Common Ground

by KellyA

Part 10
Josiah kicked open the door to the clinic and turned sideways as he passed through the doorway. He gently placed Ezra on the bed, a soft moan escaping the gambler's lips.

Nathan nudged him aside and knelt down beside the injured man, placing a hand on the pale, sweating brow.

"Ezra, can you hear me?" Jackson forced his head toward him and lifted an unresponsive eyelid. JD hugged the far wall as Buck paced at the foot of the bed, his thumbs hooked into his gun belt.

"I need water, and there are some clean rags over in the saloon's kitchen," Nathan called out. Buck raced out, spinning around Chris to avoid a collision.

"Chris, Josiah, I need you to hold him so I can get the bullet out." The two men moved without question and took hold of their wounded friend.

"Geeze Nate, he doesn't look too good," JD muttered, looking worriedly down at the gambler. His bloodless face looked terrible in the flickering light of the oil lamp. The orange flickering glow of the lamp made the dark bloodstain on his shirt seem to come alive, pulsating in the eerie light.

"He'll look a lot worse if I don't get that bullet out." Nathan grabbed the lantern and thrust it into JD's hands. "I need you to hold this over me."

Josiah positioned himself across Ezra's legs as Chris took hold of an arm pinning it to the bed. Ezra moaned and his eyes slowly opened. He looked over to see Nathan's face staring back at him.

"Awww hell, this can't be good," he managed to croak out.

"Take it easy, Ez. I have to get that bullet out," Nathan explained, laying a caring hand on the southerner's shoulder and squeezing, trying to reassure the pain-ridden man.

"I have the utmost confidence in your ability, Mr. Jackson," Ezra breathed out, bringing astonished grins to both Josiah's and Chris's faces.

"It appears our brothers have traveled the upon the road to understanding," Josiah mused.

Nathan flashed a faint grin at his huge friend. Turning around he grabbed a brown vial off his dresser. "Here Ez, you need to take some laudanum, it'll help with the pain."

"I'm afraid," Ezra gasped. "Laudanum and I have had a difficult relationship in the past."

Nathan stared down at Standish, and then patted his shoulder, realizing the southerner probably had a good reason for not wanting to take the opiate.

Buck returned, juggling a ewer of water and an armful of rags, which he set down next to Nathan. He took hold of Ezra's other arm, stepping sideways to block Standish's view of the coming operation. Buck watched as the healer removed the earlier bandages and ripped open Ezra's blood-soaked shirt. He diverted his eyes, his expression growing sad at the sight of the ragged wound. Buck glanced over to see Chris's blue eyes narrow at the injury. 'Someone is going to pay for this!' was written all over Larabee's face.

"Here, Ez, clamp down on this." Nathan placed a tightly wadded roll of cloth between Ezra's teeth. He looked at each of the men in the room, grateful for the nods of confidence. He picked up the scalpel, hovering it over the injury for a moment before slowly starting to cut into the wound.

The cloth muffled Ezra's screams, but tears ran down his face. Buck, Chris and Josiah strained against the throes of the gambler as he arched and threw his head from side to side trying to shake off the searing pain that was tearing through his side. He clasped onto Buck and Chris's biceps, squeezing so hard it brought tears to their eyes.

"You need to hold him still!" Nathan yelled.

"We're trying!" Buck bit back. They were discovering that underneath Ezra's fancy clothing was a sinewy body with surprising strength.

Sweat soaked Ezra's hair, matting it to his skull. His face had turned a ghastly shade of white, and Chris could feel the heat coming off his body.

"Hurry, Nathan," Chris hissed through clenched teeth.

"Damn!" Nathan swore and paused a moment, removing his blood soaked hands and instrument from Ezra's side.

"What?" Buck angrily yelled out, his own breathing coming out in short pants.

"It's too deep."

Ezra relaxed a little, his labored breaths, whistling past the wad of material. His emerald eyes glowed with the fire of fever behind them.

Josiah's large hand wrapped around Nathan's arm. "Try again."

Nathan took a deep breath and slowly released it, giving Chris and Buck a chance to renew their grips on the sweat-slick man. Nathan once again began to probe the ragged wound, his face a mask of concentration and determination. Ezra's struggles had weakened and his cries had died to mere whimpers.

"I almost got it."

Ezra turned his head and sunk deep into the pillow and emitted one last torturous scream. His eyes rolled up into his head, and he slumped unconscious at the clang of the bullet thrown into the basin.

Nathan quickly placed a folded over cloth on the bleeding wound grabbing Buck's hand and pulling him over into his place. "Hold that."

