Birch '06: Epiphany

I ain't what you'd call real religious or devout.  Truth is, I don't even know if I was even baptized.  If I was, it was before my momma died, 'cause I know for sure I never volunteered for a dunkin' since then.  If Momma did have me sworn over ta God or some such, it don't really matter.  Don't figure a man can be held bound to the sort of promise made when he was still in short pants, 'specially if he ain't the one who made it.  

I only remember going ta church around Christmas and Easter.  Most places I've lived didn't even have a full time preacher so it weren't like havin' Sunday services every week was even an option.  Not that I would have gone if it was.

Used to like going for Christmas when I could though.  Local ladies clean the church from top to bottom.  Hell, they even wash down the walls makin' sure everything is spotless before they start decorating.  They always got lots of flowers or pine boughs or something to dress the place up.  

Was in a town once that used something called English Holly ta decorate.  Had to ask someone what that was 'cause I'd never seen it before.  It looked right nice in the windows with those dark green leaves, red berries and white candles.

Church always looks sharp and clean, crisp and new for Christmas.  Even the music is good; lot of hope and joy, with all this promise of good will and peace.  And for once the sermon isn't loaded with fire, brimstone and the wrath of God.  

Yeah, I used to like going to Church at Christmas time.  But then, well, then I met Ezra.  

Now Ezra ain't exactly someone you'd expect to be religious either so his not going to church don't come as a huge surprise to most people.  His profession as a gambler kind of makes it seem more like an oil and water thing.  But honestly, I think he's got more faith than the rest of us.

Oh, not the kind of faith in God and the great hereafter the preachers are always going on about.  But he's got faith.  The man sits down every night at the poker table absolutely convinced he's going to win.  Wouldn't bother with the game otherwise.  He has faith in his ability to read people, to understand the 'probability of the cards' as he puts it, in his knowledge of when to bet and when to fold.

He has faith in us to look out for him in a gun fight.  And hell, let's face it, by all rights we shouldn't be a trustworthy lot.  A former slave could logically harbor a lot of ill will toward a Southern gentleman, at least enough to look the other way when some guy decides to put a bullet in his back.  A greenhorn kid might break in the heat of the moment and leave him high and dry.  A defrocked preacher already workin' on penance for one sin might find betrayal and abandonment easier than standing up for Ezra.  A ladies man with a lot o' angry husbands on his ass might not hang around long enough to make a difference.  A gunslinger who is mad at the world probably couldn't be expected to take the time to give a rat's ass about the well being of someone he really doesn't know.  And an ex-bounty hunter isn't exactly the kind of guy most people would think would stand fast when lead starts flyin' fast and furious.  But Ezra, for as smart as he is at understanding logic overlooked all o' that stuff after we'd been blooded together at the Indian Village.  And he never looked back.  Damn shame we aren't all as quick to do the same for him.

First year we was all in Four Corners, I watched everyone getting all excited 'bout Christmas.  Josiah was plannin' on doin' the sermon; probably the only he'd ever do that was standin' room only.  JD had already asked Casey ta go with him and was worried about makin' sure they got there in time for a good seat.  Nathan was takin' Rain.  And Chris was going with Mary and Billy; he didn't look too unhappy 'bout it.  Hell, Buck had even asked one of the workin' girls ta go with him.  

Christmas is the only time o' the year anyone could show up at Church and wouldn't get turned away or sneered at.  Everyone there in the best suit o' clothes they own, puttin' on a good face for the season.  Nothin' but smiles and 'Happy Christmas' and 'God Bless'.

Going always made me feel a little out of place to be there in my usual stuff, but no one ever said anything.  Is probably the only time I can remember when good upstandin', god-fearing citizens didn't seem to mind mixing with the likes of me.  At Christmas everyone is nice and pleasant.  Really seem intent on good will and the like.  

So there everyone is getting ready ta troop off ta the church, everyone but Ezra.  He's sittin' at his usual table, sippin' a drink and playing solitaire.  

"C'mon Ez.  The service is going to start soon."  JD had been fussin' with his clothes for better than twenty minutes when he blurted that out, checking his reflection in the mirror again.

Ezra just raised an eyebrow.  "And this should be of concern to me because…?"  He waved a hand ta encourage JD to explain it.

"You don't want to be left standing in the back, Ez."

"That will not be of concern, JD."  Ezra just smiled at him.  "I'm not going."

"Not going?"  JD's mouth hung open like a gaping fish.  "What do you mean you're not going?"

