Still A Man
(Old West)

by KellyA

Author's Note: Thanks to NotTasha, not only for her beta skills, but also for raising the intensity of the story and straightening out the logistic errors. Also wish to thank Mary for some of her insight.
WARNING: NC-17 for violence and M/M rape, although not graphic. I've gone to the dark side on this story.
Completed: October 1999

Part 1

The bay and rider crested the hill and stopped. The sun was past its zenith and the long afternoon had just begun. Chaucer nickered and flared his nostrils as a light wind carried the scent of nearby horses. Standish pushed back his black crown hat and draped an arm on the pommel. He gazed down at the familiar homestead. He would have to inform Vin that the bevel-slated roof was in need of some new shingles. He smiled as he watched the tenacious old woman carrying a pail of milk from the barn to the house. Mrs. Nettie Wells was the epitome of a frontier woman, headstrong and resilient, a true pioneer who had probably faced more hardships in her life then all of the seven gunslingers combined. She was a strong and caring woman, something Ezra wished he had growing up. His lifestyle, of course, didn't carry over well with the hard-working woman. He knew she only tolerated him because he was one of the lawmen who protected the town of Four Corners. He liked the dynamic woman, he really did. Ezra nudged his horse down the hill toward the house.

Standish dismounted in front of the rustic domicile, allowing his horse access to the water trough as he adjusted his saddlebags. He had promised Vin and JD that he would look in on the Well's homestead before continuing to Cedar Ridge for some much deserved rest and monetary growth.

Ezra didn't break from his task at the sound of the gruff voice. "What the hell are you doin' here?" The suave southerner put on his most affable expression and slowly turned around, only slightly surprised by the rifle pointed at him.

"Miss Casey." Ezra tipped his hat at the young girl, standing at the older woman's side. Casey tried to stifle an amused grin as she eyed the handsome gambler. Ezra shifted his gaze to the stern woman. "Mrs. Wells, you're looking well."

The older woman stared suspiciously at the flippant and arrogant conman. She didn't hide the fact that she thought Ezra was nothing but a conniving, self-absorbed cheat. She felt that the slick cardshark was falsely elevating his reputation by playing lawman and maintaining company with the six reputable gunslingers for some for grand scheme, yet to be uncovered

Ezra noticed that the rifle never wavered. He didn't think he would ever win this woman over and for some reason this disturbed him. "Mr. Tanner and Mr. Dunne asked that I check on your welfare on my way to Cedar Ridge."

Nettie lowered the rifle at the mention of the thoughtful tracker, who she thought of as a son. Casey beamed at JD's obvious show of concern over her safety. Nettie never intended to shoot the gambler; the man just rubbed her the wrong way. He had helped to save her ranch, although grudgingly, and with the ulterior motive of making money. She eyed the smartly dressed man with a critical eye. Nettie had to admit the gambler wasn't half-bad, and that given a chance, he might actually prove himself to be a decent human being. "Well, c'mon the least I can do is feed ya."

Ezra's stomach rumbled at the thought of one of Nettie's home-baked pies.

A gunshot shattered the growing warm feelings and a bullet ripped through Ezra's arm. He clasped a hand over his bleeding arm and turned quickly, relieved to see Casey and her Aunt leaping back into the house.

"Don't even twitch." A voice laced with menace caused Ezra to give pause to any heroic thoughts.

Five men on horseback, their guns drawn, quickly surrounded him. The odds were not in his favor, and one thing his mother had always taught him was never play to a stacked deck. He glanced down at the blood oozing through his fingers and then returned his attention to the five men.

"Gentlemen." This was becoming monotonous. Being a lawman and a gambler was paramount to having a target painted on his back.

"Shut up!" The order came from a man with shaggy black hair and wild dark eyes. His size seemed to dwarf the horse he rode.

"Easy Bull." An older and cleaner-looking man flanked the large man's horse. Long graying hair flowed out from under his hat and his beard was neat and cut close to his face. The older man turned his attention away from Ezra and toward the house. "In the cabin," he yelled. "Unless you want to watch us put more holes in this man, I suggest you come out...without the rifle."

'Please, don't,' Ezra wanted to scream but instead tried to will the two women to stay inside the house. He knew Nettie Wells was more than capable of holding off the five reprobates.

Bull took aim at Ezra, gleefully smiling over his gun.

Ezra hung his head as the door opened and Nettie and Casey emerged. Bull looked genuinely disappointed as he lowered his gun.

Three men dismounted and converged on the two women. Bull came up upon Ezra, quickly removing his weapons. "Damn, this man's a regular arsenal."

Standish hissed as the large outlaw twisted his arms behind his back and tied them together, giving no consideration to his wounded arm. Ezra glanced over to see the three men force Nettie and Casey back into the house. Ezra looked up at the older man who had remained on his horse and said as levelly as possible, "I don't suppose I could beseech you to let the women go."

"Sorry, I need them. They're the reason we came." The older man dismounted and headed toward the house. Bull gave Ezra a shove in the same direction.

Part 2

Casey grabbed hold of Ezra as he fought to maintain his balance with his hands tied. He abruptly turned to face the five men who had taken over the small abode, putting himself in front of the women.

Casey watched through fear-filled eyes as the men started searching the three rooms, gathering up any weapons they came across. Nettie regarded Ezra's blood soaked sleeve.

"Ouch," Ezra curtly breathed as the woman grabbed his injured arm.

"Oh, hush, at least it went through," Nettie replied as she reached down and tore a strip of material from her skirt, tying it around Ezra's wound.

Ezra looked over his shoulder, gave the older woman a smile of thanks, and was actually surprised to see her blush slightly.

"What do you think they want?" Casey whispered.

"I'm afraid we'll have to wait until they announce their intentions." Ezra turned to Nettie. "Mrs. Wells, that was very foolish. You should have remained inside."

Nettie stared at the conman with an expression Ezra found difficult to discern. "What? And have to explain to Vin, Chris and the others why you were kilt in my yard," Nettie groused and quickly turned away, not wanting to reveal the real reason. She had been genuinely scared for the wily cardshark.

"What do you want?" Nettie abruptly demanded of the older man who seemed to be in charge. Ezra had to hold back a chuckle at the woman's audacity.

The gentleman stepped forward, removing his hat and giving the impression of civility that was almost laughable. "Forgive me. My name is James Carr, and me and my men require your assistance."

Nettie's brow furrowed.

"I've done extensive research on the lawmen at Four Corners, Miz Wells."

Nettie's eyes widen in surprise at the use of her name.

"Oh yes, we know about your relationship with the lawmen, and how they helped to save your ranch." Carr set his hat on the table.

