~ A Certain Tactile Sensitivity ~
Disclaimer: I didn't create these characters. They belong to MGM, The Mirisch Corporation, and Trilogy Entertainment.
Parts: One (its ten pages, TNR, 11 pt font, Normal margins), so short.
Notes: This comes from the July, 2002 challenge offered by En, the gist of which was to create some physical change to one of the Seven – sense disability, growing older, etc. -- and to see how they all react to it. This is not a happy story, just to warn you, but it has a peaceful ending.
Characters: Ezra (big shock) and JD, mostly.
Description: After Ezra rescues JD, an unfortunate consequence of the action threatens to destroy him.
Added July 11, 2002.
This was inspired by the following little conversation from the
beginning of the episode Vendetta (Can I just say I love Zen’s pages?)
EZRA: Draw poker. (he deals, the cards flying from his hands)
NATHAN: How do you do that?
EZRA: Well, over the years, I've acquired a certain, uh, tactile sensitivity.
BUCK: A feel for stackin' the deck. (the others laugh)
NATHAN: You deal those cards so fast, how do we know you didn't cheat?
EZRA: You don't (and he grins)
Love that little dribble. Moments like that made this show for me. Anyway, onto the story....
Ezra ran into the burning boarding house, jumping back as pieces of debris crashed at his feet. His eyes immediately started to water, and his chest started to scream in protest as the air filled with smoke. Trying to keep his head down, he peered through the mess, looking for the men he’d left in there.
The boy’s head and upper body were visible by the bar, trapped under three heavy beams of wood, one of them burning with growing intensity. He was face down, with one arm curled around his head and the other stretched out before him as if, for a moment, he’d considered crawling to safety before falling unconscious. The three beams had formed a strange sort of lean-to over the kid, supported by the bar on one side. His closeness to the bar had probably saved him from being crushed.
“JD,” the gambler hissed again, jumping over more beams and sidestepping patches of burning floor. His foot went through some boards, earning him some pain in his ankle. Ignoring it, he kept moving until he was hunkered down next to the boy.
There was a little blood on the boy’s skull, but otherwise he seemed unharmed. Getting his hands under the boy’s arms, Ezra gave a heave, his whole face straining at the movement. When the boy didn’t move more than a little, the gambler was forced to give up, his streaming eyes trying to understand why. Peering down the length of JD’s body, he realized that one of the beams was pressing down on the boy’s left leg, pinning it.
Standing, Ezra looked for only a moment at the three beams, including the one that was almost entirely engulfed in flames, before pressing his hands against the first and shoving it away. The angle of its lean gave him the leverage to push it aside fairly easily. Leaning over, he took a few deep breaths and looked at his hands. Closing his eyes, he took off his jacket and, covering his hands with it, pressed them against the burning beam and heaved.
It didn’t move. Not at first. The jacket smoldered and caught fire. Ezra let it go, and took in a couple more breaths. Shaking his head, he simply pressed his bare hands against the burning wood and pushed. With one mighty shove, he dislodged the beam, sending it crashing to the side, the solid wood sending up showers of sparks as it landed. Quickly, Ezra patted his hands on his trousers and looked at the last beam.
Gulping for air that wasn’t there, Ezra leaned his shoulder into wooden beam – this was the one pinning JD -- and shoved one more time. It shifted, turned, then landed back in its original position. The kid groaned.
Grimacing, Ezra got more of his shoulder under it and, once again, shoved with all his remaining strength.
It shifted, turned, teetered…then fell away with a mighty thump. It’s weight brought down more debris and chaos from the burning structure.
Ezra didn’t care. He simply lifted JD up like a rag doll and threw him over his shoulder.
Half limping, half running, he managed to make his way back to the front of the building, and fell through the door to the outside.
The gambler looked up in time to see Chris reach him, and take his precious burden from him. He let go willingly and collapsed to his knees, watching through burning eyes as Chris carried JD away. Then he was coughing and hacking as the black smoke and heat from the building rippled around and past him from the open door.
“C’mon, pal, up you get. Gotta get you away from here,” said a voice by Ezra’s side. Blinking, Ezra looked up as Buck wrapped an arm around Ezra’s torso and pulled him back to his feet. In moments, the ladies’ man was half carrying him over to where Nathan was already working on JD. They stopped together, leaning on each other, as the healer pressed his head to the kid’s mouth, and then his chest. Tipping the boy’s head back, Nathan pinched his nose and blew deeply into the boy’s lungs.
