The Wolf is at the Door

by Pat

Alternate Universe: Two Bloods

Page 1 | Page 2 | Page 3 | Page 4

+ + + + + + +

Vin Tanner’s eyes scanned the countryside, looking for sign, anything out of place. He used his eyes, his sense of smell, the feel of the air on his skin, everything. Everything about this felt wrong. His every instinct was screaming at him to hurry and find them; and his heart was terrified at what he might find.

Finally they turned up the rutted wagon path that led to Nettie’s.

Up ahead, he saw a curl of smoke. That was a good sign. “Got a fire going,” he said tersely and the two men with him started, Nathan’s steed worrying at the reins as his rider’s agitation was communicated. They exchanged glances and kept on.

The house was closed. Then Vin saw a wolf carcass laying in the yard. For just a moment, he thought it was Buck, but realized that Buck was safe with the Judge and this was a different wolf, not as magnificent as his pack brother.

“Looks like they saw some action,” he said sharply now. He didn’t see any fresh dug graves; that was likely good too.

Then the door of the house opened a crack. They stopped their horses cautiously, fearful of possible hostage situations. Then JD burst out of the house and ran for them. He whooped joyfully, but that young man’s face held worry and fear.

Vin knew it was something bad when JD grabbed Nathan first.

“Ez is hurt bad, Nate. They hurt Casey and knocked Miz Nettie out, but Ezra is the worst. They bit him up bad”

“Ez got a fever?” asked Nathan tersely, and JD swallowed before reluctantly nodding.

“Where are the ones who did this?” asked Chris in that soft menacing tone that usually made would-be gunslingers run away.

“Dead,” said JD tersely, as he literally drug Nate off his horse. “I’ll take care of the horses- you get Ezra.”

Nathan grabbed the saddlebags with his medical supplies and headed into the house, a grim expression on his face.

Vin followed him, his face set. Someone had laid hands on Miz. Nettie. He wanted to skin someone at just the thought.

Vin stopped in the door, blinking and letting his eyes get accustomed to the lowered light. Nettie was bustling away at the stove. She turned and he stared at her, looking for signs of bruises.

“I’m alright, boy,” she said sharply, “They knocked me out and my head is hard enough to take it.”

“Did they get the one as done it?” Vin said, and was surprised to hear himself sounding so mean.

Nettie nodded. The door to Casey’s room opened and the children rushed out and into his arms. Both were subdued but obviously happy to see him. He held them gently and noticed that Bransen flinched when he touched his shoulder.

New rage filled the tracker. Someone had laid hands on his family. “What’s wrong with your shoulder,” he asked, trying to sound kindly, so as not to scare the boy.

Bransen’s eyes flashed with shame. “Ain’t nothin’” he reported grimly, “Ezra is the one who got bad hurt.”

“Nathan is looking after Ezra,” said Vin, “But that don’t mean you don’t need looking after. Take off that shirt.”

Nettie came up, her sharp old eyes taking in the boy’s movements as he reluctantly pulled off his shirt.

She gasped and looked at Vin. Vin saw the same cold fury on her face that was raging in his very soul. The boy had been beaten by someone with a heavy hand.

Blossom stared and growled softly, “They hurt everyone!” she said. Then she touched Bransen’s cheek gently.

“Don’t matter,” said Bransen defensively.

“It does!” exclaimed Nettie. “I’m just glad the one who did is dead.” Then she picked the boy up, avoiding bruised spots and sat him on a kitchen chair.

Vin thought about all the times he’d taken lickings as a child working in orphanages. These bruises were just as bad if not worse.

“Why did they hit you?” he heard himself spit out.

“When they took us out of the sacks they put us in, I tried to get away,” explained Bransen. “So did Blossom, but they wouldn’t hurt her.”

Blossom’s lip quivered.

“Its okay,” the boy told her gently, “I’m glad they hit me instead of you.”

Vin wanted to kill someone. “You did good, Bransen. Are you sure the ones who hurt you are dead?” he asked, almost hopeful there would be someone to vent his wrath on.

Nettie was making a hot poultice to put on the bruising.

Vin realized that he hadn’t seen Casey. “Where’s Miss Casey?” he asked.

Nettie nodded towards the girl’s room. “I gave her a sleeping draught after she helped me with Ezra. They bit her shoulder up good, but she’s not showing any signs of fever.”

While Nettie worked, Blossom came to her side and tugged at her skirt, “Can me help?”

Vin realized she’d been using full sentences now and it had gone unnoticed. Oh lord those bastards owned him big time. They’d hurt his family, made Bransen think less of himself, hurt Ezra his pack brother badly, and they’d made him miss Blossom growing up a bit more.”

“Who killed them?” he asked

Bransen looked frightened and Blossom eyed him strangely.

Nettie however, answered crisply, “Blossom killed them. They hurt her pack and her bite killed the ones who hurt her family.”

Vin fell silent. He’d never heard of that.

“I’ve never heard tell of such a thing. Was it just her bite?”

“JD says that the bite of a pure blood pup of one of the Lobos can kill or heal. It’s as though the little ones have it as an extra defense against the pack, because the Lobos Two-Bloods are so mean.”

“They hurted my Casey,” said Blossom, “and my Papa.” She sounded mildly defiant.

Bransen looked at him with fear in his eyes.

Vin shook his head. “Ya done good, Blossom. I’m glad you protected the pack. I’m just right sorry I wasn’t there to help.”

Bransen relaxed. Nettie and Blossom began to wash his back and then Nettie went to apply warm poultice. A small hand touched her.

“Me fix,” said Blossom almost shyly. “My Bransen.”

Vin and Nettie exchanged glances. In a few moments a little wolf pup was industriously licking the wounds on the boy’s back while Vin held him in his lap with the boy’s back facing outward. Vin watched Bransen’s face relax as his sister ministered to him.

“Land, but that’s a marvel,” said Nettie. “Too bad you can’t do that to humans, or you’d give our Nathan a run for his money.”

The pup looked up and plainly grinned then danced away to change.

Vin helped Bransen put his shirt on and kissed the boy’s forehead. “You are plumb feisty, Bransen boy. I’m proud to know ya.”

Bransen gave him a small smile.

“Now,” said Nettie crisply, holding the newly changed back Blossom affectionately to her side. “I think you should sleep. And I bet you that Casey would love to have your company.”

Bransen smiled again and they all escorted him to the bedroom. Casey’s face was pale, but she was sleeping peacefully. Vin stopped at the door, shy of coming into a lady’s bedroom. Nettie tucked the boy in next to Casey, who murmured and nestled against the child.

