A/N: So far there have been six stories in the Strange Bedfellows universe, following what happens to Ezra after he sustains a traumatic head injury. The order of the stories is: Strange Bedfellows, Three Strikes and You're Out, Devil to Pay, Chicago or Bust, The Box of Delights, And Miles to Go Before I Sleep (all here on ffnet, and also on AO3). This seventh story has been a long time coming - so apologies for that. NB for those allergic to cliff-hangers there is one final story to come after this - and it will be along very shortly... Many thanks for Fara and Niko for their beta help and wise advice. Rated T for language and references to suicide.
What seest thou else in the dark backward and abysm of time? (The Tempest, 1. 2)
The moment of justice is surprisingly sweet.
Vin Tanner has witnessed a few such moments in his life. He's meted out one or two more himself as well, come to that, ones that hadn't felt sweet at all, more like a kick to the guts. This particular moment is delivered in Judge Travis' gravest growl, to a hot and tired crowd in the Grain Exchange.
"I find the defendant guilty as charged..."
The prisoner reacts to the pronouncement by freezing in his chair. His face twists as he hears the words, expressing chiefly that he can't believe his luck has finally run out. He turns at once to the dapper, damp-faced lawyer at his side but the look he receives in return is defeated.
Vin thinks that might be almost the best thing about the whole day. To see that particular man reduced from his cocky bantam strut to a slump of shoulders and a slack jaw. And the fact that neither he nor Ezra have been required to take the stand today after all, a shared anxiety which had almost taken root in their bones.
For his part, Vin's almost close to crumbling on the spot. He's been standing here just inside the doors of the Exchange for many hours being the grim face of the law in Four Corners. Chris wanted him there, and it seems as if the town did, too. Visiting dignitaries in suits are all very well, but they don't carry guns. Their version of the law doesn't provide the protection that most folks understand, whereas Vin Tanner's does.
It's been a struggle, though. Vin's bad leg is pounding from kneecap to hip after taking his weight for so long. Yet the small triumph of that moment, when the word "guilty" is pronounced, and a mannerly wave of reaction from the assembled people ripples through the room, almost takes the pain away. For a while, at least.
Vin glances over his shoulder, out of the door. He needs some back-up. Escorting the prisoner from here back over to his cell in the jailhouse will be tricky. But before he's taken many more breaths, the figure of Chris Larabee looms up the steps outside, shoulders a way through the door and Vin just needs to nod at him.
Most of the people in the room are on their feet now. The lawyer, Silas Gawtrey, is wiping his forehead with a handkerchief and the defendant Ludo Palmer has pressed his manacled wrists to his forehead. Larabee's keen eyes scour the ranks of people, then take a good look at the man who's received his just desserts. Chris is stony-faced, but that doesn't mean he's not pleased.
"Best get him locked up." Vin shifts awkwardly, can't help his wince.
Chris changes the focus of his look, sweeps a lightning gaze over him. "Buck's on his way."
"Reckon I c'n walk."
There's a dismissive noise. "Either you stand here looking mean for a spell longer and then take the weight off your feet, or you fall over out there. Know which helps more."
Vin doesn't argue the point. "Town quiet?"
"No trouble." Larabee quirks a brow. "Wouldn't call it quiet."
Vin leans back against the wall behind him. He hears the stomp of Buck's boots coming up the Exchange steps a few seconds later and now Chris is weaving a way towards Palmer, still sitting slumped in his seat. As the prisoner passes him on the way out, flanked by Larabee and Wilmington, Vin catches his eye. For a second he thinks Ludo's about to hawk up a mouthful of bile and spit it right at him but he does and says nothing. That's something all right. Even when they've been shot up and bleeding Vin's never seen a Palmer look so demoralized.
He remains in his spot against the wall as the Exchange gradually empties its occupants into the dusty late-afternoon light. There's a groundswell of opinionated chatter, the constant scrape of chairs against the floor. Judge Travis spends a few minutes talking with the two lawyers. Cochrane for the prosecution, far from looking satisfied, seems like he can't get out of this room, this town, and this territory fast enough, while Gawtrey is nervous as hell, his little eyes flicking around as if he thinks some kind of retribution will materialize from the walls at any second. The narrow-eyed townsfolk know he's put in a lot of hours trying to keep this family afloat, and he's practically hanging on to Judge Travis' coat-tails as they exit.
"Watch your back," Vin can't help growling at him and gets a reproving glare from the Judge.
And then, at last, the stuffy room is empty.
Vin makes an attempt to straighten his locked and throbbing knee. Sharp needles of pain dig into the front of his thigh. Cursing under his breath he drags a chair towards himself and sits heavily. Getting the weight off his feet brings instant relief and in fact may be the only way he'll be able to walk out with any dignity at all. His fingers prod the knee through his pants. It's tight and Vin just hopes it hasn't swollen up enough to make Nathan keep him chair-bound all over again.
He senses the twittering excitement outside, and it makes him both exasperated and concerned. Like Chris, he can't quite believe that the wrath of the Palmers has not yet fallen on the town. Even if Ludo had somehow been cut adrift from them for some unknown crime, family honor would dictate that nobody but themselves could enact retribution. And now Ludo's convicted and sentenced. As soon as Judge Travis can facilitate it, he'll be in a prison transport to Yuma Jail, there to face ten years behind bars.
Not that it was never certain Ludo fired any of the fatal bullets during the stage robbery five months ago, but he's always been convinced of his right to shoot people with whom doesn't see eye to eye, including the regulators of Four Corners.
Even yesterday Vin half hoped maybe the Palmers would descend. It would have been a perfect opportunity to bring them in, the ones they know are killers, the ones who've given Vin a limp he suspects he'll never be rid of - and the ones who've robbed Ezra of the ability to hold a halfway decent conversation anymore.
Vin's teeth clamp together at this thought.
They need to be at full strength to take on those mongrels.
"And we ain't," he says out loud to the room.
No one answers, of course. Outside in the street, town buzzes like a poked hive and Vin ducks his head to get a look out of the window again.
Despite the activity out there nobody is coming to find him, and he's glad of that.
Ten more minutes, he thinks. Then he'll be about ready to git up.
Yep, he'll be almost goddamned well skippin' by then.
It is truly amazing, Josiah thinks, that this town can animate or shut down with equal speed, given the right incentive.
By the time darkness had fallen the night after the trial most of the visitors had left to return to their homes or neighboring communities, leaving the saloon and hotel quiet once again, folk going about their business as if nothing happened, and Chris grimly satisfied.
But the new relaxation of town is at odds with the tension Josiah feels from his comrades. For sure they're not going about their business as if nothing's happened. In fact, they've probably not done that for weeks. They do meet to share a meal, but it's brief and low-key and they don't hang around together after it's done. Perhaps they've developed a pack sense of danger afoot, for certainly they're all on edge, more convinced of oncoming attack than ever.
"Eyes and ears to the ground, boys," Buck might tell them in passing, relaying an order from Chris.
Josiah thinks they're living on their very nerves. They skulk about town just like Larabee has done at times, wary of their own shadows, of the danger of their silhouettes showing up against lit doorways, keeping their backs covered. Their guns are clean and loaded at all times and their approach to peacekeeping is becoming downright military.
But for Josiah it's even more than that. It's his obligation to Ezra—that promise of a solidarity he's not sure he really feels—which drags him down, makes his heart sink when he examines it in detail. And especially because they're all of them getting ready to line up each side of the fault-line now—he can see it in casual looks and exchanges.
He has to make clear soon on which side he stands, even if he can't bring himself to tell them the details.
"Is Ezra all right?" J.D. asks, as he tends to do.
It's some days after the anti-climax that was the eventual exit of Ludo Palmer from town, still feebly railing, shackled inside a prison wagon.
These days have been strangely quiet. Once he got his breath back after the trial, Ludo wore himself out insisting they could look as damned pleased as they liked, send him any damned place they could think of, it wouldn't stop his family coming back to kill them. Despite feeling the threats are overly dramatic, not to mention no more than he'd expect, Chris hasn't let up on the watch. Not for a moment.
Then J.D. asks his question and gets a sharp reply.
"You mean is he any less all right than he was last time someone asked?"
Josiah winces a little at Nathan's response.
"Jus' wondered." The kid is anxious. He looks to Buck who shrugs in discomfort.
They have converged outside the batwings of the saloon, three pairs moving in different directions, all knowing what they're supposed to be doing and all wondering if their missing member does. Ezra has been given a good deal of slack lately. For maybe the first time.
"You said anything?" Chris demands of Buck at once.
They know what he means of course.
It's what Nathan tentatively proposes as a way forward and Ezra continues to reject out of hand. Even the word is something dreadful. It's like a living thing, a largely unacknowledged horror, an extra member of their group.
"Damn, he mentioned it himself." Buck looks even more uncomfortable at the memory. "Came right out and accused us of talkin' about it behind his back. We only asked if he'd changed his mind."
Vin, tetchy as hell, and tense around the mouth from gritting his teeth against his own pain, shakes his head with a quiet hiss. "And had he?"
Before Buck can answer that, the batwings creak and bang behind them in a slow, staccato rhythm. Once on opening, once on closing.
Josiah is painfully dismayed at the sound, frowns hard to himself. It's hardly credible that Ezra had been right in there all along, maybe just the other side of the doors, listening in. The preacher had been sure the usual table was empty of anything but a single coffee cup when he'd glanced in not a half a minute before. He'd thought Ezra was elsewhere. They all had. Or else... maybe they just hadn't thought hard enough.
"And in the red corner," Ezra says dryly as he steps out on to the boardwalk. He looks confoundingly smart and Josiah suspects he takes more time on his appearance than ever these days, just to give a good impression, to deflect from the vagueness. His eyes, tired but still keen enough, travel between Nathan, Buck and J.D. standing to his right, and the other three to his left. "Well now. I really do hope you-" He stops suddenly and sucks in a breath as if something has momentarily pained him, but it's really only a finger-snap of a pause. "-you gentlemen are not going to come to-" Another finger-snap, and then the words are scowled into submission. "To come to blows over this."
There certainly is a touch of the old Ezra in the voice, a hint of his sarcastic humor. But mostly it seems as if he can't quite control his tongue when he speaks. It's a mess of tired, slurred words. In fact, he sounds for all the world like he's drunk, but they know that he isn't since even the smell of liquor is sometimes enough to make him nauseous by now.
"No-one's coming to blows." Chris is hard-voiced.
"An adv-" Ezra slouches in a moment of irritation, jaw jutted in disgust, eyes firmly on the boardwalk as he rallies once again. "An advantage of being seven," he manages at length. "Someone will always have the de-the decisive vote."
"You all right?"
Josiah is expecting the usual comeback from Larabee's question—Perfectly fine. Don't I look all right?—They all are.
But that doesn't happen. Ezra just blinks once, lazily, then raises his hand and quietly places the heel in the center of his head. He closes his eyes on a sigh. It's a strangely elegant move and a strangely resigned sound.
"No," he says, almost to himself. "No I'm not."
It wrong foots them. All along, it's been the one answer they've asked of him, the one honest response they've felt he should give. Now that Ezra's come out and actually said it to their faces they don't know how to respond. Nathan's the one who eventually reaches to curl a light hand around his wrist. "You come on and sit down," he says.
That gets a more predictable reply. Ezra makes a move to slither from the touch, seemingly unaware of the several hands that shoot out to steady him. His eyes slit open but he doesn't appear able to unfurrow his brow, won't risk letting in too much daylight.
"Do I- take it...?" Another stop and start. "Are the lines, the lines... are the..." The voice fades into several too-fast inhalations that make all the saliva in Josiah's mouth dry up, drops his stomach down through his diaphragm and into his gut like a sack of grain plunging through a trapdoor.
"Drawn," Ezra says, seems to be forcing himself to un-grit his teeth. "Do I take it the lines are drawn?"
"What are you on about? What fuckin' lines?" Larabee seems to have taken a pledge not to react to the unreliable speech patterns although Josiah knows how much it bothers him.
"You know." Ezra sidles an unwilling glance at Josiah, drops his eyes away quickly, back to the boardwalk.
"Yeah, we know." Nathan waves aside another protest from Larabee, turns to Ezra. "And you know, because I told you, I'm not in the business of bushwhacking folk and slicing 'em open against their will, so you don't need to be so twitchy around me. I ain't gonna give you no more advice right now than you should go take a lie down and not move 'til I can get to you. I know the look of your eyes, Ezra. Been studying you for months and I know if you don't do as I say you'll hit the ground before lunchtime." Nathan has warmed to his theme and he gestures up the street towards the livery. Towards the clinic and the locked cupboard. "As for that other thing. Well. We could talk about it. While you rest up and I find something for the pain, we could just... talk about it."
