(Old West)

by Twig

Disclaimer: "The Magnificent Seven" and its characters do not belong to me, they belong to Trilogy Entertainment, Mirisch Group, CBS and other people. No copyright infringement is intended, suing would be futile since I have no money. However, the story does belong to me.
Author's Note: Well, after some thinking, I thought that there isn't much of a "connection" between Ezra and Vin. They're friends and all that, but they don't seem to talk to each other a whole lot. They seem kinda separated, somehow, like they don't really associate with each other outside of "work". Anyhow, on with the story.
Another Note: The "market" is a figment of my extremely twisted imagination. I hoped that it never existed and never will. Though a "milder" version might have existed in the past. I haven't done any research for this story so I'm not sure. If you know, do write and tell me.
Yet Another Note: Since the backgrounds of Vin and Ezra are not really detailed, I made and elaborated on a lot of things which will probably end up being totally non-canon with the new season (PRAY that Mag7 will get renewed!). Therefore, do not take certain "facts" as canon.
Feedback: All comments, criticism, questions and objections to this piece of fanfic will be greeted with muffins and tea. Wait! This is a Western, better make that muffins and whiskey ;)

Part One

It really wasn't a distance, well, there wasn't any other name to call it. They just didn't... talk, much. They were friends, kind of. They would, of course, help each other in the name of friendship, but were they really friends?

Ezra Standish glanced at the former bounty hunter, who was drinking alone at the bar. Ezra himself was just casually shuffling cards on the wooden table. A lone ace of spade tumbled out. The shuffler looked at it. The tumbling was not intended, but that was okay.

It wasn't what Vin Tanner did, it was what he didn't do. The mere inaction of the man spoke more than any words ever could. Vin just sauntered into the saloon, glanced at Ezra at the table, walked to the bar for a drink and stayed there. Ezra rationalized that Vin may just wanted a drink alone. He himself sometimes felt like a lone drink. But the silences were strange. Not just now, but during "normal" hours. It was as if they were total stranger, passing by each other indifferently. And yet when there was a crisis, it changed. They would ride off, rescue, shoot or do other daring heroic deeds. Then they would return and the cycle repeated.

Vin wasn't hostile, no. Not really unfriendly either. It was just as if Ezra was a passing acquaintance. Well, Ezra couldn't really complain about Vin's coolness. Ezra wasn't exactly the model citizen and he did run out on them once. Vin could just be cautious. Until Ezra proved himself to be trustworthy, and maybe then the other man would consider him more as a friend.

Ezra couldn't understand this sudden need in him to make friends and to actually show the others that he was a decent human being. God knew that he wasn't exactly one for friends. It was one day in this town and gone the next. People in his life were gone so quickly. Maybe Ezra wasn't quite cut out for this no-dependence life anymore. And women.... Of course, when they didn't know better, they would throw themselves at Ezra, seeing him as this gentleman with the sweet Southern charm. Ezra would sometimes lead them on a little, when it helped the con. But none knew the true intentions of the young gambler. They would wake up the next morning to find themselves, or others, penniless. Not that Ezra actually slept with any of the women, that would just be cruel. He did have some regards for human emotion.

Shaking the thoughts of women out of his head, Ezra turned back to his cards. He sighed, no one to play with. The town folks figured out pretty quickly that those who played with Ezra ended up penniless. Now, he was rendered gameless.

Ezra watched as Vin finished his drink and walked out. No "hello" when he came in, no "bye" when he left. Typical. Seconds after Vin left, a couple of burly, "manly" men bursted into the saloon. Obvious strangers in town and not polite visitors either. One demanded drinks for his comrades while the rest seated themselves down at tables next to Ezra's. A particularly nasty looking one glared at Ezra, who just continued shuffling.

Finally, it got unbearable. Ezra was usually not one to lose his cool, but today was just not his day. "What're you staring at?" he demanded. The answer in return was a sneer and a growl. Wonderful. Ezra tried to concentrate on his cards again. He gave up after awhile. "Would you please refrain from your gawking?" Ezra asked determinedly.

"I do what I wish boy."

"I ain't no boy, sir," Ezra stressed the last word, almost insultingly.

"Yeah, you're just a young boy, shuffling his sissy cards," The ugly stranger continued. Ezra stood up. "What? What's the sissy boy goin' ta do?" Ezra narrowed his green eyes and pulled back his red jacket to reveal a gun.

"We've got five guns on ya, boy. Even if ya shoot one of us, there's still gonna be four bullets riddling that sorry hide of yours," The apparent leader of the group spoke up from the bar.

"A gentleman does not sit placidly when he's insulted," Ezra replied, still standing.

"So ya're claiming that yar a gentleman, that's a laugh." The rest of the men responded by breaking into roars of rude laughter. Some hooted obscenely. "I recognize ya. Ya're that dirty bastard that ripped my brother-in-law off. My sister almost ran off with your filthy hide."

Oh this was just fantastic! this bunch of wild animals recognized Ezra from his not so glorious days. The leader continued, "You ain't no gentleman. I should shoot ya right now." The leader drew his gun. Ezra responded by drawing his own and that only set off the rest of the room. "Drop it, Sampson. Ya're outgunned."

Ezra sized up his situation. There was no way he was going to win, nor was he going to be able to talk his way out of this one. He uncocked his gun and handed it handle-first to one of the men.

"Nice gun," he remarked.

"Thanks," Ezra said sarcastically.

The leader bit his lower lips as he thought of what to do with Ezra. Death would be too good for the bastard. He grinned, revealing rows of rotten teeth, as he thought of a brilliant idea. "I'm gonna make a profit of ya. A healthy boy like you should fetch me a nice price at the market."

"Market?" Ezra questioned. One of the men approached him and he was about to retaliate when he heard the familiar sound of a gun being cocked.

"Don't try anything, Sampson. Tie him up, we're going," Somehow, gangs of gun-totting men kept rope on their persons. In a moment, Ezra's hands were tied securely behind his back and led out of the saloon.


Vin walked casually down the street and spotted with interest a bunch of men coming out of the saloon with Ezra. Those men were definitely not the type Ezra would hang out with. He felt a flash of suspicion, and made an unwise decision he would later regret: he ignored it. He was too far away to see the rope bounding Ezra's wrists, and the gun pointed at his back.


Ezra was forced up a horse and the leader grabbed the reins of both his and Ezra's horse. He then led them into a trot. Soon, they were out of town and Ezra turned to get one last look of Four Corners. He got an uneasy feeling that this might be his last viewing of the town.


Part Two

They had been riding for god knew how long. Ezra had uneasily nodded off a couple of times since there certainly wasn't anything better to do, but he was usually jot awake minutes later by the rough terrain the horse was travelling on. He thought about escape, but dismissed it. Men surrounded him, there was no way he could try and get away without getting a bullet in the back for it.

Ezra fidgeted with the rope bounding his hands. The more he struggled, the more they bit into his flesh. Soon, they were scraped raw and Ezra could feel the slickness of blood. He hoped that perhaps the slickness might help with the knot, it didn't.

Ezra wondered about the market and what it could possibly be. By the grin on the leader face in the saloon, Ezra was willing to bet that it wasn't a nice place. Market.... Was Ezra actually going to be sold? The thought horrified him. Sold to what? Slavery? But he wasn't a coloured man, he was white. He couldn't be a slave. However, there were those who argued equality: if a black man could be a slave, so could a white man. Twisted, definitely.

The more Ezra thought about it, the more unsettled he became. He did not want to be sold like some common piece of property. He realized how Nathan must have once felt and this was not a good feeling, not good at all.


The feeling of unease grew in Vin's stomach. There was something fishy in how Ezra was led out of the saloon. It was like he was forced or something. He wanted desperately to tell someone, but all were away. Chris and Buck were off tracking some criminal. Josiah and Nathan were off who knew where. JD? Now that was interesting, where had the kid gone to?


