RATING: PG 13 for some rather rough language
CATEGORY: OW - Action/Adventure
MAJOR CHARACTERS: Ezra 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, Trilogy Entertainment Group, The Mirisch Corp. or any others involved with that production is intended.
SUMMARY: Ezra and Josiah head home after spending a couple days in South Bridge. Nothing but trouble follows
FEEDBACK: Yes please! comments and suggestions are greatly appreciated. Drop a line and let me if you liked it.
SPOILERS: Small spoiler for "Penance"
DATE: Finished January 23, 2001...latest update Sept 9, 2013 (just some general cleanup)
By NotTasha... who's neither this nor that
Josiah Sanchez wanted to die. His head ached, throbbing to an uncanny beat. His mouth felt pasty and dry. His stomach roiled and bubbled and wanted to leave his body by the quickest route available. His hands ached. He felt like hell. He knew the feeling… he was familiar with it. Not again...
He turned his head and heard the crackle of leaves beneath him, felt a cool breeze pass over his face. Outside, he thought. How'd I get outside? He squeezed his eyes shut against the brightness of the sun and groaned. Not again…
He remembered bits and pieces of what had happened. It had started off pleasantly enough. He recalled Miss Laurel Lamar and how she had smiled at him. She'd been pretty and young, with long auburn hair tied up in a loose bun. She'd paid attention to him, as old as he was. She'd leaned over him, running her hands along his arm. He'd bought drinks for her and had charmed her. She'd nodded and encouraged him to speak, lingered on his words. She had sat beside him with her sweet smell and coy glances, and made him feel important. He remembered how she had turned her head when she saw a man in an expensive suit walk past. He remembered how she had left him to follow the well-off gray-haired man.
The drinking had started after that… started in earnest.
Sometime during the night he had tried to find Miss Laurel. He remembered calling for her in the streets, tracking her down to her home. Two houses, side by side -- two men with reddish hair. A blur of fists… blood.
And after that there had been more drinking.
Josiah flexed his hand, feeling the bruises and scrapes. He remembered more fighting and things being smashed. Glass had been shattered -- a mirror?
And then there had been more drinking. After that... a haze.
Not again, Josiah thought again and moaned out his misery into the pile of leaves that was his bed. His battered hand clasped onto a blanket and pulled it close to him.
"If you plan to disgorge the contents of your stomach," a voice drawled near him, "I would prefer that you do it away from my blanket."
Josiah blinked and looked toward the voice. Ezra Standish came into focus, relaxing beside a merry little fire. He leaned against a tree and held a book in his hands as he glanced back at Josiah.
"Ezra," Josiah muttered. Where did he come from?
"Saints be praised!" Ezra cried, sitting up and shoving the book into his pocket. "He's one of the living again!"
Ezra's shout echoed through his head. Josiah lurched forward, trying to sit up. His stomach rolled and turned. "Shut up, Ezra," Josiah grumbled. He felt it coming and knew there was no way to stop it.
"The blanket!" Ezra cried urgently, and Josiah tossed away the covering before his attempt to keep back the tide failed, and he vomited into the leaves.
Ezra was up in a flash. He snatched up the blanket and shook it out as he walked away. His nose was scrunched up in disgust as Josiah continued retching. Finally, his stomach empty, Sanchez sat back, exhausted. He humbly scooped the leaves into a pile to cover up his illness.
A cup of water and a wet rag appeared in front of his face.
Josiah nodded numbly and mumbled as he got to his feet and moved away from the leaves and the disgusting mess. He took a mouthful of water and spat it out, and then wiped off his face with the rag. He felt miserable…absolutely and totally miserable.
Ezra returned to the fire and picked up the coffeepot that rested beside it. He poured himself a cup. "I hope that you're feeling better soon, because it's high-time we departed."
Josiah glanced around, taking in their surroundings. They were in the middle of nowhere, as far as he could tell. Here and there a few stunted trees grew out of the sandy soil. There were rocks and thorny bushes and wide-open nothingness. How had he… he and Ezra… ended up here?
Josiah found a comfortable seat on a rock. "What happened?" he asked with a sigh of resignation, rubbing his aching head. "I remember bein' in South Bridge. We had gone there for…?" He trailed off as his mind refused to offer up that bit of information.
"Mr. Larabee saw fit to assign us the job of delivery boys. We brought an urgent package to their doctor."
Josiah nodded. Yes, he could remember that now. "Doc Meer. Went to the saloon after that. I remember a woman, and I believe I may have fought a few folk and maybe busted up a saloon."
Ezra grinned widely. "Yes, that would be a fine summation, my friend." He poured coffee into another mug and handed it to Sanchez, saying, "You were quite the spectacle. I believe that your visit to their fair town will be remembered for generations to come."
"Just tell me what happened," Josiah groaned. He eyed the coffee, wondering if it was such a good idea to try it just yet. He set it down by his feet.
"Well," Ezra rubbed his thumb across his bottom lip. "As I observed it, Miss Lamar denied your advances as she set her sights on a more lucrative quarry."
Josiah frowned, recalling that Ezra had been in the saloon at the time. He had thought the gambler was too involved in his game to take notice of him. "I remember that much. I went to her home."
"That you did, and roused her brothers. It seems that she lives with one of them -- the other is a neighbor. They're a tight knit family and didn't cotton to your boisterous salutation. They set upon you to drive you off. You saw fit to meet them and challenge them. It was an extraordinary row. Her brothers were earnest, but no match to your skill. They're bein' seen to by Doc Meer."
"Good God," Josiah pressed the heels of his hands into his eyes. "Did I hurt them badly?"
"Bruises and such. Nothing that a good night's rest won't solve." Ezra handed him some bread that had been toasted at the fire and then sat down. "You proceeded to the saloon to celebrate your victory." Ezra cocked his head and added, "Her brothers' friends found you there."
"Yeah, I remember some of that."
"It was quite a disturbance. Tables were flyin', chairs upturned, a rather large mirror was smashed." Ezra tsked and shook his head. "Bad luck, don't you know. It continued until the law arrived. They wanted you jailed. You had other plans."
"What'd I do?"
Josiah watched as Ezra sipped at his coffee. "How many got hurt?"
"Well, including the two brothers, three of their friends, and a deputy..." Ezra set down his mug to count on his fingers. "...that would be six."
"How'd I get away?"
"The esteemed lawmen had you trapped on the boardwalk when the sheep escaped."
