Ezra made his way gingerly down the boardwalk, the stiff, slow way in which he moved a testament to the discomfort his healing injury was causing him. Despite that, though, there was a certain lightness in the way he carried himself, a joviality that seemed to spread to everyone he tipped his hat to in passing. He hurt, no doubt about that, but he also felt better than he had in years.
A small smile lit his face as he passed by that same alleyway he had laid dying in just a few weeks back.
"Mr. Dunne, would you care to accompany me to the saloon?" he asked, and waited as a sheepish-looking JD stepped out from the shadows between the buildings.
"Uh, sure, Ez," the young sheriff answered, keeping step with the injured man. "You sure you should be walkin' around this much?"
Ezra laughed, and winced as the motion pulled at his side. "Probably not, but I felt the need to stretch my legs some after my long confinement. No doubt our Mr. Jackson will put a quick end to my sojourn if he feels I'm not up to it. Isn't that right, Nathan?"
They had stopped in front of the mercantile where the healer, with that same sheepish look JD had worn, stepped up to the gambler's other side.
"The bigger question," Ezra continued, leaning over as if to talk conspiratorially to the others, but letting his voice carry out to the street, "is if Mr. Tanner should really be keeping his eye on me from the roof of the jail."
Nathan shot an angry glare towards the tracker, and an annoyed, "Dang it, Ezra!" floated down as Vin slid back from the healer's line of sight.
"Vin, you better get your ass down here!" Nathan hollered. "What'd I tell you about stayin' off those roofs?"
The sharpshooter joined them a moment later, still sporting a slight limp. "Hell, Nathan, I told ya I feel-"
"Don't you dare say it," the healer snarled, and Tanner shut his mouth, turning accusing eyes on the Southerner. Ezra merely grinned and threw him a little wink, to which Vin rolled his eyes and shook his head, smiling.
"Shall we, gentlemen?" the conman said, gesturing with an open palm that they should continue towards the saloon.
He set the steady pace and the others were happy to patiently tag along beside him, simply enjoying the warmth of the day as they meandered down the boardwalk. By the time they reached the saloon Nathan and Vin had placed steadying hands on the gambler's arms as JD rushed ahead to open the doors for them. None of this seemed to bother Standish as he managed to gracefully shuffle towards the table where Chris, Buck, and Josiah sat waiting.
"How can he look so sick but at the same time still look like a king struttin' around his subjects?" Buck asked with a bemused grin.
"I told you," Josiah said. "Whatever that boy saw in his brush with death healed his soul some."
Chris used a foot to push the chair out across from him, and tipped his hat at the still-smiling cardsharp as Nathan and Vin gently lowered him into it. "You're in a good mood today," he said, the question clear in his tone.
"Yes, well, I'd say the simple fact that I can walk – and by that I mean literally walk as opposed to being pushed around in that invalid chair – amongst good company would be reason enough to bring any man high spirits," Ezra answered, flashing his gold tooth.
Josiah raised his glass in salute. "Amen to that, brother,"
The others quickly filled glasses and returned the toast, Nathan placing a stilling hand on Ezra's arm before the gambler could shoot back his portion. The healer gave him that "don't argue with me look" and Standish shrugged, sliding the glass over to Buck who tossed it back gleefully. Inez, having caught the silent exchange from across the room, set a glass of water in front of the Southerner.
"Just tell me when you need more," she smiled at him, but he (and everyone else at the table) read the underlying message: I expect you to drink all of that.
"Yes, thank you," Standish responded, the bright smile still on his face but the humor in his eyes faltering just a little. The rest of the boys noticed it and didn't bother to try to hide their amused expressions as he turned his attention back to them. The silly grins quickly fell, however, under the twinkling gaze and conniving grin the man was giving them.
"So, gentlemen, what are your plans for the rest of the day? Surely they must all involve taking full advantage of the wonderful weather Mother Nature has graced upon us?" All eyes turned away from his. "No? Pity. I suppose I could muster up the strength for another stroll if you wish to partake in an outdoor activity?"
He moved as if he were about to stand and six "No's!" resounded around the table. Leaning satisfactorily back into his chair, his mischievous grin vanished to be replaced by a soft, understanding smile. He cast his gaze down at the table before he spoke.
"Since I'm well aware of the futility of arguing that I'm not in need of your watchful eyes while I heal, I will simply assure you that I plan on doing whatever is necessary to decrease the amount of time that will take. Then you may all go back to doing…whatever it is you normally do to occupy yourselves when we aren't engaged in a battle of 'good' versus 'evil.'"
Chris and Buck looked at one another and shared a frown while the preacher let out a sad sigh. Nathan and Vin looked away again, and JD wore a slight scowl. Ezra's smile finally faltered completely.
"Did I say something to upset you?" he asked, genuinely confused.
JD slapped the table hard. "How come you don't know what any of us do in our spare time?"
