Such Glad Tidings
by Dani O'Malley
Disclaimer: I don't own The Magnificent Seven, this story was written purely for fun with no profit made.
Summary: Ezra hunts for the perfect Christmas Gift.
Warnings: Preslash, Ezra/Nathan. If that bothers you or you are underage, please don't read this. A little violence and a little bad language. Not much; this is, after all, a Christmas story.
Author's Notes: This is a sequel to A More Desperate Circumstance. It may help if you read that first, but this will still make sense if you don't.
I got information about plants from here: http://dwrcdc.nr.utah.gov/rsgis2/Search/Display.asp?FlNm=_
and here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Angelica
and here: http://www.boldweb.com/greenweb/ailplant.htm
I took a few liberties though.
Feedback: is very welcome at email@example.com
Back to: A More Desperate Circumstance
The snow was already melting, turning the streets into grey slush and dripping from the roofs of buildings. It remained cold, however, far colder than Ezra was used to. He grimaced as he walked down the street, trying to avoid the worst of the mud. JD maintained that winters in Boston got much, much colder than this, and he was grateful that he'd never had to endure such a thing.
JD was entirely too excited for such unpleasant weather, Ezra thought. Christmas was exactly one week away, and JD was in a frenzy of anticipation. Normally his energy levels were enough to make Ezra feel old. Right now, he felt ancient, as though he should be a scientific miracle: the world's only five hundred year old man.
Well, that wasn't really true, Ezra conceded as he reached his destination. Something was putting a spring in his step. He had a few Christmas plans of his own.
Inside the mercantile, Mrs Potter looked up and smiled on seeing Ezra.
"It arrived this morning on the stage, Mr Standish," she said.
"I thought it may have. How much do I owe you, Mrs Potter?"
"Five dollars for the set, and another dollar for transportation."
Ezra paid Mrs Potter, in exchange accepting a bulky package, and headed back to his room eagerly. The package contained JD's Christmas gift, and with its arrival his preparations were almost complete.
A few weeks earlier, he had been sharing a few drinks and a friendly card game with JD and Josiah. JD had told a few stories about his childhood in Boston, and had mentioned a man who Ezra understood had been like an older brother or a father to him, someone who JD still clearly looked up to. The man had taught JD to play backgammon, and by JD's description he had enjoyed the game, although backgammon sets were expensive and rather rare out west and JD had never acquired one of his own. So, a backgammon set had made a natural choice for JD's Christmas gift.
Ezra felt a twinge of doubt as he set the parcel down, and opened the plain wrappings to prepare it for its presentation on Christmas Day. He knew it was nonsensical to wonder if JD would like it; his observations confirmed that it would be. He knew his worry was, in part, due to the fact that it was the first Christmas he would have spent in Four Corners, and the first Christmas in a long time he had been able to spend with friends, with people he wanted to celebrate with. There was always Maude, but she was always, well, Maude.
He wasn't sure how the others were going to approach the Christmas celebrations. He was sure they would make some effort, if only for JD, but none of them had discussed exchanging gifts. Except JD, who had already accidentally revealed what he was getting for Vin, and who had spent two entire days the week before practically bouncing off the walls because, in his words, "Chris was going to go nuts when he opened his present." Judging from Chris's rapidly eroding tolerance, they might not have to wait that long.
It was an extravagant gift, he knew, but he had rationalised it to himself. It was perfect, something JD would be excited to get. And he could afford it, and had found, as he went on with his shopping, that the anticipation of giving Christmas gifts was affecting him much more than he had expected. He couldn't remember ever having that happen before. And of course, he had another, much less pure motive for wanting to appear generous.
Chris's gift had also been difficult to find, but Ezra had eventually located a blacksmith in a nearby town who could make what he needed. Ezra had observed Chris carving wood with his pocket knife, and had found the results to be quite pleasing. He hoped some better quality carving tools would encourage Chris.
Buck's gift had been easy by comparison. He had bought a nice pair of spurs, which he knew Buck would appreciate. He had a pair of spurs already, of course, perfectly serviceable ones, but not nearly as fine as these.
He had had Josiah's gift for several months. He had been in Ridge City for some reason, the particulars of which he could not precisely recall, and had been browsing in a bookstore. He had stumbled across a book entitled "The Speculations on Metaphysics, Polity and Morality of "The Old Philosopher," Lao-Tze", and had read a few pages. He had found it almost incomprehensible, but had also realised how much the book would intrigue Josiah. He hadn't meant to hang on to it until Christmas, but there hadn't been any other suitable occasion to give Josiah the book, and he was glad, now, that he had one gift prepared which was sure to be well received.
Of all the gifts he had bought so far, Vin's had been the hardest. What could you get for someone who didn't seem to want or need anything they didn't already have? He had been quietly observing Vin for some weeks, trying to uncover some unspoken need or desire, but he seemed perfectly content living out of his wagon, riding patrol in his buckskin jacket, and playing his harmonica in his spare time. Eventually Vin had noticed Ezra's scrutiny and begun avoiding him.
In the end Ezra had bought Vin a pair of good saddlebags, in view of the amount of time Vin spent out of town. They had handy pockets for every item, made of fine leather guaranteed to last. They were a disappointingly practical gift, but then Vin was a very practical man, so perhaps he would be pleased with them.
Vin's gift was the last he had acquired, before JD's. Maude's had required no thought at all. He had already received his gift from her and sent one in return. She had sent a money order for a very generous fifty dollars, and that had enabled him to send her his own gift, a money order for twenty five dollars. The remaining money had gone towards his other purchases.
He had been glad to receive the money, not for mercenary reasons but because it told him how his mother was getting along currently, something about which she was not always forthcoming. She always sent money at Christmastime, or around then. Maybe a few weeks early or late. If Ezra hadn't received anything from her a couple of weeks after Christmas he generally sought her out, either going to her or sending her some of his own money, knowing that she must be down on her luck. To send the handsome sum of fifty dollars, she must be having a great deal of success with whatever she was up to.
The amount of Ezra's return gift was carefully calculated to suggest that he was doing perfectly well for himself, but not so well as to excite Maude's interest. Occasionally he reflected on the hollowness, the absurdity of their little Christmas tradition. It certainly didn't compare well with the stories his friends had been telling, especially JD. He couldn't see following one of JD's anecdotes with the tale of how, at the age of twenty-three, he had realised that there was only one thing he could give his mother which would make her happy, and gave up on his foolish Christmas fantasies.
Ezra didn't really care, anyway. He had other concerns. He had all his gifts taken care of, save one. Nathan's. And not only did he not have a gift, he had no idea what to get, or how, or where to get it from.
Nathan should have been the easiest person to buy for. They all knew he used most of his spare money to keep the clinic well supplied, which wasn't exactly cheap. His patients weren't well off, and Nathan didn't like to charge them as much as he probably could have, both because they couldn't afford it and because he wasn't a qualified doctor. So medical supplies ate up most of what he earned healing and a good share of his wages as a peacekeeper. Ezra knew Nathan would be thrilled to receive medical supplies, but they would quickly be used up for his patients. Ezra wanted to get something for Nathan. Just Nathan.
If he didn't want to get medical supplies, well, there was any number of small things which Nathan went without to save money. Ezra could take his pick from a whole range of small luxuries which Nathan routinely denied himself. But that was where the situation got awkward.
Whatever it got, it had to be personal. Had to show Nathan that he cared. But it couldn't be too personal, because then Nathan might realise he cared a bit more than, well, than most people would consider appropriate. It had to be something nice, decent, so Nathan would realise he wasn't as mercenary and tight-fisted as he pretended to be. But it couldn't be too outlandish either. If it was noticeably more expensive than what he gave the others, that would look strange. And he knew that if he gave Nathan something too obviously valuable, Nathan would wonder how he had paid for it, and would worry that he had acquired it through some less than honest means.
Oh, he knew Nathan didn't really believe he cheated the last pennies from impoverished card players, or grifted the life savings out of unsuspecting innocents, but he did know Nathan was still a little uncomfortable with how he made his money. If he gave Nathan something valuable, Nathan would imagine all the people whose poker losses had financed it, and his pleasure in the gift would be diminished.
In the end, Ezra had narrowed down his possible gift choices to... nothing. He had considered getting Nathan a book, since he had found one that was so suitable for Josiah. But, he had given up after realising that he had no idea what Nathan liked to read. He subscribed to two medical journals, and liked to read the newspaper if he had the time, but Ezra couldn't remember ever seeing him read a work of fiction, unless you counted Mary Travis's gossip column.
