J.D.'s euphoria faded as he realized that Ezra still floundered in delirium, and he knew that he couldn't rouse Standish out of it. For the first time in however long they'd been trapped, thirst and hunger began to claw at him, and J.D. felt horribly weak all of a sudden. He'd taken care of the first thing, but so many other things reared their heads - so many more things to do before he and Ezra could be safe. So many things to get, like the shopping lists his mother used to make out just before a party at the estate.
Get out of this hole.
Get past Ma Hansen and John.
Get some horses - or rather, just one, because Ezra didn't look in any shape to ride.
Get back to Four Corners.
Get Nathan to help Ezra.
J.D. shook his head, tried to focus on the next thing. Second things second, Vin whispered reassuringly. Third things third. Breath whistled through J.D.'s gritted teeth, and his body hummed with a tension he didn't recognize. All his thoughts focused outward, focused on the space beyond the door above him. He shifted to a crouch, his thighs and knees burning as they protested his weight, and lifted his arm to push the door upward.
God, it was a damned heavy door. The hinges creaked ominously and J.D froze, waiting for discovery. Several tense minutes dragged past, stretching out to the length of many years apiece, and J.D. felt his knees quake mutinously under him; his right arm ached from holding the door up and open. Finally, he allowed himself to continue, freezing each time the hinges cracked like gunshots, and slowly, slowly, the dim and welcome light of the room above him filled his small box. As the door opened enough for J.D. to straighten and get his head above ground, he turned to survey the room.
The perfectly normal room.
It looked just like the small parlor his mother kept for the occasional visitor - not many frills or 'fripperies', as she'd say, but clean and with just a few nice things to keep it in the realms of proper and respectable. A crocheted doily spread itself over a well -worn blue couch, with a matching chair hunkered over in the corner. Framed samplers dotted the walls, and some tiny porcelain statuettes and lamps graced a couple of battered end tables, which in turn stood on some scraps of carpet which covered some of the worn wooden floor. Handmade curtains framed the room's lone window, and a couple potted plants lined the sill. A small painted portrait hung on the door at the far wall - the closed door.
J.D. realized that he looked at the room from a far corner; heard a soft shushing sound of a rug sliding off the now -angled surface of the uplifted door. No one would notice the door in such a location - who would have a cellar in their sitting -room, of all places? It only made sense to have one either in the kitchen or a special room near the back. If any visitor happened to see the door and ask, Ma Hansen or her son could say this used to be the kitchen - when they'd gotten the place, they decided to put their sitting room in here because of the light. The view out the window. Whatever. The visitor would believe it.
Well, second thing down. Third things third. J.D. had to get past Ma Hansen and John - and it hit him that he couldn't do so with Ezra hanging off him. Part of J.D. quailed at the thought of leaving Ezra in the box, but Buck's practical voice told him Ezra stood a better chance in his nice, cool hole than dangling from J.D.'s arms. J.D. would stand a better chance, too, come to think of it.
Still, J.D. would only stand a better chance if he could get a weapon. He pulled himself out of the box and shut it, then turned to circle as soundlessly as he could about the room, looking for something to fight with. Nothing he could fire - no gun anywhere - but! J.D. knelt next to one of the end tables and bent to peer under it.
Yup - the old legs had been dowelled in, and the dry climate had sucked the moisture from the wood, creating a small space between the leg and the wood of the tabletop. J.D. picked up the lamp that sat atop the table, wondering at the thin, soft leather that formed the shade. Someone had painted strange designs on it, like Indian art, or tattoos, maybe.
Reprimanding himself for letting his imagination run away with him at a time like this, J.D. set the lamp down, then turned the table on its side, bracing it against the wall with his left knee. One good yank separated the table leg from the rest of its companions, and he now had a decent blunt instrument. Repeating the process made it two. He propped the now -unsteady table against the couch and carefully put the lamp back; the table wobbled precariously, but didn't fall.
