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: Part 1
Once Ezra was fairly certain he had some control over his emotions, he eased himself away from Buck and leaned back against one of the curving tree branches. His hand dipped into his vest pocket and pulled out the well-worn deck of cards he always had with him, and he began shuffling. The familiar, soothing motion of the cards slipping through his fingers worked its magic, and he felt some of the tension slowly drain away.
Buck snuck a peek at Ezra's hands as he shuffled and frowned when he saw the bloody scrape across the knuckles of the right one, along with a darkening bruise that stretched across three of his fingers. He didn't see how the gambler could stand to manipulate the cards the way he was.
Ezra stared down at his hands and blushed in embarrassment as he felt Buck's eyes on him. He knew the older man thought nothing of these recent emotional outbursts he'd been experiencing, but Ezra still found them extremely painful. Clearing his throat, he mumbled an apology for his shameful behavior. "I am sincerely sorry, Mr. Wilmington."
Buck heaved an exasperated sigh and punched Ezra lightly on the shoulder. "Will you just quit apologizin', Ezra? I'd say ya got damn good reason to be upset." He saw Ezra falter as he slowly shuffled the cards, and his expression softened. He reached out and laid a gentle hand on the gambler's arm. "Ya gonna be all right?"
Ezra hesitantly shrugged his shoulders and managed a small, weary smile. "It has been a rather trying day."
Buck chuckled and nodded his head in agreement. "It sure has been that." He plucked a leaf off the nearest branch and sat idly toying with it as he glanced over at Ezra. "That new sister of yours is a real piece of work, pard. That's a whole lotta hate she's been storin' up all these years."
Ezra stared thoughtfully at the older man. "I'd say it's perfectly understandable, Buck. Her... our... father had been her whole life, and that life ended the day he died... thanks to me. Indirectly, maybe, but it still was because of me that he had that accident. And the horrible fact that she was the one who found him just made it even worse."
Buck frowned and shook his head. "I still say it's not right, her blamin' the whole thing on you. Hell, Ezra, you were only five... it's not like ya had any control over what was happenin'."
"I think she needed someone to focus her hatred on to keep from resenting our father for leavin' her, and since I was the one who started the whole horrible turn her life took, I was elected to be the center of that focus. Maybe it wasn't a logical way of thinkin', but logic seldom has anything to do with our emotions." Ezra gave him a half-hearted grin. "I should know... after all, I'm an expert on skewed logic. Otherwise, how could I have dealt with my mother all these years?"
Buck laughed, and then sobered as he thought about Maude's part in this whole mess. "Speakin' of your mother, Ezra, are you gonna tell her ya know who your real father was?"
Ezra swallowed the lump that suddenly formed in his throat as he was reminded of what Maude had done... the knowledge that she'd been ashamed of him since his untimely birth bringing a fresh ache to his already battered heart. "You know, Buck, I've always tried to convince myself that the things Mother did to me were really and truly in my best interests... lessons, if you will, to help me survive in this world... and that she did the best she could for me considering her glaring lack of maternal skills. It was the only way I was able to hold onto any feelings of love for her, or... or to believe that, somewhere, deep down in that conning heart of hers, she actually held a scrap of affection for me." Ezra sighed disconsolately and stared at the leaf-covered branches as they swayed gently in the light breeze. "But what am I supposed to do now that I know it was all a lie... that she never did give a damn about me?"
Out of the corner of his eye, Ezra saw Buck open his mouth to offer a protest against that harsh statement and quickly snapped his head around to glare at the startled gunfighter. "Don't you even try to defend her to me, Buck. You heard Katherine, she kept me from my father... someone who wanted me... who truly loved me... just to save herself the shame of people knowin' I was a bastard. She let me think all these years that Charles was my father, knowin' how terrified I was that I'd turn out just like him. Think about it, Buck... how could she have done that to me if she loved me?" Ezra sat and watched the lanky gunfighter as he struggled to find something to say.
Buck could see the fragile glimmer of hope in Ezra's green eyes and knew that he wanted Buck to present him with something... anything... that could explain Maude's actions. Anything that would make it possible for him to hang onto some shred of love for her. And as his friend, Buck desperately wanted to do that for him. Ezra had found and lost his father that afternoon... he didn't think the gambler could handle losing his mother, too.
"Come on, Ezra, ya know she's just like you... always hidin' her true feelin's... puttin' up a protective front. Maybe she just used that stuff about not wantin' people to know what really happened as an excuse so your father would back off. Maybe she was just scared of the same thing he was... that once he had you, he'd take ya away and she'd never see ya again." Buck watched as Ezra fought against the growing hope that he could be right. He could see that the younger man wanted to believe him, but couldn't quite push all the doubt away. The last thing Buck wanted to do was defend Maude Standish to anyone, much less the son she'd carelessly neglected throughout his life... hurting him time and again with her selfishness and need for control... but he just couldn't pile anymore hurt on Ezra by encouraging the gambler's negative thoughts about her. So biting back his disgust for the woman, he tried to find the words to ease Ezra's mind.
"But then why didn't she tell me the truth once I'd grown up? I mean... my God, Buck... it's been twenty three years." Ezra leaned his head back against the tree and rubbed tiredly at his eyes as he whispered sadly, "Why didn't she just tell me?"
"She was probably afraid ya'd hate her for what she did... afraid she'd lose ya." Buck saw his friend's face take on the familiar signs of a headache and reached out to gently rub his shoulder. "Why don't ya hold off makin' any decisions about Maude till ya talk to her. At least give her a chance to explain why she did what she did. She's your mother, Ezra... she deserves that much."
Ezra stared skeptically at his friend. "You honestly think she'll tell me the truth? This is Maude Standish we're talkin' about here."
Buck gave Ezra a quick shake and grinned at him. "Well, hell, pard, you're 'bout the best person I ever seen at readin' people... ya shouldn't have any trouble with your own mother."
Ezra shook his head and gave Buck an answering grin. "You forget who taught me that particular talent, Mr. Wilmington. But I suppose you--" Their conversation was interrupted when Katherine called out Ezra's name and, pushing aside the branches, stepped into view.
Katherine stood and silently stared at Ezra for a moment, the remorse she was feeling showing clearly on her face. "Ezra? Could I... could I please have a word with you?"
Buck turned back to Ezra and waited, not moving an inch until the younger man looked at him and nodded. "Ya sure, pard?"
Ezra smiled as he felt the reassuring warmth of Buck's protective concern wash over him. "I'm sure, Buck... and... thank you."
Buck cocked his eyebrows quizzically at the smaller man. "For what?"
Ezra placed his hand over Buck's and gave it a small squeeze. "Just for bein' here... for bein' a friend."
"Hell, Ezra, I'll always be here." Buck grinned at the gambler. "Ya oughta know by now how hard I am to get rid of." He slid off the branch and slowly walked toward Katherine, his eyes narrowing slightly as he neared her. "I'll be up at the house if ya need me, pard." He slowed his step as he drew up alongside the woman, and speaking so only she could hear him, warned, "Hurt 'im again, an' you'll be answerin' to me."
Katherine gave him an embarrassed nod and waited till he'd stepped out into the sunlight before slowly moving toward Ezra. When she reached the tree, she gestured at the spot Buck had just vacated and asked, "Mind if I join you?"
Ezra hesitated, his cool green eyes gazing intently into hers, and finally nodded and held a hand out to help her up.
Katherine stared at it for a moment, and then slipped her smaller hand into his and allowed him to boost her onto the branch.
Buck stood just outside the wall of branches and waited until he heard the quiet murmur of the two soft, southern-accented voices drift across the heavy air. Then with a gentle smile and nod of his head, he turned and headed back toward the house.
JD carried the wicker basket as he followed Abigail around behind the barn to the orchard. He took a deep breath and grinned... the air around them was redolent with the sweet, mouth- watering smell of ripe peaches, and JD could already taste that cobbler they'd be having at dinner.
It had been a good year, and the branches hung heavy with the fuzzy, red and golden globes of fruit. JD noticed something moving under the trees and moved closer. A look of delighted surprise lit up his face as a cloud of butterflies left the over-ripe peaches littering the ground to flutter gently around him.
Abigail smiled softly as she watched JD and saw the look of childlike wonder that shone in his eyes. Lord, he looked so young... too young to be wearing the guns that were buckled around his slender hips. Too young to be riding with a group of men who had lost that boyish innocence a long time ago... men who had been hardened by their experiences in a world that they had sadly discovered was frequently harsh and unforgiving.
"How old are you, JD?" Abigail had to hold back the urge to laugh when she saw the expression of cocky defensiveness that immediately came over him.
Squaring his shoulders and tucking his thumbs in his gun belt, JD reluctantly announced, "Nineteen, almost twenty." He sighed and waited, positive she'd make some comment on him not looking older than sixteen... everyone else did when they found out his age.
Abigail shook her head as she stared at him. "Land sakes, son, I would have sworn you were at least twenty-three or twenty-four!"
JD unconsciously stood a bit taller at her words and gave the older woman a small smile of gratitude. Abigail knew she'd probably made a friend for life just by stretching the truth a little, even though, judging by the look on JD's face, he was well aware that she was merely being kind. He knew exactly how young he looked and was just thankful that, for once, someone had refrained from pointing it out.
They took their time picking the peaches, enjoying the beauty of the day as they talked about their lives. JD told Abigail about his mother and her failed dream of him attending college, and how he came to be in Four Corners and a member of the Seven. In return, she told him about she and her husband moving to Shelby and how Matthew Delacourte had resented her husband taking on the cases of the few people who were brave enough to go against the tyrant. How Delacourte had tried everything he could to force him out of business and had failed... until he finally had had her beloved Samuel killed. And JD had no doubt after listening to Abigail, that it *had* been Ezra's uncle who had arranged for that murder.
They had the basket filled in no time, but Abigail was enjoying her talk with the young man so much, she suggested having an impromptu picnic of peaches before returning to the boardinghouse. JD was more than happy to agree to her suggestion, and after spreading out his coat for her to sit on, settled down on the soft, green grass beside her.
JD quickly devoured one of the sweet, succulent peaches and then continued their conversation. "Why didn't you move back to Tennessee after your husband died? Wouldn't it've been easier than stayin' here and fightin' against the town and Delacourte?"
Abigail shrugged and stared off into the distance. "There wasn't really anything to go back to. We weren't blessed with children and had no other relatives left there...." She turned back to JD, her eyes blazing with defiance. "Besides, if I had given in and left town, Delacourte would have won, and my husband would have died for nothing."
JD stared worriedly at her, thinking how lonely her life must be.
Abigail saw the sympathy in his eyes and reached over to pat his hand. "Now don't you fret none over me. It's not as bad as it sounds." Handing JD another peach, she attempted to turn the focus back on him. "So tell me what it's like bein' a peacekeeper in the *wild* West... is it something you enjoy doin'?" She couldn't help but smile when she saw the look of pride that came over his face.
JD's eyes lit up as he began talking about what his life had been like since joining up with the other men. The words just tumbled out of his mouth as he described some of their more exciting adventures, carefully avoiding the more dangerous aspects, knowing it would only worry Abigail.
"Do you ever wish you could have gone to college instead?" she asked when he finally ran down.
"Not really. I hate thinkin' that my mother would have been disappointed in me for not following through with her dream, but I've learned more from the guys than any college could ever have taught me." JD's expression softened as his thoughts turned to the men who were like brothers to him. "I came out here lookin' for those so-called heroes I'd read about in the dime store novels, and then I met Chris and the others and found out what a true hero really was."
Abigail had been just about to suggest heading back, but instead decided she wanted to learn more about the six men who had so obviously captured JD Dunne's heart. "They've become a family to you, haven't they?"
JD nodded. "I don't even want to think about what would have happened to me if they hadn't let me join the group." He grinned at her and leaned in closer, his voice dropping as if he was afraid Buck or one of the others were listening. "But whatever you do, don't tell them I said that... they'd never let me hear the end of it."
She laughed and whispered back, "Don't you worry, your secret's safe with me." Reaching overhead, she plucked two more peaches out of the tree and handed one to JD. "Must be a little hard sometimes dealin' with six older brothers though."
A thoughtful look came over JD's boyish features. He'd been ready to heartily agree with Abigail, ready to launch into all the aggravating incidents he'd endured in which his friends had turned into over-bearing, bossy brothers. But then all the things they'd taught him popped into his mind. Each of the six men had contributed something toward his *education*... an education that hopefully would enable him to survive in any situation that arose in the dangerous life he'd chosen to lead with them. So instead of complaining about their over-protectiveness and their occasional tendency to treat him like a kid, he found himself singing their praises.
JD rambled on, knowing he was probably saying more than the guys would want him to under normal circumstances, but hoping they would see why he'd done it if they ever found out. There was just something about Abigail Stokes that spoke to his heart... that made him want to share their lives with her and draw her into their little family, and he knew they'd feel the same way if they had an opportunity to spend time with her like he was. She soothed that ache he still carried inside him for his mother, and he hoped, in some small way, that he could relieve some of the loneliness he heard in her voice and saw in her sad blue eyes by making her feel like she was a part of them.
Abigail listened quietly and soon understood the obvious respect and love he felt for each of his brothers.
As much as Abigail hated to, she finally told JD she needed to get back and start dinner. He helped her to her feet, picked up the basket of peaches and, remembering what Ezra had taught him about being a gentleman, gallantly offered Abigail his arm.
She smiled gently at him, tucked her hand in the crook of his arm, and gave it a little squeeze. "You know, JD, you're wrong about your mother being disappointed in you for makin' the choices you did. I think she'd be very proud of you. I know I would be if you were my son."
JD stared up at her for a moment, blinking back a sudden threat of tears, and then shyly reached up and placed a light kiss on her cheek before whispering, "Thank you, Abigail. You have no idea what that means to me."
Abigail brushed back his bangs with a tender touch and squeezed his arm again. "And thank you, darlin', for makin' this one of the nicest days I've had in a very long time."
JD blushed and nodded silently before turning and leading them slowly back toward home... knowing in his heart that leaving Abigail to return to Four Corners was going to be almost like losing his mother again. It would be painful, but he would never regret having met her, and he would always cherish this time they'd spent together.
After Katherine was settled in the tree, she glanced at Ezra and then nervously looked away, not sure where to begin. She wanted to apologize, but she was terrified he'd refuse to forgive her. Glancing at the large branch beside her head, she smiled softly and reached up to trace her fingers lightly across the three sets of initials carved into the bark. 'DS'... 'KS'... and below that a pair of shaky, childish block letters... 'ES.' She turned to look at Ezra. "I suppose you can't remember when we did these, can you?"
Ezra sadly shook his head. "I remember very little of my time here, unfortunately."
She stared at the branch as she thought back on that day. "It was the first time Daddy brought you out here with us. He helped you carve your initials, and then held you in his lap and told you that this was a place you could come to whenever you needed to feel safe." Her smile faded slowly away as she felt a lump form in her throat. "You stared up at him with those sad green eyes of yours and cried. I was a teenager, cocky and secure in my comfortable little world, and all I could think of right then was what a big baby you were. It never even occurred to me to wonder why you were crying."
Ezra felt his eyes fill with fresh tears as he stared wistfully at the carvings. "I had no idea why I'd come here... just that it felt safe somehow."
Katherine looked back at him and caught him wiping his watery eyes. He blushed and shyly ducked his head, and she saw his gaze land on the items she held in her lap. "I thought you'd like to see these."
She handed Ezra a small photograph in a simple wooden frame first and was pleased to see the sweet smile that appeared on his face as he gazed down at the three people in the picture. He glanced back up at her, his eyes asking a silent question. Katherine nodded and slowly trailed her fingers across the glass covering the photograph. "Me, you, and Daddy... *our* daddy."
Ezra looked back down at the picture, tears trickling down his cheeks as his slender fingers carefully traced the image of the chestnut-haired, green-eyed man staring back at him. "Father...."
Katherine slipped her arm around him, and reached up to run her small hand down his cheek, gently wiping away his tears as her own began to fall. She laid her head on his shoulder and whispered brokenly, "I'm so sorry, Ezra... for hurtin' you today, for not understandin' what you were goin' through all those years ago... for everything."
Ezra nodded and struggled to speak past the lump in his throat. "Please don't apologize. You had every right to feel the way you did, and you had no way of knowin' what my life away from you and our father was really like. I'm just so sorry that, thanks to my mother, we weren't allowed to be a family... that I missed out on so much of your life, and that I never got to really know our father."
Katherine raised up and placed a soft kiss on his cheek before handing him the second object she'd been clutching in her hand. Ezra saw that it was a black, leather-bound book with "My Journal" etched into the cover. Opening it, he saw David Lawrence Standish written on the first page in a neat, flowing script.
"Here, little brother, readin' this when I was feelin' lost and alone helped me miss Daddy a little less and made it easier to get through the bad times. Now that I've let go of the hate and regrets, I don't think I'll need it anymore. Take it and read it... maybe it'll help you get to know Daddy better and make you feel closer to him." She stared up into his tear-filled green eyes and smiled softly.
Ezra stared at the journal and then at his sister. "I can't take this...."
Katherine shook her head and pushed the book back into his hands when he tried to give it to her. "I want you to have it and the picture. Maybe it'll help bring back some of your good memories from when you were with Daddy."
Ezra tucked the journal and picture safely away in his jacket pocket and then gave Katherine a warm hug, which she happily returned. When she moved to leave, Ezra hesitantly touched her arm, stopping her.
"Would you mind stayin' here for a bit? I'd... like it if you could tell me more about our father... and about yourself. What your life's been like growin' up here...." Ezra released her arm and smiled shyly at her. "I want to know all about you, if you don't mind."
Katherine smiled and slipped her arm through his. "Only if you'll tell me all about your life, too. I feel like I've missed out on so much."
Ezra nodded in agreement and slowly started talking.
Ezra and Katherine spent the rest of the morning exchanging stories about their lives, the good as well as the bad. More tears were shed, some honest feelings were shared, old heartaches were brought into the open, mourned over, and then relegated to the past where they belonged. Their hearts were much lighter when they finally emerged from under the protective canopy of the old willow and began making their way back to the house. Thanks to their talk, the two of them had begun to develop a welcome sense of respect and affection for each other, and they knew that with a little time and effort on both their parts, they had a good chance of becoming a family... the family they should have been twenty-three years ago.
Matthew Delacourte was at his desk going over some legal documents, when he was interrupted by a knock on the door. "Come in." He frowned when he saw his visitor was Jefferson Harris. "It's about damn time you got here. Are your men in place?"
"I'm sorry I'm late... it took some time to find men willin' to do what you wanted." The older man tried to keep the fear out of his voice as he answered Delacourte's questions. He hated to admit it, but the man scared him. "Your nephew and his friends split up this mornin'. He and three others left town headed toward Barringer. I've got men followin' them, but I imagine they're probably headed out to Katherine Standish's place. They have orders to do nothing unless they can catch one or two of them alone."
"Do they know they're to keep their hands off of Ezra?" Delacourte demanded.
"Yes, sir. I've warned them that under no circumstances is your nephew to be harmed, only his friends."
Delacourte nodded and leaned back in his chair. "What about the rest of his companions... are they bein' watched?"
Harris glanced out the window in the direction of the boardinghouse. "I checked the place out just before I came here. The other members of the group stayed behind and appear to be helpin' Mrs. Stokes. Two of them, a darky and an older man, are up on the boardinghouse roof apparently doin' some repair work, and the youngest is out back in the orchard with Stokes' widow pickin' peaches. From the looks of the bruises on his face, I'd say he's the one my men delivered the warnin' to last night."
Matthew's eyes narrowed and an evil grin slid across his face. "Well, then... I'd say this is a perfect opportunity to give them a bit more encouragement to leave our lovely town." He stopped Harris just as he was about to leave. "Remember, in no way am I to be implicated in what you're about to do. Our dedicated Sheriff Patterson would do his best to protect me, but I have no doubt that these men would do everything they could to see me go down... including forcin' an official investigation of that incident twenty-three years ago." Delacourte gave the older man a warning look. "If that were to happen, you can be sure I would confess to your involvement in the matter. You do remember that little job you helped me with... disposin' of the bodies? I'm sure that would lead to your head in a noose right beside mine."
Harris felt himself break out in a cold sweat at the menacing tone of the lawyer's voice and hurried out the door.
As soon as he'd gone, Matthew Delacourte left his office and casually walked across the street to the barber shop. "Mornin', Horace... I do believe I'm way past due for a trim." He smiled at the young barber as he settled himself in the chair, turning it toward the window so that he had a clear view down main street to Abigail Stokes' boardinghouse. "So how is that lovely wife and those adorable children of yours doin'?"
Josiah took his bandana and swiped uselessly at the sweat that was trickling maddeningly down his face and neck. Glancing over at Nathan, he saw the healer doing the same thing and grinned at him. "Guess bein' born an' raised in this heat doesn't make it any easier to take."
Nathan chuckled and shook his head. "Don't help none that we're sittin' up here on this roof with the sun beatin' down on us."
Both men's hands went quickly to their guns when they heard a noise down in the yard, but they relaxed as soon as they saw that it was Abigail and JD returning from the orchard. JD was laughing at something the older woman had said and had apparently forgotten all about his earlier resentment at not being allowed to accompany Chris and the others. He set the heavy basket of fragrant ripe peaches on the porch and then stepped back beside Abigail, and while shielding his eyes from the bright sun with his hand, looked up at his two comrades balanced on the peak of the house.
"You guys aren't done yet? You know, I always heard the heat was harder on older folks. You want me to come on up there an' finish the job for ya?" JD grinned at the twin looks of disgust he received from the two staring down at him.
"No thanks, JD. Us old codgers only have one or two more shingles to replace, then we'll be done. I think we can manage that much before we're forced into our rockers with our shawls and ear trumpets," Josiah commented, the glimmer of humor in his deep blue eyes belying the sarcasm in his words.
"How's those ribs feelin', JD? Givin' ya any trouble?" Nathan saw JD plant his fists on his hips as he frowned up at him and sighed. Looked like he'd finally lost his only halfway decent patient. Their youngest had always been hard to keep still because he was a bundle of nervous energy, but he'd at least been cooperative... following Nathan's instructions with a minimum of complaint... even choking down any and all of the healer's herbal brews that were necessary. Now the look on JD's face was a mirror image of the one he saw on each of his other five friends whenever they were forced to submit to his ministrations. Oh well, he'd known it was too good to last.
"I told you before, Nathan, I'm--" JD dropped to the ground, pulling Abigail down with him as gunfire suddenly rang out across the yard.
Nathan and Josiah flattened themselves against the sloping roof as bullets whizzed over their heads, trying to make themselves as small of a target as possible, while quickly scanning the area in an attempt to spot the shooters. Nathan felt a sharp tug on his pant leg and hissed as a bullet burned a path along the outer part of his thigh.
Remembering the two on the ground, Josiah eased toward the edge of the roof and called out, "JD?! You two all right?!" He ducked back and threw his arm up to protect his face as several bullets immediately flew his way, digging into the roof and throwing up a shower of splinters that painfully buried themselves in his skin.
JD lay with one arm wrapped protectively around Abigail and his other stretched out in front of him with his gun in his hand, aimed in the direction he thought the shots had originated from. "We're okay, Josiah! You an' Nathan all right?!"
"Yeah... just dandy! JD, we're gonna lay down some cover... get Abigail inside!" The two men waited for JD's acknowledgment and then started firing into the trees. As soon as they heard the kitchen door bang shut, they stopped shooting and shuffled backwards toward the front of the building.
"Y'all aren't welcome here! Make it easier on yourselves an' go on back home before it's too late!" The shouted threat came from the trees near the barn, but neither man was able to spot their assailants amongst the heavy foliage.
Josiah wiped the sweat out of his eyes with his sleeve and glanced quickly at Nathan before turning to gaze out over the front yard and the street beyond. He could see people standing on the boardwalk in front of the stores, staring curiously at the boardinghouse, but not one of them was making a move in their direction. He nudged the healer and nodded at their audience. "Looks like that's the general consensus of the townsfolk." Josiah shook his head in amazement that not one single person was brave enough to step in and at least try to help them. Suddenly, he growled and angrily gestured toward the center of town. "Well, I think we can safely guess who's behind this little display."
Nathan glanced over his shoulder at the older man and was startled by the ferocity of his expression. He understood, however, when he turned to see what Josiah was pointing at and was greeted with the sight of Matthew Delacourte standing in front of one of the shops. While the two men watched, the lawyer arrogantly grinned and tipped his hat at them before slowly walking across the street and disappearing into his office.
Nathan swore and then slowly raised up to look around them. No gunshots... nothing. "Guess they figger we been warned." He finally noticed the specks of blood dotting Josiah's sleeve. "You okay?"
The older man glanced at his arm and shrugged. "Just some splinters." He nodded down at the dark stain slowly spreading across Nathan's leg. "How about you? That looks a mite painful." Nathan eased the blood-soaked material away from his leg and did a cursory inspection of the wound. "It's jus' a graze, nothin' t' worry 'bout."
Josiah stared disgustedly down at the crowd gathering in front of the boardinghouse. "Looks like the rabbits have come crawlin' out of their holes to try and salve their consciences."
He and Nathan slowly made their way over to the ladder and descended down into the yard where they were approached by several of the townspeople.
"Are... are you all right?" Josiah recognized the man speaking as the bank manager... one of the people who had refused to talk to him the day before.
The normally gentle and forgiving preacher glared at the people hesitantly hovering nearby. "No thanks to any of you. Right charitable town you've got here. It's not bad enough you'd stand by and watch visitors be shot at, but you couldn't even scrape up enough gumption to come to the aid of one of your own. Or has Delacourte made it clear that Mrs. Stokes isn't welcome in town also?"
Several of the men started stammering out denials of being controlled by the attorney, but stopped and began backing hurriedly away as Josiah's countenance darkened and his large body shook with the anger he was feeling.
Nathan put a restraining hand on his friend's shoulder and tugged gently. "C'mon, Josiah, won't do no good, an' they ain't worth it. Let's go on inside an' check on JD an' Abigail."
Josiah resisted for a few moments, and then with a disgusted wave of his hand in the crowd's direction, allowed Nathan to lead him into the house.
Lunch at the Standish farm was an enjoyable experience for all of them. During the meal itself, the conversation was kept light, with Buck and Vin running a competition to see who could embarrass Ezra the most. The two men delighted in watching the gambler squirm in his chair as his blush deepened with each new anecdote they dredged up and presented to Katherine as a way, according to them, for her to get to know her brother better. She laughed helplessly at their antics while trying to assure Ezra she wasn't really laughing at *him,* just the situations they were describing.
After unsuccessfully trying to stifle his two friends generous attempts to help, Ezra decided to stop fighting it and joined in. Even Chris couldn't suppress a chuckle or two as the Southerner's acerbic wit was turned loose on Buck and Vin. The two men were hard pressed to defend themselves, much less come up with any new torments for Ezra.
Eventually, Margaret, who had been with Katherine since her father's death, decided to enter into the fray with a few of the amusing escapades her granddaughter had used to test her grandmother's authority. Soon, Katherine's face was as red as Ezra's had been earlier, and she grudgingly accepted her brother's retaliatory laughter.
Everyone had finally settled down by the time Margaret served each of them generous slices of pecan pie and refilled their mugs with fresh coffee. After everyone had complimented the older woman on the delectable dessert, Chris suggested that they get back to their reason for coming there... the need to fill in some of the missing pieces of Ezra's memory concerning his time spent with them and his Uncle Matthew.
"Katherine, do you have any idea why your father suddenly changed his mind and let Maude an' Delacourte take Ezra away that day?" Chris saw her glance quickly at her brother before nodding, her eyes filling with regret for what he was about to hear.
"It's in the journal I gave Ezra. Daddy had gone along with Maude's decision to keep his true identity in the dark because he thought it would only confuse Ezra and because he was afraid if he defied her, she would stop bringin' Ezra to stay with us. But apparently Daddy walked in on him in his room during that last visit and saw that his back and arms were covered with scrapes and bruises." She looked sadly at Ezra, reaching out to lay her hand over his and squeezing lightly when she felt him trembling. "Ezra had always insisted on bathin' and dressin' himself, and we thought he was just shy, but now I know that he was probably followin' Matthew's orders to not let anyone see what had been done to him."
Vin scowled at her as he thought about what she said. "You read about the marks your pa had seen on Ezra an' still thought he *wanted* to be with that bastard Delacourte?"
Katherine blushed and shook her head. "I dismissed it as Daddy's overprotective exaggeration and just the usual bumps and bruises a little boy gets when playin'." She gave Ezra an apologetic look and shrugged her shoulders. "It sounds so cold and unfeelin' now, but at the time I read the journal, I was still wrapped up in hate and the need to blame someone for takin' my father away."
Ezra assured her he understood and asked her to continue with her story.
"Anyway, after seein' that, Daddy swore he'd never let Matthew or anyone else lay a hand on Ezra ever again, and when Maude finally came after him, Daddy told her she couldn't have him. The next day she showed up with old Delacourte, and when Daddy told them to get off our property, he just laughed at him and told him he'd better hear what he had to say first. They went inside and when they came out, Daddy had tears in his eyes, and he told Ezra he had to go with them. After they left, I asked him what had happened, but he wouldn't tell me... he just said I was too young to understand." Katherine glanced shamefacedly over at Ezra. "Ezra never cried or raised a fuss or anything, so I just figured he wanted to go with them."
Ezra's eyes were shiny with unshed tears as he smiled reassuringly at his sister. "You had no way of knowin' what was really goin' on."
"He didn't cry 'cause he didn't want your father to feel bad about havin' to let 'im go," Buck explained for Ezra, not knowing if he remembered it or not.
Katherine slipped her arms around Ezra and hugged him before continuing. "Well, I never knew what happened until after he died and I found that incident in his journal. When Daddy and Delacourte went in the house, Ezra's uncle told him that unless he released Ezra, Maude was goin' to tell him that Daddy was his father and that he'd known it all along, but didn't want to claim him as his son because he was ashamed of him. Our father tried to argue that Ezra would never believe that he didn't want him, but Matthew apparently convinced him that once he got through with Ezra, usin' whatever means it took, he'd hate Daddy and never want to see him again. Daddy still refused, tellin' Delacourte that he'd rather have Ezra with him, hatin' him... at least then he'd know his son was safe. That son of a--" She stopped and glanced apologetically at her grandmother. "Delacourte then told him Maude would go ahead and take him to court, and when she won... which she would... he'd make Ezra pay for all the trouble he'd caused. Daddy wrote that he was terrified of what Matthew might do to the boy, so he gave in." She turned to Ezra and stared intently into his pain-filled green eyes. "But he said in the journal that it nearly killed him to watch you ride away with them, and after mourning over losin' you for two agonizin' days, he decided that he'd just have to take his chances with the court... he was goin' to bring you back even if it was over Matthew Delacourte's dead body." Her eyes filled with tears, and she let Ezra pull her back against his shoulder. "That last part was written the day he went after you... the day he died."
The men were silent as they thought about what they'd just learned... about the senselessness of David Standish's death... the unfortunate result of a horrible tug of war over one small boy.
Chris glanced up and saw Vin staring at Katherine, his brows drawn down in a thoughtful frown. "What's the matter, Vin?"
Vin glanced nervously at Ezra and then turned his gaze on Chris. "I'm not sure, cowboy, just a feelin' I've got."
His three comrades became instantly alert. Vin's *feelin's* were often uncannily accurate. "'Bout what, Vin?" Buck watched the tracker turning whatever was bothering him over in his mind and patiently waited for him to decide to share it with the rest of them.
"Well, it's just a thought... one I sure hope is wrong, but... Katherine? You said your pa hit his head on a rock an' that was what killed 'im?" Vin waited for her confirming nod before going on. "I'll bet there was a lot of blood... musta been scary, you bein' a kid an' all."
She thought carefully for a few minutes, staring down at her fingers plucking aimlessly at the tablecloth. Buck noticed the gesture and smiled when he realized it was the same nervous habit Ezra had.
Katherine finally looked back up at Vin and shook her head. "Actually, there wasn't, just a little in his hair and on the side of his face. I remember thinkin' how peaceful he looked. If it hadn't been for his eyes bein' open, I would have thought he was just sleepin'."
Vin glanced at the other three men and saw understanding appear in their eyes. They all knew that with a serious head injury, there should have been heavy bleeding.
"Ground where he was layin' should've been covered with blood." Chris kept a close eye on Ezra and the two women. "It had to've happened some place else."
Vin nodded reluctantly, seeing comprehension finally dawning in their eyes.
Margaret frowned at Vin. "So you're tellin' us you think my son-in-law's body was moved to that spot... after he died?"
Katherine sat shaking her head in denial, her hand grasping Ezra's tightly. "But that would have to mean that... that...."
"He was murdered, and whoever did it left the body there to make it look like an accident." Ezra's voice trembled as he voiced the thought his sister just couldn't bring herself to finish.
Chris nodded. "I hate to say it, but it looks that way. Now we need to figure out where he was actually killed and why."
Vin's gaze settled on Ezra and Katherine as he attempted to work through the rest of the feeling he'd had. He hoped, especially for the gambler's sake, that he was wrong, but the more he thought about it, the more convinced he became that he knew where David Standish had died.
Ezra looked up and caught Vin staring at him. "There's more, isn't there?"
The tracker glanced over at Chris and Buck, and then back at Ezra's sister. "Did you say it was a couple of days after Delacourte an' Maude took Ezra away that your father decided t' go get 'im back?"
Katherine nodded, but before she could say anything, Vin turned his attention to Ezra and hesitantly asked, "Do you... " Vin hated to have to ask Ezra and prayed he was wrong in what he was thinking, but... "Do you remember exactly when you got that whippin' from your uncle? The... the one in your nightmares?"
Ezra stared at Vin and felt his heart begin to hammer in his chest as he realized what the long- haired tracker was getting at. The man's body in his nightmare... he thinks that was... that it could be his....
"Vin, you can't be serious! Good Lord, it can't possibly have been.... " Ezra pushed himself away from the table and tried to stand, clutching at the back of the chair as he felt his knees start to buckle.
Buck, Chris, and Vin saw the blood drain out of Ezra's face and immediately jumped up to go to his aid, but before they could take two steps, Katherine was by his side, supporting him as he wove unsteadily on his feet and then coaxing him back onto his chair. "Ezra, are you all right?" Ezra could only shake his head as he stared at Vin.
As soon as Buck understood what Vin and Ezra were talking about, he moved quickly around the table to stand worriedly behind the shaken gambler.
Margaret, who was sitting on the other side of Ezra, stood up and motioned for Buck to take her place. He gave her a grateful smile and quickly sat down beside the younger man, stroking his hand gently up and down Ezra's back and speaking softly to him. "Easy now, pard, we don't know for sure that's who it was."
Chris frowned at Vin. "You really think that's who Ezra saw in his dreams?"
Vin shrugged. "It fits, Chris. The timing's right, an' we know that's where Standish was headed when he left here. Maybe they fought over Ezra, an' he killed 'im on purpose, or maybe it was just an accident, but either way, it all fits in with Ezra's nightmare."
Katherine's eyes widened in shock at his words. "You're tellin' us you think Matthew Delacourte murdered my father? Just because Daddy wanted Ezra back?" She turned her horrified gaze on Ezra and grabbed his arm. "*Was* it his body you saw in your dream?! Did your uncle really kill him like Mr. Tanner thinks?!"
Ezra shook his head helplessly and weakly tried to pull away from her painful grip. "I honestly don't know, Katherine. That part of my nightmare still isn't clear to me. I'm sorry... I'd give anything if I could just--" Ezra suddenly winced and gave a soft grunt of pain as his hand flew up to clutch at his forehead.
Buck wrapped an arm around Ezra as he saw him sway in his seat and leaned forward to peer anxiously into his face. "Shit... it's one of them damned headaches, isn't it?" Seeing Ezra nod, he turned to Chris. "We need to get 'im back to the boardinghouse."
Katherine tugged on Ezra's arm and scowled at Buck. "No! He can't leave now. I need to know what happened to our father!"
Margaret stepped up behind her granddaughter and put a hand on her shoulder to try and calm her. "You can go into town and talk to Ezra tomorrow, dear. You've lived without knowin' the truth all these years, surely one more day isn't goin' to make a difference. What you should be concerned with is your brother's health."
Katherine flinched at her grandmother's gentle admonishment and quickly reached out to touch Ezra's cheek. "I'm so sorry, Ezra. I didn't mean to push you like that. It's just the shock of findin' out...."
Ezra forced his eyes open and managed to give her a small smile as he interrupted her. "No need to apologize, Katherine, I understand perfectly your need to know the truth. But I just... I can't--" He swallowed hard, fighting back the all too familiar feeling of nausea that was causing his stomach to churn dangerously and gave Buck a pleading look of distress.
Buck recognized the signs immediately, and with a mumbled apology to the ladies, jerked Ezra up out of his chair and half-carried him quickly out the door.
Chris hurried to stop Katherine as she moved to go after them. "It'd be best if you let Buck take care of 'im. I don't think Ezra'd want you to see 'im like that. I'm sure he'll be up to a visit tomorrow if you've a mind to talk to him some more." He turned and nodded his head at Margaret before leaving. "Right fine meal, ma'am, an' it was a pleasure meetin' both of you."
Vin stood up and started to follow Chris out the door. He hesitated, and then stopped to look back at Katherine. "Could ya tell me how t' get t' Delacourte's from here? I'd kinda like t' get a look at the place."
Katherine glanced at her grandmother and then reluctantly gave Vin directions. She stopped him as he turned to go. "Please be careful, Mr. Tanner."
"Don't worry yourself none, I'm jus' gonna do a little scoutin' 'fore goin' back t' town." He gave them a quick nod and a smile, and then slipped out the door.
Vin stepped out onto the porch and found the other three men already on their horses and waiting for him. He paused next to Ezra and laid his hand on the gambler's leg as he looked worriedly up at him. His face was an unhealthy gray and covered with a sheen of sweat, and Vin could feel him trembling slightly under his hand. "Ya don't look so good, pard. You sure ya shouldn't jus' rest here for a spell till ya feel better?"
Ezra sat slumped in his saddle, rubbing his forehead with one hand and gripping the pommel and reins with the other. "I'm afraid that would bring on one of Mr. Jackson's tirades concerning my never taking proper care of myself, which in turn would bring on a recurrence of the headache. I prefer to suffer through the short ride back to town now and save myself more pain later."
Buck shook his head and laughed. "Don't listen to 'im, Vin. He's actually lookin' forward to drinkin' one of Nathan's vile concoctions for a change an' just don't wanna admit it."
Vin patted Ezra's leg and gave him a reassuring wink before mounting Jake. "Don't worry, Ezra, we won't tell Nathan. Can't have 'im knowin' we 'preciate those medicines of his... it'd ruin our reputations."
Ezra managed a weak smile in return. "You're right, Mr. Tanner, can't have that. If Mr. Jackson thought we were enjoyin' them, he'd most likely think they weren't effective any more and change the ingredients to make them even more vile tastin'."
Buck shuddered and rolled his eyes. "Now that just ain't possible."
"Don't let Nathan hear you sayin' that, he'd take it as a challenge," Chris warned as he turned Strider and started them on a slow walk back toward town.
About halfway between the Standish farm and the boardinghouse, they came to a fork in the road. Vin nodded toward the trail branching off to the left, away from Shelby. "Katherine said that's the way t' Delacourte's place. Thought I'd go take a quick look 'round... see what it's like."
Chris glanced over at Ezra. They'd had to stop several times for the Southerner while he was sick, but he seemed to be doing a bit better now. He still had that pinched look around his eyes that the headache gave him, but his color was slowly improving. Chris looked at Buck. "Think you'll be able to get 'im back okay on your own?"
Buck nodded and started to speak, but was interrupted by Ezra. "I'm fine, Mr. Larabee, and I'd like to accompany you. Perhaps it would help to restore my memory of the... the incident in my dream."
