Truth Seen Too Late

by: Suzy


DISCLAIMER: The characters from the television program The Magnificent Seven are the property of Trilogy and The Mirisch Co. I am making no money from their use. This Story is created for entertainment purposes only, no infringement intended. Not to be copied without permission from the author.

RATINGS: PG – violence

NOTES: Thanks to my wonderful beta readers Cat, Lyn, Dayna, Kat and Jo. Thanks for putting up with me.

He was dying. He knew he was dying. He lay back against the upended table and turned his head so that his pain-glazed green eyes could see the rest of the room. A tortured sob caught in his throat as he tried to move his legs and realized what the weight was that pinned them to the floor. His shaking hands reached out to run his nimble fingers through the ebony bangs they met. Tears mingled with the blood that flowed down his cheek, and he turned his face away from the sight that his eyes could no longer bear to see. His cheek connected with the cool felt of the table that had been his haven for so long, and now had been his downfall; his eyes closed in complete and utter despair.

He could feel his strength waning, his life ebbing as quickly as his blood pulsed from the gaping wound in his belly. Pressing one shaking hand to his side, his breath quickly hissed through clenched teeth. His mind screamed at him to give in to the pain and sink behind the inky black veil that would take him away from the suffering he was enduring. But his soul wouldn’t let him give in; he had to know what had become of his other five friends. Drawing a deep breath, as deep as his shattered ribcage would allow, he turned his head, his eyes still closed, not wanting to see what he knew was waiting for him. Opening eyes that had lost their spark, he searched from place to place across the saloon. The tiny spark of hope and life that still remained in his emerald gaze extinguished as he took in death that surrounded him. A blood-curdling wail of anguish torn from the depths of his soul reverberated around the room that had become a tomb for the seven.

Carefully extricating his feet from beneath the inert form that pinned him to the floor, he couldn’t afford to look as he moved. He knew if he looked at his friend's body, he would lose all will to move, all he wanted to do was curl up beside his young friend and absorb some of the honor and courage of the exuberant youngster. The gambler painfully turned his body to pull himself to shaky feet; his blood-stained hands slipped on the edges of the table as he fought to find purchase and rise. He had to check on his friends; his oxygen-starved brain knew that they were all already gone, but he had to know for sure. His knees struggled to lock and hold him upright, as stars danced in front of his pain-glazed eyes. He fought the urge to release his grip on the table edge and press his knuckles into his temples to push the head-splitting pain from his skull.

Struggling to move, even shuffling his feet in movement, stole the breath from his lungs and forced him to squeeze his eyes closed in concentration. His feet shuffled towards the steps that would carry him closer to his friends. He gripped the railing so tightly that his knuckles turned white as he allowed one foot to leave the top step. His boot lighted on the top step, and he moved to join it with his other foot. It was then that his plan began to go awry. As he lifted his trailing foot, his knee betrayed him and folded under the added weight, throwing him forward and tossing him carelessly down the few steps.

His battered body flew threw the air, seeming to hang in space for an indeterminable time before he crashed with a thud to the ground. An agonized scream tore from his lips as he struggled to maintain his fragile hold on consciousness. His body curled into a ball, folding in upon itself, trying to absorb its pain as he melted into fitful sobs, releasing the pain the only way which his body would allow. Feeling his mind returning from the depths of his pain, he breathed as deeply as he could and willed his eyes to open. What he saw stole the breath from his lungs and life from his soul.

Reaching out a shaking arm, he ran his hand down the face of his friend as he pushed the tousled brown locks back from the unmarked face under his hand. Taking a deep breath, he allowed himself a moment to look into the unseeing eyes of a man he wished he could emulate. Bright blue eyes that just hours ago had sparkled with life, with vitality, which had twinkled with the Tanner spirit that could not be defined. As his fingers crossed over his face and pushed the eyelids closed over eyes that would never see again, the gambler's tears now contained the pain of his soul instead of the pain of his body. Lives that had promise and a future were extinguished protecting a worthless gambler.

Unable to withstand the pain of seeing Vin any longer, he painfully turned his body and cast his troubled gaze over the remains of the gunfight that he had inadvertently caused, the same gunfight that had led to the unexpected demise of the only people who had ever seen the good that was a part of him. His eyes glazed more and more with each second as he saw the destruction his life had wrought on the good and kind people he had found himself in the midst of. Seeing the silver blonde of Mary’s hair, her tiny hand reaching even in death for the darkly garbed man who had fallen at her side, protecting her till his last breath, caused Ezra’s emotional outpouring to continue. Was there no one of his acquaintance that would be saved from this punishment?

He tried to push himself to his feet, tried to move, tried to get closer to the men who would always be his brothers, but his body was weakening more and more and he sank back against the floor. His body giving up, his mind refused to allow him that sanctuary. Reaching out weakly, he clasped Vin’s hand in his; he needed to connect with the other six men in some way. He couldn’t explain his almost desperate need to touch them, the need to feel them with him before his soul fled, and he was not afforded the opportunity again.

"That’s right, Ezra," Maude’s voice rang in his ears. "Give up." She said savagely.

"Mother?" He said in half question, his tone confused; he cocked his head to one side as if trying to believe that he was actually hearing his mother's voice.

He didn’t have long to wait; turning his head slightly, he watched as she picked her way into the saloon, stepping over bodies that were strewn around the saloon like discarded rag dolls, avoiding blood that congealed on the harsh wooden floorboards with dainty boots as she picked her way to her son’s side. Not even bothering to bend and move closer to him when she had attained her goal, she stood over his pain-riddled body, using the point of her parasol to lift the front of his jacket, revealing his wounds to her.

"Ezra." She said in exasperation. "I told you, didn’t I?" She pressed her handkerchief to her nose to try to stop the bitter scent of the blood that had been spilt

"Told me what, mother?" he muttered, closing his eyes, not having the strength he needed to fight with her.

"I told you to stop wasting your God-given gifts in this dusty little municipality," she sighed in resignation. "Now apparently it would appear that you have chosen those horrid gunslinger types over your mother." She said, her eyes flickering around the room, only pausing on Josiah’s fallen form for a moment before returning her eyes to her son’s pale face. "Well, it seems you have made your decision." She wrinkled her nose in distaste "I suppose I will just have to abide by it." She lifted the front of his jacket again and watched as his life's blood oozed from his body in a steady trickle, before she turned on her heel and walked out of the saloon. He watched her go without even calling her name. He was used to this; he disappointed his mother with monotonous regularity and now he had all but murdered his friends.

He willed his eyes to remain open, etching the faces of his friends on his memory, faces and friendships that would remain with him into eternity, even as his unworthy soul burned in a fiery hell of his own making. He knew he wouldn’t be alone there; sinner’s souls were plentiful, but without the six men who had become brothers to him he would be truly alone. He laughed wryly to himself; before Fate had led him to Four Corners, he had spent his days alone and friendless, yet had never felt lonely. When had he come to depend upon these men to be there for him through thick and thin? His mother was right; he was a fool; emotional attachments only served to get in the way. Tears clouded his eyes as he saw that the woman he would have been proud to have as a sister had fallen at the base of the bar she kept so diligently, her body shielded by the fallen form of their resident ladies man.

His fevered eyes came to rest on a sight that had stolen what little breath he still had. Huddled in the back of the saloon, in the darkest reaches of the room, a place that should have kept them from harm, a place that should have been their salvation from the bloodshed that surrounded them, were the lifeless forms of Li Pong and Billy. The fact that they were there in the dark shadows of the room as they existed in his mind, always there but not existing on the same plane as the others, caused his emotional torment to continue unabated. A low, keening wail broke from his lips as he realised that he had inadvertently caused the death of a cherished child and a woman who had breached the barricades he had erected around his heart with one shy smile and a kiss filled with the purest trust he had ever encountered.