J.D. shoved one of the legs down the back of his trousers; his left arm now hung limply, all fight and ability to move gone out of it. His head jerked up as he heard bustling, disembodied sounds of activity from beyond the sitting room; he stole over and stood next to the door, weapon and the ready, tensed to spring.
Minutes passed, and the door didn't open. He pressed his ear to the wall, straining to make out voices. J.D. became aware of a strange scent that drifted through the crack under the door, something unpleasant. He ignored it as best he could and concentrated on the voices.
"Okay now, John, you have to make sure those bones boil clean. We've got lots of time, son. You don't need to worry about hurryin' so much. What have I told you?"
"Hast makes waste, Ma." J.D. could barely make out the murmured reply, but it sounded ashamed of its maker's failure to meet some critical standard.
"That's quite all right, John," Ma Hansen soothed. "Now when those bones are clean, you'll take them out and grind them up while you wait for the water to cool. Then cover the pot up and we'll let it sit overnight so the fat collects at the top -"
"And then we'll skim it off?" interrupted John.
"Right you are, son. Bright boy," Ma Hansen said approvingly. "We'll just finish up with this one and get started on those other two tomorrow. They'll keep for a while yet, I reckon."
Remembering a trick Buck had taught him - and one Vin had given him in a different manner - J.D. took three deep breaths.
"One to relax your body," Buck said. "Can't go into a gunfight all tensed up. When you get tense, you make mistakes - and when you make mistakes, you get dead. Fingers freeze on the trigger, your arm locks up even 'afore you get your gun outta the holster."
"Two to clear your mind," Vin told him. "See that ol' stump down there? It's just you an' that stump in the world. No Casey, no town, no big -ass crazy fuckers about to land on ya. Just you an' that stump."
"Three to give yourself all the time in the world t' get done what you want to get done," they both said.
"Now, pull the rifle right against your shoulder. Yeah, yeah... good. 'Kay, now fire."
J.D. exploded out of the door, wrenching it open with his right hand and shouting like a madman. The two figures in the perfectly domestic kitchen froze. Ma Hansen, her bulk enshrouded in a frilled pink apron had a butcher's knife in her hand, seemed torn between whether to throw it or not. John's forearm came close to touching the pot he stirred with a long -handled wooden spoon. The two looked to be on the verge of collapsing from shock.
And J.D. himself almost fell over, half -drowned in the nauseating flood of the smell of cooking and burnt flesh. Unconsciousness clawed at him, tried desperately to claim him, and a large part of J.D. wanted to sink into that welcoming oblivion. Even as he considered it, though, J.D. knew what waited for him on the other end of that temporary darkness and he pulled himself back to the here-and-now.
Reflexively threw the one chair leg, his whole world having become just him and Ma Hansen's face, and the distance between the two. Even as the wooden missile hurtled through the air to connect with the stunned woman's nose and sent her crashing to the floor, J.D. twisted and reached behind him for the second chair leg and threw it at John, who had raised his hands in mute surrender. This time, the weapon cracked its victim across the neck; J.D. heard the dull crunching of something either snapping or being crushed.
John fell, too, clutching his throat and gasping.
Breathing hard, the deadly calm having fled him for good, J.D. slumped back against the wall and slid down it to land in a heap on the floor. The taste of the air around him sickened him, but he forced deep breaths into his lungs, fighting down the heaves that threatened to pitch his stomach back up his throat.
God, best not continue on that line of thought.
Christ, he had to get Ezra! J.D. swayed to his feet, deciding to check on the Hansens first, just in case. He stumbled over to the small cooking space, leaning heavily against chairs, tables, and finally, the counter; his left arm hung, a dead and useless weight, at his side, and J.D. prayed that his captors would be either conconscious or dead.
John's eyes had glazed over, and J.D. could see a dent in the man's throat, where his larynx had caved in, strangling him. Forgetting the poisonous air, J.D. gulped, gagged, and gasped; with watering eyes and his stomach just about to rebel completely, he turned to Ma Hansen. A bright smear of blood decorated her face, her nose visibly broken. Her chest rose and fell raggedly, but she appeared down for the count.
