DISCLAIMER: I own none of the characters which appear in the TV series "The Magnificent Seven" but this is a non-profit venture and thus I respectfully ask that no one litigates against me.
WARNINGS: The actual violence will only be moderate but this story is going to deal with some very heavy issues, up to and including the death of children. It will also contain some adult concepts but nothing explicit. Some mild to moderate swearing (but hopefully all within context).
COMMENTS: This is a sequel to my previous fic, "Wages of Sin", and is set approximately one year later. This sequel predominantly contains h/c, sap and two generations worth of Standish parent-child angst (yeah, you know who is in town).
MAIN CHARACTERS: Ezra, Inez, Maude, OFC
UNIVERSE: Old West
Just when we are safest, theres a sunset-touch,
A fancy from a flower-bell, someones death,
A chorus-ending from Euripides, -
And thats enough for fifty hopes and fears
As old and new at once as Natures self,
To rap and knock and enter in our soul.
Bishop Blougrams Apology
Inez Roscios was surprised to find herself awake at approximately 4 oclock in the morning. Not usually reaching her bed until the saloon closed some time after midnight and needing to rise around dawn to make preparations for the days business, she usually slept soundly through the intervening hours.
It took her a few seconds to realise what had woken her. The familiar source of warmth beside her was considerably hotter than usual and he was mumbling softly in his sleep. She raised herself up onto one elbow and used her other hand to gently shake his shoulder.
"Ezra?" Her hand instinctively drew back when it detected just how much heat was radiating from his body. Alarm stirred in her as she leaned over him and laid a hand along his cheek. "Querido, youre burning up!"
He muttered incoherently again as she lightly slapped his face.
"Come on, Ezra. Wake up!"
Finally he roused slightly, "What?"
"Ezra, youve got a fever!"
"And you woke me to tell me that?" He rolled away from her murmuring, "Just let me sleep." Then he began to cough violently.
"Ezra!" She was really worried now.
"Leave me alone," he gasped when the coughing fit subsided. His voice was weak but the irritability in it was still audible. Hed been in a surly mood for almost a week, ever since his mother had arrived, and there was no reason that his temper should improve now that he was also unwell.
"Im getting the doctor!"
Apparently he hadnt heard that because he only mumbled again, and such suggestions usually provoked vehement protests. Inez scrambled out of bed and into some clothes.
She felt his forehead one more time. It was still burning but he shivered under her touch and moaned softly in protest.
"Ill be back soon, querido," she assured him as she left the room.
Maybe, it would be better to try Nathan first, rather than Doc Elliott. Not only was he knowledgeable about medical matters but he had spent most of the past few days in Ezras company. He might have a better idea of what was going on. There had been an illness amongst the people of the Seminole village which Ezra, Nathan and Josiah had been visiting over the past few days. Didnt they say that some of those people had died?
Guilt mingled with her fear. She knew that it was predominantly out of pique that Ezra gone with Nathan and Josiah. To escape from what he described as a conspiracy to persecute him conducted by the three significant females in his life.
Inez hadnt meant to be unsympathetic but sometimes Ezra could be downright childish in his petulance. And he had once directed her to curb spoiled behaviour in Angelica, so she certainly wasnt going to let him get away with any. But he had not taken kindly to her criticism and it had begun to drive a wedge between them.
Maybe that was why she had failed to consider that genuine illness might be contributing to his irritability. Now every unkind word that she had uttered over the past week bit back at her.
Lost in these thoughts, she almost collided with Angelica as the child stepped out from her room into the corridor.
"Whats wrong?" Angelica asked, rubbing sleep from her eyes.
"Its alright, mi nina. Go back to bed. Ill tell you about it in the morning."
"Is Father alright?"
As if on cue, the sound of violent coughing could again be heard emanating from the room Inez had just left. Inez couldnt help casting a worried glance in that direction before she turned back to Angelica.
"Go back to bed! Ill be back soon and well talk about it then." She took hold of the childs shoulders, turned her around and gently propelled her into her room with a light push.
As Inez ran lightly down the stairs, Angelica poked her head around the door again. After ensuring that she would not be observed, she walked over to the door of the room where Ezra and Inez slept and stood contemplating the barrier for a few moments. Not only had Inez just told her to go back to bed but she was also forbidden to enter this particular room without getting permission first (ever since she had once walked in to find her father kissing Inez along her neck and shoulder with both of them only half-dressed).
