by KellyA

Webmaster Note: This fic was previously posted on another website and was moved to blackraptor in June of 2004.

[Thanks to my beta Carla for all her insight and encouragement.]

Feb 2000

Part 1

Her presence cut sharply through the laughter and chatter of the saloon like a card through a deck.  The scowl on her dour face would prompt the devil himself to run for cover, and caused several cowpokes to scramble out of her impending path.  Her long, dark skirt flared out behind her determined strides as she crossed the wooden floor of the saloon. Her dark eyes fixed on the back of her intended target.  Even the less than steady patrons suddenly sobered at the sight of the enraged woman and an outspreading hush fell as she past.

Maude was a woman to be reckoned with, and today was reckoning day!

She stopped her walk of rage at the corner table where Ezra was just beginning to deal out a new hand.  He was aware of the silent commotion his mother's presence had caused, but chose to ignore it.  He finally stopped dealing when he noticed the sudden disinterest of his fellow player's.  Their eyes nervously looked over his shoulder.   They all looked ready to bolt at the slightest provocation.   Ezra felt the sudden drop in temperature and gave a cursory glance over his shoulder, a gentle smirk wafted across his clean shaven appearance.

"Where were you?  Why didn't you meet me in Cedar Ridge?" Maude snapped out, the venom dripping off her words.  She shook with the anger that filled her.  Her wrinkled, yet flexible fingers opening and closing at her side.

Josiah and Chris put down their beers, wondering what could so inflame the indomitable conwoman.  They slowly made their way over to Ezra's table. 

Josiah's brow furrowed, he had never seen the elegant woman so incensed.  Maude exuded confidence and control over every aspect of her life.  She would never allow anything less.   Josiah knew that Ezra could try the patients of a saint, but Maude Standish was far from saintly and probably the only person who could tolerate the egotistical gambler on his own terms.

JD and Buck  stood off to the side casually observing the scene.  Buck smiled at the thought of seeing Ezra getting a tongue-lashing from his mother.  This would be good for at least a month of annoying torment or a few winning hands of poker.

Vin and Nathan remained at their seats, but unassumingly observed the drama unfolding before them.  A chill ran up Vin's spine and he shuddered then frowned.

"Because mother dearest, my duties here prevented my departure,"  Ezra calmly lied as he looked down at the cards he held.  Maude had stood him up more times than he cared to remember.  Promises of returns never fulfilled, tormented him since childhood.  He just figured it was pay back time.

A cautions smile played across Josiah's long, grizzled face as he glanced over at Chris. 

Chris's somber visage remained impassive.  He knew something was up, and when it came to Ezra and his mother that anything could range from Maude trying to get Ezra to leave with her--to Armageddon.

"Do you realize what you cost me?  I lost everything!" she snarled at him.  Her anger seething through clenched teeth, contorting her features.  Her voice rose to a menacing pitch.  "I put every bit of savings I had in this con and it backfired."

Ezra stood, his brow furrowed, but his smug smile remained.  He was slightly bewildered by the anger on his mother's face, which gave him pause.  Like himself, Maude rarely revealed her emotions, and especially not in public, to do so was to reveal weakness to your possible prey, and anyone with money was prey.  

Ezra looked around the saloon noticing everyone's attention directed toward them.  He then faced Maude.  "Mother, public displays of exaggeration do not become you."  His voice took on a mischievous tone, matching the amused smile on his face.  He was enjoying his mother's loss of composure--It was rarely seen.

That was all the motivation she needed.  She glared, not at a son, but at a man who was treating her like one of his marks.  Her open palm struck his face, slapping it to the side, failing to remove the smug smirk.  "You ungrateful son-of-a-bitch! I should of left you on the street where I found you!" 

She tried to swallow back the words.  Her mouth continued to work, but nothing came out.  The anger that had filled her moments ago was sucked away with her words.  Her face paled as her words echoed in her head. 

Words that had been locked away for so long, they sounded foreign even to her.  It could not have been quieter if the world had come to an end, and for Ezra Standish it just had.  His face slowly came back around as the cards he had been holding slipped from his fingers and fluttered to the wooden floor unnoticed.

Part 2

Josiah closed his eyes knowing how the words had stabbed like a  knife into the conman's heart.  Chris and Vin stood impassively, not showing the pain they were feeling for their friend.  They stared at the motioinless gambler, seeing the all to rare emotions flutter across his visage.  Confusion and anger vying for position on his face.

Buck quickly downed the last of his beer and rubbed at his ears hoping he didn't hear what he thought he heard.  He looked over to JD and Nathan, who both stood with mouths gaping. 

Ezra stood silent.  The smug grin forgetting to leave his face, oblivious to the words he just heard.  He cocked his head at the woman, who stood paralyzed in front of him.  The words still trying to register while he stared at the face of the woman he had called mother for almost thirty years.  The grin slowly faltered as the meaning became clear.

"Where you....found me," he plainly stressed each word.

"Ezra...I..."  Maude reached out to touch her son, but he pulled  back as if a leper was reaching for him.  She dropped her hand to her side clenching it into a fist.  Ezra surveyed the repressed room, seeing everyone's slack-jawed stares.  He was starting to feel like a snared animal waiting for the hunter to return and finish the job.  Josiah took a step forward and this was all it took for Ezra to be put into motion.  He strode to the bat-wing doors and disappeared into the night.  The independent doors swung violently out of sync until they slowed and came together.

"Ah, shit," Buck murmured, falling against the bar, his elbows keeping him from sliding down.  The noise level slowly increased with the murmurs of speculation and derogatory comments.  Josiah slumped against a nearby post.   He'd never seen the face of a shattered man before, until now.

"Ha, that conniving cardshark isn't even a bastard, maybe he really was raise by a pack of wolves!" one of the regular customers laughed over his beer.  A bewildered look came over his face as his three friends suddenly deserted him.  He tensed when he felt a strong hand grip his shoulder and haul him to his feet.

He found himself staring straight into Larabee blue glazed eyes.  "Ah...I...I didn't mean anything by it, just jokin' you know?" he stuttered.

"No, I don't know," Chris menacingly growled.  He released his grip on the now contrite cowpoke, who bowed his apologies to Maude, and scurried out the door.  Maude only stared impassively then looked down at the cards that Ezra had dropped, noticing what a good hand he had held.

Chris did not usually like to interfere in family matters, but Maude's outburst and declaration had pulled them all in, whether they liked it or not.  Ezra was a hard man to warm up to, but he was slowly being pulled into their unorthodox family.  More often than not Chris wanted to shoot the smart mouthed conman, but right now he felt something akin to a brotherly concern. 

Vin had sauntered up to the doors and looked across the street just in time to see the flash of red enter the stables.  He ran a hand through his long hair trying to fathom what his friend could be going through.  He had lost his mother at a very young age;  however, he had still known her and remembered her.  What would it be like to have no memory of your mother? To not know your roots.

Maude slowly sat down in the chair her son had vacated, not acknowledging as the other card players got up and left.  Her eyes stared at the small pile of money, which sat in front of her.  Her son had been winning she calmly thought to herself.  Her thoughts seem to want to avoid the present situation.  She drew in a quivering breath then looked up to see Josiah standing before her.

"Is it true?" the ex-preacher plainly asked, his voice held no anger or incrimination.

An almost imperceptible nod caused the huge gunslinger to run his hand down his face, pulling at his gray-blue eyes.  She grabbed hold of her hands to stop the tremors that were causing her fingers to dance nervously in her lap.  "What have I done?" she quietly muttered, not really expecting an answer.  How could I of kept something like this from him for all these years?  Maude felt the accusing stares and couldn't blame them.  She had always planned on telling him.  The time just never seemed right, and before she knew it, too much time had past.