Nathan placed two bloodied fingers aside the unconscious gambler's neck then opened an eyelid. He then slumped back in his chair, exhausted. His hand shook as he held it in front of his face, and he licked at his dry lips. Looking up, he saw the worry on everyone else's faces. Chris looked down at the pale form and his heart ached. He didn't want to lose anyone else, not another member of his family.

"Is he going to be alright?" Chris whispered.

Nathan heard the concern and was surprised that the voice belonged to Chris. "He lost a lot of blood and the shock...Damn fool wouldn't let me treat him out on the trail. We'll need to try and keep him quiet and in bed."

"Geeze Nate, that'll be like keeping Buck here out of bed, it can't be done," JD quipped, trying to lighten the oppressive mood that had blanketed the small room. Buck lightly cuffed his young friend, grateful for the friendly diversion.

Chris raised icy blue eyes to meet Nathan's tired ones. "Now, what the hell happened out there?"

"Let's go downstairs, I need a drink. Someone needs to stay with him for awhile, but he should just sleep."

"I'll stay," Josiah volunteered. This came as no surprise to the four other men, but it would have surprised the reserved gambler. They had all recognized, early on, the fatherly feeling the ex-preacher had cultivated for Ezra.

Part 11

The four unassigned lawmen met down in the saloon, its crowd having significantly thinned out from earlier. Nathan took a long swig on the beer that Buck put before him. He unconsciously rubbed at the ghostly feel of the rope around his neck. Once everyone was settled he began, "I'd left town ahead of Ezra."

Chris glared at him, but Nathan only took another swig of beer and returned the glare before continuing.

"Three men, brothers I think, stopped me on the road sayin' I had no right to be there. Next thing I know my neck is in a noose." Fear flickered in Nathan's eyes at the memory and he took another gulp of his beer. Jackson looked at the stunned expressions of his friends.

"Well, Ezra caught up to me and killed one of the men and shot the rope in two to save my life." Nathan bowed his head and stared at the beer that was left in his glass. He then raised his head to meet the expectant looks of his friends. "He musta gone for the rope instead of protecting himself..." Nathan quietly said.

'Ezra put my life over his own!' the healer thought.

"So you think trouble is coming?" Chris asked.

Nathan shook himself from his thoughts and looked over at the blond leader. "The man Ezra killed was a brother to the other two; one of them threatened him."

Buck slumped back into his chair and released a long held breath.

Chris sat with his arms crossed, contemplating what Nathan was telling him. He leaned forward placing his clasped hands on top of the table.

"Okay, I have Vin on first watch. Buck, JD, you take the next shifts, then we'll devise a schedule. I want to know if any strangers come into town." Chris looked at his three friends. "I also don't want Ezra left alone." Everyone nodded in agreement.

+ + + + + + +

"NATHAN!" Ezra bolted up in his bed, his eyes darting wildly unable to fix in the darkness. He felt a hand on his chest forcing him down.

"Easy, Ez," a soft Texas drawl came out of the darkness. Someone lit a lantern and Ezra could make out the long brown hair of the tracker. JD came up to the bedside holding the lantern.

"I missed... Oh God, Nathan I'm sorry... I missed..." Ezra ranted, his voice quivering.

"No, Ez, you didn't. Nathan's fine," Vin assured, grabbing a cool cloth and mopping the gambler's brow. Ezra looked up into Vin's face searching for any indication of a lie and found none. The cool cloth felt so good. Vin watched as Ezra's eyes slowly closed. He continued to mop his brow, hoping to lull his injured friend into a soothing slumber.

Ezra slept through the next day, stirring only briefly, enabling Nathan to get some much-needed water down him. The others were a constant procession through the clinic, helping wherever they could. Nathan spent the most time watching over him, mostly because he was the most medically qualified, but also because he felt he owed him. He looked down at the obstinate southerner who had saved his life. He realized there was more to Ezra Standish than mere appearances and attitude portrayed. His indifference was a front, protecting a more fragile and caring soul than Nathan had ever believed existed.

Part 12

The next morning found Buck lounging outside the jail, his chair tilted back on two legs against the wall. He eased his chair down on all four of its legs as three men slowly rode in.

"JD, git out here!" he called back into the jailhouse.

His young friend stepped out of the doorway on to the jail porch, brushing his dark hair back from his face and setting his bowler on his head.

"Go get Chris, we have company."

JD looked down the street at the three riders and took off across the street as Buck nonchalantly stood, leaning against the post, his eyes never leaving the three men as they rode past. He watched as the three strangers dismounted outside the stables.

Buck saw Chris and Vin exit the saloon and he stepped off the boardwalk to meet them in the center of the street.

