(Old West)

by Heather

Josiah had had enough. The giant ex -preacher slammed his fists angrily on the table effectively halting all the cruel laughter and spilling drinks. The other five involuntarily backed from the table trying to avoid the spilt alcohol and create distance between themselves and Sanchez's wraith. Buck still chuckled trying hard to control it as Nathan wiped his eyes of the tears of laughter that threatened to spill down his face. Josiah glared at the five men, wondering where their morals had gone to . It was Christmas Eve, early morning.

"That is enough!" He hissed through clenched teeth.

"Awe come on Josiah we're just having fun, Ezra would understand." Buck said trying to appease the preacher. Chris, Vin and J.D. had immediately lost their smiles. "Besides Josiah it's not like he's really into Christmas anyhow, shoot he's probably still upset about having to spend it at some plantation or suite where he didn't get his favorite meal, as a kid." Nathan added still trying to wipe the smile off his face. "Probably why he took off to Eagle Bend, fresh Christmas pickings up that way." Tanner added. For the past two weeks the resident gambler had lost his easy going smile, and climbed deep into himself. No one had noticed at first but soon it became apparent as he did not join the others prepare the church and town for Christmas. He even refused to help find a Christmas tree, a small sacrifice everyone partook into cheer up JD. It was the kid's first Christmas without his ma. This maddened everyone, even Josiah to some point until the giant man began to seriously observe the gambler. He was hurting, he hid it well no one noticed the pain, but they did pick up the growing change in attitude. The other four men had responded in kind, and unfriendly insults were thrown at the gambler. He ignored them for the most part but Josiah had noticed that most of the barbs the other men had thrown at the conman hit their marks. He hid it behind his poker face, apparently shrugging them off like rain off his coat, but they seeped in and stung him hard. Yesterday happened to be the worst, Buck and Nathan relentlessly taunted the gambler, needling him about his Christmas and how much splendor had been lavishly bestowed on him as a child. They did it to hurt, and embarrass him, Standish ignored them burying himself even deeper into the hole he dug to protect himself. That afternoon he left town for Eagle Bend. Sanchez had seen him go to the livery and followed him. Josiah tried to talk to him but as was Ezra's custom, he smiled brushed everything off and rode out of town, alone.

Now Sanchez had had enough. They had managed to run Standish out of town on what should have been a holiday for friends and family. "Come on Josiah we're just having fun Ezra don't care." Vin added. Sanchez whirled around on his friend, "Ohh yeah, that's why he left town yesterday?"

"He's just trying to make a bigger killing at the gaming tables." Jackson muttered disgustedly.

"Tell me Nathan do you really think just the slaves went hungry?" Sanchez asked pointedly. He did not give his friend time to answer, "You don't think the son of a maid saw a few hungry days and nights." He changed his glance to J.D, "or maybe an orphan, or the son of a saint." He glared at Vin and then Buck, each man met his gaze angrily, their pasts were their own. Josiah ignored them and continued, "Or maybe just maybe the unwanted bastard son from the deep south, saw more than a few hungry days, himself." He paused staring at the others who met his steely glare with dwindling defiance. "Do you really know how he spent his Christmas's let me tell you." Josiah sat back down and pulled out his large knife and began working on his finger nails. "At the age of 7 Ezra's uncle discovered he was skimming money from the profits he made at the poker games his uncle had set up on Christmas eve. He beat the boy senseless bound his hands and feet and threw him in the root cellar for two days. When he was nine his aunt clarece broke his hand with a skillet because he missed a chord when practicing the piano Christmas eve morning, he was suppose to play at her party that night. He got locked in the attic til the day after Christmas then the dr. was sent to see him. He spent one Christmas with Uncle Fred, whom we've all met, he tied the boy's foot to a beam in pig barn, he ate Christmas dinner when the pigs got slopped." Josiah paused no one would meet his gaze, so he continued, "His favorite Christmas was the one he spent with Meg, at his Uncle Theodore's, you all remember Meg, the hound dog. They got fed Christmas eve because he used Ezra to run the hounds the next day." Josiah sheathed his knife and finally added, "He's never sat down to a Christmas meal and has never spent Christmas with his mother." He glanced at Vin and said, "I know you did not have the luxury of having your mother around for Christmas, but at least you understood why." Without looking up Tanner merely nodded in agreement, his mother had died when he was five, Standish's mother was still very much alive.

Before Josiah could continue Mary Travis entered the saloon. She got the distinct impression she had interrupted something. She hesitated only a moment until Chris spoke softly. "How can we help you Mary?"

"It's a telegram from the sheriff in Eagle Bend." She handed it to Larabee who took it read it quickly and swore.

"What is it Chris?" Vin asked, glad for the diversion from Sanchez's tales. Larabee answered sounding peeved, "It seems our resident gambler has gotten himself into trouble again."

"What he do now?" Jackson asked.

"Got into a brawl in the saloon, got himself landed in jail. Sheriff wants us to get him out before more trouble finds him." Larabee shook his head. He did not intend on spending his Christmas eve bailing people out of jail, let alone Standish.

"You think we'll be back in time for Nettie's dinner?" Buck asked. It did not come out the way he had expected it too. But lately he had managed to say things apparently that came across wrong. Josiah stood up exasperated, "Don't worry yourself Buck I'll go get him." He crushed his hat on his head and ripped his coat from the back of the chair. As he headed for the door he muttered, "Someone's gotta show that stubborn southern cuss somebody cares."

Sanchez saddled his large bay quarterhorse, muttering angrily. No wonder Standish left, Josiah didn't feel much like staying around here anymore than the gambler. As Josiah fitted his compliant horse with its bridle the livery doors opened up and the other five walked in rather quietly. Josiah hid his smile, "What's going on?"

"Knowing Ezra, you're going to need help." Nathan explained. "Especially him being so ornery." Buck added saddling up his horse.

"Where's Chris and JD?" Sanchez inquired. Vin answered, "Telegramming the Sheriff and telling him he better tie the jail doors closed or he'll be missing a prisoner in a short time." Josiah nodded smiling broadly. Standish among other things had never met a lock he couldn't pick. He could open a locked door, or shackles or any lock for that matter quicker than if someone used the key. It proved very helpful in sticky situations but on the occasion a hindrance.

The six men rode in relative silence for Eagle Bend. Finally JD asked the question that had been gnawing at the others. "Josiah?" He waited for the big man to look over at him. "yes JD?" "How'd you know all those things about Ezra?" JD seemed to be embarrassed to have to ask the question. Sanchez could not help but notice the others had quieted down to hear the answer. They probably think Standish conned me, Josiah thought. "He told me the day when he drank all of Vin's tea." he paused and glanced at the others pointedly, "he doesn't remember any of it." and then added, "It should be kept that way too." JD nodded in agreement.

He remembered the day Ezra by mistake drank all the tea Vin and Josiah had mixed up for the Chanu's young braves for their vision walks. The gambler had drank the whole batch, that freezing cold morning, before anyone realized what had happened. It knocked him for a loop. JD would never forget how bewildered and lost one moment, violent the next and then hallucinate and become delirious a few moments later. Standish had become completely unpredictable. They couldn't keep him down, that was when they learned he could pick locks, they tried locking him up in the jail for his own protection but he'd have the locks picked and be out before they made it back to the saloon. It was also then they learned he liked heights. He'd climb to the highest roof peaks he could and walk along the top of the slanted roofs, not a care in the world. Josiah and Vin had gone up to get him down, but he suddenly become very wary of them and would not let them near him. Josiah had sat up there with him for hours, no one knew what was said, but eventually the large ex -preacher convinced him to go inside. Things seemed better until he slipped away from them again. It had gone on like that for days. When it finally left his system he vomited for three days straight. Boy JD would not forget that either. They locked Ezra up in the Jail and tied the door closed (Ezra was no good with knots.) He vomited so much JD thought the gambler would turn inside out. When it was all over Ezra couldn't lift his head off the pillow and Josiah had to carry him back to his room, where he slept for two days. Standish remembered none of it.

The six rode into Eagle Bend by mid afternoon. It would be dark in a few hours, with luck they'd still make it to Nettie's for dinner. They passed the saloon and noticed with some dismay one swinging door swung by one hinge. The front windows had been broken outward, glass still littered the boardwalk. "Buck you and JD. find out how much damage is done." The two men merely nodded. "Nathan go check in with the doctor find out if Ezra's been hurt badly, because he won't be forthcoming with the information." Nathan nodded and rode off toward the doctors office. Jackson chuckled, Ezra always tried to avoid medical help. Vin, Chris and Josiah rode to the sheriff's office. The three men dismounted, each took a breath and entered the sheriff's office.

Sheriff Brody stood up when the threesome entered. "Mr. Larabee, I presume you are here to pick up your man?" Chris merely nodded, they had been through this before. Normally it was Buck he was dredging out of incarceration. "Well he's right over there." He pointed to a cell. There lying on a cot with his arm draped over his eyes, lay Ezra Standish. His blue tailored coat lay folded under his head. He appeared sleeping but had his right leg bent with the knee pointing toward the ceiling. "He ok?" Vin asked the sheriff. Brody stared wide eyed at the three men, "He took on three railroaders, accused him of cheating, then made some derogatory remarks about the negro in your group," he turned from Vin back to the unaroused gambler and added, "must not have liked it very much, because it set him off "

"they beat him up pretty good then huh?" Sanchez stated feeling his belly sink, some things never change for some people. Ezra still getting knocked around during the holidays. Brody shook his head, "Him no, the other three have been up with the doc, all day, I had to butt him on the head to get him to stop." he glanced over at Larabee, "Your man there had quite a temper you best control him better." Chris shot the sheriff a deadly look and walked over to the cell, "Come on Ezra lets go."

"Go where Mr. Larabee?" The soft southern drawl lazily answered.

"Back home." Chris was surpassed by his answer.

"Your home Mr. Larabee not mine." Still no movement from the gambler other than his voice, decidedly kept at a softer note. Possibly a hangover, or effects of the Sheriffs arresting techniques.

"quit feeling sorry for yourself Ezra lets go." Tanner answered.

"ahh Mr. Tanner you made the trip too? How fortunate for me." Then Ezra carefully pushed himself up and sat on the edge of the cot. A large gash graced the corner of his forehead, blood matted his hair causing it to stick up in all directions. The left side of his face also had dried blood crusting his cheek and shirt collar. He leaned his forearms on his knees, his head hung down as his fingers gingerly explored the cut. "But I rather like my accommodations, well that was until they tied the door." He peered up at Chris with blood shot eyes, "how fortuitous of you to warn the dear sheriff."

"Well we sure as hell didn't want to ride all the way out here to have you gone, now would we." Chris said a smile played at the corners of his mouth. Ezra could be as cagey and rebellious as the lot of them but he normally hid it under a cool gentlemanly demeanor. Chris found it amusing to see the other side of the gambler.

"Heavens no." Standish responded sarcastically. This caused Vin and Josiah to smirk. Ezra's mouth got him into more trouble than his cards. Just then Buck and JD barged into the office, "Jeez Chris they really trashed the place. There isn't a stick of furniture in there that isn't broken." JD said. He then noticed Ezra still behind bars and then the cut. "Wow Ezra that hurt much?" Standish threw the boy a withering glare.

