The spring winds had been kicking up something fierce these last few days. As a resident of Four Corners, one got used to certain facts of life in the high desert dustbowl. It meant that your hair would be full of grit, your fingers dry with the feel of it; wiping them on your clothes would do you no good, as anything you wore – no matter its original color – always held a sheen of "prairie dust", as Gloria Potter so charmingly dubbed it. Yes, life in Four Corners in the spring meant adapting: to living with taking a bath, donning a fresh, clean set of clothes, and being covered in dust within the time it took to walk from the bathhouse to the saloon. The townspeople learned to live with it, accept it as simply the way things were.
Well … most of the townspeople. There was one amongst them who refused to accept this reality, at least not quietly.
"Deplorable," Ezra Standish said as he forced as much of the dust as possible from the arms of his aubergine-colored swallowtail jacket. He had just finished his bath after his overnight patrol. Damn the schedule when it was his turn for this particular shift. There was little he enjoyed more these days than a successful turn at the tables, and then heading to bed with his lovely barkeep. This shift forced him away from his lady's side for far too many consecutive hours.
"Come on, Ezra. You're knockin' it into my breakfast," J.D. Dunne complained.
"Mistah Dunne, everything we eat during this time of yeah has that special sandy texture." The southerner looked to the young easterner's plate. He swore he could see the dust lying atop the food piled high. 'Disgusting', he thought. Another of J.D.'s companions at the morning meal snorted at the fowl look Ezra shared after he surreptitiously examined the food.
"Can't not eat all spring, Ezra," Vin Tanner offered as he slouched in his chair and took a swig from his coffee mug.
"Perhaps not, but Ah shall be happy to suffer through the heat of Inez's kitchen for fare fresh off the griddle in order to avoid that unpleasant sensation of teeth grinding on earth while Ah eat."
"Can't eat in every kitchen, Ez," Buck Wilmington said after he'd finished chewing a large forkful of eggs and potatoes. "Don't even think Inez'll let ya in the kitchen all the time." Inez Recillos smiled at the conversation going on at the nearby table. She loved mornings in the saloon. She wasn't officially open, but the saloon had become the unofficial breakfast-time gathering place for the man she loved and his six friends and co-peacekeepers.
Chris Larabee, Josiah Sanchez and Nathan Jackson sat at an adjoining table. The leader of "The Magnificent Seven" smirked and said, "I don't know, Buck. Seems to me Ezra's earned an extra perk or two."
Inez heard the comment, waltzed over to clear and empty plates and announced, "What Senor Standish has earned is none of your business." She looked up to Ezra and said, "Your breakfast will be ready … in the kitchen … in a few minutes." She reached over to the bar to grasp the coffee pot, topped off first Ezra's and then Vin's, neatly, and then splashed coffee over the rims of both Buck's and Chris' cups.
"Hey! Why me?" Buck questioned, his voiced pitched high as he grabbed his napkin to sop up the hot liquid before it dripped from the table and onto his lap. Chris quickly copied the action.
"Because you were thinkin' it," Josiah observed. Inez winked at the big man as she left the table.
"Might's well have spoken it," Nathan agreed. Ezra, Vin and J.D. laughed at their friends as they scurried to remain dry. It wasn't often you would see either man rushing to do much, unless it was to save the citizenry in their roles as lawmen … or when Buck needed to get to one of his lady friends for a quick roll in the hay.
"You gentlemen will soon learn not to cross the lady," Ezra warned.
"You learned that already, Ezra?" Chris asked.
Being both a smart man and a gentleman, Ezra kept his mouth shut. "Josiah," he said, addressing the former preacher, easing into a wise change of subject, "how fares the construction of the new schoolhouse?"
"It's comin' along," the older man answered as he used his napkin to vainly wipe the dust from his biscuit.
"It'd go a lot faster if we could get some extra hands," Nathan said, looking directly at the southerner as he spoke.
Ezra, still facing Josiah, shook his head slightly. He took the opportunity to make eye contact with each of his friends seated around the two tables. Was he the only one of their group not assisting in the construction of the new school? He was certain that it was not the case. What was it now that had the former slave sending him such a scathing, accusatory glare? Ezra thought that they were passed this, that they had gotten beyond Nathan believing that Ezra was not holding up his part in this bargain they had settled into three years before, when Judge Orin Travis had brought them together to help keep their town safe. Apparently not. The con man put on his best front, not wanting to show the disappointment he felt in being the only one pointed out as too lazy to help. He turned to the former slave, his fellow southerner, and started his reply.
"Am Ah the only one among our band of seven not assisting?" he asked. All of the men at the two tables waited, curious about how Nathan could answer the question and still be critical of Ezra not participating, but not others.
"No," Nathan replied quickly. His irritation showed more as he continued, "But you're the only one who ain't got nothin' better to do."
Ezra sighed … on the inside. He kept his poker face toward the healer, wondering what it was that prevented the man from seeing anything Ezra did – outside of their law enforcement activities – as not being of value to the town. For the last week Ezra had been spending time with Mary Travis in their ongoing quest to lure a quality teacher to their dusty western town, as well as assisting Gloria and several other business owners with their bookkeeping. One might have hoped that the bank manager would assist in the monthly chore, but since Ezra had instituted this regular accounting with Gloria last year, more and more people were coming to him for assistance in their finances rather than the man who had been schooled in business. But to Nathan, these efforts, and the extensive time they took in the gambler's calendar, did not seem to pass whatever test Nathan had in his head for what actually qualified as work.
And it seemed, at least so far, that no one was coming to his aid in defending Ezra's absence from the school building site. Just as he was about to answer the rude retort from Nathan, Chris finally spoke up.
"Ezra's been busy. So've I, so has Vin." Ezra sent an appreciative look to the leader of their group. The two men had spent a fair amount of time in each other's company working through the scheduling of Ezra's other commitments; beyond the admiration each man held for their skills with weapons and in a fight, they had learned to admired each other as men, as members of their community who were making a difference, who were integral in how the town had grown and stabilized over the few years they had made Four Corners their home.
Nathan snorted and then wiped his mouth with his napkin. Chris glared at the healer; Vin simply shook his head, shared a frustrated look with Ezra, and sent the black man a steely, disappointed look.
