"It's just not been your week," Buck said trying to be sympathetic. He noticed Standish glaring at him. 'Wrong words', Wilmington realized, 'ahh what the heck he needed cheering up.'
Ezra did not want anyone's sympathy. He did not want anyone feeling sorry for him. He could do just fine on his own. He narrowed his eye at Wilmington warning him to tread lightly.
"I mean being hauled off to Cross Keys then chained to Chris and hunted by hounds," Buck chuckled. "Ezra you just shoulda stayed in bed." Buck reached over and took the bottle indulging in the sweet nectar.
"Well being shackled to Mr. Larabee was not a high point in my week," Ezra stated matter of factly. Buck nearly spewed the liquor out.
"That how you got the black eye?" Buck asked. He had been curious about that and Chris's nose since they had found them. Those injuries were comparably old to the others inflicted in the fall.
They two men sat in their respective tubs sharing a fine bottle of brandy while Ezra wove a drunken tale of shackles, hounds, a river and two men who disagreed on the day of the week.
+ + + + + + +
That was how Vin and Josiah found them. The tracker and preacher had become worried when the two men failed to leave the bath house. After an hours worth of waiting Vin and Josiah climbed the steps to the bath house and paused on the porch just outside the door. The sun had set casting the early winter day into a raw damp night. They could hear laughing.
They entered the room to find an empty bottle of brandy between the two tubs and both men laughing themselves into tears. Buck was smacking the water trying to control his mirth splashing soapy water over the rim.
"Guess they're ok," Vin said.
"Looks it," Josiah answered back.
"You two are going to stay there all night?" Vin asked. Both gambler and gunslinger stopped laughing for a brief second faced the two intruders and started laughing all over again.
Josiah felt the water, it had begun to cool off, not that those two would have noticed. "Buck the water is getting cold," Sanchez pointed out. His observations fell on deaf ears. Josiah turned and faced Vin and in a very serious tone asked, "Don't certain things shrink in cold water?"
Buck was up and out of the water in a matter of seconds. Standish needed a little more help.
+ + + + + + +
With fresh warm clothes, Buck and Ezra headed for the saloon. Vin and Josiah trailed them. The sober peacekeepers had yet to learn what was so funny. The saloon was remarkably warmer than the outside air but that did not prevent the southerner from choosing a table next to the pot belly wood stove. Buck swayed over to the bar and grabbed a bottle of whiskey while Josiah put in an order for some dinner. It would do Buck and Ezra some good to get something to eat.
"You two gonna let us in on what's so funny?" Vin asked leaning on one arm staring at the two men in front of him. Five shot glasses dotted the table and the whiskey bottle sat in the middle. The saloon was relatively empty, it was still early but also to cold for most people to venture out. JD in his customary hurricane fashion blew through the batwing doors. He spotted the others and immediately made his way over to join them.
"'Ey guys." He took a seat. "I think Chauca's foot is going to heal up just fine," JD said peering curiously at Ezra then Buck. They were drunk. Well almost not quite, but the lopsided smiles and flush cheeks indicated they were closing the gap.
"That is good news Mr. Dunne." Ezra held up his full shot glass in toast, Buck mimicked his action as did Vin and a hesitant JD.
"'Yeah Ezra ya could use some good news right'bout now," Buck chuckled and both men down their drinks in a single gulp. JD and Vin shared a questioning looks but followed suit.
Josiah soon joined them. In no time the foursome took great pangs to rib the preacher about his sermon. Sanchez reached for the bottle seeking some liquid respite from the jabs.
+ + + + + + +
Nathan and Chris entered the saloon a few hours later. It was nearing midnight. Larabee walked tenderly his head causing him great discomfort and his belly seemed to be doing somersaults. He had woken an hour or so ago to find himself tucked away warmly in Nathan's clinic. The healer had been at his desk reading by the candle light. Jackson had engaged the gunslinger in conversation and found him to be amazingly coherent. Other than being covered head to toe in abrasions and lacerations it seemed as if Chris would heal from his ordeal without any problems. A bandage protected his right wrist where the shackles had abraded and torn the skin. His nose though not completely broken and or shoved from alignment would hurt for quite some time. There was not much Nathan could do for that or the multiple bruises that covered his body. The blow to the lower back would also have to heal itself. He had quizzed Chris on the symptoms Larabee had and found the gunslinger had already started successfully treating that wound, flush the kidneys.
