Written in response to a story Challenge offered by Tipper: One of the Seven must give one of the others a gift. The gift can be anything but the receiver must be alone when he finds it. Story title must include the word ‘gift’, one of these words must appear in the story: pumpkin, witch, monster, candy, trick, treat. Bonus words: ‘Googlism’ and ‘Abstruse’
(Moved to Blackraptor November 2009)
Josiah knew before he even opened his eyes that he shouldn't have put off fixing the roof for one more day. The knowledge came with the steadily increasing patter of droplets striking shingles above and he waited, counting the seconds in the darkness behind closed eyelids, for it to happen. For the flat plip plip plip of water leaking through the knotty pine boards, past the last patch job and onto the floor inside. He knew it would start sooner or later. There were at least two bad spots that he had already noticed. Telling himself he should get up and check on the church, Josiah shivered against a breath of cold air that caressed his cheek, hunkering further down under the covers instead. It was so nice and warm inside them and the thin mattress he lay upon had molded into perfect contours around his body. So comfortable…
As concentration shifted from contemplation of the roof to contemplation of his bed, Josiah began drifting back to sleep. And then it came: one big fat drop of cold water splashing right into his ear.
With an inarticulate sound of disgust he jumped out from between the covers just in time to avoid a second droplet and grabbed hold of the bedstead, dragging it out of the path of the leak. The suddenness of his reaction made him put more strength into the pull than he had intended and he overbalanced, landing on his rump with a thud and a curse. For a long moment he simply sat on the floor, elbows resting upon the bed as he glared over at the little pool of water forming on the floor. Rubbing his offended ear with the heel of one hand he glanced up at the leaking roof and muttered, "Very funny, Lord. I suppose that was some kind of reminder that sloth is a sin?"
Neither God nor the roof saw fit to answer. "Fine," he grumbled. "I'll fix it right after breakfast. It is all right with you if I eat first?" A gust of wind suddenly rattled the walls, and there came a cracking sound overhead as a half-loosened shingle came free and the dripping leak suddenly turned into a full-on drizzle. Pushing himself up off the cold floor with a heavy sigh, Josiah placed a handy pitcher under the miniature waterfall and reached for his clothes. Looked like breakfast would have to wait awhile.
The steady sound of hammering drove into Ezra’s brain like a spike. What in God's name was wrong with that man? Didn't the combination of a soft pillow and a dark rainy morning hold any appeal for him at all? For there was no doubt whatsoever who was producing such an annoying cacophony so early in the day. Nobody else in town would even think to go climbing around on rooftops in the middle of a storm. Of course, few other buildings in town had a rooftop that resembled a sieve quite as much as the one under which Josiah Sanchez lived either.
With a groan, Ezra rolled onto his stomach and yanked the pillow from under his head, pulling it down over his ears, but still he found himself listening through the padding for that familiar staccato rhythm. Yes, there it was. Fainter now, but still there. Gritting his teeth, he refused to give in to the fact that he was now thoroughly and inexorably awake until a new sound joined the first. Singing. Loud, cheerful, carelessly off-key singing! Presented with this new insult, Ezra leapt off his mattress, strode across the room, threw open the curtains and jerked his window open, not caring that he presented bleary eyes and a rumpled head to the world as he leaned out and bellowed, "Will you please stop that infernal racket! People are trying to sleep around here!"
The shout had the desired effect: the singing stopped. However, it also had a second, far more unexpected consequence. Startled by the shout, Josiah turned to look and lost his balance, uttering a yelp of surprise as his boots slid on a wet shingle, sending him zipping down the slope and into mid-air. A desperate instinctive grab managed to catch the edge of the roof but the weight of his falling body jerked hard against his left shoulder and the cry of pain he uttered was clearly audible all the way to the window that a shocked Ezra still leaned from.
As he watched, Josiah crashed to the ground and lay still, curled up on the muddy earth with one hand clutching his injured shoulder.
Confusion assaulted Josiah’s senses. What the hell had happened to him? He’d been up on the roof, busily working to fix the leaks invading his home. It had been a pleasant chore, with the air carrying the fresh, rain-washed smell that he loved, and the town around him quiet and peaceful. Knowing that few would be awake to hear him, Josiah had started singing an old plantation hymn that Nathan had recently taught him, enjoying his morning in spite of the continued rain shower. Then, the next thing he knew, Josiah had felt himself sliding on the slick surface of the wet shingles, followed by the sickening sensation of being airborne and knowing he was about to fall to his death.
