Chapter 4 –Texas Hold'em
Hapley's Well is an old town by the standards of the West. It grew gradually over the years - slowly, but with a certain implacable determination. For all intents and purposes it is nothing more than a brief stop on the way to Ridge City, one more dusty, faceless town in a long succession of dusty, faceless towns.
It is not quiet at night. The iron-ore miners from the camps to the south flood in daily, looking to fritter away their wages on cheap women and bad whiskey, and perhaps recoup some of their losses at the gaming table. Under other circumstances Ezra might linger a while there, gently separating the miners from their money with a charming manner diverting attention from the increasing size of the pot. But now he feels jumpy, paranoid. They've come after him. Why in the name of hell have they come after him? He has already made it quite clear that he will cause them no further trouble.
Worse than anything else, he can feel his resolve wavering. He has to leave. If they ask him to return again, he won't be able to say no.
Bringing JD was downright sneaky - he'd bet a month of his wages, pitiful though they are, that it was Vin's idea. He finds it frustratingly difficult to mistrust the youngest member of their little band. It's even harder to say no to him, to disappoint him, especially having seen the hurt in his eyes when he first heard of Ezra's plans to leave. He'd done his best to ease the feelings of betrayal, to soothe them away with soft words and softer touches, but the memory still haunts him.
It was a mistake to become attached, to open to others even a little. If he hadn't then he could have left easily, no pursuit, his disappearance hurting no-one. The clean break he'd envisaged had become very messy.
The whole affair was a mistake, really. He tells himself he should have listened to his conscience the first night. Should have listened to that little voice insisting that he was taking advantage of the boy. But it was so strong, the temptation to reach out and comfort someone feeling the same pain he was.
And it was good while it lasted. JD proved a very fast learner. Under different circumstances, if they weren't both dreaming of someone else...it could have worked.
All this runs through his head as he leaves the saloon and makes his way to the livery, head down and strides purposeful through the nighttime streets. He hasn't taken a room yet - for the best, as it turns out - and his pack and saddlebags are still with his horse, the gambler confident in Chaucer's ability to see off any would-be thieves.
Someone has followed him from the saloon, and he hopes it isn't JD. He hopes it's Vin or Josiah or even Chris, someone he can stand to harden his heart to and drive away. Much is it would pain him to do that - especially to Chris - the others are old and experienced enough to deal with it and move on.
As it happens, Lady Luck is not on his side this night.
He has just entered the livery when he hears his name being called softly behind him. He recognises the voice and curses silently, but against his better judgement he stops and listens, skin prickling from the gaze directed at the back of his neck.
"Ezra, you can't go."
"I do believe we have already had this conversation. I have made my decision."
"Before you knew all the facts."
"Don't do that, Ezra. It's JD. It has been for a while now, in case you haven't noticed."
"Under the circumstances..."
"What circumstances? That you're scared of getting attached? That you won't take a chance to get something better? Or maybe it's just ungentlemanly to call someone by name even after you've fucked them."
Now he knows his time in Four Corners has dulled his edge, because he can't quite hide his flinch at that. He turns slowly, giving himself a moment to regain control, and is gratified in a sad sort of way to see that JD looks somewhat shocked by his own words.
"I am not entirely certain that I deserved that."
"I..." the younger man seems momentarily too appalled to speak; "Jesus, Ezra, I'm sorry. I didn't mean it like that."
"I'm somewhat mystified as to how else it could possibly have been meant."
"I didn't...damn it, that's not the point anyway."
He takes two tentative steps forward to close the distance between them, unintimidated by the blank face staring back at him. His expression is intense and focused, desperation in his stance and hope in his eyes.
"You weren't there, Ez. You didn't see him when he read the letter. I know you didn't want to take the risk, and I woulda been scared too, but he knows now. He knows, and he still rode all this way to come and bring you home. Surely you can give him a chance?"
JD reaches out to grasp his arm, and at that touch the last of Ezra's already-failing determination to flee comes perilously close to shattering completely. He pulls away, not quite succeeding in smothering his guilt at the flash of hurt it causes.
A softly cleared throat announces another presence. Vin is watching them from the doorway, his expression as distant and unreadable as the face of the moon. He addresses JD first but his eyes never leave Ezra: "Might wanna head back to the saloon, kid. 'Siah's lookin' a bit dazed, an' I reckon he could do with better company than Chris right now."
