Main character: Ezra
Note: This story originally appeared in the Let's Ride! 5 fanzine (2003 Neon Rainbow Press)
Ezra shuffled the deck of cards with an easy lack of attention, smiling instead at his companions at the card table. Buck was scowling back, JD looked as if he didn't know what had hit him, and Vin had that annoying smirk that seemed to say he knew exactly how Ezra had won the last hand, although of course there was no way he could have. Only Nathan didn't look particularly put out, but that was doubtless due to the fact he'd sat out the last few hands and just watched, nursing a beer and enjoying his friends' losses. Well, perhaps it wouldn't hurt to let them win back a little of their money, Ezra decided. He didn't want to discourage them from ever playing with him again; sometimes there was precious little else to do in that dusty little town. He needed all the friends he could get.
Friends? Ezra nearly frowned. He'd been slipping lately, using that word sometimes when he meant compatriots, of course. The latter was always an asset, but the former . . . well, his line of work didn't exactly encourage it.
Categorically dismissing the thought, he plunked the cards down and stood. "How 'bout a libation before we continue our game, gentlemen? I will even condescend to buying the round."
"You'll have to," Buck growled. "You've got all my money."
Ezra flashed a grin at him. "Yes, I do, don't I? If you'll excuse me, then, I shall return."
He turned and headed to the bar on the other side of the room. In another place and time he would not have been so lackadaisical about turning his back to a tableful of players he'd just relieved of their money, but the concern barely entered his head now. These men watched his back, not endangered it. It was such a strangely . . . comforting thought, it baffled even Ezra. Yes, he'd definitely let them recoup some of their losses with the next hand. Not for his own safety's sake, or even for fear of lack of future games. But just because. That sort of foolhardy loyalty they showed deserved some sort of reward, didn't it?
"Beer," he told the bartender. "For me and my . . . friends." He barely hesitated at the word that time. Very strange.
The saloon door opened, and Ezra automatically glanced up at the newcomer, expecting Chris perhaps, or one of the townsfolk. It was a stranger to the town, however, a tall man in clothing as expensive as Ezra's own, only slightly touched with the dust of travel. He carried himself with a dignity usually out of place in small Four Corners, and his sharp eyes swept the place with a measuring look and no small amount of distaste. And then landed on Ezra.
"Standish!" A smile parted his lips, a look of wolfish delight that was only partly joy at the sight of him.
Ezra knew the feeling. He smiled back, looking no doubt much like his old acquaintance when he did. "Cleaver," he nodded cordially, straightening away from the bar he'd been leaning against. "What a surprise. What brings you to this humble little venue?" It was no effort to keep his voice calm and pleasant, even though his mind was flying through memories and options, and his stomach twitched uneasily.
Thomas Cleaver's eyes circled the room again, nose flaring slightly. "Humble is right." He stepped inside, moving gracefully over to the bar next to Ezra. "Fact of the matter, I was looking for you, Ezra."
Having the man that close was sending him all sorts of uncomfortable warning signs, but Ezra kept himself as mild as his voice. "Indeed? I'm flattered. Usually it takes no less than an extremely profitable mark or imminent danger to your person to move you to leave the generous pickings of Atlanta."
"How do you know it didn't this time?" Cleaver asked with a conspiratory grin.
The bartender had put a tray of glasses and a pitcher of beer on the bar in front of Ezra, and Ezra carefully picked it up. "Well, Thomas, I assure you, you'll find neither profit nor escape from danger in Four Corners. It seems whatever information has brought you here has misled you. Now if you'll excuse me, we must catch up later." Had that sounded as sarcastic as he thought? Did it matter? Ezra tipped his hat and headed back to the table, where four pairs of eyes had been watching his exchange with far too much interest.
The rule of not turning your back on someone you didn't trust applied in full measure to Thomas Cleaver, but the four at the table were watching the new arrival and so Ezra tried to ignore the uncomfortable prickle of the back of his neck as he returned to the table and set the tray down. There should have been some shame in acting as a common waiter, but right now unease at Cleaver's unexplained presence took precedence. Even as Ezra settled back into his seat, his attention lingered on the man behind him.
Cleaver wasn't finished. Having gotten a whiskey of his own from the bartender, he followed Ezra to the table. Ezra listened to his footsteps approach, looking up with forced politeness as the man stopped next to him.
"How about a game then for old times' sake, Ezra? Just so this trip of mine doesn't go completely to waste."
"I was in the middle of a game with these gentlemen," he began pointedly.
"Oh, no, Ezra, we don't mind." That was Buck, with glee in his voice. "Who're we to get in the way of two old friends playing each other? No, sir. 'Sides, I think I see Miss Laura beckoning me over yonder." He tossed Ezra a wide grin and left before the gambler could protest, giving JD a jab as he did.
"Oh, uh, yeah. I should be going, too. I've got, uh . . . stuff to do." JD Dunne was far less used to obfuscation. Ezra heaved an internal sigh as he watched the lad hurry out of the saloon.
"Yeah, I think that's a good idea," Nathan announced, standing and tipping his fingers to his hat in the direction of Cleaver. "Have fun."
Ezra resisted rolling his eyes and looked at Vin.
"Reckon I've lost enough money for one day," the soft-spoken tracker said. "'Less you want some company?"
It was, Ezra realized abruptly, an offer not to leave him alone with Cleaver if he didn't want to be alone with the man. That Tanner would be so concerned for him, let alone make that offer, left him momentarily speechless.
But not Cleaver. "Thank you, sir, but Ezra and I have some old times to discuss and much to catch up on. I'm certain you understand." Was there a slight emphasis on the "sir," as if he were patronizing Vin by its usage?
Vin pointedly ignored him, his eyes steadily on Ezra, waiting for his answer.
