Acceptance
(Old West)

by JoAnn Walker

Disclaimer: The usual I guess - donít own them.


Josiah paused just inside the saloon to let his eyes adjust. Spotting his friends all sitting together at a near the back of the saloon; well all except for Ezra who sat at his usual table playing a game of chance. Josiah nodded in thanks for the drink which he quickly downed. Looking at the younger man dressed all in black the ex-preacher smiled and said, "Thanks Brother Chris. I needed that." After pulling one of the vacant chairs out he sat down. Pouring himself another drink Josiah looked over at their seventh and said, "I suppose it would be stupid to ask whoís winning."

With a grin Vin watched as Josiah downed the drink before he said, "Hell Josiah you know Ezra donít know how to lose."

"Unless heís playing with someone elseís money," Chris threw in with a grin.

Tossing back another drink Josiah could only nod. After pouring another shot he stretched out his long legs and he turned his attention back to the man only man heíd ever known that was brave and cocky enough to wear purple. He settled back with the others to enjoy the show taking place in front of them. Josiah grinned as he watched Ezra gather up his winnings. Shaking his head Josiah silently toasted their favorite gambler before tossing the drink back. The grin quickly faded as one of the cowboys threw his cards on the table in disgust. Donít say it, Josiah silently warned, donít you dare call him a cheater. He was getting damned tired of inexperienced players accusing Ezra of cheating. Anyone with have a brain could tell that the well-dressed man was a professional. With a shake of his head Josiah watched as the cowboy jumped to his feet and accused Ezra of cheating, which in turn brought Ezra to his feet more than willing to defend himself if need be. Thatís it, Josiah thought as he dropped the empty shot glass on the table and quickly walked up to the stranger and all but growled, "You calliní my boy a cheat."

Chris and the others tried to repress a chill that ran down their backs when Josiah got to his feet. Groaning they looked at each other and shook their heads. They knew that in spite of his size or maybe because of it; Josiah Sanchez was one of the gentlest men that they knew. So long as he was sober, but get him drunk and heaven help you if you got in his way. The five peacekeepers were not looking forward to the confrontation.

"He cheated. I know..." the rest of his sentence faded away as he suddenly grabbed around the throat and bodily lifted three feet off the floor.

After making sure that no one else posed a threat the other five peacekeeper gathered around the out of control ex-preacher with a look of resignation on their faces. They cringed as Josiah pushed the stranger up one of the saloonís support beams. Then heard him say, "My boy donít cheat; he donít have to. Ezraís that good." They watched as Josiah lowered the man as if to release him, but instead heard him say, "If you canít handle losing then I suggest you donít play." Then back up the support beam the stranger went.

Chris Larabee was a lot of things, but a fool wasnít one of them. He and the others each knew that this unique group of men had some how formed a tight family bond. They all thought of each other as a brother. Except where Josiah and Ezra were concerned. They all knew that Josiah had all but adopted the fancy talking southerner; in spite of having been told countless times by the southerner that he wasnít Josiahís son. But Josiah could be just as stubborn as any of them and just ignored him. And now like any father; Josiah would do anything to protect his family and the consequences be damned if anyone threatened that family. Brother or unofficial adopted son or not. So with that in mind Chris cautiously placed a hand on papa bearís shoulder. "Josiah. Come on Josiah let him go," the black clad gunslinger said but received no response; if anything the stranger was pushed higher up the beam. Stepping back Chris beckoned to Nathan to give it a try, but to his surprise Ezra stepped forward instead.

Ezra watched in shock as Josiah grabbed his accuser by the throat and shove him up the saloonís support beam. After quickly gathering his winning and placing it in his jacket pocket Ezra figured this could and would turn ugly if someone didnít put a stop to it soon. Seeing Chris and the others Ezra released a breath he didnít realize heís been holding. With an exasperated sigh at Chrisí pitiful attempt at defusing the situation, Ezra pushed past Buck and JD and said, "Mr. Sanchez." When he didnít receive a response Ezra stepped closer and placed a hand on the older manís arm. "Come on, Josiah let him go." Stepping around so that he was facing the older man he continued, "Itís not the first time Iíve been called a cheater and I can promised it wont be the last," he commented and was rewarded with a look.

"It donít make it right," Josiah replied as he tightened his hold on the manís throat.

ĎWay to go Ezra,í Chris thought to himself, make him even madder. Then smiled to himself as he heard the gambler continue; use his words against him.

"No it doesnít, but then again," Ezra paused and looked up into those blue eyes before continuing, "neither does this. Josiah two wrongs donít make a right. At least thatís what youíre always telling me. You do practice what you preach... donít you?"

Josiah narrowed his eyes as he took in what Ezra was saying, "Not fair you using my words against me." Then with a grin, "But itís nice to know that youíve been listening." Then without a word of warning Josiah let go of the man and he fell to the floor in a heap. Grabbing Ezra by the arm he pulled him towards the bar, "I donít know about you son, but I need a drink." With the others following close behind.

"You know Josiah I really hate to keep reminding you of this, but Iím not your son," Ezra said with a serious expression, but with a twinkle in his eyes.

"Figure of speech," Josiah said with a smile before continuing, "Much the same as you swearing on the grave of your sainted mother."

Ezra couldnít help the laugh at that reminder and say, "Well so long as we understand each other."

Nathan quickly checked the stranger and then sent him own his way before joining the others at the bar. With a shake of his head said, "You just arenít happy unless you causing trouble are you Ezra."

"Not now Nathan," Chris warned then sighed when he was ignored. Fine, he said under his breath, see if the healer would get any help from him when Josiah grabs him by the throat. Nathan had just insulted the only one of them that could possibly help him. With a shake of his head Chris wondered once again what the point was in him being the leader when no one ever listened to him anyway.

"Ya know Josiah," Nathan started, but stepped back as Josiah turned on him.

"Shut up Nathan. I for one donít want to hear it. Itís not always Ezraís fault," Josiah warned. "So letís just drop it."

Nathan raised his hands in mock surrender, but shot a look at Ezraís bent head.

The seven peacekeepers talked without incident for another hour before calling it a night and going their separate ways.

Early the next morning Chris, Vin, and Nathan in the saloon enjoying a quiet breakfast. Hearing a ruckus on the boardwalk they each rolled their eyes as they heard and then saw JD and Buck stumble in and resigned the fact that their quiet morning was now gone. Just as JD and Buck starting eating Josiah walked in and after ordering his breakfast sat down between Buck and Nathan. "Morning," he said with a yawn that drowned out their greetings. Blinking his eyes Josiah looked at the men around him and glanced up the stairs where Ezra still slept. Then with a smile he stole Buckís biscuits right out of his hands.

"Hey!" Buck complained. "That was mine."

"Possession nine tenths the law," Josiah offered with a wink. "Ainít that right Sheriff Dunne?"

"Thatís right Josiah," JD replied with a smile.

"Well I had possession of it first," Buck reminded him before shooting a dirty look at his so-called best friend.

JD returned his look and shrugged as if to say, whatya want me to do.

"Buck didnít your mama ever teach you to respect your elders," Josiah teased as Inez brought him his breakfast. "Thank you maíam."

"Well now Josiah she tried," Buck replied. Then with a twinkle in his eyes continued, "Tell ya what she did teach me though... Do undo others as they do to me." Reaching over he took one of Josiahís biscuits causing the others to laugh.

Josiah rolled his eyes and began eating his breakfast. Once he was done eating he sat there with the others enjoying another cup of coffee. Looking up he caught Nathanís eye and could tell the man had something on his mind. "Something on your mind Nathan?" Josiah asked.

"Yeah I do, but you wont like it so Iíll just keep quiet," Nathan replied.

"That hasnít ever stopped you before," Josiah countered. "Just spit it out."

Nathan sat there for a full minute before answering. Then very cautiously said what he wanted to say last night, "Ezra donít need you fighting his battles for him."

"Weíve had this discussion before Nathan. Besides someone has to show that boy that we care," Josiah said all the while trying to stay calm. "Ezraís our friend Nathan. I canít forget that even if you sometimes do. Helping fight each otherís battles is what families do. I wont allow Ezra to be left out. Heís as much apart of this family as you are."

"I know Josiah. But you need to realize that Ezra isnít your son."

"I know that!" Josiah hissed jumping to his feet as he felt his temper rise. The intimidating ex-preacher failed to notice that others pushed their chair back. Taking a couple of calming breaths he continued, "And I know that the rest of us arenít really brothers. And that we arenít really a family." Running a hand through his salt and pepper hair he held up a hand as Chris opened his mouth. "Nathan donít you understand that itís not just the blood between folks that makes them family. Sometimes thereís a connection... a... a bond that runs deeper than blood that binds individuals together and unites them as a family. Thatís what happened with the seven of us," Josiah gave the others time to digest that while he finished his coffee. "Itís that kind of bond that I feel for each of you, but with Ezra itís... more. Ah hell, I canít explain it."

"You donít have to," Vin said with a nod of understanding.

