“Thank you, Senorita.” Ezra Standish tipped his hat to the lovely Mexican barmaid then carefully wound the fingers of both hands through the five full beer mugs Inez had placed before him. Balancing the load carefully, the cardsharp made his way across the room to the table occupied by four of his fellow peacekeepers.
“I’m telling you, it was the damnedest thing I ever saw,” Josiah’s deep voice rumbled as Ezra approached.
“Wow, Ezra, you sure were lucky!” JD intoned, awed, as he gratefully accepted one of the mugs of beer.
Ezra passed out the remaining drinks then took his own seat. He winced as a sharp pain streaked across his ribs, but covered the action with a cough and questioned, “What scintillating piece of gossip has garnered your attention and why should I be considered lucky?”
“Josiah, here, was just telling us how that diamond broach saved your life today,” Buck answered, wiping an impressive amount of beer foam from his moustache.
“Oh, please.” Ezra rolled his eyes then rubbed at his chest as it gave a sympathetic ache at the all too painful reminder of the diamond’s loss. “Of all that has happened over the last few days, surely this, this…” he gestured widely, as if hoping to physically capture the elusive words, “…trivial event can hardly be considered newsworthy.”
A large hand clapped his shoulder, causing another wince. “Brother, with the amount of tragedy we’ve faced lately, any and all good fortune should be celebrated.”
Ezra gave an ungentlemanly snort. “I assure you, there is nothing to celebrate about that fortune. While Ms. Gaines’ doctor may have been fraudulent, that diamond was definitely genuine. That single gem could have brought about the realization of all of my dreams. Hell, we all could have had our hearts’ desires. Compared to that diamond, Stutz’s money was a mere drop in the figurative bucket.”
“But you’re alive, Ez, and in the end, that’s all that counts.”
Before the cardsharp could form a retort, the batwing doors swung open to admit the group’s healer, Nathan Jackson.
“How’s Chris?” JD asked, straightening in his chair, eager for a report on their leader’s condition.
“Damn fool doesn’t know what’s good for him,” Nathan sighed as, with an exhausted groan, he dropped into an unoccupied chair. He pulled off his hat, letting it fall carelessly to the floor at his side. “He’s got a fever, which is to be expected after that long ride home. He shoulda stayed put like I told him to, but he just wouldn’t listen to reason.”
After the gun battle which resulted in the deaths of Hilda and Handsome Jack, the escape of Ella Gaines, and a gunshot wound to Chris’ side, the man in black had insisted on returning to Four Corners against Nathan’s protests. The two had gotten into a heated argument, but where all of Chris’ yelling had failed, his simply and softly spoken “I can’t stay here, in HER house,” had won. Nathan had tended Chris’ wound with the minimum care he deemed necessary, then saw that the gunman was carefully loaded into a borrowed wagon for the arduous journey home where he was immediately whisked up to the clinic for more thorough treatment.
“Would you have stayed put if it were you?” Buck jumped to defend his long-time friend.
“No,” the healer answered without hesitation. “But that don’t mean I gotta like it.”
The batwing doors opened once again as Vin entered the saloon.
“He finally asleep?” the healer asked as Vin pulled a chair from the next table and positioned it between him and Ezra.
“No. He did finally drink some of that tea, though, so it’s just a matter of time. He said he just wanted to be alone for a while. I think he’s blaming himself for not seeing how obsessed Ella was. Now and back then.”
“Wonderful,” Ezra said dryly. “Will the joys of this experience never end? I think this calls for something with a little more kick than a simple beer can provide.” He winced slightly at the pull across his ribs and threaded a hand under his plum-colored jacket to rub at the area, an action that did not go unnoticed by the eagle-eyed tracker.
“What’s wrong, Ez?”
“It’s nothing, Mr. Tanner, just some bruised ribs.”
Before he could step away, Vin reached out and pulled open the left side of Ezra’s jacket. “I ain’t no doctor, but last I knew, bruised ribs didn’t bleed. Nathan.”
