He would have laughed if the situation hadn't been so serious.
Here he was again, by himself, left unnoticed in the alley with his blood bubbling up through his fingers. He wondered how much would be pouring unchecked from the smaller hole in his back, trying to gauge how much time the others might have to find him before he bled out. The bullet hadn't gone through an area where anything vital would have been hit, he knew, but still, at such close range...
Shot from behind.
It wasn't anyone's fault really. Well, except for his own and the cretin who lay dead behind him with a smoking hole between his eyes. He didn't blame the others for not protecting his back; they simply had more pressing issues at hand. Hell, they weren't even paired up in their usual fashion. He wasn't on his own because Vin had covered Chris, or Buck had coddled JD, or Josiah had guarded Nathan. Seven was just a number that demanded one be left on the outskirts, and it was just his plain dumb luck that the position had fallen to him once again. That was what he found so humorous about his current predicament.
It wasn't Chris's fault that he had been discussing wanted posters with JD at the jail when the marauders had rode into town. It certainly wasn't Vin's plan to twist his ankle being thrown by Peso that morning, sending him up to the clinic with Nathan. Buck couldn't be blamed for seeking out advice from the preacher regarding a beautiful, but highly religious young lady he wished to court. No, Ezra was waltzing along the boardwalk on a warm afternoon alone simply because that was how circumstance played out, and thus he was left to fend for himself once the bullets started flying.
The alley he had ducked into should have been a safe place really had the bandits stuck to riding in full-force, guns a blazing, like they normally did. Unfortunately, these particular miscreants had been a little smarter than the average evildoers and had sent men on foot around the outskirts of town to silently dispatch any who got in their way. The frontal assault was meant to be a distraction, and would have worked if the boys weren't watching out for each other. Chris had spotted the one coming up from around the jail just in time to knock the young sheriff out of the way. In the process, he had absorbed the lead meant for JD into his own shoulder; not that it stopped him. The no-nonsense gunslinger quickly made a corpse out of the shooter and turned back to fire on the main group without so much as batting an eye. Nathan had his hands full trying to keep Vin from crawling up onto the roof with the bum ankle, but lucky for the healer the sharpshooter didn't listen. He scrambled right up there just in time to take out the man sneaking around under the clinic stairs, but unfortunately his balance was off and he took a tumble. The fall didn't knock him out so he stayed down there in the dirt shooting men off their horses while Nathan stood above him, offering cover until he could properly see to the tracker's newly acquired injuries. Josiah had taken a hit when he and Buck came running from the church, the attacker having slipped out from behind the mercantile as they were rushing past. Buck had seen the man at the last second and turned to tackle him just as he fired the shot, knocking the gun down low enough so that the preacher took the bullet in the leg instead of the head. Buck then dragged Josiah to cover where they presumed to litter the streets with the bodies of nameless outlaws.
Ezra had seen all this from his position in the alley and did his best to provide cover for his friends, but he had forgotten to pay better attention to his own surroundings. He couldn't be looking everywhere at once, and with his attention divided amongst the three groups of his fellow peacekeepers and the killing force rolling through town trying to rid it of lawmen, he hadn't been able to hear the man creeping up from behind until it was too late. His slight turn was triggered more on instinct than on conscious awareness of the danger, the movement being just enough to cause the bullet to tear through his side instead of shredding through his middle. He allowed the momentum from the shot to throw him fully around, making it possible for him to end the life of his would-be murderer before going down.
A few minutes later the sounds of gunfire ended, and instead he heard two different voices calling for Nathan's assistance – one from Buck and one from JD. There was no one around to holler for him.
They'll come for me, he assured himself. He forced his hand to press down harder on the fabric of his coat in hopes of slowing down the flow of his own life exiting his body.
Listening intently, he waited as Nathan barked out an order for someone to get Vin back up to the clinic, and to mind his ribs, and to keep him "off that damn leg." The healer's voice moved down the street a ways to where Buck was apparently helping along a grumbling Josiah. The preacher argued with Nathan for a few minutes before the ex-slave grudgingly relented, allowing the two to head back to the church until the healer could get to the leg wound. He left some initial instructions for Buck before making his way across to the jail where yet another argument ensued. Ezra grinned and shook his head as he listened to Larabee insisting he was fine, with JD and Nathan both (in so many carefully chosen words) telling the man he was being an imbecile. Not surprisingly, the healer eventually won the argument and the three of them headed off to the clinic together, their voices fading as they climbed the stairs.
The smile fell from the gambler's lips. He strained to listen for the sound of any of his compatriots calling out for him. The town remained quiet for the time being.
Surely they didn't forget…
He did his best to remain calm, patient. Any minute now JD would come bursting from the clinic, probably screaming his name up and down the street.
Or Buck would come ambling down the boardwalk, muttering how a stubborn old preacher would rather send him out to check on their "black sheep" than have him tend to the leg wound.
Or maybe Chris would stumble out cursing Ezra's name with Nathan on his heels, calling their black-clad leader a fool for not staying put.
Ezra began to panic, causing his heart to thump faster in his chest. The warmth pumping against his hand increased, thus decreasing the warmth within his own body. He felt himself shiver with the growing cold, the sweat beading on his forehead a cool contrast to the thick liquid pooling on the ground around him.
He was dying. Lying in the street of the only town he had ever called home just yards away from the only people he had ever called friends, and he was still going to die alone.
The hand creating a tentative barrier against the life attempting to flee his body fell slack. At that same instance, the clinic door flew open with a bang, a young man sprinting from within to vault down the stairs. The voice of the healer yelling at both gunslinger and tracker to stay put carried through the air. Across town, the ladies' man was practically tossed from the doors of the church, told by an angry baritone voice not to come back until he had word of the wayward seventh. The lone figure lay still, shivering, his pulse becoming weak and thready, unaware that his friends frantically called for him again and again…
He was running.
His heart raced as his feet pounded on the desert earth below him, fleeing from….what? Where was he going?
His mind told him to stop, to assess the situation, to figure out what barbaric lowlife might be hunting him this time, but his body just wouldn't listen. It just kept moving, rushing off towards the…
Good lord, is that the edge of a cliff?
The memory slammed into him with what felt like enough force to knock him to the ground. He knew where he was, who he was running from, and what would happen when he reached that spot of open air in front of him.
He was reliving a moment in his past, a moment that hadn't ended well for him. It was eight years before, back when he was still running cons and more often than not found himself fleeing from his latest mark; except this particular time, he really was escaping from members of the criminal element. They had watched him walk away from a rather successful fleecing and decided they didn't want to go through all the work he had to obtain an improvement in their finances. They had tried to catch him when he was resting Chaucer by a small pond, but he had managed to escape their grasp, rendering two of them unconscious before he was forced to flee on foot into the desert. He knew the territory, knew exactly what he was doing when he led those men towards that canyon. There was a ledge sticking out from the rock face a few feet below – all he had to do was jump and he would hit it. They would assume the fall surely would have killed him and simply walk away, leaving him to clamber back up and back to his horse with his hide (and his money) still intact. It was a perfect plan.
It won't work!
Again, his screaming mind failed to slow his momentum in the slightest. What he hadn't known at the time, what his body didn't know now, was that the ledge had been eaten away a bit since the last time he had utilized it. If he kept running, he'd launch himself right off that cliff and he would miss his target. Instead, he'd land hard against the sloping rock wall several feet below the shrunken platform he was aiming for. He would instantly break his leg in that fall, followed by far too many minutes of agonizing tumbling before he would slide to a stop. It would take him two horrible days to crawl out of that pit, and worse, he would wind up using all his hard-earned riches to pay off the doctor that had patched him up. Everything, his setup, the risk of the con, the pain he endured, it would all have been for nothing.
And now he was about to live through it all over again.
He gritted his teeth as he approached the end of the Earth; well, mentally gritted his teeth anyway, as his body still refused to respond to any orders he gave it. On the outside, he knew he'd be wearing a big stupid grin as he thought about how clever his escape plan was. Of course, he didn't know at the time that he'd literally be throwing himself to the bottom of a ravine.
The fact that the canyon wasn't actually deep enough to kill him didn't comfort him as he felt his feet hit nothing but air. As he began to fall, he wondered if he'd feel the pain in this semi-detached state, and then prayed that he wouldn't. Hearing the bone snap again would be mortifying enough without re-experiencing the agony that would go with it.
He wished he could close his eyes.
The traitorous ledge was coming up and he did his best to mentally prepare himself to move right past it. His arm shot out in a desperate attempt to catch the rock, but he knew it would be in vain. His fingers would find no hold to stop his decent.
A hand suddenly wrapped around his and he instinctively latched onto it, putting a sudden end to his doomed free fall. His mind slowly reconnected with his body and he was able to make himself look up into the eyes of his savior, smiling when his gaze landed on a familiar fringed, buckskin jacket. Relief flooded through him even as he remained dangling out over nothing, aware that there was no room on that crumbling ledge for him if the tracker was up there taking up all the space. It didn't matter though, Mr. Tanner wouldn't drop him.
Ezra squeezed the hand that much tighter and the bounty hunter winked at him.
"It's all right, Ez, I gotcha," he said. "You just hang on."
