Magnificent Seven Old West
My Brother's Keeper

by Laura

This story is the sequel to Ezra 7:6-7 and No Greater Love. The title and inspiration for this one comes from the book of Genesis, chapter 4, verses 8-10.

Ezra made his way down the stairs with ease, taking care not to push himself too hard. It had seemed like centuries since he'd been in his own bed, much less his room. Of course, he had not had to suffer Nathan's mothering alone this time. Chris, being in much the same shape as the gambler had, had no choice but to lay back and rest until his strength returned after the incident with Waters. Now, entering the saloon from his room upstairs, Ezra smiled broadly at the gaunt, darkly dressed form that returned that smile.

In all actuality, it had only been a month since the situation with Waters had been resolved, and in that time, a new bond had seemed to form, not just amongst the seven men, but also between them and the town they protected. A sense of belonging filled all of them, and they all welcomed that.

Upon reaching the table at the back of the saloon, Ezra nodded companionably to Larabee, easing his lean form down into the chair Chris kicked out towards him. Chris poured him a cup of coffee, shifting back to relax in his own chair again as Ezra took it.

"Never realize how much a man takes his own bed for granted ?il he's kept away from it," the gunman quietly commented, a spark lighting his blue eyes. Ezra nodded in return.

"Very true, Mr. Larabee. Very true indeed. Quite amazing the importance an individual attatches to the items of civilization." The gambler took a long sip of the coffee in his hand, enjoying the way it burned down his throat. Just thankful that he *had* a throat. He rememberd his own take on the situation just before the duel had taken place. "Betting against a full house..." but he had won. With an impossible, miraculous hand of seven of a kind.

Ezra and Chris sat in friendly silence, the tension that had once existed between them disappeared from time spent in Nathan's clinic. Having nothing better to do while recuperating, the two men had talked long hours, slowly chipping away at the walls around the other until they all but crumbled to dust.

At the swinging of the saloon doors, both men looked up, relaxing back to their former positions as Vin Tanner made his way over to them. After pouring himself a cup of coffee, he looked at the two men, a sly smile covering his face.

"Nathan's lookin' for you two. Seems he didn't take too kindly to the way ya'll slipped out last night." Both men winced. They hadn't exactly *sneaked* out, just decided that they would get a breath of fresh air. And once they reached their rooms, they hadn't wanted to tire themselves out with the walk back to Nathan's. At least, that's what they had decided their story was going to be.

Chris and Ezra had planned their escape, knowing they couldn't spend another night in the clinic where anybody and everybody could, and had, come fussing around them. They felt fine, their wounds were healing, and even Nathan had said he was impressed with their recovery. Now, after just one night in their own rooms, both knew that whatever Nathan's wrath, it had been well worth it. Or at least, that's what they thought until they saw the gentle healer's form silhouetted against the swinging doors. Then, even Chris had sense enough to look to the floor.

"Ya'll mind tellin' me what the heck ya'll are doin' down here instead of up in bed where I left ya last night?" Nathan started in as he walked over, ignoring the chair offered, choosing instead to glare first from Larabee, and then to Standish. As quietly as he did everything else, Vin removed himself from the front lines, going out to fetch the others. They wouldn't want to miss this.

Ezra shifted in his chair, glancing over at his partner in crime to see Chris staring at his coffee cup. The gambler noted Vin's exit, but more importantly, his re-entrance with the other men in tow. Gathering his breath, Ezra cleared his throat, bringing Nathan's irate brown gaze to rest on his head.

"Mr. Jackson," he started, pausing to lick his lips as Nathan placed his hands on his hips, turning more towards Ezra, his body language showing truly how upset he was. "Mr. Jackson," he began again, "I believe....that our illustrious leader here can explain our absence better than myself."

Chris' head shot up, looking at Ezra with incredulous eyes from under the brim of his dark hat. Ezra watched him for a moment, waiting for Chris to stare strait at him. Then, when he had the gunman's full attention, he smiled and winked.

The other men waited by the bar, prepared for the infamous volcano known as Chris Larabee to explode. Or Nathan, whichever one happened first. They watched as Larabee looked at Ezra after the gambler's statement, knowing it was about to happen. But the explosion was not something they were prepared for. Instead of shouting, yelling, and punching, Chris Larabee leaned back in his chair and laughed.

Ezra soon joined in, holding his stomach against the laughter that was coming from his body, feeling the last strings of doubt break between the two men at the table. Nathan stared at Chris like the man had just grown another head, turning to look at the others at the bar, but they were no help. In fact, Buck was having a pretty hard time keeping a straight face himself. Turning back to the still chuckling duo, Nathan sighed and mumbled under his breath about not knowing which was worse, his patients or those who were supposed to be backing him up.

"I suppose that if I order you back to the clinic you two'll just try this again, won't you?" he asked the men. Chris and Ezra looked at one another and nodded in unison. That was enough for Buck, whose laughter came out in a choked manner as he tried to hold it in. Josiah ducked his head to hide his grin, and Vin and JD just smiled out-right, the latter, shaking his head at Buck.

"Fine. At least come down and let me check ya'll out one last time. You go runnin' around an' get yourselves killed, don't want nobody thinkin' it was my fault." Chris and Ezra rose, following the still mumbling healer out the door, the others' laughter being clearly heard as they stepped out the door.

After submitting to an hour of prodding, questioning, examining, and just plain out and out fussing, Chris and Ezra were released from Nathan's care with strict orders not to overdue it. Both men were *still* amused at the healer's reaction to their disappearing act. They both knew that Nathan was only worried about their well-being, but Chris could almost swear that the gentle black man *enjoyed* keeping them cooped up where he could work on them.

The two entered the saloon, looking around to see that as usual, their table was one of the most occupied, the other four men waiting for their return. Ezra's eyes swept over the room, noticing the large crowd gathered around a table near the bar. Grabbing a bottle to go with the one already present, Chris and Ezra made their way back, grinning at the ribbing the others gave them about Nathan.

"What, pray tell, is occuring at that table to bring such excitement to this fair establishment?" Ezra asked, jerking his head in the direction of the crowd-lined table. JD looked at him for a moment, doing his best to understand Ezra's speech. He was getting better at deciphering the southerner's words, but sometimes he just couldn't understand why he didn't talk like the rest of them.

"Poker game," Vin answered, smiling as he saw Ezra's eyes light up with interest. "Might actually be some competition for you, Ezra. Definitely the gambler type. Fancy clothes, about 5'10", short black hair, wearing a shoulder and cross-draw rig. Course, I didn't get that good a look, but..." Ezra smiled as Vin shrugged at what he considered a lack of details description.

"And does this fellow gentleman of chance have a name?" Ezra asked, waiting, almost expecting to here Vin come out not only with the man's name, but the heritage behind it. Tanner was almost uncanny at being able to derive the most detailed things from something as small as a button. Vin downed a shot and looked over to where Buck was trying to sweet-talk a lady into going for a stroll, unsuccessfully.

