Author's Note: Thanks to NotTasha for her editing abilities, she's a story-saver.
Webmaster Note: This fic was previously posted on another website and was moved to blackraptor in June of 2004.
Buck Wilmington took in a deep breath of the crisp, clear air as he surveyed the town of Four Corners from his chair outside the saloon. Patches of snow marred the street and heavy mounds of snow were in danger of falling from several eaves. He unbuttoned his jacket, reveling in the unusual warmth of the November day. Buck leaned forward in his chair to look down the street as a flash of color caught his eye. He nudged the laidback form that was stretched out in the chair next to him.
Larabee pushed his hat back on his head and glared at his friend
who nodded toward the street. Chris eyed the strolling and colorfully clad gambler, noticing the definite spring in Standish's usual confident gait. Chris half expected the man to jump and click his heels together. Interest caused the blond leader to sit up. It always worried him when Ezra was too happy; it usually meant he was up to something--either a devious prank for some unsuspecting soul or a get-rich-quick scheme.
Ezra grinned as he strolled down the main street, tipping his hat at the feminine denizens of Four Corners. Even Jack Frost couldn't stifle the good feelings that filled him. He hadn't realized how much his good mood revealed itself until he noticed the grinning visages of his compatriots outside the saloon. Ezra nodded as he passed by the two amused lawmen.
JD and Vin stepped out from the saloon and stopped alongside their friends. "What's goin' on?" Vin asked noticing the bewildered amusement in Buck and Chris's eyes. It never ceased to amaze him how this town had affected them, no where else would you see amusement in Chris Larabee's stone blue eyes.
"Ezra's up to somethin'," Buck quickly pointed out. Vin and JD turned their attention to the red-coated figure who was halfway down the street. "Why else would he be lookin' so chipper this early in the morning."
"He's been looking like a cat that ate the canary for the past two days," Vin noted, plopping down in one of the chairs.
"Well, why doesn't someone just ask him?" JD spun around on the supporting post with one hand and hopped into the street, racing to catch up with the cheerful gambler.
Chris eyed his two friends as he settled back into his chair. 'Out of the mouths of babes,' he thought.
"I'd a gotten 'round to it," Buck defended.
"Uh huh." Chris knew how hard it was to get anything out of the wily cardsharp. Even after six months, they were just starting to get past Ezra's cavalier attitude and earn his trust. When it came to the obstinate gambler, sometimes it was safer to always be 'gettin' around to it'. A life time of watching out for only yourself was a hard habit to break.
"Well, maybe JD will get it out of him," Vin said, watching the pair walk down the street.
"Yeah, he'll just nag Ez to death," Buck quipped, the three of them chuckling at the thought.
It would be a challenge, but Ezra seemed to tolerate the enthusiastic
Easterner better than most.
JD bounced up alongside the buoyant conman who never broke his stride. "What's up, Ez?
"Mr. Dunne," Ezra greeted. "Today is a pivotal day in my life and one that you have the honor of witnessing."
JD's brow furrowed as a hesitant smile broke across his face. He wasn't sure what kind of honor he'd be witnessing, but with Ezra it was sure to be good.
"I have finally procured the necessary funds to purchase my previously owned establishment." Ezra patted his coat pocket where a large sum of cash resided.
JD's smile grew. "You're going to buy back the saloon?"
Ezra glanced over at the young gunslinger hearing his glee. "That is correct, Mr. Dunne. I will finally be able to redeem myself within the limited financial circles of this territory."
Ever since the day his mother had bought the saloon out from under him, he had lived with the loss; it gnawed at him like a living thing. The loss was insightful, revealing that maybe he wasn't the underhanded, scheming conman he had been taught to believe. His heart was not hardened; it had hurt to lose his dream and it had hurt that some of his supposed friends had betrayed him. He had forgiven his friends, or at least he had convinced himself that he forgave them.
Ezra's thoughts strayed to his relationship with his mother. Why did they get such pleasure out of conning and manipulating each other? Life--his life--was a game to his mother, always testing his boundaries and trying to continue his training as a conman.
He would buy back the saloon and make it the best establishment in the area. People would come from miles to get a taste of the sophisticated ambience within a wild and untamed land. He would become a respected member of this town, and he would never have to resort to conning again. His future would be secure. This thought brought a warm feeling to his being.
JD was glad the gambler was going to get the saloon back. He had felt guilty for his part in not helping Ezra hang onto the bar in the first place. He still couldn't believe that Ezra's own mother would do something like that to him. His mother would have done everything in her power to see that he succeeded. JD looked over at Ezra, whose face beamed with delight.
The two lawmen entered the bank to see the bank manager, Mr. Reynolds, standing behind the counter going through receipts. The meticulous businessman looked up and smiled at the two men.
"Ah, Mr. Standish, Mr. Dunne, what can I do for you today?" Reynolds greeted.
Standish stepped forward glad that they were the only patrons at the moment. "Mr. Reynolds, as per our conversation last week I wish to purchase the saloon. I believe I have a sufficient down payment." Ezra laid a stack of bills in front of the bank manager.
JD's mouth fell open. He didn't think he'd ever seen so much money. He knew Ezra had been playing the tables late into the night when he was off duty and had even taken several trips to Tucson and Cedar Ridge.
Mr. Reynolds's smile fell from his round face and he swallowed, pulling at the string tie about his neck. Standish was a genteel patron of the bank, but he was also a member of the hired gunslingers who protected the town. Reynolds didn't want to test the limits of the man's civility.
Ezra's brow furrowed as he noticed the banker's sudden discomfort. "Is there a problem? You informed me last week that the saloon was up for sale and my mother was looking for a buyer."
"Yes, I did." Reynolds's clasped his hands on the desk and exhaled. "I also mentioned your interest to your mother," he admitted.
Ezra's face darkened, his happy disposition swallowed up by a sense of foreboding whenever his mother's name was mentioned. His gut clenched and he silently pleaded, 'Please, don't stop me again.'
JD wasn't sure what was going on, but he got a bad feeling as he looked first at Ezra and then the bank manager. Ezra's smile had disappeared, replaced with his customary poker countenance.
"And what did my dear mother say to that proclamation?" Ezra asked through a constricting throat.
"I'm sorry, Mr. Standish, but I can't sell the saloon to you."
"Has my mother changed her mind about selling it?"
"No," Reynolds's said, growing considerably uneasy. "Your mother wired me and gave strict instructions not to sell the property to you at any price." The words rushed from the banker's mouth hoping to make their impact less hurtful.
Ezra's face was stone and JD suddenly found a spider down in a corner of the bank very interesting. His heart broke for the gambler.
"Did she give a reason?" Ezra softly asked.
Mr. Reynolds bowed his head. He had tried to reason with Mrs. Standish. He couldn't understand why she wouldn't allow her own son to buy the saloon, but trying to dissuade Maude Standish was like trying to deter the sun from rising. She swore that he would suffer the consequences if he didn't obey her request. He didn't want to test the bounds of that threat. Maude Standish had considerable influence unknown too many people, but not to Mr. Reynolds.
Ezra was well aware of his mother's influences and what lengths she would go to get her way. He actually felt sorry for the bank manager, the man didn't stand a chance.
Reynolds' sighed, relenting to the inevitable. "She said she didn't want her efforts wasted on your foolhardy dreams."
JD looked up hearing the despair in those quietly spoken words.
