If It Comes Back, It Will Always Be Yours
Ezra knew he was in trouble when the bullet hit the ground just in front of him, kicking up dirt. He threw himself to the side and rolled away just in time, as the space where he had been standing was suddenly filled with flying lead.
He knew, and was warmed by the certainty, that the rest of the seven would be racing to his aid. Gunfire sounding loud in the late afternoon would alert them, but he also knew that he would have to keep his wits about him if he was going to survive long enough to give them his thanks.
Again bullets flew in his direction and he barely managed to scramble to safety, but he was not fast enough to prevent a flying projectile from entering his upper arm. He yelped in pain and pulled his body up tighter behind the water trough. He had his gun out and was attempting to see where the attack was coming from, but every time he moved he was greeted with more gunfire so he had to content himself with just lying there, hoping that his friends would arrive in time, as the-would-be killer's aim was getting better with each shot.
Ezra had been returning from the afternoon patrol and had just stabled his horse, after giving the animal a long rubdown. He had been looking forward to having a relaxing bath and then spending the rest of the evening at the gaming table.
Larabee's frantic yell was a welcome relief and the gambler called back, his tone slightly breathless, "Over here, Mr Larabee... behind the water trough. I appear to be pinned down...."
"Are you hit?" This was from Vin, and Ezra had to smile: the tracker was the most consistent member who checked after his health.
The gambler slipped his head up to answer, but pulled it back quickly as the hidden gunman fired again. Water splashed over the helplessly trapped man. Ezra was starting to believe that he was not having a good day.
Suddenly the sounds of a struggle reached the gambler's ears, then a yell followed by a scream, and then a bout of cursing.
Ezra slowly, cautiously raised his head up above the lip of the water trough to see what was happening and was relieved to note that no one shot at him. He slowly raised himself up further and saw Chris and Nathan coming out of their places of protection, JD and Josiah also appearing further up the street. All eyes were then drawn to Vin and Buck, who appeared from behind the building opposite the stable with a fiercely struggling figure held tightly between them.
"Caught him up on the roof..." Vin commented, nodding back towards the building where they had just come from. "Nice place for an ambush," he finished, giving the body he was holding a rough shake.
Buck let out a yell of pure pain and released the prisoner as he was bitten and kicked at the same time. Suddenly, the would-be killer was free of the scoundrel, but Vin kept his hold and quickly twisted his body so that they both tumbled to the ground. This action allowed the others to reach them and secure the prisoner.
Ezra, eager to see who was trying to kill him, headed over and stopped just as the others arrived. Josiah pulled their prisoner up and gave a good shake, demanding, "Now, who do we have here?" As he did so, the prisoner's hat fell to the ground and long blonde hair tumbled out.
"It's a girl!!" JD exclaimed, his mouth falling open in surprise as the hair framed the obviously feminine face. Nathan was distracted by JD's words, as he had spied the bullet wound in Ezra's arm and hurried over to the gambler.
"What the hell do you think you were doing?" Chris exclaimed, moving closer to the young woman and using his height and glare to scare the girl.
She looked at him, her face pale, then turned her gaze towards Ezra. The look in her eyes was pure hatred as she hissed venomously, "Killing me a snake." Her voice was young and it cracked on the last word, but her glare held true as she looked at the man she hated.
Nathan glanced up from his quick examination of the injured arm - he felt sure that it was only a flesh wound - and stated matter-of-factly, "Should have figured." Then the healer raised his voice and demanded in anger, "How many more times are we gonna have to risk our lives, saving you from an angry mark?" Even as the words passed the healer's lips he knew he was being too harsh, but the damage had been done. He was not surprised when the arm he was attempting to treat was roughly pulled out of his grasp and Ezra was moving away from him, down the street, heading towards the saloon at a swift pace. "Ezra..." Nathan attempted to call the gambler back, but he was firmly ignored.
"What the hell are we supposed to do with her?" Buck called out after the red-jacketed man. After all, he was the one attacked and it was his decision to press charges or not.
Ezra froze in the street before slowly turning, his eyes flashing angrily in disbelief that the question had even been asked. Taking a calming breath he snarled, "Put her in jail; she attempted to murder somebody... or doesn't that count - just because it was ME she was trying to kill?"