Ezra forced a smile, as fake as his gold tooth but necessary. Thomas Cleaver was planning something, and he needed to find out what it was, privately. Not to mention that he didn't want Vin in the line of fire should there be one. "Thank you, Mr. Tanner, but I believe Mr. Cleaver is correct - we have much to talk about and our reminisces would surely bore you. Perhaps next time."
He tried to put his own emphasis on the final sentence, a subtle thank-you for the offer, which had unexpectedly touched him. Vin seemed to understand, ghosting him a smile in return, giving Cleaver a final assessing look, and then pushing to his feet and ambling over to the bar.
Ezra waved to the seat across from him. "Thomas."
Cleaver sat with a smug smile. "It's been a long time since I sat across the table from you, Ezra."
Ezra held up the deck of cards, then handed them over to be inspected as he answered. "I believe it was in Memphis last, if memory serves. Were you ever able to extricate yourself from that unfortunate misunderstanding with the mayor's brother?"
Cleaver's face momentarily hardened, his eyes growing dark before he gave Ezra an unpleasant smile. "You have a good memory. But that was all it was, a misunderstanding. It was easily settled within days of your untimely departure."
For how much money, Ezra wondered absently. Cleaver tossed the deck back to him and he shuffled the cards as he studied the man in front of him, Cleaver studying him back. This would be no idle game, but Ezra intended to win it.
The cards were dealt, and Cleaver gave nothing away as he studied his, instead continuing, "Actually, I've had a great deal of good fortune since that . . . incident in Memphis. I've been making the rounds in Atlanta and Kansas City, and Lady Luck has smiled on me considerably. One or two more such profitable years and I shall be able to retire in style." That same wolfish smile appeared.
Ezra's eyes narrowed a fraction. Retire - there were worse things to do. Having enough money to live the idle life of the rich had always been his dream . . . until it had gotten sidetracked in that little end-of-the-line town.
"Two hundred," Cleaver announced, plunking the money down for an opening bid.
Ezra tried not to swallow. Since his detour to Four Corners, winnings of a hundred dollars constituted a greatly successful evening, and yet he'd bet many times that in one night in Kansas City, himself. Truly he had become soft as his mother had suggested.
And Cleaver was watching him like a hawk. Betraying no signs of the enormity of the sum to his meager savings, Ezra tossed several bills into the ante and answered matter-of-factly, "I'll raise you a hundred."
The battle was on.
"I hear Maude's also been doing well for herself. Met her briefly in Valverde Springs on my way out here. She had a rather rich mark on the hook, guy who in all practicality owned the town. Maude's going to own half the Midwest if she keeps going like this."
"Mother always did aim high," Ezra said stiffly. His mother was the last thing he wanted to be thinking of right now. She had a certain . . . distracting effect on him he did not like, nor was he comfortable with Cleaver's familiarity with his mother's exploits. Well, it was a small track they all rode on, and one tended to know all the contenders. He discarded a card and took another in its place, invisibly wincing at it.
"She was the one who told me you were here, fact of the matter. Told me this incredible story I would never have believed except I've heard it from a few others now, too, that you got a job? A peacemaker, of all things? I had to find out for myself if that was true or not."
Ezra's jaw hardened as he shuffled through possible responses. No, it wasn't a job, it was a set-up. That was what he'd told his mother, who hadn't believed it for long. Or, no, it wasn't a job, he was merely helping out briefly. Briefly for over a year now. Or, there was always the uncomfortable truth, not often admitted even to himself. "I would hardly dignify the arrangement with the title of 'job,'" Ezra said finally, smiling. "If the town wishes to pay me for my presence, who am I to turn away a lucrative and, might I add, easy income?"
Cleaver nodded knowingly. "I thought it was something like that. So it's a grease job, huh? Just another scam? I figured there was no way Ezra Standish would be caught risking his life for a measly salary, protecting other men's money. Although," he threw a glance around the saloon, "profitable scam or no, I don't think anything could keep me in a hick town like this for long. Are you telling me you make enough money here that it's worth it to stay instead of coming back to Atlanta or Kansas City and playing the high rollers there?"
No power on earth would make him admit his paltry salary of a dollar a day, and so Ezra only smiled suggestively. His hand was not looking as well as he'd have liked, Cleaver had already more than doubled the pot, and the conversation was positively turning his stomach. Why had he taken on this infernal game in the first place?
Would he have even wondered that two years ago?
Cleaver rearranged his cards, then leaned forward. "You know what else they're saying about you back East? That you're staying because you've got some kind of liabilities here, bunch of 'friends' you're tied down to. Can you believe that? I told them you weren't the type to be tied down by anybody, but I think your reputation has suffered some in your absence, Ezra."
Liabilities. Was that what they were saying behind his back? A wash of real anger was followed by the light of bitter reality. "Why was it you said you were looking for me, Thomas?" Ezra paused his playing to ask with careful nonchalance.
"Why, just looking up an old acquaintance, of course. It's been a long time, Standish." He grinned, completely unconvincing in his friendliness. "Call."
Ezra was disgusted to find his palms clammy as he laid his cards down. A flush was the best he'd been able to do; truly he was slipping, put off balance too easily by an unease he couldn't even identify. But he held his breath and hoped.
In vain. "Sorry, Standish," Clever said insincerely as he laid out his own full house. His smug expression as he collected the pot carved itself painfully into Ezra's gut.
"A good game," he answered amiably and with affected disinterest, as if he'd not lost half his fortune in the one hand. "Now, if you'll excuse me, I am expected elsewhere and have delayed too long already."
"Oh, must you go, Ezra?" Cleaver gave him a wounded look. "We were just beginning."
"Another time, perhaps." He managed to put a steady hand up to his hat to give it the slightest tip, then walked woodenly away, up the stairs and to the privacy of his room. There was no need to fear his back now, not to a winner and a man who clearly held all the cards.
It was only mid-afternoon, and Ezra had little to do up in his small room but stew. The idea he was up there to avoid Cleaver galled him, but he wanted even less to risk meeting the gambler again. He could always play solitaire, brush up on the skills that had eluded him that afternoon.
