January 2004 Challenge issued by Helen: Show me at least two of the guys involved in a sporting event, game or contest. Anything, as long as it's physical: ie, a tug-o-war would qualify; a poker tournament would not.
Author: Helen Adam
Feedback to: firstname.lastname@example.org
Note: I had only intended to use a tug of war as an example, but then I thought: Why not? :)
(Moved to Blackraptor October 2009)
Tension lay thick in the still summer air as he waited, eyes darting back and forth from one man to the next, knowing his fate lay in their hands. What had possessed him to agree to this? Now that the moment had come, he could no longer remember. He only knew that he was filled with a strange nervousness that went beyond the potential indignity of straining and sweating and making a fool of himself in public. Had this life, surrounded by friendly companions in the little backwater town he had come to think of as home finally softened his mind as well as his skills, just as his mother always assured him it would? What else could possibly have caused him to snap at the lure of joining a group activity on Founder’s Day? Particularly a group activity as ridiculous as a tug of war!
Ezra had seen such activities before, of course, at picnics and in schoolyards during his youth, but had never been inclined to participate. The ‘new kid’ was never welcomed in such pursuits and due to his rambling, roving, rolling stone life, he had always been the new kid. Even on those rare occasions when he had been invited to participate in schoolboy games he had grown used to being the last one chosen, reluctantly picked to fill out the even numbers needed to complete a roster. Picked because somebody was stuck with no other choice.
Perhaps that was it, the reason he had chosen to do this. Perhaps it was the answer to a vague leftover longing nurtured in the heart of a too-often-lonely little boy, but surely his adult common sense should have stepped in before it was too late! Ezra heaved a quiet sigh of disgust with himself.
A few days earlier, plans for the picnic had filled the small town with an air of excitement. There would be contests, games, food and fun for all according to the advertisement printed in the Clarion newspaper. There had been a segment in that ad requesting suggestions for contest events and some well-humored soul had come up with the brilliant idea of separating the lawmen of Four Corners into two teams and letting them compete on opposite sides of a tug of war. Mary Travis had loved the idea and much to her surprise, when she approached the band of peacekeepers in the saloon that morning to suggest the idea most had agreed without turning a hair. It was definitely not the sort of thing Ezra would normally have done, and he had briefly hesitated. Finally though, he had found it impossible to be the lone holdout against something everyone else seemed to think sounded like fun, so he had acquiesced, thoroughly enjoying the looks of shocked approval on the faces of his compatriots.
Now Ezra felt horribly sure he had made a mistake, particularly given that Chris Larabee and Buck Wilmington had agreed to captain the two sides. It would be up to them to choose which of their fellow lawmen would share which team and it seemed highly unlikely that either man would want him on their side. Chris rarely displayed any faith in his abilities, even when Ezra felt they would be clearly advantageous, and in a situation like this one there were definitely other talents that would be prized above his own. Buck was more inclined to appreciate his skills but the fun-loving man had a strong competitive streak and, after all, what use would cunning and deception be in a contest such as this? Here, strength was required, weight counted, and friends would be selected by friends above all other consideration. Somehow in the heat of the moment, Ezra had allowed himself to forget that, and now he wondered; was he once again destined to be chosen last by whoever was unlucky enough to be stuck with him?
"Would someone remind me again why we’re doing this?" He had not intended to say anything until the choosing was done, but for Ezra nervousness tended to be calmed most easily by words.
"Havin' second thoughts, Ezra?" Vin, standing next to him, asked with a knowing smile.
Chin tilting up defiantly, he hedged, "Is it not enough that we risk our lives daily for a pittance without demeaning ourselves by providing public entertainment?"
"Aw, hush up," Nathan Jackson, standing on his other side, admonished with a grin and a soft backhand slap against his chest. "It’s all in fun and there ain’t nothin’ wrong with providing a little sport for the folks on a special day. ‘Sides, I think that prize is worth trying for!"
Vin agreed. "Yes sir, heck of an incentive, I'd say."
The gambler snorted and rolled his eyes. "Ah, yes, how could I forget? The winners get the honor of judging the pie-baking contest. Be still my heart."
Vin laughed at the sarcasm fairly dripping off the man. "Well, you may not think it's much but I swung by the booth a little bit ago when they started setting up. Must've been about fifteen different kinds of pie in there, and not a bad lookin' one in the bunch. I come out on the winnin’ side, I’m gonna be a happy man."
Ezra finally smiled as he watched the tracker pat his lean stomach with a dreamy look in his eyes. Vin's sweet-tooth was a well known thing and if he were to be honest, he knew he would have to admit to a similar weakness where fresh pie was concerned.
