RATING: PG-13 for some rough language
CATEGORY: Challenge - Old West - South Bridge Series
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.
NOTE: answers two challenges! February 2006 Challenge (the Challenge of Forgetting) offered by the wonderful TwylaJane A theme fic is what is desired. Forgetfulness. Mentally preoccupied with things other than the tasks at hand. Mind you there must be consequences whether large or small. Can anything from drama to humor. Any AU that is open. And... The January 2006 Challenge (the Reflection Challenge) - offered by the wonderful AngelaB Pick an AU (one you have permission to write in) and a character (or all of them). Have them reflect on the worse thing that went wrong in the previous year (with all the reference to the previous years South Bridge adventures, I figured this filled this challenge as well - and South Bridge is almost an AU...)
SUMMARY: It's a South Bridge story! Josiah forgets a package that he was supposed to pick up for Ezra. Ezra leaves to pick it up on his own and doesn't return. Oh, and Miguel Garcia (Josiah's son from "Someone Else's Son") is in the area. That isn't a coincidence, is it?
FEEDBACK: Yes please! comments and suggestions are greatly appreciated.
SPOILERS: Lots of reflecting back to my previous South Bridge stories
DATE: September 17, 2013
Somehow I Know
By NotTasha... somehow, I know this is a South Bridge Story
"Looks like he's coming back," Nathan said as he leaned against the balcony of his clinic.
The gambler, relaxing in the rocking chair, sat forward and looked out at the horseman moving through the dust. "Ah yes, recognizable at any distance! Excellent!" He stood, and straightened his jacket. "Mr. Jackson, I've enjoyed your company this morning, but he has something I want, so I will bid you adieu." And with that, he clattered down the stairway.
Nathan followed, and together they waited at the entrance to the livery. Ezra checked his pocket watch and bounced a little as the horse approached. Nathan kept his gaze on Josiah.
There was something about the preacher's stance, something wasn't quite right. Jackson searched for signs of a hurt, but the man seemed well enough in body. He couldn't be sure of his soul.
"Ezra…" Nathan started in a low voice, as Sanchez came in, "you'd best give him some room."
"Mr. Sanchez," Standish greeted blithely. "So very glad to have you home. Now, if you have it ready, I'll take my package. Thank you ever so kindly." And he held out his hand.
Josiah sat stiffly in his saddle, staring into the dimness of the stable. "Not now," he grunted.
"Oh," Ezra responded, stepping back a half step. "Of course, you need a moment to see to your horse and what not. If you just point me to the right… saddlebag… I can retrieve it myself." His gaze racked the preacher's saddle. "You did pick it up, didn't you?"
Josiah didn't answer. Rather, he swung himself down from Prophet, brushing Ezra further back in the process. "Forget about it, Ezra."
Ezra stumbled out of the way. "Surely, you have it," he continued and laughed lightly. "You're teasing me."
"Ezra," Nathan said again, pressing a hand on the gambler's shoulder, and pulling him further away. Standish shot him an unhappy look at being jostled again.
"I don't have anything for you," Josiah responded bluntly.
"Josiah," Ezra persisted, "You promised …" he lingered on the word a moment, licked his lips and started again. "You promised me that you would stop at the Twice-Shy Saloon in Red Rock on your return journey from Clarkston. You assured me that you would be able to retrieve a package for me."
"I didn't," Josiah told him sharply. "I didn't have time for it."
"No time?" Ezra responded incredulously. "It's before noon. You were passing through Red Rock. Surely, you had time for one quick stop and enjoy a drink or two? There's only one saloon in Red Rock, after all."
Josiah gave Ezra a dark look.
"Josiah," Nathan put in, studying his friend. "You alright?"
"Fine!" Josiah spat out. "I'm fine, Nathan."
And Nathan closed his eyes, recognizing the slur of words and the smell of alcohol. Anger radiated off the man.
Ezra hadn't heeded the warnings. "Did you forget?" he persisted. "Maybe old age and a low tolerance for alcohol has caught up with you at last?"
With that, Josiah rounded on Ezra, his fist drawn back, and only Nathan's quick shove kept Standish from harm, Ezra stumbled at this latest rebuke and fell hard on his butt.
"Josiah," Nathan said softly, urgently, "Calm down!"
Josiah breathed heavily, the whiskey evident. Damn, Nathan thought. He knew that Ezra loved to antagonize the preacher, but he was poking a hornets' nest now. He furrowed his brow, watching the look that Josiah fixed on Ezra.
Ezra jumped to his feet, slapping at his pants and jacket and shouting, "Now see here! I will not be treated this way!"
"Just send your package on the next freight wagon," the healer told Ezra.
Standish did not look pleased. "Oh, I would've if Josiah hadn't already promised that it 'wouldn't be a problem'. Look there," and he pointed to the dust cloud that was approaching town from the same road that Josiah had used. "The freight wagon is coming now and won't be through again for another week."
Sanchez gazed at Standish through red-rimmed, unfocused eyes and mumbled, "I had better things that needed doing."
Ezra set his shoulders as he said petulantly, "I wish you would've let me know earlier that you had no plans to assist me, old man. The freight wagon is inconsistent, but at least it arrives with what was promised, and doesn't try to assault me."
"Always tryin' to take advantage of people," Josiah said in a low voice. "Just tryin' to make me hop for you."
"Now, Josiah," Nathan tried to soothe.
"Should never have counted on you," Ezra said as he moved into the livery. "Somehow… I should have known this would happen."
Josiah continued to lean against the outside wall as Nathan kept close watch on him. Something was clearly bothering Sanchez, something more the drink, something directed at Ezra. Maybe it was best that Standish put some space between them.
Ezra paused as he rode Chaucer through the doorway. "I'll be back before sundown," Ezra told Jackson. "I've promised Mr. Dunne that I'd meet him and Buck for dinner. For some reason they think I should pay." He sighed theatrically. "It was a lousy turn of cards."
"Ezra…" Nathan said. "He didn't mean to forget it. You know that." Jackson didn't understand what was troubling the preacher, but he'd get to the bottom of it. He could, at least, reason with Ezra at that moment. "Just, go easy on him, okay?" He glanced to Ezra, but returned his gaze to Josiah, who glowered at the gambler.
"I need to go easy?" Ezra repeated. "When has anyone ever gone easy on me?" He lifted a hand toward Josiah. "Every time I have gone to him for help, for favor, for advice, it comes back to bite me."
"You're leaving?" Josiah said, his voice low and ominous. "Then get out!"
Ezra closed his eyes a moment and then looked toward Nathan, touching the brim of his hat. With an easy movement, he directed Chaucer out of town.
"Come on, Josiah," Nathan said tiredly, once Ezra was away. He forced a shoulder under his friend's arm. "We need to get you to bed before you cause any more damage. I'll see to Prophet when I get you settled."
As he muscled Josiah toward the church, Nathan watched Ezra. The gambler paused his horse by the freight wagon when he reached it. He spoke briefly to the driver, probably checking to ensure that his package wasn't included in the load. The driver talked, and Ezra gazed back at them.
And after a moment, Ezra turned and continued to Red Rock.
The voices were muffled. The room was dark.
"He ain't back yet?"
"Nope, not yet."
"He was supposed to meet up with Buck and JD for dinner."
"He'll get caught up in a game of poker sometimes. Loses track of time."
"Yeah, that explains it."
Josiah rolled over slowly, finding himself in his own room. The voices came in through the door to the church. He felt sticky and tired and sick and miserable and in desperate need of a drink. He sat up and then tried to stand, but his balance left him, and he fell against a bedside chair.
"Josiah?" the door opened quickly and Nathan peeked in with a lantern. "You okay?"
Josiah swallowed and nodded. "Been better," he admitted.
The door opened wider to reveal Chris standing beside Nathan. "What you been up to, Preacher Man?" Larabee asked.
Josiah grimaced as he stood carefully. "Nothin' good," he responded. He made his way to the door, and the others backed away as he shuffled into the church.
"How did things go in Clarkston?" Chris asked.
"Fine," Josiah responded. "No trouble."
"What happened, then?" Nathan asked gently. "You don't get like this unless…well, unless something happens."
With a groan and a sigh, Josiah lowered himself to one of the church pews and buried his head in his hands. "I need a drink," he mumbled.
Nathan sighed. "Maybe, you can tell us what went on first."
"I received some news. That's all." Josiah rubbed his face dolefully, wanting to be left alone.
Josiah could hear Nathan moving about. He looked up to see the healer at the stove, stoking a smoldering fire. Josiah's hands stayed on his face, wanting to rub away the ache in his head, wishing he could wipe it all away.
"Why're you here?" Josiah asked.
Nathan said, "I was just stopping by to check on you. Chris figured he'd come along to check on Clarkston. I was worried about how you were acting. You were pretty rough on Ezra."
"What was this news?" Chris put in. "Anything I need to worry about?"
With a long sigh, Josiah decided he'd better say something. "You know about my son…" he started.
"Miguel," Chris quickly replied. "He almost killed Ezra last time you met up."
"I told you he shot at Ezra only because Ezra shot at him." Josiah had replayed that moment often in his head, trying to remember it all correctly. He'd startled Miguel, letting it slip that they were lawmen, and then moved too quickly. Miguel had drawn on them, and Ezra shot first, hitting Miguel in the arm. Miguel responded, hitting Ezra low on his torso – carving a gouge above his hip. Neither wound was fatal. Both had shot in self-defense, and – in the end – Josiah was at fault for having startled his son.
Then Nathan reminded, "Garcia tossed his own baby child into the Banyon River."
"Miguel didn't mean to," Josiah said softly, watching as Nathan poked at the fire. "When he's drunk he doesn't… " and he stopped talking, remembering how the child had been accidentally dropped, and how Ezra dove in after the child. Josiah recalled how he'd chased the river, how he found them, and how he searched for Ezra after the child had been safely retrieved.
Chris pulled a cheroot from his pocket. "Is Miguel still in Mexico?" He question hung in the dim room, as if Chris already knew what the answer would be.
Josiah pulled his hands from his face and stared off into a dark corner behind the pulpit. "I was in Red Rock, on my way home, when I saw their newspaper. It had a story about him," he said in a quiet voice. "Mentioned that he'd been seen in the area."
Nathan settled a kettle on the stove and exchanged a look with Chris.
"In what area?" Chris asked. "Red Rock?"
"Near Skunkwater," Josiah said quietly.
Chris made a disgusted sound, and leaned close to the stove to light his cigar. Nobody spoke for several moments as he puffed to get the cheroot started.
Finally, Larabee asked, "Is he going to give us any trouble?"
Josiah responded, "I think he's trying to lay low and avoid getting locked up. He knows that we're lawmen here. I think he'll stay away." He'd been accused of killing two men in South Bridge, Mr. Watkins, and then Sheriff Hughes in his escape. If he was caught, there'd be a good chance that he'd hang.
"Do you want to see him?" Nathan asked.
Josiah blew out a breath, and muttered, "He's my flesh-and-blood. A father yearns for his own sometimes." And he looked to Chris.
