My Friends Would Know Me Better
Main character: Ezra
Note: This story originally appeared in the Let's Ride! 4 fanzine (2003 Neon Rainbow Press)
The afternoon stagecoach rolled to a stop in front of the general store, the driver immediately climbing up to start unloading luggage from the roof. Those inside the stage were left to unload themselves, but that was fine by him. There was only one lady riding this time, and one of the men could get the door for her door. The stagecoach company paid him for being on time, not for being chivalrous.
The first man to disembark showed no interest in chivalry, either, or any of the other passengers, for that matter. Compact, short, but with the sallow face of a man who'd known hunger, he glanced up and down the street with keen, wide set eyes before moving out of the way of his fellow disembarking passengers. He had no luggage besides the small bag he carried with him, and headed for the saloon without waiting for the unloading.
The saloon was always his first goal in any new town. It was partly for the sake of quenching thirst after the long, dusty stagecoach trips, but that was the lesser reason. What he really thirsted for was news, and the town saloon was usually the best place to get it. If the bartender couldn't be bought, there were always other looser lips in the rooms.
And then there was also the chance the person he was looking for would be there. The man practically lived in saloons.
The town - Four Corners, the stagecoach driver had said before they'd left-was almost indistinguishable from a dozen other struggling little towns he'd already passed through. The biggest businesses were always the saloon, the general store, and the undertaker, and few women or children could be seen on the streets. There seemed to be more of them in this godforsaken little town, but that probably just meant they had a sheriff and thought they were safe. As if anybody could be really safe out in those parts.
The saloon wasn't hard to find, and already licking his parched lips, he went inside.
The evening crowd hadn't arrived yet, leaving only those who had too much time on their hands, the gamblers and the drunks and the cowhands who were on town supposedly on business. He ignored the latter two groups, focusing on the one table that was full, four men sitting and playing cards. He kept his eye on them as he walked up to the bar.
The order was filled quickly, and he tossed the liquor down as he continued to study the players. One was a businessman, probably passing through the town, with fine clothes and a gold chain no doubt connected to a gold pocket watch, and a mustache he twirled thoughtfully as he studied his cards. Next to him, surprisingly, sat a black man, looking as if he belonged there. Apparently the colored folk didn't know their place in this town. On the businessman's other side sat a large man with the casual air of a cowboy or a salesman, but the alertness and posture of a gunman. He smiled often, mouth crinkling wide under his mustache, but he didn't seem one to tangle with. And beside him, with his back to the bar. . .
His breath caught.
He'd been looking for that fancy red coat the gambler usually wore, not the understated black jacket he had on now, but the clothes still spoke of money and style. He was handing out cards with the graceful flair of a man who'd been dealing most of his life, and the light brown head cocked so familiarly as it studied the new cards. He didn't have to see the gambler's face to know it was the man he'd sought through three states and as many territories.
He clunked the empty shot glass down on the bar and crossed the half-empty saloon with bold strides to the table of players.
Already the mustachioed cowboy was watching him, dark eyes alert and measuring. The businessman didn't appear to notice him, and the colored boy watched him with a defiance that made him sneer. But none of that really mattered now as he rounded the table and faced the gambler, who glanced up at him with languid curiosity.
"Standish. Ezra Standish, I finally found you. Remember me?"
Green eyes-he remembered every last detail of the man-looked him up and down, assessing but not all that interested. And without a shred of recognition.
He felt his simmering rage start to boil.
"Should I?" was all Standish said finally, with all the arrogance he knew the man possessed.
He made himself laugh. "I should've figured you wouldn't remember. Lousy cheater like you probably ruins a dozen men a month and forgets every one of 'em."
The green eyes narrowed as the others at the table stirred, the businessman worriedly, the other two warily. He prided himself on reading people, and the two men at the table didn't seem to take kindly to what he said. That didn't worry him a bit.
"Well, you're gonna remember me," he added, grinning. "For as long as you live, and that won't be long."
Standish had relaxed again, the fool. He even exchanged a card before looking up at him again and drawling, "Perhaps if you would refresh my memory, Mister. . .?"
