It had seemed like a good idea at the time.
Pull a subtle con on the bigwigs coming in on the noon stage, just enough to keep my hand in practice --- no harm done. Even the bigwigs would benefit -- their postures would no doubt improve once they'd been relieved of a few dollars from their money belts.
So of course it all went to hell in a handbasket.
First of all, the bigwigs were not as big as I'd hoped they'd be. One of them was a pugilist to boot, and very free as to who received the business end of his fist.
Although I have to admit, it was worth losing that bottle of whiskey to see the look on Mister Larabee's face when Mister Wilmington ducked and the pugilist could not pull his punch. Though I doubt Mister Jackson found it as amusing once Mister Larabee was through with his opponent.
Anyhow, once the impromptu boxing match was over, I went to the stage to inquire how I might persuade the remainder of the party to remain in Four Corners. I was very nearly successful --- until young Susan Thomas set off one of the noisemakers she was taking home for her birthday party. The horses reared at the noise and I did not get out of the way in time.
Mister Larabee tells me I am 'damned lucky' that my limbs, ribs, back and head were not trampled by the runaway horses -- not to mention the stagecoach. Mister Jackson tells me I'm 'damned lucky' that the hooves caught me at just the right angle to launch me airborne and headfirst into one of the support poles of the boardwalk. Josiah tells me I'm 'blessed' that the most I got out of the experience was another concussion and a few days' bed rest.
If all this is true, why the hell don't I feel 'lucky' or 'blessed'? All I feel is sore and miserable. I want out of this bed. I want to go back to work.
I want my head to stop hurting.
Chris looked up from his silent vigil as Vin entered the room. He tilted his head in acknowledgement and returned his attention to the battered form on the bed.
Vin returned the nod and moved to sit on Ezra's other side. Seeing the gambler asleep at last, he nodded again. How's he doin'?
Chris couldn't repress the small smile. The pair had discovered this odd, unique quirk to their friendship a few weeks prior and both of them found a measure of comfort in the fact they could communicate without speaking or even looking at each other. He's finally resting. Nathan was afraid he'd have to dope him up again.
The tracker winced. I'm glad he didn't. If he's resting, that means he's gettin' better, right?
You got it, cowboy. The concussion's fading. He's still gonna have a hell of a headache, though ----
"And it's going to be worse than you imagine if you two don't quit talking so loud and let me rest," Ezra griped without opening his eyes.
Startled green eyes met equally startled blue ones before Chris leaned forward. "Ezra... we weren't talking."
Pain-glazed emerald eyes opened halfway and locked onto nearly identical ones before Ezra shot back, "Then kindly explain how I heard the pair of you, clear as day."
"What did we say, Ez?" Vin asked softly.
Sighing in weary resignation, Ezra reported, "You, Mister Tanner, inquired as to my health. Upon being told of my condition and of Mister Jackson's fears of overdosing me on that ungodly laudanum, you expressed relief and asked if that meant I was improving. Mister Larabee then reassured you using your mutual nickname and went on to detail my condition, whereupon I requested the both of you to kindly shut up."
Damn, he's right. Vin looked up at Chris. You don't think he can hear us, do ya?
"A deaf man could hear you, Mister Tanner," Ezra retorted, closing his eyes.
Yeah, he heard ya, Chris thought to Vin. Then he took a deep breath and thought exclusively to Ezra. Can you hear me, Ez?
"Why do you keep asking me that? And it's Ez-ra. Only one extra syllable, Mister Larabee." Still, his eyes didn't open.
Chris smiled. Under the circumstances, Ez, I think ya can call me Chris.
Ezra opened his eyes again and looked at Chris. "What circumstances? the fact I'm once more lying in this God-forsaken clinic with yet another concussion?"
Nope. The fact that you seem to share the link me and Vin have.
Slowly, Ezra's eyes grew wide. Only the pain in his head kept him from sitting up in shock. What...in...the...world... he thought. "Mister Larabee......how did you do that?"
A grin spread over Chris's face just as slowly as Ezra's eyes had widened. How did I do WHAT, Ez?
".......That..... talk to me... without moving your lips?" Ventriloquism wasn't in his repertoire yesterday....
It's STILL not in my repertoire, Ez, Chris chuckled.
For an insane moment, Chris and Vin both thought that Ezra's eyes were going to jump out of their sockets, they grew so wide. "...how.....did you...do that? I'm...I'm not Mister Tanner...."
Nope, Vin put in. But you seem to be linked with us, just the same. Don't worry, we can't read your thoughts, only what you 'say' to us.