"Here we are boys... the market," The leader spoke with grandeur. The market was a place where people were sold and bought at a free-for-all auction. Men bought to work at mines and other assorted hard labour jobs. It wasn't just coloured men sized up and bought like meat, white men too. Those who were in debt and would be sold to work to pay back their debtors. Like prostitutes who worked to pay unpaid bills and debts.

It truly shocked Ezra to see this new level of low, and he had seen low in his lifetime. And to realize that he was about to become a part of it sickened him. It was unimaginable to Ezra, to sell one's freedom in order to get money, or others selling someone else's.

The leader pushed Ezra to the backstage of the "showcase", where subjects prepare for their grand appearance on stage. "He's all yours," the leader grinned wickedly and tossed Ezra to yet another burly man. The burly man tossed a tiny bag to the leader and the leader peeked into it. His grin widened. "Next doin' business with ya," he tipped his hat and left.

Ezra looked around backstage and was disturbed to find that men wasn't the full extent of the market. He saw a pitiful looking woman -no, girl,- standing near the back, looking in all the world like a lost, scared bunny. Women were sold too, to brothels or to "private ownership". It disgusted him to see humans capable to doing this to another.

The burly guy in charge first untied Ezra, then stripped him of his red jacket, vest and shirt, leaving him bare chested. The guy had the decency to allow Ezra keep his pants on, but removed his hat and empty holster. The guy then searched through Ezra's pockets and kept all valuables to himself. Ezra could only watch as the other man relieved his vest of his gold pocket watch.

Ezra turned to see how the girl was doing only to discover her gone. He could hear a voice echoing in from the stage and he realized numbly that the girl was being sold. "Sold! To Lady Minuet from L'Hotel Desire." It was obvious that L'Hotel Desire was a brothel. Ezra closed his eyes in grief for the girl, she was barely fifteen.

Ezra felt a rough push on his back and the next thing he knew, he was on stage. Loud whistle of approval from women accompanied his entrance. Ezra stared at the crowd of men and women and felt the burning stares of scrutiny.

"A new arrival ladies and gentlemen!" the auctioneer announced, "You can tell by that finely toned muscle that he's going ta be a good worker. And for you ladies, wouldn't you want this fine handsome young man to grace your beds?" Giggles rose from the crowd. Sex slave, Ezra thought, intrigued, that sounds better than working at the mines. "So, offers? C'mon, this one's a good one," The bidding started and mostly women bid for the gambler. The price grew higher and higher. At least Ezra was worth something.

Finally, someone bid a sum which no one could match. "Sold! To Delilah Rosen."

Ezra thought, A woman, this is a good thing.

Almost as if reading his thoughts, Delilah Rosen called out, "Don't be too happy boy, you're going to be working at my mine, not on my bed." Laughter ensued through the crowd and Ezra was hurriedly led off the stage for another item.


Delilah Rosen tugged fiercely on the long leash of rope which trailed from the knot which bounded Ezra's wrists. Ezra jumped forward and was led away by the woman.

"What's your name?" she demanded without turning to face Ezra.

"Ezra Standish, ma'am," Ezra would have tipped his hat except he didn't have one.

"Ezra," Delilah tried out the name. "Don't think your masculine charms could convinced me out of putting you to my mine. Others have tried before, they've failed," she told her slave.

"Yes, ma'am," Ezra replied. Delilah was mildly, but pleasantly, surprised at the politeness of her new acquirement. But that didn't change her decision. "Where are we going?" Ezra asked. The response was a sharp painful tug on his leash.

"As a slave, you are not permitted to speak directly to me, unless I asked you a question. Therefore, you do not ask questions of me," Delilah chastised.

"Yes, ma'am."

"However, to answer your question, and this is the last time I will do so, we're going to my coal mine, where you're going to spend the remainder of your natural life."

How delightful, Ezra thought. Working his life away at a coal mine was definitely not what Ezra thought would be his ultimate destiny. But life worked in such strange ways.


Vin stared at the sky which was still a summer blue, but slightly tinted with the early signs of dusk. He glanced at the clock in the saloon. Four thirty in the afternoon. Ezra had been gone five hours and a half already. Vin couldn't wait any longer, he knew he should have intervened when those strangers led Ezra away. Vin left the saloon and walked to the Clarion office to look for Mary Travis.

"Miss Travis," Vin tipped his hat at the woman in greeting.

"Vin!" Mary smiled at her visitor. "what brings you to my little office?"

"I think Ezra's in some trouble and I'm ridin' off to check on him. I just wanted to ask you if you could tell that to Chris and the others when they come back," Vin knew that it was unwise to go after Ezra alone, but hell, it was unwise to have left the gambler alone in the first place.

"Of course, but are you going to be safe alone?" Mary asked, concerned.

Vin flashed her a winning smile. "I'll look after myself, ma'am. I've got to go now," he tipped his hat once more and left the office. Mary watched as Vin mounted his horse and rode off in search of the missing Ezra.

Vin remembered that the band of strangers and Ezra rode off west and so he directed his horse that way. He hoped that he would be able to track them through the multiply tracks made by the various different horses coming and leaving town. Vin rode out until he realized that it was just impossible to distinguish their horses from the others. He sighed loudly. Damn.

However, his luck was not lost, but simply turned to a different form. Riding up to Vin, were the bunch who took Ezra. Vin decided that it would be wise not to confront these men directly about it, but instead, tried a different approach.

"Howdy stranger," Vin called out to the leader, urging his horse a little closer.

"Well howdy to ya too," the leader replied, obviously happy about something.

"You're happy, care to tell why?"

The leader laughed, a squargy sound. "Just made myself a small fortune!"

"Really? How?" Vin asked, curious.

"Well, there was this boy in the saloon where we've been to this morning and to make a long story short, we sold him to the market," The leader laughed again and it was obvious to Vin now that he was drunk.

Vin had heard things about the "market". Men, women were sold like property, pieces of commodity. This was the first time that he heard a direct tale about it and not hush-hushed rumours.

"Where's this market?" Vin inquired.

"You're asking a few too many questions," the leader was starting to be a little suspicious.

"Just curious," Vin replied nonchalantly, as if it didn't matter if the leader told him or not. But it mattered all right.

The leader appeared to have bought it, "Well, I guess I should let another man try and earn his fortune," the leader said and laughed without reason. "all right, it's this way...." he then proceeded to give Vin the complete directions. Helpful man, but a bit disgusting.


Part Three

"Get to work," Delilah untied the knots and tossed the rope casually aside. She then gave Ezra a pick and directed him towards the open coal mine.

Ezra opened his mouth and was about to speak when he remembered what Delilah said about slaves not addressing the master. Delilah noticed, "Speak."

"I would appreciate an apparel to cover myself with," Ezra gestured to his bare chest. "The sun can be very cruel to the skin."

Delilah glanced around and saw a flash of white on an abandoned wheelbarrow. "Here," she picked it up and threw it at Ezra, and without another word, she left. Ezra held the article of clothing in front of him. It was a tattered mockery of a shirt, made with coarse linen and very dirty. Ezra glanced at the men working hard at the field and most wore the same.

"When in Rome...." Ezra whispered to himself and hastily pulled it on. At least it fit.

"Get to work!" A guard on duty snapped at Ezra and placed his hand on the wound whip by his side as a warning. Ezra buttoned up the last button and picked up his pick. Then, he started digging.

"You're new," the man working next to Ezra whispered.

"Yes," Ezra replied.

"Be careful," the man warned and turned back to his work. Ezra wondered what he meant.


Vin approached the market on foot, leaving his horse at a "safer" location. He watched in interest at the auction going on at the stage. The people bidding, the auctioneer talking at rapid speeds, the pitiful looking creatures led on and off the stage, it was all so barbaric to Vin. Nobody seemed to give a damn that those were real people on stage, not some animal to be bought and worked as such.