Ezra's face remained impassive, not revealing his shock. Their research had not been complete; they didn't know he was one of the lawmen.

Carr started slowly pacing in front of his three prisoners. "I've been made aware that there is going to be a large amount of money deposited into the bank at Four Corner's tomorrow. With your help we're going to plow right through those self-righteous peacekeepers and walk out with that money." Carr's eyes practically glowed as he reveled in his plan.

Ezra knew about the money, it was bound for Fort McKinley. Four Corners was being used as a stop over until the Army could come and pick it up.

"We're not going to help you," Nettie voiced, stepping out from behind Ezra.

"You won't have a choice. With you two as hostages, those seven peacekeepers wouldn't dream of stopping us." Carr stopped in front of the steadfast woman and smiled. "If you don't want anyone getting hurt. You'll do exactly as I say." He glanced meaningfully at Casey, dousing some of the fire in Nettie's soul. She stepped back.

"Now, we're all just going to sit tight until tomorrow morning. So make yourselves comfortable."

One of Carr's men forced Ezra to the floor as Nettie and Casey were escorted to the small sofa in the center of the room. Ezra was grateful no one saw fit to tie the two women.

Carr looked down at the fancy dressed southerner; this man made him uncomfortable. "And who the hell are you?" He hadn't expected anyone but the two women to be at the home.

"Mr. Simpson, at your service." Ezra thought it prudent to change his name in case the outlaws knew the seven lawmen by name.

"You a gambler or somethin'?" One of Carr's men asked, taking in the man's flashy appearance.

"Yes, I was just passing by. I have no association with these people. In fact, I was on my way to Cedar Ridge to set about amassing my fortune, but I find your approach much more appealing."

Ezra ignored the angry glare from Miz Wells; it was better if she believed that he would side with these miscreants to save his hide.

Carr grinned at the fancy talkin' southerner. "Damn, boy, you swallow a dictionary or somethin'?" His men chuckled around him.

"Sir, I could be of great benefit to you," Ezra encouraged. "I've been to Four Corners. I know the layout of the town. I know what to expect from their peacekeepers."

Carr scratched his beard and studied the southerner intently. He could tell that the man was smart; he liked smart men. He just wished the hairs on the back of his neck didn't prickle. He had learned to heed them telltale hairs.

"Sorry, my plans don't account for any last minute additions. Guess you were just in the wrong place at the wrong time."

"That, Sir, is the story of my life." Ezra slumped back against the wall. Damn, Carr was smarter than he thought. It had been a long shot. Ezra had hoped that if Carr believed him it would have given him the opportunity to get Nettie and Casey to safety and warn Chris and the others.

Part 3

Ezra watched the day slowly drain away through the far window. He held no hope that one of the others would come searching for him. He wasn't expected back in town until day after tomorrow. He admired the two women's courage; he knew they were scared, but they weren't giving these miscreants the satisfaction. Ezra didn't like the way some of the men were looking at Casey, like a pack of wolves eyeing a lamb. Boredom was setting in, and men like these had no problem with using a young woman to alleviate that boredom. Ezra watched with clenched jaw as Bull laid a hand on Casey's shoulder.

Casey shrugged out from under the man's grasp and Bull laughed. Nettie pulled her niece close and looked like she would tear the man's balls off. Anger darkened Ezra's green eyes, but he forced himself to remain still.

Bull stepped around the two women and looked down at the silently, seething gambler. "What's wrong?" Bull leered back at Casey. "You maybe want her for yourself." Bull laughed and knelt down, grabbing Ezra's chin between his meaty fingers. "You're a pretty boy aren't you?" Ezra pulled his chin out of the big man's grasp. Bull laughed and walked away.

Part 4

Day finally gave way to night. One of Carr's men always remained on guard at the window, while the other two entertained themselves with a whiskey bottle and cards.

Ezra shifted his backside and hissed as a streak of pain coursed up his arm. It had gone numb, but he didn't think it was bleeding anymore. He watched as the card game began to break up and Bull, bleary eyed, approached the sofa.

Casey yelped when the large man grabbed her by the arm and hauled her to her feet. By the lascivious gleam in Bull's eye, Ezra had no doubts as to what he intended to do with young Miss Wells.

"Let her go!" Nettie yelled, grabbing the brute's arm and trying to pull Casey free. One of the other men grabbed the older woman, pulling her away. Casey struggled within the man's grasp, but his grip only tightened.

Bull looked down into Casey's frightened brown eyes. "You're a pretty little thing. I like 'em young and pretty. You ever been with a man before, little girl?"

"P...please...don't." She almost gagged on the man's putrid breath and the callus hands felt like sandpaper on her exposed arm.

Ezra struggled to his feet, his heart pounding with fear for the young girl. He looked over at Carr who appeared slightly distressed by what was happening. One of Carr's men placed his hand in the center of Ezra's chest, holding him against the wall.

"C'mon little lady, let's me and you get to know each other." Bull started to drag Casey toward the door her feet scrambling on the wooden floor, her eyes wild with terror. Oh, God, this wasn't happening she tried to convince herself, even as she felt the man's hand run through her hair.

Ezra lashed out with his boot, connecting with his captor's knee cap. The man screamed and crumbled to the floor, grabbing his knee, as Ezra ran past and plowed into Bull, separating him from Casey and knocking the huge man to the floor. Ezra held his ground in front of Casey who sobbed convulsively.

Despite his size, Bull jumped quickly to his feet. "You're a dead man," he growled. With his hands tied behind his back, there was very little Ezra could do, but he intended to fight to the last.

Bull grabbed the defending cardshark and flung him across the room and into the far wall. He then grabbed hold of Casey as Ezra struggled to sit up. "Now where were we?"

"Sir." Ezra looked over to Carr. "I thought you a man of civility and control. To allow these degenerates to violate this young woman is a crime against your humanity."

Bull stopped in front of the door and glared at the smart-talkin' southerner, not quite sure what he had said.

Carr looked at the terror stricken girl and what was left of his heart went out to her. He usually didn't allow this type of behavior, but he had been maintaining a tight rein on his men for months and had expected something like this to happen eventually.

"Let her go, Bull," Carr said.

Bull's mouth dropped open. He looked over at Carr then back down at the whimpering girl.

"If that girl is hurt, in any way, I can assure you that those lawmen would never stop hunting you, until you were all dead and buried," Ezra added.

Carr stood and laid a hand on his gun. "Let her go, Bull. He's right." Stealing money was one thing, harming a young girl was quite another. Carr's dark eyes regarded his men. He wasn't sure who they would back, and believed they'd probably all die if guns came into use. "We need the girl unharmed to get into town and get the money," Carr added.