"No..." Larabee stated firmly, taking the prisoner from Vin who was also looking unsure what to do about the situation. Glaring at the other men gathered around, Chris called out after the gambler in a firm tone, "it counts, Ezra." Then, with Josiah's help, he started to pull the kicking and screaming woman towards the jail.
The gambler watched for a few seconds before he nodded once, satisfied that the gunslinger would place the would-be-assassin in jail, before he turned and continued on his way to the saloon.
Mary Travis looked sadly towards the jail and wondered when sanity was going to return to the town of Four Corners. Ever since the young woman had attempted to kill the gambler three days before, there had been an air of restlessness about the small town.
Several townspeople had not made it easier by arguing with Larabee against keeping the pretty young woman in jail. Some even went so far as to suggest that the gambler might have earned the animosity of the female, but Larabee was adamant that, even if he had, she had no right to try to bushwhack him. A stern Larabee glare usually sent the gentlemen swiftly on their way.
Mary was amazed that Ezra, while being the victim in this event, was actually being treated as if he were the one at fault. The gambler had taken up permanent residence in the saloon and was determined to act as if nothing out of the ordinary had occurred, even though the town was awaiting Judge Travis to try the woman for attempted murder.
Buck, Nathan and JD had each spoken to and fallen under the spell of the woman while they were guarding her, and had learned that her brother had killed himself after losing money to the gambler. She now held Ezra totally responsible for her younger brother's death and had tried to kill him for revenge. She showed no remorse for her actions, and she appeared to have the three men caught in her trap of supposedly justifiable vengeance.
Unfortunately they had taken it on themselves to plead her case with Ezra, saying that if he didn't press charges then she could go free, and hadn't he done enough damage to the poor sweet woman? Ezra had just pointed out coldly that she had tried to kill him once, she might do so again, and anyone who could afford to purchase a gun and attempt to shoot someone could hardly be considered poor or sweet. Bad blood now existed between the four men.
Of the others, Josiah kept his thoughts to himself, although he did now carry an air of unease, and Vin had taken to riding most patrols outside of town, not liking the bad feeling that existed between the seven men. Chris... well, Larabee was keeping his thoughts to himself and, while he never suggested that Ezra drop the charges, he would cast long measuring glances towards the gambler, until the man was uncomfortable enough to retire angrily to his room.
Shaking her head, Mary slowly returned to the office and wondered what her next newspaper article was going to report, hoping that it would not be the untimely demise of one of the men she had grown to like and admire.
Unbeknownst to Mary Travis or any of the town's protectors, and making matters worse for the gambler, the bullet wound had become infected and he was now loathe to go to Nathan to have it treated. He resorted, instead, to buying provisions from Mrs Potter's store and attempting to treat the wound himself. This in turn made him slightly feverish and bad tempered, and even less willing to listen to Buck, Nathan and JD as they cornered him once more in the saloon that evening, trying to press their case for the release of the girl.
"She's only a child really, Ezra," Buck stated again, having decided that threatening the gambler was not going to get the young lady released.
"A very adult-looking child who knows how to fire a gun, Mr Wilmington," Ezra retorted, not even bothering to look up.
"She was acting out of grief... her brother had just killed himself, Ezra," Nathan put in, pulling up a chair and settling down into it. The gambler just glared at him but didn't bother to comment.
"Grief can make a person do funny things," JD put in his two-cents' worth.
"I'm sure the judge will take that into account when he sentences her," Ezra replied, keeping his face blank as he attempted to shuffle the cards without giving away the fact that it hurt him to do so. "Now if you gentlemen wish to play a hand...?" He let the question hang.
Buck jumped up in frustration and snarled, "Ezra, you can be such a bastard at times."
"A title I feel we can both wear, Mr Wilmington, so you will have to think up a better insult than that," came the gambler's cool reply.
Buck leant over the table and, snatching a handful of cards from Ezra's grasp, he tossed them in the gambler's face and hissed, "How about I'm beginning to regret being the one who took her rifle away from her."
All movement stopped as the gambler slowly let the rest of the cards fall to the table. Looking up, he met Buck's gaze dead-on and replied quietly, "Of course, Mr Wilmington - if I were dead then the charges would be dropped...." He waited a few beats before he finished, "Do you feel THAT strongly about it?"