The three lawmen intercepted the three strangers as they exited the stables. The six men assessed each other with practiced eyes.

"What can we do fer you?" Chris asked arms folded across his dark shirt.

"Who's asking?" an older gentleman countered. He was a massive man, with a thick neck and heavy arms. Gray hair peeked out from under a wide brimmed hat. He pulled back his coat to threateningly reveal two guns, slung low on his hip: Both had crosses carved into the pearl handles.

Chris's blue eyes narrowed at the burly man, unimpressed with the older man's show of force.

"I'm Chris Larabee and these are my men. We're the law here," Chris answered.

Vin shifted his stance when he saw the two young men standing behind the older man noticeably stiffened. They had heard tales of the dark-clad gunslinger and by the look in Larabee's eyes, the tales were true.

"I'm Frank Mason and these are my boys, Billy and Jake. We're lookin' fer an evil doer, dressed fancy with a southern accent. He gunned down my son and God and me wish to have words with him about it."

Frank Mason had heard of Larabee, but he wasn't intimidated by the somber gunslinger. He had the lord on his side, and anyway he wasn't looking to get in a gunfight with this man, not that he didn't think he couldn't take the younger man.

Buck and Vin glanced at each other behind Chris' back, both wondering what Mason was trying to pull. It was true they hadn't known Ezra long, but they knew he wouldn't kill anyone in cold blood and they believed Nathan's version of events. Vin was more concerned with the man's 'friendship' with God.

"You see it happen?" Chris asked his face giving nothing away.

"Nah, but my boys did, tell me this slick city fellow just gunned Jessie down without reason."

Chris glared at the older man, seeing that he believed what he said and what his sons had told him. This was going to mean trouble for Ezra.

"Haven't seen anyone like that 'round here," Chris smoothly lied, hoping the three would just move on.

Frank Mason stared at the stone-faced cowboy. "You don't mind if'n we have a look around?" Mason politely asked.

"Nope, it's a free country," Chris stated and locked deadly blue eyes onto the two young men, who shifted nervously under his gaze. "Just make sure your boys remember that."

Mason's black eyes narrowed as he felt the threat that came from the darkly dressed gunslinger. He nodded and headed toward the hotel, his two remaining sons right on his heel.

"Shit, Chris, what are we going to do?" Buck asked, watching the three men enter the hotel.

"Try and keep Ezra out of sight for awhile until we can straighten this out," Chris replied, turning to walk toward the saloon. Vin clapped Buck on the back and followed Chris. Buck paused a moment running his hand down his face. How did Ezra always manage to find trouble? He shook his head and proceeded to follow Vin and Chris into the saloon.

Vin came up alongside Chris. "Mason believes Ezra killed his son in cold blood," Vin said, matching his friend's long strides.

"Well, we'll just have to make him see the truth then," Chris replied. He hadn't completely trusted Ezra at first, but he had proven himself an invaluable asset to the team. Chris doubted Standish knew how the others really felt about him. The gambler was one of them, and as anyone would tell you Chris Larabee protected his own with a ferocity that rivaled a mother lioness.

Part 13

Nathan sat quietly in a chair in the corner of his room, thumbing through a large medical tome; his thoughts, though, were elsewhere. Chris had told him that Ezra had returned the money he'd won from Mr. Winslow, enabling the family to return back east. When would Ezra stop surprising him?

His eyes glanced up from the page when Ezra moaned. He closed the book and set it on the chair as he stood and immediately went to Standish's side. "Easy Ez," he soothed as he brought the coverlet back up to this chest.

Ezra winced and opened his green eyes.

"Mr. Jackson," he breathed. "I guess I own you a debt of gratitude."

Nathan checked Ezra's pulse and felt his forehead for fever, relieved that the fever had finally abated. "No more than I owe you. I'd be hangin' from a rope right now if it hadn't been for you."

Ezra's face fell and his eyes shifted away. "I believe you wouldn't have found yourself in such a difficult position if I had accompanied you when you asked me to."

Nathan's face showed his shock at this admission. Was Ezra actually apologizing, believing what had happened was his fault?

"Well, that's debatable, there were three of them," Nathan pointed out, suddenly finding himself trying to defend the contrite gambler. "And anyway, I coulda waited a little while."

His brown eyes met appreciative green ones. He turned away, reaching for a cup of water, sitting on the bed table. Nathan wedged an arm behind Ezra's back and helped him to sit up.

"Here, drink this, it'll help with the pain."

Ezra took the cup with a shaky hand and sipped at the noxious medicine. His face scrunched as he choked down the drink.