Bull glared at Carr, the man was really pushing his luck and overstepping his boundaries. However, Bull wasn't a fool, and the money they stole from the bank would set him up for life. The large man broke into a grin and threw Casey back on the couch and into Nettie's comforting arms.

"It's alright, child, shhhh," Nettie soothed, stroking the young girl's hair.

"Now Boss, there's no need for bloodshed our goals are the same." Bull looked over at Ezra and sneered, then returned his attention to Carr. "Listen, we've been following you and listening to your big plans for months. Now, you've done right by us, but we need a little fun." Bull looked over his shoulder seeing the agreement in the other's eyes, which gave him more confidence.

Carr also saw this and knew his control was waning.

"Take him then." Carr nodded toward Ezra, flashing him a regretful expression then turning away. He had always prided himself on accomplishing his crimes without any undue harm, but sometimes one had to defer their moral principles in order to accomplish the mission. Carr needed these men if his plan was to succeed.

Ezra's eyes went wide and speech all at once seemed unachievable; he felt a debilitating fear grip him, something feverish and insistent, like a low-grade flu. Something hard dropped into the pit of Ezra's stomach.

Bull scrutinized the fancy dressed conman and a malicious grin spread across his weathered face. It wasn't like he hadn't done it before. What the hell, one hole was the same as another, Bull thought. "Hell, he's pretty enough," Bull blurted out. "Anyone else game?"

Ezra charged into the nearest outlaw, toppling him over. His terror-stricken lunge was short lived as a gun butt struck the side of his skull, driving him to the floor in an unconscious heap.

Casey's fear for herself turned to the gambler, who lay motionless on the floor.

Bull reached down and picked up the limp gambler, throwing him over his shoulder. "Oh, I like 'em feisty." He slapped Ezra on the ass and walked to the door. "This one should be fun. Got my blood pumpin' already. Can't wait to see what happens next."

"Ahh, what the hell." The man that Ezra had struck in the knee limped out after Bull.

"You have to stop this," Nettie exclaimed.

"I'm sorry, ma'am, but sometimes to maintain control one must loosen the reins a bit. I'm sure you much prefer this to the alternative." Carr walked back toward the kitchen.

Nettie settled back into the sofa, pulling Casey close. She was grateful that it was Ezra instead of Casey and hated herself for the thought. She still couldn't believe that the supposedly self-absorbed conman had probably saved Casey's life. Now, she found herself praying for his life.

Part 5

Ezra groaned when his body made contact with the barn floor. He wasn't sure how long he'd been unconscious; all he knew was that after the blackness had closed in on him, he'd started to surface through waves of terrible pain wracking his arms.

He heard voices and opened his eyes to be greeted by Bull's ugly mug.

"Hey, good! It's 'bout time you came around. Don't want you to miss any of the fun."

Ezra's legs came up, kicking Bull in his ample gut and sending him staggering backward to land on his backside on the hay-strewn floor. Ezra then swung his muscular legs around, catching the second man at the ankle and bringing him to the floor. The agile cardsharp scrambled to his feet and looked for the exit.

Bull got up laughing and brushing the hay from his pants. "Yeah, now this is my idea of foreplay. You've got me all excited now." He swung his massive arm, catching Ezra in the side and sending him flying into a stall. With his hands still bond, Ezra had no way to cushion the fall. He landed hard, taking the breath from his lungs.

Ezra lay gasping amongst the sweet-smelling hay, trying to gain control of his breathing and racing heart.

Bull grabbed the southerner by his boot and dragged him out of the stall. "Alright, Earl, it's your turn."

The other man limped up beside Bull. He was a couple inches shorter, but sporting the same large build. "Yeah, I owe him for almost bustin' my knee." Earl rubbed at his still painful leg. He grabbed hold of Bull's shoulder for balance and brought the boot of his good leg down on Ezra's upper thigh, spawning a yelp of pain. The next kick met Ezra's head and flashes of light burst in front of his eyes. He numbly felt the kicks to his ribs and legs as he tried to curl up and protect himself.

Ezra was only barely aware of the hands that hauled him up and threw him over a hay bale. He felt someone tugging at his empty gun belt and someone yanked at his pants, fear kicked in. He only vaguely heard Bull's harsh voice whisper in his ear, "You ready, pretty boy?" The large man pressed himself against Ezra's thighs.

Ezra struggled to rise until Bull's forearm slam down between his shoulder blades, driving him back down.

Part 6

Tears streamed down Nettie and Casey's face when they heard Ezra scream again. Casey buried her face into her Aunt's shoulder. Nettie glared at Carr with undisguised hate blazing in her brown eyes. The two remaining men huddled around the window, making light of what was happening in the barn and stifling their laughter at the sound of the gambler's screams.

Carr grew uncomfortable and picked up a book to try and distance himself from the vile happenings outside and the old woman's stare. After they split up the money, he would separate himself from these unsavory men and head for Canada. Carr slammed the book shut, unable to concentrate. It was not suppose to happen like this. His feelings of impending victory had given way to revulsion and despair. This was to be his last robbery, and besting the lawmen known as the Magnificent Seven was to be the coup de grace. He was getting too old and looked forward to settling down and raising cattle. Carr rubbed his hand over the fine leather cover of the book he held, wondering now if this last hoorah would be the death of him.

Part 7

Nettie looked at the mantle clock for the hundredth time. It had been almost two hours since the two men had taken Ezra. She started when the door was thrown open, Bull's grinning visage giving her a sick feeling in the pit of her stomach. Casey stirred restlessly under her arm and she gently hushed the young girl back to sleep.

"Hot damn, you all don't know what you're missing. That boy was a virgin."

"Now that you've had your fun, can we get down to business," Carr snarled. He hated doing business with these men, but it was hard to find anyone decent in his line of work. "Where's Earl?"

The smile that crossed Bull's face made Nettie feel nauseous. "He's still havin' his fun. He feels that he ain't had his fair share yet. I'm thinkin' I'll go back for more after I get a drink. Damn thirsty work."

"Get Earl!" Carr snapped. "I don't have time for this. We gotta get the final plans set."

Part 8

Nettie gently woke Casey who sat up and immediately searched the room. Her face fell when she saw two of the men still in the room with them. She had hoped the whole thing was a nightmare. "What's goin' on?" She had remained asleep as the men crowded around the table, discussing their final plans. A realization hit her now and a look of horror reached her face. "Where are the other ones? They didn't go back to...the barn, did they?" Her eyes were filled with empathetic pain as she gazed at her Aunt. "They didn't go back there, did they?"

"No, Casey, no. The others are getting the horses ready."

"Where's Mr. Standish?" Casey whispered.

Nettie released a quivering breath. "I don't know, child."

