If it had started from any single incident – a blow to the head, a gunshot wound, even a voodoo spell – Ezra thought he could have dealt with it a bit easier.
But no – his ability had snuck up on him so subtly he still had no chance to consider the hows or whys. Just react and try to stay sane.
Fittingly, he had first noticed it during a card game. He'd been playing with a cowboy from Eagle Bend, when he eared a whispered, Three aces and a king and a deuce.
His head snapped up and he stared at the cowboy, wondering just what in the world.... He wondered if he should trust the whisper.
Finally, he decided to. He had a full house in his hand – eights and fours. It beat a three-of-a-kind, and he began to bet accordingly.
The cowboy tried to bluff, but at the end, he lay down his cards.
And Ezra's mouth went dry.
Three aces. The king of spades. The two of hearts.
He called the game, pleading a headache – truthfully – and headed up the stairs to his room.
Inez came up ten minutes later to see if he was all right. He told her he just needed rest and she left the room. He sagged onto his bed, exhausted.
You just need to sleep, Ezra.
He gained his feet and whirled, his derringer leaping into his hand. "Where are you?" he bellowed. "Show yourself!"
Interesting – you are able to hear us. He realised this was a different voice than downstairs. That had been the voice of a child – no more than six or seven. This was the melodious purr of a full-grown woman – amused, if that note in her voice was any indication. I am not here to harm you.
"Then why are you here? Who are you? Where are you?"
So many questions. Yes, you are so like my husband used to be. So many questions, feel like you're going to explode if they're not answered. I must alert the others you can hear us. Rest, sweet man. One of us shall return.
And Ezra caught a glimpse of long skirts out of the corner of his eye.
He called out twice. Receiving no answer, he concluded he was alone. Slowly, he reholstered his derringer and got ready for bed.
But sleep took forever to come. He lay awake, brain whirling as he tried to understand what was happening to him.
Just before he managed to drop off to sleep, he felt a pair of gentle lips brush his forehead and heard a half-remembered male voice whisper, Sleep well, Ezra. I have always loved you.
Ezra woke to a dry mouth and the uncomfortable feeling that eyes were upon him. Moving carefully, he checked to make sure his derringer was still in its holster.
After last night's startlements, there was no way in hell he was going to be unarmed even for a second.
Slowly, Ezra turned to face the source of the eyes.
He found a young woman with long brownish-blonde curls sitting on his bed, looking at him with unsettlingly familiar eyes. "How did you get into my room?" he gasped.
Her eyes widened. I....walked.
Ezra frowned. Her lips had moved, but he could have sworn the voice had emanated from within his own skull. "You walked For what purpose?"
To make sure you were safe. It was my turn. You can see me.
"Of course I can see you! You're right there! Your turn? Ma'am, you will pardon me – but I'm a bit confused!"
So am I. I didn't believe Sarah when she told me you heard her – but you can see me as well as hear me! This is incredible!
"What is so incredible about it?"
For answer, she held out her hand to him. He reached to take it – and his fingers closed on empty air.
As he gawked, he realised he could see his room through her. "You are... a spirit."
"What is your name, ma'am?"
Marie. Marie Tanner.
Ezra sat right up. "Marie Tanner? Died from putrid fever twenty-four years ago?"
The young woman nodded.
"Holy – you're Vin's mother?"
She nodded again.
And something she'd said suddenly clicked. "The child.... Sarah...."
The Larabees. Yes.
Ezra closed his eyes spasmodically.
"Ezra!" Chris roared from below. "Your name's up for morning patrol!"
Ezra walked to the window and leaned out. "I have not forgotten! I will be there promptly."
"See that you do!" Chris turned and walked away, and Ezra found a bittersweet smile tugging at his lips.
Behind Chris, taking every step he took, imitating his walk, was a semi-transparent little boy with dark hair. Said child looked up, caught Ezra's eye, and winked.
Ezra winked back. "Adam is on the job, I see." He turned back to find Marie still smiling at him. "He resembles his father."
He isn't the only one. Dress – I shall be outside. And she faded away.
As he dressed, Ezra pondered her words. His thoughts turned to his own father. Lord only knew if he was alive or dead.
And he wondered why he suddenly felt lonely.
"So," Ezra mused softly as he and Marie walked to the livery. "What exactly do you and your fellows do?"
We protect. There are bitter, angry spirits who want to harm the living.
Ezra frowned. "....bitter, angry spirits?"
Many of whom met their deaths as they foolishly challenged the town's living protectors. Then they crossed into our realm and found themselves up against us.
So THAT is where Vin's poetic soul comes from, Ezra thought. "Then why can I suddenly see and hear you and your fellows?"
We.... We don't know.
Honesty. He liked honesty. Ezra nodded as he saddled Chaucer. "So... what do we do now?"
