by Sevenstars & Aureleigh


Miranda tied her horse in front of the hotel and walked in without any attempt to conceal herself. She was known here; as a considerable ranch-owner she was a member of local society, and no one would think twice about her being in any respectable place in town. Once she had attended to Standish, she would simply go out by the back stairs, circle around, and be mounted and gone before anyone realized where the shot had come from.

The desk clerk and the few late diners, having heard the distant gunshots and recognizing them as out of the ordinary for this community, had all hurried outside to find out, if they could, what was going on, which simply made Miranda's job easier. She quickly climbed the stairs, slowing her pace a little as she got around the turn and out of sight of the desk. She knew which room Larabee and his men had taken; it hadn't been hard for Nick to find out. Very probably that was where they had put the gambler.

JD had rushed out so fast that he'd neglected to re-lock the door. Miranda had counted on that, since she didn't have a key. She turned the knob slowly, quietly, with her left hand, the Webley already drawn in her right. It moved freely, and she edged the door open, alert for creaking hinges, and stepped inside, closing it behind her.

In her chair, back in the corner, Maude saw the panel move and was immediately alert. She knew that if it were Nathan returning, he'd have knocked and announced himself, according to the code Larabee had set up. She reached quickly behind the cushion that supported her back, brought out her reticule and drew from it a double-barrelled .41 derringer much like her son's.

She hadn't been quite as asleep as JD had thought her, and had overheard Ezra's description of the boss kidnapper. Quickness of wit was a necessity in her profession, and knowing as she did the name of Owen Kane's second wife and the names of Edmund Livermore's children, she had made much the same connections as JD had, though without seeing the brand Ezra had drawn. The lamp was turned low in deference to Ezra's sensitive eyes, but still it shed sufficient illumination for her to see that the intruder was a woman, wearing a high-collared black riding habit and a tricorne hat. It enabled her to recognize that woman as matching the description her son had provided. And it cast a racing gleam along the nickeled barrel of the pistol she held. Maude stood, levelling her derringer. "That will be far enough," she warned.

Miranda had seen Ezra first, his features just well distinguishable in the faint lamplight. She hadn't realized she wasn't alone until Maude spoke. She turned her head quickly, raising the Webley. "Why, Mrs. Standish," she said, in a tone of surprise and gratification. "This is even better than I'd hoped."

"Miranda Livermore Kane, I presume," Maude guessed.

"You figured it out," Miranda observed. "I'm not surprised. The Pinkertons told me you were clever."

"Was it also they who learned of my involvement in your father's case?"

"No, that was me. It was just sheer luck, or so you'd probably call it. I called it something else. As soon as the information came into my hands, I knew God wanted me to settle accounts for him."

"I understand that you blame me for his death," said Maude. "I regret its occurrence; it was certainly nothin' I sought. But my son has nothin' to do with it, and I will not permit you to harm him."

"He has everything to do with it," Miranda grated. "I lost a parent. You, a parent, must lose a child."

"I didn't know of his death until I read the clippings you sent," Maude told her. "I had put that entire unfortunate business behind me."

"I hadn't," retorted Miranda. "I couldn't. Every day I lived with the knowledge of what I'd lost, what my family had lost--not just Father himself, but our fortune and our good name. You did that."

"It wasn't my choice," said Maude. "It was expose him or go to prison."

"And so you chose prison for him over prison for yourself."

"I saw little difference between what he did and what I had done--except in magnitude," Maude replied. "The fraud he had perpetrated was far more catastrophic than anything I had imagined up to that point. The people he had induced to trust him were more in number than I had hoodwinked in my entire career. And I had my son to consider. I hadn't anticipated that your father would be forced to make restitution; I assumed his ill-gotten gains had already been put away in some safe place, and you would have access to them for your support even if he were convicted--which was by no means certain."

"That doesn't matter." Miranda had been slowly edging her way around the perimeter of the room, moving toward the bedside, as Maude shifted the muzzle of the derringer to follow her. "What matters is what happened."

"It is over. Killin' my boy will do nothin' to change it."

"I know that. But it will give me some satisfaction."

"I don't intend to permit you to harm him." Maude cocked the derringer. "Put your gun down."

Miranda laughed. "You won't shoot. You're a grifter. The Pinkertons were at pains to explain to me that grifters are never fighters. They'd much rather run than resort to a weapon." Her eyes flicked down to Ezra just long enough to make certain of his location, and she began to turn the Webley's muzzle to bear on his temple.

Maude realized she was out of time and out of options. If once that barrel reached the optimum angle, the spasming of the woman's finger on the trigger could kill Ezra even as she died. Maude elevated the derringer by a fraction of an inch. "I warned you," she said, and fired.

The Webley went off, but the bullet passed a foot or two to Maude's right and shattered the window. Miranda Kane lurched backward, hit the dresser, and slid down the front of it. Picking up her skirts with her free hand, Maude rustled quickly around the bed to toe the pistol away from her hand.

"Yes, I am a grifter," she agreed. "But I am also a gambler, and gamblers, unlike grifters, must be prepared to defend themselves should the occasion arise."

Miranda didn't reply. The low-power bullet had taken her squarely between the eyes.

Maude turned to assure herself that Ezra was alive. He was unconscious or asleep, but breathing still. She stroked his flushed cheek. "I wonder if you would ever believe me capable of defendin' you so," she murmured.

And then, for the second time in her life (the first had been when she received word of Patrick Standish's death), the indomitable Maude Rawlings Standish Freerman D'Ormesson Pendergast Murdock fainted.

And that was how Nathan found them when he burst through the door.


Josiah had been temporarily stunned by Sundog's blow, but his constitution was such that he recovered more quickly than most other men would, and although somewhat dazed and wobbly, he had had enough sense and energy to apprehend the fleeing Sam, who had been slowed by having banged his wounded side when he dropped out of the cottonwood tree. Once it became apparent to the fugitive that his cohorts and his employer were dead, he was eager to tell everything he knew in exchange for a promise that he wouldn't face a noose. The Colorado Springs police weren't altogether happy about what had been going on under their noses, but they were forced to drop all charges against Maude and the Seven.

