Vengeance For Lilah

by Suzy B.

Discaimer: Don't own them, just like to play with them!! The characters from the television program The Magnificent Seven are the property of Trilogy and The Mirisch Co. I am making no money from their use. This Story is created for entertainment purposes only, no infringement intended. Thanks to MOG for creating the ATF Sandbox for me to play in. Not to be copied without permission from the author.

Notes/Comments: Thanks to Lyn for betaing for me. Thanks for sticking with it guys this is the end.

Warnings: Keep your tissues handy – and try not to drip tears on the keyboard okay? I’ve tried and it doesn’t like it!!!

Violence, mild language

Webmaster Note: This fic was formerly posted at another website and was moved to blackraptor in February 2005

The well dressed man didn’t often lose his temper, but his two companions knew that one misplaced look or word would result in a release of fury that maybe only one other of the seven would be capable of. Unfortunately the days findings were liable to send his emotions in the same direction as his southern friend. The three of them walked in silence to find the rest of their number and share their discovery. Each of them thinking of the events that had brought them to this point.


Over the last month seven children had disappeared from Four Corners and its surrounding farms, this distressed every last one of the peacekeepers and they had searched tirelessly for the youngsters. The only clue to their disappearances were sightings of two unfamiliar men just before the children disappeared. None of the children were over five years of age and had disappeared without a trace, however, when an eighth child vanished two days ago, all hell had broken loose in the saloon.

The Gambler had been sleeping badly, ever since the children had started disappearing, worried about the little ones and what their fates would be. He had heard the keening wails of the young mother that could find no trace of her four year old daughter, as she related anything she could remember to their young sheriff, while he was walking along the boardwalk back to the saloon just after sun-up. He had listened to Jasmine’s fear and self-recrimination for allowing her daughter to be taken while she was working in the barn, the youngster within earshot, sleeping in the house. She had returned to find her missing and had searched for her throughout the house and the yards but she had known that her daughter had been taken.

It was as if a dam had burst within him, he had stayed long enough outside the JD’s office to hear the details, a rage building within him as he listened to the woman’s pain before he ran back to the Saloon and the man who was their leader. Bursting through the batwing doors, without his usual grace, he felt the eyes of his two friends on him as he walked towards them, his breathing harsh, his eyes full of green fire.

“I want to know what the hell you are going to do about this?” he hit the table opposite the black clad gunslinger with fisted hands, his normal calm sea green eyes turbulent and filled with rage as he yelled at his friend. His accent thicker as his fury took hold of him in a completely uncharacteristic show of rage.

“Calm down Ezra” Vin Tanner stood, almost as if to protect his friend from the unadulterated rage from the normally quiet spoken southerner.

“I will not calm down Mr Tanner.” he roared at them both his angry gaze flicking from one to the other knowing that they did not yet know what he was talking about.

“Lilah Willows is missing.” he sank into a chair watching as disbelief spread on both men’s faces Vin sinking into a chair almost as if his legs would no longer hold him up.

“Dammit Chris she’s only four years old, we have to find her” the rage drained out of his voice and the other two could hear as it filled with sorrow. He looked up at his two friends, his normal poker face filled with the pain and sorrow he felt at the young girls disappearance, completely readable to both of them.

“Just yesterday afternoon I was entertaining the young lady for her mother while she made some purchases.” his eyes liquid he almost begged them “We have to find her.” his voice cracking as he spoke.

“Vin, go and round up the others, we’ll see if we can find her” Chris spoke.

“C’mon Ezra” he spoke understanding his friends affections for the children of the town. “We’ll go and see if there’s any clues this time” he patted Ezra on the shoulder and waited until the gambler had pulled himself back into his normal composure and walked beside him out of the saloon.

Like his compatriot, Chris’ blood boiled at the thought of what the children were going through, they were after all just babies, the only place they should be is with their mothers in the loving embrace of their families. He could understand Standish’s rage, he had been watching his anger slowly build over the past month, but Lilah Willows was like an angel. Her hair long blonde ringlets, her cherubic face seemed overwhelmed by her huge blue eyes and thick black lashes. Even at four she was a perfect young lady, her manners impeccable.

Both her and her mother, who shared the same features as her tiny offspring, and went out of their way to help her out, enchanted each of the seven. Her father had been killed in a farming accident when she was barely three years old, Jasmine, her mother had struggled to raise her daughter and keep the farm afloat. Whenever they got a chance one or another of the men had gone out to the farm to help Jasmine out and check if she was all right or needed anything. More often then not it was Ezra who, despite his abhorrence of manual labours who would visit her farm. The other five had often joked that Ezra was sweet on the young widow but the gambler gave nothing away to them. Only Chris’ shrewd eyes saw the truth, Ezra was enchanted by the little girl, giving her by his actions if nothing else what he had never had. A father figure that adored her.

The two of them had walked rapidly into the sheriff’s office to find JD and Buck trying to comfort Jasmine Willows, Vin, Nathan and Josiah crossing from Nathan’s clinic. Mary stood just outside the door tears in her eyes as she listened to the younger woman’s pain. All three of them looked up at their entrance and Jasmine, seeing Ezra ran into his outstretched arms. He folded her into his embrace and looked at his friends over the top of her golden blonde head, the pain in his eyes evident to all of them.

“Jasmine” he spoke soothingly leading her to a chair and kneeling in front of her “We will find her darling, trust me” Ezra spoke.

“She’s all I have Ezra.” Jasmine sobbed. Ezra pulled a handkerchief out of his jacket pocket and gently wiped her eyes and pushed the piece of linen into her hands.

“We will find her Jasmine.” he looked into Chris’s face and acknowledged his nod, taking a deep breath he placed a gentle kiss on her cheek before he stood and watched Mary enfold Jasmine into her arms.

Knowing that she was going to be in good hands he allowed the rage that had been simmering beneath his pain to surface again.

“Gentlemen.” he spoke through gritted teeth “Let's go and catch these bastards”

+ + + + + + +

Chris stood on the veranda outside the sheriff’s office and watched as the men he called friends saddled up. He saw the retention of the quiet fury in the eyes of the southerner and knew that the men who were doing this to children would pay if he ever got his hands on them.

He caught Vin’s eye and saw the concern in his face, gesturing with his head for him to stick with Ezra who was already turning his mount to make his way out to the Willows farmhouse to start the search. Turning his head back to the others he was not surprised to see the concern in their eyes.

“What happens when Lilah is just like the others Chris.” JD asked quietly his hazel eyes full of sadness for his friend.

“I dunno JD.” he spoke softly as he mounted “I just dunno.” he turned his mount to follow Ezra and Vin, the others quickly following.

Ezra didn’t speak as he rode towards the farmhouse, straying from the road he took every shortcut he had found over the last few months, hoping against hope that they were not too late to find some sort of clue. Not waiting to see if the others were following, his mind was intent only on finding Lilah. Thankfully the weather was on their side and with any sort of luck, they would be able to track their quarry and recover their precious cargo.

He didn’t know what he would do if he lost Lilah. He laughed wryly to himself, he avoided emotional ties like his gunslinger friends avoided bullets, but his heart had been lost the moment he had laid his eyes on the tiny cherub. She was the daughter he knew he would never have, a angel sent to earth to bring happiness to those around her, to bring love to the hearts of the world weary souls she met. He smiled as he remembered the first time he saw her.

Somehow Jasmine had managed t load her behemoth of a husband into a wagon when he was injured and came to Nathan for help. However, it was too late when she arrived, he was already dead. Lilah had sat confused and alone, momentarily forgotten in the wagon as her mother had cried over her fathers body, her three year old mind not understanding what had happened.

