The Great Unknown

by Beth

Notes. June 2005 (the Superpowers Challenge) - offered by Kayim
Write a story in which one or more of the boys develops some kind of superpower (like telepathy, invisibility, flight, that kind of thing). The only condition is that the universe the story is set in cannot already be a sci-fi / fantasy based one. For example, Old West or ATF is fine; Star Trek or a Vampire one is not. Bonus points for coming up with a scientific-sounding explanation for the super powers!

Spoilers. I mention a lot of people and events in this story that occurred during the series, but I don't think I give anything away…too much anyway.

THIS IS NOT A DEATHFIC! I can't kill Ezra or any of the other boys!!

Please send comments to:

Chapter 1

Chris hid behind the boulder, flinching as bullets struck the granite sending shards in all directions. Sweat dripped off his nose, his upper lip, his hair, dampening his dark blue shirt. It rolled from his neck down his back, and beneath his arms, plastering the material to his skin. He reloaded his weapon, and looked at Standish who mimicked his own position, his shoulder pressed against the large rock, thighs burning as he squatted trying to hide himself from the men who had ambushed them.

Ezra had discarded his scarlet jacket to keep cool against the heat of the mid-day sun. His shirttails had escaped the back of his pants, and he had rolled his shirtsleeves up to his elbows, an attempt to stay cooler. His rifle rested at his feet alongside his Richards conversion, he was in the process of reloading his Remington.

"Ezra!" Chris yelled, falling forward and clasping his brow. "Shit!"

Ezra turned in time to see a flow of blood stream down the right side of Chris' face. "Stay down!"

"No shit!" Chris wiped his face with his handkerchief, and then grabbed the bullets he had dropped. "Any idea of how many there are?"

Ezra shook his head and turned so his back was pressed against the rock's surface. He listened as more shots were fired, and he watched as bullets struck trees and rocks around them. He tried to focus on the weapons, the different sounds they made, but he found them blending together, creating an onslaught of roars and pops. "Six…maybe seven."

Chris shook his head. "Ten miles from Four Corners and we're trapped here!"

"This isn't exactly my idea of a grand ol' time either," Ezra replied, reaching for his Richards when his Remington fell empty.

Chris grabbed his rifle and fired two shots before ducking as another barrage of gunfire peppered the objects around them. "Shit, Ezra," he sighed, wincing as a shard of rock hit his arm. "They've got us right where they want us."

"You have an aptitude for stating the obvious."

Chris looked toward the tree line, knowing the possibility of actually making it. The horses were gone, probably halfway to Four Corners by now, which meant their canteens were too. "Hell, Ezra." He turned and fired in the direction of the gunmen. "I'm open to suggestions."

Ezra rolled his eyes. "How much ammunition do you have?'

Chris looked at his belt and the few rifle shells on the ground by his feet. "Half dozen. How about you?"

"Same," Ezra said, turning to his right, pressing his shoulder against the rock and grasping his weapon.

Someone from within the group laughed. "Come on out, Larabee, you ain't got no choice in the matter-look around, you're surrounded!" He laughed again. "You remember that pretty little filly that friend of yours had 'is hands on a few years back…you know the one, that pretty little brunette with the mole on her upper lip. What'd your friend call it?"

Chris frowned, lost in time and understanding. "I have no idea what you're talkin' about!"

Ezra shrugged.

"He called it God's little period… You remember me now?"

Chris clenched his jaw and squeezed his eyes shut.

"You killed my brother, Larabee! Joe never touched that girl, you killed the wrong man!"

"Your brother murdered that girl, Hansen!"

"Never did no such thing! He was with me that night, sick as a dog an' I was the one takin' care of 'im. You killed that boy for no reason other than yer own name, an' I want you dead because of it."

Ezra sighed and leaned his head against the rock face. "Families are always the worst."

Chris slipped his revolver into his gun belt and looked toward the trees. "You ready to run for it?"

Ezra raised an eyebrow and shook his head. "It's suicide."

"We don't have much of a choice."

Ezra wiped his brow with the back of his hand, pushing the rim of his hat upward. He gripped his Richards and reloaded it between his thighs, while resting on the backs of his heels. "I'll cover you."

Chris nodded and pointed toward the two trees that shaped an upside down U, their branches created a cave, hidden from view. In his right hand he held his rifle, in his left his pistol. Chris squatted and then sprinted toward the protection of the trees just as Ezra started to fire.

Once Chris was safely hidden within the trees, Ezra turned with his back to the rock and leaned his head back. His chest heaved, and he watched a trickle of blood fall from his wrist to the ground. He ducked and covered his head when a barrage of gunfire slapped and struck the surface around him. He peeked through his arms and could see Chris returning their fire with a vengeance.

Ezra made a move to crouch, but he felt an explosion and crumbled forward. He could see Chris scream, but he couldn't hear him. Ezra's vision blurred and he tried to stand… he swayed violently left and collapsed in a boneless heap.

"EZRA!" Chris fired a shot after seeing him fall. "Shit!" He crouched between the roots and branches of the trees. He could see Ezra lying in a heap next to the rock that had been their protection. His guns lay around his head, useless.

"It don't have to be this way, Larabee!" Hansen said. "We don't want yer friend, just you!"

Chris clenched his jaw, knowing they didn't have any idea that Ezra was down. He looked at his weapons and shook his head; with one bullet left he didn't have much of a choice. They had been pinned down for over three and a half hours, and like toads, Hansen and his men kept waiting.

Chris sighed, rested his head against the bark of the tree and tried to think of a plan that would work. He had to get to Ezra, he would not leave him, not after all they had been through. He would not leave any of them, not after two years of gunfights, ambushes, assassins, and murderers.

"Come on out, Larabee! Might as well give it up before the sun goes down an' we hunt you like a damn dog!"

Chris looked at his revolver, squeezed the handle and decided to take his chances. As hard as he could, he tossed the weapon to his left, sending it through branches, leaves, and twigs. He watched it bounce, and he heard Hansen and his men quiet, listening to the ruckus it made.

"He's runnin', Pa!" someone yelled.

Chris listened and heard shuffling.

"Larabee! You ain't gonna fool us like this, Larabee!" Hansen peeked up past the rocks he hid behind. His black hat and red bandanna framed his pudgy features. "Larabee!"

Chris remained quiet, hoping they fell for the trick. Hidden behind the willow he peeked around the bark. He spotted a young man wearing gray trousers and a light cotton shirt step around a boulder. He held his gun before him, ready to use. Chris had seen that look before. It was one he was all too familiar with.

The young man crouched and walked forward, careful of his footfalls. Chris' heart flipped when the young man slipped around the boulder Ezra had used as his cover. "Hey, Pa!" he said, standing erect, his hand relaxed and he moved his weapon to his thigh. "We done kilt one of 'em, looks like he took a bullet to his noggin. Hell, there's blood everywhere over here." He chuckled, and then nudged Ezra's thigh with the toe of his boot. "There ain't no sign o' Larabee, looks like the fucker done run off."

"Watch your tongue, boy, I didn't raise no fools." Hansen stood and joined his son, three others followed. He whistled at the sight. "Damn." His face contorted, and he covered his nose and mouth with his hand. "Leave 'im, look for Larabee."

One of the boys knelt and grabbed the Richards, the revolver, as well as the long rifle. "Might come in handy later." He smiled, shoved the pistols into his belt and then started searching for a trail.

Hansen stood over Ezra's body and looked toward the tree line. "I know you're out there, Larabee!" He placed his hands on his hips. "I will find you!"

Chris clasped his rifle, he could feel his chest burn, his palms were sweaty, and his teeth ground together. Carefully, he lifted the rifle to his shoulder and pointed it in Hansen's direction, his finger shaking against the trigger.

