Ezra hadn't felt well for several days. His head hurt and his limbs felt like lead. But still, he was determined to keep up his duties, to not let anyone see that he was hurting.
After all, appearances were everything.
So, he had returned from an afternoon patrol and was holding court at the tables. He was increasingly frustrated, though, as he didn't seem to be on top of his game.
After he'd lost some more money and the table cleared, Josiah sat down. "Deal me a hand, son."
"Mister Sanchez, I have had a long and frustrating day and I do not feel like losing money to you." He shuffled the cards. "And we keep dancing this dance. I am not your son."
"All right, then, we won't play for money. We'll just play for fun and conversation."
Ezra sighed. "I really don't feel like conversing, Mister Sanchez."
Josiah smiled. "Well, then, we know what to use for bets, don't we?"
Ezra scowled at him, but dealt the cards.
The hand progressed, with the conversation bets rising and rising. Ezra swayed in his chair slightly as he wagered, "Half an hour....."
That caught Josiah's attention. "You all right, son?" He said it loud enough Nathan turned from the bar.
"Mister Sanchez....." Ezra threw his cards on the table and stood up so fast his chair overturned. "...for the umpteenth time....."
The unusual slang word brought the others to their feet, sensing something wasn't right with Ezra.
Ezra swayed in place. "I... am not... your...." His face suddenly went whiter than JD's milk. The emerald eyes rolled back and Ezra pitched forward like a marionette with cut strings.
Moving like a striking snake, Josiah caught him and lowered him gently to the ground. "Nathan!" he boomed. "He's burning up!"
Nathan was concerned about Ezra. He had the symptoms of influenza, but the healer couldn't figure out where he could have contracted it from.
"Main thing is, we gotta break that fever," he told Josiah, who would not leave Ezra's side. "We gotta get him in ice; bathe him in cool water...." He sighed. "And pray it don't fry his brain in the meanwhile."
Without a word, the preacher lifted Ezra into his arms as if he were a small boy. Resting the semi-conscious gambler on his lap, Josiah began to remove his clothing. At the small groan that emitted as cool air hit overheated skin, Josiah smiled. "Easy, son. Everything is gonna be all right."
"I wish I had your optimism, Josiah," Nathan said as he worked on cooling cloths.
"Not optimism," Josiah said as he carded gentle fingers through sweat-soaked tangling auburn curls as he lay Ezra back on the bed. "Faith."
Nathan passed him a wet cloth. "Wipe his face an' chest with that while I get another cold."
With a nod, Josiah bent to his task, keeping up a litany of soothing words and paternal sentiments.
When Nathan moved to his side and began to wipe down the gambler's arms, he added in a soft voice, "I just wish there was some way he'd accept that huge heart of yours, old friend. Man's gotta learn he don't gotta go through life alone. That'd be the best medicine of all right now."
Ezra found himself in a saloon --- at least he thought it was a saloon. The fixtures were nothing like he'd ever seen before.
But it had several tables set up, a visible bar and stairs like the saloon in Four Corners....
Ezra grinned and rubbed his hands together. A new place, new marks..... he could start all over....
Music reached his ears -- a few bars of an unfamiliar tune that died after less than 30 seconds. But it was more than enough to get his attention. "Hello?"
It sounded again. Ezra turned and saw shadows moving in a darkened area of the room. "Hello?" he called again. "May I speak with the proprietor?"
"Travis isn't here," his own voice called from the shadows.
Ezra stiffened. "I beg your pardon?"
There was a WHOOMP! of a sound, and the lights flared on in that area. Ezra could no more stop the cry of shock that escaped his lips than he could stop his steps backward that ended with him sitting in a rather undignified position on a hard wooden chair.
Seven men were on a raised platform before him --- men whose faces he knew as well as his own. Including his own!
They were all seated -- Josiah's double behind a piano and JD's behind a collection of strange-looking drums. Nathan's double sat between them, a brass instrument across his lap. Buck's double held a strange-looking guitar, as did Chris's double and Vin's double. His own doppelganger sat between that pair, holding a strange device in his hand and smiling at Ezra.
Their attire was strange as well -- Chris's all black was the only familiar thing there. Though clearly separate garments than their jeans -- which were vaguely familiar to him -- the cut of the shirts looked as if the seven each had their long-johns showing!
Vin's double nodded to Chris's, who nodded at Ezra's, who nodded back. The others smiled as JD's duplicate clicked drumsticks together four times and the music began again.
It was loud --- much louder than any music Ezra'd ever heard before. His doppelganger raised the odd device to a few inches from his lips and, emerald eyes locked onto Ezra's, began to sing. His voice was louder than it should have been as well.
