Just Another Quiet Morning
Previously published in Let's Ride! 7 (2004)
A tiny crossover with "North & South"
Well, that had been a profitable night's work, Ezra thought cheerfully as he shuffled together the pile of bills and coins on the table in front of him. It had been well worth staying up until . . . what time was it, anyway?
He pulled out his pocket watch, squinting at the face until he could make out the time. Six-twenty? That really had been a full night. But a lucrative one, and Ezra gave the last disgruntled player, just getting to his feet across the table, a friendly smile and tip of the hat good-bye. The man Ezra never had gotten his name grimaced back and stumbled off. No matter, there would always be more. Even in this small town, there were always more.
Ezra stood, swaying a little with fatigue, and slipped the money into a deep hidden pocket in his coat. Now he'd just go add this sizeable contribution to his Saloon Fund, then take a long nap until, oh, dinner time or so to make the day complete. And after dinner he could start over again. Ezra's day didn't begin at the godless hour of dawn like some former tracker-buffalo hunter-and-bounty hunter he knew.
Ezra turned toward the stairs and, stifling a wide yawn, focused on walking a straight line toward them and up to his room.
Halfway up the steps, bootless feet in dirty socks appeared in his vision. Ezra peered at them, raising his head to take in the rest of the large figure bundled in a blanket, only his face showing. Fatigue, or simply another day in Four Corners, Ezra wondered, when he caught sight of the visage beaming hopefully at him through the fringe of the blanket. No, not fatigue, just Buck. Ezra rolled his eyes, nearly lost his balance as a result, and grabbed the banister, continuing upstairs.
"Yes, Mr. Wilmington?" he asked with false patience, not taking his gaze off the stairs.
"You never saw me, okay?"
Ezra had learned long ago not to ask, even if he'd had the slightest shred of interest that morning. "Believe me, Mr. Wilmington, I've already forgotten our encounter." Another foot up. Only a few steps left to go, thank God.
"Thanks, Ezra," came the fervent response behind him, then the odd sound of swishing as the blanketed figure continued to descend.
Ezra promptly did as he'd promised and forgot all about it.
Two more steps to drag himself up, then one, and with a grateful smile, Ezra achieved the landing. Only a few dozen feet now and he'd finally reach that small corner of heaven known as his feather bed. He could already feel the soft bed give beneath him, floating him into sleep. . . .
Sharp footsteps sounded from the end of the hallway nearest his room, and Ezra glanced that way more by habit than interest. Only the lovely Inez Rocillos, whose beauty that morning couldn't compare to his soft pillow, but gentleman that he was, Ezra granted her an absent smile and a tip of his hat. Lord, he was half asleep already, but his room was only three doors down now.
"SeÒor Standish, I am glad to find you. I would ask your help with something."
It took his tired mind a moment to process the words, and Ezra hid a grimace. So close . . . Well, with luck, it would just be a quick question, and he could not refuse a lady. He stopped and rested one hand on the hallway banister, hoping it was not obvious he was using it for support, and patiently cocked his head. "Yes, Ms. Rocillos?"
"There is a barrel of flour in the storeroom outside I would need in the kitchen, but I am not able to move it alone. Would you be so kind as to help me?" And she batted her eyes at him.
He was not usually a man immune to the arts of the opposite sex, but the most beautiful woman in the world could have propositioned him without success just then. However, desire was one thing, an earnest request for help was another, and Ezra could not deny the latter if it was in his power to provide it, no matter how much his own desires called.
But he had to stifle a groan of frustration before giving Inez a tight smile and bowing his head.
"At your service, Miss Rocillos."
Ezra tried not to sigh as he passed by his door on the way down the back stairs after her.
The flour barrel, it turned out, was hidden behind several crates of canned goods and a few bags of sugar and other cooking materials he couldn't have cared less about, and so it took several minutes of manual labor, not to mention a squashed finger and a torn nail, before the requested barrel could be freed.
Ezra finally staggered with it into the kitchen, and with a questioning raise of eyebrows, was directed to a corner by the stove. The accursed barrel dropped gratefully into its spot, he turned to give Inez a tired look.
"Will that be all, Miss Rocillos?" He was almost afraid to ask.
