Ezra awoke sometime later to find himself in Nathan’s clinic. Was he still dreaming?
“Hey, Pard! ‘Bout time you woke up!”
“Mr. Wilmington? What am I doing here?”
“We found you in that cave and brought you back to town. Let me tell you, we were plum worried about you, Ez. But now Nathan here’s gonna fix you up like new so don’t you worry none. I’ll be right back. Everybody’s been waitin’ for you to wake up.”
Nathan came over to the bed to feel Ezra’s forehead. “Hm. No fever. Weren’t one before, neither. I just can’t figure it out.”
Ezra jerked his head away. “What do you think you’re doing?”
“I’m looking after you. What does it look like I’m doin’? Now hold still and let me see your eyes.”
Ezra scooted away from him, looking about the room for his clothes. “I need to leave. Where are my things?”
Just then the others came bursting into the room, glad to hear that their wayward gambler was alright. Chris scowled to see Ezra trying to leave already.
“You get back in that bed, Ezra. We didn’t trek out into the countryside to find you just so you could leave the minute you woke up. We need to talk.”
“You don’t understand! I have to leave. You should’ve let me leave. I knew the letter was a bad idea. That’s what made you go in search of me, wasn’t it? My own foolish sentimentality got the better of me. What time is it?”
Nathan looked at the clock on the night table. “It’s just after supper. I bet I could still find you something to eat if you get back in that bed.”
“I have to get away from town. Where are my clothes?! WHERE ARE THEY?!”
Ezra’s eyes were darting around the room. Chris had never seen him look so…agitated. Like a trapped animal. He grabbed Ezra’s arm and tried to get him back into bed.
Ezra suddenly turned on him, punching wildly with both fists. “DON’T TOUCH ME!” He pushed Chris back onto the bed and started choking him. The animal was still close in him, still strong.
The others tried to pull him off, but Ezra had the strength of a madman. He screamed and punched and kicked. “I’M GOING TO KILL YOU ALL! DON’T YOU UNDERSTAND? I’M CURSED! CURSED! WHY DIDN’T YOU JUST LET ME GO? WHY?”
JD ran to get some rope. They didn’t want to do it, but they were afraid Ezra would hurt someone—maybe even himself. Buck and Vin tied him down while the others held him. Then they forced the gambler to drink something Nathan made to calm him. After a while, Ezra started to relax, his eyelids drooping. With a collective sigh, his friends let go.
Ezra wasn’t asleep, but the draught Nathan poured down his throat made him feel weak and disjointed. He needed to leave. When the moon rose again that night, he would change. Then what? Attack them? Kill them? Maybe he would get lucky and they would shoot him first. That would be one way to end everyone’s misery. He shouldn’t have left that letter. It was a slip on his part. Somewhere within himself he’d wanted to know that his friends cared enough to seek him out. Now his foolishness would cost them dearly. He should have let them believe he’d run out on them.
Vin gave Chris a look. He’d watch over him for a bit. Chris nodded back. He ushered everyone else out of the room.
JD was visibly shaken. “What’s wrong with him, Chris? Is he…is he crazy?”
Buck kept his voice down, but it was a harsh whisper. “Don’t say that! Don’t you be saying that! He can’t be…can he?”
Chris’s eyes narrowed in thought. “Don’t know. Maybe. Could be that’s why Maude wanted him to leave. She might’ve been afraid he’d hurt somebody.”
Nathan nodded. “I’ve seen it in the war. Men who seemed so normal sometimes could go crazy in an instant and kill some poor fool for saying the wrong word to ‘em. He ain’t said, but I’m bettin’ Ezra was in the war. Maybe he saw things that he just can’t deal with. He’s a private man, JD. We don’t really know all that much about him.”
Josiah thought about his sister, locked in her own tortured mind, seeing demons no one else could see. He thought about the monster that killed all those women and tried to blame him for it. Heaven help poor Ezra! He couldn’t bear the thought of such a madness coming on that boy.
Ezra looked over to see that Vin was the only one in the room. He had to make him understand. “Mr. Tanner. Vin.”
“Yeah, Ez? You need a bit of water or somethin’?”
“No. I’m…I’m sorry about earlier. You just don’t understand. I need to tell you.”
“Let me get the others.”
“No. Please. They’ll just look at me as if I were mad. I don’t want to see that in their eyes. Not right now.”
“I have to leave because I’m…” He paused, uncertain how to continue. “Do you believe in werewolves, Vin? Loup Garou?”
