The Game of Life
Main characters: Ezra, Vin
Note: This story originally appeared in the Trails West 2 fanzine (2002)
Death was the one player Ezra Standish could not cheat.
The gambler stood in the most remote corner of Nathan's room, favorite red coat dirt-streaked and bloody. The silk shirt he usually wore underneath was gone altogether, torn up for bandages, for all the good that had done. He neither noticed nor cared, watching the scene before him with grim impassivity. Death was in the room, and you always wore a poker face when in the company of your opponent.
Still, his eyes took in everything: the feverish restlessness of the figure in the bed, Nathan's pinched, worried look as he did his tending, the growing darkness outside that indicated a long night to come--or a too short one. Nathan seemed to have forgotten Ezra was there, talking in soothing murmurs to a patient who couldn't hear him, but that was just as well. For once, Ezra wanted to fade into the background, to watch and think, undisturbed. To consider how on earth he'd gotten there and whether he could get out again.
The telegraphed order from Judge Travis had not seemed of great concern at first; they were to track down Elias Finch, a convict who'd escaped from a prison wagon not too far from Four Corners. The man was a murderer, on his way back to Missouri for his execution, but that hadn't been of great concern to the seven peacekeepers of the town. They'd dealt with far worse than that before. Ezra's greatest chagrin had been to leave behind in the saloon two new arrivals to the town who were ready to part with their money. The seven of them had grown complacent, he shook his head now with frustration.
They'd split up to cover more territory and rode out to start the search, he paired with Vin. Ezra didn't know young Tanner well, but he never minded working with him because Vin was not only highly competent at what he did, but also a good silent partner. As skilled as he was at prattle and charm at the card table, Ezra preferred to avoid inane discussion otherwise, rarely finding someone with whom such conversation was enjoyable. Josiah had sometimes proved worthy of a good verbal joust, but the other five often seemed to verge on ignorance, illiterate Vin perhaps most of all. They did their job well together, and that was what mattered, not how well they got along.
They'd been searching for hours, Vin often dismounting to study the ground or some vegetation. Ezra had just been considering suggesting they return to town for food and a rest before continuing, when the shot had rung out. Reaction could be honed at the card table as well as in the wild, and Ezra had turned instantly toward the sound of the shot, gun already in his hand, and fired back at the glint of sunlight off a gun barrel. He'd watched with satisfaction as their would-be attacker fell, and turned back to Vin to gloat. Only to see with real horror that Tanner lay on the ground, blood spilling out his life into the green grass underneath him, eyes wide as they stared back at Ezra.
He'd bandaged the wound as best he could, watching helplessly as each strip of shirt he added quickly turned to red. Vin hadn't made a sound, even as sweat poured off his face and his knuckles were as white as Ezra's shirt had been as he clenched them against the awful agony of an abdominal wound. Even in his distress, Ezra still admired that kind of control.
By the time the shirt was used up, Vin had been unconscious and Ezra had struggled to get him up into his saddle, tying him awkwardly in place so he wouldn't fall off on the way back. He wasn't sure as it was that Vin would survive the trip. And was actually frightened by the thought.
Ignoring the man he'd shot--probably Finch--who hadn't stirred from where he'd dropped, Ezra mounted up and headed back for town as quickly as he'd dared.
Chris and Josiah had already returned from their circuit, and Larabee had been the one to ease Vin off his horse, leaving Josiah to get the injured man up to Nathan. Ezra had stood silently by his mount, watching them disappear up the stairs, wondering if it was the last time he'd see Vin Tanner alive. He'd hardly been ready for Chris turning on him, though maybe he should have.
"Where were you when he--"
The hot words died out as Chris got a look at him and something he saw halted the accusation. Ezra still wondered what. But he'd been tired and worried, and was content to simply deliver his report in weary monotone. Chris could make of it what he would. Ezra had someplace else he wanted to be.
He'd turned away to tie his horse up in front of the saloon, when Chris' somewhat more subdued voice brought him up short. "Thanks, Ezra."
