Disclaimer: The usual. They’re not mine, they’re owned by the boys at MGM, who created them. I do not take credit. Fair Use, okay?
Title: Well, it could be Figure of Speech. It could also be called The Hole. I never was good at titles.
Notes: Another little snippet, in response to Jean’s challenges. This one combines the one I failed at when I wrote Golden Bull (to write a fic with Figure Of Speech in the title, and including the words harass, chiseler and furtive) and her Birthday challenge (Ezra has to spend his birthday on his own, and getting all introspective about the whole thing). Written in a blur, so a little rough about the edges.
Description: Ezra’s down a hole, and he’s a mite bit annoyed. Vin, meanwhile, employs his own lovely brand of subtlety in order to find him.
Figure Of Speech, Take Two
Morning, five miles from Four Corners, somewhere in the hills….
He shook the dust off of his arms, and brushed shaking hands through his hair. That had been one hell of a fall. Gripping a nearby support beam for purchase, he levered himself up so that he was standing, wincing slightly as pain lanced up his right foot. When he was fully upright, he stared up the dark shaft to the top, squinting somewhat at the brightness of the glow from the shaft opening. His right wrist ached as well, and he rotated it slightly as he looked up, mindlessly measuring how much he’d hurt it trying to catch himself on the way down.
He’d fallen twenty feet…or rather, had been pushed down a hole twenty feet deep. Pushed! By those two….
“BASTARDS!” he suddenly screamed. His face darkened as his anger took hold, “Low down, vile, underhanded, malicious, reprehensible scoundrels! Cheap, villainous swine! Reptilian, crooked, foul-smelling, swindlers! Diseased, rank, scurrilous degenerates! Malevolent, pusillanimous, despicable chiselers!” He paused for a breath, chest heaving in anger. “GOD DAMNED SONS OF BITCHES!”
Still panting, he gripped the support beams that fortified this shaft, and shook with all his might, anger overcoming his reason. Dust, dirt and insects rained down from above, instantly stopping him.
What was he doing? Letting go, he backed away from the wooden slats, shaking his head viciously to dislodge the muck that had fallen. Finally, he held his breath, intent to just listen. To see if the two reprobates that had conned him into coming out here to look at this “plentiful copper mine” were still standing above.
“BASTARDS!” he screamed again. Bringing a shaking hand to his mouth, he stared up at the perfectly square hole above his head with amazed green eyes. “Cretinous wastrels….they left me here to die,” he whispered.
Why hadn’t he seen it as a con? Too damned cocky, that’s why. Playing poker with two traveling gentlemen of “means,” he had failed to see them for what they were. He’d cleaned them out, then, when neither had any more cash to offer, the older one had offered the deed to this little mine. One of his “many little holdings” the man had said, a slight smirk on his face. He’d looked wealthy, had smelt wealthy, there was no reason not to believe….
Why hadn’t he seen the deception? Instead, he’d simply accepted it, his mind thinking about all the possibilities a copper mine meant, not caring to look deeper into these men’s faces for their plan to trick him. And trick him they had. Brought him out to a hole in the ground, a hole in the middle of the desert, first thing this morning. Brought him out, convinced him to look down it, then pushed him in.
He never was at his best in the morning. He was tired, groggy…and completely unable to retain his balance. He didn’t even recall hitting the bottom.
Yet here he was. Ezra P. Standish. Brilliant conman, cardsharp extraordinaire, occasional lawman…down a hole in the ground in the middle of nowhere with a sprained wrist, and twisted ankle….
“On my birthday,” he completed his thought out loud, looking down at the black dirt at his feet. The world spun a little, and he had to grab at one of the support beams again to keep his balance. The mine shaft scaffolding creaked a little, and he sighed.
“All right, Ezra, you’ve been in tighter spots than this,” he muttered to himself, looking around the small space he was in, determined to find something he could use. The hole in the ground had, indeed, at one point been a mine. Or rather, the entrance to a mine. Light streaming in from the six foot square hole at the top allowed some light to travel down here, allowing him some ability to see.
