please see part one for disclaimers and author's notes!
Ezra stirred in his bed and moaned as his body protested the movement. He felt as if he'd been trampled by a thousand wild horses and then drowned in a vat of whiskey. "Gah." He pushed himself uptight and hissed at the ache in his shoulder and side. Glancing down, he realized he'd slept in his clothes…again.
The day before seemed a blur as he tried to piece together what had happened. Chris had been mad about a missed patrol. The Amos brothers had escaped and were killed. He remembered that JD had been shot and Buck hurt, but they were both going to be okay. Then, he frowned. Had he fallen down the stairs? That part seemed fuzzier in his memory, but would explain the aches and pains he was experiencing now. He seemed to remember gambling as well. Hadhe played a game or two last night?
Struggling, he rose from the bed and glanced in the mirror. He should change, he thought, scowling at his reflection. He looked horrible and felt worse. How much did he drinklast night anyway? He never liked to let himself lose all control by becoming so inebriated. He knew better than that. He scowledand ran his hand over his snarled hair. Gingerly,he rolled his shoulder, moaning as he did. It moved at least,but it certainly hurt.
He frowned again at his reflection. He should shave, the thought came and went and instead he splashed water on his face and looked around. Where was his hat?
Chris walked out of the livery, blinking at the sudden change in brightness and almost ran into Mary Travis.
It was obvious she had been waiting for him.
"Mr. Larabee?" She addressed him formally.
"What is it Mary?" Heasked, too tired to show the patience he knew he should.
"I need to speak with you about a private matter."
Helooked around them. "No one here but you and me," he told her.
She sighed and bit her lip.
"There's something wrong with Ezra." She looked surprised that she'd just blurted it out so bluntly. "I mean…"
Chris raised a hand, cutting her off. "He's not feeling well." It was the only theory he had.
"It's more than that." Mary shook her head.
"What do you mean?"
Exhaling slowly she handed Chris a hat.
Chris stared at it for a long moment, his mind racing over various scenarios of how exactly Mary would end up in possession of Ezra's hat.
"What did he do?" Chrissnatched the hat and was already striding toward the saloon.
"Wait!" Mary grabbed at him, catching his arm and pulling him back a step. "Chris, wait."
"I'll kill him."
"I know." Mary didn't let go of him.
"What did he do? "Chris repeated, gripping the hat fiercely.
"He just, wasn't himself."
Chris waited for her to continue. "Hesaid some things. It wasn't anything I hadn't heard before,but," Mary blushed lightly. "But it was nothing a gentleman would ever say. Nothing Ezra would ever say to me. Not normally." She shook her head.
"Did he touch you?"
She didn't answer.
"Mary, did he touch you?"
"No." she looked up. "I managed to keep the printing press between us,and he ran off when I threw a lantern at him." She sighed. " I don't think he meant…"
"I'll talk to him." Chris waited.
Mary looked at him expectantly until she realized she had yet to release her grip on his arm. Suddenly, she let go. "Don't hurt him."
Across the street, Ezra stepped out of the saloon.
"No promises," Chris muttered. "Get inside somewhere."
Ezra looked up as Chris approached him and yelped when Larabee grabbed him and dragged him around the corner of the building and into the alley. When they stopped, Ezra pulled out of Chris grasp.
"Unhand me," heordered. "What's the meaning of this? And why do you have my hat?" He reached for it,but Chris held it back.
"I'm going to ask this once, Ezra,and now is the time for an honest answer."
"You heard me." Chris handed over the hat and waited as Ezra put it on. He scanned Ezra's appearance with concern. Unshaven, pale, the dark circles under his eyes had deepened, leaving Standish looking gaunt and hung over. His clothes were a rumpled mess and obviously the same ones he'd been wearing for the last two days which for Ezra was extremely unusual.
"You going to ask your question or not?" Ezra challenged when Chris' scrutiny had gone on for too long.
"What is your problem?" Chris finally asked.
Standish frowned. "Other than being manhandle by you?"
"Don't mess with me,Ezra."
Ezra pushed away from the side of the saloon,but Chris pushed him back, frowning when the smaller man winced on impact.
He had been hurt worse than he let on in his fall.
"Ezra," Chris tried again,but Standish looked up at him then. The green in Ezra's eyes clouded, and suddenly, Larabee was on the ground, his jaw throbbing.
"Stay away from me," Ezra spit out shaking his fist.
Chris scrambled to his feet,but Ezra was already out of the alley and half way to the livery. Nathan stood right outsidethe livery doors. Buck and JD were outside the saloon talking with Josiah and Vin.
"Get out of my way." Ezra shoved Jackson, sending the healer to the ground.
"Oh boy." Chris heard JD mutter behind him.
"Ezra!" Larabee yelled knowing he needed to stop Standish. JD, Inez and Mary, they were all right. Something was wrong with Ezra.