Coughing pitifully, his arms moving to grip his rattling chest as fresh pain lanced through him, his uncontrolled coughing fit rattling the jagged edges of his ribs until they grated against each other painfully. As his coughing subsided, he relaxed against the floorboards; his eyes closed, trying to regain enough strength to stay in this world and avenge his friends. "Hah," he muttered to himself. "Avenge," he laughed. "How does one wreak vengeance on himself?" In his own mind there was no other culprit than himself. If he hadn’t been the self-centred, always-looking-for-a-way-to-pull-a-con gambler that he inherently was, his friends wouldn’t have been forced to come to his rescue.

Funny, never before had he realised that the cost of friendship was a two-edged sword. For the priceless gift of their time, their loyalty, their brotherhood and even their affection, they had paid the ultimate price. What had he given them in return? Ezra’s shame welled in his soul and ate at the edges of his consciousness. Certainly he had afforded the other six men the loyalty that they so richly deserved, but had he truly allowed himself to be part of the brotherhood that they shared? He had partaken of the companionship that they offered without truly letting them close enough to see the man he was inside. Why? He asked himself. Even as he lay here in a pool of his own blood, feeling his life ebbing from him, he couldn’t be sure. His only true reason, at least the only one he could admit to himself was that Maude’s teachings ran soul-deep. Never let anyone in, never show anyone the real you. Hell, even as he was drawing his final breaths, could he be sure that he knew the real soul that he carried hidden deep within the persona that he showed the outside world?

Unable to bear the sight of the people he counted as family, he gathered the tattered shreds of his strength around him and forced himself to his knees, his breath finding his lungs in short panting gasps as the pain of his upward movement washed over him in waves of unending unendurable agony. His good arm hugged close to his body as his mind tried to decipher what caused him the most pain, the weight of his limp hand pulling heavily on the jagged edges of the bone in his forearm or the pressure of holding that arm still against his fractured ribs.

A half a dozen steps was all that he could manage before his traitorous body could endure no more of the anguish it was being forced to bear. He pitched forward, his rapid descent after such a desperately struggled ascent counting as yet another failure in his own mind. His own body turned itself off to prevent the pain that it had endured for too long. Not before he saw two more reasons for what should most certainly be his discontinued existence on the mortal plane. Casey and Nettie Wells lay on the boardwalk before him, Casey’s face bearing the youthful innocence that she would no doubt carry into eternity, but the glazed sightless eyes of Nettie were accusing him even now. He stretched his arm forward and slid her soft cold fingers into his. His agony was now complete.

Nettie accused him of being all the things Ezra knew to be true, but now she castigated him for stealing her niece from her. He knew without doubt that had she been able to do so, she would have used the Spencer Carbine that lay at her side on him to exact her own retribution. He shook his head in disbelief as he weakened and even his mind began to release its hold on reality and sink behind the inky curtain of pain free bliss that beckoned. Surely she knew that he would protect her niece, both her virtue and her life with whatever means he had at his disposal. He would willingly do his duty to the young lady in question, even if that meant protecting her from herself, or from JD if the need should arise. Wasn’t that the least that a gentleman would do to protect the honour and virtue of a young and gentle lady? Now it appeared that a vow from him of that nature was little more than a joke. It seemed that just by association he had condemned her into eternity.

As his eyes fluttered closed, his breathing slowed; his tortured lungs finally gave way to the pain that shrouded them; the fevered musings cleared his mind and he saw with true clarity the reason he had not truly merged his soul with the other six men as his vision dimmed and his world slipped into inky blackness. He was afraid--afraid not of death, but afraid of finding that he truly was alone.


Earlier that day

One thing that he had come to realise quickly since his arrival in Four Corners was that one day was extraordinarily like another. In fact, one day could be another quite easily; it was almost like the same day repeated over and over, like some sort of bad play, providing entertainment for whatever omnipotent being watched over them. Sure the minor players changed, but the main cast was always the same, only the dialogue changed. Ezra sighed deeply as he manipulated the cards in his hand, his legs crossed at the ankle and stretched out in front of him on the railing in front of the jailhouse. Buck stood beside him leaning against the wall, his eyes dancing with merriment and a joy in his life that Ezra himself could only begin to contemplate.

"Pray Mr Wilmington," he said, "What exactly is it that has amused you?"

"Well now, Ezra," Buck smiled at him. "I’m guessing that I’m gonna be spending the rest of my day alone here."

"Why would that be?" Ezra frowned.

"Three fellas in fancy duds just climbed out of the stage." He smiled at the look of voracious anticipation from his friend. "My guess is that you will be lighting out of here to fleece them as soon as you can."

"Indeed," Ezra said as he tucked the cards into the pocket of his brocade vest. Lifting the jacket off the back of the chair he had occupied, he shrugged into the sleeves and distractedly brushed the dust from the dark green jacket, pulling the ruffled cuffs of his shirt out of the sleeves. Slipping his dusty black hat onto his head he moved down the stairs, Buck completely forgotten about as he lost himself in the diversionary possibilities of the visiting players.

It shouldn’t have been as easy as it was to coax the strangers to his table, if he had been thinking of anything other than alleviating the boredom that had settled over him like a shroud he would have realised that something was awry. However, today he had become a major player in God’s own little melodrama. His own skill with the tools of his trade were outstanding, but even a child could have bested the buffoons who sat at his table. He had anticipated opponents with skills somewhat akin to his own, skills that would challenge his mind and his wits; however, that was not the case. His eyes scanned the room searching for something, not sure what it was, but knowing that something was not quite right. It didn’t take him long to reach a conclusion. A conclusion that did not bode well for any of the seven or the gentle townsfolk of Four Corners.

Far too many well-armed men were scattered around the saloon, mingled amongst the seven peacekeepers and the townsfolk. How had they missed this, why had none of them seen the gathering force that could surely have no other target then the men who protected this town? By the time he had realised their duplicity it was too late. He looked up at the men, his newfound knowledge apparently visible to the three strangers who watched him. He who prided himself on his precious poker face, in a moment of weakness and panic for the friendships that he had formed, had let his advantage slip though his fingers, like sands through an hourglass, and now whatever element of surprise they had held was lost to them. His mother would be filled with shame at his latest failure.

The mask of simple arrogance slipped across his face even before the thought had cleared his mind, his cold emerald gaze gauging each of his opponents as a simple plan formed in his mind. It was too late for him, but maybe just maybe if they were the astute men he knew them to be, the others would find their way out of the situation he had failed to notice approaching. His only concern now was to divert the attention of the misbegotten criminals that had invaded their town long enough for the others to seek retribution and save themselves.

Lifting his arm in one fluid motion, a move so oft practiced it was almost second nature and completely reflexive he began to engage his derringer, eager to feel the comfort of the small gun in his hand, something that would give him an edge against the men, whose intentions he could now read clearly in their faces. However, as the well-oiled mechanism began to operate, the cane that the man closest to him had used to assist his walking smashed down across his forearm. The complete unexpectedness of that action snapped the bones in his arm and mangled the derringer rig beyond repair. The small gun flew from his hand and landed in the small pile of chips that formed the pot for the next hand of cards.

He tried to stifle the cry of pain, pulling his injured arm back to cradle it against his chest as his eyes blurred with the pain. He heard the slick movements of the others drawing their guns and fear filled his mind. He held up his good hand in a gesture meant to placate the rest of the seven, listening to them as they replaced the hammers but kept the weapons in their hands ready for whatever happened.

"Gentlemen," Ezra said, his voice pinched with pain. "I’m afraid I shall have to retire for the evening."

"I’m afraid we can’t let you do that," the man with the cane stated as he stood. "We came here for a reason, and we haven’t accomplished that yet."

"Perhaps you could tell me what it is," he said drolly. "Then maybe we could get this out of the way and I can be excused from this little soiree."