Ezra looked taken aback for a second by the question and the anger behind it, taking a moment to choose his words carefully before he answered. "Well, it's not that I'm completely unawares, JD. Of course I know that you and Mr. Wilmington like to go fishing, sometimes being joined by Mr. Larabee and Mr. Tanner; and that you, Mr. Tanner, for some reason I will never understand, enjoy taking rides into the desert for days at a time-"
"Sometimes Chris comes with," Vin quietly pointed out.
Ezra continued without missing a beat. "-and Mr. Jackson can usually be found with his nose in a medical journal if he is not otherwise engaged in his healing duties or visiting with Josiah at the Seminole village; and Mr. Wilmington is typically courting a lady of his fancy if he isn't spending time with you, JD, or assisting with the work on Mr. Larabee's ranch; Mr. Sanchez has his church and the occasional quiet game of chess with Mr. Jackson or, when he's in one of his rarer moods, Mr. Larabee; and our own stalwart leader…well…has his hobbies aside from those already mentioned…" The gunslinger, keeping his gaze down, nodded in appreciation of his own somewhat shady pastimes being kept unsaid as Ezra finished with his speech. "So, Mr. Dunne, would you care to explain why you are suddenly so upset?"
"How do you know all that stuff, Ezra?" the kid asked, his tone a little softer as he took charge of the conversation. The others were more than willing to let that responsibility fall to the youngest's shoulders.
For his part, the gambler still looked a bit perplexed. "It's not as if you all keep these little side ventures a secret, and I do have eyes, you know. I don't understand-"
"Did you know that Vin can make a flute outta pipe reeds?" JD suddenly asked.
Standish shook his head.
Vin caught on quickly to what the kid was doing and spoke next. "Or that Chris likes to run Job bareback on full moon nights through the desert?"
Ezra turned surprised eyes to the gunslinger.
Chris read his cue. "Nathan likes both sides of the chessboard to be mixed black and white. You just have to remember which pieces are yours."
The Southerner gave an amused smile to the ex-slave.
Nathan took up the line of the conversation. "Buck's kept up with the fencing lessons and I even let him teach JD a few of the stances."
This earned Buck the single raised eyebrow from the cardsharp.
The ladies' man grinned. "Josiah isn't as much of an expert on carpentry as he lets on. Me and Chris'll come around and talk with him for a while on the best nails to use and stuff like that."
A snort emitted from the conman.
Josiah scowled slightly at Buck but finished out his turn anyway. "JD knows how to make ice skates. Worked at the smithy this winter to get enough made for all the kids at the village."
Ezra was genuinely surprised at this last admission and they all read it clearly on his face. He was about to say something on the subject when JD cut him off again.
"You don't know any of this stuff 'cause you're never there, Ezra."
A slightly hurt expression flashed in the Southerner's eyes. "It's not like-"
"It's not your fault, I know," the sheriff kept going. "You're never there 'cause we never invite you. We always just sorta assume you wouldn't wanna come, or you'd be too busy with a poker game or somethin'."
Buck rested his hands on the table and stared down at them. "Hell, Ez, basically you're never there 'cause we ain't ever there for you. Just like in that damn alley."
Nathan shook his head and grimaced, as if trying to shake away the memory. "If Buck had found you a minute later – dammit, could've been as short as half a minute later…"
"One of us should've had your back," Chris said quietly, obviously annoyed with himself.
"Or at least went out lookin' for ya sooner," Vin added softly with self-incrimination.
JD jumped in again. "We're not just watchin' ya 'cause you're still hurt, Ezra. We wanna make sure you aren't left out again."
"Next time something happens, we aim to be there for you just as much as we are for each other, and we're sorry we failed you this time," Josiah finished.
Ezra looked around at their solemn faces for a moment before he suddenly burst into a fit of laughter. By the time he had gotten himself under control had had tears streaming down his face, partially from his mirth and partially from the pain the outburst had caused in his side. He pressed one hand to the healing wound as he wiped the tears away with the other, meeting the now confused and slightly irritated looks of his companions.
"I'm sorry," he chuckled. "If I didn't know you gentlemen better, I would think that you had practiced that little speech. I applaud your efforts to relieve yourselves of your guilt, but it's entirely unnecessary. I don't fault any of you and see no reason for you to find fault in yourselves. I was simply in the wrong place at the wrong time, nothing more. That is the exact nature of having an odd numbered group - there is always one extra individual."
"Doesn't mean that one always has to stand alone," Chris pointed out.
Standish smiled. "No, Mr. Larabee, it does not; hence my explanation that it was simply a matter of luck. Had I been closer to the church, or the clinic, or the jail, I would have joined in with one of your teams and been the third wheel of sorts. It would still have made me an extra no matter how you look at it. You can't change the rules of math, after all."
"Never really liked math," Vin grunted.
