What's Really Real
Disclaimer: Not mine. No money made.
Parts: Two (19-20 pages, Times New Roman, 12 pt., normal margins)
Notes: Response to Twyla Jane's challenge to write a story where Nathan is a main character (not as healer) and includes this line: " A seed of doubt, once planted, sown deep had begun to grow and crack the very foundation that united them."
Description: What if Ezra's luck really did turn, and he won? A lot? Includes Nathan, Ezra and a touch of JD.
"What do you think?" Nathan asked, leaning over the pommel slightly as he looked over the town. They were on their way back from Yuma, and had stopped in this town on a recommendation from one of the Marshals they'd met there.
"Very promising," Ezra replied with a smile. Like a cat bearing in on a scent, he turned towards one of the largest structures in town and grinned.
"One track mind," JD sighed, rolling his eyes to the heavens. Vin smiled and shrugged.
"We each have our hangs-up, JD," he said. "Ezra's is just a mite more obvious than most."
"I'll take that as a compliment, Mr. Tanner," the gambler replied, pulling on his reins to send Chaucer in the right direction. The horse needed no urging, recognizing the sight and smell of a casino bar as easily as his rider.
"Thought you might," the tracker replied, following. Nathan sighed and did the same, while JD brought up the rear.
In moments, they were pushing in through the solid doors, and stopped short before they rammed into Ezra. The gambler was staring around in wonder, as if he'd found Mecca in the desert when he wasn't looking. Nathan was the one to roll his eyes this time.
"Nice place," Vin said lazily, already looking for the bar. He patted Ezra on the shoulder and walked past, taking JD with him.
"Nice?" Ezra shook his head and looked at Nathan. "Mr. Tanner jests, Mr. Jackson. This is more than nice. It's a palace. A diamond in the rough, as they say."
Nathan harrumphed and tried to see what Ezra saw. Sure, it was an okay place. It was clean, and everything looked in good order. There was a roulette table off to one side, with an attractive woman who would give Maude Standish a run for her money happily calling out the bets. The craps table had a jovial gentleman in a handsome suit watching over it. The two men behind the bar seemed efficient and even seemed to be smiling at their customers. And there was a tall, white haired man in a cream colored suit walking around with a cane keeping an eye on the card tables. He seemed to have permanent laughter lines etched around his eyes.
The healer had to admit, it was not your usual saloon.
Ezra was mesmerized. He stepped forward slowly, walking casually over to the roulette table and leaning back slightly as he walked. Nathan realized he was looking under the table.
"No magnets or strings, from what I can see," the southerner whispered. Nathan just nodded and watched as Ezra reached into his pocket for his billfold. As he did so, the woman running the table looked over at him and smiled.
"Hello, gentlemen," she said, a hint of southern in her own tone. "Welcome to the Grateful Rest. Would you like to place a bet?"
Nathan just shook his head as Ezra pulled out a five dollar bill.
"On the seven, madam," he told her, placing the money down. She smiled and looked around to make sure everyone else had bet. Then she spun the wheel.
As it stopped, he smile faltered for a moment, then she looked up at Ezra and nodded.
"Seven. It appears we have a winner, Mister...."
"Standish," Ezra replied, smiling even more broadly as she pushed a couple of hundred dollars of chips his way. He reached for a ten dollar chip and handed it to Nathan.
"Buy everyone a round, Nathan, I have a feeling this is going to be a good night."
The healer looked at the chip he was handed, then shrugged. Without another glance at Ezra, he went to join Vin and JD at the bar. Vin stood up from his customary slouch and asked Nathan a question with his eyes.
"He's winning," Nathan replied, placing the chip down in front of the bartended. "I don't know for how long, but at least we'll get a drink out of it." The bartender placed three large mugs on the bar and started to fill them.
"Well, so long as he doesn't lose the money for the rooms and something to eat in the morning, I think we'll be fine," Vin replied, taking one of the mugs. JD, however, was watching Ezra with a strange expression.
"I wonder what would happen if he just continued to win," the boy asked quietly. Neither of the other men replied.
But Ezra did win. Steadily, he built up several thousand dollars over the course of the evening, alternating between tables. He only used the roulette table that once, then moved on to games requiring more skill and less luck. That was, until the very end of the evening, when, placing one hundred dollars down on the seven, he decided to see if lightning struck twice.
Vin, Nathan and JD had long since gone to sleep when Ezra walked into the manager's office to collect his winnings, so they weren't there to see the gambler's face darken at the knowledge that the owner, a Mr. Jeremiah Johansson, didn't have the cash to cover it. Nor were they there an hour later to see the handshake as Ezra became a partner in the Grateful Rest casino, "until such time as the debt is repaid."
