Main character: Ezra
Originally published in Nothing to Chance 3, from Neon Rainbow Press, 2006
He'd rarely been so glad to be stuck in Four Corners, Ezra thought cheerfully as he watched the rain fall.
No, "fall" was probably a euphemism. This rain poured, as if God Himself were upending buckets of it in the sky. The sheets of water obscured the row of buildings on the other side of the street, only faint glimmers of light serving as proof they hadn't been washed away, and the week's worth of precipitation had turned the dirt road down the center of town into a flow of mud.
Ezra's grin grew contentedly wider as he watched the deluge from the shelter of the saloon porch, peacefully smoking his cigar. It was truly a shame Nathan had thought his arm still needed a little more healing time after the nasty sprain it had received a week before. It had necessitated his staying behind while the other six town peacekeepers ventured forth to put an end to the cattle rustling that had been hitting the northern ranchers hard those last two weeks. And so they were out there camping somewhere in the flood, trying no doubt fruitlessly to build a fire and stay dry, while he was left behind to rest in the warm and dry saloon. What a travesty.
Shaking his head in profound sorrow, Ezra finished his cigar and went back inside the building, still grinning.
It did feel good to have two whole hands again. He could shuffle just fine one-handed, true, and there was the advantage to having one's arm in a sling in that people tended to underestimate you more easily. But still, two hands were good. Even if the right was still weaker, a little exercise and regular usage and he would be back to new. Just following Nathan's orders, Ezra thought happily, and dealt the next round.
Most of the men who took a turn around his table seemed unable to do more than one thing at a time, and played – badly – with silent intensity, pausing only for an occasional drink or to paw at Molly or Blossom. The lack of conversation got monotonous, as did the lack of challenge, and Ezra cast his attention around the room to the other tables as he played. Technically, as the sole member of the Seven left in the town, he was in charge of peacekeeping activities and so needed to remain alert to trouble. But the rain had dampened any sort of mischief, and the worst trouble there had been was a farmer who had gotten mired in the mud road and needed to be pulled out.
The truth was, Ezra listened in because he was bored.
"…the best one. The redhead and the brunette, they got that disease, but Emma…"
Er, no. Ezra wrinkled his nose and moved on to a preferably more discreet conversation.
Gold caught his ear. "…north, but the mine was all played out. I don't think there was enough gold left in it t' fill a tooth."
Oh, well, Ezra shrugged. Never hurt to try.
"…had some trouble crossing her." A voice on his right caught his attention next. "Don't think I've ever seen her so high before."
Ezra's attention sharpened.
"You think it's gonna flood?" another speaker asked.
"Morgan's Creek? Naw, it ain't big enough, an' anyway, it's too far from town. Might cut us off from the east for a while, though."
"Good thing the mercantile just got its supplies in. You see that new plow she's got?"
Ezra lost interest in the conversation, refocusing on his game even as he filed away the information he'd heard. Of course Morgan's Creek was rising. After all the rain they had gotten that last week, he would have been surprised if it hadn't started to flood its banks. But if the rain didn't stop, how far would the water rise? It wasn't right outside town, but it was close enough to be the main source of water for Four Corners.
Ezra shook himself. Impossible. It was just a creek, after all, not a river, and not all that close. There was no danger there, not like in Darrow.
Still, as Ezra smiled at his fellow players, claimed the pot he had just won, and continued to play, a faint chill of unease lingered in the back of his mind.
The game finally broke close to nine, early for him, but Ezra didn't protest as the other players straggled off, considerably poorer. The truth was he still tired more easily since his injury, and a good night's sleep sounded good. Either that, or he was getting old. Ezra preferred the former explanation, and said good-night to Inez as he put away his cards and winnings and left her a good tip.
The hard sound of rain pounding wood drew him inexorably to the batwing doors before he retired. Ezra stood there a moment, watching the downpour, then finally stepped back out onto the porch into the humid air. There he remained a long moment in silence, looking and listening.
The muddy river in the street hadn't risen in those last few hours, at least not to his eye. The boards hastily propped as walkways between buildings and across the street were still clear of the muck, although splashed and puddled. Things looked as fine as they ever could in a small, unfinished western town.
