The Saloon was busy for this time of evening. People would stop by on their way home from work for a quick drink or a bite to eat, some would stay a while, some would leave as soon as the glass emptied. At a larger table towards the back, a group of men congregated over pitchers of beer and good conversation. They came here with enough regularity that this table with its seven chairs was always saved for them. Even if someone were there when they entered, it was vacated by the time they traveled the length of the room.
Tonight, there were six chairs occupied. The seventh was left there, empty, not being touched by other patrons or asked to be borrowed.
JD poured from the pitcher, refilling the rest of the guys' glasses before getting up to fetch another pitcher. Inez kept the beer flowing, running a tab for them and them only. No one else was allowed that privilege.
"So what did Ezra say he had to do?" asked Buck.
"He didn't. Just said he wouldn't be joining us tonight," Vin supplied before taking a long swig of his beer.
"I'm sure everything's all right Buck, if that's what you're worried about," Josiah supplied.
"I'm not worried. Ezra's a big boy." He belched loud and long. "Just ain't the same when someone's not here is all."
"Nice rip," JD said as he sat back down at the table with a new pitcher. "You miss me or something Buck? I just went to the bar," he said smiling.
"Talkin' 'bout Ez, kid," said Vin.
"Maybe he'll change his mind," said Nathan absently.
Chris snorted. When Nathan looked hard at their leader, Chris remarked, "Oh come on. You ever known that man to change his mind about anything once he's decided?"
"There's a first time for everything," Nathan said.
"I will bet you tonight's bar tab that he won't change his mind," Chris said in all seriousness.
"Did someone say 'bet'?" came a drawl from off to the side. Ezra approached the table, still dressed in the suit he had worn to work, only minus the tie. He pulled out his usual chair and sat.
Chris groaned. Good thing he had brought his credit card.
JD got up and reached over the bar to grab another chilled glass. Inez smiled at him and waved. Another Team Seven perk.
"Well boys," Buck said with a big smile, "looks like Chris is buyin' tonight, so drink up!"
JD poured Ezra a beer and conversation ensued, starting with Ezra's definition of a "sure thing" when betting, for Chris' benefit.
Several rounds later they all had a decent buzz going. After watching in fascination how the light would shine off of Ezra's gold tooth, JD's curiosity got the better of him.
"So Ezra, how did you get the tooth?"
"Which time?" the southerner replied with a laugh.
"What do you mean which time? How many times have you lost it?" asked Buck.
The southerner replied in a jovial, overindulging-in-alcohol tone, "This last time, courtesy of Mr. O'Brien, makes four."
After a moment of silence, Vin prodded. "That's all we get? You tell us you lost that tooth four times, and what? We're not supposed to be curious?"
Standish took a large swig of his beer, cheeks blushing in correlation to his buzz. "Not that interesting, really." He wiped his hand over his mouth, removing the beer-mustache that had formed on his lip.
"Anyone who loses the same tooth four times… come on. There's got to be at least one interesting story in there!" Nathan chuckled as he spoke.
"Well, you all know about the time with O'Brien," Ezra stated, and several of his teammates winced in remembrance. Yeah, they wouldn't be forgetting that one for a while.
"Shillelagh," JD announced.
Ezra nodded and raised his half full beer mug in salute to JD. "Shillelagh. That's one."
"Some sport?" Josiah guessed. "Baseball maybe?"
"Sport, yes," Ezra saluted with his glass again. "Baseball, no."
"Track?" Nathan asked.
"Hockey? Buck asked.
"Hockey!" Ezra saluted again.
"You don't strike me as the hockey type Ezra," Nathan commented. "You seem more like a runner."
"Street hockey, my friends. A slap shot gone awry. I must say though, Missy had one hell of a wrist shot. She just didn't quite have the slap shot down as well. She missed the ball and nailed me in the face," Ezra chuckled as he finished.
"You got your tooth knocked out by a girl?" Vin teased.
"She was a big girl!" he said defensively. "With a big stick!"
"How old were you?" Josiah asked.
"Ten. Mother wasn't too pleased. Knocked my tooth right out. And my foray into dental work began."
"Ok, so we got a shillelagh, a hockey stick…" Buck ticked off the items on his fingers as he spoke.
"Someone must have punched it out of you at some point," Chris spoke up.
Ezra looked at the blond man. "Are you insinuating that I have the ability to anger someone so much, that they would violently take it out on me?"
Chris just smiled.
"Well, I don't quite know how to take that, but you're right. It was 'punched out', as you so delicately put it, in the line of duty."
"Who did that?" asked Vin.
"A suspect at a bust. It appeared that he had a difference of opinion with the FBI as to the nature of our visit." Ezra looked at JD's confused face. "He didn't want to go to jail."
"Oh, I knew that."
"Yes, well… I was chasing him, and he turned and laid me flat out with one mean left hook. Rattled it loose, if you will. Not that it was in there very well at that point. The last dentist to put it back in didn't do such a bang up job. But after that time, I decided to get the gold one. The others were porcelain, and I had cracked it a couple of times biting down on something. And if I was laid flat out, it flat out broke," he finished with a snort.
