by Heather F.

Thanks: Mitzi and Wendy H. "Thanks...again"-H

Notes: Might need to read Misconceptions and Conversation...but maybe not.. this was suppose to be a lot shorter...

Part 1

Vin Tanner leaned back in his chair. He rested his worn boots up on a crate. Callused hands rested behind his head. He ignored the muffled sounds that wafted over and under the batwing doors of the saloon. The mid morning sun kept the autumn chill at bay but the occasional drifting breeze brought the encroaching bite of winter.

Four Corners had fallen into a trough of tranquillity.

Vin could not imagine it would last.

With peripheral vision, he watched Larabee whittle on a block. Chris rested his forearms on his knees as he worked the wood. Fine shavings littered the planked boardwalk between his feet. A crude image of a horse had started to show itself from the nondescript chunk of wood.

Buck stood at the hitching rail leaning against a support rail. He stood with his ankles crossed and a thumb hooked in his belt. He rubbed absently at his mustache and perused the street with a lazy glance. He silently hoped JD would make it back to town soon.

"Lil' Billy and Ezra sure have been thick as thieves lately," Buck remarked as he watched the duo cross the street and head toward the mercantile.

Vin merely nodded while Chris pulled his attention from his block to the mismatch pair heading into Mrs. Potter store.

The gambler's plumb colored coat billowed slightly as he kept pace with the child. Billy seemed more distant than normal. He quietly refused the invitation to go fishing with Chris citing that chores needed doing. He was less mischievous than would be normal and that in itself was cause for suspicion.

Buck accepted the nonverbal response from his two friends. It was silent agreement.

"Wonder what they're up to?" Buck turned his attention back toward the now empty boardwalk in front of the Merc. The boy and gambler had disappeared inside. Wilmington answered his own questions, "I sure hope Ezra ain't takin' to teachin' Billy any more of 'is card tricks....Mz Travis damn near blew a blood vessel with the last one."

Vin and Chris both chuckled at the all too recent memory. Josiah had to pull the confused gambler aside and explain that what was good for one person was not necessarily good for another. Larabee had the impression that the large preacher wanted to say something more but instead held his tongue. Still the very idea of Mz. Travis beating the dapper southerner over the head with a corn broom in the middle of main street was not something anyone would be forgetting soon. In fact for almost a week Ezra could not wake without finding a broom sitting outside his door with a ribbon on it. Buck, Vin and JD could be relentless when properly provoked.

"I think Mary might have persuaded him about no more card tricks," Chris answered softly.

"She was a might convincin' weren't she?" Vin added. He watched as Billy and Ezra exited the Mercantile and head toward the Clarion. The tracker could not help but wonder if Standish was just forced to become more discreet in his lessons.

"Yeah but they have been acting a bit peculiar ya know," Buck pointed out. He shifted his stance taking some pressure off the shoulder he was leaning against.

The others agreement was muted. Chris held the partially finished block in one hand contemplating whether or not to give it to Billy as a going away present. Maybe that was why the boy was so melancholy lately.

"You two notice Mary and Josiah been pretty thick too?"

Vin and Chris exchanged curious glances. Larabee had been aware of the frequent visits to the church.

"I ain't sayin' nothin'...jist they been talkin' more than usual is all," Buck quickly explained.

"Yeah I noticed it," Vin answered

"Don't see how its any of our business," Chris returned to his whittling. Maybe he would just use this block as kindling....the horse was looking decidedly like a Short Horn Milking Cow.

Buck watched the two for a moment and turned his attention back toward the empty street.

The sun kept the shadows at bay. A stray breeze rustled small dirt devils in the street. The steady pounding of a hammer had died away at some point in the morning. Buck smiled. He had noticed Josiah hammered the wood shakes on the church roof at the crack of dawn. The incessant pounding seemed to diminish shortly after a tired, disgruntled, southerner exited the saloon in search of breakfast. Wilmington on more than a few occasions witnessed the amused chuckles of the preacher. Josiah sure did play dirty.

"'Ey Josiah," Buck gazed over his shoulder as the batwing doors were pushed open. The large man stood in the entrance way of the saloon peering out at the crisp day.

"Brothers," Sanchez greeted a smile played at the corners of his mouth. He stepped out letting the doors swing close behind him.

Vin opened his eyes and nodded a greeting while Chris simply inclined his head before returning to his knife.

"So you know what's brewin' between Ezra and Billy?" Buck asked.

