Questionable Behavior

by Kimber

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The gambler found himself trapped in the same dream over and over again. He lived the dream and felt the pain as if it was happening to him right there and then. He was so deep in his illness and fever that this was reality to him. The sound of the whip hitting and taking flesh with it as it left his body felt so real that he cried out in pain from it. His body felt hot, raw, and sore all over, and he knew no one was coming to save him.

"NO…AAHHHHH…STOP," Ezra screamed as he thrashed around on the cot, trying to get away from the slash of the whip envisioned in his nightmare.

"Ezra, it's okay, son." I'm here for you; I will not let anything or anyone hurt you." Josiah whispered closely to the gambler's ear as he stroked the chestnut hair off the fevered brow.

Josiah had stayed at Ezra's bedside since they had brought him to the clinic early that morning. He wanted to be there when the younger man woke up, to make sure that the young man did not wake up alone. He tried soothing the fevered man the best he could, but nothing he did calmed Ezra down. He refused to acknowledge the other reasons he stayed, such as not letting the man die alone.

Over the last hour, since the fever had peaked at it's highest, the young man kept reliving what appeared to be a some very traumatic events in his life. Josiah listened as the man pleaded over and over again, "Please don't hurt me. I will be good I promise." The anguished tone had broken the older man's heart each time.

"Mama, don't Mama. Please stop, NO." Ezra's voice had taken on a childlike tone, laced with fear.

At that moment Josiah felt a strong feeling of hatred toward Maude, as he heard the young man cry and cringe deep into the bed in terror. It looked as if the young man was being hit with something like a switch or another object. He could not imagine what nightmares were playing in Ezra's fevered mind and was not sure if he wanted to guess. He had known that the gambler's life had not been as wonderful as Maude had wanted everyone to believe, 'maybe it had been worse.'

Josiah had watched as each member of their group came and went with saddened faces. They too had been subjected to witnessing Ezra's awful nightmares, each leaving with a new understanding of their gambler.

"Don't hurt my Mama, NOOOO…" Ezra cried as he reached out as if to strike out and then grab at something only he could see.

"Wake up, Mama, please wake up, I'm scared. Mama he's still here; wake up, please. Miss Claudia, please help my Mama wake up." The voice sounded so small and scared.

Ezra broke into heart-wrenching sobs as he dreamt of being dragged from his mother. Josiah pulled the small man close to his chest and rocked back and forth, humming a song he had thought long forgotten. He could remember his mother doing the same for him after a bad nightmare or after being sick. The feel of his mother's arms and hearing her voice made him feel safe and loved.

He smiled as Ezra settled into his arms and into a quiet sleep. The preacher's smile lessened as he thought of the conversation he was going to have with a certain southern belle when she got to town. He had sent a telegram to the last known location he knew Maude to be in early that morning. There had been no reply from the woman so far, but unbeknownst to him, the woman in question was closer than he thought.

In Eagle Bend two men were sitting in the saloon drinking whiskey and thinking about the money they would have. One man knew he would soon hear of the gambler's death and then he would send the letter he had written long ago. The other just wanted to know the man was dead. He would have been dead long ago if not for his interfering mother.

Three of the town's peacekeepers sat in the saloon staring at their drinks. None of them could voice the feelings of failure that they had felt since finding Ezra in a pool of his own blood in this very room earlier that morning. Then hearing that Standish might not have done what he had been accused of had made matters worse. No one had yet picked up their drinks, so lost they were in their thoughts of their wounded friend.

Nathan could not believe how fast the fever had taken hold of Ezra's body. He had been sure the man would have some time to recover from the blood loss before the fever would hit. Nathan just hoped the stubborn southern cuss still had enough will to live to get him through, because that is what mattered now.

"I had hoped he would come to me. I was goin' ta talk with him this mornin' after breakfast." Nathan stated, then heard Buck's sigh.

"Damn," Buck closed his eyes as he tried to block out Ezra's face when he had drawn back his fist.

Nathan had noticed the unusual quietness in the saloon after everyone first heard about the con man's injury. After the way the town was acting earlier, it was a wonder they were not having a party. The healer knew that Ezra never would have come to him because of the powerful discussions they had had in the past concerning his conning ways. He also knew he was one of the first ones to jump the gun and believe the gambler was always in the wrong, 'til now. It surprised him that the others, especially Josiah and JD, were so quick to believe the lies.