"Pa!" the boy yelled, running from a pile of brush. "Isaac just got snake bit!" He tossed Ezra's weapons and ran for the horses.

Hansen clenched his jaw, looking into the trees and cursed. "This ain't over, Larabee!"

Chris lowered his weapon and sighed, leaning against the tree he watched as the horses were brought up from the flat. He could hear the grunts, cries, and whimpers of the brothers as they struggled with Isaac. One horse reared and fell to its side, crushing the supplies tied to the saddle. The mare struggled to her feet and then shied away, her reins slapping her face. One of the boys reached for her and she tossed her head, turned right, and sprinted away, the stirrups slapping her sides and the supplies on her back bouncing.

"Shit! Pa, we need some help!"

Chris struggled to remain hidden, his heart raced, and he could feel sweat trickle from his hairline, down his back, past his belt, down his thighs, and into his boots. His hands shook as he watched Hansen mount his big bay and pull his son Isaac before him, carefully positioning him to make the ride back to Eagle Bend. Hansen did not wait for his other three boys to get mounted; he spurred his gelding forward, never looking back.

Chris sighed, watching the dust clouds gather as shod hooves stirred the dust. Slowly, he removed himself from the confines of the two trees and walked into the open. Ezra hadn't moved, and Chris noted that his hat lay off to the side, the low crown covered in dust, muddy where sweat had gathered. He walked forward and felt his stomach clench. He had to close his eyes, inhale deeply, and collect his thoughts.

Ezra lay belly down, his face turned toward his left shoulder, half-hooded eyes stared blankly at his hand. The toe of his left boot hooked his right calf. Blood seeped into the thirsty ground, soaking his shirt, his hair, and the left side of his face. His neck was a mass of open wounds.

Chris could see the bullet had found its mark at the base of Ezra's skull, and exited through the soft skin beneath his chin, where his neck met his jaw. He squatted, and gently turned him onto his back. Chris removed his dark shirt and stuffed it around the injuries, doing his best to stem the flow. With blood covered hands, Chris closed Ezra's eyes, and then swallowed the lump in his throat.

>< <> >< <> >< <> >< <> ><

Chapter 2

"BUCK!" Josiah yelled, standing on the roof of his church, pointing his hammer in the direction of the two horses coming into town at a run. Nathan looked up from his shingle and moved to join Josiah at the ladder.

Buck sprinted toward the livery as the horses arrived. Tiny was there to catch both geldings as they slowed to a stop, covered in sweat. Foam collected on necks, behind the saddle blankets, on the edges of their girths, and where the bridles rubbed. Their sides heaved, and nostrils flared, dripping sweat. They had galloped a distance, but the grass stuck between the bit and muzzle of Ezra's big chestnut proved they had stopped for a bite.

Chris' big black lowered his head and heaved, stomping his feet. He rubbed his head against Buck, trying to remove the bridle. Ezra's chestnut pinned his ears when Tiny reached for the reins, but quickly relented when the bridle was removed for a rope halter.

"Saw 'em runnin' in," Vin said, jumping off the roof.

"They were headed back from Eagle Bend with a parcel for Travis," Buck said, pulling the envelope from Chris' saddlebag.

"I'll get your horses ready," Tiny said, leading the chestnut. "You gather what you'll need."

Buck clenched his jaw, worry lining his eyes. He watched Josiah toss his hammer toward the boardwalk and then follow Nathan toward the clinic.

"We'll find 'em," Vin said, turning to grab his supplies from his wagon. "Maybe they stopped for a bite and the horses spooked."

"Yeah," Buck said, "maybe."

"Tell Mary to tell JD when he comes in to wait here for us," Vin said, before disappearing into the alley.

>< <> >< <> >< <> >< <> ><

Chris' arms burned, as though his bones had turned to red iron just out of the fire. He carried Standish like he would a child. Ezra's head hung over Chris' left arm, his knees hung over his right. Ezra's arms dangled lifelessly toward the ground. Chris had tried to carry him over his shoulder, but realized the bleeding increased, and though it would have been easier, he knew Ezra would die sooner-he wondered if perhaps that wasn't for the best.

Chris' dark blue shirt was still tied around Ezra's neck, forced against the base of his skull. The sun continued to beat them both, burning his back and shoulders, causing his muscles to cramp and surrender.

Chris stopped and slowly lowered his charge to the ground, carefully cradling his head. He'd been walking for less than 40 minutes, but it seemed like hours. He was coated in a sheen of sweat and dust, making it even more difficult to carry Ezra, but despite that, he wouldn't leave him.

He rested on his haunches and rubbed his face with his hand, smearing dirt under his eyes and across his cheekbones. He could feel his hot breath on his palm, but what he craved was water. A dust devil danced across the wheel torn path, sending leaves and dried grass in all directions.

Taking a deep breath, he slipped his arms beneath shoulders and knees and lifted Standish once more. Ezra's right hand slapped his thigh, but he continued forward…toward home.

Chris never heard the roar of pounding hooves or saw the upheaval of dust, he just kept walking.

Buck yanked on his horse's reins, causing the beast to rear and toss his head. Buck was off him before he could come to a complete stop, Vin right behind him.

"Chris…God, what happened?"

Josiah was off his horse and rushed forward as Chris stumbled. He managed to catch Ezra before he fell while Buck and Vin helped Chris sit.

Nathan grabbed his medical bag. "Get a shirt on Chris, and give him some water, but have him take it slow-I'm not sure how long it's been since he's had any and I doubt he's in any condition to tell us." He knelt in front of Josiah.

Josiah shook his head, unable to release his hold. "He's in a bad way, Nate." He adjusted his grip, Ezra's body moved, his hand falling with a thud onto the dusty ground.

Nathan clenched his jaw and carefully removed the shirt around Ezra's neck. He winced when he saw the jagged edges of flesh, clotted blood, and mangled tissue. He wiped his hands on his pants and carefully placed two fingers on the opposite side of the damage. "He's alive," he shook his head, "but barely."

"He's alive?" Buck asked, covering his mouth and nose with his right wrist. "God, Nathan."

Nathan reached into his medical bag and applied clean bandages to entry and exit wounds. He met Josiah's eyes and shook his head. "We should get him back to town… make him comfortable."


>< <> >< <> >< <> >< <> ><

Chapter 3

Chris sat outside the clinic, dressed in clean clothes and his wet hair dripping onto the collar of his gray shirt; wet from the cool bath he had taken after arriving. He sat hunched at the waist, his hands folded together and hanging between his legs. He noted how dusty his boots were, and how the small drops of water pooled the dust together at the surface.

Nathan and Josiah had been locked inside that room since arriving. Ezra had not moved nor uttered a sound through their travels.

"I heard what happened," Nettie said, bringing a tray of coffee. She sat it on the bench next to Chris and then walked up to Vin and gently stroked the back of his shoulder. "Is there anythin' I can do?"

"JD still sendin' out wires?" Buck asked, pacing along the terrace.

"Casey's helpin' him."

Chris stood, ran a hand through his hair and headed for the stairs. "I need a drink."

Vin made a motion to follow.

"Let 'im go, Vin," Buck said, shaking his head, "let 'im go." He watched Chris take the stairs two at a time and then disappear around the corner.

Josiah was the first to exit the clinic, his shirt was marred with blood. His eyes were red, puffy, and his nose slightly swollen. He smiled tightly, trying his best to put on a hopeful face, and then nodded in defeat. He took a deep breath, rubbed his jaw with the palm of his hand, and then placed his hands on his hips. "Nathan…uh…Nathan thinks the time is short." He nodded, avoiding eye contact. "…I'm…I'll be at the church…if you need anything." He dropped his hands to his side and followed in Chris' footsteps, but instead of going right, he turned left.

Nettie patted Vin's shoulder, squared her own, and entered the clinic.