Josiah was trying to come to grips with what had just been revealed.  A man, he almost considered a son had been told that a large part of his life was a lie.  He looked down at the strong-minded woman, who now appeared frail and unsure.   The ex-preacher did not want to condemn her without hearing her side.  He pulled out the chair next to her and sat down.  He reached over and took her hands enfolding them in his huge callous ones. 

Maude looked into his gray-blue eyes searching for the strength to tell him.  The others slowly moved around the table, except for Vin who remained at the doors watching the stables, expecting to see Ezra ride out.

"Mr. Standish was my husband at the time.  We were perpetrating a con in a small South Carolina town.  I was very young and still a little naïve. We'd only been married a couple months."  Maude paused and cleared her throat.  "Neither of us had ever talked of children, and I never had any desire to have any."  The five lawmen remained quiet, ignoring the much subdued clatter of the other patrons as Maude told her story.  "I found Ezra sitting on a street corner.  He was probably four or so.  I remember how lost he appeared."  Maude's brow creased at the memory. "I bent down to ask if he was alright and he looked up at me.  I'll never forget the despair I saw in those green eyes."  Maude choked back a sob, and bowed her head to hide the tears that threatened to fall. 

Josiah squeezed her hands encouragingly.  She raised her head and looked over at the others before she continued.  "He called me mother.  I don't know what came over me.  Something happened inside, here."  Maude placed a hand over her heart.  "Some would say my maternal instinct clicked on for the first time.  I looked  around, seeing no one I collected him up and carried him away.  The three of us left town that very night.  I never went to the authorities to check to see if there was a missing child."  Maude bowed her head and talked down to her hands, which again sat in her lap.  "He believed me to be his mother, and after a while I believed it too."

"Is Ezra his real name?"  Josiah asked.  He saw the stunned expressions of his friends slowly turn to anger.

Maude raised her head.  "Yes, he was able to tell me that. I never found out what his family name was.  I think something terrible happened and he just blocked it out."

"You had no right to take him," Chris admonished, not hiding the incrimination in his voice.   This woman had selfishly stolen a boy, not knowing if he was abandoned or just lost.  Somewhere, a mother and father might have grieved at the loss of their son, and Chris knew all about grief and loss.  She had ripped him from his life and forced him into hers.  They couldn't correct what had been done, but they all had to figure some way to make everything right again, if that was even possible.

"You need to tell him," Josiah said. 

"I know, but he's not going to want anything to do with me right now," Maude sighed.   They all knew she was right.  Ezra was most times a self-indulgent SOB, but they all knew that the egotistical façade protected a fragile heart.

"Give him a little time to sort things out, and then we'll help you make him listen,"  Josiah assured.

"Yeah, we'll help hold him down," Buck said dryly. 

Nathan hit Buck on the back of his head, causing the smart-mouthed cowboy to flinch.   "Hey!" he yelled glaring back at his friend.

"Shut-up, Buck," Nathan rebuked.  He couldn't believe how sorry he felt for Ezra.  Even he knew his parentage and he had been born a slave.

Chris tipped his hat toward Maude, more out of habit then respect.  He headed out the door with the other five gunslingers falling in behind.  They all stopped just outside the saloon.  Chris placed his hands on the railing and stared at the stables that now harbored a broken man.  The faint lantern glow the only indication of life inside.  "Did he leave?" Chris asked Vin, who had been keeping an eye on the stables since Ezra left.

"Nope,  probably just in there groomin' his horse."

They all knew it was the only thing the suave gambler took any enjoyment out of besides taking someone's money.

"Shouldn't we go and talk to him?" Buck asked.  He couldn't imagine what his southern friend must be going through.  None of them had easy lives, but they all had someone who had loved them growing up.  JD looked up at Buck hearing the concern in the older man's voice.

"Nah, let's give 'im a little space, we start crowdin' him now he's liable to just shoot us,"  Chris explained, only half kidding.

Buck removed his hat running his hand through his dark brown hair.  "I don't get it, nothins changed.  We're still here the town's still here;  Ezra is still the same.  What's the problem?"

Vin crossed his arms and leaned up against the post.  The normally taciturn  tracker had an amazing gift of insight and decided to try an enlighten his friend.  "Think about it Buck, all your life  you believed you were raised to be like your mother, only to find out she's not your mother."  The others listened intently to the Texan's explanation.  "Ezra's got to be wondering who his mother was, what would he have become if someone else had raised him?"  Vin shifted slightly. using the post to scratch an itch between his shoulders.  He had always felt a kinship with the elusive conman.  They were both loners and had grown up trusting  no one.   Unlike Ezra, Vin had embraced the other's friendship.  Ezra still kept most people at a distance.

"We all have caught glimpses of decency hidden under what Maude had tried to teach him, maybe that's the real Ezra?" Josiah interjected.

Buck had never thought of that.  Ezra was definitely not your stereotypical conman, oh, he would steal the shirt off your back if given a chance, but he would also never let you freeze to death.  They all trusted him with their lives, which most people would consider irrational, but Ezra had proved himself again and again.  He would never admit it, but they all knew he had come to care about them like brothers.

Part 3

Ezra had removed  his red jacket and was now concentrating on the mare's chestnut coat, brushing it until it shined.  The horse was grateful, but could sense his master's anxiety and pranced slightly in his stall.  Ezra stopped his vigorous grooming and laid his head against the horse's side his left hand entangled in the long dark mane.  Tears streamed down his face to fall on the shiny brown coat and slide down the horse's side. 

Found on the streets.  The words swirled through his head forcing all other thoughts out.  How could words hurt so much?  His gut was tight, like he hadn't eaten in days, yet he had no desire for food.  Abandoned.  It explained so much, the indifference he always felt from people who were supposively family.  Did they know the truth?   How Maude could leave him for months at a time with almost complete strangers.  He had loved her, still did, but he had also believed that she was his real mother.  Now that belief was shattered.  Were his feelings for her also a lie? 

Chaucer nickered slightly as if trying to soothe his owner and friend's soul.  Ezra raised his head allowing a faint smile to crease his lips.  He reached over into his jacket pockets and produced a couple cubes of sugar, which he fed to his faithful companion.  He gently stroked the animal's velvet nose, seriously contemplating just saddling up and riding away.  He had been trained his whole life to lie, cheat whatever it took to achieve the ultimate con, little did he realize he was already a part of the ultimate con.  Were the others laughing at him, amused at the irony that was his life?   He couldn't run, he had made a promise not so long ago to a man he had come to respect and anyway where would he run to?  How could he run away from a lie?

Part 4

Ezra stayed to himself all the following day, avoiding the saloon and the company of the other six lawmen.  The others kept an eye on him, not hiding the fact, but keeping their distance.  They were worried about what the distraught gambler might do and wanted him to know he was not alone.  They knew they couldn't stop him if he decided to leave, but they wouldn't make it easy for him and even thought they'd go with him.  It took a long time before they were able to draw the obstinate southerner into their family, they weren't willing to let go easy.

Ezra sat at his usual table absently spinning an empty shot glass and staring morosely at an unopened whiskey bottle.  His dark mood squelched even the high afternoon sunshine that streamed through the window.  Buck, Chris, Josiah and Nathan sat at a nearby table not use to the dark mood on the normally easygoing handsome face. 

They were a little surprised when they had entered the bar earlier to see Ezra sitting at the table.  They hoped it was a sign that he was  willing to let the others finally share his pain and help him through this.

Nathan scowled when he noticed that Ezra still wore the same clothes he had on yesterday. "If he doesn't get some sleep soon I'm going to slip him something," Nathan whispered, taking in his aggrieved friend's appearance.  He didn't know when he started considering Ezra a friend.  He only knew his heart ached for him and wished there was something he could do, they all did.

Chris cast a sideways glance over at the weary conman and thought it might not be such a bad idea.  Ezra no long held his usual sharp and much touted appearance in regard.  Dark circles underscored weary eyes only enhancing his dark mood.  The life was drained out of the usually vivacious gambler, sucked out by a woman who would give no more thought about what she had wrought than someone would a stray cat.

