Ezra sat at the bottom of the stairs leading to Nathan's clinic. He'd been there forever. He couldn't make himself go up the steps. His friend was lying in that clinic, hurt, maybe dying, and he couldn't make himself take a simple step. All of the others were up there with Vin, but a combination of guilt and fear kept the gambler frozen where he was.
Ezra ran his hand through his hair. He had gone through the list of his sins. This was his fault. Vin was dying and he was to blame. If he hadn't been in that card game...a stupid card game... How could that be more important than his friend? ...His friend... He never knew that there was so much pain involved in friendship... if his aim had been true...if he'd just lost a few more dollars to that cretin...he might not have...
He heard the door to the clinic open. Fear clutched his heart. He didn't want to hear the words. Ezra closed his eyes and shook his head, no.
He could hear someone descending the stairs. They were bringing bad news. He just knew it. He quickly rubbed the tears from his eyes and stood to go. He couldn't stay and hear the words, Vin Tanner was dead.
"Ezra...wait," said Chris softly.
"I'm not running out on you..." he mumbled.
The obvious pain in his voice tore at Chris's heart. Chris had been there before, feeling responsible for something you had no control over.
"I know Ezra. I didn't think you would... Ezra, look at me."
The words were gentle. Too gentle. Fear coursed through him. Chris was trying to soften the blow. "Courage Ezra." he muttered before taking a deep breath and steeling himself for the words. Ezra turned to face the man he respected most.
Chris saw the obvious despair on the gambler's face. His cool façade was non-existent. "Ezra, Nathan thinks Vin will be alright. He got the bullet out. As long as he doesn't get an infection, he'll be okay."
Ezra stood unmoving. There was no change in his expression.
"Ezra, did you hear me? Vin is okay."
Ezra shook his head in disbelief.
"Yes, he is Ezra. Come on up and see him."
"Yes, you can," said Chris taking hold of Ezra's arm and guiding him toward the stairs.
"No!" Ezra pulled away. An unhidden tear trickled down his cheek.
Chris sighed. "Why not Ezra?"
"He's hurt...because of me... It's my..."
"It's not your fault," interrupted Chris. "You didn't pull the trigger."
"If I hadn't been in the game...if he hadn't thought I was cheating..."
"Did you cheat?"
Ezra looked up, surprised at the blunt question. He unconsciously wiped the tear off his cheek.
"No, Mr. Lara... Chris, I did not cheat," he answered in all honesty.
"Then how is it your fault?"
"If I had been a bit quicker on the draw, or my aim had been more true, Mr. Tanner would not be in this situation."
Chris sighed. He knew from his own experience that Ezra wasn't ready to hear what he had to say. He just hoped the Southerner would acknowledge the words later and realize that this was a stupid, tragic accident.
"Ezra, it's not your fault. I don't blame you and neither will Vin. Now come with me and we'll make sure he's okay."
Once Chris got Ezra into the room, there was no way to make him leave. Chris was concerned about Vin, but the gambler also worried him. He watched Ezra closely. As long as Vin was out of it, Ezra stayed right by his side. When Vin began to stir, Ezra moved away from him to the window and looked out. The con man was obviously still fighting within himself - trying to hide his concern for the others, but failing miserably. Or maybe he was afraid...afraid that Vin would blame him and he would be rejected.
Chris shook his head. He was just beginning to understand that Ezra really did want to belong. The con man always gave the impression he needed no one. He made it difficult to see the real man beneath his nonchalant self-sufficient exterior.
+ + + + + + +
After 18 hours of waiting, Ezra finally dozed off in the chair next to Vin's bed. It was shortly after that Vin awoke.
"Hey cowboy," he said softly. His mouth was dry and the voice was raspy.
"Hey pard," responded Chris, lifting Vin's head gently and giving him some water. "Good to see ya awake again. How ya feeling?"
"Shoulder's a mite sore..."
His answer was interrupted by Ezra's very ungentlemanly snort, mid-snore.
This brought a smile to Vin's face. "He been here long?" he nodded toward Ezra.
"Couldn't get him to leave."
"Don't remember seeing him the last time I was awake."
"He was here Vin. He was by the window."
Vin frowned. "He blamin' hisself?"
Chris nodded. "I think he's afraid you'll blame him for what happened and we'll run him off."