"Never thought it would end like this," Vin said, twisting the rim of his hat in his hands. "I'll go let Chris know."

"Yeah," Buck nodded, collecting his breath. He looked toward the Clarion, Bucklin's Grocery, and then he watched JD start to cross the street. Taking a deep breath, Buck sprinted down the stairs.

>< <> >< <> >< <> >< <> ><

Nathan looked up when the door opened. He had hoped to see Chris or Vin, but was not surprised when Nettie stepped around the bed and clasped a hand gently on his elbow.

"You should explain what's happenin' to the others." Nettie rang out a cloth in the basin of cold water and applied it to Ezra's forehead. "I'll sit with him."

Nathan touched his lips lightly. "He may…pass, at any time."

Nettie nodded and brushed her hand along Ezra's cheek. She could only imagine what the wounds beneath the bandages looked like. She noted his erratic breathing, the light sheen of sweat that covered his chest, arms, and face. "I'll take care of 'im, Nathan…see to your friends."

>< <> >< <> >< <> >< <> ><

Chapter 4

Chris emptied the whiskey into his shot glass and finished it in one swallow. It burned its way down, but it felt good compared to everything else. Even the sunburn that blistered his back and shoulders felt cooler.

"I killed his brother," Chris said, pushing the shot glass across the table. It fell off the edge, crashing to the floor, shattering into pieces. "Three fuckin' years ago, I killed his brother."

"It ain't your fault, Chris," Vin said, slipping into the chair across from him.

"Tell that to Ezra."

JD and Buck entered the saloon, both looking weary. Josiah followed, having spent his time inside the comforts of his church. He had not found comfort, nor reason.

"How bad is he?" JD asked, looking to Josiah for answers.

Josiah was about to speak when Nathan entered. He looked around, noticing the only people within the confines of the saloon were the six of them, everyone else had left-or were ordered to leave. His hands shook, and his chest hurt.

"Nate?" JD asked, looking for answers.

"I've done what I can-what I know." He rubbed his cheeks below his eyes. "Far as I can tell…" he sighed to collect himself, "…the bullet ripped through the muscle of his neck..." he looked at five sets of eyes that were looking to him for hope, "…but when it entered…it struck the base of his skull-"

"-Can't you do anything?" JD frowned, stepping away from Buck and the others.

Nathan swallowed. "There's not a lot known about the brain."

"He's hit his head before, Nate, why's this time so different?" Buck asked.

Nathan focused on the floorboards and then hesitantly reached into his pocket and removed a white handkerchief. Holding it carefully in the palm of his hand, he opened it, and then laid it on the table.

Chris closed his eyes and looked away, Vin did the same. They did not need to be told what the shards were, they could guess.

"That's all I could find without…without digging deeper- I didn't want to do any more damage."

"So why can't you do anything?"

"JD, it ain't that simple."

"Why not, Buck?" He grabbed the whiskey bottle and threw it out the batwing doors. "Why the hell not? You never gave up on me, Nate-or Buck, or Josiah…why're you givin' up on Ezra?"

"The damage is too bad, JD, there's nothing Nathan can do," Josiah said, having asked himself the very same question.

"There's always something that can be done! Wire a doctor in San Francisco or Boston or England-someplace where they know about this-someone has to know something." He reached into his pocket and removed his change. "Harry'll send the wire in no time-we've got the money to do it- What about all those books you read about medicine-why can't you use one of those? There has to be something in them about this."


"No, Nathan," JD said, stepping back. "Ezra's never given up on any of you! He was the one that jumped on that stage and stopped the Nichols brothers from blowing the entire town to hell. He was the one that stepped in front of a bullet to save Mary's life! And what about Guy Royal? Or Lucas James-he walked in that place knowin' he could end up dead-an' he hardly knew any of us. Don't you understand?"

"JD," Buck said, taking a step toward him.

"No!" JD threw his hat at Buck, hitting him on the chest. "He came back at the Seminole village, Buck! He came back!" He shook his head when he did not receive acknowledgement, and stormed from the room, the batwing doors swinging in his wake.

"Is there nothin'-"

"Damn it, Buck!" Nathan said, feeling the weight of the world on his shoulders. "I've tried everything I know. I've stopped the bleeding, I've stitched up his neck, I've cleaned the wounds-I'm not a magician!"

"Can we wire anyone, brother?" Josiah asked, searching for hope.

"There's a man in Chicago who's written a couple papers on head injuries-"

"I'll go get Harry," Buck said, standing and rushing out the door to the telegraph office.

"How long?" Chris asked, getting to his feet. He clenched his jaw and looked at Nathan.

"Could be anytime."

>< <> >< <> >< <> >< <> ><

Pillows lay against Ezra's back and beneath the right side of his face, exposing the brutal injuries to the left side of his neck. Josiah had placed a pillow beneath his left arm, hoping that in some way, it would offer a measure of comfort. Ezra looked peaceful, but his deathly pale complexion coupled with the rapid succession of his breathing did little to prove otherwise.

Josiah rested in a chair next to the bed, his right hand held tightly onto Ezra's, the good book tightly grasped in his left. If time was indeed short, Josiah had no intention of leaving until Ezra had drawn his last breath. They had been through too much together, and in the two short years they had come to know each other, Josiah had found a friend…a brother. Through all their differences, they had more similarities, and like the others, they had all found strength in themselves that they thought they had lost.

JD had entered and found himself tucked in a corner, afraid to face the end of what he had come to think of as his family. His chest burned and ached like it had not for years; it was a pain-though distant, was all too familiar. Death was not a gift, and it was not another stage of that cycle of life.
Everyone who had ever told JD that it brought peace to his mother had lied, and he knew that now more than ever. Death… death was hell.

Chris stood at the end of the bed, his face as chiseled as Michelangelo's David, but unlike David's, Chris' heart wasn't made of stone, as much as he hated to admit it. He knew this was the end, the end of something he had come to think of as home, a place where he wanted to spend the rest of his life, maybe even raise another family. It was not supposed to end like this. He was supposed to watch Ezra cheat poor bastards out of their money, watch him kill himself trying to be that god-damned hero he tried to be, despite having been that man the entire time.

Nathan continued to look through his medical journals, wishing he had purchased the most recent-most up to date books from England when he had the chance. Being a failure was different than believing he was one…and now he only saw himself as failing. He had seen head injuries of all kinds during the war, and he had watched those men change for the worse.

Buck stood by the door, his arms folded across his chest, his right shoulder pressed against the wall. He could feel his world crumbling around him, and for the first time in a long time, he could see himself riding out of Four Corners, never to return. It was a vision that made his stomach roll, but after today, he was not sure he would want to come back.

Vin was the only one not present. He had hidden himself in the shadows of town, feeling his own fate nipping at his heels.

"This story shall the good man teach his son," Josiah said, keeping his tone even and clear as he brought the lines to life, "And Crispin Crispain shall ne'er go by…"

"He can't hear you, Josiah," Buck said, pain grasping his heart like a meat hook.

"He might," JD said, "he might."

"From this day to the ending of the world, But we in it shall be remembered," Josiah continued, adjusting his grip on Ezra's hand, "We few, we happy few, we band of brothers…" He paused to collect his thoughts, and clear his voice…

>< <> >< <> >< <> >< <> ><

Ezra looked up through blurry eyes and watched her walk steadily back and forth across the floorboards, her dress billowing around her legs, and a rose colored shawl wrapped around her shoulders.

"You're awake?" she said, smiling. She took a seat in the chair Josiah often claimed as his own and drenched a cloth in cold water. She wrung it out and placed it over his brow. "Wasn't sure you'd make it." Her blonde hair curled naturally around her face, framing her perfections. She was thin, frail in frame, yet strong in character. "You should rest, Ezra, sleep is what you need."