Where do we go from here?
"Yeah." The soft word – and unusual slang – clued Marie to just how rattled this whole situation made Ezra.
She smiled gently. You go on patrol. One of our special fellows will meet you out there.
Her smile grew. Someone you love and who loves you. Now go. She ran a hand down the silk of Chaucer's nose. I will see you later, my darling.
"Are you talking to me or to Chaucer?" Ezra smiled slightly.
She met his eyes and Ezra saw immediately where Vin had gotten that imp that would slide out in his grin occasionally.Yes.
Ezra's laugh was genuine and hearty as he rode away.
So we are set, then?
Aye. The fleshies can not see us and the goodie-goodies are not organised. We can win.
When do we attack?
Ezra blinked to find the spirit waiting for him was a tall, handsome man with auburn curls and distinctive emerald eyes. Peering forward, Ezra frowned as he realised who the man reminded him of. "Sir... spirit... how shall I address you?"
He grinned. Patrick will be fine.
"Patrick." Ezra blinked. "Please forgive me, Patrick – I seem to be staring. It's just... you look like me."
Patrick's grin grew. I should. You used to know me quite well, Ezra.
"Who are you, sir?"
Patrick Elijah Standish. Your father.
Ezra just stared, too shocked to speak.
I don't know how you can see and hear us now, but I am not complaining. I never wanted to leave you.
"Then....then why did you leave me? Leave Mother? We... We had to become..."
Patrick shook his head. Your mother does not know this. I wish I could tell her. I vanished not because I was looking for riches. I was murdered, Ezra. By your mother's family.
"What? Who?" Ezra felt his world undergoing yet another major shift.
Your Uncle Edward and Aunt Cora. They wanted you and your mother dependent upon them. So they could corrupt your beautiful hearts. And they burn in hell.
Scowling, Ezra reported, "They succeeded."
His father smiled and ran a cool fingertip over Ezra's cheek. You are only partially right. They succeeded more with Maude, but they never were able to stamp out her very real love for you. The smile grew. Why do you think she lives here longer and longer every visit? She loves you. In time, she will re-learn how to show it. As for you--
"As for me, what?" Ezra asked in a choked voice, fearing the worst. He'd always feared his brave, loyal father would have been ashamed of him.
As for you? You are the one they failed with. Your large, generous heart can not be hidden for long. Even when you were very small, all you ever wanted to do was help. And now you help – every day. Ezra... He put a hand on his son's shoulder.
Ezra, I am so, SO very proud of you.
It took a full five minutes for Ezra's emotions to calm enough for him to resume his patrol – with his father by his side.
Patrick's spectral horse suddenly reared. Patrick brought her under control and his eyes narrowed.
"What is it?" Ezra asked.
Pulling a bag of semi-transparent bullets from his saddlebag, Patrick flung them to Ezra. See if your guns will fire those.
Frowning, Ezra did as he was told. The bullets seemed to mould themselves to his guns. "Yes, they can fire... why?"
Good. Load with those – ONLY those – and come back to town. Fast. And Patrick vanished.
Ezra obeyed, racing back to town and finding himself riding into a multi-gun battle. One of the bullets hit Ezra in the back as he dismounted.
He felt the impact, and watched incredulously as the ghostly pellet passed through him with no damage. Whirling in shock, he realised the townspeople were going about their business as if nothing was happening!
"....my heavens, it's a ghost battle," he breathed, eyes scanning the combatants for familiar faces.
He soon saw them on both sides. A red-haired woman dressed all in black – Sarah Larabee, Ezra guessed – and a male ghost that looked suspiciously like Hank Connelly were methodically dismembering the screaming spirit of Cletus Fowler.
Little Adam was using his own body as a shield as he pulled a pair of smaller children – one of whom looked suspiciously like Sarah and Ezra's heart squeezed as he realised that must have been the child Christ had admitted Sarah was pregnant with when she burned – off the street and into the relative safety of the church.
He heard Vin complain of a sudden headache and saw Eli Joe's spirit pull a wicked-looking spectral knife from the tracker's neck. He heard a burst of gunfire and saw Eli Joe's form stiffen and vanish completely. His eyes moved along the trajectory of the shot and he couldn't help the smile as he saw Marie lower a rifle – from the roof of the Clarion.
Banished! she called down to him.
He nodded, looking around at the carnage. He heard Chris call his name and ask him why he was standing like he was in a gunfight. And what was he looking at?
Ezra ignored him, eyes narrowing as he saw his uncle Edward sneaking up on Patrick, who was firing at a swarm of ill-dressed Confederates – the "ghosts" from the Seminole village made ghosts for real. "PAPA, LOOK OUT!" he screamed.
With a speed that had Chris staring, Ezra drew his Remington and fired a single shot into thin air.
