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Thanks to Tex and Shirley for sorting out my errors and giving me their thoughts. Any remaining mistakes are mine, and mine alone.
Story added 8/4/05
The town's inhabitants, with their inbuilt sixth where trouble was concerned, had taken appropriate measures to make sure they didn't get caught up in the expected gun battle. There was hardly a sound to disturb the peacekeepers' concentration, except for the distant barking of an angry dog.
The gambler's legs were just starting to go dead when he saw movement at the bank's door. He automatically tensed in anticipation as he shifted slightly to wake up his stiff legs. Seconds later the gang erupted onto the street, firing their weapons like maniacs at anything that moved. They'd obviously spotted the peacekeepers and were trying to keep them pinned down while they attempted to make good their escape.
"Damn it," Ezra swore as he rose when the salvo of gunfire ceased briefly. He snapped off a couple of shots, as did his companions, and the robbers were discouraged from reaching the safety of their fractious mounts. Two creatures became so upset by the shots being fired in such close proximity, that they pulled backward against their restraints until they broke free. With terrified snorts they turned tail and bolted down the street, leaving their riders without a means of escape.
Two of the thieves ducked behind an upturned table on the boardwalk, while another man set off down the street and dived under a nearby wagon. The youngest robber, left slightly isolated, flicked a look over his shoulder and turned down an alley near the bank.
"Oh no, you don't, young man," Ezra said to himself as ran across the street after the escaping thief. Being the nearest peacekeeper to the young robber, he felt it was his duty to go in pursuit. He was sure that his friends could contain the rest of the gang themselves. After all, they outnumbered them two to one.
The gambler entered the alley and kept to the side wall, allowing the shadows to keep him hidden from view. He could hear stumbling footsteps ahead of him so he quickened his pace to catch up. Ezra finally caught sight of the robber when the youngster came to a halt and looked out the end of the alley to see if there was any law waiting for him.
"I suggest you always look behind you as well," Ezra drawled as he stepped out of the shadows a few feet behind the boy, gun drawn.
The youngster swung round and aimed his pistol toward the gambler with a shaking hand. "Get away from me. I'll put a hole in you," he stuttered, backing up a step.
Ezra could now see how truly young the boy was. He was in his early-to-mid teens, but looked even younger. He had light-blue eyes which, at the moment, were flicking around nervously. A thin sheen of sweat could be seen on his brow under the layer of brown hair covering his brow, and a trickle of the salty liquid made its way down his cheek slowly. His behavior resembled that of a trapped rabbit, startled and coiled like a spring.
"I'll shoot you," he warned again as he waved his gun in the air in what he thought was a threatening manner.
"I somehow doubt that. If you shake much more, you'll probably dislodge the cylinder before you can fire the bullets from within," Ezra said quietly, but in a slightly sarcastic tone.
"Shut up. Just shut up," the boy said as he took a step to the side while looking for a way to escape.
Ezra narrowed his eyes and decided to tread carefully. The terrified boy could act in a totally unpredictable way, so the gambler put out a placating hand as he held the boy's gaze. "Why don't you give me the gun before someone gets hurt: namely me?"
"No," his adversary yelled as he ducked out into the back street.
Ezra growled and headed after him, not quite sure how to deal with the youngster at the moment. The gambler was careful and looked out of the alley first, not just running out like his adversary had done. He certainly didn't want to encounter an ambush. He was just in time to see the boy head back down the next alley along.
Ezra shook his head and pursed his lips. "Tsk, tsk. Such naivety. He's heading straight back toward my compatriots."
Instead of following the boy, though, Ezra just turned and went back the way he'd come.
The robber ran back out into the main street to find Ezra already waiting for him a few feet away. The gambler was leaning against the wall with arms crossed but gun aimed in readiness.
"We meet again. I'd really rather not kill you, so do yourself a favor and lower your weapon," Ezra ordered, seemingly nonchalant, but ready for anything. He kept the youngster covered with his pistol, but didn't really believe that he'd have to use it. A child is no match for a seasoned gunman, he thought to himself.
He sighed when he wasn't obeyed, and decided on a bit more diplomacy. "Look, I'll put my gun away to show you I mean you no harm. My friends may not be so accommodating, though, so why don't you give me yours to save any confusion?" Ezra re-holstered his pistol, while still watching the boy closely. He foolishly expected instant capitulation after the offer he'd just made. "I'm sure you were under duress and didn't really want to rob the bank. If you help us convict your fellow robbers, we may be able to help you."
It seemed that the youngster hadn't taken any notice of Ezra's words at all. Instead, he looked round him and seemed to gain in resolve. He looked back at Ezra, his whole demeanor changed. The blue eyes that had once been filled with fear, now showed nothing but steely determination. It was a startling and sudden change to behold. The youngster seemed to have aged and matured by ten years in as many seconds and Ezra knew that he'd made a serious mistake. Although he knew he'd been dealing with a bank robber, he'd become distracted by the age involved.
Ezra saw the tell-tale sign in the suddenly cold, blue eyes and knew the boy was going to do something stupid. Ezra saw his finger tighten on the trigger and he had no choice in his actions. The kid's weapon was aiming directly at his head and he noticed that the hand holding it no longer shook uncontrollably.
I seem to have made a miscalculation, he thought to himself as he sprung his derringer and shot the boy a fraction of a second before a bullet headed toward him in return. He'd already been moving when he'd snapped off his shot and he came up hard against the nearby alley wall unscathed.
The same couldn't be said about the boy, though. His dead body dropped into the dirt and the gun skittered away to lay a few feet away. Ezra collected the weapon after making sure that the boy was no longer a threat to him. He then went back and squatted down beside the robber and sighed.
"Too cocky, Standish. Thought this slip of a boy couldn't possibly be a match for me. How foolish. A poker player of my standing has been bluffed by a mere amateur," he said to himself sadly. "I thought he was naive, but I rather think that term applies to me instead."
Ezra stared down at the youthful face, its lifeless eyes staring up at him. Those pale, blue eyes would never be able to see anything again. The dead boy's mouth hung open slackly as if on the verge of saying something to the gambler, but naturally no sound emerged. Ezra couldn't help but be regretful about having to take such a young life, and that regret was tinged with guilt and anger.
"Why didn't you give me your gun?" he snapped at the silent body. "You made me kill you while I was offering you the chance to go on living. Was that really so bad that you couldn't even contemplate the option?" Ezra sat back on his heels as he watched the blood from the killing chest wound pool under the boy's body, and he shook his head in despair.
"Ez? You coming? These hombres have been sent to their maker, so let's go get a drink," Vin called as he broke away from the other members of the close-knit group of peacekeepers. He strode up behind the gambler, looked down at the teenager sprawled at Ezra's feet and grimaced. "Stupid kid. What a waste."
Ezra shook himself back to the moment and stood up as he tucked the robber's weapon in his belt. "My thoughts exactly and I had no choice but to shoot him dead. He seemed intent on putting an unwanted ventilation hole in my head, you see."
"Mighta been an improvement, Ez," Vin drawled as he patted his friend's back and smiled.
"Oh, good God. Thank you so much for that, Mr. Tanner." As he spoke, Ezra watched the undertaker collect the youngster's body and he shivered. "Someone's lost a son or brother," he muttered sadly as his eyes followed the robber's journey. "I wonder who he was."
"We may never know, pard. Come on, I'll buy you a whiskey," the tracker offered quietly. "You okay?"
"Yes, I'm fine and I'm certainly not going to prevent you from spending your hard-earned lucre in my saloon," Ezra retorted as he brushed the dirt from his pants and grinned at his companion.
Vin smiled broadly. "I thought the prospect of me buying you a drink might grab yer attention, pard."
The two men headed after the rest of their already departing friends and they just caught up so that they could enter the saloon as a group.
"Gather round, gentlemen. Mr. Tanner's buying," Ezra said as he moved to stand behind the counter to get the drinks ready.
"That's not what I said, Ezra," Vin pointed out hastily as he moved toward the gambler in a panic. He only had enough money to pay for his own and Ezra's drink, but not for anyone else.
"It's alright, pard. Don't wet yourself. Chris has already offered to buy our drinks," Buck said placatingly when he saw the look on his young friend's face. The tall mustached peacekeeper patted Vin's back and gave out a short bark of laughter.
The tracker looked mightily relieved and pretended to wipe unwanted sweat from his brow. "Gee, you don't know how grateful I am to hear that, Bucklin. I could see myself having to scrub the floors in here for the next two weeks to pay off my debt."
"Nah, Ezra would have had you out back digging some new holes for the outhouse."
Once the drinks were poured, the group settled down at their favorite table and recounted their tales about the attempted robbery. Ezra gave a very brief summary of the part he'd played and then left the others to talk about their experiences instead. He really didn't want to relive what he'd just done. Taking any life was hard, but killing such a young boy had hit him hard. He couldn't help wondering if his actions could have been different. These thoughts, along with many others, would serve to consume him.
The gambler remained quiet for the rest of the day and he spent most of the time by himself in the saloon. He didn't have any other duties in the saloon or around town that day, so he inevitably found himself thinking and brooding about what he had just done.
Why am I letting this boy's death affect me like this? He was a felon, pure and simple. Ezra sighed. But he was also a child of more tender years than our own Mr. Dunne and I killed him. Ezra shook his head and rubbed his eyes.
"Hey, Ez. Can I join you?" JD asked as he appeared beside the gambler's left elbow. The youngster's arrival was an unsettling coincidence seeing as he had just been in Ezra's thoughts.
The gambler looked up at his fellow peacekeeper but saw the young robber's face instead for a split second. He frowned and rubbed his eyes again before nodding and pointing to a spare chair when he saw that it really was JD beside him.
"Cat got yer tongue? You've been awful quiet today, Ez, ain't ya?" the youngster said as he sat down beside his friend. He removed his hat and ran his fingers through his thick, dark hair as he let out a tired sounding sigh.
"Your point being?" the handsome gambler asked as he arched a questioning eyebrow and kept all emotion from showing on his face.
JD shrugged and pushed his hat further across the table. "It ain't like you is all I'm saying. I'm used to you always talking."
"With you around, young sir, it's difficult to get a word in edgewise. I was only silent because I was expecting you to launch into another one of your bouts of verbal diarrhea," Ezra replied as he poked his friend playfully in the stomach, tickling him.
JD doubled up giggling and tried to move away from his tormentor.
Ezra stared at the youngster thoughtfully as he listened to his friend's laughter. Despite his mother's death, JD had kept on the right side of the law. What made one person turn to crime, but another stay lawful? It was rather like the chicken and the egg question: unanswerable.
"Will you join me in a beer, Mr. Dunne?" he asked, once the youngster had recovered from his giggling fit.
JD sat up straight, his tongue almost hanging out with thirst. "Thought you'd never ask, Ezra. Just spent the last of my wages on a present for Casey," he stated proudly.
Ezra sighed and commented dryly, "Well, I hope it is something more romantic than a frog gigger, this time."
JD smiled, but didn't enlighten the gambler about his new purchase. It would remain a secret until such time as he bucked up the courage to give it to her.
Once JD's drink arrived, the two men spent a companionable couple of hours together before heading to their respective beds.
Killing, unfortunately, was not a rare occurrence in the men's lives and by the following morning Ezra seemed almost back to his old self. His friends also appeared to have put the previous day's events well behind them and they quickly got back into the daily routine of patrols and jail duties. Over the following days they noticed Ezra's increasingly volatile mood, but they didn't realize it was as a result of killing the boy robber.
Ezra just couldn't get the image of the boy's face out of his mind. For some reason, his thoughts only seemed to concentrate on the image of the boy when he'd been terrified and quivering. Perhaps if it had latched onto the image when he'd been strong and determined instead it may have been better for him.