"Nate, ya was busy with the King family and everyone else comin' at ya for help. How were ya to know everything that was happenin' around here?" Buck shook his head as the anger at himself flowed in the words.

"I let my anger blind me to the truth. Now my friend is fighting for his life," Buck mumbled, not aware he had voiced his opinion out loud. Buck thought back to the day he had heard the story of what Standish had supposedly done. He had been so mad someone could mistreat a woman like that he could not see straight. The ladies man had questioned himself as to how he had overlooked this mean streak in Ezra. He'd never had a hard time picking them out before; growing up in a whorehouse taught him that. Now he knew for sure that he had not been wrong about the southerner, he would not hurt anyone on purpose like that. He just wanted a chance to tell Ezra everything and beg him to give him another chance.

JD sat and watched his friends' guilt about their treatment of Ezra bring their spirits down. He would shoot glances over to where they had found Standish that morning, still feeling like it was a dream. He expected the gambler to stroll down the steps with a big grin on his face. The tension now between the fellas worried him, especially Vin. JD smiled to himself, thinking back to Tanner's shocking display of his faith in the gambler after Nathan had come out and told them it was going to be along and hard fight to keep the wounded man alive. The problem was them not knowing if Ezra had the fight and the will to stay alive.

"THE MAN AIN'T GONNA DIE, SO STOP TALKIN' LIKE HE WILL." Vin yelled as he left the balcony, mumbling he was going to find Ezra's shooter and prove his friend's innocence.

JD was still having a problem accepting the fact that a man of God could lie. He found it even harder to believe that a man used a con of being a man of God to practice his evil doings.

Vin rode into town having tracked the shooter's hoarse to about ten or so miles out of town. It sent a chill to his bones when he noticed that it had met up with two more horses. He studied the tracks and found no distinguishing mark to the shoes. Then he noticed the two went out toward either Eagle Bend or any of the other towns east of Four Corners. He then followed the set belonging to the shooter back to town.

'Yep, seems someone has been lookin' to hurt Ezra and planned it. Not just one, but three, so far.' The Texan thought sadly to himself.

Vin knew he would have to keep a close watch over his friend, he wasn't sure he could trust the others to do it. The sharpshooter noticed a young light-skinned colored girl looking at the clinic all worried like. He tipped his hat and smiled till he noticed how she tucked her head and turned away.

The tracker led his horse to the livery and placed him in the stall beside Ezra's horse. He unsaddled, fed, and brushed down his mount. Standish's horse was feeling lonely and nuzzled Vin's hat off his head, making him smile. Other than the gambler, only he could mess with the damn spoiled horse. He fed and brushed the beautiful animal, sneaking him a sugar cube like his master would do as a treat. He finished grooming the horses before going and looking for Chris and the others to let them know what he had found.

Chris's anger at himself grew the more he read of Ezra's travels. The anger was more directed toward himself and life in general, not at the con man at all. It was not settling well that he had misjudged a man he had thought to be his friend. The problem was he was his friend; Chris just never treated him like he was a friend. Maybe if he had, Ezra would have told him to go to hell and confronted him.

Chris stormed out of the telegraph office as if the hounds of hell were chasing him. People stepped far away from him as they felt the heat of the man's anger radiating from his being. The man in black noticed the tracker coming from the livery and called out to him. "Vin."

"Whatcha want?" Tanner snarled back.

"Tell everyone to be in the jail in ten minutes; no, make that yesterday." Chris growled back, not in the mood for Vin's judgment right now.

"Even Josiah?"

"Yea, even Josiah. See if Mary or Inez will sit with Ezra. Tell them it won't be for very long." Chris's tone expected complete compliance to his command as he stormed toward the jail. Larabee never gave any consideration to whether Vin would do as he was told; he just assumed he would do it.

Since the earlier conversation with Buck and some of the others on the balcony, Chris had come to doubt the gambler's guilt. Now, with his innocence confirmed his actions toward the gambler weighed heavily on his mind. The image of Ezra writhing on the bed, caught up in horror of his nightmares, started to plague his soul.

Then it hit him, the realization that the poor faceless woman had become his Sarah. The grief of his wife's death overrode his logical thinking and replaced it with a means to seek revenge for her death. The clouding of his judgment now left a friend betrayed and in Nathan's clinic fighting for his life. Now, the strong feelings of guilt and regret fed the anger building inside him. "I promise you, Ezra, I will find out who did this.'