"Oh, yes, thank you so much, SeÒor. But look, you have flour all over your nice coat. Let me"
She was reaching for it already, and he barely jumped out of her way in time. Ezra glanced down at himself, seeing in dismay she was right, it was a dusted mess. But that paled in comparison to the possibility of having to stay there even longer, waiting for his coat to be cleaned while his bed waited seductively upstairs. "It's quite all right, I'll take care of it. You just go back to your . . . cooking or . . . whatever it was you were doing. Thank you."
Not his most eloquent, but the way Inez was still eyeing his coat, Ezra didn't want to risk waiting to think of something better. Bowing his head again, he backed out of the kitchen and beat a hasty retreat.
The stairs looked even longer than before, but there was no helping that. He would have climbed twice as much to reach his bed. Resigned, Ezra started up again, already starting to doze as he went.
The startlement was so sudden, he nearly slipped down the stairs. Ezra caught himself just in time, and froze for a moment in mid-climb.
No. No, no, no way was he going to deal with the endless enthusiasm of JD Dunne after having gone nearly twenty-four hours without sleep. He would be forced to shoot the young man, and then Buck would never let him rest.
It wasn't the first time he'd pretended to be deaf. Ezra continued resolutely up the stairs, trying not to look like he was fleeing.
The pluck at the sleeve of his jacket said that young JD was moving much more quickly than Ezra was that morning, unsurprisingly. Ezra wilted inside at the thought of yet another interruption. His bed. . .
. . . wouldn't be going anywhere. And, to be honest, Ezra was rather fond of JD Dunne. The young sheriff could be more excitable than a pup and had a sense of humor that could only be called painful, but his innocence was refreshing, as was his lack of cynicism. He hadn't judged Ezra or assumed the worst about him at the start like so many others did, including some of the members of their little band, and for that Ezra owed the young man. A few moments of his time would not be too great a sacrifice, even if JD had no idea just how much of a sacrifice it was.
Ezra turned to the youngest member of the Seven and gave him a small smile. "Mr. Dunne?"
JD's eyes widened as he took in the sight of Ezra's clothes. "Hey, what happened to you?"
Ezra's smile grew pained. "Believe me, Mr. Dunne, it is not something on which I wish to dwell. You were going to say. . .?"
"Huh? Oh, yeah. Look, uh, Ezra, I sorta need some advice about something. I was gonna ask Buck, but I can't find him anywhere, and Vin said you knew about how to deal with, uh. . ." He glanced around, leaned closer, and Ezra automatically leaned in, too, to hear this confidence. ". . . girls," JD pronounced with gravity.
"Ah." Ezra's smile widened understandingly. "Having troubles with Miss Wells, Mr. Dunne?"
The young sheriff colored. "I didn't say Aw, yeah, I am. I mean, first she said she didn't want anything for her birthday. So I didn't get her anything, and now she's mad at me! She says if I don't know why, then to forget it. I don't get it. I did what she said. If she wanted a present, why didn't she just say so?"
"Well, you've come to the right place, Mr. Dunne. Have a seat." Giving the upstairs landing one last regretful glance, Ezra tramped back down the few stairs he'd managed to climb and slid into a chair next to JD at a free table. "Now then, let me tell you something about the fairer sex. They rarely mean what they say."
"You see, JD, women have this convoluted notion that any man who truly loves them will be able to know their every thought and desire without their even voicing it indeed, even if they say the opposite. This has led to the age-old ritual of hapless males attempting to deduce the desires of their chosen female's heart, and inevitably getting it wrong and being scorned and rejected by said female for doing so."
JD gaped at him.
Ezra's mouth quirked. "Casey wanted a gift," he said simply.
"Oh. Well, why didn't she say so?"
"From what I understand, all strictly secondhand, of course, to say so would have been viewed as, er, possibly mercenary and too simple. Part of the gift she expected was your comprehension of her real wishes."
JD was starting to look dizzy.
Ezra sighed. "She wanted to make you work for it, JD."
Dunne flushed. "Why? I'm already buyin' the gift. Why do I have to guess, too?"
"That, my young friend, is the eternal question. All I can tell you is, the bauble you purchase is only part of the gift. The other part is that you took the time and effort to know her well enough to know that she wanted a gift in the first place, and what to purchase for her. And, Mr. Dunne, they always want a gift."
"Oh. I guess I can understand that."
Ezra blinked at him. "You can?"
