Jack Of Hearts
Spoilers: One Day Out West
Notes: This deals with what Ezra was doing in the jail cell during and around the time of James's trial; and with JD's reaction to his bungled attempt at peacekeeping during the trial.
42 cards tossed consecutively into the upturned hat without one missing its mark; Ezra was on the verge of a new personal best. Only five more, and he would top his previous record, set during his last unfortunate incarceration. At Fort Laramie, ironically, just before being let out on bail. He sighed, tossing the deuce of clubs. The morning cloudburst seemed to be letting up; its incessant thrumming against the roof had kept Ezra dubious company ever since that boy had left to prepare for Lucas James' 'trial.' The gambler wondered what would happen to him once the Judge was dead - as he had no doubt the cantankerous old man would be, soon enough. Most likely he would be forgotten for a while; long enough, hopefully, to make use of the thin strip of metal tucked away in his suspender strap. Manual dexterity was good for more than card tricks and dealing stud, after all. Ezra never participated in the odious practice of burglary, of course, but the basics of lock-picking had come in handy in more than one backwater jail.
As much as 'Sheriff' Dunne left him alone, he could have left by now. However, he preferred to wait until Messers Larabee and Tanner were well on their way to Tuscosa as planned. He respected the possibility that Larabee might see his premature departure as an act of betrayal. Why, Ezra wasn't sure, but for some reason he did not wish to reinforce his appearance of being without honor in the solemn gunslinger's eyes. Once the two gentlemen in question were on their way, though, he could depart the premises with a somewhat more peaceful conscience.
He flipped the king of diamonds easily into his hat. He'd had about enough of conscience, lately. Especially, at present, the conscience of the Honorable Orrin W. Travis. The man was a disgraceful relic of eastern sensibility, and had no call attempting to impose his morality on the western frontier. It seemed Travis believed his faith in justice made him bulletproof, even. Well, Ezra reasoned, when you spend your years dealing out the law in such amenable places as Fort Laramie, St. Louis, Boston, and other cities with suitable metropolitan security, you might believe that justice will indeed prevail. Four Corners, however, was hardly so civilized.
Ezra imagined that Stuart James tried to bribe the Judge. The thought inspired a rather sour humor in the gambler, as the eight of spades sunk gently into his hat. During his arraignment back in Fort Laramie, he had discreetly mentioned his $150 worth of recent winnings to the Judge, to which Travis replied, in that pompous way of his, "Too bad that doesnít cover your $300 bail." Certainly James had quite a bit more than $150 at his disposal, but Ezra knew people, and he knew that the satisfaction of playing the high hand of justice over the criminal element was far more important to the Judge than any amount of money. What Ezra wanted to know was who the old man thought would back him up against James - he couldn't even raise a jury in this godforsaken town. Perhaps the Judge was counting on JD Dunne, the new and utterly green sheriff of Four Corners?
Gunfire interrupted his thoughts. The Jack of hearts flew crookedly from his startled hand, and he swore as it clipped the brim of his hat and glided to rest just outside the bars of his cell. So much for beating his record. He stood from the cot and stretched, determined to ignore the implications of the sounds of the gunfight. He couldn't do anything about it anyway, in his current circumstances. He knelt at the front of the cell, and reached through the bars to retrieve the Jack. The gunfire abruptly became louder, mixed with the muffled sounds of running horses. The gambler froze when he heard the shout:
"JD! Get down!"
One more shot split the air; then, for an interminable moment, silence blanketed the streets outside. Finally, he heard fervent but indistinct voices, and someone calling for Nathan.
Shaking his head grimly, Ezra scooped the cards from his hat and shuffled them together with the Jack, returning to the cot to sort them out.
Not a minute later the jailhouse door flew open, and the young sheriff himself stumbled in, looking remarkably unharmed. JD stormed over to the desk, swore at the chair as he pushed it aside, and yanked open a drawer. With as much force as he could muster, he threw something heavy and metallic into the drawer. A piece hit the lip of the desk and bounced out onto the floor, rolling away. The cylinder of a gun, Ezra realized. Instead of retrieving it, JD sent a half-hearted kick and a string of curses after it, then collapsed heavily into the chair, his back toward the gambler.
The sound of the boy's breathing filled the room - laborious, dangerously close to sobs. He stared motionlessly out the window.
"I had no idea you'd such an impressive vocabulary," Ezra offered. When he received no response, he said evenly, "May I assume that the Judge is dead, and the prisoner flown?"
JD turned slightly, enough that Ezra could see his ashen face illuminated by the post-thunderstorm light. After a moment of catching his breath, the boy responded weakly, "Lucas got away." A pause. Then, this time his voice cracking faintly, "I don't know if the Judge is - alive. Or not."
Ezra shrugged. "Well, the Judge only has himself to blame -"
"Like hell!" JD lurched out of the chair, his face puckered in self-disgust. "It was my fault, is what is was. Buck was right, I shouldn't have taken that job, the Judge shoulda kept looking until he found somebody who - who ain't a god-damned idiot!" The boy leaned stiffly on the desk, his shoulders hunched, and rocked backward and forward. He stared helplessly at the desktop. "I can't believe I thought I could do this."
The gambler sighed, tapping the deck of cards absently on his knee. JD was right, of course, he wasn't exactly the man for the job. But that again was Travis' fault, for hand the job over to the kid just to make a point. The old man thought to shame the town into standing up against James - only no one had taken the hint. Unfortunately, he couldn't exactly tell JD this. No need to wound the boy's pride more.