Nodding in thanks to Vin Josiah noticed that Nathan was still confused, so he tried one more time, "Nathan just because we donít share the same blood doesnít mean we arenít a part of each other. I know that Ezra isnít my son. But I care about that boy and will fight anything or anyone that threatens him." Josiah paused and got to his feet and said, "Hell Nathan of all people I thought you would have understood that. Cause I would expect that itís the same thing that keeps you helping people even though you arenít a real doctor. Now I have a patrol to ride." And walked out.

JD thought about Josiahís words and knew without a doubt that he was right. "Josiahís right Nathan. We donít share a drop of blood between us, but I weíre brothers just the same," he said with a conviction that went beyond his years.

With a nod in JD direction Vin added, "Whatís it to you that Josiah thinks of Ezra like a son? He donít need your permission. Hell he donít even need Ezraís. Manís entitled to think what he wants. ĎSides it ainít any of your business."

Nathan looked at each of his friends, "All I was saying..."

"We know what your were sayiní Nathan," Vin interrupted. "You donít want Josiah defending Ezra. I have to tell ya it makes me wonder why." Then looking him right in the eye continued, "You donít think Ezraís good enough to be Josiahís son. Do ya?" Vin shook his head at the expression in the healerís dark eyes.

"No. I donít think Ezraís good enough to be Josiahís son. He certainly doesnít appreciate him," Nathan said with a sigh. He half way expected this kind of reaction from Buck or even JD, but not Vin.

"Thatís where you wrong Nathan," Chris spoke for the first time. "Ezra does appreciate it probably more than any of us will ever know. Besides being appreciated got nothing to do with parenting," he pointed out. "If you would just look beyond the fact that Ezraís from the south youíd see just how much Ezra has changed. We can take some credit for that, but most of itís due to Josiah. Canít you see how Ezra fills a void in Josiah," he questioned. "Sure they fight but thatís all a part of it. If you look carefully enough you can see Ezra walk a little taller after a compliment from him. And havenít you ever noticed how Josiahís chest seems to swell with pride when Ezra needs something and seeks him out. I donít know why you canít see any of that?"

Nathan didnít know what to say, so he just sat there not saying a word. Just thinking. Questioning himself. Was he judging Ezra just like heíd been judged all his life? If Chris could see how much Ezra had changed then why couldnít he? Was he refusing to see beyond the fact that Ezra was from the south? Nathan shook his head as his thought started to jumble up on him and he couldnít think straight any more. Pouring himself another cup of coffee he stretched out and tried to push everything out of his mind.

*******

Out on patrol Josiah still fumed at Nathanís words. He couldnít believe what he heard. Did Nathan think Josiah wasnít stupid? He knew that Ezra wasnít really his son. And he sure as hell didnít need Nathan to remind him of that. Ezra did that enough for the both of them, Josiah thought with a smile. He didnít care what Nathan or anyone said - he cared for the stubborn, cocky, infuriating, fancy dressed southern talking dictionary. Ezra Standish was truly a one of a kind. Hell they all were. Thatís what made their diverse group so formidable.

So caught up in his thoughts Josiah was taken by surprise by the sound of a gunshot. He scanned the area, but didnít see anything. Josiah clutched his thigh as a second shot was fired and found its mark. Spurring his horse he raced toward a grove of trees up ahead trying to put as much distance between him and his attackers as he could. Glancing behind him to see how many men their were Josiah almost didnít see the low hanging branch; ducking quickly he just did miss it, but wasnít so lucky against the men chasing him as another bullet ripped through his shoulder throwing him to the ground. With a groan he tried to fight the blackness threatening him, but the pain was to great and he felt himself losing the battle. Josiahís last conscience thought was what would Ezra do.

His attackers cautiously dismounted and walked toward him. "That one of them?"

"Yep. Thatís one of them peacekeepers," one of the men replied.

"Is he dead? He ainít gonna be no good to us if he is," the leader asked watching as one of the other men nudge him with their boot causing the big man to groan. "Come on then letís get him outta here."

*******

Ezra suddenly sat up in bed with his heart racing. Looking around him he wondered what was wrong. Running a shaky hand through his mused up hair Ezra thought for a minute and froze as fear clutched at his heart as he realized that Josiah was in trouble. He didnít know how he knew, but he knew he would bet his last dime on it.

Jumping to his feet Ezra quickly washed and then dressed. After attaching the rig that held his derringer and making sure it was in working order he strapped on his shoulder holster; snatched up his gun belt, jacket and hat and threw open the door, but made sure shut it behind him. He then hurried down the stairs and upon seeing the others seated together at a table he briefly paused at the bottom before stepping the rest of the way into the room. Ignoring the others Ezra threw his hat and black jacket on one of the tables and put his gun belt on. After all he was never was one to volunteer.

The five men looked up in surprise as Ezra hurried into the room and each waited for the other to start the questioning. They didnít have to wait long as out of the seven of them Buck had the least patience. "Morniní Ezra. Whereís the fire?" Buck couldnít ever remember seeing the easy going gambler so edgy.

"Buck," was all Ezra said as he finished fastening his gun belt before reaching for his jacket.

All five men tensed not so much at the use of the ladies manís first name because Ezra was starting to use their first names more and more. No what had them so tense was his tone of voice. It lacked itís usual warmth. Not to mention that the usually late sleeper was up two hours early. Something was wrong.

Looking around Ezra ran his tongue along the inside of his bottom lip. After finally letting his gaze fall on his friends he asked the question that was burning a hole in his brain. "Whereís Josiah?"

"Why?" Nathan wondered and then shivered at the look Ezra sent him.

"Donít start with me Nathan," Ezra warned in a controlled voice. "Where is he?"

"Still on patrol," Chris answered. "He should be back any minute now."

"Whatís wrong Ezra? Whatís got you all bothered?" Vin asked just able to keep the concern out of his voice.

With a shake of his head Ezra headed for the bar. Reaching over he grabbed a bottle and was about to take a drink right out of the bottle before realizing drinking wasnít going to help any. Then with a shrug he thought that one drink wouldnít hurt one way or another. Tilting the bottle up he drained the near empty bottle.

"Ezra?" Vin questioned as he walked up. The tracker didnít like seeing the usually easygoing man so bothered. "You ok?" He didnít like the look in those usually unreadable green eyes, but this morning Vin could two definite emotions. Confusion and fear. The confusion didnít bother him, but the fear had him worried. Something was wrong because Ezra wasnít usually this easy to read. Usually hell; he wasnít ever.

Green eyes met blue and for once Ezra found that he wanted to confide in the younger man. Bowing his head he ran a hand threw his hair and said softy so that only he could hear, "I donít know Vin. I... I woke up with this feeling that something was wrong." Raising his head he looked Vin strait in the eye and opened his mouth to say he thought it had something with Josiah, but lost his nerve. Sighing he shrugged his shoulders as if it didnít matter and turned and walked started walking away. Pausing only to retrieve his hat before walking out of the saloon.

Vin glanced at the others before following his friend determined to find out what was wrong. Stepping onto the boardwalk Vin found that he didnít have to look very far because Ezra was sitting in a chair outside the saloon with his feet on the hitching rail in front of him. Vin thought a moment on how best to approach the southerner. Hell Ezra could be as closed mouthed as Chris if he didnít want to talk. Squaring his shoulders he leaned against the same rail and ignored the others standing just inside the saloon listening. Vin opened his mouth to say something but was saved as Ezra started talking on his own.

"I keep getting this feeling that thereís something wrong with Josiah. I can not explain how or why all I know is what I feel. And my gut is telling me that heís in trouble," Ezra said unable to keep quite any longer.

The tracker nodded and said, "Well thatís enough for me. Letís go find him.". Vin knew better than anyone about gut feelings. If Ezra says heís got a gut feeling then that was more than enough for him. Like him Ezra had saved the others lives many a times by trusting their gut. He didnít want the chance it either way.

Ezra quickly got to his feet and grinned because he knew if anyone would understand than it would be Vin. Then in a very un-Ezra like move he grabbed Vinís hand and shook it in appreciation.

Vin stood a little taller at the jester and couldnít help but grin in response. Seeing the blood suddenly drain from the other manís face he said, "Ezra?" But saw that Ezra was looking at over his shoulder. With a frown Vin turned and followed the gambler as he stepped into the street. He watched as Ezra grabbed the reins of riderless horse and felt the blood drain from his own face as he realized it was Josiahís horse. "Chris! You guys better get out here?" Vin shouted. He knew it wouldnít take long as they were standing just inside the saloon listening to his and Ezra conversation.

"Easy boy," Ezra whispered as he rubbed the frightened horseís neck all the while trying to calm it. Pulling his hand away as Vin and the others approached Ezra glanced down and then in shock held a shaky bloody hand up for them to see.

"Thatís Josiahís horse," JD said in shock and looked over at Buck as the older man placed an arm across his shoulders.

They all stared at Ezraís bloody hand for a full minute then everyone started talking at once. Everyone that is except for Vin and Ezra. Vin was watching the emotions cross Ezraís face as he stared at his hand, emotions ranging from shock to blame to disbelief with just a touch of fear. Ezra stared in disbelief at Josiahís blood on his hand and blamed himself. He should have gone looking for the older man as soon as he awoke, but didnít. Maybe if he had then Josiah might be there now and he would not have his blood on his hand. Ezra swallowed the fear that was starting to rise and with a determination that had saved his life more times than he cared to remember he pushed the fear back and tightly lock it away.

