Author’s Note: This is a coming to terms story involving Ezra and Maude. I thought it was time Ezra learned some about his mother's past, and why she is the person she is. This story is nearly two years old now, because it was printed in a fanzine put out by Demon Bunny Press ( Rights have now reverted back to me, and it was time to put it out there so others could, hopefully, enjoy it. As always, many thanks to those who previewed it for me, and to Alex my ever-wonderful beta.

Disclaimer: I do not own them. They are the property of MGM, Mirisch, and Trilogy Entertainment; however, if they ever come up for sale, I will be in the front row at the auction.

Feedback: Feedback is welcome and greatly appreciated, but no flames please.

‘Damn that woman.’ Ezra mentally cursed his mother. ‘Is she ever going to listen to me?’ His green eyes flashed his displeasure as he angrily tossed her latest message onto his bed. The gambler forced himself to get a grip on his emotions. At last, he picked up the discarded letter and sat down in the chair to read it again. Nothing had changed. It still read exactly the same way it had the first time. She wanted him to go to San Francisco and assist her with a con. He sighed heavily and rubbed his temples. The first throbs of the inevitable headache caused him to grimace in expectation of the pain that he knew would come. ‘How does she do it?’ Standish shook his head in dismay. ‘She is nowhere near, and yet she can still get under my skin faster than any other living soul.’

The southerner folded the letter and placed it in his inside jacket pocket. A reply would need to wait until he could organize his thoughts. He had tried to explain to her that he wasn't going to leave Four Corners, but she just could not accept that fact. Slowly, he got up and headed downstairs to the saloon. A drink was just what he needed to settle down before he tried to write to his mother.

Ezra stopped by the bar and picked up a glass and a bottle of his private stock. It might take more than one drink to put him in the right frame of mind to deal with Maude Standish. Instead of taking his usual place at one of the tables, he decided to go outside and sit in one of the chairs on the boardwalk in front of the saloon.

The gambler settled into a chair. He poured and downed the first drink in one gulp, and then poured himself another, before he placed the re-corked bottle in his pocket. It was early evening, and people were making their way to their homes or to the restaurant for their evening meal. Ezra smiled faintly as he watched the peaceful comings and goings of the residents he had signed on to protect, and whom he had come to know and respect. He had found something here that he hadn't realized that he wanted or needed. He'd found acceptance. For the first time, he was part of a real community, and he had real friends. These six men were like brothers to him. He still couldn't bring himself to let them know that, but he knew it, and that was enough for now. ‘How do I make her understand that this place has become home to me?’

Mary Travis came outside and called her son, Billy, to come in for supper. The young boy ran to his mother, and he was instantly wrapped in her arms in a fierce hug as she greeted him.

Ezra tried to remember if his own mother had ever been that genuinely happy to see him. Sadly, he took a sip of the amber liquid in his glass and let his thoughts begin to drift to his colleagues. He had been thinking for some time when the realization hit him; of the seven of them, he was the only one who still had a living parent. There was an unhappy thought. The others all spoke so fondly of their mothers, no matter what their lot in life had been, but he had come to dread each contact with his. It didn't seem fair that of all their mothers his was the one who had been spared from an early grave. It wasn't that he wanted to see her dead, but he just could not understand how or why the goodhearted ones had been taken and she had been spared.

The southerner was wrapped so deeply in his thoughts that he didn't hear the town’s sheriff until he was standing directly in front of him. JD stopped and couldn't help but notice the sad expression in those green eyes as they rose to look into his own. The young man let his usual wisecrack go unsaid. Instead, he remarked softly, “Hey Ezra, you all right?”

“I am quite well, I assure you, Mr. Dunne.” Standish started to take another sip from his drink and discovered it was empty. He removed the bottle from his pocket and refilled the glass.

JD sat next to the con man. “You sure everything is all right? You seem like you’re thinkin’ awful hard on something.”

“Yes, well… that is quite perceptive of you.” Ezra gave a slight laugh and a half smile. “Indeed, I was deep in my own musings.”

“Anything you want to talk about?” the younger man offered.

The gambler eyed his companion appraisingly. He liked JD. The kid was fiercely loyal to their small band of misfits, yet he still saw the world through the eyes of youth. That was one thing the southerner envied about John Dunne, his zest for experiencing life. “Might I inquire on a subject of a somewhat personal nature?” He watched his companion’s reaction to his question and was prepared to withdraw it at the first sign that the younger man objected.

JD was surprised that Ezra wanted to ask a personal question. He was always so secretive about his own life, and he respected the privacy of the other men. It was clear that something must really be bothering him, if he felt the need to breach that privacy. Dunne gave his friend a half smile and said. “Sure, you can ask me anything.”