Both healer and leader entered the saloon and noticed the other five in a drunken uproar. Vin was leaning back laughing, JD was slamming the table with an open palm, clutching his stomach with his other hand. Josiah appeared red faced and almost angry while Ezra patted Buck in a congratulatory manner on the shoulder.
"How long they been here Seth?" Chris asked leaning against the bar.
The barkeep gazed across the room at the five men and then Larabee, "since early evening. Been through two bottles not including the brandy Mr. Standish took up to the bath house earlier."
Nathan and Chris nodded and made their way over to the table dragging two chairs with them.
"Whatta ya boy's doin?" Chris asked settling down in his chair between JD and Vin. Nathan positioned himself between Josiah and Ezra. From the watery glassy eyed appearance of the gambler and ladies' man they had been hitting the bottle with some vigor. The others were not far behind.
"Assisting Mr. Sanchez in his sermon for tomorrow evening." Ezra thought he articulated all his words but the confusion on Nathan and Chris's faces indicated he might have mispronounced a syllable or two. Maude would have disapproved.
Larabee sipped some coffee. Jackson would not let him indulge in whiskey while getting over a concussion.
"Ezra ain't your mother suppose to be here?" Jackson asked a bit confused as to why the southern gentleman would be carousing with the 'boys' instead of spending time with Maude. Those two were a pair. Maude treated him fairly and never judged him except as a good fair person. Nathan could not help but keep a weary eye on the conwoman. She had raised Ezra to the man he was today and though he was not a bad person by design his morals and ethics were questionable at best. Maude's influence on her son was easily discernible.
"Shhh! Nathan..." JD pressed his finger with an exaggerated motion to his lips. "ya shouldn't bring that up," Dunne whispered loudly.
"Aww hell JD" Buck said, slapping the kid on the back, "it's ok"
Wilmington stared owlishly at the healer then Chris then back to Nathan, "Ezzzra's ma met a wealthy mark and well she ain't comin'," Buck said seriously. Then a broad smile cracked his face and he began chuckling, "you best be counting your blessing Ezra..." Buck laughed out.
"Could you imagine Josiah here, being your step daddy..." This was met with roars of laughter except from Josiah and Ezra. Both men stared bleary eyed at each other, Sanchez raised his shot glass as peace offering and Standish accepted it. Both polished off the shots and joined the others in their mirth. Larabee watched the exchange with a careful smile. Buck certainly had away of plowing into delicate territory.
Chris gazed over at the gambler. His words from the previous day coming back to him, 'she ain't coming.' Larabee had seen the hurt then and knew he had it a nerve. He suddenly realized why it cut so quick and so painful. Deep down inside Ezra always suspected his mother of not showing. Larabee had merely voiced that fear and brought it to the surface. The gunslinger watched the gambler smile and laugh with the others but some of the pain and embarrassment still lingered behind the glassy watering eye. The conman had been conned, Ezra's mother played him like a fiddle. Chris had known it and seen it. Ezra suspected it. His mother ditched him for another mark. Chris knew the shame would linger. The gunslinger wished he could go and take back those words he had uttered in anger. Words Larabee had used to strike down the cocky man to hurt him as he himself had been slighted. Watching now as the other six men drank the evening away Larabee began to recognize the magnitude of betrayal Standish felt. Chris sipped his coffee and occasionally supported Tanner to keep him from crumbling out of his stationary chair. Larabee watched Ezra and every so often loneliness would flash across the emerald eye.
Chris retired to bed leaving his men still in the joyous throws of whiskey. They were grown men and could make their own way home. Larabee had left when Buck had started recounting his many exploits with the Lampert twins. Chris had heard this tale many times before though no two sentences were ever repeated. Larabee had told Seth to go home, the others would close up. Seth appeared doubtful but it was pushing two am and he wanted to get home to his wife. He had tomorrow and Christmas off. The barkeep wondered if any of the stock behind the bar would be left to greet the new year.