"How old were you then?" Josiah repeated his earlier question.
"The ripe old age of twenty two. It was only my second or third bust with the FBI."
"Ok," Buck said, "so shillelagh, hockey stick, fist…"
Ezra sighed. "Foot."
At the questioning glances of his teammates, he elaborated. "One of Maude's less-than-stellar choices in men."
"A mark?" asked Chris, concern in his voice.
"No," he said somberly. He took a swig of his beer before continuing. "This was actually a man that she… well, she fell for. She won't admit it if you ask her now. She'd come up with some reason she was using him for something or other. But she did actually fall for him." He blew out a breath. "We were with him—his name was Daniel—for five months. One day, I came home from school, and he was hitting her. Being a gentleman, I asked him to desist."
"You just asked?" Vin asked.
A half smile graced his face. "I hit him with a chair."
"Subtle," Vin said with a shake of his head.
"Got the point across."
"I bet," said Josiah
"Well, I got his undivided attention after that," Ezra said and tipped the last of his beer into his mouth. With a half smile still on his face, he reached for the pitcher on the table and topped off everyone's glasses before he began.
Ezra stood panting, staring at his step father who was picking himself up off the floor. Pieces of the chair lay strewn on the floor. His mother was still cowering next to the couch. Ezra wasn't even sure if she was conscious. Anger radiated off the teen, and he took a protective stance in between where his mother cowered and where his step father was getting to his feet.
"You little bastard! You hit me with a chair?" Daniel said, coming to his full height and rubbing the back of his neck. His face was bright red, reflecting his anger and his pain. His bell had been rung but good.
"Gentlemen," Ezra spat the word, "do not treat ladies like that." Ezra sneered at the man.
"Well boy, you want to settle this like men?" Daniel sneered. "Fine with me."
Ezra took another swig from his beer.
Vin looked at Chris, a silent question as to what to do. Did they let the southerner keep talking? They all wanted to know more about him, but was this the way to do it –through a drunken rambling?
Chris returned Vin's look with one of controlled patience. With the slightest shake of his head, Chris acknowledged Vin's concern, but conveyed the message that this should play its way out. Vin nodded. Maybe this was what the Southerner needed. Or hell, maybe it was what he actually wanted to happen.
Josiah looked pensive, Buck looked on in morbid fascination, Nathan looked like he was in awe of Ezra's gall, and JD's mouth hung open. Ezra didn't notice anyone's reactions as he continued his tale.
The first punch was delivered to his face, faster than Ezra ever thought Daniel could move. His nose immediately began to run blood and he saw stars. He staggered back with the force of the blow.
"Don't like that much now, do ya?" Daniel spat at him as he advanced on the dazed teen.
Ezra shook his head, trying to clear the stars from his vision, but not before the second hit came. This one caught him in the midsection, doubling him over as the air rushed from his lungs. Sinking to the floor on his knees, he gasped and tried to take in a breath. He imagined he looked much like a fish. His eyes bulged from their sockets and tears flowed freely down his face, mixing with the blood flowing from his nose. The rushing in his ears drowned out most other sound.
In a moment of conscious concern, he looked over to where his mother was. I hope she's unconscious, he thought. I don't want her to see this asshole kill me. Maybe he'll spare her.
Air rushed back into his lungs with an urgency that left him light-headed as he rolled onto his side on the Persian rug. I hope at least to leave you with a bloodstain on your fucking rug, he thought as he struggled to get his breathing to return to normal.
"Oh my God," JD said quietly.
Ezra quirked an amused eyebrow and shrugged while smiling. "Wish the Good Lord had stepped in during that." Ezra took a large swallow of his brew.
"Ezra," Chris started, his tone saying that he could stop telling his tale now if he wanted.
"Chris," he answered in an exact mirror of his friend's tone.
Chris sat back in his chair as Ezra continued.
Ezra must have blacked out, because when he came to, he heard Daniel speaking harshly to someone. Shit, Mother!
He rolled to his knees and looked through blurry eyes, surveying the room. Maude stood on shaky legs, holding the mantle to steady herself. Daniel paced near her, clearly agitated.
The words being spoken were muddled at best, but the tone was clear. Daniel was angry and looking for a release. How long had this been going on? This was a new side of Daniel for Ezra. Not that they had been especially close, but he'd seen no hint of the violence so clearly on display now.
He got to a three-point crouch, his free hand clenched tightly to his abdomen, and he looked over the top of the glass-top coffee table at the arguing duo. Duo… right. Daniel was arguing with Maude, and Maude stood there –well, she barely stood there. She looked about ready to collapse. Ezra could see a dark bruise on the side of her face, and her hair was in disarray. Her face looked glossy, covered in sweat.
Daniel advanced on her, apparently expecting an answer to his rant. On pure reflex, Ezra shot to his feet, taking the edge of the coffee table with him and throwing the entire piece of furniture at the enraged man.
Daniel had caught the movement out of the corner of his eye, and got his left arm up to block the projectile. The glass-top shattered, slicing Daniel's forearm, which only seemed to anger him further.
