When The Skies Opened
by Dani O'Malley
Disclaimer: I don't own the Magnificent Seven, and this story was written purely for fun with no profit made.
Summary: During a thunderstorm, Ezra comes to a better understanding of one of his fellow peacekeepers.
Feedback: can be sent to this email address... it's email@example.com
Author's Note: Civil war info from: http://www.historyplace.com/civilwar/
Four Corners sat uneasily under the weight of a hot August evening. The air felt thick and nothing moved. The breeze, which had been blowing from the south all day, had stopped entirely, so that even the tops of far off trees were still. The clouds above them moved, though, black and threatening, twisting to make even more ominous shapes, as though they had been set over the fire and come to the boil. The storm, when it arrived, would be fierce.
Ezra watched the far off clouds, his blank face giving no hint of his inner discontent. He was sitting outside the saloon, shuffling his cards in one hand and sipping from his flask with the other. He wasnít waiting. He wasnít shuffling cards to soothe himself or drinking whiskey to fortify himself. He certainly wasnít nervous. He was just there.
He had been there, not waiting nervously, for several minutes when two people walked up the sidewalk. He continued sitting, not needing to look to see who it was. It was difficult to mistake Buck and JDís bickering. The whole town probably knew where they were every minute of every day.
"Iím telliní ya JD, this fine lady, why, she could do the most amazing things with her..."
"Now JD, I realize you ainít had a whole lotta experience in this area, but..."
"Buck! Iíve had heaps of experience! Heaps!"
"Well, sure ya have, JD, sure ya have, but you couldnít do better than to get some advice from a confirmed expert on the subject..."
"You are so full of crap, Buck!"
Every minute, indeed. To think that they would discuss such things in public, in broad daylight.
"Oh, hey, Ez."
"Mr. Wilmington. Mr. Dunne."
"What you sittiní out here for, Ez? Couldnít get a game going?"
"Itís Ezra, Mr Wilmington. Ezra. I know you know that, I told you this morning. And, indeed, the pickings inside are so slim that I would profit equally as much from a game of solitaire."
JD stepped forward, leaning on the rail to survey the coming storm.
"Gee, looks like weíre gonna be in for a humdinger of a storm!"
Buck moved to stand beside JD, taking his hat off and wiping some sweat from his forehead before replacing it.
"Whooee! Look at them clouds! Gonna blow a gale, thatís for sure!"
"Reckon youíre right, Buck. Not like we need it. Weíre never short of wind with you around."
"Hey, now! Thatís just downright nasty!" Buck turned around to see if he could coax any support from the third man still sitting behind them. "Ez, you hear what he just said to me? That was just uncalled for, werenít it?"
"Please, Mr. Wilmington, your inability to even remember my correct name gives me little incentive to disagree with Mr. Dunne."
"Sheesh, Iím telling ya, with friends like you two..." Buck let his words trail off, realizing that neither JD nor Ezra seemed particularly interested in the discussion.
"It sure will be a relief when the storm comes and it cools down some," JD said, wiping away a trickle of sweat running down his cheek.
"You sure got that right, kid. Not that I donít enjoy summer, but this sort of hot weather kinda discourages physical activity, and you know how I like my exercise..."
"Aw, stop it Buck!"
"Mr. Wilmington, I had no idea you were so devoted to personal fitness. Certainly an endeavour in which I could offer my magnanimous assistance..." Ezra paused long enough that Buck swung to face him, his face a mixture of horror and disbelief. "Why, there are countless chores which I would only be too happy to bestow upon you. Exercising my horse, for starters. He seems to become testy if he is not ridden every day! Imagine that! To become so disgruntled at the opportunity for a day of total rest, incomprehensible. It boggles the mind."
Buck laughed weakly. "Thatís real funny, Ezra. Geez, you shouldnít scare a guy like that." And Ezra grinned back at him, wide enough to show his gold tooth.
At that moment, JD, who seemed to have been unaware of their brief discussion, said quietly, "I love the thunder. It used to scare me when I was little, and my ma told me that it was God making music for us up in the heavens." He turned towards them and laughed a little. "I used to think that He couldnít be much of a conductor."
"Doesnít have much sense of timing, thatís for sure. I once knew this fine young lady named Clara, prettiest little thing you ever saw, and, well, we were in the process of becoming much better acquainted when her husband came home unexpectedly because of a storm. It was dark and cloudy, so I hid in a corner of the room, and he wouldnít never have seen me, except that there was a great flash of lightning at just the wrong moment, and there I was..." Buck gave a little chuckle. "Yep, that took some explaining, all right."