The others exchanged a look, and Buck, who was behind Ezra, shook his head at Chris. The gambler had had enough shocks for one day... the last thing he needed now was to be confronted with the scene of his nightmares.
Chris frowned at the Southerner as he saw him sway gently in the saddle. "Hell, Ezra, you're barely able to stay on your horse. We ain't gonna be there long, just takin' a quick look around the perimeter. Why don't you go on back to Mrs. Stokes' and get some rest?" He saw the younger man's expression clouding up and quickly tried to stop the protest before it could get started. "Besides, Nathan would have our heads for draggin' you all over the countryside while you're sick."
Ezra sighed and closed his eyes for a moment. He wanted to argue, but he knew Chris was right... he was in no condition to put himself through that, but....
Ezra looked back up at Chris and reluctantly pleaded, "I know you're right, Chris. It's just... I need to work through this... this fear." His voice broke on the last word and he had to stop to fight off the tears of frustration and shame welling up in his eyes. Ezra stared embarrassedly down at the ground. "It's been twenty-three years for God's sake! How can just the mention of M-Matthew Delacourte's name... the sound of his voice... his...." Ezra shuddered as a tremor of revulsion rippled up his spine at the remembered feeling of his uncle's hands resting on his shoulders, "Lord... his touch... how can they still fill me with such an overpowering feelin' of helplessness and panic? I'm a grown man, damn it! I should be able to get past it!"
Buck could see Ezra's hands shaking as he maintained a white-knuckled grip on the saddle horn and knew he was barely hanging on to what little composure he still had. Maneuvering his big gray closer, Buck gently placed a calming hand on the younger man's arm. Leaning forward, he began trying to reason with Ezra... trying to absolve him of some of the guilt he had for feelings that the gunfighter knew the proud Southerner considered cowardly. "Damn it, Ezra, after what that son of a bitch did to ya, it's no wonder you've still got some fear in your heart for 'im. Anybody would."
Vin and Chris moved in to add their support to their hurting friend. Vin reached out and forcibly eased Ezra's grip on the saddle, rubbing some feeling back into the gambler's slender fingers as he spoke. "You were only a kid, pard, ya jus' can't handle somethin' like that when you're little, so the fear stays inside of ya waitin' till ya get strong enough t' deal with it."
Ezra looked up at the tracker, his pale cheeks tinged red with shame, and shook his head. "But I'm still not dealin' with it. As much as it disgusts me to admit it, I am just as terrified of Matthew Delacourte today as I was when I was five."
"An' why wouldn't ya be? You've relived the awful things he did to ya over an' over again in your nightmares... even when you couldn't remember what exactly happened, the fear the dreams brought on was still there inside your mind. But it was Lit'l Ezra who was still tryin' to deal with it. The adult you is just now startin' to understand where those feelin's have been comin' from all these years." Chris smiled reassuringly at him. "Don't worry, Ezra, just as soon as the time's right, that fear'll wash out of you an' the anger'll take over. Then you'll be ready to deal with your uncle."
Ezra looked around him at his three companions, his expression clearly showing the gratitude he felt for what they were trying to do. He still didn't look totally convinced that what they'd said was true, but at least now there was a glimmer of hope in his eyes instead of just the sadness that had filled them before. "I sincerely hope you're right, Mr. Larabee, and I do have to agree that I truthfully do not feel up to a confrontation with my uncle just yet. So I'll bow to your wishes and accompany Mr. Wilmington back to town and try to get some rest, but only if you and Mr. Tanner will swear to me that you are only going to take a look and have no intentions of trying to take care of that bastard on your own." Ezra grasped Chris's arm as he tried to impress the two men with his seriousness. "Matthew Delacourte is an extremely dangerous man, Chris. That is something my mind's never let me forget. Please... promise me you'll be careful."
"You've got my word, Ezra... just a look, that's all." Chris placed his hand over the gambler's and squeezed it tightly before moving away. "Now I can tell you're about to slide right on outta that saddle, so you get your butt to that boardinghouse and let Abigail an' Nathan take care of ya. I wanna find you in that bed an' sleepin' like a baby when we get back there."
Buck released Ezra with a light slap on the shoulder and grinned at Chris. "Don't worry, pard, I'll get him all snuggled in there nice an' cozy... even if I have to hogtie 'im to the bedpost to do it."
Chris and Vin laughed and rode off to the sound of Ezra eloquently telling Buck exactly what he thought of his idea of tucking someone in.
Chris and Vin had been riding for about a half hour when they came to a sharp bend in the road. Vin slowed Jake to a walk and stared thoughtfully at an open field to their left, and then bent to peer down at the ground before finally nodding his head. "I think this is where she found 'im."
Chris glanced at the tracker curiously. "Huh? How the hell do ya know that?"
Vin gave the blond gunfighter a small grin. "I'm a tracker, cowboy, I jus' know these things." He laughed at Chris's snort of disbelief. "Didn't figger ya'd fall for that one. Katherine described the spot to me when she was givin' me the directions to Delacourte's."
Chris sighed and shook his head. "Must've been hell for her... all alone an' findin' her father like that."
Vin nodded as they moved on around the bend. "Ain't no wonder she was still carryin' them hard feelin's. Jus' glad for Ezra's sake that she was finally able t' let 'em go."
Both men grew quiet as they followed the road into a thick stand of trees, the branches interlocking overhead to provide them some welcome relief from the scorching afternoon sun.
Vin's right hand drifted down to rest on his thigh, only inches from the mare's leg that was invariably strapped there, as his eyes surreptitiously scanned the area around them.
Chris's movements mirrored those of the tracker's as his instincts screamed at him that something was wrong. "You feel it?"
"Yup. We ain't alone." Vin's eyes hadn't picked up any obvious signs of danger yet, but every nerve in his body was telling him it was there.
Vin had just begun to ease his gun out of its holster when he realized he was too late. The explosion of gunfire shattered the unnatural silence, and he saw Chris's body jerk violently to the left as he was struck by one of the bullets that had suddenly filled the air.
"Chris!" Vin made a grab for his friend as he began to slide off his horse. He managed to snag a handful of shirt and allowed the gunfighter's momentum to pull them both down to the ground, grimacing and uttering a sharp grunt as he felt his ankle twist painfully beneath him. They landed between the two horses, and Vin used the dubious cover they offered to drag himself and Chris into the bushes that lined the road.
Firing off several shots into the surrounding trees, Vin risked a quick glance down at the older man lying beside him. "Chris? Ya with me, pard?"
Chris moaned softly and struggled to open his eyes. "What the hell happened?" His head was pounding unmercifully and blood dripped slowly down the side of his face, but he still somehow managed to twist himself over onto his stomach and drag his gun out. Blinking rapidly in an attempt to clear his vision, he peered blearily over at Vin. "You okay?"
Vin gave a quick nod and ducked as another volley of gunfire erupted from the trees on the other side of the road. He and Chris sent their assailants a couple of well-placed shots in return and were rewarded with a cry of pain and the sounds of someone crashing through tree branches, followed by a loud thud and a litany of pain-filled curses.
Chris flashed Vin a grim smile of satisfaction and then, after scrubbing his face across his arm to remove some of the blood, raised his head up slightly and yelled, "Why don't you go on back an' tell that son of a bitchin', yellow-bellied Delacourte to fight his own damned battles?!"
"He's too important t' be wastin' his--"
Vin and Chris heard the distinctive sound of a fist connecting with flesh and then a growled, "Shut up, you fool" before another voice shouted, "There is no 'boss', we're just a concerned group of citizens who don't want your kind in our town! This is your third and final warning... leave now or you'll be goin' home in pine boxes!"
"Third warnin'? JD was the first, an' if this is the third... damn! They must've either got Buck an' Ezra on their way back t' town or else they tried somethin' at Miz Stokes'." Vin stared worriedly at Chris. "We gotta get back, Chris... no tellin' what those bastards might've done."
Chris nodded, started to speak, and then stopped. "Listen...."
They heard something in the distance crashing through the brush, and then the sound of several horses galloping in the direction of Shelby. They waited a few minutes, listening for any signs that someone may have stayed behind, and then cautiously made their way back up onto the road.
Chris saw Vin favoring his left leg and scowled at him. "Thought you said ya weren't hurt?"
Vin shook his head and pointed at the blood still dripping down Chris's face. "Ain't nothin', just twisted it draggin' your sorry ass off your horse, but you better clean yourself up, or you'll be scarin' the others half t' death when we get back t' town."
While using his sleeve to wipe away the worst of the blood, Chris rounded up Strider and Jake and led them back over to Vin. The two battered men dragged themselves into their saddles and turned the horses back toward town. All thoughts of Delacourte's plantation were forgotten in the face of the implied threats made against the others... replaced completely by their fear for their brothers' safety.
Buck and Ezra slowed their horses to a walk as they entered Shelby and found the main street lined with small groups of people talking and pointing toward the boardinghouse.
Ezra gave Buck a questioning glance and then looked back at the people on the boardwalk. He felt his stomach clench and had to fight to keep his expression neutral when he spotted his uncle standing in front of his office. Noticing Ezra, he tipped his hat and smiled coldly at him.
Buck saw Ezra pale slightly and stiffen in his saddle, and followed his gaze to see what had caused the reaction. He frowned when he saw Delacourte staring at them.
"Well, hello there, Ezra... been out gettin' reacquainted with our lovely little town?" He nodded in the direction of Abigail's, and his smile widened. "Heard there was some kind of trouble at the boardinghouse. Seems to me it's a bit rough bein' a friend of yours. I certainly hope Mrs. Stokes and your associates still think it's worth it."
"Why you--" Buck growled as his hand moved toward his gun.
Ezra quickly grabbed his arm and stopped him. "Don't, Buck... please."
Buck angrily tried to jerk away from his grip, but when he turned and got a good look at Ezra's face, he stopped. The younger man's eyes were locked onto his uncle's, and Buck could see the battle he was waging against the fear that was threatening to overwhelm him.
Ezra's hand shook as he retained his hold on his friend. Buck was certain the gambler was about to lose control completely, but Ezra's voice when he spoke was steady and betrayed none of the terror that he was feeling in his heart. "He's not worth it, Buck, and you'd be playin' right into his hands. Let's go check on the others."
Buck looked back at Delacourte, his whole body trembling as he fought the urge to throw himself at the bastard, wrap his hands around his throat, and choke the life out of him. But he felt Ezra pull lightly on his arm, and as much as it killed him to do it, he turned in the saddle, gave the gambler a nod, and followed him down the street.
JD stepped out on the porch as they rode up, saw they knew something had happened, and quickly reassured them that everyone was okay. He was alarmed by the pallor of Ezra's face and was about to ask if *they* were all right when he saw Buck's warning look and instead, silently took the reins and led their horses around back to the barn.
Buck and Ezra hurried into the house and followed the sound of voices back to the kitchen. They stopped in their tracks and just stared as they came through the door and saw the gruesome scene that greeted them. There was a basin of water stained bright red, along with a pile of bloody rags, in the middle of the table. Nathan sat with his bandaged leg propped up on a stool, carefully plucking shards of wood out of Josiah's outstretched arm. After a panicked look around the room, both men heaved huge sighs of relief at finding Abigail, looking relatively unscathed, standing at the stove adding herbs to a steaming kettle of water.
"What the hell happened?" Buck demanded as he dropped weakly onto a chair. He pushed another one away from the table for Ezra, and with a gentle tug, managed to get the Southerner to sit down before his legs gave out.
Josiah glanced worriedly at Ezra and then reluctantly answered, "Just another friendly warning from our favorite local attorney."
They all exchanged anxious looks when Ezra swore softly and dropped his head into his hands.
Buck reached out and rested a large, comforting hand on the back of the gambler's neck. "Come on now, Ezra, don't even start takin' this on yourself. You can't help what your son of a bitchin' uncle does." He blushed and looked over at Abigail. "Sorry, ma'am."
Abigail snorted as she handed Nathan and Josiah mugs of tea. "Don't apologize for speakin' the truth, son. He *is* a son of a bitch, no doubt about it." She poured two cups of coffee and carried them around the table to Buck and Ezra, then settled in the chair next to the gambler. She stared at his bent head for a minute and realized there really wasn't a thing she could say that would ease the guilt he was feeling, so instead she gently pulled one of his hands down and just sat and held it, offering her support and knowing he'd accept it when he was ready.
The others followed her lead and sat quietly, allowing Ezra time to deal with his emotions. Buck kept his hand where it was and lightly stroked the chestnut hair, hopefully soothing the younger man while letting him know he wasn't alone.
Nathan had just finished removing the splinters from Josiah's arm and was wrapping a bandage around it when the back door slammed open. The group gathered around the table stared in shock as JD and Vin staggered into the kitchen with a bloody and semi-conscious Chris hanging between them.
Josiah came to his senses first and quickly stood to help ease the gunfighter down onto a chair.
"I'm fine, damn it!" Even though he could barely hold his head up, Chris was still trying to fight off their helping hands.
Buck moved around the table to help Nathan with Chris, while JD and Josiah forced the protesting tracker to sit and take some weight off his injured leg. Vin assured them it was just a sprain, but after some stern glances from the exasperated healer and a comment about being even more mule-headed than a certain blond *cowboy* from Josiah, he relented and let the preacher remove his boot and take a look at it.
Nathan glanced over at Abigail as he grabbed up the last of the clean rags to wipe the blood off Chris's face, and she immediately left to get more.
Ezra stared at his friends and was swept with an overwhelming sense of remorse at the knowledge that they were all risking their lives to help him. Taking advantage of their distraction while they dealt with the latest injuries, the disheartened gambler slipped quietly out of the room.
Matthew found Harris in the saloon, working diligently at getting drunk. "Well?"
Harris turned blood-shot eyes on the attorney and nodded his head. "It's done. The two on the roof, plus the leader an' the long-haired one. The only ones we haven't gotten now are your nephew an' that tall, mustached fella that sticks close to 'im." He slammed back another drink and refilled the glass with shaking hands, slopping whiskey on the bar and on himself. But no matter how much he drank, it couldn't change the fact that he'd shot someone. Couldn't erase the memory of the impact of his bullet and the nauseating spray of blood that had erupted from the blond's head. "And you can handle the rest yourself, because I'm through doin' your dirty work. I'm gettin' too damned old to be sneakin' around in the woods, shootin' at innocent people."
Delacourte stared thoughtfully out the window and mumbled quietly to himself. "Wilmington... still apparently attached to my nephew." As an evil glint appeared in his eyes, he turned to Harris and patted his arm. "We'll discuss what you will or won't do for me later, but for now, your work is finished... my men can handle things from here on out. If your warnings didn't do the trick, then I'll look forward to dealin' with Ezra and his friend Wilmington myself. I've got some special plans for those two... so special I almost hope they *don't* turn tail and run."
Snatching the shot glass out of Harris's hand, Delacourte tossed the drink back and then quickly left the saloon. Striding purposefully across the street to the livery, he saddled his horse and rode swiftly out of town.
Nathan had managed to stop the bleeding from Chris's wound and was just finishing wiping away the last of the blood when Abigail returned to the kitchen. He'd been relieved to find that the bullet had just barely grazed the side of the blond's head. Chris had a throbbing headache and some dizziness from the slight concussion he'd sustained, and was feeling weak and tired because of the blood loss, but considering how things could have turned out, he'd been extremely lucky.
"Damn it, Nathan, will ya quit your fussin'?" Chris growled as he grabbed the dampened rag out of the startled healer's hand. "I think I'm still capable of washing my own face."
Abigail gave the disgruntled gunfighter a pointed look and nodded her satisfaction when she heard him begrudgingly offer up a mumbled apology to Nathan. She set the rags on the table and picked up the basin of dirty water and then stopped, frowning as her gaze traveled quickly around the crowded room. "Where's Ezra?"
Buck's head snapped up and, seeing the now empty chair across the table from him, immediately was struck by a surge of guilt for not noticing Ezra had left.
JD saw the concerned look on Buck's face and was quick to try and reassure him. "He probably went on up to his room to lie down... he was lookin' pretty beat when we came in."
Buck nodded hesitantly and moved toward the stairs. "I'll just go check to make sure."
"Hold up, Bucklin... he ain't up there." Vin nodded out the back window when the others all turned to stare at him.
Chris leaned forward to look out into the yard and uttered a muffled curse when he saw Ezra headed for the barn with his saddlebags slung over his shoulder. "Damn pig-headed...."
While Vin struggled to get his boot back on, and Nathan and Abigail fought to keep Chris in his seat, Buck, JD and Josiah hurried out the door, catching up to Ezra just before he got to the barn. Buck grabbed the gambler's shoulder and jerked him around to face them.
"What the hell do you think you're doin'?!" He felt JD and Josiah's hands tugging at him, heard them warning him to take it easy, but he shook them off. The pain of Ezra's continuing lack of trust in him and the frustration of trying to break through that final protective barrier the younger man still held firmly in place, combined with the worry over the injuries to their friends, was fueling the anger that was driving Buck now.
Ezra wrenched himself out of Buck's grip and backed away before quietly answering him. "I'm leavin'... what does it look like I'm doin'?"
Buck narrowed his eyes at him, but didn't make any attempt to re-establish his hold on Ezra. "I thought you promised us you'd stay an' try an' work this nightmare thing out?"
Ezra fussed with his jacket and saddlebags for a moment to give himself time to get his emotions under control, then returned Buck's glare. "May I remind you of my exact words, Mr. Wilmington? I said I'd stay, but if we couldn't find a way to do somethin' about my headaches... which we haven't, I might add... and if I thought y'all were still in danger because of me... which you obviously are... then I'd leave. And if you'll remember correctly, y'all promised if that happened that you wouldn't try to stop me." He stifled a moan when he saw the rest of his friends headed in his direction, and knew he had to end the conversation now and leave before they were able to talk him out of it. "Now I would say I have kept my end of that promise, and I'd appreciate it if you kept yours."
Buck quickly placed himself between Ezra and the barn and grabbed him, intent on shaking some sense into the stubborn gambler. But then he saw the anguish in those bright green eyes, and all his anger just drained away. "Ezra, please don't do this. I promise ya we'll get ya through it... just don't give up yet."
Ezra flung his arms out, breaking Buck's hold and startling the men surrounding him. "Good God, Buck! Do you think I *want* to give up?! That I want to let that bastard win?!" The emotionally distraught gambler could barely breathe as he struggled to convince them that he was right. He waved a shaking hand at their bruised and battered friends. "For God's sake... will you look around you? What do you want me to do? Sit here lettin' y'all fight my battles until one of you is finally killed?" Tears blurred Ezra's vision and his voice was hoarse with the pain he was feeling at the thought of losing even one of his friends. "Will that be enough for you? *Then* will you let me go?"
Buck saw the fight go out of Ezra as his shoulders slumped in defeat, his saddlebags slipping slowly down his arm to land with a soft thump at this feet. He stood staring pleadingly into Buck's deep blue eyes, his whole body trembling, and softly whispered, "Please... just let me leave."
"Get out of his way, Buck." The quiet voice broke through the tension, and everyone turned to see Chris shrug off Nathan's supporting hands as he slowly made his way over to Ezra. The lanky gunfighter bent over, scooped up the gambler's saddlebags, and carefully straightened up again. He staggered slightly as he fought against the dizziness and pounding in his head, and then began walking toward the barn.
Ezra looked around at the others and then back at their leader weaving his way across the yard. "Chris? Where are you goin'?"
"With you." Chris never stopped walking... he didn't dare. He knew if he did, he'd be laid out flat on the ground.
"Mr. Larabee, you are in no condition to go anywhere." Ezra cast an anxious look behind him, fully expecting to see Nathan coming to stop the bullheaded gunfighter, but instead, to his utter amazement, he saw the healer and the others all moving slowly back toward the house. Buck and JD had Vin between them, forcing him to let them take some of the weight off his swollen ankle, while Nathan leaned heavily on Josiah and Abigail as he limped painfully up onto the porch.
Ezra threw his hands in the air in frustration and demanded, "And just where the hell do you gentlemen think *you're* goin'?"
"To get our gear... you don't think we're leavin' it all here, do ya?" Vin tossed casually back over his shoulder.
Ezra glared at their backs as they disappeared into the house and then turned to watch Chris as he continued to stagger toward the barn. His expression suddenly softened as he realized what they were doing. These six men... his brothers... his real true family... were willing to risk everything and do whatever it took to keep him with them. He finally understood that no matter what he said or did, they were never going to let him go... that they would never give up on him. Like it or not, he was a part of them now. And after a moment's thought, Ezra decided that he did like it... in fact, he liked it just fine.
Shaking his head in exasperation, Ezra hurried to catch up with the unofficial head of this crazy family he'd been dragged into. "Mr. Larabee...."
"Ezra...." Chris never looked at the gambler, just stared straight ahead and kept concentrating on putting one foot in front of the other as the world spun wildly around him.
"You're determined to go through with this, aren't you?" Ezra reached out and gently pulled the saddlebags out of Chris's hands.
"There's nothin' I can say that'll change your mind." Ezra slipped an arm around the gunfighter's waist and was relieved when, instead of fighting him, Chris draped his arm across Ezra's shoulders and accepted his help.
"Nope." A grin tugged at Chris's lips as he heard the amused resignation in Ezra's voice.
Turning them carefully back toward the house, Ezra finally gave in. "Fine, Mr. Larabee, you win. I'll stay."
Chris heaved a sigh of relief and leaned heavily on the smaller man. "Ezra?"
Ezra grunted softly as he struggled to adjust to the added weight. "Yes, Mr. Larabee?"
Chris uttered a weak laugh. "Good thing you changed your mind when ya did, 'cause I don't think I could have taken another step."
Ezra chuckled and tightened his hold on his friend as he guided them slowly across the yard. "Don't worry, I've got you." He smiled at Chris, his green eyes twinkling mischievously. "Of course, you do realize that Nathan is in there just waitin' to chew you out for pullin' such a foolish stunt."
Chris groaned at the thought of one of Nathan's lectures, and then looked hopefully at the gambler. "Sure you don't still wanna leave, Ezra? We could hide out in New Orleans... good food, beautiful women... gamblin'...."
Ezra shook his head as he carefully eased Chris up the stairs and onto the porch. "I'm sorry, Chris, but as temptin' as that sounds, it's still not worth takin' the risk of incurring Mr. Jackson's wrath." He smothered a laugh when he saw the taller man's grin fade.
"Gee thanks, Ezra... I'll be sure and--" Chris's sarcastic reply was cut off as the door was flung open and an extremely irate Nathan jerked him out of the Southerner's hands and pulled him into the kitchen, mumbling the whole while about stubborn fools and stupid stunts.
Ezra couldn't stop the laughter that burst forth at the expression on Chris's face as Nathan started in on him. "Anytime, Mr. Larabee, anytime," the gambler murmured cheerfully as he followed them inside and closed the door.
Matthew Delacourte dismissed his men after giving them their final instructions, smiling in satisfaction at the looks they gave him as they walked away. He had no illusions about why they stayed... it certainly wasn't because of any sense of loyalty. Matthew knew it was their intense fear of him, and their belief that he was truly insane, that kept them in line, and he freely admitted they had good reason to fear him. The only misguided soul who had tried to break away from his control had met a violent and torturous death... a death the others had been forced to watch. The lesson had apparently worked... not one of them had dared to test his authority since then.
Matthew stood on the porch and let his gaze trail possessively over the plantation spread out before him. The rage he'd felt earlier at the possibility that his nephew was going to destroy everything he'd worked so hard for flared up again and ignited anew the burning hatred he'd held all these years for the younger man. Delacourte had had one of his men keeping watch over the boardinghouse, and when he'd returned home, the man, who had just arrived, proceeded to nervously give his report. Just as he'd thought, Ezra and his friends were staying... and they were coming after him. As he stood contemplating the plan he'd put into effect to stop them, Matthew's thoughts wandered back twenty-four years to when he'd first been introduced to his nephew.
Ezra had just turned four when Maude had shown up on his doorstep looking for help. Matthew had been immediately taken with the delicate beauty of the child who stood clinging shyly to his mother's hand. Ezra's pale, creamy skin, brilliant green eyes fringed with long, thick, dark lashes, and tousled mop of silken, chestnut brown curls had made it nearly impossible for him to tear his eyes away from the boy and turn his attention to his sister. Maude was so busy bemoaning the cruelty and humiliation she'd had to suffer at the hands of her now estranged husband, that she was completely oblivious to her brother's disgustingly unhealthy attraction to her son.
Delacourte had reluctantly acquiesced to Maude's tearful request for a place to stay until she could get on her feet again, even though he knew that with little Ezra in the house, it would take all of his considerable self-control and several, tension-relieving visits to the slave quarters in order for him to continue to keep his perverse sexual urges hidden from his family. But it had all become much easier once he'd looked past his nephew's appearance and discovered that he was a highly intelligent and talented child.
Maude had already begun Ezra's 'education' in the fine art of being a grifter and a gambler, and Matthew was suitably impressed when she'd forced the boy to demonstrate his considerable knowledge of the intricacies of running a con and his amazing skill with a deck of cards. All thoughts of any sexual attraction to the child had been set aside as soon as Delacourte had realized the future he could have with Ezra under his control. With plans for turning the boy into his own profit-making puppet running through his mind, Matthew had eagerly aided Maude in acquiring a divorce and then encouraged her in her decision to leave her son with him while she went off and began her search for a new, hopefully wealthy, husband.
As soon as she was gone, Delacourte had turned poor little Ezra's already sad and lonely childhood into a living nightmare. He had worked diligently at stripping Maude's son of every last shred of self-worth he possessed... had done everything he could to prove to the little boy he was, and would always be, unloved and unwanted in a sick attempt to control and own him. And yet... after all the beatings, after all the hatred and neglect Matthew had thrown at the child, Ezra had still found the courage to try and defy him when his beloved Uncle David and his friend, Amanda, had been threatened. Matthew's twisted mind had used that defiance as the reason to blame the boy for his having to kill David Standish and the young slave, and time had only strengthened his belief in Ezra's guilt. It had also strengthened and magnified his unreasoning hatred for his nephew, and his obsession with bringing him back under his power... an obsession he intended to finally see fulfilled.
And now everything was ready... well, everything except for retrieving the honored guests who would be attending this little surprise he'd worked out for Ezra. That was one detail he would have to handle himself. But he had a few hours before he could take care of it, so in the meantime, he decided it would be a good idea to try and get some sleep. He'd need to be well- rested if he was going to pull off what he had planned. It was vital that it all went perfectly.
"After all, I want nothing but the best for you, Ezra," Delacourte whispered before he turned and entered the house, closing the door softly behind him.
During dinner, Nathan, Josiah, and JD were filled in on the startling discoveries that had been made about Ezra's family and were shocked and saddened to learn that David Standish had actually been the gambler's father, and that he was most likely the man lying in the yard in his nightmare. Ezra tried to ease their obvious concern for him by assuring them that he was fine, but failed miserably, and as a result, had to suffer through a constant barrage of worried looks and sympathetic comments for the remainder of the meal.
Abigail followed them upstairs and forced a weary and aching Nathan to lie down along with the others, insisting she was quite capable of changing bandages and seeing that everyone got settled in for the night. When he argued that he needed to sit with Ezra so that Buck could get some sleep, she assured him that she had every intention of seeing that both men got the rest they needed. After receiving her promise that she'd wake him if she got tired, Nathan finally allowed himself to relax and accept her help.
As she went from room to room, Abigail marveled at how seven such disparate personalities had managed to forge themselves into such a close-knit family. Each of them told her he was fine when she went to tend their injuries and asked instead after the welfare of his brothers.
She finally finished with the others and entered the last room. Ezra was already in bed, curled up on his side, facing the wall with his eyes closed, while Buck sat slumped in the chair, staring at the gambler's back, his handsome face lined with worry and exhaustion. Abigail had the distinct feeling that Ezra was merely feigning sleep to avoid a confrontation with the older man.
Buck looked up and flashed her a weary smile when he finally sensed her presence in the room. "Headin' off to bed, Miz Abigail?"
She shook her head and reached down to grasp his arm, pulling him easily up out of the chair. "No, but you are."
Buck found himself on his feet and headed toward the door before he even knew what was happening. His tired brain finally kicked in, and he realized what she was doing. "No, ma'am, I can't do that." He managed to get Abigail stopped just before she shoved him out into the hall, and pulled away from her. "Everyone else's hurt an' needin' their rest lots more than I do, an' I ain't about to leave Ezra by himself all night."
She nodded understandingly and again tried to force him across the hall to her room. "Don't you worry none, he won't be alone. Nathan was goin' to spell you, but I convinced him he was in no condition to stay up all night and told him I'd sit with Ezra so that you could get some rest. Now you just go on over to my room and get into bed. You're about out on your feet, son."
The thought of climbing into a nice, soft bed for a few hours sounded like heaven to Buck, but he still hesitated as he looked back at Ezra.
"Please do as she says, Mr. Wilmington. I promise I'll scream loud enough for you to hear me if I happen to be visited by another of my lovely trips down memory lane tonight."
Buck winced at the shame he heard in the soft Southern drawl that drifted up from the blanketed form in the bed. Having others witness his distress during those episodes was much harder for Ezra to deal with than the actual nightmares themselves.
Moving around to the other side of the bed, Buck squatted down next to Ezra so he could see his face. It had been an extremely rough day for the younger man, and the green eyes that stared back at him were filled with pain and guilt. Buck hated seeing Ezra blame himself for everything that had happened and had tried to convince him that none of it... not his father's death and certainly not what had happened to their friends... was his fault. After a brief argument, Buck had backed down. He'd decided he'd wait until after they got everything settled with Ezra's uncle and then try again.
Buck gently wrapped his hand around the gambler's smaller one and was pleasantly surprised when he didn't try to pull it away. "Truth, Ezra... you want me to stay?"
Ezra stared back at Buck... at the dark shadows under his blue eyes and the worry lines that bracketed his gentle smile... and felt more guilt pile itself on the already considerable load he was carrying. His heart screamed at him to say yes, knowing that only Buck's presence would be able to draw him back from the horror of his dreams when they came, but he resolutely fought off the urge to keep his friend by his side and shook his head no instead. "I'll be fine, Buck." His voice trembled slightly at the thought of the one person he allowed himself to rely on not being there if he needed him, and he couldn't help nervously adding, "besides, you'll be just across the hall."
Buck saw through the brave front Ezra was putting on for his benefit, but knew the younger man would only get angry and deny it if Buck called him on it. He hated leaving Ezra even for a few hours, but realized he had no choice. "Right. And we'll leave both doors open just in case you need me for anything. Okay?"
Ezra offered up a half-hearted protest against leaving the doors open, but seemed relieved when Buck insisted on it.
Buck gave the gambler's hand a light reassuring squeeze, then reluctantly went next door and climbed into Abigail's big, soft featherbed. As much as he hated being even this far away from Ezra, he couldn't deny how good it felt to lie down, and he was asleep within minutes.
Abigail asked Ezra if he needed anything, and after he shook his head no, settled herself in the chair and picked up the book Buck had been reading. Ezra had rolled over as Buck had left the room, and when she glanced up at him, Abigail saw that he was drowsily staring across the hall at his friend. She watched until his eyes finally drifted shut and sleep claimed him, and then turned back to her reading. Her eyes stared at the words, but her mind was still on the gambler. JD had filled her in on some of the misery that had filled Ezra's young life and the events that had led up to them being in Shelby. A smile tugged at her lips as she remembered the boy's horrified expression when he had realized how much he had told her and how angry Ezra would be if he knew, and she had quickly reassured him that she would never think of repeating anything he'd said.
Abigail glanced once more at Ezra, saw his handsome features drawn down into a frown, and knew that, even in sleep, he couldn't escape the sadness and worry that seemed to plague him constantly. It saddened her heart to see one so young carrying the weight of the world on his shoulders, and she sent up a silent prayer that his friends would be able to get Matthew Delacourte and finally put an end to Ezra's misery.
It was just past midnight when Abigail heard a small whimper issue forth from the young man curled up in the bed. She glanced up at Ezra and saw him clutching at the pillow as he tried to bury his face deeper into its protective softness. A light sheen of sweat had appeared on his pale skin, and she could see that he was trembling slightly under the sheet.
///"Oh God..." Ezra moaned as he found himself floating toward his uncle's barn again. He looked up and expected to see the usual scene and was surprised to see that this time it was different... this time the dream had started earlier... before the whipping... before anyone had died. Ezra again found himself stopped by the invisible barrier and stood pressed against it, sadly watching his forgotten past unfold before him. He was forced to stand helplessly by and do nothing as his Uncle Matthew dragged his five year old self around the corner of the barn, shouting at him that he was going to teach him a lesson he'd never forget.
Ezra started as a young black girl came running up behind them and threw herself at Matthew, screaming at him to stop. The huge man easily shook her off and delivered a vicious backhand that split her lip and left her lying dazed in the dirt at his feet. With a jerk of the thin arm gripped tightly in his meaty fist, Matthew continued to pull Lit'l Ezra toward the whipping post.
Ezra felt his heart clench at the fear that shone brightly in the boy's tear-filled green eyes as he pleaded with his uncle to stop. "I'm sowwy, Unca Maffew... pwease don't. I'll be good... I pwomise! Pwease don't huwt me!"
Matthew stopped suddenly and whispered something to Lit'l Ezra before shoving him behind his back, and then turned and pointed a warning finger at the girl who had finally struggled to her feet.
At first Ezra couldn't figure out what was going on, but then he watched in horror as a horse and rider emerged from the mist and moved slowly toward the three people standing in front of the barn.
"Oh God, no... Father...." Ezra recognized the face from the picture Katherine had given him and now realized that Vin's theory about the bodies in his nightmare had been correct. With startling clarity, the details of the incident came back to him, and terrifying images began filling his mind. His father confronting Matthew... the girl trying to warn him off... his own fateful plea for help from the man he'd known at that time as his Uncle David... the fight that had ended David Standish's life... and finally the tragic fate of that courageous young girl who had tried so hard to help him. Ezra groaned and clutched at his head as he struggled to deal with the flood of memories and the horror of what he was about to witness.///
Abigail jumped to her feet as Ezra bolted upright and grabbed frantically at his head.
"No! Oh God... please... Father... no!" Tears streamed down the young man's face as he rocked back and forth on the bed.
Realizing Ezra was caught up in one of his nightmares, Abigail moved quickly to his side and tried to awaken him. "It's Abigail, darlin'... open your eyes for me now." She shook him gently and patted lightly at his cheek, but he just pulled away, wrapped his arms around himself, and continued rocking... moaning that his father was going to die and that it was his fault.
Abigail debated on leaving him alone, but knew she needed to get help. So with one last worried look at Ezra, she hurried across the hall to Buck.
///Ezra's heart pounded as he saw himself struggling to get to his father. He cried out in pain right along with Lit'l Ezra as his uncle threw him backwards into the barn wall and felt his heart clench in fear as he watched his enraged father charge at Delacourte. He futilely threw himself against the barrier, screaming at his father to run... that he was going to die... but nothing changed... they couldn't hear him. He watched in horror, tears streaming down his face as he saw his Uncle Matthew wrap his hands in the smaller man's jacket and toss him across the yard as if he were nothing.
"NOOO!!!!!" With a gut-wrenching scream of rage, Ezra slammed his fists against the invisible wall and began sobbing out his grief and pain as the barrier finally gave and his vision dissolved around him.///
Buck came awake instantly when Abigail touched his arm, and was up and out of the bed the minute she said Ezra's name. He jumped when the gambler's anguished cry ripped through the quiet night and let out his own horrified shout a second later when he entered their room and found Ezra pounding on the window as he cried helplessly for his father.
"Ezra!! No... don't!!" Buck tried to reach the younger man in time, but was still a step away when the glass finally gave under the unrelenting assault, and Ezra's hands plunged through the shattering window. "Oh Lord... Abigail, get Nathan!!"
Buck managed to snag the back of Ezra's nightshirt and kept him from going out the window and plummeting head first to the ground below. He jerked the smaller man back against his chest and wrapped his arms around him, trying desperately to hold him still before he did further damage to himself, but Ezra fought him with every bit of strength he had, convinced it was his Uncle Matthew who had him.
The others rushed in and quickly tried to help Buck subdue Ezra, but it was like trying to tame a wildcat. The terrified Southerner was violently twisting and turning in Buck's arms, viciously kicking at the bigger man's legs and anyone who ventured near him as he screamed wildly for his uncle to let him go.
Buck was having trouble keeping his footing and was slowly forced back toward the bed. When he felt the mattress press against his legs, he simply allowed himself to fall back, taking Ezra with him. Somehow he managed to keep his hold on the frantically squirming man and pinned him tightly to his chest.
Chris and Nathan threw themselves on the bed beside the struggling pair and grabbed Ezra's arms while Vin and JD somehow managed to restrain his wildly flailing legs. Once they had him relatively still, Josiah moved in and, firmly cupping the gambler's face in his hands, leaned in close and began trying to bring him back.
"Shh... easy, son. You're all right... you're here with us an' nothin's gonna hurt you now." It took several minutes of repeatedly reassuring him he was safe before the fear and panic finally began to fade from Ezra's eyes.
"J-Josiah?" Tears still flowed freely down the gambler's cheeks, and his breathing was harsh and ragged, but he was clearly coming around.
Buck and the others eased their hold slightly as they felt him begin to relax, but didn't let go completely, still not sure he was done fighting. Nathan did a quick visual examination of Ezra's hands and arms and was relieved to see that the bleeding was already slowing. He'd been worried at first that one of the shards of glass may have done damage to an artery, considering the amount of blood that had been splattered over everyone as they tried to wrestle Ezra into submission, but he could tell now that it was caused by a number of smaller wounds instead. Some were obviously going to require stitches, but at least there were none that were life-threatening or that would leave any permanent damage.
"That's right, Ezra, it's Josiah. You back with us now?" Josiah's deep voice rumbled comfortingly over the younger man and went a long way toward pulling him out of the nightmare.
Ezra stared into Josiah's kind blue eyes for a few moments and then slowly nodded his head. He opened his mouth to speak and then stopped as the memory of what he'd just witnessed in his dream came flooding back. They all felt the tremor that tore through him as he let out a strangled moan of pain and grief. "Oh God... it's true... he k-killed him... Uncle Matthew killed m-my father!"
Josiah motioned for them to let Ezra go and for Chris to let him take his place on the bed, then settled down beside the gambler.
Ezra looked up at the preacher... his eyes awash with tears, his pale face open and vulnerable. "Josiah... my father...."
Without a word, Josiah leaned over and scooped the unresisting Southerner up off of Buck and into his arms, pressing Ezra's tousled head against his broad chest with one huge hand while the other stroked gently up and down his back.
Josiah's loving gesture was all it took to unleash the gambler's emotions, and Ezra found himself wracked by deep, shuddering sobs that shook his slender frame and drew everyone in the room to him... to lay a comforting hand on him, to whisper soothing words... to grieve with him.
Abigail stepped into the room, her arms loaded with everything needed to tend to the wounds she'd known Ezra would have the minute she saw his arms go through the window. Her heart twisted at the sound of his weeping and at the sight of his six self-proclaimed brothers clustered around him. Not wishing to intrude on their privacy, Abigail set the items she carried on the dresser and left, quietly closing the door behind her.
Nathan had seen her and gratefully moved to take care of Ezra's injuries while the others continued to comfort him. He murmured a heart-felt thank you when he saw how thorough she'd been when gathering up the supplies. There were bandages, salve, needle and thread, clean rags, and fresh water... she hadn't missed a thing.
Buck saw what Nathan was doing and moved to help. He carefully loosened Ezra's grip on the back of Josiah's shirt and held his arms steady for the healer so he could check them out, grimacing at the number of cuts that were revealed.
The pain in Ezra's heart overshadowed that of his wounds, and he never even flinched when Nathan cleaned, stitched, and bandaged his hands and wrists... just continued to weep for the loss of the father he'd barely known.