" Somehow an entire pen of the breed saw fit to affect their emancipation. They bolted through the town, mowing down the sheriff just as he was about to lay hands on you. They upset an apple cart and managed to create an escape route which you took advantage of. The sheep made an incredible racket. The sheer intensity of the 'baa-ing' was ...well...impossible to forget." He raised his eyes to meet Josiah's. "Unless of course..." he paused and smiled,"...you senses were otherwise deficient at the moment."
Ezra picked up his mug again. "It was at about that time that the awning over the Lucky Saloon collapsed, thus entrapping the sheriff and two of his deputies."
"You tried to steal a darling little carriage. I remember my Mother owned a similar one years ago. Yours was quite a delicate, feminine thing -- fringe on the top -- little bells on the horse's harness -- bedecked in pink ribbons -- precious. You were barely able to squeeze yourself into the seat."
"You spent so much time fussing with the collapsible top that they almost had you again." Ezra twitched the mug in his hand and watched the liquid within swirl about. "Really, Mr. Sanchez, you must first push up and then back."
Josiah glared at Standish, who continued to grin at him, heedless of Sanchez' building headache.
"If it hadn't been for the flood…" Ezra continued.
"Of near biblical proportions. It seems that the valve on the water tower chose that very moment to fail. Nearly drowned one of the shorter shopkeepers, and, I'm afraid, drove the ovine escapees to near panic. You were thrown from the carriage when Pretty Boy bolted."
Josiah furrowed his brow. "Is there anything left of South Bridge?"
"Nothing save for a few water-logged sheep, a somewhat hapless Lucky Saloon and a topless cabriolet."
Josiah rubbed his head. "Funny set of things to happen."
"I'd chalk it up to shoddy workmanship."
Josiah glanced back at Ezra and finally smiled, trying to imagine Ezra shooing the sheep from the pen, dislodging the awning and then attacking the water tower. Josiah ate his toast in silence, finding that it settled his stomach. He tried the coffee and found it acceptable.
"Where are we?" he asked, once he had finished his simple meal.
Ezra looked around as if he were considering this for the first time. "Somewhere in-between South Bridge and Four Corners, and a good deal off the usual route. Which is probably for the best. Perhaps we should stray from the main avenues for the time-bein'."
"How'd we end up here?" Josiah asked after a moment.
Ezra nodded to their mounts; Chaucer and Prophet waited under a nearby tree. "You somehow managed to saddle your horse in the confusion and lit out of town at a fair pace. It was all I could do to keep up. I kept my distance, mind you. Nobody needs to tell Maude’s only son to stay out of the way of a drunken maniac. I waited until you collapsed into an insensible heap before I dared approach."
Josiah glanced about at the little camp, the fire, the meager equipment, and the blanket that was now folded beside Standish. Everything here was Ezra's.
"What happened to my saddlebags?" Josiah asked.
Ezra shrugged. "I suspect the mob has laid hold of them by now. I wasn't about to risk my life to retrieve your cheap tin-ware and over-worn bedroll." Ezra finished his cup and then picked up the pot, tossing the remaining coffee onto the fire, extinguishing it. "It's time we were on our way. The rabble may be wise to our location. We're not so far out of town that we're safe from their attack, and you did nothing to hide your trail. I, myself, did what I could, but it was a losing battle."
Josiah nodded, rubbing his forehead.
"Seein' as how I was the one who set up the camp…" Ezra started, with a nod to Sanchez.
Josiah chuckled lightly. Despite his sour stomach and his pounding head, he could manage to pick up the few things that made up their camp. "Sure, Ezra. I wouldn't want you to tax yourself."
no," Ezra responded.
The two men rode side by side through the late morning. Josiah kept his eyes on the horizon, concentrating on keeping his stomach still and ignoring the relentless throbbing in his temples.
Prophet appeared to understand his rider's condition and moved along at an easy gait. Chaucer, on the other hand, seemed determined to break Prophet's stride. He bumped into the patient horse from time to time, jostling the preacher. For that, the chestnut horse would receive a baleful look from the big sorrel. When Chaucer gave him a hearty 'bump', enough to nearly trip the bigger horse, Prophet finally gave into his temper and snapped, nearly biting the chestnut’s neck. Ezra and Chaucer both responded with the same incredulous look.
"That was rude," Ezra said to the sorrel.
"Ezra..." Josiah muttered, not wanting to put up with either the tricky horse or his rider at that moment. "Why don't you try ridin' a little further from us. Then, your ill-behaved horse won't need the constant reminders to behave himself."
"Chaucer is simply enjoying a jaunt with his companion." Ezra patted his horse on the neck as he shook his head. "And, if you were to fall in your current condition, you may strike your head or otherwise injure yourself. And frankly, maneuvering your unconscious body back onto your horse is not my idea of fun."
Ezra grinned as Josiah glared at him. "Of course," Ezra continued. "I wouldn't want to be crushed in the process of trying to catch you. The best I may manage is to get Chaucer in the way to impede your fall."
Josiah shook his head. "I wouldn't crush you, Ezra."
"Perhaps not, but there's a good chance that I'd end up bruised."
Josiah just hoped that the headache went away soon.
They continued along for some time before Josiah spoke again. "How much do you figure the damages in South Bridge would come to?"
"Are you speculatin'?" Ezra asked, looking at him in disbelief.
"I aim to make restitution."
Ezra sighed expansively. "But why? We've made our escape. The only reason one should pay such costs is to protect one's own person. There is no need to return to South Bridge anytime in the near future. My friend, we've evaded the threat."
"It's me that escaped, Ezra."
"They have my belongings…"
"The worth of which is only a few measly dollars. Let it be."
"Ezra, they know who I am!" Josiah glared at Ezra, not believing Standish's attitude.
"Change your name… move on. It's easy enough to do."
Josiah reined in his horse and looked at Ezra. He said nothing for a moment, meeting the conman's eyes. With a flash of surprise, he realized that Ezra was apparently being sincere with him.
"I own up to my mistakes, Ezra," he said after a moment.
Ezra just shrugged. "Do what you may, but leave me out of it." Ezra's face was placid as he spoke. His horse continued on its way, and Josiah was left behind.
Was Ezra serious? Did he honestly believe that someone could just run out on such a responsibility?
Just run out?
Perhaps he did. After all the cons Ezra must have run in the past, it was probably second nature to him. It certainly was easier than staying to face the consequences of one's actions.
