"Josiah," Nathan said, sitting beside the preacher at the fire. "Get some rest. Sam's watching."
Josiah looked toward the pit, where the miner stared into its depths. "Where is he? Where's Ezra?"
"He'll be back," Nathan assured. "You know Ezra."
"It's been almost ten hours. How long has he been in the dark?" Josiah asked sadly. "No light at all. What's happened to him?"
Nathan smiled, trying to seem reassuring. "I'm sure he's fine. Probably just got himself turned around a bit. He'll be back to the vent any moment now."
"Think he's okay?"
Nathan nodded. "Yeah," he said. "He's gotta be." He patted Josiah on the shoulder and said, "The sun will be up soon. Let's try to get a little rest. We'll be busy again come morning."
Josiah nodded and rolled over and tried to sleep, but his rest was invaded with a feeling of hopelessness, of a black coldness. He was a man that was used to getting what he wanted. It was terribly frustrating to just sit here and wait for the hours to pass, knowing that Ezra should have been back long ago, knowing that there was no way to get to him.
He closed his eyes and remembered. As a child, he had been in the blackness for only a minute, yet why was it bothering him so much now? The memory had never troubled him before, so why was it now? Because Ezra's down there, he thought. You're worried about him.
Josiah fell asleep and dreamed he was walking through the mine of his childhood, with a torch that would never fail, looking endlessly and tirelessly for Ezra.
The man and the two small girls moved slowly back through the caves. Ezra replayed the route in his head, remembering every twist and wrong turn, correcting his incorrect moves and keeping them on the true path. He recited the cards to himself as he groped his way along the tunnel: Ace of Clubs, Seven of Spades, Ace of Diamonds, Two of Clubs, Seven of Hearts, Queen of Clubs, Jack of Diamonds, Eight of Spades, Three of Diamonds, Ace of Spades. He repeated the sequence silently over and over, forcing himself to remember them. He was having difficulty remembering things now.
He had a full house. How much would he wager on that hand?
He found the 'Ace' that marked the entrance to their return path. He held it in his hand for a moment, thumbing the corner until he realized he had bent it. Then he absently shoved it in is waistcoat pocket, along with the supposed 'Seven' when they reached it. After he traveled a little farther he realized that was not very wise. He may need to backtrack at some point and now he had removed his markers.
Chalk that up to the usual Standish good sense, he thought as he continued. He found the spent lantern and left it behind as they moved slowly and carefully along.
He used the canteen's strap as a lifeline to the children. The canteen was tight against his right shoulder, with Prue holding the strap behind him and Dor holding onto her other hand. Ezra was stumbling more often, having trouble keeping his balance. Must keep moving. He could feel the blood from his head wound running into his eyes and down his neck, irritatingly. He squeezed his eyes shut and steeled himself against the discomfort.
Ezra encouraged Prue and Dorette to sing or talk as they traveled along. They sang little snippets of songs, children's songs, the sorts of thing he had never learned. There was no time for such foolishness in his childhood. He smiled at the nonsense lyrics. It would have been nice, he thought. Their singing voices let him to know they were still there and left him to concentrate on his task. It was getting harder and harder to do so.
He found the Ace of Diamonds and made his way toward the Two of Clubs. Just go from one card to the next. That wasn't too difficult. The blackness was so disorientating. He had no frame of reference outside of his memory of the path. He groped along, feeling more lightheaded as he moved. The girls continued to sing cheerfully.
Lovely little ladies, he thought. They trust me. They believe that I shall bring them to safety.
All he wanted to do at this point was stop. His leg hurt so terribly. If he concentrated on that pain, his arm was almost bearable. The blood dripping down around his eyes disturbed him. He shuddered, miserable at the thought of how awful he must appear at that moment. At least there was one benefit to the darkness.
"Mr. Ezra?" Prue asked.
"Yes, my dear."
"I'm thirsty again."
"Then you'll have to have another drink." Ezra leaned against the stone wall and slowly lowered himself to the ground. The two girls crawled carefully into his lap even before he managed to settle himself.
"I dinnent hurt ya, did I, Mr. Ezra?" Prue asked when Ezra sucked in his breath.
"No, my dear," Ezra replied, gritting his teeth as the girl moved off his left leg. "I was only trying to catch my breath, as I'm rather tired."
He uncorked the canteen and handed it to the older sister who drank what she needed and passed the vessel to the younger one.
"I'm tired, too, Ezra," Dorette said, snuggling up next to him.
"Me, too," Prue agreed. The three of them sat quietly in the darkness for several minutes. Prue was careful to not press against his arm.
Prudence, Ezra thought, you are a considerate and darling child. Dorette sighed as he rested his hand on her head. And you, dear Dorette, are a little lamb.
It was so good to be still for a while, just to sit quietly and catch his breath. He breathed deeply and was glad he wasn't shaking so badly anymore, but he was so damn cold. The girls must be just as cold. He'd have to get them back to the vent. Get them out of this wretched place.