Emboldened by Chris' support and Vin's clear unhappiness in Nathan's reaction, Ezra would not be so silent.
"Mistah Jackson, you must provide me with a list," Ezra started, "something detailed such that it would allow insight into what precisely, in your opinion," the last interjected with decided condescension, "qualifies as work. What is it that falls within the 'nothin' bettah to do' category?"
"Ah, hell," Vin said under his breath. The tracker could tell, just by looking at Ezra's eyes, that he was preparing to let Nathan have it. Not that the healer didn't deserve it, but this was one helluva way to start the day. There were times Vin wished things were more as they used to be. Ezra and Inez being together had the card sharp abed earlier these days … and miraculously, up in time for breakfast. The odds of this type of confrontation were much higher now with Ezra's new schedule.
"Now, fellas," Buck said. "We got enough folks helpin' over there, Nate. We get any more we'll start trippin' over each other."
"I can tell you what is and is not work," Nathan said, ignoring Buck's entreaty and his attempt to keep the peace in a far different way than they all normally did. But there would be no stopping the now-fuming man.
That didn't mean others sitting at the table wouldn't try.
"But you won't," Josiah's deep voice cut in, warning evident in his tone.
"I'm a free man, Josiah, and it's a free country," Nathan countered angrily. "Least I thought it was," he added as he continued to glare at Ezra.
"It is indeed a free country. Ah did not intend to start a war with mah inquiry," Ezra said, choosing to quell the coming storm before it hit full force. "Ah have some hours open early this afternoon, after Ah meet with Missus Potter, Mistahs Franklin and Davis, and then with Missus Travis, but before mah session with the children, followed, of course, by mah turn at patrol," the southerner added evenly. "Will you accept such a short time frame for mah construction services?"
All five of the other peacekeepers, in addition to the one who had asked the question, looked to Nathan. They could see that the man was pondering the offer, but Chris and Ezra, and maybe more of them, knew that he was also adding up in his head all of the hours Ezra spent on patrol, helping folks with their books at the end of each month, the time spent with the children, his efforts on the committee put in place to find a teacher. And then there was the time Ezra spent taking his turn transporting prisoners or doing other tasks asked of the group by Judge Travis. It was sinking in that maybe Ezra was busy doing things of value.
"Sure," the black man conceded, choosing - wisely - to keep his list to himself.
"Very well." Ezra stood, adjusted his vest and the sleeves of his shirt to show just so at the edge of his jacket's cuffs … and then removed himself from the saloon, his waiting meal forgotten in the kitchen.
"What the hell, Nathan?" Vin demanded, his voice raising far more than normal for the easy-going Texan.
Nathan shook his head. "I know, Vin."
"I don't think ya do," Chris said. "I know it might not seem like work to you, but Ezra puts more time in helping people than you seem to realize."
"Or appreciate," Josiah added.
"I know he spent three hours yesterday with Mr. Johnson. He looked pretty beat, too, when I saw him leaving Mr. Johnson's store," J.D. noted.
"Old Alex showed me the boxes of paperwork he had in his back room," Buck said. "Asked me if I thought Ezra could help him. If he spent three hours movin' all those boxes and going through all o' that, he had to have been exhausted when he got done. You know Alex can't help movin' much with that bum arm of his."
"He's helping half the business owners in town right now, Nathan." Chris eyed him carefully, noticing that what the healer was feeling most at the moment was guilt. And Chris was just fine with that; it should do the often self-righteous man some good. "Do you think maybe you could cut him a break?"
"You got me worryin' now if I'm pullin' my weight around here," J.D. said. "If you think Ezra ain't … "
"J.D., it ain't that," Nathan admitted, cutting off the young man's thought, one which he knew he'd started the rest of them thinking, too.
"We know that's not it," Josiah interjected. "Do you want to tell us what it is now that's got you all twisted up about Ezra?"
Again, all of the remaining lawmen waited for Nathan's reply. This time, he was much slower in providing an answer.
"Ya ain't blind, Nate. Ya must see how busy he is," Vin said.
"And tired. He just 'bout fell asleep at the poker table last night," Buck added. "These days it's a whole lot easier talkin' him into headin' to bed, and that's what I did. And it wasn't 'cause he had Inez waitin' for him. He's tired and he doesn't really need more added to his list. I, on the other hand, would give up cards for Inez any day."
Vin, Josiah and J.D. all smirked. So did Chris, who asked, "He give you any trouble?"
"Said I was a wise man," Buck replied with a smile.
"That depends on the day," J.D. commented, just barely loud enough for them all to hear. Buck slapped his young friend on the back of the head.
"Ow!" J.D. yelled lightheartedly. The two men had broken the tension that had built in the room; Chris indulged the childish antics momentarily, but quickly turned back to the topic at hand.
"Nathan, you gotta open your eyes and accept that Ezra ain't the man you first met, not anymore," the leader of the peacekeepers said.
"If you really knew that, then you wouldn't treat 'im the way you do," Vin said quietly. Inez watched from the kitchen, livid with Nathan for chasing Ezra away, but pleased that the rest of these men chose to directly confront the way he continued to treat the man she loved. Ezra was no coward; he would never run from a fight, despite the lingering rumors heard here and there. But he also had little time for Nathan when he got this way. Inez and Ezra had discussed the former slave many times. The other thing she knew about Ezra was that since the short few years that the men had know each other, Ezra continued to wish for a better relationship with the healer. The southerner nearly always stepped away rather than allow a confrontation to escalate between them. Her fiery Mexican blood often boiled over when he did this, but mostly she loved Ezra's kind and conciliatory nature.
"Does he remind you of someone who treated you poorly, on the plantation?" J.D. asked. Leave it to J.D. to get straight to the point; he wasn't old enough to have built any inhibitions.
"No. It's just … sometimes, his slick ways … that accent … "
"Man can't be blamed for how he sounds, Nate," Vin said.
"But he sometimes sounds like … "
Vin cut his fellow lawman off. "Don't hardly seem fair. Hell, I got a bit of an accent."
"A bit?" Buck questioned with a grin. Vin shrugged, and then dipped his head, but not before presenting his own knowing grin.
"You ain't Ezra," Nathan replied.
The smiles quickly left the faces of his friends as Chris' hand slapped hard on the table. Nathan jumped and turned his head, and the two men met in a staring match. And then Chris spoke.