Not wanting to fall under the healer’s scrutiny for fear of a lecture on his greedy nature, Ezra tried to pull back, but Vin refused to relinquish his grip.
“I can assure you, gentlemen, I am not blee…” His words stumbled to a halt when he spotted a trace of blood staining his fingertips and a small red patch around the bullet hole in his vest.
“Wow,” JD gushed. “Do you think that happened when you were shot?”
“You were shot and you didn’t tell me?” Nathan admonished as he rushed to Ezra’s side and began to unfasten the buttons of his vest and the shirt beneath.
“I assure you, Mr. Jackson, I was not… At least, I didn’t think I was… I mean, there was no…”
“There was no blood,” Josiah finished for his flustered friend. “I checked him over after it happened. I thought the broach stopped the bullet because there was no blood.”
Ignoring Josiah’s obvious feelings of guilt for not noticing the injury, Nathan finally made his way through Ezra’s layers of clothing to reveal a large, purple bruise surrounding a small, sluggishly bleeding hole on the left side of the gambler’s chest. With a gentle touch, the healer palpated the discolored area, pulling back quickly when Ezra jumped away with a yelp of pain as Nathan’s fingers came close to the bullet hole.
“JD, go to the clinic and get my bag, but be careful not to wake Chris. He should be asleep by now.”
“Mr. Jackson, really, this isn’t necessary.” Ezra tried to step back, but was stopped by the imposing figure of Josiah who had somehow managed to leave his seat and slip behind the cardsharp unnoticed.
“Come on, Brother, let’s get you up to your room so Nathan can get a proper look at you.”
“I’m sure it’s merely a scratch,” Ezra hedged.
Nathan and Josiah each held an arm as they guided the resisting gambler to the stairs. “I could feel something there, Ezra. It’s not deep, just under the skin, but it’s been untended for hours and it’s bound to get infected. Hopefully, I can stop it before it gets too bad, but you’re gonna have to let me get the bullet out, clean it, and follow my instructions to the letter.”
“It’s not negotiable,” Josiah interrupted the befuddled Standish.
The three men ascended the stairs and had Ezra lying atop his bed, stripped to the waist, by the time JD returned with Nathan’s medical kit. After hearing that Chris had finally succumbed to the sedative effects of the tea he’d been given, Nathan sent JD back downstairs with several herbal packets to make medicinal teas and a poultice to help with the imminent infection. He then turned to his patient.
With a couple shots of whiskey to dull the pain and Josiah to help hold Ezra still, Nathan carefully cut into the wound. Ezra arched and twisted beneath his touch, but the healer’s hand remained steady as he probed the wound. When the tip of his probe struck something foreign and hard, Nathan twisted it beneath the object and, with an expert flick of his wrist, deftly flipped the bullet from the shallow wound.
Ezra hissed and grunted through the procedure, but remained remarkably still and quiet throughout. “That was, as usual, quite unpleasant, Mr. Jackson, but thank you for your services,” he said through gasping, ragged breaths as Nathan held a piece of clean cloth to the now freely bleeding wound.
“What?” The conman’s voice raised an octave in his surprise at the healer’s puzzled expression.
The healer peeked under the cloth. Assured the bleeding had again slowed; he picked up the misshapen slug he’d just removed and examined it closely, explaining as he did. “The bullet seems to be in one piece,” he said absently as he shifted the slug around in the light, “but I know I felt something else in there. Maybe it’s a piece of metal from the broach or even a button from your vest, but I’ve got to get it out.”
When the gambler gave no immediate reaction, Josiah placed a comforting hand on Ezra’s shoulder. “Come on, son, I know it’s not pleasant, but we both know it has to be done.”
Heaving a dramatic sigh, Ezra dragged a hand down his face and acquiesced. “Yes, yes. I understand. May I at least have the courtesy of another shot of your medicinal spirits?”
Rising from his seat at the side of the bed, Nathan handed the bottle of whiskey to Josiah and said, “I’ll give you a few minutes to rest while I go check on that tea JD was making. Be right back.”
