RATING: PG-13 for language
CATEGORY: Challenge - OW
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: The 2nd Anniversary Challenge:   1) The story must deal with the guys in pairs;  2) Someone will do something twice; 3) It must combine two of last year's challenges (try to figure out which ones I used)  4) It must contain five of the following words: pair (or pare), lumpy, flip, dubious, luggage, barter, shoo, doubt, mangle, bicker (got them all); 5) It must contain ONE of the following props and the item should be important to the story: a bottle filled with something unknown, a wagon with a broken wheel/car with a flat tire, a ridiculous coat, a wedding invitation, a leaky bucket, too few boots (or shoes), an incriminating note, an empty jail cell, marbles, OR a quagmire;  6) At some point one of the guys should utter a well known quote; 7) I want one magnificent scene with all seven of them at the end -- silhouetted against the sunset, bitching at a bar, relaxing in the shade, recovering in the hospital... whatever. They must all be together at the final scene.
SUMMARY: Ezra and Buck bring a wagonload of supplies to a homestead, and run into some trouble involving a hailstorm
FEEDBACK: Yes please! comments are greatly appreciated.
ACKNOWLEDGEMENT:  included at the end
DATE: February 17, 2004

Time Flies
By NotTasha...wondering who comes up with these awful challenges

Part 1:

"So you see," Ezra explained.  "I had Mr. Hanson hot on the trail of Mr. Monroe.  Meanwhile, Monroe thought Mr. Renner was the culprit, and Mr. Renner had Mr. Hanson in his sights."  The conman laughed, waving his hand about expressively.  "Their bloodlust was such that they paid no attention to the reality around them.  All of them thought that they had time on their sides and would be rich at the conclusion of this deal, but, in the confusion, I beat a midnight retreat with my pockets filled with their ill-spent cash."

“Now Ezra, you ain’t gonna tell me that none of this was illegal,” Buck considered.

The gambler’s dimples showed as he declared, “Sometimes that’s unavoidable, especially when one can make off with a jackpot.  It was an amazing scam, to say the least.  I had Hanson and Monroe convinced that Renner was my father.”

“How’d you do that?” Buck questioned him.

“The four of us were together when Mr. Monroe became belligerent and started to give up more information than I cared for him to divulge, I sidled up to Mr. Renner and uttered, ‘Let me at him, Pop!  I can take him’.  Mr. Renner was confused, but the others took that as gospel about my parentage.”

“Did Renner look at all like you?” Buck questioned.

“Passably,” Ezra responded.  “At the time he thought I was a distinguished businessman.  From what they’d seen of me at the time, I’m sure that any one of them would have been pleased to think of me as kin.   Now of course…” Ezra said with a flip of the hand, “… they know me in an entirely different light and would, I believe, prefer to see me swing.”

“Ezra…” Buck started and then let out a chuckle.  “You are just a magnet for trouble.”

“Well, I managed to escape the situation without out a scratch," Ezra stated with a happy sigh, and then added, “…and rich.”

Buck chuckled as he flicked the reins on the team.  "Get a lot of money out of that?"

"Plenty!" Ezra cried, leaning back on the hard wagon seat.  "I lived in the lap of luxury for months.  It was a memorable time.  I stayed in the best suites, drank the most expensive whiskey, ate at the highest recommended restaurants, and became acquainted with only the finest ladies.  They were quite entertaining to say the least."

“Hoo-wee!” Wilmington exclaimed, "I bet!  You spend it all?"

"But of course!   It didn't take long, but as they saying goes, time flies when you're having fun.  It went quickly, it's true.  One cannot live well if one isn't prepared to spend good money," Standish went on.  "And I do like to live well."  He brushed at his lapel and stated, "I was born to live in the lap of luxury, to be immersed in wealth, to be surrounded with the best of everything."

"Way you say it, you should be plated in gold," Buck responded.  "Top to bottom."

For that, Wilmington received a delighted expression from Standish.  "Ah! That would be delicious," Ezra sighed.  "To be coated in what I love best.  Imagine my sparkling personality if that were to pass!  I might do well with ‘the Midas Touch’." He picked up his new book and pointed at its title, The Gilded Age – by Mark Twain.  “I could appreciate a gilding.”

“Better that than a ‘gelding’,” Buck put in.

Ezra shuddered and exclaimed, “God forbid!”

The wagon rattled as Buck chuckled.  "Bein’ dressed up in gold might just be cold business," he said thoughtfully.  “And from what I recall, all didn’t end well for King Midas.”

"True," Ezra commented.  "But I would be offensively rich.  Honestly, I'd do anything to command such wealth."  He let out a sigh and stated, "I do love spending it, as is evidenced by my current state.”

Buck gave Ezra a sideways glance.  "You buy something new in town?" he asked, not noticing anything different in Ezra's attire.

The gambler chuckled, "No, I didn't purchase a thing, and that's the problem.  Not even this book -- it was borrowed from Josiah.  I'm rather close to penniless at the moment.  I've hit a string of bad luck at the tables recently and haven't had the time to recoup.   Such is life.  I've faced the situation many times."

"Yeah? So what did ya do when that happened?" Buck asked him.  "Get a job to tide you over a while?"

Ezra let out a bark of a laugh.  "Mr. Wilmington!  I thought you knew me better than that!  In order to get by: I pawn everything in my possession; I purloin a thing or two; I sleep in barns; forego meals; I sneak aboard trains to find new towns; I hide from authorities; beg if I must.  I manage to scrape up a few pennies here and there and wait for my luck to turn."

"Might be easier to just knuckle down and get an honest job," Buck said thoughtfully, imagining what Ezra's life was like when he hit hard times.

"Honest?  Unlikely,” Ezra responded.  “I'd sell everything I own before I'd take a job as a teamster," Ezra said with a gesture toward Buck.

"Better than just riding shotgun," Buck responded quickly.  "‘Least I have some say in where we go.  You… you're just along for the ride."

"Ah yes," Ezra said with a nod.  "I have always done my best to live off the labors of others.  And when I must find employment, I find the easiest duty."

Buck pursed his lips as he kept from laughing.  It was true, Standish usually found the easiest looking job to complete.  Wilmington couldn't fault him for that.  Of course, Buck also realized that what looked simple didn't always turn out that way.  Ezra did engage in a fair share of the duties assigned to them, whether it was facing down a gang of desperados, or tending to a bit of dull business -- like delivering a wagonload of household goods to a homesteader because they'd locked up her sons for disorderly conduct.

"Yeah," Buck continued,  "I could think of a lot of other things I'd like to be doin' right now.  Miss Megan promised to meet me at the Harvest Festival.  I'd feel terrible if we didn't make it back in time and I left her there all alone."

"Massachusetts Meg, the dancehall girl?"  Ezra quizzed.  "I have severe doubts that she'll be lonely this Halloween.  She made me the same promise."

"That … that….” Buck furrowed his brow and glared at the con man. "She told me I was her one-and-only."

"Try, 'many-and-most'," Ezra corrected.

"Aw hell!"  With a shrug, Buck conceded, "Yeah, I guess I should 'ave figured as much. She is a pretty thing, but she's a hussy.  Still, I wouldn't mind takin' her around that dance-floor a time or two."

"She'd make a lovely ornament for you," Ezra told him.  "But we, unfortunately, may have to miss the proceedings."

"Hell no, Ezra," Buck responded.  "We'll drop off the wagon, get our horses and get on home!  I don't want t'miss the dance."

"Well," Ezra drawled, "Once we make it to the Rae household, rest assured we'll be coerced into helping the poor woman unload this assortment of staples and piffle."  He turned about in his seat and poked at a crate behind him in the wagon bed.  "We should have let those boys loose once we learned that we'd be forced to do their chores."

Buck watched as Ezra tried to look inside the nearest box.  Wilmington asked, "Figure there's anything of worth in all that?"

"Doubtful," Ezra returned.  "Since this contains what could be easily shipped from their last household, there will be little of worth.  I believe that Ma Rae would have little that hasn't been chipped, broken, clipped and pieced back together again.  Other than that, it's just flour, salt, sugar, vinegar and molasses that we picked up from the store for them," he stated as he continued prodding at the boxes experimentally.  “If they had anything of value, I’m sure it came with the luggage they traveled with.”

Buck urged the horses onward, trying to get the wagon to its home as soon as possible.  They were almost to their destination.  JD and Josiah were already at the Rae house with their horses.  If they hurried, the four of them could get the wagon unloaded and return to town before Miss Meg found a suitor for the night.