The scoundrel glared at the gambler long and hard, but he knew he had let his temper get the better of him. Slowly he took a steadying breath and, slumping back down into his chair, he said in a quiet tone, "No... no, I don't."
JD reached out instinctively to gently grasp the gambler's arm, only wanting to show support and maybe ground the man's temper before things really got out of hand, but all three men were surprised when the gambler reared back and hissed in pain, his eyes watering. He leapt up and stormed up stairs, leaving his chair overturned and the people about him gasping in surprise at his swift and noisy exit.
"What did I do?" the young man asked, looking at the two men who sat with him. He knew that he had hurt the gambler, but he could not understand how; he had only grasped the other man's arm, surely not tight enough to cause pain?
Nathan suddenly spoke up, almost to himself, "I'll bet it's his arm...."
"His arm?" Buck questioned, a frown marring his handsome face, not sure what the healer was talking about.
Nathan, seeing the confused look, explained, "She caught him in the arm when she shot at him. I thought it was just a flesh wound... he never mentioned it again, so I just assumed...." He stumbled to a halt, before he swallowed hard and said determinedly, anger again colouring his tone, "Damn him! I'd better go up and check on him."
"I think you've done enough already," came a cold voice from behind them. Turning towards the voice, the three men saw Larabee, Tanner and Sanchez standing behind them. Without a word the gunslinger held out a worn Wanted poster. Buck snatched it up and looked closer, surprise and shock rippling over his features as he was definitely able to see that the face on the poster matched the pretty young woman they held in their jail.
"Molly Redden," Buck read out loud. He frowned as a memory surfaced, and he looked up at Chris before continuing, "Redden... wasn't that...?"
Buck never got to finish as Larabee interrupted roughly, "The gang who tried to rob the bank last month. Redden was the leader... he was the one that Ezra shot, protecting JD. Yeah, that's right, Buck," Larabee continued ruthlessly, seeing the look of guilt that had swept over Wilmington's face, "she isn't his sister - she's his wife."
"Well, I'll be damned..." Nathan said, looking over Buck's shoulder at the poster, then towards the stairs where the gambler had disappeared and then back to the poster.
"Ain't we all, brothers?" Josiah said with deep regret, also looking towards the stairs.
Nathan forcibly pushed his guilt aside, as he had more important things demanding his attention. "I think Ezra's arm is causing him problems."
Vin spoke up for the first time, saying, "I saw him buying some medicines from Mrs Potter the other day."
"And you didn't think to tell me?" Nathan snapped, his eyes flashing and anger seeping into his words.
The tracker just looked at him coolly and retorted, "Man don't have to come to you, Nathan, especially with the way you've been judging him lately."
The healer opened his mouth to sharply retort to the tracker's words, but then snapped it closed when he realised that Vin was right; he had been allowing his past feelings and emotions to tarnish his already rocky friendship with the gambler. Nathan had to wonder why he was always so fast to believe the worst of the gambler, but pushed those thoughts aside as he knew he had a more pressing concern: Ezra was injured and obviously hurting, and Nathan needed to make sure that he was now treated properly.
"I'm going to get some supplies from my room, and when I come back I'm going to see Ezra," he said clearly, his tone informing the others that he was not going to be prevented from treating the gambler this time.
"Might not be welcome, Nathan," Chris said with a slight smirk. He had already decided that he would stay to see the fireworks.
The healer said nothing, just glared at the gunslinger before he left the saloon.
Larabee turned his gaze towards Buck and JD as he said, "I suggest you two work on what you're going to say to Ezra, as Nathan isn't the only one who...." The words died on his lips as he spied the gambler stumbling down the stairs. Ezra had his old tan jacket on, and was carrying both his saddlebags and a carpetbag awkwardly in one hand, while holding his other arm protectively against his body.
On spying Larabee and the others, Standish changed direction and stormed over to them. "Mr Larabee, I am glad to find you here as it saves me the trouble of searching you out." There was a snarl to the gambler's tone that caught everyone's attention.
"Planning on going somewhere, Standish?" Larabee asked, his tone cold and his eyes hard as he realised what the gambler was up to.
"Yes, I would like to drop the charges against the young woman in the jail and to tender my resignation."