A rich laugh bubbled up from Nathan. "There's more'n that, though. You gonna try and tell me you ain’t lookin’ forward to the possibility of seeing me, or Josiah, or Chris wallowin’ in the mud like pigs after a good rain? I sure as heck wouldn’t mind seein’ you do it!"
Ezra could not help but laugh at the mental image this conjured up. "You may very well get your chance, Mr. Jackson, which is why I’ve chosen to spare my haberdashery the danger." His hand swept down in a graceful gesture that encompassed the entirety of his outfit, a pair of plain black trousers, worn black boots and a white unadorned cotton shirt. His usual vest, coat, cravat, derringer rig and shoulder holster were all conspicuously absent. He had worn his sidearm today, but had removed it and his hat to the safekeeping of saloon manager Inez Recillos.
"You ever done one of these before?" JD asked, joining the conversation. As Nathan nodded and Ezra and Vin both shook their heads, he grinned. "It's been awhile but we used to have a big picnic every summer when I was growing up and the tug of war was always tons of fun. Heck, even if you lose, they’re a lot of fun!"
"How so?" Ezra asked, never having been one to find any appeal in losing.
"Well, all the gals feel sorry for you and bring you stuff to eat, and the guys tease some but it's all friendly. They call you a good sport as long as you don't pitch a fit over losing or getting muddy or anything."
Ezra grimaced. Why had everyone looked at him when JD said that? He hadn’t ‘pitched a fit’ over anything in ages. At least not in view of the entire populace! "Well then," he drawled softly. "We’ll just have to make sure Mr. Sanchez behaves himself then, won’t we?"
As he had hoped, the sly comment brought a bark of surprised laughter from Josiah, who had simply been listening with an amused air up ‘til then, and his mirth brought answering chuckles from the rest of the men. Buck, who had been carrying on a private meeting with Chris and Judge Travis off to the side, looked up in interest at the sound. "Sounds like you boys are about ready!" he called.
"Been ready for ages, Bucklin," Vin called back. "You’d quit flappin’ your lips, maybe we’d get something done here!"
Judge Orin Travis smiled at the exchange. He had arrived in town the day before at the invitation of his daughter-in-law, more than pleased to preside over the festivities. He had already judged several games involving the local children and was looking forward now to seeing the adults provide the fun. "All right then." He raised his voice. "Everyone gather round. It’s time for the tug of war."
The announcement produced a cheer from the assembled crowd. Ever since Mary Travis had talked the town’s seven peacekeepers into taking an active part in this event, anticipation had been high. It was rare to see these men engaged in something just for the fun of it. Bets were already flying, even before the teams were officially chosen.
The judge continued, "Here’s how it’s going to work. There will be six men on a side, three to four lawmen and two or three regular citizens per team, with the teams positioned on either side of this pit." He gestured to a hole in the ground filled with slimy, well-stirred mud, across which a thick rope adorned in the very middle with a red bandanna was stretched. "Whoever gets this flag over the pit on their side, wins. And the pulling will be hands on only, please. No wrapping the rope around your waists for extra leverage!"
The crowd chuckled at that, knowing the warning would not have been given if the question had not been raised by one of the two team captains. Everyone was looking forward to the competition, expecting it to be as fierce as if the goal was something far less entertaining than avoiding a little mud, but of course, the real attraction was that very inevitable outcome. There was no way to get the rope pulled all the way across the pit without dragging at least two or three men into the muck.
"Captains, choose your teams," the judge finished with a smile.
Ezra’s nervous feeling, which had dissipated somewhat as he bantered with the others, returned in full force with those words. He wondered why it should matter so much. He had certainly played enough games of poker with these men, and participated in enough strategic gun battles with them for it not to matter who sided with whom, or who won and lost, but today that long-ago feeling of being on the outside looking in just refused to go away.
Buck had won the coin toss, so he got to choose first. With a twinkle in his eye and a saucy grin toward Chris he called out, "I’ll take Vin Tanner."
Chris smirked and retaliated with, "And I’ll take JD Dunne."
Looking as though he had just won a particularly sweet victory, Buck chose Josiah next. Chris surprised everyone by going outside his fellow lawmen and choosing Yosemite as his second choice. It was a sensible counter move. The wild haired blacksmith was probably the only man in town who could compete with Josiah Sanchez in pure brute strength.