Suddenly there was a cold wet bandanna in his hand washing the blood away. Looking up he saw Vin watching him and he raised his head and straightened his shoulders showing the younger man he was ok. Then with a nod in appreciation Ezra took the bandanna and finished the job. Once that was completed he handed it back and reached up and adjusted his hat before looking at his friends, Ezra then turned and with Josiahís horse Prophet with him he headed toward the livery.

"Come on fellas, letís go find Josiah," Vin said then followed Ezra.

*******

Meanwhile Josiah was starting to come around and with a groan he blinked his eyes several times before he actually got them to open. Then as the pain from his gun shot wounds made itself known he wished heíd kept his eyes closed. He didnít remember seeing any crows so he figured heíd be ok for now. Both bullets had passed through and had already stopped bleeding. Hearing a noise to his left Josiah cautiously turned his head just to make sure it was still connected and looked around. Spotting three men standing together and another over by the horses he tried to concentrate on the threeís conversation. From what he could make out they planned on robbing the bank in Four Corners and using him as a hostage. Looking up Josiah was startled as he came face to face with one of the bandits.

"Itís about time you woke up mister. We was beginning to think you might not," he man said before turning to shout, "Hey! Johnny heís awake."

Josiah winced as the man loud voice bounced around inside his head. Crying out in pain as the man pulled him up to lean against a near by tree. Once the pain had ebbed a little Josiah noticed that the loud little man had his not only his jacket on, but his cross as well. He didnít give a damn about the jacket but the cross... the cross was given to him by his sister and hated to lose it.

"Careful Ronnie, we donít want him passiní out again," Johnny said as he approached. "We need him to be able to ride."

Ronnie grinned as he held up a water canteen and allowed him a few swallows before pulling it away.

"Ronnie you best be going," Johnny said and as the man walked by he grabbed him and sneered, "Donít let me down."

With a nod the man named Ronnie quickly mounted his horse and rode away with one thought in his head; donít mess up. It was his job to scope out the bank and to see how many of the seven were in town.

"Put him on a horse. We got a bank to rob," Johnny grinned.

Josiah gripped the saddle horn in an attempt to keep from falling and winced as his hands were pulled together and then tied. He felt his head start to spin and felt like he was gonna be sick, but after taking several breathes he was able to push the nauseous feeling away.

*******

They had left the livery and were discussing where to start looking when a stranger rode past Ezra and Vin. There wasnít anything unusual about him that JD could tell. Looking over at Ezra he felt a chill run down his spine at the look on the older manís face. He watched as Vin laid a restraining hand on Ezra as he made to go after the stranger.

"Ezra you canít go doing nothing stupid," Vin warned having also noticed the cross around the manís neck. "Calm down. You donít know for sure if that was Josiahís cross."

"Was? All of a sudden itís was! What happened to is?" Ezra questioned. Then with a sudden move he jerked his arm away from the tracker and then took a couple of steps back as Vin tried to grabbed him again.

"You know what I meant," Vin said as he tried to grab the gambler in an attempt to calm him down.

"Yeah I know what you meant. I also know without a doubt that that man was wearing Josiahís cross," Ezra was so upset that he wasnít even using his five-dollar words. "Hell Vin weíve seen him wear it a million times. That simple little wooden cross is more precious to him than gold."

"Well letís at least get a close up look at it before you shoot the man," Vin tried to reason with him.

"Vinís right," Chris finally said. "Weíll follow him to the saloon just to make sure," he suggested then looked Ezra straight in the eye before stating, "And then you can question him. Now like Vin said calm down."

"I am calm!" he snapped then with a sigh turned and started walking away. Sensing that the others were not following him he said without turning around, "Well are you coming or am I gonna have to do this without you."

Stepping into the saloon the six friends quickly spotted the stranger standing at the bar and made their way over to him, but made sure Ezra didnít get to close. Nathan stood next to the man and after nodding at him he glanced down and felt his heart skip a beat because he knew that this man not only had Josiahís cross, but also his jacket. And the jacket had a blood on it. With a nod to the others to confirm their suspensions Nathan stepped back and motioned for JD. "Get these people out of here JD. Things might get out of hand," the healer said.

As Ezra found himself pushed toward the end of the bar he started making himself ready for battle by removing his hat and jacket and then looked at his vest with a shrug took it off as well. After all he didnít want to get any blood on it. Josiah would understand. He laid them neatly on the bar and looked at the rig on his arm and with a shrugged disengaged the derringer and placed it in his pocket then preceded to remove the rigging itself and placed it on top of his other items and asked Inez to place them behind the bar for him. Ezra then did something that he hadnít done in years; he rolled up his shirtsleeves. Catching a glimpsed of himself in the mirror he shook of his head and smiled. Just look what these men had reduced him to. Why I almost look common, he thought to himself, oh wouldnít his mother be proud.

Vin watched as Ezra removed his coat, vest, derringer and rigging. Then with a sense of dread he saw the southerner roll up his sleeves and knew this couldnít be good. Ezra never rolled up his sleeves except when forced to do menial labor. With a shake of his head he inched himself closer to his friend as Ezra pushed both Chris and Buck out of his way so that he was standing next to the stranger wearing Josiahís cross. The tracker watched as Ezra very calmly reached out with one hand and with a jerk ripped it off and before anyone could react Ezra slammed the stranger face first into the bar with the other sending blood spattering everywhere. The stranger let a howl of pain fell to the floor.

Vin and Buck both grabbed the gambler and pulled him back. "Careful Ezra. We canít kill him. Not yet anyway," Buck reasoned with him.

Chris smiled in approval at the scene before him because that was exactly what he would have done. Stepping closer to the man holding his nose and rolling around on the floor he said, "Now Iím only gonna ask you this once. And if you donít give me the answers I want then theyíll release my man and weíll let him finish what he started. Now you see a friend of ours is missing and we think you know where he is. Heís a big fella with blue eyes and the last time we saw him he was wearing this cross. Now where is he?"

Ronnie looked up at the man in black then to the man being restrained and turned and spit his answer on the floor. No way was that little man gonna do more to him than Johnny would if he talked, he thought to himself.

Chris grinned as he motioned for Vin and Buck to let Ezra go and they all stood back as the smaller man grabbed the man and jerked him to his feet only to knee the stranger in the ribs knocking the air out of him and sending him back to the floor. The others winced as Ezra grabbed the man by the hair and pulled him to his feet only to slam a fist into his jaw and sent him flying.

Ezra couldnít ever remember being so angry. If he knew the others would let him he snap the manís neck like a twig, but knew theyíd never allow it. Besides they needed him alive. Walking a circle around the downed man a glint of medal caught Ezra couldnít see how intimidating he looked, but the others did. The only thing that he noticed was the light reflecting off Nathanís knives so with a gleam, that rivaled only Chris, Ezra snatched the knife and before anyone could react jerked the man to his knees and pulled his head back so that his throat was exposed and was about to bring the knife up when someone grabbed his arm.

Nathan saw that Ezra had planned and grabbed Ezraís arm before he could bring the knife up to cut the man, "No! Ezra no. Not like this."

"Fine," Ezra sneered and carelessly tossed it over his shoulder almost stabbing Buck in the foot. Reaching inside his pocket he pulled out his derringer and secretly removed the bullets then held it up so that the man could see it. "This little gun only has two shots, but only one bullet so that gives you a fifty, fifty chance of living. Now... whereís... my friend?" Not receiving an answer Ezra pressed the gun between the manís eyes and before anyone could react he pulled the trigger.

Ronnie squeezed his eyes shut and jumped when he heard the audible click of the empty chamber. He was beginning to think that maybe he and Johnny had made a big mistake when the southerner spoke.

"Last chance," Ezra stated and pressed the gun harder causing the man to wince.

"Johnny and the others are bringiní him," Ronnie squeaked out.

"When?" Chris questioned.

"Soon. They should be here within the hour," Ronnie replied. "With your friend."

Ezraís eyes narrowed as it dawned on him that the man was wearing Josiahís jacket and there was a blood on it. "Is this his blood? Well!," he snarled, but the man couldnít or wouldnít answer. "Take it off. This is Josiahís jacket. Please help me take it off this... this... person." Once the jacket was removed Ezra looked the man right in the eyes and pulled the trigger and had the satisfaction of seeing the color drain from the man face before Vin stepped between them and pushed him back a couple of steps.

"JD you and Buck lock him up and see if you can find out anything else. Then spread the word that troubleís coming," Chris said.

"Whatís your name mister?" JD asked as he helped him to his feet.

"Ronnie," was all he could manage.

"Welcome to Four Corners, Ronnie," Buck teased and slapped him on the back before following them out of the saloon and toward the jail.