It wasn't until the next morning that they learned he wouldn't be returning with them to Four Corners.
"What?" JD blinked several times, his puzzlement clear. "Just like that? You're not coming home?"
"Now, now, Mr. Dunne, this is not necessarily a permanent placement. There is every possibility that I may return someday. Although, come to think of it, I never really considered my position in Four Corners to be permanent either. But, of course, you knew that, didn't you?"
"Knew that? Knew what?"
"That I would leave someday. Indeed, that all of us, barring you and possibly Mr. Jackson here, would leave someday. Once the town got its feet under it, we wouldn't be needed anymore." Ezra shrugged once, and JD frowned.
"I don't think that has happened yet. I don't think you have to leave."
"Have to? Mr. Dunne, I don't have to do anything. I am leaving because I wish to. Besides, I don't think you need me anymore. Not really." He smiled slightly as JD shook his head fiercely.
JD was interrupted when Nathan cleared his throat. The healer could see that the argument was going nowhere. Instead, Nathan tried a different tack as JD turned away to sulk.
"Ezra, are you sure?" the healer looked over at the casino, "I mean, this place.... You were right about it being nicer than most, which makes me wonder how long it can last out here. Maybe...."
Ezra shook his head, "From what I have seen, Nathan, the sheriff of this town has it pretty well secured. He is fast with a gun and has a handful of strong deputies, and I have been told that he is also honest. That's the reason this casino has survived in the state it is in, and the reason why this town is such a pleasant place to stop. Besides, there is a matter of some debt. Mr. Johansson still owes me a considerable amount of money, and I intend to stay until it is paid out."
"Ezra, you can't," JD came back into the conversation with a bang. "You can't just not come home. What would Chris say? And Josiah? And Buck? We were only meant to be transporting those prisoners to Yuma. A quick job, there and back. What are we supposed to tell them when we get home?"
"We tell him that Ezra finally found his dream," Vin said. "They'll understand, JD." The tracker's face was stony, but it wasn't judgmental. If anything, it had a touch of wistfulness about it. Ezra saw that and nodded.
"Thank you, Mr. Tanner. It has been a pleasure." Holding out his hand, Vin looked at in, then shook it solemnly.
"Be careful, Ez. You got folks that'll worry about you now, so try to keep in touch, all right?"
Ezra smiled, nodded and took his hand back. Next he held it out to JD, who shook his head.
"Come, Mr. Dunne. I shook your hand once, a long time ago, in welcome. The least you can do is shake mine now, in farewell."
JD closed his eyes, sniffed, and took the hand. "It's not right, Ezra. You should at least come home and say goodbye to everyone. What about Inez? I always thought you and she...."
"Inez...knows what I am, JD. She always has. She'll understand."
JD squeezed his hand hard and shook his head, "If you say so, Ezra. If you say so."
Ezra nodded and then reached out to Nathan. The healer kept his arms crossed.
"I think JD's right. I think you should come home and say a proper goodbye."
Ezra gave a crooked smile and sighed, "I'll miss you too, Nathan."
The healer's brow crinkled, then he turned and walked swiftly away towards where they had their horses tethered. Smiling slightly, Vin tipped his hat at Ezra and moved to follow. JD stared up at Ezra for a moment longer.
"Thank you, JD."
The kid's brows knitted, "For what?"
"For letting me ride with you. It was an honor."
JD watched Ezra's face, looking for the joke. When he didn't find it, he sighed and closed his eyes again.
"Good luck, Ezra. And I still think you're wrong about us; we still need you," and without another word, he turned to join Vin and Nathan.
Ezra leaned on the boardwalk post for a long time, watching as they rode out, watching as they became no more than a dust cloud on the horizon, watching until the ground had settled and the landscape was empty again.
Then he turned to back to his new home.
A month later, JD was knocking on Nathan's door, banging hard and loud. When the healer opened it, he found JD had backed away from the door to pace up and down on the balcony's planks, making enough noise to scare the horses down below.
"What? What's wrong?" he asked as JD shoved past him and into the clinic.
"Everything, everything. Haven't you seen it? Ever since Ezra left.... I've been watching them, Nathan. They're all doing it except you and me."
"Who? And doing what, exactly?" the healer replied.
"Well, Vin, for one. He keeps staring off east every time I look at him, as if he were going to jump up and head back that way at any moment. And Buck. He's been tapping his fingers and fidgeting all over the place, like he can't find a place to sit comfortably anymore. Cherise told me he doesn't come by her place no more either. And Josiah? When was the last time you saw him working on the church, huh? And Chris? He's been drinking more, Nathan. Lots more. I think he's in the saloon more than the jail now. I'm the only one who looks after any prisoners we get these days. No one else...." he looked up at Nathan, "No one else seems to care. Not even...not even you, Nathan." He swallowed thickly and sat down heavily on the bed. Nathan watched him for a moment, and then joined him. He stared down at his hands as he answered.