By the time Nathan had finished, Ezra had calmed down some and they were able to lay him back against the pillows. Gratefully accepting the cloth Buck offered, he quickly wiped the evidence of his current emotional outburst off his face. Glancing up at the men gathered around him and giving them a small pained smile, he quietly said, "Perhaps we should rethink this relationship of ours. I seem to be developing a dismayin' propensity for public displays since the six of you decided I needed to be included in your family. I'm beginnin' to think I'd be better off back in my own isolated little world, at least then my dignity would still be intact."
Nathan had gathered up the soiled rags and basin and was headed out the door, but hearing Ezra's remarks, looked back at him and firmly stated, "Ain't nothin' undignified 'bout grievin', Ezra... it's jus' a natural part of life an' death."
Vin saw Ezra shiver and tugged the blanket up over him. "An' you got no call t' be embarrassed 'bout us seein' ya sufferin'."
JD sat down on the foot of the bed and rested his hand on the gambler's leg. "That's right, Ezra. We're your family, and if you hurt... we hurt. We just want to help ya through this. That's what families do, and it's somethin' you're just gonna have to get used to."
Ezra blushed slightly and gave JD a hesitant smile. "I am tryin', Mr. Dunne, and I want to assure all of you that I do sincerely appreciate everything you do for me. It's just not always easy for me to express it."
Josiah exchanged the wet rag Ezra still held for a cup of water and patted him on the shoulder. "Don't worry, Brother, you're not nearly as hard to read as you used to be, and we can tell us fussin' over you doesn't bother you quite as much as you try to make out."
"Thank you for warnin' me, Mr. Sanchez, I'll have to work harder to restore my poker face or my reputation will suffer, and my career as a gambler will be over." Ezra gave Josiah a small smile as he handed over the now empty cup.
Nathan caught Ezra wincing when he handled the mug and knew his hands were starting to hurt. "I'm gonna go brew up some tea for ya, Ezra." He saw the Southerner's smile falter and quickly added before leaving, "Don't worry, it's jus' for the pain of those cuts."
Ezra sighed in relief. The last thing he wanted at the moment was something that would put him to sleep and risk a return to his nightmare.
Chris had seen the exchange and understood the gambler's reluctance to go back to sleep, and thought it might help him to discuss what he'd dreamed. He at least wanted to let him know they were willing to stay up with him and listen. "Ezra? Would it help if ya talked about it?"
Ezra immediately felt his heart begin to pound at the thought of reliving what he'd just been through and started to shake his head no, but then realized that he would be going over and over it again in his mind anyway. At least this way he wouldn't be alone with his memories.
"It might, but surely you must all be tired--" He tried to offer them an out, but they quickly assured him they could catch some sleep later and were eager to hear what he'd remembered. So as soon as Nathan had returned with his tea, Ezra shakily began recounting what had happened in his nightmare.
He glanced at Vin, and even though his voice was fairly steady when he spoke, the pain of what he was saying was clearly evident in his eyes. "You were correct, Mr. Tanner. Matthew Delacourte did indeed kill my father, but it wasn't really murder. As much as I hate to admit it, his death was an accident." He saw the doubt on their faces and wearily explained, "It was a fight... Father saw Matthew throw me against the barn and attacked him. My father was built like me and... well, you've seen my uncle. He tossed him away like he was nothin', and when he landed... he... his head--" Ezra's voice broke as he again saw his father lying crumpled in the dirt.
Buck slipped an arm around Ezra's shoulders. "Easy, pard... you wanna stop?"
"No, now that I know what happened, I need to face it and deal with it," Ezra took several shaky breaths and began nervously plucking at the covers as he hesitantly continued, "and I'd... I'd rather not do it alone." Tears filled his eyes as the others immediately gathered around him on the bed, surrounding him in a protective ring of brotherhood.
Josiah gave his arm a gentle squeeze. "You never have to worry about doin' anything alone again, Ezra, unless it's what you want."
Ezra struggled to speak around the lump that had suddenly appeared in his throat at Josiah's kind words. "I... thank you, gentlemen. You have no idea how much--"
"Ain't no need t' thank us, pard. Like the kid said, it's jus' what families do for one another... at least this one does." Vin returned Ezra's shy smile of gratitude and then took the pressure off of him by turning the conversation back to the subject of his nightmare. "So they were fightin' over you?"
Ezra nodded. "Basically, yes. Maybe I should start at the beginnin'." He stared down at his hands still toying restlessly with the blanket while the memories of that horrible day once more ran through his mind. "Uncle Matthew was draggin' me across the yard toward the... the whippin' post... shoutin' the whole time about teachin' me a lesson. He was angry because I'd allowed my father to see the bruises from an earlier punishment. I was... pleadin'... with him not to hurt me and tryin' to get away, when the girl came flyin' out of nowhere and tried to stop him." Ezra shook his head as he thought about the courage it must have taken for her to do what she did. "She was just a slip of a thing, definitely no match for that brute, but she didn't let that deter her in any way."
"'Manda?" Buck asked softly.
Ezra shrugged his shoulders and sighed. "I'm assumin' that's who it was, but although she seems familiar, and I do have strong feelin's for her, I just don't know what part she played in my life." A pained expression crossed his face at the thought of not being able to remember someone who had obviously cared so much for him... enough to risk and lose everything to save him. "She fought so hard...."
Nathan watched Ezra carefully and was just about to ask him if he was all right, when he gave himself a little shake and resumed speaking. He managed to describe the events leading up to his father's death and then had to stop again as he struggled once more with his emotions. Nathan waited a few moments before asking if he'd had enough.
Ezra shook his head firmly and blinked away the tears that threatened to fall. "No. I... want to finish." He cleared his throat and finally continued. "Matthew checked to make sure my father was... was... dead... and then grabbed me and tied me to the post. The girl must have been in shock at first, because she just kept starin' at my father's body and shaking. But once my uncle started... started whippin' me, she came out of it and tried again to stop him. She managed to get her hands on the belt, but he just threw her off into the dirt. Then he just seemed to forget about me and... and turned his attentions on... her. He... he... oh God...." Ignoring the pain from his cuts, Ezra gripped Chris's hand as he squeezed his eyes shut against the horrifying image that was burning itself into his mind.
Chris stared worriedly at Ezra... at his pale face twisted with the agony of remembering... at the tears that seeped out from under the dark lashes and trickled slowly down his cheeks... and wished that there was some way they could shoulder some of his burden, but he knew it was impossible. Oh, sure... they stood by him and made sure he wasn't alone, gave a sympathetic touch and comforting words, but Chris knew from experience that they simply could not take away any of his pain. The best they could hopefully do was make it easier for Ezra to bear, and that just didn't seem like enough. It left Chris and the others feeling helpless in the face of the young man's grief.
"Ezra." Chris waited for the gambler to open his eyes. "Why don't you let it go for now... get some rest. We can finish--"
"No! Please, Chris, I need to... to tell you...." Ezra sat up, pulled his hand away from the older man's, and angrily scrubbed away the tears. "I have to end this."
Vin saw Chris and Nathan both start to protest and quickly stepped in in Ezra's defense. "I think ya oughta let 'im finish if it's what he wants. Waitin' till tomorrow t' talk about it ain't gonna make it hurt any less."
Nathan tried reasoning with the obviously exhausted Southerner. "Ezra, you need t' rest. We jus' don't want ya gettin' sick."
"I reckon he knows if he's tired or not." Buck stared understandingly at the others. They all knew what was coming, knew exactly the horrific scene Ezra was about to describe and just didn't want it put into words. Maybe it wouldn't be real, wouldn't have happened if they just didn't have to actually hear those words. Lord knows, Buck didn't want to have to face what that inhuman bastard had done either, but Ezra needed to. And to Buck, that was all that mattered. Besides, he'd noticed something that no one else seemed to have caught... Ezra should have been in the middle of a raging headache by then and wasn't. Buck prayed JD had been right when he'd suggested they come there, and that now Ezra's nightmares would finally stop. He turned to the young gambler and asked softly, "What'd he do to her, pard?"
Ezra nodded thankfully at the two men and then dropped his gaze to his hands as he began describing the final terrifying scene of his nightmare. "She tried to run when he started toward her, but he... he hit her with that damned belt... put everything he had into it and... knocked her off her feet. She couldn't even scream... just lay there starin' up at him when he... when he...." Ezra clenched his fists in the blankets as he struggled to get the words out, and Buck and Vin quickly took his hands and held them still. He never even looked up at them, just wrapped his fingers tightly around theirs as he went on. "He threw himself on her and began... tearin' her... clothes... off. I was screamin' at him to stop... beggin' him not to hurt her, but he just ignored me and... and...." He stopped to take a shaky breath and then pushed on. "I saw him put his hands around her throat and I... closed my eyes. I just couldn't watch... anymore. But I heard everything... I can *still* hear everything. Him gruntin' as he... as he... assaulted... her. Her pitiful cries of pain and... and terror. Her gaspin' for breath while she begged... pleaded with him... to let her go." Ezra's voice was a hoarse, pain-filled whisper as he haltingly finished. "The... noises finally... stopped. The next thing I knew, Matthew was... was next to me... grabbin' my face and makin' me look... shoutin' at me to look at what I'd done. She was just lyin' there... so still and quiet... so broken. Just like my father. He started yellin' that it was my fault they were... dead... all because I didn't... obey... him. That's when he picked up that... damned belt... and... and... finished beatin' me." He raised tortured eyes to his friends, tears streaming down his face, and sobbed out, "It was all my fault. If I hadn't called out... to my... father--"
Buck wrapped his arms around him and held him while he cried.
Josiah stood and laid a gentle hand on Ezra's trembling shoulder as he tried to stop him from blaming himself. "It wouldn't have changed anything, son. You know that in your heart. Everything that happened that day was because of your uncle's pure evilness, not because of anything you did or didn't do." He saw the young Southerner nod and was satisfied that he at least had heard him and would hopefully consider his words. Josiah looked at the rest of the men and motioned toward the door. "I think our brother's ready for that rest now. Why don't we leave and try to get some more sleep ourselves."
The others all took their turn giving Ezra a reassuring touch and, like Josiah and Buck, insisted that he in no way was at fault, and then quietly filed out and left the two men alone.
Ezra's weeping gradually slowed, and it wasn't long before Buck felt him go limp in his arms as he drifted off into an exhausted slumber. He eased the smaller man back against the pillows and covered him up. Then, after draping a blanket over the broken window to keep out the night air, settled himself in the chair and, despite his determination to keep watch over the gambler, dozed off for a couple of hours of restless sleep... his dreams haunted by the same images that had tortured Ezra for over twenty years.
Matthew Delacourte made a few minor adjustments, and then stood and wiped the dirt off his hands before lifting the lantern overhead to illuminate his work. It had taken him most of the night to get everything ready, but he knew it was going to be worth it when he saw the expression on his young nephew's face.
"Perfect. Now as soon as the final guest arrives, we'll be ready for Ezra's surprise. I certainly hope he appreciates all the work I've gone to for his welcome home party."
Buck awoke shortly after dawn, and seeing Ezra still contentedly curled up under the covers asleep, decided to wander down to the kitchen and get the morning pot of coffee started. He knew the minute he headed down the stairs that Abigail had beaten him to the punch.
"Miz Abigail, you are a woman after my own heart." Buck swept into the kitchen, poured himself a mug of the strong brew, and planted a large, warm kiss on the smiling woman's rosy cheek.
Abigail blushed and gently pushed him into a chair. "Land sakes, if just a cup of coffee is enough to bring on a greetin' like that, I'm almost afraid to see what'll happen when I set breakfast on the table."
"Why, ma'am... that'll definitely get you a marriage proposal." Buck grinned and gave her a wink as he took another sip from his mug.
Abigail laughed and started to tell him she'd gladly accept, when the door opened and JD wandered sleepily into the kitchen. Yawning widely, he let her steer him into a chair and gratefully mumbled a thank you when she placed a steaming cup of coffee in front of him.
Buck chuckled and gave him a light cuff on the shoulder as he sat down. "Lookin' a mite rough this mornin', JD."
JD stared down into his coffee for a moment and then turned his sad eyes on the older man. "I didn't sleep much. I kept thinkin' about that poor girl an' what happened to Ezra."
Buck's smile faded. "I know, kid... I've got a feelin' we all had that problem last night." His words were proven true as one by one the others slowly made their way down to the kitchen, each of them looking just as worn out as JD did. Soon, everyone but Ezra was gathered around the table downing cup after cup of Abigail's coffee in an attempt to drive away the troubled images that Ezra's horrifying tale had planted in their minds.
Nathan glanced over his mug at Buck and asked, "Ezra doin' okay?"
Buck nodded reassuringly at the worried healer. "Sleepin' like a baby when I came down." He looked around at the others and grinned. "Any one notice anything different about him last night?"
They all thought carefully before shaking their heads and asking what he meant.
"No headache... and considerin' how bad that nightmare was, he should've had a helluva one." Buck's grin widened when he saw them come to the same hopeful conclusion he had.
"You think maybe those damned dreams've gone away now he's finally remembered what they were about?" Chris looked to Nathan for confirmation and was pleased to see the dark healer slowly nodding his head.
"Won't be able t' really say for certain till he's gone awhile without 'em, but him not gettin' a headache last night is sure a good sign," Nathan replied, and then turned to Buck. "Did Ezra seem t' notice?"
Buck shook his head as he helped himself to another cup of coffee. "I doubt it. He fell asleep shortly after you all left."
"Well, it might be best if we don't mention it unless he does. Pointin' out that it all might be over could jus' get 'im worryin' 'bout it, an' thinkin' on somethin' like that can make it worse instead of better," Nathan saw them nod in agreement and continued, "but from the way it looks now, I think JD's idea just might've worked."
JD's face lit up at the pride he saw in his friends' faces when they looked at him, and it thankfully pushed the horrible images of that poor girl to the back of his mind.
The air of despondency that had enveloped the group since they'd heard the remaining details of Ezra's nightmare finally lifted and was replaced with a grim determination to find a way to make Matthew Delacourte pay for what he'd done.
When Ezra entered the kitchen a short while later, it was to the welcome sight of his friends' smiling faces, and Abigail preparing a breakfast big enough to feed a small army.
"It's about time you got yourself down here, young man. I was about ready to send one of the others up to drag you out of that bed," Abigail said when she saw him walk in.
Ezra joined the others at the table and poured himself a cup of coffee, and then nearly choked on his first sip when he looked up and saw the six rather evil grins aimed his way. He quickly realized it would have been quite a rude awakening if one of his *loving* brothers had been sent to retrieve him. "Must have been my innate talent for self-preservation that brought me out of my--" He was interrupted by a light knock on the door.
Everyone was startled by the thud of Ezra's mug when it hit the table, sloshing hot coffee out onto the gambler's hand as he stared in astonishment at the person who had entered the kitchen.
Looking up curiously, the others saw that their visitor was a small elderly black woman carrying a large basket of eggs in her arms. She gave the group of men gathered around the table the briefest of glances, and then turned to speak to Abigail as she gratefully set her burden down on the counter.
The men turned their attention back to Ezra as he slowly rose out of his chair, absent-mindedly wiping his wet hand on his leg as he whispered, "Belle?"
The woman's head shot around when she heard her name, and her wrinkled face lit up as she stared at the young man with the familiar green eyes who was quickly making his way around the table toward her. "Ezra? Child... is that really you?"
Everyone watched in amazement as Ezra swooped her off her feet into a huge bear hug and smilingly swung her around in a circle before depositing her beside him and kissing her affectionately on the cheek. He kept his arms around her as she tearfully reached up and cupped his face in her shaking hands, and then he grinned at her and whispered, "Did you miss me, darlin'?"
Belle shook her head and pulled him down into a tight hug as her tears flowed harder. "Oh Lord, sweetpea, you have no idea jus' how much I missed you... how much I been worryin' 'bout you."
Chris saw Vin and Buck exchange grins and mouth, 'sweet pea?' and knew that Ezra was going to be a long time living this one down.
Ezra returned her hug and had to blink back his own tears as he straightened and turned to introduce her to his friends. "Gentlemen, I'd like you to meet the person who was solely responsible for me survivin' that nightmare."
Belle looked quizzically up at Ezra, but waited until after she'd been warmly greeted and thanked by each of the six men before asking what he'd meant.
The others made room for her at the table, and after Ezra had her settled next to him, he haltingly explained everything that had been happening in his life... about his nightmares and the resultant headaches, his newly discovered relationship with David and Katherine Standish... and what exactly had happened the day of the whipping. Belle was stunned by all she learned, but sat quietly as Ezra talked, tenderly taking him in her arms and rocking him when the memories became too painful for him to continue. As she soothed him with her adamant demands that he wasn't to be blaming himself, his friends took over and finished the tale for him.
Belle watched the men carefully while they talked, and her heart was comforted with the realization that Ezra had finally found the family he'd been deprived of his whole life. After seeing the compassionate looks and touches they gave him, and hearing the lengths they'd gone to to help him, she knew she could quit worrying about her boy... these men would do everything they could to keep him safe... even risk their own lives.
The ex-slave nodded when they reached the part about the young girl and then sadly filled in that last missing piece of the puzzle. Amanda. She'd been a young fourteen year old slave who had been allowed to help out in the kitchen because Ezra's uncle had taken a liking to her and wanted her handy for whenever he felt a need for her *services.* She'd felt sorry for the lonely little boy and had taken him under her wing... helping with his chores as much as she could and climbing up the tree outside his window to sneak him food and to keep him company when he was locked away during Delacourte's absences. Belle told them that the Master had explained her disappearance by saying she'd tried to interfere in Ezra's punishment and had been immediately sold away to another plantation. "The whippin' post was down behind the barn outta sight of the big house an' the fields, so we never saw what really happened. Onliest thing we knew was that Ezra'd been whipped... whipped bad. Didn't even know it was gonna happen till Master carried his limp, bloodied body into the house an' handed 'im t' me... tol' me t' take care of 'im an' make sure he didn't die, or I'd get the same punishment he did. As if a threat of a beatin' could hurt me more than seein' what he'd done t' my sweetpea."
Belle hugged Ezra tighter, gently stroking her small hands over his back as if reassuring herself that he was really okay. "We 'most lost 'im when the 'fection set in. He burned so hot with the fever for so long that we thought for sure he weren't gonna make it, but it finally broke an' he slowly started gettin' better. He never could tell us what happened... why he was beat. That fever messed his memory up somethin' awful. We knew it was bad though since Master was most always careful t' not draw no blood when he whipped Ezra... didn't want no one t' know what he was doin'. Soon's his back healed up, his mama was sent for an' she come an' took 'im away. Never saw 'im again till he come back for a short spell when he was 'round twenty or so."
Ezra pulled away and shook his head warningly at the old woman. "Belle... don't--"
But Belle wasn't about to be put off and shushed him with a light slap on the arm. "After all that time, he jus' showed up here one day with a pocketful of money an' handed it over t' me. Tol' me t' buy my own place. Me an' my husband, Joseph, was workin' for the local banker at the time, an' he said he didn't want us slavin' for no one no more. I tol' 'im I couldn't take his money, but he said if it weren't for me, he never would've survived what his uncle put 'im through. Said I was more of a mother to 'im than his own mama ever thought of bein', an' he needed t' do somethin' for me t' thank me." She turned to Ezra and gently took his hand. "Well, I argued some, but then I could see I'se jus' gonna hurt my boy if I turned 'im down, so I let 'im do what he felt he had t'. He bought us a little farm down on the river, an' soon's we was settled, he left, an' I never saw 'im again till today."
Ezra looked up and sighed when he saw the expression on Nathan's face. "Unruffle your moralistic feathers, Mr. Jackson, I came by the money honestly. Mother's third... or was it fourth... husband had passed on and, amazing as it may seem, he actually had a bit of a soft spot for me and left me a tidy sum of money. It was enough to purchase the farm and still allow me to finally make the break from Mother that I'd waited so long for."
Nathan blushed and immediately regretted what he'd been thinking. "I'm sorry, Ezra. I shoulda knowed--"
But Ezra shook his head and stopped him. "No need to apologize, Mr. Jackson. It was a natural assumption given my rather checkered past, but I can assure you, I would never have dishonored this beautiful soul by offerin' her tainted money." Ezra put his arm around Belle's shoulders and grinned down at her. "Besides, she would have tanned my hide if I had even attempted it."
Vin scowled at Nathan and then turned to Ezra. "How come ya never suggested talkin' t' Belle when we was tryin' t' figger out what happened in your dreams?"
Ezra shook his head and pulled Belle protectively against him. "For the exact same reason I stayed away all these years... for her safety. I couldn't risk puttin' her in danger by lettin' Uncle Matthew see her associatin' with me. He'd jump at the chance to go after her and Joseph, and I would rather have lived the rest of my life with those nightmares than to bring harm to them in any way."
Nathan stared at Ezra with a new respect in his eyes, and then shifted his gaze to the diminutive woman who sat staring proudly up at the handsome gambler. "Ma'am? I'm jus' curious... why didn't ya take that money Ezra gave ya an' buy a place somewhere up north... somewhere safer."
Belle stared at him in surprise. "Because this is my home."
Nathan shook his head in confusion. "But you were free t' go anywhere ya wanted. Ya coulda got away from here. Away from Delacourte... away from... everything."
"Runnin' away ain't bein' free... it's still bein' his slave an' doin' jus' what he wants me to. 'Sides, ya cain't outrun your memories... they's always gonna be with ya. But bein' free means ya don't have t' live 'em no more... ya can put 'em in the past where they belong." Belle watched Nathan's face as he realized she was talking about him, too, not just herself, and saw understanding appear in his eyes as the truth of her words hit home.
Ezra looked at Nathan and then hugged Belle gratefully when he realized that she may have just helped his friend lay his demons to rest.
The next hour was spent talking, with Belle giving them what little information she had about Delacourte, including the fact that he'd put his wife in a mental asylum after a failed suicide attempt, and that his children, who had fought the decision, had moved away as soon as they were old enough and refused to have any further contact with their father.
Abigail had quietly continued with her cooking while the others talked, and though her heart ached to discover just how horrible Ezra's childhood had been, she was pleased to see the healing effect of Belle's presence on him... and apparently on his friend, Mr. Jackson.
Sensing the conversation was coming to an end, Abigail approached the table with the first of several platters of food and a fresh pot of coffee. "Anyone hungry?"
The response was immediate, and she was quickly relieved of her burden and ordered to sit as the men hurried to lay out the small feast. Belle refused their offer to join them, announcing that she'd already eaten and really needed to get back before her husband started to worry about her, and so Ezra reluctantly escorted her out to her buggy.
After a rather tearful goodbye on both their parts, Ezra stood and waited until Belle had ridden out of sight, and then turned and slowly made his way back into the house. Knowing they were probably being watched, concern for her safety was now added to that which he already felt for his friends.
Ezra went back into the kitchen and rejoined the others. Before he had even settled in his chair, Nathan had a plateful of food ready for him, and Abigail had refilled his mug with fresh coffee. With a smiling thank you to their hostess and an exasperated frown at the overzealous healer, Ezra began eating.
At first, his thoughts were still on Belle, but after a few minutes, he gradually became aware of the discussion his companions were having... how to take Matthew Delacourte down. Ezra felt a stab of fear as he realized they were about to put themselves in danger for him again, but as his gaze slowly wandered from one of his friends to the next, observing all their various injuries, the fear began to recede, and he got angry instead. Angry at the feeling of helplessness that had consumed him since his nightmares had taken over his life, angry at himself for sitting back and letting the others risk their lives trying to protect him, but most of all, he was angry that Matthew had stolen one family from him and was now trying to destroy another. Well, this time the son of a bitch wasn't going to succeed. Chris had been right. Once he was ready... once the dark terror of his nightmares had been brought out into the daylight and exposed... the confusion and fear had washed away and was being replaced by resentment and anger. More than anything, Ezra wanted to see his uncle pay for what he'd done, but he refused to allow his friends to come to any more harm because of him.
Vin, who was sitting next to Ezra, was the only one who heard him speak. "Ezra? What'd you say?"
The others all ceased talking and turned to the gambler.
"I said stop. I've had enough. Too much of my life's been wasted because of that bastard, and now that we've solved the mystery of my nightmares, I... I just want to go home." Ezra saw them all staring incredulously at him and quickly ducked his head, unsure of how well he'd be able to hide his true feelings from them now. Buck had gotten fairly proficient at reading him, and Ezra was afraid he'd see through the lie.
JD recovered first. "You're kidding... right, Ezra? You don't really want to let your uncle get away with what he did, do ya?"
Ezra risked a quick look at the younger man and then dropped his head again as he toyed with the food on his plate. "Of course, I'd prefer to see that vile bastard brought to justice, Mr. Dunne, but I'm simply bein' realistic... there is no possible way that that is goin' to happen. And I absolutely refuse to allow y'all to put yourselves in danger again or to risk goin' to prison for me."
Vin shook his head at his southern friend. "There's gotta be some way t'--"
Ezra's head shot up, his expression clearly revealing all the anger and frustration he was feeling. "Even if we somehow managed to have him arrested, what judge or jury in their right minds would convict a respected, long-time member of the community on the tangled, twenty-three year old memories of an itinerant gambler and con man?!"
Josiah reached across the table and placed a calming, supportive hand over Ezra's. "*Reformed* gambler and con man. That's a very important distinction you're leaving out."
Ezra jerked his hand away and uttered a short, humorless laugh. "Oh, I'm sure that would just make all the difference in the world to a jury of Uncle Matthew's peers." He closed his eyes and took a few steadying breaths, and then apologized to Abigail and the others for his ungentlemanly outburst.
Carefully setting his fork down on the table, Ezra took his napkin, delicately wiped his mouth, and then pushed his chair back and stood up. "I want you all to understand that I truly do appreciate everything you've done to give me my life back. You'll never know how much your... caring... and support mean to me, but now you've got to let me take control again, let me make my own decisions. And I feel that the slim chance we have of seein' my uncle pay for his crimes is not worth the risk of further harm comin' to any of you."
Chris stared at the younger man for a moment and then finally nodded. "You're right, it should be your decision. If you say it's over... it's over." He saw the disbelief on the faces of the others and ignored it. "When do you want to leave?"
Ezra felt Buck's eyes on him and knew that his friend was attempting to see past the mask of indifference that he was struggling to keep in place. "Thank you, Chris... as soon as possible. I'm goin' to Katharine's to tell her what I... what I remembered about our father's death and to inform her of our plans to return home, but then I'd like us to catch the first available train, if we could."
"Whatever you want." Chris cut off the round of protests from the others with a silencing glare and then turned his attention back to the gambler as he walked toward the door. "You want someone to ride along with ya, Ezra?"
"No!" Ezra winced at the curious looks his quick denial garnered him and mentally kicked himself for letting his control slip. His tone turned defensive in an effort to deter any further questions. "I can assure you, Mr. Larabee, I am in no need of a guard dog. I realize I haven't exactly been doin' an impressive job of it lately, but I *am* quite capable of takin' care of myself."
JD shot a bewildered look around the table as the door banged shut behind Ezra, and asked, "What the heck was that all about?"
Chris glanced at Buck and nodded when he saw him already headed toward the door. "That was our out-of-practice con man tryin' to protect us."
"Good Lord, Standish, you've become an embarrassment to your profession. Anyone could have seen through that amateurish ruse," Ezra muttered as he quickly saddled his horse. He knew it was only a matter of time before the others realized what he was doing and came after him, and he was hoping to get to his uncle before they did.
Footsteps sounded in the doorway, and Ezra wearily pressed his forehead against Rebel's neck. <<My performance must have been worse than I thought.>> But just as quickly as that thought entered his mind, it was brushed aside by the realization that it wasn't really a faulty performance that had given him away, it was the fact that his friends had simply gotten close enough to him now to be able to see through his half-hearted attempts at conning them. He just hoped that when he truly needed them, his talents as a con artist would still be as sharp as ever.
Ezra didn't have to turn around to know that it was Buck walking slowly toward him. "I thought I made it quite clear that I didn't need or want anyone to accompany me, Mr. Wilmington."
Buck silently continued on into Babe's stall and began saddling him. Feeling Ezra's eyes on him, he glanced over at the gambler and shivered when he saw the angry glare that was aimed his way. <<Damn... that boy's almost as good at that as Chris is.>>
"Now, pard, ya don't wanna leave me cooped up here with that miserable bunch, do ya? Have a heart... ya know how they all get when they're hurt an' got Nathan fussin' over 'em, an' now they got Miz Abigail, too. I can just hear ol' Nathan when she starts tryin' to order him to take it easy right along with the rest of 'em." He grinned at Ezra as he followed him out of the barn, trying his best to lighten the mood and avoid the argument he knew was coming. But Ezra was having none of it.
"As kind as the dear woman has been to us, she certainly doesn't deserve to be put through that ordeal alone, so I suggest you go back inside and gallantly offer her your assistance in dealin' with our wounded members." And with that, Ezra gave the older man a curt nod and turned to mount his horse.
But Buck wasn't about to be deterred. "Now you know me, Ezra, always ready an' willin' to help out a lady, but darned if Miz Abigail didn't just shove me toward the door when I offered my help an' told me she had everything in hand, then suggested I keep you company instead." He had to stifle a laugh when he heard Ezra heave a frustrated sigh and saw his shoulders slump in defeat. Slapping the gambler on the back as he rode past him and grinning at the irritated look he was given in return, Buck cheerfully urged Ezra to hurry. "Come on, pard, maybe if we're lucky, Miz Margaret'll invite us to stay for dinner again. I don't know 'bout you, but I sure could go for some more of them chicken an' dumplin's she fed us yesterday. I swear though, much more of this good southern cookin', an' I'm gonna lose my boyish figure."
Realizing there was no way he was going after his uncle now without involving Buck... something he absolutely refused to do... Ezra conceded temporary defeat and resignedly followed the other man out of the yard. But he promised himself it was only a postponement of the confrontation he was determined to have with Matthew Delacourte, and ignoring Buck's persistent attempts to draw him into a conversation, Ezra began plotting his escape from his protectors.
Neither of them noticed the men standing back in the trees who silently watched as they rode away.
Vin waited until he saw Buck and Ezra leave together, and then turned and frowned at Chris. "Ya sure it's a good idea lettin' them two go off on their own?"
Chris nodded and then winced as he was painfully reminded that it was only yesterday that he'd been shot, and that he was far from recovered. "They'll be fine. Buck ain't about to let Ezra do anything foolish, an' besides, he's the only one of us in any shape to keep up with 'im if he was to try somethin'."
"I reckon you're right." Vin cast one last worried look out the window and then reluctantly limped back to join the others. He knew Chris's reasoning was sound, but the older man's reassurances hadn't done anything to ease the sense of dread that he'd felt as he watched his two friends ride away.
Chris sipped his coffee while carefully studying the tracker's face. He knew Vin was having one of his feelin's again and hoped just this once, he was wrong. Shrugging off the possibility that Vin was right, Chris reminded himself that Buck and Ezra were grown men and could take care of themselves... and maybe if he kept telling himself that, he'd actually believe it.
Buck was still rambling on a half hour later, needing to break the uncomfortable silence that lingered between he and Ezra, when he glanced around and noticed that the gambler had stopped and was staring down a wide, well-worn path that led off to his right. Turning Babe around, he moved back to Ezra's side and looked to see what the smaller man was staring at. Buck caught a glimpse of a picket fence and weathered headstones through the trees and understood the air of sadness that was emanating from Ezra.
"Is that where he's buried?" Buck asked softly, and then placed a comforting hand on his companion's shoulder when he saw him nod slowly. "Why don't ya go an' pay your respects 'fore we go on to Katherine's? Might make ya feel better."
Ezra hesitated, and then turned to smile shyly at the older man. "I think I'd like that. Do you mind if I...."
"Ya wanna go by yourself?" Seeing him nod again, Buck reached over and took Rebel's reins out of his hands and gestured toward a grassy stretch of bank sloping down to the stream that wound alongside the road. "I'll take the horses an' water 'em. You just take all the time ya need, okay?"
Ezra dismounted and staring back up at Buck's smiling face, felt a pang of remorse for the way he'd been treating his gentle friend. "I'm sorry, Buck... I didn't mean to--"
Buck just waved his hand dismissively and shrugged his shoulders. "Don't be apologizin', pard. I know how hard all this has been on ya. Just go spend some time with your pa, an' then we'll talk about how we're *all* gonna handle your uncle."
Ezra started to protest the 'all' part of that last statement, but Buck just grinned and turned his back on him as he guided the horses down toward the water.
Ezra walked slowly along the path, his boots sending up little puffs of dirt with every reluctant step. He squinted up at the bright rays of sun filtering through the branches overhead and ran his arm across his brow to wipe away the annoying trickle of sweat that was wending its way down into his eyes. It was still early morning, and already the heat and humidity were heavy and draining, making Ezra wish he'd decided to forego propriety and leave his jacket back in his room. Stopping just inside the cemetery gates, Ezra stared sadly around at the large collection of headstones. Katherine had told him this was where their father was buried, but she hadn't mentioned exactly where. In a far corner of the burial plot, he saw a freshly dug grave apparently awaiting the arrival of the most recent unfortunate resident of Shelby to have passed on. Ezra shuddered and turned away from the depressing sight and began wandering slowly through the rest of the cemetery, searching disconsolately for his father's final resting place.
Nearly an hour later, Ezra was still looking. Leaning wearily against the white-washed fence next to where his discarded jacket hung, he let his gaze travel over the small section of gravestones that he hadn't inspected yet. He tried to ignore the gaping hole with its mound of dark, rich soil piled beside it, but his eyes kept drifting back there, and an uneasy feeling began to make itself known in the pit of his stomach. Fishing his flask out of his coat pocket, he took a quick fortifying sip and then began to walk slowly toward the open grave. Peering cautiously over the edge, Ezra stumbled back in shock at the sight of a casket, its splintered top lying propped against the wall of dirt... its only contents a few scraps of tattered clothing, a pair of ragged men's boots, and a scattering of small bones.
Ezra's heart pounded painfully in his chest, and he fought against the faintness that threatened to topple him into the empty casket as he slowly raised his eyes to the headstone that marked the desecrated grave.
'David Lawrence Standish'
Somehow he'd known in his heart that it was his father's grave, but seeing the proof standing before him drove Ezra to his knees, hands clutching weakly at the dirt as he stared back down at what remained of his father.
Ezra gazed bewilderedly around the cemetery, searching for any other evidence of vandalism that he might not have noticed before, but there was nothing. This was the only grave that had been disturbed.
Tears of grief gathered in his jade green eyes and slowly trickled down his cheeks as he tried to comprehend what had happened. Why, in God's name, would anyone want to steal his father's remains? Who would be so cruel and--
Ezra shook his head and whispered a horrified "no", not wanting to believe his uncle, as bad as he was, could commit such a loathsome act. But even as he tried to deny it, every instinct he had was screaming 'yes!', and Ezra soon found himself being consumed by a blinding rage with the knowledge that even death couldn't protect his family from his uncle's evil touch.
Struggling to his feet, Ezra reached out and ran his trembling fingers over the engraved letters of his father's name. "He's goin' to pay for this, Father. I promise you... I will make him pay."
Buck turned to watch Ezra as he slowly made his way toward the cemetery and then, with a soft sigh and a sad shake of his head, continued on to the creek. He'd give the Southerner a few minutes, and then go check up on him. The lanky gunfighter was afraid Ezra would try to sneak off without him in a misguided attempt to keep him safe.
Buck was proud as hell of Ezra for having the courage to face his uncle and for wanting to protect his brothers, but he'd be damned if he'd actually let him go through it alone. He was afraid Ezra just wasn't emotionally strong enough yet to withstand a confrontation with Delacourte, and he was determined to make sure he was there to watch the young gambler's back. Ideally, he'd like to convince him to return to the boardinghouse and get the others, but he knew Ezra would never agree to it.
While the horses drank from the gently flowing stream, Buck removed his hat and splashed some of the cool water up over his head to get some relief from the stifling heat. Hearing soft footsteps coming up behind him, he swiped a hand through his damp hair and stood.
"That was qui--" he began as he turned, but his words were cut off as the first blow of a poorly aimed rifle stock glanced off the side of his head, dropping him in a boneless heap at the water's edge. Buck looked up at the grinning men who now surrounded him and cursed himself for being so careless as he helplessly watched the next blow fall and felt his world explode in a blaze of white hot pain.
Ezra pulled on his jacket as he hurried back down the path to where Buck waited with the horses. He paused a moment before entering the clearing, carefully erasing the last traces of anger from his face. Ezra knew that if Buck found out what had happened to his father's grave, he wouldn't stand a chance in hell of getting away from him.
Forcing his lips into a semblance of a smile, Ezra stepped into the open. "Buck? I'm ready to--" He stopped and stared confusedly around him. The clearing was empty except for Rebel, who after glancing curiously up at his master, went back to nibbling placidly on the grass at his feet.
Ezra slipped his gun out of its holster as his eyes carefully scanned the area for any signs of trouble. He knew Buck wouldn't have voluntarily left him... something had to have happened.
"Buck?" Ezra called softly, knowing instinctively there would be no answer. His gaze was again drawn to his horse as Rebel, responding to his master's nervousness, whinnied and restlessly tossed his head. He swore softly as he finally spotted the small pile of Buck's belongings lying near the base of the tree the horse was tethered to.
Keeping one eye on the surrounding woods, Ezra quickly moved forward. His heart dropped when he looked down and saw Buck's guns lying beneath his hat. Ezra forgot about any danger to himself as he worriedly considered what it would have taken to force Buck to give up his weapons.
Ezra knelt down and gently lifted Buck's hat, grimacing at the sight of the familiar blue bandanna, now marred with dark, red stains, that had been used to secure a folded sheet of paper to the barrel of the gunfighter's rifle. Ezra slid his own gun back into its holster and with shaking hands, retrieved the note. His fingers clenched spasmodically around the edges of the paper when he saw what was written on the outside... "Missing something?"
Ezra's eyes hardened and his anger began to build again as he opened the note and continued to read.
Mr. Wilmington has graciously consented to attend a little gathering I'm having in your honor. I'll do my best to keep him entertained until you arrive, but I would suggest you hurry since I imagine he will grow weary of my company rather quickly. The festivities are being held where you and I spent some of our most memorable moments together... I'm sure you remember the location well. Dress is informal... shirt, trousers, and boots will be sufficient... so please leave the rest of your 'ensemble' behind.
One other thing... this is a private party, invitation only, so come alone. You are being watched, and any attempt to contact the rest of your little group will result in a most unfortunate accident for Mr. Wilmington.
Your loving uncle,
Matthew James Delacourte"
"Damn it!!" Ezra cursed as he angrily crumpled the paper, wishing it was his uncle's neck that he held between his trembling hands rather than this message with its cleverly veiled threats. Tossing it down in disgust, he stood and slowly began, as per his uncle's instructions, divesting himself of his coat, vest, and guns.
After one last worried look at the blood-spattered bandanna, Ezra took Rebel's reins and led him back up onto the road. Going for help was out of the question since, even though he had yet to spot anyone, Ezra had no doubt that his uncle had been serious and that he *was* being watched.
Ezra contemplated his only other options as he mounted his horse. On the one hand, it would be shorter if he cut through the woods, but even though he knew the general direction to take, there was still a very good possibility that he'd get lost trying to find his uncle's place. On the other hand, taking the known route, the one Vin and Chris had used yesterday, would involve riding most of the way to Katherine's before connecting to the road that angled back toward the plantation... leaving Buck at Matthew's mercy that much longer. Sighing in resignation, Ezra decided that it wasn't worth the risk of him losing his way just to save a little time.
Once his decision was made, Ezra turned Rebel toward Katherine's and urged him into a gallop, his mind now focused on one thing and one thing only... getting to Buck.
Buck's gradual return to consciousness went thankfully unnoticed by Delacourte as he prepared his men for his nephew's imminent arrival. Easing his eyes open a crack, Buck saw that he was being ignored for the time being and struggled through the fog that still clouded his mind to try and figure out just how bad his situation was. It only took a moment for him to realize that he was in some serious trouble.