Chris looked at his remaining men. Nathan and Vin were looking at Ezra with different expressions on their face. It was as if Nathan was seeing him for the first time or as if heíd just discovered something profound. Vin had a smirk on his face and didnít look at all surprised by their friendís actions. Looking over at Ezra, Chris decided that he was glad the gambler was on their side. "You all right Ezra?" Chris wondered. The younger man just nodded as he checked his ammo and reloaded his derringer before placing it back in his pocket. "Vin I want you somewhere high," the black clad gunslinger said. "Nathan I want..." Chris began only to find that Nathan was all ready walking away. "Where you going Nathan?"

"Iím gonna see if I can do something about that manís nose," Nathan replied.

"Why?" Ezra questioned.

Turning Nathan looked at Ezra in wonder and said, "Because itís the right thing to do."

The southerner gave a very ungentle men like snort and mumbled, "To each his own." Then after placing the jacket on the bar Ezra removed the cross from his pocket and retied the crossís string and placed it around his neck. Unaware of the emotions running across his face or that the other three were watching him.

With a nod Vin turned and started walking toward the door, but paused next to Nathan and said so that only the healer could hear, "You still think he donít care for anyone but himself." Then without waiting for a response he walked out and almost into JD and Buck as they were headed back in.

Buck motioned for the tracker to wait, "Ronnie told us that this Johnny had five men and that they were planning on robbing the bank and using Josiah as a hostage. He also told us that Josiah was in the leg and the shoulder."

Chris nodded and told them to spread out and get ready. Turning he looked over at Ezra who was standing by the bar with an expression on his face that reminded the older gunslinger of a lost and scared little boy.

Vin and the others saw the same thing; even Nathan. Walking over Vin placed his hands on either side of Ezraís face and leaned in and whispered something in his ear causing him to look up with a smile. Slapping the older man on the shoulder the tracker turned and walked out of the saloon and got into position.

"Come on JD letís go get the rest of these folks off the streets," Buck said and stepped out onto the boardwalk then called back over his shoulder, "Here they come!"

Chris and Nathan stepped out of the saloon together and then separated. Chris ducked into the alley across the street from the bank and Nathan quickly crossed the street and ducked behind a wagon near the bank.

Buck and JD positioned themselves near the jail and Vin was on top of one of the buildings. That left Ezra alone in the saloon.

Reaching up Ezra tied the saloon doors so that they stayed opened and out of his line of vision and then probed a couple of tables near the door and waited. His green eyes took in everything in a glance as the so-called Johnny and the other bandits rode into town leading a bloody and barely conscious Josiah between them.

Johnny grinned as he spotted Ronnieís horse outside the saloon as they rode past on their way to the bank, completely unaware of the trap they had just entered. They stopped their horses in front of the bank and then dismounted and looked all around. Reaching up Johnny grabbed Josiah pulled him from the horse he was just managing to stay on.

As Josiahís feet touched the ground his knees buckled nearly sending him them both to the ground. Then with a groan he managed to regain his balance. Looking around he quickly spotted four of his friends and knew that Vin was on one of the buildings across the street. Josiah spotted Ezra in the saloon and tried to grin to let him know he was all right, but couldnít quite manage it. Please Lord, donít let that boy do anything stupid on the count of me, he silently prayed. They all knew that Vin and especially Ezra would take any unnecessary risk to save the others.

Unfortunately Josiahís size made him a perfect hostage; especially when the man holding him was the same height but narrower in the shoulders.

Looking around one of the bandits spotted Buck by the jail and upon making eye contact the bandit received a wink causing his eyes to widen and he suddenly yelled out, "Itís a trap!"

Josiah winced as Johnny pulled him closer and then all but threw him behind some big boxes near by as the bullets started to fly. Groaning as he thrown to the ground Josiah cried out as he landed on his bad leg.

Seeing his men falling like flies Johnny suddenly called out, "You let Ronnie go and Iíll let your man go."

"You let Josiah go and then we might release Ronnie," Chris called out.

With a chuckle Johnny asked, "You must think Iím stupid. If I let your man go then youíll shoot me."

"Mister thatís gonna happen anyway. So we might as well get it over with," Chris declared.

"Iíll kill him," Johnny warned and then looked over at Josiah.

Josiah grinned as he heard Chris call out, "Go ahead." He then laughed as Johnnyís eyes widened at the response. Josiah saw the look of disbelief on Johnnyís face as Chris continued, "But if you do then me and my men will kill you where you stand."

JD waited for a signal from Chris to release the prisoner, but none came.

Johnny raised his head to take a look around and quickly ducked as a bullet took his hat off. With a looked at his one remaining man and he then looked at Josiah and came to a decision, "If Iím gonna die then Iím takiní you with me." Reaching over he grabbed Josiah by the arm and pulled him up in front of him and stood up. "You have until the count of ten to release Ronnie or Iím gonna blow your friendís brains out," he warned.

"No deal," Chris returned.

Josiah saw the blood drain from the banditís face and took advantage of his shock to jab him as hard as he could in the ribs before trying to run away. He almost made it across the street when a shot rang out and Josiah clutched his side before falling into a pool of his own blood. With his last conscious thought Josiah heard Ezra scream and reached out with a bloody hand before the blackness took hold.

Ezra watched Josiah weave his way across the street and for the first time allowed himself to hope that everything was going to be ok. When suddenly a shot was fired and Ezra saw that it came from a bandit lying in the street; believed to be dead. The southerner and the others watched in horror as Josiah fell to the ground. "Noooo!" Ezra screamed as he jumped to his feet and charged out of the saloon with a speed he didnít realize he had. He quickly made sure that the bandit was dead this time. Then in a move that should have killed him Ezra walked the barrage of bullets all the while firing his gun and watched in bitter satisfaction as one of the bullet found itís mark right between Johnnyís eyes.

Vin felt a chill race down his spine as Ezra screamed and watched in horror watched as Ezra walked through the bullets as if taking a Sunday stroll. Movement to the gamblerís left caught the trackerís eyes and as he fired he saw Ezra take Johnny down. Getting quickly to his feet he raced down to the now quiet street.

Nathan quickly ran to Josiah felt for a pulse; it was weak, but at least it was there. Motioning for Buck to help him the healer very carefully turned the big guy over. "Help me get him to the clinic," Nathan said after quickly examining him.

Buck grunted under the weight and said, "Damn he weighs a ton."

Ezra stood staring at nothing with his arm still extended. Lowering his gun he watched as Nathan checked on Josiah. Suddenly feeling weak in the knees he walked over and sat on the boardwalk and rested his head on his arm. Looking up he watched as Buck, Chris, and Nathan carried Josiah to Nathanís clinic with JD fast on their heals.

Vin just stared as the others started walking up the steps to the clinic. He motioned for one of the town folk to get the undertaker. Ok five of his friends are in the clinic so whereís Ezra. Looking around he spotted him sitting on the boardwalk staring at the clinic. "Ezra," Vin began as he stepped in front of his friend, "heís gonna be all right." Not getting a response he blocked Ezraís view of the clinic. "Ezra do ya remember what I told back in the saloon before all this started? Look around you whata see," the tracker asked as the man nodded, "well thereís not a single crow in sight." Holding a hand Vin said, "Come on letís go see how heís doing." After helping the shorter man to his feet he waited for him to take that first step.

Ezra looked up at Vin and was never more thankful for his quiet reassurances. He had finally admitted to himself that he cared for these six men, but knew that with Vin, JD, and of course Josiah heíd be lost. These three men had awakened something in him that refused to stay hidden in longer. So without a word he nodded and took that first step toward the clinic. Once at the top of the stairs they both came to a stop as they found Buck and JD waiting outside.

"Well?" Vin asked when it looked as if Ezra wouldnít or couldnít.

"Donít know. Nathanís still working on him," Buck answered. Then watched Vin and Ezra both settled down for the long wait.

An hour later the four friends were still waiting each lost in their own thoughts. However, as the door opened to the clinic three of them jumped to their feet; the fourth needed a moment to collect him himself. Then together they followed the man in black inside the clinic.

Nathan looked up from his position beside the bed and silently got to his feet. "I got the bullet out, but heís lost a lot of blood and he was all ready weak from his other wounds. The wound in his leg was already becoming infected. Which is whatís causing his fever. Itís not to high, but I expect it to rise as the night goes on. So I..."

"But heís gonna be ok, right?" JD interrupted.

"I donít know JD. I think so, but like I said heís lost a lot of blood and is weak," Nathan shrugged wishing he could do more for his friend. "Weíll have to keep an eye on his fever and watch for any more infections. Iíll know more once he wakes up."

Vin watched with a heavy heart as Ezra stepped closer to the bed and sit down in a chair on the other side of the bed. The tracker knew that if they lost Josiah then theyíd lose the gambler as well. But Vin was determined not to lose either of his friends. Rising his head and squaring his shoulder the younger man walked over and laid a hand on Josiahís leg and then moved and sat on the floor so that he was between both his friends and leaned back against the wall.

Chris watched the movements of his friends and felt his gut tighten with worry. He never should have sent Josiah out alone. But hell of the seven of them Josiah was the most level head on the bunch. With a shake of his head he said, "JD would you and Buck go get us some sandwiches. Looks like it gonna be a long night."