Ezra cocked his head toward the east, the direction of Morgan's Creek. No roar of churning water, no sight of foamy current, although with the crash and curtains of the rain, that wasn't surprising. Surely there was nothing to fear.
Had the residents of Darrow thought so as well?
With a sour expression, Ezra went back inside to get his rain gear.
His horse had as little desire to go out in the soggy mess as Ezra, but he finally managed to coax the ornery creature out of its stall and then into the rain, leaving by the door facing away from town. As he had hoped, the grass and shrubs that grew on that side kept the ground from becoming the mud slick the town road now was. Every step sank them several inches into the ground, much to his horse's displeasure, but Ezra pressed on. He would just take a quick look to reassure himself and any others who might be concerned, then return to his room for a hot drink and a prolonged stay in his feather bed. Maybe he would even order breakfast in bed the next morning.
Cheered considerably by the thought, Ezra clucked his horse on.
It didn't take long to reach the end of the row of the buildings that made up the bulk of Four Corners, and as the sound of the water beating on the wooden buildings faded, a new sound took its place.
Ezra swallowed, resisting the urge to turn back. He knew that sound.
Another minute and the source came into view.
Morgan's Creek was a creek no more. The trickle of water had turned into a gushing flow, its white-capped foam eerily bright in the darkness. Its banks were long buried, the water spreading out like a flattening ribbon wherever the ground smoothed. The floodplain, Ezra recalled the name from old memories, and as he traced the area topography in his mind, realized with sinking dread what his instincts had told him originally: Four Corners was positioned nicely in the center of the creek floodplain. If the rain didn't stop, the town would be flooded.
Ezra turned his horse with a jerk and rode back toward Four Corners.
If there was any way to figure out when the water would reach them, Ezra didn't know it, but considering the area it now covered, he didn't think they had a lot of time left. Surely no more than a day before the water reached town, and flood water could rise frighteningly fast and hit hard and all at once. Ezra had seen its effect, the bodies of those who had tried to escape the surging water and failed…
No. He wouldn't think of that now.
The point was, they had a problem. If the rain didn't stop falling – Ezra glanced at the sky and saw no stars, so it seemed likely – they would have to take measures if they wished to protect the town and its inhabitants. Which meant it was up to him to organize those measures: the only one left in charge.
Ezra had never wished more fervently for Chris Larabee's presence.
He clucked at his horse to ride a little faster.
+ + + + + +
Ezra heard the murmured echo from around the room and ignored it, taking out the sheet of paper he and Mary had drawn up at the newspaper office a half-hour earlier and laying it out on the table in front of him. "I have attempted to draw a crude map of the area. As you see, the town lies at the same level as the creek – in the same floodplain, if you will. Water will naturally overflow into our streets and buildings from here as the creek grows." He pointed. "However, should we place a barrier of sandbags here…" He drew a line at the east end of town, curving around its edge southward. "…that should funnel the water to this lower region in the south, sparing the town." Ezra drew a circle on the map.
The crowd was small and tired, but they leaned forward with interest to look at the drawing. Wendle, the banker, spoke up. "That seems like a long wall."
"Approximately one hundred feet, by Mrs. Travis' and my estimation."
"How many sandbags we need for that?" someone else asked.
Mary, standing silently next to him thus far in a show of support, took that one. "It depends how high we make the barrier. We'll need at least two thousand bags to start with, more if the rain keeps falling."
Another murmur swept through the group. Ezra sympathized. He didn't relish the idea of filling and carting thousands of sandbags to the outskirts of town any more than they did. But what choice did any of them have besides packing up and heading for higher ground, leaving their homes behind? Including his.
"Where are we gonna get the bags from?" the blacksmith asked.
"Mrs. Potter…" Ezra nodded at her. "…we'll need every empty sack you can provide. That will be the start. The rest we'll make. We've already sent word to neighboring towns, requesting help. Woman and children will do the sack-making, and the men will fill and carry them out to the edge of town and lay them. A few women will also be in charge of gathering emergency supplies should we be forced to retreat to higher ground."
"What'll we fill them with?"
At least there were no complaints, only honest questions. Ezra hadn't dared hoped for such a response, but then he often forgot that the settlers of the west tended to be practical, used to hardship and the need to fight for life. It was one of the things he admired about them.