"Sure. My ma always said it wasn't just the cost that counted, it was the thought that went into a gift."
Ezra tried to picture Maude expressing the same sentiment, and gave it up as futile. The cost had been the only thing that had ever counted with his mother. He cleared his throat. "Well, Mr. Dunne, it appears you are well ahead of most of us in the art of romance then. Have you given some thought to what you might purchase for Miss Wells?"
"Oh, that part's easy." JD grinned at him. "I'm gonna buy her a rifle."
Ezra swallowed wrong and had to cough to clear his throat before he could speak. "A rifle?" he repeated dumbly.
JD was giving him that puzzled look again. "Yeah, she's been wanting one a long time and I was saving up for it already. Miss Nettie says she's old enough to learn how to use one. I'm gonna teach her."
"Ah. Yes, well, that sounds very . . . romantic. I'm sure the young lady will be delighted," Ezra said weakly.
"Thanks, Ezra. Hey, I'll let you know how it goes." He bounded up and out of the saloon as Ezra watched him go, shaking his head. Buying a paramour a rifle. Well, perhaps it was the way of the West. He just hoped the hot-tempered young lady wouldn't ever be tempted to use it on her ardent lover.
Well, he washed his hands of the affair; young Dunne would just have to take his chances on that one. Grateful to have that settled, Ezra wearily rose and started to turn toward the stairs. His bed was calling, a siren song as sweet as any he'd heard, and he was more than ready to answer.
Vin Tanner was walking into the saloon just as JD was going out. Ezra caught the motion out of the corner of his eye as he rounded the last table between him and those infernal stairs. The entrance would have been wholly unremarkable except that Ezra couldn't help but notice the tracker putting out a hand to catch JD before the sheriff left, missing him by inches. Even the gambler's weary eyes caught the twinge of disappointment in Tanner's face, quickly hidden, before the tracker swept the nearly empty saloon with his gaze, his eyes moving with only the slightest hitch past Ezra. Disappointed again, Vin turned and headed back toward the saloon doors.
With a piece of paper clutched unfamiliarly in one hand.
Ezra's gaze narrowed. Vin Tanner couldn't read, a fact the six of them had figured out along the way even though Tanner had never told them outright. The closest he'd come was asking Ezra to write a poem down for him once, which Ezra, drunk and disappointed at the time, had greeted with unkind laughter. He'd deeply regretted it once he'd sobered up, but not surprisingly, Tanner had never given him an opportunity to make it up to him. Once burned Ezra knew the feeling, and couldn't blame the man.
And found himself forgetting about his bed as he stepped forward and called, "Mr. Tanner?"
Vin's eyes caught on him, unusually wary. "Ezra," he bobbed his head.
Ezra had nearly caught up to him by then, and he lowered his voice. "May I . . . be of some service?"
"Don't know what ya mean," Vin said slowly.
That, too, was deserved. They all had their pride. Ezra backed off, voice becoming nonchalant. "I'm certain after riding patrol in the early hours of the morning, the dust in one's eyes makes it difficult to read. I was wondering if I could perhaps . . . offer you another pair of eyes?" His gaze was intent.
Tanner gave him a long look, and apparently heard the unspoken contrition. His eyes warmed, warming something in Ezra, too. "That'd be right nice of ya, Ezra," he said with a small smile, and offered the piece of paper he held. "Got this letter, can't figure who from. Everyone I know's here."
Ezra took the paper respectfully, and waved a hand toward a table in the front corner of the saloon. He followed Vin to it, then sat next to the man and focused his fatigue-blurred vision on the thin, slanted handwriting.
"It begins, 'My Dear Vincent.'" He looked up at Vin, a grin twisting his mouth. "'Vincent'?"
Vin scowled at him. "Keep readin'."
A year ago, the tracker would have snatched the paper back, Ezra couldn't help but think, the trust thin between the seven of them. Now, he could tease, and was always unaccountably pleased when he was teased back. What a difference a year could make.
Shaking his head once at the marvel, Ezra returned to the letter.
"'I'm your mother's sister, Maude.' Popular name," Ezra added under his breath. "'We've never met, but I have spent a good part of the last twenty years trying to track you down. The news about Anna's death'" Ezra glanced up at Vin in sober question.
"That was my ma's name," Tanner said quietly. "Annabelle." His eyes were distant.