Ezra took a deep breath to help maintain his composure and then gathered up the money on the counter, placing it back into his pocket. "Might I inquire if there are any other interested buyers?"
"Nothing definite. A couple fellas from Tucson want to look over the place in a few days. They've made a token offer, which Mrs. Standish has agreed to."
"How much are they offering?" Ezra asked.
"Mr. Standish, that is privileged information."
"How much?" Ezra's voice growled out the words and his green eyes flared.
"Much less than you are offering," Reynolds sadly answered.
This was too much. His mother was willing to take a loss rather than sell to him and make a profit. He would have laughed if he didn't think he would cry.
Ezra released a tired breath and politely offered his hand. He didn't blame the sworn businessman. "Thank you for your time, Mr. Reynolds." Ezra turned on his heel and in three strides was out the door.
JD raced after the hurried gambler, jogging to keep up with his angry strides. "I'm sorry..."
Ezra stopped short and scowled at the contrite gunslinger. "Don't. Please, Mr. Dunne, I'm not in the mood for any pity. I should have expected this." What he meant to say was 'he should be use to this.' Why did his mother like making him the fool in front of his friends?
JD could tell that Ezra was fighting to hang on to his mask of composure.
Buck watched as JD and Ezra stopped in the street. Prepared to commence with his usual barrage of jokes he paused when he read the devastation on Ezra's face. After six months of working together, they all were able to see past the conman's mock visage of self-confidence and control. Ezra would be shocked by this revelation, or maybe he was allowing the men, who he considered as close as brothers, to finally see the real man.
JD stopped in the street in front of the saloon as Ezra continued past. Vin got a sick feeling in the pit of his stomach. Everything had been going too good for too long, he knew it couldn't last.
"What the hell happened?" Buck asked, seeing the sadness in JD's brown eyes as he continued to watch the gambler until he entered the stable.
"Ezra was planning to buy the saloon. Maude told Mr. Reynolds not to sell to him," JD explained.
"Ah, geez," Buck murmured pulling his hat from his head.
"Damn," Chris muttered.
"Can't she cut her own son a break?" Buck exclaimed.
"Nope, not in her," Vin said. "Probably feels if she gets soft with Ezra they'll be no hope for 'im."
The snort of a horse, then the sudden sound of hooves and the four lawmen watched the blur that tore out of the stables and down the street.
"Vin." Chris didn't want Ezra out on his own in the state he was in.
"I'm on it, cowboy." Vin headed toward the livery and his own horse.
"Watch that he don't shoot you," Buck yelled at Vin's retreating back. The tracker waved an arm and disappeared inside the stable.
Vin trailed the distressed conman, hanging back to give him time and space. He knew Ezra needed time alone, but he didn't want the man to go off and do something crazy. Vin thought that maybe Ezra was going to confront his mother, but he dismissed this. No one won on a face to face with Maude Standish, not even her son. Vin pulled up Peso and dismounted. He watched as Ezra made his way into a copse of scrub trees.
After half an hour, Vin finally decided that Ezra had had enough time alone. He peered into the clearing, watching Ezra pace the small confines of a snow-covered meadow, tilting back a bottle of whiskey as he tramped the clean snow into mud. Vin noticed that Ezra was delving into the same the rot-gut whiskey that Chris and Buck drank, instead of the scotch he preferred. Vin stepped into view and froze when Ezra spun around, his revolver sliding into his hand as if materializing out of thin air.
Vin threw up his hands, taken aback by the conman's speed. There was still a lot they didn't know about Ezra Standish. "Whoa, whoa there pard, it's just me."
Ezra glared at the tracker and slowly holstered his gun, allowing himself to slide down a tree to the ground, ignoring the cold ground beneath. Vin joined him.
"Didn't know you were so fast."
Ezra took a swig from the bottle and passed it to Vin. "It's not something that comes up in polite conversation, and I don't like to advertise." Ezra pulled out a deck of cards and began shuffling them. "It's a by-product of being an exceptional card player." Ezra's nimble fingers flew within the cards, flipping up face cards at whim.
"Sorry to hear 'bout the saloon."
"Yes, well, it was only a petty dream." Ezra's cards started to fly faster between his fingers. He forced the anger and despair in his chest to hold, a dike of resolve that was thoroughly saturated and starting to spring leaks.
"No dream is petty," Vin retorted.
Ezra's fingers stopped and the cards bowed to his angered pressure. "That is where you are wrong, Mr. Tanner. When compared with your lofty ambitions my dream of owning a saloon is surely lacking."
Vin's brow furrowed and he stared at downhearted gambler. Did Ezra really think so little of himself, or was it that he thought so highly of the others, their dreams far outweighing his own desires and ambitions? Vin continued to stare at Ezra, hoping he would continue. He was surprised at how much Ezra had already revealed to him.
Ezra glanced sideways at Vin, seeing that he would have to explain. "You dream of clearing your name, a most worthy ambition. Mr. Jackson envisions becoming a doctor, JD of becoming a Texas Ranger." Ezra paused and took a swig from the bottle. "Mr. Sanchez dreams of retribution for his lost soul and redeeming mankind. Mr. Larabee..." Ezra paused in his ruminations to consider Chris Larabee, a man he'd come to respect and admire more than any man he'd ever known. "Mr. Larabee also dreams of retribution for his family and finding what he lost. Even our carefree, Casanova, Mr. Wilmington, hopes to someday find the right woman--All lofty aspirations. Owning a broken down hovel that caters to the less than desirable aspect of mankind and enriching me monetarily is of little consequence. My mother probably did me a service." Ezra took another long pull from the bottle hoping to burn away the lie.
Ezra handed the bottle back to Vin and slowly started to shuffle though his deck of cards again.
Vin was stunned. Ezra knew all their dreams. He was sure that none of them had come right out and told him. Ezra had listened, observed and learned their deepest secrets. Vin doubted that any of them knew how much owning that saloon meant to Ezra.
Vin wiped his mouth with his sleeve after taking a drink. Two could play at this game. "Ezra, your real dream is that you just want some place you can call home with out risk of havin' to leave. Buying the saloon is a way to make that a reality."
Ezra froze. Vin smiled at the dumbfound expression on the gambler's face.
Besides each other, they all had other reasons to remain in Four Corners. Chris was tied to Mary and the town's people whether he knew it or not, Vin was tied to Chris, whether he knew it or not. JD's life as a sheriff as well as Nathan's healing abilities, tied them both to the town. The Church held Josiah and the women held Buck. Ezra didn't have any ties to the town, except of course his law keeping duties and his promise to Chris. Vin didn't think Ezra ever had a place he could call home.
"I think your ma didn't want you buyin' that saloon cause she's afraid you'll plant roots and stay here."
Ezra tilted his head back until it rested against the tree. Vin was right; he had always wanted a place he could call his own, a place to belong. But his mother had once again destroyed that dream. Ezra choked back a sob unable to ease the pain of his mother's treachery or the thought that someday he would have to move on again, a tree without roots soon died.
"Where's Ez?" Chris asked as he stepped up onto the boardwalk in front of the jailhouse. Buck let his feet fall to the wooden floor from his chair and peered up at the darkly dressed gunslinger.
"Still on patrol should be back anytime."
