Author's Note: This story is a continuation of NotTasha's wonderful story "Snake in the Grass" which I strongly suggest you read before reading this one.
Webmaster Note: This fic was previously posted on another website and was moved to blackraptor in June of 2004.
Ezra smiled when he saw the boy, Timothy, waving and jumping up and down with the vigor of youth that still bound in JD. Ezra watched as the young boy stopped his jubilant welcome. Timmy's smile dropped from his face to be replaced with an expression of terror no child should ever be able to create.
Timmy turned and started to run back toward his home. Ezra watched in horrified fascination as a bullet tore through the boy's back. Timmy lurched forward as if some unseen hand had shoved him, forcing his legs to continue several feet before crumbling beside the water trough. The young boy fell face first onto the ground, barely making a sound on the hard packed earth-then silence. Ezra cried out and ran toward the boy, but never seemed to grow any closer. His heart raced as he heard the familiar chuckle from behind him and turned to see Wahl. 'Like shootin' fish in a barrel,' Wahl laughed as he turned to the house where the doomed father stood waiting. Ezra could hear the cries of two little girls as their mother hurried them into the barn.
Standish bolted up in his bed, gasping, the dream still vivid in his head. His hands were twisted up in the sweat soaked sheets. Sweat glistened on his stubbled face and pasted his russet hair to his skull. His heart raced and pounded, trying to obtain some semblance of a normal rhythm.
Ezra buried his face into his quivering hands, trying to wipe the vision from his mind and the feeling of sadness from his heart. He ran his hands slowly down his face, allowing them to drop into his lap. He then opened tired green eyes, closing them again at the brightness of the room. God, he hated mornings. The morning sun always seemed brighter to him, like it went out of its way to appear overly cheerful when there was no room for cheer. He had barely slept two hours and knew he was lucky to get even that. It had been a horrendous couple weeks.
Ezra slowly swung his legs over the side of the bed, not yet ready to test their strength, the dream having left him weak and shaky. It had been almost a week since Nathan had released him from the clinic. He had barely survived being bitten by a rattlesnake, but now it all seemed so inconsequential.
A whole family was dead, and he couldn't erase from his mind's eye the bodies of the three children he had found, whose life had been cut so viciously short. He had brought the bodies back to town, and they had the monster who had committed such an atrocity. Ezra had been forced to deal with Wahl's cold and heartless banter on the trail, and with Larabee's unreasonable rage as the murders dredged up the dark-clad gunslinger's own personal demons. Demons that always seemed to use him as target practice.
Standish didn't blame Larabee, and even now understood a little of what the man must have gone through when he lost his wife and child. Ezra knew he was rationalizing, but he was taught not to waste useless emotions, like anger or frustration, on something you couldn't change. He hadn't deserved Chris's rage, but he dealt with it the only way he knew how, with passive indifference. This seemed only to stoke the fires under Chris's temper all the more.
Ezra had been surprised when the stoic lawman spent all his time by his bedside, as he fought against the poison that coursed through his body, trying to steal away his life. Chris would not let him give up, urging and even threatening him to fight. Ezra smiled, maybe there was hope for the two contrary men, after all.
Standish slowly stood and took the couple steps needed to reach the basin of water that sat on his dresser. Wahl's trial had been quick, lasting one day; hell, the man convicted himself, by reveling in his deeds.
Ezra cupped his hands, scooping up some of the tepid water. He sank his face into the liquid, hoping to wash away some of the guilty burden he carried. It had taken every reserve of control for him to relate to the court the events of those ill-fated days. The execution was scheduled for two days from today.
Ezra grabbed a towel and wiped his face as he stared into the mirror, searching the tight lines on his brow and the drawn features that gazed back at him. When had the dreams changed and why were they back? He looked out his window to see the street amass with people; strangers from all over the territory coming to witness or celebrate in the up coming hanging. He looked across the way to see several men working on the scaffolding for the gallows. A shiver went up his spine. He never could understand the morbid attraction of watching someone twitch and flail at the end of a rope, though in Wahl's case the sight would be justified.
Ezra sat quietly at his table in the saloon, a deck of cards sat in front of him, untouched. He didn't acknowledge the other gunslingers who entered. The saloon had somehow become the unofficial meeting place of the seven lawmen who protected Four Corners.