"My dears, we can't remain here. Your father awaits you." Poor motherless children, the least I can do is to get them out of this tomb.
"Daddy?" Dorette said, sitting up.
"Yes, Dorette, your father is very eager to see you."
The two girls climbed off of the gambler's lap and he stood slowly, painfully. He head swam for a moment as he fought to find his balance. It was so difficult without being able to see, without standing on level ground. Then, once he made certain that the girls again had a handle on the canteen strap, he headed back down the black path.
He found the Two of Clubs and headed toward the Seven of Hearts. He knew that he had reached it when he heard that curious echo created by the underground lake.
"Careful," Ezra said. "Watch out for the water."
"Are we at the pool?" Prudence asked. "Daddy showed me it once. It's so beautiful."
"Beautiful?" Ezra said. He hadn't considered the lake to be 'beautiful' - nuisance would be a better word - but at this moment, he was heartily glad to have reached it.
"Yes, it's beautiful." He slowly crouched down beside it. The effort seemed to have increased in difficulty from a few minutes ago. He felt around until his hand touched the still water. He dipped in his hand, cupping it and rubbed the water on his face. If he could just remove some of this blood, he'd feel better. It probably didn't do much good, but at least he was able to remove some of the sticky mess that was plaguing him.
"Now, sit quietly," he said. He tried to pull off his boots, but stopped when he discovered he couldn't get any leverage with one hand, that the effort telegraphed across to his left shoulder - ow! - and couldn't bend his left leg far enough in any case to reach that foot.
Well, it would appear that I shall be getting wet, he thought. I suppose it is better this way, at least I will not need to disrobe before these young things. He regretted the damage that his boots would suffer. They were extraordinarily fine boots.
He stepped into the water and wondered why the water didn't seem so cold this time. He sighed. It did seem to knock the pain back a level or two in his leg at least. If he could just stay here, if he could just stay.
"Ezra! Ezra! Where are you?" he heard Dorette cry.
Ezra reached out and touched the child. "Miss Dorette, it's time to cross over. Reach out your hand." He felt around in the darkness until he clasped the tiny child's hand.
He picked her up with his right arm and tried to hold her without jostling his left as they started back across the water. She snuggled up close to him and said, "Will you carry me all the way?"
He moved cautiously across the wet expanse. It was only a few steps, but he had to feel his way with his feet. And now with his injuries and unbalanced by the child, he had to be careful.
"I would love to be able to do so, my dear, but I'm afraid that would be difficult as only have one arm available and this too shall fail if I attempt such an endeavor." The girl giggled at the sounds of his words, unable to understand them all. They reached the other side of the pool and he set her down.
"I'll return with your sister in but a moment."
"Ezra! Ezra! Come get me!" Prue called.
Prudence was gentle as she wrapped her arms around his neck and sat into the crook of his arm. "I don't want to hurt you none," she said softly.
"Dearest Prudence, you could never do such a thing," Ezra said as he headed back across, trying to ignore the pain that the extra weight was causing him. He set her on the far bank and the two sisters twittered to each other.
It took some added effort to raise himself back out of the water, and once out, he had to sit for a moment to regain his strength. The cold water seemed to have sapped any reserves he had left. His arm was screaming now in pain, but at least his leg had benefited from the numbing water.
My legs were really what mattered, he thought. They are what I need to keep moving.
Queen of Clubs, he thought. They had made it to the Queen of Clubs. Now, just a few cards left...Jack of Diamonds was next. They could make it to the Jack of Diamonds.
"Are we ready, my dears?" He asked. The two voices chimed in that they were, so the small procession continued. Ezra groping his way forward, trying to ignore the ringing in his head. All he wanted to do was lay down and rest. The blackness was almost suffocating.
With every step he seemed to be losing more of his strength. He was fading fast. He'd have to finish this task soon or else he'd never get the girls out of this cave.
He found the Jack of Diamonds and the group rested again. Dorette fell sleep against him and Prudence had to awaken her. No, he thought, we can't stop again. Must keep moving. The Eight of Spades is the next goal. That shouldn't be hard. But it was all uphill from now on.
They painstakingly made their way up the slope. Just make it to the Eight of Spades, then it will be the Three of Diamonds and the Ace of Spades. Almost there! He stumbled onward. Where in the hell was the Eight of Spades?
Where am I? Have I gotten us lost? His head was spinning. He had no time to stoop down and look for the markers. Oh God, have I gotten them lost? Eight of Spades... where was it?
He thought it was a trick of the brain when he saw the glow ahead of him. Then a fear reached him, remembering a story he had heard once about people who were dying seeing a light at an end to a tunnel. No, he thought, not now. I haven't gotten them out yet. Not now. I haven't made it to the Eight yet.
It wasn't until Prue said, "I can see sunlight!" that he realized that he was indeed seeing light. Something shone, just around the bend.
Had he missed both the Eight and the Three and made it back to the Ace? Were they almost there? He continued forward with new determination. They were going to make it.