Quickly, Ezra had Chaucer ready, leading the hesitant animal from the barn.
"Ezra." Chris went to grab the southerner, but the click of Ezra's derringer springing into his hand made him freeze.
"You will not touch me again." Ezra held the gun, unwavering.
"Okay, okay." Chris backed up a step, hands raised in surrender. "But I need you to stay here."
"Not on your life." Standish climbed into the saddle with obvious stiffness, not quite stifling a groan.
"You're hurting, "Larabee tried again. "You need help."
"From him?" Ezra nodded to where Jackson was now standing. "Never."
"You can't leave…"Chris had one more try. "You'll be running out."
"And that's a bad thing?" Ezra shook his head. "I don't need you or this town." He slapped at Chaucer spurring the horse into a gallop.
"Standish!" Larabee shouted in frustration,but Ezra only kicked his mount to go faster.
Suddenly, Ezra seemed to jerk and slip. He slid, unprepared and fell hard tangling beneath Chaucer's legs.
Standish screamed and Chris was running along with Vin and Josiah. He thought for sure Chaucer had trampled the gambler.
Ezra writhed on the ground, breathing harshly and clutching at his arm.
"Where'd he get ya?" Vin asked, sliding to his knees beside Ezra.
"He didn't." Ezra said between clenched teeth. "He missed me. Landed on my shoulder." He opened his eyes and they watered with pain,but Chrismarveled at how clear they were now.
"Nathan!" Josiah hollered for the healer.
Jackson just stood there, folding his arms across his chest.
"He needs your help," Josiah pleaded.
"He made himself clear," Nathan said harshly and walked away.
"Damn." Josiah turned back to Vin, Chris and Ezra.
"It's okay," Ezra was saying as they got him to his feet. He limped a bit. "I can fix it," hewhispered.
"Are you sure?" Josiah asked, easing an arm around the smaller man.
"Just bruised,I think.." Standish smiled weakly. "Giveme a few minutes to walk it off."
"You ain't walking this off." Chris sighed. "Josiah can you get him to his room?"
"Good, go. Vin, can you take care of Chaucer?"
"Alright. Saloon after," heinstructed. "We need to talk."
When Joisah finally came down from Ezra's room, Chris was seated with Vin, JD and Buck at a table in the back corner of the saloon.
Inez had brought them all drinks, smiling sadly at Josiah as he passed her. "How is he?" she asked softly.
Josiah took her hand and led her back to the table to join their talk. "He's resting." He told them as he sank wearily into a chair. "He's exhausted."
"Whatabout his shoulder?" JD asked,unconsciously rubbing at the sling supporting his own injured arm.
"He fixed it." Josiah grimaced.
"How?" Buck sipped his drink.
"Slammed it against the doorframe." Josiah shuddered.
"That worked?" JD's eyes grew wide.
"Heard it pop back into place and he could move it after, seemed to help with the pain."
"That can't be good." Buck frowned.
"He'sdone it before." Inez said quietly.
"When? Chris asked.
"Whenhe hides his injuries from you, " sheresponded. "I need to get back to…" She waved toward the bar, obviously upset. She turned and hurried away.
The group sat in silence for a time before JD finally shifted and spoke. "Do you think he's sick?"
"Could be," Vin answered.
"Heard of folks getting brain sick before and acting all different," Buck added.
Chris traced the edge of his glass, hating the thought that Ezra might be seriously ill. What would they do with him? Contact Maude?
"There might be another possibility." Josiah leaned forward, resting his forearms on the table and lowered his voice. "I've seen it before," heexplained. "On the mission field with my father. Sometimes people would start acting unlike themselves sudden like. They might act opposite from normal or just different. Be quick tempered when they usually were calm. Talk a lot when before they barely ever spoke. Sometimes they would even start to take on characteristics of those who had passed on before. Shamans called it…"
"Oh God, you think Ez is over shadowed?" Vin interrupted aghast. "He can't be," he protested.
"Wait." Chris looked between the two men. Josiah concerned and Vin looked almost frightened.
"Over shadowed," Buck whispered, playing with the term.
"Christ," Chris suddenly understood. "Youthink Ezra is possessed?"
"Hush," Josiah warned, looking around the room to make sure no one was close enough to overhear. "Not possessed really, just…"
"Over Shadowed," JD added.
"Best term for it yet." Sanchez nodded. "It's like being nudged or guided."
"He's more than being guided, Preacher," Chris protested. "He's completely different." Hethought of Ezra's action toward Nathan and Mary and Inez.
"Not all the time though," JD pointed out. "Sometimes he seems normal again."
"You sure he's not just being a pain in the ass?" Buck asked wanting to believe anything else.
"How did this happen?" Vin asked. "When?"