Vin went first to Mrs. Travis and asked if she could sit with Ezra for a while. He noticed how she hesitated, and it made him mad. Tanner was surprised he kept his cool as he explained about Standish not being in Silver Springs like the minister had told everyone.

"Sorry, Mrs. Travis, if I bothered ya at all, seein' as you like to find out the truth an' all," Vin voiced the anger he was unable to hide.

"I’m sorry, Vin; you're right. I'll sit with him while you find out who did this and why." Mary laid a hand gently on the tracker's arm, offering her apology.

"I hope I don't make ya mad when I say it ain't me ya should be apologizin' to. Thank ya for agreein' to sit with Ez. Oh, and if ya don't mind, don't print nothin' in the paper. Don't need ta tell anyone who don't need ta know." Vin nodded, unable to look the woman in the eyes, knowing she would not like what she would find.

Vin waited until Mary gathered her things and walked her over to the clinic to collect Josiah. The tracker looked around and again noticed the worried look of the young black girl looking toward the clinic door. Something just did not seem right about the attention she was paying to the clinic.

"Ya know her?" Vin nodded in the girl's direction, trying not to be too obvious in his interest.

"That is Mavis Thomas. She and her brother, Toby, just moved here a few months back," Mary replied, as she waved to the young girl.

Mavis was shocked when she noticed Mrs. Travis waving at her. The young girl had missed the questioning look Vin Tanner had sent her way. She had been preoccupied with sending a silent prayer that Mr. Standish would live.

"Her brother the new worker in the livery?" Vin asked.

"Yes he is. Good worker, I hear, does really well with the horses. Mavis is working odd jobs, like laundry and alterations. Seem like good people." Mary looked at the sharpshooter curiously, wondering about the man's interest.

When the entered the clinic it broke his heart to see his friend so ill. 'Damn, Ez, I should have stayed in town. I felt like somethin' bad was goin' ta happen, just not like this.' The tracker walked over and placed his hand over Ezra's heart and spoke quietly but loud enough for those in the room to hear. The words were spoken in a language unfamiliar to Josiah and Mary, but the tone brought shivers up their spines.

"I pledge as your brother I will find who has hurt ya. If ya live, the white man's law can have 'em. If ya die, they face me, and I swear they will die by my hand. Vin vowed in the language and belief he learned while living with the Indians. "Ya have my word as a Tanner," was spoken in English.

Vin turned away from Ezra and the look on his face caused Josiah and Mary to feel sorry for whoever had done this. The preacher knew the person responsible for Standish's pain and suffering would not go unpunished. There was no doubt in his mind that Vin would find who was behind the lies and the shooting of the gambler.

Mary could not believe the transformation of the usually quiet and gentle man she had come to know. But then again, what did she really know about any of the seven men that protected this town. She had already made a mistake and misjudged one of them terribly. She hoped there would be a time she could make it up to the man now lying seriously wounded and ill in front of her.

"Let's go. I want to come back and sit with Ezra for a while, if ya don't mind." Vin spoke as he looked back at his friend. 'I ain't goin' ta let ya leave without a fight, pard.' Tanner had come to think of the smooth talking southerner like a younger brother. He watched as Ezra took the blame for most everything that went wrong, even if it wasn't his fault. He noticed how the gambler never took credit for the good he had done for the town either. Vin had sat back and watched the man closely, wanting to learn all he could about his friend.

He watched as the southerner changed for the better, now that he had a better influence than his mother and other gamblers. He noticed the soft heart and fragile soul that lived under the tough armor he wore for protection. Vin could see Ezra was a good man, no matter how hard the stubborn man tried to hide it. 'Somethin' just has to be done to get the others to notice as well.'

Vin and Josiah left the clinic, never speaking a word to each other. Sanchez had wanted to say something to Tanner, but could not find the words to express his feelings. He decided now was not the time to try and get Vin to talk, 'could find myself having a one-sided conversation with a gun.'

Neither man noticed the glare from Toby Thomas as he pulled his sister around toward the back of the livery. Toby was going to have to do something about Mavis, but what he didn't know. "Ya is gonna brings too much attention our way if ya keep lookin' at that clinic likes ya are doin'." Toby hissed at his sister.

"I's don't care, Toby. It was wrong to shoot him like that. He ain't hurt any of us, treats us nice, in fact." Mavis slapped at her brother to let go of her arm.

"You had better stop talkin' like that if ya knows what's good for ya. They'd just beat ya for sayin' what ya did," Toby again warned his sister.