Ezra turned slightly to look at him and his head shook almost imperceptibly. You CAN read my thoughts! You did earlier!
Chris laid a hand on his shoulder. "You're projectin', Ez," he said softly. "This is so new to you; you're sending every thought to us loud as a cannon."
"Then...how-how-how do I stop?"
Practice, came from both at once.
Ezra pressed the heels of both hands into his eyes. Oh, this is GRAND, he thought. All the teasing I gave them gets dumped right back on my head.....what did I do to deserve THIS? he groaned mentally.
Neither Chris nor Vin had the heart to tell him he was still projecting and they'd 'heard' every word.
Two days, now.
Two miserable days I have been forced to endure this odious incarceration in what is laughingly called a clinic.
I suppose I should count my blessings, however. I am able to endure periods of sitting up without feeling as though my head is 'gonna roll right off my shoulders', as Mister Ta..... as Vin so aptly put it.
And I am once more able to write. I attempted earlier, but I fear it deteriorated as the pain grew.
My dilemma remains --- what can be said? What can be described that doesn't sound like something out of an H G Wells novel? Or even worse, like a male Alice fallen down a rabbit hole?
That latter describes my current feelings precisely. I, who was raised from earliest youth to value solitude and privacy, now have neither. Physically, I am solitary, but mentally I am not. I have embarked upon a journey that I neither wish nor understand.
I hear them now, though they are on the street. They speak without words, yet I understand every bit.
And I fear I still am --- 'projecting'. Every thought that crosses my mind now sits on full display for them. They have been most gracious about it, but still the shame exists.
So much for the poker face and prevarications.
Damn. Based upon the dual warm touches that caressed my mind, I am still projecting. In their way, they are trying to comfort me, to tell me that I am not alone in this, that though I can not leave this road I find myself traveling, I need not walk it by myself.
Dammit, Chris. Dammit, Vin. Why can't you understand that's what I wantto do?
FINALLY!! Ezra's triumphant cry rang through Chris and Vin's minds as the gambler buried into the welcome and long-missed soft warmth of his feather bed.
Chris lowered his head and shook it, chuckling. Buck looked at him and frowned. "Okay, you, what'd Vin do now?"
"Snuck up on you," the Texan laconically replied as he moved to sit beside Buck.
Once Buck recovered from jumping half a foot and nearly drawing on the tracker, he glared at him. "I hate it when you do that!" he snorted, and then took a deep pull on his drink. "So what brings you back from patrol this early?"
"Wanna talk to Chris alone," Vin said, smiling as he took the glass of whiskey Chris slid to him.
Buck sighed. "That damned link is eerie," he grumbled as he got up and walked away.
Vin transmitted that, and was rewarded with a sleepy, Mister Wilmington, you have NO earthly idea....
Go to sleep, Ez, Vin sent. You've earned it.
If you would cease your pernicious interruptions, I'm attempting to join Morpheus as we speak!....er, so to speak.....
Chris frowned at the look on Vin's face. "Somethin' wrong, cowboy?"
"Buck's right," Vin sighed, rubbing his forehead. "This damned link is eerie -- I'm starting to understand them five-dollar words."
Amid their laughter, Chris got out, "Just as long as you don't start using them..."
The next day, a mental request by Ezra brought both Chris and Vin to his room. While Ezra had won the battle with Nathan and was now permitted to recuperate in his own room, he had lost the war in that Nathan still refused to let him out of bed until his headaches completely ceased.
"You wanted to talk to us?" Chris asked, getting right to the point.
Ezra twisted his fingers in the coverlet, trying to organize his whirling thoughts. Finally, with a transmitted Aw, hell with it, he came right out and 'asked' it. Can you.... either of you... teach me how to not transmit constantly? Having every thought, even those I do not WISH to transmit, out on full display is.... highly unnerving. And highly uncomfortable.
Vin sat on the foot of the bed and Chris stood slightly behind him. It was Vin who reassured him, It'll pass, Ezra. We'll help you learn how to shield if it's that uncomfortable for ya.
A puzzled frown crossed the gambler's face. "What do you mean, if it's that uncomfortable? Surely when you first noticed it, you were uncomf----" He broke off, seeing both heads shake in the negative. "No? Why ever not?"
Chris shrugged. "It just wasn't. He helped me deal with a lot of my demons --"
A snort interrupted him. "You're still not dealin' with a lot of your demons."
"Now's not the place, cowboy."
"That's what you think."
"No, that's what I know." A gentle swat to the back of Vin's head, and Chris finished, "B'sides, that's callin' the kettle black."