"Yeah," came the quiet reply. " Brett Bont..Bonte...Bonto...somethin' like that. Talks kinda strange. Southern, but not." Ezra's head whipped around at the name, placing it with the description Vin had given him. 'It can't be?!' he thought to himself. Vin saw the quick flash of...wonder, amazement.... He wasn't sure what to call it, in Ezra's eyes.

"You know this guy Ezra?" he asked, unconciously dropping his hand to the grip of his mare's leg. After all the hell his friends had gone through with Waters, Tanner wasn't about to let somebody else start that terror all over again.

"?outhern, but not,'", Ezra repeated, ignoring Vin's question. "Probably because he's part french." Standing, the gambler walked towards the table, not noticing the way the others stood to back him up if the need arose, still unsure of their friend's reaction. Buck, upon seeing the movement, left off his pursuit of the young filly and walked to stand beside Chris.

Ezra moved his way easily through the crowd, coming up behind the new stranger in town as he layed down a full house, Kings and Sevens. Ezra kept his face neutral as the opponent threw down his cards before storming from the saloon. The stranger shook his head as he scooped up the small pile of winnings, muttering to himself as the crowd began to disperse.

"I despise playing with those who cannot accept their own losses." His voice sent Ezra plunging back into his memories, the tone one of the unique mixing of Southern and French, found only in those raised down in what was considered Cajun Country. Ezra stepped out from behind the man, moving to his right.

"In that case, sir, perhaps you should seek out a new profession, such as one found in a livery. I seem to recall you being quite resourceful with horses." The stranger froze for a moment before looking up, his gray eyes meeting Ezra's, the astonishment clear in them.

"Ezra?" he whispered, knowing that those eyes could belong to no one else. Standish allowed a small grin to cross his face as he nodded, holding out his hand for a handshake. The stranger took it and used it to pull the other man to him, embracing him like a pair of long lost brothers.

Buck nudged Chris and leaned in closer, "And you said people'd talk about us," he whispered in the gunman's ear, noting the smile that crossed his face.

"At least he's not in his underwear," Chris jabbed back before turning back to watch as Ezra returned the greeting with a smile.

"Hey Ezra!" Buck hollered, his grin sarcastic and wicked. "You gonna introduce us or ask him out on a date?" The two men broke apart, the stranger looking at Ezra as the man laughed at Buck's query.

"Why certainly, gentlemen. Forgive my lapse." He brought the other man closer, pausing as he gathered the money from the table and placed it in his pockets. "Brett, these are some of my business associates. Misters Vin Tanner, Josiah Sanchez, JD Dunne, Buck Wilmington, and Chris Larabee." Ezra pointed out each man as he was introduced, waiting for the handshake between them and Brett to end before moving on to the next. "Gentlemen," he continued, placing an arm around the man beside him. "This is Brette Bonteau, my brother."

The other five men stood, dumbfounded, their gazes flicking from one another back to their comrade before them. The man in question was about Ezra's height, his skin pale in comparison to his dark black hair and grey eyes. He was of similar build as the gambler as well, and both had that same quality of southern geneality.

Brother?! Maude had never said anything about a brother, and neither had Ezra for that matter. Of course, Ezra hardly ever talked about his past, and Maude....well, half of what she'd told them couldn't be believed. But what to believe about this? Their faces showed no resemblance what-so-ever. Ezra's green eyes burned in comparison to the soft gray orbs in Brett's face.

Buck was the first to voice his surprise. "Brother?!" Ezra just smiled and nodded, indicating that everyone was to regain their seats. Brett pulled a chair for himself, sitting close to Ezra.

"Yes, my brother. In everything but name. Brett and I were in each other's company for almost two years before I left to venture out into this vast stretch of land." Ezra told as much as he could about how he had come to live with Brett and his family at the age of thirteen, his mother not needing the extra baggage on her trip to St. Louis. The two boys had both hit it off immidiately, finding a common bond in the fact that, although Brett had both a mother and a father, he was never accepted by his father as his own, calling him a bastard child.

Ezra and Brett had formed a magnificent duo; Ezra, flamboyant, sure, confident, Brett, quiet, smart, and solid. Together, they had managed to clean out the Bonteau stable hands of their pay within a week of their recieving it. Ezra taught Brett all he knew about cons, cards, and such, while Brett had explained and demonstrated the fine arts of gentlmenly behaviour he'd learned during his childhood.

For two years, Ezra had been truly happy. That is, until the day his mother arrived, gushing about how she had missed him and how she was looking forward to spending more time with him. Ezra couldn't bear the thought of being made a pawn in his mother's games anymore. He had gotten too used to being the one holding all the cards. And so, he had decided to leave.

Brett had offered his assistance, procurring a horse, clothing, food, and finally, helping his friend to clean out the employees one last time. The night Ezra left, the two had stood side by side, neither wanting to say nor hear the words of "good-bye". Suddenly, Ezra turned to his friend, pulling his pocket-knife from his pants.

Holding his right hand out, Ezra made a small cut on his forefinger, holding the knife out to Brett. The other had immidiately understood, repeating Ezra's actions. Pressing their fingers together, they mixed their blood together, grinning as they realized they would now always carry each other with them, wherever they went.

"His blood flows through my veins, mine through his. My brother," Ezra breathed, finished with his narrative at last. The others had listened without a single interruption, not even JD. Ezra looked at them, his green gaze almost daring them to question his right of family with this man. But none of them did. They had shared to much blood to doubt its bond.

Brett locked his gaze on the small scar he still carried on the pad of his finger, looking over to find Ezra examing the same thing. Both looked up and caught each other, the smile that passed between them proving to the rest that Ezra was genuinely happy. They just hoped it would last.

Ezra walked beside his blood-brother, the silence between them not pained or filled with tension as the silences with his mother usually were. Instead, it was comforting. They had been walking all afternoon, up one side of the street and down the other, Ezra making introductions and small commentary.

Ezra could hardly believe that after all these years, he had finally shown back up in his life. The one person from his childhood that had offered him the hand of family and friendship rather than taking his reaching hand and slapping him in the face with it.

Brett looked at the man beside him, smiling slightly. "You've established yourself quite well here, Ezra." The green-eyed gambler winced a bit, thinking of the last time a statement of that kind had been said to him. By his mother. But, coming from Brett, Ezra felt no need to try and hide or cover up his place of belonging here.

"Yes," he replied, answering his brother's smile. "Who would ever have believed that I would take on a position of peace-keeper? Or that anyone would allow such a thing?" Ezra stared straight ahead, his own words striking a cord deep within him. 'Who indeed. If they only knew...' He was brought out of his darkening thoughts by Brett, the gray-eyed gambler tracing an almost invisible line along Ezra's neck.