The robber had even begun to haunt his dreams, but daytime was proving to be no better, either. JD's youth and Vin's blue eyes were a constant reminder to the gambler, and whenever he saw them he saw him in his mind's eye. It was truly painful for him to be around either man.
It wasn't easy to avoid them, though, and he found himself scheduled to go on patrol with JD the following day. He sought out Chris and attempted to swap duties.
"Mr. Larabee? Would you mind if I changed my duties today? I don't feel particularly well and I would appreciate staying in town."
"Sorry, Ezra. The others have already left town to escort that prisoner to Eagle Bend. I can't change with you either, cause I've got other commitments that you can't cover."
The gambler nodded, realizing that he shouldn't be avoiding JD anyway. It wasn't his fault after all. He sighed and wandered along to the livery barn and saddled his horse and waited for the young peacekeeper to join him.
"Mr. Dunne? All set for our foray?" he asked, trying to sound cheerful.
"Yeah. Least the sun's shining now. Nothing worse than patrolling in the rain."
They set off at a brisk pace toward some nearby homesteads. JD kept looking across at his companion who remained very quiet. The youngster decided to try and get his older friend talking.
"Heard from Maude lately, Ez?" he asked as he moved his horse closer to Ezra's.
"No, thank God, and I sincerely hope that remains the case," the gambler said as he slapped his horse's neck when it attempted to bite JD's animal.
"I kinda like her. She ain't like any mother I've ever known," JD said with a chuckle.
Ezra nodded. "I have to agree with you on that count, Mr. Dunne. She's not the comforting loving matriarchal figure you would hope for, is she?" the gambler asked rhetorically, sounding sad.
"She still loves you, though," JD stated as he studied Ezra closely. "Just don't show it like anyone else would. She's one in a million, Ez."
"You can say that again," the gambler muttered. He looked across at his companion and frowned. "What was your mother like?"
JD smiled fondly as he thought about his mother. He still missed her, but she was always in his thoughts so he didn't feel to far away from her. "She always wanted the best for me and she was always telling me she loved me. We didn't have much but she was always there when I needed her," he said.
"Unlike my mother," Ezra said, feeling jealous. "If I saw her once in six months during my childhood I considered myself very fortunate. When we did spend time together she was only teaching me how to relieve others of their money or belongings. She wasn't a good influence in my childhood years."
"Yeah, she sure succeeded in steering you onto a path of trickery and deceit. Stealing from the poor to line your own pockets," JD said mimicking Ezra's voice perfectly.
The gambler's face clouded as he clenched his jaw tightly. He almost growled as he kicked his horse into a lope and headed away from the youngster. I know what everyone thinks of me, Mr. Dunne. I don't need you to tell me to my face, he thought to himself angrily.
JD grimaced as he watched his departing friend. He could see the tension in Ezra's body and he knew he'd upset the man. "Gee, guess I said the wrong thing again."
What the youngster didn't know was that he'd made Ezra realize how close in life he and the robber had been. He cheated people out of their money at cards, and that equated to stealing as much as robbing a bank did. Damn you, Maude. Why couldn't you have been more like Mr. Dunne's mother?
JD kicked his horse on to catch up. "Sorry, Ez," he apologized as he drew upsides the gambler. "I didn't mean nothing by it. I was only joking."
Ezra managed to summon a wry smile. "It's alright, Mr. Dunne. You just hit a raw nerve."
The gambler reached down and stroked his horse's neck distractedly to calm his nerves. He'd never felt so unsure of himself before and he didn't know what to do to get himself back on track.
"Are you okay?" JD asked worriedly, unable to read Ezra's face.
"Yes, thank you. I'm sorry for my behavior. I just have rather a lot on my mind at the moment."
JD nodded and reached over the pat Ezra's back. "You've seemed a bit outta sorts," he agreed as he moved his horse back in the correct direction. Ezra had deviated from their course quite a lot when he'd ridden off.
"We're all entitled to a dose of melancholia, Mr. Dunne."
"Melan...what?" the youngster asked in confusion, wondering whether it was something infectious.
"Sadness and gloom, JD. Sadness and gloom."
JD couldn't think of any reason why Ezra should be sad, but accepted his friend's word without question. "Oh, I see." The youngster pursed his lips as he tried to think of a way of cheering Ezra up. "Well, snap out of it. Let's race over to that tree, shall we? Last one there takes care of the other one's horse for a week."
"I'm never one to turn down a bet. Eat my dust, Mr. Dunne," Ezra yelled as he set off at speed.
JD let him go, just happy to see the man smile for a short time. By the time that Ezra reached the tree he'd realized that he'd just gambled again. This time the prize was just somebody's time, but that was a precious commodity in itself. He'd taken the challenge without thinking and would be, in effect, stealing a few hours of JD's life as a result. Thought before action, not action before thought. That must be my motto from this day forth, he promised to himself.
"You don't need to honor the bet, Mr. Dunne. I won't hold you to it."
"A bet's a bet and I don't mind doing it," JD replied, not understanding why Ezra would back out of the agreement. He usually insisted that all bets were covered.
"Well, I do. I'm sure you've got better things to do with your time; like pursuing Casey. I expect you'd prefer her company to my horse's."
"Could say that," JD grinned.
Ezra nodded. "Well, let's leave things like that then. Let's go home, shall we? I've had enough for one day and we've covered a lot of ground in search of non-existent villains. I'm sure Mr. Larabee just sends us out for the hell of it."
The two men headed home and Ezra still seemed less than his usual talkative self. JD shrugged and allowed the man to suffer his melancholia alone. Everyone was allowed an off day.
Ezra stood in the middle of the street. The town was deserted except for three people who were walking toward him. The gambler narrowed his eyes as he studied the youngest of the group. He looked very familiar for some reason and he finally realized that it was the boy robber.
"You're alive?" he gasped. "Oh, thank God."
It wasn't until the child stood right in front of him that the gambler saw that he was looking into empty eye sockets, not blue eyes as he'd expected.
The young boy opened his mouth and there was just a sound of static, not words. Ezra saw movement in the darkness of the boy's throat and he stared harder. Three serpents' heads suddenly sprung from between the open lips and Ezra's gaze was filled with vicious snapping fangs.
He sat bolt upright in bed with a yell and put a hand to his face as if he'd been struck by the sharp fangs. He frowned in confusion as he stared at the palm of his hand and saw there was no blood.
"Oh, my God," he mumbled as he put his head in his hands and shivered. His body suddenly broke out in a cold sweat and he scrambled out of bed and threw up in the bowl on the nightstand. He clung tightly to the piece of furniture and waited for his stomach to settle.
He trembled continuously and felt his legs giving way. He lowered himself onto the edge of the bed and wrapped his arms round his waist and rocked back and forth. He then ran a hand through his damp hair before picking up a blanket to wrap round his shoulders. It didn't make him feel any warmer, though, and he continued shivering.
He sat and stared unseeingly at the wall as if in a trance. There was no way he would be able to get back to sleep, even if he wanted to. Staying awake seemed a better option at the moment. Five hours later he was still in the same position, and he realized that it was time to help open up the saloon for breakfast.
"No rest for the wicked," he mumbled. "Literally."
Ezra stared upwards into the darkness. This was the fourth night in a row that he hadn't been able to get a good night's sleep. He would find himself tossing and turning in bed, unable to get his mind to stop showing images of the boy. It had gotten so bad that he'd taken to wandering back downstairs to start gambling instead. He reasoned that if he was going to be awake, he might as well be doing something lucrative with the time. Deep down, though, he'd hoped the relaxing atmosphere of a good game would help calm him, but so far his strategy hadn't worked. His guilt over the killing had grown as had his feelings in that he should have acted differently. He had no idea what he could have done to have altered the outcome, but he was past thinking rationally.
He'd been feeling very morose and irritable as a result of his sleepless nights and unsettling dreams. So much so, that he'd begun drinking a few whiskeys before heading to bed in order to cure his insomnia. To start with, the drink had certainly helped to dull the memories and he actually sleep for a few hours, but the medicinal whiskey was slowly escalating into full-blown alcoholism. Total sleeplessness and bad dreams had now returned with a vengeance and, as a result, Ezra had become so desperate that he began to drink more. He thought that increasing his intake would be the answer, but now it had become a never ending cycle. He drank to sleep, but still stayed awake, so drank some more.
This particular night, he got up, dressed and headed outside into the fresh air. He took a chair onto the boardwalk and waited for sunrise. It was chilly, but Ezra stayed where he was, listening to the total silence that had enveloped the town during the hours of darkness. Four hours later, the long awaited sun finally appeared on the horizon, heralding the start of a new day. Another day that Ezra didn't care if he lived through or not.
Chris walked toward the saloon to get his breakfast and frowned when he noticed the gambler sitting outside. "Ezra? Bit early for you, isn't it?" he pointed out casually.
Ezra looked up and rubbed his brow to try and ease the throbbing pain behind it. "What of it, Mr. Larabee? Why must I endure your constant remarks about my timekeeping?" the gambler snapped. "If I'm up early, that's wrong, but if I oversleep you are not happy, either? What can I do to please you?"
Chris's frown deepened as he held out a hand. "Hey, cool down. It was only a joke."
"Yes, and I am sick and tired of being the butt of most of them," Ezra retorted angrily as he turned his chair to face away from the blond.
Chris shook his head at the gambler's childish behavior and pushed through the batwing doors of the saloon. He wasn't alone for long because Vin ambled in soon afterwards having already been out on patrol for two hours. The long-haired man was starving and was looking forward to a hearty breakfast.
"What's eating Ezra? He near on bit my head off when I said hello to him just now," the tracker said, looking back over his shoulder curiously.
The blond looked up and grimaced. "Tell me about it. I got an earful of abuse, too. He's got a burr up his ass for some reason."
Vin removed his hat and hung it over the back of the chair he was going to occupy. "He sure looks rough. Maybe I'll take him some breakfast." The young man went back outside after collecting a full plate of delicious-smelling food for his friend. "Here ya go, Ez. You hungry?"
"I'd rather have some coffee. I really don't feel like eating right now." Ezra looked up and saw the food Vin had for him. His mouth ran water at the aroma wafting toward him, but it made him feel nauseous instead of hungry. He put a hand up to his mouth and waved the plate away. "Sorry, your offer was very kind, Mr. Tanner."
"Feel okay?" the long-haired man asked softly as he squatted down beside him, one hand on the back of the chair to keep himself upright.
"Just tired, testy and not my usual self," Ezra replied, as he stretched his legs out in front of him as his nausea passed.
Vin smiled and raised his eyebrows questioningly. "Too many late nights?"
"No. Too many late nights and early mornings," Ezra said with a yawn as he leaned forward in his chair and put his head in his hands after rubbing his eyes.
"Find juggling two jobs too much for ya?"
"Something like that," Ezra agreed, not wanting to admit the real cause of his current problem.
"I'll get you yer coffee then, though seeing as you own this place, you should be serving me, I reckon," Vin said wryly as he stood up straight again.
Ezra looked up at his friend and tried to get up. "I apologize. It is very remiss of me."
Vin put out a hand and stopped the man moving. "Stay where you are, I didn't mean it. You rest your weary bones, old man."
Vin patted Ezra's shoulder and then went back inside with the full plate of now cold food.
"So? What did he say?" Chris asked as he eyed the returning food curiously. The black-clad man was busily tucking into his own plate of breakfast, but he stopped and wiped his mouth as he waited for Vin's reply.
"He wants coffee, and he's tired."
The blond shook his head and scowled angrily as he scooped up another fork full of beans. "He's always tired. Don't know why he bothers getting out of bed sometimes."
Vin didn't answer but collected a mug of coffee and took it out to Ezra as promised. "There ya go. Maybe that'll help wake you up a bit."
"Thank you," Ezra said gratefully. He thought in his own mind as he took a tentative sip of the drink, I'd really rather have something to make me have a dreamless sleep.