His most immediate problem was the unrelenting pounding in his head from the two hits he'd taken back at the clearing which was making it extremely hard for him to concentrate. His second was the burning and throbbing ache that radiated from his wrists down to his shoulders, and after a quick, painful inspection, Buck understood what was causing it. The rope that bound his hands together had been looped over a large hook used to hoist bales of hay into the loft, and he now hung suspended with his feet just barely touching the ground, forcing his arms to bear most of his weight. Noticing he'd been stripped down to his boots and pants, Buck glanced carefully around him, searching for his things. He finally spotted some of his clothing lying on the ground off to his left, but his guns were no where to be seen. After a cautious look at Delacourte, he continued his search and felt his stomach twist when he looked behind him and saw what was coiled just inside the barn door... two long, thick bullwhips. His back twitched uncontrollably as he now understood the probable reason for his being shirtless.
Buck kept a bleary eye on Delacourte and his men as he carefully tugged at the bindings on his wrists in an attempt to free himself, but his movements merely intensified the pain in his arms and started an uncomfortable churning in his stomach. Concussion... terrific... just what he needed. Closing his eyes and taking a few deep breaths, he successfully fought off the nausea, but his soft gasps unfortunately let the others know he was awake.
Ezra's concentration had been on the road as he and Rebel sped through the woods, but some inner urge made him suddenly look up, and he caught his first glimpse of the plantation. His fingers involuntarily tightened on the reins, and Rebel's breakneck pace faltered and then slowed as he sensed his master's nervousness.
At first, all Ezra could see were flashes of white and gray, but then the trees opened up and there it was in all it's terrifying glory... the *big house* as Belle and the other slaves had called it... his uncle's mansion. The young gambler felt a deep sadness settle in his heart as his eyes found and locked onto a small window on the second floor... his prison for the horrible months he'd spent in his uncle's custody.
A few yards further down the road, and the rest of his nightmare came into view. Ezra pulled Rebel to a complete stop and just sat and stared at the familiar gray barn. All he could see was the front corner of the building, but it was enough to start his heart pounding in his chest as all the torments that he'd had to endure there began crowding into his mind. Ezra found himself gasping for breath as he tried to control the panic that threatened to steal away his newly reawakened courage and send him riding back the way he'd come.
Ezra clung to the saddle, his eyes squeezed shut, his body hunched forward, as the pain of his memories swept through him. The whippings, the brutal beatings where he'd been slapped and kicked from one end of the barn to the other, the forced isolation when he'd been left tied to a stake in the yard... no food, no water, no shade from the scorching summer sun... abandoned until his uncle decided he'd learned his lesson. Cruel punishments for some imagined infraction of the rules... complicated and constantly changing rules that his young mind was simply incapable of understanding.
Ezra moaned softly as he struggled to fight his way through the fear. "Oh Lord, I can't do this... I can't face all that again." But then just as quickly as the memories had come, they were swept away by a terrifying vision of what Buck might be suffering at the hands of his uncle. The blood on his bandanna... had it been from a head wound? Had he been shot... or stabbed? Was he being beaten or whipped as Ezra himself had been time and time again?
Ezra's eyes snapped open and a shudder rippled down his spine as he realized what he was in danger of losing by giving in to the fear... Buck, who if their roles were reversed, would move heaven and earth to protect him, to keep him safe. Could he do any less?
Rebel shifted uneasily as he felt the tremor that shook his owner, but quickly settled back down as he felt the steadying calm that soon followed it. Ezra straightened in the saddle... a hard glint appearing in his cool green eyes as his worry for Buck pushed aside the debilitating fear and renewed his determination to do whatever it took to stop his uncle.
Ezra took a moment to center himself and put his game face on, and then with a couple of reassuring pats to Rebel's neck, nudged the horse into a gentle canter and continued on down the road. It was time to see exactly what manner of *festivities* his dear old Uncle Matthew had planned for him.
"Well, well... it's about time you joined us. I was beginnin' to think you were goin' to miss out on Ezra's little celebration." Matthew laughed at the angry glare his comment elicited from his captive. "Oh, come now, Mr. Wilmington, surely you can't begrudge me some quality time with my nephew. As I'm sure you must know by now, he and I have some unfinished business we need to take care of," he turned and gestured around them, "and what better place for it to happen than right here where he spent so much of his childhood."
Buck felt his heart constrict at even the thought of this piece of filth getting his hands on Ezra again, especially since he was obviously being used to draw him here. Struggling helplessly against his bindings, the furious gunfighter shouted at the smug Southerner, "You bastard!! Haven't you done enough to ruin his life?! He's your nephew, for God's sake... your own flesh an' blood!! Don't that mean nothin' to you?!" He suddenly kicked out at Delacourte in frustration, but the older man merely stepped away from the flailing feet and motioned for his men to move in and take control of their prisoner.
Buck tried to fight back, but was quickly subdued by a couple of well-placed punches that left him breathless and once more fighting the urge to be sick. His world spun around him as he tried to focus on what Delacourte was saying.
"I would suggest you watch your tongue, Mr. Wilmington. There's no reason this party can't go on without you." The Southerner's voice was tight with anger... his patience rapidly leaving him. He nodded once, and Buck received a vicious back-handed slap that knocked him off balance and left him swaying dazedly from the end of the rope.
It took several moments, but Buck was finally able to get his feet back under him and take some of the pressure off his aching arms and shoulders. His hate-filled eyes never wavered from Delacourte's as he bent his head slightly to rub his mouth against his bare shoulder, leaving a bright red streak of blood on the tanned skin. Before he could respond to the other man's threat, a shrill whistle broke the tense silence. Buck shifted his gaze away and stared out across the yard. Matthew smiled at the look of anguish that appeared on Buck's face and turned to watch the horse and rider making their way along the path that led from the edge of he woods to the barn. "Ah... at last... our guest of honor has arrived."
Vin sat on the veranda steps, back against the railing, his injured leg stretched out in front of him, and his hat tipped forward to shield his face from the brilliant late afternoon sun. His piercing blue eyes never left the road leading away from the house as he anxiously watched for their two absent brothers to return. The uneasiness he'd felt when Buck and Ezra had left was still nagging at him and had driven him out of the house, away from the concerned glances and nervous jokes about him turning into more of a mother hen than Buck and Nathan.
The tracker knew the others were just as worried as he was, and he also knew that Chris was about a heartbeat away from telling them to saddle up. The only thing stopping him was Ezra's obvious need for some breathing room... for some time away from the family's protective embrace. They'd all felt that particular urge to back away at one time or another, and after everything the gambler had been through recently, it was no wonder he was experiencing it now.
They were all glad to see him pulling himself out of the depression his nightmares had caused and reclaiming some of his independence again, and they were more than ready to give him the space he needed to do that, but not at the risk of his safety. There was no way in hell they were going to willingly let him go up against his uncle on his own.
Vin was shaken out of his reverie by the sound of a rider rapidly approaching the house from the direction Buck and Ezra had taken. The sense of dread he'd been battling against all afternoon tripled when he saw Katherine Standish ride into the yard, disheveled and frantic looking. Vin took a moment to alert Chris and the others to her arrival and then hurried to help her off her horse.
As soon as her feet touched the ground, Katherine tried to pull away from Vin. "Let me go! I have to talk to Ezra... it's about our father...." She caught the worried look the tracker shot at his friends as they joined them and felt a prickle of fear rush up her spine. "He's here, isn't he? Somethin' hasn't happened to him?!"
Nathan put a gentle hand on her shoulder and tried to calm her down while at the same time discreetly checking for any injuries. "Easy, ma'am... far as we know, Ezra's jus' fine. Let's jus' worry 'bout you for right now... you been hurt?"
"I'm fine! Will you just let me see--" She was finally able to wrest herself out of Vin's grip and staggered back away from the men, staring in confusion as Nathan's words penetrated her panic. "As far as you know? I don't understand... where's Ezra? He said yesterday that he'd be here... it's important that I see him!"
"He an' Buck didn't show up at your place this mornin'?" Chris knew the answer before he even asked the question. Damn it! He knew they should have gone after them!
"No, that's why I was on my way here... I needed to talk to him again. I wanted to find out if he'd remembered any more about what had happened to Father." She hesitated and then asked, "You mean he was on his way to see me? But... if that was the case, we would have met up with each other somewhere between my place and here. I only left the road for a few minutes when I... oh God...." Her voice dropped to a whisper as a horrible thought occurred to her.
"Miz Katherine?" Vin wrapped an arm around her as she paled and swayed slightly on her feet. "Ya got an idea what might've happened to 'em?"
She leaned against him, grateful for his support, and closed her eyes for a second to clear her head. "God, I hope not... but...." Taking a deep breath, she looked at the group of men surrounding her and shakily continued as tears gathered in her eyes and slowly began trickling down her face at the memory of what she'd seen. "I stopped at the cemetery on my way here to visit my father's grave and... and it... it had been... dug up. Father's... remains... are gone."
"Would Ezra know where this cemetery is and that your father's buried there?" Josiah asked.
Katherine nodded and reached trembling hands up to dry her eyes. "It's only a couple of miles up the road. I told him about it yesterday because I thought he might like to stop and pay his respects." She stared anxiously up at the man in black. "Do you think my brother and Mr. Wilmington could be off tryin' to find the men who... who... took my father?"
"Or were they taken, too." Josiah looked around at the others and saw that they'd all been thinking the same thing.
Vin glanced at Chris and saw the guilt and anger warring for dominance in his eyes. "Weren't no way we coulda known, cowboy."
"Bullshit! We should've just taken the bastard down when we first got here instead of pussyfootin' around tryin' to do things within the law!" Chris angrily ground out as he turned and stalked off across the yard toward the barn with JD and Josiah right on his heels.
Vin stopped Katherine as she reached for her horse and, with Nathan's help, eased her toward the house.
"Now, ma'am, Ezra would have our heads if'n we let ya come t' any harm. You jus' stay here with Miz Stokes, an' we'll bring 'im back fer ya." Nathan smiled gratefully at Abigail as she hurried off the porch and wrapped an arm around Katherine.
"That's right, dear. You don't want them havin' to worry about your safety, too." She gently but firmly led Katherine up the steps, speaking softly to her the whole time. From what she'd heard about the young woman from the boys, she knew that it was only the lingering results of the emotional upset she'd just experienced that was keeping her from fighting harder to go with them. Abigail felt sorry for her, but at the same time she was thankful that Chris and the others wouldn't have the added distraction if they had to go up against Matthew Delacourte. "You needn't worry about your brother now, there's no way these men will let him come to any harm." Abigail turned to look back at the healer. "You go on and get your horse, Nathan. I'll have your bag here waitin' for you when you're done."
In only a matter of minutes, they had their horses saddled and were mounted and ready to go. They stopped just long enough for Nathan to retrieve his bag of medical supplies from Abigail, and then after reassuring her they'd be careful and would bring Buck and Ezra home, the five men turned and rode out of the yard.
Ezra slowed Rebel to a walk as they approached the barn, his eyes anxiously searching the group of men clustered in front of it. His heart jumped when he finally spotted Buck, and it took every bit of self-control he possessed to keep himself from reacting when he saw the condition his friend was in. Ezra's hardened gaze catalogued every bruise, cut, and scrape on Buck's face and body and vowed he'd make his uncle and his men pay for each one of them.
"Greetings, Nephew! I'm happy to see you were able to find time to attend our little get-together. After all, it is bein' thrown in your honor."
Ezra was hard pressed to hide the shudder that shook his slender frame as the hated voice once again washed over him. After schooling his handsome features into what he hoped was a mask of bored indifference, Ezra turned to face his uncle.
"Now how could I have possibly turned down such a... gracious... invitation?" Ezra's deceptively soft, honeyed drawl dripped with sarcasm as he turned his cold, angry green eyes on his host. "I certainly hope you haven't gone to too much trouble just for me."
"Not at all. It was the least that I could do to welcome you home after all these years." Delacourte's smile was warm and inviting, but his dark eyes matched the iciness of Ezra's as he stared up at him. He motioned for his men to help the gambler down off of his horse and then continued their conversation once he'd been assured that Ezra had followed instructions and was harboring no concealed weapons. "Besides, I wanted a chance to talk with you... you know, just to reassure my troubled mind that you had indeed recovered from that unfortunate bout of amnesia you were suffering from the last time I saw you. I was concerned that it had wiped out all your memories of the lessons I had so lovingly given you about respect."
Ezra grudgingly submitted to the rough search his uncle's men performed before replying. "Never fear, Uncle, my memories of your... lessons... are still firmly entrenched in my mind. In fact, I remember quite clearly *everything* that happened while I was in your care."
So the little bastard had regained his memories of the incident. Delacourte's smile turned into a sneer as he began pushing Ezra... searching for a way behind the rigid hold the younger man was so carefully keeping over his emotions. He was determined to break him, to finally bring him under his control, and then he would kill him. "I'd hate to think the reason you were staying out of my little *disagreement* with your friends is because of your cowardice." Matthew saw his words hit home as Ezra's glittering jade eyes darkened, and his hands closed into tight, white- knuckled fists of rage, and knew he almost had him.
Buck jerked on the ropes binding him to the hook and growled in frustration when the men around him laughed at his futile efforts to free himself. He ignored them and concentrated instead on Ezra, his stomach clenching painfully as he saw that his friend was on the verge of exploding, of doing just what his bastard uncle obviously wanted.
When Buck had first realized that he was being used as bait to lure Ezra back into Delacourte's clutches, he had prayed that the younger man would go for the others before coming after him. But in his heart, he knew that Ezra wouldn't take that risk with his life... that he'd willingly put himself back into his nightmare to try and keep Buck safe.
"Don't listen to 'im, Ezra. You know what he's doin'... don't let 'im win." Buck thought at first that Ezra hadn't heard him, but then he saw the gambler's eyes flicker briefly in his direction.
"You all right, Buck?" Ezra's expression and voice revealed none of the anger and guilt that was tearing him apart, but Buck knew it was there.
"I'm doin' fine, pard. Just hangin' around waitin' for this shindig to get started. Your uncle ain't much of a host though. No food... no women... hell, he ain't even offered me a drink yet." Buck was relieved to see a hint of a smile touch Ezra's lips and his fingers unfurl slightly as some of the tension slowly drained out of him. He kept waiting for some sort of retaliation against him for talking, but nothing happened. Casting a quick glance at the group of men surrounding him, Buck saw that they were shifting nervously about while keeping a close eye on their boss. His eyes narrowed when he followed their gaze and saw the disdainful look Delacourte was giving him.
"I'm terribly sorry you've been feelin' neglected, Mr. Wilmington. Perhaps I *have* been lax in my duties as host." Matthew began walking toward an oilcloth-covered mound that lay near the edge of the yard as he talked. "However, I really didn't think it was polite to start our celebration before all the guests were present." He turned and smiled at Ezra before bending over and slowly folding back the large, dirty piece of cloth. "After all, we wouldn't want any of Ezra's loved ones to miss out on the fun and games."
Ezra wanted to turn away, wanted more than anything to be able to shut his eyes and block out what he knew was under that stained cover, but he just couldn't seem to stop himself from watching. He heard Buck's enraged shout as soon as the shocked gunfighter saw what had been hidden by the oilcloth, and then a harsh grunt of pain as, this time, he received the punishment he'd escaped before. But even with his worry for his friend pushing at him, Ezra still couldn't force his horrified gaze away from the gruesome sight lying at his uncle's feet.
Bones. Human bones. Spread out in a rough approximation of two bodies, one larger than the other, lying side by side in the dirt... each topped by an eerily grinning skull.
"Father...." Ezra's anguished whisper drifted across the yard and brought a surprised smile to Delacourte's face.
"Ahh... so you *do* know you're Standish's bastard. I've often wondered if anyone had ever taken pity on you and told you the truth." Matthew glanced down at what was left of David Standish and then looked back up at his nephew. "So how's it feel to know you were responsible for the death of your own father? Has the guilt of it been eatin' at you for a long time? Or is it a new discovery, only recently beginnin' to burrow its way into your soul."
Buck thrashed wildly against his restraints and kicked out at the men who tried to stop him as he struggled to get free. His deep blue eyes blazed with fury as he screamed at Delacourte. "Leave 'im alone, you bastard!! What the hell kinda animal are you?!"
Matthew looked over at Buck and shook his head slowly. "My, my, Mr. Wilmington... still fightin' his battle's for him? I would think after what's happened to the rest of your little group, that you would have smartened up by now." He kicked lightly at the pile of bones as he carefully watched his nephew out of the corner of his eye. "I'm sure if Ezra's poor daddy could see how his son turned out, he'd be wishin' he'd never interfered that day."
That was it. Before Buck could even open his mouth to try and stop him, Ezra let out an anguished, animalistic howl of pain and threw himself at his uncle.
Delacourte had known what his words would do and had braced himself for the attack, but he'd sorely underestimated Ezra's strength and the power of the anger which drove him.
His need for revenge for all the years of nightmares filled with pain, guilt, and fear propelled Ezra forward, and he hit his uncle with the force of a person twice his size and bowled the much larger man over into the dirt. While Matthew lay stunned beneath him, the gambler managed to get in several sharp blows to his ribs and face before Delacourte recovered enough to throw him off.
Buck saw Matthew motion the others back and watched helplessly as the two men battled their way around the yard. Ezra was holding his own at the moment, but Buck was sure it was only a matter of time before his uncle took the upper hand and finished the fight. He knew his friend wasn't at his fittest after all he'd been through in the last few weeks. What strength he did possess was being fueled by rage and hatred, and would probably run out soon. And judging by the way he was pulling his punches, it was obvious that Delacourte knew it, too. He was just toying with Ezra now, letting him wear himself out.
Buck was aching to shout out encouragement to Ezra, but was afraid he'd distract him. Stealing glances at Delacourte's men, he was startled to see that most of them seemed to be silently cheering Ezra on, apparently hoping for the determined gambler to finish their boss off and set them free from the bastard... something they simply did not have the courage to do themselves. Angered by their cowardice and willingness to let one man sacrifice himself for them, Buck began screaming at them, trying desperately to shame them into helping Ezra before it was too late.
Unfortunately, Delacourte had also noticed his men's reactions and knew it was time to put an end to his upstart nephew's pathetic act of rebellion before they got it into their pitiful little minds to join him. With surprising agility, Matthew easily avoided Ezra's next charge and, quickly wrapping his long arms around the startled younger man, tossed him over his hip and sent him crashing with a bone-jarring thud to the ground. Before Ezra could even catch his breath, Delacourte was on him, grabbing his arms in a bruising grip and pinning them behind his back.
With a quick upward jerk on his arms, Matthew brought his nephew painfully to his feet. Securing both of Ezra's slender wrists in one hand, he used the other to grab a handful of the gambler's sweat-soaked, chestnut locks and pulled Ezra's head back against his shoulder.
Ezra heard the unmistakable sounds of fists striking against solid flesh and blinked rapidly in an attempt to clear his blurred vision, then began to struggle violently against his uncle's hold when he saw what was about to happen. "Buck... nooo!! Leave him alone, damn it!! He hasn't got anything to do with this!!"
Two of Delacourte's men were delivering the blows Ezra had heard, attempting to beat the enraged gunfighter into submission. Once they finally had him under control, a third man, Thomas Kirby, walked slowly up behind Buck... a long, evil-looking braided whip in his hand.
Kirby was one of the few men working for Matthew Delacourte who was actually happy with his job. He was a violent and sadistic man who had immediately recognized the same traits in his new employer and who had quickly worked his way up from a mere hired hand to the position of foreman by eagerly and efficiently accomplishing any task set before him... no questions asked. And over the years he had become so good at his job, that the men he was in charge of feared him almost as much as they did Delacourte himself.
Which was why he'd been placed in charge of Buck Wilmington's part in Ezra's punishment... Matthew had complete confidence that he would deliver each blow without hesitation and without showing a shred of mercy.
Kirby found himself practically salivating with the anticipation of once more unleashing the vicious beast that lived inside of him, the one that fed on the pain and suffering of others. He took one quick glance at his victim's back, mapping out the most effective and damaging placement for each stroke of the whip, and then fastened his eyes on Delacourte and stood waiting for the signal to begin.
Luckily, the road that led to Katherine's was sparsely traveled, and Vin found it fairly easy to track Buck and Ezra. Once they reached the turnoff for the cemetery, the others held back while he dismounted and carefully scanned the area.
While they waited, Chris's gaze settled on the path that wound through the trees toward the graveyard. He thought about Ezra, his heart already heavy with grief at the prospect of saying good-bye to a father he'd barely known, walking into that cemetery and discovering what had been done to David Standish's grave. Just thinking about Sarah and Adam being violated in such a way filled him with rage, he could only imagine how much harder it must be for Ezra to actually be experiencing it. Chris's heart ached for the younger man, and he worried that the hatred and need for revenge he must be feeling would make Ezra careless. He could only hope that Buck was still with him and would be able to help the gambler hold it together.
Vin jerked his head in the direction of the creek. "Best I can figger, Buck took the horses down t' the water while Ezra walked t' the graveyard... prob'ly wanted t' give 'im some time alone with his pa." He looked worriedly up at Chris as he continued. "Can see where Ezra come back down the trail an' crossed over toward the creek, but looks like only one horse rode back up outta there. Whichever one of 'em it was took off toward Katherine's at a purty good clip."
JD shifted nervously in his saddle, his fingers tightening around the reins he held as his fear for what had happened to his two brothers grew. Tearing his hazel eyes away from the worried frowns that had appeared on the older men's faces, JD stared instead at the small stream that wound through the trees.
Just as Vin started down the grassy bank toward the water to try and find some clues as to what might have happened to the other horse and rider, JD spotted a flash of color through the bushes lining the path.
"Vin, there's something layin' over by those trees." He and the others quickly dismounted, tied off their horses, and followed the sharpshooter.
"Aw hell," Vin breathed as he looked down at the familiar plum-colored tailcoat. Kneeling down, he carefully lifted the garment and passed it up to Josiah, revealing the rest of their friends' things... both men's guns, Ezra's gold brocade vest, and Buck's hat and neckerchief.
"Buck.... " JD paled when he saw the dried spots of blood that covered the faded blue cloth.
"Son of a bitch," Chris growled as he jerked his hat off and slapped it angrily against his leg. He raked his hand through his hair in frustration and looked at Vin who was walking across the clearing, following the path of trampled grass that led off into the trees. "Anything?"
Vin shrugged his shoulders as he looked up. "More 'n one horse comin' in an' out of these trees, but whether or not one of 'em was Buck or Ezra's--"
"Chris!" Nathan hurried over to their black-clad leader holding out a crumpled piece of paper. "Found this in the bushes back there."
Chris snatched the note out of the healer's dark hand and read it out loud, his anger burning brighter with every word. By the time he finished, his long, lean body was trembling with rage. Jamming his hat back on his head, he turned and strode back toward the horses. "This ends now!"
The others hurriedly grabbed up the rest of Buck and Ezra's belongings and followed after him, worry for their missing brothers lying heavy on their hearts.
Matthew bent his head down and spoke quietly into Ezra's ear. "Well, Nephew, what's it goin' to be? Are you finally goin' to stand on your own two feet and take your punishment? Or are you goin' to do like you've always done, let someone else suffer in your place."
A violent tremor of disgust tore through Ezra as his uncle's hot breath stroked across his face and neck, but out of fear of possible retaliation against Buck, he remained silent.
Delacourte felt the shudder of revulsion that shook Ezra's slender body and grinned evilly. "Are you prepared for the added guilt? Or are you so cold that it doesn't touch you? After all, that's what your mother's taught you all these years, isn't it? Don't let anyone get close to you. That way you can use people and then toss them aside when you're through with them... just turn your back, walk away, and leave them to deal with the repercussions of your actions. Just like you used your father and that little whore."
Buck shook off the men holding him and strained at his bindings, desperate to get his hands on Delacourte. "You're gonna die for this, ya crazy son of a bitch!! The others'll hunt you down an' make ya wish you'd never been born!!"
Ignoring the enraged gunfighter's threat, Matthew tightened his hold on Ezra and continued tormenting his prey. "For twenty-three years you kept silent... never told a soul what happened, not even your precious mama. Never even tried to get back at me for what I did once you were old enough to take me on." He felt victory close at hand when he heard the younger man whisper that he hadn't been able to remember it before. "*Couldn't* remember, Ezra? Wasn't it just that you didn't *want* to remember? I think you kept it buried so you wouldn't have to do anything about it, so you wouldn't have to do the honorable thing and avenge their deaths, because you were too cowardly to come back and face me like a man."
Ezra weakly shook his head as his mind flooded with doubts. "No... it... it wasn't like that...."
Buck's heart twisted when he saw the look of pain and confusion on the gambler's face. Keeping his voice low and firm, the gunfighter tried to pull Ezra's attention away from his uncle. "It's lies, Ezra, all lies. Come on now... you know the truth. Concentrate on that an' don't let 'im do this to ya." He smiled encouragingly when he saw the younger man's eyes finally focus on him. "That's it, pard... show 'im who the hell ya are. I know ya can--"
Buck's blue eyes widened in shock as the hard, braided leather landed diagonally across his back and curled over his right shoulder. Pain, deep and searing, forced a harsh gasp from his lungs and brought an instant rush of tears to his eyes. He'd seen Delacourte glance in his direction and nod, but hadn't known what it meant.
And for Buck, what was a hundred times worse than the pain, was seeing the guilt and defeat that filled Ezra's eyes the moment he realized what was happening, and knowing Delacourte had used him to put it there.
"Damn you, Ezra Standish!! Don't you give in to him... not for me! Don't you *dare* do that to me!!" Buck screamed at the gambler, trying to shock him out of the despair he could see he was slipping into. He knew full well it was going to earn him more lashes, but Buck much preferred the physical pain to the mental anguish he'd have to bear if Delacourte won because of him.
Another nod and twice more the whip struck, each blow producing a fresh blaze of fire over Buck's skin and leaving him panting with the strain of holding back his screams. Buck saw Ezra flinch and heard him utter a deep moan of pain each time, as if he were receiving the lashes himself, and Buck knew he was going to give in.
"Ezra, please... don't do it... don't let him--" Buck couldn't help the cry that escaped his lips as the fourth blow landed, crossing the other three and igniting what felt like every nerve ending in his back with tendrils of flame. His voice was reduced to a harsh, rasping whisper as he begged the young Southerner, "Ezra... please... don't...."
Matthew released his grip on Ezra's hair and held up his hand, bringing a temporary halt to Buck's torture. "Well, Nephew, it's up to you now."
Ezra drew in a ragged breath and tore his gaze away from the pleading look Buck was giving him. Wearily closing his eyes, he let his head drop forward until his chin rested on his heaving chest. "I don't understand what you want from me. Why don't you just kill me and get it over with?"
"Kill you? Good heavens no." Delacourte tilted his head forward to whisper in the younger man's ear again. "I don't want you dead... I want to own you. I invested a great deal of hard work and time in you when you were a child, Ezra. I'd planned on forging you into someone who would serve me faithfully for as long as I needed you." He gave the smaller man a rough shake and his voice deepened and turned harsh with anger as he continued, "But you managed to manipulate everyone around you into feelin' sorry for you, made them think you were just a poor vulnerable victim to your big, bad uncle."
Buck's mind whirled as he fought to think through the pain and understand what Matthew was saying. <<but... Ezra *had* been that poor vulnerable victim. He'd only been five years old... just a child. How the hell could Delacourte think he'd been capable of manipulating anyone?>> "He was just a little boy, for God's sakes! He couldn't've done any of that shit you're accusin' 'im of!"
Matthew acted like he hadn't even heard Buck... all of his attention was focused on forcing Ezra to bend to his will. "And look where it got you... back with your mama... tied to her apron strings again. Instead of receivin' the benefits of the superior education I had planned for you, you ended up under Maude's dubious tutelage. Now here you are, a washed up gambler and con artist playin' at bein' a lawman... workin' for the *upstandin'* citizens of a dusty little town who look down on you an' consider you no better than the vermin you're supposedly protectin' them from." Matthew felt the smaller man begin to tremble and smiled in triumph. He had him... the boy was finally going to be his again. "Was it all worth it, Ezra? Was it worth your father's life... and the girl's? Think of where you could've been now if only you'd had the grit to conform to my rules." He paused for a few moments to allow the younger man's guilt to build again. "But out of the goodness of my heart, I'm willin' to give you one last chance to let me make somethin' of you. All you have to do is say yes. Of course, you'll have to accept a small bit of punishment for your earlier transgressions, but after that's over, I'll allow Mr. Wilmington and the rest of your friends to live as long as they agree to leave town immediately, with no further reprisals against me and no attempts to lure you back."
Ezra's mind raced as he tried to decide what to do. It was clear that the years of hate and obsession with power had tipped his tyrannical, controlling uncle over the edge into insanity, and it made it nearly impossible to tell how he would react to anything Ezra said or did. The one thing he knew for certain was that Matthew Delacourte's promises were worthless... no matter what Ezra agreed to, he knew Buck would never be allowed to live. His uncle would eventually kill them both, claim self-defense, and either force the others to leave, or, when they refused as Ezra knew in his heart they would, find a way to kill them, too.
He stared at Matthew's men. It was obvious that they were just aching for someone to deliver them from his uncle's control, but he wasn't sure if they'd rally behind him if he tried to mount another attack on Matthew, or give into their fear and turn against him. The only thing he *was* sure of was that he didn't have the strength left to take the much larger man down on his own.
Ezra's eyes shifted to Buck, and his stomach clenched when he saw the pain the battered gunfighter was trying so hard to hide from him, another innocent person paying the price for being his friend. If he tried to rebel against Matthew and failed, he had no doubt that Buck would be receiving the brunt of the punishment his uncle dished out.
His thoughts rapidly switched to the rest of their family. Hopefully they had been missed by now, and the others were on their way to effect a rescue, but would they be in time? He wasn't concerned for himself, only for Buck. He had to do everything he could to keep Buck alive until help arrived. Ezra glanced at his father and Amanda's remains and knew he'd never survive the guilt if he failed and allowed one more person to die because of him, especially if that person was Buck.
Quickly weighing his options, Ezra decided that the best way for him to divert his uncle's attention away from his friend was to accept Matthew's offer. If he knew his uncle, the sadistic bastard would want to draw out his beating for as long as he could, and hopefully, it would buy enough time for the others to save Buck. Even if he, himself, did not survive, Ezra knew it would have been worth the sacrifice.
Tearing his gaze away from Buck's pleading eyes so as not to see the pain and disappointment he knew would be there, Ezra stared straight ahead and quietly gave his uncle what he wanted.
Delacourte released Ezra's arms and stood waiting.
Wincing against the pins and needles that raced up and down his arms as circulation was restored, Ezra began slowly walking across the yard. He didn't have to be told... he knew exactly where his uncle wanted him. He'd known all along that this trip would somehow end here... right back where his nightmare had started.
Ezra kept his eyes on the weathered gray post that rose out of the ground near the corner of the barn. There were two sets of restraints fastened to it, one at the top, and one in the middle. His heart hammered painfully in his chest and his mouth went dry at the sight of the bottom pair of shackles. Small circlets of iron that had been specially made for a child's wrists... his wrists. He could still feel the bite of that metal cutting into his tender skin and was sure he could still see the bloodstains that had coated them after his last whipping.
Stopping in front of the post, Ezra waited. He knew his uncle had followed him across the yard and now stood close behind him, but when the large, calloused hand snaked over his shoulder and touched the collar of his shirt, Ezra couldn't help but flinch away.
The whip quickly slashed across Buck's tortured skin, ripping an involuntary cry of pain out of him.
Ezra froze in horror as he suddenly understood the true nature of his punishment.
"That's right, Nephew, there's one little condition I forgot to mention," Delacourte explained offhandedly as he stepped closer to Ezra and, reaching his other arm around the smaller man, began slowly unbuttoning his shirt. "Every time you show even the slightest reaction to any part of what I'm about to do, Mr. Wilmington will suffer the consequences by receivin' progressive hits from the whip... one this time, two the next time you move, then three the next... and so on. If you want to save him from that, you'll have to stand up here and take everything I give you like a man."
Ezra repressed a shudder at the touch of his uncle's meaty fingers brushing against his chest as he carefully worked each tiny button loose. His stomach rolled and bile rose hot and bitter into his throat as the larger man pressed his body lightly against him, his breath stirring the fine hairs on the back of Ezra's neck.
Matthew saw Ezra turn his head slightly and knew he was focusing on Wilmington, probably using the physical reminder of the other man's pain to keep himself from reacting to what he was doing to him. He chuckled softly in amusement at the futility of his nephew's plan and stepped up his torture, lightly stroking Ezra's smooth skin as he eased the shirt off the smaller man's shoulders and down his arms. "It won't work, Ezra. You can stare at your friend all you want, but eventually you'll make a mistake. A twitch, a gasp, a whimper... that's all it will take and you'll be hearin' Mr. Wilmington scream as the whip digs into his back, rippin' through his flesh."
Ezra blinked away the tears of frustration that welled up in his eyes as he struggled not to move. He knew his uncle was right, knew that the bastard would keep at him, keep trying every vile thing he could think of until he forced him to react. Ezra stared helplessly at Buck and silently tried to convey how sorry he was for the suffering he knew he was going to cause him.
Buck watched Delacourte tormenting Ezra and felt a bolt of pure hatred stab through him. Ignoring the promise of more pain, the enraged gunfighter began hurling every threat and invective he could think of at the other man, hoping he would turn his anger on him and leave Ezra alone.
Matthew raised his head, tearing his hungry eyes away from Ezra, and glared at Buck. "I find myself growin' weary of your constant interruptions, Mr. Wilmington." Gesturing at the man standing closest to Buck, he quietly ordered, "Gag him."
Buck managed to get a few well-placed kicks in, but was easily overpowered and a dirty rag was wedged between his teeth and then tied tightly around his head. Closing his eyes for a moment, Buck weakly rested his forehead against his arm. The constant pain from his back and his earlier beating was starting to take its toll on him, and he was finding it harder and harder to fight off the encroaching darkness that threatened to drag him under. But the thought of leaving Ezra at the mercy of that sadistic bastard was enough to give him the strength to resist it, so he forced his eyes open and locked his gaze on Ezra's in an attempt to let his friend know he wasn't alone.
Wrapping his huge hands around Ezra's slender ones, Delacourte slowly raised the gambler's arms over his head and rested his palms against the pole. Then he released his hold, confident that his nephew would stay in position and, removing a small key from his vest pocket, carefully locked the shackles in place around Ezra's wrists.
Ezra had all he could do not to scream as he felt those hated metal bands close around his wrists. Everything he'd endured as a child while trapped against that post came rushing back to him with the touch of those shackles against his skin.
Matthew tucked the key back in his pocket and stood admiring Ezra's back... the broad shoulders, the sculpted muscles, the lightly tanned skin... and the faded remains of his last visit to the plantation.
"I see you still have a few mementos of the last lesson I gave you." Delacourte reached out and slowly traced his fingers over the pale scars, a grim smile of satisfaction settling on his face. After a moment, he stepped back and clapped his hands together. "Well, I think it's about high time we continued your education." Glancing at the men clustered in front of the barn, he ordered, "Haskins, bring me the other whip."
Jacob Haskins had to cross behind Buck to get to where the second whip lay coiled just inside the barn door. His face paled as he got a good look at the damage that had been done to the gunfighter's back, and it was all he could do to make himself pick up the evil looking length of rawhide. In the months that Jacob had been working on the plantation, he'd been forced to assist in some of Delacourte's less savory undertakings. But nothing he'd had to do before even compared to the cruelty being inflicted on these two men. As frightened as he was of Delacourte's temper, he knew he would never be able to live with himself if he didn't at least try to stop what was about to happen.
Haskins moved slowly back out into the yard and then stopped. He looked down at the whip wrapped loosely around his fist and then raised his head and peered nervously at his boss. "Um... Mr. Delacourte, sir? Are ya sure we have t' do this? I mean, your nephew'll prob'ly cooperate jus' fine with ya as long as ya let his friends go. I'm sure ya don't really need t'--" He stopped suddenly and stared in horrified disbelief. "no... wait... I'm sor--"
Before anyone could even react, Matthew had pulled his gun and fired at the defenseless man, striking him squarely in the chest.
While the others watched in stunned silence, Jacob Haskins staggered back several steps... gazed uncomprehendingly down at the bright red stain spreading rapidly across his shirt... and then with a final gasp, sank lifelessly to the ground.
Heaving a sigh of exasperation, Matthew slowly brought his still-smoking revolver around until it was aimed at the rest of his men. "Anyone else care to question my orders? No? I thought not."
As Delacourte casually slipped his gun back into its holster, he saw two of the men moving hesitantly toward the figure lying crumpled in the dirt. "Leave him. He can be a reminder of what will happen to anyone else who might take it into their head to disobey me. Just bring me that damned whip... I'm sure my dear nephew is gettin' tired of waitin' for me."
Ezra tore his eyes away from Haskins body and stared incredulously at his uncle, who stood calmly removing and folding his tailored coat as if nothing had happened. He opened his mouth to respond and just as quickly snapped it shut again as he suddenly recognized the trap he'd been about to step into.
Matthew nodded approvingly at his young nephew as he took the whip being held out to him and slowly uncoiled the thick length of braided leather. "Very good, Ezra, maybe you *are* capable of learnin' after all."
Ezra had all he could do not to react when Delacourte snapped the whip at the ground near his feet, taking a few practice swings to loosen up.
"Let's see... how many lashes should we make it? Ten?"
Ezra closed his eyes and clenched his jaw shut as, with a quick snap of Matthew's wrist, the tip of the rawhide struck the heel of his right boot.
"Hmmm... no... not enough to really be considered a lesson. Twenty maybe?"
Another crack and the length of rawhide coiled sharply around Ezra's left ankle, biting into the fine leather of his boot... not penetrating deep enough to do any physical damage, but enough to remind him of the pain that was coming.
As the memory of the searing agony he'd endured during his uncle's last whipping washed over Ezra, his eyes flew open and searched frantically for Buck's, desperately needing something familiar to hold onto.
"No, twenty is rather excessive, and with my luck, would probably either kill you or cripple you... you wouldn't be much good to me then." Delacourte tapped the thick leather handle against his leg as he thought. "I think we'll settle on a safe middle ground... fifteen should do it. Enough to drive home the fact that your soul is mine now, but not enough to do any permanent damage."
Matthew sauntered slowly around Ezra, trailing the long, sinuous whip behind him through the dirt, coming to a stop directly in front of the smaller man and intentionally blocking his view of Buck. "Are you ready, Ezra?" He was somewhat surprised to see a spark of defiance flash in his nephew's bright green eyes and moved quickly to snuff it out. Delacourte's voice dropped to a coarse whisper as he leaned in closer to his prey. "So you think you're tough enough to keep Mr. Wilmington alive? He's already felt the whip four times... how much more do you think he'll be able to stand? How many times can you allow yourself to slip before your friend joins those two poor souls over there and becomes just another victim of your cowardice?"
Ezra stared worriedly at Buck and knew his uncle was right. Sweaty and shaking, dark purple and blue bruises standing out in stark relief against his pale skin... it wasn't hard to see that the lanky gunfighter wouldn't be able to take much more of the brutal treatment. But with a reassuring nod and a ghost of a smile forcing itself around the filthy gag, Buck was still able to give Ezra the support he needed to resist his uncle's attempts to distract him. The only thing Delacourte's taunting had accomplished was to help the younger man stay focused on the present.
A slight narrowing of his uncle's eyes was all the warning Ezra had before the angry man struck out and landed a bruising back-handed slap to his jaw, slamming his head against the wooden post. The gambler's vision blurred, and he could feel blood trickling down the side of his face from a cut on his temple, but after a couple of shaky breaths, Ezra was able to shrug off the blow and return his gaze to Buck... drawing strength from the glimmer of pride he saw in his friend's eyes.