"Dirt," he answered. "Sand being a precious commodity in these parts, we will make do with what we can. Sacks need only be filled halfway, and untied. We can overlap them to seal them."
"How 'bout using other things to stop the water? I got a lot of extra lumber that might help."
Resourceful, too. He hadn't even thought of that one. A glance at Mary to see if she agreed, then Ezra answered, "We might yet need to consider such alternate options, but that will remain a last resort. Any other questions?"
A meek one, from the back. "How much time do we have?"
Ezra grimaced, having dreaded being asked. "Not enough, dear lady. Not nearly enough. So I suggest we get started immediately."
And so it began.
Bag-sewing headquarters was set up in the general store, and Ezra saw the women settled there with as many supplies as could be collected from the town, before joining the men outside. Lanterns lined the streets, casting meager circles of light out into the rainy gloom, but eyes soon adjusted to the dimness. It wasn't the first middle-of-the-night emergency any of them faced, and it probably wouldn't be the last, but Ezra still couldn't help but admire the determination in the weary faces.
A brief conference about logistics, then the men squelched out into the knee-deep mud that threatened to suck off boots with each step. They formed a loose line from the general store to the edge of town, and the bagging began.
Midnight came and went but no one slept. The town crawled with life, small children helping gather supplies, the elderly sewing bags, and everyone in between either preparing for evacuation or working to make it unnecessary. And in the pouring rain, a skeleton of a wall started to form.
Dirt and mud wasn't an ideal packing substance, some of it washing away even through the burlap bags, but it was all they had. Empty bags were passed up the line, filled, and sandwiched into place in a silent, filthy assembly line. In the lulls when there weren't enough bags coming down the line, people huddled in knots to warm up, uselessly shaking water off their longcoats, only to have it immediately replaced. And then the work began again.
One hour dragged into the next.
What would his mother think of him now? Ezra couldn't help the wry thought as he blinked up at the sky, shutting his eyes against the pouring rain. Despite his raincoat, his clothes were past ruined, soaked and mud-drenched until it was impossible to tell their original color. His fine hands were caked with mud and blisters, and his hair dripped wet rivulets down his face. In fact, everyone in the line looked identical, brown and shapeless and drooping with rain and fatigue. And the fact of the matter was, they still had a lot of work ahead of them.
The next bag came along, and Ezra stooped to fill it, no longer bothering to favor his aching arm.
Occasionally a shout sounded down the line, messages from town or one of their neighbors. Mary was coordinating from her office the help others had offered, but questions and messages still reached Ezra by the same route as the sandbags. An occasional teen was also sent as a runner, younger ones unable to navigate the mud and elders too busy. It was after one such personally delivered question about whether or not to start evacuating the youngest children that the realization finally hit Ezra.
He wasn't just the local expert in flood control. Ezra Standish had also become the town leader.
He had sometimes dreamed about a showy role as mayor or councilman someday, influential and respected. He was good at making speeches, inspiring confidence, looking good. But there was none of that now. Drenched and dirty, Ezra stood in the rain and laughed at the irony. He doubted he would have inspired anything besides an urge to bathe just then, and yet the questions and requests kept coming: people wanting his advice or opinion, looking to him for guidance and reassurance… putting their lives in his hands.
Ezra stared down at his cracked fingernails. For the first time in his life, his hands felt very clumsy and unskilled, indeed. He had never wanted to be a real leader, not like this, nor had ever asked to carry such a burden. But finding it in his hands, how could he put it down?
More bags came down the line, and he passed them on, along with the one he filled.
And the rain kept pouring.
Dawn brought meager light with it. Lanterns were put out but the work continued.
They had begun to rotate some of the men off the line so people could take short naps and eat something before returning to continue to build the wall. Mary came out to make sure Ezra took his turn, although he tasted only mud and fell into dreams of bloated bodies as soon as his head hit the pillow. He went back out feeling little refreshed.
Morgan's Creek was audible now from where they worked, a distant foamy crashing sound that had men nervously glancing up while they worked. It would have spurred them to faster action if they weren't necessarily slowed by a lack of bags. Even working as fast as they could, the sewers could not keep the line constantly supplied, and work sometimes lagged. Ezra used the gaps to trudge along the wall of sandbags, picking out weak spots, judging how much work they still had before them.