The tracker watched as the gambler drank the coffee slowly. He smiled and went back to eat his own meal after feeling his stomach complaining about the lack of food it had received recently.
Josiah wandered up behind Ezra later in the day. The preacher had been watching him for several minutes in curiosity. The gambler was just standing on the boardwalk outside Potter's store staring into the window. Pedestrians were cursing him soundly when he didn't move to let them by, but it seemed that he didn't hear their words, anyway.
The big man moved to stand beside his friend and frowned when Ezra didn't acknowledge his presence. Josiah looked at the window display to see what had caught the man's attention so much, but there wasn't anything of particular interest. There was certainly no pile of gold, which would have been the only thing to have kept his friend so hypnotized.
He decided to speak. "Ezra? What's caught your interest? You're creating a blockage on the boardwalk, son."
No reply and no movement from the gambler.
Josiah reached out a hand and gently placed it on Ezra's shoulder. "Ezra? You okay?"
Ezra yelped as he turned round rapidly in fright. "Oh, good God, Mr. Sanchez," he complained in irritation. The gambler hastily tucked his derringer back up his sleeve when he saw it was friend not foe beside him. It had been an automatic reaction to spring the weapon from the arm holster after being caught unawares in such a way.
The preacher saw the weapon and took a step backward to put some distance between him and the gun. He raised his hands slightly in the air, half in apology, half in fear. He kicked himself, realizing he should have known better that to touch the obviously distracted man.
"Sorry, son. You seemed very preoccupied. Thought you'd rooted yourself to the boardwalk 'cause you've been stood there so long."
Ezra frowned and shook his head as he looked round in confusion. "No, I think you'll find that I was just walking along minding my own business when you accosted me. I wasn't stationary."
Josiah narrowed his eyes. Ezra seemed to have no recollection of what he'd just been doing, which seemed rather odd. There was the faint whiff of whiskey in the air and although Josiah couldn't be sure that it emanated from Ezra, he was willing to bet that it did. "Is everything okay? Can I do anything to help?" he asked in concern.
"I don't need any help," Ezra replied, even more confused. "I'm perfectly alright, thank you."
"Are you sure?"
"Of course I'm sure. Why must you question my word? I'm not one of your pathetic parishioners who comes to you for counsel." Ezra turned abruptly and stomped off down the boardwalk without looking back.
The preacher stood and shook his head as he watched the man walk away. "Well, I'm not convinced that you're alright, son. Something ain't right with you, no matter what you tell me," he said quietly.
Josiah sighed and made his way to the church to send up a prayer for his troubled friend. There seemed nothing much else he could do to help the man at the moment.
Ezra tossed and turned as he endured another nightmare. He mumbled continually under his breath and his skin shone with droplets of sweat. It was as if Ezra had been caught in a rain shower and had been drenched.
Ezra was standing in the bank. He frowned as he looked down at his hand to find his gun ready, loaded and cocked and aimed at the teller. The gambler watched as the quivering man behind the desk hastily shoved notes and coins into a saddlebag. Once it was full, Ezra took possession of the money and turned on his heels. He walked to the door and looked up and down the street, but couldn't see any lawmen around. He stepped out on to the boardwalk and heard a yell. He saw a peacekeeper so turned to his left and ran down a nearby alley. He came to the end and stopped suddenly as a mocking voice said, "We meet again."
He shivered as he came face to face with himself and he stood with mouth open, speechless. "Who am I?" he wondered in confusion.
"I'm going to enjoy this," his other self said.
He watched as his opponent sprung his derringer and fired. Ezra felt the bullet strike him and he fell to the dirt and stared up at his mirror image. "Why?" he muttered as everything went black.
"Because you are not worth your place on Earth." You're a thief, a cheat, and a killer.
Ezra woke as tears ran down his cheeks onto the mattress under his head. He wiped his face and slowly sat up with a shiver. He knew he couldn't carry on much longer like this so he decided that it was time to take action. He rose from bed and dressed hastily and headed toward the clinic.
Nathan was usually the last person that Ezra would turn to, but as he was a healer, he hoped the man might have a solution to his problem.
"Mr. Jackson? Could I perhaps have a minute of your time?" Ezra asked tentatively as he hovered in the doorway of the clinic.
"I'm in kind of a hurry," Nathan said distractedly as he ran around the room like a headless chicken. He had a busy day ahead and he hadn't got time for interruptions. He did notice, though, that Ezra seemed very unsettled and not his usual composed self, but he didn't really think much of it. He looked up at Ezra and scowled when he didn't speak. "If you're gonna ask me to bet on that damned horse race you've organized next week then I ain't interested."
Nathan raised his eyebrows questioningly and snapped, "Well, what is it? I ain't got all day to play twenty questions." He really was feeling rather stressed and that made him irritable and seemingly uncaring.
"I have a problem that I hope you can help me with. It started about a week ago, when we had the robbery at the bank," the con man said as he shuffled from foot to foot nervously.
"Jesus, Ezra. Don't you ever say anything straight out? It damned near takes half an hour to say something that could be said in two words," the ex-slave said angrily as he put some bandages into the bag. "Are you sick or not? 'Cause I've got people with real problems to see to, if you ain't."
The gambler frowned. "Fine. I will leave you to your business. I am obviously wasting your precious time." Ezra turned and left, wishing he'd decided not to speak to Nathan in the first place. Yet another display of his indifference toward me.
Nathan shook his head in exasperation at Ezra's behavior and left the clinic to head off and see his patients.
The gambler struggled downstairs from his room above the saloon. He was feeling a bit worse for wear after indulging a bit too heavily in whiskey again. He'd sought solace in the bottle after his meeting with Nathan the previous morning.
"Hair of the dog, that's what I need," Ezra muttered to himself as he fell down the last few steps to land in a heap on the floor.
He groaned and got as far as his hands and knees before deciding he couldn't get any higher. He started making his way across the floor on all fours until he ambled headfirst into a pair of black-panted legs. The con man sat back on his heels and frowned, not quite understanding what was going on. He moved sideways and tried to go round the obstruction but the legs moved to block him. Ezra sighed and looked upward.
Chris stared down at him, hands on hips, looking very unhappy. "What the hell you doing?"
"I need a drink," Ezra muttered as he squinted up at the tall blond. "Have you grown since we last met, Mr. Larabee? You seem so much bigger than me for some reason," he said, not remembering that he was actually sitting on his knees at the man's feet.
"Pull yourself together. You're a disgrace," Chris said as he reached down and pulled the gambler up.
Ezra looked down at the ground and then at Chris who was, of course, now much nearer Ezra in height. The dark-haired peacekeeper frowned and then shook his head, mystified. He really didn't understand how he'd grown a few feet in just a matter of seconds.
"I need a drink," he mumbled again as he headed toward the counter.
Chris grabbed his arm. "Oh, no you don't. You're coming with me."
The black-clad man escorted Ezra out of the saloon and headed to the jail. He almost had to carry the drunk gambler because Ezra didn't seem able to get his legs to walk of their own accord. Chris somehow managed to complete his journey and he barged through the jail door noisily. Buck stood up hastily when the two men entered because it looked for all the world as if Chris had arrested Ezra.
"What's going on?" he asked.
"I've gotta sober Ezra up. Got any coffee?"
The ladies' man nodded as he pointed to the nearby table. "Yeah, just got a fresh pot brewed. Sit him down while I pour some into a mug."
Chris explained what state he'd found Ezra in as he manhandled the gambler into a chair and kept a hand on him in case he got any ideas about escaping. The ladies' man strode toward them and squatted down in front of Ezra and patted his knee to get his attention.
"Here ya go. Get that down ya, pard," Buck said gently as he held the mug against Ezra's lips. The gambler seemed only able to sit in the chair and nothing more, he was totally spent.
The black-clad peacekeeper scowled at Buck's tenderness. "Don't be kind to him, Buck. He needs to snap outta whatever mood he's in. He seems to be getting drunk with more regularity lately. It ain't like him. He's really angry, too, and snaps over the littlest things."
"Well, maybe there's something worrying him. Have you even tried talking to him about it? Yelling at him might make things worse," the mustached man pointed out as he looked up at his friend expectantly.
Chris shook his head and shrugged. "I ain't a talker. Get Josiah onto it 'cause I can't have a half-drunk peacekeeper wandering around town. He'd probably cause more problems than we've got already. He's been nothing but trouble since the day we met him."
"That ain't fair, pard. He's been a real good friend to us in lots of ways and on numerous occasions." The ladies' man turned his attention to Ezra and made sure that he continued drinking the hot sweet liquid.
"Get him another one," Chris ordered when Ezra had finished it.
Buck sighed and rose to his full height. He went back across the room to the coffee pot and filled the mug again. He looked back to see Chris still hanging around looking like a rain-filled cloud. "Leave him with me, pard. I'll keep an eye on him. You get on with whatever you've gotta do 'cause I can always put him in a cell to sleep it off if he's too bad."
"Best place for him, if you ask me," the blond grumbled as he left the two men alone in the jail.
"Come on, Ez. You know you can talk to me. What's troubling you?" Buck asked, now that they were alone. He squatted beside his friend again and studied him closely.
"Yeah, I can see that, but why did you get in this state? As Chris said, it ain't like you."
"Tired." The gambler certainly wasn't going to try and talk to anyone else after his brush off from Nathan the previous day. Although he trusted Buck implicitly, he just couldn't bring himself to unburden his problems. Ezra frowned as his mind began to drift and he reached out a finger and ran it along Buck's mustache curiously. "You've got a skunk on your lip."
"Jesus," the ladies' man said in despair as he shook his head.
Buck made sure that Ezra had finished his coffee and then almost carried him to the cot in the nearest cell. He sat him on the edge and then laid him down on his right side and lifted his legs onto the mattress so that he was comfortable. He found a blanket and covered the man before going back to the desk to keep up with his usual duties.
The ladies' man contemplated Ezra's recent odd behavior. He'd been very argumentative and pale looking. It seemed that he'd had an altercation with nearly every one of his friends in the past few days. First Chris, then Vin, Josiah and Nathan. Nothing too excessive but worrying just the same. Well, he couldn't do anything about solving the gambler's problem now, it would have to wait until he woke.
Ezra opened his eyes a few hours later still feeling lousy. He sat up, put his feet on the floor and put his head in his hands.
"Hey, pard. How ya feeling?" Buck asked as he leaned against the cell's door frame.
"What am I doing in here?" the gambler asked as he looked round and saw the bars.
"Sleeping off a hangover," the ladies' man informed him as he crossed his arms over his chest.
Ezra frowned. At least that explained the massive headache he had. "Well, it didn't work. Why couldn't I do so in my own bed anyway?"
"Because your bed is in the saloon and you'd have been tempted to try a bit of the old hair of the dog. I know you own half the place but you seem to be drinking all the profits." Buck studied the tired looking man. "Chris found you and thought it best if one of us watched over you away from where you can get your hands on more whiskey."
"Interfering bastards," Ezra muttered as he lay down and stared up at the ceiling.
Now it was Buck's turn to frown. That was most un-Ezra-like language. He shook his head and left the man to sleep some more. He was obviously in no mood for talking right now.
Chris wandered into the jail later that day and looked in the cell first before approaching Buck. "How is he?"
Buck shrugged. "Sobering up a bit."
The tall man stood and stretched, putting both hands in the small of his back as he did so. He then poured himself a cup of coffee and took a tentative sip.
"'Bout time," the blond growled on hearing Buck's news.
"Mr. Larabee?" Ezra said as he sat up on the bed again. He'd been awake for the past hour but had feigned sleep, not wanting another interrogation from Buck. Now, though, he felt he had to speak.