Ezra opens his mouth as if to bark out a laugh, or maybe say something cutting that will find its mark, but clearly in the end it's too much effort. Instead, he shakes his head, slaps a wayward hand against his gun-belt to post a warning that convinces no one, then swivels around and begins to head back into the saloon. Even the batwings seem too heavy and it takes him two tries to get through them. By the time he's disappeared Josiah feels like he's aged another five years.
"You've already talked about it, Nathan," Vin says after a beat or two of silence. "Ain't nothin' else."
"Bin watching him, finding out more things." There's a stubborn edge to Nathan's voice, but it's not a mindless stubborn. Some glint of desire and enthusiasm is burning in his eyes too, but he's trying to keep a hold on it.
"Well we know you keep those telegraph lines a-humming." Buck peers over the batwings and then goes into a lean. "That doctor in Chicago told you things you didn't already know? Helpful things?"
Nathan's in between J.D. and Buck and clearly feels he's amongst allies. Josiah is not surprised when he looks across at him with a certain square openness, then transfers the look to Chris and Vin. "I've read the books," he says. "I've studied 'em. I know what to do."
"No you don't, Nathan. You just think ya do. Said yourself, can't get that stuff outa books. And cuttin' up dead dogs don't come close." Vin is clipped, sharp, a little agitated.
"You can't do it," Chris says and he sounds different to Vin, full of heavy calm. "Might have to arrest you if you try. Ezra ain't agreed and that's an end to it."
"Well try this then. Ain't even about his head hurting him, although God knows I can't stand to see it," Nathan says quietly. "Ain't about that anymore, or the blackouts, the damned stutter, not being able to remember stuff. It ain't about any of that. I reckon Ezra's dying of this, you understand me? He's near enough dying of it and this might at least give him a chance."
"Dyin'?" J.D. bursts out and then checks himself. He looks dismayed for reacting as if he doesn't know what's really going on, as if, in all his optimistic naivety he's never considered such a possibility. Josiah wants to reach out to him, across the invisible line.
Even though the tightening of Chris's jaw shows that Nathan's words have hit home, Larabee doesn't falter.
"He knows that and he still don't want it. You can't just go ahead and cut him open when he's told you no."
Josiah half wants to hear more about what Chris thinks Ezra knows, but the conversation is moving on too fast.
"Buck?" Nathan asks.
"This isn't a goddamned election! It's not about who votes yes or no." Chris is speaking in a controlled tone, just about, but Lord is he furious.
"Buck?" Nathan persists, not about to be cowed.
Buck's grown pale under his tan. He looks kind of sick to the stomach in truth, is leaning forward from his position against the post like he might be about to throw up over the edge of the boardwalk. "Maybe," he says after shaking his head clear. "Yeah maybe. Maybe you hafta try."
Appalled to be asked about this particular scenario, the kid stiffens but he's proud enough to be included that he doesn't dodge the question. Although he seems nervous there's a slow nod.
"Can't let him die when you could've at least tried. That's what I think."
Nathan clearly doesn't want to look back at Chris and Vin just yet.
Painfully aware of what has passed between him and Ezra, and that the others know nothing of it, Josiah is silent. Then he just scratches under one eyebrow slowly, giving himself more time to think. Guilt suffuses him at how long it takes him to respond. It makes him afraid once again that he won't be able to keep his word to Ezra, his promise of support, even against his own feelings... even until the ends of the earth.
"Leave the boy alone," he says at last. "You're not to touch him. I won't let you."
They're all plainly surprised at the ferocity in the deep voice, never mind the way he refers to Ezra.
Chris looks at him a moment longer and then swings to Nathan. "You're out-voted." He makes sure Buck and J.D. know he means them, too, but there's no triumph in his voice. Not one jot. "We'll do what we can, like we've always done. Handle what comes."
Nathan hisses in frustration. "What if he changes his mind?"
"It's Ezra we're talking about, he ain't gonna be changing his mind. Hell, and even if he did you wouldn't know for sure—he can barely string two fuckin' words together. So that's how it is—you can't do nothin'."
Josiah feels for Nathan. He does. The desire to help is strong in the man, as is the desire to learn. It's not like he doesn't see Ezra's point of view, either. Only Nathan seems to think that things have gone too far now, that the time for procrastination and false hope is over. And he isn't sure about Josiah being on the other side of the fault-line. That bothers him, Josiah can tell. Before they part company on the boardwalk Nathan gives his friend a questioning look.
"You got something else to tell me?" he asks.
"Not yet," is all Josiah can think to say and knows it's not enough.
J.D. doesn't like the prospect that this could be the kind of falling-out that won't get made up. At least he and Buck agree for the time being—that's a comfort. And he knows Buck's considered himself Ezra's unofficial guardian since the beginning.
Vin and Chris, though. J.D. doesn't quite understand why they're so dead set against Nathan's proposal. There's the honor in respecting a man's bodily integrity, of course, and J.D. can guess Vin might have strong feelings in that direction. Surely Chris would support anything that might save a life, though? Even if there are risks involved. But Chris has come out in Ezra's defense more plainly than J.D. remembers noticing before, even though the results of Gabe Palmer's blow have tried his patience on a number of occasions. It's not what J.D. might have expected. Chris and Ezra get along fine, J.D. always thinks, except when they don't.
Now, no man would relish the prospect of going under the knife, J.D. concedes that. But... he's pretty certain surgeons can do wonders these days, what with all the knowledge they have now about what goes on under the skin. Of course, Nathan ain't a surgeon. Not really. He hasn't done the book learning and practice and proper examinations for that, but J.D. has seen him do some undeniably skillful pieces of cutting and mending and sewing. Work that's saved limbs and lives, including J.D.'s own. He reckons he'd trust Nathan if it was his head needing fixing. For sure.
"Heads ain't the same," Vin tells him, a tad short, when he wonders out loud.
The two of them are far out of town, taking a wide circuit of outlying areas. Both of them are belly down on the flattest of a crop of rocks, scanning the horizons all around.
"I know that, but heck, Maddie Stokes shot me in the gut and that was real tricky. Nathan did it though."
Vin's eyes have been trained towards the flat horizon beyond the woodland while they've been speaking. His concentration has been trained there, too. Obediently, knowing the conversation is over for now, J.D. follows the gaze but there's nothing that catches his eye. There's a shimmer of distant heat hanging over the deep desert but that's all.
"What d'ya think's there?" J.D.'s not going to dispute there's something.
Vin raises his spyglass and looks through, and then he lowers it again, keeps his eyes trained on the horizon. J.D. doesn't understand quite how, but Vin says sometimes he sees things, fixes on 'em better without the magnification. It galls J.D. just a little that when Tanner passes it over and he squints hard through the lens for a while himself he still can't see anything unusual.
"Pretty sure not."
"You going to take a look out there?"
The spyglass is abruptly shut and pocketed. Vin moves off the spot stiffly.
"Like this?" he says in disgust, slapping a hand to the side of his leg above the knee. "I can ride, but not that far."
J.D. has a fleeting thought about Nathan's skills and whether there's some cutting and stitching he could do to ease the almost permanent limp Vin seems to have acquired. He reckons he won't say nothing to Vin though. Ezra and him couldn't be more different in the way they look at life for the most part, but something tells J.D. that on the question of medical intervention with sharp implements and ether, they're about on the same page.
"I'll go." He gestures into the far distance.
"No. You won't."
It's predictable, really, that he won't be 'allowed'. Annoying, too, but J.D. was expecting it, and he's not likely to try and skip away from Tanner, limp or not. He's lived and breathed the sense of 'safety in numbers' often enough by now, knows that Larabee has little patience for foolhardy heroics. If they're not his own, that is.
"But what d'ya think you've seen?" he tries again.
They've done this before, of course, the Palmers. Circled around town, made themselves known and then drawn back. Laid down markers and gotten everybody twitchy. Last time Chris took the decision to meet the challenge head-on. One too many damned chunks were taken out of them as a result and Chris doesn't intend taking the same risk this time.
Only... sitting about doesn't suit any of them either. He figures they'll wait as long as they can stand it. Wait on their own territory for a move to be made.
And made it is, eventually.
Not straight away, of course. It's days on end before anything changes. Whatever Vin thought he was seeing, or sensing, the threat hasn't come any nearer. Town has cheered right up, although Chris can't see much to be cheerful about. And he knows he's right to be so pessimistic when the message is sent.
'Come get us'.
In the night, far away, they hear it. But not really so very far away. It's a boom of sound, familiar and troubling, breaking into their sleep.
Chris sits up slowly in his bed. At first he's not sure what's woken him, and then hears it like an echo in his head. He gets out from between the sheets and goes to the window of his boarding house room, opens it and sticks his head right out. All is quiet. The fires are burning low down on the street and there's nobody about. Still not knowing what it was, but sure he needs to find out, Chris ducks back into the room. He drags on his pants, goes again to the window. This time there's a silhouette walking its way from the direction of the Livery. It's Nathan and he raises a hand to Chris in acknowledgement.
Down on the street, Buck is up and about too.
"Dynamite," is all he says, flat.
It's what Chris's been thinking, every time he re-runs the echo in his mind, and it holds the same sharp frisson for both him and Buck as 'heavy artillery' or 'canon fire.'
"What d'you think?"
"Can't tell where it came from. Hell, where did it come from?"
Nathan has a hand clamped on the back of his own neck. "Railroad?"
"In the middle of the damned night?"
"An accident maybe."
All is unanswered question and speculation. Chris's eyes drift along the dark street, lock on to the now-familiar unevenly loping gait of Vin coming up on them as swiftly as he can. Some faint lights have appeared in a few windows but nobody's opened their door. Maybe they don't want to know.
"Just us?" Vin says first as he reaches them. Chris shrugs. Evidently J.D. and Ezra haven't been disturbed and Josiah, they know, is festering over something, took a bottle to bed. It's not a surprise that rogue explosions haven't woken him. Buck shakes his head about the kid. J.D.'s a damned good sleeper. His youthful brain and body know what they need and take it, whether rolled up in a bed or lying on the ground, untroubled by the mental and physical disturbances which plague some of the others. Ezra's state of consciousness at any given time these days is an unknown quantity they don't want to think about.
"It's them." Chris isn't sure how he knows, but he just does. Figures the others won't take any convincing at all. "Tryin' to draw us out."
"We gonna let 'em?"
Now there's the question.
Along the street he notices that there's a light come on above the Clarion office. So, maybe they do want to know. Mary Travis won't be the only one either. It's not like it's an unknown sound, that hollow boom, for there's the railroad construction site within earshot in one direction and a quarry in the other, but being woken by explosions in the night... it hasn't brought anyone running out in their nightclothes, but for sure they'll have checked that the peacekeepers are on the job. And that will be what they put their trust in. God damn it.
"Can't just ignore an explosion," Chris says.
"That weren't the railroad." Vin's been thinking, getting that edge about him like he wants to find a horse and ride out straight away.
Tanner's head shake is convincing. "Wrong direction. I'm thinking it was a transportation accident... else it was comin' from the quarry."
"Anyone seen any of the quarrymen round here lately?" Nathan is not very optimistic. The quarry workers don't come into town often, but sometimes they bring themselves and their broken bones along to see Nathan, drink the saloon dry. Chris is getting a bad feeling that maybe the quarry has fallen out of disuse and they haven't even noticed.
He's left with a dilemma.
If there is something going on at the quarry, and if it is something to do with the Palmers, perhaps they all need to ride on out there together. That clan do nothing by halves and always seem able to tack on some more good-for-nothing family members when they're on the move. With two of his friends already laid low by these mongrels, Chris wouldn't want to risk any more. They all stay together in town, or they all ride out together.
"We ride," he says, feeling exactly the same as he knows Vin does. "Need to check it out. Meet at the livery in half an hour."
Buck will hike J.D. out of bed, he knows. Vin says he'll swing by the church, find Josiah and sober him up. Chris figures that'll involve a bucket of cold water at the very least and he wonders what kind of opposition the bunch of them are going to make if that really is the Palmers out there.
"I'll wake Ezra," he says and Buck claps him on the back in sympathy.
Chris keeps listening as he wends his way to the saloon. Just in case there's more troubling sounds rising up from the desert. There's nothing though. His boots are the loudest thing he can hear, rapping on the floor as he crosses to the dark stairs. Inez keeps the place locked up at night but they all have access. For emergency rallying and sustenance. It's a right that they persuaded Judge Travis was essential, assuring him (and Inez, repeatedly) that even when they keep their own hours nobody takes a drink without paying for it.
He knocks robustly on Ezra's door.
