Mother Dearest

by KellyA

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

July 1999

Part 1

The hotel manager, Frank Tyson, looked up when two neatly dressed gentlemen entered the hotel lobby, they quickly took in the crude but quaint surroundings.  The larger of the two wore a long, dark duster with a red vest and tie underneath.  He sported a bushy mustache that hid his upper lip.  His partner, a much younger man, with a boyish complexion wore a fine fitted brown coat with a linen shirt and trousers.  Both men carried six-shooters strapped to their hips. 

The manager cast his eyes up and down the strangers and immediately assumed by their dress that they were either men of business, lawyers or hired guns; either way, men of position.  Business had been slow lately and any prospect of money was looked upon favorably.

"How may I be of service to you gentlemen?"  Tyson asked a wide toothy smile pasted on his face.  It was a practiced grin, one reserved for business.

"Yes, I'm Mr. Tilly," the older man announced. "And this is my associate Mr. Brok.  We're looking for someone." 

Tilly leaned forward on the counter, placing a booted foot on the bottom rail, which ran the length of the counter.  "An elderly woman about so tall."  Tilly indicated with his hand the height of the woman.  "She usually travels alone, and she's real good at cards." 

This brought instant recognition to the Frank Tyson's eyes. "Ah, you must mean Maude Standish." 

Tilly looked over his shoulder at his associate who stepped closer.  He returned his attention to the fervent hotel manager whose smile never left his face.

"Does Mrs. Standish frequent this town?"  Tilly asked in an even and courtly manner.

"Well yes, to visit her son," Tyson easily offered.

The two men spared a glance at each other.  Tilly's mouth twitched slightly, apparently, the manager did not think it odd that they didn't know Maude Standish's name.

"She has a son?" Tilly asked, keeping his tone unassuming.

"Yes, he's one of the lawmen here.  You can find him over at the saloon, he's also a gambler."  The manager chuckled as he added,

"Like mother like son, huh?" 

The two strangers chuckled but were not amused.  Tilly tipped his wide brim black hat turned and walked away.   Brok fell in step alongside.  The two men stepped outside the hotel and onto the boardwalk.  Tilly pulled the brim of his hat down to shadow his eyes from the bright sunlight.  He clasped the railing and looked across the street at the clapboard buildings.  He preferred Kansas City, and looked forward to returning there as soon as this little task was complete. 

"So, she calls herself Standish now," Tilly mused thinking over what the hotel manager had disclosed to them. 

Hank Brok stood next to Tilly and tried to appear as harden and confident as his boyish visage would allow.  He had been sheltered part of his life, having been sent to various eastern schools for the past five years.  His father, Karl Brok, was a wealthy and prominent rancher.  Brok was only here at the demand of his father, who thought it would be a good experience.  Brok knew his father had doubts that he would be able to take over the ranch when he was gone, but Hank was all that was left.  Hank's older brother, Samuel, was killed last year in a barroom brawl, since then Hank had been doing everything he could to impress his father and show him that he could handle himself.

"What do you want to do, Mac?" Hank asked as he casually placed his hand upon the butt of his revolver. 

"We have her son," Mac replied regarding Hank through narrow eyes. "Maybe he'll be able to help us with our little problem."

Hank grew uncomfortable at the malevolent grin on Mac Tilly's face.  He didn't like Tilly, but he was his father's right hand man and very loyal to the Brok family.  Hank started to worry for Maude's son.

Part 2

Several dust devils swirled about Hank and Mac's boots as they made their way across the wide dusty street.  They heard the music and laughter pouring out of the saloon and stopped at the entrance, casually surveying the bar room.  They continued in, maneuvering around tables and chairs, trying to avoid the drunk and jovial patrons as they made their way back to the long bar.  Mac motioned to the bar tender for a beer.  The two strangers received curious glances from several people but interest was soon lost.  Hank and Mac stayed at the far end of the bar, surreptitiously glancing around the room.  Hank nudged Mac in the ribs and motioned with his head toward a far corner table where four men were engaged in a poker game.

"There he is, Mac." 

Mac Tilly turned around and leaned casually against the bar, holding his beer.  He watched as a man in a flamboyant red jacket raked in the winnings from his latest poker venture.  The grin on Ezra's face was so wide it showed his gold tooth.  Mac took a swig of his beer and turned back around, wiping his mouth on his sleeve.

"Yep, that must be him, as smug as his mother," Mac snarled.

"What do you want to do? Do you think he'll tell us where his mother is?"  Hank asked.

Mac gave Hank a dubious stare. The only reason he was paired up with the naïve young man was that he was the boss's son.   He had promised Karl he would introduce his son to the real world.  Tilly realized that the boy would probably be his boss someday, and the thought disgusted him.

"Who would turn in their own mother?" Tilly finally answered. "I have a better idea, this just made things a whole lot easier."  Mac glanced over his shoulder and gazed at the fancy dressed gambler. "I didn't like the idea of roughing up a woman. All we have to do is take her son."  Mac finished off his beer and headed out of the saloon.  Hank took one last look at Ezra, downed his drink and followed Mac.

Part 3

Hank and Mac decided they'd just wait in the alley between the saloon and the mercantile, figuring that the cardsharp would have to come out sooner or later.  As the evening wore on, more and more people made their way into the saloon.  Hank watched as a tall dark-clad gunslinger went in, followed by a younger man dressed in buckskin.  The pair looked dangerous and sent a slight shiver down Hank Brok's spine.  He never thought of himself as a coward, but he was also not a fool.  He was doing this because of his father now he was wondering if it was worth it. 

The days were getting shorter, and the shadows of night came quickly, shutting down most businesses within the small town, the saloon being the exception.  Men would congregate until the wee hours of the morning, trying to relax after a hard day on the ranch or out on the range.

Ezra was on his usual winning streak and had just finished the last hand.  "If you'll excuse me gentlemen, with your kindly donations I feel like treating myself to a pleasant dinner tonight."

"Hey, Ez, you comin' back so I can try and win back some of my pay?" Buck asked as he counted what was left of his meager earnings.

"Yeah, Ez, I thought you were goin' to give me some pointers?" JD complained as he also took in the paltry remnants of his money.

"My dear boy, there is no better teacher than experience," Ezra cited as he smoothly stood, picking up his hat and placing it on his head.

"By the time I get experience I'll be broke. I think I want a different teacher." JD's face broke into a wide grin.

Ezra smiled at the young sheriff.  He hated taking the boy's money, but soothed his guilt by attributing it to his higher education.

"As you wish Mr. Dunne, when I return I will endeavor to convey to you my many stratagems, and to pass on my well-advanced poker skills."


"He means he'll take more of your money," Buck interpreted, ignoring Ezra's playful glare.