"You should know, since you're the pot." But there was nothing but teasing warmth in both their voices.
Ezra watched the byplay with amusement, seeing it in a new light now that he had an insider's view of their relationship. Brothers, came the thought across his mind. Those two are brothers more certainly than the rest of us.
He barely withheld the curse as both Chris and Vin turned to him and he realised that stray thought had been transmitted as readily as everything else. Well....it's a little deeper than that, Ez, Vin chuckled.
That got Ezra's full attention. DEEPER? Wh...what do you mean by THAT?
Chris shrugged. Brothers in all ---- but this link is so deep that in certain areas it's.... almost.... He looked at Vin with an expression that clearly telegraphed he was groping for the words.
Vin supplied them. ...almost as if we were one person in two bodies.
Dear God in Heaven.
No no no.
That's what this is, this is just a nightmare.
One person. Two bodies......
God, please no.
Two bodies....three bodies......
EZRA STANDISH, ANSWER ME!
Cowboy, catch hi----
Chris sighed and took a deep pull on the drink. He shot a baleful look at the bottle and sighed again. Three quarters of a bottle of whiskey, and he still wasn't anywhere near drunk.
Damn side-effects of the link.
His thoughts took off without him, wandering over the last few weeks. When he and Vin had noticed the link beginning, he'd gone to Buck and told him, needing to talk to someone. The others had noticed that the gunslinger and sharpshooter had begun to have some kind of connection, but only Buck had known how deep it truly ran.
Chris frowned and took another drink. Now Ezra was an unwilling participant in their uniqueness.
Chris's eyes rose to the room over the bar, where Ezra had holed up. Nathan had cleared him the day before, but he was now refusing to come out of his room.
I am NOT pouting! rang in his mind suddenly, causing him to nearly drop the drink. He shot a glare toward the door.
Well then, what the hell would YOU call it?
Silence. Chris began to wish they'd never taught Ezra to build shields. The sudden silence after weeks of openness was a bit nerve-wracking.
........pouting, came the sheepish reply at last.
Chris grinned and raised his glass in salute toward the door. As he drained it, he sent, Look, Ez, if we could change things, we would. I know this is hard for ya --
A snort. HARD isn't the WORD, Chris.
That got his attention. Chris?
Well, under the circumstances.....
Chris chuckled out loud. Nice t'see you're comin' around, Ez.
It isn't as though I have a choice in the matter. The door opened and Ezra came down the stairs, adjusting the cuffs under his red jacket. As he moved to Chris's table, his left hand smoothed over the right sleeve, mute testimony to Chris that his derringer was in place.
"Mornin'," Chris said casually.
Ezra chuckled and sat beside him. "Good morning, Mister Larabee. Such as remains of it."
"Nice to see some things never change."
Before Ezra could respond to that, the new kid from the telegraph office -- Taylor or Tyler or whatever his name was -- burst in. "Telegram, Mister Larabee!"
Chris took it and read it, his face hardening as he did so. He raised his eyes to Ezra.
Ezra nodded and stood. "I'll get Josiah and Mister Jackson."
"I'll round up Buck and JD. Meet us at the jail." There was no mentioning of getting Vin -- that was already in the works.
Once the seven were in the jail, Chris slid the telegram to Buck. He read it silently, and then looked up. "You've gotta be kiddin' me."
"I wish I was," Chris sighed. "Four Corners is this gang's next target."
"What, are we suddenly the proving ground for every gang around?" Buck groused.
"Beat the Seven, win a name for yourself," JD sighed. "Lovely."
"Maybe we can head them off at Cutter's Pass before they reach here," Josiah suggested.
"Good idea," Chris nodded. "You three," he pointed at Josiah, Nathan and JD, "go get the horses ready to ride. We'll be there in a few minutes."
They nodded and left. Vin looked over the telegram and whistled. "Murder, robbery, arson.....this band's trouble."
"Hey," Buck blurted out, startled. "Since when do you know how to read?"
Vin grinned at him. "I picked it up somewhere along the way." Buck shook his head, muttering something about that damned link. Vin grinned after him, and then looked over at Ezra, who returned the grin and winked, touching two fingers to the brim of his hat in silent acknowledgement.
Vin returned the salute and grabbed two Remingtons. He tossed one to Ezra as he passed him, and Ezra passed him ammunition in return.
The Seven rode out minutes later, heading for Cutter's Pass.
Cutter's Pass was the rather unimaginative name for a series of jagged ledges and rock formations that provided a natural corridor and a back door, if you please, to Four Corners. It was narrow enough that only three riders could proceed through it abreast, and high enough that a sharpshooter aiming from the top would have trouble hitting a rider.
