A Prize Ungained

by JoJo
August 2013 post-Obsession challenge: Ezra ponders what he might gain and what's to be lost.
E, V, J, B, N; Old West; FRT

When Chris took the bullet from Ella Gaines, Ezra forgot about the diamond. He really did, although he was sure none of them would have believed that of him.

For a period of a few hours it fled his mind completely. They were the raw, otherwordly hours familiar at the end of a firestorm, nothing new to any of them. Only this had left one of them bleeding too fast, and an innocent woman stone dead on the porch. Ezra's stomach churned repeatedly at the thought of both.

And never mind losing the diamond. For a while it seemed everyone had lost their mind.

If he hadn't seen it with his own eyes Ezra wouldn't have believed that Vin fluffed the kill-shot for a start. Knowing Chris was writhing in pain in the dust at his feet because of that woman, knowing he was losing blood from what looked like a fatal wound it didn't make any sense at all that Vin wouldn't have hit the target. Ezra had felt the anticipatory surge of twisty emotions as Vin rose, took aim, cool as steel. He'd assumed the bullet would reach, topple Ella Gaines from her horse. And then it hadn't and it didn't, and it was confusing. He almost blurted something caustic, only Vin looked as if he wouldn't stand for it. Ezra didn't always choose to respect Tanner's wilder ways, but he did fear them.

When he'd realized Chris was down, Ezra's first thought was: don't let that squirrely doctor near him.

At the time not even that was enough to remind him of the diamond. He didn't find out until later that the squirrely 'doctor' was no more qualified to practice medicine than Nathan Jackson was, and although that possibility had never occurred to him when they'd played poker, he'd known in his gut the man was tricky somewhere along the line. Not tricky enough at the table to best him, of course, but tricky nonetheless.

When he'd said, "I knew it," to Buck, Buck had just looked at him with an unsettling, glassy-eyed stare and didn't answer.

It took Ezra a while to work out that maybe the poor dead woman - Hilda, with the voice of an angel - maybe she had meant something to Buck after all. If not in the romantic sense then in the philosophical one at least. Was that possible? Yes, yes, certainly it was, because, despite evidence to the contrary, Buck had a keenly thinking brain and he'd been doing a good deal of cogitating since Miss Perkins rode off into the sunset.

The look in Buck's eyes though. That had been disturbing. Of course, he was frantic about Chris, stunned at what had just happened, like they all were, not having expected the surprise attack or how the Gaines woman would turn rattler. But it was even more than that.

"You all right, Buck?"

Buck had gotten that impatient look then. The one he sometimes assumed when the fun with Ezra was over for whatever reason. As if he suddenly remembered that Ezra was irritating and shallow.

"Chris," he'd said, sounding in pain, and Ezra had felt his mouth dry out.

They'd moved the wounded man inside then - Nathan and Vin. Chris had been conscious, but his eyes had been squeezed tight shut against the pain of being lifted, and the skin around his mouth was a sickening gray color.

Ezra had looked away.

"Things to do, Buck," he'd said, brisk. "Chris is in good hands." He'd looked across at the squirrely fake doctor, cowering near the front door. The man was in shock, still trembling, fear in his eyes wondering what they'd do to him.

Ezra had figured he was safe enough. That burning, blue-eyed crackle of Buck's would have been concerning, but Buck didn't seem to have that back quite yet and almost passively allowed Ezra to persuade him to leave Hilda's body where it was for the moment.

J.D. and Josiah came to help with the wounded and dead, poor Miss Hilda included. When Vin came down from the sick room he said Chris was in and out of consciousness but while he was awake he kept talking about Sarah, agitated as hell, so they sent Buck on up to help out. Vin rode off over the rise after Ella Gaines to at least try and discover which direction she'd headed. He came back after a couple of hours, said he thought she'd changed horses but had been headed east. There were at least three leads to follow.

"Needs all of us," he'd said, eyes stormy.

