Questionable Behavior

by Kimber

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Vin watched as Ezra fought the demons in his dreams. He wanted so much to be able to crawl in and slay the dragon, as Standish would have said. The tracker smiled as he remembered the stories that the card sharp read to him on the trail. Tanner touched the special book that the southern cuss had given him; he had called it a reader. Ezra had told him to continue to practice and someday he would be able to read stories about dragons and princesses for himself.

"Don’t die, Bart. Maude, don't let Bart die, please," Ezra begged.

Vin wiped the cool rag on his friend's face as he tried to comfort him the best he could. The dreams made no sense to the tracker as Ezra continued to beg for Maude to save Bart and then cry for his Mama not to die. The appearance that he was living out beatings made Vin realize that Ezra had been mistreated as a child growing up. The anger at wondering where Maude was at this time made him wish she would suddenly appear so he could question the woman about her motherly ways.

Josiah walked in to offer Tanner a break for a meal or nature's call. It broke his heart to see the tangle of emotions he found looking back at him on the tracker's face. He watched the pain Vin felt at not being able to comfort his friend, mixed with the anger at his inability to stop the demons that tormented the southerner's dreams. It was at this time that Josiah realized just how important Ezra was to Vin.

"I can't stop the dreams. I try, but the fever has too strong a hold," Vin whispered, his voice thickened with unshed tears. He had not felt so helpless since him Ma's passing.

Josiah walked over and softly stroked the fevered cheek of the southerner as he stood next to Vin. "Ezra, it's going to be okay son. We are here with you and we are not going to leave you alone for one minute."

"Ya ain't heard nuthin' from that no account mother of his, I take it," Vin growled, wondering how Ezra survived growing up with that woman.

"No, Vin, I haven't. Is it the same dream about his Mama?" Josiah asked softly.

"Yes and no. He keeps askin' his Mama not to die, then asks Maude not to let Bart die. It just seems funny 'bout him askin' his mama not to die; hell, Maude is alive and well," Vin replied.

"Stage had better be arriving soon. Chris is worried that he is going to have to send someone out to look for it." Josiah stated for no obvious reason other than to change the conversation away from Maude. "Was due here around noon and now it's closer to dinner time."

"Doesn't seem important unless Maude or a fancy doctor was on it with some medicine that Nathan wished he had." Vin sighed as he continued to bathe the gambler's face, arms, and chest with the cool rag.

"Vin, is there something you want to tell me about you and Ezra?" Josiah was sure they were only friends, but he wanted the tracker to be able to talk to someone about his feelings.

"He's just a good friend, has been for a long while. Did ya know he was teachin' me ta read? Say's once we finish this book we can work on my writin'." Vin smiled as he pulled out his reader and showed it to Josiah.

Josiah felt a warm feeling in his chest that Vin trusted him enough to tell him this secret he and Ezra shared. Who would have thought that the gambler would teach Tanner to read and write? Pride in what Ezra had done for the sharpshooter made the big man smile.

"I’m happy he has a loyal friend in you, Vin," Josiah stated.

"I love him, Josiah, but I love him as a brother. He is truly the closest I have felt to having a family. I know Chris in my best friend and all and that he would back me up, no matter what. But, Ezra, he trusts my judgments and asks my opinion. When I told him once I didn't know much 'bout anythin', he yelled at me and said I know more about things than most people. Then he started listin' off a bunch of things, like my trackin' and shootin'. Then he told me never let him hear me talkin' down about myself again or he would shoot me in the foot." Vin smiled up at the preacher as the tears streaked down his face. "I can't lose him, preacher man, not when I should have protected him.

"Vin, none of us knew what was going on. You didn't know what had happened in your absence. But, you did the right thing and believed in Ezra and fought to make us realize our mistakes." Josiah squeezed Vin's shoulder in reassurance.

"But-" Vin tried to continue.

"No buts, Vin Tanner. There was nothing any of us could have done unless we had a crystal ball to tell us the future. Ezra feels the same about you and would defend your honor as you have defended his. I heard him tell someone one day that they should wish they could do half the things you could." Josiah smiled as he tightened the hold on Tanner's shoulder. "I have heard you defend him the same way. So, I would that makes you very much brothers of the heart. I would be proud to call both of you my sons."

