Fork in the Road

Leigh Richards & Peta Collins


Continued...

FIVE

The four men met on the porch of the Sheriffís Office. Two sat down on chairs, while the other two leaned back against the beam that lay across the edge of the porch.

No one spoke for instant, they didnít have too each of their faces was lined with a worry and concern, that indicated volumes about the content of their conversation.

Chris rubbed his leg and leaned back in the chair, inclining his head to look up at Wilmington and Tanner, Dunne was seated next to him.

"I spoke with Standish early this morning he rode to Eagle Bend, said he needed to have some time to get his head together," Chris said, watching the frowns appear on the lined faces already.

Wilmington slapped his leg, "Aw hell Chris, his running away." Wilmington shook his head in disgust when his mind returned to yesterdaysí events. He knew what it felt like to not know who one of your real parentsí were. Buck had spent his whole life wondering who his father was. ĎPerhaps thatís why me and JD got along so well.í He mused silently.

JD cleared his throat, meeting the ladiesí manís intense gaze. "I donít think that his running away, we spoke a bit and I think he just needs to sort himself out."

"I agree JD." Tanner declared softly, his blue eyes watchful and guarded. "But, heís runniní from the scene of the crime and his friends. So if-"

"If doesnít come home tomorrow morning, we ride for Eagle Bend that afternoon," Chris finished with a grin, his smile faded when he saw Josiah entering the Saloon with Jackson.

None of them had been able to bring themselves to speak to them since yesterday afternoon on the porch. "Now, how are we going to deal with those two," Chris asked nodding his head in the direction of the Saloon.

Tanner shifted just in time to see the door swing shut behind the two big men. "Iíll deal with Josiah, Chris - Me and him weíve got a few things to sort out," he said flatly, his blue eyes flashing.

Wilmington raised an eyebrow at Chris who shrugged.

Chris wasnít sure what was going on there but he let it go, besides Jackson was going to be enough of a handful.

Dunne leaned forward, "I wanna talk to both of them Chris, but not right now. I am still too angry - so it's best to leave it for a few days."

"Canít hide from it forever. JD," Buck said, running a hand over his eyes, tiredly.

JD sat up, slightly affronted, "I ainít hiding from it Buck. I am just following yours and Chrisís advice, I might say things that will make this situation worse, and I ain't ready to destroy this group yet, are you?" He challenged, standing up defiantly.

Buck raised his eyes and looked at the kid - really looking at him, what he saw made him proud. ĎWhen in the Sam hell had the boy turned into a man?í

"Sorry kid - JD," he amended, "I am just not thinking clearly is all. Didnít sleep at all last night and this - " He stopped abruptly, and Tanner reached over to pat his leg gently in support.

"You ok Buck?" Tanner queried softly, seeing the haunted look that shadowed his friends face.

Wilmington nodded meeting the tracker's eyes briefly before looking away. ĎWhen this mess is sort out, I will be," he said quietly, turning back he looked at the other men. "I am fine," he reiterated.

Dunne raised an eyebrow, "If you say so, Buck," he thought quietly.

Chris stood and rested his hands on the railing, leaning against it he stared at the Saloon deep in thought. "Ok. This is what weíre gonna do.," he began.

Nathan paused from where he sat seeing two shadows fall across his wooden floor. Looking up he saw Buck and Chris standing in the doorway of his clinic. "Can I help you fellas?" he queried, rising to his feet.

Buck smiled coldly, "Well that depends , got anymore secrets to share? Or are you done for now?" his blue eyes hard.

Nathan looked away from them, his jaw clenching in anger or guilt Chris wasnít sure. Turning to Buck as he said quietly, "Now come on Buck, you know we came to talk it ainít gonna help if youíve already made up your mind." He laid a hand on Buckís arm.

Blue eyes flicked to Chris as he jerked his arm away. "Hell, Chris he convicted himself." He stormed striding into the room.

"Easy Buck," Chris said, following his old friend.

"Easy?" he laughed "Like he was on Ezra yesterday? He didnít even wait for Standishís story, he had already made up his mind," he said angrily.

Chris spared a quick look at Nathan who was standing frozen in the same spot at the verbal censures . "Well I suppose it was bit harsh" Chris said, placating the taller man.

