Ol' Man Johnson
Disclaimer: The characters from Mag7 belong to MGM, Mirisch, and Trilogy.
Warning: Halloween story
Summary: A mysterious stranger helps Ezra get back to Four Corners.
Author's notes: Thanks to Sherri and Kris for beta'ing this story.
Feedback: Gimme, gimme, gimme. :-)
Because I could not stop for death, he kindly stopped for me
Vin looked down at the cards in his hands, seeing nothing but a blur of shapes and colors. His mind was miles away from the game, worrying about his missing lover. It was nearly midnight and Ezra had yet to arrive from Cedar Ridge. He should've been back sometime during the afternoon but there was no sign of him yet.
Thinking Ezra had fallen prey to his trade and was involved in a high stake poker game in the local saloon, Chris had sent a telegraph to the Sheriff in Cedar Ridge. An hour later the reply had come through; Ezra had already left. And still, he had never made it to Four Corners.
By the time they had realized Ezra would not be returning on his own, the winter sky was already darkening and there wasn't enough light for a search party to ride out. They would have to wait 'til morning.
Vin felt a hand on his shoulder and turned to look into Josiah's warmth-filled eyes. "We'll go look for him at first light." The ex-preacher promised him softly.
The tracker nodded, refraining from saying that by that time it would probably be too late. The night was cold, too cold, and everything in him was warning him of the snowstorm approaching. His heart grew heavy as he understood that Ezra might not be able to survive the harsh elements.
The night seemed to become colder and colder, and though he tried to walk faster, he found it impossible to keep warm. He had lost sensation in his hands and his feet were ice cold. He was panting from the exertion, his body becoming clammy with perspiration in spite of the chill in the air.
Ezra stopped and shouted, hoping someone was close by and would hear him over the howling wind. Hoping someone would come to his aid. But he was all alone in the vast nothingness.
Trying to control his panic, he chided away thoughts of a slow death, swearing at his bad luck. He had traveled to Cedar Ridge the day before to deliver a runaway boy back to his family. The fifteen-year old child dreamt of living an adventure in the Wild West, and had escaped his progenitors' watchful eye in hopes of seeing the world.
The Seven had stumbled upon the young boy, managing to talk him out of his foolish plans and Ezra had volunteered to return the child to his parents. He had not counted on being attacked by robbers on the way back to Four Corners. Two men had ambushed him, killing his horse and leaving him stranded halfway from home. He had managed to get rid of both miscreants, but their horses had run off before he could even approach them. Thus his current situation.
There wasn't a star in the sky, nor the barest glimpse of the moon. Not a sound could be heard, save for the fury of the wind and the rapid crunching of the earth beneath his feet. He had never felt so alone in his life.
He thought about his lover. Vin would be worried sick about him by now, wondering what might have happened. He smiled as he thought back on the last months.
They had told the others about their relationship and surprisingly the five men had been extremely supportive. They had even helped find a small house in town that he and Vin could live in together. He had finally found a home with the other man and their friends. No matter how many times Mother tried to get him to leave, Four Corners was now his home and he had no intention of going anywhere.
He felt his heart lurch as the first white flakes fluttered down. There was nowhere he could hide from the coming snowstorm; no caves, no rocks where he could at least escape the biting wind, nothing. He walked faster, humming a tune he had heard Vin play on his harmonica. When that didn't distract him from his looming fate, he played a mental game of poker, trying to anticipate all the imaginary players' moves.
He suddenly felt the little hairs at the back of his neck stand up. A feeling of uneasiness settled over him and he knew he was no longer alone. Swallowing hard, he turned around and gasped. A few feet away from him stood a stagecoach; the driver muffled to the eyes in capes and blankets, four greys, all wrapped in the soft haze of a lamp.
"Thank God!" He blurted out at the vision before him.
He frowned as he realized he hadn't heard the coach approaching, but then, the wind was still howling fiercely and his mind had been elsewhere. All that mattered was he was saved.
He approached the stagecoach, noticing that the glass windows were covered with a thick coat of mildew, the leather fittings were crusted over with mold, and literally rotting from the woodwork. The whole machine was foul with damp and had evidently been dragged from some outhouse, in which it had been moldering away for years, to do another day or two of duty on the road.
Shaking his head, he climbed beside the coachman, the wood almost breaking away beneath his feet. "You, sir, are a life-savior," he stated, ignoring the degradation surrounding him and the strange smell coming from the man and the coach. Beggars couldn't be choosers.
The coachman lifted his head, looked at him from behind the blankets, but made no reply. At any other time Ezra would have felt some annoyance at his silence, but he did owe his life to the man and wasn't about to be ungrateful. Besides, he knew it was probably close to midnight, if not past it, and the man didn't know him. He had been lucky to be allowed such a ride.
It didn't take long to reach Four Corners, the coachman stopping right in front of the saloon.
"Kind sir, I must show my appreciation for your good deed. May I offer you a libation? Something to warm you on this harsh night?"
The coachman shook his head, the blanket slipping from his face and allowing Ezra to see his features for the first time. His eyes glowed with an unnatural lustre, and his face was pale as the face of a corpse. His bloodless lips were drawn back as if in the agony of death, and showed the gleaming teeth between.
"I-I..." Swallowing hard at the ghostly vision before him, Ezra moved away and climbed down from the coach, unable to take his eyes away from his savior.
He watched the man snap the reins, and soon the stagecoach was disappearing behind a cloud of dust back down the road where they had come from. He remained frozen there, ignoring the falling snow and the cold wind torturing his unprotected body.
"Ezra?" He heard whispered from behind him.
He turned to see the other six men's stunned expressions.
"What was that?" Buck whispered.
"You..." Ezra licked suddenly dry lips. "You saw it?"
"Yeah," JD replied with a shudder. "No stagecoach was supposed to arrive at this hour and the man's face..."
"It was ol' man Johnson," Nathan said firmly.
"Who's ol' man Johnson?" Vin asked, dragging Ezra back inside the saloon and wrapping him carefully in his jacket.
Ezra smiled gratefully at his lover, hearing the others following behind, all Seven sitting at their usual table. Chris poured him a cup of freshly made coffee, steam still coming out of the pot. He sighed contentedly as his hands settled on the warm cup, looking back to Nathan to wait for his reply.
"I heard Mrs. Potter telling this story a few hours ago to Billy and some of his friends. Nine years back, when Four Corners was just a few houses come together, they had a coachman, Tom Johnson, who used to drive to other towns for supplies," Nathan began. "One night, as he was coming back to town, he had an accident. Nobody knows what happened, but they found the stagecoach the next morning at the bottom of a fifty feet valley. Johnson was dead and so were the horses."
"And?" JD breathed, eyes open wide as he listened to the spooky tale.
"And it is said that every year, at the anniversary of his death, he can be seen trying to finish his ride back to Four Corners."
Ezra took a sip of his coffee. Only now did he realize he had never mentioned where he wanted to go. The road where he had been stranded led to at least three other towns besides Four Corners. And yet, the coachman had drove him straight home. He didn't really care if it had been old man Johnson trying to get back home. He didn't really care if it had been a ghost or a man.
All he cared about was being back home, with his lover, with his friends. All that matter was he was alive. He exchanged a lustful look with Vin. It was all they could do not to kiss passionately, but they were in a public place and definitely not alone. His lover sighed and the wanton smile he sent Ezra's way told the southerner he would make it up to him when they were alone. Life was definitely good.
Author's notes: Highly based on the short story "The Phantom Coach" by Amelia B. Edwards
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