He had thought about getting Nathan some clothing; shirts, perhaps, or a new coat. But he had eventually dismissed that idea because, well, his own style of dressing was something of a joke among his friends. Not a nasty joke, really, it was just an eccentricity of his that they had learned to tolerate, but still, he worried that he would be exposing himself to ridicule if he bought Nathan some article of clothing. However plain and practical it was, the others would think he was trying to turn Nathan into a peacock like himself. He wouldn't do that; would never try to change Nathan... so clothing had to be dismissed as an option too.
Ezra had considered and rejected a dozen other possibilities by the time he lay in bed that night. He lay awake for what seemed like hours, unable to go to sleep, too busy turning over the problem of what to get for Nathan. Sometime much later, he finally thought of the perfect idea. Nathan would like it. It wouldn't be too expensive. It wouldn't look strange, but it would show Nathan that Ezra cared about him and paid attention to him when he talked. But he wouldn't be able to get it in Four Corners. He might not even be able to get it in Eagle Bend, but he would go as far as he needed to.
The next morning was cold and frosty. The water in the horse troughs had frozen over, and the muddy ground had frozen solid. Ezra dressed warmly and sought out Chris, who appeared indecently shocked to see him up and about at eight o'clock in the morning. Honestly, did they really think he was so opposed to early rising?
Chris was reluctant to let Ezra go out of town on his own. A couple of months earlier Ezra and Nathan had been attacked while returning from Eagle Bend after a routine prisoner transfer. Not knowing who had attacked them, or why, Chris had decreed that travelling outside of Four Corners had to be done in groups of three or more. For awhile, he had even insisted that patrols be made in pairs, but since that had almost doubled their workload and was a scheduling nightmare, he had relaxed that rule after a few weeks passed with no further signs of anything suspicious. Ezra pointed out that it had happened over two months ago, the culprits were all dead and there had been no sign that they had friends looking for revenge or the like. Eventually Chris had to concede the force of Ezra's arguments and allowed him the next two days to make the trip.
It was almost ten by the time Ezra left, after a light breakfast and a hot cup of coffee. Chaucer didn't much like being out in the cold weather, but a peppermint quickly changed his mind. Ezra kept the pace fairly slow, in deference to the poor condition of the trail. He wanted to reach Eagle Bend by early afternoon, while the stores would still be open for business, but they could manage that without hurrying.
They had been travelling for an hour or so and Ezra had relaxed a little, soothed by Chaucer's gentle stride. He was mentally rehearsing Nathan's reaction when he opened his present on Christmas Day. He'd hand Nathan his gift, and Nathan would say something like, "Thanks, Ezra, but you didn't have to." Ezra would reply, "Not at all, Mr Jackson, this is merely a token of my esteem for you." And then Nathan would open up his present, and be surprised and pleased, maybe even a little moist at the eyes. Yes, Ezra considered, given the nature of the gift, that was not impossible. Nathan would say, "Gosh, Ezra I don't know what to say. This is wonderful... how did you know?" And Ezra would explain how he had put the pieces together and figured it out, and Nathan would say, "This means so much to me. I can't believe you went to so much trouble - I can't believe you did this." Ezra would say, "I did this because I wanted to. Because I care about you." And Nathan would say. "You mean that, don't you? You really do." And then Nathan would lean in so that he was very close to Ezra, and he'd say, "I care about you too." And then he'd move in just a little more, until their lips touched, softly, so softly Ezra could barely feel it. They would kiss like that for a few long seconds before giving in to the urge to deepen the kiss, to taste each other and learn the shape of one another.
Nathan had just begun teasing Ezra's lips with his tongue when Ezra realised something wasn't right. Chaucer lurched and Ezra, still half in his fantasy, tumbled gracelessly out of his saddle and landed on his backside in the mud. He bit back a cry as he felt something hard connect with his upper thigh. Hauling himself to his feet he saw he had landed on a tree root. Wonderful. From the feel of it, he'd be limping for days.
Ezra looked over towards Chaucer, who was standing to the side with his left foreleg slightly lifted. Marvellous. Looked like he wasn't the only one who was lame. He led Chaucer forward a few steps, and sure enough he had a pronounced limp. Looking to where the accident had happened, Ezra found the slippery patch where Chaucer must have lost his footing and, clearly, done something to his leg. He turned Chaucer back towards Four Corners. Continuing on to Eagle Bend was out of the question now. They had left Four Corners about an hour ago, and had travelled at a steady, but unhurried pace. Walking back, with Ezra on foot and going slowly so as not to make Chaucer's injury any worse, it could take them two or even three hours to return. Ezra supposed it was no more than he deserved for embarking on this foolish venture. He had noticed as soon as he stepped outside how poor the weather was, and had been perfectly aware that the trail would be in a poor state for travel. He had obstinately set out anyway, and Chaucer had been hurt as a result.
He might still make it to Eagle Bend, if he didn't take too long getting back to Four Corners and borrowed a spare horse from Yosemite. But the shops would all have closed by the time he got there if he did that, so why bother? And the dull ache in his right leg was letting him know that riding would not be comfortable for some time. He continued shuffling painfully on the trail home.
As he hobbled into Four Corners, Ezra heard a commotion coming from the direction of the saloon. It seemed he was just in time to help the rest of the peacekeepers to break up a brawl. Of course, they didn't know he was back yet, so he took his time making Chaucer comfortable in his stall, and let Yosemite know what had happened, before heading towards the saloon.
He wasn't sure what had provoked the current fight in the saloon, but it was certainly a fierce one. He saw Cal Stevens, Harry Johnson and James White apparently united against four men he didn't recognise. Over by the staircase, Josiah had subdued a fifth strange man, as well as Lionel Hawkins and Bill Corkle. Nathan was by the door to the saloon, crouched by a man Ezra recognised but couldn't name, who had a long gash in his arm. Buck and Vin were in the centre of the room, trying to separate the combatants, and JD was there too, although Buck seemed torn between diving into the fight and keeping JD out of it. Eventually Chris, who Ezra hadn't even noticed by the bar until then, drew his gun and fired a shot into the ceiling.
Movement in the saloon abruptly ceased. Harry Johnson, who had always been impulsive and not overly endowed with intelligence, took advantage of his opponent's sudden stillness to deliver a hefty uppercut. JD whacked him on the back of the head with a broken chair and he fell like a stone. The sound of him dropping to the ground was loud in the hushed saloon. Chris waited until everyone's attention was focused on him, and spoke.
"Line up and follow JD to the jail. Don't do anything stupid. I'd love to make this mess worthwhile by shooting one of you; don't tempt me."
A rather subdued group followed JD to the jail, taking great pains not to appear to be contemplating anything foolish. Ezra followed behind the others, but it was only when they were all safely locked up that Chris spoke to him.
"You weren't gone long."
"No." Ezra scowled. "Chaucer slipped and came up lame. I had no choice but to return."
JD locked up the prisoners. There were ten in all, and the jail was crowded.
"Since you're back, Ezra, you can stay here and help JD guard the prisoners. I'm going to see how Nathan's getting on with Clancy's arm." Chris left the jailhouse, and JD began entering the names of the prisoners in the jail's log. Ezra sighed dramatically and lowered himself gingerly into a chair, turning it so he could see the cells.
"Mr Dunne, pray tell me what precipitated the unholy ruckus I just witnessed?"
JD gave him a quizzical look, but answered Ezra's question as he continued to fill out the jail log.
"Well, ah, James White, I think, said something about that guy's hat, and he didn't take it too well."
"I didn't start it! It was him! He insulted my Ma!" James White pointed at a man in the other cell, tall and thin, wearing good quality clothing and a hat which, Ezra had to admit, desperately needed to be put out of its misery.
"Please, sir," the man replied. "How was I to know your mother was born in Dumrock? And besides, it is a stupid name for a town."
"Make him stop saying it!" White lunged forward and reached through the bars of his cell towards the other man, who stepped just out of reach. Chris and JD had wisely split the two sides up into separate cells.
"Knock it off, boys. Come on! Settle down!" JD banged his fist on the bars to get the attention of the prisoners and eventually White was pulled back by his companions and calmed down. JD turned to the men in the other cell.
"I need you to tell me your names so I can put them in the log." JD watched the men expectantly, and they looked back at him with disinterest. Finally, the man in the ugly hat spoke.
JD blinked, and dutifully wrote down the name. The other prisoners spoke up as well.