"Tell me Mr. Larabee did you bring everyone with you?" Ezra drawled out with bitterness. He did not relish having everyone peering at him like a caged animal, all that was missing was Nathan's sanctimonious remarks.

"Well it's not everyday we get to see you behaving like the rest of us." Chris intoned.

Buck started untying the cell door and then unlocked the door entering the cell, "You know Ezra if I knew you were going to come over here and start a brawl well hell pard' I'd of come along." Wilmington grabbed Standish's upper arm and hauled him to his feet, and then reached down and picked up the folded coat. "What do you think you're doing Mr. Wilmington?" Standish muttered the world spun crazily out of control. Tanner noticed that the gambler did not fight to get his arm free of Buck's grip.

"We've got a dinner to make and don't have time to dawdle around here." He ushered the gambler out the door, never releasing his hold on the other man's arm. Ezra did not appear to steady. They muttered their thanks to the sheriff as they pushed Standish out the door before his smart mouth got him thrown back in jail.

Out on the boardwalk they ran into Nathan. Chris sent JD to the livery to get Ezra's horse. Buck leaned Ezra against the hitching rail trying to get more information about the fight. The bartender had told Wilmington that Standish ignore the cheating remarks the railroaders had boisterously claimed, but when they started in on Nathan Jackson, the gambler exploded. Seth the barkeep, had said no one could lay a hand on the nimble conman, yet he soundly thrashed the three men who out weighed and out reached him. He easily held his own until the sheriff cracked him in the head. Buck wanted the gory details but in typical Standish fashion he clamed up, trying to ride out lingering headache and nausea. Larabee gazed expectantly at the healer. "Well?" was all he said. Nathan just shook his head, "Doc hasn't had a chance to look him over yet. He's been busy setting bones and wrapping ribs." Jackson stared past the gunslinger and gazed at the gambler. His 5'7 frame well in good shape did not appear capable of doing so much damage. The spike pounders must have really set him off. "Hey Ezra what they do accuse you of cheating?" Jackson chuckled

Standish lifted his head and glared at the taller healer, who stood a few yards away with Larabee. A cold anger coated his green blood shot eyes, when he spoke, his normally smooth soft southern accent took on a thick callous angrily tone, "Shut up Nathan." Ezra was not in the mood for their jabs, or off handed remarks. Jackson stared shocked at the gambler, nothing ever seemed to ruffle his feathers, but lately everything got under his skin. Nathan slowly began to realize maybe Josiah had been right, maybe they really did hurt Ezra with all their kidding around. He also noticed the large deep cut that adorned the conman's normally clean shaven unmarked face. It needed tending too. Larabee seemed to have read his mind and put a restraining hand on he healers arm, "Not right now." JD then pulled up with Ezra's horse. With some much needed but little appreciated help from Buck and Josiah Ezra managed to get on his horse. Standish held onto the saddle horn with a death grip hoping the world would stop spinning around. He felt a hand rest on his leg, Ezra opened his eyes and found Josiah staring up at him with concern in his eyes. "You ok Ezra?" Standish was not buying the act, "wonderful." Sanchez did not bother pursuing it. Standish would not take them at face value, not today at least. Josiah did not blame him, how could he.

They rode the rest of the afternoon. Vin and Chris kept taking surreptitious glances back at the others. Nathan and Josiah shadowed the gambler, waiting for him to fall off his horse. Tanner smirked at Larabee both thinking the same thing, Ezra was to stubborn and to proud to let that happen. Buck and JD laughed and joked about previous Christmas and what was the best meals they had. They then began trying to guess what Nettie and Casey had planned for the seven. After a bit everyone got involved, except Ezra. It was a four hour ride from Eagle bend to the junction for 4corners and Nettie's place. Vin led them toward the Well's residence. Standish pulled Chaucer up and paused unsure what to do. He found solace in things he was familiar with and so he turned toward four corners alone. Josiah immediately saw this, "Whoa hold up," the others stopped and turned in their saddles and stared at the ex -preacher and then the slowly receding back of Standish. "Ezra wait where are you going?" JD asked. Chaucer, in no rush to leave the other horses, stopped. Ezra dropped his chin to his chest and turned and faced the others. Josiah was the only one close enough to read the fear in his eyes. Ezra's facial expression and tone did not match and carried a carefree attitude, "I've got a pounding headache and do not think my stomach is up for a meal."

"Aw hell Ezra you don't have to eat, come on it'll be fun." Buck added.

Larabee added quietly and deadly, "I did not ride all the way to Eagle Bend to haul your butt out of jail to have you miss Ms Wells dinner." Chris waited just a few seconds saw that Ezra had not moved and added with no humor, "Lets get going." There was no room for argument. Sanchez and the others were surprised that the gambler did not fight it, and held all sarcastic remarks. Instead he walked Chaucer back to them and followed them to Wells farm. JD leaned over to Buck as they continued down the road, "Wow he must really have a headache." Wilmington smiled and nodded. As they drew closer to the Wells ranch Ezra withdrew even further from the others.

Casey ran out onto the porch as she heard them ride in, "Hi Mr. Larabee, hey guys. Hi JD." She smiled sheepishly at the young sheriff. "Aunt Nettie just about has dinner ready. Hurry up." Buck and the others smiled youthful enthusiasm almost enough to match JD's. The men lead their horses to the barn and tended the horses removing the bridles and throwing hay. "JD go fill the water buckets." Buck ordered like a big brother. JD in typical younger rebellion was about to argue but Ezra unexpectantly stopped it before it began, "I'll do it." This took everyone by surprise. Buck merely shrugged, and JD exclaimed, "You really will? Thanks Ezra." With that they all headed into the house save Standish who began filling buckets from the well. Larabee placed a hand on the conman's bent shoulder, "I had better see you in there." Chris watched as Ezra merely nodded his head, not looking up. The gunslinger left and followed the others into the house.

Standish made certain all the horses had plenty of water. He sat on hay bale in the barn entrance. The night was chilly and he pulled his coat tighter around himself. His head hurt and he felt tired. Last night had been long and today had proven even longer. He lifted his head out of his hands and stared at Nettie's small modest cabin. It was a lot smaller, shoot nearly rundown shack, compared to the opulence he had seen as a kid in the deep south. But the Well's house held a lot more warmth and promise. A soft warm glow emanated from all the windows, and dark silhouettes in the window showed people laughing and eating. Standish stared at his hands, why was it easier to sit at a gaming table with insurmountable odds, roped into a gun fight or even a brawl than it was to get up and enter that house full of prospective friends. He leaned against an eye beam in the barn and sighed. It would have been so much easier if they had left him in Eagle Bend. He was brought out of his reverie when a small timid voice spoke, "Mr. Standish?" He lifted his head and was surpassed to see Casey approaching him from inside the barn. He had missed her exit the house. "Mr. Standish you alright?" She asked again sitting on an adjacent hay bale.

"Yes Ms Wells." He put as much joy into his voice as he could without making it sound forced. "Why aren't you in the house with the others?" He stared at the young girl. It was her first Christmas without her mother. Just like JD. Standish loved watching the two love birds try and figure each other out with out investing to much emotion. It was clear to anyone else, JD and Casey were a match, they just had to figure it out on their own. In response to his question she just shrugged. Then she spoke in a tiny soft voice barely enough for the gambler to here, "I miss my mom." She peered at the older man with tears threatening to spill over her lower lids. "It doesn't seem right to be having so much fun when she's not around. Almost like a disrespect to her memory." The young lady wiped shamefully at her tears embarrassed by them. She was about to get up and go when Ezra stopped her with his soft southern voice, "You know your mother's looking down on you right now." Casey peered reflectively up at the stars. Standish smiled, "I've been told when a loved one gazes down at you from heaven, they smile when you smile and laugh when you laugh." Casey stared at the gambler, who peered up at the starry night and then back up at the sky, "So I bet your mother would feel a lot better if you went back inside and had a good time." The young Casey considered these words and silently agreed.

"What about you? You coming?" She asked.

Standish smiled to himself 'why not take the risk?'. They both stood when voices shocked them from just outside the barn. It was Nettie Wells and her sister. It was her sister who spoke and none to gently, "I do not want the likes of him in that house." There was a slight pause as if she were trying to control her ire, " He's nothing but a liar and a drunken thief. Now he's starting fights in saloons." Again a pause no response from Nettie. "How could you let Casey associate with such an unsavory character. I will not sit down to dinner with you if you let that man into your house." When the aunt Claire finished speaking Nettie finally answered, "Suit yourself," With that both headed back into the house.

Casey wanted to speak out in Ezra's defense, but the gambler laid a quieting hand on her shoulder. When they heard the two ladies enter the house Casey whirled around and stared up at the gambler. His face was unreadable just like when he played cards. "Come on Ezra don't listen to her, she's just a grumpy old lady." The young girl tugged on his hand but he held his place. His stomach knotted with despair. He smiled down at the young lady and spoke when he finally could trust his voice, "Christmas is a time for family, go join yours." He gently shoved her toward the house. "I'm going to yell at her." Casey spat. Ezra grasped her shoulder halting her, "Please young Casey spare me the humiliation." He paused and knelt down in front of her, nearly begging , "Please keep this to yourself." He held onto her upper arms until she finally nodded. He gave her a big smile and pointed to the stars, "Don't forget your mother is watching down on you so you better put a smile on and have fun."

Casey stared up at the stars and nodded, then started across the yard to the house. She stopped and turned, "Mr. Standish?" The gambler had caught Chaucer and turned his attention back to the girl, "Yes?"

"Who watches over you?"

He smiled at the question and patted Chaucer, "Why Ms. Casey I do." He turned his back on her ending any other invasive questions she might have and started bridling his horse. He heard the laughter as she opened the front door. Sadness flooded him but quickly anger took its place, as he climbed into the saddle. He gave the house one last look and headed back to four corners. Only one more day left to this lousy holiday, he'd make it through.

Ten chairs were set and nine people filled them. Larabee scowled at the empty chair. Tanner tried to hide his anger, but Ezra's lack of manners and disrespect were almost to much to bear. In one selfish move the conman had managed to dampen the fun, Buck would throttle him when they got back. He ,however, unlike Vin did not keep his comments to himself. Nettie had fixed a large roast with hot biscuits melted butter and honey and finished it with two pumpkin pies. The men hungrily wolfed down the meal ,as they ate the mood lightened. "Boy Ezra sure doesn't know what he's missing." JD said as he finished the last of his pie. "It's his own fault," Nathan pointed out disgustedly. Josiah said nothing, he thought he had finally reached the gambler. Apparently he was wrong. "Yeah well if he wants to feel sorry for himself I'll give him something to be sorry for." Wilmington added. He liked the gambler but lately the card shark had become so dark and sullen he was hard to be around. "Buck knock it off." Larabee quietly warned. Nettie listened to the conversation and noticed her niece bite her lip, a habit she did when she wanted to say something. "Out with it Casey." Nettie said in her nonsense way. This shocked the others into silence and peered down the table at the young woman. She stared at the faces and then her empty plate. "It's not his fault." She muttered quietly. Nettie had a sickening feeling as to what her niece was going to say. "Stop your muttering and spit it out." Nettie said none to harshly but sternly enough to galvanize her niece into talking. Vin Tanner smiled, Nettie Wells had grit and determination. Casey took a deep breath and sighed, "Mr. Standish and I were in the barn when we heard Aunt Claire." Casey suddenly found her fork very interesting. It was the first time anyone had heard Nettie Wells utter a curse. Then she addressed her niece yet again, "Ok girl out with it what did you hear?"