"I'll be at the schoolhouse this afternoon." Nathan started to open his mouth. "Don't you dare tell me I'm not needed. If you need Ezra, then you need me." The former gunslinger stood and headed outside. Vin also stood, grabbed his capote and had it on by the time he reached the batwing doors. Josiah clasped Nathan's shoulder, then stood and also left, his appetite for dusty biscuits gone. He remained at the entry to the drinking establishment, talking with J.D.
"You're a braver man than me," Buck said, "makin' 'im mad like that." Buck also stood, loped over to the bar and had a word with Inez. She smiled sadly after they'd shared a few words, and then she patted the ladies man's hand affectionately. Buck headed out, addressing J.D. and Josiah on his way. "I'll be taking patrol to the east, check on Mrs. Ramsey and Paddy Jones and his kids while I'm out. Meet up with you at the bend, J.D."
"Watch your back," J.D. and Josiah returned in unison. They looked at each other and laughed.
Nathan sat with his head down, alone and in deep thought, not noticing the frivolity or that he was the last one left at the table.
Chris found Ezra standing in front of the partially built schoolhouse.
"You all right?"
"It ain't right."
Chris kept his eyes on Ezra, but then moved his attention to where the card sharp kept a steady gaze.
"Somethin' wrong?" the tall blond asked. The wind blew angrily as the two men carried on their conversation over the sounds of it and the cacophony of noise echoed against buildings, wagons, window shutters and other items buffeted by the wind raging and swirling about.
"Ah believe there has been a miscalculation in the erection of the walls in relation to the specified height of the building. You see," Ezra said as he stepped closer, "as you may recall, we had discussed a one-story structure, but with walls significantly lower than this." He pointed to the church. "More in line with the open feel of Josiah's sanctuary, but with more windows to allow in better light. We agreed that the open space of the church was what would help the children learn, but that the darkness of the church would not be an appropriate atmosphere." The frame of the building creaked in the increasing wind. "And on the sides there were to be additional windows in order to lighten the inside. This is the reason the church is as dark as it is, the lack of larger windows. There seems to have been a lack of attention … to … " Ezra stopped speaking just as Chris saw the man move and then felt himself pushed down into the hard ground. As the breath was knocked from him from the not insubstantial force and weight of the smaller man, Chris felt added pressure pushing him harder into the ground. Some part of Ezra was now forced solidly into Chris' body, which was crushing his ribs high on his chest. Ezra seemed a dead weight on top of him.
"Hell. Chris! Ezra!" Buck called as he saw the entire school structure picked up and tossed in multiple directions by the wind, a significant portion veering directly at his two friends. "Vin! Josiah!" Buck yelled as he ran to help. He saw Ezra push Chris back and to the ground and then, horrified, saw the pieces of wood slam the gambler down harder into the body of his long-time friend, the person whose life Ezra had just saved, at least he hoped that was the result. He hoped the smaller man hadn't been hit too badly by the flying debris.
From where he stood, or rather … ran, it didn't look too good. Though he'd known Chris longer, each of these men who had been brought together to make up the law of Four Corners had come to mean so much to the compassionate, dark-haired Lothario. He had family again, and he knew that Chris felt the same way. Chris Larabee lost so much when he'd lost his wife and child, their deaths caused by a woman who nearly succeeded in tearing the man's heart out for good. But now he had family again … six brothers, five of whom had worked with Buck to massage a nearly dead heart back to life, who had worked hard to make Chris' life worth living once more. Buck knew that neither he nor his best friend was ready to part with any of these men, these brothers of the heart.
Buck tripped over the now completely disassembled structure. Some pieces of wood appeared to be intact, but most of the solid building material was now in pieces, sheared into kindling in some cases, many edges dangerously sharp.
"Watch yer step," the tall gunman called to his fast-approaching friends.
"What the hell?" J.D. called in wonder as he stepped through the devastation.
"Dust devil," Vin said as he hurried past J.D. and began pulling pieces of the destroyed schoolhouse off of Chris and Ezra.
"J.D., go get Nathan's gear," Josiah ordered. They all knew the basics of what the healer would want in an emergency; Nathan made it easier by keeping a ready bag handy with many of the supplies he would need.
"Are they … " J.D. began, clearly fearful of finishing the sentence, of getting an answer he did not want to hear.
"We'll know soon enough," the former preacher replied. "Go on."
J.D. watched as Buck, Vin and Nathan removed more of the pile of wood from on top of Chris and Ezra, but turned swiftly and headed to fetch what was required. Josiah watched him leave, only to find Inez and Mary rushing toward him, their skirts held higher than was likely appropriate in order to get to the area faster. Inez and Ezra had been an item for a while now, but Mary and Chris had only just, or more correctly, finally starting courting.
"Senor Sanchez," Inez called.
"Inez, Mary, stay back. There's lots of sharp wood about."
"We heard the noise, the wind," Mary said.
"Looks like the school got picked up by a dust devil," Josiah confirmed.
"Is anyone hurt?" Inez asked as she tried to look past the large man. She could see Buck and Vin pulling wood from a pile. Nathan was sitting on his knees, obviously tending to someone.
"Looks like Ezra and Chris … " Josiah heard a gasp. "We only just started gettin' 'em out. Just stand back, be safe."
"Is there anything we can do?" Mary asked.
"You could go on ahead to the clinic and get some water cookin'."
"Yes, that makes sense," Inez said as she continued to look for signs of Ezra. "I … I will go," she added. Josiah looked from Inez to Mary, silently asking the newspaper publisher to accompany the distraught Mexican barkeep.
"We'll both go," Mary said as she placed her hand on Inez's shoulder. "Come, let's get everything ready."
"J.D. may be up there. He's gathering some things for Nathan." Mary nodded, grateful for the advanced notice, especially in her current, shaken state. She and Inez urgently made their way to the clinic.
"Don't move either of them," the healer said.
"Ez?" Vin called. He received no answer. He heard a moan, a distinct Chris Larabee growl. "Cowboy?"