JD recorded the names in his book, and Ezra tried to make himself comfortable in the hard chair. He was sure he had heard the name Drew Shipperton before, and, now that he looked at the man who had claimed the name, he thought he looked familiar. Ezra casually stood up and retrieved the wanted posters from the desk, flipping through them while JD finished filling out the log. Eventually Ezra found the poster he was looking for: Drew Shipperton, wanted for armed robbery and attempted murder. He attracted JD's attention and showed him the poster. JD looked at the poster, and looked at Ezra, his surprise clear. Ezra moved closer to the cells.
"Well, well, Mr... Shipperton, was it?" Ezra asked, baring his teeth in a predatory smile. The strangers in the cell watched him warily, and Ezra wagered with himself that they had already realised what was happening. "It seems you had an antagonistic encounter with a stagecoach. And attempted murder as well. My, my."
JD came to stand next to him, and Ezra realised he was also holding a poster. This one had the name Paul Patton on it, but the face was standing in front of him.
"Mr Brown? Were you aware of Mr Shipperton's shady history?"
Brown made no response, and Ezra continued. "It is Mr Brown, isn't it? Not Mr Patton?"
At this, Brown's resolve cracked, and he reached out and slapped Shipperton's hat from his head. "You damn idjit! Didja have ta tell 'em yer right name?"
Shipperton shoved Patton off him, tossing him up against the bars. Harry Johnson and Lionel Hawkins reached through the bars and grabbed hold of him. Patton struggled feebly while Shipperton dragged his hat off his head and stuffed it in his mouth. "Don't mess with me damn hat, Paul!" he yelled.
"Mr Dunne, we appear to have stumbled across half of the Riley Red gang." Ezra commented, examining the second poster. "Paul Patton, wanted for three charges of murder, eight of armed robbery, one kidnapping and one charge of public indecency. Known associates include George "Gutter" Glosney, Larry Mookey, Drew Shipperton and Bob "The Undertaker" Herley. I don't see your friends here..." Ezra examined the remaining men in the cell and concluded that none of them were wanted, that he knew of. "So where are your associates, gentlemen?"
"They're nearby," Shipperton boasted. "And they'll be coming to get us soon enough."
"Goddammit, Drew! Why don't you shut the hell up! Keep your damn mouth closed!"
"Quit tellin' me what to do, you ugly bastard! Why don't you shut yer own damn mouth?"
Not taking much notice of the argument, Ezra and JD drew back.
"What should we do?" JD asked.
"Wait for Chris to come back, and alert him as to whom we have incarcerated. We cannot leave ten prisoners with only one guard."
JD reluctantly agreed, and it was fortunately only ten minutes later that Chris returned, along with Buck. JD explained about the Riley Red gang, and showed Chris the posters. Chris stalked up to the men in the cell, and said in his deadly soft snarl; "You'd best tell us where you're friends are at, if you don't want a fancy new collar to go with your shirts."
The five men glanced at each other. Shipperton and McCourtney seemed a bit uneasy, but Montgomery shook his head at them and Patton and Gaffle showed no expression at all.
Chris turned his back on the cells and winked at JD, Ezra and Buck. "Sure is a shame, boys. Five hanging's, and right on Christmas. 'Spose it'll make the judge happy, though. He's due next week, and he does hate to make a trip for nothing."
Ezra controlled the smirk that wanted to emerge, and forced his face into a concerned expression. "That he does, Mr Larabee. I hope you'll not mind if I don't attend the execution. I'm not sure I'll have the stomach for it, after the last one."
"Me, neither," JD joined in. "The way his face turned all black and purple, and his eyes popped out. Couldn't get it out of my head for weeks."
"Aww, that ain't nothing, kid," Buck added. "I remember a few years back, there was this hanging and... well, the hangman weren't too experienced. He got the length of the rope wrong, and the son of a bitch's head came right off!"
Ezra grimaced at the graphic description, but it had had the desired effect on the prisoners. Shipperton moved up to the front of the cell and, gripping the bars, cried: "We were holed up a few miles outta town, on an abandoned ranch. It's on the trail north, just past that big rock shaped like a turnip. Three of us stayed behind to guard the camp."
"Must be the Chandler's place," said Buck, and the others agreed. Meanwhile, in the cell, Shipperton and Patton were at each other's throats once more. The argument had somehow revolved around to which one of them had cheated in a game of dice several months earlier. The other three were standing to one side and Gaffle was loudly asking anyone listening; "Does that big rock look like a turnip to any of you? 'Cos to me it looked a bit more like a..."
"Immediate action is the most prudent course, gentlemen," Ezra said. "I will remain here to guard the prisoners."
"You, will, will you?" asked Chris.
"Certainly." Ezra looked for a convincing reason to stay, and then remembered. "As my mount is unfit for travel, it would be simplest for me to remain behind, since someone will have to anyway."
Chris gave him a look, but it seemed he could find no reason to force Ezra to join in the expedition.
"Alright. Nathan'll stay behind too, he's still working on Clancy's arm. I'll get him to come down once he's done and give you a hand. You might as well let these fools go." Chris gestured to the Four Corners men in the other cell. "Fine them half a dollar each, and when Nathan comes down you can split up these idiots so there'll be room." Chris regarded the other cell for a moment. "I s'pose you'd best split up Shipperton and Patton. We need them alive for the trial."
Shipperton had gained the upper hand, and had Patton on the floor. "Admit it! Flagstaff makes better beer than Phoenix! Say it!"
"Go to hell!" groaned Patton.
The others left, and Ezra wrote up the fines on the five men in the left cell. He released them from the cell, and waited for Nathan to arrive so they could move the remaining prisoners. Nathan was some time, so Ezra once again tried to seat himself comfortably in the wooden chair, having no real success. He watched with some concern, as Patton and Shipperton stopped fighting and retreated to opposite corners of their cell, with an air of hostility that suggested the slightest provocation could result in a fatal confrontation.
Ezra was relieved when Nathan stepped through the jail's door. They quickly set about moving two of the prisoners into the other cell. Ezra stood back and covered the prisoners with his gun, and Nathan ushered Patton and McCourtney out of the cell. Nathan was locking the cell door when it happened. While Nathan's back was turned, Patton lunged towards him, shoving him off balance with his shoulder. Patton tried to snatch the keys with one hand, and gripped Nathan's shoulder with the other, intending to use him as a shield from Ezra's gun. He underestimated Nathan's strength, however, and Nathan jerked the keys away and twisted his grip to hold Patton against the bars.
McCourtney darted towards Ezra as soon as Patton made his move, his eyes huge and his hands up, as though he thought that would stop a bullet. Ezra refrained from shooting, hoping that he could overcome the kid without killing him. He kicked the boy in the shin when he was in reach, and the expression of surprise on his face was replaced with pain when Ezra hit him in the stomach. Ezra grabbed the boy by the shoulder and shoved him towards the cell. He slammed the door and looked to where Nathan held Patton against the bars. He was putting up a great fight, trying with one hand to reach for Nathan's gunbelt. Nathan, however, had wisely removed his gun before he went near the prisoners.
Ezra and Nathan got Patton between them and manoeuvred him into the cell, a difficult feat as he continued to resist. They had him at the door and Ezra was congratulating himself on successfully handling the situation when Patton twisted his arm free, and threw a hefty punch towards Ezra's face.
Ezra opened his eyes. He was looking at a familiar ceiling. His head hurt. Everything looked strange, and after a moment he realised it was because he was lying down. That didn't seem right, for some reason. He tried to remember how he had got here; cast his mind back to the last thing he could remember. It came to him in a flash. The prisoners! Good Lord, who was watching the prisoners? He struggled to stand up. If they had escaped Chris would surely blame him. It would be his fault, for allowing that despicable man to knock him out.
Someone was at his side, telling him to lie the hell back down and stop trying to get up. Nathan, he realised. And he was in Nathan's clinic. What was Nathan doing here? If he was here, and Ezra was here, who was at the jail?
"The prisoners," Ezra gasped. "Someone has to watch the prisoners."
"Settle down, Ezra," Nathan ordered. "I got a couple of the townspeople to watch the prisoners while I took care of you. Quit making such a fuss."
Ezra relaxed a little, and let Nathan push him back to the bed. "What happened?" he asked. "How long was I out?"
"Only a few minutes," Nathan replied. "Wasn't sure how long you'd be unconscious, so I bought you up here."
Ezra gingerly felt his face, finding the sore spot on his cheek which would soon sport a spectacular bruise.