They had all been keeping an eye on the depressed gambler. His spirit was gone, at least, that was the way Josiah described Ezra's morose mood of late. Ezra still did his job and even played poker, but the trust and friendship that had been growing in the gambler over the past six months had wilted. He was dissociating himself from them, and Chris knew this could be the prelude to him leaving.
"Good, make sure he comes to the saloon."
"What's goin' on?" Buck asked.
"Never mind, just make sure he gets there, and you too. This is for everyone." Chris turned and walked away.
Ezra followed Buck into the saloon under the pretense that there were high-rollers to be filched. Buck held open the bat-wing doors, allowing the gambler to step inside. Ezra stopped when he saw four of the lawmen sitting at two tables. He looked over his shoulder at Buck and arched an expressive eyebrow.
"Come on, Ez, have a seat," Vin called out, seeing the hesitation in the gambler's stance.
Ezra took a deep breath and allowed an expression of amusement to show on his face as he slowly walked over to the table.
"And what, pray tell, is this all about?" Ezra asked.
"Don't rightly know," Vin replied looking over at Chris, who held a faint smile on his hardened visage. "Chris won't tell us."
"Just sit down, Ez," Chris growled.
Ezra grabbed a chair between Josiah and Vin and cautiously sat down.
"Hey, where's JD?" Buck asked, grabbing a chair next to Chris.
"He'll be here," Chris said.
As if on cue JD shuffled out from the back room of the saloon, balancing a large white cake. Vin's mouth immediately began to water as he eyed the white fluffy frosting. JD placed the cake down in the middle of the table, his grin matching the knowing smile on Chris's face.
"What's this for?" Buck asked running his finger across the frosting on the side of the cake and sticking it into his mouth.
"You don't remember what day it is today." JD's smile fell as he scrutinized the gunslingers. He and Chris had planned this, but he had hoped the others were aware of the importance of the day.
"Let's see, is it Founding day already?" Buck asked.
"I would have guessed it to be Harvest Day or maybe someone's birthday," Nathan added with a smile.
Chris bowed his head to hide his growing smile. He knew what day it was. How could he forget the day that changed his life and probably saved it?
Ezra's face remained dispassionate, but he also remembered the meaning of today. The day he found out what it was like to have a family.
"No, Buck, it's our six month anniversary. Six months ago today we all met," JD said with just a little anger.
Josiah grinned, he knew they all remembered and were just pulling the young man's leg.
"Well, I'll be, really?" Buck mocked, pulling off his hat and giving a wide-eyed expression of astonishment.
JD broke into a smile as he realized everyone was very much aware of the significance of the day.
Buck started cutting and doling out pieces of cake. JD nervously stood and removed his hat, running his fingers over the rim. "I know I probably wouldn't 'ave lasted a day out west if'n I hadn't met you all."
Buck stopped cutting and looked over at his young friend his eyes radiating his fondness for the young gunslinger. JD quickly sat down his face flushed with the embarrassment of his confession.
Buck slid a piece of cake over to Nathan, who stared down at the white confection, then keeping his voice low. "I know I wouldn't be healin' or even alive if it weren't for you all and this town."
Everyone stopped in mid bite at the healer's admission. Nathan raised his head and smiled. "And I certainly wouldn't get as much practice."
"Well, I believe you all have kept my crows at bay," Josiah said, stuffing his mouth with a large bit of cake and trying to keep the crumbs out of his beard.
Vin swallowed his bite and took a sip of coffee to wash it down. "Well, it certainly ain't no secret that I'd probably be dead if'n weren't fer you all."
Chris looked over at his friend and nodded.
Buck looked at each of his friends, new and old. He wiped his mouth with his sleeve. "Well, I'd probably have been through four towns by now and shot at by at least three irate husbands."
Vin glanced out of the corner of his eye to see Ezra in deep-musing. He knew that Ezra cared a great deal for them, but his life had taught him the follies of showing any heart-felt emotion. The man lived by the con and it was a hard life-style to change.
Ezra breathed a sigh of relief when several patrons entered the saloon, looking for a game.
"If you'll excuse me, gentlemen, I have other business to attend to." Ezra pushed away from the table, his cake only half eaten.
Damn, he slipped out on them again, Chris thought. He knew Ezra was hurting from the loss of the saloon, but why was he pushing them away?
"Nice try, JD," Buck said, watching Ezra sit down at his table with three other men.
"Just tryin' to show 'im what he still has," JD replied. "Owning a saloon ain't everything."
"It is to someone who believes he has nothing," Vin quietly murmured.
Albert Wilder stared unbelieving at the cards in his hand. The young man watched as the last of his money slipped into the fancy gambler's pocket. Ezra had tried to leave the youth some money, but the young man was an abysmal player with too much pride for his own good. The other gunslingers had remained in the saloon, drinking and talking about some of their adventures. They all furtively glanced over at Ezra during his game.
Albert raised angry dark eyes, causing the hairs on the back of Ezra's neck to prickle. He grumbled something under his breath as he stood and grabbed his coat from the back of the chair. Ezra released a sigh when the young man left the saloon; grateful he would not have to contend with an irate loser tonight. Ezra turned his thoughts to the rest of the evening. He knew that JD and the others were only trying to divert his thoughts from losing the saloon, again.
Where would he be if not for the six gunslingers he now worked with? Probably in another town swindling the residents for all they were worth, eating at fine restaurants and living in the costliest suites or swinging from a noose. Ezra absently shuffled his cards and glanced over at the six lawmen, the thought of life without them was unthinkable and undesirable. He may have lost the saloon, but he had found a family here with these men. He would just have to find another way to make his mark in this town and secure a future. This decision seemed to lighten his heart, and he decided to quickly finish the next game and rejoin their company.
No one paid any attention as Albert Wilder entered the saloon, stopping just inside the bat-wing doors. And no one would know what burned in the young man's heart to drive him to the next coarse of action.
Albert stood detached from the boisterous crowd; another failure, his father would kill him for losing all that money. He listened to the gaiety in front of him, laughter that seemed to mock him. He could hear his father's crusty voice breaking out from that laughter, telling him he was worthless that he couldn't do anything right. The young man rested his hands on his guns.
JD looked up and his mouth fell open when he saw the young man with his gun drawn, aiming at Ezra. JD leaped from his chair. "EZRA, LOOK OUT!" The young sheriff shouted above the din of the saloon, grabbing everyone's attention.
Ezra turned his head and had a second to hear the shot. He never felt the bullet that grazed his head and wiped the light from his eyes as he crumpled to the ground.
When Chris's gaze and gun found the threat, he pulled the trigger. The young man died with a smile on his face, hoping his father was tortured forever by his death.
Larabee looked down to see Vin with Ezra's head in his lap, trying to stop the bleeding. Vin applied pressure to the head wound as blood continued to escape. The tracker started slowly rocking back and forth, his other hand rubbing Ezra's shoulder.
"Don't die, Ez, please, just don't die," Vin kept repeating softly as if the words alone could keep the gambler with them. Vin looked up, unable to focus his teary vision. Chris saw the anguish on the tracker's face and his gut twisted into so many knots. Nathan pushed his way through the crowd.
"LET ME THROUGH!" Nathan fell to his knees beside the gambler, searching for a pulse. "Let's git him up to his room."
Josiah's massive form appeared and gently gathered up the injured man, carrying him up the stairs as Vin maintained pressure on the head wound.
Nathan ousted everyone out of the room, except Josiah. The four ejected lawmen paced and fidgeted like caged cats outside the door to Ezra's room.