Well, most sharpshooters. Vin could hit it quite easily, which I surmise was the reason Chris posted him up there. Why he posted me up there with him was something I called him on immediately.
A patented Glare was my outward answer, but the real one came via the link. I'm not quite comfortable pairing you with any of the others yet -- not even Josiah. It's no longer a question of trust, Ez --- now it's a question of how the link will affect your reflexes. Vin's the quickest, and the one I trust to cover your ass.
I shot him a Glare of my own, pairing it with Your faith in me is underwhelming, Chris. But I took the other rifle and followed Vin up the trail to the top.
Vin's sharp eyes picked out Josiah and Mister Jackson across the way, posted on a ledge halfway up the other side. I couldn't see them at first, but once he pointed, I saw the gleam of Josiah's silver necklace as he settled himself down.
Chris, Mister Wilmington and Mister Dunne rode into the corridor and then dismounted, standing three abreast and waiting.
After about half an hour, I shifted position. I don't know why I'm up here with you, I couldn't resist grousing to Vin. You're the sharpshooter.
He gave me a grin that was more mental than physical. Cowboy's got his reasons.
At times, I find myself imploring Deity for him to SHARE those reasons.
Vin chuckled out loud. "Don't ever tell him this, Ez -- me too."
That made me laugh. "Perhaps it was so you and I could conduct a discourse whilst we wait. After all, most of the recent conversation has been between Chris and myself while he aided me in the erection of my shields."
After a moment, during which I assume he mentally translated what he loves to call my 'five-dollar words', Vin nodded. "Could be. After all, body like you needs some --- how'd you put it once? -- 'mental exertions' while he waits."
Why, Vin, you WERE listening.
I always listen, Ez. How come ya think you were able t'teach me t'read so damn fast?
I WAS wondering about that.....
Here they come.
I could just barely see the dust kicking up, but I took Vin's word for it. How many?
I see six horses -- and four riders. Telegram said there were twelve in the gang, right?
I nodded absently as I replied, Right. Which means the other eight are either indisposed or elsewhere ----
Vin turned suddenly. Or it's a damned trap. CHRIS! GET READY!
It was Josiah's necklace that gave us away. He apparently shifted position, because that silver caught the sunlight again. It was only for a second, but one of the incoming riders bellowed a warning and shot toward it.
Fortunately, the bullet missed Josiah and Mister Jackson. Unfortunately, it ricocheted and struck Vin in the shoulder. He grunted and rolled away, the rifle falling. I just barely managed to catch it and haul it up.
Then I lay both guns down and maneuvered Vin to the cliff face, where I made him comfortable.
I'll...live. What's...happening down...below?
I peered over the edge. The four approaching have been dispatched with alacrity. Six others have attempted a pincer movement, and are currently being taken care of. Then I saw something that made me swallow involuntarily. Oh, shit.
Two others. Approaching from the rear on foot! I...I am trying to notify Chris, but I can't get through!
A moment, then Vin sighed. Damn, me either. He must be so single-minded on bringin' them down we can't get through.
I turned to face him. ......There's no time to get down there......and you can't shoot like this....
He met my eyes. YOU can.
Yes, but I'm not a sharpshooter!
Vin began to smile. I am.
I groaned. The man could be positively EXASPERATING! YES, but you can't shoot at the moment!
Ezra. Something in his 'voice' sent a rivulet of cold down my spine. Do you trust me?
There's no time.... to explain, Vin asked, eyes boring into Ezra's. Do you trust me?
Ezra blinked, and nodded mutely.
Then sit down, open EVERY SHIELD you possess --- and no matter WHAT happens, just TRUST me.
Again, Ezra nodded. He sat down and closed his eyes.
After a second, so did Vin.
Each of them took a breath. Then a second.
By the third breath, they were breathing totally in synch.
Ezra's eyes flew open. He grabbed a Remington and scrambled to the edge. He scanned the canyon with eyes that would have made Josiah cross himself to see them.
One eye was emerald green. The other was the colour of the sky.
The butt of the Remington was brought up to rest on a red-clad shoulder. The green eye closed as aim was taken. Then it opened again and with a grumbled, "....son-of-a-bitchin’ gambler...." the hat was pulled off and thrown to rest by the second rifle. Then the single blue eye sighted again.
Vin's vision. Vin's aim. Ezra's finger pulling the trigger.