The conman nodded his head, widening his grin. He'd be safe this time. His friend was there to save him.
"Hold him down now," Nathan ordered, trying and failing to keep the fear out of his voice as he worked with fervor to save the Southerner's life. Buck gave him a quick questioning look before he moved to place his hands on the shoulders of the unconscious man. JD did likewise as he pressed only a little weight on the gambler's legs. Ezra hadn't stirred from the moment they found him and they doubted he would respond to the treatment now, but they did as the healer requested.
As Nathan prepared to pour the carbolic into the wound, Vin shifted in the bed beside Ezra, ready to lend a hand if needed. As soon as the liquid touched flesh, the cardsharp began to show his first signs of life. It wasn't much, weakly tugging at the hold JD had on his legs, barely squirming against the weight being pressed down on his shoulders. He lifted a hand, grasping at nothing, and Vin snatched it up. The tracker smiled as Ezra finally opened his eyes, his gaze looking far away as he stared at Vin. Much to the sharpshooter's surprise, Standish smiled at him ever so slightly. Nathan poured more acid from the bottle and Ezra's grip tightened almost painfully around Tanner's hand, but the ex-bounty hunter merely grimaced slightly and squeezed right back.
"It's all right, Ez, I gotcha," he said. "You just hang on."
The healer finished with the cleaning and set the carbolic aside. Ezra instantly slipped back into oblivion, but Vin still held onto the limp hand. He looked up into the faces of the worried men stationed around the clinic.
"He's gonna make it," he assured them. His lack of doubt stirred up hope in the hearts of the other five as Nathan went back to work.
*Warning - This chapter contains mentions of child abuse
He swam around in a sea of darkness for what seemed like an eternity before hazy images began to replace the cold, black void. As his eyes adjusted to his surroundings, he quickly wished he could go back to that solitary nothingness.
Please not here.
His mind reeled as he found himself scrunched up amongst several large cooking pots, his muscles cramping, begging to be stretched out, but he dared not move. He had been sitting there for two hours already, afraid any movement would rattle the pots and give away his hiding place. Sucking in a quiet breath, he peeked again through the small cracks in the wood panels making up the cupboard, pulling back when angry footsteps stomped closer.
"Boy, it's gonna be worse fer ya iffen ya don't come outta whatever hole ya got yerself into."
Seven-year-old Ezra wisely didn't listen to his current caretaker. If he were to come out now, that man would kill him.
Very nearly did.
He mentally shuddered at the memory of what was to come. He would sit there for another several minutes, still as a statue, hardly drawing a breath as Mr. Walls passed by the tiny cupboard again and again. The man was infuriated, growing impatient with trying to hunt him down like a hungry predator who had lost the sent of his prey.
Child Ezra had wondered how it was that he wound up at this evil man's house. Walls was supposed to be a friend of his mother's…or was it a relative of a friend? He hoped that was the case, that Maude hadn't intentionally left her young child at the mercy of a man who would beat him senseless just for spilling water on the rug. That had been the first time Ezra had messed up, and he tried very hard not to make any repeat mistakes. A futile effort, really; he was seven years old, of course he was bound to falter. Each time he did, Mr. Walls showed his malcontent just a little more, and it took just a little longer for his young self to heal.
This time that man would end him. Ezra had been tidying the house, trying to be the obedient young man Mr. Walls demanded him to be. There was a vase that needed dusting - a very large, expensive-looking piece of art that had most likely been imported from China. Ezra did his very best to be careful, to use the delicate fingers that were being trained in the art of slight-of-hand to maneuver the rag around the fragile object. It was his height that betrayed him. He had tried to get the dust around the top of the vase, stretching up on his toes to gain a little extra advantage. He gripped the edge of the shelf with one hand as he worked with the other and had almost finished his task when Walls' tabby zipped by beneath his feet. He had slipped, pulling the vase down to the floor as he tried to regain his balance, and watched in silent terror as it shattered into a million pieces. His caretaker's curses echoed down from upstairs immediately, and Ezra did the only thing he could think of to keep himself safe – he deceived the man and then he hid.
Before dodging into the cupboard, he had hastened to open and slam shut the back kitchen door, leading Walls into the yard on a wild goose chase. He had thought about slipping out the front while the man was in the back, but he knew his legs wouldn't carry him fast enough to get away. He decided instead to bide his time, wait for Walls to give up on the search. His plan was to sit still in that cupboard until the man eventually decided to sleep, then he'd disappear into the night, fending for himself as he had done a few other times before until he could track down his mother. It would be fine. He just had to stay hidden.
It didn't happen that way. The dust that he had so diligently tried to remove from every corner of the house snuck its way through the panels into his small space. It crept up his nose, tickling the sensitive hairs within.
Hold it in this time.
He felt the tears slip down his boyish cheeks as realization struck. He was going to sneeze and Walls was going to find him. The man would rip the door right off its hinges and drag him out, kicking and screaming. He would bite the arm that held him, earning him a solid punch to the side of the hide. When he shook off the daze he had fallen into, he would find himself almost dangling by his small arms strapped up to a post in the barn. The first time he ever dislocated that shoulder would be when he struggled against the blows his caretaker reigned down on him again and again.
The sneeze came.
Lord, please, don't let me go through this again.
His voice was a pathetic little whimper as the door flew open, crying and begging and pleading to just be left alone. He would pay for the vase, he promised, he would sweep up the mess –no, he'd pick up the shards with his bare hands if he had to. Somewhere amidst his terror-stricken ramblings, he knew the man wouldn't listen. He felt himself locking away something deep inside of him, a tiny piece of his childhood innocence he wasn't willing to lose just yet. As the hand reached in to drag him out, he prepared himself for battle.
"It's okay, son, no one's gonna hurt you," a soft voice rumbled.
Ezra snapped his head up, staring at the form of a large man kneeling before him.
He choked back the relieved tears and allowed the big man to gently pull him out of his hiding place. Walls wouldn't touch him, not with the over-protective preacher keeping him safe. Relaxing back into an exhausted sleep, he smiled slightly at the thought of that evil man coming face to face with his friend's hellfire wrath.
Josiah hissed as something bumped up against his healing leg. He opened heavy eyelids and turned his head to look at the smaller man in the bed beside him. Nathan had insisted they take turns keeping the gambler warm, the amount of blood loss a constant worry for the healer. Of course, Josiah knew that his friend was also using the legitimate excuse as a means to keep those injured members of the seven peacekeepers off their feet, if only for a little while. So far the only ones that had rotated through the bed shift had been Vin, Chris, and himself, the healer claiming he needed to be free to work if something went south. Buck and JD, the only other healthy lawmen, were needed to watch over the town and to come to Nathan's aide with quick efficiency should he need it.
Smart man, Josiah thought with a grin.
The smile fell short as his bedmate moved again, a small whimper escaping the man's lips. The preacher watched as a nightmare seemed to take hold of the gambler, his face becoming a mask of fear. His heart clenched as a few tears began to roll down the conman's face, and whispered pleas came out begging some unknown assailant not to hurt him, not again, that'd he'd be good.
Josiah sat up a little and gripped the injured man's arm, using it to carefully pull him against his broad chest.
"It's okay, son, no one's gonna hurt you," he soothed.
To his surprise, Standish responded instantly to the slight gesture. The terror seemed to drain right out of him as he sunk heavily into the preacher's arm.
"Hate it when he smiles like that," Nathan said, materializing out of seemingly nowhere.
"Like what?" Josiah asked.
"You know, that way he does when he's thinkin' on somethin' devious."
Josiah stifled a laugh and shook his head. "I think Vin was right, Ezra here's gonna be just fine."
He groaned as he realized where his journey had brought him to next. The smoke in the small train car nearly brought tears to his eyes, but he covered his discomfort well. His gaze flicked down to his cards briefly before he casually glanced around at the three players across the table from him. He watched their every move, reading the minute signals they let slip when they thought they were guarded. He would win this hand, he knew.
Fold, dammit, do not lay down those cards.
The game was called and his hands spread all four aces and the suicide king out on the table, flashing a cocky, gold-toothed grin. He reached for the bountiful pot, ignoring the rising scowls on his opponents' faces. They did not appreciate being bested by little more than a scrawny teen.
Leave the pot and get out. Now!
The young, self-sure man that he once was wouldn't listen, of course. He had involved himself in this game to begin with to teach these so-called experts a lesson. He had been minding his own business, playing with some of the younger kids on board for pieces of candy, educating them in the ways of reading a good tell. The ride to Richmond was supposed to be a quiet one, a fun one in which he merely allowed himself to act his age for once. His mother would never know; she probably wouldn't even be waiting for him at the station. He relished at the opportunity to just be himself, to flirt with the young ladies on the sleeping car adjacent to his own, to cause a little mischief on the food car with some of the other boys pretending to be men. It would be his own reprieve from always having to act the proper gentlemen, from always having to run the con. He hadn't even planned on picking any pockets on this little adventure.
Sadly, that was not to be. As he was playing with the younger children, he heard laughter behind him as a group of well-tailored men observed his lessons. They had mocked him, ridiculed him in front of his young pupils, claimed they'd be wiped clean of their money in two beats of a drum if they played as Ezra had instructed. The uncertain looks on the children's faces as they gazed from the men to the teen in front of them was all the young gambler needed to prove his worth. He challenged them to a game, an offer the "gentlemen" felt was too easy to pass up. With a laugh they grabbed him by the arms and led him away to their poker room, with him throwing a little wink over his shoulder at the kids. It was a promise that he'd come back a rich man.