"Hell." Buck grinned at the wordless grumble from his friend. Maybe it wasn't appropriate, but the gunman was so happy to hear his good friend at all. He knew that growl, had been hearing it going on fifteen years now; knew it meant Chris was, or would be, all right. "You and Ez 're lookin' a little intimate there." Chris attempted to rise, realizing that he was nearly cheek to cheek with the gambler. "Just hold tight, old pard. Nathan's checkin' out Ezra, and there's sharp pieces of wood all around." Vin and Josiah continued to remove the bits and pieces of the schoolhouse from on top of and around their friends.
"God damn it, Ezra," Chris said as he started to move again, the con man's body still draped unmoving across his front. The sudden windstorm that tossed the under construction building off of its foundation went as quickly as it had come. The regular spring wind had settled, and was quickly covering all of the men. Chris could feel it coating his hair and settling on his sweaty face and neck.
"Hold on, Chris. Nate is still checkin' Ezra."
"Don't mean I can't get up," the blond complained as he once more tried to crawl from his prone position.
"Yeah it does. Ez is unconscious on top of ya," Buck explained as he pressed Chris back down to the ground. He'd have to remind Nathan to check his old friend for a head wound; maybe that would explain why he wasn't recognizing that Ezra needed to be seen to first.
"Shit. He's damned heavy."
"Not … " they all heard, a breathy gasp coming from the professional gambler.
'Ez?' was spoken by some of the men, 'Ezra?' by the rest.
"Fit," the card sharp got out before he coughed, gasped with pain, and then finished, "not heavy."
"Don't try to move, Ezra," Nathan warned his patient.
"Ah … can … not … imagine," he started to reply, then stopped quickly with a barely uttered gasp.
"Ez, y'all right?" Vin asked.
"Come now, brothers. Let's get this firewood off of Chris and Ezra," Josiah urged. Nobody missed that the southerner had failed to answer Vin's question.
The wind that blew the new schoolhouse all to hell had made way for menacing dark clouds from the west. A sky that started the day a brilliant blue and then displayed big, white, puffy clouds and a strong, cool spring breeze had turned ugly with dark gray blotches masking the far-more-common pristine western sky. As the last of the larger pieces of sharp wood was removed from on top of and around the two downed lawmen, the wind delivered the first fat drops of rain.
J.D. ran to them with Nathan's supplies.
"Startin' to rain," he said, not really knowing what to say, nervous energy forcing out the obvious.
"The heavens will let loose, likely sooner rather than later. We need to move," Josiah declared, far more urgent than he normally sounded.
"Buck and Josiah, get Ezra's legs. J.D. and Vin, put your hands here," Nathan demonstrated, noting the center of the injured man's back. "Watch his wrist, Vin," the healer said, having already checked Ezra's extremities and found the appendage sprained, at minimum. Nathan stopped everyone with, "Hold on."
"Don't think we got time," Buck said as he nodded his head to the threatening skies. Ezra might hate the dust that accumulated on his fancy clothing during these spring winds, but he hated rain more, especially storms that promised pools of water, new brooks forged due to its power … and mud across the main thoroughfare in town that, despite boardwalk throughout much of it, never failed to cake boots, skirts and pant legs with the disgusting, foul goo.
Nathan raised his head and nodded toward the alley. "Get that door we were gonna install today," he said to Josiah. J.D. jumped up to help fetch it. When they returned, Nathan said, "Now, I'm goin' to hold his head, the rest of you move him over on top of the door."
"You want us to move him onto his back?" Vin asked worriedly.
"No, M … Mistah Tanner, he … he does not," Ezra answered, sounding weak and in terrible pain.
Gloria Potter ran towards them.
"Here, for his head," she said, offering up a soft, folded child's blanket, already mildly damp.
"Nah, just move him onto the door on his stomach. Try not to jostle 'im," Nathan said as he wiped the rain and mud, as best he could, from Ezra's neck and cheek.
"Thank you, Gloria,' Josiah said as he handed the blanket to Nathan. "Head on back under cover," he told her. The former slave and stretcher-bearer during the war fashioned the blanket into a 'U'.
"Ez, I'm gonna lift your head a little and put a blanket around your neck. It'll help keep it steady, and give ya some cushion under your chin."
"Much obli … " Ezra started, but he groaned first, then finished, "o … obliged." Nathan placed the blanket as gently as possible, but the movement still elicited a moan from the man who lay otherwise quiet and unmoving atop Chris Larabee.
The rain started to pour in earnest. Chris called, "Can we move this along some. We'll be drinkin' mud like soup if we don't."
Nathan saw Ezra move his uninjured hand. "Not you, Ezra. We'll move you."
"Very well," the gambler replied. "Mah apologies, M … Mistah Larabee," he added, his voice muffled as he spoke into Chris' shirt.
"'s all right, Ez," Chris said gently. "Thanks for what ya did." Ezra moved his good hand slightly and patted his friend who lay patiently beneath him.
"Let's move him," Nathan said.
For the next while, the five men worked determinedly to remove one of The Magnificent Seven from on top of another, watching as their injured partner bit into the blanket in an attempt to bear the pain of being moved. The only saving grace at the moment was that Chris was slowly albeit painfully moving from the muddy spot. He was helped up but was able to walk on his own as he kept pace with the slow progress of his friends carrying Ezra to the clinic.
Josiah stayed with Nathan to help with the two injured men. All of them were soaked and muddy and Nathan had suggested that Vin, Buck and J.D. get cleaned up and return as quickly as possible. Nathan got cleaned and changed immediately in an effort to keep the filthy mud from the men he tended. Josiah also washed and changed once Nathan had done so, a set of his clothes handy from the last time they worked many hours to nurse some of their own back to health. Once the healer had seen to all of the gambler's injuries, he checked Chris over, just to make sure Josiah had taken care of everything … and to see for himself whether their leader was hiding anything. Chris wasn't as inclined to keep quiet about an injury, not the way Ezra or Vin was, but if he was mobile, he liked to get out of the healer's domain as quickly as he could. On this day, the leader of the law enforcement group in their dusty high desert town seemed inclined to stay right where he was. Nathan knew it wasn't due to his minor injuries.
"He ain't gonna wake for a while," Nathan said, though he'd put some tea on to steep just in case. Ezra Standish was nothing if not surprising much of the time; though any other man would follow the rule and be out for some time, Ezra would be first in line to break that tenet. The black man had learned to be ready for anything.