"Yup," Sanchez settled against the opposite support beam as Buck's. He took up a similar stance and stared down the street toward the Clarion. He had noticed somewhat painfully how hard both Billy and Ezra worked these last few weeks. The preacher hoped it was not all for nothing. School started in a week's time. There was no school here in Four Corners. Mary agonized over what was best for her son and as a result sought advice from Josiah. He did the only thing a good friend could do....lend an ear.

How could he possibly recommend or advise that she keep Billy with her? Gun fights and rowdy trail hands still frequented Four Corners. It was a dangerous town in deed. The Honorable Judge Travis would not waste good dollars on something that was not needed. The growing bucking town of Four Corners needed seven Lawmen. There had been very few skirmishes and confrontations in which all seven were not involved. Nothing little ever happened in this territory.....It was as if this tiny frontier town was a testing ground for outlaws. If you could survive and win a battle with the Seven you made a name for yourself. How could he possibly recommend that Mary keep Billy at her side. God forbid a stray bullet should strike the youngster down.

Mary had to much to lose. She could conceivably lose her only son. How could that possibly compare to the perceptions and judgments cast by one adult and a small child. Billy would have to believe in his mother. He would have to trust her to do what was best. As for Standish...that would be Josiah's burden. He would have to force the gambler to see past his own perceived shortcomings and self blame to understand the sacrifices Mary was making for her son. The same sacrifices Maude had made for him.

Now, standing across from Buck, it hit Josiah just how much Maude had sacrificed and lost by doing what was best for her boy....If in fact her intentions were sincere. What mother wouldn't want to give their child the best and protect them. Josiah just had to untangle the knots Ezra had woven for himself. Sanchez would protect Mary from Standish's misconceptions.

The hurdle lay in how to approach the gambler. He had tried on numerous occasions only to step back and wait for a better opportunity. Time was quickly slipping through his fingers. Mary had a decision to make and two sons were going to hurt.

Vin, Chris and Buck all waited expectantly for more information. Nothing was forth coming.

Buck would not be put off so easily, "It have anythin' to do with what you and Mary been schemin' on?"

Josiah pushed himself off the wooden beam. He met Buck's eyes, "Yup."

Vin and Chris exchanged glances again, "Anything we should be aware of?" Larabee did not want any trouble erupting between the Travis's and his men. Mary could just as easily reach for her shotgun than as her broom.

"Nope," Sanchez replied and headed across the street.

Buck watched him for a moment, "Wonder what's goin' on?"

"Reckon' we're gonna hafta wait," Vin closed his eyes and settled back against the building.

Part 2

Ezra stood at the bat wing doors and watched the stage slow to a stop in front of the hotel. He held a whiskey glass, absently rotating it in his finger tips. The sharp liquor was no longer present in the glass. The bottle at his table was close to half gone.

Billy had run away again two nights ago. The peacekeepers and Mary were in turmoil over where the boy could have gone. Chris had begun splitting the men up sending them to check out known hiding spots all the while trying to comfort Mrs. Travis in his arms.

Ezra had quietly told them it was unnecessary. Ezra knew where to look. He had pulled the same ploy himself a time or two.

Standish found the boy hiding in the livery. Sitting with Chris's horse. Not a sound place to hide for numerous obvious reasons. Billy was just a child and desperate. They sought out familiar things, searched for security and comfort in things most adults would find unusual.

The young boy cried shamelessly into the chest of the gambler softly repeating 'I hate her.I hate her,' Standish had cringed and shut his eyes. He had kissed the top of the dirty blond head and softly whispered, "No you don't....and you never will....she just doesn't know better." When the tears had subsided and the hitching, heaving, breaths were brought under some assemblage of control Ezra led the boy back to his mother.

Billy packed his bag last night. He would leave on the morning stage to stay with the Judge and his wife.

Ezra watched with glazed eyes as Billy walked toward the stage. He held his small carpet bag in his left hand. Grasped it really like a life line...the only thing constant in his life at the moment were the few belongings in that bag. The clothes he would out grow..the books he would learn by heart...but the small trinkets and mementos tucked away hidden wrapped in socks and shirts...those little things were all that would remain with him when he was shuttled between his two places of destination. The small wooden horse carved by Chris, the harmonica from Vin, JD gave him a fishing pole that the sheriff would hold onto until summer break. Buck and Nathan had bestowed a not so small bag of treats for the long ride and Josiah a new pocket knife. In that bag somewhere was tucked a deck of cards.