He had lifted the teary young girl from her seat and carried her to a shaded seat on the boardwalk, filling her pretty little head full of fairy tales, knowing that the rest of the peacekeepers would take care of her mother. His heart had been lost forever when he had placed her on her feet in front of him. She had stood there watching him with her huge blue eyes, her tears still damp on her lashes, then seeming to make a decision for herself she had extended her hand to him, placing all her trust in the man she stood before. As he had placed his hand in her soft fingers, he could feel the wall that he had built around his tortured heart crumbling. Never before had he felt what it was like to be blindly trusted by a child and knew that he would die to keep this child safe if the need arose.

“Ezra are you okay?” Vin asked quietly as he rode alongside the quiet gambler.

He had watched him carefully, the determined jut of his jaw, the eyes glazed with fear and knew that his friend was walking a fine line between his usual civility and the rage that threatened to overtake him. The same line that his best friend had walked since the death of his wife and son, and there was not a thing anyone could do for either of them.

“When a situation like this presents itself, I wish that I had a little of the formidable faith that our compatriot Mr Sanchez has.”

Ezra turned his tortured gaze on the tracker and watched him nod in agreement. Vin seemed to struggle with his thoughts for a moment before he looked up and into Ezra’s face, his eyes never wavering.

“I want you to know Ezra, that whatever happens, I’m here for you.” he waited until the intention of his words was understood and then looked ahead again, uncomfortable with his usually calm friends lack of control.

“I can assure you Mr Tanner, I refuse to even entertain the notion that my angel will not be restored to her mothers bosom, and I am allowed the opportunity to exact harsh and immediate retribution to the miscreants who have caused this suffering.”

Vin nodded his head, not needing to respond knowing that Ezra meant every word he spoke, and would carry out his threats.

+ + + + + + +

They searched silently when they reached the farmhouse, but it was the same as it had been at each of the abductions. No signs of struggle, no trace of the people who might be behind this. One by one the seven returned to the farmhouse, their faces full of their helplessness, Ezra the last to return his heart refusing to listen to his head. No words needed to be spoken they knew that Ezra would never be the same again, hell they all knew that they would never be the same. There wasn’t one of them that Lilah hadn’t touched with her childlike gestures and simple unconditional love.

Chris knew that it was a waste of time to continue searching here, but he couldn’t bring himself to stop the search, hoping that somehow they would be presented with a miracle and find something that would help them find the abductors. At this point, he would just be happy with the return of the children. He looked up into the face of his friends and knew that they all knew it was hopeless.

“I can track them Chris” Vin spoke simply.

“You sure” he pinned his best friend with a sharp stare.

“Yeah, covered their trail but I can track them” he spoke again.

“I shall be accompanying you in your endeavours Mr Tanner.” Ezra spoke not lifting his head.

He leaned against the wall holding on to one of Lilah’s rag dolls, his shoulders slumped, his hat shading a face that they knew he was unable to mask, intent on cleaning the smudge of dirt from the doll’s face.

“I don’t think that’s a good idea Ezra.” Chris spoke gently.

“I’m going Mr Larabee.” Ezra dug in his heels and lifted his eyes to the black clad gunslinger.

“Nothing any of you say can stop me.” he tipped the brim of his hat in his usual two fingered salute as he walked towards his horse and put the doll in his saddlebags.

Vin paused only briefly to clasp his best friends hand, an unspoken good luck passing between them, before he ran over to his horse and Ezra’s side.

“Damn.” Chris swore under his breath, “Buck go with them,” he spoke more softly, “Don’t let that damn fool do anything he will regret.” he watched as his oldest friend ran towards the horses catching up with the two men already mounted and waiting for him.

“What are we going to Chris?” JD looked at the man he respected so much and frowned knowing in his heart that there was nothing they could do.

“Im going back to town and send some telegrams see what I can find out.” he spoke but the others could hear the futility in his voice.

“Not a lot we can do Brother.” Josiah spoke “Just pray that they find something.”

“And pray that they are not too late.” Nathan spoke in almost a whisper.

The three men tracking their quarry continued to ride until darkness was almost upon them, pausing only briefly for Vin to dismount and check markings on the ground and vegetation, every now and again. The silence was almost deafening, each man lost in his own thoughts.

Vin remembering the tea party that Lilah had managed to coerce he and Chris into last week. Buck remembering the wildflowers she had convinced him looked special tucked behind his ear, despite the ribbing he got from the rest of the seven. Ezra felt his heart breaking more with every mile they covered, he remembered every smile his angel had ever given him, the tears he had wiped from her chubby little cheeks, the joy of her smiles, the music of her laughter and died a tiny bit with each memory.

He lifted his head knowing that wallowing in his own self pity was not helping Lilah, scanning the horizon looking for some sign of life, some sign that she had been brought through here. He frowned as his eyes fixed on something in the distance.

“Dear Lord” he murmured and pushed his horse into a gallop, sliding from its back before it had even stopped. The forward momentum pushing him to his knees and onto his hands in the dirt, not caring of the damage he did to his clothes or his own hands.

Vin and Buck watched him carefully, knowing that he had seen something, their hands resting on their guns, ready to help Ezra in whatever way they could. Expecting gunfire, neither of them expected the sound that they heard next. It sent a chill down their spines as it reverberated through the still night air, neither of them wanting to intrude on their friends suffering.

“Nooooo!” came the tortured bloodcurdling wail from their southern friend as his worst fears were brought to fruition and his heart was irrevocably shattered, he knelt on the ground before the crumpled body of Lilah Willows and cried like a baby.

+ + + + + + +

At his mournful wail, his companions looked at each other, knowing exactly what Ezra had found and knowing that neither of them would be able to console him, they hesitated in going to his side. Not because they didn’t care, they cared more than they had thought was possible, but because they were having their own trouble dealing with Ezra’s discovery. No one deserved to be killed, but no one deserved it less than a child especially a child that was barely old enough to know right from wrong let alone what had been happening to her in her last hours of life.

Buck sat atop his grey, one leg looped around his saddle horn, tears heavy in his eyes, his hat in his hand, the sobbing of his friend tearing at his soul. Remembering the little girl who would never grow into the beautiful woman that the seven would protect from amorous suitors, as they had all thought would be the case. His tears refused to be halted as he watched Ezra bundle her tiny body into his arms, cradling her against his chest to comfort her as he had hundreds of times before, his tears dampening her golden hair, this time the comfort was for himself.

Vin had somehow known when Ezra had ridden off, almost as if the hounds of hell were nipping at his heels, that his discovery would not be good news. Tears filled his own eyes as he risked a glance at Buck, hoping that he would know what to say to their friend. Seeing the tears wet on Buck’s cheeks, he swung his leg over his horses neck and handed his reins to Buck, knowing that someone had to talk to Ezra.

He knelt behind the southerner and placed a hand on his shoulder, he could feel the tremors that shook his grief filled friend, and not knowing what else to do, he slipped his arm around his shoulders and offered him whatever support the lovable conman would take from him.

“I knew it was her, this is a dress I gave her for her birthday.” he spoke softly indicating the delicate blue satin gown that was the exact shade of her azure eyes.

“There’s not a mark on her.” Ezra spoke softly, her southern accent much thicker, his voice filled with tears and heartache, as his fingers gently pushed her golden ringlets back from her face. Her skin pale, her thick lashes making dark crescents on her cheeks, her tiny cupids bow mouth closed.

Ezra shrugged out of his jacket and wrapped it around the tiny bundle in his arms, placing a tender kiss on the top of her head as he settled her into his arms.

“She can’t be dead, she’s barely even lived.” he spoke.

“She’s gone Ez” Vin spoke softly knowing that no matter what he said his voice was not getting through to the southerner, he was lost in his own grief and sadness. Vin only hoped that he could find his way back to them.

