Questions and Answers:
A Post-Serpents Ficlet

by Sue Bartholomew

I'd like to thank my wonderful betas Joan, Sue N., my sister Sarah B. and my roomie Carla for their help in shaping this little ficlet! You all are aces!!

The golden-orange glow of sunset was filtering through the lace curtains of the rented room as Ezra slowly awoke from his healing sleep. The gambler frowned as he very carefully roused himself, blinking open his bleary eyes against the glare. For a moment, he could not remember where he was or why he was there, until the stabbing pain in his bandaged side reminded him. Then it came back, in a terrifying rush.

There had been a rally-a speech given by Governor Hopewell. They had been trying to find the hired killer sent to take out Hopewell, but then-what had happened? He wearily rubbed his brow, trying to recall. He had taken some of the money they'd found and was on his way to leave town, hurt and angered that his six comrades didn't trust him to guard it and figuring he might as well live up-or down-to their expectations. But he had spied the killer while on his way to the livery, and when he had gone to tell Chris he'd been informed that it was Mary, not the Governor, who was the assassin's target.

It all seemed hopelessly confused after that-there had been shouting, pushing, he had seen the young, one-eyed killer closing in on Mary, his gun aimed and ready-and then-

He sighed and eased himself onto his back, slowly coming to his senses. Lord, but the wound was sore! He was lucky Nathan let him return to his own room to rest. As he settled back, he fixed his gaze on the ceiling and watched the fading patches of sunlight slowly slide across its rough surface as he thought about the past few days' events.

He knew he should be angry at his fellow lawkeepers for not trusting him, and he was, although that anger had been tempered by their behavior towards him after he'd been shot saving Mary's life. He dimly remembered Nathan rushing to his side, Chris commending him, the others gathering around and helping him up here, how worried they all seemed to be. He still felt they should have trusted him by now, but such feelings could be set aside for the time being; he had something else bothering him far more than his friends' suspecting behavior.

The scene appeared once more in his mind, as he tried to fathom it. He had seen the gunman head for Mary, knew she was in danger, and had stepped in front of her to prevent her injury, fully aware of the possibly fatal consequences.

The memory filled him with unspeakable fear and confusion. Where in the hell had *that* impulse come from?

He was certainly proud and relieved that he had saved Mary's life, but what had made him do so in such a potentially final manner? He had never done such a thing before. Even when he had tried to help Li Pong and her people, he had done so with no intention of getting caught; that had simply been the result of carelessness. But this! Throwing himself in front of a loaded gun! He, Ezra Standish, who held self-preservation above all else, deliberately doing such an thing-was he going insane?

Certainly, being a gambler held its risks, but the lure of wealth and fun of the game made it worthwhile. And lawkeeping was not a safe career either, but at least it allowed him a good excuse to stay in one place and make some money. But this sudden attack of self-sacrificial tendencies-it went against everything he'd held dear all his life. To run the risk of possible death was one thing; to openly court it was another.

Strange, he thought as he lay watching the fading sunlight, he hadn't been afraid then, at least not for himself. When he saw Stutz heading for Mary, his only thought had been to stop him by any means possible. He had not given his own safety a thought. Why? That was so careless for a man in his profession! How could he hope to stay alive long enough to get rich if things like this kept occurring?

He rubbed his sore side gingerly, consumed with bewilderment. If it hadn't been for that money he'd stuffed in his jacket, he'd be dead right now. He didn't want to be dead. But something in him, some new impulse, had placed him between the killer and Mary, made him face the danger meant for her, without any of the fright or confusion he was feeling now. It had been a quick decision, downright instinctual.

Instinctual? Ezra smiled to himself and closed his eyes. No, that wasn't right. Such things were not an instinct for him. Gain was his instinct, the con, the excitement of the game, and most of all his own personal happiness and safety-those were the things which drove his every move. He had no instinct for heroics, never had, and had accepted this about himself long ago. Men like him left the brave deeds for others.

But...he opened his eyes once more, looking at the ceiling. He could not deny how joyous he had felt, knowing Mary was safe and the killer brought down. Something felt good about this, but he didn't know why. How could this be the right thing to do when it almost cost him his life?

He should leave, he suddenly thought wildly, quit this job and leave now, before this got out of control and he did get killed. He'd gotten in it for the laughs, but it wasn't funny anymore. He had no desire to be a martyr to the cause of justice; let Larabee and Tanner and the others claim those laurels if they so desired, they had those noble ideals more suited for a hero. He didn't need this confusion in his life, he'd been happy where he was, and if not happy, then at least comfortable and relatively safe.