Vin walked to the backstage, hoping to find someone who was in charge. He lifted the veil separating it from the rest of the outside world and saw in recognition the red jacket. Tossed beside it were the rest of the clothing that was stripped from Ezra. Vin glanced around, trying to spot someone who seemed be in charge. He noticed a burly guy ordering people around and shoving an unwilling girl towards the stage. The girl defied him and got her face slapped in return. Vin winced inwardly. He wished he could interfere, but to do so would mean conflict.

"Hey, you in charge?" Vin called out.

"Yeah, what of it?" the burly guy answered.

"I'm looking for--" Vin almost said 'friend'. "I'm looking for someone."

"Yeah, well, there're plenty of someones in here."

"I'm looking for someone who was brought in earlier, wearing that," Vin pointed at the red jacket.

"Oh him, why?" the burly guy questioned.

Vin needed an excuse, fast. "He's-- I'm a bounty hunter, and I'm tracking him to collect a bounty."

"Didn't look like a criminal-- well, he's sold already. Too bad," The burly guy started to turn back to his business.

"Wait, to whom?"

"Uh," the burly guy thought about it. "I think it's Rosen, Delilah Rosen."

"Where is this Rosen?" Vin persisted and the guy turned sharply around.

"Look, I've got things to run. I don't have time to answer your questions. Go look for her yourself." The burly guy turned around and gave one final push to the girl, signalling the end of the conversation. Vin exited the tent and saw, once again, the busy, noisy hussle of people.


Ezra walked stiffly to the large water bucket and grabbed the cup hanging by a rope off the side of it. His back killed and his hands throbbed. He was not used to hard manual labour. Ezra dipped the cup into the water and brought it up to his lips. The cool water washed down his parched throat and eased his thirst. He dipped the cup in and drank again.

"Back to work, worm," a guard hissed. Ezra dropped the cup and took a hold of his pick again. As he started to turn back, he caught sight of a young woman walking towards him, carrying something heavy. A crack of the whip against the dirt next to Ezra's feet refocused his attention. He walked off hurriedly back, but stole one last glance at the woman.

Ezra lifted the pick above his head and brought it back down with force, hitting it against the hard rock of the ground. He looked up again and saw that the young woman was trying to replenish the water supply. The first thought in his head was that no woman should carry such a heavy load by herself. She was having difficulties in transferring the water from her bucket to the main one.

The guard noticed this also, but instead of helping, he snapped at her. "Can't you do anything, you little twerp?"

Ezra dropped his pick and walked closer to them. "Why don't you help her instead of yelling at her?" he questioned.

"It's her job to do this, she's a servant. I don't need to help her," the guard answered.

"She's a woman, and a young one at that. Is chivalry dead?" Ezra argued.

"The only thing dead around here will be you and the girl if you don't both get back to work," for show, the guard snapped his whip at the girl, who was still trying to pour water. The whip nipped at the back of her hand and she yelped. She flinched back and instinctively let go of the bucket she was holding. It crashed to the dusty ground and spilt water over all three's feet.

"What's going on here?" Delilah Rosen demanded, coming seemingly out of nowhere. The mine was quite far from her own house and she rarely supervised the actual mining, though she did on occasion visited. Delilah walked towards the girl and saw what she had done. "Clumsy girl!" she scolded and slapped the girl face, hard. The girl shrank back and she held her red face. Tears streamed down her face. She dared not cry out for that only resulted in more punishment. She should know.

"She isn't clumsy, your imbecile guard struck her," Ezra defended the poor girl.

"How dare you speak back to me!" Delilah said angrily.

"I call them as I see 'em."

"What you've seen," Delilah grabbed the whip from the guard's hand, "is that this inept servant girl dropped her bucket." She flicked the whip back, about to strike the defenceless girl. Ezra, without thinking, reacted. He stepped in and wrapped himself around the girl, shielding her. He trembled slightly when the whip tore through his thin shirt and struck his skin.

The girl gasped at Ezra's action. No one had ever stood up for her like that before. Ezra turned and faced Delilah. The girl could see a long lash diagonally across one of Ezra's shoulder blades. The dry shirt hungrily sucked up the blood. "She's done nothing wrong," Ezra said through clenched teeth.

"You dare to defy me," Delilah whispered. Ezra questioned his eyes when he thought he saw something akin to delight in her eyes. Turning to the guard, Delilah continued, "what's the punishment for first offence?"

"Five lashes," the guard immediately answered.

"Do it," Delilah ordered. Ezra held his arms behind him, steadying the girl directly behind him.

"She's only a girl," Ezra argued.

Delilah laughed. "Not her. You."

Ezra froze in shock and that was taken advantage of. The guard grabbed his arm and tossed him against the main water bucket. Delilah tossed the whip to the guard and before Ezra could say anything, the whip hit its mark.

Ezra had never felt anything like this before. The pain burnt from his back to his brain. The five quick lashes were over soon, but the fire lingered. He sucked in a breath and even that hurt. He had never been whipped in his entire life, now he knew what it felt like. Ezra closed his eyes and tried to force the sharp pain down. He could feel the gentle trickle of blood down his back and he gripped the rim of the bucket tightly. Six long wounds marked his back.

The guard moved on to hover over another worker. Delilah smirked at Ezra, but left soon after the whipping. Only the girl remained. She walked slowly up to him and realized that this utter stranger had took six lashes for her. She gazed at him, seeing him trying to control the pain. But it was a difficult feeling to master control over.

"Are you all right?" she asked quietly.

Ezra opened his eyes and she marked the slight hint of tears in them, "yeah," he said unsteadily.

"I'm sorry."

"Why?" Ezra felt that one word sentences would be more manageable.

"If it wasn't for me, you wouldn't have gotten hurt," The girl glanced down at the ground.

Ezra didn't reply to that, instead, he asked, "What's your name?"

"Isabelle," she answered softly, still looking at the ground.

"It's okay, Isabelle. I'm going to be fine," Isabelle glanced at the torn state of his shirt.

"I have to wash that, or else it's going to get infected," she took a hold of her long skirt and ripped a long piece of fabric off. She dipped it in water and wrung out the excess. Then, Isabelle led Ezra from the water bucket and made him sit down on half-rotten piled wooden planks.

"Hey, you slacking off?" a different guard called out to them.

"He's hurt, I need to fix him," Isabelle replied, and the guard grunted an okay. Turning back to Ezra, she said, "take off your shirt." Ezra complied. Isabelle pressed the wet cloth against one lash mark and Ezra hissed at the renewed sensation, fidgeting. "Hold still!" Isabelle placed a hand on his shoulder.

In this manner, Isabelle gently cleansed Ezra's wounds of gritty dirt and other icky things. "I don't have bandages, so they'll have to be open-aired. Be careful," she said so softly that Ezra almost couldn't hear what she had said. Isabelle picked up the discarded shirt and handed it back to its owner. He took it and turned to Isabelle.

"Thank you," he said, just as softly. Isabelle looked so young, couldn't be more than eighteen years old. She appeared to be so fragile, there was this almost breakable confidence and assurance in her light green eyes. But they were there and even if they were breakable, it was certainly better than nothing. And belle, of course, Isabelle was beautiful. However, it was more of a prelude of beauty that she had. It was something that wasn't fully developed yet, and with time, she would grow to be even more lovely and alluring.

Isabelle stood and turned, her long, dark brown hair followed her movement with a flair. "I have to go now," she whispered with her back to Ezra and walked away.


