Josiah sat beside the gambler. The shake roof radiated the morning sun's heat. The preacher sighed easing tired, aching, bones down onto the slanted roof. Larabee leaned against the small hatchway arms crossed and an amused grin on his features.
Those two made a pair. Hell they almost deserved each other. Josiah, trying to straighten the crooked path the gambler trod and Ezra purposely taking convoluted trails just to throw everyone off. Sanchez did not wish to convert Standish from his less than honest ways. Heavens no, Josiah only wanted Ezra to find some self worth other than the monetary kind. The gambler had no interest in anything that did not exude a profit. He himself geared and educated in the sole pursuit of making money.
"Hello Brother," Josiah sat down beside the younger man. Ezra sat with his elbows resting on bent knees. He covered his eyes with a cupped hand but seemed to squint through the slits between fingers and stare out across the field. Josiah followed the gambler's gaze out into the grassy green rolling hills that surrounded the small town. Sanchez's eyes focused on the leafy deciduous trees that dotted the fields. He received no answer from the shorter man beside him. Josiah directed his attention back to Standish. The large bruise still herald the sharp maroons and blues of fresh bruising. The laceration that wrapped around his forehead encompassed his eye. The palm of the gambler's hand shielded the majority of the cut from the sun. The swelling had reduced itself enough to allow the eye to open though the lids were still puffy.
"You waiting for more ships to come in Brother?" Josiah chuckled at their last meeting so long ago on the roof.
He watched as Standish swallowed carefully, "Mr. Sanchez perhaps you should be under the care of our benevolent Mr. Jackson?" The gambler did not turn or move his neck any more than necessary. In fact it sounded as if he spoke without moving his lips.
Sanchez let loose with a deep rumble of a chuckle, "Just checking is all." Josiah removed his coat. The spring sun definitely hit the roof with an intensity lost before it ever reached the ground.
"What brings you up here?"
"Head hurts," the answer softly spoken with minimal movement of the jaw.
"You still dizzy?" Josiah noticed the tension in the shoulders and neck. The one hand that lay across a bent knee was kept clasped in a weak fist.
A pause and then a quiet, "Unfortunately." The gambler carefully rested his head and shoulder against the black pipe of the mercantile. Mrs. Potter had thankfully shut down the stove when she noticed she had something larger than a visiting blackbird on her roof. The young Widow seriously considered putting a chair and blanket up there for the wayward gambler but was afraid he would take to her roof on a regular basis.
"Ya know most people when they get dizzy stay away from high places," Sanchez pointed out.
"An assuredly predictable behavior.." The soft words escaped with a soft breath.
Josiah watched the green eyes close. Nathan had said the headaches should be getting fewer and fewer in number but when they came they would hit with the softness of a charging steam engine.
"For a good reason I suspect....Here Ezra put this on before Nathan sees you without a shirt," Sanchez draped his coat over the bare shoulders. At least this time he did not have to bargain with the younger man for the simple proffered offerings of warmth. Some headway had been made.
The weight of the jacket settled heavily on the bare shoulders forcing them to slump even further.
"Thankyou..." the voice tapered off as a soft exhale escaped partially closed lips.
Josiah sat quietly for a moment, waiting for the tension to leach from his friend. Standish held himself coiled upright against the chimney. He kept his eyes closed and shielded by his left hand, his mouth ajar. His breaths were short and shallow.
The man hurt. Josiah watched for a few more seconds. The preacher sighed and peered over at Larabee. Chris shrugged. Josiah sighed turning his attention back to Standish. He wondered what type of fear drove a lost soul to try and find comfort and security in objects rather than his friends.
A soft groan rolled from Ezra. Vertigo hit with such a vengeance he could not discern which way was up or down. His sense of left and right disappeared in a maelstrom of swirling flashes of light amongst a dark background. For a moment he could not feel the roof under his feet, he could not pinpoint the direction of the breeze that just a few moments ago brushed his skin. With a sudden nauseating abruptness he became lost without moving an inch. A cold sweat sheened his pale skin.