"That won't be necessary, Ezra," Larabee began, shooting an angry look towards both Buck and JD, who wilted under the glare.
Standish interrupted rudely, saying firmly, "Yes it is... I would just ask that you give me until morning before you release her - that way I will have at least put some space between us." He was unable to prevent the shiver that rippled up his spine before he continued, closing his eyes briefly as if to banish a nasty thought, "I have no wish to have a woman's blood on my hands."
"Ezra..." Vin began, but then paused as Buck tripped in with his usual thoughtlessness.
"Hell, Ez... you don't gotta leave now. She's the wife of that guy you killed last month - you know, the one who was after JD... when the bank was robbed. See, you don't have to leave now - she deserves to be in jail."
The gambler slowly turned to glower at the other man and said in a low, bitter tone that carried a wealth of anger, "You think she deserves to be in jail because she is the wife of a bank robber, but NOT for attempting to kill me?"
Buck, suddenly realising that he had once again said the wrong thing, attempted to backtrack, but his words did not do him any favours as he rushed to say, "Ezra, I just meant that you were right about her needing to be in jail."
"Mr Wilmington, I wanted her in jail because she attempted to KILL me. You, on the other hand, along with Mr Jackson and Mr Dunne here, have made my life hell for the last three days." The gambler stopped, barely holding onto his shaking body as he gritted out, his eyes flashing now with rage, "You're right, Mr Wilmington, I don't have to leave now... but I WANT to leave. I find that I can no longer trust you or your friends to watch my back."
"Ezra..." Larabee rumbled, his tone edged with his own anger.
The gambler was having none of it and he turned on the gunslinger, snarling, "You are no better than them. You are supposed to lead us, and yet you stood by and allowed these men to bully and berate me. You just sat in your chair and threw the famous Larabee glare at me, making me so uncomfortable that I sought my room to be free of it. Mr Tanner sought refuge by leaving town at every opportunity, and not one word of support passed either of your lips. And Mr Sanchez..." this time he turned his look towards the taller man. Seeing the shame flushing his features, the gambler pushed on, "you kept to your church like a destitute monk."
"Now Ezra, it wasn't like that." Josiah attempted to be the voice of reason, but unfortunately reason had fled the saloon for the night and Ezra was on a roll.
"None of you... not one of you stood by my side and said that I was doing the right thing. Not one of you stood up for me when the people of this town spoke against me." Seeing the surprised looks this earned him he hissed, "What? Am I now supposed to be so deaf that I didn't hear them say that it was my fault... that I had in some way driven that woman to shoot me?" He gathered in a steadying breath and said bitterly, "And you wonder why I am choosing to leave." He slowly shook his head, as if he could not imagine how they could expect him to react any differently.
"You ain't running out on us," Larabee stated firmly, his eyes cold and his tone clearly indicating that he would stop the gambler - by force if he had to.
Ezra looked at the black-clad man who stood before him and his anger fled, leaving only a hurt, sick man in his place, as he nodded slowly and replied, "You're right, Mr Larabee, this time I'm not running... this time I was driven." With that, he attempted to walk past the men before him.
In pure anger, Larabee reached out to grab the gambler, attempting to pull him backwards. Ezra let out a yell of agony; the gunslinger had a tight grip about his injured arm and he felt an intense pain shoot through his body before the world crashed in on him.
Larabee suddenly found himself with his arms full of gambler as the man collapsed. He went down on one knee as Ezra's weight pulled at him. He carefully followed this action through and ended up sitting on the floor with Standish held tightly in his grasp, almost cradling the man to his chest.
"My good Lord," Josiah whispered in shock and Chris looked up at him, then followed the direction of his gaze and paled himself when he saw the amount of what looked like discoloured blood flowing from the gambler's sleeve. Suddenly the smell hit Larabee, and he had to swallow hard to win back control. He felt a shiver of fear, since he knew infection when he saw it and, judging from the amount of blood, Ezra had a deadly infection in his arm. Then the heat coming off the gambler registered and the gunslinger opened his mouth to order someone to go fetch Nathan, when the healer appeared through the doors of the saloon, as if summoned by Chris's unvoiced yell.
Nathan immediately took in the scene and knew what he was facing. "Let's get him over to my place," he ordered, and was grateful when both Buck and Josiah hurriedly moved in to help lift the gambler.