Wood scaffolding and support beams stretched up the shaft, all the way to the top, shoring the hole. They could be climbed, so long as the old wood wasn’t too dry and wouldn’t break, and so long as his wrist and ankle were up to it. Otherwise, there was the dark passageway leading away from him in one direction. Musty, cold air blew out at him from the blackness…not tempting.
Pressing his lips together, he drew a match out from the store on his gun belt and lit it, tentatively reaching his hadn’t out into the darkness. His eyes watched the tiny flame, seeing it blown around in various directions. As he pressed a bit further into the darkness, the flame stilled.
No wind. No way out.
Sighing again, he waved the match out.
“I guess I’m climbing,” he said bitterly, looking up again.
Mid-Afternoon, Four Corners
Vin leaned back in his chair, hands tucked casually behind his head, listening to Josiah reading a story outside the Potter’s store to a small gaggle of small children, the oldest not more than four years in age. They all listened intently as the deep sonorous voice of the preacher weaved a tale of genies, magical lamps and evil sorcerers in a land far, far away. One girl giggled as Josiah pretended to speak in the scary tones of the evil sorcerer, earning her an elbow in the ribs from one of her friends. Vin smiled and let his eyes drift around the town.
He became slightly more alert when the two men Ezra had ridden out with this morning returned, big smiles on their faces. The older one was laughing at something the younger one was saying, a fact which puzzled the tracker. When they had left this morning, neither man had seemed happy, while Ezra had had a particularly smug gleam in his eye. But now…
He continued to watch as the strangers dismounted and tied their horses to the railing outside the saloon. The older one patted the younger on the back, and they wandered inside.
Vin looked up the road they’d just come from. No Ezra.
“Josiah,” the tracker said quietly, his tone dark. The old man stopped speaking and looked up, his eyes questioning. Seeing Vin’s expression, he turned back to the children and sighed.
“I’m sorry, my friends, but duty calls,” he said quietly, smiling a little sadly and closing the book he was reading. As one, the children groaned, but nevertheless stood up and let the older man leave.
The preacher sidled up to Vin and raised his eyebrows.
“Two fellas that Ezra rode out with this morning returned, all smiles, and without Ezra,” Vin told him.
“The ones he won that mine off of last night?” Josiah asked, looking towards the saloon with Vin.
“He won a mine, huh?” Vin responded. “No wonder Ez looked so pleased with himself this morning.”
“And now they’re back, and without him…” Josiah repeated, his tone deepening to display an anger the children he’d just been reading to would never hear.
“Should we go have a talk with them about our now missing brother?” Josiah asked, pulling out his knife to glance at its wicked edge. Vin offered him an equally wicked smile.
“I think a subtle parlance might be in order,” the tracker agreed. Josiah grinned at the imitation of their smooth-talking friend and headed in the direction of the saloon.
Mid-Afternoon, still in that hole…
Ezra was halfway up, resting, when he heard the sound. His wrist and ankle were throbbing unmercifully, angry at their continued abuse, and his head wasn’t feeling much better. Then, from above, a gentle snuffling around the edge of the opening caught his attention. He smiled.
“Chaucer?” he called lightly, peering up into the glow.
A light whinny responded, and Ezra leaned into the dirt wall, a thankful smile on his face. They hadn’t taken him. The smile turned to a grimace, however, as the horse got too close to the hole, causing a chunk of dirt to come loose and smack him on the head.
“Chaucer! Back up!” the sputtering man yelled. Confused, the horse tried to get closer, resulting in more loose dirt and rot to come down.
“Get Back! Back!” he yelled…to no avail. Chaucer kept trying to get closer, to understand where the sound of his master’s voice was coming from, and why it was so angry. Ezra risked a glance up, just in time to see the elongated head silhouetted against the sunlight, and then a hoof, as Chaucer screamed and nearly lost his balance. The beautiful stallion backed up hurriedly as the weak ground gave way beneath its hooves, jumping back almost ten feet before feeling itself again on solid ground. His sharp ears heard the cry of his rider as a particularly large chunk of rocky soil fell into the hole…then nothing.
Gingerly, he moved closer again, and whinnied.
