Disclaimer: Not mine. Never will be. No money being made.
They were about a day and half out side of Four Corners when Vin's horse picked up a stone and since they were not in any particular hurry the seven men decided to stop and let their wounded and their animals have a chance to rest up and then would continue on in the morning.
Josiah sighed as he slowly dismounted and had to grip the saddle horn as the earth started to tilt. He probably would have fallen except two strong hands grabbed him and quickly lead him to a clearing and eased him down so that he could lean against an old tree stump. He sighed as something cool and wet wiped his face. Looking up he expected to see Nathan, but to his surprise he saw Ezra instead. Without a word Ezra once again wet the bandanna before handing it to him and walking away. Looking at his hand Josiah realized that this was his bandanna. The same bandanna he had tied around his neck. Now how the heck had Ezra managed to get the thing off him without him noticing. The ex-preacher knew he was tired but he didn't think he was that tired. Shrugging he wiped his face and the back of his neck.
Nathan watched as Ezra helped the big man get settled and walked up with his bag as Ezra walked away. "I told you you weren't ready for a trip like this. Your damn crows will catch up with you all to soon; no since in rushing it. Here drink this," he said handing him a tin of water with something floating in it.
"This stuff is awful," Josiah shuddered but managed to drink it all.
Nathan grinned and slapped him on the shoulder then went to check on Buck.
Buck looked at the cup Nathan handed him and frowned when he saw something floating in it. Damn, he thought, Nathan's done give him a dirty cup and tossed it out.
Nathan turned back to back to Buck and noticed the cup was empty. "Good you drank it already."
Buck frowned and said, "Naw. There was something floating in it so I tossed it out."
"Buck! Those were herbs and there'll help ease the pain," Nathan explained. "Give me that cup. This time I wanted you to drink it. All of it," the healer said in exasperation.
The lady's man looked at the cup in his hand then at his dark skinned friend. "Are you sure these are herbs and not trash?" he asked.
Nathan narrowed his dark brown eyes and said, "Yes. Now drink it."
A little while later the seven men were spread out in various places around the grove. Vin pulled his hat down low over his eyes as he leaned against the tree beside him and watched the group of men around him. Nathan was busy trying to tend to Buck and Josiah again while they both told the healer they were fine. They were both ignored as Nathan changed their bandages and then told them to rest. JD was hovering between Nathan and Buck just in case he was needed. Chris sat leaning against a fallen tree and appeared to be asleep, but Vin could make out just a hint of a grin as he listened to the bickering between Nathan, Buck, and now JD. Directly across from him leaning against a tree was Ezra casually sipping from his flask, as he too surveyed the others.
Vin carefully watched the gambler watching the others but he couldn't read a thing in his expression. And his green eyes were hidden in the shadow of his hat. Never had he come across a man with so many layers. Quickly averting his eyes as he found himself under the same type of scrutiny. Releasing a pent up sigh Vin turned back and boldly met those green eyes as both men reassessed each other. Vin frowned as Ezra suddenly grinned at him as if he'd just figured something out. Breaking eye contact for just a moment Vin shook his head then saw the southerner raise his flask in salute to him before putting it away. Vin may not be able read him completely, but he knew a challenge when he saw one. And that was exactly what Ezra was doing. . . challenging him to try and figure him out. Grinning in response to that cocky grin Vin silently accepted the challenge with a nod of his head.
Ezra continued to grin at the tracker. Really Mr. Tanner I would have thought you'd have been more subtle, he thought to himself. But then again, he did find the direct approach rather refreshing. You want to figure me out, Mr. Tanner, well go ahead and try.
Without a change in his expression he wondered if Vin Tanner was as simple as he made himself out to be. Ezra could hear his mother now, 'You know that what one sees is not always what one gets'. Mother. Now that was someone he refused to think to much about. Maude Standish had taught him many things and the most important was the opportunities to be had in simple observations. One could learn a lot just by watching. Another was not to show any emotions and to keep everything hidden. Of course, he wasn't nearly as guarded as most thought. Why'd he tell anyone exactly what they wanted to hear. A person could not be more open than that.
He was never more grateful to his mother than at that moment. For as he looked around he asked himself once again how he managed to wind up with such a rag-tag group of men. Heaven help him, Ezra silently pleaded. Not a one of them had one thing in common and yet they acted like old friends. They even seemed inclined to include him in their brotherhood. Well most of them. Even after he'd run out on them. Ezra just didn't understand these people. Where was the angle? Was there an angle, he asked himself. Of course, my darlin' boy, he heard his mother say. There's always an angle. Nothing's ever free, Son, and the sooner you realize that the better off you'll be, they were the same words he'd heard his mother say countless times. But why did there always have to be an angle? Couldn't they be as genuine as they seemed, he asked himself. Just once he'd wish she was wrong. Just once Ezra wanted to belong. He wanted to be accepted flaws and all.
Frowning he watched as the large ex-preacher rose unsteadily to his feet and walk toward him. Shaking his head Ezra tried to understand how a man of Josiah Sanchez's size and presence could be so afraid of a little black bird. It made no sense to him that a man of the cloth would believe a silly old superstition. Ezra Standish was a man of chance. He would place in his fate in his horse, his gun, cards, or the roll of the dice. Maybe even his fellow man, on occasion, but never a bird. Hell most of the time he was left to make his own fate, because more often than he cared to admit he found that he could count on none but himself. Despite all that and his somewhat jaded view on life Ezra had always believed deep down that life was what you made of it. Good or bad.
"Josiah did you hear me? You need to rest," Nathan fussed, but the man just kept on walking.
Nodding of his head was the only indication that Josiah had even heard the healer. He'd noticed the southerner standing apart from the others and wanted to make him more comfortable within the group.
"Mr. Sanchez I suggest you sit down before you fall," Ezra commented as he stopped in front of him.
"Don't worry about me son. I'm fine," he replied.
Ok now that's the third time he's call me. . . son, Ezra silently complained. Oh no, best to nip this in the butt right now, he thought to himself. "Mr. Sanchez we need to talk," he waited until the older had settled down before continuing. "I . . . "
"Ezra go help JD gather some firewood," Chris suddenly interrupted. The black clad gunslinger had watched in silent amusement as the tracker and the gambler stared each other down. All the while standing in similar poses; each leaning against a tree with one foot crossed in front of the other. Chris had to give the gambler his due because even though he grinned Vin had been the first one to look away.