Buck nudged Chris as the two entered the saloon, walking side by side through the doors. Chris looked over to where Buck nodded to see Ezra slouched down in a chair. What disturbed both lawmen was the state the normally suave southerner was in. Ezra was wearing his maroon jacket, but it appeared huge on him. Chris suddenly realized just how much weight the gambler had lost. A wrinkled linen shirt that was uncharacteristically untucked completed his disheveled appearance. His hair looked windswept, and dark circles marred his pale complexion. Then Chris noticed something that caused his heart to skip a beat. He could never remember a time that cards sat idle in front of the gambler; cards always danced in the cardsharp's fingers. If there was no one to play against, Ezra would practice his card tricks, or shuffling to keep his fingers nimble.
Buck and Chris came up alongside Nathan who was already at the bar.
"Ay, Nathan, how's Vin?" Buck asked, slapping the healer on the back.
"I'm ready to kick his ornery butt out," Nathan sharply replied. Vin was still mending from a gunshot wound, courtesy of Wahl. The outdoorsman was exasperating to say the least. He had snuck out twice and was returned first by Chris, who almost did it at gunpoint. Then by Josiah, who had flung him over his shoulders and bodily carried him back. Nathan now had Josiah guarding the shifty tracker, the ex-preacher seemed able to keep Vin in place. Nathan shook his head. Who would believe you actually had to put a guard on someone to help them get well?
Wilmington glanced back over his shoulder at Ezra his brow creasing in concern. "Lord, I thought Ezra was better." Buck still held a vivid image of how bad the gambler looked when he was fighting for his life. Buck never told anyone, but for awhile he really thought they were going to lose the enigmatic conman and the thought disturbed and surprised him.
Chris's jaw clenched as he again took in the gambler's appearance. Ezra wasn't a big man, but the weight he had lost made him appear smaller and frail--a word not normally associated with the strong-willed southerner.
Nathan glanced over his shoulder to take in the somnolent gambler. He was sure Ezra was over the effects of the snakebite but his appearance declared otherwise. Nathan had been surprised when he entered the saloon to see Ezra up at what the nocturnal man always considered an ungodly hour.
The sound of a plate sliding on the bar turned Nathan's head. The barkeep had placed a plate of bacon and eggs in front of the healer who nodded his thanks.
"Well, all I know is he ain't eatin'," Nathan declared. Grabbing the plate, he made his way over to Ezra and sat down in the chair across from him.
Ezra raised weary eyes to meet the healer's concerned, yet stern gaze. He knew he was being scrutinized but really didn't care. "Mr. Jackson," he greeted with a lazy drawl. He was so tired.
Nathan pushed the plate of food across the table. "Eat." The single word and tone barred any discussion and held a promise of stubborn persistence that Ezra was just not up to fighting.
He stared down at the plate of food his stomach rolling in rebellion. He had been sustaining himself on coffee and the occasional biscuit.
The healer continued to stare at Ezra, seeing the turmoil flash within his emerald eyes. Nathan decided to make it easier for him to decide on a course of action. "If you don't eat, you're goin' back to the clinic, and I'll have Josiah force feed you," Nathan calmly threatened, his dark eyes showing the truth of this caveat.
Ezra reluctantly picked up the fork, twirling it between his fingers over the food until Nathan cleared his throat. Ezra started to eat some of the eggs.
Nathan folded his arms across his chest and leaned back in his chair with a self-satisfied grin on his face. He enjoyed the power he held over the others, threaten them with a stay at the clinic and they became obedient children. Nathan's gratification was short lived as he realized the cocky attitude was gone from his friend. There was a time when he would have been thrilled to see Standish knocked down a few pegs, but now it left him saddened and worried for the gambler.
Wilmington grinned as he watched Nathan watching Ezra eat. The healer had his ways, Buck mused, hoping he wouldn't be privy to those ways anytime soon. Buck sometimes thought Nathan's cool manner and subtle intimidation could get more out of someone than Chris's deadly glare could.