Carr strolled into the house. "Ladies, if you'll accompany me. The sooner we get this done the sooner we'll depart from your life.

Nettie pulled Casey up from the sofa, not wanting any of the men to touch her. "Where is Mr. St...Simpson?"

Carr chortled, the woman had spirit. "He is none of your concern. I'd worry more about yourself and your niece." Carr turned and walked out the door. Nettie looked over her shoulder to see the two other men approach, urging them out.

Nettie was forced to mount a horse in front of Earl. Her skin crawled when the man brought his hands around to take hold of the reins. She was only slightly relieved when Carr took Casey with him on Ezra's horse. Her face fell when she saw two of the men carrying Ezra's limp body from the barn and into the house. They quickly came out and mounted.

"Taggart, you stay and keep an eye on that gambler and be prepared to cover us when we return in case we're followed," Carr explained.

"Okay, boss."

"Let's go." Carr nudged Chaucer and the horse balked.

"Easy, boy," Casey soothed, reaching down and stroking the bay's neck. Chaucer recognized the girl's voice and settled down, allowing the stranger to guide him.

Part 9

Taggart glanced into the room where Ezra lay lifeless on the floor. He licked his lips at the thought of what Bull and Earl had done. It had been a long time since any of them had had any sort of companionship. He shook away the depraved thoughts. He'd wait until they reached the next town and find someone willing, and preferably female.

Ezra quite painfully returned to consciousness, finding himself on the floor of the Well's home. His leg and ribs cried out in agony as he rolled over onto his side. He concentrated on those pains, trying to ignore the other, the one that caused his stomach to churn and bile to rise up in this throat. He quickly banished the memories of last night to another place, he wished he could wipe them out entirely.

Ezra raised his head and saw one of Carr's men pass by the doorway. He listened but didn't hear any of the others. Where were Miz Wells and Casey? He started to twist and pull at his bound hands. He didn't know what was going to happen, but he had to be ready. The blood covering his wrists enabled his hands to slip out of the ropes.

Ezra fought to gain his feet and leaned against the wall. He clamped his mouth shut against the pain. His head swam and it felt like he was looking through a fish bowl. He looked down at his torn and bloodied clothing; once a vibrant armor protecting his dignity, the tatters now exposed the vulnerable core of his being, everything he was had been ripped from him by the rapists. Ezra's hand shook as he pulled at a torn sleeve. He had an overwhelming desire to just give in, if it weren't for Casey and Nettie, he would have laid back down and died.

Ezra wrapped an arm around his battered ribs and slowly ambled across the floor. He peered around the doorway, seeing the one guard sitting by the window, playing a game of solitaire. Ezra scanned the room until his eyes focused on a half empty bottle of whiskey that sat on the table. He silently reached and grabbed the bottle, making his way to the inattentive guard.

Taggart never knew what hit him. Ezra looked down at the unconscious heap lying amongst the shards of the whiskey bottle. He knelt down on his good leg and pulled the man's gun out of its holster, checking to make sure it was loaded. Ezra stared down at the outlaw, wishing he was one of the two that...he shook away the thought, it was better not to think about it.

Ezra replaced the guard by the window, hoping to have his chance at retribution. He knew the others would come. He attempted to sit down in the chair, but quickly reconsidered and surrendered to leaning up against the wall. He looked outside feeling as desolate as the surrounding landscape. He always prided himself on being able to control any situation, make it work toward his advantage. His strength was in his ability to deal with what life threw at him. He had had plenty of experience dodging life's harsh arrows. Now, he felt sullied, and those arrows easily pierced his shield of self-confidence. He was once again a child of five, scared and unable to control his feelings, trying to survive amongst people who thought little of him and wished he'd never been born. The only feeling that gave him any consolation and purpose was revenge.

Part 10

Carr and his men slowly plodded down the street toward the bank. Carr pulled his gun from its holster and placed the barrel aside Casey's head.

Casey gasped and struggled weakly in Carr's grasp. She searched for JD as the town's people scrambled into buildings when they caught sight of the strange procession.

Bull grinned as people raced into the saloon. "They must need a drink," he joked. The grin left his face as six men piled out onto the boardwalk.

"What in the..." Buck said when he saw the men holding Casey and Nettie at gunpoint.

"Take it easy. Let's play this loose," Chris murmured, looking over at JD who had his hands wrapped around the butts of his guns. "JD, don't do nothin' foolish."

"That's Casey!"

"We know. Let's not put her in any more danger than she's already in," Chris warned.

JD nodded and removed his hands from his guns. He trusted Chris; he knew the gunslinger wouldn't let anything happen to Casey or Nettie.

Carr pulled to a stop in front of the bank, keeping an eye on the six lawmen who were slowly moving toward them. He wondered where the seventh man was and glanced up to the top of the buildings, expecting an ambush. The six gunslingers looked as dangerous as rumored. The darkly-dressed blond must be Larabee, Carr mused. How could someone like that be a lawman? He looked like he should be running from the law.

"That's close enough," Carr yelled, cocking the gun that rested at Casey's head. She sucked in a frightened breath, stifling a sob. Her heart slowed from its rampant beat when she locked eyes with JD's reassuring gaze.

The gunslingers froze in the middle of the street. Buck grabbed a handful of JD's jacket to hold the easterner back. He could feel JD's muscles tense.

"Easy, JD," Josiah said, glancing over at the young man. "Patience is a virtue and will enable us to win this."

"What do you want?" Chris yelled out toward the men.

"Just the money that's in this bank--all of the money." Carr nodded and two of his men dismounted and drew their guns. They stepped up to the door and tried the knob, finding it locked, they looked over at their boss.

Carr glared at the darkly dressed gunslinger. "No one has to get hurt. Just fork over the money and we'll ride out. We'll leave the women where we found them. You have my word as a gentleman."

Chris's hand squeezed the butt of his gun. He wasn't going to risk Casey and Nettie's lives for some money. Vin stepped up alongside Chris.

"That's Chaucer that Casey and that so-called gentleman is ridin'," Vin said.

"Aww hell," Buck murmured. "What do you think happened?"

"Don't know, but Ezra would almost have to be dead to let someone like him ride his horse," Vin added.

"Mr. Brunner, open the bank and give them the money!" Chris yelled out toward the bank. He had seen the bank manager at the window.

The bank remained quiet. "Now, Brunner, or I'll shoot you myself," Chris threatened. The door opened, allowing the two outlaws access. Brunner fled the scene the moment the two had passed him.

The two men return quickly with three bags full of money.

"Yea ha, boss, you were right! We're rich!" Bull shouted.

"Thank-you Mr. Larabee. Your hospitality is greatly appreciated, especially by these lovely ladies." Carr nodded and whipped Chaucer around, spurring the animal forward.

