Main character: Ezra
Originally published in Let's Ride! 9 (2005).
"I'd like to propose a toast."
Five pairs of eyes turned to Buck Wilmington, and the glass he held up in a still faintly trembling hand. Buck met every one of those eyes and gave them a grin that was more sober than usual for him.
If they thought he was going to be serious, though, the twinkle in his eye should have given it away. "To the Quigley gang," Buck announced, and his grin grew.
Groans went around the table, but everyone raised their glasses to join his. "The Quigley Brothers," came the chorus.
They weren't really drinking to the gang that had just finished shooting up the town - and them - not a half-hour before. It was the fact that they'd all survived to drink that had them sharing drinks in honor of Amos Quigley and his men. JD was still casting the occasional worried eye at the bandage that circled Buck's head, and Nathan was watching both him and Vin, whose wrapped arm was hidden by his newly bloodied jacket. Chris was doing the pouring for Tanner, who glared at him with a mixture of tolerance and annoyance at the tacit mollycoddling, at which Chris remained completely unruffled. Josiah watched them all with fond amusement, and Ezra...
"Say, where's Ezra?" That was JD, finally looking away from Wilmington long enough to notice they were one short around the saloon table.
Everyone turned to Nathan, who shrugged. "He was fine, last I saw him. Beat it up to his room, I think."
"Probably still shook up from almost getting hit," Buck offered, then glanced apologetically at Chris.
Chris just swallowed another shot of whiskey, his grip on the glass too tight to tell if he was shaking or not. It wouldn't have been from the gunfight.
"He couldn't see the feller from where he was," Vin spoke up, quiet but firm. "I's the only one who could."
"Yeah, well, next time you see one of us in trouble, I'd 'ppreciate it if you'd just yell instead of stopping the bullet yourself," Nathan said.
"If there's time, I will," Vin answered placidly.
Nathan shook his head with the longsuffering look of one who was tired of patching up his friends.
"I don't think Ezra's shaken over almost meeting his Maker," Josiah finally spoke.
He earned everyone's attention for that. "Then why'd he run off?" JD asked.
"Maybe he had a game to get ready for."
"I don't think so, Nate - he looked whiter'n a spring lamb when I saw him," Buck shook his head.
"You don't think he'd run out again, do you?" That was JD, looking doubtful.
Chris's word was law, both in town and among his men. It was also the first words he'd spoken since cursing Vin out for getting shot. Speculation around the table momentarily fell silent.
"Seems to me a man like Ezra doesn't often have people risk their lives for him." Josiah sat back, the wooden chair creaking in protest.
"Yeah, but..." JD's argument died inchoate, and he looked puzzled. Even after a few months in Four Corners, lack of trust or friendship still seemed a new thought to him.
"Wasn't risking - I knew the fella's aim was off."
"Not the point, Vin. You would've taken that bullet for him if it was aimed at your heart, and Ezra knows it. Makes a brother think."
"It isn't like he wouldn't do the same thing for us," JD protested.
Nathan winced. Buck looked thoughtful, and Chris stared hard at his empty glass.
"Right?" JD's voice faltered this time.
"You're right, kid," Buck said quietly.
A long silence. "So, you think one of us should go get him?" Nathan asked, mostly of Josiah.
Chris was the one who answered. "He'll come down when he's ready."
There was another round of drink pouring, then JD brightened. "Hey, you guys wanna hear this new joke Yosemite told me? He heard it from some cowhands passing through. This fella walks into a bar with - "
The boos drowned him out, punctuated by a slap of Buck's hat.
"Now that we got the Quigley's taken care of, I figure y'all can spare me tomorrow while I go have a picnic with Miss Becky out by the river." Buck waggled his eyebrows.
"You need to take it easy until that bandage comes off, Buck."
"Depends how you define 'taking it easy,' Nate," Buck shot back.
Vin grinned. "Let 'em go - whole town's tired of seein' him and Miss Becky make eyes at each other."
Buck gave him a smug look. "Y'all are just jealous."
"Yeah, well, assuming Buck comes back in one piece, think I'll take a day, too, and ride out to the Griffins, see how Mrs. Griffin's new baby's doin'."
"And I just got some new timber in - any volunteers to work on the church porch tomorrow?"
"I'll give ya a hand, Josiah."
"Vin - "
"Don't worry, Nathan, I'll take it easy."
"JD, can you take patrol in the morning?"
"Sure, Chris. Looks like I got nothing better to do."
Buck nudged him in the side. "Hasn't Casey been buggin' you about taking her out shooting?"
JD colored. "Oh, yeah, I forgot. Well, that can wait. I don't think she'll be too mad if we go in the afternoon." He didn't sound too certain.
"I can take the dreaded morning shift."
All of them turned at the new voice, except for Chris, who smiled fractionally into his glass. Ezra stood behind them, his hat clenched tightly in his hands. His smile lacked its usual self-assurance and soon faltered completely at their stares, and his eyes didn't quite meet theirs.
Vin smiled, too, and nodded at him. "Have a seat."
Ezra started, some color returning to his cheeks. He reached for a chair, then seemed to realize with surprise there was already one waiting for him at the table, between Vin and Josiah, and he slipped into it.
"You're volunteering for a morning patrol?" Buck teased as soon as Ezra reached the table.
"You sure you didn't hit your head out there today?" Nathan put in.
"Thanks to Mr. Tanner, no." Ezra didn't seem to be in a joking mood, eyeing his neighbor soberly. "I presume you've passed Mr. Jackson's inspection?"
"Just winged me, s'all," Vin agreed pleasantly. Ezra had probably seen that when he'd frantically tied off the bleeding arm after Vin was hit, but he still looked anxious.
No, not just anxious. Bewildered. Like man who'd just gotten pole-axed by a rifle butt...or a new notion.
"I'm gratified to hear that," Ezra said, and went from mangling his hat to playing with the empty glass in front of him.
Chris suddenly leaned forward and filled it from the bottle they'd been sharing. Ezra stared up at him in tight-lipped disbelief, and Chris returned the look steadily. They all knew he tended to take it personally when Vin was endangered or hurt, and there was a moment of tense waiting.
But no condemnation came. Chris just gave him a nod and then sat back in easy silence.
Ezra took an assessing look around the table at the others. No glares. Looking dazed, he finally shook himself and lifted his glass in a hand not-wholly steady either, drinking the whiskey in one gulp.
Buck turned to JD. "So...Casey wants to see your guns, huh?"
"Buck - "
"Maybe you two should wait on that until I'm back from the Griffins, just in case somebody gets hurt."
"Are you sayin' I can't shoot?!"
"Of course he's not sayin' that, JD. Brother Nathan just worries about all of us."
"If I were JD, I'd steer clear of Casey when she's armed - that girl has a temper," Vin whispered to Chris. Chris grinned.
"Hey, I heard that!"
And Ezra sat watching the byplay in silence, still looking baffled but relaxing into his chair and their presence, tremors fading and a smile creeping onto his eyes. Unobserved by his...friends.
Or so he thought, anyway.