He had to get Ezra. J.D. turned and made his way back to the sitting room, willing himself not to look at the lampshade he had touched earlier, or the one on the other end table.
As he got closer to the trap door, J.D. became acutely aware of the absence of something. He stumbled faster, collapsing finally just short of his former prison. He steeled himself, looked in.
Ezra lay there, still prone, blood still dripping slowly from the wound in his shoulder. The faint light cast by the lamps - it was night out, J.D. realized dully - made his skin shine with a frightening, pale waxiness, like a doll. Sweat plastered auburn hair to his forehead, and J.D. could almost feel the fever starting.
What was worse, though, Standish didn't say a word. His chest seemed to hitch between breaths, a sort of breathe in -pause -pause -hitch -breathe out that frightened J.D. more than he could say.
The expected ambush from unseen enemies didn't come, but another one did - one far less welcome, in Vin's opinion.
He and Chris cleared the area, and Larabee had ridden the quick quarter -mile to bring the rest of the boys back to the rock. In the few minutes of quiet Vin had during Chris's absence, he made camp in automatic motions, spreading out his bedroll and watching the fledgling fire carefully - precious little wood to be found in this barrenness, he thought, and he didn't want the fire going out with only much -blackened firewood remaining.
Or at least, the endlessly pragmatic part of himself felt that. Most of his mind kept busy with defenses, just waiting for Chris to spring on him and ask him about Mercury Jones - whoever he was, though Vin had heard stories about the man - and the night that Vin had almost died. More accurately, Vin supposed, Chris would want to know about the morning after.
Not that Vin himself had a lot of answers, but the few he had, he didn't want to share.
"Hey, pard? Can we go aways and talk?"
Vin almost exploded out of his skin, whirling around and bringing his rifle to bear on the voice behind him. Shame swept through him when he saw it was just Chris, returned from fetching the others, and he prayed his face wouldn't start glowing from the red -hot blush that swept over it. He felt acutely warm and uncomfortable in the cool of a desert evening; knowing that Chris had sensed his discomfiture didn't do much to put him at ease.
At length, Tanner managed a curt nod instead of the apology he'd meant to give. Chris didn't say anything by way of reproach, just slung his rifle over his shoulder and headed out into the darkness with Vin right behind him.
It hurt Vin to think of the trust implicit in just turning around, expecting your friend to follow you.
Once they'd gotten far enough to where lowered voices wouldn't carry all the way back to camp, Chris turned to face his younger friend and fought to keep his voice calm and level. A nagging presence in the back of his mind - Josiah, mostly, Chris thought ruefully - told him to keep quiet about it, that Vin would indeed tell him eventually and if he didn't, well, it was Vin's choice. Men kept secrets as a matter of course, Josiah remonstrated severely. Vin's no different.
"Look, Vin, I ain't gonna jump down your throat or nothin', but I just... I just gotta know something." Chris kept his tone as earnest as possible, but still saw bricks go up in Vin's eyes. A shuttered expression came over the tracker's face, the youthful lines of it going hard and becoming somehow older. A stranger lurked in those eyes, those features, Chris thought uncomfortably.
"Some things ain't for the knowin', Chris," Tanner said softly, not turning away from Chris's gaze. So he'd already anticipated what Chris had come to ask him, Larabee thought dully. Vin was uncanny like that. He forced himself to keep going, to tread carefully.
"I been worried about you, pard," he said honestly; he had been worried about Vin, and deeply so. "Somethin' ain't been right in you since you almost died that night. I don't rightly know what it is, but I feel it."
Almost, almost, those walls came down. "I been fine, Chris. Been doin' what Nathan tells me for the past two weeks - tonight's the first time I've ridden outta town on somethin' other than patrol, an' Nathan said I could." The blank face betrayed nothing, but Chris knew an evasion when he heard it.
"Not what I mean, Vin," Chris said, wanting to continue, but having no idea how.