Josiah raised his hands in defeat. "I don't know,Vin, I just recognize some of the signs."
"How dangerous is he?" Chris wanted to know.
"Don't know that either," Josiah admitted. "We don't know who or what is over shadowing him."
"Obviously not anyone nice," JDput in
"You think he's behind all the things happening around here?"
Josiah thought for a moment. "Maybe."
"But why?" Buck asked. "Why mess with JD'sgun?"
"And why would he do these things to himself? Sabotage the steps and his own saddle?"
"Is that what happened?" Chris asked.
Vin nodded. "Strap was cut near through. All it took was a little bit of riding and it snapped altogether and sent him flying. "
"He may not know he's doing it,"Josiah reminded.
"This don't make any sense." Buck rubbed at his head, like it was bothering him.
"How do we fix him?" JDasked. "Is there a ritual or something?"
"No,"Vin said harshly.
"Not that I'm willing to mess around with," Joisah admitted.
"Then what do we do?" Dunne persisted.
Chris leaned back in his chair. "Don't know yet if this is really the problem, so for now… I say we watch him," heinstructed. "More importantly , we watch those he's acting out at. " He glanced to where Inez was working. "If we protect them from him, we'll be protecting him from himself." He looked back at the group. "Whether he's brain sick or over shadowed, he won't forgive himself if we let him hurt someone."
Buck sat at the same table the group had met at earlier in the day and watched as Ezra played his game. The man was good, Buck had to admit. You couldn't tell by looking at him that he'd fallen off a running horse not two hours prior. He'd thought Standish would rest for the day, but not long after the five of them had split up, Ezra had gingerly made his way down stairs and over to his table.
He hadn't commented when Buck was the one to bring him a meal and a drink instead of Inez. He'd barely acknowledged Wilmington's presence so Buck had returned to the corner table to watch.
In spite of the throbbing headache that still plagued him, Buck tried to concentrate. He was thankful that Nathan had brought him some tea. Though it tasted unpleasant, it was definitely helping to lessen the pain. He wished he could remember how the Amos brothers had got him. With the both of them dead now, he doubted he'd ever get real answers though. It hurt to try to remember, though thinking about all that Josiah had suggested certainly didn't help his headache either.
He wasn't sure he believed any of it.
Yawning, Buck tipped his chair back against the wall. Nathan had warned him that he was going to feel tired for a while. It was all he could do to keep his eyes open. Balancing carefully, he sipped at the disgusting tea and watched Ezra gamble.
The southern looked wrecked compared to normal,but the folks playing against him didn't know that and it didn't keep him from playing a good game. If anything, Ezra's look was luring the other players into the false sense of security that he was off his game, but Buck knew they were wrong. He could see it in the way the gambler sat. Itwas like the man was coiled and ready to strike. He was ruthless and playing with little mercy. Buck wasn't sure he'd ever witnessed Standish playing this way before,but he was certain he didn't want to see it again.
"Buck. Buck." Wilmington jerked, his chair tipping forward and jolting him roughly when the front legs hit the ground.
"Where is he?" Vin asked looking worried.
"What?" Buck rubbed his eyes, unable to clear his head.
"Where is Ezra?"
Book looked at the deserted gaming table. "Oh,hell."
Vin gathered the others immediately,but no one had seen Ezra.
Nathan refused to search, informing Tanner that he didn't care before slamming the clinic door in Vin's face.
They checked his room and the livery. They checked on Inez and Mary. No one had seen Standish.
"Wherecould he have gone?" Josiah asked pacing in front of the livery.
"Chaucer's still here," Buck pointed out with a yawn. "I don't know how I…"
"He's in no condition to ride," Sanchez reminded. "Or walk very far either. He was hurting a lot more than he admitted." He glanced at Buck. "Look at me."
Buck frowned, but did as he told. Josiah stared into his eyes for a long uncomfortable moment. "Uh, Preacher?"
"Shut up. You've been drugged."
"What?" Wilmington stumbled back. "How?" Had it been Nathan's tea? Maybe Jackson had made it a little more powerful than usual?
"No telling." Josiah went back to pacing. Searching for sign of Vin or Chris, or any of the others who were still out searching. "It's why you fell asleep so easy though."
"Damn it." Buck rubbed his face again. "Damn it."
"Guys!" JD'syell caught their attention. "Over here!" He waved frantically, motioning with his good arm for them to follow him. "I found him behind the saloon, but I can' t move him myself."
"What happened?" Larabee demanded. Chris and Vin had heard the yelling.
"Someone jumped him." JD pointed to Ezra's prone form. "They beat him up bad."
Ezra's face was a mess. His right eye was swollen twice it's normal size and deep red bruising was forming along his jaw line. Blood trickled from a cut lip and a small gash above his left eyebrow.