"A lovely name," Ezra murmured, then ducked his head back to the letter to give Tanner his privacy. "'The news of Anna's death came to us too late to be there for the funeral, and by the time I could ask about you, you were gone. It was only by chance that a friend of the family mentioned meeting you while passing through Four Corners. I hope I have caught you before you've also moved on.
"'You're a grown man now, Vincent, and I don't want to interfere with the life you've made for yourself. But we my husband William and I want you to know you are welcome in our home any time, and that we would like to meet you someday. You also have four cousins who I'm sure would also very much like to get to know you. I hope you honor us with a visit sometime, and that you can find the time to write me how you're doing. I'm sure you've become the fine young man my sister always wanted you to be.
"'Your loving aunt, Mrs. William Hazard, Philadelphia, PA.'"
Ezra pursed his lips, taking his time folding the letter neatly into thirds before glancing obliquely up at Vin. "She sounds like a kind woman."
Vin still had that distant look in his eyes, but he was smiling. He swallowed before briefly meeting Ezra's gaze, then looking away. "Sounds a lot like my ma."
Ezra studied him, not the way he assessed a mark, but with the still-new interest of a friend. "Did you know you had family in Philadelphia?" he asked gently.
A shake of the head. The tracker had never been talkative, but he seemed stunned now.
Ezra smiled and reached out the folded letter. "Then let me be the first to congratulate you on your rediscovered relations."
"Thanks, Ez." Vin took the letter, sliding it carefully once more into the pocket of his coat. "Uh, my handwritin' still ain't too good you think maybe sometime. . .?"
It meant more to him than he could say to be asked. "I would be honored, Vin," Ezra said solemnly.
Another flash of a grin, and the tracker tipped a finger to his hat before he stood and slipped out of the saloon.
Wouldn't his mother have been astonished by that scene, Ezra mused with a wistful grin, or by the fact that her high-born son actually considered a friend a man who had more common with the Indians than with him. It would almost be worth mentioning to her just to see her reaction.
And if he was thinking like that, he definitely had to be sleep-deprived. Ezra shook his head, trying to dust the cobwebs out, and gave it up as a lost cause. It was long past time to sleep, he thought, eyelids growing heavy again as he stumbled out of his chair and turned back toward those ever-lengthening steps.
He didn't hear the batwing doors swing open or the footfalls, and nearly missed the urgent call of his name. Ezra lurched to a stop. Urgent call?
He groaned. Nathan Jackson. A man on whom the label of "friend" fit a little less comfortably, but who still had grudgingly won that place in Ezra's esteem. It hadn't stopped the healer, however, from taking advantage of any occasion to give Ezra grief or batter him with a little guilt. Neither of which was he particularly up for at that moment.
Still, it was rude to walk away from a friend's call, particularly one that sounded distressed, and Ezra reluctantly turned back, hoping against all hope Nathan merely wished to say hello.
"Mr. Jackson," he said with extreme politeness.
"Ezra, I need some help and you're the only one I can find."
That never boded well. "But Mr. Tanner"
Nathan sharply shook his head. "I ain't got time to look right now. Mrs. Pritchard's 'bout to have her baby and I need to pick up some things and go find Miss Ellie to help."
Ezra's eyes widened, sleep momentarily forgotten. Had Nathan said having a baby ? He gave the healer a horrified look. "Surely you're not suggestin'"
"I don't need you to do anything, just go up and sit with Mrs. Pritchard 'til I get back. Daniel's over in Eagle Bend for the day and she's all by herself. Just go up and hold her hand for a little bit. Use some of those fancy words on her; get her mind off the pain."
There was pain? Of course there was pain labor was painful. Ezra knew that, his mind just didn't seem to be working at the moment, probably still trying to grasp what Nathan was asking him. Ezra kicked it frantically into starting up again. "What if I go find Miss Ellie and retrieve your supplies?" he stammered.
"You don't know what I need. Ezra, you gonna sit with that poor woman or not?" Nathan added impatiently.
Giving him that look again that Ezra could recognize even through the haze of fatigue and fear, the look that said he was just waiting for Ezra to live down to his expectations and be a disappointment yet again. If he had any idea how much that look hurt, maybe he would've thought more kindly of his fellow peacekeeper, but that was a moot point now. Ezra scraped his jaw up off the floor and gathered his tattered pride around him. "Of course, but what if?"
