Frogs in a Kettle
(disclaimer: The m7 characters belong to MGM, Trilogy and Mirisch, no copyright infringement is intended with their use)
The frog legend, though not true, is an old wive's tale and can be found at
Josiah tossed his hammer aside and wiped his arm across his sweaty brow. Confident the bench was finally sturdy enough to hold a person's weight, he used it to push himself to his feet. He smiled, pleased with his latest accomplishment. The benches were now all dusted, polished and strong enough to support even the largest men and women who might wander into the small sanctuary. His eyes spotted a book, discarded on the floor nearby. Bending to pick it up he traced over the gilded words 'Holy Bible' and his smile fell. Events of a week ago flooded through his mind like rapid moving pictures; the governor's visit, the assassin, the money…and Ezra. Sighing deeply he started to toss the book aside and then stopped himself, instead gently setting it on the front pew. Regardless of the feelings this particular bible wrought, it was still the word of God.
Stretching, he glanced toward the front doors. The noise coming from outside the church was almost loud enough to drown out the cracking of his back and finally he caved into his curiosity to see what was going on.
The morning air was cool, making him shiver as he squinted against the sun's brightness. Adjusting his stance on the steps, he watched in dismay as a noisy procession made its way directly towards him.
Led by a covered wagon, townspeople swarmed into the street, their own curiosity driving them to follow. Josiah could hear their questions even from where he stood, but his eyes remained tightly focused on the wagon and its driver. The once white cover was now grayed and caked with years of travel and dust, but he knew, even before it rolled to a stop, what lay beneath the grime. His chest tightened as the wagon stopped in front of him. He frowned. The faint letters above a solid black cross confirmed his worst fear and he couldn't quite suppress a growl. He didn't notice Chris and Vin come up to the base of the steps.
"God's Messenger," Chris read. "Reverend Jacob Sanchez?" He looked up over his shoulder at Josiah for explanation.
Josiah didn't look at Larabee. Instead, he stared at the giant of a man climbing down from the wagon's front seat. "So he claims."
"Any relation?" Vin asked directly.
"None I want to admit," Josiah muttered.
Before anyone could comment further, the Reverend approached the base of the church steps and stopped an arm's reach away from Larabee and Tanner. He was a good four inches taller than Josiah but built the same. Chris glanced between the two men, struck by the obvious physical resemblance even though the newcomer had a clean-shaven face.
Jacob smiled tightly up at the trio of men, focusing a cold gaze on Josiah. "Well, well," he finally spoke, his voice laced with contempt. "My prodigal nephew."
Josiah let out a huff of disdain. "The prodigal returned," he pointed out sarcastically. "What do you want?"
Jacob shook his head, "Nothing from such a lost sheep." He looked down as if disappointed and then directed his attention to Chris, effectively dismissing Josiah. "I'm Reverend Sanchez," he introduced himself, extending his hand.
After a brief hesitation, Chris shook the man's hand but said nothing.
"I'm here..." Jacob pulled back and motioned flamboyantly to his wagon. "…To hold revival meetings. I'd like to use your church if I may." He posed the statement as a question, recognizing Chris as an authority figure.
Larabee shrugged. "Ask Josiah. It's his church."
Jacob blinked in surprise before turning again toward his nephew.
Josiah's expression was hard. "Lord's house, not mine," he said simply, descending the steps.
Jacob took a step backwards but Josiah kept going, ignoring the whispered murmurs of the crowd. Instead, he kept his stride even and focused on his sudden desire to get drunk.
Chris watched Josiah rigidly move toward the saloon and frowned. The atmosphere was already charged with the tension that existed between these two men and the last thing he wanted was more turmoil in a town that had just barely settled back into normalcy.
He exchanged a look with Vin, who took the unspoken cue and, without a response, slipped into the crowd to follow Josiah. Then, Chris focused his attention again on the visiting preacher. "I don't want trouble," he warned harshly.
Jacob smiled. "Of course not. I bring only the hope and joy that comes with the good news of salvation."
Chris continued to glare. "Uh-huh."
