The Train

by Heather F.

Part 14
They had decided not to camp for the night. Buck and Vin argued that they were as fit to ride as any of them. Jackson rolled his eyes. That proved nothing, but that they were all insane… or "Fine"…or so the catch all word they used for describing injuries just short of being fatal.

As a group, they decided to head back toward Four Corners by passing Fernwood. Fernwood, though, bigger than Four Corners, had only one Doctor. In their previous visit to the town, when the train had stopped, Jackson had learned that the town’s only physician had taken a sabbatical to Denver.

In a curt and irritated tone, the gambler had attempted to define Sabbatical for his associates but found himself struggling to pronounce even the simplest of words. Every attempt was met with confusion and others trying to guess his meaning. It irritated him into a sporadic frenzy of arm waving and crude gesturing.

"Ya think he might have one of them fits ya hear about?" Buck whispered none to quietly to Vin.

"Don’t rightly know.." Tanner whispered back.

The gambler knew Chris and Josiah both understood the term but refused to alleviate his own frustrations by stepping in and defining it for him. Instead, the two men had laughed.

Standish had bristled.

He had not wanted to travel on, but desired to stop at Fernwood and purchase a new set of boots. The pair he had removed from ‘Harold’ though they fit, were not to his liking.

He was voted down…not that they, his tyrannical group of stalwart fellow lawmen, even voted. Goodness, never vote. They were too bent on reaching home and finding the truth behind the Judge’s ruse.

Standish rolled his eyes at his fellow comrades. They acted as if the ruse itself was a personal affront. The Judge was only human after all. Surely they understood that the ever righteous Judge Travis was also motivated by monetary means…surely he would have lied to them for no other reason. Ezra had to conceded that he felt a sting of disappointment. He had believed the Judge to be above reproach. Everyone, eventually falls from their pedestals.

Mother always fabricated versions of the truth to him, for the mere lure of money…why would anyone else be any different?

With a growl, which in turn erupted into a string of chest burning coughs, he reined his ungainly mount to follow the others.

He did not think things could get much worse….then the clouds burst. A deluge threatened to swamp the land. Ezra Standish slunk down low in his borrowed coat, trying to ignore the ingrained stench of someone else’s body odor and fumed at his lack of luck.

As he peered over the buttoned collar of the coat, watching waving curtains of rain pummel the earth in sheets, he did not notice Larabee or Sanchez flank either side of him.

In his misery, he recounted, softly, with a scratchy and fading voice, words that had stuck with him for the last few days….

"What binds me here is Penance, a vow, and strife,
In this darkest night at last all this I see.

I may not be as strong as I should be
I cannot wait for morning's light to go ..."

He mumbled these words over and over jutting his chin from the raunchy coat that chafed at his skin. Watching the rain soak the ground and bend the grass, the gambler recited the words only for himself, uncaring and unknowing of the two men that flanked him listening intently.

Josiah and Chris eyed one another as the gambler spoke the lines taking notice of no one but his own misery.

Sanchez eyes lost focus as he turned his dull stare straight ahead. ‘Bound by Penance’. Penance? What did the others know of Penance? The Preacher found his steely blue eyes resting on Larabee and then Tanner before slowly roving a sadden glance at the group? What did they know of Penance? Too damn much….too damn much for such a young group of men.

By late afternoon, they found a relatively dry spot to camp for the night. Under the shelter of a shallow cave the seven men huddled with their ‘borrowed’ gear in hopes of getting dry and staying dry.

Tanner had a fire blazing in a matter of minutes. Nathan and Buck maneuvered JD closer to the heat hoping to keep the erratically awakening sheriff from catching a cold.

Standish huddled next to the flame but into himself while Tanner once again watched the outside world from the periphery of the group.

Chris found himself repeating Standish’s earlier words,

"What binds me here is Penance, a vow, and strife,
In this darkest night at last all this I see.