“Is he…is he going to be all right?” Ezra asked weakly, his voice already hoarse from the smoke. It was a pointless question to ask right then; the gambler knew that. Didn’t matter. Nathan ignored him, simply continued to breath for JD, one hand over JD’s heart as if afraid the beat he’d heard there would fade.
And then, mercifully, JD coughed. Hacked might be a better word. Grinning, the healer tipped him up, rubbing his back, and watching as the kid’s eyes fluttered and stared blearily out at the healer.
“Nath…?” he asked. Nathan smiled.
“How you feeling?” he asked the boy.
“Like an elephant stomped on my chest.” JD coughed again, and reached up a hand to his head. “And is now dancing on my head,” he added. Nathan smiled again and lifted the hand away from the nasty bump there. It’d give the boy a headache, but not much else.
Then he looked up at Ezra and Buck and nodded.
“Yeah,” the healer said, “he’ll be okay.”
Ezra smiled and Buck let out the breath he was holding. With a grin, Buck lowered the gambler to a sitting position next to JD, then jogged away to go help the others with the bucket brigade. The kid promptly fell asleep on his side, and Nathan rested a hand on his head, brushing back the black hair.
“What happened?” Chris asked, squatting down to look at the three men on the ground. The question was pointed at Ezra.
They were on assignment from Travis, escorting prisoners to the territorial prison, as the judge made them do from time to time when it was slow. They traveled from town to town, picking up prisoners, filling the prison wagon they had with them. This round included a married couple – the Carvers -- accused of fraud.
They were currently in the medium sized town of Johnston, where the jail had been too small to accommodate everyone. So the married couple, the least threatening of the bunch, were allowed to stay in the boarding house, under guard. JD and Ezra had been assigned to watch them while Chris, Nathan and Buck watched the ones at the jail. Josiah and Vin were both back in Four Corners.
“I…I left Mrs. Carver inside with Mr. Dunne while I escorted Mr. Carver to the outhouse. I’m afraid to say that, as soon as I walked out the back door, someone accosted me from behind.” Ezra spoke slowly, thinking that Chris was beginning to look rather blurry. “When I awoke a few moments later, it was to see the boarding house on fire. When I got inside, all I saw was JD on the floor. I liberated him and…that’s the end of it. Someone must have…helped the Carvers to escape and lit the house on fire as a distraction.” His speech was slurring, and Nathan’s eyes narrowed.
“Wasn’t your fault,” Chris said, also noticing the glazed expression with a worried air. “We’ll get them back.”
“Are you feeling okay?” Nathan asked, shifting over to look more closely at the gambler. Leaning over, he looked at the back of Ezra’s neck, thankful not to see any blood there.
“No,” the gambler replied truthfully. He was staring down at his hands now. Nathan followed the gaze, and gasped.
“Chris! Get me a bucket of water! Hurry!” the healer yelled. Not even stopping to question, Chris leapt to his feet and ran to the bucket line.
“S’funny, I can’t really feel them anymore,” Ezra whispered, just before slumping forward and losing consciousness. Nathan grabbed him before he fell sideways and lifted the burnt hands up and away from the body. They were red, black and white, even bleeding in places. It being night, with the only light that of the fire, he couldn’t tell how deep the burn went, but, for Ezra’s sake, he hoped to God the burns were more superficial than they looked.
Chris returned seconds later with the bucket of cold water, and Nathan immersed Ezra’s hands in it. The gambler emitted a tiny cry but that was it.
“I need soap,” he said to Chris, “and a something to scrub his hands with. I have to get them as clean as possible before I can bandage them. Then go see if you can find someone, anyone, who might have some silver nitrate or some saline water. An apothecary, a chemist, anyone….”
Chris nodded and took off, grabbing Buck from the water line as he did so. Soon they were asking the people for help. Nathan sighed as he saw one man leave the line and run off with Chris and Buck towards downtown.
Ezra’s head lolled to the side, and Nathan let the gambler lean on him.
“You’re going to be all right, Ezra; it’s going to be fine….” he whispered, sadly aware that the only one awake enough to hear him was himself.
Ezra stared down at the bandaged hands, his lips tightly stretched. It’d been almost a week since that night. They’d gone straight to the prison the next morning, which hadn’t been far by that time, then ridden straight home. The Carvers had disappeared without much of a trail, and, what with Ezra’s ‘condition’ they’d not had the desire to track them down. It seemed more important just to get Ezra back.