"Certainly." The second man stood. "Frankly, we are a little tired of the reputation that the seven of you have garnered in this particular little corner of the world; its about time that you received a little retribution."

His pain-clouded mind focussed on the man that spoke and he missed the high swinging arc of the cane as it rushed towards his torso. He could feel his ribs snapping as the cane connected with them, the air left his lungs in a startled pain filled gasp. In the periphery of his vision, he saw JD begin to step forward; desperate to save the youngster, he straightened painfully and shook his head at his friend.

"JD, no," he murmured, earning him another harsh beating with the cane for his troubles. He saw the other five held at bay by the gunmen he had noticed earlier. Realising he could trust them not to do anything foolish, his only concern was JD and his youthful impetuousness. Seeing the youngster approaching him, somehow overlooked or disregarded by the other gunmen, Ezra saw the sympathy and the concern in JD’s eyes and knew that he would do whatever he had to do to save the young man that he counted almost as a younger brother.

His shrewd eyes noticed the small gun that had appeared in the hand on the man closest to the stairs that JD was approaching. Pain fraying the edges of his consciousness, he grabbed the edge of his table with both hands and flipped it towards the men that stood on the other side of it. The pain of lifting the table and abusing his already hurting ribs was almost enough to push him into the beckoning darkness, but his thoughts for JD’s safety overrode his own discomfort. The momentary distraction of the flying chips and table was all he needed. With two steps, he was around the table and pushing JD down the steps just as he reached the top step. Two things seemed to happen in slow motion, he watched as JD’s arms windmilled trying to right himself on the steps before he fell backwards hitting the ground headfirst, his eyes closing as his head bounced against the hard wooden floor.

Before it had even registered to him that he had probably hurt JD badly, a gunshot rang out through the saloon. A searing pain burned through his side; the force of the impact caught him unawares and toppled him off the top step, sending him careening through the air. Ezra landed heavily across JD’s unconscious form. His last thoughts were an apology to JD whilst trying to remember if a head injury was worse than a gunshot wound, as his eyes closed and he sank into a darkness that absolved him of the pain-filled body he was now trapped in.


It had taken moments after Ezra’s selfless act of bravery for the remaining five men to disarm the gunmen and once again take control of their saloon. The booming rumble of Vin’s mare’s leg permanently stifled the agitated posturing of the man who had shot Ezra. He had drawn down on Chris as they secured the other prisoners; Vin had no other choice. He had quickly and efficiently despatched him to the hell his soul deserved. He drew no pleasure killing the man who might have mortally wounded his friend but did draw a degree of satisfaction that he would be seeking his judgement from a higher being and knew that his soul would be found wanting.

While Chris, Buck and Josiah escorted the prisoners to the jailhouse, Nathan and Vin checked out their two fallen members. Vin’s own mission was cut short as their youngest member fought his way back to consciousness, a cursory check of JD’s body all that was needed. Confident he harboured no broken bones, the semi-conscious youth was waking normally, or as normally as could be expected, Vin turned his attention to watching Nathan. Vin could see that you didn’t need to be a doctor to know that Ezra’s condition was grave. Pressing clean cloths against the wound, Nathan's gentle, agile fingers probed the shattered ribcage, his brow creasing deeper with every movement of his fingers. Vin could see the pain that filled Nathan with every

"Nathan?" Vin’s soft voice questioned.

Nathan looked up at him, his expressive brown eyes filled with compassion and shook his head gently, his Adam's apple bobbing as he swallowed convulsively, unable to form the words that he needed to answer Vin.

"Nathan?" JD’s weak murmur drew the healer’s attention.

"Ain’t nothin I can do, JD," he said harshly turning his eyes to Vin. "Seen wounds like this in the war." He shook his head, the trembling of the fingers that he drew across his face testament to the torment Ezra’s predicament was causing him. "If," he said softly, "If I can stop the bleeding and stitch him up..." he murmured. "If the bullet’s hit any organs, he’s gonna die a slow, painful, tortured death," he said as he wiped a stray lock of hair back from Ezra’s already fevered brow. "Wouldn’t wish that on my worst enemy," he finished looking up into the understanding eyes of the tracker.

"Surely, we can make him more comfortable," Josiah said startling the others. He, Chris and Buck had entered the saloon behind them halfway through Nathan’s explanation.

"We’ll take him up to the clinic." Nathan nodded as he looked into the faces that surrounded him. He could see their sorrow in his failure to help one of their own. He was the closest thing they had to a doctor, and he was unable to help him. He had failed again; it hurt every time he lost someone, but this was somehow worse. Ezra was enough to infuriate him most days but he still thought of him as a close friend, a comrade in arms...maybe even a brother. They hadn’t lost him yet and already there was a hole in his life the cocky southerner should fill.

It was a sorrow filled little entourage that filed up to Nathan’s clinic. Josiah carrying Ezra’s far too-still form, his head cradled in the hollow of his shoulder, the jarring movement of even the smoothest gait not even drawing a whimper from the too-silent gambler. Buck assisting a semi-conscious JD to walk slowly supported by the ladies man’s strong arm. He was hurting but no bones were broken and apart from a mild concussion he seemed to be fine. Vin had moved ahead to light the lamps and gather the necessary equipment. Four of the six men that moved towards the clinic already thought that it was too late for the Southerner, sure that his injuries were too severe for him to survive. Nathan’s eyes studiously avoided the faces of the other six men as Josiah settled him onto the bed, stripping the clothes from his body as gently as he could, continuing to press the thickly folded pad of clean cotton into the wound, before turning his piercing gaze on Nathan.

"We have to do something Nathan?" JD said softly.

"I don’t know what we can do, JD." The stress of the whole situation evident in Nathan’s voice.

"There’s gotta be something we can do, Nathan," Vin said from where he leaned in the corner of the room, terrified by Ezra’s deadly stillness.

"Ain’t no doctor," Nathan stated. "If I do the wrong thing, I could kill him...slowly and painfully. Do y’all want to see him writhing in agony cos I didn’t know what I was doin?"

"Looks pretty much to me like he’s a dead man anyway." Chris said tightly, pressing a hand of reassurance to Nathan’s shoulder "At least you can try to give him a chance."

"What can we do to help Brother Nate?" Josiah said his deep calming tones doing a lot to settle the frayed nerves of the five other worried men.

Drawing comfort and the strength to begin the fight for Ezra’s life from the confidence of his friends', Nathan began giving orders to the other men. "Vin, I’ll need water boiled." Nathan moved to collect the equipment he would need. "The rest of you need to wash up. Y’all need to be as sterile as you can." Nathan looked closely at their youngest. "Buck, JD needs to lay down, afore he falls down."

"I want to help Nathan." JD said.

"Suit yourself," Nathan shrugged. "Ain't gonna pick ya up when ya fall down." His mind was already focussed on Ezra.

Nathan’s attention fully focussed on the needs of his patient, he began marshalling the other men, thoroughly cataloguing Ezra’s injuries, mentally preparing himself for what was about to come, thoroughly washing his hands and arms, sterilising the equipment he would be using, before he moved closer to the bed. "Buck I’ll be needing more lamps here," Nathan said. "I want y’all to be ready to hold him down if’n he should come round."

Nathan worked carefully and meticulously, cleaning and stitching the bullet’s entrance wound without a murmur, or even a flinch, from the unconscious southerner. Checking one final time before Nathan turned Ezra off of his side and onto his back that the treated wound was adequately covered, the three men that held Ezra firmly in place allowed him to sink gently back onto his back so Nathan could treat the larger wound.