"Then what do ya mean, Larabee?" demanded Vin harshly, fingers tightening around the stock of his rifle.
Helplessness twisted around Chris's gut, because he himself didn't know what he meant. Again, he sensed that gulf between Vin and everything else, a vast space of nothing that Chris couldn't describe. He took a deep breath and gave it his best shot:
"After I got back from takin' care of Mercury Jones, you know, when I told you I'd brought him back?" Vin's curt nod affirmed that yes, he did remember. "Yeah, right... Well, Josiah came in a little ways after that. Nathan was fussin' at me, and I was pretty tired, but I heard some bits of you two talkin'..."
Stark fury flashed across Vin's face for a second, before it faded away and left exhaustion in its place. Chris ached for his friend, trying to work this out by himself because he felt that he was the only person capable of doing such a thing.
And maybe he was.
"Look, Vin, I'm sorry... Shouldn'tve brought it up," Chris apologized, looking out at the darkening desert rather than at his friend. He felt Vin's eyes on him, though; he turned his gaze back to the younger man, who dropped his own eyes away.
"'S just... there are pieces of me that don't feel right just yet," Vin whispered, rubbing his hand across his chest, right where the bullet had entered. "I'll tell ya when I can, Chris, but I don't know if'n that's ever gonna happen. It might, though." Vin nodded once, as if reaching some final and private decision, and spun around to return to camp, leaving Chris alone.
Chris listened to his friend go, suddenly felt tired. Wondered if maybe he could get Buck or Josiah to take first and second watch so he could get some sleep, because he needed it. Wondered if maybe the friendship he'd built over the past two years wasn't just going to collapse come morning, or if it hadn't already. He took note of the footfalls growing softer, vanishing into the darkness, and wanted to say something to their owner.
A pause in the almost -inaudible footsteps, then:
"It was like flyin', Chris."
+ + + + + + +
J.D. tried not to panic, reminded himself that Ezra was still alive, just not talking. He hoped that maybe it meant he'd gotten past those delusions and would wake up soon, but the deathly -pale skin of Ezra's face, and the slimy coating of old sweat, did nothing for that hope.
He had to get Ezra out of there and comfortable, J.D. decided. It wouldn't help much, he figured, but it would help a little to lie stretched out on a couch for a bit instead of curled up in a clammy little box. Still... was going to be a difficult task. Ezra, for all his "sedentary inclinations" as he'd called them, had a fair bit of muscle on him, and all of that muscle now constituted dead weight, wedged in an extremely awkward position.
The young man's left shoulder took that opportunity to remind him of its presence, sending rebellious pricklings of pain up and down J.D.'s arm and telling him that Standish's right shoulder was injured in much the same way. It also reminded J.D. that, even though it had clotted at both the entry and exit wounds, it was still likely to start bleeding again the second J.D. tried to help his friend out. Quickly, J.D. tore his shirt and, wincing, wrapped it around his shoulder, tucking the end under a fold of cloth.
Fine, then, J.D. decided. He'd pull Ezra up by hooking his right arm under Standish's left armpit - that might work - except Ezra's head faced the sitting room wall, not the rest of the room. J.D.'d have to either turn Ezra around - which could work - or pull him out by the ankles, which would not.
Sighing, J.D. got down into the box again, feeling an unnatural chill creep up his legs. Carefully, he gripped Standish's torso and pulled him away from the left edge of the box, figuring that if he got a little space, he could turn Ezra using his left shoulder instead of his injured right. Once he got a little space, J.D. knelt and grasped Ezra right under his left armpit and pulled.
Miraculously, Ezra came around, head now facing toward the far wall and the kitchen. It gave J.D. precious little room to work, and he had to straddle Ezra to pull him up to a sitting position. Breathing hard, J.D. hoisted the man, briefly giving thanks that it wasn't Josiah he'd gotten stuck with. A few moments of exertion saw Ezra half-in, half-out of the box, so J.D. climbed out and pulled Ezra out the rest of the way.