Chris stared at his two men across the room, then his sight narrowed onto a man he now considered a friend. Larabee had kept Ezra off guard duty over Wahl. Vin had questioned this decision, since Ezra was the only one of them able to tolerate Wahl's incessant yammering. Chris wasn't sure of his reason; maybe he felt he owed it to the gambler. The man had been through enough: finding the dead children, dealing with Wahl, finally almost dying. Hell, Chris thought, Ezra had to put up with all the crap I was throwing at him too. Yeah, Ezra had definitely had his fair share.
"What 'cha think?" Buck asked Chris, keeping his voice low. He had observed Chris's restrained thoughts playing across his face.
"He's keepin' it all inside," Chris quietly replied, taking a sip of the coffee that the barkeep had placed in front of him. He had thought Ezra was going to be alright after beating the death grip the snake venom had on him. Damn, that man could hide the coming of the apocalypse behind that poker face.
"You don't think he still blames himself for the McCannon's?" Buck asked slightly aghast.
Chris shook his head. "It's somethin' else that's eatin' at 'im," Chris countered. He watched as Ezra forced the bacon down under the worried, yet demanding glare of Nathan.
"What are we goin' to do? That man is like a pot 'bout ready to boil over," Buck observed.
"Be there when he can't hold it in any longer," Chris answered.
Buck let out a low whistle and leaned back against the bar. He knew that Chris was right. Ezra's mask of indifference was the cover on a boiling pot, eventually what was inside had to come out.
Vin breathed in the fresh air as he stepped out of the stifling confines of the clinic. It was like being released from prison. His chest still ached slightly, especially when he raised his arm. The first thing Vin noticed was the surge in population, something he didn't take too. He knew everyone was here for the hanging.
"Now, Vin, you take care. You're goin' to be hurtin' for awhile," Nathan instructed, following him out of the clinic.
"Don't you worry, Nathan. I don't plan on seein' the inside of that clinic again for a long time," Vin adamantly declared. He knew that Nathan only had his best interests at heart, but he hated being inside for so long.
"Yeah, right," Nathan answered skeptically.
Vin started down the stairs as Nathan leaned over the railing of the balcony to take in all the newcomers, wondering if his business was going to pick up. After tending to Vin and Ezra together, he wanted nothing more than to sit back and not touch a scalpel or bandage for a long time. He seriously thought of just leaving town, then his thoughts crossed over to Ezra and he knew he wouldn't.
Vin strolled over toward the jail, hoping to catch up with Chris and Buck. He stopped in the middle of the road as the stage pulled up. He watched as three smartly dressed gentlemen exited the stage. Vin smiled. Good, maybe Ezra would get in some good poker playing. The ex-bounty hunter was worried about the gambler. After Ezra was released from Nathan's care he spent a lot of time visiting. The two men talked more than they ever had, so much so, that Vin actually started understanding most of what the erudite southerner was saying. Ezra would read one of those books he called classic literature, which Vin truly enjoyed. Vin's face darkened at the thought that never once had Ezra pulled out a deck of cards.
Tanner entered the jail to see JD and Buck deeply involved in a game of checkers. He glanced over at the cell that held Wahl. The man was sleeping soundly, which totally amazed him. The man truly had no soul.
"Ay, Vin, Nathan finally pardon you?" Buck teased as he moved one of his checkers forward, blocking a move from JD.
Vin grinned at the gregarious cowboy. "How's Wahl been?"
"Great, so long as he's sleepin'," JD mocked, keeping his head down studying the checkerboard.
Vin stared at the man; he would rather face down a whole band of outlaws then to ever lay eyes on another person like Wahl.
"Have you seen Chris?" Vin asked, turning his green gaze from the prisoner and back to his two friends.
"Yeah, I think he's over at the saloon," Buck replied, jumping his checker over three of JD's and winning the game.
"Ah, shucks," JD moaned, throwing himself back into his chair.
Josiah entered the jailhouse and smiled at JD's grumblings. "Okay boys, your relief has arrived," he announced.
"What a relief," JD quipped, earning him a soft cuff from Buck.
"C'mon let's go over to the saloon," Buck said.
The three finely dressed gentlemen, who had arrived on the stage, entered the cooler confines of the saloon. The largest of the three quickly surveyed the room a smile coming to his round face when he spotted the object of his search. He headed for the bar, trailed by the other two men.
"Mr. Standish, do you remember us?" The large man asked as he stepped up to the bar.