But she was almost desperate to see him. He hadnt come to say "Goodnight" to her last night. It was the first time since he had adopted her, that he had failed to do so unless he was out of town.
She knew that he was a bit angry with her. Since her grandmother had come to visit, Angelica had spent most of her time with her. Her father was always around. Grandmother only usually visited for a few days at a time and she told such wonderful stories. But she shouldnt have left Father on his own and she shouldnt have laughed when Grandmother told funny stories about him. And she really shouldnt have laughed when he got back to town yesterday even though he did look really funny.
But maybe if she said she was sorry and was really good, he would forgive her.
Finally, the shouting from outside his door managed to wake Ezra again.
He groaned into his pillow. He really didnt have the energy or inclination to deal with this now. He was exhausted but he found it hard to sleep when he felt so hot and short of breath. And his throat was raw from those recent episodes of coughing.
Ezra rolled over to ask Inez to deal with whatever the problem was but apart from himself, the bed was empty. Typical! Where the Hell had she got to?
"What?" he shouted back and the effort sent him into another fit of coughing.
Angelica at least had the courtesy to wait until that had ceased before she shouted her question. "Can I come in?"
"No! Go back to bed!"
She had been content to virtually ignore him for almost a week and now she wanted to see him? Well, hard luck! Right now, all he wanted to do was go back to sleep. If only he could get his breath back.
The past week had been almost unremittingly unenjoyable. Angelica and Inez conspiring with his mother to torment him, followed by all that had happened in the Seminole village and now he felt really quite awful.
He remembered saying to Nathan yesterday, "Tommorrow simply has to be better."
So far, it didnt look promising.
Ezra had to admit that despite some relatively minor discontentments and disappointments, the current year had been one of the happiest that he could remember. And he couldnt deny that most of the gratifications stemmed from the presence of Inez and Angelica in his life.
The previous year had been truly calamitous towards its conclusion. Angelica and he mother, Teresa, had sought refuge in Four Corners but within a few months, an old enemy of Teresas had discovered and brutally murdered her. Several other friends had been injured in the conflict (JD had also nearly lost his life) and Ezra himself still limped slightly where his left leg had been broken during the final battle with Teresas killer (although, Nathan told him that the limp was now caused mostly by his mind rather than his leg).
His decision to adopt Angelica had been so easily made that it had almost seemed automatic. Even before her mothers death they had become inseparable friends and he felt somewhat responsible for failing to prevent Teresas murder. But to secure the adoption, Judge Travis had blackmailed him into undertaking respectable employment as a filing clerk at the Town Hall.
Ezra had agreed to it with every intention getting himself dismissed from the job at the first opportunity. However, hed actually held onto the job for considerably longer than he had originally planned. He had found that strangers in town were much more willing to play poker with an office clerk relaxing at the end of the day than with a professional gambler and kept up the practice for over six months. Hed even invested in some appropriate somber gray suits to complete the image.
However, despite this little unexpected bonus, hed never been content with the lifestyle a predictable stream of paper to be collated and catalogued, no imaginative input, no flexibility in working hours. In a word, drudgery. So when Bernard Woolley had arrived in Four Corners, Ezra had contrived for the young man to replace him.
Woolley had been an accountant for one of the railroad companies but had been made redundant when the company had run into financial difficulties. Having moved his family out west and suddenly finding himself without a job, the man was desperate and had approached Ezra as he left the Town Hall one evening, to inquire about work opportunities in the town. He was quite overwhelmed when Ezra almost immediately concocted and then enacted a scheme to arrange his own dismissal on the grounds of incompetence and get Woolley hired as his replacement. Judge Travis had been extremely suspicious but there had been nothing he could do.
So Ezra returned to his previous lifestyle - playing poker at the saloon, some short trips out to nearby towns for more lucrative games, occasional law-keeping duties and assisting Inez in her work whenever she could persuade him into it. Although hed never admit it to her, it was really the least he could do to recompense her for all of her help with looking after Angelica (not to mention everything else she did for him).
Ezra found living with Inez and Angelica a constant challenge (each had a ready wit and an independent nature) but there was no way in Hell hed ever opt for an easier existence. Although he and Inez argued frequently, even the most cynical observer could not doubt that they were devoted to each other or that they both doted on the child. And, to tell truth, when he sat back and contemplated what his life had become, Ezra often found himself teetering on the brink of an almost ludicrous degree of euphoria.