“Would you tell me about your mother?” the gambler asked softly.

“Well… She was a chambermaid back east…” He didn't get any farther before he was interrupted.

“No, Mr. Dunne… JD. Tell me about HER. What was she like?” Ezra hesitated slightly and then added, “What do you remember the most about her?” The gambler watched the young man’s face take on a wistful expression as his thoughts turned to his mother.

“I remember how much she loved me,” he said quietly.

“But how did you know that she really loved you?” Ezra was almost desperate to know what it was like to truly have a mother’s love, even if he had to experience it vicariously through his young friend.

“It’s just something I could feel deep inside. I could see it in her eyes when she looked at me, and I could feel it when she touched me.” He looked into his friend’s confused green eyes, and he could see that the southerner didn't understand. Dunne tried again to explain, but he didn't know if he would be able to find the right words. “There was a way she had of lookin’ at me that let me know that no matter what happened, whether I’d been good or bad, she would be there, and she would forgive anything that happened.” This wasn't working. It was like trying to explain color to a blind man. Then he had an idea. “You’ve seen how Mrs. Travis is with Billy, right?”

"I have observed some of her actions where the lad is concerned,” the gambler stated thoughtfully.

“It’s more than just how she acts. It’s the way she is with him. Watch her with him, and you’ll have an idea how it was with my mother.” JD sighed deeply and turned his sad eyes away from the gambler’s gaze. “I miss her, Ezra. I haven’t told anyone else this, but sometimes when I’m laid up sick or hurt, I can still feel her hands on my face. It’s just like it was when she used to touch my forehead to check for fever, and then she would brush the hair out of my face. I remember the times she sat up all night with me when I was sick. I always rested better when I knew she was there with me.” He paused and looked down at his own hands, which were folded in his lap. “Reckon that sounds kinda silly, doesn’t it?”

The gambler was caught slightly off-guard by his young friend’s confession, but he recovered quickly. “No, it doesn't sound silly at all, JD. It sounds extraordinary. Thank you for sharing that with me.” He was deeply moved by Dunne’s words.

“Ezra, is there something botherin’ you?” he asked in concern.

The con man recovered his usual self-control, and he flashed a big smile at the young sheriff. “On the contrary, I was merely attempting to understand the mystery of the bond between mothers and sons.” Standish tried to keep his tone light.

JD gave him a sideways look that let the gambler know that he had not fooled him in the least. “If you say so, but if you want to talk again, I’ll be around.”

The con man was relieved that Dunne wasn’t going to press any harder to get him to talk. “I assure you, if I require any further insights, I shall seek your counsel.” He smiled broadly, showing his gold tooth and reached into his coat pocket to retrieve the bottle it held. “Would you care to join me in a little libation?” he said jovially, as he refilled his glass and handed the bottle to JD.

The younger man wasn't usually into whiskey, but he had heard that Ezra's private stock was some of the best to be found. He reached out to take the bottle from the gambler and looked at the older man with a mixture of shock and thanks, but still had to tease his friend a little more at the same time. "Now I know yer sick. You never hand out the good stuff."

"No, Mr. Dunne. I am not ill, merely melancholy… Try it, you will never find a smoother Scotch Whiskey this side of the Mississippi."

JD tipped the bottle to his lips and sipped tentatively, expecting the sharp bite and burn he associated with whiskey, but was surprised to find that it did really go down smoothly, producing a warmth in its wake without the fire. He smiled when he looked at Ezra and then downed a larger swallow before he handed the bottle back. "Can't say I've had anything quite like that before."

"Nor are you likely to in this backwater region. The expense of having it brought in is a more than a little daunting, but a gentleman does have to have some semblance of civilization." Standish topped off his shot glass and handed the bottle back to his companion.

+ + + + + + +

Two bottles later, Ezra climbed the stairs to his room. Even half-drunk, he took care to hang his jacket and carefully remove his derringer rigging and holster, before he sat down to stare again at that damned letter. With a resigned sigh, he took out pen, ink, and paper. For once in his life, he was going to write what he really wanted to say to her. Maybe it was the liquor loosening him up and maybe it wasn't. It might be that he had finally decided it was time to be his own man not his mother's 'ace in the hole'.

Dearest Mother,

I wish I could say that receiving your latest missive was a welcome pleasure. It was not welcomed with the enthusiasm I am sure you had hoped it would be, nor can I find it in me to muster such enthusiasm after reading it for the sixth time. So, Mother, I shall state this as plainly and as simply as I can manage. I will not be joining you in San Francisco. I have assisted you for the last time. I have found my place here, and I have no intention of leaving it to return to my previous lifestyle. I wish you luck in your endeavor.