He stepped aside and watched the Reverend begin issuing orders to those who were already stepping up to volunteer their services. He'd seen the kind of 'hope and joy' that various ministers had brought to folks' lives and he had yet to encounter anything but hypocrisy. He saw no need for the straight-laced, unbending rules that were bandied about by the likes of Jacob Sanchez and…from Josiah's reaction to the man…Larabee was sure this was going to make for a long week. Sighing heavily, he abandoned his spot on the steps and maneuvered through the crowd.
"It will be so good to have some sound preaching again."
"This town needs some morality."
The comments were just what he feared. It had been just over a week since the Governor and his entourage had finally rolled out of town, and he had just managed to get the unclaimed ten thousand dollars safely into Judge Travis' possession. The Seven peacekeepers, himself included, were exhausted from the toll of guarding the money and keeping various bandits at bay. Ezra was still recovering from his gunshot wound and, on top of that, Chris had picked up on a deep tension that had sprung up between the gambler and the others…Josiah in particular. Ezra was holding himself apart from the others in a way that he hadn't in quite some time. He was guarded and Chris couldn't help but wonder if he had something to do with that.
Startled, Ezra looked up from his breakfast as Josiah slammed into the saloon. The batwing doors squeaked noisily in his wake while the room grew quiet. Patrons looked at each other as the preacher demanded a bottle of whiskey from Inez as if gauging whether or not it was safe to stay and resume their meals.
Ezra watched, wondering what had put Sanchez in his mood. It was obvious the older man was upset about something. For a brief moment, Standish considered going to his friend and then the memory of Josiah's recent anger hit him squarely. Again, he could hear the accusations in Josiah's angry words and feel the heat of his breath as he'd stood inches from him and yelled. Shaking his head, Ezra pushed the feelings of hurt and betrayal aside. They were still so sharp, too sharp. Maybe, before that incident, he might have approached Josiah to see if there was some way he could help…but not now. Instead, he watched quietly as Vin entered and went directly to Josiah's table.
Glancing down at his meal, Ezra sighed and pushed away from the table, the eggs and biscuits looking suddenly unappealing to him. He paused, breathing through the pain that suddenly caught in his side. The wound was healing just well enough that occasionally he'd forget about it and move too quickly. It didn't take long for the pain to dissipate into a tolerable discomfort and he could move again. He was half-way to the door when Chris entered. Larabee looked straight at him, as if he wanted to say something then turned away. With a sardonic smile, Ezra dusted off his sleeve, adjusted his hat and stepped out into the light.
"Hey Ez, check it out." JD motioned to the crowd at the church.
Standish's eyes narrowed as he surveyed the scene. "And what, pray tell, have we here?"
"Traveling preacher," Buck replied shaking his head. "Ready for a dose of fire and brimstone?"
"Hardly." Ezra shivered.
"Wagon says 'Sanchez'," JD continued. "You think the guy's related to Josiah?"
Ezra looked at the wagon then back toward the saloon. "That would explain our friend's current frame of mind."
"Josiah upset?" Buck looked surprised. "About family visiting?"
"Seeking his solace in a bottle." Ezra shrugged.
"That's not good." JD exchanged a worried look with Buck as Ezra stepped into the street.
"You seeking religion, Ezra?" Buck teased.
"Seek and you shall find." Standish tossed back with a wink. He ignored Wilmington's laughter and made his way through the throng of townspeople. He sensed the excitement in their murmurs and it sent a shiver of warning down his back. The preacher, when he came into view, left no doubt to being related to Josiah and Ezra found himself asking why Reverend Jacob Sanchez's arrival had sent Josiah into the bottle.
Josiah tried to ignore Vin and Chris, but he knew they weren't going to go away easily.
"What's the story with your uncle?" Chris asked after several minutes of silence.
Josiah took a long swallow of whiskey. Finally, he shrugged. "He's a preacher."
"Is he gonna cause trouble?" Chris asked sharply, his patience waning.
"No telling," Sanchez admitted.
"What's between you two?"
Josiah put his glass down and stood abruptly, grabbing the bottle as he did. His eyes flashed fiercely. "Nothing," he snarled. "Absolutely nothing."
By nightfall, the area around the old church building had been completely transformed. Small torches stood like sentinels on either side of the steps, the doors were propped open, welcoming parishioners. Tent-like awnings had been erected on one side of the building, adorned with lit lanterns. Chairs were set in orderly rows under the awnings and the side windows of the building were propped open.