She gazed up at her aunt and then the others, she was torn between her promise to Mr. Standish and setting the record straight. Nettie solved her dilemma when she stared pointedly at the girl, Aunt Nettie's patience were running low and all the men around the table were expecting an answer. "He was going to come in, but well we heard Aunt Claire call him a liar and a thief, not good enough for me to talk to, and how she wouldn't sit with the likes of him at Christmas dinner." She paused and then quickly added, "He asked me not to say anything, something about saving him humiliation or something ,said family was to important, and so he left." She turned and stared at her Aunt Claire, "You're wrong about him, though," The house became deafeningly silent. Sanchez merely closed his eyes. How could something go so wrong. He should not have pushed. Buck openly glared at Aunt Claire he and the others had actually begun to like her. She seemed like an open caring person. The silence broke when JD spoke up, "Ms Wells thanks for the dinner, but I must confess I've lied once before and though I've never stolen anything I've been in saloon brawls." He stood and pushed his chair in, " I'm not fit to sit with your family either." the young man , bowed his head in deferense to the both women and smiled tightly at Casey then grabbed his coat and hat. Muttered apologies to the others he disappeared out the door. Before he reached the corrals he had the company of the other five men.

It was a two hour ride to town. No one spoke as they rode or unsaddled their horses at the livery. Chaucer was there munching contently on hay. The six headed toward the saloon. It was fast approaching midnight. Sal the barkeep was just closing up when the six men entered the saloon. He had family just at the edge of town. He would take Christmas day off. "Hey Sal you seen Ezra?" Josiah asked trying to sound unconcerned.

This caused the barkeep to look at the six men more closely. "Yeah he came in a few maybe three or more hours ago. Bought a shot of whiskey told me to keep the change and then went up to his room." He paused for a moment and then added, "Nasty cut on his head. How'd he get that?"

"long story." Buck answered as he reached behind the bar and grabbed a new bottle of red eye. Larabee spoke up from his customary table in the back. "we'll close up for you Sal." The barkeep merely nodded and left. Things seemed a little tense. He did not want to be around if things went asked. Tanner sat heavily at the table, JD close on his heels. Buck placed shot glasses in front of everybody and filled them. Josiah headed to the stair case and offered a simple explanation, "I'm going to look in on him."

"Just don't get you damned head blown off." Vin warned. Standish had been full of enough surprises for one day. The ex -preacher smiled tightly.

"Maybe I should go with you check out his head." Nathan said climbing to his feet.

"Naw you better just let Josiah do it." Buck warned. No one had bother to tell the healer what caused the saloon fight.

Josiah climbed the stairs with a heavy heart. He only wanted to help show Ezra that Christmas could be fun and full of warmth. That it did not have to be the hard cold reality that he had lived through as a kid. He sadly chuckled to himself, 'the road to hell is paved with good intentions'. He reached Standish's door and rapped on it quietly. No response. He cracked the door open a little and peaked in, Vin's warning should not be taken lightly, Ezra hated to be woken up. He called the gambler's name again no answer. He left the door ajar to allow a little light in from the hall. He stepped into the room. Ezra slept on his left side facing the door. He had buried himself down in his quilt and pillow trying to protect himself from the winter's chill. Being from the deep south he did not appreciate the winters around here. Sanchez stared at the younger man, he appeared so calm and content. "Gawd Ezra I'm sorry." he muttered quietly resting his large hand on the sandy brown head. Standish even in his sleep shied from the touch. Josiah nodded silently to himself and left the room, quietly clicking the door closed. He stood outside the room for a moment. Christmas was only a few minutes away. When Christmas day came, he and the others were going to show that damn gambler and themselves the best Christmas any one of them had ever had. Josiah trudged down the steps in heavy thought, he just had to figure out how to do it.

Josiah did not have to do much figuring. It had been done for him. The next morning when he arose from his comfortable bed in his small room in the church the first thing he noticed was the chill in the air. He tossed a few small pieces of tamarack in his smoking wood stove. He shivered slightly as he prepared for the day and finally gazed out the window. "Well I'll be da.." He stopped himself and smiled.

When the giant ex-preacher entered the saloon he was not surprised to find Buck, Vin Chris and Nathan already sitting their sharing a cup of coffee. "Merry Christmas brothers." He cheerfully greeted them. Chris normally reserved did not return the greeting but anger clouded his countenance. Vin smiled and nodded his head, "Merry Christmas Josiah." Buck and Nathan greeted in kind. "Get a load of all that snow!" Buck said enthusiastically. "The kid is going to love it."

Nathan and the others peered at the ever cheerful ladies man and wondered who would actually enjoy the freak snow fall more, the young kid or the over grown kid now sitting beside them. "Speaking of which where is he anyhow?" Josiah asked pouring himself a steaming cup of coffee. "He's still sleeping." Buck answered. Just then the doors to the saloon swung open and the kid excitedly skipped in, "Hey you guys see all the snow?!" He bellowed. "No kid we walked over here with our eyes closed." Wilmington quipped.

JD squinted his eyes in mock anger and said, "shut up Buck."

"Merry Christmas JD" Sanchez chuckled holding up a cup of coffee in greeting.

"Oh Merry Christmas Josiah, guys." He glared at Buck a moment longer before breaking into a grin, then grabbed himself a cup of coffee and joined the others. Secretly he did not like coffee very much at all but the other men seemed to enjoy it so he had to try. After a few minutes JD could not take it anymore, "Ezra come down yet?" His only response was shaking heads. As foul a mood Standish had been in the last few weeks it would seem everything would come to a head today and nobody wanted to be near when it happened. He'd be more difficult to handle than a cornered badger with a bad tooth. "Maybe we'll be lucky and he'll sleep throughout the whole day." Buck chuckled. This earned him a withering stare from the preacher. "What!?"

Josiah chuckled sadly and shook his head and thought 'nothing, nothing at all.'

JD spoke up again, "You think he likes snow?" no one answered. Buck slapped the kid off the back of the head in annoyance. Wilmington had no idea why Josiah shot him an angry look, so he slapped JD. The kid dribbled his coffee some and shouted, "Hey!" He put his coffee down and shot out, "What ya do that for?"

"Cuz you deserved it." Buck smiled back, breaking the tension. JD glared at the older man getting up and leaving the saloon.

"Your amazing Buck." Larabee stated. In just a few minutes his old friend had managed to anger two companions. Then the saloon door opened again. Josiah automatically ducked, he had seen the mischievous look in JD's face when he had left. A snowball hummed across the room smacking Buck Wilmington on the side of the head. Buck had seen the whistling projectile coming toward him and only managed to turn his head. It hit with a reassuring thud. Chris and the others burst out laughing and the bewildered expression on Wilmington's face. Snow still clung to the side of his head melting in tiny rivulets down his cheek. "You did it now boy." He growled a smile playing at the corners of his mustached mouth. He pushed himself from the table and flew out the door that JD had just stood in front of tauntingly. Josiah and the others laughed. The fight was on in earnest.

Ezra woke to a pounding headache. His stomach flip-flopped. He tried to fall back to sleep but it was not going to happen. Standish eased further under his quilt, it seemed a lot colder this morning than it did.... He could not remember last night or yesterday. Gawd he wondered did he get drunk last night. He racked his brain but could come up with nothing, boy he had one heck of a hangover. As he laid there he realized his whole body ached as if he had been dragged through the streets. Ahh hell he figured, he might as well get up and face the day, see what embarrassing things he had done the night before, and what would have to be done to rectify it. Ezra slowly shaved and got dressed. He noticed the gash on his forehead. It hurt, probably the source of the headache and nausea. His knuckles had cuts and abrasions as did his elbows and knees. Definitely a fight. He discovered if he turned his head to fast he got dizzy. "What happened?" Standish hoped he had not gotten into a scrape with one of the other six. He was no fool he realized even if he had won the immediate scuffle he would loose in the end. Standish had no delusions about his place with the other men. He was odd man out, Ezra did not mind it really, it did not bother him, but at times it got tiresome. At times he just wished someone would back him up when he had words with one of the group. It seemed however that it never happened. A disagreement with one of the other six left him one against whoever else decided to join the fray. It kept him sharp, kept him on his toes he only hoped one day maybe Buck or Vin or somebody would stand on his side of the fence, see the world as he did, back him up when the others came down on him. He found solace in his cards. He liked his solitude but occasionally he would feel envious watching the others socialize and play enjoying each others friendship. Ezra stared at his pale features in the mirror, the whites of his one eyes had turned blood red giving him a ghoulish appearance.

"hope you didn't get yourself thrown out of another home." he whispered. Standish gingerly placed his black hat on and strode confidently out the door and down the steps to the saloon.

Josiah and Nathan both looked up when they heard someone on the saloon steps. They watched as Ezra climbed down the stairs. Jackson noticed he slid his hand along the rail, walking down the steps instead of his normal graceful skip. "Here comes trouble." Tanner grimaced, he wanted to leave and would have a year ago, but it would have been rude. Damn he, thought the gambler's getting to me. These manners and social graces are going to be the death of me, he thought. Sanchez noticed the pain expression in the trackers face. He figured Tanner would have got up and left. The preacher was slightly surprised when the tracker and Larabee stayed. Once down the steps Standish made his way hesitantly towards the men. Sanchez could not read his expression. "Morning Ezra." Jackson said.

Standish pulled out a chair and sat down, absently fingering the wound on his head.

"How's the head?" Chris asked. This took the gambler by surprise and he turned facing the leader of the seven men a confused expression held his face. He spoke cautiously "It's a bit tender, I'd feel better if someone could enlighten me as to what transpired which allowed me to acquire this unfortunate wound." The four other men now exchanged confused glances, "You don't remember what happened?" Tanner asked. Ezra raised an eyebrow and slowly shook his head, even that hurt.

"You got in a fight." Sanchez added, eyeing the gambler suspiciously.

Ezra looked from man to man waiting for them to continue, "with?"

Tanner finally asked, "you really don't remember anything?"

Standish thought for a moment, his eyes widened slightly and then he gazed over at Larabee, "You got me out of some unpleasant incarceration?" Larabee smiled tightly and nodded, "Yeah." he breathed. Finally Jackson filled in the story, "You got in a fight the other night with some railroaders in Eagle Bend, sheriff knocked you on the head tossed you in jail and we bailed you a few hours later." Jackson was not sure if he should throw in the unpleasant details of Well's ranch. Sanchez took over, "we then went to Nettie's for dinner." Ezra wrinkled his brow trying to recall something, and shook his head, "I ate dinner at Nettie's?" That did not seem likely. "No you skipped out without anyone knowing." Tanner added. Jackson then asked, peering carefully at the southerner's green eyes, they seemed responsive, "Do you know what day it is?"

Ezra stared at him for a moment trying desperately to find an answer and came up with none, he gently shook his head. No one said anything.