Chris said nothing as he worked the cigar in the corner of his mouth.
"And my grandson…" Josiah added, and something in his attitude changed – an anger crossed over him. "…I need to see my grandson again."
Nobody spoke for several moments.
Finally, Nathan stated, "Miguel's out there? And Ezra hasn't returned. I don't like that."
Josiah insisted, "Miguel doesn't wants anything to do with us. There's no reason for him to go after Ezra. He didn't want Ezra along the first time."
Chris shook his head, and stood. "I'll talk to Winston in the morning. Send a wire. See what they say in Red Rock."
Josiah just sunk into the pew as the water on the stove started to boil, and Chris went out the door.
The story in the Red Rock newspaper had shocked Josiah. It mentioned that Miguel had been spotted near Skunkwater. The townsfolk thought he was in the nearby caves. It detailed the murders in South Bridge from years ago, talked about the other possible murder from years earlier. It described Miguel in detail, also mentioning that his Swedish wife was with him – the one who'd helped him escape before. Nothing was noted regarding their son Per, who would be 4 or 5 years old now.
When he read the story, Josiah's first thoughts were of Per. How he longed to hold his grandson again. He had often recalled those moments, when the pretty boy had played in his lap. He was so perfect!
And a year ago, when hope returned – burning like a brand – when he thought he'd found little Per, adopted by the Henson family near South Bridge. But Ezra had convinced him that child wasn't his… wasn't Miguel and Kerstin's.
Josiah still dreamed, wondering and wishing that little Caleb Henson was his grandson.
And the more he thought about it, the more he realized it was possible that Ezra had led him astray. Josiah had been so sure that the foundling Caleb had been his Per. It was Ezra that dissuaded him so convincingly, saying that Kerstin would never leave her child. And yet, Miguel and Kerstin were back and there was no mention of their son –
Had Ezra tricked him into leaving his child with the Hensons? Hadn't Ezra said that a child might be better off with adopted parents? Standish might've had difficult relationships with his own parents, but it gave him no right to con anyone out of their own grandchild.
Damn him! Damn that self-serving con artist! Always trying to bend people to do his will!
Standish had ruined Josiah's chance at being a grandfather.
So many thoughts had rushed through Josiah's head when he read the newspaper story. He should have gone to Skunkwater to find Miguel, to see if Per was with him. Instead – he drank, and then, just went home.
Josiah looked up when Nathan pressed a coffee mug into his hand. Nathan joined him on the pew with his own mug and they sat in companionable silence.
Nathan was his closest friend. Chris – was his leader. He'd never expected to need one in his life, but the man gave him confidence and a reason to get up every morning. Vin had such a rich and deep soul – Josiah appreciated being in his presence. Buck was loyal and vital and amazing story teller. JD's youthful exuberance was a joy to behold. Ezra – well, Ezra…
There were so many times that Ezra had given him grief. Standish seemed bent on saying the exact words that'd get his blood boiling -- casual, flippant, irascible, irritating, untruthful…
And there was the other kind of grief – like the time Ezra had led the Holloway boys on a merry goose chase away from a wounded JD, letting everyone think he'd died in the process. And there was the time Ezra had been hit on the head and wouldn't wake up, back when they were somewhere in-between here and South Bridge. And when he'd almost drowned in the Banyon River, saving little Per, and again into the Banyon to save a young man who'd fallen in at an ill-conceived river crossing.
Josiah could never figure out Standish. He was a gadfly, a goad, always tipping toward the night in his ways, but somehow ending up on the side of angels.
And now… now he'd allowed Ezra to leave for Red Rock alone, not telling him that Miguel was out there.
Josiah couldn't kid himself. His head was clearer now, and he knew that if those two crossed paths, it would not end well. And Ezra hadn't returned before sundown – as he had promised.
Damn, what'd happened to him?
Josiah lowered his head, feeling ashamed. "I forgot," he said quietly.
"Hmm?" Nathan responded, not ready for words at that moment.
"I forgot. Even before I read the story in the newspaper. Even before I started drinking," Josiah sighed. "I'd forgotten that I'd promised Ezra that I'd pick up that package in Red Rock. It wasn't even that I was angry with him then. I just… forgot."
"Angry?" Nathan asked. "Why were you angry at Ezra?"
Josiah shook his head sharply, not wanting to get into the reason why.
Nathan said, "It's nothing, Josiah. People forget things, and others should forgive. Ezra probably ashamed of being so upset about it now."
"I promised him I'd do a simple favor. It was such a small thing. It just slipped my mind when the time came. Then I talked to him like that."
"He'll get over it."
"He should've returned by now."
"He'll be back in the morning… or rather the late afternoon – what was I thinking?" and Nathan chuckled lightly, but when Josiah looked at him, Sanchez saw a tightness in his friend's expression. Nathan was worried.
And Josiah let out a low breath. "I should have told him…"
With dawn, Josiah and Nathan met up with Chris at the jail, and waited. When Winston Juje's youngest child rushed in, they were all on their feet in an instant.
The girl shyly held up the telegram and handed it to Chris. She whipped around and was out of the jail like a shot.
"What's it say?" Nathan asked urgently
Josiah waited, somehow he knew what the note would say – because that's how things worked for him.
Chris scowled as he read and then stated, "He wasn't seen in Red Rock last night." He looked up at the others. "His package hasn't been picked up."
"I'll get the boys," Nathan stated and headed to the door, mumbling, "And then I'll stop by the clinic for supplies."
Chris stared at Josiah as they stood waiting for the others. "You didn't tell him about Garcia," Larabee stated flatly, not really a question.
"I didn't," Josiah responded. "I forgot."
Chris didn't drop his steel gaze for several moments, until Josiah dropped his and moved toward the door. Once on the boardwalk, he made his way toward the livery.
"Wait for the rest of us, Josiah," Larabee said, with a threat in his voice.
"You can't hold me," Josiah responded without stopping.
Chris watched him go, watched him enter the livery at a quick clip, and leave on Prophet shortly afterward.
He turned toward his room to get what he needed for the journey.
Ezra awoke slowly, drawn out by pain.
His head banged mercilessly. His stomach ached, and his whole body felt weak and abused. Something sticky coated the back of his head most uncomfortably.
His cheek jostled against something warm. His arms hung. He felt folded. He was moving, moving constantly. He breathed in horse and leather. He heard the movement of hooves and the jangle of a bridle.
Every movement hurt.
God, he was going to be sick. He swallowed dryly.
'What happened? Why? How…'
Darkness swam. Slowly, he opened his eyes. Eyelashes fluttered and he felt the stab of light hit his brain. God!
He saw the brown curve of an equine side, a saddle, and below him, dirt and rock. He swallowed again, not wanting to vomit. Knowing he probably would.
'Why? What? 'Where?'
He had no idea, no thought, just the ache and the pain and no memories to tell him what had happened, and nobody who would explain it to him.
The horse took a small leap, and pain jolted through him. He gasped and fell back into blackness..
At Falling Cross, Josiah paused. If he took one road, it would bring him to Red Rock -- another path led to Skunkwater. He contemplated a moment – whether to go to Red Rock, where Ezra was supposed to be – or to Skunkwater, where Miguel was supposed to be.
Prophet blew out a breath and waited.
Josiah had already made up his mind, and there was one more road that led away from that crossroads – the road to South Bridge and toward the Henson property, where that little adopted boy lived.
"That's where Miguel would go," Josiah said out loud. "I can retrieve my grandson, take care of him, be his grandfather. I can raise him as my own." He gave his horse a kick to bring Prophet to a faster pace, to get them out of sight before the others reached this same spot.
He didn't know exactly why he wanted to be apart from them. If he was right, it would be good to have the others with him, to help him stop Miguel from taking that child.
But then, they might try to separate him from his grandchild, just as Ezra had managed a year ago. As his hands gripped the reins, he knew he couldn't let that happen again.
And there was the other possibility – if he was wrong. If he was wrong, and Caleb Hanson wasn't Per Garcia… Josiah really didn't want the others around to witness it.
By the time Vin, Chris, Buck, JD and Nathan reached Falling Cross, there was no one in sight. They contemplated the area for a short time, trying to determine which way Josiah might have gone, trying to decipher if there was any trace of Ezra, but the crossroads was a well-traveled place, churned up by many hooves and wagon wheels. Even Vin couldn't be certain.
In the end, they split up. Chris, Vin and Nathan went to Skunkwater where Miguel Sanchez should be hiding. Buck and JD moved on to Red Rock, hoping to run into Ezra along the way, hoping to find out that his horse had lost a shoe and he was biding his time, waiting for someone to happen along.
As they moved off in different directions, Nathan looked over his shoulder, to the other road – to the road toward South Bridge, and he wondered.
In the end, all he could do was mutter, "Nothing good ever comes out of South Bridge," and turned toward Skunkwater, hoping that they'd catch up with Josiah or find Ezra and that nothing would be out of sorts.
But there was nothing to be found in Skunkwater – not Miguel nor Josiah nor Ezra. The residents of the hot-spring town knew of Garcia, and pointed out the caves. They'd hadn't seen him in days. A search of the town brought up nothing, and a wire from Red Rock brought no good news --- Buck and JD had come up empty.
So they searched the caves. They searched all day. Buck and JD had time to join them.
They found signs that someone had spent time in some of them – but they did not come across Miguel, Kerstin or Per. They found no sign of Ezra, no sign of Josiah either.
They kept looking.
He felt the cool on his face and sighed. He'd awakened more than once during the journey, had been sick more than once, had heard someone snicker every time he'd retched, but hadn't stayed awake for long at any time.
His mind was clearing and he blinked in an attempt to remain aware for a longer this time, long enough to figure out where he was, to decipher what was happening.
He'd been hurt, that much was obvious. He'd been captured – obvious too. He tried to remember what had led up to his situation, but found only a blank spot in his memories.
The last thing he remembered was chatting with Nathan as they waited on the balcony of the livery, but couldn't recall what they were waiting for.
Think… but everything was muddled. Think… what do you remember?
Chris was going to be upset. Of that, he was certain. He'd pledged he'd be back by nightfall, and here it was dark.
He tried to remember what had happened. He'd ridden out somewhere, but where? He'd been upset about something, but again the facts eluded him.
Buck and JD had wanted something out of him. He was supposed to meet them… why?
He tried, but couldn't draw out much more about the situation.
He drifted in and out. The sky grew lighter in false dawn and the horse came to a halt. He could turn his head enough to see that they were looking down at buildings, roofs glowing in the low light. They were just above the town, looking down from a hillside. It didn't look like Red Rock. This looked more like…
Something else moved, another horse – ahead of his. Someone stepped down. He could hear the crunch of boots on rock. A dark form moved, blocking his view.
"You awake?" it said.
Ezra blinked, unable to do much more than that. He tried to get a good look at the man, tried to remember him. It was hard from his upside-down position, when every move brought pain.
The form barked a laugh. "Good," he said. "Thought you were dead for a while. Should have figured a fancy man like you couldn't take it."
Familiar. He sounded so familiar.