The long night turned into two long days and even longer nights. It was on the third afternoon that the friends saw the first signs of life and each started talking at once.

Josiah could hear voices around him but could not make who they belonged to. To his pain distorted mind it sounded like his father and he shuddered. Was the pain he was feeling part of his penance for some supposed sin, he thought to himself. His father was real good at thinking up penance for the sins of his ungrateful son. With a grimace he found himself watching as a small boy ran through a wide open field with tall grass and the air was filled with the sent of wild flowers. He could laughter as the boy tripped and rolled down the hill. As Josiah watched the familiar scene he saw the laughter leave the blue-eyed little boyís face only to be replaced with pain a large man grabbed him by the ear and pulled him to his feet. Then with a painful twist the man sent the boy back to the ground. He could hear the man ask the boy what he was doing and felt a tightening in his chest as the boy said he only wanted to play and then apologize. Josiah winced as the man backhanded the boy and sent him flying. He listened as the man told God that he was sorry they wouldnít be able to save any souls that day, but his ungrateful son wanted to play. The man then grabbed the boy and told him that he to pray to God for forgiveness and to repent; for that was the only true way to be forgiven for ones sins.

With a startled gasped Josiah realized that the large man was his father, Jonah, and that... that the boy was him. And the field was located in one of the many towns his family had visited while his father preached the Good Book. He suddenly remembered a similar town only now he was no longer a boy. No in this town the preacherís son was over six foot tall with broad shoulders and gentle blue eyes. And this Josiah was no longer so easily dominated; much to his fatherís dismay. It was in this town that him and his father had their last confrontation. He remembered happening upon some locals roughing his up father and quickly broke it up. With a bloody lip, curtsey of his father, and a clenched fist Josiah remembered his father reminding him to turn the other cheek. He didnít understand why his father would defend himself in some towns but not in others. Those same locals came upon Josiah by himself the next day and he tried to turn the other cheek. And did pretty good too until he looked up and saw his father just standing there watching; not even trying to help him. Josiah heard him tell the towns people that his boy needed to learn humility. That was the straw that broke the camelís back. Or in this case the dam that held Josiahís temper at bay. So with a growl and a burst of strength Josiah threw the men off and took matters into his own hands. But the fight was over much to soon for his liking. So still spoiling for a fight Josiah didnít hold anything back when his father confronted him later. He told his father exactly what his thought of him and his hypocritical views on life. And then left and never saw his father again.

The light seemed to be fluttering and as Josiah watched he could see a shadow of a bird fly over him. Looking up he screamed as he saw a crow careening toward him. No not a crow. Please Lord not now, he prayed.

Nathan check his wounds and found them to clean and free from infection. Feeling movement under his hand he paused and then grinned as Josiah began to stir and didnít have to look up because he knew the others had gathered around him. The unconscious man seemed to be dreaming because he started thrashing his arms about and moving his head from side to side. "We need to keep him still so he donít bust these stitches," Nathan said and grabbed an arm and motioned for Chris to grab his leg, but warned him to watched his wound. Just as Ezra and Vin went to grab a limb Josiah jerked his arm away from Nathan with a force that caught the healer by surprise causing him to let go. The arm had enough momentum behind it to knock the surprised tracker to the floor as it connected with the trackerís shoulder with a soundable thud.

Ezra quickly grabbed the wayward arm and started talking, "Josiah! Calm down. Itís ok. Youíre going to be just fine. Youíre safe now. We wont let anyone hurt you." The gambler repeated the words several times until the man settled back down. Reaching for a rag he began to wipe the sweat from Josiahís face. Spearing Vin a glance Ezra asked with a smile, "You ok?"

"Go ahead and laugh. He didnít just break your shoulder," Vin teased as he rubbed his shoulder. After making sure had Josiah settled down they ate a little and then once again found themselves a spot and settle in for the night.

*******

It was around midnight when something woke the tracker from a light sleep. Looking around he could make out two figures on the floor, one in the other cot, and two in each of the chairs beside the bed. Vin looked at the man sitting in the chair in front of him and couldnít help but smile as he watched Ezra fought a losing battle with the sleep that was trying to claim another victim. As he watched his friend sleep Vin heard a groan from the bed, but before he could move the gambler was there wiping Josiahís face and neck trying to soothe him and his fever. After a moment Vin asked the question it seemed he been asking for the last three days, "Ezra you ok?"

Ezra sat back as his friend settled back down. Turning his green eyes were caught and held by a pair of blue. "No," he said with a shake of his head. Looking over at their fevered friend Ezra asked, "Vin do you remember your father?"

Vin was more than a little surprised; Ezra never asked personal questions mainly because if he did then the others would return the favor. Of the seven men Vin was the least talkative, but if Ezra wanted to talk then heíd oblige him. "No not really. I mostly remember stories my ma told me, but not the man himself. You?"

"Nope. Never knew my father and doubt very seriously if my mother did. Except for the oblivious of course," Ezra said with a small smile. "She never talked about him and whenever I would ask sheíd change the subject," he paused and looked over at Vin before continuing, "I have always figured that I was the result of some bet she lost. Or a con that went bad." He watched the usually unreadable tracker and could easily see that heíd managed to shock him.

Vin stared at Ezra unable to hide the shock of that statement. He didnít even know what to say. He never expected his when Ezra started talking. The six of them knew next to nothing about their friend and he knew that he was not the only one listening.

Ezra knew that the others were more than likely listening, but at the moment he really didnít give a damn. Clearing his throat Ezra decided that so long as he spilling his guts heíd make it interesting. "My mother has also told me that no was to be trusted. That everyone and everything either comes with a price or could be bought. And sadly enough I have found that to be all to true," he sighed and rubbed his hands across his face. "Every kindness that was ever bestowed upon me came with a steep price. Very seldom has their been a situation that I could not talk myself out of. I can not remember a time when my mother has not been able to buy herself out of trouble." Ezra sighed and looked down at his friend expecting to see pity, but saw only understanding. With a small smile he continued, "That is until I ran into a certain Federal Judge and then... you gentlemen. So you can imagine my surprise at you wanting nothing more from me than trust and friendship. Two of the few things in life that can not be bought." Running a hand through his hair he grinned, "And thereís your total disregard for money. And of course, accepting me in spite of what happened at the Seminole Village." Looking down at Josiah Ezra felt tears start to gather so he picked up a wet rag and began to wipe his fevered brow. "And then thereís you. You and your talk about crows and destiny and... and death. You even call me son after Iíve told you repeatedly not to. You want to take me under your wing and try to guide me and keep me on the straightened and narrow."

Vin stayed quite and just listened. For minute there he thought Ezra was gonna leave cause he got to his feet and started backing away, but he didnít.

Ezra had to stop and swallow the lump that formed in his throat before he could continue, "I can not remember the number of times I have asked myself why. Why me? Whyíd he choose me Vin? Hell if he wanted a son youíd think heíd pick JD or you. Someone he could save. But no! He had to choose me!" he said to little to loud. Trying to rein in his emotion he lowered his voice, "Why would he want me to be his son?" Releasing a shaky breath he continued before he changed his mind because it had been stewing for far to long, "Look at me Vin. What do you see?" But Ezra didnít give him time to answer, "Iíll tell you what I see... a cheat, a gambler, and a con man. In other words... nothing. Nobody. Iím certainly not worthy of the endearment. Just ask Nathan heíll tell you that Iím right. Hell Iím sure heíd be more than willing to give you a list of all my faults." Before Vin or one of the others could say a word about Ezraís emotional outburst he continued, "I mean what does Josiah and the rest of you see in me that my own mother doesnít."

Vin got to his feet and walked up to Ezra and grabbed his arm and jerked him up close and said, "We see what she refuses to see. What she doesnít want to see. Youíre a good and decent man," the tracker was forced to stop as the smaller man tried to pull away at the word. "Yes decent. We caught a glimpsed of your decent side at the Seminole Village in the way you treated those children. You came back Ezra - that takes courage... true courage." Vin released his arm and took a step back. Looking him in the eye he then poked him in the chest to make his point, "Sure you lie and cheat and con and you gamble, but thatís not what you are. Itís what you do. Thereís a difference. You may not see it, but we do and so Josiah does. And so do you, for that matter. Those same skills have saved our lives more than once. Hell itís saved this town more than once. Hell Ezra you should be proud. I know I am."

"Vinís right Ezra. Havenít you figured it out yet?" Buck said. "What one of us is missing the others more than makes up for. The seven of us, even with all of our faults, make one hell of a force; a force to be reckoned with. Look at us seven men as different as night and day, but we have more in common they some families." Buck could see Ezra shaking his head as if he didnít believe him.

"Ezra none of us are prefect. Hell weíve all done things in the past that we arenít proud of. Like Vin said, you use your ĎGod given talentsí to saves lives; our lives," Chris added. Getting to his feet the black clad gunslinger took his hat off and ran a hand through his hair. Looking at the others he said, "None of us are the same men we were when we first went to protect the Seminole Village. Weíve all changed; for the better. Especially you and JD. Josiah sees that. We see that." Chris paused and looked directly at Ezra and asked, "I guess the real question is why canít you see it?"