"Good Lord," Josiah knelt and gently scooped Ezra intohis arms. "Let's get him to Nathan's."
Vin glanced at the ground searching for clues, but found little. It was obvious that there hadn't been much of a struggle. Ezra'd been caught off guard.
"Nathan!" Buck pounded on the door of the clinic as Josiah held Ezra behind him.
"What?" Jackson opened the door with a scowl. "Whatdo you want?"
"Ezra's been beat up," Buck explained.
"So." The healer's eyes narrowed. "Serveshim right. " He slammed the door in Wilmington's shocked face.
"What the hell?" Chris pushed past Josiah and Buck and pounded on the door.
"Go away. I'm not helping him," Jackson shouted throughthe wooden door.
"Nathan," Chris shouted back. "You open this door now or I'll shoot you through it."
There was a short pause before Jackson opened the door and stood back so they could all enter. He watched dispassionately as Josiah lowered Ezraonto the bed and Buck lit a lantern.
"He doesn't want my help," Nathan told them.
"Thought you was supposed to be like a doctor." Vin stepped into Nathan's personal space. "Seen you help people calling you worse names than he ever has—while you were pulling bullets of 'em." He poked at Jackson's chest. "Never stopped you from trying to help before."
A look of shame flashed over Nathan's features before he let out a long sigh. "You're right," heconceded. "Whathappened to him?" He hurried to the water basin and began to wash his hands.
"Found him behind the saloon. Looks like someone caught him off guard," Tanner explained.
"Get those clothes off him," Nathan instructed, gathering supplies.
Quietly, Chris and Vin worked while Buck, JD and Josiah stepped out of the way and waiting on the porch. They left the door open so they could see and hear what was happening.
Larabee and Tanner worked the blue jacket off, now bloody and torn. The vest followed. Vin let out a low whistle as they got Ezra's shirt off.
The man's chest was already blackening with bruises. He's been worked over thoroughly.
"Careful, his midsection," Jackson warned, gently tracing fingers over Standish's ribs. "Gonna have to wrap him up in case any of his ribs are broken. He been breathing alright so far?"
"Seems to be," Chris answered.
Jackson deemed to sigh in relief. "That's a good sign."
Outside, Josiah turned away and leaned against the rail, looking out over the town as he listened to Nathan care for Ezra. What had happened he wondered. How did this fit into his theory about what might be happening to Ezra? Maybe he was horribly off wrong. Maybe someone was just threatening Ezra,and Standish's out of character action were a result?
None of this seemed to make any sense.
Movement below near the corner of the building caught his eye and he watched as Jeremiah Manchester ducked quickly out of sight. Had Manchester been watching them?
"Chris!" hebellowed, startling JD and Buck as he ran down the steps. He caught Manchester trying to hide in the livery and dragged the protesting man out into the street.
"What's going on Josiah?" Chris asked,slightly amused at the thin man's vain struggles to get free.
"I think he might have answers." Sanchez gave Jeremiah a shake." Spotted him spying on us just now."
"I wasn't spying!" Manchester protested.
"Shut up." Chris and Josiah said at once.
"Jail" Chris pointed. "I'llget the others."
Josiah locked Manchester into a cell, not caringthat he had no charges to throw at the man. All he knew was the troubles with Ezra had started when Manchester came to town. It wasn't long before Chris, Vin, Buck and JD joined them.
"How's he doing?" Josiah asked.
"Stillunconscious," Vin answered. "Nate doesn't know what kind of blow to the head he might have gotten. Might take awhile to wake up."
"I didn't touch Ezra," Manchester stated, grabbing the bars of the cell. "You can't lock me up in here."
"Shut up." Chris and Josiah said again, exchanging a small grin this time.
"You think he did something to Ez?" Vin asked.
"I didn't!" Manchester cried out, but backed away from the bars when Chris glared at him.
"I'm not sure," Josiah admitted." But it seems to me that Ezra started acting out of character after his little meeting with him." Hepointed at Manchester. "I don't know what he did,but my gut is telling me, he's at the center of all this."
I…" Manchester started to speak, but stopped when he realized they were all watching him now.
"You want to unlock that door for me Josiah?" Vin asked, his voice low and angry.
"Wait." Manchester shook his head at Sanchez "You can't let him in here."
"Not him you have to worry about." Chris stepped forward and held out his hand, palm up for Josiah to give him the keys.
"No,no,no!" Manchester was shaking now. "Please,don't let them hurt me," hepleaded.
"Youthink I'm gonna stop them?" Josiah raisedhis eyebrows.
"You're missing the point, Manchester." Buck grinned. "Ain'tany of us here to protect you. We want answers."
"God, you're all crazy!" Manchester shivered and took another step backwards. He bumped into the cot and sat down abruptly.
JD took the keys from Josiah and inserted one into the lock.