"I would have. On both accounts." Ezra reached up to run his finger along the forgotten scar. Ezra nodded slighly as he remembered brashly running into the stables to stop the groomsman from beating a colt. He had recieved quite a blow to the head for it, but the colt had been spared. In fact, two years later, Ezra had ridden that same colt from the Bonteau place.

Finding themselves in front of the hotel, Ezra bid his brother good-night, extracting a promise for breakfast the next morning at the saloon. Brett watched the other man walk back to the saloon and his room, turning back inside the hotel as Ezra faded into the darkness. As he climbed the stairs, Brett took his time, going over the events of the day. Reaching his room, Brett unlocked the door, walking in and then collapsing against the wall as the door closed behind him, hiding him from view.

His legs were rubbery, and his face ghastly white as he released all the control he had used during the day, keeping his appearance well for the sake of his brother. A terrible coughing shook his entire frame, ripping through his chest, and when he wiped his mouth, Brett came up with blood on his fingers.

"Damn," he muttered, shakily making his way over to the bed, pulling out a flask from his jacket and taking a long swig on it before setting it down and laying himself on the soft mattress. His chest eased with the bite of the liquor, and his tired body began to shut down. Brett dozed, relaxing. Relaxed, that is, until the nightmares started again.

The many shots?!?....somebody's hurt! My gun?!?....Blood, so hot, sticky, and dark....blood on my hands...whose blood?! The screams...anger, terror, anguish....raking down through my brain....who's screaming? Dear Lord, that's me......

Brett woke up with a jerk, the tears smarting in his gray eyes as they fell unchecked. He fell back on the bed, waiting for the vivid memories to go away, but, like always, they wouldn't. His face seemed so gaunt and bleak as he struggled to a sitting position, looking at the mirror across the room. He drank until his flask was empty, clutching his head in his hands as he rocked with sobs.

"Ezra," he moaned. "Forgive me...please!"

Ezra watched Brett carefully during breakfast. The other man appeared to be the picture of health and normality, and yet, Ezra knew that appearances could be decieving. Looking deeper into the man he had once known, his green eyes picked out the dark shadows behind those gray eyes, the slow movements of one not entirely well, and the quick glances around the room, nervous, wary, watching.

"Mornin' Ezra, Mr. Bonteau," JD cheerily called out, moving past their table. Both gentlemen looked up at the interruption to their quiet meal, nodding their greetings. Ezra went back to his observations, now completely positive that Brett was troubled by something, be it physical ailment, or mental suffering. The old urges that had developed between them all those years ago surged forward, the need to shield and protect his brother almost overpowering. Ezra chuckled. 'Guess some things never change.'

A motion from the windows grabbed Ezra's attention, and he turned his green gaze to see what it was. Larabee paused, looking inside before nodding to the gambler and continuing on his way. Ezra watched the dark-clad gunman move out of view. Just like the others, he had kept away from Ezra and Brett, giving both men some time to become re-acquainted with each other, not wanting to get in the way of the family reunion.

Brett pushed back from the table, taking one last drink of his coffee before moving to stand. Ezra quickly joined him, both moving with the same grace as they made their way to the door, tipping their hats to Inez as she wiped down the bar.

Once outside, they stood, leaning against the railing for a moment. Ezra looked over at the man beside him, licking his lips before jumping in with both feet. "What's wrong, Brett?" he asked quietly, dropping his big vocabulary, not even looking at his brother. Brett just chuckled at his question, and for a moment, in the corner of his eye, Ezra saw Brett lower his mask, saw the pain and exhaustion in his eyes, the guantness of his frame. Then, it was back before anyone else saw it.

"I wondered just how long it would take you to ask that." He sighed deeply, casting his eyes down towards the church. "We need to talk...privately." Brett jerked his head in the steeple's direction, and Ezra nodded, stepping into the street without a word. Both men walked silently side by side, unconsciously falling into step with each other.

Upon reaching the church, Ezra peered inside, hopeing that Nathan and Josiah would not have begun their daily work on the building. Finding it empty, he motioned Brett inside, leaning against the back pew as Brett sank down across the aisle from him. Ezra waited for Brett to speak, feeling the tensness in his brother as he no longer tried to hide it.

"Did I tell you I actually took the vows of wedded bliss, brother?" he asked suddenly, catching Ezra off guard. The green eyed gambler looked at Brett incredusously.

"No. Congratulations." Ezra put no feeling behind his words, unsure if the reception to them would be one of thanks or scorn. Nothing. Ezra decided to do a little fishing. "Will she be joining you soon?" he asked, unable to miss the wince that went through Brett's body.

"No," he whispered. "She's dead." Ezra stood still, feeling the grief and pain radiating out from his brother. "Shot. By my gun, Ezra. By my own hand, I killed her." Brett looked up, his face a contorted mask of rage and anguish. Ezra still did not move, instead offering comfort from his eyes as he shifted his stance. He opened his mouth, but Brett continued, answering his question.

"She was unfaithful, Ezra. So, as was my right, I challenged her lov...the other *gentleman* to a duel. I had him, dead to rights. Except Jennifer...Jennifer...she, she jumped in front of him..." Brett stopped, drawing deep breaths as Ezra pictured the scene in his mind. Finally moving, Ezra stepped closer, placing a hand on Brett's shoulder, offering his acceptance of Brett's story, as well as his sympathy. After the duel with Chris at Waters' request, Ezra could most definitely empathize.

But Brett wasn't finished. Ezra listened as his friend turned brother related how the coward he had been to fight ran off, returning with a posse and a warrant for his arrest for murder. The murder of his own wife. Brett and Jennifer had been the only other two to know of the duel as it had been kept secret to protect the family's honor. And so, with Jennifer dead, the stranger had been the only witness.

"They would not believe me as my opponent was a man of large influence in New Orleans," Brett continued, his body slumped back against the wood of the pew. "So, with my hopes of emancipation rapidly diminishing, I absconded with all due haste. He has been following me ever since. No matter where I went, he was always one step ahead. So, I decided to try my luck out here. An abundance of open space, where one can vanish without a trace."

Ezra had long since sat down beside this man he called his brother, saying nothing as he listened. Even though Brett had learned the ways of conning from Ezra, he had never been good enough to fool his master. Ezra felt the truth behind his words, every fiber of his being telling him to believe Brett. But, his instincts also told him that the gray-eyed man was still holding something back. Deciding to not waste time beating around the proverbial bush, Ezra laid his hat down beside him and turned to Brett.

"What else?" Brett's head whipped up at Ezra's question, seeing that his brother already was certain he was holding something back. He smiled and shook his head, amused again at Ezra's long kept ability to read him like an open book. The smile soon disappeared from his face though, making it appear more haggard.

"It's just like the rest, Ezra. There is nothing you can do about any of it." Brett closed his eyes, fighting off the pain building in his chest. He had done his best to control the shivers running through his body, but he felt them trying to grow worse.