The answering sound of a gun being cocked is comforting.
"Trouble," he says, leaning close to the panels, fingertips brushing the smooth wood. "Need to ride."
There's a thoughtful silence behind the door, a thump and then a cough. The lock is turned and the door is cracked. Ezra, in his underclothes, peers through, gun in hand. He looks pale, but only the kind of pale that comes from being woken up suddenly. Or not having slept very well.
"It them?" he asks.
Chris shrugs. "You hear the explosion?"
Ezra is non-committal, or else he hasn't processed the question. "How long?"
"A half hour."
A brief nod and then the door is shut and the lock turned again.
Ezra, typically, is the last to muster at the livery. There's clearly been some thought and some preparation. He's not wearing one of his bright jackets but a thick coat, eminently practical, which is not always Ezra's instinct, and smart in its own way.
"Think it might be the quarry," Chris says.
Josiah is looking paler than Ezra, his eyes red-rimmed. A lively wind has blown up in the thirty minutes since Vin hammered on his door at the back of the church and he's hunkered low in his saddle against it, serape smelling of smoke and whiskey. Ezra peers at him from under his hat. Buck has a tin cup of coffee in his hand – who the heck did he find to make him that? – and he takes a swig, then passes it first to Nathan, then to Vin. Looking like he found time to shave for the occasion, J.D. is bright-faced and keen. Ready to go.
Not that they even know what, exactly, they're going to find. Yet, despite all the infirmities on display, they are here.
There's a solid lump sitting under his ribcage when Chris acknowledges that fact to himself, and he hopes it won't weigh him down. It's not an unfamiliar feeling. All he knows—and he supposes it's his own contrary nature—is that the less perfect these men appear, the more solidly the lump settles. Perhaps instead of a weight it'll be a balance.
Hell, Chris really doesn't want it to be the Palmers out there waiting for him. Even though he really does. Even though he wants to face them down and finish it all now. This day.
The good thing, Ezra supposes, is that he's here, still jogging along in the midst of the troop.
There are an awful lot of ways in which nothing much has changed since the days of the Seminole village. He still doesn't know how he ended up in law enforcement, still suspects to his chagrin he may actually be more suited to it than many of the previous careers he's fallen or been pushed into.
The bad thing is the odd feeling of detachment that's jogging along with him. Like Chris and the others there's a certain presentiment in his gut that it's definitely the Palmers waiting for them up ahead, and thus far their encounters have resulted in an overdose of hurt and humiliation. That should make him as fierce and focused as his compatriots. But Ezra feels no sense of the usual anxiety about what might happen to him when the bullets begin to fly again, and only a fraction of the unease he normally feels about the others.
He's pretty sure it is all part of the same syndrome. Apart from the piercing point of his headache, the dragging inevitability of his condition, nothing much seems to be worth bothering about these days. Or at least, it doesn't exactly register and he can't find a way to engage with it anymore.
Buck and J.D. seem convinced he'll be anticipating some final, vengeful showdown with Gabe - the man who struck the blow, youngest of the long-dead Haydon Palmer's four sons. Ezra's tired of explaining that, since he doesn't recall going after Gabe Palmer in the first place, and has only hazy recollections of anything that he learned about the family previously, his desire for vengeance is somewhat... muted. Or non-existent.
There is pesky sense of responsibility to see things through however. To know that it's finished and justice has been done. For the family of Bill Dunnett not least, and every other person the Palmers have hurt. Ezra is aware that at some stage he's thought around all of this with some care, and with his usual life-saving regard for detail. Only, when he goes back over it now he always suspects he's missed something important.
All he really knows is that he gets tired quickly. It seems no time at all in the saddle before lassitude creeps up on him, his fingers begin to seem numb clasped around the reins and he wonders if he can go on keeping his seat for much longer. Really, when Chris turned up at his door, he should have told him he wasn't up to it. Admitted it all, bared his pock-marked soul to the one person in the world before whom he doesn't want to appear weak. Because there's something relentless and black as night that's about to crush him from within, he's become convinced of that. Or else it's just over his shoulder, would be there waiting to swallow him whole if he should just glance backward.
"You up to this?" Nathan manages to ask, sidling his horse in next to Ezra's as they slow down along a rocky creek bed.
"We are... we are close to the end of the game, Mr. Jackson. I wouldn't wish a... wish to... I wouldn't wish not to be involved."
"Just so long as you're feeling all right."
Ezra disagrees. "Just so long as I am no hindrance."
Nathan's horse dances a little, as if it can feel the doubt and uncertainty.
Because really. The last thing they need is one of their number with his reaction times shot to pieces. At this thought, Ezra stuffs the reins into one hand, fusses at his shoulder holster with the other. He can feel himself sliding all over the saddle, knows he must look unsteady. The gun handle is cool against his fingers. Familiar, yet somehow alien.
"How far?" Chris is asking at the head of the group.
Ezra doesn't hear the reply. From his limited knowledge of the terrain and the surroundings of town he figures they're not far away. Perhaps over the next ridge they'll be able to see it. A sudden cold sweat breaks out on his brow.
Sure enough, Chris is raising a hand, bringing them all to a slow walk. Vin slides from his saddle, using the forward momentum of the horse and moving ahead of the whole group like a shadow. He's up into the brush and rocks in a moment, bad leg or no bad leg, balanced and fleet. It's how things work. Any moment now, Ezra thinks, Chris will glance towards him, half wondering what the plan might be.
Only, unless he's missed it, Chris doesn't seem to do that this time. Ezra frowns. Not that he has a plan, but he's used to being consulted. They all watch Vin's descent and Ezra listens vaguely to talk about who looks to be down there, what the terrain is like.
"Ain't but five of 'em far as I can see. Made camp down on the edge of the workin's, though it looks like they're fixin' to move out anytime."
"Five?" Chris sounds as if he can't quite believe that. Such serendipitous odds are not what he's accustomed to.
"Burton's down there f'sure," Vin confirms. "C'n make out Ring, too. Looks like a real nice family gathering."
"When did the quarrymen abandon the workings?" Chris demands to nobody in particular. "And leave goddamned dynamite lying about!" It was the kind of important information they'd expect to be conveyed to them—if not by the quarry owners themselves, at least by interested parties in town. It's maybe too far out for any kids to go getting into mischief, but even so...
"Well someone put up a sign," Vin says. "Says danger and... a bunch of other stuff."
"So there's definitely gunpowder down there?" Ezra finds himself asking.
It's funny. Instead of some derisive snorts in reaction, he's pretty sure that Buck, at least, is grinning at him, almost in admiration. As if the fact that he's thought of it, and offered the thought out loud with a clarity suggesting there isn't a screw loose in his head, is more important than what foolish mayhem he might be plotting. He thinks he might be quite gratified at the expectation of some cleverness, but he still doesn't have a plan in mind that he likes. In fact, the idea of anything exploding near enough he'd hear it but not near enough to obliterate him creates an anticipatory nausea.
"If there is it'll be unstable," Chris tells him, suddenly suspicious.
"That's-that's in the nature of- it's in the nature of the stuff." Ezra is suitably caustic, turns his gaze to Vin, questioning, glad to have something to concentrate on. Something he knows about and that they know he knows about. It appears—his pulsing, pitching world to the contrary—that he is regarded as still in the game.
"Can't tell fer sure," Vin says. "Leastways, not without a closer look. It ain't lyin' about out in the open, but... something sure went up."
Chris shifts in the saddle. "They're sitting on a powder-keg."
There's a small tut from Josiah, who's only just, it seems, beginning to emerge from his hangover. He's grimly succinct. "We have numbers, but they alone perhaps have the capacity for Armageddon."
There's quiet after that word, as if there's some chewing of it going on.
"So we ain't chargin' in." Vin, as he often is these days, seems irritable when affairs don't move quickly. "Let's play their game then." He rubs absently at his knee and Ezra sees Nathan giving him a long look from the back of the group.
The Palmers' game is simple and they don't need the ploy explained. It's to draw the seven of them into a trap, make themselves seem like an easy target. They know that Larabee and his men want to take them in alive, and to do so they'll have to come close. Close enough to get burned. Ezra tries to focus his mind on what could be done, but he finds himself wandering, thoughts skittering about like rabbits reacting to buckshot. When he drags himself back to the here and now, Vin's talking about if any of them will break cover enough to investigate a riderless horse.
"They ain't clever people," Nathan reminds him. "Might just shoot it."
Ezra guesses, from the look that flits over Vin's face, that if they did, he might just charge straight in there dragging his leg behind him, Armageddon be damned.
"Worth a try." Chris nods. "But we need to nail down what we're dealing with, far as we can."
"Ain't gonna see much from north or east." Vin gestures back up the ridge. "That's the best point, but it'd be worth someone taking a run round the south side of the workings."
Ezra knows he won't be sent, knows with a certain regret that Chris won't even contemplate it. To be fair, although he's nearly always chosen as the one to scope out rooms full of people, he's rarely sent on reconnaissance in the wild outdoors, unless absolutely necessary. And 'absolutely necessary' has not, apparently, been a factor since Gabe Palmer.
The name popping into his head is a surprise. He reminds himself that Gabe is down there, on the other side of the ridge, but it still doesn't resonate. He's seen the others spitting feathers on the topic often enough, but right now he can barely even recall what the man looks like. Gabe is worryingly unreal. As are the rest of his family. Ezra wonders if that might actually be an advantage, might make this particular enemy less fearsome, even if falsely so. Certainly, as far as fear goes, there's a new impulse in him that's becoming daily more familiar. It's an impulse that would almost walk him down into the middle of them right now, unarmed, to take what came. Like standing on a cliff-top, or on Josiah's lamentably precarious bell-tower, terrified of the danger, but drawn to the exhilaration of the drop. A sudden leave-taking often seems powerfully preferable to what he's sure he faces in his future, with or without Nathan's wretched scalpels. He doesn't think Chris would react very well to that as a plan though. And Josiah probably even less well.
At a nod, Josiah and J.D. move off to the south, and Chris goes back up the ridge behind Vin. Buck takes care of the horses and Nathan dismounts and unlaces his water bottle from the saddle. After he takes a swig, his gaze swings to Ezra, who has reached the ground himself by now and has one fist pressed over his right eyebrow, praying the world will stop heaving soon. When it does, he notices, too late, that Nathan has another receptacle in his hand, too. It's like a water bottle, only not quite as large, and Nathan's approaching him with both.
"Dear Lord," Ezra says. "Is that what I think it is?"
"I don't know." Nathan quirks a brow. He's already unscrewing the lid of the larger bottle. "Is that hand to your head what I think it is?" He reaches Ezra's elbow. "I brought the one that seems to work the best, ready boiled up." His voice is low, so it won't carry to Buck. "Ain't gonna do nobody no harm for you to take a drink."
Ezra accepts the bottle without protest, sniffs the contents and then takes a gulp. The liquid inside is as pungent cooled as it is hot, the aftertaste unpleasant. He has a pretty good idea of what's in it, and the taste is now somewhat distressingly well-known – willow bark, wintergreen, vinegar.
"You haven't put any-" Ezra frowns over the rapidly departing sentence. Nathan raises his brows.
"If you're asking if I've slipped somethin' else in there, the answer is no. What help would it be if you fell asleep on us? Made it up for you and Vin, in case. It's just the regular."
"Indeed. And regularly loathsome." He pauses, a sudden memory coming to him from nowhere, rattling him where he stands.
Maude, and her special bottle of the 'very best medicine money can buy', her sweetest, most sugared voice coaxing him to drink, holding back her impatience with a determination he'd recognized even as a small boy. Lord knows what that concoction was, apart from brandy, or how she came by it. It must have worked, whatever the ingredients. He's aware that he's choosing to conjure Maude with some sentimentality these days, pushing away those old resents, the memory of his childhood melancholy.
"Thank you," he says, then swallows another mouthful. The taste is foul enough it overrides the memory of brandy.
Nathan doesn't smile exactly but he seems relaxed enough as Ezra hands him back the bottle. Vestiges of ground bark and leaf catch in his throat but Nathan is already pressing the water bottle into his hand.
The care and forethought is astounding. Suddenly Ezra feels a tide of unwelcome emotion rolling towards him. He has a ridiculous, unmanly desire to see his mother, to tell her how badly it hurts. Then he experiences a fierce wash of appreciation for the man at his side. Ezra's appalled, fears he's about to choke up, wishes Nathan would just say something tetchy to him, complain about his complaining, or his ingratitude or his secrecy. But Nathan doesn't. He just stands there like a rock.
Ezra can't think of the words to say, even if he was capable at this moment.
Nathan is quiet, worried eyes fixed on him. "Gotta keep you goin' somehow. Here's Buck coming back. You finished up?"