Buck snorted as the horses' harnesses jangled.  "Ezra," he muttered, realizing that the gamester wasn't going to stop messing with the boxes.  "Leave it alone."

With a sigh, the gambler gave up on trying to discretely open the crate, and started to turn forward again.  It was then that he finally looked out behind them.  "Good Lord," Standish whispered.

"What?  You find somethin' good?" Buck asked, his eyes still on the land before them, trying to find an easy path across the nearly non-existent road.

"Mr. Wilmington…" Ezra started again, his voice low, "…We have a situation to consider."

Hearing the serious tone, Wilmington turned in his seat.  His jaw dropped as he took in the view behind them.


A cloud, dark and opaque as a curtain, hung in the sky behind them -- so close they couldn't see the anvil top -- a thunderhead.

"What the hell," Buck muttered.  It had been clear and warm when then left town earlier that day -- this was supposed to be a pleasant journey.  The cloud had formed out of nowhere.

Ezra licked his lips and stared at the approaching storm.  "I suggest we head toward the Rae estate with great haste.  Don't spare the horses."

The clouds, black as pitch, seemed to roll toward them.  "I 'spect you're right."  Buck responded as he faced forward and snapped the reins down on the horses.  Surprised, the team jolted and the wagon leapt to a faster speed.  "Think you can get the load covered?"  Buck asked.  "Looks like we're in for some rain."

Ezra nodded, shoved his book inside his vest, and flipped one leg over the back of the wagon seat.  "I'll do what I can," he responded as the wagon jerked beneath him. He crouched down in the jouncing wagon bed as he attempted to pull an oilcloth over their lumpy load.

Lightning lit the black underside of the massive cloud, followed by a long roll of thunder.  It came at them, bounding over the plane like a living thing.  The horses laid back their ears and bolted.

"Damn it!"  Buck cried, straining to get them under control as the lightning flashed again.  "Hang onto somethin’, Ez!"

The wagon lurched, throwing Ezra against one of the barrels.  He swore and crouching down, trying to keep a handle on the cargo as the thunder pealed.

The horses increased their panicked stride, tearing across the open space.  "Whoa!" Buck cried, pulling back on the reins, straining to stop them.  Another flash -- nearer -- followed by an even louder bang  -- did nothing to help him.  The chargers charged on.  "Shit," Buck muttered, realizing that this wasn't going to end well.  Crates bounced and flew out of the bed, smashing to the ground behind them. Standish held on, grasping onto a box that was labeled, "Tim's Horse", as each bone-jarring jolt tried to throw him from the wagon as well.

Buck knew that it was going to be near-impossible to slow the terrified horses.  Even as he pulled back on the reins with all his strength and shouted, the frightened team wasn't slowing.  He saw the rock as they hurtled toward it, and tried to angle the horses away, but they were beyond reason.  The team tore onward, missing the dog-sized stone themselves, but pulling the wagon directly into it.  "Hang on!"  Buck shouted, dropping the reins and clinging to the wagon seat as the inevitable became apparent.

The wagon smashed, full force into the stone, shattering its forward wheel.  The hitch tore loose as Buck lurched forward, losing his grip and taking a dive into the earth just after the horses broke free.  All around him, the contents of the wagon exploded.

He landed with a bone-jarring thud, tearing channels into the sandy soil.  The horses, still harnessed together, continued on their path.   Now unimpeded by the wagon, and even more horror-struck, they tore across the land.

Part 2

Buck groaned, turning on his side as he watched the horses go.  Around him, heavy raindrops began to fall.  Slowly, he turned, assessing his injuries.  He ached.  As he tried to press himself upright, he stopped with a gasp, feeling a jolt of pain travel through his arm.  Damn it!  God that hurt!  The world reeled as he took the weight off his hand.  With an exhale, he pulled his left arm toward himself, and cradled it against his chest.  Ow! Something broken, he decided.  Damn.

He turned, observing what was left of the wagon.   The wheel was shattered, the wagon tilted, and the rest looked as if it had been blown apart by dynamite.  Narrowing his gaze, Buck tried to find his companion.  An eerie, wheezing sound was the only thing he heard.  "Ezra?"  Buck called.  The gasping continued.

Wilmington shoved himself upright, keeping his left arm tight to his body.  His world tilted as he struggled to his feet.  "Ezra!" he shouted, and lurched toward the broken vehicle.  "Where are ya, hoss?"  The cargo was scattered everywhere.  Bits of cloth tumbled and papers darted in the wind like shooed cats.  Flour, beans, coffee and other supplies were tossed.  The heavy raindrops were dampening everything.  The big vinegar barrel lay mangled on its side, leaching its contents into the soil -- poisoning it.  The molasses barrel, still in the wagon, had obviously broken, too.  The air was filled with a strangely sweet and pungent order.   The rain continued -- big ugly drops that promised worse was to come.

He couldn't find Standish.  "Ezra!  GODDAMN IT!  Answer me!" Buck yelled, growing frantic.

"M'okay," he heard a response between breathes, coming from a pile of shattered crates.

"Don't sound okay."  Buck loped toward the mess, trying to keep from falling over.   He found the gambler on all fours, in the remains of the crate.  A broken rocking horse smiled up at him, straddled by the southerner.

Ezra struggled to draw in breath.  "Ez?"  Buck called, concerned, as he dropped down beside the southerner.

With a look of disgust, Ezra sat back and wheezed, "Just got… the wind… knocked out of me."  Standish waved a hand as his breathing eased.  "Ridiculous," he shook his head with disgust, and shoved the ruined horse away.

"God, Ezra, are you sure you didn't break any bones?"

"Remarkably, no.  I think…I'll survive."  He drew in one long breath to prove his point.  "Better.  Embarrassing thing."  And then he frowned at the way Buck held his hand.

"Well, looks like I might've busted somethin'," Buck responded to Ezra's querulous glance.  He experimentally moved the wrist and winced.  "Oh yeah… that isn't right."   He glanced about, taking in the cloud that threatened them.  "Think we better get some shelter.  We’re gonna get wet."   The rain, to prove his point, pelted them, growing heavier by the moment. The land grew dark, dark as dusk.   Lightning flashed, followed almost instantly by a roaring thunder.

Needing no further incentive, Ezra scrambled to his feet and followed Buck.  Quickly, Buck ducked beneath the tilted, ruined wagon.  "Gonna keep dry under here," he commented, cramming himself into the small space.

Ezra came to a halt.  Something dark and ugly was dripping from the wagon bed that formed the ceiling to Buck’s sanctuary.  Standish groaned.  The broken molasses barrel oozed its contents down through the slats.  "I think we'll do better outside," the gambler murmured.

Buck glanced at the ugly brownish substance that slowly dripped from between the overhead slats.  He stated, "Get on in here.  It’s only a little bit of stuff comin’ down.  Won't hurt you none."

Crossing his arms over his chest as the rain continued to pelt him, Ezra responded, "I'll take my chances out here."

"Suit yourself," Buck said with a shrug, trying to get comfortable in the limited space.  "Aw, for Christ’s sake," Buck muttered as he felt a large glob hit his hair, and run down his neck and into his shirt.  "Dang it!  Ezra, d'ya see my hat anywhere?"

Ezra hunched beside the wagon as the rain came down harder and the wind picked up.  He gave a glance around the area, and then shook his head.  "I'm not going out further into this weather for your sake," he muttered.  "Now, if I caught sight of my own hat, that would be a different situation altogether.  Hmmm, perhaps yours will fit me…"

Buck was about to retort when a new sound reached his ears, a drumming, droning racket  -- he looked beyond Ezra and stated, "Might want to get on in here."

Ezra looked contemplative, weighing a further soaking against the dreadful dripping molasses.  "I think I might prefer my rain to yours.  It can be washed out of my clothing easier."

Flinching as another sticky glob hit his face, Buck stated.  "It's gonna get a bit worse out there.  Here comes the hail!"

Even as he spoke the words the ice pellets started to fall around them.  Ezra seemed unimpressed at first, but as the ferocity of the storm hit him, he swore and ducked in under the cover of the broken wagon.

Hail bombarded the area as the pair huddled beneath the wagon.  The world grew even darker, flashing bright for a startling few moments as the lightning sparked and thunder followed.  The wind pummeled them.  The sugary syrup mixed with the earlier rain and was churned up by the hail, turning to a slurry.  Ezra ducked his head into his collar, grimacing as the drops increased in size.  Buck rested his hurt wrist on his thigh and winched against the drenching.  Soon, the runny goop trailed down on them in channels and sheets, falling in an inescapable cascade. 