However, he had recently entered a discontented phase which had commenced with the arrival of his mother. This was not exactly surprising. Although he loved her dearly, over the years he had discovered that any significant length of time spent in Maudes company was challenging, if not outright detrimental, to his self-esteem.
In virtually all of the talents he prided himself in, she had an even greater degree of proficiency. Gambling, business administration, the art of profitable persuasion - he reluctantly acknowledged that she remained the master and he the apprentice. But he had thought that, at least in the area of dealing with children, he might hold some small degree of superiority.
Thus he had been considerably disconcerted by how quickly she had befriended Angelica. He would never have believed that Maude would take to grandmotherhood so well.
He distinctly remembered the day he had formulated the telegram to notify her that he had adopted Angelica. Josiah had accompanied him to the telegraph office and Ezra had said to him, "I am not entirely sure which I am anticipating more eagerly, advising her that I am about to undertake reputable employment or informing her that she is about to become a grandmother."
However, he had received her reply telegram the next day and she had arrived in Four Corners less than a week later.
Maude now visited him more often than he could ever recall her doing in the past and, from the very outset, she had spoiled and flattered Angelica, lavishing care and consideration on the child in a way he had never seen before. (She had certainly never shown any such attentiveness to him when he was a child.) And while Inez diligently watched Ezra to ensure that he didnt spoil his daughter with overindulgence, she ruthlessly turned a blind eye to Maude doing so. He found that he couldnt compete for the attention of either his daughter or his mother (and truthfully, he wasnt sure which of the two he was more jealous of).
Three days ago, he had finally felt compelled to point out the inconsistency to Inez but she had been unrepentant. It had started as a quiet conversation behind the bar and ended as a shouting match with a half-full saloon as an audience. Inez had a classic Latin temper which was quite easily fired up.
"It was you, yourself, who told me to make sure you didnt spoil Angelica! Here in this very room!"
"And you were determined to criticize my abilities as father anyway. Dont pretend that it was any great sacrifice! And anyway, you never criticize Mother about the way she indulges the child."
"That is different! Grandparents are allowed to indulge children. It is your job to make sure she is raised properly, not your mothers!"
"So she can flatter and bribe my daughter as much as she likes, and I have to just stand back and watch?"
"Yes, Ezra! That is the way things are!" She cast a angry gaze over their rapt audience before bringing the conversation to an abrupt end. "I am not going to argue with you anymore. There are things I need to do in the kitchen." And with that she had stormed out.
Ezra fumed silently for a moment before he realised that he was still being scrutinized by everyone in the room. "Thank you, everyone! The show is over for today!"
Buck tried to offer an encouraging smile. "Hey, dont worry about it, Ezra! Inez always ends fights like that. She used to do the same thing to me."
Ezra knew he meant well but everything and everyone in Four Corners had begun to irritate him. Even the saloon no longer felt comfortable. It no longer felt like home. He was beginning to feel isolated from all those close to him and just about the last thing he needed now was a reminder that Buck and Inez had once shared an intimate relationship.
It was then that he remembered a potential escape route.
"How long ago did Nathan and Josiah leave for the Seminole village?"
Buck looked at him quizzically, "About an hour ago. Josiah stopped by to thank JD and Casey for looking after the orphans while hes gone. Why?"
"Well, I thought I might join them. I havent seen the village for a while."
JD gazed at him in astonishment. "We were all there last month for Nathans wedding!"
That was indeed true but Ezra wasnt going to let it impede his plan for a few days of sanctuary. "Yes, and itll be amazin to see how much things have changed since then. Gentlemen, would you be so kind as to inform Inez, as well as my mother and daughter, that I have decided to accompany Nathan and Josiah on their errand of mercy?"
And thus he departed, bitterly reflecting that if Angelica, Maude and Inez were so happy in each others company they could easily do without his.
Nathan and Josiah had been quite surprised to see Ezra join them but they hadnt questioned his motives too closely. Although he had little expertise in caring for illness, they knew they could use all the help they could get.
Since his marriage to Rain, an ex-slave who had been more or less raised in the Seminole village, Nathan now considered that village his home. But he still traveled between there, other local Indian reservations and Four Corners to conduct his work as a healer. He had been in town when he had received word that several of the Seminole people had been stricken with a febrile illness, and had immediately headed home to deal with the epidemic, accompanied first by Josiah, followed by Ezra..