"We goin' to follow 'em?" Vin asked.

"Nope. We know where they're going. We'll go around and hope we reach them in time." The six gunslingers raced toward the stables.

Part 11

Carr pulled up in front of the house to see Ezra leaning against the support post and pointing a gun. Damn, they didn't have time for this. He knew the lawmen would be following. He had planned on tying up the women then high-tailing it out, hoping that the conscientious lawmen would first check on the women to be sure they were safe.

"Now, son, in your condition you're liable to hit one of this pretty ladies," Carr pointed out. He wondered for a moment what happened to Taggart, then decided whatever had befell the negligent man, he deserved.

Bull pulled his gun and aimed it at the suave southerner. "Damn! I just think he missed me. Is that it, pretty boy, were you waitin' for my return?" The other men chuckled nervously. They thought Bull was pressing his luck by tormenting the armed gambler further.

Ezra's hand shook as it tightened around his gun butt. Ezra jumped when a shot rang out and Bull dropped his gun to grab his leg. Ezra forced a smile at the familiar sound of Vin's rifle. Another shot from behind and the man on Carr's right fell from his horse. Ezra took a trembling step forward, threw his arms up and yelled, "SURSUM."

Chaucer reared at the command, sending Carr and Casey crashing to the ground. Casey quickly scrambled away. Nettie sharply elbowed Earl, causing him to gasp. Free from his grip she jumped off the horse, praying that she didn't break anything in the fall.

Ezra's strength and determination slowly dissolved and he slid down onto the porch as Chris and the others charged down the hill and quickly took over the situation.

Part 12

"Alright boys, your fun is over. Drop your guns," Buck yelled and watched as the outlaws complied.

Larabee jumped from his horse and stood over Carr. He reached down and pulled the man to his feet. Larabee's anger darkened his face. "Be grateful I'm a lawman right now," he growled and Carr had no doubt that he was a very lucky man.

Josiah and Nathan grabbed Bull and pulled him from his horse, letting him crumble to the ground as his leg gave out. Nathan glanced at the bleeding wound and scoffed at the man's exaggeration of pain.

"Hey, Ez," Buck yelled toward the porch, then paused and frowned. He knew that Ezra was there a minute ago. Where did he go?

Nettie grabbed hold of her niece and held her tight, the fear of knowing how close she came to losing her cherished kin shook her whole body.

"Are you two alright?" Josiah asked.

Nettie smiled up at the preacher. "Yes, we're fine." She hugged Casey tighter.

Buck dismounted and walked up to the house his gun still drawn. He had thought that Ezra looked in bad shape and wondered why he would disappear. Chris and Vin joined Buck on the porch as JD and Nathan finished tying up the remaining outlaws.

Something was wrong, the hairs on the back of Chris's neck prickled and he looked over at Vin to see that he also felt it. Buck glanced into the house and saw another of Carr's men splayed out on the floor. "There's another one inside. Looks like Ez took care of him." Buck's eyes quickly scanned the interior of the home.

"Well, where the hell is he then?" Chris asked. The three men filled the doorway then dove to the side as a bullet clipped the doorframe just above their heads.

"What the hell?" Chris peered around the corner from his spot on the ground, and his heart skipped a beat. Ezra stood unsteadily against the back wall of the bedroom, his face a mask of pain and something else-terror. Ezra's green eyes darted wildly about the room as if searching for an escape.

"Ez, it's us! Hold your fire," Buck yelled out, thinking that the gambler didn't know that they had the outlaws tied up.

"Leave me alone."

Vin peered around the doorframe and noticed the blood on the conman's arm, he also could tell that Ezra was fighting to stay on his feet. Ezra kept an arm wrapped around his stomach, and his shirt hung uncharacteristically untucked. His pale face emphasized the fear in his eyes.

"Ez, we just want to help ya, pard," Buck said.

"No one can help me."

Buck looked over at Vin and Chris, they all heard the pain and despair in their friend's voice.

They slowly pulled back, stepping off the porch.

"What the hell is wrong with that fool?" Nathan asked as he sidled up beside the group, his bag in hand.

"Don't know, Nate. He's in there with a gun; won't let us get near 'im. He didn't look too good," Buck explained. "Looks like they roughed him up some. Got a bullet wound in his arm too, by the looks of things."

"Sounds like he's out of his head," Vin sadly pointed out.

"Well, I can't take care of him out here," Nathan stated as he headed toward the door, not in the mood for any of the cardshark's pigheadedness.

"Wait, Mr. Jackson." Nettie's stern command stopped Nathan in his tracks.

Nettie stepped up to the bewildered men, her arm still wrapped protectively around her niece. "Gentlemen, I think there's something you have to know."

"What is it, sister?" Josiah asked, fear manifesting itself as a spear of ice plunging into his heart. He didn't think he was going to like what Nettie Wells was about to confide.

Nettie licked her lips, an abiding sadness filling her eyes as she looked at the men she considered family. How can you tell family that something terrible happened to one of them? She knew how close these men had become. She never thought that Ezra belonged with these stalwart and honorable men--how wrong she was.

Nettie's voice tightened with the reluctance of revealing something so horrible. "They were going to take their pleasure with Casey."

JD's eyes widened and snapped over to Casey. His gut twisted for a moment at the thought of anything so heinous happening to the young woman. A woman he had grown to love.

"I'm okay," Casey reassured the young gunslinger and forced a small smile upon her tear-stained face. Her hands shook and she could still feel Bull's grip on her arm and see the look in his eyes, but JD's presence assured her that everything would be alright.

"What happened?" Chris asked, his hands squeezing his gun grips.

"Mr. Standish intervened," Nettie continued and smiled even as tears started running down her face. She bowed her head a moment. "So two of them took their pleasure with him instead,"

Everyone was silent, trying to grasp what the older woman was saying.

"Sonofabitch," Buck growled, dropping his eyes to hide the impending tears. Growing up in a brothel he had an idea what his friend might have gone through and the thoughts made him sick.

"Aww hell," Josiah added, closing his eyes and saying a silent prayer.

For a moment, the shock stole Nathan's ability to speak. He wiped his eyes and cleared his throat, allowing his medical training and need to care, to override his growing feelings of anger and disgust. "I...I need to check 'im, see how much he's torn up inside."

Buck roughly pulled his hat off and ran his fingers roughly through his hair. "God, Nate, the last thing he's going to want is someone touching 'im."

"I know Buck, but it has to be done."

"Nathan is right, Buck. We need to find a way to help our injured brother," Josiah said. "Nate has to see to his physical wounds before we can treat the emotional ones."

Chris looked over at Vin who had remained very quiet.