Nathan had been his constant companion almost the whole time. Cleaning, hovering, watching. If Ezra did anything with his hands other than keep them elevated (Nathan had strapped his arms to his chest to keep his hands above his heart for the first few days), the healer was there. And Ezra never complained. Never once said a word. This wasn’t something he felt he could ignore or shove off.
These were his hands.
Twice every day, Nathan had taken the bandages off and made Ezra do a series of exercises to move and stretch the healing skin while the healer cleaned his hands and looked for infection. It’d been painful and, though he’d not said a word, Ezra was terrified at what he saw.
They were blistered, pink and sore – something Nathan had said was a good thing, because it meant the burns were second degree and not third degree, whatever that meant – and ugly as hell. The healer had cleaned away the blisters – which had hurt even more – and his skin had wept. Since Ezra refused to cry, it seemed fitting that his skin should do so. He knew instinctively that there would be scars, perhaps even permanent ones, but, even without that, what scared him the most was how unrecognizable they were, almost as if they weren’t really his. They were numbed by one of Nathan’s concoctions, but it was more than that. They were lost, even though he could see them in front of him. His hands…were gone.
What if he didn’t get movement back? What if he couldn’t fire a gun or write a letter? What then?
And even if he got back movement, enough to at least fire a gun, would that be enough? He wondered if he would ever be able to feel the roughness of a marked deck under his fingers, to be able to manipulate the cards to deal in his usual style, to flip over the king or the ace from wherever they happened to be in the deck? The thought of that loss made him shiver, and he remembered that flippant conversation he’d once had with the others in the saloon, boasting about his “tactile sensitivity.”
He ached to touch the cards in his waistcoat, to pull them out and feel the coolness of their faces under his fingers; to get that slight tingling in his hands after he’d shuffled for too long; to realize that growing thrill as they flew from under his fingers as he dealt them around a table. They were his lifeline. When all else failed, he had always had the cards. They helped him think. They kept him honest…and kept him sane. They were tied up so tightly with his soul that it seemed impossible to think he wouldn’t be able to do any of those things again.
His worry had made him quiet. He had barely spoken since he woke up to find Nathan first wrapping bandages around his fingers in one of the rooms of the hotel in Johnston. His only words that first day had been for JD. The kid had been awake on the next bed, and staring at him with huge eyes. He’d thanked him, and Ezra had smiled.
It was the only thing stopping Ezra from going insane. The idea that it hadn’t been in vain. An easy trade, his hands for JD. Of course he would do it again
But Ezra kept quiet. As they rode back into Four Corners after nearly four days on the road, he’d been silent as Josiah and Vin welcomed them back, merely nodding at them. Vin had teased, much as Buck had tried to do several times, trying to get a rise, but Ezra merely ducked his head and disappeared into the saloon. Vin’s smile fell immediately, and he’d turned questioning eyes on the others. They’d all looked away. No one knew what to say. Josiah then tried to talk to Ezra, but the younger man avoided him like the plague. He didn't want to talk, that was clear.
Three days later, he was still walking around in a daze. Not one smile, not one frown, had creased his face. It was as if he’d lost his whole personality. He could do nothing now but wait.
“I have news,” JD announced, walking into the saloon. He found Buck, Chris and Vin sitting around a table, playing cards. Not surprisingly, Ezra wasn’t there. The gambler was rarely seen by any of them except Nathan now, and even then, he barely spoke. He was avoiding them all, especially Josiah, with single minded determination. He spent much of his time hiding, usually outside of town. The stable boy had been paid handsomely to keep Chaucer ready for the gambler’s now common sojourns to wherever he went.
“Good or bad?” Buck asked, leaning back in his chair and tossing his cards on the table.
“You foldin’?” Vin asked, eyeing them. Buck nodded and sighed.
“It’s good news, I guess,” JD said. “The Carvers were arrested up in the Colorado territory for holding up a stage coach. Apparently, they had their two sons with them, a couple of teenagers who are now also being charged with arson and attempted murder.” The kid gave a small smile and looked around. “I wanted to tell Ezra. Anyone seen him?”
“Not likely,” Buck muttered, shaking his head. “Been nearly two weeks. I’m surprised he’s even still around.”