But the blasted light was so strong. The closer they came to it, the brighter it became, like a knife stabbing at his eyes. It was unbearable. The girls were whimpering now against the painful brightness.
"Stay here," Ezra said, reassuringly. "I'll take care of it."
Something awakened him. Josiah lay quietly for a moment, listening in the dawn. What was that?
"Josiah!" The voice was suddenly recognizable. The preacher sat bolt upright and looked toward the hole in the ground. Sam was asleep beside it.
Josiah stumbled over toward the pit as the voice continued, "Josiah! Nathan!"
A smile lit the preacher's face. Thank God! Oh, thank you, Lord! "I'm here, Ezra!" Josiah shouted down into the hole. It was completely black below. He shoved Sam awake. "What happened to the lantern?"
Sam blinked at him as he awoke. "What?"
Nathan was up as well, moving in with the others. "Ezra?"
"I turned out the light," the voice drawled from below.
"He made it," Nathan said under his breath and thumped Josiah on the shoulder, grinning.
"Ezra," Josiah called, "It's damn good to hear you! Why'd you put out the lantern?"
"Too bright, wasn't it Misses Prudence and Dorette?"
"Prue! Dor!" Sam cried and was rewarded with the voices of the two children yelling "Daddy".
"Ezra, you found them!" Nathan said joyfully.
"Of course, Mr. Jackson."
"I want to see my daughters!" Sam demanded, "Get that lantern lit!"
"Better yet," Ezra said. "Remove it, and send down a rope. I'll send Prudence and Dorette to you."
The lantern was taken up and a rope was lowered. They could hear Ezra talking reassuringly to one of the children. In a matter of minutes they were pulling the first of the two girls out of the hole. Prue came up, wearing Ezra's jacket, covered in dirt and grime, and blindfolded with a silk handkerchief. Sam looked aghast and started to remove the binding.
Nathan stopped him. The sun had risen and the healer realized the damage the sudden exposure could cause. "Their eyes haven't adjusted to the light yet. You'll have to do it gradually." He could feel her chilled body through the fabric. "Get her warmed up before you do that though." The girl was like a limp rag in their arms. She was so tired and cold.
"Daddy!" Prudence called weakly as her father pulled her close. She snuggled up against him.
Next came Dorette, also blindfolded, with a blanket wrapped around her. She sniffled and sobbed as her father took her in his other arm. He carefully carried the two girls to the warmth of the fire, kissing them softly on the tops of their grimy heads as he went.
"You're next, Ezra." Nathan said as he lowered the rope. He waited for the slack to be pulled up, but nothing happened. "Ezra?"
"There's a problem," Ezra said after a moment.
"What sort of problem?" Josiah said, his voice full of concern. What now?
"It won't work." Ezra's voice said quietly.
"What won't work? This rope is what got you in there," Nathan said, looking into the inky black.
"Yes, but something happened."
"Ezra?" Nathan said sharply. "What happened?"
"I fell," Ezra replied. "Landed rather poorly."
Nathan swore under his breath. "Ezra, I want to get a look at you. What did you do? Josiah, get that lantern lit and back down there."
"Please, no. Hurts my eyes."
"Cover them, damn it. What did you do?"
"The fall itself was rather spectacular."
"Are you hurt, son?" Josiah called out.
The lantern was lit again and lowered into the pit. "Oh, Ezra," Nathan said when he finally caught sight of the gambler through the narrow opening. He was sitting against the stone floor of the pit with one hand pressed against his head, trying to protect his light-deprived eyes. There was blood matted in his hair, over most of his face and down his neck. His left arm was clumsily tied to his chest. He was wet and filthy and looked pale in the strange light.
Ezra tipped his head away from the lantern and said, "Please...too bright."
"Did you break your arm?" Nathan demanded.
"Dislocated, I think. Hurts like the devil. Can't get the rope over my arms. Can't handle the rope pullin' on it."
Nathan frowned. "You hurt your head. Can you see all right?"
Ezra laughed wryly. "Couldn't tell you. I just know that your damn lantern's 'bout to be put out permanently if you don't get it outta here."
Josiah reluctantly pulled up the lantern and looked over to Nathan. "How are we going to get him out of there?" The preacher asked.
"Maybe we could rig up some sort of a harness, so that it wouldn't pull at the arm." Nathan suggested.
Josiah nodded and picked up the spare rope, trying to decide how to do this.
The voice returned. "How are Dorette and Prudence? Are they all right?"
Josiah turned his head toward the fire, where Sam sat with the two girls on his lap. He had removed their blindfolds and they seemed to have fallen asleep. The miner's face was full of contentment as he hugged the two close to him.
"They're okay," Josiah called down to him. "They're with their father, asleep."
"Good," the gambler returned. "They were so tired." The two of them couldn't help but noticed how weary Ezra sounded.
"Are you cold?" Josiah asked. God, he didn't have a jacket or a shirt anymore - only a vest and that wasn't doing him much good.