The taciturn tracker stood off to the side lost in thought, lost in memories that he had hoped were long forgotten.

"Why don't we just go in there? Ezra won't shoot us," JD said.

"Even if he didn't shoot one of us. The troubling state that he's in right now..." Buck paused, remembering the fearful look in his friend's eyes. "There's no tellin' what could happen. It might push him over the edge."

"Do you have anything that would knock him out, Mr. Jackson?" Nettie suddenly asked. She badly needed to help the southerner in any way possible.

"Yeah, but I don't think we'll be able to get him to drink it."

"Give it to me, I'll get him to drink it," Nettie assured.

Part 13

"Go in slow, he's like a wounded mountain cat, there's no tellin' what he'll do," Vin said to Nettie as Nathan handed her a tin cup half filled with water and a sleeping tonic. Vin glanced back inside the house, Ezra had slid down to the floor, and rested half on his side, but his hand remained on his gun.

Nettie patted Vin's cheek. "Don't worry. He won't hurt me."

"This will work pretty fast, especially in the shape that he's in," Nathan instructed.

"Be careful, Miz Wells," JD said.

Nettie smiled at the young gunslinger who had taken up a protective stance next to Casey. She stepped inside the room and stopped a few feet away from Ezra, allowing him to adjust to her presence.

Chris and the others remained out on the porch. Chris laid his hand on his gun, then removed it; there was no way he could shoot Ezra. He hoped the conman had enough awareness to recognize Nettie. Chris looked over his shoulder at the four tied up men. They had wrapped the body of the fifth and thrown it in the barn until they were ready to leave. Chris nailed Carr's back with a cold, dismembering stare.

A shiver ran up Carr's spine and he turned his head to look directly into the eyes of hate. Goose-bumps broke out on his skin and he quickly turned away.

Part 14

"Ezra," Nettie softly spoke.

Ezra raised his head and blinked, trying to force the darkness back. He didn't want to go to sleep, he knew what waited in that darkness. He could still hear Bull and Earl's laughter, still feel...NO! Don't even think of it!

Nettie watched as Ezra fought his rising demons. He looked so much like a scared little boy that she wondered why she had ever thought so badly of him. She wanted to reach out and pull him close, chase away the demons like she used to chase the imaginary monsters out from under her own boys' bed when they were little.

"Please, Miz Wells, leave me in peace." Ezra's voice was hoarse with emotion, his accent thick with pain. He sounded so defeated, so unlike the suave southerner she knew.

"I can't do that, son. There are too many people worried 'bout ya."

Nettie continued to move slowly forward until she was at Ezra's feet. He looked past her, making sure that no one else entered. He couldn't stand to face his friends, he felt so dirty, so foul. God, what would his mother think? Why couldn't he stop this? He was weak and deserved what happened. He tried to stop the images that flashed in his head. The feel of hands ripping at his clothes, touching him and...and... He brought his palm up and pressed it against his forehead, choking back a sob.

Ezra could no longer keep the contents of his stomach from rising. He twisted to the side and vomited. Nettie moved in and placed an arm across his shoulders, holding him until he emptied his stomach. She pulled the shaking young man into her and held the cup of water to his lips.

"Here, drink this."

Nettie didn't give Ezra time to think as she forced him to drink the concoction. She could feel the heat and tremors that were already wreaking havoc on his body.

"Please, let us help you."

"There is no help for me." Ezra sucked in his breath as a sharp pain clawed at his stomach. "I'm not worth the trouble," Ezra managed to gasp out.

"Now, I don't want to hear talk like that," Nettie snapped. "You saved Casey's life. That makes you more than worthwhile in my book."

Nettie could see Ezra fighting to keep his eyes open as his haunted gaze looked up at her. He smiled gratefully, then his eyes slid shut and his head lolled to the side. Nettie held him tight, hoping he could feel the comfort and tenderness within her embrace. The attack had not only stripped away Ezra's defenses, but her own. She no longer saw him through untrusting eyes. Nathan and the others tentatively moved inside. She looked up at the worried men, tears streaking her aged face. "You have to help him."

"I'll do everything I can, Miz Wells," Nathan sadly assured.

Nathan and Josiah gently lifted Ezra's limp body and moved him to the bed. When they saw the blood on Ezra's pants the horror of what had happened to him hit all of them. JD rushed out stifling back hot tears of anger. Chris stared at the blood that darkened the pin-striped pants and then released a long quivering breath.

Nathan started opening Ezra's shirt, trying to ignore the blood on his pants, knowing where it came from. Ezra remained unconscious but started to fight the hands that worked to remove his clothing.

"Please, don't," he softly whispered.

Vin stared down at his friend. He felt a hard, squeezing flutter under his breast bone. Ezra was like a wild stallion, and those men had broken his spirit. Vin clenched his fists in helpless rage, he hoped they would be able to heal the tortured gambler's physical, as well as emotional wounds.

"Easy, son, it's me Josiah, just take it easy." Josiah caressed Ezra's forehead. Ezra jerked away from the touch, and Josiah clenched his hand as it hovered above his tormented friend. Josiah pushed away the sadness that filled his heart at Ezra's rebuff. Now was not the time for self pity, they would find a way through this.

Ezra's sleep deepened and he no longer fought the hands that were trying to help.

Nathan quickly thought through which salves he had and what would work. He would have to have someone go back to town and retrieve more medicines. "I'm gonna need someone t'help me," Nathan said.

Josiah stepped forward to offer assistance, but a hand on his arm stopped him.

"I'll help," Vin exclaimed.

"Are you sure?" Nathan asked. He knew that Vin and Ezra had grown close over the past months. He wasn't sure that Vin was up to the task. "It's not going to be pleasant."

Vin looked down at the pale and strained features of his friend, and his heart broke as the past once again reared its ugly head. "I know what he's going through and what has to be done."

Nathan broke the shocked silence with a sudden barrage of orders. "I need lots of water and bandages. And Josiah, see if you can find any Aspen birch, I need to get his fever down."

Chris helped Vin remove Ezra's shirt and boots. A large bruise covered the right side of the gambler's chest. Nathan palpitated the area and found three fractured ribs, he then checked Ezra's pulse. He checked the wound on Ezra's arm and found it to be infected. He wiped a hand down his face and steeled himself for what he had to do next. "Alright, everyone but Vin out."

Part 15

Vin and Nathan worked silently with professional precision, not thinking about the causes of the man's injuries, just how they could take care of them. It saddened the healer that Vin knew exactly what to do. After hours of cleaning and bandaging, Vin fell heavily into the chair.

"I better let the others know what's going on," Nathan stated. "You need to stay with 'em."