Ezra stood without a word and walked over to his horse, cradling Lilah’s body against his he swung lithely into the saddle and gathered his reins.

“Gentlemen, are you coming with me.” he spoke, “I think it is time Lilah was reunited with her mother.” his voice cracked a little as he spoke but he had successfully hidden him feelings behind the familiar poker face they all knew so well.

“Ez don’t you think we should set up camp for the night.” Buck spoke softly.

“Mr Wilmington, let me assure you that you are welcome to spend your night out here, but I don’t want Jasmine to suffer for a minute longer than she has to.” He spoke not looking at either of his companions “If that means that I have to ride all night so be it” he nudged his horse into a slow walk and started the long trek home.

+ + + + + + +

The sun was rising as they reached the livery stable in Four Corners, life slowly awaking around them. Ezra swallowed tightly as he realised that the life he carried in his arms would never wake again. Her life had been stolen from her as surely as a criminal steals money.

The southerner didn’t often lose his temper, but his two companions knew that one misplaced look or word would result in a release of fury that maybe only one other of the seven would be capable of.

Unfortunately their findings were liable to send his emotions in the same direction as his gambling friend. The three of them walked in silence to the sheriff’s office to find the rest of their number and share their mournful discovery. The townsfolk watched the sad procession the faces of the three men telling the story for them. The gambler in his shirtsleeves, his hat carried by one of the others, carried a tiny bundle wrapped in his fancy red jacket, the blonde tousled head of the child they had been searching for cradled against his shoulder.

For Ezra’s part he never saw any of the townsfolk that watched, he had one thought in his mind, delivering his precious cargo to her mother without breaking down and crying like a baby. Mary heard the commotion and stepped out of the jailhouse and saw them coming towards them a tiny blonde head against Ezra’s shoulder. One look at his face, however, frightened her and also told her what she needed to know. She had seen that expression on only one face before, another of the seven, the face of a man who was hell bent on revenge.

+ + + + + + +

Ezra walked past Mary, barely even noticing her or the door that JD held open for him, he glanced around the room and saw Jasmine seated in the corner of the room, almost as if she was afraid to look at the new visitor. He paused, gathering the courage to tell the woman who had fought so long and hard to make a home for her little girl, that she would not be coming home. He knelt before her and waited as she turned tear filled eyes on him.

Hugging Lilah’s body tightly against him, he was afraid to look at the woman before him. He cursed at himself, he had words and quips for every occasion, hell didn’t the others rib him about his five dollar words every time he spoke, but he couldn’t manage to force words past the huge lump in his throat, as he handed his precious cargo to her mother. Looking deeply into her teary blue eyes, he reached up to push her hair from her face as he spoke.

“I’m sorry Jasmine.” he gulped and stood, backing away from Jasmine as if frightened of what she would do. He looked around the room seeing the recriminations on the faces of all the room’s occupants and wasted no time in moving to the door.

“I’m so sorry.” he murmured and walked out of the room, Vin watched from the window as he ran across the street back to the livery. He shook his head sadly and made to cross to the door and follow the gambler. Chris grabbed him by the arm and stopped him.

“I’ll talk to him.” Chris spoke sadly as he stood from where he lounged against the desk.

“Be gentle with him Cowboy.” he started to explain “this is hitting him hard.” he spoke and Chris nodded, knowing the pain that had consumed him when his family was killed.

He wanted to help his friend, but he also needed to get away from this scene, where Josiah was kneeling in front of the young mother administering last rites to her baby, so many painful memories were surfacing from his own tragedy. Memories that he fought so hard to forget, dragged back to the present like a waking dream.

He walked with his usual long slow strides across to the livery, pausing in the doorway, letting his eyes adjust to the half light. He cast his gaze around the interior and found the man he was searching for seating against the back wall of one of the unoccupied stalls, his knees bent, elbows resting heavily on them, his chin forward on his chest, his open flask in his hand. Ezra gave no sign of having noticed that he was no longer alone in the barn, so Chris walked towards him and slid down the wall to sit in a similar position next to the gambler, not speaking happy just to provide companionship for the man.

Several minutes after he sat, Ezra wordlessly offered him his flask. Chris took a long pull from the flask and handed it back.

“Would it offend you Mr Larabee if I were to enquire something of a personal and rather delicate nature of you?” Ezra asked softly.

“I would tell you if it did Ezra.” Chris answered guessing where Ezra’s question was going to lead them.

“How in God’s name did you cope with this pain?” he managed with a strangled gasp.

“Truthfully I don’t know, Buck helped a lot, I found my way into the bottom of a bottle and Buck and time dragged me back out of it.” he answered looking at the roof of the barn remembering his family and the pain he had dealt with at their deaths.

“I couldn’t have loved that little girl more if she was my own daughter” he spoke and laughed self derisively, “Hell. I have spent my entire life shutting people out, avoiding relationships, depending on myself. Somehow she found her way in, I’ll be damned if I know how, I have a hole in my heart where she should be. How do I stop that?” he turned his tear swollen red eyes on his friend and leader.

“I don’t know, I truly don’t know” he paused “I do know one thing tho, you are not alone Ez, we can help, all you have to do is ask.’ Chris spoke sincerely wanting to help him through this ordeal.

“Thank you Mr Larabee.” Ezra spoke slipping gracefully to his feet, “I will remember that. However, I believe that this is something I am going to have deal with on my own.” He spoke softly and turned from Chris to walk out of the barn, turning back at the door he smiled at his friend “Thank you Chris” he murmured sincerity in his words as he walked slowly from the barn.

Chris watched him go and slowly stood. Moving to the door of the barn he watched Ezra walk the length of the main street towards the outskirts of town, his normal graceful gait and erect posture uneven and bowed, as if he was carrying the weight of the world on his shoulders. Shaking his head, Chris turned and walked slowly back towards the jail and his other friends to try and formulate a plan to stop the stealing of children in their town.

+ + + + + + +

Jasmine brushed the hair back from her baby’s face and wished that she could see her beautiful eyes open just once more. Hear her say mommy I love you just once more. Wiping the tears from her own cheeks she made her decision and stood on shaky feet, moving away from the body of her only child, out of the cell and closer to the people who she had come to love as family.

“What is it Jasmine?” Mary asked quietly wanting to help in whatever way she could.

“I wanted to thank all of you for your help and friendship.” She spoke quietly, “I know that without you I would never have gotten my Lilah back and for that I thank you.” She continued, each of the people in the room listening to her words but not daring to look into the emotion charged face of the young woman in their midst.

“Is Ezra here?” she asked quietly looking around the room for him.

“He’s gone for a walk Jasmine” Chris spoke softly “he should be back soon.”

“That’s too bad” she murmured “I wanted to thank him for finding Lilah” she spoke as if to herself.

“He’ll be back soon” Mary touched the arm of the young mother trying to show her support.

“Do you think it might be alright if I spent some time alone with my little girl?” Jasmine asked quietly.

“Sure Jasmine.” Buck spoke quietly, like the others, he was feeling uncomfortable with the scene before him and was more than happy to leave her alone to give her a few minutes privacy.

The others all walked slowly out of the room, Mary gripping Jasmines hand in support before she went. Chris stood at the door for a moment considering his words before he spoke.

“Jasmine, we’ll give you some time and then I’ll ask the undertaker to come here to make arrangements with you.”

“Thank you Mr Larabee” she spoke looking into his face “for everything.”

Chris tipped his hat to her and walked out onto the boardwalk, watching the others walking slowly towards the saloon, the events of recent times making there steps heavy with sorrow, he could see Mary walking back to the Clarion office but could see no sign of Ezra. Shaking his head he wondered when things were going to get back to normal, but he knew the answer to that was never, he feared. He knew that Ezra’s sou would be consumed by the demon’s that young Lilah’s death had released in him, he should know he had lived through it himself.