Ezra knew he was being watched, and not long ago he would have despised the intrusion, but now, he relished the comfort it seemed to provide.  He didn't know what he was feeling anymore.  Gone was the confidence that enabled him to play big money games and even stand up to Larabee's occassional tyranny.  He knew the others wanted to help and were waiting on him for some type of guidance.  Something he didn't think he'd ever be able to provide.

Maude appeared at the swinging doors and slowly pushed her way through when she noticed Ezra at the corner table.

Josiah began to rise out of his chair only to be stopped by Chris's hand on his arm.  "Let 'em be," he murmured under his breath.  Josiah hesitated and glanced over at Ezra, slowly returning to his seat and resting his clasped hands upon the table.

Maude walked up to the table, smoothing down her green dress and pushing back a stray hair.  She had stayed in her hotel room, giving her son what she hoped he needed, time to accept.  "May I sit down?"

"No." Was the curt and emotionless reply.  Ezra raised his green eyes, which held all the anger his tone lacked.  Maude could no longer see the little ragamuffin boy she picked up off the street.  She had managed to convince herself that what she had done was right.  She surly had given him a better life than he could of ever had.  Now she had to convine him.

"We need to talk," she stressed.

Ezra arched a sandy eyebrow and a contemptuous smirk graced his face, which only added to his already demonic features.  Maude actually took a step back, fearful of her son for the first time in her life.

"Oh, I think you have said all that needs to be said," Ezra mocked, his voice carrying a strong note of disgust for the woman before him.  All he saw was the woman who had stolen him from a life he would never know.  She taught him to lie and swindle, hide his feelings, and not allow anyone to get close.  He lived a life alone and adrift, never belonging, until fate saw fit to intervene on his behalf and allow six men to enter his life.  Men who were now the only true family he had.  Josiah would call this devine intervention.

"I didn't mean to hurt you.  I gave you the best of everything."

Ezra cocked his head, throwing a skeptical look up her way. "Except a mother who loved me," he growled.

"I love you.  I taught you a trade, honed your god-given talents..."

"Talents!" Ezra spat. "To know how to deal from the bottom of the deck.  How to choose a mark in three easy lessons.  To be able to lie and keep a straight face..." he yelled into her face, raking both hands through his dark hair, his breaths coming out in quick pants.  His whole body shook with rage.

Chris and the others were getting uneasy at the vehemence in the cardshark's voice.  They were fearful that Ezra was going to go over the edge.  Chris wanted to be sure he and the others were there to catch him.

"You taught me nothing."  His voice lowered to an almost demoralizing level and he turned his back on the now contrite woman who's eyes glossed with unshed tears.

Gunshots abruptly peppered the mid afternoon quiet.  Ezra kept his back turned as Chris and the others charged out the saloon, drawing their guns as they pushed past the bat-wing doors.   Ezra took a deep breath and pulled at his jacket as he slowly turned around.  He now gazed dispassionately at his mother, drew his gun and followed after the others.  Maude wiped at her eyes with a shaky hand.

Part 5

Three men, obviously ignorant of the seven lawmen, who protected the town, had decided to rob the bank.  One of the robbers now held a women by the throat just outside the bank, a gun pointed at her head as his partners tried to rein in their skittish horses. 

"Okay, everyone stay back, I'll kill her!" he yelled out, trying to sound like the confident person he was far from being.

Josiah, Buck, Nathan and Chris had fanned out as soon as they left the saloon, taking cover beside various buildings and objects.  JD peered out from the jail and nodded toward Chris that he was ready to follow his lead.  Chris hated hostage situations, and hated anyone who would have the nerve to rob his town.

Ezra exited the saloon and stood in plain view as he surveyed the current situation.  He felt numb, not feeling anything; no anger, no sadness and no fear, nothing.  He felt dead inside.  He didn't even experience the heart pounding adrenaline rush he usually got when facing desperate men with guns.  He felt lost and alone, which probably accounted for his next action.

Ezra stepped down into the street and started walking toward the robber, who held the terrified woman.  His gun held out before him as if pointing the way.

The bandit's eyes darted back and forth, trying to keep tabs on the six gunslingers who were slowly moving in.

"What is that idiot doing?" Buck yelled out from his position beside the mercantile.  Chris heard his friend and turned to see Ezra walking across the road toward the bank robber.  Chris's breath caught somewhere between his lungs and mouth.  His gut twisted and he gripped his gun tight.  The crazed gambler was going to get himself killed and if the robber didn't do it--Chris would.

"Stop right there!" the agitated robber yelled out toward Ezra, who continued several more steps before stopping.  "Are you nuts or something?" the bandit asked with a quizzical expression on his dirty face.  His light hazel eyes continued to dart back and forth expecting a sudden rush of men and guns, figuring this man was a diversion of some type.

Ezra had to smile. Yes, the thought that he might be losing his mind had occurred him, and why wouldn't it?  When a man lost everything he ever believed in or held dear what was left, but his sanity.

"I've been accused of that on numerous occasions and at this point in my life I might have to agree with your assumption, but let us not digress.  You are greatly outnumbered, mentally and physically.  Me and my associates have no intention of letting you leave or harming that woman."  This was said so plainly, so matter-of-fact that the robber thought for a moment it was all a joke.

Ezra's eyes narrowed and a menacing grin appeared on his face.  "Let the woman go," he drawled. "And I won't kill you."  His green eyes glared down the barrel of his gun.

The bandit turned at the sound of his partners, who were mounting up behind him.  A lanky, blond man looked beseechingly down from his horse. "C'mon Garrett, let's go!" he pleaded.  Garrett kept his eyes on the fancy dressed southerner, not sure what to make of him.

Chris and the others could only hold their breath and wait for an  opportunity to break the standoff.  Buck wanted nothing more than to rush out and stand beside his friend, but Chris's steely glare kept him welded to his spot, one fool was enough.

Garrett smiled and removed his gun from the woman's head, taking aim at the seemingly deranged gunslinger in front of him.  He fired, but the woman's struggles threw off his aim, causing the bullet to slice through Ezra's upper arm. 

Ezra's aim wasn't so impeded, and his shot found its way into the bandit's head.  The woman screamed and ran back into the bank as she felt her captor fall away.  Garrett was dead before he even hit the ground a life of crime cut drastically short.  The two other robbers stared down at their dead associate then reined their horses around. 

Vin's mare's leg kicked dirt up in front of the frantic horses, who then dumped their incorrigible riders into the dust, ending their escape.

The two men went for their guns, but halted at the sound of a hammer being pulled back.  "Now boys, lets not be stupid twice in one day," Vin drawled, watching as the two men regarded each other then slowly raised their hands up.

Ezra took a deep breath and calmly holstered his gun then turned on his heel and headed back toward the saloon.  Chris shoved his gun back into his holster and started after the moronic conman.  Anger now replaced the fear he had felt for the cardsharp.  Josiah grabbed at Chris's arm only to have him pull free and continue.  Buck just stepped out of the way, grabbing JD by the collar and pulling him aside and out of the path of Larabee's anger.  Buck had seen numerous men trampled into the ground by the steamed fury of his friend.  Nathan mentally checked what supplies he carried in his medical bag.

Ezra went up to the bar and requested a bottle of whiskey.  He ignored Maude who still sat at his table in the saloon.  She had watched the whole horrific event and couldn't believe what her son had done.  She truly believed he had a death wish.