Vin nodded as he wiped a cool rag across Ezra's forehead. He had no plans of leaving the cardshark's side. He knew the nightmares would come.

Nathan moved over to the dresser where he had his medicines laid out. He poured some amber liquid into a cup of water.

"If he starts to stir, give him more of this medicine. Best thing for him right now is to stay asleep."


The others waited on the porch. The sun had fallen the space of three hours since they left the gambler in the capable hands of Vin and Nathan. Chris leaned against the support post, a cheroot between his teeth, looking out over the distant hills. Vin's admission had shocked him, but then he realized there was a lot he didn't know about his new friend. He hoped that Vin could help Ezra; he wasn't sure who else could. Chris looked over at JD who stood guard over the four outlaws.

The door to the house opened and Nathan stepped outside. Buck offered the obviously weary healer a chair, which he gladly accepted.

"We got the bleedin' stopped, we'll have to wait and see if there's anything hurt inside."

"What if there is?" Buck asked.

Nathan hung his head. "Ain't much I can do. Hope it just takes care of itself." Nathan looked up. "His arm's infected and he's gotta couple busted ribs and it looks like they trounced on his leg pretty good. He's runnin' a fever. He ain't goin' be ridin' anytime soon."

Nathan audibly inhaled, held it, and then exhaled. "I'm going to keep him asleep for awhile."

"Why?" Buck asked.

"Because, if he's torn up inside," Nathan paused to get control of his flailing emotions. "I don't want him dying in agony."

Chris's fists shook at his sides, and the muscles in his jaw twitched. Anger boiled up, anger he hadn't felt since his wife and son were killed. The demon rage came to the surface, brought on by the senseless brutality toward one of his men, one of his family.

Bull picked this moment to broadcast his grievances. "Hey, is anyone goin' to take care of this leg?" The large outlaw yelled out.

Chris glared at the contemptible man and a fierce smile, one that the others wouldn't want to be on the wrong side of, revealed itself on Chris Larabee's face.

"Nate, let me have one of your knives," Chris asked as he threw the cheroot to the ground.

Nathan didn't hesitate as he reached behind his back and pulled out one of his large throwing knives. The metal shined in the waning sunlight.

Chris took the knife, stepped off the porch, and headed toward the prisoners. The others followed.

"Nettie, which ones?" Chris asked, his intense eyes causing the four men to shift nervously.

"Listen, Mr. Larabee," Carr began. "I didn't intend for anyone to get hurt."

"Shut up!" Chris turned and looked at Nettie who stood beside him, her own face a mask of disgust as she looked down at the four men. "Which ones?"

"That big galoot and the one next to him," she pointed out, watching as Earl's face paled under her accusing finger.

Larabee squatted down in front of Bull, twirling the knife in front of the large outlaw's face.

Bull puffed out his chest, trying not to be intimidated, but his resolve was weakening under the darkly dressed gunslinger's gaze.

Chris studied the outlaw, his eyes drifting down to the wound on Bull's leg. Without breaking his gaze, he called over to JD, "JD, I think you need to practice taking out a bullet."

"A...I've never taken one out before," JD stammered as he stepped up behind Chris. "I've only watched Nathan do it." The thought of cutting into human flesh made his queasy.

"That's why you need practice, Kid," Buck retorted a smile on his face at what Chris had planned for the malicious outlaw.

Nettie quickly ushered Casey into the house, afraid of what was to come. She wasn't sure this was right, but she was having a hard time voicing her disapproval. She could still hear Ezra's screams playing through her head.

"That man you hurt is one of us," Chris said, his voice taking on a decidedly cold edge. Bull's eyes were riveted on the huge knife that was more useful for gutting fish than the delicate surgery of removing a bullet. "And that girl you all were going to take, well, this here is her boyfriend."

JD glared down at the large man, his revulsion at cutting into a man turned into delight. This man was responsible for terrifying Casey and her Aunt, for hurtin' Ezra. Chris passed the knife over his shoulder to JD.

Bull looked up at the young gunslinger and his blood ran cold at the expression on the young man's face. A smile of immense satisfaction had settled on JD's boyish visage. JD had grown up in the East, but for the first time since leaving the civilized land of his birth, the young gunslinger had but one thought on his mind-Revenge.

"Look, I don't need the bullet out. Forget it," Bull suddenly exclaimed, pulling his leg back and wincing at the pain.

"Good, then our young friend can practice amputating," Josiah mocked.

"You can do him next," Chris said, nodding toward Earl.

Earl's mouth dropped open and he stared wide-eye at the gunslinger. "I...I don't have any bullet wound."

Buck smoothly pulled his gun and fired, the bullet entering the man's thigh. Earl screamed and grabbed his leg with his bond hands, falling over onto his side.

"You do now."

"You know what they say, brother, practice makes perfect," Josiah grinned then his smile fell suddenly. He was taking too much pleasure in this. 'An eye for an eye makes us blind.'

Chris stood and stepped away from the repulsive man. His angered fueled-revenge was waning as Earl's pitiful cries reached him. He wanted these men to suffer like Ezra had suffered, but did he really want to drop to their level of depravity? It had taken a long time for him to crawl out of that hole of hate and anger. "Awww hell, get Nathan." Chris suddenly conceded, taking the knife from JD and throwing it between Bull's legs. The big man released a breath of relief, realizing just how lucky he was.

Buck looked disappointed for a moment then sanity lightened his eyes. He glared at the men, a silent promise that if Ezra died these men would pay twofold.

Part 16

Night brought silence. Nettie looked over to see Nathan stretched out, as much as his long frame would allow, on the small couch. He had removed the bullets from the outlaws, but she didn't think the skilled healer had used his usual care, although they had given the men some laudanum, she could still hear the outlaws pleas to hurry. She quietly tiptoed past the sleeping healer and into the back room.

Vin looked up as Nettie entered the dimly lit room.

"How's he doing?" She asked.

"Okay, so far. Still has a fever, but it ain't getting' any worse. Nathan says we'll let him come to later tomorrow."

"That's good." Nettie stepped up to the head of the bed. "I was so wrong about him. I thought I was good at reading people."

She pressed the palm of her cool hand on Ezra's warm cheek. "I definitely skipped a couple chapters with Mr. Standish."

Vin smiled, knowing that guilt was troubling the thoughtful woman. "Don't feel bad. He's good at that. I think he rips the pages out himself just to keep people guessing. He had us all fooled for a long time."

Nettie raised her head and looked into insightful blue eyes. "It sounds like you will understand what he's going to go through."

"Yes ma'am, unfortunately I will." Vin fingered the small tassels on the bed covering, it was still hard to talk about.

"I'm sorry."

"No need. It was a long time ago. I survived and so will Ez."

"I think Ezra is going to need you."

