Fork in the Road

by Beth

Chapter 16

Mercer was angry and his men knew it. They had been sent on a wild goose chase, there wasn't a gold shipment, or if there was it wasn't this day. His men rode quietly behind him, as they got closer to the McKinley ranch none of them wanting to confront their boss at the moment. Mercer would kill the fancy dressed gambler with his bare hands and not think twice about it. He would make the rest of the men pay as well, nobody conned him. Now he was looking like a fool in front of his men and he couldn't have that.

McKinley was waiting on the front step for Mercer to return. He was furious. He found the guard tied in the barn that Mercer had left to watch the captives, and he didn't bother to release him. He'd paid these men to do a job and they failed. McKinley headed to the barn when he heard the horses, he knew who it was.

"I want that gambler now!" Mercer yelled to his men demanding immediate response.

"They escaped," McKinley snapped coming toward him, his step angry.

"What do you mean they escaped?" Mercer looked to McKinley.

"The guard you posted failed to do his job, I hired you to that job."

"When did they get away?" Mercer's anger grew he was humiliated. This was the first time he failed to finish a job successfully. He wanted payback now, nothing more.

"After eleven," McKinley leaned against the corral, "are you going after them?"

"We will in the morning, first I want to know how they escaped?"

"I want them dead Mercer, I don't care how, but I want them dead." McKinley turned and walked back to the house, if Mercer didn't find them he would go to prison and that was something he wasn't about to let happen.

Steve came out of the barn rubbing his wrists he was followed by two of Mercers men. "What in the hell happened?" Mercer yelled grabbing him by the collar.

"It must have been Standish, he was the only one not tied." Steve tried to talk his way out of the corner he'd put him self in.

"Why did they get loose?" Mercer pushed the man back into the arms of the men standing behind him.

"I don't know."

"Get on your horse and ride out now I don't ever want to see you again." Steve didn't need to be told twice, he knew Mercer he'd worked with the man for a long time and that was probably the reason he wasn't dead. He grabbed the reins of the horse he was given mounted up and rode out. "I want a couple of you to find out which way they went, and I want everyone ready to ride at dawn." Mercer stormed off leaving his men to tend the horses.

Josiah sat on the front porch of the house drinking the cup of coffee Nettie had made him and which he was grateful for. He was tired but he knew he was the only one able to take the long watch. It was well past midnight and Nettie had told him everyone was sleeping quietly. Good, he thought, they needed the rest, particularly the wounded. He knew the possibility of McKinley and Mercer coming after them was great and he didn't want to be unprepared. As it was they couldn't defend themselves anyway. If they could have a couple of days to recuperate things may look up. He worried about Nettie and Casey; he didn't want them in the middle of a gunfight. He knew Nettie wouldn't back down from a fight, but she wouldn't risk the young Miss Casey's life either. Josiah smiled to himself; he could hear Nettie softly humming and it wormed his heart knowing she was in there tending the men he considered friends.

The air was calm and it eased Josiah's fraying nerves. He couldn't see any rising dust and the sound of the night animals encouraged the thought that nobody was around trying to sneak up on them. He could hear the sound of Buck's voice; he must be giving Nettie a hard time. The thought brought a smile to his face. Nettie enjoyed Buck's company, who didn't. Josiah slowly got to his feet, his back was sore and he was in need of some sleep but he needed to remain active to keep himself awake. Everyone inside depended on him.

Buck woke to Nettie quietly talking to Vin. The tracker had come to just before Buck and Nettie was calmly helping him drink some water. "You thirsty Mr. Wilmington?" She asked softly laying Vin's head back on the coat he was using for a pillow.

"Yes mam," Buck chuckled taking note of how Mrs. Nettie's mothering instincts were taking over.

"How are you feeling?" she asked handing Buck the cup of cold water she filled for him.

"Tired," was his simple reply, "how's JD?"

Nettie smiled she knew Buck treated the kid as a younger brother who had to be guided threw this hard life. She didn't blame him. Children of the west had a tendency to grow up to soon as it was and it didn't bother her a bit that he was a tad over protective; she would be to, if she was younger. "The boy is sleeping soundly," she encouraged, "Casey is keeping a close watch on him.

