Author's Note – sorry this took so long, but Josiah would not cooperate, and I had to write around him. Hopefully Vin will be much more cooperative.
Ezra raised an eyebrow as Chris all but fell into the chair next to him. Inez brought a bottle of whiskey and two glasses to the table without a word. He watched as Chris poured the liquor and pushed a glass over. Ezra picked up the glass, sipping at the amber liquid. He repressed a small grimace at the taste, but Chris tossed his own drink back without regard for its inferiority.
"Should I inquire as to the cause of this sudden need for companionship?" Ezra asked, absent-mindedly as he lowered his full glass back to the table.
Chris scowled. "Debating whether or not shooting Josiah would improve my mood."
"Mr. Sanchez?" Both of Ezra's eyebrows shot up in surprise. While Chris had never been what one would call slowly to anger, Mr. Sanchez was usually among the last to get their leader's temper going. "What has our erstwhile preacher done to deserve such a scathing comment?"
"Damn fool's mouthing off to everyone," Chris leaned back, his eyes narrowing. "Heard him snapping at Nathan this morning, but Nate waved me to ignore it. I kept an eye on him all day and he's either avoided people or been downright rude. Just had to keep him from snapping out at JD for nothing."
Ezra frowned. "And I suppose one can presume he has not already been partaking…?" He let his voice fade out on a questioning note.
"Even I don't 'partake' at sunrise, Ez," Chris replied with a side look. Ezra hitched one shoulder slightly and Chris leaned forward with a sigh, folding his arms on the table. "All I can say is it's a damn good thing Buck was out on patrol. He'd have been furious over Josiah's looming over the kid. Man's got a good four inches or more on him."
"Not to mention sheer bulk," Ezra noted absently. "And what, pray tell, did Mr. Sanchez have to say when you interfered?"
"Not a lot," Chris replied, eyes narrowing in thought. "I stepped up between them and stared him down." He rubbed his chin. "He backed off pretty quickly and stalked towards the church."
"Assuredly not in his cups then," Ezra nodded. "His common sense still seems to be in working order." His eyes moved to the entrance as someone walked in, and he tracked the newcomer as the farmer walked to the bar and sat on a stool. The man settled in and Ezra's attention returned to Chris in time to catch the end of his friend's examination of the newcomer as well. He gave a small smirk. "I do not believe Mr. Davis will be any trouble."
"Force of habit," Chris replied.
"Indeed," Ezra agreed. "Now, about Mr. Sanchez?"
Chris shook his head. "Vin knows something, but you know how he is with a secret."
"His neck could be in the hangman's noose and he would never breathe a word," Ezra replied with a frown. "Hmm." He picked up his cards and started shuffling. The repetitive, almost meditative motion allowed him to think while keeping his hands busy. It also prevented others from knowing his mind was distracted. He felt, more than saw, Chris focus on his hands. He repressed a sigh. Well, it prevented most people from realizing he was distracted. His mother would be terribly upset when she discovered how far his supposed inscrutability had slipped. He flipped over a card.
The King of Diamonds lay there.
This time Ezra barely repressed a sniff; a stubborn and influential man – an exceedingly apt description of Josiah Sanchez. Very well, then, he would see what else he could discover. He quickly turned over two more cards. Next to Josiah's card rested the Queen of Diamonds and the Nine of Spades. Ezra's eyes narrowed. That particular queen usually referred to his mother, but it would have been followed by the Ten of Diamonds. This meant another woman, one who had likely been flirtatious and wild, but overshadowed by depression, anxiety, and destruction of some sort. He paused, studying the small spread.
"Ez?" The questioning voice startled him from his reverie. He looked up to see Chris watching him with a hint of concern. Chris leaned forward slightly. "You've been staring at those cards for several minutes now. Something wrong?"