Standish stifled a yawn, it was early by his standards, anything before 10am was considered ungodly early. The others watched him for a moment, this was an unexpected twist. They were not sure what to do. Ezra stood up to get himself a cup of coffee when the saloon door flew open and twin snow balls hit him square in the chest. He stared at the snow at his feet and then up at the guilty party. Parties he corrected as he noticed Buck and JD standing red faced. They appeared as surprised as Standish. "What is this gentlemen?"

JD's worried expression turned confused, "Snow." Standish nodded his head and ran a booted toe through the melting ice. He glanced around his upper arm at the four men at the table a small wicked smile crept across his dimpled face. He gazed back up at the two assailants, no trace of a smile graced his clean features and uttered, "this is war." Buck read the deadly change in his victims eyes and did the only thing he thought he could, grab JD and bolt for the door. Standish sprinted after them.

Vin, Chris, Josiah and Nathan remained seated munching quietly on their respective breakfasts as if nothing had happened. "you think we should help Buck and JD?" Vin asked between bites of his biscuit. Josiah shook his head 'no' as he sipped his coffee. The sounds of intermittent cries could be heard as packed snow found its target. Strangely none of the overheard voices belonged to the conman. "I think Buck and JD are in over their heads." Nathan observed. A few more moments passed and suddenly someone slipped quietly in through the back door of the saloon. Ezra, red cheeked and suppressing laughter slid into his chair next to Vin. He took a biscuit from the center wicker serving basket and broke it open acting as if nothing was amiss. The others watched him quizzically. "What did you do with the other two?" Chris asked. Ezra stared up at the leader of the seven men, pausing in placing jam on the smoldering bread, and gave him his best innocent expression, "Why nothing dear sir." He turned his attention back to his biscuit and quietly added, "JD should be able to pull Mr. Wilmington from the drift in no time." Tanner did not bother hiding his smile. It seemed that the cunning sly gambler had returned to them.

Mary Travis entered the saloon her light blue inquisitive gaze quickly found the object of her search. Not that she had to look to far or to long. It was Christmas morning where else would Chris Larabee and the others be on such a morning. Mary understood that these men had no family, and holidays were particularly hard on them, but the men kept their own council and their own company. What had surprised her most was Ezra Standish, the normally polite, jovial southern gentleman, had become sour and angry. His mood only darkened over the last few weeks to the point the others needled him endlessly for it. She had over heard some of their comments and it made her catch her breath. They were friends, yet sometimes the southerner was a definite outcast. This holiday season only hit home just how much the others could ostracize him, but she mused, it also proved how much he allowed himself to be discarded. It had been Chris Larabee she worried most about, having experienced first hand what it was like to go through a holiday without a loved one. The pain burned a hole through your soul. It left you tired and hurt, wanting nothing but to be left alone in ones own private emotional hell. It was a hard hole to dig ones self out of and she had been determined not to let Chris Larabee slide down that deep abyss, not without one hell of a fight. Yet she found Chris handled the holidays with better demeanor and courage than she thought plausible. Ezra on the other hand had silently and in solitude fallen over the edge. She felt a pang of guilt, even she, like his companions had missed the subtle change until it slapped them full in the face. It seemed to late by then, he had dug himself such a hole it seemed no one would or could pull him from it, not in time to salvage the Christmas season, at least.

As Mary Travis crossed the saloon floor, she noticed the five men shared a quiet cup of coffee. A nasty laceration graced the gambler's normal impeccable countenance. His mood she noticed had also lightened, gawd she hoped Chris had not hit him in an attempt to knock some sense into him. No she mused probably not, but chuckled at the idea. Those two butted heads more times than Josiah bent nails hammering up boards at the church. Violence seemed to always be skirted by the ever diligent presence of the other five men. It normally consisted of them hauling the gambler out of a potentially dangerous confrontation, and most likely saving his quick witted butt from Chris Larabee's legendary wraith, more times than not.

"Hello gentlemen." She greeted smiling happily and then added, "why is Mr. Wilmington half buried in a snow drift?" This received chuckles around the table, and Vin answered, "Long story." Mary nodded and then turned her attention back to why she really sought the men out. She held a telegram that offered great news. The men waited patiently, Mary did not normally frequent the saloon so early in the day. She noticed Standish actually smiled and met her gaze, he appeared back to his old self. "The Judge and Catherine are coming today they should be here later this morning. They've asked that you all join us for Christmas dinner this evening." Her smile faltered. The men exchanged worried glances. Standish kept his smile on his face, unlike his compatriots. Nathan and Vin stole quick glances at him. He ignored them, his expression never faltering as he peered up at Mrs. Travis. Chris finally found his voice and answered for all of them, "We'll be there Mary." She nodded scrutinizing the men carefully, the only one not effected by the invitation appeared to be Ezra. "What time Mrs. Travis?" Josiah asked delicately, trying to gage how much time he had to persuade the stubborn southerner that he would attend dinner. She forced her smile, not understanding the sudden undercurrent that tore across the table. "Seven."

She turned to leave and then stopped and added, "Please extend the invitation to JD and Mr. Wilmington." Vin and the others smiled tightly.

Ezra turned his attention back to the biscuit he had yet to take a bite of, suddenly finding he had no appetite. Chris stared at the men around the table his gaze lingering on the conman. Ezra for his part seemed unperturbed by the sudden realization of what day he faced. Larabee did not have to have the skill of Maude Standish or her son to know that the gambler held his anger in check under the calm facade that rested over his features. Standish stared at his biscuit, pushing the small plate it rested on ever so slightly forward dismissing it like he had hoped to dismiss this damn holiday every time it came around. Standish sighed and stood up making his way to the bar. Christmas, it explained why Seth had abandoned his post this fine snowy day. The others watched him silently, his body language had not betrayed him, his facial expression had remained the same to all those who did not know him but something about the air around him did change. "Seven it is" Chris spoke just loudly enough for Ezra to hear as he reached over the bar top for a bottle of whiskey. Standish knew enough from his mother and his childhood that whiskey was not the solace one should turn to when angry. Today he could careless what his mother had taught him and as for his childhood, let it drown in the foul stew of alcohol. He heard Larabee's indirect order as he lay across the bar peeking under the counter searching for the fiery liquid, he muttered an angry, "Like hell."

Josiah did not over hear exactly what the gambler had to say but the challenging tone could not be mistaken. Here we go again. The preacher stole a glance at Larabee's ever broiling expression, his temper rising quickly. Larabee had only so much tolerance for self pity from others. Funny Josiah thought intolerance from the very epitome of self pity. Sanchez knew Larabee would drown his the painful memories of his wife and child in the same liquid retreat that the gambler now sought. The ex-preacher as well as the others had learned to steer clear of the gunslinger when his nightmares haunted his waking moments turning him into a very deadly individual. Now for the first time since the group had formed less than a year ago, Ezra Standish's ghosts surfaced and very little tolerance had been bestowed in his direction. Josiah knew the others reacted differently because the lithe gambler did not pose the same lethal threat that their leader could. Standish would not face unbeatable odds, he would not face down the other six men, like Chris or Buck or Vin would. It was because Chris, Buck, Vin and himself, Nathan and JD could find at least one ally in the midst of the other six, Josiah had no doubt of it. Ezra however did not feel such reassurance there was no reason for him to believe such an alliance could possibly exist for him. So,forever the gambler, he would wait for the cards to turn , reign his anger in and walk away until the odds, six against one, swayed or until the atmosphere lost its electrical charge and then he would return sometimes placing his bet and usually winning cards on the table, as long as he faced them only one at time, not six. These passed two weeks had piled up on him, he had tried to leave by seeking solitude in his own company, the others would not let him be, so he did the next best thing he left, temporarily, to wait the odds out, wait for the ghosts to settle back down, bide time for himself to gain control over the pain and fury which burned through him and yet the six even hauled him from that refuge. Now back in the same original place, facing the same odds with the same barely manageable ghosts Ezra Standish found himself facing insurmountable odds, six against one. Josiah wanted nothing more than to let him know he did not face his demons alone, if Ezra would just let them know how much he hurt or what he feared they would be there. Sanchez held no delusions, he knew enough about Standish's checkered past to know that dependency was as about as predictable as a rampaging grizzly. Josiah watched with dismay as the younger man found what he searched for pulling an unopened bottle of whiskey to the bar top, shot glass in his other hand.

Josiah's attention shifted when three railroaders entered the saloon and sidled up to the bar. Standish lost in his own misery turned and bumped right into one of the broad giants. Sanchez heard Ezra's sarcastic apology, it held no sincerity. Vin and Chris heard as well and Tanner muttered, "here we go again." The tracker was about to stand when Chris laid a restraining hand on the trackers arm. Vin gazed questionably at his friend who only shook his head 'no'. He clearly intended to wait and see what the card shark would do to avoid this building conflict. They were close enough to hear the conversation.

"Hey aren't you that smart mouthed reb that started that fight in Eagle Bend yesterday morning?" The other two men stood behind their friend ready to back him up. Standish did not bother peering to his right to the table his friends occupied, they would only step in if they had to save his life. Standish smiled, "I'm sure there are more than a few of us 'rebs' gracing this territory with our presence. And I doubt if you three have attained the level of conscious thought to judge the varying intelligence of others." His southern accent decidedly thicker and his anger and spitting sarcasm not cleverly concealed. The three coal shovelers paused for a second trying desperately to decipher what had been said. Finally the leader gave up on the battle of wits, knowing full well he would lose and turned back on what he did know. He shoved the gambler back a step. "Yeah, well we aren't as drunk as Tommy and them were lets see if you can do as well now?"

Nathan made a move to stand but again restraint was used, this time by Josiah. He gave the healer a warning look. They would not let this go to far, but both Sanchez and Larabee realized the gambler needed to blow off some steam. They would not allow the railroaders to hurt him to badly.

Standish smiled. These were odds he could handle. This was something tangible he could take his anger out on. Three against one always held better prospect than six against one. Josiah saw the smile and groaned inwardly, it was an expression he had seen before, but there was something devilish about it. Sanchez closed his eyes briefly, 'the cocky conman thought he held a winning hand.' "His cup has runneth over." Josiah intoned to no one in particular. Then Standish's soft southern voice rang out quietly softly, the amusement not disguised at all. "you three really want revenge for your friends?" He cut them off with an up held palm, before they could respond. He removed his jacket and vest, derringer and guns. The four peacekeepers watched with amusement, waving JD and Buck over to them before they could interfere with the festering conflict, as the other two peacekeepers entered the saloon. "I'll tell you what." Standish droned on, "I bet you ten dollars," he pointed to the first man, "you don't even land a punch." He stared passed to the second man, "you'll throw one punch, miss and then you'll go down. How bout another ten dollars?" To the third man he smiled broadly, "You will be a problem but will go down in the street, you may even get lucky and land a punch, but not two." Standish pulled a third ten out of his pocket. His cockiness bared for all to hear.

Buck leaned over to Vin, "What the hell is he doing?" Tanner shrugged and said, "getting himself killed." JD watched Ezra as if he had lost his mind, "Don't you think we should stop this?" Larabee shook his head, "He's a grown man, let him be."