The late afternoon had already turned to early evening by then and daylight began to fade.

They'd let Ezra question the fake doctor, to see if he might be able to guess where Ella Gaines had gone, but it turned out the man was no help. All he wanted to do was leave, disappear, and nobody seemed interested in him once they'd decided he had nothing to tell them they didn't already know, or guess.

Lights were burning in the house and the news from upstairs hadn't gotten any better. They had two wounded prisoners to feed and themselves to feed. The curled up remains of the buffet had done for everyone who could stand to take a bite. Ezra had been tempted by an unopened $5 bottle of 1868 Chateau Lafitte... but only for a moment, only until he'd remembered the straits they were in and the desire for it had curdled in his stomach.

And it was that moment of desire for fine things that had reminded him.

His lost diamond dropped into his consciousness, sharp and fine.

He almost flushed hot at the memory. Not of how he won it, but how he lost it. A mixture of alarm and embarrassment, at first, recalling how he'd been scrabbling in the dust, had been dragged back under the wagon by Josiah. And then those familiar undertones of a sharp, almost painful, need he knew all too well. The overwhelming and absolute necessity to have something valuable in his possession. Something he could rely on.

Even knowing there'd been no rich and grateful patient after all, Ezra was still sure the diamond was real, as much as he'd been able to ascertain without a jeweler's loupe to hand. The silvery reflections, the way his breath dissolved on it, the weight, the mount. He had only a rough idea of how much it might be worth, but he knew plenty of people who could tell him for sure.

When he took a look around the room, dull now with its low, respectful lamplight, he felt guilty about his thought process. Of course, but need was need. And a diamond was a diamond.

His feet were moving him towards the door when Vin materialized from somewhere, took hold of his arm.

"Maybe need to go bunk down," Vin said, face pale, fingers pinching. "We'll be out of here at first light."

Ezra was confused all over again. Surely Chris wouldn't be well enough to travel, even supposing he survived the night? It must have showed on his face as Vin slanted him one of his near-disdainful looks.

"Taking the prisoners in. Bringing the undertaker." He paused. "Finding that bitch."

"Oh of course," Ezra said, thinking to himself No, I must go and find it. I must find my diamond.

Vin didn't drop his eyes, kept staring into him. Ezra felt a perverse wish to squabble with him, and then he remembered Chris and a wash of fear almost rocked him off his feet. Abruptly, something hard in Vin's gaze softened a little too and he let go. Tanner turned on his heel, headed for the door, as if he couldn't bear being in the house a second longer.

Ezra waited for his heart rate to slow down. He wasn't sure where Buck and J.D. were. They'd come in and picked at some food not long ago. Maybe they were out with the prisoners again, or maybe Buck was upstairs with Chris and Nathan. At any rate, now seemed like the perfect opportunity. To go check, before it was completely dark out there. Just once. Just so he'd know. And if it wasn't there, he'd leave it. There'd be nothing more he could do. He'd just have to accept it, offer himself up for whatever shift was needed - sickroom duty, guard, overnight watch. Or else take Vin's advice, go bunk down for an hour or two in that filthy cellar.

Out on the porch there was a cool breeze blowing. Ezra averted his eyes from the dark stain on the boards. The thought of a young woman lying sightless and cold under a sheet in the back room turned his guts to water, made him want to vomit.

For a second he stood on the top step, clearing his head, then trying to distract himself from the horror, get a bead on where he thought he should search. The wagon was a silhouette across the yard. Light from the house didn't quite reach the area in front of it, but almost, and there was probably just about enough of the day left...

He was down the steps and walking out across the yard when a figure loomed up from the shadows by the cellar door and nearly took his feet from under him. Ezra was reaching for his gun, the adrenaline suddenly back and coursing through him in a sickening re-run of the day, when he realized it was Josiah.

"Good Lord!" he burst out. "What are you trying to do?"

"Ezra," Josiah said, voice a dangerous rumble in the dusk. "I want a word with you."