Josiah grinned as Ezra walked off muttering to himself. Good thing Chris can't hear him.
Don't know why I have to get all the damned firewood, he grumbled under his breath. Walking and muttering to himself he almost didn't see the low hanging branch and just did manage to avoid hitting his head. Nice save Ezra now pay better attention, he told himself. You don't want them to have to come and rescue you do you? NO!, he silently screamed. Just gather the stupid wood and get your southerner butt back to camp. The quicker you start the quicker you finish, he told himself. Which had always been his motto when there were chores to be done. So after quickly gathering some wood he made his way back to camp.
Nathan looked up as Ezra and JD both walked back into camp. He'd been helping Vin and Chris clean their supper. The southerner had just finished washing and drying his hands when the healer walked up to him and said, "Here hold this for me Ezra." Nathan didn't give him time to object and just handed it to him. Then grinned at the expression on his face.
Ezra raised one eye brow and cringed a little as he looked down at the. . . the. . . the whatever it was. Cocking his head as he examined . . . supper a little closer. He decided it was a. . . rabbit? Turning his head away from it and looked for Nathan and almost smiled as he saw him approaching. Without a word Ezra handed the animal back went to wash his hands again.
They'd finished eating and cleaning up and were sitting around the camp fire passing a couple of bottles of whiskey around while listening to Buck tell story after story as only he could.
Since they were camped in a pretty secluded area Chris decided that there would be no need to post a guard tonight and let the others relax.
Two hours and four whisky bottles later the seven men were feeling no pain. JD had passed out after the first bottle and was sleeping peacefully. Vin, Buck, and Nathan lasted through the third and were laying on their bed rolls on the verge of sleep. Josiah, Chris, and Ezra finished off the fourth. Chris and Ezra eyed each other waiting for the other to pass out first, neither was about to let the other win.
A barely coherent Vin nudged Josiah and pointed toward the silent battle of wills going on. Josiah grinned as sluggishly said, "Give it up son. You can't a win. Chris has more experience."
Ezra tore his eyes away from Chris upon hearing the word son. Blinking he looked at Josiah and said, "Bullshit." What? That wasn't what I wanted to say. What did I want to say? he asked himself.
Josiah and the others laughed at his comment.
Suddenly throwing his head up Ezra had to close his eyes to keep his head from rolling completely off. Aww hell, he forgot what he was gonna say. Oh! Yes now he remembered. "Mr. San. . . San. . . Sanchez," he finally managed to get out. "I feel I must. . . What I mean to say is. . . You must understand. . . ," Ezra stopped talking cause he couldn't get his mind and mouth to work at the same time. With a shake of his head he muttered, "Aww hell, screw it." Then looking into both sets of Josiah's eyes he said, "I am not your son."
Chris grinned when he saw Ezra's eyes rolled back in his head just before he passed out. With that same grin on his face he looked over at the others and suddenly fell back as he too passed out.
Around midnight Ezra lay in his bed roll with his head moving from side to side as he got caught in a dream. Francis' words echoing in his head. Over and over he heard the phrase. He began to shudder as the words brought back long buried memories and imagines. And try as he might he could not push them back. Or block out the words. Words that made his blood run cold. Once again Ezra heard that damned Irish voice say the words in French which his mind quickly translated. . . baby killer. Of course, Ezra knew that the words were not directly aimed at him, but for all artillery men.
With a silent scream Ezra bolted straight to his feet only to fall wearily back to his knees. Hanging his head he rested it in his hands. An occasional shudder worked it's way down his spine making him tremble. Slowly he removed his hands but kept his eyes shut. Wrapping his arms around himself he began to rock back and forth. Ezra had no idea how long he sat silently suffering while lost in the past. Releasing a shaky breathe he jumped as he felt someone grab his arm. His eyes popped open and he scrambled back as fast as his numb legs would allow stopping only when his back hit a near by tree. Working only on instinct Ezra quickly pulled his revolver and only just stopped himself from firing.
Josiah jumped as he heard a noise. Listening carefully he tried to identify it. Looking around he quickly got to his feet as he saw Ezra silently rocking. Very carefully he approached the younger man and debated with himself about how best to handle the obviously distraught man. Reaching out a hand he grabbed Ezra's arm and fell back as the southerner suddenly shot backwards.
Hear the cocking of a gun Josiah cautiously got to his feet and held both hands out away from his guns. "Ezra," he started but quickly stopped as the gun was raised so that it was level with his heart.
Hearing a noise to his left Ezra narrowed his eyes and swung his gun in that direction. Another sound penetrated and he engaged his derringer he pointed it to the right. As his breathing leveled out his dreams began to recede. With a shake of his head he lowered his gun and put his derringer away.
"Ezra are you alright?" Josiah asked as he knelt in front of him.
Shaking his head Ezra said in a gruff voice, "Yes. I'm fine." He then pushed himself back to avoid the hand reaching out to him.
"You sure? You want me to get Nathan?" Josiah persisted, but withdrew his hand.
"Heavens no," he replied. "Look Mr. Sanchez I don't want to be rude, but leave me the hell alone," Ezra snapped when it looked as if the older man was gonna continue to hound him.
Josiah didn't say a word just backed away. He knew a man on the edge when he saw one and he would not be the one to push him over. So he left him alone, but kept an eye on him.
Closing his eyes Ezra regretted speaking the ex-preacher in such a way, but he wasn't in the mood to make polite conversation. Rubbing his free hand across his face as he clutched the revolver in the other. Eyes still closed he released a pent up sigh and leaned his head back against the tree and let his mind wonder as it chose. Knowing that there was no way he'd be able to control it now.
+ + + + + + +
The year was 1861.
It was one of those rear occasions when Ezra and his mother, Maude, were actually together. They were in Virginia and had just heard about Fort Sumter. Maude had wanted to leave the area immediately, but for some reason Ezra was reluctant to do so. As southerners both him and his mother had seen the atrocities that overseers and masters had committed against their slaves. It had always sickened him. So much so that it got to where he'd refused to visit particular relatives and so-called family friends. Maude had told him that he'd just have to learn to look the other way. But no, Ezra refused. Owning someone was wrong and he would not look the other way. He would not look at all if he could help it.
However, he didn't like being told how he should live. Ezra thought the North should clean up it's own so-call factory towns before casting stones. Sure he'd heard the arguments. That the people working in those factories were free to come and go as they pleased. Oh yeah, they were free alright. So free that they were forced to live in fire trap houses that were in worse condition than slave dwellings. Were free to work from sun up to sun down making little or no money. Ezra wished someone would tell him how factory owners were any different than masters.
Ezra stood on the boardwalk and watched as Maude's train pulled out. Grinning he hoped St. Louis was well fortified because it was about to get hit by a force of uncharted trouble. With a shrug of his shoulders Ezra thought, better them than me.
Tensions were running high all through the South. You could feel it. They were waiting to see when the North would take up the challenge issued at Fort Sumter Charleston, South Carolina.
Ezra Standish was never one to follow others simply because or to volunteer. So he was surprised to find himself riding into a Confederate Army camp. Pulling his horse, Chance, to a stop he surveyed the men in front of him. Licking his suddenly dry lips Ezra asked himself what the hell he was doing here? No way was he going to fight for slavery. But. Why is there always a but? But this was their land. Their homes. The North had no right to tell them how to live. To take what was theirs away.
"You gonna just gonna sit there or join us?" a gruff voice asked making him jump.
Turning Ezra saw that several men in uniforms had ridden up on him and he'd never even heard them. For the first time his life Ezra said the first think that came to his mind, "I'm joining. Where do I sigh in?"
"How old are ya son?" another soldier asked.
"Old enough," Ezra answered. At the look sent his way he straightened his shoulders and looking them right in the eye and lied, "Sixteen."
"Kinda puny for sixteen," the man said.
"Leave 'im alone Fred. He wants to fight so I say we let 'im," said yet another soldier. "You sign in over yonder and then they'll give ya a uniform. Good luck to you," having said that the group rode away.
Ezra had never been a morning person and after a week of being awoken at sunrise by an ill played bugle he was rethinking this whole patriotic streak of his. Ever a watcher of people Ezra quickly spotted the bugler and later that night set about extracting his revenge. He filled the bugle with axle grease.
Ezra and three other men were quickly labeled as difficult and were transferred from the infantry to the gunnery crew under Gunnery Sgt. Eugene Wesley. They were each assigned to a 6-pounder howitzer and were assigned to the same idiot corporal.
They were barely given time to familiarize themselves with the guns before having to move out. As soon as they entered the Shenandoah Valley they could hear the sounds of battle and quickly moved into position and were able to break through the Union Army's right flank firing at every blue uniform they saw.
Even from his position near the rear Ezra could see spectators and soldiers alike running across a near by bridge. The soldiers he understood, but not the spectators. What were they thinking? That this was a garden party or something. He didn't have time to question it now and pushed it away for later.
"Fire!" cried the Corporal and acting on instinct Ezra did just that over and over again. Quickly pushing the cannon forward in order to narrow the range Ezra automatically lit the fuze as he was ordered. It wasn't until the gun had already fired that he realized that the target was the bridge.
"There are women and children on that bridge, Sir!," Ezra cried as he grabbed the Corporal's arm.
The Corporal pushed him away and said, "Yes I know." Then added quickly, "War doesn't stop for women or children. Their fate's the same as anyone's if they get in the way."
Ezra stared at him in disbelief and watched in horror as the bridge and it's occupants were destroyed alone with what was left of his innocense.
"Snap out of it Private!" the Corporal order and slapped him. "Now do your job." Without wiping the blood from his lip Ezra did just that.
It wasn't until the Union Army was scattered and the Confederate Army had taken the hill at Bull Run that the firing stopped. They'd won the first battle and now had to search for survivors.
In a daze Ezra walked through the dead bodies to what was left of the bridge. His blood ran cold as he spotted men, women, and children floating in the water. Some were whole, but most were not. Falling to his knees Ezra covered his face and fought against the bile that was trying to force it's way out.
"Still think you're old enough," a gruff voice said from behind him.
No! he silently scream, I'm not old enough. This is no place for a fourteen year old. Looking up Ezra recognized the man from when he'd first ridden into camp. Wearily he got to his feet. Opening and shutting his mouth several times he tried to reply but could not find his voice.
"The true casualties of war. It's not our fault. They never should have been here. When are people going to learn that war is not a spectator sport. I know it's not a pretty picture, but you'd better learn quick to get over it. This," the soldier said with a sweep of his hand, "this is just the beginning. We may have won the first battle, but we have a long hard war ahead of us." Then slapping the boy on the shoulder he walked away.
Hearing someone approach Ezra tore his gaze away from the bodies and tensed as he saw it was Corporal Raynes. The Corporal surveyed the damage and said in a accusing tone, "Your trajectory was all wrong. If you'd been listening during training and done what I told you we might have gotten them all." Then with a shrug he said, "There's always tomorrow." Ezra watched as he walked away and still hadn't found his voice.
Later that night Ezra jerked awake as his dreams were plagued with pictures of women and children floating in the river. Getting to his feet he quickly dressed walked out of the tent and over to the field guns. With a curse he kicked one of the wheels holding one of the guns and sank to the ground and cried. He cried until he had no tears left. Drying his eyes he looked at the big gun and he vowed that he would learn everything he could about it. He'd learn how the fire the damned thing and hit any target. He'd learn how to use dynamite as well. Most of all he promised that he'd do everything within his power not to kill another bystander. Then with a renewed determination he crawled under the cannon and smiled as a through suddenly came to him, Mother warned me there'd be days like this, then fell into an exhausted sleep.
Unfortunately for Ezra he got plenty of practice. He was no longer the innocent fourteen year that rode into that Confederate Camp two years ago. Now he was a war hardened sixteen year old. Nothing shocked him anymore. Hell, he'd seen things that men twice his age hadn't. He no longer dreamed, of course it helped that he barely slept anymore than was necessary. He did however, keep his promise. He'd learned to fire that cannon and could hit any target with chilling accuracy. And so for hadn't killed anymore innocents.
Ezra was unaware that his single minded determination for accuracy had earned him a reputation throughout the South. It wasn't just his accuracy with the cannon, but also his use of dynamite that people were talking about. No target was to small or off limits. If his Sargent told him to blow it; then he blew it. Ezra's clever mind would think up new and frightening ways to achieve his goal. His own General thanked God that he was own their side and under his command.
Shaking his head Ezra kicked the now useless gun. During a battle the day before they'd lost the gun and the men operating it and one idiot Corporal. Ezra could've cared less about Corporal, but hated like hell to loose that gun. They were much to hard to get. It wasn't until the battle was over that Ezra learned that they'd also lost the Sargent.
The gunnery crew were discussing the loss of the gun when Captain Aaron Henderson rode up. Getting quickly to their feet they saluted the man. "We lost some good men today and I'm sorry for your lost, but I need a Sargent. So who's it gonna be?" he asked as he walked through the men eying each of them. Stopping in front of Ezra he grinned, "What's your name Sargent?"
"Ezra Standish," he replied. Ezra recognized him as soon as dismounted his horse. It was the same man from the bridge and cursed his luck. "I don't suppose it would do any good to decline the promotion?" Ezra inquired.
"Nope. You've got just the kind of cocky attitude this Army needs," the Captain replied and handed him a jacket with Sargent's stripes on it. "Now Sargent Standish we need a cannon and it's your responsibility to get us one. I don't care how you do it so long as you do." Having said that he slapped the younger man on the arm and got back on his horse, but before riding away told him, "You can pick your own Corporal."
Ezra looked at the jacket in his hand and once again cursed his luck. People had been telling him for years that his cocky attitude was going to get him into trouble and he'd be damned if they weren't right. Signing he put the jacket on and turning he grinned and said, "Ok men finish cleaning these guns. Corporal Malone go saddle our horses. We've got to go get a cannon. Carter you're in charge until I return." Not a one of the men thought twice about taking orders from one so much younger than them; they simply did as they were told.
The two men rode for two days before they found what they were looking for. Hiding in the bushes as a regiment of Northern soldiers rode by Ezra grinned at his Corporal as a team of horses rode past pulling a Napoleon. The Napoleon was a 12-pounder Blue Whistler howitzer, aptly named because it made a distinctive whistle when fired.
They waited until regiment made camp then in the dead of night made their approach. Hearing guards coming they ducked behind the big gun and waited for them to pass. Ezra pulled his knife and held his breath then placed a hand on Malone to keep him still as the guards stopped directly in front of them.
"I'm tellin' ya that little Georgia Peach liked me. Hell, Chris she might have been the one for me," one of the voices said.
"Buck you're so full of shit it's a wonder your eyes' aren't brown. You say that about every girl you meet," the other voice replied. "Besides there's a war going on and you can't really believe that she'll be there waiting on you do ya. And even if she did there anit no way her Johnny Reb father's gonna let her get hitched to a Yankee."
"Aww now Chris. . . " the first voice started as they walked away.
Putting his knife away he motioned for Malone to go and get into position. Then Ezra waited exactly ten minutes before making his way to the horses and after taking care of the guard he rubbed his hands together as he found them already harnessed. They must leave them that way in case they were under a surprise attack, he thought to himself. Reaching out his grabbed the lead horse and began to lead him away and was rewarded as the others followed without fuss. He then cut the rope holding the rest of the horses and set them all free.
After hitching the horses to the cannon's carriage Ezra grabbed as many of the shells as he could and loaded them onto the carriage. Checking his watch in the moon light he waited for his distraction to begin. Come on Malone, don't let me down, Ezra silently pleaded. Hearing someone approach he pulled his gun. Seeing that it was his Corporal he holstered his gun and they both climbed onto the carriage just as the an explosion rocked the sleeping camp. With snap of the reins Ezra, his Corporal, six horses, and one Napoleon howitzer made their get away. They didn't stop for anything, if a Yank got in the way he got ran over. Ezra only slowed down so that they could retrieve their own horses.
They rode straight through the night and stopped only long enough to rest and water the horses. They rode into camp around the noon the next day. The Captain and some of his officers were eating and quickly got to their feet. "Damn," he said in disbelief. "Where'd you get that gun Sargent?"
Ezra wiped the grim off his face and swore if he lived through this war that he never get this dirty again. "Well now Sir. . . I borrowed it," he replied.
"Borrowed it? From whom?"
"Does it matter," Ezra said. "You told me to get one and I did, Sir."
"You certainly did," the Captain smiled. "You two better get some sleep. We leave for Fredericksburg at first light."
And sleep is exactly what Ezra did. After two years of not allowing himself the privilege of sleeping to heavy Ezra now sleep like the dead and did not awaken until morning.
Their regiment didn't make it in time to help the South conquer Fredericksburg. However, they did arrive in Chancellorsville in time to help push Hooker's men to withdrawing until their backs were to the river in what was General Robert E. Lee's greatest victory.
By the time 1865 arrived Ezra had made Captain and had lost both Malone and Carter and worse his horse Chance. And was now apart of General Lee's Virginia Regiment.
A cease fire had been declared as Generals Lee and Grant arranged a meeting. Ezra felt a lump in his throat as he watched the South's most beloved son ride to the Appomattox Court House. After a while a mediator came out and announced that General Lee had surrendered. He went on to state that the Confederate soldiers would be allowed to keep their guns and horses and that were free to go home. The mediator and the other Union soldiers frowned when none of the Confederate soldiers left. The mediator again announced that they were free to go home and still no one moved. The Confederate soldiers waited for their General to come and dismiss them.
General Robert E. Lee exited the court house with his head held high. Even before the war he'd been known as an honorable man. Men on both sides respected him. General Lee mounted his white steed and rode out to formerly dismiss his men.
Ezra watched as the General rode up to them with soldiers on both sides following him. At his approached each soldier removed their hat and stood a little straighter. Coming to a stop General Lee looked at his men and even from were he stood Ezra could see the pride in his eyes. Then with what was probably a heavy heart said, "'After four years of arduous service marked by unsurpassed courage and fortitude the Army of Northern Virginia has been compelled to yield to overwhelming numbers and resources'."
Releasing a pent up sigh Ezra watched as the beloved General saluted them and said, "It has been an honor to have served with each of you. I thank you for your courage and even more for your sacrifices. Go in peace."
It's over, Ezra whispered suddenly afraid. Now I have to put my life back together.
+ + + + + + +~
Josiah watched as Ezra struggled with his dreams and wished he could help him. Suddenly those vivid green eyes snapped opened and he could easily read the emotions running across his face. Then in seemly a blink of an eye they were gone. Not a trace left. Once again Josiah asked himself who or what had taught this boy to do that. To lock everything away. To hide. It couldn't have been just the war.
Hearing the others begin to stir Ezra got wearily to his feet and holstered his gun then walked out of the camp and to the near by steam. After wiping his face he began to feel a little better.
Walking back into camp Ezra could feel Josiah watching him but refused to acknowledge him. Instead he started gathering his things and then saddled his horse.
Vin saw Josiah watching Ezra and wondered what had happened after he'd passed out last night. Looking at the southerner now he saw that Ezra was pale and had circles under his eyes.
"Hey Ezra ya want some breakfast?" JD hollered out causing everyone to wince as the sound bounced around in their heads.
"No thank you," he said and pulled his flask out and took a big swallow before putting it away.
Josiah frowned as he saw Ezra lower his head until it rested on his saddled horse.
"Hey Pard you ok?" Vin asked.
Ezra raised his head and grinned, "I have the worse hangover. No doubt the result of that rot-gut whiskey you gentlemen drink."
"I hear ya. Think we're all moving a little slower this morning. Expect for JD," he pointed out.
They rode until just before sunset. They were setting up camp when Chris approached him and started to say something, but Ezra held up a hand and said, "I know you want me to help Mr. Dunn gather some firewood."
As Ezra walked through the dense stand of tree he was plagued once again by images of the past. After being dismissed for the last time by General Lee he remembered burning his uniform and everything else associated with the war. Then he'd high tailed it to St. Louis to find Maude. Ezra still remembered the sights and the smells that greeted him on his journey. The South was no longer the picturesque place that he'd remembered. It was a shell of its former self. Battered and torn. The South had a long hard road to travel, but Ezra knew that the South would rise again. Would once again be a force to be reckoned with. In the ten years since the war ended the South had regained its strength and was once again thriving.
Vin looked up as Ezra and JD both returned at the same time. JD was grinning as he told them that he seen a deer, but Ezra didn't say a word just silently dropped his bundle and walked away. Vin frowned as he watched Ezra tend to his horse. The southerner appeared to be ignoring them, but the tracker got the feeling that Ezra was completely aware of what was happening around him.
Josiah had kept an eye on the quite southerner all day and knew that it wasn't just the results of the previous night's whisky bothering him, but something in his past. He got the feeling it had something to do with whatever Frances O'Mally had said. Oh how he wished he'd understood French better, he silently complained.
Once again they were sitting around the camp fire listening to Buck tell stories. Ezra was only half listening until he heard Buck tell a story about a Georgia Peach he met during the war and felt the blood drain from his face as he heard Chris tell him he was so full of shit it was a wonder his eyes' weren't brown. Buck went on to tell them about some Rebel soldiers had stolen a cannon from their regiment and how during their next battle the stolen howitzer was used against them. He knew it was the same cannon because of the whistling sound it made when fired.
It couldn't be, he told himself. Of course, he'd never seen their faces, but he'd heard them have almost the exact conversation. And he knew that Buck was right. That stolen howitzer had been used against them. In fact, Ezra had been the one doing the firing. He felt the cards he'd been shuffling tumble from his fingers as he realized how close he'd come to killing these two men.
"Ezra? Are you all right?" Josiah asked as he saw how pale southerner was and seemed to be shocked about something.
"Yes," Ezra automatically replied. Seeing the objection in the older man's face he quickly added, "I'm fine. Mr. Wilmington's story brought back some unpleasant memories is all." Ezra remembered that night all to well and mentally shook his head as the images threatened to surface again.
Vin suddenly got to his feet, breaking the tension, and stated, "I'll take first watch."
Chris nodded, "Ezra you're next." The gunslinger watched as the gambler frowned. "Any objections?"
"Plenty, but I'll wisely keep them to myself," Ezra commented still caught in the past.
"You're a smart man," Chris said.
Later Ezra lay awake refusing to fall asleep. Refusing to relive the past again. He only closed his eyes just before Vin shook him awake. Pretending to wipe the sleep from his eyes and watched as Vin settled down for the night. Reaching inside his pocket he pulled out his cards and began a game of solitaire. Since he didn't want to sleep Ezra didn't bother to wake Mr. Larabee for his watch. He was winning his tenth straight game when he heard someone moaning turning his head he watched as Josiah suddenly sat up and look wildly around. "Mr. Sanchez? Josiah are you all right? Do you wish me to wake Mr. Jackson," he inquired.
Josiah released a sigh and winced at the southern voice then shook his head no. Then ran a weary hand across his face. Closing his eyes he pushed the imagine of one of Anderson's men riding toward him, as he lay across the wounded Buck, out of his mind.
Looking up he saw Ezra watching him with a concerned expression on his face. Still caught up in his dream Josiah narrowed his eyes and said the first thing that came to his mind. "Why'd you come back Ezra? I figured you'd been killed. Hell, we were all about to be killed. We wouldn't have known any differently," once started the words just tumbled out. Josiah saw something flicker in those green eyes, but couldn't tell if is was hurt or if the small camp fire was playing tricks on him. It had to be the fire; because he refused to believe he had hurt the younger man's feelings. "Now that I think about it, why'd you even sign on? For the gold? Chris told you the same story that the old Indian told him, that there was no gold in that mine. Nathan told me what happened in the saloon so I know you already had more money than what the village was offering. So why? What did ya hope to gain?" Looking at Ezra Josiah no longer saw any concern or hurt. As a matter of fact the younger man's face held no expression at all. At first Josiah thought Ezra wouldn't answer him so he was surprised when he did.