"There ain't gonna be a 'what if' I'll be back before anything happens."
"I'm certain Mrs. Pritchard will be happy to wait," Ezra said dryly, but it was to an empty doorway. Nathan was already disappearing down the saloon steps. Which left Ezra to go sit with the suffering woman who was about to do what he had delicately shied away from even imagining before.
Ezra glanced up at the ceiling in painful silence. Why him?
But he didn't hesitate a moment longer to walk out the door.
He could hear the woman's moans even as he climbed Nathan's steps, and it took all Ezra's willpower not to turn tail and run. He'd never run out on a woman in need before, but this . . . surely this was not a gentleman's place? The birthing room was for women and doctors, while the men waited in the saloon for news.
Speaking of which, on the landing outside the door, Ezra paused to pull out his flask and take a healthy swig before entering. False courage, but he would take what he could get. Pulling in a deep breath, he opened the door.
And flinched at the wail that immediately greeted his ears.
Mrs. Pritchard, a pleasant if homely farmer's wife Ezra had a faint memory of seeing around town, lay on Nathan's bed, the blanket over her not obscuring the large bulge of her stomach. Both her hands were twined in the blanket and her face was red and tear-streaked, contorted in the cry that nearly had Ezra bolting again.
The keening ended as suddenly as it began, and the unfortunate woman subsided, panting . . . and finally noticed Ezra.
"Who're you?" she groaned.
"Me?" Ezra tore himself loose from the latch he held with white-knuckled grip, and gave the woman a smile he suspected was rather sickly. "Um, Ezra P. Standish, at your service, madam." He stepped forward, tipping his hat and then standing there awkwardly, unsure of how to proceed.
"Oh. I've seen you before. Mr. Jackson's friend." Mrs. Pritchard seemed to be calming, although her breaths still came in gasps.
Now that was something he'd never been called before, but Ezra hesitated only a moment before nodding. "Mr. Jackson asked me to come and . . . keep you company until he was able to return with some supplies and the midwife."
"Please . . . sit down and" Her face drew together and she seemed to forget about him as her hands dug into the bed again and she moaned.
Ezra winced in empathy this time, and sat quickly in the chair drawn up to the side of the bed. Then, more hesitantly, reached to pat the woman's tense shoulder. That seemed to do little good, however, and with even greater hesitation, Ezra laid a hand over one of her work-roughened ones.
Mrs. Pritchard immediately let go of the blanket and clutched him instead, fingers taut with agony.
Her grip was so hard it hurt, but Ezra was better at hiding that kind of discomfort. And it bothered him even less when the mother-to-be turned and gave him a faint smile. He even found himself smiling back in earnest. This wasn't so bad.
Then the next wave hit.
While she mangled his hand, he fumbled with his free one for the basin on the bedside table and the cloth hanging out of it. Water, no doubt for the patient, and Ezra took the liberty of bathing the strained face with it then, rinsing it out, wiping it once over his own face as well. He was starting to perspire nearly as much as Mrs. Pritchard.
"Ezra," she gasped when she could breathe again, while he surreptitiously wiggled his hand to make sure all the bones were intact. "That's a . . . nice name. What's the . . . 'P' stand for?"
"Not 'paternal,'" Ezra muttered, and just gave her another smile as she glanced at him, questioning.
Lord, was Nathan going for help at the other end of the territory?
Yet another wave of pain contractions, if Ezra remembered correctly and he tried to recall if they should be coming this closely together. He had no intention of delivering his first baby that day, certainly not without recent sleep. His bed was starting to seem like an unattainable fantasy.
Mrs. Pritchard cried out, and Ezra's attention returned completely to the miserable woman.
And then, thank God, the door opened and Nathan walked in with a handful of supplies and the midwife just behind him.
Ezra waited out the contraction before gently disengaging his cramped and crumpled hand, grateful more than he could say when the midwife stepped in to take his place by the bed. He couldn't get to the clinic door fast enough.
"Mr. Standish . . . thank you." The words from the bed were faint, but Ezra heard them, and turned to answer.
Nathan was just drawing the blanket up, Mrs. Pritchard's knees already visible.
Ezra bolted from the room.