“You mean like people turning into animals and such?”
“Never met one, but that don’t mean they ain’t real. Some tribes believe animals can disguise themselves as people. Some think great warriors or shamans can become animals or even borrow their powers. Why ya askin’?”
“I need to tell you a story, Vin—a true story. Promise me you’ll at least keep an open mind.”
“Whatever you wanna tell me, Ezra, I’ll try to understand.”
Ezra took a deep breath and met Vin’s gaze, willing the tracker to believe him. “There was a man, a long time ago. No one remembers his name and if they did, they would curse it. Suffice is to say, he was an ancestor of mine…and a man of many vices who thought that he could do anything without fear of reprisal. There was a woman—a beautiful gypsy woman. He became obsessed with her. She was married and refused his advances. He forced himself on her and killed her husband when he tried to stop him. He believed that his money and status would protect him. Besides, they were gypsies. Who would take their word over that of someone important like him? But he hadn’t counted on the husband’s mother. She had power. I don’t mean she was a leader among her people, although that may have been true, as well. I mean she had power. Not unlike that of a shaman. The old woman cursed him and all his first-born sons forever.” Ezra had often pondered the unfairness of such a curse. To harm innocent generations to come for the crimes of a wretched man who probably wouldn’t care what happened to his progeny anyway. Couldn’t she just have tortured her son’s murderer somehow and left his ancestors out of it?
“Sorry. I’ve never told anyone this before. It’s been a family secret for so long. When I was just a boy, my father told me this story.”
“Kind of a strange story ta tell a kid, ain’t it?”
“Father had a reason for telling me. He knew as soon as I reached puberty, I, too, would be affected by the curse. He was a first born son, descended from that murderous fiend…and so am I.”
“What was the curse?”
“I asked you if you believed in werewolves, Vin, because…because I am such a creature. That is the Standish Curse. Every month, for the six days of the full moon, I transform into a wolf. I become a wild animal with no thought or memory of my human self, no control.”
“Please, Vin. Please don’t look at me like that. I thought you were different, more open-minded than the others in regard to things of a supernatural nature.”
“I’m just trying to get my thoughts around it, Ez. It’s a lot to take on faith.”
“Father swore he would never pass the curse on to another generation. But then he met Maude. They were so right for each—both exceptional con artists and card sharps. After a spectacularly lucrative con the two of them decided to celebrate. Drunk with the rush of success and too much alcohol, they consummated their relationship. I was born nine months later.”
Vin saw the sadness in Ezra’s eyes when he mentioned his pa. Usually he was harder to read, but right now he couldn’t hide much of anything. “What happened to yer pa?”
“Mother would get so angry at him. Every month he would leave, not returning for a week or more. He refused to tell her where he’d been. She began to suspect he was cheating on her, or worse, engaging in some money-making scheme behind her back. She threatened to leave him. For all their faults, I do believe they loved each other. In deference to that love, Father confessed his secret to her. Of course, she thought him mad until he proved it to her. He locked himself in the basement in anticipation of the change. Mother listened at the door, forced to hear his screams and then his howls as he transformed. After that, his secret became our secret.
He stayed home after that where it was safer, locking himself up in the basement during the full moon so he would not harm anyone. This went on for several years. But the locks became rusty from use and abuse. He managed to break the door open one night. We found out later that he killed a man from a nearby homestead—ripped open his throat. Tasting human flesh and blood changed him. He became more like an animal even during the day. It wasn’t his fault. That was part of the curse. One day, a few days before the full moon when his control was at its weakest, he attacked Mother. She was forced to… She shot him with the derringer she carries on her person. And she promised him she would do the same for me if it ever became necessary.”
That was the promise Vin heard her mention in the livery! Maude killed Ezra’s pa! And she promised to kill Ezra, too? Vin knew she was a cold woman, but that weren’t natural—a mother promising to kill her son. But what if he was really a werewolf? Vin remembered something he’d seen in that place where they found Ezra. He’d put it in the back of his mind ‘cause helping his friend was more important at the time. But now his thoughts went to ponderin’ on what he’d seen. Paw prints. Paw prints in that little space where there weren’t nobody but Ezra.
“Vin? I’ve heard you speak often of spirits and shaman magic and supernatural creatures—things you learned of from the Indians. That’s why I’ve told you all of this. You know such things exist. The others will only think I’m insane and try to restrain me for my own good. But it will be for no one’s good. I have to leave! I need to get as far away from town as possible before moonrise tonight. Help me! Please.”