Chaucer moved violently and snapped. The man brusquely grabbed the bridle and gave the horse a hard jerk. "I've had enough of your nag!" he spat.
The man had a knife, and was cutting at a cord, and suddenly Ezra's world turned topsy-turvy. He blacked out. Then, he was looking up through trees. He closed his eyes, trying to right it all.
Chaucer was gone. Where'd he go?
He turned his head slowly, blinking his tearing eyes as his ears rang. God, he felt miserable.
The man was peering down. "I really hit you too hard, didn't I?' he said, not sounding apologetic. "That'll make things rough for you." And he barked a laugh again – that familiar rough laugh. "I'll do it again if you give me any trouble. I'll leave your body here to rot."
Garcia. Ezra remembered him now. The man who'd taken him hostage two years ago. He remembered traveling alone behind the man. They'd met up with his wife and child. Garcia had nearly drowned his own son.
Yes, the boy. He remembered Garcia's son, and his nervous wife – Kerstin? They fluttered about in his memory. The boy had ended up in the river, and he had leaped in after him. He remembered snagging the child, and then catching hold of a branch in the water.
Somehow he'd managed to get the child to shore—and then the water had him again.
Well, he must have survived that somehow.
"Sun's coming up," Garcia said. It was getting lighter by the moment. "I need you to get something that belongs to me." And he grabbed Ezra by the collar, hoisting him quickly to his feet. That's when everything went sideways again.
He struggled, trying to stay upright, but it was a losing battle. The last thing he realized, before darkness returned, was that he recognized the town.
SOMEHOW, I KNOW
Eighth story in the South Bridge Series
Josiah rode through the night, pressing his horse as hard as he dared. He paused at the watering hole long enough to allow Prophet to breathe and get his fill of water, but they were on their way again shortly afterward.
He would not rest until he knew that Per was safe, that Miguel had not snatched him away already. He would find his grandchild and protect him from the evils in this world.
And maybe, just maybe, he could find a way to reconcile with his troubled son – get the truth out of him regarding the deaths in his past. Perhaps they were self-defense after all?
And maybe they could be together, at home, himself and Miguel, his daughter-in-law and his grandson -- one happy family.
Ezra gasped and came aware as his hat was shoved down on his pounding head.
Miguel chuckled. "You just can't seem to stay awake. You must be fragile as a china doll." And then, "Good thing you were upside down for the trip. Didn't get a whole lot of blood on your clothes. " He grunted. "Got blood all over your shoulders though. Can't have that."
Garcia tilted his head and came to a decision. He grabbed a pan and scooped up the loose dust around them. With a grin, he pulled off Ezra's hat and flung the contents of the pan at Ezra.
Ezra coughed, hardly able to breathe with all the dust. His whole body ached with every cough. He blinked, trying to clear his muddled mind, trying to get past the throbbing pain in his head.
"That covers most of it," Garcia stated, "Now you just look like a filthy drunk." And he jammed Ezra's hat on again. "You ready, boy?"
"What…" Ezra gasped. "What do you want?"
"Pretty simple," Garcia went on. "Just need you to pick up something of mine."
"Said that before," Ezra mumbled.
Garcia grinned. "Didn't think you'd remember."
"I remember…somehow," Ezra responded, but it hurt to keep his eyes open. He blinked against the light and the dust. Everything was blurry. He coughed again, and it made his whole body hurt.
"I can't go into town. They'll have a lynch mob if they see me!" Garcia explained. "So that's why I need you to take care of this. It'd help my father and me. You'd want to help him, wouldn't you?"
"Yeah, I was planning to find him and have him help me, but then I just happened into you. I guess it was my good luck."
"This little job of yours will get us set up real fine. Him and me and Kerstin and Per."
"Per," Ezra repeated the boy's name softly. They'd spent so little time together, yet their lives were intertwined at the moment the child fell into the river, and he foolishly leapt in after him. "How is the boy?"
Garcia snorted and squatted in front of Ezra. He forced up Ezra's chin to make him look at him. Dust dribbled off his shoulders. "You ask too many questions. Once I get what I want, I'll can find Papa and we'll all live happily ever after." And then he smiled, showing off his broken and rotten teeth. "And I'll let you go."
"Delightful," Ezra responded.
"How is Papa?" Garcia asked, his voice sweet.
"I have no idea," Ezra said, letting his head drop when Garcia released him. His head was beating like a drum in a brass band. It was hard to focus. It was easier to close his eyes. "No idea about your father."
Miguel barked a laugh. "Didja have a falling out?"
A falling out? He was always having a 'falling out'. Ezra figured Chris would not be happy with his failure to return. He'd run out on them again. Would this be enough for Larabee to finally give up on him?
Maybe that was what been so troubling when he left Four Corners – a falling out with Larabee? Ezra recalled an argument that went badly.
Chris had wanted him to stay in town. It was important – a big trial – Cavanaugh Trial… that's right. They needed everyone's help. They needed him, and yet he insisted on leaving on an errand to South Bridge. The argument that ended with him leaving town in anger – probably for good.
He'd never see his home again – and the thought filled Ezra with a new ache.
"Hey!" Garcia barked and gave him a shake.
Ezra saw stars and couldn't breathe.
"You're not fallin' asleep on me again! Get up! It's time to work."
Miguel roughly jerked Ezra to his feet again, and this time – although his vision dimmed around the edges – the darkness didn't take him completely.
"I need you to retrieve something for me. Something very important that I left when I was here."
"Seems like you might be askin' me to do something somewhat… underhanded," Ezra stated. "There are those that might take offence, and I'm hardly in a state to fight.
Garcia stepped back from Ezra. The gambler had a tough time finding his balance without the assistance.
Garcia pulled a knife from his belt, as he held his gun on Ezra. "I'd usually be careful handing any weapon to a prisoner, but I figure you're no danger. I'll shoot before you can try anything. Use this to take care of anyone who gets in your way."
Ezra stared at the knife, but didn't take it. "I have no desire to 'take care of' anyone. Might become messy." He glanced down to his messy clothing. "I refuse."
Garcia scowled, not expecting this response. He cocked his gun. "I'll put a bullet through your head then."
"Please do," Ezra said as he squinted. "It'd cure this headache."
Garcia kicked at the ground, spat, and then stated, "Maybe we'll go find my father, huh? How would you feel if he was the one at the other end of the gun? I'll shoot him between the eyes. I'll have you watch."
"I'd prefer to not be belly-down on my horse again if we're travelin'. Chaucer's a fine steed, but that was not comfortable."
Nearby, Chaucer nickered and Ezra turned toward him and started to speak. Instead, he blinked to clear his vision. "You bastard!" he growled. "What have you done to him?"
"Just tied him up good and proper," Garcia said, and a new expression twisted his face.
"You son of a bitch!" Ezra made a move to step closer to his horse, but Garcia impeded him easily enough, just stepping in his way.
"Untie him!" Ezra demanded, looking in disbelief at how tightly his horse had been lashed to a nearby tree. Chaucer's legs were hobbled on short ropes, and his head was tied high. He could barely move. The chestnut whickered as he gazed back at his owner, as if afraid to do anything.
"Chaucer," Ezra said softly.
Garcia smiled. He changed his aim and directed it at Chaucer. "How 'bout I shoot him if you don't do what I want?"
"You will not!" Ezra shouted, taking a step toward him and staggered, almost falling to his knees.
Garcia laughed, roughly grabbing Ezra with his free hand and shoved him away. Ezra stumbled, fighting to keep conscious as Garcia caught him again, and dragged him down the hill, all the while telling him what was expected.
It was just getting light when Josiah turned from the main trail and made his way to the homestead outside of South Bridge. And by the time he reached the Henson's home, the world was awakening around him.
he thought, 'let my
Per be safe. Let nothing be wrong.' If
Miguel was coming, I'll protect Per, do whatever
it takes to keep him safe.
He could see a man moving near the barn as he drew close. Josiah paused, and then recognized him. Not Miguel. It was George Henson, the farmer who'd adopted the boy. Everything looked calm at least.
A dog barked a warning. George turned sharply. Josiah raised his hand in greeting.
George peered at him. He raised a hand as well – friendly. 'Good,' Josiah thought. 'Nothing's wrong here.'
But the hand stilled and then dropped as George's frame stiffened. He spun about and ran to the house, shouting for his wife, Jean. The dog kept barking.
'Guess he remembers me,' Josiah thought glumly.
As George reached the porch, the front door slammed open, and Jean Henson appeared. She looked in his direction, and then disappeared within the house again. As Josiah drew closer, she reappeared with a shotgun.
"Don't come any closer!" Jean shouted and handed the shotgun to George. "Turn around and go!" She let the door slam shut and pressed against it, as if sealing it shut.
Josiah stilled his horse, and held up both hands. "I'm coming to warn you," he shouted. "I'm here to help."
George responded, "Warn us, about what?"
Josiah shouted back, "There's trouble coming. Can I… can I come closer so that we can discuss this civilly?"
Jean stated, "You come close, but you're not getting into this house! You will not harm Caleb!"
"Harm?" Josiah's heart broke at the accusation. "I'm trying to save him!"
George hadn't raised the shotgun. He quieted the dog. "Save him from what?" he asked curiously.
Josiah eased Prophet closer, and the horse breathed heavily after his long ride. When they reached the water trough, Sanchez stepped down from the saddle and let the animal drink.
George approached him quickly, concerned. "What do you mean? Why do you need to save our Caleb?"
Jean's expression remained closed as she stayed at her post, blocking the doorway.
"My son," Josiah said. "My son, Miguel Garcia, is coming."
"Your son…" George repeated.
"He's back," Josiah tried to explain. "He's nearby with his wife, and they'll undoubtedly try to reclaim their son. I will do everything I can to protect him. You can count on me."
George's face screwed up in confusion. "But, we've gone over this already. We did! You and that other fella, Ezra-something… He figured that our boy isn't your grandson. You knew this when you left."
The door closed again, and Josiah looked up to see that Jean had disappeared into the house.
"He isn't your grandson," George insisted.
"We don't know it for a fact!" Josiah's voice became sharp. "He's the right age, the right race, he spoke Swedish!"
"German!" Jean shouted as she clapped the door open again. She had papers clutched in her hand. "It was German!"
"They're distinctly different," Josiah said. "And more people said Swedish than German, didn't they?"
Jean stormed to him with the papers and flapped them at him. Josiah's gaze took in the text – it looked German.
"His mother was a soiled dove -- Irma Bachmeier," George stated, his eyes on the pages. "She had consumption. She left that note at the hospital in Bedryville when she died last year." He paused, his voice soft, "She'd named him Elias. His father's dead."
Jean pulled the second page of the note, written in English, and held it out to Josiah, and said, "The nuns translated it for us. She went to South Bridge with her baby, looking for her brother, but was gone. Irma was too weak to take care of her baby anymore, so she left him where he could get help. She was dying and she didn't want him to watch it happen." Her voice caught at that thought.
George added, "She tried to do what was best for him. She wanted us to know."
"He's not your grandson!" Jean insisted.