Billy would be lucky if some older kid did not take his few precious possessions from him, later on in the year. It always happened. The boy would open his heart to some new children and one of them or maybe a few would take what they suddenly deemed theirs. Or maybe they would shame young Billy in the foolishness of a 'stupid pocket knife' or just a dumb carved horse. Maybe their fathers had better knives or were better at whittling...sure he had a fishin' pole...Where was it?

The young boy would be marked as different from the others for the simple reason he had no father. This small tragic misfortune would wrought on all the cruelty of bigger bullies. It had already happened. Ezra knew this, young Master Travis had told him one morning as they practiced with the cards. Some things never changed with the passage of time.

The deck of cards...that was something Billy had been instructed to hide until he became some what more proficient.

They could be a boy's best friend. A deck of cards could be great mediums for meeting other children. They could be tools for making friends or for wreaking revenge on those that sought to take advantage of discarded children.

If Billy were to become proficient with his deck of cards his mind would be less likely to mull over the great injustices in his small life.

Mary clutched Billy's free hand and led him to the stage. The mother seemed distraught. Ezra chuckled mirthlessly, at times his mother seemed distraught as well. It was an act. It had to have been...why else would she put her boy on a train, or a stage and turn her back. If Mary was truly torn over this wouldn't it be easier to keep her son at her side?

Where had he and Billy gone wrong? What had they missed?

Ezra chuckled as young Mr. Travis refused to give up his carpet bag. His small hand kept the bag just from his mother's imploring reach. Standish understood the boy's refusal to give up what little he had in this world.

Hold fast young not give into their demands.

It seemed as if the boy heard the gambler's thought. Soon Mary asked the stage driver for requital. Mrs. Travis reached down and embraced her son in a fierce hug. She rubbed his back. The boy must be crying. His little arms weakly snaked around his mother. The bond between mother and son was not easily ignored.

A boy needs his mother. It was instinct....a basic need in all animals. A mother, it seemed, did not need the love of their child. Standish sighed softly shaking his head unaware that Inez watched him from behind the bar.

With one last hug and kiss to the cheek Mary helped her boy into the stage. She still spoke through the window.

Ezra watched amazed that Mary mimicked Maude's actions so closely. No wonder his mother and Mary got along so well.

She stepped back from the stage as the reins snapped over the team's back. The four dark bay's lunged forward pulling on their harnesses. The stage rolled out of town at a slow trot.

Ezra grunted in disgust and headed back to his table and his bottle.

+ + + + + + +

Standish did not bother gazing up when the batwing doors opened. He concentrated instead on the liquor in his glass. He tipped the glass up on edge trying to gage its balance by removing his fingers from the rim. The glass warbled slightly, the refracting liquid cast wavering shadows on the table. He delicately manipulated the glass, slowed the sloshing and soon had the glass resting on one side of its base balanced.

"Nice trick," Vin pulled out a chair. The simple movement caused the glass to tip, or maybe it was coincidence. The point of balance shifted, liquid moved and threatened to spill. The gambler nimbly interrupted the descent picked it up and shot the fiery liquid down. Buck chuckled and took the seat next to Vin.

"Watcha doin' pard'?" Buck poured himself a drink from the bottle already on the table. It was half gone. From the looks of it Ezra was single handily responsible. There was no way Vin and Buck would let him try and finish a full bottle. Standish could be down right surly when drunk.

Ezra merely raised an eyebrow at the question. He bit back a retort when Wilmington filled his own glass and then Vin's.

"Thanks Ezra," Tanner smiled as he sipped the drink. The tracker figured the gambler would have been out to say good bye to Billy. It had seemed as if those two had become fast friends.

Ever since Ezra had found the boy in the livery, however, the Southerner was keeping his distance almost to the point of blatant avoidance.

"Don't thank me....thank Mr. Wilmington....he just purchased the bottle," The normally easy going tone was gone and a sharp biting anger flashed from the words. Perhaps he should have gone out to offer support to the boy. How could he face the child having failed him in the simple quest of keeping Billy at his mother's side?

The tone was nothing Vin nor Buck had not expected.

Even Josiah seemed at odds with the world today. All day he had kept muttering about failing, not helping his flock....Of the two Standish was safer to approach. Sanchez had taken sanctuary in his church. There was no whiskey there, or so they all hoped. The town would be safe from the drunken wraith of their tortured preacher.