Ezra tipped his hat at Chris and Vin who stood over by the bar then headed toward the doors.  The night was cool, which felt good after the stuffiness of the smoke-filled saloon.  Hank and Mac watched as Ezra walked across the street, heading toward the restaurant.  They felt this would be their only chance; some clouds hid the moon and there weren't many people on the street.  If they did this right, no one would be the wiser.  The two casually stepped out from the alley and started to follow the genteel-looking man. 

Part 4

Tilly drew his gun and jabbed it into Ezra's side just as the gambler reached the other side of the street.  "Listen, you cause any problems and we shoot the first person who approaches us--then we shoot you," he menacingly whispered.  Hank glanced over his shoulder as he came up alongside the gambler.

Ezra's face remained impassive to the threat.  He didn't know if these men were serious, but he was not about to risk innocent lives to find out.  He had never seen these men before and could think of no reason anyone would want to do this.  Well, actually, he could.  There was a long list of people he had pissed off in his life, but he didn't think these men were on it.  Ezra nodded in acknowledgment of his abductors' threat, his face not showing a hint of emotion, which started to unnerve Hank a little.  This gambler was too confident, to calm, it was making him nervous.   He at least expected the gambler to beg not to be hurt.

"C'mon Mac, let's get out of here," Hank urgently whispered as he looked around to see if anyone was watching. Only distant dark silhouettes gave any indication that there were other people around. 

Ezra heard the nervousness in the smaller man's voice and grew even more perplexed at the situation.  He kept hoping that one of the other lawmen would come out of the saloon.  He then would feel confident enough in taking the two men.

The saloon doors fanned open and a man and woman strolled out laughing.

They turned and went in the opposite direction completely enthralled with each other.  Mac prodded Ezra with the gun, motioning him to a nearby alley way where they had three horses tied. 

Mac quickly searched the gambler and found all his guns.  He grinned at the derringer he found up Ezra's sleeve.  "Hank, cover him while I go take a look around."  The young man nervously pulled his gun and aimed it at Ezra, who eyed the youth with a knowing smile.

"What is someone like you doing in this business?" Ezra asked hoping to get some answers.

"Ah, what business are you referring to Mister Standish?"

This momentarily stunned the cardsharp; this man had called him by name.  "Why, the kidnapping of a local law officer, you do know that's a Federal offense."

Hank's brows came together and his palms started to sweat.  "A fed...federal offense?"

A searing pain struck the base of Ezra's head and darkness crashed over him.

Mac had come up behind Ezra and hit him with the butt of his gun, knocking him to the ground. 

"Why'd you do that?" Hank asked, staring at the crumpled form.

"Because, he talks to much, and it'll be safer if he's unconscious. I don't want him doing anything that'll call attention to us.  Now, help me tie him on the horse and let's get out of here."

"Mac, I don't know, this is starting to get complicated." Hank's voice raised slightly in pitch.

Tilly grabbed a handful of Hank's coat and pulled him close. "Listen, your father told me to bring you hoping to put some backbone in you.  Now, I happen to like my job and have no intention of losing it because you start running scared." 

Mac released Hank and the smaller man took a step back smoothing down his rumpled coat.  He looked at Tilly with a tinge of anger.  Mac took a deep breath and forced a smile to his face.  He really had to work on controlling his temper.  "Look, no one has to get hurt.  Mrs. Standish is sure to hand over the stolen property with no trouble when she learns we have her son, then we'll let him go." 

Hank seemed to consider this; he knew his father would be infuriated if he returned without the stolen property.  He had a hard time living up to his father's expectations, maybe this time he could do something his father would be proud of.  He went over to Ezra who lay in a heap on the ground and started to lift him up.  Mac came over and gave him a hand and together they flung the unconscious man over a horse and tied him so he wouldn't fall off, then the three quietly left Four Corners.

Part 5

Mid morning found Chris and Vin sitting outside the saloon waiting for the stage.  Chris's gaze followed Josiah and Buck as they came up the street to join them. 

"Hey, has anyone seen Ezra?  He didn't come back to the saloon last night," Buck asked, hitching his thumb into his gunbelt as he leaned against the support post.  He figured that Ezra had got a better offer, but he at least could have told him and JD.   Buck had checked the cardsharp's room this morning and Ezra's bed had not been slept in, this had brought a twinge of worry to replace the annoyance he had felt.

Chris leaned back in his chair, lifting it off two legs, his head bowed until his chin rested on his chest. "Nope," he replied without looking up.

"I haven't seen since last night," Vin added.  "Have you checked his room?"

"Yeah," Buck absently answered, running his hand down his face, his brows coming together in concern.  "It hadn't been slept in.  He said he was goin' to get a good dinner, but I thought he was comin' back to play a few more hands with JD and me."

Before Buck or anyone else could continue the conversation or thoughts, the stage roared in getting everyone's attention.  The four lawmen watched as passengers began to disembark. 

A smile broke out on Josiah's face that the other three couldn't help but notice.  The preacher removed his hat and smoothed down his graying hair, and then proceeded to walk over to the stage.  Buck, Vin and Chris could not help but smile. 

"Now, you be careful with that luggage," Maude called up to the stage driver as she began to step down from the stage.

Josiah suddenly appeared in front of her, and took her hand, helping her down to the boardwalk.  "My dear lady, what a pleasant surprise."

Maude flustered slightly as she regarded the handsome preacher turned gunslinger, her southern drawl like a song to Josiah's ears.  "Why Mr. Sanchez, it is always a pleasure."  'Too bad you're broke,' she silently thought.

Buck, Vin and Chris approached the genteel lady.  "Howdy Ma'am, can we help with your luggage?" Buck asked, much to Vin and Chris's chagrin.  They remembered the last time they had to carry Maude Standish's luggage.  The woman didn't know the meaning of traveling light.

"Why Mr. Wilmington, thank you ever so much, you all are such gentleman. Ezra must be rubbing off on you," Maude slyly replied with a wink to Josiah whose mouth twitched as if holding back an even bigger grin than was already pasted on his long face.

Chris winced and Buck and Vin couldn't help but notice their leader's obvious dislike of anything rubbing off the roguish conman onto him.  Sometimes it was hard to tell that the two men were really friends and trusted each other with their lives.

As an after thought Chris asked, "Mrs. Standish, did Ezra know you were coming?"

"No, this is a surprise visit, I'm heading to California."

Chris nodded, well, that ruled out Ezra skipping town for a few days because of his mother, he thought.  They all knew Ezra and his mother didn't always see eye to eye on things, and even more so since he became a lawman.  Maude had raised Ezra to be a conman, to only depend on himself and trust no one.  Nevertheless, the past couple months spent with the other six lawmen was slowly changing the arrogant gambler's way of thinking--and his way of life--much to Maude's disapproval and dismay. 

Chris had a feeling that Maude was here to again try and talk Ezra into joining her in some fortune hunting escapade.

"Well ma'am, let me escort you to our fine lodging establishment,"

Josiah offered, his eyes never leaving Maude's smooth and elegant face.