"Darby. Terrence Darby, Kansas City. Maybe you remember my wife, Emma, and my little girl?"
Something flickered in Standish's face. Good. Darby wanted him to remember before he killed him.
Standish straightened in his chair. "Mr. Darby, as I recall, you lost a sizeable amount of money due to a streak of bad luck and an obvious lack of playing skill. I fail to see how either of these unfortunate conditions are my fault."
"You took all my money."
Standish raised a finger. "Uh, you lost your money. I was merely fortunate enough to be there to recover it."
"You cheated!" Darby spit.
"You were fairly defeated," the gambler countered, still with that damnable calm.
Darby dropped his hand on his gun, not missing the two men at the table doing the same. The businessman got up and hurried away, glancing fearfully at Darby as he did. Darby didn't spare him a glance, staring at Standish, who hadn't moved at all except to utter a sigh at the loss of his playing partner.
"I'm calling you out," he finally said.
"I'm afraid I'm busy right now. Perhaps another time." Standish pulled in the cards from the interrupted game and started to shuffle them.
"Maybe you didn't hear me. I said, I'm calling you out. You and me, outside, then we'll see who's the loser."
For the first time, the mustachioed cowboy spoke up, voice low and friendly, and threatening underneath. "He heard you just fine. You're the one who seems to be deaf, Mister. Now, you gonna leave, or we gonna have to throw you out?"
That was unexpected. Darby's eyes flicked to him, and the tension in the man's shoulders. Standish was a spoiled fop, an easy mark, but this man wasn't one Darby cared to draw against. And the way the other two men at the table were looking at him, they'd probably cut him down even if he did win. He hadn't gotten that far by playing three-to-one odds.
"I'll leave you alone," he finally growled, dropping his hand. "That doesn't mean this is over yet."
"I look forward to our next meeting," Standish said dryly.
Darby nodded curtly at him, unwilling to be riled. The last thing he needed was to give them the opportunity to claim self-defense in cutting him down. He wouldn't put anything past the gambler and any friends of his. His jaw set, he turned and strode back to the bar, muttering another request for whiskey. He could feel the cowboy's eyes on his back but ignored it. He hadn't promised he'd leave the bar. Fact was, he still had business there.
Darby's mouth began to curve into a smile, and he motioned the bartender closer. The man put down the glass he was wiping and stepped up to the bar, clearly curious. He'd heard the exchange at the far table and couldn't help but wonder what it was about. The whole town knew there was more to their seven peacekeepers than met the eye.
Darby leaned toward him. "You know that man, Standish, over there?" The bartender nodded. "Well, bet you don't know what kind of a man he is. Let me tell you a little story. . ."
+ + + + + + +
The three of them had kept on playing after Darby left, but none of them had their heart in it anymore, least of all Ezra. Buck saw his glance stray from his hand several times, not quite to the point of turning to look at the man at the bar, but at least perhaps trying to listen to what he was saying. Darby had been engaged in earnest conversation with the bartender for some time already, and Buck himself was itching to know what they'd found so interesting to discuss. It also had to be bothering the gambler to have someone who was clearly an enemy out of sight behind him, but Buck had given him one hard glance to convey the fact that his back was covered, and that had seemed to alleviate at least that concern. Now, he was just distracted.
Probably by what the man had said. Cheating wasn't an uncommon accusation in the world of gambling, and he'd seen Standish accused of it-and competently handle the accusation-more than once. But something about Darby had gotten to him, creasing the gambler's brow in a frown that had nothing to do with the cards he was holding. There was some story there, more than just a losing game, and Buck was curious to know it. A glance at Nathan told him the healer was, too. They both watched Darby finish his conversation with the bartender and walk out the door without a glance back.
Ezra folded the hand, looking more than a little disgusted with himself, and Buck took the opportunity before the new hand was dealt to lean closer.
"What was that about?"
"What, Mr. Darby?" As if Ezra had been thinking about something else. Buck rolled his eyes. "Some people do not take kindly to losing."