"Oh, Toby, what if we's gets caught?" Mavis looked up at her brother with tears in her eyes.

"If it does happen it's because of-" Toby stopped as he noticed someone coming around the building.

The brother and sister separated, with him going back to work and Mavis going home to worry about the nice Mr. Standish, and her brother's involvement in the shooting. She could feel the chill like when they say, 'like someone walkin' over your grave.'

As Vin and Josiah entered the jail they found the atmosphere so thick with tension you could cut it with a knife. The sharpshooter noticed that Chris's mood had not improved; only worsened. Tanner could not remember ever seeing Chris so angry in the time he'd come to know the man. For Vin it was too late and for the wrong reasons.

"So, ya wanna tell us what's up? Or do we just play that guessin' game Ezra keeps yappin' about?" Vin watched Chris's reaction to the gambler's name being mentioned.

The tracker knew the gunslinger had a hard time trusting Ezra, just never thought it was this bad. Vin enjoyed the jerk his comment caused as pain flashed briefly on Chris's face at the mention of the southerner.

"Vin, you were right. He was never at Silver Springs. The have never heard of a Mr. White, let alone any minister being in their town. Seems they don't have a church or any religious leader yet. Sheriff Billings remembers Ezra being in town for the poker game. Says he helped him out with a couple of rowdies before he left." Chris's voice weighed heavy with the anger he was feeling toward himself.

"Ya mean that it's true, everything Mr. White said was a lie?" JD whispered as the full meaning sunk in and caused him to realize what he had done to Ezra. He had believed a stranger over his friend.

"Son, it would mean just that, I'm afraid. But what I'm more concerned about is why? Why did he pick out Ezra? Why such an elaborate scheme and still try and kill him?" Josiah spoke to no one in particular; unaware that he had spoken his thoughts out loud.

The six men sat quietly and pondered the question, but none came up with a reasonable answer. They knew only the man who told the lie, or Ezra, could give the answer. That is, if Standish even knew who had told the lie. Maude could not be excluded either, maybe someone was seeking revenge for one of her misdeeds that involved Ezra.

Josiah realized now that a false prophet had tested his faith in his friend, whom he'd come to look upon as a son. The knowledge of failing the boy in this, as well as everything else that had happened increased the need to strike out. The only problem was he made a terrible target and Maude was not available at this time. He just prayed for a chance to show Ezra how sorry he was that he had failed him as a friend and to seek his forgiveness.

Buck's thoughts intensified his anger toward himself. He had hurt a friend by letting his anger take control of his logic, something he needed to work on. He wondered how many times he'd done this to others, let alone to Ezra.

JD was still having a hard time with the thought of someone would lie in the name of the Lord. He hadn't believed Ezra's innocence 'til now, since he was so naïve about the fact that people used religion to hurt others. Where he grew up, religious figures did everything good and right for the good of the people in their parish.

Chris wondered how many others he had hurt in his blind thirst for revenge since his family's murder. It gave the gunslinger a new idea of how much grief he had put Buck trough in the years after his family's death.

Nathan's guilt over the fact that he hadn't stepped up when he had first heard made him question his feelings for the gambler. The more he thought about it, the more he came to realize he wanted Ezra to come to him, to trust him to help. He questioned the rationale of that thought when he realized he'd never given the southerner a reason to trust him, just the opposite. 'Damn it, Ezra that is goin' ta change.'

The healer felt strongly that Mr. White was behind Ezra's shooting. He could feel it deep into his bones. 'I just want whoever shot him to pay. If that southern fool lives and decides to leave, I want him safe from the bastard.'

Vin looked back and forth between his friends and wanted to tell them to all go to hell. The last thing Ezra needed was, 'their pissin' party on who wronged him more.' Tanner was sorry he hadn't checked on things instead of going straight to his wagon. He should have checked and made sure everyone was safe and sound on his return back to town.

"Well Pards, I think we should start thinkin' about what Ezra needs when he wakes up. He ain't gonna believe the words. He is gonna need to be proven that we want him to stay." Vin looked around the room, daring anyone to contradict him.

"I don't know about the rest of you, but we have to do something to get even, and if possible salvage his reputation," Josiah said as he looked around to the others.

"First, we gotta try and catch the son of a bitch who shot him," Buck growled.

"I think if we find that no good lyin' so-called Reverend White we'll have our man," Nathan spit out.

"I was thinkin' the same, Nate. I even tried scoutin' around earlier and found somethin' ya'll might find interestin'." Vin's quiet voice belied the anger burning deep in his blood.