"Damn fool Southerner," said Vin.
Chris grinned. He could almost see Vin's mind churning. 'Oh no,' he thought as he saw the impish look that indicated the wicked Tanner humor was about to come into play.
Vin nodded toward Ezra, in silent indication for Chris to 'watch this'.
"What the hell are you doing here?" yelled Vin.
Ezra jerked awake losing his balance and falling off the chair onto the floor. He blinked several times and he shook his head trying to figure out what was happening. A combination of fear and hurt crossed his face as he realized what Vin had said. He gathered himself and got up off the floor prepared to leave.
He took several steps toward the door before he heard the quiet chuckle. He stopped in his tracks. The chuckle turned into a laugh. Ezra shook his head, 'Tanner and his strange sense of humor.'
Chris looked from the tracker to Ezra and back. He had been surprised when Vin yelled at Ezra. He knew Vin wouldn't hold Ezra responsible. But his words, even in humor... hell, they would nail Ezra right where he was hurting.
Ezra turned to see Vin's grin. "That, Mr. Tanner, was not funny."
"Should'a seen your face Ez. And you were soooo full of grace on yer way to meetin' the floor," grinned Vin evilly.
"I'm glad to be of some value to you, even if it is just entertainment, Mr. Tanner." The smile on his face faded as the feelings of responsibility took over.
Vin saw the change in demeanor. He struggled to sit up. Chris adjusted his pillows, propping them behind his back.
"Ez?" said Vin seriously.
"Yes, Mr. Tanner?"
"It ain't your fault."
Ezra closed his eyes and shook his head. "I am very sorry you were injured Vin."
Vin heard the sincerity. Ezra had used his first name. "I know you are, and I'll say it again, it ain't your fault...Do me a favor Ez?"
"I promised Jesse I'd take him fishin' today."
Ezra scrunched his nose in displeasure. "I knew I shouldn't have agreed so quickly," he muttered.
"You'll take him?"
Ezra sighed. "I enjoy Mr. Martinson's company as much as you do, but fishing? It hardly seems..."
"So you'll take him."
A hint of a grin crossed Ezra's face. "Yes, Mr. Tanner, I'll take him. When were you supposed to meet?"
Vin glanced at the window judging the time of day.
"Bout now, I'd say."
"Then, I'll take my leave. I shall stop in later and regale you with our adventure if that is acceptable?"
Vin nodded as Ezra headed out the door. He looked to Chris. "He's still feeling guilty."
Chris agreed. "I think he'll come to terms with it Vin. He just needs a little time."
Over the next 3 days, the fishing trip turned into horseback riding and a picnic out by the creek. Ezra knew from their conversations on the trip to Eagle Bend, that Vin was spending a lot of time with Jesse... But he had no idea just how much time. Not that he minded the time - Jesse was a delightful boy and Ezra enjoyed watching the youngster as he made new discoveries.
Vin was recovering quickly and had no signs of fever. He wouldn't be able to do much for a couple weeks, but he was already itching to move out of Nathan's. More for his own peace of mind than Vin's health, Nathan allowed him to sit out on the boardwalk with Chris.
The two men chuckled as the gambler walked down the boardwalk with 4 children trailing him.
"Show us another, please Mr. Standish?" asked Billy.
"Please... Please... Please!" begged Rachel.
Ezra stopped and checked his pocket watch.
"All right Mr. Travis and Miss Johnson. It appears I have time for one more before I go on patrol."
"Hurray!" cheered Rachel and her little brother Samuel.
To the children's delight, Ezra began his magic with the cards. He began to manipulate them bringing the Ace of Spades to the top with every shuffle of the deck. They cheered as Ezra shuffled the cards and pulled the ace from Billy's ear.
"Billy, time for lunch," called Mary.
"Aw Ma!" complained Billy.
"Mr. Travis," scolded Ezra gently, "Never keep your mother waiting." He fondly tugged Billy's hat a little lower over his eyes.
"Yes sir, Mr. Standish," said Billy with a smile. "Comin' Ma!" he hollered.
"We'd better go too," said Rachel grabbing her brother's hand and heading for their house.
"Well, Mr. Martinson, I believe that leaves just the two of us."
"Will you show me now, Mr. Standish? You promised."