JD stood in shock as he watched the others escort the unconscious Ezra from the saloon. He swallowed hard, before slowly bending to pick up the saddlebags and carpetbag, then followed after the other men.
Five anxious men sat waiting outside Nathan's clinic while the healer worked on the seventh member of their team. It had been several hours since they had carried the injured gambler there. Josiah and Buck had left, once they had deposited Ezra in the healer's tender care, to attend to the woman in the jail, but had returned as soon as they could to continue their vigil outside the small room.
Finally the door slowly opened and Nathan walked out. He looked tired and haggard as he wiped his hands on a bloody towel. They could tell from his stance that his news was not good.
"Nathan?" Chris asked, moving to stand before the man, unable to prevent the fear from entering his voice.
The healer looked up, and the pain in his eyes caused the other men to draw in their breaths as he began to talk, his tone slow and halting. "He's got a nasty infection... spread along most of his arm, right into the shoulder. Damn it! He must have known... why didn't he come to me sooner?" The man paused, pushing his demons back into their box and then he continued, this time with more control, "I've drained it as best I can. Packed it with some of that medicine Josiah got from the Indians, which was mighty good with fighting that infection that the Peerly lad got a few weeks ago." He shook his head slowly as he stated, "I just don't know if it'll be enough. If the infection spreads...." He let his words hang, unable to complete the thought. Finally he continued, "He's got a high fever and delirium has set in...." He stumbled to a stop, not sure what else he could say.
"Will he lose his arm?" JD blurted out, his face pale and his eyes bright with unshed tears.
The healer slowly shook his head as he explained sadly, realising that the young man didn't understand the full potential of what he was saying, "It's gone too far for that, JD - it's past his shoulder. If I tried to take his arm, it would just cause him unnecessary pain... and with the infection now in his chest.... It's spread past the point where taking his arm would actually do any good." He took a shuddering breath before he went on, "It's up to him, now... if he's got the strength to fight it or not. We'll just have to wait."
"You've done all you can, Nathan," Larabee said, reaching out and resting a hand on the other man's shoulder.
The healer shrugged it off, snarling bitterly, his anger at himself evident to all who stood there, "Hell, no! I should have helped him three days ago when he first got shot, but no... I had to turn on him... get angry with him and push him away." He pointed back into his room as he rushed on, "This... this is all my fault. If he dies, it'll be as if I pulled that trigger."
"No, Nathan, not just you," Buck suddenly declared, wiping a shaking hand over his face. "We all had our fingers on that particular trigger... we all pushed him away. Ezra was right, Chris," the man continued, turning haunted eyes towards their leader. "He wasn't running out on us... we were pushing him away."
"The man ain't even dead and you're all so eager to accept the blame for his passing," Tanner said quietly from near the steps. While his voice was low and even, his anger was evident, eyes flashing and lips bared back in a silent snarl. "Ezra's a fighter, and a damn good one - and if you can't accept that, then you'd better not step into that room... 'cause he don't need no more of your pushing him under."
Chris held back a sudden smile as he saw the effect the tracker's bitter words were having on the self-pitying men, so he stayed silent as the bounty hunter raged on, "He's gonna make it, and then you'll all have t'eat crow until he decides he's gonna stay."
"And just how you plannin' on keeping him here until he accepts our apology?" Buck demanded; hearing, understanding and fully agreeing with what Vin was saying.
The tracker bent down and, lifting up the saddlebags and the carpetbag, he said dryly, "He won't leave town without these... they're what he considered important. We hide these and his horse, and he's stuck here... especially if you remove the money from his boot." He felt a smile reach his lips as he saw understanding and agreement flare in the others' eyes.
"You sure are a devious little bastard, Tanner," Buck stated with a bright smile, before he added, "but I like your style." The men suddenly laughed, and while it still had a strained sound to it, it also had the desired effect of lightening the mood and it was six hopeful men who entered the room to watch over their fallen comrade.