"Yes," Ezra replied after a moment, his voice sounding very far away.
Josiah stood and grabbed the blankets that were still sitting near the fire. He tied them into the rope and lowered them into the darkness. "Ezra, I got some blankets for you."
"Thank you, Mr. Sanchez," Ezra said, barely audible. "Very thoughtful."
"Are you hungry? Thirsty?" Nathan asked.
"No...no thanks, Mr. Jackson."
Josiah could feel the rope being tugged at weakly as Ezra tried to free the blankets from the rope with one hand. "I'll have this in a moment."
"Take your time, Ezra," Josiah encouraged.
Finally the rope was released and they heard a sigh from below. "So very tired."
"Ezra?" Nathan called and waited, not receiving a response. "Ezra?" He reached for the lantern again. "Damn it!" he muttered as he lowered the light. Ezra was curled up tightly in the blankets, his eyes closed. He flinched away from the lamp as it came closer and buried his head under the blankets.
"Ezra," Nathan said firmly, "Ezra, I need you to stay awake. We're going to get you out of there, but I need you to stay awake!" But the conman didn't move.
"Nathan," Josiah said, looking down at the heap of blankets. "Is he alright?"
The healer spoke softly, "He got himself banged up real good. He may have a concussion, dislocated shoulder. The cold has probably got to him... I'm hoping that he isn't going into shock."
"We gotta get him out of there."
"I know, but how?" Nathan said, frowning deeply. They were so close, but still so far away.
"If we could send one of the girls back down there, she could get him into the ropes." Josiah looked over to Sam who glared back at him.
Sam growled at the two men, "I just got 'em outta there. I'm not sending 'em back in!"
Enough was enough. Sam had his children now, but Ezra was still out of reach. Josiah rose to his feet and snarled, "That man just saved their lives, just brought them back through that mine of yours without any light and who knows how bad he's hurt. How in God's name he managed to do that, I don' t know. All I know is that we're going to get him out of there." Josiah's voice rose to a shout as he spoke the final words.
Nathan halted Josiah's progress toward Abbott. "I don't think we're gonna get much help out of those little ones for a while." He nodded at the slumbering forms. "Besides, we're gonna need to rig up some sort of a harness. His shoulder ain't gonna to be able to take the pressure if we just try to use this loop. I don't know if the girls will be able to get him into whatever we rig up if he's unconscious."
Josiah kept his gaze on Abbot. "So, what's it going to take to enlarge that shaft?"
Sam shook his head dully. "It's not that easy. He's right beneath the hole. Anything we chisel out will fall on top of him."
"Alright, so we get help," Nathan said. "Josiah, you search the surrounding area. I'll go to Ferris. Sam stays here with the girls and to keep an eye on Ezra. We'll get as many people as we can and we either clear out the front of the mine or we find someone who can get down to him."
The report of a rifle stopped their conversation. Josiah and Nathan turned sharply.
They glanced at each other and then grabbed their weapons before heading toward the sound.
Sam crouched over his sleeping girls in terror. After the two men left, he carefully picked up the girls and hurried away, toward their home. He wasn't going to expose his children to any more danger.
Nathan and Josiah ran to the edge of the hill, guns drawn, ready for anything and then smiled at the sight that greeted them.
They instantly recognized the two men who stood below them, near the collapsed entrance to the mine. They waved at the newcomers who looked up at them. Josiah turned to Nathan and grinned. Neither of them could have been happier to see that bowler hat come toward them.
"Hey there, Nathan," JD shouted, "Hey there, Josiah."
"So, that's where ya went," Buck exclaimed as he climbed toward them. "We got to Ferris early, so we thought we'd ride out to meet ya last night."
"Yeah, he forgets to tell ya that he run into the husband of this lady..."
Buck cuffed JD over the head. "Enough of that, kid."
JD dodged away from the bigger man.
"We're mighty glad to see you," Josiah said as the two scaled the steep slope toward them.
JD nodded and continued, "We camped just a short ways from here. Found your trail this mornin'. Found your horses, but not you. What's going on with this mine?"
Josiah waited until the young man was beside him. "JD," he said, laying his huge hand on the young man's shoulder. "How do you feel about spelunking?"
JD adjusted the rope and looked back to the others. "Okay, I'm ready," he said and backed himself over the pit.
"There's a tight spot you gotta watch out for," Nathan said as they lowered him slowly.
The young sheriff looked upward, toward the light as he descended into the coolness of the cave. The walls were very close throughout the decent, but at one point, it was so tight that he became wedged. He had to wiggle to get around the outcrop and once again he was going downward. He landed carefully, making certain that he did not step on what he was there for.
"Okay!" he shouted upward. "I made it!" The only thing he could see was the circle of daylight above him. Nathan, Josiah and Buck looked down at him, nothing more than silhouettes against the brightness of the sky.
JD pulled off the rope, squatted down and started feeling about in the darkness. He found the gambler in a minute, his hands closing on the fabric of the blanket.
