Moved to Blackraptor November 2009
"You seen Ezra?"
Vin glanced up from his drink. Chris had just spent a few days out at his cabin but he had clearly returned in an irritated mood. "Problem?"
Chris slapped a hand down on the table and thrust his body into a chair. "Not sure. Just talked to Buck. He said Maude's in town."
"Was. Not any more. Left on the mornin' stage."
"Good," Chris huffed, relaxing a bit. "Damned woman. How can any mother swindle her own kid out of his last red cent?"
"According to Buck."
The tracker sighed. "Hadn't heard. Works fast, don't she? Must be why he come in here so danged depressed."
"Where is he?"
Vin pointed a finger overhead, drawing Chris's attention to a small landing above the bar. It had been built more for decoration than use, but Chris now realized that the space was occupied. Ezra was lying on his back with his knees drawn up, an empty bottle of whiskey balanced on his stomach, staring at the rough bullet-addled boards just a few feet above his head.
"How'd he get up there?"
Vin shrugged. "Hopped up on the railin', walked across, and swung inside that space as neat as a circus monkey. Been there almost an hour now. Reckon a man can do anything if he's desperate enough to get away for awhile."
"Any ideas how we'll get him back down?"
The tracker lifted a hand to his lips and let go a piercing whistle. Ezra jerked and rolled his head sideways to look. Vin crooked his finger in a come-here gesture and Chris stifled a shout of protest as Ezra simply rolled off the narrow ledge, catching himself on the edge with one hand and swinging his body down to drop neatly to the floor behind the bar.
Inez watched his progress with a bemused expression, allowing Ezra to help himself to a new bottle as he carefully set the empty one upon the bar and made his way out to the table his two friends were occupying.
"Gen'lemen," he slurred, plunking ungracefully into the chair Chris pulled out for him. "What can I do for you on this dark and uninvitin' day?"
Chris glanced at the batwing doors, where bright rays of sunshine poured into the bar. All in one's point of view, he supposed. "Thought you might need some company," he admitted, bringing a startled look to the gambler's face. "Heard you had some trouble while I was gone."
Ezra barked a humorless laugh and took a long swig from his newly opened bottle of whiskey, not even bothering with a glass. Vin and Chris exchanged a look, acknowledging the rarity of the crude action and of seeing Ezra so openly inebriated. The man enjoyed his liquor but almost never over-indulged in public.
"You could say that. I was determined that this visit would entail nothing more than pleasant familial interaction." He snorted inelegantly and took another drink. "I was doomed to be disappointed but I am clearly every bit as much a fool as she believes me to be. I keep hopin' for the same damned thing, even when I know full well that I'll never get it."
Vin shot a questioning look at Chris, who shrugged.
"Heard you two played poker all night," Vin said. "Didn't go so good?"
"It went perfectly . . . for Mother." Abandoning the bottle so abruptly that Chris had to dart a hand out to catch it, Ezra crossed his arms atop the table and leaned forward to rest his chin on them, blinking morosely at his two companions. "I don't feel very well."
A sympathetic noise escaped Vin as he looked at the bottle in Chris's hand. "Ain't surprised, pard. You just drank about a quart and a half of whiskey, all by your lonesome."
"An' I can't even pay for it," he commented, interrupting himself with a drunken giggle before saying in a loud whisper, "Don't tell Inez."
Inez, having heard the comment perfectly, just smiled and shook her head.
Allowing his head to loll to one side so that his cheek was pillowed on his folded hands, Ezra stared out the saloon window. "I'm a very good player," he insisted, sounding sad as he added, "but she's a much better cheat. I'm nothing more than grist for the mill when we challenge one another."
"She taught you how to play," Chris guessed. "Watched you grow up. No way she wouldn't know your tells, even if the rest of us can't see that you got any."
"A mother's advantage," Ezra mumbled, closing his eyes.
Vin and Chris sat quietly, sharing the abandoned whiskey between them as they silently kept watch over their dozing friend. They looked up when the batwings swung open, nodding a welcome as the rest of their companions entered the saloon.
"He okay?" Buck asked, kneeling down to get a good look at the insensate gambler.
"Drunk," Chris grunted, pouring out shots of whiskey for Nathan and Josiah as Inez brought them glasses and provided beers for both Buck and JD.
"Maude's visit knocked him sideways," Vin added. "Seems to have took it worse'n usual."
Josiah pulled a thick envelope out of the inside pocket of his coat. "She left this for him. Told me to deliver it after she left on the stage."
Chris moved the whiskey bottle next to Ezra's ear and swirled the contents, smiling a bit when the gambler blinked open bleary green eyes to search for the source of the noise and then asked, "Time for a drink?"
"Past it, I'd say," Chris commented. "You all right?"
Ezra looked surprised to see them all gathered around. Considering the question, he said, "Ask me again tomorrow."
"Your ma left you something," JD said abruptly, taking a seat at the table. "Told Josiah to make sure you got it today."
With a frown, Ezra slowly pushed himself upright in his chair and accepted the letter. "I'm afraid to look. It's probably a bill for the lesson she just taught me."
"Only one way to find out," Nathan suggested, not bothering to conceal his interest in finding out what Maude might have left.