I may not be as strong as I should be
I cannot wait for morning's light to go…"

The others heard the lines and listened. Standish wondered when Vin had shared his poem with the others. Tanner watched the rain beat the ground mercilessly and berated himself for ever sharing his inner most thoughts with the biggest mouth of the group.

Before the sun settled behind the horizon, most of the Seven had drifted off into a cold uncomfortable sleep. Bellies growled, men tossed and turned, and no snores rocked the night.

Lightening flashed the sky.

Chris stared up at the roof of the small cave. His smoldering anger fought to dominate his rational mind. He fisted his hands behind his head as he thought of reasons why the Judge felt compelled to lie to them about this undertaking. Did Travis just use them as bait? Used them as Buck had been used during his stint in the Rangers? As Chris had been lied to during the War? Were they manipulated and embarrassed like Maude was known to do to her own son on occasion? Were they simple diversions to cover up something else, like Vin had been in Tacosa, Texas?

Was there a remote possibility that the Judge himself had been fooled? If Judge Travis didn’t have confidence or trust in Larabee and his men, if he saw them only as fodder in a bigger scheme, then maybe Ezra was right…maybe it was time to Move on.

+ + + + + + +

They were up and moving before the sun rose. Heavy rain still showered the area. A cold wind picked up. Hunger and cold gnawed on the men. The six moved about in quiet coordinated movements. They had been on the trail long enough as a group to move about and get morning chores done without anyone giving orders.

No complaints filled the sound of rain beating the earth. The silence was deafening.

The seven mounted up and started toward Four Corner’s again.

JD rode with Josiah.

Vin rode ahead putting some distance from himself and the group. Larabee shadowed him tired of fighting his gelding. The straggly bay fought to lead, Chris let it go. Throughout the day the two men rode side by side. Occasionally, Larabee repeated the words he heard Ezra speak the day before….

"To change to "I" from what so long was "we" ...
A true soliloquy is not for show.

I leave you in this world - I don't belong ...
Wishing I were staying, could truth be known."

Vin listened to the words, listened to the lines and heard the meaning. He felt his anger boil…felt hurt, betrayed that the gambler could not keep from divulging a confidence that Vin had bestowed upon him.

The day wore on. Rain soaked through coats and shirts, legs chaffed against leather fenders. Fingers became raw and cold.

Standish found no solace in hiding in his coat.

Wilmington’s arm ached with increasing intensity.

Nathan watched the group before him and prayed none fell from their saddles before reaching town.

Like scouts leading a ragtag army home, Vin and Larabee rode side by side.

Through the gale type wind, amongst the whipping rain, Chris Larabee could not stop repeating the words that somehow touched a part of him he thought never existed.

Damn Gambler.

"I wish that I had known you when, as a child, I knew
That friends were all I'd need to build my life.

But whether thoughts of then or now hold true,
The thought of staying pierces like a knife.

The point is that to stay here is not life,
It's fighting to be what you think I should be

What binds me here is Penance, a vow, and strife,"

All day Tanner listened to his words get repeated back to him. His anger slowly melted away. As rivulets of rain water coursed down his back and over his chest, irritating and chilling him, Tanner listened as Chris Larabee constantly spoke his words over and over again.

"Cowboy, what’re ya sayin’ over there?" Tanner finally found he needed to know Larabee’s opinion.

"Poem I heard," Chris answered. Night would catch them well before they’d reach Four Corners. "Think we’ll make Nettie’s by night fall?"

Vin hesitated, looked to the sky and then the trail. He sat quietly for a moment, considering his options. They’d make Nettie’s. What if Chris thought the poem was stupid? What if he thought poetry was dumb? Certainly not very tough.


Larabee nodded and once again the lines from a verse spilled out,

"A true soliloquy is not for show.
I leave you in this world - I don't belong ..."

"You like that poem or something?" Tanner questioned raising an eyebrow when Larabee turned to look at him. " I mean ya been spoutin’ it all day."