Just change his name? How many times had Ezra changed his in the past? Was 'Ezra Standish' even his rightful appellation? Sure, Maude used the same surname, but that meant nothing. Ezra himself had stated that Maude had been married more than once, and Josiah had thought it was somewhat odd that they both still shared the same family name. He racked his throbbing brain, trying to remember if Maude had ever spoken her last name or if Ezra had been the one who supplied it. Had they all just assumed that they had the same name?
Ezra continued forward for several lengths and finally turned back to say exasperatedly, "Mr. Sanchez, we should try to cover some distance before nightfall."
rest of the morning was spent in silence.
The journey from South Bridge to Four Corners was usually an overnight trip, and the fact that Josiah had taken them a fair piece to the north only made their trip longer. Josiah had noted Ezra's food cache was wanting. Their hasty departure had not allowed for any replenishment. Ezra had enough for one -- and to make it stretch to fill two bellies meant that they would have to find something along the way. The effects of the hangover were lessening now, and the big man started to feel hungry for the first time that day.
Almost as soon as that thought reached Josiah's head, Ezra produced some bread and jerky. He gave Josiah all the dried meat, saying that it disgusted him and he didn't understand why he had any in his saddlebags. He muttered that he had meant to travel with sandwiches and fresh fruit, but hadn't any time to acquire these items.
Josiah chewed the jerky thoughtfully while Ezra bit into the bread. They washed the meal down with water from his canteen. The day had been hot and the two would have to find a stream to replenish their water before nightfall. For dessert, Ezra then pulled a packet of peppermints from his pocket and offered Josiah one.
"Ezra, I didn't know you had a sweet-tooth," Josiah said, popping the candy into his mouth.
"I don't," Ezra replied, holding one of the peppermints in the palm of his hand. "Chaucer does." The horse, obviously excited since he heard the rustle of the package, twisted his head around to snag the proffered treat from his rider's hand.
Chaucer smacked at his candy, tossing his head as if to show off to Prophet. Ezra smiled and patted his horse on the neck.
"Shall we continue?" Standish asked.
nodded and the two horsemen continued on their way.
It was well into the afternoon when they spotted something in the distance. The two men stopped and took in the sight before continuing any further.
"A wagon," Josiah said, shielding his eyes against the day's glare. "Looks like they lost a wheel."
Ezra smiled. "And a superb place to pass the heat of the day." He cocked his head and added, "There'll be shade beside that vehicle."
Josiah nodded, and the two turned their horses towards the broken-down source of shade.
A man was crouched beside the wagon. He stood up suddenly when he heard the approach of the strangers. He grabbed his rifle and shoved two young boys behind him. Two women were moving things around in the tilted vehicle, one of them young and the other old and wizened.
"Good day, sir," Ezra called cheerfully as they drew closer.
"Brother, it looks like you could use some assistance," Josiah added.
Ned Frailey took in the sight of the two horsemen. The big man seemed acceptable. But he was wary of the smaller man, who looked to be the same breed as Mr. Wilcox, the weasel who sold him the wagon.
Frailey had responded to an ad from Wilcox. The advertisement promised to set him up with everything he needed to make the journey from Ridge City and to build a new home outside of South Bridge at an unbelievably low price. Oh, Wilcox was a slick devil. When they arrived, after paying the bargain price for the wagon, they discovered that the cost didn't include the necessary horses to pull the vehicle. Wilcox acquired the horses, but there weren't any nails or tools with which to build their house, so money was put out again for these supplies. Once the wagon was loaded, Wilcox had declared that they would need foodstuff. Wilcox again stepped in and by the time the Fraileys left town, the family was bankrupt
Now, in the middle of nowhere, the wagon -- that was supposed to be in perfect shape -- had lost a wheel. The family was forced to stop where there was no help, and Ned had no idea how to fix the thing. He was tired and frustrated. The two boys were restless, eager to help their father, but Ned -- having no idea of how to perform the task -- was getting agitated. The boys were in the way.
"Damn wheel!" Ned groused, kicking at the broken device.
"We could lend a hand?" Josiah suggested.
"Could use it," the man admitted, looking away. He hated taking charity from anyone, especially strangers… especially from the likes of the one in the bright coat.
"I'd be happy to oblige," Josiah said as he dismounted. "I've repaired a few wheels in my day." He extended a hand as he approached the man. "Josiah Sanchez," he greeted. "And this is Ezra Standish."
He heard Ezra sigh in exasperation as he dismounted. When Josiah met his gaze, he could tell that he had annoyed him in some manner.
"Ned Frailey," Ned said with a nod. He indicated the boys that were peering around him. "These are my sons, Davy and Charlie." The boys were probably four and six years old. The two women were climbing out of the wagon so Ned continued with the introductions. "This is my wife Delores and my mother, Beatrice."
"Charmed," Ezra said, offering Delores a hand. Beatrice glared at him and managed to climb down from the wagon without assistance.
Josiah soon set to work, helping Frailey fix the busted wheel. The women busied themselves around the wagon. The two boys, who had stood in Ned's shadow up until that point, disappeared. The next time Josiah saw them, they were with Ezra as he tended to Chaucer and Prophet. Soon, Ezra was showing off some of Chaucer's tricks and the boys were laughing and cavorting about between the horses. The women were rearranging the boxes that they’d taken down.
Ned saw what was going on as well. "Charlie! Davy! Come here," the man ordered, gesturing the boys to the far side of the wagon. Josiah leaned over the wheel as he worked. There was really no way to avoid overhearing the conversation; the day was still and there was nothing in the way to hinder the abrupt words from reaching him.
"You don't give that man nothin', you hear me?" Ned said distinctly.
'Nuthin?" Charlie asked slowly. The boys exchanged glances.
"We lost enough to the likes of him."
"But, Papa..." Charlie continued. "His horse was tellin' us our fortunes."
"Chaucer can count!" Davy said excitedly. "And knows what you're sayin' 'cause we asked 'im questions, and he answered 'em right."
Ned frowned, knowing that some sort of trick was involved. "Just don't tell that man nothin' 'bout us and don't you give 'im a thing! He's one of them snakes that'll come back to bite ya if he gets the chance. He'll rob you blind -- take everythin' you got if you let 'im."
Charlie and Davy nodded and looked at each other nervously. Davy started to speak, but Charlie silenced him with a shake of his head.