Ezra shook his head as he watched people move in a steady stream toward the church. Most of them had made an effort to don their "Sunday best". Others, like him, watched from various places along the street. The scene amazed him. How long had Josiah worked to fix up the church, waiting every Sunday to see if one person would wander in for his service? And now this man, with Reverend tossed in front of his name, waltzed in and had an instant congregation. He knew well enough that part of the lure was simple curiosity. People got bored with routine and this was something new. The large turn-out was apt to add to Josiah's bad mood.
From the corner of his eye, he caught sight of Sanchez approaching. "Josiah," he greeted simply, hating the clenching chest and loss for words that continued to sweep over him when he was caught in a one-on-one with the larger man.
Josiah was staring at the townspeople entering the church. A grim smile crossed his face as Mary Travis waved from the steps and, though he tipped his hat, Ezra could tell it was mere obligation. "They're like frogs."
A laugh burst forth from Ezra but he cut the laughter short due to the pain in his side and turned toward Sanchez.
"Frogs?" he questioned incredulously.
There was no amusement in Josiah's red-rimmed eyes. He smelled of whiskey. "Frogs in a kettle."
"A kettle?" Standish shook his head. He was used to Josiah's ramblings but this one sounded like it was going to be truly entertaining.
"Old tale of warning." Josiah shifted, his voice rising in volume enough for those around to hear him clearly. "Says if you toss a frog into a kettle of boiling water it'll instinctively jump out."
Ezra watched and waited as Josiah took his time continuing. Sanchez's eyes narrowed and Standish followed his gaze. Reverend Jacob had stepped out to greet his new parishioners. Josiah spoke again, his anger making folks step further away from him. "You take the same frog and put him in cool water, and he'll stay put. Build a fire and heat the kettle up slowly and soon you'll have yourself a boiled frog."
Ezra frowned as Josiah started walking again. "They're all frogs in a kettle," Sanchez tossed out loudly. "Water's just starting to heat up."
Looking down, Ezra contemplated Josiah's words for a moment before deciding what he'd do next. What kind of warning was Josiah giving? Was his Uncle dangerous? A con, or just a rival who drew out Josiah's jealous streak? Reluctantly, Ezra ducked into the back of the church. It was standing room only inside and a few men had even stationed themselves out under the awning as Jacob began the service.
The building's interior was lit with fresh candles and lanterns, and even the bench pews looked like they had been polished. Ezra had to admit that Jacob had done a masterful job of transforming the rugged building into what looked like an actual sanctuary. Jacob himself was positioned at the front of the church behind a draped altar. His long robes matched the elegant looking fabric on the altar. One hand gripped a large leather-bound bible and the other was raised as, with a deep strong voice, he led the congregation in a traditional hymn.
Standish leaned against the back wall and observed. He stood through the a cappella singing and the prayer. He maintained his stance through Jacob's exhortation on giving and the passing of the collection plate. He listened, half amused, as Jacob then cleared his throat and began to preach against the world's evils. Drinking, gambling and prostitution were his themes. He waged his war against such sins and was still ranting, his voice a strong bellow, when Ezra slipped out into the welcoming openness of the cool dark night.
"Feeling convicted?" Vin asked, falling into step beside him.
"No, you?" he asked, realizing Tanner had been lingering near the awning.
"Nah," Vin chuckled under his breath. "Just listening."
"Doesn't sound like the good reverend has anything new to say," Ezra commented he glanced at the saloon and felt welcomed by the light inside.
"Maybe he believes he's right," Tanner spoke softly, pausing on the saloon's step, far enough from the entrance to not be heard by anyone inside.
Ezra paused, gauging where Tanner was coming from and realizing his friend was as concerned about the situation as he was.
"Or he simply admires the sound of his own voice." Ezra ran his thumb across his bottom lip. "Something Josiah said earlier leaves the distinct impression that the reverend is not motivated by altruism."
"You picked up on that too, did ya?" Vin smiled briefly. "Think it's jealousy?"
"I'm prone to consider it more complicated than that," Ezra admitted.
Vin adjusted his hat and nodded knowingly. "Me too, pard." With a look that told Ezra he wasn't quite sure how to deal with the visiting reverend, Tanner led the way into the saloon.