"Here Ezra that pipe can't be helping your head any," The large man slid closer to his friend. With a gentle touch that belayed his size, Sanchez tried to lean the younger gambler against his shoulder
Ezra became stock still, the rabbit just under the gaze of a coyote. With his eyes held shut, his breathing fragmented and frightened, he dared not move. His world had suddenly tilted and gyrated out of control. A voice rumbled just on the otherside of the storm.
Out of a darkness something touched his head. He stiffened his shoulders and tensed muscles. The incredible brilliance of lights behind his eyes sent spears of pain down his neck.
Standish tried to resist the touch but the intense pounding of a relentless headache prevented much fight.
"Easy Ezra we'll git ya down in a bit," Josiah placed a comforting hand on the side of his friends head holding it still, taking some of the work from the seemingly over burdened neck muscles.
The soft rhythmic beat pulsed under a rough shirt. It carried through the chest wall, clothing and comforted Standish in away only a child could understand. Somewhere through the flailing spinning of disorientation the persistent cadence of a heartbeat slowly and steadily smothered the frightening blackness, beating it back with its simple presence.
"Head hurts," the reply was mumbled at best but the conman did not fight against the close proximity of the other man. Instead he kept his eyes closed, his jaw relaxed and hoped the headache either popped his head off or fizzled away all together.
Vertigo hit again. Ezra delicately allowed the sudden rush of saliva to string from partially sealed lips. His head nor his stomach would handle the simple act of swallowing. He tried to ignore the fact he had no idea which way was up or down. He burrowed closer to the deep vibrating sound of a heartbeat.
Josiah heard the gurglings of a riotous stomach and witnessed the gentle tightening of fists. "Easy brother," his voice took on a soft quality he reserved for lost lambs and frightened kids. With the sleeve of his shirt he carefully wiped the clear tenacious string of saliva.
Ezra did not acknowledge or realize or maybe he just didn't care that Sanchez safely held him in a comforting grasp. The rhythmic cadence of a muffled heartbeat somehow leached away the razor edge of his headache. Standish tried to relax, delicately concentrating on the soothing sound. The steady slow rise and fall of the chest he leaned against lulled him gently away from the piercing pain that radiated up his neck to his eyes.
The preacher waited for the small form lost within the folds of his jacket to relax. The dark brown head dipped slowly as sleep crepted in through a back door and settled on the occupant. Josiah strengthened his grip as the younger man dozed off, leaning heavily against him.
Sanchez sat still, afraid to move or jostle the gambler. The headache had to be severe. Standish would not let anyone comfort him in such a manner. Josiah smiled half heartily to himself, as he gently rested his jaw on the top of Standish's head. Ezra ,whether he admitted it or not, trusted them in this aspect of his life. The gambler just didn't know how to act on it so he followed a behavior that had seen him through years of independence. He simply sought solitude.
Chris watched and listened from the hatchway. It amazed him how someone as large as Josiah could move with such care. Standish was barely visible from this viewpoint. Once again Sanchez had found a way to communicate with the most verbal of the group with little conversation.
Chris pushed himself off the roof entrance and uncrossed his arms. Crowding the gambler when he was sick normally lent to a situation of confrontation and sly remarks. He let Josiah handle this in his own straightforward manner. The preacher had infinite patience when certain situations arose. There were times however that Josiah's infinite patience was nowhere to be found. Most times it occurred when dealing with the ever sly talking gambler. However, it was the gambler that could also provoke the bottomless chasm of Sanchez's patience.
Larabee cleared his throat, "He looking for Captain Joe again?" The gunslinger smiled at the last time the three of them had convened on the roof.
Josiah answered with a deep rumbling laugh of his own. He cinched his hand lightly on the dark haired head holding it gently against his upper chest. "No just another headache and dizzy spell."