"Reckon you'll be alright," Nathan continued. "How do you feel? Any nausea? Can you see okay?"
Ezra answered Nathan's questions and a few more, and Nathan concluded that he had only a mild concussion. Ezra took that to mean he could safely get off the bed. He stood up, unable to suppress a wince of discomfort as he did so.
"I noticed you were limping back in the jail," said Nathan. "You do something to your leg?"
"Fell off Chaucer."
"You did?" Nathan looked concerned. "You could have done some damage. You should let me take a look."
"Please, that isn't necessary Mr Jackson. I managed the walk back into town, so I clearly can't be too badly hurt."
"Maybe, maybe not, but it'd be best to make sure."
"Can you not simply trust my judgement as to my own health and well being?"
"Trust you?" Nathan sounded astonished. "Concerning your own health? Ezra, do you remember a couple months ago when you got shot in the head?"
"No," Ezra replied, looking a little confused.
"Three days later I caught you trying to sneak out the window. You said you wanted to visit Chaucer. So explain to me why I should believe anything you say about your physical condition?"
Ezra sighed, and decided to give up the argument. Continuing to protest would only make Nathan more determined. Besides, he was still feeling sore and, if he had done some serious damage it would be best to know. He stood up and unfastened his trousers, pushing them down and turning to show Nathan the injured area. For a moment there was total silence, and then he could hear Nathan trying to suppress a chuckle.
"Mr Jackson, whatever could be so amusing?" Ezra asked icily.
"Sorry Ezra. It's just that you've got the mother of all bruises on your backside."
"It's on my thigh," Ezra insisted. "My upper thigh."
"Whatever you say, Ezra."
"Are you going to examine me, or simply memorise this event for your future entertainment?"
Nathan got on with examining Ezra, and Ezra tried his best to think about something else. If he had to wind up half naked in Nathan's clinic, he would have hoped it wouldn't be under quite these circumstances. Nathan, perhaps sensing Ezra's discomfort, stopped making jokes and proceeded with a professional air that made the ordeal somewhat more bearable. Eventually, Nathan announced that he was badly bruised but had sustained no more severe damage, and that although he would be sore for several days, he would recover quickly enough. Ezra reflected irritably that that was precisely what he had surmised himself, but Nathan seemed a little happier for having it confirmed.
Nathan and Ezra agreed on a schedule for watching the prisoners until the rest of the seven returned. Ezra volunteered to send a telegraph to the nearest federal marshal post, informing them of the capture. He wasn't expecting a quick reply, but it was only an hour later, as he was sitting in the jail taking his shift that a message was delivered to him. There was a group of federal marshals only a day's ride away, and they would come immediately to collect the prisoners. Unexpected, but certainly convenient, Ezra reflected.
It was just past sunset when the others returned. Ezra noted with relief that the worst injury among them was JD's bloody nose. Of the prisoners, two were unconscious and the third had a broken arm. From Buck's account of the confrontation, they had taken the outlaws by surprise and subdued them with little effort. With the new prisoners installed in the cells, the jail was once more uncomfortably crowded, but Ezra reasoned that someone else could worry about that now.
The federal marshals arrived the next evening. They immediately took charge of the prisoners, but decided to rest overnight in Four Corners before continuing on to their destination. They left early the next morning, anxious to reach their destination and return home by Christmas.
Ezra had four days left in which to acquire the perfect Christmas gift for Nathan, and he intended to do so. He informed Chris that he was taking his leave, and headed for the livery. Chaucer's leg was on the mend, but he still needed some rest. Ezra brushed him anyway, and fed him some carrot ends which Inez had saved for him, before seeking out Yosemite to borrow a mount.
"Only got a couple of horses free, and they wouldn't really be good choices," Yosemite mused, scratching his chin. "Why don't you take Betsie?"
"Betsie?" Ezra asked, warily. The name was familiar for some reason, but he wasn't sure why.
"Betsie," confirmed Yosemite, gesturing towards the thus named beast.
"It's a mule," said Ezra with some disdain.
"Of course it's a mule. Mule is a good trail animal in weather like this. More sure footed than a horse. Hardier, can take the cold better. You don't want to go out there on Handy or Sparks, do you?"
Well, he certainly didn't want that, Ezra mused. Handy was barely twelve hands high, and almost as wide. And Sparks was a much finer looking creature, but took fright at loud noises, falling leaves, and sometimes, his own shadow. Betsie appeared to have neither of these faults.
"If Betsie is a mule," Ezra asked suspiciously, "Why does he have a girl's name?"
"A girl's name?" Yosemite looked startled. "What girl? Betsie's a mule."
Yosemite was still in the stable looking puzzled when Ezra left.
Ezra pulled his hat down low and kept his head tilted down, hoping that no-one would see him as he rode the mule out of Four Corners. He was relieved to see that the streets of Four Corners were very quiet. Almost... eerily quiet. The town seemed virtually deserted. He resolved to simply be grateful for the absence of people as he departed.
What on earth? Ezra looked up to see, ahead on the trail, a group - no, a crowd, a congregation, of people standing about. There were about twenty of them, Ezra estimated, milling around for no discernible reason. One of them was calling to him... Hawkins, Ezra realised as he got closer.
"You gotta watch out, Mr Standish," Hawkins gasped as Ezra reached the group. "You came right up the range, you coulda been hit!"
"The range?" Ezra asked in confusion, but as he looked around he saw a crudely drawn target hanging from a tree which he had just ridden past.
"Harry says he can hit the bullseye from fifty paces, but I reckon that's a load of hogwash. I got five dollars says he can't get within half a foot at that distance."
Ezra thought this over, noticing, farther back in the crowd, Harry Johnson clasping a bow with an arrow already nocked. "Am I to understand..." said Ezra slowly, "That this is some sort of sporting event? With wagering? And I was not informed?" He waited expectantly for an explanation from Hawkins, but none was forthcoming. His answer instead came from someone else in the crowd.
"Now Ez, this here is just a friendly contest, a little fun between friends. Didn't see no reason to trouble you with it."
"Trouble me with it, Mr Wilmington? You should know me better than that. No contest of skill is ever any trouble... I enjoy taking an interest in such things. And I don't appreciate being kept in the dark!"
"Didn't mean nothing by it, Ez. Just thought you might have enough on your plate already. And what's the matter with Chaucer? Ain't you been feeding him?"
"Chaucer is lame, as you well know." Buck's jibe reminded Ezra that he did, indeed, already have plans for the day. "You are correct, however. I am already engaged on a mission of some importance and cannot be diverted. Good day, gentlemen. Buck."
Ezra moved on down the trail, trying to put the annoying encounter out of his mind. What did it matter that he had just been humiliated in front of what seemed like the entire town? That they had all, for some reason, seen fit to exclude him from their nonsensical pastimes? He couldn't be bothered with such trivial matters. He was on a mission.
By the time Ezra reached Eagle Bend, he was standing in the stirrups to ease the pain in his thigh. The bruised area was stiffening up and protesting its treatment loudly. He was relieved to note that it was only half past two, and he had plenty of time to seek out what he was looking for. He eventually found a craftsman selling the kind of thing he was looking for, but Ezra had a very specific set of requirements, and although the man's goods were very fine, none of them was exactly right. Ezra explained what he was looking for, and the craftsman told him that he traded for those particular items with another craftsman in Ridge City.
"He might have what you're looking for," the man said. "Or I 'spect he could make it, might not have it afore Christmas though."
Ezra suppressed a groan. Ridge City was another six hours away. Even if he left immediately, he wouldn't reach the town before it got dark. He didn't feel like riding any further anyway. But Chris was expecting him back tomorrow. If he planned to go to Ridge City, he wouldn't be back until the day after. If he was lucky. But Ezra was determined. Easier to ask forgiveness than permission, he reasoned, and damned if he'd have come all this way for nothing. Surely he could find what he wanted in Ridge City.
Seven o'clock was a simply despicable time of day, Ezra concluded. He had intended to leave even earlier, but had found that his resolve was not that strong. Still, seven in the morning was not a bad start. If he didn't waste too much time, he could make it back to Eagle Bend by nightfall and be back in Four Corners the next day, the day before Christmas Eve. He would send Chris a wire from Ridge City, after he had secured Nathan's present. By then it would be too late for Chris to do anything but glare and shout.
It was a cold day, and overnight rest had not made sitting in the saddle any more comfortable. Light snow fell on and off throughout the day, but Yosemite had been correct about Betsie's sure-footedness and their progress was not impeded.