"And don't tell me how awful it is -- I know," Nathan kindly reprimanded in a tone laced with concern. Ezra's eyes shifted up to see if what he heard in his voice matched what was on his face. A smile tugged at his mouth as he realized they were finally building a bridge over that bottomless chasm that had separated them. Nathan eased Ezra's weakened body back down.

Nathan sat back down in the chair, placing his hands on his knees. "Why didn't you tell me you gave the money back?"

Ezra's eyes narrowed and he shifted in the bed trying to find a more comfortable position that would not aggravate his wound. "Would that have changed your belief that I cheated?"

Nathan dropped his head and looked down at the floorboards for a moment. 'Would it have changed what he believed of the suave gambler?' Nathan wasn't sure. He raised his head.

"It might've," he answered.

"Maybe we both should learn to put our overabundance of pride aside from time to time," Ezra suggested, extending his hand.

Nathan looked at the offered hand and clasped it in his large dark one. Both men looked up as Chris and Buck entered.

"Hey, Ez, you're awake," Buck said, grinning like the Cheshire cat that ate the canary.

Ezra cocked an expressive eyebrow toward the congenial cowboy. "Mr.

Wilmington, you have remarkable powers of observation."

Chris chuckled at Buck's feigned look of hurt. Ezra was definitely on the mend, he mused. Chris's expression hardened as he looked at Nathan. "They're here."

Nathan slumped down into the chair. He had hoped the threat made to Ezra had been meaningless. He looked over at Standish who now had his usual impassive façade firmly in place.

"The father of the dead man, a Frank Mason, and his two sons are looking for Ezra," Chris said. "They say he killed their son and brother in cold-blood."

Ezra's face fell and Nathan leapt to his feet. "What? That's not true!" he yelled.

"We know Nathan, but apparently his sons saw it differently," Buck answered. "The man also believes that God is on his side."

"Well, that could be entirely true, he's never been on mine," the gambler quipped. This was always the way. Ezra always found himself blamed for something he had no control over.

"You're not to blame, Ez, you saved Nathan's life," Chris answered the southerner's unspoken thoughts. "And we'll make Mason realize that."

Ezra stared up into Chris's blue eyes, looking for the gunslinger's angle and seeing only concern and respect for a colleague. Swallowing hard, Ezra dropped his gaze to the top of the sheet.

"What are we going to do?" Nathan asked.

"Well, we're going to keep Ezra under wraps for now." Chris glanced over toward Standish expecting an objection. The gunslinger was not disappointed.

"Mr. Larabee, I have no reason to hide. It would only make me appear guilty of the charge," Ezra reasoned.

"You don't have a choice. You're in no shape to face him," Chris explained.

"Ezra, you lost a lot of blood. There is no way I'm letting you out of this bed," Nathan firmly stated.

Part 14

After a day of Ezra's incessant demands and complaints to be let out of the clinic, Nathan finally relented, releasing him to his room under the condition that he would remain in bed for a couple more days. Of course, he expected to hold Ezra to his promise with some help from the others. They all knew that Ezra hated to be forced into doing anything, even if it was for his own good.

No sooner had he been remanded to his room Ezra tried to sneak out, figuring he could go down the back stairs. He hadn't planned on finding Josiah's massive form in the hall, fixing a hole that had mysteriously appeared in the wall. "Brother, is there anything I can get you?" Josiah innocently asked, working on keeping the smile from turning into a full out laugh at the perplexed expression on the gambler's face.

Ezra returned the grin and closed the door against Josiah's smile.

On his next attempt, Ezra opened his door only to come face to face with Buck's smiling visage.

"Ay, Ez how about a game." He waved a deck of cards in the cardsharp's annoyed face.

The one that really threw him was Vin, who he found stretched out on the roof right next to his window.

"Mr. Tanner, what are you doing out here?" a flabbergasted Ezra asked as he opened the window.

Vin was laying on his buckskin coat his hands behind his head drinking in the afternoon sunshine.

"Ah...just relaxin' a bit," he easily lied with a twinkle in his blue eyes. He knew he wasn't fooling Ezra, but that wasn't the idea. They were just trying to keep him under wraps for as long as possible. "You should be restin' Ez, doctor's orders." Vin was enjoying this way too much.

Ezra finally succumbed to his inevitable captivity, knowing any attempt to leave his room would be obstructed and at the moment he wasn't strong enough to fight them. He couldn't stop the smile that tugged at the corners of his mouth at this newly found concern, although, it could also be a real pain in the ass.

Nathan made numerous house calls to check on him. Ezra found himself becoming more comfortable with the tall healer; they even played a couple friendly card games together, in the gambler's room of course.