When the three of them reached the village, Ezra was alarmed to learn that Nikkanoochee and his mother were among the seriously ill. The boy, now approximately ten years old, had been a friend since they had worked together, creating decoy mannequins to help defend the village against Colonel Anderson all those years ago.
Nikkanoochee had hardly been the most forward and enthusiastic of the children that Ezra had met that day and the gambler had often wondered if his reticence was in some part due to his mixed Seminole-Negro blood. Nikkanoochees Seminole father had died a year before Anderson had attacked the village. And although an effort had been made to still welcome the child and his ex-slave mother, Ezra had no doubt that Nikkanoochee was aware that he differed from the other children around him. Perhaps that was why he and Ezra had become such firm friends. It was easy for the gambler to identify with someone who felt somewhat outcast in such a close-knit community.
Without hesitation, Ezra had gone to the side of the suffering child. Josiah and Nathan had been more than content to let him do so. Although this left them to look after the majority of the sick without his help, they knew that Nikkanoochee was at least one person that Ezra (medically unskilled as he was) would be able to give comfort to.
Nikkanoochee was already very weak and occasionally delirious but he smiled in recognition when Ezra sat down beside him. Gently sponging the childs face with a damp cloth, as he had often observed Nathan and others do, Ezra began to tell him stories, adapting into a Seminole context several tales from a Hans Christian Andersen anthology which he had recently purchased for Angelica.
It was easy for Ezra to lose himself in the both the task and the narrative. Although Nikkanoochee was predominantly unresponsive, in his waking moments, Ezra had his undivided attention (exactly what he had been unable to obtain from his own daughter over the past few days). He was unaware how much time had passed and was quite surprised to discover that night had fallen when Nathan arrived with some tragic news.
Ezra looked up at his approach, "You look exhausted, Nathan. How are the other patients?"
Nathan cast a quick glance at the now sleeping child before returning his gaze to Ezra, "Most look like they might be turnin the corner but we just lost another one."
Ezra felt a chill at his words. "Who?"
Nathan nodded sadly at Nikkanoochee. "His mama passed away a few minutes ago."
"What will happen to boy now?"
Nathan heard the worry in his voice and tried to reassure him. "The rest of the village will care for him. Hes still one of us."
"Of course," Ezra nodded although he doubted it.
But he could scarcely voice those doubts aloud. Nathan had an innate faith in the compassion and generosity of certain people, including this group of Seminole Indians. From the outset, the black healer had been considerably impressed by the way they had taken in runaway ex-slaves, like himself, to become in their own words "one tribe". And by marrying Rain, Nathan had truly become a part of that tribe and come to espouse much of their philosophy.
Ezra knew that Nathan himself had a seemingly boundless capacity for compassion and generosity. (He himself had been a beneficiary of it on more than one occasion.) But he didnt think that Nathan appreciated Nikkanoochees true position. The boy was something of an outsider already. Without his mother, what would be left for him here? He needed a family, like any other child, to personally see to his care and protection. The idea instantly arose, how difficult would it be to adopt him?
It might be more difficult to persuade Judge Travis into assisting him, this time. After all, the judge was probably still somewhat disgruntled about the way Ezra had vacated the clerking job which had been a prerequisite for him to adopt Angelica. And how would Angelica herself react? She was quite used to being his main focus of attention. How would she take to sharing it with another child? Ezra had to admit that idea of provoking just a touch of jealousy in her, held a vague appeal.
"Ezra?" Nathan had pitched his voice to a gentle persuasive tone and Ezra looked up again with slight suspicion.
"Youre pretty exhausted yself. Come have a bite teat with me an Josiah, then get some sleep."
"I dont think he should be left alone." Ezras voice contained no anger, as he looked down at Nikkanoochee, but Nathan immediately knew that there was no point in arguing.
Ezras eyes narrowed behind the black healers retreating back. He knew Nathans stubbornness as well as Nathan knew his. Such easy acquiescence was very uncharacteristic. Nathan would soon be back for the second round and obviously thought he had some kind of ace up his sleeve.
He startled slightly when Nikkanoochee called softly for his mother. His mind sent forth a painful echo from the dim distant past. Another mother who wouldnt come to her child when he called but this time it was because she was absolutely unable to do so.
Knowing himself to be a poor substitute, Ezra leaned down and spoke gently to the boy. "Its alright, Nikkanoochee. Im right here."