Ezra snacked on beef jerky in the saddle and sipped water from his canteen while still keeping Betsie to a brisk pace. He realised as they reached Ridge City that Betsie was tiring, and probably wouldn't be able to make the return trip to Eagle Bend the same day. Not all the way in any case. He would have to stay overnight in Ridge City or sleep on the trail. He decided to worry about that later, after he had found out if the Ridge City craftsman did, indeed, have what he was looking for.
Following the directions from the helpful gentleman in Eagle Bend, he found the shop easily enough. He spoke to the store owner, explaining what he was looking for, and the other man gave a satisfied grin. Ezra felt a small thrill of accomplishment as the shopkeeper showed him exactly what he had been searching for.
It was a music box, small and delicately made. It was beautifully carved with all manner of birds, but the decoration was not as important as the melody it played; a melody very familiar to Ezra.
It was something Nathan hummed sometimes, when he was grinding herbs in his clinic or tending the campfire on the trail. Ezra had been loath to pry but had been intrigued, realising that the tune was somehow important to his friend. Eventually he had asked and Nathan had explained that it was something his mother would sing, when he was much younger. Ezra hoped the music box would be a comforting reminder for him. He pictured the expression Nathan wore when he hummed the song, a peaceful, wistful look, and was sure Nathan would be very pleased with the box. He wrapped it carefully in half a dozen layers and tucked it into his saddlebag. He felt as though he would be returning to Four Corners with the wealth of emperors in his pockets.
Ezra collected a few supplies before setting out on the trail back to Eagle Bend. He did loathe to sleep on the trail, and the weather would only make it more unpleasant, but he didn't want to delay his return any further.
He managed to get halfway back to Eagle Bend before it became too dark to continue. He dismounted from Betsie, and had to catch himself on the mule's saddle as his right leg tried to buckle. He had long since stopped noticing the pain, it had faded to a prickly numbness extending almost from his knee to his upper thigh... oh, very well, his backside. Ezra grumbled as he limped around, setting up a campsite. He put a fire together and eventually coaxed a flame from it. He gave Betsie a little grain, and had a cold supper for himself. He wrapped himself tightly in his bedroll and settled down for the night, shivering slightly and promising himself that he would get an early start in the morning.
Morning came all too soon. Ezra opened his eyes slowly, and wondered if it would really matter if he slept for another half hour. Two minutes later he realised that lying on the hard, frozen ground, shivering under inadequate covering, was not really a relaxing way to spend the morning. He got up and packed up his bedroll. He decided not to bother with any breakfast; he would eat later, when there was decent food to be had. He hauled himself into the saddle with a groan, and wondered how likely it was that he would pass anyone on the trail. Probably not very. But, how likely was it he would pass someone if he happened to use one of his blankets as a cushion? Practically a certainty, no doubt. As tempting as it was, he wouldn't risk making himself look any more ridiculous than he already did, and he resigned himself to another uncomfortable day.
As it happened, he had been riding for only an hour when he saw someone heading towards him on the trail. He tipped his hat to the other man as he got near, saying, "A good day to you sir, and a fine festive season."
The man did not reply, only nodding to Ezra without removing the scowl from his face. He watched Ezra until he had passed, and then turned his own horse, a rather shaggy bay, off onto a very faint side trail which Ezra hadn't even noticed until then. Ezra put the other man's surliness out of his mind, resolving simply to be grateful he had not cushioned his saddle as his impulse had demanded. He turned his mind to more pleasant thoughts.
He wondered how Nathan would like the music box. Nathan would like it, surely. He had to. Ezra hoped.
He would wrap up the box in some of the brightly coloured paper Mrs Potter had had on hand, and tie it with string. Nathan would open it up, and look surprised. Maybe he'd be a bit confused, at first... maybe he wouldn't realise what it was. At first. Then he'd open the box, and the melody would spill out, and Nathan would be speechless for a few moments. When he found his voice again, he'd say: "Ezra, this is amazing... you must have gone to so much trouble." And Ezra would say, "It was no trouble, Nathan. I simply wanted to give you something nice. You deserve something nice."
In Ezra's mind, Nathan's face grew a little suspicious, and he said, "Why, Ezra? Why would you go out of your way like this for me?" Ezra, feeling a little puzzled, said, "Because you deserve it, like I said. And I care about you." Nathan looked at him sharply, and said, "What do you mean?"
"Noth-nothing," stammered Ezra.
"Nothing... right. Somehow I don't think so. What aren't you saying, Ezra?"
"Mr Jackson, I feel you should know that I hold you in high regard, and feel for you a certain measure of fondness, of affection, even."
"Affection? Ezra, you saying what I think you're saying? Are you? Because I got enough worries with you cheating good folks at poker, and conning money out of them, without knowing that you're having unnatural thoughts about me too."
"Unnatural? Mr Jackson, I would never- that is to say, I would never act in a way to make you uncomfortable, or press my attentions on you if that was not your wish."
"Not my wish? Like you have doubts about that? Even if I was the sort of person to, to enjoy that kind of disgusting behaviour, how could you think I would ever want to- want to dally with a cheating, lying, selfish, sneaky coward like you? You make me sick, Ezra. You always have!" Nathan cut his tirade short, instead swinging his fist towards Ezra's face. Ezra stumbled backwards as Nathan's fist hit his nose, saving himself from falling over by clutching at Betsie's reins with one hand and his saddle with the other. Betsie gave an annoyed snort as Ezra jerked on his bridle, and came to an abrupt halt. Ezra looked backwards, finding the tree with the low hanging branch which he had been too distracted to avoid. He gingerly felt his face. His nose felt sore, and there were a few scratches which seemed to be bleeding slightly. Some dirt had got into his eye, and he blinked rapidly to clear it. He put Betsie back into a walk, trying to block out his worrying thoughts, but he couldn't quite manage it.
Perhaps it was too much of a risk, giving the music box to Nathan. It might be too personal. He didn't really want Nathan to realise how he felt. He didn't think he could stand it if Nathan thought he was some kind of degenerate, not to mention the possible danger if Nathan reacted violently or mentioned his discovery to anyone else.
Then, there was the possibility that Nathan might simply not appreciate the gift. Perhaps he was being too presumptuous in his choice. It was quite personal, after all, and what did he really know about Nathan's past or his mother, other than that he loved her and hadn't seen her in many years?
Ezra realised that he had become inattentive as his thoughts wandered, and Betsie had slowed to a halt. He pulled the music box out of his saddlebag and held it in his hand, considering whether he should simply leave it at the side of the trail for someone else to find. He could go back to Four Corners empty handed, and cover up his extended absence with a story of a very stimulating poker game. He couldn't give gifts to his other friends and not to Nathan, so he would have to abstain from any exchange of presents that may happen, but he didn't think the others would be all that surprised if he did. Disappointed, perhaps, but not surprised.
But that would mean never playing backgammon with JD. It would mean never debating Lao-Tze's writings on metaphysics with Josiah, or watching Chris create something new and beautiful out of a scrap of old wood. It would mean never seeing Buck prancing up and down, showing off his spurs, or helping Vin rearrange his saddlebags.
It would mean never seeing the expression on Nathan's face when he opened up the lid, and that sweet and gentle melody spilled out.
Ezra tucked the music box back in its place. Hoping for the best was... well, he usually looked for a little more certainty, but this was worth taking a risk for.
The town of Eagle Bend was in an uproar. A group of mounted men hovered at the edge of town as Ezra approached. Several women stood to one side, one woman in the middle of the group appearing to receive comfort from the others. Ezra halted as he got within reach, and one of the men dismounted and stepped forward to grab Ezra's sleeve.
"Have you seen her?" he demanded. "Please, you must have seen her. Tell me. Please."
"Seen who, sir?" Ezra asked.
"Mary, my Mary, my little girl. Tell me you've seen her."
"I... no, I haven't seen anyone..."
"Please." The woman who had been so upset stepped towards Ezra, dabbing her face with a handkerchief. "I'm Mary's mother... We woke up this morning, and she was gone. We found a note. Someone took her, they're asking for money. We can't... we don't have enough. Please, if you've seen anyone, or anything, it might help. Please, there must be something."
Ezra shook his head helplessly. "I haven't... I haven't seen anyone since this morning; I passed a man on the trail, but that was hours ago..."
"Where did you see him?" The man released Ezra's sleeve to grab the lapels of his coat, nearly pulling Ezra out of his saddle.