"Josiah, don't ever tell him I told ya this, he would kill me. But, he thinks of you like a father; in fact, he wished you had been his father." Vin whispered as he looked around, hoping no one else had heard him. He then looked down at Ezra and smiled, "Sorry, Ez, I'm sure the secret is safe with the preacher man."

Before Sanchez had a chance to respond, JD was calling for him to come quick, something about a miracle happening. Both Josiah and Vin looked at each other and then moved to check on the young sheriff.

JD stood on the balcony and thought over the events of the last two weeks. He was coming to terms with the fact that he had let Ezra down. The youngest member of the group realized he had to let go of his own feelings of betrayal by a man who had portrayed himself as a religious man. He needed to come to terms with the fact that he had abandoned a friend and find a way to get that friendship back.

The young sheriff paced the balcony. He tried to work up the courage and find the words so he could explain when he spent some time with Ezra. He needed the courage to face Vin and Josiah, who were both very protective of the gambler right now. He was sure the tracker would shoot him if he did or said anything wrong against the southerner. A flash of movement out in the distance caught his attention.

JD breathed a sigh of relief when he realized it was the stage. 'Good, now we don't have to go and look for the dang thing.' He walked over to the edge of the balcony and watched the stage arrive into town. No one looked hurt and nothing bad appeared to have happened. He noticed that the extra wheel was missing off the back and concluded a broken wheel was responsible for their lateness.

JD did a double take when he recognized the large amount of luggage perched on top of the stage; 'it can't be, can it?'

"JOSIAH, COME QUICK, I THINK A MIRACLE JUST HAPPENED." The young sheriff was sure Maude was not aware of Ezra's injuries.

Josiah and Vin ran out to join JD on the balcony and looked around wondering what the young man had been yelling about. Both men's mouths dropped opened in shock as they watched Ezra's mother exit the stage. The four other peacekeepers had also noticed her arrival and wondered what had brought Maude to town. They knew that she could not have gotten word this fast and arrived here that quickly, something about this did not set well with the six men shocked by the timing of her arrival.

Mary went to the saloon to talk with Inez about the need to find Maude. The blonde woman knew that Maude loved Ezra, 'What mother truly could not love their child.' She and Inez had just stepped out of the saloon when the stage stopped, and the very person she was determined to find stepped off the stage. .

"Oh, my! Mary, this is too strange," Inez whispered as she made the sign of the cross with her hands.

"Yes, this is very strange indeed," Mary agreed as she watched Maude and a strange man appear to speak to one another.

"It is a shame when a woman is traveling without an escort to keep her in her place." Mr. Williamson stated out loud for anyone to hear. He did not like how the southern woman had acted independent and not deferred to the men in matters of importance during her trip.

Maude could not help but respond to the arrogant male excuse of human flesh who insinuated that she was rude. "Well, Mr. Williamson, you sir, would not know a true lady even if she wore a sign introducing her as such." Her patience and frayed nerves had pushed her to the limit of ladylike behavior; she really wanted to slap him across the face and kick him in the shin. But, instead, she smiled when his wife, Julia, looked back at her and smiled briefly.

Maude looked around waiting for Ezra to come and welcome her. When she did not see him she scanned the area quickly for anything that looked out of place. Her eyes suddenly landed on Vin, Josiah, and young JD on the landing of the clinic; her heart felt like it had stopped.

"EZRA! OH MY GOD! EZRA!" Maude screamed as she lifted her skirts and ran toward the clinic like a herd of wild beasts was chasing her, but she felt like she was running in slow motion.

The six men watched the transformation come over the gambler's mother. What shocked them was the sudden understanding that Ezra was in the clinic just by seeing the three men on the landing outside. It surprised them to see the speed the woman had in getting to her goal, when she lifted her skirts and took the steps two at a time.

Mary and Inez took it upon themselves to take care of Maude's things. Both women heard the true pain in Ezra's mother's voice as tears steamed down their faces. They silently prayed for the mother and son, that they would both get through this.

Maude ran past the three men and into the clinic and she knew that her boy would be there. The deep sob and cry that came from Maude when she found her boy injured brought the three men out of their shocked state.

"EZRA! NOOOOOOO!" Maude cried.

Josiah ran into the clinic, followed closely by Vin and JD. He had already seen the others were racing up the steps. The pain on Maude's face when they found her holding Ezra close to her chest, rocking him back and forth, stopped them in their tracks. None of the men could say that the woman was faking her emotions; the sorrow and pain displayed on her face and in her eyes was real.