Whether the Kane brothers ever guessed at the connection was never clear. But the money, stock, and deeds that Maude had won from them were already safely stowed in their stepmother's safe and her box at Will Jackson's bank, and were therefore covered under the provision of her will that left "everything of which I die possessed" to her nephews, with guardianship vested equally in her sister and her attorney. They had no legal basis for them to challenge that will as they had their father's, and the Seven didn't care one way or the other, so they said nothing about what they had guessed.

Buck and JD found another cottage, farther out, and the whole group moved into it, taking Ezra with them. Maude proved to be a surprisingly skilled cook, and provided rich broths, thick soups, stewed dried fruit, cool slithery egg custards, gruel, wine jelly, boiled chicken, bread pudding, soft-boiled eggs, and strengthening stews for her ailing son. The others took turns sitting by his bedside, holding his hand or talking to him. Chris was adamant that they make their presence known to him even if he appeared to be completely oblivious to it. Maybe, he said, on some level Ezra would still be aware they were there. Maybe it would help him to know someone cared.

Slowly the fever was beaten back. Ezra's temperature diminished; the rash faded. He spent more time conscious. But he didn't seem to gain in strength. He was quiet, passive, subdued, submissive to the various indignities Nathan inflicted on him. He didn't complain at the taste of the teas he was given, or flinch away from the compresses that were used to ease his aches and pains. He was gaunt and pale, his features fine-drawn, body limp and without energy. He still looked fragile and exhausted. He spoke little, didn't behave as if he fully knew what was going on around him or why he was there. He slept twelve or more hours a day and gave no hint of interest in playing cards--even solitaire--or in Josiah's or Chris's offers of chess, Vin's and Buck's of dominoes or checkers. There was no witty sparkle in his eyes, no sly gold-toothed smile on his lips, no long strings of five-dollar words at the least excuse. He wasn't himself, Buck said. And it was true: he wasn't the Ezra Standish they had come to know.

Josiah kept him clean, sponge-bathing him with a gentle detachment that removed all hint of humiliation from the process. Vin and Buck took turns with a razor, keeping him neatly shaven. Nathan administered heat and massage and gentle stretching exercises to bring his muscles back. JD located a bookstore with a lending library attached to it, and his friends took turns reading to him--Shakespeare and epic poetry, newspapers and dime novels, history and travel. Sometimes they just sat by him and talked--Josiah of the distant lands in which he'd travelled, JD of the horses he'd known, Buck of women and Four Corners gossip and his early years as Chris's partner. None of it seemed to stimulate Ezra's interest. He would lie back against the stacked pillows with eyelids at half-mast, staring silently off into the distance or gazing dully at whoever was with him. Eventually he would lose his grip on reality and drift off into sleep, or at least some facsimile of it, without moving or speaking, only an occasional weary, sorrowful sigh.

Nathan was frankly worried. "I ain't never seen him like this," he admitted. "Hell, I ain't seen the like of the way he's behavin' since the War, and then it was men that'd been hurt bad, maimed or blinded or such as that. He ain't in pain, the fever's gone, his skin's cleared up, his breathing's normal, but he just ain't comin' back."

"He don't seem to want to get well," Buck fretted, remembering a similar incident with JD the previous fall. "Sometimes it seems like he ain't interested in nothin', or maybe ain't sure of where he is."

"He's confused, Buck," the healer told him. "That happens with spotted fever, sometimes."

"Shit, Nathan, I know confused when I see it. Confused is thinkin' we were gonna hurt him, maybe. It ain't knowin' us for who we are and not bein' able to understand why we'd bother to come lookin' for him."

"Is that what he did?" Chris demanded.

"At the cabin when we found him, yeah. Couldn't seem to figure why you'd have let us come, or why we'd want to. Plus which, if it was the fever doin' it, why'd it still be hangin' on? He ain't runnin' a temperature no more."

Nathan frowned. He hadn't wanted to admit it, but Buck was right. Confusion was generally characterized by bewilderment, lack of orderly thought, and inability to make decisions. But Ezra didn't seem bewildered any more; he had right at first, when he was still in the delirious stage, but now he knew he was among friends, knew what was going on around him, seemed to be taking in what was said to him. He just wasn't responding to any of it. As for decisions, he seemed to have made one, at least, and made it firmly, though it was a negative one: the decision not to rally, not to fight, not to improve. He'd reached a certain point in his convalescence and apparently gotten stuck there. He wasn't gaining ground. "He don't care about anything," the healer said. "Don't want to talk to anybody. Got no spirit left. It's like somethin' happened to him while he was away from us that killed somethin' inside of him."

Vin's eyes sparked. "You reckon they done somethin' to him? Abused him someways?"

"No," the healer replied at once, "if they'd hurt him bad enough to break his spirit, there'd been some kind of physical sign of it. The only marks he had on him when Buck and JD fetched him in was the rash and a fadin' bruise on the side of his head, where they must'a hit him when they first captured him in Trinidad." He sighed. "I don't know why he don't get better. He should. He eats what's give to him, don't fight me over his medications, gets more'n enough sleep, God knows. Ain't actin' like hisself. Every one of you's a healer's nightmare when you're down, but Ezra hates bein' sick, hates bein' vulnerable, hates havin' to depend on others, hates the weakness and the inconvenience and the humiliation. Hates worst of all that he might be missin' somethin'. He's like all the worst parts of Vin and JD and Chris and Buck rolled into one."

"He's gonna end up dead if he don't get to tryin'," said Vin. "Seen it in Injuns. They can plumb think theirselves to death when they set their minds to it. He looks about half dead as it is. Ain't never knowed him to act so--so hopeless, so defeated, so sad. Ain't never knowed him to just give up like this."

