~ Up the Water Spout ~
Disclaimer: The usual
Parts: Four short ones. Story is only seven pages long.
Notes: Written on a whim, inspired partly by a challenge, which I didn't quite answer, and a Bonanza episode, which I only saw the very end of, and by a romantic notion of never giving up. I guess it’s a PWP, now that I know what that means. Warning—the beginning is a blatant rip off of that Bonanza episode, called the Crucible. I didn't realize that until I saw it again. LOL! It was a very effecting episode, obviously.
Description: Just some character play. Ezra gets lost in the desert, then gets lost in his mind.
"…Teensy Weensy Spider Climbed up the Water Spout…"
The dull constant roar was all he heard now, as if the wind had permanently boxed in his ears and refused to allow any other sound through. His sight was worse, what little of it he felt he had left. He knew, vaguely, that those were rocks ahead of him. Rocks and sand and bits of sage, sticking out of the dead, arid land like bristles on a horsebrush. His feet tripped along the uneven ground, his ankles twisting in the shallow holes, his feet on fire inside his boots. Nothing, though, nothing was as terrible as the dryness gripping his tongue and throat. Breathing was painful—the hot, bitter air burned his insides as he sucked it into his mouth and nose, cleansing like brimstone as it set his lungs ablaze.
It had been this way for years now, so it felt. Decades had passed on this forced march, stripping more of his life away with each step. He'd long ago lost sight of the mountains he was aiming for, for the trees he could see calling to him on the sides, promising water in the earth. All there was now was sand, rock and dried up brush.
But he still moved. Nothing else mattered, except to keep moving. Keep moving and keep pulling the boy behind him.
Was the boy still singing that rhyme about the spider? He couldn't tell. For a while, the song had rung in his head, over and over again, and it might have been the boy and it might not, though the boy had certainly started it. Now he couldn't hear anything, not with all the wind in his ears.
It was amazing that he couldn't feel the wind he heard. It seemed so strong.
He felt the pain still, deep in his shoulders. The "yolk" he's put together burned against his skin through his filthy shirt, made up of the tattered security blanket the boy had been carrying when he'd found him. His hat was glued to his head—his head was cooking inside it, but he kept it on. He wouldn't have been able to see at all without it, the sun was that relentless. He didn't even look around at the travois he was pulling, too intent just to keep pulling it. He just had to assume the boy was still on it. Still there and still alive. He had to believe that.
He had to get them to water. He had to keep going up until he found it. Keep climbing up the dry water spout, he though with amusement. A tiny chuckle hurt his throat at the notion. Don't laugh, his mind commanded his body. And don't stop.
"…Out Came the Sun And Dried Up All The Rain…"
Chris pulled the hat up off his head, wiping the grime and sweat off his forehead, blinking through the harsh sun. Almost two months had passed since the last rain, worrying the farmers and the ranchers and creating a nightmare for the displaced. For one of Chris's men, it had been a death sentence, for they'd long ago given up hope of finding Ezra alive….
Three weeks ago, Ezra had accompanied Carl Weathers and Tom Mitchell on the three day trip to Red Fork, to sell some cattle. The three men had gone into business together—a small ranch up on the edge of Nettie's land, where they had a small herd they were trying to grow. Ezra had supplied half the capital—an investment, he called it—and Tom and Carl had done all the work. The trip to Red Fork had been to sell some of the calves; their first profit. Ezra had been grinning like an idiot when they left. He hadn't done a lick of work, and was going to get paid. For Ezra, that was as close as you could get to a perfect world.
A week later, Carl and Tom came back without him. Ezra had kept his half of the profit and decided to try his luck at the tables one more night. By Carl's account, he's been cleaning up. If Carl hadn't wanted to get back to his wife Sarah and his little girl, he would have stayed too, just for the entertainment. Tom, who was never much of a traveler, just wanted to get home and check on the ranch. So, they left Ezra on his own, confident in their peacekeeper friend's ability to get home on his own without trouble.