Ezra held his thirty dollars up and faced the three men, "We'll let the preacher hold the bets, what'd ya boy's say?" The southerner handed the money to Sanchez making it a point not to look at the six men who stared at him with bewilderment.

The three railroaders no sooner handed their money to the preacher than Standish struck. What exactly he did, the others were not sure, not even the first man who cried out. One moment the spike pounder was standing and the next his left knee exploded with pain, then almost immediately a knee collided solidly with his groin his cry of pain suddenly changing pitch. He never felt the hands clasp the back of his head forcing his head down to the rapidly rising knee. The first railroader collapsed curled unconsciously on the wood planked floor with in a matter of a few quick seconds. The room hung silent for a pregnant second. 'Damn thought Larabee he even fights from the bottom of the deck' Chris watched slightly amused as the second man threw a clumsy punch which the nimble gambler easily parried and side stepped redirecting the meaty fist. He trapped the extended elbow quickly manipulating the joint, forcing the man's head down. He too quickly caught a knee with his jaw, falling just a few seconds behind his friend. Standish no sooner redirected his attention when the third man attacked. Ezra quickly pivoted as the lumbering giant lunged past him. Standish stood in front of the paned window not expecting the third man to be as agile as he proved to be. Turning on a dime the large man with arms extended rushed the smaller gambler. Ezra realized his mistake to late and tried to side step out of the way but caught the brunt of the tackle in the midsection whooshing the air from his lungs. Both men flew through the glass onto the boardwalk.

The six peacekeepers calmly stood up and followed the fight outside, stepping over the unconscious bodies on the floor.

Ezra hit the boardwalk scrambling from the slower moving attacker. He crab crawled under the hitching rail onto the road under a stationary wagon before regaining his feet, trying to create as much distance and time between himself and his adversary as he could, hoping to buy some time and get his wind back and vision cleared. He stood ankle deep in snow, a couple of inches of mud mired his footing below the snow. Standish did not notice the six peacekeepers casually stroll off the boardwalk to watch the rest of the match, instead the gambler's attention was riveted on the angry giant of a man who out weighed him by nearly a seventy pounds. Standish stood hunched over resting his hands on his knees trying desperately to fill his lungs.

"you 'bout had enough?" Standish breathed out smiling tauntingly at the man closing the gap. This urged the man on seething with anger.

Larabee just shook his head in resignation someday someone was going to knock that smug smile off the gamblers face.

The third railroader tried the same rushing tactic as before but this time Standish saw it coming and rewarded the other man with a sharp elbow to the kidney region as he successful stepped aside letting the man again rush past him. The explosive blow to the kidney region sent blinding spears of pain along his back causing the bigger man to throw his head back exposing his neck. Ezra saw his chance and took it. He jumped on the larger man's back quickly wrapping his arms around the neck and squeezing for all his worth. Standish did not acknowledge his environment or his six fellow peacekeepers nor the stage which rolled to a stop. Instead he concentrated on the task at hand, blocking out everything else, burying his head in his adversary's back avoiding the flaring arms. He held on for all his worth, wishing to the merciful god Josiah talked about, that the neck he held belonged to an uncle. Belonged to the persons who made his young life a living hell. He tightened his grip, gritting his teeth, because never again would someone threatened him, intimidate him or try to beat him, never again. He cinched down even tighter, felt the weight below him sway unsteadily, falter and then fall forward. Still Standish clung to the neck following it to the ground. Never again would he be discarded or mocked, or overlooked. His breath hissed between clenched teeth, his eyes clamped shut he hated Christmas.

"I'll be damned." Tanner muttered as the six watched the gambler take the third man down like a felled tree. No one moved watching Ezra slowly extract himself from the prostate man and climb warily to his feet. His sides heaved for breath. "Geez Ezra don't ever get that mad at me pard'" Buck intoned crossing the distance to the conman slapping him brotherly on the back. Josiah noticed for the first time in a few weeks a genuine smile crossed the sweating features, but the eyes remained wary. Sanchez waited patiently as Standish staggered over to him to collect his winnings. "I didn't think you did manual labor." Larabee intoned quietly a smile played at his lips. The revelry suddenly came to an end when the Judge cleared his throat.

"You boys mind telling me what's going on here?" Judge Travis had witnessed only the last few seconds of the fight from the stage coach window. He noticed the broken saloon window once he had exited the coach. He peered in through the broken pane at the two unconscious bodies that littered the saloon floor. He quietly but authoritatively made his way over to the seven peacekeepers. "Standish" he muttered under his breath, the young man was more trouble than an room full of litigators. Buck answered, "Ezra's just excising some demons Judge." The ladies man jovially explained to the wizened frontier Judge. Judge Travis merely nodded his head and turned to Larabee, "I hired you and your men to protect and clean up this town not" he turned and faced Buck and then Ezra, " 'excise demons' at the price of public property."

Sanchez watched as the ever familiar wall Standish hid behind suddenly dropped back into place. The careful smile quickly transformed into a sarcastic smirk. The preacher watched as Standish folded his winnings and was about to pocket it when Judge Travis stopped him with a pointed glare, "who threw the first punch?"

Josiah knew Standish had stood before the Judge in a court of law and had lost, the sudden realization hit him that out here in the street the results would be the same. "Well technically Judge the first punch was thrown by the unfortunate man in the saloon." Standish answered slyly. The Judges eyes narrowed, he had no patients for anyone who mocked or skirted the law. Standish made his living on the outer fringes of justice and therefore the Judge favored him least of all seven men. "Don't play games with me son." His voice dripped with venom. Ezra waited briefly for someone to collaborate his story but no one dared approach the Judge, not even the formidable Mr. Larabee. Sanchez knew Ezra held a losing hand and it seemed the gambler gleamed the same conclusion by his response, "And I'm not your son." he seethed back. Sanchez closed his eyes. The Judge took a threatening step forward. Any other man guilty or not would have stepped back creating distance between himself and the coming storm. Not Ezra, he had been guilty most his life for a crime real or imagined by those who were forced into guardianship over him. No, Judge Travis might carry the weight of all the territory but he did not hold the vicious brawn of his uncle. Judge Travis may be a formidable man but he was confined by the laws and the humanity of a decent person. Ezra did not fear his kind, not in a physical respect anyhow. "No you are not." The boiling fire from the Judges retort was cut off when Standish took on a bored expression, furthering the Judges anger. "Aww hell Judge, why don't we just skip to the chase, we've done this dance before, or don't you remember." Ezra did nothing to hide his frustration, he still faced six to one, no seven to one odds.

The six peacekeepers watched the scene with bated breath. Josiah took side long glances at his friends, they had never heard anyone speak to the judge as the gambler did now. Larabee appeared ready to rip the conman's head off. Buck created as much distance has he could from Standish without appearing to do so. The preacher noticed that the six stood slightly behind or adjacent to Judge Travis with Ezra facing the seven of them. Facing them very much alone, no one standing behind or beside him no one there to support him. Josiah felt his stomach tightened. How many times had Ezra thought he had someone to fall back on only to discover he hit the ground because no such ally really existed. Christmas, Josiah began to unravel, only revealed to the gambler how much alone he truly lived. Even now the others faced him in pairs, or threes. Not even Josiah having finally begin to grasp the magnitude of the ostracism the gambler experienced, not even Josiah crossed that imaginary line and stand beside the younger man.

Ezra glared at the Judge and then the other six, somehow it was easier to face his relatives than these men. Embarrassed and ashamed of his show of emotion and misplaced faith he stepped forward grabbed his hat from JD. Without making eye contact he turned and headed toward the sheriff's office, brushing the brim of his black hat angrily against his pant leg. The Judge stopped him with his voice, "You'll also have to pay for the broken window and any other property damage." Without turning around Ezra hung his head, shaking it with resignation. Ignoring the older Judge, Standish entered the jail.

"Judge it ain't his fault." Wilmington said, coming to the defense the gambler. Sanchez just wished Ezra could be there to witness it. The Judge nailed the gunslinger with a poisonous stare, "Were you there to witness the whole fight?"

"Well no.." Wilmington stammered. The Judge cut him off with an up raised hand. He faced the six men trying to control his temper. He smiled trying to bring some warmth back to his features. He shook his head, "That damn boy just pulls the proper reins to get my temper." Chris and the others laughed the tension finally fizzling away. He faced the six men he had hired and stated "My wife and I came here to enjoy Christmas with my grandson and his mother. We will discuss this the first of the week. Until then he stays behind bars." He said indicating with his chin to the jail.

"But Judge it's Christmas," Nathan intoned, pleading Standish's case.

"Yes it is and I expect you all for Christmas dinner." He turned on his heel and strode back to his wife. He stopped and glanced back staring straight at Larabee, "I am also aware of his proficiency with locks." Larabee scowled and nodded his understanding.

Five peace keepers sat quietly in the saloon, sharing a quiet drink and cards. JD had dejectedly made his way over to the jail. The three railroaders had long ago been revived and sent none to gently on their way warned never to set foot back in Four Corners again. Billy Travis entered the saloon cautiously, he had heard what had happened and twice in two days Mr. Standish found himself behind bars. This time his grandfather was responsible for the incarceration. "Billy." Chris intoned. A soft greeting. No one held malice toward the Judge. They had let the gambler enter the fight, they let the fight escalate and let the gambler get thrown back in jail. No one was responsible except for Ezra and his six friends. "Can we help you, son?" Josiah asked. He could feel the boy's hesitancy and wanted to ease his fears. "Actually mom." He paused. His mother would kill him if she knew he was doing this. "What about your mom son?" Chris asked gently.

"Well she's over at the hotel trying to make that big dinner for tonight but...."

"Does your mom need some help?" Nathan asked trying to articulate what the child wanted. The boy nodded wide eyed. How'd they know? Without further word the five men silently stood and went to the hotel to help.

JD watched as Ezra lay back on the cot his arm draped over his eyes. The gambler had all but ignored the sheriff. JD had tried to make conversation but Standish merely answered with grunts or single words. After awhile he just gave up. JD silently talked to his mother apologizing he had not had the happy Christmas he had promised her. He did not feel much like reading any novels so he took to staring out the window at the hotel. He had watched the other five enter the hotel a few minutes ago and silently wished he could be there too. He stared accusingly at Standish for a moment, his frustration directed at an easy target. But then JD realized it was not Ezra's fault. "Hey Ezra look everybody went into the hotel." He stared over at the gambler, "I wonder why." JD articulated gazing back out the window longingly wishing he could share in whatever they were doing. "Why don't you go and find out?" The soft southern drawl intoned.

JD sighed, "Can't Judge says you have to be watched because you can pick locks and he said tying the door isn't good enough either." It was Ezra's turn to sigh. He sat up and faced the boy. Standish did not mean to drag the boy down to his morose level especially at Christmas, it obviously meant a lot to him. "Go ahead I won't go anywhere." Standish said softly. JD stared at him with disbelief , Ezra finally added, "I promise JD I'll stay here all night. Now go." The gambler stated again. The young sheriff had known that Standish could talk an angel out of its wings but Ezra had never conned him or lied to him. Well at least not that JD was aware of. Standish smiled sadly at the boy. Even JD suspected he was up to something dishonest, and normally in a situation like this it would have been true. But not with JD. Ezra could not bring himself to take advantage of the kid, the others yes but not JD. With as much sincerity as he could, he softly added "My Christmas present to you JD I'll stay put." The large toothy smile that brightened the sheriff's face almost made Christmas worth the effort. "thanks Ezra." The kid paused and turned back the gambler who had lain back down. "Uhh Ezra I didn't get you anything for Christmas, knowing that you didn't like it an all. I didn't want you getting mad at me an all, I'm sorry." his voice sounded embarrassed and small

Standish sat back up and faced the youngster, "JD the fact you're willing to trust me is enough." he smiled sadly and laid back down. JD stared at him for a moment longer and then dashed out the door.