Blossom patted his cheek and smiled on both Casey and Bransen. Then she took Nettie’s hand and walked out of the bedroom, holding a finger to her lip at Vin to let him know not to disturb the sleepers. Nettie closed the door carefully and they went into the kitchen area.

Vin realized he hadn’t seen the kitten and gave a grimace. Had the no good sidewinders killed that poor innocent creature?

He looked around and didn’t see Kitty. Lord, what else had they destroyed?

The door to Nettie’s room opened abruptly and Nathan bustled out.

“Can I boil up some water for these herbs? It will help ease his fever.” The dark healer asked. The worry on his face made Vin worry more.

Nettie nodded and went to the big stove. “I put the kettle on to boil when JD spotted you coming in.”

Nathan nodded, a little of his anxiety allayed.

“They tore his arm up really bad, and I had a hell of a time getting rigging off – Glad you left it for me, Miz Nettie,” he said softly. “I know I can save the arm, but I’m afraid he’ll lose the use of it.”

Vin closed his eyes and swayed. Ezra with only one arm? He couldn’t picture Ezra gambling or shooting with only one hand. His Pack brother wouldn’t be able to work or gamble or do any of he other things he was so proud of. Vin wanted to howl now.

He looked at the open door. Ezra lay still and white as a porcelain doll. Something was resting against his head and Vin realized it was the kitten. She was licking his ear industriously and purring.

“Kitty love Papa,” said Blossom softly.

Chris and JD came in from attending to the horses. Blossom’s face lit up and she ran to the alpha of their pack.

“Chwis!” she crowed, and lifted her arms to be picked up. Chris leaned over and grasped her in his arms with a look of tense relief on his face. Vin reckoned he wanted to skin someone too.

JD looked at Nathan, “Is he going to be all right?” he asked hesitantly, sensing that all was not right.

Nathan stirred hot water into the bowl he had just filled with herbs. He frowned, “He’ll live and I think he’s got a good chance of keeping the arm, but I ain’t sure he’ll be able to shoot or use it for anything. He was tore up something fierce.” Then Nathan came out of his ruminations and smiled at JD

“You and Nettie did real good cleaning the wound and caring for him. Otherwise, it would have gone bad and we could have lost him. You done real good, JD”

JD’s brown eyes filled with tears. Blossom struggled to be let down and went to the young man’s side.

“JD sad?” she asked.

He looked down at her, a woe begotten expression on his face, then smiled, “They hurt my Ezra, Blossom, I reckon I’m just sad.”

“Nathan fix,” said the poppet, her voice filled with trust and confidence.

Vin saw Nathan wince.

“You’re the best doctor I’ve ever met, Nathan Jackson. You’ll save his life and if anyone can save the strength of that arm, it will be you.” Said Vin, rather fiercely. He knew that Nathan worried about their trust in his healing abilities, but he also knew that Nathan had worked miracles on them. Every one of them, especially Ezra had been saved by Nathan on more than one occasion.

Chris smiled at their healer. “Don’t worry Nate, ain’t nothing your fault.”

Then Chris looked at Nettie who was busily tending the cook stove.

“Does Casey know now?” he asked quietly.

Vin froze in sudden fear. Casey could get them all killed with one stray word.

Nettie turned and looked at them. “She knew before. Blossom had changed once and she caught her at it. She was hiding it from us to protect them. And she’ll keep right on hiding it. The youngin’s are family. She doesn’t know about Buck, but I’ll leave that to him to decide on. Blossom is safe with her, and that’s all I care about.”

Chris stared at her and then looked at JD who nodded to show he knew already.

Vin found himself grinning, “So she was protecting the youngin’s from us? She’s got a loyal heart, that girl does.”

Nathan nodded, but his expression didn’t quite lighten. Vin could tell the healer’s whole being was centered on his main patient. Nathan winked down at Blossom. “Will you come and help me with Ezra?” he asked.

Blossom nodded eagerly, and followed the tall healer into the sick room. Vin watched through the open door and marveled at how gentle the little scamp was when one of her pack was sick. Usually Blossom would have jumped full onto Ezra and smooched him one, in either little girl or wolf pup form, without any thought. Now she stood solemnly by Nathan and patted Ezra’s hand.

Nathan bent over Ezra and put a cup to his lips. “I put some honey in this, Ez, so it won’t taste so bad.”

“Dwink,” said Blossom in a very authoritative voice.

Ezra stirred and opened his lips. He drank down the whole cup at once, made a terrible face and fell back on the pillow.

“I feel sorry for the honey,” he muttered then looked at Blossom and gave her a fleeting smile of tenderness.

The kitten, disturbed by Nathan’s movements sat up and stretched.

A tiny mouth opened, “MEOW”, she said, almost as authoritatively as Blossom, and the snuggled next to their gambler.

Blossom shook her finger at the furiously purring creature, “Take care of Pawpaw,” she commanded.

“Meow,” replied the kitten, for all the world sounding like she was agreeing to orders.

“Water,” muttered Ezra and Blossom ran to the kitchen where Nettie immediately handed her a glass with cool water in it.

Blossom solemnly walked, holding the glass careful not to spill a drop, and returned to Ezra. Nathan took the glass and held it to Ezra’s lips and they both watched Ezra’s every movement as he drunk the water.

Ezra finished drinking and winked at Blossom and then sighed and snuggled deep into the pillow. “My little magnolia blossom,” he whispered and then stilled as sleep came over him.

Vin shook his head. Ezra was as big a scamp as Blossom. He watched Blossom solemnly return the now sacred water glass to Nettie.

“I reckon I got work to do,” he said, and nodded to Chris and JD. JD followed him to the porch and asked, “Should we bury the wolf?”

“Yup,” said Vin, “Part of me wants to burn the bastard but they’re kin to the youngin’s, so we gotta show them decent respect.”

Chris walked out and said, “I’m going to send Buck and Josiah word so they won’t drive the Judge to drink.”

“Good idea, “ said Vin. “Buck will whine till the Judge wants to shoot him out of hand.”

Both men grinned and then went to their respective tasks.

Vin buried the wolf in the woods, off the trail. Then he went back and efficiently did chores around the ranch with JD. They’d gotten used to lending a hand at Nettie’s and everything there was familiar to them. JD mentioned the repairs he and Casey had made to the door, and they all trooped over to consider it.

“I reckon we can build a stronger one.” Said Vin, “Ezra told me about how they made wood doors for castles that probably would have stood against Two-Bloods.” They discussed possible techniques and began to assemble materials for making a new door with cross grains. They kept busy and tried not to think about whether Ezra would ever use that arm again.

+ + + + + + +

Chris Larabee rode into town and strode to the telegraph office. He sent a terse telegram to Buck and Josiah. “Nettie Well’s ranch attacked. Nettie Casey hurt but fine. Ezra hurt bad – Nathan tending. Trouble over – stay there.”

