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Three Strikes and You're Out

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The first time Ezra goes down, it seems like the whole world is there to witness it.

He rather unwisely chooses a time when the saloon is full.

It's been long enough since the dark days of Nathan's razor that his hair has nearly grown back and the scar - an ugly, bothersome thing - is mostly hidden. There's just a thin streak of dark red that meanders out of his hairline towards one temple. Nathan says it'll fade in time, although it's likely he'll always have some mark. Ezra hopes, once it's lost its angry look, that it'll be quite a distinguishing feature.

That's when he's feeling optimistic. When he's not, hatless before the mirror, he thinks a scar, however well hidden, is not going to help him appear trustworthy before the eyes of any doubters. What's more, he thinks his head is the wrong shape on that side. There's a slight indentation, he explains to anyone who'll listen, and assures them if he stands a certain way you can see it plain as day.

"No, no, it's fine," JD tells him. He's the one that's most interested to discuss the matter of whether Ezra looks better or worse than before. "It's nothin' ... just makes you look ... I don't know, sorta ... dangerous."

"Which would be beneficial in what way exactly?"

"Well ... I guess you can scare people if you want."

"I have no interest in scaring people, JD, I merely aim to ... annoy them."

"Oh it's okay, Ez, you can still do that, too."

He has no actual memory of the three or four days before Gabe Palmer struck him down with an iron bar. This only irks him because apparently there was a conversation during that time, or so Vin Tanner claims, in which Chris expressed absolute trust in him. Ezra would dearly like to be able to recall that, but he can't. Chris just smiles.

Ezra's very proud that he was up on his feet after a couple of weeks. Once he'd fixed on some reasons to carry on - an endeavor which, frankly, had been touch and go for a while - recovery had been quick. Even more satisfying than the rapid healing of the wound and the accumulation of bodily strength, is that his cards still appear when and where he wants them, as smoothly as ever, and he hasn't fumbled his guns yet.

So, really, it's just the headaches.

And those he's keeping to himself.

He can't exactly hide the fact that he's passed out in the saloon, though.

Ezra's minding his own business for a change. JD has lined up a beer for him, and although Ezra feels undecided about drinking beer (except when he's drier than the desert), he appreciates the gesture. He leaves the table to collect it. Turning to face the room, Ezra leans his back and one elbow on the bar. Chris and Vin are being conspiratorial to his left; Buck, newly-shaven, and Josiah, unusually cheery, are waiting for him at the card-table. Buck looks up and catches his eye. He and Josiah suddenly appear to Ezra as if they're sitting at the far end of a long, smoke-filled tunnel.

First comes a little niggle, a buzzing in his ear. It's a sound he's going to become only too familiar with over the course of the rest of his life, but this is the first time he's heard it. Absently, he raises the knuckle of his forefinger and presses it against the offending ear and then against his temple. Buck, he vaguely notices, is still looking at him, slight hesitancy on his face. Then, out of nowhere, he's rushed by a bank of black fog.

When he comes to, sitting on the floor in an ungainly heap, he figures it's only been a matter of seconds. And he's more than irritated by the fact that Buck Wilmington is slapping him round the cheek.

"Unhand me, you big oaf," he says ungratefully.

"Jesus, Ezra, what the hell are you doing?" Buck demands, his other hand clutched in Ezra's shirt, his voice booming. "What the hell was that?"

"Let me get up."

"Oh no no, you're only gittin' up when I think you ain't gonna go down again."

Ezra doesn't scrabble his way off the floor like his instincts tell him, because that would be unseemly. He sits obediently for a few seconds more, then allows Buck to help him to his feet. Before shifting from the spot he brushes himself down. He's aware that most of the people in the saloon probably think he's drunk. Ezra doesn't have a problem with being seen as a drunk, just so long as he's seen as an elegant drunk.

When he's sitting on a chair, someone bangs a shot glass down in front of him. He knows it's Vin because of the crinkled fronds of buckskin he can see out the corner of his eye. There's the scraping of chair legs across the floor and then Chris is right opposite him, elbows on the table.

"What was that?"