The fact Cleaver had beat him, taking a sizeable chunk of his money, no less, certainly rankled. No gambler liked to be beaten, but it was paradoxically worse to be beaten by a fellow skilled cardsharp than by the occasional lucky rube. Some considerable honor was at stake with another gambler, especially when it was a snake such as Thomas Cleaver.
But that wasn't what piqued Ezra the most. Even as he tossed down one card after another, he couldn't help but remember Cleaver's little gouges. Measly salary. Tied down. Liabilities. It was enough to turn his stomach. That his reputation could have sunk so low merely because he'd chosen to tarry for a while in a small town. . . .
The cards slapped the ones on the table with greater vehemence. No, who was he kidding? There was a great deal of truth to what Cleaver had said, more than Ezra liked to admit. It was a fact he'd given up a lucrative circuit for a backwater town with little action and great risk. And for what, a dollar a day? Not to mention considerable risk to his life and health? Even the greenest mark would not fall for a scam such as that.
True, there were some . . . intangible benefits. Such as those who watched his back, never a luxury he'd had before. And then there was the matter of . . . friends. The word didn't fit well in his mouth. There was something very human about wanting to form bonds, to have those who thought well of you and respected you, but bonds also tied you down, confined you.
And did he really have the friendship of the others, anyway? They were always so quick to doubt his motives, grinning when they discussed any generous gesture he made as if there always had to be something in it for him. Didn't they see how much he'd given up, how little else there was for him there besides the six men he fought with?
"Blast," Ezra growled, sweeping the cards off the table and sending them flying in all directions. Life had been simpler when there was only himself to consider, and his physical needs and wants. The emotional had never before entered into the equation, and he did not like the complication. No wonder Cleaver thought him weak and laden with liabilities. It was the truth.
Cleaver or no, he would not stay in that room a minute longer. Ezra jumped to his feet, grabbing his hat and sable-colored coat, and went out, pausing on the landing. No, the saloon was the last place he wanted to be.
Making a face, he turned and headed for the back stairs. A long ride with only equine companionship was what he needed.
There was, blessedly, no sign of Cleaver when he returned that evening. Claiming a bottle of whiskey from the bartender with rough thanks, Ezra retreated to a table in the corner to drink.
The ride had cleared his head and worked off some of his angry restlessness but had provided no answers. Perhaps there were none. Cleaver's - and Maude's - arguments were unanswerable. There was nothing to be gained from staying in the little town except for questionable friendship with a questionable group of men. It hardly seemed the basis for stagnating in that unfriendly little backwater.
Well, there was an answer, was there not? Nothing was keeping him in Four Corners. The contract with the judge was loose at best, hardly binding, and Ezra had made no other promises to anyone. True, there was the vow not to run out on the others he'd made to Chris and would not break, but surely that did not include his resignation. That would be moving on, not running out.
Not that a promise had ever counted for beans until he'd made it to someone Ezra respected. But . . . he'd come to respect the leader of the Seven. He should tell Chris now what he was thinking. Larabee had never really wanted him there and was perhaps even more wary of him than Nathan was, anyway - he'd probably be glad for the news. Besides, he would need to know his troops would be reduced by one. There he sat now in the back of the saloon at his usual table, smoking and nursing a drink as he watched the comings and goings in the room. He'd cast several glances Ezra's way, too, which Ezra had pointedly ignored. Yes, he should tell Chris he would be leaving in the morning, perhaps moving on to San Francisco. Surely there would be fat pickings there.
And yet he didn't budge.
Vin had been in and gone again, and Buck and JD had stopped by for dinner. They'd all cast him long, curious glances but thankfully left him be. That was just as well as far as Ezra was concerned. The last thing he needed was some sentimental discourse from young Dunne about why he needed to stay, or Wilmington's sympathy or Tanner's knowing eyes. Now there was an argument for leaving if ever he'd needed one. He'd stayed so long, others had gotten to know him and read him. That was a danger in a grifter's book; becoming transparent was the worst weakness one could acquire and a good reason for staying mobile. Tanner in particular often looked at him as though he knew exactly what Ezra was thinking and feeling, and the sensation wholly disconcerted him. For that alone, Cleaver would have laughed him out of the saloon.
Ezra sloshed some whiskey into his glass, drained it, then poured another. It burned his throat, but it was his heart that felt seared.
He would be confirming Josiah and Nathan's worst thoughts about him, of course, but since when did others' opinions of him matter? He'd left behind more than one fleeced mark cursing his name and hating his guts, and while Ezra had always felt a small, controlled twinge, it had bothered him only until the next game, the next con. Nor did he stay long enough to feel anyone's disfavor for any length of time. Staying here so long had made how the others saw him far more important to him than Ezra was comfortable with. Not to mention he'd gotten to know his fellow peacekeepers, too, worthy men one and all, and men whose opinions were thoughtful and meant something. The desire to please, to be liked, had not risen so strongly in Ezra since he'd been a child, but it had appeared full force around these six men who'd hardly lived better lives than he. Why?
The bottle was half-gone when he realized he was not alone, and Ezra looked up with still-sharp eyes into the frankly concerned gaze of Nathan Jackson.
Surely he'd seen wrong. The town healer often had little but contempt for him, diminishing to mild disgust on a good day. Ezra gazed at him steadily, glad for the numbness the alcohol had bestowed. "Mr. Jackson. What may I do for you?" Hadn't that always been it, what he'd done for the others?
"Don't you think you've had enough of that for one evening?" Nathan nodded at the bottle in his hand.
In answer, Ezra poured himself another and drank it in one swallow, giving Nathan a pointed glance.
Jackson frowned; here came the lecture, no doubt something about setting an example, or perhaps the old chestnut about the medical evils of alcohol. It'd been a while since Ezra had heard that one.