It was a promise he wouldn't fulfill.
That last hand with all those smiling aces was the seventh one he had won in a row. His pockets were already full of coins and he briefly wondered where he would stash the newest pile of winnings.
He had been lost in a moment of inner pride and didn't see the man on his right getting pushed past the point of anger. Any second now, that man would lunge for him, knocking him to the ground. Meaty hands would grab him up and slam him up against the wall, again and again, each hit knocking the breath out of his lungs before he could gasp in more. He would hear the coins stashed on his person falling to the floor with a musical clink, and watch as the other two men merely stooped down to reclaim their losses. When the money stopped falling out on its own accord, they would reach into this pockets and just take what they wanted, theirs and his. When one of them tried to pull away with Ezra's heirloom watch - the only thing he had of the father he never knew - he would begin to fight back in earnest. He'd claw at the arms that continued their battering assault and kick out at the man pulling at his one truly sentimental possession. This would only made the man holding him even angrier and he would quickly move his hands up to Ezra's throat.
He had nearly been broken that day, waking up stashed in a storage closet, almost wishing the man had just finished the job. With a bruised back, a neck so sore he wouldn't be able to speak for days, and everything of value on his person gone, he had stumbled out to find the train had long since moved past Richmond. His mother was furious with him when he telegrammed her from Pennsylvania days later, sick, heartbroken, and penniless. She told him it was his own fault for getting caught, that she taught him to cheat better than that. He told her that he hadn't cheated, and her only response was to ask him why not. She then arranged to get some money to him while he healed and informed him that she'd be moving on to Tennessee, leaving him to figure out how to find her when he was ready to travel. Depressed and hurt, he had all but given up on everything until he received the package containing his money, along with his father's watch. He would never question his mother on how she had gotten it back.
Now, move now!
Ezra shook away the memory as he realized the fated moment was upon him. He felt the chair bite into him as he fell with it to the ground, felt the air being forced from his lungs and the hands that gripped his vest seconds later. He fought to suck in a breath as he was slammed against the wall once, twice, three times. Amidst his struggle for oxygen, he waited for the hands to dig into his pockets, waited to feel that bruising pressure around his neck as the anger built in his attacker.
The voice was quiet but demanded respect, a cold voice that would split the sea apart if he ordered it do so.
"Mr. Larabee?" Ezra gasped out, his own voice barely a whisper. The hands immediately disappeared from his body and he was left alone, facing his savior.
The gunslinger nodded at him and gripped his arms, easing him down to the floor, taking the weight off his shaking legs.
"My watch?" the gambler croaked, his hand moving desperately through his pockets, unable to locate the precious item.
Chris grabbed the searching hand and held it out, dropping the pocketwatch into his palm and curling his fingers around it. "Here, Ezra, it's right here."
"Thank you," the Southerner breathed out with a relieved sigh, closing his eyes with the confident knowledge that his leader was watching over him.
Chris mumbled under his breath as he swapped Vin for his second shift offering body heat to their injured seventh. The first time, Standish had merely slept like the dead, and were it not for the small trembles that passed through the conman's body every once in a while, Chris would have believed that he was. Now he looked just a little better, a tiny bit more color having returned to his cheeks after Vin had been able to successfully coax some water down him during the tracker's last imprisonment in the bed.
Imprisonment. That's exactly what this was. He wouldn't be surprised if Ezra and Nathan were in on some little ploy together to keep the three injured men in bed rest for at least part of the day. Damn gambler was probably pulling a con even in his sleep.
Standish's breath caught in his throat and Chris sat up, watching his injured man intently. It quickly became apparent that the Southerner was having some sudden difficulties drawing in air, and just Larabee's luck, Nathan had stepped out for the time being. Chris was about to go holler for the healer when Ezra jolted upright, wheezing and reaching up to his chest.
"Don't," Chris ordered, reaching for the flailing arms.
Ezra stilled his own hands before the gunslinger could touch them and cracked open his eyes.
"Mr. Larabee?" he barely whispered.
Chris could only nod in his relief at seeing his friend somewhat lucid for the first time in nearly two days. He grasped Standish's arms and slowly guided him back down onto the pillow, frowning at the panicked look that crossed the Southerner's face.
"My watch?" he croaked, running his hand along his bandages as if searching through invisible pockets. Afraid the man might hurt himself, Chris quickly reached over to the bedstand where the pocketwatch was placed and folded it into Ezra's palm.
"Here, Ezra, it's right here," Chris assured the man.
"Thank you," the gambler breathed out as sleep took him once again.
Chris ran a shaky hand through his hair before lying back down beside the cardsharp, careful to tug the blankets up as high as they would go to trap the heat in. He kept his eyes glued to the steady rise and fall of Ezra's chest, ready to be there if near-disaster should strike again.
*Big major warning!* - This one contains, well, way beyond abuse of a child. Horrible, graphic war memories happening here. It's very sad. Don't yell at me! You've been forewarned!
The sound of gunfire erupting around him was deafening. He found himself almost on his stomach, crawling low through a muddy field as he tried to escape the battle that raged around him. His whole unit had gotten divided in the ambush and he tried not to think about who might still be back there dying for a cause he still believed in, but wondered whether it was worth the daily hell he lived through to fight for it.
It's not, he told his younger self sadly.
The war would end and his side would lose, and he would quickly discover that being a united nation really wasn't as bad as he had been led to believe. In fact, for someone like himself who merely lived off the misfortune of others, it hadn't made any difference to him at all. He had watched his friends die around him, had very nearly died himself, for nothing more than Southern pride.
This was the day he had nearly lost his life for it, and certainly lost yet another part of his soul.
You shouldn't go this way.
He was becoming familiar with the drill by now. He sighed as he felt his body continue on its course towards disaster, wincing inwardly as he prepared himself for the horror he was about to discover. Seconds later, his hand brushed aside a portion of tall grass, and he nearly vomited at the sight in front of him. There, lining a small creek whose water had run red with blood, were the bodies of what had to be nearly a hundred slaves. Men, women and children were strewn about, discarded like nothing more than the waste left over after mucking out a stall.
He felt himself getting angry now as he looked back at the memory, but knew that at the time he was too busy failing to keep down his meager rations to feel much of anything. Lost in the shock of the moment, the facts wouldn't register in his mind that the deaths were very recent. He hadn't known that someone used the cover fire of the ambush to mask this heinous slaughter, and that the culprits were still nearby, watching the young soldier who had chanced upon their cruelty. They would have let him be, too, had his keen eyes not spotted the most subtle of movements in the midst of the carnage.
Ezra wanted to tell himself to ignore it, to walk away, knowing now what his actions would lead to, but he couldn't even mentally wish that. He knew that had his present self been placed in the same situation, he would never willingly turn away from the potential that a human life was still down there amongst all that violent death. In fact, he actually felt a little pride for his younger self, the soldier he was instantly forgetting about the enemy force too close behind him as he focused intently on that movement in the bloody creek.
Unfortunately, his rescue attempt would be a failure. His sudden urgency did not go unnoticed by the mass murderers, the cruel, bitter ranch hands who had already lost everything they had to the war. They blamed their misfortune on the black race as a whole, vowing to take vengeance on any that should cross their paths. To them, it was a day in Heaven when they chanced upon the caravan of escaped slaves crossing the creek. It was simple taking them all out from the ridge on their side of the bank, like little more than firing at hens roosting in a coop. Once the deed was done they were simply going to walk away from the slaughter, but then they had seen movement across the way and decided to wait by in case it was another 'darkie.' They almost shot Ezra on sight until they saw he was a Confederate soldier. Instead, they had pulled their guns and waited, hoping he would simply ignore what he'd discovered and be on his way.
Ezra wouldn't know any of this until later, of course, only after they had witnessed a man of the South trying to save the life of a slave child and decided to punish him for it. They figured him to be a traitor the moment he dropped down to his knees and pulled the silently crying little boy from beneath the body of his dead father, cradling the child in his arms as he stood to make his way out of the carnage. It was a shock to him when he felt a sudden fire pass through his calf muscle, dropping him back into the water with his precious cargo still held tightly against his chest.
This time, though his body registered the pain of the bullet, his mind was locked on future events.
I'm so sorry.
His heart cried for that little boy and what was about to happen to him. Any minute now those monsters would come down and wrestle the child from him. He'd try with everything he had to save the boy, but they would spew their venom at him while they beat him off their prize that had nearly gotten away. He would still hang on, his newly re-dislocated shoulder screaming at him all the while until it finally failed him.
"We're gonna make this good for you, traitor," one of the men had sneered as he held the struggling boy in his arms.
Two men would hold Ezra up, forcing him to watch as the other two went to work on the child. He would never forget the terrified look on the boy's face when the large knife came into view, the silent plea for help in those young eyes as the child's shirt was lifted up and the cold steel pressed against the tiny abdomen, the soul-tearing wail of anguish as the blade slid deeply into soft flesh. They would leave it in as they dropped the writhing child to the ground, and would laugh as they watched the life drain away from the boy, Ezra cursing and screaming and struggling against his captors all the while. When the soft brown eyes lay open and vacant, those bastards would turn their full attention onto him.