"Well, damn, Tanner, ya gonna keep it all to yourself or what?" Buck's voice was laced with unspent anger that surprised the others, all except for Chris.

"Well, I told ya earlier I found the shooter's nest. Well, I went back and found a set of tracks leavin' town from behind the hotel. I followed the horse ta outside of town, about ten miles out. It met up with two other riders who, by the tracks, was waitin' around for a while. The shooter came back ta town and the other two went toward Eagle Bend." Vin looked at the others and watched as the implication dawned on them.

"Seems we have us a rat wanna-be killer in our town. Must have been here to know Ezra's comin's and goin's." Nathan stated, as the shock of the gambler's shooter still being in town made him nervous for the man's safety.

"Well, boys, it seems we have a varmint to smoke out. Ezra will not be left alone for a second from now on. We'll take shifts." Chris smiled evilly as he nodded to the men sitting around him. "We will find out who did this, and they will pay for messing with our pain in the ass gambler."

Plans were made and shifts assigned to cover the clinic, the jail, and the town. The men had a mission and none of them believed they would fail. Josiah returned to Ezra's side and explained everything to Mary. He asked her to keep an ear out for anything that might help them. Mary stroked the gambler's pale cheek and promised to do what she could to help them find the man who had done this.

Buck went to the saloon to tell Inez about what they had found out, 'maybe she would now how to get in touch with Maude.' It worried the men that they hadn't heard from Maude yet.

Vin decided to have one more look around town and he made it is mission to find the horse and its owner before going to sit with Ezra for a while. Maybe he would find the owner and have a private moment with him.

Maude could not shake the feeling that something bad was going to happen. The closer she got the Four Corners, the more the increased feelings of anxiety tried to overtake her sense of composure. She wondered how the driver would reach if she pushed him overboard and took over driving the stage. The look on Ezra's face when she pulled up with the reins in her hands made her smile.

The thought of Ezra's shocked expression made her think of Lizzy, which caused Maude to suddenly catch her breath. She realized, for the first time, that she'd been thinking of Lizzy a lot over the last few days. Her concern for Ezra's safety to increased, and her mood to worsened. Maude was already just an inch away from punching the hateful man in front of her; 'I hate men who think they are superior just because they are men.'

Maude felt she needed to make sure Ezra moved on, and kept on the move. Maybe it was time she sat down and told him everything about why it was so important to do so. The promise she made Lizzy had kept her from doing telling him in the past; she had promised to protect him, no matter what.

She had never wanted to tell him the truth, because she thought he would seek revenge, and she would end up losing him forever. The last thing she needed was for the people who could take Ezra away from her, if they found out who he truly was, to find him. There were those that would kill him and another that would never let her see him again. Her boy would be groomed to take over the family empire, but at a price she didn't want Ezra to pay.

The southern woman had thought for sure the saloon business, 'or I should say fiasco,' would do the trick, and that Ezra would just up and leave then and there, but he stayed. She was torn between making Ezra leave versus letting him stay with the group of men that caught his attention. She knew most of all that he respected the six men he associated with, especially Chris Larabee.

The more she thought about a plan, the more she felt like it was too late and time was running out. Even the truth would not protect him and make him leave and hide from the danger out there. No, her boy would track down the men and seek revenge for his mother's untimely death. 'Ezra, you had better be alive and in one piece when I get there, or pity the man who hurt you.'

Beau sat back and continued to dream of what he would buy when he inherited O'Shay's money. He would build his plantation and become the powerful landowner and politician he was destined to be before the war. The older man looked over at Silas, his partner in adventures since childhood.

Silas and he had grown up together on the plantation, he being the master's son. Silas was a slave like his mother, Sallie, the favorite cook of the Dumont family. Anything he wanted done, all he had to do was tell Silas and it got finished, all except the bitch's son's demise. That was the only time Silas had ever failed him, and to this day he continued to think of ways to make amends for his failure in that particular venture.

Silas watched as his old master began to plot and plan, 'if there's anyone that can plan how we can make this here killin' work, he can.' Silas always was amazed how smart Mr. Beau had been locating the bastard, Michael. 'The damn child got away from me once, but the grown man he done become won't.' Silas silently let the pictures of how he had planned make that boy/man scream and beg to be left alone play through his mind, before Mr. Beau had told him of his plan to discredit him and then shoot him dead.