Turning back the tide by a supreme effort of will, Ezra nods and returns the bottle. He's grateful that Nathan leaves him to gather himself. Ezra is still skilled at gathering himself. He consciously pushes down on his emotion, flattens it to nothing. Willing the brew to work, he turns his attention once more to being alert. Although he doesn't catch what it is, he's fully aware that Nathan murmurs something about him to Buck as they pass. And that Buck shakes his head.
The three of them check their own guns while they're waiting for the others to return. Chris and Vin stay up on the ridge for a good twenty minutes, and Ezra notices that the descent looks a lot less easy for Vin this time around and supposes that Nathan will have seen that too. Sure enough, the medicinal bottle of tea is produced and Vin grumbles about how he'd rather have whiskey. He manages to knock back more than Ezra did though, wipes his mouth with his sleeve after.
By the time J.D. and Josiah return they know they're not looking at numbers, but they are definitely looking at dynamite. It's piled, according to J.D., in various locations close to the center of the site and it wouldn't take much to send it up.
At that, Ezra feels his attention wandering around in all directions. He has a strong prescience the Palmers intend to blow themselves collectively to matchwood just as soon as they think they're finally cornered—aiming, of course, to take a few of Larabee's men with them. Burton Palmer won't be looking to end his days in jail, that's for sure— perhaps in the same way Ezra isn't looking to end his days prematurely dependent and dribbling in a bath-chair. Like that unfortunate cousin of his they were never allowed to talk about, wrecked by gangrene and brain fever while still in his prime.
"For Pete's sake, it's not the same, Ezra!" How many times has Nathan said that to him when he's mentioned it?
And how many times has Ezra retorted that he's intelligent enough to know how chancy brain surgery is and don't they know by now that he leaves nothing to chance?
For some reason they seem to think he's joking.
"Hey! You with us?"
The question is sharp, bounces off the side of Ezra's skull and makes him jump nervously. It sounds as if it might be a second or third repetition. Ezra realizes he's looking at the ground under his boots, doesn't want to lift his head up.
But he has to. He has to.
"We're sendin' down Vin's horse, see if any of 'em take the bait."
An interesting shot in the dark. From what they know the clan as a whole have a skewed sense of honor, and a keen sense of revenge, but the ultimate loyalty of the three remaining nephews is untested. Ludo didn't seem to have been following orders when he got himself arrested in Banner.
Not knowing how much time has passed since he began ruminating on conflagrations and loyalty, Ezra is not sure what he's missed, of all the details of the plan. A horse, a bait, a hope wispy as the clouds apparently.
He manages to make eye contact with Chris without moving his neck too much, but even so receives a stiletto-sharp barb of pain above his ear and Chris's shape shimmers like an apparition.
Peso, without his saddle and tack, has something of the look of a wild mustang about him—at least, that's what they hope it seems like from below. The horse is playing the part of a skittish runaway with conviction at any rate, pawing the ground and tossing his head. Probably he's wondering why Vin's sent him off for a gallop in the middle of nowhere and when he's going to be called back.
"That's it," Vin coaxes from up on the ridge. "You come on and see." He gives a low chuckle of triumph and Chris squints sideways at him.
"Who've we got?"
Without taking the spyglass from his face, Vin says, "One of Uncle Burton's... and huh... they're sending him out to see."
"What's Peso gonna do now?"
Vin draws back from the spyglass, cocks Chris a look. "Ain't got a clue."
Slithering away from the vantage point, they descend back to the others.
"Let's go collect," Chris says and nods at Buck.
"They're biting?" Nathan is faintly incredulous.
"Look to be." Vin seems a little incredulous himself.
Of course, the trick will only work once.
It's Gabe in fact who's broken cover, overcome by curiosity. He rides his own horse out past the flat, ordered boundaries of the huge sandstone site, out into the scrubby grass and scattered rocks at the outskirts. He follows Peso's grumpy meanderings towards the beginnings of the foothills and before long Chris and the other two, crouched behind a mess of boulders and brush, can hear his low whistling as he tries to get the horse's attention.
When they're about near enough, Vin clucks softly and immediately Peso's ears are up and he stands quite still.
Gabe Palmer has slipped out of his saddle by now and is still approaching, one foot after another, quiet and slow, one hand held out to the riderless horse, one leading his own behind him. He has a hand gun on his hip, but no other discernible weapon.
Like taking candy.
Vin raises his mare's leg to shoulder height to announce himself, stands up from the rocks.
"Afternoon," he says in a real soft voice.
It's only just loud enough for Gabe to hear, and pitched gentle so Peso doesn't spook.
Chris and Buck are ready for Gabe to throw down. He's always been reckless, and they don't need a shot alerting the others to danger. As well as that, Vin won't want bullets flying near his already uncertain horse.
Instinctively Gabe reaches, but he's off-balance, body twisted so he can keep hold of the leading rein of his horse. He doesn't even get his gun into his hand before Buck's on him.
"Don't you so much as blink now."
"Whoa," Vin says as Peso rears a little at the movement, but his smell and voice are enough. The horse skitters about, jostling Vin as he gets up close, but he allows a rope to be looped over him, does no more than snort in annoyance at the whole inconvenience.
Before Gabe can open his mouth and start yapping about what'll happen to them soon as his Uncle knows he's gone, Buck has him face down in the dirt, hands behind his back. Chris throws Buck some cuffs, settles his own gun into the side of Gabe's head to keep him quiet. Gabe winces at the contact.
"Fragile, ain't it?" Chris says. He almost doesn't like the feel of the barrel scraping against a man's vulnerable skull, the fleeting thought of how easy it would be to knock him senseless using only a quarter of the power Gabe used on Ezra. "You're ours now, Palmer. And you're going the same way as your brother. To court, then to jail. You and the rest of your mongrel pack."
Gabe can only speak when he's on his feet again, eyes tracking the barrel of Larabee's pistol. He coughs up the grit Buck managed to rub into his mouth while he was down. "They'll blow you to fuckin' kingdom come," he says, but it's a pat response.
"They can try."
Actually, Chris hopes to God they don't. The presence of explosive material makes him feel twitchy in a way even a barrage of bullets never would. It's not something he wants to expose himself and especially the others to—the damned stuff is untrustworthy and he's never really learned how to judge it, only knows from grim memory the effect it has, how it sounds when it's tearing up limbs and spreading men's brains about. How a very little is all it takes.
By the time they get Gabe back to the others he seems to have taken a temporary vow of silence. Vin says, although only for Chris's ear, that he's sure he can get some information out of him, and Chris knows this is true. But he really doesn't want to let Vin do that just yet. Not for his own conscience and certainly not for Vin's. They've struggled with the right kind of justice ever since they first read about this family. Since they heard about their thieving and folks got up in arms about their smashing headstones in an out of town graveyard—just for sport. Seeing Ludo finally defeated by the full force of the law, not having to bend the rules to make it happen... it had been a good feeling. One Chris hadn't been expecting.
On the other hand, if giving Tanner free rein to question their prisoner would deliver them the other four Palmers without a single fuse being lit, then it would seem like a small price to pay. A part of him wonders what Ezra would think about this.
Gabe is tired and hungry, but Chris doesn't feel inclined to help him out with that. The youngest of the clan seems relieved he's up here and not down there. He gulps from Nathan's canteen like he hasn't had water for days. Gabe is bearded and ripe, his fingernails broken from picking up rocks. Chris sees Ezra looking him over, but Gabe doesn't return the surveillance. It's almost as if he's the one who's forgotten.
It takes a while down at the quarry before the rest of them notice Gabe's missing.
Chris is alerted to it by Vin slithering down from the watch position.
"They finally figured out he ain't there."
"And what are they doing about it?"
Vin gives a snort. "Walkin' round in circles looks like." He puts his hands on his hips. "Gabe's spot's empty now and they're movin' the powder."
"Target's getting smaller."
"Yep, and the fireball's gettin' bigger."
There's a collective feeling of 'what next?' and Ezra clears his throat.
All eyes turn in his direction.
"I'm thinkin'..." It's ironic that he should begin that way really, since they've not been confident lately that he can do any such thing. "Whatever we do has to be inform... informed by their defenses." He pats the deep pocket of his coat. "I do happen to have..."
"Ah hell," Chris says, but Buck can't help smirking.
"Do you ever travel anywhere without powder, hoss?" he asks, which Chris thinks is rich seeing as Buck's been known to keep a spare stick of something stuffed into a saddlebag himself, even though he hates the stuff.
"Not when I'm w-with you gentlemen." Ezra adjusts his hat against the sun. "Although it is scarcely enough for more than a... than a..." The word, one of his favorites, seems to be sliding away from him over the gully hard as he fights to keep it.
"A firecracker?" Buck fills in for him.
Ezra just sucks in a breath.
"Most of what they have's in one place... near the quarry office," Vin says.
Hearing that, Chris nods slowly. "Burton's split 'em up and they all got defenses—Ezra's firecracker could take one of 'em out maybe. Although there's a heck of a wind."
"If we blew the main dump?" Buck asks, scratching at the underside of his chin.
"Big bang. Shrapnel might slow a couple, the rest'd stay in cover or scatter so I could maybe pick 'em off." Vin clears his throat, gives Chris a slightly wolfish smile. "But I'm guessing we're lookin' to bring 'em in alive."
"Just know I'd feel better if it's our big bang and not theirs." Chris slants another look at Ezra. "Don't suppose you got that slingshot of yours?"
For a moment or two Ezra looks at him as if he has no idea what he's talking about. As if the words that have come out of his mouth are incomprehensible. Chris can almost see them slowly forming themselves correctly into sequence in his head, making sense.
"I... returned it to the child, naturally."
"Daresay we could rig something up," Josiah remarks, reluctant.
Vin, still with his hands on his hips, scuffs at the ground with one boot. He's shaking his head, although probably more because he's just doubtful than because he's likely to naysay the emerging proposition.
"We'd have to get close," he says. "Close enough they could sling something right back."
And of course, that's just what happens.
They make sure Gabe's trussed up so tight he won't be going anywhere, then make an approach.
It's a pincer movement, nothing too fancy. The aim is to come up on all of them from different directions, so there's no escape routes. Three of the remaining Palmers have obliged by staying together, are hunkered down near the quarry office, in clear anticipation that the enemy would be drawn in, eventually. Vin's identified another man fifty yards towards the limits of the site. There's no barrels or boxes anywhere near him as far as they can see, but when it comes down to it, seems that means nothing.
Something is thrown.
They're not sure that it even has a proper fuse. Could just as well be a stray stick of powder made volatile simply by energy and impact. Hurled more in hope than expectation.
Whatever its make-up, or its intended target, the device is incendiary all right.
"Get down!" Josiah hollers as he half sees the object arc low through the sky. It hits the brush near where Nathan and Buck are crouched.
There's a blast. It blows shards of rock in all directions, ploughs a furrow into the hard-packed earth. A yellow cloud is thrown up over the area where his friends had been and Josiah, uncaring of his own safety, rises from his spot and begins to stumble towards it.
He knows Chris is shouting, at him, at them.
Vin and Ezra have come out of cover too. They've moved up towards the wooden quarry office. Josiah sees them from the corner of his eye, plain targets, standing bolt upright. They're exposed, vulnerable, and Josiah can do nothing about that. Vin's hat is hanging by the strap around his neck. His hair billows out behind him in a stream of air and dust. Vin doesn't have his mare's leg in his hands, but instead the catapult that Josiah, Ezra and Chris had fashioned between them. Ezra has somehow lit the fuse of the firecracker he'd made, even in this wind.
As Josiah reaches Buck, just now visible on the ground as the dust begins to lift, he hears the barrage of covering gunfire being laid down by Chris and J.D. There's another blast from the same direction as before, near enough to rattle his skull, and he throws himself down. As far over Buck as he can.
The explosions Vin and Ezra cause hurt his ears. It's truly Armageddon.
Josiah cringes down in his position. His rib-cage vibrates. He's deafened, can feel lumps of rock and grit pelting down on his back, pooling in the brim of his hat. He doesn't know if Buck's alive or dead underneath him. Or where the Hell Nathan is. There are three separate detonations – behind, or overhead, he can't tell. They come one after another, like the booming stutter of canon fire, each louder than the last. He can hear the awful sound of men's cries, the batter of debris hitting the earth, the peculiar echo as each blast sucks air and light out of the sky.
His mouth forms some kind of prayer. There's no Scripture, no invocation in them. He can get no further than "Please, God..." before the words stick in his throat.
When he can hear again, there's only the wind. Then the soft sound of groaning that he realizes is coming from Buck. Since he has no idea if there's going to be more explosions, Josiah doesn't move off him. Not until he hears Chris nearby, feels hands trying to drag him away.