The tone is Mr Larabee at his accusatory best. Ezra downs the shot. He's delighted that his hand is steady, that he feels more or less clear now and that the buzzing in his ear has stopped. Somewhere on the horizon there is the beginnings of a headache but he estimates it might be an hour away or more.

"I have no idea," he admits coolly. "Maybe the atmosphere is a little close in here. Maybe I neglected to eat breakfast?" He smiles at the five men gathered around him like so many specters at the feast. "In any case, gentlemen, I am fully recovered. I thank you for your solicitations."

"Do you need me to fetch Nathan?" Josiah asks, and Ezra feels it grossly unfair that Josiah has asked the question in front of the whole company and not solely to him. Because, of course, JD is immediately insisting that fetching Nathan is the only possible thing to do and everyone is heehawing about it.

Ezra holds up a hand. "I most certainly do not."

"You're looking kinda peaked," JD observes.

"Hot," Ezra repeats, stubborn, rubbing one finger under his collar. He picks up the empty glass and holds it towards Vin.

"You drink too much," Chris says.

"Yes, that must be it," he agrees cheerfully.

"Well you ain't any use to me like that, Ezra."

Which is the one statement that Ezra had been fearing all along, ever since he opened his eyes in Nathan's sickroom and discovered he wasn't dead yet. It sends a jolt of fear through him.

Nevertheless, Chris Larabee is a man from whom Ezra will not take accusations of drinking too much. He doesn't need to say so, just glares at him across the table for a second or two, which it later occurs to him is both a brave and foolhardy thing to do.

"Get yourself together, Ezra," Chris says, finally. "You never know when you might be needed." He gets up and goes back to his former position at the bar.

Ezra feels tight about the shoulders.

"Pay no mind," Vin tells him, surprisingly, and re-fills the glass. "It's a big job keeping all of us in line, and he hasta be responsible." Ezra likes Vin's little speeches, especially when they go along with a fifth of Highland Pure. "'Course, he's right, you do drink too much."

"Mr Tanner, I was weaned on the finest malt whiskeys known to man. There is a whole world of difference between your drink too much and mine."

"Just sayin'."

And Vin corks the bottle, takes it out of reach.

"You all right there?" Buck questions, re-seating himself and sliding the deck of cards across the table. "Took a bit of a tumble just now. Seen you full as a tick more times than I can count, Ezra, but I never seen you do that before."

There's a bunch of questions on Buck's lips, Ezra can tell, but he doesn't want to hear them.

"Don't I look all right? Now, where were we?"

Ezra's being deliberately mulish, but he doesn't forget that it was Buck who was eyeballing him right before the fog.

-------

The second time Ezra goes down, there's no-one within miles.

He's on his way back from Ridge City, guarding an urgent packet of papers for Judge Travis. There was no particular reason to send Ezra on a two-day trip to the railroad office, just that it was his turn. He was uncharacteristically willing to go, if only to prove that he is fully recovered.

It's hot, he's been kicking hard, intent on getting back to town by dusk. He's determined to return ahead of schedule, partly to show Mr Larabee and the Judge that they were right to entrust this task to him, but mostly because Buck bet him three dollars he wouldn't make it until the following day. It's pretty likely Buck doesn't have three dollars but Ezra will figure a way out of that when the time comes. He supposes that they're all expecting him to fall by the wayside somehow, at a gaming table or saloon.

Some ten miles from town he stops by a river. Dismounting at the edge of the water he realizes his legs feel hollow. It's a strange sensation. The duster he's wearing seems heavy on his back.

Ezra considers taking a swig from his flask but knows this might be foolish. Instead, he wrestles the water-bottle off the saddle, unscrews the lid with shaky fingers. The water's warm and tastes of leather. He swallows it down with a mouthful of grit.

Damn dust gets everywhere.

Ezra turns to look across the plain, the horse a solid warmth at his back.

His head begins to buzz fiercely. At first, he even swipes a hand through the air in front of his nose, as if there really is a cloud of insects. Then his eyes start to prickle and spots appear. He actually sees the sky falling away.

When he comes round this time, he knows it's been more than a few seconds.