Ezra placed his hand on Brett's shoulder, squeezing lightly to offer what comfort he could. The gambler frowned as he felt the quiet shaking of his brother's body, along with a slight heat of a fever. 'I'll be damned! I guess Brett's a little better at hiding things from me than I thought!'

Brett was shuddering visibly, and Ezra tried to lay him down on the pew. A sudden fit of viscious coughing erupted from his brother, and Ezra immidiately held him still, helping the shaking hand to hold a handkerchief up to his mouth. When he pulled it away, Ezra saw the white satin stained with deep, red, blood. The gambler heard the door open and looked up, relieved to see the large form of Josiah as he made his way closer.

The ex-preacher could just barely make out the second form held in Ezra's arms, but he could clearly see the paleness of the sweat-slick flesh. Ezra jerked his head back out towards the door.

"Get Nathan! Now!" Josiah moved in closer, deciding to save a few steps, and gathered Brett's convulsing form in his arms, racing out towards the clinic. Ezra followed close behind, his brother's dropped hat clutched tightly in his hands.

Ezra stood at the window, his body stiff and rigid with worry as Nathan bent over his brother. Brett's ragged breathing was heavy in his ears, and Ezra raged that he could do nothing but wait. His green-eyes slid shut as another fit of coughing erupted from the man across the room. Ezra felt like he was about to explode.

Chris stood across the room, keeping his eyes moving between Brett's shaking form and Ezra's solid one. He recognized that posture all to well. It was the same as he had been for almost a year after Sarah and Adam's death. The gunman resisted the urge to sigh as he watched his friend. Friend. Larabee now had no trouble acquainting that word to Ezra.

When he had seen the look on Ezra's face at Brett's appearance, Chris had recognized that look too. It was the same look that had adorned his own face every time he'd laid eyes on his family. And now, that look would appear on his face with the safe return of these six men, no matter the length of time they had been gone. And just as Ezra suffered for his brother, Chris suffered right along with him.

Suddenly, the coarse sound of breaths from the bed became silent. Ezra whipped around, his eyes wide with agony. Chris cringed as he caught the look, knowing the pain deep in his heart, feeling it rip through his soul as it did through the gambler. Nathan quickly turned and held up a hand to Ezra.

"He's still here. The tonic I gave him is takin' effect now, helpin' ease his lungs." Ezra's shoulders slumped visibly, and the healer looked back at him closely. Ezra's face was devoid of anything but the raw emotions that ran through him. For once, Nathan had a clear view into Ezra's soul, and the healer was taken aback. Without the mask of cynicsm and arrogance, Nathan saw the concern and worry, but more troubling, the fear, doubt, and loss.

JD came into the room, breaking Nathan's gaze into the now-open gambler as he brought in the supplies Nathan had requested. The healer took them, sorting through several bottles before selecting one and measuring out a dose. As he brought it to Brett's lips, the gray-eyes opened, staring up at him. A small smile touched his lips and he waved the medicine away.

"Won't help," he whispered, finding even that small effort draining. Ezra turned his head at the sound of his brother's voice, straining to catch the words.

"You know what will?" Nathan asked, having a feeling about what was wrong with Brett, but figured the man might be able to shed more light on the subject.

"Nothing." Nathan forced Brett to meet his gaze, his eyes asking the question, dreading the answer. "Tuberculosis," the bed-ridden gambler mumbled. Nathan's shoulders drooped, looking back to see if Ezra had heard his brother's admission. By the stiffness of his back as he turned back to the window, Nathan assumed he had. Just then, JD decided to jump in, his voice conveying his confusion.

"What's tuberca... tubcerco... tubercu..." His voice faded as he took in the serious expressions on Chris and Nathan's faces.

"Tuberculosis. Other wise known as Consumption, JD." The answer came in a strained voice from Ezra, the tension in it wrapping around the room. The youngest member of the seven groped for words, but let anything he thought of die on his tongue as Ezra turned around, facing the man on the bed.

Brett held his gaze for a moment before slipping into a some-what restful sleep. Ezra leaned heavily against the wall, not noticing any other movement than the rise and fall of Brett's chest, until a warm cup of coffee was placed in his hand. He welcomed its warmth, nodding his thanks as Chris sat back down across the room. JD quietly left to go inform the others of Brett's condition.

Ezra's mind was wheeling from all he had been told this morning, his mind finally grasping the nagging thought that had been bothering him ever since Brett's story. If the man was always chasing him, he should know Brett wasn't healthy.

"Why can't the bastard just leave him alone to die in peace?" Ezra muttered, not noticing that his voice was loud enough to be heard by the others.

"Who?" Chris asked simply, wondering if he really and truly expected an answer. Ezra flashed his green gaze at the man in black before sighing deeply. And then, Ezra remembered the last time he had been in this clinic, with Chris, both men recovering from wounds received as payment for saving the other's life. Knowing he owed him at least this much, Ezra licked his lips, not sure where to begin.

Chris and Nathan listened carefully as Ezra's quiet southern drawl related all he knew. The gambler's eyes never left his brother's face during his narrative, his words flowing out in a monotone that was so unlike the normally vocal gambler that it gave Chris and Nathan chills.

A soft knock was heard on the door, and Vin's head peered around it. Ezra didn't even acknowledge his presence, but continued till the last, repeating his question again. Vin talked quietly with Chris for a moment, and Ezra rose to go back to the window.

"He can't let me live out my days. I'm still a threat to him." The voice was so soft that Ezra thought he had imagined it. And yet, when he looked back to the bed, he found himself looking into the eyes of his brother. Nathan was at his side in a moment as Ezra breathed a sigh of relief that Brett was awake once again.

Chris walked over, followed by Vin at a hand gesture from the gunman. "You think you could tell us what this guy looks like?" he asked, keeping his eyes from going up to where Ezra stood, his green eyes glistening in the light. Chris watched as Ezra locked eyes with his brother, nodding that he agreed to the offer of help. Brett nodded then, and Vin sat down on the bed, leaning in closer to hear the description.

"Tall man,black hair, black eyes. Always dressed impecably. Only, one of his lower extremities was slightly bent, and as such, was shorter than the other leg, so he walked with a limp. Also made him have to have a special saddle, one stirrup cut shorter than the other." The gambler sank down into the mattress to catch his breath. Vin nodded, his mind already going through all the newcomers in town, comparing them to the description he had.

"Do you remember anything about his horse? His gun, hat, anything?" Vin asked, looking for something he could go by without having to worry about getting close to a man before he knew. Brett nodded, replying with a small grin..

"Couldn't forget that piece of horseflesh within a million years. Big horse, sixteen hands at least, with the most captivating slope to the shoulder you've ever had the pleasure of seeing. And the color. Breathtaking, a steely blue roan... " Ezra smiled as he listened to his brother. Brett had always loved the horses, be it betting on them in a race, riding them himself, or just being around them.

