Wild Card In The Pack
Disclaimer: No copyright infringement intended, this story is strictly for fun, not profit.
Summary: When Ezra is forced to kill a man to save Nathan's life, things get strained within the Seven.
Author's notes: Thanks to DarkCherry, Kris and Sherri for beta'ing this story.
Feedback: Always welcome. <bg>
Footsteps clattered against the wooden boardwalk as he wandered through the quiet streets. Dawn was approaching; the first rays of sun were already visible on the horizon, the sky was beginning to lighten, red and gold mingling with blue. It was going to be a hot day.
Thankful night patrol was finally over, and desperate for a warm cup of strong coffee, Nathan made his way back to his clinic. Only to stop as he felt what could only be a gun pressing into his back.
"Nathan Jackson?" A rough voice asked from behind him, so close that he could feel the foul breath on his face.
"Yes," he replied calmly.
"I'm no doctor, I just --"
"But ya heal folks," the man interjected, relieving him of his gun. "You're comin' with us. One wrong move and we'll fill ya full 'a led. Got it?"
"Yes." They made it to the livery without being seen by anyone. "What now?"
"Saddle up," the man ordered.
Nathan walked over to his horse, risking a backward glance at his kidnapper. It was two of them, guns aimed high at his head. It wasn't difficult to recognize them. The Seven had been after the Hutchinson brothers for two weeks now, with little success. Apparently one of them was a tracker, and good enough to lose even Tanner. They had a hideout close to Four Corners, but Vin hadn't been able to find it.
He saddled Freedom and preceded his kidnappers out of the livery. He kept praying for one of the others to show up, but he knew it was too early for them to rise. His hands were tied to the saddle horn and they were on their way. Nobody saw as he was led out of town and into the desert. He was all alone with two dangerous bank robbers and murderers, no one would know he was missing for hours to come.
He tried to memorize the way, but halfway through he was blindfolded. And he couldn't be certain, but he thought they had been going round in circles for a while. There was no chance he would be able to find his way back on his own.
It was almost a relief when they finally stopped. The blindfold was removed, his hands freed, and he found himself face to face with the oldest -- and most dangerous -- of the Hutchinson brothers, Wayne. He tried to control his nervousness, keeping silent and adopting a non-threatening stance until he knew what he was dealing with.
"A darkie?" The man snarled to his brothers, making Nathan fear for his life. "You brought me a darkie?"
"He's the closest thing to a doctor 'round here, Wayne," Mark, one of the brothers, said. "Better than nothin', bro."
Mark Hutchinson reminded Nathan of JD, same slight build and youthful energy. It was quite a contrast with Wayne, who was a bigger man than Buck or Josiah, both in height and weight. The third brother, Steven, was also tall, but slim, and by the looks of him, the quiet one in the group. He looked younger than Wayne, but not by much.
"You better know what you're doin' or you die, ya hear?" Wayne asked, his cold, dark eyes causing Nathan to move back a step unconsciously.
"Yeah. What do you need me for?" He asked, glad his voice sounded so normal.
"Wayne got shot in the arm. Don't look bad, but we need ya to fix him," Mark told him.
Nathan nodded. "Sit down and I'll see what I can do."
Wayne sat on a large boulder and took his shirt off. It wasn't a serious injury. Nathan cleaned it carefully and bandaged it, trying not to think about what would happen once he was no longer needed.
"You do good work," Wayne praised when he was done.
"You should get some food into you. Drink some water to replace the blood you lost. You'll be fine."
The outlaw barked a laugh. "I'd almost think you're worried about my health!" He patted Nathan affectionately on the arm. "I like you, darkie. You obviously got guts and you did right by me. For that, I'll let you live. Steven, blindfold him and drop him off a couple 'a miles from here. Make sure he can't find the path back."
Feeling his breathing and pulse steadying with relief, Nathan followed the 'quiet' brother to where the horses were resting. It was going to be fine. *He* was going to be fine. In less than an hour he would be back in Four Corners and he would tell the others what had happened. Maybe this time there would be enough of a track for Vin to follow.
He never saw Wayne nodding knowingly to his brother.
Ezra patted Rascal gently, fingers stroking the soft coat of the animal. He fought the urge to yawn; he really abhorred morning patrol. But such was his luck. Maybe next time he would manage to hold his tongue while arguing with Larabee. It never paid off to infuriate the other man; he always ended up losing.
He had been patrolling the outskirts of town, searching for any signs of the Hutchinson brothers. Those three were bad news. They had shot up a few banks in nearby towns, killing whoever got in their way. Including the local law. And now they were in the vicinity, probably planning to rob the bank in Four Corners.
Riding up to a hill, Ezra looked towards the horizon, gazing for as far as his eyes would allow. The nickering of a horse caught his attention and he looked down. His breath caught as he saw Nathan riding Freedom, hands tied and blindfolded. But what set his heart racing was the man behind him and the gun currently aimed at the healer's head.
Acting purely on instinct he drew his gun, firing before the other man could squeeze the trigger. Seeing his target fall, Ezra spurred Rascal down the hill until he reached the two men. Jumping from his horse, he quickly checked to see if the other man was still alive. He nearly swore as he stared into the unseeing eyes of Steven Hutchinson. There was going to be trouble.
"Who's there? What's happening?" He heard Nathan call nervously. "Steven?"