Down on the floor of the shaft, Ezra lay in a crumple heap, covered in dirt, mud and bits of wood. Still conscious, he lifted a hand to his face to brush some of it away, eyes blinking rapidly. He heard Chaucer’s whinny and ignored it.
“Oh well,” he mumbled weakly to the air, bravely trying to stay awake as he shifted to lie flat on his back, “looks like I’m spending my birthday alone again this year….” A small laugh escaped from his lips. Not the first time, he thought. Although he had to admit, spending it down in a hole in the ground was new. Over his lifetime, he’d spent his birthday in jail several times, he’d also spent it trapped in the boiler room of a steamer, tied up in the back of the baggage car on a train, on the run more often than he could count, and once…just once…he’d spent it with his mother. Of course, he’d also had several birthdays fabricated for him, as part of cons, so he knew what the day was supposed to be like….
Maybe, someday, he’d have a real party. Just once. Maybe, if he had told the others that today was his birthday, they might’ve thrown him one. Maybe.
Ezra drifted off to sleep, his mind imagining what sorts of gifts his friends might have given him, a smile on his face.
Up above, Chaucer sniffed around the hole, patient as ever.
Ezra’s room above the saloon, Four Corners…
“You boys looking for something?” Vin leaned against the doorframe to Ezra’s room, his arms crossed over his chest. The two men inside stopped their searching instantly, hands hovering over some of the goods they’d found in the gambler’s room. A small pile of jewelry, a pocketwatch, the pearl handled colt Ezra kept under his pillow, and a roll of money lay in a pile on the bed.
Josiah stood behind Vin, a menacing shadow in the hallway leading to the outside. Light glinted off the knife in his hand.
The older man offered a furtive glance to his companion, who responded with a wide-eyed stare. Coughing into his hand, the old man took a breath and tried to smile at Vin. “Um, no, mister. We were just, uh, we were….”
“Well, actually, we were looking for something, sir,” the younger man suddenly piped up. “See, we, uh, we gave something to the man who owns this room last night, and, uh, we were trying to get it back. Family heirloom, you know? And, well, this fella, he said he’d keep it safe for us until we left today. Well, we’re leaving and we can’t find the fella, so, um, we figured we could come and get it ourselves.”
“S’truth,” the older man confirmed. Vin tried not to roll his eyes.
“And he told you, you could just search his room like this?” the tracker asked, dropping his arms to the side.
“Sure, of course. We wouldn’t be up here otherwise, would we Pa.”
“No son, we most certainly would not,” the old man said solemnly.
“Well, then I guess maybe my friend and I will help you search,” Vin smiled. “And maybe we’ll get some other friends of ours to help. Josiah?”
“Already sent word for the others, brother Vin.”
Vin smiled at the two men, and undid the strap holding his Winchester to his leg. Slowly, he loosed it from the holster and balanced it on his arms. “So, what is it you’re looking for again?” he asked. The younger one licked his lips, eyes shifting about nervously.
“A…uh…look, we really don’t need any help. We can find it on our own. Besides, when the fella who owns this room comes back, he can tell you all about it. Okay?”
“Oh yes…the fella. And where did you say he was again?”
The old man swallowed, “who?”
“The fella who owns this room.”
“Oh, I’m sure he’s about. You know, he’s a gambler type. Probably out gaming somewhere,” the old man said. His son nodded.
“Somehow, I don’t think so,” Vin’s expression darkened, and he raised the sawed-off shotgun in the direction of the men. “Now, where is he?”
“Mister…this ain’t any of your concern,” the younger one tried. “I mean, I don’t see no badge on there, and…”
“And we don’t take nicely to being treated this way,” his father finished. “We’re simple folk just trying to find our things and leave. You have no right to harass us like this.”
“The fella who owns this room is my friend, old man. That’s all the right I need. But if you want more, I think you’ll find that my rifle here ups my authority quite a bit.”
The old man’s eyes narrowed, and he licked his lips. “Look mister, there ain’t no call for this. The man who owns this room…no offense, but I can’t imagine he’s your friend. He’s a gambler, not a dirt cowboy like you. Are you sure you got the right room here?”
The corners of Vin’s mouth twitched, and he tilted his head to the side. Footsteps in the hallways behind indicated that backup had arrived.