His reverie was broken by the opening of the door to his room. Slightly startled-he hadn't realized he'd been so deep in thought-Ezra dropped his gaze and saw Josiah enter, his large frame silhouetted against the gaslight of the hallway.

Ezra felt himself go slightly tense; he hadn't really talked to Josiah since their altercation in the church. The scene swiftly returned to his mind: Josiah had been safeguarding the $10,000 found in the dead assassin's hotel room, money the other men openly felt they could not trust Ezra with. Ezra had been hurt by this lack of faith, and had gone to speak to Josiah about it. Josiah, however, had reacted to the gambler's words with sullen anger, accusing him of avarice and challenging him to face his own demons-implicitly, blaming Ezra for the fact that his comrades did not trust him. In the end, the preacher had flung the money at Ezra and practically dared him to steal it, leaving the Southerner with little more than hurt feelings and an irresistible temptation.

As a result, Ezra regarded the preacher now with wariness, not quite willing yet to let go of his grudge.

To his surprise, Josiah seemed every bit as cautious. "Hey, Ezra," he said quietly, looking down at his wounded comrade, "Nathan just wanted me to check on you, make sure everything was okay."

Everything was most definitely not okay, but he didn't feel like telling Josiah that, or anything else confidential at the moment. He shifted a little and tried to appear untroubled. "You may tell our healer that I am recovering quite nicely," he replied in a perfectly even voice. Inside, he was desperately hoping Josiah would just go away.

Instead, the preacher nodded a little, his expression hesitant. "Glad to hear my prayers have been answered, then," he said quietly, staring at the hat he held in his hands.

Ezra felt a twinge of anger; after the earlier verbal thrashing he'd received, he felt doubtful that Josiah had made any holy entreaties on his behalf. Or perhaps it simply felt better to his wounded pride to think that way.

"Indeed they have," Ezra said aloud, a sight edge creeping into his voice. Why didn't the man just leave, already? But no, he just stood there, watching Ezra with a strange look on his face, something between uncertainty and shame. After a moment of silence, the wounded man lost patience, and peered at Josiah with growing irritation.

"Are you quite all right yourself, Josiah?" the gambler finally inquired, not so much out of true concern as out of the desire for the man to speak his peace and go, so Ezra could rest and do some more thinking.

Josiah chuckled a little, still not looking at his comrade. "Not really, Ezra, got a lot of things on my mind," the other man remarked quietly. "Just not quite sure how to put it all into words." Ezra braced himself. Here it comes, he thought-Josiah must have heard that Ezra had tried to take some of the money, and was here to castigate him for it. Well, he was in no mood for more lecturing, and opened his mouth to tell the preacher so.

The other man finally lifted his head and faced Ezra, and the expression on Josiah's face stopped the words in the gambler's throat. Josiah did not look angry, or accusatory. There was no trace of the righteous indignation he'd seen there on the day they had argued. Instead, the older man looked tired and somewhat sad, his blue eyes full of self-reproach.

Ezra closed his mouth, puzzled. It was much the same expression that he had seen on his own face, in the mirror just after he had stuffed his coat with the assassin's money. But why would the preacher wear such a look?

Intrigued and baffled, Ezra quickly changed his mind and wordlessly motioned Josiah to a nearby chair. Josiah was just as silent as he sat down, still unsure about looking at his wounded comrade.

After a few awkward moments of silence, Ezra impatiently cleared his throat. "Ah, may I assume this is about the money?"

Josiah sighed, his gaze still on the floor. "Partly, Ezra," he said softly. "Though mostly I guess it's about the evil that comes from the love of it."

Anger flared through Ezra's weary body. So he did come to lecture him! With a slight effort Ezra pulled himself a bit more upright in the bed, prepared to rebuke the slander with as much strength as he possessed.

Before he could utter a word, Josiah lifted his head and looked Ezra in the eye. "The same evil that blinded me to my brother when he came lookin' to me for help."

The gambler choked, surprised at the misery in Josiah's voice. He blinked a bit, unable to respond. Surely he didn't mean...what Ezra thought he meant.

"I'm not quite sure I understand, Josiah," Ezra replied aloud, frowning a bit.

Josiah smiled just a little, but the grin was far from humorous. "I mean, Ezra," he aid quietly, "that I let my own sins get the best of me the last time we had words, and I'm here hopin' you'll forgive me for sayin' some mighty harsh things to you that I should have been saying to myself."

This completely threw Ezra, and for a moment he wasn't sure what to think. He stared at Josiah, his mind whirling; there seemed to be no insincerity in the words, no self-serving glint in the other man's eyes. But what the older man was saying seemed quite unbelievable. Ezra reviewed the hard words Josiah had said to him that day-he had recalled them with anger often enough-but could find no reason why they would apply to the plain-living, honest preacher.