Ezra smiled. He had promised to show 9 year old Jesse Martinson how to perform a card trick. His aunt, a cook at the hotel, was raising Jesse. His father had not been in the picture for many years, and his mother traveled with a theatre company. Ezra had felt an immediate kinship with the boy having spent most of childhood with relatives.
Ezra put away his deck of cards and he smiled at the boy's obvious disappointment. "Have no fear Mr. Martinson, I made a promise and I shall keep it."
Ezra pulled out the brand new deck of cards he had purchased on the trip to Eagle Bend. He opened the box and patiently showed Jesse how to perform the trick. Jesse fumbled his way through a few times before he got the cards to go the way he wanted. It was far from perfect, but Ezra applauded him anyway. "Well done, Mr. Martinson, well done." He glanced up and saw Buck riding in. "I'm sorry Jesse, but I need to take my leave now. It is my turn for patrol. Shall we continue the lesson tomorrow?" Jesse immediately agreed.
Ezra stood and brushed the lint off his coat. He began to walk toward the livery.
"Wait, Mr. Standish, your cards."
"No my friend, they are your cards. If one is to learn the tricks of the trade, he must have his own deck with which to practice," said Ezra, tipping his hat to the young man.
"Really? They're really mine?"
"Yes, Mr. Martinson, they are yours." Ezra smiled at the delight in Jesse's eyes.
Jesse grabbed up the cards and headed down the street trying to do the trick. "Goodbye Mr. Standish, and thanks!"
"You're welcome, my..." Ezra stopped mid sentence, momentarily paralyzed by what he saw about to happen. Jesse was engrossed in his cards as he walked across the street oblivious to the runaway wagon that was hurtling directly at him.
"Jesse!" Ezra screamed as he began to run for him. It was too far. Ezra knew he couldn't reach Jesse in time, but he had to try. He dove, wrapping his arms around the boy protectively as he felt the horse's shoulder hit his back and knock him to the ground. He remembered seeing hooves all around him and cards... cards fluttering through the air. He felt an explosion of pain in the back of his head and darkness overwhelmed him as the ace of spades was crushed into the dirt by a heavy hoof.
Chris turned to the sound of Ezra's scream, and as he registered what was happening he realized he had no chance of reaching the boy, and Ezra didn't either. There was absolutely nothing he could do as he watched Ezra reach the boy the same time as the horses drawing the wagon.
"Nathan! Get Nathan!" Chris was yelling before they were even down. Vin responded without thinking about his wound. He walked shakily toward the steps to fetch Nathan. He was met on the staircase as Nathan bounded down them having heard Chris yell.
"Whoa, there Vin," said Nathan, grabbing the wobbly tracker and guiding him back down the three steps he had managed to climb, and sitting him in a chair. "You stay here Vin."
"It's Ezra... and Jesse..." said Vin nodding toward Chris down the street.
Chris ran and knelt down beside his friend and the boy. It was bad, there was no doubt. Ezra was bleeding heavily from his head. His leg...from the awkward angle, he knew his right leg was broken, and his arm looked badly damaged. And Jesse...Chris closed his eyes and took a deep breath fighting back the nausea that threatened. He could do nothing more than make sure neither Ezra nor Jesse was moved until Nathan arrived.
It seemed an eternity, but it was just a couple minutes before Nathan was there.
"Chris, let me help," said Nathan as he eased the child from Ezra's grasp. He quickly examined the boy.
Nathan's shoulders slumped and the expression on his face as he turned back to help Ezra said it all. Chris could feel his heart breaking as tears welled up in his eyes. He looked up and saw the rest of the seven, except Vin surrounding the fallen con man. He knew the tracker would have been there too if his body would have let him.
"Nathan?" The question didn't need more than one word. They all knew Chris was asking if Ezra would make it.
"I don't know Chris. Buck, JD, find me a board, something so we can carry him up to the clinic..."
"I'll take care of the boy," offered Josiah.
+ + + + + + +
After they had taken Ezra into the clinic, Nathan had shooed them all out. Chris and Buck helped Vin up the stairs and now the four men sat on the porch wondering at how life could change so quickly. Less than two hour's ago Ezra had been laughing with the kids and now he was fighting for his life and Jesse Martinson was dead.
Chris looked over at Vin. He sat slumped in his chair, eyes red from tears. He looked exhausted. "How ya doing pard?" he asked softly.