Taking a deep breath, Nathan began to probe the wound picking foreign matter and loose dirt from it, when his patient suddenly came alive beneath him. "Hold him!" Nathan screamed hoarsely as the other five men dived to hold Ezra down as his body writhed beneath them. For a man smaller than most of the seven, Ezra had the strength of a giant when he was pressed. Buck lay across his peddling legs, as Ezra tried to run from the pain his body endured; JD pressed against his thighs, tears welling in his eyes as he listened to Ezra’s pain-filled cries. Chris and Vin held Ezra on one side, trying to avoid contact with his rattling rib cage. Josiah held Ezra from the other side, tying to hold his broken arm still as well as he flailed the air with his arms. Nathan tried valiantly to clean and scour the wound without causing Ezra more pain, but there was no way he could avoid it. Ezra's blood-curdling screams of pure agony would live with the other six men forever, even knowing that causing that pain was saving his life didn’t make it any more tolerable for them.

It took a moment for them to realise it, but fear drilled through their hearts as they noticed that Ezra's struggles had stopped, each praying that Ezra hadn’t given up his fragile hold on life; the strangled sobs of their youngest drew the attentions of each of them as they relaxed their hold on their injured friend. The tears JD had fought so valiantly to withhold trickling down his cheeks as the finger’s of Ezra’s uninjured hand stroked his too long bangs. The incongruity of the action was so perplexing to them that they were taken by surprise as Ezra gave a spine-chilling wail of "No!" and renewed his fitful struggles.

Struggling with the strength of a man twice his size, Ezra somehow managed to find his way out from underneath the men who were trying to hold him down without causing him further pain or injury. Ezra's frantic struggles to avoid the pain that the restrictive holds meant only caused him greater pain. No one was quite sure how it happened, but they watched in abject horror, as Ezra's writing body seemed to fly through the air and land in a crumpled heap on the floor. It had only taken seconds to happen, but it seemed like it was hours that he hung suspended in the air before Ezra landed with a bone-jarring thud.

Buck and Chris lifted Ezra straight back onto the bed, both men studiously avoiding Nathan’s face, almost afraid of the reprisals they might see there. They all moved to resume their previous positions, eager to have this particular ordeal behind them before his pain had etched itself onto their souls, when Vin pushed them out of the way. Taking hold of his friend's uninjured hand, Vin sat closer to Ezra, clasping his hand in both of his, before he looked into a face beaded with perspiration, somehow not surprised to see pain glazed almost vacant green eyes looking into his face.

"Ezra," he murmured. "Ezra, I need you to lay still while Nathan fixes you up," he said. Vin was a little confused as Ezra pulled his hand from his with surprising strength. Seconds later, Ezra’s hand was gently cupping Vin’s face pushing his hair back, Ezra's fingers tracing Vin's features as Ezra pushed Vin's eyelids closed.

"I’m sorry," Ezra’s thickly accented voice breathed before Ezra's eyes closed again, his body falling limply back against the pillows. Vin blinked back tears before he turned his confused face on his friends once more, not sure what nightmares that their friend was living through inside his fever-shrouded mind, but one thing was certain. His body might be with them, but his mind was nowhere close by.

Nathan returned to the task of scouring the wound, the others standing by to help restrain Ezra if they were needed, but aside from occasional whimpers and a sharply indrawn hissing breath, Ezra was still. It seemed that Ezra drew some sort of strength from his white knuckled grip on Vin’s hand. For his own part, Vin sat by his shoulder, bathing Ezra’s face and neck trying to reduce Ezra's fever if he could.

The wound closed to the best of Nathan’s ability, he could now turn his attention to the broken bones. With Vin and Josiah’s help Nathan tightly bound Ezra's rib cage, then turned his attention to the final injury, the broken arm. The sound of Ezra’s bones being manipulated back into place caused each and every man in the room to wince in pain, feeling the pain of the injured man as Nathan tightly splinted the swollen limb. Barely had Nathan finished his ministrations when the door swung open with a crash and Mary appeared in the doorway.

"Chris?" She scanned the room quickly looking for the dark clad leader. "Maude just heard what happened," she explained breathlessly. "She’s on her way over here now."

"Dammit," Chris cussed. "I forgot she was in town," he said as they all listened to angry footsteps climbing the stairs to the clinic.

"Mr Larabee!" Maude’s voice rang out through the room. "If my darling boy gives up," she said savagely, "I will hold you personally responsible."

"Mother?" Ezra said in half question, his tone confused; he cocked his head to one side as if trying to believe that he was actually hearing his mother’s voice. His eyes opened but didn’t see.

Maude continued to speak in exasperation. "I told him not to stay in this godforsaken town." She pressed her handkerchief to her nose at the pale, helpless sight of her son.

"He is his own man," Chris said tightly.

Vin, however, leaned closer to Ezra, seeing Ezra's lips forming words but unable to understand what the injured man was saying.

"I told him to stop wasting his God-given gifts in this dusty little municipality." She sighed in resignation "Now, apparently it would appear that he has chosen you horrid gunslinger-types over his own mother." She said her eyes flickering around the room, only pausing briefly on Josiah’s form for a moment before returning her eyes to her son’s pale face. "Well, it seems he has made his decision," she wrinkled her nose in distaste. "I suppose I will just have to abide by it." She turned on her heel and walked out of the clinic, pausing briefly at the door. "Mr. Sanchez, I trust that if there is any change to Ezra's condition you will advise me?"

"Certainly, Mrs Standish." Josiah said distractedly, as he turned his attention back to the now deathly-still gambler.

The room fell silent save for the sound of Maude’s heels as they tapped their way angrily down the stairs. Even that eventually faded away until the only sounds were the laboured sounds of Ezra desperately trying to draw breath into his tortured lungs. His six friends stood around the room, each of them willing Ezra to take his next breath. Vin sat by Ezra's side, Ezra's hand still clasped tightly in his own, trying desperately to anchor the gambler to the mortal plane. Vin's other hand was busily wiping Ezra's fevered brow with a damp cloth.

Vin was shaken to the core by the way Ezra had held his face in his hand in his fevered delirium. Even with his eyes unfocused and glazed as they met his Vin could not shake the feeling that the other man was silently saying goodbye in the only way that was available to him. Vin clasped Ezra's hand tightly as he tried to will his own strength to the southerner who was so like him, yet so very different. Vin refused to let Ezra slip away from them without a fight. Bathing Ezra's face and chest with the soft cool cloth, Vin whispered soothing words under his breath and cooled the cloth in a basin of water after every pass over Ezra's heated body.

Nathan sat on his other side, his own mind filled with doubts. The uncertainty he felt at his possibly healing ministrations filled his eyes with uncertainty. Only time would tell if they had done the right thing. Nathan's mind was still filled with the calls of gallant young soldiers on the field of battle, similar wounds sealed by competent trained doctors. They had screamed in agony as their bodies poisoned them, their insides filling their blood with toxins that meant a certain death. The cries that pleaded for a quick merciful death echoed in Nathan's mind as he prayed that he would be spared hearing them from Ezra’s lips.

JD had retreated to the corner of the clinic, his eyes filled with tears of pain and self-loathing. It seemed to him that if he hadn’t been getting in the way, Ezra wouldn’t have been compelled to protect him. It was the way it always ended, except this time it looked like it wasn’t going to end well. JD's glistening hazel eyes watched his friend's desperate struggle, and he was transported back to the days of his mother’s illness. JD prayed that this time the outcome would be happier. His mind drifted back in his not too distant memory when he was the one in the bed after Mattie shot him. JD's hazy, garbled memories of that pain was still fresh in his mind. He couldn’t help but wonder if Ezra was floating in the same bottomless black void that he had been in. It was a place filled with his friends and family, but a place where nothing was as it should be. It was a place where he had found so much clarity in the midst of his confusion and pain.

Buck watched his young friend's struggle to regain his shattered composure. His own eyes glazed at the conman’s silent struggle to stay with his family. A lesser man might have given up the fight. Buck watched as Vin sponged Ezra's face and chest. The cloth collected the beads of perspiration that gathered on Ezra's body. Buck couldn’t help but wonder if he himself would have the strength to fight against his body’s natural reaction to give in to the pain. He frowned as he began to wonder if the ultimate strength would be to give in and leave the people that you loved or to fight and struggle to remain no matter what the outcome.