"It's Ezra, Nathan," he said soothingly. "I'll see to your emancipation."
He snatched Freedom's reins, patting the jittery horse until he was sure the animal wouldn't try to escape. The horse taken care of, he removed the blindfold and untied Nathan.
"Ezra! What the hell did you do?" Nathan asked him immediately, dismounting and checking Steven for a pulse. "He was guidin' me home! Was going to drop me off near town!"
Hearing the anger in every word, Ezra frowned. The healer could at least give him the chance to explain his actions instead of jumping to conclusions. "Mr. Jackson, you were blindfolded and imprisoned. You were in the hands of a ruthless murderer and I --"
"Well then, I guess you have something in common!" Nathan spat, mounting his horse and riding away.
Ezra sucked in a breath at the painful words; he didn't deserve them. But then again, it was something he was used to. When it came to him, the others usually shot first and asked questions later. JD and Vin were the exception, trying to know the facts before taking sides, but the other four... They always apologized after realizing their error, but soon history repeated itself yet again.
With a wary sigh Ezra gathered Hutchinson's body in his arms, placing him on his horse and tying him up so he wouldn't fall down. He mounted Rascal and followed Jackson at a safe distance. He thought about telling Nathan that Hutchinson was going to kill him, then decided against it. It wouldn't change anything, it never did. No matter what he did, or how hard he tried, he always fell short of the mark with the others. He was beginning to tire of it.
When he arrived at Four Corners, Nathan was surrounded by Chris, Buck and Josiah. From the look on their faces, Ezra knew they had already been told of what happened.
"You know you shot the only person who could lead us to the other brothers?" Chris asked him in a surprisingly calm voice.
"I am aware, yes, Mr. Larabee."
The dark-clad man glared at him, then turned to the others. "We leave as soon as Vin and JD return from Nettie's. Buck, take the body to the undertaker. Ezra, you're staying behind. You've done enough for one day."
Ezra watched as the four men walked away, trying to pretend the dismissal and the assumption he'd made a mistake didn't bother him. Truth was, he cared very much for the other men and it hurt to be treated in such a manner. Maybe it was time he began to make plans for his departure. It was obvious he wouldn't be missed.
Ezra entered the quiet sanctuary of the church, his footsteps echoing loudly in the empty building. He was relieved to see Josiah was not around. He wouldn't have been able to explain what he was doing there, maybe seeking refuge from the other men's anger. He would never show it, but he was weary of having to prove himself over and over again. It was obviously not enough.
He sat down, resting his arms on the back on the pew in front of him. He had never cared much for religion, but there was something about a church that always made him feel better, that calmed the emotional storm within him.
He groaned to himself when he heard the heavy footsteps on the worn floorboard; Josiah was back.
"Brother Ezra? What are you doing here?"
"Want me to leave?" He asked abruptly.
"I didn't mean it that way, son," Josiah replied, obviously surprised at his harshness. "I've been looking for you. Didn't think to look here, that's all."
"Why were you searching for me, Mr. Sanchez? If this is about the demise of Mr. Hutchinson, I believe I'll pass." He rose from the pew, moving to the door.
As he was walking past Josiah, the other man grabbed his arm. "Why did you kill that man?"
"He was about to shoot Mr. Jackson." Ezra replied, freeing his arm with a jerk.
"Why didn't you say something?"
"Mr. Jackson didn't give me a chance. And neither did any of you. If it had been any of the other gentlemen, you would have given some thought to why they would have killed Hutchinson. But since it was me... Tell me, Mr. Sanchez, why would I kill him? For sport, perhaps? Or maybe I'm working for the Hutchinson brothers and I wished to keep their hideout a secret," he drawled sarcastically.
Josiah nodded. "Fair enough. I'm sorry. I'm not saying we were right, but you don't make it easy, Ezra."
"Ah, yes. My eternal attempts at keeping you all at arms length, the way I always hide my feelings behind my 'poker face'. Is that what you're referring to, Mr. Sanchez?"
"Yes," Josiah replied, and Ezra could see the other man's frown, obviously not understanding what he was trying to say.
"Well, let me ask *you* something, Mr. Sanchez. Are you absolutely certain those walls I built around me are the sole responsiblity for the... 'misunderstandings' that occasionally occur within our midst?"
"What do you mean?"
"Is it really just my doing, Mr. Sanchez? Because there have been more than a few occasions in which I felt I was outside looking in, that you were the ones who built a protective wall to keep me out. Ever since the Seminole incident you've all been waiting for me to betray you, to run out on you again. I recognize I'm somewhat at fault for that, but I'm not the only one. You proclaim yourselves my friends, but every time something occurs, you always think the worst of me. Then you realize that I was not at fault, and you apologize profusely promising it won't happen again. Until the next time. How many more times will be the last, Josiah? How long would you have stayed within a group of people who obviously don't trust you, no matter how many times you have proven yourself? How many times before you would have given up and left?"
Josiah lowered his head shamefully at the truth in the fiercely spoken words. "Why have you stayed, Ezra? Honestly." He finally asked.