Ezra opened his mouth but for once nothing came out. He was at a lost for words. Collecting his thoughts Ezra wanted to tell them the truth, but couldnít. Because the truth was that he was afraid to trust the changes. Afraid to allow himself the luxury of trusting the others that completely.

JD could feel the tension begin to build and decided to help Ezra out. "Hey Ezra," the younger man suddenly called out, "Since youíre being so talkative can I ask you a question?"

"Of course. Ask me whatever you want," Ezra answered automatically, but was glad of the reprieve.

"Dammit Ezra why canít you just answer a question with a simple yes or no," Vin questioned with a grin.

With one eyebrow raised Ezra turned on the tracker and said, "I donít complain at your lack of words; so donít complain about my abundance of them." Then with a teasing look he turned back to JD and said, "Yes. Yep. Uh huh." Looking at Vin he asked, "That simple enough for you?" And was rewarded with a laugh which caused the others to laugh as well.

"What youíd want to know JD?" Chris prompted; he didnít want Ezra shutting up now. Not when things were just starting to get interesting.

"Iíve always wondered what happened in Fort Laramie," JD said. "Why were you in jail to begin with?"

"Yeah Ezra what ya do," Buck was glad the Kid had asked.

But before they could get an answer they heard a moan from the bed. Rushing over Ezra grabbed the hand that had risen as if it was reaching for something and asked, "Josiah? Whatís wrong with him Nathan?" Looking over at the healer who had his hand on the older manís forehead, but they could all hear his labored breathing.

"His feverís gone up. Hold him," Nathan warned as Josiah started thrashing around. His warning came to late because Josiah managed to get the arm the healer was holding free and caught Ezra in the eye.

"Son of a..." Ezra swore as he shook his head. Then Josiah mumbled something that caused the gamblerís blood to run cold. "What he say?" he asked forgetting his pain. Please donít let it be what I think it was, but all they did was shake their head in confusion. Then he said it again. Ezra reached over and grabbed Josiah by the chin and tried to make him understand. Leaning in close he said, "Dammit Josiah there are no crows in here! Do you hear me? No crows." Then all of a sudden Josiah stopped moving and seemed to stop breathing. Ezra felt the breath catch in his throat. "No! Josiah you canít give up. I wont let you!" he said and slapped him hard. "You canít let the crows win. You have to fight them Josiah. We need you. I... I need you. You canít leave me now. Not just when Iíve gotten used to you," Ezra pleaded with tears running down his face.

Vin swallowed his own tears and grabbed Ezra and pulled him away from the bed. Theyíd only taken a couple of steps when the smaller man jerked away from him and started backing away from him shaking his head. "Ez?" Vin said and looked up around for some help because he didnít know what to say to help his friend.

Ezra swallowed hard and took a deep breath and wiped the tears away then clearing his throat said as he backed toward the door, "I... I... canít do this. It hurts too much." He didnít stop until he ran into the wall then he turned and threw open the door and ran and didnít stop until he reached the saloon. Once inside he walked directly up to the bar and leaned over and got a bottle and then with a shaky hand poured himself a drink which he quickly downed. Looking up he caught his reflection in the mirror over the bar, but instead of seeing himself or Josiah he saw his mother looking at him. He could even hear her say, ĎI told you so. This is what happens when you care for people. They break your heartí. With a growl he threw the shot glass and watched as it and the mirror shattered. He didnít even flinch when the glass struck him. Lifting the bottle Ezra drank as fast as the burning liquid would allow. As he wiped his mouth on his sleeve he noticed he still had Josiahís cross on. Gripping the cross tightly in his hand Ezra silently whispered, ĎIím sorry.í Throwing the bottle he held on floor on the floor and he starting smashing anything he could get his hands on.

With a shaky hand Nathan reached down and felt for a pulse and smiled in relief when he found one. His friend was still with them. Resting his hand on the older manís forehead Nathan grinned because it felt like his fever had gone down a little. The grin fell from his face as he heard the door slam and he called out, "Ezra wait!" But it was to late his friend couldnít hear him. Looking up he said, "Someone had better go after him and tell him that Josiahís fever comes down."

Vin jumped when he heard the door slammed. He hadnít even realized that Ezra wasnít next to him anymore. Picking up his hat he then headed for the door without saying a word. The tracker had just stepped onto the street when he noticed everyone leaving the saloon practically at a run. With a smile that didnít reached his eyes Vin whispered to himself, "Ah Ezra what are ya doing now." Seeing Inez headed his way wiped the smile off his face.

"Mr. Vin you better hurry. Heís really busting up the place," Inez told him and jumped as a bottle came flying through the saloon doors. The occupants of the saloon ran as the first bottle hit the floor. Inez had watched in horror as the usually reserved man started trashing the saloon. It was only when he started throwing tables that she ran out to get one of the others. She met Vin on the boardwalk and said, "Youíd better hurry." Then let out a small scream as a chair flew out the window.

Nodding Vin took her arm and pushed her toward the clinic and said, "Get the others. I might need some help."

"Whatís wrong with him?" she asked.

"Thinks Josiahís dead, but he ainít," Vin answered bluntly.

"Thatíll do it," Inez said with a nod before going to get the others.

He allowed himself a small smile. Then cautiously entered the saloon and whistled at the sight before him. It looked as if Ezra had broken every bottle, shot glass, and beer mug in sight. There was glass everywhere and it crunched under his feet. Even the mirror over the bar was broken. Vin watched as Ezra backed into a chair causing him to stumble, but not fall. He then pick the offending chair up and flung it across the room breaking the legs off. Vin unconsciously took a step back as the distraught gambler suddenly turned toward him. Just cause he couldnít read very well didnít mean he was stupid. He knew when to wait for the others and when to just jump in. So he waited; he only hoped they got their soon.

"Back off Vin," Ezra warned and pointed a bloody finger at him.

"Iím back," Vin assured him and took another couple of steps back.

"Damn," Buck said him and JD as he rushed into the saloon. Then with a whistle looked around and shook his head. The ladiesí man grinned as JD jumped behind him as a beer mug suddenly flew by.

Chris pushed Buck and JD out of the way and walked over to stand beside Vin. The jaded gunslinger had always known that if the calm easy going gambler ever lost control thereíd be hell to pay. With a grin threatening Chris looked at the others and then back at the damned southerner then elbowed Vin. "Well Sheriff what are ya waiting on. Get him," he said and almost laughed at the Kidís expression.

JD peeked around Buckís shoulders and looked at Chris like heíd lost his mind and silently mouthed, ĎMe?í Then with a grin, "Right behind ya Chris." JD laughed as a half full bottle of whisky shattered at Chris and Vinís feet sending the liquid all over them.

"And Iíll be right behind him," Buck added with a grin of his own.

"Itís ainít funny," Vin complained.

"The hell it ainít! Itís not everyday we get to Ezra act like the rest of us," Buck reminded him.

Chris shook his head as he and Vin started to circle around Ezra and then motioned for Buck and JD to go around the other side. Then very carefully approached the distraught younger man, but had only taken a couple of steps when his boot kicked a bottle causing Ezra to turn toward them holding a chair ready to swing if necessary.

"Back off! Leave me alone," Ezra warned his accent very evident.

"We just want to help you Ezra," Buck told him then took a step back as the gambler swung the chair at him.

"I donít want your help," he told them.

"Put the chair down, Ezra," Chris said in a stern voice; that usually got results... well with everyone except the man in front of him. With Ezra you had to make up the rules as you went along because he was always changing the game. "Ezra put the damn chair down," he tried again, but was ignored. "Dammit Ezra youíre making me mad," Chris warned and tried to rein in his temper. A person had to be in control when dealing with the damned stubborn fool, "Put the chair down now!"

"Or what?" Ezra pushed. "Youíll shoot me. Thatís your usual threat." Ezra felt the blood from his hand running down his arm and could see where it had soaked into his sleeves; ruining yet another shirt. But he ignored all that for now. "You want to shoot me? Go ahead. I donít care. How about one right here," placing a bloody finger between his eyes, "Thatíll stop the pain."

"Ezra I donít want to shoot you," Chris told the exasperating man. "I saw what Josiah did to that guy the other night. Hell all he did was accuse you of cheating I hate to see what would happen to me for shooting you." Chris frowned as Ezra flinched at the older manís name. Looking over at Vin he asked, "Didnít you tell him?"

"Havenít had a chance," Vin said softly.

Buck had been watching for an opening and when he saw one he took it and without warning tackled the smaller man knocking him to the floor. Snatching the chair out of his hands Buck then tossed it to the side and so he didnít see the fist that sent him flying until it was to late.

Chris dived on the gambler before he was able to get to his feet. Ezra put up a damn good fight, but with JD and Vinís help they were able to hold him down until the fight finally left him. Once heíd settled down Chris brushed his hair back and then gripped his face between his hands and looking into his one green eye. "Josiahís alive. He only passed out. Nathan says even his fevers gone down a little," he explained hoping it would register.

"Itís true Ezra," JD threw in when it looked like the gambler was about to start fighting again. He didnít like seeing Ezra like this. Blood covered one of his shirtsleeves and one eye was swollen shut and all ready turning black.