Your son,

Ezra P. Standish

Three weeks later:

Chris Larabee sat and watched the stage pull to a stop down the street and frowned when he recognized the oversized trunks strapped to the top. 'Ah… hell. Just when things seemed to be going well,' he thought to himself, but he told JD he should go get Ezra.

The gambler left the saloon to join Larabee in the street not far from where the stage driver was just setting down the wooden step used to help people get out of the coach. "What seems to be the problem, Mr. Larabee?"

Chris didn't answer, he just signaled toward the stage with his chin. Ezra turned to look just as his mother stepped out with the assistance of Mr. Watson, the driver. He closed his eyes and those near could almost hear his teeth grinding. "Just shoot me now and end my misery," he said low under his breath.

"No way," Chris muttered back. "You are not taking the easy way out and leaving us to deal with her."

Ezra huffed slightly and gave the group leader a crooked smile. "And I thought you were my friend."

"There are limits even to friendship," Buck said as he joined the two men.

In a swoosh of fabric, the blonde woman hurried to where they stood. "Ezra, my darling boy. Come give your mother a kiss." She held out her arms in just the way she always had when she had been acting the mother part for a con.

Two small steps brought the gambler close enough that he could lean in to give her a peck on the cheek. "Mother… to what do I owe this unexpected visit?"

Maude glanced at the men who stood ready to back her son up, if he should need them and then back to him. "Well, darling … after your last letter, I could hardly stay away now could I? It just wasn't like you, dear."

"No? Actually, Mother, for the first time it was really me. You might as well return to the stage and go on, for I don't plan to go with you this time." He took a determined stance as he spoke.

His mother looked at him appraisingly. "I think, perhaps, we should take this conversation inside. I would prefer that we did not air our personal affairs in such a public manner."

Ezra looked around and saw that they were starting to attract attention standing out in the street like they were. "Very well, Mother, but I suggest that you do not allow yourself to get too comfortable, for you will not be staying."

For just a moment Chris thought he saw a flash of hurt in her bright blue eyes, but then he dismissed that thought. Maude wasn't capable of feeling anything where her son was concerned. All she thought about was the next con. As she moved past him to lead the way back into the saloon, Chris whispered so only she could hear him. "You hurt him again, and you will have to deal with the rest of us."

Maude's steps faltered slightly at the not-so-subtle threat in the gunslinger's words. She quickly regained her footing, glancing at the ground like she was looking for what had caused her to stumble. She squared her shoulders, lifted her chin and led the procession inside and back to the table she knew the men usually claimed as their own.

JD had gone after the remaining members of their little group after he sensed the tension in Ezra when he saw his mother. They hurried into the saloon just moments behind the others, and their expressions clearly showed that they weren't going to take anyone causing trouble for one of their own. Josiah was the last one to arrive at the table and had to grab an extra chair from nearby.

It was seldom that Maude felt intimidated, but she felt it now. It was very clear that these men were prepared to intervene if they thought it was necessary. After what she had done to her son the last time she was here, she wasn't surprised that they were keeping a close eye on her. Buying the saloon out from under him was a move that she regretted, but she doubted that any of them would believe her at this point. She had her reasons, and they had seemed solid at the time. Now she realized the point had come to do some explaining to her son.

Inez brought over a tray of libations for the group, herded the one lone customer out the door and put the latch on the inside of the swinging doors. From the look of things this was going to get serious. She was dying to know what was happening, but she went into the kitchen to allow Ezra what privacy she could.

Maude helped herself to a shot of Ezra's scotch to steady her nerves. She noticed her hand was shaking when she picked up the glass, and she knew that her son had seen it, too.

"Just what is this all about, Mother?" Standish said snippily.

She drew in a deep breath and looked her son in the eyes for the first time since she arrived. "Your letter … I need to explain some things to you if you meant what you wrote."

"Indeed, I meant every word of it, and I doubt there is anything you can say to change my decision."

"I doubt there is, either, and I don't intend to try." She saw Ezra's jaw drop at that statement and then a wary look come into his eyes.

"What are you up to, Mother?" He watched her suspiciously.

"I am not up to anything… nothing except…"

"Ahhh ... so now we get to the truth," the gambler said, smugly.

Maude nodded. "Yes, now we get to the truth. There are things I should have told you a long time ago." With that comment, she reached into her large carpetbag and pulled out an ornate wooden box and set it on the table in front of her son along with the key to its lock. "Go ahead. Open it."