"I don't take kindly to losing, but that don't mean I'm gonna track down the fella who beat me and call him out," Buck pointed out.
"A fact for which I'm truly grateful," Ezra drawled. Then, collecting his cards and winnings, he stood. "I believe I've lost my interest in playing this afternoon. If you gentlemen will excuse me. . ."
Buck stopped him with a hand on his arm. "You didn't answer my question."
Ezra's eyes were almost cold. "I believe I did."
Stand-off. Buck was reminded a brief instant of a similar showdown more than once with a grieving Chris. Some people just didn't let others in easy, and forcing it only made them shut up even tighter. He let go of Ezra's arm and softened into a smile. "All right. We'll just keep an eye on Darby while he's in town."
He knew Standish well enough to read his eyes: puzzlement, followed by surprised gratitude. For a gambler, he was fairly transparent. Or at least, he was to his friends. An uncertain nod of the head answered him, and then Ezra climbed the saloon steps to his room.
Nathan's voice broke into his thoughts. "You thinkin' what I'm thinkin'?"
"That we'd better go have a chat with Homer?" Buck was already rising from his chair, and Nathan didn't answer, just fell into step with them as they made their way to the bar with deceptive casualness. The bartender's eyes darted between the two of them, then seemed awfully interested in the glass he was wiping.
They needed no discussion between them as to who would speak. The man was a bigot who tolerated Nathan as someone who wasn't to be messed with and who had friends who wouldn't tolerate him being messed with, but didn't have to like it. Buck gave the man a wide grin and leaned against the bar, his large frame dwarfing the smaller bartender.
"Homer, that looked like a nice chat you just had with the stranger. What was so interesting?"
Wide smile, dangerous look. Nathan hid a grin as the barkeeper cowered, then pulled himself together. And almost smiled himself. Nathan frowned: that was a bad sign. When Homer looked like that, it usually meant he had some malicious gossip to spread, and by all appearances, he was more than happy to spread it to anyone, particularly to them. Never having been a big fan of the Seven, it boded ill. Then again, Darby boded ill.
"Sounds like you don't know that Standish as well as ya think ya do," Homer said smugly. "Feller was just in here had a real interesting story t' tell. Standish played him in a game out in Kansas City, cheated and cleaned him out. Took his last penny, then foreclosed on the house and threw the wife and little girl out on the street, penniless. The wife went and killed herself-didn't have no choice." He leaned confidingly closer. "I always said that Standish was a little too fancy for this town. Probably just waitin' for the chance t' take advantage of-"
He seemed to run out of both steam and malicious glee as Buck's hand closed around a handful of his shirt, pulling him close to Wilmington's very calm face.
"I hear you talk about him that way again, and you'd better go find yourself a whole new town to live in."
A bare, frightened nod, and Buck let him go, the bartender nearly stumbling to keep his feet. Nathan's own fist relaxed, and he gave the man a glare before he followed Buck out the door to the saloon porch. There Wilmington stopped, leaning against a pole, gaze absently on the activity of the street.
Nathan stopped beside him, doing the same. It was their job, paying attention to the town's comings and goings, but it had also become an instinct. As much as watching each others' backs. "You know that ain't gonna stop him. Homer loves a story, 'specially an ugly one. It'll be all over town by evenin'."
"I know," Buck said quietly. He found a piece of straw somewhere and chewed on it, then cast a contemplative glance at Nathan. "You believe what he said about Ezra?"
Nathan hesitated. "Ezra sure does love his money."
Buck nodded. They both knew that.
The healer finally shook his head. "Uh-uh. Maybe he didn't know about the lady and the little girl, but he wouldn't put a woman and a child out on the streets."
"I saw his face when Darby brought 'em up-he knew about 'em," Buck said.
Nathan's brow rose. "You think he did it?"
The same doubt he felt, crept across Buck's face, then he also shook his head. "Naw. He'd cheat his own mother," and he smiled at the very idea of Maude allowing herself to be cheated, "but he wouldn't hurt a woman. Ezra's got standards. He would've left a long time ago if he didn't."