"I know, JD. I've felt it to."
"You really think they're going to leave? This town still needs us, Nathan. Just because it's been quiet lately doesn't mean that all the bad things have gone away. If the others leave, who's gonna.... Who'll protect...?" He shook his head. "I can't do it by myself, Nathan. Maybe once, before we got our reputation. Now half the guys who come here are looking for a fight. The town's not ready to stand up on their own with just me here." He put his head in his hands.
Nathan stood up and walked to the window, looking north in the direction of Willoughby, home of the Grateful Rest Casino.
"It's Ezra's fault, JD. He made us question the idea of staying together until the end, until that time when some sort of permanent law and order would reach us here. It reminded the others that they were once all drifters, with other plans and ideas and dreams. It reminded them that they never really meant to stay here this long. They doubt whether they're needed anymore." Nathan sighed and leaned on the windowsill.
Someone cleared their throat by the door, and soft clear tones rang through the small wooden room.
"And 'a seed of doubt once planted, sown deep, had begun to grow and crack the very foundation that united them.'"
Nathan and JD looked up, both startled, and stared at the door to the clinic. Judge Travis leaned on the frame, his arms crossed over his chest. He was frowning deeply and watching them.
"I read that somewhere," the older man said. "I can't remember where exactly, but it seemed appropriate."
JD was on his feet quickly, "Judge Travis! I didn't know you were coming through here today."
"Neither did I, my boy," the judge replied. "I just came to visit my grandson. But I saw you coming this way, and remembered that I wished to see Nathan about a sore tooth. When I got up to the balcony, I'm afraid I overheard some of your conversation. I admit I was not aware that the wanderlust had gripped you boys, though I always suspected it would happen someday. I had hoped it would not be so soon."
"It's Ezra's fault," Nathan said sullenly, sinking into a chair. The judge smiled.
"So it would seem. How is he doing?"
Nathan snorted, "Grand, by all accounts. His last message was so filled with his tales of how wonderful he is doing that it practically dripped of sugar."
"Judge," JD took a step towards him, "the town isn't ready for us to leave yet. It's too soon. They're still only getting their feet, and both James and Royal are out there just counting the days. We can't leave now!"
The judge listened to the mini tirade with a smile, then nodded. "I'm afraid I agree, Mr. Dunne. And I also agree with Mr. Jackson. It is Ezra's leaving that precipitated this on behalf of the others. But, short of his new home burning down, I'm not sure there is anything we can do about it."
"Nothing?" JD looked at Nathan, who was back to staring out of the window.
"I'm sorry, son. And I'm sorry to you as well, Nathan."
The healer shrugged. "So what if the others leave? There will still be bones to knit and cuts to mend," he said, trying to seem casual.
"And people who will try to lynch you when things go wrong," JD spat back. "Don't pretend Nathan. You're more than a healer, and you know it. You don't want it to go back to the way it was anymore than I do."
Nathan closed his eyes, letting the truth of those words sink in. He knew them too well, had heard them ring inside his mind many times. Right now he was both respected and revered in this town. Very few men like him ever got to know what that was like. He'd hoped to be someone who would continue to show people that black men could be as great and as smart as any white man. But if the others left, how long before he and JD came up against a foe greater than just the two of them? And if JD left, to follow one of the others....
But it was a selfish argument. He had no right to command the others to do anything. No right at all.
Damn gambling southern son of a bitch.
"Nathan?" JD was getting impatient.
"The judge is right, JD. There is nothing we can do. They want to leave, they can."
JD stared at Nathan's back, then looked back at the judge. Finally, looking even angrier than before, he pushed past them and went back outside. They listened as he ran down the stairs to the ground below.
The judge sighed, "Oh dear."
"Yeah," Nathan went back to leaning on the windowsill and looking out the window.
"Um...about this tooth of mine...." The judge tried to smile as Nathan looked back at him over his shoulder.
Ezra looked up from the desk where he had been counting the day's take. Mr. Johansson had been less than forthcoming about the books, and so the gambler had taken it on himself to separate his part from the rest. One more day and he'd be paid in full. The thought made his fingers itch. The young twelve year old boy in front of him interrupted his musings on the subject.
"I was wondering if you'd thought about what Miss Pepper had to say? About buying this place outright? I mean, I heard wind that Mr. J is thinking of getting out, going back home to Germany, an' I hate to think of anyone else running this place, 'ceptin you."