"Ezra?" he said softly, "Ezra?" He pulled back the blankets to find the gambler's head. "Hey, Ez, can you hear me?"
The gambler mumbled. JD looked up again. "He's real cold," the sheriff said.
"Who's there?" Ezra muttered. "Prudence? Dorette? Are you still here?" His voice sounded so sad. "Sorry. Thought we made it. Fell asleep. Sorry, dreadfully."
"No, Ezra, it's me. It's JD," JD replied, grateful to hear the southerner's voice. The lantern was descending toward him. Good, he'd have light again.
"JD?" Ezra tried to open his eyes, but instantly shut them and flipped the blanket back over his head. "No, no, no! Too bright."
"I gotta see what I'm doin', Ezra," JD said. "Can you sit up? Nathan figures he knows how to get ya out." Ezra mumbled something JD couldn't hear and let the sheriff pull back the blanket again.
"Ah, gee," JD muttered when he got a good look at Ezra. He looked awful. JD helped the gambler to sit up. "I'll getcha out of here, I swear, but I'll need your help," JD said. "I gotta get this rope around you."
"Won't work. Shoulder hurts." Ezra put his hand over his eyes but pulled it away when he felt the blood again. He shuddered at the thought. "You shouldn't be here, Mr. Dunne. Should be in Ferris."
JD looked up to the others. "We came lookin' for ya guys. Good thing we did. Look, I'm gonna have to get these ropes around you. It's not going under your arm or anythin'. If I can get it around your legs, that should do the trick. You'll just kinda sit in it... like a saddle."
When Ezra again tried to cover his eyes Nathan said, "JD, would ya help him with that?"
JD grabbed a bandana out of his pocket. He wet it down with Ezra's canteen and did his best to clean up some of the blood. It was all over Ezra's face, in his eyes and everywhere. JD swallowed as he did what he could to clean up the worst of it.
"Thank you, JD. I must be quite unsightly at this moment," Ezra said resignedly.
JD smirked. "I'm just glad to be seein' you at all." He decided to leave the wound alone. It wasn't bleeding any more, and he was afraid that if he tried to clean it, it would only start up again. He then bound the bandana around Ezra's eyes, finally freeing the gambler from the aggravation caused by the light.
"You did use a clean piece of cloth for the blindfold, didn't you, Mr. Dunne?" Ezra asked hopefully.
JD smiled sheepishly as he looked at the blood stained cloth and said, "Yeah, sure, Ezra." He figured that if the gambler didn't know, it wouldn't hurt anything.
He worked the ropes around Ezra as Nathan had described, keeping the weight off of the gambler's shoulder. Ezra helped as much as he could, but he could hardly move his left leg at all, and groaned when JD moved it.
"Gee, I'm sorry, Ez," JD said.
"S'all right," Ezra replied through his teeth.
With some difficulty, JD was able to get Ezra to his feet. The gambler leaned heavily against the young sheriff. JD adjusted the ropes as the others above pulled up on the slack.
"You're gonna have to untie his arm," Nathan called down. "He won't make it through the shaft with it in front of him."
"Must you?" Ezra whispered.
"Nathan says I gotta do it," JD said. Ezra leaned against the cave wall as JD carefully untied the shirt that held the injured arm in place. The gambler shuddered as the sheriff moved the arm until it was hanging straight down. "You okay?" the young man asked hopefully.
Ezra nodded as he breathed deeply.
"I think he's ready," JD said.
"Okay, Ezra," Buck called down. "We're gonna get you out."
The lantern went up first, leaving the two in darkness. Ezra tried to stand on one leg and not lean on the wall. He sucked in his breath when they began to pull him upward. He clung onto the ropes with his right hand, trying not to sway. JD sat quietly as the light above was snuffed out and he was plunged into complete blackness, losing even the circle of daylight.
Buck, Josiah and Nathan pulled steadily on the ropes. "Careful," Nathan said. "Don't let him hit his head."
"I'd appreciate that," Ezra drawled from below as he was drawn closer to the surface.
Thankfully, they were able to maneuver him easily enough through the hole until he reached the narrowest part. With a yelp, Ezra became wedged.
"You doing okay there, hoss?" Buck asked.
"Fine...just fine," Ezra's voice was pitched a bit too high when he replied.
"We'll get you out," Nathan promised.
"You've said that before. I believe you."
"Slow and steady," Josiah said, "Just pull slow and steady." The three continued to pull, and Ezra did his best to move himself through the spot. Finally, with a cry from the gambler, they were able to free him.
"Ezra?" Josiah shouted, "Ezra, answer me!" But he didn't reply.
Nathan looked to the other two men. "Hurry. We gotta get him out... now."
They were able to see the gambler as they pulled him to the surface. He hung limply in the ropes. Nathan grabbed at the unconscious Standish and was finally able to pull him free of the pit.
"He's freezing," Nathan muttered as he pulled the ropes off. He and Buck carried Ezra to the fire as Josiah dropped another rope to get JD out. After a nod from Jackson, Buck returned to help retrieve JD.