That's what he can just about hear, and that makes sense. Josiah doesn't know if Vin and Ezra blew the whole of the main dump, or if there's more to come. The gunfire has stopped. Perhaps it's because his ears are still ringing, but there's something about the quiet and the wind that's far from peaceful. He slides clumsily to one side.
Buck's lying on his back, staring up at the sky in total confusion.
Now the dust has settled a little, Josiah can see Nathan. He's holding his arm and there's blood on his shirt and face. He's sitting where he is, looks as if he's trying to get the strength to stand up. The others are covered in dust too. Their hair and faces are coated in it. Vin has his gun drawn on a Palmer—Josiah thinks it's Abner, Burton's only son, and he's the only one Josiah can spot. There are what looks like bodies not far away, but too many parts in too many places and it makes Josiah's stomach turn over. Ezra is wandering a little way away amongst the debris, his hat obscuring his face. Josiah marvels that he's managed to keep hold of it at all in the storm they've just been in, but he's also relieved. It's almost a symbol that Ezra's instinct for self-preservation is intact, and frankly... he's been worried about that lately.
Chris has checked on J.D., who still seems more lively than any of them, and now he's coming towards Nathan.
There's a dreamlike quality to the scene around him. Slowly Josiah sits up. He realizes he has his gun in his hand but he doesn't think he fired it.
"You all right, Buck?" he asks.
Buck blinks at the sky. Josiah shuffles near again, runs a hand across Buck's chest, down his arms. He doesn't seem to be in pain, or have any obvious wounds.
"Buck?" he repeats. "You all right?"
There's no real response but Josiah doesn't want to bother Nathan. In any case, the healer's trying to struggle to his feet, helped by Chris, who, once Nathan is upright, comes to squat the other side of Buck. He looks anxiously at Josiah, who shrugs.
"He ain't bleeding."
Chris frowns, touches Buck's face. "Hell," he says. "Seen this before. Think he's just scrambled. I'll watch him." And he nods towards Nathan.
Josiah makes it to his feet. He's glad he feels steady. The ringing sound is beginning to fade slightly. There's still dust in the air and his eyes sting with it. Taking the steps cautiously, he walks over to Nathan and puts a hand on his arm.
"What have you got?" he asks.
"It's nothing," Nathan says fiercely. "Just a scratch. A graze."
Josiah holds his hand carefully, turns it over and winces. "Need to take care of this," he says and when Nathan instinctively tries to pull the hand away he doesn't let go. Curious, and curiously bright, Ezra wanders over to look. When he sees Nathan's face all screwed up and his hand torn and bloody he almost beams.
"Oh dear," he says, and there's a dangerous mirth in his voice that grates against Josiah's ears. "That's nasty."
Nathan looks up suspiciously, thereby giving Josiah the chance to wipe quickly at the mess, see what's underneath.
"Come on and sit down." Josiah is gruff.
Now Nathan is looking dispassionately at the wound, although there's a paleness about his lips. "Someone'll need to pick over it," he says firmly. "That's all. And then it'll need a stitch or two."
"I dare... say it will take time to heal." Ezra is clearly trying to rein himself in, to sound sober and measured, but there's still a peculiar sparkle in his eye.
"Maybe," Nathan counters. He gives him a glare. "Lucky it ain't my cuttin' hand."
That seems to shut Ezra up. He moves away, although he does stay near enough to see what's going on.
"I need to-" Nathan begins and Josiah feels him try to pull away again.
"Chris'll see to Buck," Josiah tells him, a soft, scolding note in his voice. "He's just a little shook up."
Buck's still paper white under the grime the explosion threw up. He looks a good deal closer than the rest of them to the Kingdom Come Gabe had threatened. There's a stunned, faraway look in his face, like his senses have been half blown away. Chris seems to recognize it and hasn't let go, just seems to be trying to decide whether to get him back down on the ground or keep him on his feet.
Vin and J.D. have charge of Abner, but he's not going to be much trouble. He's blood-spattered and limp, sitting on the ground with his head hung between his knees and his mouth open. The three bodies—or at least the major part of them—have been roughly covered up where they rest. It's probably Vin and Ezra who did that, and it would have been enough to turn the strongest stomach.
Josiah feels a heavy responsibility when they take Abner back to where Gabe is still tethered, eyes wide in his pasty face. Your brother is dead, he thinks about saying. Dear Lord, I'm sorry it happened that way. Blown clean to pieces. Your cousin is dead right next to him. And your Uncle is dead too.
In fact, nobody says anything. Abner doesn't need to since he's clearly the only one left. Blank-faced and submissive he slides silently to the ground next to his remaining cousin. Gabe heard the explosions, and he knew what his Uncle Burton had figured to do, how he'd likely leave the world. The two of them are lucky, just like Ludo, and they know it.
Nathan drinks some of his own cold tea when he gets back from the site, so Josiah reckons the hand must be hurting. Between them Josiah and Vin do some fixing up for him, fishing around for small chips of rock in the open wound with some tweezers from the medical bag. The cleaning process makes Nathan throw up, and afterwards he sits leaning sideways in case his stomach rebels again, eyes closed while Vin puts a couple of rough stitches in, just enough to hold the edges of flesh together for the ride home.
"How's Buck?" he keeps asking in a thick voice but Vin tells him to be quiet.
Buck's shaky, but at least he's talking again. Hearing Buck's voice, low and a little grumpy, seeing him walking restlessly up and down while Chris, unmoving, tracks his progress... it's a relief for sure. But there's still something not quite right, Josiah thinks. Something about Buck, gunpowder and the past. It's written right through Wilmington's body language although he keeps saying he's fine. No, Josiah doesn't know exactly what it is, but he does know it's something.
The dark abyss, perhaps, from out of which nightmares climb. Yes, he knows a little about that. And he's not the only one.
Josiah glances over at Ezra then, but he seems to be doing better than most of the rest of them.
Town hardly seems to believe it when Gabe and Abner Palmer are brought in. When they hear the remarkable news that these are the last of them, that delinquent family they've hated for so long... that there are no more still in the land of the living other than these two ragged specimens.
There's a regular ferment been stirred up in any case because of the blasts. First the one in the middle of last night, which only half the town heard but everyone was talking about, and then the barrage from earlier in the day which brought most folk spilling out into the street. It must have seemed like the war had come back, Buck thinks, for those who knew the sound of it. Although never mind the sound, it's the sight of these new prisoners that seems to make town in general feel tired, as if they're too weary to cope with yet another trial and all its attendant fuss. They want the law in Eagle Bend to keep them behind bars this time around since that's nearer where the post stage was held up.
Chris and Vin lead the way home, taking charge of bringing in the prisoners and locking them up. Nathan and Buck trail them some way behind. The other three have stayed at the quarry with the mess and the Palmers' mounts. They're making the site safe, Chris tells Mary Travis (who wants to know all about everything) but he also means other things. J.D., Josiah and Ezra will wait out there for a cart to be brought, some tarps and shovels, to deal with the body parts.
When they finally get on to solid ground, make steps toward the Livery and some rest, Buck thinks he and Nathan must look like the walking wounded. On the journey back, his senses have finally un-jumbled themselves although he has an almighty headache and his ears are still ringing with that... sound.
"You get to bed," Chris tells him when he comes back from the jailhouse and finds him leaning against the bar in the saloon with an untouched mug of beer in front of him. "Nathan says you don't need food and you don't need drink. You need to rest."
"I was just going to have this," Buck says tiredly. "And then go on back with the cart. Don't feel right leaving all... well, leaving it to you boys."
"Vin'll take the cart, once he's seen to Nathan."
Buck makes an inarticulate sound in question and Chris looks wry.
"Needs some more sewing up. Said he'd prefer Vin to take it on rather than try doing it himself."
Buck looks at his beer and thinks mainly of his bed. He's not quite ready to stand down yet, though. It's hard to let go of the notion that he's needed, whatever state he might be in. Chris might have to nag some more to convince him to go. "You?"
"Need to wire the judge."
Moving himself around so he's looking out across the saloon, over to the batwings and into the early evening street, Buck winces at how he feels. Having Josiah's full weight land on top of him wasn't much fun at all, and every bone in his body is telling him as much. Don't seem quite right going to bed alone at this time of day, even so. And although it would be real good to lie down for a spell somewhere quiet and dim, he's pretty sure he won't sleep.
"It was a mess," he says, and can still feel the stinging, powdery dust in his throat and up his nose. He shakes his head, angry with himself. "And now I guess I can't help it. Know it's all in the past and ain't worth frettin' over when we got all these other things... but I was thinkin' about Miller and all of... that."
There's a small silence and then Chris says softly, "I'll bet you were."
Buck gives him a slightly rueful look. Chris never cares to wade back through all that long ago stuff, but he'll always let Buck.
"Not the same," Buck admits. "What happened today and Ezra and all. But you know..."
Private George Miller was gone now. A young man they'd both known, although Buck had known him a little better. Poor cuss got himself hit in the back of the head right near the end of the war by some shrapnel in a storm of infantry fire. The same deadly storm Buck and Chris had been in, which had shaken Buck stupid at the time and still crept into his nightmares given half a chance. Especially after being tossed upside down by a damned stick of dynamite.
Back then a couple of men were clean blown to bits, just like today. By something just as sudden and powerful, that threw shrapnel all over the place. An army medic sliced a shard out of Private Miller the same way he sliced it out of every poor bastard that got hit. Miller never seemed quite the same after that, went home after the war and shot himself. Damaged out of his mind, the family said, didn't want to be a burden to them.
"So, you reckon Ezra worries 'bout that? 'bout, you know... not bein' himself no more?"
"Well," Chris says carefully. "I don't know why he wouldn't." He seems a little queasy that Buck's talking about Ezra in the same breath as Private Miller. There's another silence that Buck can fill if he wants to.
Instead, Buck can feel a yawn coming on. He tries to head it off but it's no good.
"Buck." Chris quirks one shoulder so it leans lightly into his. He's not nagging but he is assertive. "You need to get to bed. Don't make Nathan have to come see to you."
While he isn't going to dispute it for much longer, Buck feels all kinds of strange, for all kinds of reasons. There'd been nobody to blame for what happened to Miller and he's always felt regretful but sanguine about that. It ain't quite the same with Ezra.
"We got 'em," he says, thinking of today's dead and the wrung out, exhausted prisoners, pathetically grateful to still be on earth. "But it ain't over."
Chris is patient. "Once they're tried, sentenced and into Yuma—then it's over."
"No," Buck says, wishing he could be clearer. "No, it isn't."
Damn. Chris should know better than most that some things can't ever be over.
Buck stays on his feet in the end just long enough to see the others arrive back from the quarry. It's grown dark by then and from his position outside the jail Buck can see the three riders and Vin driving the cart wend their way first to the undertakers, and then the Livery. Vin doesn't re-appear but the silhouette of Josiah can be seen walking slowly past the watch fires towards the church. His steps are slow and heavy. J.D. and Ezra look about done in, too, but they make their way across to the jail, drawn by duty or instinct or... something.
"How you doing, Buck?" the kid asks as soon as he's in earshot.
"Better than you," is all Buck says.
Ezra's eyes stray over Buck's shoulder towards the open door of the jailhouse but he doesn't ask about the incumbents. Like J.D. he's covered in silvery quarry dust and his coat looks stained and ruined. There's the raw smell of their recent labor about them which turns Buck's stomach. It's the smell of blood. Of butchery. He had been intending to stand them a beer, but he doesn't think he can now.
"Nathan all right?"
Buck can't help a wan grin at J.D. for that. The kid is pasty-faced, has a green tinge about his complexion, but he's thinking along the right lines.
"Vin and Miz Travis helped sew him up proper. Don't s'pose Vin said, but he did a good job. Ain't a big wound, just in a bad place. Can't use the hand right now but says he'll be good come tomorrow... or the day after."
On hearing that Ezra doesn't look quite as pleased as he did earlier in the day, but there's still a discernible gleam in his eye. He looks down at himself, holds out his arms, but doesn't brush at the dust and other debris, almost as if he daren't dislodge it.
"Water's on the boil in the bath house," Buck says. "You'll have to lock up after yourselves."
J.D. and Ezra look at one another. They're both much too tired to take a bath, Buck can see, but they will. He's glad Chris thought of organizing it.
The next day Buck finds it funny that they're all asking after him. It's not like the dang explosion took him apart, not like... anyway, he thinks they're all making a fuss about nothing. After a good night's sleep— well, after a night's sleep anyhow—he feels like he's shaken off that strange sensation that someone hung him up by the heels and rattled him until all the loose change fell out of his pockets.