Nathan couldn't argue that, and, honestly, didn't want to. Grudging respect had developed between him and the Southerner over time, and while Ezra wasn't the first person he'd have turned to in need, he knew without doubt he could have done so and not been rebuffed. No, he couldn't see Standish throwing a mother and child out of their home for any money. Not the man who'd fought so many battles at his side.
Not his friend.
He nodded absently. "So, what do we do?"
Buck shrugged. "People'll talk, can't stop that. All we can do is be his friend 'n' stand by him."
How that differed from what they usually did, Nathan wasn't sure, but Buck was right. Still, even as he sighed his agreement, he turned to head down the street toward the church. The others would have to know and might as well hear it from a friend. Besides, maybe Josiah would have some insight, and Nathan could use a little wisdom just then.
Buck watched him go, then left in the opposite direction to find JD. If somebody tried to share the news with the kid, JD would defend Ezra's honor to the death, if it came to that, and Buck intended to make sure it didn't.
+ + + + + + +
Chris watched as Vin raised the front left leg of Chris's horse, paying close attention as the tracker pointed to a nick in the horseshoe. "There."
His eyebrows rose. "That's it? That's how you tracked me?"
Tanner's mouth rose in an easy smile. "Every shoe's got its own print, 'cept maybe a brand new one. You know what t' look for, you c'n find anything."
"If you've got eyes like a hawk," Chris shot back, amused. He'd always considered himself observant, but Vin not only found but also read signs Chris hadn't even noticed, and made his particular brand of magic look easy in the process. It was one more reason he was glad to have Vin Tanner at his side.
The stable door opened, and they both looked up, momentarily wary, until Mary Travis appeared in the doorway. She almost smiled at them, then frowned, biting her lip, as she came inside. It wasn't the first time she was bringing bad news, but Chris counted on her as an extra pair of ears and eyes in the town.
"Mr. Larabee, may I speak to you, please?"
All three of them knew that included Vin, and Tanner let go of the horse's leg, giving the mare a pat, before he came up next to Chris. Larabee nodded at Mary.
"I think you should know, there's a rumor going around town concerning Mr. Standish. I just heard it myself." She shifted uncomfortably. Mary never had been comfortable with gossip, preferring verifiable news as did any good newspaper publisher. But the good of the town superceded reservations. She plunged on. "There's a man in town who claims Mr. Standish cleaned him out in poker in Kansas City."
Vin allowed himself a small smile. There was no news there. But Mary wasn't finished.
"He says Mr. Standish then foreclosed on his house and evicted his wife and child. The wife apparently took her own life as a result."
Chris's amusement vanished, and he exchanged a glance with Vin.
"He's a liar," Tanner simply said.
"You sure about that?" Chris countered. "This is Ezra we're talking about."
"Who's saved my life a couple 'a times, how 'bout yours?"
"That don't mean he couldn't have done it."
"You believe that?" Vin's eyes met his steadily, clear and earnest.
No. If he thought about it for even a moment, he didn't. As leader of the only peacekeepers the town had, Chris Larabee had to be certain of his men; not only his own life but that of the town's citizens depended on it. But Chris knew where it mattered there was no way Ezra would have been that ruthless. He'd seen the gambler be tempted, knew his weakness for cards and gold . . . and seen him time and again put people before it, even though he'd tried to keep it quiet and brushed it off when confronted.
A glance at Mary showed her chewing her lip. She was worried, but he guessed it was for Ezra, not about him. Still, the town's welfare was even more important to her than it was to him, and a peacekeeper with a bad reputation could hurt everyone. That alone would be reason to cut their losses where Ezra Standish was concerned, guilty or not.
Chris shook his head. "No, I don't believe it. But other people will."
Another easy grin from Vin, as over a shared joke. "Town's never 'xactly been trusting where we're concerned." And Vin couldn't help feeling inordinately pleased the same was no longer true of Chris Larabee.
Chris's gaze went back to Mary. "If it was somebody out to gun him down, we'd back him up. This isn't all that different."