Buck shook his head angrily. "No! Harsh donít even cover it. Nate betrayed us all, he had no right to tell Ezra."

Chris cocked his head to the side as if considering the words. "Yes, that belonged to Maude," he said quietly.

Buck nodded his head vehemently, "Damn right it did. I hope you're happy Nathan you got what you always wanted - too hurt Ezra, a no good southerner." With that he stormed from the room.

"I didnít want too." Jackson stuttered his brown eyes pleading his leader to understand, who stood watching him .

"I reckon weíve all said some bad things in anger. I know I have, but what you did was bad even if Josiah told you, think about how you would feel in Ezraís place," Chris drawled, turning he left Jackson alone with his thoughts.

Chris met Wilmington who was waiting in the street "That went well" he said with a tight grin that matched the ladies man.

"Come on lets go get a drink," Buck drawled slapping the man on the shoulder. Both nodded to Vin as he walked out of the saloon, the grim set of his mouth was enough to tell them where he was going, the Church.

"How did it go?" JD inquired as he poured the two men a drink.

"Brilliant" Buck pronounced sarcastically, placing his hat on the table.

"Buck had Nate so confused he didnít get to say a word." Larabee said, grinning wickedly, as he took a sip of whisky.

Dunne frowned "Wasnít that your plan?" He countered as he flipped brown hair away from his eyes.

"Hell yeah kid" Buck said, looking over at the younger man. "Iím just saying it was a good performance" his smile not reaching his blue eyes.

Dunne shook his head as he muttered "Ask a question..."

Buck turned around as he cuffed the younger manís head. "What did you say kid?" Chris grinned silently, enjoying the light banter as they waited for Vin.

+ + + + + + +

The banging of the hammer could be heard clearly as Vin walked up to the entrance of the old Church. Sighing he mentally collected himself before he rapped on the door and entered. Josiah turned and watched the tracker for an instant. "Vin.í He greeted quietly. "What can I do for you brother?"

The trackerís eyes flashed briefly before returning to an icy stare. "We need to talk."

The preacher nodded placing the hammer on the ground and seating himself on one of the wooden pews. "This about Ezra?"

Tanner nodded, seating himself in a pew opposite the preacher. "Think it's about time you and I had some words. What you did Josiah, I ainít gonna forget none too easily. Youíve about destroyed Ezra."

Josiah shook his head. "It needed to be done.," he muttered quietly.

Tanner rose abruptly, banging the pew with the flat of his hand. "Had to be done. It was between JD and Ezra. Youíve nearly destroyed the entire team. Now, I ain't told anyone about your sister."

Josiahís eyes flew up meeting the granite look of the seasoned Tracker. "But" Vin continued. "I couldíve many a time. I - chose - to respect your privacy. You should have respected Ezraís. If he had needed to know Maude wouldíve told him. You even told Nathan and not Ezra. It's unforgivable Josiah. Now, I wonít be surprised if Ezra doesnít trust you again." He paused turning away from the preacher who sat in stunned silence at the quiet fury emanating from the other man. "I know one thing Josiah, I wonít be confessing to you again..at least not for a long while." Vin shook his head in disgust, flicking his hat against his leg he marched out of the Church.

Josiah's soft voice stopped at the door. "I am sorry Vin," he whispered.

"Ainít me you should be apologizing to," he replied softly, meeting the preacherís gaze. Vin noted for the first time a look of dawning understanding at the magnitude of damage he had inflicted in the preacherís gaze. Of the damage he had done to his friendship with the other men. With a shake of his head at the older man Vin was gone pulling the door firmly shut behind him.

Vin strode furiously into the Saloon, pausing for a second to see where the other men were seated. Striding quickly over, he glared at the other men when they would over spoken. "I ainít waiting to this afternoon we ride now," he said, turning and walking out to where his horse was standing already saddled for the journey to Eagle Bend.

Chris frowned after the tracker and met the two other menís gazes. "Guess that talk with Josiah went well," he drawled, pushing back his chair to follow the slighter man.

Buck grinned. "Iíd say so. Come on JD. Weíve got a friend to collect."

JD was already standing and moving to follow the other men. "Letís go," he said, banging through the Saloon doors and in one fluid movement hopped onto his horse.