"He's going to need all of us." Vin knew that anger and feelings of self-loathing would gnaw at the head-strong cardshark. He hoped that the genteel cardshark was strong enough to overcome them.

Part 17

Ezra's eyes snapped open, wondering who had screamed. He felt the hands on him and started to struggle. 'Ay pretty boy, you're going to enjoy this,' the menacing voice rang in his head, and his struggles intensified.

"No, please, not again..." Ezra yelled.

"Easy, Ez."

The familiar voice shattered the vivid images of his dream. He cringed and the hands were quickly removed. He concentrated on slowing his breathing, his ribs burned with each panic breath.

"That's it Ez, slow and easy," Nathan soothed as he wet a cloth and laid it on Ezra's forehead.

Green eyes finally focused on the healer and Ezra breathed a sigh of relief. Nathan was relieved to see the gambler awake. He had stopped giving him the sleeping potion, allowing him to wake on his own.

"How you feelin? Hurt much?" Nathan asked, restraining the desire to poke and probe the injured man. Vin had warned him that Ezra probably wouldn't take kindly to being pawed right now.

"No, to the second question."

Nathan smirked. "Good," Nathan said, glad that Ezra had apparently escaped any internal damage.

Ezra stiffened when he felt an arm creep under his shoulders. "Sorry, Ez, should have warned you," Vin apologized as he slowly lifted the conman so that Nathan could offer him some water. Once he had his fill, Vin laid him back down and pulled the quilt up to his chest.

Ezra licked his lips. "Miz Wells and Casey?"

"Are just fine, thanks to you," Nathan assured. "I'm going to go tell the others that you're awake." He winked at Vin and walked out. Vin knew that Nathan was going to keep the others out for awhile so that he could talk to Ezra alone.

"Carr and his men?" Ezra asked, fear still strangled his heart as the nightmare was slow to release its hold.

"They're back in town. The judge's dealing with 'em." Vin grabbed a chair and pulled it up alongside the bed. Now, how are you feeling, really?"

Ezra stared hard at the tracker. "Tired."

Vin leaned back and cocked his head to the side, scrutinizing the wily cardshark. This would be hard for anyone, but especially someone like Ezra who hid his feelings behind a wall of self-composure. The beating and rape had shattered that wall, leaving a 'stripped down' version of Ezra Standish-Ezra with his masks torn away and the core of his being now closer to the surface. As a tracker, Vin had found his way through the many 'masks' that Ezra wore and had already discovered that at the core Ezra was a good man.

"Ez." Vin paused trying to solidify the thoughts in his head. He needed to make Ezra understand that he was still a good man, and a friend. "It weren't your fault. There were too many of them and there was nothing you could have done. You saved Casey."

Ezra's eyes closed as he tried to just concentrate on the softness of the bed. He listened to Vin's words and tried to believe.

The silence stretched for an indeterminate amount of time. Vin watched the curtains billow against a gentle breeze. He didn't want to push, but the sooner Ezra talked the better.

"You're going to have to talk about it." Vin decided that the direct approach was the only one that would work.

Ezra glared at the tracker. How could he talk about something so awful? His breathing increased as his heart pounded in his chest at just the thought.

"Let's not and say we did. I'd rather forget it ever happened."

Vin grinned as some of Ezra's old sarcasm surfaced. It was a good sign. "Not that easy," Vin said.

"Of course it is," Ezra curtly answered, but not sounding completely convinced.

"They hurt ya, but they didn't reach the real man inside. You're still somebody I'll call friend and brother till my dying day. I know it feels like you've lost control but you'll get it back in time."

Damn, how could Vin read his mind? Ezra turned his face away as he fought to hold back the flood of emotions, ashamed that he couldn't maintain control. He wanted to scream, and curse whatever Deity would allow this to happen.

"Ezra, you're going to have to talk about it or it's goin' t'eat you up inside."

"Mr. Tanner," Ezra turned his head to glare angrily at the persistent man. "I know you are only trying to help, but why you or any of the others would even want to associate with me is beyond my comprehension. I am worthless, weak, unable to protect even myself from such a vile attack." Ezra took a breath.

Vin shifted uneasily in his chair and bowed his head as he folded his arms over his chest. "If that's the case, then I'm just as worthless and weak."

Ezra's eyes widen as his mouth fell open. When Vin raised his head Ezra saw the understanding in those blue eyes. He slumped back into the bed, feeling a heavy sadness take over his whole body. Ezra's next words were spoken softly, trying to stress the meaning and understanding. "I've been trained to handle any situation, it's what makes me who I am."

Vin had never told a soul, but now he felt he had to. He had to show Ezra that life did go on, and things would get better. "No one can prepare for something like this, it steals every belief you have and makes you feel like dirt." Vin licked suddenly dry lips. "It was when I lived with the Kiowa's. A friend and I were captured by an Apache hunting party." Vin paused and took a deep breath. "There were five of them." The next statement was a little harder for Vin to get out and his voice cracked. "We were treated like women in every way." A ghost of the past darkened Vin's expression for a moment. "We managed to escape after a spell but it took a long time to come to grips with what had happened, my friend never did."

"I'm sorry," Ezra breathed.

"Nuthin' to be sorry about," Vin quietly said. "I know what you're going through and I can help. No one is going to think any less of you, but you can't think less of yourself."

Ezra swallowed. "As a conman, my self-worth was never deemed very important."

Ezra closed his eyes as his mother's familiar words rang in his head, telling him that he was a disgrace to the Standish's name, and to pick himself up by his bootstraps. He wasn't sure he could do it this time, at least not without help.

"Well it's 'bout time that changed, pard," Vin replied. "You have people who think you're more than worthy of their respect and loyalty."

Ezra opened his eyes and stared the taciturn tracker. The man rarely spoke a complete sentence in a single day. Vin's words erased some of the shame and sadness that was starting to take root in his heart. He had friends, and someone who knew the pain and humiliation he felt. He didn't have to do this alone, and as long as he had the friendship of the other gunslingers, he could get through this. Ezra grasped this thought, held onto it like a drowning man hung onto a piece of wood, hoping to reach land.

Vin smiled, seeing the anxious look in Ezra's eyes diminish.

"You rest, pard, we'll talk more later." Vin moved toward the door.

"Mr. Tanner...Vin." Vin stopped in the doorway and turned around. "Thank you."

Vin nodded and smiled. He stepped out into the main living area where Casey, Nettie and five lawmen anxiously waited.

"It'll be a hard road, but I think he'll be fine in time," Vin explained.

Sighs of relief filled the room and looks of gladness passed between the lawmen. The single thought ran through all their minds: as long as they stayed together there was nothing they couldn't overcome.


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