He flinched slightly when the child coughed directly in his face but didnt draw back, wiping Nikkanoochees forehead with the damp cloth again as he tried to sooth his unrest.
"Everythin will be alright. I promise you."
At least Nikkanoochee stopped coughing and had drifted back to sleep by the time Nathan returned, accompanied by a Seminole woman Ezra was only vaguely acquainted with.
"Come on now, Ezra. Opalocka will look after her nephew. You need a break."
It was only then that Ezra recollected that Opalocka was the sister of Nikkanoochees dead father. Not surprising that he should forget, he could not recall one instance of her spending time with Nikkanoochee or his mother, during any of his visits to the village. Another relative to be burdened with a child which they had no particular reason to care for. Not this time Ezra vowed, not if he could help it.
But when Opalocka smiled gently at him and promised to tell him if there was any change in Nikkanoochees condition, he allowed Nathan to lead him out to join him and Josiah at the fireside.
The preacher also looked bone weary but still greeted Ezra with a smile, as he handed him a bowl of food. Ezra thanked him then slumped down and began eating, both too tired and too preoccupied to try and make conversation. But Nathan had already noticed his unease and sat down beside him.
"Hes not gonna be left alone. His aunt and the rest of us will take care of him."
"Being taken in by relatives does not necessarily constitute a home or family." Ezra muttered more to himself than to Nathan.
But Nathan caught it and his suspicion heightened. "Ezra, what exactly are ya thinkin?" he asked sternly.
Ezra tried to evade the inquisition. "That the night is cold, this food is warm and that I am about ready to succumb to the spell of Morpheus."
Josiah smiled, "Yeah, you do look tired."
Ezra sighed and inwardly chided himself. In his effort to deflect Nathans prying, hed admitted his fatigue. Between them, these two would probably soon have him nicely tucked up in bed. He must be exhausted to have left such an opening available but it was still worth making half an effort to divert the attention.
"Well Nathan, at least you can worry a little less about the cold. Rain can help keep you warm tonight."
Despite himself, Nathan smiled bashfully like a love-struck schoolboy. "Dunno, Ezra. Dont think Ill be gettin much sleep tonight."
"Arent you ashamed to leave your wife cold and alone on your first night home?" If he could keep the focus on Nathan, Ezra thought that he might actually begin to enjoy this little skirmish.
"Rain understands about it, Ezra." Nathan explained then neatly executed his own deflection. "So, when are ya gonna do the right thing by Inez?"
Ezra bristled. Discussing his own personal life was definitely not on the agenda. "I wasnt aware that I was doin the wrong thing by Inez."
Seeing the blood drawn, Nathan pushed home his advantage "So ya just plan to keep on takin advantage of her the way ydo?"
Ezra was aware that the comment was only playful sparring (which he himself had more or less instigated) but still found himself becoming really irritated. "Takin advantage of her?"
"Well, what do you call it?" Nathan asked him, with a sly smile.
That was it! Hed really had enough. Even after having left Maude and Inez back in Four Corners, he was still getting harassed about the way he was running his life.
He gave Nathan a cold stare. "I dont think that I need to give you a label for or a description of what exists between Inez and myself. The relationship is perfectly satisfactory in the form it exists in now, thank you very much! But its really none of your business anyway. Furthermore, it was years before you and Rain formalized your union with any form of ceremony, so a little less hypocrisy would be greatly appreciated."
He then turned on Josiah, before the preacher could offer any advice of his own. "And until you make an offer to my mother of the security of matrimony, the same goes for you." He had to admit that he rather enjoyed the surprised look on Josiahs face. Did the pair of them honestly think he didnt know what happened every time Maude visited Four Corners?
Ezra stood. "Well gentlemen, I hope you have a most pleasant evenin but for myself, Morpheus awaits."
With that he turned and walked off to find somewhere to lay his head for the night.
There was no point in trying to fight Opalocka for the vigil by Nikkanoochees sickbed.
So, sleep seemed the only satisfactory option.
It was still profoundly dark when Ezra was woken by someone roughly shaking his shoulder. The hand shaking him was substantially larger than average so he didnt need to hear the voice to identify Josiah.
"Cmon, Ezra, wake up. We need your help."
"What?" Ezra was unable to fathom what could have possibly happened at this ridiculous hour of the morning.
"Let me put it another way. Your urgent assistance is required."
"Most amusin. Just tell me what catastrophe has occurred." A sudden fear gripped him and he sat bolt upright, grabbing Josiahs arm. "Nikkanoochee?"
