PACING THE CAGE
A promise binds the giver and the keeper.
With thanks and apologies to Walter Mirisch, John Watson, Trilogy Productions, CBS, and Bruce Cockburn, and proceeding under the assumption that forgiveness is easier to ask than permission....
Sunset is an angel weeping
PACING THE CAGE ~ Bruce Cockburn
Two men stood on the balcony outside of Nathan Jackson's small room, side by side, but not together. They were distinctly different in dress, in posture, and in manner, but they shared one thing as they fixed narrowed eyes on the horizon set ablaze by the slowly dying sun. Thoughts of death and other sorrows lay heavily upon them both, and thoughts of departure lured their eyes and their hearts to the flaming border of their world.
Chris Larabee bowed his head, turning his face away from the harsh glare of day's end. Behind the rough wooden door at his back, Vin Tanner was struggling for his life. It hadn't been Vin's fight -- the gunmen had come looking to take down Chris Larabee -- but from the moment they had met, any fight of Chris' had become Vin's fight too. And it wasn't just Vin; too many times since Larabee had started riding with the six men, one of the others had taken a bullet meant for the gunfighter. That knowledge sat heavy on Chris' soul. Sara and Adam had already been sacrificed to his dark past, and now Vin might pay the same terrible price. Who next? Buck? JD? God help him ... Mary?
No. No one, not ever again, Chris vowed. He'd been here too long; it was time to move on.
Ezra Standish also turned his face away from the sunset, but his green eyes held the afterimage burned upon them, as if the death of the day refused to be dismissed. From the corner of his eye he saw Chris Larabee's head drop and stole a glance. The lingering image of the dying sun masked the gunfighter's face behind a shifting red haze, but Ezra did not need to see the man's expression to read his dark thoughts. They mirrored Ezra's own grim musings.
Vin Tanner ... Chris Larabee ... Mary Travis. The trinity who he had unwittingly allowed into his heart was now in dire jeopardy. Ezra knew too well the consequences to the man in black, should the tracker die. He was even more keenly aware of the terrible loss that further devastation of Chris Larabee's soul would inevitably bring to Mary.
The irony of the situation infused Ezra's cynical heart with bitter humor. The gambler knew he was considered the weakest link in the group of seven men who had been bound together by a strange combination of chance, courage, conscience, and Chris Larabee. Yet now, if that unity which had become so unexpectedly important to the cynical gambler was to be preserved, the task of holding Chris to the same promise that Larabee had once demanded of Ezra had fallen to Ezra himself.
Ezra would do what he could. He owed Chris Larabee, for offering him a rare second chance. He owed Vin Tanner for doing the same. And he owed Mary Travis for reasons he would never articulate, not even to himself. But he entertained little expectation of success. And regardless of the outcome, he'd been here too long; it was time to move on.
The squeal of door hinges made both men start. Their dire contemplations were underscored with new fear at the sight of Mary, hair in disarray, pale skin moist with perspiration, her face drawn with weariness and worry. She stepped out into the late afternoon heat and blinked at the burning light of the dying sun and the bleak expressions of the two men who stood haloed by its fading light, and smiled. A grim, tight pursing of her lips tempered the good news, but the news itself was clear; the worst had not happened today. Relief escaped both men in small, identical sighs. Chris closed his eyes and dropped his head again; Ezra smiled at the exhausted woman and stepped lightly to her side.
"My dear," he said gently, "if Mr. Jackson no longer requires your assistance, may I escort you home?"
"Thank you, Mr. Standish," Mary said, "but Nathan will need me here a while longer, I think. I'm fine, really." There was gratitude in her voice, but even as she betrayed her weariness by leaning for a moment on Ezra's arm, her blue eyes turned to the man in black. "Mr. Larabee ... Chris...." Her voice faltered.
"Can I see him?" Tension made the whispered words ring like a telegraph wire. He did not look up.
"No," she said. "He's sleeping. Tomorrow, perhaps."
Mary waited for a reply, but there was none. Ezra was close enough to hear a soft, sad sigh escape her before she straightened her shoulders and collected herself. Unobtrusively, she squeezed Ezra's arm before slipping back into the sickroom; the door closed behind her and the two men were left alone together in the darkening dusk. After a moment, Chris broke the silence.
"Damn you, Vin," he whispered to himself. But Ezra's sharp ears heard.
"Indeed," he nodded agreeably. Let the game begin, he thought.
Chris' head snapped up, and he stared at the gambler. Ezra smiled grimly. "Mr. Larabee, under ordinary circumstances your thoughts are as easy to read as a child's primer. However, I have enjoyed an added advantage in recent weeks, as divining the nature of your contemplations has been merely a matter of considering my own."