Chris rode quietly for a few paces. The leather creaked loudly because of the incessant moisture. His feet were cold, his head still ached miserably and his stomach was not far behind. If he could turn in his saddle without getting dizzy, he would see the rest of his men, battered and abused just like himself.

All because a man they trusted might not have trusted them.

He gazed over at Tanner. Did he like the poem? It fit. It fit his mood, his mindset and how he felt…but did he like it?

"Yeah I guess I do…heard Ezra mumblin’ it the other day…lookin’ pretty pathetic…seemed to fit."

Tanner nodded a smile and chuckled rolled forth. The tracker turned in his saddle and looked over his shoulder at the gambler. Standish sat curled in his saddle, hat and clothes plastered to his body. "He does look pretty pathetic don’t he?" Vin chuckled out…sure Standish looked like a drenched alley cat, but better still, Ezra hadn’t knowingly betrayed Vin’s trust. Hell, Ezra hadn’t even claimed it as his own, didn’t even seek to make a profit…What had that Jock Steele fella called them…Copy Rights or something? Point was, Ezra never claimed the poems as his, never once said he made them up. The others over heard him talking to himself. He was known to do that at time, Vin had to concede, mutter to himself when he was put out or put upon. Vin let a coy smile slip across his face. Maybe tellin’ Ezra his poems weren’t such a bad idea after all? Just wish he weren’t so good at remembering things…woulda been nice to keep his poems a bit of a secret. Heck what if the others hear’im and don’t like what Ezra’s mumbling about?

Ezra just couldn’t keep his dribbling mouth shut. Man had diarrhea of the mouth. But ya can’t blame a snake for biting ya if ya try to feed it with yer hand….Or so Vin heard tell.

Vin turned back around in his saddle and slowly aimed them toward Mz. Nettie’s place. A pleased grin spread when he heard Chris, once again repeat the lines of his poem.

+ + + + + + +

The Seven men rode over the last hill and down into Mz Nettie’s field. Though the horses did not recognize the little homestead or small barn with abutting corrals, the horses did pick up on their rider’s excitement.

The drizzle had, once again, picked up into a true rain. Riders and horses alike hung their heads as rain beat down upon them.

"Jist a little further son," Josiah tried to rally the young man to hold on a little longer. Sanchez’s arms burned with exertion. The slumping weight of Dunne had started to overtax him miles ago.

Vin rode holding an arm wrapped tightly around his midsection. The tracker gave no other indication that he had received any injury during his initial capture after the train wreck or subsequent run in with a stray piece of dynamite; let alone jumping from a moving train to begin with. He struggled and kept his seat straight in the saddle out of pride, and knowing Nathan had his hands full with the others.

Nathan surveyed the group and knew the others were hurting, more than they let on.

For a moment, the healer felt a twinge of guilt. The others needed more care and attention than what he had bestowed upon them.

It faded somewhat, when JD slumped further in the saddle against Josiah’s broad forearm. These were proud men and would fight anyone who suggested otherwise.

Nathan watched as Larabee let a hand wander to his own forehead. The man’s dizziness and vertigo had yet to leave him. Probably had a hell of head ache and gut ache to match…like a bad hang over. There was no way Larabee would let Nathan treat him until the others were attended to first.

The guilt twinkled out when Jackson let his eyes course over Wilmington and the way the big man protected his left forearm from any unnecessary jarring. No one would touch Buck until JD was settled and cared for.

Nathan had not ignored any of their injuries, just respected their unspoken wishes.

A sneeze followed by a deep dry cough had the healer cringing. Standish’s eyes watered with every cough. Even through the rain, Nathan could see it. The low grade fever that had dogged the Southerner’s heels these past few days most definitely escalated in this weather. Though amongst the others, Ezra would be the first one to cry foul and want to rest, his pride kept him in his saddle. If the others could push themselves then so could he. His cold kept him quiet.

Nathan smiled appreciating the strength and courage of his companions.

Sanchez rode, perhaps the least physically injured but the most in need of healing. The big man unconsciously embraced the young sheriff, finding solace in his ability to protect and shelter one of their group.