Delacourte heard his men shifting restlessly behind him and turned to glare at them, and was struck with a momentary sense of unease as he got a good look at their faces. It had disappeared the moment he turned around, but before they had managed to hide it, Matthew had caught a glimpse of admiration on the men's faces... and there was no doubt in his mind that it had been directed at Ezra and not at him.
Whipping back around to look at his nephew, he saw that the younger man had noticed it, too.
Before moving behind Ezra, Delacourte leaned in close and ground out a warning. "Enjoy your pathetic moment of victory while you can, because it's goin' to be your last. You and your foolishly loyal friend will pay dearly for it."
Ezra kept it from showing on his face, but a cold, hard knot of fear had lodged itself in his chest at his uncle's words. An honest fear of the pain he knew was coming, and an even deeper fear that he wouldn't be able to protect Buck from further harm.
The knot moved up into his throat and his breathing quickened when he heard the soft rustling of the whip as Matthew settled himself into position. Every muscle in Ezra's body tensed and his trembling fingers wrapped themselves around the length of chain overhead as he realized his punishment was about to begin.
Locking his eye's on Buck, he saw the first lash coming. The older man was struggling desperately to get free, shaking his head violently and loosing a muffled scream of rage from behind the gag as he saw Delacourte's arm raise up and start forward.
Ezra stiffened and sucked in a strangled breath of air as the stroke landed and pain exploded across his naked, unprotected back... it was every bit as bad as he remembered. He cast a frightened look at Kirby who stood behind Buck with an eager, anticipatory grin on his face, just waiting for the chance to lay into his prisoner again. And Ezra now knew for sure that, no matter how badly he wished it otherwise, he would eventually give him that chance... that he would never be able to withstand the full fifteen lashes without giving into the urge to move away from the pain or cry out.
Four more times the whip whistled through the air and dug unmercifully into Ezra's back and sides, and he had to forcibly lock his knees to keep himself from sagging against the post. Bile again rose up in his throat as he felt the blood begin to flow slowly from the wounds, and it took all of the determined gambler's concentration to resist the urge to vomit.
Buck held tight to the lifeline that ghosted across the yard between them and let the tears that Ezra refused to shed stream down his own pale cheeks... voiced the moans that Ezra kept buried deep in his chest... and if it wasn't for the gag blocking its escape, Buck would gladly have released the scream that Ezra had locked away in his tortured mind.
Delacourte watched his nephew carefully as he stopped to rest his arm. Sweat poured off of the younger man, mingling with the blood streaming down his back and adding to the burning pain of the lash marks. Matthew saw the shudders that shook him with every breath he took and knew that it wouldn't be long now. He had to admit that Ezra was holding up much better than he'd initially thought he would, but Matthew was certain that one or two more well- placed strokes would do the trick.
Wiping the sweat from his forehead, Delacourte glanced over Ezra's shoulder at his men and was shaken to see that the look of admiration was back, and this time they made no effort to hide it. Even Kirby, his right-hand man and staunch supporter, had a shadow of doubt on his face now. Delacourte knew that if he didn't break Ezra soon, he stood the chance of losing everything. The little bastard would win after all.
Matthew turned his furious gaze back on his nephew as he felt fresh hatred for the young man boil up in him, nearly choking him with its intensity. "Maude always said you had the devil in you. She must've been right... how else could you manipulate people the way you do? And now you're bringin' my own men under your spell, tryin' to turn them against me...."
Ezra leaned his head wearily against the post and used the brief respite from the punishing blows to try and get his bearings. The world spun sickeningly around him, and even though he hated to give up his connection to Buck, he finally had to close his eyes to try and make it stop. The pain was vicious and unrelenting... a constant burning and throbbing that was slowly but surely pushing him closer to the edge.
Deprived of Buck's supportive presence, Ezra's mind started to drift and he began to imagine he could hear voices and sounds from his past blending with those that swirled around him in the present. The crack of a whip followed by a child's scream of pain... his uncle's soft mutterings about the devil and spells... his mother's voice telling him what a disappointment he was... how was he supposed to know what was real?
Ezra shook his head slightly as he tried to clear his mind and was brought sharply back to reality as splinters of wood from the post dug painfully into his cheek. Hearing muffled shouts coming from Buck's direction, Ezra quickly opened his eyes and looked at his friend, terrified that his uncle had spotted his movements and had given the signal for Buck to be punished again.
It took a few minutes for Ezra's confused mind to catch up with what he was seeing, and by the time he understood what the panicked expression in Buck's eyes meant, the sibilant hiss of the whip whispered through the air and Ezra's world erupted in an explosion of pain.
Buck had seen Delacourte's features twist into a mask of rage and had tried to warn Ezra, but he'd been too late. Blood dripped from his torn wrists onto his shoulders as he violently tugged and pulled at the rope in his frantic need to get to the gambler. Realizing he wasn't going to be able to get free, Buck turned his attention instead to ridding himself of the gag. After a few minutes of scrubbing his face roughly against his upraised arms, he finally managed to work the rag out of his mouth.
"Jesus... Ezra...." Buck watched in horror as Ezra's slender frame jerked helplessly under the endless barrage of blows. "You're killin' 'im, you crazy bastard!!"
Delacourte was stalking angrily back and forth behind Ezra, shouting accusations and curses at him and punctuating each one with a lash from the whip. Lost in his madness, he was beyond caring where the whip landed... all Matthew knew was that he had to destroy Ezra before his nephew destroyed him.
Ezra clutched at the chain holding his shackles in place in a valiant effort to keep himself still as the whip struck again and again, slicing open his back, arms, legs... no part of his body seemed to escape the cruel bite of the leather as the beating continued. And still Ezra denied his uncle the satisfaction of hearing him cry out, of seeing him break.
Delacourte's men were in shock. They'd never seen him lose control so completely and were terrified that their boss's mindless rage would be turned on them once he'd finished with his nephew. They were also aware of what was going to happen when Standish's friends found them and saw what had been done to the two men. Someone was finally going to knock Matthew Delacourte off his throne of power, and there was no way they were going down with him. One by one they slipped back into the shadows of the barn, and hastily made their escape.
Thomas Kirby had pulled his gun and tried to stop them, but had quickly realized he was out-numbered and stood aside.
Buck had been pleading with the others to at least cut his ropes before they left, but none of them were willing to risk attracting Delacourte's attention. Some mumbled apologies and actually seemed ashamed that they didn't have the courage to help Standish, while the others just shook their heads silently as they left. Once the last man had fled, Buck focused all his attention on Kirby... begging, threatening... trying anything he could think of to get the other man to release him before Delacourte succeeded in killing Ezra.
As Kirby hesitated, staring first at his prisoner and then at Matthew Delacourte, his decision was made for him. Catching a glimpse of movement out of the corner of his eye, he turned and felt his heart begin to race. Coming out of the trees at breakneck speed were five horses and their riders, guns drawn and a blazing thirst for vengeance darkening their chiseled features. Thomas Kirby chose the only option left opened to him if he wanted to live... he turned and ran.
Buck saw the fear that had suddenly appeared on the other man's face just before he took off, and thinking Delacourte had discovered his men's desertion, turned quickly to look out across the yard. His dark blue eyes filled with tears of relief as he saw what had sent Kirby running. "Oh thank God... Chris...."
Ezra whimpered softly and struggled to stay on his feet as the whip struck again, curling around his waist and biting into the tender skin of his stomach. His entire world had been reduced to a shimmering blaze of agony, and it was getting harder and harder for him to resist the welcoming void that beckoned to him from beyond the flames.
All Ezra wanted was to be released from the fiery, mind-numbing pain, but he knew he couldn't let go... he had to be strong for Buck... had to protect him. So Ezra continued to fight, pushing back the darkness and forcing himself to stay immersed in the burning haze that enveloped him.
When Chris and the others got their first glimpse of the plantation, they were distracted by the sight of a dozen or so men making their way across the fields toward the woods that surrounded them. Then their attention was drawn to the yard behind the barn, and they found themselves swept by a blinding rage that literally stole their breath away as they saw what Matthew Delacourte had done to their friends.
Delacourte was screaming wildly at Ezra while delivering one blow after another to his abused body. Even from that distance, the horrified peacekeepers could see the blood that streamed down the gambler's back and arms.
Buck was strung up in front of the gaping barn doors, apparently arguing with a man who stood nearby. The lanky gunfighter was facing away from them, and although he seemed to be in somewhat better condition than Ezra, it was still obvious that he'd also been given a bitter taste of the whip.
Each of them bore evidence of their war with Delacourte, but the reality of their own pain and suffering quickly faded into the background when faced with the hell their brothers were living through now.
With an angry shout, the five men and their mounts surged forward and raced out of the trees, intent on reaching Delacourte and exacting revenge.
JD, eyes trained on his best friend as he sped toward him, saw the man Buck had been yelling at look their way and then disappear around the corner of the barn. He caught Chris's eye and saw that their leader had noticed it as well.
Shaking his head at JD's unasked question, he shouted out orders as they rapidly closed the distance between themselves and the nightmarish scene still taking place near the barn. "Leave 'im! JD, you an' Josiah get Buck down! Vin an' Nathan, see to Ezra!" His steely gaze focused on Ezra's uncle.
Buck tore his gaze away from the joyous sight of his friends riding hell-bent-for-leather to their rescue and turned to check on Ezra. He'd been sure that Delacourte would have heard the others coming by now and would be trying to get away, but the bastard was still wielding the whip... lost in his need to destroy his nephew and oblivious to everything else around him.
Buck swallowed convulsively, his stomach lurching when he saw the ungodly amount of blood that poured from the gambler's wounds. Ezra's face was a twisted mask of pain and his body shook continually as he fought to stay conscious.
"Hang on, Ezra! Chris and the others are here!" Buck yelled encouragement at the gambler, frantically trying to give him something to hold onto. "Come on now, pard, only a few minutes more!"
Ezra's eyes suddenly opened, their shimmering green depths filled with pain and what looked like regret. The younger man wearily shook his head, and Buck felt his heart leap into his throat as he saw Ezra struggle to speak and finally just mouth one word at him before his eyes slowly slid closed again. One silent word that Buck understood just as clearly as if the tormented gambler had screamed it... "sorry"....
<<I'm sorry, Buck. I tried... I'm just... tired... so damned... tired.>>
Ezra saw the fear on Buck's face just before he closed his eyes and hated knowing that he was the cause of it. But he'd done what he'd promised... kept his friend alive. Chris and the others had found them... Buck was safe... it was all that mattered to the exhausted gambler. He could finally stop fighting.
He'd forced his heavy lids open to get one last look at Buck, his brother and best friend. Ezra had wanted to say so much to him... wanted to thank him for everything he'd done, for everything he'd been to him, but he just couldn't find the strength to get the words out. Ezra hoped that Buck had at least gotten the weak 'sorry' he'd managed, and that he'd understood that he didn't really want to leave, but the pain was just too much for him to bear anymore.
Ezra let himself go and gasped as he was flung back into his fiery nightmare for a few terrifying moments. But then the burning agony of his wounds began to ease as he relinquished control and allowed the welcoming void to pull him closer. Ezra sighed in relief as the flames were slowly snuffed out by the soothing darkness that slipped over him and seemed to cradle him in its protective embrace. Familiar voices drifted in the air around him. Chris's angry shouts, his uncle's insane muttering... and Buck... ordering him to hang on... begging him not to give up.
Ezra pushed them all away. Why couldn't they understand that he was just too tired of it all to fight anymore... tired of the nightmares, tired of the guilt, and so very tired of the pain.
He just wanted the peace that the void was offering him. He just wanted it all to end.
Buck renewed his struggle to free himself, but had to stop when his frenzied movements started the hook he dangled from spinning, breaking his fragile connection with Ezra. He worked desperately to get his feet planted under him again, and once he had, fastened his gaze back on the gambler's slack features, praying he would open his eyes just one more time so he could reestablish contact with him. Because Buck had understood the meaning of that last look the Southerner had given him... Ezra was giving up. He knew Buck was safe, so he was going to stop fighting. Delacourte was going to win, and it was all his fault. His fault for not stopping Ezra from leaving the boardinghouse without the others instead of being so arrogant to think that he could keep him safe on his own. His fault for not paying attention by the creek and letting himself get caught. His fault for pushing Ezra to even come here in the first place.
Just as the others reached the edge of the yard, Buck saw Ezra's body slowly begin to sag against the post and felt a sudden sharp stab of pain pierce his heart. <<Oh God... I'm losin' him!>>
"Damn you, Ezra, I told ya to hang on!! Don't ya even think about leavin' me!!" Buck fought against the tears that were threatening to choke him as he tried everything he could think of to pull the gambler back. "Don't ya let that crazy bastard beat ya! You keep fightin', damn it!!"
///Ezra felt the world around him begin to slip away as he slowly floated closer to the void, and nearly wept with joy as the peace he'd sensed waiting for him there crept out and gently caressed the frayed edges of his soul. Suddenly a brilliant stream of light split the darkness in front of the gambler, and he moved eagerly toward it, knowing in his heart that it promised an end to his pain and suffering.
Just as Ezra felt the first golden rays of the light brush across his skin, a voice spoke to him out of the darkness, startling him and pushing him back slightly.
"No, Ezra... not yet."
The voice spoke softly, surrounding him with a comforting warmth. But Ezra fought against it, straining to touch the glowing beacon and its promise of peace that hovered just out of his reach.
"Please... I'm ready. I want to go."
Again Ezra's attempts to move were halted as a shadowy form appeared in front of him, blocking the square of light and weakening its seductive pull.
"You have to go back, Ezra. Your friends need you."
Ezra stared hard at the shape floating before him... something about it and the voice were so familiar. No... it... it couldn't be. "F-Father?"
Ezra's eyes filled with tears as the shadow drifted closer, and he recognized the kind, loving man whom he'd known in his childhood as Uncle David... his father.
"Buck needs you, Ezra."
Ezra started to deny his father's words, but he stopped as a pale, ghostly arm reached out, and gentle fingers stroked lightly across his forehead.
Buck's thoughts suddenly filled his mind, and Ezra shuddered as all the pain, fear, and worry that his friend was feeling flowed through him. <<Oh God, he's blamin' himself. Buck, no... please... don't do that to yourself... not for me. Please....>>
"You have to go back to him. He's your friend. Would you have him live with the same misplaced guilt you've suffered with all these years?"
David Standish saw understanding and regret appear in his son's sad green eyes and knew he was ready. He reached out and placed his hand on Ezra's chest, holding it there for a minute until he felt Ezra's heart beat softly against his palm, and then released him with a gentle push.
Ezra sobbed brokenly as his father disappeared and he felt himself being drawn slowly away from the light. But just before he was plunged back into the pain and terror of his world, his father's voice reached through the darkness and whispered softly in his ear, soothing away his fear and infusing him with renewed strength and hope.
"I'm proud of you, son... I love you."///
Chris never slowed his horse as he swooped down on Delacourte, leaping out of the saddle at the last possible minute and knocking the crazed Southerner away from Ezra. The impact with the hard ground winded both men, but it was only a matter of seconds before they were rolling across the yard together, exchanging punishing blows powered by rage and hate.
JD and Josiah rode around the two men grappling in the yard and leaped from their horses to release a frantically struggling Buck, who kept his panicked gaze on Ezra as he shouted at them to hurry.
Buck felt JD's arm snake around his waist, ready to take his weight as Josiah started freeing him from the blood-encrusted ropes. He knew the younger man had seen his back by the shudder that ran through him, and wanted to look at him, to reassure him he was all right, but Buck was terrified that if he took his eyes off of Ezra for even a minute or stopped talking to him, that they'd lose the gambler. So while JD held onto him, Buck held onto Ezra the best way he could... cajoling, pleading, threatening... praying that something he said would give the younger man the strength he needed to stay with them.
And just as Josiah loosened the last knot, Buck was finally rewarded for his efforts when he saw Ezra's lids flutter and slowly open. The green eyes were glazed and filled with pain, but at least there was still a flicker of life in them as they latched onto Buck's.
Relief flooded through Buck, and he continued his soft litany of encouragement to the gambler. "That's it, pard... just hang onto me. Nathan and Vin are right there with ya... everything's gonna be okay now."
Josiah had taken a quick look at Buck's back and knew his wounds should be taken care of soon, but he also knew the younger man wouldn't allow it as long as Ezra needed him. So instead, he and JD gave Buck the only help they knew he would accept at that moment... they took as much of his weight off his shaking legs as they could, and slowly guided him over to Ezra.
Nathan and Vin were sickened when they reached Ezra and got a closer look at the damage that had been done to the gambler's body. Both men were too stunned at first to do anything but stare... their heart's twisting painfully in their chests with the certainty that they were too late... that he'd already left them. But then, with a soft moan, Ezra slowly raised his head and opened his eyes.
With a silent prayer of thanks, Vin and Nathan moved forward to help him. Keeping their voices low and gentle, they spoke reassuringly to the dazed gambler as they searched futilely for some way to support him without hurting him further. Vin finally wrapped his arms low around Ezra's hips and lifted him up slightly to ease the pull on his mangled wrists, while Nathan tried to find a way to release him.
"Hell..." Nathan cursed as he stared helplessly at the tracker. "Damned things are bolted in there solid. We gotta have the key."
"Delacourte's got it."
Glancing up, Vin was relieved to see Buck stagger up to them. He was panting from the exertion and leaning heavily on Josiah and JD, but at least he was still with them. "Good t' see ya, Bucklin."
Buck shook his head and gave the sharpshooter a hard smile as he replied, "Not half as good as it is to see all of you." His expression softened as he stared into Ezra's eyes and saw them brighten slightly with recognition. "Hey, there."
"... m-made... it." Ezra's voice shook and was rough with pain, but to Buck it was the sweetest music he'd ever heard.
"You bet we did, pard..." Buck tried, but just couldn't hold back the tears as he reached out and gently cupped the back of Ezra's head and pressed it lightly against his own, "you bet we did."
Nathan tried to get a look at the gunfighter's back, but Buck just shook him off and ordered him to take care of Ezra.
"No... you f-first." Seeing the distress on the gambler's face, Buck relented and allowed Josiah to tend to him while Nathan did what he could for Ezra.
Nathan felt anger and disgust boiling up in him as he began taking stock of Ezra's injuries. Lord knows, as a former slave he was sadly familiar with and sickened by the destruction one human being could inflict on another, but to have it done to you by your own flesh and blood....
Nathan's gaze followed that of the others as he turned his attention away from Ezra for a moment to check on the battle still raging out in the yard. Hatred, the likes of which he hadn't felt since his time as a slave, filled his heart as his eyes fell on Matthew Delacourte, and a small grim smile of satisfaction appeared on his face as he watched Chris wrap his fingers in the other man's hair and begin pounding his head against the hard-packed earth.
Knowing the others would take care of Buck and Ezra, Chris pushed his worry for them to the back of his mind and put all his concentration into making Matthew Delacourte pay for thinking he could touch any of his men.
Delacourte was taller and heavier, and had excelled at boxing in college. Under normal circumstances, Chris wouldn't have stood a chance against him. But things were far from normal, and the rage that powered Chris's attack was so strong and burned so deeply that it completely negated any advantage Delacourte might have had over him.
The first thing Matthew had done was go for his gun, but Chris was faster and had ripped the weapon out of his grasp, tossing it over near Vin and the others. With an evil grin, Chris had then quickly slipped his own gun out of its holster and sent it flying across the yard as well. "No men... no weapons. Let's just see how damned tough ya are when ya don't have nothin' or no one to hide behind."
With a growl of frustration, Delacourte had surged upward and thrown Chris off, but the wiry blond had been back on him before the big man could even get to his feet.
Blows were exchanged fairly evenly at first, but years of sitting back and letting his men do all his dirty work for him had made the Southerner soft, and it wasn't long before he slowly began to lose ground against Larabee's unleashed fury.
Wrapping both hands around the larger man's wrist, Chris spun him around and slammed him face first into the barn. Delacourte heard the crunch of bone breaking just before an explosion of pain shot through his head. The agonized scream that erupted from his throat turned into a roar of rage as he reached up and touched his rapidly swelling and misshapen nose. With a speed and agility belying his age and size, Matthew spun around and threw himself at Chris, catching him off-guard and driving him away from the barn.
Chris tried to resist Delacourte's charge, but he was still suffering some pain and dizziness from the bullet wound he'd gotten the day before, and it was all he could do just to stay on his feet as he was quickly shoved backward. He was finally regaining his balance when his boot heel struck Haskins' body, and the next thing he knew, he was lying flat on his back in the dirt with Delacourte sprawled across him.
Josiah saw JD move to help him and quickly grabbed the youth. "Not yet, son... Chris can handle him."
JD glared angrily up at the preacher and tried to pull away. "Like hell he can! He's hurt, remember?! He needs our help!"
Josiah kept his grip on JD's shoulder and tugged the youth back against him. "No... *this* is what Chris needs... the chance to pay Delacourte back... to work off all the hate and rage that has been building in him ever since he first heard what that son of a bitch did to Ezra when he was a child. You step in before he's ready, JD, and he'll resent you for taking that chance away from him."
JD realized Josiah was right, but it didn't make it any easier to stand back and just watch. He quit trying to pull away from the bigger man, but he still stood tensed and ready, his hands on his guns, his eyes trained on Chris.
Matthew was sweating heavily and gasping for air as he struggled to raise himself up, and Chris knew he was weakening. Grabbing two handfuls of the Southerner's ruffled shirt, he pushed off with his legs and managed to roll them over so that he was on top. Chris quickly straddled the other man, pinning his arms at his sides, and proceeded to finish him off.
Two vicious back-handed slaps left them both splattered with blood... some from the steady stream that already poured from the Southerner's broken nose, and the rest from a cut Chris had just opened up on the man's cheek. Delacourte squirmed weakly underneath the enraged gunfighter, but didn't have enough strength left to push him off.
Chris reared back and put everything he had into a flurry of punches that soon had the older man begging for mercy and gagging as blood gushed from his torn mouth and lips. "Please... no more...."
Chris merely shook his head and laughed harshly when he heard Delacourte's pleading groan. Tangling his fingers in the Southerner's brown curls, Chris began slowly pounding the other man's head against the ground.
"No more my ass, you son of a bitch. You haven't even begun to pay for what ya did to my men."
Another hit. Another cry of pain.
"Not so tough now, are ya, you bastard. How do ya like takin' on someone who's not tied up or too little to fight back?"
Chris felt Delacourte's body go limp and saw his eyes start to roll up into his head. Releasing his grip on the older man's hair, Chris again grabbed the front of his shirt and heaved himself to his feet, hauling Matthew up with him.
Shaking the other man to bring him back, Chris jerked him in close and fastening his steely green eyes on Delacourte's swollen pale blue ones, growled, "No one hurts my family and gets away with it... no one."
The blond gunman drew his arm back to deliver what he hoped would be the killing blow, but was stopped by Vin's quiet voice as he came up behind him.
"Chris, remember your promise to the Judge."
"Fuck that promise! This bastard deserves to die!" Chris's arm remained rigidly cocked beside his head, and his whole body shook with the urge to send Delacourte to hell where he belonged.
"Hell yeah, he deserves it, but it ain't what Ezra wants." Vin's gaze held steady under the glare Chris shot him. "The Judge was right. Ezra was already carryin' a load of guilt from when he was a kid, an' he's had a heap more piled on 'im since we got here. He can't handle anymore, cowboy. You kill his uncle like this an' go t' jail for it, an' you're gonna be killin' Ezra, too."
Chris shifted his eyes to Ezra, who was staring pleadingly at him.
"Don't... please." The weakness and fragility of that usually strong, self-confident southern drawl nearly broke Chris's heart.
Looking back at the man hanging limply in his tight-fisted grip, the blond shook his head in frustration. "Damn it... what if he gets off? How will Ezra live with that... knowing the bastard's still out there waitin' for 'im?"
"We'll jus' have t' make sure he don't get off." Vin's blue eyes had hardened with determination. "Nathan an' JD can take Buck an' Ezra back t' town, an' you, me, an' Josiah can round up those fellas we saw runnin' when we first got here. I don't think it'll take much persuadin' t' convince 'em t' talk now. An' I figger when most of the rest of the people in town see Delacourte's own men turnin' on 'im, they'll do the same."
Chris cast one last glance at Ezra, then reluctantly lowered his arm and with a snarl of disgust, released Delacourte, watching with satisfaction as he stumbled backwards, twisted in a slow circle, and slipped bonelessly to the ground beside Haskins.
Chris reached up, tiredly wiped the sweat out of his eyes, and turned to join the others.
Vin moved past Chris and knelt beside Delacourte's battered body, answering the blond's questioning look with an angrily muttered, "Bastard's got the keys t' Ezra's shackles."
Roughly digging through the unconscious man's pockets, Vin finally found them and hurried back over to free Ezra.
After JD had located the well and brought back a bucket of water, Josiah had cleaned and bandaged Buck's wounds as best he could and was helping Nathan with Ezra. They'd tried to convince Buck to sit down, but he'd refused and now stood leaning heavily against the post, one hand wrapped loosely around the gambler's neck as he quietly talked to him, trying to give Ezra something to focus on other than the pain.
Chris walked up beside Buck and Ezra and felt a fresh surge of anger rush through him when he got a close look at what had been done to them.
Both men's torsos were swathed in several layers of bandages which were already stained with fresh spots of blood, and both sported a nasty assortment of scrapes and bruises on their faces and over the rest of their bodies. White strips of cloth also encircled Buck's wrists, but Ezra's were still confined in the shackles. Blood seeped out from under the metal bands and trickled down to join that flowing from the lash marks on the gambler's arms and shoulders.
Vin stood waiting with the keys to free Ezra, while Nathan tended to his legs. He'd taken several hard blows from the whip on the backs of both legs, and the healer was taking the added precaution of wrapping them before they lowered him to the ground to try and keep as much dirt as possible out of the wounds.
When Nathan was ready, Vin handed him the keys and got a careful grip on Ezra's arms to hold them steady while the taller man unlocked the shackles and removed them. Both men winced when they saw the condition of the gambler's wrists and hands. The delicate skin on his wrists had been rubbed raw by the harsh metal, and the cuts Ezra had received from the broken window the night before had been torn open, and the bandages covering them were dirty and blood- stained.
Josiah and JD, who had taken over for Vin when the other man had gone to deal with Chris, tightened their hold on the Southerner as the tracker and Nathan slowly lowered his arms. Ezra cried out as stiffened muscles began to cramp and feeling rushed back into his hands.
Buck's heart clenched as the gambler's eyes, still locked onto his, widened with the flash of renewed pain. Shrugging off Chris's supporting hand, he leaned in to pull Ezra into his arms before carefully easing them both to the ground.
"Buck..." The smaller man moaned softly and pressed his face hard into Buck's shoulder in an effort to escape the burning and throbbing pain that seemed to envelop his entire body.
"I gotcha, pard. You just rest here against me while Nathan finishes takin' care of ya." Buck stroked his hand soothingly through Ezra's sweat-soaked hair as he held him against his chest, doing his best to keep the smaller man calm as Nathan and Josiah started working on his arms.
Chris sent Vin and JD off to round up their horses and to find a wagon they could use, and then crouched down beside the two men.
"How you boys doin'?" Chris's voice shook slightly with the realization of how close they'd come to losing the two of them.
"We'll be doin' a hell of a lot better once we get away from this damned place. Isn't that right, pard?" Buck and Chris were both relieved to see Ezra slowly lift his head and give them a weak grin. The pain was still there, dulling the usual brightness of the Southerner's eyes, but the intensity of it had eased somewhat now that the numbing properties of Nathan's salve had finally begun to do their job.
"Absolutely... Mr. Wilmington. I believe I've... had enough of... my uncle's... questionable... hospitality." Ezra started to put his head back down, but suddenly he stiffened and began to struggle against Buck's hold on him.
Delacourte slowly returned to consciousness and lay quietly with his eyes closed while he tried to get his bearings. He heard voices near the barn, and it all came back to him in an angry rush... the beating... a vague memory of his men leaving... the fight with Larabee.
Opening his eyes a fraction, he stared into the lifeless face of Jacob Haskins. Matthew let his gaze shift slightly and saw that his right hand lay within inches of the dead man's holster. Sweat trickled down his neck as he took stock of his situation. Larabee and the others were back by the barn, but he had no way of knowing their exact positions, and he didn't dare risk a look because if they saw he was awake, they'd most likely tie him up, ruining any chance he had of getting out of this mess.
Delacourte listened carefully to what was going on behind him as he weighed his meager options. Two deep voices, one he recognized as that of the healer, discussed their dwindling supply of bandages and the urgent need for a way to transport the two injured men back to the boardinghouse. Larabee sent two of his men off to find a wagon and then began speaking quietly to Wilmington. Suddenly his nephew's shaky drawl joined in the conversation. Son of a bitch... the little bastard was still alive!
Reason fled as mindless fury took over. Delacourte's hand crept out and eased Haskins' gun out of its holster. His survival wasn't even a consideration anymore as he quietly checked the weapon, ensuring that it was fully loaded. He knew he was going to die. The only thing that mattered to him now was taking Ezra, and as many of his friends as he could, with him.
Gathering the remainder of his waning strength, Matthew heaved himself to his feet, turned, and fired.
Ezra glanced behind Buck as his head started to drop back onto the other man's shoulder and, to his horror, saw his uncle rising and turning toward them. Catching the glint of sunlight off of metal, the gambler jerked his arm out of Nathan and Josiah's grasp, and in one smooth movement, snagged the healer's gun and pushed himself unsteadily to his feet.
Ezra felt Chris moving with him, and as one, they pulled Buck out of the way, raised their guns, and fired.
The others were startled to hear three shots ring out, not having seen what was transpiring behind them. By the time they realized what was happening, it was over.
Chris and Ezra stood together, their smoking guns still held out in front of them, and Buck tucked protectively between them. While across the yard, Delacourte lay sprawled in the dirt... unseeing eyes staring up at the sky... one bullet hole drilled right in the middle of his forehead and the other directly through his heart.
Recovering from the shock of what had happened, Vin and the others quickly surrounded the three men.
Nathan began checking them over and immediately found where the third bullet had gone... a shallow furrow had been gouged in the outside of Ezra's right biceps and was oozing a steady stream of blood. But the gambler was beyond knowing or caring that his uncle had succeeded in hitting him. Shock had finally set in and Ezra stood frozen in place, shaking and sweating profusely, his arm still extended in front of him, the pistol still clenched tightly in his fist... completely oblivious to the world around him.
Nathan tried to ease the gun out of Ezra's hand, but the slender fingers remained locked around the weapon.
Nothing. No answering nod, not even a twitch or flicker of an eye.
Buck slipped an arm around the smaller man's waist, and glanced worriedly at the dark healer. "He's cold, Nathan."
Nathan gently grasped Ezra's chin and tipped his face toward him so he could see into his eyes. Empty... their green depths devoid of any signs of life whatsoever. Patting lightly at the pale, bruised cheek, Nathan tried again. "Ezra? Can ya hear me?"
He waited a few seconds and then shook his head at the others waiting anxiously to hear their friend's reassuring drawl. "He's in shock. Not surprisin' considerin' what all he's been through today. Talk to 'im, Buck... we need t' get 'im back 'fore he slips too far away from us."
Buck leaned in to speak softly in Ezra's ear. "It's okay, pard... it's over. You're safe... we're all safe now." He felt the other man shiver slightly and continued, encouraged by even that much of a reaction. "Come on, Ezra... ya got ol' Nathan kinda worried here. How 'bout ya say a few words to 'im so's he knows you're all right, and then we can get outta here an' go home."
Ezra's head moved jerkily back and forth and a breathy moan whispered across his swollen lips. "Nooo.... "
Chris took Nathan's place in front of Ezra and wrapped his fingers around the younger man's trembling hand and the gun it still held. "It's okay, Ezra... you can let go now. We got the son of a bitch." The gambler's eyes shifted to Delacourte's lifeless body, and Chris watched as they filled with confusion and worry. "He can't hurt you anymore, Ezra... never again." He felt Ezra's grip loosen and eased the gun out of his hand, passing it behind him to Josiah.
Tears slowly began to trickle down Ezra's face and tremors shook his slender form as he stared at his uncle. The adrenaline that had gotten him onto his feet and kept him going during the shootout was quickly draining away.
"Come on, Ezra, let's sit ya down here before ya fall." Nathan took Ezra's arm to help Buck lower him to the ground, but the Southerner pulled away from them and took a few shaky steps before stopping and swaying dangerously. Vin and Chris grabbed him and steadied him, but he still refused to sit down.
"No... please... I have t'--, I need--" Ezra sobbed in frustration as he tried once again to get away and failed. The distress on his face was heart-breaking, and it was clear to the others that he was only moments away from a total collapse.
Vin wrapped an arm around the gambler's shoulders and spoke softly to him. "What do ya need t' do, Ezra? Jus' tell me an' we'll help ya."
Ezra turned his head and stared into Vin's eyes for a moment before allowing himself to lean into the tracker's comforting strength. "My... my f-father. I... need t'--" His voice hitched weakly and dropped to a faint pain-filled whisper. "Please, Vin...."
Vin just nodded at the other man and looked up at Chris.
Chris immediately slid his arm around Ezra's waist, and he and Vin took most of the gambler's weight and slowly walked with him across the yard.
Nathan tore his eyes away from the frail Southerner and turned to Josiah and JD. "Ya better gather up the horses an' find us a wagon. It ain't gonna be long before Ezra passes out, an' I wanna be able t' leave for town jus' as soon as he does." He grabbed Buck's arm as he saw him begin to sway. "We need t' get him an' this one back t' the boardin'house soon as we can."
Buck made a weak attempt to tug his arm out of the healer's grip, his eyes never leaving Ezra, but Nathan held fast, frowning at his stubbornness. "I'm fine, Nathan, now let me go, damn it."
Nathan just stared pointedly at Buck.
The mustached gunman's skin was gray under the darkening bruises, blood had soaked through the bandages in several places, and he was weaving on his feet, nearly as close to collapsing as Ezra was.
JD shook his head as he and Josiah walked away. "Give it up, Buck. You've lost this one for sure."
Nathan stopped them long enough to tell them to check the house for a mattress and blankets to pad the wagon with before turning and helping Buck over to where Ezra, Chris, and Vin now knelt beside the remains of David Standish and Amanda.
As they got closer, the two men had to swallow back their own tears as they heard Ezra weeping softly.
Vin still had his arm draped lightly across the gambler's bare shoulders while Chris had his fingers wrapped around Ezra's, his thumb rubbing slow, soothing circles over the back of the smaller man's slender hand.
Vin was speaking softly to the grieving man, reassuring him that everything would be all right. "Don't ya worry none, Ezra, we'll see t' your pa an' the girl. Ain't nothin' gonna hurt 'em no more."
"Thank you, Vin." Ezra's voice was choked with the sobs he was trying valiantly to hold back.
Vin saw Nathan and Buck approaching and, with a last squeeze to Ezra's shoulders, moved out of their way.
The healer eased Buck down beside Ezra and, touching the gambler's bowed head, spoke a few words of condolence and support before slowly backing away.
Chris gently untangled his fingers from Ezra's and, turning the Southerner's care over into Buck's willing hands, pushed himself wearily up off the ground and went to stand beside the others.
Buck reached out and let his hand rest on Ezra's shoulder for a few seconds, not wanting to startle him, and then shifted it to the back of his head, lightly stroking the damp chestnut curls.
"Ezra?" Buck's breath caught painfully in his chest when the gambler raised his head, giving him his first glimpse at the heart-rending sorrow that was tearing at Ezra's soul. "Ah damn it...." Buck saw Ezra's shoulders begin to shake as his eyes filled with fresh tears and slid his hand down to clasp the slender neck, giving it a gentle tug. "Come 'ere, pard."
Ezra's face began to crumple when he looked at Buck and saw the love and compassion those deep blue eyes held. He hesitated for only a moment, and then fell gratefully into his brother's arms. Harsh gasping sobs tore through him as he allowed Buck to gather him in close and cradle him against his chest.
Buck rested his cheek against the smaller man's forehead and began slowly rocking him. "That's it, Ezra... just let it all out now."
Clinging to Buck, Ezra wept brokenly, nearly choking on the flood of tears that he just couldn't hold back... tears for his father, for Amanda, and for his lost childhood.
And while Buck helped Ezra release all the pain and guilt he'd been carrying for so long, their brothers stood watch over them, all three men unashamedly brushing away their own tears as they waited.
By the time Josiah and JD returned, Ezra had finally succumbed to the exhaustion and pain, and they gently placed him on the thick down mattress that filled the wagon bed. Nathan quickly finished bandaging the gambler's wounds and covered him with a light blanket, and then he and Josiah eased Buck up beside him and forced the resisting gunfighter to lay down.
Buck tried to argue that he was just fine and didn't need to be mollycoddled, but his protests were interrupted by a huge, jaw-cracking yawn. Grinning sheepishly at Nathan, he finally conceded that maybe he did need to rest his eyes for a bit, and after gaining the healer's assurances that he would wake him if Ezra needed him, Buck grudgingly gave in to his body's demand for sleep.
Before they left, they made good on Vin's promise to Ezra and covered his father and Amanda's remains, carefully securing the tarp so that nothing could disturb them before they could be laid to rest again. They then threw another piece of oilcloth over the bodies of Delacourte and Haskins, even though they all heartily agreed that neither man deserved such a courtesy.
After some discussion, it was decided that once they got back to town, Josiah and JD would stay at the boardinghouse to help Nathan with Buck and Ezra, while Chris and Vin went and dealt with the sheriff.
Vin asked Chris if he still thought they should try and round up Delacourte's men, but the blond gunfighter just shook his head and told him to forget it. It was getting late, and they were all too exhausted to put on an effective search. If they still needed them to corroborate their story after talking to the sheriff, then they'd hunt them down tomorrow.
Relieved that it was finally almost over, they eagerly turned their backs on the hell where they'd nearly lost two of their own, and slowly started out on the first step to getting their family back home where it belonged.
Abigail and Katherine were on the porch, anxiously watching the road, when Chris and the others finally arrived back at the boardinghouse.
Abigail took one look at the two men in the back of the wagon, and with tears in her eyes and a curse on her lips, hurried inside to get things ready for their care.
Katherine tried to go to Ezra, but was held back by Chris and Vin. She struggled against them at first, but once she got a clear look at her brother and his horrendous injuries, she just stood between them, shaking, with tears streaming down her cheeks and her arms clamped tightly around her waist.
The three of them watched silently as Josiah gently lifted the still unconscious gambler out of the wagon and carried him inside. Buck had slept most of the way back, but had awakened when they'd pulled into the yard. After a brief struggle, he finally allowed Nathan and JD to help him, and the three of them slowly made their way into the house.
Katherine moved to follow them, but Chris put a hand on her arm to stop her. "Best to let Nathan get him settled first." She started to argue, but quickly realized he was right and knew that she'd just be in the way.
She stared at the house and shuddered. "He will be all right, won't he? He looked so frail...." Her voice trailed off as the image of Ezra's limp body lying cradled in the larger man's arms flashed across her mind.
Vin shook his head and smiled softly as he thought about the gambler. "Don't you worry 'bout ol' Ezra none, he's a whole lot tougher than he looks."
Katherine stared worriedly at the house. "It was Delacourte, wasn't it?" When they answered in the affirmative, she turned a cold, hate-filled gaze on them and asked, "Is he dead?"
Chris nodded, and then after a quick glance at Vin, told her about her father and the young girl.
She started to get upset, demanding to know how they could have just left his remains there, but managed to get her emotions back under control when they explained about wanting to take the sheriff out there before anything was disturbed.
Katherine looked once more at the house and then turned suddenly and strode over to her horse which was still saddled and tied to the hitching rail that ran alongside the porch. "I'm goin' with you. Sheriff Patterson knows me, and he might be more willing to listen if I'm there, too." Settling herself in the saddle, she turned her horse toward the street. "We'll collect the undertaker on our way through town. I want to be able to reassure Ezra when I see him that our father and that poor girl are finally at rest."