"It was three hours ago, roughly," said Ezra. "He was heading towards Ridge City. No," Ezra exclaimed as he remembered. "He turned off the trail, he turned east. I didn't even realise there was another trail there, but..."
"The Talon Hills," said the man. "They could hide up there for weeks."
Ezra recognised the name, although he had never actually been to the hills himself. They were supposed to be rough, rugged and wildly forested. Prone to flash floods in spring and wildfires in summer. The last place on the planet where he felt inclined to go, but the man was already looking at him intently.
"Show us where," he demanded. "Take us back there... you'll recognise that man if you see him, won't you?"
Ezra had to concede that he had an excellent memory, and would indeed know if he saw the same man again. Some less noble part of him pointed out that if he continued on, he could be back in Four Corners in just four hours, but he squashed that stray thought. He couldn't stand to leave a young girl at the mercy of her kidnappers. What would become of her if she wasn't rescued? With a stifled sigh he turned Betsie around and headed back towards Ridge City.
It was late afternoon by the time they reached the faint track Ezra had passed so many hours earlier. It had been a mostly silent journey, all the men focused on their task and not wasting much energy on conversation. A young man named Henry rode forward and led the party along their new path. Ezra had gathered that he was their best tracker, and he kept his eyes on the ground as they went along. Ezra wondered how successful his attempts would be. They didn't have many daylight hours left.
They followed the track for half an hour before Henry dismounted, examining something on the ground closely. Henry led them off to the left, climbing a steep rise and wandering across treacherous footing on the rocky ground. The men following dismounted as well, the climb too difficult for the horses to carry them. Henry hesitated about halfway up the slope, having reached a thick barrier of bushes and trees. He led them along it for a little way, before admitting defeat and taking them back down the slope. "False trail," he muttered as they returned. Ezra's hopes sank a little lower. Henry may be their best tracker, but he was clearly no Vin Tanner. Twice more they lost the trail, and the sun was an orange speck on the horizon when they came across a campsite. It was deserted, but the relief of the men at finding some evidence of their quarry was very apparent.
"This must be where they're hiding out," said a man towards the back of the group.
"It's getting dark, they must be coming back soon. We can wait here and surprise them!" suggested another man.
"Are you certain that they will return?" asked Ezra cautiously.
"They'll have to!" said the first man, named Lewis. "Where else would they go! I've been up here before, it's damn hard to find a good site to make camp. They're sure to come back!"
Ezra had his doubts. He was the first to admit he was no tracker, but he was still a skilled con, and he recognised the signs. The campsite made him uneasy. There was a campfire, which had gone out some time ago. Ezra stirred the ashes with a stick, and found the remains of several sticks and branches, but no logs. The ground around the campsite was strewn with fallen branches, bark and leaves. He could see near the fire places where tinder had been gathered, but surely if they had stayed here any length of time, they would have used more wood? Especially as cold as it was. He could see, a short distance away, the place where the kidnappers must have left their horses. He could see their hoofprints in the ground, but again, the ground wasn't as disturbed as he would expect. They couldn't have been here that long. Just long enough to build a campfire and let it die down, perhaps?
"I believe this campsite is a diversion, gentlemen," he said, looking around and wondering if they had been set up for an ambush.
"What do you know about it, dandy?" snarled Henry, apparently not pleased to have his expertise questioned. "You even know what a campsite looks like? I ain't gonna put Mary at risk just 'cause you got some hunch!"
"They can't have stayed here for very long," Ezra pointed out. "They didn't use enough firewood, and there aren't enough tracks. We should go back, it's not safe here."
"You think you know more than me? You can turn around if you want, ya big peacock, we're gonna stay right here and catch these bastards!"
The other men added their support to Henry's words, and Ezra ground his teeth in frustration. "Fine," he snapped. "Stay here if you have a death wish, I will go back and try to find where these criminals are really hiding!" Ezra mounted Betsie and headed back the way they had come. Once he was out of sight of the campsite, he smacked his forehead with his palm. He cursed himself for an idiot. The sun had set, and the light hovered in that grey space between sunset and full darkness. Even a good tracker would have no luck tracking in the dark, and he was no kind of tracker at all. What, exactly, was he going to do by himself?
Ezra dismounted as the light became poorer, not wanting to risk another injury, to himself or his mount. He wandered aimlessly through the hills, not sure whether to keep on and hope for the best, or find somewhere to wait for morning. He could find his way well enough by the stars to not get lost, but the footing was treacherous. He was about to stop when he heard, some distance away, a horse's whicker and the stamp of a hoof. Ezra's heartbeat sped up a little. Could it be the kidnappers they were searching for?
Ezra let go of Betsie's reins and crept towards the sound. His eyes had adjusted to the dark, and he made his way carefully and quietly. He hadn't gone far before he saw the light of a campfire. He slowed even more, taking great care to stay hidden as he moved closer. He saw two men seated at the campfire. One of the men had a young girl sitting next to him. She stared into the flames and determinedly ignored the men with her.
Ezra wondered what to do next. He could go back, get the others and bring them here, but it would be difficult in the dark. Assuming he could even convince them of what he saw. He could wait for morning, and try to follow the men. He could attempt some sort of rescue by himself. Risky, but he might manage it if he planned well. He was going over the items he had with him which might possibly be useful when he was startled by a footstep behind him, and a second later by the press of a knife blade to his throat.
"So nice of you to join us," a voice hissed in his ear. "Things were getting right dull."
The unseen man dragged Ezra from his hiding place. Ezra inserted his foot between his captor's legs, and as the man tripped, triggered his derringer, shooting him in the chest. He turned his attention towards the men at the fire. One of them was drawing his gun, the concentration on his face making his intent clear. Ezra shot him, too, and turned his attention towards the third man, the one who had been sitting next to the girl. He had pulled her up with him, and held her in front of him as a shield. His gun was drawn, and he held it to the young girl's head.
"Drop the gun," the man commanded. "Drop it, or I'll shoot her dead."
Ezra only needed a moment's consideration to carefully place his gun on the ground. He raised his hands carefully, trying to show he was no threat. If only he hadn't used his derringer already. It might have been useful.
"Take off your shoulder holster," the man ordered. "And step back."
Ezra complied. The man nodded, and abruptly pushed Mary away. She tripped, but picked herself up and ran without looking back.
"Mr Standish," the man sneered. "We were beginning to think you weren't coming."
Ezra was momentarily stunned. How did this man know his name, and how had they known he would come here? Why had he let Mary go? What was going on? He saw the man lift his gun, preparing to shoot, and was sure his time was up.
Ezra flinched when he heard the gunshot, waiting for the pain. After a moment, he looked up. He hadn't been hit. His opponent, however, was looking at him with a stunned expression, as his eyes slowly glazed over and he toppled forward. Ezra moved up to the man, but he was already dead.
Ezra looked around. "Mary," he called. "Mary, where are you? It's safe. Mary?"
The young girl reappeared after a few moments, and flew towards him. Ezra wrapped his arms around her, mumbling reassurances.
A few minutes later a man stepped into the clearing, carrying a rifle. His name was Gary, Ezra remembered. And he was a fine shot, if he could shoot so accurately in the dark. Ezra studied his face closely. If Gary had been close enough to hear that kidnapper use his name, he might assume that Ezra had been part of the abduction. But there was no suspicion in Gary's face.
"Mary, Mary, I'm so glad you're alright," he cried. "Your father will be so relieved."
Ezra let Mary go and she wrapped her arms around Gary, crying softly. "Where's Daddy?" she whispered. "Where's Mama?"
"Your father isn't far away, we'll go to him now. Everything will be alright."
"Why did you follow me?" Ezra asked softly. Gary glanced at him.
"You were right. That wasn't a real campsite. Henry... well, he ain't a bad tracker, but he don't take too well to being told he's wrong. And the others listen to him a bit too much, I think. He don't believe he can make a mistake."
"I'm glad you came after me," Ezra said, letting his gratitude show. Gary gave him a grin.
"So am I."
Ezra was relieved that he managed to find Betsie again, not too far from where he had been left. They took their time rejoining the main party, reaching them roughly an hour later. Ezra felt a small lump in his throat witnessing the reunion between father and daughter, and banished it ruthlessly. The other men gathered around Gary, demanding to hear what had happened and congratulating him on his heroism. Gary explained what had happened, insisting that he was no hero, that Ezra had found the kidnappers and taken two of them out, that he, Gary, had simply been lucky. Ezra shook his head at the praise. His face felt a little warm; the excitement must be catching up with him.