"Hes no worse," Josiah reassured him, "Opalockas still with him."
"But no better either?"
"Not really, no. But we do need your help with something else. Nathan saw some intruders down near the goat pen. Thinks its Harry Blackwood and some of his friends."
"Oliver Blackwoods son? What the hell are they doin here?"
Blackwood was a rather tyrannical patriarch who owned one of the larger sheep properties to the east of Four Corners. Ezra couldnt imagine why young Harry might venture all this way in the middle of the night.
"Villagers say they were here a few weeks ago but when they were confronted, the boys killed some of the chickens then ran off."
"So what do you hope we are going to achieve?"
"Well, I reckon if they suddenly found them selves facing you, me and Nathan, they might not be so belligerent."
Ezra could see the logic of the strategy but still felt compelled to protest. "What possesses a rabble of teenagers to travel all this way (they must have left yesterday) just to make a nuisance of themselves, at a time when no one with any sense would contemplate leavin their beds?"
"I suspect that the lads in question havent seen their own beds for several days and that theres more than a little liquor involved."
Ezra groaned as he climbed to his feet and pulled on his coat. "Wonderful! That should render them particularly amenable to receivin our advice."
Josiah grinned at him and clapped him on the shoulder as he led the way out. "Cmon."
The sky was beginning to brighten in the east, as they silently made their way to where Nathan was watching the youthful invaders. There were four of them and, as Josiah had said, they were all well liquored. So far, they had not harmed any of the livestock but were rather awkwardly trying to release the goats from their pen and not being particularly successful because the youngsters themselves stood blocking the exit.
Ezra stared, fascinated by the drunken ineptitude on display. "Im not certain that we really need to intervene," he whispered to the other two, "From what I can see, these lads will be lucky to be able to put one foot in front of the other, let alone cause any serious damage."
Nathan glanced at him. "They need a lesson. Need tlearn they cant go round hurtin folks or their property, just cos theyre bored or somethin."
Ezra sighed. "And thus we find ourselves designated instructors?"
Josiah grinned. "Yeah, that about sums it up."
"Well, you go first." Ezra gestured with his hand. "After all, you are the most physically imposin'."
Josiah was still grinning as he nodded and preceded the other two down to the goat pen. He stopped approximately five feet behind them and, raising one arm towards heaven, he pointed the other at the boys (he could be quite theatrical when he wanted to be).
"My children," he pronounced in his most deep booming voice, "you have sinned in the eyes of the Lord."
The teenagers spun around to face him and then, recognizing three representatives of lawful authority in Four Corners, scattered in all directions.
"Well, that went well," muttered Ezra as he dashed to close the gate of the enclosure before the livestock escaped.
After accomplishing that small task, he looked around to see Josiah holding two of the youngsters by the scruff of the neck and Nathan tackling a third to the ground. Young Harry Blackwood had managed to slip past them and was fleeing down in the direction of the river. Ezra heard Nathan yell something to him as he set off after the lad but couldnt quite distinguish the words.
Nathan looked up from subduing one of the intruders, to see Ezra heading down towards the river in pursuit of the last. Neither of those two could possibly know how the small timber bridge had been damaged by recent rain and flooding of the river. It was unstable and dangerous and if they tried to cross it, anything could happen.
Nathan instinctively called out to try and warn them. "Ezra! Wait!"
The gambler didnt glance back as he disappeared down the path to the river. Damn!
Nathan shoved his captive towards Josiah (who quickly had him under control) and ran to catch up with Ezra.
They were both nearly at the bridge when he spotted them. In fact, Harry Blackwood had one foot raised to take his first step onto it.
"Ezra! Stop now!"
This time, Ezra did glance back but then looked again at the fleeing Blackwood and resumed his pursuit.
Damn, damn, damn! Nathan commenced a silent litany of expletives in his head. When he heard the first of the timbers crack, he began to say the words aloud.
Ezra also muttered something very similar when he registered the cracking sound and identified its source. He had just managed to bring down Harry Blackwood with a diving tackle and the boy screamed. Whether this was provoked by fear of capture or the imminent collapse of the bridge, no one ever determined.
They actually rolled off the small rickety bridge before it collapsed and they didnt fall far, less than three feet. But the river was still swollen from the recent rains and the temperature had dropped with the approaching winter and Harry Blackwood had never learned to swim.