"He just seems to sink a little deeper every day, like a steer in a mire," Chris agreed. "If we can't haul him out of it pretty soon, I'm afraid we'll lose him."

Maude had listened to their exchange without interrupting, watching their unguarded faces, their body language. If there was one lesson a con artist had to learn, it was the importance of timing. Timing, with patience and imagination and persuasiveness, was everything. And part of that was learning when not to be obtrusive. For a week, now, she had watched as Ezra's "associates" worked over him, prayed over him, talked to him, exhorted and wheedled him. Hard, dangerous men that they were, tough and capable and experienced, they had tended him with a depth of devotion and care that she had never expected to see from them, that was, frankly, beyond anything she herself had ever afforded him. And she had come to an understanding that she hadn't had before. It wasn't all one way. They weren't just using him for his skills and charm, as she had feared they were, as Durand had used her. They cared about him. They wanted him. One might go so far as to say they loved him, though that was a word they would definitely never use. And they weren't afraid to prove it by the most intimate kinds of service, the most abiding patience. They were what Mr. Sanchez called them, his "brothers"--the brothers Maude had never been able to give him.

In the privacy of her thoughts Maude admitted she didn't know her son as well as a mother should. She had never allowed herself enough time with him to reach any real emotional intimacy. She had fought against her own maternal feelings because she was so fearful of life's uncertainties. Yet having known his father as she had, she realized more keenly than the six men could just what was possible to him. Did they truly not know what they had done to him? They knew what he came from, how she had raised him--and, now, much of why. It wasn't his captors that had broken his spirit. It was his so-called friends. The realization made her angry--How can men be so blind? Yet the concern they showed for him seemed so real. They were genuinely afraid of losing him. They would be equally as diminished by his death as she had feared he would be by one of theirs.

She hadn't seen him so open and vulnerable in many years. The experience aroused memories, some of them pleasant, many sad. Had she ever told him how much she loved him, how proud she was of him? Would she ever be able to admit these things to his face? Could she? There wasn't that much time left. She was almost fifty-four, and she lived a less than secure life--not merely the cons, but the continual travelling, exposing herself to train wrecks and sickness and steamboat explosions. But now, at least, he had others who could help him, even if he lost her. That thought was comforting.

She found herself questioning the rightness of the path she had followed. Should she have raised him as she had--or, rather, left him, for the most part, to be raised by others? Should she have taught him such hardness and cynicism? Would the letdown have been so punishing if she hadn't? He had learned to believe that everyone was out to use him or get him, and then he had found a place where he had slowly come to think that he was safe--and been betrayed again. There were many things she had done to him--done for him, she had thought at the time--that had injured him. Perhaps by making his cohorts realize their mistake, she could make up for all that, or at least for part of it.

She cleared her throat and was immediately conscious of the looks that focused on her, as if they had indeed almost forgotten she was there. "I know you are aware that I have not always been an ideal mother," she said. "But allow me the privilege of believin' that I do have advantages you lack. Ezra and I share blood, and I knew and loved his father. He has always been a tenderhearted boy, much like Patrick. He has learned, for the most part, to conceal it, although I dare say you have guessed at it from time to time since you have known him." They nodded, thinking of the Southerner's easiness with children and his all-too-obvious reaction to the death of Claire Moseley. "I have always told him it would be his undoin', and I see I am bein' proved right." She hesitated a moment, a catch in her voice. "What I have done to him over the years is almost certainly past all possibility of my makin' amends for--not merely my repeated abandonment and neglect, but the way in which I trampled upon his dream when I last visited your community. You, however, may still have a chance to reach him. And in this case it is your responsibility to reach him, because it is your doing that he is in his current state."

"Us?!" Buck exclaimed. "Hey, now, hold on a minute, Miz Standish! Ezra's one of us and he knows it. What have we done to him that's so awful?"

"Don't prevaricate, Mr. Wilmington," the woman snapped. "You seem to forget that I was present durin' my son's most recent trial. You were preoccupied with that young female who claimed to be carryin' your child. Mr. Larabee and Mr. Tanner were preoccupied with the Tascosa business. And you, Mr. Jackson, Mr. Sanchez, Mr. Dunne, did exactly what Ezra had feared you would do: you turned your backs on him. You failed to resist my wiles, and joined the rest of your wretched ungrateful town in abandonin' Ezra when he needed you most. I won't say that I had believed you would do otherwise, but I had had some hopes; Ezra has always insisted so stoutly that in you he had found people he could trust, not merely with his life, but with his heart." She shook her head. "And so what I feared for him has come to pass. He offered you his innermost self, his soul, his trust, and you trampled upon it as callously as ever I have done. Don't you understand what is goin' on here? Ezra has given up. He's usin' this fever as an excuse to slip away from us, to stop fightin', to simply let go and die. Your betrayal was too much for him. He realizes now that there is more to livin' than material gain. He's seen Paradise, and knows he can't go back to his life as it was before. He can't bear the prospect of a life without meaning, without warmth, without the trust and support and love that I never gave him, but that he believed he would obtain from you." She raked them with smouldering eyes, her anger clear in every line of her rigidly erect body, in the hard glint of her stare. "Now, gentlemen, I suggest that you find some means of convincin' Ezra of the error of his beliefs, or his death will be on your consciences, and you will carry my curse, for whatever it may be worth, in this life and the next!" And with that she whirled and marched out of the room, leaving six stunned peacekeepers staring at one another in bewilderment.

Buck whistled softly. "Boys, as a man who's forgotten more about women than most men will ever know, it's my opinion that we've just been told off."

"I fear you're right, Brother Buck," said Josiah sadly, though a spark of admiration still gleamed in his eye. What an incredible woman! Such beauty, such intelligence, such fortitude. Ezra had always said his mother married only for money. But she had married for love, once. Was it so far a stretch to hope that she might do so again? Neither of them was getting any younger. Scripture said that "man was not meant to be alone." Neither, Josiah believed, was woman.