As the telegraph operator quickly sent the message, Chris glared at the man. He knew damn well that for all the rules the telegraph people had about privacy, the whole town would be worrying and fretting over Nettie and Casey.

“Vandals broke into Nettie’s – Ezra’ chased them down. They had a big dog that bit him up good. Dogs dead now and they won’t be back,” he said to the telegraph operator so fiercely that the man paled and nodded frantically.

Larabee cursed inwardly. He’d better get back soon and make sure they all had the same story. There were sure to be questions and offers of help. Damned friendly towns people.

He heard twin steps on the boardwalk outside the telegraph office and turned. Mary Travis and Mrs. Potter were surveying him cautiously. The anxiety on each face told him they were already primed and ready to go.

“Raiders hit Nettie’s place. They hurt Casey and knocked Nettie out. Ezra chased them off and got hurt bad by a dog running with them. They won’t be back.”

Both women paled and stepped back. Chris sighed inwardly, he didn’t meant to scare them, he just was angry as hell and there was no one left to shoot.

Mrs. Potter exchanged glances with Mrs. Travis and then nodded her head. Probably everyone would assume that they had killed all the interlopers and buried them where they died. No one would question it, only feel gratitude that a possible new danger to the community was gone. The fact that the bodies were those of wolves instead of men was going to be a secret. He doubted that anyone would go rooting through graves on their land, but began to consider no trespassing signs that said, “Trespassers will be shot. Survivors will be shot again.” Something to give strangers the main idea. It was amazing how polite people got when they knew you were armed and a crack shot.

Mary Travis finally got the right idea and said, “I’ll go make some soup for the invalids. How badly was Casey hurt?”

“Dog bit her shoulder, but not as bad as Ez. Nathan’s scared he’ll lose use of the arm.”

Both women gasped. “I made pies this morning. Mr. Standish loves pies,” said Mrs. Potter, “I’ll go package them up and some cookies for the children. They must be devastated.”

They didn’t ask any stupid questions and Chris smiled at them both, tipping his hat. “I’d be mighty obliged.”

Mrs. Potter scowled at him, “You aren’t obliged for anything, Mr. Larabee. You’ve all been as good as family to me and mine, and I won’t hear any talk of obliging. You just wait long enough for me to get those pies.”

Mrs. Travis gave a short little smile, “I’ll make some soup,” she said and took off for her home behind the Clarion.

Chris went to the Jail and informed Yosemite what had happened. Of course, it was his version of things, no wolves, only big nasty very dead dogs.

Yosemite frowned at him. “That’s why Ezra took off like someone stuck him with a hot poker! I mentioned hearing wolves over by Nettie’s. Did you know raiders who had dogs were in the area and not tell us?” Yosemite suddenly choked as he realized who he had just nearly accused of neglect to the town.

Chris only scowled slightly, “Nope, I didn’t, but you know Ezra, he’s a suspicious man.”

Yosemite nodded, Ezra’s suspicious instincts had saved them all at various times in the past.

Chris looked at him, “You been tending the jail all this time?” he asked sharply, not wanted to take advantage of a man who often tried to watch their backs.

“Nope, we’re doing shifts. Did Nathan come back with you?” asked Yosemite, obviously still worried.

“Yup,” said Chris and Yosemite sagged with relief. Nathan’s reputation as a healer was well founded.

He headed back to the ranch after resting the horse and loading up carrier baskets behind his saddle. Apparently Mrs. Potter had emptied her larder. Normally he would have taken an interest in the contents but now he just wanted to get back to Nettie’s.

Mrs. Travis had brought over several jars of beef broth and chicken soup as well. He doubted anything would keep Nettie from being busy, but it was kindly thought of anyway.

+ + + + + + +

Ezra woke up briefly. Something warm and very fuzzy was sitting on his chest and purring furiously. Kitty. Something larger but still warm and fury was snuggled next to him. Blossom.

He turned his head, wincing at the achy feeling that spread throughout his poor abused person. A small wet nose inspected him and he was kissed thoroughly wolf-style. He kissed the nose back in his less showy (and less slobbery) human fashion and rubbed his face affectionately against that little head. It was amusing to think how little he was bothered by being licked. At one time he would have found it offensive, but now it was joy.

The pup sat up and gave a very bossy “yap”. Nathan and Nettie walked in the door. Both of them took a side of the bed and proceeded to smile upon him and touch him gently.

“Nice to have you with us, Fancy Man,” said Nettie affectionately, “your fever ain’t gone yet but its much better.”

“Much obliged, I’m sure,” he said softly. He tried to move his arm, and the sudden jabbing pain revealed that his right arm was in a sling and heavily bandaged.

“I seem to remember someone knocking me off a horse and attempting to remove this arm.” He pondered aloud, “It hurts like hell. I take it you reattached it?”

He looked up inquisitively at Nathan.

Nathan’s smile was sadder than he liked to see. “We saved your arm, Ez, but I don’t know how much you’ll have the use of it.”

Ezra nodded solemnly. He was frankly surprised to still have it attached. “I’ll do my best to be of use to our little gathering,” he said softly. Then he lay his head back and closed his eyes. Soon sleep beckoned to him again. He was evidently weaker than Kitty.

+ + + + + + +

Casey woke up and found herself snuggling a large wolf pup. She smiled to herself and hugged him with her good arm. “I’m so glad you are home safe.”

The pup sat up and gently whined and nosed at her lovingly.

“How is Ezra doing?” she asked. The pup whined again.

She sat up. “He didn’t lose the arm, did he?” she asked and was startled when the pup deliberately shook his head from side to side. It wasn’t a natural movement for a wolf, but it plainly gave her an answer.

He gracefully got up and opened the door, using his mouth to turn the knob. A few minutes later, a fully dressed and human boy returned with an anxious looking JD and a smiling Nathan Jackson.

“Hey, Casey,” said JD shyly.

“Hey, JD” she answered easily.

Then he came to his knees next to the bed and gently kissed her hand. “Nice to see you awake again,” he whispered hoarsely, “I missed you.”

+ + + + + + +

Eventually, the Judge’s business finished, allowing Buck and Josiah to escape back home. They had received numerous telegrams updating them, and were now worried about Ezra. Buck in particular felt an enormous desire to be back in his own territory

They arrived in town first only because it stood between them and the Wells Ranch. JD greeted them before they had a chance to dismount and tend their horses. The young man was obviously happy to see them, but Buck could smell worry and sadness there too.

JD started to help unsaddle the tired equines and then said, “Casey knows about Blossom and Bransen – she found out before and didn’t tell us to protect them. She doesn’t know about you and Chris said it was up to you to decide if you want to tell her.