It was during one of these impromptu games that Nathan decided to venture into unknown territory and try and find out what Ezra Standish was really all about.

"What made you leave the saloon and come after me?" Nathan asked, laying down two cards and continuing to stare at his hand.

Ezra tilted his head sideways as he dealt out two cards. "Did you find it astonishing that a dyed-in-the-wool southerner such as myself would come to your rescue?"

Nathan shook his head. Ezra always answered a question with a question and with as many words as could fit in a sentence. "I don't know, it just seemed, well..."

"Out of character," Ezra finished, looking down at the hand he held.

Nathan raised his head to meet Ezra's gaze. He found no animosity shaded in those green eyes, only understanding. "You know, I don't know. I guess it just made me realize how little I know you and how much I just assume," Nathan explained. "I call."

A small smile tugged at the gambler's mouth as he laid down a royal flush and remarked, "The same here, Mr. Jackson."

Part 15

Chris and the others knew that Frank Mason suspected they were hiding something. The Mason family had been asking questions around town, but only received conflicting information, thanks to Buck and JD who raced around town asking people to play dumb.

Chris, Nathan, Josiah, and Buck were relaxing in the saloon passing away the long afternoon when Frank Mason and his boys entered.

"Damn it, thought they'd left," Chris muttered.

"Musta doubled back," Buck said, nodding at the scowling Vin who followed the Mason family into the saloon.

"Pa, that's him, that's the nigger friend of the fancy dressin' man,"

Billy voiced, pointing a finger at Nathan.

As the three men walked toward their table, Chris saw JD slip silently into the saloon and move to the corner of the room prepared for any trouble.

Frank Mason approached the four gunslingers. "You lied to me, Mr. Larabee, you're harboring a killer?!" Mason slurred.

"No. We're keeping you from killing an innocent man," Chris softly replied.

"What?! That strutting peacock killed my son! I want to know where he is?!" Mason demanded.

Josiah placed a friendly, but forceful hand on Nathan's tensed shoulders. Buck's fingers tickled the handle of his gun. Chris raised his eyes and glared dangerously at the older man, who stood only a few feet away. He decided to try and set the angry man straight and hope for the best.

"Your boy was going to hang Nathan; Ezra stopped him," Chris explained.

Mason glanced over at Nathan then back at Chris.

"My boys were just having a little fun with the nigger; that Reb killed my son for no reason."

The four gunslinger's jaws dropped; apparently, Frank Mason knew exactly what his sons had been doing and saw nothing wrong with it.

"Your boys were going to hang me!" Nathan exploded up out of his chair, toppling it over. He couldn't believe what he was hearing. It was like the war had never happened; he was still a slave in this man's eyes.

Buck and Josiah stood up next to their irate friend.

"My son was not going to kill ya," Mason firmly replied.

"Yeah, we weren't going to hurt you none," Jake added, the grin on his face only validating the others disbelief.

"The hell you weren't!" Nathan stepped forward, and Josiah's hand latched onto his shoulder, acting as a tether, holding him back.

"Your son had every intention of hanging me and Ezra knew it." Jackson's eyes burned with a fire that Chris had never seen before. His usually composed friend looked homicidal.

Mason returned his eyes to Chris, who had remained in his chair, his fingers templed in front of his face. "It makes no difference, the life of this...nigger," Mason spat out, glaring sharply back at Nathan, "was not worth the life of my son. He's no better than one of my cattle and probably not even worth as much."

JD's mouth fell open; Vin shook his head in disgust.

Josiah released his hold on Nathan and took a step forward only stopping when he heard the slow scrape of a chair being pushed back. Chris's tall, sinewy form rose out of his chair. Buck's gaze shot over to see Chris's anger surface like a demon thing rising up. Larabee clenched his fists and took a deep breath. He wanted nothing more than to shove his fist into this man's bigoted face.

"Then let's have the law decide, we'll hold a trial and get the truth. I can have a judge here in two days time," Chris exclaimed through gritted teeth.

"I don't need no judge telling me what's right and wrong. God and I will dispense justice." Mason fingered the cross carved into the handle of one of his guns.

Josiah stepped forwarded. "Sir, I've never known the lord to dispense justice, he left that up to his flock."

Frank Mason stared at the large gunslinger. "You a preacher or something?"

"Once I had a personal relationship with the Almighty, but we've sort of had a falling out and only talk on occasion now."

"You will not blaspheme!" Frank yelled and Josiah saw the fanaticism in the man's dark eyes.

Mason turned and headed toward the door with his two boys right on his heels. He stopped as he reached the swinging doors, a hand on each door holding them apart. "You can't hide him forever," he called over his shoulder.