"The last time I touched that box you threatened me. Why should I open it now?" Ezra kept his hands in his lap, even though his fingers itched to lift the lid on that box. Maude was certain he would want to open it, and she knew she could wait him out.

The other six men looked at each other in confusion. "Maude…" Josiah began.

"Mr. Sanchez, I know your intentions are good, but this is between my son and me. I have not objected to having an audience, but please leave it to us." She looked at him, and waited for him to nod in acknowledgement. "Thank you."

"Ezra, open the box. You wanted to see what was in it so badly when you were fifteen that I caught you trying to pick the lock. I kept you from opening it then because it wasn’t the right time. Surely, you still want to see what it contains." She leaned back slightly in her chair and waited. Without realizing it, she held her breath as he finally reached out and unlocked it, then tipped open the lid to look inside.

Ezra's expression became puzzled as he looked at the objects within. He hadn't known what to expect, but it certainly wasn't what he found. Tentatively, he reached in and picked up a bundle of letters and untied the ribbon that held them together. Normally rock steady fingers shook as they flipped through the letters, and he realized that they were all from him. He turned questioning green eyes to his mother, but she continued to sit silently and watch him. When he turned back to the box something familiar caught his eye. Once again he delved into the mysterious contents and came out with a small toy horse. Slightly callused fingers tenderly rubbed over the smooth surface of the wooden figure. The leg had been repaired where it had been broken when he threw at his mother in a temper fit when he was six. He knew for sure that was how old he was because it was after that that she left him with someone else for the first time.

Six men sat and watched their friend. Some watched to see what would be the next item pulled out of the box, but some observed him for his reactions to the things he found there. None had any idea of what this was all about, but they were there to stand by him, if he needed them.

One by one, Ezra pulled out memories from his childhood, youth, and adulthood: a lock of hair that looked too fine to be his, but he knew it had to be; a drawing he had done when he was in his early teens; and several other items that he wasn't sure how old he was at the time they had been in his possession.

The last item was a well-worn piece of folded paper. He carefully spread it out, not wanting to damage further. There in a childish scrawl was a message. 'Happy Birthday. I love you, Mama. Ezra.' He swallowed hard and looked back up at his mother.

Maude took the paper from his hand and read its message before folding it carefully and holding it over her heart. After a deep breath to gather her thoughts, she smiled. "You don't remember that you used to call me Mama, do you?" She watched her son shake his head. "You were still pretty little. Your aunt said that you wouldn’t let her help you write this. That you told her what you wanted it to say and copied what she wrote. You were barely four years old then."

"I don't understand any of this. You expect me to believe that suddenly you are the doting mother?" Ezra was clearly battling conflicting emotions.

"I have always loved you, so much so that I would rather lose your love than to risk anything happening to you." She reached out to fold her fingers over his hand for emphasis.

Ezra struggled with her words and finally shook his head. "No! You don't leave your child with anyone who will take him when he gets to be an inconvenience, not if you love him."

"You were never an inconvenience. But, you do leave your child if you love him, if you are trying to lead someone away from him." She paused to see the effect of her words.

Ezra looked at her with his mouth open in disbelief. "Why? Who would you be leading away?"

"Your uncle."

He was clearly confused by this claim. "You left me with my aunts and uncles. You need to come up with a better story than that, Mother."

"Your uncle on your father's side. You didn't know him."

"You kept me away from him? Who gave you the right to make that choice for me?" Ezra's voice was tightly controlled, but the effort it was taking to keep from causing a major scene was clearly visible in his flushed face and stormy green eyes.

"I had that right. I am your mother!"

"When it is convenient for you to be!" Ezra snapped back.

His words hurt, but she knew she was to blame for how he felt. All she could do was continue to explain. "When I am trying to keep you alive."


"You uncle wanted you dead," she said sadly.

Ezra felt like he had been slapped. He shoved himself back from the table and jumped his feet. The color drained from his face as the possibility that she was telling him the truth sank in. He needed to think, so he strode across the room to the bar for another bottle and leaned heavily against it. He tried to get a grasp on the thoughts swirling through his mind and rein in his rampant emotions.

Maude toyed with her empty glass and refilled it from the bottle left on the table. She knew better than to press him. When he was ready for more he would let her know. She was aware that the men at the table with her didn't think very highly of her either, so she sat staring at the amber fluid in the glass and waited in silence.

The six men looked at each other and then watched Ezra as he tossed back two quick shots in a row. The urge to do something was strong, but there was nothing they could do except let Maude tell him the rest of the story. Several long minutes of silence passed before they heard a softly spoken question from the gambler.