Josiah turned and saw Ezra gazing back at him with a pleasant smile as he rested against Chaucer. Undoubtedly, Ezra had heard the words as well. He remained leaning on the horse until the two boys came racing back to him, eager to see what else Chaucer knew.
"I wouldn't worry about your boys," Josiah said as Ned returned. "Ezra wouldn’t do a thing to hurt a child."
Ned nodded curtly, but continued to glance suspiciously at the man and his sons.
Repairing the wheel took over an hour. Ezra continued to entertain the boys during that time. Sanchez chuckled. It was always a wonder to see Ezra with children; they just seemed to gravitate to him. Maybe it was his bright attire that drew them at first, maybe it was his smooth and enticing speech that hooked them once they were close, but there was more to it than that.
He watched as Ezra talked to the young Fraileys. They were nodding and Josiah realized that Ezra was telling them a story. Standish was describing how Nathan, JD and Josiah had managed to protect the town from a gang of outlaws while the others were away, augmenting it excessively. By the time Ezra had finished telling the tale, the rather simple turn of events sounded like something from the Knights of the Round Table.
The boys listened in silence, their mouths agape, glancing back to Josiah from time to time in wonder.
Josiah realized that Ned was talking to him and returned his attention to the wheel. As they worked, Ned went into great detail concerning their misadventures with Mr. Wilcox. Josiah listened solemnly to the bitter telling. That conman had certainly wiped out the family. The Fraileys had a difficult row to hoe now, setting up home in this untamed country with no money and only the meager possessions they had on the wagon. How could a man do something so low? What kind of a human made his living off of the misery of others, conning for money? He looked to Ezra at the thought, seeing him smile at the wide-eyed boys.
The two worked in the heat of the day as Ezra started up another story for the children. Josiah kept his attention on the wheel and listened as Ezra told the boys a marvelous tale about how Chris, Buck and Vin managed to capture a desperado, leaning this time toward Greek mythology in his descriptions. Josiah almost expected Zeus to make an appearance somewhere in the account.
Ned went off to find some particular tool and Josiah again took the opportunity to observe Ezra with the children. Standish sat on the ground with them, changing his gaze from one to the other as he spoke. The boys leaned forward in rapt attention.
Josiah realized that someone was watching him and looked up to see the old woman peering at him intently from beside the wagon. When he met her eyes she didn't break her gaze. Josiah smiled, but she continued the intense stare. Finally, her son returned with the tool he had sought, and Josiah broke contact with the woman so he could continue to work on the wheel. He could feel her gaze still on him as he worked, but resisted the urge to look at her again.
The children, who had been quiet up until then, started laughing riotously. Josiah looked up to see Davy slung over Ezra's shoulder. The gambler was spinning in a mad circle, his coattails flying around him.
Charlie gamboled about like a young lamb, screaming in delight, "Do me! Do me!" Finally, the boy grabbed hold of Ezra and shoved the spinning man over. Ezra and Davy fell to the ground in a flurry of arms and legs.
Davy got to his feet and wobbled about while Charlie yanked Ezra upright. "My turn!" the boy demanded. Ezra tried to shake the dizziness out of his head as the boy pulled at him insistently. Josiah was glad that his stomach had finally settled, he didn't think he could handle watching the spectacle otherwise.
Ned frowned as Ezra hefted the elder brother to his shoulder and repeated the process. Charlie squealed in delight as the world spun around them. When the laughter of the two boys reached an almost hysterical pitch, Ned had had enough. "Boys!" he shouted.
The demand came just as Ezra had reached the end of his whirling abilities and he collapsed in a heap with Charlie. Davy jumped and Charlie had to disentangle himself from Ezra. "Yes, Papa," they said in unison.
"Go help your Ma and Nana!"
"Yes, Papa," the two replied reluctantly.
Charlie paused to help Ezra to his feet, but Standish waved the boy off and remained on his back in the grass. Sanchez waited a moment, and seeing no further movement, went to check on him.
Ezra squinted up at Josiah. "Have you noticed? The sky is spinning about at an alarming rate," he said in a detached manner.
"Just let it all calm down for a moment." Ezra smiled and closed his eyes, clasping his fingers across his chest.
Josiah glanced back to the family's wagon. "Ezra, I need some of that money that you carry around in that boot of yours."
Ezra didn't open his eyes, but raised his eyebrows. "I'm not a bank, Mr. Sanchez."
"Ezra," Josiah insisted. "These folks have nothin'. I'd give 'em something myself, but I'm afraid I spent it all last night." He paused. "Ezra, it'd be the Christian thing to help them out."
"You're expecting me to be a perfect Christian now? Please, Mr. Sanchez, you're smarter than that. I'll leave that to be your burden. You're in the process of providing help by fixin' their mode of transportation. That should suffice."
"They're gonna need some money." Josiah furrowed his brow. "It was a con that left 'em like this."
Ezra sighed and said nothing for a moment. The calm smile disappeared into a look of indifference. Finally, he spoke, "Am I to make restitution for the ill acts of everyone?"
"Loan it to me," Josiah grumbled.
"When the sanctified dead rise from their graves to receive judgment..."
"Ezra." Josiah leaned over the prone man, his voice lowered. "I'm asking you to give it to me, now."
Ezra lifted one leg and pivoted his foot. "Check for yourself, if you wish. The vault is bare. I'm bereft of funds. The Lucky Saloon cleaned me out."
Josiah glared at the raised foot and returned his gaze to Ezra's face. Standish's eyes remained closed and his face was a mask. Was he telling the truth? Josiah could recall that Ezra had been doing fairly well at the tables before the alcoholic stupor took control of his senses. Was Ezra just daring him to pull the boot off his foot? Josiah was sorely tempted to do exactly that. Of course, Ezra could just as well have secreted the money elsewhere. Josiah knew that he had lost this game.
Realizing that Josiah wasn't going to take him up on the offer, Ezra lowered the foot. The preacher just sighed exasperatedly and returned to Ned.
The wheel soon was firmly secured, and the wagon was once again able to continue its journey.
"I want to thank you," Ned said, extending his hand somewhat reluctantly. "Don't know if I could 'ave done it without ya. Don't got no money to pay ya. All of it got took soon as we got here."
Josiah shook Ned's hand and replied, "I'm not expecting any pay. It was the neighborly thing to do. I just wish there was something more we could do for you."