What it must have cost Larabee to say that, Ezra could only imagine. But hearing it had to be harder.
He'd been at Nathan's ever since, watching the black man operate, seeing the patient deteriorate. Knowing he'd never be the same again if Vin Tanner died, and not understanding why.
The door opened and Chris came in, the room seeming to cool more from his arrival than from the wind that blew in past him. He came nearly every hour, smelling of alcohol, never staying long. Ezra imagined he spent the rest of the time in the saloon, gathering strength, or perhaps courage, to return.
"How's he doing, Nathan?"
He needn't have even asked, the healer already knowing why he was there. "No worse," he said quickly, pausing to give Chris an apologetic look before adding, "No better, either."
That just meant Death was running slow that day. Ezra watched with hooded eyes as Chris nodded, standing there a minute longer as he watched Vin toss, then turning sharply and leaving, the door closing with unusual care behind him.
In their months together as the peacekeepers of Four Corners, Vin had become more than a right-hand man for Chris Larabee. He'd also become a friend, the only one besides Buck Chris really seemed to trust. Ezra knew the kind of man Chris was, had met many such embittered, hollowed-out men on his journeys, and had expected little from him when they'd first ridden together. But then Chris had given him an unexpected second chance, and Ezra had watched, intrigued despite himself, as over subsequent months, the man in black had seemed to get back some part of his soul. The lovely Mrs. Travis was partly responsible for that, Ezra knew, but so was the man lying in bed in front of him. For Chris, Vin's death would be another in a string of painful losses, perhaps the last straw that would break him for good. If so, the remaining five of them probably wouldn't stay on much longer. For all his prickliness and demons, Chris Larabee was the glue that held them together.
Not that it should have mattered. So they would be free to be on their way again--that was hardly a concern. A year before, it was the only life Ezra had known, that of the nomadic gambler and conman. It was in his veins, in his heritage. To be tied down to one town, and a small one at that, was starvation to a man such as himself. Why he'd even agreed to do it in the first place, Ezra didn't know.
Or why he cared so much now if it was to end.
Another knock at the door, and Ezra started, eyes going from the door to Nathan as the healer softly called, "Come in."
Buck crept in this time, his bearing a complete counterpoint to Chris's. Where Larabee had been stiff, worry in the guise of anger, Buck was openly concerned and hesitant, fingers kneading the rim of the hat he held in his hands.
"How's he doin', Nathan?" The exact same words, though.
Jackson shook his head. "Doesn't look good, Buck. I think we'll know by morning."
A wince, then an accepting nod. "Chris been up here yet?"
"Just about every hour. Don't think he can stand to stay, though, you know?"
"Yeah..." Buck sighed, glancing back toward the door. "You wanna come in, kid?"
Ezra only realized then that JD was hunched over just outside the doorway, watching the scene within. Of all of them, young JD Dunne was the least inclined to hide his feelings, naked distress on his face as he stared at Vin. He shook his head mutely.
Buck's face pinched a little tighter and he looked back at the bed. "Anything we can do t' help, you just name it. JD 'n I'll be right outside--any change..."
"Sure, Buck," Nathan nodded understandingly.
Buck nodded once back, then turned to go, his eyes unexpectedly lighting on Ezra in the shadows of the corner. Surprise lit his face, then puzzlement, and finally an understanding Ezra hadn't expected. Buck nodded silently to him, too, and went out the door, dropping a hand gently on JD's shoulder and turning the young man away with him as he did.
Ezra stared at the closed door after them, chagrined. What was it Buck, and Chris before him, understood that he certainly didn't?
Outside the door, they could hear JD's voice rise sharply in agitated question, and the low, calming sound of Buck's reply. An unlikelier pair, Ezra had rarely met, yet young JD seemed to have found an elder brother in Wilmington--protector, teacher, and friend--while Buck seemed to have a talent for looking after those who needed it, namely the untutored JD. The younger man had learned a lot since Ezra had first met him, but it had just made his friendship with Buck more equal and strong. Very privately, Ezra envied the boy, both for his innocence and for having someone to rely on like that. Life had taught Ezra early that the only one a person could depend on was himself, because the world was a hungry, predatory place.
