Second sequel to "Second Childhood."
by Jean Williams
Sadly Jean is no longer with us, but we're sure her daughter, Jenn, would love to hear from you if you enjoy this story
Disclaimer: Ah, if only they were mine, but, alas, they're not. Unfortunately, the privilege of ownership of "The Magnificent Seven" characters belongs to the Mirisch Corp., Trilogy, and MGM, and no infringement on the copyrights held by them is intended. I merely wish to dust the boys off and bring them out to play occasionally for the entertainment of those of us who still miss them dearly.
Warnings: strong language, violence, disturbing dream sequences, angst, h/c, and a healthy dose of smarm.
Additional Warning: /// denotes a nightmare scene, parts of which are very intense.
Notes: Yes, folks, after a year of frustration and fighting to regain the urge to write, all it finally took to end the story to my (and I hope, your) satisfaction was a mere 18 pages. I know there are 1 or 2 slightly unresolved issues, but I felt they would be better dealt with in separate stories. My most humble apologies to those readers I left hanging a year ago, and my sincere thanks to those of you who didn't give up on me.
Back to: The Fishing Trip
Ezra sat up quickly and stared blearily around him, groaning as he realized he'd had another nightmare. Where was he? He couldn't remember what had… wait… his head turned slowly as he looked around, taking in his surroundings as he tried to recall where he was and why. A shape wrapped in a bedroll on the other side of a brightly blazing campfire… the soft whickering of their horses tethered a short distance away… the moonlit darkness that left shadows playing at the edge of the firelight. His gaze drifted back to the sleeping form across from him… Buck He was with Buck.
Finally he remembered. They had delivered a prisoner to Jasper and were on their way back home. This was their second night on the trail and they'd camped near a shallow stream amongst a grove of pine trees, choosing the spot because the pine needles carpeting the ground made their bedrolls a little softer, a little easier on their tired bodies.
Ezra stared into the fire, struggling to remember the details of his nightmare as he awaited the inevitable. Maybe he would get off lucky this time... maybe it would end with the dream. But just as the images from his nightmare began to dance across the fringes of his mind, he felt it… the first stab of pain… and he knew it was going to be like every other time… the headache was coming.
The gambler glanced once more over at Buck before quickly untangling himself from his blankets and rising unsteadily to his feet. Another pain struck just as he reached the shadows surrounding the camp site, and he stumbled as it momentarily blinded him with its ferocity. Ezra swallowed an anguished cry and clasped his head tightly in his hands as the pain seemed to rip through his skull, leaving him gasping for breath as he staggered away from the camp and made his way slowly toward the beckoning cool water of the stream.
Collapsing weakly on the thick grass that covered the banks of the creek, Ezra leaned forward and shakily scooped up some of the cold water, bathing his temples with it in an effort to ease the agony that was building there. As another pain lanced through him, he bit down on his lip, tearing the soft flesh in an attempt to muffle the groan that rose from deep in his throat. Ezra cried out weakly and then gagged as blood flooded his mouth and began trickling slowly down his chin. He raised his hand to wipe it away, but stopped and clutched desperately at his head as a continual wave of throbbing pain assaulted his senses… pounding relentlessly until his whole world was reduced to a single thought… <<make it stop… God, please just make it stop!>>
Buck stirred and stretched, his head emerging from the nest he'd made of his bedroll and blankets. He reached up and ran his hands across his face, trying to wipe the sleep from his eyes as he looked around the camp. Something had woken him, but he wasn't sure what it had been. A sound? While his eyes scanned the area where the horses were staked out, his hands moved to buckle his gunbelt around his waist. Palming his Colt cautiously, he stood and moved around the campfire to where Ezra had been sleeping.
"Ezra… you awake?" Buck whispered as his eyes continued to search the darkness for anything moving. He listened carefully for a repeat of the sound that he was sure had awakened him as he nudged at the gambler's blankets with his foot. "Ezra...."
Buck risked a quick look down at Ezra's bedroll and started in surprise when he saw the blankets were thrown back, and the man was gone. Again his eyes scanned the darkness, now searching the shadows for any sign of his friend. "Ezra… where the hell are you?" His hoarse whisper went unanswered.
He started to move around the campfire toward the horses, but stopped suddenly as he heard a noise coming from the direction of the stream. He turned and began walking slowly along the path that led from their campsite toward the water… his eyes peering through the moonlight for any signs of the Southerner.
"Ezra, if you're out here you better not be gettin' ready to use that damned pea shooter on me." Buck paused for a moment as a low groan drifted across the night air. "Ezra? That you?" He listened carefully, a worried frown covering his face. "Come on, pard... talk to me, let me know where you are."
Buck's voice penetrated the haze of pain that Ezra was existing in, but the most he could manage in response was another low groan and a barely whispered, "Buck...." He'd left the campsite because he didn't want the gunfighter to see him like this, but the pain was so intense now that he was beyond caring who saw him suffering... he just wanted someone to make it go away.
Buck heard the groan and the gambler's voice whispering his name, and moved in the direction he thought the sounds had come from. His eyes carefully searched the creek bank and finally spotted Ezra curled up in a ball, his arms wrapped tightly around his head. Buck kept his gun ready and looked carefully around for any signs of trouble as he hurried over and knelt down next to the younger man who was rocking back and forth and moaning softly. "Ezra... can you hear me, pard? What happened... ya been shot?" He tried to pull Ezra's hands away from his head, but stopped when the Southerner cried out and tried to jerk away from him. Buck leaned down closer and whispered urgently in his friend's ear. "Come on now, Ezra,answer me! Did someone shoot ya?!"
"N-n-no... not sh-shot...." Ezra struggled to answer Buck as the pain continued to hold him in its grip. "H-head... ache...."
"Aw shit," Buck swore softly as he holstered his pistol and moved to try and help the gambler. His mother had suffered from crippling headaches when he was a young boy, and he could still remember how sick they had made her. Judging from the look of agony on Ezra's face, this one was every bit as bad, if not worse, than the ones she'd dealt with.
Buck untied his bandanna and dipped it in the cool creek to wet it, wringing out the excess before turning back to the semi-conscious Southerner. Sitting down beside him in the grass, the gunfighter fought to pull Ezra's arms away from his head.
"Come on, Ezra,let me help ya. Easy now." Buck managed to get the smaller man shifted around so that his head was laying in his lap, and after a brief struggle, got the gambler's wrists pinned against his chest with one hand so that he could run the cool, wet cloth across his forehead with the other. "Come on now, pard... quit fightin' me. I'm only tryin' to take care of ya."
Ezra knew Buck meant well, and he had to admit that the cold water felt good on his face, but he found it nearly impossible to lie still while the pain remained so intense. To top it all off, he was starting to feel sick to his stomach and didn't want to disgrace himself by throwing up on both of them.
Ezra turned his head slightly, and Buck frowned as the moonlight illuminated the gambler's face. He was white as a sheet and the pain was etched deeply into his handsome features. The pale light glistened on the mixture of sweat and tears that covered his face and on the thin line of blood trailing down his chin and neck. Buck used a corner of the bandanna to gently wipe away the crimson streak. "You're bleedin' a little here... did ya bite your tongue or somethin'?" he asked softly. "Ezra?"
"Lip... bit my...." Ezra tried to explain, and then moaned softly as the combination of the pain and the coppery taste of the blood slowly began to erode the control he was maintaining over his churning stomach.
Buck stared down at him and saw the pale face in his lap turn a decidedly unhealthy shade of green. "Damn, Ezra, you don't look so good... you gonna be sick?" Buck remembered his mother's headaches affecting her the same way and recognized the signs of what was about to happen. He felt the smaller man struggling to roll over and quickly helped him up onto his hands and knees. Buck knelt beside him and kept one arm around his middle while he supported his head with the other, grimacing in sympathy as he felt Ezra's stomach muscles clench with every wave of illness. "Just hang on, Ezra,it'll be over soon an' then you'll feel better."
Ezra knew Buck was right... knew the headache would immediately begin to ease as soon as he gave in to the nausea and emptied his stomach, but that didn't help the embarrassment he felt at throwing up in front of someone. No matter how comforting it was to have someone there and supporting him, he was still ashamed to be seen giving into such weakness.
The spasms finally stopped and Ezra struggled weakly against Buck's grip, trying to push himself up off the ground. The gunfighter released his hold on him, but stayed close... ready to help if he was needed. He watched as the gambler crawled to the edge of the stream, scooped up some water to wash his mouth out with, and then sat back down in the grass.
Ezra sat hunched over, his elbows on his knees and his head propped in his hands. His headache had eased considerably, and even though he was still feeling slightly nauseous and dizzy, he knew from past experience that all he needed was to stay quiet for a few minutes and that would pass also.
Buck sat down next to the younger man and began rubbing his back gently. "How ya doin' there, pard... is it any better?"
Ezra nodded, but wisely kept his head down as he quietly spoke. "I must apologize for that bit of unpleasantness, Mr. Wilmington... it's not somethin' I wished you to witness."
"Hell, Ezra, we all get sick at one time or another... ain't nothin' to be ashamed of." Buck retrieved his bandanna, rinsed it again in the creek and offered it to Ezra, who gratefully took it and wiped his face before pressing it against his still throbbing forehead. Buck resumed rubbing the smaller man's back, knowing it would help him to relax. "You get these headaches often?"
Ezra hesitated for a few seconds... he hated discussing himself or his problems, but he knew Buck only asked because he considered him a friend and was worried about him. "Occasionally." He hoped if he kept his answers short, the gunfighter would take the hint and not push him.
"They always this bad?" Buck smiled and shook his head. Getting Ezra to talk about himself was like pulling teeth, even for him. The relationship that had blossomed between he and the gambler after his accident hadn't diminished at all when Ezra had finally gotten his memory back... if anything, they'd grown even closer. Buck had broken down a lot of the walls that surrounded his friend, but the one that kept him from expressing his feelings and emotions was still pretty solid. He kept working at it though... determined to prove to Ezra that he could trust him with his heart... not just his life. Constantly battering away at those life-long defenses was hard work, but Buck knew the kind of friendship that waited for them when the last of the barriers finally came down would be well worth the effort. He wanted and needed that friendship, and deep down inside, he knew Ezra did, too.
Ezra heaved a sigh of exasperation. He should have known it wouldn't work. "Unfortunately... yes."
"Do ya know what sets 'em off?" Buck waited and when no answer was forthcoming, continued. "My ma used to get 'em, too... whenever the weather turned. Hers weren't quite as bad as yours, but bad enough to knock her off her feet for a spell."
Ezra had been determined to not answer any more questions, but Buck's hand rubbing large, slow circles on his back, and the quiet drone of his voice, were so soothing he was finding it hard to remember why he didn't want to talk to him.
"I had a nightmare," Ezra mumbled sleepily... then his eyes popped open as he realized what he'd said. <<Shit... why the hell did I say that?>>
"A nightmare... you remember what it was about?" Buck stared at the younger man, amazed that he had actually told him that much. He could tell by the way the muscles under his hand had tensed up that Ezra was equally surprised by his admission.
Ezra shook his head slowly and moved away from Buck's comforting touch. "No... nothin'. It was just a dream, that's all."
Suddenly Buck frowned as he remembered the horrible nightmare Ezra had experienced several times when he was still suffering from his amnesia. Could this be the same one? He wanted to ask the younger man if it had anything to do with his Uncle Matthew, but they'd agreed not to mention anything from that awful time after his accident unless Ezra brought it up first. He'd have to make sure he talked to Nathan when they got home. Buck had a feeling this was definitely something the healer needed to know about.
Ezra struggled to his feet and stood on shaky legs, waiting for a wave of dizziness to pass before he headed back to the campsite, hoping that his insistent friend would take the hint and leave him alone.
"Easy there, pard." Buck rose with him and placed a steadying hand in the small of Ezra's back. He could feel the younger man trembling with the effort that it took for him to stay on his feet, and was ready to grab him if his legs gave out.
"I'm fine, Buck." Ezra shook off the gunfighter's help and slowly began making his way back along the path toward their camp. His legs threatened to fold under him with every step he took, but he just gritted his teeth and concentrated on putting one foot in front of the other.
Buck shook his head and chuckled quietly at the stubborn determination his friend insisted on showing. He bent and grabbed his discarded bandanna, and then followed closely behind Ezra in case he needed him.
By the time Ezra made it back to the campfire, he had no choice but to accept Buck's assistance in lowering himself down onto his bedroll. He was even too tired to argue when the older man insisted on helping him stretch out and carefully pulled the blankets up around his shoulders, tucking him in securely.
"Get some rest, Ezra." Buck saw the gambler's head nod slightly as his eyes closed, and watched as he quickly drifted into an exhausted sleep.
Buck threw some wood on the fire to help ensure the Southerner stayed warm enough, and then settled himself in his own bedroll. He knew he wouldn't be getting anymore sleep though... he planned on keeping an eye on his friend, ready to wake him if the nightmare started again.
Buck blinked and stretched as the sun rising over the treetops struck his face, and then bolted upright as he realized he'd fallen asleep. His eyes immediately shot to the pile of blankets on the other side of the campfire, and a look of relief washed over his face as he saw Ezra still lying there sound asleep. The gunfighter pulled on his boots and moved over to squat down by the softly snoring gambler. He still didn't look too good... the dark circles under his eyes accentuated the unhealthy pallor of his skin and a grimace of pain crossed his face as Buck watched him. He decided to let the younger man sleep while he rustled up some breakfast and packed up the camp. They'd be getting a much later start than Buck had hoped for, but he knew Ezra needed as much rest as he could get in order to get through the long ride back to Four Corners.
Ezra woke slowly, started to stretch, but stopped suddenly as his stomach muscles protested. He lay still, his eyes closed tightly against the sun, and tried to remember why in heaven's name he felt this bad. He lifted one hand and probed delicately at his throbbing forehead... the skin actually felt bruised, but he knew it wasn't... knew that he'd had another nightmare and in turn, another headache. The gambler puzzled for a moment over the sore stomach muscles, and then the memory of disgracing himself in front of Buck came to him, and he groaned softly in embarrassment.
Suddenly a shadow passed between him and the sun, providing some relief to his sensitive eyes. He opened them just enough to see that it was Buck hovering over him that was giving him the shade he needed.
"What time is it?" Ezra mumbled, wincing as a sharp pain lanced through his torn lip. He brought his fingers up to explore the damage, but was stopped when Buck gently pulled his hand away.
"Leave it alone. You bit through it when ya had that headache last night." Buck removed his hat and used it to add even more shade to Ezra's sensitive eyes. "It's around ten... how ya feelin'?"
Ezra ran a shaky hand across his eyes and blinked several times trying to clear his vision, but it remained slightly blurry no matter what he did. That was one of the worst headaches he'd had yet, and he knew he'd be suffering the aftereffects of it for several more hours.
"I have felt better, Mr. Wilmington, but I'm perfectly able to travel. Why didn't you awaken me sooner? Now we'll be late gettin' back, and Mr. Larabee will be imagining all sorts of dire predicaments I perhaps have gotten you into." Ezra pushed himself up into a sitting position, and held his head as he waited for the spinning to stop.
Buck laughed as he poured the gambler a cup of coffee. "Don't worry, pard, I'll make sure I get to Chris first and explain what happened before he takes your head off."
Ezra squinted up at Buck and reached for the steaming mug he held out. "Actually, Mr. Wilmington, I think I'd prefer that you let him take my head off instead... it would be a welcome relief to what I'm feelin' now."
Buck coaxed him into at least eating a biscuit, and then got himself some coffee and sat down beside Ezra, determined to get some answers out of him. "How long ya been havin' these nightmares?"
Ezra frowned at him and shook his head. "Buck, I--"
"Ezra... I thought ya agreed to talk to me if somethin' was wrong." Buck laid his hand on the younger man's arm and gave it an encouraging squeeze. "Sounds to me like ya need to talk to someone about this. I'm a good listener, pard, an' I promise it won't go no further 'less ya want it to."
Ezra stared at Buck for a few moments and then shifted his gaze to the mug he held cradled in his hands. As much as he hated to burden others with his problems, he knew Buck was right. The horrible dreams and accompanying headaches were getting to be more than he could handle on his own... maybe it *would* help to talk about them. Besides, ever since his accident he'd developed a closeness with Buck that didn't exist between he and the other five members of their group... one that he'd never felt with anyone else in his whole life. He couldn't really explain how it had happened, but he had to admit, at least to himself, that he did draw a vast amount of comfort from it.
The only drawback to their new relationship was that he seemed to have no resistance at all where the older man was concerned. Buck had only to smile at him and give him the 'but we're friends' speech, and Ezra was helpless to refuse whatever he asked. It had gotten him into a considerable amount of trouble occasionally, especially when it involved one of Buck's notorious practical jokes, but it had also given him a sense of belonging and companionship he'd never had before.
Ezra finally decided to confide in him... maybe Buck could help make some sense out of what was happening and help him figure out how to deal with it. Taking a deep breath, he began answering his questions.
"I've had them off and on for as long as I can remember, but they started comin' more frequently in the months before my accident." Ezra looked curiously over at the older man. Maybe since he was being so forthcoming, Buck would do the same. "Did I have any dreams while I was... incapacitated?"
Buck stared at him in surprise, he hadn't actually expected him to open up, and he really hadn't expected him to ask about his amnesia. He sat silently for a few moments, trying to decide how much to tell him. Nathan had told them that if Ezra did ask any questions, to keep their answers short and to the point, and to not give more information than he seemed to be asking for. For a talker like Buck, this was a hard order to follow, but he'd try to do his best. The last thing he wanted to do was to hurt Ezra in any way.
Sipping at his coffee to hide his nervousness, Buck nodded. "Ya had one or two. Are they always the same dream?"
Ezra shrugged. "They were before the headaches started, but now I can't remember anything after I have them, so I can't be certain if they are or not."
"When did ya start gettin' the headaches?" Buck stood up long enough to refill both their mugs and then settled back down beside the gambler. "Have ya told Nathan about 'em?"
Ezra grimaced at the mention of the healer. "I had the first one on the last night of our fishing trip... it wasn't nearly as intense as this one though." He glared at Buck for a moment before addressing the second part of his question. "And no, I have not confided in Mr. Jackson... and I expect you to refrain from doing so as well." Ezra saw an expression of hurt cross Buck's face and immediately regretted his somewhat peremptory demand for discretion.
"I promised ya I wouldn't tell anyone." Buck stared into Ezra's light green eyes and saw the guilt the gambler was feeling for doubting his friend for even a second.
"I'm sorry, Buck... I didn't mean to imply--" Ezra's apology was stopped when Buck slapped him gently on the back and shook his head at him.
"That's okay, Ezra, I know ya didn't mean nothin' by it." Buck smiled at the visible relief that washed over the younger man. "So... ya got any idea what these nightmares are about?"
Ezra frowned and stared thoughtfully into the fire. "I used to be able to remember bits and pieces, but that was before the headaches started. Now the pain hits as soon as I wake up and effectively wipes any memory of them away." Ezra kept his eyes averted as he hesitantly asked his next question. "Did I... did I say anything while I was havin' those nightmares you mentioned?"
Buck sighed... now that they were getting to the tough questions, he wished one of the others was there to help him. "Yeah, ya did, pard. It wasn't much, but we were able to make out a few things." Buck stopped, hoping Ezra would leave it at that, but he just wasn't that lucky.
Ezra merely looked at Buck, eyebrows raised questioningly, and waited. He was getting a little nervous over the other man's seeming reluctance to elaborate on his answers.
Buck watched Ezra carefully as he spoke, hoping that something he said might jog his memory. Maybe if they could figure out what they were about, the nightmares might stop altogether. "Well, ya mentioned somethin' about your Uncle Matthew an' asked someone not to leave ya there... then you called out somethin' that sounded like 'Manda. Does any of that ring a bell?"
Buck had watched Ezra's face pale slightly at the mention of his Uncle Matthew, but he had no reaction at all to the name 'Manda.
Ezra took a deep breath and ran a shaky hand over his face. "Uncle Matthew... that's who I was dreamin' about before my accident." He concentrated for a moment on the other name, but finally shook his head. "I don't seem to remember anyone named 'Manda though."
Buck could see that Ezra was having trouble dealing with the memory of his uncle and was worried that his trying to remember could bring on another headache. His eyes had taken on a haunted look identical to the one that had accompanied his nightmares when he was in the mind of Lit'l Ezra. Buck placed a calming hand on the Southerner's shoulder and squeezed gently. "Ya wanna stop for awhile, pard?"
Ezra gave Buck a grateful smile and nodded his head. "Thank you, Buck, I'd appreciate that, if you don't mind. Maybe we could continue our conversation later?"
Buck winked at the gambler and stood up. "Anytime ya want, Ezra, just let me know when you're ready, okay?"
Ezra nodded and slowly got to his feet. "I'll certainly do that, Buck. Now, maybe we'd better pack up our gear and head for home before Mr. Larabee sends out a search party for us."
"Ya sure you're up to ridin'?" Buck had seen Ezra rubbing his temples and eyes when the gambler thought he wasn't looking and knew he still wasn't feeling too well.
"Positive. I've just got a small remnant of the headache, and my vision's a bit blurry, but they should both clear up soon. Nothin' that will interfere with our trip back to Four Corners, I assure you." Ezra turned his back on the older man and began gathering up his things.
"Okay, Ezra, but you make sure an' say somethin' if ya need to stop an' rest." Buck still wasn't sure they shouldn't just stay where they were for another night, but there was no guarantee that Ezra wouldn't have another nightmare that left him feeling even worse. Better to just get him back to town so that he'd be near Nathan in case he needed his help.
Within the hour, they were back on their horses and headed home. Buck set a slow and easy pace and rode quietly beside his friend, which drew no complaints from Ezra. Buck had a feeling the younger man had downplayed the severity of his headache and didn't want to do anything that would aggravate it. But as soon as he got Ezra home and knew he was feeling better, he was going to do everything he could to talk the stubborn Southerner into telling Nathan what was happening to him. He needed help, and one way or another, Buck was going to make sure he got it.
It was early evening when the two men finally rode back into town, and the only thing on Ezra's mind was sleep. His headache had eventually disappeared and his vision had cleared, but he'd been left with an overwhelming feeling of exhaustion that made it hard for him to even stay in the saddle.
Buck had kept a careful eye on Ezra all the way home and was relieved when they finally rode into town. He'd tried to get the gambler to go straight to his room, promising to take care of Rebel for him, but he'd stubbornly refused. By the time they'd finished seeing to the horses and had headed back toward the saloon, Ezra was nearly staggering with the fatigue that seemed to sap what little energy he had left.
Pushing through the bat-wing doors, Ezra headed straight for the stairs and slowly made his way up to the second floor. Buck stood listening until he heard him enter his room and close the door, and then turned and made his way over to the table where the rest of the seven sat finishing up their dinner.
Nathan stared worriedly in the direction of Ezra's room, and then frowned at Buck as he wearily eased himself down on the chair JD pushed out for him. "He all right?"
Buck gratefully accepted the shot of whiskey Josiah passed him. "Yeah, he's just tired. Didn't sleep too well last night... you know how he gets after spendin' too much time away from that featherbed of his." Buck made light of Ezra's condition, wishing all the while he could tell them how worried he was about the gambler.
"The delivery go okay?" Chris asked, sliding his plate over in front of Buck when he saw him eyeing the chicken leg he hadn't eaten.
Buck nodded. "Piece of cake." Forcing his concern for Ezra to the back of his mind and carefully leaving out any mention of the gambler's nightmare and headache, he proceeded to give the others a detailed account of their trip to Jasper.
Ezra closed his door and slumped back against it, dropping his gear beside him on the floor... he was too tired to even think about taking care of it. Normally, the first place he'd head after time on the trail would be the bathhouse for a nice, long, relaxing soak, but tonight it was completely out of the question. Glancing at the pitcher of water and basin on his dresser, Ezra wearily shook his head. Even simply rinsing off was beyond his capabilities at the moment. The headache had left him so drained, he felt as though he could easily sleep for a week.
Pushing himself away from the door, Ezra stumbled over to his bed and collapsed on the edge, barely keeping himself upright long enough to remove his outer clothing and guns. He uncharacteristically let his clothes drop to the floor before turning and sprawling face-down on the mattress. Ezra groped behind him for the quilt, but merely succeeded in pulling it partway across his hips before slipping into a deep, and thankfully, dreamless sleep.
Ezra never even stirred when Buck slipped into the room around midnight to check on him. The former lawman quietly picked up the discarded clothing and draped them over the chair, frowning at that indication of just how exhausted Ezra had been.
Moving over to the bed, Buck was relieved to see that Ezra seemed to be sleeping soundly. Hopefully he'd be free of the awful nightmares, at least for tonight. Buck looked down at the gambler and wished he could loosen his clothing to make him more comfortable, but Ezra was lying on his stomach and it would be impossible to do it without taking a chance on waking him up. So instead, he settled for easing the quilt up over him and turning down the lamp. After one last look at his young friend, Buck left... more determined than ever to find a way to get him to talk to Nathan.
Ezra did make it through that first night back without a repeat of his nightmare, but, unfortunately, it was only a brief respite. The horrible dreams and the blinding headaches returned a few nights later, and they had been increasing in frequency and intensity ever since.
Buck had talked himself blue in the face that next day, trying to convince Ezra that he should at least let Nathan take a look at him. He'd finally been forced to back off when the gambler had angrily shouted at him that he was fine and didn't need another mother nagging at him, the one he had was bad enough.
Ezra had immediately apologized, but Buck knew that if he kept pushing, he risked damaging the closeness he and the younger man had begun to enjoy since his accident. So Buck offered his own apology and dropped the subject, but continued to keep a close eye on Ezra, watching carefully for any signs that the nightmares and headaches were still bothering him.
But Buck forgot what an accomplished con man the Southerner was. Knowing Buck was watching him, Ezra successfully hid the truth of what was happening from him for several weeks. He did his job when needed... luckily for him they were blessed with a rare period of peace in the small town... no robberies, only a few drunken ranch hands attempting to destroy the saloon. He even managed to hold it together long enough at night to join in their regular poker games. Ezra lost more than usual, but they all chalked it up to the fact that he was finally moving slowly into the family and assumed he was just letting them win some of their money back as a gesture of friendship.
Ezra struggled to maintain an appearance of normalcy while around the others, but once alone in his room, the facade was dropped, and he succumbed to the effects of his restless, pain-wracked nights... collapsing on the bed in exhaustion and getting what little sleep he could manage before the horror of his dreams began again.
It was three long weeks before Buck finally started to notice a difference in Ezra. He was sleeping even later than usual in the mornings, and dark circles had begun to form under his eyes... eyes that normally sparkled with humor and intelligence, but which were now lifeless and dull. Most noticeable were the long silences that befell the Southerner. Usually when they were all gathered together, he was an eager participant in the lively conversations and friendly bantering, but now he merely sat shuffling his cards, seemingly ignoring what was going on around him. Buck realized Ezra must still be having the nightmares and cursed himself for underestimating the gambler's skill at hiding what he was truly feeling.
Buck had seen the others watching Ezra the night before and knew they must have noticed the difference in him, too. He decided it was time to push the issue with the younger man and force him to get help. Ezra was still sleeping when he left out on morning patrol, but Buck had made up his mind that upon his return, he would sit him down and give him an ultimatum... either Ezra told Nathan and the others what was happening to him... or he would.
It was only about an hour after Buck rode out that the period of peace the town and the Seven had been enjoying abruptly came to an end.
Shots rang out from inside the bank, alerting five of the town's peacekeepers that there was trouble.
JD burst out of the jail just in time to see three rough-looking, armed men running from the bank followed closely by Mr. Harlen, the bank manager, who collapsed on the boardwalk, clutching his bleeding arm. "Help!! The bank's been robbed!"
The young peacekeeper managed to get off a couple of rounds, wounding one of the outlaws and sending the other two scrambling for cover before bullets began flying in his direction, forcing him back into the jail. Crouching beside the door and peering out, he spotted the others.
Josiah was making his way down the street from the church, and Nathan was ducked down behind the railings that encircled the clinic's landing. Both men were attempting to draw the bandits' attention away from JD.
Vin and Chris were in front of the saloon, taking cover behind whatever they could find as they slowly made their way closer to the action. Suddenly, one of the robbers made a break for it and disappeared into the alley that led to the side street behind the bank and saloon. Vin made his intentions to head the man off known to Chris and doubled back to disappear through the bat-wing doors.
Ezra stirred restlessly in his sleep, struggling against the blankets that had tangled around his legs, pinning him to the bed. His features were contorted with fear as he was caught in the relentless grip of another nightmare, until finally, the sounds of gunfire and yelling in the street loosened its hold on him, and he jerked awake.
Still groggy and confused, Ezra sat in the middle of the bed trying to shake off the remnants of his dream. <<Gunshots? Were they real or part of my nightmare?>> The answer became clear when more shots filled the air, and he heard Chris's worried voice calling out to JD.
Ezra dragged himself out from under the covers and pushed himself to the side of the bed. Thankful for once that he'd fallen asleep in his clothes, he hurriedly pulled on his boots, and after grabbing his gun, ran out the door.
Just as Ezra reached the landing at the top of the stairs, Vin rushed into the saloon. "Mr. Tanner? What's goin'--" Ezra's question was cut off as the first blinding pains of another headache speared through his brain. Uttering a strangled cry, he fell to his knees... one hand clutching at his head while the other clung to the railing in a desperate attempt to keep himself from tumbling down the stairs.
Vin looked up, worry etched on his face as he saw the gambler in an obvious state of distress. "Ezra?! Ya hit?!" He changed direction and headed for the stairs, forgetting momentarily about the man he'd been chasing in his haste to get to the Southerner.
Ezra heard Vin and forced his eyes open, battling against the crippling pain in his head as he tried to focus on the tracker. His vision cleared momentarily, and what he saw sent a shiver of fear racing up his spine. The outlaw Vin had been after was moving up behind him, gun out and aimed at his back.
"Vin... behind..." Ezra's teeth were clenched in agony, and his mumbled warning to the approaching sharpshooter went unheard as another volley of gunfire exploded out in the street. Ezra raised his gun and tried to get a clear shot at the stranger creeping across the floor of the saloon, but his vision suddenly blurred as another wave of pain struck, and he had to hold his fire or take the risk of hitting Vin instead.
Vin misunderstood the gambler's actions and continued toward the stairs. "It's me, Ezra... don't shoot. Just take it easy."
"Behind... you...." Ezra gasped out the words and saw comprehension finally dawn in Vin's blue eyes... but it was too late. Just as the other man turned around and raised his gun, the robber fired. "No!!!" Ezra's anguished cry as he saw Vin go down was echoed by Chris when he ran through the door and saw his best friend lying bleeding on the floor with the outlaw standing over him.
"Vin!!" The stranger whirled at the sound of the gunfighter's shout and tried to bring his gun up in time, but Chris was fueled by rage and wasted no time in putting a bullet straight through his heart. Hurrying to the fallen tracker's side, he knelt down and began checking him over, relieved to see that he was conscious and alert.
Vin gritted his teeth against the pain and grabbed Chris's arm. "Ezra? 'S he okay?"
<<Oh God... not Ezra, too!>> Chris's head shot up, and he frantically searched for the gambler. His heart nearly stopped when he spotted Ezra as he half-stumbled and half-fell down the stairs trying to get to Vin.
Ezra's gun still hung limply in his hand, forgotten as he fought against the throbbing pain in his head and the queasiness that was rapidly building in his stomach. His legs finally gave out on him, and he slid down the last few steps, landing in a graceless heap at the bottom.
"Ezra! Where you hit?!" Chris couldn't see any blood on him, but he was obviously hurt. He started to rise to go to the gambler, but stopped when he saw him shake his head.
Ezra tried to answer Chris, but all he could manage was a softly slurred... "sick"... as he curled up on himself. He sat with one arm wrapped around his head and the other clutching at his stomach as he tried to hold back the flood of vomit that was threatening to erupt.
"Why the hell didn't you shoot then?! You both could've been killed!" Chris's voice shook with the thought of how close he'd just come to losing two of his friends. Turning his attention back to Vin, he pressed tightly against the wound in the ex-bounty hunter's arm as he tried to staunch the flow of blood that was rapidly darkening his sleeve.
"I'm s-sorry... I--" Ezra's apology and explanation were cut off as another wave of nausea washed over him, and he was forced to take several deep breaths to control it. He heard someone enter the saloon and looked up to see Nathan striding across the room toward them. Ezra knew immediately by the look on the healer's face that he had heard Chris's words and was ready to blame him, as usual,for what had happened, and he realized that he just wasn't in any condition to fight it this time.
So when Nathan gave him a thinly veiled look of disgust and announced his idea of what was wrong with him, "Ya got a damned hangover, don't ya, Ezra?" Ezra merely nodded, pushed himself to his feet, and hurried toward the back of the saloon, desperate to reach the relative privacy of the alley before he lost control in front of the others. Ezra barely made it down the steps before he fell to his knees and began helplessly emptying his stomach into the dirt.
Buck rode back into town just as JD and Josiah were dragging their two prisoners toward the jail. "What the hell happened?! I thought I heard gunshots an' got here as fast as I could!"
"These two misguided souls and a friend of theirs attempted to rob our fine bank. As you can see, they were unsuccessful." Josiah grabbed the man JD was holding and pushed them both ahead of him into the jail. "You two better go check on Chris and Vin in the saloon. Nathan went runnin' in there a few minutes ago and hasn't come back out yet."
Buck quickly dismounted and started across the street with JD. "Where's Ezra? Is he all right?"
JD shrugged and looked surprised. "I don't know. It all happened so fast, it was hard to keep track of where everybody was. I don't remember seein' him though."
Buck hurried his pace and was practically running by the time he hit the bat-wing doors with JD right on his heels.
Nathan glanced up when Ezra hurried out of the saloon and shook his head. "Damn fool... serves 'im right for gettin' drunk in the first place."
Vin angrily pushed the healer away and pulled himself up onto a chair. "He ain't got a damned hangover, Nathan... he's sick. An' if ya weren't always tryin' t' find fault with 'im, you'd have realized that somethin's wrong. He's been lookin' an' actin' poorly for a while now." Ezra wasn't the only one who'd noticed the looks and snide remarks Nathan occasionally aimed at him, Vin had noticed as well... and he was beginning to get damned sick of them. He turned his head toward Chris. "He was hurtin' bad when I first spotted 'im on the stairs, an' I don't think he could see good 'nough t' shoot... looked like he was havin' trouble focusin' his eyes."
Buck and JD came bolting through the door just in time to hear the exchange between the three men. Buck's heart sank as he heard Vin's words... Ezra must have had another attack.
"Damn, Vin, you okay?" JD asked anxiously.
"I'm fine, kid... it's just a scratch." Vin shifted his gaze to Buck and correctly read the worried expression in his eyes. "You know what's wrong with Ezra, don't ya, Buck. He make ya promise not t' tell?"
Buck was about to answer the sharpshooter when Nathan interrupted him. "Ya saw 'im nod when I asked 'im... he's got a hangover. He prob'ly stayed up half the night playin' cards an' drinkin'." Nathan was busy wrapping the tracker's bandanna around his arm as a temporary bandage and failed to see the look of concern the others exchanged behind his back.
"Hell, Nathan, he was prob'ly jus' agreein' with ya 'cause he knew it weren't no use tryin' t' convince ya he hadn't been drinkin'. No wonder he don't never come t' ya when he's sick... I wouldn't either if I was him." Vin usually kept his mouth shut and stayed out of the others' disagreements, but Nathan had developed a blind spot when it came to Ezra, and it was hard not to point it out to him now and then.
"Where is he now?" Buck steeled himself against the urge to ask Nathan when the last time was that he had actually seen Ezra drunk. He could practically guarantee that the healer wouldn't be able to remember since the gambler very rarely drank more than he could handle. He was tempted to call Nathan on it, but he'd seen the regret and confusion in his eyes after hearing Vin's words of protest and just didn't have the heart to add to it. They all knew Nathan didn't mean half of what he said about Ezra... something had to be wrong to make the gentle healer act the way he was, but he'd have to wait and try and figure it out later... right now, Ezra needed him.
Chris nodded toward the back and moved to accompany Buck. "He looked like he was about to be sick when he ran outta here. You gonna need some help with him?"
Buck shook his head as he turned to leave. "Nah, he ain't gonna be too happy 'bout *me* seein' 'im in that condition... it'd embarrass the hell out of 'im if you were there, too."
Chris stopped, but gave Buck a warning look. "All right, but you make sure you tell him that as soon as he's feelin' better, one of you is gonna explain what's goin' on. And, Buck? Tell him... tell him I'm sorry for blowin' up at him." Chris wearily lowered himself onto a chair next to Vin and glared at the tracker. "Between Ezra and this one, I think I aged about thirty years today."
Buck nodded as he slipped out into the alley. An apology from Chris Larabee? Hell, that might be more of a shock than poor Ezra could handle right now, but at least it might help push him into talking to the others about his problem, and Buck knew he was going to need all the help he could get to convince Ezra to do that.
Ezra sat slumped over on the steps behind the saloon with his arms resting on his knees and his head hanging limply between them. He heard someone step out the door and settle down beside him, but simply didn't have the energy to lift his head and see who it was. It was taking all his strength just to endure the bouts of sickness that didn't seem to want to quit. He just prayed it wasn't Nathan... he knew he wasn't up to dealing with his holier-than-thou attitude at the moment. Suddenly he felt a hand touch his back and begin rubbing gently in a soothing, circular motion. He heaved a ragged sigh of relief. "Buck?"
"Yeah, pard. How ya doin'?" Buck's voice was as soft and gentle as his touch and went a long way toward easing the Southerner's pain. "Was it another nightmare?"
Ezra nodded as he began gulping air in an effort to fight off the next wave of nausea that was building at an alarming rate. "Vin? Is he...."