"Ezra! My precious, precious boy. You cannot leave me like this. I will do anything, Lord; just don't take my special boy from me. He is all that I have left in this world," Maude cried over and over again.

The memory of rocking Bart in her arms while he died made her cry harder. She remembered rocking Ezra as a small boy when he cried for his Mama, and then later for Bart. She had tried for him when she heard the pain in his small voice. 'Bart, if you can hear me now, please do not let him join you. He is far too young to be with you and Lizzy,' Maude silently prayed.

Vin was shocked at the true grief and pain written on the woman's face. He had never thought Maude could show such honest feelings concerning anything, let alone Ezra. The gambler had always defended her, telling the tracker he just did not understand their relationship, and the con man had just smiled when Vin had asked him to explain it. "It's just her way of loving me. She wants what is best for me and will test me and those around me to make sure of it." With that said, the southern man had just walked away laughing, like he had explained everything to the Texan's understanding.

Josiah walked up to the mother and son on the bed and kneeled down to look in Maude's eyes. He looked for any hint that this concern she was showing was real and not a con. The woman's gaze would not move from Ezra's face, as tears poured down her face. The preacher noticed how the gambler moved closer to the woman holding him tightly in her arms.

"Don't let Bart die, please, Maude; don't let Bart die," Ezra begged, his voice childlike, as he seemed to recognize the woman holding him.

"Oh, Ezra darlin', Bart is up in heaven with your Mama. He will always love us and look after us, just like you Mama does. I promise you, honey." Maude smoothed the hair back off the fevered brow as she softly kissed the forehead bared by her hand. "You just open those pretty green eyes of yours. You promise me, my love, you are not going to leave me."

"I promise. Maude, will you love me forever? Will you never leave me?" Ezra pouted as he looked up into her eyes.

"I will love you forever, my boy. I will never leave you on purpose or without a good reason. I promise if I do leave I will always come back for you. Even now, Ezra, I will come back for you." Maude smiled sadly, knowing they were reliving a conversation from the night Bart had died.

The men watched the pout turn into a smile, but they did not let on like they heard any of the conversation between the pair.

She watched as the love of her heart slipped into a restful sleep. She rocked him softly as she hummed a few notes of a lullaby that was one of his favorites growing up. When she was sure he was deep into slumber she gently laid her treasured burden on the bed. She tucked the blankets around him as if they would protect him from harm and kissed his nose as she had done when he was a child. Maude then turned a determined gaze on the six men she had trusted to watch over her son.

"Gentlemen, if you would be so kind and join me on the balcony, please," Maude softly demanded as she gestured toward the door. She would not rest easy until she found out what happened to her boy, and then whoever was responsible would pay.

The men felt the heat behind the request and saw the look of determination on the woman's face. They could tell she wanted answers and wanted them now. They'd just had not expected her to demand the answers so soon and with such a look of vengeance on her face. There was no longer any doubt to the devotion Maude had for Ezra, but was Ezra her son? That was a question in each man's mind after listening to the conversation between the mother and son a few minutes ago.

Josiah now wondered if Bart had been Ezra's father, but would he have called him Bart and not father, dad, or papa. The confusion was getting worse the more he got to know the Standish clan. The preacher found he was getting jealous that Bart had been an important part of Ezra's childhood. He was amazed how Maude calmed Ezra with just a touch, then up and smoothly made six men follow her commands. Josiah followed the others out the door and then held it open as Maude exited the clinic.

"What happened to my son? I do not want the candy-coated version. Mr. Jackson, I want your honest opinion on his condition and recovery." Maude looked around at each man individually before landing solely on Josiah. If only she felt it was safe enough to settle down, she would love to get to know this man more. Ezra had found something special about him and she had as well, but she refused to follow through with her desires.

"Mrs. Standish, you might want to sit down." Chris stepped forward, offering to tell her what had happened. Chris directed her over to one of the seats on the balcony and began to tell of the events leading up to Ezra's attack. He knew it would be better if the truth came from them rather than for her to find out about it from the town gossips.

All six men could see the anger building up with each detail revealed. The gunslinger made sure she knew that Vin had never doubted Ezra's innocence and that Nathan had believed in the gambler as well. By the time he was finished with everything they felt like a firestorm was going to hit, and they were all about to get burned.