"Okay!" Manchester shoulders sagged. "It's the Jacket."
They all froze. "What?" Chris stared at the man.
"The Jacket." Manchester looked up at them. "It and the vest. They're both cursed."
Josiah sank onto the edge of the desk, his legs giving out as his theory was confirmed. "Really?" he prodded. "You're serious?"
"Yes," Manchester nodded. "I'll tell you the whole story, just" He waved them back a little. "Give me some space."
JD opened the cell door and tossed the keys onto the desk before sitting next to Josiah. "We're listening," hetold Manchester.
"It started in New Orleans," hetold them. "I'm not sure how many generations ago,but before the war. A shipper by the name of Harrington. He had a son named Jennings. Jennings Harrington. Harrington had grown into his inheritance, made off his Daddy's hard work. Senior Harrington had made a fortune or two in the slaving industry. Though Jennings was grown to adulthood, his Daddy still ran the majority of the business which left Jennings to his own devices, those being gambling and whoring mostly. He was the only son and the chosen one. He did whatever he wanted, whenever he wanted to whomever he wanted. "
"Weget the picture," Buck interrupted.
"Good," Manchester continued. "Jennings'Daddy owned a lot of slaves, it being his business and all. And he treated them decent enough,but Jennings had his pick of playthingsso to speak. It's said he picked a young woman named Delilah. When she failed to be a willing participant, Harrington assaulted her. She survived,but when her husband found out, he swore revenge. He attacked Jennings one night, beat him and left him for dead.
Only problem was, Harrington lived. Once he'd recovered, he sought out the husband. Whipped him in front of the stock and sold him to a man heading overseas. Delilah never saw her husband again. She never recovered fully from the assault or the loss of her husband. Her fellow slaves kept her at a distance as she went on to embrace the dark arts. She got revenge the only way she knew how. She cursed Harrington's clothes."
"She cursed his clothes?" JD asked in disbelief.
"There's power in dark magic, kid. "Manchester nodded. "Delilah, she was a seamstress and an excellent one at that. Her garments were works of art. She stitched her hatred for Harrington into his coat. Wishing him pain with every slide of the needle. It worked,too," Manchester told them. "Records have Manchester dying less than a year after Delilah."
"Wait, how did she die?" Vin asked.
"She killed herself after she'd finished that jacket and vest."
"And Harrington? How'd he die?" Chris questioned.
"Beaten to death by other slaves. Some say it was revenge for what happened to Delilah and her husband. Others, say it was Delilah's curse."
"And this Jacket and Vest are the same ones that Maude gave to Ezra?" Buck scratched his chin.
Manchester had stepped out of the cell and slowly made his way closer to the door as he'd talked. "Yes. The very same."
"Howdo we know he's not just talking a bunch of scary mumbo jumbo to save his own ass?" Buck asked.
"I never said anything to him about Ezra being over shadowed, Buck," Josiah said.
"But Ezra's not like Harrington," JD pointed out.
"I think that might be the point, kid," Vin said. "Jacket's cursed. Whoever puts it on is gonna be affected. "
"Hold up." Chris reached forward and snagged Manchester just before the man made it to the door. "Why Ezra?"
Manchester's face transformed from fear to anger. His mouth twisted into a sinister grin as he wrenched free of Chris' grasp. "Maude Standish ruined me," hehissed at them. "It took me years to recover from what she took from me. There's only one thing I can take from her to truly make her pay for what she did. "
"Maude didn't send that jacket and vest. You ain't taking up ranching out here."
"Hell no!" Manchester shook his head. "I paid an arm and a leg for that outfit, knowing full well itshistory. I couldn't have dreamed the curse would work this well. It's golden." Manchester laughed. "And Jackson, he was just a lucky bonus."
They stared at him in stunned silence.
"Oh God," Vin looked at the others. "We left Ezra alone with Nathan."
They ran, all of them, flat out to the clinic. Vin and Chris were first up the steps, crashing through the door and into the dimly lit room.
"Nathan,stop!" Vin shouted as he and Chris both grabbed the healer. The knife Jackson held glistened in the lamp light, dripping blood.
"Oh,my god!" Josiah stumbled to Ezra's side reaching for his neck, searching for a pulse.
"Let me go!" Nathan screamed as Buck wrestled the knife from his grasp. "He doesn't deserve to live! Not after what he did."
Buck paused. "Sorry about this, Nate," heapologized, then punched the healer once, knocking him out
Chris and Vin let Jackson slide to the floor, both still out of breath from the run and struggle.
"He alive?" Chris asked Sanchez.
Josiah was doing a quick examination of Ezra, directing JD to get bandages from a nearby shelf. "He is," Josiah said with relief. "It looks like Nathan was still working his way up to permanent damage." He motioned to Ezra's chest and arms where shallow cuts bled. "This was just to make him hurt."