Josiah said nothing as he listened to the tale, as he eyed the letters in Jean's hand – still held out to him. The boy had once been Elias, son of Irma Bachmeier -- not Per, not the son of Miguel and Kerstin Garcia. Now he was Caleb Henson, son of George and Jean. It was exactly who he needed to be.
"Is your son coming to take our boy away?" George asked urgently. "Did you tell him that we have his son? If anyone comes, I will fight to the death for him! I'll fight anyone! Even you, sir!"
"No…" Josiah finally spoke. "No, he wouldn't know. He doesn't… It was just… speculation on my part."
Miguel would not be coming to the Henson household. He had no reason.
Then why was Miguel in the area?
And he turned in the direction of Red Rock, thinking about the crossroads where he made his decision. Josiah closed his eyes in misery. He'd made the wrong choice.
When he opened his eyes, he saw a movement at the window of the house. A small face peered out – Caleb. The boy watched him with a guarded expression.
"So, what do you aim to do now?" Jean asked pointedly. "You going to let us be?"
"I'm sorry," Josiah mumbled, watching the child's face, seeing a look of fear. My God, he thought, I put that there. "I made a mistake. I won't trouble you again."
"Are you going to make that a promise?" Jean queried.
Josiah moved to Prophet, who was still breathing hard from the ride. "I won't trouble you again," he pledged and swung himself into the saddle.
He'd have to go into South Bridge. It wasn't as if he wanted to spend any time in that cursed town, but Prophet needed the rest – and he needed a drink – and he had to send a wire to Red Rock, to Skunkwater, to home – he needed to find out if the others had found Ezra.
Damn… what happened to Ezra? Lord, he hoped they'd found him by now.
He lowered his head against the rising sun.
With morning, Chris and Nathan rose and started a fire. Breakfast was prepared and eaten in haste. Bedrolls were packed and the horses prepared.
"I hope you're right about this," Chris said, looking toward Nathan. "That Josiah's in South Bridge and not lost back there with Ezra."
The healer nodded. "Josiah's always thought about the boy," he said. "Always wondered if it was Per. He'd go to South Bridge to head off Miguel."
Chris nodded, still not happy with the situation. He turned, looking over the distance they had covered the night before – out there – Four Corners, Red Rock and Skunkwater.
"The others will keep looking," Nathan promised quietly. "They'll find him." He let out a long breath, and added, "I'm probably the only one who can talk to Josiah if he's in trouble." And Nathan made a face as he tightened the cinch on Badger's saddle. "He can get into some pretty thick trouble…"
Chris nodded, thinking.
Nathan loaded the last of his belongings. "I could have gone alone, you know. You could be with the others, looking for Ezra."
"Ezra went alone," Chris said glumly. "Josiah went alone. Now they're both missing. We need to find them."
"They'll get Ezra," Nathan said again. "We'll find Josiah in South Bridge."
"Yeah," Chris responded, and turned away to face the road to South Bridge. "I hate that town," he said.
Ezra moved through the morning and into South Bridge. His gait was uneven. He found himself struggling to keep his balance as everything swam around him. The few people on the street avoided him, putting their noses up at his drunken behavior so early in the day.
He had his instructions, and if he didn't return soon enough – and alone-- Chaucer would pay the price.
Chaucer did not deserve to suffer for the failings of his owner. How could a man threaten a horse? It was unfathomable and inhumane.
'I'm so sorry,' Chaucer, he thought. And, 'Goddamn him! How could he treat such a fine creature like that!'
If he could think clearly, he might come up with a plan, but he had no friends in this town, no one to support him. He doubted that the current sheriff would help, after the troubles perpetrated here in the past. He had no money – nothing that could be traded for a gun. He was on his own. Utterly alone.
He knew without looking that Garcia was watching him from his perch above town. South Bridge sat in a depression along the Banyon, and was observable from above at all angles. No, he couldn't do anything suspicious. He would not be the cause of his horse being harmed.
Then he reached "the Happy Home" -- a quaint restaurant with a garden painted on the façade.
He pressed on the door, hoping to find it locked. If he was lucky, the restaurant wasn't open yet and he wouldn't have to worry about anyone being inside. Breaking in would be easy.
He grimaced when the door opened with a happy tinkle of a bell. No luck whatsoever. He stepped inside and was glad to be out of Garcia's sight.
The little dining area was empty of people – thank God! Lamps sat on the tables, driving off the early morning dimness. The Happy Home was warm and inviting and smelled of freshly baked bread. Something was cooking on the stove. It smelled heavenly. Ezra's stomach growled, reminding him how empty it was, and for a moment, he just stood, soaking in the comfort.
It felt so good.
"Hello, welcome," a cheerful voice called and the proprietress came out of the kitchen, an older woman, buxom and smiling. She stopped with a quick, "Oh!" and then, "Oh, dear-heart, are you okay? Oh, honey, you're hurt." And she rushed to Ezra's side, taking his arm. "Please, sweetie, sit down here. Oh, let me get you something."
Ezra stayed in place, putting his hand over hers as it clutched his arm. "Thank you, my dear, but I need to move quickly. I have no time for dawdling."
"You must sit down. Oh, your head." She was cooing and moving around him. She touched his hat, and Ezra hissed.
"No!" he said sharply, and then added quietly, "No, my dear. Let it be. It causes less aggravation if it isn't moved."
"I'll get the barber," she insisted. "He does our doctoring here."
"No," he said again. "No, nothing must look amiss. I'll only be a moment," Ezra countered. "And I'll be out of your way. Please, let me be."
She tsked and persisted, "Can't I help you?"
He gave her an apologetic look and said, "I need to pull up your floorboards."
"What?" she responded, and "Why?"
"Just a few in that corner," he pointed to the rear of the room. "Please."
"Honey, let me get the barber. You're not thinking right."
Ezra tried to shake his head, but stopped and had to swallow to keep from getting sick.
"Is there anyone I can find for you? Do you have a friend? I'll go get them."
"No," he said softly. "There's no one." He moved forward, and the woman almost left in search of help, but Ezra lurched against one of her tables, and she went to his assistance.
"What is your name, my dear," Ezra asked as the woman steadied him.
"Violet," she replied. "Violet Munson. This is my business, my home, my town."
"Violets are so lovely," Ezra responded. "I'm Ezra Standish, and I am from – most recently – Four Corners. But as of now, I have no idea what to call home. I'll be out of your way shortly." He paused, and added, "I can't let him hurt my horse."
"No, you can't," Violet conceded as they reached the back corner of her restaurant.
Ezra pointed downward. "This should be the place."
"The boards used to be loose back here, but I guess they got stomped down over time. Why do you want to pull them up?"
"I don't know," Ezra said with a sigh, as he braced himself against a wall and Violet's arm, and he lowered himself to his knees at the targeted spot. "He told me to do it. Told me it would be here."
"Who did?" Violet asked. "Who's telling you to do this? Who wants to hurt your horse?"
Ezra just gave her a sad look. "Less you know the better, I 'spect. I'm sorry, my dear, but trouble is everywhere."
He pulled the dangerous looking knife from his boot, and Violet gasped at the sight of it. Ezra gave her a reassuring smile, and wedged it in-between the floorboards. With that, he worked at prying the first one loose.
It was harder than Ezra expected. He felt the world spin and his body ached at every movement. Flexing muscles telegraphed pain all over his body.
Violet sat next to him, watching. "I can bring a warm, wet cloth and help you clean up. Your hair is all covered with blood, honey. He must have hit you hard on the head."
Ezra quirked a smile, and managed to pull the first board loose. "He is not kind."
Then finally, after a moment, she softly said, "Garcia. Was it Miguel Garcia?"
Ezra stilled. He lifted his head and met her eyes.
She nodded and said, "It was him, wasn't it? He used to do odd jobs for me before… before the murders. I couldn't really trust him. I felt... frightened when I was alone with him. Then, when I heard he killed those people, I found him in here that morning, standing right where we are. He had a hammer. I was so scared, but he left in a rush. That must have been when the boards stopped being loose here. I didn't think of that until now. Was it Garcia?"
Ezra went back to work. "It was, but you'd best forget that tidbit of information, and forget you ever saw me." He pulled another board out of place, and Violet stacked it next to the first. One more board came free after that.
He reached into the hole, and felt around in the dirt. His hand clasped something – a large bag and he pulled it into the light.
It was a traveling bag, heavy and full, dusty from its long stay below the floor. Both regarded it for a moment, and then Ezra smiled and asked, "Well, shall we look inside to see what all the fuss is about?"
Violet nodded. "Yes," she said confidentially. "Since it is so important…"
And Ezra undid the clasps and pulled it open. He froze in amazement as the contents came clear.
Money – and lots of it.
"Oh my!" Violet cried. "There must be... a thousand dollars in there!"
"Far more than that. Thirty – maybe even forty thousand by my reckoning." Ezra's voice became hushed. "Maybe more…"
"You can't be serious!" Violet exclaimed quietly. "That much?"
Ezra stared at the money, amazed. No wonder Garcia wanted it so badly. His hands shook and his already poor equilibrium titled alarmingly as he gazed at more wealth than he had ever seen before in his life.
Good God, how could Garcia have allowed him to retrieve it on his own? Ezra looked to the doorway, wondering if Miguel would be standing there, watching.
Did Miguel even know what was contained in the parcel? He couldn't have known! A man like that would never have left it unattended for so long!
So much money!
Ezra could buy anything he wanted with this! He'd never want for anything. He smiled greedily at the thought -- to be always attired in the best clothing, surrounded by the finest things. He could have his saloon. Hell, he could buy a town with this amount of money!
He could have everything.
"Ezra," Violet called quietly, calling him back, petting his arm. "You're sick, honey. I think you need to lie down."
He wanted to lie down in all that cash. He reached in one hand and caressed it longingly. But Garcia was waiting for it, and Chaucer's life was at stake.
He didn't know what he'd do without that fine horse. Chaucer was all he had left.
Violet was talking, "You reminded me of someone just now, someone that I saw in my restaurant once – about a year ago," she said, and bit her lip. "Do you know a Judge Scheltinga?"
The banging in his head increased and Ezra felt hot and disoriented at the sound of his father's name. "Judge Scheltinga," he repeated. "He was tryin' for governor, wasn't he?" It had been over a year since Ezra attempted to meet up with the honorable man in this town – over a year since the esteemed judge refused to see him and left him without a word.
"I didn't like him," Violet admitted. "He seemed like an unpleasant man, and it just strikes me that you're… you're not like that. But, you look like him. He talked about a son when he was here, but he was so… awful about it."
But Violet looked at him in commiseration. "Is he kin? Maybe I can find out where he went, and send for him for you."
"No," Ezra said softly, barely breathing out the word. "We do not share a name." And the honorable judge would never come for him, not in a million years, and not even for forty-thousand dollars.
Ezra licked his lips and said, "Besides, he has returned to the east. I hear he gave up the governorship rather quickly when he realized how difficult it would be to wrestle this area into statehood – and he didn't care for the local personalities. I heard that there was an incident."