Seven days later, Ezra Standish was convinced he was slowly going crazy. He had awoken a few days ago to find Nathan's small clinic crowded with the other six men, who all waited for him to regain consciousness. Their relief and joy at seeing him awake were clearly evident, and the gambler had been surprised at how much their reaction had affected him. Their pleasure at seeing him awake and healing seemed genuine and this confused the gambler slightly, but he never indicated it with either word or deed. He allowed Nathan to fuss and the others to take turns sitting with him, fetching him food, coffee and anything else he asked for, except alcohol - that, Nathan had expressly forbid. Ezra even had Josiah read from one of his favourite books, while he rested one evening.
Since his awakening, Ezra had made steady progress and now felt well enough to slip out of the clinic while Buck was sleeping in the chair near the bed. Each day as he grew stronger they had refused to leave him alone, acting as if he would disappear at the first opportunity, which in fact was what he was now attempting to do.
To make matters worse for the gambler, Buck, JD and Nathan had been embarrassing in their eagerness to apologise. At first Ezra had tried to stop them, but finally he just found it easier to allow the men to waffle on. Ezra had to admit that he was enjoying seeing Buck and Nathan squirm in their seats, but he had firmly put a stop to any apology from JD who, the gambler felt, had been strongly led astray by the other two men. However, little the scoundrel or the others had said altered Ezra's determination to leave the town of Four Corners. Now all he had to do was gather his possessions and leave.
It was the gathering of his possessions that had been causing the gambler to doubt his sanity. He had managed to slip back into his room at the saloon, only to find it empty of all his possessions. Ezra sought out Inez, who assured him that the room was still his - in fact, she said that Larabee and Tanner had pulled her aside and paid his rent for the next two months. Shaking his head at this turn of events, Ezra had gone to the stable to check on his horse, only to discover that his beloved animal was also missing. A dark foreboding was starting to climb up the gambler's back, and his fear was realised when he spun around to find Chris and Vin calmly watching him. While their expressions were of growing concern, he could also see that they were determined in their stance, and this in turn caused the hackles on his neck to rise in defence.
"Might I enquire as to the whereabouts of my horse and my possessions?" Ezra demanded coldly, glaring at the other two men.
"Bit soon for Nathan to let you out, ain't it Ezra?" Chris asked, his tone one of easy conversation as he totally ignored the other man's question.
The gambler froze, taking in the situation, then - determined not to be sidetracked - he repeated, "I appear to have lost my horse and possessions, Mr Larabee; would you know anything about that?"
"Your possessions?" Vin repeated.
"Yes, possessions... belongings, things..." Ezra clarified, then seeing the smile that Vin gave him he lowered his voice and hissed, "My stuff, Mr Tanner: my horse, money and clothes... where are they?"
"What do you need them for?" Larabee asked, slowly rubbing at his chin, as if confused by Ezra's request.
"Because they are mine..." Ezra snapped, his temper flaring as he saw that the other two men were not going to help him. "I have a right to them," he finished, raising his hand to rest on his injured arm as his jarring actions caused pain to flare.
"Ezra..." Vin began. Seeing that the gambler was starting to get really upset and not wanting to push the man further away from them, he confessed quickly, "Your things are safe. We just, er... wanted to look after them for a while."
"Why?" the gambler demanded, turning his attention to the tracker, who seemed prepared to at least answer his questions.
"We wanted to talk to you, Ezra," Chris said, his tone solemn. He also saw the distress on the other man's face, and knew that the gambler was still slipping away from them. "We didn't want you leaving before we had a chance."
"I don't think that there is anything for us to talk about." Ezra suddenly noticed that the other four had appeared and were now slowly moving to within hearing range. The gambler felt his shoulders slump as he realised what this was really about; he honestly felt as if he could not cope with this any more. He needed to get away, somewhere where he could think straight without one of the others always hovering over him. His head was almost spinning with the force of his churning emotions.
"Ezra..." Buck began, but then fell silent when he realised that he didn't have the words to use; his apology had already fallen on deaf ears. He turned a beseeching look towards his long-time friend and Chris, seeing the look, stepped in again.
"Ezra, you have a right to be angry with us... we chose to believe Redden's wife's lies."
"Not all of you," the gambler admitted, shooting a dark glance towards Buck, Nathan and finally JD, who paled under the glance and looked away, licking at his own dry lips.
Chris shook his head and admitted, "No, we each made a decision and it was wrong... and in our own way we all deserted you, and for that we're truly sorry."