Buck, Chris and Vin proceeded to pick up the luggage that the stage driver had brought down and deposited on the boardwalk.

Part 6

The hotel manager cheerfully greeted Maude with a smile reserved for  prestigious people, or people who tipped generously, of which Maude was the latter.  "Ah, Mrs. Standish, what a pleasure to have you grace our fine hotel once again.  I do believe your favorite room is available."  The manager reached behind him grabbed a key out of one of the boxes.  He handed Maude the room key as she signed the registry and passed the man several bills.  Josiah stood nearby and turned as he heard the grunts and complaints from his three associates who were lugging in several bags of luggage.  Buck dropped three bags, one landing on his foot causing him to yelp and land on his backside.

"Oh, do be careful Mr. Wilmington," Maude reprimanded the fun-loving gunslinger.

"Yes, ma'am," Buck replied through gritted teeth, wiggling his toes to make sure none were broken. 

The manager interrupted Maude's departure from the counter. "Mrs. Standish, did the two gentlemen meet with you yet?"

Maude brought a confused smile back toward him.  "Excuse me, sir?"

"There were two well dressed gentlemen here yesterday asking about you," he answered.

Like her son, Maude was able to maintain a very placid appearance, showing no disturbance what so ever on her gracefully aging face.

"I told them that your son was here, maybe they met with him," the manager continued.

Maude's face twitched, nothing that Buck, Vin or Josiah caught, but Chris did, and he suddenly became very interested.  He stepped up to the counter next to Maude, bringing a fearful look to the manager's face.

"You told these men about my son?"  Maude slowly asked.

Buck got off the floor and sidled up next to Chris.

"What did you say?" Chris cut in. 

The manager looked at Maude seeming to ask permission to tell the dark-clad gunslinger what he had told the strangers.

"Well, I told them that Maude's son was a gambler and that he was probably over at the saloon."

Buck and Chris looked at each other, a bad feeling passing between them.  Josiah was still too enamored with Maude to really notice anything else.  Chris turned to Maude.  "Mrs. Standish, do you know why these men might be looking for you?"

Maude gave Chris her most indignant expression. "I assure you, Mr. Larabee, I do not, is there some problem?"

"Well, no one has seen Ezra since last night," Chris explained.

No one could read Maude's face, but inside she screamed.

Part 7

Ezra woke to a splitting headache and the feeling of sand on his cheek.  He was lying on his side with his hands tied behind his back.  He could hear low mumblings from somewhere.  He slowly opened his eyes but the askewed view caused his stomach to rebel.  He immediately closed his eyes to regain his equilibium and keep the contents of his stomach.  He tried again to open his eyes and looked upon a pair of brown boots that stood directly in front of him.

"I was worried that he hit you too hard," Hank said as he reached down and helped the cardsharp sit up.  He held a cup of water to Ezra's lips and let him take a couple sips.  "There, is that better? Sorry about having to tie you up, but, er, well you understand."

Ezra was very confused.  He had been kidnapped, for whatever reason, but this gentleman was treating him as if he was an invited guest.  Ezra swallowed and in a hoarse voice asked, "I don't suppose you could relate to me the reason I've been abducted?"

Hank smiled, he liked the way the southerner talked, not just the accent, but his words, they reminded him of the educated people he had met in the schools back east.  "Well, I guess I'll let Mac explain that to you." 

Hank stood and walked over to the nearby campsite.  Ezra could see the other man sitting on a log, his back to them.  Hank went up next to him and knelt down, looking over his shoulder as he said something to Tilly.  

Mac threw the contents of his coffee cup into the fire and stood.  He came up to his captive and squatted down, bringing his dark brown eyes level to Ezra's green ones.  He quietly scrutinized the suave gambler, trying to get a feel for the man.  He hadn't known many gamblers, but the few he did know were egotistical opportunists.  He didn't think this man would be any different, especially since he was Maude's son.  Ezra just stared back, his usual poker face firmly in place.

"So, you're Maude Standish's son." This was said more as a statement than a question.  Mac didn't notice any reaction on Ezra's face and frowned.  Hank stayed back by the fire, but strained to hear the conversation.

Keeping his emotions in check Ezra replied, "And what if I am?"

Mac chuckled and thought, he was definitely Maude's son; they both had the same smart mouth.

"Well, your mother has got herself in a passel of trouble.  You see she stole something from my boss and my boss wants it back, real bad, and he doesn't care how we get it.  Now me, I'm against hurtin' a woman, even one like yours."  Mac thought he'd get a reaction to this last remark, but Ezra remained passive, giving nothing away.  Mac bowed his head for a few seconds than raised it.  "But you I have no problem with, and if your mother wants to see you alive and kickin' again she'll return my employer's property."

Ezra's mind was racing.  What had his mother gotten herself into this time?  Maude steal.  That was unthinkable.  "My mother does not steal," Ezra coolly remarked.  "She may con the shirt off your back then return for your pants, but she does not steal."

Mac gave Ezra a rather unpleasant smile.  "Sorry, but she blatantly stole.  She conned her way into my boss's home and walked out with a valuable piece of art."

Ezra didn't know what to believe.  He hadn't heard from his mother in over a month.  Her last letter was from Kansas City and said the next time she saw him she would have a surprise for him.  This always made Ezra cringe.  He hated when his mother visited, she always tried to get him to leave with her.  He tried to explain that things were different, but either she didn't believe him or didn't care.  Ezra didn't know what he wanted, but he knew he didn't want to go back to his previous life.   Four Corners was growing on him and so were six gunslingers.

"Well, if you gentlemen think that my mother will trade anything for me you're in for a rude awakening," Ezra flippantly replied, a faint smile turning the corners of his mouth. 

Mac stood up and turned to Hank, ignoring Ezra's remark. "You keep an eye on him.  I'm going back to town and wait for Mrs. Standish."

Hank grabbed Mac's arm.  "What do I do if you don't come back?" 

Mac looked over at Ezra and calmly replied, "Kill him."

Hank's face fell as Mac walked toward his horse.  This was definitely getting complicated.

Part 8

"My boy must have found out that I was coming and is off somewhere, waiting for me to leave," Maude explained to the six gunslingers who crowded around the saloon table.  Ezra still had not returned and no one had seen him all day.  Everyone was getting worried, except perhaps Maude who appeared unconcerned for her wayward son.

Chris eyed her suspiciously.  He could tell that Josiah accepted her story, but his reasoning was clouded with feelings for the conniving woman.  Like Ezra in the beginning, Chris did not trust Maude Standish.  He wondered how far she'd go in getting her own way.

Josiah knew what Maude was, but like Ezra, tended to believe that there was something more inside, one just had to find and nurture it.  He was the champion of lost causes and especially when it came to beautiful women.

Vin glanced over at Buck, who met the look and shrugged.  Everyone knew that Ezra and his mother had their differences, but they didn't think he'd run away.  And what about the two men who were looking for Maude earlier?