Chris finally settled against a wall his thoughts exploring what had happened. One incriminating thought kept going through his head--why hadn't he seen the boy before he fired that gun. Damn, he was getting careless. They all felt safe here in town, allowing their guard to falter.
"Ezra's going to be alright," JD softly assured as he worried on his hat. He was still in shock at the amount of blood that Ezra had lost.
Buck draped a brotherly arm across the young gunslinger's shoulders. "Sure he will, if there's one thing Ez has going for him it's a hard head."
"Damn, what's takin' so long?" Vin abruptly remarked, pushing away from the wall. His normally relaxed attitude shredded with nervous tension. He looked over to see Chris leaning up against the wall, his head bowed and his arms crossed. Vin's thoughts crossed paths with the dark-clad gunslinger. Why hadn't they seen the shooter?
Chris looked up and gazed at the distressed tracker. "Don't go blamin' yourself, Vin."
The seven lawmen prided themselves on watching each other's back, but a person had to relax sometimes, didn't they? Chris knew they had grown lax over the past six months; they all felt safe here. Was Ezra going to pay the ultimate price for those feelings of contentment?
"Even Ezra didn't see it comin'," Buck argued.
"We should have seen it," Vin angrily countered.
The door squeaked as it opened and Nathan slipped out, closing the door silently behind him. He turned to face four anxious faces, all eyes glued to the blood staining the front of his shirt.
"I got the bleedin' stopped."
"That's good. So, how is he?" Buck prompted.
Nathan hung his head a moment and released a quivering breath. The head wound was deep. "Don't know what damage was done," Nathan replied. "He could be bleedin' inside his head. Don't know if he'll even wake up."
It was like the wind suddenly dying and the sails folding in on themselves. Chris's jaw clenched. Buck turned and slapped the innocuous wall. JD quickly wiped a hand across his eyes.
"We're just goin' to have to wait and see," Nathan continued.
His head hurt that was his first sensation as he slowly floated out of the darkness; next, was confusion. Ezra's brow furrowed as muffled voices assaulted his ears. Was he in the saloon? Much to his relief, the voices started to drift away. Lord, he just wanted to go back to that warm darkness where there was no pain and no confusion. He was trying to remember why his head hurt. Maybe he imbibed a little too much libation, but he couldn't remember.
For the second day in a row the six lawmen gathered around their seventh man; two days of not knowing if they would lose their resident gambler and friend. Every day the six lawmen hoped and prayed something would change in the gambler's condition. Nathan had been unable to get any water down the incapacitated conman, and he now worried that Ezra was in danger of dehydration.
Chris looked up from his chair. "JD, did anyone come and claim that boy's body yet?"
JD shook his head and a pensive expression aged his boyish face. "Got a wire from his pa, said he wouldn't claim the body, said to bury 'im out in the desert for all he cared."
"Geeze, what kind of pa abandons his son?" Buck sadly asked, not expecting an answer.
"No kind," Chris remarked then turned his attention to Nathan, noticing the faint smile on the healer's face.
"So, how's he doing?"
Nathan straightened from his position over Ezra. "Well, his fever is gone and he seems to be restin' betta."
"Praise the lord," Josiah breathed the tension seeming to float off the big man's shoulders. It had been a long couple of days, not knowing if Ezra would live or die.
"I'll tell ya that man has the luck of the devil on his side," Nathan quipped. "But he's not out of the woods yet, he needs to wake up so I can get some water down 'im."
"Hey, look," JD suddenly exclaimed, stepping closer to the bed. "I think he's coming out of it!" When JD had looked over at Ezra he saw the gambler's face scrunch up in pain.
"Ezra? Can you hear me?" Nathan leaned back over the bed.
"C'mon Ez, it's time to get up, pard," Buck cajoled, shaking the conman's foot.
Ezra's eyes fluttered a moment, and then were still, a soft groan parted his lips and his head lolled to the side. Nathan straightened and looked over at the other gunslingers who were holding their breaths. Just when they thought Ezra was not about to wake up, his eyes snapped open.
"Alright, Ez! Welcome back!" Buck gleefully shouted. Smiles broke out all around the room and long held breaths were expelled.
No one noticed the fear-filled expression on the conman's face as he pushed himself back into his pillow and stared at the six exuberant strangers surrounding his bed.
Ezra stared wide-eyed, trying to make sense of what he was seeing and what everyone was saying, but his head felt like someone was screwing an awl though it. He peered under the blankets, noticing that he was wearing nothing but his underwear. He looked back up at the six men crowded in the room and his heart thundered in his chest.
Nathan was the first to notice the strange expression on the cardshark's face. He bent over, but stopped short when he saw the fear in Ezra's green eyes. Nathan frowned and stepped back.
Ezra's heart was threatening to gallop out of his chest. His head was swimming and these men were threatening to drown him. He glanced over, noticing the gun sitting on the nightstand.
"Ezra, are you okay?" Nathan warily asked. The others suddenly grew quiet at the concern in the healer's voice.
Ezra's arm lashed out. He grabbed the gun, at the same time, leaping up on the bed and placing himself flat against the wall, fighting the vertigo that threatened to send him back into oblivion.
Everyone jumped, surprised at the injured man's quickness. Chris and Buck stopped short of going for their own weapons.
"WHAT THE HELL IS GOING ON?" Ezra angrily voiced, flinching as his voice reverberated in his head, causing it to throb and bile to rise up in his throat.
"Take it easy, Ezra." Nathan stepped forward prepared to force the conman back down. "You feelin' sick?"
"GET THE HELL AWAY FROM ME!" Ezra yelled, aiming his gun at Nathan's chest. His face twisted in pain and disgust as he glared at the healer. Who did this darkie think he was?
Nathan recognized the familiar disgust on the southerner's face and backed up. He had seen that expression many times growing up as a slave on a white-man's plantation.
"Ezra, Nathan's only tryin' to help ya," Buck said, stunned by his friend's menace. For a moment, he believed that Ezra would actually shoot Nathan.
"I don't need help from his kind," Ezra snarled.
Nathan's fists clenched, and that old familiar, gut-wrenching, frustration returned. Josiah stepped up alongside his old friend and laid a hand on his shoulder. He didn't know what was going on with Ezra, but they didn't need Nathan losing control.
"Vin, get Ez some water," Nathan curtly said from the other side of the room. "And someone better get 'im a pail."
Chris stood silently; scrutinizing the gambler as Vin carefully moved over to the dresser and poured a glass of water.
"Hey, Ezra, what's going on?" JD asked his brow furrowed in concern for his friend.
Ezra glanced over at the young gunslinger. His gazed shifted and vibrant green eyes narrowed as Vin stepped up to the bed, offering him a glass of water.
"You need to drink, pard," Vin said.
Ezra licked his lips, the sight of the water reminding him how thirsty he was. He tentatively reached out and took the glass, his gun pointed at Vin's gut.
"Take it slow, Ez," Vin instructed, he could tell something was seriously wrong with the suave conman. Using his foot, Vin nudged the pail closer to the bed, knowing that Ezra was going to need it soon.
Ezra used the gun barrel to usher Vin back over toward the others. He downed the water without taking his eyes off the six men crowded into the room. He was trying to remember how he got here but nothing would solidify, just flashing images that made little or no sense.