Then, one day, he'd sat in the saloon, nursing a drink and a hand of solitaire, when an... "acquaintance" from his past had walked in. He'd absurdly claimed Ezra had cheated him of some money months before, a claim Ezra was not anxious to dispute with another armed men flanking his accuser. The scene was about to turn ugly when Buck and JD had happened in, sized up the situation, and silently made their stand with him. Not liking the odds, the two had slunk out of the saloon, and were then escorted to the outskirts of town by Josiah and Vin. Buck and JD had shrugged off the incident, inviting him to share a drink with them, but Ezra remembered, and puzzled over it a long time. The six simply didn't fit his paradigms.
So, in time, he'd started changing those paradigms. Trusting, awkwardly and without practice. Daring to use that foreign word, "friend." Being concerned for others, even before himself. He'd stopped being able to explain away his desire to stay in a dangerous job for ridiculous pay as his simply being a gentleman, and started to think, possibly, secretly, that it was perhaps because he... cared.
Ezra's mouth tightened, face flushing as he stared at Nathan and the struggling Vin. Cared? Maude would have laughed in his face. Gamblers didn't care--they couldn't afford to.
So why was Vin's every moan driving another nail into him?
Ezra shifted, uncharacteristically uncomfortable in his skin.
He'd gone once to Josiah, trying to find an answer without revealing too much of his...problem. The ex-preacher had been busy fixing some window ledges in the church, and as Ezra hedged around the issue, he'd found himself picking up a hammer and helping. By the time they finished the windows, Josiah had said less than a half-dozen words and Ezra was no closer to insight. But as he relinquished the hammer to the older man, Josiah had looked at him knowingly and said, "The greatest weakness is the inability to be weak, and the lack of friends before whom one can be so without fear."
And then like some oracle that had spoken, he'd turned away and left Ezra standing alone in the chapel to contemplate his answer.
At that moment, Josiah was down in his beloved church, praying for Vin. Even that faded faith of his seemed to offer him greater comfort and security than all the tricks and aphorisms Ezra had always put his trust in. If either came through today, Ezra was well aware it would be Josiah's God, not anything he'd done. But even that was a long shot, Death the odds-on player that day.
Vin groaned, pulling out of Nathan's hands as he fought delirium.
"Ezra, I need a hand," Nathan called over his shoulder even as he tried to keep the wounded man still.
Ezra blinked, surprised Nathan had remembered he was there. The black man had certainly given no sign of it those past several hours. He stepped forward without hesitation, though, forcing half-dead legs to move as he stiffly went around to the opposite side of the bed.
"I need you to try to hold him down--carefully--so he doesn't tear his stitches loose. I gotta work on bringing this fever down."
Ezra winced internally, more at the idea of a suffering man needing to be restrained than at the idea of having to do it himself, but gingerly complied. The skin of Vin's bare arms was hot with fever and damp with exertion, muscles corded as he fought an unseen battle. Ezra was surprised at how much strength he had to exert to pin the man to the bed, all the time wary of injuring further.
Close up, he could smell the alcohol Nathan was using to rub Vin down, as well as the cloying smell of the laudanum and the odor of sweat as the two men struggled, one to save the other's life. Nathan worked with calm, sure movements, only his eyes showing how difficult this was for him.
Ashamedly, Ezra had seen only the color of the man's skin at first, but Nathan had proved to be a good man and able healer. He'd saved all their lives at least once already, and never demanded anything in return. He was a better match to Death than the gambler was, winning more than he lost, and Ezra couldn't help but admire a fellow player's skill. He seemed to take each fight personally, too, and Ezra had come to recognize the sorrow in his eyes when he lost. But when the patient in question was one of his friends, there was an intensity to him that Ezra himself wouldn't have been willing to cross. It was clear now in his determined actions, his set jaw, his intent gaze. He wouldn't let Vin go without a fight.