"He's fine, Ezra, just grazed his arm's all. How 'bout you? Still feelin' sick to your stomach?" Buck felt Ezra shudder beneath his hand and got his arms around the smaller man just in time to keep him from toppling over onto the ground as he was racked with another violent spate of vomiting. "Damn... I guess that answers that question. Hang on, Ezra, I got ya."
Buck felt his own stomach clench as Ezra continued to retch and gag uncontrollably, and both men were immensely relieved when the attack finally passed. Buck tightened his hold on him once it stopped and eased him back against his chest as he removed his bandanna and began mopping the sweat off the gambler's face and neck.
Ezra moaned softly and weakly tried to squirm out of Buck's grip, but the older man refused to let him go. "Just rest easy for a bit. It ain't gonna kill ya to accept some help for a change. If I let go of ya now, you're gonna end up on your face in the dirt."
Realizing Buck was right... he didn't even have enough strength to lift his head... Ezra quit struggling and reluctantly allowed his friend to take care of him.
Buck waited until he felt Ezra's breathing even out before he allowed him to pull away, keeping one arm around the gambler's shoulders until he was sure he was steady enough to sit on his own. "You okay now, pard?"
Ezra nodded as he rubbed gently at his forehead, trying to ease away the last of the headache. His stomach still felt a little unsettled and sore, but he was fairly certain that the worst of the ordeal was over. Ezra looked sideways at Buck and gave him an embarrassed grin. "We seem to be makin' a habit of this. I'm sorry if I seemed ungrateful for your help, Buck... it's just hard for me to--"
Buck cut off Ezra's apology with a shake of his head. "Don't worry, pard, you can make it up to me the next time I tie one on. Then it'll be your turn to hold my head when I start throwin' up all over the--" Buck saw the Southerner's face turn a delicate shade of green and immediately began to apologize. "Damn... sorry, Ezra. Ya gonna be all right?"
Ezra closed his eyes and took shallow breaths until his stomach finally began to settle again. "I think so... just give me a few more minutes."
Buck rubbed his hand slowly across Ezra's back while he watched the gambler carefully. Once he saw his color improve, Buck stopped fussing over him and leaned back against the steps. "Chris wanted me to tell ya he's sorry 'bout yellin' at ya. He was just spooked at how close we come to losin' you an' Vin."
Ezra glanced at Buck in surprise and then turned away, the guilt he felt for allowing Vin to be injured sending a blush of shame to his cheeks. "He had every right to be angry with me... I very nearly got Mr. Tanner killed today."
"Ezra, no one's blamin' ya for Vin gettin' hurt 'cept you." Buck hated seeing Ezra do this to himself.
"No one?" Ezra's words held a touch of sarcasm, and Buck knew immediately who he was referring to.
"Aw, come on, Ezra... Nathan knows he was wrong now. Vin made sure of that." Buck leaned over so he could see the gambler's face. "Why'd ya let 'im think he was right about ya havin' a hangover, pard?"
Ezra sighed and tiredly rubbed his eyes. The exhaustion that always overwhelmed him after one of his headaches was settling in, and he knew he needed to get to his bed soon or risk collapsing where he sat. "Three very good reasons, Mr. Wilmington. Firstly, I was simply too ill and in too much pain to argue with him. Secondly, I've found that Mr. Jackson's brand of self- righteousness is virtually impossible to defend myself against... and last, but definitely not least... he was right."
"Damn it, Ezra--"
Ezra held up a shaky hand to stop Buck's words of protest and continued. "I know... his *reason* for my dereliction of duty was wrong, but his accusation that I failed to live up to my responsibilities was absolutely correct."
Buck laid his hand on the younger man's shoulder and squeezed gently. "Ezra, come on now... it ain't your fault ya keep havin' the nightmares an' gettin' those headaches. How can ya possibly blame yourself for that?"
Ezra shook his head. "But I should have foreseen the danger I would be puttin' the rest of you in if one of them struck when I was needed... which is exactly what occurred today." Ezra turned his head and stared at Buck, the horror of what had almost happened reflected clearly in his jade green eyes. "Vin could have died because of me, Buck. How can any of you possibly forgive me for that? How can I forgive myself?"
Buck felt the tremors that ran through the over-wrought gambler and tightened his grip on his shoulder. "I told ya, Ezra, none of us... an' especially not Vin... blames you for what happened. We're all just worried about ya."
Ezra pushed himself to his feet, grabbing quickly at one of the support posts as the ground seemed to tilt beneath him. Once the dizziness passed, he looked at Buck and smiled sadly. "Well, as soon as I freshen up, I'll put their minds at ease by revealin' the true cause of my infirmity this mornin', and then I'll further ensure the safety of all of you by resigning my position as fellow peacekeeper and announcin' my intention of leavin' this dusty little town."
Buck just sat and stared, too shocked by the Southerner's words to say or do anything, but he quickly shook it off and jumped up to grab Ezra's arm before he could enter the saloon. "What in the hell are you talkin' about?! You ain't leavin' here... where would you go, an' how the hell would ya manage on your own with those headaches?! You're liable to get yourself killed out there alone like that!"
Ezra jerked his arm out of Buck's grip and turned to stare angrily at him. "Better me than one of you! How the hell would I live with myself if I stayed and let that happen?! Besides, I've been alone all of my life... it's what I'm used to...." Ezra's voice trailed off as he realized all he'd be giving up. Six friends who cared for him and allowed him to share their life, and the home and family he'd always wished for.
Suddenly, Ezra was swept by a deep feeling of loss that left him so shaken, he was forced to grab onto the door frame to keep from falling. It made him physically ill to even think about leaving them all behind, but he knew he had made the right decision. He couldn't... he *wouldn't*... put their lives at risk again.
Buck saw his legs buckle and moved in to slip a supportive arm around his waist. "Come on, pard, let's get you up to bed so you can rest for a bit. Then we'll tell the others, an' we'll all figure out what we're gonna do."
Ezra had no choice but to accept Buck's help, but he quickly made it known that he wasn't changing his mind. "There's nothin' to figure out. I'll be departin' in the mornin', and that's all there is to it."
Buck wanted to argue with the stubborn gambler and convince him he wasn't going anywhere, but he could see how hard Ezra was fighting against his emotions and the fatigue that was threatening to drag him under, and decided now wasn't the time. Instead, he wisely ignored Ezra's last statement, and taking most of the smaller man's weight on himself, maneuvered him into the saloon's kitchen.
Buck left him leaning against the wall while he went to let the others know that Ezra was doing better and that he was taking him up to bed, then returned to help the groggy Southerner up the back stairs. He was nearly asleep on his feet when they finally got to his room, and it only took Buck a few minutes to get him settled comfortably beneath the covers.
Ezra raised his head and peered blearily out from under the blankets when he heard Buck slide a chair next to the bed. He frowned and immediately began protesting when he realized that the other man intended to stay. "I am not in need of a babysitter, Mr. Wilmington."
"I know that, but I just figured I'd stick around in case ya had a nightmare. Maybe if I can get ya woke up quick enough, ya won't get another one of them damned headaches." Grinning, Buck reached out and gently pushed Ezra's head back down on the pillows. "Now quit layin' there scowlin' at me an' get some sleep."
Ezra tried to resist, but he was just too spent to put up much of a fight. Besides, as much as he hated to admit it, he really didn't want to be alone right now. So after a few token grumbles about Buck's mother hen tendencies, he closed his eyes and quickly drifted off into a restful and dreamless sleep.
Once Buck had reassured them that Ezra was going to be okay, the others had finally left the saloon. Chris sent JD to fetch the undertaker so he could take care of the body that still lay under a tablecloth near the bar, while he headed over to check on Josiah and the prisoners.
It had taken some mild threatening, but Nathan had finally managed to get Vin to accompany him over to the clinic so that he could clean up his bullet wound and bandage it properly.
Vin sat on a chair at Nathan's, one hand keeping a white-knuckled grip on the seat while the healer stitched up his arm. In an attempt to keep his mind off the pain, he focused his gaze on his friend's serious face and let his thoughts wander over the rocky relationship that existed between the former slave and the cocky Southerner.
Nathan and Ezra's friendship had never been an easy one, but they had managed to get past most of their differences over the nearly three years they'd worked together by learning to acknowledge and accept each other's shortcomings. Occasionally they butted heads over something the gambler had done that didn't quite live up to Nathan's rigid moral standards, but it had been happening less and less... until Ezra had his accident.
While Ezra was suffering from his amnesia, lost in the mind of his five year old self, Nathan had been exceedingly kind and compassionate when dealing with the Southerner. However, once he'd regained his memory, Nathan's attitude toward Ezra had gradually worsened. Their hard-won friendship was slowly being eroded by his determination to find fault with everything Ezra said and did.
Vin was puzzling over what had caused the change in Nathan when he suddenly realized the healer had finished stitching his wound and was staring curiously back at him. Vin blushed and ducked his head in embarrassment, mumbling a hasty apology as he kept his eyes turned away from the other man.
"Somethin' wrong?" Nathan asked as he wrapped a clean bandage around Vin's upper arm. "Was I hurtin' ya?"
Vin shook his head and looked back up at Nathan. He started to explain why he'd been staring, but then hesitated, not wanting to pry into something that really wasn't any of his business.
"Ya got somethin' ya wanna talk t' me 'bout, Vin?" Nathan stared at the hesitant tracker for a moment and then felt the heat of his own embarrassment warm his cheeks as he realized what the younger man probably had on his mind. Ezra. He should have seen it coming after Vin's reaction to the comments he'd made about the gambler back in the saloon.
Vin saw awareness appear in the healer's eyes... along with what he hoped was regret for his treatment of Ezra... and decided to go ahead. "Why ya been ridin' Ezra so hard lately, Nathan? Somethin' happen between the two of ya we oughta know about?"
Nathan shook his head, but remained silent as he turned and began cleaning up in an effort to escape Vin's scrutinizing gaze.
Vin waited a few minutes, but when Nathan still didn't say anything, he picked up his hat and moved slowly toward the door. "Sorry for buttin' in. I was jus' worried 'bout the two of ya an' thought maybe I could help." He opened the door part way and paused as he tried to decide whether to say more. "Ya know, Nathan... Ezra's worked real hard t' make hisself into what he thought you wanted 'im t' be 'cause he respects ya an' cares what ya think about 'im. Now you're actin' like he's the same ol' liar an' cheat he was when we first met 'im... like ya can't see how much he's changed. Maybe ya ain't noticed it, but ya hurt 'im bad when ya say the things ya do about 'im. I s'pose ya got your reasons for the way ya feel now, but ya better make real sure they're worth losin' a friend over... 'cause that's what's gonna happen if ya ain't careful."
Nathan waited till he heard Vin leave and then sank down on the edge of the bed. He stared at the closed door and wished he'd been able to give the tracker an answer, but he knew they'd never be able to understand what he was feeling... hell, he wasn't even sure he did.
The only one who might know what he was going through was Ezra himself. But how could he possibly tell the man that just the sound of his voice... just hearing that slow southern drawl... had suddenly started bringing back all the old feelings of rage and helplessness he'd felt as a slave? How could he tell him that after almost three years of living and working together, the idea of being friends with him now... a good ol' southern boy... made him feel as though he were betraying every one of his people who had also suffered through the horrors of slavery? He couldn't.
Nathan shook his head in despair. He'd been so sure all these old feelings had been buried a long time ago... that he'd never have to deal with them again... but all that had changed when Ezra had taken his fall in the saloon and been stricken with amnesia.
They'd made the horrifying discovery that the young Southerner, at the tender age of five, had been subjected to a vicious whipping by his uncle and left to hang alone and in pain... a punishment usually reserved for slaves. Nathan had been horrified to find himself, for one fleeting second, thinking how fitting it was that Ezra, a southern white boy, had been forced to experience the same tortures that his people had faced every day of their lives. The healer had been so wracked with guilt over that one hateful thought, that the image of Ezra as a small boy enduring such a cruel and horrible ordeal had stayed with him, with the gambler's child-like cries of pain and fear haunting Nathan's dreams, along with all the terrifying memories of the inhumane treatment he'd witnessed and suffered through while a slave.
Then when Ezra had returned to his old self and begun talking in his normal voice again, anger and resentment had replaced the guilt, and Nathan had found himself cringing every time the Southerner opened his mouth. Ezra's southern accent, his educated, high-brow way of speaking, and even his fancy clothes, made him look and sound like every Master he'd ever known... exactly like the ones that had returned to torture him night after night as he slept. The gambler had innocently unleashed all those old feelings that Nathan had kept carefully hidden away, just by being himself. In Nathan's mind, he knew his reactions to Ezra were completely irrational, but he just couldn't seem to stop them.
Nathan thought about what Vin had said about not noticing what he was doing to Ezra and uttered a harsh laugh. Not notice? How the hell could he *not* see the pain that flared up in Ezra's eyes every time he lost control of his emotions and began saying things... hurtful things... that he regretted the minute they were out of his mouth. He supposed subconsciously he was trying to destroy their friendship in an attempt to rid himself of the guilt of forgetting that Ezra was southern, white, and therefore the enemy... and unfortunately, it looked like he was succeeding. Ezra was apparently sick and in need of his help and had been too uncomfortable with the present condition of their relationship to come to him. Nathan knew that if he couldn't get control of his emotions, he was going to lose everything he'd fought so hard for... including his self-respect and dignity. Most importantly of all though... he'd lose his friends.
Nathan felt a new determination take hold of him as he stood and headed for the door. One way or another he'd find a way to get rid of these old feelings of hate and prejudice for good, and his first step toward doing that was going to be to talk to Ezra and try to repair the damage he'd done to their friendship. He just prayed it wasn't too late.
Buck had gotten up to stretch his cramped muscles and was standing staring out the window when Nathan crossed the street, headed toward the saloon. The tall, lanky gunfighter shook his head and wondered again what had brought on the change in the healer's attitude toward Ezra. He'd questioned the Southerner once about it, but he had just mumbled something about Nathan and his noble principles and then had quickly changed the subject. Buck wanted to try and do something to mend their differences because he could see how much the crack in their friendship was hurting both of them, but it would just have to wait till they solved the problem of these nightmares of Ezra's first.
Buck heard Ezra moving restlessly in the bed and turned to see if he was finally waking up. Seeing a small frown appear on the young gambler's face, Buck hurried over and gently shook one blanketed shoulder. "Ezra?"
Ezra whimpered softly and pressed his face into the pillow as if trying to shut out whatever was upsetting him. "No... please...."
Buck sat down beside him and carefully rolled Ezra over onto his back. Patting gently at the gambler's face, he continued to talk to him, trying to ease him out of the dream. "Come on, pard, ya gotta wake up now." Buck smiled reassuringly as a pair of light green eyes slowly opened and peered blearily up at him.
"B-Buck? What are you--" Ezra's eyes closed again, and he sighed wearily as understanding struck. "Nightmare?"
Buck gave him a consoling pat on the arm and moved back over to sit on the chair. "Yup. Did I get ya woke up in time? Any signs of the headache comin' back?"
Ezra waited a few minutes, his body tensed in unpleasant anticipation, but he finally relaxed and gave Buck a small grateful smile. "I think you caught it in time. Thank you, Mr. Wilmington."
Buck shrugged his shoulders and stood up. "Just glad I was here to stop it. Now how 'bout I leave ya alone so's ya can get yourself dressed, an' then we'll meet down in the saloon an' grab some dinner when you're done."
Ezra nodded and then turned his eyes down to stare at the blankets. "While you're waitin' for me... do you think you could possibly locate the others and ask them to join us? I'd like to have everyone present when I... when I inform them of my impending departure and the reason for it. I-I don't think I could handle havin' to explain it more than once." Ezra's voice was choked with emotion as he struggled to make his request, and Buck could hear the loneliness his young friend was already feeling at the thought of leaving.
Buck knew it would be useless to argue with him, so he merely nodded and left the room. He stood with one hand resting against the door as a grim look of determination appeared on his face. "Don't you worry, pard... I'll see that they're all down there, but only so they can help me talk ya outta leavin'. One way or another you're gonna let us help ya... even if we have to tie ya down till ya agree." Buck started down the hall, still talking softly to himself. "We just got ya pulled into this family of ours, an' we sure as hell ain't lettin' go of ya already."
Ezra tugged on his sleeves nervously as he hesitated at the top of the stairs and gazed down at his friends gathered around their usual table. They had yet to notice him standing there, and he took the opportunity to try and imprint each of their images on his mind. Watching them as they sat talking quietly, he suddenly realized exactly how much he was going to miss all of them.
Chris. A man whom he'd come to respect more than anyone he'd ever met, and the first person in his lonely life to see something in him... something worth giving him a second chance over. Ezra still, after all this time, wasn't sure what the gunfighter had found that everyone else, including himself, had missed. He'd always wanted to ask, but had never quite gotten the nerve to pose the question... now he'd probably never know.
Vin. The quiet tracker who was so like himself in many ways. They were both loners, both were extremely slow to anger, and both were adept at keeping their emotions hidden. There were differences, but they had gradually seemed less and less important as the two men had worked around them to forge a deep and lasting friendship. Vin was the only one of the group, other than Buck, who Ezra was unable to hide his true self from. In fact, Ezra sometimes thought the ex- bounty hunter knew him better than he did himself.
Josiah. What in heaven's name would he do without the gentle preacher's firm hand on his back to keep him centered and on the right track? Ezra relied on Josiah to rein him in when his old conniving ways threatened to make a reappearance. One stern look from the older man was enough to remind the gambler that he was better than that now... that he'd grown since coming to Four Corners and left that shady side of him behind. Ezra just hoped he could continue to be someone Josiah would be proud of once he was out of reach of the preacher's guiding hand.
Nathan. His self-proclaimed conscience. The one person he admired the most out of everyone in the group. Ezra chuckled softly to himself at the thought of Nathan's shock if he were to ever discover his true feelings for him. Granted, it wasn't always pleasant having his ethical shortcomings thrown back at him... especially in front of their friends... but once Ezra got over his hurt feelings, he usually realized that the healer had been right in most of what he'd accused and was only trying to help Ezra become a better person. Like Chris, Nathan seemed to see something in him that he thought was worth fighting for. His gaze lingered on the former slave as he thought over their troubled relationship of the last few months. Something was bothering his friend, and for whatever reason, he seemed to be the outlet for Nathan's unhappiness. Ezra hated to leave with their friendship in such turmoil, but he didn't dare stay around long enough to try and resolve things with the healer... not if it meant putting them all in danger.
JD. Ezra couldn't contain the grin that slid over his somber features as he looked at the youngest member of their family. Their little brother... a title that the youth claimed to hate, but one which each of them knew he secretly welcomed. Ezra had never known anyone with JD's energy or zest for life. The boy lived every single day to its fullest and never failed to find some way to put a positive turn on any situation he encountered. Ezra had found himself living his lost youth vicariously through JD, and he hated to think about how dull and lifeless his days would be now without the boy around to brighten them.
And then there was Buck. Ezra felt the first real pangs of grief as he stared at the only person he'd ever completely let into his heart. Lord... how could he possibly leave Buck? His brow furrowed as a fleeting memory of a small voice saying those exact words flitted through his mind, but it was gone before he could focus on it. All he was left with was a certainty that it was going to crush his soul to not have Buck in his life.
Ezra felt a hot rush of tears flood his eyes as he stared at his family and realized there was no way he could go down there. He knew now that he'd never be able to leave if he allowed them the opportunity to try and talk him out of it. Turning quickly before he was spotted, Ezra made his way back to his room and closed the door. He collapsed on the edge of the bed and let the tears fall, allowing himself to wallow in self-pity for a few moments before stiffening his resolve and moving determinedly around the room gathering up his things. Once he had everything packed and waiting by the door, he sat down with pen and paper and began trying to explain his reasons for leaving without saying good-bye. He prayed he'd be able to find the right words that would allow them to accept his decision without hating him.
Buck was only half-listening to the conversation flowing around him. Where the hell was Ezra? He should have been down a long time ago. He could feel the others' impatience growing as they waited for the gambler, and knew they were watching him, wishing he'd just go ahead and explain what was going on.
He waited another few minutes, but then just couldn't ignore the uneasy feeling that had settled in the pit of his stomach any longer. "Be right back." He stood and left the table, ignoring the curious looks the others gave him as he hurried up the stairs to Ezra's room.
Buck stood outside the door, quietly listening, and heaved a sigh of relief when he heard a rustling noise coming from inside. With a quick knock, he entered the room and was promptly hit in the chest with a crumpled up piece of paper. Glaring at Ezra, Buck bent and retrieved the offending missile which had come to rest amongst several others lying discarded on the floor next to a pair of bulging saddlebags. Shooting a suspicious glance at the guilty looking Southerner, he smoothed out the paper and read the few words that were written on it.
"My dearest colleagues, I am sorry to have to tell you in this manner, but--"
Buck stared hard at Ezra, disappointment showing clearly in his dark blue eyes. "You were just gonna up an' leave without even explainin' to the others?" Sadness crept into his voice as he looked back down at the note. "Colleagues? That's how ya still think of us?"
Ezra returned Buck's gaze, his face flushed with shame as he tried to find the words to take away the hurt that he saw on the older man's face. Finally giving up, he slowly shook his head and stared at the floor. He knew if he tried to explain that using the term 'friends' in his farewell note was just too painful, the tears he'd been fighting against would finally begin to fall, and he would be helpless to stop them. So instead, he remained silent and kept his head down and allowed Buck to think the worst of him.
But Buck had spotted the tears shining in Ezra's eyes just before he'd looked away and realized the pain the gambler was suffering over his decision to leave. Moving over to the bed, the lanky gunman lowered himself down beside Ezra and rested a large, comforting hand on the back of his neck. "Come on, pard... you know ya don't really wanna leave. Let us help ya... I know between the seven of us we can come up with some way to beat these nightmares."
Ezra and Buck both jumped when Chris spoke. Neither man had heard he and the others as they'd moved down the hall toward Ezra's room.
Buck looked at Ezra, but the gambler had quickly gone back to staring at the floor as soon as he'd seen the rest of his friends crowd into the room. He gently massaged the tense muscles in the younger man's neck and leaned down to whisper in his ear. "Ezra? You want me to tell 'em for ya?"
He didn't think Ezra was going to answer at first, but then Buck saw him slowly nod his head. "It's gonna be okay, Ezra... I promise."
Buck looked up and saw that the others had noticed the saddlebags lying by the door and that Chris was holding one of Ezra's discarded notes.
"Ezra? Why were ya gonna leave?" Chris spoke gently to the gambler as he walked over and sat on the other side of him.
Buck felt Ezra tremble beneath his hand and shook his head at Chris. "Let me tell ya what's wrong with 'im first, then one of us will tell ya why he thinks he needs to leave."
Chris frowned at the Southerner's bent head and then reluctantly gestured for Buck to continue. He'd rather hear the explanation straight from Ezra, but he couldn't seem to even look up at them, much less talk.
Buck waited until the others had settled themselves about the room and then with one last glance at Ezra, he began filling the others in on the gambler's problem. "Ezra's been havin' nightmares." The others shared a worried glance, all remembering the terror-filled dreams the gambler had experienced while he was Lit'l Ezra. "He's been havin' 'em 'most of his life, but he says they got real bad just 'fore he took that fall... an' they were always 'bout his Uncle Matthew."
Nathan's dark eyes widened in surprise and went quickly from Buck to Ezra and back to Buck again. He raised his eyebrows questioningly and Buck nodded. "I told 'im about the dreams he had while he had the amnesia... that's when he told me the others were about his uncle... but he don't remember nothin' 'bout no one named 'Manda."
Chris placed his hand on Ezra's back and felt him shaking. He realized there had to be more to all this than just nightmares if it was enough to get the unflappable gambler this upset and ready to leave the group. He looked down at the younger man and slowly began moving his hand in soothing circles, hoping he could get Ezra to relax enough to talk to them himself. "Ezra? Are the dreams still about your uncle?"
Ezra had been fighting to get his emotions under control while Buck was talking and with the help of Chris's comforting touch, he thought he was finally able to handle the rest of the explanation on his own. Taking a deep, calming breath, he raised his head and looked at Chris. He could tell he'd failed miserably at putting on his usual poker face by the worry that immediately appeared in the gunfighter's eyes, but at least he'd managed to get himself enough under control that he was able to speak without his voice shaking.
"I don't know if they are or not. As soon as I wake up and try to recall what the nightmare was about, I'm stricken with a headache that seems to effectively wipe away any memories of the dream."
"They're real bad headaches, Nathan," Buck added, knowing with absolute certainty that Ezra would downplay their severity.
Nathan immediately began insisting on taking Ezra to the clinic for a thorough examination once they were done talking, and Buck answered the dirty look the gambler subsequently shot him with a satisfied grin. He'd been wanting Nathan to check Ezra over ever since they'd gotten back from their trip to Jasper, but the younger man had adamantly refused. Now he'd have no say in the matter. Chris would see that he complied with the healer's wishes.
Now it was Nathan's turn to question Ezra. "Do ya only get 'em after one a those nightmares?"
Ezra nodded. "So far."
Nathan frowned. "Where do ya get 'em?"
"In my head." Ezra's glib reply was met with an angry scowl from the healer and a light slap on the back from Chris.
"Answer 'im, Ezra." Chris felt a small sense of relief at hearing the gambler's normal smart mouth kick in.
Ezra sighed and raised a shaky hand to his forehead. "All across here, but the worst of it seems to center itself behind my right eye."
"Do they make it hard for ya t' see or make ya sick t' your stomach?" Nathan's heart sank as Ezra answered yes to both of his questions, and he realized how wrong he'd been about the gambler that morning. He'd seen this type of headache before and the symptoms did mirror those of a hangover, but he hadn't even stopped to consider that something else might have been wrong with Ezra. He reached out and laid one of his large, dark hands over the gambler's smaller, pale one and squeezed gently. "I'm real sorry for actin' the way I did this mornin', Ezra. I was wrong to jus' take it for granted that you'd been drinkin'."
Ezra shook his head and smiled at the healer. "No apologies necessary, Mr. Jackson. I imagine it did look like I was in the throes of a monstrous hangover... that's certainly how these headaches feel."
Nathan sat back on the chair and stared at Ezra's face. Now that he was actually taking the time to really look at the Southerner, he could see the dark circles and lines of fatigue that surrounded his eyes. He'd probably had trouble sleeping... afraid if he did, the nightmares would return. "How long ya been gettin' the headaches?"
Ezra squirmed uncomfortably under Nathan's dark gaze and finally shrugged his shoulders. "A while."
Buck shook his head at the stubborn Southerner. "He told me he got the first one when he an' JD an' I went fishin' that first time."
Nathan felt a rush of shame knowing his friend had been suffering all this time because his harsh treatment of the younger man had made it too uncomfortable for Ezra to come to him.
Ezra clenched his hands together and nervously cleared his throat before looking around the room at his friends. "If you are through with your questions regarding my health, I'd... I'd like to ask one of my own."
"Sure, Ezra... just as soon as you answer my original question." Chris saw the confusion in the gambler's green eyes. "Why'd you think ya had to leave?" Chris still had his hand on the smaller man's back and felt him begin to tremble again.
"Isn't it obvious, Mr. Larabee? Because of these damnable headaches, we nearly lost Mr. Tanner this morning." He let his gaze wander over each of their faces as his heart began to pound painfully in his chest. "If I stay here, the very same thing could happen again... only next time, my inability to do my duty could end up getting one of you killed." Ezra turned his eyes down as he whispered brokenly, "You all mean too much to me to take that risk."
Vin pushed himself away from the wall he was leaning against and hunkered down in front of the distraught gambler. He placed his hand over Ezra's to calm their trembling and spoke softly to the other man. "That works two ways, pard... we all care too much about you t' let ya go." Vin smiled at Ezra when he looked up and opened his mouth to protest. "How 'bout we quit wastin' time arguin', an' work on figurin' out a way t' get rid of those nightmares of yours instead?
Buck nudged the smaller man with his shoulder when he saw him hesitate. "You might as well give in, Ezra... if ya try an' leave, we'll just follow you."
JD nodded and grinned at Ezra. "Everywhere."
Josiah moved over to stand in front of the door. "Makin' your life miserable."
Nathan bent over to look Ezra in the eyes. "An' ya know me, Ezra, I'll feel it's my moral duty t' warn all those poor people in every saloon ya stop at that it's useless t' try an' beat ya at cards."
Chris slapped Ezra on the shoulder and grinned at the defeated expression on his face. "Now that we all know you're not leavin', go ahead and ask your question."
Ezra's mouth opened and closed a few times, but he finally just shook his head and raised his hands in surrender. "Fine... I'll stay for now, but if we can't find a way to do somethin' about my headaches, and I think y'all are still in danger because of me, then I'm leavin', and I want your promise that you won't try to stop me."
The others realized they had no choice. Once Ezra saw them nod in agreement, he took a deep, shaky breath and asked his question.
"What exactly happened to me while I was sufferin' from the amnesia?"
The others all shifted nervously and looked at Nathan. It had been months since the accident, and Ezra had only asked a few vague questions about it. They'd hoped they'd never have to explain all of it, because they knew him well enough to know that it was going to be hard for him to handle finding out that he had spent a week acting like a five year old child.
Nathan saw that the rest of them were staring at him and knew they were going to follow his lead. He hesitated, not sure just how much he should tell Ezra.
Their reluctance to answer his question was making Ezra nervous, but he'd put it off long enough... he needed to know what had happened to him. Hopefully it would explain these odd images and flashes of memory that kept coming to him, and maybe if he were lucky, something he'd said or done during that time would shed some light on his nightmares. Besides, if it turned out that he had to leave, this would be his last chance to try and fill in that missing week of his life.
He saw the others watching Nathan and knew they were waiting for him to say something. "Please, Nathan? I... I really think I need to know now. I keep havin' these strange... thoughts... that just make no sense at all."
Nathan sighed resignedly and pulled his chair up in front of Ezra. They'd been pretty sure he was having flashbacks, but he'd never actually talked about them before. "What kind of thoughts, Ezra?"
Ezra blushed and stared down at his hands. "Y'all are goin' to think I'm losin' my mind. I... I keep seein' myself as a child... but... I'm always with one of you." He raised his eyes and grinned crookedly at Vin. "I keep havin' one where I'm kneelin' in front of you on a bed, and you're attemptin' to teach me how to play your harmonica." His gaze passed to Chris and his face turned even redder as an image suddenly came to him of his childlike self sitting on the gunfighter's lap in a rocking chair. "You... you were tellin' me a story... Goldilocks and the Three Bears, to be exact, and you were... holdin' me on your...." Ezra propped his elbows on his knees and dropped his face into his hands when he saw the startled look in their eyes. "I told you y'all'd think I was crazy."
Buck looked questioningly at Nathan who nodded for him to go ahead. There was no getting around it now, he had to be told.
Buck laid his hand on Ezra's back and leaned down to look into his face. "You're not crazy, pard, those things really did happen."
Ezra turned his head and frowned at Buck. "What did you say?"
Buck knew he'd heard him. He smiled and shrugged his shoulders. "They happened. When you had the amnesia... well, we fudged a little on what really went on. It wasn't that ya didn't know who ya were... ya knew your name... Ezra Payton Standish," Buck grinned when he saw the surprise that flashed in Ezra's green eyes at hearing him say his middle name, "but you were just a little mixed up about your age."
Ezra sat up and slowly shook his head at Buck. "I don't understand... my age? How could I be confused about my--" His heart started to pound and his head began to spin as his suspicions grew. "Just how old did I think I was?"
Buck glanced at the others and then looked back at Ezra. He could feel the trembling starting again and slowly began rubbing Ezra's back to calm him. "Now take it easy, pard... it's not all that bad."
Ezra shrugged off Buck's attempts to soothe him and stared hard at the other man. His voice shook as he repeated his question. "How. Old?"
Chris reached out and took hold of Ezra's hand, wincing as the gambler's fingers clamped tightly around his. Ezra turned his head and looked anxiously at the gunfighter when Buck continued to hesitate. "Chris?"
Chris sighed. "Five, Ezra... you thought you were five years old."
Ezra shook his head in denial, his eyes big as saucers and his mouth hanging open in shock. "No... I couldn't have-- five?" He looked at the others and saw them all nodding. "I actually thought I was-- for a whole week?" The expression on his face would have been funny if it wasn't apparent exactly how horrified he was. "But... that means that... that y'all had to take care of me and--"
Vin smiled at Ezra, trying to ease the tension some. "It's okay, pard, you were a good little cuss t' have around. A little hard t' understand at first, but we got the hang of it after a bit."
Ezra's face paled as he took in what Vin was saying. "I-I even spoke like a... like a... child?"
JD couldn't help it. Ezra's horrified expression, his rare struggle for words, the memories of some of the things the gambler did as Lit'l Ezra... it was all just too much for the young man. He laughed.
Ezra looked at JD and frowned.
"Oh God, Ezra... I-I'm s-sorry. I just can't h-help it. You were so d-darn cute...." JD dissolved into a helpless fit of the giggles, which was the complete undoing of the other five men.
"Good Lord...." Ezra groaned as he saw them all trying desperately to smother their own laughter. Flopping back on the bed, he folded his arms across his face and wondered if it were truly possible to die from embarrassment.
Josiah recovered first and sent JD and the others an admonishing look as he moved around the bed to sit near Ezra, placing a large, gentle hand on the Southerner's shoulder. "Ezra, we're not laughin' at you. We just can't help but smile when we think of Lit'l Ezra's visit because it was such a joyous time for us. It's nothin' for you to be ashamed of. You've got to remember, you were hurt and not in control of anything that was happening to you."
"*Lit'l* Ezra?" Ezra's voice reflected all the embarrassment he was continuing to feel, and he still refused to lower his arms and look at them.
Josiah chuckled. "Just one of the affectionate terms we had for the little guy."
"Look at me, Ezra." Josiah tugged gently at the younger man's arm. "Please."
Ezra reluctantly allowed Josiah to pull his arms away from his face and looked up at the gentle preacher.
Josiah shook his head at the pain and doubt he saw in the sad green eyes that stared back at him. "This'll sound strange, but I wish you could have met Lit'l Ezra. He was a very affectionate and loving child who showed us all just how lucky we were to have found each other." Josiah could see Ezra was listening closely, so he kept his voice low and soft and kept trying to show the gambler the positive side of his accident. "I know you've seen the new closeness we all share... and I know you feel it, too."
Ezra nodded slowly, his eyes never leaving Josiah's. He *had* felt the change... in them and in himself. He'd known deep in his heart that something unusual had happened while he was sick, but he'd just never known exactly what it was.
"It's all because of you... the child in you. Lit'l Ezra brought us together with his need to be cared for, protected, and loved, and he eagerly returned that love, turnin' us from a group of friends who shared a job and a home into a true family." Josiah saw the pain and doubt slowly leaving Ezra's eyes as he gradually began to accept what he was hearing.
The others saw that Josiah's words were working and wisely stayed silent, letting the big man do the talking for now. Hopefully he could convince Ezra how important he was to their family and show him why he couldn't leave.
"All those images of me as a child... I thought I was losing my mind," Ezra whispered brokenly.
Josiah took Ezra's hand and squeezed it gently. "Why don't you tell us some of what you've been rememberin'... maybe it'll help to have us confirm and explain those images."
Ezra thought a minute and then shook his head as he again flushed red with embarrassment at some of the things he thought he remembered.
JD walked over and perched on a corner of the bed. "Come on, Ezra... I promise I won't laugh again." He grinned down at the gambler. "At least I'll try real hard not to. I've gotta admit, some of the things ya said an' did were kinda funny."
Ezra couldn't help but smile at the youth's honesty as he pushed himself up into a sitting position. "Why thank you, Mr. Dunne. That's very... reassuring. Just how embarrassed am I going to be over what 'Lit'l Ezra' said and did?"
Vin grinned at the gambler. "Plenty. Does the word... 'baff'... ring any bells?"
Ezra's mouth dropped open and his face flushed a deep scarlet as he quickly looked at Chris. "No... that didn't really--"
Chris blushed slightly himself. "'Fraid so." The gunfighter grinned and leaned over to whisper in the embarrassed Southerner's ear. "Don't worry, Ezra... I didn't look."
Ezra moaned and buried his face in his hands. "Oh my God... somebody please just shoot me now and put me out of my misery."
Once they convinced Ezra that it wasn't possible to die from embarrassment and that no one was going to comply with his request to shoot him, they got him to finish telling them about the little flashes of memory he'd experienced. Ezra propped himself back against the headboard and spent the next hour alternately blushing, grinning, and fighting away tears as the others sat around him and helped fill in the gaps in his memory.
They were careful to let him take the lead by answering his questions and confirming the bits and pieces he remembered, but not elaborating on particular incidents unless they were sure it was something he could handle. They tried to keep in mind Ezra's pride in his self-control and the need he still felt at times to keep a wall between his heart and everyone around him. So far, Buck was the only one to totally penetrate that protective barrier, but the rest of them were slowly making their way around it and didn't want to do anything that would impede their progress.
Everything went along fine for about an hour, and then Ezra began describing an incident that they'd all been hoping he wouldn't remember.
"Buck and I were in an alley... the one by the livery... someone was there with us. I can't--" Ezra's brow furrowed in concentration and he shook his head slowly as he stared at Buck. His voice trembled slightly with the frustration of not being able to remember it clearly. "It's all so fuzzy... so damned confusing. You were shot, weren't you? I know y'all told me that it-- that you were injured durin' a bank robbery, but... but I don't think--" He stared up at them in confusion. "That's not really what happened, is it? You were tryin' to help me. I don't understand... why would anyone--" Ezra started rubbing distractedly at his forehead as he struggled to remember more details. "It was a large man... I can see him, but he's so shadowy...."