The black man drew up a chair and sat next to instead of across from him, then leaned a little closer so no one else would overhear them.
"I'm worried about you, Ezra."
That had not been what he'd expected, but it made him laugh. "Please, Mr. Jackson. Do not play a player. I know you do not approve of either my livelihood or my habits. Which concerns you on this occasion?" He took another drink. It felt like his throat was scalded and his stomach was ready to float away, but he would not give Jackson the satisfaction of stopping now.
But Nathan just shook his head. "I, uh, overheard your friend giving you a hard time earlier about staying here. I gotta admit, sometimes I don't get why you stay, either, but don't pay attention to him, Ez. What we're doing here is important."
"And, pray tell, what is that?" Ezra asked impatiently. "Protecting this ungrateful community that would rather see me gone? Risking our lives for the princely salary of a dollar a day? I don't know about you, Mr. Jackson, but I value my life rather more highly than that."
Nathan was getting that disapproving frown on his face, as though he were rethinking the whole idea of their conversation. Good. Perhaps then they'd leave him alone.
Ezra pulled himself a little more upright with a dignity that hurt. Or at least, he couldn't figure out what else would be hurting so much. "Now if you don't mind-"
Another voice, and Ezra glared past Nathan at the newly arrived Thomas Cleaver.
"Thomas," he said grudgingly. Darn it, maybe he shouldn't have drunk that much. He was in no shape to face down Cleaver now.
"I was thinking perhaps you'd be up for another game now." He spoke as if Nathan weren't even there, the fine hat he held in his hands rudely dangling in Nathan's face. The healer tried to look as though he didn't care but he did. Slaves were all too often treated as if they weren't there, as Ezra had known from personal, secretly abhorrent experience.
"'Scuse me," Nathan said, pulling away from Cleaver and starting to rise.
"There's no need, Mr. Jackson," Ezra said calmly, then addressed Cleaver. "Thank you, Thomas, but no. I am tired and afraid I would not be much of a challenge for you this evening."
"I leave tomorrow morning on the stage, Ezra - come on, for old time's sake. I'll take a marker, if that's what you're worried about."
Nathan had sank back into his seat and was watching him, but Ezra didn't care a whit for that. He would not let any good man be belittled in his place, but that did not bind him to the healer or the other five any more than his lapse of judgment in staying had. The anger that stirred in him was at Cleaver's insinuation, no matter if it verged on the truth. Calling a fellow gambler penniless was all but declaring him incompetent, and was a decided insult. "It is not the funds that are lacking," he said icily, "but the desire and the appropriate company. If I do not see you in the morning, I wish you a safe journey."
This time he stood, whiskey bottle held firmly in his hand, and turned away.
"They were right about you, Standish - you've gone soft. You've let yourself get tied down and rusty, loaded like a packhorse with liabilities. For what, this stupid little town? A bunch of outlaws and ex-slaves? And to think you were once one of the best." Cleaver fairly spat the last word.
The cold hatred that ran through him just made him still and very calm as he slowly turned back. His aversion to the man took the sting out of Cleaver's words, but some of his accusations were intolerable.
"These 'outlaws and ex-slaves' are finer men than you have hope of ever becoming, Cleaver."
And Ezra walked away through the silent saloon with dignity, not looking back.
He was running.
He was always running, desperate and frightened, but it seemed his pursuers were closer than usual this time. Ezra's chest heaved, his breath coming in diminishing puffs, and still he could not seem to get away. The desert stretched out before him, endless and straight, no glamorous objective in sight, no succor against the danger he was in, only emptiness in which he couldn't hide. He pressed on only for hope those following him would tire before he, even if his legs already felt like lead and his heart threatened to burst from his chest. But what choice did he have but to keep running?
The banging was also close behind him.
That was strange, Ezra barely noted. Were their footsteps so heavy? What monsters were pursuing him now?
He awoke with an unpleasant rush, his good shirt wet with sweat and plastered to his chest, the empty whiskey bottle still clutched in one hand. Ezra stared wildly around the room for a moment, the familiar walls and dresser and rocking chair penetrating slowly into his brain. Not a desert, his own room. He'd fallen asleep.
Ezra drew a shuddering breath and ran a hand over his eyes, jerking again as something banged against his door, rattling it on its hinges, followed by an impatient, too-familiar voice.
"Ezra! I need to talk to you!"
It wasn't the first time he'd been so rudely awakened, and while instinct pushed him to quickly don his boots and slip out the window, for the life of him Ezra could not think why Thomas Cleaver would have a bone to pick with him at that moment, at the ungodly hour of . . . he peered nearsightedly at his watch and groaned. Five-thirty in the morning. What in heaven's name was it now?
He pushed himself to wobbly feet, grabbing for his robe and pulling it with a groan over his disheveled clothing. His pride was as wrinkled and shabby as his clothing, but it was still his.
Ezra opened the door a crack, then stumbled back as a heavy body pushed against it. The last of sleep fled, and it dawned on him he should have also retrieved his gun; all he had on was his small derringer still tucked in his sleeve. Well, too late now. Instead, he glared at the intruder.
"What do you think you're doing?" he demanded.
Cleaver didn't glare back. In fact, he looked positively . . . cowed. Ezra narrowed his eyes at the man who was now completely in his room and furtively glancing behind him through the open doorway. Ezra recognized the look, the actions, from repeated personal experience.
"Another 'incident,' Thomas?" he inquired with thin sarcasm.
"Ezra, I need your help. I was certain spending some time in this town would throw them off my trail, but they're here. Please, I'm begging you."
Ezra blinked. Beg? It was not a word a man like Cleaver would use lightly. Nor was there any faking the real panic in his eyes. He felt himself soften despite his better judgment. "Who are 'they'?" Ezra asked warily.
"Some cattle ranchers out of Willow Bluff. Didn't look like much but they had money, so I-"
"You conned them." It wasn't hard to put the pieces together. "And I take it they did not appreciate your actions." Ezra didn't know whether to be amused or disdainful. But then, he'd done a few cons like that, himself.