"He conscious at all yet?" JDhanded another bundle of bandages to Sanchez.
"No," Josiah shook his head. "Thankfully not."
"I wasn't sure I believed this curse thing when you started talking about it or even when Manchester was telling itto us,but damn…" Buck plopped down into a chair and rubbed his hands over his face. "Whatare we going to do with these two?" he asked. "Do we lock them up?"
"No," Chris nudged Jackson lightly with his foot. "They'dfind a way to kill each other through the bars."
"Then,how do we fix them? " JD asked, sitting on the edge of the bed. "Or do we need to? The jacket and vest are ruined." He pointed to the pile of clothing on the table nearby."
"Not sure it's that easy." Vin pointed to Nathan. "He wasn't wearing the clothes and he's affected."
"We could burn it." Buck poked the garment with a finger but Tanner shook his head.
"I've only seen one burning ceremony dealing with someone being over shadowed. Back when I was a young 'un and I still have nightmares. It's too dangerous."
"I have an idea," Josiah explained. "But first we need to get a couple of these cuts stitched up."
"What's your plan?" Chris started looking for the supplies Josiah would need.
"We're going to need Maryand Inez I think," Josiah admitted.
"Think they'll be willing after how Ezra's been acting toward them?" Chris turned the lantern's flame up so Josiah would have more light to work with.
"We can only ask."
"I'll get them," Vin volunteered. "Watchhim." He motioned down at Nathan as he left the clinic. "I'll tie him up when I get back."
Thirty minutes later Mary and Inez had joined them. It was crowded in the small room, but Josiah wanted them all to hear his suggestion without having to repeat it several times and he didn't want to leave Ezra or Nathan alone.
Nathan, they'd carried into his private room off the clinic and tied to his bed for the time being. He'd come to, yelling and fighting them until Buck had threatened to punch him again. Or gag him. He'd been quiet since. They left the door open between the rooms just to keep an eye on him.
"So, you actually think that Ezra is possessed?" Mary sounded disbelieving at Sanchez's explanation. She fretted with her hair, plaiting it into a loose braid as she listened. It was obvious that Vin had awakened the women but had given both the time to dress quickly.
"Not possessed." Josiah shook his head. "Over shadowed."
"I believe this," Inez spoke up before Mary could ask more questions. "I have watched him. It was not our Ezra who did these things."
It took a moment before Mary finally nodded her agreement with Inez. "What do you need from us?"
"Well," Josiah pointed to the tabletop where the jacket and vest in question were laying. "The curse was supposedly sewn into these garments. Stitch by stitch." He prodded the torn jacket. "Obviously simply tearing the material had no effect. I think we need to deconstruct it."
"Pull it apart?" Mary asked.
"Stitch by stitch." Inez added. "Removing the curse the same way it was created."
"Is that possible?" Buck squinted at the elaborate embroidery. "To get every stitch?"
"Wecan only try," Josiah guessed. "I think it's the safest option."
"We'llneed space to spread out," Mary decided.
"And more light." Inez gathered the garments up. "Scissors and needles," she murmured. "We'll go to the saloon."
"Careful with those," Buck warned.
Inez smiled. "The curse has already chosen its victims," shesaid sadly. "I do not believe we have anything more to fear."
Ezra stirred and groaned. He hurt everywhere.
He recognized Josiah's voice and tried to open his eyes. His vision blurred,but he could see just enough to recognize Nathan's clinic.
"What happened?" hewhispered, his throat was dry, his voice raspy.
"Whatdo you remember?" Josiah helped raise his head up enough to sip from a cup of tepid water.
Ezra accepted the help,but didn't answer Josiah's question. Everything was jumbled in his head. He heard movement and fear shot through him.
"It's just Chris," Josiah reassured.
"Ezra," Larabee came closer. "How are you feeling?"
"Sore," Standish admitted. "What happened?" he asked again.
"You had a couple of accidents," Chris told him.
"I don't…" Ezra frowned, then closed his eyes, weariness pulling back to sleep.
In the saloon,Inez and Mary set up a table near the windows so that when morning arrived,they could add natural light to the three lanterns they were currently using. They had discussed having the men help them in order to get the job done quicker but together decided that since a they had been most affected by the curse, it would be better for them to work on un-doing it by themselves.
Vin, Buck and JD watched from the next table, wanting to be close by just in case anything "hinky" started happening,Buck had explained.
The process was tedious. Searching the fabric for every tiny stitch felt like an impossible task, but both women were determined.
"Look at this." Mary held the vest up for Inez to see. "Look at the design." She pointed with her needle.
"Madre de dios," Inez whispered when she recognized what Mary was showing her.
"Whatis it?" Vin asked.