Neither spoke as the hail fell.  There was no point to it because they'd have to shout to be heard.  The glop continued to coat the unfortunate lawmen, but it was better than being beaten unconscious in the hail.  Then, as suddenly as it started -- the hail stopped, the sky lightened, the wind slowed, and the cloud moved on.

"Well," Ezra commented, still squatting in his place, "That was wretched."  He winced as another cupful of sugary slop came down on him.  With a burst of energy, Ezra shot out from under the wagon and spun about.  He held his arms out miserably, drenched with the brown syrup.  "Oh, Good God!" he grumbled.  "Look at me!"

Buck chuckled as he crawled out after the gambler.  "Ain't any better than me.  Lordy, I think I got a quart of that crap in my hair."  He combed a hand through his hair, finding it stiff and sticky.  When Ezra laughed, Buck stopped and scowled at the gambler.  "What?" he exclaimed.

Ezra, grinning merrily, gestured to Buck's hair – gelled to a radical peak.  "It's a becoming look for you," he stated, gauging exactly how many inches had been added to the tall gunman's height.

Giving Standish an annoyed look, Buck decided not to care.  He turned and looked about, taking inventory of their load.  It was in ruins.  What hadn't been destroyed in the crash, had been shattered in the hail.  The white balls littered everything, giving the land a look of fresh fallen snow.

Ezra checked his guns and groaned when he realized that the syrup had gotten into the holster on his gunbelt.  Thankfully, his shoulder holster had some protection, but all of his pockets seemed to have suffered.  "Lord, this is a mess," he muttered, pulling his silver flask from one pocket and finding it dripping with goo.

"Come on, Ez," Buck encouraged.  "Let's get movin'.  See if we can find anything to salvage."  Wilmington held his left arm still as he picked up some of the pots and tossed them into a pile near the wagon.

Ezra contemplated cleaning off the flask, but instead jammed it back into the gooey pocket.    "Mrs. Rae will not be pleased," he decided as he walked about, kicking the ice pellets.  He picked at the scattered property, finding nothing that seemed worth saving.  Locating a piece of wet cloth, he did what he could to wipe off his face and hands -- managing little, but feeling better.

Continuing his search, Ezra found a crate that had been relatively protected and was still in one piece.  He rubbed a thumb over his bottom lip as he thought, then pulled a knife from his pocket.  With a grimace of disgust, he found that the blade was as fouled as everything else.  He tried to wipe it clean, but his cloth was already soiled and there was nothing else available.  He'd have to put up with what he had.

"Let it be," Buck moaned, approaching Ezra as the gambler pried the lid open.  "We gotta save what we can.  Now's not a time for scavenging."

With a sharp look at the man with the sticky mustache, Ezra commented, "I was looking for something to form a sling for your arm, since you insist on carrying it about like a loaf of bread."

Buck came along side the gambler and decided, "Yeah, probably should tend to that.  Won't be much use otherwise." Wilmington scowled as Ezra pulled the lid free, seeing that the box held mostly broken ceramics.  Then he caught sight of the pillow.  "Look!  I bet we could use the cloth in that."  Buck reached for the cushion the same time that Ezra did, and they both jerked it in opposite directions.

The feather-pillow came apart at the seams with a ‘zzzzzt’, then exploded with a ‘pffftt’, tossing feathers in a tremendous cloud.  For a moment, Buck and Ezra were caught in their second flurry of the day.  Buck back-stepped and Ezra crab-walked in a frantic attempt to escape the cloud of feathers.

Coughing, gagging on the fluff, the two tried to regain their composure.  Ezra shook his head, looking in disgust at his new coating -- the feathers had gummed themselves up in the molasses.  Frustrated, he scrubbed at his arm, trying to lift off the feathers in handfuls, but the fluff only imbedded itself further at his attempts.

Dear Lord,  Ezra moaned to himself.  This is pure hell!

Standish couldn't imagine a more humiliating image than himself.  But, after a glance at Wilmington, he realized that it could be worse.   The tall cowboy was covered head-to-toe in white chicken feathers. Down turned his mustache white. His hair-do only added to the picture.  Ezra made an attempt to stifle his laugh, but no man would have had that strength.  So, he snorted.

Buck, seeing the dapper southerner, equally attired, threw back his head and guffawed.  "Ezra!" Buck brayed.  "I always figured you'd be the one t'get tarred and feathered."

"It was to be expected," Ezra said and then let loose his own laugh at the ladies' man's current state.  "You my friend, look like a partially plucked pullet!"

"Rooster!" Buck decided quickly, strutting about.   He tried to flap his arms in accompaniment but stopped immediately as his wrist reminded him of its current state.  "Rooster," he reiterated.  "Definitely a rooster."

"Well," Ezra drawled, noting the radical sweep of Buck's hair.  "You have the comb to prove it."

Buck chuckled at the genteel gambler, covered with fluffy white.  "Lord, look at us!  Damn, we're a fright!" 

Stilling his laughter, Ezra tried again to rub off some of the mixture that coated him, but it was to no avail. He was thoroughly enmeshed in the stuff.  He made a disgusted face.  "How will we ever get this off?"

"Too bad the vinegar's gone. Bet that would've done it.  We'll need soap and water, and lots of it.  Won't find that here though," Buck said with a nod.

“Yes,” Ezra agreed.  “It is rather desolate.”

"We should start walkin'.” Buck decided.  “I figure we’ll make it to the Rae homestead pretty fast. Might be able to get JD and Josiah t’help us, if they’re done helpin’ around the farm."

Ezra grinned for a moment, remembering that they'd gotten out of those particular chores, but then let out a groan as a thought hit him.   "Oh, Lord.  Imagine what they'll say."  He plucked at his pluck-able sides.  "This is deplorable."

"At least Vin won't be there," Buck told him.

Considering this fact, Ezra nodded.  "Thank heaven for small miracles.  He would be unbearable."  And with that he went in search of a suitable sling.

Part 3

Ezra quickly found a piece of cloth, and tied it into a sling for Buck, careful of his painful wrist.   They'd searched through the wreckage for anything that might help them on their trek, and found little that would to any good. What was salvageable, they collected and placed near the wagon.

They'd searched, hoping to find new clothing for themselves, but found nothing besides a few bonnets and napkins -- nothing suitable to replace their soiled shirts and trousers -- not even a tablecloth or towel.  They'd have to make do with what they had.

"How's your arm, Buck?"  Ezra asked as Wilmington messed with his sling, trying to get the arm comfortable in it.

"Aches," Buck admitted.  "Hurts like hell if I try to move it."

"Then, don't move it," Ezra commented.

"Smart ass," Buck hissed as he moved his wrist and felt that nauseating pain hit him again.  "Goddamn!" he hissed and hopped about, as if that might ease his discomfort.    He looked up to see Ezra grinning at him.  "How's your chest?" Buck asked to keep Standish from making any further remarks.  "You musta landed pretty hard.  Ya smashed up that box right good and killed a perfectly good rocking horse."

Running one hand over his sticky and feathery vest, Ezra commented, "Bruised, but not broken."  A curious look stole over his face as he moved his hand about.  "Perhaps I spoke too soon," he stated, feeling something move oddly under his fingers.

"Ya all right?" Buck asked, stepping closer, noting his friend's confused and concerned expression.

"Something definitely is not right," Ezra muttered, as he located where the problem was. There, his lower ribcage, something moved strangely.  He held his breath, expecting pain as he moved about the broken bit.  But no --  it wasn’t his ribs.  He could feel the hard cover of his book still nestled within his vest.  The book must have offered his bones some protection when he flew through that box.   Might have busted a few otherwise.  He reached into his waistcoat and drew out the dripping volume.  Hell, the stuff had even gotten inside my clothing! he moaned inwardly.  Disgusted, he tossed the book away.  Sorry, Josiah.  I'll replace it eventually.

He felt the spot again, then reached into his watch pocket.

Buck leaned in as Ezra pulled out the contents.  They stared at the jumble.  "Crap," Buck muttered, seeing the cracked glass and ruined case, the broken gears and cogs that once formed the guts of a watch.  "Oh, your watch…" Ezra always wore that watch -- an old thing, not really up to the Standish standards in jewelry -- engraved with a simple EPS.  Now, it was reduced to junk.  "Tough luck, huh?"  Buck stated.

Ezra stared at the mess in his hand, saying nothing.