Violet responded, "Oh yes, I think the threat from Josiah Sanchez put him on the run. You should have seen him after Josiah was done with him."
"Who?" Ezra echoed.
"Josiah Sanchez, he's from Four Corners, too. Don't you know him?"
"Josiah Sanchez?" he repeated the name as he closed the clasps of bag, his head buzzing. He felt so damnably hot and tired. The walls seemed to be closing in on him and he had to get moving before Garcia did anything to Chaucer. "No, I can't say that I know him."
And then the door banged open, and Ezra reached for the knife.
Josiah entered the town of South Bridge with a plan. He'd stop by livery for Prophet, and then go to the telegraph office to ask for information about the others, then to the True Blue Saloon for a drink before finding a room.
But as he entered the town, he saw the Happy Home Restaurant and remembered that this was the only place in town that had ever made him feel comfortable. And he was damn hungry.
He stepped down from his exhausted mount and tied Prophet to the hitching post. He needed to see a friendly face, and none were friendlier than Miss Violet in this town. He pressed open the door, smiling.
The smile fell instantly at the strange tableau before him. Violet was in the corner on her hands and knees at a hole in the floor. Beside her was a dust-covered man. The man turned toward him, raising a knife.
It took a moment for Josiah to recognize him. "Ezra!" he shouted in disbelief.
Ezra did not lower the knife. He struggled to stand. Violette, at his side, helped him.
"Old man, it would be best… if you stood back," Standish said through gritted teeth.
"Ezra!" Josiah stared at the gambler, trying to understand what was happening. What was he doing here of all places? Ezra was filthy, and something dark had stained his shoulders under the dirt. He could hardly stand. "Son, what are you doing?"
Ezra lowered his head a little. "I'm not your son." He pushed Violet behind him, and then reached down to pick up the bag. "Leave this fair woman alone!"
"I'm not going to do anything to Violet," Josiah stated incredulously.
"Then step away. I have no time."
"Ezra…" the name came out as a plea.
Ezra could hardly lift his head.
Josiah was flummoxed. "Are you drunk?" He turned to Violet since Ezra wasn't offering any answers.
"He's hurt, Josiah," Violet said, her voice filled with emotion. "Help him."
Ezra lifted knife to his free hand, the other clutched the bag as he stood with his hip against a table. He cried, "If I don't get back to him, he'll kill him!"
"Who will kill whom?" Josiah asked as he regarded Ezra with new eyes. Something was very wrong. He was gravely hurt – and Josiah's expression went soft. "Ezra, son, what happened to you?" he reached out to grab his friend.
But, Ezra slashed the knife, missing Josiah, but making the threat clear. "Stand back, sir!" he ordered. "I will not let you get in my way!" And then, with a gasp, he whispered. "I have to save him!"
Shocked, Josiah moved back. There was something about Ezra's eyes – so uneven and unfocused, but there was something else. "Ezra, don't you know me?"
Ezra stumbled onto the boardwalk. "Never met you before in my life," he muttered and kept moving.
Violet caught Josiah's arm before he followed. "He said he didn't recognize your name. He's hurt really bad...his head."
"Miguel Garcia did that to him."
Josiah looked at her in disbelief, and then turned to Ezra, watching his stiff, uneven walk. It looked as if every movement pained him. Miguel did that?
Violet went on, "Garcia threatened Ezra that he'd kill his horse if he doesn't bring that bag to him."
Josiah closed his eyes at that thought. Chaucer… Miguel certainly knew how to get to a man. Ezra treated that horse better than some people treated their own children.
"Garcia is dangerous," Violet told him.
"I know," Josiah said
with a sigh. "He's my son." And he moved to follow Ezra.
Ezra was determined. He wasn't going to stop. That man at Violet's door had tried to slow him, but he would not be kept from his task. He shouldn't have left Violet, but he had to save Chaucer.
The blackness around his vision edged closer, leaving little more than a small circle in the center of his sight. He struggled along the boardwalk, clinging to anything that would allow him to keep moving.
He wasn't about to let the animal suffer for a moment longer. "I'm coming," he muttered. "I'm almost there."
He hurt. He was fading, but he'd crawl if he had to.
The madman from the restaurant suddenly grabbed his arm. Ezra tried to shake him off, but his world was tumbling, closing off. He was failing. NO…oh, God, no…
He wasn't going to make it.
Chaucer... "Sorry… so sorry."
Josiah had just grabbed Ezra when he crumpled. Shocked, Josiah readjusted his hold to keep the conman from falling face-first onto the boardwalk. He heard a soft apology, and then nothing.
"Ezra!" Sanchez cried as he fought to keep Standish from falling any further. When Ezra bowed his head, Josiah could see the wound, where his skin was ripped and his hair filled with blood. The ugly wound still wept.
"Stop! You give me that bag or you will die!" a woman shouted, her Swedish accent evident.
Kerstin Garcia, his daughter-in-law, marched up the boardwalk, holding a formidable looking pistol. "Drop the bag! Give it to me, now!"
Josiah struggled to keep Ezra from hitting the ground as he drew his weapon with his free hand. "Kerstin," he said softly. "Don't do this. He's hurt. Let me take care of him."
"That devil is bringing the bag to Miguel!" Kerstin shouted. "Do not give it to him!" She tossed her head, and Josiah could see her black eye now, the bruising along the side of her face. "Miguel took it from that bad man."
Josiah glanced to the bag tightly tucked under Ezra's arm. "What bad man?"
Kerstin snarled, "Hughes! He stole it all!"
"The sheriff?" Josiah said, remembering one of the men that Miguel had killed.
She held out her hand. "Give it to me! Miguel will not have it!"
"Let me set him down," Josiah pleaded, "I'll get it for you."
"Now!" Kerstin demanded, she glanced up toward the hills that surrounded the town. She spotted something. "He's coming, you fool!" she shouted and pointed the weapon at Ezra. "You die!"
Josiah fired off a warning shot, but Ezra chose that moment to collapse even further, and the shot went wild.
Violet shouted as her front window shattered, and something inside her restaurant went POP. "Fire! Oh, Fire! The lamp! You hit one of my lamps!"
"Give it!" Kerstin said again. "Give it to me now!" Her free hand made greedy gestures as she shuffled closer.
Josiah dropped his Schofield and tried to free the bag from Ezra's grip, but the gambler wasn't releasing it, not even in his stupor.
Violet ran into the street, shouting "Fire! Fire! Wake up! Get out! Fire!" People came out of doorways – probably already awakened by the argument and gunfire – one or two at first, but soon a flood of them vacating upper apartments and hotels as they heeded the call of 'fire'.
Someone was shouting that the Happy Home was on fire, that it looked bad, and something about the assayer's office.
"Put down that gun," Josiah insisted, trying to sound calm in spite of the chaos around him. He kept a tight grip on Ezra, but Standish only mumbled softly. He was as hot as an oven.
The townspeople were running, shouting, urging others to get out. Why weren't they forming a bucket brigade? The Banyon River flowed just beyond the levy.
Behind him, the restaurant crackled with fire. Some people stopped, stared and then ran. Some dove back into doorways to emerge moments later with armloads of belongings. Everyone ran toward the hills.
Violet urgently tugged at Josiah's jacket, her eyes on Kerstin. "We have to run. Please, there's dynamite. I'll help you."
"What?" Josiah turned toward her and looked where she was pointing, toward the assayer's office located just up the block – one business beyond hers, abutting the Banyon River.
"Mr. Reed's been stockpiling it for the miners. Everyone said it was a bad idea, but he wouldn't stop bringing it in."
"Dynamite?" Josiah repeated.
Kerstin's expression changed as she also gazed where Violet had indicated, heard what she said. Her determined anger fell away to fear. "Dynamite? Älskling! Mitt älskade barn!" she bit her lip and turned her head toward one of the alleys. Then, she gave Ezra one last furtive look, turned and ran to the alley.
The townspeople were leaving with loaded arms – carrying children and whatever else could be hastily grabbed. One couple dragged a feather mattress between them. A woman carried a bird in a cage.
"Dynamite?" Josiah repeated as he gazed back to the fire. "Can it be moved?
"There's too much of it, and everything is so dry." Already sparks were flying everywhere – it only took one to set off the explosive. "Please," Violet tugged at him. "We have to run."
Josiah gently, quickly, laid Ezra on the boardwalk, and then ran the few paces to the restaurant. It was becoming engulfed. Another of her lamps went off in a POP, spewing more fire around the little room. Everything was burning in the tinder-dry environment – tables, curtains, the pretty ornaments that made the place so homey. There was no hope in saving it.
He snatched at Prophet's reins. The horse shuffled unhappily, staring into the restaurant, into the flames. His eyes rolled back in fear.
"It's okay, horse. We're going to get Ezra out of here." Quickly, Josiah loosened the rains, and tried to pull the horse toward his friend, but terror overtook the animal and he reared. Prophet spun about, breaking free. The horse kicked twice, hesitated a moment, and then bolted into the crowd of people and other horses, everyone moving away from the assayer's office.
And Violet disappeared into the rabble. Josiah caught sight of her, being tugged away by her neighbors. She threw him an apologetic look, but her energetic neighbors weren't taking 'no' for an answer. Ezra still lay on the boardwalk, ignored, as everyone fled the town with what was theirs.
Apparently, Standish didn't matter to any of them.
Josiah stooped and carefully picked up the conman, looping one arm under his knees, the other at his back, lifting him like a child. He heaved to his feet and caught his balance under Ezra's weight.
Ezra was breathing shallowly, muttering, and way too hot – but he still clutched the bag as if it was the most important thing in his life.
The Happy Home was engulfed. The pretty painted garden turned black. The street was emptying as the townspeople disappeared.
He caught sight of the blonde woman on a horse. She paused, and looked toward him, her child tucked in front of her in the saddle. She wavered, and then made a decision, wrapping her arm even tighter around little Per as she glanced toward the fire.
Per… his grandson…
With a quick flip of her hair, she kneed her horse and it took off, following the rest of the crowd.
Resolutely, Josiah started forward, carrying Ezra close to his chest.
"It's okay, Ezra," Josiah mumbled as he hurried forward. "I got you. You're going to be okay." If they could just get down the street far enough, put something behind them.
"Where do you think you're going?" a voice called.
Josiah looked up to find Garcia standing before him, aiming a gun at them.
"Miguel…" Josiah breathed out. He'd long thought of this moment, to see his son again, but not now... not now.
"Hi, Papa," Miguel said with a smile. "You miss me?"
"We have to go!" Josiah demanded. "There's explosives." Behind him, the buildings were being consumed. It would be a matter of minutes before the fire burned through the next store and reached the dynamite .
Miguel glanced toward the burning restaurant, and his expression turned to anger. He fixed his gaze on the still form in Josiah's arms. "You'd best have that bag, you son of a bitch! If you don't have it…"
Josiah shouted. "He has it! Take it!"
Ezra's eyelids fluttered and he turned his head toward Garcia. "Chaucer?" he whispered. He moved his hands as if lifting the bag toward Garcia, but Josiah held him too tightly to allow movement.