He would be completely numb by that point. They would wrench the knife from the small body that Ezra couldn't seem to look away from and use it on him, first digging it into the bullet hole in his leg before moving it up his body in a series of small, shallow cuts. They should have hurt, he knew, but at the time he couldn't feel any of them. He couldn't even feel the tiny rivulets of warm blood trickling down his legs, his arms, his torso, mixing with that still draining from the bodies around him, and would surely have caused his departure from the ugly world had some other members of his unit not stumbled upon his torture session. The scars from those numerous cuts would fade in time, but the sight of the empty eyes of that innocent child staring up at him, cursing his failure to protect the small bundle of life that once resided within them, would forever sear its way into his core, haunting his dreams on stormy nights when the thunder brought back memories of rifle fire and the rain mimicked the sound of the blood-red river.
For now, though, all Ezra could feel was the warm tears of the boy who had yet to meet his fate seeping through his uniform. He relished in it, forgetting about the burning in his leg and trying desperately to drown out the sound of those men mocking him as they slid down the hill. If he could just stop this moment of time right here, hold the future at bay, hang on to the memory of the living child in his arms….
"Keep goin', Ezra."
"Listen to me, now, you gotta fight. Don't let go."
Ezra shook his head, swallowing back the tears that threatened to betray the fear of his own upcoming failure. He had already fought. He already tried not to let go. He had already lost.
"I can't," he choked out, his voice strained with emotion.
A hand reached out to him and Ezra forced himself to look away from the boy up into the stern eyes of the healer. He could still hear the sounds of empty laughter approaching him from behind and his fear doubled at the risk his friend was now in.
"Nathan, you have to go," he pleaded.
The ex-slave shook his head. "I'm not leavin' until I know you're safe. We can get through this, Ezra."
The hand remained in front of his face until the Southerner, out of sheer determination to keep his friend safe, reached out and grabbed it. Nathan gripped it tightly, hefting Ezra to his feet and slinging an arm around his shoulder to keep the weight off the injured leg. Together they ran, and this time Ezra allowed himself to weep as he realized that he was finally going to be able to do it. After endless nightmares he would finally save the young boy in his arms, and he could finally let go of the guilt that had plagued him every minute since that doomed day.
Nathan winced as he pulled back the bandages and saw the angry red flesh surrounding the stitches. He knew something was wrong when the Southerner had suddenly gone from too cold to too warm over the course of one night. The fever wasn't bad, not yet, but it would become dangerous very soon if he didn't take care of the slight infection that was building in the wound.
"Damn," he cursed under his breath.
"How bad?" Buck asked.
"Gonna have to open this back up, drain out the infection. I'll need a couple of you to hold him."
Buck simply nodded, a sad look on his face as he turned to head out the door. Nathan stood to ready his surgical utensils when he caught the sound of his patient's breath quickening. Seconds later the man was choking as what little water they had managed to get into him began to come back up.
"Shit!" the healer hissed, rushing forward to turn Ezra on his side. By the time the liquids had long since been purged and the dry heaves had finally stopped, the gambler's whole body was a tight, trembling mass in Nathan's arms. One arm was hugged tightly to his midsection, his hand clutching at the bullet wound in a sorrowful attempt to hold back the pain caused by his overtaxed muscles. He whimpered pathetically as he continued to suck in uneven breaths. As Nathan gently rolled him back onto the pillows, Buck returned with JD and Josiah in tow. They looked at him questioningly but he shook his head and motioned for them to take up positions. Only once he was certain they were ready did he pop the stitches and make the incision, reopening the too-large hole in his friend's side. Ezra bucked only once at the beginning of the cleaning process, his sudden stillness bringing a concerned look to the healer's eyes. When he replaced the last stitch he felt a small shudder run through the gambler's body and could literally see the last of the man's energy beginning to drain out of him as he seemed to impossibly sink further into the bed. They were losing him.
"Keep goin', Ezra," Nathan murmured, ignoring the panicked looks on the others' faces as they released their unnecessary holds on the man.
Standish sucked in a sharp breath and Nathan knew that somehow his voice had reached him.
"Listen to me, now, you gotta fight. Don't let go," he said more sternly.
"I can't," Ezra choked out, then seconds later he added, "Nathan, you have to go."
The healer glanced up at the men surrounding the bed. Though the voice was weak, quiet, they had all heard the level of terror in the tone. Standish was talking to them, but he wasn't with them, and Nathan knew he had to reach through whatever nightmare the man was locked in to keep him fighting. He reached out and gripped the Southerner's limp hand.
"I'm not leavin' until I know you're safe. We can get through this, Ezra."
After several agonizingly worrisome seconds in which the healer wasn't sure if the gambler would respond, Ezra finally squeezed the hand back. Another second later, much to Nathan's surprise, the man used the grip to pull himself up, latching onto the healer in a vice-like hug. Silently, discreetly, the Southerner wept into the shoulder of the ex-slave. It was sad, but the sudden display of physical strength made Nathan happier than he had been in days. With a small gesture of his head he ordered the other men from the building and wrapped his arm around the Southerner's shoulders. He allowed Ezra to purge his demons until he was finally able to fall back into a relaxed slumber, a look of lasting peace gracing his pale features that brought a smile to the healer's lips.
"You're gonna be fine," he whispered, then laughed at his own use of that word he dreaded above all others.
"Help! Please, can anyone hear me?"
He knew that voice. It was a woman…there was something special about her…
Had his body been responding to his thoughts he knew his face would have flushed with both embarrassment and anger. That woman calling out to whoever would listen was a real life version of Jason's Sirens, feeding off the men that were lulled to her side by her sweet song, only to drown them once she had had her fill.
Ezra, con artist extraordinaire that he was, fell right into her trap.
Always one to aid a damsel in distress.
He sighed and felt himself shiver against the frigid winter air. This particular catastrophe happened not all that long ago, just before he found himself joining up with his current companions. He and Chaucer were in no real hurry, casually shifting from one town to the next, never staying in one place long enough for the Fort Laramie incident to find its way back to him.
A strong gust of wind carried her voice to him as if it had ridden in on the snow that numbed his face.
He turned Chaucer towards the river in an instant, urging the horse to move quickly but remaining cautious not to send his four-legged friend into any potentially hazardous ice patches. He had to dismount and leave the chestnut on sturdier ground when he got closer to the water, his heart skipping a beat when he spotted the poor girl stranded on a small island near the middle of the fast-moving currents. She was wet and he could see her trembling violently from where he stood on the shore.
Whereas he had felt nothing but fear for her at the time, and then later pure hatred, right now he felt himself being almost impressed. With his clear view of this past event he watched her play her part perfectly, conning the conman with supreme ease. She had no tells whatsoever that he could see, and knew that had he chanced upon her in his present time he still would have fallen for the trick. She was a pure professional.
Mother would love her.
He mentally tsked himself as he felt his arm wave at the woman, signaling that he was going to move upstream a little ways but that he'd be back for her. She nodded back, a mixture of fear and relief shining in her tear-filled eyes.
Lord, she's good.
He ran up the river a ways, doing his best to account for how far downstream the water would pull him once he slipped in. He made himself go a little further than he thought was really necessary, just in case. The last thing he wanted was to be swept past the girl and have to start all over again, aware that his muscles would be weakened with the cold the very instant he stepped into the icy waters.
Here we go.
The sudden temperature change made the breath catch in his lungs and he had to fight very hard not to simply crawl right back onto the shore, forgetting about the girl. He forced his arms and legs to pull him through the current, feeling the cold sapping him of his energy even faster than he had imagined. It only took him a few minutes to reach the tiny island, but for him, it felt like hours.
Don't touch me, he thought as he felt the girl help him crawl up onto her small piece of land. If his mind had been more clear at the time he might have spotted the small boat hidden in the reeds behind her, may have felt the little tingle that warned him danger was hunkered down nearby. Instead, his entire body wracked with uncontrollable shivers, he peered up at the woman and asked weakly if she was all right.
She answered between sobs, thanking him for coming for her and choppily explaining that she had tried to cross in a shallow area further upstream, that her horse had slipped and sent them both cascading down the river, how she had gotten lucky to be washed close enough to the island to pull herself ashore but how her poor animal must surely be dead. Ezra cringed internally as he felt his arms wrap around the liar, holding her close as he told her everything would be okay.
"I'll get you out of here," he promised.
"Not likely," she said, an evil grin on her face.
A man suddenly lunged from within the hidden boat, tackling Ezra to the ground where he felt his head slam against a river rock. In a daze, he tried his best to clear the fog from his mind as the man held him down. It took a moment to realize that the woman was speaking.
"He was wearing a coat when I first saw him, must have ditched it before he got in the water. Where's your money, Mister? All in a neat little pile back on shore somewhere?"
"I don't have any," Ezra answered back, putting as much venom into his voice as possible. The effect was lost between his chattering teeth and slightly slurred speech however, so he settled for giving her his best glare.
"Well, we'll find out," she promised, then without so much as taking another look at him she ordered her partner to toss him back into the river.