A lot. More than they had time for, if the sound of the creek was any indication. And yet, what were their options? Ezra turned, idly rubbing his bad arm, to look at the stoop-shouldered men he had worked next to for the last many hours. They were as tired as he, weary and frightened, but they kept at it without complaint because they had to. They were fighting not just for homes, but for their families and futures and the lives they had made there. Things that mattered.
Troubled in ways he couldn't even pin down, Ezra headed back toward the assembly line.
The voice of Tim, the blacksmith's son's, was almost swallowed up in the sound of the rain, but Ezra craned to find the boy and soon spotted him running that way. Not another emergency, he prayed in silence as he turned to meet the young man. He didn't think he could take another emergency.
"Mr. Standish." The teen was breathless and looked tired but excited. Oh, for youth's sense of adventure, Ezra thought with a grim smile as he coughed water out of his throat and braced himself for bad news.
"Timothy," he said. He would have put a hand on the boy's shoulder, but he didn't want to muddy the already wet jacket.
"Mrs. Travis said to tell you, we've got more people and bags from Red Rock and Eagle Bend."
Ezra's spirits momentarily lifted. "How many?" he asked, raising his voice to be heard over a momentarily gusty wind.
"'Bout a thousand. That'll be enough, won't it, Mr. Standish?"
"I hope so." It was a whisper, and Ezra raised his voice as he realized the boy would never have heard it. "I hope so, Timothy."
The youngster gave him a wide smile, then turned and darted back toward town.
The shared hope was almost as encouraging as the news. Ezra coughed again, but felt a little of his fatigue lift as he hurried the rest of the way to the assembly line and shared the good news. Then it was back to work to save the town.
There was no passage of the sun to mark the passing of the day, nothing but bag after bag to fill and pass down. The wall grew one slow layer at a time, outpaced by the increasing roar from Morgan's Creek, and new arrivals had begun in desperation to add timber and other barriers to strengthen and build the wall higher. The race was nearing the finish line, one way or another.
Fatigue passed into exhaustion and then left even that behind. The ache of Ezra's body had long since made inconsequential the one in his arm, a throbbing pain he no longer gave thought to. The cough that had settled into his chilled body was also immaterial. His wrinkled and bloody hands just kept working of their own accord, taking each bag, scooping mud into it, passing it on. Mind as muddied by water and weariness as his clothes were, he kept working because that was all that his world had become now. They all did.
Another teen came running up, yelling something to him that didn't make sense. Ezra nodded dully, and the boy, satisfied, ran back the way he'd come. Ezra stared after him for a moment, wondering if it should have mattered more, then went back to work. Hands he no longer recognized as his own took the next sack and bent to fill it.
The distant roaring suddenly rose into a shriek.
That penetrated even his thickened skull. Ezra straightened, stifling another fit of coughing as he peered through the rain. And saw a wall of water that wasn't coming from the grey sky above.
It rose from his memory as if from a grave: Darrow, the bodies, the demolished houses. The flood. And the shell of exhaustion cracked and gave way in a rush of pure fear.
"Get back!" Ezra yelled, dropping the sandbag and frantically motioning the others in the line. "Now! Get back! Flood!"
Heads already craning in the direction of the new sound, followed the direction of his stare, and people started coming to life. A few still determinedly shoved a last few barriers or bags into place, but others turned away and began to run back into town, looking over their shoulders as they ran in the universal human fascination with the horrific.
The wave of water was higher than their barrier, but it was also flattening out as it got nearer and started to spread across the floodplain. The question was, would it be enough? Ezra couldn't seem to tear himself away from the clash of nature and manmade obstacle before he had the answer.
Churning, the water rushed closer. Even the last defenders of the wall broke away now and ran, one fruitlessly tugging at Ezra's arm as he passed, trying to get him to follow. He tore his gaze away briefly to make sure the men were safe, but he was the only one that close to the flood barrier now. Ezra stared at it once again as the water crossed the last distance…
And broke with a deafening crash against the wall. Waves splashed up dozens of feet, spilling over the barrier, and leaks sprung small geysers of water.
But it held.
The water beat in frustration at the wall for a minute before finally succumbing to its defeat and settling against it in lapping waves, the majority rushing off toward the south side of town and the flatlands beyond.
They were safe.