The roar of the rifle echoed through the canyon. Chris, Buck and JD whirled to see two men approaching on foot, guns drawn. As they completed their fast turn, one of the men went down; his cranial matter splattering over his companion.
Cursing, the second man whirled and brought his gun up to the left hand wall.
A second bark from the rifle, and he went down, blood spraying up from his chest like a fountain.
With hands that were suddenly trembling, Ezra lowered the rifle and closed his eyes. When he opened them again, both were emerald green. With a noise expressing both extreme relief and extreme tiredness, he laid his head on his arms, totally uncaring one was dangling over the edge.
Nathan had been nicked by a ricocheting bullet in the firefight. Josiah looked up from bandaging the healer's arm when he heard the first boom. When he heard the second, he was already moving back toward the edge of the ledge they were on. He saw what had happened, looked up to where Vin and Ezra were --- and got the shock of his life.
A red-sleeved arm was hanging limp over the edge, a smoking Remington peeking from under it. It stayed there for a second and then pulled back, taking the gun with it.
"My G-d!" Josiah gasped, "CHRIS! BUCK! EZRA fired those shots!"
"What?!?!" Buck boomed. JD spluttered, unable to form a word in his surprise.
Chris looked up at the high ledge. What's going ON up there, you two?
He received a wave of tiredness from Ezra. Then came Vin's report. Got winged. Can't shoot.
"Good night..." Chris gasped, mounting his horse and prodding it toward the path. Then how in the hell ---
After a moment, came the answer in a double drawl. We merged.
"HOLY SHIT!" and he broke the horse into as fast a trot over the uneven slope as was safe -- then he prodded it a bit faster.
Buck, and a few moments later Josiah, were close behind.
I sat on the roof of the church, looking over toward Mister Jackson's clinic, where I knew Vin and he both were getting tended to by a fussing Josiah. I wasn't concerned for their injuries, as I knew Josiah was tending them upon Mister Jackson's directions.
My concern was, instead, for myself and the further muddying of the waters fate had decreed would be my lot in life. Despite my whirling thoughts, I couldn't help but smile when a mental 'heads-up' came my way. Without turning around, I said, "You know you can't sneak up on me anymore, Chris."
"I know." He sat down beside me with a slight grunt. "Been quite the few days."
"Yes, that it certainly has."
The silence stretched between us for a few moments -- physical and mental -- then he said, "Out with it."
"Out with it?"
"Yeah. What's got you so quiet?"
I couldn't help the grin. "Can't someone just enjoy the quiet every now and again?"
"Not when that someone's named Ezra Standish." Chris shifted position. "Or when you don't use them five-dollar words when you talk. Somethin's got you bothered."
He sighed and rubbed the bridge of his nose. Ez, we've been THROUGH this....
"Chris, I've accepted the link. I know I'm never to be free of it. You didn't let me finish."
Perhaps it was the quiet calmness of my tone. Perhaps it was the fact I was still speaking plainly. I don't guess I'll know what grabbed his attention, but something did. He began to stare at me. "....finish, then."
"It's not the link that bothers me --- it's what happened at Cutter's Pass. I've.... never felt anything like that before."
Chris rubbed the back of his neck. "I can't believe the risk you two took. Vin and me, we've never even tried a merge like that. What if you couldn't unmerge? What if you'd been stuck like that?"
I shrugged. "There wasn't time to think about it. There was only time to do it. Vin couldn't shoot and I didn't have the skills needed to make the shot. We didn't see as we had much of a choice."
"I can see that. It was a matter of life and death."
"And a matter of trust."
He looked at me as if seeing me for the first time. "Yeah," he said at last. "Yeah....I guess it would be."
I stretched slightly, making my back pop. "Shall we go see how our compatriots are doing?"
Chris smiled. I think he was relieved to hear the 'five-dollar word'. "I'm game." We stood and he lay a hand on my arm. "Ez.... about the merge...."
"You're still concerned."
"Yeah," he admitted. "Like I said, we've never tried it and.... and I'm worried about the both o'ya."
I cocked my head slightly. "Worried about what, precisely?"
"Lastin' effects.... things like that."
I smiled slightly. "That makes two of us, Chris." I turned back to look over Four Corners and sighed. Might as well come fully clean while we were up here. "Chris?"
"Yeah?" He moved beside me.
I pointed at the Masterson's weather vane at nearly the other end of the street. "That vane is still stuck, isn't it?"
Chris squinted across the considerable distance against the sun. "Yeah, reckon it is. Been that way for months now."
With a nod, I drew and fired. The bullet hit the rooster's tail and it spun around to face the other way.
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