"Did you hear me? Josiahís not dead. Heís gonna be all right," Chris assured him. "Are you?"

"Heís alive? Are you sure?" Ezra asked looked directly at Vin who he knew could only lie if oneís life depended on it.

Vin looked Ezra right in the eye and said, "Yes he is."

"Get off me," Ezra suddenly told them. "I canít breath with you sitting on my chest," he complained then winced when they did. "So heís gonna live. This time," Ezra said with a shake of his head and got to his feet. Looking down at his still bleeding hand he reached inside his pocket for his handkerchief and as he wrapped it around his hand he said, "I canít do this."

"Here let me do it," Vin offered and reached for Ezraís hand only to have him jerk it away.

"No! Not this," indicating his hand. "This! Josiah and you guys I canít... canít handle... What if next time he doesnít... What happens when itís one of you?" Ezra finally managed to get out. Then mumbled, "I give up. Itís not worth it."

Thatís it Chris had had enough. He wasnít taking any more. Stepping forward he grabbed Ezraís arm and jerked up, "Dammit Ezra! You cannot live your life on what ifs. You cannot hide from pain. Weíve all tried that all and look where it got us... alone. Sometimes the risks you take are worth the pain. Look what us taking a risk to defend the Seminoles got us... a family." Chris pushed him away and took a step back. "Could you honestly give all of it up? Give us up? Would you rather be alone again?" he questioned. Then suddenly turned and jabbed a finger in the southernerís chest and said, "Buck didnít allow me you give up and Iíll be damned if I let you. Got it?"

"But..."

"No! No buts," Chris shouted, "You got it?"

Ezra knew that Chris was right. As hard as it was to handle the feelings these six men made him feel he knew it would be nothing compared to the pain and anguish heíd feel if he left. With a shake of his he agreed.

"No Ezra that ainít good enough," Vin demanded. "Say it. Say I got it."

The southerner looked at the three men in front of him and over at Buck who had his head tilted back holding his bandanna to his nose and thought about Nathan and then Josiah. Swallowing the lump in his throat he said, "I got it."

"Damn Ezra you really busted up the place. Bet thereís not a glass or mug left in the place," JD teased as he and the others looked around.

Ezra surveyed the saloon and suddenly grinned as he remembered a comment that Josiah had made after one of his beiges. Reaching down he picked up a chair and then righted a table.

"Hey Vin," JD whispered. "Whatís he grinning about?í

"Donít know," Vin said with a shake of his head. "Ask him?"

JD shook his head and countered, "Iím not gonna ask him. You ask him."

"Letís get Chris to do it," Vin suggested.

"Yeah. Heíll ask him anything," JD agreed.

"What the hellís he grinning about?" Buck asked still holding his nose. "He shouldnít be grinning he should be runniní. Looky what he done to my nose," the ladies man whined.

"I wouldnít complain to much. Just think how much attention youíll get from your ladies," JD pointed out.

Chris shook his head at the three of them and decided that if they wanted to know then theyíd have to ask themselves. What the hell was he grinning about? the gunslinger silently asked himself. Of course, the gambler always acted as if he knew a secret that the others would love to know, but this... this was different.

Vin hide his grin as he watched Chris struggle with himself about Ezraís grin. Nudging JD the tracker nodded toward the man in black. Holding up his hand he silently counted down from five to one. Upon reaching one Vin pointed at Chris as he opened his mouth.

"Ezra what the hell are you grinning about?" Chris demanded. Then groaned as he realized he played right into the others hands.

Looking up Ezra sat the table back on all fours before answering, "Nothing really. Just remember a comment Josiah made once after one of his drunken brawls." Pausing he almost got lost in the memory of that night and couldnít help, but laughed.

"Well?" Buck pushed. Hell he hated how Ezra had to always be so dramatic.

"Oh sorry. My mind drifted a little," he apologized. "I remember checking on him and when I asked if he was ok he said ĎPerfectly fine. Son, didnít you know that sometimes you have to raise a little hell to be able to fully appreciate a little peace of heaven.í" he said in an almost perfect imitation of Josiahís deep voice. "Now that I think about it I suppose itís not all that funny, but I donít know it seemed to fit," he commented then went behind the bar to get the broom.

"Iíll be damned if he ainít right," Buck said with a shake of his head and headed for the door.

"Where ya going Buck? JD asked as his friend. "Arenít you gonna help us help Ezra clean up the saloon?"

"JD canít ya see Iím hurt here," he said and held the bandanna away from his nose. "The little shit broke my nose. Iím gonna get Nathan to look at it and check on Josiah." Then with a cocky grin he left.

JD shook his head and said, "Buckís just a big baby. Heck his nose ainít even bleeding anymore."

"Thatís Buck for you," Chris agreed as he watched Vin right a table.

When Ezra saw that his friends were still there he felt like smiling, but didnít. That just wouldnít do. So with the broom in hand he said, "You gentlemen didnít have to wait. I can clean up my own mess."

Independent to the last, Vin thought then walked closer and said, "We know that Ezra, but everyone can use a little help from their friends every now and again." Then snatched the broom away. Turning he tossed it to JD and together it didnít take the four of them long to finish.

They were headed back to the clinic when Ezra stopped and said, "Gentlemen Iíll think Iím going to change my shirt first." Then turned around and headed toward the stairs, but paused as he heard Chris say that he had fifteen minutes or heíd come and get him.

Vin and the others opened the door as quietly as possible but Nathan and Buck looked anyway. The tracker noticed the frowns as they saw that Ezra wasnít with them. So he explained, "Heís changing his shirt." Seeing the healer raise an eyebrow at that made Vinís temper start to rise, "He cut his hand and got blood all over his shirt. It ainít a pleasant sight. ĎSides Ezra didnít want Josiah to worry when he woke up and saw it." Vin threw himself down in one of the chairs by the bed and just as suddenly got up and said, "Think Iíll wait for Ezra outside." Then without waiting for a response walked out.

Chris smiled as he saw Nathanís frown deepen. Looks like the healer has finally noticed that Vinís just as protective of Ezra as Josiah. Probably more than Josiah because Vin and Ezra were understood each other; were more alike. "Is there any change?" he asked.

"Yeah. He seems to be sleeping better," Nathan said still looking at the door. Just when he thought things were turning around. Him and Ezra were gonna have to have talk once this was all over, he decided.

Hearing a ruckus the others looked up and saw Vin and Ezra walk through the door and heard the southerner say, "Itís just a scratch."

"I still say you need to let Nathan look at it," Vin argued.

Ezra decided that heíd had just about enough of this conversation and was about to walk away when he remembered how much Vin and helped him earlier and relented a little by offering a compromise. "Look if itís keeps bothering me then Iíll shall have Nathan tend to it. Ok?"

Vin reluctantly agreed.

Josiah could hear voices and thought he was still with the bandits. He frowned as he thought he recognized one of the voices. Concentrating was hard to do when all you felt was pain, but he tried just the same. It sounded like Vin. No wait it was... was... Ezra! Heíd know that southerner voice anywhere. Oh no, the bandits had them both. Oh Lord, he thought as his heart suddenly sank to his stomach, not... not Ezra. Not his boy. Not Vin. Groaning he tried to open his eyes but they were just to heavy and he hurt to bad. He felt someone holding his hand, but couldnít tell who it was. Wait... bandits donít hold their hostagesí hands. "Ezra," he tried to mumble, but didnít quite manage it.

*******

Blinking his blue eyes he tried to push the blackness back. Tried to keep it from taking over. God he hurt all over. He sighed as someone wiped his face with a cool rag and was grateful when someone gave him some water. When he finally managed to open his eyes he saw Nathan leaning over him and could see his mouth moving, but he couldnít make out what he was saying. Looking past the healer he saw Chris and just behind him stood Buck and JD. Where was Vin and... and Ezra? Why werenít they out looking for them. Josiah again felt a cool rag on his face and turning his head he saw Vin and standing beside him was... Ezra. Thank the Lord, he silently prayed.

"Josiah, are you all right?" Nathan tried again and gently slapped him on the face, but still no response.

Ezra tried to keep kept his mouth shut but as he watched Nathan try to get a response from the gentle giant he felt like screaming. The southerner had always secretly believed that it only took one card to alter the game when fate dealt you a losing hand. Being a gambler Ezra knew when to hold and to fold and when to use a slight of hand. They should all know by now that Ezra Standish was not above cheating when it benefited himself. Or in this case Josiah. So with that in mind he knelt down beside the bed and tried to be gentle, "Itís about time you woke up. I donít know about you, but me and the others have had one hell of a week." Ok that didnít come out quite like he had planned, but at least he blinked his eyes. "I seem to remember you telling me once that you were old enough to how to stay out of trouble," Ezra snorted; which was something he didnít ever remember doing before meeting these six men. Hearing a snort to his left Ezra turned accusing green eyes on the tracker; he should have known. Oh sure he picks up their habits, but didnít notice any of them picking up any of his.