The young man looked overwhelmed when he was on the surface again. "It's awful down there," he said. "It is so dark and cold."
"Buck, could you warm up some water?" Nathan asked without looking. "Ezra, can you hear me?" Standish remained unresponsive. Nathan considered removing the bandana to check the gambler's eyes, but it was probably better that it stayed in place for the moment. That certainly was a nasty cut on his forehead. It would need stitches.
Nathan frowned when he was able to get a good look at Ezra's bruised arm. God, that must hurt. He tentatively felt round the shoulder and said, "He's right - dislocated. Josiah, I'm gonna need you to hold him for me while I get his shoulder set."
The preacher nodded and took his position. He had been through this before. The gambler had a tricky shoulder that seemed to go out on a whim.
"Musta fallen a long way," Josiah sighed. "His whole side seems to be bruised."
Nathan braced himself against the rock while Josiah got a good grip on Standish. Jackson made the difficult movement as quickly as possible. Thankfully, he was able to pop the joint back in place without too much fiddling around. He was also rewarded with a string of obscenities from the once again alert gambler.
"Ezra, for a gentleman, you sure know a few ungentlemanly words," Buck said with a laugh.
Nathan asked, "Better?"
Ezra tentatively wiggled his fingers before his blinded face. "Yes, much." He turned his head suddenly, "Oh, dear!"
"What's wrong?" JD asked.
"Miss Prudence and Miss Dorette! They aren't nearby are they?" He tilted his head, listening.
"No," Josiah responded. "It looks like their father left with 'em. Musta gone home."
"Thank goodness," Ezra said with sigh. "I would never have forgiven myself if I exposed them to such uncouth language."
Nathan smiled and shook his head. "Let's get this blindfold offa you. The natural light here shouldn't seem so bad as that lantern. Keep your eyes shut tight for a sec." He removed the bandana slowly, shading Ezra's eyes with his hand. "Try to open 'em slowly."
Ezra blinked against the light as Nathan gradually pulled his hand away. "How's that?" the healer asked him.
The gambler smiled. "Wonderful." He squinted as he looked at the four men who surrounded him. "I never would have expected it."
"What?" JD asked. "What didn't you expect?"
"That the first sight to meet my eyes would be the four of you."
"That surprises you?" Josiah inquired, smiling.
"No." Ezra grinned. "It is surprising that it pleases me so very much."
Josiah stepped forward and suddenly pulled the two cards that were in danger of falling out of Ezra's waistcoat pocket. "This all you got left?" he asked wonderingly.
"Hardly," Ezra replied with a shake of his head, and then he stopped as he noticed the faces of the cards. He reached out and took them from Josiah. Ace of Clubs, and a Seven of Spades...with a bent corner. He laughed.
"What's so funny?" JD asked.
"Backward," Ezra said, tilting his head in amusement. He had gotten the cards correct, but backward. The card he had bent was the one he named Ace of Clubs. He continued to laugh as his confused friends looked on.
Nathan stitched up the cut on Ezra's forehead and Standish actually drank more than one cup of Buck's awful coffee. Apparently Standish had escaped without any serious injury. He had a slight concussion and a badly bruised hip. Hypothermia was no longer a danger and his shoulder was correctly settled. He would be plenty sore for a while, but seemed to be recovering nicely.
The day was warm, but not as hot as the one before. Ezra spent most of it wrapped up in blankets near the fire. He slept through the better part of the day and on through the night. The following morning, the gambler awoke feeling much improved, still stiff and sore, bruised from his head to his toe, but at least he felt warm again. He was able to clean himself up, shave and put on fresh clothing. That always improved his mood. Of course the matter of the waterlogged boots, the lost hat and the missing jacket loomed to darken his attitude.
Nathan had found the Abbott's cabin the previous day and checked in on the small family to ensure that the two girls were well. Before the five men headed for home, Ezra insisted on paying a visit himself.
Prudence and Dorette ran out of the cabin as the horsemen approached and stood for a moment, shyly regarding them as their gazes drifted from Josiah to JD to Buck to Ezra. Finally they ran to the gambler as he dismounted with Josiah's help.
"Are you Ezra?" the taller child asked. She had a tiny pixie nose, bright blue eyes and long blonde hair that she wore in a pony-tail.
"Why yes, my dear," Ezra said smoothly. "Might I suppose that you are Misses Prudence and Dorette?"
Dorette, with hair as fair as her sister, but with hazel eyes, sprang forward. She wrapped her arms around Ezra's leg. Josiah shook his head. He hadn't realized that the girls and the gambler had never actually laid eyes on each other before this.
"I took good care of it," Prudence said, taking Ezra's hand. She began to tenaciously pull him away from his horse. "Just like you said."
"I helped!" Dorette insisted. Unable to grab hold of Ezra's sling-bound left hand - she tugged at the corner of his sling. Ezra did his best not to wince. Together the two girls dragged the gentleman to the back of their home. His still wet boots squelched as he moved.