Buck laid his hand on Ezra's shoulder. "You gettin' one of them headaches, pard? Maybe we should stop for a little while."
Ezra sighed and closed his eyes. "I don't think it's one of *those* headaches...."
Nathan patted Ezra's leg. "I think you're jus' tryin' too hard t' remember... an' when's the last time ya ate?"
Ezra opened his eyes and flushed guiltily. "Um... last night?"
Nathan shook his head and rose off the bed. "Ezra... what am I gonna do with you? That's it... we're takin' a break an' gettin' somethin' t' eat." He saw Ezra about to protest and quickly continued. "An' *then* we'll talk 'bout that night in the alley."
Ezra sat forward and looked anxiously up at Nathan. "Then it was real? Someone who was after me shot Buck?"
Chris placed a reassuring hand on the gambler's shoulder. "It was real, Ezra, but like Nathan said... first you eat, then we'll tell you what happened." He waited until he'd received a nod of acceptance from Ezra before standing up. "Are you comin' down with us, or would you rather we brought somethin' up here for ya?"
Ezra slumped back against the pillows and shook his head. "I think I'd just as soon remain in my room, if you don't mind."
Buck could see that the stress of their talk was taking a toll on the younger man and decided to stay and make sure he was all right. He looked up at the others as they filed out the door. "I don't feel like goin' down either. Just bring me a plate of grub when ya come back."
Ezra frowned at Buck. "I promise you, Mr. Wilmington, I wasn't planning on sneakin' off while y'all were down in the saloon."
Buck was stung by the sarcasm in the gambler's voice and headed for the door. "I never thought you were, Ezra. I just thought ya might like some company."
Ezra moved quickly off the bed and grabbed Buck's arm before he could leave. "Wait, Buck... I'm sorry. I didn't mean to--" Ezra sighed wearily and released the older man's arm to rub again at his aching forehead. "Please stay."
Buck turned and saw the paleness of Ezra's face and the pinched look around his eyes, and knew the headache was worse than he'd been letting on. He saw the Southerner sway slightly, and grabbed his arm and led him over to the bed. "Here, lay down an' rest some while the others are gone."
Ezra was too tired to resist and allowed himself to be pushed down on the mattress. Buck worriedly fussed over him, helping him off with his boots and coat and making sure he was comfortable before wetting a cloth and placing it gently across the smaller man's forehead. "Close your eyes for a bit, pard... maybe it'll help that headache."
"Buck? That man in the alley--"
Buck quickly laid a hand on Ezra's shoulder and stopped him. "Hush now... just rest. You heard Chris an' Nathan... we'll talk more after ya eat."
Ezra thought about protesting, but realized he was just too tired to argue with Buck. He managed a small nod and a few mumbled words of acquiescence before he drifted off to sleep.
Buck sat and watched over Ezra while he rested, ready to awaken him in case he slipped into one of his nightmares, but thankfully, his rest was easy, and he managed to sleep the entire time the others were gone.
Once downstairs, the others placed their dinner orders with Inez and then sat at their regular table to enjoy a drink or two while they waited for their food. Josiah looked at his friends and smiled. "Well, I think Brother Ezra took most of what he heard tonight fairly well."
Nathan nodded. "A lot better than I ever thought he would."
"Gotta admit, I kinda liked seein' ol' Ezra embarrassed for a change... it don't happen very damn often." Vin grinned as he sipped at his beer. "Sure liked that look he got on his face when I asked 'im 'bout the baff."
JD nearly choked as he remembered the horrified look that had come over the gambler's face. "He got almost as red as his jacket!"
Chris smiled at the thought of Ezra's reaction and then his expression sobered. "I just hope he can handle the rest of what he's gotta hear."
JD nodded his agreement and looked at the others. "How much are we gonna tell 'im?"
Chris shrugged and looked at Nathan.
"Well... I guess if we're gonna get to the bottom of these nightmares of his we're gonna have t' tell 'im pretty much everything 'bout Matthew... everything Lit'l Ezra told us 'bout 'im, an' every rotten thing that he did when he was here."
JD frowned and looked around the table. "But we're not gonna tell him about his mother, are we? Findin' out what she did would probably kill 'im."
Josiah quickly agreed with their youngest. "JD's right. As rocky as their relationship is, finding out Maude tried to have him kidnapped... and by the man who abused him as a child no less... would completely destroy it. And it would probably destroy Ezra in the process."
Vin nodded. "I hate seein' ol' Maude get away with all she did t' Ezra, but it ain't worth havin' him hurt again jus' t' get back at her."
"And he definitely would get hurt. Ezra's heart is a lot more fragile than he lets on, and the truth about his mother would certainly shatter it. We'd lose him for sure if that happened." Josiah saw their expressions harden and knew that each of them was ready to do anything they had to to keep that from occurring... even if it meant lying through their teeth about Maude and her involvement with Matthew's plans.
Ezra awoke and lay quietly with his eyes closed, relieved to find that his headache was gone. Nathan had been right... it had been just the tension from trying to force his memories. That and forgetting to eat. His stomach rumbled softly and he realized just how hungry he was. Hopefully the others would return soon with his dinner.
Hearing a creaking noise somewhere in front of him, he slowly opened his eyes and saw Buck shifting on the chair he'd pulled up to the window. He sat with his long legs stretched out in front of him, booted feet propped up on the sill as he stared out at the quiet street. Ezra felt a warm comfort in knowing that his friend had been there watching over him while he slept.
Ezra took advantage of the quiet and Buck's distraction to observe the older man as he thought back on all he'd learned that afternoon. He had been rendered practically speechless when he'd heard the lengths they'd gone to in order to ensure Lit'l Ezra's happiness while he was 'visiting.' Now he understood the new feeling of belonging that he'd had ever since his memory had returned. Only a real family would have pushed aside their own inhibitions in order to give him the loving attention he'd needed to feel safe and secure while he thought he was a child.
Ezra smiled and blushed slightly as he stared at Buck. As good as the other five men had apparently been to him while he was sick, none of their efforts could even compare to what Buck had done for him.
Ezra had been embarrassed beyond belief to find out that he'd spent nearly the entire week clinging tightly to Buck. And Buck had allowed it... had actually encouraged it. He'd held him, rocked him, dried his tears, returned Lit'l Ezra's hugs and kisses... even slept in the bed with him to try and keep away his nightmares. Buck had done anything and everything necessary to help him through his ordeal, and Ezra finally understood why he felt so close to him now. Josiah told them they had made a connection of the soul and that it was a rare gift that they both should cherish and protect. As hard as it was for Ezra to accept that someone like himself could be blessed with that kind of gift, he had to admit that a 'connection of the soul' was the only way to describe how he felt about Buck.
Josiah had also been the one to fill in the missing pieces to his memories of Christmas. Ezra had remembered there being a tree... and even though his face had again flushed red with embarrassment at admitting it... he had told them he had a vague recollection of sitting on the bed with Chris, receiving a gift, and telling him he wished he were his father. That was when the preacher had told him all about Lit'l Ezra's 'first Christmas' as they'd referred to it. He'd felt a surge of warmth flood his heart when he'd learned how much trouble they'd gone to to try and make it as perfect as they possibly could. Especially touching was the amount of thought and care that had been put into the presents each of them had given him, and his mind had instantly turned to the inscription on the watch he'd received from Buck.
Ezra quietly reached down and withdrew the timepiece from his vest pocket and opened it. He traced his fingers across the words etched in the cover and recalled Josiah saying that 'Lit'l Ezra' was only one of the names they'd used for him. He stared at the watch... 'For My Little One'... 'Little One'... could that have been another?
Buck had heard the soft click of the watch opening and had looked around to see Ezra holding it with a trace of a smile tugging at his lips while running his long, slender fingers lightly across the inscription. "Figured it out, did ya?"
Ezra started at the sound of Buck's voice and glanced up at him. "This is why you were so insistent on my keeping the watch, isn't it? Was it really a gift from your mother?"
Buck moved the chair back over next to the bed and sighed as he grinned sadly at Ezra. "Yeah, it was. She gave it to me for my sixteenth birthday, only a few weeks before she died, but I had Mary put that writin' in there just for Lit'l Ezra. I wanted to give the little guy... um... you... somethin' that was special... because you'd become kinda important to me." Buck blushed slightly when he saw Ezra staring at him. "I guess Josiah was right... we must've made some sorta connection. Like our souls touched... or somethin'." He ran his hands through his hair in frustration at not being able to find the right words to express how he felt. "Hell, Ezra, I just ain't no good at explainin' this kinda thing. I guess it's just like we talked about when ya first came out of your amnesia... 'bout feelin' like real brothers now."
Ezra looked down at the watch again and nodded. "You explained it just fine, Buck. You know, I... I was alone a lot when I was a child, and I used to dream about what it would be like to have a big brother... to have someone who would always be there for me... someone to look up to." He closed the watch and tucked it safely back in his pocket before raising his eyes to stare shyly up at the other man. He hesitated for a moment, but Buck's warm smile gave him the courage to continue. "As you know, I'm not usually one to express my feelings openly, and I wouldn't be doin' so now, but it may become necessary for me to leave, and I... I just need you to know that you... that havin' you come into my life has been one of the most rewarding things that has ever happened to me." Ezra paused as he felt the heat of embarrassment rising up to warm his face, but forced himself to ignore it. "I had given up hope of ever findin' anyone I could... could... well, feel *safe* with... safe enough to be myself." Ezra shook his head in frustration as he groped for the right words.
Buck wanted to stop Ezra and put him out of his misery because he knew what he was trying to say anyway... it was everything Buck was feeling about him. But he also knew how important it was for the gambler, who was so unfamiliar with expressing his emotions, to actually put them into words. So instead, he smiled reassuringly and held his tongue, letting Ezra stumble through his explanation.
"I'm not sayin' this right. It's so much more than feelin' safe, but I don't know how to... tell you. I just don't know what words to say so you'll understand how much you've... how much you mean to me." Ezra's eyes never left Buck's as he held out his hand. "I guess I just want to thank you for... for bein' that big brother I always dreamed about and needed so desperately, for bein' my... my friend."
"You're welcome, Ezra, but ain't no need to be thankin' me. This all means just as much to me as it does to you, 'cause you're fillin' a big hole that was in my life, too." Buck grasped the younger man's hand in both of his and shook it warmly. "Thanks for lettin' me be your big brother, Ezra... an' I'm real proud to call ya my friend." Buck's smile grew even wider. "An' don't worry... you got the words just right, but it 'bout killed ya to say 'em, didn't it?"
"Was it that obvious? I guess I'd better work on my poker face... I seem to be losing my touch." Ezra shot Buck a look of gratitude for lightening the conversation and then grimaced as he realized how sentimental he must have sounded. "Sorry for gettin' a bit maudlin, must be a side- effect of the headache."
"Nah, that was just Lit'l Ezra peekin' out. He was real happy with the idea of havin' big brothers, an' he didn't have any problem with makin' sure we knew it." Buck grinned at the expression that came over the gambler's face, and then felt a bit of sympathy for him. He'd had to suffer through so much embarrassment in the last few hours, that it was a wonder the blush he was again wearing hadn't become a permanent condition. "This has gotta be kinda strange for ya, huh? Hearin' us talk 'bout Lit'l Ezra like he was a real little kid."
Ezra shook his head as he rolled over onto his side. "Strange doesn't even begin to describe it, Mr. Wilmington."
"I gotta admit, it did take some gettin' used to, but after you'd been Lit'l Ezra for awhile, it was just kinda like dealin' with a five year old who happened to be big for his age." Buck saw Ezra's face turning red again and patted him comfortingly on the arm. "Come on, pard, it ain't nothin' to be ashamed of. Ya couldn't help what happened to ya, an' besides... ya didn't do nothin' too embarrassin' while you were our Little One. Well... except for when ya practically drowned Chris while he was helpin' ya take that bath. Or when ya nearly killed Vin an' Josiah tryin' to get away from that spider. Oh, an' the time ya--"
Ezra held his hands up to stave off Buck's torturous trip down memory lane. "If you're tryin' to make me feel better, you're failing miserably, Mr. Wilmington."
Buck laughed and nodded. "Sorry, pard, I'll stop. It's just that JD was right... you were just so damn cute--"
"Lord, y'all are just not goin' to let me live this down, are you?" Ezra's blush deepened, but he grinned in spite of his embarrassment.
"Oh, I reckon we'll ease up on ya... after we've had some fun with ya first." Buck laughed again when Ezra groaned and buried his face in the pillow.
Thankfully for Ezra, the others returned at that moment with their dinner and saved him from anymore of Buck's reminiscing. His eyes widened when he saw the amount of food on the plate Nathan handed him, but one look at the healer's face, and he knew it would be pointless to argue. To Ezra's chagrin, Nathan wouldn't even allow any discussion about the events that had occurred in the alley until after he'd eaten every bit of his meal.
Ezra felt as though he would burst when he shoved the last morsel of food into his mouth, but he had finally finished. "There, Mr. Jackson, will that suffice? Or do I have to lick the plate clean before you'll allow our conversation to continue."
Nathan shook his head at the gambler's sarcasm and took the empty plate from him. "Just hush or I'll go get ya another big helpin'... with a nice, big glass of milk t' go with it." They all laughed when Ezra shuddered and quickly gulped down his coffee as if to wash away the imagined taste of the milk.
Setting the empty mug down, Ezra stared nervously at his friends. "Now will you please tell me how much of my memory of that night is true?" His eyes focused on Buck. "It wasn't really a bank robbery, was it?"
Buck looked at the others questioningly. Since he'd stayed with Ezra during dinner, he had no idea how they'd decided to handle telling him. He was relieved to see Nathan reach out and touch the gambler's arm to draw his attention to him. This was one piece of Ezra's memory he didn't want to have to fill in.
"No, it wasn't. Ezra, it was... it was your Uncle Matthew." Nathan had kept his hand on Ezra's arm and felt the tremor that ran through the younger man.
The color drained from his face and there was a catch in his voice as he tried to deny what Nathan was telling him. "My-- no... it couldn't have... been--" Ezra searched each of their faces for some signs of doubt, and his heart sank when he could find none. "But why was he here? And why was he in that alley?"
Ezra stood and began nervously pacing about the small room. The others could see his hand shake as he ran it continually through his hair and wondered if it was from the frustration of not being able to remember... or from fear.
Nathan glanced at Chris. This was where the explanation of what had happened got tricky because this was where Maude came into the story, and where they had to start twisting the facts to cause the least amount of harm to Ezra.
"Maude brought him with her," Chris spoke quietly, but his words hit the gambler hard, jerking him to a stop and leaving him trembling with shock.
"Mother was here? With... *him?* Did she... did she see me in *that* condition?" Ezra stood near the door, weakly leaning back against it as he digested this new information. "Why didn't you tell me?"
Nathan was standing next to the shaking gambler and put a large hand on his shoulder to try and calm him. "We thought it best t' let ya remember most of what happened on your own... t' only answer your questions an' not tell ya anything more than ya seemed ready t' hear." He saw the smaller man frown and tried to explain their actions better. "It was my idea, Ezra. I ain't never seen nothin' like what happened t' ya before, an' I wasn't sure how t' handle it. It jus' seemed like the best thing t' do." Nathan shrugged helplessly. "We were jus' tryin' t' make sure we didn't do nothin' t' hurt ya."
Ezra closed his eyes and wearily leaned his head back against the door. He raised his hand to cover that of the healer's lying on his shoulder and gave it a gentle squeeze. "It's all right, Nathan... I know everything you've done was done to try and help me." He opened his eyes again and gave his friend a small smile. "I'm only sorry you had to deal with my dear mother at all. I suppose she made quite a scene?"
The others all exchanged a look and shook their heads at him. "She was jus' worried 'bout ya, Ezra. Wanted t' take ya home with her so she could get ya better medical help," Vin spoke softly and tried to minimize the turmoil that Maude's visit had caused.
"Why'd she bring my...." Ezra shuddered as he struggled against the memories just the mention of his uncle evoked.
"He was here as her lawyer." Chris saw the confusion in the smaller man's eyes and continued. "Maude knew we'd put up a fight against her taking you away, so she brought him with her to argue her case to the Judge."
"You... you fought to keep me here?" Ezra's gaze was almost shy as it traveled from one man to the next, his heart clenching at the thought that they cared enough about him to take on Maude and his uncle. Knowing this helped ease some of the pain he felt at his mother's continued association with the man who had tormented him as a child... the man who, to Ezra's shame, still sent a small frisson of fear and dread rippling up his spine.
Buck stood and walked over to lean against the wall beside the gambler. He smiled at the incredulous look on his friend's face. "Hell, pard, after all the time an' effort we put in to makin' you one of us, ya don't think we'd actually let her just waltz in here an' take you away, do ya?"
"Bucklin here was gonna haul your butt off t' Mexico if the Judge couldn't find a legal way t' let us keep ya." Vin smiled at the look of astonishment that washed over Ezra's face. "Course, that woulda left the Judge with no one t' take care of the town, 'cause there was no way in hell we were stayin' behind."
Ezra could only shake his head, too stunned by this further evidence of their loyalty to him to find the words to respond.
"Besides, Ezra," JD looked up at him earnestly. "We promised the Little One that we wouldn't let nobody take him away from us... an' keepin' promises was real important to 'im."
"I-I don't know how to thank you for... everything y'all did while I was...." Ezra's words trailed off. There was nothing he could say that would even come close to expressing how much this all meant to him.
Buck saw the difficulty he was having and wrapped his arm around the younger man's shoulders. Giving him a light hug, he led him over to the bed. "We know, pard. There ain't nothin' ya gotta thank us for... it's no more than you'd do for any of us." He pushed Ezra down onto the edge of the bed and sat down beside him. "Why don't you just sit here and take it easy while we try an' explain what all led up to that incident in the alley. Then once we get that outta the way, we'll figure out what we're gonna do to get rid of your nightmares."
Vin pushed himself away from the wall and headed toward the door. "I think we could all use a drink while we talk... considerin' who we're gonna be discussin'." He saw the grateful smile Ezra shot him and gave him a wink as he walked out.
Ezra slumped forward, propping his head in his hands, thankful for the brief respite before hearing the details of Maude and Matthew's visit. He really wasn't sure how much more information he could handle, but he was determined to hear it all... no matter how ugly it turned out to be.
Once Vin returned and they'd all fortified themselves with a good stiff drink, they resumed their talk. For some reason, aside from the shooting in the alley, Ezra had experienced no flashbacks that involved Matthew or, more importantly, his mother. Nathan suspected it was just too painful for the gambler to have to deal with the things Maude had said and done to him during her visit.
Ezra naturally looked to Buck to furnish the explanation for his shooting, and even though it was something that was still hard for the older man to talk about, he told Ezra everything that had happened that night. The only thing he was careful to leave out was the fact that Maude was in that alley, too... helping her brother instead of him. At least, that was the last recollection Buck had of the incident. He'd finally lapsed into unconsciousness, and Ezra was beyond knowing what was happening to him by the time Maude had stepped in to save her son's life, which left the evidence of her change of heart known only to her and Matthew. A fact that may have made hearing the horrible details of Matthew's attack on him easier for Ezra to bear. As it was, he found himself being flooded with all the terror and pain that he'd experienced as a child at the hands of his sadistic uncle as he listened to Buck talk.
By the time Buck got to the actual shooting, Ezra was pale and shaking... barely able to hold his emotions in check as memories of his childhood under that monster's control filled his mind.
Nathan had been watching the Southerner carefully and was just about to call a halt to Buck's recounting of that horrible night, when suddenly Ezra stiffened and what little color was left in his cheeks drained away. "He was goin' to kill me...."
Buck slipped a supportive arm around Ezra's waist and tried to reassure him. "No, pard... it was me he was tryin' to kill... not you. He was gonna take you with 'im."
Ezra turned to stare at him, his eyes wide and glittering with the pain of his memories. "No, you don't understand... I-I remember what happened."
Chris laid his arm across Ezra's shoulders and winced as he felt how hard the younger man was shaking. "You're remembering that night in the alley?"
Ezra could only nod as he struggled to regain some hold over his emotions. He hated being so out-of-control and hated even worse that the others were witnessing it. He couldn't believe that his uncle, after all these years, could still inspire this irrational fear in him.
"It was like wakin' up from a deep sleep. I didn't know at first where I was, and I had no idea what was happenin'. Buck was...." His eyes stared into Buck's and his fingers clutched at the hand the older man slipped into his, as if to reassure himself that Buck had indeed survived his uncle's bullet in that alley. "He was lyin' on the ground, not movin'. I-I thought he was dead. I looked back up, and Uncle Matthew was there and had a gun pointed at my head... and he was smilin'."
They all saw him shudder and, remembering his uncle, could imagine just how evil and terrifying that smile probably had been to Ezra as he had moved from one reality to another.
"He said somethin' to me as he aimed the gun." Ezra flinched as the words suddenly came to him. "He said he was s-sorry and... and that I was one loose end that he'd... that he'd left dangling too long." He paused as he worked to push aside the haze that surrounded the images in his mind, and then looked up in surprise. "Mother was there. She... she stopped him." Ezra's voice reflected the shock that appeared on the others' faces at this new revelation.
Vin glanced at the other men and then gave Ezra a skeptical look. "Ya sure 'bout that, pard?"
Ezra nodded slowly. "I remember hearin' her voice tellin' Uncle Matthew to... to put his gun down...." He tried to recall more details, but finally just gave the others a small shrug of apology. "I'm sorry... everything's still blank after that."
The others were silent as they digested this new bit of information. Maude had saved Ezra's life. Apparently the woman did have a tiny morsel of maternal instinct buried in that hard, cold heart of hers. Thank God it had shown itself when it did, or they would be missing a very important part of their family now.
Seeing the pleasantly surprised look on Ezra's face at the realization that his mother had actually stood up to Matthew for him, Buck was relieved that he hadn't given in and told the younger man any of the negative aspects of Maude's visit. Hopefully, those painful memories would stay buried in Ezra's mind so that he never had to deal with them.
Chris stood up and walked around the room, one hand slowly rubbing at the back of his neck as he thought over everything Ezra had just told them. He finally stopped and stared at the gambler. "Ezra, do you have any idea what Delacourte meant by you bein' a loose end?"
Ezra thought a moment and shook his head. "I don't remember anything that would--"
Chris crouched down in front of the Southerner so he could stare into his eyes. "Think, Ezra... this could be important. It might be what's causin' the nightmares."
Nathan saw the look of confusion Ezra gave the black-clad gunfighter and placed a hand lightly on the older man's shoulder. "Easy, Chris."
Holding Ezra's gaze with his own, Chris asked quietly, "Could it have something to do with the whippin'? Is the whippin' maybe what you're dreamin' about?"
Ezra grabbed at the edge of the bed as he felt a wave of dizziness wash over him at their leader's words. His voice dropped to a whisper and his drawl thickened noticeably as he struggled to speak around the lump that had formed in his throat. "The... the whippin'? Oh... God...."
Chris reached out and grasped the gambler's arms to keep him from pitching forward onto the floor.
Nathan quickly poured a generous portion of whiskey into a glass and pressed it into the smaller man's hand.
Ezra shakily raised the shot to his lips and tossed it back, shuddering slightly as the fiery liquid hit the back of his throat. He closed his eyes and sat with his head down, waiting for the calming warmth of the whiskey to spread.
Chris felt the Southerner finally begin to relax and loosened his grip on his arms. "Okay now?"
After a moment, Ezra nodded and looked up. Chris flinched at the raw pain he saw shining in the jade green eyes staring back at him, and gently ran his hand along the smaller man's arm before releasing him and sitting back on his heels.
Buck's hand began gliding over his back again, and Ezra heaved a sigh of relief as he felt the terror that had seized him with the sudden memory of his uncle's vicious punishment begin to ease.
His voice shook slightly and still held traces of the fear that had surged through him, but Ezra finally regained enough control to speak. "I seem to have managed to bury the memories of that particularly vile incident quite effectively until now." He rubbed tiredly at his eyes before returning his gaze to Chris. "How is it you know about the... punishment? Uncle Matthew? Did he--"
"No, you told us. Or rather... Lit'l Ezra did." Chris watched him carefully to see how he'd react.
Ezra's face tightened for a moment at the knowledge that he'd disclosed a portion of his fiercely guarded past to them, but then he realized that it didn't matter. These men were his family and could be trusted not to turn around and use what they discovered about him to hurt him. They only wanted to help.
"Did the... er... little fellow perhaps impart any of the details of that... unpleasant incident?" Nathan noticed that Ezra was unconsciously running his fingers lightly over the pale scars encircling his wrist while he waited for someone to answer.
"He wouldn't talk much about it. Just said it was supposed to be a lesson about followin' orders. Apparently it was sometime after he and your mother took you away from your Uncle David and--" Chris stopped when he saw the anguished expression that appeared on the gambler's face. "Ezra? What is it? Are you okay?"
Ezra swallowed convulsively as he fought against the tears that suddenly flooded his eyes at the mention of his uncle. He opened his mouth to assure them that he was fine and then stopped. No, he wasn't fine... and he decided he was just too tired to even try and pretend that he was. The hell with his precious rule of always being in control and never showing his true feelings. He hurt, damn it. Just thinking about his Uncle David brought a sharp stab of grief to his heart. Ezra had no idea *why* it did since he really couldn't remember much about him except that he had stayed at his farm on occasion, and that he had been kind to him, but it did... and he just couldn't hide it. All Ezra could do was shake his head in response to Chris's question of concern. He knew if he tried to speak at that moment, he'd start crying, and he really wasn't at all sure he'd be able to stop again.
Josiah moved to the bed and settled his large frame down next to Ezra, and wrapping his long arms around him, pulled the smaller man into a comforting hug. After only a moment's hesitation, Ezra surprised them all by moving into the touch instead of pushing it away.
Chris laid a supportive hand on the gambler's leg. "You want us to leave, Ezra?"
Ezra shook his head and took a few deep breaths before answering. "Just give me a minute, Chris... please? I want to f-finish our talk, but I-I just--"
"Take as long as you need, Ezra. We'll be right here." Chris gave him a reassuring pat and then moved to stand beside Vin and Nathan while they waited for the Southerner to collect himself.
"What do ya think, Nathan... should we quit for the night or is he gonna be okay?" Chris's worried gaze never left the three men huddled together on the bed. Josiah whispered words of comfort in Ezra's ear as he gently ran his hand over the gambler's tousled chestnut brown hair. At the same time, Buck continued rubbing his back, occasionally leaning in to speak quietly to his friend.
Nathan stared at Ezra and shrugged. "He's a lot stronger than we give 'im credit for sometimes, but everyone has his limits. I think Ezra might be 'bout ready to reach his."
"But if we don't figger out what t' do 'bout those nightmares of his, he's gonna leave." Vin knew they wouldn't allow that to happen, but he'd rather find a solution to the problem than to have to force Ezra to stay.
Chris shook his head in frustration. "Hell, all we got so far is a bunch of guesses at what might be causin' those damned dreams. He can't seem to remember any of it for sure, and I got a feelin' that the only thing we're goin' to accomplish by pushing him harder is to get him even more upset."
JD stood just to the left of Vin, watching Ezra, his hazel eyes filled with compassion for his friend. "Why don't we take him back there?"
Vin turned to look at their youngest. "Back where?"
JD kept his eyes on Ezra who had finally pushed himself away from Josiah's shoulder and was wearily rubbing his hands over his face. The boy frowned as he realized just how spent the gambler looked. "Back to his Uncle Matthew's plantation. We know for sure that whatever happened to him to make him start havin' these nightmares had somethin' to do with his uncle, an' prob'ly happened when Ezra was stayin' with 'im. So why don't we just take him back an' see if bein' there would maybe jog his memory or somethin'?"
It took a few minutes, but JD finally noticed the silence that had befallen his friends after he'd made his suggestion. He turned to look at the other three men and found them staring at him.
"Damned good idea, kid." Vin clapped the boy on the shoulder and smiled at the look of pride that filled his eyes.
Chris just shook his head and looked at their healer. "Nathan? Think it could work?"
Nathan stared down at the floor as he contemplated JD's idea. "It might." He raised his eyes and looked at Ezra. "I don't know how he's gonna feel 'bout goin' back though... lotta bad memories for 'im there."
Vin heard something in the former slave's voice and wondered if Ezra was the only one who might be reluctant to go back home. "I gotta feelin' that if there's even a chance it could get rid of those damned nightmares, he might be willin' t' do it."
"Well, we're not gettin' anywhere this way," Chris sighed and pushed himself away from the wall. "Can't hurt to put it to him and see what he says."
Chris eased himself down in front of Ezra again, resting his hands on the gambler's legs as he smiled sadly at the emotionally exhausted man. "How ya doin', Ezra?"
"Better, thank you, Mr. Larabee." Ezra frowned when he noticed the expectant looks on Nathan, Vin and JD's faces as they stared at Chris.
"JD may have thought of a way to solve the mystery of your nightmares." Chris grinned when he saw Buck, Josiah, and Ezra all turn surprised looks on their youngest.
"JD? What'd ya come up with, son?" Josiah smiled at the boy and encouraged him to reveal his plan.
JD blushed furiously at all the attention he was receiving and cleared his throat nervously before blurting out his idea. "I just thought it might be a good idea to take Ezra back to his Uncle Matthew's place. Maybe bein' there would help him remember what his nightmares are about."
Josiah and Buck stared at each other over the top of Ezra's head for a moment and then nodded their approval of the idea.
Buck slapped Ezra on the back and leaned over to look in his face. "Sounds like a damned fine idea to me... what do ya--"
But he got no further as Ezra jumped up from the bed and backed away from his friends, his eyes wide and filled with panic, his voice a hoarse, terror-filled whisper. "No... God, no... I... can't... I can't go back there. Please... don't... don't make me go back...."
Buck was immediately off the bed and by Ezra's side trying to calm the frightened gambler. "Easy, pard, no one's gonna force ya to go... we just want ya to think about it."
Ezra had his back pressed tightly against the wall and kept his eyes on his friends as he continued to plead with them. "Y'all don't understand. I can't go back there... he'll kill me. He knows I saw... I saw him--" They watched sadly as he shuddered and closed his eyes, trying desperately to get control of the fear.
Chris moved closer, but stopped when Ezra's eyes sprang open, and he held his hands out as if to ward him off. "He knows you saw what, Ezra?" Chris kept his voice low and steady and stayed where he was, his eyes locked onto those of the younger man's. "What did you see?"
They all waited anxiously for his answer knowing this could be the key to his nightmares.
Ezra stared intently at Chris as he struggled to remember. Sweat beaded his forehead and he gasped for breath as he tried to break through the wall his mind had put up to protect him from the awful memories of his uncle.
A light seemed to come on in his eyes, and just when they thought he was about to reveal what he'd seen, Ezra's face twisted into a mask of agony and his hands flew up to clutch frantically at his temples. "Nooo... not now... please God, not now... I need to... I need to remember!"
Everyone in the room shivered as the pain-filled moan of despair was wrenched from Ezra's lips. Buck was the first to react, immediately recognizing the onset of another headache. Moving quickly, he managed to get his arms around the smaller man before he collapsed and eased him gently down to the floor, waving the others away before they could even get close to him.
Settling beside Ezra and pulling him tightly against his chest, Buck looked up and began issuing orders. "It's one of his headaches. Someone put some water in that basin an' give it to me, then empty out that pitcher an' set it down here on the floor... he'll be needin' it in a few minutes." Buck whipped his bandanna off and hurriedly soaked it in the water JD gave him, then after wrapping his hand around Ezra's wrists to restrain them, began bathing his forehead with the cool cloth.
Buck put his mouth close to the gambler's ear and began whispering to him, letting him know he wasn't alone in his pain.
Ezra pressed his head back against the larger man's chest and struggled to speak over the waves of agony that swept through his mind. "Please, Buck... don't let... them s-see me... like this."
Buck raised his eyes to the others and saw they'd heard the Southerner's plea. He nodded his thanks as they slowly backed out the door, never stopping the litany of comforting words that he was whispering to ease Ezra's torment.
"You sure ya don't need me, Buck?" Nathan questioned softly as he hesitated to leave. He wanted to examine Ezra now more than ever, but thought this probably wasn't the time for it.
"I can handle it, Nathan... we've done this before." Buck gave the worried healer a sad smile and heaved a sigh of relief when he finally relented and left, closing the door quietly behind him. Looking down at Ezra and smoothing back the tendrils of hair clinging damply to his forehead, he softly whispered in his ear, "Okay, pard... it's just you an' me. Now let's get you through this damned thing, an' then we're gonna talk about that trip."
Ezra nodded weakly against the older man's strong shoulder and with a soft moan, let the tears he'd been holding back fall. He was with Buck... he could finally give in to the pain.
Nathan walked up and joined the others at their table, dropping wearily onto the chair Josiah pulled out for him.
JD glanced back up the stairs and then frowned at the healer. "Shouldn't you be helpin' Buck with Ezra, Nathan?"
Nathan gratefully accepted the beer that Inez slipped in front of him and then waited while she asked if they wanted anything else before responding to JD's question. "I offered, but he's more comfortable with Buck takin' care of him. 'Sides, there ain't nothin' more I could do for 'im than what Buck's doin'."
Vin tipped back in his chair and looked curiously over at Nathan. "Ya mean their ain't none a them herbs an' things ya got that'll help 'im?"
Nathan shook his head and took a long draw on his beer. "I seen these kinda headaches he's gettin' before, an' most times they don't last long enough t' make it worth the trouble of forcin' 'im t' take the medicine. The pain'd be gone 'fore the tea could even start workin'."
Josiah could hear the helplessness in his friend's voice and knew not being able to do anything for Ezra was bothering him more than he was letting on. "They come and go that quickly?"
"The pain itself does, but the other stuff that comes with it usually hangs on for a couple hours after the headache goes away... the sick feelin', the lightheadedness, blurry vision, bein' tired." Nathan saw Vin stare hard at him and flushed guiltily as he remembered his treatment of Ezra earlier. He heaved a deep remorseful sigh and stared down at the table. "I know, Vin... I was wrong t' jus' assume it was a hangover he had this mornin'. I shoulda at least considered it coulda been somethin' else."
Josiah patted Nathan gently on the shoulder. "Beatin' yourself up over it isn't gonna help Ezra now." He shifted his light blue eyes to their leader. "Well, now we know why Delacourte was after him... and I would bet my life that it's also what his nightmares are about."
Chris nodded and looked up toward Ezra's room. "He obviously saw his uncle do something when he was stayin' with him, and it must have been pretty serious to make him want to shut Ezra up bad enough to kill 'im."
"We ain't got much choice then, do we? Somehow we gotta get Ezra t' go back t'--" Vin stopped and frowned. "Where the hell is Ezra from anyway?"
"Ezra's from New Orleans, but his uncle lived in Shelby... a little town west of there."
They all turned to stare at JD.
JD paused with his mug of milk halfway to his lips when he noticed them staring at him again. "What?!" He was getting really tired of being the object of their attention every time he opened his mouth.
"How the hell did ya know that? Ezra never talks about hisself or his past." Nathan glanced at the others and saw them all nodding in agreement.
"Well, he does to me and Buck." JD stared right back at them, his dark brows drawing down in a frown. "Maybe he'd talk to the rest of ya if he thought you'd take him seriously an' not turn everything he says into a joke."
The others all shifted uncomfortably in their chairs as JD's words hit home. He was right... they did usually laugh off most of what Ezra said, but that was because Ezra usually did it first. Of course, maybe he was just trying to beat them to the punch. If he made the joke, maybe it wouldn't hurt quite so much.
Josiah slid lower in his chair and took a large gulp of his beer. "Out of the mouths of babes."
Admittedly, they'd all come a long way toward treating Ezra as one of the family, but there were obviously a few things they still needed to work on. Maybe the upcoming trip would help forge a tighter bond with their resident gambler.
"So how are we gonna convince 'im t' go?" Vin stared around the table at the others hoping one of them would come up with a plan, because as far as he could see, it was going to take a miracle to get Ezra to go anywhere near the place.
Chris glanced at Vin and shrugged. "Well, I could order him to go, but I'd rather not do that unless there's no other way." A smile tugged at his lips and he took a quick sip of his beer. "We might have our best weapon already working on 'im. Buck's been gettin' damn good at talking Ezra into doin' just about anything he wants him to, and since Buck knows goin' back is Ezra's best bet at riddin' himself of those nightmares, he'll be pulling out all the stops in order to talk him into goin'."
Josiah shook his head in sympathy for the gambler. "Then I foresee a trip in our future, because Ezra doesn't stand a chance against the full force of that infamous Wilmington charm."
They all laughingly agreed with the preacher's prediction, and with a silent prayer for Buck's success, began hammering out the details of the trip they all hoped they'd soon be making.
It had been almost an hour and Buck was still seated on the floor with Ezra. The vomiting had finally stopped and the headache had begun to ease up, but he didn't think the younger man was ready to be moved just yet. Buck was alarmed at how much Ezra's condition had worsened since he'd first found out about his nightmares three short weeks ago. As he sat with one arm wrapped around him, gently wiping the sweat off his face, Buck could feel just how much weight the younger man had lost off his already slender frame. He knew Ezra's bulky layers of clothes had hidden the change, but he still kicked himself for not noticing it sooner.
"Damn it, Ezra, why didn't ya tell me you were still havin' trouble?" Buck kept his voice soft, with no hint of anger in it, just a sadness that the gambler still didn't trust him enough to ask for his help.
Ezra pushed himself out of Buck's arms and leaned weakly against the wall beside him. He sat with his head tipped back and his eyes closed as he still fought against the nausea that threatened to make a resurgence. "I'm sorry, Buck, I thought I could handle it myself, and I... I just didn't want to cause you any worry."
Buck shook his head and heaved an exasperated sigh at the Southerner's stubborn pride. "Hell, Ezra, it's my job to worry 'bout ya. That's just what big brothers do." He saw a shiver ripple through the slight form beside him and quickly pushed himself to his feet. "Come on, pard, let's get ya up off this hard floor an' into bed."