Chris moved to stand just outside the cell. He'd been talking to Vin and had assumed, as had the tracker, that Ezra couldn't cope with life at the moment because he was now doing two jobs. "You're gonna have to make a choice about what job you're gonna do in the future. You're either a bartender or a peacekeeper. Choose, or I'll do it for you 'cause you're no good to me like this." The gunfighter scowled. "At the moment I don't want you sleeping at the saloon and I forbid you to drink even so much as a beer. I'll get Inez to make sure you don't drink when you're working at the saloon either. Pull yourself together, will you?"
The gambler stood up and moved close to the tall gunfighter. "Who do you think you are - my mother? I own half the saloon and you can't ban me from there. I will do as I please," Ezra snapped indignantly as he clenched his fists.
Chris almost snarled. "You'll do as I say or regret it. I don't want you working with us either until you're sober, so you won't get paid. Maybe that will bring you to your senses" The blond nodded at Buck as he turned and left the jail without another word.
"Damn you," Ezra yelled as he picked up a pillow and threw it after the departing blond. He realized that he would have no money at all unless the saloon began to make a profit real soon.
Buck shook his head in despair at the situation. "You'd better stay with me, pard, although it'll cramp my style with the ladies. There's a key to my room so make sure you lock up whenever you leave."
"Yes, yes, I'm not entirely incompetent," Ezra complained as he snatched the key and headed out.
"A word of thanks would be good," Buck muttered to himself.
Chris, meanwhile, set off to put his plan into action, determined to try and stop Ezra drinking. He hated arguing with the man but he was so damned frustrating sometimes. Chris found himself snapping in irritation instead of being more patient and understanding. Hell, I've never been patient and understanding, but now is maybe the time to start before something bad happens.
He hurried to the saloon and went to the counter where Inez was serving a customer. He waited for her to finish and then caught her attention with a wave of his hand.
"Buenos dias, Senor Larabee."
The blond leaned on the counter and spoke quietly. "I need you to do me a big favor, Inez. Can you make sure that Ezra doesn't drink anything other than water when he's here with you? He's becoming a liability because of his drinking. I can't stop him working here, 'cause he half owns the damned place, but I *can*, and have, stopped him from sleeping here. Search him when he leaves after each shift to make sure he ain't smuggling any drink out with him."
"I will try my best, but he is my boss." Inez shrugged. "Anyway, he may have had a drink before he even gets here," she pointed out.
"Not if I have anything to do with it, he won't," Chris said with determination. "He listens to you, Inez, but if you get in any trouble one of us will hopefully be around nearby. We still have to guard the town so I can't guarantee that we can always be in the saloon when he's here, though." The blond sighed. "See if you can find out what's the matter with him, will you? He don't seem to wanna talk to any of us."
The blond went back out onto the boardwalk and headed off round town to speak to as many people as possible. He made sure that he convinced them not to give Ezra drink if he asked for it. No one was likely to go against the blond's wishes, because they knew there would be hell to pay if they did.
Chris spoke to the rest of his men, except, of course, the gambler, and arranged to meet them as soon as possible in the jail to discuss Ezra's drinking. When they'd all arrived, the gunfighter attracted their attention and stood so that they could all see him.
"Okay, boys. You all know about Ezra's behavior recently. I want us to take turns to be with him as much as our peacekeeping duties allow. I've done as much as I can to get him to stop drinking, even, talked to the townsfolk so that he don't try to get them to buy drinks for him. I somehow doubt that those measures alone will be enough, though. Has anyone got any ideas why he's acting like this?"
The preacher shook his head and sighed. "He ain't being very cooperative, Chris. I tried to find out what was troubling him yesterday, but he said there wasn't anything wrong," Josiah said. "He got a bit angry about me asking him."
Chris shrugged. "Well, all we can do is to try to get him talking and make sure he don't get his hands on any liquor."
"He's gonna be sleeping in my room, Chris, so I can keep an eye on him at night," Buck said as he caught the blond's attention.
Chris nodded. "Thanks, Buck. Inez is in charge of him when he's working in the saloon, so the rest of you work out who's gonna be with him the rest of the day when you're free."
"Do you think it's fair to get Inez to tackle him if he starts drinking?" Vin asked worriedly.
"I told her that one of us would be around if she got into trouble, but I don't think he'd do anything to hurt her. The customers wouldn't stand for it if he tried anything with her."
Josiah nodded and stood up. "Well, I'll go and make sure that he hasn't got any whiskey in his room in the saloon. Just hope he hasn't got any other secret hordes elsewhere."
"Well, if we're with him, he won't be able to go get them anyway, would he?" JD said sensibly.
"True, kid. When did you get to be so clever?" Buck asked.
"Not through being around you, Buck, that's for sure," the youngster said as he laughed and ran out of the jail before his tall friend could exact revenge on him.
JD was allocated first watch the next day. He joined Ezra for breakfast, but felt awkward about having to stay with his friend. He didn't quite know what excuse he could use to explain why he had to stay with him. He was sure the truth wouldn't be appreciated, so he decided to follow Ezra around instead of be in his company every minute.
The two men finished their meal and Ezra rose to leave. JD stood up after a minute had passed by and strode out onto the boardwalk. He saw Ezra strolling away toward the livery, so he turned and ambled along behind him.
Ezra stopped when he detected the footsteps behind him and he turned to face JD with a frown. He studied the youngster with piercing green eyes and saw that he looked unsettled. "Mr. Dunne? Are you tied to me by an invisible thread?"
"Then why are you following me?"
"I'm not. I just happen to be going in the same direction," JD said as he turned red in embarrassment. He knew he'd have to own up about what he was doing, and he didn't look forward to doing so.
"Crap," Ezra snarled as he turned and continued on his way.
JD let the man go and then hurried to catch up when Ezra turned a corner out of sight. The youngster came to a sliding halt and almost collided with the gambler who had waited to see if he was still following.
"Mr. Dunne, I'm warning you. Leave me alone," Ezra said as he pushed the youngster backward, making him stumble.
"No buts. Go away," Ezra ordered as he pointed in a direction away from him.
"Chris told us to stay with you all day," the kid blurted out. "I'm under orders."
The gambler looked furious and fingered his gun. "Well, you can tell Mr. Larabee that if I catch anyone within half a mile of me, I will shoot them." Ezra turned abruptly and strode away.
JD shivered and hurried to the jail, where Chris was currently on duty. He hoped the gunfighter wouldn't be too upset at the turn of events.
The blond looked up and frowned. "Aren't you supposed to be with Ezra?"
JD removed his hat and turned it round and round in his hands as he studied his friend nervously. "Yeah, but he got real angry. I had to tell him that you wanted one of us with him all the time. He said if he caught one of us following him he'd shoot us."
"Shit," Chris swore as he kicked the chair.
The youngster squirmed uncomfortably. "It was my fault, I guess. I didn't tell him straight out what you'd told us to do. I didn't feel happy just staying with him all day, so I kinda followed him instead. He caught me, though."
"It doesn't matter, kid. We'll just have to try and watch him from a distance instead without him realizing. Tell the others to back off, will ya?" Chris asked as he rubbed his eyes.
"Sure," JD agreed, pleased that he hadn't got a tongue-lashing from the blond. He headed out quickly on his errand just in case the blond changed his mind.
It didn't take long before Inez had to act on the blond's orders in the saloon. That afternoon she was sharing a shift with the gambler and he took advantage of her being absent for a short time. Ezra was still fuming after the morning's events and he needed a drink to calm his nerves, or that was his excuse, anyway.
The young lady had to go to Potter's store for some more supplies for cooking the evening meals. Ezra waited for her to go, and as there were no customers to be served, he disappeared into the back room. He sat on the floor and found a small bottle of whiskey on a low shelf nearby and started on that.
Inez came back and frowned when she saw that Ezra was nowhere to be seen. There was now five customers at the counter all shouting for service. She frowned and put down her shopping before hurrying to see to their needs.
"Gentlemen," she said as she smiled in an attempt to placate them. "What is your pleasure?"
Once she'd efficiently dealt with them she went in search of her absent boss. She found him in the back room still drinking and looking decidedly tipsy.
"Senor Standish? What are you doing?" she asked as she stood over him with a wide-legged stance and hands on hips.
Ezra waved the bottle in the air. "I'm testing the quality of this liquor, my dear. Can't expect our customers to drink dishwater, can we?" he asked in a slurred voice.
"Give it to me," Inez demanded as she held out her hand and took possession of the half empty bottle. "Now, get out behind the bar and see to your customers. You still have an hour of your shift left and there were clients waiting to be served when I came back. You were obviously too busy drowning your sorrows to see to them. Come on, get up and out in the bar," she said as she pointed out through the door. She waited to be obeyed, tapping her foot in irritation when Ezra didn't move immediately.
"I don't expect to be spoken to in this fashion. I am your superior," Ezra said indignantly.
"Superior maybe, but not necessarily my better," Inez snapped.
A slow grin spread across Ezra's face. "Well, well, Senorita Recillos. I do enjoy it when you become dominant," he said as he finally stood up and walked out on wobbly legs to continue with his duties.
Vin wandered in and took a chair near the bar. Inez exchanged looks with him and the tracker nodded in understanding. He could see she looked unsettled and guessed that Ezra was acting up. He silently agreed to watch the gambler while enjoying his lunch and pretending not to be involved.
"Have a coffee," Inez suggested as she turned her attention back to Ezra. She was glad to have backup. Although she knew Ezra wouldn't hurt her, he could be a formidable man when angered.
"Coffee gives me a headache," he objected, quite seriously.
"And whiskey doesn't?" she said in disbelief. "You must have drunk enough of it to dull what little brains you have left, then," she snapped as she placed a full cup of strong sweet coffee in front of him. "Do you want me to disobey Senor Larabee's orders?" Inez asked as he encouraged the man to drink the hot liquid.
"Nag, nag, nag. Why ever did God see fit to create the female sex?" Ezra scowled as he drank the coffee and got back to work. "Might have guessed that Larabee was behind this as well," he muttered to himself as he set off to collect empty glasses for washing.
Chris came in just as Ezra was about to leave an hour later.
"Mr. Larabee? A word outside if you please," Ezra said as he bypassed Vin, who was still watching from the sidelines.
The blond frowned but followed the gambler into the street. He was wary because Ezra looked furious and he knew that the man was an unknown quantity when riled. He was usually as easy going as they come but his present frame of mind was unpredictable to say the least.
Ezra turned round fast and reached out a stabbing finger, which he used to poke the gunfighter's chest. It wasn't the best idea in any circumstances, as Ezra was about to find out. "I do not appreciate you running my life. You've thrown me out of my lodgings and now you are stopping me from enjoying one or two drinks."
"One or two hundred more like," Chris said as he looked down at the outstretched digit that was still digging into his chest.
"Keep your nose out of my business!" Ezra yelled as he then balled his fist.
He tried to hit the gunfighter but his reactions had been dulled by drink. The blond easily deflected the blow and sent a hard punch to Ezra's stomach. The gambler dropped to his knees and bent double at the pain as he struggled for breath and retched.
"Hey, hey. What's going on?" Vin said as he ran to stand between the two men. He looked from Chris to Ezra and back again as he waited for a answer. He'd heard the raised voices and had stepped out onto the boardwalk just as Chris hit Ezra.
Chris scowled and shook his head. "Ezra doesn't agree with my part in his current situation. I should just damned well let him drink himself to death."
"Leave him with me," Vin ordered as he bent down beside Ezra just as the man threw up noisily.
Ezra reached into his pocket and pulled out a handkerchief with which to wipe his mouth. Before he could clean himself up, though, he vomited spectacularly once more. He groaned and shook off the tracker's hand and eventually struggled to his feet. The ground felt like sponge beneath his feet and he staggered sideways as he tried to remain upright. Once he'd caught his balance, he set off down the street with a lurching gait as he clutched his stomach tightly to try and ease the pain. He made his way back to Buck's room and after gaining entry, lay down on the spare bed with a heartfelt groan.
Back on the street, Vin and Chris had watched their friend walk away.