"He'll be all right?" Chris asked. Josiah had wrapped the lean man's ribs; he'd suffered a couple of bruised ones and a cracked rib when Ezra had forced him to the ground. From what he'd gathered from Buck, both he and Ezra were lucky to be alive, that if Ezra hadn't moved so quickly, they both would likely have suffered some brutal, possibly fatal head injuries.
"He's bruised bad all the way down his back, his legs. Wrenched his neck. Only a sprained wrist."
"He'll be glad of that," Chris said.
"Won't do him no good for a while. He ain't gonna be sittin' a chair for any length of time for at least two weeks," the healer explained. "Not just from the bruises. Couple o' those cuts from the wood went deep. They're gonna pain him."
"Won't let it show," Vin said as he entered the clinic.
"I know," Nathan returned. If anyone knew how Ezra reacted to real pain, it was the healer. Minor hurts, like when he'd been hit over the head with a chair just before that fateful visit from the territorial governor, or a splinter in a finger of his precious hands? Neither Nathan nor any of the other of The Seven would hear the end of the complaining. But a gunshot wound, or his shoulder dislocating – again – or a building blown apart by Mother Earth? Nary would a peep be heard; the con man would don a poker face, and project the very definition of inscrutable for all to see. At least until that point when he'd had enough poking from Nathan and fussing from the others, and then the complaints would be colorful and plentiful until his black friend would finally be more than ready to kick him out of his clinic.
"Didn't get hit in the head again?" Chris asked.
"No. Got lucky, if you can call it that," Nathan replied with a sad grin.
"Kidneys? Shoulder?" These were areas of particular concern to all of the lawmen, as Ezra had suffered injuries to these parts of his body more than once.
"Just bruised everywhere."
"How is it Ah manage to awaken to hear you gentlemen sayin' the most outlandish things?"
"Ezra, what are you doin' awake?" Nathan chastised, not that it was in any way unexpected.
The gamester wiped his uninjured hand wearily over one tired eye. "Did you think your conversation private?" Ezra moved as though to get up, but found moving on his own nearly impossible, so he stopped trying. "What time is it?"
"Gettin' near two o'clock," Vin said as he rubbed his growling stomach.
Ezra smirked. "Ah guess Ah could have waited just a moment before asking the question and Ah would have had mah answer." He looked around. "Could one of you gentlemen help me up?"
"You don't need to get up," Nathan firmly suggested.
"Ah simply wish to sit up for a few moments, have some water, some of your delightful tea," Ezra said as he raised the eyebrow they could all see, the full effect of his expression lost in this position laying on his stomach. "Ah feel certain at that point … with some quiet," he added, looking this time to Chris and Vin, "Ah will succeed in mah slumber."
"Why you lookin' at me? I ain't hardly said two words," Vin ended in his own defense. Nathan helped Ezra to the edge of the bed. The injured man closed his eyes and leaned toward Vin, who took a seat next to the con man to help keep him upright.
"Feelin' sick?" Nathan asked.
"Just a little woozy. Tired. Ah hurt everywhere," Ezra admitted.
"Ya didn't have to do what you did," Chris said.
"Ah beg to differ," Ezra replied. "You were not watchin' as Ah was."
"He's prob'ly right, cowboy. If the two of you hadn't gone down when you did, might not be sittin' here talkin' to ya."
"Maybe," Chris conceded.
"Listen to our fine tracker," the card sharp advised. "Ah am certain you all know that Ah am loathe to place mahself in jeopardy unless absolutely necessary."
"Bullshit," Chris said.
"I gotta agree with Chris, Ez. Yer pretty full of it," Vin added.
"I can vouch for that baloney you're shillin'. It's easy when I count the number of times you've been in this room, in that bed," Nathan agreed. He handed Ezra a mug of water.
"You must have me confused with some other person," the southerner said as he started in on the cool liquid. His hand shook, evidence of his weakened state. Vin wrapped his hand around Ezra's and helped him to finish. He handed back the mug, which Nathan exchanged for one containing the 'delightful' tea. With surprisingly limited theatrics – for Ezra – he finished that mug's contents quickly as well.
"Nobody else was injured?" the bruised lawman asked.
"Just you 'n' Chris," Vin answered.
"Just some bruised and cracked ribs," the former gunslinger replied.
"Just?" Ezra asked as he moved his stiff neck, and then winced at the effort.
"I'm fine. But now I know what it feels like to be run over by a steam engine," Chris said with a smirk.
"Ah beg your pardon?"
"You're rock solid, Ezra."
"Ya gotta wonder how when most o' what he does 'round here is from a sitting position," Vin added with his own grin.
"Ah b'lieve you gen'l'men are envious. Not all of us are blessed wi' such a fine physique, bruised and beaten though it is jus' now."
"Yer definitely full of shit. Ain't no way you keep that 'physique' without a little work."
"Green w' envy, Missah Lar'bee," Ezra said as his head drooped. He forced his head up, far too quickly, and then moaned. He 'looked' toward Nathan, his eyes closed, and said, "Did you put somethin' extra in tha' tea?" his voice now slurred.
"No. You're just ready for bed," Nathan said.
Ezra moved, readying for just that, when he felt a sharp, stinging pain high up on the back of his leg.
"Ah!" he said, reaching his hand down toward that hurt. But moving the wrist had been unwise. "Good lord," he said as he grabbed the wrist and held it to his chest. "What have Ah done?" he asked woefully, the pain waking him right back up.
"Ya hurt, ya idiot," Chris said.
"Sit still. Breathe. We'll move you back to bed," Nathan told him. The healer and the tracker positioned him laying on his stomach once more. The silence from the injured party told them all how unhappy Ezra was at the prospect, even if he did know it was the only way he could rest without too much pain. That did not stop him from speaking of another topic.
"What … What 'bout the school?" Ezra asked. Vin looked to Chris, and then they both met Nathan's glance. The healer nodded; the gambler would find out soon enough, anyway.
"We'll need to start over," Chris replied.
"Aw, hell," Ezra said. He rested his head heavily into the pillow. His hurts and his upset at the news seemed to drain him; he was asleep within moments.
"Maybe … " Chris started, but he stopped when he saw Nathan put his finger to his lips.
The black man whispered, "Let's get 'im comfortable and then go outside to talk." As they got Ezra settled, Inez stepped into the room. They left her with the sleeping man as they headed outside. Josiah left to get truly cleaned up; the rest of them settled on the deck to talk over the day's events.