Ned nodded at Ezra, who was still lying on his back in the shade. "Some are more neighborly than others," he muttered. Josiah figured that Ned must have heard the conversation between himself and Ezra.
"Now, Mr. Frailey, everyone has their own way of helpin' out."
Ned didn't look convinced. "There's those that help others and those that do nothin' but help themselves. They play while others labor, causin' nothin' but trouble and woe." He walked off to ready the horses.
Josiah started after Ned, determined to say something on Ezra's behalf when he heard a quavering voice call, "Mr. Sanchez." The voice was so whispery-soft that Josiah hardly heard it. "Mr. Sanchez." The old woman peeked out from the back of the wagon.
Josiah strode over to the woman and removed his hat. "Is there something I could do for you, Mrs. Frailey?" he asked.
"Mister, I'm confused on somethin'."
"What's that, ma'am?"
She nodded to where Ezra lay with one knee bent and his hands interlaced across his chest. "Your name is Sanchez," she stated, her voice as soft as spider footfalls. "But that Standish… is he your son?"
Josiah stepped back, startled by this comment. "Why no, Mrs. Frailey. He and I work together." That didn't seem enough -- it was more than just that -- so he added, "We're friends."
Beatrice pursed her lips and looked skeptical. "My husband Theo thought the world of Ned." She gazed toward her son, who was fretting over the horses' harnesses. "Ned, he's a good boy -- gentle and kind. He's just had a bit of a shock recently and ain't in the best of spirits." Josiah had to step forward again to hear the old woman's faint voice. "There ain't a better man than my son." She turned back to Josiah. "I seen the way you were watchin' that Standish with our boys. You had the same look in your eyes that I used to see on my Theo when he was watchin' our Ned. I heard how you talked to him. That was my Theo too. He always tried to teach Ned to be a good man."
Josiah smiled at the old woman, who watched him with bright eyes.
"You can't fool an old woman like me," she continued.
"No, ma'am, I 'spect I can't," Josiah complied.
"Boys!" Ned shouted, climbing into the wagon seat. "Let's get a moving!"
The two, who were tying the gear back onto the side of the wagon, came to attention and with a "Yes, Papa." They ran to the back of the vehicle.
"'Scuse me, sir," Davy said as he came across Josiah's bulk.
Josiah stepped aside and the little boy agilely climbed into the wagon bed.
Charlie paused and looked back to Ezra who hadn't really moved since the boys left him. "Ezra?" Charlie called. "You be all right?"
Ezra finally sat up, sod clinging to his usually immaculate coat, bits of grass sticking out of his disheveled hair. "Quite fine, Master Charles," he replied, and then noticed the state of his clothing. He brushed at it with annoyance. "Good Lord."
Charlie ran over to where Ezra was and helped him to his feet. Davy launched himself out of the wagon to follow his brother. Ezra staggered, using the heads of the children to hold himself steady as the boys smiled and spoke encouragingly to the dizzy gambler.
Ned's wife, Delores, leaned out of the wagon and said, "Thank you, Mr. Sanchez. I know it isn't much, but I wanted to thank you for your help."
"It's no trouble at all, ma'am. I'm just glad we could have been of assistance to you and yours."
Josiah stepped aside when Ezra came up behind him with a boy under each arm. Standish set them, one at time, beside their mother. Once the boys were within the wagon, Ned motioned to his sons and the two made their way to the front, where their father gave them each a hug.
"You're a good couple of soldiers," Ned said, tousling Charlie's hair. "Thanks for helpin' with the chores." Davy reached up his arms and his father easily lifted him into the seat beside him, followed by Charlie. Once his boys were settled, Ned turned in his seat and nodded his thanks to Josiah. A minute later, the wagon was under way again. Ezra and Josiah stood where they were as the family disappeared over a hillside.
"Well, Mr. Sanchez," Ezra slapped Josiah on the back, "it would appear that you're one step closer to heaven. Indulgences have been paid, and all the saints have shed their tears over your sacrifice. Now that your good deed for the day is complete, let's be on our way."
Ezra turned to the horses. He took a moment to speak to Chaucer, and the chestnut thumped his head into his owner's chest. After a quick scratch behind the ears, he mounted and looked down to Josiah. "We should be goin'. We're behind schedule already and we don't want to anger Mr. Larabee unnecessarily."
Josiah smirked. "When has that stopped you before?"
Ezra cocked his head and drawled, "Stopped? Nevah. But it is always something to keep in mind. Besides, we are less than a day's ride from South Bridge, and I'd feel better if we put some space between us and the destruction wrought upon that town."
shook his head as he climbed into Prophet's saddle, and the two headed on their
couldn't get Old Mrs. Frailey's words out of his head. Did he really behave as
if Ezra were his son? Did he honestly act like a father?
There were times when he felt almost parental toward Standish -- Lord, that boy needed direction. He doubted that Ezra had ever received any true discipline as a child, and someone had to put Standish on the right path. Considering what his mother was like and how Ezra in turn treated his horse, Sanchez was fairly sure that Ezra had been hopeless spoiled as a boy.
But, Josiah wondered, did he truly act as if Ezra was his son? No, a son was something special -- something irreplaceable -- something precious.
Miguel. Sanchez thought about Miguel as he rode beside the slick gambler. Sanchez thought about his son.
Miguel's existence had been a surprise, brought to his attention by Amelia Garcia. He recalled quite clearly the day that he had made that discovery.
had sought out Amelia in the tavern where he knew she had worked as a barmaid.
He'd come toward her, smiling broadly at the remembrance of their last meeting
-- it had been quite enjoyable to say the least.
Amelia had smiled and then called a boy to her side. "This is your son," she'd said.
Miguel Josiah Garcia...the boy was almost five when they met. Black hair, black eyes, deep-colored skin -- beautiful -- like his mother. He was built like his father (big hands and feet -- a mastiff puppy).
Miguel looked at him in disbelief. "Papa?" he asked, his voice soft.
Amelia smiled broadly. "Yes, Miguel, here is your father."
The boy was shy, afraid of the giant before him. It took a few days, but the two eventually warmed up to each other and then became as close as two people could be. Miguel was a loving boy, who would curl up in Josiah's lap and rest his head against his chest. He seemed to love the sound of the preacher's booming voice, loved to press his ear up against his chest, and giggled when Josiah spoke. He would hold onto Josiah's huge hands in wonder.