Nathan seems to be managing with one hand. He says Vin did a grand job with the stitching, thinks he'll heal up just fine. Vin himself seems crocked all over again, is too stiff and sore to take his horse out.
"I'll do it," J.D. says, and then bristles at the reaction. "It's not like we hafta go out expectin' trouble anymore."
"There'll be something else," Chris says, gruff with a late night. He looks at Buck with an appraising, narrow-eyed stare, then at Vin who's eating breakfast with them for a change, seems kind of moody. "Just hope not for a while."
Vin meets Chris's eyes. "I'm gonna sit on my ass all day," he confirms sourly. "No need to look at me like that."
They don't see Ezra from one end of the day to the other, so eventually Buck, who can't seem to sit still, goes up to tap on his door.
"I'm sleepin'," comes a crabby voice in response.
The next day the sleeping doesn't seem to have done the trick. Ezra appears in the saloon looking more fatigued than ever and downright untidy. He doesn't do much all day except be prickly.
What's more, by that evening Vin's still sitting on his ass in the saloon which isn't hopeful either. He's been poked and prodded by Nathan's one hand, given some speech about how there's probably only one solution to his problem.
"And what might that be?" Buck asks, half an eye on how Ezra's not managing to handle his cards.
Vin huffs and presses down on his knee. "Says all he needs to do is put a pin in there. To replace what ain't workin' right."
"Simple," Ezra says with a roll of the eyes.
"Well," Vin says unexpectedly. "Maybe it is. He showed me. Drew a picture. Don't seem too hard."
Buck's downright surprised by that.
"What are you saying?" he asks, but Vin hardly seems to hear him, just rocks his chair forward and then leans toward Ezra.
"Listen. I know heads ain't as simple as knees. But if I was to do it, I mean let Nathan fix me up... well, what do you reckon? If I could do it..."
Ezra stares at him without saying anything for such a long time Buck wonders if he's just, in that moment, forgotten how to talk at all, as if his poor addled brain has used itself up. Then Ezra lays down his cards.
"There can be no question of your sacrifice encouraging my own," he says. Buck thinks he should feel encouraged by the clarity of the words, which so often lately have come out all run together. But he doesn't. He doesn't like the flat tone. Doesn't like it at all. "I am making no more unholy pacts." Ezra's voice is still steady but it's weary from trying to concentrate. He suddenly tugs the top of his ear, near the scar, like a tired child.
"Pacts?" Buck says, suspicious as hell.
But Ezra just shakes his head, slow and cautious, implacable. "Need a drink," he says, and pushes back his chair. Obviously, he's buying himself time to think. They watch him weave to the bar, belly up against it. The barkeep pours him a shot but he doesn't touch it, just stays where he is, one boot on the metal foot-rest that runs the length of the bar, slouching forward on his elbows.
"Are you serious?" Buck demands, turning his eyes back to Vin. He's been thinking for a while of how the stalemate isn't helping anyone, how it might be best to try and convince Chris and Vin that maybe they should just change which side of the line they're standing. It had seemed like a pretty tall order, mind. Not for a second did he think Vin would be the first one to cave, and before he'd even said a word himself.
"Nathan's good," Vin says. "He's the best and I can't think any other doctoring type'd try as hard or be as careful. I jus' thought that maybe... Look, Ezra knows I don't like the thought of the knife anymore'n he does, he knows it. But maybe if he saw I could stand it..."
"But suppose it didn't work?"
"Hell, Buck. I thought you were a true believer."
"Well. Yes." Buck shifts in his chair. "I believe in Nathan, just like you do. But with anything like this... with brains and skulls. Well. There's odds."
"Ain't that just why Ezra don't want it? He thinks his odds are lousy and from what I hear reckon he's got that about right."
"Point is," Buck says, lowering his voice. "His odds are looking lousy anyway so he might as well just get it over with."
Vin glances over to the bar and Buck follows his gaze. Ezra still hasn't touched the drink. He doesn't look in discomfort exactly but something about him seems different, wrong. His clothes are looser maybe. His body language is strange for sure, his posture awkward. Discontented, Buck looks away.
"I ain't exactly changed my mind about the knife," Vin says, a little sulky.
"So what was all that then?"
"Jus' been wondering lately if maybe Ezra oughta."
Vin shakes his head.
"Ah hell," Buck says, glancing at Ezra again, stomach in knots. Ganging up on him didn't sit well, even though he feared that's what it'd come down to in the end.
"I thought maybe he'd'a liked the idea of a challenge." Vin shrugs again. "Nathan says Ezra has to make up his own mind. Reckon that's about right."
Buck thinks about that for a while. He reckons that's about right, too. It would be the same for any of them.
"But," he begins, and there's a sudden weight in his chest that makes breathing hard. "What about if he gets... so bad... so bad he can't make up his own mind no more?"
It's hard to imagine.
Ezra's still here, still standing. He can ride with them, still think, still talk - most of the time. Things can't be that bad, they just can't.
"Yeah." Vin's voice is as low as it can be. "Feels like it's comin', Nathan's plan. Like in the end there won't be no other way. I just figured... if there was a reason fer Ezra to think on it, then maybe he'd make that choice for himself."
"Right," Buck says. He can see Ezra making a choice all right, but not that one, the one Vin means. Even half a day of having his own brains mashed so he hardly knew himself has been too much for Buck. The idea of having to live with it... and Ezra ain't the type to put up with things. He looks at chances, possibilities, weighs up likely outcomes, takes decisions that will give him what he wants as quickly as possible, with the minimum trouble to himself.
Buck pushes out a sigh, a chill across his shoulders.
Ezra doesn't drink any of the shot of whiskey.
He leaves it on the bar in front of him, is only intermittently aware of its continued presence. Not having indulged seems like nothing more than sensible living since he wakes in bed the next morning with a clear head.
Well, perhaps 'clear' is not entirely the right word. His skull feels weighted; it bothers him, even more than usual, but at least it isn't fuddled by liquor.
It's good to have a clear head, even if it's only for a while. Clarity makes decisions easier. As he sits on the side of the bed to painstakingly pull on his boots, his eyes are drawn to the table under the mirror. His favorite cuff-links are there in a heap with his watch-chain, various scraps of paper, his hair brush, his money clip, his cards, and a letter that needs, as a matter of some urgency, to be mailed.
He wrote the letter a number of weeks ago. Good thing too, because he's not sure he could make sense if he was to do it today. It had taken quite a ridiculous number of drafts as it was. He'd woken up that day and just felt unutterably tired of it all, thought it really was about time. To tell his mother where the New York deeds were secreted for a start, as well as other far less interesting and profitable details of his financial affairs. After that there was a somewhat flowery and embarrassing admission about who he perceived himself to be these days and why he might even have made her proud. Followed by a rather blundering apology too, for all the times, including this one, when he'd caused her heartache. That had been very hard to formulate. And then there was how he felt about her, of course, those surprisingly easy words of love.
Momentarily his mouth feels dry and there's a thick lump in his throat. He swallows it away with some difficulty. And then finds his control once again, which is quite fitting.
"Thank you," he says out loud, almost as if she's there in the room with him, for it's one of her legacies and has served him well these last months.
His eyes run across the table again and he's strangely irritated at the mess. But still, everything's there, all the things he needs for today. And his guns, of course.
The shoulder holster, arm rig and gun belt are slung over the bedpost, but the weapons themselves are lined up under the mirror. The conversion is fully loaded, and there's one bullet for the little derringer pistol.
Would it be enough, Ezra wonders, rising to his feet.
He crosses to the closet, takes a shirt from a hanger and slips it on.
Well of course, placed right, it would be enough.
Through the temple. Right below the spot where iron hit bone before.
It might not even be too messy, if one were to do a good job. Supposing, of course, one were moved to carry out such an act in the first place.
He buttons the shirt, adds cufflinks and a vest, the rig and then the holster. It's rare he walks out of his room without the rig but unless expecting trouble he might not carry his full armory. Today though... it's almost like a ceremonial, proof that he can still do it. Normally the thought of violence, self-inflicted or otherwise, makes him feel slightly sick. But today it doesn't. It doesn't make him feel anything.
Glancing into the mirror, he draws his fingers through his air, across the scar, an instinctive move. He crosses to the closet, pulls a tie from the rack. Returning to stand before the mirror he fastens it, concentrating on everything but his own face. The watch chain, winking as he moves, is next, and the cards are slipped into a pocket along with the money clip. Then he turns once more to the closet, selects a jacket, burgundy with black piping. The only part of his costume he leaves behind is his hat, because, despite its importance to him, he thinks he doesn't want anything against his head right now. Before vacating his room he tucks the letter into his pocket. And finally buckles the gun belt.
Downstairs the first people he sees are J.D. and Nathan. And it's all he can do to keep walking, not just slip into a safe seat at their table and share their pot of coffee.
"Morning," J.D. says, cheerful. Ezra notices the boy raise his brows at Nathan when, instead of joining them, he just nods and then passes by and out the batwings.
It's a sunny morning. Acknowledging that fact with a wince, Ezra stays on the shadowy side of the street, walks down past Watson's, the undertaker, the General Store and then across to the church.
'Josiah's Church' as he always thinks of it. Not God's church, or the town's. Josiah's.
Although it's an ideal refuge, he's not made a habit of coming here. Cool, muted daylight and quiet are what he seeks when the clouds roll in and Josiah's church provides those all right. But it's for more than that, this ramshackle, hallowed place. It's for those weighed down by conscience and doubt, for funerals, heartbroken prayers for the sick, the dying, and the dead. Not since Buck and J.D. found him battling one of the first of the really outrageous headaches in one of the pews has Ezra willingly returned. He finds other bolt holes now, if he manages to get to them before one of the others spies him and prevents it. They have become ever more adept at recognizing the signs of impending collapse. In truth Ezra is not sure why he always wants to run away from them since he's learned, with an increasing feeling of indebtedness that he doesn't like to explore, how very well they can look after him. But still, there are only so many times in a single life a man can stomach being peeled off the floor by his friends. Not to mention there's always so many bullets flying around it isn't good for their health to be so distracted.
Going up the steps feels hard, as if he's swimming against the tide. The sun creeps in under his hat, searching for a weak spot, turning everything the acid color of lemons.
The interior swims into view as he comes through the door, removing his hat as he does so. The change in temperature is debilitating, floods him with weakness.
Josiah is performing his morning rites. Bench pressing on the pews. The sight is peculiarly uplifting, resonant of this place and the man. Unexpectedly Ezra feels his own place here, and remembers Josiah not doubting it. Ezra had said to him once, during one of their poetical meanders, that he worried he might be the only one among them who really didn't have faith in anything, except himself.
"Well," Josiah had said at the time, and since. "I think you'll find you're wrong."
Ezra could almost agree right at this moment. His friends are a reason to be brave, after all, to believe in the impossible. They may be the only reason, he supposes. Some perfect expression of this sentiment, the desire to stay with them, teeters in his brain momentarily but all his favorite literary citations have deserted him. Just as everything seems to be deserting him. Ezra has sensed for some time that before long he won't even recognize the name Shakespeare. Or, more horrifyingly, the faces and value of his friends.
"Good morning," are his only words when he finally manages to get them out and he's alarmed when Josiah nearly falls sideways on to the floor he's so surprised.
"Warn a body," Josiah puffs, easing himself down carefully, and then sitting up, reaching for a towel. He wipes his face, sheened in the healthy sweat of righteous exercise. "Everything all right?"
"Just wanted a... word."
Dropping the towel down, Josiah indicates one of the benches.
"I'm not staying."
Ezra feels guilty for the phrase, wonders if Josiah has caught any extra significance from it. He circles his hat nervously, running the rim through his numb fingertips.
"I really just came to tell you... "
Josiah's keen gray eyes bore into him during the ridiculously long pause while he tries to remember. Finally, he draws the phrase from the soup of confusion and makes a casual, patrician gesture.
"You are... absolved from your promise."
Josiah blinks at him.
"Released." Ezra feels irritated he's having to repeat himself, for words don't spring to mind easily and he now has a serious pain in his head that he didn't have when he woke up. "No longer bound as we previously agreed."
"You've changed your mind?" Josiah says, and Ezra is depressed to hear how suspicious he sounds. "You're going to go ahead, let Nathan...?"
Ezra feels the fear, heavy and coiled in his gut, stirring to life at the thought of it. Part of him knows he should probably allow this intervention, he should have that faith. But he can't, he just can't take that risk, or let Nathan. There are things far more precious dear than life after all... or else he's just an out-and-out coward and selfish with it.
"I do believe," he says, as blithe as he can, although his heart has picked up pace, "I do believe so."