With single minded determination, Vin and Chris led their group down the greening sloping hill into Mz. Nettie’s yard.

Nathan hoped the tenacious old widow had enough supplies and room to house them all.

Part 15

"You jist put him right in Casey’s bed," Nettie’s tough authoritative voice gave direction and necessary commands, to a group of weary men too tired to think for themselves. "Don’t pay no never mind about taking yer boots off…jist git the boy settled…..Casey, girl, go get more towels."

A rough, dry, cough had the old homesteader turning her attention to the gambler, "git out of them wet boots and git yaself in front of that fire…Don’t give me no lip ya fool. It’s jist as easy to ring yer bell with a skillet than listen to ya spout off yer high falutin’ vocabulary."

Buck chuckled as he gingerly leaned over in a chair and tried to peel a wet boot off with the toe of his other boot.

"You best keep your mouth shut Mr. Wilmington, got enough left in my swing to take two of ya down."

"Yes ma’am."

"You waitin’ for a special invitation, Mr. Larabee?" The old woman turned her unremitting attention on the blond gunslinger. It worked. Chris sat heavily in one of her kitchen chairs and gripped the side of the table for support. After a bit, the white knuckle grip gave way and he started trying to pull a wet boot off with the toe of his other foot.

"Should I be gittin’ my old Spencer Carbine primed and ready?" The old frontier’s woman spied a close look at the bedraggled group of men that slumped over her kitchen furniture.

"No ma’am," Vin hobbled through the door still holding tight to his midsection. The horses were settled. Easier doin’ it himself than with everyone fumbling around in the small barn bumping into one another…

"What happened to you?"

"Don’t pay me no mind Ms. Nettie," Vin spoke in his calm pacifying manner, "Its Ezra and Buck and the others ya need be concerned about."

"Oh and why’s that?"

"Well, Josiah over there," Vin smirked a little, "dropped Ole Ezra over the side of a cliff into the river up over yonder…where it cuts through Kettle’s Canyon."

Nettie Wells scrutinized both Sanchez and Standish. "Runnin’ a bit fast this time of year for a swim, don’t ya think Mr. Standish? Or did your alligator mouth finally git your tadpole behind in more trouble than it could get out of?"

The gambler shot her a tired bloodshot look and started coughing. He rolled his shoulders inward as he placed a fisted hand in front of his mouth all the while fighting to keep his gaze on the stern old woman. Lord help him…out of the fire and into the fire pit. Staying with Mz. Nettie…might as well be communing with Puritans.

She ignored the overtired fiery stare, "Got something that might ease that cough of yours."

The pitiful attempt of, "Dear Lord," from the gambler brought both Mz Nettie’s eyebrows closer to her hair line.

"He done lost his voice when he got that cold of his," Tanner didn’t bother hiding his chuckle. "Ain’t all he lost either, most of his hide’s gone under that coat and shirt of his." Tanner winked at the gambler enjoying Ezra’s discomfort at being spoken about.

"No voice?…Praise the Lord for small favors," This earned chuckles around the room and one scowl. "Still I got somethin’ that’ll take the chill out of them bones of yours, Mr. Standish jist hold on a moment."

Ezra merely dipped his head and turned his attention back to the fire. He would get even with Mr. Tanner in due time.

"And Buck over there, busted his arm in the train wreck." Vin figured the more injuries he disclosed the more likely they would ignore him and leave him to his own devices. "Then damn near got’imself blown up with a stick of dynamite." Tanner warmed up to his role, "don’t think he’s all there either, been acting kind of lame brain if ya get my meanin’.

"Train wreck?" Nettie turned and surveyed the ragged group of men gathered in her kitchen, "dynamite?"

"Long story," Buck answered. He nailed the tracker with a leery glance. Lame brain? I’ll give that little SOB lamebrain…

"Got a long night ahead of me, if I’m any judge of the boy’s appearance," Nettie pinned Wilmington with a no nonsense glare of her own as she referred to JD’s slumped form in the arms of Nathan when he had scrambled through her front door only minutes ago. The healer had yet to exit Casey’s room.