Ezra smiled, thinking that the boy had pretty good timing.
"You really think I could run this place, Kezzie?"
"Yes sir. It'd be real nice. And I know Miss Pepper...well, I know that she thinks the world of you. I seen you taking her out and stuff, so I'm guessing you like her too. So, I was just hoping...." He paused, shifted his weight, and licked his lips. "And, I...well, I was thinking maybe you'd be interested in keeping me on as well. Miss Pepper, she...."
Ezra held up a hand, "I think I get the idea, Kezzie. But, in the end, I think it is up to Mr. Johansson. He has to deal the first card. After that, we'll see."
Kezzie screwed up his face, clearly not liking this answer. "Yeah, but, couldn't you at least ante or something?"
Ezra's eyebrows shot up, and he started to laugh. "Kezzie, you're really much too smart for your own good. An ante, huh? All right, I'll think about it. But listen, no matter what happens, I'll make sure you and Miss Pepper and everyone else involved in this place is taken care of, okay?"
The boy shrugged, "I guess."
Ezra nodded, and a hint of gold tooth flashed, "Good. Now get out of here. You broke my concentration, and when I'm counting money, that is never a good thing."
The boy looked at the cash, "Yeah, well, Miss Pepper thinks you think about money too much. She says its not good for someone to be so in love with something that's not really real."
"Not really real, eh?" Ezra looked down at the money in front of him. "Perhaps Miss Pepper doesn't know how 'really real' money is because she has never had to live without it, Kezzie." He looked askance at the boy, then gently picked up the first pile of bills, as if he were going to count them again.
"Yeah, well, Miss Pepper says the only thing that's really real is your home. Being with family. Money ain't important when you got family."
Ezra held the money in his hand, "Kezzie, the only real family I have would disagree strongly, believe me."
"Yeah, I heard 'bout your mother, Mr. Standish, and she don't sound like no real family to me," Kezzie said. "And Miss Pepper, she says she thinks your mother ain't...."
"Kezzie," Ezra looked the boy straight in the eye, "I sincerely thank you and Miss Pepper for your opinions, but I do need to get back to this."
Kezzie sniffed, shook his head, then turned and wandered back out of the office.
Ezra stared at the bills in his hand for a while, thinking about the last time he had this much cash just sitting in front of him. Some of the same pain he'd felt in his chest that last time flared anew, and he put the money down. He didn't have to steal it this time, didn't have to tuck it inside the lining of his coat and run from town. He'd actually earned it. All of it.
It was his.
"Really real," he whispered, snorting slightly and closing his eyes. "What an ugly combination of words."
His hand found the money again, and he slowly crushed it inside a fist.
It was Vin who saw her coming first. He'd been rolling up his bedroll in the wagon. At least, that's what he had told himself he was doing. Truth be told, he had been packing, but he wasn't quite ready to admit it yet.
The surrey rolled in quickly, the woman driving it pulling hard on the reins to stop it. When she saw him, she jumped off the wagon and ran to grab his arm. Sweat poured off her face, and he could see that she'd been riding hard.
"Twenty of them, at least twenty. They're burning it down! Please! You have to help!"
Vin shook off her arm and asked her to calm down, and called out for Chris with the same breath. The urgency in his voice brought the others, acting as one like a well-oiled machine, even if one part was missing.
"Now, who's burning what, ma'am?" he asked slowly.
"My farm! And the Nickersons' farm too! I don't know who the outlaws are. They just come ridin' in and demanded we leave. When my husband said no, they just laughed. One of 'em knocked him down, while the others started setting fire to the house! Just like that! No warning! And the Nickersons too! I just had enough time to get around back to the surrey and set out this way. They've got my husband and the Nickersons! Please! You've got to help!"
By the time she'd finished explaining, she was out of breath. Meanwhile, the others had gotten their horses from the stables. Buck swung up on Gray's back and patted him on the side, then handed Solon's reins to Chris.
"Don't worry, ma'am," Buck promised, leaning over to look down at her, "We'll get them."
She nodded, wiping a hand across her brow, and watched as JD, Josiah and Chris jumped up into the saddle. Chris stopped Nathan and Vin with a hand as they moved to mount as well.
"You two stay here, watch the town. We'll come back and get you if needed. If you haven't heard anything in a few hours, get reinforcements."
Vin nodded, letting go of Peso's reins, and Nathan handed his horse's reins to Yosemite, who had been hovering in the background.
"We'll be waiting," the healer promised. Chris gave him a nod, then rode out, JD, Buck and Josiah tight on his tail.
In the background, the woman moved to stand by her surrey, leaning on it slightly. Her eyes narrowed as she watched the men leave and a slow smile crossed her face.