He took a deep breath, letting it flow out of his lungs slowly in an attempt to relax. "Maybe, maybe not," he answered. "It's strange." He turned over three more cards, positioning them below the others. The Four of Spades, Four of Hearts, and Five of Spades simply added to his confusion. "As near as I can tell, there's something wrong with a woman he knows…" He trailed off, eyes widening as he looked over the entire picture. "No, a woman he is related to." Ezra looked up in surprise. "I did not realize-"
"Me either," Chris interrupted, shaking his head. "Family issues?"
"Apparently," Ezra agreed. "She is ill, I believe, and she is or has been mistreated. Mr. Sanchez will need to make a journey. I presume he will need to go and see her."
"So why the hell is he acting this way?" Chris leaned back, folding his arms over his chest with a frown. "If he said he had to go deal with family troubles, we could make do without him for a while. There's no reason to be treating the whole town like enemies."
Ezra shook his head. "I don't know." He finished the spread before him with a final line of three cards – the Nine of Hearts, the Three of Hearts, and the Ace of Hearts. "I'll be," Ezra breathed out in surprise.
"I cannot recall the last time I had three hearts lined up in such a spread," he replied softly. "It is unusual, to say the least." He touched the cards lightly. "It confirms this involves family without question, but it is also a warning." Chris straightened, eyes going dark with concern, but Ezra lifted a hand to reassure him. "Not that kind of a warning."
Chris allowed himself to relax back into the chair. "What kind of warning then?"
"There are secrets here," Ezra replied. "We are treading on very touchy ground and will have to be exceedingly careful of what we say if we are to avoid regretting it later." His eyes moved over the spread, but focused on the final ace. "Actually, I believe we will only be peripherally involved. It would appear this particular tangle is for Mr. Tanner to unweave."
"Vin?" Chris frowned. His face went still as he considered it. "It would make sense. He's been watching Josiah like a hawk."
"Mr. Tanner apparently knows something we don't," Ezra concurred. He stared down at the cards once more. "I do not believe we should inquire too closely. We may regret it if we do."
Ezra's lips twitched as Chris grumbled. He did hate letting his men wander off or handle trouble without him. Chris might tease Buck about being a mother hen, but Chris himself was the worst of the lot. He kept watch over the injured almost as much as Nathan and rode herd on them the rest of the time, balancing the strengths and weakness of the group. For all the man's usual reluctance to be considered head of anything, he wore the mantle of family patriarch rather well. Not that Ezra would ever tell him that of course. It would quite ruin Ezra's own reputation.
"Damnation," Chris muttered. He stood up. "I might as well make it easy on everybody and tell Vin to haul Josiah out of here for a few days until he settles down and gets his head on straight." Ezra raised an eyebrow and Chris huffed. "Least that way I won't have to worry about whether they're coming up with some bullshit story to get out of town. Those two almost never ride out on their own together unless I send them."
"Ah," Ezra noted in understanding. "That will keep people from speculating as well. They will accept your handling of it and the entire situation shall fade from their minds."
"Exactly," Chris agreed. He started to step away before turning back. "Ez?"
"One of these days we're going to have a talk about the names," Chris told him firmly.
Ezra frowned. "Names, Mr. Larabee?"
"Exactly," Chris replied. "There a particular reason you're still using 'Mr.' for most of us?"
"Well…" Ezra's voice trailed off, staring into stormy green eyes.
Chris waited for a moment before stepping forward to put a hand on the table and leaning forward. He lifted his free hand and clasped Ezra's shoulder. Chris gave him a bit a shake. "It's time to let go of that particular barricade, Ez. You don't need it anymore."
Ezra blinked in shock as Chris smiled and then walked out of the building. Why? Why could these men, this man in particular, read him the way they did? Why did they bother? His hands began moving without thought, dealing out three cards automatically. His eyes widened as he considered the row – the King of Spades, the Nine of Hearts, and the Ace of Spades.
The Nine of Hearts – the wish card – for him?
He touched the card, allowing himself to remember, to consider the one wish he had held onto for as long as he could remember. Hope rose within, regardless of how he tried to rein it in. There was only one thing he had ever wanted as a child, one desire he held onto when everything else was snatched away by the need to run, to move on. Did he finally have that here? His hands shook.