Walking along the line of potential teammates, Buck studied the men with a careful eye. Ezra was both shocked and elated when the mustached man grinned and reached out to snag the front of his shirt, pulling him over to join Vin and Josiah. Now the smug look was on Chris’ face as he called out for Nathan, obviously feeling that he’d made the better choice. That look was enough to bring the determination to win surging hard and hot through Ezra’s veins. The teams were filled out quickly after that, Buck getting the owner of the granary and a local farmer, Chris getting another farmer and a hulking young man who had taken a job working at the hardware store.
"All right then," the judge said, eyeing the two fairly evenly matched groups with approval. "You'll each have five minutes to discuss your strategy then we'll get started and may the best team win!"
Rubbing his hands together gleefully, Buck gestured his men into a huddle. Ezra could not imagine what he was so happy about. "Have I missed something here?" he asked quietly. "In terms of strength, neither side appears to have any obvious advantage over the other, except perhaps for Chris having young Mister Halloran on his side; the lad being twice the size of anyone on our team."
"That's a fact," Buck agreed cheerfully, "but we got us an ace in the hole."
"So I gathered from your demeanor. Would you care to share this seemingly vital piece of stratagem with the rest of us?"
Wilmington grinned. "Nope. Might jinx it."
Ezra waited, but it quickly became obvious that the rakish lawman had no intention of elaborating on his cryptic remarks. As Buck began to outline where he wanted each team member positioned along the length of rope Ezra shook his head. It wasn't easy, but he decided that the fun-loving rogue just might have an advantage over him when it came to things like this, so he would try to have faith in Buck's mysterious plan. With that decision came reassertion of his earlier determination to win.
The judge called out that time was up and Buck gave his team a big grin. "We ready to kick some butt?"
Eager smiles and determined nods answered from every man. Rolling up his sleeves, Ezra took his agreed upon place at the very center of his team and muttered, "Let's get this over with."
The two captains seemed to have planned along similar lines when they took their places in line. Josiah and Yosemite were each positioned at the rear, with the townsmen ahead of them. Vin and Chris faced each other across the mud pit, with Buck and Nathan directly behind them, leaving JD and Ezra to take the middle of the lines. It might have seemed that theirs was the least vital spot, neither the power of the anchor nor the direction of the lead position falling to them, but the center of the line was where steadiness and temerity would pay off.
Rubbing his hands together to get rid of any hint of accumulated sweat on the palms, Ezra picked up the rope, feeling it rise all along its length as eleven other men did the same. Each man dug his heels in and positioned his body to maintain as much leverage as possible.
"Hope you're hungry, Buck," JD called out. "We got us a nice big mud pie with your name on it!"
"Only pie I'm gonna be eatin' today is that sweet, sweet bit of chocolate coated heaven I saw Miss Blossom settin' down a while ago, and maybe a piece of that delicious apple pie from my darlin' Inez to go with it," the ladies' man yelled back. "I'll leave the mud pies for little boys like you."
JD tried to look indignant at the wisecrack about his age but failed utterly, a grin twitching at the corners of his mouth. "We'll just see about that."
The rest of the participants chuckled at the banter except for Chris and Vin. The two of them eyed each other across the pit with expressions of steely determination, looking more like two enemies about to engage in a gunfight than two best friends about to play a game. For his part, Ezra just wished the judge would give the word to get started. The last few moments before a battle, of any kind, were always the most nerve-wracking and he hated them with a passion.
At last, Travis raised his gun, waiting only a moment while the contestants shifted into their final strategic position, then fired a shot.
A huge yank nearly ended the competition before it had fairly started. Daniel Halloran, the young man from the hardware store, had elected to use his considerable weight against them. He sagged back, joining Yosemite's brawny arms in heaving against the rope. Heeding Ezra's reminder of the youth's bulk, the Wilmington team had expected such a move and Josiah had braced himself, not pulling the rope, but waiting like a stone monument standing firm against the onslaught.
The contest almost seemed to stand still for several minutes as the competitors took each other's measure, muscles straining as the red bandanna twitched from side to side, a few inches this way, a few inches back. Then Nathan did the unexpected, lunging forward and grasping the line almost at Larabee's hands and hauling back with all his not inconsiderable strength. Caught off-guard by his team's sudden lunge toward the pit, Buck went off balance and knocked into Vin, sending him sailing over the edge to land with a huge SPLAT in the creamy mud.
The look on Vin's face must have been priceless, for Chris' determined expression had changed into one of surprised delight. Knowing that if he gave his old friend any time to recover, his entire team would be joining Vin, Buck copied Nathan's move and gave a fierce yank just as Ezra did the exact same thing. Josiah took advantage of the surge and took a deep step backward, his iron grip never loosening a fraction. The heavy shift was not quite enough to draw the red bandanna all the way across the pit, but it was enough to give Tanner some company as first Chris and then Nathan went down.