Part Four

Vin rode on his horse, steering it farther and farther away from that god-awful place. After interrogating a few "customers", he was able to wrestle up some information on this Delilah Rosen. Vin tried to imagine the always well-dressed and groomed Ezra in a coal mine. Nah, he couldn't. Manual labour were two words that weren't in Ezra's extensive vocabulary. Looking up, Vin saw the outlines of men digging furiously at the rocky ground and realized that the mine must a strip mine. He tried to spot Ezra out, but that proved to be impossible. All men appeared alike from this distance, with the exception of the colour of pants they were wearing. Vin tried to remember what Ezra was wearing but he just couldn't recall that particular fact. Vin looked up at the sky which was a bright orange haze. The sun was setting and it would be dark soon.


Ezra glanced up at the setting sun and winced when perspiration made contact with his open wound. He tried to look for a way to escape but the guard that dealt out Ezra's punishment earlier was eyeing him closely. A loud horn blared without warning and Ezra clamped his hands to his ears. He looked around and noticed that the sound triggered an effect in the dull drones working on the mine. They stopped what they were doing, walked to the guard with the horn and deposited their tools at his feet. Ezra followed their example and continued to follow the workers to a poorly held together barracks. It was more of a really large tent. Basically, it was four large beams of wood with a large woolen sheet over them. Underneath the tent were rolls of cot-like bunks. Ezra stared at this "establishment", he was expected to sleep here? There were times when he had to rough it a little when the going was tough, but this was ridiculous! A gentleman like himself was expected to sleep in this mockery of a bed? Ezra caught himself. He wasn't a gentleman, not in the least.

"Get used to it," some worker whispered to him and moved on. Ezra walked slowly to an unoccupied cot and carefully laid down on it, that was, until he sat up in pain when he remembered what happened to his back. He was forced to lay down on the cot on his stomach. The dirty canvas which he rested on smelled like sweat, dirt... and blood. Ezra wasn't surprised at the last part, he was sure he wasn't the first person to be whipped.

Night set in and the sky turned an unfathomable and mysterious black. Ezra could see the dark sky through little tears in the woollen tent. Moonlight seeped in through these tears and a spot fell near Ezra's cot. With the absence of the sun, the night became cold fairly quickly.

With no blankets, the cold nipped at Ezra's exposed skin. He tried to ignore it, thinking that he would be out of this hell hole soon enough. Just as he thought of rescue, he closed his eyes and chuckled softly to himself. Would the six others rescue him? Ezra didn't know. He knew that he should have faith in the guys, but Ezra couldn't help but believe that Chris was probably thinking at this moment that the card sharp ran off again. They all would think that Ezra ran off, and good riddance indeed!

Ezra stared at a small spider illuminated by a beam of moonlight. It was motionless on the ground, waiting and waiting for some unfortunate prey to come. Ezra blew softly at it and it scurried off. Minutes later, it returned. Ezra reached out a hand and softly poked at the insect. It flinched back, expecting a far more powerful creature than itself. Ezra relaxed his hand and the spider seemed assured that Ezra wasn't a threat. The spider crawled onto his hand. The prickly feet of the arachne sent tingles down Ezra's spine.

Ezra remembered that he should be afraid of spiders. At least, as far back as he could remember, he had always been afraid of them. When Maude ditched him at some relatives house, those relatives' houses were crawling with them insects. Ezra was particularly terrified of the eight-legged creatures. When he found it, he would panic and run to his aunt, or uncle, or whoever. They would then tell him to leave them alone and go bother someone else. Ezra had almost lived his whole life being rejected, resented and other assorted "r" words. He recalled the more bitter days, when those relatives of his would yell at him, calling him a bastard. He had no father, no recognition, even his own mother didn't want him. Ezra was an unwanted child. He would run away from the house and straight to whatever solitary place he could find. He would find a place that would just be him, and he would cry, letting out all the anguish and bitterness.

Ezra sniffed, and realized that tears were streaming down his face. He quickly wiped them away.

But it was then, in the wilderness, Ezra found friends among the spiders. Realizing that he had to deal with his own fears, that no one was there to help him, to nurture him, to care for him. He was alone, and the only one he could rely on was himself.

Ezra stared at the spider, which stopped its progress up his arm. Two solitary figures stared at each other. Ezra violently shook the spider off, not wanting to think about it. He shut his eyes, and prayed that sleep would claim him.


Vin woke up to a bright and early morning. He remembered the nights when he used to sleep outside in the great wilderness while tracking a criminal. He quickly packed up and set off for Ezra. Vin mounted his horse and rode as close to the mine as possible. He didn't want to make an outright attack, being alone and all. He wished to observe, and hoped to discover some weakness.

As Vin observed the workers from what he hoped to be a secure distance, he heard an unusual rustling behind him. He turned, and the last thing he thought before he blacked out was: "How could I be so stupid!"


Ezra glanced up from his work to see a guard carrying in a limp body. The guard set the unconscious creature down. Ezra walked a little closer, curiosity getting the better of him. He took one look and shook his head sadly. It was Vin. Ezra had to admit that at least the former bounty hunter tried. He thought that Vin would be a little better at this, and that he would have company. Well, at least Ezra had company at the camp now.

Ezra bent down and nudged Vin a little. Vin's eyelids fluttered open and his vision came into focus. "Howdy pard, welcome to Hell," Ezra grinned at him.

Vin looked about him and realized that, instead of being a rescuer, he had become a prisoner.


"Mary, where is Vin and Ezra?" Chris asked after realizing that neither were in town.

"Oh Chris, I'm so glad you're back. I think Vin's in trouble," Mary then relayed the message Vin left behind to Chris and added a little extra suspicions of her own.

Chris shook his head, Vin should have known better than that. "Do you know where they are?"

Mary shook her head, "I'm sorry, all I know is that Vin headed west." Chris nodded. Well, it was time to be a hero once again.


Ezra helped Vin up and filled him in on the details of the mine. About Delilah and the guards. Vin glanced uneasily at the marks upon Ezra's back. Vin himself had been shot, stabbed, and almost hung, but never been whipped in his life. He could only imagine what it felt like.

"So we're trapped here?" Vin asked.

"We're surrounded by these guards. The last time anyone dared to flee this quarry ended up with several bullet holes from what I heard."

"How've you been holding up?" Ezra glanced at Vin. It was strange to hear this question from him, did he care? Or was this some formality/etiquette thing?

"I'm managing well," the gambler replied, the statement carrying a rather large sign with the words "verbal irony" on it. Ezra longed to scream out at this hell hole. His back and shoulders were intensely sore even after only one day of work. The lashes on his back stung with every movement. The sun didn't help either.

Conversation died at that point.


Part Five

After realizing that lying down wasn't all that comfortable, I decide to sit up and lean against the convenient wooden beam at the end of my cot. I glance at the motionless figure lying a few feet in a cot similar to mine. I watch him for a couple of minutes. Although his eyes are closed, we both know that he isn't asleep and that he is observing me as I am observing him.

I look at my surroundings and note once again that nothing has changed during the week I've been here. It is still the same dull darkness surrounding everyone. Chris should have been here ages ago. Has Mary forgotten to give him the message? But I trust Mary, and I know that she would deliver it without fail. I'm just worried that Chris might have gotten himself into trouble.

I turn my attention back to the cot next to mine. Even in the darkness, I can still see the vague outlines of the healing lashes on his back. I asked him how he came by them and he just shrugged it off as if it was nothing. I remember this afternoon when he talked with this girl. She seemed concerned about his well-being and checked his back. He protested, but she insisted. I have a feeling that those lashes on Ezra's back are related to her. I wanted to ask her about it, but I didn't want to scare her off, being a stranger and all.

I gaze into the darkness again, finding little comfort in it. This just reminds me how nights used to be for me: lone, solitary. How I would lie in bed, thinking about my long deceased father. Mother never told me anything about him, and she died before she could. I never knew him, but then, I never knew my mother either. She was such a mystery to me, the things she did, the words she said. Everything was so cryptic, guess that's where I got it from. I have always been a quiet child, must've been born that way. Despite the distance between us, I still love her. She was my mother, and I'll always love her. I just wish that I could have gotten to know her better before she died. But her words, her final words would forever be engraved in my heart. Boy, you're a Tanner, don't you ever forget that. I won't forget, ever.