"Maude, it would be my pleasure to escort you to dinner this evenin'?"  Josiah asked. "I'm sure Ezra will show up after he's done brooding."   

Josiah's deep silvery voice caused a warm feeling to radiate throughout her body. "Why Mr. Sanchez, I would be honored."

Everyone watched as Josiah pulled out Maude's chair and offered his arm.  Maude smiled and nodded as she was helped to her feet.  JD had a cocky grin on his face, happy for the ex-preacher.  Buck, Chris and Vin weren't so sure.

"What do you make of it, Chris?" Buck asked as he watched the two leave the saloon, arm in arm.

"I think Ezra's in trouble and Maude knows it," Chris bluntly replied.

Vin smirked; Chris never was one to mince words.

Part 9

Mac Tilly found Maude and Josiah enjoying an elegant dinner, or as elegant as possible, in the town's only restaurant.  He came up to the table and sat down much to Josiah's astonishment.

"Can we do something for you, friend?"  Josiah asked in a deep menacing voice, his hand instinctively hovering near his revolver. He immediately saw this man as trouble, for who, he was not sure.

"I wish to speak to Mrs. Standish, alone," Mac replied looking Maude straight in the eye. 

Maude glared at Tilly's insolence. "Anything you have to say to me Mr. Tilly you can say to Mr. Sanchez," Maude venomously replied.  She was already trying to think of all her options and how to manipulate the situation.  She knew what card Mac Tilly held.  Now she just had to figure out what to throw away, and hope she was given a better hand.

Josiah hid his surprise at Maude's familiarity toward the gentleman.

Mac looked Josiah up and down, and shrugged.  He didn't waste any time. "We have your son," he blurted out. 

Maude gasped believably, which was all part of her plan.  Josiah placed his hand on his gun.  "If I don't return my partner will kill him," Mac quickly added, sending a glaring warning toward the preacher.

Maude took a deep breath.  "What do you want?"  She placed her hand on top of Josiah's, stopping him from using his gun.  This would be played out by her rules.

Josiah was a little taken aback by the fact that Maude didn't ask if Ezra was alright.

Mac shook his head.  "Now, Maude, is it? You know what I want and I want it at noon tomorrow.  Meet me two miles north of town."  

"I assure you sir, I have no idea what you are talking about," Maude added, maintaining a confused expression.

"Suit yourself, you have until noon then we kill him," Mac stated matter-of-factly.  He stood, tipped his hat and left.  Josiah studied Maude for a moment not sure what to believe; she was very convincing.

"Oh Josiah, I'm afraid I need yours and the others services," Maude suddenly pleaded, her green eyes threatening to spill the tears she had held back-Timing was everything.

"You know we'll help to save Ezra," Josiah replied.  He got the feeling that Ezra was not whom she was referring to.  They left the restaurant to find the others.

Part 10

Ezra realized he was sitting on top of a huge mesa.  He thought it might be the one just north of town.  He was propped up against several large rocks and pretty much left alone.  Hank brought him water on occasion but no food.  He felt a sharp stone behind him and began moving his bound wrists up and down, slowly wearing the ropes apart.   He kept his eye on Mac and Hank who had been in deep conversation ever since Mac's return.  Ezra knew he had to escape.  He did not know what his mother was involved in, but he was not about to endanger her further by being a captive.  He ceased his wearing of the ropes as Mac approached and knelt in front of him.

"Well, by tomorrow you'll be out of here one way or another," Mac sneered. 

Ezra kept his face neutral, his green eyes glared fiercely at the larger man.  Tilly stood up quickly as a slight shiver rode up his spine.  He would be glad when this was over.  He didn't want to hurt the fancy gambler, but he would not hesitate if it would get his boss's property back and help him keep his job.

Part 11

Later that evening the six gunmen and Maude sat around the same table they had occupied earlier in the saloon; everyone else had been chased out.  Buck could barely sit still in his chair anxious to go out and rescue his friend.  He couldn't believe anyone would have the nerve to mess with any one of them.  JD's anxiety manifested itself in his frustrated pacing.

"Okay, Mrs. Standish, you have no idea what this man was talking about?"  Chris asked for the second time, hoping for a better answer.

Maude looked up at Chris's stone blue eyes her patience running thin.  Mr. Larabee was a hard man to convince.  "Mr. Larabee, if you do not believe me please just say so.  As I've said, Mr. Tilly is an old business associate of mine.  We broke off several months ago so I have no idea what he could want, maybe he believes I've wronged him in some way."

"This Mr. Tilly was probably one of the men who was looking for you the other day," Vin remarked.

"Yes, Mr. Tanner, I would assume so, but at the time I had no idea who would be looking for me, and I still don't know why.  You will have to ask Mr. Tilly,"  Maude replied her voice curt and sharp.

"Don't worry, we will," Chris added.

Maude didn't understand why her son had seen fit to take up an allegiance with these men.  They were decent enough and so was the town, so why hadn't Ezra taken what he could and left?  She'd have to figure it out later; right now, she needed them to finish playing out this game.  She was using them to stack the deck in her favor.

Chris folded his arms across his chest.  Maude was more evasive than Ezra and that scared him.  "Okay, it appears that this Mr. Tilly, for some unknown reason, believes you have something of his."  Chris looked toward Maude to clarify this and was given a short nod.  "So, we need Tilly to believe that we're bringing his property, at least long enough so we can get the jump on him."

"We can carry a basket, hope they believe we have something in it," Nathan suggested.

Chris nodded and continued to stare at Maude whose own poker face was now in place.  "Okay everyone, get some sleep, tomorrow is going to be a busy day."

Part 12

Mid morning found Maude rummaging though her unpacked luggage.  She stopped and removed a statue of a young woman from beneath some clothes.  It was carved out of ivory and encrusted with semi-precious stones.  The woman was beautiful--exotic.  Maude caressed the smooth statue going over every jewel.  She turned around and gasped, almost dropping the statue as her eyes alighted on Josiah standing in her doorway.

"Mr. Sanchez, don't you ever knock?"

The sad look in Josiah's eyes almost broke her heart.  He stared at the statue that she held in her hands.

"Is that what this is all about?" He asked.

Maude bowed her head unable to meet the ex-preacher's anguish filled eyes.

"So, this Mr. Tilly was tellin' the truth, you stole it?" He added.  His body slumped alongside the door frame.

Maude looked up at Josiah.  "Mr. Sanchez," she paused biting her lower lip. "Josiah, you don't understand.   I'm not getting any younger."  Maude went to sit on the edge of the bed, still clutching the statue. Josiah didn't move.  "Ezra refuses to join me how can I survive."  Maude held the statue up.  "This statue will provide the means for my retirement, and anyway Gill Brok owes it to me."  Maude turned watery eyes toward Josiah and choked back a sob.  "We were to be married. I would have been set for life, but at the last moment he backed out.  No reason just told me to leave."

