MAJOR CHARACTERS: Ezra, JD and Josiah
DISCLAIMERS: This is fanfiction. No profit involved. This story is based on the television series "The Magnificent Seven". No infringement upon the copyrights held by CBS, MGM, TNN, the Hallmark Channel, Trilogy Entertainment Group, The Mirisch Corp. or any others involved with that production is intended.
SUMMARY: Ezra, JD and Josiah are cooling their heels in an artists' colony. It brings up demons for Josiah. Ezra, unfortunately, takes the brunt of it.
FEEDBACK: Yes please! comments and suggestions are greatly appreciated.
DATE: June 25, 2015
For What It's Worth
"So, what's it say?" JD asked, leaning in as Ezra stiffly unfolded the telegram.
Ezra frowned for only a moment before he grinned widely. "Success!" he declared. "Our compatriots were able to round up the last of the Burgess gang. They're currently under lock and key with the Red Wash officials."
"Hey, that's great news," JD said, slapping Josiah on the back. Ezra beamed and Josiah nodded thoughtfully. "How'd it turn out? They okay?" the kid asked.
"It seems that they had no trouble," Ezra said. "They'll be at our current location tomorrow. Mr. Larabee asks that we remain here in Sweet Haven until then."
"We shouldn't get started for home?" JD clarified. "We got our guys locked up now with Sheriff Abbott. We could start out. I'm sure Buck and Nathan could use some help back in Four Corners."
Ezra shrugged. "All is well at home and Sweet Haven is along the trail that Misters Larabee and Tanner will be using. We'll be stayin' put until they arrive." He clenched one of his scraped and bruised hands with a frown. "A day might make it easier to grip Chaucer's reins in any case."
Josiah shook his head. "You should know better than to take on a man like Reid Burgess."
"If I'd known I was going to be attacking a brick wall, I would have come better armed with a battering ram, perhaps. Dynamite?" Standish shook his head. "For what it's worth, I was simply trying to subdue him. Travis wanted the men returned alive."
JD nodded. "At least you didn't get hurt any worse," he said.
Ezra looked doleful. "My hands are my bread and butter," he said as he tucked the note into the pocket of his red jacket with a wince. "Next time, I'll try bullets instead of fisticuffs."
Originally, five of them had hunted down the five members of the Burgess gang, but they'd separated when the gang split in two. On the second day of searching, Josiah, JD and Ezra had surprised their men at a watering hole. Two of the members gave up easily, tossing down their weapons and throwing their hands up. Reid, one of the brothers, wasn't going to give up so quickly.
Ezra went after him, trying to take him down with a series of blows to the head. Reid had taken the abuse without flinching. When Ezra tried one more pop to the chin, Reid had batted Ezra away like a fly.
By then, Josiah was upon him.
Following Josiah's thrashing, Reid had given in and was compliant for the ride. He went to his cell with the others as meek as a lamb. Josiah could be terrifying when his anger was sparked.
But since they'd entered Sweet Haven, Josiah's mood had shifted. He seemed sadder and more withdrawn when he should have felt easier with their charges finally locked up. JD didn't understand it.
"So, we're here for the day," Josiah voiced dully.
"Yes," Ezra said. He looked up one length of the street and down the other. "Gaming possibilities seem bleak. The saloons don't seem up to my usual standards."
JD glanced into a nearby doorway. "Seems kinda quiet."
"I understand the streets are usually busier with travelers coming up from Ridge City," Ezra said. "It must be an off-season for them." He sighed and added, "In any case, this town is not known for its gamblers. They're geared more toward the artistic types. It will be a long day for me."
Aw, Ezra," JD moaned. "There's plenty to do here. Look at all the shops."
Ezra rolled his eyes, and nodded to the saloon beside them, a place called Blake's. "I'll start here," he said. "Doin' my best to get some sort of profit out of this endeavor." He moved his battered hands with a wince. "Perhaps they have some ice? I fear I may have difficulties shuffling."
"Sure you didn't break anything?" Josiah asked.
Ezra nodded thoughtfully. "It'll keep me honest if nothing else." He grimaced as he pulled his flask from his pocket. "I can refill this at least. It was a waste to spill such good malt over these torn knuckles."
"I think you busted out what teeth Burgess had left," JD said.
"The human mouth is a filthy place," Ezra said. He looked to Josiah and said, "You seem unnaturally quiet this afternoon, Josiah. Anything amiss?"
Sanchez shook his head sharply, obviously not wanting to talk about it.
Ezra seemed to accept the response. "Until later," he said. He smiled as he touched the brim of his hat, and moved through the doors of Blake's Saloon.
JD and Josiah stood at the heart of the town, chock-a-block full of little storefronts where artists sold their wares while a few people meandered in the street.
Sweet Haven had become an artists' colony in recent years. It existed amid red cliffs and stunning landscape, drawing in artists of all sorts. They came to paint and sketch, to sculpt and design. Few left once they'd spent any time here. The artists enjoyed finding kindred souls amongst the townspeople and delighted in the chance to live among them.
They must have received just enough customers to remain alive here.
"Come on, Josiah," JD said. "Let's go check out some of this stuff. I bet we can find some really nice things. Maybe someone would like something as a gift." He drew out his last line, thinking of Casey.
Josiah sighed deeply. His expression was melancholy as he gazed from one shop to the next. "I'd rather not," he said. He glanced to Blake's Saloon to follow Ezra inside, but instead turned to a darker looking establishment called The Green Way. He disappeared within without another word.
JD frowned and scuffed his foot for a moment or two against the boardwalk before he headed down the street, looking for something interesting in all the little shops.
By the time Josiah emerged from The Green Way, the morning was over. The day crept into a long afternoon. The proprietor had tried to entice him with a strange looking drink, but Josiah demanded a bottle of whiskey. He'd spent the day finishing it off.
He walked unsteadily, but dedicatedly down the street. He'd been hiding for long enough. It was time he confronted his demons.
The shops were pleasant little places, filled with all manner of pretty things. One store sold painted shelves and tables, another was filled with wood carvings of all sorts, another held pottery, then sculptures, followed by bronze figures and other stores held paintings so many people were painters.
He paused a moment, and then stepped into the first painter's shop. The walls were covered with landscapes, portraying this beautiful place. The surrounding hills were lovingly rendered in watercolors, the many shades of red leaping from the canvas. The artist sat at his easel at the back of the room, touching up his latest work. His face was chiseled and rough. He tried to start a conversation with Josiah, but Sanchez hardly heard him as he quickly moved through the place and out again.
The next painter filled her shop with flowers rich and colorful bouquets, one would think she lived in a garden. So much life filled that little shop. The artist was bubbling with excitement as Josiah strode in. He spent only a moment in her beautiful world before he moved on to the next.
The third painter filled her shop with people. It was here that Josiah paused. Portraits covered the walls, beautiful lovingly rendered images. He gazed into the eyes, so perfectly recreated that they almost seemed to ready to blink. The people were posed in their best dress, leaning or standing or sitting, their heads turned toward the best light, their expressions mild. There was beauty in every face fine featured and generously remembered.
They were so familiar.
He sighed as he stared at a perfect little girl, dressed in a pinafore and holding a kitten in her lap. She seemed so sweet. The little cat rested its mischievous head on her hand. Her eyes were lowered and filled with gentle kindness.
Hannah had painted like this. His sister, before she'd been lost, had painted with such grace, such emotion and empathy. When they were just children, she'd loved drawing and would sketch his likeness all the time.
He'd never considered himself a handsome man, but in her eyes, with the skill of her hands, he looked like an Adonis.
Later, when she discovered painting, she brought vibrancy to those drawings. She had such an incredible talent, instinctively knowing all the tricks to bring depth and lushness to her works. She always painted portraits filling her life with beautiful people.
When she painted, her father's wrath could not touch her and she could forget how her brother would abandon her.
She'd always had a wildness, a lack of good sense, a self-destructive personality. She could storm and rage, acting out every immoral impulse that crossed her as if she couldn't quite contain them within her. Josiah could see a terror in her eyes then, as if she wanted to "be good," as if she wanted to be happy and was doing everything possible to find that moment of pleasure.
She just couldn't help it.
For what it was worth, he'd tried to help her sometimes. He'd purchased paints and brushes and canvases for her. It was one of the few things he'd managed to do for her.
When she painted, she was calm. The wildness left her. He wanted to help, to keep her on a path that led away from her wicked ways.
Then, even that little joy had fallen to pieces everything had been taken from her. Today, in Vista City, she painted madly, trying to find that calm center again, but finding only tumult. The endless saints that paraded against the walls did nothing to alleviate the pain that crashed around her. They had a harshness to them, a bleakness. They lacked the joy of her earlier work.
"Hello?" he heard a timid voice call from the back of the shop.
Josiah blinked in surprise, and turned to find a petite woman moving toward him, her head lowered and her hands behind her.
"I'm the artist. Is there something I can help you find?" She bit her lip. "Would you like to commission a portrait?"
"I, ah " Josiah stumbled, not ready for the intrusion, and the woman kept her head down.
"I'm sorry," Josiah said. "I . No, I don't need a portrait. I was just looking." He shook his head, trying to clear it.
She smiled tensely. "Everything is for sale," she said, and gestured to the back wall of the studio. "I just sold my best painting this morning."
Josiah looked to the empty spot on the wall a rectangle of un-faded paint marked the location where a frame once existed for a long time. Not knowing what else to say, he stated, "Congratulations."
She nodded keeping her head down and her eyes averted. "I hope I did the right thing," she said softly. "I'm not supposed to say anything, but I sold it for much less than it was worth. He told me he would make it worth the sacrifice."
Josiah grimaced, remembering what had happened with Hannah's beautiful artwork. A swindler had taken everything. Anthony Largent she'd said he was tall, handsome and well-dressed. Largent had visited the home while everyone else was away. He told her a story about how he was opening an incredible gallery and needed to fill it with the best artwork available.
The trickster had strung her along with flattery and promises of fame and fortune. He'd take her works with him to sell at amazing prices, would give the proceeds back to her every penny. He sold her a dream, and she'd believed every word.
He took her paintings her joys and loaded them into his wagon, singing his lovely songs about how quickly he'd sell her work. She'd be the talk of the nation and insanely rich.
Hannah had helped him, lovingly loading everything into his cart, cushioning frames with their best quilts, listening to his tales, her heart leaping with the possibilities. She could buy her own home! Have her own studio and paint all the time. She'd be admired and loved by all. She'd no longer be the crazy child of Preacher Sanchez, she'd be no longer under his rule. She'd be able to live her life as she pleased.
She'd be free.
She waved sweetly as the charlatan left with everything, and then she returned immediately to her room to fill it again with beautiful people because certainly, he'd be asking for more paintings in no time at all.
That was the last they'd ever heard of Largent. Josiah had tried to track him down, but it months had passed by the time he'd returned to their home. The trail of the crook was long cold. Hannah held out hope, but finally, accepted the fact that she'd been cheated.
She burned all of her new paintings and her madness truly settled in.