Nathan jogged to the telegraph office, his intention to get in touch with Fort Defiance in case they needed help. Unfortunately, the fort was more than a day's ride at best, but he hoped they might have some troops on maneuvers in the area. He was also going to write the judge.
Vin walked over to stand in front of the jail, checking his rifle. The woman walked slowly behind the tracker, following him and looking nervous. At one point, he turned to look back at her and smiled. She kept her eyes down, one hand on her brow to hide her face. She looked a bit unsteady.
"Maybe Nathan should look at you," he said kindly.
"No, no, I'm all right," she said, walking up next to him. "It's just so hot. That ride...." She swayed slightly on her feet. Vin let go the rifle with one hand to get grab an arm. She leaned on him slightly.
"Let's get you inside," he said, leading her into the jail. He never saw her pull the gun hidden in her bodice, balancing the butt of the weapon in her hand so that she could knock him out the minute he turned away from her.
Outside the jail, no one noticed the quiet sound of his body hitting the floor with a thump.
When the woman walked out again a moment later, she walked casually in the direction of the bank. Looking up, she nodded at someone leaning against a post nearby. The man tipped his hat and headed into the bank.
Nathan thanked the telegraph operator and walked back outside. Looking around, he tried to spot Vin and was surprised not to see him by the jail. He did, however, see the woman walking towards the bank on the other side.
"Hey!" he called after her, and was surprised when she didn't turn around to acknowledge him. Frowning, he crossed the street after her, glancing around only cursorily for traffic. He jumped back as he was almost hit by two people riding too quickly through town. When he looked again, the woman was gone.
Frowning even more now, he looked again in the direction of the jail for Vin. Making a quick decision, he started jogging in the direction of the jail.
As he reached it, he pushed through the double doors, his mouth opening to call for Vin.
The guns changed his mind.
Throwing up his hands, he focused on the faces of two men, both pointing their guns directly at him.
"How did you get in here," he demanded as they motioned him to come further inside.
"You seven are easily distracted," one of them answered. "All it took was one woman."
Nathan grimaced, "It was a trick?"
"Yep. Now, if you wouldn't mind joining your friend in the cell over there, we have your bank to rob." The villain smiled pleasantly. Nathan continued to frown, noticing that Vin had been knocked out and was lying on his side in the first cell.
"Is he dead?" he asked, moving slowly.
"Nope. Not yet. She doesn't like us to kill people unless we have to. Consider yourself lucky."
"Tessa MacCleary," he smiled again.
Nathan's eye narrowed, "If you're not going to kill me, why tell me her name?"
"Isn't it obvious?" the other man spoke this time. "We're going to be famous!"
"Knocking over the bank of Four Corners is near nigh impossible, so we've been told," the first man agreed. "What a joke." He shook his head. Nathan fought the urge to smack the man upside the head.
"You realize we'll come after you."
"Oh sure, but we'll be way far away by then. See, Mizz Tessa, she looked up the name of one the furthest flung families in your purview, the Nickersons, and we know they're at least a couple hours ride from here. By the time your friends come back, we'll be long gone."
"What if someone lets me and my friend out here first," Nathan asked.
"Oh, I don't think either of you will be awake when the town comes to get you boys. Plus, we're gonna have the keys."
Nathan frowned, watching as the first man twirled the keys around his finger.
"Now turn around," the second man said, raising his gun. "We'll try not to make this hurt too much."
"One more thing," the first man said as Nathan turned, "we were under the impression there were seven of you. Where is the seventh?"
Nathan shut his eyes, "Away."
Nathan didn't answer.
"What?" the second bandit chuckled, prodding Nathan in the back, "don't you know?"
Nathan just looked up, trying to stifle his swirling emotions.
"Well, whatever. So long as he's not here now," the first outlaw said, turning his gun around in his hand. The other outlaw tucked his gun in his belt and crossed his arms, smiling.
"Say goodnight, boy," the first outlaw hissed, raising the weapon up.
"Goodnight!" a new voice laughed, cracking a rifle across the back of the first man's head. The outlaw fell like a sack of potatoes, his eyes even rolling up inside his head for effect. Caught completely off guard, the second man twisted, trying to reach for his gun, but Ezra was too fast. Whipping the rifle around, the gambler pulled back on the hammer and grinned, sunlight glinting off his tooth.
"Oh, I don't think that's a good idea, do you?" he asked, eyes narrowed in amusement. The second man snorted but held his arms away from the gun in his belt.
Nathan had turned, his mouth open in surprise. "Ez?"
Ezra risked a glance in the healer's direction, the grin still on his face. "Heya Nathan. How's tricks?"