Ezra himself was actually a very good swimmer but even the best would find it difficult to keep their heads above water in a fast flowing river while being choked from behind by the panicked grip of someone half a stone heavier than themselves. He knew that he had to do something quickly or they were both done for and so brought his arm around to elbow Harry in the ribs with all the strength he could muster. Harrys grip loosened and, after a brief struggle, Ezra found himself free and managed to break the surface.
Now that he could breathe again, he began to register just how cold he was and the fact that someone was calling his name. Twisting his head, he saw Nathan running along the riverbank. He was about to strike out for that shore when he remembered young Harry.
The boy was six or seven feet downstream of him, still yelling his head off but his struggles were becoming weaker as he went under for the umpteenth time.
Oh hell! Blackwood Junior was an overindulged, overfed, arrogant, small-minded bully. But there would be Hell to pay if Oliver Blackwood lost his only son. And besides, the kid was only sixteen. He deserved a chance to learn better.
The trick was to get him to shore without getting within reach of his panic-stricken clutches. And fast, before they both froze to death. No time for subtlety.
Harry was making too much noise and flailing motion to notice as Ezra swam towards him. The gambler moved in swiftly and managed to stun him with a rather inaccurate blow to the head (he wasnt sure exactly where it landed). Then taking a grip of the boys collar, he tried to drag them both to shore.
It didnt help that his own waterlogged coat felt as if it were composed of lead. But hearing splashing at the shoreline slightly downstream, he looked up to see Nathan, knee-deep into the river and holding a large branch out towards him.
Ezra managed to get a firm hold of it and gratefully felt himself being pulled to shore. Then he found himself, in the shallows, on his hands and knees, coughing, spluttering and shivering. Strong hands pulled him to his feet and onto the dry ground. He closed his eyes and let them, assuming they belonged to Nathan. But the deep rumbling voice he heard coming from over his head, when he collapsed back down into a shuddering huddle, told him that Josiah had also caught up with them.
"Take it easy, Ezra. Weve got you both."
"H-h-harry?" Ezra stuttered through chattering teeth, as he looked up from where he sat on the ground.
"A mite dazed and more than a little annoyed."
Josiah grinned, "Yeah. Be even more so when Nathans finished with him." The preacher then lowered his voice, "And I think he has a few things to say to you as well."
They both looked up to see Nathan approach, in full lecturing mode and dragging the unfortunate Harry Blackwood with him. He came to halt in front of them and scowled down at the gambler.
"Is there some particular reason ya never listen to a word I say? Times like this Id like tbreak both yer legs just to teach ya to stay put!"
"So I could be crippled as well as freezing?" Ezras teeth were still chattering but he managed to keep his words even, as he returned an equally hostile glare.
Josiah found himself holding his breath. Nathan was on a knifes edge from worry and fatigue and Ezras voice had taken on a particularly ominous tone. One more wrong word could set off a major explosion from either or both.
But fortunately Nathan saw sense and relented with a sigh. "No, on second thoughts, ywere a difficult enough patient last year with only one broken leg. Probably be twice as bad with two."
Ezra was easily his most exasperating friend. In the early days of their association, Josiah had been Nathans main source of exasperation and he wasnt even sure he considered Ezra to be a friend, back then. But over the years, the gambler appeared to have finely honed his techniques for irritating Nathan, such that he was now without peer.
"If it was you who broke them, Id certainly make every endeavour to be difficult."
The preacher flinched again (seemed like there could still be fireworks) but Ezra smiled wearily and the tension rapidly dissipated. Audibly sighing with relief, Josiah took off his coat and wrapped it around Ezras shoulders (Nathan had already bestowed his on the now very subdued Harry Blackwood), before hauling him to his feet.
"Cmon. Lets get the two of you properly warmed up. Theres good fire still going, back at the village."
When they had reached the village, warm blankets had been rapidly fetched for them. But Ezra was still shivering as he huddled by the fire with two of those blankets wrapped around his shoulders and nursed a cup of hot coffee (containing a generous shot of whiskey) in his hands.
Fortunately, he had been spared any further lecturing from Nathan, thus far. The healer had found a much more compelling target in Harry Blackwood and his friends and his raised voice formed a comfortable familiar background noise, as Ezra reflexively sipped his coffee and morosely contemplated just how cold, wet and uncomfortable he was.