Walking towards the undertaker’s establishment to inform him of Lilah’s death, he was almost pleasantly surprised to find his missing friend inside. Offering the gambler a quick smile he changed course to walk over to the saloon and let his friend conduct his tragic business in peace.

+ + + + + + +

Jasmine sat at JD’s desk and wrote a short note to Ezra explaining her actions to him, before she folded the piece of paper and wrote his name on the outside of it. She knew that she was to blame for her daughter’s death, she never should have left her alone, now because she was a bad mother her daughter had paid the ultimate price.

Standing she slipped the note into her apron pocket and walked across the room and lifted a coil of rope from one of the hooks on the wall. She carried the rope back into the cell where her daughter’s body lay, and after several attempts managed to loop the rope over one of the rafters. She secured it tightly and then turned her attention to her baby once more. Tears trickling down her pale cheeks she slipped the note from her pocket and laid it on her daughter’s chest so Ezra would be sure to find it. Leaning forward she kissed her daughters cold cheek, wiping away her tears that had fallen there.

“Everything is going to be okay Lilah Baby, mommy is coming to be with you and daddy. I’ll never leave you alone again my darling.” she spoke and stood.

Taking a deep breath she climbed onto the chair she had positioned beneath the rope and slipped the noose over her head. With one final look at her daughter’s angelic face she murmured a quiet goodbye and kicked the chair from beneath her feet, effectively taking her own life.

She struggled against the rope for several moments and slowly succumbed to the lack of oxygen, her body twitching as her soul slipped away to join her daughter.

+ + + + + + +

Vin knew something was wrong he couldn’t say for sure but something in Jasmine’s eyes had disturbed him. He sat in the saloon with the others, distractedly listening to the others quiet talk, but when he saw Ezra walking back towards the jailhouse he excused himself and went out to walk with his friend.

“How you doing pard?” he asked quietly as he fell into step beside the southerner.

“I can assure you Mr Tanner, I am quite alright” Ezra spoke not looking at his friend.

“Just wanted to be sure Ezra.” he spoke as they stepped onto the boardwalk in front of the jail. He patted Ezra on the back and turned to walk back to the saloon as Ezra swung the door open.

“Oh Dear Lord.” Ezra whispered as he fell to his knees in the doorway his eyes taking in the scene before him.

Vin turned back to look into the jail and what he saw made his blood run cold, he looked at the slumped shoulders of his friend and the woman hanging from the rafters, he ran as fast as his feet would carry him to the saloon.

“Chris, Nathan!” he called from the batwing doors “Quick.” he didn’t stop to explain just ran back to the jail. Edging past Ezra he ran into the cell and whipping out his knife he reached above Jasmine’s head, catching her body as he cut the rope.

The rest of the seven ran into the jailhouse in time to see him carry Jasmine into the second cell. Nathan immediately went to her side to see if they could save her and checked her quickly, shaking his head almost immediately. The others hung their head in sorrow each feeling guilty for leaving the young woman alone with her sorrow. Chris turned and crouched in front of Ezra.

“You okay Pard.” he spoke softly.

Ezra seemed to shake his thoughts back into his head. “What?” he murmured, when he realised that Chris was speaking to him he spoke more clearly.

“I’m fine Mr Larabee, I was just a tad shocked, but I can assure you I am fine.” He stood and walked to the chair in the corner, taking his flask from his pocket he took a long pull from it.

“Just when I thought this day couldn’t get any worse.” he murmured sadly shaking his head.

The other six looked at him wondering how long it would be before the powder keg of emotion that the southerner had become would ignite.

+ + + + + + +

Vin walked into the cell that contained Lilah’s body and lifted something from her chest, reading the name on it he shook his head sadly knowing this was going to hurt the man it was addressed to. Chris watched his friend and as their eyes met, he too knew that this was going to hurt, he caught the eye of the others and gestured with his head for them to leave the jailhouse and give Ezra some time alone with the letter.

Vin didn’t want to do it but he walked up to his friend, crouched in front of him and handed him the letter. Ezra looked from Vin to Chris and back to the letter, seeing the handwriting on the paper he moaned softly.

“This just keeps getting better doesn’t it.” he laughed self derisively.

“I wonder if there is any of that rope left” he murmured immediately regretting his sarcastic remark as he saw the shock on the faces of his friends.

“That was sarcasm Mr Larabee not a serious intention to do bodily damage to myself.” he spoke meeting Chris’ eyes.

“We’ll leave you to read your letter Ezra” Chris spoke softly wanting to give him some privacy to deal with his grief.

The southerner looked up his eyes darting nervously from Vin to Chris, his face the most readable to them as they had ever seen it.

“Please gentlemen stay.” he spoke quietly, but both men heard the desperation in his voice.

“You sure Ezra.” Vin asked softly.

Ezra didn’t speak, he just nodded his head and appeared to take a deep breath before he unfolded the piece of paper he held in his hands. His eyes slowly read the words on the page, before he folded it again, he sat for several minutes looking from the mother to daughter and then stood, dropping the letter as though it burned him on to the seat of the chair. Clearing his throat a suspicious sheen in his eyes, he turned his face to his friends.

“If you gentlemen will excuse me, I need to go and make the arrangements for Jasmine.” his accent more pronounced than usual.

“Sure Ez.” Vin spoke softly and watched his friend walk from the room. Waiting until the door closed behind him to speak again.

“Damn this has got to be hard on him.” Vin stated softly, not questioning just a simple statement.

“He has all of us to help him through it.” Chris spoke gently as he walked over to pick up the letter. He was feeling a kinship with Ezra at the moment that none of the others would be able to understand. He wasn’t sure he would be able to explain it, almost like you held happiness in the palm of your hand and it slipped through your fingers like grains of sand, leaving you empty and cold.

“What does it say Pard?” Vin asked quietly as Chris unfolded the letter.

“Dearest Ezra.” he began to read “I know that we have not been as close as we could have become, I want you to know that I do love you. You are a very special man to me” he spoke looking up at Vin.

“Maybe there was more going on then we knew” he questioned him, then went back to the letter “I know I told you I wasn’t ready to be courted, thank you for respecting my wishes, you will never know how sorry I am that I rejected you. You and the seven came into our lives when we were at our most desperate, yet you continued to help and guide us, through our good times and our bad, for that we both thank you. Lilah never had the opportunity to know her real father very well, in fact I don’t think she even remembers him. In her mind Ezra you are her papa and she loves you more than you will ever know. You were more of a father to her then her own father was. I thank you from the bottom of my soul for making her short time on this earth happy beyond any of my wildest dreams.

I’m sorry that you will have to learn this this way, but I have made my decision to go with my daughter and her father, you see there is no one to blame for my baby’s death but me. You warned me of the children going missing but still I left her alone, so vulnerable and trusting, she hadn’t yet learned that all men aren’t like you and the rest of the seven. Honourable, Charming, Lovable, trustworthy and caring men who would risk their lives for strangers without a question.” He paused awed by this quiet woman’s impressions of the peacekeepers.

“Are you sure she is talking about us?” Vin spoke softly his eyes glistening with unshed tears.

“I have nothing to repay you with for bringing my daughter back to me, for you will never know how much that meant to me. All I leave behind is yours. The land the farm and the livestock is all yours. It can no way compensate you for the joy and happiness you brought to a small girl and her grieving mother. Thank you again. Please rest assured that my baby will never be alone again. God Bless you and your friends.