"Maybe I should go after him," Vin said in concern as he took a step forward. Ezra had looked very unsteady on his feet and the young man didn't like leaving him alone in his current condition.
Chris clamped a hand on his arm. "Leave him. Just let him go, Vin. We know where he is, don't we? No one can help him until he admits he needs help. I've been where he is right now and it ain't pretty."
"Well, I don't reckon we can expect Inez to cope with him alone. She seemed real upset earlier, cowboy. It ain't fair."
Chris pursed his lips and then nodded. "Okay, one of us will have to be in the saloon every shift. I kinda hoped that he'd be better behaved around a woman, though."
"Don't think we can take anything for granted, pard. He ain't himself and could get violent for all we know. Hell, he's already threatened to shoot us.*" Vin patted the blond's back and then went to sit on the boardwalk opposite Buck's room to carry on with his vigil, despite what Chris had said. He stayed until Buck went in and then ambled back to his wagon to get some sleep, safe in the knowledge that his troubled friend wasn't alone.
While Vin had been outside, Ezra was in the bedroom trying to sleep and he was met with the same lack of success as usual. He reached under the bed and extracted one of two bottles that he'd managed to secret there the day before. It was the last of his personal supply and Josiah had missed it when disposing of any bottles that Ezra had once stored in his own room.
The conman took a long drink from the bottle and put it back on the nightstand. He saw that his hands were shaking badly, so he flexed his fingers, but it didn't seem to have any immediate effect. His appendages went in and out of focus so he turned down the lamp so that he didn't have to look at them.
He lay down and moved onto his right side and closed his eyes. He waited impatiently for sleep to claim him, but as usual it didn't. The more he tried to convince his brain to let him sleep, the more anxious he became when he wasn't able to, and his anxiety only served to make him restless.
He rolled onto his back and within seconds turned onto his left side. He continued moving back and forth but the constant movement made him feel dizzy and sick. He pulled out a pillow from under his head and threw it across the room in anger.
"Please Lord, let me sleep," he pleaded forlornly.
His heart was now pounding in fear because everywhere he looked he was assaulted by visions of the young bank robber. Wherever he went and whatever he did, that child was with him every step of the way.
"Dammit, leave me alone. I'm sorry I had to kill you, but please don't haunt me for the rest of my days."
He finally got out of bed and went to the window. It was dark and the street outside was deserted except for a few hip-shot horses outside the saloon. He leaned his head against the pane and stared out unseeingly into the darkness.
After a while, Ezra turned round and his eyes moved to the nightstand where the half full bottle still stood. He walked toward it on jelly-like legs and drank some more of the contents.
Buck arrived just as he took as swig from the bottle. The ladies' man gasped and strode forward quickly. "What the hell ya doin', pard? Give me that," he ordered as he wrestled the bottle from Ezra's hand.
"Leave me alone, Mr. Wilmington," Ezra snarled as he punched Buck on the shoulder to try and make him let go.
"Not until you talk to me. Why are you drinking so much?" the ladies' man said once he'd subdued the man.
Ezra swayed as he moved to stand within inches of his friend. "To block out your incessant questioning, that's why. Being around the six of you is enough to drive a man to drink, without any other reason needed. I am becoming sick and tired of your interference in my affairs."
"We're concerned about you, pard," Buck said quietly, seeing he wouldn't get anywhere with his questioning.
"Well, Mr. Larabee, for one, has a funny way of showing it. He hit me earlier."
"I'm sorry he hit you, but he's trying to stop you drowning yerself in this stuff," Buck said as he waved the bottle in the air. "He's doin' it 'cause he knows what it's like to live to drink, not drink to live."
"Spare me the comparisons. I'm nothing like Chris."
Buck narrowed his eyes as a thought popped into his head. He thought back on his experiences with Chris when he'd been drunk. He blew out a noisy breath as he came to a decision and began to search the room thoroughly. He found the other bottle of Ezra's whiskey under the mattress, and the gambler watched in dismay as he took possession of it as well. Chris had been the same, hiding little stashes of drink to try and stay one step ahead of his friend. Josiah had only checked Ezra's room and the gambler had obviously got there before him and moved the bottles to Buck's room instead.
"Talk to me, Ez. I hate seeing you like this," the mustached peacekeeper said softly.
"Then I shall leave, so that you don't have to," Ezra snapped.
"Ezra? Pard, come on, don't go," Buck called. He shook his head as the door was slammed in his face and he listened to Ezra's footsteps hurrying down the stairs. There was no point going after him, but Buck moved to the window to see where the man went. He had a feeling he knew exactly where he would be heading.
Ezra reached the street and he set off to the saloon to join the all-night poker game that was taking place there. He hadn't played for days and he couldn't resist the urge any longer. Chris was sitting just inside the door keeping an eye on the card players in his official peacekeeping capacity, and he stood and intercepted the gambler as he barged through the door.
"You ain't gonna start drinking, are you?" he growled.
Ezra turned to face him, looking annoyed. "How can I when you have forbidden it? I am going to play poker, if it is any of your business. Does that meet with your approval?"
"Yeah, but just remember that I'm here watching you," Chris warned as he retook his seat.
Ezra scowled and continued toward the poker table as he eyed his potential opponents. "Can you deal me in, gentlemen?"
"Sure, pull up a chair. Charlie's just going."
Ezra took the departing man's place and made himself comfortable. The game began and Ezra studied his opponents again closely. There was a man who sometimes helped Yosemite out in the livery, and two strangers, one of whom appeared very down on his luck.
Ezra picked up his set of cards and looked down at them speculatively as he immersed himself in his game. He tried hard not to cheat, but the urge to win was suddenly overwhelming. He'd been thwarted in one area of his life, and he was going to keep as much control over his one remaining pleasurable activity as he could.
His opponents played well enough, expect for the scruffy homesteader who lost consistently until he had nothing left. Ezra could have beaten them all legally anyway, but he wasn't thinking straight enough to realize that fact for himself. His vengeful streak had come to the fore and he had been unable to control it.
"I'm all out. Excuse me," the small, elderly homesteader said as he rose from the table, a look of devastation on his face.
Ezra excused himself, too, pocketed his winnings and then hurried after the man. He felt a pang of guilt at being a cause of the man's misfortune. The gambler hurried out onto the boardwalk and caught the man before he could leave town.. "Sir? You seem rather upset. Is there anything I can do to help?"
"Let me win my money back," the man, Jebediah Wilson, snapped.
Ezra shook his head and shrugged. "You have nothing with which to bet, so I don't think that is the preferred option, do you?"
"My mule. I'll wager that," the homesteader said decisively.
"No, I can't take your means of transportation."
"Why not? You've taken almost everything else I own."
The gambler frowned as he felt his heart contract in shame. "Why did you join the game if you couldn't afford to lose?" he asked quietly.
"I needed to win in order to pay off Guy Royal. He owns the spread I rent. I got behind with my payments and he told me to pay or go. He's coming back tomorrow to collect the money," the man said apprehensively, not looking forward to the encounter. He wiped his nose on the back of his hand and then sniffed loudly as his eyes watered in upset.
"How much do you owe him?"
"Fifty dollars," Jebediah admitted sadly.
Ezra reached into his pocket and counted out double the amount of money from the wad that had constituted his winnings. "Take it," he said as he held it out to the man. "Guy Royal is not my favorite person, so anything I can do to thwart his evil ways would be a pleasure."
The homesteader stared at the money in Ezra's hand finding the generous offer hard to believe. He reached out tentatively but didn't touch the notes at all. He looked up at Ezra and withdrew his hand as if he thought he was being teased.
"Take it. You need it more than I do," Ezra said as he nodded in encouragement.
"I can't pay you back."
"I don't want you to. It's yours."
The homesteader nodded and took the money and hurried away in case the offer was suddenly withdrawn. "Thank you," he yelled over his shoulder as he mounted an ancient mule and set off out of town, like a man possessed.
After that day, Ezra didn't play poker for quite some time again. His friends, of course, noticed, and they couldn't understand the gambler's lack of interest in his favorite game of chance.
Vin and JD were in the saloon the following night when a very lucrative game was taking place. They had the task of watching Ezra that evening, and, as agreed, they were doing so from a distance. They just pretended that they were enjoying a drink and a chat together. The gambler was sitting at a table on the far side of the room and wasn't showing the slightest bit of interest in the card game at all.
The tracker frowned. "Dammit, what's up with Ez? His pants must be stuck to his chair 'cause that's the only reason he ain't sitting in on that game."
"I'll go ask him," JD offered half rising from his chair.
Vin reached out a quick hand and pulled him back down. "No, kid. Leave him be. Don't reckon he'd appreciate being spoken to right now. He ain't himself right now, so it's best we give him some space."
"Maybe it has something to do with Maude," JD said speculatively, as he thought back on the conversation he'd had with Ezra.
"What makes ya say that, kid?" Vin asked, wondering how the youngster had come up with that theory.
"He was talking about her when we were on patrol together and he got a bit funny about her. Maybe she did something to upset him," JD replied with a shrug as he drank the last of his beer.
"Wouldn't surprise me if she had. She's a peculiar woman."
"I like her," JD said defensively.
Vin patted JD's shoulder to placate him. "So do I, kid, but that don't mean she can't do nothing wrong. She needs to learn a bit more about how to treat people, that's all I'm saying."
As he spoke, Vin quickly poked his companion in the ribs when he saw that Ezra was on the move. He waited for the gambler to leave and then rose to watch his journey through the window. Ezra went back to Buck's room, so his two shadows went to their own beds, satisfied that he would be under Buck's watchful eye for the time being.
That night, Ezra spent the time in Buck's room sitting on the side of the bed staring into nothingness. Now that Buck had confiscated the last of his whiskey, he felt bereft without his comforting liquid refreshment. The ladies' man was already asleep, snoring softly under the covers so Ezra stayed quiet, not wanting to disturb him. He couldn't help going over and over the events surrounding the homesteader's card game.
I contribute to people's misery in so many ways. Why was my mother a con artist? he asked himself for the umpteenth time.
A shaft of sunlight eventually poked through the half-drawn drapes and Ezra looked at it as if he didn't know what it was. He sighed and watched the resulting shadows move across the floor as the sun rose higher in the sky. When the last of the darkness had reached the wall he stood up and got dressed.
He went out onto the street and headed along to Potter's store, hoping to buy a few bottles of drink. Surely they wouldn't deny him. Up until now he hadn't needed to test out the resolve of the townsfolk to Chris's orders, but he would soon discover how far-reaching the man's influence was.
"Can I purchase a bottle of your finest whiskey, please?" he asked the girl serving behind the counter.
"I'm sorry, Mr. Standish. Mr. Larabee gave us explicit instructions not to serve you."
Ezra scowled at the setback but left the store without arguing. *There were other ways of obtaining a drink,* he thought to himself. He made his way round town asking people he thought he could bribe to buy whiskey on his behalf instead. They all inevitably refused, the sound of Chris's words still ringing in their ears. Ezra's supply line had totally dried up and he was now desperate to quench his thirst.
There seemed only one other option he could try so he went to the livery and saddled his horse and set off out of town quickly. He headed to Eagle Bend in the hope that he could satisfy his needs there, but it seemed that Chris's influence had reached there before him.
He exited the saloon and stood undecided in the street. "Damn him. No one tries to stop him drinking when he goes to excess. Why can't he leave me alone to do the same?"
Ezra wasn't going to give up in his quest for liquid satisfaction, but he decided that he needed to go somewhere quiet where he could think of a new strategy. He headed off into the wilderness to an old shack that he'd won from a wizened gold prospector a few weeks before. He'd bragged no end when he'd won it, saying that he'd soon be a millionaire. His friends had been surprised that he'd resisted the urge to go visit the shack straightaway to begin the task of searching for gold. Maybe the thought of all the digging he'd have to do to achieve his aim had put the gambler off in the end.