No man should be wantin’ something so bad it shone out his eyes like that. Ez looked like a man that just crawled through the desert with nothing to drink and found a guy holding a bucket of water on the other side. Vin couldn’t refuse to give the man a drink.
“I’ll help you. But you gotta let me come with you. I ain’t gonna let you go any other way. You hear me?”
“Nope. I come with you—at least part ways or I ain’t lettin’ you go. And you better promise me you’ll come back in the morning. You hear me? Yer one of us now, Ezra, and we ain’t gonna sit back and watch you go. Some folks may not think yer an honorable man, but I know you always keep yer word. Promise me.”
Ezra was taken aback. Vin thought he was an honorable man? Certainly he always tried to keep his word once he gave it, but he didn’t think that anyone had noticed that little foible of his. It certainly wasn’t something he advertised, being a gambler and conman. He also realized he would get nowhere without assistance. He was weak and no doubt being watched by the others for any attempt to escape. He’d lost control and it had cost him. Ezra would have to rely on Vin Tanner. He only hoped the tracker wouldn’t regret it. “You have my word. We must leave as soon as possible, though.”
“Gotcha. I’ll be right back. Make like yer sleepin’.” Vin went out into the hall where the others waited.
JD nervously rubbed his arm. “Is he okay?”
“He’s asleep. I’ll stay with him for a coupla hours if you boys wanna head down to the saloon.”
Chris opened the door just to reassure himself that Ezra was okay. He looked like he was resting peacefully. “We’ll be right downstairs if you need us. I’ll come up later to relieve you. Buck, you’ve got patrol.”
“Aw, Chris! I wanna keep an eye on Ez here.”
“Somebody’s still got to keep an eye on the town and it’s your turn.”
Nathan reassured the ladies man. “Don’t you worry, Buck. Whatever was wrong with him don’t seem to be life-threatening. He seems pretty healthy to me. Ezra’ll probably be back to his prickly self by the time your shift’s over.”
“You’re probably right. Well, I’ll see you boys later, then.” Buck reluctantly headed out. Chris, Josiah, and JD went downstairs. Nathan didn’t budge.
“You look dead on yer feet, Nathan. When you eat last?”
“That’s what I thought. Reckon you could do with some decent food and a bit of rest. Why don’t you go on, too.”
“But I should…”
“Now don’t you worry none. Yer not too far away. If anything happens, I’ll come get ya. Okay?”
“Well, alright. I guess I am a mite hungry. I’ll be back in a little bit.”
Vin snuck off to Ezra’s room to get his traveling gear. Nobody’d had a chance to unpack any of his things yet. He only took one change of clothes so Ezra’d have something else to come back for. He then made his way back into the room where Ezra lay. “Psst. It’s me. I got your stuff. You up to getting yourself dressed while I watch the door?”
“I think I can manage, albeit somewhat more slowly than usual.”
Vin peeked out into the hallway. “Not too slow. You know how Nathan frets. Reckon he’ll be back up here before too long. Chris and the others’ll surely be up soon, too. They was real worried about you after Josiah read us your note.”
Ezra had a look of disbelief on his face that he was unable to conceal. They were worried about him that much? Surely they had only chased Ezra down to question him about his abrupt departure. They’d wanted answers. It couldn’t have been concern…could it?
Vin saw that look. “Yeah, Ez. We were all worried about ya. That was a mighty fine letter you wrote. Figure it’s easier for some people to say things on paper that they can’t say out loud.”
Ezra endeavored to slip his arm into the correct sleeve of his shirt, ignoring the sentimental foolishness Vin was trying to share with him. He couldn’t contemplate such things now. His emotions would only be a liability. Cursed letter! He never should’ve written it! It was too late for regret, however. Now was the time to fix his mistakes. “I’m ready, Mr. Tanner. Or at least as ready as I can be in this dreadful state.”
“Yeah. You ain’t lookin’ so good. I figure if we’re real quiet and no one comes by, we can sneak out the back way.”
“Then by all means. Let us proceed.”
Vin took Ezra’s arm, supporting him as they slipped out of the room and moved silently down the hall. Ezra was shaky and sleepy, but his determination kept him upright and mobile.
A short time later, the two of them quietly rode out of town, Ezra slumping in his saddle. Vin rode close in case he started to fall. If the two of them hadn’t been so preoccupied with their own predicament, they would’ve noticed the three men following them from town.