Unable to help himself, Buck burst out laughing, not able to recover in time as JD shouted, "Now, boys!" Yosemite, Dan, JD and the farmer, Henry Young, all pulled as hard as they could and Buck didn't stand a chance. He teetered for a moment on the edge, letting go of the rope to flail his arms in a useless attempt to keep from falling, then down he went, landing on Nathan and pushing the struggling healer back down, face first in the mud.
With each team down to four, the fierceness of the competition went up another notch. Ezra was in front now, across from JD. He could see the four fallen lawmen below him, looking, just as Nathan had predicted, like a group of wallowing pigs. Humorous as the sight was, Ezra had absolutely no desire to join them down there and he dug his heels in harder. He could see JD doing the same. However, he could also see that young Mr. Dunne was growing steadily more excited at the sight of the red bandanna that now hovered mere inches from his own side of the pit. Ezra's response to that excitement was instinctive, one ingrained by years of habit and training. He detached himself from the atmosphere around him, physically not altering his tight grip or lock-kneed stance, but mentally stepping back to study his opponents. JD's handle on the rope was slipping a bit, due to the fact that he kept shifting in place and readjusting his grip to try for better leverage. Behind him, farmer Young was red faced and panting, but Ezra could hear the same rasping breath from the man behind him, the other farmer, Horace something or other. So, no help there.
Judging by the tautness of the rope in his hands, Ezra could tell that Josiah was still holding strong and he could see that Yosemite was equally determined not to budge. There was no way to tell how well his own third teammate was doing, though his loud, determined grunts seemed indicative of steady effort. Then, Standish smiled. He had found the other team's weak link. Daniel Halloran was on his last legs. The very weight that had made him such a danger when he was fresh was now going to be his downfall, as the out of shape youth grew more and more tired.
Pitching his voice to be low but carrying, Ezra risked a glance over his shoulder. "Gentlemen, hold steady and when I say the word, give me everything you've got." He took the grunts he heard to be agreement. For the next few seconds he bided his time, putting all his efforts into simply not giving ground. Then he saw it. Halloran loosened his grip just as JD adjusted his once again. "Now!"
As one, the four remaining members of the Wilmington team reached forward and pulled with all their might, leg muscles flexing and straining as they used all their combined body weight against their opponents. The rope fairly flew over to their side as all four landed on their rumps in a laughing, triumphant, undignified heap, the red bandanna clutched and raised high for the crowd to see in Ezra's right hand. Across the way, the other men had just managed not to follow the course of their fellows and land in the pit, but JD was so near the edge that Chris and Buck were both able to grab one of his extended arms, and pulled him in anyway.
All five of the mud-covered lawmen laughed uproariously when Josiah, a bright toothy grin on his long face, suddenly stood, hauled Ezra up over one brawny shoulder and jumped in to join his companions.
Ezra squawked, spluttered, fumed, and glared as all six of his companions commenced to flicking gobs of gooey mud in his direction like a pack of overgrown two-year-olds. And if there were a few retaliatory handfuls aimed back at them it was purely an inevitable result of the mess covering his hands as he flailed them in defense. There was no defense, however, against the great squelching Buck Wilmington bear hug that he suddenly found himself enveloped in.
"Mr. Wilmington, unhand me," he ordered, with as much dignity as he could muster given the circumstances.
Buck complied, laughing heartily as he delivered a wet slap to the smaller man's back. "I knew you'd come through for us, partner!"
Suddenly, the pure absurdity of the moment was too much to resist. A laugh, low at first but growing increasingly spirited, broke free from the muddy gambler. Had he really been worried about being left out of this? He laughed even harder, leaning over to rest his hands on mud slippery thighs as his companions, his friends, joined in without even needing to understand the joke.
Judge Travis approached his filthy band of peacekeepers, a grin softening the usually hard angles of his lined face. "Well, if you gentlemen are through playing, I think you'd best get out of there and get yourselves cleaned up. Some of you have a contest to judge and if you don't hurry up, the ladies of this town might just decide to throw those pies away!"
Reminded that he was keeping both his stomach and a dozen pretty ladies waiting, Buck held out a hand. "Give us a little help here, will you, Judge?"
The older man's eyes narrowed dangerously. "Very well, but I'm warning you. If any of you tries to pull me in with you, you're all fired!" He smiled again at the rather disappointed looks that crossed a few faces at that. Resigning himself, he offered each man a hand out of the pit. Shaking his head in amusement, he watched as the seven men squished and squelched their way through the crowd, cheerfully tipping filthy hats to laughing citizens as they traveled as a group to the bath house. He had already had the foresight to arrange for a fresh change of clothes for each man to be delivered there.