Ezra turned and glared at the man through blood shot eyes. Gawd, he was not in the mood for this. He had managed to avoid the others, in fact they all seemed to be giving him space. Something he was grateful for. It was rather strange, though, since they always seemed to be butting their heads into his business.
The large man frowned; he could see that the gambler was having difficulty remembering him.
"Trimball, Mr. Ralph Trimball from Tucson," he reminded the bewildered man in front of him. Trimball then turned to the two other gentlemen behind him. "These are my associates, Mr. Mentzer and Mr. Cargas. We were here three weeks ago."
Ezra smiled faintly, bowed his head and allowed himself to lean against the bar. "I'm sorry, a lot has happened of late."
"Well, you gave us quite a game last time, and we'd like a chance to recoup some of our losses," Trimball added as he pulled out a wad of money. The sight of which, would normally cause Ezra's heart to palpitate. Instead, he stared listlessly at Trimball with little interest.
"Well, gentlemen," Ezra began slowly, a strange feeling flowing through him. The thrill at engaging in a game of chance seemed to have deserted him, instead, an empty, tired feeling rested in the pit of his stomach. "I'm afraid I'm not at my best at the moment," Ezra explained.
Trimball grinned and looked back at his associates. "Well, that would be to our advantage then," he chuckled.
Ezra took a deep breath and held it. Maybe, a game would help his mood some, he contemplated.
"Mr. Standish, we have come a long way," Cargas said in a small voice.
Ezra stared back at the men then reluctantly nodded. He led the three men over to his table then motioned for one of the bar maids to bring drinks. He sat heavily down in his chair and released the long held breath.
Vin, JD and Buck entered the saloon, which was starting to fill up with the late afternoon crowd.
The three newly arrived lawmen sat down at the table that Chris currently occupied. Vin smiled when he saw Ezra playing poker, but the smile soon left his face as he noticed how agitated the gambler appeared.
"Maybe Ezra's getting back to his old self," Buck exclaimed. His relief short lived as he saw the doubtful expressions on both Vin and Chris's faces.
Chris had only arrived a short time before and had kept his eye on the troubled gambler. He could tell Ezra was fighting his own demons.
JD sat quietly at the table, staring down at his hands, which were clasped in front of him on the table. He had debated with himself all day whether to tell someone what he had witnessed earlier. The young sheriff had followed Standish as he walked out of town last evening. They were all worried about Ezra, but with the trial and then the hanging coming up, they all figured the best thing was just to give the southerner time and space to sort through his occupying thoughts. JD had been angry at Chris when he found out what he'd done; sending Ezra off to get help for Vin, even though the man was slowly dying from a snake bite. JD knew Ezra had a way of sparking the dark-clad gunslinger's anger but this time Chris had gone too far. JD's animosity had slowly abated when he watched Chris hover over Ezra as he fought for his life.
Wilmington was the first to notice how quiet his young friend was, which was a sharp contrast from JD's usual ecstatic behavior. Buck was about to make some droll remark until he saw the conflict raging on JD's young visage. Buck knew, at times, he treated the young sheriff like some snot-nosed kid, but he always knew that behind that boyish countenance there was a deep and sensitive young man. Buck wasn't surprised when Vin noticed JD's uncharacteristic behavior.
"JD, what's wrong?" Vin's soft Texas accent pulled in all the gunslingers' attention and diverted it to JD.
The young gunslinger hadn't realized his quietude was attracting the attention of the others. He removed his bowler and pushed back the strands of hair that inevitably fell into his eyes. He looked to Buck, mostly out of habit, for direction and saw the concern in his face.
"I saw Ezra at the graveyard the other night," JD began, his tone denoting his apprehension at divulging this information. He turned his head over his shoulder to glance at the gambler seated at the far table. "He was standing over the McCannon children's grave. I was about to leave and let 'im have his privacy, but something in the way he looked made me stay." JD picked up his bowler and started running his fingers around the small rim. "He was talking to them; I couldn't hear what he was saying." JD's dark eyes dropped for a moment, and when he raised them, they were met with three worried frowns. "He then leaned over and put something on their graves. After he left I went over and checked; I found peppermint candy on each of their graves."