Nathan and Chris met on the boardwalk. The morning sun had just started to climb over the tree tops. It was Christmas eve. Josiah had his sermon tonight. Nettie and Casey had decided to treat everyone to Christmas eve dinner as a prelude to Mary's Christmas feast.
Chris still suffered through a headache. His stomach gurgled as the sudden insult of coffee as it settled uncomfortably. Larabee gazed up at the pink and purple early morning clouds. They promised the impending arrival of snow. The frosty weather still gripped the land.
"Morning Chris," Nathan greeted as he leaned against a porch beam sipping coffee. He assessed the gunslinger with a practiced eye. Larabee still sported a limp thanks to the well placed boot of the gunslinger. Chris would heal with time but for now exhaustion draped heavily on his shoulders. Nathan turned his attention back to his coffee. Steam rose from the mug twirling in the soft morning breeze.
"Nathan," Larabee returned. Chris stared at the saloon batwing doors and added, "glad they left the place standing."
Jackson nodded. He really did not mind rebuilding the saloon on occasion but not on cold days like today.
The two men pushed open the doors and entered the saloon. They both stopped and stared at the table that they had occupied as a group.
"Well Vin almost made it," Nathan said. The tracker lay sprawled half way between the outside door and the wood stove. JD lay on the floor beside his chair where he had fallen. Josiah stretched out in front of the wood stove and Buck and Ezra were missing.
"Where'd those two disappear too," Nathan asked as he began checking bodies and trying to roust them from their intoxicated slumbers. He would have had an easier time waking the dead.
He no sooner got the question out when Buck and Ezra stumbled out of the back room carrying a tray of assorted breads and meats. They were still drunk.
"You two still at it?" Jackson asked. He should not be surprised, though Standish looked dead on his feet.
"Just searching for some subsistence," Standish explained weaving back and forth.
Buck tried to steady him but all they managed to do was teeter back and forth out of synch.
"Well forget about that you two are going to help us get these guys to some beds," Chris said. Larabee could not believe how sore he felt today. Every muscle ached, he discovered he had muscles where he had never thought existed before. Buck and Ezra stumbled in his direction bumping into a table. Both tottered back and tried to advance again.
"On second thought don't...just go get some shut eye yourselves." He peered up at the two unmoving men and explained himself further, "Nettie is having us all over for dinner the least you could do is go sober."
Standish headed for the stairs to the second story of the saloon where he lived. "I do not plan on attending," he mumbled trudging up the stairs. Both Nathan and Chris heard the remark but Larabee shook his head no, they would deal with that later. Wilmington followed the cardsharp. Buttercup had a room up there and she was always obliging.
+ + + + + + +
Nathan gazed down at the sleeping gambler. The alcohol had succeeded in place of the laudanum. Though neither would diminish the angst wrought on by the telegram at least he got some sleep. The man looked like hell. He slept on his back having to favor the dislocated shoulder. Sleeping on either side would have ached considerably. Even in an alcohol induced slumber and knowing the level of exhaustion both Standish and Larabee suffered, the shoulder joint would not take kindly to further insult. The swelling in his right eye had slowly begun to diminish and the deep purple and maroon colors had begun to fade to lighter shades. The cuts and lacerations would heal in time just as everything else. It was late afternoon.
Josiah's service would begin in an hour. None of the seven really wanted to go each for different reasons. Vin hated being trapped in doors with so many people, JD felt homesick for his ma, Buck found hypocrisy in established religion, Chris had to blame someone for the loss of his family and Ezra believed the good Lord dealt from a stacked deck. Nathan just did not want to see Josiah falter in front of so many people. The congregation would be forgiving enough but the other five peacekeepers would badger him until next year.
Chris and Ezra needed the rest. Larabee had dozed off and on all day. The audacious trek would not relinquish its grip on the men so easily. They had used up all their reserves and had nothing else to give. The body needed time to heal. Chris at least had been forced into some rest albeit passed out. Standish dove into the bottle instead of his bed. At least he had company. Buck, Vin and JD were down at the hotel now suffering through a light meal and some coffee. Jackson figured he would let the conman sleep a little longer.