"How was I supposed to know it would cost them their farms?" Ezra tried not to grimace, well aware Cleaver wouldn't have cared even if he'd known. "They've been after me ever since, Ezra - if I don't give them $5,000 apiece, they're going to kill me."
What a delightfully abrupt reversal of fortune. Ezra would have basked in it if he hadn't felt so thoroughly revolted. "Then I suggest either you pay the men or beat a hasty retreat," he drawled.
"I don't have that kind of money - I didn't even win that much off 'em, and I lost a lot of what I had in Kansas City. And running doesn't stop them, Ezra, they'll keep coming until they find me."
First rule in grifting: don't work someone who was liable to come after you. In Ezra's book, that hadn't included innocents, but it did include ranchers who had guns and horses and would quite possibly use both to track you down to get their money back - or avenge themselves.
How amusing Thomas Cleaver would find himself in such a predicament, not even a day after excoriating Ezra for the chances he took. Ezra composed his face into a look of mock sympathy. "Well, in that case, I suggest you leave as quickly as possible."
Cleaver straightened, finally making some effort to bring himself under control. "I'm asking you for a loan, Ezra. Fifteen thousand. I'll repay it with interest as soon as I reach San Francisco."
Ezra crossed his arms, face hard. "May I remind you a few short hours ago of your disdain about my financial status in this . . . 'hick town'? Even if I had such an amount at my disposal, I can think of few worse investments than paying off your debts, Thomas. I'm afraid you'll have to find your own solution to your predicament. I trust that will be no problem for you, being one of 'the best.'"
Cleaver lunged at him, grabbing the front of Ezra's vest in both hands as he growled, "Listen here, Standish-"
Ezra's derringer slid into his hand just as quickly, and in less than a second he had it at Cleaver's throat. "I believe it is you who should listen, Cleaver. I am-"
Another voice intruded, and Cleaver was ignominiously jerked away from Ezra, throwing Standish momentarily off-balance. He steadied himself against the bed, watching guardedly the three new arrivals pushing their way into his room. Duster coats, chaps, and cowboy hats suggested they were the three ranchers Cleaver had scammed, as did the anger and cruel delight in the face of the largest man, who now stood with Cleaver's collar bunched in one big hand.
"Finally. We need to talk, weasel." He jerked Cleaver like an adult would a child, and turned to leave with the gambler in tow.
"Wait!" Cleaver was near babbling. If the circumstances hadn't been so serious, Ezra would have enjoyed how the mighty had fallen such a distance. "I had your money but . . . I gave it to him."
He was pointing at Ezra.
Until then, the men hadn't even seemed to notice Standish, but now they all turned as one to stare at him, not looking very friendly.
Ezra didn't allow himself to show the shiver of uneasy fear at those gazes and Cleaver's implication, his expression one of blatant scorn. "I assure you, gentlemen, Mr. Cleaver is lying to you yet again. I only just met the man when he came to me seeking to hide from the three of you and your no-doubt just cause."
The man hadn't loosened his grip on Cleaver's coat, but his eyes hardened as he stared at Ezra.
Ezra resisted the urge to swallow. His disbelief wasn't faked as he added, "Surely you don't believe the man who took such despicable advantage of you? Let me assure you, sirs-"
"How much money have ya got?" the rancher abruptly demanded.
Ezra hesitated. "Let me put it this way. Had Mr. Cleaver given me the money he owed you, I would now have just over fifteen thousand dollars."
The man's eyebrows went up, and Ezra knew before he spoke it'd been the wrong thing to say. "Six thousand, huh? That'll do. Hand it over, Mister."
Six thousand? As in, they'd only been seeking nine thousand? Trust Cleaver to have padded the amount. Ezra gave him a withering glare, but Cleaver wasn't looking at him.
"I believe Mr. Cleaver has taken advantage of us both," Ezra tried to backtrack. "That is to say-"
"I said, hand it over." And there was suddenly a gun in the rancher's hand, and his two friends', all pointing at Ezra.
Good Lord, how did he get himself into such situations? It was positively a gift, and one he could do without. Ezra mind leaped on, trying to find another solution. "Very well," he finally said with reluctance. "You've forced my hand. But my funds are in the bank, which will not be open for another-"
"You're lying," the rancher said flatly. "You're gonna give me that money right now or neither of you are gonna see the sunrise this morning."
Which was already starting to stream in behind Ezra, but he wasn't about to quibble over small details. So, words would not save him this time. That left only one possibility.
Raising one hand in placating resignation, he bent slowly down and reached under the bed for his valise. The ranchers' eyes followed him, and just as they focused on the handle of the case emerging from under the trailing quilt, Ezra brought up his right hand from behind his leg, the derringer held out of sight until now, and squeezed off a shot at the head rancher. At the same time he was already diving, trying to put the bed between himself and the men.
It was a foolhardy plan but the best he could do in such close quarters. It was with no surprise and only a vague disappointment that Ezra saw his second shot go awry even while he was struck, his arm instantly going numb, the small pistol flying away from him and his dive turning into an uncontrolled fall. There would be no reprieve now, no more chances, and Ezra closed his eyes as the ground rushed up to meet him, not anxious to see his killer as the man took final aim.
The gun went off just as Ezra hit the ground, the jar of collision exploding all kinds of pain in his arm and flashes of light in his vision. But there was no second blow, no bullet ending his life, no blackness of death, only the fuzzy white sheets hanging off the bed in front of his face and a distant clatter and yelling. Cleaver? The world was swimming, confusing and painful.
He blinked, knowing that voice immediately but mind working too slowly to identify it.
"Where were you hit?"
It sounded worried. That was fine - he was worried, too. What about the ranchers out for blood, and Cleaver?
"Let me see."
Someone touched him, grabbing his arm, and Ezra's mind snapped back into place as he jerked away, flailing for a weapon he couldn't find, any way to get away from his attackers.