And she smiled at him, the warm smile she had whenever he agreed with her when she hadn't expected him to. "No, it's not," she responded.
"You think you c'n find out more about this sore loser?" Vin asked her.
She nodded, thoughtful. "I could wire Kansas City, see what they know. If the poor woman killed herself, there should be some records."
"Good. Then we'll have ourselves a little talk with our guest."
Chris's grin wasn't warm at all.
+ + + + + + +
The air outside was dustier than inside, but at least it was moving. Josiah took a deep breath before his eyes returned to the old Bible he held open in his hands. The morning devotionals had been a part of his life since his childhood, but somehow it was easier to feel close to God outside, even in the dust and heat, than inside the little clapboard church. Which didn't speak well for all the effort he'd put into restoring the small white building, but, he sighed, his life was nothing if not a mass of paradox.
Footsteps nearby raised his head again, to the sight of Mrs. Tolliver coming toward him. Josiah allowed himself another small sigh. The woman came by often, claiming to seek the peace and presence of God, but it was more earthly things that were usually on her mind. The best that could be said of her was that she was a lonely spinster whose idea of socializing was trading the latest bit of scandalous news, and flirting, not necessarily in that order. With the hungry look on her face as she approached, Josiah couldn't tell which was on her mind that day. It didn't take long to find out.
"Reverend Sanchez." All the times he'd gently corrected her, she still insisted on calling him that. "Reverend Sanchez." Her bustling arrival kicked up even more dust, choking the air and Josiah.
He unobtrusively cleared his throat and nodded, polite as always. "Mrs. Tolliver."
"Why, you wouldn't believe the news I heard in town just this last hour. I just had to come and tell you right away."
Gossip it was. "Ma'am?" The earthly vice of curiosity was only one of the many Josiah hadn't quite conquered yet.
"It's about your . . . friend, Mr. Standish. You wouldn't believe what they say he did."
What he wouldn't believe was her getting to the point. But he was afraid he knew what it was already; even Nathan hadn't guessed the story would get around this fast when he'd shared it with Josiah.
She did get to the point, the whole scandal pouring out of her in glorious detail, including Ezra delivering the foreclosure papers himself and Mrs. Darby hanging herself and all her children-Mrs. Tolliver wasn't sure how many there were, but there were several.
Josiah slowly closed his Bible, and then just as slowly stood, drawing himself to his full height. And then he frowned down at the woman who now gaped up at him from below.
"Do you know what the good Lord says about spreading malicious news?" he asked calmly.
Her mouth moved a few times before she stammered an answer. "I'm sure I don't-"
His voice rose. "Then maybe you should go and find out!"
Her mouth rounding in dismay, Mrs. Tolliver hurried off.
Josiah's frown deepened. He shouldn't have done that; it was hardly the actions of a righteous man. But she'd made him angry with her salacious hunger, hunger to spread the word of someone else's shortcomings.
He'd been thinking on the matter ever since Nathan had shared it with him. Josiah had badgered Standish about the man's obvious vices in the past, and sometimes felt contempt for his standards. Money often seemed to be the bottom line, and Josiah wouldn't have put it past him to foreclose on some poor loser's home if he'd won it. But . . . he'd been too harsh on the gambler before, and Ezra had amply proven himself trustworthy despite it. Even now, Josiah cringed at the thought of Ezra's pained confession in a moment of despair, the confession Josiah had mocked and rebuffed.
I hoped my friends knew me better. . .
Hadn't he learned anything?
Setting the Bible reverently aside, Josiah headed into town to find the others and figure out just what they were going to do about this ridiculous slander, preferably before it got back to Ezra. The man deserved better.
+ + + + + + +
JD almost missed him.
He'd already gone through the saloon, finding several of the other Seven drinking and talking about the current problem, but not the one he was looking for. The rented room upstairs was likewise empty, as were the outhouses, the general store, and the bathhouse. That only left the stable, and that also appeared empty except for some quietly snorting horses. JD was about to withdraw, disappointed, and consider where to try next when he heard the soft laugh.