Nathan did not want to wake the gambler. It was Christmas Eve. He had slept through the day just as he had hoped. Jackson could understand his motivations. "Ezra..." Nathan waited a few seconds and tried again. "Ezra." He shook the blanketed right shoulder. Only the top of his head and part of his face were visible under the blankets. The healer sighed. The gambler really needed his rest but more importantly he needed to join the others in celebrating the holiday.
"Come on Ezra time to get up." He eased the quilt and second wool blanket down exposing the entire face. Standish slept with his mouth partly ajar. His lips were chapped and the bruise on his jaw had started to fade to pale yellows and greens. "Ezra." Jackson nudged him again.
The green eyes fluttered open, he swallowed licked his lips and nestled back under the blankets.
Nathan let out a dry chuckle. "Ezra ya gotta wake up.." Nathan jostled the bed managing to shake the whole man at once.
"Go way Nathan," the thick southern drawl mumbled out the dry lips barely moving and the eyes remained closed.
"Sorry Ezra Chris thinks everyone should tend Josiah's mass," Jackson countered. He sat on the edge of the bed and decided to check the bandages and other assorted bruises. Standish hated being poked and prodded. An invasion of his personnel space that he revolted against adamantly. This did the trick. Nathan peeled back the blankets and checked the left shoulder. The bandages still tightly imprisoned the arm across the bruised torso. Water stains adorned the normally off white material. "Ezra ya were suppose to keep them dry." Jackson whispered in frustration. Noone ever listened.
"Nathan is there a purpose to this?" Ezra asked is eyes burned and his stomach ached. Gawd he was tired.
"Yup ya gotta get up," Jackson answered pulling the quilt and blanket down further checking the contusions that covered the southerners abdomen.
"Kind sir please cease your activities," Standish asked. Gawd forbid he should wake up on his own. Now Jackson was hear pressing on bruises. "If your intentions are to bring about discomfort you are succeeding wonderfully."
"Just wanna make sure yer ok," Nathan explained. He left the blankets at the conman's hip leaving him some dignity. Jackson flipped the blankets up off the covered feet. Blisters and cuts covered the feet and the right ankle was still wrapped tightly. The toes were even discolored as a result of the sprain. "How's the foot?"
"Fine..Now please disappear." Standish replied tiredly pulling the quilt back up. He felt as if he could sleep for a week.
"Nope," Jackson replied with determination.
Josiah stood at the pulpit and gazed out over the restless mass that made up the evenings congregation. It was times like this he most admired his father. Sanchez could not abide by the fire and brimstone his bible toting father wrought down on his own congregation. Every week, however, the old man stood before a crowd of people and spouted out what he believed to be true. That was one of many things father and son disagreed on, Josiah questioned his faith questioned everything. He had faith but in things he understood things he could count on but struggled through the bible trying to find relations between his life and the lure of The Book.
Christmas eve before a house full of people from varying backgrounds and religious beliefs he was to enlighten them on things that confused the hell out of him. He stared over the heads of the people to the last pew. The last remaining seats closest to the doors, the one that offered the quickest escape that was where five of the peacekeepers sat. His six companions had eased themselves down there in various states of disrepair. He himself was still in the throws of a nasty hangover. If he had known better he would have thought Buck and Ezra planned it that way. Then again looking down at the two men they seemed to be suffering as bad as him and were dragging those around them down as well. Sour stomachs would not rest easily.
"Geez you guys..," JD mumbled scooting away from Buck, Ezra and Vin. The threesome lounged uncomfortably at the end of the pew. Buck snickered slightly embarrassed while Ezra and Vin just closed their eyes against the old factory insult. A few disagreeable heads turned and threw withering glares at the three offensive peacekeepers.
Nathan hung his head humiliated. He had never felt ashamed of being associated with the other lawmen until now. He and JD would have moved but there were no more empty seats in the church. They were trapped. Jackson closed his eyes as he heard Wilmington chuckle self consciously pretty soon he too tried to shy from the offensive odor. There was nowhere to go.