Exaltation vanished when he realized Ezra hadn't spoken a word during the proceedings, and when he realized he'd had an audience.
Ma Hansen watched him, left hand covering her bleeding and broken nose. Strangely, she had no weapon on her. She merely watched as J.D. straightened warily, and finally said, "Well boy, you've done right well by yourself, I'd imagine. How old are you? Seventeen?"
"Eighteen," J.D. said, standing protectively over Ezra.
"A fine age," Ma Hansen said approvingly, waddling over to plunk herself down on the couch, which groaned under her weight. "I suppose you'll take me in now? For all of that." She waved toward the kitchen, as if J.D. needed clarification.
"I'd rather just kill you," J.D. grated, feeling sick. He glanced at the lamp near Ma Hansen's elbow.
"Why?" he managed to ask.
"Oh, this?" Ma Hansen reached out and touched a lampshade, watching dispassionately as J.D.'s body heaved helplessly in revulsion. "Indians, when they kill a buffalo, they use everythin'. No waste for them, young man. Skin's used for clothes an' tents, bones for tools an' food... Same thing here. No different."
"Those are buffalo!" J.D. rasped.
"An' men are a dime a dozen today," Ma Hansen murmured. "'Least a man who dies when John shoots him... shot him," she amended darkly, "dies a useful death, 'stead of in some gunfight, where he'll just git buried an' left to rot." She saw the horror on J.D.'s face and said severely, as if lecturing a small boy who just couldn't understand, "Oh, we doesn't eat people, young man - we ain't barbarians. The watchdogs here do that for us, but there's all kinds of useful things you can get from a person - soap, candle wax, oil, leather..."
J.D. shook his head in vehement denial of her words, but she continued.
"It's a harsh land, young man," Ma Hansen told him, as if telling him the greatest secret in the world. "For us poor, who can't afford much past flour n' bacon grease, well, we gotta take what we can. Same's true all over the world."
"Do what you like," Ma Hansen said at length, seeing J.D. fail at finding words. "I'm old, ain't got a son to help provide for me no more. Do what you like, but I'm settin' myself right here an' don't aim on movin'."
"If that's what you want," J.D. managed to say, "I'm gonna leave you here an' burn the place. Or you can come with me an' get a fair trial back in Four Corners."
"It is, boy - I'll stay here," Ma Hansen said serenely. "Go on, now."
J.D. edged past Ma Hansen, Ezra's arm draped over his shoulders, watching her as one would watch a rattlesnake. The woman did not move, though; she stared straight ahead, hands folded primly in her lap. Blood dried in some errant strands of her graying hair, and darkened her face. She didn't so much as glance at J.D. as he backed out the door; when he returned after depositing Ezra outside, she still sat on the couch, staring into the distance.
He didn't want Ezra to spend the night out in the cold, so he ransacked the house for blankets and pillows, his skin crawling as he pulled out colorful knitted quilts with the ABC's and little birds stitched on them. When he'd gotten enough to keep Ezra warm and comfortable, J.D. grabbed a small jug of kerosene and splattered its contents over the entire downstairs; the reek of the fuel almost overpowered him, but he kept on until he'd emptied the can and found a book of matches.
In that time, too, she had not moved. He'd heard the rasp of her breathing as she fought against the toxic fumes, but she'd never moved once, not even as he ran out the door to move Ezra back further and get a couple of horses out of the corral, for once he got Ezra far enough away from the house and hobbled the horses nearby, J.D. returned to the house and struck a match, tossed it in the open front door; he could see past the small kitchen and through the door of the sitting room, could see her sitting there, hands still clasped.
The fire began to start in earnest. It caught on the kerosene -soaked edge of a rug that said, in pink-and-purple cursive:
Welcome to our humble home.
The tiny fire licked up the edge of the mat, caught fire on the old oak floor; a thin trail of it spread to another carpet, and another made its way to the kitchen. J.D. ran away as fast as he could, heard the deafening boom of the stove exploding. By the time he got back to Ezra, the fire raged through the house, unfettered by any person's attempt at stopping it. Even from their campsite, a good distance away from the fire and danger, J.D. felt the searing heat of the flames.