"Why?" Ezra turned a despairing gaze upon his mother. "Why did he want me dead?"

"I need to tell you about your father before I tell you that part." Maude nodded to the chair that he had vacated earlier, and gave him a small smile as he settled himself back at the table.

"All you have ever told me is that he is dead. Why?"

"When you were younger, you wouldn't have understood, then as the years went by, my only concern was to keep us both away from your uncle. I was afraid if I said anything that you might go looking for him."

"Who? My father?" Ezra held his breath as he waited for her answer.

Maude shook her head. "Your uncle. I didn't lie about your father. He died when you were a baby. It was very sudden, and I am still not convinced that your uncle didn't have a hand in it."

Ezra's heart ached at the thought. For a brief moment there had been a flash of hope that his father was still alive, but deep down he knew it wasn't true.

"Darling, I loved your father with all my heart." She reached out and laid her hand over his and looked him straight in the eyes so he could see the truth of her words. "If he were still alive, we would still be with him."

She paused briefly to collect her thoughts before continuing. "Standish is your true name, but I didn't dare let you use it until we were far enough away from there that Edward couldn't find you. The Standish family is quite a wealthy family in Charlotte. Your uncle could never accept the fact that your father fell in love with me. He was convinced I was only after the family money. Oh, don't give me that look, Dear. I didn't take up this lifestyle until I had to find a way to support us."

"I don't understand." Ezra's mind was awhirl with the bits of new information, and he needed more to make sense of it all.

"Your grandfather had only the two sons, Patrick and Edward. Your father was the younger of the two, but he was your grandfather's pride and joy. They worked side by side building the family business, and Edward just sat back and reaped the rewards. When it became clear that he wasn't going to inherit the family fortune by benefit of being the first born, that your grandfather had made a will leaving nearly everything to Patrick, he was furious." Maude paused and took a sip from her glass to steady her nerves. "Everything settled down, and we thought he had come to terms with the contents of the will, and Patrick had promised that he would see that Edward had a generous monthly allowance deposited in his bank account. A couple of years passed and your father suddenly became very ill, and he was gone in a matter of hours."

Nathan looked alarmed at this information, and Maude noticed his reaction. "Mr. Jackson?"

"I don't mean to interrupt, ma'am, but not many illnesses take a man that fast."

"Exactly why I suspect that it wasn't an illness at all."

"Was there anything you can remember that was different about your husband's appearance or how he acted?" Nathan's mind was working hard going over all he could remember about poisoning.

Maude thought for a moment. "I remember thinking at the time that it was strange that his lips looked blue, even the area around his mouth had a blue tint. Is that significant?"

"Indeed it is, ma'am. Other things can cause that but for it to happen so fast, I would suspect it was the same kinda poison that the overseers used on the plantation. They mixed it with grain and set it out to get rid of rats. I saw what it ended up doin' to one of the overseers. The doctor said he had gotten some of the poison in him somehow. The man's mouth was blue and I heard the doctor talkin' about his fingernails bein' blue, too. He didn't die an easy death." He paused and concentrated on remembering that day so long ago. "I was pretty young, maybe around eight or so. But, even back then things that had to do with healin' folks got my attention."

"Patrick's fingernails were blue." Maude's shoulders slumped. "I had hoped that I had been wrong, and that it had been an illness and not an act from his brother's own hand."

"Well, ma'am, it still could be. Without seein' what happened, I couldn't say for sure."

"I understand, Mr. Jackson. But, I suspected from the moment Patrick took sick that Edward had something to do with it."

Ezra had sat in a daze and listened to the exchange. "Mother…" he paused for her to acknowledge him, but she didn't. "Mother…" he said a little louder.

Maude pulled herself back from the past and focused on her son. "I'm sorry, Dear. What did you say?"

"I was attempting to ask if you truly believe my uncle killed my father? How could a man bring himself to kill his own brother?"

"Darling, any man who would try to kill a defenseless baby, would kill his own brother." Maude was adamant about her beliefs. When Ezra started to make another comment she held up a hand to signal him to wait. "After your father died, your grandfather doted on you. You were as much his pride and joy as your father was. It became clear upon Patrick's death that Albert, your grandfather, had amended his will after you were born. If anything happened to your father, his part of the estate would be held in trust for you until you came of age."

"I take it that my uncle was unaware of this provision?"

"He was until after your father died. Albert could tell by Edward's behavior that he thought he was now the sole heir to the estate. You might have been safe if he had been allowed to believe that. But, your grandfather made the mistake of telling him about the changes in the will. I discovered that Albert died five years ago. So, Edward would not have been after you until after he found out at the reading of the will. Instead, we have been trying to stay one step ahead of him all your life."