JD groaned. "Aw, Buck, thatís a lotta hooey. I bet I could ask Chris and heíd tell me half of these stories you tell are all made up."
"Not the best ones, kid. Those are all true."
"Speaking of Chris," Ezra stood up from his chair, slipping his flask and cards back into their pockets, "I have just remembered a matter I need to discuss with him. Good day to you both."
"See ya Ezra."
Ezra walked across the street, towards the jail where Chris was on duty. There wasnít really anything he needed to talk to Chris about Ė well, nothing urgent, anyway. He had simply been seized with a sudden restlessness, and, having claimed seeing Mr. Larabee as the reason for his departure, he had rather restricted himself in the direction of his travel.
Inside the jail, Chris was sitting at the desk reading. The jailís sole prisoner was asleep in his cell. The oppressive heat was even worse inside.
"Ezra, whatís up? Something wrong?"
"No, nothing is amiss, Mr. Larabee, I simply wished to confer with you on a matter of some personal significance to myself."
"Well, you see, it has come to my attention that Ridge City is holding a rather high profile poker tournament at the end of this month, and, with your permission of course, I had considered taking a week to attend the tables and see the sights..."
"You want a week off? Now? Hell, Ezra, could ya have picked a worse time? You know I canít spare the manpower right now."
Ezra had never expected his request to be granted, but continued arguing, for appearanceís sake. "Mr. Larabee, your concern for the wellbeing of this fair town is commendable, but I fail to see how my absence for a single week could have such a debilitating effect. Not to mention the possible gains should I win... and I have no doubts that I would."
"Dammit Standish, the answerís no. Did you come in here just to pester me with pointless drivel?"
Ezra grinned. "Why, Mr. Larabee, you know me so well. Such astute skills of observation I have rarely seen!"
Chris groaned. "I hope youíre not planning to hang around all evening. Donít you have weary travelers to cheat or something?"
"Lamentably, no. The saloon is tragically free of worthy opponents. I merely stopped in to avoid the approaching inclement weather."
Hearing that, Chris got up and moved over to the door to the jail. He whistled softly as he saw the clouds hanging low overhead. "Sure is gonna be a big one."
"So I have been told."
Chris twisted his lips slightly, into what might, on another manís face, have been a broad smile. "Ainít had a real good storm out here for awhile. I went to Denver once, years and years ago. Fourth of July it was, and they had a fireworks display. Amazing. Thunderstormís probably the next best thing. Closest weíll get out here anyway."
"Indeed. Well, if we are facing an imminent storm I would prefer not to encounter it while trapped with your malcontent companion and your own... sunny disposition. Good day to you sir."
"Sure, Ezra. Good evening."
Ezra left the jail, and, for lack of anything better to do, crossed the street again, stopping this time by Vinís wagon. Vin himself was sitting on the back of the wagon, watching the dark clouds draw closer.
"Hey Ezra. Donít wanna hang around outside too long, big storm cominí in."
"Yes, I had noticed." As they stood there, a breeze had sprung up, still blowing from the south in short sharp gusts which were gradually increasing in strength. "I certainly hope you donít intend to weather the storm out here."
"Aw hell Ez, a bit of rain ainít gonna hurt me. Ainít gonna mess up my fancy clothes, neither."
"Your concern for my attire is most gratifying, Mr. Tanner."
"Besides, nothing beats a good storm. Not quite the same here in town, with all these people and civilisation and such around. You get out on the trail aways, away from everything, nothiní between you and the sky... youíll never feel anything like it."
"Well, you certainly paint a vivid image, Vin."
"Thanks Ez... I think. Vivid is good, right?"
"Yes, indeed. And I think you are correct, the storm is imminent, and I should depart lest my apparel be irreparably damaged. Have a pleasant evening, and try not to get too wet."
"Sure thing, see ya."
Ezra looked up and down the street, wondering where to head to next. Going back to the saloon didnít appeal, and he certainly couldnít return to the jail. Chris might form the ridiculous idea that he was anxious about something. And there werenít many other places to go in Four Corners. Flipping a mental coin, Ezra wandered up the street towards the church.
The wind had changed. It was coming from the northwest now, and had a biting chill. It was stronger, too. Off to the west, where the darkest clouds were, a flash of lightning lit the horizon briefly, followed several seconds later by a low rumble of thunder.
Josiah was in the church sanding one of the pews down, although he didnít seem terribly intent on the task. He put the sandpaper down when he saw Ezra enter.