Standish was a different beast all together. Though he was fast with his hands and words and could cut a target with both...he was manageable. Still Buck and Vin wanted to pull the scab off of whatever was festering.

"Thanks Buck," Vin tipped his glass toward the Lady's Man.

Standish watched the two for a moment and then poured himself another round. The others watched. They would not interfere. Whatever demons had decided to unearth themselves today would apparently be drowned. Vin and Buck just wanted to be around for damage control.

They drank in silence. A deck of cards had somehow materialized on the table and a quiet game of five card stud ensued. The bottle slowly crept toward empty. The sun slid toward late afternoon. A sharp wind had kicked up heralding the approach of a bitter winter. The wood stove would need to be fired up before the month was through.

Long shadows cast themselves over the saloon. Midweek and the tables were nearly empty except for the trio that sat near the entrance. Inez wiped down the counter top and watched the threesome. She tossed Buck a thank you smile and a nod of appreciation to Tanner.

Senor Standish was her friend and he was hurting...badly was good to have friends around in times like these.

The bat wing doors crept open again. Inez glanced over expecting to see a rancher or farmer maybe even a drifter. Just about anyone but who she saw.

Part 3

Mary Travis paused between the two heavy halves as if making up her mind. She met Inez's eye and offered the young barmaid a weak smile. Inez nodded a silent greeting. Her heart poured out for the young widow. It must be heartbreaking to send your only boy away.

Mary pushed her way through the doors. She hesitated allowing her eyes to adjust to the dim light. The newspaper woman brushed a stray strand of hair from her forehead and headed toward the trio.

"Gentlemen may I?" She asked. She smiled sweetly as Buck and Vin hastily rose to their feet scrambling out greetings stumbling over words and the legs of their chairs. Vin managed to drop his hat as he tried to follow proper etiquette.

Standish remained seated gathering cards from the table.

"I hope I am not intruding?"

Mingled 'No ma'am's' spilled from the two lawmen. Standish poured himself another drink.

Buck settled back down in his seat keeping his eyes on Mary but trying to watch the gambler. Tanner was not so subtle.

"Ma'am surprised to see ya in here," Tanner fidgeted with his glass. A saloon was no place for a proper lady especially for a lady like Mrs. Travis. Though she occasionally visited the saloon it normally had to do with business.

"I mean with Billy leavin' n' all....we jist figured ya might...." Buck wished Chris or Josiah even JD or Nathan were here. This was not looking good.

Standish kept his eyes glued to his glass.

"Yes," She sighed. She needed to speak to Mr. Standish. She needed to explain herself to him. Make him understand why she had to send Billy away. It was safer that way. Four Corners was still too violent. A stray bullet could strike her son down at any time. How many gun battles had been fought in the streets in just the last year? Dozens. There was no school here. Surely a man of Mr. Standish's education would understand the need for proper schooling. There were no children Billy's age. Who would he play with?

"Yes, well its for the best," She answered softly.

Buck and Vin nodded in sympathetic understanding. Buck's mom kept him close by her side. She could not bear to have him somewhere other than under their roof. Sure he grew up in a Brothel and it was tough on him as a kid but having his ma by his side made it easier. It was tough losing her...toughest thing he ever had to face alone but was stronger for having her raise him. Billy was lucky his ma loved him enough to give him the best opportunities.

Vin could only catch glimpses of his mother. They were feelings mostly. She loved him and that was all he ever really needed to know.

For Mrs. Travis to have to give up Billy had to be a monumental sacrifice. He marveled at her strength.

Standish snorted in disgust.

Why was the woman here badgering him?

Buck and Vin met each other's gaze.

Mary ducked her head for a moment as if trying to catch her breath.

"I know you don't believe it Mr. Standish..." She had to try and make him realize for Billy's sake, the necessity of her actions. She had talked to her son had tried to make him understand.

"My opinion matters not, dear Lady," Ezra poured himself another glass. Buck made a move for the bottle but stopped himself. A fight was in the air.

"Yes, Mr. Standish....yes it does...I need you to understand...." Mary swallowed her fears. What if she had failed to reach Billy? Ohh God what if he got on that stage thinking I don't love him anymore? "It is safer for him.....this town is still growing...." she searched for the right words, "he needs an education..."