She paused for breath and Ezra took the chance to ask what had been on his mind. "What happened when he found out about me?" He wasn't sure he wanted to know, but he knew that he had to find out.

A heavy sigh escaped her lips as she willed herself to disclose the details that she had dreaded telling him all these years. "He didn't do anything for a couple weeks, but I woke up one night. I just had a feeling that I needed to check on you. When I got to the nursery door…I found…" She swallowed hard at the memory. "I found him standing over your crib…. He was…" She looked down at her hands that she hadn't realized she had been wringing in her lap.

"Mother, please tell me. I need to know." Ezra laid his hand over hers to still them. He had never seen his mother like this before.

"He had a pillow pressed over your head." She was visibly shaking from the memory.

Chris gasped slightly as the mental picture popped into his mind. The realization of how he would have felt to find this happening to his son hit him hard. He knew the pain of losing a child, an only child. It was unbearable under any circumstances, but to see that child killed in front of you…. He couldn't imagine how much worse that could be. For the first time he felt the beginnings of a connection with Maude.

Josiah rested a hand lightly on her arm and spoke softly. "It's in the past. The memories can't hurt you or Ezra now."

Maude nodded, took a deep breath and a sip from her drink before she spoke again. "I didn't know what else to do. I grabbed a vase and hit him with it. I didn't even wait to see if he was conscious; I just grabbed Ezra and ran." Tears slipped down her cheeks. "I didn't stop to take anything with us. I just kept going."

Buck leaned forward and spoke softly. "Is that when you took up the lifestyle you live now?" He knew how desperation could lead a woman to do things she might not ordinarily do.

She shook her head, and answered quickly. "No … not right then anyway. That came later when I realized that I had to find a way to support us, but I couldn't stay in one place long enough to try to find a job. I met my second husband, and he taught me the trade. When he left me, at least that time I could manage on my own."

"If that were the case, Mother, then why three more husbands after him? Do you have any idea how some of them treated me behind your back, or for that matter how some of the people you left me with treated me?" Ezra wanted to believe her, but too many times she had broken his heart.

Maude couldn't look him in the eyes. She was ashamed of some of the things she had been forced to do where he was concerned, but she didn't think he would ever be able to understand. "Darling, I always tried to do what was best for you."

"You call leaving me with someone who treated me like an animal doing what was best for me? While you were off with husband number three, I was being half-starved and beaten." He struggled to calm his rapid breathing caused by the memories from so long ago. His uncle, on his mother's side, was a cruel, heartless man.

"Ezra, believe me, it would have been worse for you if you'd been with me." She wished he would take her word on that, but the look of incredulity on his face told her that it was a vain hope.

"Worse!!!! How could it have been worse? You lived…" His tirade was interrupted when Maude stood suddenly.

"You have no idea how I lived," she choked out. She turned her back to him. "Unbutton my dress."

"What? You can't be serious!"

"I am very serious!" she said as she turned her back to him. "It is time you knew all the truth, now do it, or I'll ask one of your friends to help me."

His fingers trembled as he worked the buttons loose down to her waist. He had no idea what she intended, but her lessons of obedience were too well ingrained for him to ignore her command. "Is that enough?" At her nod he stepped back a step. "Now, what is this all about?"

Maude worked her arms out of the sleeves of the dress and let it fall loose to the waist. The men around the table shifted uneasily, but no one said anything as she began to untie the lacing of her chemise. With one hand she held it in place over her breasts as she twisted trying to get her arms out of the undergarment. It was then that Nathan noticed her arms. He had been too intent on trying to figure out what she was up to notice them before. His eyes traveled up over her bare shoulders to her neck, and he stood up and moved around behind her where Ezra stood staring. She had a dozen or more scars of varying sizes on her arms, back and throat. No wonder she always wore those high-necked dresses.

"Who did this to you?" Ezra's voice was strained, and he spoke through clenched teeth.

"Husband number three. He threatened to do worse to you. He used you to control me and to keep me from leaving him." The thoughts were clearly upsetting her, causing her to shiver from head to toe

"So you left me, so you could get away?"

"So we could get away. As soon as I managed to free myself from him, I came straight back for you."

"I don't understand. How could he have used me to control you? What could have been so horrible that you would leave me with a man like your brother?"

Maude was carefully working her way back into her dress as she spoke. "He found out we were on the run. He threatened to contact Edward and turn you over to him. Even after I managed to arrange to leave you with my brother, he still used that threat, because he knew where you were and could tell Edward how to find you."