Chris knew all about desiring death.  He had lived with it for over a year after his wife and child were killed.  If it hadn't been for Buck he wouldn't be here now, ready to tear Ezra in half.  Buck had his way of dealing with the problem and Chris had his.  The dark-clad gunslinger stormed into the saloon, almost tearing off one of the doors.  His black duster kicked up behind his determined strides, giving him the appearance of an eagle swooping in on its prey.  The deadly anger in his eyes did not bode well for anyone who fell in his path.  He came up behind Ezra, grabbing him by the shoulder and spinning him around.  His fist connected with the southerner's clean-shaven jaw, sending him to the floor.

"You ever do a fool stunt like that again I'll shoot you myself!" He snarled.  Vin, Josiah and Nathan entered the saloon followed by JD and Buck.  They all couldn't believe what Ezra had done.  Vin had a slight smirk on his lips as he watched Chris do what the rest of them wanted to do.  Chris only barely held his raging temper in check and hopefully Ezra realized how lucky he was that he did.

Ezra wiped the blood from his chin and chuckled slightly.  He looked up, and the eyes of two proud men met in anger.  He reached up and grasped the edge of the bar, pulling himself up.  His back to the bar as Chris crowded him with his deadly glare.   

Chris couldn't believe how mad he was, how scared he had been for the crazy southerner.  When had that happened?  He knew Ezra was hurting, but that was no reason to put his life in danger like he had.  He still had people who cared about him.

Chris's gaze momentarily switched to the floor where a small pool of blood had formed.  He looked up to see a dark stain growing on the conman's right sleeve.  Chris called over his shoulder to Nathan.  "Ezra's been hit."

"I don't need any help!" Ezra snarled.  He didn't know where the anger was coming from, but he welcomed it.  It filled the empty black hole that had been growing in his gut and swallowing everything he had believed he was.  He looked over Chris's shoulder seeing the others standing just inside the saloon.  He looked over at his moth-Maude, to see her worried gaze pointed at him.  This only intensified his growing anger.  "Get away from me. Just leave me alone -"

Chris struck as the others watched.  His arm lashed out and Ezra crumbled to the floor, his words dying as they reached his tongue.  Chris bent down and pulled the unconscious conman up and over his shoulder.  "Where do you want him?"  he growled.   

Nathan balked for a moment then shook away his shock.   "Take him up to his room, I'll get my stuff."

Chris bent over slightly under the weight as he carried the smaller man up the stairs and to his room.  Josiah looked over to the corner table to see Maude just staring after the two men.  He approached the table and hitched his hands into his gunbelt.  "He's just lost and confused right now."

He saw Maude's watery gaze flicker.

"What have I done?  I only did what I thought was best.  He was alone."

"He'll come to realize that," Josiah tried to assure, not really sure himself.

"Will he? I'm not so sure.  I think I've lost him forever," Maude replied letting her eyes drift out the window.

Part 6

Nathan came down the stairs of the saloon a short time later and sat at the table where Chris, Vin and Buck were trying to enjoy a steak dinner.  He noticed that Maude had left without even asking about Ezra.  He never would understand the woman.  She had raised Ezra to be a conman; to lie, cheat and not trust anyone.  She had taught him well, but she hadn't been able to harden his heart.  Ezra hid a soft, caring soul behind a smug attitude.  This was why he was hurting so much now.  Nathan sighed, maybe if Ezra had been more of what he portrayed on the outside he wouldn't be going through this now.

"So, how is he?" Vin was the first to ask.  Chris was already a little bleary eyed from the whiskey he'd been drinking, but it didn't completely hide the anger he still held for the foolish conman, or was it fear?

Nathan grabbed a biscuit off of Buck's plate and bit into it before replying.  "The bullet went straight through, no damage. I gave him something for the pain and slipped something in it for he'd sleep."  Nat leaned back in the chair.  "I don't think he's been sleeping too good lately."

"So, what are we goin' to do?" Buck asked, looking toward his long time friend and leader.

Chris pushed his potatoes around on his plate then dropped his fork.  "There's nothin' we can do till he works this out and comes to his senses."

"'Bout all we can do is see that he stays out of trouble," Vin added looking up toward the stairs.

"Man, that could be a full time job," Buck quipped, producing slight chuckles from Vin and Nathan.  "Is he still refusing to talk to Maude?"

"Yep," Vin replied in his usual slow Texas drawl.

"Well, lets hope somethin' gives.  I don't expect Maude to stay 'round much longer," Chris added dejectedly, deciding to make the rest of his dinner a liquid one.  He was worried about the obstinate southerner, not that he'd admit it, but the others knew.  If Chris hadn't cared about Ezra he wouldn't have made such a big deal about him risking his life.  Larabee didn't threaten just anybody.

Part 7

The next couple days remained quiet and peaceful.  Ezra quietly joined with the others under the silent condition that the previous incidents would not be brought up.  He nodded toward Nathan in silent gratitude.  He had had his first real night's sleep thanks to the dark healer.  Ezra wouldn't admit it, but he needed the camaraderie of these men right now.  It was the only stable part of his now fragmented life.  He had gained some measure of control.  His poker face once again firmly in place upon his handsome face.  The others wondered how long he could keep it up.

A crispness permeated the air, reminding people that winter was not going to pass them by.  Dried brown and gray leaves swirled within tiny dust devils up and down the street.  Josiah strode across the wide street toward the men lounging outside the saloon, the cool Colorado air giving vigor to his steps.  "Gentlemen, I've been requested to extend a dinner invitation to you all at Nettie's tonight."  Josiah paused as his fellow lawmen slowly gave him their attention.  "She wants to thank us all for helping her this past year."

"Hot damn, a home cooked meal," Buck exclaimed rubbing his hands together.  "I was getting tired of JD's cooking."

"Hey, at least it's edible that's more than can be said 'bout the swill you dish up," JD admonished with the slight hint of a smile on his boyish face. 

Ezra smiled at the familiar banter and continued dexterously shuffling a deck of cards with one hand.  "I'm sure that invite does not extend to me, Mr. Sanchez," he absently replied.  Miss Nettie Wells didn't hide her distaste or distrust of the ostentatious cardshark.

"That's where you're wrong, brother," Josiah good-naturedly chided.  "You helped save Miss Nettie's ranch financially.  Now, you might of been an ass about it..."

Ezra shot a perturbed scowl up at the ex-preacher, who maintained a kind hearted grin as he continued, "But you still helped.  She would of lost everything if you hadn't loaned her that money." 

"I was only being a good businessman," Ezra quietly murmured to himself as his eyes returned to his cards.

Buck grinned thoughtfully, this might be just what the disconcerted southerner needed, some good food and warm company, the feeling of a real family.

Vin rose up out of his chair and flicked at Ezra's hat.  "C'mon on pard, it's time fer rounds."  He turned to Chris who was stretched out on a nearby chair his feet propped up on the railing.  "We'll meet you all over there."

Chris pushed his hat back on his head and looked up at the lean tracker then over at Ezra.  "Make sure you both make it,"  he stressed.

Ezra rolled his eyes and smoothly placed his cards into his coat pocket as he stood and followed Tanner toward the stables.  Josiah sat down in the chair that Ezra had just vacated. 

"How's he doin'?" Josiah asked as he followed the two men to the stables.

"He's in denial," Chris stated matter-of-factly.  "Holdin' everything in."

Chris was the master at holding everything in, but he also knew emotions that are bottled up for too long had a way of finding some type of outlet.  Like the pressure within a volcano, something eventually had to give.

Buck's own face grew somber.  He also knew all about denial and holding in the pain.  When Chris lost his family it took a long time for him to get the blond gunslinger to release the anger and pain he held.  "Well, let's just hope one of us is around when he can't hold it in any longer," Buck commented.

Chris's blue gaze met up with Buck and a silent and old memory passed between them.  Buck grimaced at the familiar sadness that passed over his long time friend's blue eyes, only to be quickly replaced with his usual stoic glare.  The ladies man knew the pain was always there, right below the surface.  A wound that would never heal.