"And Chris he done dinged up his head when he took on a man on a horse with a gun and an attitude to match his own," Tanner offered a toothy grin to the old homemaker. He wasn’t done by half. Way things were looking up he’d be eating supper and sleeping without anyone poking and prodding at him.

"I see you didn’t escape unscathed," Nettie put a pot on her stove.

"Ain’t nuthin’," Tanner eased himself stiffly down into a kitchen chair when she had her backed turned.

"I saw that Mr. Tanner," she spouted without looking up from what she was doing at the stove, "ain’t foolin’ no one but yaself."

Both Buck and Ezra shot dirty looks to Tanner though matching twin grins lit their faces. Tanner just got found out. Mz. Nettie don’t miss much.

"You boys knock it off or I’ll git my skillet out," She stirred the liquid in the pot with a wooden spoon and then slid a sly gaze over to the unusually subdued preacher.

Casey bopped into the room with an arm full of coarse towels. "This is all we had Aunt Nettie."

"It’ll do girl," Nettie grabbed a cup and poured some of the liquid from the pot into it, "come here girl and give this to Mr. Standish…and one of those blankets…that thin Southern blood of his don’t like this cold weather we been havin’."

Casey took the cup of hot milk and handed it to the gambler, "Warm milk’ll chase that chill from ya and make ya feel better." Nettie repeated pulling flour and sugar from her shelves. The boys looked like they could use a meal.

"Mother," Ezra smiled appreciatively as he fought to get the words out, "used to on occasion give me warm milk as a boy." With fond memories of staying in saloons with his mother, the gambler took a sip of the coveted beverage closing his eyes to revel in the taste and special memories brought on by it.

The liquid hit his tongue and the taste registered. He spewed it out before he could stop himself. He coughed and gagged, eyes watered, and he stuttered to cover his ill manners.

The stuff was horrid.

Nothing like mother gave him at the saloons.

"My God," he croaked out, "the poor beast who offered this up must be dead." His voice faded in a crackling whisper. He desperately searched for a place to dump out the nightmarish elixir. Good Lord Mr. Tanner’s motherly figure tried to poison him.

Nettie furrowed her brow and sipped a sample from her wooden spoon from the pot on the stove. It tasted just fine to her.

Sanchez stood up and reached out for the cup. Ezra gladly gave it up.

"Maude used to give you warm milk as boy…a treat…in a saloon?" the preacher clarified.

Ezra furrowed his brow but merely nodded. One of the few unasked or solicited acts of gentleness his mother bestowed on him. It always filled him with warmth. He hugged the borrowed blanket tighter around his shoulders.

Josiah merely nodded and turned to Nettie and whispered in her ear. The old lady squinted her eyes at the gambler and then nodded her head to whatever the preacher was saying.

Nathan entered the kitchen just then and faced the others, "Got JD settled. He’s gonna be alright, just need to take it slow with him for a day or two…git him back to town into his own bed and git him rested up…he’ll be fine." Jackson surveyed the whole group. They all could use some rest…a few good solid nights sleep, and true meals. They were tired.

"Alright, Ezra, try this," Josiah handed the cup back to the gambler. The man stretched from the wood fire, unwilling to move his feet, afraid to give up his place by the heat.

He took the cup tentatively. Mr. Sanchez did drop him from the face of the cliff…And he himself had once insulted Mz. Nettie…though not truly on purpose…the very thought of giving money away, at times, ruffled his thinking. He eyed the cup and then the other two who waited side by side for him to drink.

With an air of great hesitancy, but trying to show good faith, Standish slowly raised the steaming cup to his lips.

The others watched as the gambler took a tentative sip from the cup. Vin and Chris shared an inquisitive look when Standish’s face lit up.

Just like Maude had made.