"How's tricks?" the healer repeated. "How's TRICKS? You son of a...."
"Now, now, I think my mother might take some offense to that, Mr. Jackson," the gambler admonished. "And besides, we have a guest." To make his point, he butted the rifle's barrel into the outlaw's sternum. The outlaw grunted.
"Oh...right," Nathan pulled the man's gun from his holster, turned it around, and whacked him on the back of the head. Just like his partner, the second outlaw fell as flat as one of JD's jokes. Neither man was going to get up anytime soon.
"Ah," Ezra lowered the rifle, looking down at the two outlaws, "perfect. Thank you, Nathan."
Nathan shook his head, still not believing it. "This mean you're back?"
"Of course, and just in time too, from the looks of it. So, did you miss me?" Ezra's expression was guileless.
The healer stepped over the men on the ground and faced Ezra, staring directly down on the man's black hat. Feeling the scrutiny, Ezra lifted his head, eyes wide and innocent.
"What?" he asked.
Abruptly, Nathan brought his hands up and shoved Ezra against the wall. The gambler staggered, nearly losing his grip on the rifle. He did lose his hat. His face registered his shock; this was not exactly the welcome he expected.
"Don't you ever, EVER, do that again. Understand?" Nathan yelled, poking a finger into Ezra's chest.
Ezra mouth fell open, "Excuse me? I just saved your life!"
"Not that, you idiot! Do you have any idea the hell you've put us through? Do you?"
"You thought you could just leave, didn't you! Just thought you could take off, not saying goodbye to anyone, right? You son of a bitch!"
Ezra really was flabbergasted. "Nathan, I don't...."
"Selfish! That's what you are! Totally and completely self-absorbed! Why, I almost wanted to go and burn down that damned Grateful Rest just to teach you a damn lesson! Who the hell do you think you are? And what, now you think you can just come back here? Take down a couple of outlaws and all is forgiven? Is that right?"
"A couple? But, from what I overheard, there are others in the...."
"Don't change the subject!"
"I don't UNDERSTAND the subject!" Ezra roared back, his brow knitting in anger. "Someone is robbing the bank! Don't you think we should do something about that? Then you can yell at me some more later."
Nathan opened his mouth to argue, then blinked. Part of Ezra's statement actually made it through. He closed his eyes and covered them with a hand.
"Oh hell. The bank."
"Yes, the bank."
Nathan shook his head as if to clear it. "Um...there are probably at least two people in there. Maybe more."
"Well, then, I suggest we come up with a plan. I don't think Mr. Tanner is going to be able to help us for a while." Ezra looked across at the tracker in his cell. Nathan followed his gaze.
"Oh Damn. I forgot about Vin. Where are the keys?"
"In that one's hand," Ezra said, pointing downwards. "Look, I do have one idea. Here," putting the rifle down, he reached into his jacket pocket and pulled out a red leather cigar canister. "What does that look like to you?"
Nathan fiddled with the keys, looking for the right one. Looking up, he glanced at the canister.
"It's a red cigar holder."
"Right. Now," Ezra went to the rifle cabinet and opened the drawer at the bottom. Pulling out a stick of dynamite, he broke one of the fuses and stuck it on the canister. "Now what does it look like?"
Nathan arched an eyebrow and opened Vin's cell, "A cigar holder with a fuse stuck in it."
Ezra rolled his eyes. "Yes, okay, but, what if you were a couple of people in a bank, involved in an extremely tense situation like a robbery, and this cigar canister with the fuse lit just happened to crash in through the window. If you didn't look very carefully...?" Ezra looked expectantly at Nathan. The healer was knelling next to Vin now, making sure he wasn't hurt to badly. He looked back at Ezra, and at the canister. Then the light dawned.
"Come on, old man, come on," Tessa MacCleary muttered, tapping her loaded pistol against her leg. The false skirt she had been wearing had been shed, ripped from around her waist to reveal the men's breeches she wore underneath. She was watching as Mr. Winslow, the bank's manager, pulled money out of the safe and into a saddlebag.
Out front, two men held guns on the other patrons in the bank. The trapped patrons were all kneeling with their arms around their heads.
"Hurry up!" she said again, bringing the gun up to his temple. He tilted his head away, and tried to move faster. He ended up dropping a bundle of bills. When he bent down to retrieve it, Tessa following, a loud crash of something coming through the front window made both jump.
"DYNAMITE!" one of the outlaws in front yelled, "and the fuse has been cut! It's gonna blow!" One of the female patrons screamed, and, like a stampede, they all jumped to their feet and ran to the doors. Tessa's two men had actually gotten there first, not even bothering to look behind them as they escaped out front...
...To find Nathan, Mr. Greene, Yosemite and Carl Weathers all holding rifles on them.
