The funeral was over. The mourners made a slow procession from the cemetery back to town. Judge Travis escorted Mary and Billy back to the Clarion. Casey stood on the outskirts for a few minutes longer, just watching. She heard the footfalls and recognised them as her aunt's. Slipping an arm into the crook of the older woman's, they too joined the retreating mourners back to town. The six remaining lawmen were the last to leave, walking past and throwing in a handful of dirt on the coffin as they said their last farewells. The casket was lowered into its final resting-place, and now awaited for the gravediggers to fill in the six-foot deep hole and seal it away forever.
The day was no different from any of the last week. Bright blue sky, fine sunny day with a hint of an easterly breeze wiping up the dust, and gently swaying the branches of the overhead trees. Gone were the cold nights of a few months ago. Now as the change in seasons came the weather changed as well. The time of year that the southern gambler was particularly partial to, not too hot or too cold, but pleasant days, which more importantly led to pleasant nights.
Two men now trudged slowly back up the hill to the cemetery, carrying their shovels hoisted over their shoulders ready to fulfil the rest of their job. They skirted the throng of people that surged past them, and they deliberately lowered their heads in respect as they tottered past the remaining six men. Each had a canteen slung around his neck in anticipation of the hard work, in filling in the deep hole.
They eyed the mountain of dirt and rock that they'd piled up only hours ago, now it was to be returned. The two men heaved a heavy sigh and began shovelling it back in, listening to the strange hollow sound that thudded back in echo as they covered the top of the wooden casket. They finished the task in relative silence and then opted for the saloon as so many others had also done.
Six feet below the top of the ground rested the casket on the floor of the hole. In the fifteen minutes that it was left unattended, between, when the last of the mourners left and before the arrival of the gravediggers to fill in the hole, was the small window of opportunity that allowed the conman to make his escape.
He pried his heavy eyes open, blinking them into focus and was surprised that it was dark. He moved his hands with difficulty, stretching his fingers, then raised them up coming into contact with the wooden confines of his prison. He licked his dry lips and swallowed, taking in a deep breath of stale damp air. Fighting the urge to scream, and kick and thump at the enclosed space, he reclosed his eyes and concentrated for a moment on steadying his breathing. Control, it was all about control.
The southerner began to feel the power, if not yet the strength, over his limbs gradually return to him, and he lifted first one leg and then the other as far as the entombed box allowed. Stretching the unused limbs and testing the muscles he began to recover some equilibrium. Flexing his neck, he examined his tomb. Unable yet to feel all of his body back under his control he prayed that he had sufficient air and time available to escape.
He had felt the casket being lowered into the hole and had wanted desperately to call out, protest in some way, but he'd been unable to move at that point. He'd heard the barely audible mutterings of Josiah, but had to strain to concentrate to distinguish the words through the wooden enclosure. The gambler was close to panic when the clods of dirt started raining down on the casket. Fortunately it was only a small amount. Now he sensed that he was alone, that his funeral had finished and those in attendance had departed. Now he had to get out... and quickly before the grave-diggers filled in the hole.
He'd yet to rediscover his voice, but put all his energy into positioning himself to pry the lid off. This of course was rather difficult, as the message sent from his brain to his body seemed to be lost in the translation. 'Come on, Ezra, you can do this,' the quiet southern drawl echoed in his mind. 'What will mother think? Letting myself be buried alive?'
He was at a loss to understand what exactly had occurred; one minute he was fine, the next he couldn't move a single muscle. Panic overrode all other emotions at the time and he had passed out from lack of oxygen. When he had come to, he felt the rising surge of panic again assail him as he could hear what was going on around him but couldn't communicate this. He had listened to each of his six friends come and bid him farewell, even Mary Travis and Inez had come to see him. It was an unaccustomed feeling to hear words spoken to him, in such a friendly and intimate way, albeit he was not supposed to hear them.
Pushing aside these troubling thoughts, he again struggled to control his body. "One two three... " He spoke aloud for the first time in over forty-eight hours. Bringing his arms up to his chest he placed the palms of his hands on the roof of his casket, and pushed with every ounce of energy he possessed. Nothing moved. "Hell!" This time he brought his knees up and pressed them into the lid and pushed together with his hands, screaming a bitter growl as this also received the same result.