"I ain't the one hurt."
Chris wanted to scream 'Yes, you are!', but he said nothing. Vin looked up. Their eyes caught and Vin knew Chris understood how much he really was hurting both physically and emotionally.
Josiah joined them on the porch. "I took Jesse to the undertaker's...talked to his aunt."
"Thanks Josiah," said Chris.
"We wired his mother. She won't be able to come back in time, asked us to go ahead with a funeral tomorrow."
"Can we wait a little? Ezra would want to be there," said Vin.
Josiah just shook his head sadly.
"Josiah, that you?" called Nathan from inside having heard the low rumble of the former preacher's voice. "I could use your help." Josiah excused himself and went inside.
+ + + + + + +
Nathan opened the door and came outside. Before Chris could ask, he raised his hands, palms toward him and began to explain. "He's still unconscious. Looks like one of the horses may have kicked him in the head. He's got a concussion. His right leg is broken and so's his right arm. Looks like a horse stepped on his hand. Got some bruised ribs too."
"Will he be ok?" asked JD.
Nathan sighed. They always wanted to know... and he didn't have the answer they wanted. "I don't know JD. We'll have to wait until he wakes up. I stitched him up, and we set the bones in his arm and leg, but I can't do much with his hand. He needs a surgeon to repair it."
"Where are we going to find a surgeon, Nate?" asked Buck
"I know of a doctor in St. Louis. Done a lot of this kind of surgery. Maybe...maybe we could get Ezra to him, if..."
"There ain't no 'if' Nathan. Ez is gonna make it," said Vin. "He's gotta." The last two words were almost under his breath.
It was a simple funeral with Josiah presiding. Five of the seven were present as Nathan stayed with Ezra. Mary and Billy attended along with Jesse's aunt and a few others from the town.
As Chris walked Mary and Billy home, he sensed Mary's uneasiness. Mary sent Billy over to Mrs. Potter's as she offered Chris a cup of coffee. They sat down at the table.
"Something on your mind, Mary?"
She looked at him guiltily. "Just something I don't know how to deal with."
"What is it?"
She sighed. "I don't know. I'm angry with myself I guess."
"Why?" asked Chris patiently.
"I was...well...glad when Jesse was the one hurt yesterday. I mean..." Mary began to cry, "I didn't want anyone to be hurt, but I was so glad it wasn't Billy."
Chris couldn't come up with the words to say, so he simply pulled Mary onto his shoulder and let her cry.
+ + + + + + +
When Chris headed back to check on Ezra, he ran into Nathan coming out of the telegraph office.
"Chris... Just got a wire back from Dr. Blackwell in St. Louis. If we can get Ezra there, he'll do the surgery. Got another from Maude. She's in St. Louis. She'll make the arrangements on that end."
"How is he?"
"He's awake, but he's in a lot of pain. And I don't just mean physically. He knows Jesse's dead... he won't talk to anybody. Josiah and Vin are with him now. I was gonna get some supper and then head back over."
Chris joined Nathan for supper and they discussed what would be necessary to get Ezra to St. Louis and who would accompany him.
+ + + + + + +
Chris was with Nathan when they presented the options to Ezra. If Ezra understood, he gave no indication. He simply stared at the wall with no emotion on his face. They decided to give him a little more time and try again, but they couldn't wait more than a few days if anything was to be done for his hand.
Ezra was experiencing a kind of pain that he had never known. The headache was overwhelming. Every time he opened his eyes the light seemed to sear right through him. Even when he could manage to keep them open, the room was blurred and had a tendency to spin. This only served to aggravate the nausea, which brought its own kind of pain. The first time he had vomited he had managed to bang his broken hand against the bowl Josiah was holding which caused him to momentarily black out. Then came the excruciating pain in his side as bruised ribs complained from the misuse.
The gambler had had broken bones before, but he had never had this extent of muscle damage. His leg and his arm were screaming for relief. The wagon wheels had broken his right forearm and lower leg. It was fortunate the fractures weren't compound, but the muscle and tissue damage would take a long time to heal, and even then Nathan didn't know if he would have full function in his arm or leg.