Ezra grabbed hold of Buck's arms and stopped him as he tried to lift him to his feet. "I don't think that would be wise at the moment... my stomach is still a bit unsteady."
"Still feelin' dizzy?" When the gambler nodded, Buck knelt beside him and waited till he gave the okay, and then slowly eased him to his feet. Once he had him upright, Buck stopped, gave Ezra a chance to catch his breath, and then shifted his grip to take most of the smaller man's weight before carefully walking him over to the bed. Buck sat Ezra down and let him rest for a minute, then helped him lay back amongst the pillows and pulled the blanket up over him.
Buck grabbed the wet cloth and again wiped Ezra's face off. "Ya gonna make it, pard?"
Ezra took a few deep breaths and slowly opened his eyes. "I think so... at least for now."
Buck could see that sleep was pulling at the weary gambler, but he wanted to get the subject of the trip settled first. "Ezra, I know you're real tired now and needin' to rest, but we have to talk 'bout JD's idea."
"I was hopin' you'd forgotten about that." The gambler managed to give him a weak smile, but Buck saw the small tremor of fear that shook him.
He watched Ezra struggle with his emotions and almost relented. But then Buck took a good look at the smaller man... at the utter exhaustion that dulled his usually bright green eyes and the gauntness of his face, and he steeled himself against his desire to protect the gambler from his memories.
Ezra stared up at Buck, searching his face for even a hint that he was willing to drop the subject, but it was apparent that he had no intention of changing his mind. Ezra turned away and heaved a ragged sigh. His voice trembled with emotion as he tried to make the former lawman understand.
"You have no idea what you're askin' of me, Mr. Wilmington. I am deeply ashamed to admit it, but... I... I'm--" Ezra looked up and the older man's heart nearly broke in two when he saw the depth of emotion openly revealed in the gambler's eyes. Ezra's voice sank to a husky, pain-filled whisper. "I'm afraid, Buck. I hate it, and I wish it weren't true, but just the thought of returning to that... place... absolutely terrifies me." He weakly pushed himself over onto his side, turning his back on the older man, and curled up into a ball of pure misery. "I can't do it, Buck. I... I just can't."
Buck leaned forward with his elbows on his knees and buried his face in his hands, swallowing hard to try and get his own emotions under control. Once he thought he could keep from breaking down, Buck shifted over to sit on the bed beside Ezra and began lightly massaging his back. "I've met your uncle, pard... remember? I do know some of what you're goin' through, an' it makes me sick to think of havin' to take you back there." He felt Ezra tense up under his hand and gently forced him to roll back over so he could see his face. "But ya can't keep goin' on the way you are, Ezra... it's gonna kill ya... an' then he'll win. You don't want that, do ya?"
Ezra shook his head and tiredly closed his eyes. "Of course I don't, but what if we travel all the way back there and I still can't remember? Do you think goin' through all that for nothin' won't kill me just as quickly? He wins either way."
Buck took the smaller man's hand in his and tugged gently on it. When Ezra opened his eyes and looked at him, Buck caught and held his attention, pinning him with the intensity of his gaze and forcing him to listen. "The Ezra Standish I know would never fold up and just quit... he'd go down fightin' with everything he had."
Ezra stared at his friend for several minutes and finally gave him a small, resigned smile. "You seem to think you know this 'Ezra Standish' fellow pretty well."
"Damn straight I do... an' I know he'd appreciate his best friend's help in makin' this decision so much, that he'd insist on buyin' 'im a drink just to thank 'im." Buck laughed when Ezra dug in his pocket, pulled out a coin, and tossed it down on the bed beside his hand.
"I suppose you're right, Mr. Wilmington, that is probably what he'd do. So please accept this as a token of my appreciation and go get that drink so that I can get some sleep. I suppose if I'm goin' to be travelin' all the way back to Louisiana, I'll need to be fully rested."
Buck picked up the money and patted Ezra on the shoulder. "That'a boy, Ezra... I knew you'd make the right decision." Buck squeezed his arm and turned down the light before moving away from the bed. "And, Ezra? Don't you worry... we'll be right there beside ya every step of the way."
Ezra yawned and rolled over, pulling the quilt snugly up under his chin. "I know you will, Buck. I never doubted it for a minute."
Buck waited until he heard Ezra's breathing even out into the steady rhythm of sleep and then slipped out of the room, quietly closing the door behind him.
When Buck had joined the others down in the saloon and given them the welcome news that Ezra had agreed to go, the only detail they'd managed to work out was that they'd need to take the train. Then they'd started arguing over which of them would accompany Ezra and which of them would stay to take care of the town. An hour later, they were still at it.
Buck's eyes widened when he saw JD scowling at him. "Don't even think it, boy... Ezra's not goin' anywhere without me. Besides, he needs me in case he gets one of his headaches."
"Nathan'll be there." JD gestured at the healer and gave Buck a smug grin, thinking he'd answered that little argument.
Buck glanced at Nathan and just shook his head.
Nathan glared at the other man. "What... you sayin' I can't take care of them headaches? An' what if somethin' else happens... you gonna be able to take out a bullet or set a bone or stitch up a stab wound? I know how y'all are, an' the odds on any one of those things happenin' is pretty damn good. I *have* t' go."
Josiah's deep, rumbling voice rolled over Buck's response to Nathan's statement. "Well, you all saw him up there... who did he let comfort him when he needed it? Yours truly. And considering what he's liable to be goin' through once we reach his uncle's, he's probably gonna be needin' a lot more of my calming presence and reassurances."
JD shook his head, his shaggy, dark hair whipping about his face. He was determined not to be left behind on this one... not when it concerned Ezra. "He'd have Buck there for that... he sure wouldn't want both of ya actin' like a mother hen over 'im."
"Ha! See... I told ya I needed to be with 'im." Buck pointed his finger triumphantly at JD.
"Yeah... well, he's one of my best friends, an' I know he'd want me with 'im." JD's brows drew down as he stared at Josiah and Buck. He turned his eyes on Chris and Vin and received a dark glare from both men.
"Don't even go there, JD," Chris warned him. There was no argument where he was concerned. Ezra was one of his men, and he was in trouble... there was no way he wouldn't be there for him.
"What are ya lookin' at me for, kid?" Vin's eyes narrowed as he saw the others turn to stare at him.
JD shrugged and slid his mug of milk nervously around the table in front of him. "Well... why do you need to go? Ezra grew up there... he'll know the area good enough. What'll we need a tracker for?"
Buck sided with their youngest. "That's right, Vin. Besides, we'll be goin' through Texas... it'd be too dangerous for ya to go along."
Vin glanced at Buck and shook his head. "We'll be takin' a damned train. Who's gonna notice me on there?" Then he turned his gaze on JD. "Ezra ain't been back there in... what... twenty years? 'Sides, he was only five then. How much is he likely t' remember?"
Chris saw Buck and JD both open their mouths to continue the argument and decided he'd had enough. "Well, it looks like we're never gonna be able to settle this, so I guess we're just all gonna have to go."
The others were immediately silenced by his quiet statement and stared at him with their mouths hanging open in surprise.
Vin recovered first and frowned at their leader. "Who's gonna watch over the town while we're gone?"
"Yeah... what's the Judge gonna say if we all take off?" JD shook his head at the idea of them all just up and leaving.
"Yes, Mr. Larabee, what *is* the Judge goin' to say?"
They all looked up, startled by Ezra's sudden appearance in the saloon.
"Ezra, what the hell are ya doin' up already? You were s'posed to be restin'." Nathan glowered at the gambler as he retrieved a chair from another table and slid it in between Buck and JD.
Ezra smiled up at Inez who had seen him slowly making his way down the stairs and had anticipated his order for a double shot of his special whiskey. Taking the glass she held out to him and offering a grateful thank you, the gambler turned just in time to see Nathan wave her back to the table. He frowned and heaved an exasperated sigh when he heard the healer request some food for him. "Mr. Jackson, if I had wanted something to eat, I would have ordered it."
"It ain't a matter of wantin' t' eat, Ezra... it's that ya need to." Nathan looked to the others and was relieved to see them all nodding their heads in agreement. Buck wasn't the only one who'd noticed the Southerner's drop in weight. They'd all been shocked by the change in him that had become obvious once they'd finally seen him without his fancy coat and vest.
Ezra rubbed wearily at his eyes before looking up at his friends. Even though his vision was still slightly blurred, he could see their nods and knew that he was outnumbered. He'd been going to remind them of the food he'd eaten earlier, but decided it wouldn't do him any good. Besides, he knew they were only speaking out of concern and worry for his well-being and... they were right. He wasn't blind to the evidence of his physical decline that stared back at him every morning when he used the mirror to shave. The dark circles under his eyes, the hollowness of his cheeks... it was clear that the nightmares and headaches were exacting a heavy toll on his health.
"All right, Mr. Jackson... whatever you say. I'll try to ingest a sufficient amount of food to satisfy you... if y'all will be so kind as to fill me in on any decisions you've made so far concerning our upcoming trip." Ezra grimaced as Inez placed a large bowl of stew and a couple of biscuits on the table in front of him. Picking up the spoon, he reluctantly began eating while the others went back to ironing out the details of the trip.
It took the rest of the evening and considerable arguing, but they finally managed to settle on a plan that would hopefully have all of them on their way to Shelby within the week. Since the Judge was in Eagle Bend for a trial, it was decided that Chris, Buck, JD and Ezra would go there to inform him of their need to leave for an indefinite period of time. Hopefully, since he had been so closely involved with Ezra's situation during his period of amnesia, he would understand and agree to the necessity for the trip and be able to arrange for some other means of protection for the town in their absence.
Ezra stared in amazement at the others as they, to a man, brushed off his concern that their decision to accompany him could very well result in the loss of their jobs. His heart swelled with emotion as they assured him that the only thing that mattered to them was being there for him. He was their brother and he was in trouble. He needed them. End of discussion.
Josiah saw Ezra struggling to come to grips with the idea that this kind of devotion could possibly be directed at him, and realized just how close to the surface the gambler's emotions were at the moment. In an effort to take the pressure off of him, the preacher suggested they get back to working on the list of things that needed to be accomplished in order to get their trip underway.
"Ya know... Mary's traveled an awful lot, maybe while you four are gone, I could talk t' her an' see if she can't help with the arrangements for the train we'll need t' take." Nathan saw Vin looking at him questioningly. "What's the matter, Vin?"
"Well, I hate to be the one t' have t' bring this up, but how are we gonna afford tickets for all of us?" Vin glanced around the table at the others. "I don't know 'bout the rest of ya, but I sure ain't got that kinda money."
The others looked slightly dumbfounded at the realization that they'd been so focused on their need to get Ezra back to Louisiana, that they'd never even given a thought to the problem of paying for the trip.
Ezra sighed and stared regretfully at his friends. "Ordinarily, I would have enough funds stashed away to finance our little excursion, but Lady Luck has not been kind to me in recent weeks, and I unfortunately find myself in the same depleted position as Mr. Tanner."
Chris absentmindedly waved a hand at the gambler as he thought over this little glitch in their plans. "That's all right, Ezra, there's no way we'd let ya pay for the whole trip anyway."
It was quiet for a few minutes as they all sat sipping their drinks, trying to come up with some way to get the money they needed.
Suddenly, Vin sat up straighter in his chair and gave Chris a thoughtful look. "Hey, cowboy... ya 'member that feller that was askin' 'bout the coach a couple months back? Well, Sam tol' me the other day that he'd been back to the livery an' was still real interested in it... said he'd be willin' t' pay top dollar t' own a rig that fine."
Chris stared at the tracker and let a slow, satisfied grin creep across his face. "Now who better to finance our trip than dear old Uncle Matthew himself."
Ezra frowned at the two men and slowly lowered his glass to the table. They all saw the slight tremor that ran through the Southerner when he heard the hated name. "What are you talkin' about, Mr. Larabee? My uncle? He isn't--" Ezra glanced nervously over his shoulder as if he expected the man who haunted his dreams to walk through the door.
Buck laid a calming hand on Ezra's shoulder and hurried to reassure him. "Easy, pard, he ain't here. It's his coach that we're talkin' 'bout sellin'. He left it behind when he lit outta here after tryin' t'... well, after that mess in the alley. Guess he figured he could make a quicker getaway on a horse." He saw Ezra sigh in relief, but could tell he was still a bit confused. "You know the rig we're talkin' 'bout... real fancy... sits out behind the livery?"
Ezra finally nodded as he recalled seeing the expensive-looking carriage. "So someone's shown an interest in purchasing it?"
"Yup. That rancher that bought out ol' man Wilkerson. Heard he's got more money than Stuart James or Guy Royal ever thought of havin' an' wants the coach t' cart his fancy friends from back East around in." Vin grinned knowingly at the others. "Reckon he'd be willin' t' pay top dollar for it."
Chris nodded at the tracker and Josiah. "Well then, why don't you two ride on out to his spread and see what kinda deal you can make with 'im while we're gone. If he's that anxious to get his hands on that rig, we oughta be able to get more than enough to pay for the trip."
Buck leaned forward and slapped a hand down on the table. "Now that we got all that settled, how 'bout a hand or two of poker 'fore we hit the sack? I need t' win some spendin' money for that little trip t' Eagle Bend we're takin' in the mornin'. I figure I better buy some new duds... gotta look good to impress all those southern belles we'll be meetin'."
JD snorted and grinned at the older man as he searched his pockets for enough money to get in on the game. "Yeah right, Buck... like them fancy women are even gonna look twice at a--" He stopped suddenly and frowned as he pulled a folded envelope out of his coat pocket. "Geez, Ezra, with all the commotion goin' on this mornin', I completely forgot about this letter that came for ya. Looks kinda official."
Ezra set the cards he'd been shuffling down and took the thick envelope from JD. After nervously turning it over in his hands several times, he finally ran one long, slender finger along the seal and opened it. The others watched curiously as he unfolded the letter and let his eyes scan down the page.
Ezra's eyebrows shot up, and he quickly looked around the table, fastening his surprised gaze on Buck. "Um... Mr. Wilmington? Exactly when and why did you decide to take on the responsibility of being my..." He looked back down and read directly from the letter he held in his hand... "'court appointed legal guardian?'"
Chris and the others struggled to smother their laughter as they saw the realization of what the papers were suddenly wash over Buck... effectively wiping the smile off his face and bringing a hot flush of embarrassment to his cheeks.
"Aw hell... I'd forgotten all 'bout them damned papers." Buck stared miserably at the documents for a moment while he struggled to find the words to explain, then looked up at Ezra trying to gauge his reaction to what he'd read. But the gambler had his poker face firmly in place, and he couldn't tell if Ezra was going to good-naturedly accept the news of his guardianship, or if he was about to explode. Buck quickly dropped his eyes back down to stare at the table. "Well, Maude was tryin' to drag you back to St. Louis with her, an' the Judge said the only way we could legally stop her was to have him make one of us your guardian."
"And he picked... you? The town Lothario? The one person more averse to accepting responsibility than myself?" If Buck would have just gotten the courage to look back up at Ezra, he would have seen the mischievous twinkle in the gambler's bright green eyes. "Just how much did you pay Judge Travis for the privilege of gaining control over my every move?"
That did it. Buck's head shot up, his face infused with righteous indignation at Ezra's disparaging statement. "Privilege?! Why you damn-- I shoulda let Maude take your rotten southern ass back with her! It sure woulda saved me a lot of--" The enraged gunfighter finally noticed the smile tugging at Ezra's lips and heard the choked laughter of his friends, and his angry tirade came to a sputtering halt. He let a sheepish grin steal across his face when he saw the gambler's smile widen until his gold tooth glittered in the lamplight. "Damn you, Ezra, ya really had me goin' there for a minute."
"I am sorry, Mr. Wilmington. I just couldn't resist torturing you a little." Ezra chuckled as he waved the papers at Buck. "I'm truly honored to have you as my guardian... just don't get any ideas about invoking your authority over me."
Buck laughed and took the papers out of the Southerner's hand. "Don't worry, Ezra, we'll take care of that right now." He folded the documents and started to rip them in half, but was stopped when Ezra quickly reached out and snatched them back.
Ezra blushed slightly when he saw the surprised looks the others were giving him, and hastily offered up an explanation while carefully folding the papers and placing them back in the envelope. "I think I'd better hold onto these... if you don't mind, Mr. Wilmington. They are, after all, legal documents, and I may have need of them in the future."
"Sure, Ezra, whatever you say." Buck saw the expression on the gambler's face soften as he stared down at the envelope for a moment before slipping it into his pocket. He turned away to hide the smile he couldn't quite hold back, allowing Ezra to hang onto the facade of indifference he'd put up for the rest of their friends. They might be fooled by the Southerner's lame excuse for keeping the papers, but he wasn't... he was well aware of the true depth of Ezra's feelings for his new family and knew just how much those custody papers meant to him. But Ezra's secret was safe with him... at least until they were alone. Then he might indulge himself in a bit of gentle teasing. Just to keep the gambler on his toes. Buck grinned and asked Ezra if he was ever going to deal the cards, or if he was just going to sit there and shuffle the spots off of them, successfully turning the attention away from Ezra and his emotions and back to the game.
Ezra flashed him a smile of thanks and quickly dealt the cards. "Well, gentlemen, are y'all ready to hand over your money to the Ezra Standish Fund for Wayward Gamblers? All donations will be gratefully accepted."
Ezra awoke early the next morning and was pleasantly surprised when he realized that he'd slept through the entire night... no nightmares and no headaches. He stretched lazily and had just started to untangle himself from the covers when he was startled by JD pounding on his door, announcing that Chris wanted to leave within the hour and that he'd better hurry. After assuring the younger man that he was awake and would be down shortly, he got up and began preparing for their trip to Eagle Bend.
It only took him a short time to get everything ready. Soon all he had left to do was don his coat and hat and head down to the saloon for a bite of breakfast. Ezra stood contemplating the jacket he'd worn the previous night, and after a moment's hesitation, decided it would be good enough to use for the hot, dusty trip. He could freshen up and change into something cleaner when they arrived and secured a room at the hotel.
Lifting the dark red coat off the back of the chair, Ezra shook it slightly to remove any dust that clung to the fine material. He started in surprise as the envelope he'd slipped into the pocket the night before fell to the floor. The young gambler slid his arms into the sleeves and shrugged the garment up over his shoulders before bending down to retrieve the letter.
Ezra settled lightly on the edge of the bed and tapped the envelope against the palm of his hand. Smiling softly, he slowly withdrew the document and again read the words that officially proclaimed Buck his guardian and protector. He felt a tightness in his throat as he thought about how hard they'd apparently all worked to ensure that he remain a part of their family. His own mother had spent nearly his entire life pushing him away and out of her life and then suddenly, here were six men who had fought tooth and nail to pull him into theirs and keep him there. Ezra couldn't remember anything about Maude's visit during his troubles except for that brief moment in the alley, but knowing how she hated to lose, he was sure those custody papers were a hard- won victory for his friends. He was still usually incapable of expressing his emotions to anyone other than Buck, but hopefully, one day, he'd be able to tell them all just how much he appreciated what they'd done for him.
Ezra very carefully tucked the papers back in the envelope and, walking over to the dresser, placed it almost reverently in the drawer that held the few things he owned that were special to him in one way or another. Giving it one last gentle touch, he pushed the drawer closed and, gathering up his things, left the room and headed down to join his friends in the saloon.
After Chris and the others got over the shock of seeing Ezra actually up and ready on time, they ate a quick breakfast and then set out for Eagle Bend.
The ride went smoothly as JD kept them entertained with his uncontrollable excitement over the upcoming trip to Louisiana. He bombarded Ezra with an unending string of questions about his childhood home, and the gambler, after receiving a night of much needed uninterrupted sleep, was in a sufficiently good enough humor to patiently answer most of them.
Ezra carefully dodged the subject of his uncle's plantation and the memories it stirred up by informing them that they'd moved away from there by the time he was six. Instead, he regaled them with tales of his exploits as a youth traveling with his mother over much of the South. By the time he had reached the age of ten, Maude had realized how useful he could be to her and had stopped leaving him behind. After hearing about some of the riskier cons Maude had involved him in, they were all amazed that he was there with them and not locked away for life in some prison, or worse yet, dead because of the retaliation of one of her marks.
JD hung on the older man's every word, envious of the interesting life he had led compared to his own quiet and boring childhood spent as a stable boy. "Boy, you sure were lucky, Ezra! That all sounds real exciting... a heck of a lot better than mucking out stalls and hauling feed and water."
Ezra stared quietly at the boy, a pained expression on his face as he recalled the details of his life that he'd deliberately left out. The beatings and short stints in jail that had accompanied many of his mother's scams. The loneliness of having no friends, no real home. The abuse he'd suffered at the hands of nearly everyone his mother had associated with. "I assure you, Mr. Dunne... I would have traded places with you in a heartbeat."
JD blushed and stared at the longing in Ezra's eyes and knew he'd let himself get carried away by the gambler's stories. Of course he didn't wish for Ezra's life with Maude. His own mother may have been only a chambermaid, but she had showered him with love and every spare moment of her attention. "I'm sorry, Ezra. I wasn't thinkin'."
Ezra gave himself a mental shake, dispelling the unpleasant memories that were threatening to drag him down. "That's quite all right, Mr. Dunne. I may have embellished it a bit and made it seem a tad more excitin' than it actually was." He flashed JD a brilliant smile and smoothly changed the subject by directing the boy's questions toward more general information about their destination.
The rest of the ride went quickly as Ezra fielded JD's spirited inquiries and even a few from Chris and Buck. By the time they reached Eagle Bend, they all had a clearer picture of what to expect from their trip to the Deep South.
Upon arriving in town, Chris led the way to the hotel where they had decided to get rooms for the night, not wanting to have to either rush back to Four Corners or sleep on the trail. A decision that was most welcome by Ezra who was inordinately averse to roughing it and who avoided it whenever possible.
Dismounting slowly, they all stretched and gingerly worked the stiffness out of their aching muscles. Chris announced that they might as well find the Judge first thing and get their talk out of the way. He was hoping that Travis would be able to make the arrangements for someone to take over their duties as peacekeepers while they were still in Eagle Bend so they'd be able to concentrate on the details of their trip once they got back home. He didn't want to delay leaving any longer than possible, fearing that Ezra would change his mind and refuse to go.
Chris glanced at Ezra and noticed the air of apprehension that had come over the gambler at the mention of their meeting with the Judge. He knew how much Ezra was probably dreading the thought of discussing his nightmares with anyone other than them... especially Judge Orrin Travis... and decided that it might be easier if he and Buck handled it themselves.
"Ezra? Would you rather not have to talk to the Judge?" Chris watched his face carefully and knew he'd been right when he saw the look of relief that filled Ezra's eyes.
Ezra nodded quickly and then blushed at his own eagerness to get out of what would have been, for him at least, a painful ordeal. "I have to admit, I would prefer not to, Mr. Larabee, unless, of course, you think I should."
Buck laid a supportive hand on Ezra's shoulder and gave it a light squeeze. "That's okay, pard, Chris an' I can tell the Judge whatever he needs to know. Why don't you an' JD get our rooms an' then go on over to the saloon an' have a drink. We'll meet ya over there when we're finished."
Ezra nodded gratefully, and he and JD stepped up on the boardwalk and moved toward the hotel.
The two men turned at the sound of their leader's voice. "Yes, Mr. Larabee?"
"You two make sure you stay out of trouble. Once Sheriff Stains knows we're in town, he'll be lookin' for any excuse he can find to throw us in jail." Chris gave them his best Larabee glare. "Don't give 'im one."
Ezra nodded and gave him a salute before turning and entering the hotel with JD following close behind him.
Chris stared after them for a moment before heading toward the feed store. Judging from the crowd gathered outside jockeying for a position at the windows, that was where the trial was being held.
Buck had seen the look on his partner's face before he'd turned away from the hotel and knew what he was thinking. "Don't worry, pard, Ezra'll be extra careful as long as JD's with 'im. You know how he feels about the kid." Buck opened the door and stood back to let Chris lead the way into the make-shift court. "'Sides, this won't take us long, an' then we can join 'em. How much trouble could they possibly get into just havin' a drink?"
Chris gave the lanky gunfighter a look of disbelief and shook his head as he entered the store. "You forget who we're talkin' about? Those two can find trouble in their sleep."
After securing them rooms and stabling their horses, Ezra and JD made their way over to the saloon.
JD had quickly satisfied his growling stomach while Ezra had sufficiently soothed his dry and dusty throat with several drinks. Now they were contentedly settled at their table playing cards with a couple of the locals who had asked to join them. The other two men had started out friendly enough, but as the game wore on and their beer consumption mounted, they began to grow a bit dissatisfied with JD's playing ability and his constant barrage of lame jokes. Actually, they were more upset over *Ezra's* playing ability, but thought it safer to take their frustrations out on the boy instead.
"Damn, junior, are ya gonna play or not?!" The older of the two men tossed his cards down in anger as JD hesitated over whether to fold or not.
"Yeah, if ya'd concentrate on your cards 'stead of those stupid jokes ya keep yammerin' on about, we might get this damned hand over with!" The other stranger echoed his partner's sentiments and immediately regretted it when he caught the look Ezra shot him.
"I would suggest you gentlemen watch how you speak to my young friend." Ezra's voice was cool and steady, but they all saw the flash of anger that sparked in his green eyes as he looked up from his cards.
JD knew that look and shifted nervously in his chair as Chris's warning about avoiding trouble echoed through his mind. "It's all right, Ezra. I was gonna quit after this hand anyway."
Ezra flashed a reassuring smile at JD. "Nonsense, Mr. Dunne. Just because your brand of humor is too sophisticated for the uneducated and unwashed citizenry of this disgustingly shabby little backwater, doesn't mean that you should stop gifting us with your brilliant tales. I, for one, would love to hear more, but then again... I have the intelligence and good taste to appreciate them."
The two men stared at Ezra with narrowed eyes, their minds turning over his fancy words until they finally figured out what he was saying. "Hey, Virgil, I think this scrawny little peacock jus' called us dirty an' stupid."
His friend nodded and began to push himself slowly away from the table. "Yeah, an' I think he's insultin' our town, too."
While JD shook his head at what he knew was coming, Ezra's smile widened as he carefully positioned his right arm on the table... ready to engage his derringer if the need arose. "Well, Mr. Dunne, it seems these two Neanderthals aren't quite as dumb as they look."
"Ezra...." JD moaned and grabbed at the gambler's sleeve, trying to stop his mouth before it got them thrown in jail... or worse.
Chris and Buck were relieved to hear the Judge delivering the sentence for the prisoner when they entered the store. The dark-clad gunfighter nodded at the older man when they walked in and then led the way to an empty corner of the room to wait for the trial to officially end.
Finally, the prisoner was escorted from the building by Sheriff Stains, who thankfully never looked in the two peacekeepers' direction. Judge Travis wove his way through the dispersing crowd and stopped in front of Chris and Buck.
"What brings you to Eagle Bend? Not trouble back in Four Corners, I hope." The Judge shook their hands in greeting as he waited for their answer.
"Not with the town, Judge. It's more of a personal problem... it concerns Ezra." Chris saw worry cross the older man's face and knew he was remembering the last time they'd asked for his help.
"I see." Orrin glanced around the still somewhat crowded store and motioned with his head toward the door. "What say we move this conversation over to the diner where we can have a bit more privacy and where I can get a much needed cup of coffee."
Chris and Buck nodded and gestured for the Judge to lead the way.
Ezra felt JD tug on his sleeve and glanced over at him.
"Please, Ezra, don't start anything. Remember what Chris said? No trouble?" JD had a very healthy respect for their leader and his hair-trigger temper, and had absolutely no wish to do anything that would put him in the line of fire when it went off.
Ezra looked at the two burly men who were now standing and glowering down at them, and then back at his young friend. He could see the slight glimmer of fear in the boy's eyes and knew it wasn't for what might happen here in the saloon, but what would most definitely happen afterward. JD was no coward and would never run from a good fight... in fact, he had instigated more than his fair share of them. However, with the specter of Chris's prodigious wrath hovering over them, it was obvious that he was extremely anxious to let this one go.
Ezra sighed and nodded. "You're right, Mr. Dunne. Mr. Larabee did put his faith in us to comport ourselves with a modicum of--" Ezra's words were cut off as a large hand fell on his shoulder and a growl reverberated menacingly in his ear.
"Did you say... Larabee?"
The gambler turned his head to look at the meaty paw that was rather painfully gripping his shoulder. His eyes widened slightly as they took in the large, angry looking giant who belonged to the hand. The man was huge... at least a head taller than Ezra with arms even larger than Josiah's and a thirst for revenge glinting darkly in his eyes. Ezra's heart sank when he recognized the man as one of those who had accompanied Sheriff Stains to Four Corners for Nathan's father's trial. He closed his eyes and moaned softly as he realized they were in for a world of hurt. And he knew that no matter what damage they incurred at the hands of this animal... it wouldn't be half as bad as what they had to look forward to when the redoubtable Mr. Larabee got a hold of them.
Orrin stared down into his coffee, contemplating everything Chris and Buck had just finished telling him about Ezra and the difficulties he had been experiencing since his amnesia. Finally, he looked up at them, his expression reflecting the doubt he held for the success of their plan. "And you think taking him back to the scene of the abuse he suffered at the hands of his uncle is going to help him?"
Chris shrugged his shoulders. "We're hoping it'll jog his memory so we can find out what the hell's causin' these damned nightmares of his. Maybe rememberin' what they're about will put an end to 'em."
"Nathan seems to think it might work. We gotta at least try, Judge... Ezra can't keep goin' on the way he is now." Buck nervously waited for the older man's decision.
"So you think he's going to leave if he can't get rid of the nightmares?" Orrin hoped they knew he just wanted what was best for Ezra.
"We don't think it, Judge... we know it," Chris stated firmly. "And we're prepared to do whatever it takes to make sure that doesn't happen... including quitting our jobs if we have to."
Judge Travis could see that they were serious and was proud of them for standing up for Ezra. He'd worried that once the gambler was over his amnesia and back to his old self, they would give up their efforts to bring him into the fold. He was relieved to see that he'd been wrong. "Well, gentlemen, we can't let that happen. I have a few ideas on how we can allow you the time for your mission and still see to the needs of the town. Let me send a few wires, and I'll get back to you. Are you spending the night here?"
"Yeah, we thought we'd--" Chris stopped suddenly as the sound of breaking glass reached them from somewhere outside.
The three of them hurried out into the street. Buck groaned and shot a quick look at Chris after seeing two men staggering to their feet in front of the saloon's shattered window. He saw the older man's face darkening in anger and quickly laid a calming hand on his arm. "Now, Chris, it might not be them."
Chris snorted in disgust and shook off Buck's hand before starting across the street. "Wanna bet?"
Ezra hadn't been wrong about the world of hurt. He and JD both had taken several punishing blows as they'd fought against the crowd of angry men, but they were satisfied that they'd inflicted their own fair share of damage as well. The gambler had to admit it could have been worse, but thankfully, not everyone in the saloon was associated with Stains. There were several who resented the Sheriff's heavy-handed methods of enforcing the law and who, having heard about the incident in Four Corners, were more than happy to come to the defense of some of Larabee's men.
Ezra and JD were struggling to fight off their attackers as they backed toward the bat-wing doors. They were so intent on making their escape from the brawl, that they never even noticed the three men who had entered the building and stood blocking their retreat. At least not until a shot rang out, startling all of the combatants into a sudden, shocked silence and sending most of them scurrying for any exit they could find. JD whipped around to see who had come to their rescue and froze as he looked up into the angry countenance of Chris Larabee. "Oh shit...."
Ezra never even turned around... just stood where he was, staring down at the floor and shaking his head in resignation. Feeling a heavy hand descend on the back of his neck, he involuntarily flinched and then stiffened his spine. After pasting a look of pure innocence on his face, he turned to confront his executioner. "Mr. Larabee. I assure you we were merely--"
Chris shook his head and reached out to grasp Ezra's chin, turning his face back and forth to take in the painful looking damage. "Don't even try it, Ezra."
JD was enduring a similar treatment from Buck and shifted his eyes to look pleadingly at their leader. "But, Chris, it wasn't our fault... honest. We just--"
Chris shot him a glare that instantly stopped the boy's stammering attempt at professing their innocence.
Ezra, feeling an urgent need to get to his hotel room and lie down before he ended up falling flat on his face, and sensing that anything he said would be met with the same angry glare, decided to take matters into his own hands. Wrenching his face out of Chris's grip, he carefully straightened his clothes, retrieved his hat from the pile of rubble that used to be their table, and with a nod at the four other men, limped around them and toward the door.
"Ezra, where the hell do you think you're goin'?" Chris demanded incredulously. He couldn't believe the man had the nerve to just walk away from him, knowing the trouble he was obviously in.
The Judge stood back watching them, struggling to hold back a laugh at the looks on all of their faces. Buck and JD's eyes darted back and forth between Chris's reddening face and Ezra's retreating form as if they expected the gunfighter to lunge at the gambler at any moment. Meanwhile, Chris looked as if he was trying to decide whether to strangle Ezra or just shoot him and be done with it.
Ezra paused at the door, propping himself wearily up against the wall with one hand while gesturing toward Buck with the other. "Mr. Larabee, I *think* I am going to try to make it to my room before I disgrace myself in front of all these people by collapsing in a senseless heap on the floor. If you have any complaints about my behavior here this afternoon, please take them up with my guardian. I assume since Mr. Wilmington took it upon himself to secure custody of me, he is prepared to be responsible for my actions and to make reparations for any damages I may have caused."
Ezra couldn't help sending a satisfied smirk in Buck's direction, and was happy to see the gunman's jaw drop open in shock. The smug grin was wiped off his face however, when he chanced to look back at Chris before turning to go.
Chris's green eyes glittered dangerously as he stared back at Ezra, sending a chill of apprehension racing up the younger man's spine. "Judge? Since Buck doesn't seem to be able to control his charge, is there any chance we can have Ezra's custody signed over to me instead?"
The Judge had to bite the inside of his cheek to keep from bursting into unrestrained laughter at the look of pure terror that broke through Ezra's usual poker face, but he gamely managed to hold it back long enough to respond to Chris's request. "Why, I don't see why not, Chris. He obviously needs a strong hand to keep him in line, and I think you're just the person to handle that."
"Thanks, Judge. I'll do my best to make sure he behaves himself from now on." Chris moved forward, wrapped an arm tightly around Ezra's shoulders, and began leading him slowly out of the saloon. "Okay, Ezra, let me explain what your life's gonna be like now that you're *officially* mine."
The Judge, Buck, and JD roared with laughter when they saw Ezra's fingers grasping desperately at the bat-wing doors and heard him frantically trying to reason with Chris.
"Mr. Larabee! Think about the ramifications of what you're doin'! You know how much trouble I can occasionally be... you can't possibly want to be under any obligation to handle every little... um... *situation*... that I find myself in." Ezra felt a glimmer of hope when the older man stopped and stared at him, apparently considering the validity of his argument. He decided to push home the advantage he thought he'd gained. "With your considerable duties as our leader, you certainly don't need the aggravation of dealin' with my obstreperous nature. I wouldn't want to be the cause of any added stress in your life."
"Thanks for bein' concerned about me, Ezra." Chris grinned at the gambler and tightened his grip on his shoulders. "And since you understand how much pressure I'm under worryin' about all of you and the town, I'm sure you want to help me anyway you can. Isn't that right?"
Ezra's con man instincts started screaming at him that he was walking into a trap. He stared suspiciously at Chris and felt his confidence falter as he noticed that the friendly expression he'd had on his face a moment before had changed into something almost feral. Realizing he had no choice but to agree, Ezra hesitantly nodded.
"Good. I knew you'd see things my way." Chris reached up and peeled the smaller man's fingers away from the door and then pulled him out onto the boardwalk. "Now, let's go get you cleaned up while I explain exactly how we're gonna take care of that little stubborn streak of yours."
"But, Mr. Larabee... Chris! Think about what you're doin'!" Ezra's voice held a twinge of panic as it drifted back into the saloon.
The Judge pulled out his handkerchief and wiped his eyes as he finally managed to get himself under control. "Do you think we should put Mr. Standish out of his misery yet?"
Buck and JD were still laughing as they stared out over the top of the doors and watched Chris dragging the still protesting Southerner toward the hotel. "Nah... Ezra had this one comin'. Let's give Chris some time to have some fun with 'im first."
JD caught a flash of movement out of the corner of his eye and after turning to see what it was, gave Buck a sudden, sharp poke in the ribs. Buck looked up to see what the kid was pointing at and groaned. "Um... Judge? Maybe you're right. I think JD an' I better go rescue Ezra after all."
The Judge frowned in surprise as Buck and JD suddenly darted out into the street and disappeared. Moving toward the still swinging doors, he discovered what had caused their hasty departure. After muttering angrily under his breath..."You'll pay for this, Mr. Wilmington"... Judge Owen Travis turned to face a furious Sheriff Stains as he stormed into the saloon.
"I thought I told you to keep your damned asses out of trouble?!"
Buck and JD cringed when they heard Chris's angry voice echoing down the stairs as they entered the hotel. They hesitated in front of the door to Ezra's room, listening as the gunfighter shouted down every excuse the gambler tried to use. While they were still trying to decide whether to go in or not, the door slammed open and Chris strode out into the hall.
Seeing JD, he grabbed the youth and pushed him into the room with Ezra. "You're in just as much trouble as he is, so you might as well join him. I want you both to keep your butts here for the rest of the night, and we'll be headed back to Four Corners first thing in the morning." Chris saw the boy's mouth open to issue a protest and gave him a glare that immediately killed any idea he had about arguing.