A sweet child, a trusting child, Miguel would do anything Josiah asked. He was quiet and thoughtful, always concerned about his father's comfort. Josiah remembered how the boy brought him blankets if he thought his father might be cold, brought him little tidbits prepared by his mother if he thought he might be hungry. "You need anything, Papa?" he always seemed to ask.
Never before had Josiah known such total trust, such total love. Never before had he loved anyone as he did that little boy. It was amazing to have anyone trust him so implicitly. He felt as if he was a better person just to be with the boy. He wanted to carry the child close to him forever. He loved watching the boy sleep, and would slip into the Miguel's room late at night to sit beside his small bed
For five months Josiah Sanchez stayed near Amelia Garcia. He paid her innocent visits, brought her flowers, took her to dinner, sat beside her with Miguel curled in his lap. For five months he courted her and loved their son.
after five months Josiah recalled why he left Amelia in the first place. She was
a controlling woman, who saw fit to put her hands into everything Sanchez did.
She questioned his every move, had to have everything her way. He felt
strangled, trapped… he couldn't breathe… he had to leave.
He left his son behind because… a child should be with his mother, and Josiah simply couldn't be with Amelia any longer.
It broke his heart to leave the sweet little boy behind, but he promised to send money.
Josiah glanced over at Standish as they continued on their way. Ezra was watching him with idle eyes. Noting that he was being observed, Ezra said, "You were lost in thought?"
"Yeah," Josiah replied.
Getting no further answer, Ezra did not press the issue. He pulled his horse to a stop and said, "Perhaps we should stop for a rest and have something to eat."
It was late in the day already, but not time to set up camp for the night. Josiah's stomach had fully recovered by now and was ready for a meal. "What do you have in mind?" He knew that the supplies were low. They'd have enough for supper and perhaps breakfast, but the meals would be light."
Ezra one-handedly opened a saddlebag, drew out a jar of homemade jam and then snagged a cloth-wrapped parcel of biscuits. He held them out to Sanchez.
Josiah frowned. He had packed up the camp and didn't remember either item being in the bags earlier. "Where did those come from?"
"It was given for services rendered. Masters Charles and David thought we might be hungry late in the day."
"Ezra," Josiah growled. "The children gave those to you?"
Ezra nodded as he set the parcel before him in the saddle and opened the jam jar. "They did indeed."
Josiah pondered for a moment and then remembered something about fortune telling. He knew that Ezra would use Chaucer's tricks to get drinks and meals out of unsuspecting bar patrons. "This have anythin' to do with those tricks you were pullin' with that horse of yours?"
"They wanted Chaucer to divine their fortunes."
"You should 'ave returned these things, Ezra," Josiah grumbled, remembering the admonishment the father had given to the children.
Ezra shrugged as he pulled a knife from its sheath on his belt and stuck it into the jam. "The payment was given before the order from the father. It didn't count."
"You're gonna get them in a world of trouble."
The gambler slathered a thick layer of blackberry jam onto a biscuit and held it out to Josiah. "Then it would be a shame to waste their sacrifice."
"It ain't right to take advantage of kids, Ezra." Josiah eyed the treat. It certainly looked good.
Ezra waggled the biscuit. "It was given in exchange for services. Nothing was taken. I didn't steal from those children. And we're hungry."
"If they were expecting their fortunes, they didn't get what they paid for."
Ezra raised his eyebrows as he continued to offer the food. "Really, Mr. Sanchez, they received what they wanted."
"You'll pay 'em back, Ezra," Josiah finally said, snatching the bread from Standish's hand.
"I believe we're even." Ezra pulled another biscuit from the bag and daintily applied a layer of jam before he bit into the bread. He smiled back at Josiah. "Delectable."
"Ezra..." Josiah's voice deepened as he gazed down at the ill-gotten goods in his hand. "There are times that I wonder how you can go about behaving like there's no one in the world but yourself."
Ezra's attention was on eating the pastry without spilling any crumbs. "I am sharing…"
Josiah wanted to strangle the southerner. Didn't anyone teach this man any morals? "We're goin' back. What's gonna happen when their mother goes into their stores and finds these things missing?"
Ezra looked wistful. "She'll probably reminisce over the image of you strainin' over their broken wheel and praise the Lord that they are on their way once more. She'll hope that you enjoyed her culinary efforts."
Josiah paused, watching as Ezra delicately finished his snack and then reached into the parcel for another biscuit. "The mother knew?"
"But, of course," Ezra said, pulling the knife from the jar. "She wondered if you would prefer apple butter to blackberry jam. I, myself, prefer blackberries, and since the question was asked to me, I answered that you preferred jam over all things." He looked at the preacher and added, "The father, undoubtedly, knows of the transaction by this point and would be happy, I believe, with the trade." He pointed the jammy knife toward Sanchez. "He owed you for the help you administered. He was indebted to you and is not the type of man who enjoys that feeling." The knife was pointed at the jar. "Payment was given. The debt is erased."
Josiah regarded the biscuit again and finally bit into it. "Why didn't you just say that in the first place?" he asked once he was able.
"More or less." Ezra handed Sanchez another biscuit as he finished the first.
Josiah sighed as he accepted the food. He had no idea if Ezra was lying or not, making up a story to cover his tracks. Why did he string me along in the first place, if he's telling the truth now? Josiah wondered. How could a man be so exasperating?
When he faced forward, Josiah noticed a disturbance on the horizon.
Ezra followed Josiah's gaze. "We may be in for a dust storm… or perhaps a small stampede."
"Looks like someone movin' some stock."
Ezra closed up the biscuits and jam, quickly returning them to his saddlebags. "Perhaps we should meet up with them?" Ezra suggested as he cleaned the knife. "They could provide us with a much more substantial supper."
smiled at Josiah and then turned his horse toward the small dust storm. The
preacher sighed and followed.
It took longer than expected to intercept the group. The cattle had been far in the distance when first spotted, and the herd came to a stop long before Josiah and Ezra reached them.
As they drew closer, the two lawmen could see a group of five men with about 40 head meandering around a small pond. A black dog was the first to notice their approach. She stopped in her work to lift her head toward them, alert and ready for a command. Two of the wranglers noted their dog's behavior and broke off to investigate the newcomers.
An older man, with pale hair and skin like leather came toward them on a palomino. He was big, built like a bull. A younger version of himself, on a similar horse, was at his side. "'Ey, now," the older man stated as he approached.