Goodbye, Jas”

“damn.” Vin spoke as he walked to the window and looked out struggling to control his tears “This has gotta be tearing him in two.” he stated softly

“Aint nothing we can do, but try and help him through it.” Chris spoke as he put a hand on his best friends shoulder.

“C’mon I need a drink” he stated his voice raspy with emotion.

Both men walked out of the jailhouse and towards the saloon, their hearts and soul heavy with their friends pain.

+ + + + + + +

For the second night in succession, Ezra went sleepless. He didn’t even bother to go to his room at the saloon, how could he sleep when all that was good and just in the world had unravelled before his very eyes. He sat, in his shirtsleeves, on the steps of the saloon staring blankly into the dancing flames of the streetfire that had been banked to burn into the night. He fought against the images in his mind of how his life could have been, if Jasmine had allowed him into her heart and not merely her life.

It had almost torn his already bruised and tortured heart in two when he had read her words. She was the first woman he had met that he could spend his life with without hiding his heart from her. The first woman he had even entertained the idea of marrying. Dear God she was the only woman he had ever asked to marry him. Every time he closed his eyes he could see them together as a family with another child or two, that he could provide a happy loving home for. The kind of home he never had, the kind of home every innocent child deserved.

The others watched him from different vantage points all desperately worried for their friend. His silent tears as he sat there not moving had not gone unseen by any of the men. None of them knowing how to help their friend, but completely unable to leave him to fight his demons alone. Sure, there had been times when he had been injured physically, each of them knew how to help him get through the wounds they could see, but not one of them could bear to see the pain the injuries to his heart and soul were causing. Each one of these strong brave men helpless against the onslaught of his pain. So they watched over him as best as they could, ready to defend, protect and comfort their friend in his time of need.

Finally as the sun was rising on the horizon, the fires that Ezra had been mesmerised by all night long since burnt down to glowing embers, Chris eased his long body onto the step beside his friend. He couldn’t stand to watch him as he tortured himself any longer, wondering all the while if this was how Buck had felt as he tried to coax him out of his own pain. Not that Ezra noticed, he hadn’t even realised that the flames had burnt down, he still saw them as they had danced there in his mind all night.

Chris sat there beside him, his heart full of pain for the gentle natured conman. He might be able to hide his true self from many but the rest of the seven all knew that the heart and soul inside that arrogant, often conniving exterior was as fragile as the gossamer of angel wings. That was what was hurting them the most about the pain he was enduring. If there was one thing that Chris understood, it was the pain that was gripping his friend.

They all felt the passing of Jasmine and her mother under such unnecessary and tragic circumstances, but they could almost see the knife twisting in Ezra’s heart every time he thought about all that he had lost before he had grasped the chance to hold it. His future had passed from him as if sand grains of his happiness were flowing through his fingers and he couldn’t close his hand fast enough.

Chris waited for Ezra to give some sign that he knew that his friend was there content to sit in silence and wait until he was ready, however, when Ezra did speak, his words stunned Chris to his very soul.

“It’s my fault she is dead Chris.” Ezra stated so quietly that Chris almost had to strain to hear him.

+ + + + + + +

Chris sat there stunned for a few seconds, opening his mouth to say something, shutting it again without speaking. His confusion was written plainly all over his face, he had no idea how Ezra had gotten it in to his head that he was responsible for either death.

“I take it by your lack of rebuttal that you agree with me Mr Larabee” Ezra spoke softly, his eyes had still not left the glowing embers of the fire.

“Ezra you damn fool.” Chris spoke finally finding his voice .“Where the hell would you get an idea like that?”

“Please don’t try to humour me Mr Larabee, you know as well as I do.” he looked up at the man he was proud to call his leader and spoke again

“Surely you read the letter that she left for me” his red rimmed eyes watched as Chris nodded his head.

“Well you know the whole sordid story now” Ezra spoke looking back into the fire losing himself in the thoughts that he was now pouring out to the man at his side.

“Three months ago, I went to Jasmine and asked her if she would consider marrying me after a short courtship of course.” he started.

“She turned me down, said that she couldn’t even consider courting me because she still loved her dead husband.”

“Dammit I should have pushed her.” he murmured, “But I did the gentlemanly thing and backed away.” His voice sank to a murmur “If I had pressed her, she would not have been alone on the farm, Lilah would still be alive and Jasmine wouldn’t have had anything to blame herself for.”

“You don’t know that Ezra.” Chris spoke hating the complete lack of hope in the southerners voice.

“I should have known yesterday that something was wrong.” Ezra spoke ignoring Chris’ last comment.

“I have spent my whole life reading people and their reactions.” he once again turned his pain filled green gaze on Chris “Would you mind telling me why I couldn’t see what she was about to do?” his anger at himself raging in his voice.

“I couldn’t use the skills I have been using to line my own pockets for my entire adult life to save a life more important to me than my own” his voice dissolved into heart wracking sobs.

Chris sat there helpless against the tide of emotion that was destroying his friend, he remembered the guilt, the pain and the sorrow that had taken over his soul when Sarah and Adam had been killed, yet he still knew that Ezra’s pain was different to his. Sarah had been taken from him by a cold-blooded murderer, snatched away before they had the chance to grow old together.

Jasmine had made a conscious decision to take her own life, effectively leaving Ezra behind to bind her soul into eternity with her dead family. While he could understand why she had done it, he had even contemplated it a time or two himself just after Sarah and Adam’s deaths, he couldn’t understand why she had chosen to leave someone who obviously loved her. He could do nothing more for his friend than reach over and stroke his back as his exhaustion and despair overcame him.

Neither man noticed the lone rider that stopped out the front of jailhouse. The female rider dismounted and walked slowly up the steps, knocking gently on the door before opening it.

Buck and JD, both seated at JD’s desk looked up as the stranger entered the room. Vin had seen the stranger ride in from where he sat behind Chris and Ezra in front of the saloon, curious what a stranger could want at sunrise in their sleepy town and slowly made his way to the jailhouse.

“Can we help you ma’am?” JD asked politely seeing the nervous expression on the face of the woman who had just entered the jailhouse. She was looking pointedly at her feet, shuffling a little nervously, sure that when she opened her mouth all hell would break loose. She jumped visibly when the door behind her opened and Vin slipped silently into the room.

Buck, tired and irritable, stood and walked towards the woman “Ma’am can we do something for you?” he spoke.

She took her hat in her hands and released her raven black curls to fall down her back, then lifted her face to the men that stood before her and listened as they gasped in shock at her appearance. Her once pretty face was a mass of ugly bruises and abrasions.

“Who did this to you ma’am?” JD stood first to gather his voice again after the shock of seeing her face.

“That’s not important.” she spoke softly but clearly “I deserved this and far worse” she murmured.

“Nobody deserves a beating like that ma’am.” Vin spoke from the corner stepping forward until he was almost beside her.

“I’ve come to give myself up gentlemen.” she stated plainly.

“What could a pretty little thing like you be guilty of sugar?” Buck walked closer to her a smile tugging at the corners of his mouth.

She looked up at them, trying to gauge which man would be the one that would kill her when she spoke next. She had heard of the seven men that protected Four Corners and she had hoped that she would be treated fairly, that’s why she had chosen this town.

“Kidnapping.” she murmured.

+ + + + + + +

Vin saw the look on Buck’s face and knew that the man that stood before him was about to explode. None of them misunderstood what the woman had said, they knew that she was admitting to the murder of Lilah as well. Vin looked at the grim expression on Buck’s face and knew that within moments he would unleash the fury he was trying to control on the young woman in front of him.

“JD throw me the cell keys.” Vin spoke softly never taking his eyes from his friend, he waited until he had the keys in his hand and spoke again.

“Go JD, Go now and get Chris and the others, but for God’s sake don’t let Ezra know.”