He's flat out, facing his mount's underbelly. The animal is standing still, head lifted, dripping water and flecks of foam.

Good Lord.

Ezra digs his elbows into the dust, scoots himself backwards before he tries to sit up. He supposes that if his horse hadn't been right behind him he'd probably have hurt himself pretty bad going down. As it is ... he takes rapid stock and finds, to his relief, that he is in one piece. A bruise to his lower back from the stones on which he so precipitately collapsed, but no visible injury that he might have to explain.

One hand creeps gingerly to the back of his head, fingers shucking lightly through hair to rub at the rough edges of scarring. There is a kind of numbness at the site of the wound. His fingertips can feel the ripples and bumps but his scalp can't feel his fingertips.

Ezra is philosophical. He doesn't have much experience of being kindly taken care of. Not even the tantalizing and shadowy memories that Vin and Nathan cherish, of lost mothers who bore comfort and care in times of illness. Maude, when she was present, had no patience for a sick child. None at all. And Ezra had told Josiah in no uncertain terms that he was not to write to her with news that her only son had been laid low by a felon bearing him ill will. This, he felt, was actually a kindness on his part, since Maude would have disliked the sight of Ezra's head in a bloody bandage and been disinclined to spoon-feed him with Nathan's vile strengthening concoction.

So, once he's firmly back on his feet, sure that no further ambush awaits, he looks after himself. He is calm, takes a long drink from his flask, orders his thoughts.

Then he pats the saddle-bag that contains the packet.

There are streaks of pink and orange in the sky. A breeze moves the hair at the back of his neck.

Time to be moving on.

"Now, don't breathe a word," he says, leaning close to his horse's ear once he's back in the saddle. "There is absolutely no need for any fuss."

He doesn't kick quite so hard the final few miles, aware of the lassitude in his limbs. Rides into town when the last orange glow has sunk out of sight. Both he and the horse are sweating as they approach the jail at a leisurely walk and see a familiar figure sitting on sentry duty outside, one boot resting across a knee.

"Ezra," Chris acknowledges him, not moving. "You're back early."

"Desperadoes elected to stay away on this occasion, Mr Larabee."

"Well, good. Look like you could use a drink though."

"Indeed. Let me deliver this missive and I will take you up on your kind offer." He pauses, doubtful all of a sudden. "That was a kind offer?"

Chris nods, his smile, if he has one, hidden in the shadows.

Horse fed, rubbed down and installed at the Livery, Ezra shrugs his way out of the hated duster. He leaves it and the saddle-bag hanging on a stall, shakes out his jacket and slips it on. Packet in hand he trudges out to find Judge Travis. The Judge, working late in the newspaper office, is pleased to see him. Ezra tries not to be hurt by the obvious fact that it's the kind of pleasure occasioned by a wholly unexpected outcome to a possible disaster. They are polite to one another but nothing more.

Outside the saloon, Ezra fingers his watch-chain, squares his shoulders. Entering the batwings the familiar smell of polished wood and beer slops rises up to meet him, brings an ache of relief which he feels in the center of his chest, the marrow of his bones.

"Welcome home, Ez," Buck says, shuffling up to make space for him at the bar. He feels a nudge, Buck's way of saying he's pleased. Ezra knows, too, that Buck, unlike the good Judge, really is pleased. Chris slides a glass along the shiny surface towards him.

Ezra catches a glimpse of them all in the mirror behind the bottles.

He really hopes that things are not going to become ... complicated.

Because he suddenly knows, what he's looking at - that bright montage of unexpected fraternity - must be preserved at all costs.

---------

Enough time passes for Ezra to convince himself the incidents were nothing more than a natural recuperative process.

At least, this is what he plans to say should anyone call him on it.

He's been waiting for something to be said. Josiah's already been sneaky, gone and told Nathan what happened in the saloon. Even though he's impugning his own reputation somewhat, Ezra persuades Nathan that it was nothing more unusual than over-indulgence.

Things are quiet around town.

JD's courting, Buck's advising, and Ezra's happy to listen to them squabble with one another while he centers himself around his deck of cards. They all commiserate cheerfully on being Chris Larabee's trio of black sheep. Chris doesn't think this is very funny but that makes them more cheerful than ever.