The boy spat this out matter-of-factly and Buck waited. There was a reason why the boy was sad and he wanted to hear it.

“Ezra’s arm was really bad. Nathan thinks he might never have full use of it or get any strength in it.” JD looked up at Buck and tears shone in his eyes. “He won’t be able to keep on as a peacekeeper or gamble, Buck. You know how he loves to play cards, this has got to be hard on him.”

When he first knew JD, the boy might have cried, but the young man with tear-dewed eyes wasn’t going to weep or ask for comfort. He was instead sharing his grief for their pack brother as an equal.

Buck felt proud of the young man he had guided, then his thoughts turned to Ezra Standish. He thought of the deft way the man would manipulate a deck of cards, shuffling, making the cards seem like a living entity and they flew from one hand to another. He would miss seeing that.

Josiah’s hand crept around his shoulders and the older preacher whispered, “He’ll always have us, Brother Buck.”

Josiah’s company had kept him steady while they were working for Judge Travis. He smiled up at the taller man and then smiled at JD “Ez is damned lucky to have us then. We won’t let it keep him down none.”

JD gave him a whisper of a smile. The horses were tended now, so they went to the saloon for a drink.

It was a quick visit. He didn’t even flirt with Inez. Instead they got fresh mounts and headed out for Nettie’s.

Once the house was in site, he was tempted to go wolf and rush in on his own four legs, but remembered that Casey was there. He wondered if he should share his secret with the girl or wait to see if she guessed. Mostly, though, he wanted to see his favorite gambler. He sniffed the air, smelling chickens, the barn, the familiar scents of his pack, the garden plants and even a bit of the yeast culture that Nettie had in the kitchen for bread making. He sniffed again and got just a hint of the breeze of his Ezra. He could smell pain and fever in that scent and he wished he’d been there to protect his brother.

Casey Wells came to the door, an apron on and a long dress instead of her usual blue jeans. She smiled and waved at him.

He sniffed the air again. There was a hint of other Two-Bloods on the air, of pain and rage. He closed his eyes then waved back at Casey. He hadn’t been there to protect the pups, but she had, and she had known of their difference. Instead of pointing a finger of blame, she had kept it secret and protected them with all her strength and nerve.

In that moment he decided that he could tell her about his Two-Blood nature.

They put their still fresh horses in the barn and tended to them thoroughly. Buck put down the hayfork he’d used to fill a manger and then sighed. “I reckon I wanna see how old Ez’s doing.”

Josiah nodded, “Yup, me too, Brother.” JD patted Buck’s shoulder and then said, “I’m going out to look at the cows for Nettie. Ez will be glad to see ya.”

They walked up to the ranch house where Nettie and Casey, who had coffee and cookies ready for the tired travelers, greeted them with real affection. Smiling at their thoughtfulness, Buck put his hands on Casey’s slight shoulders and found himself staring sadly into her eyes. “I’m sorry I wasn’t here to protect you all”. He said this softly, regret poisoning his usual joy being with his pack members.

Casey gazed back at him without fear. She had been attacked, bitten and her home broken into – her two adopted siblings had been stolen, but she looked at him with serenity. There was no anger at him, nothing but affection and trust. She gave a mild start and then gasped.

“Buck, you have the same eyes that Blossom and Bransen have!”

Josiah froze as did Nettie and they waited to see what the girl woman would do about this revelation.

“They really are kin to you, sort of, aren’t they?” she asked. Buck barely breathed, realizing he counted her as pack and was terrified at her rejection. But instead, she touched his cheek affectionately with her hand. “We’re your pack now, Buck. None of you will ever be alone as long as I live.” She didn’t sound like an enthusiastic young girl with romantic dreams. No, Buck was amazed to sense the serious promise of a grown woman who was ready to fight for her kin.

Buck’s eyes filled with tears.

“Oh little girl!” he finally stuttered and hugged her fiercely. She was so small and yet so indomitable. She was becoming a woman like Nettie, fierce, strong and powerful in her sphere. Buck had a complete pack now, his brothers, a mother, his pups and now a younger sister. He sobbed.

He had hungered for love his whole life. Chris Larabee and his pack brothers had formed a pack about him, protecting him, cherishing him and most of all accepting what he was as something special. Now this young woman, who had the power to destroy him, was giving him the gift of trust and acceptance too. His worry over Ezra, the anxiety of being separated from the Pack and now this new gift were just too much.

He found himself seated at the kitchen table, Casey hugging him and whispering nonsense kindnesses to him tenderly. Nettie put a steaming cup of coffee into his hands and then held it in place with her own aged gnarled fingers. Josiah patted his shoulder.

He sobbed his heart out quietly, and heard Josiah say, “Its been hard on Brother Buck being away from you all. He’s been fretting. Let him get this out of his system.”

Nettie made a tushing noise and hugged his other side, old hands running through his hair gently, “There, there, son, its all right. We’re together. That’s what counts.”

All his worry seemed to slide away. He was accepted and even wanted. He began to gain his usual control and sat back, grinning at them through his tears.

He took a sip of the coffee, letting the wonderful aroma tickle his nose, when he heard a tiny noise from Nettie’s room.

He put his cup down and went to investigate.

Ezra lay in Nettie’s bed, his face paler than usual, and the bandages on his arm making him think of mummies from ancient Egypt.

“Buck?” asked his pack brother, “Are you all right?”

Buck sat next to Ezra and touched that pale cheek. He could smell old infection, and pain.

“I reckon I was a mite worried about you, Ez”

Ezra smiled at him, but still looked concerned. “Did I hear you in distress?” asked the gambler tentatively, unwilling to shame him, but genuinely concerned.

Behind him, Buck was aware of Josiah, Nettie and Casey standing in the door. “Miz Casey just figured out what I am and she didn’t hate me none,” he confessed, “It just did me in.”

Ezra smiled at him and Buck’s heart clenched at the weakness there. Ezra hated being weak.

“Miz Casey has grown up into a woman of great wisdom and courage,” said the gambler, he patted the bed next to him and beckoned to Casey.

She shyly walked over to the other side of Ezra and took a seat. He held out his hand and she took it.

“Miz Casey, forgive us for not confiding in you about the children and Buck. We were afraid you might not understand or that you would believe foolish superstitious tales. Buck and the children are just that, with no more spiritual evil than any poor mortal can acquire. But because they are different they must walk secretly. The people in town who we know and respect, might go mad with fear and kill all of us before they realize what they’ve done.

Casey’s jaw dropped momentarily. Then she gave a little laugh, “That’s why I didn’t tell any of you. I thought you might reject the youngin’s and I couldn’t bear it. They’re kin to me now.”