With a hand behind Ezra’s shoulders, Josiah guided the wounded man into a semi-upright position and helped him down several more healthy swallows of whiskey. By the time Ezra was once again lying flat and marginally comfortable, Nathan had returned with a tray holding the herbal tea, a foul-smelling poultice, and a glass of water. He helped Ezra drink the pain-relieving tea and half the water to wash the bitter taste away.
After a few minutes to allow the whiskey and tea to work, Nathan began the probe the wound again. There was definitely something else there; something hard and oddly shaped. Unfortunately, it was also deeper and lodged between two of Ezra’s ribs, making it much more difficult to remove than the bullet. The healer tried to ignore his patient’s muffled grunts of pain and the way his hands fisted tightly into the bed sheets. He had to admire Ezra’s tenacity when, time after time, just as he got the probe under the object and began to pry it from the gambler’s body, the instrument would slide against the object’s strangely smooth surface and slip free from the wound. Through it all, Ezra never cried out, though Nathan knew the pain had to be excruciating. The conman simply took a deep breath, fisted his hands deeper into the bed sheets, and nodded at Nathan to continue.
After more time than Nathan would have thought possible, and a surprising amount of blood loss from a wound that had bled so little to begin with, the healer was finally able to grasp the object with a pair of forceps and pull it from Ezra’s now sweat-soaked body. He quickly tossed it into a small enamel bowl on the bedside table and turned his attention to stopping the bleeding.
“I’d like to leave this open to allow any infection to drain, but I’m going to have to put in a couple stitches to stop the bleeding,” he explained as, suiting actions to words, Nathan expertly placed the sutures then cleaned away the excess blood and placed the poultice and bandage over the wound. “You okay?” he asked his patient.
Exhausted from the pain of the procedure and not yet ready to trust his voice, Ezra simply nodded and raised a hand in a weak wave before allowing his eyes to drift closed.
“You get some sleep now, Ezra,” Nathan instructed as he pulled the covers over the gambler then gathered his things and prepared to leave. “I’ll be back in a few hours with more tea for the pain.”
He stood to leave, expecting Josiah to follow him out, but noticed the former preacher seemed to be studying the object he’d just removed from Ezra with rapt fascination and didn’t appear to be leaving anytime soon. Sensing Josiah wanted a few moments alone with their friend, Nathan left the room, and shut the door behind him.
The pain had just receded to a tolerable level and his breathing had slowed as he began to drift off when a soft, deep voice pulled Ezra back from the cusp of sleep.
“Henry David Thoreau once said that wealth is the ability to fully experience life.”
Prying first one reluctant, blood-shot green eye open then the other, Ezra huffed out a laugh. “With all due respect to Mr. Thoreau, I could have happily survived without the ‘wealth’ of this particular life experience.”
Josiah pulled a handkerchief from his pocket and began to polish the object he held. “You know, Ezra, we all have wealth in one form or another. Wealth of good friends, family, and a place we like to call home. Even some poor miser without a penny to his name has wealth in the form of simply being alive.”
“I’m sorry, Josiah, but I fear I am simply not up to waxing philosophical with you at the moment.”
“What I mean to say, Ezra,” Josiah continued as he gave the object in his hand a few final swipes with the handkerchief, “is regardless whether your particular wealth is a pot of gold or simply the experiences of life, the only question is,” he placed the object on the bedside table and stood, “what will you do with it?”
Ezra watched him walk out the door; brows furrowed in confusion, then glanced to the object on the table and gasped. There, perched next to the glass of water, with blood red streaks still marring its perfect shine, sat his diamond. Gingerly, Ezra sat up and reached out to take the gem into his hand just as a flash of lightning momentarily lit the room. He closed his fingers around the diamond, pushed himself to his feet, and shuffled to the window.
Opening the window caused more pain than he would ever admit to Nathan, but the fresh, rain-scented breeze that blew into the room was well worth the discomfort. He closed his eyes and inhaled deeply, smiling at the distant rumble of thunder barely heard above the din of the saloon below.