"So, you mistreated my son, judged him guilty without a trial or anyone asking him if this story was true. I left my son in your care after you'd proved to me I could trust you to take care of him. Now, I come to town and find him hurt because you treated him unjustly and betrayed the trust he had placed in all of you to watch his back." Maude paced back and forth in front of the men who had claimed to be her boy's friends. She looked at each of the men as she voiced her disgust and disappointment in them.

"I left his fragile heart and soul especially in your hands, Mr. Sanchez. I had thought I had found someone who would watch over him when I could not. Damn, I cannot believe I was so daft." Maude walked away from the men before she did something she would regret.

"You had better find out who is responsible for this violent act upon my son. If it is left up to me then the entire town will pay, and I do mean they will pay. No one hurts my son and gets away with it," Maude promised as she opened the door to the clinic and returned to be with Ezra.

The six men were left dazed at the venom and promise of revenge the words held as the whirlwind known as Maude Standish slipped back into the clinic.

Josiah's anger that had been boiling since all of this began went up a few more degrees. 'Damn her, where does she get off telling us about how we treated Ezra,' he thought to himself as Maude's words played themselves over and over again in his head.

Vin pulled the angry preacher back as he made to storm back into the clinic and give Ezra's mother a piece of his mind and demand some answers of his own.

"Don't Josiah, she was speakin' the truth. It all makes sense now." The tracker smiled, as he now understood what the gambler had meant that day. He now had a better understanding as to why Maude did what she had with the saloon. What he didn't know was that it had not been planned, just an accidental test when the real reason had failed.

"Vin, would you like to enlighten us to what ya mean, pard?" Buck smiled as he had figured it out as well. Maude had been testing to see if owning the saloon was what Ezra had really wanted, and in the process, the sneaky ole con woman had also tested their loyalty to her son as well.

Everyone's attention was on the tracker as he explained his belief about Maude and the saloon adventure being a test for them and Ezra. He told them also of his conversation with the southerner concerning his mother's ways of showing she loved him. Vin made sure to add he felt that Maude would have made sure Ezra had left with her if she had felt he was unsafe here in their care.

Vin remembered how he apologized several times for not being there for Ezra, during that time with the saloon. The gambler had looked at his like he was crazy.

"Mr. Tanner, my business affairs were insignificant compared to what you and Mr. Larabee were trying to do. Proving your innocence was far more important than my dealings with Mother. I just wish there had been something more I could have done for you."

They shook hands and went on as if nothing had changed, even though it had. The southern cuss had come to rely on the Texan being honest with him. The tracker in return had come to expect the same from the gambler. Vin just hoped Ezra lived to find out that he still trusted him and was trusted in return.

Buck thought back to that time as well; he had gone to offer his apology to his friend about not being there. The ladies man told Ezra he was so sorry about getting so caught up in pending fatherhood, and possibly marriage, that he was not thinking like he should have been. 'Hell, even daydreamed about it,' Buck thought to himself. Then when he found out it was all a ruse, well, it had taken something out of him. Buck smiled as he remember how Ezra had taken on a serious expression and looked him straight in the eyes and said,

"Mr. Wilmington, I must say this; I will deny in the future if you should mention it to anyone else. She is a fool to think that jackass would be a better father or husband than you. You, sir, are a kindhearted and loyal man once you have given your heart and soul, and most important, your word. I am proud to have met you."

The words still made him shake his head, just like he did when Ezra immediately exited the jail after saying his peace. The memory of that day made the ladies man realize that he would do whatever it took to win Ezra's trust and friendship back. 'I'm not givin' up 'til I have it back. Ya have my word on it,' Buck vowed silently.

Maude continued to wash the fevered skin, just like she had when she cared for Bart. The only difference now was she would fight the devil before she let this precious gift leave this world, whereas before, she had been too tired to fight.

She had watched the men closely and knew that the only one that always believed in her son was Vin Tanner. She had heard Mr. Larabee's words that Vin and Nathan had believed in Ezra. Tanner had not been in town long enough to do anything about it. Something about Nathan still bothered her. She had let her anger get the better of her logical thinking and forgot to press the healer for his opinion about her son's condition.