"Are you okay?" the painter's voice cut through his thoughts and Josiah blinked fiercely, trying to clear his head and feeling the effect of too many whiskeys.
"I'm sorry," he said. "You said you sold it for less than it was worth?"
She nodded. "He swore me to secrecy." And she smiled impishly. "But I could never keep a secret! He told me that he was sending it to Chicago. That he had a gallery or something and would sell it there." She frowned as she tried to remember it correctly. "He'd buy it from me, and then someone would tell me to send more paintings and I'd be famous." She smiled then. "I just had to sell him the first one at the lowest price I could allow, but after that I'd be rich."
A rage took over Josiah. "This morning?" He jerked his head toward the door. Was Largent in town? Would he finally be able to get his revenge?
"Yes," the painter responded. "Not long ago. He seemed eager to be on his way. He asked me which paintings were my best, and then he chose the one he wanted and told me all about his plan."
"Was his name Largent?" Josiah asked, hardly able to spit out the name. "Anthony Largent?"
She shook her head. "No," she said. "It was Standish. Ezra Standish."
In a swift movement, Josiah left the gallery, thundering down the main street of Sweet Haven, toward Blake's Saloon. When he found it devoid of one red-jacketed gambler, he remained long enough to indulge in a shot or two of whiskey to steel himself, and then went back to the galleries.
Many of the shops had empty spaces where a prominent piece had once been displayed. The artists confirmed that an Ezra Standish had been through, that he had purchased a piece, but they refused to divulge any further information. They'd been sworn to secrecy.
That son of a bitch.
Josiah didn't linger long. He kept moving, kept searching.
What the hell was Ezra trying to do to these people?
When he asked at one shop, the artist demurred. She looked uncomfortable, and looked toward her husband for support.
The man came to his feet when Josiah asked his questions, saying, "I know that bastard was up to no good! Betsy! I told you not to listen to him!" He faced Josiah, saying, "I'm going with you. We'll find him and he'll get what's coming to him." And he left his wife's gallery to join Sanchez in his search.
It proved fruitless in the end. Standish was nowhere to be found. Apparently, he'd completed his swath of destruction in Sweet Haven and had gone into hiding. They returned to The Green Way, and Josiah found a table.
Mike, Betsy Garner's husband, signaled the bartender. "I told her!" he said once the bartender nodded in response. "I told her not to sell to that son of a bitch!"
Josiah frowned, clenching his hands on the table. He'd find Ezra and talk to him, get him to explain what was going on.
He needed to get to the bottom of this. He wasn't about to let anyone else get away with destroying another artist.
"Hey, Ezra!" JD called as the gambler exited the telegraph office.
"Mr. Dunne" Ezra greeted, smiling congenially.
"Where you been?" JD asked.
"Here, there, everywhere," Ezra said, pointing this way and that.
"The tables weren't kind?" the kid asked, using one of Ezra's favorite phrases.
With a put-upon sigh Ezra responded. "The tables were nigh on dead, so I sought a different kind of gambling for the day." He cocked his head. "And you? Were you able to procure anything for a certain someone?"
JD blushed slightly, and then shrugged. "There was this lady who made necklaces out of wire and stones pretty stones." He pulled a little cloth bag from his pocket. "She made this up special for me." He dumped the contents of the package into his hand so that he could show Ezra.
He'd picked out the stone with Casey in mind, a pretty greenish agate, and the artist had fashioned a setting out of copper wire, twisting and turning it into an intricate pattern around the rock and then set it on a delicate chain. He hoped Casey would like it. It was difficult to find the right gift for her. She always denied wanting anything fancy, but was disappointed if he was too practical in his giving. He hoped the simple-yet-intricate mix of stone and copper would please her.
Ezra leaned in to examine the purchase. "Well chosen," he declared. "This was from Mabel Corey's shop?" he tried. "She does impressive work with metals."
"Yeah, Mabel," JD responded, surprised that Ezra was aware of the woman's name. "She was really nice and didn't mind making this special."
"You did well, JD. I'm certain this will be well received."
"Well, yeah," JD said, trying to hide his smile as he carefully returned the necklace to the pouch. "It's not much but "
"It's perfect," Ezra assured. "I wish you'd accompanied me earlier. I could've used your eye, and your hands. Toting some of my purchases proved difficult and I had to count on the artists to deliver some items to the shipping office."
"You feeling any better?" JD asked.
Morosely Ezra shook his head. "Stiff," he said showing his hands that were still black and blue, with red scraped knuckles. "Another reason to avoid the tables for now." He gestured down the street. "Perhaps we should look for Josiah and see to getting some supper before night sets in. It's been a long day."
"The restaurant at the hotel looked good," JD said looked about. "Josiah went into The Green Way at first, but then I saw him going in and out of all the shops. He was looking pretty hard for something."
Ezra raised an eyebrow. "Perhaps he too has a paramour that deserves her own work of art?" He cocked his head. "I cannot recall any lucky lady catching his eye recently." He shrugged. "Where did you see him last?"
"It's been a while since I saw him," JD told him. "No telling where he is now."
"I suppose we should start looking where we parted ways this morning. Perhaps he's at The Green Way?"
JD had no idea, but it was a good place to start.
Josiah sat at his table beside Mike and watched as the bartender balanced a fancy spoon over a delicate looking glass. He topped the slotted spoon with a lump of sugar, then poured green liquor over it. He gestured to the glasses with a flourish, and then stepped back from the table.
Josiah frowned, not wanting 'fancy', but once he took a gulp of the licorice-flavored drink. It tasted strange, almost familiar, but he'd never tasted anything like it before. As he smacked his lips, he wasn't sure if he even liked the concoction, but Mike was drinking with gusto.
He took another gulp and another, feeling the effects of the drink sinking into him almost immediately. Before he knew it, he'd almost finished the glass and lifted a hand to signal the bartender for another.
The bartender nodded as Mike snickered. "I see you like the local drink."
Josiah finished the dregs, feeling a numbness reaching him like hands. Numbness was welcome.
"It's good enough," he muttered as the bartender came for his glass. "Keep them coming."
He'd had four of the green flavorful glasses by the time the doors parted and the gambler came in with the kid. By then, he could hardly see.
And the whole time he drank, Mike Garner kept up a diatribe, detailing exactly what should be done to the man who'd cheated the fine artists of Sweet Haven.
"Ah, there he is," Ezra said as he pressed open the batwing doors to the Green Way. He frowned, looking over his shoulder at JD. "He appears to be occupied," he said quietly. "Let's get a drink at the bar and allow him a moment to finish up."
JD peered into the dark corner where Josiah was situated behind a table with another man. They were both talking loudly. He couldn't make out what Josiah was saying, but neither looked happy, and the other man seemed to be trying to press a point about something. Josiah was staring at his glass.
"I suggest we give Mr. Sanchez a wide berth for now," Ezra said, directing JD to the bar and then following close behind. He pulled a coin from his pocket and set it on the bar as he reached it. "Whiskey," he said. "The good stuff, if you may. For my compatriot, a glass of your best beer." He glanced to JD. "I wouldn't chance the milk."
JD nodded, and accepted the mug when it was placed before him. Ezra downed the first whiskey and then touched the glass, requesting another.
The bartender nodded, but he was already occupied, pouring a drink for one of the patrons. JD watched in fascination as he placed a fancy glass on a plate, then settled a spoon over the top of the glass, and then a lump of sugar. He poured green liquor over the sugar and into the glass.
"What's that?" JD asked Ezra.
The gambler raised an eyebrow at the ritual. "La fιe verte," he said. "The green fairy." And then he added, "Absinthe. I've heard about it, but never seen it served before. I hear it's gaining popularity in Paris, but I'm amazed to see it here." He looked around the room. "It is popular with artists. I suppose someone has imported it."
JD screwed up his face as he watched the patron take the glass and sip at it. "It looks weird," JD said. "I'm sticking to beer."
Ezra laughed and watched as the barkeep poured his drink. "And I believe I'll stick to whiskey. It seems less chancy."
He was just reaching for his refilled glass when a screech of chair legs against wood made both of them turn.
"Standish!" Josiah barked, coming at them quickly.
Ezra turned, giving JD a shove toward the bar. "Josiah," he said cheerfully. "How very good to see you."
JD tried move, but Ezra rudely stepped in front of him, pressing him into the bar.
Josiah didn't look right. His eyes were bloodshot and dark. He staggered as he walked. "What the hell do you think you're doing?" he bellowed.
"What am I doing?" Ezra repeated. "Enjoying a drink with my friend. Come join us, Josiah. The first round is on me. Invite your companion. The more the merrier."
The other man shadowed Josiah, as big, drunk and angry-looking as their friend.
Josiah put one hand on Ezra's shoulder and jerked him away from the bar, shoving him against the nearby wall. "Explain yourself!" he shouted, loud enough to silence the room.
"I have spent much of my youth livin' in southern climes and have traveled a good piece of this country since then," Ezra said, smiling winningly. "But the south will always be dear to me."
The other man loamed just behind them. "Do it," he said. "Just like we were sayin'. Do it."
Ezra's gaze took in the man for an instant, but he returned to Josiah, smiling as always. Josiah glared in return.
"I am a gambler by profession and find law-keeping an interesting hobby," Standish continued glibly.
"You got to do it," the man hissed into Josiah's ear.
JD watched Josiah carefully. He hardly looked like himself. His blood-shot eyes were hard and fixed on Ezra. He wavered, hardly able to stand.
"Josiah?" JD called softly wanting to reach out for him, but Ezra countered him, unkindly putting out an arm to shove him away.
Ezra went on, "My current residence is in the dusty berg of Four Corners, but I have been sent on an errand with my fellow lawmen to apprehend members of the Burgess gang. We were successful and are currently biding our time in town, awaiting " he let out a yip as Josiah suddenly slammed an arm against his throat, trapping him against the wall.
"Hey!" JD shouted, finally free of Ezra. "Josiah!" He grabbed onto Josiah's arm, trying to peel him off Ezra, but he was like iron.
"You have no right!" Josiah shouted into Ezra's face, and JD watched as Josiah pressed on him. Ezra's hands went to Josiah's arm, trying to free himself as he was lifted off the ground.
"Josiah! Stop!" JD cried. "Stop it!"
Ezra's eyes were wide and he tried to kick Josiah.
"Get him!" The other man said. "That's right! Teach him a lesson!"
JD tugged harder, trying desperately to get Josiah away from Ezra, but Sanchez kept pressing his arm against Ezra's throat, shoving his weight against him, ignoring JD completely.
"What did you think you're doing?" Josiah shouted. "What right do you have cheating good and honest people? What right?"
"Josiah! Stop! Stop it!" JD couldn't get Josiah to let go, and Ezra's face had gone bright red as he tugged at Josiah's arms and struggled to get free.
"You goddamn son of a bitch!" Josiah nearly spat out the words.
Nothing was working. JD tried to wrench the arm loose, but even with two of them trying, they couldn't budge Josiah.