The day after they returned, three days after leaving Red Fork, a telegram came from Red Fork, from the sheriff. Ezra had left the morning after Carl and Tom, flush with money and still laughing about his good fortune. Nearly a day later, a family of pioneers rolled into town, with a story about being robbed by two men, one in a red coat. It hadn't taken long to figure out it wasn't Ezra, but, when they found the thieves, they did find out it was Ezra's jacket. It still had his billfold, containing his small black ledger marking the sale for the cattle. Unfortunately, the two thieves hadn't gone quietly; both ended up in pine boxes before they could tell the sheriff the location of the gambler.
All six had ridden out from Four Corners without delay, to help the sheriff there search for Ezra. The normally three day ride was cut to two and a half in their determination, as they raced southwest down from the low lying green hills nestling Four Corners, and into the rocky, red desert landscape. They'd met the sheriff of Red Fork on the edge of his small city, and a pretty good search party joined them. After all, the sheriff and his town owed the Seven for helping them with some trouble not long before, and the town had been more than happy to help.
At least for the first day. The second day, the search party had narrowed to six men and an unhappy deputy.
By the third day, it was just six men.
After three days, Chris ordered Buck and JD home, unwilling to leave Four Corners without protection for too long. He'd wanted to send Josiah with them, but you might as well try and tell the grass to stop growing.
Then, on the fifth day, the remaining four found hope again. A mining camp on the edge of a dried up washout, where three men were lying dead, their things pilfered—robbed, much like the pioneers and Ezra. A quick search determined it had been a two man job, and the four decided not to search for the perpetrators, assuming it to be the same two lying dead in the Red Fork boot hill.
A quick search of the camp also showed no canteens and no food plus, if there had been mules there to help, the creatures were long gone. But what they did find was evidence that there had also been a boy living at the camp, who was not among the dead, and the boy's trail had been easy to follow. Not long after they found the boy's trail, it showed another set of footprints had joined it.
Footprints they hoped were Ezra's.
Vin had sworn profusely, realized just how far out this camp was from civilization. Without horses or food or water, Ezra—assuming it was him they now followed—and the boy had no possible chance of making it out.
They found the remains of a small cookfire about eight miles outside of the camp, a few days old. They found another one not much further along, this one a little more substantial. Next to it, a prickly pear cactus had been taken apart, most of the pads taken, probably for food. It was the first succulent the four had come across outside of ground cactus, and what was left of it looked sickly. Ezra and the boy had used it as much as they could.
Then Vin lost the trail. Ezra and the boy had climbed up and over rocks, their direction unclear. Vin had guessed the mountains in the distance—towards home, Nathan guessed the sunset—towards Red Fork, and Josiah thought the sunrise, because it looked the easiest of the three routes to get off these rocks. They'd split up, promising to meet back in a couple of days, before their water supply ran out.
The rocks were an effective maze, and even Vin got lost a couple of times.
When they eventually met up again, canteens nearly empty, they had to admit it to themselves. It would have been a miracle had the gambler survived the odds of this place; hell, they didn't even know if he was the one with the boy. For all they knew, Ezra had been killed the moment he met up with those two thieves—they just didn't want to believe that.
But sometimes…there was such a thing as reality.
Back in Red Fork, they buried their misery at the saloon, ignoring the telegrams for Four Corners wanting news.
Chris decided it was pointless all four of them remaining. Not surprisingly, they all argued, but Chris acceded to only one thing. He and Josiah would stay…for a few more days. They'd be back in Four Corners by the end of the week. Vin and Nathan grimaced, but they left the next morning for home.
Josiah and Chris continued to search. Now they were looking for a body, though they never said it out loud.
So it was, on day nine, that Chris was staring down at a shallow, dry valley, trying to decide if he were seeing things. Was that a man down there? Dragging a travois?
He wiped his eyes again, and looked to Josiah. The preacher was staring in the wrong direction.
"Josiah," he whispered, catching the other man's attention. Josiah turned around, his eyes curious. He heard it in Chris's voice—something had given him hope again. As soon as Chris had his eyes, he turned his head and pointed down into the small valley below. Josiah's throat caught.
Chris turned his horse around, cupped his hands around his mouth, and shouted Ezra's name. Josiah imitated him.
The man below gave no indication that he heard.
Moments later, they were spurring the horses down, trusting the animal's not to break their legs across the uneven, rocky landscape. As soon as they hit the level ground, the horses were galloping. Both men were off the horses before they came to a stop, and Chris grabbed Ezra's arms.