"Honestly? I've been a conman all of my life, Mr. Sanchez. I was conning unsuspecting souls before I could even speak properly. I won't apologize for it. But I've never been given the chance to be anything else, and there are things in my life I wish I had never done. Joining you gentlemen has given me the chance to break from the bonds of my past and see life from a totally different perspective. That's why I stay. But I'm growing tired of being everyone's scapegoat. I *am* a conman and a gambler. I wear my colors proudly. I give full warning to any souls that engage in battle with me, be it a mark or a fellow gambler. I'll always be those things, whether you gentlemen like it or not. You want to know the irony of it all? Mr. Larabee gave me a second chance, but I've lost count of the chances I've given you."
"It's just that we don't know anything about your past and --"
"How much do you really know about Mr. Jackson's past? Or Mr. Wilmington's? Or even our fearless leader's, other than the demise of his family? Or any of the others for that matter? Why do I have to be different? I may have been raised by wolves, but at least wolves protect the pack. Maybe you should give it some thought, Mr. Sanchez. Now, if you'll excuse me, I'm in dire need of a libation."
He left the church with a heavy tread. He'd never meant to say so much, he'd never meant to say anything at all. But once the first words had come out of his mouth, the hurt and the disappointment had broken through and he'd been unable to stop the rest. He didn't feel any better, but at least one of the others knew what he was feeling, why he stayed. Maybe he should start speaking from the heart more often, instead of pretending not to care.
He was playing a game of patience when he suddenly realized there was someone else in the saloon with him. Only one man managed to get close enough without him knowing it. "Yes, Mr. Tanner?" He asked, not really up for another confrontation. But maybe it would be different with Vin.
"How ya doing, pard?" Vin asked as he sat in front of him.
"Why do you ask?"
"Buck told me what happened. Reckon the others got a little 'head of themselves. Wanted to hear your side of the story."
"Really?" Ezra smirked sarcastically. "And would you take my word over our illustrious healer?"
Vin scowled angrily. "Why the hell can't ya just give a straight answer for once?"
"You wish for a straight answer? What if I said that the only reason our little motley crew still has its seven members is due to the fact I shot that man?"
"I'd believe ya."
Green eyes locked on blue, judging the truth in the soft-spoken words. "Just like that?"
"'Cause ya said so. Good 'nough for me."
Ezra felt his heart lighten at the words. He'd been attracted to the tracker from the moment he'd laid eyes on him, but had thought better to let it pass than to act on it. But as he got to know the man, the attraction had changed into something else. Something he was certain was love.
Nothing had been said between them, but he thought Vin might feel the same. The other man always kept close during gunfights, made sure he was unharmed once the shooting was over, and even went on patrol with him occasionally. By some unspoken agreement, both of them seemed content to wait for the perfect moment to come together. It was enough for him to know that he had a friend, someone he could trust within the Seven.
"Thank you, Mr. Tanner."
"You should've told the others."
"I didn't exactly have a choice in the matter, Mr. Tanner," he drawled sarcastically.
Vin nodded. "You're right. We're goin' after the brothers, maybe this time I'll be able to find their trail. I'll talk to the others. Can I tell them the truth? Please, Ez?"
"Yes, Mr. Tanner. You have my permission. Mr. Sanchez already knows. We... uh, had words in the church," he replied in answer to the other man's raised eyebrow.
The tracker grinned. "Thanks, Ez. How 'bout a game of poker when I get back? Reckon I have some money to lose."
Ezra couldn't help but smile back. "In that case, return safely. I'll be waiting anxiously."
He covered his nervousness as Vin suddenly leaned closer, a predatory gleam in his eyes. "Is that the only reason?"
"The game. Is it the only reason why ya want me to return safely?"
Ezra remained silent for a long while, unable to look away from the intense blue eyes staring so hungrily at him. "No," he finally breathed. "Not the only reason."
"Good," Vin purred, moving away just as the others walked in.
"Vin, let's go," Chris called. "We've lost enough time as it is."
Vin rose from his seat, winking at Ezra before leaving. "See ya, Ez."
"Mr. Tanner," he acquiesced with a nod. He startled when he felt a hand land gently on his shoulder. He looked up, right into Josiah's warmth-filled eyes. "Yes, Mr. Sanchez?"
"I've been thinking about everything you've told me. I'm sorry, Ezra. I do care, we all do. We're going to have a long talk when I get back. Things are going to change, I promise."
Ezra tried to cover his elation. "Don't get this the wrong way, sir, but I'll believe it when I see it."
Josiah nodded. "Wouldn't expect anything else after how I've been behaving. See you later."
"Safe journey, Mr. Sanchez. Watch out for crows."
He smiled as the big man laughed, the sound reverberating throughout the saloon. The two men traded a last salute, then Josiah left for the livery to join the others. Ezra looked at the cards thoughtfully. Maybe he should postpone his departure. The stakes had just gone up and that was one wager he was anxious to take.
"Where the hell is he?" Wayne Hutchinson growled angrily. "He should've been back hours ago!"
"Think the darkie did somethin' to him?" Mark asked with a frown.
"Can't think of nothin' else. Steven would've come back as soon as he was finished. But what could've happened? The man was blindfolded and tied up."
"Maybe they met someone on the way."
"Yes..." Wayne looked at his younger brother. "Let's move out. We're going to Four Corners. I want to know what happened. And God help anyone who might have hurt Steven."
"Something on your mind, brother?"
Nathan looked into Josiah's concerned eyes and nodded wearily. "Yeah. Ezra."