"You are an immoral and worthless swindler!" Josiah shouted, his face nearly touching Ezra's. "You don't deserve to be amongst good people! You're a filthy, cheating piece of garbage! You'll never change! Never!"
Ezra was trying to say something, his lips moving but getting no air. He was turning blue.
"Josiah!" JD shouted. "Stop! You're hurting him! Please! Please, Josiah, stop it!"
The other man kept shouting, "Get him! Make him pay! Kill the bastard!"
He had no choice. JD stepped back and pulled his guns, cocking both at the same time as Josiah suddenly stepped back. No longer pinned, Ezra fell to the ground with a clatter.
"Get away from him!" JD ordered, keeping his aim on Josiah. He felt light-headed. He couldn't believe that he'd just drawn on a friend. He couldn't believe that watched Josiah nearly choke the life out of another friend. "Get away, Josiah Sanchez!" he shouted again.
Josiah staggered backward, not even looking at JD and his guns. His eyes were on Ezra, who was struggling to sit up as his hands went to his neck and he gasped, trying to draw in air.
JD wasn't sure what he saw in Josiah's eyes. Was it disgust?
"Get out of here," the other man urged, giving Josiah a shove. "Go!"
And with that, Josiah turned, stumbling with each step as he made his way through the door. The other man followed.
And for a moment, everything was quiet.
JD was panting, shaking as he watched the doorway where Josiah disappeared. Nobody in the room moved. All eyes were on him. JD had dropped his guns the moment Josiah had stepped away from Ezra, and he holstered them quickly.
Behind him, Ezra was trying to get up, wheezing with each breath.
"Oh man," JD said, turning to offer a hand. "You okay? You all right?"
Ezra made a face. He opened mouth and made a hoarse sound before shaking his head slightly as he rubbed his reddened neck. He grimaced and gasped. His expression made JD think that Ezra had plenty to say, but he just wasn't able. His eyes were still wide and his expression unsettled. He extended a hand and let JD help him up.
"You sure you're okay?" JD asked fretfully, making sure that Ezra could stand without difficulty. He seemed a shaky but otherwise okay. He rested a hand on JD's arm until he was steady. Someone handed him Ezra's hat and JD looked around, not sure what to do next.
Everyone was staring at them doing nothing. The bartender was paused, a bottle in hand, ready to pour its contents over the sugar and spoon.
"We should go to the hotel," JD decided.
Ezra made a little nod, closing his eyes for a moment and he raised his hand to his neck again. Dark bruises were already forming. He seemed struggling to breathe easily.
"Okay then," JD said, looking around again, wishing that someone was there to help. Why did Josiah do that? Where was he? Still, no one moved.
"Come on," Dunne said, offering an arm to help Ezra walk.
The gambler gave him a little smile, and made a movement with his hand, denying him. He walked easily enough as JD led them from the saloon, but Dunne kept the pace slow and was ready to help if Ezra needed it.
They quickly made their way to the hotel where they'd left their bags earlier, and JD requested a room with two beds. He wasn't sure where Josiah was at that time and honestly, he didn't want to see him.
Ezra stood beside him as he went through the business of getting a room and offered the cash when it came time to pay.
JD picked up their bags and they headed to the room.
Once there, Ezra sat down on one of the beds, looking despondent, and touching his neck again as he continued to breathe loudly.
"Hurts?" JD asked.
Ezra gave him a look, and then nodded again, just a small movement.
"You need anything? I could go get stuff. Whatever you think you need."
Ezra opened his mouth, but didn't manage to make a sound beside an empty rasp. He winced, his face filled with misery.
"I'll see if I can find the doctor," JD promised, because he had to do something. "I'll be right back." And he shot out of the room. He couldn't stand to be still a moment longer, and he nearly ran down the stairs and out of the hotel, darting into the town.
He tried to find a doctor, but the man was away from town. So, he went to the general store. He came back as quickly as he could with his purchase, apologizing that he'd been unable to locate any ice. It was the end of summer and there was none to be had.
"I asked the guys at the front desk to send up a kettle and some tea," he told Ezra, who was still sitting on the edge of the bed exactly where JD had left him. His expression was troubled, as if he'd been thinking too much
"Tea always makes my throat feel better when it's sore. And I checked at the restaurant downstairs. No ice there either, but they said they could send up some soup."
Ezra nodded again, just a slight movement, and JD frowned, realizing that it must hurt for him to even move his head.
Proudly JD held what he'd purchased, a classroom slate and a piece of chalk. "See! You can talk to me with this."
Ezra smiled as he took the slate, and wrote out, "Thank you."
"Yeah, no problem." He sat next to Ezra on the bed. "You okay? Did you get hurt bad?"
Ezra wrote out, "Throat swollen. Breathing is difficult. Hurts to swallow." He winced as he wrote, then set down the slate to wring one of his bruised and scraped hands.
"Oh yeah," JD said glumly. "I forgot about that. Your hands still hurt?"
JD frowned. He started to speak and then stopped, licked his lips and said softly, "Why'd he do that? Huh, Ezra? Why was Josiah so mad at you?"
Ezra gave JD a bleak look. He pulled a handkerchief from his pocket to rub out the slate. Once it was clean, he wrote, "I don't know."
"Did you do something?"
Ezra didn't move immediately, simply sitting on the bed with the slate held tightly in one hand. He blinked and the look he gave JD was so sad. He pointed to the note he'd just written.
"But you must have done something," JD insisted.
"Probably," Ezra scribbled. He blinked as he gazed toward the window of the room, out toward the shops.
"What did you do today?" JD persisted, because certainly something had happened. "Maybe we could figure it out if you just told me what you'd done today."
"Bought art," Ezra wrote. He set down the chalk again to rub at his hands dolefully.
"Why would he be mad about that?" JD asked.
Ezra pointed again to the spot where he'd written, "I don't know."
"Where do you think he went?"
Again, Ezra pointed to the same message. .
"Well, I hope he stays gone," JD said. "Hope he stays far from us because I may not be able to stop myself next time." And he rested his hands on his guns.
Ezra moved one of his battered hands, setting it on top of JD's arm as he shook his head.
"Well, let's hope he stays away tonight." JD moved his hands from his weapons. "Don't need to see him."
JD sighed, wishing there was something else to do. He started to speak, and stopped again, watching as Ezra stared toward the windows, looking worried and concerned. Well, he had no reason to worry, JD decided. He'd make sure Josiah didn't come around and try it again.
Certainly Ezra had more to say, certainly he had an inkling about what had caused Josiah to explode.
JD wished he could figure out the right question to ask, that would allow Ezra to write a simple answer that would explain everything.
Ezra picked up the slate again, and wrote out something. He turned the slate to JD. "Did you believe him?"
"Believe?" JD asked. "Believe Josiah? Heck, Ezra, I don't know what happened, but what you did don't matter to me."
There was a knock at the door as the bellboy arrived with a kettle of hot tea, stopping any further talk.
Josiah Sanchez looked up at the stars. They filled the sky bright little pinpricks, so sharp he felt that they might cut him.
They swirled and danced over his head, as the world undulated beneath him. He felt like a cork on the sea, and his stomach roiled.
He blinked, trying to straighten his mind, but found only turmoil. Colors twisted around him. He seemed to teeter even as he lay flat on his back on solid ground.
Where was he? He could see the stars, the moon spinning above him. Otherwise, there was only wide open space. What was happening? Only silence returned silence so complete it hammered at his ears.
He swallowed, his throat dry and his stomach continued to berate him as his mind tumbled. He felt goddamn sick. He wanted to move, to roll over, but any movement made the illness more acute.
He needed sleep, but his mind wouldn't stop turning and twisting, and every time he drifted off, he saw only one thing the terror in Ezra's eyes.
What had he done?
"Stop! You're hurting him! Please! Please, Josiah, stop it!"
"Get him! Make him pay! Kill the bastard!"
He'd stepped back and Ezra had fallen to the ground and
He tried to swallow again, but his throat was too dry, his stomach too sick.
He stared up at the stars because he couldn't handle seeing the fear in those eyes again.
My God, what have I done?
JD couldn't sleep not with the memories of that evening replaying through his head. He kept seeing that anger that horrible black anger in Josiah's face, kept seeing how he tried to crush Ezra against the wall how he'd nearly killed him.
Dunne sat up, blinking at the dimness of the room, and glanced to Ezra's bed to make sure that he was alright. There was the pile of pillows that he'd situated to support his head -- he'd had difficulty lying flat but the bed was otherwise empty.
He could hear him his breathing loud.
A quick glance around the room, and JD found Ezra standing by the window, looking out into the night.
"Ezra?" he called softly.
The gambler turned toward him. His face looked bleak in the moonlight, his expression seemed lost and dejected.
Ezra's expression changed, almost forcibly, becoming something milder. He shrugged.
"Anything going on out there?"
A shake of the head.
"Any sign of Josiah?"
"You getting any sleep?"
"Yeah, me neither."
Ezra hadn't been able to drink much of the tea, nor the soup that JD had sent up. Hopefully, his throat would be better in the morning. Hopefully, he'd be able to talk and help JD figure out what was going on. JD could hear him wheezing from across the room. Apparently it wasn't any easier to get air.
"You been able to figure out why Josiah is so mad?"
Ezra picked up the slate from the table and pointed. It was too dark to see anything, but JD knew the words that were spelled out at the top of the slate.
"I don't know."
"What do you think happened to him?" JD asked.
Again, a finger pointed to the slate.
Was Ezra looking for Josiah, afraid of his return? JD had been expecting an angry pounding on their door. He'd be ready for it. He suspected that Ezra had every right to be on the lookout for Sanchez.
JD pulled his knees up under the covers and muttered, "I don't think I've ever been so angry at someone ever," he said. "What he did was so wrong! I don't think I care if he ever comes back. He can disappear, for all I care -- disappear forever."
Ezra looked toward him again. The pale of the moon showed the surprise on his face. He furrowed his brow a moment and lifted a hand, opening his mouth to say something, but only managed a harsh gargling sound. He frowned in frustration, and then shook his head.
"I don't care what you did, Ezra. You didn't deserve what he done to you."
Ezra lifted a hand and dropped them in a futile gesture. He made another gesture, aimed toward JD a patting motion, as if pushing him back into his bed. Then, he crossed the room to his own bed, where he flipped back the covers and crawled in.
He made the same motion to JD again go back to bed.
JD sighed loudly. "I just wish I could understand what happened. Wish you could tell me what went wrong. Maybe I can get some paper from one of the artists tomorrow and a pen and ink or something. That'd probably work better than the chalk, right?"
Now that he was out of the moonlight, JD couldn't clearly see Ezra as he settled against the raised pillows.
JD sighed again and stretched out in his bed. He fell asleep at one point, but when he woke again, he looked toward the window, finding it empty. When he glanced toward Ezra's bed, he could see him sitting up in the darkness, gazing out into the night, his breathing loud and troubled.