Buck was slowly unfastening his gun belt, and before Vin knew what was happening he had dropped his gunbelt on the seat behind him and was lunging for the woman.

Vin slipped himself between the woman and Buck his smaller frame trying to block Buck’s rage from the prisoner. He threw her the keys, never taking his eyes from Buck’s face.

“Ma’am.” he spoke, “I suggest you get yourself into that cell and lock the door behind you.” he pushed back against Buck’s snarling countenance. “There’ll be five others here in a moment just like him.”

“I’m gonna kill her Vin.” Buck spoke through clenched teeth.

“Buck what good will that do, we need to find her partner and find the other children.” Vin spoke calmly. “The fight might be over for Lilah but there are seven others out there somewhere.” he tried to reason with his friend.

“You saw what she has done to Ezra. How can you stand there and defend her?” he spat.

“Im not defending her, but I won’t let you kill her either.” Vin spoke feeling his friends rage flow from him, “This is bigger than just Lilah Buck” Vin stated softly.

The woman didn’t waste any time she took the keys and locked herself into one of the cells. She had not expected the raw pain and fury in the larger man’s eyes, or for the other man to defend her against his friends for that matter She knew she had been given a slight reprieve and might be able to tell them her side of the story if she was very lucky.

JD ran out of his office, knowing exactly where to find his hero and leader, he arrived just in time to see Nathan and Ezra disappearing into the saloon, all thought of fighting against them deserting him as he was led inside. Tears filled JD’s eyes as he realised that Ezra appeared to be just a shell of his former self, alive but not living. All thanks to the woman now in his jailhouse.

“What is it JD?” Chris asked wearily as he saw JD stop as he saw his friend’s emotional condition.

“Chris Vin needs you in the jailhouse. Buck is about to do something stupid.” he spoke his thoughts too fast for his words.

“Like what?” he shook his head, all he needed was another one of his friends running off their tracks.

“A woman rode into town a little while ago” JD spoke as they started to walk towards the jail “She’s been badly beaten, and said that she wanted to give herself up for Kidnapping.”

“Damn.” Chris swore “Get Nathan and Josiah.” he spoke softly his voice full of rage and barely concealed fury and ran towards the jailhouse.

He walked through the door his face a mask of fury, Buck sat at JD’s desk his head in his hands. Vin stood between Chris and the cells prepared to fight the same fight he had just fought.

“Do I have to fight you too?” he spoke almost wearily not knowing why the others could not understand that they needed this woman alive. She was the first clue that they had and he wasn’t giving her up without a fight.

“Nope” he spoke shortly stopping just in front of the bars of the cell that housed their new prisoner “but she’s gonna tell me everything she knows or I am gonna let Buck and then Ezra loose with her” he spat watching the fear grow in her eyes.

“I am so sorry.” she murmured tears welling in her eyes “I didn’t want to do it but I had no choice.”

“You had no choice!” Buck yelled “What about those innocent children you have stolen from their families.” he spat at her “What about the young mother that lost her husband last year and took her own life last night because you killed her daughter.” he continued to scream at the now sobbing woman.

“What about our friend whose life was just coming together and you have destroyed his future.”

“I’m sorry.” she spoke quietly “please let me explain.” she asked

“Gentlemen.” Ezra spoke his emotion ravaged face once again revealing nothing to his friends. They could all see the ice green fury in his eyes “Let her speak, I for one am interested to hear how she can kill innocent babies and then expect fair treatment.” The others looked at each other knowing that the end of his emotional tether was coming.

“I couldn’t stop him Chris.” Nathan apologised from behind him.

“I don’t think you should be here Ezra.” Chris spoke his words more of an order than a suggestion.

“I don’t give a damn.” he looked into Chris’ eyes “I’m going to listen to what she has to say and then I am going to rip her throat out.” he spoke from between gritted teeth.

+ + + + + + +

Not one of the people in the room doubted that he meant every cold calculated word he spoke. The emptiness and pain they had seen in his eyes since he had carried Lilah’s body home was replaced by a cold icy green rage. An anger that would put fear into the heart of a sensible man, but made the others more determined to look out for their friend.

“You can start with your name” Chris turned and spoke to the woman, waiting impatiently for her to answer.

“My name is Jenny Carter.” she spoke softly but clearly “The man you are looking for is my husband David.” She explained.

“I have never wanted to do the things that we have done but as you can see he is very persuasive when he wants to be” she indicated her face.

“David knows people in New York and San Francisco that he sells children to” he was doing it before I married him but I didn’t find out until after the wedding.” She turned her eyes to each of the men in succession “Please believe me, if I had known what he was doing I never would have married him.” Tears welled in her eyes.

“How long have you been married?” Vin spoke not liking the sound of that.

“Four years now” she lowered her head knowing that these men would despise her knowing that she had been part of her husband’s evil plan for so long.

“You have been stealing babies for four years?” Nathan spoke his voice full of anger for the families of the children who had been stolen.

She nodded unable to admit her guilt to them. “I know it is not much but I have kept a book which records details of every child, where they came from and where they went to.” She paused to collect her thoughts “That book is in my saddlebag” then looked up at the faces of the men who kept the peace in this town.

“I never meant to hurt anyone, if it is any consolation I know how their parents feel” she spoke softly.

Ezra stalked up to the bars and gripped them so hard his knuckles went white.

“How the hell can you know the pain you have caused so many innocent people?” he spat, his eyes showing her the true depth of his misery.

She stood and placed a hand over his on the bars, knowing that he could lash out at her and she would deserve it, but wanting to give comfort to this man she had hurt so badly.

“I know because he sold my two babies soon after they were born.” She looked into his eyes and watched some of the angry fire leave them. He bowed his head, closing his eyes against the fury he felt towards her husband.

“If I disagree with him he beats me, when my babies were born girls he sold them” she spoke softly “but after the last little girl we took from here, I couldn’t let it go on any longer” tears began to fall down her face. “She didn’t want to go with us she wanted to find Uncle Ezra. David lost his patience with her, he was lifting her back on to my horse and she struggled against him and slipped. It was an accident, when she fell her neck broke.”

She had watched this fancy dressed man the day that they had decided to steal Lilah Willows. She had known from the moment she had seen the unguarded devotion in his eyes as he spoke to the child that the loss of Lilah would hurt him far more then a physical injury ever would. However, no matter how hard she tried to convince her husband she could not deter him.

Chris looked at this woman and saw the pain she was feeling and the comfort she was trying to provide for a man who declared he was going to kill her and knew at that moment she was as much a victim in all this as the children had been. He would do all he could to help her and to catch her husband.

“He beat me when I refused to find him another child, I couldn’t ride. I had to wait until I could to come into town and give myself up.” she murmured as she sank to the ground in front of the bars “I have caused so much pain already.” she spoke.

The room fell silent all mourning the unnecessary loss of two souls. Ezra seemed to draw a shuddering breath and looked into Jenny’s face.

“You have taken the two most important things from my life and for that I can never forgive you. Unfortunately, it seems you understand my loss in your own way, but I can promise you I will be showing your husband no compassion.” His voice grew more forceful. You will tell me right now where I can find him, because I will hunt him down and vengeance will be Lilah’s.”

+ + + + + + +

There was no mistaking the malicious intent in Ezra’s words, every person in the jailhouse heard it, the malevolent purpose in his careful articulation, almost scaring the men who best knew the gentle southerner. Each of them glanced at him suddenly they had only heard that tone in one other voice, in a moment of blinding clarity they knew that he would carry out his threats and god help anyone who stood in his way.