"In this case, you should," Ezra went on. "You see, one thing regarding the 'extra' is that while at times it can be the one left out, at other times it becomes the one granted the most attention. For example, when Inez places an extra biscuit on your plate, is that not the one that makes you smile? When you find an extra coin in your pocket, is that not the one that makes you rejoice? When a mother gives birth to an extra child, a twin, is that child not considered to be the miracle?"
Josiah leaned his head on his fisted hands, his interest piqued. "Where are you going with this, brother?"
Ezra's voice softened a little as he spoke. "What I'm saying, Josiah, is that while I may have been alone by Lady Luck's hand in our latest confrontation, I've had the undivided attention of every last one of you since the moment you realized I was missing. You were there for me, all of you, in the moments when I needed you the most. I don't pair up well, I admit, and that makes me the odd number, the extra, the 'black sheep' as I've heard myself referred to as-" he gave the preacher a wink "-but because of this I don't have just one person hovering over me like each of you has. I have all of you, even if that means I have to wait an extra second for my turn at your attention. I've learned rather recently that the wait is well worth it."
Done with his speech, and feeling a little awkward at the unusually open display of his inner thoughts, Ezra turned his attention to his water. He drank it slowly, all of it, while he let his words sink into the men surrounding him. His eyes remained glued to the empty glass until Inez appeared without a word, refilling it for him. A throat suddenly cleared and he looked up to see Buck elbow JD in the ribs.
"You have another question, Mr. Dunne?" the conman asked, feeling a bit self-conscious.
The kid shot a glare at Buck before asking. "I was just wonderin' what you do in your spare time, besides playin' poker, I mean."
The relief on Ezra's face at the change of subject to safer grounds was evident. The gold tooth glinted briefly in the light. "Lacrosse."
Buck nearly choked on his drink. "Excuse me?"
"Lacrosse," Ezra repeated seriously, holding in the laughter threatening to erupt again at the looks of pure shock on the others' faces. "I used to play here and there growing up, though I admit I was never given the opportunity to excel much at it. Do any of you play?"
Vin and Josiah both grinned, saying "With the tribes," almost simultaneously.
Chris nodded slightly, a smirk pulling at his lips. "Buck and I played a little when we were younger."
Nathan shrugged a shoulder. "I never played, but I've seen the game a time or two."
"Me too, but I'd love to learn!" JD announced enthusiastically.
"Are you sure you actually mean Lacrosse?" Buck spat out, still a bit in shock. "The game with sticks and lots of runnin' and bumpin' into everyone and gettin' knocked over into the mud?"
"The very same," Ezra confirmed, "though I fear I won't be up to playing until I've fully recovered."
"That's all right, Ez, you can sit on the side and tell me and Nathan how to play," JD practically begged. "Then when you get better we can have a real game."
"The teams won't be even," the gambler pointed out.
Vin frowned. "Since when do the teams have to be even for Lacrosse?"
Josiah also shrugged as if the notion was the most ridiculous thing he'd ever heard of. A tiny twinge of sorrow from past memories pulled at the Southerner's chest, but it was squashed almost immediately by the beaming smiles on the grown men at the table. The notion of being able to play the simple game had somehow brought to life the kids in all of them, and Ezra was glad that he was the one that brought forth such a reaction. As he reached for the newly filled glass he realized his hand was shaking a bit and he shot a glance at Nathan. The healer hadn't missed it.
"We'll have to postpone the first lesson 'til tomorrow," Nathan announced gently.
Standish nodded. "Yes, I fear all this activity has worn me out a bit. Would someone be so kind…?
Josiah stood up first and helped Ezra to his feet, easily taking the majority of the smaller man's weight until his legs slowly registered the command to walk. The Southerner tipped his hat at the others before allowing the preacher to almost half-carry him to his room. The two didn't speak until after Josiah had helped him get comfortable in the bed, and it was the preacher who broke the companionable silence first.
"Ezra?" he asked, noting the man was already nearly asleep.
"Hmm?" the gambler mumbled back.
"In the clinic while you were unco- uh, sleeping – it looked like you were having some pretty heavy nightmares. Would it be too bold to ask what they were about?"
"Nightmares?" Ezra asked with honest confusion, then shook his head. "Nightmares don't have happy endings, Josiah. I had good dreams. Only good ones…"
His voice faded as he slipped off to sleep, leaving a perplexed but still rather pleased Josiah to watch over him. The preacher shook his head and smiled, wondering if the enigmatic man would ever tell them what had happened to so suddenly bring him closer to the six of them. Whatever it was, he was grateful for it, and grateful for any future secrets the guarded Southerner would reveal to them because of it.
"Lacrosse," he chuckled. He reached over to pull up the rocking chair, grabbing a book off the shelf in the process. Heaving a contented sigh, he sank into the rocker and opened the novel, ready to settle in for the duration of the gambler's peaceful slumber.