"Oh hell, do you have to? Do you have to now?"

"Heaven knows there are enough heavy matters to think about," Josiah said. "But there's one I can't get out of my mind."

Ezra thought that the one thing he didn't want right now, even if it was entirely apt, was any more advice about looking into his own heart.

"Unfortunate of course," Ezra said, clipped. "But do your best."

In truth there were a few things he'd liked to have said to Josiah, too, but not until he'd rid himself of this pricking in his fingers.

"What were you doing? What in the Lord's name were you thinking?" Josiah's voice began to rise, became uncharacteristically overwrought. "First of all, you came out of cover - twice. And second of all-"

"The diamond," Ezra said, bracing to receive a telling-off.

"I thought you'd been hit! Lord save us, Ezra, I thought-"

Josiah trailed off. And then Ezra recalled the impact. He recalled parts of his life firing through his mind like bullets from a Gatling gun. There'd been a terrifying burn in his chest. As soon as he'd heard Josiah say the word 'hit' he'd been convinced, too busy spouting shocked nonsense out loud to realize he wasn't bleeding.

Josiah poked him beneath his shoulder, and Ezra felt the bruising.

"It's the second time in as many months some ill-gotten gain has saved your life. You won't be lucky again. You can't be. Something has to change."

"Hardly ill-gotten if you don't mind. I won that diamond fair and square."

By the look on Josiah's face Ezra realized that he still hadn't convinced any of them that he understood the term in the same way they did.

"You've come out to look for it, haven't you?" Josiah demanded, shaking his head in disbelief. "After everything, after it could have killed you, you just can't leave it alone."

The Stutz blood-money, all over again. The money that still wasn't doing anybody any good.

"Now listen here," Ezra growled back at him. He wasn't going to put up with this again. Not again. "That diamond saved my life - damn right I'm not going to leave it alone."

But as he walked away from Josiah, out into the open, he began to wonder.

Just what would he do with it, if he ever laid eyes on it again? Because really, although some might call it the luckiest of lucky diamonds, and although Ezra himself sometimes rode his luck as if it was a trick pony, he knew better than to place any trust in it, to leave matters to Chance.

The ground was scuffed. It was dusty and roughened by wagon wheels, hooves, bullets and changeable weather. Already Ezra had calculated from what direction the bullet had come, how far the missing stone might have spun after being knocked from the pin. The bullet had split his vest pocket, must have been catapulted in front of him. He'd been poised, firing, on one knee, vaguely aware that his left side was vulnerable but intent on taking out the advancing man and his two guns.

"Saved my life," he muttered, bending to the earth, focused and sharp. In the back of his mind he was forced to acknowledge that if the jewel had been a savior, then Josiah had been even more of one. The preacher had probably risked his own life dragging Ezra out of harm's way.

He searched good and long, even knowing Josiah was watching him. Once he glanced up and saw that Vin was on the porch too. And then Nathan. He acknowledged them all and their interest with a sardonic wave of his hand. Turning over clods of earth one by one, he made a sweep of an area far too large to make sense in either logical or scientific terms. Some pig-headed impulse kept him going. His heartbeat was slow and steady but before long he had a sinking feeling. It was starting to seem as if there was, after all, nothing to find, and he couldn't quite bring himself to scratch into the dust with his fingertips, in case it had been trodden into the ground. Once upon a time he would have, he supposed. Even with an audience.

Finally, with as much dignity as he could muster, he rose slowly to his feet and brushed down his pants. The bruise throbbed under his ruined vest, reminding him of his failures. Glancing to his audience, he gave them a shrug.

"Could have done somebody some good," he said as he walked towards them. He wasn't even talking about himself but he didn't know if they understood that. "How's Chris?"

"It's a nasty wound." Nathan was tense, easing the kinks out of his back. "The bullet's out, but he's cookin' up a fever, gonna need watching." He gave Ezra a close look. "You feelin' sore?"

Ezra blinked at him.