When the wits and gunmanship of all seven are needed in a dispute between some heavily-armored ranchers and an ill-controlled posse riding through on the trail of outlaws, Ezra is happy to have acquitted himself with some distinction.

"Nice shootin'," Vin turns to say as Ezra follows him and Chris up the steps towards the saloon. They are all covered head to toe in dust, have the rushing blood and powerful thirst that come with living through violence. Even Nathan wants a beer.

"Why, thank you," Ezra begins and then suddenly, for a second, he's burning hot and all the feeling drains out of his fingers like running water. A whole swarm of bees begin collecting in his head.

"Ah, excuse me, gentlemen," he says, grasping for a handhold and latching onto, of all things, the back of Mr Larabee's coat.

"Hell in a bucket, Ezra, mind yourself!" Vin barks at him, arresting the sudden downward plunge with a swift move under one pin-wheeling arm. Chris snags the nearest handful of jacket he can reach. Ezra feels them holding him up in the moment that unconsciousness threatens to roll over him like a wave. He's not sure if he goes under or not.

"All right, we got ya," Chris is saying. All Ezra can think about is that they're not letting go. They have, indeed, got him.

In no time he's been lowered to a sitting position on the top step and the damn bees have retreated as swiftly as they came. Vin's dropped to his haunches and is pushing Ezra's head forcefully towards the ground.

"Mr Tanner!" Ezra splutters. "If you don't mind, I am perfectly capable ..."

"Quit yappin'," Vin replies. "You're beginning to make a habit of this, pard. What's it all about, huh?"

Ezra manages to wrestles his way out of the hold. Vin must have taken pity, Ezra decides, because he wouldn't expect to get the upper hand on him in a show of strength. Chris is looking stormy when Ezra finally gets hauled to his feet, and pokes him in the chest. It's not a gentle touch.

"This time," he says, "You're not even drunk. Get inside, we need to talk."

As he feared, Chris brings him to trial before all six good men and true. He feels a weary sense of inevitability about his fate as he's directed into his favorite seat. Chris throws his hat down on the table, leans on the back of the chair opposite, gloved hands curled tensely around the wood.

"Jesus, Ezra, why didn't you say anything? Look at ya ... like death warmed over. How long you felt like this? Is this to do with your head? We need to know if you're gonna be keelin' over in the street like that." Chris rocks the chair slightly. "There anything we need to hear?"

Ezra gets a sharp sense that the Sword of Damocles is rising slowly above the back of his neck. He feels that the time for dissembling is probably over.

He ghosts a nervous hand past his ear. "Sometimes," he says, painfully unsure if these men want to hear this and even if they do, whether they'll care much one way or the other. His own honesty has an unfamiliar taste, not entirely disagreeable, but rather disturbing nevertheless. "I get this ... sensation ... right about here." He indicates the area, laying a whole hand cautiously over the wretched indentation, one eye shut. When he opens it again he sees Vin make a face as if he can practically feel the pain himself. "It's ... unpleasant." He gives a little laugh, embarrassed that even he doesn't have the words. "Why, I can hardly stand it. Would be obliged to anyone who'd shoot me between the eyes, just to make it stop."

"Jesus, Ezra," Chris says again.

"And the falling down?" Nathan is trenchant. He's still mad that no-one told him about the first time straight away.

"You make me sound incapable, Mr Jackson. There have been a ... couple of occasions when I may have felt ... faint."

"Faint!" Buck squawks. "You went over like a goddamn ton of bricks!"

"How many times?" Chris demands. "How many times you gone down, Ezra?"

"Well ... there would be that first occasion. And then ... well, what you gentlemen unfortunately just witnessed. And ..."

"Ezra ..."

"And on the journey back from Ridge City."

"Hell, you're lucky you didn't come off your horse and fall down a ravine."

"Yes, that would have been most unfortunate."

"Unfortunate!" Chris blows out his cheeks. "Well I'd say so. Nathan? What's going on here?"