Cheers broke out behind Ezra but he could barely hear them, felt nothing but a numb, frightened relief. Lives had been in his hands, many of them. And he'd…
His eyes were watery, and it had nothing to do with the rain.
As they had agreed before, when coherent thought was still possible, the men returned as one to the wall to start filling in the leaks and shoring it further. Hands clapped his shoulder as people passed him, and it jarred Ezra out of his shock long enough to start moving with them. There was still work to be done, probably long into the night. But the wall had held. Their homes were safe.
Dazed and choking down a cough, he found an empty bag and filled it half-full. Working more on instinct than thought, Ezra wedged it into a crack that was spraying water into his face. It took two, then he moved down to the next leak and kept working.
There were no more leaks. Blankly he stared down the length of the barrier, shrouded again in darkness now, and tried to figure out why there weren't any more holes to fill.
Another cough built in his chest, and he impatiently waited to get his breath back while wondering what to do next.
The insistent tone drew him more than what it said, and he looked up into another tired pair of eyes. "Mrs. Travis." The name came out thickly, and prompted another string of coughs.
"I think you should lie down. You don't sound very good."
He frowned. "The bagging…"
"The bagging's finished, Ezra," she said gently. "The water's already starting to go down. The town is safe."
He had known that, and yet unrest nagged at him. There were still cracks to fill, and height to be added. He couldn't bear more bodies, another Darrow, except this time with people he knew. The thought of Mary Travis' face, lifeless and blue, made his stomach lurch in horror.
He shook his head. He couldn't rest while there was still work to be done, while there was any chance of danger. Slowly, he looked at Mary again, searching for the words to explain. "I–" The rest was lost in a cough. But this time even as he waited it out, the pressure grew in his chest, the hacking growing deeper and more violent. The dark, wet world wheeled around him.
Hands caught at him, sending a wrench of pain up his injured arm, and then the air ran out and he fell into a blackness even darker than the rainy night.
He dreamed a lot after that.
Sometimes it was drowned bodies floating by him, each one a face he knew: his mother, one of the Seven, Mary Travis or others from the town. Sometimes it was Darrow again, the smell coating his nostrils just as it had when he had ridden through the flooded town. Sometimes it was the sandbag wall giving way before a wave that bore down on him with crushing speed and size.
And sometimes it was worried faces and gentle hands that turned him on his side so he could breathe and soothed his raw throat with drink. Those were the dreams he tried to hang onto, but they always slipped away again into the watery nightmares.
And then one didn't, sharpening instead into a hovering Nathan Jackson. Ezra frowned at him, trying to place why that was odd, and his eyes shut from the effort of doing too much at once. Irritated, he sighed, and coughed again.
"Easy." Nathan's voice seemed to soothe his discomfort, as did the hands that inched him up higher, easing the weight of his lungs. "Try not to breathe too deep."
Like some sort of perverse reflex, Ezra immediately did just that, setting off another string of deep, wet coughs.
Nathan didn't seem annoyed with him, though, his hand warm on Ezra's chest, the other cupped against his forehead. "Fever's down, you just got some water in your lungs now to clear. Try to rest, breathe shallow."
"Yeah, we don't want anything to happen to the town hero," came another voice, amused.
Ezra identified it even as his eyes relentlessly closed again: Buck. The others had returned. Good. He was tired of being in charge. "'M not mayor," he said hoarsely, managing to stifle another cough.
A pause. "Uh, sure, Ezra, whatever you say." Nathan wedged a pillow behind him to raise him up higher, then another under the arm Ezra only now realized was bound and slinged again. "You just get some rest now, okay? You did good, but you done enough heroics for a while."
Hero. No one had ever used that word in relation to him before. And it felt good to hear, as soothing as whatever it was Nathan was spooning into his mouth, but also undeserved. They had all come together to save the town, doing what was necessary. He would have done the same in Darrow if he'd had the chance, and he hadn't even known anyone there. Who was a hero for working to save their home?
Nathan stopped feeding him, a spoon clattering somewhere distant, but the warm liquid made Ezra drowsy. He sank back into the bed and pillows, feeling the covers being pulled up to his chin.
"Sleep, Ez…" Vin, also distant.
His friends were there. And this was what had made his home worth fighting for.
"Thank you," the hero whispered to the room at large, and slipped contentedly back to sleep.