Chris furrowed his brow. He would never understand his men. Dizzy? And he seeks roof tops? Then again he suspected this would happen. Vin gets shot and wants to head out of town away from everyone. Buck gets hurt by a lady and spends the time trying to make time with the said Lady. Nathan helps the very people that verbally hurt him. Hell even himself, wanting to forget his past in the bottom of whiskey bottle. Unfortunately he normally found the memories sharper near the bottom. JD was the only one with a lick of sense...God Help them.
"You gonna need a hand?" Chris took a few unsteady steps toward them. He really hated rooftops. Damn his men got him in some situations he really did not cherish.
"Yeah just give us a second," Josiah answered. Standish had finally succumbed to sleep with the help of one of Nathan's teas. Sanchez was going to have to ask Nathan to make one that acted quicker and not allow his patients the chance to escape. Once those herbs kicked in, however, nothing short of an explosion would wake the patient. Maybe that's what had Standish running scared everytime something happened to fog his brain. He hid. Protect himself with invisibility when his cunning mind and swift hands were unable to do the job. Josiah wished Ezra would trust them with his safety when his guard was down so thoroughly.
Sanchez peered at Larabee, judging from the leader's glistening forehead and pale expression he didn't like rooftops....Chris would probably appreciated it even more if Ezra stayed closer to the ground.
With a bit of delicate repositioning Larabee and Sanchez managed to carry Standish across the roof and back down to the Mercantile. Mrs. Potter had a spare room she graciously allowed them to use in instances like these. No sense lugging the gambler across town like a rolled rug. It would embarrass the poor man...though only to a slighter degree than waking up in one of Mrs. Potter's rooms.
Appearances and the such.......
Now Vin, toss his bones under a shady tree away from prying eyes and he was fine...or throw Buck into bed with a warm body of the opposite sex and you were sure to find him hours later....but Standish...the damn man kept wandering off aimlessly. A nuisance...well all of them......Chris had to concede, not just the gambler, but every last one of them had their quirks.
Ezra opened his eyes. Actually they opened of their own accord with no conscious help on his part. In fact if he had his druthers they would not have peeled apart at all. But his mind still floundered in the grey haze of a latent concussion and Jackson's infamous sleeping teas. The first thing his mind's eye saw was a small child. A girl from the demeanor of the fragile child.
He tried to smile reassuringly not sure what else to do...and not really positive if he pulled it off at all. He closed his eyes briefly in an attempt to focus them better. When he opened them the tiny girl was gone.
Standish sighed. Not positive as to where he was or how he got there, the gambler decided it was time to move on and find a safer place to recuperate from whatever ailed him. There was no comfort amongst strangers.
His eyes opened again. This time a woman stood near his bed. A fuzzy silhouette really. A smile had been aimed in his direction. He hoped it was a smile or maybe a grimace. She spoke, her voice soft and lilting. It penetrated the heavy, drugged haze that seemed to have immobilized him.
A gentle hand removed a dry cloth from his head...a cloth he had not known rested on his temple until she removed it. It was then he realized he lay on his side. Which side eluded him for the moment. A cool wet cloth was again placed on his head. It felt refreshingly good.
Again the smile and soft muffled words that made no sense to him. He closed his eyes trying to regain his strength.
+ + + + + + +
The little Potter boy ran down the steps taking them two at a time. He raced through the store front dodging displays and shelves. He dashed out onto the boardwalk. The boy peered anxiously left and then right. He found a suitable target and ran toward it.
"Mr. Wil'm'ton!, Mr. Wil'm'ton!" He shouted sprinting toward the large mustached man.
Buck leaned on a hitch rail soaking up the afternoon sun. It seemed to massage the ache right out of his chest. Wilmington opened his eyes and watched the Potter boy sprint the short distance up the street.
+ + + + + + +
Standish heard the deep whispers of others in the room. He tried to control his breathing and not give away the fact he was awake. It would do him a great service to know a little more about where he was before he tipped his hand.