Mary held up the material in the light. Vin focused on the swirly design, seeing only fancy lines at first but then, as he followed the swirls he saw it, hidden the design. He inhaled sharply as he followed one line and then the other. All the swirls, they were snakes. Tiny delicate snake heads could be found at the end of each line, dotting the vest. They appeared like flowers, but looking close, one could see, they were snakes. Each and every one.
"Creepy." JD said, making Vin jump.
"Thought you were asleep." He nodded to where Buck had his head down on the table.
"Nah," JDshook his head. "Toomuch going on. "
Mary went back to work. "How's it going?" Dunne wondered.
"Slowly." Inez admitted as she began to peel apart the piping on the Jacket. "But it's coming. Oh!" she pulled back sharply, her hands visibly shaking.
"What?" Vin and JD moved closer.
"There's …" she held up the material. "I think this is hair."
There, nestled at the center of the piping was a thin bundle of what appeared to be human hair.
"Damn, that is disgusting." JD shuddered.
"Think itmight just prove Josiah's right about this whole thing though," Vin admitted. "I hope this works."
They watched as the ladies eventually woke and wandered into the kitchen to get them all something to eat and coffee to drink.
Dawn arrived and Mary stood. "I just need a small break," she explained rubbing at her neck to sooth cramping muscles.
"Yes," Inez agreed, setting the Jacket now missing over half of itsembroidered finery, onto the table. "I do as well."
"You can't do this." Nathan pulled at the binding keeping him on the bed.
Chris merely glanced at him over the steam rising from his mug of coffee. God bless Buck for bringing it.
In the outer room, Josiah continued to sit with Ezra. The southerner had awoken twice more, but continued to be confused.
"I need the privy." Nathan tried again.
"Hold it," Chris ordered.
"Damn you!" Nathan growled, pulling hard at the ropes,but Vin had been thorough. Chris wasn't sure he could even undo Tanner's handiwork.
"It's not going to work,you know." Nathan calmed suddenly.
"What's not?" Chris lowered his mug.
Jackson's face smiled unpleasantly. "Whatever you have cooked up to undo this." Nathan nodded toward the doorway. "He's going to die."
"Because he deserves to!" Nathan shouted suddenly. "I've done everything to make it happen. "
Chris put his mug down and moved closer to the bed, towering over the prone Jackson. "You did?"
"The steps in the saloon, his saddle. Hell,I even messed with JD's gun." He sounded pleased with himself.
"Why JD?" Chris forced himself to stay calm, reminding himself that this was not the Nathan they knew.
"Cause he was asking too many questions. " Nathan's tone revealed how stupid he thought the question was. "I can't let him or anyone else stop me."
"Because Ezra deserves to die?"
"Why not just shoot him and kill him outright?" Larabee questioned.
"Because he needs to suffer!" Nathan screamed. "I need him to hurt and to writhe with agony until he begs for death and then I'll start all over again. He'll die when I decide to finish it!" His eyes bulged and he spit when he talked.
"You need to calm down." Chris said quietly.
"Let me go."
Chris shook his head. "Hell, no."
It was drawing close to noon when Chris finally saw a change begin in Jackson.
When he'd recognized that Chris wasn't about to let him go- Nathan had just kept repeating the words. "It won't work," as if he could sense what was happening across the street.
As Larabee watched Nathan's demeanor change, his confidence grew that they were doing the right thing.
"Need some water?" heoffered.
"Please." Jackson's voice cracked.
Carefully,Chris lifted Nathan enough to drink.
"What'sgoing on, Chris?" Nathan looked with confusion at the bindings.
"Chris?" Buck knocked once on the door before entering. "It's done."
"All of it?"
"Yup. Found some nasty stuff too. Hair. Fingernails, all of it sewn right into the design."
Chris suppressed a shiver. "Now what?"
"Josiah says its safe to burn it now. Wanted me to see if Nate was normal Nate again."
"What do you mean 'normal'?" Nathan questioned "And are any of you going to tell me exactly why the hell I'm tied up?"
"Thinkthat's a yes, then." Buck clapped the door. "Be back when it'sfinished," he told Chris.
When he was gone, Larabee turned back to Nathan. "I'm not sure you're going to believe this." He sat on the edge of the bed and began to work on the knots tying Jackson down and telling him everything that had happened as he worked.
Outside the cemetery Vin poked at the dying flames as the last of Ezra's Jacket and vest burned to ash. "He said to bury it after?" Vinasked Buck.
"Yeah, said we might as well be thorough." Buck pointed the shovel in his hand to the small hole he'd dug at the edge of the tiny lot. When Vin nodded he was ready, Buck shoveled all the ash into the hole and covered it, smoothing the dirt over so the ground looked completely undisturbed.
"Thatshould do it. " He gave the earth a final thwack.
"Let's hope so," Vin agreed.
"Has there been any sign of Manchester?" Wilmington leaned on the shovel and watched the Tracker.