Maude looked at her son with scared, wild eyes. She swung her focus to Daniel, the fog clearing slightly in her abused mind, her face alight with concern for her son. "Daniel, don't…" She didn't get to finish as Daniel pushed past her, the force of the contact throwing her to the floor near the hearth.
"You little fuck. You'll pay for that," he sneered.
"I'm not afraid of you, you son of a bitch!" Ezra yelled. But he was. He was terrified of this man who had murder in his eyes.
As Daniel covered the distance between them, Ezra tried not to pull back in retreat. The man swung out at the teen, but Ezra got his arms up to block the impact. The angered fist deflected off of his arms as the teen spun with the force of the blow. Daniel, in one swift motion, grabbed Ezra by the shoulder and threw him to the ground, trying to bounce his head off the hardwood floor. Ezra's arms managed to protect his head from the impact, but he was in no position to deflect the kick to his midsection, followed by a swift kick that caught him in the mouth. He felt the porcelain tooth that had been knocked out so many years before give way, and fly from his mouth, skittering across the floor. Ezra's face came to rest on the floor, his eyes fixed on the eviscerated tooth. As he started to black out, he heard and enraged Maude scream "DANIEL!" followed by a sickening thwack and a thud of a body hitting the floor near him.
"So, Maude got him?" Nathan asked.
Ezra nodded. "She struck him with the poker from the fireplace. How he wasn't killed with the force of the blow, I don't know."
"So, what happened to this guy?" Buck asked.
"He went to jail. Domestic abuse was taken very seriously. Especially when the judge saw the medical records of what he had done."
"What did the records say?" asked Nathan.
"Mother had three broken ribs, a hairline fracture of her left wrist, and many bruises and scrapes."
"And you?" asked Josiah.
Ezra sighed. "A wounded pride, mostly." He chuckled to himself, but it held no humor. "No, I had a broken nose, bruised ribs from the kicking, and a missing tooth." He ran his tongue over his gold tooth, looking thoughtful for a moment. "I have no doubt he would have killed me if Maude hadn't stopped him." He smiled a wry little smile. "And I was the one who was trying to protect her."
"Mothers will always protect their children," Josiah intoned.
Vin sat quietly and nodded. After a moment, he looked at the Southerner's face, lost in thought and still smiling. "There's something more, isn't there?" he asked.
Ezra looked up and met Vin's eyes. He smirked as he reached for his suit jacket on the back of the chair. From it he pulled a piece of paper and slid it towards Vin.
"What's this?" Vin asked, taking it and opening it. It was a letter.
"Read it," Ezra said as he took another drink of his beer.
Vin started at the letter momentarily, then started to read to himself.
"Aloud, if you will Vin."
Vin cleared his throat. "It's from The State of Georgia, Department of Prisons. 'We are writing to inform you of the death of Daniel Davids, Jr. on the Tenth of November… Ezra, this was last week," he added, pointing to the letter.
"He died in prison?" Buck asked.
"A little anticlimactic, to be sure," said the Southerner. "Would have made a better story if Maude had taken care of him." He swirled his beer in his glass before bringing it to his lips.
"Ez, why didn't you tell us?" JD asked.
He lowered the glass and smiled as he looked at the young man. "I believe I just did, JD."
"No, I know, but why not last week? When you found out?" he pushed.
"You just found out today, didn't you?" asked Nathan with a grin.
"That's why you joined us, isn't it?" continued Josiah.
Ezra just smiled. "It was quite fortuitous that you asked about my tooth when you did JD. It broke into the discussion quite nicely."
"So, what is this? A celebration of sorts?" asked a confused JD.
Ezra looked at him seriously. "JD, I never celebrate the loss of anyone's life, regardless of whether or not they're an abusive rat bastard." He smiled to lighten the mood. He took the letter back from Vin as he slid it towards the Southerner. "This," he shook the piece of paper to emphasize, "is the conclusion to a chapter of my life. It provides some sort of closure, and I wanted to let you all in on it." He met the eyes of everyone in turn.
"And…" he drawled after a moment of pause, "I wanted to get blind stinking drunk. But gentlemen," he swayed a little as he started to stand, "I have the most exquisite bottle of whiskey that my mother sent with that letter that I would love to share with all of you."
"Maude sent whiskey?" Josiah asked.
Ezra paused in his adorning of his coat. "Yes."
"Is she celebrating?" asked Chris.
Ezra smiled. "Mr. Larabee, I would imagine she is also feeling a mixture of emotions. The most likely would be relief. After all, she sent whiskey, not champagne."
Pulling his keys from his pants pocket, he paused only a moment before flipping them to Josiah.Ezra then turned and headed for the door, giving a salute to Inez as he passed through her line of sight. The rest of the boys followed, while Chris settled the bill.
Smiling a goodnight to Inez as he turned for the door, Chris thought about a special bottle of Kentucky Bourbon he had been saving. Maybe he would take a quick spin by his house and grab it before joining the boys at Ezra's…
He chuckled as he walked through the door and out into the night.