Josiah drank, ignoring everything around him. Occasionally, he would hear a comment about him or his uncle, but he tuned them out and focused on his drink instead. He tried to let the whiskey cloud his mind, to make him incapable of feeling, but it was failing him. His thoughts were too clear, his feelings too deep and the memories too vivid.
Nathan had tried to talk to him, telling him that that Jacob only planned to stay in town for two or three days, but Sanchez pushed Jackson away, hearing only that his friend had talked with his uncle. No one understood his feeling where Jacob was concerned and he couldn't stand to hear them try. He couldn't remember when the saloon had cleared out or when he'd demanded a third bottle from Inez. He'd been beyond noticing when he'd finally blacked out for the night.
Now someone was calling his name. His head hurt, his throat was dry and his pillow felt like it was made out of wood.
Slowly Sanchez forced his eyes open then blinked in confusion. Was he on the floor?
Turning his head, Josiah could only see Tanner's scuffed boots.
"N…" his voice caught and he choked on the word.
"Thought so." A hand gripped his forearm and the room swayed as he was roughly pulled into a sitting position.
Tanner squatted beside him, one hand still grasping his arm while the other steadied him.
"Don't need…" His vision swam and he growled in frustration. He didn't want Tanner's help. He didn't want anyone.
"Yeah," Vin ignored his garbled protests. "Inez is opening and folks don't need to hear you snoring through their breakfast."
"'m fine." Josiah pushed Vin away with enough strength to knock the smaller man off balance. Tanner landed with a thump, but Sanchez didn't look at him. Instead, he grabbed the edge of a nearby table and pulled himself up into a chair. Reaching for the nearly empty bottle, he coughed and cleared his throat. "Leave me alone."
Vin shook his head angrily but didn't persist. "If that's the way you want it." He reached for his hat and lithely scrambled to his feet. Swatting the dust off his backside, he warned Inez, "Let him be." Inez frowned but nodded that she understood.
Josiah didn't look up as Vin left. He refocused his full attention on the bottle in front of him and the mind numbing escape it would provide.
Chris looked up from the book he was reading as Vin sat down beside him outside the saloon. "He still at it?" Larabee asked.
"Yeah." Vin squinted, glancing toward the church where Reverend Sanchez was preaching again. Tanner had spent the morning floating between the street and the saloon trying to keep a watch on both of the Sanchez men.
"Seems harmless enough so far." Chris closed his book and followed Vin's gaze to the church.
" 'cept for how he effects Josiah," Vin countered.
"Could just be jealous," Chris pointed out. "His uncle moves in and takes over. People are responding to him more than they ever have Josiah."
Shaking his head, Vin looked at Chris. "Don't seem like Josiah's way."
"No, but family tends to bring out the worst in us all."
"I don't get that." Tanner adjusted his hat.
"Mr. Larabee has a valid point," Ezra joined the conversation having just come out of the saloon. He leaned against the roof support and checked his pocket watch. "Mr. Sanchez is drinking his noonday meal." He looked at Tanner and Larabee. "Only one person in my life drives me to that point."
"Yeah?" Vin asked.
"Mother." Ezra smiled.
"Still," Vin looked disturbed. " 'Siah might have reason for how he's acting. Shouldn't we give him the benefit of the doubt?"
Chris nodded. "Long as he's not causing problems I can."
Ezra's rough laugh surprised them both.
"What?" Tanner questioned.
Standish shook his head. "Nothing." He adjusted his jacket, avoiding looking directly at either of them. "Of course Mr. Sanchez deserves your support," he said genuinely.
"What was that about?" Vin asked turning to Chris as Ezra walked away.
"Trust," Larabee replied softly.
Ezra spent his day watching, observing those around him and particularly focusing on Reverend Sanchez in an attempt to both forget the hurt and anger he felt towards the others and to find out what was bothering Josiah.
Dressed in a simple brown jacket and minus his usual hat, he snuck into the late afternoon service, careful not to draw undo attention to himself. Listening to Jacob was like an exercise in self-deprecation but it was taking in the reactions of others around him that caused the most concern.