"Man, that apple pie was the best I've ever 'et," Vin said, burping happily at the memory. "Cain't believe it didn't win first prize."
"Aw, that's just because Ez here is a sucker for lemon meringue," Buck teased. "Must've taken him about three slices to make up his mind."
Ezra smiled, rubbing a hand across his stomach and wondering if he was simply imagining the bulge beneath the glossy brocade of his vest. "I'll admit that I might have overdone it just a bit," he said with a laugh, "but it's been far too many years since I've had the opportunity to enjoy such a treat."
"I'd have to agree with you there, brother," Josiah told him. "That lemon pie was a true taste of heaven. That apple was mighty good, though."
"Will you four shut up already?" JD demanded sourly. "Just because you got to judge the pie contest didn't mean you had to finish off every bit of the two best ones! All I got was a piece of third place, Casey's pecan pie. I don't even like pecans!"
The contest winners laughed heartlessly at his predicament. "Ah, the sacrifices we make in the name of true love," Josiah teased, blue eyes twinkling merrily. "You should've taken a page out of Nathan's book. He went and charged a slice of pie for all the outstanding debts folks owed him for medical help over the last few weeks."
The healer affected an innocent look. "Figured they could afford that, is all. It was only a couple o' slices."
Laughter filled the table. Chris told JD, "Or you could've just done what I did and asked somebody to save you a piece. Mary makes a real fine cherry pie."
JD looked thoughtful. "Maybe she could teach Casey. Or maybe next year I'll get lucky and win the right to be a judge!"
"It ain't luck, boy," Buck scolded. "It's strategy."
"Speaking of which," Ezra interrupted. "You never did enlighten us as to the nature of your secret weapon. You implied you had an ace in the hole."
Wilmington nodded. "Yep, sure did, and you were it."
Feeling his eyes nearly pop out of his head at the unexpected answer, Ezra's mouth opened and closed a couple of times before he finally managed to sputter, "Me?"
"Yup. Chris picked Yosemite, who's mighty strong but not as plain rock-hard determined as the preacher man here." He slapped Josiah on one meaty shoulder, bringing a grin and a nod of agreement from the older man. "And I figured Vin and Chris'd try to out stubborn each other and neither one would give an inch. Me and Nathan are about even as far as size and strength go, and the same goes for Horace and Leroy matchin' up with Dan and Henry. Horace ain't as big as Dan, but he's strong enough to make up the difference."
"So that just leaves myself and JD," Ezra summarized. "You believed I would be a greater asset in a tug of war than he, despite the fact that JD had apparently participated in several such competitions in the past, whereas I never had?"
Buck remained unperturbed. "Don't matter if he'd done a hundred of 'em. I know you fellas; know you operate in a fight, and while this wasn't exactly a fight, it was the same principle."
"What do you mean?" JD demanded, looking slightly indignant. "I'm good in a fight!"
"Yeah, you are, kid, but you get all excited when the competition heats up, start dancin' around and shifting your grip, wanting to hurry things along. Ezra, on the other hand, don't spend all that time studyin' men across a poker table for nothing. He turns into Mr. Icicle when things get hot; reads the other players faster and easier than most of us would read a good book."
Josiah nodded, looking at Ezra thoughtfully. "He's got a point there, my friend. Another advantage is that when you don't want to be moved from someplace, it practically takes an act of God or a stick of dynamite to get you going."
Vin added, "You ain't exactly puny with a rope in your hands either, pard. Remember that time we was gettin' information out of that feller who tried to kidnap little Billy Travis off the stagecoach? You held that feller upside down steady as a rock 'til it was time to let go of the rope. Dropped him within an inch of where we wanted him."
"And most important of all," Buck finished, dropping his tone to a conspiratorial whisper. "I knew there weren't no way you were voluntarily going wading in a mud puddle!"
At the sharp look Ezra shot toward Josiah, the man merely smiled and tipped his hat.
Giving him a slap on the back, Buck declared, "Yessiree, Ezra, you were my secret weapon and you done us all proud."
A strange mixture of feelings swept over Ezra as he watched his teammates raise their beers to him in a silent toast. Shock mixed with pride over this show of support for his abilities. Shame that he should have doubted that support in the first place. Indignity that he should have been chosen for Buck's team because he was more fastidious but less excitable than JD, and elation in the simple fact that the past had not repeated itself. He smiled and raised his glass. "Here's to next year's competition, my friends. May it be as full of pleasant surprises."