Mary's father came over and grabbed Gary in a great hug. Ezra quietly moved away before he was subjected to similar treatment and helped himself to a cup of tea. He pulled out his pocket watch, surprised to learn that it was only half past eight. He had been sure it was after midnight; he was so tired. Surely it must already be Christmas Eve. And they had a Christmas miracle to go with it. Glad tidings, indeed.
Ezra left at dawn the next day to head back to Eagle Bend. He was anxious to get home, and knew that travelling with a large group would slow him down, so he went by himself. He offered to carry the good news to Mary's mother, and left when it was barely light enough to see.
Mary's father took him aside before he left, and offered him five dollars in thanks for his assistance. Ezra graciously refused, saying that he had not acted with thought of reward and needed no compensation for coming to the aid of a child. He resolved never to let Maude learn of this. She would despair of him, but he couldn't bring himself to accept money for his help in a situation when he suspected that he was the true target, not Mary at all.
He fancied that his bruise was less painful now, but the stiffness from spending two nights on the ground meant that riding was still uncomfortable. He alternated riding with walking, trying to work the stiffness from his muscles. When he reached Eagle Bend it was not yet noon. He found Mary's mother, who was delighted to learn of her daughter's safety. He headed for the telegraph office, cursing under his breath as he realised that he hadn't sent word to Chris from Ridge City as he had intended. Chris was probably beside himself, wondering where he was.
He asked at the telegraph office if there were any telegrams for him, and sure enough there were. Two of them. The first, dated December 22nd, said "STANDISH YOU WERE DUE BACK YESTERDAY STOP PLEASE ADVISE WHEN YOU WILL RETURN STOP". The second was from the 23rd and was rather less patient. "STANDISH WE EXPECT YOU BACK IN FOUR CORNERS TONIGHT OR WE WILL COME LOOKING FOR YOU STOP EITHER COME BACK OR SEND WORD SO WE DONT HAVE TO WORRY ABOUT YOU STOP".
Ezra grimaced. He was not going to be popular once he got back. Oh well. He quickly composed a reassuring message. "MY APOLOGIES FOR THE DELAY WAS UNAVOIDABLY DETAINED WILL RETURN BY TONIGHT STOP". He hoped his brief message would be enough to save him the wrath of Chris Larabee, but he doubted it. He put that out of his mind and left the telegraph for a nearby restaurant, resolving to get that fine meal he had promised himself the day before. Now that Chris had been told he was safe and well, he saw no reason to return with undue haste.
Betsie was in a bad mood. He liked his stall, which was warm and dry in winter, and into which food was delivered at regular intervals. He also liked getting out of his stall occasionally, and getting a little exercise outdoors. Occasionally different men took him out of his stall and rode him around to different places, then took him back. He didn't mind. There were often interesting things to see and smell and eat, but this time was different.
It was cold. Very cold, and there was no good food to be had. The man with him occasionally gave him grain to eat, but it wasn't as nice as what he ate at home. And they had been doing a lot of walking. Backwards and forwards, all day long. He was tired of it. He was ready to go back to his stall. When he had seen the man again earlier, he had hoped the man would take him back to his own stall, with the horses he knew and the grain he liked to eat. Maybe he would even get brushed down. Instead, the man had led him off to do more walking. Betsie had had enough.
They had walked a little way, and Betsie could tell that the man wasn't paying much attention to where they were going. This had happened before, and he had walked underneath a tree with low branches. The man had nearly fallen off. Betsie hadn't walked under the tree deliberately, of course. But he hadn't avoided it either.
Betsie thought he should do something a bit more creative this time. Without changing his pace, he walked a little towards the side of the trail. The man didn't react. He changed directions a little more. And then a little more. Betsie left the trail entirely and began heading in a direction which still led them towards Four Corners, but left the path they had been following behind. Betsie wondered how far he would have to walk before he reached home. He was getting impatient. He was getting hungry, and, although there was plenty of grass around, what he really felt like were the oats which the kind man in the stables always had. He began to walk a little faster. And faster. He broke into a trot. The man, startled, bounced a bit in the saddle and tried to gather the reins, but Betsie was having none of it. He leaped forward into a gallop, and when the man tried to pull him back, he bucked, and bucked again until he felt the man begin to fall. The man grabbed onto the saddle and tried to hang on, but Betsie felt him slip free and responded by running faster. He quickly left the man far behind.
Ezra laid on the ground and groaned. He seemed to have acquired some new bruises. His hands were scraped raw, and it felt like he was lying on something lumpy. His brain connected those facts together slowly.
He had been getting quite close to Four Corners. He had been anticipating some coffee and a hot meal, maybe a bath, before getting a nap in a real bed. His thoughts had begun to wander. Betsie, for some strange reason, had decided to take a detour and then bolted. He had been taken by surprise, and felt himself begin to fall. He had tried to cling to his saddle, had in fact caught hold of his saddlebags, but they had come free. And he had landed heavily on the ground.
Ezra pushed himself to a sitting position, and lifted the saddlebags which had been lying beneath him. Something inside them crunched in a way that sounded very concerning, and Ezra felt his heart sink. He opened the bags and shuffled through them, taking out items as he went. There wasn't much in there that was breakable, except for one thing. He found the music box eventually, right at the bottom, took it out and unwrapped it. The precious box was in shards and splinters of wood. The tiny ceramic bird which had sat inside had been crushed into dozens of tiny pieces. The mechanism inside produced a few dejected notes before giving up entirely.
Ezra picked up a few of the larger pieces of wood, sorting them out of the mess. There was no hope of repair. He must have landed squarely on top of the box, because it was so damaged he doubted he would know what it was meant to be if he hadn't seen it whole.
The idea of leaving the broken music box out in the middle of nowhere didn't appeal to Ezra, even though it was now useless. He wrapped it up again and put it back in his saddlebags, which he picked up and arranged over his shoulder. It would be a long walk back to Four Corners. He felt distantly aware that he would make himself a laughing stock when he returned, having twice in one week left the township mounted and returned on foot, but that didn't seem important anymore.
Ezra didn't recognise the area he was in, but it was easy enough to determine the right direction. The weather soured once more. Apparently not cold enough for snow, icy wet sleet pelted Ezra and turned the ground into a slippery, muddy mire. He struggled on, trying to ignore the weather. Trying to pretend it didn't matter, any more than any of the other unpleasant and annoying things that had happened in the past week. When it became clear that the sleet was not about to ease anytime soon, Ezra conceded he should find some shelter, at least briefly. He could see some trees up ahead that should provide some cover, at the bottom of a slight hill. He could make it that far.
Apparently, he couldn't. Ezra began making his way down the hill, but soon realised that the ground was too slippery to walk on. Too late, by that stage. His feet slid downhill and he flung his arms about trying to stay upright. No such luck. He landed on the ground, which somehow was both muddy and hard. He could feel himself moving downhill, half sliding and half rolling. There was nothing to grab on to and he rapidly gathered speed. He bumped over rocks, and scraped over sticks. Taking the most direct route down the hill, he tumbled through a group of bushes and small plants, feeling twigs and leaves tickle his face and pull at his clothes. He came to rest a little distance from the bottom of the hill. For several moments he lay still, wondering if it was worth the bother of getting up.
He was clumsy. That had to be it. He was just damn clumsy. It was the only explanation for everything that had gone wrong. His mother's efforts to teach him grace and precision had failed miserably, and he was the result.
Ezra decided that, as pointless as getting up undoubtedly was, it had to be more comfortable than lying in the mud. He stood, and took inventory of his new injuries. There were a few scratches on his cheek. They ought to go nicely with the scratches on his nose, and the bruise on the other side of his face. Some dirt had got into his eye, the other one this time. One of his fingernails had torn, and quite painfully. His clothes were muddy, and probably ruined beyond repair. At least he hadn't worn his favourite clothing, for this trip across country in the middle of winter, but he still mourned the loss of a fine outfit. He had let go of his saddlebags at some point, but when he retrieved them, they seemed to be intact. That was something. Apart from mud, he was covered in soggy grass and leaves and twigs and bark. He brushed some out of his hair. That made him wonder where his hat had gone. Eventually he found it, sitting on a rock and looking quite unharmed. He returned it to his head with a flourish. All is not lost, Ezra, he told himself. Your hat survived perfectly well.