"Ezra, you talk too much."
The bitter dismissal did not deter Ezra. He understood exactly what dark fear was driving the gunfighter to flee Four Corners. But this was a high-stakes game, with the hearts and lives of seven men, one woman, and one small boy hanging in the balance. If winning required dealing from the bottom of the deck, Ezra would do so.
"Perhaps," he conceded. "Nevertheless, it is easy to see that we both share the same disconcerting realization that we have become tied to this town, and to its people. I am bound by an oath of loyalty, which your lack of faith in me caused you to demand. You, on the other hand, are bound by the faith that others have placed in you ... and that scares the hell out of you. It causes you to resent the responsibility that their misplaced faith demands, and the resulting loss of freedom to pursue, unfettered, your own self-destruction. And that resentment has led you to contemplate leaving."
"Is that so." There was a warning in the flat, toneless words, but Ezra ignored it.
"Indeed, Mr. Larabee, it is. With that in mind, I am left to wonder if the oath of loyalty which you once demanded of me was to our comrades as a group, or to you alone ... for if it is the latter, I submit that your departure effects my release from that oath."
Chris stared at him. Ezra spoke slowly and evenly, as if explaining a difficult concept to a small child. "In other words, if you abandon this town and the men with whom we both ride, you cannot expect me to honor my promise never to do the same."
Chris flinched at that, and Ezra saw his knuckles whiten. Got you, you bastard.
"After all, why should I remain here? There will be little left to defend. Consider all the events that your departure will set in motion." Ezra pressed on with his brutal speculation. "We both know that the others, no doubt led by your faithful if misguided friend Mr. Wilmington, will do everything they can to keep you from leaving. Of course, your stubbornness will render their efforts futile, and you will ride out, alone. The group will inevitably disperse. Judge Travis will have failed to ensure the security of this town, and Mrs. Travis will once again find herself in the position of guaranteeing that security herself, with only her shotgun and her courage. How long will it be, I wonder, before she falls in the dust of Main Street?"
Chris drew his breath in sharply. That's right, Larabee ... try, just this once, to think beyond yourself, Ezra demanded silently. "Unfortunate; but after all, it will have been her own fault, won't it? She should never have stayed in this godforsaken town in the first place. Nor should she have brought Billy back here to live. Of course, he will be left an orphan. But that will be Mary's fault, too. She should never have trusted in you; you never asked her to, did you?"
"Shut up, Ezra."
"And then there is Mr. Tanner," Ezra continued, heedless of the danger he knew he was courting. "We both know full well what will happen when Vin discovers that you have left. He will follow you to the ends of the earth, determined to save you from yourself, or die trying. Considering his current condition, and the certainty that he will not wait until he is fully recovered before embarking upon his fool's errand, the latter is quite likely. But that's his choice, isn't it?"
The man in black turned away, as if to leave. Ezra shrugged. "Whatever happens to Vin, or Buck, or JD, or Mary or Billy or any of the others, will be their own fault. You never asked them to place their trust in you." The gambler chuckled mirthlessly. "Ironic that I alone am innocent of holding you to such a high standard. I wonder if you fully appreciate my discrimination."
Although he'd been expecting it, Ezra was still taken down fast and hard by the fist that crashed into his face. His vision shimmered and he sagged back against the railing, then fell to the boards. The angry clatter of spurs and the harsh sound of bootheels on hardwood told him when Chris Larabee walked away.
"Chris," he murmured, knowing the man could not hear him, "friends whom you can trust to watch your back and a good woman who loves you are gifts to be treasured, not burdens to be fled from."
The door to Nathan's room swung open, and the healer peered out into the dusk. He saw Ezra slumped against the balcony railing and hurried to kneel at the fallen man's side. Mary followed; she gasped in alarm at the blood trickling down the side of Ezra's face, but Nathan merely shook his head.
"Ezra, ain't you never gonna learn not to provoke that man?" he said wearily. "Like I don't got enough to do 'round here without patchin' you up every time you open your damn fool mouth." He examined the cut over Ezra's left eye with a touch far more gentle than the tone of his voice.
"Mr. Standish, what happened?"
"My own fault, Mrs. Travis, I assure you," Ezra replied dizzily. "I drew to an inside straight, and lost the hand -- it remains to be seen whether or not I have also lost the game."
"I beg your pardon?"
Ezra struggled to his feet and leaned heavily upon the railing for support while he waited for his head to clear. He blinked and met blue eyes clouded with the weight of exhaustion and worry ... worry over Vin, over Chris, and now over him. Pleasure and shame at Mary's concern for his welfare mingled in Ezra's heart and he smiled at her, infusing his face with as much good cheer as his life-long discipline of appearance over emotion could muster.