"He needs not to be underfoot Madame," Standish placed his glass down and stared at the mother beside him. The factuality of the statement held a chill deeper than the wind.

"You have a growing business to run," He stared at his hands and then looked up at her, "are you not educated yourself Mz Travis....are you incapable of teaching your son his letters? Do not have the time perhaps?...and yet you are able to teach others?" He shifted his gaze quickly to the tracker.

Vin's cheeks flushed red. Wilmington furrowed his brow in curiosity at the brazen innuendo.

"Safety is in the eyes of the beholder, my dear lady." He met her with a hard look, "There are atrocities out there Madame that are worse than any bullet or saloon fight. There are dangers out there that would wretch your delicate stomach." Standish paused and leaned forward, " you'll shirk your responsibility until he can take responsibility for himself." Ezra did not blame his own mother really. He loved her there was no doubt...what hurt was how long it took for her to return the affection. Though done sparingly it was and still craved. At times he hated himself for the needed affection and his willing acceptance. He felt no better than a starving dog wolfing down scraps.

"He provides you with a nice dinner conversation...something to brag about when company comes for social calls. But you have not sullied your hands in raising him..." He met her gaze and with a scathing tone added, " tell Mrs. Travis did he cry when you put him in that stage? Did he grip his valise tighter than he did you, Madame?"

Standish remembered the train stations he stood by himself holding a ticket as adults whirled by him. He could smell the thick smoke and the heavy odor of bodies and remembered the stark fear of being alone. He remembered grasping his own small bag as if it were his only life line. It would have taken a force of nature to separate him from his small cache of belongings. "Doesn't it strike you as strange that he would release you but not his bag?"

Vin and Buck shared confused glances. Wilmington shot a quick look over toward Inez. The barmaid simply bit her lip and shrugged.

"Did the tears stop when you shut the door on him?" His words were soft his eyes bored into the widow. He let lose a sharp chuckle and sat back, "Tell me Mrs.Travis did you ask him to be a 'big boy...make his mother proud..." The gambler laughed mirthlessly into his glass as he took another drink.

Mary stared at the man who accused her of abandoning her son. Her shock and ire grew as he reiterated the very words she had uttered as encouragement to her son. Tears and bitter resentment threatened to explode. How dare he sit there and judge me? What does he know of trying to raise a child single handily and make a living? What did he know of it? Nothing...nothing at all....except he was a product of such efforts. Ohh God, Billy.

Ezra saw how others mothers and sons acted and behaved and had been intensely jealous. It was something he never out grew. Bitterness sometimes tinged those moments. Yet when tragedy struck his mother...the love for Maude became searingly painful. He could never deny he loved her...never. Nor could she him...but they learned to hide it and ignore it. In those few times when one was struck down regret slammed into him like a tidal surge. Guilt for not trying harder to get her attention, to prove himself or make his abilities more profitable. If he had been a better son..maybe..protected his father.....But then he knew Billy to be a good boy, a well behaved son and smart...and yet he too failed to keep his mother.

"Ezra," Vin warned. Tears threatened to spill over Mary's eyes.

"Ohh, No, No, Mr. Tanner, You see she has to make sure I understand," He turned his attention back towards Mary. With narrowed eyes and disgust in his voice he uttered, "What she failed to comprehend is that I understand all to well."

"Next time maybe there will be no more tears. He will come to cherish his time spent with you but I can promise you this....he will go each time more willingly than the last....and one day he won't come least not on his own accord."

Standish pushed himself from the table and rose to his feet. "You blame him for something he may have been able to prevent...but you were not there...none of us were," He paused and dared anyone to challenge him, aching for a fight.

He turned his attention back to Mrs. Travis, "All he wants is to be with you....what could possibly be more important?" He shoved his chair back under the table grabbed the near empty bottle, "You seek my opinion, care more for your newspaper and this town than your own flesh and blood....

He leaned down over her shoulder. The sharp bite of perfume waft off her neck. So much like Mother. Hot whiskey soaked breath heated her neck as he whispered quietly in her ear, "If you are not careful Madame...he will become just like me....and Billy deserves better than that."

Ezra straightened. Anger clearly etched his features. He faced Buck and Vin and tipped his hat, "Gentlemen." Standish strode out the saloon in carefully measured steps.

Silence rolled in his wake. The heavy toll of the doors clanging closed marked the short passage of time.

Buck and Vin shifted uneasily in their chairs as muted tears streamed down Mary's cheeks.


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