The smile faded as he looked past the words into the tired, aching voice that brought them forth. The gambler had to fight down the rage he felt towards his brother's pursuer as it threatened to overcome him. He sent his mind back to what Brett was saying, staring out the window.

"I can recall nothing special about his gun except that he is quite good with it. His hat, now that I can remember. It caused him to fail in his attempts to take me by ambush more than once. Black, flat crowned, but with a silver concho band around it." Vin nodded, moving off the bed as Brett relaxed, sleep tugging at his body.

Ezra sighed as he listened until he was sure that Brett was sleeping soundly. Then, he made to turn around to face his friends when something on the street caught his eye. He drew a deep breath, turning back to the window, but clearly speaking to the other men in the room.

"A large blue roan and a flat crowned hat?" he asked, sure of his information, but wishing someone would correct him. Vin threw Chris a look and then walked over to join Ezra at the window. A rider was coming up the street at a fairly slow pace, the sun glinting off the silve of his hat-band. They watched as he moved towards the saloon, dismounting and then walking inside. With a slight limp.

Turning back to the black-clad gunman, Ezra nodded that his suspicions were likely correct. Chris nodded, laying a hand on Nathan's shoulder, conveying his message silently. 'Stay here, don't let anything happen to him.' Then, silently, the three men headed for the saloon.

Ezra, Chris and Vin made their way into the saloon, finding their man at a table, sipping a drink. Buck and JD looked up from their poker game at a nearby table, noticing the expressions and stances of their friends. Wilmington looked around, finally finding where their eyes were resting. The man was dressed sharply, almost like Ezra or his brother. His hat lay on the table in front of him, his black hair shining like a raven's wing under the low lamplight. The man in question looked up as the three approached.

"Can I help you, gentlemen?" he asked politely, leaning back in his chair, bringing his gun into easy access. Chris smiled. ' "...except for he was very good with it." ' Brett's words echoed in his mind, and Larabee saw that quiet confidence in the other's dark eyes. Almost black stare.

"Just like to make it a point to know who's in town, Mister. Can save a lot of trouble sometimes." The other man looked at them with a narrow gaze, drawing and releasing a deep breath as he scrutinized them.

"So, are you the local law in this municipality?" Chris nodded, pointing to JD and calling "Sheriff Dunne" over. JD sighed as he made his way to Chris. He had heard this stranger speak, and he was almost as bad as Ezra about using big words he couldn't understand. But, one glance at Ezra's stiff frame, and JD knew this was something serious.

"Well, in that case, perhaps we can save each other a lot of trouble." He smiled slightly at Chris, not letting it fade from his face as he stared into eyes that blocked a mind of pure ice. "Very well then, I believe a little introduction is in order. Might help to smooth the way for the wheels of justice to turn, eh gentlemen?" Still no response. 'Well,' he thought, 'This should get something from them.' Carefully, he pulled the corner of his black coat aside, revealing a round object pinned to his vest. "I'll start then. US Marshall Phillip Sherborne, out of New Orleans. I'm here looking for a man wanted for the murders of Mr. and Mrs. Alexander Marquis."

Ezra's poker face slipped for a moment, allowing the confusion to show plainly on his face. But, just as quickly as it had disappeared, it was back, but not before Sherborne had seen what was behind it. Chris had shifted his gaze to the gambler, not knowing what to make of this new twist, but waiting to see what Ezra's move would be. The marshall's voice cut through, dragging Chris' steely gaze back to the other man.

"Perhaps you will allow me to explain a few things too you as it seems that I have hit upon a nerve with your friend." Phillip pointed at Ezra who flicked his tongue out to the corner of his lip before nodding. 'If all else fails, 'the gambler thought, taking a chair, 'I'll at least know what charges they're trying to put up on Brett.' The others followed Ezra's lead, taking up positions that allowed half of them to watch Sherborne, and the other half to watch the front door.

Phillip noticed this and re-thought his first impression of these men. They were not merely gunmen, hired killers, but apparently a group that moved as one. They appeared to know just what went on in the other's heads when it came to defensive moves and he was sure that during a fight, these men would make even the most experienced soldiers reconsider their position.

They also did not have the air of the hired gun about them. Oh, they definitely exuded a presence that could be danger, but more like confidence, security, and...'Family', Phillip thought with surprise. These men had the feeling of family, in the way they spoke and looked. Sherborne noticed the man in black flash a look at the fancy dressed man by his side. A look that promised back-up, protection, and something else...the feeling of brotherhood?

Seeing that they were all looking at him to continue, the marshall drew a deep breath and then carefully brought out a piece of paper from his jacket pocket. He unfolded it and then handed it over to the one he assumed to be their leader. "The warrant for the arrest of Mr. Brett Bonteau, aka Brett BontJ, aka Brett DuMare." Phillip let the man look over the warrant at his own pace, watching as his eyes kept darting up to look around. Finished, he passed it on to the man on his left, the one with the stylish clothing.

"Mister....." Phillip waited for a moment, his eyebrows raised. Chris supplied his name, but none of the others. If they wanted to tell him, fine. But, with the marshall here, Chris knew they would have to be carefull, not just for Brett's sake, but for Vin's as well. Sherborne nodded and then continued.

"Mr. Larabee, two years ago, Mr. Alexander Marquis and his wife, Jennifer Bueller Marquis, were murdered in their house in New Orleans, by Brett Bonteau." Phillip noticed the man to Larabee's left tense and shifted his eyes to the possible threat. A quiet word passed from the black-clad gunman's lips and Ezra relaxed a little. Phillip continued, but kept his eyes on him none-the-less.

"It seems that before she married Mr. Marquis, Miss Bueller was considering a proposal from Mr. Bonteau. And, according to witnesses, when she told Bonteau of her impending marriage to Marquis, he seemed to just shut down. The wedding took place and they lived together for a year before Bonteau started showing up. Finally, on one night, Bonteau came over, exceptionally drunk. He began to cry out that Mrs. Marquis had been unfaithful and he challenged Mr. Marquis to a duel. Alexander Marquis had never been within twenty feet of a gun in his life, and had no intention of getting any closer now. But, he made the mistake of standing up. His wife, seeing what was to occur, attempted to move her husband out of harms way."

Phillip paused, seeing he had everyone's complete attention, especially the one that reminded him slighlty of one of the many riverboat gamblers he had seen. There was a light of denial in his eyes, and yet, at the same time, one of questioning acceptance, as if he were battling with what he knew before, and what he was being told now.

"Instead," Sherborne went on, his voice dropping unconciously, "Botneau's bullet hit her in the back. She dropped and Bonteau shot Alexander before running to the body."