Chris turned to Buck and jabbed a finger roughly at his chest. "And *you're* gonna baby-sit the two of them."
Buck's eyes widened in surprise. "What the hell ya mad at me for? I was with you... remember?"
"Yeah, but it was your brilliant idea to send them down to the saloon in the first place." Chris's voice left no room for discussion as he finished issuing his orders to Buck and stalked off. "I'll bring back supper after I talk to Stains and the Judge. Meanwhile, stay put!"
Buck watched until Chris disappeared down the stairs, then with his features settling into an angry scowl, turned and entered the room, determined that JD and Ezra were going to pay for this one. If they were going to get him in trouble, they could at least make sure he shared in the fun while they did it.
It was late, and the three men confined to the hotel had just about decided to risk Chris's wrath and go after their supper themselves when he finally returned. They all were anxious to know how things had gone with Stains and with the Judge's quest to find someone to take over the job of protecting the town in their absence, but after one look at the gunfighter's face, they knew it wasn't a good time for questions.
Chris handed them their food and then turned and headed to his own room. The only words he spoke were... "We leave at sunup."
The next morning, Buck and JD made sure they were up bright and early and ready to go before Chris. They didn't want to do anything that would anger the gunfighter further. They stopped at Ezra's room to make sure he hadn't overslept and were surprised to find the room empty. The bed was a mess of tangled sheets and blankets, and Buck felt a feeling of dread start in the pit of his stomach. Had Ezra had another nightmare? Was that why he was up and gone already? With a worried glance at JD, he turned and hurried out of the hotel.
Buck and JD entered the stables and stopped just inside the door as they spotted Ezra in Rebel's stall, leaning tiredly against his horse as he finished tightening the cinch on his saddle.
"Ezra?" Buck saw the gambler jump at the sound of his voice and immediately apologized for startling him. "Sorry, pard... thought you heard us come in."
Ezra gave one last tug on the strap and turned to face them.
Buck's concern deepened when he got a good look at the Southerner's face. There were a couple of small scrapes on his jaw and one eye was slightly discolored... the remains of the altercation in the saloon yesterday... but that was minor compared to the obvious signs of exhaustion that also marred his features.
"You okay, Ezra?" JD asked as he moved past him and entered Ranger's stall.
"I'm fine, Mr. Dunne. I just thought it would be prudent to not keep Mr. Larabee waiting this morning." Ezra pasted a smile on his face and attempted to play down just how awful he really felt.
Buck saw the younger man start to close off his emotions and shook his head at him. "Don't."
Ezra's cheeks flushed guiltily at the disappointment he saw in the other man's eyes. He knew immediately what Buck meant, but he still found it hard not to retreat behind the barriers he'd always used to keep everyone from getting too close. "Sorry. Force of habit." Ezra allowed the weariness he was feeling to creep into his voice as he slumped back against the stall door. "Actually, I am a bit tired. I didn't want to take the chance of disturbing the other hotel patrons with one of my nightmares, so I forced myself to stay awake."
Buck frowned at him as he began saddling his horse. "Well, we're gonna have to make sure ya get some sleep when we get home, or ya won't be up to makin' the trip when it's time to go."
Ezra stared at Buck and thought about arguing over whether that would be a good thing or a bad thing, but decided it was pointless to even start that debate again. They were determined he was going, and he was sure nothing he could say would change their minds. In his heart, Ezra knew they were right in insisting he go back, but he just couldn't help the cold feeling of dread that surfaced every time he even thought about returning to his Uncle Matthew's plantation.
Chris's sudden appearance in the livery put a stop to his worries about their trip.
"Good morning, Mr. Larabee. And how are you this fine--" Ezra's greeting died on his lips when the older man stopped in front of him and just stared at his face for a few moments.
"Ezra... you look like hell. I want you at Nathan's as soon as we get back." Chris started toward his horse, but stopped when he heard the gambler nervously clear his throat.
"I'm f--" Ezra froze when he saw Chris's hands clench. Without another word, he moved quickly to his horse and led him out into the street. Buck and JD followed right behind him.
They were mounted and ready to ride when Chris exited the stables, and silently fell in behind him as he turned Strider toward home and nudged him into a gallop.
Chris's mood was enough to keep even JD quiet, and the ride back to town was a boring one... or peaceful if you looked at it from Chris's point of view. They were about halfway home when he thought about letting them off the hook, but the memory of dealing with an angry Judge Travis and an even more irate Sheriff Stains was still fresh in his mind, so he decided to leave them squirming a little while longer.
It was late afternoon when they finally arrived back in Four Corners. While they were in the livery seeing to the horses, Chris glanced over at his three companions. He could tell by the look on Buck and JD's faces and the whispered conversation they were holding, that the strain of not talking for most of the day had been almost more than they could handle. He knew they were just busting to get to the saloon and let loose, and he pitied the other members of their group who would probably have to bear the brunt of their verbal release. He was just glad he wouldn't be there to hear it, because he'd decided that he was going to personally escort Ezra over to the clinic and stay with him to make sure he allowed Nathan to examine him.
Buck and JD moved together toward the stable doors, anxious to get away from the unnatural silence that they'd been forced to endure.
"Buck, if you see Nathan, tell him he's got a patient in the clinic. Then let Vin and Josiah know we're havin' a meeting about the trip soon as Nathan's finished with Ezra." Chris was ready and grabbed Ezra's arm when the gambler shot him a startled look and started to back away.
"I have no need of Mr. Jackson's services, Mr. Larabee." Ezra continued to protest and struggle against Chris as they left the livery, but was forced to concede defeat when they reached the stairs leading up to the clinic. "Fine... I'll let him have a look at me if it will satisfy you, but you certainly do not need to hover over me. I'm sure you'd much rather join our compatriots at the saloon."
Chris gave Ezra a knowing look and drawled sarcastically, "That's okay, Ezra, I wouldn't want you to have to face Nathan alone. I'll just tag along an' keep you company."
Ezra sighed as his final attempt to avoid the hated ministrations of the healer was thwarted.
Nathan was in the clinic when they arrived and looked up in surprise and then relief when he saw Chris open the door and push Ezra ahead of him into the room. He'd wanted to examine the gambler before, but hadn't been able to get him to agree to it before they'd left for Eagle Bend. Now he quickly grabbed Ezra's arm from Chris, led him over to the bed, and immediately began checking him over.
Ezra offered up a token protest, but knew it was useless to resist and wearily submitted to Nathan's gentle poking and prodding as he answered the multitude of questions the healer threw at him. No, he didn't have a headache at the moment... yes, he had been having trouble sleeping... yes, he was eating... and no, he hadn't had another nightmare.
Nathan finally stepped back and shook his head. "You're okay for now, Ezra, but ya won't be if ya don't start gettin' some rest. When ya get ready t' head up t' your room tonight, I'm gonna give ya somethin' t' help ya sleep."
Ezra shook his head quickly as he finished straightening his clothes and stood up. "That won't be nece--"
"You're taking it, Ezra." Chris's voice cut across the Southerner's refusal... the hard edge behind his words indicating there was to be no argument over this one.
Ezra felt a jolt of anger at having his wishes summarily dismissed at every turn. The knowledge that his friends' actions were for his own good was pushed aside as the frustration of losing all control over his life suddenly became more than the gambler could handle.
"That's it!" Ezra's eyes flashed as he glared first at Nathan and then Chris. "I've had about all I can stand of being ordered around and treated like a recalcitrant child every time I question one of your demands!"
Nathan saw Ezra sway slightly as his emotional turmoil worked with the total exhaustion he was bordering on to leave him light-headed and weak. He reached out to steady the gambler, but his hand was immediately slapped away.
"I don't need your help!" Ezra backed out of their reach, one hand flattened against the wall to steady himself, while shakily rubbing at his eyes with the other. "Just... please... leave me alone."
Nathan glanced at Chris and then turned back to Ezra, moving forward slowly, wanting to get a supportive hand on him before he collapsed. "We're sorry, Ezra. We didn't see how hard we been pushin' ya, but ya gotta know it's for your--"
Ezra stopped him with a weary shake of his head. "I know, Mr. Jackson... it's for my own good." He looked up then and they both could see quite clearly how much of a struggle it was for him to explain what he was feeling. "I know y'all are just tryin' to do what's best for me, and I truly do not want to seem ungrateful, but you have to realize how difficult this all is for me. Everything is slippin' out of my control... the dreams, the headaches, and now my ability to make decisions about my own life."
Nathan carefully wrapped his hand around Ezra's arm and was relieved when the smaller man allowed him to ease him back down onto the edge of the bed.
Ezra stared down at the floor as he leaned forward, arms draped across his knees, his hands clenched together to hide their shaking. "I have to have control over *something.* I *need* it if I'm goin' to keep my sanity through this."
Chris walked over and sat down beside him. He stared at the younger man for a minute as he tried to figure out how to explain *their* feelings. "I know we've been a little over-protective..."
Ezra raised his eyes and just stared at the gunfighter.
Chris's mouth quirked up in a grin and he shrugged. "Okay, maybe more than a little, but you gotta think about how long and hard we've worked to get you to accept the fact that you're one of us... fightin' ya every step of the way." This time it was Ezra's turn to shrug and smile sheepishly. "Now that we've finally accomplished that, we're afraid if we don't keep fightin', you'll back away and we'll lose you."
Ezra had to quickly drop his gaze back down to the floor to hide the incredible surge of emotion that washed over him. He'd gotten somewhat used to hearing those sentiments from the rest of their group, but he had to admit that he wasn't always sure where he stood in their leader's eyes. So on those rare occasions when Chris expressed his positive feelings about Ezra's becoming and staying a member of their family, it really touched the gambler... and in his present condition, it was almost more than he could deal with.
Nathan could see the effect Chris's words were having on Ezra and decided to give him a break. After the way he'd been treating him lately, Nathan figured he owed it to him.
"'Sides, Ezra, without you here, who'd be left t' handle the tact an' diplomacy when it's needed? Chris?" Nathan grinned at the burst of laughter his question got out of Ezra.
"Hey!" Chris glared at the two men, but the twinkle in his eyes completely ruined the effect he was going for.
Ezra gave the older man a consoling pat on the shoulder. "Never fear, Mr. Larabee. You'd always have Mr. Tanner to fall back on." Even Chris had to laugh at the idea of their silent tracker turning into the diplomat of the group.
Once the laughter had died down, Nathan put a hand on Ezra's shoulder and squeezed lightly. "Okay, Ezra, how 'bout I promise t' stop orderin' ya t' take my advice, an' you promise t' at least think about what I suggest instead of sayin' no the minute I open my mouth."
Ezra stared up at the healer as he considered his proposal, and finally nodded in agreement. "Sounds fair enough to me, Mr. Jackson. And, before you ask... yes, I will force down your loathsome herbal concoction before I retire this evenin'."
Nathan had gotten used to his friends reactions to his medicinal brews, and although he'd never admit it to them, he had to agree... they did taste awful. "Ya know, Ezra, I make them taste bad on purpose. I keep hopin' just the thought of havin' t' drink this stuff'll keep y'all from gettin' hurt or sick."
Ezra laughed and then the two friends, with their own immediate differences settled, turned their attention to Chris.
"What?" Chris frowned as they continued to stare at him and then heaved an exaggerated sigh of exasperation. "Fine... I'll try to be less demanding when I make my 'requests'... *if*... you'll stop arguin' about every order I give."
Ezra scowled at Chris and shook his head. "Mr. Larabee, I most certainly do not argue *every* time you give me an order." Then he quickly flashed the other man a crooked grin. "Just most of the time."
Chris smiled and shook his head as he stood and headed for the door. "You're hopeless, Ezra. Now, get your ass over to the saloon an' get something to eat. All you've had today is some hardtack an' a few sips outta that flask of yours."
Ezra's mouth dropped open as he stared at Chris's retreating back. "You call that *less* demanding, Mr. Larabee?" He started after him, but was stopped suddenly by a hand clamping down tightly on his shoulder. Ezra turned and came face to face with an unsmiling Nathan Jackson.
"I thought ya said ya were eatin', Ezra? Hardtack an' whiskey? That's your idea of eatin'?" Nathan didn't even wait for an answer, just propelled the smaller man none-too-gently through the door and down the stairs to the street. "I'm orderin' your supper for ya, an' you're gonna eat every damn bit of it."
Ezra sputtered a protest as he was escorted toward the saloon. "Gentlemen, this is *exactly* the treatment I was referrin' to."
"I've got one word for you, Ezra... guardianship." Chris's grin grew considerably when he heard the gambler's reaction.
"Mr. Larabee, surely you weren't serious about that?!" Ezra jerked out of Nathan's grip and quickly followed after the gunfighter as he passed through the bat-wing doors. "Mr. Larabee?"
True to his word, Nathan took charge of ordering Ezra's supper and then with a few pointed looks and threatening comments, made sure he finished all of it.
While they ate, they worked on finalizing the details of the trip. Buck, Ezra and JD were relieved to finally hear what Chris had found out about temporary protection for the town while they were gone. The Judge had called in some favors and had managed to get a small army detail assigned to the town for as long as they needed them. Apparently the men were being transferred from Fort Stanton to a new fort in Kansas and would be passing near Four Corners on their way there.
Vin and Josiah both grinned when Chris asked how they'd made out with the rancher who had been interested in buying the coach. With a grand flourish, Josiah whipped a fat envelope out of his coat pocket and slapped it down in the middle of the table. Buck grabbed it up and whistled in amazement when he saw the amount of money stuffed inside. Vin told them the man had jumped at the chance to finally buy Delacourte's coach, and had immediately offered them an outrageous sum of money which the tracker said he'd almost felt guilty taking. But the rancher had insisted that the conveyance was well worth the price, and refused to take no for an answer.
Nathan's part of the plans had gone well also. He and Mary had sent a few inquiring telegrams and had found a train heading east that would be passing through Gainesville, a little town on the Mexican border. It would take them straight through to Henderson, Louisiana which Ezra informed them was only about an hour's ride away from Shelby. Mary had even offered to wire the depot in Gainesville and make all the arrangements for them as soon as they were sure they'd be able to go. It meant they'd have to leave a little earlier than planned, but the Judge had told Chris that he was going to swing around to visit with Mary and Billy before heading home, and Chris figured he'd probably be willing to handle things until the army detail arrived.
As soon as they finished their meal, Ezra pulled out his ever-present deck of cards and began dealing. The nightly poker game was a habit they'd gotten into after he'd recovered from his amnesia, just a way they'd found to connect and unwind at the end of the day. Some games turned into marathon sessions, others were only a few rounds, depending on whether or not any of them had other plans for the evening.
This game turned into one of the shorter ones for Ezra when Nathan noticed him struggling to keep his eyes open after only a couple of hands. It was exceptionally early by the gambler's standards for him to be retiring for the night, but even he had to admit that his sorely taxed energy level had just about reached its limit. So when Nathan left the table and returned with a steaming hot cup of his herbal tea, Ezra slowly downed it after offering only a token resistance. He played one more round of cards while he waited for the medicine to start working, and then bade his friends good night and wearily climbed the stairs to his room.
JD shared a worried look with the others. "I sure hope takin' 'im back home works. I really hate seein' 'im this way."
Nathan nodded his head in agreement. "It better work. That man's right on the edge, an' every nightmare he has pushes 'im that much closer t' goin' over... an' I doubt anything we could do would bring 'im back if that happens."
It was nearly midnight, and the saloon was empty except for the two men just finishing up the bottle of whiskey they shared while they played one last hand of cards.
Vin and Chris had stayed long after the others had left, knowing that with their thoughts so focused on Ezra, sleep would be slow in coming. They'd carefully gone over every last detail of the trip one final time, and then turned their discussion to the endless possibilities of what could be causing Ezra's dreams. They were just about to call it a night when an anguished cry echoed through the quiet saloon.
"What the hell was that?!" Chris stared at Vin, and then his eyes widened when he realized what he was hearing. "Aw shit... it's Ezra!"
///Ezra felt as if he were floating. He was moving across a dirt packed yard, but there was no sensation of walking or sounds of footsteps. He looked down at himself and saw that he was still wearing the nightshirt he'd gone to bed in and to his amazement, he saw that his bare feet missed touching the ground by several inches. He merely seemed to be gliding along, enshrouded in a silvery, shifting mist that only allowed him brief glimpses of his surroundings. "Where the hell am I? Is this another dream?" He would swear he was awake though... his eyes felt like they were opened... there... he just blinked... didn't he?
But the last thing he remembered was falling asleep in his bed... his nice, comfortable featherbed. "Wait, I know how to settle this." Moving his hand slowly up to his face, he pinched lightly at his cheek. Nothing. No pain. He couldn't even feel his fingers on his skin. Definitely a dream, but something was very wrong. Now that he knew he was in one of his nightmares... why didn't he wake up?
Suddenly a harsh cry of pain resounded through his head, followed by a child's voice, sobbing brokenly. Ezra's heart began to pound as he attempted to locate the source of the weeping. He tried to go faster, tried to force himself to run, but he couldn't seem to move his legs. He just continued to glide forward at the same slow pace.
Ezra strained to see through the swirling fog as the heartbreaking sounds seemed to surround him. Finally, he noticed a slight clearing in the air in front of him... almost like a window opening in the mist. A large shape loomed up ahead of him... a building... a barn maybe? He could see some kind of movement near the structure... it looked like someone was there... and he was sure it was where the crying was coming from. Ezra's eyes narrowed and his pulse quickened... it looked so familiar. He glided a few yards closer, and then he knew... knew where he was and what he was hearing and seeing.
Ezra cried out and frantically began to struggle against the force that was pulling him slowly toward the scene being played out before him... toward the scene of his torture... toward his Uncle Matthew.///
Chris and Vin arrived in the hall outside Ezra's room just as another terror-filled cry came from inside. Ignoring the startled faces of the other roomers, the two men burst through the gambler's door and stopped suddenly, staring in dismay at the sight that greeted their eyes.
Ezra knelt in the middle of the bed, sweat plastering his dark hair to his head and running in rivulets down his face and neck. His usually bright green eyes were almost black with the fear that seemed to have him in its crushing grip, and his head swiveled constantly as he searched the room for whatever was frightening him. The air was filled with his painfully rasping breaths, and his chest heaved with the sobs that seemed to be literally ripping him apart.
Instantly realizing Ezra was deep in the throes of another nightmare, Chris and Vin approached the bed slowly while uttering a soft litany of soothing words in an effort to calm him.
"Easy, Ezra... you're all right." Chris saw the gambler's eyes settle on his before darting swiftly away and knew he wasn't really seeing him.
"Come on, pard, we're here with ya now... you're safe." Vin eased up to the edge of the bed and gently laid his hand on Ezra's arm.
Both men were shocked when Ezra cried out and threw himself off the bed, scrambling to wedge himself into the corner, seemingly trying to get as far away from them as possible.
Chris's eyes never left Ezra as he motioned for Vin to move back. "Go get Nathan... and find Buck. I've got a feeling he's the only one who's gonna be able to get through to him."
Vin was out the door almost before Chris finished speaking, pulling the door closed behind him to shut out the prying eyes of Ezra's neighbors.
///No matter how hard he struggled, Ezra couldn't seem to stop his forward momentum until he suddenly came to a jerking halt about twenty feet from the barn. Now he was close enough to see clearly, and his heart almost stopped when he realized what it was that he was witnessing. It was a horrifying scene from his childhood... one he'd managed to push to the deepest recesses of his mind where he was safe from the memories. Oh, God... why couldn't he wake up? Where was Buck? Why didn't he come for him like he did during his last dream?
Ezra felt a shudder rip through him as he recognized his five-year old self hanging from the whipping post in front of the barn... Buck's Little One. Ezra moaned as he stared at the damage done to the boy's back, shifting his shoulders as the remembered fiery pain seemed to ripple across his own skin, making the faint scars he still carried throb and burn. It had been just the beginning of the punishment, and several angry looking welts marred the boy's pale skin. One or two of the lashes had been hard enough to break the skin, and Ezra would have sworn he could feel the blood oozing slowly down his back, soaking into his nightshirt. The sensation was so real that he unconsciously reached behind him to try and wipe it away, staring in amazement when his hand came away clean.
"Look, you little bastard! Just look at what you've done!"
Ezra jumped and looked up guiltily at the hated sound of his uncle's voice, but he wasn't speaking to him of course... it was the Little One he was going after. The Southerner's stomach clenched as he heard the youngster begin to cry harder and saw him flinch away from the cruel hand that reached out to grab his small chin. Matthew jerked the boy's head around as he shouted at him, pointing to something off to their right.
Ezra turned to see what he was talking about and felt his heart stop, an indescribable feeling of grief welling up in his chest. Just at the edge of his limited field of vision were two bodies... one male, one female... lying sprawled together in the dirt. Ezra leaned forward to try and get a look at their faces... terrified at what he would see, but needing to know who they were. He was stopped when his head came in contact with some sort of invisible barrier. Tears welled up in his eyes as he pressed his face and hands against its surface while he strained to see who they were. He knew them... he had loved them. His shattering heart told him this much was true.
Tears streamed down Ezra's face as he watched his uncle stalk over and kick at the lifeless forms before turning back around and pointing an accusing finger at the child, who stared in horror as strangled sobs of grief wracked his small body.
"This is all you're fault, you misbegotten whelp! They'd both still be alive if it weren't for you!" Matthew's face was mottled with rage, and his voice shook as he bent to retrieve the belt he'd been using to whip the boy. He ran his hands slowly along the thick leather as he doubled it over, and grasping the ends in one huge fist, closed in on the Little One.///
Chris moved to within a few feet of Ezra and hunkered down in front of him. "Ezra? Can you hear me?" The Southerner turned his head in the gunfighter's direction and Chris could see that his eyes were unfocused and empty. "Come on, Ezra, you need to wake up now."
Ezra started slowly shaking his head, moaning softly as he raised his hand as if to ward off a blow... begging someone only he could see. "No... please don't. Oh God... no... please..."
Chris reached out for Ezra's hand, but was stopped suddenly as a string of tormented shrieks erupted from the gambler's throat. He heard the door slam open behind him as Vin, Buck, and Nathan barreled into the room, but he couldn't tear his eyes away from what was happening in front of him.
Ezra had risen to his knees and was clawing frantically at his back. A mask of unadulterated terror covered his face as his pain-filled cries continued to roll through the room. "Don't... God, please stop!! You're hurtin' me, Uncle Matthew!" They all watched, frozen in horror, as Ezra uttered one last heart-stopping plea... "Buck! Where are you? I need you!"... before he collapsed in the corner with his arms clutched tightly around himself, and began sobbing uncontrollably.
///Ezra knew what was about to happen... remembered it now clearly as he saw Matthew draw his arm back to deliver the next blow, pausing for a minute... cruelly letting the terror build in his young nephew. "No! Stop! Leave him alone, you bastard!!" Ezra pounded his fists helplessly against the barrier as he screamed at his uncle, but he knew nothing he did would stop him. All he could do was watch and listen, his heart breaking as he heard the small voice beg for mercy.
"No, Unca Maffew... pwease don't whip me again! I'm s-sowwy. I'll be good... I pwomise!"
Ezra saw the Little One's fingers clutch at the tiny shackles that bound his wrists and held him to the post, his small body tensed against the renewal of pain. The gambler's own fingers clenched and his body stiffened as he awaited the coming blow.
Matthew's arm finally whipped forward, the wide leather belt slashing viciously across the young boy's back, ripping a strangled scream from his throat as he pressed himself against the post, desperately trying to escape the pain.
Ezra's eyes widened and his scream joined that of the Little One's as he watched the belt connect and felt a fiery, burning sensation streak across his own back. Ezra's body jerked with every lash, his cries echoing the young boy's as the beating continued. "No, Uncle Matthew! Please stop!" Tears flowed down both their cheeks as the stiff leather dug agonizingly into their backs, buttocks, and legs. Both their hearts slowly filled with a mixture of pain and all-consuming guilt as Matthew continued to shout out their blame with every stroke of the belt. Ezra's gaze never left the horrific scene until he finally saw the Little One slip into a blissful, pain-free oblivion. Once he knew the boy was free from his uncle's torment, Ezra slumped to the ground, pressed his forehead against the barrier, and allowed his eyes to close. His body shook with heart-rending sobs as he begged for a release from his nightmare. "God... someone please wake me up. Buck? Are you there? Help me, Buck... please... help me...."///
Buck felt his heart clench as he listened to Ezra's anguished pleas and moved quickly around the bed, pushing Chris out of the way so could he kneel in front of the gambler. He reached out and put a tentative hand on his friend's shoulder. "Ezra? I'm right here, pard. You're safe now."
Ezra jumped at Buck's touch and tried to push himself further into the corner, rocking back and forth slowly as his sobs continued unabated. Buck tried to pull him into his arms, but that only increased his agitation, causing him to stiffen and begin a high keening moan as he rocked faster.
"Open your eyes, Ezra... look at me." Buck breathed a sigh of relief when he saw him hesitantly obey, but his relief was short-lived as he realized that the younger man was looking right through him. He was still locked in his nightmare.
The others watched in horror as Ezra began flailing wildly as if trying to break free from something or someone. His legs kicked out violently, knocking Buck back into Chris as he tried to beat away the threat only he could see. His moaning cries had become screams of terror and nothing Buck said or did was having any effect on the younger man.
///Ezra's sobs suddenly stopped as he felt something around him change. His eyes slowly opened when a hand touched his face, caressing his cheek as it gently wiped away his tears. "Buck?"
"Guess again, Nephew."
Ezra's heart thudded painfully in his chest, and he struggled to breathe as his eyes opened fully, and he finally focused on the man kneeling beside him. He jerked his head away from his uncle's disgusting touch and frantically looked back through the barrier to where he'd last seen the man. Ezra could see the two bodies still lying near the barn and the Little One still hanging limply against the post, his feet barely touching the ground, the toes of his little boots resting in the small pool of blood that had gathered beneath him. No one else. No hulking, beast of a man hovering over his younger self.
Ezra's blood froze in his veins as he realized the beast was really here... on this side of the barrier... leering at him... touching him. Finally breaking out of his shock, he jerked his head away from his uncle's hand and weakly began pushing himself backwards, trying desperately to move out of his reach. He moaned softly as he encountered another wall. "No... God, no... please." Ezra stared in horror as the sparkling mist suddenly swirled in closer, flowing over every inch of the barrier, blocking out everything except the small enclosed space he now found himself trapped in... alone with his uncle... his tormentor.
Matthew watched, a look of unholy glee on his face as he saw the panic grow in Ezra's eyes. "There's no way out, Ezra... you're mine now. To do with as I wish."
His uncle's voice slithered around him, enveloping him in a shroud of terror that threatened to destroy his very soul. Ezra squeezed his eyes shut and tried to block out everything he was experiencing as he worked desperately to convince himself it was all just a dream. He'd wake up any minute now. <<It's merely another nightmare. Matthew's not really here... *I'm* not really here. I'm asleep in my bed above the sal-->>
Ezra's eyes snapped open as he felt hot, questing fingers wrap themselves around his ankle. He tried to kick out with his other foot, but his uncle was too quick for him and clamped his other hand around it, pinning it to the ground.
"What do you want from me? Why won't you just leave me alone?" Ezra's voice trembled with fatigue and fear as he struggled against the larger man's iron grip.
"What do I want? Why... to kill you, of course." Matthew laughed as he watched the blood drain from his nephew's face. "You have to die, you know... for what you did to me when you were a child."
Ezra frowned as his mind filled with confusion. "What I did to you? What are you talkin' about? I've never done--"
"Don't play games with me, Nephew... you'll only lose." Matthew turned and with a quick nod, cleared a tunnel through the mist, revealing the two tragic figures lying near the barn. "That's what you did." He stared hard at Ezra and continued. "And considerin' that you forced me to kill two innocent people, I wonder how you've lived with yourself all these years."
Ezra's breath caught at his uncle's words, and he stared again at the lifeless shapes, his eyes searching for some clue as to who they were. "I was only five... how could I have possibly made you do anything you didn't want to do?"
"Oh, believe me... you managed it. By disobeyin' me and interfering when I told you to stop. Surely you remember... or is guilt forcin' you to keep the memories of that day hidden?" Matthew moved in closer to Ezra, enjoying seeing the doubt cloud his eyes. He nodded again and the fog closed in once more. "That's what's causing your nightmares, Ezra... not me. It's that guilt you've got buried inside you. It *was* because of you that they died... you know in your heart that it's true."
Ezra fell back against the wall and began to sob weakly. "Oh, God... it *is* true... it was my fault... all my fault...."
"And now you're goin' to have to pay for causin' their deaths." Matthew felt the fight go out of Ezra and releasing his grip on the stricken gambler's ankle, began gently stroking his foot. "You know, Ezra, you were lucky when you were a child. I knew, no matter how much I wanted it, that indulging in my... feelin's... for you would be too much of a risk, and I was able to resist the temptation... but, unfortunately for you, your luck has run out now that you've grown into such a beautiful young man."
Ezra watched in paralyzed horror as his Uncle Matthew's fingers crept slowly up his legs, sliding the soft, cotton nightshirt out of the way as they caressed and fondled each new patch of skin. Ezra's tortured mind had reached its limit. Throwing his head back, he opened his mouth and screamed for the one person he knew who could rescue him from this never-ending nightmare. "BUCK!!"///
Buck pulled Ezra to his feet and wrapped his arms around him to stop his frantic movements while he tried to drag him back out of the depths of sleep. He winced as the younger man suddenly threw his head back against his shoulder and let loose with a horrendous scream of terror.
The other three men hurried to help Buck... talking softly, trying to convince Ezra he was safe and begging him to wake up, but it just made him fight harder to get away. Nathan finally realized it was the tea he'd given him that was holding him in the nightmare and knew what he had to do. Warning the others to hang on to him... and whispering a heart-felt apology to Ezra... he drew his hand back and gave the smaller man a brutal slap across the face. It took two more tries before Ezra finally let out a loud gasp and stopped struggling in Buck's arms.
Nathan looked into Ezra's eyes and then spoke quietly to Buck as he motioned for the others to move away. "Talk to him, Buck. He's still not all the way back."
Buck loosened his arms slightly and wrapped his hands around Ezra's smaller ones, holding them against his chest, then bent his head down to speak softly in the gambler's ear. "I got ya, Ezra. You're here in your room. You're safe now." Buck smiled as Ezra turned his head slightly and looked up at him. He could still see some confusion in the jade green eyes that stared back at him, but he also saw a glimmer of recognition. "Ya with me, pard? Can ya talk to me... let me know you're okay?"
"B-Buck? Is it... is it really over?" Ezra's voice shook with the overwhelming relief that washed over him at the sight of Buck's smiling face.
Buck nodded and gently squeezed Ezra's hands. "Yeah, pard, it's over. 'Bout time ya came back to us."
A small, shaky smile of gratitude appeared briefly, but was quickly replaced with a fierce grimace of pain as a lightening bolt of agony speared through his brain.
"Oh God! Buck! My... head... I can't--"
They all stared in shock as his eyes rolled back in his head and he collapsed in Buck's arms. The older man slid to the floor and cradled Ezra against his chest, tears rolling down his face as he stared down at the crumpled figure of his best friend and whispered, "Help 'im, Nathan... for God's sake, help 'im."
Chris crouched down beside Buck and laid a gentle hand on his shoulder. "Buck? Let's get Ezra in the bed so Nathan can take care of 'im."
Buck's eyes never left Ezra's face as he shook his head and wrapped his arms tighter around the smaller man. He gently stroked Ezra's reddened cheek and whispered softly to him when the gambler moaned, the pain of his headache so intense it even reached deep into his unconscious state to torture him.
Nathan knelt on the other side of the two men and forced Buck to look up at him when he saw Ezra shiver. "He's cold, Buck. We need t' get 'im in the bed. You're not helpin' 'im any by keepin' 'im down here on the floor."
Buck stared at Nathan and then let his eyes drift back down to Ezra. After feeling another shiver ripple through the slender form, he finally nodded and allowed Chris and Nathan to lift Ezra out of his arms.
Once they had him settled under the covers, Nathan carefully checked him over. When he was finished, he looked up at the others and shook his head. "He's not doin' too good. He was already tired an' run down... an' now this. I ain't even sure he'll be able t' make the trip unless his condition changes a whole lot between now an' the time we're s'pose t' leave."
"What the hell happened to 'im? How come we couldn't get 'im woke up?" Chris stared down at Ezra, nervously watching for any signs that the nightmare was coming back.
Nathan hung his head for a minute, rubbing absently at the back of his neck. The guilt that shone in his eyes when he looked up was almost painful to see. "That tea I made 'im drink had 'im so far under, he prob'ly couldn't even hear us callin' to 'im. I shoulda knowed it could happen, but I was jus' concentratin' on helpin' 'im get t' sleep. I never thought nothin' 'bout what would happen if we had t' wake 'im back up quick."
Vin shook his head at the healer. "Ain't your fault, Nathan. Bad as Ezra needed t' sleep, ya prob'ly woulda had t' take that chance even if ya had thought of it."
Ezra moaned and tossed restlessly in the bed while mumbling something about his uncle. Buck sat down beside him and grasped his hand, worried that the nightmare was returning to claim him again. "Easy, Ezra, you're gonna be okay now. We're right here with ya." They were all relieved when the smaller man's movements slowed and he seemed to relax a little. Buck glanced up at Nathan. "That why the headache hit 'im so hard this time?"
Nathan nodded. "Prob'ly 'cause he was in the grip of the nightmare for so long. It must be a damn strong one if he can feel the pain even while he's passed out." He looked at Chris and Vin and nodded toward the door. "You two oughta go try an' get some sleep. Ain't no sense in all four of us stayin' up with 'im. Buck an' I can handle it."
Both men stared down at Ezra, reluctant to leave him after watching him go through the hell of his dreams.
Chris glanced doubtfully at the ex-slave. "You sure, Nathan?"
Nathan nodded. "Positive. 'Sides, y'all need t' be rested up, 'cause I think we better start makin' sure someone's with Ezra whenever he's sleepin'." He reached out and smoothed out the blankets covering the unconscious gambler. "I damn sure don't want 'im sufferin' through anymore of those nightmares if we can stop it."
"None of us do." Vin picked up his hat and after settling it on his head, moved toward the door. "Just let me know when ya need me, Nathan."
Chris followed after the tracker, turning back to get one last look at Ezra before leaving. "You make sure you come get me if anything happens."
"He'll be all right. Jus' go get some sleep." Nathan watched in amusement as Chris still hesitated for a minute before finally slipping out into the hall and closing the door behind him. "Funny how all the gripin' an' moanin' Chris does 'bout Ezra jus' flies right out the window when he's sick or hurt. Hope Ezra knows how much that man really cares 'bout 'im."
"Shh, pard, you're all right." Buck smoothed Ezra's hair back as he uttered another soft moan. "He knows, Nathan." He smiled up at the healer. "He might not admit to it, but he knows."
Nathan saw Ezra wince in pain and sadly watched as tears began to seep out from under the long, dark lashes and slowly trickled down to pool on the pillow beneath his head. Leaning forward, he placed his hand against Ezra's face, the darkness of his skin accentuating the awful paleness of the gambler's. "Ezra? Can ya hear me?"
It took a few minutes, but Nathan finally saw Ezra give an almost imperceptible nod. "Can you open your eyes for me?"
They watched as he swallowed a couple of times, took a few shallow breaths and managed a hoarse whisper. "Can't... head hurts... too much... sor-ry."
"That's okay, Ezra. Don't worry 'bout it." Nathan gently wiped away the tears and then laid his hand on the younger man's shoulder. He could feel the muscles tensing under his fingers and knew Ezra was fighting valiantly for control over the pain. "Turn that lamp down, Buck... might help some."
Buck did as Nathan asked, kicking himself for not thinking of it before. When he turned back, he saw Ezra swallowing convulsively and heard him groan and immediately knew what was coming. "He's gonna be sick, Nathan."
Nathan glanced quickly around the room and spotted the wash basin sitting on the dresser. He hurriedly grabbed it as Buck helped Ezra sit up, wrapping his arms around the smaller man's middle to help support him.
Nathan made it back to the bed just in time. As soon as he sat down, Ezra reached out and grabbed the basin as his stomach began heaving. It seemed to go on forever, but the Southerner finally gasped and slumped back against Buck, moaning and clutching frantically at his head as the pain built to an unbearable level, scrambling his thoughts and leaving him breathless with its intensity.
Pouring some water onto one of Ezra's flannel wash cloths, Nathan handed it to Buck and then rushed downstairs to empty the basin before the gambler needed it again.
Buck wiped Ezra's face off, and then pulled his hands down and held them to keep him from hurting himself. "Hang on, pard, ya just gotta ride the pain out. It'll ease up soon."
Ezra shook his head and almost screamed with the sudden surge of agony the movement caused. "No... won't. 'S my p-punish-ment. Gotta... suffer... for what... I... did."
Buck thought about laying him back down, but then decided against it knowing he'd probably be sick at least once more before the headache left, and the less jostling around he had to endure the better. He frowned as Ezra's mumbled words finally registered. "Punishment? For what?" He bent over to look at the gambler and shook his head in confusion. "What the hell do you think ya need to be punished for?"
Ezra eased his eyes open a little and peered blearily up at him. "'S our fault... 's all our fault." His fingers dug into Buck's hand as he fought against the constant throbbing in his head. "Uncle Matthew tol' us it was... an' he was right."
Buck had to struggle to understand what Ezra was saying as the pain and exhaustion caused his words to slur and his accent to thicken. "Us, Ezra? Who's *us*, an' what's Uncle Matthew think ya did?" He knew he probably should try and get the Southerner to rest, but they needed to know if he was finally remembering part of his dream.
Nathan came back just in time to hear Buck's question and was about to warn him against pushing Ezra, when the gambler's mumbled answer shocked him into silence.