“As you are to us my dear,” said Ezra squeezing her hand gently.

She smiled at that, and Buck could smell her joy in that simple acceptance. He could also tell that Ezra was plumb wore out just with smiling and squeezing her hand.

I reckon you better get some more rest, there, pard,” Buck said. It was a sure sign of how sick Ezra was that he didn’t grimace and fuss. Instead he nodded and lay back in the covers and almost immediately fell asleep.

Casey touched his cheek affectionately and they both got off the bed with great care not to jostle the man. Once they closed the door behind them they gathered at the kitchen table.

“What does Nate say?”

Nettie spoke up, “First he was feared he’d lose Ezra, but he saved him. Then Nate was feared he’d lose that arm, but he’s saved it. Now he’s feared he’ll not have the use of it. The boy can feel everything, but that arm is weaker than that little Kitty of Blossom’s. I don’t know. I reckon Nate could save the arm, he’ll make it stronger too.”

Buck closed his eyes and shook his head, “No matter what, he’s part of the pack,” he whispered.

Josiah looked at him mournfully, “I suspect not being able to shuffle a deck will break his heart.”

Nettie made a very fierce noise. “Give him time. He’ll surprise you all.”

Buck heard voices in the distance. He could hear Vin and Chris with the two children.

Chris, Vin and the pups are coming in,” he remarked, still thinking about Ezra with only one arm.

Nettie and Casey exchanged looks. Doubtless Casey was adding up little clues in the children’s actions. The young woman stood and bustled about, pouring coffee, and setting out milk and cookies.

The door opened and the two older men entered cautiously. Bransen and Blossom were smiling though; they knew that Buck and Josiah were home safe.

He and Josiah swung around in their seats as both were attacked by small enthusiastic bodies-smelling of the woods with that kiss of sunshine that spoke of simple pleasures.

Blossom jumped Josiah and cuddled him fiercely. Bransen headed for Buck and tucked his head under the older Two-Blood’s chin affectionately.

After finishing their first greeting, the children changed places, with Blossom jumping in Buck’s lap and biting his earlobes while Bransen tackled Josiah.

Chris and Vin waited and then nodded to their co-pack members. “Good ta have ya back,” said Chris.

“Yup said Vin” as he pulled a brace of quail out and handed it to Casey.

“Did the youngin’s help you track?” she asked mildly, and Vin grinned and nodded.

Blossom grinned proudly, “For Papa”. She said.

Buck and Josiah tried to see if there were any potential chores for them and learned that Vin, Chris, Nate and JD had pitched in double time. Buck looked over the perfectly weeded gardens, after checking the barn and chicken coops. Hopefully, he checked Nettie’s woodpile, but apparently Chris had worked off some energy there too.

“Well, damn,” he thought, “I feel like running wild in the woods. I hate thinking of Ezra all laid up in bed with that poor arm.” Finally, when he finished the regular chores and saw Josiah off in the direction of town, he returned to the ranch house. Josiah had some visitations to take care of and wanted to get the church ready for Sunday. Buck figured he wanted to work off some steam too.

He looked at the spotless kitchen morosely and then said, “Miz Nettie, kin I take the youngin’s out tracking wolf style?” She was the alpha female and they were in her territory. Also, Chris wouldn’t mind.

Bransen and Blossom immediately begged with their eyes.

Nettie laughed and nodded. They all skedaddled into Casey’s room and appeared as full wolves, prancing about eagerly. Cassie watched them all pile out of the room with big excited eyes.

Chris grinned at him, ”Seems like Buck is just a big old pup himself.”

“Yup,” said Vin agreeably.

Buck gave a yip and opened the kitchen door with his mouth, huffed slightly to show that he was too an adult and the raced out, heading for the woods.

He could hear the pups yipping as they gave chase.

He danced in place and barked at the children, joyous at his freedom and theirs. Then he went hiding and let them hunt him down.

The experience would do them good, and besides it was fun.

They tracked him through the woods, steering clear by common and yet unspoken agreement from the place on the mountain that smelled of strange Two-Bloods. When they couldn’t find him with a certain length of time, Buck would start to stalk the pups. The first time he jumped Blossom, the girl pup proved that wolves can climb trees, and very rapidly at that. The noise level on the mountain was enough to send a lot of birds looking for new places to perch.

Squirrels cussed them out until Blossom shared a tree with some of them. Then they all lit off someplace safer and quieter. This led to squirrel chasing fun until they all collapsed, laughing wolf style and tumbled together on the warm grass, while the squirrels used very ungenteel language.

Buck panted happily until he remembered why he had needed this time, and then he unconsciously whined. His pack brother was wounded. The pups immediately picked up on his distress and began to lick his muzzle consolingly, whining at him and fighting to snuggle their way under his chin.

He wanted to howl, but wouldn’t, not when news of wolves on the mountain had become a sign of an attack on the ranch. He’d wait till he was further away to vent his grief more fully. He stopped whining and began to kiss the pups back, enjoying them fully. Finally, they all slept in the sun, Buck having one eye open and one ear perked for sounds of trouble.

When he judged it time to return, he nosed his two charges awake and they raced back to Nettie’s house, silent now where they had been noisy before. This time, he patrolled the perimeter of the ranch, with the two pups instinctively understanding and taking great precautions. They silently circled the barn and chicken coops. Some of the flock was innocently pecking away at the bare earth, and Blossom couldn’t resist the temptation. She sprang, but Buck was ready for her.

Chris Larabee had returned from patrol and was sitting quietly on a rocker on Nettie’s porch, waiting for Buck and the youngin’s to come back.

When Buck returned, he was holding Blossom by the scruff of her neck as he walked solemnly into view. Blossom looked exasperated.

Bransen strode at Buck’s side, but didn’t seem too upset at his sister’s state. Chris nodded at them and opened the door for them as they trooped up onto the porch. Buck winked at him as he passed by.

A few minutes later, a fully dressed trio appeared back on the porch. Blossom’s arms were crossed and she had a sulky expression on her face, but Buck was unmoved.

The little stinker sat on the far side of Chris’ rocking chair and gave Buck a glare, then sniffed and sat all the world like she wasn’t up to something.

Chris raised an eyebrow in silent inquiry.

“Can’t resist the chickens,” said Buck

Chris was impressed, “Didn’t hear a peep out of ‘em,” he said approvingly. Buck was damn good.

“Phooey,” said a tiny voice at his side, and Chris grinned.

Half the pack went about their business, patrolling the town area, tending animals at Chris’, or doing business in town. Nathan, Chris and Buck stayed at Nettie’s. Chris and Nathan had brought bedrolls and planned to sleep in the kitchen, while Buck planned to sleep in wolf form.