Josiah didn't know what to believe.  "What about Ezra?"

"He would understand," Maude casually replied stroking the statue.  "A mother's gotta do, what a mother's gotta do."

Josiah shook his head not believing what he was hearing. He knew Maude alleged that everyone should watch out for number one, but he had hoped that didn't always hold true; he knew it didn't with Ezra.  The suave gambler had come to care a great deal for the others, even though he'd never admit it. "You would sacrifice your son for that statue," Josiah quietly stated his tone revealing his disbelief and pain.

"Of course not, why do you think I got you all involved, you can rescue him.  Ezra is very resourceful, I taught him myself," Maude replied  confidently.  "And anyway, Mr. Tilly is not a dangerous man. He wouldn't hurt Ezra."

Josiah wondered if she really believed it or was only trying to convince herself.

Chris suddenly appeared next to Josiah.  "Maude are you ready to..."  He stopped when he noticed the statue in Maude's hand.  His anger started to push to the surface.  He looked at Josiah who he could see was hurting inside.  Chris glared at the conniving conwoman.  "We're leaving," he tersely said, turned on his heel and left.

"We're taking the statue," Josiah told Maude who looked up at him in shock.  She bit off what she was about to say and slowly nodded.  Maude carefully wrapped the statue up in several cloths.

Part 13

Ezra stretched his legs, trying to get some of the kinks out.  His shoulders ached from having his arms tied behind him for so long.  He planned on making his escape.   He wasn't concerned about Hank, he didn't think the man's heart was in this, but Mac Tilly was another matter.  He was desperate and that made a person dangerous. 

Ezra watched as Hank and Mac gathered up their belongings.  Hank occasionally glanced over at him and Ezra recognized the face of regret.  Ezra knew he had to make his move now.  He was running out of time.  He was almost through his bounds; one more rub and suddenly they snapped apart.  Ezra kept his hands behind his back flexing his fingers to circulate the blood.  He didn't know how to get down off the butte since he had been in less than a coherent state.  Ezra watched

as Hank and Mac turned their backs and headed toward their horses.  Ezra slowly stood hearing his knees crack and winced at the sound.  He skirted the edge of the butte hoping to find a way down. 

Hank turned to pick up his saddle and saw Ezra making his way around the edge of the mesa.  He paused a moment, secretly hoping the man would escape.  Mac was about to throw his saddle on his horse and Hank knew that Tilly would spot the escaping conman.  He yelled out a warning, "Hey, stop!" 

For a moment Ezra thought this was funny, did they really think he would stop, and then he felt the bullet tear through his shoulder throwing him back.  He seemed to hang in mid air for several moments and where he should have landed on firm hard ground instead his body cut through open thin air as he fell off the cliff.  The two men looked at each other as the gambler vanished from sight.  They ran to the cliff edge and cautiously peered over, but all they could see was the winding river  about a hundred feet below.

"WHY DID YOU DO THAT?" Hank yelled at Mac who held his gun loosely in his hand.

"Shut up!"  Mac yelled in return, his eyes darting around the campsite.  He ran a shaking hand through his dark hair.  This was not going as planned.  An idea suddenly came to him, it was a weak one, but the only one he could think of.  "Take the bed rolls and make it look like someone is under them.   I'm going to meet Mrs. Standish and get the statue."  Mac glared at Hank who for a moment held his ground. "Be prepared to make a break for it.  When you hear a gun shot take off and meet me at Devil's Rock."

Hank looked back at the place that the gambler was last.  He bit his lower lip sadden at the fact that he was partially  responsible.  He bowed his head and turned to comply with Mac's orders.

Part 14

The six gunmen and Maude rode silently toward the rendezvous point.  Maude, Josiah and Nathan rode ahead of the others.  Maude gave a sidelong glance, trying to catch Josiah's eye, but he kept his head down allowing his horse to pick its own way.  He stared down at the ground not seeing anything.  He listened to the rhythmic four beat of his horse's hooves striking the hard packed dirt.  He knew he shouldn't have been surprised by Maude's behavior, but he was.  The others had been told that Maude had lied and did in fact steal the statue and was going to keep it even at the risk of Ezra's life.

Nathan looked over at Josiah whose face seemed to have aged ten years.  His gray-green eyes could not hide the pain he felt, their normal brightness replaced with an abiding sadness that seemed to shrink the large man.  Nathan still could not believe that Ezra's own mother would do such a thing.  He now better understood why Ezra was the way he was and he was sorry.

Part 15

Ezra had no idea how long he laid on the hard rocky surface.  The

rock was warm under his cheek.  He tried to move but it brought instant pain to every part of his body.  His right hand clenched grabbing a handful of dirt.  He decided the more prudent avenue would be to just stay still.  His shoulder and arm throbbed but he wasn't sure why.  His head was the worse; it felt like a horse had kicked him.  He slowly managed to open his eyes and looked out over a beautiful vista.  He could see the next butte and actually found himself admiring the many layered colors that it held.  Everything seemed so vivid even the sky appeared bluer than he had ever seen it.  He heard the melodious call of an eagle enjoying the currents of warm air, which rose and fell between the mesas.  He was never much of a nature lover, but he had to admit, this was a good place to die.  His eyes slowly closed.

Part 16

As they neared the rendezvous point Chris, Vin, JD and Buck held back as Josiah and Nathan followed Maude forward.  Josiah shook off his despair.  He had to be alert for Ezra's sake.  Maude might not care about her son but he and the others did.  Ezra was a part of them, a part they did not want to lose.

Mr. Tilly stepped out from behind several scrub trees pointing a gun at the threesome.  He saw the four gunslingers who held back.  "What's goin' on?"  He demanded looking straight at Maude. 

Josiah and Nathan carefully dismounted and Nathan helped Maude down.  She clutched the wrapped statue to her chest.  Josiah and Nathan both opened their coats showing that neither was armed.  Mac was nervous, he kept slapping his left hand against his leg.  He regarded the two men through narrow eyes.

"You didn't expect me to come out here alone," Maude explained.  Josiah saw fear come to Mac's face and knew he had to reassure the man.

"We have your statue.  We just want Ezra and no one has to get hurt," Josiah stated.

Mac stood still for awhile this had complicated things.  He had figured that Maude would come out with an escort or two, but six men.  Damn, maybe it was a mistake to take the gambler.  He never would have believed the man had so many friends.  Tilly looked back at the four  gunslingers, who hadn't moved, and let out a tense breath.  He would have to trust the large gunslinger.

"Alright, but if my partner hears any shooting or I don't come back the gambler is a dead man," he lied, saying this loud enough for the others to hear. 

Josiah nodded his understanding. 

"Okay let's get this over with, lay the statue down then back up," Mac growled at Maude as he stepped forward.

"What about Ezra?" Nathan queried as he secretly palmed a knife, the blade running alongside his wrist.

"I'll tell you where he is, you give me a head start than you can go get him."