Both men kept a lookout from the end of town of Eagle Bend that faced Four Corners. They were worried; they thought they would have gotten word of the gambler's demise by now. One regretted he was not there to see it, and the other wished he was the one who had pulled the trigger.

Maude's heart began to beat faster when she was able to see the outline of the town she had come to know as Four Corners. The feeling that something was wrong with Ezra was getting stronger and caused her to become more irritable and short-tempered. She had come so close to hitting the poor excuse of a gentleman across from her more than once, and he knew it.

She had worked hard and sacrificed too much to have something go wrong now. It would be unthinkable for her to lose the most important thing that was still alive and present in her life, and she vowed that six men would pay dearly if anything had happened to her precious boy, her reason for living.

Maude remembered, as if it was yesterday, when Ezra was brought to her suddenly, out of the blue. Claudia showed up on her doorstep in the dead of night with a pale frightened child and a letter from her sister. Claudia was Lizzy's personal slave, and had been since birth. In fact, she and Lizzy had shared Claudia 'til Maude left home in disgrace.

Maude defied her father over an arranged marriage, which resulted in her being disowned and sent to live with her mother's sister in Atlanta, Georgia. It became the talk of the town and her father become more embarrassed and ashamed. The result had been him letting everyone know he had only one daughter. He paraded Lizzy around town, doted on her, and called her his pride and joy. This broke Maude's heart, but she still loved younger sister and kept in touch with her through their cousin Carolyn Ann.

Maude demanded to know what had happened to her sister and why she didn't accompany Michael on such a long trip. Maude would have said more, with wanting to know why they were so disheveled and unclean, but Claudia's words stopped her, "We should settle the child first, Miss Maude." The voice, more than anything, caught her attention; it sounded tired and something else, maybe sorrowful.

"Why, my little man, I think I have just the place for you to sleep." Maude bent down to pick up the child, who was unusually quiet for one so young.

The boy looked to be no more than four or five years old. She noticed for the first time just how pale the boy's face was and the deep shadows under the haunted eyes. The emotionless expression on the boy's face made her heart weep, and caused her to become wary about the news Claudia was about to share. She looked at Bart, her husband, with worried eyes and then at Claudia. She noticed the tears and sadness radiating from the woman's eyes as she looked at the young boy.

Maude nodded toward Bart as she picked up her young nephew and hugged him close. She then turned toward their bedroom and carried the precious burden to their bed. As she undressed him, the anger grew with each injury she uncovered. Old and new bruises and cuts were scattered about the boy's body. 'God, there are whip marks on his small back.' Maude found it hard not to cry and scream at what she uncovered the more she undressed and examined the child. She knew then and there that she would protect this small fragile soul. She would find out who did this and they would pay, before her life on this earth was over. She sang him a song, a lullaby sung to her by her mother, as she stroked his hair back. Maude then tucked the treasured child of her heart under the covers, telling him goodnight and he was safe now with her and Uncle Bart.

"Don’t you worry, Michael, I will not let anyone hurt you again, I promise. I'm your Auntie Maude, your Mama's sister, and we will talk more in the morning." Maude smiled as she rubbed her nose against his, then kissed his lips and then his forehead. She stood to leave when he reached out his hand toward her. She could see the fear and confusion in his eyes. "I will be back, my precious boy. I will stay with you tonight and hold you close while you sleep. I just need to talk with Claudia right now, and then I will be back. I will leave the lamp on to give you light and chase away the bad dreams 'til come back." Maude smiled as she took the offered hand and kissed it before tucking it back under the covers.

A bond had developed between woman and child that to this day was strong and binding. Even if they fussed and fought, there was deep trust that let them know they still loved each other, no matter what.

Maude left the room and went in search of answers to many questions that had formed and continued to form in her head. The most important was about Michael. 'Who marked him with a whip?' The next important question was, "So Claudia, where is my sister?" Maude questioned the exhausted woman who sat on the chair by the fireplace.

The tears fell heavily from Claudia's eyes, and she was unable to speak at that moment. Maude watched Bart shake his head in sadness as he read the letter Claudia had given to him.

"My love, you should have a seat and read this letter. Give Claudia some time to gather herself together." Bart sadly smiled at his wife and handed her the letter.

Maude sat in the chair closest to her husband. She sensed the bad news and needed to be near her love and best friend.