Tanner had started to mutter, words Ezra couldn't make out, at least some of them in Spanish. He seemed to be getting hotter--how much could a man take before his body gave out? Ezra held on grimly, and sent a prayer up to Josiah's God in case He was listening.
He finally licked his lips, daring to break the silence.
"Laudanum?" he asked hesitantly.
Nathan shook his head a sharp no. "He's already had more than he should. The fever's the problem now, but that's up to him t' fight. Best we can do is make sure he don't hurt himself worse."
The door opened behind them, and Ezra spared it only a quick glance. It was Chris, alcoholic flush paling at the scene inside the room.
"Chris, get his legs."
No one argued with Nathan when he sounded like that, and Larabee moved to the foot of the bed. Ezra couldn't see what he was doing but could feel Vin's thrashing muted.
After a few minutes, Chris spoke up from behind him. "It was Finch." No explanation, and Ezra didn't ask for one, but the news was both sickening and a relief. Then he forget it and concentrated on his assigned task.
He wasn't sure how long they sat there, trying to hold Death at bay. Long after night fell and Ezra's arms had grown tired, then numb. Vin sometimes felt into exhausted, restless sleep, but it never lasted long and then the struggle continued. Nathan was the only one who spoke, issuing an occasional order. Buck stopped in once, but simply took a long, silent look, then backed out again, grim and sober.
Light started to filter in through the windows, dawn of a new day. JD had slipped in sometime earlier without Ezra's notice, and had fallen asleep in a chair by the door, looking decidedly uncomfortable. When Buck came looking for him, the morning sun streaming into the room with him, the older man dragged a chair next to JD's, propped the kid's sagging head against his shoulder, and waited.
Vin's resistance had grown weaker over the hours, even the strength of delirium used up. Nathan's expression said that wasn't good news, but Ezra couldn't help but think at least Vin was finally finding peace. Ezra's grip was more calming than confining now, and he steeled himself for the final round.
And, just for a moment, the poker face slipped, his eyes stinging, his throat filling and his face twisted at the realization that it wasn't an ignorant, illiterate tracker who was dying. It was his friend. One of those Ezra cared about.
The loss was sure now; Death had the upper hand. And Ezra, for the first time, was losing more than he could afford to part with.
Vin twisted, his breath a harsh rasp, and then collapsed to the bed, utterly still.
Ezra froze, staring blindly at the motionless figure, then up at Nathan, who was frantically checking Vin. No matter how well you knew how it would end, it still came as a shock, and Ezra couldn't breathe, couldn't think.
Nathan abruptly sank back into his chair, looking first at Chris, then at Ezra.
"Fever's broke. He's asleep."
Buck whooped quietly behind them, and Ezra could just barely hear the shaky exhalation that had to be from Chris. Nathan's smile fairly glowed, and the door of the room quietly opened and shut, no doubt JD going to inform Josiah. The crisis was over, and they'd beat Death somehow, after all.
Chris stepped around to talk in soft, grateful tones to Nathan, and Buck was no longer in the room, probably going after JD. Ezra took advantage of the opportunity to leave unnoticed and slipped toward the door. But something held him back, and he cast one last look back at the alive, now-recovering patient.
Vin's eyes were cracked open, barely awake. They wandered a moment, then caught on Ezra by the door. Ezra smiled, true delight momentarily relieving his own fatigue, and he saw one corner of Vin's mouth twitch in an attempt to return it. Then Tanner fell back to badly needed sleep.
Ezra stood there a moment longer, then stepped out into the cool morning air.
His horse still stood in front of the saloon, dozing. He could go down to it, mount up, and ride away, leaving all the responsibility and ties and complications behind him. Within hours he could be in the next town over, fleecing new sheep and making more in a day than he did in Four Corners in a month. He could be free.
And Ezra didn't want it. He'd won that day, and hadn't even realized how much was at stake until he'd nearly lost. It didn't matter how he'd gotten there, just that he stayed. You didn't walk away from a pot like that.
Shakily, Ezra turned and went the other way, to his room.
And went to sleep on a damp pillow.