"If that's the case, then how'd ya manage to get away? Seems ta me that he would have just wired Edward as soon as ya disappeared," Vin commented.

"Well, he wasn't able to follow me for a while." She smiled at the startled looks on their faces. "No, I didn't hurt him, not seriously, although I would have liked to, and don't think I didn't make him believe I was going to."

"So, how did you get away?" Ezra was becoming somewhat intrigued despite himself.

"Chloroform … I managed to slip a bottle out of a doctor's bag. I used enough to get him out of it enough that I could tie him up." She blushed and looked sheepishly at her hands that had migrated back into her lap.

"Wooeee!" Buck whooped with a grin. "By the color of your cheeks, I would say there is more to that story." He waggled his eyebrows suggestively.

"Buck! This is serious," JD chastised.

"I know that, but…"

"But… " Maude interrupted. "He is right. There is more to it." She allowed herself a hint of a smile. "After all the pain and fear he had caused me, and all the terror over something happening to Ezra, I decided he deserved a little bit of revenge."

"I knew it! See, kid, ol' Buck knows women." Buck grinned at JD and playfully knocked his hat off his head.

"Buck!!" JD scrambled from his chair to retrieve his hat.

"Now, tell us about this revenge," Buck coaxed.

Maude glanced around and saw seven pairs of eyes glued to her, and she allowed herself a hint of a sly smile. "As I said, I used chloroform to make him groggy enough that I could handle him, but I didn't want to put him out completely, yet. I, ummm… " The blush started creeping back into her cheeks. "I…tied him to the bed."

Ezra watched her. He was used to reading the people he gambled with, aware that unconscious movements could tell so much about a person. What he saw now, convinced him that for once in her life, his mother was being completely sincere. A glance at Buck and Nathan told him that they had noticed it, too. As she told of her revenge she was unconsciously rubbing her wrists, and for the first time Ezra saw the faded scars that encircled them. He understood now why she wore her sleeves just a bit too long.

"I do sincerely hope that you managed to pay him back for all that he had done to you." The anger was gone, replaced now with an empathy that could come only from common experience. She had suffered, as much or more than he had. The only difference had been that he had been a child and didn't understand why it was all happening. He reached out to take one of her hands in his and gently rubbed his thumb over the old scar.

"Nothing could ever make up for all he put both of us through, but honestly, it felt good to get even, just a little." She smiled at her son, who raised his eyebrows in question when she paused. "Oh, all right. I doubt anything I could tell you would shock most of you…except possibly JD. Maybe you shouldn't hear this. I wouldn't want to be the one to destroy your youthful innocence."

Ezra caught the slight wink she had used often in the past when she wanted him to play along with something she said. This time he knew it wasn't for a con. She was actually teasing his young associate. "Knowing my dear mother as I do, I fear she might be correct. Her exploits in revenge may indeed be too much for your tender young ears."

JD looked from one to the other and back again. "Now hold on, I ain't as young as I look, and I ain't all that innocent, either."

"My young friend, you are so utterly predictable," Ezra teased. "Mother, I do believe you should finish the tale before Mr. Wilmington's curiosity gets the better of him."

"It was a four poster bed. I tied him spread-eagle to the posts. Then I waited for him to wake up enough to know what I was doing. I wanted him to know that for once I was in control of him. After I was sure he was awake I took a very large, very sharp knife and slowly cut his nightshirt and drawers off of him."

Buck leaned forward over the table, hanging on every word. JD's eyes were wide in surprise. Ezra gave her hand a slight squeeze to encourage her to continue. He hadn't even realized he was still holding it until he gripped it in anticipation of the rest of the story.

"Despite what you may all think of me, I am not a vicious person. Torture isn't part of my nature, but I just had to do something. Shall we say I toyed with him? I 'excited' him and then got my revenge. He carries a few scars of his own now. Nothing life threatening or permanently damaging, but enough to leave 'my mark' on him as he left his on me."

"Somehow I still get the feeling that you ain't tellin' it all," Buck prodded.

Maude laughed and flashed him a genuine smile. "I couldn't get past you on this if I tried, could I?"

"No, ma'am. Least ways not this time." He winked and grinned widely when Maude actually giggled.

Ezra was stunned. She had giggled, not a chuckle or a laugh, she had giggled like a schoolgirl. He was seeing a side of his mother that he had never seen before, and he hoped it didn't disappear again now that it had shown itself.

"That knife looked huge when you were the one it was held over. So, shall we say that I insulted and threatened his manhood?"

"Ouch…" Buck winced at the thought. "I am sure he deserved that and a whole lot more, but it gives me the shivers to think of a knife being used anywhere near that part." He squirmed in his seat at the thought. "Did you …" He shuddered again…"Did you cut him there?"