Nettie and Casey shared a bed, and the pups slept as pups with Ezra. Before they nestled next to their beloved gambler, Nathan rubbed a foul smelling tincture into his wounded arm, gently kneading the pale flesh.

Ezra didn’t even complain about the smell, although Blossom did sneeze pointedly. Instead, the gambler fell asleep in mid rub.

Later, as he watched Chris and Nate put out their bed rolls, Buck said, “I wish he’d bitch and moan about something. I’d know he’s feeling better then.”

Nathan nodded in agreement but said softly, “He’s still tired as a hooker on nickel night, Buck, but he’s improving each day. Soon he’ll be back to driving us straight out of our minds.”

“And then we’ll bitch and moan about his bitching and moaning,” said Chris. Buck changed into his wolf form in the room set aside for the big fancy tub. He snuffled at Casey’s door and then opened it with his mouth, walking in quietly and then nuzzling the two women, who stroked his fur with gentle hands.

Then he went out and closed the door again with his mouth. Next he went into the room where Ezra slept with the pups. His night sight was much better as a wolf, and he looked carefully at his pack brother. Ezra’s face was peaceful. The gambler looked younger than he did when awake and Buck wondered if the others knew that Ezra was only a little older than JD He sniffed the air cautiously, and realized that under the irksome odor of the tincture, there was a little less pain and infection.

Blossom wrinkled her nose in her sleep and snuggled closer to Ezra. Bransen opened one eye, panted a wolf’s grin of love at him, and then fell back to sleep. Assured that all was as well as could be, he went into the kitchen, leaving the door ajar so Ezra could call for Nathan if he needed to.

He stationed himself in front of the door, protecting his pack members. Anything or any one attempting to break in the door tonight was in for a hell of a welcome.

+ + + + + + +

Nettie woke in the dark of the night. Casey lay at her side, breathing softly. Nettie's hands grasped the quilt she'd made years ago for Casey, and listened in the darkness.

She'd done this since the night of the attack. She knew right now only a fool would try to break into the house. Vin Tanner, Chris Larabee and Josiah Sanchez had made her a new door that would withstand the "onslaught of a knight mounted on a war horse" as Ezra had commented from his sick bed.

Right now Buck Wilmington was sleeping by the fire in wolf form and anything that came into the house without his permission was going to be dead before he had a chance to realize his situation.

She knew they were as safe as one can be in the wilderness miles from town.

Josiah was asleep on a cot near the fire. She could hear him snoring now. The big preacher didn't snore much, but when he did, it sounded like she had a grizzly hibernating in her kitchen.

And if Buck by chance let something get by, she reckoned the preacher would rip them in half as quickly as a disturbed grizzly.

She was safer than usual, really, with them around her.

She scowled in the darkness. So why was she awake? She'd slept through worse things than a man's occasional snore.

Casey sighed in her sleep and turned over, nestling into the covers like a contented young animal

Nettie smiled with affection in the dark, but then scowled again. She wasn't afraid for herself. She'd been fighting critters, injuns, outlaws and stupid neighbors for years. She reckoned each day was a gift. It wasn't herself she was waking up for. It was kin.

She had taken on more kin in her heart, what with becoming part of Buck's pack. Before it had just been her and her precious Casey. Now her world had expanded. First Vin Tanner had won her over with his shy bravery. Then Buck had revealed his deepest secret to keep her safe in the winter snow. Now they were all her children, the two little ones that they'd nearly lost, JD, Ezra, Josiah, Nathan Jackson and Chris Larabee. She was rich in kin that needed her, wanted her. That's why she was waking up afraid. She had much more to lose.

Nettie Wells was a practical woman. In her life it has been one of the edges that made survival possible. Now that she had pinpointed what was making her so restless, she silently slipped out of the bed. She made her way noiselessly to the door and heard paws clicking on wooden floors.

Her ill humor vanished. Buck was as bad as she was. She grinned. Buck was standing guard, but she knew that wasn't what the big man really wanted. She used one finger to swing the door open and walked into the kitchen. A fire was banked at the fireplace, and its familiar dim red light was all the light she needed to see Buck pacing in wolf form in front of the door. He turned, golden eyes glowing and looked at her.

She held out one hand and beckoned. He trotted over obligingly.

The incredibly soft fur under her hands was a constant surprise to her. Big frightening wolf men weren't supposed to be snuggly creatures you wanted to pet.

But Buck needed to be petted and her hands itched to fuss over him

She sat in her rocker and laid one hand on that great head and began to pet him.

His tail thumped briefly and he edged closer till she had his head in her lap. She stroked that magnificent fur and thought about all that had happened and the agony it had caused for this lonely hearted man.

Lord they all needed mothering, every one of them.

But none more than this man, forced by his birth to walk alone for so long. He had haltingly told her bits and pieces about his mother, a woman of ill repute by all accounts, and knew in her heart that this big independent gunslinger missed her every day of his life.

She brought her other arm up aground his head and buried her face in the warmth.

An almost inaudible whine came from him and she could feel it in him more than hear it.

"My son," she whispered, "My child."

The wolf froze and she could almost swear she saw tears glint in those amber eyes.

"I want you to know that I don't regret any of this. You are my kin now, heart kin. No matter what happens, you are my child and always will be."

The great wolf's body began to shake but didn't move away from her embrace.

Finally she kissed the furry head and whispered again, "Son, I can't sleep now. I'll keep watch. You go in and sleep with the pups and Ezra. I know you need them. What you don't realize is that they need you too. Go to them."

She let him go, but he didn't leave her. Not at first. He laid his head in her lap again and whined like a puppy, delicately licking the tips of her fingers, like a submissive and shy puppy instead of a wolf nearly the size of a horse.

Finally he pulled away. She got up and opened the bedroom door. Inside her bedroom she saw Ezra asleep with the pups curled up next to him, dark lumps on the covers. One white hand was curled in the fur of the larger pup, while the other slept with her head on his chest, keeping watch.

Two furry heads looked up, although Ezra still slept deeply.

Buck crawled up on the bed, as slick as any fox every slid into a henhouse, and nestled next to Ezra. Blossom lifted her head, turned to him and gave him a puppy kiss of greeting, while Bransen's tail flapped once on the coverlets.

She smiled at them, the whole lot of them big children worse than the pups, and then closed the door carefully. She picked up her Spencer and sat watch in her rocking chair, listening to Josiah rumble a few times.

She knew why she had been afraid and she embraced it now, with no fear, just determination. She had much to lose, but she was rich now, rich in family. So she sat proudly and stood watch in the night, for her pack, her kin.