The rain was still heavy, but it was rain now, not sleet. Ezra decided not to wait for it to stop. He could hardly get any wetter or dirtier. Standing around would only make him cold.
One of his ankles twinged when he put weight on it. Probably twisted, but only slightly and he could ignore it easily enough. Water trickled down the back of his neck and made him shiver. He plucked at his shirt, trying to keep the damp material from touching his skin, but it was impossible. He turned his attention to plucking free the debris which still clung to him. He became quite absorbed and didn't notice the distance as much. When he looked up and saw Four Corners not too far ahead, he almost felt as though the miles had passed quickly.
He wondered where to go first. He could get something to eat at the saloon... he supposed he couldn't present himself at the restaurant looking as he did. He was suddenly ravenously hungry. He could visit the bathhouse or have hot water sent to his room, and get himself wonderfully clean and dry. The filthy state of his clothes immediately became intolerable to him. He could just go to his room, strip down, and sleep for at least twenty four hours. As he considered that option he could feel his eyelids droop. Even walking up the stairs seemed an insurmountable effort.
Ezra knew what he should do... head for Nathan's clinic and let the man fuss and poke and prod him. Badger him until he was washed and dried and fed and probably had had a nap too. If Nathan saw him like this, or any of the others for that matter, he would be dragged to the clinic before he could say "never trust a mule". He knew he looked a sight. He could probably fix that, given access to his belongings, but he suspected if he got within sight of his own bed, he might sink into it and never get up. And he hated to think how Chris would react if he didn't at least present himself before he went into hibernation, preferably with a perfectly good explanation for his prolonged absence. Which left him right back at being dragged to Nathan's clinic.
Ezra turned towards Nathan's clinic of his own accord. Nathan would let Chris and the others know he was back. One of them would probably bring him some food, and some clean clothes. They might even arrange a bath. Nathan would probably make him drink some loathsome concoction to prevent pneumonia or diphtheria or ingrown toenails or whatever it was Nathan would announce he was going to get from walking around in the rain. And he would protest, but he'd drink it and he wouldn't get sick. No more than a cold, anyway.
Nathan would fix things. Ezra felt another surge of guilt at the carelessness which had destroyed Nathan's Christmas present. What kind of ingrate was he, to expect help from someone who he was about to disappoint? But it couldn't be helped. He would have to find some way to make it right, later.
The clinic seemed a very long way away, but Ezra sternly told himself that after walking so far, he could manage a little more. And so he did. Lifting his arm to knock on the door was another obstacle he overcame with sheer willpower. Nathan appeared quickly and gaped at him, before gripping his shoulder and dragging him inside.
"Ezra? What... look at you! What on earth happened? Were you attacked? Was it a bear? Why were you gone so long? Why are you so muddy?"
Ezra wasn't sure how to answer Nathan's questions. There were so many of them. He felt Nathan push his shoulder, and thought he would fall down, but there was a chair there. Nathan was doing something on the other side of the room, and he was still talking, but Ezra wasn't sure what he was saying, and Nathan didn't seem to expect him to respond.
Ezra brushed at the legs of his pants. He hadn't been able to reach them when he was walking, but after hours of walking and being rained on, there wasn't much left on them. Just one plant still stubbornly remained. Ezra pulled it free and held it in front of him, turning it this way and that.
"What's that, Ezra?" asked Nathan as he returned. He gave Ezra a mug of something hot, which on inspection turned out to be just ordinary tea and perfectly palatable. He draped a towel over Ezra's shoulders, and sat in front of him. Ezra looked at the plant. He had no idea what it was, so he held it out for Nathan to inspect. Nathan knew more about such things.
"It's angelica," Nathan announced, after a short inspection. "I use this sometimes. It's good for stiffness in the joints, or when folks are just a bit sickly. I go through a lot of it in winter, but it's hard to find at this time of year. Mrs Potter's been having some trouble... the cold weather is hard on her ankles and knees. I been real worried about her. Could... would you mind...?"
"Mr Jackson," Ezra interrupted. "It would give me no greater pleasure than to see this piece of flora bring comfort to a dear friend."
"Well... thanks, Ezra. Where did you find this?"
"Uh..." Ezra racked his brains, not sure exactly where he had taken his tumble down the hill. Between one thing and another, not much of the day's journey stood out. "Not too far away," he finished lamely.
"Uhuh," said Nathan. "Why were you gone so long? Chris was pretty furious when you didn't come back on time. You know he still worries after what happened a couple of months ago... You didn't run into any trouble like that, did you?"
"No," Ezra lied. "Not at all."
"So what took you so long? 'Fact, why'd you have to go at all? You didn't tell anyone... it had us a bit worried."
Nathan's concern only made Ezra feel worse. He couldn't say why he had really gone. 'Oh, my apologies Mr Jackson, I did have a superb and wonderful gift for you, but it had an accident.' That wouldn't do at all. What convincing lie could he make up? Family business... Nathan might believe that, but he would probably expect him to stay with Maude through Christmas. A poker game... Nathan would certainly believe that, but would want to know why he had kept it a secret.
"What were you doing all that time, anyway?" asked Nathan.
"Engaging in a botanical excursion," Ezra quipped. It wasn't a total lie.
"A what?" Nathan asked, his tone not one of incomprehension, but disbelief. "Ezra, you weren't gone all that time looking for this, were you?" He held up the angelica. It looked tiny in his hand.
"Certainly not, Mr Jackson," Ezra reassured. "I also enjoyed several games of poker, some fine meals, and foiled a kidnapping. Not bad for a few short days, I think."
Nathan laughed with him, and Ezra wasn't sure why he felt compelled to add: "I will say, though, that finding this herb did make the journey worthwhile."
Nathan gave him a look that was both pleased, and a little too knowing for Ezra's comfort. "How did you find it, Ezra?" he asked. "I never knew you were such a naturalist."
"I stumbled across it, Mr Jackson. Such is the vastness of my good fortune."
Nathan laughed again, louder this time, and Ezra permitted himself a smile. He was a fortunate man, indeed.
Nathan stood up and retrieved something from the table by his bed. It was flat and wrapped in brown paper.
"Was gonna do this tomorrow, but I guess there's no reason to wait," he said. Ezra stared at the parcel blankly for a few moments until Nathan prompted him. "It's a Christmas present, Ezra. See, you untie the string, and then you unfold the paper, and whatever's inside is a gift from me to you. For Christmas."
Ezra gave Nathan a look, but refrained from sticking out his tongue. He unwrapped the package. Inside was a book. No, not a book, he realised. The pages were all blank, securely bound within the leather cover.
"It's a journal," said Nathan, suddenly shy. "As many fancy words as you know, figured you need somewhere to keep 'em all. Well." He stopped abruptly, and looked at Ezra, before continuing more seriously. "I figure there's a lot... there's a lot you don't talk about. To anyone. And it would be good if you could trust one of us enough to trust us with... well, with whatever you hide behind those blank faces of yours. But, until you feel like you can do that, you can use this. Might help."
It was a few minutes before Ezra felt like he could trust his voice enough to speak. He thought this might be the most thoughtful thing anyone had ever done for him. Nathan didn't seem frustrated or offended by the way he protected himself. Nathan was just... patient, and undemanding, and offering support in whatever way he could. Like it was all the same to him, like Ezra wasn't a disappointment because of his secrets.
"It doesn't seem a fair exchange," he said, when he could talk again. "This is... the best gift I've ever received, maybe. And all I have for you is a flower."
"Don't be silly, Ezra. It's all... it's all the same thing, really. That flower means a lot, it means Gloria Potter won't be in pain, and it means I won't lose sleep for fretting over it. Her children will be happier, because their Ma's feeling better, and if I can make enough medicine from it, maybe I'll be able to help another person or two when they need it. And this is the same," Nathan said as he touched the cover of the journal. "Because I worry about you sometimes, when I think you need to say something, but you can't, because, well, I don't know why, only you do, right? If you have this, maybe those times when you can't say what you're thinking, maybe they won't be so hard. And that would mean a lot to me. I want, I want to help somehow."
Ezra ducked his head and was shocked to feel a tear on his eyelid. He blinked it away before Nathan noticed. "This is a very serious conversation for Christmas Eve, my friend," he announced. "I feel the need for a warm bath and a change of clothes. Perhaps you might be in the saloon later? I have been seized by the most uncommonly generous impulses of late. I may even be moved to provide drinks all round."
Nathan glanced at him before giving in to the redirection with a smile and a nod. "I'd like that, Ezra," he said. "You can make mine a scotch."
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