circuit court judge to keep the peace, for thirty days. That was three years ago. There was something to be said for this true confederacy they'd forged, a word whose definition had been tarnished some years earlier by a war that tore the country apart, two impassioned sides in a bloody conflict that fortunately failed to destroy it and indeed, strengthened it in the end and allowed for the continued expansion and settlement of this high desert portion of the country. Confederacy, a word that deserved to be resurrected for its original, meaningful definition. The seven of them had forged this compact of lawmen to work for the common good of this town they all grew to care about, and for its citizens, many of whom had become like family to the peacekeepers. Josiah wanted this brotherhood. He needed it, and he hoped he hadn't ruined his place in this 'alliance', as Ezra called it. He knew it was in him to recover from his father's abuse, he just needed to know that he still had reason to, that with these men sitting before him … that he still had a place with them. That Ezra, of all of them, made the gesture to tell him that he was meant more than he could ever say.
"I want to know it," the preacher said to the gambler. "Will you help me figure out how to do it right?"
"It will be mah pleasure," Ezra replied as he sank suddenly and heavily into Nathan.
"Whoa!" the healer said. Nathan and Chris took up positions on either side of the hurt and tired member of their law enforcement group.
"Maybe we c'n b'gin t'morrah," Ezra said.
"Maybe you can begin when I say you can begin," Nathan said as he gave Josiah fair warning with a knowing glance. The big man nodded and let his friends pass with Ezra held up between them. The former slave looked at his southern friend. "Why do you have to keep goin' and goin' when … "
"It's how he is, Nathan," Chris said.
"Well said," Ezra agreed. He leaned over to Nathan and said, "Ah might not make it up the stairs. Don't let J'siah know … " Ezra passed out in their arms, and Chris and Nathan hid the extra dead weight well as they moved up the stairs, Nathan speaking softly to his patient to try to get him to wake up. It wasn't working.
"I think he's just tired. He had no business bein' down there," Nathan explained.
"He's a pain in the ass," Chris said.
"That he is. But like you said, it's how he is. And don't worry, he'll be fine. Just needs rest."
"All right." They put their friend on his bed. He sat on the edge, Nathan holding him in place with a hand on his shoulder. "Ezra!"
Nathan frowned and looked over to Chris, shaking his head.
"Figured he'd wake up if he thought I wanted him out on patrol," Chris said with a shrug.
"That is unkind," Ezra grumbled.
"I agree," Nathan said.
Ezra yawned and then said, "Ah b'lieve J'siah should not be left alone for long periods for the next day or two."
"I'll talk to Buck and J.D. They'll keep him busy."
"Ah was thinkin' more to not annoy the man further," the card sharp said, his eyes blinking slowly as he headed back toward sleep.
"They'll help him with the back landing on the church." Chris started removing Ezra's jacket, then the vest as he and Nathan worked their way to getting the man into a nightshirt.
"Isn't it too wet for tha'?" Chris and Nathan looked at each other. Ezra looked at them both, shook his head, swayed a bit and said, "Ah b'lieve Inez wanted some benches erected along the two window walls of the room we met in today."
"Yeah, that's what I meant, they can help Josiah with that," Chris said with a grin.
"Mmm-hmm," Ezra agreed as Nathan forced the sleepwear over his patient's head.
"You want some more tea?" the healer asked. He still was holding Ezra up. He had been waiting to finish their conversation before letting him get comfortable. The snort Ezra let out told him he'd missed his window of opportunity for that.
"Told ya. He's a pain in the ass."
"Yeah, no question, he is that," Nathan agreed. "And you know what? I'm all right with that."
"Me, too. He sure doesn't make it easy to come to that realization."
"Don't know 'bout that, Chris. You and me, we were the last to get there. That says more about us than it does about him."
As Chris and Nathan discussed their friend and manipulated him into a comfortable position on his bed, Ezra worried not, snoring away, first sitting up, familiar hands holding him safe, and then as he lay on his feather bed, as though he truly hadn't a worry in the world. And with friends like his six partners in law enforcement, and townspeople who cared about him ... and one in particular who cared more than most, he knew any worries he did have he could worry about some another day.