Ezra saddled his horse in relative silence, until Vin's smooth Texas drawl suddenly invaded his thoughts.  "You know Ez, we're still here, and we're still the same.  You're still apart of our family."

Ezra looked up over his horse and met Vin's clear-sighted blue eyes, for a man who used to be a bounty hunter and had killed his share of men.  Vin Tanner was a highly sensitive and caring individual, which radiated throughout his whole being. "I know Mr. Tanner, it just now feels like I have no past, not that I had much to begin with.  It's strange not knowing who you really are or where you really belong."

The anguish in the southern accent was quite perceptible and caused Vin to bow his head.  He at least had a mother who had  made him proud of the Tanner name and never let him forget it.  The others knew where they had come from and who they were.  Ezra now had no roots.  Maude had taken away any connection to his past.  What must that be like?

Part 8

Ezra looked up from his horse at the waxing quarter moon that cast a mottled glow through the parting clouds.  He and Vin were heading toward Miss Well's farm, having just finished rounds.  Ezra had welcomed the silent comraderie of the tracker.

"If you don't come, Chris will just come and fetch ya and drag you in," Vin quietly voiced, seeing the trepidation on Ezra's face.

Ezra snorted at Vin's intuitiveness.  He couldn't hide much from the tracker.  He knew the others were only trying to help and he was grateful, but this was something he knew he had to deal with in his own way.

"He'd have to find me first," Ezra smilingly replied, but continued riding abreast with the tracker.

+ + + + + + +

"Vin, Mr. Standish I'm so glad you boys could make it," Nettie graciously greeted the two men, who had entered the cozy ranch house, much to everyone's obvious relief.  Chris raised a glass of whiskey to Ezra, who nodded.

Nettie Wells was a tough old bird and took no gruff from anyone.  It was how she survived the hardship that frontier life threw at her.  She had sort of made herself the unofficial mother to the seven lawmen.

Vin removed his slouch hat and gave her a sheepish grin. "Thank you, ma'am, we sure wouldn't miss one of your fine meals," he politely said to the matronly woman.  Out of the corner of his eye he saw JD and Casey talking quietly to each other.  He suspected in a couple years he'd be attending their wedding.

Nettie smiled and glanced over at Ezra, who stood abnormally silent beside Vin, hat in hand.  Her eyes narrowed in concern.  There seemed to be something different about the enigmatic gambler, something Nettie couldn't put her finger on.  She smiled politely then turned to the rest of the men standing haphazardly throughout her living room.

"Okay everyone, just make yourself to home.  Dinner won't be for a while yet,"  Nettie exclaimed as she headed back toward the kitchen.  She poked her head out moments later and glanced over at her niece.  "Casey, I need your help."  Casey flushed, gently touching JD on the arm then racing passed her aunt and into the kitchen.  JD looked contritely at Nettie, who allowed a hint of a smile to surface, putting the young sheriff at ease.  Before she pulled back into the kitchen it hit her.  The familiar self-centered attitude that always came attached to the southerner was missing.

"Chris, where's Josiah?" Nathan asked.

Chris looked around then leaned over and whispered in Nathan's ear.  "He's bringing Maude, hopes to get those two talkin'."

Nathan took a deep breath and ran a hand over his tightly curled hair.  "Well, it'll certainly make for an interestin' evenin',"  Nathan weakly chuckled.

The smells of Nettie's cooking began to fill the small homestead, starting everyone's mouth to watering.  Chris had brought along a bottle of fine sippin' whiskey and the men were sharing it while they waited.  Buck had managed to generate a roaring fire in the stone hearth an everyone was in a good mood. 

Chris glanced over to see Vin and Ezra in quiet conversation.  The southerner had a smile on his face and seemed more relaxed than he'd been in a long time.  Chris started wondering if bringing Maude now was such a good idea.  He was tempted to try and intercept Josiah when footsteps on the porch outside announced the arrival of the ex-preacher and caused Chris to tense.  The relaxed mood was about to come crashing to an end. 

Josiah pushed through the door and greeted everyone with a sincere grin pasted on his long face.  He turned sideways to allow Maude to pass through.  Ezra's smile left his face and his hand tightened around the glass he held.  There was a definite break, a cold hard silence iced the room, everyone looked toward Ezra waiting for a reaction.

Nettie's timely appearance at the kitchen entrance interrupted the silence that had befallen.  "I need more wood would someone please go out to the side of the house and get me some?"   She stared a moment at the strange looks on everyone's face, wondering what was going on.

"I will," Ezra replied, causing everyone's mouth to gape open, including Nettie's.

"Well...ah..em..thank you, Mr. Standish," she stammered then turned back to the kitchen.  Something was definitely going on that she was being kept in the dark about. 

Ezra put his glass on the mantle and quickly left out the door, not even glancing at his mother or Josiah.  He had been set up, and he was seriously thinking of just leaving.

Josiah removed Maude's wrap and escorted her to a chair.  "Maybe this wasn't such a good idea, Josiah," she said.  She had stayed out of Ezra's way for most of the week, hoping with enough time he would come around and they could talk.

"Think someone should go and make sure he don't take off?" Buck asked.

Josiah laid on hand on Maude's shoulder and replied, "No, Buck, a man has to make his own decisions.  We can't force Ezra to accept something he's not ready to yet."

Chris sipped at the whiskey he held.  His eyes still locked on the door where Ezra had left.  His brow furrowed at the sound of a lone wolf calling out from a distant hill.

Part 9

In the kitchen Nettie worked furiously on her meal wanting everything to be prefect.  She and her niece owed their lives and livelihood to the seven lawmen and a home cooked meal was only a small way of repaying them.  "Can you go and fetch some more water?"  Nettie asked her niece, who was just finishing mashing up the potatoes.

"Sure."  Casey hoped off the stool and grabbed the pail that sat next to the stove and skipped out the back door.  The night had cooled as the clouds parted, revealing a multitude of stars shining over head.  The moon cast an eerie glow across the yard. 

Casey leaned over the well and grabbed the dangling rope, which  hung loosely from the tackle.  She hooked the bucket to the hook and froze when a low menacing growl rose up behind her.  She almost choked on the lump that wedged in her throat.  Slowly, she turned her head until she saw two glowing eyes, not more than ten feet away.  Those eyes sat in the head of one of the largest wolves she had ever seen.  Her voice seemed to desert her, blocked by the lump in her throat.  She was to scared to try and clear her throat.  She tried to take a deep breath and remain calm.

"Casey," the soft southern drawl almost caused her to collapse from relief.  Ezra had come around the corner of the house with an armload of wood to see Casey at the well.  When he caught sight of the wolf he carefully laid the wood down and crept forward as close as he dared.  "Back away slowly.  Don't turn your back on him, just follow my voice."  Ezra kept his eyes on the wolf watching for any indication that he was going to attack.  He wished that Vin was here, he was better suited to handling wild animals.

Casey took another quivering breath and forced her hands to release the rope and pail.  She took a step back.  Her foot turned slightly causing her to gasp and stoop over, provoking another menacing growl.  Ezra's own heart caught in his throat when he thought the young woman was going to fall.  The wolf stepped forward, but stayed in the shadows, keeping his glowing eyes on the young woman.  He could smell her fear. 

"Nice and slow darlin' just follow my voice, thats a girl," Ezra encouraged.  He didn't dare release his derringer or go for his revolver, afraid any sudden movement would entice the animal to attack.  Casey was just within arm's length when he suddenly grabbed her and flung her behind him.  At the same time going for his holster.

The wolf leapt as Casey was pulled out of the way.  His intended victim now replaced with another.  Ezra threw up his left arm as the wolf struck him in the chest, its jaws split open, the weight taking them both to the ground.  The animal's teeth clamped down on the derringer rigging strapped to his arm.  