"I mean, I'm staying here."  Ezra made a gesture that showed he meant the saloon.

"Everyone goes to Church for Christmas."

Cool green eyes stared at him.  "Not everyone."

Nathan added his two cents.  "Oh for…Ezra, even you can put off lying and cheating for one day."

"What?  You mean like all the other people who will be present?"  Ezra snorted delicately.

When Nathan opened his mouth again, Ezra neatly cut him off. "I see enough hypocrites at this gaming table on a daily basis, Mr. Jackson.  There is no reason to rub elbows with them.  I prefer not to suffer their false wishes of good will and joy when tomorrow they will no doubt question my presence at the service and malign my character in the process."

Nathan had the good grace ta look embarrassed.  No one said any more about going ta church to Ezra, but it got me ta thinkin'.  I was so caught up in the pretty trappings, so grateful ta be accepted without question just once, I'd forgotten that ain't somethin' to be grateful for.  Weren't no denyin' Ezra had called it right. Shouldn't be one damn day out of the year people are nice to one another, lookin' down their noses the rest of the time.

I sauntered over to Ezra's table.  "Deal me, will ya, Pard?"

He jus' tipped his head, gathered up the cards in a neat move and shuffled them.  We played poker while the others went on to Josiah's service.  Can't say I felt short changed in the least.

That night was actually sort of the beginning of Ezra and me being more than friends.  And I really like that none of the others expect us to be anywhere now but keepin' each other company on Christmas.  Best gift I get every year.

The others assume that since Ezra don't go to church on Christmas that he doesn't go at all. Nothing could be further from the truth.  Ezra goes.  He just doesn't go when everyone else does.  

Ezra always goes to church for the feast of the epiphany.  Didn't even know what that was until he told me.  January sixth.  Day the wise men showed up ta give Jesus his birthday presents; gold, frankincense and myrrh.  Don't know what the hell the last two are, but I'm guessing they were good enough gifts at the time.

The church is all back to normal by then.  Ezra told me he liked it better this way, and I have to agree.  Like the walls plain and bare, simple and pristine.  Decorations are all gone so the altar draws all the attention the way it's supposed to.  The place is spotless, and the scent of pine lingers a bit so it smells fresh.  

No one else uses the church on that day, just me and Ezra.  No music or a sermon.  There is this kind of silence that seeps into my bones and settles in, gives me a chance to actually hear myself think. Makes this simple wooden building actually feel sacred, like God might really have touched it once.  I like it.  

Ezra always genuflects.  Makes me think he have been raised Catholic or somethin' close to it since I never saw anyone else do that.   He told me it was a gesture of respect.  I do it now too when we have the place to ourselves.

Most of the time we just sit there quietly and soak up the silence for a bit.  Ezra said he doesn't really pray.  He takes time to evaluate the past year, make plans for the new one, assess what he's learned from the bad things that have happened, and be thankful for the good things in his life.  Seemed a lot more worthwhile than any church service I'd ever gone to, so I try ta do the same thing.   

Ezra always lights a single candle.  He makes the sign of the cross and says something in Latin, I think.  I've never asked what he says and he's never told me.  Figure it's between him and God, not my place to get nosy.

I light a candle of my own.  The shaman told me smoke carries prayers to the Great Spirit.  Big prayers sometimes need a big fire.  Figure the candle is enough to take my thank you.  I got a lot of good things in my life, not the least of which is Ezra.  Seems only right that I tell Him I appreciate what I got.

Outside the rest of the town is back to normal.  It's almost like Christmas and the start of the new year never happened.  I definitely prefer the ritual Ezra and I have.  Other people's might be more showy, lot more obvious and loud, but don't really think it's any more meaningful.  

We head for the saloon.  Another thing I like about our ritual.  Nothing wrong with having a drink today.  Nothing wrong with a game of cards.  And nothing wrong with heading up to Ezra's room afterward and spendin' some time getting reacquainted with familiar territory.

"Ezra, Vin."  Chris nods to us as we step up on to the boardwalk.  Ezra raises two fingers to the brim of his hat, and I nod back.  Don't know if he knows we've been in the church.  Not like it matters.  We weren't doing anything wrong, and it's open ta everyone.  

Ezra signals to Inez as we enter.  She waves in acknowledgement.  She'll bring by a bottle of his expensive scotch for him, and a couple of glasses.  We'll share a toast that's nothing more than raising our glasses ta one another.

I settle into my usual chair.  "Deal me in, will ya, Pard?"

Ezra smiles and tips his head.  "But of course."