"Ah hell," Vin whispered. Chris closed his eyes and Buck looked over at Ezra. Apparently, Standish was having a harder time with this then he was letting on.
Ezra couldn't quell the anxious feelings that were building up inside him, causing him to constantly look toward the door. Children laughed outside the saloon increasing his level of anxiety as he tried to concentrate on the cards he held; the feeling was growing, trying to take over. He ran his hand again through his already unkempt hair.
"Mr. Standish, it's your bet," Cargas said in that same small voice. The gambler was making him uncomfortable. He could tell the southerner was definitely not in the game.
Ezra threw in some money and stared back out the swinging doors. Every time someone came in he'd catch a glimpse of the jailhouse across the street. He could almost hear Wahl's mind-numbing words. The man was morally abandoned, without a hint of remorse; he could brag about how he ended a whole family's life and not bat an eye. Ezra closed his eyes, hearing the two little girls' laughter turn into screams of terror.
Ezra pulled at his collar as his head started to swim. He released a quivering breath. He absently stroked the handle of his Colt Richards Conversion that rested in his shoulder holster. Ezra unexpectedly threw down his cards, not waiting for the call. "Gentlemen, I fear I am unable to continue our game," he suddenly announced to the three other players.
The game had remained fairly even for the past hour. The three newcomers were good card players, and Ezra wasn't at his usual best-- The game was a stalemate.
"What? You have to give us a chance to win some of our money back," Mentzer demanded. He didn't understand what was going on. Before, the fancy dressed southerner couldn't take their money fast enough, now, he didn't even think the cardsharp cared if he won or lost.
"I do apologize, but I have more pressing matters to attend to," Ezra calmly stated as he stood, scooping up what money he had left and slipping it into his coat pocket.
"Like what?" Trimball angrily asked. He was becoming furious; he had traveled all this way to take on the smug gambler and hopefully earn some of his money back. He had also suspected Standish of cheating and was hoping to prove this fact.
"That is none of your concern," Ezra sharply replied, getting more agitated. He felt as if he had to be somewhere, but where? He had no idea, but the feeling was strong and was driving him to distraction. His mother would be very disappointed in him.
Larabee and the others were now attentive to what was taking place. Chris could see Ezra's eyes dart wildly about as if looking for an escape route.
Trimball grabbed the gambler's arm. "No one leaves until someone clears this table," he snarled.
Ezra's head snapped down to glare at the grip around his arm. His green gaze slowly moved up Trimball's offending arm and up into the bold man's face. A slight tic had developed behind Trimball's right eye, and he quickly tried to rub it away. Cargas and Mentzer seemed to be trying to push themselves further away from Ezra's deadly gaze.
Ezra's fingers grabbed the edge of the table, and with a rebel yell flipped it over, sending cards and money flying. The three men toppled their chairs, jumping up and back to avoid the overturning table.
"There Sir, the table has been cleared!" Ezra menacingly growled. The outburst had silenced the room, and for a moment you could almost hear the pounding heart beats of everyone in the room.
"You son-of-a-bitch!" Trimball yelled, causing some patrons to flinch.
Trimball drew his gun and aimed it at Ezra, who just stood and stared at him, his shoulders rising and falling with his deep, quick breaths. A slow, knowing smile crept over Ezra's drawn face at the sound of four hammers reverberating within the silence of the saloon. He didn't have to look behind him to know that his friends now had him covered. Cargas' and Mentzer's eyes grew wide and Cargas reached out and grabbed Trimball's arm, pulling him back.
Chris, Vin, Buck and JD were standing by their table with their guns drawn and pointed directly at Trimball.
Trimball swallowed the sudden lump that had lodged in his throat and slowly lowered his gun. "Sorry, just lost my head for a moment," he nervously explained. He tried to avoid Larabee's steely gaze, but could feel it burning a hole through him.
Ezra turned and nodded his thanks to the four lawmen and walked out.
"Buck, JD, why don't you escort these gentlemen to the hotel where they can wait for the next stage out of town," Chris sneered. He watched as Ezra passed through the bat-wing doors.
Trimball was about to voice a protest until he looked into Chris's stone blue eyes; he quickly reconsidered and kept his mouth shut, this was a man you didn't bargain with.