Chris and Vin made good time traveling from Red Wash the previous afternoon, and had set up camp for the night not far from Sweet Haven. It meant for a quick trip to town in the morning, where they would roust the others from bed so that they could share a breakfast before heading to Four Corners.
They reached the livery to get their horses some feed, and were surprised to find Chaucer and Toby in residence, but no sign of Prophet.
"Do you think Josiah headed home early?" Vin asked.
"I told them all to stay put," Chris said, irritation in his voice.
The livery boys let them know that the sorrel was claimed that night by a big man drunk as a skunk. The boys didn't want to get in his way and let him go without settling his bill.
With that, Vin and Chris left the livery immediately, seeking out Ezra and JD. They crossed to the hotel, and nearly ran into Ezra as he exited the front door.
Startled Ezra stepped back. A look of relief crossed his face and he held up a slate to Chris. "We must find Josiah" was already written in chalk.
Vin frowned, not knowing what to think about the slate.
"We were just going to " Chris started, and then gave Ezra a look. "What the hell?" He reached for the cravat that was tied high, pulling it away to reveal a swollen and bruised neck beneath.
Ezra rolled his eyes and pulled the end of the cloth from Chris' hand to work it back in place.
Vin stepped closer. "Burgess did that to you?" he growled, stopping Ezra to get a good look. "Damn!" It looked like the man almost crushed Ezra's throat. "Where's that son of a bitch?" he snapped, looking toward the jail, and clenching one hand.
Ezra opened his mouth, wanting to say something, but ended up looking frustrated.
JD pushed his way around the gambler. "It was Josiah! Josiah did it!"
Vin and Chris stared at JD in disbelief and then back at Ezra. Standish pointed to the slate, where it said, "We must find Josiah." Then pulled a chalk from his pocket, to write beneath it, "Something is wrong with him." He winced as he wrote, his knuckles were obviously bruised and torn.
"He do that, too?" Vin asked, his anger growing.
Ezra closed his eyes for a moment, and then started to write, but JD said, "That was Burgess. Or well, I guess Ezra did that himself when he hit the guy, trying to stop him. Reid has bad teeth and Ezra got his hands ruined."
Ezra stopped trying to write, and nodded slightly to JD, showing his concurrence.
"He can't talk?" Chris asked JD.
"Not a word," JD told him.
"Never thought I'd see the day when Ezra shut his yap," Vin said giving Ezra a whack on the shoulder.
Chris smiled a little. "Must be agony for him."
Ezra wrote, "You have no idea."
"And Josiah did that to him?" Vin asked, wanting to make sure he understood. "He choked him? On purpose?" It made no sense.
JD nodded, demonstrating with his arm. "Had Ezra against the wall and shoved his arm up on his windpipe. Just about done him in. Said he was a worthless swindler and some other stuff, like he was garbage and that he'd never change."
Vin turned to Ezra, watching his expression. Although Ezra didn't move, he seemed to step back, and he lowered his head.
"Why'd he do that?" Tanner asked.
Ezra flipped slate and pointed to where worn looking words said, "I don't know."
"He was really drunk," JD said. "And mad as hell about Ezra for something. Said he was cheating good and honest people."
Looking irritated now, Ezra wrote, "I wasn't!"
"I don't really care," Chris said. "Where did he go?"
Ezra pointed to the "I don't know," again and flipped the slate to write more.
"I don't care if he doesn't come back," JD said flatly. He glared at Vin and Chris, daring them. "You didn't see what he did to Ezra! You didn't hear what he said!"
Ezra showed them the slate, "Drugged," it read. "Something in the drink."
JD nodded. "We tried to find the bartender, but the saloon is closed right now. Ezra wants to know what was in those fancy drinks."
Ezra was writing again, "Absinthe? Something added?"
Vin frowned at the word, not knowing what it meant, but felt some relief knowing there might be an explanation for Josiah's actions. "If he's been drugged or poisoned, he could be in trouble."
"We'd better find him quick," Chris concluded.
Vin turned, heading back to the livery with the others behind him. He could hear Ezra wheezing to draw in enough air as they hurried.
Chris stopped, turning to Ezra and gently putting a hand on his shoulder. "You're staying," he said.
Ezra looked annoyed, pointing to where he'd written "We must find Josiah."
"We will," Chris said, a promise. "You and JD need to find out what was in that drink."
Ezra pointed to JD, then to The Green Way saloon. Next, he pointed to himself and then jabbed a finger at the livery.
"I want both of you looking into what was in that drink."
Irritated, Ezra wrote out, "I can't talk to the barkeep!"
"And you can't walk down the boardwalk without having trouble breathing, Ezra," Chris told him, his voice even and free of accusation. "The two of you together will have better luck tracking down the information we need."
"We got it, Ez," Vin told him. "We'll find him and bring him back."
Ezra crossed his arms over his chest, the slate still clenched in one hand. He wasn't happy. Beside him, JD had his hands on his hips, not happy either.
Chris gave JD a sharp look, not saying it, but the meaning was obvious, ' take care of him.' They continued toward the livery.
The Green Way wouldn't open until later that day, and they'd had no luck tracking down the bartender a man named Morris Paige. Townspeople were well acquainted with his special drink. Most avoided it. Some lived off it.
They'd been able to obtain a bottle of the drink when Ezra managed to open the back door of the saloon. It smelled of licorice and herbs. Out in the alley, Ezra took a swig and made a face, spitting it out.
"Laudanum?" he wrote, looking perplexed. "And gin?" He followed that by three dots and another question mark. "Licorice root, mint, basil?"
But after the limited investigation, it was obvious to JD that Ezra would not be able to keep up with him. He had to pause and suck in air after breaking into the saloon. They went back to the hotel with the bottle so that Ezra could rest. He looked miserable and exasperated with this prospect.
"I'll get some paper," JD promised. "And something better to use for writing. I'll be right back."
And he left Ezra in the hotel room as he went back to the artist shops.
He found a place where a husband and wife sold their works. The husband used oils. The wife sketched in charcoal.
"Hey," JD said as he poked his head in the doorway. Tobacco smoke filled the little shop. "I was wondering if you had any paper to spare. I can pay." He pulled out a few pennies from his pocket. "And maybe one of your pencils, too?"
The pair looked at him, but the woman shrugged and said, "I'm sure I can spare some." She pulled the cigarillo from her lips and set it on a plate so that she could turn the page she was working on. She tore a few pages from her pad.
"Thanks," JD said, reaching out a hand to take the papers from her. "My friend needs them."
"Is he an artist, too?" the woman asked, picking up the little cigar to take a drag.
'No, someone tried to choke him, so he can't talk. I'm just trying to find a way to make it easier for him to write out stuff. His hands are all torn up, so he's having trouble with the chalk."
"Ezra?" the woman asked. "Is it Ezra Standish? His hands were hurt when we saw him earlier."
The man clucked as he sucked at his pipe. "I heard about what happened in The Green Way. I was afraid that man had killed him." He rubbed his neck. "Sounds like he was hurt pretty badly."
"Is he's okay?" the woman asked. They looked concerned.
"I think he will be," JD said. "Just can't talk and havin' trouble breathin' good, and his hands still hurt him. He's kind of a mess."
The man spoke, clenching the pipe stem in his teeth, "Very glad to hear he'll be alright." He nodded to his wife and they seemed to share a secret between them.
"You know him?" JD asked, perplexed.
Another glance between them, and the man said, "We have a deal with him. I was a little afraid that it was off after what happened in The Green Way last night."
"Oh!" JD cried excitedly. "Did he buy some art from you? You know what's going on! Josiah was really mad at him about something and I'm trying to figure out what that was all about. You can tell me!"
The woman frowned and the man sighed.
"I would like to," the woman said, "but we have an agreement with Mr. Standish. We were not to speak a word about the deal."
JD looked at them in disbelief. "You can't tell me anything? He's my friend and something's gone awful wrong. I'm trying to get it figured out."
The woman picked up one of her pencils and began sharpening it with a knife. "We swore an oath that we'd not speak a word," she said. "Not to anyone. He said it would ruin the deal and -- " she made a face as she tried to remember "sow discord amongst the others."
"And we aim to keep that promise," the man said.
"But, I need to know," JD went on. "Maybe he just didn't want you talking to the other artists, but I'm not one of them. I need to know."
The man nodded to the papers in JD's hands. "If he wants to tell you about it, I suppose this will let him write it out. But you won't hear anything from us and I don't see how it can help him with his pains."
The woman smiled sweetly as she handed the charcoal pencil to JD. "I hope he's okay."
And they told him nothing more.
Prophet's track was easy enough for Vin to discern, heading off into nothing. It meandered, showing that Josiah wasn't thinking straight at the time. They eventually found the sorrel waiting patiently by the side of a stream.
Josiah was found shortly afterward. He was flat on his back, staring up at the sky his mouth slack.
"Josiah!" Vin shouted, jumping down from his horse.
Josiah grimaced at the shout. He blinked, then slurred out, "Go 'way."
"Get out of the sun, Sanchez," Larabee said. He glared up at the sky. "You stay out like this much longer and that sun will bake you."
Josiah closed his eyes, muttering, "Don't care."
"Looks like he's alive," Larabee said, turning to Vin.
Tanner nodded. Josiah's eyes were bloodshot and his color was a bit greenish, but Vin had seen worse. "Yeah," Vin said, "I don't think he's dying, but he is suffering." He stepped down from his horse, keeping his gaze on Josiah, trying to figure him out.
It was obvious that the man had been sick. The area stunk of it. Without a word, Vin and Chris hauled Josiah upright, and then to his feet. Sanchez staggered at the change, but let the two hold him up, and then drag him toward the little stream. He sunk down to his knees once he was there, and they let him fall to his side.
"Might want to wash up," Vin said. He went back to his horse for a cup and a cloth. He wetted the cloth and handed it to Josiah, who didn't bother taking it. Vin let it fall beside his head. Next, he filled the cup with water.
Josiah hadn't moved. He stared at the moving water, his brow furrowed. Vin tossed the water on his face. Sanchez flinched, closing his eyes and groaning.
Vin filled the cup again and squatted down beside him. "You might want to drink this one," he said, keeping his tone even.
Chris continued to stand beside them, arms crossed as he watched Sanchez.
Josiah stared for a moment, before he finally asked softly, "Did I kill him?"
Vin looked to Chris first, before he said, "Ezra ain't dead."
A hopeful gaze leapt up to meet Vin's.
Vin went on, "But you nearly did him in. Came close to crushing his throat entirely. He ain't gonna be able to talk for a while."
Josiah closed his eyes again, almost immediately. "God forgive me," he murmured.
"You gonna explain why you did it?" Chris asked. "You nearly took off Ezra's head, and scared the life out of JD."
Josiah blinked, water still clinging to his eyelashes. "I'm sorry. I wasn't thinking straight. I "
Vin continued to hold out the cup. "Why'd you do it?" he asked, his voice quiet and accusing.
Josiah shifted himself, sitting up. He took the cloth that Vin had dropped beside him and dunked it in the stream. He used it on his face and neck and then took the cup. He sipped tentatively.
