Magnificent Seven Old West
Next Breath

by Ice Hunter

The sudden silence jarred Ezra Standish from his reverie. As so many times this night, his own breath halted as he waited for his mother’s to resume. The world stopped in these moments. Then the world began again, as his mother gasped in life-giving air, forestalling the inevitable.

Maude Standish looked far older and frailer than when Ezra had last seen her, during her visit to Four Corners. He hadn’t suspected at the time that she harbored a dark secret. His mother had been dying, the tumor growing within her even then, and now it would claim her life. Maude had never revealed her illness to him, the woman who ran the boarding house had wired Ezra without his mother’s knowledge. That had been nearly three weeks ago. By the time he had arrived, his mother had grown weak to the point where walking was difficult, when it was even possible. Two days ago Maude lost consciousness for, perhaps, the last time.

Tearing his gaze from the bed and its occupant, Ezra reflected on the hand fate had dealt him. One year ago his mother was the only soul on this Earth that he’d felt able to trust, and then only up to a point. Four Corners had changed things. During his time as a hired peacekeeper, Ezra had developed what could only be described as friendships with his fellow gunmen. It seemed absurd, given their different natures and backgrounds, but the friendships were there nonetheless. He would not be left to grieve alone.

Ezra closed his eyes as his mother’s breath again paused interminably. At its resumption, he exhaled forcefully, choking back tears which could not fall...not yet. He thought back to the moment he read Mrs. Cole’s telegraph, to the raw pain which had taken him body and soul and had thus far been unrelenting. He remembered telling Chris Larabee that urgent business would require his absence for an unknown period of time. He’d expected...he hadn’t known what to expect from Chris...but he’d found compassion in the man’s eyes. Larabee asked no questions, other than whether Ezra wanted company—perhaps Nathan or Josiah? He’d declined, prepared to face this trial alone.

Chris had sent them along anyway. When his friends arrived a few days after him, Ezra had felt relief beyond all measure. He hadn’t fully realized how lonely he’d felt. He recalled Nathan Jackson’s shocked expression as the healer took in Ezra’s haggard countenance. No sleep, little food, and avoidance of a razor had left him looking as fit as his mother. Nathan immediately sent him to bed, saving the lecture for after Ezra had rested. He’d been sent to bed for a few hours each day after, doubtless saving his sanity, if not his life.

Josiah Sanchez, the other of his two friends to arrive, had become fond of Maude during her visit to Four Corners. Inasmuch as Josiah was a preacher, as well as an acquaintance, Maude was delighted to receive him. Her sudden religious bent frightened Ezra even more than her appearance did. She knew her time was near, and she wanted to make her peace.

A soft groan came from the direction of the bed. A rasping breath. Silence. Another breath.

One tear escaped before Ezra could stop it. It followed the curve of his cheek unmolested, falling gently onto his chest. Maude would berate him soundly, if she could but see her son. His soiled shirt lay open to the waist, exposing much of his chest. His hair-- unwashed and unkempt—fell loosely over his creased brow. He had renewed his relationship with his razor, but that was his sole concession to maintaining his hygiene.

Another fugitive tear sought escape.

The knock at the door scarcely captured his notice. Ezra didn’t even look to see Nathan crossing over to Maude’s bedside, checking on her condition, in what had become a nightly routine.

"Josiah and me, we’re turning in now. Do you need anything?" Nathan played his part in the ritual.

Ezra had yet to respond. What could he need? He needed nothing. Everything. He had no answer.

Nathan left quietly, as befitted a healer. He would return in the morning, bringing food and succor, as befitted a healer. Ezra knew he could never repay the man. Or Josiah. Or Chris, for that matter. But he would go to his grave still trying. Please let tonight see the end. I need this to end, for Mother’s sake as well as for my own.

Another rasping, shuddering breath turned to silence. Ezra closed his eyes, and lost yet another tear as he heard his mother’s next breath labor forth. I love you, Mother. Your absence will leave a hole in my heart that can never be filled, nor would I wish it to be. You can leave this world without fear for me—I am not alone anymore.

Wiping his brimming eyes, Ezra rose to extinguish the lamp. On impulse, he bent to kiss his mother’s brow before bringing down the dark. Settling back into his chair, he began another night's vigil.

The End