Jacob was persuasive, charismatic and eloquent. Masterfully, he wove his sermons, mixing his harsh philosophies with pretty words, but keeping it on a level that even the average rancher could fully understand. He emphasized judgment over love, and discipline over mercy, blasting sinners with only a mere mention of forgiveness and mixed into the message was a subtle but prevalent focus on giving.
Ezra watched the smiled responses, the nodding and the open postures with growing apprehension. He'd stood behind a pulpit before and had seen the signs. The people of Four Corners were primed and ready to reach into their pockets and hand over their monetary support to the Reverend's ministry. Josiah's frog in the kettle analogy came to mind more than once.
By evening Ezra was tired of the undercover persona and was back in his normal colorful garb. It didn't surprise him to hear the muttered comments against him when he walked the town again or to see that the saloon was nearly empty.
Buck and JD sat at a table with Nathan and Vin, their empty dinner plates pushed aside.
"Nice thing about these meetings," Buck was saying. "Folks are feeling too guilty to cause any trouble."
Nathan nodded but didn't smile, he noticed the tiredness and concern emanating from Standish. "You okay, Ezra?" he asked.
"Better than some."
Nathan followed the gambler's gaze to the opposite corner of the room where Josiah slumped in his chair.
"He's been there all day," Jackson said. "Refuses to talk to anyone."
"Maybe a little persistence is in order."
"Ez," Vin started as he caught Ezra's arm.
"Don't get yourself killed." There was no humor in the Tracker's eyes.
Ezra smiled. "I fully intend to survive." He gently pulled away. "But I thank you for your concern."
"You really think Josiah would hurt him?" JD asked as Standish crossed the room.
"He's drunk, kid," Vin sipped at his beer. "Could do anything."
Buck nodded. "I'm not sure if Ezra's very brave or very stupid."
Nathan sighed heavily. "My bet's on stupid."
Ezra took a deep breath, steeling himself for what he knew would be a hostile reception. Regardless of their recent history or his apprehension towards the preacher, Ezra was tired of watching his friend drink himself into a stupor. If no one else was going to step in, he would and, more importantly, he intended on getting more information about Jacob Sanchez and his motives.
"Evening," he sat down across the table from Josiah.
Very slowly, Sanchez raised his gaze from the lamp burning in the center of the table to Ezra. "Go away, Ezra," he growled and glared.
Casually, Ezra pulled out his silver flask and uncapped it. He swirled the contents a few times before taking a sip.
Josiah's eyes followed his movements. "What do you want?" he hissed.
Ezra smiled. "I thought maybe you could use some companionship other than that inanimate bottle you've been hugging all day."
Sanchez glanced at the latest bottle of whiskey he'd procured for himself. "I like my bottle."
Josiah snarled, "Told you to go away."
"Yes, well…I never have been very cooperative at following direct orders." Ezra waited patiently, trying to ignore Josiah's threatening look. It unnerved him the way one confrontation had completely thrown off his self-assurance with this man, but he was determined not to show it.
"I don't want to talk," Sanchez muttered, his gaze shifting from Ezra to the table where the others sat trying not to look like they were watching.
"Understood." Ezra nodded and concentrated on his flask, tracing the ornately engraved EPS. He wasn't sure what would happen next but at least Josiah wasn't reaching for the bottle…yet.
Minutes passed and Ezra didn't move from his spot. It irritated Josiah but comforted him a little as well. It surprised him, too. Every one of his fellow peacekeepers had approached him already, each trying to help or delve into the matter of his mood. Out of all of them though, no one had stayed. No one had persisted or put up with the anger and yet here sat Ezra, the least likely to even want to talk to him. Hell, the man had barely talked to him at all in the last week and Josiah couldn't really blame him. He couldn't understand what motivated Ezra to stay now.
Outside someone passing by shouted that the evening service was starting. Josiah flinched in spite of himself. He could feel the rage boiling within him.
"He's a liar," Josiah spat out suddenly surprising himself and Ezra.
Standish looked up from the flask he was fiddling with and met his gaze. "Is he?"
Sanchez nodded then swayed dizzily. The room spun for a second and he actually reached to steady his head. "My uncle," he shook his head. The memories he'd been trying to keep away with the whiskey were breaking through anyway. "He's so much like my father," he mumbled. "Fire and brimstone, judgment and damnation. He talks the talk but he walks through bullshit."