Maude's suspicions about Nathan led her to believe that the healer was having problems with feeling guilty. But, was he feeling guilty because he did not make time to talk with Ezra, or because he made no effort to change the others men's opinions? Maude promised herself she would not leave this town without Ezra this time.

Maude Standish had not been lying when she had promised that the town would pay, if the person responsible for Ezra's condition was not found. She had watched the men enough to realize they believed the person behind this heinous act was still in town. In her distress, she had noticed the strategic areas the men had come from.

The con woman looked around and found Ezra's guns and placed them all in reach in various places around the room. She placed the derringer in her right dress pocket, hers already in the left one. The Conversion she placed under Ezra's pillow and the Remington ended up under the blanket where she planned to sit. Maude prayed the lily-livered coward showed his face, so she could make him pay dearly with a well aimed gut shot.

Assignments again were given out and each man prepared for night to descend upon the town. Someone would stand guard over Ezra and Maude, starting with Vin. Chris did not want Josiah spending too much time with the southern creature from Hell right now, 'til the preacher settled down some more. He knew that Maude would not irritate the tracker, 'hell, he puts up with Ezra,' like she would the rest of the group right now.

No one questioned the assignments Chris handed out, even if it did upset at least one religious member of their group. Vin did not mind having first watch over Ezra now that he understood Maude a little more. He wanted to get to know her better and see if he could learn about Ezra's parentage without being overbearing.

The tracker stopped off at the saloon and arranged for Inez to send some food over to the clinic later. Inez had smiled, promising she would send enough for the night and some broth for Ezra.

"Tell Senora Standish I will send some of her things over to her if she would like," Inez offered.

"I'll let ya know. Nate should be stoppin' in ta check on Ez. I'll have him give ya an answer," Vin replied as he tipped his hat before heading over to the clinic.

Toby watched as the lanky tracker made his way over to the clinic. Things didn't look like he was going to have any good news to tell his father. But then again, maybe there would be; Maude Standish had come to town earlier than planned. The young man headed home, with plans to leave at daybreak.

Maude heard a knock on the door and then a familiar voice, "Vin comin' in." The woman returned the gun to its resting place on the bed. Vin smiled as he walked over and noticed the Remington cocked and ready to fire lying next to Ezra.

"Hope ya know how to aim for something important?" Vin asked as he nodded toward the gun with a smile on his face.

"Who do you think taught him how to shoot?" Maude lifted her eyebrows as she returned the smile. Yes, she could see why Ezra liked his company. She had read about the friendship that had developed between her son and the disheveled young man before her in the letters her boy had written to her.

"Mr. Tanner, would you happen to have your reader handy?" Maude asked, aware this would embarrass the young man at first.

Vin blushed as he darted a glare at the unconscious southern pain in the ass that used to be his friend. 'I guess I'll have to get ya for this one, pard.'

Maude smiled as she observed the man's reaction to her question. Ezra had written how truly intelligent the young man was, considering that he had never had any formal education.

"Mr. Tanner, Ezra and I hold no secrets from one another. But what he tells me in confidence I hold sacred. Who do you think finds these books for him? I just wish to continue what he has started so you do not fall behind," Maude softly reassured the young man.

"Ya don't mind or think I’m dumb?" Vin asked his voice sounding so like a child waiting to be punished it almost made her cry.

"My dear boy, you are not dumb. No, you are far from that, I can say in all honesty. Ezra has great faith in your ability to read and write. He says he cannot wait to be able to offer you books to read and then talk about them. He says you have an amazing ability to recite poetry, and he cannot wait until you can write them down yourself. My son has a great respect for you and holds your friendship dear to him. That is why I know that you did not betray him and would not have believed those awful lies." Maude smiled sadly and she looked over at her boy when he started to become restless.

"Never believed the lies, I just didn't get back in time to fix the matter and ta protect him. I trust Ezra with my life. I will find out who did this and make them pay," Vin vowed.

"Please, just do not do something that would land you in more trouble than you are already in. Ezra would not want you to do anything that would jeopardize you proving your innocence," Maude warned the young man sternly. "Do not do anything without me knowing first if you can, or at least as soon after. I will do what I can to protect you if needed, and I will continue to check on you other unfortunate misfortune as well."

Vin was shocked at what Maude was implying. She would cover for him if a time came that it was needed. The woman even stated she would see what could be done about the bounty and charges already against him. He was about to reply when Ezra moaned in his sleep and seemed to open his eyes.