Dearest Maude

If you are reading this letter and Claudia has delivered Michael to you then I'm unable to travel, either to ensure Michael's safety or I'm no longer alive. It gives me no pleasure to write this letter in case I'm unable to see my son placed into your care. It has recently come to my attention that Beau is abusing Michael in a most horrific way. He is having him beat by some of the slaves and has even taken a whip to him.

I plan on getting my son out of this hell that has become a living nightmare and not a fit home for my son and me. There is something I have not told you, and I hope it does not change your mind about protecting my most precious gift. Beau is not Michael's father; his father was someone I fell in love with but who used me in the end. It is for this reason I cannot say or write to you his name; it brings me so much pain, still to this day.

I'm sure that the man will not have a use for his son, knowing Father would not allow him anything to do with the money and estate. It seems he was only after my money and Father's reputation. Father had made arrangements for Beau to accept and acknowledge Michael as his own. He had played the part of the loving father toward my son, and I had believed it all to be true.

One of the slaves who liked Michael and who is in love with Claudia found out about the abuse. He told Claudia, who let me know. So, the plan is for me to confront Beau the next time he hurt my son. After the confrontation my plan is to pack up and move to Aunt Olivia's and contact you. I hope that Michael and I can find a home close to you, for I have missed you so much.

Claudia is my backup if the plan goes astray. She will bring my son to you, and I hope you will protect him and raise him as yours. I do not wish Father, or Beau to get their hands on him. I can see now why you did not want to marry Beau; I just wish I had had the backbone to stand up to father as you did. But, alas, I had an unborn child to think of.

Love you,


The tears continued to flow as she was lifted onto her husband's lap and held close. Soon, the tears turned to sobs when the realization of what she had read in the letter touched her soul; her sister was dead. She accepted finally what she had known already when she first let Claudia in with the little replica of her sister, her dear nephew. The sobs became sniffles, and Maude had to know how it happened. How did her sister die?

"Claudia, tell me how my sister died." Maude softly demanded as she turned her attention toward the grieving woman.

"Mrs. Elizabeth was kilt by Mr. Beau himself. I's happened to know about her sendin' the young sir to you if'n anthin' happened to her. I brought him and the letter just like's I's was told to do if anythin's happened before she could bring him herself. We's just found out that Mr. Beau was hurtin' the young master, that's wheres all them bruises come from." Claudia explained as the tears ran down her face. "She even made sure I had money hidden away, in case this happened. The sad thing is the young sir watched as Mr. Beau beat his mama to death."

"How did you get away with Michael?" Bart asked as his heart broke for Maude and the young boy now lying in his bed.

"Luther helped me by ringin' the trouble bell. Everythin' got crazy with Mr. Beau's papa comin' out. I was able to sneak the boy away and get away with Luther's help. It was easy to do with Mr. Beau not wantin' his papa to see the young master." Claudia smiled for the first time as she mentioned her lover's name.

Bart continued to hold his wife close, and he gently dismissed Claudia to the kitchen for food and drink. Mrs. Saunders would make sure the young woman had a warm and safe bed for the night. Bart knew of Maude's father and his wife's refused engagement to Beau Dumont. Bart's brother, Patrick, did business with Paul O'Shay and didn't like the man but found it useful to keep up with what the man was up to. Bart Claremont only knew one thing for certain in his life, and that was he loved Maude more than life itself.

Maude sat there in shock on her husband's lap and let her sister's death slowly sink into reality. All she could think of was how she could have prevented this. Maybe she should have married the man and saved her sister the pain she went through. If she'd married Beau, she would have been there to prevent the affair with the no-good rake that had gotten her sister pregnant. The more she found herself thinking like this the more she snuggled closer to her lover, husband, and best friend.

"Maudie, I don't think you being there would have changed things. You, of all people, know you won't do anything you don’t want to do." Bart softly chuckled as he kissed his wife's cheek. "Besides, the fact is, I would have found you and stole you away from him anyway."

Maude looked at her lifeline and smiled, aware that he spoke the truth. There was nothing she would or could have done differently since she could not see into the future. She looked at her husband and thanked God he had come into her life.

Even now, today, knowing what she did, she would still have married this man and loved him with all her heart, just like she did until the day he died and left her alone with their son to raise.

He loved her like no one else ever had, or has since. He understood her love for her sister and the commitment she made to the boy they raised together as their son. He kept his promise to protect Michael from all harm, with his life if necessary. Bart had taught Maude all she needed to survive in the real world, and she passed these lessons on to Ezra, in the hope that they would be useful in keeping him alive.