>< <> >< <> >< <> >< <> ><

… "For he today that shed his blood with me, shall be my brother." Josiah clenched his jaw, and flared his nostrils as he took a quick breath. "I'm sorry, brother," he said, ignoring the tears as they fell. He pulled Ezra's limp wrist to his cheek and heard his stubble against the gambler's soft hand. "I am truly sorry." He placed his book on the shelf next to the bed, got up and left the room.

Nathan stopped flipping through the pages of his journals and turned toward the bed. He looked toward the door and watched it open as Vin slipped through.

"Telegram just came." Vin handed the note to Nathan.

Nathan looked at his friends before unfolding the yellowish paper. "Be advised," he read, "patient condition must be stable before attempting to relieve pressure on brain. See MaGrathy manual 1834, for assistance. Fatality is high, what is known about brain is minimal to what we don't know. Regards, Dr. Frank Butelly." He crumbled the paper in his hand and then let it drop to the floor. He watched as JD searched the bookshelf and removed an old, dusty book that was hidden between the Journal of Anatomy and the Royal Society of Medicine.

"You have the book, Nate," JD said, opening the pages, searching for answers. He stopped when he spotted a roughly drawn image of a figure with a device being pushed into his scalp. "Do you have one of these, Nate, the cronical trephine?"

Nathan slumped onto his chair and nodded.

"Can't you use it to relieve the pressure?"

Nathan shook his head. "I won't."


"JD!" Buck stood, keeping his arms over his chest.

"Why?" JD asked.

"Because I've seen it done," Nathan said, "I know what happens…I know what can happen!"

"But it could save his life, Nathan!" JD slammed the book shut, sending dust upward.

"To do what, JD?!" Nathan stood, pointing his finger toward the bed. "Have him live to shit and piss himself, having to be spoon fed-if he can even chew? He won't be able to stay here like that, JD, he'll have to go somewhere where he could be cared for, living in a room by himself, forced in bed, covered in sores, unable to say a damn word! I won't do that to him!" He clenched his jaw and rubbed his nose. "I've seen those places, JD, and they make death look like paradise."

"But you can't guarantee it!" JD said, despite Nathan's tears. "I think you're too damn scared." He turned, pushed Buck aside when he past him, leaving the room.

Chris lowered his head and took a deep breath, trying his best to keep his composure.

"A procedure like this kills men who are stable and better able to handle the surgery…Ezra's having enough trouble breathing right now."

"You don't have to explain it, Nathan," Chris said, "I've seen death before." He looked toward Buck. "Go calm JD down, and then check on Josiah."

Buck nodded, turned and left the room.

"Go get some air, Nathan."

"He's not strong enough-"

"-I didn't ask."

Nathan nodded. He looked at Vin, who tilted his head in the direction of the door. "I'll be outside." The door bounced twice on his hinges before coming to a rest, and the sounds of Nathan's boot heels echoed.

"You want me to leave?" Vin asked, taking Buck's spot against the wall.

"It's my fault he's here." Chris stared at the form on the bed. "There's always goin' to be some brother, cousin, god-damned nephew who'll be after me-and it'll always be a friend of mine who'll take the bullet." He stepped toward the chair Josiah had vacated and took a seat. He rested his elbows on his knees and let his hands dangle toward the floor.

"We've all got ghosts, Chris."

"Seems to me I shot one of yours," Chris said, looking toward Vin.

Vin shrugged. "Damn good thing you did too." He pushed himself from the wall and turned. "I'll go see if Nate needs any help." He opened the door and left.

Chris leaned back in his chair and rubbed his cheeks and chin with his left hand. He frowned when Ezra's left hand twitched. Chris leaned forward and watched the half fisted hand twist back and forth, automatic like the hands on a watch. He hesitated, and then slowly reached for it, to stop it. He looked toward Ezra's face and saw no signs of him waking, as though by some miracle, he would survive.

"Maybe it's time we all moved on, Ezra."

>< <> >< <> >< <> >< <> ><

Ezra felt the bed shift. Lying on his side, he opened his eyes and sighed. The young woman smiled and carefully removed his bandages.

"It looks better," she said, brushing away her long brown hair that curled around her cheeks.

Her hands were delicate, but rough, as though they knew the feel of a garden rake and maybe a plow. Ezra looked at her face, and found her features to be soft. She grabbed a clean bandage and applied it to his neck.

"You remind me of my son," she said, her smile framing her face. He turned and looked toward the door. "I can hear him now…can you?" She returned her gaze to him. "He's found a puppy to play with… a child should have a puppy." She brushed Ezra's bangs away from his face and ran her fingers along his jaw. "He's named him, Bob… It's silly I suppose, but it's easy to remember." She rang her hands in her lap and then looked at the counters. "Nathan really should keep his supplies in better order, a man with his talent really should have an assistant."

The woman stood and moved toward the far wall. Ezra watched her movements. She pulled the curtain away from the window and peered out.

"It's a beautiful day, Ezra, you should be out in it."

>< <> >< <> >< <> >< <> ><

Chapter 5

"His breathing's still erratic," Nathan said, rubbing his brow. He looked at the plate of food before him, but found himself focusing on other matters.

"But it's been almost two days," Buck said, pulling his roll apart. "You didn't think he'd make it through the first night."

"He ain't woke yet, Buck, hasn't even stirred."

"Maybe his body's just tryin' to heal," Vin said, spinning the glass of beer thoughtlessly.

"I don't know, Vin," Nathan said. "He can't last long without food or water."

They grew silent and listened as a dust devil blew across the boardwalk.

"Chris's still walkin' through town-guilt's eatin' at him bad." Buck shoved a piece of roll into his mouth. "JD ain't handlin' this any better."

Nathan nodded. "Josiah…Josiah's takin' this real hard too."

"Cuz the rest of us are prancin' through petals over the whole situation," Vin said, getting to his feet. "As long as he's still breathin', I ain't givin' up on him. JD's right, Nathan." He turned and left the saloon.

>< <> >< <> >< <> >< <> ><

A warm breeze caused the curtains to flutter open, allowing the sun's bright rays to enter. Josiah looked up from his book, and then he looked toward the bed where Ezra continued to lie facing the door. The book was simple reading for a humble man. Josiah uncrossed his legs, allowing both feet to rest flat on the floor. He leaned forward, and ran his hand over his head.

"I've often asked myself if immortality would be worth the price of my soul-if it were at all attainable." Josiah shook his head. "Maybe the temptation would be great, but I'm not sure I could pay the price." He looked toward Ezra and sighed.

Slowly, Josiah got to his feet, listening to his knees crack as he stood. He moved toward the window and shut it, and then turned back toward the bed, noticing Ezra's head was now turned toward the window. "Ezra?"

Josiah moved to the bed and sat on the edge of the mattress. "Ezra, you with me?" He clasped Ezra's hand and rubbed his hand along Standish's cheek. "Ezra?"

Ezra arched his neck and opened his mouth to gasp…

>< <> >< <> >< <> >< <> ><

"It's okay, Ezra," the young woman said, her hair, not as yellow, but speckled with gray. Her frail features seemed frailer, and her face was gaunt and ghostlike. She was different than the last time he had seen her, and it caused his heart to clench.

Ezra sat on the bed and watched as she ran a long silver knife up and down each wrist, spilling her life force.

"Tell him…tell him I loved him, Ezra…tell him I had to do it…"

>< <> >< <> >< <> >< <> ><

Ezra sat up, gasping for breath. Josiah grabbed him and pulled him toward his chest, placing one hand behind Ezra's neck for support he pressed his face against his shoulder. Ezra struggled within the grasp, weakly pressing his hands against strong arms.

"Ezra!" Josiah panicked. "SOMEBODY, HELP!" He held Standish tight, keeping him from flailing. "SOMEBODY!"