JD takes the hint. With one last pleading look at Ezra he leaves.
Within five minutes Ezra's self-control is starting to crack. He hates silence. Perhaps most of his compatriots, used to the trail and the wilderness, are comfortable with it, but Ezra is a city boy at heart. Silence is indicative of something wrong, and it makes him jumpy.
"Very well," he sighs, conceding victory to the soundless reproach he has been receiving; "I am, contrary to my better judgement, listening. You may speak your piece Mr. Tanner."
"Ain't got much to say," comes the quiet reply; "Just that I won't stand by an' watch any of my friends toss away a chance at happiness."
Ezra isn't quite sure how to reply to that. "I assume in that case it was your idea to pursue me?"
"Yep. Others didn't exactly argue, though." A pause before he adds; "Leavin' mighta seemed like the best thing to do. But the fact is, we're bringin' you home if we have to hog-tie you ta do it."
"And what exactly do you plan on doing then?" Ezra asks, amused despite himself.
"Gonna lock you an' Chris in a room 'til you come you your senses. Then I'm gonna do the same to Buck an' JD. You lot ain't gettin' away with this damned moonin' any longer. Distractin's what it is."
Well he'd be lying if he said that is the answer he expected. A laugh escapes him before he can stop it; "Well I must confess that sounds rather more appealing than my best-laid plans. In that case, I surrender my fate into your capable hands."
They leave the livery together, falling into step with an unconscious easiness that still faintly surprises Ezra when he thinks about it. Vin is looking extremely pleased with himself...which is fair enough, really. For all his morals and code of honour, the tracker can be quite startlingly devious.
"How long have you known?"
"About you 'an Chris, Buck an' JD, or you an' JD?" Is the rhetorical and somewhat sarcastic answer.
"Ah. I should have known."
Vin leads the way to the hotel, takes a room key and motions for Ezra to follow him upstairs. The hotel is, like most of Hapley's Well, plain but sturdy. Not beautiful, but built to endure for decades to come. Somewhere in the back of his mind Ezra hopes that's an omen.
They make their way up three narrow, winding flights of stairs and along a smugly spartan hallway to stop outside room twenty-six. Out of long habit Ezra works out the position of the room relative to the surroundings, and is pleased to realise that the window of this room should provide an easy escape route onto the roof of the general store. Such things are good to know.
Vin eases the door open, stands aside to let him enter first.
He takes a step forward. Stops dead. Chris is standing by the window - right in the way of his proposed escape route. Ezra turns to leave the way he came in and finds Vin blocking that way out. Panic surges through him as he realises he is trapped, completely at the mercy of these two men. Reflexively he brushes some imaginary dust from his right sleeve. The derringer is still present and correct. If the worst should happen, if this is all a setup...he won't go down without a fight.
"Oh no you don't," Vin says, turning the unresisting southerner around and giving him a little push into the room. "You two are gonna talk this out. One way or another."
"I hadn't realised you were serious about locking us up," Ezra murmurs. Reality seems very disjointed and far away. What a bizarre situation in which to find himself.
"Deadly serious." Vin nods in Chris' direction; "Try not to shoot each other."
And then the door is closed, locked, the room quiet save for the sound of soft footsteps retreating down the hallway.
"You shouldn't have left." It's Chris who speaks first, still leaning against the windowframe, a certain wariness and uncharacteristic uncertainty in his manner.
Ezra raises an irritated eyebrow - he's heard those sentiments enough times in the last hour that he hopes never to hear them again. "So I have been told. Repeatedly. It is becoming more than a little repetitive."
"Don't make it any less true."
"Oh? And what exactly was I supposed to do?" The silence which follows is all the answer he needs; "Precisely. I only ever bet on a sure thing, and at the time the odds were most definitely skewed towards my getting shot if I was so foolish as to let something slip."
There is a lot which could be said at this point, but it all seems somewhat futile. The air is full of the ghosts of words that died unspoken. But vows and promises and declarations are, in the end, are nothing more than words.
The silence is better. It demands no explanations.
Some things, however, need to be said.
"You're coming home with us?"