Chris and Vin exchanged a look of surprise at the sudden strength she was showing, but didn't say anything as they wearily mounted their horses. They just wanted to see the whole mess over with so they could concentrate on getting Ezra and Buck well enough to go home, and anything she was willing to do to help was fine with them.
So with a last worried glance back at the boardinghouse, they reluctantly turned their thoughts away from what was happening with their injured brothers, and followed her out of the yard.
It was nearly midnight before the two exhausted men finally made it back to the boardinghouse. Vin and Chris both were swaying on their feet by the time they had seen to their horses, and it was with a sense of great relief that they limped into the kitchen and collapsed at the table.
The others had heard them ride into the yard, and Josiah and Nathan were waiting with a bottle of whiskey and four glasses.
Chris glanced at the liquor and then quirked his brows questioningly at Josiah.
The preacher grinned as he poured the amber liquid. "Our dear Mrs. Stokes keeps it purely for medicinal purposes and generously prescribed a dose or two for us."
The other three men chuckled before downing their shots, sighing in unison as the soothing warmth burned its way down their throats.
"Get everything settled?" Josiah asked.
Chris nodded. "Sheriff did some blusterin' at first about bringin' the murderers of the town's leading citizen to justice, but he changed his tune damned quick once Katherine told 'im that if there was a trial, she'd hire the best lawyers she could find to investigate Delacourte's past, especially his involvement in her father's death. Apparently the Sheriff was workin' for Delacourte even back then, an' he wasn't any too anxious to have that whole mess dug up. He finally decided we'd acted in self-defense an' said there'd be no charges filed against us."
"And Ezra's father and Amanda?"
Vin sipped at his whiskey as he answered. "Miz Katherine took care of that, too. Got the undertaker t' bring the bones back t' his place for the night, an' first thing tomorrow, they're gonna take her father back t' the cemetery an' put 'im t' rest." He glanced regretfully at Nathan. "Don't know what they're gonna do 'bout the girl though. Undertaker says blacks ain't allowed t' be buried in the town plot."
Nathan nodded. "An' prob'ly after all this time, it'd be near impossible t' find any of her family."
"Miz Katherine said she'd have her buried on their farm if we can't locate any of her kin t' take her."
"She's a strong woman to be able to handle all that after what happened today. I'm surprised she didn't insist on comin' back here with you," Josiah commented.
Chris yawned and stretched tiredly. "She wanted to, but we convinced her that Ezra would probably be too out of it to even know she was here. An' since it would've meant leavin' her grandmother alone out at their place for the night, she finally agreed to let us take her home."
"Jus' as well that she don't spend too much time with 'im anyway. You know Ezra an' his need t' keep his pain t' hisself. If Miz Katherine was in there with 'im, he'd be workin' even harder at hidin' it, an' he sure don't need that added stress put on 'im."
Vin held his glass out for another 'dose' and looked worriedly at Nathan. "How they doin'?"
Nathan leaned back in his chair and wearily rubbed his hands over his eyes before answering. "Buck's not doin' too bad. He took four hits of the whip, but only one was deep enough t' need stitches. Other than that, he's jus' got a few sore ribs, some bruises an' cuts, an' a slight concussion from a blow t' the head that he got when Delacourte's men grabbed him. Long as I can keep any infection from settin' in, he should recover pretty quickly."
Chris saw the healer's frown and knew things weren't going as well for their gambler. "Ezra?"
Nathan sighed and stared into his empty glass. "Not so good. Accordin' t' what Buck's told us, Delacourte used *him* t' get t' Ezra. Every time Ezra showed any reaction t' the beatin' he was gettin'... a moan, a twitch... anything, Buck would get the whip instead."
Josiah shook his head sadly. "And you know Brother Ezra would do anything it took to protect Buck, so...."
"So Ezra prob'ly stood there an' took everything that bastard threw at 'im," Vin finished angrily.
Nathan nodded slowly. "Buck said Delacourte jus' kept gettin' madder an' madder when he couldn't get Ezra t' break an' finally jus' started whalin' on 'im. The only thing that saved Ezra, an' 'bout the only reason he's still alive, is that once Delacourte went crazy like that, the lashes got wilder an' he wasn't puttin' as much power behind 'em. There ain't hardly a spot anywhere on Ezra's back and legs that ain't got at least *some* damage from that damned whip. Hell, he's even got a few slices on his arms an' one on his jaw where the tip musta curled up over his shoulder an' nailed 'im. A lot of 'em barely broke the skin, but they burn near as bad as the deeper ones."
Vin felt his stomach turn at the thought of the intense, bone-deep pain Ezra had to be suffering. "He gonna make it?"
Nathan's dark brown eyes stared sadly back at him. "I jus' can't say for sure. He lost a lot of blood an' the fever's already settin' in." He shook his head in frustration. "He's still run down from those damned nightmares an' headaches... I jus' don't know if he's got the strength left t' fight now."
"Fuck!" Chris slammed his glass down on the table, and then sat with his eyes closed and fists clenched trying to work through the rage that washed through him. He just wanted another chance at Delacourte... to string him up and make him suffer the way Ezra was suffering now. As far as Chris was concerned, he'd let the bastard die too damned easily.
Vin knew exactly what his friend was thinking. "Ya did what ya had t', Chris."
Chris opened his eyes and stared hard at the tracker. "I know I did, an' I'll be regrettin' it the rest of my goddamned life." He stood and had to grab the back of the chair as a rush of dizziness hit him.
Nathan jumped up to help him, wincing as the sudden movement pulled on the still-healing bullet wound in his leg. "You're goin' t' bed, an' I don't want no argument outta ya. Ya ain't over that concussion yet, an' ya need t' be gettin' some rest." Turning his scowl on the tracker, he added, "An' that goes for you, too."
Neither man resisted as they were herded up the stairs... the idea of crawling into bed just sounded too good right at that moment. They did insist on looking in on Ezra and Buck first though, needing to reassure themselves that both of their friends were still with them.
Nathan didn't argue, just led them up to the room he and Josiah had been sharing. Since the room had twin beds, it was decided that it would be easier for those caring for the two men, and easier on Buck and Ezra themselves, to put them in there. Nathan knew that, at least for now, they needed to be near each other. Buck had told them that they'd almost lost Ezra, and the healer was sure that the only thing that had kept the gambler with them was the fragile connection he'd made with Buck during the beating. And Nathan knew that Ezra was going to need that hold his friend had on him if he was going to have any chance at all of pulling through now.
When they entered the room, JD was perched carefully on the edge of Buck's bed... one hand resting lightly on the older man's shoulder, his worried gaze switching back and forth between his two friends. He barely glanced up when the others walked in, as if he were afraid they would slip away if he weren't keeping watch.
Abigail sat on a chair that had been placed in the small gap between the two beds and was wiping Ezra's flushed face gently with a dampened cloth. She quickly moved to make way for them, handing Nathan the cloth as she squeezed past him on her way to the door.
She looked worriedly at Chris and Vin. "Would you boys like something to eat before you go to bed? It would only take me a minute to warm up the leftovers from supper."
They both shook their heads and politely refused her offer, too tired to even think about food at that point.
Standing at the foot of the beds, they looked sadly down at their friends. Buck lay partially on his side, his face buried in the plump down pillow as he snored softly. Nathan told them that Buck had fought with everything he had left against the sleep he needed so badly, refusing to close his eyes until they'd gotten all of Ezra's wounds cleaned and bandaged again. After that, Nathan was finally able to convince him that the gambler probably wouldn't regain consciousness for awhile, and only then did the exhausted gunfighter close his eyes and allow sleep to claim him.
After they'd layered extra padding over the two or three cuts on Ezra's chest and stomach, he'd been settled face down in the bed, stretched out flat to keep any strain off of the numerous lash marks that lined his back and legs.
Chris nodded at Ezra's still form. "He wake up at all, Nathan?"
After checking on Buck, Nathan wearily lowered himself onto the chair that Abigail had vacated. Rinsing off the cloth he held in the basin of cool water sitting on the night table, he began dabbing at the sweat that lightly coated Ezra's bruised features before answering.
"He stirred an' cried out some when I was stitchin' 'im up, but other than that, he ain't showed any signs of comin' to." Nathan glanced worriedly up at their leader. "That bastard hurt 'im bad, Chris... real bad. Hell, I seen slaves die from beatin's that weren't nowhere's near as bad as the one Ezra took today." He brushed unashamedly at the tears that filled his eyes as he looked back down at the man lying in the bed. "I still ain't sure how he survived it, but I'm gonna do my damnedest t' help 'im keep fightin'."
Vin placed a reassuring hand on the healer's shoulder. "We know you'll do your best for 'im, Nathan, ya always do. An' at least he ain't fightin' alone... he's got all of us here fightin' right along with 'im."
Nathan nodded gratefully at the tracker's words, and then stood and began herding them all toward the door. "But before ya can help 'im, y'all need to get yourselves some rest. I want every one of ya t' go get in those damned beds an' get some sleep." He scowled as he saw that JD was still sitting beside Buck. "I'm talkin' t' you too, JD. Get yourself outta here an' go t' bed. Ya ain't gonna do Buck no good if ya collapse from exhaustion."
When JD resisted Nathan's orders, Josiah gently took his arm and forced him off the bed. "Come on now, son, you know Nathan's right. An' you know Buck an' Ezra wouldn't want ya wearin' yourself out like this."
JD finally relented and, after one more worried look at his two sleeping friends, followed the older men out of the room.
Josiah paused in the doorway and looked back at their healer. "Ya sure you don't want me to stay an' help?"
Nathan shook his head as he eased himself down onto the narrow bed beside Ezra. "Abigail's gonna stay up with me for a bit. Go ahead an' get some sleep, an' I'll wake ya in a couple of hours t' spell me."
Josiah nodded agreeably at his friend and then stepped back out of the way as Abigail came up the stairs balancing two cups of tea in her hands.
She frowned slightly at Josiah as she moved past him into the room. "Aren't you supposed to be in bed?"
"I was just leavin'," the gentle preacher assured Abigail before he hurried down the hall to Ezra and Buck's former room, a small amused smile tugging at his lips as he entered and closed the door. Just as he'd turned away, he'd seen Nathan's brows shoot up at how easily he'd capitulated to their hostess's demands. He wondered how long it would be before Nathan started begging Miz Abigail to accompany them back to Four Corners.
As he undressed and climbed into bed, Josiah started thinking about how much they all would miss their newfound friend when they left and realized that the idea of her going home with them actually had some merit. It was obvious she was lonely here, and there was no question that Nathan was often overworked, especially given how frequently their three youngest members managed to find trouble.
Then Josiah thought about how, even after only the short time they'd known Abigail, she just *felt* like part of their family. Maybe their coming together was just meant to be.
After finally deciding that he would bring the subject up with the others in the morning, Josiah settled back against the pillows and quickly fell asleep.
Abigail sat sipping her tea, watching Nathan as he checked Ezra's wounds and then carefully pulled the sheet back up over him. The smaller man moaned and shifted restlessly in the bed.
Nathan pressed down lightly on Ezra's shoulder with one hand, while he slowly ran the cool cloth soothingly over his feverish brow with the other. "Easy now. You're all right." Ezra immediately stilled at the first sounds of the healer's deep voice and the gentle touch of his large, dark hands. Once he felt the gambler relax and heard his breathing even out, Nathan wet the soft piece of flannel again and draped it across the back of Ezra's neck.
"You're very good at what you do, Nathan," Abigail remarked quietly. "Have you had any formal training?"
Nathan blushed slightly at the compliment and then shook his head. "No, ma'am, jus' what I picked up durin' the war."
"Have you ever considered going to medical school?"
Nathan nodded. "Used t' think on it all the time. Miz Travis... she's a friend of ours back home... she tried t' get me t' go. Said she'd do everything she could t' help me." Nathan paused to wipe away the sweat that had gathered on Ezra's face again before continuing. "But that was 'fore I signed on t' help protect Four Corners. Sure never pictured myself workin' for the law, no more'n Ezra here prob'ly did, but it's turned out a whole lot better'n I ever thought it would. It's given me a chance t' help people with somethin' 'sides jus' my healin', an' it's given me a bit of respect in the town."
Abigail glanced at the two men sleeping in the beds. "And it's given you a family."
Nathan followed her gaze and felt his heart warm at the word 'family' as he looked at his two brothers. "Yes, ma'am, I reckon that is how we think of ourselves. An' I jus' don't think I could leave all that behind now an' still be happy... not even for a chance at medical school." His eyes stayed on Ezra for a moment, and then he looked up and grinned. "'Sides, the way these fools attract trouble, someone's gotta be their t' patch 'em up."
Abigail finished her tea and stood slowly, feeling every bit her age after the day they'd all had. "Well, I'm sure they appreciate all you do for them, Nathan."
Nathan snorted softly in amusement. "Yeah, I know in their hearts they do. An' that's all that keeps me from kickin' their sorry butts outta my clinic when they start actin' like two year olds."
"And I don't suppose they might be thinkin' the same thing when the tables are turned and they have to take care of you?"
He nodded and grinned up at her. "Yes, ma'am, I reckon that might be possible. But I jus' look at it as my chance t' give 'em a taste of their own medicine."
Abigail laughed and shook her head at him. "Well, that just proves it... you're definitely brothers." She gave him a pat on the shoulder and moved slowly out into the hall. "Goodnight, Nathan. You be sure and call me if you need anything."
"I will, ma'am. Night."
Nathan had been grateful for the brief distraction from their troubles, but now his thoughts turned back to his two injured friends, and he settled in for what he knew was going to be a long and worrisome night.
Nathan's chin bobbed once... twice... toward his chest before he jerked himself upright in the chair, shaking his head to try and clear away the tendrils of sleep that were trying to drag him under. Pushing himself to his feet, the exhausted healer stretched long and hard to ease the stiffness in his back before checking on his patients.
Buck still lay curled up on his side, sleeping peacefully. A touch to his cheek revealed a slight fever... normal for his injuries and nothing to be overly concerned about. Nathan tugged the covers up over his shoulder and then moved over to Ezra.
He didn't even have to touch the Southerner to check his temperature, the heat was radiating off of him in waves. Lines of frustration and worry creased Nathan's face as he sat on the bed beside Ezra. The fever had taken a vicious hold on him and was building a lot faster than he'd expected, and Nathan knew it was slowly burning away what little bit of strength Ezra had left.
Nathan lowered the sheet to Ezra's waist and began slowly bathing the younger man's overheated skin with the tepid water. The basin was going to need to be refilled soon, but he hated to leave the two men long enough to do it. Nathan heard the clock in the front hall chime three times and sighed. He'd wanted to let Josiah sleep at least until sunup, but it looked like he was going to be forced to rouse him sooner. He'd just decided to go ahead and wake the preacher, when Ezra gasped and then let out a low, pain-filled moan.
When Ezra finally began emerging from the darkness he'd taken refuge in, the first thing he became aware of was the quiet. Uncle Matthew's insane cries, the crack of the whip, Buck's pleading voice... all of it was gone, and now there was nothing but a blissful silence.
And then the pain hit... a burning, breath-stealing, mind-numbing pain that seemed to wrap itself around him until Ezra felt as though he were drowning in it. He struggled against the urge to scream, terrified that his uncle was there... watching him... just waiting for the chance to signal another round of torture for Buck. But the pain was just too much for him to bear, and to Ezra's horror, a soft moan finally worked its way past his lips.
Nathan immediately placed a comforting hand on the gambler's shoulder, and was startled when he cried out and jerked away as if he'd been struck.
Ezra felt the hand come down on his shoulder and knew he'd been right... Matthew had been just waiting for him to react to the pain. "Oh God... Buck... don't hurt him... please. I'm... s-sorry... so sorry... "
"Damn...." Realizing the high fever had the Southerner thinking he was still trapped at his uncle's, Nathan quickly knelt beside the bed and began trying to bring Ezra out of his delirium.
"It's okay, Ezra. You're safe now," Nathan spoke quietly to the younger man as he gently stroked his face to try and calm him. "It's Nathan, Ezra... can ya hear me?"
Ezra's forehead wrinkled in confusion at the gentle touch and familiar voice. Nathan? What was Nathan doing at his uncle's?
"N... Na-than?" Ezra's breathy whisper was so weak it was barely audible.
"Right here, Ezra." Nathan's heart nearly broke when he saw the gambler start to shake as tears formed on his long, thick lashes and then trickled slowly across his face to dampen the sheet beneath his cheek.
"Help 'im... Nathan. Help... Buck. Gonna hurt... him," Ezra begged as his hand slid weakly across the bed in search of the healer's.
Nathan wrapped his fingers around the gambler's hand and held it securely in his own as he tried again to convince him that he and Buck were all right.
"Hush now. No one's gonna hurt either one of ya... you're both safe, Ezra."
"Nooo... you don't... understand... I d-dis... disobeyed... now he's goin'... t' hurt Buck. Matthew... he's goin' t'... whip 'im again." Ezra sobbed brokenly as he pushed at Nathan's hand in frustration. "Please... Nathan... you've got t'... help... Buck."
"I promise ya, Ezra... no one's gonna hurt Buck. Your uncle's gone, Ezra. You an' Chris took care of 'im, remember?" Nathan could see he still wasn't getting through to the Southerner. Lightly patting Ezra's cheek, he tried again. "Ezra? I want ya t' open your eyes for me. You're not at your uncle's anymore, you're back at Miz Abigail's, an' Buck's right here with ya... jus' open your eyes an' ya can see for yourself."
"M-Matthew's... he's... gone?" Ezra was trembling and clinging to Nathan's hand as he tried to make sense of the healer's words. "Buck's... safe?"
"That's right, Ezra. You're both safe now." Nathan tugged lightly on the smaller man's hand. "Come on now... open your eyes an' look at me. Jus' for a few minutes."
Nathan waited anxiously until Ezra's eyes fluttered twice and then slowly opened. The gambler didn't speak, just stared dazedly at him, blinking slowly as he tried to orient himself.
"B-Buck?" Ezra whispered anxiously.
Nathan shifted to the side so Ezra could see past him to the other bed. "Right over there, Ezra." The healer heard someone walk into the room and glanced over his shoulder to see Josiah standing near the door. He nodded at him and then turned his attention back to the gambler who was staring worriedly at Buck. "Take it easy now... he's jus' sleepin'. He's gonna be fine... you both are."
Ezra sighed as his eyes finally focused and he was able to see that Nathan spoke the truth... Buck was here and safe. Relief flooded through the gambler as he slowly began to slip back into the darkness. Vague memories of someone telling him he had to stay... that he was needed... whispered through his fevered mind, but he was just too tired to try and figure out what it meant. He just hoped Buck and the others would understand and forgive him.
Nathan smiled as he saw the fear leave Ezra's eyes just before they closed, and felt the fierce grip the Southerner had on his hand relax slightly as the tension drained out of him. He marveled at how just one look at Buck sleeping safe and sound beside him seemed to have erased all the pain and distress from Ezra's face, replacing it with a calm and peaceful expression instead.
Nathan was startled when Josiah suddenly pushed past him, roughly shoving him aside as he crouched down in front of the gambler and blocked Ezra's view of Buck.
"Josiah... what the hell do ya think y--" Nathan grabbed the preacher's shoulder to pull him away, but was immediately shrugged off.
"Damn it, Nathan... can't you see what's happening?! He's giving up again! Remember what Buck told us? Once we'd arrived at Delacourte's and Ezra knew Buck was safe, he quit fighting!" Josiah never took his eyes off of Ezra's face as he hurriedly growled an explanation at the bewildered healer.
Nathan quickly looked again at the peaceful expression on Ezra's face and was horrified to realize that Josiah was right. By showing Ezra that Buck was safe, he'd inadvertently taken away the one thing that had been keeping the gambler alive... the need for him to protect Buck.
"Ezra! Come on, son, open your eyes for me!" Josiah gripped Ezra's hand and spoke firmly to the younger man, trying desperately to get him to respond.
Buck was pulled out of sleep by the sound of Josiah's voice and slowly opened his eyes to see the older man, who was kneeling by the other bed, begin lightly slapping Ezra's face.
"Josiah? What the-"
Nathan saw Buck try to push himself up off of the bed and hurried over to stop him. "Easy, Buck, jus' lie still now for ya go hurtin' yourself again."
Buck put his head back down and squeezed his eyes shut for a few moments as a wave of dizziness hit him. Once the world had righted itself, he opened them again and stared worriedly at Ezra. "Jesus, Nathan... what the hell is Josiah doin'? Is Ezra all right?!"
"I don't know, Buck." Nathan sat on the bed beside the mustached gunman and placed a firm hand on his shoulder to keep him still. "He woke up confused an' scared, thinkin' y'all were still back at Delacourte's, so I got 'im t' look at ya t' let 'im know ya were both back here an' safe. But Josiah..." Nathan felt tears burning at the back of his eyes as he looked guiltily over at Ezra... God, he should have realized.... "Josiah's afraid Ezra's givin' up again now that he knows you're gonna be okay."
Buck struggled against Nathan's restraining hands and tried again to get out of the bed. "Let me go, Nathan! He needs me! I have t' get 'im back!"
"Quiet down an' listen t' me." Nathan easily pinned the weakened gunman down and held him still. "Ya ain't gonna help 'im none by lettin' 'im see ya up an' around. We're gonna have t' try an' make 'im believe you're life's still in danger, an' that ya need 'im. That's the only way we're gonna get 'im t' start fightin' again."
Buck collapsed back onto his side and stared helplessly at Ezra. An icy fear had settled in his chest, making it hard to breathe, and his words were choked with emotion when he spoke. "He can't die now, Nathan... not after everything he's been through. He fought so damned... hard for... me...." Buck looked pleadingly up at the healer. "I can't just lie here an' do nothin'... I've gotta help 'im, Nathan."
Nathan felt a lump form in his throat when he heard the pain in his friend's voice. "I know, Buck, but right now the best thing ya can do for Ezra is t' stay quiet an' let Josiah take care of 'im."
Once he got Buck calmed down, Nathan had him drink some water then forced the worried gunfighter to lie still so he could check his bandages over. While he worked, Nathan listened to Josiah speaking softly to the gambler and sent up a silent prayer that the preacher would be able to reach Ezra and bring him back.
"Come on now, Ezra... Buck needs you." Josiah grabbed the piece of flannel that Nathan had been using, sopped up what water was left in the basin, and began bathing the smaller man's head and neck with it. As he'd hoped, the water trickling through Ezra's hair and down the side of his face drew a response from him. It was only a feeble groan and a very slight shifting of the gambler's head as he tried to move away from Josiah's hand, but at least it was something.
Josiah glanced back at the two men behind him and whispered urgently, "Nathan... more water, the colder the better. Buck, I want you to make some noise, make him think you're in pain. Call out for him... tell him you need his help."
Nathan instantly moved to follow Josiah's orders, grabbing the basin and hurrying out the door. But Buck just stared at the older man and shook his head... he knew what it would do to Ezra to think he was still in danger because of him. He couldn't hurt him that way... he just couldn't.
"Josiah, no... please... I can't. You don't know what that'll do to 'im...."
Josiah's expression softened with sympathy. He knew that Buck would rather die himself than to cause Ezra any kind of pain, but they had no choice. Reaching across the narrow space between the beds, the preacher grabbed Buck's arm and gave it a hard shake.
"Damn it, Buck! We're gonna lose 'im if you can't give 'im a reason to stay! Now do as I said!
Buck closed his eyes for a second and swallowed hard. Josiah was right, but dear God, he hated what he was about to do. Opening his eyes again, he gave the preacher a quick nod, and after a couple of halting attempts, forced out a loud moan of pain and called out Ezra's name.
Josiah had turned back toward Ezra and was watching him closely... nothing. "Again, Buck... louder!"
"Ezra, help me!" Buck lifted a shaky hand and swiped at the rush of tears that filled his eyes as he heard Ezra whimper and weakly cry out for him. If Nathan hadn't returned at that very moment and stopped him, he would have rushed to Ezra's side and told him the truth.
Buck saw Josiah motion for him to keep going, and with a very real pain in his voice this time, he groaned out another plea for help from Ezra. He looked up gratefully at Nathan as he sat on the bed beside him and gave his arm a supportive squeeze, but then both men's attention was drawn quickly back to the other bed by the heart-wrenching sound of Ezra's gentle weeping.
"Buck?! No... please... not again...." Ezra sobbed tiredly when he heard Buck's cry for help. He'd been almost there... almost delivered from this world of misery and pain he'd been living in for what seemed like forever.
But Buck was calling him back again. Back to the pain. Back to the fight.
Ezra began to cry quietly as he watched the darkness drift away once more. He wanted it so badly... freedom from the unrelenting pain... peace for his battered soul....
Footsteps sounded in the hall, and Nathan jumped up to intercept the others as they rushed into the room. Forcing them back out the door, he closed it behind him and quickly explained the situation and how they were handling it.
"Jesus, Nathan! There's gotta be another way to get through to Ezra. Using Buck against him like that is gonna tear them both apart!" Chris argued angrily while Vin, JD, and Abigail looked on in silence, their faces reflecting the same doubts that the blond was so vehemently expressing.
"Damn it, Chris, he'd given up! We didn't have time t' come up with an easier way!" Nathan took several deep breaths to try and calm down, reminding himself that it was just Chris's worry for his friends talking. "Ya gotta understand... Ezra's sufferin' through some powerful hurt an' is jus' plain wore out. If we don't give 'im a damn good reason t' hang on, he's jus' gonna quit on us."
Chris's anger drained away when he heard the pain and frustration that tinged Nathan's words. "Ah Hell, Nathan... I--"
The blond gunfighter's apology was cut off by an anguished cry from behind the closed door.
Nathan grimaced and headed for the stairs. "If y'all wanna help Ezra and Buck, you'll get your butts in there an' do jus' what Josiah tells ya to." He stopped to glare at Chris. "An' if ya don't think ya can do that, then jus' stay the hell away."
Chris's eyes narrowed as he stared back at the healer, but seeing the unflinching determination in Nathan's dark eyes, he finally gave a curt nod and turned to enter the room, followed closely by Vin and a very nervous JD.
As soon as the door closed behind the three men, Abigail walked over to Nathan who still stood at the head of the stairs with his head bowed and his eyes closed as he sadly listened to Ezra's muted cries of pain.
Laying a hand lightly on his arm, the elderly woman drew his attention back to her. "What do you need me to do, Nathan?"
Nathan smiled gratefully at her and patted her hand before continuing on down the stairs. "Thanks, Miz Abigail." Forcing his thoughts away from Buck and Ezra, Nathan quietly began listing off all that needed to be done.
"Don't leave me, Ezra... I need you."
Ezra heard the pain in Buck's voice and struggled to open his eyes. He couldn't understand what was happening. Nathan had told him Uncle Matthew was gone... that Buck was safe now. He'd seen him there in the room with them... hadn't he? Or had he only dreamed it. Ezra tried to push himself up off the bed and immediately let out a strangled scream as a blazing burst of agony ripped through his tortured body.
The others stepped into the room and found Buck struggling to get out of one bed while Josiah fought to keep Ezra still in the other one. The gambler sobbed and gasped for breath, writhing helplessly under the preacher's restraining hands as he tried to escape the pain.
JD hurried to Buck's side, easily pushing the weakened gunfighter back against the pillows, as Vin and Chris moved quickly to help Josiah with Ezra.
Buck pleaded with JD to let him go. It broke the youth's heart to have to deny his friend, but he knew he had to for Ezra's sake. "Nathan told us what happened. You gotta let the others take care of 'im this time, Buck." JD could have cried at the look of anguish he saw in the older man's blue eyes as he turned away to stare forlornly over at Ezra.
JD watched the others working to help the Southerner as he ran a comforting hand back and forth over Buck's arm. "Don't worry, Buck, I know he'll make it. Ezra won't give up... we won't let 'im."
The young peacekeeper refused to allow even a trace of doubt to enter his voice. Buck needed him to be strong right now. Besides, they were a family of seven, and JD knew in his heart that every one of them was prepared to do whatever it took to keep it that way.
Vin and Chris gingerly grabbed onto Ezra, flinching at the heat that poured off of him, and held him as still as they could while Josiah settled on the mattress beside the gambler's head and attempted to get him calmed down.
"Easy, Ezra, we're right here with you. You're gonna be okay."
"... J'siah?" Ezra gasped out, still struggling against the fiery tendrils of pain that burned across almost every inch of his skin. "Buck...."
Josiah ran his long fingers soothingly through the chestnut curls clinging damply to the gambler's scalp and began talking softly to him. "Shh... JD's with him. Now I want you to look at me and just concentrate on the sound of my voice. Let me help you, Ezra."
Ezra's whole body trembled as he tried to do as Josiah said. After several faltering attempts, green eyes glittering with pain and fever finally opened and stared wildly back at the preacher. "Buck... w-where... " Ezra inhaled sharply, hands grasping and twisting in the bedding as the room tipped and spun dizzily around him.
"B-Buck!" Ezra sobbed out the gunfighter's name as he felt everything slowly slipping away from him. The pain was relentless... throbbing, burning... pushing him closer and closer toward that peaceful oblivion that he longed for. But he couldn't let it take him yet... he had to know about Buck... had to be sure he was going to be all right.
Josiah glanced quickly at Buck, motioning for him not to respond this time, and then turned back to Ezra.
Buck groped blindly for the comfort of JD's hand as, with tears streaming down his face, he forced himself to keep silent and ignore the anguished cries coming from the other bed... and prayed that Ezra would be able to forgive him.
Abigail stood by the stove watching Nathan as he added two mugs of the herbal tea he'd prepared to the large tray that was already piled high with a fresh supply of bandages and soft squares of flannel.
She looked down at the small brown bottle she held and then back at the healer. "Are you sure you don't want to use this laudanum, Nathan? I know it isn't much, but I can get more from Dr. Mason tomorrow."
Nathan shook his head as he carefully lifted the tray and turned toward the stairs. "Thanks anyway, Miz Abigail, but it wouldn't do no good for me t' take it. Ezra... well, he... um... he can't use it... an' knowin' Buck, he ain't gonna want t' be drugged up jus' in case Ezra needs 'im." He nodded at the two steaming cups balanced on the edge of the tray. "This here tea'll hopefully take the edge off the pain an' at least help the two of 'em get some rest."
Abigail noticed Nathan's hesitation when he mentioned Ezra, but politely refrained from asking any questions. "Well, it'll be right here in this drawer if you decide you need it." She began bustling around the kitchen, pulling skillets and plates out of the cupboards. "I'm goin' to go ahead and get breakfast started, so if you'll just send someone down with the tray later, I'll--"
"Now ya don't need t' be goin' t' all that trouble, ma'am. You should get yourself on back t' bed. We can manage jus' fine," Nathan protested as he paused in the doorway.
"You just hush. Y'all are exhausted and still nursing your own injuries, and you need to get some good hearty food in your stomachs to keep up your strength." Abigail gave him a stern look and a dismissive wave of her hand. "Now you just get back to takin' care of those poor boys, and I'll let you know when breakfast is ready."
Nathan took one look at her face and wisely refrained from arguing further. Instead, he offered her a quiet thank you and continued on up the stairs, smiling as he started thinking about how handy it would be if he could only have her working back home in the clinic with him. All she'd have to do is give the others that 'look' she'd just used on him, and even Chris would turn into an ideal patient.
Nathan chuckled and shook his head at the idea of any of them ever being even the least bit cooperative when they were hurt. His thoughts suddenly turned to his two wounded friends, and his smile disappeared. Nathan's heart was heavy as he approached their room. The hell with ideal patients... right now he'd give anything just to have Buck and Ezra well enough to be up and arguing with him. Anything at all.
Josiah bent low over Ezra so that he wouldn't have to strain to look up at him and continued talking quietly, trying to break through the fear and pain that had the Southerner in its unyielding grip.
"Take it easy, son. Buck's in the other bed and he's safe, but you've got to try and calm down. He's getting upset because he's worried about you... he's afraid you're leaving us again." Josiah heard Ezra's breath catch and saw a different kind of pain flare to life in the gambler's glazed eyes. Another flash of memory....
<<a light... a gentle voice... "Buck needs you, Ezra...">>
Ezra shuddered as the fear and guilt he'd felt Buck suffering from before flooded his mind again. He was hurting his friend because he was quitting... because he was weak. "... can't leave... he needs... me...."
Josiah felt a ray of hope when he heard the softly mumbled words. "That's right, Ezra. Buck needs you to stay."
Vin leaned forward to whisper in the gambler's ear. "We all do, pard." He felt a tremor run through the slender form and began gently stroking Ezra's shoulder.
"We're not gonna let you go, Ezra. We can't... you're one of us." Chris loosened Ezra's grip on the sheets and slipped his hand into the younger man's, giving him something solid to anchor himself to.
"I know you're not gonna leave us, Ezra, 'cause we're a family. An' family don't give up on each other... ever." JD felt his eyes fill with tears at the stunned look that came over the gambler's face. It hurt him to know that Ezra still had a hard time grasping the fact that they believed in him, that he didn't have to keep proving himself.
Ezra was amazed by the unwavering confidence he heard in the youngster's voice. JD trusted him to keep fighting... trusted him to not let the family down.
With a soft whimper, Ezra turned his face into the mattress and cried. He didn't want to disappoint them... wanted more than anything to live up to their faith in him, but between the excruciating pain and the fever that seemed to burn hotter with every breath he took, Ezra just didn't think he had anything left to fight with.
The door swung open, and Nathan eased into the room with the heavily laden tray balanced precariously in one hand. He cast a worried glance at his two patients as he deposited his burden on the dresser, and then frowned when he saw the distress both men were still in.
He knew the preacher had been right when he'd announced that Ezra was giving up again, and Nathan had no doubt that they probably would have lost him if Josiah hadn't stepped in and taken over when he did. But, while using Ezra's fear for Buck had succeeded in getting the gambler back, it was now working against him. The constant worry over Buck's safety was draining him... stealing the strength he needed to keep fighting. And it was obvious by the look of anguish on Buck's face, that the stress of going along with Josiah's plan was simply more than the gunman was able to handle. Nathan had heard the others talking to Ezra as he'd come down the hallway. If their heartfelt words of encouragement and Buck's pleas for help hadn't given him the will to go on, then nothing probably would.
Praying he was doing the right thing, Nathan made his decision... it was time to re-establish the connection that Buck and Ezra had fought to maintain back at Delacourte's. It had worked to keep them both alive then, hopefully it would continue to do so now. If not, then at least it might allow Ezra to leave them peacefully, not screaming with pain.
Scooping the two mugs up off the tray, Nathan moved determinedly toward the beds.
"I want ya t' drink all of this, Buck," Nathan ordered quietly as he handed one of the mugs to JD. He saw the other man's mouth open to protest and quickly silenced him with a promise. "Jus' do as I say, an' I'll let ya talk t' Ezra."
Buck stared up into the dark, compassionate eyes of the healer and, after a moment, gave him a curt nod and allowed JD to help him as he downed the bitter liquid.
As soon as he saw that Buck was cooperating, Nathan moved to take Josiah's place at Ezra's side. Crouching down beside the bed, he reached out and rested his hand lightly on the gambler's head. "Ezra?"
The muffled sobs hitched to a stop as Ezra weakly turned his face toward Nathan. "Na-than?"
Nathan watched the glassy green eyes blink slowly and knew that the fever and pain were making it hard for the Southerner to focus on him. "Right here, Ezra."
"N-Na-than... where's..." Ezra emitted another strangled sob as he struggled with the words that usually came so easily for him. "... need... Buck...."
"Easy now... I'll have ya back with Buck jus' in a minute." Nathan grabbed a fresh cloth, soaked it briefly in the basin of cool water, and then gently swabbed Ezra's face and neck before retrieving the other mug of tea from the night table. "I jus' want ya t' drink this for me first."
"... n-no... please...."
With Chris and Vin's help, Nathan raised Ezra up off the mattress far enough to allow him to drink the herbal mixture without choking. "Come on now, Ezra, this'll help with the pain, an' as soon as ya finish it, I promise you'll get t' see Buck."
Ezra tried to twist his head away, but Nathan's large hand wrapped around his forehead was all it took to hold the weakened gambler still. When the healer pressed the rim of the mug against his lips and tipped it slightly, Ezra had no choice but to swallow.
"Take it slow... that's it." Nathan watched Ezra carefully as he forced a small amount of the tea into him. "You're doin' jus' fine, Ezra, jus' try an' take a little bit more, an' I'll let ya rest."
Ezra managed two more small sips, but Nathan could see he'd had enough. After passing the still half-full mug to Josiah, he and the others slowly settled the gambler back down on his stomach.
Nathan started to move away, but stopped and bent back over Ezra when he grabbed weakly at his hand.
"... Buck... please...."
"I'm gettin' 'im right now, Ezra... you jus' lay quiet an' give that tea a chance t' work, okay?" Nathan smiled and patted the smaller man's hand when he saw him nod and then stood and started taking things off the night table and carrying them over to the dresser while explaining what he was doing to the others.
Josiah nodded approvingly and moved quickly to help the healer, and once they had the space between the two beds cleared out, the others slowly and carefully pushed them together.
Buck immediately reached over and grabbed onto Ezra's hand. "Hey, pard."
Ezra gasped at the welcome sound of Buck's voice and clutched his hand with trembling fingers. Blinking rapidly, he tried to bring the other man into focus. Ezra needed desperately to see Buck... to see that he was really here in front of him and safe. It took several moments, but he was finally rewarded with a clearer view of Buck's familiar face. It was pale and bruised, and the deep blue eyes were filled with worry, but the gentle smile that the gunman flashed at him was enough to lift the heavy mantle of fear that had cloaked Ezra's heart since their whole ordeal had begun. "You... all right?"
Buck squeezed Ezra's hand and stared intently at the younger man. "I will be... long as I know you're gonna keep on hangin' in here with me."
Ezra's eyes slid shut as he wearily shook his head. "... 's jus' too... hard... t' fight..." The gambler's fingers tightened around Buck's as he moaned softly. "... hurts...."
Tears streamed unnoticed down Buck's cheeks as he rubbed his thumb lightly across the back of the other man's hand. "I know it does, Ezra... I know."
Nathan sat on the bed behind Ezra and leaned over him to slowly run the damp cloth over his fevered skin. He glanced at the others and then spoke hesitantly to the Southerner. "Ezra? Miz Abigail has some laudanum that --"
"No! N-Nathan... you p-promised... me...." Ezra's eyes flew open as he frantically struggled to move away from Nathan's touch. "... you... promised."
The others all shot startled looks at Nathan. Shortly after they'd gotten together, as a precaution in case Ezra was ever injured when he was away from his care, the healer had warned them that under no circumstances was the gambler to be given laudanum. None of them knew why because no details were offered and, out of respect for Ezra's privacy, none were asked for. But they were all aware of Nathan's promise to the younger man regarding the drug, which was why his offering it to him now came as such a surprise.
"Ezra! It's all right... calm down! I ain't gonna give it t' ya if ya don't want it, but a little bit wouldn't hurt ya, an' it'd help ya get the rest ya need." Nathan waved the others off when he saw them reach for Ezra. He knew that it would just panic the smaller man further if they tried to restrain him in anyway.
Ezra shook his head and mumbled fretfully. "... promised me... you promised... m-me...."
"Shh... it's okay, Ezra. I ain't gonna make ya take it. I jus' wanted ya t' know it was there if ya needed it." He gently smoothed the gambler's hair back and leaned in closer to whisper softly in his ear. "I'd never break my promise t' ya, Ezra... never."
Ezra heaved a shaky sigh of relief as he heard the truth in Nathan's deep voice. "Trust you... Nathan."
"Thank you, Ezra. That means a lot t' me." Nathan motioned for Josiah to pass him the mug from the dresser and bent back over the younger man. "Ezra? Could ya jus' try an' drink the rest of this for me?"
Ezra gave a small nod, and this time, after a few pauses to rest, was able to empty the cup.