Miguel grinned. "Well, mercy me, he did get it! I didn't know if he could manage."
"Take it and let us go!" Josiah shouted. He would have flung the bag at him, but he couldn't change his grip.
Miguel watched him with a growing frown. "This one, this is the one you wanted, isn't it? The son you wished you had."
Miguel snarled. "I could have killed him, you know? Maybe I did. He don't look like he'll make it. I wanted smash the life out of him, but it was good that I brought him along. I needed to see this – you with him. You wish he was yours?"
"Miguel… you're my son…" Josiah cried. "Ezra's just…" he couldn't find words. "Please, let me get him to help."
"There's no help, Papa. I don't need him anymore. You don't need him. And I don't need you," Garcia sounded almost serene. "It'll be easier to do this without you holding me down. I just want the bag. Bye bye, Papa." And he cocked his gun.
"I wouldn't do that," a voice called.
Garcia spun about, revealing Chris Larabee behind him. Nathan stood at his side, his gun ready.
Josiah nearly wept for joy.
"Drop it," Larabee demanded.
Smoke filled the street, making Josiah's eyes burn and dimming the daylight.
Garcia looked more annoyed than anything. "I'll get what I came for!"
"Not today," Chris responded. "Drop it now, or face the consequences."
Garcia chuckled and lowered his weapon. "I've waited a long time to see what was in that bag. Never had the time to check it that night. It's high time I found out. What do you say, we share it? I heard Hughes got his hands on the money from the Hollowell bank robberies. Might be a fortune."
"Drop it," Chris repeated, taking a step closer. Nathan moved with him. Josiah did nothing, focused on holding onto Ezra who murmured, but didn't open his eyes.
Miguel shrugged and said, "I'll hang if you bring me in."
"You'll face your trial," Chris said. "Drop the weapon."
"We all know how that will end," Miguel responded, and then added, "Might as well go out with a bang. Bye bye, Papa," and with a quick movement, he lifted his weapon toward his father.
He didn't have a chance.
Chris' shot hit him first, but Nathan's was close behind. Miguel went stiff, and then he dropped to his knees. He lingered a moment, his eyes meeting his father's. "Papa," he said again, and pitched forward.
Josiah couldn't move, hardly able to breathe.
"Josiah! Ezra?" Nathan charged up to him as Chris moved to check out Miguel. "What happened to him?" His hands reached, touching Ezra, trying to figure everything out. "He's got a fever. Where's he hurt?"
"His head. We have to go," Josiah gasped, his eyes still on Miguel's body. "There's dynamite, and a lot of it."
Nathan made a movement as if he wanted to help carry Ezra, but Josiah wasn't going to let him loose. Instead, Nathan kept a hand at Josiah's back and urged him forward as they moved quickly through the smoke-filled town.
Josiah gaze lingered on his son as they hurried past his body, but he did not stop. Chris came alongside to add protection to their little group.
When they slowed, Chris forced them on, toward the hillside where everyone else was gathered. "Up!" he said. "We have to go up."
Josiah wouldn't be able to hold onto Ezra for much longer, but he would not fail him – not this time. They moved, pressing their way up the hillside, through the throngs of people.
They had just started up the hillside, when the fire reached the assayer's office and the dynamite stored within.
Ka-BOOM! Ka-BLAM! Ka-BLEWEY!
It went up in series of flashes. The ground shook as the first explosion blew out the roof, sending shingles and a mushroom-shaped cloud into the sky, the next bang took out the burning buildings beside it, the third big blow wiped out the opposite side of the street.
The people around them gasped and screamed in surprise as flaming shingles rained down, as boards came at them like missiles.
Chris and Nathan provided what cover they could to offer to Ezra, and Josiah bowed his head, waiting for the end of the world.
And even as the horrible hail was falling down on them, inexorably, the force of the explosion burrowed its way into the levy, and took out the upper layer, letting the Banyon River rush in.
They moved higher up the hill, along with the rest of the South Bridge residents, and then turned to watch as the town flooded. Water surged, melting away part of the levy like butter. The water snuffed out the fire on the lower levels and knocking down the weaker buildings. Anything left above the waterline was at the mercy of the fire. The town was being swallowed in dark swirling water and bright hungry flame.
The last of the shingles came down, going 'fzzzt' as they hit the churning water. The people watched and hoped, and prayed that the levy didn't collapse any further. It peeled back slowly, until it almost reached the bridge – and then, the erosion stopped.
Transfixed, Josiah didn't move until Nathan shoved him. Then, they wended through the crowd, and found an empty space near where they'd left the horses.
It had been a surprise to find Chaucer here, along with another horse earlier. Chris had sworn a blue streak when he'd seen how Ezra's horse had been trussed up against the tree. He'd cut the animal free immediately and when he tried to tie him more humanely, the big chestnut had knocked off his hat and jostled him so constantly, he could hardly do anything.
Nathan had smiled and said, "That's his way of saying, 'thank you'. He usually only does that to Ezra."
"Lucky me," Chris had responded. And then, "He's here."
"But why? He'd been headed to Red Rock."
"Hell if I know. If Chaucer was left like this, you know Ezra's in trouble."
Then there was a gunshot. They ran into town to find an evacuation in process, a fire consuming two buildings, and Garcia aiming at Josiah with Ezra half-dead in his arms.
Chris hadn't set out to kill Miguel Garcia, but the man meant to cause harm to Josiah and Ezra – he'd been left no choice.
Now that they were free of him, and safely away from fire and flood, they settled Ezra on blankets, and tried to take care of him.
Ezra struggled to awaken, talking in a slurred and quiet voice, sounding exhausted and pained as Nathan tended to him. Chris went through Miguel's saddlebags. He found little of use, but at least discovered Ezra's pocket watch and weapons.
All around them, the townspeople watched the fire in horror and surprise. Some wept. Others cracked jokes and enjoyed the show.
"Nathan?" Ezra called weakly, his voice finally sounding recognizable. "You're here?"
"Yeah, I'm here."
"He's here, too. He's okay, Ezra," the healer told him, then asked, "What happened to you?"
"I don't remember," Ezra mumbled. "Can't quite remember any of it."
"Something hit you hard," Nathan sighed, gently feeling about in the filthy mop of hair. "I need to check this. Sorry," he said, and "Sorry," again when Ezra hissed. And then, "Help me get him out of his jacket, Josiah."
"Of course," the big man rumbled.
Their movements were slow, and both were careful as they eased Ezra out of the jacket, vest and shirt. Nathan groaned in empathy.
Chris scowled. Ezra was covered in ugly bruises and welts, a nasty looking black contusion took of most of his stomach. Son of a Bitch.
He'd heard that Garcia had once beaten a man to death – and it looked like he'd tried to do the same to Ezra. He'd hunt Garcia down again if his body wasn't already lost beneath the Banyon.
Chris glanced to Sanchez. He could see that Sanchez tried to keep his expression calm, but the rage was building in the man. Josiah's hands opened and closed.
"Can you get some water, Josiah?" Nathan asked. "I need to clean him up. Need to cut away his hair to see what happened. Chris, did you find his shaving kit?"
"Got it," Chris said, finding it immediately in Garcia's bag.
"We need a fire."
"Shouldn't be hard to get one going," Chris said, and headed toward one of the nearby 'camps', quickly procuring a burning shingle to start their own fire. When he returned, he set it nearby, and looked about for something else to burn in the strewn debris.
"We'll get you settled, okay, Ezra?" Nathan was saying when Chris returned.
Ezra gave a fraction of a nod. Nathan and Josiah carefully settled him on his side on the makeshift bed they'd constructed.
"I'll be right back, Ezra," Josiah said, touching Ezra lightly on the shoulder. "I'm not going far."
And Chris saw the look Ezra gave Josiah. It was so lost and confused.
Josiah stood and slipped away, and Nathan moved to Badger to retrieve more of his kit. Chaucer nickered when Nathan drew near, his eyes focused on his man.
People were meandering among the hills or setting up camps or heading out, looking for a place to stay in the outlying houses. There were gamblers, and ladies of the evening, shop owners, bartenders, miners, all variety of workers. Also, there were families among them, families with little children huddled together, families who'd just lost their homes and just about everything they owned.
The Banyon River had its way with South Bridge, but seemed to have been sated with the inundation of the town. It had moved no further inland. The water pooled into the low spot that once held a town – stripping it of anything that was loose, and then it swirled its way back out through the breach with the debris.
The town had been safely evacuated and no lives were lost, outside of Garcia who was somewhere under all that water. Chris had to admit that he felt no remorse in seeing the town wiped away, submerged – burned – stripped -- gone. It had brought nothing but trouble in all the years that his men had been coming here. South Bridge was part of the Banyon now. It would never come back.
Garcia would stay with it.
But to these people, it had been home. They'd lost everything.
"Chris," Ezra called thickly.
Chris turned from his place by the fire and moved to Ezra. "Yeah, Ezra?" he responded.
Ezra blinked, as if he was ashamed to look at him. "Mr. Larabee… I… apologize for leavin' you at a time of need."
That brought Chris up short. "Ezra? What are you talkin' about?"
"Yesterday, when I left town. You'd… wanted me to stay and I refused… I left you … in the lurch with an… important trial… and…"
Chris's mind raced. "Yesterday? What trial?"
"The Cavanaugh Trial. I was rash… I should've…"
"Cavanaugh Trial? Dammit, Ezra, that was over a year ago. You were hell-bent on coming here to South Bridge to talk to Scheltinga."
"Yes…" Ezra said slowly, closing his eyes. "I… I understand that you no longer… wish for me to return… home."
Chris dropped down and leaned in close to make sure Ezra heard him. "Ezra, we went over this last year. I didn't kick you out of town, do you understand me?" Ezra Standish was a stubborn mule about some things.
Ezra blinked at him, looking unfocused and pale.
This was like the incident at the Seminole Village all over again. Stubborn Mule!
"We work things out, Ezra," Chris continued. "One stupid disagreement isn't going to take that away."
Ezra smiled slightly, just a tug at the corners of his mouth. "A lot of stupid disagreements…" he said.
"Wouldn't have it any other way," Chris said, glad to hear some good humor in his friend.
The smile fell through, replaced with discontent. "I…" Ezra paused and pivoted his gaze to the direction Josiah had disappeared. "Should I know him? That other man?"
"Josiah?" Nathan paused in his preparations. "Yeah, Ezra, you know him."
Ezra looked troubled. "I can't quite fix on some things. I don't know what's wrong with me."
"Your head got hit pretty hard," Nathan explained.
Ezra squinted. "Yes, the headache. Obvious…" He sighed and his expression smoothed out. He mumbled, "I don't… I don't feel very well…"
"I know," Nathan replied. "I'm going to help you. Soon as Josiah comes back with the water."
Ezra said nothing, closing his eyes and drifting away.
"Is he out again?" Chris asked.
"Yeah," Nathan said glumly. He paused to rest his hand over Ezra's brow. "He's got a fever and must be hurting awful bad after what Garcia did to him."