Ezra lowered the empty glass and let it drop to the bed. He glared at the six strangers. "How do you know my name? Who the hell are you people?" Ezra asked, the gun still cocked and aimed.
The six gunslingers regarded each other with apprehension as they realized that their friend no longer knew who they were.
"Take it easy, Ez, we ain't gonna hurt ya," Vin tried to soothe, grateful that Ezra still remembered his own name.
Ezra winced at the familiarity. It was disconcerting to have people know you, when you didn't have a clue as to their identity.
"You were shot in the head," Chris abruptly explained. "Don't you remember?"
Ezra raised his free hand up to his head feeling the bandage. Well, that would explain the headache that seemed too coarse through his entire body.
"No," was the angered reply as Ezra locked gazes with the darkly dressed gunslinger. Chris saw no recognition in those green depths, only mistrust and rage.
"What's the last thing you remember?" Josiah asked.
Ezra stared suspiciously at the huge gunslinger. The adrenaline rush that had fuelled him was waning and his body slumped against the wall. He slowly relented, allowing his body to slide down the wall and rest on the bed. He still maintained his hold on the gun, but the weight of it forced his arm to tremble and he had to use his knee to prop it up.
"I was in the saloon, about to engage in a friendly competition with a couple of rubes," Ezra replied.
Vin and Chris glanced at each other, remembering the day they first met the wily cardshark in the saloon.
"This competition wouldn't have involved shootin' the ace of spades with blanks, would it?" Chris asked, getting a bad feeling about this.
Ezra stared at the darkly dressed gunslinger, trying to maintain a placid expression as thoughts ran rampant through his head. Okay, so maybe this man saw him in the saloon and somehow figured out the ruse. Damn, who were these people and how did they know him? He would never associate with men like these. Ezra glared at Nathan, and especially never with the likes of him.
"If this is some type of con, you're wasting your time. I'm destitute and have no idea what you're after."
"We're not tryin' to trick ya," Vin intoned. "We're your friends."
Ezra chortled. "Now I know this is some kind a trick. I don't have any friends."
"You're an officer of the law here in Four Corners," Chris added.
Ezra's eyes widen as his mouth fell open, unguarded disbelief coming to his face. The six lawmen stared in astonishment as they became witness to something totally out of character for the usually composed gambler. Ezra Standish went into a full-blown belly laugh, hard enough for his gun arm to drop and tears to stream down his face. He paid for the side-splitting outburst as his head threatened to split in two and bile rushed up his throat. He threw his head over the side of the bed and vomited into the well-located pail.
Nathan instinctively moved to assist until Josiah grabbed him by the arm. "Might not be a good idea, brother," he whispered.
Nathan slumped and stood back. Josiah was right, they didn't know how Ezra would react to their assistance; right now, they were strangers to the southerner. Nate had known men who lost their memory during the war; they usually appeared lost and confused, not even remembering their names. Ezra had looked angry and like someone they'd never met.
It was several minutes before Ezra regained control and pushed himself back up on the bed. His head throbbed, and he squeezed his eyes shut as he leaned back on the bed. He had paled considerably, and a sheen of sweat glistened on his face. The gun now lay in his lap but his finger remained on the trigger.
"Have a good laugh," Chris coolly remarked, tossing the exhausted conman a cool rag.
Ezra slowly opened his eyes. "Gentlemen, I haven't laughed that hard in ages. Me, an officer of the law." Ezra continued to chuckle as he wiped his face with the cool cloth. His face cast in confusion and suspicion. 'What were these men after?'
"It's true," Buck interjected. "We've been working together for six months, pard."
The cloth stopped on the side of his face, and he stared at the mustached cowboy. Had he heard correctly? Six months?
"What's the date?" JD abruptly asked.
"16th of May," Ezra replied, without hesitation. He knew because on the 17th he planned on meeting his mother in Cedar Ridge and traveling to San Francisco.
"No, it's the 18th of November," JD corrected.
Ezra's brows came together, trying to focus on the young gunslinger to see if he was telling the truth. "It can't be," he breathed, doubt seeping into his mind as he looked at JD's innocent visage.
"Look outside," Vin said pulling the drapes aside to show Ezra the dreary autumn view; the mountains covered in a fresh blanket of snow.
Ezra shivered as if he just started feeling the winter chill. "I've been incapacitated for six months?" He softly asked.
"No, you've been unconscious for only two days," Chris quickly corrected.
The gun slipped out of Ezra's hand as he brought his palms up to his eyes the cloth he held covering his face. "I don't remember any of you," he admitted. Vin cautiously stepped up to the bed and took the gun.
"I think Ezra should rest," Nathan suggested, staring at the figure on the bed and trying to remember he was a friend. It had taken a long time before the two diverse men had come to an understanding. Nathan didn't know if he could go through that all again. Vin poured another glass of water and set it on the table next to the bed.
Chris looked down at the beleaguered man. "Ezra, this is your room, why don't you get some rest. We'll be back later with some food."
Ezra didn't answer. The six lawmen quietly made their way out of the room. Ezra listened as the door closed. It was a moment before he raised his head, leaning it against the bed rest. He kept his eyes closed, hoping that this was all a dream.
Ezra allowed his eyes to gaze slowly around the unfamiliar room. He recognized some of his belongings but there were some oddities. A shelf, attached to the far wall, with several books neatly lined on it and a picture of an upscale saloon hung on the far wall. He never had any place permanent enough for such trappings, including relationships.
His saddlebags sat on the chair beside the door as was his custom, but the open closet revealed a multitude of jackets, more than he'd ever owned before or be able to carry. A conman usually traveled light, having to depart at the first sign that he had worn out his welcome.
Ezra's thoughts once again went to the six men--gunslingers. He never had any connection to gunslingers, except for the ones who wanted to shoot him. The darkly dressed man was definitely a dangerous person, and the type he usually avoided. Ezra rubbed his forehead, trying to ease his throbbing head. He had hated the practice of slavery but accepted it as the natural 'modus vivendi'. He had never been a friend with a black man, not even with the slaves that his uncle owned. How could it be possible that he rode and worked with such insurgent men? Moreover, the very idea that he was a lawman was ludicrous. No, this had to be some sort of ploy, but for what end? He wasn't wealthy. Maybe they thought he would use his conning abilities to appropriate a lot of money. He had to find out what their agenda was.
Ezra's thoughts strayed to his mother. She probably hadn't even missed him. He would have to get in touch with her; maybe she could straighten this out. He glanced out the frost covered window, six months of his life, gone. What had happened to him, and more importantly where did he go from here?
Although he feared what he would wake up to, Ezra could no longer fight the call of sleep and felt his mind and body drifting away.
The six lawmen made their way downstairs, still shocked at the revelation that their friend didn't remember them, had actually forgotten the past six months of his life.
"So, what do you think, Nathan?" Chris asked, pulling out a chair and settling down.
"I don't know. Memory is a funny thing," Nathan said, sitting down next to Chris.
"It appears our brother has only lost the past six months," Josiah noted.
"But that means he doesn't remember us or the things we've done," JD said, obviously distressed over the whole situation.
"He might remember everything in time, or bits and pieces," Nathan paused. "Or he may never remember."
"So, what do we do?" Buck interjected, not willing to believe that they could lose one of their own because he couldn't remember them. He always thought a bullet from some desperado would be the means that eventually took one of them.