I close my eyes, trying to understand all the decisions and actions I've made. I don't even know how I manage to end up being a part of this team. I've always worked alone, been alone. I only answer when asked, talked when spoken to. What's the point of revealing so much to another person who just might end up betraying you? I don't like being betrayed, it's a nasty feeling deep in your gut and nothing drives it away, not even a bottle of whiskey. You just wake up with a headache and end up being cranky all day. Even if it isn't betrayal, leaving behind someone whom you've connected with is just as painful. Set no root, therefore, you have none to pull up when you leave.

How'd I become this way? So detached from the rest of the world. I've been described as cold, unfeeling, distant. No wonder I couldn't help but laugh when Resa told me that I was the most passionate man she had ever met. She said that I had this fire deep in my eyes, an intense blue flame which could not be doused. Resa was always so melodramatic. She would laughed when I told her so, then she would gently place her hand on my face in that way which made me felt as if I was the only thing that mattered in her world. I could still feel her embrace, her kiss, her love. And I knew that she was the only thing that mattered in my world. Was. She is, until that day when she became was.


Even with my eyes closed, I could still sense the emotions that are running high and low a few feet from me. The slight disturbance of air when he moved, I could almost hear the furiously fast heartbeat of his. I've learnt long ago how to read men, it helps when you're playing poker and trying to bluff the other man. I dismiss it and try to sleep, that is, until I start to hear sobs.


"What is the matter?" Ezra inquired.

Vin quickly wiped away the tears. "Nothin'. Go back to sleep."

"No, I think I know you well enough to perceive a problem when I see one."

"You don't know me, Ezra. You don't know me at all," Vin snapped back, harsher than he intended.

However, Ezra was not rebuffed. "Then maybe we should get to acquaint each other a little better don't you think? We could be staying here for our life expectancy."

Vin turned his head away. "We should get back to sleep. Tomorrow's another productive day," he said sarcastically.

"I think you've been evading this little obstacle for far too long."

"What the hell are you talkin' about?"

"You don't-- associate much. You stay away from everyone, well, except Chris. Aren't we a group?" Ezra challenged.

"We're not. In a couple of months, all of us are moving on. None of us are going to stay in Four Corners forever. This is temporary. There's no point in putting down too many roots 'cause soon you'll just be pulling them out again," Vin replied bitterly. "I would think that you of all people should understand this tiny piece of logic."

Ezra chuckled softly. "Strange things have happened to me because of you six. I'm not certain if I wish to return to my life previous to this."

"Once a thief--"

"I am no thief," Ezra spoke up angrily.

"Then what do you call yourself? A cardsharp? A skilled gambler? You're nothing but some two-time hustler trying cons on innocent people. If somehow, you think that Four Corners is making you 'settle down', you're deluding yourself. We're all the way we are. Nothing changes us," Vin spoke with uncharacteristic cynicism. Well, cynicism was always a part of Vin, but never this deeply. Vin had always repress things. He knew that it probably wasn't healthy for him to do so, but he did anyhow. It made things easier when you didn't feel too much. Vin made the mistake of feeling again with Resa, and he paid the price. So, he just let things happen instead. If he just didn't care, maybe he wouldn't get hurt.

"There had to be something, someone, that made a difference in your life?" Ezra knew he had touch a nerve as soon as the words came out of his mouth. Vin glanced away painfully.

"No," he replied, his words contradicting his feelings. "Nothing matters. I don't care."

"Well, Mr. Any-way-the-wind-blows, this attitude will get you killed one day."

"I'm already dead," Vin whispered sharply. Ezra realized that this conversation was officially over and turned away from Vin.


I know that there has to be a reason for Vin's over bitterness tonight. He normally seemed so controlled and calm. Now it seems to be falling apart. Maybe it's the mine, the work, but I think it has more to do with the thought which made him cry.


Part Six

The obnoxiously loud blare of the horn invaded my dreams. What I was dreaming, I can't remember. It vaguely had something to do with-- soft blonde curls and jade green eyes. I don't want to remember.

I drag myself out of the cot and splash cold water onto my face to remove any remnants of sleep that remained. I look for Ezra in the crowd of men hunting for breakfast but he isn't there. I walk out of the barracks and spot him immediately. I retreat just behind the linen doorway and observed. I know that it isn't polite, but curiosity got the better of me.

"How are you?"

"I'm fine, and you?" Ezra glanced uneasily at the young woman in front of him. She lavished too much attention on him. She cared too much for him. It made him uncomfortable. It made him question what he had done to deserve such treatment. Not that it didn't make a part of Ezra feel nice and wanted, but he was uncertain of this, of this... feeling, and aura that Isabelle projected in his direction.

"I'm doing okay. Let me check your back again." Definitely way too much caring.

Ezra took a step back. "I'm all right Isabelle. You don't have to check on me anymore." Isabelle looked hurt. Ezra quickly added, "It isn't proper for you to be seen with me. Miss Rosen might punish you."

"She already had," Isabelle whispered, staring at the ground.

"What'd you say?" Ezra leaned closer. It was then that he saw a glimpse of red on Isabelle's jawline. He brushed her dark brown hair aside, revealing three long scratches marking her from her neck to her cheek. Ezra winced.

"She got carried away, again," the servant girl replied.

"If she treats in this inhumane manner, why do you remain here?"

Isabelle laughed humourlessly. "Where else have I got to go? I have no parents, no relatives, no relations. Even if I do manage to leave here without getting myself killed, where would I go? What would I do for a living?" She lowered her head and backed slowly away from Ezra. "I've got to go now. Take care," Isabelle turned and left.

"Is she the reason?" Vin asked, standing just behind Ezra. Ezra nodded an affirmative.

"I must have been possessed to do such a thing," Ezra commented.

"No, not possessed. Just... chivalrous."


Neither could sleep when night finally came and returned the men to their barracks. Ezra glanced at the bounty hunter, his face an unreadable mask. Ezra was familiar with this mask. Except in his case, the mask was a wall which resided in his heart. Both had a common purpose: to keep one's emotions in.

Being so familiar with this, Ezra could tell that this mask did not extend to the most important part of a person's face: their eyes. Nothing could shield one's eyes completely, with the exception of death. With this crack, Ezra could see hint of tears behind Vin's deep blue eyes. Those blues were tinted with a special kind of grief and despair, a kind which Ezra himself had never actually experienced due to the barriers that he never overcame. But Ezra knew perfectly well what it was.

"Who is she?" Ezra whispered.

The mask cracked and shattered, surprise taking its place. "How'd-- Never mind," Vin looked at Ezra, half expecting the bored disinterest of small talk, instead, he found concern. "Who was she would be a better question."


"She's gone now. I can't believe it's been three years already. Sometimes it felt like it was yesterday, and sometimes it felt like an eternity away," Vin stared at the beam of moonlight on the ground. "She was the best thing that ever happened to me since--" Vin started laughing.

"What's so funny?"

"Only that Resa dug me out of the hole I fell into ever since I started bounty hunting, and now that she's gone, I'm back in that same hole." That's not really true now is it? a voice nagged at Vin, You dug yourself that same hole no matter how Resa tried to pull you out. You dragged her into that hole. Then, it collapsed on her. Vin looked away from Ezra, trying desperately to prevent the gambler from seeing that expression of raw hurt on his face.

Ezra, even without seeing Vin, could tell the distress the man was under. After a few minutes of silence, Ezra changed the subject. "How did you venture into bounty hunting? You really don't seem the type."

"What is the type?" Vin asked, curious as to what constitute as the "bounty hunting type" to Ezra.