"Me an' the... the Little One. Tol' us we're... guilty... an' need t' be... punished." Ezra bit down hard on his lip and dug his heels into the bed in an attempt to gain control over the searing pains that were relentlessly trying to push him back into the void. He needed to tell them what he could remember about his nightmare before the memories were swept away again.
"Our Little One?" Buck glanced at Nathan who had moved over to join them on the bed and then looked back down at Ezra. "Was he in your dream?"
Ezra nodded and then began gulping in air as he fought against the waves of nausea that flowed through him. As soon as he thought he had it under control, he continued... his eyes filling with tears as he once more heard the boy's terrified cries echoing in his mind. Ezra stared sadly up at Buck and his voice shook with emotion as he spoke. "I had to... watch as that... *bastard*... whipped 'im. He hurt 'im, Buck. Hurt... us." Ezra began sobbing softly. "I could feel it, B-Buck. All the... pain. All the fear. I f-felt it all over again... r-right along... with the Little One."
"What's your uncle blamin' ya for?" Buck was sure his heart would break as he looked into Ezra's eyes and saw him reliving all the anguish and pain he'd been put through as a child. His arms tightened around the smaller man in an unconscious attempt to protect him from anymore hurt.
Ezra's voice dropped to a whisper, and he moaned softly as he forced the words out. "He k-killed them, Buck... both of them... an' it was our... f-fault." Ezra's eyes lost their focus as his mind drifted back to that horrible scene from his nightmare, forcing a shudder out of him as the image of the bodies appeared before him again. "Oh God... I can still s-see them, Buck. Still see them... lyin' there."
"Who, Ezra? Who'd he kill?" Buck fought to keep his voice low and steady so Ezra would continue. He knew they were finally hearing part of the reason he was being tortured by the nightmares.
Ezra's head throbbed as he tried once more to focus on Matthew's victims... tried to remember who they were... but it was still a blank. "Couldn't s-see their... faces." His gaze shifted to Nathan. "I tried, Nathan. I t-tried to see who they... were." His eyes drifted closed and his voice faded to a soft mumble that they had to strain to hear. "Can't 'mem-ber... who... but I... know we loved... them. Little One an' I... loved 'em... an' now they're... dead. We m-made him... do it. Didn't listen... tried t' get... the man t' help. 'S all our... fault." He shook his head slightly as if to clear his thoughts and grimaced as the pain worsened. "'S all *my*... fault."
Nathan poured some of the cold water onto the cloth Buck had used earlier, and pressed it against Ezra's forehead, hoping it would help ease the pain some. "Take it easy, Ezra... stop tryin' t' force it."
Ezra closed his eyes and leaned into the welcoming coolness of the wet cloth. "Have to... 'fore I f-forget what I... d-dreamed." He started to say more, but stopped as he realized he was losing the battle with his churning stomach. Ezra opened his eyes and stared helplessly at the healer. "Nathan... I'm goin' t'--"
Nathan had already placed the bucket he'd gotten from the kitchen beside the bed, and at Ezra's mumbled warning, he and Buck quickly turned the gambler over onto his stomach with his head hanging over the edge, and held him while he was sick. Once he was finally finished, Ezra pulled out of their supportive grip and curled up on his side, closing his eyes to block out the disgust he was convinced he'd see on their faces as they once again were forced to witness how weak he was. "God... I'm s-so... sorry."
Buck ran his hand slowly up and down Ezra's back and could feel the tiny tremors of exhaustion that continually rippled through him.
Nathan gently dabbed at Ezra's face, wiping away the sweat that had beaded up on his pale cheeks and the few tears that the younger man was unable to hold back. "Ain't nothin' for ya t' be shamed of, Ezra. Pain like that's bound t' make ya sick."
"Is you're headache easin' up any?" Buck knew that Ezra's headaches usually began to disappear once he'd thrown up, but it didn't look like that was happening this time. His face still held that pinched look around the eyes that indicated he was battling hard to mask the pain he was feeling.
They saw him hesitate for only a second before he whispered, "no... n-not really," and knew then just how much he was truly suffering.
"Damn, pard... must be hurtin' pretty bad if you're actually admittin' to it." Buck smiled sadly when he saw the corners of Ezra's mouth twitch slightly.
"You do realize... I'll deny... sayin' it... if--." Ezra started to raise his head to look up at Buck, but stopped suddenly when he was stricken with the worst pain he'd experienced yet. "Oh... God!... hurts!... it... hurts!"
Buck and Nathan both grabbed at him as he began to shake and claw at his head as if trying to dig out the pain with his bare hands.
"Ezra!! Stop! You're hurtin' yourself, damn it!" Buck had just managed to force his hands down, and Nathan had gained control of his thrashing legs, when he unexpectedly lunged for the side of the bed... nearly throwing all three of them off onto the floor.
"Shit...." Nathan managed to grab hold of Ezra's shoulders and get him over the bucket just as he started violently retching again.
Buck wrapped his arms around the gambler and fought to keep him from falling off the bed as his body was wracked by the gut-wrenching spasms. "I got ya, pard... just hang on."
Both men looked up when they heard a soft knock on the door and were greatly relieved to see Josiah walk in. The big man saw what was happening and hurried over to the bed to help hold Ezra down. He sat behind Nathan and placed one long arm across the Southerner's legs, anchoring them firmly to the mattress, and then reached up and began running his hand slowly across Ezra's back.
They were beginning to think it would never end, but finally, after what seemed an eternity, Ezra's convulsive movements slowed and then stopped. His sobbing gasps echoed softly through the room as he struggled to catch his breath, and after getting the gambler's mumbled assurance that he was through being sick, Nathan and Buck eased him up into a sitting position and settled him back against Buck's chest.
Nathan wiped his face off and got him to take a few sips of water, then stood and motioned for Josiah to take his place. He bent over and squeezed Ezra's shoulder lightly. "Ezra? I'm gonna go get ya somethin' for the pain an' t' settle your stomach. You jus' sit here with--"
"No! Na-than... please... don't wanna... sleep...." Ezra's hand came up to weakly grasp Nathan's as he stared pleadingly at him.
Nathan saw the fear in Ezra's gaze and felt a shudder run through the smaller man at the thought of having another nightmare, and hurried to reassure him. "It's okay, Ezra, I ain't givin' ya nothin' t' make ya sleep. It's jus' somethin' for the pain an' t' make ya quit throwin' up. That's all... honest."
Ezra stared at him as his tired mind tried to figure out if he was telling him the truth or just what he needed to in order to get him to take the medicine. "P-promise me, Nathan?"
The ex-slave smiled gently and nodded. "I promise ya, Ezra. That tea is what made the nightmare so bad... it had ya sleepin' so hard ya couldn't wake up, an' believe me... I don't never wanna see ya go through nothin' like that again." His expression turned serious and his sad dark eyes glistened with a hint of tears. "I'm real sorry that I didn't realize what that medicine might do t' ya, Ezra."
Ezra trembled slightly at the mention of his nightmare, but managed a small smile for Nathan as he shook his head. "S'all right, Nathan. No way you... could've known."
Nathan nodded his thanks, and after setting the basin on the night table where it would be handy if needed, grabbed up the bucket and left.
Josiah walked over and raised the window a few inches to let in some fresh air and hopefully push some of the stench of sickness out of the room, and then returned to the bed and began bathing Ezra's face with the cool, damp cloth. The gambler was panting softly as he fought to gain some bit of control over the dull throbbing that had settled behind his eyes and the queasy feeling that was still assaulting his stomach.
Buck felt Ezra flinch when Josiah pressed the cloth against his slightly swollen cheek, and looking down, saw that the imprint of Nathan's fingers were still clearly visible on the smaller man's pale face. He stopped Ezra's hand as he reached to investigate the reason for the pain and held it as he answered the Southerner's questioning look. "Nathan had to slap ya to bring ya outta the nightmare."
Ezra nodded and wearily closed his eyes as he whispered, "Thank him... for me."
Josiah smoothed Ezra's hair back and then cupped his face in his large hands, rubbing gentle circles over the gambler's temples with his thumbs. "Rest, Ezra... just let it all go for awhile. We'll be right here watchin' over you."
Ezra tensed at first, and then relaxed as he finally managed to push away his natural instinct to be in control and never show any weakness. He was sick and tired of living up to his dear mother's teachings... always appear strong, keep your true feelings hidden, don't let anyone get too close. Ezra didn't feel strong at the moment, and he suddenly realized it just didn't matter anymore who knew it. He *wanted* someone to see he was hurting, *wanted* to let them help him, and he actually relished the idea of someone comforting him and soothing away his fear and pain. With a soft sigh, Ezra gratefully gave himself over into their care.
Buck felt the tension drain out of the man he held in his arms and tightened his hold on him, wanting Ezra to feel safe and secure enough to allow the sleep he needed so desperately, to claim him. Buck still had hold of Ezra's hand and was surprised when it twisted around and the younger man's smooth, slender fingers linked with his own larger, callused ones. He squeezed Ezra's hand gently and felt an answering pressure on his.
"Don't worry, pard... I'm here. It's safe to let go." Buck felt Ezra's head nod slightly against his chest and watched his boyish features slowly relax.
Shortly after Ezra fell asleep, they heard footsteps coming down the hallway. Josiah looked over his shoulder as the door opened and motioned for Nathan to be quiet as he came in.
The healer walked over to the bed, placed the clean bucket on the floor within Josiah's reach, and then set the cup of herbal tea he'd made on the night table. "He sleepin'?"
Buck nodded and keeping his voice barely above a whisper, told Nathan that Ezra had finally quit fighting and given into the exhaustion.
"Ya wanna try layin' 'im down?" Nathan asked Buck, seeing him squirm uncomfortably against the headboard.
"I don't wanna take a chance on wakin' 'im up. Just gimme somethin' to put behind my back an' I'll be okay." Buck leaned forward just enough to allow Nathan to slip a pillow behind him and then leaned back again with a relieved sigh. "Thanks, pard... that's better."
Josiah continued gently massaging Ezra's temples as he looked up at Nathan. He caught him in the middle of a huge yawn and smilingly nodded at the door. "Looks like you need sleep as bad as our patient here does. Why don't you leave him in our capable hands and go grab some shut- eye yourself? One of us'll come get you if you're needed."
Nathan didn't want to leave Ezra anymore than Chris or Vin had, but he couldn't argue the fact that he was tired. "All right. Since he's sleepin' anyway." He gave them both a warning look as he moved back to the door. "Y'all jus' make sure ya wake me if he needs me for anything. Anything... ya got it? An' give 'im some of that tea if he's still havin' any pain or eelin' sick when he wakes up."
After Nathan left, Josiah shook his head and chuckled softly. "And he claims Chris worries too much."
Buck nodded and stared curiously at Josiah. "He said anything to you 'bout what's goin' on between him an' Ezra?"
Josiah shook his head and looked thoughtfully down at the gambler. "I don't think Nathan even knows what exactly's wrong, but I've got a feelin' that Ezra's not the only one who needs to put some ghosts to rest on this trip were making."
Buck sighed and leaned his head back. "Well, I just hope buryin' those ghosts'll fix whatever's wrong between them. They've both gone through a lot to make their friendship work, an' I'd hate to see it ruined by a bunch of garbage from their pasts."
Josiah stared pointedly at the two hands linked together on the bed, and then smiled at Buck. "Speakin' of friendships...."
Buck looked down and gently ran his thumb back and forth over the slender hand he still held clasped tightly in his. "I think you were right, Josiah... 'bout that connection of the soul business. I've gone over it again an' again, an' I just can't come up with anything else to explain this closeness we been sharin' since he had that amnesia." He looked up at the gentle preacher and shrugged. "I figured things'd go back to the way they were once he got better, but I... I still feel exactly the same as I did when he was Lit'l Ezra. He's become my brother and best friend, Josiah... the other half of me."
"And Ezra?" Josiah asked quietly. "Has he talked about it at all?"
"He's talked about it a little... more than I ever thought he would... an' he's pretty much had the same feelin's as me. He just was kinda spooked at first 'cause he didn't know where the hell they were comin' from." Buck grinned. "Kinda like the memories he was havin' of bein' our Little One."
Josiah laughed as he thought about Ezra's reactions to some of the things he'd said and done while he was 'five.' "I don't know how he kept all that to himself. I thought for sure he'd at least get desperate enough to ask you about any flashbacks he might have."
"What... an' risk embarrassin' himself by findin' out all those crazy thoughts he was havin' really happened?" Buck smiled down at the sleeping gambler. "The only thing he'd admit to was feelin' different 'bout him an' me... that he felt safe somehow with me, an' that it was okay for him to let his guard down when it was just the two of us."
"Ezra may not have realized it, but I think deep down inside he wanted someone like you in his life, Buck." Josiah looked down again at their joined hands and saw it as a sign of just how successful Buck had been in getting around all the defenses that Ezra had always used to keep everyone else out. "The rest of us could see how much he wanted to be able to trust us to accept the pieces of himself he kept hidden, but after a lifetime of guarding his heart so fiercely, the idea of allowin' us all in at once was just too much for him to handle. He needed one person to come forward and offer his own heart up to give him that chance to connect, and you did that when you took our Little One under your wing and opened yourself up to him."
Buck grinned when he thought about him *opening up* to his Little One. "Hell, Josiah... Lit'l Ezra didn't give me much choice in the matter. He grabbed onto my heart with both hands an' just wouldn't let go."
"Well, I only hope Ezra realizes how lucky he is that his younger self knew just which one of us to latch onto." Josiah saw Buck's expression turn serious as his arm tightened around the gambler.
"He's not the only one who's lucky, Josiah. Ezra's done just as much for me as you think I've done for him. He's given me a reason to feel needed again... and I've really missed that." Buck saw the older man staring at him, mild confusion in his eyes, and tried to explain how he felt. "When I was younger, I had my mama to look after. She told me once that it was in my nature to be a caretaker because even though I was just a kid, I took on the responsibility for her and all the other 'ladies' that she... um... worked with. Then when she was gone an' I got older, I had Chris. He used to need me to pull 'im back outta the bottle when the memories of Sarah an' Adam got to be too much for 'im, an' even Chris says he wouldn't have made it through that time without my help. But eventually, it got to a point where it wasn't working anymore, and I realized I'd helped him as much as I could. It was time to back off an' let 'im deal with the rest of the healin' in his own way before we ended up destroyin' our friendship. We'd been friends too long to let that happen."
"What about JD? The boy looks up to you and depends on your guidance."
Buck smiled sadly and shook his head. "He needed me at first... to show 'im the ropes, teach 'im how to survive out here... but the kid's doin' just fine now an' startin' to resent it if I butt in too much. He knows I'm still here for 'im whenever he needs me, but even he realizes that there are some things he's gotta figure out on his own, an' he can't do that if I keep tryin' to force my *expert* advice on 'im." He chuckled as he thought about JD's opinions on some of that advice. "Nothin's changed in how I feel 'bout the boy... we've got a real special friendship, an' he's still my kid brother an' always will be, but I've gotta back off a little an' give 'im room to grow now. Let 'im try his wings."
Buck looked down at the man sleeping trustingly in his arms. "But Ezra... well, Ezra truly needs me. He's tryin' to find his footing in this new experience of bein' part of a family an' havin' friends, an' he kinda depends on me now to be there to steady 'im while he learns how to balance his need for self-control an' independence, with *our* need to be a part of his life. Havin' 'im put his trust in me like that means everything to me because I know just how hard it was for him to do that, an' the fact that he didn't do it just for himself, but for me, too... to give me what he knew I had to have to feel complete... well, that just makes it all that much more special."
Josiah stared at Buck in amazement. This was a whole new side to his friend that he and the others had never seen before... one he realized they might have discovered if they'd just tried to look past the eternally cheerful, carefree facade that he always presented to the world. But Buck was their rock... the one who was always there, ready and willing to do whatever they asked of him... and unfortunately, they'd all just taken him for granted, never bothering to find out if there was anything he wanted from them in return.
Then here was Ezra... the one they'd always assumed had only his own interests at heart... who, even in the midst of his confusion over his own feelings, had still bothered to look close enough to see that Buck was hurting, too. He'd discovered that Buck had his own walls up, hiding a basic longing to have someone to take care of again, and even though it went against everything his painfully lonely life had taught him, he allowed Buck into his heart and admitted he needed his help.
Ezra mumbled softly and shifted restlessly in the older man's arms. "Buck?"
Buck squeezed his hand and spoke quietly in his ear. "I'm right here, Ezra."
Josiah reached out and laid his hand on the gambler's leg. "We're both here with you." He saw Ezra wince and felt him tense up. "Still got the headache?"
"Mmm-hmm." Ezra's eyes opened slightly, but he wasn't quite fully awake.
Josiah picked up the mug Nathan had left and held it to the younger man's lips. "Here, Ezra... drink this tea... it should help ease the pain."
As soon as Ezra felt the edge of the cup touch his lips, he twisted his head away. "No! Not again! Uncle Matthew's jus'... waitin' for... me t' come... back." Tears glittered in his dark lashes as his head tossed fretfully against Buck's chest. "Please don't... send me back... there. No more... n- nightmares... please?"
Josiah pulled the cup away before the gambler spilled it, and Buck leaned over and pressed his head against Ezra's to stop his frantic movements. "Easy there, pard, it's not that kinda tea. Remember? Nathan promised ya he wouldn't give ya anything like he did before... this is just for the pain."
Ezra looked to Josiah for confirmation of what Buck was telling him, and finally stopped trying to pull away when he saw the big man nod. "Buck's tellin' you the truth, Ezra... it's just gonna help take away the headache... that's all."
Ezra stared for a moment, and then nodded as he reached out to take the tea. Josiah helped steady the younger man's hand as he slowly drank, and then took the cup away when he was finished and set it back on the table.
Josiah watched as Ezra's lids began to droop again, and gently ran his hand up and down the gambler's arm. "Go back to sleep, son."
Ezra forced his eyes back open and peered blearily up at Buck.
"Josiah's right, Ezra... ya need to get some more rest. Would ya be more comfortable if I laid ya down?" Ezra shook his head. The headache wasn't quite as bad if he was sitting up, and as much as he hated to admit it... he wasn't quite ready to leave the safety of his friend's arms. The terrors of his nightmare had yet to fade completely... they hovered in the back of his mind, just waiting to make a reappearance. Buck smiled at him and shifted his arm from around Ezra's shoulders to push his head gently back down against his chest. "Okay, pard, that's fine with me. Just lean back here, close your eyes, an' go to sleep."
Ezra fought to stay awake long enough to ask one last favor. "Promise me... one... thing."
Ezra heaved a shaky sigh as his eyes slid closed, and whispered, "Please don't... let me dream, Buck. Jus'... don't let me... dream."
Buck glanced sadly at Josiah and then hugged the gambler gently as he whispered back, "We'll do our best, pard... I promise."
The next few days were, for the most part, a blur for Ezra. The sleep he so badly needed was constantly interrupted as his friends fought to keep him out of the horrifying world of his nightmares. His headache never truly left, just eased to a dull throbbing behind his right eye that kept his stomach churning and made it a struggle for him to keep anything down. And thanks to the lack of adequate rest and nourishment, he was suffering from wildly fluctuating emotional mood swings that left him either giggling and chatting up a storm like a slap-happy drunk, crying at the drop of a hat, or angrily railing against everything they tried to do to help him.
The group quickly fell into a routine as each of them discovered which of Ezra's moods they dealt best with. Since Chris was too short-tempered to be around him when he was angry, and JD was too emotional to handle some of the hurtful things that Ezra was liable to blurt out when he was in that frame of mind, they took care of him when the sleep deprivation turned him almost euphoric. They found that they actually enjoyed listening to him ramble, jumping from one totally unrelated topic to the next. One minute he'd be laughing over some humorous tale about one of Maude's schemes that had blown up in the conniving woman's face, and the next he'd be solemnly describing how lonely and isolated he'd felt growing up with only his mother for companionship. During these periods of relative calm, they would accompany him down to the saloon and play cards with him as he talked, giving him a much needed respite from the confines of his room. They only retreated back upstairs when he seemed about ready to wind down, knowing that he'd probably be able to finally grab a couple of hours of much-needed sleep.
Vin, Nathan, and Josiah dealt with the anger because they had a knack for tuning out the harsh words, knowing they weren't meant to hurt. It was just Ezra's only way to vent his frustration at having lost all control over what was happening to him. They usually tried to keep him in his room during these times, because anyone could become a target for his rage... one wrong look or misunderstood word was all it took to set the emotionally unstable Southerner off.
And then there was Buck, who wanted to be there for all of it. The others had talked themselves blue in the face trying to convince him that he would do Ezra no good if he drove himself into the ground by refusing to take care of himself. It had finally taken a direct order from Chris and the threat from Nathan that he would keep him away from Ezra altogether, to get him to at least go back to his room for some sleep once or twice a day. It was only a few hours of restless slumber, but they figured it was better than nothing. Of course, Buck would only agree to it after they promised to come for him if Ezra wanted him for any reason. They knew better than to argue that point, because they were all aware that Buck was the only one Ezra would allow to be around him when he sank into the depression that usually occurred after the other moods passed... when the hated tears flowed no matter how hard he fought against them.
Buck was the one person who could pull him back out of the sea of guilt he tried to drown himself in when the attacks of melancholia hit. Ezra needed to be constantly reassured that he wasn't to blame for his uncle's actions... that he had been manipulated by Delacourte's sadistic mind and that he, as a child, could in no possible way have *forced* the man to commit murder.
It was a constant battle, and everyone's nerves were frayed, but somehow they made it through that week, even managing to make a small improvement in Ezra's health. By the third or fourth day, his headache had finally left and his constant nausea had stopped so that he was once again able to eat normally, at least for him. He'd even gotten to the point where he could fall back to sleep fairly quickly after they'd had to waken him from a dream, enabling him to get caught up on some of the sleep he'd missed. His emotions had leveled off, and except for an occasional bout of depression, he'd been acting almost like his old self again.
The Judge came in on the stage the day before they were to leave for Gainesville, and Chris had gone to Mary's to talk to him... letting him know they'd be leaving in the morning and asking him one last time if he was sure they'd be all right until the army detail got there. Orrin had reminded him that the troop was due to arrive in two days and, with a touch of sarcasm, assured him that the town would survive that long with just his meager protection.
And then, to Chris's consternation, the Judge had asked for his promise that they would stay within the law. The blond had fought against it, but then Travis had gotten him when he'd told him to think about what it would do to Ezra if one of them were sent to prison for trying to help him.
Chris had tried to argue that all that mattered was keeping Ezra safe from Delacourte, whatever it took, but in his heart, he knew that the added guilt would be more than the gambler could handle, and they'd lose him for sure. So, for Ezra's sake, Chris had made the promise.
The next morning dawned clear and cool, with the rain that had pelted the area for the past few days finally ending. Nathan was relieved to see the sun shining. He'd seriously contemplated calling the trip off, not wanting Ezra subjected to the rigors of a long, wet ride in his present condition. He'd tried to talk the obstinate gambler into allowing himself to be transported in a buggy, but he insisted on riding along with the rest of them, refusing to be treated like an invalid.
Mary and the Judge came out just as the men were mounting their horses, wished them luck, ordered Chris to send a telegram to let them know they'd arrived safely, and told Ezra they hoped the trip was successful. Then they stood and watched as the town's seven protectors turned their mounts and rode slowly away from Four Corners.
The trip to Gainesville was hot and dusty, but thankfully uneventful. They'd made it with a couple of hours to spare, and after paying for their tickets, moved down the street to the saloon. The interior was dark and cool and provided a welcome relief to the heat they'd endured on their ride.
As they sat savoring their refreshingly cold beers, six of the men discreetly watched their seventh who leaned wearily back in his chair with his eyes closed.
Ezra, sensing their scrutiny, smiled slightly and without opening his eyes, quietly spoke. "I'm perfectly fine, gentlemen... just a bit tired." He'd seen their covert glances during the ride, each of them keeping a worried eye on him, ready to stop and rest the minute they thought he was in any distress. Ezra cracked an eye open and peered bemusedly around the table at his six friends. "As if it isn't bad enough having Mr. Wilmington doing his excellent imitation of a mother hen... the rest of you decide to join him."
The others looked guiltily back at the gambler and chuckled. "Sorry, Ezra, guess it's catchin'." Vin slumped down in his chair and grinned at the Southerner. "Blame Bucklin... he musta breathed on us or somethin'."
Ezra tipped his hat back and stared over at the tall, dark healer. "Surely you must have some foul tasting medicine in your bag that can cure such an annoying affliction, Mr. Jackson."
Nathan laughed and shook his head. "Sorry, Ezra, far as I know, there ain't nothin' that can get rid of it 'ceptin' for the one bein' mothered t' get better. Guess it's all up t' you now."
"Oh great." Ezra frowned and turned to their youngest. "Mr. Dunne... would you mind runnin' over to the depot and seein' if they could possibly hurry that train along? Tell them it's an emergency. I need to get to Shelby... now."
JD slid deeper in his chair. "No way, Ezra. It's usually me that's gettin' all their attention. It's 'bout time *somebody* shared it with me."
The others laughed at the feigned look of betrayal that Ezra turned on JD. They knew he was putting on a show for their benefit. It was obvious by the pallor and deep lines etched around his eyes and mouth that he was in much worse shape than he was letting on, but it was still good to hear him joking around with the younger man.
Nathan kept a careful eye on him and wished it *was* possible to hurry the train's arrival along. He could see that Ezra needed to lie down... and soon. The con man may have fooled everyone else, but Nathan knew his headache had never completely left him. And now the long ride with the sun beating down on them had obviously made it worse. He certainly hoped this trip back was the answer to banishing Ezra's nightmares, and consequently the headaches. As strong as the Southerner was, Nathan honestly didn't think he could take much more.
By the time the train finally pulled into town, Ezra was nearly asleep in his chair.
"Come on, Ezra... let's get ya boarded an' settled so's ya can get some rest." Nathan reached down and helped the gambler up, and then steadied him with a light touch to his back as they slowly made their way over to the depot.
While the others saw to getting the horses loaded and their gear on board, Nathan accompanied Ezra onto the train.
Mary had managed to secure them two staterooms in the hotel car, and they had already decided that Nathan, Buck, and Ezra would occupy one, while the remaining four bunked together in the other.
The two men gave the room they were directed to a cursory examination and were quite pleased with what they found. Two very comfortable looking sofas lined the walls to the left and right, and there was a small table and two chairs placed in front of the window. There was room over top of the couches where a board could be placed at night for more sleeping space, but since one person had to be awake at all times to ensure Ezra didn't slip into one of his nightmares, the extra bed wouldn't be needed.
Nathan found some blankets and pillows in a small closet and made up the couch while Ezra stripped down to just his pants and shirt.
"Ya want me t' see if I can rustle ya up somethin' t' eat 'fore ya lay down, Ezra?" Nathan wasn't surprised when the Southerner declined his offer. He could see that Ezra was barely able to keep his eyes open and knew he'd be asleep minutes after his head hit the pillow.
Ezra sat down on the edge of the bed to take off his boots, and reluctantly had to stop and catch his breath before continuing. He felt his arms tremble as he propped himself up, and angrily shook his head. God, he hated feeling this weak and tired!
Nathan wanted to help him, but knew he'd be refused. Ezra was hanging on to whatever bit of control he still had over his life and was guarding it fiercely. So instead, the healer pulled one of the chairs over near the couch and sat down.
"Ezra? Can I talk to ya for a minute before the others get here?" Nathan's deep voice was low and hesitant and held a seriousness that immediately caught Ezra's attention.
Ezra studied his dark friend carefully and saw a myriad of emotions flit across his handsome face. Remorse, confusion, and an infinite sadness... each emotion surfacing briefly before immediately being replaced by another.
"Certainly, Mr. Jackson." Ezra licked his lips nervously as he wondered what could have the usually calm and collected healer so upset. "Is... is anything wrong?"
Nathan stared at the gambler for a moment and found himself again having to push the old hatreds back. He shook his head in disgust . <<This is Ezra, for God's sake! A friend who I'd trust with my life, not one of those Southern bastards from my past!>>
Ezra caught a flicker of anger in the healer's dark brown eyes and, thinking it was directed at him, wished one of the others were there with them. He leaned forward and hesitantly touched one of Nathan's clenched fists. "Nathan? Have I said or done somethin' to upset you?"
Nathan picked up on Ezra's nervousness and hurried to reassure him. "I ain't mad at *you,* Ezra, jus' at myself." He watched the gambler hesitate for a second and then visibly relax. Nathan glanced down at the floor, marshaling his thoughts and trying to remember all the things he'd wanted to say to his friend. "Ezra, I'm sorry for the way I been treatin' ya the last few months. I jus' want ya t' know that I don't mean half the things I say t' ya."
Ezra smiled at the healer as he gently teased him. "Only half of them, Mr. Jackson?"
Nathan gave the gambler a crooked grin and shrugged. "Well, sometimes you do try a person's nerves, Ezra."
"I have been told that on occasion." Ezra was relieved to hear the other man chuckle. Now that he'd eased the tension a bit, he got back to the matter at hand. "So... Nathan... it's fairly obvious that somethin' about me is bringin' on the undeserved half of your remarks... care to tell me what it is?"
Nathan struggled to find the words to explain to Ezra what he was feeling, and finally just blurted out the truth.
"Everything. You're accent, your highfalutin way of speakin', the way ya dress an' carry yourself... like you're--" Nathan stopped, instantly regretting what he'd been about to say when he saw the flash of pain in Ezra's eyes.
A self-deprecating grin slipped easily into place as Ezra softly finished Nathan's statement. "'Like I'm above everyone else?' Is that what you were about to say, Mr. Jackson? I assure you, my friend... nothin' could be further from the truth." The gambler leaned wearily back against the couch and shook his head. "I thought we'd left our cultural differences at the Seminole village back at the beginnin' of our... association. Why are they suddenly rearin' their ugly heads now?"
Nathan leaned forward and sat with his head in his hands. "We did, an' I ain't rightly sure why it's all surfacin' again. Hell, I know in my heart you ain't like that, Ezra. It's jus'... you describin' that whippin' when ya was still our Little One, an' us meetin' your uncle... well, it's jus' kinda brought back all the evil that I saw an' went through when I was still a slave." Nathan looked back up at Ezra and sadly shook his head. "I jus' want t' apologize for lettin' my problems with the past get in the way of our friendship."
Ezra found it hard to blame Nathan for feeling the way he did after seeing firsthand how slaves had been abused and degraded, and because he'd experienced it himself at the hands of his uncle. He understood how difficult it was to shake the trauma of being treated like you were nothing... like you weren't even human, merely someone's possession. But it was still hard for Ezra, who had always considered slavery an ugly and contemptible aspect of Southern life, to accept the fact that Nathan... a friend... could possibly associate *him* with it in any way. He'd always fought against people assuming just because of his accent and his obvious pride in his Southern heritage, that he was automatically a proponent for the heinous practice of slavery. Ezra was tired of waging that particular battle, and he had hoped it wouldn't be necessary with his friends... he thought they all knew him better than that by now.
Ezra stared at Nathan and saw the anguish the gentle healer was going through in trying to understand what he was feeling and why... saw that it was tearing Nathan up inside to know that his thoughtless remarks and actions had hurt a friend... and this, more than his words of regret, allowed Ezra to push aside his own feelings and forgive him.
Ezra nodded and graciously accepted the other man's apology. "Thank you, Nathan, but please don't think for even a moment that our friendship will be allowed to suffer because of this little setback. We've both been made painfully aware of how the past can come back to haunt you just when you think you're safe, and maybe if we work together, we'll both be able to rid ourselves of our demons while we're on this little excursion."
"Lord, I sure hope so, Ezra. I hate feelin' this way, an' I sure don't want t' lose you as a friend." Nathan saw the smaller man stifle a yawn and knew it was time to end the conversation. He stood and moved the chair back by the window, then watched while Ezra slowly pulled off his boots and stretched out on the couch. Ignoring the stubborn gambler's usual protests, the dark healer spread the blanket out over him and made sure he was comfortable. "Now that we got you settled, I'm gonna go see if the others got boarded okay."
"Don't tell me I'm actually goin' to be allowed to fall asleep without someone sittin' here starin' at me?" Ezra kept his voice light and tried to seem eager for some time alone, but Nathan saw the anxiety in his eyes that he couldn't quite hide.
Nathan gave the smaller man's blanketed leg a pat and then moved toward the door. "Don't get excited, Ezra, I'll only be gone a minute. Until we get rid of those nightmares of yours, you're jus' gonna have t' put up with one of us keepin' ya company whenever you're sleepin'." Nathan glanced back at the gambler as he opened the door and saw the look of relief that quickly replaced the nervousness in Ezra's eyes when he realized he wouldn't be left alone with his dreams.
"I suppose it would do me no good to argue." Ezra went through the motions of disagreeing with the healer's verdict, but Nathan knew it was only for show, so he played along for the sake of the gambler's pride.
"Nope, so don't even go wastin' your breath. Jus' lay back there an' try an' get some rest. I'll leave the door open a bit in case ya need me." Nathan saw the grateful look on Ezra's face and gave him a small nod before hurrying off to check on the others.
The train ride was long and tedious. Most of their time was spent playing cards while they tried to figure out what they were going to do once they got to Shelby. It was finally decided that their best bet would be to talk to some of the long-time residents of the town. It was a long shot since it had been over twenty years since the incident, but there was always a chance that one of the older townsfolk might remember Ezra and his uncle. Small town life being what it was, if anything out of the ordinary had happened out on that plantation, the odds were that it had been fodder for the rumor mill.
Ezra warned them that it might be hard to get anyone to talk to them. Small towns... especially small southern towns... weren't exactly open and welcoming to strangers.
Nathan had nodded his head in agreement and reluctantly admitted that it would be even harder for him because of his color. He'd been so worried about how he'd handle facing his memories of the South and about what was going to happen to Ezra when they started digging into his past, that he just hadn't thought about the treatment he would most likely receive as an ex-slave. But now Nathan realized that Ezra was absolutely right... his trying to question the white citizens of Shelby would be a waste of time and possibly even dangerous for him. He told the others he'd have to concentrate his efforts on his own people, and Ezra warned him to be careful not to draw attention to himself... a Negro asking questions would not be looked upon kindly by the local constabulary.
Josiah brought up the subject of Ezra's Uncle David and suggested they see if he still lived in the area. According to the Little One, he'd never seen him again after the day his Uncle Matthew and Maude had forcibly removed Ezra from his custody, but that didn't mean he hadn't perhaps kept an eye on the boy from a distance. Maybe he'd have some information about the two people Ezra claimed to have seen Matthew kill. The gambler's face paled at the mention of his Uncle David, and they all saw his hands tremble slightly as he dealt out the cards. But when he looked up, there was a glimmer of hope in his eyes at the prospect of seeing one of the few people in his young life who had actually cared about him.
Their last resort was going to be taking Ezra out to the plantation. Deep down, they all knew that it was probably going to come down to doing just that, but not one of them wanted to put their friend through the pain of returning to the hell where all of his nightmares took place.
Thankfully, there was only one instance when his friends were unable to pull Ezra out of his nightmare in time. The dream was the same as always... the beating, the accusations of guilt by his uncle, and the two tragic figures lying broken and lifeless in the dirt. Ezra struggled desperately to try and remember who they were and was rewarded for his efforts with the sudden knowledge that the female was young, and from the brief revealing glimpse he'd had of her, it was apparent she had probably been one of his uncle's slaves. This flash of memory hadn't come cheaply though, as the ensuing headache was severe and tortured the gambler for several hours before it finally eased up enough to allow Ezra to get some much needed rest.
The frequency of Ezra's dreams increased as they drew closer to their destination. By the time the train pulled into Henderson, they were being forced to wake him up at least three or four times a night, which had left them all exhausted and praying that they'd find the answers they needed to be able to finally release Ezra from his past.
Since it was only noon when they arrived, Chris suggested they go ahead and push on to Shelby.
Ezra felt his pulse quicken slightly at the older man's words. Push on? Already? He'd hoped they'd stay in Henderson overnight... give him more time to prepare himself. Ezra tried to keep the tremor out of his voice as he questioned Chris's decision. "Leave now, Mr. Larabee? I-I thought we'd be spending the night here... to allow everyone time to rest."
Chris and the others looked at Ezra, surprised by his reluctance to go on. Nathan frowned as he saw the gambler hastily avert his eyes and begin picking nervously at a piece of imaginary lint on his sleeve.
"You said it's only an hour's ride to Shelby. I think we can all hold out that much longer." Chris gave Nathan a questioning look.
Nathan touched Ezra's arm to get his attention and asked, "Ya feelin' okay, Ezra? It ain't you're headache botherin' ya again, is it?"
Ezra looked up, saw them all staring at him, and quickly shook his head, forcing a reassuring smile onto his face. What he wanted to say was... 'No, I'm not feelin' okay... I'm scared... please take me home'... but what actually came out of his mouth was, "I'm fine, Nathan. I just misunderstood our plans. Of course the wise thing to do would be to continue on. Shall we be off?" Ignoring their worried stares, Ezra turned and walked away.
Chris glanced at the others and saw the knowing looks on their faces. They'd all gotten a glimpse of the fear that had flashed briefly in Ezra's eyes before he'd managed to push it away. Ezra hadn't wanted to make this trip to begin with, but they'd all thought he'd finally seen the need for it and was as eager as they were to solve the mystery of his nightmares. Apparently they'd been wrong. Chris thought about talking to the younger man, but knew it wouldn't accomplish anything, so instead he just shrugged at the others and followed after Ezra as he made his way to where their horses were being led off the train. Hopefully, their tight-lipped friend would eventually open up and share his fears and worries with them. Until he chose to do so, there was nothing they could do but stay close and make sure he knew they were there for him when he was ready to finally reach out for their help.