"Okay, boys, play time is over," Buck sarcastically chided using his gun to direct the three gentlemen toward the doors.
"What the hell was that all about?" Vin asked Chris as Buck and JD followed the three card players out of the saloon.
"I think the pot has reached boiling point," Chris cryptically replied.
Chris holstered his gun and glanced out the saloon doors to see Ezra heading toward the jail.
Standish's determined strides kicked up the dirt on the road. He didn't pay any attention to the people around him, diverting his course whenever someone impeded his progress. The ones who saw the storm raging in his sea-green eyes saved him the trouble by quickly stepping to one side. Ezra's eyes remained glued to the jail façade, his thoughts to the degenerate inside.
Ezra walked into the jail, his feet never breaking stride. Josiah jumped to his feet and was about to draw his gun until he saw that it was Ezra storming into the small room.
The startled lawman watched as Ezra walked to within several feet of the jail cell. Smoothly ejecting his derringer, he pointed it at Wahl who stood behind the bars with his usual smug attitude in place. God, the man was infuriating.
Ezra inwardly chortled, wondering if he was this exasperating. If so, he had been damn lucky Larabee hadn't shot him yet. Chris obviously had more tolerance than Ezra ever gave him credit for.
"Well, well, if it ain't my old pal," Wahl sharply mocked, his smile growing across his weathered face; he finally got to the fancy-dressing southerner; the man looked like hell.
"I am not, nor ever will be your friend," Ezra sneered from over his gun, staring into eyes the color of a winter storm that radiated the same ominous darkness.
Wahl bowed his head a moment and chuckled. "Me and you are the same," he conspiratorially whispered, raising his head slightly, his voice taking on a sly tone. "We both share the same skin, only you try and hide behind them fancy clothes and fancy talk. We're both snakes."
Josiah scowled; he was prepared to vehemently rebut the slur directed toward his friend, but decided to remain silent for the moment.
Ezra's gun never wavered. He stared at the man who had brought so much pain and misery, not just to the McCannon's, but to the seven men who were as close as family.
"Go ahead I'd rather be shot than die at the end of a noose," Wahl snarled, walking back to his cot to show his lack of concern.
Ezra lowered his gun. Yes, the man had brought pain and grief, but he had also unknowingly brought understanding between a gambler and a gunslinger.
"You sir are not a snake; even snakes are beneficial and have a worth in the grand scheme of things," Ezra calmly replied.
Wahl's brow furrowed for a moment then he broke out laughing.
Josiah stepped up behind Ezra and laid a large hand on his shoulder. The touch seemed to steal all the fervor that Ezra had held. His shoulders slumped and his gun hung loosely at his side.
Josiah glanced over his shoulder to see Chris and Vin standing in the doorway not sure what they expected to see.
Larabee's mind had shuffled through several scenarios of what he and Vin would find when they entered the jail. He half expected to find Wahl with several bullet holes in him, and was grateful that that particular scenario hadn't occurred, not that he would waste any tears on the murdering son-of-a-bitch. He was more worried about Ezra.
"It appears our brother is excising a few demons," Josiah confided.
Ezra turned and faced the three gunslingers. Chris saw that some of the haunted look that had taken up resident in Ezra's eyes had left.
"Are you okay, Ezra?" Chris asked.
A lopsided grin lifted a corner of his mouth. "I'll be fine, Mr. Larabee, in time." Ezra strolled out the door, leaving three worried and confused men in his wake.
Two upright posts and a cross beam, erected on a platform that was ten feet high, stood just outside the jail and was the center of attention for a whole town. People from all over were converging on the small town for the hanging of Edgar Wahl, which was taking on a carnival atmosphere. The street brimmed with hucksters taking advantage of the enormous crowd.
"Has anyone seen Ezra?" Buck asked, glancing over the throng of people from the boardwalk outside the jail. He had thought this would be something the gambler could not pass up, but then, Ezra hadn't actually been himself lately.
"I haven't," JD replied, siding up next to Buck, his eyes glued to the gallows. He had never seen a hanging before.
"Boy, what the hell are you doing here?" Buck asked.
"I'm old enough to watch a hangin," JD bit back.
"JD, go out on patrol," Chris calmly ordered.