If he hadn't feared Nathan would come after him and ask him to help in some other fashion with the birth, Ezra would have sagged right there on the landing, weak with fatigue from the ordeal and relief at being rescued from it. As it was, he didn't feel safe until he'd staggered down the steps and lunged around the corner, out of sight of the healer's doorway. Surely he was out of harm's way there, and Ezra leaned wearily against the rough wall behind him, massaging his crushed hand.
A soft sound of movement came from the direction of the stairs, and Ezra stiffened, ready to flee if Nathan had indeed followed him down. He nearly collapsed with relief to see instead the now poncho-covered but still unmistakable form of Buck Wilmington peek around the corner.
"Hey, Ez," the older man hissed, gaze darting down the street past Ezra.
"Yes, Mr. Wilmington," he drawled back.
"You seen anybody around?"
"Indeed. Too many people, in fact." At least circulation seemed to be returning to his hand.
"Anyone looking for me?"
Ezra rolled his eyes. "Miss Recillos, Mr. Dunne, Mr. Jackson, and possibly Mr. Tanner. Unfortunately, I sufficed in your stead."
"That's good," Buck answered distractedly, still searching up and down the street.
Ezra raised an eyebrow. "May I ask what you're doing in Mr. Sanchez's poncho?"
Wilmington gave him a wide grin. "I'm in disguise. If anyone asks, you didn't see me, all right?"
"Of course not," Ezra said dryly. Not that anyone asked for Buck, they just jumped on Ezra, instead.
Buck gave him a wink, then disappeared back behind the saloon.
Ezra shook his head, too tired to sigh, then determinedly squared his shoulders and strode back toward the saloon door. He was going to go to bed now, come hell or
Ezra didn't even fight it, just stopped where he was and turned to look helplessly at the approaching preacher, resisting the urge to fold right where he stood. At that point, he could have slept on a cactus.
"Yes, Mr. Sanchez?" he said dully.
Josiah jogged across the street toward him, smiling more pleasantly than usual. At least someone was having a good day. "Would you have a minute, Ezra? I need a hand with something."
"All the time in the world," Ezra said with thin sarcasm.
Which rarely seemed to work on Josiah. "You're a godsend, Ezra. Need to pick up some lumber for the church from Mr. Wilks and I could use someone to help carry it down."
Manual labor. Wonderful. The day was just getting better and better.
Then again, it beat keeping company with a woman in the throes of labor.
"At your service, Mr. Sanchez," Ezra muttered, and stumbled off the saloon porch to follow the older man.
"Some lumber" turned out to be an understatement. It seemed Josiah had enough to easily replace a whole wall of the church, and even with two of them it took four trips to get the boards down to the other end of town. Somewhere along the second one, Ezra succumbed to fatigue and dozed on his feet, moving mechanically where Josiah led, oblivious to the splinters that dug into his hands or the sawdust that further defiled his coat. When the last board was dropped onto of the pile by the church, it took significant effort not to curl up on them and surrender himself completely to the beckon of delightful sleep.
Instead, he was bewildered to find himself being brushed off with large sweeps of Josiah's hand, Ezra's whole body swaying with each brush.
"I'm sorry, Ezra guess I should've thought about what this would do to your fancy clothes. I hope this washes out. . ."
The situation would have demanded embarrassment or laughter under other circumstances, but Ezra barely summoned the strength to disengage himself from the larger man's attentions. "Please, I assure you, I'm. . ." He lost his train of thought. "Please, don't concern yourself. I must be going."
That sounded right. Ezra tipped a hand dizzily to his hat, realized he wasn't wearing it, and wondered only for a moment where he'd lost it, before the thought of sleep swept it all from his mind. Drunk with the thought of bed, Ezra staggered away, barely hearing Josiah's parting greeting and thanks.
Thanks. They could thank him by letting him sleep until the weekend. If he could only make it to his bed. . . .
He nearly bumped into the woman who somehow appeared in his path, and Ezra blinked for a moment at the shapely figure in front of his eyes before looking up into the deepest violet eyes and creamiest skin he'd ever seen. The latter reminded him of his satin bed sheets, reminding him of the waiting bliss, and Ezra touched a hand more or less to his nonexistent hat brim and made to stumble around her.
"Excuse me, sir, but do you know Buck Wilmington?"
It took the question a moment to push itself through his foggy brain, and Ezra stopped, unsteadily. "Too well, ma'am," he slurred, and turned to keep going.