The thunderstorm Vin had warned about hours earlier was fast approaching the town. Soon, the gambler knew, people would be taking refuge in their homes or local businesses lest they be trapped someplace undesirable by a torrential downpour. He was aware even a small amount of rain would turn the dusty streets into slick rivers of mud. It would get everywhere, coat everything, and take weeks to clean from people’s clothing, shoes, and floors. It would be a real mess. But, he also knew, with that mess would come a certain beauty. Wildflowers would grow were once only bugs and cacti thrived. The desert would be green, if only for a short time, and the wildlife would emerge from hiding to enjoy the wealth Mother Nature had chosen to bestow on them.
There was that six lettered word again.
Ezra opened his hand and stared at the diamond nestled delicately in his palm. With two fingers, he gently lifted the gem to study it in the glow of his oil lamp. It really was perfect; crystal clear, cut flawlessly, and large. Large enough to purchase his heart’s desires. He could finally leave his measly dollar-a-day job as a lawman and make his way to San Francisco where he could build the biggest, most grand saloon in the state of California!
But, if he were honest with himself, he would admit Four Corners had grown on him and he had become accustomed to having six other men around who were willing to watch his back.
Well, he could stay in Four Corners for the time being and repurchase the Standish Tavern. Yes. He could fix it up the way he’d always imagined and still probably have money left over. Perhaps, as a thank you to his friends for finally allowing him to feel like he belonged somewhere, he could buy them something.
But, really, could his money buy his friends what they truly wanted? Could it send Nathan to medical school? A lot of things had changed since the war, but Ezra wasn’t naïve enough to think a black man would happily be accepted into the hallowed halls of academia regardless of that man’s wealthy benefactor.
Could it mend the strained friendship between Chris and Vin? The two men shared a bond like nothing Ezra had ever seen, but it had been tested that very day. Chris had turned his back on Vin, pushed him away, in favor of a woman who had turned out to be a murderer. Chris would have to live with that guilt and Vin with the fear that something similar might happen in the future. Ezra had no doubt they would eventually find their footing again, but it would take time. All the wealth in the world couldn’t rush that.
Could it find Buck’s true love? Ezra had seen the look on Buck’s face when Hilda began to sing and again when she died in his arms. He’d been in love. It wasn’t lust, like it was with so many of the lothario’s paramours. Perhaps it wasn’t even the type of love that could have gotten Buck to settle down, get married, and fill a house with children, but there had been something about Hilda that had touched something in Buck in a way he’d never been touched before. When she’d died, a piece of Buck’s big, soft heart had been buried with her. No amount of money could bring her back or cause Buck’s eyes to again shine with such adoration.
And Chris? To have the love he felt for his late wife and child tainted by the knowledge that he’d almost settled down and started a new life with the woman responsible for their deaths… It was unfathomable. The man carried far more than his share of guilt, heartache, and loss and Ezra would never be so insensitive as to try to bribe the pain away. Money of any amount was the last thing that could ease the black ache in Chris’ heart.
The breeze wafting through the open window had cooled considerably, bringing the con man’s attention to the present. He shivered and wrapped his free hand around his bare torso. Lightning flashed brightly, forcing him to shield his eyes. The thunder that followed rattled the pane of glass in the window. Ezra found himself comparing the Seven’s recent experiences to the storm. Things had been hectic, tumultuous, even violent, but in the end, they all came out alive, if not unscathed. New scars would form, like the ruts in the muddy road below, but they would be stronger for it. They still had their friendships, someone to watch their backs, and a town to call home.
For the first time in his life, Ezra could finally see all the wealth around him. He looked at the diamond still clutched in his fingers and Josiah’s words came back to him. ‘Wealth is the ability to fully experience life. The only question is, what will you do with it?’
With a smile on his face, Ezra didn’t hesitate as he tossed the diamond to the dusty street as the first raindrops began to fall.