The tracker watched as Maude moved to comfort Ezra and try and get him to drink some of Nathan's tea. Nathan had spent some time going over the extent of the injuries and the expected outcome if the fever continued to deplete the gambler's strength. Vin smiled as he remembered how surprised Nathan was at the knowledge the southern woman already had known about taking care of the sick.

Vin moved closer to the woman and pulled out his reader. His nervousness left as soon as the relaxed smile, so like Ezra's, appeared on the woman's face. He read a few pages easily, only stumbling over a couple of words as he went. It seemed to offer comfort to Ezra as well; and he seemed to settle down, as if hearing the voices calmed him. After a while Vin noticed how Maude seemed to drift and knew the day's events and traveling had taken their toll on the woman.

"Why don't ya lay down on that cot over yonder? Inez is sending some food over later. She said she would send some of your things if ya'd like?" Vin offered, as he took the position best for looking at the door.

"Thank you, Mr. Tanner-" Maude started.

"It's Vin. I hope ya ain't as stubborn as your boy there?" Vin chuckled.

"Thank you, Vin, and yes, I can be as stubborn as, or worse than you ever dreamed of him being." Maude laughed at Vin's exaggerated shake of his head and the roll of his eyes.

"Mrs. Stan-"

"It's Maude. I hope you are not as stubborn, are you?" Maude asked sweetly.

"But I was-"

"Vin, we are like family now, you can call me Maude. If you are uncomfortable with it in public then you can address me as Mrs. Standish. But only in public, do you hear?"

"Yes, Ma'am."

"Dear Lord." Maude dramatically rolled her eyes as she took the Remington with her and laid down on the cot. She felt truly comfortable about getting some rest while under the watchful eye of Vin Tanner.

Vin settled in, ready to watch over his friends. He stayed alert, knowing Nathan would be coming to check on Ezra and food would be coming. Other than that, no one should be coming up to the clinic unannounced.

Josiah sat at the table, looking deeply into the whiskey bottle in front of him. He was finding it hard not to go and yank Maude out of the clinic and demand an explanation. He wanted to know why Ezra was wearing the medal he gave to Elizabeth. The preacher wanted to know why he looked like the woman in his past, and why he was in Maude's care.

Nathan stood for several minutes wondering if he should intrude on his friend's thoughts. He had noticed that since Ezra had been shot the preacher was acting differently. The healer had also noticed Josiah's interest in the strange looking medal when they had been working to save the gambler's life. Later on he'd looked at it closer and had noticed the JS neatly engraved on the back. 'Is JS standin' for Josiah Sanchez, I wonder?' It made some interesting ideas form in Nathan's head.

Nathan walked over and sat down in front of the man who stared at the bottle of whiskey, as if it held the answer to all of the world's problems. He could see the anger and conflict in the man's eyes, and he sat back, offering his friend time to let it sink in that he was there.

"Nate, how was Ezra?" Josiah softly asked, with an underlying tension in his voice.

"Was sleepin' all quiet like, seems Maude is good for him. Vin had just come to relieve me for the night." Nathan shook his head at the anger he could feel radiating off of his friend.

"Seems she is," was all the preacher said.

"Josiah, do ya wanna talk 'bout it?" Nathan offered.

"Nope, need to talk with Maude, but Ezra comes first right now." Josiah glared past the healer toward the clinic.

"When ya need ta talk 'bout it let me know. JS." Nathan smiled as he added the initials to let his friend know he had noticed the initials on the back of the medal and Josiah's reaction to it.

"Thank you, my friend, I will. Please let me know if Ezra needs anything, Maude too." Josiah stood and walked out of the saloon and heading for the church.

Josiah was not surprised that Nathan had figured out the initials on the medallion. The preacher was not even surprised that Nathan had offered to talk about it. He was just surprised that he was able to stand up and walk away from the temptation of drinking himself blind with the devil's brew.

Nathan watched as the preacher stood and turned away from the whiskey and went to seek comfort in the church. The healer wondered if Josiah was thinking like he was, about Ezra and the medal he wore. Could Ezra be Josiah's son by this ES that was also marked on the back of the medallion?

The healer had thought about confronting Maude about her implying that Ezra was not her son. But he could see the protectiveness of a mother guarding her young, 'she may not have borne him, but she loves him like she had.' Nathan smiled at the thought.