"'Ey Pard' how ya feelin'?"
Unless of course his hand was already tipped. This time he opened his eyes with conscious effort.
"You in there Ezra?" Buck squatted down in front of the gambler meeting him at eye level. Mrs. Potter had explained that Mr. Standish was confused as to where he was and who watched over him. Buck had come in and sent her to find Nathan. Buck would sit with the Gambler until Nathan arrived.
The Ladys' man watched as the Southerner stared at him trying to make sense of something that he couldn't quite focus on.
"Mr. Wilmington?" It was a question full of hesitancy.
"Right here Pard'....Ya gave Mrs. Potter quite a scare by calling her Mother...she's gone to get Nathan," Buck sat back in the chair next to the bed. The room held the soft light of mid afternoon.
"Mother?" Ezra questioned not quite processing the information Buck offered him.
"She ain't here Ezra, it was Mrs. Potter," Buck leaned forward removing the damp wash cloth from the bruised laceration and dipped it into a basin of water. He rinsed it out and laid it across the marred skin, "Yer at Mrs. Potter's" Buck sat back and watched the gambler.
Damn he had his brains scrambled.
"Yer were on the roof again.....remember Josiah and Chris went up there and got ya down," Buck wasn't sure how much penetrated through the confusion.
Buck wasn't positive if the simple remark was awareness of the morning's events or just acceptance of what he was told.
There was commotion outside the corridor and soon Josiah and Nathan entered the room. "How's he doin'?" Nathan leaned over the gambler and removed the still damp cloth. Buck rose awkwardly to his feet and quietly backed out of the way.
"Ain't got a clue," Wilmington spoke with some amusement.
"Yeah well between the blow to the head, riding all night and the tea I poured down him...he's gonna be off his game for a day or two," Nathan responded without turning around. Instead he gently rolled Ezra's head by the chin to inspect the downed eye. The pupils were improving.
"You feel nauseous at all Ezra?"
No response. Instead the green eyes just followed Nathan's movements the best they could.
"Yer stomach upset?" Jackson tried again gauging the man's reaction to the questions.
"Yeah," the answer again seemed as if he were searching for answers himself.
"Ya dizzy at all?" Jackson replaced the wet cloth on the wound. It seemed to bring some relief to the angry swelling.
"Yeah," this time the response, though soft, held a firmer stance.
"That's gonna last for a bit," Nathan knelt down in front of the gambler. "I'm sorry Ezra but that's gonna have to pass on its own. Ain't nuthin' I ken do to help that. You just git some rest and ya'll feel better when ya wake up."
Nathan moved to stand but a weak, cool, hand held his wrist. Jackson could have easily broke the lame grasp or could have ignored it. The confusion and weariness in the bruised expression somehow added incredible strength to the hold.
"How 'bout one of us stays with ya for a bit...make sure no one comes in and empties yer pockets while yer sleepin'," Buck quickly recognized the lost quality to the accented answers.
Standish made eye contact with no one but held weakly to the dark hand. Nathan remained squatting beside the bed until Standish once again dozed off.
"I'll stay with him," Josiah said. The big man leaned against the window sill. The sun's rays cast his upper body in a surreal hue of light. His shadow loomed across the floor folding over the form on the bed.
"He'll be alright once he gets some rest," Nathan said as he followed Buck out the door. The mustached Gunslinger let out a laugh, "Hell Nathan we knew Ezra was gonna be alright the minute he started arguing with the Judge for a raise in pay."
Nathan nodded as he softly closed the door behind them. Josiah laughed when he heard the healer ask, "Buck what the devil are you doin' out of bed?"
Without skipping a beat Wilmington answered, "Well ya see Nathan it's all Vin's fault....."
Sanchez laughed outright at the voices that faded down the hallway. What a mixture.
Nathan stormed into the Saloon, "What the devil are you three doing!?"