Buck changed his gaze, taking in Ezra's stricken face.  Even under the remaining traces of molasses and down, it was impossible to mistake the bleak expression.  "Ez?" Buck questioned.

The syrup had gotten into the watch works -- as it had gotten into everything.  Ezra poked at the mess in his hand, and let out a low sigh.  "I guess it was to be expected," he muttered.  "Everything I touch eventually turns to this."  He smiled feebly at Wilmington and whispered.   "A ruin… everything… a ruin."  With that, before Buck could stop him, Ezra drew back and attempted to heave the handful of watch parts.  Some of the globs scattered into the mess that surrounded them.  The rest clung to his hand like dingleberries.

Ezra dipped his head and turned sharply.  "It's time we started moving, We’ve wasted enough of it already," he stated and started in the direction of the Rae household, wiping his hand across his trousers in an attempt to dislodge the remaining bits.   He paused long enough to pick up the bag that held the few items that they deemed necessary for travel, and then kept moving.

"Ezra," Buck called, jogging after the gambler, then stopping as the movement reached his painful wrist.  "Damn it, Ezra, hold up!"

Standish stopped, waiting, but not turning, until Buck reached him. Ezra's unhappy expression had been replaced with one unnaturally bland for someone adorned as he was.  He nodded, and continued at a slower pace, with Wilmington alongside him.

Part 4:

They walked, heading toward the Rae household.  The thunderhead ran before them, leaving a scattering of clouds behind.  The little balls of hail had piled up in low spots and were already melting as the sun came out.  The rain had stopped and the day turned warm again.

Ezra trudged along, not looking up.  He carried the bag over his shoulder.  It was light, holding little more than their hats -- consigned to that space to save them further ruin.  Unless it became hot, they'd do without head-coverings.

Buck waved a hand to shoo away a bug that had landed on his arm, but the insect instantly became stuck -- its wings flapping uselessly.  "Great," Buck muttered, wondering how long it would take Ezra to realize that he'd suffer the same fate.

"Oh Lord," Ezra moaned, picking at his arm and then slapping his neck, he gave Buck a miserable look.  "It appears our suffering is just beginning."

"We'd better pick up the pace a bit," Buck told him, “The sooner we get to the Rae’s, the quicker we get this stuff cleaned off.”

More insects came to them, attracted by the sweet scent.  They came in droves.  Ezra winced and scratched unhappily at another entangled fly.  Wilmington did his best to ignore them.

"Ah!" Ezra cried.  "We shall be swarmed!  Oh God, this is torment!" Ezra exclaimed as he swatted at the buzzing about his ears.  The stuck bugs frantically tried to get loose, their wings devilishly tickling the skin beneath them.  The bugs bit in their fear, bringing up welts and yelps from their hosts.

"Lord, what did I do to deserve this?" Ezra groaned.   Thunder rolled again and Ezra glanced upward, chagrinned, and muttered.  "Yes… yes… I know."  Again he waved around a pointless hand -- the insects would not be deterred.  

Ezra was miserable, Buck realized.  Heck, he was miserable, too.  The least he could do was distract Standish, get his mind off the bugs and maybe keep him from complaining about them.  "You have that watch a long time?" Buck tried.

"The watch?" Ezra echoed as he itched at his neck, and was stunned into silence for a moment.  "I suppose I so  -- yes, a very long time -- since I was eight years old."  He shrugged, and then waved his hands about -- looking like a distracted boxer.

“You get it from someplace special,” Buck continued.

With a disgusted sigh, Ezra gave up at swatting the bugs and asked, "Did you know either of your grandfathers, Mr. Wilmington?"

"Me?" Buck asked.  "Naw.  My mother -- well," he lowered his voice to a confidential tone as he stated, "You know where she worked."  He waited until he received a nod from Ezra before he continued, "Her papa, my grandpap, didn't want anything to do with her."  His voice became hard when he spoke those words -- unable to understand how a man could reject that saintly woman.  "My papa, well, I really didn't know him, so I never had a chance to know his Pa."

"I'm sorry to hear that," Ezra voiced with a nod.

"My mama knew who he was.  He'd come from time to time… to… see her."  His voice became softer, remembering.  It was a confusing situation for a young child.  His 'Aunties' were usually able to keep him occupied and elsewhere in the 'house' when his mother was… occupied.  The wide attic was reserved as a living space for the women -- free from the trappings of their occupation.  It was a cozy, secret place, and it was where their children played.  "I think I knew who he was," Buck continued.  “I think… he knew who I was.  When we crossed paths, he'd give me this queer look -- almost as if he was afraid of me."  Buck paused and glanced at Ezra.  "Wish someone had said something.  Would have been nice to know my papa.  I think he would be proud of what I made of myself."

"Yes," Ezra responded earnestly.  "I'm certain that he would.  You are a man to be proud of."

Surprised into silence, Buck stared at Ezra as they walked and swatted at the swarm that surrounded them.  Ezra had his eyes closed, trying to avoid those creatures that buzzed around his face. His lips were pressed tight as if he was dreadfully afraid of swallowing one of them.  And the bugs seemed dead-set on pestering both of them, insisting on committing delicious suicide.

"Your grandpa gave you the watch?" Buck asked, realizing that he'd lost the thread of the conversation.

Ezra nodded.  He attempted to adjust the light bag at this back, but it was well-adhered and he could easily release his grip on it without worry of dropping it.

Receiving no further response, Buck asked, "He must have been fond of you."

With that, Ezra came to a standstill and Buck outpaced him a few steps before he turned to face the gambler.  Ezra twitched as another fly found its way into the morass of molasses.  "I couldn't say," Ezra finally responded in a whisper, and then started walking again, his head ducked down against the onslaught of insects.

"Well," Buck tried again, "He must have had a good reason to give it to you.  You spend a lot of time with him?"

"No, not much at all," Ezra continued, in the same hushed voice.  "Hardly any time at all."

"But you knew him?"

Chuckling dryly, Ezra said, "Not really.  He spoke little English -- a Dutchman at the end of his life.  He was sick unto death, too weak to speak much at all.   He could get out a word or two at a time -- mostly unintelligible.  He was nearly deaf and had trouble understanding what I spoke.  We were strangers, really. Foreigners to each other."

"But you knew him," Buck insisted.

"For a time," Ezra countered.  "A few months… a summer.  Time goes by so quickly."  He sighed.  "My… father… I stayed with him for a time.  He took me to see my grandfather every Sunday.  I’d spend a few hours at his bedside, and then father would retrieve me to return home."  Ezra laughed humorlessly.  "I was found unfit for church.  He thought my invitation to enter heaven was dubious at best, so why bother?  My father killed several birds with one stone.  He got me out of the house and out of the way of his new wife, he was free of me while attending his weekly obligation, AND he was able to perform his familial duty by providing his father with some entertainment.  It worked out well for everyone."

Ezra never spoke of his father.   The only family Buck knew of was Maude.  Buck remained silent a moment as they walked, and finally had to say, "Bet your grandpa was glad to have you."

Again, Ezra shrugged, an uncomfortable sensation when one had a bag glued to one's shoulder.  "Hard to say," he replied.  "The man was very weak and hardly recognized my presence.  I sat with him.  I told him things.  I read to him.  Little more.  He seemed to enjoy it, but one cannot be certain. Perhaps he enjoyed my presence.  Perhaps he was demented and would have smiled at a mote of dust.  I have no idea."  Fussing at his hopeless sleeves, Ezra muttered, "It didn't last long.  He died and that was the end of it."

Buck laid his free hand on Ezra's sticky shoulder.  "I'm sorry t'hear that, Ez.  Dreadful sorry."

"Oh, it's nothing you need worry about," Ezra said, stepping forward to outpace Buck.  It took a moment for Ezra's jacket to peel free of Buck's hand. It came free like an apple skin pared from the fruit.  "It was long ago -- nigh on twenty years.  It doesn't matter."

"And the watch?" Buck continued, not letting this go.  "He gave it to you."

"Not exactly.  It came to me after his death," Ezra continued with a narrow smile.  "His nurse had some understanding of his grunts and groans and came to the conclusion that the old man wanted me to have it.  The initials on it were his.  I've adopted them whenever I could.  It has become a convenience to me… a crutch.  I suppose this is a good excuse to end that silliness.  I could become someone entirely different the next time I need to restart my life.  There are only so many Christian names that begin with an E.  This will open the whole alphabet to me."