He wanted to go home. As soon as he could be sure that Nikkanoochee would be alright, he would get on his horse and ride non-stop until he reached the doors of the saloon in Four Corners. He could look into adoption possibilities tomorrow. Right now, the lure of a warm bed, and perhaps a warm bath before that, was just too hard to resist.
He was a creature addicted to worldly comforts and hed never tried to deny it. Oh, he could tolerate deprivation of such comforts if he had to, but he never enjoyed it and certainly made every effort to avoid it.
So why the hell had he ventured out here, in the first place? For a moment, he struggled to recall what his reasoning had been. Then he remembered. He had gone in an attempt to escape the antagonism hed been getting from Inez and his mother and daughter.
He sighed heavily. Right now, hed give virtually anything for a smile from Angelica or Inez. Or even his mother. A single kind word would have driven all the chills from his body. A brief embrace or light kiss on the cheek would have warmed him to the very core of his being. Comfort be damned, what he really needed was their company! God, he needed to get home!
He startled visibly when Nathans voice broke him out of his reverie.
"What?" he responded in a peeved tone.
"Yve gotta get outa them wet clothes."
Ezra wasnt impressed by the proposal. He had left Four Corners so precipitously that he had neglected to pack any clothes to change into (that would teach him to just embark on something like this on a whim).
"I am not parading into town wearin just a blanket, thank you very much! I know what those people are like!" Once, a long time ago, hed been forced into a similar situation and the townsfolk had been thoroughly ungenerous with regards to his dignity.
It seemed that the Seminole villagers were a little more charitable and Nathan held out a bundle of clothes. "You can wear these instead."
Ezra stood up to inspect the garments offered.
"I dont think so!" he pronounced. The tunic and pants were tolerable but, although Ezra knew that his compatriots regarded his wardrobe as somewhat ostentatious, it did not extend to anything quite so lurid (and in his opinion tasteless) as the patchwork poncho which was also being proffered. He fingered the offending item of clothing with distaste.
"Now Israel loved Joseph more than all his children, for he was the son of his old age: and he made him a coat of many colours."
Ezra looked over to see Josiah also approaching, not even bothering to hide his wide grin. Nice to see that everyone was getting such entertainment value out of his predicament.
He directed a withering look at the preacher. "Id like to point out that: firstly, you are not my father and, secondly, there is no conceivable way that you could induce me to put on that garment."
Nathan had had enough of the gamblers recalcitrance and decided to exactly spell out the situation for him.
"Ezra, yneed to get outa them wet clothes right now. Either ya do it yerself or me an Josiah will hold ya down and strip you naked. Then ycan decide if ywanna put on these dry clothes. The amount of dignity yhold onto is completely up to you."
Ezras mutinous glare was rather ruined when he couldnt hold back a loud sneeze and besides he could tell that Nathan wasnt joking. He rather ungraciously snatched the outfit from Nathans grasp and disappeared into a nearby hut to change, muttering cantankerously.
Josiah and Nathan exchanged grins, as Nathan called after him. "Yneed a hand?"
Ezras words instantly became crystal clear and hard enough to cut through rock. "No, thank you!"
Although he couldnt help chuckling at this, Josiah gently chided Nathan. "Leave him be. Hell be self-conscious enough, as it is."
Then a tearful feminine voice behind them caused them to turn towards it. "Nathan..."
It was Opalocka and she looked frankly devastated. She was trying to tell them something but it took several attempts before she found her voice again.
"Hes gone," she finally told them, tears streaming down her face and her words punctuated with sobs. "He stopped breathing...nothing I could do."
Nathan and Josiah looked wordlessly at each other, then back at Opalocka and then at Ezra who emerged from the hut, obviously having heard the news, his face blank with shock.
Ezra slowly walked forward and took the sobbing woman in his arms. No words were necessary. He barely knew her but for this moment they were united in grief. United in wondering if there was anything that they could have done to prevent this unthinkable thing. United in wishing that the ground would just swallow them up so that they didnt have to contemplate it anymore.
But as his own tears began to fall on the Indian womans shoulder, Ezra was forced to reflect on yet another failure. Once again he hadnt been there when he was needed. Maybe Nikkanoochee would still have died but Ezra knew that he should have been there anyway. For the sake of keeping him company at the end, if nothing else.
Not good enough. Simply, not good enough. These sort of things shouldnt happen to a child.
Almost instantaneously the world had turned cold and gray and hollow.
More than anything he needed some reassurance that life and love and the laughter of children still existed somewhere in the world.
God, he needed to get home!