It was a typical Southern summer day... hot and humid... and it wasn't long before everyone but Ezra and Nathan were miserable and complaining. They all had taken their coats off and draped them across their saddles, but it hadn't helped much.
JD dragged his arm across his face, wiping away the sweat with the sleeve of his shirt. "God, how can anyone stand to live down here?"
Buck fanned himself with his hat as he rode and nodded his agreement. "Don't understand it myself, JD. This damned air's so thick it's like tryin' to suck water into your lungs."
Chris jerked his horse away from Vin as the tracker suddenly flung his arm out in an attempt to chase away an insect that was buzzing incessantly around his head. "The hell with the heat an' air... it's these damned bugs that are drivin' *me* crazy! I think that last one was tryin' t' carry me away."
"Well, quit sendin' the damned things my way. I don't like 'em any better than you do." Chris took his hat and swatted the bug that had been tormenting Vin and received a relieved look of gratitude from the younger man in return.
Nathan and Ezra, who were riding in the front, looked back at their irritable companions and just shook their heads.
"Ain't no hotter than that damned desert y'all like so much," Nathan commented.
"I agree, Mr. Jackson." Ezra nodded and gestured around him. "Plus the scenery is so much lovelier here... beautiful green trees, brightly colored flowers and birds... definitely a vast improvement over the drab browns and tans of the sand, rocks, and buzzards."
"Hang on now, Ezra, the desert ain't all like that. There's plenty of bushes an' flowers out there that are jus' as purty as these," Buck argued, looking at the others for support.
"Buck's right." Vin ducked as a rather large bee swooped over his head. "'Sides... I'd jus' as soon be out in the desert dealin' with snakes an' scorpions any day instead of these damned bugs."
Josiah removed his hat and mopped the sweat off his face and the back of his neck with his bandanna. "God certainly has blessed this part of the country with an abundance of beauty, Ezra, but I still think I prefer the nice *dry* heat we left back in Four Corners."
The friendly arguing continued for the remainder of the ride... neither side really trying to win, just trying to keep their minds off of what lay ahead of them once they got to Shelby and started delving into Ezra's past.
JD had been slouched in the saddle, his energy sapped by the unrelenting heat, until they rounded a curve in the road, and he caught a glimpse of a church steeple through the trees. Sitting up straighter, he looked back at the others and eagerly asked Ezra if that was Shelby up ahead.
The others all cast furtive glances at Ezra when he answered JD in the affirmative and saw him pale slightly with his first look at the town he'd last seen twenty-three years ago.
Nathan saw a tremor of exhaustion and nervousness shake the slender form of the gambler and decided the first thing they had to do was find a place to stay and convince Ezra to get some rest.
Vin had seen it too and dropped back to ride beside his Southern friend. "You okay, Ezra?"
Ezra started to brush Vin off with a glib answer, but couldn't when he looked over and saw the honest concern in the ex-bounty hunter's blue eyes. "I've been better, Mr. Tanner." He sighed and ran a weary hand over his face before continuing. "I'll just be glad when this is all over, and we can go home."
"We all will be, pard... an' the sooner the better."
Vin stayed beside Ezra as they rode into town, and it wasn't lost on the gambler that all of his friends seemed to close ranks around him as if to protect him from his memories. He still had a hard time believing he deserved the friendship and loyalty they were showing him, but he no longer felt the same over-whelming need to fight against it and had decided to just accept it and cherish it for the gift it truly was.
Chris watched Ezra's face as the town slowly unfolded around him and could tell by his frown that most of what he was seeing was unfamiliar. "Can't remember it?"
Ezra shook his head. "Not really... no. But I honestly didn't expect to anyway. The only times I think I was ever actually in town were when Mother and I rode through on our way to Uncle Matthew's." He smiled ruefully at the gunfighter. "We seldom stopped for anything. Unfortunately, the various shops and eateries here weren't quite up to Mother's standards."
JD glanced at him curiously. "But didn't ya ever come into town with your uncle and his family?"
Ezra uttered a harsh, humorless laugh and smiled grimly at the young man. "I was allowed out of my room to do chores, Mr. Dunne... that's all. And then only if my uncle was there to stand guard over me." He turned away from the incredible sadness that had appeared in JD's compassionate hazel eyes and let his gaze wander over the various establishments that lined the street in search of the hotel. "Whenever he was going to be away from the plantation for any length of time, he locked me in my pitiful excuse of a room and took the key with him. He claimed he didn't want the servants babying me and undoing all the *respect* he'd worked so hard to instill in me. By babying, he meant feedin' me a decent meal, cleanin' me up, or treatin' any injuries I may have incurred as a result of his... disciplinary methods. He didn't want me gettin' spoiled."
Ezra closed his eyes for a moment and took a deep, calming breath before carefully changing the subject. "I do believe that large gray building on the right is the Shelby Hotel. Shall we see to our accommodations before proceeding with our fact-finding mission, gentlemen?"
Nathan stared at Ezra's back as he rode toward the hotel and thought about his life under Matthew Delacourte's sadistic control. He was swept by a deep feeling of sorrow over his treatment of the gambler as he was reminded that Ezra had suffered just as much as he had while he was still a slave.
Chris and Ezra went in to see about getting rooms while the others took the horses over to the livery. They'd decided to double up in order to save money, with both Buck and Nathan bunking with Ezra just as they'd done on the train.
The two men waited in the lobby for the others and then helped carry their gear up to the rooms.
As soon as the seven men rounded the landing and disappeared from view, the desk clerk, after taking one more look at the newest addition to the register, left the hotel, walked hurriedly to the offices at the opposite end of the street, and ducked inside.
"Mr. Delacourte? They're here."
It was still early when they finished stowing their gear in their rooms, so they decided to do a little scouting around until dinnertime. Nathan caught Ezra as he started to follow the others out and pushed him gently back toward the bed. "Not you, Ezra. I want ya t' get some rest."
Ezra railed against the healer's orders, but it was obvious that he was resisting only out of habit, because it was only a matter of minutes before the tired gambler had given in and agreed to remain behind. Then it was JD's turn to protest when Chris told him to stay with Ezra.
"Why doesn't Buck stay with him? He's the one who knows what to do in case he has one of his nightmares." JD glanced at Ezra and hoped he didn't get offended, it was just that he hated always being the one left behind. Ezra, however, understood the reasoning behind Chris's decision... JD's youth and obvious northern heritage would put him at too much of a disadvantage for him to effectively deal with the locals.
Buck threw an arm around the younger man and grinned down at him. "Come on now, son, you just scream out Yankee. If that hat and suit didn't give ya away, they'd know for sure as soon as ya opened your mouth."
JD tried to argue that Chris and Josiah didn't have a strong southern accent, but even he had to admit that they probably had enough of a drawl to keep them from attracting as much negative attention as he himself would. He finally plopped down on the edge of the bed and looked regretfully up at the gambler. "Sorry, Ezra, looks like your stuck with me."
Ezra sighed and settled on the bed beside him. "I hardly consider it 'stuck', my young friend. Bein' graced with your company allows me a brief respite from the over-zealous mothering tendencies of our well-meaning Mr. Wilmington."
Buck stared incredulously at Ezra and began spitting and sputtering about the ingratitude of certain people, and then squawked indignantly when Chris and Vin each grabbed an arm and unceremoniously pulled him out of the room. His loud grumbling could still be heard echoing down the hallway until Josiah and Nathan followed their three friends out and closed the door behind them.
After the others left, Ezra walked over to stare out the window. JD watched him for a few minutes as he stood there... not speaking, his shoulder's hunched, muscles tensed as the fingers of one hand tapped nervously against the wooden sash... and then walked over to stand beside him.
JD nudged Ezra with his shoulder and smiled when he finally looked at him. "What'cha thinkin' about?"
Ezra stared at the younger man for a few seconds, hesitating as he fought against his natural instincts to keep his thoughts guarded, and then sighed and turned back to the window. "My Uncle David."
JD nodded as Ezra confirmed what he'd suspected. "You gettin' anxious about maybe seein' him again?"
The gambler shrugged and glanced back over at the dark-haired gunfighter. Ezra briefly considered brushing off the young man's question, but he knew JD was just trying to be a friend. "A little, I guess. I don't really remember him. Just that he was my... father's... younger brother, and that I stayed with him at some point."
"Lit'l Ezra seemed to think pretty highly of 'im." JD heard Ezra stumble over the mention of his father, but purposely ignored it. He had asked about the man once, but all the Southerner would say about him was that his name was Charles Standish, that he wasn't exactly a shining example of fatherhood, and that his mother had left him when Ezra was only three.
Ezra blushed slightly at the mention of his five-year-old alter ego. "Did he... I mean... did I say much about my uncle?"
JD could see the pain in Ezra's eyes at not being able to remember and wished he could take it away. "You told us a few things about him."
Ezra ducked his head and ran a hand nervously through his hair. "Mr. Dunne? Would you... tell me about it? Tell me what I said? Please?"
JD, worried he'd say the wrong thing and hurt Ezra, started to suggest that they wait until Buck returned and let him explain it, but then he remembered all the times the gambler had been there for him, always ready and willing to help in any way he could. Now here was Ezra, finally asking for JD's help in return, and the young peacekeeper knew there was just no way he could turn him down.
JD stared nervously into Ezra's sad green eyes, thought about how Buck always handled *him* when he had a problem to solve, and decided to just try and follow his example. "I'll make a deal with ya, Ezra... you lay down an' rest like Nathan wanted ya to, an' I'll tell ya what we know about your uncle. Okay?"
Ezra hesitated for a few seconds as he fought off the slight resentment he felt at having their youngest ordering him around... it was bad enough he had to constantly deal with the others doing it... but then finally nodded and began pulling off his coat.
As soon as Ezra was settled on the bed, JD began talking, pushing himself to remember everything the Little One had told them. Ezra relaxed back against the pillows, quietly staring up at the ceiling as he listened intently to the boy's voice, praying his words would trigger something that would bring the memories of his uncle back to him.
JD watched Ezra's face as he talked and was amazed by the rapidly changing emotions he saw there. When the Southerner let his guard down, his face was one of the most expressive JD had ever seen. First there was pain and sadness as he was told that his Uncle David seemed to be the only person who had actually been glad to have him visit. Then when the soft-spoken gunfighter mentioned how Ezra had still had to do chores like at his Uncle Matthew's, not as punishment though, but as a way to make him part of David's family, the gambler's face had held a touch of fear at the mention of Matthew's name and then a contented happiness at the realization that his Uncle David had truly wanted him to feel like he belonged.
Ezra gave JD a surprised smile as the young peacekeeper's words brought a memory floating to the surface, and whispered, "I remember that. He let me help with nearly everything he did around the farm, and he talked to me the whole time... not just *at* me, but *to* me."
"What'd you talk about, Ezra?" JD kept his voice soft and low, hoping a quiet question or two would keep the gambler's memories coming.
Ezra's eyes took on an unfocused look as he stared at the younger man. "Everything. He explained about bein' a family and how the work we were doin' was just all a part of that... he made me feel wanted for the first time in my life. And somehow he managed to show me that nearly all of the things my mother had taught me were wrong without makin' her look bad in my young eyes. Not an easy task, I assure you, considerin' some of the strange lessons she forced on me in her misguided attempts at motherhood."
JD returned the small smile Ezra gave him, but didn't comment, not wanting to interrupt the flow of the older man's thoughts.
"He tried to teach me how to be a good person, but I'm not sure he succeeded there. Even at that young age, I'm afraid too much of my mother's influence ran deeper than even my Uncle David's words of wisdom could reach."
JD couldn't keep quiet this time... the pain and doubt in the gambler's voice were impossible to ignore. "Shoot, Ezra, I think he succeeded just fine." He leaned forward in his chair, and hesitantly placed his hand over the Southerner's. "Honest, Ezra, when he meets you again, I know he's gonna be real proud of the way you turned out."
Ezra looked skeptical, but JD still caught a glint of hope in his eyes.
"Ya remember anything else?" JD waited while Ezra stared down at the bed, deep in thought.
Finally Ezra nodded and smiled softly. "I remember him tellin' me that he was goin' to keep me there with him... that he wasn't goin' to let Uncle Matthew hurt me anymore." Suddenly he gasped and raised grief-stricken eyes to stare at JD.
"What's the matter, Ezra?"
"My mother. She... she came with... with Uncle Matthew to take me away, didn't she?" Ezra elt a deep sadness clutch at his heart as the events of that horrible day unfolded in his mind.
JD had been about to release Ezra's hand and sit back, feeling suddenly shy about his unaccustomed attempts at comforting , but when he felt the gambler start trembling, he tightened his hold instead. "Yeah, Ezra, she did. You remember what happened?"
Ezra nodded and, looking into JD's expressive eyes, saw that he knew, too. Ezra's voice was hoarse with emotion, and his fingers tightened painfully around the younger man's hand as he asked, "Why'd he let me go, JD? He swore he'd never let them take me away... he promised." He'd been embarrassed at first, speaking this way to their youngest member, but JD's gentle approach and sincere attempt to help had made it surprisingly easy to continue.
JD hated seeing his friend hurting and almost wished Ezra could have just remembered the good stuff and none of the bad. He sighed and told the gambler their theory on what might have caused his uncle's change of heart. "Well, the best we can figure is that Matthew had some kinda hold over your Uncle David... somethin' he did maybe that he didn't want no one to know about? You got any idea what it might've been?"
Ezra thought hard, and then finally shook his head. "I don't know. From what little I remember about him, I just can't imagine him doin' anything that my bastard uncle could have used against him." He frowned and rubbed tiredly at his forehead. "I wish I knew more...." Ezra stared sadly up at the younger man. "I still can't even remember his face."
"It'll come to you, Ezra, just don't push too hard. We sure don't want you gettin' another one of them headaches." JD could see the strain showing in his eyes and instinctively knew it was time to quit. He stood and, grabbing the blanket folded on the end of the bed, draped it over the gambler. "I think it's 'bout time you got some sleep, 'cause if Nathan comes back an' sees ya still awake, he's liable to shoot both of us."
Ezra gave JD a half-hearted scowl and tried to convince him he wasn't tired, but when his words of protest were interrupted by a huge yawn, Ezra knew he'd lost the argument. Ignoring his young friend's triumphant grin, he rolled over, turning his back on him, and closed his eyes. JD's grin widened when he heard the Southerner begin snoring gently only minutes later.
"Not tired... yeah right, Ezra," JD murmured as he quietly moved a chair over by the window and sat staring out at the town while he waited for the others to return.
Once everyone was back at the hotel, they woke the still-slumbering gambler and sat down to discuss what information had been gathered. Unfortunately, it wasn't much. Just as Ezra had warned, they'd all been met with a wall of silence the minute they mentioned either one of his uncles. The people they spoke to hadn't even bothered trying to pretend they didn't know the two names... most of them had just glared angrily and refused to say a word. A few of them, however, had seemed sympathetic, but were obviously too afraid to talk. Nathan had received a slightly friendlier welcome from those he spoke to until they heard Matthew Delacourte's name, and then each and every one of them regretfully shook their heads and turned him away.
Josiah was the only one who had found someone willing to talk.
Ezra tried to hide the disappointment he was feeling and turned to the preacher. "Well, Mr. Sanchez, care to enlighten us as to the identity of the sole person in this Godforsaken town who *isn't* under my uncle's control?"
Josiah sighed and lowered his large form into a chair. "Her name's Abigail Stokes, and she runs the boardinghouse at the edge of town. She's only lived here for two years, so she couldn't help any with your past, but she did explain how to get to Matthew's plantation. She also said there's a family named Standish that has a farm out on the road to a place called Barringer... gave me directions for that, too. And like you said, Ezra, she's definitely not under your uncle's control. In fact, she hates him... claims that Matthew Delacourte had her husband murdered last year. It was right around Thanksgiving. She says Delacourte left to visit relatives in Missouri a few days before it happened and was gone for over a month before he finally returned, but she's still convinced he was behind it."
JD, who'd been standing by the window idly watching the comings and goings down in the street, suddenly turned back to the others. "That was just before he came to Four Corners with Ezra's mother."
"Prob'ly saw it as a way t' add t' his alibi an' take care of Ezra at the same time. Then when his plans all went t' hell, he high-tailed it back here," Vin stated, glancing at the gambler and seeing him flinch slightly at the reminder of what his uncle had tried to do.
Chris nodded. "He knew it'd be the safest place to be if we came after 'im."
"Well, his alibi apparently worked, because if he *was* involved in her husband's murder like Mrs. Stokes thinks, he got away with it." Josiah looked at Ezra's drawn features and wondered how many more lives the bastard had ruined.
"Did she say why Delacourte would've wanted her husband dead?" Buck asked the preacher.
Josiah nodded and continued. "She told me her husband was a lawyer and had been working for a young couple who claimed Delacourte was trying to run them off their land because they wouldn't sell out to 'im. Guess he'd been tryin' to get his hands on it for a long time and thought when the original owner died and the son took over, he'd be eager to let it go so he could leave for greener pastures. Kid decided he wanted to try his hand at farming and turned Delacourte down flat. Mrs. Stokes said her husband had found evidence of other similar shady dealings Ezra's uncle had been involved in and was on the verge of making an air-tight case against him when he was killed. He was late gettin' home one night, and when she went to check on him, she found him in his office. He was slumped over his desk with the gun still in his hand and a bullet hole in his temple."
JD frowned in confusion. "He killed himself?"
Josiah shook his head. "Not according to Mrs. Stokes. She said there were bruises on his face and arms, and the office was messed up like there'd been a struggle. Of course, no one would listen to her when she pointed all this out. The Sheriff declared it a suicide and refused to investigate any further."
Chris ran a hand roughly through his hair in frustration. "No wonder no one'll talk to us... they're probably all afraid they'll end up the same way as Stokes."
JD glanced out the window at the peaceful scene and then looked back at the others. "But how he heck can just one person control a whole town like that?"
"People are scared of 'im, JD. Mrs. Stokes says Delacourte owns pretty much everything around here... most of the businesses, the bank... the law...." Josiah shrugged his shoulders. "With that kind of power, a man can cause a lot of misery for anyone who's foolish enough to get on his bad side."
Buck started pacing angrily when he saw the look of defeat that appeared in Ezra's eyes. "So now what the hell do we do?"
Chris sighed, pushed himself up out of the chair, and moved toward the door. "Ain't much we can do tonight, so I suggest we go grab us some dinner, get some sleep, an' then start out fresh in the morning."
Realizing he was right, the others stood and silently followed him out of the room and downstairs. They checked the dining room, and after seeing only a scattering of customers, went in and took seats at one of the larger corner tables.
The seven men sat talking as they waited to be served and were completely unaware of the silence that had fallen over the room with their appearance. Josiah was the first to notice what was happening. "Got awful quiet in here, didn't it?" he commented as he glanced around and saw the other diners openly staring at them.
The others looked up and finally saw the angry glares they were receiving.
"Yeah, an' it don't look like *she's* none to eager to wait on us," Buck muttered as he nodded at the serving girl just standing by the door that lead to the lobby.
Chris motioned for her to come over, but she merely stared at him for a moment and then turned her back on him. He was just pushing himself away from the table, intent on finding out what the hell was going on, when a short, balding man strode quickly into the room, spoke a few words to the girl, and then moved toward them. The men recognized him as the one who had checked them into the hotel.
Chris coolly stared up at him and asked, "There a problem?"
The little man puffed his chest out and swept them with a look of utter disdain as he spoke. "There most certainly is. Your kind aren't welcome in this hotel. I want you and your belongings out of here immediately."
Buck slowly unfolded himself from his chair and glared down at the man, who nervously backed away as he looked up into the angry gunfighter's steely blue eyes. "Who the hell are you, an' what do ya mean... *our kind?*"
"I-I'm--" he attempted to stutter out an explanation, but was interrupted by a tall, powerfully built man who had just entered the room. Matthew James Delacourte.
"He happens to be Mr. Edgar Callahan, the manager of *my* hotel, and he's merely following my orders to have you removed."
Ezra, who was sitting with his back to the door, paled when he heard the heavily accented, cultured voice that would forever be burned into his memory, and felt a pair of heavy hands clamp down on his shoulders. Steeling himself against the fear that instantly made his mouth go dry and his heart pound wildly in his chest, the gambler turned his head and looked up at the man who stood directly behind him... the man from his nightmares.
"Why, Uncle, what a... pleasant... surprise." Ezra forced himself to keep his voice steady and his face devoid of all expression. It may have not been visible to the strangers in the room, but to his friends, it was clear what an enormous effort it was for Ezra to sit in that chair and allow that animal to touch him.
Vin, who sat between Ezra and Buck, discreetly reached out to place one hand on Ezra's arm in quiet support and wrapped the other tightly around Buck's wrist to keep him from physically attacking Delacourte.
Matthew felt the smaller man tremble slightly and rejoiced at the power he still apparently had over his nephew. Tightening his grip even further, he smiled as he felt Ezra flinch imperceptibly at the sudden bruising pain being inflicted on his shoulders.
He shook his head at Ezra. "Hardly a surprise, dear nephew... since Maude saw fit to telegraph me and inform me of your impendin' arrival. She wanted to make sure I was prepared to defend myself against you and your *ruffian* friends as she called your associates. I believe her telegram mentioned somethin' about some nasty old nightmares that have been plaguing you?" Delacourte was swept with a huge sense of satisfaction as he watched Ezra's face grow impossibly paler and felt him shudder beneath his hands. "I take it you still haven't recovered from that unfortunate incident of feeble-mindedness you were experiencin' when I last saw you? Tsk... tsk. Perhaps it would have been kinder for your friends to have allowed your dear mother to place you in the asylum like she'd planned."
"Y-You're lyin'. She... she wouldn't have--" Ezra felt himself losing his tenuous hold on his composure and tore his eyes away from his uncle to stare anxiously at his friends.
Nathan immediately picked up on the pleading look in the gambler's green eyes and leaned over to whisper to Chris, "We need t' get Ezra outta here... *now.*"
Chris took one look at Ezra's face and felt a surge of anger rush through him. Pushing his chair back, the black-clad leader of the Seven immediately moved to the younger man's side and wrapped his fingers tightly around Delacourte's arms. Leaning in close so that the larger man would be the only one to hear him, Chris pasted a grim smile on his face and ground out, "Let - him - go."
Matthew's smile slowly faded and his eyes widened slightly as he felt the delicate bones in his wrists grinding together beneath Chris Larabee's iron grip. He immediately released Ezra. "Certainly. No harm intended... just a friendly greetin' for my long, lost nephew." His voice lowered a notch as he continued. "And now I'd appreciate it if you and your gang of thugs would remove yourselves from these premises."
Loosening his hold only fractionally, Chris pushed Delacourte back away from Ezra and forced himself between them. "Gladly. Nathan... Buck... take Ezra outside. The rest of you go get our things an' meet us out on the boardwalk." As soon as he saw Ezra was safely out of the room, he shoved the lawyer away from him, and with a look of disgust twisting his hardened features, slowly wiped his hands on his pants.
Matthew's face tightened into a mask of anger at Chris's disparaging actions, and he had to clench his fists to keep from taking a swing at the blond. Seeing the other diners watching them closely, the pompous Southerner took a steadying breath and clamped down on the rage that threatened to consume him. "You're wastin' your time you know. The good people of this town have already heard the sad tale of Ezra's... mental problems... and the outrageous accusations he's been makin' about me. Naturally, they're sympathetic to his condition, but they're not about to embarrass him further by encouraging his insane quest to ruin me. So why don't you take the poor boy back home before somethin'... unfortunate... happens to him." He saw Chris's eyes narrow and quickly raised a placating hand. "Just a friendly warnin'."
"Chris. Don't." Vin came down the stairs and glanced in the dining room just in time to see his friend take a menacing step toward Delacourte. Stopping in the doorway, his arms loaded with their gear, he quietly urged Chris to walk away. "It ain't gonna help Ezra none if you go gettin' yourself thrown in jail."
Chris wanted nothing more than to wipe the smug look of satisfaction off of Delacourte's ugly face, but he knew Vin was right. This wasn't the time or the place. Chris grinned contemptuously at the over-confidant attorney as he turned to go. "Better watch your back... wouldn't want somethin' *unfortunate* to happen to you either."
Delacourte's smile disappeared at Chris's words. "Was that a threat, Mr. Larabee?"
Chris shook his head. "Nope, just the same friendly warnin' ya had for Ezra."
Vin chuckled softly as he followed his older friend out of the hotel. "Ezra's gonna be down-right proud of ya, cowboy. Ya finally learned how t' use some tact an' diplomacy."
Chris grinned back at him. "With all the preachin' he does about it... had to rub off on one of us sometime."
The seven men stood out on the boardwalk in the fading light with their belongings piled around them, ignoring the stares and angry mutterings of the people who were forced to step down into the street to get by.
"Well, now what?" JD asked as he stood slapping his hat against his leg nervously.
Chris glanced at him, but ignored his question, instead asking one of his own. "What I want to know is, how the hell did Maude know we were coming here?"
Buck had been watching Ezra closely and saw the flash of pain that crossed his face at the mention of his mother.
"I... I'm sorry, Mr. Larabee. I'm afraid I'm responsible for that. She'd sent word that she was comin' to visit, and I telegraphed her to let her know we were-- I never imagined that she'd--" Ezra kept his head down as he stammered out an explanation, embarrassed at first at having to admit he'd actually trusted his mother. Then he recalled what his uncle had said about Maude and her plans for him when he was suffering from amnesia. Anger replaced the embarrassment as he raised his head to glare at his friends. "But perhaps I'd have been a bit more careful with what I told her if you had been truthful about her plans for me when I was ill. As I recall... you merely said she wanted to get me 'better medical help.' I personally don't see how bein' dumped in an asylum for the rest of my life could possibly be considered an improvement over the excellent treatment Mr. Jackson apparently gave me."
Buck shared a guilty look with the others, and then put a placating arm around Ezra's shoulders. "Now, pard, we were just tryin' to protect ya. We figgered you an' ol' Maude have enough hard feelin's between ya... an' if ya never remembered what happened anyway--"
Ezra shrugged Buck's arm off and moved a few steps away from him and the others. "When are y'all goin' to accept the fact that I'm a grown man, not your *Little One* anymore? I don't need or want your protection... just your support." Ezra wearily leaned against the railing lining the boardwalk and searched his friends' faces for some sign of understanding. Spotting a movement in the hotel window, the Southerner looked up and stiffened at the sight of his uncle laughing down at him.
The others immediately saw the change in him and turned to see what he was looking at. Josiah picked up his gear and moved to stand between the gambler and the hotel, blocking him from his uncle's view. He could see that Ezra was weaving slightly and knew he was quickly reaching his breaking point. "Chris, I think we need to get Ezra someplace where he can lie down. Why don't we try Mrs. Stokes' boardinghouse... she said she'd help anyway she could. I'm sure she'd be willing to rent us some rooms."
Chris had to agree with Josiah's assessment of the gambler's condition. Picking up his and Ezra's saddlebags, he gave the preacher a nod. "Lead the way."
Josiah put a steadying hand on Ezra's back and led him down into the street, carefully keeping himself as a shield against Delacourte's intimidating presence.
Matthew watched as the seven men moved slowly down the street, a scowl darkening his face as he realized where they were headed. Glancing behind him, he motioned demandingly for one of the diners to join him at the window.
The man glanced nervously at his wife, shook his head at her whispered protest, and quickly moved to answer the imperious summons.
"Yes, Mr. Delacourte?" Jefferson Harris owned a large farm just outside of town and was a highly respected, long standing member of the community himself, but had learned a long time ago that the comfortable life that he'd worked hard to achieve could all be destroyed with one word from the powerful figure standing beside him.
The arrogant Southerner turned back to the window and glared at his nephew's retreating back. "Get some of your men together, Harris. I've got a job for you."
Before they could get to the boardinghouse, the owner of the livery stopped them and informed them they had to remove their horses... he didn't want their business either. After a rather loud and frustrating discussion, they finally arrived at Mrs. Stokes' carrying they're saddlebags and trailing their horses behind them.
Josiah went up and knocked lightly on the front door. The door was opened and upon seeing the preacher's smiling face again, Abigail Stokes stepped out to join him on the porch. She looked to be in her early sixties and was quite an imposing figure of a woman, standing only an inch or so shorter than Josiah and carrying nearly the same weight on her large frame. Her hair was a silvery gray, pulled back into a tight bun at the nape of her neck which would have given her face a harsh appearance if it weren't for her rosy cheeks and bright, compassionate blue eyes.
She took one look at their tired, dispirited faces and immediately understood the situation.
"Well, I see the charming citizens of Shelby have made you feel right at home. Not to worry, you're more than welcome here. There's plenty of space in the barn... why don't you see to your horses while I get your rooms ready." She answered their relieved smiles with a warm one of her own. "Have you eaten yet?" When they reluctantly told her they hadn't, she assured them she'd have a hot meal on the table within the hour.
Ezra started to follow the others, but was stopped by Mrs. Stokes who had looked into his weary eyes and realized this was the young man Mr. Sanchez had told her about... Matthew Delacourte's nephew. Seeing how done in he looked, she wrapped a plump arm around his waist and gently turned him back toward the house.
"Not you, sweetie. I think we need to get you off your feet for a bit." Ezra started to pull away, protesting he had to see to his horse, but she just tightened her hold on him and loudly overrode his objections. "Absolutely not. I'm sure one of your friends would be glad to take care of your horse for you. How 'bout you keep me company in the kitchen while I cook?" Not giving him another chance to refuse her, Abigail quickly led Ezra through the door.
JD's jaw dropped in amazement as he watched the two of them disappear into the house. "Did ya see that? She actually out-talked 'im!"
Vin laughed as he grabbed Rebel's reins and headed toward the barn. "I got a feelin' ol' Ezra might've finally met his match."
Chris and the others walked in the back door and stopped dead in their tracks, tired grins lighting up their faces.
A wealth of mouth-watering aromas wafted over them as they looked around the room. A pan of golden-crowned biscuits filled a bright yellow bowl in the center of the table, huge mugs of fresh, hot coffee steamed next to each plate, and in the middle of it all sat Ezra... perched on a stool next to the stove. He was decked out in a red checkered apron, held a spoon in each hand, and was diligently stirring the contents of two large pots.
Ezra looked up when he heard them come in, and ignoring their looks of surprise, waved a hand at the empty chairs surrounding the table. "Make yourselves at home, gentlemen... dinner will be ready momentarily. Mrs. Stokes is preparing our rooms, and she said to help yourselves to the coffee and biscuits while you wait."
Vin tugged on one of the apron's ruffled straps as he walked by and grinned. "Suits ya, pard."
Ezra blushed, but his green eyes twinkled merrily as he smiled at the tracker. "It does, doesn't it? Perhaps I should switch careers from peacekeeper and gambler to that of a chef. I'm sure the lovely Mrs. Stokes would be more than happy to provide me with lessons in the fine art of cooking."
Everyone laughed and sent out a silent thank you to the kind-hearted widow for somehow managing to put some life back into their friend. Ezra looked much better than he had when they'd first arrived at the boardinghouse. He was obviously still tired, but at least he wasn't bordering on collapse like he had been only a short while before.
They'd barely gotten settled at the table when Mrs. Stokes swept back into the kitchen. After a brief discussion, she managed to convince Ezra she didn't need anymore of his help and got him to sit down with his friends while she bustled around transferring the food into bowls which she then placed on the table.
Slipping into the chair beside Ezra's, Abigail proceeded to endear herself even further to the other six men when she filled the gambler's plate for him and, after ignoring his half-hearted protests, gently, but firmly, encouraged him to eat nearly every bite. And by peppering the others with a continuous stream of questions about their lives back in Four Corners, she managed to keep him from being the center of attention for a change... something Ezra was most grateful for.
By the time dinner was finished, the seven men felt they'd known Abigail Stokes all their lives. She'd fussed over them, shared her memories of her late husband, and just generally made them feel relaxed and free from worry for the first time in weeks. She'd argued vehemently against their offers of help with the cleaning up, but finally capitulated when she realized they truly did want to do it and weren't just being polite. Afterwards, she helped them get settled in their rooms, and once they were finally in their beds, they almost had the feeling they'd been tucked in.
There was a brief moment of awkwardness when Buck had had to offer up an explanation about Ezra's nightmares and the need for someone to watch over him while he slept, but seeing the blush of embarrassment that reddened the gambler's face, Abigail refrained from asking any questions and tenderly brushed his cheek with her fingers before nodding her understanding and leaving them alone.
Buck stared at Ezra after she left and grinned when he saw the blush the gambler was wearing deepen. "Damn, pard, she sure has taken a shine to you. Must be that southern charm of yours."
Ezra frowned at him as he began removing his clothes, readying himself for bed. "Nonsense. She was just as cordial to the rest of you."
"Yeah, right, Ezra." Buck's grin widened as he continued to tease his friend. "Funny... I don't remember her callin' none of *us* sweetie or darlin'... or worryin' over whether we ate enough or not... or noticin' how tired we all looked. You might as well face it, Ezra, she's decided to take ya under her wing, an' it looks like ya better get ready to be fussed over."
"All right, I concede that she did lavish a bit more of her attentions on me than the rest of you." Ezra sat on the edge of the bed and stared bemusedly at the door as he slowly unbuttoned his shirt. "Why would she do that? You don't suppose she could be workin' for my uncle, do you?"
Buck sighed and shook his head. "Lord, Ezra, I know you have a problem trustin' people, but... Mrs. Stokes? Did it ever occur to you that she might just like ya?"
Ezra laughed bitterly. "Now why would I be foolish enough to think that? Everyone wants somethin' from me, Buck... it's just a matter of figurin' out what it is." He saw the frown that suddenly appeared on Buck's usually jovial features and had the grace to look ashamed.
"Ya don't really believe that about Abigail, do ya?" Buck decided that as soon as they got the problem with Ezra's nightmares solved, they were going to have to work on his feelings of self-worth. He knew the younger man seriously couldn't understand why anyone would want to be nice to him unless they could use him for something. Buck was determined to change that just as soon as he could.
"Sorry, Buck, don't mind me. I'm just tired, and I think that little incident with Uncle Matthew has caused all my old insecurities to surface again." Ezra ran a hand through his hair and gave Buck a crooked grin. "Let's face it... I'm just not used to Mrs. Stokes' brand of motherin'."
Buck thought briefly of Maude Standish's version of motherhood and shuddered. "Whew, ain't that the truth, pard. Now if old Maude started treatin' ya like that, then ya'd have reason to worry."
Ezra laughed and agreed heartily with the older man as he finished undressing. As soon as he'd slipped his nightshirt on, he climbed into the big old feather bed and snuggled gratefully into it's comforting softness while Buck settled himself in the large, over-stuffed chair that Abigail had insisted he move from her room into theirs. Turning the lamp down to a muted glow, Buck pulled out the book she'd loaned him and began to read, as always keeping one ear tuned to the man in the bed, ever vigilant for those first signs of another nightmare.
Buck had caught himself drifting off twice, and when it happened a third time, he finally decided he'd better wake Nathan to take the next shift. He was sitting on the edge of the chair, stretching as he tried to work out the stiffness in his muscles, when he heard a soft whimper come from the bed and saw Ezra's shoulders begin to shake.
"Ezra? You okay?" Buck moved over to sit on the edge of the mattress and laid a hand on the gambler's back. He leaned over to look down into Ezra's face to see if it was the start of another nightmare and saw that his friend's eyes were still closed, his cheeks glistening with tears. "Ezra... can you hear me?"
It was obvious the Southerner was dreaming, but it was completely different from his usual nightmare. There were no panicked gasping breaths, no cries for help, just the quiet sounds of Ezra's weeping and a few softly mumbled words. Buck gently wiped away the tears and bent closer to try and decipher what Ezra was saying.
"Mama... no... pwease. Not Unca Maffew... nooo...."
Buck felt his heart clench at the sound of that sweet little voice he remembered so well. "Little One?"
"Mama... no! Don't w'et him huwt d'em... pwease, mama?!" Ezra's words became clearer as he began to stir restlessly under the covers.
Buck was debating on going after the healer, when Nathan opened the door and hurried in.
"I was jus' gettin' up t' see if ya needed t' be spelled for awhile when I heard 'im cry out. He dreamin' again?" Nathan asked Buck as he leaned in to get a look at Ezra's face. "Ezra?"
Nathan shook the gambler lightly to try and awaken him, but all he did was roll over onto his back and continue to cry.
The two men looked up when Mrs. Stokes came in, wrapping a worn, blue flannel robe around her as she stared anxiously at the three men. Her gaze softened as it landed on Ezra and she saw the distress he was in. "Oh, the poor sweet lamb. Is it one of his nightmares?"
Nathan nodded at her. "'Fraid so, ma'am."
"I don't wanna go wif you, Mama... I wanna stay wif Buck!"
Nathan stared in shock at the gambler and then at Buck. "The Little One?"
Buck nodded and tried again to reach the younger man. "Ezra? It's just a dream, pard. Nathan an' I are here with ya... wake up now."
But nothing he said seemed to help. The tears continued to stream down Ezra's face as his body began to tremble violently.
"I won't go wif you, Mama. W'eave me a'wone! I hate you, Mama!!"
Ezra's head jerked to the side as if he'd been hit. Nathan and Buck knew he was back in the clinic with Maude and would have sworn they could hear the horrible sound of her slap echoing through the room again.
JD stirred restlessly and slowly opened his eyes. What was that? Something had woken him up, but he wasn't sure yet what it had been. A noise? Voices? He heard raised voices coming from one of the rooms down the hall and realized Ezra must be having another nightmare. He was about to get out of bed to see if Buck needed help with him, when he heard Nathan's door open and close and the heavy tread of his footsteps crossing to the gambler's room.