"Taste like what your mother gave you, son?" Nettie watched as the Southerner up ended the cup and finished it off. He handed the empty cup back to the preacher while wiping the white mustache from his face. "I take that as a yes…another one?"

The gambler let his eyes rove around the room quickly before hesitantly nodding an affirmative. To ask for seconds when none had even had first was not exactly polite.

The warm milk hit his empty stomach with a welcoming splash.

Nathan ignored the business between, Josiah, Nettie and Ezra and instead focused his attention on Vin, Buck and Chris. He shuffled the three men into the small living room and started treating them there.

Nettie sent Casey out to finish night chores. Vin offered to go but both Nettie and Nathan prevented it. The boyish pout on the tracker’s face might have worked if they hadn’t know him.

+ + + + + + +

Vin sat leaning cautiously against the back of the couch. He had his head tilted back and stared mutely at the beams of the ceiling. Tanner silently conceded that Nathan was right, wrapping his ribs did make them feel better. The dry warmth of clean bandages certainly went along way to improving the scratchy feel of a wet wool shirt. The raw cold that had settled on him slowly slid away.

Larabee positioned himself at the far end of the couch. He rested a cloth to his bleeding forehead. Vin had cringed when Nathan scrubbed it clean. Buck had thoughtfully relieved the gunslinger of his armaments before Nathan even started working on Larabee.

Better safe than sorry.

Both Larabee and Vin chortled and snorted when Wilmington tried to down play his injured arm, and offered to help the ladies in the kitchen. Jackson staunchly ignored him and shoved him none to gently into the only armchair in the room.

With each sharp intake of breath, each cringe and slightly raised leg from Wilmington, Chris and Vin goaded Nathan on and harassed Buck.

Josiah stood quietly in the kitchen watching the ever increasing flush crawl up Standish’s face. The gambler started to appear a little unsteady. Sanchez waited for warm milk to do its work as he listened to the shenanigans in the next room. A sure smile etched his features and he found his troubles lightening somewhat.

As Nathan finished re-affixing the splint around Buck’s arm, and dosing him carefully with Laudanum, Josiah walked into the room guiding a slightly unsteady Standish.

"Lay down here, brother." The preacher buckled one of Ezra’s knees and eased the gambler down on the rug. Chris tossed a couch pillow over, Josiah snagged it from the air without turning around. He placed it carefully under Ezra’s. "Lay still and I’ll git your bedroll."

The southerner needed no urging. The warm milk had seemed to seep into his muscles and sap him of his strength. A warm glow emanated from his belly and infused every part of him. The raw chill that had wracked his bones from the time he drew himself from the river finally faded away.

Josiah came back in and laid out the bed roll and cajoled the sleep drunk gambler under his blankets.

"What the hell you give him?" Buck asked fighting to keep his own eyes open. He could smell biscuits and gravy cooking in the next room and did not want to miss out. His stomach growled loudly in affirmation.

"Warm milk, like Maude use to give him."

"Ain’t never seen a cup or two of warm milk do that," Vin nodded fighting the same lethargy that pulled on Wilmington.

"Well, it would if it were more whiskey than milk," Nettie said from the entrance of the room.

Nathan, Chris and the others shared a look, "Damn." Vin softly intoned. Not sure whether to be awed or sorry.

Nettie turned back into the kitchen, "Dinners up boys, iffen ya want ta eat."

+ + + + + + +

Nettie Wells stood at the entrance of her bedroom and looked over her living space. Every square inch of flooring was covered with bedrolls and blankets. Snores rolled around the room vying for supremacy. The old woman found comfort in the company.

The Seven were special, each one of them in their own right, but more importantly as a group.

Nettie stepped back into her room and gently closed the door. Tomorrow morning she and Casey would be busy.

+ + + + + + +

"Git out of here," The fuzzy dark form kicked his leg in harsh premonition of what was to come if he did not move. "Go ta the barn, ain’t enough room in here for a runt like you." Another blow from the booted foot was enough to roll his leg over. Fever sensitive muscles complained and joints ached.