Strangely, there was no memory of an impact but the pain wracking through his body was enough to tell Josiah that at least he hadn’t managed to kill himself. He would be grateful for that later, he was sure, but for the moment his head was pounding and it felt as though one shoulder was being branded from the inside out, a feeling so intense that he could not even manage a moan.
Gradually he began to be aware of other things. The soft squishy feeling and distinct earthy smell of the mud, in which he lay, was first. Next, that his head lay cradled on somebody’s lap, that person’s hands keeping him turned onto his right side so that the injured shoulder did not press into the earth. And lastly, a man’s voice speaking, almost babbling in fact, in a rapid and slightly hysterical tone. The voice kept saying that it was sorry for something. Ezra?
He realized after a moment that he must have spoken the name out loud, for the frantic chattering abruptly stopped, replaced with a hopeful, "Josiah?"
The injured man groaned deeply and started to roll over, trying to see his friend’s face.
"You’d best stay still a moment," Ezra’s voice insisted, his hand gently but firmly pressing against Josiah’s back to hold him in place. "I stopped by Vin’s wagon on the way here and asked him to go get Nathan. I wouldn’t advise moving until help arrives. You’ve got a dislocated shoulder, which is certainly bad enough, as I have all too great a cause to know, but there could be other injuries that we aren’t aware of yet and if you begin to move around too much you could exacerbate whatever condition you might have, and I should certainly hate to see any further damage come to you, which could have been prevented had you only heeded the sensible-"
"Ezra!" Josiah bellowed the name sharply, gasping as the force of the shout jarred his body and brought a new wave of agony searing through his left side.
The gambler abruptly went quiet, offering only one very meek sounding, "Sorry."
Josiah heard the softly uttered word and instantly regretted his sharpness. He’d had to do it, though. That frantic rapid-fire prattle was giving him a headache, or maybe just making the one he already had worse. The rain was falling harder now too, and while he really did not relish the idea of moving, it seemed preferable to drowning in a mud wallow. Gritting his teeth, he began again to force his sore body upright. "Gotta get…inside," he grated. "Nathan…can check…better…dry."
Ezra seemed to understand the harshly grunted words and after a moment, he released his hold. "If you’re sure you can make it," he agreed hesitantly. "Let me help you."
Together the two men struggled to their feet, both slipping here and there in the thick recently disturbed mud. Josiah was panting by the time his body was fully upright. He likely would have folded right back down again if Ezra had not ducked underneath his good arm, giving him something to lean on. Placing his arm tightly around the former preacher’s waist, Ezra carefully maneuvered them around the building and toward the church steps.
Several inches taller and considerably heavier of build than his human crutch, Josiah tried not to lean too heavily, but Ezra seemed to hold up steadily under the strain, taking more and more of his weight with every foot of progress they made. Just the same, Ezra was nearly as out of breath as Josiah by the time the two men crossed the threshold and sank down onto the first available pew. "Are you all right?" Ezra panted. "Feel sick, dizzy, anything like that?"
"No," Josiah said, giving an abrupt gasp as the pain flared sharply again. "Oh, shit, that hurts!"
"I’m so sorry," Ezra said again. "I know from experience just how much agony a dislocated joint entails, but at least I can assure you that our good healer is quite adept at manipulating a separated shoulder back into proper working order. You’ll feel much better once he arrives. Until then, please try to take it easy and don’t move that arm."
A sharp nod was all the answer Josiah could come up with.
"What is taking so long?" Ezra demanded rhetorically after a couple of minutes had crawled by with no sign of the healer. "It must be at least fifteen minutes since Vin went to rouse him!"
Trying to distract himself, Josiah asked through gritted teeth, "How did you…happen to get here…so fast? Up early today?" He shifted slightly so that he could see his companion better, and frowned. Ezra was looking decidedly strange, dressed in nothing but a pair of mud-smeared black pants and a once white shirt that was neither tucked nor buttoned, and had been soaked into near transparency by the rain. "What happened to you?"
"Um, well actually, you happened."
"You broke my fall?" Josiah said uncertainly. He hadn’t seen anyone below while up on the roof.