Chris gave Mary a salute as the four men rode out of town towards Eagle Bend. She smiled nervously. Her eyes catching Chrisís for a second that told him he would be missed. Buck shook his head at the by play, Would those two ever get their act together? he thought.

Vin nodded at her, while Buck and JD smiled. Chris slowed and turning back, he rode towards Mary, who moved over to the edge of the railing. She nodded at whatever it was that Chris said, and with a slight smile that was answered by Mary he turned his black mare and rode after the other men. "Told her weíd be a few days, and to let Josiah know that weíve gone."
"What about Nathan?" JD asked curious, then shook his head. "Guess heíll found out by word of mouth then huh?" Letting his horse take the lead towards Eagle Bend.

Tanner grinned half-heartedly, his thoughts still with the talk with the preacher. Chris smiled, patting his horses neck thoughtfully. His mind like the other three men was already at Eagle Bend trying to figure out just what of state of mind the gambler might be in, with a shake of his head he tried to dismiss his morbid thoughts. "Letís just get there," he muttered, Tanner and Wilmington raised an eyebrow at that, but let it go after all they were all thinking the same thing.

SIX

The man lay curled up on his side in the alley, he didnít know what time he had come out here, sometime early in the morning. He hadnít even bothered to play poker the cards making him think of to many painful memories. Right now all he wanted to do was die. No. He didnít want to die. He couldnít just give up. But, what was there to live for?

The other men wouldnít want anything to do with a bastard now, he thought, his blood shot eyes looked at the empty alley.

He could see the storm clouds gathering and knew he should get up and find shelter, but he just didnít have the energy. There was some part of him that registered the familiar voices but when he looked up they were gone. Phantoms. They wouldnít come for him.

He was nothing. Everyone left; they were right. He was trash.

He didnít deserve to be their friend, he never had. His whole life had been a con. He was a nobody a faceless no-name.

His mind burned with memories of Maude always leaving, promising to come back. Now he knew no one would ever come back for him he was worthless scum, hell the other men would be better off. He had no one.He was no one. Curling himself up tighter as the rain started to pelt down, he shut his eyes as the tears ran freely down his face. He was alone again, naturally.

+ + + + + + +

They had searched the town and nothing. They knew he had a room at the hotel. So where was he? Vin sighed wearily as they stood on the boardwalk none of them wanted to give up yet, they - would - find him.

"Should we ask around a bit?" JD said as he cocked his head to the side, to look at the patrons in the bar.

"Couldnít hurt" Vin responded, as he followed the younger man into the saloon.

He glanced to see if the two other men were following, but Buck just nodded his head at them, before returning his thoughtful gaze to the lane behind the saloon.

Buckís contemplative gaze met Chrisís, who nodded, the same thought suddenly occurring to him.Quickly, they both hurried out into the rain.

Vin raised his eyebrow at JD who shrugged perplexed he didnít know what had just transpired either.

Just as suddenly as they had left, they returned. Buck came charging back through the doors of the saloon, that JD and Vin had just entered. "Get us a room," he snapped before he was gone. The two stared after him in confusion, but hurried to do his bidding.

"They mustíve found Ďim," Vin said quietly as they got the room.

Then Buck and Chris were there carrying a limp Ezra into the hotel and up to the room the gambler had acquired the previous day. Vin was suddenly pleased that they had been able to do get the adjacent rooms. Vin and JD watched silently as the two older men stripped the southerner of his saturated clothing and dressed him in dry clothing. Ezra blinked at them not really seeing them at all, just following the motions that they led him through. No one spoke as Buck and Chris tucked him into the bed.

"Why?" Ezra whispered plaintively, before he fell asleep.

The devastation and loneliness in that one word tore through them all.

JD swallowed hard and walked quickly out of the room. Vin watched him go about to follow when Chris motioned that he would go and have a chat with the young man.

Wilmington sat down on the side of the bed as he looked at his friend. He looked so fragile. All the walls that had defined Ezra as who he was were gone. The cocky self-assured man was gone to be replaced with the same loneliness that had dogged Chris since his familyís death. Only Standish didnít seem angry, he seemed lost. He was pulled from his thoughts when Tanner sat down beside him.