Buck nodded his head in relief, "Chris and Vin?"

"Just checked on Mr. Larabee he's sleeping pretty good as well, and Mr. Tanner should be sleeping but it seems he's a might worried about something." Nettie smiled knowingly and looked to Vin who shrugged his shoulders.

"Just worried about you Mrs. Nettie, wouldn't want anything to happen to you and Casey on account of us."

"I have lived in this land longer than the lot of you, don't you be worrying about me." She touched his arm and squeezed it gently.

Buck scooted himself up against the wall and sighed in relief. He was tired but didn't want to sleep; he looked down at Vin it looked like the tracker was dozing off to sleep again. Good, Buck thought, he needed the sleep with the amount of blood he lost it was no wonder he wasn't in worse shape. Nettie handed Buck a small bowl of broth, "you need to eat Mr. Wilmington, it will help keep your strength up." Buck took it and smiled.

"Thank you mam."

"Don't be thanking me until you walk out of here on your own two feet."

Buck looked down past Vin, grateful he'd fallen back to sleep, and saw Ezra's restless form hidden under some blankets, "Mrs. Nettie, what happened to Ezra?"

"He's fighten a real bad fever," Nettie paused grabbing her pitcher to go out and retrieve some more water, "he got himself horse whipped."

"Damn," Buck muttered under his breath, "where's Nathan?"

"You need him for something?" Nettie looked concerned. "Sleeping," she replied before heading outside to get some more water.

Before Nettie made it back inside Buck had dosed off to sleep and the older woman smiled pouring the water into a basin. She gathered up a clean cloth and seated herself next to the ailing gambler. His fever seemed worse and Nettie pulled the blanket back that covered his chest and cringed. Sweat had soaked threw the bandages and the bruising on his ribcage worried her. She wiped down Ezra's forehead and he shied away from her. Ezra's eyes flashed open and he stared at Nettie unsure of who she was or where he was. Nettie saw the confusion in his eyes and spoke softly to him.

"You all right son?" she again wiped his sweat covered brow with the cool cloth.

"Where am I?" his southern accent thick and barley above a whisper.

"Your at my place, just outside of Four Corners," she pulled his blanket back up across his chest.

Nothing was registering with Ezra, his mind didn't recognize the faces around him. He continued to stare at Nettie hoping she would be able to give him some answers but he wasn't sure about the questions to ask. "Where's the captain?"


"Captain Wallace, where's the rest of the men?" Ezra looked around franticly while Nettie did her best to calm him down. He was burning up and Nettie knew he wasn't in his right mind, it was the fever causing the confusion.

"Outside," Nettie smiled trying to bring some relief to the situation. Ezra looked at her again a little relieved. He looked to the door hoping the person he was waiting for would come threw at any minute. The sun was coming up and Nettie was thankful that Nathan would be getting up shortly.

The front door opened and Josiah stepped threw carefully leaning his weapon against the wall next to the door. He smiled big when he noticed Ezra was awake and he walked closer to where the conman was lying on the floor. Ezra moved away from the large form coming closer to him, his back screamed in protest and he quickly relaxed when Nettie grasped his upper arm. "How is he?" Josiah asked grabbing a chair. He noticed Ezra's response to him and didn't want to upset him anymore.

"Still burning up," Nettie helped get the gambler comfortable again. "He's been asking for a Captain Wallace?" she looked to Josiah hoping he could answer her question.

Josiah shook his head, "sorry mam, don't know who he's asking about." He looked to Ezra unsure of what to do.

Ezra looked at him with an almost look of fear in his eyes. He didn't know where he was, his back burned, his head ached, and his left shoulder throbbed. None of the faces around him looked familiar but the older woman seemed to know him. His eyelids seemed to grow heavy and once again he drifted off to sleep. Nettie continued to wipe down his face and neck. She was concerned that his fever wasn't going down.

Chapter 17

Nathan woke feeling Chris's eyes on him. "Chris," he sat up and looked at the gunslinger concerned. "Are you all right? How do you feel?" Nathan got to his feet and squatted next to Chris feeling his forehead for a fever.

"Better," was the simple reply, and Nathan took a long breath of relief knowing Chris wouldn't say anymore than necessary.

"Do you want some water?"