Josiah noticed that Mac's eyes shifted down as he said this and fear gripped his insides.

Maude took a couple steps forward and then bent down, keeping her eyes on Mac Tilly.  She gave the man a wary smile as she laid the cloth wrapped statue down on the ground and backed away.   Nathan casually edged up behind her. He had to get close enough to catch the man's gun arm.  He would only get one chance, and if he missed, it could mean Ezra's life.

Chris had planned this.  He didn't like being at the mercy of anyone and hoped to get the upper hand.  Mac kept his gun trained on Maude, assuming that the gunslingers wouldn't risk a woman's life.  He slowly bent down and unwrapped the statue.  His grin turned askew as he looked upon a plain rock.  "What the hell is this?"  Mac yelled.  Josiah's eyes widen in disbelief and he turned to Maude showing the betrayal he felt. 

Nathan let his knife fly, striking Mac in the forearm and causing him to drop his gun.  Josiah lunged at Mac knocking him over.  He held the struggling man down as the others raced over.

Josiah pulled Tilly roughly up to his feet as Chris approached.  Nathan came over and quickly tied off the wound on his arm.  Chris felt little animosity toward this man.  He realized Tilly only wanted his boss's property, but he wanted Ezra.  Chris looked down at the rock that Maude had used in place of the statue.  He glared angrily at the gray-haired woman, the disgust not hidden on his harden face.  He could not understand how she could risk Ezra's life and he didn't want to understand.  This woman would remain a mystery.

Maude stood quietly off to the side, ignoring the lawmen's obvious disgust toward her.  Her face showed none of the emotions that raced inside her.  Everything was going according to plan.  She'd be able to keep the statue.  Her son would be rescued, and Gil Brok would think twice about messing with Maude Standish.

Chris grabbed Mac Tilly by the shirt.  "Listen to me, we'll give you back the statue we just want Ezra."

Mac laughed, "Yeah right, another trick."

Chris's anger was rising.  He was not in the mood to debate with a kidnapper.  He drew his gun and pointed it directly into Mac's face. 

"Now, are you going to show us where he is?" Chris menacingly asked.

"If you shoot me my man will kill him," Mac sneered.  Buck casually picked up Nathan's knife.

"Here Chris, try this," Buck stated with a malicious smile, handing Chris the knife.

Fear suddenly came to Mac's face as Chris pressed the knife point into his throat.  His cocky grin had evaporated as he looked into Chris's icy blue eyes.  Mac swallowed hard, he didn't know what to do.  He was afraid if he told this man that Standish was dead he'd be killed right here and now.  So he did the only thing he could, he lied, hoping to at least buy a few more minutes of life and a chance for escape.

Part 17

Hank turned quickly at the sound of several cocking guns.  He slowly put his hands up as he looked upon six angry men, with guns pointed directly at him.  He recognized the black dressed gunslinger as the one from the saloon, and a knot of fear instantly formed in the pit of his stomach. 

JD stepped up to him and removed his guns.  Hank was somewhat relieved to see that the young gunslinger was a sheriff, because right now he was deathly afraid of the black-dressed gunslinger.

Vin went over to the unmoving lump covered with blankets.  "Ezra,"  he quietly spoke, fear clutching his insides.  He threw off the blankets only to look down on an empty bed roll.   He called over to Chris. "He's not here!"

Chris turned and shoved his Colt into Mac's face.  "Where is he?"

A cold chill went through Maude and fear finally came to her eyes.  He got away, Maude thought, and tried to hold on to that thought as the fear grew inside her.

Mac figured either way he was a dead man, so he kept silent.  Hank, fearing for his life and feeling guilty about what had happened decided that this had gone to far. "He's dead," he sadly admitted. 

Maude gasped bringing her hand to her mouth.  Her legs buckled and Buck grabbed her, saving her from a hard fall. 

Hank bowed his head.  "I'm sorry, it wasn't supposed to happen this way."

"What happened?" Vin approached the young man his own anger reaching the boiling point.  He grabbed the young man by the shirt and brought his face up close. 

Josiah came up behind the buck-skin clad tracker and placed a calming hand on Vin's shoulder.

"Son, I suggest you tell us, as we've been lied to enough today," Josiah said and turned to glare at Maude whose face was streaked with tears.  Josiah wondered if they were real.

Hank looked over at JD who stood and glared at him, grasping the butt of his guns, his knuckles turning white.  Hank looked up at the tall ex-preacher. "He tried to escape, Mac shot him and he fell off the cliff over there."  Hank pointed to the place where Ezra disappeared.  Vin and Josiah raced over to the edge of the mesa, followed by JD.   Buck maintained a steadying arm on Maude and helped her toward the cliff's edge.

She felt her world falling apart.  It was not suppose to happen this way. 

Part 18

Vin laid flat on his stomach and peered over the crumbling cliff edge. He pushed back his long loose hair.  "I see him! He's about twenty feet down."

Chris kept his gun on Mac and Hank.  "Can you tell if he's alive?" Chris called to the bounty hunter, his eyes never leaving the two men.

"No, he's on his stomach.  It looks like he might have hit a bush going down, maybe it broke his fall," Vin explained.

"Okay, rig a line, Nathan you'll have to go down and see how he is," Chris ordered.  Nathan nodded as he went through his small medical pouch

Chris grabbed Mac by his injured arm taking pleasure at the pain he caused him.  He forced him closer to the edge.

"Hey, what are you doing?" Mac shouted without realizing it. Panic was finding its way into his soul and trying to take over.  He looked into Larabee's icy blue eyes and fear gripped his insides, twisting them in knots.

Chris pushed him until Mac's left foot slipped over the edge, sending pebbles and dirt sprinkling down.  Mac grabbed Larabee's arm to keep his balance.  "If he's dead, I'm throwing you off," Chris replied in a curiously flat voice. 

For a moment Mac thought he couldn't be serious, but when he looked into Larabee's stern face there was no doubting the threat.  He looked toward the others pleadingly, but was rewarded with expressions of unconcern.

"Please, I was just following orders.  I had to get that statue back," Mac pleaded, almost babbling.  He knew he was close to hysterics, but didn't care, for the first time ever he feared for his life.

Chris realized he was taking all his anger out on Mr. Tilly when there was someone else to blame, but he was taught never to strike a woman.

Josiah, Buck, JD and Vin manned the ropes, slowly lowering the healer down the vertical face, sand and rock crumbling under each step.  Ezra had landed on a ledge that was about five feet wide by seven feet long.  When Nathan reached the ledge he straddled the gambler and paused, afraid to check for something he might not find.  He noticed the pool of blood, which had soaked into the rock under Ezra's shoulder.  He took a deep breath and knelt down, placing two fingers against Ezra's neck.  It was a moment, but Nathan felt a very faint pulse.  He looked up the cliff face to see Vin's worried gaze.  "He's alive!"