"Where was he?" His soft texan drawl echoing around the room.

Buck sighed and scrubbed a rough hand over his face. "Out the back of the saloon, curled up on his side," Buck paused. Vin was angry enough he didnít want to fan the flames with announcing that Ezra had been...

"Crying" Tanner finished grimly.

Buck nodded sadly, saying thoughtfully,"He kept whispering one word over and over again." At the curious gaze from the tracker he continued, "alone..."

"What about us?" Vin countered, his blue eyes meeting the sad azure ones.

"I reckon he probably thinks we donít care... Hell! Josiah kept it from him and told Nathan" Buck muttered.

Tanner nodded his eye narrowing in anger, he didnít dare speak his anger molten. Wilmington breathed out heavily as the silence fell between them, both watching the slow rise of the gamblerís chest.

+ + + + + + +

The four men sat silently observing the movements of the other man. He hadnít said a word at seeing them there when he woken up - that alone was surprising.

Standish liked to talk. He liked to use fancy words. Yet, all morning he had just sat silently, occasionally looking at them, before glancing away quickly, avoiding their gazes. Larabee sighed wearily, seeing that Standish kept his eyes on the ground or the window.

The non-verbal nature was frighteningly familiar to Chris. He shared a melancholy look with Buck, who nodded. He also was remembering when Chris had been similarly taciturn and distant. It was shocking, for none of them had ever seen the gambler so devastated.

He looks so heartbreakingly vulnerable. Buck thought watching Vin set a plate of food down in front of the southerner who looked up at Vin with gratitude.

The tracker nodded smiling gently as he patted the other manís shoulder, saying in his soft quite drawl "We here for ya."

Standish gave a slight nod, as he quickly lowered his gaze away from the men. Still they all had seen the disbelief in the haunted green eyes.

Chris looked at the other men they faced an uphill battle in trying to convince the gambler that he was needed. But, Buck smiled grimly at them, he had survived Chrisís demons he would survive Ezraís. The other men nodded silently at the determination written on Buckís face. They would all make him to see why he was part of them, why he was family.

+ + + + + + +

Ezra scrutinized them. He couldnít help but wonder why they stayed, he was nothing - a nobody. But, they were here and they had come searching for him. Ď

Maybe I not worthless. I can get through this.í Ezra told himself.

His eyes drifted to the five men who sat in various positions of repose around the small hotel room and his mind drifted to the two absent members. He could understand Maudeís actions, it explained a lot about their relationship.

But, right now the pain of Jacksonís and Sanchez betrayal seemed to sting more than Maudeís. That confused him. He had known that he was beginning to care for these men, he had never had brothers before this, until now. But why would they lie?

Why didnít Josiah tell him? Why did he tell Nathan instead? Didnít he have the right to know? ĎGod! Why did he have to face this? Why couldnít he have continued to live the lie? He felt his gut tighten at the magnitude of what had occurred and his mind shied away from truly acknowledging it. God, Maude had been conning him his whole life.

Why hadnít he seen it? Why did she stay and what did she gain from it? His head ached from the questions that seemed to be overwhelming him.Ezra ducked his head pushing away the plate of foot, he didnít have the stomach for it. He wasnít the least surprised when it was pushed back, looking up at the tracker he sighed tiredly. Ezra could see the compassion there, but he couldnít handle it. They cared for him these men? Why? Shaking his head he turned his face away willing himself to hold onto some of his control.

He could not handle this, standing abruptly, he walked away from them to the window. Resting his head against the cold window pain he realized that he had never felt so lost in his life. He wanted to talk, but he just didnít have the words. His head was swimming with too many thoughts, too many feelings. Slowly, he sank to the ground, curling his arms around his legs, he hid his face away from these men. He didnít want them to see his tears.

+ + + + + + +

Vin frowned, seeing Ezra rise and walk to the window, the pain he was in was apparent. Tanner wondered briefly if this was how Chris had been when he discovered the deaths of his family.

Shaking his head as he watched the gambler sink to the floor trying valiantly to hide his pain from them. Why wouldnít he let them help? Vin thought idly. He pushed the thought away, as he realized that right now Ezra was terrified that they might betray him as well.