"Well." Nathan rubbed his chin in thought. "We might try and remind him of some things, maybe it'll jar his memory, but be careful you don't over do it," Nathan said. The anger he felt at the conman's initial attitude toward him was diminishing. To Ezra this was their first meeting, he didn't remember how much they had grown to understand and accept each other. Nathan hated the thought that everything they'd accomplished between them was gone. "We need to take it slow and not push him."
The six lawmen agreed to do whatever they could to restore Ezra's memory. They'd been through too much to lose one of their own like this.
Vin slipped silently into Ezra's room. They had taken his guns so Vin wasn't worried about being shot. He looked to see the gambler sleeping on his back. Ezra's face was pale, making the bruise peeking out from under the bandage even more garish.
"I know you're awake, Ez," Vin said as he sat down in the nearby chair.
"Very insightful," Ezra replied with closed eyes. "I would love to play poker with you sometime."
"You have, and you always win," Vin chuckled.
Ezra opened his eyes to the buckskin tracker. The man had an easygoing manner that belied a deadly element, similar to what Mr. Larabee carried, but well hidden. "You would be, Mr. Tanner."
Vin nodded feeling awkward that Ezra didn't remember him. The two men had grown close over the past six months; Vin didn't want to lose that.
"The young sheriff, Mr. Dunne, came by and told me a little about each of you. I think he was trying to help me feel more comfortable with the situation," Ezra explained.
"And did he," Vin prompted.
"I'm afraid not, it just made me feel like I don't really belong here."
Vin curbed the urge to help as Ezra propped himself up. He didn't want to push it. As far as Ezra was concerned, they had just met.
"Why do you stay here, Mr. Tanner?" Ezra was trying to understand and make sense of what had happened to him.
Vin frowned, taken off guard by the perplexing question. "Well, you don't remember, but I'm wanted for a murder I didn't commit. It's nice to be with people who believe in my innocence. You and the others are as close to family as I've had in a long time."
"Family." The word rolled unfamiliarly off the gambler's tongue.
"You're lucky; you still have your mother," Vin reminded.
Ezra chuckled. "Unfortunately, Mr. Tanner, I have not lost my childhood memories."
Vin saw the abiding sadness pass over Ezra's features-they had all suspected that the well-read southerner didn't have the wonderful childhood he at times pretended.
"You all know I'm a conman?" Ezra asked.
"Yeah, we knew the first day we met and I also knew that you were a good man." Vin smiled. "You may do things and see things a little differently than the rest of us, but I'd trust you to watch my back any day of the week, and so would the others. You've saved our lives as many times as we've saved yours."
An expression of serene disbelief met the tracker's gaze. Something in that expression showed Vin that Ezra wanted to believe.
Standish stared at the tracker, trying to decide if he was telling the truth, or even talking about the same man. He found it hard to believe that he would risk his life for anyone other than himself.
"It's hard for me to believe that person ever existed," Ezra softly said.
"Believe it," Vin stressed. "You belong here with us."
Ezra exhaled and looked up at the ceiling. People actually wanted him around for something other than his conning abilities; it was so hard for him to believe.
"Excuse me sir, is this the 'Old Standish Tavern'?" A gentleman in a gray pin-striped suit stepped up to the railing outside the saloon. Another gent stood alongside, his eyes scanning the rustic establishment.
Buck set the legs of his chair down and glared at the gentlemen.
"Yup, why you askin'?"
"Well, We're thinkin' of purchasing this fine establishment."
"Pardon my rudeness, my name is James Mentzer." Mr. Mentzer stepped up onto the boardwalk and offered his hand to the mustached cowboy. Buck remained seated and folded his arms across his chest. Mentzer lowered his hand. "Well, yes and this is Thomas Depew. We're from out of Tucson."
"This saloon ain't for sale," Buck said.
"Excuse me, we were told just yesterday that it was still available," Mentzer said.
"Gentlemen," Reynolds's voice rose up from behind the two men. "I'm Mr. Reynolds the bank manager. I've been expecting you." Reynolds grabbed Mr. Mentzer's hand. "I have some paperwork that still needs to be filled out back at the bank."
Mentzer glared at Buck who only smiled and shrugged.
"Mr. Reynolds, my associate and I would first like to look over the place."
"Of course," Reynolds replied. "How about after dinner, we have a fine restaurant I'll even accompany you and we can discuss the details of the closing."
"That will be fine, Mr. Depew and I will meet you outside the hotel in an hour."
Buck watched as the two buyers started toward the hotel with the bank manager on their heels regaling them with highlights of the town. Buck stood and entered the saloon.
"Chris, them buyers for the saloon just arrived," Buck said as he leaned up against the bar next to the blond leader.
"Damn, thought we'd have more time," Vin spat from his spot alongside Chris. "What are we goin' to do Chris? I mean, I know Ezra don't remember nuthin', but we can't let his ma sell the saloon to someone else, can we?"
Chris manipulated the cheroot to the other side of his mouth and turned around, resting his elbows on the bar surface. Buck grinned, seeing the glint in his friend's eye.
"What'cha got planned, Chris?"
"I think we make them change their minds. Get everyone together and meet me at the church."
An hour later, the six regulators were sitting in the church. Buck having told them that someone was about to buy the saloon. They all agreed that no one but Ezra would be allowed to purchase the saloon. Now they just had to convince the present buyers and Maude Standish.
"Alright, I figure the least we can do is keep the saloon from
being sold until Ezra gets his memory back," Chris stated.
"How we gonna do that?" JD asked.
"We make the saloon as undesirable as possible," Chris simply stated.
After three days in his room, Ezra had to get out. He still had headaches and refused the tea that JD kept bringing to him. When Ezra stepped out of the saloon onto the boardwalk, everything felt strange, so out of place, or was it that he was out of place? He was familiar with the town. He had spent three days...correction six months and three days.
"Good afternoon, Mr. Standish," a young woman greeted as she passed by.
Ezra smiled and tipped his hat at the unfamiliar woman. He looked around noticing that several people looked his way and smiled. It felt like everyone knew a secret that he wasn't privy to--it was unnerving.
The six lawmen that claimed to be his friends were giving him space, but he could tell they were keeping an eye on him. This in itself was perplexing; no one had ever felt the need to watch out for him. Ezra glanced down the broad street and wondered how he could live in such a backwater town, there wasn't even a decent saloon. He looked over his shoulder at the bucolic tavern and a feeling of loss caused his brow to furrow. He shook his head and turned his attention to the unfinished church at the north end of the street.
As Ezra neared the church, he heard the rhythmic banging of a hammer somewhere inside. He stepped into the dimly lit building, searching for the source of the racket. He spotted the large gunslinger hunched over a door that lay across two sawhorses. Josiah raised his eyes when he felt the gambler's presence.
"Good afternoon, brother. What can I do for you?"
Ezra's eyes narrowed and he curtly nodded as he inspected the small church. Something had been gnawing at him these past three days and for some reason he felt the need to talk to the ex-preacher.
Josiah put down his hammer and smiled, hoping this was a good sign that Ezra had sought him out.
Ezra forced his shoulders to relax and took a deep breath. "I honestly don't know, sir," he openly admitted and slid into a nearby pew, leaning his head back and closing his eyes. Josiah took a seat in the pew in front of him.
