The May 2004 Challenge (the Word Challenge): offered by Lady Catherine
Write a story in which the boys discover the magic in a word or words- for better or for worse. Now, I don't mean that they have to sit around and have an English discussion about the meaning of a word. It could be a discussion or a feeling or a realization or a memory or anything. This challenge is in celebration of the magic of the written or spoken word!
(Story moved to Blackraptor November 2009)
The church was quiet today. No ring of hammers or swish of sandpaper sounding as someone worked to renovate the old worn beams and boards. Josiah would be back at it soon, without a doubt, for he had left a hole in the roof where a couple of rotted planks had been removed. Soon they would be replaced with new, but for now the gap allowed a bright ribbon of sunlight to enter into the house of God. It was peaceful here, the silence welcoming, offering rest to a weary soul. Ezra closed his eyes, letting the caress of sun-warmed wood soak into his bones as he dropped to a seat in one scarred pew. Taking a deep breath, he let the homey scents of new lumber and old papers wash away a bit of his melancholy. God, but he was tired. Tired of a life that never changed from day to day until someone took it into his head to start shooting up the town. Everything seemed to be so mundane. He had grown weary of playing poker games against poor dirt farmers and shop keepers, and still wearier of being looked at suspiciously for his consistent ability to win - as if those paltry winnings were even worth the trouble of cheating for! He was growing uncomfortable with living this poor, honest, settled life; of sacrificing his time, his effort, and occasionally even his money to the cause of buying the respect he felt sure he would never earn.
A grimace flitted across the gambler's face as he pulled his weary lids open. He had come here because Josiah was always easy to talk to, or listen to as the case may be, and he had found himself craving company. Everyone else had scattered, finding their own sources of amusement on a hot and dreary day. Chris and Vin had gone riding, no doubt intending to spend their afternoon exchanging long, meaningful silences of the sort that would drive anyone with decent social skills mad in the space of an hour. Buck and JD had gone hunting, though it was likely that their boisterous laughter and endless tall tales would scare off any trace of game within fifty miles. They would almost certainly consider it a day well spent in any case, and Ezra sighed softly, wishing he could have joined them. Unfortunately, the two had already departed by the time he rose for the day and he refused to go chasing after them uninvited. It was undignified, and besides, a gentleman simply did not trespass where he had not been asked. Nathan might have been able to provide some stimulating conversation if he had been in town, but the healer was gone, out tending to Peter Johnson's broken leg. He would undoubtedly be away until evening unless an emergency arose, for Mr. Johnson was a funny and extremely loquacious man who never passed up a chance to entertain company. So, that had left Josiah, but unfortunately it seemed that he, too, was occupied elsewhere.
Idly playing with the black hat he had reflexively removed upon crossing the threshold of the church, Ezra thought back to the last time he had come to this place seeking conversation with the ex-priest. That had been another warm and melancholy day and he had been suffering from a combination of bruised self-esteem and a guilty conscience that came with the knowledge that his associates of more than a year did not trust him to guard an assassin's fortune of $10,000. The worst part of that had been his own fear that perhaps they were right to withhold that trust. Ezra had come to this church seeking reassurance. He had sat in this very same pew, pouring his woes into what he had thought would be a sympathetic ear, only to have Josiah turn on him, throwing his confession back in his face along with the bag of money. Daring him to fail.
Slumping down in his seat, tired green eyes closing once more, he laid his head back against the top of the pew. Strange how fate had a way of turning everything upside down. He had failed Josiah's test of character - as he had later figured out it was - spectacularly, not only stealing the money but very nearly running out on his friends for the second and last time. If fate had not pushed that little one-eyed assassin into his path at precisely the right moment, he would probably still be running today; still stewing over that tainted money and hating himself for having taken it, and for having inadvertently allowed the death of Mary Travis. Ezra shook his head slightly. He had not been back inside this building since that day though he and Josiah had mended fences enough to resume their former level of sociability. It was hard to say if they had ever truly been friends.