Thomas, the prospector, had been a well known celebrity in town and everyone knew where his shack was. They also knew that he's never found even so much as a speck of gold dust. Ezra, though, hadn't been put off by mere trifling facts like that. He had been sure that he was going to strike it big.
Digging for gold was the last thing on his mind at the moment, though. He rode onward and couldn't say he was too impressed when the shack finally came into view. He dismounted and tied his horse up before studying the building in distaste. The roof had several large holes in it and the walls weren't in much better condition.
Rather like me. Down and out but still standing, Ezra thought to himself wryly.
For the moment, though, the shack suited his purpose, and it was soon going to grow in his affections.
The gambler went inside and sat on the floor cross-legged. The interior was as bad as the outside. It wasn't at all tidy and most of the furniture was broken or on the verge of collapse. He sighed and began sifting through the belongings that the prospector had left behind. It gave him something to do and kept his mind occupied while he contemplated a solution to his current dilemma.
He moved a box nearby and heard a distinctive clinking sound. He ripped it open eagerly and feasted his eyes on what was revealed. Six bottles of drink were inside, but it wasn't the usual sort bought in a saloon either. He pulled one bottle out and opened it before taking a tentative sniff. It could be something explosive for all he knew, although he was reaching the stage when he was liable to drink anything. The drink didn't smell too bad so he took an experimental sip and coughed at the strength of the liquid as it hit the back of his throat like a kicking mule.
He held up the bottle and stared at it in awe. "Good Lord, this will heat my innards nicely."
Ezra went outside and smiled in pleasure when he discovered the nearby source of the prospector's liquor. Perfect, he thought to himself.
Buck woke and stretched, before climbing out of bed. He looked over at the other bed and swore when he saw that it was empty. He pulled on his clothes quickly and hurried down to the street. He began a systematic search, ending up at the jail. He'd noted that Ezra's horse had been missing from the livery.
"Dammit, where have you gone, pard?"
The ladies' man pushed through the door and stood in front of Chris, ready to make his confession. "Seen Ezra?"
"No, you were supposed to be watching him, weren't you?" the blond said as he looked up at his oldest friend.
"Yeah, but he was gone when I woke up. Can't sleep and watch him, can I? His horse has gone, too. Maybe he's left for good this time."
"How knows and quite frankly who cares?" Chris stood up and looked out the window as if trying to catch sight of the missing man.
Buck frowned and moved to join his friend. He stood side on, looking at him angrily. "That ain't very charitable, Chris. He needs our help."
"So you've said before, but it looks like he don't want it," Chris retorted as he made go-away gestures with his hands.
Buck shook his head and headed back outside to search the town again. Maybe Ezra was hiding somewhere and it would only be a matter of time before he reappeared again.
Ezra entered the saloon to start his shift later that day. He was unshaven and disheveled and smelt strongly of alcohol. His heavily-applied cologne didn't cover it up at all. After spending his time at the shack drinking, the world looked slightly fuzzy to the gambler's eyes. His vision wouldn't clear, and his head was pounding twice as badly as before.
As he was going through the batwing doors he collided hard with Vin. The gambler hadn't been looking where he was going and neither had Vin.
"Godammit, Mr. Tanner, you've torn my jacket," Ezra snapped with a slightly slurred voice as he looked down after hearing a ripping sound.
The tracker sniffed and frowned as he smelled the strong odor of liquor on his friend's breath. "Gee, sorry, Ez. Let me see," Vin reached out and studied the tear. He poked a finger in it and Ezra scowled.
"Mr. Tanner! Please leave it, you're making it worse." The gambler slapped Vin's hand hard, making the man snatch the stinging appendage away. "Just because you live in rags, doesn't mean that I want to," Ezra yelled.
Vin didn't quite know how to handle the man. This wasn't the Ezra he knew at all. "Look, I'm sorry, Ez. It ain't as if you don't got another jacket to wear. What's wrong with you? You don't usually lose yer temper over something stupid like this."
"This isn't stupid. Clothes of this quality are hard to find in a dusty backwater such as this. I would hardly expect you to understand." Ezra stared at Vin. "I expect recompense for the damage, Mr. Tanner."
Ezra pushed by his friend and headed into the saloon
"Perhaps if you didn't drink so much you wouldn't be so clumsy," Vin yelled after him, unable to help his anger although it was tinged with concern. The tracker shook his head at Ezra's increasingly erratic behavior. He stood still for a moment, undecided about what to do for the best. He knew he ought to tell Chris that the gambler had resurfaced again, but he also knew that he should keep an eye on him before he had the chance to disappear again. He chewed his lower lip a bit more and then set off toward the clinic with determination. Ezra looked settled so he hopefully wasn't going anywhere yet.
"Nate? Can't you talk to Ezra?" he asked as he barged through the door noisily. "He's just come back to town stinking of booze."
The healer turned round from where he was making some potions. He wiped his hands on a cloth and turned his attention to Vin. "Look, I don't think he's gonna talk to me. He came to see me the other day and I was a bit short with him 'cause I was in a hurry. He didn't come straight out with what was wrong so I told him to go away."
"Well, you have to agree that there's something real wrong with him."
"Yeah, too much alcohol," Nathan said wryly.
Vin pursed his lips and the scratched his chin thoughtfully. "Following him round town all day don't seem to be helping any. It's just made him more aggressive and tight-lipped. He ran outta town because of it, for Christ's sake. Can't we force him to sober up? Lock him in the jail until he's better?"
Nathan shook his head as he quickly stirred one of his bubbling pots. "That won't help. As soon as we let him out he'd go straight back to the bottle. He's gotta want to give up, Vin."
"We need to find out why he started drinking in the first place. There's gotta be a reason, Nate."
The healer nodded. "I dare say there is, but he don't seem too talkative right now. When he came here, he said something about the robbery, I think, but I've got no idea what he was on about."
"Chris and I thought it was because he couldn't cope with doing two jobs." The tracker frowned. "JD mentioned something about Maude, though. He and Ez were talking last week and he seemed a bit upset about her, so it could be anything." Vin shrugged. "Whatever it is we can't give up on him. It ain't right."
"If you can convince him to seek help, I'll be here for him. As I said, though, he's gotta want to stop," Nathan reiterated.
"I'll tackle him when he's finished his shift and make sure he comes to see you," the tracker decided as he put a forefinger to his hat brim and left the clinic.
Vin didn't get the chance to carry out his promise, though. Ezra deliberately evaded his friend, sneaking out the back of the saloon during a busy period. He then headed out to his shack that evening and didn't return, or not by his own means anyway.
The tracker went to tell Chris about losing the gambler again. "Dammit, Chris, he's gone again. I turned my back for one minute and he disappeared. I reckon he did it on purpose, too."
The blond shrugged, seemingly unconcerned. "Well, that's it then. We can't go after him now, 'cause it's too dark. Have to hope he comes back of his own accord tomorrow. He seems to be responsible enough to come to work in the saloon, don't he?"
"Yeah, but I can't help but worry about him."
"Ezra? What in God's name have you been up to now?" Josiah asked as he bent down beside the sprawled body of his groaning, semi-conscious friend.
Ezra hadn't turned up for his shift at the saloon, so the big man had offered to search for him. As a last resort, the preacher had ridden out to the gambler's shack to see if the man was there. He hadn't expected to find him there, but had been immensely pleased when he had.
Josiah looked round the wooden building and saw the empty bottles of moonshine scattered over the floor. He hurried outside and discovered a hidden still nearby. He shook his head in exasperation and went back to check on his friend's condition.
Ezra was awake and had vomited several times by the look of it. His hands were shaking badly and he curled himself into a ball as if doing so would help his condition.
"Another money-making scheme, Ezra?" he muttered to the prone man. "How the hell did you think you'd get away with this? Chris is gonna kill ya when he finds out what you've been up to. You're a damned peacekeeper, well suspended peacekeeper, but you still shouldn't be involved in illegal activities." Josiah sighed. "S'pose we drove you to it, son, didn't we?"
He went back out and tied Ezra's equine to his own horse by one rein. He then collected his inebriated friend and put him up in the saddle of his own horse and climbed up behind him. He kicked his horse on and Ezra's animal reluctantly followed alongside. The gambler was semi-conscious for most of the journey back to town, but whenever he woke, he threw up. The preacher urged his horse on even faster when Ezra was unconscious because he wanted to get to town as soon as he could.
Josiah pulled up outside the clinic and saw his healer friend just about to enter his room at the top of the stairs.
"Nate? Need your help, brother," the preacher called loudly.
The younger man hurried down the stairs and looked up at the gambler curiously. He took in his pale features and general sick appearance. "What's he done now?" he asked resignedly.
"I asked him the self-same thing but I didn't get an answer." The preacher shook his head. "He's dead drunk. Made some moonshine up at his shack," he mistakenly said, "and consumed a good bit of it himself, I reckon."
Nathan reached up and felt Ezra's pulse. He clicked his tongue in exasperation and sighed at what he found. "Jeez, he's near on poisoned hisself by the look of it. Let's get him to bed, Josiah."
Vin ambled up beside the group of men as they were talking. He'd seen Josiah ride back into town with Ezra and he wanted to know what had happened. "What's up, guys?"
Josiah grimaced as he handed Ezra down to Nathan's waiting arms. "Ezra's real drunk. Could you take over from Inez at the saloon, Vin? Ezra was supposed to be there, but he obviously ain't in any condition. I found him passed out in his shack."
"Sure. Does Chris know about this yet?" the tracker asked as he arched a questioning eyebrow.
"No, and I don't plan on telling him at the moment."
Vin nodded in understanding and headed off to the saloon while Nathan and Josiah took Ezra up to the clinic and laid him on the bed.
The healer immediately began a proper examination and didn't look happy at what he found. "Jeez, he's in bad shape." Nathan shook his head worriedly. "He's gonna suffer something awful as he sobers up, I reckon."
"Need me to stay then?" the preacher said matter-of-factly as he helped his friend take off Ezra's clothes and settle him under the covers.
"Yeah, I'll get Buck to help out, too."
"You stay here. I'll find him and break the news to Chris," Josiah offered, not looking forward to the second task.
The big man left the clinic and, as he was descending the stairs, spied the ladies' man heading to the Clarion office.
"Buck?" he hollered as he cupped his hands to his mouth to make the sound travel further.
The summoned man turned and waved before changing direction and heading to meet up with Josiah. Buck skirted round a group of ladies who were talking in the middle of the street. He smiled sweetly at them, feeling regretful that he couldn't get to know them right then and there. That would be a pleasure for the future, he hoped. He sighed and continued on his way and joined Josiah at the bottom of the clinic stairs.
"Everything alright, pard?" he asked when he saw the worried look on his friend's face. Josiah usually looked calm at all times, but for once he appeared highly agitated.
Josiah shook his head and placed a hand on Buck's shoulder. "No, it ain't. Can you go help Nate? Ez is up there in a drunken stupor."
The man grimaced and headed straight upstairs without saying another word. Josiah sighed and reluctantly continued on his mission to find the blond. As usual, at this time of day, he was in the saloon enjoying a smoke and a whiskey.
The preacher stood just inside the batwing doors and studied the brooding man silently for a while. He wasn't quite sure how Chris was going to react to what he had to tell him, but at least the man didn't seem to be in a bad mood already.
Josiah realized he couldn't delay his assignment any longer so he moved to stand opposite the man and looked down at him from a great height. "Brother Chris? I need you to promise me that you will not commit murder this day."
"What?" the blond asked as he squinted up at his friend curiously.
"Ezra's dead drunk and Nathan's quite worried about him. He wants me and Buck to stay and help take care for him 'cause he reckons he's gonna be a handful when he begins to sober up."
The blond sighed because he knew exactly the sort of things Ezra would go through. He'd been there, too. "I'll go check on him then. Did ya manage to speak to him at all?"