Everyone let out a breath including Tilly who almost collapsed with relief. "That man has more lives than a cat," Buck voiced bringing a slight chuckle from JD and Vin.  

Chris motioned for Mac and Hank to move back.  "Buck, get some rope and tie them up."

Nathan did a cursory glance of the gambler; the ledge was too narrow to turn him over.  It looked like Ezra's left side took the brunt of the fall, including his head, which seriously worried the healer.  Nathan carefully fixed a loop over Ezra's head and under his arms. 

"Okay, take him up, slowly," Nathan yelled up to the top. 

The rope grew taut and Ezra slowly rose up the face of the cliff.  Nathan guided him as far as he could.  He watched for any sign of life in Ezra's pale and slack face.  His left side was soaked in blood.  Nate watched as Vin and Josiah reached over the rim and grabbed Ezra by his jacket, hoisting him the rest of the way up.  The rope was thrown back down and Nathan was then pulled up.  When he reached the top, he quickly shucked out of the rope and went to Ezra's side. 

Part 19

Maude cradled Ezra's head in her lap.  Her face no longer hiding the emotions she felt as she looked down at her injured son.  She raised watery eyes to see the six gunslingers surrounding her and understood for the first time why Ezra stayed and worked with these men--They cared-She had raised Ezra the best she could, and always knew that it hadn't been enough.  She cared greatly for her son, in her own unique and formal way, but he needed more and these men were able to give that to him.

Nathan ran his experienced hands over Ezra's body. "Buck, help me take off his jacket and shirt."

Buck knelt down, carefully lifting Ezra up by the shoulders so Nathan could remove his jacket and blood soaked shirt.  Everyone's eyes widen and Maude had to stifle a gasp.  Luckily, the bullet had gone clean through, but Ezra's whole left side was nothing but one huge bruise.  His smooth muscular chest was covered in blood.

Nathan frowned when he felt three broken ribs.  He knew that Ezra had also lost a lot of blood; there was a wicked gash on the side of his head and a broken left arm.  What really worried the healer was the possibility of internal injuries, but he didn't voice his concern, if there was internal damage Ezra would die and there was nothing anyone could do.  Ezra didn't make a sound throughout the whole examination.  "How long was he down there," Nathan shouted.

Buck aimed his revolver at the two tied men to hurry their response. "Ah, about three hours," Hank nervously muttered.


Nathan looked over at Maude.  "Is he going to be alright?"

Nathan twisted his head to see the others and replied, "I don't know. We have to get him back to town, but we need to make a travois to carry him in."

"Vin, JD, go and find something we can use for poles," Chris ordered.  The two raced off without question. 

Ezra moaned and his head lolled to the side.  Maude saw genuine concern for her son in the faces of the gunslingers and she heard it in Josiah's plaintive plea, "Ezra, come on open your eyes."  

Ezra's eyes blinked, then remained open, trying to focus on the faces that swam above him.  Maude caressed his fevered brow.

"Ezra, how do you feel?" Nathan asked in a strong slow voice, trying to cut through the fog of Ezra's shock.

"Hurt," he replied in a hoarse whisper.  Ezra began coughing and choked back a scream as pain racked his body.  He tried to curl up, but Buck and Nathan held him still. 

Chris knelt down at Ezra's side to help.  He still wanted to throw the two men responsible off the cliff, and decided he had better do something or he would.  The spasm stopped, leaving Ezra exhausted and even more pale.  Chris soaked a cloth with some water from a canteen and placed it on the gambler's head. 

Buck had turned to see the sympathy in Hank's face and some of his anger dissipated.

Ezra wet his lips and swallowed, his chest rattled with each painful breath he took.  He turned his head and furrowed his brow as he looked upon his mother's face.  "Mother?"

Maude smiled.  "You're going to be okay, son," she soothed, smoothing down his sweat drenched hair.  She couldn't stand to see him in pain.  Even when he was a child she would ignore it or send him away, so she didn't have to deal with it.

Buck knelt down next to Maude and helped to bring Ezra's head up as Nathan placed a cup of water and herbs to his lips.  "Here Ezra, drink this.  It'll help with the pain."

Ezra managed a couple sips then slowly slipped back into unconsciousness.

Buck came and grasped Maude around the shoulders and gently forced her up.  Her eyes never left Ezra's slack face.  Buck guided the anguished woman over to a rock where she sat.  He glared at Maude, unable to find any sympathy for the conniving woman.  He turned and walked away. 

Maude watched as Nathan cleaned Ezra's head wound and wrapped a bandage around it.  He cleaned the shoulder wound, set his broken arm, and wrapped his ribs.  She remained silent, numb, during the whole procedure.

Vin and JD returned with two stout poles.  They used the bedrolls and blankets to make a travois, which they attached to Chris's horse, and then they slowly headed back toward town.

Part 20

When they reached town JD and Vin pulled Hank and Mac off their horses, none to gently.  Hank stopped and looked down at Ezra and then turned sad brown eyes up at Chris.  "I'm sorry." 

Chris glared at the older man.  "Git them out of here," he growled.

Vin and JD shoved them toward the jail.  Josiah and Chris carefully carried Ezra up to Nathan's room.  Maude followed close behind.  She knew she was no longer welcomed, but she was not going to leave her son's side.  She kept telling herself that Ezra would understand.

As they placed Ezra on Nathan's bed, a small groan escaped his lips.  "Ezra, can you hear me?" Nathan quietly coaxed. 

Chris, Buck and Josiah backed up against the wall.  Maude had gone to the other side of the bed and sat next to his head.   Nathan took a cloth and wet it, putting it on Ezra's fevered brow. 

Buck moved closer to Ezra's bed.  "C'mon pard, come on back," he quietly voiced. "We need ya."

Maude's eyes snapped up to see the sincerity in Buck's face.  Maybe they needed him to perform cons, no, she knew that wasn't true.

Ezra's eyes fluttered opened, everything was blurry and he closed them again.  He brought his hand up to his head and someone took it and gently forced it back down.  He could hear murmurings, like a low atonal hum all around him.  He tried again to open his eyes, shapes tried to form, and Ezra wrinkled his brow trying to bring them into focus.  His head hurt something terrible and every breath he took was painful, it felt like someone was sitting on his chest.  He managed a faint smile as Nathan's concerned visage came into focus. "Nathan."

Ezra turned a heavy head slowly toward Maude.  "What happened?

Are you alright mother?"

"Yes dear, you just rest," Maude softly replied, placing a comforting hand over Ezra's.  He had so many questions but his eyes grew heavy and darkness swept over him. 

Josiah abruptly walked out.  Maude heard him leave and bowed her head. She raised her eyes to meet Nathan, Chris and Buck's accusing stares.  "I did it for him too.  I can buy him that saloon he's always wanted. He doesn't have to stay in this accursed town."

"The statue goes back," Chris stated coolly and walked out.