"Not much, just three or four little cuts." She indicated the size of the cuts with the thumb and index finger on her free hand, indicating they were about an inch long. "They weren't deep either. I just wanted to put him out of commission for a few days. Now the ones I put in a couple other locations were worse. I wanted to make sure he couldn't sit comfortably for a few days. I needed time to get back to Ezra."

"What was to keep him from sending a wire to Edward?"

"Chris, I am not proud of everything I have done in my life, and this is one of those things. I enticed the man at the telegraph office into something his wife would not have been happy to find out about."

"You blackmailed him?"

"Blackmail is such a harsh word, but yes, I did. I told him, if he gave me a week to put as much distance as I could between my husband and me, I would not tell his wife about his indiscretions. I did what I had to do to escape. I knew I needed to get you away from my brother and put more distance between us and Edward."

Ezra wasn't quite sure how to take this last revelation. He knew his mother had occasionally used her womanly charms when working a con, but the thought that she would trade herself for a way to ensure that man's silence in order to come after him went contrary to his vision of his mother.

"This time when I left I wasn't penniless. I had the means to take the train and the stage to get to you faster. I was able to reach you in four days. Oh, my darling boy, it broke my heart to see the state you were in."

"I remember your return, but it appeared that you'd had a grand time. I thought you'd been off having fun while I was…" He couldn't bring himself to continue; the hurt was clear in his voice. "Why didn't you leave me with Aunt Lydia? She was the only really kind one of all the ones I got dumped on."

"I couldn't. We stayed with her for a short time while you were still very young, and again when she helped write that birthday letter to me, but Edward would have looked there first. She has written to tell me that he shows up there every few months just to be sure that we hadn't doubled back to stay with her. All I could do was just start putting distance between him and us." She sighed. "That is why we used other names so much, and never stayed in one place too long. The only way I could ensure your safety was when I had you with me, but there were other times when I couldn’t be certain even then."

"I would rather have been with you." Ezra's voice was barely audible to the men farthest away, but Maude heard him.

"I wanted you with me, too. Darling, I don't expect you to be able to completely forgive me, and I doubt you will ever be able to understand until the time when you have a child of your own. I have always loved you, and I always will."

"Why are you telling me all of this now, after all this time?"

She reached out to take his hand in hers. "Your letter. I was afraid something would happen if you decided to stay here, especially if Edward is still looking for you." She looked sheepishly around the table at the other men. "Honestly, I wasn't sure if Ezra could count on help if he needed it. I was wrong."

"Mother, I am not leaving…"

"I am not asking you to, Dear. After the reception I got when I arrived earlier, there is no doubt in my mind that this is the safest place that you could possibly be."

"Maude," Chris spoke up when she paused for breath. "Ezra will have us to watch his back, as long as he stays here."

"I know that now, but after my last visit here, I wasn't so sure."

Ezra picked up the wooden horse and traced over it with his fingers. One lone tear slipped down his cheek. Without realizing how it happened, he found himself wrapped in his mother's arms. He clung to her as she rubbed his back and kissed his cheek. A memory, long buried under layers of hurt and lost innocence, came flooding back into his mind. He remembered those hands as they rubbed his back when he was scared or sick and the touch of her lips when she kissed him good night.

When at last he pulled back from her, Ezra looked deep into his mother’s eyes. Silence settled between them as he saw the true depths of her soul, for the very first time.

Maude could do little more than return her son’s stare, and she, too, saw truth. Places that had remained locked away, denied to everyone including themselves, opened to reveal long kept secrets. The woman smiled as she remembered a saying she’d heard once. ‘The eyes are the window to the soul.’ This seemed so fitting… especially now. What these two people witnessed in each other’s gaze was the love and acceptance they both so desperately craved.

In that moment, they needed nothing more.

+ + + + + + +

Three days later Maude stood beside the stagecoach and hugged her son goodbye.

"Mother, are you sure you must go?"

"I have to go, but you can be sure that I will return. Nothing will keep me away from my boy for long."

The driver called for the passengers to load up, and Ezra helped his mother inside and stowed the wooden step for the driver. Just before the coach pulled away he took Maude's hand when she reached out to him from the window. "Hurry back." The coach jerked into motion and he was forced to let go of her hand. The last he saw was his mother waving to him until the coach was out of sight.

+ + + + + + +

Nine hundred miles away, Edward Standish read the message his servant had just handed him. A cruel grin spread over his features…

(Never fear, a sequel is planned, just not written yet, Luna Dey.)