"No." Josiah reached out a hand and stopped Chris from leaving. He eyed the man speculatively and then shook his head, knowing he'd have to tell the truth about how Ezra came to be in his current condition. "Look, Chris, there's something else you need to know. I found him out at that shack of his. He got drunk on some moonshine he's been brewing up there."
"Shit, the damned fool."
"I think he went up there after you banned him from drinking," the preacher said quietly, watching the blond for any sort of bad reaction.
"You saying this is my fault?" Chris asked angrily as he took a pace toward the man.
"No, of course not. I s'pose he felt that brewing his own was the only way to get his hands on any liquor. Everyone in town knew not to give him any."
Chris stalked out of the room and headed across the street fast. Josiah hurried after him and the two men entered the clinic together.
"How is he?" the blond barked as he moved to stand by the bed. He looked down at the gambler and then up at the healer when he didn't answer straightaway.
"Not good," Nathan replied.
Chris nodded as his gaze settled on Ezra again. "Keep Buck and Josiah as long as you want. I'd better get out to his shack and destroy the still and moonshine."
Nathan nodded and watched the tall gunfighter leave the clinic to carry out his duty. The healer then checked the gambler over again once more to make sure he hadn't hit his head or suffered any other injuries after his drunken fall. He turned to his friends and sighed apologetically.
"Sorry to do this to ya, but I can't stay here today. Mrs. Fairfax is about to give birth and I've gotta be with her. She's had a real bad pregnancy and it ain't gonna be an easy delivery. Will you be okay on yer own?" he asked.
Buck nodded and patted his friend's back. "Gonna have to be, pard. I'm sure we'll manage."
The healer nodded and collected his medical bag before setting off to see his female patient.
Buck and Josiah took seats on either side of the bed and sat back, hoping nothing would go wrong during Nathan's absence. Things were certainly quiet to start with, but the two men were startled from their thoughts when Ezra had a seizure.
Ezra's upper limbs became straight and rigid, sticking out from his body. The gambler seemed to have been afflicted by rigor mortis, except he was still alive. His body had quickly become immovably taut and the sudden onset had frightened his companions badly. Ezra's arms dropped back to the mattress as his body arched on the bed, almost stilling in that position before convulsing severely. His body rocked from side to side as his fingers curled like they were clutching an imaginary rope. His knuckles turned white with the pressure he was exerting, and Buck saw blood seeping from Ezra's palm as his nails dug into his hand. The gambler groaned and grunted as saliva dribbled from his mouth in a trailing stream to pool on the pillow under his thrashing head.
Buck stood up, startled, not quite knowing what to do. Jesus Christ. Shit! he thought to himself as, for some reason, he reached for his gun.
He looked across at Josiah who had also got to his feet and was trying to protect Ezra from injury during his traumatic fit. He had a hard time controlling the convulsing body that he held beneath him. The way Ezra moved, it seemed like he was trying to free himself from invisible restraints.
The preacher kept talking to Ezra in a soft, calming tone, although he felt anything but calm himself. "Alright, son, we're here with you and you're gonna be fine. It's nearly over, Ez. This'll be over real soon, I promise. Do you hear me, son? You're gonna be just fine."
Buck fidgeted uncomfortably, not wanting to interfere or get in the way. He knew he wouldn't be much help, anyway; he was way too upset. His heart was pounding and his palms were sweaty, so he wiped his hands down his pant legs as he shuffled about near the bed worriedly. He felt useless and cowardly at his inability to help Josiah.
Finally, after what seemed an eternity, Ezra stilled, and his body became limp and quiet on the bed.
"Shit," Buck mumbled. "Do you reckon that's normal, pard?"
The ladies' man reached out a hand and rearranged the covers on the bed and then ran his fingers through Ezra's hair gently.
Josiah shrugged uncertainly. "There's worse to come, I bet. This is gonna take a few days for him to recover from so you'd better prepare yourself for the road ahead, Buck. It's going to be a bumpy ride. Once he's dried out we're still gonna have to try and keep him away from drink, 'cause he could go straight back to the bottle again."
"Jesus, well, I'm gonna be with him every step of the way. We shoulda done much more to have prevented this happening in the first place," Buck stated as he sat down and took Ezra's hand gently in his. He only then realized that it was still bleeding. The ladies' man collected a bandage and cleaned and covered the wound efficiently while Josiah continued talking.
The preacher shook his head sadly. "Wouldn't have helped, son. He seemed determined to head toward oblivion. Both you, Vin and I tried to get him talking, but he wasn't co-operative, was he?"
"No, but we didn't really try very hard, did we? We oughta've kept at him and he mighta talked eventually. I spoke to him when he was drunk and that was a mistake. I shoulda waited until he'd sobered up properly."
"Let's face it, son. He hasn't truly been sober," the preacher pointed out truthfully as he re-took his seat to join Buck on their vigil again.
Six hours and four fits later, Nathan entered the clinic again, looking exhausted. He'd delivered a healthy baby boy, but it had been a difficult delivery as he'd expected. He was just thankful that it had ended in a positive way. He'd been very worried that things would go wrong.
"Boys? How is he?" he asked as he automatically looked toward his drunken patient.
Buck stood up and walked to meet the healer. He put his hands in his pockets and looked highly uncomfortable. "He had a few fits, pard. Is that normal?"
Nathan studied the worried gunman and reached out a hand to pat his shoulder in comfort. "Fits are a symptom, I'm afraid. He'll probably have a few more over the next day or so. I'll be around in town now, but I've got one or two people to call on still. I'll come in between visits but here's a list of where I'll be in case you need me in the meantime."
"Thanks, Nate." Josiah joined Buck and said, "You look all in, son. Can't your other patients wait a bit longer? Take a break before you collapse."
The healer nodded. "Maybe I can have a meal and something to drink before I start again. I'll be in the saloon if you need me then. I'll take my medical books with me and read up on what else we can expect with Ezra during his recovery."
Nathan strode to his bookcase and picked out the relevant titles he wanted and headed off to get his much-needed food.
Josiah shook his head as he watched the man go. "Thought I'd persuaded him to rest. That boy just can't stop working, can he? Even takes his work to bed, I reckon."
"There's only one thing I take to bed, pard, and that's a beautiful woman," Buck said with a smile.
Ezra woke in the clinic in a panic the following morning. His seizures seemed to have halted during the hours of darkness, but now he had other problems to contend with. He tried to get out of bed to escape his demons but was held down gently by Josiah.
"Falling. I'm falling," the gambler mumbled as he imagined that he'd just been pushed off a tall building by his big friend. Reality and dreams were merging to such a degree that he didn't know what was truly happening to him anymore. His eyes were open, but instead of seeing his friend's faces, all he saw was what was playing out in his mind.
He clutched Josiah's arm frantically, lost in his hallucination. He truly believed he was plummeting to the ground at high speed and Ezra could even feel the air ruffling his hair. Although he had hold of something tightly his descent didn't seem to be stopping so he increased his hold again.
"Oh, God. Help me," he begged.
Josiah winced as the grip on his arm tightened so much that it hurt. He wasn't going to pry off his friend's fingers, though. The man obviously needed the human contact right now. "Ezra? Look at me. You're safe in bed, do you hear me?"
The gambler clutched desperately at the preacher's body with his free hand as he tried to save himself from his continuing terrifying dream. "No, no! I'm falling."
Buck hurried in from out on the balcony where he'd been smoking. He'd heard Ezra's raised voice and knew trouble was brewing. He looked at the bed and saw Ezra clinging to Josiah tightly.
"Pard? What's wrong?"
Josiah looked up quickly at the dark-haired man beside him. "He's hallucinating. Thinks he's falling."
"Ah!" Ezra yelled as he imagined his body hitting the ground. His body jerked violently in Josiah's grip before he lay still and started to cry.
"Ez? Calm down, pard," Buck said as he sat down beside him on the bed and ran his fingers through the man's damp hair.
"No, you're not, Ezra. You're gonna be fine," the ladies' man assured quietly.
The gambler fell asleep almost immediately, exhausted, but that didn't mean his brain stopped working. The feel of Buck touching his hair had set another hallucination going straightaway. This time he was in the wilderness lying on the ground. He heard a rustling sound nearby and he turned his head to see a spider crawling toward him at eye level. It crawled onto his head and he couldn't move away from it, frightened into stillness. The spider continued to move through his hair, tickling him with its long, hairy legs.
"Get it off me, get it off!" Ezra yelled as he began thrashing about on the bed in an attempt to dislodge his unwanted imaginary guest.
Josiah and Buck were immediately on their feet, trying their best to calm their petrified friend.
Despite Ezra's attempts to get rid of the spider, it didn't work. He watched in horror as that one arachnid was joined by many others all over his body. They scratched and tickled and it was agonizing for him. He reached out a hand and tried to brush them off his body, but it was as if they were glued to him.
"Please get them off," he pleaded, but his friends didn't know what he was talking about, and anyway couldn't help him if they did. What he was experiencing was in his head alone. All they could do was hold him down or comfort him when he cried.
Chris came in during Ezra's dream and stopped just inside the door as he watched Buck and Josiah trying to deal with him. The gambler was still rolling around on the bed and seemed to be inconsolable; crying, mumbling and whimpering continually.
The blond eventually strode forward and lent his weight to keep the man from tumbling off the bed. Even with the three of them, Ezra nearly got free from their grip several times.
His eyes were open and wild as he lived through his nightmare. He was terrified and was totally unaware of his friend's presence. He felt alone and it was hard for him to cope with his experiences. It wasn't any easier to bear for those who had to watch him suffer, either.
Finally the fight went out of Ezra once more and he lay on the bed whimpering like a baby.
"Jesus Christ. I'm worn out," Josiah said as he flopped back into his chair. "I'm getting too old for this sort of thing."
"Go and find Vin and Nate 'cause they can take over from you for a while. Think Nate's just seeing to his last patient so he'll be back soon. I'll stay, too. Looks like Ezra's proving quite a handful."
Buck nodded as he loosened his collar and sighed. "Yeah, he's much stronger than he looks. It's like trying to hold down a bucking bronco."
The replacement carers were summoned and Buck and Josiah made their way gratefully to their own beds to get some rest. They were emotionally, as well as physically, drained.
In the clinic, silence reigned for all of five minutes before the three onlookers were called upon.
"Ah!" Ezra cried as he sat bolt upright in bed.
Vin moved to make him lay down again but got a fist in the face for his trouble. He sat back down rather hastily and put a hand to his mouth to try and ease the sudden pain there. "Jeez, he sure packs a punch," the tracker mumbled as he moved his lower jaw around to see if it was still in one piece.
He stood up again and Chris and Nathan joined him at the bedside. Between them they managed to control the writhing con man, although he was twisting and turning for a good fifteen minutes. All that time he was talking to himself as if holding a conversation with someone.
"No, I couldn't help it," he muttered.
Yes, you could. You're evil, do you hear me? the voice in his head replied.
Ezra cringed and tried to move away from his tormentor. "Please, leave me alone. I'm good, really I am."
Liar! You've never done anything good in your life. You're a taker, always have been and always will be. Now you take lives for a living as well as taking money. A child. How could you kill a child?
"I had to kill him, had to. He'd have killed me instead."
That may have been best, the reproachful voice snapped as it faded into humming and clicking sounds before disappearing completely.
"Sorry. So sorry," the gambler mumbled as he turned his head, burying it in the pillow.
Once Ezra had settled, Chris looked across at Vin. "You're bleeding, cowboy."
Vin put a hand back to his face and looked at the blood that was on his palm. "Nothing too bad."
Nathan ambled over and took a look for himself. "Yeah, you'll live."
"How much longer, Nate? I hate seeing him like this," Vin said quietly as he studied the trembling gambler.
"Can't say. These symptoms can last up to five days sometimes according to my book."
Chris patted Vin's shoulder. "Go and get some rest and come back tomorrow. We'll manage for a while without you."