Inez had watched, in relief, as Josiah walked out of the saloon. The preacher had not drunk from the bottle of red-eye, nor did he take it with him. She moved from behind the bar to retrieve the bottle and asked Nathan for a favor.

"Senor Jackson, could I bother you to take some food over to the clinic?" Inez asked.

"It would be my pleasure, ma'am." Nathan smiled up at the young woman.

"Please tell Mrs. Standish I pray for Mr. Standish's recovery. Tell her also that I have placed her things in her son's room. And that if she needs anything to let me know; I will fetch it for her," Inez stated as she picked up the bottle of whiskey. "Just let me know when you are ready to go to the clinic, and I will prepare the meals."

"I will be glad ta. I'm gonna be leavin' as soon as ya have them meals ready. I'll be sure and pass on your message to Mrs. Standish," Nathan replied.

Vin smiled as he watched the pair sleeping. With every little sound Ezra made, Maude would wake up in an instant; no other sounds appeared to bother her as she napped. He knew it was because she trusted him with the task of looking over her and her son, and he would with a passion. The tracker noticed how the gambler would immediately calm down just by the touch of her hand and the sound of her voice. In his mumblings he called her "Maude" or "Mother" when addressing her, but he still called out for someone not to hurt his "Mama".

A sound outside the door alerted the tracker, and he had his gun aimed at the door before the sound of the soft knock and the familiar voice. "Vin, it's just me." Nathan called out softly, knowing Vin had the gun pointed at the door the moment his foot touched the landing.

Vin felt the hairs standing up on his neck. He glanced quickly behind him and noticed Maude wide-awake and pointing Ezra's Remington toward the door. The tracker smiled and nodded his thanks. Tanner then walked to, and unlocked, the door, chuckling as he did so. 'Well, I know where he got it from', as he thought of how easily the gambler could wake up and pull is gun.

"Come on in, Nate. All clear." Vin laughed as he opened the door. He looked over and noticed a smile also on Maude's face.

Nathan looked back and forth between the two smiling people as he moved toward Ezra. He nodded toward Maude as he noticed her shifting something under the blanket on her lap. The healer smiled as he realized it was most likely one of Ezra's guns and she had pulled it when he knocked on the door. The young black man carried the tray of food over to the table and set it down. The healer then walked over to the bed and looked down at his patient, feeling some relief at seeing that a more natural color had come to the gambler's face. He reached down and touched the southerner's skin that was still too warm but was cooler than before.

"Looks like he is improvin'; not as warm ta touch. Have ya been feedin' him that tea I gave ya?" Nathan asked, expecting a negative response, not because they wouldn't give it, but because the damn fool gambler wouldn't take it.

"Yes, he takes it every time I give it to him. I've never had a problem with Ezra taking his medicine." Maude smiled as she remembered how Ezra would complain over and over again about taking his medicine, but took it from her at the same time without any hassles.

Nathan and Vin both started laughing and looked at the woman like she was crazy.

"Gentlemen, the only problem I ever had when my boy was ill was keeping him quiet and in the bed. I'm sure that is still a problem today. He would fuss about taking his medicine, but took it all the same." Maude looked at the men and smiled. "And I'm sure that has not changed, as well."

Nathan nodded as Vin smiled, thinking of a small version of Ezra being sick and chased around by Maude to stay in bed. The healer went and looked to make sure that there was plenty of tea made to get them through the night.

"I'm sure, Mr. Jackson; if you leave the tea leaves I will be able to make more tea if needed." Maude smiled as she noticed the funny way that Nathan kept looking at Ezra, like guilt.

"Miss Inez told me ta tell ya your things are in Ezra's room. If ya need anythin' let her know and she'll bring it ta ya." Nathan stated as he looked over things to make sure he had everything ready that he would need for an emergency. He was satisfied they had enough tea till morning.

"Thank you Mr. Jackson, tell Inez I will come by in the morning and freshen up." Maude smiled gently at the healer and wondered what had made the man feel so sad and burdened with guilt.

"I'll tell her," Nathan nodded at Ezra's mother before turning his attention to Vin. "Is there anythin' ya need before I head out?"

"Nah. Fine for now." Vin replied.

"Then I will see you in the mornin'. If ya need me I'll be at the jail 'til midnight," Nathan said before leaving the clinic.