"Iíve never lied to you Ezra," Vin said softly, kneeling down beside him. He saw the slight shudder that ran through his friend. "I promise you I havenít," Vin assured ,resting his hand on the shoulder of his friend.Standish looked up at him then and Tanner could see the plea and anguish on the gambler's face.

"Iíve never have," Vin whispered. He noted Ezra bite his lip and shake his head slightly and intuitively, he knew what the man was trying to say. "Well, not about the important stuff, a little white lie maybe..," he said, his blue eyes serious. He was relieved to see a slight smile flitter across his face, before he saw the manís eyes fill with tears. Sitting down beside Ezra, Vin gave him the physical contact that he was so unwilling to ask for and reaching out he enfolded him in a hug. Tanner held on as the gambler wept.

The three other men watched the man cry and without a doubt JD knew that this image would be imprinted on his memory forever. He had wanted to help Ezra, but the pain that emanated from him had sent him into a spin. All he could feel was the pain of what Luc had done to him. Now, to see Standish to go through it, was almost too much, shaking his head he looked away.

SEVEN

It had been a day and half since Ezra had broken down, he still he hadnít spoken. The three men sat silently in the empty saloon. "We have to get him to face it," Buck declared, throwing back another shot of the amber fiery liquid - whisky.

"But how?" JD said as he leaned back in his chair.

"Why not just talk to Ďim, so far we havenít," Vin pronounced, looking lazily around the saloon.

Wilmington sighed gazing over at the two of them. "It ainít going to be pretty, if it's anything like Chris, well he may not want to see us for a good long time," he said cautiously, trying to prepare both men so that they were aware of what could happen.

JD frowned. "Well, weíll be here when he comes back," he said firmly.

Buck smiled at the younger man and Vin nodded approvingly. "Right then, lets go see Chris and Ezra," the tracker drawled, as he threw back a shot and rose to his feet. He headed exited quickly, walking towards the hotel with the two other men in tow.

+ + + + + + +

"Look we understand," Vin began, his blue eyes taking in the dejected man who sat by the window. JD had already tried to talk to him, but Standish had barely acknowledged him.Chris had fared no better, he now stood blocking the door in case Ezra tried to run again. "We Understand," Vin repeated leaning against the window frame, deliberately invading Ezraís space.

Ezra glowered at the tracker, as a harsh mocking laugh erupted from him. "You understand?" he muttered quietly. He stood angrily facing the other men. "You understand!" He fumed, his green eyes flashing, continuing his voice husky from neglect. "How can you possibly understand? Tell me, Mr Tanner. How is it that you have any insight into my situation? Did your mother lie and pretend to be your mother? Or were you betrayed by your friends? Please tell me when or if that sounds familiar?" he said sarcastically, stepping forward to confront the tracker physically and verbally.

Vin stared back coolly, not shifting from his position. "Iíve been taken for a fool Ezra many times, and my situation isnít like yours I - know - it, but weíre here for you."

Standish stepped back shaking his head as he glanced away. "Yes now, but..." he whispered to himself as his thoughts turned inwards.

Buck stepped in front of the gambler, as he saw Vin was losing him. "What they did is unforgivable, but look here you need to face the fact that we came here to help you," he reprimanded gently, angry green eyes met his.

"You know I can understand Maude, hell JD is right she stayed, always came back, but Nathan? Josiah?" Ezraís voice cracked on their names, and he took another step back, shying away from the hand that the tracker reached out to lay on his shoulder.

"I know. Hell we all hate them for what they did," Buck said, carefully waiting for Standish to explode, it was like stepping on hot coals.

"Damn it! Buck! Why donít you just leave? Sooner or later everyone does, so just go all of you," Ezra snapped, running an agitated hand through his hair.

"No . Youíre one of us," Chris voiced firmly from his position in the doorway. Standish scoffed looking away.

"What is it?"JD asked softly, moving over to the distraught man.

Ezra was aware of the questions that kept firing at him and frankly, he was beginning to tire of it. He heard them ask several more questions and that was it he exploded. "I am bastard in the fullest sense of the word . Okay? - None - of you can know what thatís like!" He yelled trying to keep his anger and devastation under control.