The tracker nodded and stood up.
Over the following twelve hours, Ezra became feverish, sweaty and highly agitated. His levels of consciousness were continually altering and his companions didn't get much rest as he fought his inner demons. Buck and Josiah took over from Chris and Nathan during the hours of darkness and still had a hard time controlling their friend. Just before dawn though, Ezra became quiet and seemed to have got over the worst of his withdrawal symptoms.
The tracker was watching over Ezra on his own later the following day. The drunken man was finally sleeping deeply and Vin watched his friend closely. It was hard to equate the quiet, slumbering man with the thrashing, terrified body that they'd had to deal with the previous day.
Ezra woke an hour later to find Vin dozing beside the bed. "Mr. Tanner?"
"Hello, Ez. How ya feeling?" the tracker asked as he sat up in his chair and ran a hand through his long hair. He then rubbed his eyes and yawned softly.
"Clear headed," Ezra replied as he sat up in bed.
"Well, that's an improvement. Can't say I can remember the last time you were that," the tracker said with a grin. Vin stood and transferred to the bed instead. He sat facing his friend and smiled crookedly.
"What happened to your mouth?" Ezra asked as he stared at the cut and bruising.
Vin winced and he automatically raised his hand to touch the wound. "My face kinda connected with yer fist."
"I hit you?" Ezra asked in dismay. He frowned, but couldn't remember striking the tracker.
"Yeah, well, you weren't so clear headed at the time," Vin said as his blue eyes twinkled in amusement. "It weren't your fault, pard."
"Well, I apologize in any event," the gambler said sincerely.
Vin studied his friend quietly, trying to decide whether it was too early to get an explanation about Ezra's behavior. There would probably never be a good time, so he plunged on. "Can I ask you something?"
"Why did you drink so much? What's wrong, Ez?"
The gambler sighed and fiddled with the sheet unhappily. He felt embarrassed about the reason and he wasn't sure what reaction he'd get when he told his friend. He looked up and saw Vin still watching him so, seeing as he'd hit the man, he thought he owed him an explanation. He winced and said, "I can't get over killing that young boy robber. Every time I go to bed he's there in my head. I couldn't sleep because of it so I thought a drink might help. It rather got out of control, though."
Vin could certainly understand Ezra being upset about killing such a young human. The man was notoriously fond of children. "Why didn't you ask Nate for something?" he asked quietly.
"I tried, but I caught him at a bad time and he made it abundantly clear that I was wasting his time." Ezra sighed. "I didn't really tell him what was wrong, so it wasn't his fault. Things rather got out of hand after that, I'm afraid."
Vin nodded and pursed his lips as another question popped into his head. "Did ya make that moonshine?"
Ezra shook his head. "No, it was already there when I took possession of the shack. Very potent it was too."
"Damned near killed yerself."
Ezra fidgeted on the bed and was silent for a while. He looked round the room with unseeing eyes as he thought back over events. He knew he'd had plenty of opportunities to confide in one of his friends, but he hadn't. Why didn't I? he asked himself. He sighed. "How long have I been here?"
Ezra look startled, thinking it had only been a matter of hours. "Good Lord."
Nathan came in at that point to take over from Vin and was pleased to see that his patient was awake and looking more alert. "Hello, Ezra. Feel better?"
"Yes, thank you," Ezra said quietly, not totally forgiving the man for turning him away the one time he'd sought help.
"Can I have a word, Nate?" the tracker asked.
The healer nodded and stepped back out onto the balcony with Vin. The younger man explained what Ezra had told him and Nathan sighed, feeling guilty for his actions. He knew he'd let his personal feelings toward Era cloud his judgement. He promised himself never to do so again. He hadn't treated Ezra as a patient seeking advice, but instead seen him as the conman he always thought him to be.
"Thanks for telling me. Did feel bad after it happened but I never got the chance to apologize." He patted the tracker's back and then went back inside and sat by the bed. "Ez? I'm sorry I didn't listen to you when you came to see me. I was wrong. We all shoulda taken your excessive drinking more seriously. We coulda killed you."
Ezra sat up more in bed, putting a pillow at the base of his spine for support. "I would have managed that all by myself, Mr. Jackson. I must learn to be more concise in my conversational skills. I sometimes elaborate more than is necessary."
"Like just then, you mean?" Nathan asked with a grin.
Ezra smiled and relaxed slightly. "I can't sleep. There, how's that for conciseness?"
"Terrific," Nathan praised as he patted Ezra's leg playfully. "Now, tell me why you can't sleep."
The gambler's face became sad. "I'm sure Mr. Tanner's just told you."
"Tell me again. I promise to listen this time. Bit late, but better late than never."
Ezra met the healer's eyes and winced. "I keep having nightmares about the boy robber. I saw a lot of myself in him, of what I could have become, and in some cases what I had become: a thief. As you know, I was already a felon when I arrived in this dusty haven." Ezra sighed. "Killing that child was a rather unnerving experience for me in many ways."
Nathan nodded and patted Ezra's shoulder. "I understand. Can't really help with the nightmares but maybe talking to Josiah about it would be a good place to start. Tell him what you've just told me, how you felt, everything. Be honest, okay?"
"Perhaps you're right."
"I'm sorry to have had some part in causing this." Nathan sighed. "I never meant to make you feel as though I didn't care. Let me try to make amends by helping you with getting to sleep, as long, that is, as you drink one of my herbal brews."
"Not as potent as my moonshine, but I dare say that is a good thing," Ezra said with a grin. "Well, perhaps that's a lie. It is probably much more potent."
Chris came in at that moment with a bottle of whiskey in his hand. He'd heard from Vin that Ezra was awake and sober, so he wanted to try an experiment. "Want some?" he asked as he offered the bottle to Ezra.
"What the hell you doin'?" the healer asked angrily as he took a step toward the blond.
"Seeing how good his resolve is," the blond wafted the open mouth of the bottle under Ezra's nose.
The gambler immediately turned a rather sickly shade of green. He retched as he pushed the bottle away in disgust and clutched his suddenly uncomfortable stomach. "I don't think my intestines can face touching another drop of liquor, Mr. Larabee. I seemed to have cured myself and I do believe that I won't be able to have a drink for quite some time to come. Drinking to excess seems to have been a good thing after all."
"That's debatable, but I wouldn't advise that method to anyone else if I were you. We'll make sure that you never get in such a bad state again."
Josiah wandered into the clinic and smiled at his friends. "Hey, Ezra. I think we need to have a talk, don't you?"
"Must we?" Ezra said sulkily.
"Yes, I really do think so." The preacher inclined his head to ask Nathan and Chris to leave before he took a seat by the bed. "Now, talk to me about the robbery."
"Mr. Tanner has obviously been spreading the word." Ezra sighed and told the preacher everything that he'd done after setting off after the boy robber. His voice became softer the more he spoke, until he said, "I killed that boy and I keep wondering if I could have avoided doing so."
"You tried to make him give up his weapon and he refused. I don't see what else you could have done. That's more than any other lawman would have done, son," Josiah said.
"No maybe about it. He had two chances to save his own life and he disregarded them. He fired on you and you had to defend yourself," Josiah said as he rubbed Ezra's arm gently. "You did the best you could at the time. That's all anyone can ask of you."
"My best may not have been good enough. He haunts my dreams."
"As time passes, he'll fade. Once you come to realize that you couldn't have acted any other way, he will leave you."
"There's something else," Ezra said quietly. "I've become obsessed with my own life. I drew comparisons between myself and the robber and I've come to the conclusion that I don't like myself. I suppose that, at least, makes me have something in common with the rest of you. You don't like me either."
"That's not true, Ezra. We all have our ups and downs but we like you."
"Well, you don't like my mercenary attitude, I know that for sure." Ezra shook his head. "I can't do anything lawfully, can I?" he mumbled. "I stopped playing poker because I *had* to cheat. The homesteader who lost all his money put things into perspective. I helped in a small way to add to his despair." Ezra told Josiah exactly what had happened during, and after, the poker game.
"By the sound of it you also did your bit to help him. You did a good thing by giving him that money."
The gambler sighed and didn't look convinced. "Maybe. It probably only staved off the inevitable, though. He'll be back in the same position next month, I dare say. He won't learn from his experiences and he'll try to gamble to win again."
"There's always going to be gambling, Ezra. Always winners and losers, too."
"And cheats," Ezra muttered, unhappily.
"Those too. Like there will always be killers and thieves. It's human nature, son." Josiah studied his friend silently for a while. "You could always use your ill-gotten gains to help the needy, or give your winnings back like you did with the homesteader. That made you feel good, didn't it?"
"Yes, it did, but I still cheated him out of his money in the first place. Mr. Jackson once rebuked me for making profit off the back of other people's misery. He was right." Ezra fiddled continually with the sheet as he spoke, which showed just how upset and unsettled he was.
"You can't start turning people away from poker games, because you think they are going to lose. Most come for the thrill of the game, but if they choose to sit in with a professional gambler, they have to take some of the blame themselves. They are adults and must take the consequences of their actions."
Josiah got hold of Ezra's chin and waited until the man raised his eyes to meet his gaze. "Like everyone, Ezra. Life's full of choices and you have to make, and live with, your own decisions. There are things in my life that I'm not proud of and I'd change, if I could. Old habits are hard to break, aren't they?"
"Yes, they certainly are. I will consider your advice and maybe I can resolve to cheat less often." Ezra sighed.
Josiah smiled, knowing Ezra would never be able to play cards legally. It just wasn't in his nature. "Well, you can try. One other thing, though, son. You said earlier that you can't do anything lawfully. You're a peacekeeper, a good peacekeeper, and if that ain't lawful, I don't know what is. You can't go through life regretting and second guessing every move you make. You are bound to make a mistake in whatever you do. Learn from each of them and use the experience to grow wiser."
"You are a saint, Mr. Sanchez. Everything you say is so sensible. It will take time for me to learn from this particular experience, but if I know I can have your support during that time, I will be able to cope."
"We'll all be with you through this," Josiah said as he patted Ezra's arm in encouragement. "As we would have been if only you'd confided in us at the beginning."
"I know. Thank you for your persistence. Although it took a near fatality to come to my senses."
Over the following weeks, Ezra was able to come to terms with his feelings. His friends encouraged him as much as they could and it was at least a month before the gambler could face alcohol again.
He sat in the saloon with Vin and sipped from a small glass that the tracker placed in front of him. Ezra grimaced as the strong liquid made its way down to his stomach. He wasn't quite sure if he liked the taste any more or not.
"Okay, Ez?" Vin asked as he watched his friend's face closely.
Ezra wiped his mouth and pursed his lips after licking them. "Yes, thank you. It will just take time for me to be able to stomach this liquor again."
"That's a good thing, Ez. Best have something to eat with it, I reckon. Don't want the alcohol to go straight to your head, do you?"
"Quite right, I think I would like some of Inez's delectable lunch. Will you join me?" Ezra asked as he patted Vin's back.
"Thanks, I think I will."
The two men were eventually joined by the rest of their friends and the chatter round the table grew to a loud pitch as Buck teased JD. The two men play fought, much to the delight of any onlookers.
Ezra smiled as he looked at each of his six friends in turn. They all returned his smile and he realized that he felt at ease for the first time in ages.
"What you thinking, Ez?" JD asked as he tidied his hair and sat back at the table with Buck.
"Nothing much. Just thanking my lucky stars that I have recovered from my drunken spree, Mr. Dunne. Thank you all for bearing with my appalling behavior."
"Didn't seem much different to your usual behavior to me," Chris said with a grin as he punched the gambler lightly on his arm.
"I sincerely hope that is an untruth, Mr. Larabee. I think I suffered my penance though, don't you?"
"You and us both, pard," Buck said as he draped an arm round Ezra's shoulder and gave him a squeeze. "You and us both."