"Good afternoon," Josiah called.
"Gentlemen," Ezra greeted with a nod.
"The two of you is a long ways from nowhere," the older man commented. "Ain't a thing 'round. Where ya headed?"
"Four Corners, comin' from South Bridge," Josiah answered quickly.
The younger man laughed. "That ain't the right way to be comin'! You must'a got yourself lost at one point or another to be comin' from that a'way."
"We got turned around a bit, but we're on the right track now," Josiah responded.
"That you are," the elder said, offering his hand. "Lyle Gant. This here's my boy, Hollis."
"Josiah Sanchez," Josiah greeted, extending his hand.
Before he could introduce his traveling companion, Ezra cut him off. "Ezra Simmons," he announced smoothly. Josiah looked at him in surprise. Why did Ezra think he needed to take on a false name? It seemed as if he was always up to no-good in some way or another. Didn't he feel his proper name was worth giving out?
"Well, Josiah, Ezra," Lyle nodded to both of them in turn, "if you're plannin' ta spend the night near 'bouts you may as well tuck in with us. This here's the only good water for miles. You're welcome to join our little camp."
"Thanks," Josiah responded. "We’ll take you up on that, if it's okay with you… Mr. Simmons?"
nodded. "Certainly, Mr. Sanchez." He pulled a deck of cards from his
pocket and asked, "And to while away the hours…would anyone be open to a
game of chance?"
The Gant Ranch was a prosperous one, not only in animals but in children as well. Lyle Gant traveled with four of his sons and had left two sons and two daughters behind to mind the ranch and help their mother. Josiah watched as the mild patriarch spoke to his boys and sent them on their chores.
The eldest, Hollis, was no older than JD but twice his size and with a wizened aura about him. His skin was tanned and his hair bleached almost white, like his father. Abe and Zeke -- tawny-haired twins -- were a year or two younger than Hollis and just as big. Donny was about ten years old, but was an experienced rider and an asset to the group. They were a big-boned and big-spirited family.
They instantly welcomed the newcomers. Even the dog, Sadie, seemed happy to see them. Soon supper was underway, and generous portions were served all around. Josiah smirked when he saw Abe drop a huge ladle of a rich beef stew onto Ezra's plate. Sadie became Ezra's special friend, never leaving his side throughout the dinner. It took a little effort to catch him, but Josiah finally noticed the gambler giving tidbits to the black dog.
Abe came by again with the cooking pot, and dumped another generous spoonful onto Standish's plate. "Man alive," Abe said good-naturedly, "You eat like a Gant! Who would 'ave thought it!" He dropped the spoon into the pot and gave Ezra a whomp on the back, laughing as he moved on.
Ezra just raised his eyebrows and looked toward Josiah, who couldn't help laughing. Ezra looked so pained as he gazed at his refilled plate, but the dog at his feet thumped her tail and licked her lips in anticipation.
"Hey there, Abe," Hollis said as his brother came by with seconds. "You're gonna make someone a good wife someday." For that he got a ladle whacked across the back of his head and a round of laughter from his other brothers and father. Zeke, sitting beside his older brother, chuckled as he obligingly picked mutilated stew-bits out of his brother's hair.
Once dinner was completed, Ezra struck up a card game with the older boys. He talked as he dealt, telling a tale about Buck and JD, transforming a rather mundane occurrence into a riotous anecdote, worthy of a music hall. The boys laughed uproariously.
Lyle watched the game with a speculating look, but finally made a dismissive gesture and went to sit beside Josiah. "I never did understand that game so good," he said with a sigh.
"I hope your boys know a thing or two about it," Josiah cautioned.
"Well." Lyle rubbed his jaw. "I'm hopin' they've learned their lesson from last time."
Ezra was smiling and dealing out the cards in his wolfish manner. It wouldn't be long before the Gant boys were cleaned out.
Ezra wasn't so stupid as to clean anyone out. Gambling was his livelihood and
Standish knew that the only way to keep the money flowing in was to treat his
players with care. Take a few dollars here… a few more dollars there… enough
to cover expenses…enough to purchase a new jacket or two...enough to put some
up for the future -- that would keep them coming back.
Offer his fellow gamblers a night of entertainment for the pittance of a few dollars lost. What could be better?
course, there were always the reckless folk that would bet everything they had.
They would push their pile of money across the table and look up at Standish,
daring him to call. Ezra would placidly gaze back.
If someone was foolish enough to give up their life-savings, who was he to stop them? The money would fold quite nicely and fit perfectly in his boot.
It wasn't as if he had taken them unaware. Ezra wore the colors of a professional gambler -- and like a coral snake or a poison-arrow frog -- he warned anyone who drew near him that he was a creature to beware of.
Josiah listened as Ezra started another story, bringing up an occurrence involving Chris and Vin -- weaving an intense and somewhat surrealistic tale that drew the brothers' complete attention. The story, which had started out as only a curious set of events, ended up as a macabre tale worthy of Poe. When that concluded, he began another, this time featuring Nathan and Josiah and their heroic deeds involving a family gripped with Scarlet Fever.
The Gants were hardly paying attention to the game, and Ezra had them in the palm of his hand, stringing them along. Josiah figured he'd better keep an eye on them. He suspected that Ezra might be more likely to empty someone's pockets if he were out of town and if his fellow players weren't going to be return customers.
He considered taking Ezra aside and telling him that they had better treat their hosts nicely, but then he chuckled at that idea, knowing that it wouldn’t come off well.
who had been silently watching as well, finally spoke. "These old bones
need some rest." He stood with a grunt. "If you'll 'scuse me."
And he wondered off to find a place to sleep for the night.
Josiah sighed. He could join the game, but he felt too tired. After the drunk he'd gone on last night, he was just too weary to exert his mind against the gambler. He would just watch for now to ensure that Ezra stayed on the straight-and-narrow and left the three boys with a few pennies to their name.
The dog Sadie found a spot beside Ezra, where the gambler could lay his hand from time to time on the animal's head. Young Donny didn't engage in the gambling, but watched in awe.
gaze fell upon the youngest of the group… Donny. The boy leaned forward to ask
Zeke something and his brother answered patiently. Abe slapped the boy on the
knee and laughed, making the youngest laugh too. Hollis kept a close eye on him.
Ezra would glance to the boy from time to time, including him in the discussions. Donny wasn't playing the game, but he was involved as any of the men in the conversation that surrounded it.