"Ezra, itís good to see you."
"Any particular reason youíve come to see me tonight? Or just seeking a friendly ear?"
"Oh, I thought I would come and see you... to reassure myself that this slipshod construction would not collapse when the storm arrives."
"Storm?" Josiahís query was answered by another rumble of thunder, slightly closer than the last. Josiah stood and moved to the door of the church, looking out on the black clouds now directly overhead, and feeling the stiff cold breeze which blew straight past the door.
"Oh." Josiah's eyes widened. "This should be a storm of epic proportions."
"Indeed," said Ezra rather sourly.
"But you don't need to be concerned, Ezra. This building is tougher than it looks."
"I certainly hope so," Ezra mumbled under his breath.
"Storms always remind me of the frailty and transience of life, against the overwhelming power of the Almighty."
"Now there's a comforting thought."
"Well, so it is." Josiah looked towards Ezra and let a small grin curve his lips. "Oh, I know you probably think I'm foolish, but it is very comforting to me. Whatever mistakes I make in this life are ultimately insignificant."
"Well, on that cheery note, I think it is time I was gone. I don't have your faith and would dearly like to be within more substantial shelter when the rain starts to fall."
Ezra left the church and wandered aimlessly down the street, not paying much attention to where he was going. He still wasn't in the mood to be around other people; that odd temper had kept him shifting on from friend to friend all evening. Normally when he was in such a contrary mood he would find solitude on top of one of the rooftops around the town, but that wasn't really wise considering the weather. His feet carried him that way anyway, leading him up the stairs without Ezra noticing until he reached the door of Nathan's clinic. He stopped, uncertain of what to do. The first drops of rain had begun to fall in great, heavy lumps, and he would be soaked if he tried to go back to the saloon. Nathan was probably inside; he could knock and Nathan would let him in out of the storm, but he wasn't sure he wanted to wait out the storm inside the little room alone with the healer. There was an awkwardness between them that Ezra didn't feel with any of the others, and he knew it was completely his fault. And being around Nathan made him feel things, made him face the kind of person he was, and he didn't like that. He didn't like to think of who he had been and who he was changing into. He could turn around and go back to the saloon, suffering nothing worse than a thorough drenching. Ezra shook his head. Was he such a coward? Nathan was supposed to be his friend. You didn't avoid your friends.
Nathan answered the door quickly, surprising Ezra, although he didn't show it. Nathan, for his part, didn't look terribly surprised to see him either, at least, no more surprised than if Chris or Buck or any of the others turned up unannounced. He stepped back to let Ezra in without a word.
Ezra stepped into the room just as the downpour began in earnest, the rain striking the wooden walkway and the roof with a deafening roar. Nathan quickly closed the door and motioned Ezra towards a chair. Ezra sat down, feeling a little strange about it. It was odd to be in Nathan's room, communicating with facial expressions and gestures. The noise of the rain was so great they would have to shout to make themselves heard, and it was very disconcerting when he was so used to using conversation to control a situation and put others at ease.
Nathan closed the windows and pulled the blinds down, lighting two lamps. With the clouds so thick, dusk had arrived two hours early. Once Nathan had finished those tasks the rain had eased slightly. Nathan turned to Ezra with a quizzical expression on his face.
"Ezra? What brings you up here?"
"Well, nothing in particular, Mr Jackson. I was walking about the town, and I found myself at your door with the rain threatening..." Ezra paused, feeling dreadfully silly. His clumsy words had made it sound as though he had sought out Nathan's room merely as an escape from the weather... which was more or less the truth, but.... what on earth had happened to his control? His unflappability? His ability to find the right thing to say? How irritating to be suddenly robbed of his skills. Flustered, he stood up and replaced his hat on his head. "Well, the rain seems to have eased, so I expect I should go and leave you in peace..."
"Would you like some tea?" Nathan offered. He lifted two teacups as he spoke, and turned towards the teapot which stood on the little table in the corner.
"Good Lord, Mr Jackson, I can barely stomach that concoction when I am ill, I can't imagine what inducement would be required to make me drink it while I am healthy."
"This ain't my healing tea, Ezra. Mrs Potter makes it up for me, it tastes good. Much better than coffee."
Ezra had his doubts about that, but seeing the slight tightness of Nathan's lips, he could tell that he had hurt the man's feelings. He felt a small twinge of guilt upon realising that, and wondered at it. Since when did he become so sensitive to the feelings of others? It was an irritating revelation, especially as he realised that he was going to accept one of Nathan's damn teas, simply to smooth things over.