But Buck fired back "We donít know?" He mocked sarcastically, "Hell, you think you're the only ones with problems Ezra? I grew up in a whore house. Yeah thatís right," he snapped, seeing the looks of surprise on the other men expressions shot at him.

"At least you had mother figures." Standish retorted back cuttingly.

"Oh Yeah, sure I did in a way," Buck replied flatly, ignoring the expressions of disbelief on the three other menís faces, he gave a wave of dismissal with his hand. This wasnít about him it was about the man standing in front of him, his body taut with emotion and grief.

"But at least she was there," Ezra disputed, his accent thickening with emotion. He frowned for a moment after he saw Buck nodded in response. "When I was younger uhh..she dumped me from place to place. And I would tell myself sheís my mother she has to come back," he paused lost in thought. A bitter harsh laugh escaped him as he glanced up at them, "and you want to know the ironic thing? The only way I could get myself to stay with her was to help with her cons, but it didnít matter because I was with her...even then," he trailed off afraid he had revealed to much.

"Even then what..." Buck pressed his blue eyes pinning the gambler's glistening green ones.

"Even then, when they called me a bastard, it didnít matter. You see, I didnít care who my father was. I had a mother that was enough... But now ...now I donít even have that. Now, Iím no one," he finished, his breathing quickening at their sorrowful gazes. They wonít want me around. Ezra thought suddenly, as he gazed at his comrades. Spinning away from the concerned expressions he murmured "I donít need your sympathy.. I donít." He was trying desperately to hide the fear, that had jolted through him at the idea that these men didnít need him.

"What are you afraid of Ezra?"Vin asked quietly into the silence.

Standish flinched drawing in a ragged breath he bowed his head resting his shaky hands on his hips. "How... why?" He stuttered, licking his suddenly dry lips. "Why didnít they tell me? Didnít I have a right to know?" He asked trying to deflect the question with another.

Vin shook his head at the other men, that wasnít the fear that was keeping the Southerner from facing them. "You donít think weíd want you around now is that it" He asserted bluntly.

Standish looked up in surprise his green eyes widening as he stared at the tracker. "But how... I didnít say..." He stopped abruptly, chewing on his lip.

Vin smiled gently at him and Standish nodded his eyes darkening. Tanner knew the way his mind worked, after all he was a tracker and bounty hunter. Vin had made a living off reading peopleís actions and figuring out their thoughts.

"We want you to stay Ezra, but we ainít going to force you to be with Josiah and Nathan if you donít want to" Vin said, touching him gently on the shoulder, pleased when Ezra didnít move away.

Ezra ducked his head again whispering "It is the first place that has ever felt like home."

Vin nodded replying as JD came to stand on the other side of the Southerner. "For me too."

Dunne rested a hand on the tense back muscles , saying softly to Ezra," It takes time."

EIGHT

The fire seemed to crackle in the cold night air. Standish sat hunched over his mug, he hadnít said anything for sometime. Buck frowned at him from across the fire, yesterday had been too easy. The gambler still was stewing over something. "You want to talk?" Chris asked from across the fire at the man who sat huddled in his elegant green coat. "No" came the weary response.

Vin shrugged as he skinned the rabbits for their dinner. The other men chatted idly as Standish suddenly stood dumping the contents of his mug on the fire striding away into the night. Buck rose quickly, signaling to the others that he would follow.

Standish hadnít gone far. He leaned against a tree and he didnít seemed to be surprise that one of them had followed him. "Why do you keep doing that?" He asked bitterly.

Buck grimaced in confusion before understanding what Ezra had meant. "You mean follow ya?" He inquired as the gambler sighed in exasperation.

"Yes, that Mr Wilmington."

"Well, Hell, Ez, it's because we care."

"Yes and why do you Buck? I mean why is it that you need a good for nothing con-artist in your ranks? " He challenged angrily, his eyes flashing in the moonlight.

"Why?" Buck echoed incredulously, Ezra however wasnít finished.

"I mean what am I to you? I have caused more friction within this group of merry men, than any other I have single-handedly run out on an unfortunate incident that almost resulted in your deaths. So tell me. How is it you trust me? How is it Mr Wilmington that I can trust any of you again? " He finished raggedly, sagging weakly against the tree.