Mary Travis stood in the kitchen amongst a mess. Supplies laid strewed about, Mary ran a quivering hand through her unraveling blonde hair. It was late morning and she had no idea where to start. The Judge and his wife Catherine were upstairs getting settled in their modest rented rooms. Mary hoped the older calming woman would hurry down and assist her. Thank god Billy had gone out to play in the snow and let his mother alone to figure out how to work a miracle. Just then the kitchen door blew open. Mary turned a relieved smile plastered on her overwhelmed features, she expected to see Catherine instead she faced the six peacekeepers. "oh no' she breathed. "Not to worry Mrs. Travis, we're here to help." Buck Wilmington practically shouted as he and the others burst into the suddenly small kitchen. "God deliver me." She muttered her smile slowly faltering.

Catherine entered the kitchen area and found a whirlwind of activity. She nearly laughed out loud. Six grown tempered men fudging their way around the kitchen. A tornado would have left it more organized and a heck of a lot cleaner. "Hello Katie." Mary dodged bodies and bowls to make it to the door way to greet her mother in law. "I see you have help." The older woman chuckled. "Help is an interesting choice of words." Mary quietly intoned. Just then a body tried to politely nudge past the two women. "JD. you've come to help too?" The elderly Mrs. Travis asked amused.

"Yes ma'am." He answered as he stepped into the warm room. Chris happened to glance over when he heard the voice. He was doing his best to knead bread dough, the effort seemed fruitless. "JD?" the leader intoned when he spotted the sheriff, "you're suppose to be watching Ezra." All motion in the kitchen ceased and the other five men faced the youngest member of the group. "He promised to stay put." JD answered suddenly feeling very self conscious. He heard Chris swear under his breath and try to contain his anger. Buck shook his head quietly, JD could be so gullible. They never should have left him to watch over the slippery conman. "And you believed him?" Nathan asked incredulously. He thought JD smarter than that. "He promised. Ezra wouldn't lie to me. He said it was my Christmas present, said I could join you and he'd stay." JD could not understand why the others were so quick to believe that Standish would take advantage of him. Ezra was his friend. For JD Dunne that was enough.

"Jeez JD Ezra would promise the Devil ice water to get what he wants." Vin pointed out. No doubt the gambler was already headed out of town. Rotten brutal Christmas's or not Ezra had no right tricking the boy.' Tanner thought disgustedly, not on this holiday. Chris angrily pushed past JD, he had had it with Ezra Standish and his lying ways. Dunne hung his head, in the thick silence that befell the kitchen, that is until Buck Wilmington broke the ice. "git over here JD and start in on that dough."

Chris briskly strode across the slushy street. He would tear the gambler limb from limb. If that sorry son of a bitch wanted to feel sorry for himself then let him but Chris would not allow him to drag the rest of the others down with him. Larabee bounded up the board walk and slammed open the door bouncing it off the wall as it flew open rattling the window panes. The gunslinger was expecting to find an empty jail house. Instead he found Standish sitting on the cot tossing cards carelessly into his over turned black hat which sat a few feet from him on the floor. Chris stopped suddenly and paused. Ezra broke the silence with his soft saddened drawl. "Is there a problem Mr. Larabee?"

Chris did not answer right away. He had not anticipated this, not at all. Standish raised himself from the cot and crossed the floor collecting the majority of his cards from within the hat and the rest from the dusty cold floor. "Perhaps you thought I would have effected my own emancipation, once our Mr. Dunne had vacated the premises?" He questioned. Ezra never looked up, keeping his eyes cast down toward the floor. His anger had long been dispelled, only self inflicted loneliness filled his gut. Ezra did not understand why he kept everyone at arms length, they did not make it very hard so he succeeded easily. Instead he fell back into his old ways of dealing with people, keep them out, make them into marks and hope no one got to close. His uncles and cousins never got close to him but they had managed to hurt him, physically. He knew it was his own fault and he deserved most of what he received, but sometimes he wondered, sometimes he thought maybe just maybe he was not the worthless waif and unwanted child they had shown him to be. They had said he would never grow up, but if he succeeded in reaching adulthood he would amount to nothing. Here with the seven he had amounted to something, and for awhile he had worth. But these last few weeks they others proved they could hurt him as efficiently and if not worse than any uncle or cousin could. The difference was no bruises ordained his body, no ribs or bones protruded under meatless skin. They did not starve him out or beat him with hands or riding crops instead they twisted and trampled his insides. They taunted and mocked him to hurt him.

Or so Ezra Standish thought, not realizing the subtle differences between brotherly jabs and cruel intentions. Sometimes the lines blurred, but the line was always there and never crossed. For someone who had never truly trusted nor allowed himself to be trusted the line did not exist. Give and take and turn the other cheek were fine sayings that had only led to Standish always giving normally a pound of flesh, or another bruised cheek. His family taught him well. But these other six men, had slowly and unknowingly gently pushed and prodded him into the new game, a game of trust and friendship, the stakes higher but the pay off worth more than any monetary pot attainable. So Ezra held his head down, not out of shame, but anger. He did not want Chris Larabee to see how easily he could be pushed off keel.

Larabee watched the man before him. He was an enigma. A month ago Standish would have laughed or smirked things off. Lately everything stung him. Even now with his head down hiding his normally unreadable face, Chris could tell they had somehow damaged the fragile bond of friendship. Larabee did not understand it nor did he want to take the time. Ezra could be a stubborn bulled headed man, they all knew it but it usually presented itself with sarcasm and a smile along with a litany of polite refusals and excuses. Now however a cold wall was thrown up, no joviality and no civility. Hell, Chris thought, he's acting just like I do. Damn Chris mused he owes Buck and the others an apology. "Is there a problem Mr. Larabee." Ezra sat back down on the cot and prepared to toss more cards into the hat, then continued, " I gave Mr. Dunne my word and despite popular belief I will not break my word to the boy."

"I believe you Ezra." Chris said, settling down on the desk never taking his eyes off the gambler. Ezra's stomach growled loudly and he rubbed it absently. Larabee raised an eyebrow at the sound and remembered the gambler had not actually eaten breakfast. Dinner the night before was a fiasco, shoot he had not even eaten that day either. The day before that they had ridden all day in the saddle missing all meals. Chris figured the gambler had not had a decent meal in at least three days. He grimaced. Josiah had said the younger man was no stranger to hunger, apparently it was an old unwanted acquaintance. "You hungry Ezra?" Chris asked, already knowing Standish's answer but also readily aware of the truth.

"No." Standish muttered tossing the ace of diamonds into the hat. His stomach betrayed him by rumbling even louder.

"Ahhuh." Chris stood up and headed for the door. Then he stopped and faced the still downcast features, "I'm gonna see if I can't get the Judge to let you join us for dinner."

"I don't want to go." The southern accent seemed a might thicker and the obtuse overly large vocabulary missing.

"Good then the Judge may see that as the perfect punishment." Chris chuckled as he headed out the door, gently closing it muffling the litany of extensive wharf like language, the southern gentleman gambler could utter some very ungentlemanly like oaths. Larabee laughed as he crossed the boardwalk.

Chris poked his head into the kitchen and saw that four of the men worked diligently on trying to prepare the Christmas meal. Larabee grimaced this might not be the best meal he had ever had but both Mrs. Travis's held the reins and things seemed to move along smoothly. "Anyone seen the Judge?" He asked without preamble. Nathan spoke up pulling his attention away from something boiling on the stove. "He and Josiah are in the dinning room." Larabee nodded and left.

Larabee wondered why the preacher had taken such an interest in the gambler. Chris at first figured Sanchez was just trying to pull another lost soul back from the abyss. However, now it did not seem to be the case. Josiah took Ezra on as a personal challenge. The conman normally just irritated the larger older man by flagrantly pursuing his sinful ways. Josiah was not a stream line preacher but his beliefs were well rooted. Josiah did not heed convention and found it a hindrance, then a gun toting preacher who discussed and held beliefs in many religions did not easily fit into the mainstream. Sanchez suited the seven men just fine, he was as proficient with a gun as he was with the bible. The older man also proved to be the cool unbiased mind when the fat it the fire within the group. He displayed it again yesterday, though he had lost his temper he had in his straight forward way pointed out where the others 'strayed'. Chris would not have put it past the preacher to slam a couple of heads together to knock some sense into them. Larabee could not figure what had spurred the preacher to act so protectively over the elusive conman. Standish on many occasions made it very clear throw numerous actions and words that he could take care of himself. But this past Christmas season a burden seemed to have befallen Josiah and it came in the name of Standish. This season, a time of joy and friendship and family the most unexpected of the seven fell victim to the pain of Christmas. This surprised Larabee because normally he'd crawl into a bottle and drink the holiday through coming to his senses with Buck hanging around, nursing his friend from a bad drunk. This however was the first Christmas the seven had spent together and Larabee found comfort in the other men. A family of sorts, not a replacement for the precious ones he had lost but something to help fill the void that nearly swallowed him every year. They were a life line of sorts. Why then did the gambler fight it with such vehemence?" Chris entered the dinning room.

The Judge and Josiah both peered up at the intrusion. "Mr. Larabee is Mr. Standish still incarcerated?" Chris crossed the room and took a seat across from the two men, "He is."

"Don't you think someone should watch over him and make sure he does not jump bail again." The Judge paused and added, " he has made a habit of it."

"He gave JD his word." Chris met Orrin Travis in the eye and added, "he'll keep his promise to the boy." The judge merely nodded. "Mr. Sanchez has just been pleading his case." He pointed the leader of the seven with a steely gaze, "are you here to do the same thing?" Chris smiled and nodded to the preacher, "Only if Josiah's silver tongue has failed him." Larabee then added, "At least allow him to come to dinner." The Judge seemed to contemplate the idea for a moment and then added, "he's busted up two saloons in two days, I hope you two can guarantee that tonight he will behave himself." A smile crossed Larabee's hardened features. He had seen the look in Josiah's face. The preacher had taken the southerner on as his personal project, Ezra would behave whether he knew it or not.

Vin bounded up the boardwalk and entered the jail. He threw open the door finding Ezra still sitting on the cot playing solitaire. The tracker not one to mince words said, "come on Ezra Judge says you can come on out." Standish glanced over at Tanner and then back to his cards. "Ezra quit wasting time, Judge says you're suppose to join us for dinner."

"I'd rather stay here." Ezra maneuvered a card on the cot another step closer to winning this hand.

"You are an ornery bull headed son of a bitch aren't you?" Tanner said the smile that played at the corners of his mouth belayed the seriousness of his words. Standish caught the smile and chuckled in return, "Well Mr. Tanner that is the most I've heard you say in two days." Ezra gathered his cards and gracefully made his way over to the cell door.