Ezra raised his eyebrows but didn't interupt.
"Long time ago," Josiah began hesitantly, his voice low and slightly slurred. "I used to see him different."
"How so?" Ezra asked quietly.
Sighing heavily, Josiah ran a hand over his face, scratched his beard and leaned forward resting his elbows on the table. After a minute, he reached inside his plain linen shirt and withdrew a small woven cross. It was faded but Ezra could still see splashes of color in the mismatched fabric scraps it had been made with. It hung from a braided rope of solid brown material.
"Made this when I was somewhere about fourteen or so." Josiah said running his fingertips over the bumpy edges. "I was going through some things with my father." His eyes darted up to meet Ezra's.
"Father, he was hard on me and my sister since we were little. It was all about being the missionary's son and, honestly, I was never good at living up to that title. Around the time I turned 13 or 14, I was starting to come into my own. Had my own take on things and it rarely, if ever, meshed with my father's. His idea of persuasion and changing a child's mind tended to get heavy handed, especially when I'd argue."
Ezra didn't say anything as Josiah's eyes returned to the cross.
"Uncle Jacob came visiting and I idolized him. He seemed to be everything that Father wasn't and one evening I approached him. I gave him this and asked him if we could talk."
Faint strains of singing drifted into the saloon, making Josiah pause again before continuing. "I told him everything I was feeling, confided in him my thoughts toward my father, my doubts about my faith…every blessed thing. I thought he would listen, give me guidance and be the confidant he portrayed himself to be. Instead," Josiah's fingers tightened on the cross. "He tossed this back at me and told me he'd never accept anything from such sin stained hands. He went to my father and reported the entire conversation to him, then watched as I was punished. I can still remember looking up between dodging my Father's fists and seeing that bastard smiling." Sanchez's voice tightened with anger. He reached for the whiskey bottle. "From that time on, I've never had much use for Jacob." His voice turned into a snarl. "I wear this cross to remember to try to be true to myself because this world is already full enough of folks saying one thing and doing another.
"He's not real," Josiah shook his head. "There's nothing real about that man, nothing."
Suddenly the tentative calm that had settled over Josiah was gone. The whiskey bottle slammed against the table with shattering force.
Ezra raised his arm instinctively protecting himself from flying shards of glass.
"They need to know!" Josiah exploded out of his chair, waving in the direction go the church. "He's not real!"
"Josiah." Ezra scrambled to his feet and hurried to get between the larger man and the door. "You don't want to do this now," he said calmly.
"I told you to go away!" Sanchez shouted as he advanced, shoving Ezra hard.
Standish fell back against a table, knocking it over. He gasped, crashing to the floor; the pain searing through his side with such intensity it took his breath away.
Josiah stormed out of the saloon without looking back.
The others were on their feet. Nathan helped Ezra stand up. "You all right?" he questioned with concern.
"Let him go," Ezra gasped huskily at Vin and Buck who were heading toward the door to chase after Sanchez. Ignoring Jackson's question and shaking off the Healer's support, he nodded a thank you to JD as the younger man handed him his hat.
"Is he gonna hurt somebody?" Tanner asked, stepping half out of the saloon to keep an eye on the preacher as he stumbled along the street toward the church.
Ezra shook his head, trying to disguise his pain as disorientation. His side throbbed agonizingly, and he feared the wound had torn in his fall. "I don't think so," he finally managed.
"Let's go make sure." Buck frowned and followed Vin out into the street.
Ezra waited until the others were all outside before slowly following after them. His mind reeled from the confrontation with Sanchez. His side burned and he was certain he was bleeding again. He could sense Jackson looking back at him suspiciously but hoped his expression revealed only concern for Josiah. Surreptitiously he slipped his handkerchief inside his shirt and pressed it against the oozing wound, breathing deep as a wave of nausea assaulted him. He hissed softly and managed to straighten his jacket, hoping that he looked normal.
"What's going on?" Chris met the group in the street just as Josiah sluggishly reached the church steps.
"He's planning on having his say with his uncle." Vin gestured in Sanchez's direction. "Figured we should be on hand in case it don't go well."
"Just hope we don't end up having to shoot anybody." Chris grunted, falling into step with them. "Especially Josiah."