Worried and relieved at once, he slipped all the way inside, closing the door soundlessly behind him.
There was a clink of two objects hitting each other, metal on metal, or perhaps glass. JD slunk closer, not wanting to be seen just yet until he was sure who it was and what was going on.
Who it was was Ezra, sitting incongruously on the floor in the corner of an empty stall. His fancy coat was wrinkled and studded with bits of straw, but he seemed far more preoccupied with the bottle he was trying, more or less steadily, to pour from into a glass. What was going on was simply that the gambler was drunk.
JD stood for a minute, stumped at both the location and the state of the man. It wasn't exactly what he'd expected to find when he'd gone looking for the mysteriously vanished Standish, and he wasn't sure how to proceed.
Ezra made the decision for him. Apparently in the midst of some amusing private toast, he caught sight of JD hanging back uncertainly, and instantly beckoned him over. The glass in his hand sloshed over as he waved.
"Mr. Dunne! Come join me in a drink."
JD went, uncertainly lowering himself to a crouch across from Standish. The man looked so unlike himself: unkempt, uncoordinated, and unhappy, JD almost wondered for a moment if it was guilt that was eating at the man. But not only did he not believe it, it also clearly wasn't guilt in Ezra's eyes. Even drunk, or maybe because of it, his real feelings were painfully obvious. He was hurt.
JD bent his legs further and sat, making himself comfortable, prepared to stay a while. "I think you're drunk," he finally volunteered as he watched Ezra try to pour him a drink.
"I deny that accusation. I am not drunk, I am inebriated."
"O-kay." JD shook his head, watching with some amusement as Ezra finally gave up on the small glass and tilted the bottle back. But there were only a few drops left, and he lowered the empty container to stare at it with scorn. Then he looked up at JD.
"I am hosting a soiree," he said with the dignity of the thoroughly soused. JD had seen Buck talk that way a few times. He didn't usually look so sad, though.
"That like a party?" he asked. "By yourself?"
"A party-indeed." Ezra flashed him a grin, his gold tooth gleaming in the dull light. "A going-away party."
JD stirred uneasily. "Who's going away?"
"I believe I am."
"Why? Because of the stupid rumors going around town? Ezra, nobody listens to stories like that!" JD leaned forward hotly. He and Buck had been afraid of something like this, but Buck said they should leave Ezra in peace, let him work it out. Only, it looked like he was running away from it instead of working it out.
Ezra's eyebrow arched, a remarkably coordinated move for someone who was weaving where he sat. "While I appreciate your optimistic reassurance, I myself harbor no such illusions. I understand inquires are already being made to Kansas City, and while they may acquit me, there will always be some measure of doubt. I've seen it happen before." He fumbled in his jacket, found his flask, and drank another drought as if...
"Her name was Emma." Ezra's weaving stopped, as did the drunken slur of his voice. "She'd had the misfortune of being married to that miscreant for nearly ten years, with the bruises to prove it. But they had a child, Susana, and so she stayed with Darby."
JD didn't say a word.
Ezra smiled again, this one bittersweet, his eyes on the straw-covered stall floor. "She came to me after the game to ask for my help-Darby had to sell their house to cover his debts. She wanted to take the child away to her relations, and . . . I agreed."
"That was-" JD's voice died as Ezra raised a hand.
"I gave her the money, and promised I would see her to the train the following afternoon. Her husband found her that night." His jaw clenched. "He took the child, and the money. Emma hung herself in despair. I found her the next morning."
Oh, God. JD swallowed dryly. "What happened to the little girl?" he asked hoarsely.
Ezra stirred. "I made the arrangements before I left town. The girl is now with her mother's sister and her husband, on a small farm in Texas, who were happy to receive her. It was the least I could do for her mother." He took another long drink.
It was actually far more than most would have done, but Ezra seemed neither aware nor caring of that. JD rocked back on his heels. No wonder Darby's arrival in town had been such an unpleasant reminder.
But it didn't seem to be what was really bothering Ezra.