"Well?" Chris persisted.
Josiah let out a long breath, then said, "I never should've done it. I was out of my mind. Oh God, I said things." He closed his eyes. "Things I never should've said to him." He held up one arm, gazing at his forearm the one that he must have pressed against Ezra's throat. "I was going to kill him," he said hoarsely.
"Why?" Chris asked again.
Josiah kept his gaze on Vin. He blinked again. "I thought he'd cheated innocent people."
"So you were going to kill him for that?" Chris asked bluntly. "Cheating is like breathing to Ezra. Why should that day be any different?"
Vin remained where he was, squatting in front of Josiah. He'd glanced to Chris at his statement, then returned his gaze to Josiah. He remembered the last time that Josiah had seemed so lost.
"I was wrong to do it," Josiah whispered.
"What were you drinking last night?" Vin asked him.
"I can't blame the drink," Josiah said. "I own up to my mistakes."
Vin went on, "Ezra thinks you were drugged. He thinks something was in that stuff."
Josiah thought a moment before he said, "It sure brought on the drunkenness quickly. Nobody held a gun to my head and I didn't stop drinking the stuff. I know what I did. I wish I could have stopped myself. If I could go back and change everything " His voice trailed off and he stared beyond Vin.
"Well, it can't be undone," Chris said. "Best you can do is fix it and move on." He stared down at Josiah, saying, "This won't happen again." His voice was dark, ominous.
"Never again," Josiah pledged. He met Chris' gaze and then turned to Vin. "I pledge that to you."
Vin met his gaze and said, "He was worried about you."
And that only made Josiah look more upset.
By the time JD returned to the room with the paper and pencil, Ezra was dozing, propped up with his pillows. His breathing was still audible.
"Hey, Ezra, I'm back," JD said quietly.
Ezra opened his eyes and looked toward him.
"Got the paper," JD said, holding up his purchases. "You can tell me all about this stuff now." He shook the pages. "'Cause it would be good to know what this was all about."
Ezra reached for his slate and wrote "Later". And then he wrote, "Josiah?"
"They ain't back yet," JD responded.
Ezra nodded and closed his eyes again.
JD sighed and said, "I'm going down to the restaurant to get something to eat. You want me to get anything for you?"
Ezra made a wave of his hand that seemed to say, 'no.'
"You'll be okay here while I'm gone?"
He moved his hand up and down in a semblance of a nod.
"Okay then," JD said, setting the papers and the pencil down on the table. "I'll be back as soon as I can. Maybe you can do some writing then?"
Ezra opened his eyes and looked at him, giving him a slight smile, and nodded his hand again.
JD sighed and left the room. He wished there was something more he could do for Ezra.
Dunne realized that he hadn't reached out to Nathan for advice, so he went to the telegraph office and sent out a message. Nathan would know what to do.
Once back at the hotel's restaurant, he ordered a hearty lunch. He'd eaten little since they arrived in this town. Last night, he'd only had some of the soup that the restaurant sent up.
As the plate of steaming food was delivered to him, he felt bad knowing that Ezra couldn't manage much of anything just yet. He ate quickly so that he could get back to the room, and then ordered soup for Standish, hoping that Ezra would have better luck this time.
He'd just received the hot soup in a tin container when he saw the others return to town. Josiah was riding between Chris and Vin, his head down looking miserable. The horses were kept at a slow pace.
JD felt a rush of anger as he picked up the pan to meet them.
"JD," Vin greeted as he stepped down from Peso. "How's he doing?"
"You're not letting him in here," JD said, pointing to Josiah.
Sanchez kept his head lowered, his shoulders hunched.
Chris was tying his horse to the hitching post. "He's pretty sick, JD."
"He can be sick somewhere else then," JD responded. "Maybe in the jail because he almost killed Ezra."
Josiah lifted his head and looked toward JD, his gaze was bleary but his expression looked haunted. He moved to get down from the horse, slipping to his feet and barely able to stand.
"He was drugged, JD," Chris said in a low voice. "Josiah didn't know what he was doing."
"Didn't give him the right to do what he did, to say what he said!" JD snapped. He gripped the warm pan and said, "I'm gonna bring Ezra something to eat because he's probably hungry as heck and can't swallow nothing 'cause of what he did." JD looked from Chris to Vin. "Josiah's not coming in. And he'd better stay away from Ezra or else I'll have something to say on the matter."
And with that, he turned, making his way through the lobby of the hotel in a rush. He heard the quiet jangle of spurs and the swish of a duster. He knew that Larabee was following him. Hopefully that meant Vin was keeping an eye on Josiah.
He didn't want anything to do with the preacher at that moment.
He reached the door to the room, and pulled the key from his pocket. Chris was beside him in a moment, and held out a hand for the key, knowing it would be difficult to deal with the door while juggling the soup pot as well.
When Larabee opened the door, Ezra turned. He'd been standing near the window, looking out on where the horses were tied. Spying Chris, he reached for the slate, but Chris was already talking.
"We found him. He's okay," Larabee said quickly. "Must have been drugged because he still isn't quite right. Looks like he'll pull out of this with a little time but he's going to be feeling pretty low for a while."
Ezra flipped the slate and pointed to where he'd already written out what he believed was in the drink, then added "Rotgut" where he'd previously written gin. He shrugged, set down the slate and picked up the purloined bottle as if it would help him realize what else was in the concoction.
"We weren't able to find the bartender," JD told Chris. "I was going to try again. The Green Way should be opening soon."
"We'll find him," Larabee said, his voice dark. There was no doubting that he'd be successful in getting answers out of that bartender.
"You doing any better?" Larabee asked Ezra.
Ezra shrugged again.
"Josiah's got no sense when he's drunk. You know that," Chris stated flatly.
Ezra nodded, glancing toward the window.
"I brought you something for lunch," JD said as he set the pan down on the table. "I figure you'd do better this time. It's chicken soup! It's really good, too. Everything's chopped up really small and it's easy to eat. Honest. I checked when I had some."
For that, Ezra gave him a smile.
"We'll talk to the bartender," Chris said. "If we decide that Josiah's going to be okay, we can send him and Vin home today. I'm sure Buck and Nathan would appreciate some help in town. We'll give you another day and see if you're up to it tomorrow."
Ezra quirked an eyebrow at him, then cleaned the slate to write. "Is he well enough to ride?"
"We'll see if we can find out anything else about that drink, but it looks like he's coming around. He can ride," Chris said, his voice betraying that he wouldn't mind if Josiah was a bit uncomfortable for a while.
"Good," JD said. "He can get out of here." He glanced to the table, wondering where the papers and pencil had gone. Then he opened the lid of the pan. The rich smell of soup filled the room and Ezra looked toward the pot with a hungry expression.
Chris and JD had entered The Green Way shortly after it opened, leaving Ezra to his lunch. He seemed capable of eating it, slowly.
When they opened the door to the otherwise empty saloon, the bartender looked up at them with a smile. "Anything I can do for you, gents? You're strangers here? Well, I have something special for you that you're sure to like. Oh, I see you already have some." Morris looked perplexed as he noted the bottle in Chris' grip. His pleasant tone turned accusatory. "How'd you get that? I don't let any of it leave my place!"
Chris moved forward without a word, and was behind the bar on a moment, trapping Morris Paige.
"Hey now," Morris said, holding up his arms. "I don't want any trouble. We're all friends here. If you want more, I can get you more, but you're gonna have to pay for it."
"Let me give you some friendly advice," Chris said as slammed the bottle down on the bar so hard it sounded like a shot going off. "Stop poisoning your patrons."
"Poison?" Morris looked alarmed. "No, sir! No, there's no poison! It's absinthe!"
Chris narrowed his eyes. "It's not," he responded. "You got homemade gin and laudanum in there. What else?"
Morris looked shocked. He turned from Chris to JD, then immediately back to Chris because it was impossible to feel comfortable under his glare. "I can't get absinthe here," he explained. "I heard it was popular with the artists in Paris, so I tried to get it imported." He tried to move away from Chris, but couldn't move far. "I had to make it myself, but all I knew was that it was green, tasted of licorice and well it's purported to expand the mind." He lifted his arms and splayed out his hands as he said those words. "The artists like it," he said again.
Larabee wasn't impressed. "What's in it?" he repeated, his voice dropping to even more dangerous levels.
Morris was sweating. "Like you said, gin and laudanum. Then there's licorice root and some herbs. Nothing bad. And a little fabric dye to get it nice and green."
"What else?" Chris persisted.
"A little cocaine and a touch of ergot," Morris explained. "I get it all from the apothecary in Red Wash. They give cocaine to babies for teething, so you know it can't hurt anyone. I don't put a lot in, just enough to open their minds a bit. I got the amounts just right. It's not dangerous. The locals really like it."
"Laudanum and cocaine?"
"And ergot," Morris went on. "But just a touch." He dropped his voice to a confidential tone and said, "The ladies like it. It's good for lady troubles and we have a lot of lady artists here." He brought his voice up as he said. "Some of the artists say it gives them better vision to complete their work." He added, "The sugar helps with the taste."
Chris kept the man pinned while his hand rested on the bottle that Ezra had stolen. "And drinking four of these things at one sitting is a good idea?"
Morris sighed as he looked at JD. "Yeah, that guy he tried to kill your friend, didn't he? You stopped him. That was amazing."
JD crossed his arms. "I noticed you didn't do anything to help!"
"I was busy serving guests!" Morris insisted. "And that guy, what was his name?"
"Josiah Sanchez," JD told him.
"Well, he was with Mike. Mike usually has three at a sitting. His wife's an artist, you know, and he tells me that she's high strung. Mike says he needs the 'fairy' to help him get through the day. Your guy is the same size as Mike, so I figured it was okay. And if Mike can drink three without trouble, why not four?" Then Morris shuddered a little. "But Sanchez sure got scary. I thought he was going to kill that man with his bare hands right here in The Green Way! No more! I won't serve that much to a guest ever again! Even Mike looked pretty done-in by the time he left, and he usually just shakes it off. Three is the limit."
The bartender looked up as the door opened. "Hey, here he is now. Mike!"
JD scowled as the big man shambled in. "That's the guy who was egging Josiah on. He's the one who was telling Josiah to kill Ezra."
Chris glanced at JD, and then turned to Mike Garner who continued his slow pace toward a table in the rear.
"Set me up, Morris," he muttered as he slouched into the chair.
Chris stepped away from Morris his glare telling him to stay put, and then he moved to confront Mike Garner.
"You were with Josiah Sanchez last night?" Larabee asked the man.
Mike groaned and ran a hand over his face. "I have no idea what you're talkin' about," he muttered.
JD stated, "I saw you two here when Ezra and I came in. You were talkin' really loud and drinking from those fancy glasses."
Mike snorted and muttered, "Ezra Standish? That son of a bitch? He's a low-life swindler."
"He is not!" JD countered, stepping toward the man.
Garner sneered. "He stole from my wife. Cheated her out of her good work. Paying her a pittance for her best painting and tricking her into believing some hogwash about getting her more money."