Ezra still looked awful, and Josiah could tell the conman was in pain. He knew that Nathan was keeping his distance for the time being, but Josiah wished that Ezra would allow the healer to treat him.
"I have this feeling that if I could remember, I'd regret losing these past six months," Ezra abruptly confessed raising his head and staring directly into Josiah's gray-blue eyes.
"I liked to think so," Josiah grinned, lighting up eyes that looked half his age. "We all were growing quite close over these past months. It took you a little longer to trust us but you were comin' around. We considered ourselves a family."
There was that word again, 'Family.' Ezra bowed his head, brushing at some nonexistent dirt on his pants.
He raised his head and anger colored his face. "Then why don't I remember? Why don't I feel something?" If they all were growing so close, how could the feelings just disappear?
Josiah's smile dropped from his face. "I can't explain what happened to ya, son. I only know the truth of my heart."
"I can't remember that truth."
"Give us a chance to remind you?" Josiah asked.
"It's not that easy. Nothing feels right."
"Make it feel right," Josiah urged. He feared that he was going to lose Ezra, someone he thought of like a son. Josiah mulled over whether to tell Ezra how he felt, but decided against it. It would only confuse him more. Josiah promised himself that if Ezra regained his memory he would tell the southerner how he felt. "What are you feeling right now?"
"Confused, anxious, disturbed," Ezra admitted.
"You don't think those feelings aren't trying to tell you something?"
Ezra stared at the older man. He found himself wanting to believe him, but he also felt the urge to move on. He was off-track--this was not his life, at least, not the one he's known for twenty-eight years.
"I've been told that I was coerced into staying for the first thirty days. There's no reason to stay now," Ezra said as he placed his hands on the pew.
"That's true," Josiah replied. "You were offered a pardon by the Judge, but don't you wonder why you stayed on past those thirty days?"
"I just don't know. I feel the need to get on with my life."
"I can understand that, but I can also tell you the seven of us have something special that you may never get the chance to have again."
"Then why was it taken from me?"
Josiah opened his mouth, and then closed it without saying a word. He didn't know how to answer the young man. He slumped back into the pew; feeling defeated he gazed at the distressed man before him, not knowing how to help.
Standish left the church to search for a place where his troubled mind could find some measure of solace and tranquility. He rode out of town, feeling that he was being watched. He wondered if any of the six regulators would follow him.
Ezra listened to the soothing murmur of the water, the gentle whisper of a soft late-autumn breeze that prickled the skin of his exposed face, and the glint of golden sunlight that glistened off the snow from between the mountains in the distance. He watched the road until he was certain that he wasn't followed.
Ezra leaned back against a tree, a sense of déjà vu causing him to scan the small snow-covered meadow.
'Didn't know you were so fast...no dream is petty.' The words hurried through his head, causing him to squeeze his eyes shut and gasp at the rush of pain. He pulled out his flask and took a long drink of the smooth liquor. He tried to put meaning to the words he recalled, but the pounding in his head made it impossible to think clearly, especially about things he didn't understand or remember.
He thought of leaving. The familiar call of money and better opportunities over the next hill beckoned him. Ezra threw a stick into the fast running stream, watching as it floated out of sight, the current carrying it around the next bend and beyond. He couldn't see the town and he felt no force compelling him to stay, except maybe curiosity. Ezra smiled, remembering that curiosity killed the cat. Chaucer nickered, and Ezra looked over at the magnificent animal. He was glad he still had his equine friend, the one and only thing he had ever really cared about.
Mentzer and Depew stepped out of the hotel, buttoning up their coats against the early evening cold. They had told the bank manager that they would stop by the bank to finish the paper work after they surveyed the saloon.
Buck and Josiah sat casually back in their chairs in front of the tavern, watching as the two men approached.
Mentzer frowned as he stepped up onto the boardwalk. "Gentlemen, could you tell me why the glass for the window is missing?"
Buck leaned forward and looked at the large opening. "Well I'll be, he's right Josiah, there ain't no glass."
Josiah smiled. "Figure it was just a waste of money to keep puttin' one in, seein' as how every Friday night someone shoots it out."
Mentzer and Depew glanced at each other an uneasy feeling passing between them. The two men walked into the saloon and stopped in front of the bar that stretched out along the back wall. James ran his hand on the smooth polished surface, admiring the fine, sturdy workmanship.
"It has real possibilities," James remarked.
"It's a little dark," Thomas pointed out. "But that can be easily rectified."
Nathan, Chris and JD came slowly down the stairs, watching the two men assess the saloon. Chris nodded toward Buck and Josiah who now stood inside the saloon.
JD stepped off the last riser and approached the two gentlemen, extending his hand. "Howdy, I'm JD Dunne, the Sheriff." JD ignored the astonished expressions on the two men's faces. "Hear you all are thinkin' of buying this saloon." JD leaned up against the bar, trying to look older than he was.
"That we are, Sheriff," Mentzer replied.
"Well, I guess I should tell you of the ten o'clock curfew we have."
Buck and Josiah had silently moved ring-side, not wanting to miss anything. Buck had to fight to hold back his laughter at the two buyer's expression.
"Ten o'clock, that's absurd!" Depew exclaimed.
JD shrugged. "Sorry, that's the law. We feel that men folk should be home with their families and not out drinkin' to all hours of the night."
The two gentlemen were flabbergasted, they'd never heard of such a thing.
"JD, you might want to mention the two drink limit," Nathan innocently reminded.
"Two drink limit! That's insane. A saloon can't survive like that," Mentzer replied, his voice rising in exasperation.
"Sorry, but we can't have drunken cowboys ridin' all over and injuring themselves and others," Josiah spoke up. "Drinkin' and ridin' just don't mix."
The two buyers moved aside and quietly conversed with each other. Chris, Buck and Josiah settled down at a table as JD and Nathan sidled up to the bar. The two men stormed out of the saloon without a word.
"Well brother Chris, I think our work here is finished," Josiah glibly said.
"Woo hoo!" Buck yelled out.
"Yeah, but what about the next time? We can't keep doing this, can we?" JD asked.
Chris frowned. "Josiah, send a wire to that bitch. Tell her we won't allow anyone to buy this saloon and that she better reconsider Ezra's offer or she's going to be stuck with depreciating property."
Josiah grinned as he grabbed his hat and strolled out of the saloon.
Vin nodded as he past Josiah in the saloon doorway. He sat down in the chair across from Chris, removing his hat and running his hand through his long hair.
"He leaving?" Chris abruptly asked.
"Yep, looks that way, saw 'im with his bags headin' toward the stables," Vin dejectedly replied. They had all been watching the distraught conman over the past couple of days and knew he had thoughts of leaving.
"Well, damn, after everything we've done to keep the saloon for him," Buck angrily lashed out. Angry more at himself for not being able to do more to help Ezra.
"We have to stop him," JD urged, not knowing what to do.
Larabee had wired the judge earlier, hoping the magistrate could put some legal restraint on the gambler. It had worked before, but there was nothing the judge could do. They had all hoped that Ezra's memory would have returned by now. They needed the arrogant cardsharp. Standish had made watching out for himself an art form. However, if he couldn't take care of himself, how could he be expected to take care of others? Ezra had become an important part of them. They had to make him realize it.
Larabee pushed away from the table and grabbed his hat. Vin grinned as Chris headed out of the saloon. He figured the somber cowboy would convince Ezra to stay one way or another.