"And he won't have to, Mr. Mason." The elegantly drawled words floated down from the second story.

Everyone looked up the stairs as Ezra made his way stiffly down the stairs, keeping a hand on the banister to compensate for the balance he was still lacking. His friends could tell he was moving carefully.

Ezra stopped at the bottom of the stairs placing his hand on the round newel. They all could see how pale and out of breath the descent had made him.

"Finally decided to come out of your hole, Reb?" Billy sneered. Frank Mason eyed the smaller, distinctively dressed man and smiled. This would be easier than he thought.

"An unfortunate mishap with one of your sons left me incapacitated for a while," Ezra explained.

"We have something to settle," Mason snarled, stepping toward Ezra, stopping as he noticed the other lawmen laying their hands on their guns.

"Sir, I fired in self-defense when your son violently refused my request to release Mr. Jackson from his noose."

"Jessie was just havin' a little fun," Mason grunted.

"He was murderin' Mr. Jackson, and had planned on having me join him in the hereafter. He gave me no other recourse but to shoot him. Be grateful I only killed one," Ezra sneered. He had overheard enough of the older man's derogatory remarks and was having a hard time holding back his own growing anger.

Chris bowed his head to hide his smirk, and Ezra accused him of having no tact!

"You think the life of that nigger was worth the life of my son?" Mason asked Ezra.

Ezra closed his eyes, his stomach rolling in disgust as much as from the pain in his side. "At this moment, Sir, I believe Mr. Jackson's life is worth more than yours."

Buck hooted out loud and Josiah's face broke into the broadest grin his long face could handle. Nathan stared open mouth as Ezra openly defended him. Mason's face darkened and he inhaled, held the breath, and then slowly released it. He stared directly at Ezra, who met it with steady indifference.

"Justice will prevail and God will guide my hand with righteousness," he declared, raising a hand toward the ceiling. "I'm going to kill you like the cowardly bastard you are. I'm calling you out, tomorrow at noon, man to man, and if you don't show my Lord will strike you down!"

"I accept your challenge, Sir."

Chris bowed his head. Buck threw his hat on the table and ran his fingers through his dark hair. The others stared dumbfounded at Ezra.

Frank and his boys slowly backed out of the saloon feeling the seven deadly gazes upon them.

"Pa, he's really fast," Jake whispered into his father's ear as they left the saloon.

Frank grabbed his son by the shirt and brought his face to within inches of his own.

"You dare doubt the right hand of God Almighty? I will prevail and see justice carried out as the blood drains from the body of your brother's murderer's body." Frank released his son and continued across the street toward the hotel, his two boys regarding each other with fear in their eyes and quickly followed.

Back in the saloon, Ezra swayed, then felt Buck's hand on his elbow, leading him to a chair.

"Ezra, you don't have to do this," Chris exclaimed.

"Sir, my character as well as Mr. Jackson's has been maligned."

"This ain't going to prove anything," Buck added. "The man's crazy, thinks he's god's hired gun or somethin'"

Ezra looked over to see a forlorn Nathan standing a few feet away, not believing what was happening. When Nathan saw that he was being scrutinized he walked over. "Ez, you can't do this--not because of me."

"I believe you are thinking too highly of yourself, Mr. Jackson. Mr. Mason wants retribution for the death of his son, for which I'm responsible."

"Yeah, but you wouldn't have been in that position if not for me," Nate reminded him.

"Ezra, there's no law that says you have to face him," JD pointed out.

"And what would you have me do? Hide in my room for the rest of my life? I have a feeling that as Mr. Wilmington put it, Mr. Mason considers himself the gun hand of God and would take it upon himself to see that I'm struck down eventually. I'd rather face this head on. It's not my usual habit, I'll admit, but a lot has changed of late."

Chris laid a hand on Ezra's shoulder. The gambler looked up, the feeling flooding through him at the expression on Chris's face was exactly how he had always believed it would feel to have a brother. Wiping at his face, Ezra slowly stood. He looked at Nathan.

"I have no regrets, Mr. Jackson, and neither should you. If you'll excuse me gentlemen, I feel I better rest up for tomorrow's duel." The others watched as Ezra slowly made his way up the stairs.

"Does anyone have any idea how fast Ezra is?" Buck asked when Ezra was out of earshot. They all looked at each other questioningly.

"I know he's accurate, but I ain't never seen 'im draw one on one with anyone," Vin replied.

"Chris, there's another consideration," Nathan voiced. "Ezra's lost a lot of blood, he's not up for this no matter what he says."

"What are we going to do? We can't just let this guy gun Ezra down like a dog," JD injected.