He was as red-eyed as Josiah, and could hardly sit up. "I have to support her! She makes nothing for all the money she wastes on those damn paintings. Nothing! Paint and canvas ain't cheap! Those damn brushes cost me a mint! Then this lying piece of crap comes to town and robs her? Son of a bitch should pay for that. Son of a bitch needed to pay."
His gaze tracked to the place where Josiah had pinned Ezra. "Got what he deserved," he murmured.
"He did not!" JD countered. "You just didn't understand what was going on!"
"Tell me then, little man," Mike muttered. "You tell me what that bastard was doing."
JD stepped back. "I don't know exactly, but I know it's not like you said. Ezra can't talk 'cause of what Josiah did."
Mike chuckled softly. "Sanchez said the same thing. Wanted to hear his side." He nodded, tapping the table to get Morris' attention. "Took some convincing, but I set him straight. I told him everything he needed to know."
Chris leaned forward, blocking Mike's view of the rest of the saloon. "You'd best learn to mind your own business," he growled.
"I do as I please," Mike grumbled, raising his eyes to meet Larabee. "And you'd best stay out of mine."
Larabee moved his duster to reveal the gun at his hip and Mike's attitude changed, his gaze fastening on the gun, and then moving to meet Chris' stark eyes.
"You cause harm to any of my men, and you'll be facing me," Chris said, and Mike sat back in his chair, looking cowed.
They left the saloon shortly afterward. Mike Garner couldn't offer any further information. Morris said that he'd be less liberal with his pouring in the future. The ingredients were legal and considered safe, but JD doubted that the combination and the total amounts consumed would do anyone any good.
JD figured they should have a talk with the sheriff, Jon Abbot, about this place.
"No wonder Josiah was out of his mind," Chris said as they moved down the street. "Between those drugs and Garner, he really got himself mixed up."
"He shouldn't have done it," JD reiterated.
Chris gave him a sidelong look. "I can only imagine what Josiah'd be like drunk with all those drugs in him. He had Garner working on him, too." He stopped and turned to JD. "You did good, JD. You kept Josiah from hurting Ezra any worse than he did. You saved them both."
"I was just trying to save Ezra," JD stated. "If you mean I didn't shoot Josiah in the process, then I guess I saved him, too."
Chris shook his head. "If you hadn't stopped him, Josiah wouldn't have been able to live with himself and we'd be dealing with two deaths. You saved them both." With a nod, he directed JD onward to the telegraph office.
They sent a message to Nathan, letting him know what was going on with Josiah and Ezra. Jackson messaged back immediately apparently, he was already at the telegraph office composing a note to JD. He prescribed plenty of water for Josiah to flush the rest of the toxins out of his system, and if he got worse charcoal. For Ezra, he suggested that he try Arnica Montana if they could find some -- to help with the swelling and to take in steam from a kettle to help ease his throat.
When they left the telegraph office, JD immediately spotted Vin and Josiah, sitting just outside of the hotel. He came to a stop, and glared at Sanchez.
Chris stopped alongside of him. "You better get over this, JD," he said in a low voice.
JD shoved his hands in his pockets, hating the whole idea. "He came at Ezra for no good reason. Ezra wasn't doing anything. Josiah said really bad things, Chris. You weren't there. You didn't see his eyes."
JD looked up when the door to the hotel opened and Ezra stepped out. Standish smiled when he spotted them across the street, and then stopped when he noticed Vin and Josiah just outside the door. He moved one judicious step away from Josiah.
Just then, the Sweet Haven sheriff came running to him in the street. "Mr. Dunne! They've escaped!" he hissed, grasping hold of JD's arm. Chris reacted to this sudden intrusion by drawing his gun on the man.
"What? Huh?" JD said intelligently, as he turned to Abbott.
Abbott let go of JD as if he'd been burned, his eyes wide as he stared at Chris's gun.
"Burgess?" Chris ground out.
From across the street, Vin, Ezra and Josiah took note of what was going on and crossed to their side.
"You're Larabee?" Abbot asked. When he received a nod, he went on as the others crowded in. "Burgess, Cummings and Delwood got out." He kept his voice low. "They got past my man. We're searching the town."
"They got out?" Chris growled. "How?"
"Overpowered my deputy, knocked him out cold." Abbott told them. "We just found him."
"You sure they're still about?" Vin asked.
"I've checked the livery," Abbot went on. "No horses have been taken. No reports of any being stolen from the street. They have to be in town still, laying low until they can make their getaway. Probably waiting for dark."
Ezra pulled a watch from his pocket to check the time, and then looked toward the sun. It was still early afternoon and there was hours to wait until darkness.
Abbott went on, "I got my men checking the town, but I could use you guys as well. You know those criminals." He looked to JD, Josiah and Ezra, remembering that they'd dropped off the Burgess gang the previous day.
Larabee he knew by reputation.
Chris nodded, and glanced at his men. Vin gave him a nod and took off toward the north side of town. "I'll take south," Chris said, then turned to JD. "You and Ezra check through what we got here," he said, indicating the saloons at the center of town. He turned to Josiah next.
Sanchez stood with his head bowed, swaying back and forth. He seemed hardly able to stand.
With a sigh, Larabee said, "You keep an eye on things." And with that, Chris started toward the south end of town.
JD moved away from Josiah, saying, "Come on, Ezra. Let's check the saloons."
Ezra lingered a while longer, his gaze on Josiah, as the man closed his eyes and swayed. Ezra seemed to come to a decision as he took a step closer and reached out one hand to touch Josiah's arm.
Sanchez would not lift his head.
Finally, Standish turned. JD was waiting, and together they crossed the street.
JD and Ezra moved through the saloons, searching for the three members of the Burgess gang. They'd been lucky when they came across them earlier in the open country. Now, they were in a town with people, and it was only a matter of time before the Burgess gang pressed their luck.
They moved from one saloon to the next. The early crowd hovered around in some of the businesses, but most were nearly empty. When they checked The Green Way, JD scowled at Mike, who still sat at his table, nursing one of the green drinks. Morris said that no one else had been through.
They kept looking.
They had just finished going through another saloon when JD noticed Ezra resting a hand on the doorway, his wheezing was becoming loud again.
"You doing okay?" JD asked.
Ezra made a face and then rasped out, "Been better."
JD smiled. "Hey, you can talk!"
With a frown, Ezra managed to say, "Not much."
"Yeah, but that's a heck of a lot better than before." JD smiled broadly. "See, it was just a matter of time, that's all."
Ezra nodded and gestured to the street to keep them moving. He may have been able to say a few words, but he was gasping to get enough air.
"You should probably rest a bit," JD told him, pointing to a bench outside of the next saloon. "I can check out the next one."
Ezra looked as if he wanted to counter him, but instead he sat on the convenient space.
Across the street, Josiah remained where they'd left him, having found a seat for himself. His head was in his hands and people on the boardwalk went out of their way to give him some space. Probably a good idea, JD decided.
JD still was having trouble truly believing Josiah's actions. It had been horrible to see and almost worse, to hear what Josiah had said to Ezra in those moments.
Dunne stood beside Ezra, who looked up at him with a suspicious expression.
"Ezra," JD said finally.
"JD?" Ezra rasped in return.
"I don't think I said something right earlier."
Ezra raised an eyebrow.
"You'd asked me if I believed Josiah and I told you that it didn't matter 'cause what he did wasn't right." JD glanced across at Josiah, and then returned his gaze to Ezra. "But I should've just said 'no', 'cause I didn't believe anything he said. He got it all wrong and I know that you didn't cheat anyone because that's not the sort of thing you'd do." He nodded sharply. "That's what I meant to say."
Ezra smiled then, one of his genuine smiles that hid nothing.
JD gave him a slap on the shoulder, and entered the next saloon feeling better. Quickly, he scanned the space, finding it empty except for the barkeep.
"Hey," JD called brightly to the woman behind the bar. "I'm looking for some folks. Did you see three strangers come in here? One's a pretty big guy with brown hair. Another is almost bald and he has a mustache. The third guy is really thin and tall and he talks with an accent." He'd said the same thing at each saloon they'd searched.
For the first time, the bartender didn't immediately say "no." Instead, she stood quietly for a moment as she bit her lip and then stated, "They're not from around here?"
"Yeah, you're right. They're not. They're criminals and we just brung them in yesterday, but they got out and now they're loose in town. We figure they're hiding out somewhere and we're trying to find them."
The woman starting scrubbing at the bar with a rag. "Don't know if I've seen the likes of them," she said. "I don't know."
She stared at JD as she wanted to bore holes in him, then glanced to the door at the back of the room. "They're not here," she said.
"Oh," JD said. "Okay, I'll go then." And he stood a moment while the woman stared back at him. He pulled one of his Colts from its holster and nodded to her.
She ducked down as he edged closer to the rear door, his heart hammering. Slowly, he put his hand on the door handle, listening, waiting. There was no sound.
He jerked the door open and let out a gasp of surprise and disappointment, finding only a storage room and another doorway, open to the outdoors. Sunlight flowed in.
He glanced over his shoulder. "Ezra!" he shouted. "They went out back!" And then he charged through the door after them.
Josiah, miserable and muddled, sat hunched on the bench. His mind was still rocking and his stomach hadn't settled completely. His body felt distant to him, numb. The effect of the faux-absinthe was lessening, but it still held its grip.
He was ready for this experience to be finished. Lord, he never wanted to see that green drink again.
Across the street, JD and Ezra made their way through the saloons. He watched as Ezra seemed slower every time they emerged, until JD finally directed him to sit on a bench. Now Ezra had been sitting, resting on the other side of the street while JD went into another business.
Ezra put his head back against the wall but kept his eyes open, scanning. For a while, Ezra seemed to be looking at him, but the gaze was broken and he continued to look about as JD remained in the saloon.
He remembered that Ezra had touched his arm moments ago.
He'd nearly killed Ezra. Had pressed an arm against his neck and shoved him off the ground, had used his weight to close off his throat.
He kept replaying that moment of insanity. He kept seeing those terrified eyes. He knew that Ezra had been helpless at that moment, and yet he had kept pressing down on him.
How could he do that? He had no idea how he'd ever get Ezra to forgive him. He wasn't even sure that he wanted forgiveness.
Suddenly, Ezra sat bolt upright. Standish stood, gazed for a moment into the saloon, and then spun to face him. He gestured, pointing toward the back of the saloon, and then darted off, around the far side of the structure.
Josiah stood. "Chris!" he bellowed. "Vin!" He staggered forward, aware that people were fleeing from the sight of him. "Chris!" he shouted again, his voice like a foghorn. He followed in the direction that Ezra had taken.
As he rounded the corner, he was almost ran over Delwood. The tall thief's eyes went wide as Josiah grabbed hold of him. Sanchez threw him to the ground in one quick movement. Delwood struggled a moment, trying to get up, but Josiah slammed him to the ground again.
Delwood made a frightened sound, trying to put his hands up in surrender as Vin came around the corner.