He kicked out at the wooden enclosure, kicking the end ferociously all to no avail. He then slammed his knees into the roof pushing; feeling the bruises that now adorned his weary legs and knees. He cursed loudly and stopped to regain his sense of balance. Forming a tight fist he drew it back over his shoulder and pummelled the roof. Anger welled inside and Standish raked his fingers along the lid, heedless of the splinters, as he sought an opening, but finding none. Once again he hammered the lid with flailing fists, knees and boots. "Hell and Damnation!!" Ezra swore loudly, now hoping for someone to hear his cries. "Get me the Hell out of this tomb!" He shouted his plea.
But nobody heard.
Ezra collapsed his arms and legs back to their original positions. "Think Ezra... I am not having a stupid wooden box defeat me!" this was said with conviction. The gambler lay still for a moment to gather his strength, then rolled over onto his stomach, and brought his legs up under him as best as he could, pressing his back against the roof. "Who ever heard of nailing closed a God Damned coffin... like a dead man's gonna rise up and walk." He smiled at the small assimilation, but continued to curse the idiots who nailed the coffin shut. Sucking in the stale air he pushed his whole weight against the lid, panting as he did so. Fearing he was doomed to all eternity in the darkened hole he pushed harder straining every muscle in his body. And for his efforts he was rewarded with a creaking sound as the lid began to separate from the base.
Resting his brow on the base for a minute, he let a small smile form before he began again in earnest to pry the rest of the lid off. Time held no meaning while he worked at releasing himself. So how long it took to finally lift the lid he was unsure about, but to the southerner if felt like an eternity.
When the southerner finally pushed the lid to the side he gulped in the glorious fresh air, filling his deprived lungs. Sitting on the edge of the box he crawled out and sealed the lid back down. He peered over the edge standing on his own coffin in doing so, and saw the approach of the two grave-diggers returning back up the hill. Jumping out of the hole he stole furtively away from the scene, seeking cover in the form of some scraggily brush that lined the cemetery. He remained in this position until the two men had completed their task and then returned back to town.
While he'd spent the past two days, entombed in his apparently lifeless body, he'd had plenty of time to think. Too much time in fact! Never one to spend countless hours mulling over complexities of life, or his role in the grand scheme of things, there was little else he could do in his state of paralysis. So thought he did.
He had thought about his position in town as one of the seven protectors, and about the six other men that stood beside him, and swore their allegiance and loyalty to the blond-headed gunslinger and the town of Four Corners. He'd thought about his own betrayal to the group when he'd left them at the Seminole Village, and the second chance that Larabee had offered him as a result of his rash departure. He'd recalled how well the seven of them had been getting along, in the past few months, and how much he wanted to be a part of all this. Not just to be an acquaintance, but to call them all his friends.
But it was much more than that...
He felt it! And he was sure that they did also.
He wanted, and needed, that special bond, that held them together.
Brothers beyond blood...
Now it was because of this bond, that he didn't want to endanger any of them, by putting them at risk. Standish had concluded that someone had attempted to murder him. And he was positive, that fella he brushed passed as he entered the saloon two days ago, was the culprit of the deed. How he'd done it still baffled the gambler. And why? He'd yet to work that out.
Suffice to say, he didn't want to endanger the lives of his friends. And the best way to achieve this was to remain dead.
The remaining six protectors of Four Corners returned to the saloon and promptly ordered a round of whisky. Even the youngest partook of the evil spirits. The mood of the group reflected the sombre atmosphere of the entire town. They were all still in disbelief and shock at the untimely death of Ezra Standish.
After his second drink JD found it hard to concentrate with any clarity. His slurred words broke the silence. "I can't believe that Ezra's ma didn't come." JD's voice broke as he spoke over the rim of the glass that he held to his lips.
"Maybe it's her way of handling it," Josiah proffered in way of explanation of the odd relationship that had existed between mother and son. JD shrugged his shoulders to this, not really understanding, but not bothered to push the point.
Buck picked up one of the fuller bottles that congregated in the middle of the table refilling his empty glass, and gulped down another mouthful. "Reckon I'll be goin' to Eagle Bend, take a few days, take in some of the sights and lovelies that are on offer." He looked to Chris to see if he was going to prevent him from going, but Larabee didn't even look up, so engrossed in his own drink that it was doubtful he'd even heard Buck's announcement. He raked his fingers through his black hair then asked JD, "You willing to come with me, kid?"