Maude could have her pick of wealthy men. She certainly was a mistress of all the wiles necessary to entrap them. And her men were always chosen on the basis of wealth rather than character or even mutual attraction, because they could offer her all the fine things a woman desired--especially a woman driven, as Maude was, by the fundamental fear of being poor.

Poor as a church mouse--or a barely-more-than-churchless, defrocked priest, he told himself. Josiah Elijah Samuel Uriah Silas Sanchez, you're behaving, or at least thinking, like a blithering fool. Clearly, old age is stealing your reason. You know now what she comes from, why she behaves as she does. She has said plainly, in so many words, that Ezra's father was the love of her life. Whatever makes you think you can compete with the idealized picture, painted by time and tragedy, of a handsome, cultivated young man who saved her life, revived her self-respect, gave her a reason to want to go on?

You can't, but perhaps you can still help save the son who is all she has left of him.

"What's worst is, she's prob'ly right," Nathan observed. "I don't know if I honestly didn't see it, or didn't want to see it, or didn't want to believe it, but it's true. Ezra ain't tryin'. He's given up. And if we don't stir up his interest in life again, damn soon, we're gonna lose him. You seen the way he's droppin' weight? He's had to lost ten pounds since the last time I seen him with his clothes off, and he ain't built to take that."

"What you reckon we should do?" Vin asked.

The healer shrugged helplessly. "I don't know, but it's gonna take more'n teas and broth, I can tell you."

"I think we just need to let him know how we feel about him," said JD softly. "We need to tell him we're sorry for the way we done him during that saloon business, and we need to make him see how important it is for us to have him with us. We need to tell him he's important to us, that he's got value to us that goes beyond just bein' good with a gun, or a sharp con, or havin' a gift for readin' people. And I think we need to do it one at a time, alone with him, so he'll know none of us is buildin' on what he heard any of the others say."

Buck tilted a look at him. "How the hell did you get so smart all of a sudden, kid?"

JD shrugged. "I know somethin' about dealin' with sick people, I guess. You gotta give 'em a reason to want to live."

"I think JD's right," Chris declared. "I don't see what else there is for us to do--Nathan's tried everything he knows and Ezra's barely holdin' on. All right. Who goes first? I got a notion I'd best be last in. I don't want to seem to be intimidatin' him, he's had enough of that."

"Maybe Nathan better go first," JD suggested. "Make sure he's awake and all."

The healer thought for a minute. "If Maude's right...then a lot of what's goin' on with him is shock or stress or nervous debility. Might be if I was to give him a little tonic, somethin' that strengthens and feeds the nervous tissues directly, he'll stay awake and pay attention. Oats is one of the best things. Combine it with peppermint for a stimulant, he oughtta sit up and take notice for a while."

"Do it," Chris ordered, sneaking a hand into the sling that supported his healing gun arm.

"Don't scratch that," the healer told him. "You wanta break it open again?"


Nathan had never been comfortable with the concept of having heart-to-heart talks with Ezra. He knew why, deep inside himself, though he tried to tell himself it was because of the man's elastic morals and infuriating laziness. But now, knowing how close the gambler was to slipping away from them, he found himself experiencing a strange mixture of emotion: sorrow, concern, regret, outrage, self-recrimination. How could a man want to slough off the greatest gift of all? Had he, Nathan Jackson, somehow made the prospect seem more attractive? What kind of healer did that make him, if his patient preferred to die?

He took a minute or two to calm and center himself, to try to get a handle on his emotions, before he entered Ezra's bedroom. It wouldn't do the Southerner any good if Nathan went in there with an attitude and started yelling or acting self-righteous. That would only serve to confirm the picture he'd built up in his mind, the one that was killing him. He had convinced himself they didn't care about him, weren't concerned. If he allowed himself to believe otherwise, it would undermine his perceptions and the methodical self-imposed ostracism, the pulling away.

He knew all along we'd betray him, Jackson thought. He expected it for so long that when it happened he blew it all out of proportion. He thinks he should've expected it, should've taken steps to keep himself from bein' hurt. He acts like we'd gut-shot him and left him to die somewhere. Because, to him, that wound--the one made up of his father's death, and Maude's neglect, and the way his kin treated him--is still raw, and every time he lets people close enough to rub up against him, they irritate it all over again.

Hell, I've seen wounds enough, why didn't I realize?

And I didn't do a damn thing to help him. I acted just the way most of his relatives did, gettin' on his case about something that wasn't really his fault.

He knocked gently at the door and waited until the soft, uninflected drawl from inside asked quietly: "Who is it?"

"It's Nathan, Ezra. I got a tea I need you to drink."

A sigh barely audible through the panel. "If I must."

They had given the Southerner the room on the southwest corner of the cottage, since it got the most sun and was therefore the warmest. He was lying propped up in the high-backed bed, with the carved planking at the head, dressed in the silk nightshirt Maude had bought for him, his upper body supported by several fluffy pillows. He glanced once in Nathan's direction and then turned his head and went back to gazing out the window at the nearby mountains. The healer wondered at that; Ezra was usually so quick to point out that he wasn't a lover of Nature-in-the-raw, yet there seemed to be almost a yearning air about him. He eyed the lift of cheekbone, so close under the gambler's pale skin that it seemed on the verge of breaking through, and the gaunt hand lying on the patchwork comforter, almost translucent in appearance. It seemed strange not to see that hand in motion, restlessly cutting and shuffling his ever-present deck of cards. The cards lay on the stand beside the bed, ignored; Ezra seemed to have lost interest even in these most basic tools of his livelihood. I should'a seen it.

Nathan circled around the bed and put the mug on the stand. "Your back hurtin' you?" he asked.

"Not significantly, thank you," said Ezra in the same uninflected voice.

"Lemme just fix them pillows a bit, anyhow," Jackson replied.