His hand was a different matter. Nathan said there were several bones broken and it would require surgery to repair, surgery that Nathan couldn't do. Ezra couldn't even bring himself to look at his hand - not because of how bad it looked, but because of the pain that hand had caused. This was his penance for getting Vin shot and Jessie killed by his work with cards. It was fitting that he would lose the use of his hand in payment. He understood what Nathan had told him about surgery in St. Louis, but at this point the overwhelming guilt was much stronger than his self-preservation instinct. He didn't want surgery on his hand to regain use of it only to cause further damage to others.
+ + + + + + +
Dealing with the physical pain took all of his energy. Ezra couldn't seem to focus well enough to keep the others at a distance with his words and his poker face, so he did the only thing he could to push them away. He retreated into a world of silence. He refused to speak to anyone. He didn't acknowledge their presence. He refused to eat. Nathan wasn't even sure that Ezra really knew what was going on.
Each of the remaining seven took turns sitting with Ezra, and trying to get through to him. But even in his grief and emotional turmoil, Ezra was stubborn. Time was becoming a real issue. If Ezra didn't go for the surgery soon...
Vin had tried once already. But this time, there was no way he would take no for an answer. The tracker, his arm in a sling, sat next to Ezra's bed.
"Jesse would hate this."
Ezra didn't look at him, but he flinched.
"Come on Ez, you know it. Jesse wouldn't want this. He would be angry at you trying to kill yourself over him."
"I am not trying to kill myself." The words were so soft, Vin wasn't even sure he heard them.
"Yeah, sure. That's why you're eating so much. That's why you're agreeing to go to St. Louis," said Vin sarcastically.
Ezra sighed. "I killed him, Vin."
"No, you didn't, Ezra. It was an accident. Somewhere in there," he tapped Ezra's chest, "you know that. Ez, I know it hurts, but you gotta let it go."
When Ezra didn't respond, Vin continued.
"Ez, when we talked out there on the road to Eagle Bend, well it was like the first time I really saw who you are. You and me, we got stuff in common that the others would never understand. I miss Jesse too, but I miss my new friend even more."
Ezra looked up and saw nothing but truth in Vin's eyes.
"Ez, I want you to promise me somethin'. I want you to promise me that you'll take care of yourself, you'll eat and do whatever the doctors say. When you get back we'll figure the rest out. Okay Ez? Promise me?"
A tear trickled down Ezra's cheek as he nodded, too tired to do anything else.
"Good. We can go to Ridge City this afternoon, get you on the train to St. Louis in the morning. But first we're gonna get you somethin' to eat."
"I don't have money for the train," he whispered.
Vin was surprised and it showed on his face.
"Mother... well... when she... bought out the tavern... well... I'm broke."
Vin knew there had been trouble between Ezra and his mother, but not the extent. "It don't matter Ez. Tickets are paid for. Yer ma, she paid for three tickets to St. Louis so we can get ya there. We all wanted to go, but somebody's gotta stay here. Nathan's gonna go to help take care of you on the way. Josiah won the other spot in a hand of poker... aces and sevens, Ez."
"Mother will be pleased to see him."
"I 'spect she will".
Ezra wasn't too aware of the wagon trip to Ridge City or the train ride. He remembered that they all had escorted him to Ridge City, but Nathan had dosed him heavily with Laudanum to make the trip as comfortable as possible for him. Likewise, he had kept him pretty much asleep on the train to St. Louis. Ezra definitely remembered the times he had been awake as the jarring of the train made his injuries explode with pain. But the majority of the trip had been a fog. Nathan and Josiah had stayed long enough to get him settled in the hospital and had met with Maude and the surgeon. Then they had returned home.
Much of the first few days in the hospital were foggy too. Maude visited for almost two weeks before heading off on her latest con. Then Ezra was alone, having his needs tended to by total strangers. He had been on his own many times in his life, but he had never experienced the loneliness he felt now, but then again, he had never been this close to anyone.
The constant pain got old very quickly. It made him short tempered and caustic. The bones gradually healed and the manipulation of the muscles, while painful, seemed to be helping.
The most difficult thing Ezra had to deal with was all the time he had to think. He thought about Jesse, of course, but he also spent a great deal of time thinking about his 'friends' in Four Corners.