Ezra stood next to Nathan, happily puffing on the cigar that he'd used to light the fuse. He tapped the real stick of dynamite against his leg.
"Drop it!" Carl yelled, and smiled when both men instantly obliged.
Ezra and Nathan ran around them and into the bank, ignoring one of the former hostage's warnings about the "dynamite" that had been thrown through the window.
Inside, Tessa and the bank manager had both hunkered down behind the teller's desk, waiting for the explosion. When it didn't happen, Tessa grabbed the manager by the arm and pulled him up, her gun pressed against his temple.
Ezra and Nathan stopped short at her emergence, and Ezra pulled the cigar from his mouth. In his hand, he held the real dynamite, the cigar just millimeters from the cut fuse. He smiled when he saw her confounded expression.
The gun in her hand shook slightly.
"Miss MacCleary," he greeted politely. "I suggest you drop your weapon, unless you want to know what a real stick of dynamite can do."
"How...how do I know that's real?" she demanded.
"You can see it's real, Miss MacCleary. I admit the first one I threw in here was not, as you can also plainly see." He nudged the cigar canister on the floor with his foot. The fuse on it had long since gone out. Tessa risked a glance downward, then looked back up with a hardened expression.
"So...it's real. Doesn't mean you're going to use it. You'd blow us all up."
"True. But then, maybe I'm crazy. After all, you have no idea who I am do you?"
Her jaw muscles flexed, and she glanced at Nathan. The healer was pointing his rifle at her, his own expression grim.
"You'd blow up your friend, too? And Mr. Winslow here?" she asked, a slight quaver in her voice.
"Mr. Winslow doesn't particularly like me. And Nathan here, well, he really doesn't like me. I don't like not being liked. If I went, I wouldn't be too unhappy about taking both of them with me." The fuse and the lit cigar end got closer together, and Mr. Winslow made a noise like a strangled cat. Tessa shushed him and pressed the gun tighter.
"Miss MacCleary, my hands are getting somewhat tired. Could you make a decision?" Ezra asked.
Tessa's eyes widened, then she took a deep breath and pulled back on the hammer on her gun. "You're bluffing, gambler!"
Ezra's eyes narrowed, and the joviality left his face. "On the contrary, Miss MacCleary, I never bluff."
The cigar lit the fuse.
Tessa screamed, throwing up her hands and ducking down. Mr. Winslow jumped backwards away from her, his eyes never leaving Ezra's face.
As quickly as he had lit it, the gambler dropped the cigar, grabbed the fuse between his fingers, and yanked, pulling it out. Mr. Winslow sagged against the wall, nearly fainting in relief.
Nathan had jumped forward, never once doubting the quickness of Ezra's hands, and pointed the rifle at Tessa. Pale blue eyes looked up to stare resignedly down the barrel, and her gun fell uselessly from her fingers. Reaching down, Nathan grabbed her by the arm and pulled her up. She found Ezra stamping out the fuse and the cigar as Nathan pulled her out from around the teller's desk.
"I don't get it," she whispered, staring at him. "I had it so well planned. I had everyone covered. But...you.... Who are you?"
Mr. Winslow was wiping his kerchief across his sweating face, but he still managed to stand up straight to answer her question.
"He's one of our Seven, ma'am. He's just been away a while. Thank you, Mr. Standish. It's good to have you back again."
Ezra looked across at Mr. Winslow, surprised at the compliment, but the bank manager was already shuffling around, trying to clear up some of the mess. It was if Mr. Winslow had never doubted that Ezra wouldn't return. The gambler shook his head and gave a crooked smile at this fact. After a moment, he bent over to pick up his slightly charred cigar canister.
Pushing Tessa outside in front of him, Nathan couldn't resist a small smile.
About ten minutes later, Chris and the others rode quickly back into town to find Vin sitting in front of the jail with his head between his knees and a cold cloth pressed against the back of his neck.
"Vin!" Chris jumped off his horse, "What the hell...?"
He stopped, his eyes fixed on the sight of Ezra walking out of the jail with Nathan behind him.
"Good afternoon, Mr. Larabee. Have a nice ride?"
Chris just raised both eyebrows, then looked at Nathan, as if the healer might have some sort of explanation.
"That woman who rode in was a bank robber, Chris. It was a trick," Nathan said. "But seeing as you're back already, I take it you figured that out."
"Josiah did," Buck said, dismounting, his eyes also on Ezra. "He recalled that the Nickersons are not only away from town right now, visiting their cousins in California, but he also remembered that they hadn't any neighbors." He tilted his head. "Are you back for a while?" he asked, the question clearly directed at Ezra.