"As you wish." Ezra hitched forward a little to give him access. Nathan watched his face, or as much of it as was visible, while he straightened and fluffed the pillows and restacked them. He saw no indication of fear or mistrust, just a kind of--of resignation. The gambler looked...contemplative. That was the word. A five-dollar Ezra word if ever there was one, but a perfect word for the way he looked. Contemplative, resigned, and sad. What was he contemplating? His own death? If, as Vin had suggested, he was trying to "think himself" there, it made sense.

"Careful with this," the healer cautioned as Ezra sat back. "It's hot."

Standish sniffed cautiously at the steam rising from the mug. "This isn't the same brew as you've been administerin' heretofore, is it?"

Well, at least he's still got some interest in what's goin' on around him, Nathan thought. "No, this is somethin' else. It's to build you up a little. Go on, drink it."

Ezra complied silently, taking slow cautious sips. When he had finished, he handed the cup back, with an air that clearly suggested he expected to be left alone. Well, here we go, Nathan thought. "Ezra, I got something I think I need to say to you."

"Please don't, Mistah Jackson," said Standish wearily, his drawl thicker than normal--a certain sign, as Nathan had learned, that he was either drunk, in pain, or exhausted, whether emotionally or physically.

"It ain't what you think it is, damnit. I know what you're doin' here, and I know why, and I know it's part my fault. And I need to apologize for that."

Ezra looked up at him sharply, eyes widening in astonishment. "Do my eahs deceive me?" he asked with a hint of the old biting sarcasm. "Is the evah-exemplary Nathan Jackson admittin' that he has made an errah?"

"If you're tryin' to drive me off, you ain't gonna do it that way," Nathan told him evenly. "This needs to get said and I aim to keep my temper till it is. I wronged you, Ezra. And not just when you and Maude were fightin' over the saloon. From the first day, I took out my own old hurts on you when I had no right to do it. I didn't know enough about you to have that privilege. I just looked at you and listened to the way you talked and lumped you in with a bunch of people out of my past that I wished I had it in my power to hurt, and I reckon I made you stand in for 'em. I guess we both got off on the wrong foot. Both made some judgments based on our own perceptions and assumptions."

Ezra had been listening in silence, his jade eyes penetrating, assessing the healer's truth by criteria only he knew. "That is natural, Mistah Jackson. Each man is the product of his past. The experiences he has had shape his opinions, the way in which he views the world and the people in it."

"But a man can learn. He can change. He ain't a tree or a rock. He can see and listen and think. That's what I should'a done. Should'a looked at how a man like Chris could accept you into the group, or Vin could see you as a friend, and remembered that they've had to learn the hard way how to know what a man has in him. Shouldn't'a left you without no support, either, when you were fightin' it out with your mama."

"Mother has tricked marks with far more experience and wariness than yourself, Mistah Jackson," Ezra observed. "You should not feel ashamed of havin' permitted yourself to be manipulated. It is, after all, what she does. She has even done it to me."

"Don't mean she should have. Don't mean after all the stories you'd told us, all that I already knew about her, I should'a' let her mess with my head like I did. It's just that...I ain't tryin' to excuse myself exactly, but she offered me somethin'...somethin' I've hardly dared to dream about. Even if I knew it wasn't real, it was such a--a proud feelin' to know that somebody was willin' to recognize everything I've spent most of my life learnin'..." He shrugged. "I guess I should be glad she didn't take my money."

"You don't have enough money for Mother to consider worth her while. She has always taken pride in the fact that she never targets anyone who cannot afford it. In that, I suited the profile admirably."

"That don't make me feel a lot better," Nathan told him. "And anyway, we ain't talkin' about her, we're talkin' about you. She was usin' me to get to you, and I thought I was past bein' used for other people's ends. Don't like it. Like it less that I was bein' used against a man I ride with, a man I know depends on me to be there--to cover his back, and to pick the lead out of his hide when the need arises. I don't honestly know why I've been on your case so much. It ain't like you or Maude was the ones that owned me. It's just--"

"--That I'm Southron. That I speak and dress and behave like the 'gentlemen' who abused you."

"I should be better than that. I know what it's like to have folks look at the surface and think they know all about me. And here I go and do the same thing to you."

"I have already observed that you are what your past has made you. Do you suppose I haven't encountered similar treatment before?"

Even sick as he is, he has to be the most exasperatin' man I ever met. And the best at givin' you a run-around, Nathan told himself. But I ain't gonna let it make a difference. "This ain't before," he pointed out. "Not for you, and not for me. This is somethin' new and different for both of us, and we should both be tryin' to keep that in mind."

"A 'second chance'?" Ezra asked, with the faintest hint of his old sly smirk. "I was aware of that. But in the end, it really doesn't mattah." He sighed and lay back against the pillows, his eyes drifting shut. "Don't count yourself so high, Mistah Jackson. Your attitude toward me has little to do with the decision I've made. You behaved accordin' to your nature and previously established pattern, and I nevah truly expected that you would do otherwise. I appreciate what it took for you to offer an apology, but it wasn't necessary."

"It was for me," Nathan told him. "It needed sayin', and I said it." He hesitated a moment before laying his hand on the gambler's shoulder, seeing the green eyes slit open, without malice or outrage, before the lids lowered again as if too heavy to stay up. "Said it, and meant it, and I mean this too. We don't want you to go. We want you to start tryin' again, to get better and come back to Four Corners with us. I ain't nursed you through that damn fever to lose you now. You keep that in mind."

Ezra only sighed and nodded against the pillow. And Nathan realized that he wasn't going to do any more good by flogging the same horse. "JD wants to come in and see you," he said. "That okay?"

"I see no reason why not," said Ezra neutrally.

"All right, I'll send him on in." Nathan slipped quietly out the door and shut it softly behind him.