Standish sighed. A hot breathy moan coursed over dry chap lips. His eyes burned and his muscles ached. He did not have the strength nor the desire to fight. Not now, not tonight. He never won anyhow, no matter how many times he had used subterfuge. In the end, he had always lost. Tonight he had neither the urge nor the strength to put up much resistance.

The gambler rolled onto his stomach and pushed himself to all fours. He gathered his blankets and balled coat that doubled as his pillow. He stepped cautiously over other bodies that lay sprawled across the wood floor and headed for the side door. He took no time trying to figure out who those people were and why they earned a right to sleep indoors while he himself had been banished to the outer building. He blinked, his lids dragging in a course manner over eyes that were too hot.

The storm blew with raging intensity, shaking the house and pelting the windows with freezing rain. A thick blackness enveloped the area blotting any natural light from the hidden moon and stars.

Standish slipped his feet into his boots not bothering to fix the entangled pants legs. With a tired sigh, he slipped out the side door. A bitter chill gripped his frame. Fighting the wind and torrential rains, he walked grudgingly toward the barn.

The door was wrenched from his grasp and slammed against the barn’s side. A bank of thunder camouflaged the sound while a flash of lightning spotlighted his transgression. He threw a hasty look toward the dark silhouette of a house. No one came to the door to reprimand him. No threats or innuendos assaulted him from a blackened window. Fighting the wind, he struggled to get the door closed. Tremors clenched muscles painfully.

The sweet smell of molding hay filled the area. The horses moved about unsettled by this unusual intrusion. The gambler ignored them and instead shuffled toward a dry corner away from the managers and the shifting of nervous shod feet.

Wind howled over and around the barn.

He dropped a tarp to the ground, kicked off his boots and lay down covering himself with his blanket. A chill rocked through him forcing him to curl inward and trap body heat. His two thin blankets would not be enough. With some trepidation, he snared a few horse blankets from off wooden saw horses and draped them over his shoulders.

The gambler lay balled on his side and listened to the wind. It whipped over and around the wooden barn, whistling when it found a rent in the wood seams. The horses moved about with in their standing stalls shifting hay and straw with their feet.

The gambler ignored all that around him and instead focused tired burning eyes on the slow dissolution of area before him. He watched with some amazement at the unfolding scene before him. But somehow it made sense.

With fuzzy, graying vision, he watched as the King of Hearts danced and swirled the Queen of Clubs around a marble ballroom. Her silken strands waved and billowed from her headdress fluttering with a whimsical air. The floors reflected their persons as clear as a mirror. The Queen’s laughter tickled the air as she dipped and spun ever so gracefully but mindful of the suicide sword in the King’s head. The Queen of Hearts sat off to the side holding her hands to her face, her shoulders trembling as if in tears. Ezra blinked and watched and thought perhaps someone should speak to the crying Queen. It seemed wrong for such a fair lady to be in sad spirits. He found, however, that no one dare come to the young Card’s plight for the Queen of Spades lorded over her from a distance with the King of Diamonds on her hand. Cruel cards, Ezra had thought. Not easily manipulated because they were so well recognized. The Ace of Spades would surely come to the rescue. The light laughter of the Queen of Clubs drowned out all other sounds. Her elegant spins and graceful dips, tugged his tired eyes toward the dancing pair. She twirled and skipped under the masterful guidance of the King of Hearts. She ran her hands along the hilt of the sword embedded in his head, careful not to jostle it.

Ezra watched them closing his eyes. Even with them closed, with eyes heating with each passing moment, he watched the cards dance, heard the tears and wished the Ace of Spades would rescue the lonely heart. But alas the mighty Ace of Spades hid amongst the shadows and emptied others’ pockets. Uncaring and unconcerned of the desolate Heart.

Ezra watched the ball. Enjoyed the dance and the nonsensical delight of the Queen of Clubs that drifted long into the night.


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