Ezra blinked. "I don't know actually. But you, Vin Tanner, just don't seem the type."

"I never thought I would become one, but I did."

It was Ezra's turn to laugh. "How many times have I heard that? I said it to myself countless times before I started."

Vin turned his sight to the cardsharp. "What'd you mean?"

"I never thought I would become this. Did you think that I just sat down one day and thought to myself, 'hey, I would love to hustle people out of their hard earned cash'? No, I hated this when I was young. I had the perfect example of my mother. She just conned and hustled her way through civilization. Ditched me at every available house and left me to fend for myself. I said to myself that I would die before becoming like her. Look at me now, I'm an exact copy," The words left Ezra's lips and he regretted revealing so much of his personal life to Vin.

Vin, on the other hand, began to view Ezra in a different light since the afternoon. He saw that Ezra really was capable of deeds becoming of a human being. He wasn't as selfish as Vin thought, otherwise, why would Ezra defend Isabelle at the cost of six lashes? "I guess we both started out thinking that we would be different things than we are now," Ezra nodded, and realized that Vin understood. The regret wasn't so deeply etched now.

Vin continued, "I never knew my mother. She was alive, but I just didn't know her. She raised me at an arm's length away. I got used to being alone," Vin chuckled softly. "We're more alike than either you and I realize, Ezra."

Ezra was slightly surprised, but quickly realized that Vin was right. They were more alike than either realized. Both were loners, drifters through life. Never pinned to one place, always on the go. Strange place though they may be in now, but this place brought both men a bit closer, gaining a little more understanding of each other.


Part Seven

"Excuse the cliched question, but how'd a sweet young woman such as yourself get stuck in a place like this?" Ezra asked Isabelle, who visited him again. Ezra felt a certain attachment to her.

Isabelle smiled slightly. "My father was a no good loser. He gambled away his money, his health, then, when he had nothing left to wager, he wagered us. He lost."

Ezra decided that telling Isabelle his "profession" would definitely be delayed into the unknown future. "Now you remain here simply because Rosen won you?"

Isabelle nodded sadly. "Even before that, I knew the importance of money. It was always what mattered most in my family. Money this, money that. Even if I wasn't lost to her, I would probably be working at some saloon--" Isabelle stopped, slightly uncomfortable. She glanced up at the rapidly reddening sky. "Now I'm here, which is probably better than what I would have outside."

"Don't you wish your freedom?" Ezra asked.

"Freedom? I don't even know the word. I've never been free in my life. To have time to myself, doing whatever I wanted. That is just... strange. I don't think I can even imagine what it'll be like."

"Then why don't we let you have a taste of it?" Vin's voice interrupted. Isabelle appeared as if she almost had a heart attack.

"This- this your friend, Ezra?" Isabelle asked shakily.

Ezra frowned at Vin, then turned to Isabelle. "Yes. Isabelle, met Vin Tanner."

Vin nodded, "Ma'am."

A quick look of uncertainty passed Isabelle's face. "Please, call me Isabelle. No one calls anyone 'ma'am' unless it's Miss Rosen. What'd you say before?"

"Escape," Vin whispered the word.

Isabelle's eyes widened and she shook her head. "No. Don't. I've seen what happened to those who tried. They escape all right, in a pine box."

"I've got this figured out. I've been observing the guards for the last week," Vin assured them.

Ezra shook his head. "Vin, I do not believe that escape would be an appropriate action to take at the moment. You informed me previously that you reported my disappearance to Miss Travis, correct?" Vin nodded. "Then, she would have most likely recounted it to Chris by now. He and the others are probably on their way right now. To attempt an escape could mean death for the three of us."

Vin argued, "Chris should have known about us days ago. If he could track us down, he would have done so by now. The fact that they're not here means that they can't find us, for whatever reasons."

"Are you certain that this is going to work?" Ezra questioned.

For once, Vin actually smiled. "Positive."

"Well, Mr. Tanner, even if it doesn't, at least the guards will do the favour of killing you for me. Unfortunately, I'll most likely end up in Hell along with you," Vin grinned at that comment. Ezra stared at the sharpshooter, "well, go ahead and tell us this wonderful plan that you've got."


The details of Vin's plan were perfect, except for the fact that Delilah Rosen had set everything up from the beginning. From the seemingly relaxed state of the guards all week long, to the decrease in punishment built in Vin a false sense of hope. He did exactly what Delilah wished: plan an escape.

Before the addition of Ezra and Vin into her mine, Delilah had craved for some excitement. She wasn't the type who settled for "routine" mining operations. She longed for some action, and a chance for her to prove once again that she had power over all the men working for her.

Delilah Rosen had grown up being told again and again that she was inferior to her three older brothers. That her duty was to sew, cook and clean. She was supposed to be feminine and not at all masculine like. Delilah certainly surprised everyone in her family when she took control of her family mine after her father's death. Her intelligence and beauty certainly helped, but the incredible driving force behind her was her will, her fierce determination to show that she had power. That she had authority and command over men.

It was all quite a healthy persistant goal until Delilah went a little too far one day, and she simply snapped. Not quite snapped as in insane, but close to it. She realized that she enjoyed the demonstration of her "power", and her demonstration usually included violence, lots of it.

Then, Delilah spotted Ezra Standish on stage. He appeared to her as the type who would take your usual brand of abuse, that was, until one day he just couldn't take it anymore and revolt. That was her second favourite type. There was such a lack of fresh men in her mine. They had all learnt not to give Delilah any excuse to exercise her right for a "demonstration". She bought him, and waited. Then, Ezra brought her the ultimate gift: Vin Tanner.

Vin Tanner was the type that Delilah adored, the classic "hero" type. The kind who would stand for justice, have a backbone, and wasn't afraid to show their opinion. That type was so rare in her mine because, quite simply, they were either dead, or wouldn't have any business being sold to the highest bidder. Delilah would enjoy cutting Vin Tanner and Ezra Standish down to size.


"All set?" Ezra asked Isabelle. He was in her own little room, separate from all the others.

Isabelle looked up at Ezra and smiled. "Yep. Uh, could you come here for a moment?"

Ezra complied and sat down on the edge of her cot. "What's the matter?"

Completely without a warning, Ezra found himself in Isabelle's embrace, her lips upon his. He couldn't deny her femininity, but it was just... it was-- Isabelle was too young.

Isabelle finally disengaged herself from Ezra. "What was that for?" Ezra asked, staring wide-eyedly at her, being more than just a little shocked.

She grinned wickedly at him. "I just wanted to check something."


"I've been... feeling things, for you. I just wasn't sure, so I decided to do a little test."


"It's-- reverence."

"Reverence?!" Ezra repeated incredulously. That certainly was the first time.

"When you saved me and came to my rescue, I-- It's just that no one had ever done such a thing for me ever before. I felt something then, and I thought that, well, that it was something more than just admiration for your character. I hope you didn't mind."

It took Ezra a little while to absorb all of what Isabelle said. 'Admiration for character', there was another first for Ezra. "No, I didn't mind that at all. It just took me by surprise, that's all."

"So, let's go," Isabelle nudged Ezra.

"Yes, let's go."


"Stop! or I'll shoot," Ezra and Vin halted, and they both turned. To their utter surprise, Delilah Rosen was holding a gun to Isabelle's head. Delilah smiled at their expressions. "Tsk, tsk, little boys. You haven't been given permission to leave. At the very least, your plan should be a little better. But I should have known; men, all brawn and no brains."

Vin stared at Delilah. "How'd you know?"

"Simple. I set you up," Ezra glanced at Isabelle. She was terrified. Delilah continued, "Now, I can punish all of you for trying escape, or, one of you can rat out on the other and tell me who came up with the plan."