JD's mouth dropped open and he stared at the larger man for a full minute, unable to wrap his tongue around the words that speared through his brain. Finding his voice he asked, "You're gonna leave? Now? Just like that? Buck, if you go... then you ain't gonna come back." Raising his voice as his fear escalated, "That's what yer planning, ain't ya? Not coming back?"
"Well... I was kinda thinkin' on it... " the big man stumbled to a stop, seeing the lost and frightened boy staring at him with his wide brown eyes brimming with tears. "Guess now's not really the best time to go anyways. S'pose I'll be staying around a while longer," he capitulated.
"Ya did a nice service, Josiah," Vin complemented the older man. "Sure Ezra'd been mighty pleased having you do his funeral and all."
Sanchez nodded his appreciation to the tracker. "Thank ya Vin. That boy will surely be missed."
"Yeah." Tanner agreed.
Larabee swallowed his fifth, or was it his sixth shot, and welcomed the depth of oblivion that soon would take over, if this pace continued. He knew from experience the amount of alcohol that his body required to render it senseless, and he was aiming on repeating that performance tonight. Sighing deeply he pushed his glass towards Wilmington for a refill, and the ladies man complied. He briefly nodded his thanks. He licked his lips and swirled the clear liquid in the shot glass then put it away like he'd done to all the rest.
The six men continued to drink the day away, unconcerned with the rest of the town, or the consequences of their actions, which would affect them in the morning. The town could look after itself for one day. The saloon was uncommonly subdued for its full to capacity crowd that filled the room. Inez was kept busy, but the atmosphere remained dull and lifeless - except for a newcomer to the town, Charlie McBride, a gambler and conman, who weaved his way through the tables and sought out the company of players for his card game, without much success. A thin wiry man, of moderate height, he was impervious to the town's sullen demeanour. He hustled and cajoled the patrons, pushing his presence into their faces.
How ironic! That one gambler passed from this world and another is ready to step into his wake, even before he's properly gone. Chris Larabee seized the opportunity to release some of his pent up anger and frustration, and Charlie McBride was the perfect choice to lash out on. Chris unholstered his colt and fired the weapon within a hair's breath of the gambler's left ear.
McBride heard the whizzing sound of the bullet as it flew past his ear, before he even acknowledged that a gun had fired and more importantly it had been aimed at him. Sucking in a ragged breath, he turned and faced his assailant. "Mr. Larabee, do ya have a problem?"
"Nothing that this won't fix," the gunslinger snarled at the slighter man.
"Guess I'll be leaving, then," McBride answered, not raising his voice to further irritate the man, he eased himself out of the saloon.
"Reckon he deserved that?" the quiet spoken tracker asked his leader.
"Dunno. He was annoying the shit out of me though. Couldn't even let the man be buried, and he's already taking over," Larabee growled back in disgust. Vin squeezed the gunslinger's shoulder in understanding.
As daylight departed and darkness fell, Ezra stealthily crept into town. He'd hidden out successfully for the remainder of the day, but was rather cramped in doing so. He'd watched the comings and goings of the many townsfolk, but had yet to set eyes on any of his partners. He presumed they were held up in the saloon, and had to grin at the thought of his friends getting drunk over him.
Ezra stole past the saloon and around to the back, heading up the back entrance and secretively into his room. He slid into the darkened room, and fearing that he'd be discovered didn't bother lighting a lamp. He knew where his things were in the room without the aid of the light in any case. Gathering together some clothing from the back of the closet, he felt the jackets and determined which ones he held. "Lord, I trust they don't just throw these out before I am able to reclaim them." Ezra grimaced at the thought of losing his colourful wardrobe.
Unfortunately finding an appropriate shirt was another matter. Pulling open the drawer of his dresser, he rummaged through his silk and linen shirts. Picking out the silk in the dark was simple; the delicate feel of the material and texture so different from other apparel. But selecting a prosaic shirt out of all his finery was more of a problem. In the end Ezra pulled one from the bottom of the bundles and hoped that it wasn't one of his better ones. If it was, perish the thought, he may have to dirty its appearance.