"What 'bout him?" Buck asked, patting Joker's neck soothingly as the horse nickered softly.
"I said somethin' to him. Somethin' I shouldn't have," Nathan replied, shame and guilt making his heart lurch painfully.
"What did you say?" JD frowned, riding between Buck and the healer.
"When he shot Hutchinson... He was tryin' to explain why he done it, said somethin' 'bout the man being a murderer."
"And?" Josiah prompted.
"I was... afraid," Nathan admitted shamefully. "When they caught me in town and I recognized them, I thought I was dead. But then Wayne said he'd let me go. Somewhere in my heart I knew they meant to kill me, but in my mind... When I heard the shot I thought that was it. I was goin' to die out there, alone, shot in the back by some murdering bastard. I was scared, ashamed, angry... Then I realized what had happened, and I took it all out on Ezra. When he said Hutchinson was a murderer I told him they had somethin' in common."
"Damnit, Nathan! That was a mean thin' ta say!" Vin scowled at him. "He saved your life, he didn't deserve that."
"Saved my life?"
"He told me that and I believe him," Vin replied stubbornly.
Nathan saw Josiah nod. "Told me the same thing," the big man said. "I thought we'd been too hard on him, so I went looking for him. Just about given up when I found him in the church, alone. We talked about it. Well, *he* talked, I listened," he admitted ruefully. "In the two years we have known our wayward brother, I have never heard him say so much. He asked me what other reason he could have had to kill Hutchinson if not to save your life. If I thought he'd done it for sport or because he was with the Hutchinsons. He said quite a lot after that too."
"Like what?" Buck asked.
Josiah proceeded to tell them everything that Ezra had said to him in the church. "He was hurting, brothers. Hurting, disappointed, angry. I could see it in his eyes, could hear it in every word. Each time we hurt him we make a dent in the protective walls, but not in the right way. We're destroying Ezra's spirit. Something he said... He told me he might have been raised by wolves, but that at least wolves protect the pack. We cover his back on the job, but do we protect him?"
"What do you mean?" Chris asked, speaking for the first time.
"Each time one of us has a problem, the others try to help. By doing something, by being there, doesn't matter. True, it's hard to know when something is wrong with him, but there have been times when we could have helped. When Maude bought his saloon, for instance. Or during that business with Governor Hopewell and the ten thousand dollars. He never denied his nature. We all knew that and left him adrift. He came to me and I didn't listen. None of us did, none of us cared. We were too wrapped up in our own problems to pay any attention to him."
"You're right. We should do somethin', apologize --" JD started.
"Not you, JD," Buck interjected softly. "You and Vin have done right by Ezra. You have nothin' to apologize for. It's the rest of us that have some grovelin' to do."
Chris nodded. "And we're doin' it, as soon as we get back to town. It's about time to let our wild card know he's a part of the family. It's time to tear down *our* wall."
The others nodded their agreement and Nathan suddenly felt better. Maybe they could still salvage their friendship with Ezra. The southerner got on his nerves sometimes, and they didn't see eye to eye on a lot of things, but he honestly cared for the other man. Maybe it was time he started showing it too.
It had been amazingly easy to find the trail this time. All it had taken was for Nathan to lead them back to the place where Ezra had shot Steven Hutchinson, then backtrack. Hutchinson hadn't been covering his tracks, maybe because he had planned on doing it when he got back.
Vin crouched down for the tenth time, fingers combing through the dusty ground, blue eyes staring ahead. He had a bad feeling he just couldn't shake. It wasn't something he could name, but he knew for certain that there was a storm brewing, and not in the literal sense.
He mounted Shadow and gestured for the others to follow. They were close to the Hutchinson hideout. He could feel it in his gut.
There had been no trace of Steven as they made their way to Four Corners. They had approached the small town carefully, weary of the seven lawmen they had heard about, but so far there had been no sign of such men. They wandered slowly through the streets, eyes alert, ears picking up lose conversations.
"...That's right, Steven Hutchinson. I still can't believe that Standish fellow killed one of the Hutchinson brothers." Wayne gestured to his brother and they hid in the alley, listening attentively to the two men talking near the jail.
"There's a reason he's one of the Seven who protect this town. First time I heard of a gambler being a lawman, but he does his job, same as the others," the second voice stated. "I, for one, am glad he got rid of one of them Hutchinsons. They're nothin' but trouble."
The two men walked away, leaving the brothers alone with their hatred and fury. "So Steven's dead, huh? Well, time to pay Mr. Standish a visit," Wayne growled angrily. Nobody killed one of his brothers and got away with it. Nobody.
They left the alley, nearly colliding with a small boy who came running from the opposite direction. "Sorry, Mister," the kid muttered apologetically.
"It's okay, kid." Mark smiled down at the boy. "Maybe you can help us. We're lookin' for a friend. You know anyone by the name of Standish?"
The kid smiled broadly, his whole face lighting up at the name. "Ezra? 'Course I know 'im, he's my friend," he stated proudly.
"What's your name, son?" Wayne asked.
"Well, Billy, you know where we can find Ezra?"
"Saw him going into the livery just now."
"Thank you, Billy."
"You're welcome. Bye!"
Wayne watched the kid run away, then turned to his brother. "Time to make our acquaintance with Mr. Ezra Standish."
"We have to go back," Vin said suddenly, reaching for Shadow's reins.