Ezra woke up in the wee small hours before dawn. He realized that he was hugging something extremely furry, and extremely big. He smiled and snuggled into the softness

Something warm and wet licked his nose quite delicately

He nestled closer and kissed a furry muzzle with care - he didn't care for cold wet nose especially at this ungodly hour

There was a tiny whine

"You are a most satisfactory pillow, Buck,” he said in soft tones

This resulted in a much more lavish wolf kiss

Ezra sneezed

Man and wolf both immediately froze, hoping that they hadn't disturbed the blissfully sleeping pups.

Blossom shifted and rolled over, sniffed and fell back asleep.

Her little feet were in the air and her tummy was exposed, showing that she felt completely safe.

Ezra smiled into his furry companion's neck and snuggled him

He knew Nettie was here and Josiah was on watch. Having Buck in wolf form watching over him made him feel incredibly good, Sleepily he pondered the reason for this. It had to do with safety.

His pack brother was watching out for him, concerned about him, protecting him

He could hear Nettie’s chair creaking in the kitchen and decided that it was Nettie watching over them. He pitied anyone attempting to assault the old woman.

He had noted a renewed vigor in her after he'd woken up feverish in her bed.

If anything, the attack had solidified her sense of kinship with him. He knew he was getting better, because he was afraid not to recover. She was worse than Larabee.

Mental images of himself suffering in the flames of hell, and being rescued by the old woman had peopled his dreams. In them she had shot demons, devils and old Hobbs himself at will, Ezra felt really sorry for old Scratch after she’d blown him ass first into a pool of molten lava

He decided he'd better get well.

He'd always been secretly afraid that Chris might lose his temper and send him to his maker

Now he feared Nettie might bring him back

He rubbed his hand lightly over Buck's fur, which was the height of luxury. His wounded arm even seemed better in contact with it

While it still throbbed, Ezra felt more comfortable than he had in days; more rested – safer.

He closed his eyes. He would sleep, feeling safe. He would forget about being an ex-conman and gambler. He was loved, protected and part of the pack tonight. That was all he needed.

+ + + + + + +

Things got back to normal, if normal could be used as to the life of the Seven men who protected the town of Four Corners. Word that Nettie, Casey and Ezra had a run in with bad men with hunter dogs got around. The fact that said bad men and/or dogs were not in evidence just proved that the Seven were doing their job.

One of the Seven was always at Nettie’s now. Chris had no intention of having Nettie and Casey ever face anyone with ill intentions alone. The path from Nettie’s to Chris’ was gone over step by step by Josiah and Buck and made fit for horse and wagon travel. All the boys put time on it, hauling logs to make small bridges, hauling wagons with stones for other areas. The little trail took nearly four hours off other routes and made them all feel better.

Buck Wilmington rode over this new mountain path, making notes of areas that would need additional reinforcement or care after the next big storm. In his saddlebags were letters for Nettie, Casey and Ezra along with a large chocolate pie for Ezra.

The temptation to eat the pie was telling, but Mrs. Potter would ask Ez about it later, and Buck liked his life.

She’d packed it up for travel off the back of a saddle, and Buck could feel the damn thing calling him, “I’m chocolate, Buck, I’m chocolate. I have meringue too. I’m glistening for you, Buck, come see how pretty I am.”

Fortunately for Buck, he was close to Nettie’s.

With an aggrieved attitude, he put the horse in the barn and carried all the interesting loot to Ezra. One of the letters to Ez smelled of that perfume his Ma, Maude, was partial to.

No one was in the kitchen, except Bransen, who gave him a huge hug. He walked into Nettie’s room, where Ezra had apparently set up court, and found him and Chris taking turns reading a book.

Ezra looked up and gave him a delighted smile of welcome. Buck sighed worse than any Christian martyr and showed Ezra the pie. Ezra’s eyes lit up.

“Hey Ez, I’ll cut you piece.” he said.

“Please cut yourself and Mr. Larabee one as well,” said Ezra.

Chris nodded at him and smiled.

Bransen peeked around the corner and Ezra smiled again, “and make sure that Master Bransen receives his well-deserved share.”

Bransen giggled and followed Buck to the kitchen. Buck put the pie down and laid out all the pieces of mail. Ezra was a regular post office.

Buck and Bransen each took two plates of piece apiece into Ezra’s room, Bransen handing Ezra the biggest piece.

Ezra took the plate, sat it on his lap carefully and took a bite, his expression immediately turning to that of a delighted little boy. “Superb,” he said.

He looked at Buck – “Better save the rest of the pie. Blossom will be inconsolable if she misses out on this.”

Chris nodded, “Yup, she’ll be sniffing our breath and giving us the evil eye all day.”

Ezra was funny to watch eating. He’d take one forkful and then a look of culinary ecstasy would come over his face and he’d close his eyes, and smile.

Buck sniggered and was glad he’d brought the pie home. Watching Ezra making gleeful faces was almost as good as the pie itself.

When he finished, the gambler lay back on the bed, closed his eyes and gave a tired sigh. Even this much excitement was still hard on the gambler. He was much better, but still was as weak as little Kitty, which appeared to consider Ezra her own private domain. She slept every night, curled up in a ball on his chest, purring contentedly. Vin had mentioned that he always knew when Ezra woke up because the purring would stop for a moment, while Kitty decided that Ezra’s face needed cleaning.

Chris had complained that Ezra wore French perfumes, and insisted on daily baths, yet let the cat spread spit all over his face on a daily basis.

Ezra had said, “It would be rude not to accept the little lady’s ministrations.”

Their gambler was returning to health slowly but his friends were all worried about the possibility of him not being able to draw or play cards with his hurt arm.

But because Ezra was cheerful and seemed in good spirits, they didn’t discuss it with him. Just the fact that the usually irascible-during-illness gambler was cheerful worried them.

They all privately asked Nathan about it, and all were told he was on the mend, and that it would take a long time for the arm to heal.

Buck found himself feeling particularly protective. He often came and slept on the floor next to Ezra in wolf form. The fact that Ezra would pat the side of the bed when the lights went out and he’d jump on the bed, was tactfully ignored. The children seemed to have the same instinct, and spent a lot of time snuggling with their beloved Papa.

Nettie and Casey made delicacies for the gambler, took turns making lavish meals and stuffed Buck on cookies.

Tired of hysterical chickens, Nettie put Blossom in charge of feeding the hens. It took some tense supervision and they ate more chicken than Nettie would have liked, but eventually Blossom began catching rabbits and squirrels instead of her chickens. Buck took Blossom and Bransen hunting wolf style on clear nights, enabling Nettie to start making more squirrel pot pie and roasted rabbit than chicken.