"Mr. Jackson," he murmured, "after all your protests of displeasure at my exploitation of others, I believe you are a hypocrite." He redirected Nathan's attention from himself to Mary. "You have used Mrs. Travis beyond her resources. Release her from her duties here and allow me to escort her home."
Nathan glanced from Ezra to Mary, and the gambler saw his eyes widen at the sight of her pallor.
"Mrs. Travis, I'm so sorry," he blurted, guilt heavy in his voice. "I was so busy worryin' over Vin, I didn't notice...."
"It's all right, Nathan," Mary reassured him. "I'm glad to have been of help. You've not taxed me at all." She fumbled in her apron pocket for a handkerchief, and used it to dab gingerly at the cut over Ezra's eye. "Perhaps it might be best if we helped each other home, Mr. Standish."
The gambler submitted to her ministrations gratefully, savoring the gesture for a moment before lifting his hand to hers. "I'm fine, Mrs. Travis," he said gently. "Please, allow me...." He took the bloody handkerchief from her and handed it to Nathan, then slipped his hand beneath her elbow. "Have a care now, on the stairs. Mr. Jackson, I trust you will keep us informed as to Mr. Tanner's condition?"
"Sure, Ezra. I expect he'll be able to see folks come morning. You can bring Chris back then; I know Vin'll want to see him."
Ezra nodded. "I will, Nathan. If I can." Mary caught the reserve in the gambler's voice and looked at him curiously; Ezra berated himself for the slip and turned twinkling green eyes upon her. "If I know Mr. Larabee, he'll be keeping company with a long-necked bottle in the saloon until late into the night. I suspect that, come morning, Vin will be in far better condition to socialize than Chris."
Mary tried to frown disapprovingly, but a wink from Ezra prevented her from succeeding. Nathan chuckled.
"Daresay you're right, Ezra. Y'all both get some sleep tonight," he called after them as they descended the stairs, Mary's arm resting lightly on the red sleeve of Ezra's coat.
The next morning's sun spilled in translucent brilliance through the open window, but Ezra was not cheered by the bright promise of a new day. With short, sharp movements he donned his clothing, secured his weapons, straightened his tie, and settled his hat on his head. He examined himself in the foggy silver of the old mirror and frowned, knowing full well that his impeccable appearance would not soften the bad news he expected to deliver to Mary Travis' door later that morning.
Although it was early for the gambler, the town had been stirring for hours and dust was already heavy in the air of Main Street as Ezra left the hotel and headed for the livery stable. Slipping inside the heavy door, he paused for a moment in the cool darkness to let his eyes adjust, then placed his tongue against his teeth and clucked softly. His own horse whickered at the familiar sound and Ezra absently murmured a greeting as he peered deeper into the shadows of the barn. A black gelding thrust his head over a stall door and turned huge dark eyes on him. Ezra drew in a sharp breath.
Chris' horse. A good sign.
With a bit more spring in his step, Ezra left the stable for the boarding house, walking swiftly in the hot sun and mounting the stairs with irrational optimism swelling in his heart. He knocked lightly on the rough wooden door. After a moment, it opened and Chris Larabee stepped out onto the balcony. Ezra carefully settled his face into a mask of neutral cordiality. "Mr. Tanner?" he asked.
"Vin's fine. Already chafin' at Nathan's fussin'." A smile flickered across the taciturn face.
"Glad to hear it," said Ezra sincerely. "Does Nathan need anything?"
"No." The gunfighter looked down at the gambler's lacerated face. "But you and I need to talk."
Ezra stiffened, centered himself, and waited for whatever might come.
"You threw me a couple of gut punches yesterday," said Chris slowly.
"Metaphorically, yes," Ezra replied, unapologetic. "Still, you gave as good as you got, sir. Better, perhaps." He lifted one finger to the cut on his cheek and winced.
"Yeah, I see that," nodded Chris, equally cool. "You're a son of a bitch, Ezra."
Ezra met cold blue eyes with an even green gaze. "I'll take that as a compliment, from one of the finest."
Chris stiffened and raised his hand. Ezra braced himself, but the palm came down gently on his shoulder, and the callused hand gripped his collarbone tightly for a moment before dropping away.
"You do that," the man in black said. The two men regarded each other quietly for a moment, wrapped in a silence that was suddenly, unexpectedly companionable. "I'll tell Vin you stopped by."
Ezra touched his finger to his hatbrim, a gesture that reminded them both of the promise that held them together ... a promise not nearly as one-sided as it had once seemed. No matter how each might chafe at the ties that bound them to Four Corners, they would pace their shared cage together. And the seven would remain seven.
I never knew what you all wanted
~ 30 ~