Larabee had been spirited away by Billy. The young Travis boy had latched onto the gunslingers hand and dragged the older man up the aisle to join the boy's mother. Chris had no idea how lucky he was at the moment. The gunslinger gazed over his shoulder and saw the dismay on Nathan's face and the look of revulsion on JD. Buck had a self satisfied smirk. Larabee chuckled he would thank Mary and Billy later.
Jackson leaned forward stared past JD at the troubled threesome. Buck still wore a lopsided grin, Standish slouched down leaning his head back against the pew trying to sleep through the ordeal and Tanner hung over the arm of the pew trying to create distance between himself and the others. The healer would have laughed but this was misery.
Nathan turned his attention toward the front. He would make it through this, he had suffered greater insult but at the moment he just could not remember when.
Josiah stared at his friends trying to dredge up the fading memory of his memorized sermon. How could he reach these people if he himself had doubts. His eyes fell on Larabee. Chris never had any use for religion not after the loss of his wife and son. The gunslinger had turned on everything and everyone even himself. Now through the tenacious friendship of Buck Wilmington and the loyalty of the others Chris began to live again. Mary and Billy were the welcomed recipients of his turn around. Did Chris credit the Lord in anyway? Probably not.
Vin recognized the believes of the native people that raised him. Tanner had no use for the God of the White man and Josiah did not blame him. The tracker had a better sense of what was right and wrong that most preachers, Josiah included.
Sanchez found his gaze resting on the healer. Of all the seven he should have lost faith in his fellow man and turned an angry face at those who preached fairness and benevolence. Nathan had been denied the kindness of others just because of skin color. He had been judged and born into chains. Instead of anger he tried to heal his own wounds by healing others. He had faith when everything he had ever faced opposed him. To Josiah that was a miracle.
Josiah tried to recall his sermon, the natives were getting restless. JD fidgeted in his seat. The young man could not sit still even if he were tied down. Dunne had not been to a service since last year and he had actually slept through it. Josiah did not blame the boy. Dunne had been left alone in the world to fend for himself. His mother ruthlessly struck down by a debilitating illness. How many times had JD asked Josiah, "Why?" How many times had the young man in fits of homesickness sought answers from the preacher. Josiah had no answers. Have faith? How could JD have faith if the man he sought answers from questioned his own faith?
Sanchez felt sweat forming on his brow. People shifted in their seats. The moment of silence had begun to drag on. Children started to crawl over parents and throats began to get cleared. Josiah wished he were in a middle of a gun battle instead of here. He watched as Standish sat up. The gambler. The man was a walking enigma. Covered head to toe in bruises, hungover and beat tired, he was dragged to the mass. God? Yes Ezra believed in a greater being, who else could manipulate and play with so many lives. He believed the 'good' Lord dealt from a stacked deck and consistently changed the rules. Standish believed in a God because something had to be making a profit on others tribulations and difficulties. Josiah actually found himself chuckling, Ezra had once let on he believed Josiah's God had to have a sense of humor why else would he have put all seven men in one town.
Josiah's eyes widened. With his planned sermon forgotten a sly smile crossed his stubbled features. Seven men, fiercely independent, fiercely protective of their own pasts, each needing something but not finding it until they found a little back water burg. Fate, Destiny...a higher being, it did not matter. Seven men found a home and in that discovery had taken to protecting it and with it it's citizens. The citizens of Four Corners had faith that the seven would stand to protect them and the seven had faith that the other six would come to their aid. A miracle, maybe..fate, maybe..
The six peacekeepers started to worry about the prolonged silence. Ezra sat up somewhat realizing Josiah had forgotten his speech. The pained expressions from the others confirmed his suspicions. Poor Sanchez. Standish slid back down in the pew resting his hat over his eyes wrinkling his nose in disgust as Buck let loose with another....chuckle.
Josiah started speaking......