Ezra bit his lip. "Not exactly. I take it you don’t recall what it was that sent you on your earthward plummet?" When Josiah merely looked blank, he sighed. "Let us just say that you put a surprising degree of enthusiasm, if not melody, into your rooftop chores. And while I have yet to understand why anyone would choose to do such a thing in the rain, particularly when it was not yet even six o’clock in the morning, let us say that if you had displayed slightly less enthusiasm, we might not be having this conversation."
Wondering if he had struck his head on the way down or if Ezra was simply being more than usually abstruse, Josiah pinched the bridge of his nose between two fingers. "You want to say that again, slower?"
"Think he said you woke him up poundin’ on the roof," offered Vin Tanner, entering the building behind them. "Did me too, but I didn’t take it quite so personal."
"Where’s Nathan?" Ezra said in dismay, when the healer failed to appear in the doorway behind the other man.
Vin leaned into a half-seat on one of the pews in the opposite row. "He’ll be here in a couple minutes. Seems Josiah here ain’t the only one to have an attack of clumsy this mornin’. Miz Potter was getting breakfast ready and managed to slice her hand pretty good with a kitchen knife. Nate will be here as soon as he finishes putting a couple more stitches in her. Told me to tell ya not to move Josiah ‘til he got here, but I reckon it’s a little late for that." Turning his attention to the injured man, he asked, "Y’all right?"
Josiah stifled a moan as he shifted again on the hard bench seat. "I’ve been better. Gloria all right?"
"Reckon’," Vin said calmly. "She was all set to come right over here and help Nathan tend you, hand or no hand, when I told ‘em what happened to you. Might do it yet if he can’t talk her out of it. Y’know, you’re lookin’ a mite peaked there, Josiah. Sure you’re okay?"
Ezra, too, had noticed the man’s sudden pallor. "Perhaps we should get you lying down," he suggested.
"In a minute," he gasped. "Personal?"
"What?" Ezra frowned, confused by the seeming nonsequeter.
The comment Vin had made upon entry had suddenly caught up with Josiah’s pain-addled brain. "That was you, wasn’t it?" he demanded, looking hard at Ezra. "I heard somebody shouting..."
"And then you turned around and slipped on a wet shingle," Ezra filled in with a guilty nod. "I only wanted you to stop making that infernal racket. I hope you believe that I never intended to startle you, and I certainly didn’t mean for any injury to befall you."
The agony flaring through his shoulder was wreaking havoc on Josiah’s usual ready forgiveness. "Of all the stupid…"
"I thought I told you not to let him move until I had a chance to check him over," Nathan Jackson interrupted sharply as he blew into the church like a gust of angry wind. "Don’t you know it’s dangerous to move a man when he’s had a bad fall?"
"He was lying in the mud, and with the rain continuing, I thought…" Ezra began, only to have the healer cut him off with an exasperated wave of the hand.
"Josiah, you feel any bad spasms in your back or legs when he moved you?" Josiah shook his head, happy to allow his friend to check him over for injury. Nathan grunted as he pressed and poked at various areas on Josiah’s body and received apparently satisfactory answers to his questions as to the sensation each touch brought. Finally, the healer nodded. "Sounds like it’s just the shoulder and maybe a knock on the head then. Guess Ezra didn’t do no extra damage movin’ you, but he still should’ve waited."
Ezra shrank back from the disapproving comment, seeing no ready defense of his actions forthcoming from Josiah, despite the fact that it had been his request to come in out of the mud and rain that had prompted the decision. Guilt over having caused the accident won out over the need to voice resentment of this injustice. "Do you need help resetting his shoulder," he instead asked quietly.
Something in his tone caught Nathan’s attention, for he cast a sudden probing look at the half-dressed gambler and his expression softened a bit. "Figure I can do it all right alone. Why don’t you and Vin go in and get things ready for him in the back. I want Josiah in bed for a little while today to give this arm a chance to rest." Seeming to read Ezra’s thoughts, he smiled and added; "Only reason I didn’t do the same to you back at the Seminole village was the circumstances. If we’d been here in town, you wouldn’t have been runnin’ around blowing stuff up for a couple of days."
"Can’t sleep in there," Josiah blurted, remembering. "I was out on the roof ‘cause there was a leak coming right into my bedroom."
Catching the scowl sent his way from the injured man, another pang of remorse flashed through Ezra. He should have realized there was some important reason for Sanchez to be up pounding shingles at such an ungodly hour. "I believe you’ll be more comfortable if you borrow my feather-bed for the day in any case," he offered. "I’ll go over now and prepare things for your arrival."