Buck wanted to ask Ezra why the hell he'd need to restart his life again, but the gambler continued on, "My grandfather had nothing -- just bits and pieces of junk.  The watch, I suppose was the only thing he still possessed that held any worth.  He left nothing to his son.  There was nothing my father would want of his."  There was no bitterness in Ezra's voice -- just a quiet perplexity.

Standish went on, "My father, you see, was a gentleman -- a man of refinement.  My grandfather -- was a pauper.  I suppose he did fairly well when he was a young man, but age robs one of health --- and with it goes riches.  Without funds, he was basically alone in his old age."  Ezra spoke without emotion, as if it were the only way he could relate these things.  "And, for some reason, my grandfather thought the watch was better entrusted to me than to the pawnbroker or waste-barrel.  I've tried to take care of it.  I thought, perhaps I was honoring his memory by using his initials."  Standish jerked his shoulders in a shrug.  "But, perhaps, it only sent him spinning in his grave.  I ruined the watch.  As in everything, I eventually, irrefutably, inexorably fail.  I wish I'd been able to keep it longer.  I wish I could've made him proud of me."

"Ezra, he'd be proud of you!  Just look at you!"  Buck paused as he gestured to the sticky, feathered, insect-ridden gambler.  "Well, okay now might not be the best moment.  But you're a fine example of …"

"… a lying, cheating, low-life gambling confidence man and bastard," Ezra completed.

"Hang on a minute, you stupid son of a…" Buck tried to get in.

Buck was cut off, as Ezra overrode him.  "Our deceased President Lincoln once said, 'I don't know who my grandfather was; I am much more concerned to know who his grandson will be.'"  The gambler swatted at the insects as he went on, "I didn't believe in his politics, but must admit that Mr. Lincoln was a wise man.  I should have been concerned with the same thing.  Unfortunately, I let my life take a meandering path that led nowhere.  And then I let a silly thing like a broken watch bring me down."  He gestured exasperatedly.  "I shouldn't care."

Buck spoke quickly, trying to get a word in edgewise,“You’re a lot better than you give credit for.  And that watch – your granddad would understand.  I'm just sorry that it happened, Ez," Buck said softly.  "It's a damn shame."

"Oh," Ezra started, a transformation coming over him as his dull expression changed into an amused look.  "It was bound to happen.  I'm just surprised it took so long."  He smiled.  "I have this horrible habit of shedding possessions.  Either I'm flush with cash and can have everything I want, or I've lost my stake and must begin pawning anything I can lay my hands on.  Honestly, I'm better off this way.  Now, I don't have to fret over the decision as to whether it's time to let go of a near-worthless bauble."  He laughed lightly.  "It was time to move on."

Buck tipped his head, regarding his friend.  "You'll find something new," he decided.

"Yes," Ezra returned quickly.  "New and closer to my standards!  And you, my friend, will pay half because you were the cause of the accident."

"Me?"  Buck returned sharply. "Try 'Mother Nature'!"

Ezra shrugged.  "I do my best to never 'try' Mother Nature.  I can't sue HER," he explained. "You, on the other hand, are available for lawsuits."

"Dang it, Ezra!  At least you didn't break your wrist," Buck commented, laying his good hand over the sling.

"And for that, I count my luck stars," Ezra responded, giving Buck a jab in the arm and then quickly moved as Buck let out a yelp.  Standish jumped away from Buck's reach.  "And you, dear sir, look absolutely ridiculous."  His eyes traveled to Buck's bizarrely sculptured hair.

"Hell, you ain't any better."  Buck took a quick step, fast enough to get close to Ezra and give him a hearty slap on the shoulder, becoming stuck to him again for a moment.

"I'm certainly better looking than you," Ezra told him.  "Even with this… dreadful disguise." He gave Buck a shove, and then tried to wipe his hands on his filthy trousers after being in contact with Wilmington.  the hands didn't really move against his pants, just getting stuck again.  “Ugh!  You disgust me!”

"Why I ought ta'…" Buck made a movement to grab a handful of the gambler’s jacket, enjoying their playful bickering.

"Why look!" Ezra cut in, glancing beyond Buck.  "The Rae homestead!  We're almost there.  You see, we've had such an enjoyable time, that this trek has taken hardly any time at all." He looked delighted.  "Our salvation is at hand!  Race?"

"Hang on, just one minute!" Buck declared, holding onto his hurt wrist through the sling.  "I ain't gonna jostle this if I don't have to!"

"Your loss," Ezra returned, and took off at a jog.

Buck growled and followed, wincing but not wanting the gambler to win.

Part 5

JD, Josiah and Mrs. Rae relaxed in the homestead.   The lawmen had spent most of the day doing chores about the property – filling in the Cissy Rae’s jailed sons.  A ferocious hailstorm had driven them within and, once the thunderheads had passed over, they did a quick inspection of the land.  Finding nothing out of sorts, and since the chores were complete, they returned to the household to await the coming of their friends.  It was a relatively comfortable place.  The house had come to the Rae's furnished, and Cissy only needed her load from Ridge City to make it a home.

With any luck, Josiah decided as they sat, they’d all make it back to Four Corners in time for the Harvest Festival.  Massachusetts Meg had promised Josiah a dance or two, and he was bound and determined to see her there.

JD leaned against the table, reading his latest dime-store novel -- Deadly Dave and the Killer of Hooter's Mound.   Every so often he'd read a passage out loud for the others' enjoyment.

"Dave got up in front of Tom Strick, the man who'd shot his Pa and was the terror of Hooter's Mound.  Strick was like a mad dog with a burr under his saddle. Dave knew he had to put him down -- stop Strick before anyone else had to suffer his wrath.  Dave would derail his plans.   'Time you were stopped,' Dave said with steely eyes. "You're under arrest.  What you aim to do about that, pardner?'

'Kill you,' Strick growled with a feral smile as he got out his gun and aimed it at Dave's beating heart.  'Kill you until you are dead.'"

JD lifted his eyes expectantly at his audience.  "Isn't that great?" he asked.  "You want to hear more?"

"That's quite all right," Josiah murmured as he fingered is own book, a volume of verse.   "No need to go any further."

"But this is just where it's getting really exciting!" Dunne said as he jumped to his feet, unable to contain his energy anymore.  "He's been tracking Strick for days and finally caught up with him!  There's going to be a big gunfight!  Pretty good, don’t you think?"

Sanchez kept his head down, his eyes on his own book.  "I'm excited enough as it is," he returned blandly.

“Well, what’re you readin’?” JD returned defiantly.  “Poems are just fluffy stuff.”

Josiah frowned at JD’s comment.  After clearing his throat, he read:

“Jenny kissed me when we met,
    Jumping from the chair she sat in.
Time, you thief, who love to get
    Sweets into your list, put that in.
Say that I’m weary, say I’m sad;
    Say that health and wealth have missed me;
Say that I am growing old, but add –
    Jenny kissed me!”

Mrs. Rae, a puffy and tired-looking woman, blushed over her knitting and Josiah winked at her.

JD wrinkled his brow and stated, “That doesn't sound like any poem I've ever heard!  Did you make that up?”

Josiah turned the book and pointed to the verse he’d just read.  “There it is in black and white.  I think it means that time passes awful fast, so to get past the ugliness in life, you have to remember the happy times.”  Sanchez smiled, wondering if he would be able to get one more sweet on his list when he found Meg at the dance.

“Are all poems like that?”  JD asked him.

“No,” Josiah responded. 

JD cocked his head at the big man, wondering if Josiah would say anything else.  When Josiah remained mute, JD figured that his dime-store novels were a better bet, and turned his attention to Mrs. Rae, "What about you, Mrs. Rae, do you want to hear how my book ends?"

"Oh, heaven's no!" she returned.  "That's far too much for my constitution.  That story is just too frightening.  I wouldn’t be able to sleep if you read any more."

JD harrumphed.  "Well, I guess I'll just read it to myself then," he stated glumly.

"Thank the Lord," Josiah whispered, unheard by young Dunne.

"Just could use some excitement," Dunne continued.  "I'm tired of waiting."

"I'm certain Mrs. Rae could find more chores for you," Josiah stated.

Mrs. Rae turned bright, tiny eyes on JD and nodded.  Dunne let out a sigh and picked up his book again, deciding to read near the window instead of at the table.  He was just getting ready to sit when he spotted something.  "Josiah!" JD shouted as he gazed out the window.  "What d'ya think that is?"

Josiah sighed and set down his book.  He stood stiffly, reminding himself that household chores should be left to younger men.   "What is it, JD?" Josiah asked as he headed toward the window.  He saw nothing out of the ordinary -- just empty spaces.