Chris rubbed a hand down his tired face as he looked at Nathan. "Can you slip him something so we can buy some more time?"

Nathan raised his eyebrows and nodded. "He won't like it."

"We'll deal with that later, I just want to keep him alive so there is a later," Chris replied.

Part 16

Nathan found Mr. Mason sitting alone at a table in the restaurant. In three determined strides he was standing before the huge man. He slid down into the chair across from the older man, who had yet to acknowledge his presence.

Mason wiped his mouth with a napkin, eyeing the impertinent darkie. "I didn't give permission for you to sit down," he sneered.

"I didn't ask for any," Nathan countered in the same disgusted tone.

Frank Mason glared at Nathan, then a crooked smile pulled his lips up. "Mr. Larabee and that Reb's friends have already been by to threaten me and my boys; nothing you say is going to stop me from killing the man who killed my son."

"Your son was going to hang me."

Mason picked the napkin from his lap and wiped his mouth, then leaned back in his chair. "What gives a man the right to kill another? Only the good Lord can decide that?"

Nathan cocked his head at the opinionated man. "Ezra was defending my life as well as his own."

"So you say, but you're still alive and my son is dead," Mason paused. "You had nothing to fear from death if you are a righteous man."

Nathan shook his head, not sure he was following the older man's train of thought, and then something struck him. "You're angry because your son died so I might live," Nathan exclaimed.

Frank Mason crossed his arms and rested them on his stomach as he stared

at the perceptive healer. His voice was low as he replied, "You're right, is that what you want to hear? Your life was not worth my boy's life. Not so long ago no one would have batted an eye over what my son was doing."

Mason was right; it hadn't been that long ago that he had been a slave, his life worth no more than someone was willing to pay. Nathan clenched his teeth and drew in a quivering breath.

"You're a hypocrite, you hide behind this pretense of doing the lord's work. What god would want one man to kill another, just because he saved the life of a man you feel is unworthy?"

"I use to be a hired gun, until god's divine light shined down on me and showed me my true calling. To make sure that justice was carried out, and I aim not to fail."

Nathan then saw the same madness that had earlier lit Mason's eyes and knew he wouldn't be able to talk this man out of his deadly revenge. Nathan quietly rose, standing over the contemptible man for a moment then turned and left.

Mason chuckled quietly and returned to his meal. He got a sudden uneasy feeling and looked around the restaurant, noticing the stares of disdain directed to him from the other patrons -- all white patrons.

+ + + + + + +

Josiah looked up from the pulpit as Frank Mason entered the quiet church and approached.

Mr. Mason came directly up to the altar and smiled. "Sir, you will have to forgive my earlier outburst, a father's grief you know."

Josiah remained quiet, only staring at the deranged man.

"You of all people should understand my position, being a preacher and gunslinger. We are the lord's hired guns, carrying the truth." Mason removed one of his revolvers and placed it on the altar in front of Josiah who stared down at it.

"This can never be an instrument of truth only of death," Josiah quietly remarked, picking up the revolver and handing it back to Mason.

"Justice will prevail and I will be revenged. Vengeance is mine, so sayeth the lord," Mason recited.

"That is the lord's vengeance, not yours, sir," Josiah corrected. "Man must follow the laws put down by man. Ezra did what he had to do."

"No, he didn't have to murder my son!" Mason yelled out. "I will show you all the truth when he faces me under the presence of the Almighty."

"Shooting down an innocent man is not justice and will not bring your son back," Josiah said.

"It will give me immense pleasure, though," Mason snarled and in that moment Josiah knew the man was totally insane. Frank Mason turned and strode out of the church, his maniacal laughter echoing off the hallowed walls.

Part 17

It was an hour before noon, and the five other lawmen were in the saloon waiting for Ezra to appear. Nathan had mixed a special knockout concoction and hidden it behind the bar. Buck was to give it to Ezra in a drink when he came down. Everyone turned and looked up at the sound of a door opening.

Standish made his way slowly down the stairs, wearing his favorite red jacket. He went to his usual table and sat down. Chris and Nathan came

over and stood across the table from the placid gambler. Chris decided to try one more time to talk some sense into the stubborn mule of a man.

"We can take care of this, you don't have to do this alone."

"Mr. Larabee, I believe we've been through this. I do not need to be watching my back waiting for a bullet, or worse have one of you harmed because you were watching my back."

Chris realized Ezra was probably right. Mason could shoot him at any time and even though they’d probably arrest him if they hadn't already killed him, it wouldn't do Standish any good if he was six feet under.

"I brought this trouble, I will deal with it," Ezra stated firmly.