"Maybe we should have waited to tell him about the school," Chris suggested.
"Think he knew the answer b'fore he asked," Vin said.
"Seemed to knock him out when he heard."
"Nah, Chris. That's just his body reacting. He was workin' hard to stay with us in there," Nathan noted.
"Seems like we got time to rebuild, according to Mary, even if we don't have the funds," Chris said, frustrated.
"Well, Nate, Mary told me last night at supper that the last teacher who was interviewed decided to take a job somewhere else. She was the choice the committee had decided on."
"Hell," Vin said.
"Yeah, in spite of how much the town has grown and settled in the last few years, still looks like folks are reluctant to come here when they can be somewhere else."
"It's a hard life out here, Chris. Can't blame folks," Vin reassured. They heard the loping footsteps of Buck Wilmington heading up the staircase.
"Especially a young woman. Most teachers these days are young and single, but they still want the chance at marriage. That girl probably took one look around and found slim pickins."
"Gee, thanks Nathan," Vin said with mock-offense.
"Yeah, thanks," Chris added.
"What're we thankin' Nate for?" Buck asked. "The kid's takin' patrol, by the way." Chris nodded, thankful that things were moving along as normal.
"Nothin'," Vin said.
"Now come on," Nathan began, but Chris cut him off.
"You got yourself a girl." Nathan's courting of Rain from the Seminole village had moved decidedly in the direction of marriage. He was the nearest to that action of all of them. Nobody knew exactly how J.D. and Casey felt towards one another from one day to the next. And Chris was currently in the dog house with Mary, in spite of the newness of their courtship, though her concern for him after the schoolhouse blew up was evident to all.
"What? He ain't the only one," Buck challenged.
"That ain't the same," Vin countered.
"Ez has a girl," Nathan said, trying to defend himself, but knowing that he'd not even come close to doing so."
"Ez didn't call us 'slim pickins'," Vin replied.
"Don't know. He mighta if he was with us," Buck kidded his friends.
The four men sat in companionable quiet as hints of sun after the downpour showed in the mid-afternoon sky, but not for long. Vin's stomach growled loudly, interrupting the new-found peace of the day.
"I could hear that from down here, Vin," Gloria Potter said as she took the last step up to the second floor of the building that housed Nathan's clinic room.
"Don't apologize for that. You boys have been busy today. How is he doing?" the owner of the mercantile asked, directing her question to Nathan.
"He's hurtin', but he'll be all right, s' long as he rests."
"Well, we'll do what we can," she replied, familiar with the difficulties of keeping one Ezra Standish put while he healed. "I am coming to sit with him; Inez needs to get ready for the evening over at the saloon." She stepped into the room and closed the door quietly.
"Anyone up fer some grub?" the tracker asked. It would be a decidedly late midday meal after the day's stressful events.
"I could eat," Buck said. "Nathan, Josiah said he'd be over in about twenty minutes. Said you could have the rest of the evening if you want."
"Thanks, Buck. I may take him up on that. Go get some shut-eye in Ezra's room."
"Sounds like a plan," Chris said. It always, somewhat surprisingly, warmed Chris' heart when he heard Nathan or Vin speak of using the gambler's room when he was away, or up in the clinic. The generosity of the standing offer was not what he'd ever expected from the man he first met about three years before. But as he'd said to Nathan earlier, Ezra wasn't that person anymore. "See you in the restaurant?" Chris added.
"I'll be there. I'm gonna do a quick check on Ezra, make sure Mrs. Potter's all right until Josiah gets here."
"Buck, Vin, grab us a table. I'm goin' to go get cleaned up a bit," Chris informed his friends.
"Don't get your … "
" … bandages wet," Buck and Vin chimed in.
"All of ya, get away from me," Nathan chided as he headed back in to check on Ezra.
"I don't know, Ezra," J.D. grunted as he helped the gambler on his left side. "Nathan … "
"Ah know what Mistah Jackson said," the southerner replied, already winded as they reached the staircase's middle landing.
"Come on now, J.D. It wouldn't be Ez if he didn't ignore what Ol' Nate told him to do," Buck responded as he assisted the healing man from the right side.
"Mistah Wilmington, that is a heinous accusation. Ah have spent days in bed, first in that lumpy mattress at the clinic and finally, blessedly, in mah own feather bed."
"And I was with you when he said you would need a few more days before you could sit without pain," Chris said as he met them at the bottom step.
"He didn't even want you to go back to your room yet," Buck reminded them all.
"Said yourself you didn't sleep too good," J.D. related. Ezra gave him a look, the one that said he'd been betrayed … the look that explained why he rarely spoke of his hurts if, in the end, the entire town ended up knowing his weaknesses.
"As Ah explained, Mistah Dunne. Ah am not a stomach sleeper. Ah simply kept wakin' mahself up … "
"'Cause it hurt to turn over," Vin stated as he sat easily in his regular seat at their regular table.
"Mistah Tanner … " Ezra started, but Chris cut him off.
"It's your choice if you want to sit here hurtin', slow down your healin'."
"It's just that much longer you'll be under Nathan's care," Josiah added as he worked on his hearty – and far less dusty – morning meal. The winds had died down … finally. All of the con man's friends had been enlisted to not only keep Ezra's mind off of the pain and the sedentary hours, which were driving him mad, but to also keep the wounds clean. It wasn't the dust now so much as the humid rains that made it nearly impossible to survive the drenching sweat. Ezra felt like he was back in the Deep South with the terrible humidity. What the hell was going on with the weather? The bruised lawman finally stood at the table, surrounded by Buck and J.D. as Chris took his regular seat beside Josiah, and across from Vin. The seat on the other side of the preacher remained empty. It belonged to Nathan.
"Well, as Ah understand it, our fine healer is out assistin' in Missus Fleming's delivery of her fourth child," Ezra said as he, with the aid of his friends, gently lowered himself into his chair. A shocked breath issued forth as Ezra closed his eyes tightly in an effort to tolerate the pain. A barely audible 'Lord' whispered from the con man.
"Y'all right?" Buck asked as he leaned in, his hand grasping the gambler's shoulder. Ezra seemed to be trembling as he fought the onslaught of the chair against his back, his legs, his backside. He held his hand close to his vest, not eager to face any more pain than he was already subjecting himself to.