"What? Why?" Chris asked with a frown.
"Think about it, Cowboy. The hideout's deserted; from the shuffling in the dirt, I'd say they left in a hurry. They were waitin' for their brother, he don't show. What would ya do?" Vin asked, trying to keep the fear from his voice.
"Go after the person they think is responsible for their brother's disappearin'," Buck replied, looking at Nathan.
"Right. They went to Four Corners lookin' for Nathan. And Ezra's there on his own."
"Damnit!" Chris swore. "Come on, let's ride back!"
They spurred their horses at a fast gallop, Vin riding ahead of the others. All he could think of was they had to hurry. Ezra was alone and unprotected, oblivious to the danger lurking. He couldn't let anything happen to the other man. Not when he was finally certain the other man shared his feelings, not when he was so close to getting his heart's desire.
Ezra was brushing Rascal's coat gently when he heard a noise from behind him. He turned to see two men aiming their guns at him. Men he recognized as Wayne and Mark Hutchinson.
"Gentlemen, what can I do for you?" He asked, his voice concealing his trepidation.
"Ya can start by gettin' out of that stall, lawman," the younger man spat. "And keep you're hands where we can see 'em."
Trying to buy some time he obeyed, moving away from Rascal's stall slowly, hands held high. "My demise will serve nothing," he said suddenly.
Wayne Hutchinson laughed. "You a religious man, gambler? Ever heard of an eye for an eye? Steven was my brother. Your life for his life sounds like a good deal to me."
"I believe there's also something in the good book about turning the other cheek," he replied, not believing he was actually antagonizing a known murderer.
"Unfortunately for you, I was never one to turn the other cheek for anyone, 'specially for a lawman. Say your prayers, Standish, you're going to --" The loud sound of horses approaching at a fast pace intruded on the man's speech. "Mark, see who it is."
The younger brother looked out, then swore. "Six riders, must be them lawmen. Darkie's with them. They're talkin' to the newspaper woman."
"Good, that'll give us some time. Remember the kid?"
"Go get him, we'll use them both to get out of town."
Ezra listened to the whole conversation, elated that his friends were back and wondering who the 'kid' might be. It couldn't be JD; he was with the others. And he really had to stop thinking of the younger man as a kid. He'd proven often enough he was old enough to ride with them.
He watched as Wayne turned his attention back to him. "Lose the guns, lawman. You and I are goin' to greet them friends of yours," he announced, stepping closer and placing his gun to Ezra's temple
Left with no choice Ezra removed his guns, except for the peashooter, which remained hidden until the time was right to act. Trying now would only cause his death, and there was the 'kid' to think about. Whoever it was, would be at the hands of Mark Hutchinson. He would have to wait.
They saw Mary running up to them as soon as they reached Four Corners. "Thank God you're back!" She breathed.
"Something wrong?" Chris frowned.
"I'm not sure. Billy told me two men asked him about Mr. Standish, where they could find him. Could be nothing, but I got a bad feeling," she explained with a shrug.
Chris nodded; he understood her reaction. Usually when someone came looking for one of the Seven, it meant trouble. She was more than used to it by now, and knew the signs.
"When did that happen? He told the men where to find Ezra?"
"About ten minutes ago, and he said Ezra was in the livery."
Something in JD's voice made the others turn. The Sheriff was looking at the livery entrance, gun drawn. Wayne Hutchinson was dragging Ezra out of the building, using him as a shield against them.
"Ezra, are you all right?"
"Quite all right, Mr. Larabee, although I wished to be in more suitable company," the southerner replied, his words earning him a cuff to the head.
"Shut up, Reb! Now, it's like this, lawmen; you stay back and let us ride out of town, and me and my brother will let our prisoners go."
"Prisoners?" Buck whispered to Chris. "As in more than one? I only see Ez. And where's the other brother?"
"Don't know. And I don't like it. There's something wrong, Buck, I can feel it," Chris replied, his eyes never leaving Ezra.
He wanted to make up for what he had said and done lately to the stubborn cuss. He was quick to anger and Ezra was usually a convenient target because he rarely fought back. If he had tried the same thing with one of the others, chances were he would do irreparable damage to the group and someone would end up leaving. But with Ezra he was safe. It wasn't right. He was going to start changing his behavior towards the southerner, even if it meant swallowing his anger occasionally.
He saw Ezra's poker face vanish suddenly, green eyes widening in fear. Following the southerner's line of vision, he felt his heart lurch painfully. Mark Hutchinson was walking towards his brother, Billy Travis squirming in his grasp, a hand covering the child's mouth to muffle his cries.
"Billy!" Mary cried out, only Buck's arms around her preventing her from running to her son's aid.
"Now that we're all here..." Wayne grinned. "I'm still waitin' for your answer, lawmen. Either we leave safely or the kid and the gambler die. Which is it?"
Before Chris could utter a word, their conman decided to take action. Taking advantage of the fact Mark was so close to him, Ezra suddenly kicked the man in the hip, making him lose his balance and his hold on Billy.
"Billy, run!" Chris heard him shout.
He watched in horrified fascination as an extremely angry Mark Hutchinson reached for the southerner, only to be shot between the eyes with the miraculously released derringer. But before Ezra could make another move, Wayne swung him around, shooting him in the chest.
"Ezra!" Vin shouted fearfully from beside him as they watched their friend crumble to the ground.
They drew simultaneously, firing against the man who dared to harm one of their own. Six shots echoed in the late afternoon air, six bullets found their target. Wayne Hutchinson was dead before his body hit the dirt.
Chris rushed with Nathan to their fallen brother, waiting impatiently with the others as the healer checked Ezra. "Well?" He finally growled.
"He's alive," Nathan replied, a strain in his voice.
"But?" Buck prompted breathlessly.
"The bullet's still in him, close to the heart. I don't know --" Nathan took a deep breath. "Never mind. Josiah, help me take him to the clinic."
The dark-clad man watched as the two men gently lifted Ezra from the ground and carried him over to the clinic. He followed with the others, finding a quiet corner in the room where he wouldn't disturb anything. He waited breathlessly as Nathan removed the bullet, cleaned the wound and bandaged it carefully, all the while speaking soothingly to the unconscious man.
"Well?" Vin asked nervously when Nathan was done. Chris had never seen the younger man look so pale and worn-out.
"It looks good. The bullet is out and he doesn't have a fever. If the wound doesn't get infected he should make it. It's hard to tell with injuries like this, and he lost a lot of blood. But he's strong, and just about the most stubborn man I've ever met. That should count for somethin'."
Everyone nodded, finding their own little place to wait; some sitting on the floor, others in the spare chairs, others just leaning against the walls. Chris knew none of them was going anywhere until they were certain Ezra would make it. That was the way families did it.
He came to slowly, wishing he could have stayed unconscious and oblivious to the pain in his chest. Had he been shot yet again? Memories came rushing into his mind; the Hutchinson brothers, the showdown by the livery, Billy... Billy! He tried to sit, gasping as a wave of dizziness and pain swept over him.
"Easy," gentle hands guided him back into the bed, the words soft in his ear. "You're still weak. Here, drink this."
He knew it would be one of Nathan's terrible concoctions and thought about rebelling. But he really could use something for the pain, so he drunk it without complaint. When he felt strong enough he finally opened his eyes, looking straight into Chris' surprisingly soft gaze.
"Mr. Larabee, is Billy --" he began weakly.
"He's fine," Chris interrupted softly. "Thanks to you. He's back with his mother, being pampered for all he's worth."
"How long --"
"Have you been here? Nearly two days. Nathan gave you somethin' to keep you sleepin', said it would help the healing. Ezra, we have to talk. But first, you do anything as stupid as that again and I'll personally make sure you have a brand new suit, in tar and feathers. Do I make myself clear?"
"You wouldn't," he sputtered, at the idea of being covered in tar and feathers. Not that it would be the first time, but these men were supposed to be on his side.
"I would. I definitely would. Now... I'm sorry."
"Whatever for, Mr. Larabee?"
"For the way I've been treatin' you. Damnit, Ezra, you have to know that me and the others, we all care 'bout you. We might not show it sometimes, but you wouldn't still be here with us if we didn't care or want you around. You're a part of us, it wouldn't be the same without you. Hell, we wouldn't be the Magnificent Seven! And... things are going to be different from now on, I promise. I know we've said that before, but this time it'll be different."
Ezra's face remained unchanged, but inside, his heart warmed at the fiercely spoken words. He found himself believing the other man, believing it would actually be different this time.
He nodded. "Very well, Mr. Larabee. I'll wait and see. But I reserve myself the right to cover *you* in tar and feathers if you go back on your word," he told the other man with a grin.
Chris laughed. "It's a deal."
"And where are our distinguished colleagues?" He asked.
"Went to get breakfast, should be here soon."
"What has become of Mr. Hutchinson?"
"We shot him, all of us. I think I lost ten years of my life when I saw him firing at you, Ezra. Damn foolhardy thing to do."
Ezra chose not to comment. He would do it all again if it meant saving little Billy's life. No child should be subjected to such violence, and young Travis had already seen more than his share. Of course he would have done it for his fellow lawmen as well, and probably for most of the town folk. The other men were ruining him. That was the only possible explanation if he was admitting, even to himself, to such altruistic actions.
The door opened and Nathan walked in, a wide grin breaking through as he noticed Ezra awake and sitting on the bed. "Ezra, you're awake! Just in time to check the wound for infection."
Ezra grimaced, but remained silent during the examination. He was still too weak to quarrel with the healer, and not fortified enough to handle any jibes aimed against his person or morals.
"How is he?" Chris asked when Nathan finished.
"The wound is healing nicely, there's no sign of infection and no fever. He's going to be fine. You better go get your breakfast, Chris. And bring somethin' for Ezra as well."
Chris nodded. "I'll be back later, Ezra. Rest and don't go givin' Nathan no trouble, remember the tar and feather suit."
Ezra felt like sticking his tongue out at the dark-clad man, but it was an undignified gesture for a gentleman, so he nodded instead and watched the grinning man leave. When he leaned back weakly on the bed, he found Nathan staring at him.
"What?" He whispered, almost afraid of the answer.
"I'm sorry for what I said. You are nothing like Steven Hutchinson. It was cruel of me to even compare you two. I just... I have a hard time accepting what you do for a living."
"Because you con folks and gamble. Because you're cheating innocent people, stealing their hard-earned money. That ain't right."
Ezra sighed tiredly. "Mr. Jackson, I know you probably won't believe me, but I do not cheat at cards. It is not necessary; I'm good at my profession. As for the cons, I admit to having conned good people out of their money. But the truth of the matter is, since enlisting with you gentlemen I have changed. I can not do it any longer without my conscience getting in the way. And pray tell, why is it that Mr. Wilmington can bed any woman on Earth, be it she's married, engaged or otherwise; why can Mr. Sanchez get intoxicated to the point of destroying the saloon and gathering you enough clientele to keep you occupied for days on end, but I'm the only one who goes against your moral code? Mr. Tanner occasionally uses his Indian 'techniques' to question prisoners, but if I so much as shoot someone, no matter how deserving, I'm a murderer?"
Nathan looked away for a moment, the silence heavy in the small room. "I'm sorry," he finally whispered. "I formed an opinion on you when we met and never noticed you don't fit that view no more. I know it won't make it right, Ezra, but I am truly sorry."
Ezra looked into the other man's sorrow-filled eyes and relented. "Perhaps you can try to adjust that opinion to the new reality?" He suggested, his hand reaching out for the other man.
The healer held his hand between his bigger ones, a smile beginning to break through. "I'd like that."
There was a knock on the door, then Buck was walking in, a large tray in his hands. "'Morning, pard. Chris told me you were up and waitin' for breakfast, so I thought I'd make myself useful." He placed the tray on Ezra's lap. "Chris said to tell ya to eat everythin' or he'll start lookin' for the feathers."
Nathan rose from his chair. "I gotta go on patrol. Buck, can you stay with Ezra for a while?"
"Mr. Jackson, I hardly need looking after," Ezra remarked, but he was smiling at the other man.
"I know that, Ez. But Buck does. I just didn't want him to feel bad if I asked you to watch over him," Nathan replied with a grin, before walking out.
"I resent that," Buck muttered. "I can look after myself."
"As long as there isn't a female of the species in the vicinity. Otherwise you are a lost case, Mr. Wilmington."
Buck grinned. "What can I say? It's all that animal magnetism." His face lost all amusement as he took a deep breath. "Ez, I know Chris already spoke to you, on how we feel. But I still owe ya an explanation. You know my mother... I mean..."
Ezra touched his arm gently. "I am aware of her profession, yes."
Buck gave him a grateful smile. "When I was six we met this colorful-looking fella, a gambler. He knew about my mother and still courted her, was nice to me, said he wanted us to be a family. For a while he was the closest thin' I ever had to a father. One day he told us he'd found this piece of land that was perfect for us, we could start a new life there, he'd marry my mother... All he needed was the money to pay for the land."
Ezra felt sick to his stomach, already knowing how his friend's tale was going to end. "Your mother supplied him with the money and he vanished, never to be seen again."
Buck nodded. "I know it ain't fair, but sometimes when I look at how you dress, how you talk, I think of him. It's not right, and I'll try harder not to do it. I just wanted ya to know why."
"Thank you," Ezra told him seriously.
The big man frowned. "What for?"
"Trusting me enough to share that with me."
"You're welcome, pard. Now eat."
Ezra nodded, making the effort of eating some of the food before exhaustion finally caught up with him. Buck removed the tray from the bed, helping him to lie down comfortably. Still weak and fatigued, Ezra was asleep almost immediately. He never felt the other man covering him with the blankets or brushing his hair back gently before settling down in a chair to watch over him.
The next time Ezra opened his eyes, it was Josiah sitting on the chair. The ex-preacher was reading a book, muttering softly to himself as if arguing with what the worn pages were telling him.
"Josiah," Ezra whispered.
"Ezra!" The other man boomed. "You're awake!"
"Can I have some water please?"
Josiah helped him sit up on the bed, leaving him leaning back against the headboard. He reached for a cup filled with fresh water and raised it to Ezra's lips, who drank the cool liquid greedily.
"Much, Mr. Sanchez, thank you," Ezra replied, watching the older man sit back in the chair. "I take it, it's your turn now, sir?"
"What?" Josiah frowned.
"Mr. Larabee, Mr. Jackson, and Mr. Wilmington have all expressed their regret at the unjustified manner in which they have been acting towards my person. I gather now is your turn?"
"Ah. Yes, that would be it. Ezra, I know I haven't shown it lately, but I do care." Ezra watched as the other man leaned forward on the chair, elbows resting on his knees, earnest expression. "A lifetime ago I met this woman... An Irish spitfire with the biggest green eyes I'd ever seen on a woman, and long, reddish curls. Louise O'Bannon," his tone was melancholic.
"What happened?" Ezra asked softly.
"I was a priest at the time, it wasn't meant to be. I heard she died a few years after I left. But I did love her and I have... wondered what it would have been like to have a son with her." He took a deep breath. "You look so much like her, have that same contrary spirit... What I didn't realize until our 'conversation' in the church was that I have been acting much like my father. He was not a caring man, had too high expectations for me to hold. And I have been doing the same to you. Just as I couldn't live up to my father's wishes, for they were impossible to keep, neither can you. And instead of blaming me, I blamed you. I know better now, it won't happen again."
Ezra nodded in understanding. "I'll hold you to that promise, Mr. Sanchez."
Josiah gave him a lopsided smile. "You do that, son."
Ezra frowned at the last word, but allowed the other man to see his amusement. "Mr. Sanchez, I believe you and my dear sainted mother have only recently met. That hardly qualifies you as my progenitor."
Before Josiah could answer to the banter, the door burst open and JD and Vin walked in, the younger one bouncing excitedly. "Ezra!" He exclaimed, making the injured man wince at the volume.
"Mr. Dunne, Mr. Tanner," he greeted softly.
"How ya doin', pard?" Vin asked with a wide smile.
"Quite well, thank you, Mr. Tanner."
"Good. Josiah, JD, think I could have a word with Ezra? Alone?"
"Of course, brother Vin," Josiah replied, raising from the chair. "Come help me see to Fury's injured leg, JD. That horse is about as bad-tempered as its owner."
The others chuckled. "Better not let Chris hear ya say that, preacher," Vin grinned. "Reckon he might take offense at bein' called bad-tempered. Not like it's true anyways," he added mischievously, making the others laugh harder.
After Josiah and JD left, Ezra waited for Vin to sit before asking, "What do you wish to discuss with me?"
"It's time," Vin simply stated, but Ezra understood him.
"You do share my feelings then?" He asked hopefully.
Vin smiled. "If you're askin' if I love ya, if I'm in love with ya, the answer's yeah. You?"
"Yes. I love you as well. How do we go about this new side to our relationship?"
"Have ya been with a man before?"
"No," Ezra replied truthfully. "Yourself?"
Vin grinned. "Nope. Guess we'll have ta take it slow, learn together. You have to heal first, though. We have plenty of time."
"Very well. I'll bide my time as well. But before you go, perhaps you would like to partake in a meeting of souls?"
Ezra chuckled. "A kiss."
Vin chuckled as well, then leaned down and captured his lips, kissing him with an intensity that left them both a bit shaken. "That what ya meant, Ez?" He asked, hand brushing over Ezra's cheek tenderly.
Ezra cleared his throat. "I believe so, yes. You are quite suitable at kissing, Mr. Tanner."
Vin grinned. "You're not so bad yourself. Rest now, Ez. I'll be back later," a parting kiss, this one a ghost of a caress. "Everythin' will be just fine, Ez. You'll see."
He watched Vin leave the clinic, then leaned back against the headboard with a contented sigh. Maybe Lady Luck was finally on his side. The six men he rode with were the closest thing he had ever experienced to having a family, even if a somewhat disfunctional one, and he had found someone to love and who loved him back. A winning hand indeed.
Vin woke up to the feeling of a warm body draped over him and smiled. It had been over a month since Ezra had been shot and the southerner had made a total recovery. They were still in the early stages of their new relationship; keeping the news to themselves, meeting secretly in Ezra's room, acting like randy teenagers whenever they got the chance.
Then there were the few precious moments in which they didn't have to hide, like now. They had gone to Cedar Ridge to deliver a prisoner and had decided to set camp for the night near a small, secluded stream. They were surrounded by lush shrubbery and the horses would let them know if someone was approaching. They were safe and protected from the outside world.
"Did you know that wolves mate for life?" A sleepy voice asked, the southern accent stronger than usual.
"Yeah? That mean you're stayin' with me forever?"
Ezra lifted his hand from his chest and looked deep into his eyes. "If you wish me to."
Vin grinned up at his lover, embracing the other man tightly. "You ain't goin' nowhere, Ez."
Ezra leaned down and their mouths met in a slow, lingering kiss that had them both panting for breath. He ran his hands down Ezra's back, enjoying the way the muscles rippled at his touch. His fingers brushed over hips and thighs, teasing his lover, while their bodies slid together sensually.
They rolled about in the blankets, letting the passion grow, the fire simmer, until it was time for more. Hands skimmed over glistening skin, lips kissed gently, teeth scraped lightly. Finally Ezra rolled him on his back in one swift move, pinning him down on the soft blankets with a grin.
Vin reached up, capturing Ezra's mouth and nipping on his lower lip, bathing it wantonly until the southerner groaned helplessly. He eased back, moving to the elegant neck, sucking on the tender skin until it left a mark. He felt his lover reaching down to grasp his buttocks, kneading the soft mounds, and he thrust his body against Ezra's, hips moving upward with a whimper.
He slid his body against his lover's, trembling with arousal, hissing as Ezra thrust back. The pace began frantic, the need to touch unbearable. Hands, lips, tongues worked together to create the maximum pleasure, lapping, sucking, nibbling until they were both whimpering continuously.
Bodies rubbing together with wild passion, lips locked in an all-consuming kiss, they drove each other over the edge. They came together, bodies spasming as the shattering released sipped away all of their remaining strength.
He wrapped his arms around Ezra, listening as the other man tried to regain his breath. "Okay?" He whispered, nuzzling Ezra's silken hair tenderly.
"More than, Mr. Tanner." Vin growled and the southerner chuckled. "Vin," he amended.
"You're learnin'." Vin grinned as Ezra snuggled up against him and closed his eyes with a sigh.
He had his wild card back safely with him and the 'wolf pack', as Ezra called them sometimes, was whole and healed. All was well with the world.
If you enjoyed this story, we're sure that VampyrAlex would love to hear from you.
HOME | VAMPYRALEX'S FIC | TITLES | AUTHORS | UNIVERSES
This website is maintained by Donna and Barb
with corrections and additions