Dwelling most heavily on his mind was the doctor's pessimism. The doctor had told him he would never regain full use of his leg or his hand. Despite the doctor's words, Ezra continued to work hard to recover use of his limbs. He had made a promise, and somehow over the course of the past few weeks he had discovered he really did want to survive. He was yet to figure out what he would do, but he knew a couple things that would not occur - he would not go back to gambling, and he would not go back to Four Corners. He had caused too much pain there - not only for those around him, but for himself.
+ + + + + + +
The train arrived in St. Louis. Chris and Vin debarked joining the crowded street. Chris asked the steward for directions to a hotel and they set out to get a room and some dinner. They would get directions to the hospital and go to retrieve their friend tomorrow.
The day began as almost every other day had in the past 12 weeks. Ezra woke and dressed. At least now he could do that himself. The bell sounded and it was time for breakfast. Slowly he made his way to the dinning room. A few more days and he would be rid of the deplorable hospital food. He laughed to himself, 'In a few days I have no idea what I'll be eating.'
After breakfast he made his way down to the torture room. Well, that's what he thought of it on many days. He went through the routine of stretching and moving his leg and his arm, and later he would work on his dexterity in his fingers. He sighed. He was tired of this routine.
"Yes Nurse Baylor?"
"You have visitors. You can meet them in the lobby."
'Visitors? It must be mother and her latest beau.' He thought to himself. "Thank you Mrs. Baylor. I'll be right down."
Ezra took his cane and began the slow walk to the lobby. He no longer had pain in his leg, but it felt very weak and stiff and he had a distinctive limp. He was focused on making his leg work correctly when he entered the lobby and he didn't see who was waiting for him.
He looked up in surprise at the voice.
"Vin? Good Lord! Chris? What...?"
"Ez, it's good to see ya," said Vin. He tried to keep the surprise off his face. Ezra had lost quite a bit of weight. He looked frail. He walked with a decided limp, but he was walking.
"What are you doing here Mr. Tanner, Mr. Larabee?"
"We came to see you," said Chris, "came to take you home."
Ezra started at the news. "I...gentlemen...I cannot go back to Four Corners."
Chris frowned, "You can and you will."
"Really Mr. Larabee, are you going to threaten me to go back?"
"Dammit Ezra!" growled Chris. Then he regrouped. His voice softened. "No... Ezra, you made a promise not to run out on me again..."
"And," added Vin, "You made a promise to me to come here, work hard, and come home to sort things out."
Ezra lowered himself awkwardly onto the bench. Balance was still a difficult thing. He looked at his two friends. Part of him wanted desperately to go home. Part of him feared going back.
"Yes, I made those promises, however, some people do not wish me to return to Four Corners."
"Ez, Jesse's Aunt has moved on." Said Vin.
Ezra closed his eyes at the mention of the name. "That doesn't change what happened Mr. Tanner."
"Nope. But neither will staying away."
Ezra felt himself caving in to their argument. But really, he wasn't putting up much of a fight. It was time to deal with his demons.
"I have one problem."
"What's that Ezra?" asked Chris.
"I don't have the funds for a ticket."
Vin grinned. "Got that one covered, Ez. We all pitched in together to pay for the tickets."
"Yes Ezra. Nathan, Josiah, Buck and JD, and of course Vin and I. We all pooled the money we didn't lose to you in poker in the past couple months."
Ezra flinched at the reference to poker. Slowly he looked up at the two men he had come to trust as friends. "When do we leave?"
"Yes!" said Vin slapping him on the back.
"Train leaves at noon," said Chris.
Ezra smiled. "I have a couple things to retrieve from my room."
"We should leave word for yer ma."
"I'll leave a message at the desk Vin. I don't know when she'll return. I haven't seen her in more than a month."
+ + + + + + +
While Vin escorted Ezra to his room to pack, Chris talked with Nurse Baylor. She told him what therapy was working well for Ezra and showed Chris how to manipulate the muscles. Chris wasn't sure if the gambler would let him help, but he wanted to gather all the information he could for Nathan.
Vin was surprised at how little Ezra had in his room. He knew for a fact that they had sent most of Ezra's clothes at Maude's request. They had been careful not to send everything, in hopes that the gambler would come back. But now, besides what he had on, Ezra had only one change of clothes, and none of his colorful jackets, just a plain tan one.
"Where's your things Ezra?"
"This is it Vin."
"I seem to remember more clothing and less books."