"Ah … will … be," he said as he inhaled and exhaled slowly, deliberately, attempting to absorb the sharp pains on the worst of the cuts and bruises. Chris set a glass in front of the injured man.
"Here," he said. Ezra opened his eyes to see what the blond had done.
"Chris," Josiah warned.
"I know. It's just one drink." Ezra grabbed it and quickly downed it before someone took it away from him. He closed his eyes again and breathed in slowly, then out. In, then out. His companions watched as Ezra continued to take what they all hoped were calming, soothing breaths.
"I'm heading out on patrol," J.D. said. The young man had taken more than his share of Ezra's turns at patrol while his friend healed. He never uttered one word of complaint. "Hope you're feelin' better soon, Ezra."
"Too kind, Mistah Dunne," Ezra said as he opened his eyes and offered up the best smile he could manage. "Ah fear Ah owe you a debt Ah might nevah live long enough to repay. Ah understand that you have been taking your turn as well as most of mine in patrolling our fair town."
"Don't owe me nothin', Ez. I'm happy to do it."
"Ah wish you a safe and uneventful day," the gambler said, more emotion obvious than usual in his demeanor, in his speech. "You are a fine young man, a credit to your mother, and to our team." J.D. beamed, a big smile adorning his face.
"Watch yer back," Chris called as J.D. yelled back, 'Thanks!' on his way through the batwing doors.
"Right nice what you said there, Ez." Ezra cocked his head in acceptance of the comment, happy that at least his neck was healing faster than expected. Whoo-ee, that boy tires a man out," Buck admitted warmly.
"That's because you're gettin' old," Chris joked.
"Got yourself some nerve there, old pard," the ladies man bandied back.
Inez came out from the kitchen with breakfast for the rest of The Seven. J.D. had eaten earlier, and quickly, with Josiah. The preacher was far more inclined to take his time over a meal, whenever possible. The pretty Mexican placed her hand on Ezra's shoulder, but took it away just as quickly, as she headed back into the kitchen. Her lover had been in pain for days now; he'd made it abundantly clear over the course of those days that she take her room, for now, as he recuperated. Nathan encouraged the separation, knowing how unpleasant life would become for the card sharp as he healed. It was best for all concerned – and for the growing romance between the two – that Ezra not subject the object of his affections to his foul mood. There was little that was more undesirable to spend time with than a hurting, holed up and far-too-quick-of-the-tongue Ezra Standish. Inez returned to the room with biscuits and peach preserves, and set it in front of the southerner, along with a mug of coffee. His appetite had been sketchy, at best, since a building blew from its site and crashed into his back, but Inez knew what to do to get him in the mood … for food. The preserves had been ordered through Gloria Potter from a large mercantile in Denver. Inez made sure to keep a stock on hand: peaches from Georgia … the con man could not resist them. He took his lady's hand and kissed it.
"You are too good to me," he said with endearing affection.
"Te adoro," she replied.
"Aw, ain't that sweet?" Buck said. Inez lifted her head at the comment, readying herself for something. Her brown eyes burned fire at the blue ones of the town Lothario. Ezra kept a hold of her hand and squeezed hard to still the urge from his fiery Mexican beauty.
"Jealous, Buck?" Vin asked with a smirk.
Buck realized that his remark had been snide, even rude. He cocked his head a little as he looked at the faces of his friends, specifically at Ezra and Inez.
"Yeah, probably. Sorry 'bout that," he said. He was a good man and his innate decency won out as he looked directly into their eyes as he offered the apology. Ezra and Inez shared a quick glance, then Inez spoke for them both.
"Apology accepted, senor."
"I'd be a bit green with envy myself if I'd tried for one so beautiful … and lost," Josiah added knowingly.
"He did not lose, Senor Sanchez," Inez said as she cleared his empty plate from the table. "You cannot lose something you never really could have won."
"She got ya there, Bucklin," Vin said. Chris snorted a laugh.
"Well, you know, I stopped tryin' once I knew Ezra was interested," Buck claimed.
"Is that so?" Inez asked. "Tell me, when you were 'still trying', and sleeping with all those other women, was I supposed to take you seriously?" Buck started to open his mouth to answer, but Inez stopped him cold as she finished, "Because I never did." She leaned across the table in front of the ladies man, her delectable bosom right at Buck's face, and took away J.D.'s plate from earlier. She stepped over, gave Ezra a longer-than-normal, for in public, kiss on the lips, and then vanished once more into the saloon's kitchen.
"There was nothing unclear there about where the lady stands," Josiah translated.
"Nope," Vin agreed. Chris just shook his head at his old friend.
And Ezra, all beaten and bruised and feeling less than his best, added, "And Ah am the luckiest man in Four Corners.
Ezra heard the familiar cadence of the footfall along the boardwalk as the obviously big man made his way determinedly to the recovering gambler's location. The weather, without wind or rain or humidity for the first time in weeks, had urged him outside. Buck had been kind enough to find him a comfortable chair – and cushioning - and the professional poker player currently on holiday from his preferred vocation had been dozing on and off in front of the saloon all morning, Fred the dog happy to laze with him at his feet. Ezra had said feet up on a crate, his neck enveloped by the blanket Gloria brought to him the day of the accident. His hand was in a sling, a concession to the healer's demand he was willing to make in order to be ready for the tables once the rest of his body was ready to sit a regular chair for longer than the time it took to eat a meal. Ezra found himself waking from this last nap, realizing that the sound of his friend fast approaching meant the end of sleep, leastwise for now.
"Hey, Ezra. How you feelin'?" the black man asked as he took the empty chair across from the con man. He gave Fred a quick pat on the head.
"Much bettah today," Ezra answered as he cradled his hand. "Ah am feelin' very little discomfort for the first time since mah unfortunate encounter with a twister made of wood." Nathan started to speak, but Ezra continued. "You have, once again, shown your talents, to mah good fortune. You have a true calling, mah friend." Nathan stared at his patient, seemingly at a loss for words, though Ezra Standish, of all those who resided in this town, knew better, certainly in relation to how the healer felt about the gambler. He'd heard more than one unkind word directed his way from the former slave. Ezra understood that when Nathan's animosity flared, it was likely due to some reminiscence that Ezra's own southern roots sparked in the man. After all, a white man from the south must have deep-seated and almost always negative thoughts about a black man, a free black man, especially one who pretended to be a doctor. Ezra had, after all, called Nathan out after Maude Standish hired the healer to be a 'doctor' at her hotel across the boulevard from the no-longer Standish Tavern. But Ezra was so sure they were over that. He had been convinced more than once that they had settled their differences; the con man had been just as clearly wrong about that the same number of times.