"If I'm not mistaken Mr. Tanner dinner is not until 7 this evening why bother me now?" The thought of a meal made Standish's stomach growl loudly. Damn how could he play his hand if his body kept giving up tells. Vin cocked an eyebrow. He wished the others had sent someone else and not him. He liked the gambler well enough hell trusted him to back them up when lead started flying but he did not want to make the request the others had put him up to. How'd he draw the short straw anyhow. Someone had to have cheated. "Well actually we need your expertise." It was now the gambler's turn to raise a questioning eyebrow. "Oh really and what pray tell could that possibly be."

Vin found his hands suddenly very interesting, he hoped Standish would not blow up. No two ways about it he had been more unpredictable than sweating dynamite and just as explosive. Tanner paused and took the plunge, "We need help with making dessert." There was a heavy silence and finally and incredulous, "What?"

Vin sighed and repeated, "no one knows how to make pie, especially pumpkin." The tracker peered up hesitantly and found the gambler smiling, a toothy smile, a 'what's in it for me smile'. Tanner answered, "you agree to make the pies and join us for dinner and you'll not have to come back here til tom. at least." Standish seemed to contemplate this for all of two seconds and said, "agreed."

"Good." The tracker stood, making no motion to find the keys and unlock the doors.

"Aren't you going to be kind enough to unlock the door for me kind sir." Standish said leaning on one leg. "Ahh hell Ezra you can have that door unlocked before I could manage to find where JD hid those keys and do it myself."

Tanner no sooner finished speaking than Ezra had the cell door swinging open.

"How'd you learn to do that?" Vin asked as the two men headed out the door.

"My mother." the simple explanation.

The Judge, Chris and Josiah sat in the dinning room discussing the events of the last few months when a ruckus was heard from the kitchen. The day had slowly been cast into the long growing shadows of early evening. All three men stared at the kitchen door, none moving. Ignorance sometimes was bliss.

In the kitchen things started heading south. JD in an attempt to put the pies he and Ezra just finished into the oven. He inadvertently bumped Buck causing the flour covered lady's man to spill the ingredients in the bowl he carried. Wilmington made to spin away from the impending collision and dumped the sticky contents of the bowl right into Jackson's midsection. Nathan stood stock still, holding two raw eggs in either hand, mouth gaped open as egg oil and sugar soaked through his clothing. No one made a sound until a soft snort and then giggle broke the silence. Jackson's eyes narrowed as he turned his attention to the laughing conman, "You think this funny?" Standish held his stomach, tears streaming from his eyes, trying hard to control his laughter shaking his head no as his shoulders shook. "Oh yeah well see if this is funny." Jackson threw a raw egg, which the gambler easily ducked. Nathan nearly lost his footing in the slippery mess that covered the floor and smashed the second egg inadvertently on Buck. This sent Dunne into fits of laughter. Wilmington responded by dumping a sack of flour on the young sheriff. Standish witnessed this and without thinking tossed whipped cream at the gunslinger giving JD time to make a hasty retreat. The whipping cream hit Vin Tanner right on the side of the head. The fight was on. JD and Ezra in their opinions had Nathan, Buck and Vin pinned on the other side of the kitchen, of course Buck Vin and Jackson believed they had the two offending bakery cooks just where they wanted them. Projectiles crisscrossed the kitchen, Mary and Catherine quickly ducked out of the kitchen avoiding the war all together.

The Judge, Chris and Josiah watched as Mary and Catherine made a quick retreat from the kitchen. Judge Travis could not be sure but he thought he saw a mound of uncooked bred dough sail through the air. A soft wet smack was heard followed by a groan. The three men stood and headed toward the battle ground. This was going to come to a stop. The female Travis's stood outside the war zone hands over their mouths laughing. This was along time coming. The men were tired and unaccustomed to the rigors of life in the kitchen, they were heading toward an explosion. The Judge and Chris breezed past the two women and headed into the kitchen to put an end to the shenanigans. "I wouldn't..." Mary started but Chris silenced her with a look. She merely shrugged. Josiah was not fool enough, she noticed, to enter the lions den.

Ezra made a mad dash along the counter, throwing raw dough at the three assailants somewhere on the other side of the counter. JD close on his heels. The southerner stood and sprinted for the kitchen door but could not get his footing on the slick floor. He found himself totally exposed unable to move. Then Buck charged and hit him with a flying tackle. Both men hit the floor with a whoosh of air and slid on the near frictionless surface toward the kitchen door. The Judge and Chris stepped in and allowed the door to shut when a sliding strangle of body's hit them just below the knees toppling both men into the mix. Everything stopped.

Josiah pulled the door open and the sight that revealed itself left Catherine and Mary Travis in stitches. A pile of bodies lay entangled with each other on the floor in a corner created by one counter and the wall. Judge Travis lay on top of Larabee who smothered Wilmington and under it all on his side wheezing for breath Standish. No one moved. The only sound the soft forced breaths of the gambler. Judge Travis extracted himself from the bodies stood and nearly went down again unable to get sufficient footing on the slick floor. Josiah steadied him. Chris shot Buck a deadly glare which was lost on the lady's man as he tried to figure out where the two extra bodies came from. Josiah hauled Chris up. "What the hell is going on in here?" Chris demanded. Staring from the sheepish JD toVin and Nathan and then to Buck. Wilmington rolled over and sat on the ground leaning against the wall trying to catch his breath. Standish slid himself against the counter and delicately sat up trying hard to get his wind back. "Standish!" The Judge hissed. Figured the southerner was at the bottom of all this, he wasn't even out of the cell for more than a few hours and trouble already found him. The Judge threw withering glares at Josiah and Chris. Ezra for his part stared innocently up at the older Judge and smiled his best dimpled grin and said, "Pies are just about done." Uproarious laughter rocked the small room.

Two hours later found the kitchen clean and the seven peace keepers and the Travis family sitting down to a Christmas meal. Josiah sat beside Ezra bound to keep the wiry southerner is his chair and out of trouble. If he could only find away to get him to keep his mouth shut. Though tonight at this meal it did not seem to be a problem. Despite the debacle in the kitchen and all the laughter Standish had clammed up again trying very hard to become invisible. The dinner finally silenced the conman's grumbling stomach. Roast, potatoes, bread and vegetables adorned the table. Billy Travis sat between his mother and Chris at one end of the table. On the other end sat Judge Travis and to his right his wife. Buck sat beside JD with Vin on the other side of the boy sheriff and to the left of Chris. Nathan sat beside Mary and to his right Ezra then Josiah. Light dinner conversation graced the table, Josiah noticed Standish, very out of character, avoided any conversation. He kept his eyes down cast, very interested in his plate, but managed to sneak glances around the table, almost afraid someone would speak to him. Sanchez did not say anything, it was a feat just getting him here. He had to dog the gambler all evening to make ensure he showed up. Josiah would leave nothing to chance.

Buck told humorous stories about Chris and himself as boys growing up especially about the audacious things they did around Christmas time. Orrin Travis was amazed either man made it to adulthood. The events alone should have killed the two youngsters and if they did not their parents should have finished them off. Soon Catherine had the men open up and talking, asking each of them about their favorite Christmas's and such. JD spoke of sledding on Beacon Hill down to the water front and how the harbor would only freeze on the coldest days of winter. Nathan spoke whimsically of his father and the other slaves and how they would read the bible and sing finding solace in each other company. Vin smiled and told of a time he spent with a family who had found him after he ran away from the orphanage. Josiah noticed Standish trying to melt down and vanish somewhere in the chair. Sanchez wanted to protect the younger gambler but did not know how to do it without appearing obvious. The ex-preacher did the best he could and staved off the invasive questioning for the gambler by speaking next.

Proper manners dictated that Ezra stay seated, he argued with himself, trying very hard to forgo the pretense of a gentleman and run from the table. His past was his own and for no one else even if the interrogator was a fine dignified woman. She had no right asking, prying such information from her dinner guests. He suddenly felt Josiah nudge his arm. Ezra pulled himself out of his panicky thoughts and heard Catherine Travis inquire about his favorite Christmas. His stomach dropped, he thought he would vomit up all the food he just ate, sweat beaded his forehead. He dare not glance around the table at the others. For awhile in the kitchen it had not been six against one, the odds were not as bad as he had thought them to be, but now it was almost to much. Standish leaned forward and smiled carefree at the older woman and thought about telling her the biggest lie he could think of and caught the innocent look of JD. Aww hell. His face neutral the smile never faltering, he began speaking. His gentle southern drawl masking the anxiety that was nearly turning him inside out. "When I was younger, much younger than Mr. Billy Travis here, my father gave me a harmonica." It really was not a Christmas gift, but a gift none the less, the only thing his father had ever given him. The others stared at him questionably. Almost like they did not believe him, he met their looks almost daring them to question him. It was Catherine who raised the question, "A harmonica?" Standish smiled sweetly. He was really beginning to detest this woman's persistent invasiveness. "Why yes engraved and everything."

"What did it say?" JD asked. Ezra never, never mentioned his father, in fact no one knew if he were still alive or not, or if Ezra ever got a chance to know his father. But for some reason no one asked about him and Standish never volunteered information, until now. Ezra never lost his smile, he should have lied, he mused. "It was engraved with 'to Roger from Uncle Clay'. The others stared at him very perplexed. Finally Judge Travis had to ask, "Why that?" Standish leaned passed Josiah and met the Judge eye for eye and honestly answered with a wicked smile , "Why because, Judge, he did not purchase it for me, he relieved the engraver of it without his knowing."

"he stole it?" JD asked incredulously. It was Standish's turn to appear shocked and bewildered which he pulled off convincingly for the others, "Of course he did how else would he have acquired it?" The Judge closed his eyes and shook his head in resignation. He did not stand a chance against instilling a sense of honesty in an upbringing like that one. Buck and the others laughed. Sanchez patted the younger man on the back.

After dinner they had moved into the parlor for social drinks and cigars. Laughter came easily to the group. JD tinkered on the piano slowly falling into the spirit of things and started playing Christmas carols softly. As his confidence grew so did the music. It floated effortlessly across the room adding to the close Christmas feeling. Ezra stifled yet another yawn. He thoroughly enjoyed his meal and the companionship, truth be told this had to be the best Christmas he ever had the pleasure of participating in. The full stomach, warmth from the fire and the brandy that flowed through his veins began to take their toll. He hid another yawn, his eyes watered. He slid out of the parlor to the darkened small sitting room, a couch stood against the wall. He waited a moment letting his eyes adjust to darkness. Ezra thought he would just lay down on the couch and close his eyes. He'd just lay here a minute and then go join the others. He curled his arm under one of the throw pillows and nestled down on his left side facing the room and his eyes fluttering closed.