Part 21

Chris sat down in the chair next to Josiah who stared morosely at the beer in front of him.  "She was willing to trade Ezra's life for that statue.  I can't get past that," Josiah muttered still staring at the amber liquor on the table.

"I don't understand it either, Josiah," Chris replied. "And I'm not so sure Ezra will either, no matter how much she thinks he will."

Everyone took turns watching over Ezra throughout the night.  He became delirious with a high fever.  Several times he had to be held down, so he wouldn't injure himself more.  Maude had to leave early on; she couldn't stand hearing the rantings of her son.  JD had promised to keep her informed, as he was the only one even remotely talking to her.

Nathan entered the clinic the next morning to find JD asleep in a chair.  Chris was sitting in a chair next to the bed his eyes on the gambler's slowly rising chest, afraid if he looked away, his chest would cease to rise.  Chris was surprised at the amount of feeling he had for the suave conman, usually the two men were at odds--Maybe oil and water can mix, under the right circumstances.

Nathan came over and placed a hand on Ezra's pale forehead.  "I think his fever is coming down the worse should be over.  He should be alright as long as no complications set it."  Nathan placed a hand on Chris's shoulder breaking him from his task.  "You and JD should go and get some rest I'll take over."

Chris nodded and stood, stretching out his legs and back and stepped over and shook JD by the shoulder.

"Wha..What?  is Ezra..."

"He's okay.  I need you to come with me, there's something we have to do."

Part 22

Chris kicked in the door to Maude's hotel room and stormed in, followed meekly by JD.

"How dare you?" Maude yelled.  "What gives you the right?"  She had just finished putting some clothes into the chest of drawers that sat against the wall under an open window.

Chris ignored her and went to the bag that sat on the bed and started rummaging through it, throwing clothes to the floor.

JD stood in the doorway, his hat in his hand, trying to appear respectful.  He knew she didn't deserve it, but it was hard to break from years of teaching.  He had been taught that his elders were right and should be respected no matter what.

Chris removed the statue and glared at Maude.  "This goes back to its rightful owner."  He turned his back on Maude, stopped and said,  "Ezra's fever broke." 

JD tipped his hat remorsefully.  "Sorry, ma'am," and followed Chris out.  Maude stood silently her hands clenched in fists of rage.  She had lost this hand.

Part 23

It was several days before Ezra was lucid enough to know what was going on around him.  Nathan kept visitors to a minimum, but Maude was at his bedside most of the time, holding his hand and talking softly to him.  Most of the lawmen thought this was too little to late, but didn't  interfere, unfortunately she was still his mother.

Ezra was getting frustrated he couldn't remember much about what had happened.  He remembered trying to escape, but by the way he felt he didn't think that went well.  No one would tell him what had gone on.  Even his mother tapped danced around the events of the past few days.  Everyone gave vague answers then made excuses and left.  He always thought he was the only evasive one.  He had a feeling that something had happened he should know about.

After several days of ambiguous answers, Ezra began to believe that he would never discover the truth until Josiah quietly entered and pulled up a chair.  Josiah had waited, giving Maude every chance to tell Ezra what had happened and what part she had played.  Now he felt that Ezra should know.

Part 24

The next morning everyone was sitting in the bar room enjoying a good breakfast supplied by Mary, who knew they had been neglecting their own health as they took care of Ezra.  Maude entered, not even acknowledging their presence as she headed toward the stairs to go and check on her son.

Chris and Josiah, who shared a table, glanced up as Maude went by, her skirt flaring out behind her determined strides.  Since she had been forced to relinquish the statue she had little to say to the six regulators.  The statue had been returned to Mac and Hank and they were released as soon as it was certain that Ezra would be alright. Hank gave his word that they would return next month to stand trial for  kidnapping.  Chris believed the young man and assured him he would be given a light sentence in view of the circumstances.  He wished there was some charge he could place on Maude Standish, but there was no law against being a bad mother, and Hank Brok had refused to press charges against her for theft.  Chris suspected that Maude had talked to the young man while he was in jail and convinced him not to press charges.

"Did you tell 'em?" Chris asked Josiah in a quiet voice.

"Yep," Josiah replied, taking another bite of sausage.

"How'd he take it?"

"Hard to tell, but I think we'll find out shortly," Josiah remarked as he pushed his plate away and removed the napkin from his neck. 

Everyone held their breath then looked up at the sound of shouting from the top of the stairs.  "GET THE HELL OUT!"  Followed by the sound of a glass being thrown against a wall.  JD abruptly stood at the crash, but was summarily forced down by Buck and Vin's hands on his shoulders.  Everyone looked away as Maude descended the stairs, trying to compose herself quickly.  She stopped at the bottom of the stair case and cast an angry glare at the six men.

"I hope you're all satisfied.  I've been asked to remove myself from your quaint little town."  Maude brought her eyes down upon each one of the six men.  "You think you're better for him than his own mother?"

Chris raised his head to meet Maude's burning scowl.  "He'd have been better off if he'd been raised by wolves."

Maude didn't know what to say, she didn't understand why these men were acting the way they were.  She had only been trying to take care of herself and Ezra.  It wasn't her fault he had been hurt.  If he hadn't tried to escape he would have been rescued and...  Her face fell at this thought, and Josiah noticed the sadness that replaced the anger in her eyes she turned on her heel and walked out the door. 

Josiah stepped over the broken glass in the hallway and entered the partially sunlit room, seeing Ezra in bed his right arm over his eyes.

"Son, are you okay?" Josiah quietly asked.

"No," came a curt reply.

Josiah pulled a chair up next to the bed.

"Do you want to talk about it," he asked.

Ezra removed his arm from his eyes, which had taken on a lost appearance.  His head was no longer bandaged and a huge purple bruise covered half his face.  His left arm was bound to his chest and the bruising to his ribs could be seen peeking out from under the bandages. 

"What's to talk about.  I've always known what she is.  She's never hid it from me."  However, Ezra never believed his mother would choose money over his own life, this tore at his heart.  He was not sure he could ever forgive her.  A thought came to Ezra, and he turned his bruised face toward Josiah.

"I apologize, Mr. Sanchez I'm fully aware that you carried certain feelings for my mother and for that I'm deeply regretful."

Josiah smiled and shrugged.  He stood as Nathan entered to check on him.  Josiah walked out and stood outside the door leaning against the wall.  He didn't want to see anyone.  His heart did ache, probably not as much as Ezra's, but he did feel betrayed.  He thought he had learned to accept Maude as she was, but after all that had happened he no longer felt the same way and he grieved for that.

Maude waited for the stage the next morning.  No one had come to carry her bags, and she was forced to hire a man off the street.  When the stage pulled in the driver proceeded to load her baggage.  She cast an eye up to the second floor window of the saloon and thought she saw the curtain move.  The driver offered his hand and helped her into the stage.  Ezra stayed back from the window not wanting to be seen. He stared down at the contriving woman, who he called mother, and a single tear slid down his cheek.

The End

Comments: KellyA