"How do you know all of this happened this way?" The voice was a southern drawl, but it was tinged with a pain that he hadn't heard since his days in the Civil War. Phillip cleared his throat as the man in buckskins to Larabee's right threw the paper down in front of him, not bothering to look at it.

"Well, most of the details were provided by the servants of Mr. Marquis. Two of them saw it from the kitchen. And then, I arrived shortly after. I had been on my way to see Alexander because of Bonteau, to see if I could help stop his explosive visits. When I arrived, I heard loud screaming coming from the sitting room. Upon entering, I saw Bonteau with Jennifer's head in his lap, his arms around her. Alexander was dead. Bonteau heard me behind him, rose and fired, taking off out the back way."

Ezra sat up straight in his chair, his mind racing. The marshall caught his motion and turned to him. Taking in the clothing, Sherborne was given the distinct feeling that this man and Bonteau were cut from the same mold.

"You have something to add, Mister?" Ezra glanced at Chris, seeing the slight nod from the gunman.

"Ezra Standish. If Brett shot at you, you wouldn't be here." Sherborne nodded, a tight smile coming to his lips.

"I almost wasn't." Reaching up to his collar, Phillip pulled it down, showing the ugly scar at the juncture where his neck and shoulder met. Ezra sank back in his chair. Sherborne refitted his shirt, looking intently at the gambler across the table. "How do you know Brett Bonteau?"

Whatever answer Ezra might have come up with was cut off by the sound of shots. Within an instant, the six men were out on the boardwalk, looking around, their guns drawn. Chris saw Josiah running up from the church, and most people were looking in the opposite direction, implying where the shots had come from. With a heavy feeling in his gut Larabee took of running, the others not far behind as he went towards the shots. Towards Nathan's clinic.

Brett woke slowly, waiting to feel the tearing pain through his chest. He relaxed slightly as only a twinge of discomfort found its way up his body. He heard voices from across the room and barely opened his eyes, waiting to see if he was among friends or foes. His gray eyes came to rest on the black man that Ezra had said was a healer of sorts. 'Nathan', he thought.

The one he was talking too was unknown to Brett, but with her long golden hair and flashing blue eyes, she reminded him of Jennifer so much it hurt. He closed his eyes against the threatening tears. He missed her so much. Without meaning too, his ears picked up the quiet tones of their conversation. His body stiffened as Nathan spoke of the others going to confront the man on the blue roan.

Bonteau didn't hear much more as Nathan and the woman he called Mary walked out the door, the black man making some mention about walking her downstairs. As soon as the door was closed, Brett threw back the covers, struggling to sit up. He was still clothed, so the only thing he had to grab was his hat, which hung on the bedpost, and his gun belt, draped over the back of a chair.

He breathed deeply, fighting off the tremors as he moved, buckling the belt on and securing it to his leg. He looked out the door, his eyes immediately focusing on the horse in front of the saloon. Nathan had said the others went to meet him. He considered staying put, allowing somebody else to handle things. But then, his instinct kicked in and he knew he had to leave. He regretted not being able to talk to Ezra before going, but knowing where he was staying, he could now send letters or telegrams.

Resting his hand on the butt of his gun, Brett closed his eyes, reliving the moment when his life had disappeared into the pit of Hell. He heard a noise behind him and turned, his mind still back in the past, drawing his gun.

Nathan walked back into the room, his eyes going to the bed and his patient. Seeing that the bed was empty, he swung around, searching the room. Shouting out Brett's name, the healer lunged sideways as the southerner brought his gun up.

Brett snapped back to the present at the last minute, throwing his shot off. He watched Nathan fall to the ground as the echo of the gun's report hung in the air. Brett stood, frozen, not believing he had hit him.

Finally, after what seemed like an eternity, Nathan moved, holding his head in his hands. He had hit it on the table when he scrambled out of the way. He looked up, wiping a small trickle of blood from his forehead, and saw Brett standing there, his gun still out and pointed, but an expression of blank shock was on his face.

Seeing the man moving, Brett released his breath, turning to lean on the window sill. As he did, his gray eyes picked up the shapes of several men running from the saloon and then in his direction. He made out Ezra and then, his blood ran cold. Running beside his brother was the man who had been chasing him for what seemed like a lifetime.

Brett's heart almost burst at the site of his only friend coming towards him beside his greatest foe. With a ragged sob, the gambler turned and fled out the door, almost knocking Mary down as she came back to check on Nathan after the shots. Grabbing her arm, he pulled her with him down the stairs and towards the livery.

Buck and JD ran up to check on Nathan, the others staying down on the ground, looking around. They came back quickly, the healer moving a little slower as he tried to keep his vision clear. He filled them in on what had happened. Ezra couldn't look at his friend. The guilt he felt at what his brother had almost done was too much for him at the moment. Chris' sharp voice brought him back to the present.

"Alright, spread out. Find him, but don't use force unless you have to!" The men split up, Chris and Vin going towards the store, Buck and JD moving back towards the saloon and hotel, Nathan following Josiah around to the jail. Ezra looked at Sherborne, wanting to hate the man that had chased and harried his brother over so many miles, and yet, his instincts would not let him. The gambler hung his head, sighing. Finally, he jerked his head towards the livery.

"I'll come in from behind and we shall meet in the middle." Sherborne nodded in agreement, drawing his gun as he followed the smaller man's form into the darkness toward the stable.

Sherborne knew that he would find Brett as he walked through the half-open door, hearing the rushed sounds of someone saddling a horse. Peering around the corner, he saw a woman leaning against the wall, tears glistening in her eyes, and yet, she was not crying. She was doing her best to stay calm and not upset the man with her anymore than he already was.

Brett kept mumbling apology after apology to her as he worked at the horse, his fingers fumbling with tiredness. A slight noise behind him had him turned, Mary back in his grasp, his gun out. Sherborne stepped around the corner, his own gun raised, but not pointed, unsure if he could hit Bonteau with the woman in beside him.

"It's over, Bonteau. Let her go, she has no part in this." Sherborne kept his voice low, not wanting to startle Brett, nor bring the others running in and causing a problem. Bonteau coughed, his body trembling with the effort.

"No. You keep away from me, Sherborne. I'm innocent!" The marshall caught a small movement from behind Brett and knew that Standish had made his way inside. Now, if only he knew which side the other man would take. Brett began talking again, his voice raising with his panic and anger.

"Jennifer was mine! She loved me first. She wore my ring. He had no right coming in and trying to take her from me." Sherborne spoke softly, watching Ezra work his way up.

"Jennifer married Alex, Brett. She didn't belong to you. She was happy with him." Sherborne could see Ezra stopping to listen, trying to decide what to do. He heard another voice behind him. 'Damn!' he thought. The others had completed their search and were coming to the livery to check on them.

"NO!" Brett's emotions were running unchecked as he too heard the others coming. He felt his chances slipping away. "She wasn't happy. I had to get her away from him. He took her from me. I had every right to challenge him. To try and win her back." Brett noticed the shapes coming in the front of the stable and pulled his almost forgotten hostage closer, pressing his gun to her ribs.