"See! See!" Dorette said, pointing enthusiastically at the clothesline.
"I washed it real good." Prudence declared proudly.
"It took a lot of scrubbin' but I got it real clean."
"I held the soap."
"I scrubbed and scrubbed and I got most of the dirt and stuff off of it." Prudence said, touching the ends of the garment that hung from the line.
"My, my, my," Ezra said, carefully pulling the clothespins from the line and handing one to each sister. "You have certainly performed an excellent task. My jacket has never looked cleaner." He smiled warmly at both of the small children.
Josiah and the others had to stifle their laughter. What was once an excellently-tailored bright-blue linen jacket, was now nothing more than a shapeless grayish rag. The preacher had to hand it to Standish, he certainly could put up a good act.
"Darlin's, you know I would don this magnificently laundered jacket immediately save for the fact that it is rather damp at the moment and I know you wouldn't want me to succumb to a cold."
The two girls agreed and Ezra was allowed to stow the jacket. He gave Buck a hopeless look as he shoved the garment into his saddlebag. "Ruined...ruined...beyond reclamation..." he muttered before returning to the children, smiling again.
They spent a short time at the Abbotts', while the children petted and fawned over Ezra. Both were concerned over his injuries, fascinated by the bandage around his head.
Sam Abbott was quiet. He stood silently apart from the rest during the visit, and seemed glad to see the lawmen leave. The family needed time to themselves to grieve the loss of their wife and mother. Abbott did stop Ezra before he left and grudgingly shook his hand, before returning to what was left of his family.
As the five men continued along toward home, Buck and JD easily paired off in the lead, with Josiah and Nathan in the middle. Ezra trailed behind. Josiah shook his head, wondering how that had happened again. Why did he always end up at the end?
Josiah slowed his horse until he was even with Ezra's and the two of them continued along with Nathan ahead of them. The preacher watched Ezra pull the sleeve of the murdered jacket out of his saddlebag. The gambler sighed at the pitiable condition of the fine material and shoved the garment back inside. He shook his head slowly and then looked up at Josiah. He smiled gamely when their eyes met.
"I'm mighty impressed," Josiah said.
"Concerning?" Ezra asked, touching his bandaged head tentatively.
"You," Josiah replied.
Ezra scrutinized him, unsure. "You are impressed by my ability to injure myself and destroy my property due to my own ineptitude?"
The preacher frowned. "No," he said. He watched the conman rub his shoulder. Josiah started, "The directions given by Sam..."
"...Were flawed," Ezra completed.
"Yet you found your way." Josiah nodded. "There are many Christian souls in this world, given very direct and clear instructions, given the right path to follow, and yet they become lost along the way. Many never make it to the correct destination. And yet there are others who find their way, in spite of the false direction given."
Ezra adjusted his uncomfortable boot in his stirrup and looked up to Josiah. "Your analogy is amusing."
"You never stopped looking for them, did you?" Josiah said softly. "Even after you ran out of fuel. Even after you were hurt."
Ezra snorted. "Ah, but Mr. Sanchez, here is where you are in error. All I wanted to do was stop. I wished to be anywhere but there. Hardly a Christian thing to think."
"But you didn't stop."
"Most likely due to my head injury," Ezra said, touching his bandaged head. "I wasn't thinking clearly."
The two said nothing for several minutes, riding side-by-side. "You did a good job, Ezra," Josiah said finally. "I'm proud of you."
Ezra smiled for a moment and Josiah thought that perhaps he had looked content to hear those words. But that expression quickly submerged under a look of exasperation.
"Proud, Mr. Sanchez?" Ezra said rolling his eyes. "Don't tell me that you are getting those paternal urges again. Must I constantly remind you that I am not your son, nor do I chose to be put in that position?"
Josiah shook his head in frustration. "Well, you may not choose it..."
Ezra chuckled. "You're incorrigible, Mr. Sanchez."
Ezra sighed and slowed his horse. He stretched stiffly and then casually turned in his saddle to scan the countryside with a careful eye.
Josiah watched the gambler who scrutinized the land that they had just crossed. The preacher recalled that he had seen Ezra do this before, looking backward as the rest of them traveled forward.
Josiah smiled, realizing something, understanding perhaps why Ezra so often traveled in the rear of the pack. "Anyone following?"
"Not today," Ezra said and smiled at the preacher before facing forward again.
Ezra didn't look up as the figure approached his table. Finally, its shadow fell across him, blocking the sunlight that streamed through the large pane windows. He tilted his head and gazed up at the dark-clothed man.
"Good afternoon, Mr. Larabee," he drawled as he continued to shuffle his cards.
A box thumped down in front of him. "Ya got somethin' on the stage," Larabee said.
"I didn't realize that you had become a delivery boy amongst your other occupations," Ezra said as Chris sat down beside him.
Chris ignored the statement and asked, "What do ya suppose ya got?"