Vin heard the cries and ran the stairs two at a time. He burst through the door. "Josiah?"

"Go get Nathan! Now, Vin!"

Vin turned and sprinted toward the saloon.

"Hanna…" Ezra said, gasping. "…Hanna's dead, Josiah."

Josiah increased his hold, but he felt a chill and then a deep feeling of warmth. "No, Ezra…I just saw her a couple weeks ago…she's fine." He found himself rocking back and forth, Ezra's struggles weakening.

Ezra turned his head so his forehead was pressed against Josiah's neck. "She's dead."

>< <> >< <> >< <> >< <> ><

Vin burst through the batwing doors, causing Buck and Nathan to pull their weapons. "Ezra's awake!"

Tables, chairs, and plates of food were shoved aside and dumped as the three rushed for the clinic.

Nathan swung the door opened and stood stunned.

"He woke up and started talking," Josiah said, keeping his hold secure.

Nathan walked around the side of the bed and pressed his fingers to Ezra's neck. "Pulse is steady…think he's asleep."

"What'd he say?" Buck asked, a spark of hope in his eyes.

Josiah sighed and relented as Nathan helped him lay Ezra down. Nathan pressed his palm to Ezra's forehead and shook his head. "No sign of a fever, and he's breathing real easy."

"What'd he say, Josiah?" Vin asked, looking toward the street for Chris.

"He, ah…" Josiah stood, scratched his chin and looked toward Vin and Buck. "He said, Hanna's dead..."

Nathan frowned. "Could be delusions, Ezra was real upset when that Poplar fellow came into town." He pulled the blanket up to Ezra's shoulders and stood. "Could be he's remembering some things, getting them confused in his head."

"He never met my sister, Nathan."

"What's goin' on?" Chris asked, stepping behind Vin.

"Hell, Chris, you missed all the excitement," Buck said with a smile. "Seems Ezra's tougher 'an all of us put together. He woke up talkin'."

"That true, Nathan?"

"Can't explain it, Chris…but he just might pull through this."

Buck smiled. "I'm goin' to find JD an' let 'im know." He turned and left.

Chris reached into his pocket and removed a folded slip of paper. "Telegraph office said this was for you, Josiah." He handed him the paper and moved closer to the bed to get a better look. "How long was he awake?"

"Just a couple minutes," Nathan said, with a shake of his head, "but that's a start." He sounded hopeful, more so now than he had in days.

Josiah opened the note and turned a ghostly shade of white. He stumbled back, and slipped to the floor before Nathan could supply a chair.

"What is it, Josiah?" Nathan asked, grasping his arm.

Josiah covered his mouth and looked toward the bed. "Hanna…" he looked up and met Vin's and then Nathan's eyes, "…she took her own life."

>< <> >< <> >< <> >< <> ><

Chapter 6

Nathan rubbed his face before entering the church, finding Josiah sitting in the front pew, looking intently at the pulpit. It was dark with only the kerosene lamps sitting on the side tables on each side of the room.

"I used to watch my father stand behind a pulpit-not much different than that one. He'd fist his hands and shake them toward his congregation preaching about hellfire and brimstone." Josiah remained seated, and kept his eyes forward as Nathan took a seat behind him. "Suicide is an unforgivable sin."

Nathan leaned forward and folded his fingers together. "Is it because she can't ask for forgiveness?"

Josiah turned. "Perhaps."

"Would you like me to go with you…to see to Hanna?"

Josiah shook his head and returned his gaze to the pulpit. "I wired Sister Katherine, she and the other sisters were kind enough to see to her…. They've placed her beneath her favorite willow tree."

"You should go to her-"

"-Not until Ezra's better."

Nathan nodded and leaned back, placing his hands on the pew beside his hips.

"You've never been good at hiding your feelings, brother… What is it?"

Nathan pressed his lips together. "I just changed Ezra's bandages…"


"They're clean."

"That's good, isn't it?"

Nathan took a deep breath and nodded. "The bandages are clean, Josiah, not just no longer draining clean, I mean healed clean."

"I don't understand."

Nathan stood and started pacing between the door and the pulpit. "It should take seven, maybe ten days before stitches can be removed-and that's for patients who heal fast." He stopped and looked at him. "I just removed 113 stitches from Ezra's neck three days after the injury, Josiah- he'll scar, but…unless you know what you're looking for, you'll never see it." He started pacing again. "It's not possible, Josiah, this isn't possible-the entry wound is almost gone-he's breathing normal, no fever-"

Josiah rubbed his chin, not able to offer an answer or explanation. "Is it too much to ask to not question it?"

Nathan paused and slumped into the pew across from Josiah. "I'm not a man of great faith, Josiah-not like you-"

"Don't jump to conclusions…my faith hasn't been what it should be-for many years."

"How would you explain it, Josiah?" Nathan sighed. "Ezra should be dead…it was more than just skull fragments I was removing."

"Maybe this…maybe this is something that can't be explained, perhaps the reasons should remain unknown to us."

"The others?"

"In time," Josiah said, feeling the pain in his chest for losing his sister. He looked toward the pulpit, seeing faith in the miracles, and comfort in the unknown.

>< <> >< <> >< <> >< <> ><

Chris paced back and forth between the batwing doors to the bar. He had chased all the patrons out, keeping the saloon to himself. Vin and Buck sat at a table while Josiah and Nathan leaned against support rails, both having just arrived from the church. JD was in the clinic.

"Maybe he heard someone talkin' about it," Buck said. "Shit, Ezra can hear a damn ant make away with a grain of gold dust. Maybe he heard Mister Davis telling someone about it after he got the wire?"

"He'd just received it when I walked in," Chris said, turning toward the bar once more.

"I ain't never heard of anything like this after a head wound, but maybe, just maybe Ezra knew something the rest of us didn't. He's been in a bad way for two and a half days now," Nathan said. "It might be that he's just starting to come around." He looked toward Josiah.

"Don't tell anyone," Josiah said, fingering the shot of whiskey in his left hand.

"I agree," Vin said. "Folks around here ain't gonna cotton to somethin' like this. Best we keep it under our hats and let Ezra heal-shit, he may not even remember this when he's back at his table cheatin' us out of our hard earned cash."

"Let's hope so," Chris said.

>< <> >< <> >< <> >< <> ><
Chapter 7

"I guess you really scared poor Josiah," JD said, holding a book in his lap. "Said he nearly had an accident in his pants." He chuckled and flipped though the pages. "He said I should read to you, cuz you like to read so much. I prefer the dime novels, but Josiah said no to those, said they weren't 'spiritually enlightening' enough."

JD watched Ezra for movement, and finally settled on a page he could read from. "Hawkeye started, and dropped his rifle, when, directed by the finger of his companion, the stranger came under his view. Then lowering the dangerous muzzle, he stretched forward his long neck, as if to assist a scrutiny that was already intensely keen.-Sounds a little like Vin, don't you think, I mean this Hawkeye fellow…?"

>< <> >< <> >< <> >< <> ><

The young woman laughed and shook her head as she applied a new bandage to Ezra's neck. "My son always enjoyed comparing fantasy to reality." She knelt beside the bed and placed the palm of her hand on Ezra's cheek. "I thank you for keeping his dreams alive."

Ezra swallowed, closed his eyes as he bore the pain, and then looked at her. "You're JD's mother?"

She smiled warmly and nodded. "You'll have to forgive his enthusiasm for…adventure." She moved to sit on the edge of the bed and looked at her son. She could see his facial expressions change as he read from the story. "I wanted him to go to college, but I can see he's better suited here."

Her hair was dark like JD's, but there was a feminine elegance about her that outweighed her history.

"I've never been more proud…"

>< <> >< <> >< <> >< <> ><

Ezra opened his eyes, though his lids felt heavy.