As soon as Ezra had finished and caught his breath, Buck nudged the gambler's hand to get his attention. "Hey, pard... don't know 'bout you, but I think Nathan's 'snake oil' is startin' t' work on me... can't hardly keep my eyes open. How 'bout you an' I get us a little shut-eye now?"
Ezra fought against the fog that was slowly wrapping itself around his mind and tried to focus on Buck's words. It took a few minutes, but the question finally sank in and the smaller man nodded.
Buck caught and held Ezra's bleary gaze and quietly asked, "You'll be here when I wake up... right?"
Tears welled up in Ezra's pale green eyes, and his voice shook with exhaustion and pain as he forced out a reply. "I'll... try...."
Buck shook his head. "That ain't good enough."
"... Buck... please..." Ezra tried to turn away from his friend's trusting face, but Buck stopped him by gently cupping his hand over the gambler's cheek.
"Promise me." Hating himself for doing it, but realizing he had no choice, Buck allowed the pain he'd been hiding to show in his eyes as he gazed back at the younger man. "I can't do this without ya, Ezra."
Ezra choked back a sob when he saw Buck's own suffering revealed to him and then gave him what he wanted in a breathy, trembling whisper. "... promise..."
"That's all I needed to hear." Buck slid his hand down to the gambler's slender neck and began rubbing his thumb in small, gentle circles, smiling softly as he watched Ezra's eyelids flutter several times and then slowly close. "That's it, pard, just let it all go and sleep now."
Secure in the knowledge that their gambler always honored his promises, Buck finally let himself relax and followed Ezra into the soothing darkness.
Nathan stood in front of the open window staring disconsolately out into the moonlit yard. The only sounds in the room were Buck's light snores and Ezra's quiet moans and rasping breaths. Abigail had managed to coax the others down to the kitchen for a late supper, but Nathan hadn't felt comfortable leaving his patients yet. It had been a rough day for the two men, and even though they were both quiet now, he knew how rapidly their conditions could deteriorate again, and he wanted to be there just in case they needed him.
But this was the part of his 'job' as the group's healer that he hated most, the waiting. He'd hopefully done everything he could... stitched, salved, bandaged... and now he had to sit back and watch his friends struggle to do their part. Sure, he could still lend his support with soothing touches and reassuring words, and he still had dressings to change and medications to administer, but that was just... maintenance, and the inactivity that went along with it allowed the doubts to creep in. <<What if I missed something? What if I've done more harm than good? Have I done enough to give them a fighting chance?>>
Nathan sighed, turned back to his patients, and went through the routine once again. Large, dark hand pressed gently against forehead and throat monitoring temperature and pulse... slight lift of the sheets to check for re-opened wounds or loosened bandages... soothing touches to a restlessly shifting leg or furrowed brow... and then a return to the waiting and the doubts.
Chris quietly entered the room carrying a plate of food and a cup of coffee, took one look at the lines of fatigue bracketing Nathan's eyes and mouth, and nodding at the armchair in the corner, firmly ordered, "Sit."
Realizing he was too tired to argue, Nathan eased his aching body down into the chair and smiled his thanks as Chris slid the night table over and set the plate and mug down in front of him.
While Nathan picked listlessly at his food, Chris moved over to the beds and stared silently down at the two men. "How they doin'?"
Nathan let his fork drop back onto the plate and wearily leaned back in the chair. "Not as well as I'd hoped they'd be doin' by now." He watched Chris as he wrung out the cloth soaking in the basin, and wasn't surprised when he saw the other man's hand shake as he gently wiped the sweat from first Ezra's and then Buck's face.
Josiah had been in earlier to give him a rundown on what had been happening while he'd been shut away with their wounded brothers. The day had not been an easy one for their leader either.
Apparently there had been a large contingent of the townsfolk who were overjoyed to find the heavy weight of Matthew Delacourte's tyranny removed, and they'd made their feelings known quite openly when they'd converged on the Sheriff's office demanding to know what was being done to find the rest of the scum that had worked for Delacourte.
The beleaguered Sheriff had quickly realized that the security of his job depended on how he handled the incident and had immediately recruited some of the braver souls present to help him search for the men involved in Buck and Ezra's kidnapping and beating. Due to a strong 'suggestion' by his new deputies, he'd stopped at the boardinghouse to see if Chris and the others wanted to join them.
Knowing there was nothing they could do for Buck and Ezra, but at the same time needing to do something, Chris, Vin, Josiah, and JD had joined the hunt. They'd managed to bring in several of the men, including Thomas Kirby, who had been quickly pointed out by his 'comrades' as Delacourte's second-in-command, and the one who'd wielded the whip against Buck. It had taken Josiah and Vin both to pull Chris and JD off of the man... after a suitable delay to allow their two friends to work out a little of their frustration, of course. Nathan couldn't help but chuckle at the satisfied grin that had spread across the preacher's face with that last statement.
Josiah had also told him about some of the repentant citizens who had sheepishly come forward to ask if their was anything they could do to help. Their belated and highly unappreciated generosity had been firmly refused, and that had included the rather pompous town doctor's offer of his services. According to Josiah, Chris had just given the elderly gentleman the infamous 'Larabee glare' and informed him that his men were in the hands of one of the best, and that if he went anywhere near them, he had no doubt that *Doctor* Jackson would not hesitate to shoot him.
Nathan had been grateful for, but not surprised by, Chris's show of support. For some reason that baffled him completely, these six men trusted him implicitly to cure or repair any sickness or injury they were unfortunate enough to incur. Him... Nathan Jackson... an ex-slave with no formal training or schooling. He only wished he had as much faith in his abilities as they did.
Seeing Chris staring worriedly at him, Nathan forced himself to pick up his fork and resume eating as he filled him in on what had happened with Buck and Ezra. "Well, Buck took a turn this mornin' that 'bout scared the hell outta me. Fever spikin', talkin' outta his head... kept askin' for Ezra when he's layin' right there beside 'im. I knew it was all 'cause he weren't lettin' himself get no rest, so once I'd gotten the fever beat back some, I threatened t' move 'im into another room if he didn't let me give 'im a little bit of that laudanum Miz Abigail had. He still fought it, but I tol' 'im he needed t' take care of hisself first if he was gonna be takin' care of Ezra. He was so tired, it only took a small sip of the stuff to put 'im out, an' he's been sleepin' ever since."
Ezra groaned and mumbled something unintelligible as he made a weak attempt to push himself over onto his back. Chris motioned for Nathan to stay where he was as he quickly moved to the gambler's side of the bed and, mindful of his numerous wounds, gently pressed him back down against the mattress. The only part of the softly slurred, fevered ramblings that Chris could decipher was Buck's name, but it was more than enough to let the blond gunman know what was causing Ezra's anxiety.
"Easy, Ezra, he's right here." Chris loosened the younger man's grip on the sheets and stretched his arm over until his hand rested lightly on Buck's. Ezra immediately quieted as his fingers wrapped themselves around the other man's limp hand.
Nathan had moved over beside Buck and stood looking down at the two men, shaking his head. "Been like that all afternoon. Outta his head with pain an' fever, an' still able t' sense that Buck was goin' through a crisis an' needed 'im."
Chris glanced up at Nathan as he ran the cool cloth across Ezra's shoulders and down his arms. "That's a good thing though, isn't it?"
Nathan shrugged, wrung out another piece of flannel, and began mimicking Chris's soothing motions on Buck.
"I gotta be honest with ya, Chris. I jus' ain't sure there's anything we can do t' keep Ezra with us. He's tryin'... Lord knows he's fightin' with everything he's got left in order to keep his promise t' Buck, but that damn fever ain't easin' up at all, an' a body can only take jus' so much."
Chris heard the emotion choking Nathan's deep voice and looked up to see him fighting back tears. Setting the cloth back in the basin, he walked around the bed and, with a firm grip on the exhausted healer's arm, gently forced him toward the door. "Okay, that's it. You're gonna follow your own advice now an' get some rest." He leveled his piercing green eyes on Nathan and gave him a no-nonsense look and a warning. "This isn't up for discussion. You're gonna get some sleep an' that's final."
The lure of a soft bed was strong, but Nathan still stubbornly tried to resist it. "But Buck'll prob'ly be wakin' up soon...."
Chris pushed harder and had Nathan out in the hall before the larger man knew what had happened. "An' one of us'll be here with him when he does."
"Ezra needs --"
"Whatever it is they need done for them, the rest of us can do. Now give me some instructions an' then get your ass to bed." Chris stood in the doorway, arms crossed, and a determined look on his handsome face that informed Nathan, in no uncertain terms, that there would be no getting around him.
Nathan's broad shoulders slumped in defeat. He knew Chris was right... he could barely keep his eyes open. But the idea of leaving his patients when they still needed him....
"Fine. I'll lay down... for an hour, no more." He attempted a glare of his own, but it fell flat when it was interrupted by a huge, gaping yawn. Reluctantly returning the grin that had appeared on Chris's face, Nathan finally gave in. "The main thing ya need t' do is keep 'em as quiet as possible. If ya can manage it, give Buck another dose of laudanum, an' if he won't take it, at least make him drink some of the tea that's in that pot on the dresser. If ya need more, Miz Abigail's got another batch of it brewin' down in the kitchen. An' if Ezra does wake up..." Nathan felt a lump rise up in his throat at the very real possibility that that might not happen... "get as much water an' tea into 'im as he can handle. Oh, an' ya need t' keep wipin' 'em down with cold water if we're ever gonna get their fevers t' break. The pitcher's gettin' low again, so ya might wanna send..."
Chris planted his fists on his hips and scowled at the healer who slowly stuttered to a halt and smiled sheepishly. "Huh... guess ya know most of that."
"Go to bed, Nathan."
Nathan hesitated for another moment and then stalked across the hall, swinging the door wide and purposely leaving it open. Looking back briefly, he pointed one long, dark finger at the older man still standing guard. "One hour... no more."
Chris shook his head and laughed as he listened to Nathan sputtering about being treated like a child as he made his way through the dimly lit room. He remained in the doorway, waiting patiently, while the healer got himself settled in the bed. After a few moments, the rustling sounds stopped and a deep, rumbling snore began.
Sighing with relief, Chris quietly closed the door and then returned to the sickroom to take his turn at standing watch over their brothers.
Just as Nathan had predicted, Buck's fever had receded and his condition had improved steadily once he'd grudgingly accepted the laudanum and gotten the rest his body had so desperately needed.
Unfortunately, Ezra wasn't faring as well. It had been four long days since they'd gotten anything other than groans of pain and incoherent mumbling out of him. Despite Nathan's best efforts, infection had developed in a couple of the deeper wounds on the gambler's back and legs, further fueling the fever he was already suffering from. It was beginning to look like they were really going to lose their brother this time, when, just past dawn on the fifth day, Ezra finally began to show signs of regaining consciousness.
JD, who was taking his turn watching over his brothers, had run down to the kitchen to fetch a fresh pitcher of water and was just starting back down the hallway when he heard a quiet moan come from Buck and Ezra's room. Stepping through the door, the young peacekeeper paused and scanned the two forms lying motionless in the beds.
Buck was in the same position as when JD had left, sprawled on his stomach with one arm curled around his pillow and the other stretched across the bed toward the Southerner. But Ezra had somehow gotten himself turned about until he was now lying half on his side and half on his back, with the covers pushed down and twisted around his legs. Sweat poured off of him, soaking his bandages and the sheet beneath him, and as JD moved toward the bed, Ezra uttered another soft moan and began shivering uncontrollably.
Quickly setting the pitcher down, JD went to work untangling the covers, and soon had them pulled back up over the gambler.
"Ezra?" JD shook the older man's shoulder gently. "You hang on, okay? I'm gonna go get Nathan for ya."
The youth waited a few moments for a response, but when none was forthcoming, hurried across the hall to wake the healer. Nathan was up and at Ezra's side before JD had even finished talking, and nearly wept with relief when he found that the Southerner's fever had broken.
"He okay, Nathan?"
Glancing back over his shoulder, he smiled at the younger man. "He will be now, JD." Nathan sent him after some warm water and fresh bandages and then turned back to his patient. He was startled to see Ezra looking at him. His pale green eyes were filled with fear and confusion as they darted nervously around the room, but, thank the good Lord, he was finally awake.
Moving slowly, Nathan knelt beside the bed and placed a calming hand on the gambler's arm. "Easy, Ezra, it's okay. You're back at the boardin'house... at Miz Abigail's."
Nathan felt the muscles under his hand tense and pressed down firmly to keep Ezra from moving. "Keep still now... Buck's jus' fine." He felt the mattress shift slightly and glancing up, saw the man in question struggling to his feet. Nathan made a move to go help him, but stopped when Buck motioned for him to stay where he was.
Keeping his grip on Ezra, Nathan hooked his foot around the chair and pulled it closer to the bed, and then helped steady the injured gunman as he slowly lowered himself onto it.
Buck leaned forward until he was in Ezra's line of vision. "Hey there, 'bout damn time you were wakin' up."
Tears immediately filled Ezra's eyes, and he couldn't hold back a strangled sob of relief at the blessed sight of Buck's smiling face. "Oh God... Buck...."
Buck's eyes widened in mock horror as he reached up and ran a hand over his bruised face. "Damn, pard, do I look that bad?!"
Ezra just stared at him for a moment as his sluggish mind worked at processing the older man's attempt at humor, and then lightened both his friends' hearts with a ghost of a smile and a raspy chuckle. Unfortunately, the laughter triggered a bout of coughing that left him grimacing in pain and gasping for breath, and sent a panicked Buck and Nathan scrambling to help him.
Buck quickly shifted over to the bed and carefully pulled Ezra up into his arms, holding him while Nathan struggled to get some water into him to help ease his dry throat.
"Shit... I'm sorry, Ezra. I didn't mean to --"
Ezra weakly shook his head against Buck's shoulder as the spasm finally began to ease up. "Don't... 'polo-gize. Worth it... to be... l-laughin'... 'stead of cryin'... for a... change."
"Jus' hush up an' drink 'fore ya start chokin' again," Nathan gently scolded as he pressed the mug to Ezra's lips.
Ezra gazed blearily back at the healer as he slowly sipped the soothing water. He saw the worry return to Nathan's dark eyes at his silent acquiescence, and deeply regretted being the cause of it again.
JD rushed back into the room, a smile lighting his face as he saw that the Southerner was awake.
"How ya doin', Ezra?" the young peacekeeper asked as he set the bandages and water down beside Nathan.
"Better, Mr. Dunne. Quite happy... to see y-your smilin'... face... once again." Ezra's voice shook slightly, drawing another anxious look from Nathan. "I'm f-fine, Nathan... just took a... bit of a... chill."
"Ain't no wonder, pard. You're sweatin' like a damn pig." Buck just grinned when the gambler huffed indignantly.
"Gentlemen do not... 'sweat like... pigs'... Mr. Wilmington. They... perspire," Ezra primly informed the other man, and then had to make a futile grab at the damp sheet covering him as Buck reached around him and easily plucked it out of his hands, flopping it in demonstration.
"Well, it looks like ya must've *perspired* 'bout a bucket of water here, Ezra." Buck laughed when Ezra faked a cough and looked pleadingly up at Nathan, and then allowed the smaller man to tug the sheet back up around his neck.
"Na-than..." Ezra fretted pitifully, "Are you... goin' to let... this... overgrown child... harass... me?"
Buck rolled his eyes and snorted. "He's definitely better, Nathan, listen to 'im whinin' an' complainin'." Buck looked down, saw Ezra staring back at him with a small smile tugging at his lips, and had all he could do to keep from hugging the younger man and shouting out his joy. That bastard, Delacourte, had almost won, but thankfully the arrogant fool had made the fatal mistake of underestimating the strength of mind, body, and heart that Ezra Payton Standish possessed. And nothing triggered that strength faster than threatening his family... his real family.
Buck felt another shiver run through the slender body he held and saw Ezra's smile fade as his eyes darkened with pain. He quickly glanced up at Nathan and was relieved to see the healer already going into action.
Nathan sat down beside Ezra and carefully eased him forward to lean against his chest. "Okay, Buck, that's enough of you tormentin' my patient. Why don't ya get back in your bed so's JD an' I can get Ezra here taken care of. I think it's 'bout time he got some more rest."
"'m c-cold, Na-than..." Ezra whispered as he pressed in closer to the healer, trying to absorb some of his warmth.
Nathan wrapped his arm around the smaller man's shoulders and held him as he began loosening his bandages. "I know ya are. Jus' hang on, you'll feel better once we get ya cleaned up."
Buck insisted on helping, and it was no time before they had the gambler washed, bandaged, and tucked back in between some nice, fresh sheets. Within minutes, he was asleep.
The gunfighter stared worriedly down at Ezra. "He gonna be okay, Nathan?"
The healer nodded as he gathered up the soiled bandages and wash rags. "He's gonna be plenty weak for awhile, but long as he gets enough rest, he should be jus' fine."
Now that Ezra's fever had broken, they decided it was safe to separate the two men, and they called in the others to help restore the room to its former state. Even the noise and movement of Josiah and Vin repositioning his bed didn't disturb the exhausted gambler. Nathan managed to get him awake enough to take some broth and water around noon, but other than that, Ezra slept right through the day and well into the night.
"Buck!" Ezra woke with a shuddering cry... heart pounding... hands clutching at the sheet... green eyes wide with alarm as they frantically searched the dimly lit room for his friend.
"Right here, Ezra." Buck was there and ready for it, steadying the confused Southerner with a firm hand and gentle voice. "Easy now. You're all right."
The gambler's long sleep had been anything but restful as he'd tossed and moaned... one nightmare after another pulling him to the edge of consciousness, but never fully waking him until now.
Buck just sat quietly beside him until he seemed to have gotten his bearings.
"You okay?" he asked when Ezra finally looked up at him.
Ezra nodded slowly. "You?"
"Doin' just fine." Buck grinned and, satisfied that the other man was fully awake now, gave Ezra's shoulder a pat and moved back over to the chair. His expression softened at the sight of the younger man's answering smile. "I'm glad ya decided to stick around, Ezra."
Ezra's smile faded, and he stared solemnly back at Buck for a few moments before answering. "I made a promise to you."
Buck nodded confidently. "And I knew you'd keep it, pard... never doubted that for a minute."
Ezra marveled at the trust Buck still stubbornly held in him even after everything the older man had been put through just because he'd made the mistake of having Ezra as a friend. He winced as he watched Buck shift gingerly on the chair in a vain attempt to find a comfortable position without putting pressure on his still-healing back.
"I'm truly sorry for allowing you to be drawn into my nightmare, Buck." Ezra's voice was heavy with regret and guilt as he recalled the horrific sight of Buck dangling at the end of that rope, his body jerking helplessly as the whip bit deeply into his flesh, his usually sparkling blue eyes dulled by the agony of his wounds.
"Wasn't your fault, Ezra... it was mine. I shoulda been payin' better attention when they grabbed me. I knew I'd prob'ly be next... the bastard had already gotten to everyone else ya cared about." Buck tiredly scrubbed his hands over his face. "Hell, I never shoulda made ya come here in the first damn place, then none of this woulda happened."
Ezra shook his head emphatically. "No, y'all were right about me needin' to come back and face up to my fear, but I should have insisted on comin' alone. If I'd have been a stronger person --"
"Yeah, but I never shoulda let ya leave Abigail's without the others. Thought I could keep ya safe just fine on my own...."
"I assure you, Mr. Wilmington... you couldn't have stopped me if you tried. I was too stubborn to admit that I needed help."
Buck laughed and raised his hand, stopping the other man's guilty tirade. "Whoa, pard... we could be here all night tryin' to lay claim to the blame for this mess. How 'bout we stop an' just put it right where it belongs... on your damned uncle. He's the cause of all this. It's got nothin' to do with what you, or me, or anyone else did... just him."
Ezra hesitated and then nodded. It was hard to let go of the guilt when he was constantly faced with the awful consequences of this trip every time he looked at one of his friends and saw the injuries they'd incurred, but Buck was right... Uncle Matthew had started it all with his insane need to control everything and everyone in his life.
Uncle Matthew. He shuddered and saw Buck frown worriedly. Ezra tried to quell the irrational rush of panic that the gunman was obviously picking up on, but just thinking about his uncle had started his heart racing frantically in his chest.
"Buck? He... he is dead... isn't he?" Ezra whispered.
Buck hated seeing the fear that still resided in the younger man's pale green eyes, and hurried to try and reassure him. "Yeah, Ezra... he's dead. You an' Chris made sure of that."
Ezra closed his eyes and took a couple of shaky breaths to try and calm himself. When he thought he had his emotions under control, he opened them again and gave Buck a small apologetic smile.
"Sorry. I just... I just kept gettin' these conflicting images while I was... ill. One minute I thought we were still there at the barn... bein' whipped. The next I was positive M-Matthew was dead, and you were safe... and then suddenly there was Josiah tellin' me he still had you, and that you needed my help. By then, I thought we were back here, but I heard you callin' for me..." Ezra sighed and shrugged his shoulders, grimacing as he was painfully reminded of the damage done to his back. "It was all so confusin'. It seemed real at the time, but... I don't know, perhaps it was just a result of the fever."
Buck blushed guiltily and stared down at the floor. His voice when he spoke was so quiet, Ezra had to strain to hear what he was saying.
"It wasn't all caused by the fever, pard... just that first part. You were kinda confused 'bout where ya were when ya first woke up, so Nathan... he got ya calmed down some by showin' ya that I was layin' there in the other bed. Well, at least that's what he told me when I woke up. I was still out of it myself when that was goin' on so I can't really say for sure what happened... 'course by then I was a bit upset myself because the first thing I saw when I opened my eyes was Josiah slappin' ya, so then Nathan had to get me calmed down before I'd listen to 'im...."
"Buck?" Ezra tried to interrupt the older man in order to pose a few pertinent questions, but, to his consternation, he was ignored.
"See, Nathan didn't know that when he let ya see I was safe, he took away the reason you were fightin' so hard, but Josiah come in 'bout that time an' he saw right off that you'd given up again, just like I'd told him ya did when they showed up at the plantation. It 'bout killed me when I realized that ya were just gonna let yourself die like that an' there wasn't nothin' I could do about it..." Buck's voice trailed off for a second as he remembered the pain of almost losing Ezra that first time... of hanging there, unable to do anything to help while his friend was dying only a few feet away. Buck shook off the painful memories and continued. "So anyway, I guess Josiah told Nathan what was happenin', an' then had to slap ya a couple of times to get ya back... that's 'bout when I woke up an' found out we was losin' ya again."
Ezra paled as he clearly recalled wanting to die. Josiah had been right, he had been ready to let go once he was assured that Buck was out of danger. And so he'd simply quit fighting.
"Buck. It's all right."
But Buck was on a roll and was determined to finish.
"Well, ol' Josiah knew he had to come up with a reason for ya to hang on till ya got better enough to want to live again, so he decided to use me since he knew that's what had kept ya goin' before... durin' the... durin' the beatin' an' all. He told me to yell out for ya... to make ya think I was hurt... " Buck rubbed at his eyes as he remembered how hard it had been to go along with the preacher. "I swear to God, Ezra... I never wanted to do it. I never wanted to have to lie to ya like that. Damn... I'm sorry, pard... sorry for doin' that to ya. I never --"
"Dammit, Buck, will you listen to me?" Ezra demanded hoarsely as he reached out and slapped at the other man's leg.
Buck's head whipped up, and he stared in bewilderment at the irate gambler who was leaning over the side of the bed, gritting his teeth, and obviously regretting his method of getting the other man's attention.
"Damn... you okay, Ezra?" Buck quickly knelt beside the smaller man and grabbed his shoulder to steady him.
"Fine... I'm fine. Just... give me a minute." Ezra lay gripping the edge of the mattress, panting softly as he waited for the room to stop spinning.
Buck waited until he nodded and then eased him back up onto his side. He was alarmed by the pallor of the Southerner's face and decided it might be a good idea to get Nathan, but when he tried to move, Ezra grabbed his arm and forced him to stay where he was.
"I told you, I'm fine. There's no need to disturb Mr. Jackson's rest." Ezra took a few deep breaths and then managed a weak smile. "I merely moved too fast and became a bit dizzy, that's all."
"Let go of me, an' I'll get ya some water. You're probably a mite dried out 'cause of that fever."
As soon as Ezra released him, Buck poured the water and, after a brief argument, held the mug while the gambler drank.
Once he'd finished, Buck sat back down in his chair and frowned at Ezra. "Now ya wanna tell me why the hell ya did that?"
Returning the former lawman's frown, Ezra replied crisply, "It seemed to be the only way to shut you up."
Buck's frown deepened. "Well, I was just tryin' to explain to ya what happened an' apologize for lyin' to ya."
Ezra shook his head in exasperation. "I *know* what you were tryin' to do, Buck. And I was just tryin' to tell you that I understand why y'all did what you did, because Josiah was right... I was ready to die."
"Damn, pard... you actually remember that?" Buck stared at him, his eyes wide with shock.
Ezra shuddered as the memory washed over him again. "Unfortunately, yes, I do."
Buck reached out and held Ezra's hand for a moment, as if to reassure himself that it hadn't happened, that his friend was really still there with them.
"I'm glad that what we did worked, an' you're still here an' all, but I'm still sorry I lied to ya, Ezra. I wish I --" Buck growled in frustration as the gambler interrupted him.
"Mr. Wilmington, will you just stop before I have to strike you again?" Ezra warned. "I'm really not up to the added exertion, but I will do it if you force me to."
"Damn, Ezra... if ya'd just let me apologize--" Buck stopped again as the younger man waved a fist weakly in his direction.
Ezra closed his eyes briefly and then stared tiredly at Buck. "Mr. Wilmington, why did you tell me that lie in the first place?"
Buck shook his head in confusion. "I already told ya, Ezra... Josiah figured knowin' I was in trouble would keep ya fightin'."
Ezra nodded and patiently asked his next question. "So in other words, you lied to me to keep me from dyin'... have I got that right?"
"Yeah, an' it worked, too..." Buck scowled at the Southerner. "Ezra... is there a point to this? 'Cause I gotta admit, I don't underst--"
Ezra held his hand up, again stopping him. "Just one more question, if you please." He paused, and then with a twinkle in his eye, asked, "Buck... why in heaven's name are you tryin' to apologize for savin' my life?"
"I'm not--! That isn't what I--!" Buck sputtered to a stop and just stared at Ezra while his words slowly sunk in. "Well, damn...."
Ezra nodded and laughed softly at the stunned expression that now graced the gunfighter's handsome face. "My feelings precisely, Mr. Wilmington."
Buck blushed slightly and then grinned at Ezra. "All right... how 'bout this? I'm sorry I had to lie to ya, but I'm sure as hell not sorry that it worked. That okay with you?"
"Good Lord..." Ezra rolled his eyes and heaved an exaggerated sigh. "Since it's obvious you're not goin' to give up, I accept your apology, Mr. Wilmington."
"Thank you, Mr. Standish," Buck replied formally as he gave the other man a little bow.
"Fine. Now that that's settled, could I possibly trouble you for another cup of water? After all that, I find myself quite--" Ezra's request was interrupted by a loud, gurgling rumble from his stomach.
"-- hungry, from the sounds of it." Buck burst out laughing at the flush of embarrassment that washed over the gambler's face. "How 'bout instead of that water, I run down to the kitchen an' fetch a bowl of that broth Nathan left simmerin' on the stove for ya?"
"As much as I'd prefer to politely refuse puttin' you to such an effort at this late hour, I'm afraid I must accept your kind offer as my stomach seems to be of the opinion that it needs something a bit more substantial than just water." Ezra made a move to push himself up in the bed, but Buck quickly stopped him.
"Don't even think about it, pard. You just wait till I get back, an' then I'll help ya get propped up so ya can eat. You go tearin' open any of those wounds now that Nathan's finally got them healin' up, an' he'll be shootin' the both of us. And Belle'd be passin' him the ammunition... that woman's been here every day, plasterin' that special salve of hers on us to keep the scarrin' down. She wouldn't take too kindly to findin' out it had all been for nothin'."
"Oh, I'm well aware that Belle has been here." Ezra sniffed delicately and then wrinkled his nose in distaste. "Her special salve has a rather... er... unique... aroma."
"Ya got that right. Hell, I thought a damned skunk had crawled in bed with us when I woke up an' smelled that stuff," Buck laughingly agreed as he turned to go after the soup. Stopping at the door, he pointed a warning at the gambler. "Stay put."
Ezra gave Buck a mock salute and then obediently settled back down under the covers. Truth be told, as weak as he felt, it was pretty much a certainty that even rolling over was out of the question without some assistance.
So Ezra waited, and when Buck returned with the steaming bowl of broth, he graciously accepted the other man's help. His back was still extremely tender, but with both of their pillows stacked behind him, Ezra was able to achieve a more or less upright position with a minimum of discomfort.
In order to avoid an argument they were both clearly too tired for, the two men compromised over the gambler's belated dinner... Ezra allowed Buck to hold the bowl for him, while he shakily wielded the spoon. It took a little longer to finish that way, but the time passed quickly with Buck filling Ezra in on what had been happening while he'd been in the grip of the fever.
He was pleased to hear that Katherine, like Belle, had stopped by daily to check on his condition and to offer her help. Ezra had been worried she would blame him for his uncle's latest atrocity against heir father, and was relieved to learn that such was not the case. Buck reluctantly told him that Katherine had already seen to the remains of both their father and Amanda. It saddened Ezra that he hadn't been there, but his grief was eased by the knowledge that they both were hopefully resting in peace now that their murderer had finally gotten his just rewards.
By the time Buck finished relating what he'd been told about the roundup of Kirby and the others, it was clear that Ezra's meager store of energy had been used up. He chuckled softly as the exhausted gambler, struggling to spoon up the rest of the broth, managed to miss his mouth completely and hit his chin instead.
"Aw hell... I'm sorry, Buck. I should have been more--" Ezra's face flushed a bright red as he stammered out an apology and swiped a shaky hand at the soup dripping onto his chest.
"Hush now... that ain't nothin' to get upset about. It's just a sign that you need to get some more sleep." Buck ignored Ezra's half-hearted protests that he'd slept all day and wasn't tired as he eased the spoon out of the Southerner's hand and passed him a dampened cloth to mop up the spilled broth. When Ezra tried to argue further, Buck calmly offered to wake Nathan to ask for his opinion. In just a matter of minutes, he had the suddenly compliant gambler settled back down on his side and covered up.
"Buck?" Ezra snuggled his face into his pillow and stared drowsily over at the lanky gunfighter. "I have a vague recollection of someone... singin'... while I was indisposed. Was I just imaginin' that?"
"Nope, that one was real, pard. It was Abigail. You kept dreamin' an' thrashin' around, an' poor Nathan 'bout wore himself to a frazzle tryin' to keep ya still so ya didn't hurt yourself. Abigail came in an' found 'im bent over ya, practically beggin' ya to lie still an' rest, an' lookin' like he was 'bout ready to pitch a fit. So she just eased ol' Nathan outta the way, sat down beside ya, an' started pettin' at your face an' hair an' singin' lullabies to ya... all sweet an' soft-like. You calmed right down an' didn't have no more of them nightmares for quite awhile after that, an' the rest of the time you were sick, she was right here to sing ya back to sleep whenever ya got restless again," Buck explained, and then smiled as he looked over and saw the gambler still stubbornly fighting against the sleep he needed the same way a small child would... scrubbing his face against the pillow, jerking his eyes open wide the moment they started to close....
Buck stared thoughtfully at Ezra for a few moments, then glanced nervously at the open door and listened carefully for any sign that the others might be awake. Turning back toward the Southerner, he shrugged and mumbled, "Ah, what the hell."
Slipping over onto the edge of the bed, Buck reached out and lightly stroked Ezra's hair as he began softly humming a strangely soothing blend of Abigail's lullabies, songs he remembered his mother crooning to him as a child, and the hymns they'd all taken to singing at Josiah's Sunday services.
Buck forgot his embarrassment when he saw Ezra's lashes flutter and then close, and heard his breathing change to the slow, even rhythms of sleep. As soon as he was sure the gambler was going to stay asleep, Buck tucked the covers snugly around him and whispered, "Hope this brings ya sweet dreams for a change, Ezra. You've sure as hell earned 'em."
"Ezra Payton Standish... you get your sorry white behind right back in that bed!"
Ezra nearly stumbled and fell as he spun around in shocked surprise and found himself face to face with his self-appointed 'jailors', Abigail and Belle. Flushing a deep scarlet from head to toe, the embarrassed gambler made a frantic grab for the pair of soft, white cotton drawers he'd been about to pull on and clutched the garment in front of him in a vain attempt at preserving his modesty.
"Ladies!" Ignoring the dizziness and the spasm of pain that his sudden movement had caused, Ezra pulled himself together and flashed a wide smile at them, his gold tooth glittering as it captured and reflected the sun streaming through the window behind him. "Aren't you both lookin' lovely this morn-"
"Stow it, young man." Abigail planted her hands on her ample hips and stared hard at Ezra, bringing his attempt at charming them to an abrupt halt. "I believe Belle gave you an order... or perhaps you need our help?"
Ezra heard a loud snort of laughter and shot a scathing glare at Nathan who was standing in the hall watching with a smug grin of satisfaction spread across his handsome face.
"I'm glad you are finding this so amusin', Mr. Jackson. Why don't you-- No!" Ezra yelped and backed rapidly toward the bed as he suddenly realized the two women were moving toward him. "Ladies... please! I'm quite capable of--"
Before he knew what was happening, Ezra found himself back in the bed and tucked snugly under the covers. He let out another indignant yelp as, with a flick of the sheet and a lightening-fast grab, Abigail reached in, snatched the underwear he'd hoped they'd forgotten about out of his hands, and tossed them to Belle who had already gathered up the rest of his clothing and was waiting patiently by the door.
"We'll just hang onto these for now. Perhaps that, at least, will encourage you to listen to Mr. Jackson and heed his advice." Ignoring the irate gambler's stammered protests about the injustice of their actions, Abigail and Belle gave Nathan a conspiratorial wink and left the room.
As soon as the door closed behind the two women, the facade Ezra had been stoically maintaining crumbled, and with a soft groan, he wearily slumped back against the pillows.
Nathan sat down on the bed, shaking his head in mild exasperation as he dampened a cloth and gently wiped away the light sheen of sweat that glistened on Ezra's pale face. "Damn it, Ezra, ya gotta listen t' me an' take it easy. You ain't been rid of the fever that long. Keep pushin' like ya been doin', an' you'll bring it back on, an' it'll take twice as long for ya t' get better."
Ezra angrily pushed Nathan's hand away and weakly raged against everything he thought was unfair in his world at that particular moment.
Nathan sat beside the Southerner in silence, waiting patiently for him to finish venting his frustration, until finally, Ezra stuttered to a stop and closed his eyes.
After a moment, Ezra nodded and whispered tiredly, "I just want to go home."
The healer placed his hand on the smaller man's shoulder, squeezing it gently. "We all do, Ezra. An' jus' as soon as we get your strength built back up, we'll be able t' leave... but that ain't gonna happen anytime soon if ya don't do what I tell ya."
"... 'm sorry, Nathan."
Nathan heard the slight tremor in Ezra's voice and his heart went out to the gambler. Between the ordeal he'd suffered at the hands of his uncle and the indignities he'd been forced to put up with as a necessary part of his recovery, Ezra's pride had taken some pretty harsh blows. Considering everything he'd been through, Nathan had to admit that, except for a few small lapses, he'd been remarkably well-behaved... and the last thing he needed or deserved was to be chastised for giving into the natural urge to reassert at least a small part of his independence. But Nathan just couldn't help worrying about him.
He sighed and gave Ezra's arm a consoling pat as he stood up. "That's all right, Ezra. I know you're tryin', an' if you'll jus' give it another couple of days, I promise we'll have ya up an' on your feet again. Okay?"
Ezra opened his eyes and scowled up at the healer. "How many days exactly are we talkin' about here, Mr. Jackson?"
"Two. You stay in that bed an' mind what I tell ya for two more days, an' I promise I'll let ya get up."
"And when can we go home?" Ezra asked, his scowl still firmly in place, but with a mischievous gleam now lightening his green eyes.
Nathan couldn't help but grin at the gambler's persistence. "Don't push it, Ezra. Ya ain't wheedlin' no more promises outta me. We'll leave jus' as soon as I'm sure you an' Buck are up t' the trip an' not before."
"Speakin' of Mr. Wilmington... may I inquire as to the whereabouts of my fellow inmate?" Ezra nodded sharply at the other bed in the room which was currently unoccupied.
"Last time I saw 'im, he was sittin' out on the veranda with Josiah... sippin' on a cold glass of sweet tea an' eatin' a big ol' piece of the chocolate cake Miz Abigail made yesterday." Nathan instantly regretted mentioning the cake when he saw the look of longing that appeared on Ezra's face. The gambler's sweet tooth nearly rivaled that of their tracker's... especially when it came to chocolate. "Don't even think about it, Ezra, ain't no way you're ready for somethin' as heavy as that cake. But ya do need t' eat, so I'll go fetch ya somethin' I think your stomach can handle, then I'll change your bandages an' let ya get some more rest."
Ezra slouched down in the bed and stared crossly at Nathan's retreating back. "Oh joy... another sumptuous repast of broth and tea, more of Belle's *fragrant* ointment smeared all over me, and as a special added treat... a nap." When he saw the healer stop in the doorway and look back at him, Ezra rolled his eyes dramatically toward the ceiling and slapped a hand lightly over his heart. "Careful, Mr. Jackson... I'm not sure my fragile constitution is up to that much excitement."
Nathan's deep, rich laughter rolled through the room and forced a chuckle from Ezra. As soon as he got control of himself again, Nathan smiled warmly at the gambler. "Lord but I missed that, Ezra. Ain't nobody as good at fussin' at me as you are."
"I'll take that as a compliment, Mr. Jackson." Ezra grinned and tipped his head at the other man in a mock salute. "I don't suppose you would consider bringin' me just a tiny sliver of that delectable cake as a reward for my mastery of the art of complaining?"
"You jus' don't give up, do ya, Ezra?" Nathan laughed, before turning and walking out the door.
"Is that a yes?" Ezra called after him. "Mr. Jackson?... Nathan?"
His only answer was another deep-throated burst of laughter.
"Tyrant...." Ezra muttered as he stared resentfully at the now-empty doorway.
"Sweet-talkin' me won't work, Ezra!"
The healer merely shook his head and grinned at the quickly-muffled, undignified giggle which echoed down the stairs behind him.
Yes sir... he surely had missed it, Nathan thought as he pushed open the door and stepped into the kitchen. "Miz Abigail, you got any of that tea an' cake left?"
An ideal patient? No... even being generous, Nathan couldn't quite go that far, but he did have to admit that he'd never before seen Ezra come as close as he did to achieving that lofty status. As promised, he did every single thing Nathan asked of him, reluctantly and with more than a fair amount of grumbling and sulking, but that didn't take away from the fact that he drank down every vile potion and tea the healer set before him, closed his eyes and at least attempted to sleep whenever he was told it was time to rest, submitted, albeit red-faced and tight-lipped, to the necessity of accepting help with his personal needs, and suffered through all of their well-meant attempts to entertain and amuse him.
Needless to say, it was an extremely long two days for everyone concerned, but finally, as promised, the third morning found a very relieved Ezra dressed and seated at the dining table, enjoying breakfast with his equally relieved friends.
Abigail gazed sadly around the table at 'her boys' as she'd come to think of her seven boarders. "I suppose you'll be returnin' home soon now that our wounded lambs are both well on the mend?"
Everyone looked expectantly at Nathan. They'd all been trying to drag an exact date out of him for when Ezra and Buck would be able to travel, and so far, all they'd gotten out of the cautious healer was 'soon.'
Nathan looked over at his two former patients and narrowed his eyes. Pointing a long, dark finger at the two men, he finally gave them an answer. "*If* those two don't push themselves an' get plenty of rest, I s'pose we could be outta here by the end of the week. I jus' wanna give Ezra a few more days t' make sure his legs are healed up good for he goes climbin' up on that horse... since I know he won't lower hisself t' makin' that trip back t' Henderson in a buggy."