Vin shook his head.
Manchester had disappeared after his declaration about Nathan. In their hurry to get to Ezra in time, no one had thought to grab him, though Vin doubted they could really charge the man with anything. Still, he wished he could get his hands on the man one more time.
"He won't be back." Buck said confidently. "Not if he wants to keep breathing."
In the clinic, Nathan stood at the foot of the bed, watching as Josiah tended gently to Ezra, changingthe bandages along his arm. Jackson couldn't tell from where he stood if Ezra was asleep or unconscious. Hecouldn't tear his eyes away though part of him was screaming to run away.
Standish looked horrible. One eye was swollen fully closed, bruising mottled his face and chest. Josiah had managed to wrap Ezra's ribs but the bandages only managed to highlight the black bruises covering his chest. Then there were the cuts. Long shallow cuts designed to sting and hurt as much as possible without leaving permanent damage. He saw at least three patches of stitches though,and knew immediately there would be scars left behind.
"I did this." His voice broke as guilt beat him down.
Josiah looked at him without judgment. "Wasn't you, not really."
"But," Nathan shook his head trying to remember. Everything came in flashes, but nothing was clear. "Please, " he looked from Chris to Josiah. "let me help him."
"I don't know," Chris was unsure.
"He needs my help, Chris," Nathan begged. "Has he had anything for the pain?"
Josiah shook his head. "Couldn't find anything."
Nathan hurried to his shelves and reached behind a jar of herbs. He brought out a small bottle and held it up. "Hide it so no one will be tempted."
He watched as Josiah and Chris exchanged a long look. Finally,without saying anything, Josiah stepped out of his way.
"How do we know they're both okay now?" Chris asked as they watched Nathan quietly lean over Ezra.
Ezra stirred and opened his eyes. He looked up at Jackson without fear or anger. "Mr. Jackson," he whispered. "Where have you been?" heasked as Nathan offered him the medicine.
"I think," Josiah let out a long breath. "That right there says it all."
Two days later, Ezra found himself wrapped in a quilt, tucked into a chair in front of the saloon. "Do you need anything?" Inez touched his shoulder lightly, smiling down at him when he patted her hand.
"You've done too much already," he said quietly.
Not long after Buck and Vin had burned and buried the cursed clothing, the memories had started to return. He could now remember everything he'd said or done over the last few days, though most times it was like he'd had no control over himself. Still, he'd done it all.
He wasn't sure he would ever get over the guilt of how he'd treated those dear to him.
"Hey." Inez thumped his head gently, knocking his hat askew. "Stop that," she ordered. "You were not…you." She struggled for words, knowing immediately where his mind had gone in those quiet moments.
"It doesn't excuse my actions." Heprotested quietly.
"Well," Inez shrugged. "It does to me." She fixed his hat. "I'll bring you tea in a bit. "
"You don't have to…" he said but she was already gone, batwing doors flapping in her wake.
He was thankful that neither Mary or Inez held his actions against him, but he couldn't forget so easily the look of fear he'd put in their eyes or the trust he'd broken.
"Ezra." He looked up to see Nathan standing before him.
"What can I do for you, Mr. Jackson?"
Nathan looked across the street at the livery before speaking again.
"You feeling better?" heasked.
Ezra nodded. "Every day," heanswered honestly.
"Look, I…" Nathan started but Ezra cut him off.
"You've already apologized," hepointed out.
"I know, I just." Nathan's words faded and he looked at theground.
"Remembering are we?" Ezra asked gently.
Silence descended as both wrestled with guilt and shame.
"I never realized there was so much anger in me," Nathan admitted.
"From what I've been told," Ezra thought a moment. "It wasn't your anger. "
"Some of it could have been." Nathan rubbed his large hands over his thighs. Ezra tried not to look at the cuts and bruises on Nathan's knuckles. "I didn't. I never thought I'd be capable ofdoing something like." He gestured at Ezra. "This."
"You weren't you." Ezra reminded.
"Doesn't excuse my actions," Nathan protested.
Ezra wanted to shake his friend and yell at him to let go of the guilt, but instead a wave of emotion welled up, almost choking him as he realized what Inez had been trying to tell him.
Swallowing, and clearing his throat he spoke. "It does to me," headmitted, repeating Inez' words. When Nathan looked up at him, he went on.
"I think, maybe," Ezra smiled. "That it would be too easy to hang onto everything that has happened and cling to our guilt. " He met Nathan's gaze sincerely. "Why don't we just let it go and move on?"
"Just like that?" Nathan asked.
"Yes," Ezra nodded. "Just like that. " He motioned to the chair beside him. "Join me for a spell. Inez said she'd bring tea."
After a moment, Jackson's smile grew. His shoulders drooped less and he nodded. "That sounds good Ezra, real good."