"Yeah," Chris struggled to sit up until Nathan pushed some pillows behind his back making it easier for him.

"Take it slow, I don't know how your stomach is going to react to it." He handed the cup to Chris who sipped it slowly grateful for the cool liquid.

"I'm gonna take a look at your side, you ain't running a fever so I ain't to worried about an infection," Nathan pulled the bandages back away from the gunshot wound to Chris's side and was relieved to find no signs of infection. "I'll see if Nettie has anymore bandages," Nathan stood up and stretched his back, "do you think you could eat something if I brought it in to you."

Chris leaned back into the pillows and nodded his head in agreement. "Who's on watch?" Chris suddenly asked a look of panic on his face, he knew Mercer and his men would come looking for them, it would only be a matter of time.

"Josiah, he's been out all night."

"Where's Ezra?" Chris wanted to know why the gambler hadn't taken part in riding patrol.

"He's down Chris," Nathan paused, "he done got himself horsewhipped and is now fighting one hell of a fever."

"What about the others?"

"I'm gonna check them now." Nathan opened the door into the rest of the house and was surprised to see Vin and Buck awake.

"Hay Nate," Vin smiled looking at the healer. They all looked like the night rest they had, had done them some good.

"Vin, how are you feeling?" Nathan squatted down next to the trackers leg and pealed back the bandage. The bleeding had stopped and the wound wasn't angry red like he had expected.

"Not as bad as I have been. How's Chris?"

"Good, no signs of infection and he drank some water a bit ago."

"He's to ornery to go down that easy." Buck piped in, "how's the kid Nate?"

"I'll check him when I'm done here." Nathan finished wrapping the new bandage around Vin's leg and he covered the tracker with a blanket up to his waist. "Where did Nettie disappear to?"

"She and Josiah took the bloodied clothing outside, she said it needed to be cleaned." Buck drank a sip of the water Nettie had left him before she headed outside.

Nathan looked back to Ezra's still form, he was deathly pale and the sweat gleaming off his face and shoulders was a good inclination he was still suffering from a high fever. He turned his attention back to Vin and Buck. "How's your shoulder Buck?"

"You do damn good work Nate," Buck tried to move his shoulder but stopped at the sudden pain he felt.

"Don't go and undo all I did to keep you together." Nathan stepped closer to the gunslinger and checked his bandage. The wound was still draining fluid but it was clear. The wound was slightly red but Buck didn't have much of a fever. He was still warm but not nearly as hot as he had been the night before.

"How's Ezra?" Buck looked worriedly to the healer, he'd woken to Nettie and Josiah trying to get the gambler to drink some water and weren't successful.

"He's still feverish," Nathan looked down hoping he had better news. Buck just nodded and looked back toward the still form. "I'm gonna check JD."

Casey was still asleep when Nathan went into the room, JD was awake and looking at the young woman sitting in a rocking chair not far from the small bed he was lying in. JD looked up as Nathan came into the room and smiled, "hay Nathan, how is everyone?"

Of course Nathan thought the kid would always inquire about the others before himself, "they're hanging in their JD, how are you feeling?"

"My chest hurts a bit," Nathan helped JD sit up. The swelling and bruising on the kids face was down a yellow hue was now circling both eyes and the right side of his face.

"Your gonna hurt for a while JD until those ribs have some time to heal." Nathan felt the kids forehead for signs of a fever and was relieved to find he didn't have one. "If I brought you in something to eat would you eat it?"

"My stomach has been talking to me all night," JD smiled and looked back to Casey who was stirring.

Casey smiled seeing Nathan and JD both looking at her, she'd stayed up with JD all night and had finally dosed off during the early morning hours. The braids in her hair were now fraying and dark circles shadowed her eyes. "How do you feel JD?" she got up and moved in front of Nathan worried about the kid.

"Good," JD smiled.

"I'll go and get you both something to eat," Nathan smiled he knew JD was in good hands.

