They arrived in the village a short time later to the welcoming smiles of the Seminoles. It was a much better reception than the “hospitality” they received the first time they entered the village. Kojay’s smile turned to concern when he saw the gambler being pulled behind the others. The tracker did not look well, either.
“It is good to see you again, my friends, but I do not think you are here to visit. There is trouble.”
“We need yer help.” Vin went off to talk to Kojay while the others waited. Several minutes later Kojay and Vin returned.
“Yokche needs to consult the spirits. Warm yourselves by the fire. There is food if you are hungry.” They brought the travois closer to the fire and gently lifted Ezra off it and onto a soft mat the women had brought. They sat around the gambler, making a circle of protection to keep him safe from the outside world and from himself. A quiet, contemplative mood fell over the group.
Ezra awoke with a start. Blood! Blood everywhere! He looked down at himself. No blood. But there was blood. A lot of it. He could still taste the coppery tang of it in his mouth. In his mouth? The horrifying image of the scraggly-bearded bounty hunter came back to him. His throat open, blood dripping out onto the ground. The taste of him—it was sweet, so sweet. What would it be like to taste it again? Nonononononono! That wasn’t him. That was the wolf! What had he done?
“Ez? Hey, Pard. You okay there?”
“I killed him! I ripped his throat out! Merciful Heaven! Why didn’t you let me leave? There’s nothing left for me now. Nothing.”
Josiah laid his arm across Ezra’s shoulder in a brotherly gesture. Ezra pushed him away with a snarl. “Don’t touch me, Preacher!”
The expression on Ezra’s face startled Josiah. The change had been so sudden. The younger man looked…feral.
Vin moved a little closer to the gambler, but not close enough to make him feel threatened. “Calm down, Ezra. No one here’s gonna hurt ya. We’re aimin’ ta help ya if we can.”
Ezra Standish sneered. “How can you help me? Do you know how to lift curses? You must be a man of many talents.”
“We’re in the Seminole village. We figger they can do somethin’ for ya.”
Ezra looked around as if seeing his surroundings for the first time. “The best thing you could do for me now would be to give me a gun.”
Josiah reached out to him. “Now, Son, you shouldn’t…”
“GET AWAY FROM ME! Don’t..! Just stay away.” His words faded. Ezra turned away from them, trying to rein in his temper. After a few deep breaths he looked back at them. “My apologies.”
Nathan drew back ever so slightly, unable to quite look him in the eye.
“You must be taking lessons from Mother.”
“What do you mean?”
“She’s quite adept at looking at me without really looking, touching me without really touching. Fear is a powerful emotion, Mr. Jackson. I suppose I shouldn’t blame her after what happened with Father. Nor should I blame you for your fear in light of my recent outbursts.”
“Vin told us a bit about what happened to your pa. You wanna talk about? It might help us understand.”
Ezra stared at the fire, thinking of the man his father had been before their lives went horribly wrong. His voice was soft, the voice of someone lost in memories. “We were very close. Mother was not an affectionate person, but I believe in time, with Father’s influence, she could’ve learned how to be such a mother. But she never got the chance.
He always made sure he stayed away from us when he was feeling a loss of control. Father didn’t want us to see him that way. But after… Things changed. He killed a man, tasted his flesh and blood. That slowly drove him mad, making the animal stronger in him. Like it’s now growing in me. He knew what was happening, but he couldn’t stop it. There were times when the wildness would leave him and he would be the man I remembered. As time passed, those moments grew less frequent until his control was almost nonexistent. Father became…violent. We had to flee St. Louis one night because he killed a man over a card game with his bare hands.”
Josiah frowned, a tightness forming around his eyes. “He hurt you?”
Ezra shuddered even though he wasn’t cold. “It wasn’t him anymore. The wolf was almost all that was left. He couldn’t fight it. That night… It was my fault. I said something to anger him. Mother was protecting me. Then he turned on her. She had no choice. I think a part of her still blames for me for that.”
“It wasn’t your fault, Ezra. By what you said, it was inevitable.”
“The head is a logical place, Josiah, but the heart is another matter entirely.”
JD traced little designs in the sand with a stick. “What happened after that?”
“We moved to another town. Two years later I began to experience the change. We drifted from city to city after that, keeping one step ahead of suspicious people and potential trouble. When I was old enough, we parted ways. By then I knew how to take care of myself.”
No one spoke for several minutes, each lost in his own thoughts. What would such a life be like?
Nathan finally broke the silence. “I’m sorry I… Just sorry is all. You just put me in mind of some werewolves I ran into when I was a kid. I was a slave down in Louisiana. A couple of them slunk out of the Bayou and attacked some of us on the plantation. I got hurt real bad.” He was looking Ezra right in the eye, letting him know he now saw the man he knew and not the animal he’d feared. “But they weren’t cursed like you. Everybody knew about them, but nobody said anything. They were born like that—a whole family of them raised up to be mean-spirited and cruel. They grew up liking what they were. They’d skin you alive as soon as look at you whether they were in wolf form or human. Most people just thought they were animals wearing human skin. But they weren’t like you at all, Ezra. They didn’t have any heart or soul. And not a one of them had anybody to call friend.” He got up from the group to get Ezra something to eat, patting him on the shoulder gently as he walked by. Ezra stared after him.
Chris noticed how Ezra’s eyes kept going to their weapons. “You might as well give it up. No one’s going to let you have a gun or a knife or anything else you can kill yourself with. There’s not a man here who wants you dead.”
Ezra remembered all the times Chris had threatened him. “Oh, really?”
“Not a single man. Best get used to the idea. Now try to relax and get your strength back. Whatever the shaman’s got planned—you’ll probably need it.”
Vin poked at the fire. “We don’t wanna lose you, Ez. And not just ‘cause yer good at whatcha do. Yer one of us. Ain’t had much in this life. What I got, I wanna keep.”
There was no hint of deception in Vin Tanner’s eyes. He looked around to see similar expressions on the faces of the others. They didn’t just need him here—they wanted him. When did that happen? He pushed past the lump in his throat. It was to Vin he spoke. “But you will lose me, my friend. A piece of my soul at a time until there’s nothing left but a rabid animal. You’ll have to put me down in the end. Who knows how many will suffer or die at my hands before then? Do it while I’m still a man, while I still have a conscious to regret my actions. I don’t want the weight of more deaths on my shoulders. Promise me. If they can’t find a way to lift the curse…”
“If there’s no way at all…I’ll do it. My word as a Tanner.”
Vin left the fire to go talk to the shaman. JD caught up to him. “You’d do that? You’d…you’d kill him?”
“I promised him if there’s no way at all to save him I’d do it. I’m gonna make sure there’s a way.”