“Well, Josiah? What do you say? Do we have the right room?” He stepped into the small space, gun still raised. Behind him, Josiah picked at his nails with his knife and came in after him.
“Oh, I’m pretty sure. What do you think Buck?”
“Oh, I’m pretty sure this is Ezra’s room, Josiah. Had it for a while now, hasn’t he, JD?” The tall gunslinger grinned as he followed the preacher inside, coming as if from nowhere, his own gun cocked and raised. JD rested to hands on the colts at his hips and pretended to look around as he stood in the doorway.
“Yup. Almost a year. Done some nice things with it, too. Nathan, don’t you think Ezra’s room is nice?”
The healer pursed his lips as JD stepped aside for the taller man to enter. Space was getting to a minimum at this point, crowding the two strangers to one side.
“It’s okay. Kind of prefer a little less color though,” the healer rejoined.
“Oh, I like the color,” Chris deadpanned as he brought up the rear, colts up and ready. “Livens up the place. But I’d rather see the man who put it here.” He looked directly at the old man who was now physically cowering in the corner by the window. “So…you want to tell us where he is?”
“You…You’re all his friends?” the younger man asked, his eyes wide staring at Vin.
The tracker nodded.
“I thought you said he hadn’t any friends, son,” the old man hissed to his boy, his voice heavy in accusation. One of the rules of the game, never cheat a man with friends. “I thought you said he was a loner,” the old man continued. The younger man shook his head, still watching Vin.
“You sure you’re the gambler’s friends? I mean…the one in the red coat? With the green eyes? Him?”
“What exactly is so hard to understand about this, kid?” Buck demanded, getting a little tired of this game.
“But he said…he said it was his birthday today and…and that he normally spent it alone, but that this year, he might have a party to celebrate because of…the mine, see…but that probably no one would come and…so I just assumed…” the younger man faltered, and looked over at his father with a downcast expression. “Aw hell, I’m sorry Pa. He sounded like a loner to me.”
In the background, JD cast a confused look at Josiah, but the preacher just shrugged. He hadn’t known it was Ezra’s birthday either. The others kept their dark expressions, not wanting to show their surprise at the revelation. Indeed, if anything, they became even more menacing.
Seeing this, the old man grimaced, his eyes on Chris Larabee, picking him out as the leader. “We tell you where he is, you let me and the boy go?”
“No,” Chris replied. “But if you tell us where he is, we may not kill you.”
“Much,” Vin added.
Night, still in the hole…
Ezra awoke with a start, and cursed at the sight of stars overhead.
“Alright, that’s it. No more mines. That’s it. Next time I hear the word mine, I will politely turn my head away and say, ‘no thank you.’”
Silence accompanied this statement, and Ezra pursed his lips. His eyes narrowed.
“Of course, if the mine is guaranteed, that would be different. But, it must be bank certified. And recently certified. Titles over six months old will not do.”
He paused again, licking his lips, eyes measuring the visible constellations. In the distance, something cooed.
“Then again, I could be missing out an a tremendous opportunity if I insist on certification. And banks are not always the most reliable of….Oh hell, what am I going on about? I’m stuck down a hole. On my birthday. A big hole, admittedly, but still a hole. And I’m talking to myself.” He grinned suddenly, and shook his head as he heaved a mighty sigh. “Next thing I know, I’m going to start seeing crows.”
With an aching slowness, he got himself back onto his feet, body protesting every inch of the way. By some incredible piece of luck, he still didn’t appear to have broken anything. Bruised, sprained and battered, yes, but not broken. He leaned against the side of the square hole and pretended not to care that he knew things were crawling around in there.
“Next year,” he muttered, “next year will be different. Next year, I will have a party. There will be confections, streamers, music and dancing. Everyone will come, and life will be wonderful. I will not be drowning, hurt, maimed or otherwise unhappy in any way.”
He looked down at his feet, barely visible black blobs at the ends of where his legs were. The right one seemed to be aching even more now that the cold had descended. Without noticing, he’d been rubbing his sprained wrist as well, trying to work out the pain.