"Let her go." Larabee's voice was ice in the air as he pointed his gun at Brett. Bonteau knew it was over, but his mind was no longer his own. Ravaged by sickness, haunting memories, and guilt, all he recognized was someone else trying to steal his beautiful blonde love from him. Someone was taking Jennifer from him again. He heard her crying and felt it tear through his heart. Not only were they trying to take her, she wanted them too.

His anger quickly left him, replaced by a tiredness and a hopelessness that ate at his soul. He released her, leaning back against the wall. Mary ran to Chris, collapsing against his dark form, feeling his arms go around her. The others lowered their guns, waiting to see what Sherborne would do now that he had his man.

Ezra stood shakily, the tears flowing unchecked from his eyes. He felt as if his soul had been dropped and shattered into a million pieces across the stable floor. The gambler had long ago thought himself immune to such feelings. After all, hadn't he had good practice ignoring them from his mother?

And here, the one thing he recalled from his childhood with affection was gone. Destroyed both in mind and body. He wiped his tears with the back of his hand, making no move to go forward. The pain in his heart radiated out and made his entire body weary and sore. Ezra holstered his gun before lifting both hands to cover his face as he sobbed silently.

Sherborne watched the violent play of emotions on the gambler's face, knowing that now would not be the time to call him forward. Instead, the marshall moved towards Brett, holstering his gun as he reached out for the man's quivering shoulder.

Brett saw the movement and felt his anger return. They had stole his health, his wife, and his heart. And after tonight, his brother would also be lost to him. Brett shoved outward, knocking Sherborne to the ground as he brought his gun up, aiming it at the first movement. Chris shoved Mary behind him, raising his pistol.

Ezra looked up as he heard the sound of Sherborne hitting the ground. He watched in horror as his brother aimed at Chris and Mary. He called out, his voice hoarse with emotion, as he drew his own gun. Brett turned, pulling the trigger as fast as he could.

Three shots sounded and the others watched, dumb-struck as both Ezra and Brett fell to the ground, unmoving.

Chris was moving before the sound of the shots had faded from the air, his blue eyes trained on Ezra's still form. As he reached the gambler, he saw Brett struggling out of the corner of his eye, but did not turn as he knew the others would take care of him. He barely noticed the dark stain spreading across the other man's white shirt as he cautiously turned Ezra over.

The gunman felt a sense of relief shoot through him as he watched the gambler's chest move up and down. Gently, he turned Ezra's head so that the smaller man was facing him. An angry red line oozed blood from his forehead, and Chris recognized the wound as a graze from on of Brett's bullets. A shiver went through him as the blonde realized how close they had come to losing Ezra. The wound was not serious, however, and Chris pulled his shirttail out of his pants, ripping off some of the dark fabric to press against the slightly bleeding injury.

Chris quickly checked the rest of Ezra's body, trying to find out where the third shot had gone. He wasn't entirely sure which of the two gamblers had fired it. His hand found a wetness on Ezra's upper left arm, and he carefully moved the jacket out of the way. His nimble fingers located both the entry and exit holes the bullet had made as it passed through the meat of his upper arm. A soft jangle of metal caught Chris' attention and he looked down, noticing for the first time the odd way Ezra's forearm pressed at the sleeve. Ripping more of his shirt, Chris pushed the cloth into the bullet holes before tearing the ruined sleeve open.

He saw at a glance what had happened. One of Brett's bullet had first hit the rig Ezra wore on his arm, then ricocheted off the ruined metal to strike his arm. Chris removed the tangled mess from Ezra's arm, noticing the dark bruise that was forming where the force of impact had rammed it into his arm. He felt the bones, and sighed with relief as he found them whole and sound.

Chris looked up just in time to see Nathan walking towards him. The gunman moved aside as the healer took his place, nodding with satisfaction at Chris' work. A slight shudder shook the man on the ground, and Ezra's green eyes opened slowly, his lips pressing together tightly as he moaned in pain. His head felt like it was being pounded on with a large hammer, and the fire that burned from his arm was so hot it almost felt cold.

The gambler felt the liquid wetness of blood on his arm and face, and turned to look at the two men that leaned over him. A sudden thought flashed through his brain and he fought his way to a sitting position, ignoring the flashing lights at the edge of his vision. He turned his eyes back to Nathan, the unasked question easily found in that emerald gaze.

"He's over there, Ezra. I did what I could?." The healer's voice faltered. "He's not goin' to make it." Chris swore softly at the news. He hadn't truly wanted to know about Brett, his mind already running in circles with what Ezra would go through if he had killed him. With a cry, Ezra lunged to where Sherborne was bent over a form, the pain from his head and arm seeming nothing compared to the agony that consumed his heart. Sherborne quietly moved out of Ezra's way, turning to look out the door.

"Brett," Ezra breathed, unable to say more as he watched the growing red stain as it spread on the white shirt. Nathan had placed a bandage on his chest, but Ezra could see that his aim had been true. The bullet had entered straight into Brett's chest. It was a miracle that the man had lasted this long. Ezra rested a shaking hand on the other man's stomach, ignoring the blood that started soaking the shirt with his touch. Brett's eyes fluttered open, the gray orbs focusing on Ezra's pain ridden face. A slow smile touched his lips and he licked them, fighting off a bout of rough coughing.

"Ezra." He saw the bloody wounds he had given the man he had called brother for so many years. "Please," he whispered, his eyes traveling from one injury to another, finally ending on the greatest injury of all, the one to Ezra's soul. The one that Brett so desperately needed to fix. "Forgive me, Ezra. If you can?" His voice faded as the coughs overtook him again, his lungs straining to work against the lack of blood that was getting to them.

"Now," the green-eyed gambler started, not caring about the tears that made his vision slightly blurry. "How could I not forgive my brother?" His voice was shaking, and Ezra fought off the shocking grief as he watched Brett fading away. Ezra's heart was squeezed even tighter as he watched Brett shake his head slightly, a small grin tug at the corners of his mouth.

"Whatever?.blood you gave me, Ezra?.it's been bled out of me long ago. From my lungs, my soul, and my heart. I could not be your brother?not now. Maybe not ever. I?.would not want to risk?.taking the goodness of your blood?and turning it into something?despicable." Brett was slipping further and further into the darkness, but he latched eyes with Ezra one last time, his smile growing broader. "I was already?. dead, Ezra. But?for a few hours?. I tasted life again. You always knew how to?. Ezra, do you remember, the time?."

Ezra bowed his head, his body shaking with sobs. Brett turned his head up, his eyes glazing over as his voice died in his throat. The tears mixed with the blood running off his fingers, and Ezra felt Brett's body shudder once before going still.