With one crooked finger Josiah swipes a dribble of sweat above one eyebrow. "This is kind of sudden," is all he says.
Ezra doesn't have the strength or the ability to explain properly. That his brain and hands remaining quick and clever, in full working order and connected to his mouth, is paramount to survival. It's life, worth, existence, his entire reason for being here. Although to be frank he doesn't even see this as being about him anymore, but mostly about who'll have to deal with him once he's become burdensome.
A whole man reduced to a slobbering, frightful millstone around the necks of those closest to him—helpless, ugly, unknowable, and unknowing. Ezra won't have it. He's positive the odds are catastrophically against him and he's nothing if not experienced in how luck works—and for whom.
"The events. The quarry..." He wants to say he feels it's time to draw things to a close, but he can't find the words. Literally, can't find them.
"You need to sit?" Josiah says as if he hasn't heard Ezra's previous words, or as if they've been unintelligible. He's still looking at him closely, worriedly. Ezra wonders, as he often does, if in fact he appears in a totally different guise to his friends than the one he imagines. And sounds different too. To his mind he is upright, controlled, strong. Perhaps Josiah sees and hears something else.
"No I'm... I have... if you'll..." He peters to a halt, then makes to begin again but finds those words gone too. Completely gone. Josiah seems to be scowling at him and Ezra can't interpret it, doesn't know if it's anxiety, disbelief or even anger. Far off in the background the bees are buzzing, lazy and gentle. Josiah speaks to him and it takes Ezra a few moments to catch up. He thinks he's been invited to stay, guesses that Josiah has expressed the view that he believes it would be a good idea. "No, no, no, no," he manages, even though he only meant to say the word once. It's not emphasis, it's just impossible to prevent the repetition tripping out of his mouth. It feels strange and sounds strange, as if he's clockwork, has been wound up and allowed to run out of control.
Before Josiah can get a hand to his elbow, guide him into a seat, he turns quickly. By the time he's at the door again his hands are tingling up to the elbow and the bees are still humming. The sound isn't as sharp as usual. It's as if they're underwater.
Ezra doesn't care much if Josiah thinks he's lying. At the moment all he cares about is his wild certainty that before very long—maybe even before the day is out—he will have lost the art of communication for good, and with it everything else. The thought nearly blinds him with panic. Nevertheless, he remembers the second thing he had thought to do this morning and on making it down the church steps he tracks a careful course back up the street towards the post office.
The letter in his pocket is light. It's insubstantial for such tortuous, heartfelt ramblings.
He draws it out of his pocket as he walks, reads the envelope again.
'Mrs. Maude Standish, General Delivery, Post Office, Olive Street, St. Louis Missouri.'
The inscription is fainter than he would normally manage, the words on the pages inside more spidery than they once would have appeared. As if he's already part ghost.
Dear Mother... it begins.
Any time now they're going to take the Palmers to Eagle Bend. As many of them as Chris thinks should go. As many as will keep them safe from anyone who wants to deal out justice to Gabe and Abner before they get their backsides on a courtroom bench. He plans to leave Vin behind, and Ezra. And Nathan come to that – he's using his hand again just about fine, but no sense risking what they don't have to.
"I can ride," Vin says, dogged as ever. He and Chris have been in to see the prisoners already that morning, left them morosely sipping cups of water.
"I know, but you don't need to." Chris doesn't feel like going himself. He'd be happy for Vin to go in his stead, doesn't want to think about all of this anymore. "Not this trip out. I'll have Buck, Josiah and J.D. – that's plenty."
Vin accepts it although Chris can sense the depth of his discontent and feels a pang. He's always reckoned the six of them needed Ezra just about enough—hell, that they cared about him enough—to close ranks against Judge Travis or anyone else who thought he'd outlived his usefulness as a peacekeeper. It's starting to occur to Chris that they might need to extend that protection to Vin now as well. He's not sure where that leaves any of them.
J.D. is ambling down the street towards the jail. He has his usual air of fragile new confidence about him, tips his hat to someone who greets him, pleased to play the good sheriff on his way to work. He'll be pleased to have a job anyhow. Soon as he gets to them Chris will have to send him back to find Buck. Josiah has just this moment appeared on the steps of the church, looks to be headed their way in a hurry. A few seconds before Chris had noticed Ezra coming their way too, wandering in the direction of the post office with a letter in his hand. It's so normal now for Chris to run his mind over where everyone is, what they're doing, that he almost feels a wry smile form. He likes that it's normal, even likes that it ain't exactly... easy.
But then everything changes. In an instant.
"Ah hell no... shit."
Vin's straightened almost imperceptibly, like he does when he's seen something. Not enough to draw too much attention, but from slouched to alert in a heartbeat.
"Vin?" Chris responds to the soft urgency in his voice, eyes on Tanner's face. He knows that tone, knows Vin doesn't hardly ever use it.
"He's about to go down."
Vin's already moving.
Chris isn't sure for a second who he's talking about, but follows his gaze, is just in time to see Ezra waver where he stands on corner of the small alley between the post office and the undertaker, one hand beginning to lift slowly from his side. He's stopped right on the edge of the boardwalk, where there's no rail and a drop, where the hitching post in front has been broken for weeks. It's been like that ever since Buck was forced to punch someone right through it in order to halt a headlong advance right through the post office window. The saloon has never been the only place likely to get broke up around here.
And Ezra's just standing there with a letter in front of him, looking downright puzzled, as if reality has truly begun to splinter.
It strikes Chris as he pulls away from the jailhouse and makes rapid strides across the street towards him that they've been lucky up to now. Ezra's done them a huge favor since Chicago by somehow only managing to plunge into unconsciousness when he's within a few paces of one of the others.
If he goes down where he is, he'll risk taking a bad fall, he'll risk hitting his head. There is no way on earth they will reach him in time.
But there's no goddamned 'if' about it. One thing they've learned is that once those bees, or whatever it is he calls them, start to bother him, once the world begins to shimmer and disintegrate in front of his eyes, it doesn't miraculously right itself.
Chris hears Vin yelling "Catch him!" anyway, as if one of the Palmers has suddenly burst from the jail behind them and is making good his escape out of town.
Ezra hears, too. He turns his head slightly, looking towards the source of the voice and the movement is clearly enough to send the misbehaving nerve-endings into their vicious cinch. Then, as if time has begun to slow, both Chris and Vin see awareness flee. Hand still halfway to his head, Ezra twists as if to save himself, then falls backwards from the edge of the boardwalk as if swept by an invisible wave.
Chris can feel his face blanch. The power of it, the blood racing away, almost topples him in his tracks.
With the kind of move that Chris knows will have caused a flare of pain, Vin scrambles across the corner of the boardwalk. Then leaps into the alley.
Ezra's crashed to earth.
He's gone down with such a slap Chris swears he saw the bounce of his head off the dust as he made impact. The black hat span off his head and on to the boardwalk during the fall. It rotates a couple of times on the rim before it falls over, still. The envelope has dropped, is balancing half on and half off on the bottom step.
On his side in the dirt, Ezra has one arm flung outwards, the other oddly crooked into his chest. It's an accidental attempt to protect, Chris thinks, and for crying out loud he chose about the worst spot in the entire vicinity to lose consciousness, that's for damned sure. Not only has he taken a heck of a tumble, he's done it in full view of the main street of town at its goggling best. It's as if he does it to give them heart failure, or just for mischief's sake.
Chris is expecting him quiet when he gets there. Stunned, or more likely completely out of it, body lax and unmoving. They know what that looks like.
But this isn't that.
"Ah Jesus..." Vin says.
Ezra's body is far from still. It's jerking, harsh and relentless against the ground. The motion is frantic, frightening, as if there's something they can't see, something that has hold of him. Despite his half curled position in the dust, jaw locked and tilted to the sky, every limb is rigid, bones turned to steel, fingers clawed. Some god-awful sound is coming from his throat and there's spittle bubbling on his lips. They already look blue, as if there's no air getting through. Chris makes to grab hold, to still the frightening movement somehow, but Vin's hand clamps down on his arm, drags him back.
"Leave him be!" His tone is sharp. Tanner knows what he's looking at maybe. Chris doesn't, although he can guess. He's heard about seizures, about febrile fits and convulsions, although he's never seen one, not in a grown man. Hell, he's never seen anything like this, this malign energy that has complete control of Ezra's limbs.
Vin is tearing off his buckskin coat. "Git the doc!" he yells at some of people who are milling around in shock and curiosity. "Chris, his head... git this under his head..."
They manage to, somehow, and then Vin forms a barrier between Ezra and the hard wall that runs along the alley. If Ezra's going to bang into anything it'll be his leg, not solid brick. He's clearly having trouble not reaching out himself, lips clamped shut over his teeth.
Chris squares himself in front of the people who've drifted near to see if they can help, or to watch. He hears some murmurs of shock, some of fear.
"Oh God..." That's J.D., who's suddenly alongside Chris, his hand on his gun as if that was what was needed. "What's happening to him?" The kid sweeps his hat off, takes a step forward and then two back. His voice comes out in a rising babble. "This is... oh God, why are you...? Can't we do anything?"
"Stay calm, J.D.," Vin says and Chris doesn't know where he's getting his cool, measured tone from. "Jus'... stay real calm, keep folk back. Nathan's on his way. All we can do is make sure he don't hurt hisself."
"Hurt himself?" J.D. bursts out.
"Dear Lord," comes Josiah's bass as he too reaches them. Chris vaguely hears him muttering about having had a bad feeling. The preacher sounds angry with himself and Chris is confused. How can this be Josiah's fault?
"Easy," Vin says, still grimly measured, one hand held out towards the knot of people behind Chris, just to make sure nobody comes too near.
"What if he chokes?" J.D. asks, fearful.
There's a cold, sick sensation in the pit of Chris's stomach. He can't stand to see this, but even more he can't stand that other people are seeing it. Ezra's held on to some kind of mastery of his condition for so long, seeing him lose it all—even control of his bodily functions by the looks of it—in full view of everyone, is too goddamned awful. He knows they've gotten used to managing the condition, used to what they've had up to now. It's often been bad, but at least it's followed a pattern they've inserted into their lives, one they don't have to talk about anymore. They watch out for him, they read the signs, they catch him if he falls. Then they all move on. The only problem has been second-guessing the son of a bitch, who even after all these months doesn't want to rely on them, will up and disappear just when he needs them most.
Ezra himself won't be able to stand the humiliation of this when he finds out.
If he finds out.
"Ain't gonna last much longer, right?" Chris finds himself saying.
"Reckon not." Vin works hard on sounding sure.
Buck's been drawn down now too. He's hanging back a ways, absently stuffing his untucked shirt into his pants, hatless like J.D., and startled into silence.
Chris realizes they've formed a tight little circle, shielding the fallen man, and when Nathan comes sprinting down from the Livery he has to shoulder a way through them. He's out of breath, looks fiercely businesslike. Almost has to rein himself in when he gets there though, sees what's happening. There's frustration and emotion on his face. As if he knew this was coming but wasn't ready for it quite yet.
Jesus it feels like an age before the rattling stops. Before the disturbing sounds in Ezra's throat die down and his body falls first into a palsied tremor, and then, finally, begins to loosen. When it slumps, limp, against the ground, that's almost worse because for a moment Chris thinks that's it, he's dead.
"All right," Nathan says, going down gently to his knees by Ezra's side. He's not speaking to anyone in particular, maybe to himself, Chris can't tell. Nathan reaches steady hands, begins to roll Ezra's head and upper body. Vin's still half squatted by the wall, stuck in position, so Chris moves in to help.
"Getting him comfortable. So he don't choke if he gets sick." He pauses, eyes narrowing as he runs them along Ezra's body. "So he can breathe."
Chris can't see it, not at first. Maybe Nathan can't either. When he checks, Chris thinks he's a little panicked. It all seems quiet behind them, as if the town has melted away.
"All right," Nathan says again, shoulders dipping in relief. "He's breathin' fine, just needs space." He pulls a clean white handkerchief from his sleeve, begins to wipe away the froth at the corners of Ezra's mouth. When he's done, he finds the top of the dusty head, the spikes of dark hair moving sluggishly in the breeze, thick with sweat and grit.
Chris sits back on his heels, not yet near to relaxed. He slides his eyes up, meets Vin's. They're crackling with agitation, a complete contrast to the placid tone of his voice a moment or two before.
"No call for you folk gawpin' now," Chris hears Buck say in a low, warning voice. There's some murmuring after that, the sound of feet shuffling. Then Buck again, almost to himself. "Heck, no call for us gawpin'."
"May need you," Chris says over his shoulder, just in case Buck's thinking of moving away.