Chapter 18

Josiah helped Nettie with the pile of clothing she was intending to wash. He didn't blame her for wanting to clean the blood stained shirts, vest and jacket. He was amazed with her stamina, she barley seemed bothered with the late night she'd just come out of and now she was intending to wash some clothing. He figured she needed the break from inside the cabin. Josiah helped her fill the washtub all the while looking out for possible trouble. He didn't want to get caught off guard. He knew Nathan would be up looking after the wounded and for that he was thankful. Both Vin and Buck had looked better when he helped Nettie gather up the clothing. He was, however, concerned about Ezra the conman's fever didn't seem to be coming down and no matter how much Nettie seemed to wipe him down it didn't seem to help. He was surprised to see the look of almost fear in the gamblers eyes when he woke up just after dawn.

Nettie started throwing bloodied shirts into the washtub while watching Josiah she knew the former preacher was worried about his friends inside and she knew he would be concerned with the possibility that whomever had done this would be out looking for them. "Why don't you go inside Mr. Sanchez and warm up that soup I made last night, I know the boys might be needing something to eat," she smiled at him.

"I'll do that Mrs. Nettie," Josiah looked around once more and headed inside.

Josiah was surprised to see Nathan leaning over the stove warming the soup. He looked better than he had the night before but a look of worry was still etched on his face. Buck and Vin were propped up against the far wall and Ezra was still lying on his right side unmoving. "Brother Nate," Josiah said passing the healer and heading for the conman.

"You should get some rest Josiah don't kneed you collapsing on me as well."

"Someone has to keep an eye on things while you tend the wounded Brother," Josiah said matter of factly. He reached down and put the palm of his hand on the gamblers forehead and frowned when he still felt the fever burning threw him, "how is everyone?" Josiah looked to Vin and then to Buck.

"I can shoot if I have to," Vin looked at Josiah and smiled, it would take more than a bullet to keep him down.

"Hell Josiah, you know me, as long as there are a few pretty ladies in the world that need tending to ain't nothing going to keep me down," Buck smiled big, it was obvious he felt better than he had the night before.

Josiah jumped to his feet when he saw the lean form of Chris hesitantly making his way to the table. "Nice to see you up and around Brother," Josiah smiled grabbing a chair and helping Chris get seated.

"Damn Chris you should be in bed," Nathan said pouring some soup into a bowl and setting it in front of the gunslinger.

"If those men show up here we're going to be in a world of hurt," Chris supported his side with his arm looking down at his men. "Where's JD?"

"Right here," JD smiled being helped to a chair by Casey who seemed to be as tired as the rest of them.

"How are you doing son?" Josiah asked concerned.

"I'm ready to fight if'n I have to," the kid smiled knowing none of them would give up easily, they had come this far they weren't going to give up now.

"Ain't none of us ready for a fight JD," Nathan argued looking at the situation from a medical standpoint. The healer finished pouring everyone a bowl of soup knowing they had to keep their strength up.

Josiah seated himself next to the gambler while Chris looked out the window for any trouble that might head their way. It would be only a matter of time before they were found, Chris just hoped it would be later that sooner. Casey made her way outside to help her Aunt with the laundry. Nathan paused again looking down at the inert form of the gambler wishing he had more medical training. He was worried and it was written all over his face, the others could see it as well.

"What is it Brother?" Josiah looked to the healer.

"If'n his fever don't come down," Nathan paused not wanting to continue.

"Why's he got such a bad fever Nate?" JD asked looking down at Ezra's still form. The conman was covered with three blankets and just the top of his head was visible.

"I don't know?" Nathan shook his head, "that hit he took to his head could be part of the problem, that coupled with the lashing he got. But he ain't got no infection." Nathan argued with himself trying to deduce reasoning for the gamblers fever. "It could be the chloroform, he might just be having a reaction to it," Nathan sat heavily in the chair at the kitchen table more out of frustration than exhaustion.

"Hell Nate," Vin spoke up, "maybe it's just Ezra, you know the man can't do anything the easy way."

Josiah chuckled lightly, Vin was right; Ezra was the most challenging of the seven. He saw Chris nod his head in agreement, himself having faced the gamblers stubbornness on more than one occasion.

"I hope your right," Nathan sighed looking up as Nettie came back in the cabin followed closely by Casey.

"Mam you should get some sleep," Nathan said getting to his feet so she could have the chair he'd been sitting in.