“Truth be told….I say that every year,” he told the empty darkness of the mine. His tone was quiet, defeated. Then he switched his gaze upwards, once again to look at the stars. His green eyes shone in the white light, and he bit his lip.
“But, things…are different now, aren’t they?” He asked the sky this question, and the stars twinkled in reply.
He had friends now. A home. His heart warmed slightly as he realized just how long he had been living in Four Corners. He’d never stayed anywhere this long before, not unless it was part of a con or because he was too little to leave on his own. But he had settled in Four Corners, really settled. His mind drifted over images of laughing with Buck and Vin, of battling wits with Chris, of arguing with Nathan. He thought of Josiah standing next to him, silent, watchful and ever-present. And then there was JD. The boy’s hazel eyes wide and curious, listening and nodding, teaching Ezra what it was like to believe in something. And Ezra had started to believe in that something too.
“I could have a party. It’s not impossible. It could happen.” The stars laughed, and his expression darkened in anger.
“It COULD happen!” he yelled up at them. The stars laughed harder.
“And they will come to find me,” he added. “This I know.”
“Talking to yourself Ezra?” a loud voice suddenly called. The gambler nearly jumped out of his skin. Then he did what came natural – he whooped. He would have jumped if he could have moved without causing himself more pain.
“VIN! You wonderful, brilliant man, you!” he yelled back, his face threatening to split into two with the width of his grin. “What took you so long, you reprobate!”
“Cheeky bastard, ain’t he?” Vin asked someone. “Maybe we should leave you down there until you learn some manners!”
“I will if you will!” Ezra retorted, still grinning madly. He couldn’t remember being so happy to see anyone in his life!
“If Vin had any manners, Ezra, you’d still be down there!” Buck called. “Shoulda seen the way he talked to them two boys that threw you down there. Subtle as a three day old corpse!”
“You hurt down there?” Nathan interrupted, peering over the edge. Ezra squinted up at the silhouette.
“Got some nasty bruises, and I twisted a few things, but I’ll not complain if you get me out of here!”
Nathan laughed, “Promise?”
“On my honor as a gentleman!”
“That means no, Nathan,” Vin laughed.
“Hey!” Ezra retorted.
“Oh, sorry Ez, you were serious? I thought that was just one of your figures of speech!”
“Get me out of here, and I may not have to kill you for that remark.”
“That sounded like a figure of speech to me, Vin. Perhaps you should leave him down there.”
“BUCK! Don’t even joke! GET ME THE HELL OUT OF HERE!”
“Shame. I kind of like him down there,” Buck sighed. JD’s giggle drifted down, and Ezra wished he could see them so he could glare properly.
“We’ll send a harness down, okay? The ground is soft up here, so it might be slow going,” Vin joined Nathan in peering into the hole. Ezra waved, not that Vin could see him. Both men disappeared and, after a moment, a rope with a knotted harness in it came tumbling down.
“So how old are you?” JD asked, watching as Ezra rather unsuccessfully tried to placate an annoyed Chaucer. The horse was still angry at being yelled at.
The gambler stiffened slightly, and turned to look at JD, dropping his hands from Chaucer’s neck to rub at his now wrapped wrist. The horse snorted in disgust and trotted away to join the other horses.
“How…old? Why do you ask?”
“Because it’s your birthday, right?” the question was so innocently asked, that Ezra almost answered. Then his eyes narrowed.
“What time is it?”
Buck, who was leaning against a nearby tree, popped open his pocket-watch and tilted it into the firelight. “Just after midnight, Ez.” Over next to him, Nathan and Vin and the others were watching Ezra unashamedly, waiting.
Ezra flashed a quick grin and looked at the ground. “I’m afraid it is no longer my birthday, Mr. Dunne.”
JD frowned, “So?”
“So…I am not going to answer your question.”
JD frowned even more deeply. “Why not? What does it matter if…”
“Because…I want to tell you next year,” Ezra replied, looking back up to stare at JD and the others with eyes almost as pure and clear as the boy’s. “At my party.”
JD looked back, then, slowly, he smiled. “Promise?” Then, more slyly, “On the grave of your sainted mother?”
Ezra simply laughed.