Before anyone could agree or disagree with his plan, the gambler was out the door.
"Ain’t like he meant to hurt you, y’know," Vin said quietly, as he moved to follow. "Just bad luck. Like havin’ your roof start to leak right over your head cause you put off fixin’ it too long."
The two remaining men looked at each other as the tracker departed. "Got a way with words, don’t he?"
Josiah sighed, wincing as the deep breath once again caused his injury to flare. "JD can’t even make me feel that guilty when he does that googly begging eyes thing of his. Maybe Vin should give lessons."
"On googlism?" Nathan said with a smile, helping his friend to remove the large rain-proofed poncho he had previously just worked around, "Or guilt?"
A small smile flickered over the injured man’s lips. "On second thought, we don’t need JD figuring out how to work that angle any further. Nobody’d be safe."
The healer laughed and helped Josiah move sideways on the bench. "I think you’re right." Getting himself into position, he placed one hand on Josiah’s left shoulder blade and the other in a firm grip on his injured arm. "Ready? I’ll do this on the count of three."
Clenching his teeth, Josiah took a tight hold on the back of the pew and tried to prepare himself for the additional pain he knew was coming. "Do it."
"Okay. Take a breath and hold it. One. Two." Without any further warning, he wrenched the injured limb outward then twisted and shoved it back into place in one solid shove. The joint ground and reset with an audible snap that made Nathan smile with satisfaction. "There. That ought to be just fine."
With a roar, Josiah spun around swinging. His right hand balled into a fist and caught Jackson squarely on the nose, then unfolded to clutch at his severely throbbing shoulder.
"What the hell did you do that for?" Nathan cried, clutching his bleeding nose.
"Remind me…to teach you…how to count…one of these days," Josiah panted, glaring at him. His ire fading with the rapidly decreasing pain in his shoulder, he added, "You all right?"
Nathan pressed the offended organ experimentally. "It’ll be sore for a few days but I’m pretty sure you didn’t break it." Brown eyes meeting apologetic blue ones he smiled. "Guess that was kinda sneaky, wasn’t it?"
"It was," he agreed. Holding out his right hand he added, "Thanks, Nate."
Josiah made his way up the back steps of the saloon and down the hall to Ezra’s private quarters. A brand new sling adorned his left arm and while he didn’t honestly feel the need to lie down, he had promised Nathan to take it easy for a few hours and he didn’t want Ezra to think he was ungrateful for the offer of his room. Besides, he wanted a chance to apologize. Vin had been right. The whole thing had been just a series of unfortunate events, not a deliberate attempt at injury.
There was no answer to his tentative knock a few moments later but the door was unlocked when he tried the knob. No one was there but Josiah noticed that an extra pillow had been considerately set down on the left side of the bed as padding for his injury. A small bundle lay atop it.
Curious, he moved into the room and sat carefully down. There might have been no other serious injuries from his fall, but impact bruises were beginning to make themselves felt all over his body. Gingerly, he picked up the package. It was a small drawstring pouch, the kind that boys usually carried to hold treasures such as jacks or marbles. Josiah smiled, wondering if this rather worn looking leather pouch had ever served such a purpose for Ezra. When he loosed the drawstring, a folded note was the only thing contained within.
‘Josiah,’ it read. ‘I offer my most humble and sincere apologies for having caused you injury. I know that you believe in due penance for wrongdoing and I, in turn, believe in settling my obligations fairly. Therefore, knowing you will not be up to the task of repairing your leaking domicile for some time, I shall attempt to provide satisfactory repairs on your behalf as soon as the weather allows. I hope that this will clear the debt between us. Yours sincerely, Ezra P. Standish.’
Sighing deeply, Josiah kicked off his boots and stretched carefully out on the soft mattress, studying the ceiling overhead. Ezra had to be feeling damn guilty to have written a note like that. The offer was a gift in itself, and would have been gladly accepted under other circumstances, but as much as he would normally enjoy the sight of Ezra Standish engaged in hard physical labor, this just didn’t feel right.
"Do you think he’ll accept?" Ezra asked the question softly, as though afraid that someone in the saloon would overhear, even though there was no one but he and Vin present in the still-closed business. Playing with the ruffled cuff of the shirt he had put on a few minutes earlier when replacing his muddy, damp clothing, he added, "I thought it was a fairly generous gesture on my part."
Vin Tanner shrugged one shoulder. "I’d take it if I figured you owed it to me. Maybe even if I didn’t. Can’t speak for Josiah, though. He might not feel the same way."
"You don’t believe it was a fair offer?" he asked in surprise. "I did cause his fall, after all."
"Rain caused his fall," Vin countered. "You just opened your big mouth at the wrong time."
Indignantly, Ezra sat back and crossed his arms. "And I suppose you would have been happy to allow him to pound away all day, yowling like a cat on a fence-rail, and never said a word."
The long-haired man grinned. "Nope. Just sayin’ that I’m glad you opened y’r yap before I had a chance to, or else I’d be the one climbin’ up to fix that damn cheesecloth roof of his."
"You mean you…"
"Hell, yeah," he said with a snort, folding his hands comfortably across his stomach and tipping his chair onto its back legs. "Hammerin’ gets annoying, but I’m used to that. I didn’t stay up ‘til four in the mornin’ doing night patrol in the cold and damp, just so the preacher could get me up two hours later with his impersonation of a throat-sore rooster, though. I was just about to roll outta my bunk and give him what-for when I heard you yellin’."
Ezra’s mouth had fallen open as he listened. "And why in God’s name didn’t you share this tidbit of information when I told you what I was putting in that note?"
The tracker winked. "Figured you’d try to rope me into helpin’. I ain’t too fond of heights, ‘specially when it comes to perchin’ on a ridgepole like some kinda damn bird." Resetting his chair, he rose and slapped the gaping gambler on the shoulder. "Like I said, you’re the one with the big mouth. See ya later, pard."
Ezra sat for a minute, indignation fighting with chagrin within him. Was he preparing to pay off a debt he did not genuinely owe? Realizing that he could not let this go unresolved he stood and headed back up the stairs.
A soft tap on the door interrupted Josiah’s thoughts. Halfway expecting Nathan, who had been torn between escorting him up the stairs and going to the clinic to take care of his own bloody nose, Josiah called, "Come in."
To his surprise, it was Ezra who peered around the doorway at his invitation. "How are you feeling?" he asked politely.
Josiah put his right arm behind his head to prop it up a bit as Ezra entered the rest of the way inside and sat down on the edge of the bed, careful not to jar the mattress. "Not bad. You were right about Nathan doing a good job relocating the shoulder. I figure it’ll be right as rain in a few days."
Ezra had winced slightly at the word ‘rain’. Hesitantly he asked, "Did you read the note?"
"I did," Josiah said solemnly, "It’s damn nice of you."
"So, then. You feel that said chore will be adequate recompense for my actions?"
Noting the stiffness of the question, Josiah could not resist the urge to tease. "Unfortunately, no. It’s not adequate at all." Ezra’s expression, caught somewhere between dismay and outrage, made the older man laugh, then gasp as his shoulder protested the shaking. "Ow. What I mean to say, Ezra, is that while I’d love the help, you don’t owe it to me. What happened was as much my fault as yours. I knew that spot in the roof was about to give and I put off fixing it. Going up there in the rain with nobody else around was a damn fool thing to do."
"Yes, it was," the gambler agreed amiably. "If you had waited an hour or two, I’m sure that one of our compatriots would have been willing to aid you. However, I should not have started shouting at you the way I did. It was both rude and unnecessary."
"Well, I’m sorry for waking you up that way," Josiah offered. "Guess after being woken with an earful of cold water I wasn’t thinking much about whether anyone else was still asleep."
Ezra laughed. "I don’t imagine I would have been in a very charitable mood after such a rude awakening myself. So, are we both forgiven?" he asked, holding out a hand.
Josiah shook it readily. "I think we are. Don’t suppose you’d still be willing to help fix my roof, as a favor to a friend rather than a debt?"
"I believe I might be willin’ to consider it," Ezra returned, surprising him. "Not until the weather clears up, however."
"And I will not be supplying the cost of the materials."
Knowing he should have expected such a condition, Josiah said again, "Agreed."
"And," Ezra said, drawing out the word. He smiled at Josiah’s suspiciously narrowing gaze. "I believe that before either of us again sets foot in that leaky cauldron you call a church, we should first see if we can’t find a way to trick…that is, persuade some of the others to do the chore for us."
Clutching his injured shoulder, Josiah let go a deep, appreciative chuckle. "I like the way you think, my friend."