At least she won't find my belongings.
Internally, he allowed himself a wry little smile as he recalled stashing his coat, vest, and boots into a dark crevice between some rocks. Some would say (and he would probably let them) that he had taken precious time away from the rescue to stash his valuables because he didn't want them stolen, but in truth he had done it because he didn't want the spray coming from the river and the freezing rain that looked to be on its way to soil the clothing. His intention was to keep the coat and vest dry so that he and the girl wouldn't die of hypothermia once he got them both safely back to shore. The fact that everything he had of value was tucked within the pockets and boots hadn't even crossed his mind.
He felt a certain satisfaction knowing that once he returned to the spot weeks later he would find his things exactly where he left them, but it was really only a small triumph for what he was just seconds away from enduring. He would be rolled back into the icy water and lord would he try his best to make it to shore, but with the cold and fatigue that had already settled into him, and with the mild concussion and other bruises he had acquired from being tackled against the rocks, he wouldn't have the strength to pull himself out. He would feel the exact moment of panic when he lost the fight with the river and realized he was going under, his lungs screaming for air and his skin burning within flames of ice. The knowledge that he was going to die would hit him with a terrifying clarity.
Waking up in an abandoned homestead beside a roaring fire in the hearth, fresh bandages tied around cuts he didn't remember having, and a bag containing food and water within arm's reach would be the next thing he would recall. The memory of his rescue, along with his mysterious rescuer, would never return. He would also never know the fate of the harpy and her pet ogre. He hoped someone had caught them and both had hung for their crimes...
He heard a splash and realized it was the sound of his own body crudely being returned to the river. In a rare moment of synchronization since these flashbacks began, his mind and body simultaneously gasped out, then choked as the water rushed into his open mouth. It took a moment for his shocked limbs to register that the brain was issuing them an order, and though they tried their best to respond to the instruction, they were no match for the outside forces working against them. Still, he clawed back to the surface again and again, fighting against the icy tendrils that threatened to drag him down into the river's depths.
"Get him outta the water!"
Ezra heard the yell and gamely fought to keep his head from disappearing beneath the rapids.
"JD! Help!" he shouted frantically.
He suddenly felt warm hands snake beneath his shoulders and around his chest. "JD?" he asked tentatively, his voice barely a whisper as exhaustion threatened to pull him into unconsciousness.
"Don't worry, Ez, I'm gonna get you outta here. Just relax."
Panting heavily, all he could respond with was a week nod as he felt the young sheriff easily pulling him towards the shore, towards some place where he knew he could get warm.
The memory of his days spent recuperating alone in that old house flooded back into him and he smiled. "Why didn't you tell me it was you?" he mumbled, just before the blackness took him.
JD paced the room as he watched his friends monitor the progress of the Southerner's temperature. Though the wound had remained relatively clean after that first purging of the infection, Ezra's fever had continued to climb until Nathan felt the only thing they could do was place the man in a tub of cold water. All six lawmen accompanied the stretcher over to the bathhouse under the veil of night so that they could keep the moment private for the gambler, and JD had very nearly lost his cool when they eased the sick man into the water. Ezra had jerked violently and sucked in a pained breath of air before he went frighteningly slack, and Buck had to hold the kid back so he wouldn't interfere.
"He's all right, JD, the cold just startled him a little. We've gotta get that fever down."
The young sheriff clenched his jaw, but nodded and promised to stay out of the way as the healer and the others tended to his friend. After several long minutes the man in the tub began to tremble and JD was certain they would have to pull him out soon. Instead, Nathan rested a hand on the conman's forehead and sighed in frustration, asking for Chris to hand him the bucket in the corner.
"You're not gonna-" JD had started to ask when his own question was answered as the bucket was dunked in the tub and the cold water dumped over the Southerner's head.
Ezra sat up straighter with a gasp, followed immediately by a coughing spell. The others tried to push him back down further into the water but he began to fight them. His arms flailed wildly and he kicked out with his legs, all the while gasping for air.
"He's gonna reopen that wound if he don't stop," Nathan growled as he caught one of the swinging hands.
From his position on the far side of the room JD was the only one who could see the sheer panic on the gambler's face. Anger rose within him and he rushed forward, pushing Vin aside and yanking on Josiah's arm.
"Get him outta the water!" he shouted, his voice near hysterical.
Josiah was about to push the kid back out of the way when Ezra suddenly screamed out, "JD! Help!"
The cry had stunned everyone long enough for JD to squeeze in front of the preacher who had previously blocked his path. He leaned over into the tub, not caring that his clothes were getting soaked with cold water, and wrapped his arms around Ezra's chest. The man instantly stopped struggling and the others released their holds on him.
"JD?" Standish whispered.
The young sheriff smiled. "Don't worry, Ez, I'm gonna get you outta here. Just relax," he soothed, gently easing the Southerner out of the tub. Buck reached over and helped the kid pull Ezra the rest of the way out and they gently laid him back down on the stretcher, Chris tossing a blanket over him once Nathan had checked to be sure the stitches had held.
"Why didn't you tell me it was you?" Standish asked JD with a strange smile.
"What's he talkin' about?" Buck said in confusion.
The kid shrugged and patted the gambler on the shoulder. "I don't know, but I think his fever's down some."
Nathan bent down again to check. "I'll be damned, I think he's right. Come on, let's get him into some warm clothes and back into bed."
They moved quickly, packing Ezra back towards the clinic faster than JD could even get up off the floor. He stood and nodded to himself before following after them. He had done the right thing and Ezra had acknowledged him for it, and right now, that was the only person who's opinion really mattered.
A bright line shined in front him, nearly blinding him for a few seconds as his eyes adjusted. He looked up and blinked in confusion as he found himself seated in the balcony of an empty theater.
He stared down at the intricately designed set on the stage – a girl's room with yellow walls adorned with pink flowers. It looked vaguely familiar to him, but unlike the last several times he found himself in a waking nightmare, he couldn't recall what memory he was supposed to be lost in.
"Don't Ezra!" a little girl's voice hollered out.
He sat forward and watched as a small boy, no more than four years old, backpedaled onto the stage until he tripped over a wooden horse on the floor. A slightly older girl with a laced blue dress and beautifully curled hair stormed in after him, pointing her finger down at him as she screamed.
"That was my cookie!"
"But you already had two," the boy stammered.
The girl's face got red. "They were all my cookies! You weren't supposed to have any!"
"Why not?" he cried.
She bent down and slapped him hard across the face, leaving a small read mark on his cheek. "Because they weren't yours! Nothing is yours! You don't even belong here! I don't want you here, Papa doesn't want you here, even Mama doesn't want you here! They only took you in because your mama paid them to."
She stared smugly down at the crying boy with her hands resting on her hips.
"Why?" he asked again in a quiet voice.
"Guess because your mama didn't want you, either."
With that she stormed off set, slamming the door shut behind her.
Cousin Maybel. I remember that…
It was the first time anyone had pointed out to him that he didn't belong.
The stage went dark for a few moments and lit up to a new set, this one a grassy field in which two teams of boys around the age of ten stood facing three others.
"I pick Richard," the boy on the left team announced, and a smiling Richard rushed to join his assigned group.
Now this I remember clearly.
Ezra scrunched down in his chair as the memory before him played out.
"I got Thomas," the leader of the other team quickly stated, and Thomas dashed to the right.
The last boy standing began to head towards the left-hand group.
"You can't play Ezra," the leader of that group told him.
"Why not?" little Ezra asked.
The other team's leader spoke up. "'Cause then the teams wouldn't be even. You can play next time."
Standish watched his small fists clench shut and realized he was doing the same from his chair. That pain still hurt.
"You guys always say that, and you never let me play!" the young man on the stage shouted.
"That's 'cause you're no good at it," one of the other kids said.
"How do you know if you won't let me try?"
"'Cause look at you! Your clothes are always fancy and you talk kinda funny and you do adult stuff."
That wasn't by choice.
"That doesn't mean I don't know how to play," Ezra argued.
The boys shared a devilish look amongst one another, one little Ezra had missed at the time but adult Ezra saw clearly now. He wished he had been better at reading people then.
"Fine, you can play," one of the team leaders said, tossing a netted stick in Ezra's direction. He easily caught it, his face lit up in a full smile.
Ezra watched from his seat as the boys began to play Lacrosse in earnest, doing everything in their power to win while at the same time to humiliate the unwanted player. His teammates tossed the ball too high for his shorter stature, he got knocked into the mud at every opportunity, and by the end of the game, he had several bruises and a bleeding cut above his eyebrow from one too many "accidental" hits from the others' sticks.
"See, we told ya you were no good," the oldest boy sneered.
Ezra limped off the field, his head hung low. As the stage faded to black one of the boys shouted, "Don't bother coming back. We don't want you here."
Ezra's heart constricted a little and he sighed when the lights began to flare up again.
A wooden swing hung from the branch of an old oak tree, and Ezra's breath caught in his chest at the sight. He wanted nothing more than to turn away from this memory, but for some reason his eyes remained glued to the stage. A girl, fifteen, skipped into view and practically jumped into the swing, mindless of her lovely green dress becoming snagged on a wooden splinter. Ezra's seventeen-year-old form stepped onto the set after her, casually moving in his graceful way towards where she sat. With a loving smile he pulled back on the ropes and watched her giggle as the wind flipped her hat back.