“What’s the supposed to mean?” JD asked, moving forward to take a chair.
“Well, its clear he don’t want to be with us no more,” the ladies’ man said, reaching for his beer. “I keep expecting to go up to his room and find it empty.”
“He’s just keeping to himself, Buck,” Vin said, dropping a coin into the pot and nodding to Chris, “Don’t mean he wants to leave.”
“Hah,” Buck snorted. “You like to be by yourself, Vin, and so does Chris and Josiah. Me and Ezra, we’re not like you. If we’re quiet…then something’s wrong.”
“Something is wrong, Buck,” Chris muttered, tilting his head as he looked as his cards. “He’s hurtin’.”
“No, it’s more than just him feeling sorry for himself. I mean, there’s something really wrong. Like suicidal wrong, or leaving us for good wrong. Now, I don’t think he’s suicidal, not yet anyways, but he is distancing himself from us too far. Mark me, unless he comes back soon, or something else happens, he won’t come back at all.”
Chris pursed his lips and looked over at his oldest friend. Then those same eyes met Vin’s. After a moment, they lowered again and he lifted some coins off the table to throw into a pot.
“Well, if you’re right,” JD said, leaning forward in his chair, “then we should go find him. Bring him back.”
“We can’t do that neither, kid,” Buck sighed and stood up, walking over to the window to look out. “Ezra…it’s hard to explain. Hell, he’s hard to explain. It’s just something he has to work out on his own.”
JD frowned, then grimaced. Confusion turned to anger, and he stood up abruptly.
“That’s bull, Buck. I’m going to go find him. This is all my fault, and I’m going to make up for it, you’ll see.”
Turning, he stomped out of the saloon and started running for the livery.
Buck lowered his head and looked back at Vin and Chris.
Vin looked up and smiled. “Nice one, Bucklin.”
The ladies’ man frowned, “huh?”
“Well, I figger the only one who could pull Ez out of this is JD, but JD was always too scared to approach him before. So, you did a nice job.”
“Oh,” Buck’s frown lessened, and he shrugged, “weren’t intentional.”
“I know,” Vin laid down his cards to show two pair. Chris sighed and threw down his cards. The tracker raked in the cash.
“I just hope it works,” Chris said quietly.
Ezra was sitting by the pond, on the small rock that overhung the water. He was wearing a shirt that was unbuttoned at the collar (so that he could get it on and off without assistance) and a loose pair of breeches. The suspenders normally holding them up were loose by his sides. Gently, he was undoing the bandages on his hands, loosening them with his teeth then unwrapping them.
Just as he freed the left from its cocoon, he heard the hoof beats of someone approaching. With his hands in the state they were, Ezra hadn’t bothered with his gun belt or shoulder holster. So, unarmed, he just waited, part of him really not caring if the someone was friend or foe. Instead, he just looked at his pink palms, letting the fingers curl and uncurl, and ignoring the pain that came with it.
“Ezra? You in here?”
The gambler sighed, and looked over to where he’d left Chaucer. JD dismounted his bay and led him up next to the Chestnut colored horse. Of course he was here, the gambler thought tiredly, Chaucer didn’t tie himself to the tree.
JD walked down by the water and peered around. After a moment, he turned to see Ezra sitting up on the high rock, and he jogged around to the small path that led up to it. In moments, he was by Ezra’s side.
“Should you have taken the bandages off?” the kid asked softly, looking at the white material strewn to one side. Ezra shrugged, then reached over to the small bag he had with him. JD stopped him with a hand on his arm.
“No, you shouldn’t be touching anything with those yet, remember? Let me.” Taking the bag out of Ezra’s reach, he opened it and took out the contents. Ezra’s face had momentarily darkened with anger, but it subsided as JD placed the objects next to Ezra’s leg.
An apple, a small, sharp cutting knife, a deck of cards and his flask.
“Interesting things to take on a picnic,” the kid said, smiling softly. “Want me to cut the apple up for you?”
“I wasn’t going to cut the apple,” Ezra replied slowly.
“Oh,” JD frowned, wondering, then, what the knife had been for.
“What are you doing here, Mr. Dunne?” The gambler’s eyes were ice cold.
“I…well…I wanted to tell you that the Carvers were caught, along with their two sons. They’re the ones that started that fire and knocked us out.”
“Indeed,” Ezra nodded. “Well, thank you, Mr. Dunne, for that information.”