"….I mean, heck, they even wear the same kind of clothes-Ezra!" JD dropped the book and stood, rubbing his hands on his thighs. "Hell, Ezra-don't go to sleep!" He turned and poured some water into a tin cup. "Want some water- I mean, you've got to, right?-Nathan said to give you some water if you woke."

JD knelt beside the bed and placed his hand carefully behind Ezra's neck. He pulled back when Ezra gasped.

"Shit, Ezra, I'm sorry." He stood and grabbed a clean cloth. He dipped it in the water and then held it above Ezra's mouth. "Here," he said, squeezing a small amount into Standish's mouth. "You sure had all of us worried."

Ezra swallowed, and then moved his arms out from beneath the blankets. They fell heavy at his sides.

"Ya hungry?"

Ezra nodded, wincing from the pain in his neck and head.

"Really?!" JD jumped and rushed for the door, "I shouldn't leave ya! Hell, don't go nowhere!" He sprinted out the door.

Slowly, Ezra pushed the blanket down to his waist, exposing his bare chest and tried to push himself against the headboard. His head swam and he covered his eyes with his left hand. Slowly, he raised his knees and placed his heels on the soft mattress and maneuvered his head and shoulders against the headboard. His brow beaded with sweat and he gasped, collecting his breath. He shook from both exhaustion and exertion.

"JD's gettin' you somethin' to eat," Vin said, pushing the door closed behind him. He tossed his hat on the chair in the corner and then moved to stand at the end of the bed. "Came up here to see fer myself…not too often you get to see a dead man." He walked to the other side of the bed and took a seat. "You remember much?" He reached for the water basin and wrung out a cloth, then placed it over Ezra's brow.

Ezra frowned, trying to stay focused on the question rather than the nagging pain in his head. "There was…" his voice was rough, and his words slurred slightly, "…someone shooting at Chris?"

Vin nodded and leaned forward. "You remember gettin' hit?"

Ezra closed his eyes and leaned his head back, enjoying the comfort of the cool cloth. "No," he sighed, "who hit me?"

Vin chuckled and leaned back. "Nobody, Ezra, seems you and Chris were ambushed on your way back from Eagle Bend. You were shot."

"That why my head hurt?" His words slurred, and his eyelids grew heavy.

"Could be," he said, and then looked up when Nettie entered the room with a tray.

"Told Nathan and Josiah to stay with JD when he tripped over the table runnin' into the restaurant." She shook her head and chuckled, setting the tray over Ezra's lap. "I made the soup, brought it for Gloria who's been feelin' sickly the past few days. She offered it to you."

Ezra pulled the blanket up, trying to hide his nakedness.

"Never mind that," Nettie said, removing the silverware from the napkin. "I've seen everythin' you've got under there."

Vin pressed his lips together and tried to keep his chuckle suppressed.

"That includes you, Vin Tanner," Nettie said, breaking apart the roll. She sat on the edge of the bed and looked at him. "Can you feed yourself?"

Ezra nodded.

"I put the soup in a cup, figured it would be easier than a spoon." She watched Ezra wrap his hands around the cup and bring it to his lips. The fluid matched the trembling of his hands, slapping the sides of the cup.

Ezra took a sip, and that was all he could manage before lowering it. He looked toward Nettie when she took the cup from him and handed him a small piece of roll. He squeezed the bread between his fingers and thought about bringing it to his lips. He turned when Josiah, Nathan, and JD entered the room. His head was back, resting against the backboard of the bed, he was too weak to move.

"You're still awake," JD said, coming around the corner of the bed.

Nathan smiled and then moved between Nettie and Vin. "Your head hurt?"

"Yeah," he sighed, letting his hand fall to his lap.

Nathan nodded and placed his hand on Ezra's brow, checking for a fever. "I don't know what to tell you, Ezra, but you're one lucky man…They'll be writing…"

>< <> >< <> >< <> >< <> ><

Ezra saw them enter though the door, dressed in rags, barefoot, each holding a knapsack. The oldest girl smiled and reached for the two young women behind her. Their dark clothing blended equally with their dark skin.

"They said you could help us…" the older girl said, looking toward Nathan. "You can help him find Ruby."

>< <> >< <> >< <> >< <> ><

Vin grabbed Ezra's arm. "Ezra, you okay?"

>< <> >< <> >< <> >< <> ><

"Tell them you're okay, Ezra," the woman said. She stood in the corner of the room, her brown hair tied at the base of her neck, stray hairs fluttered around her face. "Ezra, tell them."

>< <> >< <> >< <> >< <> ><

"Ezra?" Nathan asked, grasping his shoulder. "You with us, Ezra?"

Josiah moved to the other side of the bed and placed his hand on Ezra's left shoulder, trying to offer comfort. "Brother?"

>< <> >< <> >< <> >< <> ><

"You're fucked now, boy!" the man said, stepping out of the shadows, his face contorted with rage and anger. His rosary dangled between fingers that clutched a black Bible. "Tell him that! Tell him it's his fault his sister sliced her own wrists! TELL HIM!"

>< <> >< <> >< <> >< <> ><

"Let go!" Ezra said, pushing at the hands that held him. "Don't." The soup cup fell to the floor, sending its contents in an arch toward the wall. He pushed them away, kicking at the blankets and shoving at whatever touched him.

"Ezra?" Nathan said, looking toward Josiah.

Vin backed away, standing with Nettie near the end of the bed. JD looked frightened as well.

"Ezra?" Josiah said, placing a knee on the bed, shifting Ezra's position.

"Don't!" he said, louder this time. He gasped when Nathan placed a hand on Ezra's wrist. "Don't touch me!" He backed into the pillows, leaning onto his left side, holding his hands to defend himself. "Please don't."

Josiah and Nathan backed away from the bed.

"It's okay, Ezra," Josiah said, squatting near the edge of the bed. "Calm down." He looked toward Nathan who looked just as confused.

Ezra slumped further to his left, covering his head with his arms, gasping for air.

"Let's give him some air," Nathan said, backing away from the bed.

Josiah looked up and nodded. He followed Nathan onto the terrace and watched as Vin escorted Nettie down the steps.

"What's goin' on, Nathan?" JD asked, looking into the room through the half opened door. Ezra hadn't moved, but he still lay gasping.

Nathan paced back and forth while running his hands over his face and scalp. "He was scared."

"Nathan, he's still sick-"

"No!.... He was scared, Josiah." Nathan stopped and watched as Buck, Chris, and Vin headed toward them.

"We just crowded him," JD said, closing the door and standing with his back to it. "He's never been good-"

"Something's wrong, JD!"

"What in the hell's goin' on?" Chris asked, taking the top step and stopping. Vin and Buck squeezed passed him.

"Ezra's not used to all the attention, that's all."

Nathan shook his head. "That's not all."

"He saw something," Josiah said, looking toward the door.

"What are you sayin'?" Buck asked, confused.

>< <> >< <> >< <> >< <> ><

Ezra relaxed his arms and then looked around the room. It took him a moment, but he pushed himself up and spotted his trousers hanging off the back of the chair. His head pounded, but he fought through it, reaching for the pants.

>< <> >< <> >< <> >< <> ><

"He's seein' things because of his head injury?" Buck asked.

"I don't know, Buck," Nathan said, sitting in defeat on an empty bucket. "I don't know what to do for him…I can't even give him anything for the pain because I don't want to risk-"

"He's alive because of you, Nathan-" Chris said.

"-What else, Nathan?" Vin asked, knowing in his gut there was more.

Nathan stood and rubbed his hands on his thighs before starting to pace again. "Every bandage I've changed has been clean, he's never had a fever… When we found you, Chris…" he sighed and shook his head, "…Ezra was on death's door-but now he's talking, he's hungry..." he took another spin, "…there's no reason why he shouldn't be dead right now."

"He got lucky," Buck said.