Vin started to speak, but to his astonishment, Ezra interrupted, "I came up with the plan." Ezra couldn't understand for the life in him why he said that. Maybe he went a little overboard with the herioc stuff. Or what Isabelle had said went to his head. But Ezra truly did not want Vin to be harmed due to something that was completely Ezra's fault. If it wasn't for him, Vin wouldn't even be here in the first place. Besides, if Ezra didn't step out, the fair fragile Isabelle would not be able to handle whatever Delilah was going to dish out.

Vin stared at Ezra. Why would Ezra do such a thing? Vin couldn't understand why Ezra was willing to take the blame for Vin's own plan. Anytime before this, Vin thought that Ezra would be willing to sell his own mother out for a buck. Anyone else who had met Ezra would believe that the hustler would back from any trouble to save his own hide. No one, not even Ezra himself, would believe the actions he took today.

Ezra glanced at Vin and their eyes met. Ezra saw questions. Vin saw determination, with a touch of fear. Understanding, more than ever, seeped into this unlikely friendship. Ezra took a bold step into something he had never ventured into before. Vin knew that this was a step Ezra needed to take, but he just hoped that this step didn't result in what may be Ezra's death.

Delilah couldn't quite decipher the tacit communication between Ezra and Vin. She wasn't even sure if it was actual communication. It was something that would be lost if it was translated into words, something that was much deeper than any spoken concept could conceive. Delilah was unaware of this bond between the two men, and she previously assumed that one would end up betraying the other to save their own life. This new twist in events did not upset her at all, quite the opposite in fact; Delilah was delighted by it. It would only serve things much more interesting when she could observe one in physical pain, and the other from emotional stress, namely, guilt.


Vin and Isabelle stared at each other. She sat on what had been Ezra's sleeping place. Her face creased with concern and fear. She feared for Ezra, for what Delilah might do to him. Isabelle knew well enough that Delilah would not kill him. She could tell by the sparkle of interest in her mistress' eye. It was something bad, very bad. Isabelle understood from the very beginning that this day was inevitable. Why she was stupid enough to agree to the escape plan, Isabelle did not know. She should have realized that the escape was exactly what Delilah needed.

Vin, too, could not take leave on the guilt that was coming his way. How could he let Ezra take the blame? Vin chastised himself that he should have done something, anything, to prevent Delilah from taking Ezra. Hell, Vin condemned himself on allowing Ezra to be taken by those men. He never should have let it happen.

Vin listened to the still quiet, no indication of what Delilah might be doing to Ezra. The other men in the camp looked sympathetic towards Vin. They knew, they knew.


Part Eight

Ezra closed his eyes and tried to brace himself for what was coming next. His wrists were encased in iron shackles and above his head. He faced the stone wall barely an inch from his face, his bare back exposed to the rest of the room. Ezra felt a cold finger tracing the outlines of his healing lashes on his back.

"Those must hurt like hell."

"Only for a day or two," Ezra answered, trying to sound as nonchalant as possible.

"Well, what's coming next won't hurt for a day or two. They're going to hurt a week or two. Or maybe even a month or two."

"Just get on with it."

"My, my, aren't we the heroic one here? I know that you're not the one who planned the escape,"

Ezra opened his eyes, shocked. "You know?"

"Oh, I know. It's obviously that Vin Tanner who thought this all up. You, you're perfectly settled in my mine. You're not the type to try something as rash as escape," Delilah leaned in close. Ezra could feel her warm breath against his skin. "But I like you much better, Ezra."

"Then why don't you release me?"

Delilah laughed mockingly. Instead of answering, she gently kissed Ezra's left shoulder. Delilah pressed her body close to his, her arms wrapping around his body. Her hands roamed across Ezra's chest and she nibbled on his earlobe. Ezra couldn't help but let a small sigh of contentment escape.

"Are you going to ravish me?" Ezra asked with a tinge of humour in his voice.

Delilah took a step back and Ezra lost the warmth of her body. "No," she replied, grabbing a whip hanging off a hook on a side wall, "but this is." The air cracked.


Ten, eleven, twelve, thirteen, fourteen. The lashes were no longer singular to Ezra, instead, they become one long continuous beat. But he could still feel the burn of his flesh as the bullwhip lashed mercilessly against it. Fifteen, sixteen, seventeen, eighteen. Even as one long continuous beat, Ezra could still count each singular one. How peculiar.

Ezra clenched his teeth against the piecing torment. How long was this going to last? Occasionally, he could hear sweet laughter behind him. It was seemed a little distant. Maybe it would be best that Ezra didn't truly realize the barrage of lashes across his back. Twenty-four, twenty-five, twenty-six.

"You asleep?" Delilah asked, stopping the torment for a moment. She let loose the hardest lash. That woke Ezra up from his delirious dream. The raw bolts of agony hit him fill force. His skin torn and bleeding, every breath hurt. Ezra's previous tryst with the whip could not compare with this. He tried to remember a time when he didn't feel such pain but he couldn't. His world seemed to consist only of the steady beat of the whip, and the sensation resulting from the beat.

Ezra fought against crying out. He refused to give Delilah the satisfaction of it. His body may not be able to handle it, but Ezra forbade himself to break mentally.

Twenty-seven, twenty-eight, twenty-nine, thirty.

Ezra lived through it, he was alive. Sweat beaded on his forehead, the raw burn across his back was still in existence, but it stopped, thank god it stopped.


Vin could almost hear the swish of air of each lash. He was informed by one of the men as to the punishment of Ezra. Thirty lashes. Vin had already seen what six was like. Vin thought that he should have heard some type of outcry by now. But there was nothing. He glanced at Isabelle, who was fidgetting nervously.

"I can't hear anything," she whispered. All the others screamed, cried, shrieked, or some type of outburst. But there was nothing. No sounds.

Then, came the cry which shattered both Vin and Isabelle's heart. A howl filled with such anguish and pain. A sound that sounded non-human, something that an animal might utter. Both knew perfectly well that it was Ezra.

Without warning, a body fell through the linen doorway and onto the dusty ground. "Ezra!" Vin cried out. He rushed to the cardsharp and his heart broken at the sight before him. Ezra's back was a mess of torn flesh and smeared blood. His face was pale and streaked with dirt and tears.

Vin tried his best and finally managed to relocate the fallen gambler to his cot. As Vin laid Ezra down, he noted a whitish powdery substance on Ezra's shoulder. Vin brought a sample up and tasted it: salt.

That sadist known as Delilah Rosen threw salt on Ezra's lashes. The sharpshooter stared in horror at Ezra's back. It was then that Vin heard a soft sound emitting from Ezra. Vin leaned in closer; Ezra was whimpering, whimpering like a lost puppy. Vin turned immediately to Isabelle.

"Get a piece of cloth and wet it. Rosen threw salt on Ezra, I've got to wash it off," Isabelle rushed of at once, coming back moments later with a soaked shirt. Vin grabbed it and proceed to gently wipe Ezra's back free of salt and blood. The water also cooled the burn of the lashes.

Only after the blood was wiped off that Vin was able to truly see the damage. The bullwhip ripped Ezra up mercilessly. Wounds that would most definitely scar permanently. Momentos complimentary of Delilah Rosen.

Vin gazed at Ezra's still form. Ezra was unconscious, but not asleep. It was blissful oblivion from the outside world.


Vin woke to the sound of muffled sobs. Vin realized the source to be Ezra. The gambler was crying, tears falling ceaselessly. Then, all of a sudden, the crying stopped. Ezra opened his eyes, and stared, seemingly with curiosity, at Vin. Vin stared at the soft green eyes of the cardsharp's.

"Ezra?" Vin whispered. Ezra continued to stare silently at Vin. "Ezra? Are you all right?" Vin tried again, a little louder. No response.