Ezra hopes that Nathan isn't actually as out of his depth as he looks.

"Some damage was done when he got hit, that's fo' sure. Could heal itself in time, I reckon, or ... I don't know."

"Well ah know, Mr Jackson," Ezra says, impatient with the talk. He's aware that his accent is becoming richer the more he reveals himself. "You don't need to spell it out. I have done a little research into this subject mahself. It appears I may be afflicted with this condition forever. Ah may be walking around one day and just drop dead in my tracks. It is a little concerning. And, it draws me to the conclusion that, with utmost reluctance, I must relieve myself of duty and take mah leave of you."

"Bullshit," Buck says. "Hell, Ezra, any one of us could be walking around and drop dead in our goddamn tracks. It's what we get paid for. Stop being a jackass."

"Yes, I am well aware of the risky nature of this occupation, but the fact remains that Mr Larabee needs to be able to rely on us. And I fear that such a weakness does not make me ... entirely ... reliable."

Chris is quiet, lips pursed.

"It may not be serious," Nathan suggests. "It may never happen again." He doesn't sound very convinced. Ezra is impressed with his contention anyhow, but he can already feel the chilly wind of solitude blowing around his ears.

"If you ride with us, Ezra, you need to tell us what's happening to you." Chris swings his gaze around them all, a warning evident in his tone. "I'm not having lives put at risk by any of you boys stopping to catch him."

"I'd say that's harsh," Buck says quietly.

"You think I have a choice?"

"Well hell," JD says, "I don't know about that, Chris. I mean, how many times have you kept an extra eye out for me being a blamed fool? Or for Vin runnin' off to save the day without telling you? Or ... or for Buck not concentrating because he saw a bonnet in the distance? We all got our weaknesses ... Lord, you tell us that often enough, but seems to me we don't ride at all unless we're watching each other's backs. All of 'em."

"Now wait a minute," Ezra interrupts with some heat. "The fact that you are young, JD, that Mr Tanner is insane and that Mr Wilmington here has his brains somewhere south of his stomach, is not the same thing at all. Ah am not willing to be a burden."

"Shoot, Ezra, you've been a burden since the first day we met you," Josiah states. "That ain't gonna change."

"Well thank you for that, Josiah, I appreciate it."

"You're welcome."

Chris shakes his head, a slow wag from side to side as if what he's saying doesn't sit well with him. "Fact remains, boys ... he can't cover us if he's busy takin' a swan-dive in the middle of a shootin' match."

"It's a conundrum," Ezra agrees gloomily.

An uneasy silence falls, finally broken by Vin exhaling sharply as if he's just thought of something important. "Shit, Chris," he says. "I mean, who the hell's going to look out for him if we don't?"

"I can look out for myself, thank you, Mr Tanner," Ezra manages to say sourly. "I have a lifetime's experience. And I do tend to fall on my feet."

"On your butt 's far as I can see," Vin mutters back.

Chris makes an impatient gesture with his shoulders. They all know he doesn't enjoy laying down the law to them, but he's the only one that can do it. He's still holding on to the chair back for dear life. If Ezra didn't know better he'd swear Mr Larabee is fairly crackling with emotion. He suspects it might be fury.

"God's sake, Ezra," Chris spits out in the end, "this is your home. I'm not kicking you out, it's your choice to be here putting your neck on the block. Vin's right ... hell, all you boys are right. But, you listen here -" He leans further over the table, gets far enough in Ezra's face he can tell that it's definitely fury. Ezra's not quite sure of the source of this rage, but has the sudden idea that it might be Gabe Palmer and his iron bar. "I'm right too. You just remember that."

Ezra swallows. He knows he's in a whole heap of trouble, but he senses that the sword has been put back in its sheath for the time being.

There's a heady mix of relief and anxiety around the table. It's quite powerful, makes him want a drink very badly.

All this will be re-visited in some terrible circumstance yet to make itself known, he's pretty sure of that.

But, for the moment, Ezra knows what to do. He can't control the game further down the line.

So he decides to play the hand he's got.

"Poker, gentleman?" he suggests, and wonders if today he might just let them win.

 

-the end-