Shrugging into a large brown overcoat, he also took with him a nondescript tan jacket and some dark pants as well. Feeling his way along the edge of the bed, be cautiously sought out the nightstand. He deftly ran his hand over the stand and sighed when the book touched his fingers. Picking it up he flipped it open to where he'd bookmarked, - was it only two night's before? - And from memory, mentally spoke the words, smiling as he did so. Unable to leave the book behind he shoved it into the large pockets of the overcoat and swept out of the room and headed towards the stables.
Feeling immensely tired, and the strain of his overwrought muscles Standish trudged unnoticed towards the livery. His head swam and his arms and legs felt rubbery as he sought the shadows of night. Wiping a tired hand over his face he stumbled over an unseen rock, falling heavily on his right side, causing an uncontrolled cry to break his lips. "Get up now! I don't need this." Ezra growled quietly to himself. Raising up on his hands and knees he crawled a few paces then reluctantly pulled himself to his feet and completed his journey unhindered.
"Buck?! Chris! Buck!" JD yelled as he barrelled into the saloon.
Buck and Chris both lifted weary heads at the loud intrusion and squinted into the doorway where JD had just barged through. "Well, what got you all het up? Casey chasing ya?" Buck said with a smile as he teased the boy, but turned to a frown as the pain in his head exploded once more. How is it that he had the worst headache from hell, and the kid looks like he's had a great night's sleep? The womaniser ran his hands through his dishevelled hair and swallowed past the stale taste in his mouth. Probably, he bemused, 'cause the kid passed out after only a few drinks, and Buck and Nathan had hauled his skinny body back to his room where he slept the night in his own bed. Chris sat back in his chair contemplating his own hangover and waited for the kid to start.
Puffing and panting, his breath lost as he ran from the livery to the saloon in a mad rush, "It's Ezra's... Ezra's... "
"Just slow down kid, take a breath and start again." Buck furrowed his eyebrows together, concerned at JD's plight.
Doing as the ladies man suggested, JD took a breath and closed his eyes, when he reopened them he saw the worry etched on the faces of both of his friends. "Ezra's horse, it's gone! Someone's stolen Chaucer!"
"Why'd they wan ta do that?" drawled the tracker who had entered the saloon just in time to hear JD's declaration. Vin hooked a chair with his boot and swung in around backwards with its back against the table edge and straddled it.
"Damn!" Buck swore with vehemence. "Hell, he's hardly buried and the vultures are already out and stealing."
"We oughtta check his room, make sure nothings missing, then pack it up till we find out what Maude wants to do with his stuff." Chris decided.
"Reckon I'll check his room... then track the bastard down that done stole his horse!" The anger from the normally quiet spoken tracker surprised the others present.
When the tracker returned to the room below his temper was at boiling point. Still under the effects of last night's binge he cautiously navigated down the stairs, coming directly to the same table they'd occupied the night before. Chris and Buck had spent the night indulging and continued doing so after JD, Nathan, Josiah and himself had left.
Tanner noted the arrival of both Sanchez and Jackson and that they'd been informed of the missing steed. Before he fully reached the table Vin spoke. "Reckon somebody beat us to his room too. Looks like things are a bit messed up. Can't imagine Ezra'd left it like that, he's so neat - everything in its place. A book's been taken for sure though, dunno about anythin' else but. Seems like all his clothes are still there, but then it's hard ta know just how much stuff Ezra had up in that room of his." The others nodded their agreement; none of the others had spent a lot of time in the gambler's room to be able to recognise if anything was missing.
Chris looked at the former preacher and asked, "Josiah do you think you could pack up Ezra's stuff and move it to the Church so's nothin' else gets taken, least wise till Maude comes to pick it up?"
"Yeah, its the least I can do for Brother Standish." The large man stood and left the group.
Nathan called to the retreating man's back. "Want some help?" The former slave offered.
"No. I'll manage." He turned on the stairs to reply then continued his journey.
"Reckon I'll be goin' after that mongrel thief. Gotta score ta settle for Ezra." Vin spoke angrily.
"Want some company?" Chris offered, not totally sure that Vin should go off on his own.
"Nope. gonna get this guy and bring 'im back. Might even scare 'im some." This thought brought some form of pleasure to the normally quiet and laidback man, causing an icy demeanour to his expression. "Expect to be gone a few days so don't worry none!"