He welcomed it, could almost feel the sweat and fear of the past day burning off him; he glanced down and saw Ezra's pale, silent form wrapped in blankets, and couldn't suppress his fear. He should have killed Ma Hansen, he thought, kept Ezra inside for the night. It was too late for such thoughts; the fire licked hungrily at the dry wooden frame of the house, spreading with a vengeance up the door and climbing upward to set the roof ablaze.
A few miles away to the southeast, a lone figure perched atop a stand of rocks saw a bright glow in the distance. It wasn't much, just a pinprick of light against the darkness, but it was light where none should be and so the man pulled a spyglass from his coat pocket. As he put the scope to his eyes, the spark leapt into a small ball of fire, and the man called a warning down to his friends.
In minutes, five men mounted up and galloped toward the bright light; as they drew closer, it resolved into a burning house with two shivering men some distance away from it. One, seeing their arrival, stood and waved desperately, shouting both greetings and pleas for help.
+ + + + + + +
Vin and Chris arrived first, Nathan right on their heels. J.D, pale, shivering, and streaked with soot began to stutter out an incoherent explanation of getting shot in the shoulder, being trapped in a box with Ezra, escaping to find... J.D. fell silent on that topic, shaking his head as if disbelieving his own story.
Nathan knelt down next to Ezra, and sparing a brief glance for J.D., said, "You done good, kid. Just would I would've done - keep him warm and comfortable. I'll look at your shoulder in a minute, okay? Just have to make sure Ezra here's fine."
J.D. smiled thinly and collapsed, watching the rest of the house burn to the ground. The others watched the conflagration with him, silent for they saw J.D. wasn't of a mind to talk - rare for him, but they knew the boy just had to be left alone to work things out for himself.
Chris thought of Vin briefly as he sat next to J.D., wondered at the gift his friend had offered him.
"It was like flyin', Chris."
He turned to J.D. and said, "J.D... when you wanna talk about this, just come to one of us, okay?" J.D. didn't react immediately, and Chris considered repeating himself, but the youth finally turned to him with the ghost of his old, enthusiastic grin.
"I will, Chris," he promised. Chris saw the uncertainty in J.D.'s eyes and didn't press for anything more than that.
Nathan took that moment to straighten from Ezra's prone form, and he turned to speak to Chris; he saw urgent concern in J.D.'s eyes, though, and changed it to a general address. "I think Ez'll be okay; the bullet went clean through his shoulder, but there's just a bit of infection settin' in. Most of his problem is dehydration an' a concussion from fallin' off his horse - we'll take care of gettin' water in to him, but we'll have to take it mighty slow with his head. There's a huge pressure mark on his back an' shoulders, though... don't know how it got there." That last said with a significant glance at J.D., who looked away.
"We were in a box," he whispered, glancing around at the others from under lowered brows. "We were in a box just like a coupla preserve jars. I... I had to lie on top of Ezra to work the latch so we could get out."
"And... I... for one... did not appreciate... such intimacy," croaked a weak voice beside the fire.
"Ez?" J.D struggled to his feet, staggered to his friend's side to collapse beside him, Nathan right behind with water and an admonition to stay calm. "Ez, you okay?" J.D. asked.
"Yes..." Ezra managed to open his eyes enough so that J.D. could see two streaks of pale green regarding him, "Now... that... you've... removed.. yourself from... my abdomen..." With that, Standish moved deeper into the protective warmth of his blankets and fell back asleep.
At length, the fire dwindled down to nothing, having found precious little else on which to feed its fury. Horses and men alike started at the occasional snapping of timbers as roof beams collapsed, cracking like gunshots in the quiet of the desert night. J.D., though, didn't wake up, having fallen into an exhausted sleep next to Ezra. Buck kept watch over his charge, eyes fixed on J.D.'s sleeping face, his hands clasped around a rifle. Nathan, too, kept close to ply Ezra with water every time the gambler showed signs of regaining consciousness. Josiah, Vin, and Chris alternated on general camp watch, and the night spent itself in silence.