"'m not goin' anywhere," Buck returns. In fact he comes in closer, slowly goes down on his haunches, shaking his head.
"C'mon," Nathan says, rubbing one smeared and grubby cheek with the back of his hand, brisk, like he's trying to warm Ezra up. Chris gets the idea that Nathan thinks Ezra ought to be opening his eyes by now. Should be coming round.
They all know Ezra's unconscious face. It's peaceful, smooth, pale as watered-down milk. After a while his eyelids will start to twitch. Then they'll go still again. The road back is never easy. Just like it isn't now.
Sure enough, when consciousness does begin to return, it's fickle. Seems that Ezra just can't keep hold of it, try as he might, can't latch on.
They can count the periods of awareness in seconds. And the lack of it in long minutes.
"Can't get a grip." Nathan looks up, sweeps his gaze around them all, catches Chris's eye.
"How long's it bin?" J.D. says, his voice quiet, almost apologetic.
They can't help keep asking the question. Nathan often reminds them what Freiber told him: in a case like this, after the number of blackouts Ezra's had, ten minutes was about what he was prepared to tolerate before he'd more or less write the patient off—or get them under the knife.
It's been more than that already.
But then, Ezra has never exactly fitted a pattern. And Freiber's always seemed single-minded.
Chris can feel alternate waves of fear and irritation blowing through him. Fear about the point they've reached, and if they should have tried to stop things somehow, before they let Ezra get here. And unreasonable irritation, about why Ezra just can't make things—any things—simple.
It's maybe fifteen minutes since he went down before there's any change. They've covered him up with a coat, patted his face, poked him, said gruff and nonsensical things that might scare or encourage him back.
And finally the lashes flicker again, and this time Ezra opens his eyes.
From nothing they're suddenly wide open, colorless and surprised, as if some internal voice has woken him with a brusque, scolding summons. Vin at once leans over him, puts a reassuring hand on his shoulder.
"You're all right," he says, which makes Chris's jaw stiffen. "How you feelin'?"
Ezra turns his head on Vin's coat. He says something, a scrap of disjointed words in a voice they don't recognize. It's as if he knows who's speaking to him, but it's not Vin's name that comes out, not even a garbled approximation of 'Mr. Tanner'. God alone knows what it is, but it's all Chris needs to convince him they've reached a watershed.
There's not a whisper of character, wit, or self-effacement, in the sound of the voice and Ezra has a talent for that even when incoherently drunk. The eyes remain less than half-open for the moment, pupils twitching nervously under the lids.
The words come again. Not a question, or a statement. Just a desperate, out of control grasp at something familiar.
"Here," Vin says, a little hitch in his voice. "Right here."
Nathan practically pushes Vin aside, leans down real close. "Ezra, look at me." Now he sounds panicked.
Ezra's throat moves, a spasm of inarticulate sound. Lines like little cracks appear around his forehead and brows. They signal something, only Chris isn't sure what. Determination, perhaps, or pain. Ezra blinks his eyes several times, gets a wavering hand on to the earth, and then an elbow underneath himself.
"Should we-?" Buck asks, full of doubt. Chris guesses they've all been expecting to have to haul Ezra up and carry his sorry ass to Nathan's. Now it looks like he's on the move by himself, even if he hardly realizes it. Stubborn cuss. Perhaps that's good, but Chris is queasy, doesn't think all the blood has come back into his face yet. The strangely unhinged look in Ezra's eyes, the garbled sound of his speech, have rocked him.
"Give him some space," Chris says, sharp for no reason he can justify.
Maybe it would have happened anyway, Chris thinks, even if he hadn't taken that tumble. This loss of self. Maybe it had been happening, slowly, drip by drip, as the days passed and he strolled around town fancied up to the nines, used his guns when needed, played his hands of cards as he'd always done, and held them all firmly at bay.
Ezra, it seems, is already recovering from the seizure, after a fashion.
But things are not the same.
Nathan and Chris between them get him up on his feet, keenly aware of the lack of sardonic commentary, the dazed look of him, the patch of damp on the charcoal pinstripe pants. Everything's covered in dust and he looks just like Buck did when the dynamite hit out at the quarry. They walk him back to Nathan's, sit him on the bed, remove the guns and gun belt because he doesn't have the coordination. Ezra doesn't seem to want to lie down. There's a certain awareness in his expression, Chris hopes. Or at least a compliance.
What he does manage to convey without language, and pretty forcefully, is a headache. And a bad one by the look of it, right in that spot where the skull's dented like a kicked wall, one which won't go away whatever potions Nathan cooks up. Furthermore he's only too aware his words have disintegrated and clearly can't even begin to manage that state of affairs. He does his best, in fact, to not attempt verbal communication at all. In any case, when they speak to him Ezra rapidly loses focus. His face hasn't regained its natural color and his eyes show only two emotions far as they can see—confusion and suspicion. Something of him appears to have gone, they can interpret that much.
On Nathan's say-so they leave him to rest. Buck trots down to fetch him some dry clothes, a cup of coffee. Comes back to say he's lying down, looking mighty sleepy.
In the saloon they gather, almost cautious of one another, but keen to talk.
Nathan sits at one end of the table nearest the bar. He's ready to be voluble, opinionated, and Chris can't look at him. J.D. and Buck are both nervously excitable. Vin and Josiah seem too quiet, slumped against the bar behind Nathan. Chris wonders why Vin isn't sitting. He's leaning his weight on his bad leg as if he can't feel the pain anymore.
"So where are we at?" Buck asks, jiggling his knee under the table. "What you got to tell us, Nathan?"
Nathan shrugs. Not because he has nothing to say but because maybe all of a sudden he's not sure where to begin.
"Ain't lookin' good," he says in the end, unemotional. "Reckon he's tipped over. May be bleedin' in the brain or something. Just depends what all we're going to do about it, and how quickly."
"Seems clear to me." Buck jiggles the knee again, fraught with tension.
"I think so," Nathan agrees.
Dragging a man into an operation against his will just ain't... ethical.
That's all Chris has ever thought about it up to now, hasn't even bothered to explain it much. For the love of God, isn't that kind of thing obvious? But whatever it is, it's not, absolutely not an election, about who says yes or no, not in this damned saloon anyhow. Who do they think they are anyhow?
But just... seeing Ezra on the ground like that. Hearing him. Looking in his eyes now and with Nathan's talk of blood on the brain...
"His ma," Chris says. "She's the one who should be makin' this call." He's not sure quite how he feels about this, if he even believes it.
There's a short silence, and then J.D. puts in, voice dry with uncertainty, "There's this. I picked it up." He pulls something from his jacket pocket, lays it on the table.
'Mrs. Maude Standish, General Delivery, Olive Street Post Office, St. Louis Missouri.'
It's rumpled, has a boot print on it.
They all want to know, they're all desperate to know what it says.
"Heck he writes to her all the time," Buck says, dismissive. "Don't mean he'll be saying anything to her in here about... anything."
"I hope nobody's thinking of opening it." Josiah's voice is a deep warning.
All along Ezra's resisted the idea of Maude getting involved in all this, almost as fiercely as he's resisted Nathan's interference. On her most recent visit she blew through town like a small hurricane, probably to check if conditions were any more favorable for making money than they were before, and then blew out again. She'd known Ezra had been hurt all right, and how. What's more she'd visibly paled at any mention of it or any sight of the scar. Chris had reckoned at the time she seemed upset, like any mother would be, and that Ezra hated to see that, like any son. But they didn't really need to deal with any of it since his head, as luck would have it, behaved impeccably the entire visit. Chris recalled how he'd been so damned happy to kiss her goodbye, smiling confidently at her rather doubtful 'do take good care of yourself, darlin'', handing her up into the stage with all the gallantry he could muster.
Suppose this letter says something, something they should know.
It ain't for their eyes though.
"It's private," Chris confirms reluctantly. "Ezra can mail it himself when he feels better."
Nathan makes an impatient gesture, waving away the letter and all it might represent. "Yes but now," he says. "We need to do something now, never mind that."
"I think it's time." Buck's categoric, knee still fidgeting. "It's more than time."
"Damn," Vin says, "Damn." And that's about all he says. To Chris's eye he seems sunk in misery, resigned.
"If he's bleeding inside then seems to me there ain't no option." Chris hears his own words coming out, can't hardly believe he's saying them.
J.D.'s not even looking to Buck anymore. He nods in agreement, sounds ardent and forceful. "And jus' because it's inside shouldn't make it different... reckon if we could see it, could see the hurt, then we'd be beggin' Nathan to do something, even if Ezra was tellin' us to leave him alone."
"He knows," Nathan says. "He knows there's nothing else for it."
Chris isn't sure about that either. It's hard to read Ezra's face right now, in a different way than it's always been hard to read. He doesn't see how Nathan can possibly tell one way or another if this latest episode has changed Ezra's thinking. In any case, knowing ain't the same as agreeing.
He thinks there could be some train about to leave the station that they won't none of them be able to stop once it moves.
"What the Hell," he says, sick with himself for being undecisive. "So we're just going to go marchin' up there and hold him down until Nathan's put him under? You all signing up for that duty?" He glares around at them. "Anyone here doesn't think they can stomach it?"
His chair tips and he stands, feeling nothing but rage.
"Take it easy," Nathan counsels, a little wary. "Ain't nobody goin' up there to do violence."
"You sure about that?" Chris growls back.
"Listen." Nathan pushes his own chair out from the table slowly. He flexes the wounded hand, curls the fingers, shakes it. "I'm going to go up and check on him again. If he's awake then maybe we can... talk. I'll explain. Again. You think I want him afraid, fightin' us? That would be... I don't want that." There's hurt in his voice at the thought of it, at the thought they believe him callous.
"Know you don't," Chris says, looking him in the face at last, seeing the inevitability there. He moves to the bar, signaling for a drink from a subdued, big-eyed Inez, and Vin shifts to give him room. "Jus' hard to see how else this is going to go."
When Nathan's left, he slowly turns with his shot of whiskey, leans his back hard into the bar. It's not a pose of relaxation. Just the opposite in fact. There doesn't seem to be much more to discuss right now, and there's silence between them all. He's aware that Josiah's extended his own glass towards Inez for a re-fill once again, and drunk the shot down quickly. Too quickly, like he don't like the thoughts in his head.
The whole saloon is dejected somehow.
Chris looks across, out over the bat-wings at what's normal. Carts, people, horses... commerce, travel and socializing. He feels detached from it, from the lulling sound of voices and wheels, the faint rap of boots on the boardwalk. Minutes pass, and then the rap of boots becomes a gallop. Chris feels Vin bump his shoulder as he begins to turn.
Nathan barrels back through the batwing doors, nearly sliding in he's moving at such a speed.
There's a moment when they just take in his shock, his growing panic.
"He ain't there!" he announces, arms held wide.
The immediate responses—what the hell? what do you mean? how can he not be there?—don't seem to come. But they're all on their feet.
"He ain't up there no more!" Nathan expands, voice rising. "He's left his hat and jacket, everything... but he's taken his guns."
"God damn hell and son of a bitch!" Chris can't be any more articulate. There are better words, but he can't find them.
He throws a look at J.D., wondering if the kid's jumping to the same conclusion as himself. Josiah might be, Chris can see by his face. And Buck too, maybe. They all know how Ezra wanders when he's hurting, and he's certainly jumbled to heck right now, so this is nothing exactly new.
Although it could be... something new, and awful damn bad.
Right back at the beginning, after one of the first blackouts, Ezra had even hinted at it. Said he'd be grateful if someone went ahead and put a bullet between his eyes when the pain got too overwhelming. In that sardonic voice, undercutting his real feelings. Perhaps he'd been honest back then and they just hadn't appreciated it. Chris doubted that was the only time he'd alluded to his growing desperation either. Damn, if he thinks about it, haven't they all been wondering about this, deep down?
"Oh now come on, fellers," J.D. says, working out what the others are thinking all right, but choosing not to believe it. "You know how he's always ramblin' around, goin' missin'. He ain't gonna go do something stupid like... that!"
"Better hope not," Vin says to him, slapping his shoulder in some kind of brusque comfort as he passes on the way to the doors.
It's just a small town.
That's what Chris tells himself.
There's not a huge expanse to search, not many places to go. It's only been a few minutes, for God's sake. Ezra's no lightning-quick Billy Travis, especially at the moment, he won't have managed to skip right out un-noticed, no matter what kind of Devil he thinks is on his heels.
"He can't have gotten far," he says as they get out on the boardwalk, see the familiar street and buildings stretching away on both sides.
"Aw hell, Chris," mutters Vin, passing him on the way down the steps, bad leg stiff. "He don't need to."