Chris went back to the fire. "He doesn't remember Josiah. Thinks that something from last year just happened yesterday. Is that normal?"
Nathan blew out a breath. "I have no idea what's normal with this sort of thing. He knows us…" He turned toward the drowned town. "I just wish we had a roof over our heads and decent facilities… and proper supplies to look after him. Wish we could get him home."
"We'll ask the folks in the outlying houses to put us up."
"They'll be full," Nathan said glumly. "Everyone in town is looking for someplace to call home. We're strangers here."
Time passed, and there was a jangle and creak, and Chris looked up to find a wagon headed toward them along the road, cutting through the crowd that was leaving town. Josiah was in the driver's seat.
"Violet found us a wagon," he said when he reached them. "They're in short supply, but she knew someone." He stepped down from the wagon, and headed to the back.
Nathan asked, "Do you have water?"
Josiah nodded and pulled a filled pot from the back of the wagon. It sloshed as he placed it near the fire so that it could come to a boil.
"I think we'd better leave this place as soon as we can," Sanchez said quietly. He moved in beside Ezra and sighed when he found him unresponsive again.
"We need to keep Ezra comfortable," Nathan insisted.
"This place isn't exactly comfortable, and Kerstin Garcia is out there." Sanchez leaned close and tried to pick up the bag that was at Ezra's side. Ezra had let loose of it at some point while they were working on him, but it was in his grip again. "She's after this thing," he said. "I don't think she'll stop until she gets it."
Chris quirked his lips. "I think I can take her," he said.
"A woman with a child?" Josiah rebuked.
Larabee frowned. "What's in it?" he asked.
"Ezra was supposed to trade it for Chaucer," Josiah said as he sat beside Ezra and tried to open the bag with Ezra still holding tight. He was able to open a clasp and crack the bag open slightly. He let out a breath when he saw what was inside. "Money," he finally stated.
Chris looked over his shoulder. He smiled lightly. "That's a lot of money for a horse."
"You're talking about Chaucer," Nathan reminded. "He'd pay any price."
"Kerstin wanted it," Josiah spoke quietly. "There's no telling what she'd do to get this."
Chris leaned next to Nathan and spoke to him. "We get Ezra cleaned up. We get the hell out of here. Money like that will drive anyone crazy."
Nathan nodded, but said, "Four Corners is a two day ride. That'll be awful hard on him."
"We got a wagon and can make it to Red Rock before night," Chris countered. "We'll get there and let him rest as long as it takes."
"And if Kerstin comes after us?" Josiah asked.
Chris squatted down beside Josiah, and placed his hand on the bag. "Ezra," he said clearly. "We have Chaucer. He's safe." His voice was firm, distinct. "You can give up the bag. I'll take care of it."
And although his eyelids didn't flicker, Ezra's hold loosened, and Chris was able to pull the bag clear. Larabee opened the bag fully and whistled when he saw just how much was inside.
"What are we going to do with it?" Nathan asked.
"Do you know where it came from?" Chris asked.
"Sheriff Hughes," Josiah said. "He stole it. Heard it came from the bank heists that the Hollowell brothers were involved in."
"That was years ago," Nathan said. "The banks were insured."
Chris looked out at the people huddled among the hills,
watching the water that swirled over their town. "I say we spread
Chris had moved quickly, handing out handfuls of cash to the dispossessed, with no attempt to make anything fair or even. He just doled out a wad to everyone he encountered. Let them fight it out later. The money went quickly.
And apparently the people of the town were kind enough to keep it spreading – ensuring that those that were missed received their fair share. Perhaps South Bridge wasn't such a bad place.
Everyone suddenly loved the law men from Four Corners. They were offered rooms at the finest homes still standing, offered just about anything, but Chris was done. He wanted to get Ezra and the rest of them away from the blight.
The wagon was loaded with a gladly-donated feather mattress, making it the most comfortable bed in the area, and they left town as quickly as Ezra's head was shaved across the back, the wound cleaned and stitched, and his head bandaged like a turban.
They gave away Garcia's horse – then tied Chaucer and Badger to the back of the wagon, along with Prophet who'd been located once the money began being dispersed.
Chris rode alongside on Job.
Kerstin was waiting for them along the path. She didn't move as she sat on her horse and watched them approach. And she smiled.
"You are funny," she said when they reached her. "Funny men."
"You gonna let us pass?" Chris asked, making a show of his weapon.
Kerstin laughed and held up a wad of cash and said, "A woman gave me half of her money when she saw I have a child. This is enough. The rest is too much. This is good. Too much money makes people crazy, yes?"
The men were quiet, watching her.
She laughed again, and gave Per a little squeeze. The boy giggled, delighted. Josiah's heart lurched.
"Say goodbye to your farfar."
Per smiled and waved. "Bye bye, grandpa."
Josiah said nothing, watching from his front seat on the wagon. His throat felt too full and he could only raise his hand as the little boy smiled.
Kerstin laughed again and shook her fist of cash at them. Then she turned her horse and rode off – who knows where.
Chris looked to Josiah. "You going to be okay?"
"Yes," Josiah said curtly. "Let's go." He couldn't bear to watch his grandson leave him again. He knew that Kerstin would protect him fiercely. With Miguel gone, they might stand a chance, and she had enough money to give them a good start. Josiah knew that he wouldn't be allowed in their lives.
It was time to let them go.
Within the wagon, Ezra made a sound, and Nathan bent over him quickly.
"He gonna be okay?" Chris asked.
"He's comfortable, I think," Nathan replied, soothing Ezra with a wet cloth. "I just want to get him home."
"Workin' on it," Chris responded.
JD, Vin and Buck met up with them somewhere in-between Red Rock and the South Bridge Bay. "Couldn't find him," Buck exclaimed as he charged up. And then he seemed to realize what was following the wagon. "You got Chaucer?"
"We got Ezra," Chris responded, nodding toward the wagon. "Found him in South Bridge."
"South Bridge?" JD echoed. "We heard it blew up and got flooded! Some folks came through here earlier and told us about it. It sounded horrific. Like something out of the Bible."
Buck went on, "We were comin' out to help you, since we couldn't find Ez. Figured you all must be involved somehow."
Vin pulled Peso alongside the wagon and looked inside where Nathan was sitting beside their gambler in the wagon bed. "Damn," he muttered as he took in Ezra's appearance. He reached in and softly touched Ezra's shoulder.
Nathan was mopping Ezra's face with a wet rag. The day was cool – but Ezra felt so warm.
"What the hell happened?" Vin asked sharply.
"Garcia got him," Nathan explained. "Beat the hell out of him. He got whacked pretty hard on the head."
The three looked glum, watching Ezra, who was muttering feebly, until the nattering became a word they understood. "Vin?" Ezra asked quietly.
"Hey, Ez. Yeah, it's me," Vin responded.
"Buck's here too, hoss!" Buck called, sidling in. He patted Ezra gently on the leg. "And you still owe us dinner!" he said lightly, though his expression was tight with worry. "I ain't gonna let you forget that!"
Unable to get close to Ezra in the crush, Dunne shouted, "I'm here too, Ezra!"
Ezra's eyes fluttered a moment, and a sliver of green showed. He looked from Vin to Buck, and then the eyes slid shut.
"Damn," Buck frowned. "He looks like hell."
Vin asked, "He gonna be okay?"
From the front of the wagon, Josiah stated in a low voice, "He doesn't remember me."
"He lost his memory?" JD asked softly.
Nathan spoke up, "He seems to know me and Chris – and Vin now. But he's not thinking straight. He doesn't seem to remember things in the right order."
JD drew Toby to the other side of the wagon, and stared in at his friend. "Gosh, he looks pale."
Nathan sighed, and swiped his hand over Ezra's brow, brushing away his hair. "He's been waking every so often, but not for long. Has a bad fever. Should've found a place to rest him outside of South Bridge."
Vin felt the feather bed inside the wagon. "Not the worst way to travel."
"And the sooner you got him out of that town the better," Buck muttered. "Nothing good ever came out of there. Not much left of it from what I hear."
"Where's Garcia?" Vin asked darkly, his hand moving toward his mares-leg.
"Dead," Chris answered.
"Good," Buck responded quickly, and then winced, throwing a look toward Josiah. "Sorry, Josiah… I…"
Josiah hadn't turned. He'd kept his gaze on the road toward Red Rock. "It's my fault," he said. "It's my fault and Ezra knew that. It's why he won't remember me. He doesn't even want to know me anymore." And with that, he flicked the reins to get the wagon moving toward Red Rock again.
They spent two days in Red Rock as Ezra healed. The gambler was coherent for longer periods each day. Chris and Nathan stayed with him while the others returned to Four Corners to take care of their town. Josiah went with them because he couldn't stand the fact that Ezra didn't know him.
Finally, Nathan decided it would be best to bring Ezra the rest of the way home. He was stronger, and the familiar setting might help him remember.
Sanchez stood in the doorway of his church on the day Nathan and Chris brought Ezra to the clinic. He watched as the wagon drew up to the livery, and Buck, Vin and JD hurried forward to help. Ezra was walking, unsteady and slow, but able to move up the stairs with someone on each side.
Ezra didn't look at him. Perhaps he was too focused on the act of forward locomotion, and too dizzy to turn his head. Maybe he didn't want to see him.
Once he was safely in the clinic, Chris came down the stairs while the others remained to spend some time with their brother.
"Josiah," Chris said as he approached the preacher.
Josiah nodded, his gaze on the balcony above the livery. He finally asked, "Does he know me?"
Chris shook his head.
"Does he know the others?"
Josiah went on, "Every time he woke up in that wagon, he had no idea who I was. He didn't even remember the previous times I introduced myself."
"He's getting better," Chris said. "Jackson said it's a miracle that he's alive and talking after that hit."
"He distrusts me so much," Josiah said sadly. "He knows that I caused all of this."
"You did blow up and flood a whole town," Chris said with a small smile.
But Josiah's mood didn't change. "I'm the reason he got hurt."
"No," Chris answered. "That was Garcia."
"Miguel attacked him because of me! He was looking for me and found Ezra, and then he beat him because he was angry with me."
"You were not responsible for that man's actions."
"I didn't tell him that Garcia was out there."
Chris didn't respond. Instead, he said, "You should go see Ezra once the crowd thins out."
Josiah turned away and said, "It breaks my heart when he says he doesn't know me."
Josiah watched the clinic from his church and listened to the reports from the others.
More than once he saw someone leave the clinic in to fetch Chris. Larabee would jog up the stairs and spend several minutes there, before departing. "Keeps bringing up that stupid argument," Chris would tell Josiah. "Stubborn mule won't remember that we got it fixed."
Buck later told him about how Chris would talk to Ezra at those times. "Reminds me of how he used to talk to his son when Adam was upset about something," he said. "Tells him the facts straight in a way that brooks no argument. Ezra listens real good and understands – for a while anyway."
"He give any sign that he remembers me?" Josiah asked.
Buck's response was glum. "It's like hitting a brick wall when we mention you. He's just got no memory of you at all. Might help if you come up and see him."