“Your welcome,” JD smiled and settled himself more comfortably. Ezra watched him a moment longer, and his anger began to simmer again.
“I said, thank you, Mr. Dunne. You can go now.”
JD swallowed, and looked over at Ezra, then back at the water.
“No,” he said, “I can’t.”
Ezra sighed and looked away, not wanting to look into JD’s earnest face any longer.
“Ez….Look, I just…I wanted to say I’m sorry.”
The gambler stiffened slightly, “I don’t need your pity, Mr. Dunne.”
“No, that’s not what I meant,” the kid said quickly. He licked his lips, hoping Ezra would turn to look at him. When he didn’t, he plunged on regardless.
“What I meant,” he said, picking his words carefully, and picking at his trousers, “is that I’m sorry that this happened to you because of me. I know it’s my fault, and….” He trailed off when he realized Ezra had turned and was now staring at him intensely, like Vin examining a track on the ground. “And…” he tried to start again, but his mouth was dry.
“JD, this is not your fault,” Ezra informed him steadily, “nor is it mine. It simply happened. So, please, before you even think about continuing, I want you to repeat that to me first.”
JD stared at him, his eyes bright, “But it is my fault, and, if you leave, it will all be because you wanted to save me.”
Ezra shut his eyes, and shook his head, “JD….”
“Are you going to leave?”
Those green eyes opened, but they weren’t looking up at the boy. Instead, they were looking at the odd assortment of items on the rock.
“JD,” he said, the voice almost a sigh, “will you hand me the cards please?”
The kid hesitated, not wanting to do anything that might damage Ezra’s hands further. At the same time, though, he sensed that if he didn’t do this, he would indeed be losing Ezra forever. So, slowly, almost reverentially, he picked up the packet of cards and opening the box, dropped the cards into his hands. Watching Ezra’s face carefully, he placed the deck into Ezra’s hands.
The gambler held them for a moment, then turned them over. He let them slide into his other hand loosely, then, with a little more confidence, cut them in half and worked the two halves together in a plain shuffle. His fingers felt along the edges slowly, and a smile formed on Ezra’s face. With the smile still there, he held them out to JD.
“Thank you, JD,” he said, “I needed that. You can put the rest of these items away now as well. I won’t be needing them.”
JD’s lips parted in confusion, but he shut them again and put the cards back. Then he put the other items into the bag and drew it closed by the drawstring. Ezra continued to smile up at JD.
“Nathan told me that, by the time two weeks had gone, I’d know one way or another if my hands would heal properly. I’d be able to tell what sort of damage might have been done. And I know now.”
Ezra’s smile grew. JD couldn’t avoid smiling in response.
“So, this mean you’re going to stay?” the kid asked hopefully.
“Whoosh!” the kid fell back, lying on the rock with his hands behind his head.
“You…must know that, no matter what had happened here, that it wouldn’t have been your fault, right?”
JD’s smile faltered.
“Mr. Dunne, please.”
JD shook his head, “I can’t, Ezra. I would…I will always feel responsible.”
Ezra’s jaw tensed, and he looked down at the small bag. He sighed. “I had a feeling you would say that. Then…Mr. Dunne, will you do me a favor?”
“Will you please take the knife out of that bag and break it in half for me?”
JD pushed himself up onto his elbows and looked curiously at Ezra, “Huh?”
“Please? I would then consider it a great favor if you would also dispose of the knife for me somewhere.”
JD just stared at him, then, with a dark expression, he nodded. Sitting up, he opened the bag, took out the knife, and pressed it against his leg. With a little pressure, the blade snapped in half. He then scraped the knife’s edges on the rock to dull them. After a few moments, pleased when they were dulled, he threw them into the middle of the large pond. To be forgotten.
“Thank you, JD,” Ezra said. “And, for your information, even if I hadn’t felt those cards on my fingers, I still wouldn’t have used that knife. And that’s because of you. So…thank you for that as well.”
JD just stared at Ezra, who seemed mesmerized by the ripples caused by the thrown knife. After a moment, they had faded to nothing, and all was still again across the cold water.
“You scare me sometimes, Ez,” JD said softly.
“Yes, well,” Ezra gave a small smile, “you scare me as well, Mr. Dunne.” He laughed and glanced at the kid. “Want to help me bandage these back up? I think it’s time we went back to town and got ourselves a couple of stiff drinks, don’t you?”