"So you're thinkin' about leaving?" he asked quietly.
Ezra's mouth twitched. "Somehow I doubt I will be missed. Six peacekeepers should be enough even for this town, and there's certainly no need for a seventh with such a . . . trustworthy reputation."
"Ezra. . ." JD shook his head. "It's not like that. Chris wrote off to Kansas City because he wanted to find out about Darby before he talked to him, not because he didn't believe you. None of us believed Darby, honest. We know you better than that."
Ezra's head came up, very bright emerald eyes staring at him with an odd expression. "Are you certain of that, Mr. Dunne? I might just be awaiting the opportunity to swindle you all. Few have ever called me 'friend'."
"Well, if you wanna call six of us 'few'. And then there's Mrs. Travis, she's been sticking up for you, too, and Billy. And I heard Mrs. Potter gave a few people a piece of her mind," JD said stoutly.
Ezra opened his mouth, closed it again, and for a moment sat apparently speechless. And then he started to laugh.
JD's face crinkled in dismay. It hadn't exactly been the response he'd been hoping for. "Of course we'd miss you," he insisted softly. "I'd miss you. We're a team."
Ezra's laughter trickled away, leaving him rubbing at his eyes as if brushing away tears of amusement, only JD didn't think that's what they were. He cleared his throat finally, and glanced up at JD with a half-smile that didn't seem to have its usual cynicism. "You know what you are, my young friend? You are an idealist."
"If that means I don't give up on people, you're right."
"No, you don't." Ezra took a deep breath, his head suddenly dropping, his shoulders sagging, and he gave one more weary laugh. Then, as if he'd made up his mind, he straightened again. "Do you think you could render me some assistance to make it to my abode?"
JD frowned, deciphering that, then scrambled to his feet with relief. "Sure. That mean you're not leaving?"
They managed to get one of Ezra's arms around JD's shoulders, which left them both slightly bent over and a little unsteady, but upright. "I suspect if I tried, I would fall off my horse," Ezra admitted.
"I 'spect you're right," JD grinned. "But you better not change your mind tomorrow."
"And if I do?"
"We'd go bring ya back." He said it with finality.
Ezra didn't argue, not as they crossed the street or went up to the rooms the back away or as JD helped him get his boots off before he flopped on the bed. He didn't say another word until JD had started to back out of the room, thinking the gambler was already asleep.
"It is an honor to be your friend."
JD blushed, he could feel it, but he also smiled, feeling a warm joy inside at that admission, coming from that person. "Me, too, Ezra."
There wasn't an answer, but JD knew he'd been heard. He shut the door softly behind him and went downstairs to talk to the others.
+ + + + + + +
Mornings were so damnably . . . bright. And loud. And early. Ezra groaned as he turned to get away from the shafts of sunlight that had made it through the shutters and his eyelids, currently digging channels into his brain.
He didn't often face hangovers-in his line of work, they were usually costly, dangerous, or both. It meant he'd been drunk enough to let down his guard, and that was always a risk.
Of course, since he'd landed in Four Corners, with friends whom he could trust at his back for the first time ever, Ezra had allowed himself the occasional night of indulgence. Even if he paid for it in the morning, there was a certain . . . luxury in knowing he could afford it.
Then again, if the memories that were filtering back were reliable, perhaps it was a luxury he wouldn't have much longer.
He'd heard the rumors early the afternoon before, whisperers who hadn't even had the courtesy to talk behind his back. It wasn't really a surprise-he'd rather been expecting something like that all along. A gambler and conman made a lot of enemies, and most of them dealt in lies and schemes rather than lead. The usual defense was to not form any ties and to be ready to move on at any time.
Ezra had forgotten to do either.
And so it had been with fatalistic resolve he'd decided to leave. With a bottle from the saloon. Then JD had come along . . . it was a little fuzzy at that point, except for a few lines the young man had spoken.
We'd know you better than that.
I'd miss you.
We'd bring you back.