Vin frowned at the looked Ezra sent him before catching on to what Ezra was doing and added, "Yeah. Donít ya ever do that again. Why poor Chris had to help Nathan take the bullets out of ya. Buck and JD had to do the worrying. While me and Ezra did all the pacing. The balance is all wrong. Besides if youíre lying there taking it easy whoís doing the praying. Donít any of us know how to talk to the Lord; unless of course itís to thank him when pay day rolls around." Nudging Ezra with his elbow he continued, "You should be over there praying and I should be the laying in this bed. Ainít that right Ezra?"

"Yeah," Ezra agreed and then said, "No! By rights it should be me..."

"How the hell do ya figure that?" Vin demanded.

"The same way you did," Ezra threw back.

Chris and the others looked at the two of them like theyíd lost their minds. His barely reined in temper was chopping at the bit and those two just gave him a much-needed release. "Shut up! I donít know that what in the hell you two think youíre doing, but youíre giving me a headache. I can only imagine what youíre doing to poor Josiah. So just shut the hell up," he demanded. Seeing the way they both bristled Chris suddenly growled out a warning, "Donít give me that look Vin. Ezra donít make me come over there." A soft chuckle from the bed got all of their attention. Looking down Chris felt the anger leave him as he finally saw some of the life back in those blue eyes.

Ezra ignored the elbowed Vin jabbed him with and looked down at Josiah with a serious expression on his face, but with a twinkle in his eyes and said in a loud whisper, "You gonna let him talk to your son that way." Causing Josiahís eyes to widen in surprise even as he nodded.

"Damn Ez. Donít be saying things like that. We donít want him to pass out again," Vin complained with a grin on his face.

"Ha, ha, ha," Ezra returned not even looking at him.

Josiah couldnít believe what he was hearing. First Ezra and Vin were arguing over who should have been shot. Making Chris holler at them like the children they were acting like. Hearing the no nonsense gunslinger scolding the two men had been his undoing and made him laugh. Then Ezra said Ďyour soní. He couldnít believe it. It made a man glad to be alive. Thank you God, he thought.

"You all right Josiah?" Nathan asked after giving him tea mixed with herbs in it to help him sleep.

"Iím ok Nathan," he whispered, "Thank you."

"Are you sure?" Ezra wanted to know.

"Iím just fine... son," Josiah said with a smile before falling into a healing sleep.

After two weeks of being confined to the clinic Josiah was finally being release. Nathan had let him sit outside once in awhile, but never alone and never for any long periods of time. Josiah loved the others, but he was a man who enjoyed his solitude once in a while. Of course whenever Chris or Vin sat with him solitude was no problem. With Buck and or JD you could just forget it. And only after he and Nathan had cleared the air had their usual easy silences returned. That only left Ezra. Grinning Josiah still could not believe that Ezra had called himself his son. He could tell Ezra was a little uncomfortable; especially after JD had let slip what happened in the saloon. But even with all this he could not get over the fact that heíd lost his cross.

"Remember Josiah no drinking," Nathan reminded him for the hundredth time that morning.

"Not even a little one," Josiah suggested as they stepped through the swinging doors.

"No. What do you think no drinking means?" Nathan asked as if talking to a simpleton.

"Iím not a simpleton Nathan. Youíre meaning was perfectly clear," Josiah answered as they sat down at the table with the others.

Vin shook his head and said, "You been hanging around Ezra too long." Then spotted the gambler over by the bar and hide his grin as he saw what Ezra put in Josiahís coffee.

Josiah just grinned and said, "Thank you Vin." Then with a look of envy watched as Chris tossed back a shot of whiskey. The others were no better sitting there drinking beers. Even Nathan. Josiah was about to asked where Ezra was when a shadow feel across the table looking up he grinned as he saw who it was.

"Gentlemen," Ezra said with his poker face firmly in place. "Josiah itís good to see you up and about. Welcome back. Here," he said, "I found this. Thought you might like it back."

"Whereíd you find it?" Josiah asked and grasped Ezraís hand between both of his as he reached for the cross and gave it a small squeeze before saying in a gruff voice, "Thank you."

Ezra started to just shrug it off but then thought about how close heíd come to losing this man and instead said, "No. Thank you." Clearing his throat he handed him the cup of coffee, "I figured Nathan wouldnít allow you any real libations so I brought you a fresh cup of coffee."

"Itís nice to know that someone around here thinks about others," Josiah as he placed the back cross where it belonged; around his neck. Then took a swallow from the cup. "This is real good... coffee," he managed after a slight pause as the brandy laced coffee made itself known. Josiah grinned even bigger at his would be son in appreciation. Taking a larger another sip he sighed, "Ahhhh just what I needed."

Nathan saw the exchange and became suspicious about what kind of coffee Ezra had given Josiah. He certainly wouldnít put it past the conman to have slipped something in it. After all he does it to his own from time to time.

JD saw the exchange as well and grinned because if anyone could get something past Nathan he knew it would be Ezra. He was also saw that Nathan was reaching for Josiahís cup and sighed because he didnít want another fight to start. So he decided to try and get an answer to the question heíd asked Ezra weeks ago. "Hey Ezra. You know you never did answer my question."

"What question was that?" Ezra knew but was trying to confuse the kid.

"About what happened at Ft. Laramie between you and the judge," JD reminded him and captured everyoneís attention.

"Are you sure? I thought I had," he stalled for time.

"No, you didnít. Donít you remember? You left the clinic crying..."

"I wasnít crying," he defended himself. "I merely had something in my eye?"

"Sure ya did. But ya still didnít answer my question," JD persisted.

"Do you really want to know?"

"Yes!" the others said at once.

"Of course if you donít want to... itís ok," JD told him and because he hadnít been around Ezra all this time for nothing he give him his best lost puppy dog look.

Ezra swore under his breath at that look on the Kidís face. Slumping his shoulders in defeat. "Very well. If you must know. It was Motherís fault," he claimed. "We were involved in a very lucrative game of poker and I for once I was winning. Of course you know mother... she hates to lose. So in the middle of my winning streak she stood up and accused me of cheating. Me! Her own son. But I hadnít cheated. I didnít have to. I was winning fair and square," he paused and poured himself a shot and tossed it back before continuing with a smile. No one told a story quite like Ezra. Buck was good, but Ezra would change his voice and his face became animated.

"Well the next thing I know there were three rather large men standing by me saying I shouldnít be cheating no lady. Well you gentlemen know me well enough to know that sometimes, no matter how hard I try I just can not keep my mouth shut. And this time was no different," Ezra grinned knowingly as the others nodded their heads. "I jumped to my feet and said ĎThatís no lady. Thatís my mother!í Of course that only made it worse. ĎYouíre cheatiní your own maí they accused. Anyway a fight broke out, but not before Mother made off with my winnings. Someone grabbed my arm and how I was supposed to know it was the townís idiot sheriff was beyond me. So not only was I arrested for fighting and busting up the saloon but also for hitting the sheriff." Looking at the others he suddenly laughed, "The next morning I was dragged into court and low and behold who was my judge. By the way he was still just a district judge then. The man was just as straight laced then as he is now. And of course has no sense of humor. By the time me and my mouth were done Judge Travis was a... tad bit... angry and I found myself being charged with contempt of court and was given a choice - go to jail for sixty days or pay a $300 dollar fine plus the repairs to the saloon. While the others were only given thirty days, but no fine. I found the whole proceeding grossly unfair. For I was not the only one fighting. Now I ask you whatís fair in that," he said asked with one raised eyebrow. "So being the naturally inquisitive person that I am; I asked. Only to be told that it was because of my mouth. Next thing I know Iím being dragged out of the courtroom and thrown back in jail to think about my choices. And I very well may have put in my sixty days, but the idiot sheriff started laughing at me. Well he shouldnít have done that because I was all ready, excuse the term, pissed. So the second the idiot left us alone and I picked the locks to both cells. Then while retrieving my belonging I found a true treasure and used it to nail the door shut. And just because I felt like it I locked the both cells and locked his desk with the keys inside." He stopped as he was laughing to hard to continue. Clutching his side with one hand he wipe the tears with the other.

"Oh Ezra youíre bad," Buck teased. "No wonder the judge was mad at ya and had JD arrest ya."

"Ezra? What else did you do?" Vin asked. Not really liking the look in those green eyes.

"Well gentlemen you may find this hard to believe, but sometimes I can be... oh I donít know... arrogant. Although some would say cocky," he grinned showing his gold tooth. "I didnít leave right away. What?" he said at the look on their face. "I needed some supplies. You wouldnít expect me not to be prepared. It was on my way out of town I that spotted the good judge coming out of the hotel..."

"And?" JD pushed.

"And being the gentleman that I am I just had to tip my hat at the honorable Judge and bid him and the idiot adieu," he said pouring himself another drink and since Nathan wasnít looking he even poured some into Josiahís coffee cup as well. "Then I didnít see him until he had JD arrest me," he finished. Then joined the in the others laughter.

The others patrons in the saloon were glad the men had once again beaten the odds. They liked seeing their peacekeepers happy and couldnít help but grinned in response to the joyous laughter coming from the table at the back of the saloon.

THE END

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