Ezra sighed deeply and worked the sealed envelope open. He examined the contents silently, an expression of open astonishment sweeping over his features as he read. Shaking his head slowly, he said, "I swear that if we both live to be a thousand years old, I will never understand her."
The gambler looked around the quiet saloon, eyes drinking in every facet of the shabby furniture and rough décor as if it had all suddenly become plated in gold and diamonds. He rose unsteadily to his feet, and the other men looked at him with curiosity.
"Gentlemen, I am going upstairs to take a nap." The words were spoken with slow deliberation, as if Ezra was working hard to insure that he did not slur. He held out the envelope to Chris. "If, when I awaken, I find that the contents of this have not changed and this is not merely a pleasant hallucination brought on by overindulgence, I should like to treat you all to a libation."
Turning on his heel so quickly he nearly overbalanced, Ezra wove his way to the staircase and trudged carefully up the steps toward his room.
The remaining peacekeepers looked at one another, debating. Finally, JD ventured, "He didn't say we couldn't read it. And he did sort of give it to us."
Deciding that was good enough for him, Chris pulled out the papers. "Well, I'll be damned. It's the deed to this place."
"I thought she sold it," Buck said in confusion.
"So did I, but I guess she got it back," Chris said, opening the letter that had accompanied the deed. "My dear son. Thank you for a most enjoyable and lucrative visit. While I fail to understand your attachment to this dusty hamlet of which you have appointed yourself guardian, I should hate to see you become destitute due to your own stubborn nature. I will expect you to have made me proud of this investment by your next advancement in age. Your loving, Mother."
Josiah scratched his chin. "She stole this place away from him, came back and busted him flat broke and then, if I understood that message correctly, gave him back the saloon as a birthday present. What do you make of that?"
"Seems like sort of a nice gesture, knowin' how much this place means to Ezra," Nathan said slowly. "Except, now he sort of owes her a favor, don't he?"
"She'll probably see it that way," Buck agreed, grimacing as if his beer had suddenly gone sour. "He don't have any money saved up to run it either, so he'll have to wait until his next big win to do anything about it."
"And by then he'll probably be in the hole for the supplies to keep it open," Vin said. "Unless he borrows some money."
Chris shook his head grimly. "Thanks to what Maude did to him the last time he owned it, the bank considers him a bad investment risk. He told me so himself. I doubt they'd be willing to extend a loan on this place again."
"So, why don't we do it?" JD said, face lighting up with enthusiasm. "He asked some of us to invest the last time but we didn't and . . ."
He flushed and abruptly stopped speaking, leaving Nathan to complete the sentence. "And he lost everything 'cause he got in that fight with his mama and we all picked the wrong side to support." The healer shook his head. "Felt bad about that ever since. I'm in."
"Me too," Josiah decided, not bothering to state his motive but sounding so determined that nobody questioned him.
Vin grinned. "Didn't have no chance to get in on it before. I'm willin'."
"Got me a few dollars saved up," Buck agreed. "Was figuring on buying a few things for myself but I reckon they can wait awhile."
Chris took a long look around the building, then smirked. "I've sunk a fortune into saloons over the years without getting a cent of it back. Seems like it's time I did something more with my money than drink it."
Picking up the deed that been left sitting on the table top, JD studied the paper intently. "You think Maude might be testing us? Wanting to see if we'll back him this time around?"
"She certainly knew Ezra wanted us as investors the last time," Josiah mused. "She'd never have gone after us so specifically otherwise. I'd like to believe she's looking out for his best interests this time."
"Well, we sure as hell will be, whether Maude is or not," Nathan said flatly, pouring the last of Ezra's abandoned whiskey between his own glass and the other three.
"You all mean that, don't you?"
All six of them jumped, more than one instinctively reaching for his gun, only then realizing that Ezra had not gone all the way upstairs. He had stopped halfway up, and he now sat staring at them with a look of wonder on his face.
"Thought you went to bed," Vin said.
The gambler shrugged. "I intended to, but my boots became entangled on the way up."
They chuckled, every one of them knowing how daunting a simple flight of stairs could become to a man who'd had as much to drink as Ezra had.
He was still staring at them, hope and trepidation showing clearly in his eyes. "The six of you truly wish to invest in me . . . I mean, with me?"
Chris exchanged another inscrutable look with Vin, neither one missing the slip that gave away more than Ezra had probably intended. "Yeah, pard," Vin told him. "We do. Reckon you're worth it."
Amusement twitching his lips as he watched Ezra mull the matter over, tipping his head this way and that as he visibly weighed the pros and cons, Chris said quietly, "Maybe you can see your way fit to give us all a second chance."
Ezra looked up, attention caught by the choice of words. He studied each of their faces for a moment, ending with Chris. "And you'll never run out on me again?"
Chris gave a nod and tugged the brim of his hat.
Normal emotional barriers removed by the whiskey, Ezra suddenly smiled so happily that none of them could help but smile back. "I'm still not convinced that this is not an unusually pleasant dream," he said, "but I am delighted to accept your generous and most intelligent offer."
Grins filled every face as they watched Ezra try and fail, not once but twice, to coordinate his limbs enough to get himself upright.
"Let us give you a hand there, birthday boy," Buck offered, gesturing JD to join him in carting the drunken gambler up to his room.
All four of the remaining peacekeepers laughed when they heard Ezra's voice blurt, "How'd you know it was my birthday?"