Josiah, Chris and JD all gazed up at the irate healer who stood at the entrance of the saloon.
The three who had his attention were not the three he was speaking too.
"I'll take two," Vin stated. Ezra smoothly dealt two cards to the bounty hunter.
"Mr. Dunne?" Standish asked.
The young Sheriff hesitantly pulled his attention from Nathan to his cards, "Um I'll take three."
Three cards flew easily into the young man's space.
"I thought I told you three to stay put," Jackson's voice lowered to a growl. He stalked across the floor his eyes narrowing on the group.
"Hell Nathan, we are, ain't moved in hours," Buck answered jovially, "I'll take two Ezra." Again two cards floated over to the Ladys' man.
Chris held onto his cards discarding none. Josiah discarded one.
"That's not the point," Jackson's frustration climbed to a new level.
"Then what was the purpose of your directorate," Ezra asked and then gazed up questionably at the healer, "you gave us instructions?"
"Don't you play that game with me Ezra."
Standish carefully raised an eyebrow and shrugged. Ok.
"I call," Josiah spoke up trying to redirect the attention back toward the game he had a pretty decent hand.
Coins and bills were tossed into the center pile, similar calls were made and hands were eventually laid on the table.
Knowing groans and soft exclamations were uttered by the other five.
"It seems I've won again gentlemen," Standish smiled innocently at the others as he dragged the meager pot toward himself.
Jackson scrutinized the movements. An opportunity presented itself. Revenge was indeed sweet.
"Ezra how many finger's am I holding up?" The healer stood behind Josiah across the table from Standish. Nathan kept his pinkie pinned by his thumb.
Chris watched quietly unsure what Nathan was hinting at but smelled revenge in the air. This would get interesting.
"Why do you ask?" Standish gathered up his winnings gazing briefly in the direction of the voice. Nathan at the moment came in doubles and triples as did the rest of the world. A fuzzy tinge seemed to coat everything.
"Jist answer the question Ezra?" Larabee leaned forward on the table clearly interested in the answer. The others watched suspiciously.
"How many fingers Ezra?" Buck repeated the question.
Standish gave a bored sigh and stared in the direction of the hand. Six fingers...He rubbed his bottom lip with his thumb and smiled cautiously to himself. Jackson never held up six fingers...so that meant he held up three. But then again...he could make out three Mr. Jacksons albeit they wavered in and out of the middle form....if there were three Mr. Jackson's (God Forbid) that would mean that he raised only two fingers.
"Well Ezra?" Vin leaned back in his chair a smile played at his lips.
The confidence in which he spoke had everyone double checking the number of fingers Jackson held....Three.
"No he don't Ezra...he's only got three," JD clarified somewhat mystified.
"Three then that's what I meant gentlemen," Standish folded his money with practiced ease and slid it into the pocket of his waist coat...an action known by reflex mostly. "My mind is a bit befuddled."
"uh huh..." Josiah picked up the nine of diamonds, "what card?"
Ezra sighed heavily and held out his hand so Josiah would give it to him.
Vin bit back a chuckle, damn gambler was not even sweating. Tanner took a side ways glance at Nathan, enjoying the healer's sense of revenge.
Larabee had to give the Southerner credit even backed into a corner he kept his composure.
"Oh no, no touching," Buck swatted the hand away.
"Didn't know that line was in your vocabulary Buck," JD piped up fighting the smile that stretched across his face. Josiah raised an eyebrow, JD was on a roll these last few days.
"The card JD...The card," Wilmington turned his attention back to Ezra, "Well?"
"A diamond," Standish pushed himself unsteadily to his feet. A little drama and a touch of sympathy tended to be useful tools for softening opponent's hearts when was one was in a bind. An added bonus being, of course, if he could just make it around them and toward the stairs he would be home free.
"Ezra you need a hand gittin' up?" Tanner leaned forward to place a steadying hand on the Southerner's chair... it also kept Vin within grabbing reach should the gambler bolt.