"There," JD said, pointing.

Josiah squinted.  He tried to make out what was coming toward them.  It appeared to be two people, running. Two men, Josiah decided, but there was something odd about them.  "Feathers…" Josiah decided as the figures came closer.  He furrowed his brow, wondering if his eyes were deceiving him.  "Feathers?" he repeated, looking to JD.

"Looks that way," the kid returned, resting his elbows on the windowsill.  "They're comin' here, that's for sure."

Cissy Rae came beside them, resting herself on Josiah's arm.  Josiah grunted, unprepared to take on her weight, but he managed it with a little finesse.  She stared for a moment, then her eyes grew wide. "Chicken men!" she breathed.  "Chicken men sent from hell to torment me!" She held a handkerchief to her face in horror.  "They've come to take their revenge on me!"

"Chicken men?" Josiah asked, as Cissy stepped back.

She shook her head and moaned, "Oh, the things I've done to chickens!  Horrible things!  Terrible things!"

"To chickens?" JD asked, looking over his shoulder at the fretting woman.  "What kind of things?" He ignored Josiah's 'shut up' expression.

"I've baked 'em.  I've fried 'em and stewed 'em.  I've stuffed them and grilled them.  So many stews!  So many soups! Dumplings!  Lord, think of all the dumplings!"  Cissy groaned as she backed away from the windows.  "Once I slaughtered 20 of them in one day!  Lopped off their heads one after another, just so my boys could have their fill.  Oh, and the eggs!  Think of all the unborn that I have massacred! Poached, boiled, fried, scrambled…omeletted! Chickens!  They've come to get me!"

Her eyes wide, she turned to Josiah.  "You must protect me from them!  YOU MUST!"  Her wild gaze then took in JD and she rushed at him, grabbing hold of his shirt, as she cried, "You must protect my womanhood!"

JD colored, and twisted, stumbling to get away.  "Ah, yes ma'am. I’ll protect you.  We’ll do it. Yes, protect you from the Chicken Men." He looked up worriedly to Josiah. "Chicken Men?" he asked.

Josiah narrowed his gaze at the two figures that continued to move toward the house. Why were they in such a hurry? Why were they covered in feathers? What the hell was going on? He grabbed his rifle and nodded to JD to do the same.  JD picked up his gun belt and strapped on his Colts. "We'll take care of them, ma’am," Josiah told the woman.

Cissy huddled in the far corner, her hands twisting the handkerchief as she muttered, "Chicken Men… Chicken Men… they're coming to get me… they're coming…Oh!  I never should have made that chicken pot pie.  Oh, dear lord!  What about the marsala?  The coq au vin?"

Josiah blew out a breath and nodded to JD to follow. The young man was right behind him as they strode out onto the porch to meet what was coming.

"What d'ya think they want?" JD asked, his eyes on the approaching figures.  His hands hovered, ready to draw if it became necessary. "Why do they have… feathers?  That tall one… look at its head… it's so weird looking.  It's got no arms!" JD's voice was hushed and awed. "Hey! Today is Halloween!" he said, suddenly remembering the date. "Do you think, maybe… maybe they’re something … evil?"

"Something feathered," Josiah decided, "That's about all we know.  Something strange…" Sanchez could tell that the bigger one did indeed have arms, they were just clutched close to the body.  The odd shape of its head?  Well, that would be more difficult to explain.

"Wicked maybe?" JD tried. The strangers came to a halt, seeing the two lawmen on the porch.  The feathered ones stared, as if coming up with a plan of attack. "Something wicked this way comes…" JD tried, remembering the phrase that he'd heard somewhere.

Josiah lifted his chin as the shorter wicked man waved. Sanchez narrowed his gaze, not exactly able to see their faces, but there was something very familiar about those two.  He laughed when he made a realization. Clamping a hand on JD's stiff back, he uttered, “Open locks, whoever knocks!”  When JD gave him a confused look, Josiah told him,  "Not wicked… not entirely anyway."  He winked at JD.  "Something that isn't completely good, but not entirely wicked this way comes," he rephrased and then laughed long and hard.

Part 6:

"Damn it, JD!" Buck exclaimed as he looked about for the young man.  "Where's that hot water?"

The kid stumbled toward him with a bucket.  "Ezra's usin' it all up," he told Wilmington.  "I got this from the pump."

"Hell, he gets to use the washtub.  'Least I could expect is some warm water!"  Buck sat in the horse trough, scrubbing at his skin with soap.  The molasses had gotten into everything, sliding down through his collar and getting in beneath all his clothing.  The mix of feathers and insect bits was coming off little by little.  God, it was good to rid of that sticky, buzzing coat.  Still, he was certain that he'd do better with heated water.  He picked up a scrub brush and worked it against his skin.  His swollen left arm, still aching, rested on the edge of the trough.

JD poured in the bucket's contents, to replace what Buck had splashed out.  He didn't know how they were going to clean the trough out when they were done.  JD's gaze strayed to Buck's hairdo.  "Ah," he started.  "Ya gonna take care of that?"

"What?" Buck responded and then realized where JD's gaze was centered.  "Yeah, yeah…I'll wash my hair last.  Don't know if this cold water will get anything out though."

JD stifled a laugh, and then asked, "So, what happened?"

Buck shook his head as he soaped.  "I’ve told you this once already, kid!  The storm spooked the horses.  They bolted.  I broke up my wrist.  We got stuck out in the hail and had to go under the wagon to get out of it.  The molasses barrel was broken and it got all over us.  Ezra broke open a pillow and this is the result!"

"I know that already," JD scoffed.  "I was wonderin' about your hair.  How did THAT happen?"  He picked a mirror out of his back pocket -- a small hand mirror that he'd borrowed from Mrs. Rae.

Buck gave JD a quizzical glance and then reached for the mirror.  Finally, he was able to see the state of his hair -- the severe incline -- the freakish peak -- the feathers and squirming bugs that decorated it.  How long had it been this way?  Buck frowned, remembering how Ezra had laughed at him.  "Son of a bitch," Buck growled as JD laughed.

Part 7:

"Good Lord," Ezra moaned as he scrubbed in the washtub on the kitchen porch.  Josiah chucked at him, as the layers of feathers, bugs and molasses finally fell clear and revealed the pale, bruised skin beneath.  Ezra hunched beside the tub, in his under-drawers, washing whatever parts of his body that could fit in the tub.  Feathers floated in the water.  "This is detestable, unconscionable, inhumane! Ah!  Buck has the better set up.  At least he can climb all the way into that trough to get clean.  Me?  I have to work at it bit by bit!"

Josiah walked through the back door to retrieve a piping kettle from the stove, and then sauntered to where the gambler was struggling.  "You could switch places, you know. I think he'd be more than glad to have a try at this hot water." Josiah gestured to the kettle.  "Perhaps we should send this one out to him?"

"Not likely!" Ezra returned, pointing to the dirty water in the tub. "He's the one that burst the feather pillow! No sir!  I require every ounce. Continue as we were."

Josiah dumped in the contents of the kettle into the tub and shook his head.  "You got yerself pretty bruised up," he commented, noting the mottled colors across Ezra's chest.

Ezra sighed.  "It could be worse," he told Sanchez.  "I was protected by Mark Twain.  At least I escaped the injury that Mr. Wilmington suffers."

"Oh!"  the feminine exclamation brought both men to attention.  Ezra, without anything for protection, tried to hide behind the water tub.  Mrs. Rae waddled out onto the porch, frowning as she stated, "I've seen all of that before young man.  No need to put on airs."

"Not to be impolite, my dear, but perhaps you might… hurry along?" Ezra requested as he huddled.

Cissy shook a fat finger at the crouching man.  "You had me fooled!  You and your friend!  Chicken Men!"

"Yes, Chicken Men," Ezra repeated, looking to Josiah for help.

The big man just laughed.

"Lucky for you, you weren't Chicken Men," she spat out crossly.

"Yes," Ezra said with a nod.  "I drop down on my knees every day and thank the Lord that I am not a Chicken Man."

“I would have had you shot and stuffed for dinner!  I won’t put up with shenanigans!” Cissy said hotly, crossing her arms over her ample bosom.

“I am rather glad you didn’t,” Ezra told her, forcing a smile.

"Well," she continued sharply, "I'm just coming to get your clothing.  It certainly needs to be cleaned and I won't be able to get rid of you unless you have something to wear.  I'll have to start my wash day early." She sniffed unhappily as she stated, "Unfortunately, I've lost so much of my household goods, I don't know how I'll do it.  It's pure luck that someone left this wash tub behind."