"I remember. Always, my brother. Always." His voice cracked on the last, and he cried, silently, the sobs gone as he gave his brother the mourning he gave the loss of his own soul. Ezra closed his eyes as he let his memory run, fulfilling his promise to always remember. At last, the flood of images stopped, a poem echoing in his head. Reaching up with his good hand, Ezra gently smoothed Brett's eyes closed, repeating it aloud almost like a prayer to his brother's soul.

"We aren't brothers by birth, We knew from the start. God put us together, To be brother's by heart." Looking down to where his hand still rested on Brett's body, Ezra watched the crimson stain of his blood spread out along the wrinkled white shirt until it met the stain of Brett's. Just the same as the night all those years ago, their blood mixed, joining them as brothers in the liquid from their hearts. And just as before, one left to seek his fate, and the other was left alone to feel the loss.

Ezra leaned down, resting his head on the spot where their blood met, feeling it's warm dampness against his forehead. He heard the others moving about, and finally moved as he felt Nathan's hands on his back and Chris' gentle voice in his ear.

"C'mon, Ezra. Let's go wake up Fidsworth so your brother can be taken care of proper like." Chris felt the gambler seem to crumble against him and the gunman straightened to support his weight as he led Ezra out livery into the dark night, Nathan following close behind as the others picked Brett's body up, making their own way down the street.

Sherborne was the last to leave, shutting the stable door behind him, but not before catching sight of the two dark stains in the straw that lay touching each other, their union glistening in the moonlight.

Josiah walked into the church, slapping the dust away from his sleeves as he set down the box of tools he carried in one arm, his other holding tightly to his suit. He'd changed clothes at the saloon after Brett's funeral. The service had been small, the other five men there to offer their support to their grieving friend. Even Mary and Sherborne had come, completing the ensemble.

The giant man made his way to the place where his rooms were, whistling an old hymn softly to himself. When he walked back out, he stopped suddenly, sensing the presence before finally finding it in a dark corner. Ezra sat, his head hanging, the white sling a direct contrast to the black jacket he wore. Josiah quietly walked back to the end of the pew Ezra was seated in, not saying anything as Ezra drew in several shaky breaths.

"Mr. Sanchez," he started, his voice sounding small inside the quiet church. "Once again, your words have proved moving and wise. Thank you." Josiah merely nodded. He had planned on doing Brett's service merely because he was the closest thing to a preacher. But, what he hadn't expected was for Ezra to come up and formally ask him.

The gambler had followed all the rules of propriety and formality for his brother's funeral, and now that it was over, there was nothing left to do. Ezra had busied himself with the preparations for Brett's final resting place, not leaving himself time to grieve or think, but acting on instinct alone. Now, the thoughts were free to roam his head and Ezra had sought refuge in the silence of the church.

As Josiah settled himself beside him, Ezra looked around. They were sitting in the same spot he and Brett had occupied only a short while ago, when his brother had revealed his past to Ezra. The gambler felt the same sense of kinship with the men who had come to the funeral, and sitting beside the quiet preacher, he found the courage to ask the question that had been burning in his mind.

"Josiah." Ezra kept his eyes cast down at his lap as he waited for a response. The older man turned to face him, his blue eyes serious as he waited for the gambler to continue. Ezra licked his lips. "Can I be forgiven of this?" His voice was so low Josiah wasn't sure he had heard him right. The giant man watched his friend carefully, taking in the glistening drops at the corners of that emerald gaze.

"You can be forgiven of everything if you ask it, Ezra." The gambler gave a slight nod of his head before turning to look Josiah straight in the eyes. The sorrow and grief held in those green orbs was almost too much for the larger man.

"How?" he asked. His question was simple and direct, and one that Josiah had no answer for other than Ezra would have to have faith. The gambler continued. "How? I killed my brother. I swore through my blood to protect and honor him, and then, I killed him. Isn't that one of the worst sins of all? The same sin that Cain was banished from God forever?" The smallest trace of a smile crossed Ezra's features as he took in the surprise in Josiah's eyes. "I do recall mentioning a short time in the ministry, Mr. Sanchez." The smile was gone as quickly as it appeared as his mind recalled the time. It had been the first con he had pulled without Brett's help, and the remembered feeling of loss only added to the present one.

Josiah nodded absently, his mind trying to come up with a response. He hadn't expected Ezra to come at him with such detailed arguments. After watching the other man for a moment, Josiah spoke.

"Yes, Ezra. Cain was banished from the land and the Lord for killing Abel. But, the main difference is, Cain killed his brother out of jealousy. You killed to save lives. Plus, no sin is greater another. If you truly seek it, forgiveness shall be yours." Josiah watched as Ezra's eyes closed, watching as the gambler visibly took in Josiah's words.

Ezra wanted to believe that he could find relief from the pain in his soul. He needed to believe it. Opening his eyes, he saw Josiah watching him closely, the truth and belief in his words shining at him from the blue gaze. Ezra's head sank to his chest as the tears fell unchecked. Josiah placed a gentle hand on the shaking shoulders, offering his silent strength to the weary man.

Finally, the emotional drain of the past few days poured from the gambler's soul, and he felt the first strains of healing come through the quiet touch on his shoulder. He knew that none of the men he now considered family would ever take the place of Brett, but they had made their own place in both his heart, and his life.

Ezra wiped his face with his good hand, offering a shaky smile at Josiah before standing. The preacher stood with him, and stepped aside to let Ezra pass. He stood, watching the gambler walk to the doors, his shoulders set a little straighter than they had been since he had helped carry the casket of his brother this morning.

The sun streamed in through the door as Ezra opened it and stepped outside, the quiet morning suiting his mood perfectly. Josiah found his heart urging him to go with the gambler, to protect him from any more harm than what had already befallen him in his tortured life. A smile graced his face as he thought of one of the verses Ezra had referred to. ' "Am I my brother's keeper?" '

Just then, a form from the back of the church caught Josiah's eye. He watched, the smile disappearing from his face as he saw the man stop at the door, his form silhouetted against the outside light. The long duster he wore flapped lightly about his legs as he placed the flat-crowned hat on his head. Josiah nodded at the back of the tall gunman as he made his way outside, turning to follow the receding form of Ezra.

The smile returned as he answered his own question. 'Am I my brother's keeper? Only one of six.' Josiah said a quick prayer for the blessings of the day ahead, as well as those to come. And at the end, watching the black-clad form grow smaller with distance, Josiah said a special request.

"And Lord, bless my brother's keeper."

The End

Genesis 4: 8-10 - "(8)Now Cain said to his brother Abel, 'Let's go out to the field.' And while they were in the field, Cain attacked his brother Abel and killed him. (9)Then, the Lord said to Cain, 'Where is your brother Abel?' 'I don't know,' he replied. 'Am I my brother's keeper?' (10) The Lord said, 'What have you done? Listen! Your brother's blood cries out to me from the ground."