Ezra cleared his throat, making it more or less upright so he could begin his morning ablutions. He appreciated the young sheriff's faith and kindness, but knew JD was the quickest to forgive and to trust in the group. His naÔve belief in Ezra wouldn't be shared by the more hardened members of the Seven.
Still, it eased the ache a little and would be some comfort during the journey ahead. He wouldn't forget JD's compassion or friendship.
There was only so much he could do for the rings around his eyes and the paleness of his face. His clothes were also in sad shape from being slept in, but Ezra couldn't muster the energy to do more than change the coat. The wrinkled black one he folded into his valise. It would be one less thing to pack.
Breakfast didn't beckon at all, but coffee did, and Ezra finally steeled himself, raising his chin in defiance of the wretched figure in the mirror, and ventured out of his room.
The breakfast crowd in the saloon was thinning; apparently he had managed to at least miss most of the morning. A subtle glance around revealed the table by the door occupied by the rest of the town's peacekeepers, sitting in friendly discussion over empty plates and full cups. With a pang, Ezra headed away from them, toward the bar. Perhaps he could just retrieve a cup and take it upstairs to drink before-
"Hey, Ezra!" Buck's cheerful-and loud-voice was hard to miss, even over the quiet din in the room. "Come join us!"
He froze like the proverbial frog in a lantern's glow. Several other pairs of eyes from around the room had also latched on to him, suspicious and judgmental. Perhaps he could pretend he hadn't heard?
"Yeah, Ezra, have a seat." That was Nathan now, moving his chair over to make room at the table. Vin immediately reached back and dragged a chair from another table into the spot next to him.
Ezra started to move through sheer willpower, forcing wooden legs to bend. The stares went with him, whispers starting up now. It was an old feeling, the looks, the tilts of the head, but one he never got used to.
Chris had turned in his seat, but he wasn't looking at Ezra. His gaze shot over the room, each target falling silent as he was hit. Eyes turned away, back to their plates, embarrassed, losing interest.
Thoroughly bewildered, Ezra made it the last few steps and dropped into the seat that was clearly meant for him.
A chorus of casual greetings from around the table elicited a stuttering response from him, and when Josiah shoved a cup of coffee in front of him, he wrapped his hands gratefully around it, glad for at least something that made sense. He took a sip, checking to see how bitter it was that day . . . and found it had already been sweetened the way he liked.
The conversation at the table had picked up as if he'd never interrupted its flow, easy and familiar. Discussion about rumors of some rustlers in the area, of who would go on patrol that week, of Buck's latest catch. Casey was brought up just to get a blush out of JD. So normal. Hadn't they heard Darby's story?
"Oh, Ezra." That was Chris, leaned back comfortably in his chair, one arm along its back. "We got an answer on that friend of yours from Kansas City. Gave us the legal means to have a little talk with Mr. Darby and escort him to the edge of town. I don't think he intends to return." A smile played at his mouth.
"Not that we wouldn'ta done the same thing without 'legal means,'" Buck grinned.
In fact, they all were starting to, and looking to him for some sort of reaction.
Maybe he was still dreaming? "I- I don't understand," Ezra finally managed.
"I never thought I'd live to see Ezra speechless," Nathan said, laughing.
Vin leaned closer to him. "Y' didn't think we'd let that feller keep spreadin' them lies 'bout ya? We look out fer each other, right?" He nudged Ezra with an elbow.
Rain took a long time to sink into parched ground. He stared at them all, the satisfied smiles, the fond looks, the naturalness of his sitting in their midst even after Darby's vile lies the day before, disbelief giving way to incontrovertible proof.
They'd known. They knew him.
That in itself was frightening, but even more so was how good it felt.
He'd been let off the hook, the conversation continuing on to other topics, letting him nurse his coffee and listen and ease gradually back into the group. Letting the new realization penetrate parts of him he hadn't left unshielded for years. Was it really possible?
Ezra's gaze roamed over them again-his friends-and his eyes caught on JD, smiling knowingly at him across the table. Apparently miracles did still happen, even for luckless cardsharps like himself.
And Ezra, heart unfathomably lightened, smiled back.