"Vin, he did not believe my son was guilty, did he?" Maude asked a few minutes after the door closed behind the healer.

"Nope, he just feels bad that he didn't act on it fast enough. Was tied up with some sick youngun' and a couple of gunshots," Vin offered, knowing she wanted to know why Nathan was acting guilty about Ezra being hurt.

"He is a good man; Ezra said he would be a great doctor," Maude stated as she thought about how she would repay the healer for his friendship towards her son.

"Yep, he is." Vin sighed.

"Well, Vin, I think it is about time I try and get some more sleep. But I must try some of this wonderful smelling food that Inez has sent us." Maude smiled as she went and prepared the food that the young woman had sent.

She noticed the broth and made a point to try and feed some to Ezra before she retired. The chicken was fried and smelled like heaven, along with the mashed potatoes, smothered with gravy. Maude looked around and found some cups and poured them both some coffee that had been made earlier by her own hand. The tracker's poor excuse of coffee was legendary in her boy's letters. The new found friends sat down at the table and ate the meal and silently enjoyed the company.

"Vin, would you please help me bring the cot, closer to Ezra's bed?" Maude asked as she cleaned up the dishes from the meal and what little broth she was able to get down the patient.

"Sure, Mrs.-"

"Maude, remember we are family. So you can call me Maude." The southern woman softly reprimanded, easing it with a kiss on the tracker's cheek.

"Sorry about that, Maude. I'd be glad ta help ya." Vin chuckled as he blushed at the woman's attention.

Vin could not hold the smile back, or the look of pride on his face, at Maude's words. He knew Nettie treated him like family, but now to have Maude do to the same, well, that made him feel really wanted for the first time in his life. He'd never thought someone like Maude would look at him, let alone claim him as family. He knew it could be a con, but his gut instinct told him otherwise.

"Anythin' else I can get ya, Maude?" Vin asked after they got the cot as close to the bed as they could.

"No, son, I'm fine. Now you be sure and get some rest tomorrow. Good night," Maude whispered as she settled down to try and get some sleep. The knowledge that Vin was guarding them made it easier to relax.

Vin moved the lantern closer to where he sat, pulled out the reader and started from the beginning.

"Remember, Mr. Tanner, practice makes it easier. We are not looking for perfection, because there is no such thing."

Vin smiled as he remembered Ezra telling him that on the day he gave him his first reader. He knew they were safe, Nathan had the jail and Buck was covering the town, he was with Ezra. The others would be sleeping so they could take over tomorrow, except Chris who would relieve Nathan around midnight.

Buck didn't notice the dark human form in the alleyway straight across from the clinic. The dark figure did not like how events were shaping up. He was sure the gambler would be dead, and the others hating his guts. Maude had arrived too soon, and seemed to bring the men closer together than ever to protect and watch over the bastard. His old master was not going to be happy with the events here in town. Toby was going to have some explaining to do as to why they had not been informed sooner. He returned to his horse and began his slow travels back to Eagle Bend.

Buck had a funny feeling he was being watched, but couldn't find the source. He had been alive in the West too long not to know, 'ya don't have to see it for it to be there'. It strongly reinforced the belief that whoever tried to kill Ezra was still in town. For tonight he would make sure his patrols stayed closer to the clinic. He was going to have a talk with Chris in the morning about tonight; maybe they should post somebody outside the door of the clinic, or have two people on night patrol.

Toby woke up before dawn to begin his journey to Eagle Bend. He did not look forward to what he had to tell his father and uncle. His sister had yet to speak to him since their heated words last night.

"I's tellin' ya Toby, it ain't right. Killin' ain't right. If ya keeps this up, you's be dead and I's be all alone." Mavis had cried to her brother as she'd tried to convince him not to go.

He wanted so much to just pack them up and leave. But he knew that their father and uncle would hunt them down and kill them for disobeying him. So he ignored his sister and settled in for a good's night's rest for is dreaded trip tomorrow.

The young black man knew that his sister was right. Standish had done nothing to him or Mavis; in fact he was polite and helpful most of the time. But his father said he had brought shame on their family and had to pay. Said he had disrespected their mama and whipped Silas something awful. Mavis had told him that it was just another one of their stories to make him angry enough to do it. He'd begun to wonder if she was right. He continued to ride as he tried to figure out what it was he should do.