The bullet hit true, and Patrick turned in time to see the man who had murdered him gasp and vanish – banished by his son's quick shooting. He smiled warmly at Ezra, then returned to his task.
All action froze as the outline of a male body appeared – then vanished. "Clear the streets!" Chris bellowed and the townspeople did just that. Chris and Vin raced to Ezra as the others helped clear the streets. "Ezra, what just happened here?" Chris demanded.
They could see that? Hank gasped.
Of course they could! Patrick shot back. It's a bullet fired by a living person from a living person's gun!
Another time, Ezra would have found Chris turning his own phrasing onto him amusing. But right now, he was a bit preoccupied. He joined Patrick in firing at the ghosts of the "ghosts", and another outline appeared and vanished.
"It's an ambush," Ezra roared as he fired a third time with the same result.
"An ambush of spirits," Josiah gasped from the boardwalk.
Ezra nodded in his direction, then his eyes widened as he looked over there. The Remington raised to take a bead directly at Josiah.
"Ezra, what?" Josiah squeaked.
"Cora!" was all the answer Ezra gave before he fired.
The outline that appeared and vanished in front of Josiah wore skirts.
Ezra lowered his gun, rare tears in his eyes. Chris and Vin heard him whisper, "That was for my mother, you cold-hearted bitch."
Then he whirled and fired a fifth bullet. A body in pieces appeared and vanished. "And that was for Chris," he snarled. "Burn in hell, Fowler."
"Fowler?" Chris gasped, his eyes huge.
FALL BACK! came a distinctive Southern bellow. RETREAT!
"Anderson," Ezra growled and raised his Remington. After a second, he transferred it to his left hand and twisted his derringer into his right.
Three bullets fired, in quick succession.
Anderson's distinctive outline – mounted – appeared and vanished.
"It's over," Patrick and Ezra said at the same time. Patrick to the ghosts, Ezra to his friends. "They're breaking off – it's over for now."
The friendly spirits burst into celebration as the evil ones fled. Ezra's hands flew to his head, empty guns crashing to the ground as he fell to his knees.
"Ezra?" Chris and Vin were suddenly flanking him, and it was Vin who was shaking him slightly, calling his name. "What is it? What's wrong?"
".....tooloudtoomanyIcan'tturnitoffohG-dithurtstooloudVinit'stooloud---" Ezra managed to choke out.
And then his emerald eyes rolled back in his head and he passed out to the tune of spirit and living friends screeching his name.
The first sensation that penetrated the blackness was a cool hand stroking his forehead. Ezra's eyes creaked open and he smiled to see Patrick bending over him. "....Papa...."
"Papa?" The confused voice had Ezra turning his head. He found Chris sitting by his bedside. "Are you hallucinatin' on me?"
Ezra frowned a little.
"Or is it like what happened on the street?" Chris went on. "You seein' the dead."
"....yes...." Ezra whispered, exhausted and very, very glad to have someone else know.
Chris nodded slowly. "So your pa..."
Ezra raised a shaky hand. Chris saw his fingers suddenly curl as if someone had taken his hand and was holding it steady.
His eyes widened, filled with shock. "....Ezra...."
"He never left you," Ezra whispered, a tired hand waving toward Chris's knee. ".....he never left.... Adam's here....with his daddy."
Chris reeled as if he'd been slapped. "What?"
Ezra's eyes closed. "Adam...let your daddy....touch you...." And he slid to sleep.
His upraised hand was gently folded across his stomach as if it were tenderly lain there.
Chris just stared at the hand. Then, slowly, his gaze turned to the empty spot by his knee where Ezra had looked. "I wonder...."
Then he shook his head. "No – stupid. They're dead. Nothing can change that." He shot to his feet and turned to go.
And a hand crept into his.
Chris froze. He looked down at his hand. Empty, so far as he could see – but he felt another hand gripping his. Slowly, he turned back and felt the hand holding his.
It was small and cool. He trailed is fingers up a small arm to a shoulder. Kneeling before the small, invisible form, he allowed his fingers to ghost over the face.
Familiar features, burned for always into his brain.
"A....Adam?" he breathed, scarcely daring to hope.
And he felt the small head nod.
He felt the head shake.
And a second, larger hand rested on his shoulder.
"....you saw it all. Oh, G-d..."
A pair of small arms wound about his neck and a pair of larger ones around his stomach from behind. In front and behind, cool bodies enveloped Chris.
To an observer who didn't have Ezra's abilities, Chris was kneeling on the floor, curled around nothing and weeping.
Had Ezra been awake, he would have seen the reunification of a family and the beginning of healing to a heart too long scraped raw.
But Patrick witnessed it as he kept vigil. When his son awoke, he would tell him that it had been his command that allowed Adam and Sarah to break through and connect with Chris at last.
Finally, things were being set a'right.
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