The first words of the slow, sadly-sung song sent an icy rivulet down Ezra's spine. He found himself paying uncanny attention and thoughts flying at the speed of light.
"Desperado, why don't you come to your senses?"
He can't mean ME....
"You been out ridin' fences for so long now...."
Ezra blinked. Fences...between two worlds ... he DOES mean me....
"Oh, you're a hard one
And I know that you've got your reasons...."
Ezra swallowed hard.
"These things that are pleasin' you
Can hurt you somehow."
He found himself lowering his head as if in shame. What am I doing? I've nothing to be ashamed of!
The song rose and the key changed -- and the lyrics became more pointedly aimed at Ezra.
"Don't you draw the queen of diamonds, boy, she'll beat you if she's able;
You know the queen of hearts is always your best bet..."
Ezra knew just enough playing-card tarot to realise what was being said to him. Queen of diamonds -- lady of wealth -- was the card he'd always associated with his mother and with what he was coming to refer to as his 'old life'. Queen of hearts was the card he always associated with love -- more specifically, the love of a family.
The one thing he'd always denied himself.
It was as if the singer had looked into his mind. The next lines sent Ezra's head snapping up.
"Now it seems to me some fine things
Have been laid upon your table
But you only want the ones that you can't get...."
Can't get? that annoying little voice inside himself shot back. Or won't let yourself see?
Instead of shushing it as he usually did, he let it alone this time, curious as to where this was going.
"Desperado, oh, you ain't gettin' no younger
Your pain and your hunger, they're drivin' you home..."
The rivulet down his spine became a full-blown waterfall.
"And freedom, oh freedom well, that's just some people talkin'....
Your prison is walking through this world all alone."
Ezra found himself shaking. He wanted this to stop; he wanted to go home....
He'd just called that tiny backwater hamlet home!
And it had felt... right....
He'd dimly heard another verse, but would never be able to recall the words. When he met his doppelganger’s eyes again, the words snapped into clarity once more.
And he was chilled to the soul by them.
"Desperado, why don't you come to your senses?
Come down from the fences, open the gate
It may be rainin', but there's a rainbow above you.
You better let somebody love you...."
"Let somebody love you," six voices harmonized behind him.
Eyes locked onto Ezra's, his duplicate sang slowly. Each word had the impact of a mental bullet.
"You better let somebody love you....
Before it's too late....."
He lowered the device to his lap. The music ended. Heads rose from instruments and seven pairs of eyes looked into Ezra's soul. No words were spoken, but those words echoed again and again.
Let somebody love you....before it's too late.....
Slowly, Ezra stood up. "...who.... who are you?"
Seven slow smiles spread as the lights slowly went out.
"No -- no, come back!"
Let somebody love you.....
"Where am I? Who are you?"
....before it's too late.....
Let somebody love you.....
Ezra froze as it became crystal-clear with the suddenness of a thunderclap.
I am not your son...
Let somebody love you....
Man's gotta learn he don't gotta go through life alone...
Your prison is walking through this world all alone...
I just wish there was some way he'd accept that huge heart of yours...
You know the queen of hearts is always your best bet....
Ezra's head bowed and his eyes closed.
Let somebody love you....before it's too late.....
"Aw, hell, what have I done?"
".....have I done....."
"Ezra?" Josiah raised his head from his folded fists and leaned over the trembling form. "....Ezra, son?"
".....let somebody....love you.... 'fore it's... too late...."
Hearing Josiah's voice, Nathan came into the room and touched Ezra's forehead. His eyes widened and a smile spread across his face. "Fever's broke. Finally."
Glazed emerald eyes opened halfway and roamed as if looking for something. Ezra swallowed hard and his mouth formed a 'J' sound, though nothing came out.
"I'm here, son," Josiah said softly.
The eyes swung to him and Ezra smiled slightly, raising a shaking hand. Josiah took it and had to strain to hear the whispered, "....'Siah?"
Smiling slightly, Josiah nodded. "I'm here. I'm not going anywhere."
Ezra slowly wet his parched lips with his tongue, and then smiled slightly. "....son.... I-I...."
"I know you're not my son, but---" He stopped as the hand he held squeezed weakly.
Locking his emerald eyes onto Josiah's cornflower blue ones, Ezra whispered shakily, "...no...I....I-I .... li-like the... sound of...that...." He smiled again. "....never... had a.... father... b-before..."
"He needs his rest," Nathan said softly. "Fever's broke, but he's gonna be weak as a kitten awhile."
Josiah nodded and released Ezra's hand long enough to draw the coverlet over his form. Then he leaned over and gave the fever-damp forehead a fatherly kiss. "You got one now, Ezra. For as long as you need me t'be."
Ezra's smile lit the room as he slid into a healing sleep.
And somewhere, seven stars twinkled brighter than ever.
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