+ + + + + + +
Sanchez stood at the back door wishing farewell to the exiting congregations. Billy pulled Chris out the door hurrying the lingering gunslinger along. They were all going to Ms. Wells for dinner tonight. Billy wanted there now. "Nicely done Josiah," Chris whispered to the large preacher ignoring the incessant pulling on his hand. It reminded him so much of Adam. It brought a smile to his face. The sorrow would have to wait for another day.
Vin and Buck stared at the sleeping man between them. Standish had not moved at all through the service. Nathan figured Ezra had succumbed to sleep in self defense. JD, like Billy was itching to get to Nettie's. "Come on guys lets go," Dunne said shoving Buck.
Dunne not getting results fast enough hopped over the back of the pew. He practically ran past Josiah shouting, "Not bad Josiah." Sanchez nodded at the rambunctious young man. At least he had not fallen asleep this year. As the last citizen filed past Josiah turned back on the four men still seated.
"You all right Brother Vin?" Josiah asked noticing the tracker leaned heavily against the pew's arm. He figured the tracker would have hightailed it as soon as the service was over. Vin did not relish being enclosed with a bunch of people. His sacrifice had not been lost on the preacher.
"Yeah but Ezra's a ton," Tanner whispered out. The conman leaned somewhat sideways pinning the younger man to the pew. Though the gambler's head rested on the back of the pew his right shoulder covered the tracker's. Sanchez suppressed a chuckle. If tired enough the gambler could sleep anywhere. A tendency that resulted from spending his childhood days in gambling halls and river boats waiting on his mother. Tanner was either to kind or still too hungover to fight it.
Nathan grew impatient and climbed over the back of the pew. He could not take Wilmington any longer. "Josiah ya did real good," Jackson said as he headed for the door. He needed some fresh air.
Buck shoved the gambler trying to avoid jostling the injured shoulder. "Ey Ezra!" Buck shoved him again as Vin wiggled his own shoulder. Standish closed his mouth and slowly sat up. He blinked a few times slightly disoriented. Josiah thought it was good to see both eyes opened for a change.
"What?" He drawled out blinking sleep out of his eyes trying to roust himself from the effects of the short nap.
"Time to go," Buck said as Vin made his quick escape. He pushed the younger gambler to the end of the pew. Josiah grabbed his good arm and hauled him to his feet.
"Glad you enjoyed the service brother Ezra," Sanchez remarked seriously. The gambler stared at him and then the empty building and the pieces finally fell into place. He started to apologize.
Sanchez smiled and patted him on the back leading both gambler and ladies man toward the door, "no need to apologize, between your snoring and Buck's upset stomach lets just say you helped me shine."
Buck grinned and together the three men left the church behind and headed over to the saloon.
+ + + + + + +
Billy raced JD across the lawn both bounding up the steps bursting through the front door of Nettie's modest cabin. Mary walked arm and arm with Chris, warning her son to mind his manners. The parental warnings fell on deaf ears. Larabee's mind found itself admiring the woman on his arm. Sarah still resided his heart but maybe there was room for another.
The seven men headed across the lawn following the same path as Billy and JD.
Ezra paused at the well. Last year he had watered the animals and rode back to Four Corners having never entered the house or partaking in the dinner. He held a similar plan this year.
A strong arm draped across his shoulders steering him away from the well and another hand clasped the back of his neck. Flanked between Josiah and Buck, Standish found himself being reined toward the house. The hollow pain of solitude inflicted by the telegram was quickly replaced by a feeling of belonging.
"Not gonna get out of it that easy this year, Brother," Josiah intoned softly.
Buck chuckled tightening his hold, "besides you've got to tell them about your joyous days chained to Chris." Wilmington laughed outright at the groan.
Vin and Nathan brought up the rear. "You ever think we would've made it this far?" Tanner asked in hush tones. He liked the feeling of family. He had been denied it most of his life but with these other six men he had found a home. It did not scare him as much as he thought it would.
Jackson smiled, "yup." The healer knew they would ,they belonged together.
Tanner nodded and added, "you think Buck's gonna stink us out of the house?"
Jackson's smile faltered, "Yup." Sometimes a little distance was a good thing too.
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