Part 10

Casey's voice finally released and she screamed and ran toward the door, just as it was flung open.  She ran into Josiah's massive form as the others poured out from behind him, their guns drawn.  They could hear the growls and snarls, and could just make out the struggles within the shadows.

Buck aimed his gun, but couldn't separate Ezra from what he was fighting with.

"It's a wolf!"  Casey screamed out at them, terror filling her young face.  Josiah gently handed her over to her Aunt, who wrapped her in a tight embrace.

The wolf had released its hold on Ezra's arm and was trying to reach the southerner's vulnerable throat.  Ezra grabbed hold of the wolf's thick neck mane holding back the gnashing teeth just inches from his face.  He turned his head to the side and the wolf sunk its teeth into his shoulder.  Ezra screamed as dagger like fangs penetrated his flesh and tore through muscle, down to the bone.  He could feel the claws raking his chest, causing warm furrows of blood to run down his sides.   He looked up into the snarling face that was to be his death, its fetid breath brought tears to his eyes.

At the scream Vin leapt from the porch and ran over to where man and animal were both fighting for survival.  He came upon the wolf, who was on top of Ezra, preparing to sink its teeth into the soft flesh of his throat.  Vin pulled his leg back and with everything he had kicked the animal in the side.  The wolf turned its head, searching for the source of its pain, and found it. 

Vin scrambled back as the wolf leapt at him.  A shot rang out and the wolf dropped to the ground, dead.  Vin sat on the ground, breathing hard and staring at the dark unmoving form.  He looked over his shoulder to see Chris standing over him, his gun still smoking.  They all ran over to Ezra who was lying on his side, unmoving.  Nathan put two fingers to the conman's neck and breathed a sigh of relief.

"He's alive."

"Quick, get him inside," Nettie exclaimed, still holding her convulsing niece.  JD looked over at Casey wanting to go and hold her and tell her everything was alright, but he first needed to know that Ezra was okay.

Vin and Buck carefully picked up their injured friend and took him inside.  When the lamp light of the house hit Ezra's body everyone gasped.

Maude stifled a sob at the sight of her son.  Her knees buckled and she would of crumbled to the floor if Josiah hadn't been there to grab her.

"Oh, my god," Buck exclaimed, looking down at the limp form that was slung between him and Vin.

"Shit," Vin added, his own heart finally slowing its fear-filled rampage within his chest.

JD had to turn his head and swallow the bile that rose in his throat.  Chris's eyes went wide at the sight of the gambler, and he swore and released a quivering breath.

They laid Ezra down on the large soft bed in Nettie's room.  Nathan pushed Buck and Vin aside and quickly removed what was left of Ezra's upper clothing.  His hands shook as Ezra's wounds were revealed and he had to take a deep calming breath.

"Dear God...someone get that rigging off his arm?" Nathan snapped, probing Ezra's shoulder. 

Vin pulled his knife and cut through the leather straps.  The metal bands were crimped and biting into Ezra's skin.  Josiah grabbed the metal and bent it back then slid the contraption off.  He studied it a moment, realizing that it had probably saved its owner's arm.  He then threw it in the corner.  

The wolf had bit into Ezra's shoulder and shook, tearing deep into flesh and muscle.  Long furrows, caused by the  wolf's claws ran down Ezra's finely muscular chest; dirt and salvia filled the wounds and Nathan cursed.   Ezra moaned and tried to pull away from Nathan's ministrations.

The room was a cacophony of orders, cries, gasps and curses.  "I need lots of boiled and cool water and clean cloths.  We have to clean these wounds.  Animal bites are highly infectious,"  Nathan exclaimed as he scoured his own hands in a basin of water, which sat on the dresser.

Ezra's whole body started to shake and Josiah placed his hand on the conman's face, which seemed to calm him.

"He saved my life," Casey repeated numbly, her voice rising with each statement.  Nathan looked over at her seeing the signs of shock.  He watched as Nettie forcefully took her niece and gave her to Maude, who took the traumatized young woman out to the living area.  Next to Nathan, Nettie was probably the next best thing to a doctor.   

Nettie pushed JD aside and took up position next to the healer who smiled upon her gratefully.  "Chris, you, Josiah, Buck and Vin are going to have to hold him down while Nettie and I scrub his wounds.  It's going to hurt like hell, but it has to be done." 

Ezra moaned and started to thrash.  "Easy Ez," Nathan soothed.  He turned to Josiah.  "I need to try and get some herbs down him for the pain."  Josiah nodded and left the room to get Nathan's bag, which he always carried.

Ezra's head rolled back and forth and he fought to open his eyes,  catching glimpses of worried frowns.  He felt someone reach behind him and lift his shoulders up slightly then the taste of one of Nathan's herbal concoctions came to his lips.  He choked slightly, but managed to get the whole thing down.  He was gently  laid back down and glimpsed Josiah's face looking down at him. 

"Cas..ey?" he breathed.  God he hurt, his whole body felt like it was on fire.

"She's fine, thanks to you," Nettie sadly replied, wiping his brow with a cool cloth.  Ezra rolled his head to look up at the elderly woman.

"Good."  His eyes slid shut, causing a flurry of anxiety to fill the room.  He could hear urgent voices all around him, but the words fell away as his head spun.  Then the real pain began.

Part 11

Ezra screamed and cursed as Nettie and Nathan scrubbed at the wounds until they bled freely.  Tears slid down Nettie's usually stoic face, and Chris and the others had turned noticeably paler.  Josiah kept his eyes closed, mouthing a silent prayer.  Buck felt the contents of his stomach threaten to journey up his throat.  Chris just clenched his jaw and held unto Ezra's flailing legs.  Ezra's hands clawed at the bedding and his back arched at the burning pain that gripped his body.  It felt like someone was tearing away his skin strip by strip.   

"Hurry Nathan!" Buck yelled over Ezra's tormented screams.  He wasn't sure how much longer Ezra or he would last.  Blood and sweat covered Ezra's chest and arm, which stood out brightly against his almost white skin.

Suddenly everything went silent as unconsciousness finally claimed the injured gambler.   The suddenness caused Nathan to check for a pulse; everyone released their hold.  

Buck slumped down against the wall and folded his arms across his knees, burying his face.  Chris and Vin sat on the end of the bed their breaths coming out in quick gasps as they tried to calm their hearts.  Josiah sat to the side leaving a hand on Ezra's uninjured shoulder.  Nettie saw how much this was affecting the others and finally realized what

connection they all held for each other.  Her and Nathan started gently wiping at Ezra's wounds with a cool cloth.  She checked his forehead and lifted an eyelid, glancing worriedly over at Nathan.

"We need to leave the wounds open.  We'll probably have to continue to clean them," Nathan explained.  Buck's head snapped up, but he didn't say a thing.  He felt weak all over and the thought of having to go through this again was something he didn't care to think about.

Chris and Vin looked down at their friend.  Vin casually rested a hand on the gambler's now still leg.  Chris looked up waiting to meet Nathan's dark eyes.

"Nathan?" he prompted.

"It's not good.  Shock, blood loss, probably infection and fever, he's going to have quite a fight."  Nathan paused a moment.

Chris could see the indecision on his dark friend's face.  "What else?"

Nathan bit at his lower lip, reluctant to continue.  "I don't know how hard he'll fight.  He hasn't been in the best frame of mind lately.  The odds are really against him," Nathan finally admitted.

"You're wrong, Mr. Jackson," Maude's stern voice rose from the doorway. "If anyone can buck the odds my son will.  He's a fighter."  Her face was awash with tears as she looked at the ripped and torn body of her son.  "He is still my son whether he considers it so or not." 

Josiah smiled at the southern woman's determination.  He then looked at everyone in the room.  "He has us to fight with him," he pointed out.