He swallowed, shifting in the bed as he considered his comrade's words. "I will certainly agree that those words were ill-chosen, Josiah," he finally said, "but I do not quite see why you would direct them to yourself. Surely you were not attracted to that money."

Josiah glanced at him, and the Southerner was taken aback at the guilt and self-recrimination written plainly on Josiah's face. After a pause, the older man looked away and said nothing more.

"Oh, now, sir," Ezra said with a confused laugh, determined to understand this, "do you expect me to believe that after living a life of denial and simplicity, as you have, that you found yourself tempted by mammon? I thought a man of God such as yourself was above such mundane matters."

His friend scowled and dropped his head. "Men of God are still men, Ezra," he replied, his voice laced with bitterness.

A twitch of amazement contorted Ezra's lips. "I am well aware that there are men of the cloth whose ways are less than righteous," he agreed, recalling the crooked preachers he had come across in his travels. "But I have never thought of placing you among their number."

Josiah's head swerved to face him, and Ezra saw a glimmer of hope flicker across his weathered face before it fell into more sober lines. "I appreciate that, Ezra," he muttered. "But I thought you should know that one of the reasons I gave you the money was to keep from gettin' tempted with it myself."

This was pretty much the last thing Ezra had ever expected to hear from Josiah's lips, and it took him a moment to digest it. The anger drained away from his heart as he looked away and licked his lips, overcome by the self-loathing in the other man's voice.

"I fear you battled temptation with more success than I, Josiah," he finally whispered, staring into the shadows. He had not intended to discuss anything personal to Josiah, particularly after their last 'open' talk, but it felt somehow wrong to continue the hard feelings in the face of Josiah's somber honesty. Perhaps talking about it would ease his own confusion somewhat.

He couldn't see it, but Ezra suspected that Josiah smiled a little. "Since that fact saved your life, son, I can't say I'm too upset about it," was the light response. "Guess givin' in to temptation has its good points, sometimes."

Ezra looked back at him, astonished. Josiah knew that he had taken the money-and yet, had not said one word of rebuke. There was no recrimination in the preacher's face, only understanding, and Ezra felt a surge of empathy swell through him to think that Josiah had suffered the same dark urgings which had tormented his own soul.

A silent minute ticked by, then Ezra relaxed a bit and allowed a slight grin to wander across his face. "Perhaps this has all simply been the good Lord's way of attracting our attention," he murmured, carefully rubbing his bandaged side with one hand.

Josiah shrugged, a dark shadow flickering across his eyes. "Maybe," he replied. "Sure got my ear. I know I shouldn't have been askin' you to know what kind of man you are, when I should've been askin' myself."

Ezra sighed and leaned back against the pillow. "It is not a bad question, actually, for any man to ask himself," he mused. "I suppose that this entire loathsome situation has been quite confusing for the both of us."

"Least you got some quiet time to figure it out," Josiah observed, sitting back in the chair and relaxing for the first time since his arrival. Outside, the sun had set, bathing the room in golden twilight.

Ezra shook his head, his green eyes thoughtful. "That has hardly made the question any more clear," he confessed. "Some time ago, I could have answered it precisely, but it is far more muddled now." He rubbed his side again. "This only complicates the matter further."

His comrade eyed the wound. "Self-sacrifice is never simple, Ezra," he pointed out.

"Yes, Josiah, but for me the impulse has never arisen at all," Ezra retorted with some frustration. He sank back on the bed and stared at the ceiling. "I have always believed that I knew what sort of a man I was; my profession requires such self-awareness, the better to ascertain your odds in any situation."

Josiah cocked one eyebrow. "Now it's not so clear, is it?"

Ezra pursed his lips, still looking upwards. "Lord knows I am not a hero, and have no desire to be," he admitted. "But I will confess that our lawkeeping duties have made me more curious than before for the straight and narrow way. It would be an amusing novelty for me, at any rate." He smiled a bit, then sighed as the amused expression slipped away. "However, my recent failing shows that such a road is not one I am suited to travel."

"It's one many of us struggle on, Ezra," Josiah said gently, his expression dark.

Ezra twisted his face a bit. "Yes, but here was the opportunity to return to the life I knew before, and I have found that I am no longer that sort of man, either. When fortune and freedom were mine, I tossed them aside in the name of duty. I had even forgotten about the money in my coat, until Nathan removed it after I was shot." He shook his head and chuckled, rubbing his face. "To think I was carrying a fortune, and let the fact slip my mind! Perhaps this altruistic career has finally driven me mad."