She picked up Ezra's awful clothing as the southerner tried to look nonchalant and Josiah grinned.  "I'll need your under-things next," she stated.  "You and that other boy will have to wait in the parlor whilest I do the wash.  Don't want to upset the neighbors if they come calling.  You'd best hurry up 'cause I'll need that tub."  She disappeared into the house.

Ezra glanced up and met Josiah's amused gaze.  "I’m not stripping down to nothing in this woman's house! Did you see the way she looked at us when we arrived! She had blood on her mind. We ruined all her possessions! She doesn't like us! Imagine what she'll do to us when we are at our most vulnerable."

Josiah just laughed. "Come on, Chicken Man.  Strip down and finish up with the tub. We're gonna want to get home before it gets too late."

Part 8:

Josiah brought out another kettle of hot water as Mrs. Rae tended to the washing and JD refilled the trough.  The horses would get a sweet tooth for a while, Dunne decided.  He'd managed to empty out most of the molasses water, but there was only so much he could do.

Mrs. Rae worked over the washtub, filled now with sudsy water and most of the sticky clothing.  "Dump the water in here, Mr. Sanchez," she said curtly, sweating as she labored. “And then put the rest of the clothes in.  I don’t have all day.”

Josiah glanced to the remaining pile, recognizing Ezra's things.  He knew that Standish usually went out of his way to find the best laundrywomen to take care of his clothing.  Mrs. Rae, with her huge arms and unhappy mood, would not be gentle. She was using a paddle to stir up the present contents, harshly shoving the clothing back and forth, beating Buck’s things to a pulp. Well, Ezra needed to wear something on the ride home. There was no getting out of it.

Picking up the jacket first, Josiah checked the pockets and grimaced as he came up with a handful of syrup.  It gummed up everything, making the fine clothing nothing but a matted glob.  He emptied the valuables, found a few coins, discarded a ruined pack of cards, and threw the garment into the wash.  The vest came next and Josiah was surprised to find the chain and fob, but not the watch. He double-checked Ezra's watch pocket, but still came up empty.  Odd, he thought, but maybe Ezra secured the watch elsewhere when it became evident that the waistcoat pocket would not be safe.

Mrs. Rae huffed and groaned, adding her sweat to the wash.  JD leaned against the trough, watching.  In the small parlor of the household, Ezra and Buck were trying to act natural in their birthday-suits while sitting on Cissy Rae’s flowery settee.

The trousers were the last thing Josiah searched.  The pockets were empty, but Sanchez came across something hard and round as he started to ball up the pants to toss them into the wash.  It took a moment to peal the piece of metal from the cloth, but once it was free, Josiah recognized it.

"What you got there?"  JD asked, as he came to Josiah's side.  The preacher held the item out silently.  Not wanting to touch the sticky thing, JD leaned in to get a better look at the coated object.  It was a watch cover, with a few cogs, watch-bits and bugs glued to it.  JD chuckled and pointed at the squirming insects.  "Time flies!" he stated glibly.

"Look at the engraving," Josiah said softly.

It took a moment to discern it through the mess, but JD recognized the letters.  "Oh man," JD sighed.  "Ezra's watch."  He looked up at Josiah's face, and anxiously repeated, "Ezra's watch!"

Josiah sighed and shook his head, then proceeded to clean the cover as best he could.

Part 9:

"Here they come," Vin said softly as he leaned against the railing outside the jailhouse.

The tall healer came beside him and nodded.  "Took 'em long enough," Nathan commented. He squinted and exhaled, examining the horsemen as they approached the livery. "Looks like Buck's gone and hurt himself.  Wonder how that happened."

Vin shrugged.  "Knowing those folks, it could have been just about anything. Maybe they got caught up with that storm that blew through here.  They look kinda wet."

"Seems likely," Nathan decided.  He contemplated going to fetch his bag, but decided to wait for them to come to him.  No sense starting a fight.  Let the fight come to him.

They watched as Buck took off his hat and combed a hand through his hair.  Tracker and healer smirked as Wilmington’s hair didn't behave quite right.  It stayed at a strange upward slant.  "Wonder what Buck's done to his head," Vin pondered aloud, already considering how he could use this against Wilmington.

"Sure makes it stick up funny," Nathan added with a laugh.  "What's Ezra' got in HIS hair?"

"Feathers?"  Vin decided with wonder in his voice.

They watched as the four men dismounted outside the livery.  Buck winced and Ezra moved stiffly. Nathan threw up his hands. "Look at 'em! You can see Ezra's bruised up by the way he's movin'. And Buck… what the hell has he done with his arm? Heck, they're wearing wet clothes," Jackson groused. "What're they thinkin'?"

But Vin's gaze was on Buck's hair that swooped at a strange angle.  It looked as if he'd tried to wash it but had failed to remove all the evidence of what had happened. He turned to Standish, watching as Ezra itched at his neck and then pulled a pinfeather from his collar. Ezra held it long enough to identify what it was and then threw it aside in disgust.

Tanner sunk his head onto his arms as he gazed over the railing at them, grinning.

Part 10:

“They’re back,” Vin said, leaning into the jailhouse doorway.

Chris set down his pen and nodded.  “Any worse for the wear?”

Tanner shrugged.  “A bit,” he commented.


"Buck and Ezra."

Chris raised an eyebrow.  “Don’t surprise me,” he returned.

“‘Spose it shouldn’t.”

“They walkin’ at least?”

“For now -- until Nathan gets his hands on them. He's headin' that way now,” Vin stated and then nodded to Chris. “What you writing?”

With a glance to the page, Larabee responded, “Just a note to my sister.  Try to keep in touch.”  He shrugged.  “Figure I had a minute or two.”

Vin crossed the floor and picked up a photograph that lay near the envelope. “Stud," he commented as he grinned at the sepia image of a tall, light-haired man, trying to smile.

Chris snatched it way. He looked at his image. "Came out like crap. I got crazy eyes," he muttered, waving a finger over the blank-looking eyes in the image.

Vin shrugged.  "Yeah, he caught your true spirit."  For that, Chris gave him one of his glares.  Vin smiled and continued, "Thought you wanted nothing to do with that travelin’ picture man.”

With a grimace, Larabee conceded, “I wanted YOU to have nothing to do with him.  Don’t need your face plastered anywhere.”  He looked at the photo again, before shoving it into the envelope.  “Alice sends me pictures of her family.  Keeps askin’ for one of me,” he explained gruffly, calling the matter to an end.  “You goin’ to the Harvest Festival?”

Vin smiled serenely.  “Can’t keep me from it.  Massachusetts Meg promised me a dance.”

“Aw Hell,” Chris muttered as he jammed the letter in after the photo.  “Looks like I’m gonna have to stand in line.”

Part 11:

"Come on, Ezra!" Buck shouted as he pounded on the doorframe.  "We gotta go!"  Spotting Mrs. Potter behind the counter, Wilmington added a gracious.  "Mornin', ma'am." She returned his greeting with a smile. Buck doffed his hat to her as he waited, flexing his left wrist. It had proven to be badly sprained and not broken. A week of rest had worked wonders to heal it.

"One moment please, Mr. Wilmington," Ezra responded.  "I'm just about to pick up my shipment."

"Well, don’t take too much time.  Chris is hankerin' to get started," Buck stated, leaning in the doorway.  “He’s had a bee in his bonnet ever since Meg stood him up at the dance.”  He stroked his mustache with a happy smile.  “Guess she found a man she could spend the whole night with.”

Throwing Buck a frown, Ezra muttered, “That woman has always had a soft spot for an injured man…” Then, shifting his gaze, he smiled at Mrs. Potter and asked pleasantly, “My dear, is it here?"

Mrs. Potter smiled and handed him a box from behind the counter. "It came this morning.  And, I just wanted to thank you boys," she said quietly. "You and the others did a lot of work getting a fund together for those poor Raes. They had almost nothing and now they have enough to supply their household."

"T'was nothin', ma'am," Buck said, smiling sweetly.

"Actually, it was a lot of numbing labor," Ezra drawled. "I refuse to beg for charity cases ever again. Such work is beneath me."

Buck winked at Mrs. Potter, remembering how persuasive Ezra had been as they made the rounds -- Ezra's coercion managed to loosen quite a few purse strings around the town.