Josiah moved to a chair in the corner of the room, casting his eyes over his small flock before he bowed his head to plead for the southerner’s soul. Lifting his eyes he allowed them to linger on the quiet form lying so still on the bed. Josiah knew with certainty that the younger man would not plead for his own soul as he reached the pearly gates, so with a wry smile he knew that the pleading would be left up to him. The big man wanted to hope that the fight wouldn’t get that far, he hoped that Ezra would prevail in his struggles long before they reached the ultimate judgement.

Chris stood at the end of the bed, his flinty green eyes taking in everything he saw. Standing sentinel like some sort of dark avenging angel protecting the gambler while he was unable to protect himself, Chris watched and listened. While his eyes and his prayers were focussed wholly on the southerner, Chris's thoughts turned inward, castigating himself harshly for not being able to prevent this. If Ezra should give up his fight it would be another black mark on his own soul, a friend he should have been able to protect. If Chris had been doing his duty, both as a protector of the town and as a friend, he should have seen the trouble approaching. Chris apologized silently to the younger man as he watched him struggle against the other side. Turning on his heel, Chris stalked silently out of the clinic, his spurs jangling loudly as he walked down the stairs and across to the jail.

A gentle knock at the door drew the attention of the rooms occupants. Crossing quickly to the door, Buck opened it, revealing a teary Inez carrying a tray of food and coffee. Buck lifted the tray from her arms and placed it on the table near the door before he returned to her side. Watching her watch Ezra caused the tight grip of loss to tighten its hold on Buck's heart. Seeing one single tear release its hold on her thick black lashes and trickle down her tanned cheek, Buck did the only thing that seemed natural to him. He enfolded her in his arms, tightly wrapping her in one of his patented Buck bear hugs that were guaranteed to make a person feel better. Only this time it didn’t.

Inez melted briefly against the bigger man’s body, offering him whatever comfort she could. At the same time, she took the solace he offered. She had seen many dangerous situations since she had arrived in this dusty little corner of the west. Apart from the time that the man, who now held her like a lifeline to his own sanity, offered his services to save her from Don Paulo, none had seemed quite so serious. Pulling from Buck’s warm arms, Inez moved towards the bed. Leaning forward, she placed a gentle kiss on Ezra’s forehead then moved slowly out of the room, somehow feeling like she was intruding. Buck followed her out of the room, stopping by the window so he could still see into the room.

"Senor Buck," Inez said softly, "Will he live?" She said words that her mind hated even thinking. From the start she and Ezra had known exactly what the other was. Theirs had been an instant kinship that had formed; each knew how the other thought. She had seen from behind the bar exactly what the southern gentleman’s intentions were, but was helpless to do anything but pray for a positive outcome.

"He will," Buck said firmly, his voice firm. "We won’t let him do anything else." He smiled at her but his eyes said so much more than his words. Filled with fear, grief and uncertainty, they spoke more eloquently than words ever could. Inez knew that each of the remaining six would fight the demons of Hell itself to keep their seventh member with them, but one question nagged at her. Would their will alone be enough to keep him there?

Inez slipped briefly into the big man’s arms and allowed herself to hug him long and hard, trying to give him the strength to keep up the fight for their fallen member. Each of the seven were brave, strong men, from different lives and different pasts, but now they had one thing in common--each other. Something had told Inez from the moment she had first walked into the saloon and demanded a job that these magnificent men were a formidable force, a force that it seemed to not only fight men intent on their destruction, but would fight supernatural forces as well. A smile tugged at her lips as she recalled the way their family rallied when one was hurt or somehow weakened by situations beyond their control. Each man in his own way assisted the fallen member until he was strong enough to take up the fight once more. To snuff out one man’s existence was just not possible. Not when six others fought for his soul against the forces that would steal him away from them.

Inez slipped from Buck's arms and leaned up to place a gentle kiss on his cheek, a kiss that under other circumstances she knew Buck would be crowing about. She tasted the salt of his tears and pulled back; she moved to run lithely down the stairs and back toward the sanctuary of the saloon. Buck stood for a time, lost in his own thoughts as he watched his ‘brothers’ through the window. His mouth firmed into a tight line as he turned his face towards the dimly lit jailhouse and their seventh member.

Pushing the door open slowly, Buck nodded tightly to his oldest friend and beckoned for him to leave the office. Chris frowned deeply, his face paling as one tragic thought crossed his mind. He unfolded his long legs from the table and moved quickly onto the promenade.

"He’s not…." Chris broke off unable to actually complete the thought

"Hell, no," Buck said quickly, then remembered why he was here. "Not that you seem to give a damn." Regretting the words as soon as they left his lips he had the good grace to look away from the hurt green eyes that searched his face.

"It’s my fault he’s there," Chris said softly, drawing Buck’s eyes back to his in the space of a heartbeat.

"How do you figure that?" Buck pushed his hat back and scratched his head in confusion.

"You saw what happened in the saloon," Chris said looking away, his eyes straying towards the clinic. "I should have seen it coming," he paused. "I should have known what was going on."

"How exactly?" Buck said. "You’re not a mind reader, Chris," Buck paused admitting for the first time his own feelings "If it's anyone’s fault, it's mine," he said. "I practically threw him at those three."

"Why didn’t we see it?" Chris said.

"Damned if I know." Buck shook his head. "I don’t think even Ezra saw it coming," he paused looking at the dark clad man, searching him for a response. "But I do know one thing," Buck murmured. "We should all be there," he said, his voice raspy. "Good or bad we need to see this through together to its end," he said.

Chris nodded slowly. "I’ve got to wire the Judge." He put a match to the cheroot he put between his lips and drew deeply on it. "Then I’ll be there," he murmured, watching as Buck nodded and then crossed the street toward the clinic.


A deathly pall hung over the occupants of Nathan’s small clinic. Six able bodied men fighting a battle against their own guilt and feelings for the man who hung suspended in the dark nothingness between life and death. Their hearts moving to their throats every time Ezra's breathing faltered. Vin stood an unending vigil by Ezra's side. Vin wouldn’t admit it, but Ezra’s last conscious movements had terrified him. He refused to accept the goodbye that he knew that the gambler had been giving. Instead he firmly grasped the fine-boned hand in his own, anchoring him to this life as he bathed the fevered skin, desperate to keep his fever down.

As the sun rose, six men dozed wearily, unable to sleep but filled with bone-deep weariness that they couldn’t ignore, visions of their expected loss painting their dreams with horrific pictures of what their lives were becoming. All failed to notice that their seventh slipped from the fevered dreams that had tortured him throughout the long night.


Pain-clouded eyes opened slowly, carefully cataloguing each new pain as muscles dared to twitch without his consent, creating a cacophony of pain that ricocheted throughout his frame. Ezra's lips pressed into a tight white line as he struggled to find his way back from the blessed, torture-free, blackness he had floated in. He wasn’t sure why, but finding his way back had become more important to him than relief from the incessant pulsing agony that filled him.

"Welcome back." a raspy voice said.

"Damn it’s good to see those eyes open."

"Good to see you back, brother."

"Don’t crowd him."

"Sure glad to see you awake."

"Hope you don’t think this is getting you out of patrol."

Six voices bombarded his foggy brain, six welcome voices to be sure, but Ezra knew that he was dreaming. Though if he was dreaming why was he in so much pain? Somehow, Ezra thought sadly, somehow he had managed to hear voices of souls long since departed. Maybe he was dead and the voices were beckoning for him to follow him. Too weak to continue his musings, Ezra closed his eyes wearily, a gentle smile crossing his lips at the sounds of his friends' continued mutterings.