The others were waiting their turns, strung out along the hall and the landing and on the top step. The healer looked around at them and shook his head. "Ain't sure I got through to him," he admitted. "Done my best, apologized and everything. He seemed to accept it, but it didn't fetch much of a reaction."

"What'd he say?" asked JD.

"Said I behaved just about the way he'd expected me to, and it wasn't necessary for me to say I was sorry." He nodded to the kid. "I told him you wanted to see him next."

"Thanks, Nathan." JD removed his bowler, tucked an errant strand of hair behind his ear, took a deep breath and reached for the doorknob.

He remembered all too keenly how it had been to watch his mother dying, slowly, over months. Stepping into Ezra's sickroom, he was immediately aware of the same feel about the place as he had known in their quarters in the boardinghouse in New York. For a moment he almost wanted to turn around and run. He could think of nothing he feared so much as the prospect of losing one of these six men who had become older brothers to him. But for that very reason he had to do everything in his power to prevent it from happening. "How are you feelin', Ezra?" he asked quietly. He didn't try to sound falsely cheerful; he knew Standish would see through that in a minute.

"As well as could be expected, I suppose, thank you, Mistah Dunne," the gambler replied. He turned his head on the pillow and raised his eyelids to half-mast. "I don't remember if I have had the opportunity to say this. I have some vague recollection of you bein' there--I believe we must have been on the trail--coaxin' me to drink, keepin' me covered and comfortable, doin' the best you could to make the journey easier for me. A gentleman should not fail to express his appreciation to the provider of such intimate services. I am grateful for your concern and assistance."

"Shoot, Ezra," JD retorted, "that's just what any of us would do for any of the others in your fix. I just got more experience with sick folks than the others, exceptin' Nathan." He hesitated a moment. "Ezra, 'd you ever read a dime novel?"

"No, Mistah Dunne. I am aware you find them fascinatin', but their style is...not attractive to me."

"It's a funny thing about 'em," JD mused. "Any man who gambles, in a dime novel, always gets exposed as a scoundrel sooner or later. Lots of times he's the villain."

"If you are makin' a comparison with myself," said Ezra, "I scarcely need the reminder. I know what I am."

"But that's just the point," JD exclaimed. "You ain't. When I first met you, when I heard what you did for a living, I wasn't sure I'd want to know you. But you were the only one who didn't seem to think I was some kind of...well, liability. You accepted me as one of the outfit before anyone else did--even Buck."

"I have known what it is to be a liability. It is not a role I would impose upon others. In any case, I was only slightly less marginal than yourself. Pariahs and untouchables should stick together."

"What's a pariah?" JD inquired.

"An outcast. Literally, a type of yellow dog to be found lurkin' about the fringes of life in every Hindu village. I'm certain Mistah Sanchez could tell you all you would wish to know about them--or about untouchables either, for that matter."

"Are you still thinkin' that's what you are? With us, I mean?"

"And if I am?" Ezra retorted mildly.

"If you are, then you're wrong," JD told him warmly. "There's somethin' I been meanin' to say ever since we found out you were probably in trouble. I done wrong, Ezra. I knew you trusted me, and I took that trust and twisted the power you'd given me and hurt you. I shouldn't'a done that. I don't know what good it would'a done you to have just me as a customer, but I know I should'a stood by you. And I know apologizin' won't change anything that came of my bein' thoughtless and cruel, but I want to apologize anyway. I'm sorry."

"Cruel?" Ezra echoed. "You, Mistah Dunne? Nevah. You don't know what it is to be cruel. It's merely that you make mistakes. You don't, as Mistah Wilmington says, always think before you go chargin' ahead. You don't know everything the rest of us do, you don't see things as we can. But whatevah you do, you do it because, at that moment, you believe it to be right. Every man has a weakness; yours is youth, which you are gettin' ovah very fast." He sighed. "You have an incredible amount of potential, you know. More perhaps than any of the rest of us has evah possessed. You must not misuse that. You must heed what Mistah Larabee and Mistah Wilmington have to teach you, and become all the man it is in you to be." For a moment the jade eyes flashed piercingly, a hint of their old keenness surfacing. "Will you give me your word to that, Mistah Dunne?"

JD felt suddenly disorganized, frightened, as he hadn't since the evening he watched beside his mother's bed, knowing this would be the night he'd lose her. She had required a promise of him too. "Be a good man, John Daniel. Be something more than you are here. Find your place and make something of yourself. Make a difference in the world. Go to school if you can, but if not, most of all, be what makes you happy, so."

"You gotta stay and help me, Ezra," he said, knowing his desire showed in his eyes.

"There's very little you can learn from me, Mistah Dunne. Other teachers are far more worth your time and attention. I want your word."

"You got it, Ezra. But you still gotta stay. We don't want you to go, not any of us."

"So Mistah Jackson has already informed me," Ezra agreed.

"Then why's it so hard for you to believe it?" JD demanded. "You think Nathan's in the habit of lyin'? You ever know him to lie, even when it would be easier for him?"

"No," Ezra admitted, "I nevah have. But that is not the issue, Mistah Dunne. The issue isn't what the rest of you want or don't want. It is what I know to be best."

"It ain't best!" JD snapped. "How can--can just lettin' yourself lay there and die be best? You've fought to keep yourself alive, we've all seen it. You didn't stay with them four that kidnapped you out of Trinidad, you found a way to get away from 'em. Why'd you go to all that trouble if you thought dyin' was better?"

"Circumstances alter cases, Mistah Dunne," said Ezra tiredly. "It's not somethin' a person of your years could be expected to comprehend." He lay back against the pillows. "I'm very weary, Mistah Dunne, and I'd prefer not to talk any longer."

JD took a breath to protest, then hesitated, realizing that to go on as he was would only upset or depress the Southerner more. I ain't the right one to be here now, he understood. "All right," he said quietly. "I'll go. But you gotta promise me you'll think about what I said."

"If that will comfort you, I promise," Ezra told him. "But I suspect I shall think the same thing each time."