Jenny watched him and understood the hatred in his eyes. God only knew she shared his hatred of the man she had once thought she had loved. She stood there and quietly explained the directions to the tiny cave they had bee n hiding in the hills behind the town. Ezra leaned back against JD’s desk, his arms folded across his chest and listened then giving a jerky version of his usual two fingered salute to the woman in the cell in front of him he turned without a word and left the jailhouse.

Chris shifted his gaze from one to the other of his friends, lingering long enough to see their nods of assent and then went after their seventh.

He found him where he knew he would be, in his room in the saloon, carefully loading his weapons, preparing to leave them and find the man who had inadvertently killed Lilah.

“Where do you think you are going?” Chris asked him quietly from the door, where he leaned against the doorjamb.

“To catch Lilah’s killer.” Ezra spoke softly the steel underlying his words plain to the black clad gunslinger.

“No you’re not.” Chris stated plainly.

“Well I’m afraid sir you’ll have to shoot me first.” Ezra turned on Chris, his hands fisted on his hips his face full of rage “I. Will. Not. Stay. Here” he spoke each word slowly and clearly.

“Ezra listen to me.” Chris spoke calmly.

“We can’t arrest him for killing Lilah.” he spoke “I wish to hell we could but we can’t.” he spoke watching Ezra’s whole demeanour change when he recognised the truth in his words.

“We can get him for kidnapping and we will.” he paused knowing that Ezra was not going to like the next statement “but I am not taking you with me.”

 Ezra’s eyes flew to his face, his pain and his anger evident but there was something else there that made Chris look away ashamed, Ezra felt that he, Chris Larabee, his friend and leader had somehow betrayed him and that realisation hurt. Trying to explain his actions he looked up at the tender hearted conman.

“I can’t afford a loose cannon out there.” he shrugged his shoulders.

“I know I sure as hell wouldn’t be able to let him stand in front of me and not shoot him, if it was my daughter he killed.” Chris explained his actions to his southern friend hoping that his words were getting through to him.

Ezra stood watching Chris but not really seeing him, assimilating the words that he heard. He nodded his head slowly and turned to the bed, lifting his rifle from the covers, walking back to Chris he handed him the rifle then one by one slipped his other guns from their holsters, even lifting his derringer from its resting-place against his forearm.

“Now I am unarmed Mr Larabee, I can not hurt this man without using my bare hands, is it acceptable for me to accompany you on this little sojourn now.” he spoke with barely concealed rage.

Chris realised that Ezra was more than capable of tearing David Carter apart limb from limb without a blink of the eye, the rage he felt was so soul deep, but he was not having one of the seven leaving Four Corners unarmed.

“I want your word Ezra.” he spoke softly “I want your word that if you come with us you won’t kill him.” he finished knowing that he couldn’t deny him this.

“I swear on my sainted mothers grave.” he spoke even more softly, realising that he wasn’t going to have to fight for his right to apprehend the man responsible even indirectly for his darling Lilah’s death.

“Now Ezra.” he smiled for what seemed like the first time in days “We both know that she doesn’t exactly have a grave yet.”

“Figure of speech Mr Larabee Figure of speech.” he smiled wryly.

“So I take it that I am able to ride with you.” he asked.

“Just don’t do anything that I am gonna have to arrest you for.” he spoke and handed him back his guns “and have these back.”

“Delightful.” Ezra replied “I was beginning to feel almost naked.”

“We ride out in an hour.” Chris spoke turning to walk back to the others, he had a sudden flash of inspiration and turned back to find Ezra already fitting his derringer back in its natural home.

“oh and Ezra.” he began.

“Yes Mr Larabee.” Ezra answered him not really paying attention to what he was saying.

“You do exactly as I say out there.” he paused.

“Or?” Ezra asked sensing that there was a but to this conversation.

“Or I will shoot you myself.” he stated with a smile and turned to walk down the stairs, paying no attention to the garbled rambling coming from Ezra’s room.

+ + + + + + +

The seven rode out of town as they all felt they should, as one. Moving quickly through the rocky terrain towards the cave that housed the man they sought, they all hoped that this was over quickly and peacefully, for everyone’s sake.

Each of the men worried about Ezra, his tenuous grasp of his usually tightly held emotions apparent to all of them, but none of them wanted to leave him behind, it was almost as if together they could keep him safe and whole.

Ezra rode with the men who had become his family, but he was not really with them, his mind was reliving every moment that he had spent with the tiny child that had so invaded his heart. He was grateful that none of the others tried to engage him in small talk, he didn’t think that he could be to be part of the inane harmless chitchat that they usually engaged in on their way to apprehend the vile reprobates that they collected. He wondered how long it would be before he didn’t think of the family he had lost with every waking breath or if he was doomed to feel this heart clenching pain until he drew his final breath.

Vin watched Ezra carefully as they rode, he had taken his pledge to help Ezra very seriously and even if that meant saving the southerner from himself he would do it. He fell back until his horse walked beside Ezra’s and placed a hand on his arm to get his attention, pulling him back from whichever memory he had sunk into.

“Will you be okay Ezra?” he asked quietly.

“Certainly Mr Tanner.” he spoke “I am nothing if not resilient.” he continued to look at the ground just in front of him.

Vin shook his head knowing that Ezra was the proverbial powder keg waiting to explode, he moved his horse back into the line as they rode, worried about his friend but unable to help him.

When they reached the foot of the ridge that housed the cave they were seeking, Chris took one look at the southerner and knew that he was not going to be able to have him behind him, he wanted him with him, where he could help him if he needed it, or save him from himself if he had to. The seven split into two groups, Buck, JD and Josiah skirting around towards the back of cave, towards the secret exit Jenny Carter had detailed to them. Chris, Vin, Nathan and Ezra approached the cave from the front.

“Carter.” Chris called loudly “We know you are in there.” He stated “Come out now and make this easy on all of us.”

“I don’t think so lawman.” a loud voice sounded from deep crevice to their left, a shot ringing out. Biting a deep groove in the rocks beside Chris’s head. The four of them turned as one to see the man they sought, a gun trained on them intently a little girl held in his arms. A girl that the seven had been seeking for weeks, a girl they had given up as lost.

“You see I think that I am riding out of here and nothing you can do will stop me.”

Nobody had noticed Ezra surreptitiously separating himself from the other men, but when he spoke they were amazed at the distance he had put between them.

“Oh I beg to differ you kidnapping bastard.” he spoke his voice calm but the others knew by his tone that Ezra was holding himself tightly under control. “You are not leaving this mountain alone.”

“Oh I know that.” Carter spoke slowly recognising Ezra instantly, “I’m taking this one with me.” he smiled evilly “Won’t fetch as high a price as the one that died, but c’est la vie.” He shrugged his shoulders as if Lilah’s life meant nothing to him.

Ezra couldn’t help himself before he even knew what he was doing the derringer was in his hand and pointed at Carter’s head. He heard the soft intake of Chris and Vin’s breath and knew that no matter how much he wanted to he couldn’t break his word to them.

“If I wasn’t a man of honour.” Ezra spoke through gritted teeth, every ounce of his concentration going into not shooting the smiling man in front of him. “You would be dead now. I swore that I would not kill you. As much as it would gratify my heart to see a bullet wound between your eyes.” Ezra continued to speak “But I will not break my word to my friend.” He paused taking a deep breath, trying to calm himself “You see if I break my word, I am just as bad as you.”

None of them expected what happened next. Carter swung his pistol towards Ezra levelling it in aim at the southerner. Seeing what was about to happen, he realised that even at his own expense he couldn’t break his word to his leader, he lowered his arm and stood awaiting his fate, praying that he would once again see his Lilah. His eyes met those of his leader, pleading for understanding and perhaps even forgiveness, as he listened to a shot ring out.