JD looked over at Chris. "Ah, Chris." He stopped short of arguing as Chris lifted his eyes toward him. There wasn't any anger in his blue gaze, only the desire that JD not witness the ending of a man's life in this way. "Damn," JD muttered, knowing he had lost the battle before it had even begun. He stomped off toward the stables, not having to see the faint smile on Buck's face to know it was there.
"He'll thank you later for that, pard," Buck said. He was thankful to Chris for it. The door to the jail opened and Wahl stepped out, his hands tied behind his back. Vin urged the man forward with a slight prod from his rifle.
Wahl walked past Buck and Chris, some of his earlier mirth was gone, but he still held onto that smug smile. Chris caught the flicker of fear, though, when Wahl looked up at the gallows. Josiah and the Judge followed Vin closely. The foursome made their way toward the gallows.
The executioner waited on the platform, poised next to the release lever, holding a black hood in his hands, which were clasped together in front of him. His face was like granite, hardened by the demands of his job. The whole town listened to Wahl's hollow death march up the plank stairs. Vin positioned Wahl under the noose. The executioner nodded slightly, and Vin bent down and tied Wahl's feet.
Josiah commenced with a prayer; his baritone voice demanding silence from the mob.
Wilmington crossed his arms and smiled as the noose was positioned over Wahl's neck, the knot turned to the side to assure a broken neck. This was one death he wouldn't have any remorse for. "You'd think that Ezra wouldn't want to miss this," Buck absently mentioned to Chris.
Chris's gaze drifted toward the edge of town. "I think I know where he is," he quietly said and stepped off the boardwalk. He walked past the gallows, not even bothering to take one last look at the man who destroyed a family and brought so much anguish to a town.
Chris entered the graveyard, seeing the familiar red jacket over in the far corner. He stepped up alongside the pensive gambler, not saying a word. Both men could hear the Judge asking Wahl if he had any last words, and both grinned when Wahl remained silent; it took imminent death to finally shut that man up. The two lawmen stood silently over the graves of the McCannons, grass was beginning to grow over the mounds and several flowers were peeking life up out of the ground. Chris suspected that Ezra saw to it that the graves were well maintained.
Ezra flinched when he heard the trap door of the gallows release then it seemed like everything went silent for a moment, like time and space ceased to exist for just a split second. He continued to stare at the graves of the three children he barely knew but who held a place in his heart.
"If only I had come when I planned, I coulda saved them," Ezra's voice was low, but filled with self-loathing. He knew the blame lay with Wahl, that Wahl was the one who killed them. But Ezra couldn't help thinking that he could have saved the family. How could a poker game have been more important than those children's lives? He knew, deep down, he was being irrational but he couldn't help it. Every time he touched a card he was reminded of how he allowed a poker game to keep him from saving their lives.
"Ezra, you couldn't 'ave known," Larabee's voice of reason tried to cut through the guilt. Chris could tell the gambler was barely holding on to his composure. He had watched Ezra all week, hoping what he had said to the stubborn southerner when he was fighting for his life would finally sink in and take hold. Instead, all Chris saw was a good man slowly falling back into a morass of aversion and blame, something Larabee was all too familiar with.
"If I hadn't stayed and played that damn poker game I might have been there." Ezra wiped at a single tear that slid down his cheek, his heart breaking.
"You are not responsible, remember. If you'd been there you might have been killed too," Chris stated.
Ezra only chuckled, but it was a sound that caused Chris to turn blue eyes toward him.
"It would have been better to have died saving them then in some poker game or back alley," Ezra quietly drawled.
"No, Ezra, it wouldn't. You're a better person than you believe, or let on to be. No one deserved what Wahl did, definitely not the McCannons, but neither would you."
Larabee had finally begun to understand how Ezra dealt with events that he could not control or change. In a way he envied the gambler that ability, but now he saw the down side of that skill. A person could only hold in so much, before life forced it to come to the surface.
Ezra looked into Chris's face seeing that the hardened gunslinger was serious. "And you're not going to die in any poker game or back alley," Chris added with a faint and knowing smile.
"Really?" Ezra raised a skeptical eyebrow.
"I won't allow it," Chris stated. The two men chuckled, releasing some of the pent up tension, but Ezra quickly cut it off.