"Because, God damn it Ezra! Youíre one of us. Hell, we didnít start off on the best foot, but youíve saved my hide hundreds of times and your skills as a con-artist have saved many lives. Hell youíve got to have brass balls, with the things you do," Buck said, grinning wryly as the other man gave a slight cough of embarrassment at the words. "Hell, not many men walk into a camp dressed as a lady to save another and you went off on your own to save them Chinatown workers. - A damn fool thing to do -.... Hell Ez, youíve tricked and lied so many times to save our hide." Buck paused looking away eyes shadowed, "I donít want to think about what might have been if you hadnít been there. So you're asking why we need ya? Well, Iím telling ya because you even out a team and the team wouldnít be the same without you." His voice increased in volume as he became more impassioned, carrying to the men by the fire.

Standish stared at the ladies man in amazement. "You canít believe that" He whispered leaning against the tree for support.

"Hell, yeah I believe it," Buck replied gripping the southerners shoulder. "We need you," he said firmly. Standish licked his lips nervously. Buck repeated firmly, declaring matter of factly. "We need you, and you need us"

Ezra nodded breathing heavily as he tried to keep his emotions in check as he whispered gruffly, "Thank you Buck" Wilmington nodded smiling as led the southerner back to the fire.

+ + + + + + +

The five men rode slowly into Four Corners, none of them saying a word as Standish slowed his horse. They all just matched his pace. He had joked around a little with them,but the anguish was still evident in his expression. Yet the Southerner they knew was slowly beginning to re-surface again even playing poker with them the night before.

"You okay Ezra?" Chris asked as he slowed his horse to ride beside the Southerner. The gambler glanced sideways at him, trying to decide whether he should lie or not. "No" he responded tiredly.

Chris slapped him on the shoulder gently. "If you donít want to see them, it's your call," Larabee said resolutely, his eyes darkening with anger at what the two absent members of his team had done.

"No, it's just..." Ezra waved his hand in the direction of Four Corners with a shake of his head he remained silent.

JD who had slowed to ride on the other side said heavily, "It takes time." His brown eyes met the sad green ones.

Ezra nodded as he looked around his companions. If anyone should know about the pain he was feeling it would be them. Letting out a deep breath he kicked his horse into a trot to ride into town.

Ezra could see the healer and Josiah sitting out the front of the saloon. Steeling himself as he dismounted tethering his horse, he walked boldy up to the two men. Sanchez looked at him sadly, "Iím so sorry...," he started as Jackson looked any where but at the southerner his posture one of guilt.

Standish held up his hand as he looked over their heads an out across the town. He swallowed hard before drawling softly, his accent thick. "This town and you all mean to much to me. " His green eyes flicking back to look at the two men. The healer and preacher wincing physically at the pain reflected there.

Josiah closed his eyes in regret. Jackson cleared his throat, "Iím sorry Ezra," he said quietly, his eyes travelling to the rest of the group who nodded slightly.

Standishís brow furrowed thoughtfully. Sighing deeply, he said. "I can forgive you I just donít know if I can trust you again" Ezra turned and walked away, not looking at them again as he led his horse to the stable.

The two men watched him go with sadness. "You think heíll ever trust us?" Nathan asked softly. Sanchez shrugged his eyes hooded with pain.

Dunne answered with an authority that belied his years. "Maybe one day. You betrayed him and broke his trust. Thatís not an easy thing to forget." The words hung in the air, as JD turned and followed after the Southerner leading several of the horses to the stable.

Sanchez shook his head in disbelief. "Out of the mouths of babes."

Larabee grinned correcting softly. "No, out of the mouths of - men ..."

Tanner and Wilmington laughed and with that all of them headed into the Saloon. It was a step towards forgiveness and that was all that could really be said for now. Larabee, dusted off his hat pushing open the doors, he reflected, that the Seven could grow stronger as a result of this incident. One look at Sanchez and Jackson had assured the other five men, that they were repentant and that was a start.

Ezra and JD entered slowly. Ezra joined the other men with only a slight halt in his step, seating himself between JD and Chris. "I need a drink," he drawled quietly, accepting the one that Jackson offered him.

Yes, Larabee thought, it was a step towards forgiveness, maybe they would all get through this after all.

Fini

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