Donny was about the same age as Miguel when Josiah finally saw his son again.
Five years had passed since he first had discovered the boy's existence. Josiah had sent money for over a year, but there was a spate when there was no money to be had. When he again found a means of earning a few dollars, Amelia Garcia and her boy were gone.
He should have felt worse about it, but it was almost as if a weight had been removed from his shoulders… a burden shifted. He looked about for them, sent out inquiries, but nothing produced an acceptable answer. Miguel Garcia was a common enough name, and it was difficult to find any valid information. Finally, Josiah came across them quite by accident.
A boy, half grown, ran across his tracks as Sanchez sauntered down a street in a tiny town near the Mexican boarder. He nearly collided with the child and was forced to drop the parcel he was carrying. It hit the boardwalk with a crash, shattering a whiskey bottle tucked in with the rest of the goods.
The boy laughed, pointed at him and skipped out of the way. He called Josiah a filthy drunk and made crude gestures at him. Sanchez watched in a growing rage -- he wasn't drunk, no, not this time. The child was a hellion and needed discipline. Josiah reached out and snagged the boy by the collar.
At that moment the child's mother ran out of a nearby store and grabbed at Josiah's arm.
"Leggo of my boy!" She spat, kicking at the massive man who held tightly to the struggling lad. "No one touches my boy!" Her anger was evident. She'd tear the man apart if she could.
"Amelia?" The woman stopped her attempt to free the child and looked at Josiah in surprise. Josiah shifted his gaze from the woman, to the boy caught in his grasp. "Miguel?"
Miguel turned to him and glared.
The sweet little boy had grown as wild as ragweed. His eyes were fierce little fires, his nails were ragged, his skin filthy. His son.
Sanchez stayed with them for two months, trying to find any trace of his son, the boy who had curled up in his lap and pressed his head against his chest, the thoughtful and pleasant boy. Josiah couldn't find a single trace in the angry urchin.
Miguel was a troublemaker; the neighbors all watched him suspiciously. He had been accused of torturing dogs, killing cats, bullying the other children in town. He had become a slothful, careless child who had no regard for anyone.
Josiah became dismayed as everything he tried with the child failed. He tried
hugging the boy and giving him gifts -- Miguel took the things offered and
shrugged out of the embraces. Josiah tried discipline, but the fires in his
son's eyes grew fiercer when he dared try; Josiah recalled his own father's
efforts at chastisement and, in the end, couldn't lay a hand on the boy.
He tried talking, he tried preaching, he tried crying….
And one day, Amelia came to him and screamed, "You're driving us crazy! Why don't you just go back to wherever you came from?"
And so he left again.
The preacher rubbed his eyes. He looked up to find the camp quiet and Ezra standing above him.
"What is it, Ezra?"
A pair of blankets dropped to his lap. "I thought you might enjoy some comfort and a bed of your own tonight."
Ezra's arms were full of provisions, and he moved off to his saddlebags to begin packing them away.
"Your winnings?" Josiah asked as he set up his bed with the blankets Ezra had provided.
Ezra sighed. "Unfortunately, they're going TO town." He shook his head and continued, "Remember this, Mr. Sanchez, always gamble with ranchers as they leave town, not as they go to town. They are much better equipped in both supplies and currency after they've sold their stock."
"I'll remember that, Ezra," Josiah said as he climbed into his blankets.
Josiah was quiet as Ezra prepared for bed. It took a few minutes for Standish to put his bedroll back together after the two blankets had been separated the previous night. He heard the quiet curses and mumblings as the tender-skinned southerner tried to move all of the rocks and sticks out from under him and failed miserably. All about them, the Gant family was already snoring -- a loud chorus in the night. Their cattle lowed, moving about in the darkness, adding their own voices to the choir.
"Goodnight, Mr. Sanchez," Ezra said once he finally decided that he had done all he could do about the uncompromising ground. "And let us hope for better winnings tomorrow."
Josiah tugged on his blanket and remembered something. "How'd you sleep last night, Ezra?"
"How did I sleep?" Ezra sounded perplexed. "In a reclining posture…with my eyes closed…"
"No, I mean, I had one of your blankets. I know you hate the cold. And, after all that fuss you made about setting up for tonight with both your blankets, you somehow made it through last night with only one?"
"Dear Lord, I suppose you did use the correct terminology. I 'made it through'."
"Did you sleep at all?"
"I'm quite adept at staying awake around the clock and was able to make due with the sleep that the night afforded me."
Whatever the hell that meant…
A dark shape moved through the camp, forming into Sadie. The black dog snuffled loudly at Josiah and then made her way to Ezra, where she fell onto him gracelessly. Standish uttered an "Ooof!" and the dog wagged her tail, thumping it against him.
They were silent for several minutes. Josiah listened to the snoring of the Gant clan, the shuffle of the cattle, the quiet scratching of Ezra's finger's through Sadie's fur. "Ezra," Josiah sighed and looked up at the stars.
"Mr. Sanchez?" came the tired reply.
"You ever think of havin' a family? Of children and such?"
Ezra chuckled sleepily. "Our Mr. Sanchez is growing philosophical? Children? Really, it would be most inappropriate. They are nothing but wearisome burdens. They get in the way of everything and - try as they might -- cause no end of trouble. They come at great expense and take years before they are able to bring in any appreciable profit."
Josiah frowned. "That ain't all it is, Ezra. Just look about you and you'll see what a family can be."
Ezra sighed. "Mr. Gant had produced a fine brood of men who take after their father marvelously. They are assets to his ranch. Not all are as lucky as our Mr. Gant. There are many who end up with a far less appreciative child." He yawned and added, "There are many people who wish they never saddled with children at all, who would be luckier without them. I don't plan to be part of that group."
Miguel, Josiah thought. There was so much that went wrong between Miguel and himself. Did that boy feel as if he was never appreciated? Never wanted? How horrible that must have been, if Miguel had believed he was nothing but a burden to everyone around him.
"Ezra?" Josiah called, but received no response.
Sanchez sat up and looked toward the recumbent gambler. Sadie's wise and warm eyes looked back at him as she rested her head on Ezra's chest, under his quiet hand. The southerner was apparently asleep, his chest rising and falling under Sadie's head, snoring so softly that he could not be heard above the Gants. The dog continued to gaze back at Josiah until she, too, yawned and closed her eyes.
Continue on with the Second Half