"I've been doing some reading," Nathan paused and looked toward the door, "and I've learned that there may be a part of the brain we don't use."

Buck laughed and shook his head. "No offence, Nate, but that's just crazy talk."

"What if it's not, Buck? What if…it's something more?"

Josiah thought about Hanna, and how he was torn between visiting his sister's grave, or staying with a friend who needed him…a friend he could help.

"I think you're all full of shit," Buck said, moving passed JD to enter the clinic. "He's fine, you just have to give him time to heal." He opened the door and entered the room.

>< <> >< <> >< <> >< <> ><

Chapter 8

"Ezra?" Buck asked, moving around the bed, finding Ezra half dressed and laying on the floor on his right side. "Hey, you okay?" He squatted, pushing the chair out of his way.

"Don't touch me," Ezra said, "Please."

"Okay," Buck said, grabbing a blanket off the bed and covering him. "You can't stay on the floor, pard." He rested on his haunches, and his thighs started to burn. "We're real worried about you." He pulled the blanket over Standish's bare feet. He shook his head, realizing Ezra had probably buttoned his pants and then reached for a shirt and fallen.

Ezra inhaled deeply and squeezed his eyes against the pain.

"Ezra, you okay?" Buck asked, moving to his knees and placing his hand on Ezra's shoulder.

He cried out and flinched away. "Please don't, please."

Buck pulled his hand away. "Shit, I'm sorry."

"They won't stop," he said, choking between gasps of air. He covered his face with his arm. "They won't stop."

Buck looked up as Nathan entered. "He's a mess, Nate." He sounded helpless, unsure of what to do. "He don't want to be touched."

Nathan squatted. "Ezra, we need to get you off the floor."

Ezra shook his head, kept his eyes closed, and let his body adjust to his position. "Let me lay here."

JD entered the room, followed by the others. "Can we do anythin', Nate?"

Nathan placed his elbows on his knees and rested his chin on his thumb, hooking his finger over his lips. "Go see if Mrs. Potter has any gloves…maybe a heavy shirt-"

"-But it's hot out?"

"He only seems to have these…fits…when we touch him…maybe if we keep him covered we can get him back into bed."

JD turned toward the door.

"And, JD," Nathan turned, "bring some fresh water and some food-he needs to eat."

JD nodded and then sprinted toward Mrs. Potter's store.

"Nathan?" Chris said.

"I don't know, Chris…I just don't know."

"You think it's us that's doin' this to 'im?" Buck asked, rolling back onto his butt. He crossed his arms over his knees.

Nathan turned and looked at Josiah.

"I'm not dumb, Nate. He said Hanna died…"

"I saw it," Ezra said, remaining as still as he could. "I… I saw her cut her own wrists."

Josiah lost the strength in his knees and he sat on the bed. "With what?" he asked, turning enough to see Buck and Nathan, not Ezra.

Ezra moved his hand to his face. "A pearl handled knife… a cross was carved in the handle."

Josiah nodded and turned to face the door. "My father's."

Vin clenched his jaw. "I'll go help JD." He turned quickly on his heels and left.

Chris watched him go. "What else have you seen, Ezra?"

Ezra's breathing evened out, and his hand went limp.

"Let 'im sleep, Chris," Buck said, looking toward the door as JD stepped through.

"Mrs. Potter's feelin' lots better, she said she'd be up with some soup." He placed the heavy shirt next to Josiah and handed Nathan the leather gloves. "Wasn't sure if you wanted gloves for you or Ezra-Mrs. Potter sent a pair for each of you."

Nathan slipped the gloves on and handed the other pair to Buck. "Help me lift him onto the bed."

>< <> >< <> >< <> >< <> ><

Chapter 9

Vin leaned against the corral railing, watching the horses swipe their tails against annoying flies while they nibbled at the remains of the hay Tiny had tossed them.

"Never seen you scared before," Chris said, joining Vin at the fence.

Vin scraped his foot on the bottom rail, knocking dirt and horse shit to the ground. "Seen an' heard a few things while I lived with the Indians…figure maybe some of what they taught me was true."

Chris nodded and looked toward the tall chestnut mare that just weeks away from giving birth. "That what scared you-what the Indians taught you, or what Ezra might see about you?"

"For a man who's got as many demons as you do, Larabee, you seem awful calm about the possibility of facin' 'em."

"Not calm," Chris said, placing his hand on his hip. "I knew the first time I took a life in exchange for money that devils would be forever chasing my heels." He looked toward the mare, watching her shift her weight from one hind leg to the other. "What scares me is failing to face those demons."

Vin turned, pushed the brim on his hat up with his thumb and then replaced his arm on the top rail. "I never did no book learnin', so I ain't smart like Ezra or Josiah-hell, even JD, but I've seen things that I reckon books can't teach you, an' the way I figure it…what Ezra's goin' through-what Josiah's goin' through, is only the beginnin' of somethin' none of us is ever goin' to understand-or want to."

"You've seen this before?"

Vin shook his head. "Never seen it, but I've heard of it-somethin' like it."

"What happened?"

"Near as I can recall, it was an Indian boy that fell an' smashed his skull… His father found 'im, took 'im to the medicine man, knowin' his son would die-but he wanted the boy prepared to ride through the spirit world." He rubbed his nose with his finger.

"The boy survived."

Vin nodded. "But he could see things-things nobody else could see."

Chris took a deep breath. "What happened to him?"

Vin shrugged and looked toward the chestnut mare. "Madness took 'im."

"And you think the same will happen to Ezra?"

"How many bad things can you see before you can't take it anymore?"

"Depends on the man, Vin…depends on the man." Chris slapped Vin on the shoulder with a friendly tap and turned toward town.

>< <> >< <> >< <> >< <> ><

Nathan looked up from his chair when he heard the soft knock at the door. He smiled when Mrs. Potter peeked in, a tray of food held before her. No longer feeling poor, her face had regained its rosy completion and her eyes were just as bright.

"Figured you could eat somethin' as well, Nathan," she said, stepping into the room, closing the door behind her with a slight sway of her hip. "Nettie told me what's happened." She rested the tray on the end table and patted the front of her skirts.

"You feeling all right, Mrs. Potter?" Nathan stood as she moved around him, keeping an eye on Ezra as he slept on his left side facing the door. He had not stirred in over an hour.

Gloria patted his arm and nodded. "Feelin' a hundred times better, thank you." She handed him a plate filled with potatoes, corn, and chicken. "You should sit and eat before you end up like Mr. Standish." She covered his plate with a piece of cheesecloth. "You're friends are down at the saloon finishin' off my Shepherd's pie-why don't you go join 'em?"

Nathan looked from the bed to Gloria. "He's not wanting to be touched."

Gloria nodded. "Can't say as I blame him…with all that he's been through."

Nathan stood stunned. "You know…how?"

"Nettie an' I've been friends a good long time," she said. "And…for reasons neither she or I can explain," she shrugged, "…you boys have become our extended family."

"He's still recovering, Mrs. Potter."

"Go," Gloria said. "I'll make sure he doesn't run outta here at the first sign of a poker game."

Nathan smiled and nodded. "If you need anything…?"

"I know where to find you."

>< <> >< <> >< <> >< <> ><

Gloria had wrapped the cup of her creamy chicken soup in heavy cloths, hoping to keep it warm until Ezra woke. She sat on the chair next to her bed, humming quietly, and knitting. The long needles tapped together as she looped the red yarn.

Ezra stirred.

Gloria lowered her needles and watched as he rolled onto his back, lift a bare arm from beneath his blankets, and rubbed his face with his hand. He felt the bandages on his neck, but was relieved that the pain had dissipated. Slowly, he pushed himself against the headboard.

"Would you like some soup?"

Ezra jumped, and turned to his right.