God you were beautiful.
After a few more pushes Ezra's hand snaked out and caught the rope, halting the swing's movement. She looked at him with a puzzled expression as he came around and knelt in the grass in front of her.
"Jenny," he said, his eyes shining as he looked up into hers. "You make me happier than I have ever been in my life. You make me whole, and I always wish to feel that way. I would be most honored if you would have me as your husband."
He pulled a sparkling diamond ring from his vest pocket and held it before her. Her hand went to her chest and she looked from it to him in shock.
"I….I don't know what to say," she finally whispered.
"Say yes, my dear," he grinned.
She took the ring from him with a shaky hand and slipped it back into his pocket. With sad eyes she pressed her palm to his cheek. "Oh, Ezra, I'm so sorry. I thought you understood. This was just to be a summer love affair. I'm to be a proper gentlewoman, the future wife of an aristocrat who can take care of me."
"I don't understand. I can take care of you," Ezra said, sitting back on his heels.
"No, honey, you can't, not in the way good people would approve of. I can't live my life wondering if the bread on the table was earned by taking it from someone else, or fearing you won't come home one day because of an angry poker player. I don't even want to think how you came across that lovely ring."
I saved up the money I earned working for the local accountant.
"But, darling, I can change all that. I can keep an honest job," he pleaded.
Tears fell down her face. "But I can't trust your word that you will, Ezra."
"You can, Jenny, please believe me. Please tell me you want me," he begged, trying to hold back his own tears.
"No, I don't want you. Not like that."
With that she raced off the stage, leaving a broken-hearted young man behind.
The lights dimmed along with his mood at the knowledge that he never saw her again, and never loved another woman that passionately again.
"Please no more," he mumbled as the lights returned. His voice echoed hollowly in the vast, empty theater. It carried down to the stage where he saw himself standing in uniform before his commanding officer, balancing on a crutch and with bandages wrapped around his hands.
"Put me in the military offices, anything. Please, sir, I can still be of use to you!" Ezra argued.
The man in front of him barely looked up from his paperwork as he spoke. "Son, you're of no more use t'anyone. I told ya to go home."
"I don't have a home to go to," the young soldier snarled out through clenched teeth.
Never really did.
"Boy, you've got a hole in your leg, you're cut up more'n a jackrabbit caught by a mountain lion, and frankly I'm not too sure who you're aimin' to go out and kill anymore. You wanna kill Yankees or dirty ranch hands?"
Ezra saw the answer on his own face as clearly as the officer did. The older man looked at him darkly.
"I can't have anyone in my unit who's gunnin' for Southern folk. Now I'm not sayin' you're a traitor - what those boys did you to you was wrong, no doubt – but I can't have you shootin' at citizens when you're supposed to be pointin' North. No unit's gonna want you boy, not anymore. You are officially dismissed, is that clear?"
Ezra gave the man a rigid salute. "Yes sir," he snapped out.
The officer ignored the salute and turned back to his paperwork, no longer interested in the seething man before him. Ezra turned awkwardly and gimped away, thus beginning the darkest chapter of his life where he struggled completely alone through his periods of self-loathing. His distrust in his fellow man grew until he no longer felt the slightest remorse for the people he conned. After all, if the men he bled for, the men who were supposed to become his family as army brothers often did, abandoned him when he needed them the most, what was everyone else capable of?
What next? he thought as the stage was lit up once again.
This time there was no set in front of him. Instead there sat a large zoetrope, and as it began a slow rotation, Ezra couldn't help but sit forward in his seat as he peered through the slits moving quickly past him. Images began to form, flashing by almost as quickly as his mind could register the moments of time he was seeing – moving pictures of relatives he had stayed with who all but dismissed his presence, schoolmates who would talk in hushed tones whenever he came near and turned their noses up at him when he tried to approach, young women who he was too afraid to speak with for fear of being judged, swindlers he worked with who would just as soon take the money from his pockets if he didn't keep a careful eye on them, freed slaves who sneered at him as he tipped his hat and greeted them with a friendly hello, Southern gentlemen who showed them their backs because he dared show mercy to a darkie, Northern gentlemen who held a grudge because he fought for the wrong side, his mother whisking him away from one place to the next and never staying with him longer than a few months, that family that took pity on him one summer when he was ill and cared for him until they found out what his profession was, that lawyer who saw potential in him until he found out who is mother was, that riverboat captain who hired him on for a spell until he proved to be too good at his job – they all whirled by him as the theater filled with the voices of his past.
"You're a burden, Ezra, simple as that."
"We can't have your kind around here, son, looks bad for business."
"Boy, you ain't nothin' but a load o' trouble. No wonder your ma don't want you around."
"Chil' get on outta here, now! Always ruinin' things, what's wrong with you?"
"Out! OUT! I don't ever want to see your face around here again!"
"Who's side are you on, mister? We don't want ya taggin' along if you can't do what needs done."
"No, you can't stay here. I'm sorry, but I have children to look after. I don't want them learning from someone like, well, like you."
"Ma, tell Ezra I don't wanna play with him! Tell him to go away!"
"Did you steal that? Don't you lie to me now! I sure as hell ain't gonna believe the likes of you over my own son!"
"Quit looking at me like that, young man. A mouth as quick as yours can surely feed itself. This meal is for family only."
"I don't want you here, Ezra."
"We don't need you, Ezra."
"We can't trust you, Ezra."
"No one's ever gonna want someone like you around, Ezra."
"Ezra, darling, people like you and me have to fend for ourselves. No one will ever guard your back, so you'd better just get used to it."
Ezra clamped his eyes shut and squeezed his hands over his ears.
"Make it stop!" he screamed.
"Hey now, pard, what's all that yellin' about?"
The theater suddenly grew quiet and the whirling lights ceased their teasing dance. Ezra looked down to the stage to find that it was completely empty, then looked beside him to see Buck sitting casually in the theater chair, his feet resting up on the balcony.
"You should really try to keep your filthy boots off of there," he said numbly.
Buck looked at him quizzically for a second, and when Ezra blinked, the man's boots were on the floor.
How did he move so fast?
"Hey, Ez, ya with me?" Buck asked, a concerned look on his face.
The Southerner looked back at the stage and contemplated his answer. "Yes…but…are you with me?"
The ladies' man barked out a laugh and slapped Ezra on the leg, causing him to jump slightly. "That proof enough that I'm here?" he asked with a grin.
"Why?" Ezra asked, wincing slightly at the memory of the answer he got to that same question when he was four.
Buck's smile turned a little sad. "'Cause I'm worried about ya, pard. Hell, we all are. Someone's been right here with ya the whole time you've been out."
"Why?" he asked again, his voice carrying a little more conviction.
Suddenly a little uncomfortable, the mustached man looked away from the prying eyes of the Southerner. Just when Ezra lost hope that his question would get answered, Buck spoke in a quiet tone, one that was surprisingly laced with real fear.
"Christ, Ezra, when I found you in that alley…. I've never been so damned scared in my whole life."
Ezra's eyes widened. "But what about when JD-"
"When he was shot?" Buck finished the question. "At the time that was the most scared I'd ever been, but at least I knew he was still alive. Ez, when I saw you layin' there in all that blood, and that hole nearly the size of a damn gold piece in your side, I thought for sure you were gone."
Ezra dropped his gaze. "Would that have been so bad? At least the teams would be even then."
"Now you listen to me, boy." Buck's voice was angry now, drawing Ezra's attention back to him. "When I thought you were dead, it was like a part of me died with ya. We've all been fightin' so hard to keep you alive because we all feel the same way. You're one of us, Ezra, whether you believe that or not, and if one of us goes down we all do. You're stuck with us as much as we're stuck with you, so why don't you wake on up the rest of the way and say howdy to everyone so we can all stop worryin' and get some decent sleep."
Ezra blinked again and this time upon opening his eyes, he saw that more chairs were filled in the theater. As he caught the worried gazes of each of his friends they all returned his look with relieved smiles.
Memories slammed into his head in rapid succession and he shut his eyes against a sudden burning pain in his side. He saw Vin gripping his hand over a ledge, Josiah holding him safely against his chest, Chris returning his beloved watch, Nathan urging him to save that boy, JD wrestling him from freezing water, and Buck telling him that he belonged, that he mattered, that he was wanted.
"Ezra? Ezra, talk to us." Buck's urgent voice cut through the fog and the pain. "You all right? Hurtin' bad?"
"Yes," he managed to gasp out as he opened his eyes again. The theater was gone and instead he found himself in the familiar confines of the clinic, all six of his friends gathered closely around the bed. He grinned at them. "But I feel better. Much better."
He closed his eyes and let himself sleep knowing that this time no horrible dreams would plague his mind.
Buck sat beside the bed, keeping watch on their patient while the rest of the men slept in various corners of the clinic. None had wanted to be far in case the fever took another turn for the worse, and all were concerned about the nightmares that seemed to haunt their friend in his sleep. Buck watched the eyes roving beneath the unconscious man's lids and sighed, wondering what Ezra was seeing this time.