Vin noticed the gambler was missing. He discreetly nudged Nathan, both men held small glasses of whiskey. "Where's Ezra?" Tanner knew that the gambler would high tail it out of there the first chance he could. Jackson took a furtive glance around the room and shrugged, "I don't know." Nathan was slightly disappointed he really thought Ezra enjoyed himself this evening. Jackson hoped he had, the healer felt terribly guilty for what had happened over the past few weeks and felt responsible for some of the pain and loneliness he knew Ezra had to feel. Though today did not start out very well it seemed to have steadily improved. Maybe he was wrong, maybe Standish still loathed them and the holiday. Tanner seemed to have read his mind, "I thought he was having a good time too." Vin mused maybe that was why he could not best the conman in a simple game of cards, the tracker simply could not read the man. Josiah and Chris made their way over to the two men, " Either of you seen Ezra?"

Chris asked, disappointment hung heavy in the question. They shook their heads 'no.'

The absence of the gambler did not go unnoticed by the Travis's either. "It seems Mr. Larabee, Sanchez your charge has slipped through your grasp." The Judge intoned standing next to his wife and daughter in law. Billy hung sleepily to his mother's leg. "Ezra lasted longer than I thought he would have, he probably just went back to his room." Josiah answered hoping Standish had not skipped bail. "no he didn't he's sleeping on the couch." Billy said perking up. Youngster had watched as Mr. Standish laid down on the couch and go to sleep. Billy knew his grandpa was mad at Mr. Standish and he did not want Mr. Standish to get in anymore trouble. Billy suddenly found all the adults gazing down at him small smiles on their faces. Chris knelt in front of the boy, "Where is he?" Billy merely shrugged and pointed toward the sitting room, "in there sleeping." He then added, "I gave him 'Lightening' to sleep with so he wouldn't be scared." Chris stood up and faced Mary with a questioning look, "The horse you carved for him last spring, he calls it Lightening." Mary explained slightly embarrassed.

Her embarrassment would not near reach the levels of that of Mr. Standish. Josiah and Kathleen entered the room leaving the door ajar allowing small amount of light into the room. Sanchez gazed down at the sleeping form, he hadn't even stirred. His chest rose in fell in the shallow rhythm of deep sleep. Tucked securely under his arm lay Lightening. Mrs. Travis suppressed a bemused chuckle and spread an afghan over the sleeping form. She motioned the preacher out of the room. The door was gently clicked closed. "Ma'am we should probably wake him and get him back to his room." Josiah said as they headed toward the parlor to join the others.

"No leave the boy be. If he wakes later he can find his own way back. Let him sleep, from what I understand the last few weeks have been less than kind." Sanchez bit his lip in shame. He should have recognize it a lot earlier, not have two weeks pass. The group socialized into the late evening early morning. As if by mutual agreement the six men decided it was time to take their leave. Chris carried Billy in his arms the boy nestled his head comfortably against Larabee's shoulder. Orrin and Catherine could not help but notice how natural the two fit together. They silently prayed that the gunslinger and Mary would find the gentle trust and love young Billy placed so easily in each of them. JD was guided out by Buck the young Sheriff exhausted from the days events. Tanner nudged Nathan in the ribs, "You gunna go wake up Ezra and send him home?" The healer did a double take at the tracker as if the younger man had lost his mind. "Are you crazy I ain't wakin him up. You go git'im" Tanner had a friendly but stern retort on the tip of his tongue but Mrs. Travis halted it quickly and quietly, "Leave him be, we'll wake him for breakfast tomorrow." She gazed to Mary, "Lets say 7:30am we'll have breakfast ready for you?"

Buck stifled a yawn, "Would you like some help?"

Orrin Travis's wife immediately raised both hands in a defensive position and laughed, "No please no more help." The others chuckled quietly said their good byes and left the older Travis couple.

Orrin Travis watched silently from the doorway as his wife sat on the coffee table watching the gambler sleep. She leaned over and brushed hair off his forehead. Standish would have been the approximate age of their son, Steven. His mother still missed him dearly especially on the holidays. Each day Billy looked more and more like his father, reminding his grandmother of her loss. Billy brought joy to their lives everyday, mimicking his father in an uncanny fashion. Orrin found his wife gazing longingly at the young boy, herself lost in the memories of her late son's childhood. Now on the morn after Christmas, Catherine Travis quietly tried to comfort her aching heart by reaching out to a lost lonely soul. The Judge knew the others would have been more than willing to shuffle the conman back to his room but Catherine wanted him to remain. She needed to feel the presence of a surrogate son nearby. How Standish fit that role the Judge be damned. But fit it he did, his Steven had nothing in common with the gambler except his age. It seemed enough for Catherine, she needed a son and the conman a mother. For a holiday, the void had been filled, though only Catherine Travis seemed consciously aware of it. Standish's reputation for sleeping like the dead, did not appear to be an exaggeration, the Judge smiled and retired to his room. His wife followed only a few minutes later unaware she had been observed by her caring husband.

Seven am found the six peace keepers milling around waiting for breakfast. Buck and JD tried to set the table but kept arguing about where the knives should be placed in relation to the spoons. "Maybe you two should go ask Ezra?" Vin pointed out. He never could understand why people had to use so many utensils to eat. A knife and spoon should be all that was needed, and a spoon not truly needed. "Oh no Ezra." Nathan said quietly, "anyone wake him up yet? or did he make it back to his room?" No one spoke but looked to each other hoping someone had an answer. "One way to find out." Buck said. He grabbed Vin by the arm as the tracker sipped hot morning coffee, "Come on Vin." and led him to the sitting room's closed door. Josiah smiled when he heard Vin ask, "Does he have his guns with him?"

Standish slept with his back to the room, curled somewhat under the afghan. 'Lightening' lay on the floor. His stocking feet stuck out from under the blanket and an arm curled under the small square pillow he used. "Looks kind of peaceful doesn't he?"

"So doesn't a rattle 'til you disturb it." Tanner responded. Buck nodded, true very true. Buck gave way to the better part of valor and stood back out of striking range, "Hey Ezra, Ezra time to get up." No response. Vin walked around to the back of the couch and leaned down holding his steaming cup of coffee in front of the conman's nose. He knew Standish could not smell the coffee since olfactory senses did not work when one slept but the steam produced the desired effect. Standish wrinkled his face swiped absently at his face and rolled over. "Ezra time for breakfast." Wilmington said sitting on the coffee table exactly as Mrs. Travis had the night before, prodding the white shirted shoulder. "Git away from me Buck." The southern drawl took a particularly nasty twist. Buck would not be so easily threatened, "The Judge and his wife are expecting us for breakfast in a few minutes." Tanner answered as Buck peeled one of Standish's eyelids back. Ezra swiped at the hand annoyed, still not opening his eyes voluntarily. "I don't care I don't want breakfast." Standish could not fathom why they bothered him now surely they understood he never ate breakfast in the morning if mornings could be avoided. Tanner raised an eyebrow at Wilmington, Buck shrugged and then smiled slyly, "well ok but how long do you intend to sleep on their couch? Not all day I hope." This produced the desired affect. Standish's dull green eyes snapped open, widely as he tried to focus on his surroundings. Instead he found Buck smiling down on him like the Cheshire cat. The gambler noticed one thing right off he was not in his own room and suddenly the events of the night before came rushing back. "Good lord." He breathed out jumping to his feet too fast. His body unaccustomed to morning and still not awake, swayed and he would have fell but Buck and Vin steadied him and sat him back down. "Easy Pard breakfast isn't until..."

"Guys breakfast is up!" JD yelled from the other room. Tanner smiled it still was not seven thirty. Buck looked over to Vin, "Gotta teach that boy not to yell in the house."

Ezra rubbed his face trying hard to wake up but his eyes burned and it seemed so easy just to lay back down. "You heard him lets go Ezra." Vin and Buck hauled him back to his feet and led him toward the door each holding his upper arms so he could not squirm away. "Wait I can't sit at the table like this, I haven't even washed." Standish peered down at his wrinkled shirt and pants, "I slept in these clothes, I'm not presentable."

Tanner chuckled, for someone like Ezra appearances meant everything, "Hell Ezra even on your worst day, which this one is close, you look better kept than us."

Buck tried to push down the sections of Standish's chestnut brown hair, which, stood up on end. To no avail, it popped right back up. "Besides you slept on their couch with Billy's doll, I don't think they'd really care if your hair is sticking up."

"Doll?" Standish groaned, what had he done to embarrass himself now. Vin held up the carved wooden horse Chris had made for Billy and handed it to Ezra, "Billy might want it back now that your done using it." Tanner and Wilmington laughed outright enjoying Standish's blushed embarrassed countenance.

The three men took their respective seats at the breakfast table. "Nice hair Ezra." JD intoned smirking. Standish patted his head and felt all the places it stuck out in. He groaned to himself wishing suddenly a gunfight would break out in the street and save him from more humiliation. that was not to be the case. "Mr. Standish do you have Lightening?" Billy asked from his seat between Mary and Chris. Mary Travis hid her smile by casting her eyes downward at her lap but could not hide the shaking shoulders of laughter. Chris breathed out a chuckle and raised both eyebrows. Young Billy Travis having missed the bright smiles and not understanding the strange pained expression on the gambler's face added, "That's if you don't need him anymore." Tanner grunted in suppressed laughter beside the gambler while Buck hid behind his coffee mug. Ezra finally reigned in his emotions placed a friendly smile on his face and reached across the breakfast table handing the small boy his carved horse. "Thank you Mr. Travis your generosity is most welcomed and your kindness unsurpassed." Billy had no idea what Mr. Standish said but it sounded like a thank you. "Glad to be of help." He responded in kind as he had so often heard the gambler say when dealing politely with others. The table erupted with grunts and snorts as laughter escaped. It was Billy's turn to become red, "Ignore my compatriots Billy they do not appreciate unselfish acts such as yours." Ezra did his best to ignore the others as a grin creased his dimpled face. He reached for a biscuit and jam, leaning close to Josiah, "I will get even with you for this."

"Me?" Sanchez asked quietly alarmed. Catherine Travis caught Ezra Standish's eye and winked. Ezra returned it with a genuine smile. Christmas did not seem so horrible if friends were close by.

Orrin Travis watched the exchange. Had it been yesterday or the day before he feared Standish would have been angered beyond reasoning. But today was not Christmas, and last night he had a family. Funny, the Judge thought, how far a little kindness could reach. Sanchez had said the gambler teetered on the edge of self destruction, lashing out at anything or anyone who threatened him, the last few days. An age old defense mechanism ,the Judge had seen it countless times before in people and most of those spent time behind bars. Lost angered souls striking out against everyone. Standish had been there, struck out to relieve the pain that ate him, much like Larabee sought solace from a bottle. As to often happened, the anger remained, and victims left behind. Time behind bars would not help the gambler, or teach him anything, that much the Judge knew. Instead he witnessed the strength of a gentle touch and a warm smile. Orrin Travis always suspected, no, knew, sometimes a kind word or a second chance was all one needed. The Judge had been burned to many times to believe in it anymore, until now. As he watched the gambler shrug off the insults and jabs and actually laughed with the verbal onslaught, Travis knew the gambler would not spend any more time in jail for the two saloon brawls. He paid his dues in spades, not because of his past, all the men who stood before the Judge had hard luck stories. Ezra would avoid more jail time because he accepted help, though begrudgingly, and pulled himself back from the edge, with a lot of help from some good friends. Orrin Travis chuckled, listening to the insults fly across the table, Catherine joined him with a knowing smile, it was good to have family.


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