Chris walked into the stable, seeing Ezra tightening the cinch on his saddle. Ezra looked up when the darkly dressed gunslinger approached. Larabee was an enigma to him. Even though he couldn't remember, he didn't believe their relationship had been that close.
"Mr. Larabee," Ezra guardedly greeted.
Ezra rolled his eyes; it was the first sarcastic action that Chris had seen from the cardsharp.
"Yes, I think it's for the best." Ezra stroked his horse's neck as Chaucer began to prance within the stall, sensing that something was about to change. "Could you see that the rest of my belongings are shipped to me when I send for them?" Ezra paused, an abashed smile tickling the corners of his mouth. "I seemed to have acquired a rather large wardrobe."
Chris chuckled. "Well you always like to look your best."
Chris pushed his hat back and placed a booted foot on one of the stall slats. He didn't know what he could say to make the conman stay. He looked at Ezra and something came to him.
"Your mother will be real happy to see you leave here," Chris casually remarked.
Ezra stopped from his undertakings and stared back at the darkly dressed lawman.
"And what, pray tell, do you mean by that?"
"Nothing, just that for the past six months she has tried to get you to join her on her money making schemes."
"Really, and I refused these attempts?"
Memories surfaced of him as a small boy waiting in the wings until his mother found a use for him. The only time his mother seemed to want him around was when she needed him for a con, the rest of the time he was dumped upon reluctant relatives.
"Yep, oh you made up some real fancy excuses and all, but it all came down to, you just didn't want to leave." Chris stared pointedly at the cardshark.
Ezra's brow scrunched, and he fidgeted with a stirrup. He couldn't believe it. He had been under his mother's thumb for as long as he could remember. Could he actually have refused her?
When Chris felt the indecision running through his friend's mind, he decided to play one more card.
"I want you to stay and so do the others." Chris tipped his hat and walked out, leaving the conman to flounder in his dilemma and hopefully find a way to regain his footing.
Ezra rested his arms over his saddle and stared at the spot where Chris had stood moments before. They wanted him to stay. He wasn't being chased out or having to sneak out in the middle of the night. He was some place where people actually wanted him and enjoyed his company.
"You want to stay don't you, old friend." Chaucer tossed his head as if in answer and Ezra loosened the cinch.
Chris left the stable and walked across the street to meet Vin outside the saloon. Both men stood and watched the stable. Chris didn't know if he had convinced the gambler to stay or pushed him out the door. After several minutes they were relieved to see Ezra walk out carrying his saddlebags.
The days passed, with winter taking a firmer hold on the land. Ezra took up his duties as lawman once again, but was still no closer to remembering the past six months. He still thought of leaving but had decided to give himself more time. Vin had just relieved him at the jail and he proceeded to make his way over to the saloon hoping to engage in a spirited game of chance. A sharp pain lanced through his head and Ezra grabbed the railing to keep from collapsing. Memories and a wave of nausea threatened to overwhelm him--he could taste the bile burning its way up his throat, but he fought the sensation. His hand shook as it grasped the wood railing.
Ezra flinched when Larabee's stern features flashed in front of his eyes and unfamiliar words and images assailed his senses.
"Don't ever run out on me again!" Chris growled.
"...willing to ride with an old southern boy."
"Dreadful, I was aiming for Anderson."
"At least now you'll have two hands to cheat at poker with."
Someone was calling him. Ezra jumped as he felt a hand grasp his upper arm. He turned his head slowly to minimize the effect of the spinning world. He came face to face with the concerned face of Nathan Jackson. Ezra stopped himself from pulling away.
The black healer had maintained his distance, not wanting to say or do anything he might later regret, but it hadn't stopped him from keeping an eye on the confused conman.
"Your head hurt?" Nathan asked his voice sounding far-off.
"Yes," Ezra whispered.
A sheen of perspiration covered the conman's pale features and Nathan could see the pain riding in his green eyes and feel the tremors race through his body.
"C'mon up to the clinic, I'll give you something for the pain." Nathan maintained his grip on Ezra's arm. He felt Ezra lean into him as he helped him up the back stairs.
Ezra was stretched out on the cot with a cool rag over his eyes. The medicine that Nathan had given him was taking effect and he felt the pain slowly leave him. He had fallen asleep and was surprised to find Nathan sitting beside him when he woke.
"I feel I need to apologize for my behavior. Breeding is, at times, difficult to overcome," Ezra reluctantly admitted.
"I can understand that."
Ezra looked over at the healer. "Yes, I believe you can."
Nathan could tell the man was exhausted. He doubted that Ezra was getting much sleep. It had to be hard to lose six months of your life. He and Ezra had come the farthest in their relationship since they were the farthest apart. It took awhile for Nathan to realize that if an ex-slave and consummate southern boy could come to an understanding once, they could do it again.
"Will I ever get my memories back, Mr. Jackson?"
Nathan stood and dipped the cloth into a basin of cool water, wringing it out. "I honestly don't know if your memory is gone or just temporarily misplaced." Nathan laid the wet cloth over the gambler's eyes. "You rest awhile."
"Thank you, Mr. Jackson."
"Mr. Standish," Reynolds called from across the street, getting Ezra's attention in front of the jail.
Chris slowed his pace as he walked up the boardwalk, watching the banker jog up the street, avoiding the snow melt and holding out a piece of paper. "Your mother has reconsidered, you can buy the saloon."
Ezra frowned and stared at the bank manager. 'Buy the saloon?' He glanced over at the bar that feeling of loss again twisting in his gut.
"If you'll come by this afternoon to sign the papers," the banker paused, noticing the strange expression on the gambler's face. "Mr. Standish, is something wrong?"
A genuine smile came to Ezra's face and he looked at Mr. Reynolds. "No, Sir, everything is fine. I'll be by momentarily...Thank you...Mr. Reynolds."
Chris smiled and turned away.
"Hey, Chris," Buck greeted the blond gunslinger as he entered the warm confines of the saloon. "How 'bout joining us."
Chris smiled at the sight of his six friends gathered around a table. He raised a hand as he crossed the room. "No thanks, Buck, I want to hold onto my money this week."
"Mr. Larabee, do you have so little faith in your card playing abilities?" Ezra asked a devilish glint in his eyes.
"No, I have too much faith in yours," Chris good-naturedly countered.
This garnered chuckles from the gunslingers.
"Anyway I better keep some money for Buck to borrow," Chris added.
"Hey!" Buck yelled out his indignation.
Chris stared at the cardsharp. He had to know.
"So, you staying?" Chris asked.
Ezra licked his lips and stared down at his cards for a moment. A smile slowly lifted one corner of his mouth. "Well, I'm the new owner of this establishment and being experienced in the ways of the world I feel it is my duty to raise the level of civility in this uncultured town."
JD snorted and quickly covered his mouth as the others fought to suppress their laughter. Ezra ignored his friend's uncouth behavior. "And besides where else would I go?"
Chris nodded, accepting the conman's ambiguous answer.
"And where else would I have such easy pickings?" Ezra added as he laid down his cards, revealing a royal flush much to the dismay of the others.
Chris chuckled at the groans of defeat and watched as Ezra happily raked in his winnings. Chris's brow furrowed as something occurred to him. Ezra had acknowledged the bank manager by name, now someone might have told him, but Chris didn't think so. Chris smiled; he didn't care what Ezra remembered he was just glad his friend had decided to stay.