Just as dawn first started to realize itself, the men started to get ready. Ezra couldn't ride and they didn't have any materials for a travois, the only wood in the area having been reduced to charcoal, so they strapped the gambler to Josiah's back. J.D. climbed atop his horse, hands shaking on the reins and insisting he was fine. The others shrugged, knowing J.D. would be fine once he got far away from this house and whatever terrors it held for him, then mounted up and rode away from its smoking ruins.
+ + + + + + +
Two weeks later saw Chris and Vin riding patrols outside of town. The gulf had lessened somewhat between the two, and Chris had remained content with it, having decided Vin's unexpected offering that night would do enough to mend any breaches between them.
They'd ridden in their characteristic silence for some time, when Vin turned to Chris and said, "There ain't nothin' like it, you know."
Chris glanced at his friend, trying to read the expression on Tanner's face. "Like what?" he asked.
"Like flyin'," Vin said, as if it was the most obvious thing in the world. "'S weird at first, like cold water after ya dive into it on a hot day, how it's all thin and clear so's you can see straight to the bottom. But then when ya get used to it... No, ya can't get used to it, 'cause every minute there's somethin' new happenin'... Clouds change, the breeze kicks up a little. There ain't nothin' you got that's tyin' ya down or anythin' like that... just you n' the breeze on your face.
"Useta watch the birds with my ma, when I was little," Vin continued, oblivious to Chris's rapt attention. "She'd name them for me, sometimes, if they got close enough for her to tell what kind they was. Always bugged her about wantin' to know if I could fly one day."
"What'd she say?"
"She said that people weren't s'poseta fly, that only angels n' birds could, so's when I dream about flyin'... I gotta make sure to never forget that dream, 'cause there just ain't nothin' like it. Like flyin', I mean," Vin said softly. "That night after I got shot, I don't rightly know if'n it was the real thing or if'n it was a dream, but, Chris... it wasn't just like flyin', I was flyin' - just as free as this osprey my ma once showed me. An' Chris?"
"There ain't anythin' like it."
+ + + + + + +
Two weeks later also saw J.D. and Ezra sitting together outside the sheriff's office as Ezra idly shuffled cards and J.D. looked through WANTED posters. Merciless heat still clung to the town, and Ezra had finally forsaken his green coat as the sun inched closer to noon. The silence that such heat imposed also cloaked the two men, until Ezra turned from his cards and looked directly at J.D.
"Mr. Dunne, if I may be so kind as to ask you something?"
"Besides that, Ez?" J.D. had a feeling he knew what Ezra was going to ask him, and the teasing retort didn't come as lightly as he'd hoped. Ezra, of course, saw the young man's immediate tension and tried to figure out some way to soothe it.
"I will, of course, refrain from inquiries into how, exactly, you managed to effect our escape and against what odds, as I believe that you will tell the rest of us in your own time. However, I must ask... I have some very vivid memories of the time we spent in that box together; unfortunately, they were memories of when I was a boy of around the age of ten or eleven. Would you happen to know anything about them?"
J.D. took a deep and unsteady breath, followed by two more. "Yeah, Ez," he said, wincing as a resigned expression crossed his friend's face. "You... you sounded pretty upset at your mother leavin' you a couple times with a Mr. Wintergreen."
Resignation changed to sadness, and then both vanished behind Ezra's characteristic poker face. "Very well, then. If I may ask something else of you, Mr. Dunne?" J.D. nodded.
"I humbly request that you keep those things to yourself, J.D." Ezra said in a half -whisper. "They are... they are pieces of me that I myself do not particularly wish to remember, let alone anyone else. Will you do that for me? Not tell anyone and perhaps, in time, try to forget them?"
"I sure will, Ez," J.D. promised solemnly; Ezra extended his left hand - his right being in a sling - and the two men shook on it.
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