"Sore?" he said, wondering if Nathan meant what he thought he meant.

"Where that bullet punched?"

Relief coursed through him, as well as plain gratitude.

"Well I can surely feel it," he said, rotating the shoulder with care. "But it's no trouble. Thank you for your concern."

Nathan nodded a curt 'you're welcome'.

"You find it, your lucky diamond?" Vin asked then in a scratchy voice.

Ezra took a deep breath of the tangy evening air. Being part of this collective seemed to mean he had to justify himself every five minutes. But hell, he was used to it by now.

The other three were looking at him. And not like they thought he was a conniving son-of-a-bitch. More as if they thought he maybe had something halfway worthwhile to say.

One more search, a little demon voice was still whispering, for it rarely ceased plaguing him. Just one more and you'd have found it, for sure. There's nowhere else it can be. It's yours, it's what you really want.

Ezra felt its presence. It was calling, somewhere behind him. The siren song was loud, almost hurt his ears. Just as it had been for Chris, perhaps.

"I guess the damned thing's to do with her," Ezra said at last, face twisted in reluctant admission. "Even if only by association. And she's poison."

"She's that all right." It was Nathan who said it, but it could have been any of them. "And don't we just know it now."

Nobody looked up at the window overhead, but they were thinking about it, about Chris fighting fever and blood loss, Ezra knew that.

With a spike-sharp pang he recalled the ride in, their first view of the house. Chris sitting by Ella in the buggy, the tussle over the chicken leg, the moments when Vin had been relaxed enough to laugh with him, or even at him, it hadn't mattered. He recalled Buck twinkling, ribbing him when he'd scoped out the silver on Ella Gaines' sumptuous table; the brief but unintentionally hilarious exchange he and Josiah had had about golf, amusing and frustrating one another in equal measure; all the things J.D. showed he'd learned that Ezra supposed he might even be able to take a smidgeon of credit for; all that concern Nathan had for them, day after stubborn day. And most clearly of all how deep down hurting in the belly bad he'd felt when Chris told them he was staying. That he was leaving them.

In the long silence Ezra tugged at his grubby cuffs.

"My lucky diamond, gentlemen," he said, and all eyes turned to him once again, suspicious. He almost quailed under the looks but squared his shoulders so he was standing as tall as he could. "It goes against the grain of course, but in our current circumstances, well it seems to me it would be luckier by far to leave it behind."

Out of the corner of his eye Ezra could see Vin's shadowy profile. There was the faintest of nods before Tanner pushed off the porch balustrade and down the steps. It was about as much of an endorsement as he was likely to give.

There was a very faint quirk at the corner of Nathan's lips. "Let me know if you change your mind about that bruisin'," he said, before he turned to go back inside.

Left out on the porch with Josiah, Ezra felt fatigue creeping up on him. His eyes were gritty and his ribs hurt. He'd crossed the Rubicon by giving up on the diamond, burned his bridges, but somehow that didn't pain him as much as he'd feared it might.

"There are things worth dying for," Josiah mused, but thank goodness it didn't sound like the start of a sermon.

"Not many."

"Not many at all."

Ezra patted at his ruined vest, wondered if he could be bothered to go down into the cellar and retrieve his jacket. Despite his weariness, his mind felt active and restless. He decided that if he could find something useful to do he might be able to keep forgetting about those three lost carats.

"They do say of course that one of them's the truth."

Josiah cocked his head towards him. "They do say that."

"Well. I was thinking about that room of hers, the one Buck said Chris was fretting about. I'm wondering if there might be something in there to give Vin a head start in the morning? I'm not sure it's a job for J.D., and Buck won't be leaving Chris. So... would you care to join me?"

He heard Josiah breathe in a full lungful of air and let it out in a loud puff.

"I'd be glad to," he said.

Pushing everything else out of his mind, Ezra reached for the door.

The warmth of a hand on his back was enough to offset the chill of a dark that was even now settling around the house.