Nathan poured the tea, and offered him cream and honey. Ezra added a little of both. Nathan must have ordered the boiled water from the restaurant, he realised, because the small stove in his room wasn't lit. If it had been, the little room would have been stifling.
Ezra was stirring his tea when a flash of lightning lit the room, followed by a sharp crack of thunder. His hand jerked, sending a small spray of tea over the table. Across from him, Nathan jumped, and only just saved his own cup from tipping over. Ezra mopped up the spilled tea with his handkerchief while Nathan laughed sheepishly.
"Don't much like the thunder," Nathan said, casting a glance towards the dark windows.
"Nor do I," Ezra replied.
There was another flash of lightning immediately followed by a roll of thunder. Ezra was expecting it this time and managed to quell his reaction, and he saw that Nathan masked his own surprise almost as effectively, the only sign of distress being the slight tightening of his fingers.
Nathan raised his teacup to his lips, taking a slow sip before he began to talk.
"In the war... well, you know I wasn't part of the fighting, but some of the things I saw.... So many wasted lives, sometimes I thought it wasn't worth it. Before I joined the Union army, I thought I'd do anything, whatever I had to, to see that slavery was abolished. And then I saw what war was really like. I do think it was worth it... well, most days.
"When they made me a stretcher bearer, I was disappointed. I was so angry, and I wanted to fight. I didn't think I'd see battle, thought I'd miss out... yeah, that's right, I thought I'd be missing out. But I was sure wrong about that. Didn't see much action at first, but then I was at Antietam. Got shot at Chancellorsville and spent most of my time there recovering. Then I was stationed in West Virginia for awhile. Saw a few skirmishes there, but nothing like... I was at Cold Harbor, you know, that summer. Sheer madness. So many dead it seemed we'd never bury them all.
"Most of the soldiers, they wouldn't deliberately aim for the stretcher bearers. Most of them. The cannon fire was the worst. Don't matter which side a cannon's on. Nothing can stop it, and it doesn't care what uniform you're wearing. And the wounds from them.... A cannon wound's not just bloody, it's dirty. Reckon nine out of ten of 'em got infected, and most of those that got infections died from 'em. Every time I hear a roll of thunder it makes me look for my whiskey."
While Nathan had been talking, the storm had slowly passed overhead, the rolls of thunder building to a crescendo and now slowly beginning to fade. Ezra sipped the last of his tea while a low, drawn out rumble of thunder sounded slightly to the east. Nathan was silent now, and Ezra didn't realise he was going to say anything until he heard himself speak.
"I was an artillery soldier, for the Confederacy," he confessed. He listened to the words and wondered why, on earth, had he said them? Why now, why to Nathan? He didn't want forgiveness or absolution from the man, and doubted he would get it anyway. He should have kept his damn mouth shut.
Nathan merely nodded slightly, not looking surprised at all. Ezra supposed it wasn't really that hard to figure out; his skill with a cannon was evidence of his military career, and he certainly hadn't been a union soldier.
Having begun, Ezra decided he may as well continue. "I joined up as a regular soldier, but a short time later, someone decided I would do well in artillery. I thought an artillery soldier would be less at risk, being somewhat removed from the main battle. I suppose we were; of course, we were the targets of snipers and sabotage.
"I was at Shiloh... I think they underestimated the Union forces there. They didn't expect to need cannons at all; we were there only as a contingency plan. The fighting was such a mess... we couldn't help but strike down our own men as well as the enemy. Several of my fellows wanted to hold our fire, hated the idea of such widespread destruction, but our captain insisted... then we came under sniper fire. There must have been a team of three or four, because they cut us down so quickly. Out of the unit, only myself and one other survived."
A crack of thunder sounded in the distance, and Ezra's hands tightened around his now empty cup. "With every thunderclap, I see the faces of men I killed, and men who died beside me. And I wonder why I lived when they died."
The storm had nearly passed, and the rain fell soft and steady. Ezra stood and moved to the window, looking out at the dimly lit town. Down below, in the street, lights glowed in the saloon and restaurant, while most of the shops had already closed. In the distance, the sun was just sitting on the horizon, lighting the sky in that direction a slightly paler grey.
Nathan moved to stand just behind him, peering over his shoulder. "I think a night like this deserves something a little stronger than tea," he announced, hefting a bottle of good whisky for Ezra to see.
Ezra grinned. "Indeed, my friend, truer words were never spoken."
Outside, the horizon dimmed while the rain continued to fall.
|On to: A More Desperate Circumstance|
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