Ezra regarded the box for a moment. He recognized the handwriting and beamed. "Will wonders never cease?" He tugged at the twine that held the box together. A knife suddenly appeared beside him and sliced through the cords.
"Whatcha got there, Ezra?" Vin asked, sliding the knife back into its sheath. "It that some more of your fancy eats?"
"Hey!" JD appeared at the table, too. "It's not more of them fish eggs is it?"
"Caviar...we refer to those 'fish eggs' as caviar," Ezra said evenly. "And no, this is not caviar."
"I was hoping it was his latest shipment of brandy," Josiah put in.
"Too light for that," Chris said. "Must be somethin' else."
"Maybe his mother sent him his monthly allowance," Nathan said, joining the rest.
Ezra rolled his eyes, "My mother sending ME money? Please, you have met her haven't you? It's her belief that I should be sending money to HER as recompense for bringing me into the world." He carefully pulled the top off of the box. It was filled with excelsior, with a paper folded on top. "Mr. E. P. Standish" was written in a feminine handwriting on the note. The paper disappeared almost instantly as Buck snatched it away and unfolded it. Ezra glanced up at him but did nothing to stop him.
"To the piece of garbage that once used to find its way into my beloved tavern," Buck read aloud. He laughed. "Gee Ezra, sounds like she knows ya pretty well."
"Too well," Ezra said with a sigh and made a sign for Buck to continue.
Buck cleared his throat and read, "I take it from your telegram that you got no intention of comin' back here and I can tell you that we are all damn glad of that. Yes, Mr. Mason's is still in business. Yes, he remembered you. Yes, you owe me - the bill is enclosed and I expect payment for shipment as well as purchase."
Buck looked up from the letter as Ezra pulled away the excelsior to find the hat carefully packed within. With a heartfelt sigh, Ezra pulled the black low-crown Stetson from the container and brushed it off.
"Looks just like your old one," JD said and Ezra turned it around in his hands, grinning foolishly.
"But not quite as dusty," Nathan said knowing.
"Mighty fine," Josiah commented.
The gambler continued to smile as he gazed at the hat. "Exactly the one," he said.
"Ya gonna put that thing on?" Vin asked, "Or are ya just gonna look at it all day?"
"Of course, it will need to be blocked and properly fitted," Ezra explained.
Chris snagged the hat out of Ezra's hands and plopped it onto the gambler's head. "Looks like it fits just fine."
Ezra glared at Chris for a moment then shifted his attention to the large mirror behind the bar. He tilted his head and gazed at his reflection. "Yes, perhaps."
Buck resumed reading. "With any luck, this should keep you out of my town for good. I don't want any shiftless drifters, good-for-nothing con artists or detestable snakes in my tavern. Don't ever show your ugly face around here again."
Ezra continued to gaze into the mirror. He rubbed his chin and said, "Ugly?" He looked hurt for a moment and then smiled broadly at his newly adorned image. He shook his head decisively. No, definitely not 'ugly'.
"Pay me or I will send the law after you. With much consternation - Mony... que De..." Buck stuttered. "Deh-ran-lee-ah-you."
"Deranleau." Ezra said helpfully. "Monique Deranleau. A woman of great taste."
"Doesn't sound like she likes you much," JD said.
"Not much at all," Vin agreed.
"Second page." Ezra said, running his fingers along the brim of his hat. He pulled it down slightly to cover the healing scar on his forehead.
"What?" Buck asked.
"Second page," Ezra didn't move his gaze from his reflection as he continued to model his new hat. "With Miss Monique, there's always a second page."
Buck fingered the paper in his hand and discovered that there was indeed a second page. He continued reading. "P.S. I got a bottle of your favorite cognac hidden away. Stop by and I'll show you where it's kept."
"Gentlemen," Ezra said standing gracefully. "I believe I shall go for a promenade."
"That anything like a lemonade?" JD asked.
Ezra opened his mouth to comment, but instead just smiled and headed to the door.
"He means he's goin' out for a walk to show off his new hat," Josiah supplied.
Ezra pushed through the batwing doors and came to a halt to allow Mrs. Potter to pass.
She smiled at him and said, "Aren't you looking dapper today, Mr. Standish."
"Why, Mrs. Potter," Ezra exclaimed, "You always know the perfect thing to say." He grandly tipped his hat to her. "And might I say you are looking lovely this afternoon - an absolute vision in periwinkle."
"Oh, Mr. Standish!" she said with a giggle and hurried on down the boardwalk.
Ezra sighed and headed in the opposite direction, tipping his hat to the citizens of Four Corners as he passed. They returned his advances with smiles or nods or by touching the brims of their hats. Children diverted their paths to greet him.
He smiled. Who would have thought that he would end up in a place like this? A place where people were actually glad to see him walking down the street. Where women and children would stop to talk to him and men wouldn't be drawing their guns on him and threatening to run him out of town.
Rather nice really. Second page. It was as if he was allowed a second page in his life. Really, he thought, rather nice.