Ezra was surprised at how much the older man's comments hurt and felt a crack in his armor. How the hell had this. . . this . . . old man gotten past his defenses, he silently questioned himself. Gathering up his cards he gave serious consideration to telling the man to simply go to hell and opened his mouth to do just that, but then to his horror he started telling him what he wanted to know. "I had every intention of going on watch just as expected, but as a crested the ridge I saw the mine shaft, but then you all ready how that went. I was only a few feet in when the cannon fire started and not wanting to get buried alive I quickly left. Once outside I heard the screams," Ezra paused trying to gather his thoughts. "Did you fight in the war Josiah?" The older man raised surprised eyes to look at him and shook his head no. "I did and it had nothing to with slavery. I fought one reason and one reason only. Pride."
"Pride?" he questioned.
"Yes, pride. Southern pride. I resented the hell out of all those damn Yankees that had the audacity to come to my home land and tell me how to live. Especially when they had there own factory towns to clean up," Ezra swallowed hard and took a couple of calming breathes. "I was at the first battle at Bull Run and with General Lee when he surrendered," he said with just a hint of pride and a touch of sadness at the battles won and lost. With hindsight Ezra realized that the Union soldiers and spectators had actually believed that the war would begin and end at Bull Run, but they'd showed them. The Confederate soldiers had been out numbered and out gunned and underestimated. With that first battle they proved that they were a force to be reckon with and would not be taken lightly. "Do you know what the worse thing about war is? It's names," he ran a hand through his hair as he answered his own question. "Bullets and cannon shells don't have names on them. They'll hit who ever gets in their way. Be it a soldier or bystander. Or even . . . children," he said in a barely audible whisper.
Josiah saw the pain in Ezra's eyes and almost told him to stop that he didn't want to know. That it didn't matter and that he was sorry to have brought it up, but the younger man continued before he could.
The southerner paused to push the memories that were trying to surface away. "I know it's no excuse, but when I heard that cannon and the screams and it was like the war all over again. I knew first hand that what damage a cannon could inflict. Figured there was no point in going back. I had finally put the war to rest and I didn't want to have to deal with that kind of carnage again. I told myself as I rode away that Chris Larabee was an intelligent man and would not allow himself to be out foxed." Then shot an accusing gaze at Josiah, "A conscious is a terrible thing Mr. Sanchez and mine didn't allow me get to far. And just let me add that I don't recall ever having that particular problem before meeting you gentlemen." Ezra paused and ran a hand through his hair before continuing, "Anyway, my conscious kept telling me that I could not just leave. That all was not lost. I knew the only way to defeat the cannon was to gain control over the man firing the cannon. Control Josiah. That's what it all comes down to. That's how battles are won. Or lost. No matter how many men or guns you have the one in control of the situation wins. The South lost control and then the War. So I turned around and went back," Ezra said making it sound like they were discussing the weather and not saving their lives. "That's when I saw you climbing the mountain and I felt like shooting you myself. What were you thinking!" he snapped then lowered his voice realizing that the others were still sleeping. "You should have known it was a trap. Chris had to have known that a man like Anderson would cover all his bases. Anderson may have been mad, but he knew what he was doing. He was a colonel in the Confederate army after all. But the six of you? I had serious doubts about. Because trust me sir, you are not that creative." He looked at the man across from him and said, "That's when I knew I could not leave the survival of that village to you men and so I took matters into my own hands. I'll admit it didn't turn out quiet like I anticipated, but the end result was the same. The village survived."
Josiah knew most of what he said was true. About the war, Anderson, and him and the others. Why hadn't they thought about it being a trap, he asked himself. "That answers my first question. Now what about the second. So why'd you sign on? Was it for the gold?" Hell since the man was talking Josiah thought he'd make the most of it. He might not get another chance.
Ezra sighed, "Would you believe I felt like a change?" He wasn't about the tell Josiah he'd signed on simply because he'd been asked. Never before had he been asked to participate in something where the only thing required of him was his gun. He couldn't tell Sanchez what he himself didn't fully understand. He could just see the disbelief and laughter on the man's face.
"A change?" Ok this ought to be good, Josiah told himself.
"Yes a change," he grinned then said, "I wanted to see how the other half lived."
"The other half?" Josiah had never met a man that spoke in riddles like Ezra did. Why couldn't he just say what he wanted to say.
"Yes. People like you and them," he said with a sweep of his hand. "You know. . . law abiding people. Of course I know that with this group that's stretching it a bit. Except for maybe JD and Nathan. They probably don't even know how to break the law."
Josiah grinned in agreement with that statement. "Oh and the gold had nothing to do with it?"
Ezra's grin widened until his gold tooth gleamed in the soft light of the camp fire. "That was just an added bonus."
"But the gold wasn't part of the payment Ezra. It wasn't yours. Greed is the whole reason we were there," Josiah argued with him even as he fought the grin that was threatening to escape in anticipation of his answer. You always count on Ezra for an answer to any question. Granted it my not be what you wanted to hear or even the truth, but he would always give you an answer.
"Take a look at the men around you Josiah. Granted their all honorable men, but can you honestly believe that everything Chris has done has been within the legal limits of the law. He does have quiet a reputation. Or that Buck has not broken a few laws. Biblical as well as man's. Vin Tanner was a bounty hunter. He hunted people for money. Dead or alive. It's much easier to bring in a dead man than an alive one. JD's naivety is his biggest flaw as well as he most enduring quality. Nathan Jackson is a self righteous hypocrite. He's always saying that a person should be judged by his character and not by the color of their skin. And yet, he's already judged and condemned me. Merely because of what I do for a living. I don't force anyone to play. It's their choice," Ezra paused and gathered up his card before continuing. "And then there's you. A former preacher. A healer of the soul with a deadly aim," he straightened his shoulders before continuing. "You know it's not as though I was the only one interested in lining my pockets. Granted it may have been for only five dollars, but money's money. No matter the amount. No matter the reasons why; we each agreed to be paid for services rendered. That service Josiah . . . was death," he pointed out.
"Not necessarily," Josiah said with a shake of his head because he really didn't want to think about that.
Ezra's mouth fell open and he stared at the older man in disbelief for a full minute before snapping out of it. "Just what did you think was gonna happen Josiah? Did you honestly think that Anderson and his Ghosts were going to just surrender? That no one would be killed in the process? Now I will admit that Chris Larabee can be an intimidating man, but not even he can intimidate an army. You know I'm right. You may not want to admit it, but you know it just the same."
Nathan laid there as still as possible and listened. He'd heard Josiah questioning Ezra and wanted to hear the answers himself. The healer begrudgingly admitted that the southerner was right about a great many things. They each had their reasons for signing on and had agreed to protect the village for money. And maybe just maybe he had judged Ezra unfairly. But the man asked for it; especially given that remark at the saloon.
The other four lay equally quite hoping to be able to understand Ezra Standish a little better. Some grinning and some frowning at his description of them.
"But why?" Josiah questioned as the thought suddenly occurred to him at Ezra's mention of gambling. He saw Ezra raise one eye brow at the question. "Why gamble and con? You're obliviously very smart and well educated. You could have been anything. Why?"
"Educated? Yeah I'm well educated in a lot of things," Ezra said in a sad voice and with a shake of his head. "Why gamble and con? What else am I suppose to do? Be a teacher? Or maybe a lawyer? There's always the military," he laughed at that one himself. Then with a shrug of his shoulders said, "There are not a lot of options out there for a bastard. Even less if you're a southern bastard with a smart mouth. No self-respecting family wants a bastard teaching their children. And as for the lawyer it would be a toss-up to decide who was the bigger criminal; the outlaws or the people prosecuting them." Removing his hat he ran a hand through his hair then smiled. "The military was probably my only other real option, but then again if I'd chosen the military I'd most likely be dead now," Ezra said with a smile. "Even during the war I had a little trouble following orders. . . without question. And there is this little problem I've always had with figures of authority. I simply can't abide them. There are very few men that have earned enough of my respect for me to follow them to hell and back. Robert E. Lee was the first and only in the military." Shaking his head he looked at the older man and with a frown asked, "What was the original question?" Ezra then smiled, "Oh yes, why gamble. Well to be frank because it's easy and I'm good at it. Damned good. It's the one thing on earth that I can do really well and have fun doing at the same time. Gambling is not only about winning or losing, but also about out smarting your opponent and tempting fate. To be truly successful you must have the brains to match your skills."
"What about the conning?" Josiah asked.
The southerner started at the question. He'd never liked to con and was in fact ashamed of some of the ones he'd been force to pull with his mother. Ezra cut his green eyes toward Josiah then back to his cards before answering, "What is it you want to hear? A confession? Well bless me father for I have sinned. . . "
"That isn't funny Ezra!" Josiah snapped stopping Ezra before he said anything more. With a sad shake of his head he reached for his boots and pulled them on.
Ezra wondered yet again what it was about this man; no these men that made him want to tell the truth. Oh Mother, if only you could see me now, he silently said and then smiled at the thought. "I'm sorry, Mr. Sanchez I should not have said that," he said with a shrug of his shoulders. "I have always chosen my marks carefully. I have never conned anyone that could not afford to loose," he could see the arguments against that statement in the older man's blue eyes and wanted to avoid them at all costs. "We all have things in our past that we are not proud of. But they are in the past and we can not change it." He saw the question in Josiah's eyes and quickly jumped to his feet and dropped his cards in his haste, "Don't give me that look Josiah. Can you sit there and honestly tell me that you've never done anything that you've regretted? If so then you have lead a truly inspirational life. But if you do regret past mistakes then why can't I? Why can't I be given the same luxury?" Why am I doing this, he questioned himself, I don't owe him any explanations. Not caring in the least if he woke the others or not. "You're no better than Mr. Jackson. You ask me a question and when the answer isn't to your liking you judge me and find me lacking. I expected better from a preacher," Ezra snorted then paused and wondered where he'd picked up that disgusting habit. "Then again some of the best cons are run by so-called-men-of-the-cloth," he snapped clearly agitated. "Now if you will excuse me I think you gentlemen have heard quite a enough about me. The suns up and my watch is over," then placed his hat back on his head. Closing his eyes he took a deep calming breath before looking Josiah directly in the eye and stated in a very calm heavily accented voice, "I will not live my life to please anyone other than myself. The six of you included."
Seeing that he'd forgotten his cards Ezra bent down to pick them up. Looking up he saw Josiah holding a card out to him. Reaching for it he noticed that it was the ace of spades. After placing it with the others he put them in the inside pocket of his jacket and shrugged. "Gambling and conning is all I know; it's what I was taught. You could say it's in my blood," having said that Ezra turned and walked away.
Josiah felt a strange tightening around his heart as he watched Ezra walk away and realized that it was sadness. Sadness for all that lost potential. Shaking his head at the hurt he'd caught a glimpse of before Ezra's mask had come down. Once again wondering who taught him that and just what kind of pain Ezra had been through to cause him to have to hide.
"Who do ya reckin' taught him?" Buck asked as he sat up.
"I don't know, but I'd like to get my hands on the bastard that did," Josiah said with conviction.
"You're not alone," Vin threw in.
"He fought alone side Lee," Chris said with just a touch of new found respect for the man in his voice. Even the soldiers from the North respected the Confederate General. Chris knew that only the best soldiers were chosen to ride with him. The black clad gunslinger felt a shiver run down his spin as he realized exactly how lucky they'd been to have Ezra on their side at the Seminole Village.
"I'm not naive," JD said in a huff. Seeing the look Buck sent him he pulled his boots on and got to his feet. "Ok, ok. Maybe I am a little naive, but I know how to break the law," he whined. Causing the others to smile, but were careful to keep them hidden.
Breakfast was ready by the time Ezra returned to camp. Josiah watched him as he gathered up his saddle and blanket then head for his horse. "Want some breakfast Ezra?" he asked.
Ezra kept his back to the others and said, "No."
"You need to eat Ezra only if it's just a little," Nathan suggested. He'd noticed that Ezra had eaten next to nothing yesterday and he wanted to make sure he ate at least one good meal.
"I don't want anything," he said as he saddled his horse still not turning around. Ezra tensed as he felt someone walk up behind him.
"Ezra about what you said last night . . . " Josiah began.
"It doesn't change a thing," Ezra was quick to point out. "I may not have your wisdom, but I've found that very few things change with the rising of the sun." Then with a tip of his hat Ezra grabbed his horse's reins and lead him toward the stream.
Josiah shook his head as he watched him walk away. Looking at the others he said, "I just don't understand that man."
They quickly broke camp and were just outside of Four Corners when they heard gun shots. Picking up the pace they rode quickly into town where they'd helped an older gentleman arrest a murderer.
Ezra looked up as the saloon doors swung open and almost dropped his drink. Great, he thought to himself, just like Mother always said no good deed goes unpunished. Turning away he tried to think of a way to leave without being seen.
He inwardly cringed as the judge recognized him. Ezra then sighed at JD comment about not really knowing him as he arrested him. Shaking his head at the predicament he now found himself in Ezra eyed the miscreant across from him and wondered how long he should wait until he made his escape. There was no way he was staying in this one horse town any longer than necessary. Running a weary hand through his hair Ezra watched as Buck left then sat down and began shuffling his cards as he tried to decide on his next move.
Laying stretched out on his bunk he ignored the ruckus outside. JD wanted to be sheriff so bad and now he had to face the consciences, he told himself. Then released a sigh of relief at the sound of Vin's mare's leg going off. Good the Kid had some help, he thought before falling asleep.
Once he was alone in the jail Ezra quickly picked the lock and opened his cell. Walking to the door he peered through the window and snorted as he realized that he'd left his hat. Turning around he suddenly stopped and fussed, "Where the hell did I pick up this disgusting habit? Which one of them. . . snorts?" Shaking his head he told himself he didn't care and retrieved his hat and ran the last few days through his mind and because he wasn't watching where he was going he stepped in some fresh mud on the floor and completely lost his balance and landed on his back with a thud. Hearing someone coming Ezra got to his feet as quickly as he could and closed the cell door just as the door opened.
"Are you all right?" he asked as he spotted the knot on the younger man's head.
Gingerly touching his head JD nodded then told him what happened.
Ezra shook his head and asked, "Now what?"
JD looked at him with a frown, "Huh?"
Sighing he asked, "What's your plan Sheriff Dunn? How do you plan to apprehend Lucas James?"
"I don't know Ezra. This job isn't going like I planned," JD confessed. "I made a fool of myself. Where's the glory in that. Maybe I'm not cut out for this job."
Ezra watched the emotions crossing JD's face and found that he envied him simply because he'd never been able to express himself like that. Maude would not allow it. "My mother used to tell me that seeking glory is the same as seeking death. JD if it's glory you want then I suggest to give up now. Glory is a fools reward. Real men are merely satisfied with doing a job to the best of their abilities," he reasoned. "JD you can not allow the opinions of others to sway you. Or even your own doubts. To simply quit doesn't sound like the JD Dunne I've come to know. Give it some time. Give it another chance."
JD realized that Ezra was right. He'd never been one to give up so easily and he wasn't about to start now. Looking over at Ezra he said, "Your mother sounds real smart. I guess that's where you get it from."
Ezra snorted and smiled, "My mother is very smart. Sometimes to smart."
"Thanks Ezra," JD said with a nod as he headed for the door.
"Anytime JD," he replied then called out, "JD. . . be careful." The boy nodded and tipped his hat.
Later the next day JD burst through the door and said, "Well we did it Ezra. We got Stuart James' men thinking that the Judge is dead."
Ezra was impressed. Had been since hearing of Chris' idea. He didn't think they had it in them to pull a con, but then again it was one of the simplest cons known. So simple even they could pull it off. "So now what? How are you going retrieve Lucas?"
"I don't know. Chris says we should ride in there and just take him," JD replied.
He started to snort then caught himself. I will beat this habit, he told himself. "Who is we?"
"Chris, Vin, Nathan, Josiah, and me. Buck thinks it's suicide and refuses to come."
"Mr. Wilmington may have a point. Just riding in there will only get the five of you killed. You need another plan. This one will never work," Ezra pointed out.
"What do ya think we should do?" JD asked.
"Well while in his company Lucas told me that his uncle had a big party planned and if you're smart you'd take that distraction and make it work to your advantage," he explained. Then watched as JD grinned in understanding then leave to go and tell Chris. Shaking his head he grinned. The grin left his face as realized he wanted to go with them. To help them. But he knew they'd never asked him and even if they did the Judge would never allow it.
Early the next morning Ezra quickly got to his feet as Chris and JD walked in. He silently groaned as he heard himself ask to be included. Ezra what the hell are you doing? Shut the hell up, he argued with himself, you're leaving once their out of town.
"You wouldn't be thinking of running out on me again?" Chris asked.
"I swear on the grave of my sainted mother," Ezra replied.
"You told me your mother was still alive," JD threw in.
"Figure of speech," he said with a shrug of his shoulders.
Chris pretended to think about it, but had made up his mind the minute JD had told them of Ezra's suggestion that the southerner was going with them weather he wanted to or not. Things just hadn't been the same without him. "Figure your dead if you're lying," then tossed him the keys.
Ezra grinned and tossed them back. "Thanks but those aren't necessary. I've all ready opened the door," he said and pushed the door open after gathering his jacket and hat.
Chris and JD stared in disbelief. Snapping out of it JD said, "Ezra wait let me get your guns."
"Again thanks, but it's not necessary," Ezra replied. Stopping in front of Chris he handed him his jacket to hold while he put his guns on, which were hidden under his jacket.
Just as Chris realized he was holding Ezra's jacket the younger man took it back and with a nod put it on and walked out and headed for the livery. The black clad gunslinger shook his head and grinned. It was good the have the southerner back, he thought.
The seven had just ridden back into town with their prisoner and had stopped in front of a recovering Judge Travis and to their surprise he offered each of them a job. Ezra included. Josiah grinned he saw a look of horror cross Ezra's face as he realized that he'd all but volunteered to be a peacekeeper. Then the younger man grinned at the offer of a pardon. Josiah almost laughed out loud as those green eyes widened as it was agreed that they'd stay on for thirty days.
Later that night as Josiah lay on his cot in the back of the church he grinned in anticipation of the next thirty days. Something told him that the town of Four Corners would never be the same. Or them for that matter. But instead of the dread that should accompany such thoughts Josiah felt an odd sense of belonging. Of family and coming home. Little did Josiah know that each of the others were feeling the same things. Though two of them had doubts mixed in. One wasn't ready to belong to a family again and the other simply choose not to believe in something he had never known and refused to take anything at face value. Peacefully unaware of the others thoughts the jaded ex-preacher gave a prayer of thanks then fell asleep.