+ + + + + + +

Ezra closed his eyes and waited to feel the fiery pain of a bullet wound to eventuate. Chris couldn’t watch the black sheep die, as the shot rang out he closed his eyes saying a silent prayer for the gambler. Vin, couldn’t believe his ears or his eyes, Ezra was giving himself for the taking, almost as if he wanted to die. His own cry of dismay as he fell to his knees his horror at the scene unfolding before him frightening even him. Nathan stood, almost as if frozen to the spot, watching in horror as Ezra calmly accepted his fate, almost as if this is what he had wanted all along.

The sound of the shot hadn’t even faded but Chris couldn’t stand it any longer, he opened his eyes and turned his eyes full of fury prepared to tear the man who had just shot his friend apart limb from limb. However, when he turned his head it was to find David Carter staring toward him from sightless eyes, a bullet wound in the centre of his forehead. Finally taking in a breath that he didn’t know he had been holding he turned to see Buck, scrambling down the rocks behind Ezra, his smoking rifle in his hand, JD and Josiah following close behind him.

Ezra opened his eyes, confused, he had heard the shot, he fully expected to die on this rocky slope, but somehow, someway he had been spared. Seeing the corpse of David Carter he turned his head to see Buck approaching him. As he realised that his friend had saved his life he gave him a thankful smile and his customary two fingered salute, before he moved forward, his mind intent on only one thing.

Now that the danger had passed his thoughts moved to the children that were missing, he may not be able to save Lilah but he could sure as hell save the others if he possibly could. Lifting the tiny crying girl from the ground beside Carter’s body, he walked further away from his friends, murmuring soothing words to the sobbing four-year-old.

Chris moved to follow the gambler, to take the precious burden from him but Vin’s hand on his arm stopped him.

“Leave him Chris.” he murmured softly “It might help him.” realising that maybe the other children would be cathartic for their friends soul.

Chris nodded his head tightly, realising that it could help him to gain control of the feelings that had been torturing him since Lilah’s death.

“JD.” he called “You and Nathan get this piece of dirt onto a horse.” he kicked the dead man’s boot as he passed him.

“What the hell was Ezra doing?” Buck asked almost incredulously still pale from the sight he had seen as they cleared the hilltop. It had seemed that Carter was about to fire, another minute later and it would be Ezra that they were loading onto a horse.

Vin just shrugged his shoulders and moved slowly away from his friends, following the path that Ezra had taken. Wanting to be sure that his friend was in fact all right. He followed the path into the cave and as he turned a corner around a tight rock face, the sounds he heard brought a smile to his face. Poking his head around the wall, he watched the scene unfold before his eyes.

Seven small children, Vin knew their names and faces so well, after all he and the other men had searched tirelessly for them for so long. All of them aged between 3 and 7 sat on the ground around Ezra, also seated on the dirt floor as he used his ever-present deck of cards to spin a fairytale story to the children. Their eyes watching his face with rapt attention, the youngest child, a tiny blonde girl cradled on his lap, watching him with teary yet trusting eyes.

Vin must have made a noise because something alerted the gambler to his presence. Ezra looked up into Vin’s face, his eyes tear glazed but they had lost the haunted look they had worn for the last days. He saw the silent gratitude in his friends eyes and nodded in response before turning to leave the cave and give him some time alone.

Walking out to the mouth of the cave he was surprised to see the other five waiting there concerned expressions on their faces. He smiled as he realised that they were worried about their friend still.

“Where is he?” Chris asked quietly.

“Healing.” Vin answered simply as he walked through their friends content to let him have some time with the children that just might be able to help them get their old friend back.

 It was two hours later, when they finally set off for Four Corners again, each of the seven bearing one of the children in front of them as they rode.

Ezra’s thoughts were still whirling as he rode. The only lives that had been lost were that of Lilah and inadvertently Jasmine, but without the loss of Lilah, the other youngsters would be lost to their real families forever. Perhaps in his mind if not his heart, maybe now he would be able to accept her death a little more. At least she had not lost her young life for nothing, now no other family would have to endure the pain that so many had suffered before her. All that was left to do for him now was to bury his family, because that was how he thought of them, even if there was no blood ties, in his heart they were his family. And one-day maybe, he would be able to put this tragedy behind and forget everything that he had lost. His heart knew that that day would be a long time coming.

+ + + + + + +

It had been six hours since Jasmine and Lilah’s funeral, the sun had long since sunk behind the distant mountains and still the gamblers table was empty in the saloon. The other men were all worried about him, each of them had been out to check on him, but he would not be moved. A light rain had begun to fall not long after sunset, the men could not help but imagine that the rain was heaven’s tears falling for Lilah and her mother.

Chris watched from the edge of the graveyard, knowing that if any of them would be able to reach the shattered southerner it would be him. He knew exactly what the younger man was feeling, it didn’t matter that they weren’t his blood relatives, in his heart he still loved them just as deeply, blood didn’t matter really, it was what you felt in your heart that counted. He only hoped that he would be able to find the words to help him.

He turned back, looking into the faces of the other five men who all stood waiting in the rain for him to bring their missing member back into the fold where they could help him to heal with the people who loved him.

Chris walked into the graveyard and knelt at the side of his friend. It was like the soul of the man they knew as the gambler had been taken and now he was just a shell of what he once was. He couldn’t help but wonder if the pain that he was feeling for the man that knelt in front of him was the same that Buck had felt when he himself had looked for salvation or just forgetfulness in the bottom of a bottle. He must remember to thank Buck for persisting long enough to bring him back, hell just for caring enough to be there for him.

He knelt beside him placing a gentle hand on his shoulder, trying not the feel the shuddering sobs that were racking the smaller man’s frame, wondering for the hundredth time today why none of them had never noticed just how deeply Ezra did feel. The man might pretend that he cared deeply for nothing or no one but himself, but now they all knew differently.

“Ezra, It’s time to come inside now.” he spoke softly wondering if the gambler heard him at all.

“C’mon Ezra.” he spoke a little louder “Nathan will have your hide if you get sick.” his words carried a hint of a smile.

“Does it ever get any easier?” his southern accent was thick with grief, his fingers tracing the names carved onto the headstone.

“Easier?” Chris asked “I wouldn’t say easier” he spoke truthfully.

“They will always be there inside your head and your heart.” he stated “but the memories get easier.” Chris knew that his words didn’t make any sense but he tried to explain himself more.

“While they are alive in your memories they will always live in some way, but you will never completely forget them.” he stated

“So I am damned to feel this pain forever.” Ezra spoke flatly.

“Not damned.” Chris stated softly, “You see the way I see it is for a short time you were blessed with the love of an angel. That little girl was an angel sent down to earth to teach us all how precious life is.” He spoke softly putting his arms around the man beside him. “An angel so pure of heart and soul, that she never saw that our hearts were jaded by life lived too hard and too fast.” He paused for a moment trying to find the words to explain himself “She never saw the side of you that you try to make everyone believe is the real you. She saw into your soul, she saw what you really are and what you needed, hell what we all needed and she gave it to us.”

“Maybe what I needed was her and her mother?” he asked.

“Maybe Ezra, but it wasn’t to be.” he spoke softly “What you do have is six brothers, who are worried about you.” He gestured towards the other five at the fence of the cemetery “You don’t have to do this alone, we are all here if you need us” he spoke rising to his feet. He stood there for several minutes waiting then extended a hand to the sodden gambler. Ezra paused then clasped his friends hand strongly, they embraced briefly then turned towards town, at the gate he paused to look at the men that surrounded him their faces filled with concern.

When exactly had they become a family, he wasn’t quite sure, but he did know that he was unexplainably grateful that he had these men surrounding him. Men who had become brothers, not through choice, not by force but by destiny.

The End