"Josiah?" Tanner asked, taking in the situation.
Josiah pointed to the downed man. "Keep him there!" he ordered, as he got to his feet and continued toward the back of the saloon.
In the alleyway, he spotted JD sitting on top of Cummings. He looked surprised to see Josiah and a war was fought in his expression. Finally, he shouted. "Help Ezra! He went after Burgess!"
JD turned his gaze further down the alley where Ezra and Burgess suddenly appeared.
They were tussling, the big man and Ezra, falling from one doorway and tumbling to the ground. Burgess managed to get to his feet, hauling Ezra up with him.
And then Burgess slammed Ezra into the wall, as Ezra struggled to breathe.
Josiah let out a roar and charged forward just as a gun went off.
Burgess dropped Ezra like a hot potato and staggered backward as he clutched one ear. "Son of a bitch!" he shouted. "Goddamn son of a bitch!"
Ezra stumbled to keep his balance, breathing harshly. One arm reached for the wall to brace himself, but the other didn't drop as he kept the derringer aimed at the man. Burgess fell to his knees, moaning and groaning, clutching at the bleeding side of his already bruised head.
Ezra looked up as Josiah skidded to a stop. He rasped out, "Said I'd use a bullet next time." But as Josiah reached him, his chest heaved with the effort of drawing in breath and he looked annoyed. He uttered a quiet, "Aw, hell," and fainted dead away.
Josiah leaped forward, grasping onto Ezra's arm and easing him to the ground.
Following the recapture of the Burgess gang, Ezra had revived quickly. Still having difficulties catching his breath, he returned to the hotel room to try Nathan's remedies to ease his throat.
Josiah, finally clear-minded, was ready to take to the trail and put Sweet Haven behind him. He couldn't face Ezra at that moment in any case. Buck and Nathan could use the help back home, so it was time to go.
Nothing was said at first. Vin and Josiah kept a slow pace. They'd spend the night at a watering hole midway to Four Corners, so there was nothing to hurry them.
Finally, as they crossed open territory without another soul for miles, Vin broke the quiet. "Was this about Hannah?" He knew that any time that Josiah returned from a visit to Vista City, it took him days to find calm again.
They continued their slow pace as Josiah kept his gaze on the horizon. There was nothing outside of the huff of the horses' breath, the jangle of their bits, and the squeak of leather.
Finally, Sanchez said, "She painted such beautiful people. It made her happy." He kept his voice even. "A man sweet-talked her, telling her that he'd make her rich and famous, and then he took everything. Left her with nothing. It broke her heart and her mind. I heard that Ezra was cheating the artists."
"Ezra's not that man."
"Chris said that cheatin' is like breathin' to Ezra, but you know that ain't true. Maybe it was. He's changed since we first met him."
"He'll still prey on the weaknesses of others," Josiah said softly.
Vin looked to Josiah and said, "He gambles, but he don't take from those who aren't asking for a game."
"Those artists didn't deserve his underhanded dealings."
"Josiah," Vin said, letting some of his anger reach his voice. "It ain't fair how you judge him. You don't know the story. You're gonna have to have some patience. You need that with Ezra. He don't give up information until he's good and ready. Don't matter to me if he says nothing about it. I don't need the story. I trust him. You should, too."
"But in the past, he's "
"Past is past, Preacher. I think you'd benefit if we all kept that in mind."
Josiah let out a breath. "I know. Good Lord, I know." He gripped the reins tightly. "I don't think I was truly seeing him at that moment. I was imagining Anthony Largent the man that cheated my sister." His expression was glum. "I don't know how many times I'd dreamt of finding him, and pulling the life out of him."
"Ezra's not that man," Vin said again.
"I know. I had no right to do what I did. My actions were unconscionable and I know Ezra will never forgive me."
Vin snorted. "Shows how little you know him," he said. "Ezra probably forgave you the moment you let him loose. In that cracked little mind of his, he thinks he deserves most of what he gets. He believes what he hears. You cut him deep." Tanner waited a moment before he said, "You're hard on him. You don't do that to any of the rest of us."
With a small nod, Josiah conceded, "I don't know why. Maybe it's because I want him to be a better man."
"He is a good man," Vin told him. "He don't need to pass a test from you to prove it."
"Maybe it's because I see myself in some of his actions. I haven't always done the right thing. There were times when I used my position as a preacher to get what I wanted. I've led people astray for my own benefit."
"He's not you either."
They were quiet again as the horses moved forward and Sweet Haven grew distant.
"Do you think he had his derringer with him?" Josiah asked.
"He nearly took off Burgess' ear with it. Man will be lucky if he don't end up deaf. Good thing he don't have to wear spectacles."
"I meant, earlier." Josiah sighed. "When I had Ezra pinned against the wall, do you think he had it then?"
"He usually wears it when he's expecting trouble." Vin gazed toward Josiah, not wanting to answer the question outright. "Probably didn't use it during his first run in with Burgess because we were all tryin' to bring in those boys alive. He didn't want to deal with hauling Burgess to town bleeding. Would ruin his finery. Figured since we were in Sweet Haven, he could let the sheriff deal with the mess."
"He could've used his gun on me," Josiah said. "Just like he did to Burgess." Josiah kept his eyes forward, watching the horizon like a seasick passenger trying to keep his stomach settled. "He could have shot me. Could have killed me to stop me from killing him."
"Yeah, he could 'ave," Tanner said.
"Why didn't he?"
Vin shrugged. "Who knows what goes through his twisted mind?"
"Was he just going to let me kill him?" Josiah asked, feeling sick once again.
Vin thought about that a moment. Not wanting to dwell, he went on, "Lucky for all of us, JD stepped in. You got both your ears still. You and Ezra still live so I figure it worked out."
Then, Vin said, "I can be forgiving because you'd been drugged. Anyone else done it, I'd have no problem putting a bullet in him drugged or not." He kept his voice low. "If you'd killed him, I'd be gone." He didn't look at Josiah as he spoke. "You came close. You came awful close."
Josiah hung his head, knowing the truth of it.
Vin went on, "If this ever happens again, if you're drunk or drugged or just feeling annoyed with him, I ain't gonna forgive you. I don't cotton to someone trying to kill one of my friends don't matter who's doin' it. You do something like this again, and I'll come after you. I don't wanna hear about you giving him shit for who he used to be or for who you'd rather he be or for things you know nothin' about. There's no fairness in that and he don't deserve it."
And nothing more was said.
"I don't 'spect I've ever had such a quiet ride with Ezra before," JD said. "What do you think, Chris?"
Larabee chuckled slightly as he gazed toward the gambler. "He usually can't help himself. He'll talk a dead man into sittin' up to shout, 'shut up'."
Ezra raised an eyebrow at him. "Rest assured," he said, his voice so low it was barely audible. "I shall soon be raising the dead again with my dulcet tones."
"Dulcet?" JD repeated. "What's that mean? Does it mean 'sounds like a crow with the croup?' You sure ain't sounding pretty."
JD was feeling good. Ezra had been able to open the doctor's office and procure the herb suggested by Nathan. He'd tried breathing in the steam and taking the medication to reduce the swelling around his neck. Whether those were what helped, or if it was just the passage of time, Ezra was breathing better in the morning. He didn't have much for breakfast, but was swallowing easier, enjoying the coffee and porridge from the restaurant.
His hands had improved as well. They probably weren't ready for his fancy shuffles or card tricks, but his knuckles were no longer scraped and bruised. He didn't wince when he moved his hands.
They had left Sweet Haven that morning and traveled the long distance during the day. Throughout the trip, JD hounded Ezra, asking him about what had happened in Sweet Haven.
Ezra rebuffed him, with silent gestures and finally responded, "The tale would take some time to tell." He ended with a grimace, taking a draught of water from his canteen. He'd give JD an apologetic look.
"Wish I knew where those pieces of paper went to," JD grumbled. "You could've written it all out and then I'd have what I want to know. It'd help."
Ezra just shrugged, looking sincerely sorry, and then turned to Larabee with a grin.
Chris shook his head and chuckled softly.
JD was fairly certain that Ezra was using his infirmity to keep from answering questions before he was good and ready.
Ezra could be pretty annoying when he wanted to be -- and there wasn't a thing JD could do about it.
It was well into the afternoon when they finally reached Four Corners. The others met them as they came into town.
Nathan was intent on dragging Ezra into the infirmary the moment he was off his horse. Standish had only enough time to hand a packet of folded papers to Josiah.
Ezra pointed to JD as Nathan manhandled him up the stairs. "You'll want to read that, too," he said before he disappeared.
JD moved slowly toward Josiah, giving him an appraising look before he came to stand beside him.
Josiah unfolded the papers, finding them filled with careful lettering. He held the pages so that they both could read.
"I, Ezra P. Standish, do solemnly swear that the content of this letter is truthful. These pages are meant as an explanation of my actions in Sweet Haven and is not to be considered a confession of any sort.
Over the past day, I have worked with several artists in town to act as their agent for a gallery of considerable prestige in Chicago, IL. I am acquainted with the proprietor, an honorable man in a less-than-honorable city. Mr. Edwards has let me know that he is interested in artwork from the Southwestern portion of the United States for his gallery.
He does not accept works on commission and will only buy artwork outright.
He did not contract me to act as his agent, but I acted of my own volition once I saw the quality of pieces available in Sweet Haven. The location of this town affords insubstantial traffic and the artists have limited chances to sell their works at a decent price. It seemed like a ripe opportunity to me.
I chose artists that I thought might pique the interests of his patrons. Since I had no assurances of acceptance from the gallery owner, I was taking a gamble.
Working with each artist privately, we chose their most saleable work and together we negotiated a price.
The artists were aware that I was using my own money to purchase the work, and that I did not know if a profit would be made. The negotiated prices were on lowest end of what the pieces were worth in that market. I did not twist anyone's arm.
I do not know how much Edwards plans to pay me for the shipment. He knows me. My name will carry some weight, whereas if the artists sent him anything unannounced, he might pay them little heed.
All profit for this initial sale is mine alone. I covered the cost of the original purchase and shipping expenses. I took the risk.
If the work sells well, Edwards has been given the full contact information for the artists, along with a list of other works currently available. Edwards will be able to communicate with the artist directly, requesting future works and paying the artist without intervention. The artists will be able to sell to Edward directly and will reap all the rewards for any subsequent transactions and gain exposure that was lost to them in this quaint little town.
I believe that I had explained the 'scheme' in depth with every artist. Unfortunately, it would appear that some among them did not fully understand. For that, I am at fault, but some people, especially those of an artistic bent, have trouble wrapping their minds around such concepts. They have, perhaps, imbibed too often at The Green Way.
I swore each artist to secrecy to keep those deemed 'unworthy' from feeling disappointment, and to keep the other artists from knowing the prices paid for the initial pieces. I wanted no hard feelings. Some received better deals than others. They were better negotiators.
I hope that I have explained myself fully and have clarified the situation to your satisfaction. I apologize for being unable to tell you directly, but there were difficulties beyond my control.