"Please, no more," the Southerner mumbled, and Buck leaned forward in the chair.
Standish's breathing suddenly quickened, his face contorting to reflect whatever anguish he was living through in his dreams. When he shot up in the bed, hands pressing against his ears, he very nearly elbowed the ladies' man in the face.
"Make it stop!" he screamed.
Everyone on the floor was instantly on their feet, rushing to the side of the bed. Buck halted them with a hand, concerned that their sudden onrush might further startle the aggravated man. He leaned forward and spoke close to one of the cupped ears, hoping his message would get through.
"Hey now, pard, what's all that yellin' about?"
Ezra responded as he had hoped, dropping his hands away from his head and blinking his eyes open, the confusion clearly evident on his face as he matched the voice with its source. "You should really try to keep your filthy boots off of there," he said numbly.
Buck looked down at his feet that were tucked up nearly beneath the bed, then back at his friends with a confused smile.
"Just keep him talkin'," Nathan urged quietly. "He ain't awake just yet."
Buck nodded and turned back to the cloudy green gaze. "Hey, Ez, ya with me?"
Standish turned away from him, looking towards Vin but they all could tell that he couldn't actually see the tracker. His answer was quiet when it came. "Yes…but…are you with me?"
Buck reached out and patted the gambler on the leg, regretting it when he saw the sick man jump at his touch, but at least it was a response of some form. The green eyes seemed to clear just a little more. "That proof enough that I'm here?" Buck asked with a grin.
When the Southerner asked why, it threw Buck for a moment, but he judged by the tentativeness with which the question was asked, and the slight wince that came after it, that it had to do with whatever nightmare Ezra was still partially locked in. He kept his answer vague, hoping that just explaining how they were all worried about him would satisfy the man. When the "why?" came for a second time, he was at a momentary loss for what to say. He knew the reason, knew the fear he had felt and had been feeling for the long days and nights they had kept vigil over their friend, but he wasn't quite ready to expose those thoughts with everyone sitting right there.
A hand gripped his shoulder. "I'm sure whatever your answer is, brother, we all feel the same way," Josiah assured him. He looked up and felt a little braver as each of his friends gave him a nod, so he sucked in a breath and answered the question with pure honesty, even after Ezra pressed about being compared to JD. Buck glanced up at the kid as he admitted the truth to the conman and was relieved to see only support in the young sheriff's eyes. The moment was broken, however, when Standish looked down and questioned his own worth on the team - "Would that have been so bad? At least the teams would be even then." This only served to anger Buck and this time he didn't catch the knowing smiles on the men around him as he spilled out truths on how they all felt about the odd number in their midst, about how they all felt towards one another. Buck just laid it all out in front of them, admitted wholeheartedly that they could no longer be whole should one of them fall, and none found themselves disagreeing with him.
Somehow the small tirade seemed to get through to the Southerner as well, and his eyes cleared that much more. They each smiled at him as they realized he was finally aware that they were all in the room, even if part of him was still in some far away place. The good cheer dropped from their faces, however, when he sucked in a sharp breath and clamped his eyes shut, tilting his head at a slight angle as he focused inwardly on something only he could see.
"Ezra? Ezra, talk to us," Buck called to him. "You all right? Hurtin' bad?"
"Yes," the cardsharp gasped out. He dropped back against his pillow and took a few deep breaths before opening his eyes. For the first time since he was injured they shown with a certain clarity. He offered the concerned faces a small smile before he said, "But I feel better. Much better."
Before Nathan could even get him something for the pain, he was back asleep, and they could all tell this time that it was a true healing sleep.
Josiah smiled and shook his head. "Looks to me like that boy just fought against some demons, and he won."
A weight lifted off all their shoulders just as much as it looked like it had been lifted from their friend's. Buck rested comfortably back into his chair as the other men took up their positions again on the floor. They would all sleep well that night.
Ezra made his way gingerly down the boardwalk, the stiff, slow way in which he moved a testament to the discomfort his healing injury was causing him. Despite that, though, there was a certain lightness in the way he carried himself, a joviality that seemed to spread to everyone he tipped his hat to in passing. He hurt, no doubt about that, but he also felt better than he had in years.
A small smile lit his face as he passed by that same alleyway he had laid dying in just a few weeks back.
"Mr. Dunne, would you care to accompany me to the saloon?" he asked, and waited as a sheepish-looking JD stepped out from the shadows between the buildings.
"Uh, sure, Ez," the young sheriff answered, keeping step with the injured man. "You sure you should be walkin' around this much?"
Ezra laughed, and winced as the motion pulled at his side. "Probably not, but I felt the need to stretch my legs some after my long confinement. No doubt our Mr. Jackson will put a quick end to my sojourn if he feels I'm not up to it. Isn't that right, Nathan?"
They had stopped in front of the mercantile where the healer, with that same sheepish look JD had worn, stepped up to the gambler's other side.
"The bigger question," Ezra continued, leaning over as if to talk conspiratorially to the others, but letting his voice carry out to the street, "is if Mr. Tanner should really be keeping his eye on me from the roof of the jail."
Nathan shot an angry glare towards the tracker, and an annoyed, "Dang it, Ezra!" floated down as Vin slid back from the healer's line of sight.
"Vin, you better get your ass down here!" Nathan hollered. "What'd I tell you about stayin' off those roofs?"
The sharpshooter joined them a moment later, still sporting a slight limp. "Hell, Nathan, I told ya I feel-"
"Don't you dare say it," the healer snarled, and Tanner shut his mouth, turning accusing eyes on the Southerner. Ezra merely grinned and threw him a little wink, to which Vin rolled his eyes and shook his head, smiling.
"Shall we, gentlemen?" the conman said, gesturing with an open palm that they should continue towards the saloon.
He set the steady pace and the others were happy to patiently tag along beside him, simply enjoying the warmth of the day as they meandered down the boardwalk. By the time they reached the saloon Nathan and Vin had placed steadying hands on the gambler's arms as JD rushed ahead to open the doors for them. None of this seemed to bother Standish as he managed to gracefully shuffle towards the table where Chris, Buck, and Josiah sat waiting.
"How can he look so sick but at the same time still look like a king struttin' around his subjects?" Buck asked with a bemused grin.
"I told you," Josiah said. "Whatever that boy saw in his brush with death healed his soul some."
Chris used a foot to push the chair out across from him, and tipped his hat at the still-smiling cardsharp as Nathan and Vin gently lowered him into it. "You're in a good mood today," he said, the question clear in his tone.
"Yes, well, I'd say the simple fact that I can walk – and by that I mean literally walk as opposed to being pushed around in that invalid chair – amongst good company would be reason enough to bring any man high spirits," Ezra answered, flashing his gold tooth.
Josiah raised his glass in salute. "Amen to that, brother,"
The others quickly filled glasses and returned the toast, Nathan placing a stilling hand on Ezra's arm before the gambler could shoot back his portion. The healer gave him that "don't argue with me look" and Standish shrugged, sliding the glass over to Buck who tossed it back gleefully. Inez, having caught the silent exchange from across the room, set a glass of water in front of the Southerner.
"Just tell me when you need more," she smiled at him, but he (and everyone else at the table) read the underlying message: I expect you to drink all of that.
"Yes, thank you," Standish responded, the bright smile still on his face but the humor in his eyes faltering just a little. The rest of the boys noticed it and didn't bother to try to hide their amused expressions as he turned his attention back to them. The silly grins quickly fell, however, under the twinkling gaze and conniving grin the man was giving them.
"So, gentlemen, what are your plans for the rest of the day? Surely they must all involve taking full advantage of the wonderful weather Mother Nature has graced upon us?" All eyes turned away from his. "No? Pity. I suppose I could muster up the strength for another stroll if you wish to partake in an outdoor activity?"
He moved as if he were about to stand and six "No's!" resounded around the table. Leaning satisfactorily back into his chair, his mischievous grin vanished to be replaced by a soft, understanding smile. He cast his gaze down at the table before he spoke.
"Since I'm well aware of the futility of arguing that I'm not in need of your watchful eyes while I heal, I will simply assure you that I plan on doing whatever is necessary to decrease the amount of time that will take. Then you may all go back to doing…whatever it is you normally do to occupy yourselves when we aren't engaged in a battle of 'good' versus 'evil.'"
Chris and Buck looked at one another and shared a frown while the preacher let out a sad sigh. Nathan and Vin looked away again, and JD wore a slight scowl. Ezra's smile finally faltered completely.
"Did I say something to upset you?" he asked, genuinely confused.
JD slapped the table hard. "How come you don't know what any of us do in our spare time?"
Ezra looked taken aback for a second by the question and the anger behind it, taking a moment to choose his words carefully before he answered. "Well, it's not that I'm completely unawares, JD. Of course I know that you and Mr. Wilmington like to go fishing, sometimes being joined by Mr. Larabee and Mr. Tanner; and that you, Mr. Tanner, for some reason I will never understand, enjoy taking rides into the desert for days at a time-"
"Sometimes Chris comes with," Vin quietly pointed out.