For the next two days, Ezra basically acted the same way as the first day after his whipping. He was silent, blankly staring at Vin. If he wasn't around, Ezra would keep his eyes close, as if nothing was worth his interest. During nights, Ezra would mumbled incoherently. Sometimes, Vin could pick out some words: Mother, gone, spider, Vin. The last one surprised the bounty hunter. It made him feel strange that Ezra, even in this state, would recall Vin's name.

All this was quite acceptable, if not unexplainable, except when Vin would truly be terrified when Ezra laughed for no reason. He would chuckle at some unheard joke, then stop. Vin would try to find the reason for Ezra's abnormal behaviour within those bright greens, but all he found was a strange innocence and calm.

"She broke him," Isabelle told Vin. She tried her best, like Vin, to coax Ezra out of the state he was in. But nothing helped.


On the fifth day, Vin tried once again to reach Ezra. "Ezra?" he asked. "Talk to me."

Ezra blinked at Vin. He continued to blink a couple more times, as if clearing his vision. Ezra seemed to have woken up from a waking dream. He glanced at the sharpshooter. "Vin?" Ezra whispered, "I don't feel good." Ezra spoke in such a childlike, pitiful tone that Vin's heart would have broke if it wasn't broken already.

Vin moved a little closer to Ezra and saw his flushed face. Vin pressed his hand against Ezra's forehead. "You have a fever," the bounty hunter informed Ezra.

"I don't feel good," Ezra repeated. "My back hurts. I'm dizzy. Where're you going?"

Vin didn't bother to answer. He went to the bucket of water and wet a piece of cloth. He folded it up and placed it on Ezra's forehead. Ezra brought his hand briefly up to the cloth. "I want to go home." again, the childlike tone. Vin sighed.


The fever finally receded, but Ezra was still acting like a six year old child. Or at the very least, he seemed to have lost his thesaurus, using words that contained less than five letters. He whined about going home, or that his back hurt. He didn't seem to remember the thirty lashes that occurred.

During the eighth night, while Vin was lying in his cot, worrying incessantly about Ezra's condition, Ezra started to speak. Vin sprung up and approached Ezra. Ezra wasn't awake; he was talking in his sleep.

"Mama, ah don't want to go. Take me with you," Ezra pleaded in a soft Southern accent. "They've got spiders... really big ones. I'm scared, mama. I wanna come with you to the big city. Mama!" Vin remembered what Ezra said about being ditched at houses by his mother. Vin took Ezra's hand in his own, giving him as much comfort as he could. Ezra started to cry, mumbling incoherently about being left behind. His eyelids fluttered open and his eyes found the blue source of comfort. Ezra thanked Vin without uttering a single word.

"We've got to get outta here, Mr. Tanner. If I remain here any longer, I'll go insane," Ezra whispered.

Vin laughed. "You already have."


Part Nine

"You want to try WHAT again?!" Isabelle exclaimed and was immediately hushed by Vin and Ezra. "You must be out of your mind. Look at what happened last time!" She pointed at Ezra. Ezra was finally able to sit up with being terribly agonized, but the lack of antiseptics in the camp still made infection a possibility.

"I don't have any intention of staying here any longer, Isabelle. None of us are going to survive here as long as Rosen had her way. Don't you wish your freedom?" Ezra asked.

"Not when it means our deaths. I don't want to sound like a coward, but I refuse to die for something I don't even know about."

"I can't leave you behind," Ezra said. Isabelle could tell that it was the truth. No matter how scared she was, Isabelle did not wish herself to be the cause for Ezra's lingering.

"All right, I come. But this time, it better work."

"Rosen won't expect us to try something so soon after what happened," Vin explained, "It should work."

"That's what you said last time," Isabelle glared at Vin in anger.

Vin was about to reply when a gunshot rang out. Vin, Ezra and Isabelle rushed out to see the cause. Ezra had some troubles walking, but made it fine. The sight which they beheld brought a grin to both Ezra and Vin's face. Escape was no longer necessary.

"Vin! Ezra!" Chris' commanding voice cried out. Ezra grabbed Isabelle's hand and led her towards the direction of the blonde leader.

"Good to see you, Chris," Vin yelled out above the dins of gunfire. Isabelle shrieked when a stray bullet scraped her arm. There was no time to check how bad it was, Ezra could only lead Isabelle hurriedly away from ground zero of the fight.

Delilah watched as her two favourite subjects rode away to safety, taking with them Isabelle. Two guards were down, and some miners were injured by bullets. But Delilah herself was unharmed, her strip mine would still be in operation even after this little escapade. She was a little upset at the lost, but no matter, there would be other subjects to play with.


"Is she all right?" Ezra asked in concern.

"It's just a surface wound," Nathan replied. The seven men, and one woman, gathered at Nathan's "office". The healer tended to Isabelle's wound.

"Good," Ezra whispered and smiled at young woman despite the discomfort screaming from his back. Normally, Ezra would enjoy a long horse ride, but this time, it made his lashes hurt like hell.

"Took you long enough, Chris," Vin tisked good-naturedly.

"Rosen is a hard woman to track down," Chris replied. It was then he noticed a red streak down Ezra's back. "You all right, Ezra?"

Vin followed Chris' line of sight and noticed the red streak too. "Ezra, you better let Nathan check that. It could be infected."

Ezra was about to argue until he saw the look of concern in Vin's eyes. Knowing better, he walked slowly to Nathan and took off his shirt.

The room fell silent.

"Sweet Mother of God," Buck whispered. JD paled significantly and even Nathan didn't look that good.

"That bad, huh?" Ezra laughed nervously.

Nathan glanced expertly at the lashes. "These are mildly infected. This is going to hurt, Ezra." Ezra nodded as Nathan poured antiseptic liberally over a piece of cloth. Then, he pressed it against Ezra's back. Ezra sucked in a sharp breath and held it.

"You're not kidding," Ezra said through clenched teeth.

"Rosen did that to you?" Buck asked.

"Yeah, she did," Vin answered for Ezra.


Dressed in only a loose shirt and pants as to allow the lashes to breath, Ezra stood outside the saloon with Isabelle. She changed from her servant outfit to riding clothes. She held the reins of a horse from the livery.

"Where will you be heading?" Ezra asked.

"Somewhere, anywhere," Isabelle answered. She reached out, gently brushing her hand against the thick, yet-to-be-shaven stubble on Ezra's chin. Isabelle smiled sweetly at the cardsharp and surprising him for the second time, she pulled him in for a deep, long kiss.

After catching his breath, Ezra asked, "I thought you sorted out your feelings towards me."

Isabelle smiled sheepishly. "I was wrong. I felt something when I kissed you, and it's not reverence. It's something, I just don't know what. Do you feel anything?"

Ezra searched through his soul. He did contain a certain attachment to Isabelle, but what kind of an attachment, Ezra couldn't tell. "I don't know. But I felt something too, I think." Ezra appeared confused.

"I think there's something here and I like it. I know what you think. You think I'm too young, that you're too old for me. But if there really is something, then I think it's worth pursuing, don't you?"

"I-- I think so. But you're right, you are too young," Ezra whispered.

"Then wait for me. Just for a year, maybe two. Sort out your own feelings," Isabelle pressed her hand against Ezra's heart. "while I sort out mine. I know that there are bound to be women after such a handsome and charming man as yourself, " Isabelle smirked. "but, please, wait for me. Maybe then, we can pursue whatever it is together."

Ezra nodded. He reached out and touched Isabelle's cheek. She reached up and took his hand in hers, closing her eyes for a moment, lingering the touch. Ezra leaned in and kissed Isabelle softly. They parted from each other. Isabelle turned and mounted her horse.

"Until then," she said.

"Until then," Ezra repeated. Isabelle smiled at Ezra one last time, and rode away.

Vin, once again, came up to the hustler. "Still think that you were possessed when you defended Isabelle?"

Ezra turned to Vin. "No, just chivalrous." Green eyes met blue and understanding passed, not to mention laughter.


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