"If only..." Ezra whispered, shaking his head.
"If only," Chris repeated. "Life is full of 'if onlys'....If only I had come back home when I should of, I could have saved my wife and son."
Ezra bowed his head knowingly, and closed his eyes. Even though Ezra had only known the McCannons a short time their deaths had affected him in a way that tore at the very fabric of his being. His life had been built on hardening his heart to such disturbing and horrific events. The time he had spent in this town with these six men had chipped away at that shield. He wasn't sure that was a good thing, at least not at the moment.
"I'm sorry," Ezra quietly and sincerely replied, not sure what he was sorry for. Sorry for Chris's loss, sorry for the McCannons, or sorry for himself?
Ezra slouched down in a chair outside the saloon. Chris, Vin and Buck were also in various states of leisure alongside him. It had been a week since Wahl's hanging and the town was finally quiet as the spectators had all gone home.
Chris glanced over at his men, grateful they made it through the week without any injuries. He had seen to Wahl's body, paying someone to take it away. No one wanted him buried anywhere near the McCannons. Chris didn't care if his body was left in the desert for the vultures.
Ezra was thinking over the past week and the good fortune that had befallen him all week. His brow furrowed as he realized it had been too good. First, he had received an anonymous steak dinner and bottle of cognac. Second, he had gone to take care of Chaucer only to discover a brand new saddle blanket had replaced his old one, which was nowhere to
be found. The most puzzling aspect of the week...Ezra turned his head to stare at Chris, who sat laid back in the chair next to him, with his feet resting on the railing, and his hat pulled down over his eyes.
"Mr. Larabee, do you have reservations about me being able carry out my duties?" Ezra pointedly asked.
Chris pushed his hat back and stared back at Ezra, bewildered. "What? I've had you out on patrol three mornings this week," he exclaimed.
Ezra raised a confused eyebrow then looked over to his right to see Vin sliding further down into his chair, and Buck looking up at nothing. A small grin creased Ezra's face.
Chris noticed Vin's sudden discomfort and his eyes narrowed. "Vin, didn't I tell ya to tell Ezra he had patrol?"
The tracker reluctantly looked up to meet his friend's scowling face. "Ah, well, you see this was the only thing I could think of to repay Ez for saving my life. Knowing how he loves his beauty sleep and an all," Vin quickly explained, smiling at the sneer that Ezra threw at him.
"So, no one has been patrolling all week?" Chris angrily asked.
"Whoa, no pard, Buck and me have been covering the morning shifts," Vin hastily said, hoping to head-off Chris's temper.
"Yeah, we'd never leave the town open like that," Buck added a little offended that Chris would even think they'd do something like that.
Chris's anger subsided, and he breathed a sigh of relief.
"Were you gentlemen also responsible for the delectable dinner and fine cognac I received?" Ezra asked Vin and Buck.
"No, I think that was Nathan, Josiah and JD," Buck cheerfully replied.
"And what motive would they have had to praise me with such gifts?" Ezra drawled.
Buck looked at Ezra strangely for a moment. Did Ezra really believe there had to be an ulterior motive behind any show of friendship or kindness. "No reason, you just saved Vin's life at risk to your own is all-- kept us whole." Buck glanced over at Chris and winked at Vin. "And hell, putting up with Chris's bad humor more than deserves some restitution."
Ezra raised both eyebrows at the last word.
"Don't look at me like that. I listen when you talk--Sometimes," Buck replied slightly indignant. Laughter, that was long overdue filled the air and brought the four men a little closer together.
Ezra wiped the tears that were streaming down his face and tried to compose himself enough to inquire about the saddle blanket. "There is also the matter of a fine saddle-blanket I discovered?" He finally managed to ask.
Vin and Buck regarded each other with confused stares. "Sorry, pard, don't know nuthin' 'bout no blanket," Vin answered.
All three men then looked over at Chris, who pulled his hat back down to cover his eyes, but couldn't hide the smile on his face.
"Mr. Larabee?" The disbelief not hidden in his southern drawl.
"Felt I owed it to your horse," Chris simply replied.
Ezra was momentarily shocked and swallowed the emotional knot that formed in his throat. "My horse..." Ezra began, not sure how to continue. "Is most grateful."