Yours, most sincerely, Ezra P. Standish"
"Huh," JD said as he gazed at Josiah. "Didn't pay 'em a lot, but it sounds like they all knew what was going on. He didn't cheat them."
Josiah sighed. "I should have known."
"Yeah, you should," JD told him.
Josiah stared at the words on the paper for several moments, and finally he raised his gaze to JD. "I'm sorry about all this, JD."
JD jutted out his chin. "Well, tell that to Ezra!"
"I will," Josiah promised. "But I'm damn sorry for everything. I'm sorry that I misunderstood what he was doing. I'm sorry I jumped to conclusions. I'm sorry that I listened to Garner. And those drinks, God, I'm sorry I kept drinking them." He lifted his gaze Nathan's clinic. "And I can't even begin to explain how sorry I am for what I did to Ezra, what I said to him. I have only myself to blame, and I aim to set things right if I can." He looked to JD. "I need to start with you because I know I've shaken your faith in me. I can only tell you that this will never happen again. I swear that to you, John Dunne."
JD nodded. Part of him wanted to stay angry with Josiah, but already that feeling was leaching away. Because, more than anything, he wanted everything to be okay again.
"I'd wanted to talk to Ezra," Josiah said. "If I hadn't kept drinking, I could've had a clear mind when I found him." He frowned. "I can blame the drink. I can blame Garner, but I have only myself to blame in the end because I should have known Ezra better. I should have just believed better of him."
"He wouldn't cheat innocent folk," JD said. "Not anymore."
"I know," Josiah responded. "The next time I hear that he's been up to something, I'll give him the benefit of the doubt." And a smile crept to his face. "Because there always is a next time with Ezra."
And JD could smile, too. He was ready to smile and to forgive Josiah. "You never know what he'll get into next."
Nathan had forbidden the others from bothering Ezra and he slept until almost noon the next day.
Josiah looked for Ezra that afternoon, and finally spotted him, emerging from the telegraph office. Standish grinned widely as he held the note.
"My shipments were received this morning!" he said when Josiah approached. His voice was still rough, but he was speaking with much greater ease. "Express delivery paid off. Everything arrived in good condition and Mr. Edwards is pleased." His grin increased as he said, "He will pay me handsomely for my endeavors, and is already interested in contacting some of the artists."
Josiah tried to say something, wanting to get his words just right.
Since Josiah hadn't spoken, Ezra went on. "I believe this was a job well done! Come Josiah, help me celebrate my good fortune." He made a fluid gesture to the saloon. "See, even my hands are moving better. Everything is right in the world."
Two glasses of whiskey set up by the time he made it to the bar. "Leave the bottle," Standish told the barkeeper as he set coins on the bar. The barkeep nodded, and left to go about his business elsewhere in the saloon.
"A toast!" Standish said. "To the fair people of Sweet Haven, and a gamble that paid off handsomely for me. Well done, I'd say."
"Ezra," Josiah said, finally getting in a word.
"Present," Ezra responded, lifting the glass to his lips.
"Would you have let me kill you in that saloon?"
Ezra sputtered and lowered the glass, looking at Josiah with an incredulous expression. "Come again?"
"I was choking you," Josiah said, stumbling over the words as if it hurt to say them. "I nearly choked the life out of you in The Green Way, and you had your weapons on you. You could have shot over my ear like you did to Burgess, but you didn't."
Ezra looked relieved. "Oh, I could have, but I saw your eyes, Mr. Sanchez. The bar was crowded and I couldn't risk such a shot indoors. You were like a bull incensed. A pop next to your ear would have been a trifle. My neck would have been snapped in an instant if I'd riled you any further."
"You could've shot me then," Josiah continued.
"Oh, the straits weren't so dire for me to attempt something like that. With the way you had me pinned, I had few things to aim at that weren't vital."
"Ezra," Josiah said through gritted teeth. "You were going to let me kill you."
"Was I?" Ezra sounded surprised. "I think not." And he lifted the glass to take another drink. "JD was right behind you and wouldn't let that happen."
"But I came so close " Josiah continued.
"You weren't going to kill me, Josiah," Ezra said, looking at Josiah as if he were simple.
"You can't know that. You don't know what was going through my head."
"You let me go."
"Not until JD drew his guns on me."
"No," Ezra responded. "That wasn't the reason you stopped."
Josiah paused and gave Ezra a long look as he sat back.
Standish took another drink, wincing because his throat was still sore. He refilled the glass before saying, "You let me loose because that other man told you to kill me." He cocked his head. "The instant he said those words, your expression changed. The light dawned and you realized what you were doing. That's when you let me go." He took another drink. "You didn't want to kill me. You let me go on your own accord."
Josiah blinked in disbelief, remembering that moment. Mike's words were like a kick to the head. He recalled it now. He'd realized the horror of what he was doing, had been repulsed by his actions. He let go of Ezra because he came to his senses.
It took a moment for Josiah to find his voice, but finally he asked, "But what if he didn't say that? What if I didn't snap out of it? I might not have stopped."
Ezra gestured. "Well, JD would have shot you," he said. "Hopefully in a non-lethal location. He's quite adept. I trusted Mr. Dunne to take care of things if the situation became much worse. Like I said, I was pinned and if I had to resort to a headshot, it would not have been kind."
Josiah dropped his gaze, and waited as Ezra took another sip of whiskey.
"I had everything under control," Ezra said.
Josiah shook his head woefully, knowing how far out of control he'd felt at that moment. He could still remember the stark fear in Ezra's eyes. Standish would never admit to it, and perhaps it was better that they left it that way.
"I'm sorry," Josiah said. "For everything that I said. I should know you better than that."
"Nothing to be concerned about, Mr. Sanchez."
"I'm ashamed of what I said," Josiah went on. "Ashamed because nothing that I said was true."
"Surely, some of it "
"Ezra," Josiah cut him off. "My words were chosen weapons, knives flung. They had nothing to do with truth and were chosen purely to hurt you because someone in my past caused harm to me and mine. It had nothing to do with you. It pains me now to know how I hurt you with my actions and words."
"We're all allowed mistakes. Some are greater than others," Ezra said, rubbing at his still bruised neck. "But, we are human, after all." He picked up his whiskey to take another drink.
"And you were wrong, too."
Ezra stopped again, holding his glass half-raised to his lips. He seemed to deflate as the glass went down slowly until it rested on the bar. "Was I?" Ezra said, exasperated and tired. His voice became rougher. "I thought I spelled it all out for you."
"You were wrong to forgive me so quickly, so easily," Josiah told him. "As if my actions were acceptable."
Ezra gave a small chuckle and raised the drink again, downing it quickly. He grimaced before settling the glass to refill it, then pushed the other untouched drink over to Josiah.
"Let us drink on it then," he said. "The next time you try to murder me, I'll get angry. Honestly, I was too concerned about the whole situation to build up any ire at that moment. You were drugged and not yourself. I was having enough trouble simply breathing. There was no room for anger."
"Come again?" Ezra responded.
"He's the man who cheated my sister. I have held a great hatred in my soul for that man. He destroyed her. The words I spoke were not for you, but for him."
Ezra blinked a moment. "Tall man? Not as good looking as I, but a sweet talker nonetheless?"
Josiah paused. "I never saw him. Just heard my sister's description. That might be him."
"Well, your soul can release that hatred. The man's dead," Ezra said, slowly turning the glass in his hand. "Dead and gone. I knew of the man and his reputation. He was killed in a dust-up in Saint Louis, years ago. It would appear that one of his marks caught up with him, putting an end to his misdeeds."
"Quite," Ezra replied. "It was a lesson to us all. So, you can put your anger to rest. It's wasted on a dead man."
Josiah watched Ezra carefully, looking for signs of deceit. He could never tell with Ezra. Finally, he said, "You were trying to help those artists."
Ezra nodded. "For what it's worth, I was tryin' to be fair to all parties, while I earned a profit as well."
Just then, the batwing doors banged open "Hey, Ezra!" JD called. "You're up!"
"Indeed I am," Ezra replied.
"You're sounding better," Dunne said as he approached the bar.
"For that, I am grateful."
"Still sound like you're talking through a mouthful of gravel though," JD said with a laugh. "Better, but horrible."
"It's deplorable," Ezra mumbled massaging his throat. "Things are improving steadily though."
The bartender returned, bringing a glass of milk for JD. The kid nodded a thanks to the man, as Ezra put a coin on the bar.
Ezra asked, "That gift you purchased in Sweet Haven, JD, did the recipient appreciate the thought?"
JD frowned. "I don't know. When I gave the necklace to Casey, she didn't say anything. She just got all worked up and for a minute I thought she was going to hit me. Then she took it and said it was a waste of good money, but she wouldn't stop looking at it, and she didn't give it back. She just kept it tight in her fist. Then, she went to find Nettie." He looked up to Josiah and Ezra. "Didn't say thank you or anything, so I have no idea what she thought of it."
Josiah and Ezra exchanged a smile, and then Ezra said, "You did well, Mr. Dunne."
"She didn't seem very happy about it," JD said. "She looked like a bee had stung her."
Josiah laughed at that, and said, "Then she adores it."
"I guess I just don't understand women," JD muttered.
"Who does?" Ezra responded, lifting his glass.
JD found a seat at the bar next to Ezra. "You hear anything back from that gallery man?"
"Success!" Ezra said, beaming. "I've made a substantial profit."
"And everything's okay?" JD asked, looking from Josiah to Ezra.
"But of course, how can it not be?" Ezra responded. "My pockets are full once again. Now, that I have a little extra spending money, I can put my latest plan into action. I've done a bit of research and I believe I've found something missed by the proprietor of The Green Way." He tugged another telegram from his pocket. "With my newfound prosperity, I may be able to import absinthe from France. It will take a little finagling, and dare I say bribery and misdirection. I may be able to get a shipment into the country."
He smiled at the others, showing his gold tooth. "Might be profitable, don't you think? I could, at the very least, sell it in Sweet Haven. What with The Green Way shut down, people may be clamoring for the actual product."
JD frowned. "With all the drugs that were in those drinks, Nathan thinks people are going to have trouble if they can't get any of it."
Ezra shrugged. "Morris Paige seemed resourceful. I'm sure he found another way to make his foul concoction available. But there is a void to be filled. I'm certain that I can find another proprietor who would like to provide the actual product. It will taste better if nothing else."
"And be far less dangerous," JD added.
"Amen," Josiah added quietly, feeling queasy again.
"Of course," Ezra added. "What could possibly be wrong with absinthe?"
"Ezra," Josiah started, shaking his head, "I don't even want to think about it." He pushed the glass of whiskey away.
"Might be a bad plan," JD added.
"Nonsense," Ezra fluttered his hands. "It's a grand scheme, and I intend to make good use of this opportunity. I may have another possible gold mine here."
With that, JD and Josiah exchanged a glance. Who knew what sort of trouble would be coming next.
Hope you enjoyed the story...comments and suggestions