"JD, no one could have done what you tried to do."
JD glanced over at him uncertainly. Ezra tucked the cards into the pocket of the coat laying on the cot beside him, and stood. "Hell boy, you tried to single-handedly take on some of the most well-paid bodyguards this side of the Mississippi. A near-impossible task for anyone, if you ask me."
"I dunno, Ezra. I mean, it was pretty bad." JD cleared his throat, said, "I mean, my gun - fell apart! I didn't know what to do, I just turned around and -" He cut himself off, rubbing his forehead self-consciously. "If it hadn't been for Chris and Vin showing up when they did, I don't know what would have happened."
Ezra's eyes narrowed, and he took a deliberate breath. So Larabee and Tanner hadn't made it out of town before the fight. Figures. The gambler sighed. "The point is, son," he said gently, "The Judge shouldn't have gotten you into that situation in the first place.No one in this town would stand with you against Stuart James. Travis should have left well enough alone."
JD slumped into the chair again, shaking his head tiredly. "Yeah, but what Lucas did ain't right. The Judge couldn't just let him walk away from it."
"Yes, he could have. And should have. Justice is subjective, my friend, especially when paired with such a fickle mistress as the frontier. Travis is a fool if he can't accept that."
JD didn't respond; he looked away from the gambler and stared thoughtfully at his own empty hands. Ezra leaned his forearms against the bars of the cell, and gazed through the open jailhouse door into the quiet street. Fresh, rain-sweetened air filtered into the jail, cooling the gambler's face. He wondered suddenly why he was even there. He should have left days ago, after that fiasco in the saloon. Instead he'd ridden out against ridiculous odds with a bunch of strangers - each of whom seemed to have either a death wish or delusions of heroism - for a pittance and a pipe dream of hidden gold. It made no sense, really. First of all, he had plans to finish his life old and wealthy. Secondly, he had no illusions against the fact that he was cut from far less valuable cloth than that of a hero. The whole experience hung over him with disturbing tenacity; he had risked everything - twice! - for the absolute minimum potential gain. He should have left well enough alone. He could be comfortably ensconced in a neighboring town, dealing cards in the smoky confines of a good, smelly saloon, instead of languishing in this sorry excuse for a prison -
The gambler shuttered away his musings and glanced over at JD. He was surprised to find that the haunting guilt which had outlined the boy's features upon his entrance to the jail was giving way to something else entirely. Ezra raised an eyebrow curiously as JD continued.
"I don't think the Judge is a fool. And - and I think you're wrong to say so."
Yes, Ezra thought, that is a touch of anger in the boy's eyes.
"In fact," JD went on, "You should be ashamed of yourself, calling that man a fool, who risked his life to bring a man to justice." The boy was building up a head of steam; he stood and paced a few steps toward Ezra's cell. "I think Mrs. Potter and her kids deserve a lot more than this town is giving them - the way everyone wants to back down and let James get away with this. Maybe you couldn't have done anything now, being stuck in jail like this, but I didn't see you offering your help to Mrs. Potter and the Judge before, neither. I don't care what you believe about the west being lawless, but you got no call calling the Judge a fool for trying to do what's right. Seems to me you'd be a damn sight less of a man if you didn't respect him for it, in fact."
JD took a breath. Ezra had forgotten how the boy could exhibit a modicum of eloquence in the heat of passion. 'Less of a man,' indeed. He plastered on his best poker smile, and began -
- almost began; the gambler was vaguely surprised to find that his voice wouldn't obey him immediately. He swallowed roughly and cleared his throat. "Fine words, son -" Ezra stopped, surprised again. For some reason, he couldn't think of anything more to say. His next words fell awkwardly, automatically, meaning nothing, he feared, but to fill the silence. "Well, then, what, exactly, do you plan to do?"
JD stared at him for a moment, caught off guard by the question.. "Uh, well, I'm not going to run from what I did." He nodded slightly to himself, his voice taking on a determined edge. "I messed up, but I gotta at least find out what happened to the Judge. Then maybe I can get Lucas back and set things right."
"You'll just get yourself killed." Ezra felt slightly ridiculous saying so, but he had a feeling JD expected it.
"Maybe, but I ain't just gonna sit back and do nothing. Not with that murderer running free."
JD had that stubborn look in his eyes, the same one he'd had when he stood up to Larabee in the Seminole village. So, Ezra merely nodded and returned to sit on the cot. He could feel JD watching him for a moment, as if he wanted Ezra to say something else in particular. The gambler laid back on the cot without looking at the boy, and pulled his cards from his coat pocket. The silence lengthened as he shuffled the deck; but soon enough, he heard JD walk out, closing the door behind him.
Ezra let out the breath he hadn't known he'd been holding. Well, JD was old enough to make his own decisions. If he wanted to run out and get himself killed for some foolish notion of justice -.
The gambler abruptly moved away from that thought. Now, he decided, would be the time to think about effecting an escape. The townsfolk would still be hiding out until they were sure James' men had truly gone; JD, Larabee and the rest would be dealing with the Judge, dead or otherwise.
Unthinkingly, he pulled a card from the bottom of the deck. To his surprise, it wasn't the Ace of spades, as usual. It was the Jack of hearts. He was sure he'd shuffled the Ace to the bottom of the deck - he always did. He stared at the Jack for a moment, then tossed it across the cell toward his hat. It fell in easily. An inexplicable relief washed over him, and, blocking any impertinent deliberations from his mind, he supposed he would wait a while before leaving. With Larabee still around, at least, who knew what might happen.
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