Ezra just smiled at him and took another sip of his coffee.
"Figgered as much." Nathan shook his head and helplessly grinned back at the cocky gambler. Try as he might, the healer just couldn't dredge up his usual irritation at Ezra's refusal to heed his advice. It was just too soon after nearly losing him.
Chris peered over his steaming cup at Mrs. Stokes and frowned. "Abigail, are you gonna be okay once we leave? There's still some of Delacourte's people in town who are probably gonna resent you helpin' us... think they'll be givin' ya any trouble?"
The others all shot concerned glances at the elderly lady. She'd come to mean a lot to them in the short time they'd known her, and they were all dreading having to say goodbye.
Abigail waved a dismissive hand and smiled reassuringly at them. "Don't you be worryin' none about me. I've dealt with Delacourte and his bunch since we moved here, and they haven't gotten the best of me yet. I'll be just fine." Her smile turned wistful. "I surely am goin' to miss you boys though."
JD ducked his head and stared disconsolately down at his plate as he blinked back the hot rush of tears that just the thought of leaving Abigail had brought to his eyes. Suddenly he had an idea. Looking back up at her, his hazel eyes shining with excitement, he blurted out, "Why don't you come with us?!"
Abigail shook her head fondly at his boyish enthusiasm. "Now, JD, I can't just--"
He sent a pleading look at the others for a show of support as he explained his plan. "No... it'd work! You could buy the boardinghouse! Mr. Rudder's been tryin' to sell it ever since his wife died back in the winter. He's wantin' to move back to Ohio where his son lives... I'll bet he'd sell it to ya real cheap 'cause he can't find no one else to buy it!"
Abigail shared a smile with Nathan and Josiah. The two men had approached her just the day before about this same subject. Turning back to JD, she patted his cheek softly and shook her head. She regretted being the cause of the crestfallen look that slowly replaced his eager grin. "You have no idea how much it means to me that you want me to come home with you, but I'm just too old to be makin' a move like that. And I don't want y'all frettin' about me... I promise you, I'll be just fine."
Abigail hated the air of depression that had fallen over the table. They were all uttering the appropriate words of understanding, but she saw the disappointment lurking behind their obviously forced smiles.
Swallowing the lump that had risen in her throat at their concern for her, Abigail stood and scowled down at them. "All right, now that'll be enough of that. I'm not goin' to have y'all ruining my beautiful memories of you and our time together. Now you boys just quit your mopin' and put some *real* smiles on those handsome faces of yours and tell me more about home. I want to be able to picture everything in my mind when I read your letters..." she stared sternly around the table at them, "and I expect at least one of you to write to me regularly, even if it's just a few lines, to let me know you're all okay. Understood?"
Ezra frowned as six sets of eyes zeroed in on him. His brief attempt at arguing with them was met with six huge grins and a jumbled string of excuses... "but Ezra, you write the purtiest"... "but Ezra, you know all those high-falutin' words"... "but Ezra, you've got that fancy writin' set"...
Ezra threw up his hands in defeat. "Fine, gentlemen. I'll take on the position of correspondent for our merry band, but out of respect for our charming hostess, each of you will add a word or two of your own to each missive before I send it. Agreed?"
The others all quickly nodded their agreement, then while Abigail moved about the room refilling coffee cups and replenishing the various platters with food, they set aside their disappointment and entertained her with a few humorous and colorful tales of their life in Four Corners.
The next couple of days were spent quietly, with Buck and Ezra, under Nathan's strict orders, settled on the shaded veranda while the rest of them went about arranging for the trip home and made a few more repairs to Abigail's house and barn.
Frequent visits from Katherine, Elizabeth, and Belle, and long entertaining chats with Abigail, had helped break up the monotony of their day. But by Wednesday morning, both men were getting restless and watched longingly as their friends all left to take care of some necessary errands.
Nathan and Josiah accompanied Abigail to the various stores as she did her weekly shopping. Nathan hoped to find some of the herbs he needed to restock his medical kit, and Josiah had a scribbled list of items the others had requested.
Chris and Vin headed to the Sheriff's office to let him know that they would be leaving on Friday, and to issue a thinly veiled threat that they would be back if anything went wrong with the upcoming trial for Kirby and the rest of Delacourte's men who had been captured. The town clerk had already taken Buck and Ezra's depositions and put them in safe-keeping awaiting the arrival of the circuit judge, and Katherine had given them her promise that she would send a telegram as soon as the trial was over.
JD waved the others off, and then, after telling Buck and Ezra to give him a shout if they needed anything, went out to the barn to feed and exercise the horses.
Buck heard a soft sigh and glanced over to see Ezra staring after Nathan, Abigail, and Josiah as they walked down the street.
"Don't worry, pard. In a couple more days, we'll be on our way home, and Nathan'll have to let us out from under his thumb." Buck reached over and gave the silent gambler a gentle nudge on the shoulder when he failed to respond. "It'll be good to get home again, won't it? After a good game of poker, a few shots of that fine whiskey Inez has got tucked under the bar for ya, an' a night in your good ol' featherbed, it'll be like we never left."
Ezra merely nodded and sighed again, his eyes never leaving their three friends as they entered the general store.
Buck took in the disconsolate slump of the Southerner's shoulders and the sad expression on his still too pale face, and realized it wasn't just their forced confinement that was bothering Ezra.
"What's wrong, Ezra? Ya feelin' okay?"
"I'm fine," Ezra replied softly as he leaned his head back and closed his eyes.
"Are ya tired?" Buck stared worriedly at the other man. "Ya aren't still havin' those nightmares, are ya?"
Ezra shook his head without opening his eyes. "No, Mr. Wilmington. Apparently young JD was correct in suggesting this little trip of ours. The nightmares and their resultant headaches have stopped. I've had several... unsettling... dreams about the events of the other day, but I would say that's to be expected."
Buck nodded in agreement. "Yeah, I've had a few of those myself." He continued to watch the gambler for a moment and then casually remarked, "Sure wish Abigail had decided to go home with us."
Buck saw Ezra's fingers tighten around the arms of the wicker rocker and knew he'd hit on the problem.
"You're gonna miss her, aren't ya?"
Ezra finally opened his eyes and looked over at Buck with a small, sad smile on his lips. "Yes, I am. Very much so. And I'm at a loss to explain why the thought of leavin' her is affecting me so deeply."
Buck returned the younger man's smile and gently reminded him of the tender care Abigail had lavished on him while he was in the grips of the fever. "I know ya can't remember most of it, bein' as sick as ya were, but after awhile, you got to where ya wouldn't respond to no one but her. Ain't surprisin' you're havin' motherly-type feelin's for her. An' I think she kinda feels the same way 'bout you."
Ezra had thought his memories of being rocked and held were correct, and he vaguely remembered being under the impression while he was ill that it was his mother that was there. He shook his head and chuckled softly at the idea of Maude doing anything that was even remotely that nurturing.
Buck shot a questioning look at the gambler. "What?"
Ezra shook his head and grinned. "I'm afraid that in my delirium, I thought it was Mother who was carin' for me."
Buck stared at Ezra for a moment and then grinned back at him. "Boy, you *were* sick, weren't ya?"
Ezra burst into a joyful peal of laughter and Buck immediately joined in, relieved to finally see something other than pain and sadness on his friend's face.
Josiah and Nathan followed Abigail into the store and were pleasantly surprised by the wide selection of goods that crammed the many shelves and counters. Maneuvering carefully around the other shoppers, they slowly made their way down the narrow aisles searching for the items they needed.
Nathan was wistfully inspecting a display of expensive medical equipment when Josiah moved in beside him and motioned toward the front of the store. The healer turned to look and frowned when he saw Abigail arguing with a haughty looking woman standing behind the main counter. Sharing a questioning look and a nod, they quickly moved toward the two women.
Just as they reached the end of the aisle, they heard the shopkeeper exclaim, "We don't want your business anymore!"
Abigail shoved her money back into her handbag, turned, and with head held high and eyes flashing fire, strode angrily out of the store.
Nathan and Josiah looked around them in confusion and were startled by the glares of hatred and disgust they were receiving. Apparently not all of the citizens of Shelby were grateful to be rid of Matthew Delacourte.
"Go on, get! You're no more welcome here than she is!"
Both men raised their hands placatingly and quickly backed through the door as the shopkeeper and several of her patrons began moving toward them. They knew any attempt to reason with the angry crowd would be futile and would only cause more trouble for Abigail.
Upon reaching the street, a quick glance reassured them that Abigail was safely on her way back to the boardinghouse. As they moved to follow her, they were joined by Chris and Vin and quietly filled the two of them in on the unpleasantness that had just occurred.
Vin saw Chris tense up beside him. "Ain't gonna do no good, pard. You'd jus' be wastin' your breath on their kind."
Chris hesitated for a second, then with an angry growl of frustration, followed the others on down the street.
They were just climbing the boardinghouse steps when JD came through the front door.
"Something happen to Mrs. Stokes? She looks mad enough to spit nails an' barely spoke to me when I came in."
Ezra looked up from the cards he'd been idly shuffling and nodded knowingly when he saw the expressions of anger and disgust on his friends' faces. "I take it things did not go well at the store?"
Chris whipped his hat off and scraped his fingers through his hair. "Trouble's startin' for her just like we were afraid it would."
JD flopped disconsolately down onto the porch beside Vin. "I don't see why she just won't go home with us."
"Well, maybe we need to have another chat with our Sister," Josiah smiled widely at Ezra, who stared nervously back at him, "and see if our very own Ezra 'P. for persuasive' Standish can get her to change her mind."
It was discussed and decided that approaching Abigail while she was upset would get them nowhere, so they'd let the issue drop until the next morning.
But now breakfast was on the table, Abigail had finally settled down to eat with them, and Ezra found himself the subject of everyone else's nudges, winks, and pointed looks.
Ezra hesitated, trying to figure out how to broach the subject of her leaving with them without upsetting her. Clearing his throat nervously, he finally decided the direct approach would be best.
"Um... Mrs. Stokes... Abigail... about yesterday...." Ezra saw her pleasant features draw down into a scowl and swallowed hard before continuing. "We were hopin'... I mean, we think maybe you... well, that you might... reconsider...."
<<Good Lord, her glare is almost as unnerving as Mr. Larabee's.>> Ezra felt a shiver run up his spine as his words slowly died off.
The others stared at their usually silver-tongued gambler in consternation. The man could ramble on about nothing for hours, and now, when they actually needed him to talk, he couldn't seem to come up with even one coherent sentence.
Chris shook his head at Ezra and added his scowl to Abigail's before finally taking matters into his own hands. "What Ezra's tryin' to spit out is that we think it would be safer for ya if you changed your mind an' went home with us."
"Please? I know you'd love Four Corners, and..." JD bent his head shyly, hiding his rapidly reddening face behind a dark fringe of hair, "we'd... uh... we'd miss you a lot if you stayed here."
Josiah laid a gentle hand on her arm. "You know we'll help you in any way we can, Abigail."
As the others added their words of support, Abigail marveled at the kindness of these seven men. In just the short time since she'd met them, they'd become closer to her than anyone else she knew, aside from Belle.
And as if Belle had read her mind, she chose that moment to walk through the door.
The elderly woman smiled widely at the sight of Ezra sitting at the table with his friends and moved in behind him, hugging him carefully and kissing him soundly on the cheek. "Does my ol' heart good t' see you up an' around, Sweetpea."
"Belle! Welcome, darlin'!" Ezra leaned back against Belle and clasped a slender hand around her arm in a return hug. "You're just in time to help us reason with our lovely hostess."
Belle smiled up at Nathan and gratefully accepted the chair he squeezed in beside Ezra for her, then looked across the table at Abigail.
"Okay, Miz Abigail, what you bein' unreasonable 'bout now?"
"All right. Don't start, Belle," Abigail warned with a smile as she poured the other woman a cup of coffee and handed it to her. "The boys have this outrageous idea that I should go back with them and run the boardinghouse in Four Corners."
Belle narrowed her eyes and stared hard at Abigail. "Somethin' happened, didn't it?"
The men all looked at Abigail whose attention was suddenly focused firmly on her plate. "Just the usual, Belle. Nothing I can't handle."
"They wouldn't serve her at the store," JD blurted out.
Belle shook her head. "Sound's like more'n 'jus' the usual' to me, Abigail. Maybe you best be thinkin' 'bout takin' these boys up on their offer. Wouldn't surprise me none if it got worse. Awful lot of people 'round here were in ol' Delacourte's pocket an' ain't none of 'em too happy 'bout what happened."
"Thank you all for worryin' about me, but like I said, I'll be just fine." Abigail stood and busied herself refilling bowls and platters. "Besides, I can't just up and leave. There's this place, all my things...."
"Pretty sure Mr. Rudder's plannin' on lettin' all the furnishin's go with the boardin'house when he sells it. He don't want t' have t' take nothin' with 'im when he leaves," Nathan said, looking to Josiah for confirmation.
"He'd probably even be willin' to dicker a little on the price," Josiah said as he sat back in his chair, sipped at his coffee, and studied Abigail as the others managed to find an answer for every objection she came up with. The same look of hope that shone brightly in his friends' eyes was beginning to flicker to life in hers.
Josiah sincerely hoped they were able to change her mind. The closeness that had developed rapidly between them all since they'd first met her had only grown and strengthened after Ezra and Buck's horrible ordeal. Abigail had not only played a crucial part in caring for their two wounded comrades, she'd also held the rest of them together... making sure they ate and slept, and just sitting quietly, listening as they talked through their worry and fear.
Josiah decided if it was God who sent her into their lives, he couldn't have picked a better time to do so.
Abigail dearly wanted to say yes to them and put an end to the loneliness she'd lived with since the day she lost her beloved Samuel, but her pride just wouldn't let her.
"I know you boys mean well, but I refuse to be a burden on anyone. I promise you, I'll be fine."
Buck wrapped his arm around Abigail's shoulders and squeezed gently. "You wouldn't be a burden, darlin'... the town needs ya. If ol' Rudder don't find a buyer soon, he's liable to just forget about sellin' the place an' just leave. That'd put me an' JD an' a whole lotta other townsfolk out in the street with no place to live." Buck widened his big blue eyes and gave her his best wounded puppy look. "Now you wouldn't want to see that happen, would ya?"
"Don't be turnin' your charms on me, young man, I'm way too old to fall for them," Abigail laughed as she smacked him lightly on the arm.
"Mr. Wilmington's questionable charms aside, he is right about it being a blow to the town if the boardinghouse closes," Ezra added, ignoring the dirty look Buck shot him. "You'd be doin' a great service by returning with us and takin' it over."
Abigail finally gave up arguing when she realized they simply weren't going to give up. "All right, I admit that I would love to go with you, but you're forgettin' one very important thing... I can't buy that boardinghouse without selling this one first, and with the way things stand now, I doubt I'll ever be able to find anyone here to buy it."
"Surely there's someone who would be interested," Ezra said.
Abigail shook her head and opened her mouth to reply, but was interrupted by Belle's quiet voice.
Everyone turned to stare at the diminutive black woman who sat calmly spreading honey on a biscuit.
After a few anxious moments, Ezra huffed out an exasperated breath and asked, "Well, are you goin' to leave us in suspense all day, Belle?"
Belle finished with her biscuit and then smiled up at Abigail. "Jackson Barnett."
Abigail stared speculatively back at her friend.
"So who's this Barnett, an' do ya really think he'll be interested in buyin' this place?" JD asked excitedly.
She glanced over at JD and nodded. "It's possible. Jackson was a friend of my husband's, a fellow attorney, and has a very successful practice in New Orleans. He's kept in touch with me ever since Samuel was killed."
"An' been tryin' t' buy this place ever since, too," Belle added.
"Sounds like he's pretty serious about it then," Chris commented quietly.
"He and his wife have never been happy in the city, and now that Jackson's gettin' older, he'd like a smaller practice that would take up less of his time. They thought if they bought this place, his wife, Claudia, could run it, and I could stay on and help her for free room and board."
Belle snorted and gave Abigail a knowing look. "Uh huh, I can jus' see you sittin' back an' lettin' someone else be in charge 'round here."
Abigail laughed and nodded in agreement. "Exactly why I haven't taken them up on the offer."
"When's the last time you heard from him, Abigail?" Josiah asked.
"I received a letter from him about a month ago." Abigail shook her head at the expectant looks she was now receiving. "I know what y'all are thinkin', and yes, Jackson probably would jump at the chance to buy me out, but there's no possible way I could have everything settled in time to leave with you."
When the room immediately erupted in a rousing chorus of renewed promises of help and assurances that the trip home could easily be delayed a few days, Belle took one look at her friend's face and knew it was time to step in.
"Okay, I think Abigail's had jus' 'bout enough of you fussin' at her for now," Belle said as she stood and flapped her hands in a shooing motion at the seven men.
Chris and the others took only enough time to grab their coffees and mumble a sheepish apology to Abigail before moving obediently out of the kitchen.
Once they'd left, Abigail smiled and breathed a deep sigh of relief. "Thank you, Belle. I know they mean well, but their enthusiasm was gettin' to be just a bit overwhelming."
Belle sat quietly with Abigail while they finished their breakfast and then started helping her clear the table.
"All right, my friend, I know you're just achin' to throw your advice in, so go ahead." Abigail laughed at the guilty grin that spread across Belle's face.
"Nope. I ain't offerin' up my thoughts on the matter till ya look in your heart an' tell me what you be wantin' t' do," Belle stated firmly as she crossed her arms and leaned back against the counter.
Abigail shook her head slowly and sank onto one of the chairs. "I honestly don't know what to do, Belle. Heaven knows, with what little business I've had since Samuel's troubles with Delacourte started, this place isn't worth hangin' on to. Except for you, there's absolutely nothin' holding me here."
"But you still not sure 'bout leavin'?"
"It's a very big step to take, Belle... especially at my age. Basically starting over in a strange place, so far from anything I've known...." Abigail shrugged helplessly at her friend. "I guess I'm just scared."
"The way things are goin' 'round here, I'd be more scared of stayin'," Belle said.
Abigail looked skeptically at the other woman. "What happened to that speech you gave Nathan about not runnin' away?"
"This ain't the same, an' you know it." Belle wagged a chastising finger at Abigail.
"But... Samuel...." Abigail whispered, "how can I just leave him?"
"You know jus' well as I do that he'd rest easier knowin' you was somewheres safe with people who be watchin' out for ya."
"You're probably right."
"'Course I am," Belle stated with a firm nod of her head.
Abigail laughed, and Belle quickly joined in, relieved to see her friend's mood lightening a bit.
Leaning her elbow on the table and propping her chin in her hand, Abigail smiled softly at Belle. "So you really want me to go."
Belle grabbed her hand and squeezed it tight. "Now you know better'n that. I be missin' you somethin' fierce when you leave, but I want ya away from this mess an' somewheres you can be happy."
"And you think this is goin' to make me happy?" Abigail asked.
"It might. Happier than ya are here anyway." Belle thought a moment. "I think the good Lord brought y'all together for a reason, an' the way things are happenin', maybe he's meanin' for ya t' stay together."
"That would explain why we became so comfortable with each other so quickly," Abigail mused.
"I think y'all fill a hole in each others' lives." Belle smiled at the other woman. "All men sometimes gotta big ol' need for the kinda fussin' only a mama or gran'mama can do, an' seems t' me that you be needin' somebody t' do that kinda fussin' over."
Belle waited a few moments while Abigail thought over her words.
"All right, now you take another look in that big ol' heart of yours an' tell me what you truly want."
Abigail stared at her for a moment, then nodded as a satisfied smile slid slowly across her handsome face. "Think the town of Four Corners is ready for a crotchety, stubborn, old biddy like me?"
Bell laughed, delighted with her friend's choice. "I think I knows seven men who'll make sure it's ready." Slapping a hand on the table, she pushed herself slowly to her feet and pulled Abigail up with her. "Now, let's go tell 'em that so's they can stop frettin' an' start celebratin' instead."
JD whooped with joy when Abigail announced her decision, and the others immediately started making plans, just as Belle knew they would.
Telegrams flew fast and furious over the wires for the next few days, and to everyone's immense relief, each of the replies carried good news.
Jackson Barnett assured Abigail he was still very serious about buying the boardinghouse, and for a very generous amount.
After several messages to Mary, they finally received the welcome information that Mr. Rudder hadn't found a buyer for his place yet and was willing to wait and sell to Abigail when she arrived in town. And as an added bonus, the price he was asking was considerably lower than what she would receive from Barnett.
The Seven had to postpone their return home by almost a week in order to complete all the necessary preparations for Abigail's last minute addition to the trip. But, even though they were all anxious to get home, the delay was still welcome as it gave Buck and Ezra more time to heal. Which was something Nathan, especially, was grateful for.
He had been reluctantly going to allow the two of them to travel before, even though he'd known Ezra wasn't really ready for it. The gambler had put on a brave face for everyone, but Nathan had seen the signs of pain and weakness that leaked out from behind the stoic mask whenever he was allowed out of bed. After the extra rest, he felt much more comfortable with Ezra safely making the trip home.
Now, the day before they were supposed to leave, Nathan stared worriedly at the couple strolling arm in arm under the shade of the big old trees lining the yard, and wondered if their southern friend would be making that trip after all.
Katherine felt the slight tremor in the arm that was wrapped around hers and slowed her pace even further. She'd tried to get Ezra to sit while they talked, but he'd insisted that he'd been still long enough and needed to stretch his legs.
Ezra blushed slightly when he felt his sister tighten her grip on his arm and realized she'd sensed his show of weakness.
"Ezra, are you sure you--"
"I'm fine," Ezra assured her. "I promise, as soon as we finish our talk, I'll return to my seat on the porch and allow our good Mr. Jackson to resume his infernal fussin' over me."
Katherine smiled and playfully chastised him with a light pat on the hand. "Now, Ezra, they only fuss because they're worried about you. Surely it can't be that bad."
Ezra laughed, his gold tooth gleaming brightly in the morning sun. "Katherine, you have no idea just how bad it can get. Our Mr. Jackson has become a master at fussin' and frettin', and the others are almost as adept at it as he is. But I'm sure they understand that even though I may grumble occasionally, I do truly appreciate their concern." Ezra knew that Katherine was right about his friends being worried, but he also knew it wasn't his health that was the cause of that worry at the moment.
Ezra's expression grew serious as he looked briefly at the woman walking by his side, and then looked nervously away. "Katherine... I want you to know just how deeply sorry I am about what happened with... Father."
"It wasn't your fault, Ezra, and I won't have you blamin' yourself for it," Katherine insisted when she saw him stiffen and shake his head.
"Of course it was my fault. Uncle Matthew never would have committed that... vile act... if I hadn't come back here."
Katherine stopped suddenly, startling Ezra, and pulling him around to face her. "Now you listen to me, little brother. From what you and the others have told me, you've lived your whole life carryin' around a load of guilt that rightfully belonged to that horrible, vicious uncle of yours, and it's high time it stopped. If it weren't for you and your friends, ol' Delacourte would still be runnin' roughshod over this town and probably never would have been stopped. You need to be forgettin' about all that guilt now, not pilin' more on top of it."
"I'm workin' on it, but I must admit, it's hard to let it go after all this time."
"I know, but promise me you'll keep tryin'." Katherine reached up to gently touch his cheek. "And just remember, if you hadn't come back, I never would have found out the truth about what happened all those years ago... or gotten to know you. You helped heal the anger and hurt I carried in my heart, Ezra, and I'll always be thankful for that. My only regret is that our time together has been so short."
"I promise to keep tryin'." Ezra smiled at her and, taking her hand in his, started them moving slowly across the lawn again. "And I, too, wish we had more time. There's so much more I want to know about you."
Katherine stared wistfully up at Ezra and said, "You could stay, you know. Grandmother and I would love to have you with us."
Ezra wrapped her up in his arms and hugged her tight. "I'd love to remain here with you, but I'm afraid I have... obligations... back home that I can't ignore." He laughed and shook his head ruefully. "Home and obligations... Mother would never believe those words came out of my mouth."
Ezra frowned thoughtfully. "In fact, it still amazes even me that those words have become a part of my vocabulary, or an actual part of my life."
Katherine nodded at the six men watching them closely from the veranda and said, "I don't suppose they've had anything to do with that change."
Ezra glanced over his shoulder at his friends. His voice held a touch of wonder as he softly replied, "Everything."
Seeing the depth of emotion that flooded across Ezra's face as he spoke, Katherine knew nothing she said would convince him to stay. "They've become a family to you, haven't they?"
Ezra hesitated for only an instant. "Yes... yes, they have."
Katherine hated letting go of her brother so soon after she'd found him, but remembering all she'd learned about his childhood, she decided to just be glad that Ezra had found somewhere he could be happy, and that he was with people who so obviously cared about him. Katherine envied Abigail and wished she could just pack up and go with them also, but knew it was too much to ask of her grandmother.
So resigning herself to settling for a long distance relationship with Ezra, Katherine forced a smile onto her face, extracted a promise from him to write often, and began mentally preparing herself for the pain she knew she was going to feel when he left.
PART TWENTY ONE
Their last day in Shelby dawned bright and clear, and everyone was up with the sun, wanting to get an early start before the worst of the summer heat set in.
Breakfast was a raucous affair, with everyone's eagerness to be going home getting the best of them. Buck was good-naturedly tormenting JD, while the others laughingly offered up advice on the best way for the younger peacekeeper to retaliate. Their antics even drew a chuckle out of Chris when JD hid behind Abigail, playfully begging her to protect him, and she jumped right in without missing a beat, threatening to take away Buck's breakfast unless he behaved.
Vin was the first to notice that Ezra was being uncharacteristically silent. Instead of joining in as he usually would, he sat staring out the window while pushing his food idly around his plate with his fork.
Shifting slightly in his seat, Vin leaned over and spoke quietly to the gambler. "You feelin' okay, Ezra?"
Chris heard the tracker's question and turned his attention to the two men, waiting quietly for Ezra's reply.
Ezra sighed, noticed what he was doing with his fork, and let it drop onto his plate. "I'm fine, Mr. Tanner. Just not very hungry this mornin'."
"Something else botherin' you, Ezra?" Chris asked. Normally the Southerner would be adding his sarcastic wit to the bantering, egging both men on until even Buck and JD were doubled over with laughter at some of his more outrageous comments. But this time he acted like he hadn't even noticed the noisy exchange taking place right across the table from him.
Ezra started to shake his head no, but then changed his mind and asked, "Mr. Larabee, have you decided exactly what time we shall be makin' our departure today?"
Chris was fairly certain Ezra was troubled about something and wished he would look at him, but the younger man kept his eyes cast down at the table as he waited for Chris's answer. "Thought we'd leave outta here 'round ten or so... give ourselves plenty of time to make the train."
Ezra didn't say anything, but Chris and Vin saw him give a little nod of acknowledgment.
"Unless you'd like to leave earlier. We could always--"
Chris's offer was abruptly cut off when Ezra finally looked up and said, "No! Um... no. Ten o'clock would be quite satisfactory." Ezra cleared his throat nervously before continuing. "Since I know Mr. Jackson is most likely goin' to refuse any offers I might make to help in loadin' the wagon, I was wonderin' if I could take that time to pay one last visit to my... to the... er... cemetery."
Chris hated that Ezra thought he even had to ask, but didn't call him on it. Now that he could see the gambler's face, it was clear that all the wall's were down, and Ezra was in pain. Chris hoped saying a final good-bye would help ease that. "Sure. Take all the time ya need."
Ezra's relief was evident in the small smile he gave Chris. "Thank you, Chris. I promise I'll be back well before we're scheduled to leave." He went to push himself away from the table and stand, but Nathan's hand on his arm stopped him.
Nathan saw the other man's smile fade and hurried to explain. "I ain't tryin' t' keep ya from goin', Ezra. Lord knows, I wouldn't do that. I was kinda hopin' ya might try to eat at least a little bit of your breakfast first. We gotta long day ahead of us, an' I jus' don't want ya gettin' sick on us again."
Ezra started to tell Nathan that he wasn't hungry, but he saw the worry in the healer's dark eyes and just couldn't bring himself to refuse his request. So instead, he forced himself to eat most of the food on his plate and was glad he'd made the effort when he saw a warm smile replace the worried look on Nathan's face.
Finishing off his coffee, Ezra excused himself and headed for his room to retrieve his coat and hat. Nathan rose with him and followed him toward the stairs. When Ezra paused to give him a questioning look, the healer waved him on and told him he just wanted to put a few more bandages on his legs. Most of the cuts were healing up fine, but there were a couple of deeper ones that Nathan felt needed a little more protection before Ezra went riding.
Ezra rolled his eyes, but didn't say anything as he turned and continued on to his room. He hated the delay, but knew Nathan was right and that he'd be glad of the extra padding once his legs started rubbing against the horse and saddle.
Nathan had just started wrapping Ezra's right leg when Buck appeared in the doorway.
"Ezra? Um... you mind if I tag along an' keep ya company when ya go?"
Buck stood shifting from one foot to the other while Ezra sat and stared at him. Just when he thought the younger man wasn't going to answer, Ezra nodded shyly and said, "I'd like that, Buck."
Buck grinned and slapped his hat against his leg. "Well, all right then. I'll go get the horses saddled while Nathan finishes wrappin' ya up."
"That'd be fine." Ezra glanced at Nathan who assured him he was almost done and then looked back at Buck. "I'll join you in a few minutes."
Buck gave a satisfied nod and left before Ezra had a chance to change his mind.
Nathan finished tying off the last bandage and stood up. "Good t' see ya finally allowin' us t' help ya once in awhile."
Ezra blushed and ducked his head as he quickly re-dressed himself. "I'm sure he would have just followed me if I'd turned him down, and since Mr. Wilmington is not very adept at subterfuge, I merely thought I'd save him the embarrassment of being discovered before we even left the yard."
"Uh huh. You keep tellin' yourself that, Ezra. But I gotta warn ya, you're the only one who'll believe it," Nathan laughed as he patted Ezra reassuringly on the shoulder and followed him out of the room.
Buck did his best to keep their pace slow and easy. The rocking motion was uncomfortable enough for him, he could only imagine what it was doing to Ezra's legs. He was just glad Nathan had insisted on the extra bandages for the gambler and that it was a short ride to the cemetery.
"Ya doin' okay over there, pard?"
Ezra merely nodded, and Buck quickly took the hint that he didn't want to talk and left him alone for the rest of the ride.
When they arrived at their destination, Buck held back as Ezra started up the path leading to the cemetery.
When he finally noticed Buck wasn't following, Ezra reined Rebel to a stop and shifted in his saddle to look at him.
Buck gave a little shrug. "Thought you might wanna be alone."
Ezra nodded and turned back around, but just sat staring ahead at the cemetery gates, not moving. Buck saw a shudder ripple up the ramrod straight spine.
"Buck?" Ezra's voice seemed so small and hesitant as it drifted back to Buck on the still morning air. Nothing like his usual self-confident drawl.
Buck nudged Babe and moved up beside the gambler. "Ezra? You want me to stay with you?"
Ezra's eyes, dark with sorrow, met Buck's briefly before darting away again. "If... if you wouldn't mind."
Buck sighed in mild exasperation. "Hell no, I don't mind. Anything ya need, pard... you know that."
Ezra nodded, but didn't say anything as he continued on to the open gates.
Both men dismounted and tied their horses off on the fence, and then Buck trailed a few steps behind Ezra as he made his way slowly over to the grave of David Lawrence Standish.
Ezra stood twisting his hat restlessly in his hands as he stared down at the pile of fresh dirt covering the grave. Tears burned in his eyes when faded images of his father began running through his mind. The last one... the vision he'd seen... dreamt?... while he was being whipped had him choking back a sob as he remembered his father saying those cherished words... "I'm proud of you, son"... "I love you"....
Ezra had never been a particularly religious person, had no idea what, if anything, he believed in, but right now he would give anything in the world for the stories of Heaven and life after death to be true, and for that image of his father to have been real.
"Buck? Do you... do you believe in Heaven?"
Buck stared at the back of the gambler's bowed head as he thought about the unexpected question. "I ain't real sure, pard. I know I believe that there's something... more... after we pass on, but the Heaven you hear about in church, with clouds an' angels? I just don't know if I can believe in that exactly."
"But... you don't think we just... die... and that's it?"
Buck could hear the silent plea behind Ezra's words... the desperate need for Buck to give him something to hold onto... some kind of hope that would keep his father's death all those many years ago from becoming so final, and Buck immediately felt a similar need to give Ezra that hope. In fact, he felt it so strongly that he decided to share something with Ezra he'd never shared with anyone before.
"I gotta believe there's more, Ezra... 'cause of my mother."
A little of the despair had left Ezra's voice when he spoke again. "Your mother?"
"I feel her sometimes... like she's someplace close, kinda watchin' over me." Buck blushed and scuffed his boot lightly in the grass when Ezra didn't answer right away. "Crazy, huh?"
Ezra shook his head and swiped an arm across his eyes. "Not unless we're both crazy." He turned and stared wide-eyed at the other man. Buck's admission gave Ezra the courage to share his own secret. "I-I think I saw my father, Buck... when Uncle Matthew was... when I almost...."
Buck could have finished Ezra's sentence for him because he knew exactly when he was talking about, but he could barely stand thinking about his brother almost dying, much less putting it into words. "You thought ya saw him? Ya mean like in a dream?" Buck knew Ezra had been nearly out of his mind with pain at that point and wasn't surprised that he'd pulled up the image of his father to help him through it.
Ezra could see that Buck didn't understand what he meant. "Buck... I wanted to die. I truly did, but he got me to come back by... by showin' me that you were blamin' yourself." Ezra saw all the color drain out of Buck's face and knew the truth of what he was saying was finally sinking in. "He touched me... let me feel your pain. I heard you, Buck... 'Oh God, I'm losin' him.' That's what you were thinkin' then, wasn't it?"
Buck nodded slowly in amazement. There was no way he could have known that. It hadn't been a pain-induced dream. Ezra's father must really have been there... had sent the young Southerner back to them. Now it was Ezra's turn to give Buck hope. Maybe it really was his mother's spirit that he felt around him... maybe it wasn't just wishful thinking like he'd sometimes feared.
Ezra turned away and looked back down at the grave. "*Are* we both crazy, Buck?" he whispered.
Buck saw the gambler trembling and stepped forward to rest a comforting hand on his shoulder. When he spoke, his voice was soft and reassuring. "Not crazy, pard... just lucky if ya ask me. Looks like we got our own guardian angels, an' I'm just damn glad yours was there that day to keep ya from leavin' us."
"He said he was proud of me...."
"'Course he is. Why wouldn't he be?"
Ezra shook his head in frustration. "Come on, Buck. You know my past," his voice sank to a whisper again as he continued, "I've done things...."
"Shit, Ezra, ain't a one of us don't have stuff like that in our past. That don't mean we can't still be proud of the good we've done since then." Buck smiled down at the younger man and slid his hand over to gently rub the back of his neck. "Maybe that's part of why we all got thrown together... to give us a chance to make up for some of those bad things."
"You really think that, Buck? That we're bein' given a chance to redeem ourselves?" Ezra gave him a shaky little snort of laughter. "Or are you just tryin' to make me feel better."
"Well, Josiah's always claimin' that we was all brought together for a reason, guess that's as good a reason as any." Buck felt the trembling under his hand ease and gave Ezra's neck one last squeeze before letting go. "So what do ya think, pard... you 'bout ready to head on home? There's a few fillies I left back there that are just itchin' to help me do some more of that there redeemin' you mentioned."
The laugh this drew from Ezra was much steadier, and the wide, sparkling grin that accompanied it eased the worry from Buck's heart and replaced it with the certainty that his brother was really going to be all right.
Ezra looked once more at the grave and said a final farewell and heartfelt thank you to his father before turning back to Buck and slapping him lightly on the shoulder. "The very last thing I would want to do is stand in the way of your salvation, Mr. Wilmington. By all means, let's go home."
By the time Ezra and Buck returned to town, the wagon was almost loaded and Belle, Katherine, and her grandmother had all arrived to see them off.
A final round of hugs and kisses were exchanged and more than a few tears were shed, but by ten o'clock, as planned, they were on the road.
Abigail, riding with Josiah in the wagon, took one final look at the boardinghouse and was relieved to discover that leaving it behind was a lot less painful than she'd thought it would be. Instead of regret, all she was feeling was an eagerness to start her new life.
The trip back to Henderson was fairly quiet. Everyone was focused on getting home and, hopefully, having their lives get back to normal.
Buck rode close to Ezra at the rear of the group, just in case the younger man felt the need to talk some more, but when Nathan caught his eye and gave him a nod, he gladly eased his horse back and let the healer take his place. Nathan asked the lanky gunfighter if he was okay, and after receiving an affirmative response, moved in next to Ezra and began talking quietly to the gambler.
Buck smiled and slowed his horse even more to give the two men some privacy. The success of their trip would be complete if it were only possible for Ezra and Nathan to mend their differences. Buck hoped with all his heart that that was about to happen.
Ezra was half-dozing as he rode and looked up, startled, as Nathan rode up alongside him. He took a quick look around to see where Buck was and then turned back to the healer.
"Ezra. How ya feelin?" Nathan knew he had to be in at least a small amount of pain and wished again that the stubborn Southerner would have agreed to ride in the wagon with Abigail and Josiah. Nathan was shocked when Ezra actually answered him honestly.
"Tired and sore, Nathan... and extremely relieved to be goin' home." Ezra couldn't help but laugh at the look of shock on Nathan's face.
"It sure been a hard trip," Nathan agreed, "but a lot of good come out of it, too."
Ezra thought about Katherine and his father, then looked up at Abigail talking with Josiah, and smiled. "Yes... yes, it certainly did."
"Ya got rid of them nightmares, too, didn't ya?" Nathan was relieved to see Ezra nod his head. Buck had told him they had stopped, but he felt better hearing it from the gambler himself.
Ezra grimaced slightly as he shifted in his saddle, searching for a more comfortable position. "I do believe I have finally put my past where it belongs, Mr. Jackson... behind me."
Nathan sighed and stared off into the distance for a moment before replying softly, "I think I might finally be able t' say the same... thanks t' your friend, Miz Edwards."
Ezra's brow furrowed in confusion. "Belle?"
Nathan turned back to the Southerner and nodded. "I s'pose if she can let go of all the hate an' anger while still bein' here where all the ugliness happened, then I guess I oughta be able t' do the same livin' far off from it all an' surrounded by my friends."
A warm grin slid onto Ezra's face as he reached over to give Nathan's arm a gentle squeeze. "Well, then... since it seems we've both been able to conquer our demons as we'd hoped, I would have to say our little trip was definitely successful. Would you concur with that, Mr. Jackson?"
"I surely would, Mr. Standish." Nathan placed his hand over Ezra's and returned the squeeze. "An' I'm mighty grateful that ya didn't give up on me."
"I assure you, Nathan, the feeling is entirely mutual," Ezra assured him.
Feeling a soft tug on his coat sleeve, Ezra swiveled carefully in the saddle to find Buck had ridden up beside him and was staring at he and Nathan with a huge grin on his face.
"You two kiss an' make up?"
Nathan smiled and nodded. "Reckon ya could say that, Buck."
Buck heaved an exaggerated sigh of relief. "Good... we was all gettin' tired of listenin' to you two quarrelin' all the time. You were worse'n an' ol' married couple... always fussin' an' frettin' over nothin'. Maybe now we can get some peace an' quiet."
Nathan and Ezra stared at Buck for a minute, and then burst out laughing at the mere idea that there would ever be a moment's peace as long as Buck Wilmington was around.
The others looked back and then exchanged smiles at the sight of the three men joking and laughing. With a signal from Chris, they all willingly picked up the pace, every one of them eager to get on the train and headed for home.
The nightmare was over and their family was whole again. Life just didn't get any better than that.
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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