"Yes, well, there is now a very sharply attired doctor in St. Louis...who has fewer medical books."
A slight frown came to the tracker's face. Ez had traded his cherished clothes for some books. Granted, they were good books, likely for Nathan, but... Vin shook his head as a small fear nagged at him. Was Ez following through with his plan to never play cards again? He hoped not. He hoped he could help the con man sort it out.
Standish was very quiet on the train. Neither Vin nor Chris could get more than a few words out of him at a time. It didn't matter what they said, they both knew Ezra would have to come to terms with what had happened on his own. Neither man was prepared for the deck of cards sailing across the car when they tried to get Ezra to play a hand of poker just to pass the time.
Chris patiently picked up the cards one by one from the seat and floor of the train car. Vin absently rubbed and stretched his stiff shoulder. Neither said a word as they witnessed the battle waging in their friend.
Ezra flexed his right hand over and over, not even aware he was doing it. "That's how it started..." he whispered.
"What pard?" asked Vin.
"This whole thing. You getting shot... Jesse...a damn deck of cards..."
"They're only paper and ink Ezra," said Chris softly
"And in my hands they almost got Mr. Tanner killed... and they did, Jesse. I don't ever want to touch them again."
"It ain't the cards Ez," said Vin.
Ezra closed his eyes and leaned his head back on the seat. He wasn't ready for this.
"You can't let this beat you Ezra."
He turned and looked at Chris. "It already has."
"I don't believe that Ezra. No. You're better than that. The man that had the courage to go back into that Seminole camp that day, he's the same man who can face this and go on with his life."
Chris shook his head. "No he can't. Neither can Sarah or Adam... Hell Ezra, we've all lost someone, even JD. We all know what it feels like. It doesn't make it any easier, but every one of us will back you."
"What do I do?" The voice was so lost it was heartbreaking.
"We can't decide that for you. It's your choice Ezra. No one blames you for what happened to Jesse or to Vin. You may choose to walk away from Four Corners, to never play cards again. I don't know. But I hope you don't. I've never seen someone get so much pleasure from something as simple as cards. But more than that Ezra, I hope you see that you're our friend. We need you... hell, I need you."
"I think... Cowboy... (sniff)...I think I got a tear in my eye," said Vin in mock sobbing. Ezra and Chris both turned incredulously at the tracker who bobbed his eyebrows in a perfect imitation of Buck.
Vin and Chris looked at him as the smile crept across his face. "You are deplorable, Mr. Tanner."
"I hope that means ya like me," Vin dead panned.
Ezra stood by the small cross that marked Jesse Martinson's grave. He had been there a long time. Silent. Thinking about a lot of things.
"Mr. Standish?" the voice was a whisper.
Ezra brushed away a tear and turned. It was Billy.
"Mr. Travis, what can I do for you?"
"I..." Billy was suddenly shy.
Ezra awkwardly knelt down beside the boy. "What is it Billy?"
"I saved these for ya." He pulled out a bundle of playing cards tied with a piece of ribbon. "I tried... but I couldn't find all of 'em... do you think... I mean... do you think Jesse would like them?"
Ezra swallowed hard and took the gift the boy offered. "I think, Mr. Travis, that he would like them very much." Ezra untied the string and slowly he manipulated the cards. Long overdue tears crept down his cheeks as he brought the ace of spades to the top. It was bent and torn, but it was still the ace of spades. He re-tied the bundle and placed it next to the cross marking the small grave. He stood and put his hand on Billy's shoulder. "Thank you Billy."
+ + + + + + +
They were waiting for him at their usual table. Ezra made his way through the saloon to his friends. "Gentlemen."
"Hey Ezra. Welcome home."
"Thank you Mr. Dunne."
"Ezra, these books are great!" said Nathan, looking up from the book he was reading. "Thanks."
"You're welcome, Mr. Jackson. It is a small token compared to all you have done for me."
Nathan smiled. "I hope ya don't think that this will get ya out of taking medicine when ya need it."
"That's right son," added Josiah.
Ezra rolled his eyes and grinned. He was home.
"Hey Ez," said Vin. Everyone stopped as he pulled out a deck of cards. "Could I interest you in a game of chance?"
Ezra met Vin's eyes and he nodded. "Yes, Mr. Tanner. I would like that very much."
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