Glazed green eyes blinked back at him. Chris called his name, shaking him, while Josiah checked the travois. Pulling the gambler free of the strange yolk he'd somehow created from clothes and sticks, Chris continued to call Ezra's name, trying to get him to see him. Josiah was on his other side as Ezra's eyes finally lit with recognition and he tried to respond, his words a harsh croak, basically incomprehensible and tinged with a barely contained hysteria. The only word they understood clearly amongst the nonsensical speech was his use of Chris's name, slipping out of the cracked lips as if it were the answer to a prayer. A moment later, the gambler was in tears, falling to the ground and letting Chris catch him.
Chris looked up at Josiah as he now cradled the unconscious but alive Ezra, his eyes questioning as he indicated the travois with his head.
Josiah shook his head. "The boy's dead."
"…Down Came the Rain And Washed the Spider Out…"
It was almost two weeks before Ezra spoke again. The gambler said nothing, not when he woke up in Red Fork in the doctor's office, not during the funeral for the boy he'd tried to save, not when they loaded him onto a carriage to get him home, not even when they rolled into Four Corners and half the town came out to greet him. Other than saying Chris's name when they had first found him, he simply offered a few taut smiles and nods when people greeted him. Most of the time, he didn't seem to see anything at all, as if he were somewhere else.
Unnatural, to say the least.
He simply sat outside the saloon, always with a drink of some kind in his hand, even if he wasn't thirsty, and stared at nothing.
His first words were spoken, finally, to Chris, a week after returning home. The gunslinger had, one night, gone out to join him in the gambler's quiet vigil. He sat down next to Ezra, not saying a word, and sipped at a glass of beer, watching the street fires blaze around them. The air was cool, which was a change. It felt nice outside for the first time in months. Ezra lowered his head, then turned to look at Chris. The gunslinger heard him suck in a deep breath, then let it out.
Chris looked at the gambler out of the corner of his eye, guessing what that meant.
Ezra leaned forward, "Chris…."
Chris waited a moment, expecting more. When it didn't come, he took in his own deep breath.
"Thank you," Ezra said softly.
"For finding me. I was told…you never stopped looking for me, even though I was certain to be dead."
Chris smiled, and took another sip of beer.
Ezra swallowed, "Why did you do it?"
Chris shrugged, looking out at the sleepy town, "If you don't know the answer to that, Ezra, you're dumber than I ever gave you credit for."
A slight pinch to the forehead formed as Ezra blinked several times, trying to understand the meaning of the non-answer.
Chris turned his eyes back to him, his pleasure at seeing Ezra with an expression on his face again, even one of bewilderment, obvious in the small smile on his lips.
"You know," Chris drawled, taking another sip from his glass, "if you have found your voice, you might go see Josiah. He's dying without someone to talk to about the affairs of the day."
"The affairs," Ezra swallowed, "of which day? I've missed a few, I think."
"All of them," Chris sought answers for the mysteries he saw in his beer as he spoke. "Go see him, Ezra. Sooner, rather n' later…before you get lost again."
"I'm not going to get lost," Ezra sighed. "Been back in town a week, haven't I?"
"No," Chris shook his head, "Seems to me you just got back a few minutes ago."
Ezra pursed his lips, looked down at the still full glass of water in his hand, and, with exaggerated care in order not to spill it, put it down on the boards. With a nod to Chris, he levered himself out of the chair and stepped off the boardwalk. With a bowed head, he turned in the direction of the church and started walking.
At that same moment, a thunderclap boomed over head, startling Chris to nearly lose his seat. His eyes narrowed slightly as the gunslinger got to his feet and stepped forward from under the overhead porch, looking up at the black sky.
Sheet lightening lit up a patch of clouds, and another thunderclap sounded.
Chris grinned, hearing the cheering of the townsfolk as they all suddenly boiled from their respective homes or the restaurants and saloons, all with their heads turned up towards the sky.
Halfway to the Church, Ezra stopped in the middle of the street and tipped his head back, staring up in wonder at the sky just as the first raindrops fell. Before he even knew what was happening, it was pouring, the rain driving down so hard it felt like pins and needles to his skin even through his jacket.
Chris turned to the gambler, just in time to see Ezra fall to his knees in the middle of the street.