"Nathan says he's getting better. Seems to have finally gotten it into his noggin that his horse is safe. He's putting it all back together. He has some pretty fierce nightmares though. I've sat with him a few times and it makes a soul wonder what goes through his head."
Josiah lowered his head in misery.
"You should see him."
"I can't handle it, Buck."
Another day passed. Nathan had seen Josiah that morning, and gave him the latest report. Ezra was remembering more but still had no memory of the preacher.
"He gave me the strangest look this morning," Nathan said softly, apologetically to Sanchez. "Even mentioning your name confused him this time."
It was like a knife to the heart.
Josiah watched when Nathan brought Ezra out to the balcony for the first time since his return. The day was sunny and warm. Once he had the Ezra settled, Josiah could hear the healer admonishing him to stay put.
Josiah waited, watching.
It was good to see Ezra again. He was looking much better than the last time he'd laid eyes on him. The terrible paleness was gone, and he seemed surer of his movements, sharper.
Ezra leaned back and rubbed absently at his head. He wore no hat. A bandage surrounded the crown of his head, covering the cruel haircut and even crueler scar.
Josiah had lost so much in the past few days. He'd lost his son – didn't even have a body to bury. He'd seen his grandson taken away, had lost any claim he'd had to young Caleb, and even though they'd found Ezra and brought him home, Josiah had lost all connection to him.
It wasn't fair.
Ezra paged through a book for several minutes and then with a quick movement, he shut it and jammed it into his large pocket. Then, carefully, he leveraged himself to his feet. It took a moment for the gambler to find his balance. Once on his feet, he stood quietly, probably listening for Jackson.
And then, he moved to the stairway.
Josiah made his way to cut him off before he got too far. He waited, watching the concentration Ezra put into descending the stairs – one careful step at a time. He waited until Ezra made it to the bottom.
"Ezra," Sanchez called, his voice calm and low.
"Ah!" Ezra said, surprised as he looked up to meet Josiah's gaze. "And who might you be?"
Josiah closed his eyes, trying to hide the grief that the question gave him. Finally he said, "Where do you think you're going?"
Ezra shrugged. "Well, stranger, I was tired from being confined for so long and thought getting some air might do me well."
"That's why Nathan got you set up on that rocking chair."
"And I needed a little exercise, sir," Ezra added quickly. "How am I to regain my equilibrium without a chance to test it? In any case, I understand that I owe someone dinner. I fear they may be tryin' to take advantage of me. Something to do with a poker game that I lost." He pulled a face. "Don't know how that could have happened. Now, if you'll excuse me. I must be away before Nathan notices. It'll be any moment now."
He moved past Josiah, a wobble in his step, but moving forward easily enough.
"Ezra," Josiah called softly. "I'm sorry."
"Sorry?" Ezra repeated. "Why ever for?"
"None of this would have happened if not for me. Miguel attacked you because of me."
"This much I know -- Miguel Garcia attacked me because he needed someone to retrieve the bag from beneath the floorboards of the Happy Home, and he couldn't enter the town himself, until, of course, the town was empty of its inhabitants." Ezra narrowed his eyes. "A great deal of money was in that bag. I understand it was all handed out to those former residents of South Bridge."
"All of those poor people had lost their homes."
Ezra grimaced as if he'd tasted something sour, and then said, "I hope Miss Violet received sufficient compensation. She should want for nothing."
"She got plenty, Ezra. I saw to that."
"But you didn't make sure that I received anything? Can't remember to pick up a package for me in Red Rock, can't put your hand into the bag and pull out a few bills to be saved under my name. It's not as if you ever stopped by to see me while Nathan had me ensconced up there. Everyone else managed it."
If Ezra expected a strong reaction from Josiah, he received one. Josiah broke out into a huge grin and surged forward, grabbing Ezra in a bear hug, shouting joyfully, "You remember me!"
He released Ezra immediately when Standish gasped.
"Sorry, Ezra. I'm so sorry. I forgot…"
"Yes, well…" Ezra staggered a little to find his balance. "That's obvious. There seems to be a lot of that…"
"But you do remember me, don't you?" Josiah cried.
Ezra looked at Josiah as if he was crazy. "Of course I do. How could I possibly forget… you!" and he gestured at Sanchez.
"But Nathan told me that you still didn't know who I was this morning."
At this, Ezra paused one long moment, then braced himself on his knees and laughed. "Is that what it was all about? Good Lord, I thought he'd gone round the bend when he kept asking me if I knew who you were!"
From the top of the stairs Nathan shouted, "Ezra! I thought…! You…! How … how could you?!"
Ezra turned – carefully – to face the healer. "Nathan, you sounded crazy."
Nathan ran down the stairs and clamped his hands on Ezra's shoulders, looking like he wanted to shake him silly. But knowing better, he only held him firmly as he pressed his face in. "How long have you known?"
"Known what? Known Josiah? Since before that adventure with the Seminole Village," Ezra responded glibly.
Exasperated, Nathan pressed him, "Since South Bridge… When did you start remembering him after we left South Bridge last week? After you got your head nearly taken off."
"Last week? I hear he burned South Bridge, blew it up… then drowned it," Standish said. "Fitting end to that place. I'm sorry I missed the show. I would have enjoyed the spectacle."
Nathan tried again, "When did you start remembering him?"
Ezra turned his head to look at Josiah. "I didn't remember Josiah?" his voice was filled with wonder. "Well, my mind hasn't been quite right for a while… a long while some might say. I have no idea when I started remembering someone I'd forgotten, because I can't remember what I've forgotten, and I've forgotten when I remembered, and I can't remember when I forgot to remember him." And he smiled like a fox.
"He's better," Nathan said to Josiah as he dropped his grip on the gambler.
"A lot better," Josiah said, and couldn't stop smiling.
"Still can't understand him," Nathan chuckled.
"Son," Josiah started, "you had me in fits. I couldn't understand how you could remember everyone else, but not know me."
"I have no idea," Ezra said. "I was thinking about you, perhaps. I don't recall meeting Garcia or any of that, but I do remember that I had been upset, and that I'd had words with you before my departure. That was probably why I kept recalling that other argument with Chris. I tend to get into a lot of disagreements," he said, and looked toward the others.
"That you do," Nathan replied.
"That was my fault, Ezra," Josiah said. "I was upset about something that wasn't even true. I should've known better. And I should've told you about Miguel."
Ezra closed his eyes as he worked to bring his thoughts together. "I'm sorry to hear about the loss of your son. It must have been devastating."
"It was. In so many ways."
Ezra went on with the previous conversation. "It was silly of me to be annoyed," and he paused a beat before saying, "but you should've taken some money from that bag for me! A small stack of bills, Josiah! Chris, I hear, was handing them out like candy! How could you not procure me any money when it was being given away? I even hear that they'll be rebuilding the town, north of the bridge over the Banyon River. What fools!"
"Rebuilding?" Josiah repeated. This was news to him.
Nathan nodded, saying, "They're gonna call it North Bridge." And they all winced.
Ezra continued, "Between that and the forgotten package…"
Josiah's expression fell as he remembered. "Damn it, Ezra. That package in Red Rock. We were through there again and I didn't check at the saloon for it." He brought his hand to his face. "I can't believe I forgot again."
"I'm extremely offended," Ezra sulked. "I can't believe you did that."
"I'll leave right now, Ezra," Josiah stated. "I'll be able to make it to Red Rock and back before sundown, you can count on it."
"The journey might do you good," Ezra said. "Allow you time to think about what you've done."
Nathan cleared his throat and said, "Ezra, do you remember about that package that Buck gave you?"
"What was that, Mr. Jackson?"
"The package… that Buck retrieved on his first day in Red Rock. He held onto it all the time he was looking for you. The package that he gave you two days ago and you opened and were so happy to have. You remember it?"
"Oh, that package!" Ezra had a look of false innocence. "Yes, I have the package, but that doesn't erase the fact that he forgot it in the first place… and the second place." He made a little wave. "But I forgive you."
Ezra looked to Nathan. "It would have been fun to watch him ride out after it."
"No Ezra. No, it wouldn't," Nathan responded, but he knew Ezra too well. "You wouldn't have let him do it."
"True," Ezra replied. "Larabee would have my neck if I let Josiah go off on his own, after all the trouble he caused last time he did that. It's time someone curtailed his activities."
Josiah really never knew what to do about Ezra's responses. He knew the conman worked his hardest to raise the ire of Josiah Sanchez, but at that moment, even his most obnoxious remarks brought a smile.
"What was in the package, anyway?" Sanchez asked. "Jewelry? Bonds? Important documents? Gold?"
Ezra pulled the book out of his pocket. "Jules Verne!" he declared. "20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. I am borrowing it from the owner of the Twice-Shy Saloon. He'd been reading it when I last passed through that town, and told me a little of the story. It sounded like a rousing tale, and he told me he'd loan it to me. I am to return it when I'm finished. He made a point to say he wanted it returned without bullet holes nor blood stains. Imagine that."
"Yeah," Nathan said. "Imagine."
Ezra sighed as he looked at the cover. "But, I'm having a hell of a time trying to read it. My vision hasn't cleared as much as I'd hoped. I thought the sunlight would make it easier to see the print but I was wrong." He looked to Nathan. "Mr. Jackson promises my vision will get better."
"It will," Nathan reassured.
Josiah smiled, feeling warm and happy. "If you go back up to that rocking chair and sit there like a good boy, I'll read it to you."
Ezra broke out in a huge grin and shoved the book into Josiah's hands. "I was wonderin' when you'd offer." And he headed back to the stairs.
Josiah and Nathan watched as Ezra carefully scaled the heights back to Nathan's clinic.
"You didn't tell him about the 'finder's fee' that Chris took out of that bag of cash?" Nathan asked in a low voice.
Josiah laughed lightly. "Ezra surprised me so much, I didn't know how to tell him. Chris got him almost $800 for him for all the trouble he's been through because of South Bridge. Didn't anyone tell him about that yet?"
Nathan laughed lightly. "He's been badgering everyone about that bag of money. I think we've explained it to him about it a dozen times. It's fun watching how excited he gets each time he's told. But he forgets. His memory seems to be pretty solid now. It might finally stick. But I'm gonna miss that big smile when he finds out about it though -- like a dozen lanterns shinin' in the darkness. I kinda look forward to it."
Josiah grinned, but the expression dropped as he thought.
"He's not going to leave with it, Josiah," Nathan said. "If that's that what you're thinking."
"You're right," Josiah softly conceded. "He's home, isn't he?"
Ezra had reached the top of the stairs and turned. "Hurry up, Mr. Sanchez! Time is wasting and I am ready for an epic adventure! Don't keep me waiting!"
Josiah and Nathan exchanged an exasperated look, Josiah said, "Maybe I'll wait a bit before I tell him, just to torture him."
"He'll just keep complaining about it," Nathan replied. "You should get it over with."
"True," Josiah said. "And I want to see that smile you're talking about." And then they both headed up the stairs, following Ezra. "Somehow I know it'll be magnificent."