Finally, Ezra left the sanctuary of Nettie’s bedroom, and began to walk about the ranch. He sat on the porch in the sun, with Blossom on his lap, or spent hours in the barn spoiling Chaucer with brushes and peppermints. He read to the children for hours and taught them how to do arithmetic. Blossom was abysmal at it until Ezra started using the counting of rabbits, chickens or cookies. Casey began to take an interest in the more complex math, and Vin sat in for some of the teaching sessions as well as the daily readings.

Finally, Nathan announced that Ezra could visit the saloon. “Now, he can’t patrol yet, and he’ll still have to take it easy, but he’s strong enough to visit in town. The exercise will help him regain his strength.”

+ + + + + + +

Inez Recillos was in a happy mood. The sun was shining, it wasn’t too hot in the kitchen, and she could hear birds singing in the trees outside the saloon. She hummed to herself as she served the ever-popular red eye and her special tamales to her patrons. The tamales were in honor of Ezra Standish leaving his sick bed today to visit the saloon. She had missed the dapper conman’s presence. While he had a reputation as a troublemaker, Ezra had never actually started any trouble in the saloon.

Instead, she had learned to rely on him for his ability to change the mood of a crowd from ugly to amused with a few well-placed comments or pundits. While he never appeared to pay attention to anything but his cards, he always was aware of each patron, and could peg strangers instantly, determining them to be threats to the peace in the blink of an eye.

She also missed his business sense. She was laboriously working on buying her saloon and his advice had kept her from being cheated.

So she served beef and chicken tamales with a song in her heart. The batwing doors swung open and Buck Wilmington walked into the saloon, his eyes taking in the people seated and at the bar. Behind him, a gentle smile on his face, was Ezra Standish and then Chris Larabee, with his usual scowl. Buck had an unusually vigilant look on his face and she recognized his protective instinct for Ezra. Chris always looked like he was going to shoot someone, but that didn’t matter. She’d known him long enough to know that he was watching both Buck and Ezra’s back.

Inez smiled at them and quickly prepared a tray with Ezra’s favorite scotch, redeye for Buck and Chris and several steaming hot tamales. With a swish of her voluminous skirts she walked to their favorite table, which she had marked as reserved. Surprisingly, no one had questioned this, but only locals seemed to be in town today.

Several people nodded amiably to the three men. Polite nods were returned and Ezra smiled at the contents of her tray.

As usual, he was dressed impeccably. He was still wearing a sling, which was red velvet that matched his coat exactly. Inez wondered if Nettie had sewn it for him. Nettie didn’t normally run for frills in her sewing, but Inez could see her making such a thing for Ezra Standish.

He was paler than usual but in good spirits. Buck grinned at her, “Miz Inez, you made your special tamales. Hmmmm doggity but they smell good.”

Chris Larabee nodded his agreement. Ezra grinned at her and his gold tooth glinted in the half-light.

“I have missed you, Mr. Standish. I hope you are feeling better.” She said softly, smiling at the gambler.

Buck put a dramatic hand over his heart and moaned aloud, “Look at that. She ain’t said a thing about missing old Buck. Just this here fancy dressed gambler. I reckon I need some new doo dads to impress her. What cha think?”

Inez scowled at him, not with true anger, but their usual amiable little game.

“As long as you chase every woman in the territory, it matters not what you wear, Mr. Wilmington,” she said

The saloon broke into laughter. Inez’ verbal battles with Buck Wilmington were considered part of local lore.

Buck comically moaned and pretended to swoon in grief over the table, while Inez shook her head and returned to her station behind the bar.

As soon as she turned, she noticed that the heart broken cowboy was shoveling tamale under his mustache as though he were in a food-eating contest at a country faire.

Ezra laughed at the disgusted expression on Inez’ lovely features.

“I see that Senor Wilmington has more important things to do than flirt with a mere barmaid.” She said and flounced back into the kitchen.

Buck looked up and said, “Huh?”

Ezra shook his head and chuckled silently, then elegantly started to demolish his tamales.

Vin walked in the saloon, blue eyes instantly taking in every person there, and nodded to Buck and Ezra. He took a seat at the bar, instinctively watching the other men’s backs.

Inez came out and gave Vin a huge plate of steaming tamales and some of Ezra’s scotch. Vin grinned at her, “Miz Inez, your tamales are the best in the world,” he said sincerely.

Inez smiled at him and squinted meanly in Buck’s direction. “You certainly are a gentleman, Senor Vin,” she said in low sultry tones.

Buck back flinched, and Vin grinned, realizing he’d come in on the end of one of Buck’s social faux pas.

A strange cowboy walked in the door and sized up the room, nodding affably at everyone. He saw Ezra’s red jacket and sauntered over to his table.

“Say, you wouldn’t be in the mood for a game, would ya?’ he asked, eyeing the fancy sling dubiously.

Buck froze and behind him he could feel Vin’s worried attention. This was what they were afraid of, Ezra not being able to play cards.

Buck reckoned it was like losing a paw.

Ezra, however, smiled with delight at the cowboy, his gold tooth gleaming. “Why, Ah would be delighted to partake of a game with you, Sir. Ezra P. Standish, at your service.

Then, one-handed, he popped out a pack of cards, and proceeded to shuffle wildly with his good hand, only using his other hand as a brace. The cards spun, flew, twisted and danced in his hand, flying up in the air and landing on the table perfectly dealt.

Everyone in the saloon stared in wonder.

“Shit,” said Buck. This was better than a magic show. He had seen Ezra do sleight of hand before to amuse children, but this was glorious.

The cowboy stared at this, and sat down, mesmerized by the display.

Finally, he said, “Shucks, I heard you were a good player, but this is worth losing money just to see.”

“What a fortunate attitude,” said Ezra benignly, as he picked up his cards, and automatically checked for a derringer that he’d had to ship to a gunsmith in St. Louis along with the rigging. He smiled to himself and continued.

Buck shook his head and walked over next to Vin at the bar. “Did you know he could do that?” he whispered.

“Hell, no,” Vin whispered back.

Buck then started to chortle, “And I was worried he couldn’t play one-handed.” He said.

“Should a known old Ez would have something up his sleeve,” drawled Vin.

Both men sipped the fine aged scotch that Ezra loved so well, and now shared with his pack, and amiably watched Ezra grin, play, and altogether bemuse and entertain the cowboy. Their fears about Ezra’s ability to deal with one arm began to fade. He’d get better, or he’d find a way to get around any disability. Everything was going to turn out right.

In St. Louis, a well-dressed, attractive blonde beauty entered a train. She carried only a satchel, which was testament to her speedy need for departure. For while she usually left town with dozens of pieces of luggage, today she felt it more important to get the hell out of town than to preserve appearance.

She had been a little remiss in her latest business venture. It was high time she visited her son out west to see how he was doing.