"I may be old Mr. Jackson, I ain't dead yet. Get yerself back in that chair. How are you boys doing?" she looked around the room, her shirt sleeves had been rolled up to her elbows so she could do laundry without getting them wet. She had a look of determination that required respect from the others in the room and Vin had to smile at her. He admired the woman.

"Better Mrs. Nettie," Buck spoke up first before finishing off his bowl of soup. He didn't realize how hungry he was until he reached the bottom of the bowl.

"Need more soup son?" Nettie smiled knowing how much the boys enjoyed her cooking.

"Greatly appreciated," Buck handed her the bowl and waited eagerly for the refill.

"How about you Mr. Tanner?"

"Mam," Vin nodded his head and handed her the empty dish.

"There is plenty here for the lot of you so help yerselves." She spooned out more soup into the two bowls and handed them back to the two men on the floor. Nettie instinctively reached over and touched Ezra's forehead and frowned when she still felt the fever, "he come around at all?" she looked to Josiah then to Nathan.

"No mam," Nathan said discouraged.

"Don't fret Mr. Jackson. He's strong, and by the looks of it you boys went threw hell to get here. Give him some time to heal. A person's body will do what it has to in order to heal itself. If that means sleep and a fever I don't think you can argue with what the body needs." Nathan nodded his head in agreement there wasn't any arguing with Nettie's reasoning, she made sense, whether he liked it or not, she was right. He smiled when she moved closer to Chris and put her hand on his forehead checking for a fever as well. Chris rolled his eyes but didn't move away from her, he knew she was like a mother hen and he didn't want to be disciplined in front of his men. "You should be lying down Mr. Larabee, otherwise your liable to end up like Mr. Standish." She stated it matter of factly before moving back to the stove to get herself something to eat. She noted Casey sat near JD, the girl was smitten, and so was he by the look in his eyes and in a way Nettie was glad. She was getting old and she wanted Casey to have someone to be at her side threw life. Nettie knew all to well how hard this land was for a woman alone and she didn't want that for her niece. Nettie patted the pockets of her apron before reaching in to grab the items she had found in Ezra's jacket. "I found these in Mr. Standish's jacket, he's lucky I found them when I did otherwise they'd be gone for sure," she placed the small velvet pouch on the table and an old letter that looked to have been read a thousand times. The edges of the envelope were worn threw and fraying. The address on the front was barely readable.

Chris picked up the letter and noticed it was addressed to Captain Standish CSA, Army of the Virginia, 105th Regiment. Chris handed the letter to Josiah.

"What is it?" JD asked curiously.

"A letter Brother Dunne," Josiah smiled before handing it back to Chris.

"Good group of fighting men the 105th Regiment of Virginia," Chris looked back down to the gambler.

"Looks like that letter has been read a hundred times over," Josiah nodded his head in understanding. They didn't know whom the letter was from and though everyone wanted to read it nobody voiced their thought.

Nathan reached out and picked up the velvet pouch believing it contained gold or silver that the gambler used when he needed the money for a game of chance. He was surprised to see a simple gold ring and a gold locket tumble out of the pouch onto his calloused hand. He opened the locket and smiled seeing a beautiful young woman with what he assumed was her two young children, a boy and a girl. He handed the locket and ring to Chris.

"This his family Josiah?" Chris asked looking at the woman and children. He had a feeling the former preacher knew more than what he'd been saying all along.

"Yes," was the simple reply.

"What happened to them?" Chris asked feeling a common bond with the gambler, he'd been angry before and didn't understand why. The thought of Ezra sharing the same pain that he had felt for the past three years bothered him for some reason, he thought if he could understand the man more maybe he could pinpoint his resentment. Chris paused a moment and then realized he understood what was bothering him, he wasn't alone.

"Don't know," Josiah answered, "Mrs. Williams came to see me, she said she needed to return the locket and ring to her deceased sisters husband and she didn't know how to. She didn't say how she died or what happened to the children and I didn't ask. I figured it wasn't any of my business, I could tell she was troubled about it when she came to see me." Josiah paused looking out the window, outside everything was so peaceful but inside it seemed like a tornado. "She said Ezra was a very good father."