The other five looked questioningly at JD as he shut the door behind him. "No good," he said. "I told him I was sorry and all, and I told him we wanted him to stay, but I ain't sure it made any difference to him. You better try next, Josiah. He said he don't want to talk, so maybe he needs somebody to be there who can carry the whole conversation by himself."

"Whatsoever thy hand findeth to do, do thy damnedest," murmured the preacher, as he stood up.

"That ain't in the Book, is it?" asked Buck.

"Not in those words," Josiah admitted. "But it's what the writers had in mind, I think."

"I told Mistah Dunne I didn't want to talk," Ezra observed without opening his eyes, as he heard the doorlatch click.

"I know," Josiah agreed. "So you don't have to. You can listen, which you haven't been, apparently." He pulled a horsehair-covered mahogany chair up to the bedside and settled his bulk carefully onto it.

Ezra's heavy lids raised a moment, and a shaft of green shot out at him. "If you're here to pray over me, Mistah Sanchez, kindly spare yourself the effort. I doubt most sincerely that your God or anyone else's would find me valuable enough to pay heed to such petitions."

"That's just the trouble, Ezra. You doubt." Josiah took a moment to order his thoughts. As the son of a missionary whose zeal for God had been the driving force of his life, he'd been taught almost from infancy that the welfare of the soul was far more important than that of the body. And while he'd seen many of the negative results of that kind of ardor--intolerance, bigotry, fanaticism--he'd also seen wonders produced by faith that could only be described as miracles. He'd seen doctors absolutely stymied when a patient they'd considered hopeless had been apparently healed by faith alone, had seen bodies willed back to wellness by souls--and he had seen how belief could kill. He had seen Africans who had been told they'd been cursed unto death sink quietly into a decline, turn their faces to the wall, and slip away in three days, just because they believed in the power of the person whose curse it was. Indeed, of all the other six, he was perhaps the best qualified to understand just how possible it was for a man to, as Vin had said, think himself to death.

He wondered that he should be as surprised as he was by Ezra's behavior. Even after all their time together, he reflected, the gambler still behaved as if he thought himself the odd man out. Josiah had done his best to correct this misapprehension, but it seemed that whenever he tried to draw the Southerner closer into their group, Ezra only became more defensive and inclined to withdraw. Though he was well-mannered and witty, good with words and comfortable among people, he played his cards close to the vest, revealing nothing that he thought might have the prospect of coming back to haunt him. Nothing except the negative aspects of his character, that is. He seemed almost to flaunt those as he did the colorful jackets of which he was so proud and choice. It was as if he actually went out of his way to convince people that he was a lazy, greedy, cowardly bastard ready to fleece anyone at a moment's notice. That, Josiah realized, was his defense, how he kept them at bay. They looked at the façade he threw up and took him for someone not worth knowing, not worth the trouble, not friendship material. Was it possible he didn't even know he was none of the things he pretended to be? Perhaps it was simply easier for him that way. If he didn't let anyone close to him, then no one could hurt him. Or perhaps it was simply that no one had ever given him the chance to form close ties.

He had spent so much time on his own, relying only on himself, that he had probably never really considered looking for assistance--or, still less, expecting it to come unasked. And he was proud, terribly proud, as all Southerners were--with perhaps better reason than most, since that pride must often have been all he had to sustain him. He didn't want to seem weak. He'd suffered so much grudging charity in his life that he must have come to equate any kind of request for aid with ties and conditions and shame. The concept of family, between Maude and his various caretaking kinfolks, must bear few or no positive connotations to him. But it's not like that with us. In this outfit, you give as much as you take. Ezra, you need to start believing that we're a team.

Of course, the rest of the team didn't always make that easy for him. As he'd told Chris the evening Maude revealed her past to them, for all his genuine liking for Nathan, Josiah was often troubled by the healer's rather bigoted attitude toward Ezra. It was true the younger man still made a very large percentage of his living at cards, but he never forced or coerced anyone into playing with him; often it was they who were the first to ask. They were free to leave his table at any time they chose. And he wasn't so stupid as to "clean out" his fellow gamers, no matter what Nathan might think. Usually he had the decency to let the other players leave the table with their pride intact and enough money to call it a fair evening. Gambling was his livelihood, and, like the cautious hunter who strives always to preserve the young, he knew that the only way to keep the money flowing in was to treat them with care. Take a few dollars here, a few dollars there--enough to cover expenses, to purchase a new jacket or two, to put something by for the future. That would keep them coming back. Offer his opponents an evening's diversion in exchange for the pittance they lost. What could be fairer?

Naturally there were always the reckless ones who would bet everything they had. They'd push their pile of money across the table and all but dare him to call. If a man was foolish enough to risk his life's savings, why should Ezra feel obliged to stop him? No one was putting a gun to the other player's head. He chose freely to stake his money, even to sit down at the table in the first place. It wasn't as if Ezra had taken anyone unawares. He made no secret of his profession. He declared what he was by his dress and his fancy shuffles; like a coral snake, he warned anyone who came near him that he was a creature to beware of.

Yet behind that surface flash was a deep well of loneliness and a severely battered self-image. Josiah remembered once being on the trail with the Southerner, doing some errand for the Judge, when the conversation turned to the prospects of marriage and children. Ezra had laughed lightly, dismissively, at the suggestion, and Josiah could still bring his words to mind as clearly as if they'd been spoken only a minute ago. "Children? No, Mr. Sanchez, not for me. Whyever would I want any? They are nothin' but vexatious encumbrances. They interfere and meddle with everythin' and, try though they may, cause only incalculable inconvenience. They arrive at great expense--often, indeed, they bring about indebtedness with their first breath--and take years of instruction and cultivation before one can even be compensated for their costs, let alone realize any significant profit from them."