"It's all right," she said, getting to her feet, after placing her needles and yarn in a bag by the chair. "I made you some creamy chicken. I figured it would be a little more hardy than just broth." She handed Ezra the cup and smiled when he took it.

"You were ill?"

"No," she shook her head and retook her seat, "just wore myself out. Farmers are gettin' ready for harvest, and they have a way of needin' everything at once." She chuckled, and looped a pearl stitch.

Ezra brought the cup to his lips and took a sip of the warm soup. It hit his stomach full force and as a result it growled.

"Told ya," Gloria chuckled, counting her stitches. "While my husband was still alive he'd eat all the time, never gain a pound…wasn't sick a day in his life." She didn't turn and watch him drink his soup, instead, she continued to knit and rock back and forth as though it were expected.

Ezra lowered the cup when he finished, leaned his head against the headboard and took a deep breath. His headache had dulled, but his neck still felt stiff. He felt the cup slip from his hands and he looked toward the source.

Gloria had taken the cup and replaced it on the table. "Would you like some water?" She reached for the glass Nathan had been using and filled it with water from the pitcher. "Nathan said you'd managed to get some down, but you'd probably drink more-not too fast," she handed him the cup, "wouldn't want you to make yourself sick."

Ezra took the glass and watched her. Her motherly movements and actions did not remind him of his youth, but instead of what he had missed. "The others?"

"At the saloon-I chased them out, they needed some time to rest."

Ezra drank the water, and looked toward the corner, the door, and near the end of the bed. He remembered the images… the people who were there, faces he didn't know-but yet… he knew. He rubbed his face, frustrated with the events and his inability to understand them. He lay back and closed his eyes.

Like the cup, Gloria took the glass. She dropped a cloth into the wash basin and then wrung it out and applied it to his forehead. She sat on the edge of the mattress, thinking he was asleep, but she smiled when opened his eyes.

"You an' the others have done so much for this town… I don't know what any of us would do if we were to lose any of you." She gently grasped his hand and jumped when he pulled back, but she smiled maintaining her hold. "It's all right, Ezra…"

>< <> >< <> >< <> >< <> ><

He stood at the door, smiling warmly. He never made a sound, just walked to his wife, knelt at her side and kissed her cheek. His eyes were large and brown and he watched her movements with intricate detail, and he memorized the shape of her jaw, the fullness of her cheeks, and the delicate shape of her lips.

The man turned and looked toward Ezra and smiled. "Thank you," he said, getting to his feet.

>< <> >< <> >< <> >< <> ><

Gloria gasped and pressed her hand to her cheek. Her eyes watered and she felt a warmth slip to her toes. "I…I haven't thought about Thomas in a long time." She smiled tightly, and squeezed Ezra's hand in the palm of her own.

"I'm sorry," Ezra said, watching Thomas Potter wave from the door and then leave.

"You ain't got nothin' to be sorry about." She wiped her cheeks free of her tears and then patted the front of her skirts. "I know my husband loved me…an' I know that you boys would have saved his life if you could have."

Gloria turned and looked toward the door. "You would have liked Thomas."

Ezra stirred and made a motion to stand.

Gloria reached for his shirt and helped him slip it on. "You sure you know what you're doin'?"

Ezra sat on the edge of the bed, surprised he had only seen Thomas Potter, but relieved. "What happened to your family?"

"My parents lived to be in their sixties," she smiled, watching him struggle with the shirt buttons. "They both died with smiles on their faces. My folks were extraordinary." She reached for Ezra's boots.

"As is their daughter."

>< <> >< <> >< <> >< <> ><

Chapter 10

JD tossed the telegram on the table and waited.

"What's this?" Buck asked, grabbing the paper and pushing his plate away from the edge of the.

"Hansen was arrested in Dayton, 3 days ride from here. Guess one of his sons died due to snake bite. His other boys were arrested with him. They're being held by the sheriff there."

Chris stood and reached for his hat.

"I'll go with you," Buck said, standing.

"I'll go alone," Chris said, turning toward the door.

"I'll go with you," Buck replied. He looked toward Vin who had stood and was strapping his gun belt around his hips. "Looks like you ain't got no choice."

Chris nodded, looked toward Josiah, Nathan, and JD. "I'll wire you when we get there."

"Do that," Nathan said. "And, Chris…"

Larabee turned.

"Be careful."

"He will, Nate," Buck said. He turned and left with Vin.

"What about Ezra?" JD asked, watching them go.

The room went silent.

"He'll be fine…we'll all be fine," Josiah said, looking toward Nathan.

>< <> >< <> >< <> >< <> ><

Ezra sat on the bottom step that led to the clinic. Gloria sat beside him, watching the town, and the people. Slowly, he removed the bandage on his left hand, remembering the rock shard that struck him. He remembered watching the blood drip toward the ground.

The bandage was clean, and there was not a single sign of damage to his hand…not even a scar. He rubbed the spot, knowing there should be. He didn't remember the details of the past few days, but he remembered Chris yelling his name when everything went black. He could still smell the dirt combined with blood. He balled the bandage in his fist and then fingered the cuff of the heavy blue shirt.

The sounds of boot heels striking wood echoed, and Ezra looked to his left and spotted JD.

"Hey, Ezra!" He jumped from the step and joined them. "Mrs. Potter."

"Young Mr. Dunne." Gloria stood and patted Ezra's shoulder before looking toward her store. "I should be getting back-don't suppose the farmers would appreciate me disappearin' for a time." She smiled and grasped JD's arm with a comforting tug. "You boys need anythin', you know where to find me." She grasped her skirt in her hand and started her walk across the street.

"Damn, Ezra…didn't think you'd be up so soon after what happened," he said, taking a seat next to him. He rested his elbows on his knees and looked in the direction Ezra faced. "You feelin' all right?"

Ezra nodded.

"Chris, Buck, and Vin headed off to bring Hansen and his boys back. Guess the sheriff in Dayton picked 'em up after they got our wire about one of them havin' a snake bite. Guess the boy that got bit didn't make it-guess he could've used some of your luck, huh?"

Ezra nodded, focusing his attention on the team of horses tied across the street.

JD rubbed the thumb of his left hand. "Can I ask you somethin'?"

"Sure, JD," Ezra said, rubbing his temple.

"How'd you know it was Hanna you were seein'…if you never met her?"

Ezra closed his eyes. "Feelings…I guess."

JD paused and looked up the road, seeing Josiah and Nathan talking at the hotel entrance. "Is it scary…when you see them?"

Ezra opened his eyes and frowned. "Them?"

JD nodded. "When you were awake that second time… when I was readin' that Mohicans book…I saw your eyes- you weren't lookin' at the six of us."

Ezra nodded and turned his attention back toward the team of horses.

"Before my ma died…she said she could see her mother. I didn't think much of it at the time." He rubbed his hands on his knees.

Ezra shook his head and moved to stand. Suddenly dizzy, he slipped back, slicing the palm of his hand on the stair railing.

"Shit," JD said, jumping to his feet. "I'll go get Nathan."

"No," Ezra said, reseating himself on the bottom step. He looked at his hand and watched as the small narrow cut suddenly healed itself, the blood resting in his palm as though it had been placed there. Still looking at his hand he said, "Don't tell anyone."

JD retook his seat.

Ezra got to his feet, the dizzy spell gone, but he grasped the stair railing for assurance and then let go to walk to the boardwalk.

"Ezra?" JD stood.

Ezra sighed and lowered his head. "She's proud of you, JD… she always been proud of you."

"I know," JD said, "I've always known."

"Then what do you want?" He turned to face him.

JD took a deep breath. "I want to make sure you're okay… Are you?"

"I will be." He turned toward the livery to visit a four legged friend. "I will be."

>< <> >< <> >< <> >< <> ><

The End!!


Please send comments to: