The flames from the small fire flickered over the huddled group of individuals as the storm raged and howled outside. They did not often find themselves all together unless they were frequenting the saloon or the Sheriffs Office but for some reason circumstance had driven the seven peacemakers of the small western town to seek each others company on this miserable autumn night.
Josiah Sanchez leaned forward and shoved another small log into the mouth of the glowing stove. As patron of the shabby little church he considered himself the host of the evening and had done his best to ensure that the impromptu party with his friends had been entertaining. There had been liquor which he felt the good lord would certainly not mind in the spirit of brotherhood and there had been games; charades which young JD had excelled at and cards which had not lasted too long as Ezra kept winning. Then there had been story-telling, each member of the group endeavouring to outdo his compatriots with the spinning of taller and taller tales. But now they had fallen silent, each of them content to gaze into the orange and scarlet glow of the flames until Ezra Standish smiled to himself and said quietly,
"Would you gentlemen care to try another game?"
"What kind of a game?" asked Nathan Jackson stirring his feet slightly to sit a little more upright. "We told you we ain't letting' you take any more of our money tonight."
"No, no, not a game of chance." The Southerner rested his elbows on his thighs, his green eyes gleaming like a cat. "This is a mind game."
"What do you have to do?" Asked Vin Tanner frowning. "You know I don't care too much for schooling."
"Just some questions in the form of a little tale." Ezra grinned. "Rather akin to fabricatin' your own fairy tale."
"Sounds a bit dumb to me." Buck Wilmington yawned and stretched, his long rangy frame sliding a little way off the hard wooden pew he was sitting on.
"I might have expected such an obtuse reply from you Mr. Wilmington."
"What the hell's that supposed to mean?"
"It is common knowledge that your lower appendages do more thinking for you than those above your waist."
"Now just you wait a second there, Standish!" The tall man sat bolt upright his moustache twitching with offended temper.
"Just cool it Buck," Chris Larabee said quietly. "No one said you had to do anything."
"That's right," Ezra said carelessly. "It's not a game for the slow witted or those with something' to hide."
"I'm gonna smack that smug southern smile right off of your face!" Buck made to stand up but was interrupted by JD who said quickly with an anxious glance at his agitated friend,
"I'll play your game Ezra. What do I have to do?"
"Very well." Ezra sat straighter and grinned broadly at the boy. "All you have to do is answer these questions as I ask them."
"Alright. Imagine yourself riding through some country you've never seen before."
"Kinda hard to imagine somewhere if you never seen it." Muttered Buck sullenly.
Standish glared at him and said,
"Try. You will be amazed at the power between your ears if you only unleash it occasionally."
"OK, I'm imagining." JD Dunne was sitting with his eyes squeezed tightly closed. In the half light he looked very young.
"Very well. Now picture a house appearing before you."
"What kinda house?"
Ezra sighed heavily.
"That is the point JD. I am asking you to describe to me a dwelling which is the product of your imagination."
"Oh. OK." The boy squeezed his eyes even tighter and was silent for several moments.
"You gone to sleep in there JD?" Vin Tanner laughed.
"No, no, I'm just picturing this house." He replied. "It's kinda big, bigger than you'd expect to find out in the middle of nowhere and it's all built of brick with pane glass windows and fancy drapes." He smiled to himself before continuing," It's the kinda house every man would secretly like for his own. Big and solid and respectable."
Ezra raised one eyebrow at JD's words as if considering carefully what the boy had described then he said,
"Now I want you to go inside this house. Just by the door you'll see three things, tell us what they are?"
JD thought hard again.
"I can see a medal of some kind like a big shiny silver dollar on a ribbon and a flower of some sort, I think it's a rose." His voice dropped to a murmur as he said slowly, "Except it kinda makes me think of Casey when I look at it." he flinched regretting the words and finished hastily, " and I see a gun, a big silver Colt with pearl handles and smoothed down sights."
Buck snorted and muttered something about dime novels but was shushed by the others who seemed to be captivated by JD's words.
"Well, whilst you are standing admiring these wonderful objects you hear a sound behind you and you realise that a bear, a great big angry she- bear has crept up behind you and is headin' towards the house. Now, how do you react to this predicament?"
"That's easy," JD grinned broadly. "I call to all of you to come help me chase it away!"
"You're supposed to be on your own boy!" Buck roared.
"Mr. Wilmington," Ezra said sharply," There are no wrong or right answers to this game. Kindly let JD continue. Very often it is in the nature of this exercise for the words that emerge not to be the ones that were necessarily expected or intended."
He turned back to JD. "So, the bear has gone. Kindly continue on through the building to the kitchen. On the great pine table you find there are two things, please, tell us what they are and what you intend to do with them?"
"Well," JD seemed perturbed by whatever it was his mind's eye was showing him.
"Go on son," Josiah urged gently.
"I can see a pair of boots, big boots with buckles on 'em and I can see pants. Big long pants just lying there on the table and I'm picking them up 'cause I want to put them on but somehow I just can't figure which way to get my legs into them."
A roar of laughter erupted at JD's revelation and the boy opened his eyes his face flushed and angry.
"What are you all laughing at?" he demanded. "At least I wasn't scared!"
His last outburst was directed at Buck who's laughter had been the loudest. The big mans' face sobered.
"I ain't scared of no stupid game."
"Why should I? It's dumb!"
"Quit your name calling boy and listen to real story then!"
Buck glared at each of the men around him in turn daring them to say any more then he began his version of the tale.
"See, now I'm riding along just listening to the birds and smiling 'cause the sun is shining and all at once I see this magnificent bordello rising up in front of me. It has fancy net curtains and more beautiful ladies lounging around outside of it than you could shake a stick at,"
"Is that what you're shaking at them?" Chris Larabee grinned quietly. Buck snorted with laughter, his good nature already back in place as he got into the game.
"Well, for now anyways." He waggled his dark eyebrows comically and went on," So up the steps I go and there inside the door is a great big feather bed and a big old bottle of whisky and the loveliest of all the women there just a waiting for me to come and have some fun."
Several snickers and ribald remarks greeted Buck's scenario which became guffaws of laughter as he said,
"And then that big old bear turns up." He looked at his friend enquiringly. "You did say it was a she-bear didn't you?"
"I did Mr. Wilmington," Ezra replied with a nod and a smile.
"Well then I just grab her round the neck and give her the biggest kiss she's ever had in her life."
"I'd sure run away at that point," Nathan spluttered.
"And then I turn her round and give her a big old kick on her big old butt and she just runs away howlin, for her babies leaving me and the lovely lady of my vision to become better acquainted."
"You have to go through to the kitchen first Buck," JD broke in.
"Oh, yeah" Buck closed his eyes and then became very still.
"What is it Buck? What do you see?" Vin asked quietly.
" Well first up I see a big ole dish of fancy cakes just waiting for me to dive in and eat my share and next to that I...I see a picture," The man said softly with a catch in his voice. "A picture of...of...my momma. I pick it up and hold it real close to my heart.
Silence enveloped the group of men for several moments and when Buck opened his eyes there were drops of moisture glistening at the corners.
"Where the hell did that come from?" he asked himself quietly.
"How about you Josiah?" Nathan said to cover Buck's discomfort. "Reckon you could do better?"
"Doing better ain't the point is it?" the burly ex-priest asked Ezra.
"No sir," the green eyed gambler replied. "As I said, there are no right or wrong answers."
"Well then, I see myself riding through a wood. It's dark and close pressing in on all sides and there's rain setting in." He glanced up at the shuddering rafters. "Kind of like tonight and as I look for somewhere to stay I come across this broken down old place all choked up with weeds and neglected. You can tell that it must have been a mighty fine place at one time but no-one has bothered with it for so long now that it looks almost beyond saving."
Ezra leaned back against his pew and said," Interesting choice of words Mr. Sanchez."
Josiah's ice blue eyes burned brightly in the warm light but he did not acknowledge the southerners comment with anything beyond a small tight smile.
"I have to push real hard to get the door open enough to go in," He said, "And there inside the door is an old bible; one of those big family ones with locks on the edge. The lock on this one has rusted shut. Next to it is a hammer and some nails and beside them is a drawing book full of drawings like the ones my sister used to draw when we were children."
"That's four things!" said Buck indignantly at the same time that JD blurted out,
"I didn't know you had a sister!"
Josiah ignored both of them and carried on speaking.
"That she bear starts growling behind me and at first I try to reason with her. I tell her I don't want to hurt her and leave her babies without a mother but in the end she just won't go so I have to fight with her. We wrestle until both of us are too tired to remember why we started fighting. She turns tail and leaves and I go back inside."
"Tell me Mr. Sanchez, have you encountered this riddle before?" Ezra Standish's hair glowed scarlet in the eerie light of the stove.
Josiah's teeth gleamed briefly and he continued without answering.
"In the kitchen of this sad old house there's a plate of dry old communion wafers and a cup of wine. I pick the wafers up and raise them to my mouth but they crumble to dust before they ever reach my lips. When I sip the wine it turns to vinegar in mouth"
"This is turning into one heavy old game," Nathan muttered. "Maybe we should stop?"
"Why brother Nathan, are you afraid?"
"You have done this before haven't you?" Ezra enquired with suspicious narrowed eyes.
Again Josiah grinned and looked away.
"Hell no I ain't afraid," Nathan said nervously. "It's just a game right?"
"Nothing more," Ezra agreed.
"Alright." The former slave swallowed hard and closed his eyes as he pictured his scene. "First off, I see a place of healing. Some kind of sanctuary or temple where no-one in need is ever turned away or left to suffer. It's just a plain old looking place but safe and solid and hidden away from everyone except those who need to find it."
Several sets of eyebrows were raised in surprise by his words. Nathan plunged on, his voice growing steadier as he gave himself up to the game.
"Inside the door there are surgical instruments, steel ones, all shiny and new; and books with every kind of cure for every kind of ill written in their pages and there is a brass plate. One of those ones you see outside of a fancy doctor's house back East." His voice dropped to whisper. "And it has my name on it."
Nathan hesitated as if unwilling to continue and to everyone's surprise it was Ezra who leaned forward and gently laid his hand on his companion's arm.
"It's alright Nathan, you are among friends."
Nathan swallowed hard the ebony planes of his face shining with a slick of sweat.
"I go out to meet that bear and I put down a bowl of food for her. When she eats it she falls over snoring 'cause I filled that grub with laudanum." Chuckles all round the group greeted the man's novel approach to the problem.
"So I leave her sleeping and go into that kitchen and there I find my Daddy and my Mother and I hug them both so hard I feel I'll never let them go." The speaker sniffed once gathering his obvious emotion back in. "And there's a child too. My child. And I pick him up and I hold him and I tell him never to be afraid 'cause I'm his Daddy and I love him!"
Nathan's eyes popped open. The face of every man around him was illuminated with awe at his vision.
"Don't reckon I can come up with anything like that," Vin Tanner said softly.
"That is exactly the point of this exercise Mr. Tanner. To see what does come up."
Vin's blue eyes looked doubtful and he scrubbed one calloused hand over the sandy bristles of his jaw before beginning haltingly,
"Well I see a cabin. One of them log one's like the homesteaders build. Ain't that much to look at from the outside but it's sturdy and strong and inside it's warm and safe with everything you could need to be happy."
He glanced warily around at the others but they were all listening eagerly, even Buck had become more attentive as the revelations had gone on.
"First thing I see inside is a bridle with a shiny silver bit and plaited reins and then there's a book full of stories that I can read when the winter comes and its too cold and wet to work. And there's a woman," he said shyly. "A soft pretty woman whose face lights up like the sun when she sees me."
He stopped and took a swallow of water before continuing.
"The bear don't bother us none 'cause I've already set traps round the place and we're safe but if it should get through somehow there's a rifle on the wall with telescope sights and I could use it to kill that bear before it got anywhere close to us. In the kitchen there's a big plate of grub and a big pot of coffee that's been made just for me by the pretty woman and I sit down and eat my fill."
All of his friends were smiling at the picture of simple happiness Vin had woven. Buck sighed heavily and said,
"Seems you're the easiest to please of all of us pard."
"Well I don't know about that," Josiah said. "We haven't heard from Ezra or Chris yet."
"Yeah how 'bout it Chris?" Buck teased. "You gonna share?"
The lean sharp featured man tipped back the chair he was sitting on and gestured towards Ezra.
"I will if you will."
"Oh, now, Mr. Larabee," Ezra began. "I can hardly take part since I am already privy to the significance of the questions."
"Ah, come on Ezra!" Said JD.
"Fair's fair, brother," From Josiah.
"Seems to me you must've taken part in this game at some point without knowing the answers," Chris said quietly.
"Well, yes," the green eyed man admitted. "That is how I became acquainted with it."
Ezra shifted in his seat.
"The revelations were somewhat....uncomfortable."
"Well, I tell you what," Larabee said with a cool smile. "You share your "revelations" with us and I'll share mine with all of you."
"You expect me to trust you by going first?" The gambler raised a disbelieving eyebrow.
"I do," Chris replied.
"Very well then," Ezra agreed after a surprisingly short period of consideration. "Though it pains me to do so I will relate honestly what my answers were the first time the questions were asked of me. But I will not," he insisted, "tell you all what they mean until Mr. Larabee has completed his part of the bargain."
"Agreed," Chris nodded.
"The house I described was exceedingly attractive," he began. "One of the magnificent old plantation houses from the days of southern glory with a tree lined drive, shutters and gables, pillars and stone steps leading up to big solid door. Inside the house however there was very little to be seen. The place was almost empty except for a few exceptionally fine pieces scattered here and there, almost as if the place needed finishing; filling up."
Ezra paused and the others noticed that the hand which lifted his glass to his lips was almost imperceptibly trembling.
"The three objects on the table were a portrait of my mother, a locked box with no key and a deck of playing cards. When the bear showed up I flung the locked box out of the window next to the door, when the bear turned around to see what the noise was I shut the door and fortified it by pushing a table in front of it. The two objects in the kitchen were a hat and a looking glass. I put on the hat, used the looking glass to ensure my face was hidden and then threw the glass onto the floor where it smashed like fake diamonds all across the flagstones."
The pain in the young man's eyes as he finished speaking was unmistakeable.
"How many other people you told that to?" Chris Larabee asked him.
"Only one," Ezra replied in careful neutral voice. "The person who taught me the riddle in the first place."
The man in black nodded slowly, removed the cheroot from his mouth and studied it intently then he laid it carefully on the pew beside him and spoke.
"Deal's a deal. The house is a shell, derelict and abandoned. Foundations are good wouldn't take much to fix it up but no-one much ever passes by so it ain't likely to happen. Inside the door there's a gun-belt and a little carved horse like you'd make for a child and there's a lock of hair the colour of wild honey tied up with a narrow blue ribbon."
The blonde man looked up defiantly and went on,
"When I hear the bear I pick up the gun and I fill it so full of lead I could cut out its' heart and use it for a paperweight. In the kitchen is a whisky bottle and a dirty glass. They're both empty so I leave out the back way, get on my horse and just keep riding."
"Wow," JD let out the breath he had been holding. Looking over at the southerner he said, "What did they all mean?"
"Yeah, come on Ezra," Buck insisted loudly. "Spill the beans."
Ezra carefully refilled his glass and held the golden liquid before him as he spoke.
"Well gentlemen, the originator of that charmin' little game was, of course, my mother Maude Standish and it had been taught to her by a student of medicine who specialised in mind manipulation."
There was a collective intake of breath around him and a few angry sounding murmurings.
"Her intent may have been to humiliate and wound but I assure you gentlemen, mine was not."
"What was it then?" Vin Tanner asked bluntly.
"My intent was to endeavour to have a better understanding of you all and that I think I have done."
"Quit stallin' Ezra and tell us what the hell the point of all those questions was?" JD broke in impatiently.
Standish raised a placating hand and spoke.
"The house is how the world sees you or how you would like to be perceived, the inside is how you perceive yourself as you actually are."
More than one of the seven gave each other sideways looks and a tentative grin broke out here and there.
"What about the three objects?" asked Nathan.
"The three things which dominate or have mattered most to you in life."
"And the bear?" Buck's brows were drawn in consternation.
"How you approach and deal with the problems and misfortune thrown at you in life."
The laughter came a little easier then, especially at the memory of Buck's words. But the tension returned as Chris asked, "And the things in the kitchen?"
"Love. Meaning. All the most spiritual riches of your life. Your attitude to it and them and how you accept them into your life."
Raising his glass in silent toast Ezra emptied it in one swallow.
"Your health gentlemen," he said refilling it again immediately.
All seven men drained their glasses and sat in silence staring at the embers of the fire. It was JD who finally spoke.
"Big boots and pants that don't fit?" he said his face a picture of bewilderment. "I don't get it."
"You will one day," Chris Larabee told him his lip lifted in a lop-sided smile.
"When the pants fit!" Buck roared standing up and grabbing his young companion in the same bear hug he had described in his tale. JD was half dragged, half carried struggling and squirming out to the door where Buck promptly dropped him allowing him to tumble down into the dirt.
"Well at least you didn't kiss me!" he exclaimed scrabbling for his hat and jamming it firmly back onto his head.
The laughter echoed along the empty street where the rain fresh puddles now lay shining in the first rosy fingers of a new dawn as the friends stumbled out into the pale morning. Ezra stood and watched from the steps of the church as they made their way to their various homes. Josiah stood beside him.
"Reckon your answers would be the same if Maude asked those questions now brother Ezra?"
The smaller man squinted up at his companion and smiled enigmatically.
"Maybe one day I'll tell you," he said with a nod.
Taking his leave of Josiah he walked smartly down the steps and made his way back to his room. It was a new day and life was good. He felt that perhaps the self -inflicted guilt and seven years bad luck he'd incurred for breaking the mythical mirror was finally on the wane. Maybe one day soon he's sit down and answer his own questions honestly, he felt that perhaps he could.