"Seems that way," the gambler nodded. "I'm afraid the old adage of east come, easy go is one I know well. Besides, you obviously need me." He grinned, and Buck chuckled.
"You lost your money?" JD demanded in disbelief. "But you made thousands! How could you lose it so fast?"
"Just the nature of life, Mr. Dunne," Ezra sighed, patting the sides of his jacket. "Speaking of which, I think Mr. Tanner here could use a hand back to his wagon. As I'm not in the mood to risk my garments to any unfortunate substances that may escape his lips as a result of the rather painful concussion he has undoubtedly sustained, I suggest one of you might be a worthy candidate."
"Oh Lord," Buck sighed, "I sure as hell didn't miss your convoluted way of speaking."
"Isn't taking care of Vin sort of Nathan's joie de vivre," Josiah said, stepping up to pat Buck on the shoulder and smiling broadly at the gambler.
"Not today," Ezra grinned. "Mr. Jackson and I have an argument to finish."
"We do?" Nathan asked, looking surprised.
"Yes, I believe, right after I saved your life, that you were in the middle of calling me selfish and self-absorbed, when I interrupted and suggested we do something about the people ribbing the bank."
"Oh," Nathan blushed, "that argument."
Ezra's grin turned wicked, "Yes, that argument."
"Ah well, see...um...I might have been a little worked up at that moment, what with my life being threatened and Vin lying half dead on the floor, and the thought that no help was coming..." he licked his lips and gave Ezra his best apologetic smile. Ezra started to laugh.
"Told you you'd miss me," the gambler said, smacking him on the arm.
"Yeah, well, it's already wearing thin," Nathan shot back.
"Does that mean you're not going to buy me a drink? I do think you owe me one."
Nathan pursed his lips, "Sure. But I think I will be the one to take Vin back to his wagon to lie down first. I'll meet you in the saloon in a few minutes, all right?"
Ezra tipped his hat in acknowledgement.
"Hell, Ez, we'll all buy you drinks!" Buck said jovially, jumping up onto the boardwalk in front of the jail to whack Ezra soundly on the back. The gambler staggered forward a step, then smiled weakly up at the gregarious gunslinger. Buck was grinning back, "Soon as we help Yosemite with the horses, right JD?"
The kid was still staring at Ezra in disbelief. A knock in the arm from Josiah got him thinking again. "Oh, yeah, yeah. A drink. Yeah." He turned and stumbled off after Buck and Gray. Josiah shook his head and grabbed JD's horse's reins where the kid had dropped them, then pulled the bay and his own Quincy after them.
Ezra nodded at Chris, "See you in a minute as well?" he asked, the first sign of uncertainty entering into his voice.
"Wouldn't miss it," the gunslinger said, a smile twitching at the corners of his lips. "Good to have you back."
Ezra smiled brightly, then took off at a brisk walk towards the saloon, whistling. He unconsciously patted the sides of his jacket again, feeling the bulges from all the cash he'd hidden in there, then clasped his hands behind his back as he sauntered, literally sauntered, in the direction of his real home.
Chris looked at Nathan as the healer leaned over to check on Vin. The tracker groaned unhappily.
Nathan straightened up and looked past Chris to Ezra. "You were right, Chris."
Chris frowned, "Right? About what?"
"About Ezra. I once asked you why we needed a cheat. You said it was because we might need him. You were right."
"Oh," Chris nodded, "Yeah, I know...except...I was wrong in one respect. We didn't need a cheat...."
"We needed Ezra," Nathan grinned, finishing the thought. "I know. I don't think I really knew how much, though, until he left. And today especially. That mind of his, the way it works sometimes, the ideas he has...." He shook his head, "I can't wait to tell you about how he used his cigar canister."
Chris smiled, then turned with him to watch Ezra.
"You're not going to take Solon to the stables?" Nathan asked curiously as Chris casually looped the horse's reins over the hitching post.
"Eventually. I just didn't want to miss the show."
"Show?" Nathan watched as Ezra reached the saloon steps. Then he grinned, "Oh, that show!"
Over in front of the saloon, Ezra stopped dead, then started backing up, his hands up at his sides. Inez walked out from behind the batwing doors very slowly, her rifle pointed directly at his head.
"You told JD that I would understand?!" she roared, her voice thick with menace. Ezra tried to smile, then quickly lost the grin as Inez lowered the aim of her gun to point at something other than his head.
"Oh, I think he deserves it," Chris said, as Inez began her tirade and Ezra's shoulders began to tense more and more as he backed away from her. "Don't you agree, Mr. Jackson?"
"Far more effective than anything you or I could do, Mr. Larabee, that's for sure," Nathan agreed, laughing.