"Whoa, easy now. We ain't gonna hurt ya." Someone grabbed him from behind, but gently, not maliciously.
Vin? Ezra stilled, looking up into Nathan Jackson's face. The healer was kneeling in front of him, his hand resting on Ezra's arm, while another pair of hands held his shoulders from behind. He would have recognized that smell of leather and prairie anywhere. Vin and Nathan. Which meant the others would not be far behind and had probably already taken care of Cleaver and the ranchers.
Ezra sagged, coughing against the sudden rising gorge. The sudden turn of events left his mind reeling, and his body felt like jelly, weak and wobbly.
"Take it easy," Nathan soothed. "Looks like you got hit in the arm. I'm gonna take a look, okay?"
As if he could have done anything about it, but Jackson looked at him until Ezra gave a shaky nod. Nathan nodded back, gave him an encouraging smile that served only to confuse Ezra further, and then turned his attention to Standish's injured arm. Vin's grasp shifted behind him so that the tracker's arm stretched across Ezra's back, holding him up.
From there he could see at least part of the scene at the doorway. The remaining two ranchers stood there, obviously in the custody of Chris and Buck, who each had a man by the arm and were handing their confiscated weapons to JD. Josiah was crouched beside Cleaver, who was huddled on the floor, and next to him Ezra could see the sprawled leg of the rancher he'd hit with his first shot. Dead or alive? It didn't seem to matter. Cleaver was blathering something to which Josiah and Buck and Chris appeared to be listening, but their eyes all seemed to be on him. Wonderful. Injury and public humiliation, and probably another lecture from the great Chris Larabee on not bringing them extra trouble, maybe with a corollary on irresponsible gambling.
"I can explain this," he said warily, trying not to flinch as Nathan did something painful to his arm.
"I'd be interested in that," Chris answered, but there was . . . humor in his eyes? Not exactly the dressing down Ezra had been expecting. He blinked, trying to clear his befuddled mind.
"Saw these three fellas headin' toward yer room - figured ya might need a hand," Vin said from behind him, also with a smile in his voice. No surprise there; Vin was the most easygoing of the seven of them. But considering he slept outside in his wagon, how on earth had he seen anyone approaching Ezra's room?
"Your 'friend' sold you out, huh?" Nathan asked, pulling his gaze away from his work for a moment to look at Ezra.
"He is no friend of mine," Ezra said flatly. Cleaver glanced up at him, then looked away, unable to hold his gaze.
"We kinda figured that when the guns started goin' off, Ezra," Buck said cheerfully. "If these are your friends, I sure wouldn't wanna see your enemies."
Why in heaven's name were they all being so jovial about needing to drag him out of trouble in the wee hours of the morning? Ezra couldn't make sense of it, of them, a skill he usually excelled at, and it bothered him more than the burning in his arm.
Not that that was a particularly pleasant sensation, either. Nathan had apparently finished poking and prodding to his satisfaction and was now tightening a bandage that felt like a tourniquet around the wound in Ezra's arm. It was a not-unfamiliar but breathtakingly painful process that seemed to sap Ezra's strength and control with the increasing pressure. His vision started to blur again, seeping gray at the edges, and he started to sink backward again, only to be secured by Vin's unyielding grasp.
Maybe he moaned, he wasn't sure, because next thing he knew, JD and Josiah were hovering over him, looking worried. If his arm and his head didn't hurt so much, he would have been thoroughly mortified at the scene he was making. As it was, he took the excuse of fatigue and closed his eyes, shutting out his curious friends.
There was that word again.
The voices tossed back and forth around him. "This one dead?"
"Yup. How 'bout those other two, either of 'em hurt?"
"Not yet." There was a decidedly indifferent quality to Chris Larabee's voice. Ezra unwittingly shivered. "How 'bout Ezra - the arm bad?"
"Naw, just probably hurts like it is. I'll finish patching him up back at the clinic."
"Fine. Buck and I'll take our new guests down and show them our jail. The rest of you see to Ezra and his friend." Footsteps, shaking the floor he half-laid on.
"You need any help?"
"Thanks, Josiah, I think Vin an' I can handle him. You've got your hands full with that snake."
"You think Ezra cares what we do with him?"
Ezra found his tongue somewhere amidst the stuffing in his mouth. "As long as it's imaginatively gruesome, no."
He hadn't bothered to open his eyes but heard Josiah's soft chuckle. "I believe Chris already has some ideas." More footsteps.
Ezra wasn't sure if Nathan's question was directed at him or Vin, but they didn't wait for his answer, the two of them hoisting him up as if he were a sack of feed . . . only, far more gently. Vin eased Ezra's good arm over his own shoulders, while Nathan had him around the waist from the other side, holding the injured arm against Ezra's stomach. Although he groaned at the jostling movement, it wasn't as bad as Ezra had expected, and they kept the jolts to a minimum even as they crept out of the room and down the stairs.
As they crossed the saloon, Ezra opened his eyes to stare dully at the empty tables. That was his battleground, his home, and had been for years no matter what part of the country he happened to be in. It was Cleaver's territory, too, a man he once would have considered a colleague. And yet there had been no colleague he'd ever truly trusted, certainly none he considered a real friend. Trust and friendship were weaknesses, flaws to be exploited and taken advantage of. Liabilities.
And here his six liabilities had just come to his rescue, probably saved his life, and were now taking him to be cared for. How was this a feebleness, something to be pitied? Cleaver had looked at him with contempt across that table, but he'd been the one cowering on Ezra's floor, shamed and vanquished. That was not the kind of colleague, or peer, Ezra had strived to be an equal to.
Could six borderline outlaws, veritable uneducated miscreants, be the ones whose respect was really worth earning? Even that elusive, frightening word: friends?
Or was there some sort of other, secret purpose for keeping him alive that Ezra did not yet see? Their need for his gun, or perhaps his money? It wouldn't be the first time he'd have been courted for his assets; even his mother excelled at being kind to him because she wanted something. It made for a plausible explanation.
Except for the genuine worry in their eyes and gentleness in their manner. Ezra had come across the real thing rarely enough in his life, but he still knew it when he saw it.
The puzzle made his head swim. Or maybe it was the effort of climbing the steps to Nathan's clinic.
Vin and Nathan eased him down onto the one bed in the room, and Ezra frowned at the tracker as Vin grinned at him and patted his good shoulder.
"See ya later, Ezra."
He managed some half-intelligible mumble Tanner seemed to understand just fine, and blankly watched him leave the room as he no doubt went to rejoin the others at the jail, where they were incarcerating the men who had tried to kill him. Who would have killed him that morning if not for the timely intercession of the six peacekeepers.
And why had Vin been watching his room?
Nathan had been puttering at a table, his back to Ezra, but now he turned again with a small bottle and some sort of instrument in his hands that Ezra did not look at too closely. The healer seemed about to say something, then took a closer look at Ezra and crinkled his forehead instead.
"Let's get you laid down for this."
Nathan set aside what he was holding before Ezra could protest, and careful hands eased him onto his back. He finally found his tongue. "I assure you-"
"No big words, Ezra." To his surprise, Jackson was grinning at him. And yet not mockingly. "If I'm gonna dig this bullet out of your arm, I want you flat."
Ah. Ezra hoped he didn't pale at the delightful reminder of what was to come next.
Which was actually laudanum, cloyingly sweet.
"You want somethin' to bite down on?" Nathan asked next.
His head was already drifting with the drug, and Ezra barely managed to shake his head. Lord knew what filthy rag he'd be given to stifle his pain.
"Then hang on to this," and Nathan stuffed something into his good hand. The edge of the blanket, Ezra wondered, feeling the softness of the material bunched in his hand. He ran his fingers admiringly over the smooth fabric.
The release of the bandage made him wince, but what was coming would be far worse, and Ezra braced himself for it.
And then the too-familiar pressure and the burning and pain began and Ezra didn't much care about the suppleness of the fabric anymore, crushing a handful of it as he fought not to scream or lose consciousness. Even the laudanum did nothing more than blunt the bright edge of that agony.
The pressure lessened, the burning and pain didn't, and then they crescendoed as something even fierier splashed into the wound. Ezra arched against the bed, then sagged, a choked sound getting past his clenched teeth.
"It's over," a distant voice soothed. "Take it easy now." His head was lifted and liquid trickled into his mouth, and he swallowed it with effort.
Awareness returned as the pain began to recede. The ever-dulling deep throb of his injury. The wet washcloth wiped over his face, washing away more than sweat. The breeze that cooled him in its aftermath and the blanket sliding out of his loosening grasp. Nathan no longer puttering, just sitting next to him, watching him.
Ezra gave him what he hoped was a wry glance in return. "That was . . . unpleasant as usual."
Nathan's face relaxed into a smile. "I think you'll live."
"But will I enjoy it?" Ezra groaned. He licked his lips. "May I have some more water?"
"Sure." Jackson didn't even need to rise, the pitcher at hand as he reached for it and poured Ezra a glass. It was heaven in a cup, far sweeter a cordial than any Ezra could remember.
"Thank you," he murmured after he got his fill and the cup was removed.
But Nathan was still studying him, and Ezra got the distinct uncomfortable impression it wasn't with a medical eye.
"You want to know about Cleaver," he said flatly, not questioning.
Nathan gave a one-shouldered shrug. "I think Chris's gonna have some questions, and the judge sure will, but you don't owe me any explanations, Ezra."
That momentarily unsettled him. How could the man not want explanations, especially after risking his life to save Ezra from his predicament?
Jackson, like Tanner, had a disturbingly uncanny way of looking sometimes as if he knew what Ezra was thinking. "Not that I ain't curious, but I heard enough," he continued. "Cleaver thought you were crazy for stayin' here in Four Corners and gettin' tied down with us."
It was embarrassingly close to the truth, but even as Ezra verged on denying it, he couldn't help but notice Nathan seemed amused by the idea. And his confusion deepened.
"It's okay, Ez, we know how it is. You ever get the itch to move on, we won't hold it against ya, long as you're honest with us." A thinly veiled reference to his once riding out on them, something Chris had never completely forgiven him for even as he'd refrained from mentioning it again. Ezra faintly colored, surprising himself yet again that after years of little shame he could still blush.
Nathan went back to his puttering, rising to go mash something in his mortar, his face half-turned from Ezra. And his voice lowering to a secretive, or perhaps self-conscious level.
"But you know you're welcome t' stay, and long as you're here, your friends'll watch your back."
Ezra stared at him momentarily, then lay back, stunned, and gave the ceiling as much rapt attention as Nathan was giving his herbs. Not that he saw it. He was too busy turning the just-spoken words over, examining them by habit for what lies they hid and trying to discern their true meaning . . . but he could find none other than what they'd blatantly, honestly stated. He was welcome to stay - wanted. And not just for his gun, because he also had the freedom to leave . . . and friends. That damnably elusive word, offered to him this time from a more objective source than his traitorously yearning heart. Not just peacekeepers sworn to watch his back, but friends who wanted to. Who kept a vigil on his room in the middle of the night because they knew he might be in danger and who waded into the fray without knowing more than that he was in trouble.
Friends. It carved itself into his softening heart along with Nathan's other words with a permanence few other promises he'd received in his lifetime had deserved.
Nathan was still making a studious amount of noise next to him, and while he clearly wanted a scene no more than Ezra did, Standish owed him something for the great gift just bestowed upon him. He cleared his throat and uttered a phrase he'd seldom meant as much before in his life, either.
Dark eyes met his for a moment of rare understanding. And then Nathan went back to mixing his potions. "Don't fall asleep on me yet. I wanna get some of this tea into you, keeps the infection down."
Ezra immediately endeavored to do just that, nestling into the bed and closing his eyes. After all, it had to be before seven still, a ridiculously early hour. Sleep sounded good. Avoiding the tea sounded even better. And he felt comfortably warmed through, the alien sensation leaving him drowsy and content.
He was not alone.
He never did get the tea.
+ + + + + + +
The nap had done wonders for both his aching arm and the earlier lethargy. Even Nathan couldn't protest his leaving the clinic - with the promise to go straight to his room - when Ezra had been able to stand and walk without help and only a little bit of dizziness. Which of course he'd kept to himself. There was also the matter of a slight temperature, but Nathan had too kindly promised he'd be by later with some remedies.
Keeping his slinged arm clasped close to himself, Ezra navigated the clinic stairway with only a moderate amount of perspiration, feeling Nathan's burning eyes on his back. The man gave whole new meaning to the word "worry." The thought made Ezra unaccountably glad, even as he strived to descend the steps without faltering.
At the bottom, he turned and gave the healer above a jaunty wave, watching with a half-smile as Nathan just stomped back inside, no doubt muttering about stubborn patients. Some things didn't change.
And even as Ezra paused to lean momentarily against the building, marshalling his strength out of the healer's sight, the discovery struck him that he did have constants in his life now. How odd. No wonder Cleaver hadn't known what to make of him. Ezra sometimes didn't know what to make of it himself, or the lack of discomfort all the changes produced. Some of them were even . . . not unpleasant. Like the unfamiliar notion of friends. . . .
Speak of the devil. Cleaver approached him now from across the street. Disquiet, and some self-disgust with having been so inattentive or unprepared, washed back into Ezra. He didn't even have his derringer.
But Cleaver was already putting up his hands, signaling his good intentions, or at least lack of bad ones. Nonetheless, Ezra eyed him warily until the gambler stood just in front of him, his face creased with an unease they both felt.
"Standish," Cleaver spoke again. "I wanted to talk to you before I left."
Leaving? That at least was reassuring. Ezra glanced him coolly over, taking in the wrinkled clothing, the tarnished cockiness in the man's posture . . . and was that a split lip Cleaver was trying to hide? Ezra could remember no such injury occurring in his bedroom. Unless it happened after. Ezra suddenly wondered about the real reason Cleaver was leaving.
The man shifted again, and half-glanced over his shoulder. Ezra resisted also looking. Chris would never have let the ranchers get out of jail and presumably there was nothing else chasing Cleaver except for his nerves. "I, er, wanted to apologize for involving you in my problem. I had no idea they were that close behind me."
"No doubt why you chose to look me up and implicate me in your little dilemma instead of just 'borrowing' money as you'd intended," Ezra said dryly.
"Well, ahem, I am sorry for that." The man glanced over his shoulder again, and Ezra's curiosity stirred to life. Was there someone else following him, after all?
"Cleaver-" Ezra began, despite himself.
"Look, I can't stay long, Ezra, I just wanted to say I didn't mean for things to happen as they did, or for you to get hurt. Fact of the matter," and he glanced down at the ground, "it seems you've got a better deal here than I'd thought."
Ezra frowned, truly bewildered now. If it hadn't been so impossible, he would have sworn there was a trace of envy in his former colleague's voice.
"Well, I have to go. Stage is almost here and I have to be on it. Oh, seems I owe you this." And he thrust the winnings of their game into Ezra's unresisting hand.
His bewilderment deepened. He would have thought such an act of contrition beyond the man. But maybe it wasn't contrition. He'd caught the wording: have to be. Compulsion of some sort? "Thomas," Ezra found himself saying before he could talk himself out of it, "you don't have to keep running."
He got a strange look at that, followed by a disbelieving hint of a smile. "Your friends don't agree with you," Cleaver said cryptically, then added with a shrug, "Some of us are always running. You just found a way to stop." He was turning away. "Take care of yourself. I'll give your regards to Maude."
He didn't seem particularly nervous, at least not as he had early that morning in Ezra's room, so Ezra finally let it go, watching with resignation as Cleaver crossed the street just ahead of the arriving stage and climbed aboard it as soon as it emptied. As he did, he tipped his hat to Ezra, and then, more stiffly, to someone else on the opposite side of the street.
Ezra followed his gaze. And found Buck half hidden in the shadow of the bank's porch, leaning with deceptive casualness against one of the posts and watching Cleaver until the stage filled and rolled away in a cloud of dust. And then he turned to Ezra and gave him a wink and a salute before walking away.
Cleaver's discomfort, hurry, and disheveled condition all fell into place, and Ezra tried not to grin as he saluted back with his good hand and also turned away, heading once more for his room. So, that was what Cleaver had meant. Well, perhaps leaving town in a hurry this time would do him good.
Halfway up the saloon stairs, Ezra abruptly stopped. Cleaver had also called the six men Ezra's friends. Not outlaws or ex-slaves, or liabilities. Friends.
There was no question Ezra had given up a great deal to stay in that small town - Cleaver had been an unneeded reminder of that. But what were they, really, his sacrifices? Some habits, a few pleasures and luxuries. Some amount of freedom to do what he pleased, when he pleased. A great deal of what had made up his world before. But in return, he'd gotten those who'd notice if he went missing or cared if he got hurt or was in trouble. And with them came something Ezra hadn't even known he'd been missing: the respite of feeling safe, of being able to drop your guard and for a little while just be yourself, and of knowing you mattered to someone else for more than just your skills or possessions. If these were his liabilities, Ezra was better off than even he'd realized.
Perhaps it really had been envy in Tom Cleaver's voice, Ezra marveled. He had indeed found a way to stop, and who would have guessed it could be so rewarding?
And on that suspiciously maudlin note, Ezra climbed the rest of the stairs without a glance over his shoulder, and went back to bed.