A sympathetic smile touched Josiah's lips. "Wouldn't say that so fast, Ezra," he offered. "Maybe you're really just comin' to your senses."

The gambler shifted slightly in the bed, sore from sitting in one place for so long. As he did so, he shot Josiah a skeptical look. "Please, Josiah," he groaned, "don't condemn me to a life of saintly sackcloth and ashes. I intend to continue my pursuit of wealth as soon as I am fit to return to the tables. I have no objection to procuring other people's money in that fashion."

Josiah ducked his head a little and raised his hands. "I'm not going to say any more to you about how you live your life, Ezra. Got a few things about my own to figure out yet, an' I guess it's between me an' the Lord as to whether I'll have any more luck than you. But you don't have to be afraid of findin' out you're a decent man."

Ezra's expression faltered, and he appeared slightly flustered before pulling on a cynical look. "Decent men die poor," he finally observed, settling back. "That is hardly an aspiration of mine."

The preacher shook his head a bit. "I guess that point of view depends on what you mean by 'poor'," Josiah pointed out with a small smile. "Once we stopped the killers an' put everything right, I was feelin' pretty blessed, myself. Found I'd pretty much forgotten about that money, just like you did."

His comrade grimaced as he massaged his wounded side. "I fear I shall never forget that money, my friend," Ezra muttered. "Every twinge will remind me what I might have had."

Josiah's expression was gentle as he slowly rose. "Or what you found," he offered. "The Bible talks about the great love of a man who's willing to lay down his life for another, Ezra, and love's just about the most valuable thing there is. We're both still askin' ourselves what sort of men we are, but I think for you-" here he gestured towards Ezra's wounded side-"this might give you somethin' of an answer."

Ezra frowned a little, still troubled by the clashing feelings of his heart, and glanced up at his comrade, his green eyes distant. "Yes, well, perhaps," he murmured in a low, uncertain voice. After a silent pause he took a deep breath, appearing to quickly collect himself. "I-appreciate your visit, Josiah," Ezra continued in a brighter tone. "I believe we may consider the air between us to be clear."

"Glad to hear it," Josiah replied firmly as he put on his hat. "Next time you got something troublin' you, my sanctuary door will be open."

"I will be sure to keep that in mind," was the yawning reply; it was getting darker now, and Ezra was beginning to feel quite sleepy from so much thinking. "And do try not to castigate yourself too severely, Josiah. You are farther up the righteous path than I am, at the moment."

Josiah paused, nodded a bit with a tight smile; but his blue eyes seemed dark with troubling secrets Ezra could scarcely guess at.

"It's a hard road to travel, that's for sure," he confessed. "But I got faith that we'll both find our way to it somehow." He walked to the door and put his hand on the knob. "'Night, Ezra."

"Good night," was the weary but cordial reply. Josiah nodded and opened the door, disappearing into the blaze of light flooding in from the hallway. Then the portal closed, wrapping the recovering Southerner in shadows once more.

Ezra smiled to himself as he settled back into the cloud-like comfort of the vast featherbed. He felt strangely better now, although his confusion had not really been resolved. Perhaps it simply did him good to know that he was not the only one left baffled by the week's events; perhaps he was only relieved that he and Josiah had settled their differences. It still puzzled him that someone as devout as Josiah could face such temptations; Ezra had thought that sort of thing was only for sinners like himself. The preacher was truly an enigma, one of many he had faced since taking this job.

His mind began to slow down as he drifted off. The sky outside was a deep blue-purple now, the stars just beginning to assert their brilliance in the desert sky. Ezra yawned and burrowed his face into the down pillow; he was tired of trying to figure it all out, and it was a futile exercise anyhow. With luck, he would soon be back on the road to health and wealth, and there would be no need to ask any more bothersome self-searching questions whose answers left him puzzled and frightened. And there would hopefully be no more instances in which he would have to decide between his own preservation, and the life of one of his friends.

Yet in the hazy twilight of near-sleep, Ezra's soul stirred, contemplating the question anew, and the gambler was too tired to ignore its gentle persistence. Weariness prevented any self-deceit; there was only the question -would he lay down his life for them again, if need be?- and the answer, which to his surprise brought puzzlement, but no fear.

In the morning, he knew, it would be different. He would claim to know the real answer then- this was just a job, the other merely associates, nothing in this dusty backwater town could change who and what he was. It was simply a place to stop, one of many on his road to riches. In the sunlight, he could tell himself these things, and believe them.

In the soft darkness on the threshold of slumber, it was another matter, and he could only regard the truth with drowsy amazement, wonder at the curious peace it brought him, and quietly fall asleep.


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