Ezra continued without missing a beat. "-and Mr. Jackson can usually be found with his nose in a medical journal if he is not otherwise engaged in his healing duties or visiting with Josiah at the Seminole village; and Mr. Wilmington is typically courting a lady of his fancy if he isn't spending time with you, JD, or assisting with the work on Mr. Larabee's ranch; Mr. Sanchez has his church and the occasional quiet game of chess with Mr. Jackson or, when he's in one of his rarer moods, Mr. Larabee; and our own stalwart leader…well…has his hobbies aside from those already mentioned…" The gunslinger, keeping his gaze down, nodded in appreciation of his own somewhat shady pastimes being kept unsaid as Ezra finished with his speech. "So, Mr. Dunne, would you care to explain why you are suddenly so upset?"
"How do you know all that stuff, Ezra?" the kid asked, his tone a little softer as he took charge of the conversation. The others were more than willing to let that responsibility fall to the youngest's shoulders.
For his part, the gambler still looked a bit perplexed. "It's not as if you all keep these little side ventures a secret, and I do have eyes, you know. I don't understand-"
"Did you know that Vin can make a flute outta pipe reeds?" JD suddenly asked.
Standish shook his head.
Vin caught on quickly to what the kid was doing and spoke next. "Or that Chris likes to run Job bareback on full moon nights through the desert?"
Ezra turned surprised eyes to the gunslinger.
Chris read his cue. "Nathan likes both sides of the chessboard to be mixed black and white. You just have to remember which pieces are yours."
The Southerner gave an amused smile to the ex-slave.
Nathan took up the line of the conversation. "Buck's kept up with the fencing lessons and I even let him teach JD a few of the stances."
This earned Buck the single raised eyebrow from the cardsharp.
The ladies' man grinned. "Josiah isn't as much of an expert on carpentry as he lets on. Me and Chris'll come around and talk with him for a while on the best nails to use and stuff like that."
A snort emitted from the conman.
Josiah scowled slightly at Buck but finished out his turn anyway. "JD knows how to make ice skates. Worked at the smithy this winter to get enough made for all the kids at the village."
Ezra was genuinely surprised at this last admission and they all read it clearly on his face. He was about to say something on the subject when JD cut him off again.
"You don't know any of this stuff 'cause you're never there, Ezra."
A slightly hurt expression flashed in the Southerner's eyes. "It's not like-"
"It's not your fault, I know," the sheriff kept going. "You're never there 'cause we never invite you. We always just sorta assume you wouldn't wanna come, or you'd be too busy with a poker game or somethin'."
Buck rested his hands on the table and stared down at them. "Hell, Ez, basically you're never there 'cause we ain't ever there for you. Just like in that damn alley."
Nathan shook his head and grimaced, as if trying to shake away the memory. "If Buck had found you a minute later – dammit, could've been as short as half a minute later…"
"One of us should've had your back," Chris said quietly, obviously annoyed with himself.
"Or at least went out lookin' for ya sooner," Vin added softly with self-incrimination.
JD jumped in again. "We're not just watchin' ya 'cause you're still hurt, Ezra. We wanna make sure you aren't left out again."
"Next time something happens, we aim to be there for you just as much as we are for each other, and we're sorry we failed you this time," Josiah finished.
Ezra looked around at their solemn faces for a moment before he suddenly burst into a fit of laughter. By the time he had gotten himself under control had had tears streaming down his face, partially from his mirth and partially from the pain the outburst had caused in his side. He pressed one hand to the healing wound as he wiped the tears away with the other, meeting the now confused and slightly irritated looks of his companions.
"I'm sorry," he chuckled. "If I didn't know you gentlemen better, I would think that you had practiced that little speech. I applaud your efforts to relieve yourselves of your guilt, but it's entirely unnecessary. I don't fault any of you and see no reason for you to find fault in yourselves. I was simply in the wrong place at the wrong time, nothing more. That is the exact nature of having an odd numbered group - there is always one extra individual."
"Doesn't mean that one always has to stand alone," Chris pointed out.
Standish smiled. "No, Mr. Larabee, it does not; hence my explanation that it was simply a matter of luck. Had I been closer to the church, or the clinic, or the jail, I would have joined in with one of your teams and been the third wheel of sorts. It would still have made me an extra no matter how you look at it. You can't change the rules of math, after all."
"Never really liked math," Vin grunted.
"In this case, you should," Ezra went on. "You see, one thing regarding the 'extra' is that while at times it can be the one left out, at other times it becomes the one granted the most attention. For example, when Inez places an extra biscuit on your plate, is that not the one that makes you smile? When you find an extra coin in your pocket, is that not the one that makes you rejoice? When a mother gives birth to an extra child, a twin, is that child not considered to be the miracle?"
Josiah leaned his head on his fisted hands, his interest piqued. "Where are you going with this, brother?"
Ezra's voice softened a little as he spoke. "What I'm saying, Josiah, is that while I may have been alone by Lady Luck's hand in our latest confrontation, I've had the undivided attention of every last one of you since the moment you realized I was missing. You were there for me, all of you, in the moments when I needed you the most. I don't pair up well, I admit, and that makes me the odd number, the extra, the 'black sheep' as I've heard myself referred to as-" he gave the preacher a wink "-but because of this I don't have just one person hovering over me like each of you has. I have all of you, even if that means I have to wait an extra second for my turn at your attention. I've learned rather recently that the wait is well worth it."
Done with his speech, and feeling a little awkward at the unusually open display of his inner thoughts, Ezra turned his attention to his water. He drank it slowly, all of it, while he let his words sink into the men surrounding him. His eyes remained glued to the empty glass until Inez appeared without a word, refilling it for him. A throat suddenly cleared and he looked up to see Buck elbow JD in the ribs.
"You have another question, Mr. Dunne?" the conman asked, feeling a bit self-conscious.
The kid shot a glare at Buck before asking. "I was just wonderin' what you do in your spare time, besides playin' poker, I mean."
The relief on Ezra's face at the change of subject to safer grounds was evident. The gold tooth glinted briefly in the light. "Lacrosse."
Buck nearly choked on his drink. "Excuse me?"
"Lacrosse," Ezra repeated seriously, holding in the laughter threatening to erupt again at the looks of pure shock on the others' faces. "I used to play here and there growing up, though I admit I was never given the opportunity to excel much at it. Do any of you play?"
Vin and Josiah both grinned, saying "With the tribes," almost simultaneously.
Chris nodded slightly, a smirk pulling at his lips. "Buck and I played a little when we were younger."
Nathan shrugged a shoulder. "I never played, but I've seen the game a time or two."
"Me too, but I'd love to learn!" JD announced enthusiastically.
"Are you sure you actually mean Lacrosse?" Buck spat out, still a bit in shock. "The game with sticks and lots of runnin' and bumpin' into everyone and gettin' knocked over into the mud?"
"The very same," Ezra confirmed, "though I fear I won't be up to playing until I've fully recovered."
"That's all right, Ez, you can sit on the side and tell me and Nathan how to play," JD practically begged. "Then when you get better we can have a real game."
"The teams won't be even," the gambler pointed out.
Vin frowned. "Since when do the teams have to be even for Lacrosse?"
Josiah also shrugged as if the notion was the most ridiculous thing he'd ever heard of. A tiny twinge of sorrow from past memories pulled at the Southerner's chest, but it was squashed almost immediately by the beaming smiles on the grown men at the table. The notion of being able to play the simple game had somehow brought to life the kids in all of them, and Ezra was glad that he was the one that brought forth such a reaction. As he reached for the newly filled glass he realized his hand was shaking a bit and he shot a glance at Nathan. The healer hadn't missed it.
"We'll have to postpone the first lesson 'til tomorrow," Nathan announced gently.
Standish nodded. "Yes, I fear all this activity has worn me out a bit. Would someone be so kind…?
Josiah stood up first and helped Ezra to his feet, easily taking the majority of the smaller man's weight until his legs slowly registered the command to walk. The Southerner tipped his hat at the others before allowing the preacher to almost half-carry him to his room. The two didn't speak until after Josiah had helped him get comfortable in the bed, and it was the preacher who broke the companionable silence first.
"Ezra?" he asked, noting the man was already nearly asleep.
"Hmm?" the gambler mumbled back.
"In the clinic while you were unco- uh, sleeping – it looked like you were having some pretty heavy nightmares. Would it be too bold to ask what they were about?"
"Nightmares?" Ezra asked with honest confusion, then shook his head. "Nightmares don't have happy endings, Josiah. I had good dreams. Only good ones…"
His voice faded as he slipped off to sleep, leaving a perplexed but still rather pleased Josiah to watch over him. The preacher shook his head and smiled, wondering if the enigmatic man would ever tell them what had happened to so suddenly bring him closer to the six of them. Whatever it was, he was grateful for it, and grateful for any future secrets the guarded Southerner would reveal to them because of it.
"Lacrosse," he chuckled. He reached over to pull up the rocking chair, grabbing a book off the shelf in the process. Heaving a contented sigh, he sank into the rocker and opened the novel, ready to settle in for the duration of the gambler's peaceful slumber.
When I published this originally I had considered taking the bit of conversation about Lacrosse out of the story. I left it in because I was gearing up to write a sequel. Clearly that didn't happen over all these years so I thought about removing that part again while posting here, but then thought maybe it'll drive me to write that second story after all. Fingers crossed my recent writing motivation will lead me to it!