Six men stood around the bed, Nathan and Vin sitting on either side of the limp body. Vin’s hand tightly holding the smaller hand in his. Nathan checking his patient carefully, trying to gauge his true condition. His eyes fluttering open even so briefly, was the first positive sign that they had seen in the two days since his shooting. That is if you discounted the quiet way he had slipped from his raging fever into a peaceful healing sleep as the sun rose on his first morning in the clinic.

"Well?" Chris asked shortly, tired and desperately needing some reassurance that Ezra was recovering.

‘I just don’t know, Chris," Nathan shrugged. "There doesn’t seem to be any tenderness around the wound or fever," he shook his head, still disheartened by his lack of thorough knowledge.

"Wherever he is," Buck said softly. "He sure looks contented." He pointed to the gentle smile curving Ezra's lips.


Vin sat by the side of the bed, his head resting on his folded arm, Ezra’s hand caught in his own, one thumb absently stroking the back of his knuckles. Vin's eyes drifted closed wearily; it had been three days since Ezra had begun the fight for his own life, and Vin was feeling his exhaustion to his bones. Nothing, however, could move him from the southerner’s side. Floating in that hazy half world between waking and sleep, Vin sensed rather than felt the movement of Ezra’s fingers in his own. As soon as Vin's weary mind registered what he was experiencing, his eyes flew open. Searching Ezra’s face with his eyes, blue eyes met green, this time there was no apology, no excuses, just a question that Vin couldn’t read. Pressing closer to his friend he brushed tousled hair back from his forehead.

"What is it, Ezra?" Vin asked softly, his words rousing the attention of everyone else in the room.

"Dead?" Ezra forced the word from a dry parched throat, the only word he could manage.

Vin watched the confusion skitter across Ezra’s face. He didn’t know what had transpired in the southerner’s fevered mind, but he knew one thing was certain. He needed affirmation of their continued existence.

"We’re all alive, Ez," he murmured. "All of us," Vin said, tightening his hand on Ezra’s as Nathan tilted Ezra's head enough the force a few small gulps of water between his lips.

"JD?" Ezra breathed

"I’m fine, Ezra," JD said from where he had been seated at the end of the bed.

Ezra’s eyes lost their focus as his eyelids drifted down over bleary eyes, shielding a mind that was now filling with confusing and unsure thoughts. His head shook, conceding more movement that they had seen from him in three days.

"No," Ezra's hoarse voice whispered, his accent rendering his voice almost unintelligible. "No, I saw..." he murmured. "You can’t fool me," his voice rambled. "I saw them," tears began to trickle down Ezra's cheeks. "They were all dead I saw them." A sobbing hiccupping breath broke from Ezra's lips. "Please stop," he sobbed. "Why are you doing this to me?" he cried. "It hurts," Ezra murmured, as he gave up the tenuous grip he still maintained on reality. "I need them, please let me be with them."

Vin pressed gentle shaking fingers to Ezra’s mouth, silencing lips that continued to move even as his mind lost hold of its thready grasp of reality. Vin turned tortured blue eyes that brimmed with unshed tears on his five companions. Not one of them had the words to express their feelings at what they had just heard from the man that so often shunned their friendship. Suddenly each man was painfully aware of how much each and every one of them meant to the southerner, and their resolve to bring him back into their fold firmed.

"Damn," Buck said softly, a lone tear escaping his eye as he watched the southerners struggle against the demons that held his mind.

"Nathan," Chris said. "What the hell is wrong with him?"

The attention of each person in the room focussed on the gentle healer.

"I’m not sure," Nathan murmured. "Could be a reaction to his fever." He shrugged. "It could be a concussion I didn’t pick up." He sighed. "I wish I knew more," he shook his head sadly.

"I know one thing," Vin said softly. "Gonna put an end to his suffering next time he wakes up."

Five other heads nodded in agreement as they turned their attention back to the prone man, willing him to wake so they could reaffirm their existence to him and re-establish his hard-fought place in their unconventional family.


It seemed that now that his consciousness had begun to return to him, Ezra drifted on the crest of a surging tide, true consciousness ebbing and flowing across his mind, just like the tide washing across the beach. However, when his shadowy memories returned to him and were almost in his grasp, the waters that carried the thoughts to him would ebb and memories that had been at his fingertips...almost in his reach, so close he could almost taste them...would run away from him faster than he could grasp at them. One by one he grasped at the tiny grains that the tidal flow of memories, building the foundations of the sandcastle that would stand against the tide that threatened to wash it away.

The one thing that kept pulling him away from the pain and the confusion of his own thoughts and scattered memories was the clasp of a rough-skinned hand against his own. The only surety in his mind was the slow stroking of that hand against his own. He remembered the feel of that hand, but it had been deathly cold. Ezra frowned as the incongruity of what he felt in his hand registered in his mind.

"Vin?" he murmured. His eyes opened slowly, his mind trying to focus on what his eyes were telling him and his heart was hoping for, but his mind was denying.

"I’m here, Ezra," Vin said softly, rubbing a weary hand across his own face as he sat on the end of the bed beside Ezra.

"You’re not dead?" Ezra reached out to touch Vin’s chest, his fingertips searching for the heartbeat that now nestled under his fingertips.

"Not yet." Vin said firmly, his eyes locked on Ezra’s.

"But I saw you," his voice lifted an octave. "And I closed your eyes," he breathed as tears trickled from his eyes.

"No," Vin said. Ezra’s actions that first night were suddenly clear in his mind. "No, you didn’t Ezra," Vin murmured, "You were trying to tell me something and I couldn’t understand you," Vin stated calmly. "I’m sorry."

"But I saw?" Ezra murmured, confused. "You were all dead," his voice trailed off as his mind, bombarded with so much contradictory information, closed down yet again.

With each hour that passed, the sandy foundations of the castle that was being built in Ezra’s mind were strengthened. Vin sat patiently at the southerner's side, carefully explaining to Ezra the pictures that had formed in his mind. His flickering consciousness had taken snatches of conversation and fleeting glances of a friend placing them inside the scenario that was Ezra’s own personal hell. One by one the others left the room, wanting to give Ezra time to digest what he was being told, without feeling he was under their scrutiny, time to allow his emotions free reign as he attempted to gather the tattered edges of his consciousness back together. However, none of them left the room without first crossing to Ezra’s side and placing his hand on their chest, allowing him to feel the heartbeat under his fingers, trying in their own way to prove to him that they were alive. Their eyes misting as tears of gratitude at their actions spilled from the gamblers eyes.

"My mother?" Ezra asked as Vin pressed a cup of Nathan’s herbal tea to his lips.

"She was here, Ez," Vin said, not wanting to speak ill of Maude. She might be just a little higher in the pecking order than a snake to Vin, but she was Ezra’s kin, and for that alone she deserved his respect.

"I disappointed her again," Ezra murmured, turning his head from the young tracker, not wanting him to see just how much that disturbed him.

"No, Ezra," Vin said. "She tore strips from Chris for putting you in danger," he paused. "But she never said she was disappointed with you," he affirmed.

Ezra shrugged painfully. "I always do," he said. "This shouldn’t be any different." He changed the subject. "Mary and Inez?" Ezra questioned.

"Both fine and well," Vin said gently, not sure in his own mind how to make Ezra believe his eyes and not his deceitful mind.

"But I saw them," Ezra said flatly. Pain still lanced through his body at the slightest movement, his eyes closing of their own volition, but his mind refused to sink back behind the curtain of darkness that it had taken refuge behind before. Confusing jumbled images assaulted his thoughts. He turned his head away from the blue eyes that he was sure saw into his very soul. Ezra refused to relinquish his hold on his lifeline. Vin’s hand gripped tightly in his fingers, neither man questioning the others need for the continued grasp, each realising that for the time being their grip was the only thing tethering Ezra’s mind to the team.

Hot tears squeezed from between eyelids that were compressed tightly shut. Ezra wanted so badly to believe what his heart told him was true, but his mind wouldn’t allow him to accept what his eyes now saw. This was his punishment he was sure, punishment for not truly grasping the bonds of friendship that had been cast open for him on numerous occasions. Now Ezra was to be damned into a half-life, drifting, cast adrift by the mortal world but unable to find his way to the eternal purgatory he knew he deserved. So many opportunities had been placed before him; so many times he had cast asunder the happiness both given and received. How many lives had he changed by his own selfish actions? How long would he have to pay for his errors in judgement?

Vin sat on the bedside and watched Ezra’s breathing become erratic, tears trickling from tightly closed eyes. A tight hand of fear clenched around his own heart as Vin realised that there was not a thing that any of them could do for the cocky southerner. The man who never showed his true feelings to the others was slowly unravelling before their eyes. Ezra was helpless, caught in the never-ending web of his own mind. While it appeared that his body would return to them, almost intact, the fight had moved to another battleground. It didn’t matter how closely the remaining six closed ranks behind him, only one person could fight the battle to save Ezra's sanity. And it appeared that this was a battle that Ezra was losing.

Vin searched his own mind for a solution...nothing. Vin could think of nothing that would stir a chord in the injured man. He refused to let Ezra become trapped in his own mind. He refused to even consider the consequences of the southerner’s inability to grasp the reality as it lay before him. Whether Ezra wanted to or not, Vin vowed that he would make Ezra find the end of the lifeline that his consciousness was throwing his grasping mind as it flailed against the tide, the dark reality of his unconscious visions dragging him deeper into the swirling maelstrom of silent insanity.

Suddenly in a moment of pure clarity it came to him; Vin knew how to make Ezra believe. He looked at where there hands joined, knowing that to coax him back he would have to break the only connection Ezra had to the world they should all be sharing. He knew that by releasing his hold, he could be losing him forever, but he couldn’t just sit here and watch Ezra sink deeper and deeper into his mind. He wouldn’t sit here and watch the man they all knew fade into a man that none of them wanted to see him become.

Even as he loosened his fingers around Ezra’s fingers, the gambler's grip tightened, gripping tightly as he tried to pull his hand from the embrace. Tears sprang to Vin's pained eyes as he realised Ezra’s desperate struggle to hold on to his hand. Desperate fingers grasped at his own, his resolve almost failing as he felt the trembling in the nimble fingers that struggled to maintain their hold on his. His hand finally free, Vin stood quickly before his heart overruled his mind and he re-established the link they had forged. Vin's heart twisted as he watched Ezra’s hand reach out and search for the comfort of the hand that had held it for so long. Seconds bled slowly into minutes as his fingers sought his lifeline, finally realising the futility his hand rested palm up on the bed. Vin looked to Ezra’s face for confirmation of his acceptance, and what Vin saw caused him to bite his lip in frustration and turn from the room, eager to return and end Ezra's suffering.

Taking one last look at the man whose existence had come to mean so much to them all, Vin slipped through the door. The image of the silent tears that were flowing freely down the motionless gamblers cheeks lended an impassioned urgency to his mission. Seeing JD seated on the bench outside the clinic, Casey by his side, her face a picture of concern, he paused briefly.

"JD," Vin said clearing his throat of the unshed tears that choked him.

"Is he alright?" JD asked standing, his eyes closing briefly as the rapid ascent brought stars to his eyes.

"He’s still with us," Vin said, all the while wondering for how much longer. "Are you okay?" he murmured, watching the Kid’s too pale face. They had all forgotten that he had been hurt too; no one had even bothered to check on his concussion, partly because he had brushed aside their concerns and partly because of the desperate struggle to keep Ezra in the land of the living.

"I’m okay" JD said softly, the words a mere breath as he pondered the thought that it could have been him lying in that bed. If not for the selfless actions of the southerner, it would have been him, and JD wasn’t sure if he would have the strength to fight back again. Especially so soon after Mattie’s betrayal.

"Can you two sit with him for a few minutes?" Vin asked. "I have to do something, I won’t be long but I don’t want to leave him alone." He glanced back at the door.

"Sure, Mr Tanner." Casey nodded, glad to have been given an official role in helping the man that had helped Nettie keep her farm.

Vin stood on the stairway and watched as the two of them slipped inside the door, his shrewd eyes noticing the nervous hesitancy of JD’s first steps into the clinic. It was the first time he had been back inside in two days. It was not that JD wasn’t concerned for Ezra; Vin knew that he was. He knew that their youngest rarely left the bench out side the clinic, waiting for some news of their beloved gambler. Vin understood JD’s reticence; he knew the younger man felt at least partly responsible for Ezra’s condition. The way that Ezra had caressed JD’s shiny black hair in a desperate farewell, had unnerved the rest of them; Vin couldn’t even imagine how much it had distressed JD.

Casey walked slowly into the room, her mind assaulted with images of the last time she was in there, praying for JD’s life. She didn’t want to see the gentle southerner hurting anymore than she did JD. She smiled lightly as she thought about Ezra. He had always been nothing more than a gentleman to her. Sure, she knew he was exasperating at times but he was a good man, no matter what anyone else said. Casey knew that he was an honourable person, even if he wouldn’t admit it to himself. Besides he had sacrificed himself for her JD. If for no other reason, Ezra deserved her gratitude, and she would gladly do whatever she could do for him. Seeing his hand laying on top of the blankets she slid her own fingers into his as JD sank into the chair beside her.

Ezra felt the fingers that slid into his, frowning at the incongruity of his thoughts. Casey’s fingers should be cold; he could see her in front of him, her eyes gazing sightlessly at the sky, her young soul, free to join her paramour in the heaven they deserved. The innocent love their souls held now free to merge spiritually as they had been denied mortally. Ezra would never forgive himself for denying the purity of their union the completion they both deserved. His thumb caressed her fingers as he silently begged for her forgiveness.

"JD," she said quickly. "JD, he’s talking!" She almost bounced on her seat, as she watched Ezra’s lips speaking unintelligibly.
Both of them leaned forward trying to hear the softly uttered words. Tears shimmered on Casey’s lashes as she finally deciphered the words that Ezra was chanting like his own personal mantra. She sat bolt upright in the chair her hand tightened on Ezra’s, her other hand reaching out to grasp JD’s hand tightly. Her tears trickled unbidden down her cheeks "Why is he apologising to me, JD?" she said her voice trembling.

"I don’t know, Case." JD shook his head, his own eyes shimmering with tears as he said. "I don’t know."

"It should be me apologising to him," he muttered. "Not the other way around."

"He can’t die, JD." She burrowed against his shoulder. "It just wouldn’t be right." She shook her head as JD's shirt soaked up her tears.

"He’s not gonna die," Vin said from the door, startling both of them.

"I deserve to die," Ezra said, his eyes still closed, his voice soft but steady. "Too many good people dead," he breathed.

"No," Casey shook her head. "Mr Standish, please, no one has died," she said tearily. "You saved JD!"

"No, Miss Wells," he murmured opening his eyes, looking at her, but not seeing her. "I’m sorry." He closed his eyes again. "I will not believe what you say to me." His words began to flow quickly from his lips. "I don’t know why I have been damned to this infernal torture." His eyes opened again scanning the room wearily. "But I refuse to believe you. I know what I saw with my own eyes." Ezra stopped and turned his head away from the trio at his bedside.

Vin saw the question in JD, and Casey’s eyes, but he didn’t have the words to answer either of them. He shrugged his shoulders non-committally at their questions, a stack of Mary’s newspapers in his hands. He waited as JD and Casey, their hands tightly entwined, moved past him. Their eyes crossed back to the fragile man that they were leaving behind them. Vin waited until they had left before he closed the door and moved to sit on the bed beside Ezra.

Vin lifted the southerner’s hand folding it in his once more before he said. "Ezra," he began. "I know you don’t want to hear this," he said. "I know you don’t want to believe, but I am telling you the truth." He rubbed the chilled knuckles with his thumb. "I know it hurts, Ezra, but you have to believe me. None of us would hurt you intentionally or unintentionally."

Vin frowned as he remembered the lack of trust they had recently shown in the smaller man. "You have to believe Ezra," he murmured. "Now, I know that you are having trouble separating the real us from the ones that you have seen in your mind," he said. "I know how much stock you set in the written word so I thought you might believe if you read it." He rubbed the hand he held in his over the folded stack of newspapers that he had laid on the bed. "When you’re feeling better, you can read it and then you will know we are telling the truth."

Vin watched as Ezra’s fingers slid across his and then onto the top newspaper. Ezra's fingers moved slowly, lingeringly over the newsprint, almost as if trying to feel the truth.

"Read it to me," Ezra murmured.

"Ezra, you know that I can’t do that." Vin’s heart leapt to his throat as he realised that his own weakness might be the downfall of his impromptu plan.

"Please, Vin." The hoarsely murmured words were Vin’s undoing. Lifting the top newspaper, Vin traced the print with his fingers. His mind frantically trying to scramble the letters his mind recognised into words that he could read to the gambler. Mary had diligently been teaching him to read; now he could only hope that his skills were up to the task of showing his friend the truth.

"Peacekeeper Shot." Vin read quickly; this part was easy. Mary had pointed it out to him when he had requested the papers. "Ezra Standish," Vin read slowly, "was seriously wounded last evening." Vin's voice faltered as he slowly read each word, sounding it out slowly. "The per-pe-trat-ors were app-re-appre..." Vin paused knowing that he was failing his friend badly.

"Apprehended," Ezra murmured gently.

Vin's eyes met his friend's over the top of the paper, watching the gentle smile that curved the southerners lips "You’re telling me the truth aren’t you?" he whispered.

"I wouldn’t lie to you, Ezra" he said sincerely.

"But I saw all of you," he said quietly, though his voice was full of hope. "You were all dead."

"We are all alive," Vin paused. "You were the only one hurt."

"I thought I was imagining you all being here with me," Ezra said as if to himself.

"What made you think different?" Vin probed.

"Your reading," Ezra replied, explaining further at Vin’s frown. "I’ve known for some time that you can’t read." Ezra tried to shrug his shoulders in a gesture of acceptance, but broke off with a painful gasp "A man as good as you are would be heaven-bound." Ezra said further when he regained his breath. "There are no imperfections in heaven; you sir would be afforded reading skills akin to all others."

"Then, just this once I think I’m proud of my reading..." Vin shrugged. "Or lack of it."

"Vin." Ezra clasped his friend’s hand. "It’s nothing to be ashamed of. I would have offered you my assistance in the past." Ezra took a deep breath and continued, "but I assumed it was none of my business."

"Just never had the need ta learn." Vin shrugged. "Wish I had now," he said, looking into Ezra’s weary green eyes.

"I’m glad you didn’t," Ezra said as his eyes drifted closed. "But I’m happy to be of assistance should you require instruction."

"I know you’re feeling better, Ezra." Vin smiled. "Them five dollar words are back."

"Indeed, Mr Tanner," Ezra sighed as he settled into the first healing sleep he had had in three days. His mind was still filled with the images of the scenes he had witnessed in his fevered delirium, but he now had a firm grasp on the truth and refused to be shaken by the untruths his mind had twisted for him.


One week later

Ezra settled onto the rocking chair the others had placed in the weak afternoon sunlight. He held up his good hand to forestall his hovering angels from tucking him into the chair any tighter. His lips were pressed into a tight white line. The action of getting from his bed in the clinic to the rocker right outside the door had totally exhausted him, not that he would ever tell the others that. He looked into the faces of the men who had assisted him outside. Vin, Buck and JD hovered over him, wanting to see to his every need. If he had been feeling more like himself, it would have been annoying. Before his painful incident he would be chasing them away; now, however, he couldn’t fault their intentions or their attention.

He rested his head back against the chair and closed his eyes as he breathed in the smells of the town, smells that he hadn’t realised he missed until he had shuffled his way to the balcony. There were other things he had missed since he had woken--the feel of his clothes against his skin, the feel of his cards in his fingers, the company of his oldest friend, his horse in the livery downstairs. One thing, however, he was growing accustomed to. The constant company of one or more of his human friends had become a balm to his troubled soul. In the first days after his mind's re-awakening, his friends had been with him constantly. One or another of them was always with him; their initial visits tentative at first but spent reading Mary’s papers to him. Trying to clear his mind of the visions that still filled it. His eyes had filled with tears as he saw each of his friends for the first time as his mind took its first fragile steps towards lucidity. His sudden, frequent shows of emotion were never mentioned by the stoic men who visited with him, nor were the silent tears shared with the young women who he was proud to call friends.

The words that his friends said to him of the events that had transpired that fateful night eased his mind a little. The perpetrators where all on their way to prison, with the exception of the man who had almost killed him. No one knew exactly why they had targeted him, or the seven peacekeepers, but the damage had been done. Thankfully, the villains had achieved nothing that was irrecoverable. Thankfully, both his bodily and emotional injuries could be fixed. Nothing could ease his mind as much as the sight of his friends did, however. He had no explanations for the images that his mind had painted for him. He had no desire to see any of his friends harmed, and, in a moment of weakness, his mind had stolen from him everything that it held dear and destroyed it.

As his condition strengthened, he had taken Mary’s papers and devoured them for himself, somehow his own eyes reiterating the truth of the words that all of them had said to him. He was still coming to terms with his newfound emotions for the people he now called family, and, even in his weariness, he was content to lay back against the pillow of the bed in Nathan’s clinic, his eyes closed listening to the friendly banter his friends shared. It seemed that since his incapacitation the other six lawmen had taken to spending their spare time in the clinic, not the saloon or the jailhouse, for which he was eternally grateful.

He knew full well that their humble healer was gleefully anticipating the return of the good-natured squabbling that often signalled his return to good health and desire to return to his own room. However, he found that he had no desire to leave the clinic just yet. He was still as weak as a kitten, flashes of pain sapping his strength. He drew comfort from the surroundings of the clinic. His mind had struggled so painfully with the torments that it had created for his soul that he was happy to stay where he felt close to the rest of the men. Besides it had taken every ounce of strength he possessed to struggle to the door of the clinic; Buck and Vin had taken more and more of his weight until they were almost carrying him to the chair he now nestled in.

Feeling a familiar gaze watching him carefully a smile curled Ezra's lips as he said without opening his eyes. "Can I help you Mr Tanner?" he said.

"You alright, Ez?" Vin asked as he stretched his legs out in front of him and leaned back against the railing behind him, relaxing a little.

"Although I feel I would be lying if I were to say never better," Ezra stated with a grin, his eyes opening and finding the crystal blue gaze that searched his pale weary face. "I’m sure you would understand if I were to say that I am feeling just dandy, Mr Tanner."

"Think you’re up to patrol in the morning?" Chris asked with a smile as he strode silently up the stairs, the only noise the slight jangling of his spurs.

"I do believe, Mr Larabee, it is customary to be conscious riding patrol." Ezra smiled. "And, as such, I shall have to pass on my peace keeping duties for the time being." Ezra's eyes met Vin’s in a flash of humour that was met by the blue eyes of the tracker.

Ezra knew in that moment that he had truly come home. He finally completely understood the kinship that these men shared and felt for the first time that he was part of the circle of friendship that shrouded them making them a family. He knew that his body would be a long time recovering, and his mind would take even longer; the possibility of sleeping through the night without waking from visions of his friends suffering remained a hope for the distant future. For now, he thought as he closed his eyes and drifted back into contented slumber as he listened to his leader and his best friend talking quietly, Ezra was happy to have finally found home.