"Wait! I'm looking for him. Have you seen him around?"
If Buck was hiding from her, he was crazy. No, the whole town was crazy. And they could just go hang themselves for all Ezra cared at that moment. But he stopped again, giving her a slow-blinking look. "Madam, I believe I should tell you that. . ." He frowned. ". . . Mr. Wilmington is avoiding you because. . ." Ezra had to think a second, and then brightened. ". . . he didn't wish to hurt your feelings with the revelation that he. . ." He leaned in conspiratorially, the woman following suit. ". . . is currently married to three different women scattered across two territories."
The violet eyes grew huge.
He went to tip his hat, his hand sliding down into a salute when it didn't find his hat again, and he gave her a grin. "Good day, madam." And he lurched on his way.
The morning stage was just pulling in before the saloon as he reached it, and Ezra waited in half-asleep patience as the few passengers disembarked and crossed in front of him, including a well-dressed man in a tailored suit with gold cufflinks and watch chain. Even barely conscious, Ezra could smell the money.
The man glanced around, his gaze catching on Ezra, and even though he frowned at his stained clothing, stepped up to him nonetheless. "Sir, I was wondering if you could tell me if I could find a game in this town?"
Ezra's mind stopped. Just completely ceased for a moment as he gaped. His tongue stumbled on without it. "A game?"
"Certainly. I'm only in town for the day, but I was hoping to find a worthy opponent or two."
Only for the day. That phrase connected, and Ezra blinked, feeling new life stirring in his foggy mind. Perhaps with a few . . . dozen . . . cups of coffee and . . . well, how could he resist an offer like that?
"Of course, sir. I'd be happy to oblige." The words slipped smoothly out of his mouth before he could give them final consideration, and already he was ushering the new mark into the saloon. It wasn't as if he'd never played on days without sleep, right?
But the sight of the steps leading up to his room, the comfortable feather bed he could easily picture just behind the door, nearly made him weep.
Straightening his spine, Ezra tore his gaze from the promised land and gave the gentleman a wan smile. "If you'll have a seat," he indicated his favorite gaming table.
The man nodded and took his place, Ezra plodding after him.
Until his arm was secured in an iron grasp. Ezra looked up, confused but frowning, at the man who had stopped him.
Chris Larabee was staring right through him, eyes as sharp as they were dark. "I thought you were going to bed."
The very word made him weak in the knees. "As did I," Ezra said mournfully.
"Well, if you're staying up then, I got a report for you to check after lunch. The Browns up north have reported some missing cattle."
Ezra stared at him, not willing to believe what he'd just heard. "Can't any of"
"Josiah's workin' on the church, Nathan's got a patient, JD's out of town visiting Casey, can't find Buck, and Vin was out all night on patrol. I was gonna let you sleep, but if you're up for playing, you're up for riding." His grin was without mirth. Or compromise.
Ezra didn't twitch a muscle. "Of course, Mr. Larabee," he said calmly. "I'd be only too happy to."
Chris's eyes narrowed briefly, then he nodded, letting Ezra go. "Oh, and Ezra? Clean yourself up before you go." There was a touch of sardonic humor in his eyes now as he spun away and strode across the saloon to the bar.
Ezra stared at him blankly for a moment before returning to the new arrival. "Excuse me a moment, sir," he said politely, nodding, and turned away to march to the back of the saloon and out into the alley behind it.
Then tipped back his head and screamed silently at the sky, kicking the sturdy wall of the saloon several times for good measure.
Sleep, a life, freedom, solitude when had he given it all up? And for what, friends? A home? Who needed it?
Ezra stood a moment, a hand over his gritty eyes, and finally raised his head to blink at the dim alley. The answer was simple: he did. A lot more than that feather bed upstairs.
In fact, it didn't even compare. And for a man who was used to worrying only about his own needs, that said a lot.
Next time, though, it would be different. Next time he'd say no and go off to sleep, and let them. . .
Ezra sighed in resignation. Oh, who was he kidding?
A minute later, a straightened and dusted-off Ezra Standish limped back into the saloon and slid into his seat at the poker table, giving his opponent a pleasant grin. Stifling a yawn, Ezra pulled out a pack of cards and carefully began to shuffle.
"Now, then, shall we play?"