Other than Lizzy, only Aunt Olivia knew of Maude's marriage to Bart, and she kept it a secret, taking it with her in death the year after Bart died. When Bart's family heard about Michael's plight, they offered up the perfect safety net. Bart's family loved Maude like she was one of their own, and there was nothing they wouldn't do for her, or she for them.

Ezra Claremont, Bart's father, was the one to come up with the idea to conceal Michael's true identity. His plan was to give the young man his first name and Patrick's name for a middle name. Then for the last name they would use Bart's mother's, Margaret Claremont's, maiden name of Standish. So they became the Standish family, consisting of Bart, Maude, and Ezra, their son.

Bart Claremont's family was connected and able to assist them in hiding Michael's past. His father and brother were able to get a birth certificate saying Bart and Maude were the parents of a son. Their son's full name, Ezra Patrick Standish, was placed on the document, which created a new identity to him and his new parents. Maude secreted the real record of the boy's birth in a safe place, hopefully never to be looked at again.

It still amazed her to think back to how Bart was able to reach the traumatized boy. The patience the man had was endless as he brought Ezra, as he was now called, out of his shell. He taught the boy everything he knew about cards, people, reading, and writing. Under his guidance Ezra developed and became an intelligent child, whose thirst for knowledge was never satisfied. In time, the shadows left his eyes and were replaced with mischief and laughter.

They'd been blessed with Bart for four years before he passed away from a fever. The loss of that man made her hard in many ways, except for her love for Ezra; nothing could change that. It was just hard for her to support them both at times. The Claremont's had fallen on hard times but did what they could to help. They kept Ezra for her many times as she traveled to various jobs. Once she got settled she would come and bring him back to stay with her.

When Ezra stayed too long in the godforsaken town of Four Corners, she needed to find out the hold it had and take it away. What she found amazed her and frightened her as well. It seemed her son had found a group of men that appeared to accept him for whom he appeared to be. They saw the con man/gambler before them and still let him in their group. They somehow wormed their way behind the protective wall Ezra had built to protect himself, even from her.

She'd made several trips to visit her boy, and each time left ambivalent about leaving him there with them. The last time she left Ezra with the other peacekeepers she felt him to be safe in their care. She'd left feeling especially sure that two people cared for her boy's welfare, Josiah Sanchez and one Vin Tanner. She remembered two incidents in particular, one being the supposed stolen jewelry, and then the saloon business.

Maude understood Ezra's trying to get her married to a good man with means to support her in the style he felt she deserved. He had tried to assist in helping her to settle down and stop taking risks; he made the plans for her to marry the man. But, he also wanted to extract some revenge as well, and he placed her in jail over the little earrings. 'What was that poor man's name?' Maude thought to herself.

The saloon business, the reason behind Ezra's true enjoyment of her stay in jail over the earrings, had been started to try and get her boy to up and leave town. But, it had ended up being a test of the six men he rode with, as well as him. It tested Ezra in how badly he really wanted to stay in the dust bowl of a town, and it proved he wanted it very much. The others were tested, by accident, on their different reactions to her son's loss of the saloon by her hand.

She'd overheard Vin apologize for not being there to help him knock some sense into the others. Buck had told him if he decided to try again he would be more than happy to help any way he could. And he would make sure that JD did not lose all his money to the opposition.

She had come to learn of the other men's apologies from Ezra's letters. It made her feel like it was okay to leave her Ezra with them for safe keeping. She watched how hard they tried to make it up to him later on.

Her trip this time started out with her wanting to see her treasured gift of life and giving him the deed to the saloon. The selling of the saloon to one aliases was a brilliant idea to make it a surprise to Ezra when she handed him the deed. He would be upset at first at not having earned it himself, 'til she explained how he had earned it in her book. The only problem now was that she could not escape the feeling she needed to get him out of Four Corners, the sooner the better. She watched, as the evening sun was about to set, and hoped she would be in town before dark. She politely cussed silently at the wheel that had broken earlier, causing their delay.

Josiah sat on the boardwalk in front of the saloon and gave Vin time to spend with Ezra. The preacher could not believe there was no word from Maude yet. 'Damn woman, when I really need to get a hold of her she can't be found. When Ezra really needs her, she's out most likely conning some poor soul.' Josiah had spent most of the day watching the young man he had come to love as a son toss and turn and relive nightmares from his past. He could see that his boy had not lived the wonderful childhood Maude had led them to believe, not with these dreams the gambler was having. It was far from it.