Ezra considered this, then slowly began to speak; "I understand what you are saying, Mr Larabee, but I still need to go... to get some space, so that I may think...." He stumbled to a stop and closed his eyes. A headache was starting to form, and he was now wishing that he had never left his sickbed.
"Where are you going to go?" Nathan asked in concern, for once meeting the gambler's look dead-on.
Standish paused; he had not really thought beyond getting on his horse and riding out. Finally he said weakly, "My mother has asked me to visit her in St. Louis... she has acquired a property there that she wishes me to look at."
"Your mother!!" Buck spluttered, then fell silent again as the other five men glared at him. "Sorry," he muttered as JD hit him hard in the ribs with his elbow.
"Please don't go," JD suddenly burst out, moving closer only to stop when pinned by the gambler's glare. The youngest member of the group swallowed hard and finished frantically, "I don't want you to go. You can think here... we'll give you all the room you need. We won't speak to you, or anything... will we, Chris?" It was a desperate plea; one which affected every man present as they realised that, while Ezra's leaving would pain them all, it would really hurt JD, who had come to think of the other six men as his family.
"JD," Ezra said, his tone fighting to remain calm but the expression in his eyes one of torment. "I have to go. I just can't.... I'm sorry, JD, but I have to."
With those words Chris, Vin and the others realised that, as much as JD was fighting the loss of his family, Ezra was fighting the birth of his own emotions at discovering that he had a family. To keep him now, at this time, would be cruel and unfair. The man obviously needed to leave, to regain his protective space, to rebuild the wall that had been formed around his heart.
Chris took a deep, steadying breath, and then let it out before he asked, "Nathan, is Ezra fit enough to travel?"
The healer considered the man before him before he unwillingly nodded, advising, "As long as he takes it easy and doesn't push himself."
Larabee nodded before he turned to the tracker and said firmly, "Vin, go and get Ezra's horse. Saddle it for him and bring it back here, along with his..." he paused before he finished, "his possessions."
"Chris?" Vin questioned, then seeing the look the gunslinger gave him, seeing the pain this decision was causing their leader, the tracker nodded once and, turning, he moved swiftly to follow Chris's orders.
The others waited in tense silence until Vin returned, then they all watched as Ezra checked that his saddlebags and carpetbag were there, and then carefully mounted his horse. As he settled into the saddle, he let out his own breath that he had not been aware he was holding. This was so much harder than he had believed it would be. Finally, as he sat looking down into the faces of the six men who had come to mean so much to him, he licked at his dry lips and looked over towards Larabee. He smiled weakly and said, "Thank you, Mr Larabee." He knew how hard it had been for Chris to make the decision to release him.
He pulled on the reins as Larabee called out, "You come back when you're ready, Ezra.... We'll be here."
Ezra nodded once, not turning to look at them, then he gently kicked his horse into motion and slowly rode out of the town of Four Corners.
JD, feeling tears well, bit at his top lip, determined not to let them fall. Buck reached out and gently rested his hand on the younger man's shoulder and it comfortably rested there. Nathan found it hard to swallow past the lump that had appeared in his throat and Josiah wiped a rough hand over his face and hair, as if this action would banish his sorrow. Vin moved closer to Chris and stood as still as a rock as he watched the gambler ride further and further from view.
"Did we make the right decision?" Vin asked, his tone quiet enough for the others not to hear.
Chris looked towards the man he now considered closer than a brother and said, "Did we have a choice?" Seeing the hurt look that flashed across Tanner's face, Larabee suddenly realised that Vin was as vulnerable as JD where family was concerned. Suddenly a memory came to the fore of Chris's mind: something his mother had told him on a few occasions and the words seemed to fit so, without thought, he said them aloud. "If you love something, set it free. If it comes back, it will always be yours. If it doesn't come back, it was never yours to begin with."
They stood there for several minutes. The gambler had disappeared from sight and the town was slowly starting to come to life around them. One by one they moved; Chris and Vin towards the jail, Josiah headed towards the church, Nathan to tidy his room that had been used by the gambler for the past seven nights, and Buck and JD towards the saloon. No words were spoken, but each was wrapped in a blanket of sorrow. It would take a long time before the six men got over the loss of their seventh brother.
Later that evening the six men were seated in the saloon at one of the larger tables; they had gathered together as if to shield themselves from the loss of their seventh member. The night wore on and slowly the drinks arrived and disappeared. Inez knew that something bad had happened, yet she was unwilling to broach the subject as the six men were so stern and sad in their appearance. She knew that it had something to do with Ezra, and was unwilling to cause the men more pain by asking.
"I say we just ride out after him and bring him back."
It was not the first time JD had voiced the idea, and Buck tossed him an annoyed look as Josiah replied patiently once again, "You can't drag a man back to his friends, JD... he's got to make up his own mind about coming back."
"Well, it just ain't right. We said we were sorry, and I meant it. I was sorry...." To JD, the apology should have made everything right. He could not understand why it hadn't, and it was hurting him. Buck hated to see just how much it was paining him, but he was not sure what he could do except to be there for him.
Suddenly Vin stopped all movement, before sitting up straighter and repeating the words that Chris had spoken earlier, just loud enough for the table to hear: "If you love something, set it free. If it comes back, it will always be yours. If it doesn't come back, it was never yours to begin with."
"Why that's mighty fitting, Vin," Josiah said, a sad smile tracing his lips. The words seemed to fit Ezra perfectly, and he only hoped that the gambler would decide to come back.
"I guess it's also true," the tracker continued with a bright smile and a nod towards the door.
The other five men turned their attention towards the swinging doors and gasped in surprise and pleasure, as there stood the gambler. He was standing hesitantly in the doorway, as if unsure of his welcome.
Larabee stood up and felt the others follow, as they moved towards Standish who suddenly looked like he was about to bolt. Before he could, Chris reached him and gently rested his hand on his good shoulder, saying truthfully, "It's good to see you back, Ezra."
Vin firmly took the gambler's saddlebags from his unresisting grip and Josiah reached for his carpetbag. Nathan stepped in, saying happily, "I bet you didn't eat... did you?" He then turned to Inez and ordered a meal for the gambler, while JD almost bounced back to their table and turned the last remaining clean glass over, pouring Ezra a drink as Chris led him over and settled him in the chair that Buck offered.
Ezra looked at the men around him as if they had lost their minds. In fact, he was uncertain of whether he had lost his own mind, since he'd found it almost impossible to ride farther than the watering hole where he went fishing with Chris and Vin on occasion. Finally he stammered, to cover his own high emotions at his welcome, "I, er... didn't expect quite such a warm reception."
"And we didn't expect you back quite so soon... but it is good to see you, Ezra," Chris said with total honesty, unable to put into words just how pleased he was to see the gambler.
Standish looked at the group around him, before he leant back and commented casually, "I had to return; I remembered that Mr Wilmington owes me $5." The gleam in his eyes belied his words.
"Five dollars...!" spluttered Buck, wiping at the beer froth that had gathered on his chin when he had spat the words.
The banter picked up and kept going as Inez arrived with the food and placed it firmly in front of the gambler, her smile causing a warm flush to lift Ezra's features. He ducked his head and began to eat. Nathan was right: he had not eaten since he had left, and now he was suddenly ravenous.
Vin watched the interplay and settled back comfortably, before he leant over and whispered to Chris questioningly, "If it comes back, it will always be yours?"
Chris looked over towards the other five and, with a smile, he confided quietly, "Hell yeah... especially if I threaten to shoot Buck if he ever pays that $5 back."
The tracker broke into a wide smile and replied, "Aw hell, now we'll never get rid of him."
They were pulled into the friendly argument that was flowing between Ezra and Nathan, who was insisting on checking the still-healing arm. Suddenly it felt right to be sitting there, and none of them voiced their opinion that it actually felt like home again.
Larabee settled back with his beer and took in the six men before him. He knew that they still had a rocky road to travel and that not all the problems caused by Mrs Redden had been put to rest, but at least they had the chance to prove to Ezra that he was one of them - and his return indicated that, for now at least, he also realised that.
Ezra raised his eyes at that moment, catching and holding Chris's gaze. The gunslinger smiled a rare smile that reached both his lips and eyes, and raised his glass in silent salute before he mouthed, 'welcome home.'
The gambler flashed him a bright smile in return, blushed, and then returned to his meal and the argument with Nathan, Buck and JD.
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