Josiah didn't contradict the assertion, but he knew that couldn't really be Ezra talking. He knew how much the Southerner loved children. Who was he quoting? Was this how he had been made to feel as a child--never appreciated, never wanted, a burden to everyone around him? What a horrible thing for a child to think.

The preacher was grateful to Maude for having defended her son to the death when Miranda Kane threatened him. But it was almost the first sign he had ever seen of any real maternal feeling on her part. Certainly she had never shown any sign of giving Ezra the things he really longed for. He remembered how doggedly Ezra tried, whenever she was in town, to gain some token of affection from her, some word of encouragement or show of pride. And she in turn almost treated him like a possession, something to be trained like a pet dog or left behind like a piece of unwanted luggage. How must that have affected his tender young soul? It was little wonder he counted himself so valueless, if the one person from whom he must naturally and inevitably have expected unconditional love and acceptance had failed all his life to offer it.

"It's natural for a man to question his own worth on occasion," he began. "Life isn't kind, and the free will we've been given means that inevitably we'll make bad decisions--or someone else will make one that has some profound effect on us. For someone who was shunted from pillar to post the way you were as a boy, it must seem self-evident that you have no merit or significance as an individual. But that's not true, and none of it was the result of anything you did. You know the Bible says that 'The sins of the fathers shall be visited upon the children.' I don't believe the Lord was speaking for Himself when He said that. I think He meant that we sometimes suffer unjustly as a result of the choices made on our behalf, often thoughtlessly, by others. I think God is more just than that. I know He is, because I see that He brought us all together--you and Vin, who needed someone to trust; Chris, who needed someone to help him understand his heart hadn't burned with his family; JD, who needed someone to undertake the responsibility of teaching him what he had to know to survive, and Buck, who needed someone to depend on him; Nathan, who needed to learn that there really are people who don't care about his color or his having been a slave; me, who needed to be shown a way to penance that didn't necessarily involve mortifying the flesh, but could offer an opportunity to really accomplish something constructive with my life. God guided each of us to the one place we had to be, at the particular time we had to be there, to show us that there was a need for us, a task that only we could do--not as individuals, but together. It's possible that He also put us through some difficult tests before that. But He did it for a reason, because He saw there would be need of men with certain skills and character--which they could only develop through experience and testing that tempered them as fire and water temper steel. He never really throws more at us than we can bear, you know, because He knows us better than we know ourselves."

"No," said Ezra softly. "He doesn't know me at all."

For an instant Josiah was angry, and then he re-examined the words and realized that the Southerner wasn't denying God's existence or even the possibility of his own belief in Him. He was just saying that he saw no reason why Ezra P. Standish should have importance in God's eyes any more than he could believe he had it in anyone else's.

"I know how it feels to be trapped in the Slough of Despond," the preacher observed. "I dare say I've spent more time there than you have, if only because I've got eighteen years' advantage on you. You know what a slough is, don't you? What does it say in the dictionary?"

"A slough?" Ezra repeated in a small voice. "It's a soft, deep, muddy place, a mudhole, or perhaps a swampy place."

"Like a quicksand," Josiah suggested. "You've travelled enough in the West to know that when a man or an animal gets trapped in a quicksand, the more he struggles, the deeper he sinks. Pulling upward only increases the tension. But pulling from the side, from the bank, can draw the victim out in time, if someone discovers his plight before he's completely swallowed up. Of course, it helps if he can call for aid. As you can, if you wish to. All you need to do is shout, and someone will come to haul you out. Six someones, in fact." He paused a moment, then went on: "From the moment we realized you might be in danger, you became our first priority. We were always with you in spirit. We never stopped trying to get you back. We weren't whole without you. I know it must be difficult to understand that if you've never known it before, never had that kind of constant in your life. But you have it now. You may not have the strength to get out on your own, but you have ours, and I think, between us, we're strong enough to pull someone your size--or even my size--out of the thickest, clingiest sand ever created. All you need to do is hang on and let us do the work. We're fighting for you, lending you our strength when you have none of your own. You've got all the strength you need, all around you. We don't intend to make it easy for you to leave. In fact, we intend to make it downright impossible." He clasped his hand over Ezra's lax fingers, his calloused palm noting the smoothness of the well-kept skin. Buck had once said that Ezra had nicer hands than some girls he'd known. Yet there was a power in his grip if it was called for, that belied the delicacy of the skin and the graceful tapered shape of the fingers. "All you have to do is to make up your mind to hold on," he repeated. "To realize that you've finally found people who want you in their lives. Do that, and I guarantee you, we'll all get through this test together, as we have others before."

"And you believe I am deservin' of that?" asked Ezra.

"I know we don't always make it seem as if we think so," the preacher allowed. "And I've offended as badly as any of the others. I don't have much excuse except that your mother has always had a peculiar sort of power over me. When she's not around, I can almost convince myself she's some sort of succubus. But when she is, all my best resolve to the contrary, I'm lost. I know that saying I'm sorry won't change anything I did, but I want to say it regardless. I apologize for not keeping faith with you, not standing by you when your dream was threatened. You've always respected mine, and I owed it to you to be just as considerate of yours. I failed. I can't make up for it. But I'm sorry."

Ezra sighed. "We have all failed at one time or anothah, Mistah Sanchez. It is, in the end, what makes us human, is it not--that we are not infallible?"

"That's exactly right," Josiah agreed. "But it doesn't mean that failing once sets a pattern for all endeavors to follow. The future is never fixed until the physical time of matter catches up with it and fills it in, generally with the free choice God gives us. Until then, the possibilities are infinite. I don't believe even God is sure what choices we'll make, in the end. Certainly we don't, until the time comes and we see what options are open to us and what they seem to lead to."

"Meanin' that you believe there is still a chance for me?"

"To realize your dream and to be a part of something greater than yourself. Yes. I do believe that, Ezra, with all my heart. All I want to know is that you believe it too."

"I shall...consider it," the gambler said slowly.

"That's what I needed to hear," said Josiah.



Pawn Index

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