Chris reached out and handed the locket to Josiah who handed it to Vin. Nettie remained quiet not quite understanding all that had transpired. She never would have figured that the man asleep from fever would have been a family man. In the back of her mind she always figured he would sell his own mother if the pot were large enough. Now, she paused, she was may have been wrong about him. She had to smile to herself, at least now she didn't have to feel guilty about liking the enigmatic gambler.

"You don't know what happened to the kids," Vin looked at Josiah surprised Ezra had been a married man much less a father on top of it. Josiah shook his head in disappointment. Vin handed the locket to Buck.

"She looks like Mrs. Emma," Buck smiled looking at the two children in her lap. "Never figured Ezra for the marrying type," Buck handed the kid the locket who was eagerly awaiting.

"How come he never said nothing about her, or the children?" JD asked gripping Casey's hand.

"Hell kid," Buck spoke up, "ol' Ez don't say nothing unless he can use them big words to confuse the hell out of us, so he may have said something about them and we just never caught on." Vin laughed, Buck was right, he had a hard enough time trying to decipher the words Ezra used even when he said simple things.

"Maybe it's in the letter," Casey finally spoke up wanting as well as the rest of them to know what had happened.

"A letter is a private thing Ms Casey, you wouldn't want people reading letters from JD now would you," Nathan said putting the simple gold band back in the velvet pouch.

"No," she agreed, "but if'n I were real sick, it would be nice to have someone around who cared enough to read me those letters, particularly if it was the only thing I had left."

Nettie smiled at her niece, when Nettie got sick Casey would read some of the old letters her husband had written her while he had been on cattle drives. "Casey's right," Nettie nodded her head, "after my husband died I couldn't bare to throw anything away and even though Herold wasn't much of a writer he always managed to write me a letter every time he went out on drives. Casey would read them to me after I came down with pneumonia a few years ago; it was a great source of comfort."

"But that was family mam," Vin didn't feel comfortable with the possibility of reading a piece of Ezra's past.

"What are you boys," Nettie looked at them all in the eyes, "seems to me none of ya would be anything if it weren't for the fact you all come together. You fight like family, for the most part you share your problems like family, you share your dreams like family." Nettie paused, "it don't take blood to be family boys, remember that."

"I believe Sister," Josiah smiled, "someone should put you in for sainthood."

"Sounds right good to me Brother," Nettie smiled big before finishing her soup.

Chris picked up the letter again this time he opened it. The pages were well worn the fold creases were hardly stable and Chris had to lay it on the table afraid he might accidentally rip one of the pages. "Maybe you should read it Mrs. Nettie, it might sound better if you do it."

"Casey," Nettie ordered her niece over to the table, "my eye's aren't as good as they used to be and Casey's real good at reading."

"We shouldn't be doing this," Vin protested shifting uncomfortably on the floor.

"You don't know the whole story," Nathan argued knowing Vin hadn't been there for the blow up at the saloon.

"No offence Nate, but I don't kneed to know the whole story." Vin turned his attention to Chris, "this ain't right, how would you feel if someone were to read a letter from Sara."

Chris's head popped up in understanding, "I won't ride with a man who abandoned his family Vin."

"He didn't," JD piped in, "Ez said they died. He wouldn't lie to me."

"How do you know that JD?" Chris asked wondering why the kid hadn't said anything about it earlier.

"I asked him, he didn't say how it happened."

Chris thought for a moment. Four days ago he didn't know Ezra had ever been married or had children. He didn't know if the information he'd heard was clouding his judgment or if in some way he needed to better understand the conman. As trying as the gambler could be at times he liked him. "Everything Sara and I shared together burned with her and Adam in that fire three years ago," Chris looked around the room at the men he called friends. "A mans past is his own, until it effects the people around him. We aren't strangers here, read the letter Casey."

Vin again shifted uncomfortably, he wanted to get to his feet and walk out if he could but he was trapped. He felt like he was in a way betraying a friend. If Ezra had wanted them to know about his past he would have said so, but he didn't. Even the friendship he and Chris had there were some things you didn't talk about. Sure Chris had said more about his past to him but he didn't tell the rest of the group the things they shared in confidence. It wasn't right, and neither was this.

Casey looked to her Aunt for reassurance before carefully picking up the letter and moving closer to Ezra's side. This was, she thought, for his benefit not the rest of them. She cleared her throat, "March 15, 1865." Casey started,

" My Dearest Ezra,

I pray this letter finds you well. My concern grows, for I have not received a letter from in quite some time. Perhaps it is only my growing concern for you that lengthens the time between letters.