Friends. Now that was a word worth contemplating in a setting such as this. How long had it been since Ezra Standish had truly considered anyone a friend? He thought back through the years, grimacing when an answer did not instantly spring to mind. Far too long, then. There had been a few times in his youth, friendships made on rare occasions when he had lived in one place long enough to develop more than a nodding acquaintance with anyone. Later, there had been fleeting moments of camaraderie with fellow gamblers and grifters, and physically satisfying but emotionally empty relationships with women who had passed through his life as he rambled from town to town. But those were not something he would classify as friendship. It seemed as if the older he got, the less willing he had become to reach out to anyone. Oh, he was always friendly, always garrulous and quick-witted, flashing a ready smile and charming manner toward anyone whose company he favored. That was simply part of the game. Just something to make the marks feel comfortable before he fleeced them. Something with which to coax ladies into giving him their affections of a night. Empty flattery. When was the last time he had truly felt something more than amusement or pity for those other souls? How long had it been since he had opened his heart to anyone? Respect did not come readily from Ezra; it was a thing that needed to be earned. Likewise trust, affection and fellowship. Traits that he had found in shocking abundance when he met his six fellow peacekeepers. Traits he wished almost desperately for them to find within him.
"Lord, what an insipid line of thought," he muttered, running a hand across his face as if by doing so he could wipe out the last few embarrassing moments of self-revelation. Why had he come here again? Oh, yes, boredom. He had come on a futile quest to find someone who could alleviate the tedium of the day. "The quiet is getting to you, boy. Pretty soon your brains will become so soft from lack of use that they'll melt and dribble right out of your ears."
"Now, that'd be a mess I'd hate to have to clean off the furniture," a cheerful voice answered, bringing Ezra up into a ramrod stiff posture as he spun around in his seat to find Josiah standing in the doorway smiling at him. "What's the matter? Nobody up for a game this early?"
Relaxing back into a comfortable slouch, the gambler yawned. "Business at the saloon is deader than a beaver hat, to quote a certain associate of ours. Not that it truly matters. The heat of the day has left me somewhat disinclined to challenge anyone to a game."
Josiah's eyebrows shot up, revealing both surprise and interest. Ezra Standish disinclined to spend his time gambling? Perhaps Judgment Day was closer than he had thought! "It is a scorcher," he agreed pleasantly, taking a seat on the bench next to Ezra. "I was planning on fixing the roof this afternoon, but frankly I don't feel much like it."
Placing his hat back on and pulling it down halfway over his face, the southerner smiled. "I don't expect you'll have reason to worry about precipitation for a few days," he drawled lazily. "I believe the Lord would be willing to let you have the day off from your practice of menial labor. Assuming, of course, that you still plan to spend the day in some productive pursuit."
The edges of Josiah's mouth twitched. "And just what do you suppose He would consider a productive activity?"
"Oh, something involving the promotion of healthy minds and bodies," Ezra speculated, pushing his hat back far enough to allow the other man to see his eyes. "Perhaps something along the lines of feeding the multitudes."
Sanchez chuckled. "You wouldn't be considering a visit to a certain fishing hole, would you?"
Ezra sat up, his teasing smirk growing into a full-blown grin. "Why, Mr. Sanchez, what an excellent suggestion! Finding a nice, cool, shady spot in the grass with nothing to do but collect fish and exchange conversation sounds like an ideal way to spend the day. Thank you for inviting me."
A booming laugh rang through the tiny church as Josiah threw his head back and let his amusement show. "You're more than welcome, brother. I'm glad I thought of it!"
"As am I, my friend." Rising from his seat, Ezra smiled. Perhaps it had taken him a touch longer to find the ease and comfort of friendship than it did most people, and perhaps he and Josiah were not exactly the best of friends just yet. But perhaps it didn't really matter. As his companion was fond of noting, the journey itself was often more important than the destination, and some journeys were worth taking more than once.