Ezra tipped his hat to Mrs. Potter as he held the box.  "Thank you kindly," he said smoothly.  "Your assistance is greatly appreciated.  Good day, ma'am." And then, he turned and followed Buck out the door.

They strode to the livery, where the others were already gathered, ready with Chaucer and Clyde so that they could begin their journey.   Ezra nodded to the other men as he approached.  "Sorry for the delay, gentlemen," he stated.

"Long as we get going," Chris responded, from his saddle.

"What you got there?" Buck asked, indicating the box in Ezra's hands.

Ezra sighed and responded, "My replacement watch."  He shrugged and added, "When I attempted to purchase a watch, I hadn’t the time to make an exhaustive search and lacked the funds to obtain anything special. I'd always fancied myself with a chiming watch, something particularly fine." He turned his head toward Potter's store.  "I ended up sending away for a used watch from a shop in Ridge City – let the shopkeeper find something in my price range. Most likely, someone bartered it away for something more useful. Well, I only needed something to get by until my luck turns."

When Ezra made a move to shove it into his saddlebag, Chris asked, "Aren't you going to open it."

With a sigh, Ezra stated, "Honestly, it's hardly worth it.  I'm expecting some sort of relic, hardly able to keep time. You'll see.  Next time I can make it into one of the larger burgs of this area, I'll find something closer to my standards."

Vin, leaning against the hitching post, stated, "Go ahead and open it."

"Yeah," JD put in as he mounted his horse.  "Might as well. You can keep track of how much time this job takes."

Ezra gave the men a suspicious glance, catching Josiah with a pleased smile and Nathan shaking his head, grinning. Carefully, he broke the seal and pulled back the lid to the box and reached in for the cloth bag within.  He held it in his hand for a moment, feeling that the watch was already wound and ticking.

"Come on, Ez," JD encouraged, his excitement making Toby dance beneath him. "Open it up and let's see what it looks like."

Ezra silently dropped the contents of the bag into his palm.  For a moment, Standish said nothing, staring at the watch casing that met his eye. Quickly, he flipped it over and examined the back, then opened the cover and stared in disbelief at the face. It was an older watch, well-used and cared for, but wonderfully familiar.  He snapped it shut quickly, and ran his thumb over the engraved letters, as he had done a thousand times before -- EPS.  He stepped back in astonishment.

"How?"  he asked, looking from one man to the next.  They were all smiling, looking guilty and proud. "How did you…Is it...? No, it can't be." He opened the watch again and scrutinized the face. "It isn't it really… not exactly. But it's a close match. It's almost the same."  He kept going over the watch, turning it over, opening and closing the cover, holding it up to his ear to hear it tick. "How did you do it?" Standish held the watch before him, marveling at the letters that graced the lid.  "The engraving looks identical."

Buck smiled, watching Ezra's confused happiness.  "Well, that's your cover. Josiah found it," he started.

"It was glued into your trousers," the preacher explained.  "It just took a little cleaning and it was good as new."  The big man reached into his pocket, snagging a piece of chain with a dangling ornament.  "Think you might want the fob back, too," he stated as he handed it over.

Ezra took the chain, grinning like a fool.

"I remembered the maker of the old watch," JD put in.  “Josiah knew the style.  We all knew what it looked like. We sent out lots of wires, trying to find someone who had the right thing in the their shop."

"And then we found someone who had a passel of 'em.  We just had to figure out if one of 'em  would match or not," Nathan added.

"So JD and I took a trip to Jericho th'other day," Vin told him as he mounted up. "Looked through 'em.  Figured this was the most like it." He brought his horse alongside Ezra. “Got the jeweler to fix it up with your cover.” He gave the gambler a slap on the shoulder and said, "Saddle up. We gotta get going."

"You were that familiar with it?"  Ezra asked, as he worked the chain onto the watch.

"Heck, Ezra," JD exclaimed.  "You're always pullin' it out.  Checkin' the time."

Chris leaned forward and stated, "Always on my back about whether you'll be back in time for some game."

Ezra looked perplexed, as he stated, "But it's such an insignificant thing.  Why should you notice what my watch looks like?  Why should it make a difference to you?"

Buck gave Ezra a shove.  "Cause it's important to you, dumb ass."  Buck mounted his horse and, not waiting for Ezra to form a response, he told him, "Time to go."

Ezra smiled widely as he echoed, "Time, yes it is time, isn't it."  He chuckled as he climbed onto his saddle, keeping the watch before him, holding to his chest as he read the time.  He smiled when he looked at the others.  "Thank you," he said softly.  "Thank you all."

"Don't worry about it," Buck told him as he turned Clyde.  "You paid for it."

Ezra gave him an appraising look and stated, "I thought we had it worked out that you'd pay half."

"Oh!'  Buck exclaimed.  "That's what you worked out.  Me?  I had a different plan."

"Ladies," Chris called, drawing their attention.  "Let's ride."  He waved them on. Josiah and Nathan took the lead, followed by Vin and JD.

Vin cackled under his breath, letting out a "Bok bok bok…" that JD picked up on as well.  The two young men did their chicken imitations as they put some space between themselves and the men the impersonation was aimed at.  Ezra and Buck glared after them.  Larabee smiled.

Once the others were away, Buck turned to the southerner.  “He’d be proud of you,” he quietly stated.  “You know that, don’t you?”  Ezra didn't respond.  He busied himself with working the fob through a button hole so that it would dangle in precisely the perfect spot.  Buck continued, “We all know that the reason you weren’t able to look for one of those expensive watches this week was because you were spendin’ all your time beggin’ money off of decent folks for the Rae’s.  You done a good thing.”

"Well, it was only a week," Ezra answered softly, snapping the cover shut.  "And time flies when you're having fun."

“And don’t stop using those initials,” Buck said, nodding to the watch in Ezra’s hands.  “I bet he likes it.”

Ezra smiled gratefully at Buck.  He rubbed his thumb over the cover one more time before he nestled it into his vest pocket.

"'Sides," Buck continued.  "I don't know what I'd call you if it weren't 'Ezra'.  You wouldn't want to get me confused."

Ezra said nothing.  He just continued to smile as he kicked Chaucer into a trot that quickly turned to a gallop.  Chris shook his head at Buck and the final two took off after the rest.

In a matter of a few moments, they were all abreast of each other, rushing out to face whatever was ahead of them.  Having the time of their lives. 


Okay, did you figure out which challenges I used in this story?  Well, I used flavors from ALL thirteen of them, plus the anniversary challenge itself:  Sept Dime Store Novel Challenge - JD's book, Deadly Dave and the Killer of Hooter's Mound  -- which I made up (and it was kinda painful to write that bit);  October's Halloween with Someone Else - it happens at Halloween and we have scary Chicken Men AND I usually pair Ezra up with Josiah or Vin for stories that reveal his past;  November's Book Challenge - Ezra's book, The Gilded Age by Mark Twain which saves him from breaking some ribs;  December's Postcard Challenge -- Chris' letter and picture to his sister; January's "Where's my Horse" challenge -- the horses run off;  February's OFC challenge - Mrs. Cissy Rae who is terrified of Chicken Men;  March's Poetry Challenge -- Josiah's poem, "Jenny Kissed Me" by Leigh Hunt;  April's Picture Challenge - I chose the rocking horse that Ezra crashes into;  The Las Vegas Challenge -- I used the key words (Exciting, Midnight, Bright, Jackpot and Illegal) and used the Dancehall Girl -- Massachusetts Meg, and Elvis made an appearance of sorts with Buck's radical hair-do;  March's Bone Snapping Challenge -- Buck believed his wrist was broken;  June's Meet the Parent's challenge -- we find out a bit about Ezra's grandfather and father, Buck's parents, and Chris' sister;  Mother Nature Challenge -- the storm;  August Mythology Challenge -- a mention of King Midas and I included the lovely line, "let me at him, Pop.  I can take him."

Acknowledgement:  The poem included was "Jenny Kissed Me" by Leigh Hunt

Regarding the rest of the challenge -- stipulation #2, Someone must do something twice:  Buck messes up his hair twice -- and Buck-n-Ez get caught in two 'flurries'.  #5: The prop I used was the broken wagon wheel.  I used two quotes for #6, one is better known than the other -- JD and Josiah's "Something Wicked this way comes"  by William Shakespeare, in Macbeth.  Ezra also quotes Abraham Lincoln from a collection of Lincoln's Own Stories.  Coincidentally, it was the 'quote of the day' on a web board that I visited on the day I was working in finishing up the first draft.  I always knew those were good for something.

Hope you enjoyed the story...comments

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