Mrs. Bradshaw came by yesterday, her son David perished from fever and she was in need of consoling. She shared with me her concern of the South's intent to surrender. I hope these are only false roomers she has heard. If Lee does surrender, what will that mean for us? I do not think I could bear to see you imprisoned for fighting for the southern cause.

The children miss you, as do I. Mathew has picked out a foal to train and is eagerly awaiting for your return so you may instruct him on training the beast. David says the boy has a gift for working with the large spirited animals. You will be proud of him Ezra, even at his youthful age you will see the man he will become. He and Emma are holding a bet as to whose birthday you will be home by first. I try and condone that behavior but I find as the days pass it eases their and my minds.

I caught Emma teaching her brother and the worker children the game of five-card stud. I know she could only have learned from you. Mathew told me it is necessary in life to be diverse in all professions, not just one. I fear these children are more yours than mine. Little Amanda is more docile and to my temperament than yours, however, I fear not. The older she becomes the more she reminds me of you, all three of them remind me of you. Their smiles, the glint in their eyes, and the way they use their broad vocabulary for more than just appearances.

A war photographer was kind enough to take a photograph of us, it was a luxury I felt we could afford. The children want me to send it with the letter so you would remember what we looked like dressed in our best. I felt it important for you to see what Amanda looked like since you haven't seen her yet.

With David and Mattie's help we have made the former slave quarters into makeshift hospitals. With the fighting nearby it has become necessary. The conditions in which these men are to perform is abominable and I pray you are well and unharmed. Gods speed to the end of this war, it has continued far to long.

I hear Amanda crying so I bid my farewell. Come home soon.

All my love,

Hanna." Casey folded the letter back to its original position and looked around the room at the somber faces.

JD closed the locket a feeling of sorrow now filled his being, "never figured Ezra as being a father," he voiced quietly unsure of what else to say.

"I lost a husband and two children," Nettie spoke up surprising the men around her. "It was the hardest thing I ever did, burying my sons. Your children are supposed to outlive you." She smiled understanding she was touching on a sensitive subject. She knew what it was like to loose, and she knew what it did to your very soul. "It changes you, hell," she muttered unsure of where she was going with her train of thought. "Three babies is a lot to loose."

"I wonder what happened?" Casey asked knowing not one of them could answer her question.

"I doubt if Ez will ever say what happened." Vin shot out.

"He may not," Nettie agreed, "but if he ever does, you boys best listen." Nettie got to her feet.

Josiah needed his head in agreement and looked over surprised to see Ezra's eyes open. "Welcome back Brother," he reached out and put the palm of his hand on Ezra's forehead, "Brother Nathan," Josiah called and waited for Nathan to kneel down beside him.

Nathan reached over and felt Ezra's forehead as well, "fevers broke," he smiled big relieved when Ezra closed his eyes and drifted off to sleep.

"Looks like your idea helped Sister Casey," Josiah smiled to the young woman who was now seated once again at JD's side.

"Josiah why don't you get some rest, I'll stand watch for a while." Nathan stood up a clear look of relief flooded his system. "Chris you need to lay back down and get some rest as well, you to JD."

"You won't get an argument from me," Josiah got to his feet.

"You can use my bedroll," Nathan offered.

"Thank you Brother," Josiah helped Chris to his feet and guided the injured man back to his bed in the next room.

Buck struggled to his feet but stopped when he saw the glair coming from the healer. "I've been resten long enough, besides you may need some help out there."

"Buck you ain't in no condition to be out standing guard," Nathan protested grabbing his rifle and spare cartridges. "Lay back down before you fall down," he said before heading back outside.

"Best not argue with the man," Vin chuckled, "otherwise you might get yourself shot again."

Buck threw his napkin at Vin in frustration; he knew Nathan was right he just didn't want the healer to win. "Better listen to the man," Nettie smiled watching as Casey helped JD back to bed. "Besides I'm sure you wouldn't want me to have to pick you up off the floor now would you?"

"No mam," Buck admitted his defeat and seated himself back down on the bedroll.


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