Part 12

The warm familiar smells rose up through the air of the pre-war South Carolina town.  He walked down the cobblestone street, heels clicking on the embedded stones.  He gazed admiringly upon elegant 18th century homes and feathery locust trees that lined the avenue creating a shady atrium.  He didn't know why he was here or even how he got here.  He stepped aside as a buggy rode past, a young couple snuggling together and lost to the outside world.  He smiled and continued down to the end of the street where he suddenly found himself in a small shanty town, which laid just on the outskirts of the affluent town he just left. His brow knitted in confusion.  He knew these impoverished little enclaves existed, but they were always kept well hidden from the eyes of wealthier society.  Many people did not wish to be reminded of their existence.

He was drawn to a small clapboard hovel that sat off by itself. He peered through the curtainless window to observe a woman nursing an infant and humming a tune that was hauntingly familiar.  The woman was beautiful, elegant in a simple way.  Her beauty seemed out of place among the crude surroundings, even her tired eyes couldn't detract from her natural beauty.  Her long brown hair cascaded down her back, tied back by a simple ribbon.  He continued to watch as the little brown head moved ever so slightly, taking in the nourishment and love his mother's breasts offered.  She looked lovingly down at the small bundle in her arms, scrunching her face to the outreaching pudgy hands.  She raised her head and Ezra's heart stopped as eyes as green as emeralds revealed themselves.  She looked right through him, like he wasn't even there.  He had seen that face before many times--in his dreams. 

Motion in the corner of the hovel caught Ezra's attention.  A dark figure mingled within the shadows, like it was afraid of the light.  The woman glared at the dark figure, and then returned her attention to the small bundle and the scowl left her face.  Ezra's own heart grew cold at the presence of the dark entity.

Laughter pulled him momentarily away from the window.  He turned to watch a small ragamuffin boy appear from around a corner and run past him into the hovel, wrapping his spindly arms around a woman's lithe waist.  The same woman he had seen moments ago cradling an infant.  Her once full face was now gaunt, and her hair hung limp and dull about her shoulders, which slumped from some unseen weight.  Only her eyes still shone brightly, lighting up at the sight of her son.  She tousled the thick brown hair of the boy, who's own green eyes looked lovingly up at her.  Fear crinkled her face and she pulled the boy behind her.  The same dark figure as before towered over her, but she stood her ground, keeping herself between him and the frightened boy.  Ezra wanted to go to her, to protect her and the boy, but all he could do was watch.  He couldn't make out the features of the dark form, but knew it was a man.  He watched as the dark form struck the woman, knocking her to the floor.  The small boy fell on top of her crying.  She wrapped an arm around him and glared up at the imposing figure.

The dark figure exploded out the door and walked right past Ezra, who followed him.

"You, stop!" Ezra called out after the form.

The dark figure stopped, but remained in the shadows.  Ezra didn't know why this man scared him, but he desperately wanted to see his face.  His heart raced in his chest when he heard the low chuckle from the man ahead of him.

"You really want to know the truth, boy?" the unseen figured growled in  a low raspy voice.  The southern accent thick and drawn out.

Ezra couldn't speak, his heart raced like a runaway team of horses.  A crash from behind caused him to spin around only to see a cat rummaging through a trash can.  When he returned, the dark form had vanished.  Ezra ran his hand down his face then stared down at it as he slowly clenched it into a fist.

He returned to the hovel only to see the young boy kneeling by the small bed where his mother now laid.  Time had again past by in the blink of an eye.  The woman's beauty was gone, swallowed by the unseen ravages of disease.  Her now unseeing eyes no longer held the sparkling light.  The small boy shook her, begging her to wake up.  Ezra felt the boy's pain.  It was his own familiar ache that strangled his gut and brought tears to his green eyes to match the tears that flowed down the little boy's face.   He felt as if a part of his soul had died.  The hovel door banged open causing the boy to jump and his eyes to go wide.  He stood defiantly in front of his mother's body.  The dark figure approached, wrapping a huge hand around the thin upper arm that flailed in vain at the huge man, who dragged out.

+ + + + + + +

Nathan and Nettie worked furiously through the night to try and abate the fever, but to no avail.  When his wounds had to be cleaned, Ezra had to be held down as his body reacted to the pain being inflicted upon it, but he never became fully conscious.  Everyone helped to constantly bathe his tortured body, his skin flushed and hot to the touch. 

By morning everyone was exhausted.  Nathan rubbed at his tired eyes as he mixed up some herbs that he hoped would help to alleviate the infection that was running rampant in the gambler's weaken body.  Buck and Josiah were gently bathing Ezra's arms and around his wounds.

"Nathan," Buck's questioning tone caused Nat to stop what he was doing.  All three men looked down at Ezra's face to see tears running down his cheek.

Part 13

Ezra again found himself back on the quaint cobblestone street standing in front of the beautiful southern manors, but they no longer held the same appeal. Their beauty was a wall that hid a seedier side of life.  He looked down the road to see the same ragamuffin boy sitting on the curb.  His dirt covered face streaked with earlier tears, but he no longer cried, infact, the life he once held in those brilliant green eyes was dead.  He just sat and stared off, his hands held between his knees.  People passed by without seeing him.

Ezra watched as a young woman approached.  She carried herself with mock confidence that he could see through, but no one else suspected.  She moved among affluent society like she had been  born to it.  The face was unlined and the hair darker, there was no bitterness yet in those hazel eyes, but Ezra immediately recognized who she was.  Maude stopped in front of the young boy, digging in her purse she pulled out a silver coin and stooped down to hand it to him.  The boy looked up at her, his green eyes capturing her in their forlorn gaze.  "Mother?" the boy quietly drawled, his eyes seeking assurance.  Maude straightened liked she'd been slapped.  Her face went askew for a moment.  The boy continued to stare up at her as if nothing had happened.  The young Maude furtively looked around then scooped the young boy up and headed up the street.  Neither saw the dark form watching from across the street.

The world spun, or at least the world Ezra now found himself in.  Everything swirled around him meshing into a mass of unfocused faces and places that he could not untangle.  He was unaware of the battle being waged in his body, but his friends were keenly aware that Ezra was battling for his life and there was very little they could do to help him.  Ezra continued his journey through the dark abyss of his mind, his fever melting open doors that had been long shut.

Ezra tossed violently on the bed.  "Hold him!" Nathan yelled out as Buck, Vin and Josiah jumped on the suddenly convulsing conman.  His fever had become worse and Nathan had to clean his wounds several times to try and rid them of infection.

He finally started to settle down and Buck and Vin released their hold.  Josiah gently mopped his brow with a cool cloth. Ezra's head rolled back and forth caught in the throes of a vivid nightmare.  No one had been able to decipher the incoherent ramblings and could only guess at what he might be experiencing.

"Lord, Nate, how much more can he take?" Buck asked.  Nathan didn't answer, instead looking over when Casey quietly entered. 

"Miss Wells, you shouldn't be here," Nathan gently admonished.

Casey stared sadly at the form that was wasting away on the bed.  "I want to help," she replied in a strangled voice.  She straightened and looked directly at the tall healer.  "I need to help; he saved my life.  It would be me there now if he-" her voice caught in her throat.

Nathan handed her a cool cloth and she went to his bedside and began to gently wipe his forehead and down his face.  Josiah smiled down at the young caring woman.

Part 14

Ezra moved through the crowded saloon, hardly feeling the suffocating presence of the people that filled it.  He stopped at the table where four men and a woman were playing poker.  The woman wore a victorious smile on her face as she raked in her winnings.  Ezra turned to see the ragamuffin boy, now almost a teen, sitting off in the corner, watching his mother studiously.  Ezra knew what the young boy was doing.  He watched as green eyes scanned and interpreted the underlying motives and traits of the folks who surrounded him, it was something he constantly practiced. 

This was the third saloon in a week, and the young boy had their horses ready to depart as soon as Maude was finished.  After his mother was through they were rarely welcomed anymore.  They moved constantly never staying long in one place, not even long enough to make friends.  Maude did see to his education, and paid for the best tutors in each town.  He preferred to stay with her then be left with the many relations, who were no more than strangers.