"Nathan?" Ezra asked as the man sat next to him, saying nothing.
"Ezra," the healer started at the same time.
"Mah apologies. Proceed, Mistah Jackson."
"Ezra … " Nathan began again, but stopped as he watched his friend hold his hurt hand. "Your wrist botherin' you?" he asked as he gently took the hand into his own, carefully feeling for puffiness, inflammation, pain, or anything new that might not have been apparent until the swelling had gone down over the course of the last week.
"Ah am certain it is the normal ache of healin'."
"You're sure? Feels all right."
"Ah am. Thank you for your concern. Now, you wished to speak to me? Ah am all ears, one of the few parts of mah body to come out unscathed this time," the southern gentleman said with a smile. Nathan didn't smile at the joke, his face serious, something equally serious on his mind.
"I wanted to … well … I think I should … " Nathan paused, lowered his head to his chest and clasped his hands together, resting his arms on his knees. Ezra watched him for quite a long while, waiting for him to continue.
"I've been hard on you," the healer quickly said as he raised his deep brown eyes to look straight into Ezra's intense green ones. "For a long time now."
"Indeed," Ezra answered, which brought a defensive bearing to Nathan's visage. The observant con man saw this and raised his good hand to pacify his friend. "Not all of the time." Ezra kept eye contact, though his smile from earlier was now hidden in his far-too-familiar poker face. Nathan cooled his anger, realizing that he had brought the subject up; he couldn't fairly criticize Ezra for agreeing with his statement.
"No, not all of the time. But enough of the time." Ezra remained quiet; this was really more about Nathan getting whatever he needed to say off his chest than it was about Ezra maintaining a running commentary. He was good at that, but maybe the southerner should practice his listening skills a little more.
"I … I want to say that I know a lot of how I react to you is 'cause of what I went through as a slave. That ain't fair to you." Ezra remained inscrutable, save for a faint nod of the head. "I know some of it was 'cause of what you said in the saloon when we first met."
"You have a long and vivid memory."
Nathan nodded. "That's true, but that ain't right, either. You proved long ago that you weren't prejudiced, that you don't hold the color of my skin against me." He lowered his head once more, shaking his head in what seemed disgust with himself.
"Nathan," Ezra said, hoping to get his friend to raise his head and look at him. With no luck on his first attempt, he said more firmly, "Nathan." The former slave looked up at the healing man. "There are many men, very many southern men, men who call themselves gentlemen, who would and do hold the color of your skin against you. It is no wonder that you would think this of me. And Ah would be lying to you if Ah said Ah did not hold similar feelings when we first met. Mah prejudices were carefully taught during mah formative years, though not instilled as deeply as they might. Ah was fortunate to be the recipient of kindnesses from more than one slave during mah younger days. Ah have learned over mah life that first impressions are often not the correct impression, that they poorly reflect the measure of a man. Ah have been the recipient of similar preconceived notions in mah life."
"That's what I been doin' to you. I figured what you do for a living, that I always figured you as a cheater at cards and a swindler of good folks in other ways, too … that you are still like that." Nathan shook his head. "That was wrong. You ain't nothin' like that man I first met."
"And you are absolutely just like the man that I first met. You are good and compassionate and committed to do good for people in a society that will not allow you the opportunity to make a profession of what you do so well. The color of your skin is meaningful," Ezra added carefully, hoping that his friend did not take the comment in the wrong way, "in that you have overcome all of the prejudices and the obstacles inherent for a man of color in this world. The people of this town know that the color of your skin is meaningless, in the big picture, of which our small town is simply a brushstroke. You know this, my friend. I hope that you know that this is how I feel, in here," Ezra concluded as he placed his injured hand closer to the organ in question. There was no doubt that the man's command of the language made his speech eloquent, but it was the heartfelt … the heart-powered nature of the speech that mattered.
Nathan blinked several times as he tried to hold back the tears that pressed so hard to find a way out. "Ezra, I didn't expect … I came here to apologize to you."
"And you have. And I accept your apology."
"But I wanted … "
"Nathan … "
"No, I want to say it."
Ezra sat back in his chair, sighed heavily, tiredly, and said, "The stage is yours."
"I'm sorry, for what I've said about you, for how I reacted sometimes. I consider you a friend. I can understand if you don't see me the same way." Nathan looked away, but turned back to face Ezra and added, "I know I've hurt you. I'm sorry."
"I accept your apology." Ezra saw no need to draw this out, or make his friend suffer waiting for something that he found easy to give.
"Good. I'm glad." Nathan offered his hand. "Friends?" Ezra, his left hand the one in the sling, readily offered his right. The two men shook hands.
"Of course," the gambler replied. And then Ezra yawned.
"You ain't likely gettin' good rest out here," Nathan commented.
"Nonetheless, out here is where Ah shall stay," Ezra replied as he snuggled into his blanket and his comfortable chair, his feet positioned just so on his stool. He patted his lap, encouraging Fred to jump up and make himself at home, which he did.
"How come you're like that? You know how annoying it is when you don't listen to me?"
"Ah do listen to you, when it is warranted."
"Don't seem like it."
"Ah am abiding by your suggestion that the lovely Senorita Recillos return to mah room."
"You'd have to be an idiot to not listen to that suggestion."
"It is good to know you do not think me an idiot," Ezra replied as his hand slowed on Fred's back, the easy massage ending as the gambler relaxed, obviously ready for his next nap.
"I didn't say that. I just said … "
"That truce didn't last long," Chris said as he listened to the conversation just outside the saloon window.
"I don't know. Reckon maybe it's still goin' on, just not the way you think," Vin countered.
"Senor Vin is correct," Inez said, a glint in her eye, a wide and brilliant smile on her face. Apparently where she would sleep tonight had been news to her … until just now. It seemed the pretty Mexican would soon be sleeping again with the self-professed luckiest man in Four Corners.