"Shouldn't you be directing that question toward Mr. Wilmington," Redirection; another fine implement in his arsenal. His mother would be proud. Ezra allowed a dimple half grin to crease his face,JD had finally told a humorous story.
Buck turned red and nailed Dunne with a promise of revenge. "Not a word Ezra...not a damn word."
"I've have nothing to add....just always thought it was an old wives' tale to frighten young men," Standish avoided roving his eyes toward Wilmington. The snickers around the table were enough to insure his redirect might have worked.
Ezra straightened slowly playing his injuries the best he could. He let his gaze fall toward the card the preacher still held. Gawd he hoped it was a diamond. It was a red card and a fifty-fifty shot.
"Which one?" Chris asked following the gambler's gaze. He would continue with the unveiling Nathan began.
Ezra felt his heart skip a beat. These men were not falling into complacency liked he hoped. Ezra took a cursory glance at the card. Damn it had a lot of spots.
Josiah held the card...the preacher believed in omens...and destiny. His card would be symbolic.
"Seven of diamonds," Standish made to slide past Larabee. The railing of the raised dais kept him from skirting out of arms reach.
The other six men gazed at the card quickly counting the number of diamonds. Larabee latched onto Standish's upper arm.
"Sorry Ezra it's the Nine," Buck singsonged. The snake. Payback's a bear
"Well if ya can't see straight how'd you know what cards ya held during the game," JD asked slightly bewildered.
Chris raised his eyebrows at the gambler. He realized the gesture was probably lost on the younger man.
"Yeah Ezra?" Vin joined in placing his beer back on the table, not surprised at all.
"Now son you aren't using a marked deck to play with your friends," Josiah turned the card over in his callused hand trying to discern the tell. Nature versus Nurture...Ezra never stood a chance. Josiah could not help but think that the gambler kept them all on their toes. Much like Maude did him.
"I'm shocked you ask such a question," Standish tried to ease his arm from Larabee's grasp.
"It true?" Chris fought to keep the smile from his voice. He should have known. The Judge had left town today. It was only a day and a half since the trial. Vin could hardly use his leg, Buck still wore his sling...a testament that his chest and shoulder hurt...there was not reason to believe Standish could see straight.
A dimpled smile slipped across the gambler's face, "I take umbrage at the question."
"Ezra you ain't got any principles," JD stated running the worn pad of his thumb over the edge of the card. Damned if he could fine anything. Ezra would probably cheat his own Ma...heck he did have her locked up in the jail once.
"Mr. Larabee I feel the need to lie down," Standish put just enough plea in his voice to sound real.
Jackson watched his patient. Sure he looked slightly pale and a tremor had shook his voice slightly....but.... The man was slippery as a greased pig, 'specially when ya tried to pin him on something.
"I'll let you go when you answer the question," Larabee held one of the cards trying to see any distinguishing marks.
"What question," Always muddy the waters, or so his mother taught him.
Chris wouldn't rise to the bait, "You playin' with a marked deck?"
Ezra smiled at the group and did his best to pinpoint Chris's shifting visage, "Not that I remember....now if you please, good sir, I must request you release me before my lunch releases itself." When muddied waters don't work, mother always suggested slightly tainted waters.
"He is lookin' kind of pale," Josiah observed.
Ezra swallowed a few times playing the role.
Larabee let his arm go. Standish keeping one hand on the railing made his way down the dais and toward the stairs that led to his room.
"And Ezra," Chris's voice made the gambler pause, "if I find this deck is marked....I'll shake the winning's out of your pockets."
Standish nodded in agreement and tipped his hat to the others, "Agreed, and if you would be so kind as to return my cards to me this evening." With that Ezra slowly and methodically climbed the stairs. He chuckled softly to himself as he heard the murmured voices of his friends below.
They would never find the marks, the simple revelation kept the smile on the gambler. Their hands were too callused.
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