Ezra's green eyes filled with terror when his Uncle suddenly  materialized.  He knew what was coming and he felt the young  man's terror, or was it his own?

+ + + + + + +

Nathan was alone with Ezra for the moment and looked over to see him starting to stir.  He had been growing worried at the conman's lack of response.  Even when they debrided the wounds Ezra rarely made a sound and no longer fought.  Nathan wanted to try and wake him so he could get some water down him.  He went over to the bed and gently shook him.

No sooner had he laid a hand on Ezra's shoulder when green eyes flashed open, but they didn't see a friend.  Instead, Ezra's tortured mind saw his Uncle preparing to beat him again for some minor indiscretion.

The dark healer looked down into the wild eyes of his friend. "'s me-" was all he managed to say before hands reached up and wrapped around his throat, snapping off the healer's air and his words.  Nathan pulled at the cardshark's hands surprised at the sudden strength they held, strength gained from pure unadulterated rage.

At that moment Buck and Vin entered the room, seeing what was happening they both grabbed Ezra's hands and pried them off of Nathan's throat.  As soon as his grip released, Ezra fell back unconscious.  Nathan stepped back rubbing his throat a moment then rushed to Ezra's side, opening an eyelid and checking his breathing.

"What the hell is wrong with him?" Buck angrily exclaimed.

"It's not his fault it's the fever; he's not here," Nathan explained, pulling the askewed blankets back over Ezra's sweat bathed body.

"What do you mean not here?" Vin asked for clarification.  He was still shocked at the sight of one of his friends trying to kill the other.

Nathan sat back in the chair looking up as Chris and Nettie appeared in the doorway.  

"Ezra just tried to kill Nathan," Buck told Chris.


Nathan shook his head.  "I saw it during the war.  Men who couldn't take it anymore or developed high fevers, their minds just took them somewhere else.  Their bodies remained, they still breathed, ate when someone fed them and moved when someone led them, but their minds were no longer present.  They don't see or hear anything that happens around them."

"How long does it last?" Vin asked, looking worriedly down at Ezra's motionless body.

"Some never come back," Nathan sadly replied, thinking of everything the conman had been through lately, emotionally and physically.

"Maybe we should take him home," Chris suggested, his voice laced with sadness.  He didn't want to lose one of his own, not like this.

"I'd rather not move 'im-" Nathan began.

"And you're not.  He's not going anywhere unless he does it under his own power,"  Nettie abruptly interjected, leaving very little room for argument as she glared at the four men before her, making them all feel like disobedient children.

"Yes, ma'am," Vin sheepishly replied throwing up an equally sheepishly grin.  He never thought he'd see the day when Nettie Wells' heart would open for the conniving conman.

Nettie wrung out a cloth and wiped down Ezra's brow.  She hadn't liked the smooth-talking gambler at first, but he had a way of growing on a person and after saving her niece's life.  Well, let's just say she owed him more than she could probably ever repay.

Part 15

Ezra found himself out on an immense plain, tall grass seemed to bow before him as he walked down the dirt and stone strewn road.  He looked down to see the small ragamuffin boy take his hand, and smiled.  Together they walked down the lonely dirt road.

The road ended abruptly at a junction.  The left path traveling off toward a beautiful green valley.  A bright light beckoned at the end, promising peace.  The small boy tugged at his hand, steering him toward the road.  Ezra looked over his shoulder and gazed down the road they had just traveled, it was pitted and marred with twists and turns.  Deep ruts ran down the middle of the road as testament to the constant travel--It had been a long hard road.  He looked off down the road that banked to the right.  It was just as long, but was smooth and flat, without any of the pitfalls of the one he just traveled--A road not yet traveled.  

The familiar scent of his mother's perfume forced his eyes back down the left road and he smiled.  The woman, who had loved him, if only for a short while stood halfway down the road.  Ezra looked down at the boy, who smiled up at him and pulled his small hand out of his grasp.  The boy raced toward the beautiful woman.  The bright warmth encasing them both and causing their green eyes to sparkle once more.  She picked up the small boy and looked beseechingly toward him.  Her face was aglow with health and love for him.  He took a step toward them, even the gentle breeze seemed to be urging him in that direction.  With each step his heart grew lighter, all the anguish and fear slowly draining away.  He had never felt such tranquillity.

The sound of horses stopped him, and he turned to see six riders standing before him.  Their dark shapes a stark contrast against the bright blue backdrop.  Ezra looked over his shoulder feeling the tug of peace and seeing his mother's outreached hand. 

A dark-clad man, his hat pulled low, shadowing his face, nudged his black horse forward.  Ezra looked up at the man who now blotted out the sun.  A hand released its grip on the reins and reached down.  Ezra stared at the offered hand then back up to the stoic figure, who glared impassively down at him.  He looked over his shoulder and saw his mother's face smiling at him.  She turned and started walking away, the little boy looking over her shoulder.  Ezra continued to watch them until they seem to melt from sight.  He again turned his attention to the gunslinger, who's outstretched hand hadn't wavered and patiently waited for his decision.  Ezra slowly reached up his hand, grasping the familiar forearm and allowing himself to be pulled up behind him on the horse.  The seven men turned and headed down the right path together.

+ + + + + + +

Ezra's fever had finally broke, but he showed no sign of regaining consciousness.  It had been over two days since the wolf attack.   Maude sat next to her son, talking quietly to him. 

They had all taken turns returning to town to maintain a controlling presence.  When Ezra's fever broke they all had found places within the room, hoping their presence would bring him back from wherever he was.

Chris sat on a chair on the other side of the bed, his arms folded across his chest, staring down at the enigmatic conman as if trying to will him back.  Ezra was the last to be drawn in, they were a family now and the thought of losing any of them brought that familiar pang of despair back to the surface. Chris' brow creased and he leaned forward.  His icy blue eyes narrowed and he gently picked up Ezra's limp hand.  "C'mon on Ezra, what's it going to be?  We need ya."  Chris whispered sharply into the conman's ear.

It was a moment, but a smile came to Chris' face as he felt Ezra squeeze his hand.  Ezra's eyes fluttered and a moan brought everyone to their feet.  He slowly opened his eyes to see Chris smiling down on him.  His brow furrowed as he felt someone holding his hand, when he realized that it was Chris a faint smile came to his face.

"Ezra,"  Maude reluctantly spoke.  She swallowed, not sure what to expect as Ezra turned his head toward her.  He realized that she had unknowingly saved his life.  She saw the forgiving look in his eyes and a smile of relief lit up her face.  She didn't try to repress the tears that flowed down her cheek and she bent down and kissed her son on the cheek.  He was too weak to voice the feelings he felt as he looked upon the six men who probably saved his life.  Josiah lifted his head slightly as Nathan placed a cup of water to his lips.  The water felt good and washed away the pastey feel that coated his throat.  Nathan then carefully checked the wounds and was satisfied that they were healing.  "How you feelin', Ez?"

Ezra swallowed and licked his lips, wondering if his voice would betray the feelings inside.  "Like I've been to hell and back, and had to walk the whole way," he rasped, wincing as his chuckle caused pain to radiate throughout his body.

Everyone laughed, releasing two days worth of pent up tension and fear.  Maude gently stroked his forehead, knowing they had a lot to discuss, but hopeful that they could repair their damaged relationship.

"You traveled a long hard road, brother," Josiah softly stated.

Ezra's green eyes widen at Josiah's statement and he arched a sandy eyebrow at the pious gunslinger.  "Yeah, but in the end I chose the right one."

The End

I didn't want to spoil anything so I had to put this at the end.  No wolf was injured in the writing of this story. I wish to thank Heather F. for information on the treatment of animal bites.

Comments: KellyA