JD decided he'd just be in the way and had started to settle back under the covers, when a large, callused hand was suddenly clamped over his mouth. His heart jumped and started thudding rapidly in his chest as he struggled against the arms that pinned him to the bed. JD strained to see the faces of his attackers, but it was too dark, and all he could make out was that there were four of them... and they were big.
He fought as they pulled him roughly up out of the bed, his mind working furiously, trying to figure out what they wanted. Was he being kidnapped? Were they going to kill him? He had his answer a moment later when he found himself held securely between two of the men, while the other two positioned themselves in front and in back of him. JD gasped when the one standing behind him grabbed a handful of his long, thick, dark hair and jerked his head back, holding it still while the one in front jammed a dirty rag in his mouth.
JD kept waiting for them to say something... give him some explanation for the beating that he was sure was coming... but none of the thugs said a word as they started raining blows down on him. The only sounds JD heard as he struggled to stay conscious were the painful thuds of their fists hammering into his flesh, and the terrified pounding of his heart.
With a strangled gasp, Ezra's eyes flew open, and he sat up in the bed. He stared dazedly around him, one hand pressed against his cheek... the other clutching at the sheet tangled around his waist. Buck's heart twisted as he watched him and realized it was exactly how the Southerner had looked after he'd received the slap from his mother.
"Ezra? Ya okay, pard?" Buck spoke softly as he reached out and touched him lightly on the arm.
Ezra turned his face toward Buck, but the older man could see that he still wasn't totally awake yet. His green eyes were awash with confusion and fear, and the painful knowledge that his mother had struck him. "B-Buck? What--"
Just as Nathan began to try and examine the gambler, a loud crash and a muffled cry came from one of the other rooms.
Mrs. Stokes saw the two men shoot worried looks first at Ezra and then at the door, and hurried forward to help. "Go check on the others... I can handle things here."
They stepped back, still hesitating as she sat down on the bed beside Ezra and gently wrapped her arms around him. "Come here, darlin'. Let Abigail take care of you."
After only a moment's pause, Ezra melted into her warm embrace. As soon as they saw that the gambler would be all right, Buck and Nathan hurried out of the room.
The four men were having a hard time hanging on to their young victim and realized they'd seriously underestimated him.
Worry surged through JD as he thought of the cries he'd heard moments before. Maybe it hadn't been Ezra dreaming after all. Maybe the others were in trouble, too. JD ignored the pain that was being inflicted on him and used every bit of his adrenaline-charged strength to fight off the thugs.
"Damn it, hold 'im!" the man behind JD ordered after taking a blow to the ribs from one of the kid's flailing arms.
"Jesus! I thought he'd be the easy one!" The man to JD's left scrambled to get a fresh grip on him, but was a second too late and went tumbling into the dresser as a fist smashed across the bridge of his nose.
JD took advantage of the sudden freedom to rip the gag out of his mouth and get off one shout of warning before a hand was again clamped over his face. It was only a matter of minutes before the sounds of approaching footsteps could be heard in the hallway.
"Shit! Someone's comin'! Jus' leave the damned note an' let's get the hell outta here!" JD was knocked to the floor by a punishing blow to his back and lay stunned as his attackers pushed and shoved their way back out the window. He was just struggling to his feet when Buck and Nathan burst into the room, followed closely by Chris, Vin, and Josiah.
"JD! You all right, boy?!" Buck rushed to help JD stand and kept an arm around him when he felt him stagger slightly.
JD shrugged off Buck's support and moved unsteadily toward the window. "I'm fine, but they're gettin' away!"
Chris grabbed the younger man as he tried to climb through the window and pulled him back into the room. "Get back in here before ya get yourself shot." Chris eased the curtains back and peered out into the night. Whoever had attacked JD had apparently disappeared into the trees surrounding the yard.
Vin joined him at the window. "Musta climbed up that trellis an' on t' the porch roof." He looked up at the overcast night sky and shrugged. "Ain't gonna be able t' track 'em tonight... we'll have t' wait till mornin'."
Chris shook his head as he closed the window and drew the drapes, then turned to light the lamp on the night table. "No sense in tryin' then either. We know who they're workin' for, an' even if we find 'em, you can be sure they'll have rock-solid alibis."
"Did ya get a look at 'em, kid?" Vin asked, frowning as he got his first look at JD's face.
"Nah, it was too dark. The only thing I could tell about them was that they were all bigger'n me."
Buck snorted. "That's a lotta help."
"Shut up, Buck." JD scowled at his older friend, and then winced as the movement pulled on the cut over his right eye.
Now that he had light to work with, Nathan began checking JD for injuries. "Well, they sure did a number on ya."
JD sat up a little straighter and tried for a cocky grin, which failed miserably due to his rapidly swelling lower lip. "Don't worry, I got my share of licks in."
"Did they say anything, JD?" Chris asked.
JD shook his head. "Not till they heard you all comin', then they just said let's get outta here or somethin' like that." His eyes lit up as he remembered what else he'd heard. "Wait... they said somethin' 'bout a note."
JD thought a minute. "Yeah, one of 'em said, 'Just leave the damned note an' let's get outta here.'"
The men glanced around the room, and it was Josiah who finally found the small, folded piece of paper lying under the edge of the bed. After reading it, he handed it to Chris. "'Leave while you still can.'"
Vin shared a look with the gunfighter. "Another *friendly* warnin' from Ezra's uncle?"
JD winced as Nathan pressed lightly on his bruised ribs. "I sure wouldn't call it friendly." Suddenly he looked up at the others as he recalled the sound he'd heard earlier. "I heard someone cry out just before they jumped me... are you guys all right?"
Buck made a calming motion as he saw the worried look that immediately appeared on Chris's face. "It was Ezra. He had a dream." Before he could ask why Ezra'd been left alone, Buck reassured him, "Abigail's with him."
Nathan looked up and frowned. "It weren't his usual nightmare though. He was dreamin' 'bout Maude's visit to the clinic."
Buck stared sadly up at Chris. "He remembered the slap. He looked an' sounded just like he did when it really happened."
JD gazed worriedly at Nathan. "He... he's not the Little One again, is he?"
Nathan continued to wash out JD's cuts as he shook his head. "Jus' in the dream. He said Buck's name when he finally woke up... it was definitely Ezra."
"You sure you're okay, kid?" Buck waited for JD's assurances that he was fine and then stood up and headed for the door. Now that he knew the boy was going to be all right, his worry turned to Ezra and how the gambler would handle the knowledge of what his mother had done... and the fact that they had kept it from him.
The others left Mrs. Stokes happily fussing over JD, who seemed perfectly willing to lay back and soak up all the attention she wished to give him, and returned to their rooms.
Nathan looked in on Ezra and was relieved to find that his dream hadn't brought on one of his headaches. Apparently only the nightmares about his uncle did that. He offered to take over for Buck so the gunfighter could get some sleep, but Buck assured him that he was too wound up after all the excitement and that he'd just grab a nap tomorrow. Nathan stared doubtfully at him for a moment, decided it wouldn't do any good to argue, and left.
Buck breathed a sigh of relief when the healer walked out... he'd been sure he was going to fight him about getting some sleep. And he had to admit, he actually was exhausted, but Buck had been watching Ezra and had seen him staring down at his hands, his fingers nervously plucking at the sheets. The older man had come to recognize this behavior as a sign that something was upsetting the Southerner and knew that he needed to talk.
Pulling the chair closer to the bed, Buck settled back in it and stretched his long legs out, resting his sock-clad feet on the soft mattress. "Okay, pard... out with it. What's botherin' ya?"
"I'm fine." Ezra kept his eyes turned down, while his hands continued their nervous movements.
Buck just watched him.
Ezra scowled at Buck and shook his head. "What makes you think somethin's wrong?"
"I can tell by lookin' at ya," Buck chuckled. "Just the way ya sit there starin' at nothin'... worryin' at the sheets like you're doin' now."
Ezra's hands quickly stilled as he looked up at the older man and gave an exasperated sigh. "You, Mr. Wilmington, are becomin' entirely too adept at readin' me."
Buck grinned at him. "I am gettin' good at it, ain't I?" Then his look turned serious again. "Now talk."
Ezra stared at Buck for a moment, and then fighting to keep his voice light and casual, asked, "The dream I had earlier... it's another little tidbit about my mother's visit that y'all neglected to tell me, isn't it?"
Buck heaved a sigh of regret... they should have just told him everything to begin with. "Yeah, it was, Ezra. I'm sorry... we were just--"
Ezra raised a hand to stop him. "I know... you were just tryin' to protect me. I don't even know why I bothered to ask."
His voice seemed so tired and beaten that it hurt Buck to listen to him. He dropped his feet to the floor and moved over to sit on the edge of the bed, laying his hand lightly on the other man's arm. "Think about it, Ezra... an' be honest now... would ya have really believed us if we'd told ya all this stuff about your ma? Or would you have felt like we were tryin' to come between the two of ya." He held the gambler's eyes, refusing to let him hide his true feelings as he waited for an answer.
Ezra opened his mouth to blurt out a denial, but Buck's steady gaze wouldn't let him dismiss it so easily. He was forced to consider the question honestly and finally slumped back against the pillows as he realized the truth of what his friend had said.
"You're right, Buck... even after everything she's done to me in the past, all the pain she's caused me emotionally... I still wouldn't have wanted to believe she could actually raise her hand to me. Especially since I had no memory of the occurrence." Ezra laid his head back and wearily draped an arm across his eyes. "I'm sorry, Buck. I'm just so tired of it all. I want to go home an' play cards half the night an' sleep till noon without someone watchin' over me. I... I want to go back to pretendin' my mother's better than she really is. I want to go back to bein' a functioning member of our group, not a pathetic weakling that y'all feel you need to protect and coddle." He dropped his arm and sat back up in the bed, staring at his best friend with sad green eyes that seemed to hold a heart-breaking plea for Buck to make it all better. Gripping Buck's hand, he whispered brokenly, "Buck... I-I just want my life back."
Buck reached up and wrapped his long, callused fingers around the back of Ezra's neck and pulled him into a hug. Swallowing the huge lump that had formed in his throat at the younger man's words, Buck struggled to give him something to hold onto. "I know how hard this all is for ya, an' I swear to God, Ezra... if I could make it all go away, I'd do it in a heartbeat. I know you've always been able to take care of yourself, but this is one thing ya just can't do alone. You gotta let us help ya, pard... an' I promise ya, we're gonna get through this... together." Buck gave Ezra's neck a gentle squeeze and smiled softly at him. "Ya just gotta hang on a little while longer, okay?"
Ezra took a deep, shuddering breath and closed his eyes, nodding slowly. "I'll try, Buck. It's just so damned hard."
"I know it is, Ezra, but you just remember that I'm here for ya whenever ya need me." Buck released his grip on him and moved back over to the chair while the gambler slid back down in the bed.
Ezra turned on his side facing the older man and gave him a tired smile. "I know you are, Buck... that's what keeps me goin'."
Buck smiled back and watched as the younger man's eyes slowly closed. Settling himself more comfortably in the chair, the lanky gunfighter picked up the book and returned to his reading. He thought Ezra had fallen asleep and was surprised to hear his gentle, Southern drawl drift quietly over from the bed.
"Thank you, Buck."
Buck glanced up and saw the gambler close his eyes again and snuggle his face down into the pillow. He grinned softly and nodded before returning to his book. "You're welcome, Ezra."
The next morning, just as Ezra and Buck left their room to head down to breakfast, JD stepped out into the hall. Ezra stopped and stared in dismay at the damage that had been done to the young man's face.
"Mr. Dunne, I am so sorry for what happened." Buck, knowing Ezra would find out anyway, had reluctantly told him about the note found in JD's room. Just as he'd expected, the gambler had immediately taken the blame for the incident upon himself.
JD shook his head at Ezra as he ran his hand self-consciously over his bruised cheek. "No need for you to be apologizin', Ezra, you didn't do this to me." Flashing the gambler a satisfied grin, he nudged him gently with an elbow and boasted, "'Sides... you should see the other guys."
The young peacekeeper kept them entertained with a blow by blow description of the fight as they made their way down to the kitchen. Buck sent him a silent 'thank you' behind Ezra's back, knowing that JD was just trying to take the Southerner's mind off the unwarranted guilt he was feeling.
While the seven men enjoyed the huge breakfast Mrs. Stokes had prepared, they made their plans for the day. Chris suggested a visit to the Standish farm Abigail had told them about, and after some discussion during which they agreed that it might be a bit intimidating if all of them appeared, it was decided that Chris, Vin, Buck, and Ezra would go, while Josiah, JD, and Nathan stayed behind at the boardinghouse. Josiah had noticed a few things around the place that needed to be repaired which he knew he and Nathan could easily handle. The widow readily accepted their offer, admitting that it was hard to find anyone in town willing to risk Delacourte's wrath by working for her.
JD asked why he had to stay behind and immediately argued that he felt fine when Nathan told him he wanted him to take it easy and rest his ribs. He quickly relented though when Abigail asked him if he felt well enough to help her pick some peaches so that she could make a cobbler to have with supper that evening. After all the fussing she did over him the night before, Abigail had JD wrapped right around her little finger.
Vin double-checked the directions with her while Chris quietly warned Josiah to keep an eye out for trouble, and then the four of them set out to hopefully uncover some information about David Standish.
Vin easily found the turnoff Abigail had described, and after a short ride down a winding road shaded by large, old oak trees, they came within sight of a small run-down farmhouse.
Ezra gently pulled Rebel to a stop and sat staring intently around him, hoping to spot something... anything... that he remembered.
The others all stopped and watched him.
"Recognize anything, Ezra?" Vin asked when he saw the gambler frowning at the house.
Ezra sighed and shrugged his shoulders. "I don't know. It seems vaguely familiar, but I can't say for sure."
"Well, how 'bout we go ask them? They don't look too friendly, but maybe if we can get them to talk to us, they'll have some answers." Chris nodded at the two women who were now standing on the front porch of the house holding shotguns.
"Four strange men come ridin' up... can't say as I blame 'em for bein' cautious," Vin said as he looked over at Chris. "What do ya wanna do?"
Chris watched the women who, at least for the moment, had their guns resting across their arms, hopefully just as a warning. "Let's keep goin' an' see if we can at least get close enough to talk to 'em."
They made it as far as the last oak, and then the guns came up, and the younger of the two women ordered them to stop.
"That's far enough. State your business and then leave." The one who'd spoken looked like she might be around Chris's age and was no taller than JD. She was dressed in men's denim jeans, boots, and had on a plain blue cotton shirt. The only thing feminine about her appearance was her shoulder-length hair that was worn loose and curled softly around her face... it was the exact same chestnut brown as Ezra's. In fact, even from where they were, they could see that she bore a remarkable resemblance to the gambler.
Buck looked from the woman to Ezra and then back again. "Damn, pard, she's the spittin' image of ya."
Vin glanced at Ezra and saw a look of confusion suddenly fill his eyes. "Your Uncle David have a daughter?"
Ezra never took his eyes off the woman as he answered the tracker. "Maybe...." He frowned and his fingers tightened on the reins as his hands began to shake. "I do feel like I should know her."
"You've got exactly one minute to tell me what you want." She may have been small in stature, but she was definitely not a person who was easily intimidated.
Chris caught Buck's eye and nodded surreptitiously at Ezra. The lanky gunfighter dipped his head slightly, silently acknowledging Chris's warning to keep an eye on their southern friend.
"We're just lookin' for some information, ma'am." Vin put a friendly smile on his face and kept his hands wrapped loosely around the reins and away from his gun as he spoke.
She glanced at the older woman standing beside her and then turned back to study Vin's face. "What kind of information?"
"About David Standish."
They all saw her pale slightly and take a small step closer to the other woman. Her voice held a distinct quaver when she spoke again. "Who are you, and what business do you have with David Standish?"
Ezra, who'd been hanging back, moved his horse up level with Vin and Chris's, and after nervously clearing his throat, said, "He's my uncle, and I'd just like to speak to him. I promise you, we don't mean him any harm."
Ezra's statement had left her visibly shaken. "Your... your name. What's your name?"
"Ezra. Ezra Standish." Ezra watched in horror as the gun slipped from her fingers, and she crumpled slowly to the porch floor.
The four of them sat frozen for a moment until they saw the older woman throw her gun down and drop to her knees beside her younger companion. As one, they jumped from their horses and ran toward the house.
"Katherine! My dear, are you all right?!" The woman cried out as she gently patted the other woman's cheeks.
"Katherine...." Ezra gasped, and would have stumbled and fallen if Buck hadn't been right there to grab his arm.
The tall, lanky gunfighter held Ezra on his feet and bent his head to look into the glazed green eyes. "Ezra? You okay, pard?"
Ezra gripped Buck's arm and stared at the porch where Chris and Vin were bending over the two women. "Oh God, Buck... I remember her. She *is* Uncle David's daughter... my cousin...."
The elderly woman looked pleadingly up at the two men, her eyes filled with tears. "Please, could you help me get her into the house?"
Chris crouched down beside them, and with Vin's help, settled the younger woman in his arms and carried her inside.
Buck gave Ezra a gentle nudge and started him moving toward the steps. "Come on, pard, let's go in an' see how she's doin'."
Ezra released his stranglehold on the older man's arm and shakily made his way up onto the porch, and after a moment's hesitation, stepped through the door.
Chris and Vin were standing near the settee where they'd lain Katherine. Her elderly companion had poured a small amount of brandy into a glass and was coaxing her to take a few sips when Buck and Ezra walked into the parlor.
Suddenly, Katherine's eyes flew open, and she looked dazedly up at the group of men standing around her. Her ivory cheeks blushed a becoming shade of red when she realized what had happened, and she bolted upright, grabbed the glass of liquor from the older woman, and downed it in one hard gulp. Then she stood on wobbly legs and walked slowly over to the sideboard where she poured and quickly slammed back another drink.
"Katherine! Do you think that's wise, dear?" The other woman frowned worriedly at her and received a sardonic look and sharp laugh in return.
"Under the circumstances, Grandmother, I would say it is very wise... and very much needed." She set the glass and decanter down and turned to stare at Ezra. The others were startled to see that her eyes were the exact same brilliant green as the gambler's, and right at that moment, they were glittering with undisguised anger.
Moving carefully, Katherine slowly approached Ezra. The Southerner hadn't been able to tear his eyes away from her since he'd remembered that she was indeed his cousin.
Ezra smiled at her and started to reach for her hand. "Katherine, it's been--" His words were cut off suddenly as she drew her hand back, and with every ounce of strength she possessed, viciously slapped him across the face.
The others watched in shocked silence as his head whipped around, and he actually staggered backwards from the force of the blow. Ezra's hand automatically went up to rub his throbbing cheek as he stared in amazement at the angry woman. "Katherine?... why..."
Her grandmother stood quickly and put a restraining arm around her shoulders, forcing her away from the stunned gambler. "Katie, darlin'... this isn't goin' to help anything."
"Oh, I don't know... it felt pretty damn good to me." Katherine tried to pull away so that she could go after Ezra again, but the older woman refused to let go. So instead, she had to satisfy herself with glaring at him coldly as she questioned him. "Why the hell are you here, Ezra? Did you decide after all these years to come and see if Daddy left something to his... now what was it he always used to call you? Oh, yes... how could I forget... 'his precious little man'?"
Ezra paled and swayed slightly as her bitter words washed over him. He shook his head and stared at her as his mind tried to wrap itself around what she'd just said. The others had surrounded him, and Buck had a hand pressed tightly against his back, steadying him. He knew they were there, but his whole being was focused on trying to understand what his cousin had meant when she'd asked him if he'd come to see if Uncle David had *left* him anything. But wouldn't that mean his uncle was--?
Katherine managed to wriggle an arm loose and reached out to poke Ezra painfully in the chest. "Well, I've got news for you, Ezra Standish, he didn't leave you a damned thing when he died... nothin'! And if he had, I'd have fought you tooth and nail for it!" She was crying now, and the unwanted tears were only making her angrier. "After all, why should you get anything of his when it's your damned fault he's dead!!"
Ezra felt as if she'd slapped him again. The fact that his uncle was dead, and the accusation that it was somehow his fault, had delivered a devastating blow to the Southerner's heart. He sagged weakly against Buck as he tried to make sense of what was happening. His voice when he finally spoke, was ragged and hoarse with emotion. "I don't want anything, I just...." Ezra's voice trailed off as he tried to cope with the news of his uncle. "He's... dead? Did you-- Uncle David's dead?"
"Hell yeah, he's dead! He died tryin' to get you back! Are you gonna try and tell me no one ever told you he was gone?" Katherine finally was able to wrench herself loose from her grandmother's clutching hands and moved across the room to pour herself another drink. She turned to stare at the gambler, saw the look of total confusion on his face, and grudgingly tipped her glass to him before draining it again. "I've gotta give you credit though, Ezra... you sure learned your lessons well from old Maude. You've almost got me believin' that you didn't know."
"Well, if he ever did know, he don't now... he can't remember much of nothin' from back then. He didn't even remember you till just a few minutes ago!" Buck could feel Ezra shaking and glared at the woman who was deliberately hurting him.
"Well, *I* remember! I remember Daddy cryin' for two days after you left with your mother and uncle! And I remember tryin' to talk him out of goin' after you and bein' ignored completely. All he cared about was gettin' you away from your Uncle Matthew... not what I wanted or needed! For twelve years, ever since my mother died, it was just the two of us, and then you have to show up and ruin everything! I told him to leave you there, that you were probably happy livin' in the lap of luxury like you were, but he just told me I didn't understand and left."
Katherine's voice shook as she shouted out all her hurt and jealousy at Ezra, who stood and silently took it, his face lined with guilt and sorrow, his eyes glittering with unshed tears. Her voice sank to a pain-filled whisper as she continued. "And I remember the terror of seein' his horse racin' into the yard without him. I was so scared, I never even thought about gettin' my own horse... just took off runnin'... pleadin' with him to be okay." Her eyes were glazed as her mind took her back to that horrible day. "I found him about halfway to Matthew's... layin' on the edge of the road... his eyes open and starin' at nothin'. I screamed and threw myself on his body, shakin' him and cryin' for him to talk to me. I didn't want to believe he was dead, but when I moved him, I could see the blood on the rock he'd landed on and the ugly gash in the back of his head." She glared at Ezra again. "I was only fourteen and havin' to deal with my daddy bein' dead, kneelin' in that road beside him and screamin' out my pain, and hatin' you because I knew you were safe and sound at your uncle's, bein' pampered and protected, and because I knew Daddy wouldn't have died if he hadn't gone after you. It was all your fault that he was dead... all your fault that I was left alone. God, how I've despised you for that!"
Vin saw the dazed look on Ezra's pale face, saw him trembling, and knew that he was right on the edge of collapsing. He stepped up beside the gambler and pushed Katherine back. "Why the hell are ya doin' this to 'im? He was jus' a little boy when all that happened! Ya can't blame 'im for causin' that accident."
Ezra shook his head and tried to explain. "I swear, Katherine, I don't remember any of this. I can't even remember him... him comin' after me...." Ezra blinked away tears of grief as he thought of his uncle dying and of his cousin going through it all alone. "I-I seem to have blocked out most of my memories of you, and... and Uncle David--"
"Oh for God's sake, will you just stop with that 'uncle' crap?! I know Daddy was your father, too... there's no reason to keep up the stupid pretense any--" Katherine stopped when she heard Ezra gasp and saw the look of startled confusion on his face.
Ezra's eyes widened and his face lost what little color was left, turning nearly as white as the fancy shirt he wore. "M-my father? What are you--" He shook his head slowly, his eyes never leaving Katherine's. "But *he* wasn't my--" Ezra's voice was a choked whisper as he tried to deny what she'd said.
"Good Lord... you're serious... you really didn't know!" Katherine stared at him in amazement.
"But Mother told me--" Ezra's mind was whirling as he tried to figure out what was true. "My birth certificate... it has my father's name on it... Charles Edward Standish...."
"That's only because Uncle Charles and your mother were married by the time you were born. I found Daddy's journal after he died... he wrote about all of it. About fallin' in love with Maude and proposin' to her. About how she turned him down time and again because he was just a poor farmer, and she wanted more out of life. He wrote how happy he was when he found out she was pregnant, because then he thought for sure she'd marry him and we could all be a family. That's when I first learned who you really were... when I read it in that damned journal. Then all his feelin's for you finally made sense." She shook her head and laughed bitterly. "That mother of yours was some piece of work though... she still refused him and ended up runnin' off with his brother Charles to New Orleans instead because he was supposedly goin' to buy a gamblin' house and make it big. Apparently Charles always hated Daddy and knew takin' Maude and his baby away would destroy him. And it just about did... it broke Daddy's heart. I remember how torn up he was when he found out she'd gone. I didn't think he'd ever get over it."
Her grandmother tried to stop her, but Katherine refused to listen.
"She got hers though. After marryin' ol' Charles, she found out just how different he was from Daddy. He beat her, beat you after you were born, and she finally left him when you were four and moved back home before he killed you." Katherine grinned as she happily went about destroying everything Ezra had always believed to be true. Finally, after all these years, she was getting back at him for taking her daddy away from her... giving him back some of the pain she'd had to live with. "That's when she started dumpin' you at the house occasionally so she could keep searchin' for that rich, respectable husband she thought she had to have. Accordin' to the journal, Daddy tried to talk her into lettin' him openly claim you as his son so he could raise you since it was pretty obvious she didn't want you, but she told him she'd be damned if she'd disgrace herself by admittin' that she'd had a child out of wedlock. Told him it was bad enough *she* knew you were a bastard... she sure as hell didn't want the whole world to know, too. Daddy wrote that he'd wanted to legally fight for you then, but he was too afraid that he'd lose, and that she'd take you away and never let him see you again." She shook her head as she watched Ezra's supposedly shocked reaction. "I can't believe she hasn't told you the truth after all these years."
Ezra stared at her as he felt his world slipping away. His stomach lurched and his legs threatened to give out beneath him with the realization that his whole life had been based on a lie. "So David... really was my... my...."
"Your father. And thanks to you... he's gone."
Ezra let out an anguished cry of pain that tore through his friends' hearts and then turned and stumbled blindly toward the front door. The three men left in the room were so stunned by what had just been revealed, that they merely stood and watched as the stricken gambler left.
"Oh God, what have you done?" The older woman sank down onto the settee and just stared sadly at her granddaughter.
Her whispered words of dismay shook Buck out of his daze, and after uttering a harsh curse at Katherine, he hurried out of the room to find Ezra, with Vin close on his heels.
Chris strode over to the younger woman who was still leaning drunkenly against the sideboard, and jerked the glass out of her hand. "Real proud of yourself, ain't ya? Feel good knowin' you got back at Ezra after all these years?"
Katherine just grinned at him.
Grabbing her roughly by the arm, he turned to her grandmother and said, "Your granddaughter needs some coffee. I want her good and sober when I give her the *real* facts concerning Ezra's so-called life of luxury as a child, and the actual reason we came here. Then we'll see just how proud she still is."
The elderly woman nodded tiredly and led the way to the kitchen, ignoring Katherine's angry struggle to escape the man's grip. Maybe these men would be able to drive her granddaughter's unreasoning bitterness away and help her finally let go of the past.
Buck and Vin followed the agonized sounds of their friend's retching around to the side of the house and found Ezra on his hands and knees in the tall grass bordering the yard.
Buck wrapped one arm around Ezra's shoulders and cupped his other hand against his forehead to help support him, while Vin knelt beside him and smoothed his hand gently over the Southerner's back.
"Hang on, pard, we gotcha. You're gonna be okay." Vin felt the rigid muscles beneath his hand begin to relax and knew the sickness was finally passing.
Ezra coughed and spat one last time and then turned his head to stare at Vin. His bright green eyes were filled with a crippling combination of pain and sorrow. "*Okay,* Mr. Tanner?! How could anything in my life be okay now?!" He pushed himself back to sit on his heels and then had to stop and take a few deep breaths before moving the rest of the way to his feet. "I've just been told my father wasn't who I thought he was, that my real father died a long time ago and apparently I'm responsible for his death, and that I've had a sister all these years that I knew nothing about... who unfortunately hates my guts! I sincerely doubt that I'll *ever* be *okay* again!!"
Ezra's voice trembled as he shouted at the tracker, and they could tell he was bordering on the verge of hysteria. He shook off their attempts to calm him, cried out for them to just leave him alone, and staggered off across the yard.
Vin looked sadly after him and then glanced at Buck. "Think one of us oughta go back t' town an' get Nathan?"
Buck watched Ezra stumble and almost fall, and shook his head at the tracker. "Not yet. Let me try talkin' to 'im. Why don't you go in an' see how Chris's makin' out with Ezra's bitch of a cousin... or sister... or whatever the hell she is. We'll be back in as soon as I get 'im calmed down."
Vin nodded, and after one last worried look at Ezra, returned to the house.
Katherine was on her fourth cup of coffee, and although she was still sullen and angry with them for forcing her to sober up, she was at least not fighting them anymore.
Her grandmother, who Chris and Vin now knew as Margaret Sullivan, apologized for everything that had happened and tried to explain Katherine's behavior, but was quickly stopped by the younger woman who claimed to have every right to feel the way she did.
Chris glared at her as he reached over and refilled her cup with the strong black coffee. "You think so, huh? Well, I think maybe it's time you heard exactly what Ezra's childhood was like, and then we'll see if you still feel the same way."
Buck trailed along behind Ezra, keeping him in sight, but not closing the distance yet. He wanted to be there for his friend, but not until he was ready. Right now, Buck knew he needed some time to recover from the shock he'd just been delivered.
The path Ezra seemed to be following was obviously used on a regular basis. It wound its way across a small field of wild flowers, through a stand of pines where the air was thankfully much cooler, and finally opened out onto a small pond.
Buck watched as Ezra hurried toward a large weeping willow and disappeared behind its drooping canopy of branches. The tall, mustached gunfighter started to follow him, but stopped when he heard the gambler's heart-wrenching sobs fill the air.
What Buck wanted to do was to rush to Ezra's side, wrap him up in a big old hug, and hold him while he cried. But what he actually did was walk slowly down to the edge of the pond, lower himself down onto the soft grass, and allow the younger man time alone with his grief. Ezra knew he was there, and Buck hoped that he'd tell him when he was ready to be comforted. Until then, he'd just have to wait.
Chris hesitated, hating the fact that he was about to discuss Ezra behind his back. After all, one of the rules he lived by was that a man's past was his own, but he knew deep down that it was vitally important to Ezra's emotional well-being for this woman... his half-sister... to understand how wrong she'd been about him all these years. And he knew Ezra well enough to know that instead of explaining, he would just accept her judgment of him, blame himself for everything, and just walk away from her.
Chris stared down at his hands resting lightly on the table, thought briefly of Ezra, and prayed he would forgive him for what he was about to do. He looked up at Katherine and shook his head. "You seem to think Ezra had everything a little boy could want when he was stayin' with Delacourte. The truth is, he had nothing. He was beaten, starved, and then when he finished his *chores* and wasn't needed anymore, he was locked away in a room that, from the sounds of it, was no better than a jail cell."
Katherine tried to interrupt to deny the truth of what she was hearing, but Chris ignored her and kept on talking.
"The loving attention you seem to think he was receivin' was an act. His mother either ignored him, used him for one con or another, or spent their limited time together teachin' him the fine points of bein' a gambler and con man... never trust anyone, never let your emotions show, an' never let anyone get close to you. Ezra became real successful at learnin' those lessons... so successful in fact, that his life has been spent basically alone and friendless." He watched as her face paled, and he thankfully saw some of the anger slowly leave her eyes. It was a start.
"I didn't realize..." Katherine spoke softly, her voice reflecting the doubt she was beginning to feel.
"Wait... that was just the mild stuff... just the neglect. His Uncle Matthew's *loving* attentions turned his childhood into a livin' nightmare... a nightmare that started when he was just a young boy, and it's still haunting him an' threatenin' to ruin his life."
Buck was pacing just outside the curtain of leaves that Ezra had disappeared through over an hour before. The alternating sobs and angry cries against himself, God, his uncle, his mother, and even his newly discovered father, had stopped at last, and Buck was trying to decide if he should approach the gambler now or not. He'd distinctly heard the sound of flesh connecting with something solid at least once, and he was worried about what kind of damage Ezra may have done to himself in his fit of anger.
Finally, Buck could stand the waiting no longer and hesitantly parted the drooping branches and stepped through. He stopped and blinked several times while his eyes adjusted to the sudden change from bright sunlight to the darkness of the shade. Once his vision had cleared, he scanned the area around the base of the tree, searching for Ezra. Frowning when there was no sign of the gambler, he glanced up and finally found him.
About four feet up, the trunk split into several large branches that ran level with the ground for a short ways before sloping gradually toward the sky. Ezra was settled in the natural seat formed by the split with his legs pulled up in front of him, his arms wrapped tightly around them, and his forehead resting on his knees.
"Ezra? You okay, pard?" Buck felt like his heart was breaking in two when Ezra slowly raised his head and looked at him. His eyes were red and swollen and filled with a sadness that seemed to reach straight to his soul. He swiped his arm across his face, trying to remove the tears that still stained his flushed cheeks before attempting a small smile and a shaky nod at Buck.
"I'm... fine. I just... just...." Ezra gulped convulsively and took a few shuddering breaths before trying to continue. Tears were again welling up in his eyes, and he turned his head away while he struggled to stop them from falling. "I'm s-sorry. I c-can't seem to...."
Buck's expression softened and tears filled his own eyes as he moved slowly toward his grieving brother. "Ezra...."
Ezra refused to look at Buck as he climbed up into the tree and sat down beside him, knowing the sympathy he'd see on the older man's face would be his undoing. But it didn't matter, because once Buck slipped his arm around Ezra's shoulders and whispered, "Let me help, pard," the gambler's fragile hold on his emotions began to crumble.
Ezra tried to resist, but he was emotionally exhausted and the pain of betrayal and loss he felt was more than he could cope with on his own. With a soft, gasping sob, he leaned back against Buck and allowed his best friend to give him the comforting he so desperately needed. "It hurts, Buck... it hurts so d-damn much."
"I know it does, pard." Buck held the gambler tightly as he slowly rocked them back and forth.
Chris poured himself a mug of coffee and stared at Katherine as he sipped at the steaming brew. He could see she still didn't believe him and hoped he wasn't baring Ezra's past for nothing.
He and Vin took turns describing all they knew of Ezra's abusive childhood at the hands of his Uncle Matthew. They told Katherine that what she had thought of as doting on Delacourte's part was probably him warning Ezra to keep his mouth shut about a recent beating or punishment.
Katherine tried to hold onto her hatred by convincing herself that they were lying for Ezra, but watching their faces as they talked, she could see the all-to-real pain in their eyes for what their friend had been through and knew that everything they were saying was true. She thought back to the time Ezra spent with them as a boy, and now that she was no longer blinded by her bitterness, Katherine could see all the signs of trouble she'd missed before.
He'd been so quiet for a four year old, rarely speaking unless spoken to... following her father around like a silent, little shadow. She remembered now how easily startled he was, jumping nervously at loud noises or sudden movements, how he'd begged to have his bedroom door left open at night and how panicked he'd gotten the time a sudden gust of wind had slammed it shut. He'd been nearly hysterical when she and her father had finally roused enough to answer his cries or help and found him crouched on the bed, sobbing. She'd been disgusted by his tears and demanded to know why he didn't just get off the bed and open the door back up. Katherine remembered him just staring at her from the safety of her father's arms, looking smug, and she'd been convinced that he'd done it all just to get Daddy's attention. Now she realized that smug look had been one of fear and helplessness instead. He probably hadn't opened the door for fear of the whipping he was sure he would get... a whipping like the one he would have received from his Uncle Matthew for daring to defy his orders by leaving his bed.
Katherine felt her heart breaking for the hateful way she'd treated Ezra as a boy because of her petty jealousy, and by the time Vin and Chris had finished telling she and her grandmother the details of Ezra's current battles with his nightmares and crippling headaches, including the memory of the whipping and the two faceless bodies that kept haunting him, the two women were in tears, and the skepticism and anger in Katherine's eyes had been replaced by shame for the way she'd misjudged Ezra and the situation he'd been in.
"Oh my God... I'm so sorry," Katherine whispered as she realized how wrong she'd been.
Vin shook his head at her and smiled sadly. "Ain't us you should be sayin' that to."
Chris nodded in agreement. "You've held onto twenty-three years of hate for a little boy whose only crime was wantin' someone to love 'im. Maybe it's time you let that all go an' get to know the man that little boy became. I think you'll like 'im if you just give 'im a chance."
Katherine started to smile in anticipation, but it quickly faded as she remembered all the harsh words she'd flung at her brother. "He'll never want to talk to me now... not after the way I just treated him."
Margaret Sullivan put her arm around her granddaughter and gently wiped away her tears. "Whether he'll talk to you or not, you still need to apologize to him and at least let him know you'd like another chance. Besides, he seemed like a very caring and compassionate young man... he might just surprise you. You don't want to spend another twenty-three years regretting that you never tried, do you?"
Katherine thought for a minute and then hugged her grandmother and looked at Vin. "Do you know where he went?"
Vin shrugged. "Well, I'm not rightly sure, but the last time I saw 'im he was headed off across the yard toward that field out behind the barn."
Katherine smiled and nodded. "I think I know where he'll be. I've got to get a few things he needs to see first, and then I'll go after him." She stood and hurried out of the room, pausing only long enough to ask Margaret if she would mind putting together lunch for them and their guests. At least, Katherine hoped they'd be having guests.
As she quickly made her way along the path Ezra had taken, she prayed that her little brother could forgive her. Her little brother... Katherine smiled as she suddenly realized how good that sounded, and that there was nothing she wanted more than to have him be a part of her life. She could only hope that Ezra would feel the same.
|On to: Part 2|
Sadly Jean is no longer with us, but we're sure her daughter, Jenn, would love to hear from you if you enjoyed this story.
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