Josiah, who had emerged from the church at the first thunderclap saw it too, and was running before Ezra landed. Grabbing the smaller man up, the preacher glanced at Chris, gave the gunslinger a nod, then pulled Ezra along with him.
Cheers and laughter erupted around the gunslinger in waves, but all Chris saw was two men ducking into the church.
"…Teensy Weensy Spider Climbed Up The Spout Again…"
"Too late," Ezra moaned, burying his head in his hands, water dripping down his hat to the flagstone floor, "it's too late."
Josiah knelt next to him, holding his arm, "Too late?"
"The rain," Ezra looked up at Josiah, "it would have saved him."
Josiah nodded, knowing he was talking about the miner's boy. "Ezra…I’m sorry about that boy. You did everything you could."
"I know," Ezra sighed, deflating a little. "I just…it wasn't enough."
"But that's all we can do."
"I just…," Ezra shuddered, "I keep thinking that, if it had been you, or Chris or Vin or Buck…that boy would be alive. Your strength, Vin's tracking ability, Chris and Buck's survival skills, Nathan's knowledge of medicine—he would have figured out a way to keep him alive better than eating cactus—hell, even JD…his youth, his stamina—"
"No, Ezra," Josiah frowned, "You're wrong. Even Vin got lost in those rocks, and JD nearly fainted the first day from the sun. Chris lost his horse at one point, and would have ended up at the bottom of a gully if I hadn't caught him, and Buck came within inches of being bitten by a rattler. Only Nathan's quickness with a knife saved him. I won't even tell you about my slipping on the rocks, or Nathan's drinking more water than the rest of us combined…." He gave a small smile, "If it had been one of the rest of us, maybe we might have done as well as you, but none of us would have done any better. That I know."
Ezra shook his head, "But you found me. Chris and you, you didn't stop. You didn't fail. Why did I? The boy was alive when I put him on there…I never even knew he had passed. I was so…." He trailed off, licking some of the wetness off his lips from the rain. His head bowed.
Josiah shook his head, "I don't have answers for you Ezra. Lord knows I've asked the same questions, many times. But, I'll tell you this. We thought you were dead. We were certain of it. We thought we had failed—failed you. But we were wrong, but not because of us, because of you. You hadn't given up." He sighed, "What I mean to say, Ezra, is that it didn't have anything to do with us. You're the one who survived long enough for us to find you."
"Survived," Ezra snorted. "But why did I survive?"
"I don't know, perhaps," Josiah shrugged, "perhaps you just didn't stop."
Ezra blinked a few times, then he looked up again. His eyes were liquid in the pale light from the candles.
"I didn't stop," Ezra repeated. "That's true. I didn't stop."
"No son, you didn't."
"Ah," the gambler's head lowered.
When he didn't seem inclined to say anything more, Josiah leaned back to sit, his legs beginning to ache from kneeling for so long. Outside, the rain rattled against the roof and the wind shook the shutters, but, outside, just on the edge of hearing, they could hear the music from the saloons as folks celebrated the coming of the rain. It was a nice sound.
Just then, the sound of rainwater gushing down the gutters got louder, as if something clogging them had just gotten cleared out. Josiah glanced in the direction of the gush, then back at Ezra.
The gambler was smiling, a soft smile, but a genuine one. He looked askance at Josiah, saw the preacher's curious expression, and actually laughed.
"What's so funny?" Josiah asked, leaning forward a little.
"The teensy weensy spider went up the water spout," Ezra sang softly his fingers mimicking a spider's walk, "down came the water and washed the spider out." He looked at the wetness creeping under the doors. "Out came the sun and dried up all the rain," he faltered a moment, then smiled, "and the teensy weensy spider climbed up the spout again." He shrugged, "It's a never ending cycle. The spider never stops. He just keeps climbing up that spout, though he'll never reach the top. I think I know how he feels."
"Well, that's the thing," Josiah smiled back, "maybe the spider does reach the top. After all, we don't really know what happens when he heads up the second time, now, do we?"
Ezra's smile fell a little, then came back.
"We’re just glad you're home, Ezra."
"Yeah," Ezra leaned back against a pew, "town does seem like it needs some livening up." He tucked his hands behind his head, "so…any new folks come to town needing to lose some spending money?"