Chris opened his mouth about to say something, then closed it. Ezra still thought of himself as an outsider, alone. Chris wanted to assure him they would be there to back him up, but how could they help him with this?

"This isn't your fault Ezra," Nathan told the gambler. "You were saving my life."

"Something I have no regret in doing, Mr. Jackson, but apparently Mr. Mason sees it differently."

"Damnit Ezra! Don't do this on my account!" Nathan yelled in frustration.

"Sir, you have fought your whole life for your principles, allow me this one time to fight for mine," Ezra calmly replied.

"This has nothing to do with principles, the man is deranged," Nathan snapped,

"It doesn't change the fact that he believes I killed his son in cold blood," Ezra replied.

Nathan threw up his hands and walked away. Chris nodded toward Buck to go into action. The ladies' man reached behind the bar and grabbed two glasses filled with whiskey. He strode over to Ezra, plopping down in the chair across from him and sliding the double shot glass over to him.

"Here, you probably could use this."

Ezra smiled and touched two fingers to his forehead in a salute of thanks.

Chris looked down at his watch then up at the doors when JD came rushing in. "They're out there," the young gunslinger exclaimed.

"Well, Mr. Mason, will have to wait for the appointed hour to dispense his so called justice," Ezra said, a slight smile playing on his face. His side still bothered him and he knew he was still weak from blood loss. He also didn't understand why he was doing this. Not so long ago he would have just ridden out of town and not looked back; hell, not long ago he would never have found himself in this position at all--Nathan would have hung.

"What are they doin'?" Chris asked the young sheriff.

"Just standing out in front of the hotel watching the saloon," JD replied, watching as Ezra rubbed the back of his neck before drawing his colt and checking each chamber.

"Chris, there's got to be something we can do?" Nathan hoarsely whispered, his fear taking away his voice. He glanced over at Ezra, who lifted his drink in a toast with Buck, both men tossing back the fiery liquid.

"There's nothing I can do, Ezra accepted his challenge. It's all completely legal," Chris replied. Duels weren't as common any more, but in the West they were still a legal means of justice, if both parties agreed.

Nathan bowed his head. He knew Ezra was going to be plenty mad when he discovered their deception with the knockout drops. He only hoped the gambler understood they were doing it for his own good. There had to be a way to convince Frank Mason that Ezra was not at fault, but after talking with the man earlier he didn't think so.

"Standish! I'm waiting!" Mason called out from the street. His voice grating on everyone's already frazzled nerves.

Chris looked toward Nathan, mouthing "How long?" Jackson shrugged. Ezra stood and straightened his jacket. He looked toward Josiah, who had stepped up alongside the gambler, expecting at any minute to have to catch Ezra.

"Mr. Sanchez, Mr. Wilmington will require your assistance momentarily," Ezra stated, a knowing smile creasing his lips.

Buck stared up at Ezra then felt his head spin. Rubbing at his eyes Wilmington slowly stood.

"Aww hell, Ez!" Buck muttered as his eyes rolled up into his head and he began to crumble to the floor. Josiah grabbed the collapsing man and gently lowered him to the ground.

Ezra headed for the door only to be blocked by Chris and Vin's imposing forms.

"Gentlemen, please...."

Chris looked over Ezra's shoulder, seeing Nathan checking on Buck. Apparently Ezra's slight of hand was useful at more than just dealing cards. Chris and Vin stepped aside, receiving a curt nod from Standish for their courtesy. Chris turned worried eyes to the four other lawmen, each one's expression showing equal concern.

"Well, let's make sure it's a fair fight," Chris growled, following the stubborn gambler out onto the street.

Part 18

Ezra Standish and Frank Mason met in the center of main street, one seeking revenge for a dead son and believing that God was on his side; the other trying to prove his innocence and praying that God was on his side, for once. Chris and the gunslingers watched from the boardwalk for any sign of foul play. Vin only saw the one son and immediately started searching for the other.

Ezra decided to try one more time and reason with the lunatic father. "Mr. Mason, I'm sorry about your son, but Mr. Jackson is just as worthy of life as he was."

Mason spit into the dirt and glared at the smooth-talking gambler. He pushed his coat aside, revealing his twin pearl-handle colts. His fingers flexed over the handles.

Ezra took a breath and pulled the corner of his jacket back, flexing his fingers. He had no idea if he was faster than this man; he had never drawn on a man, one on one, without using his rigged derringer. Ezra kept his poker face in place, giving nothing away. He was playing the biggest game of his life. A duel went to the fastest dealer, and the pot was a person's life.

Mason wiped his lips dry with the back of his hand and glared at the southerner. This man had stolen his oldest son from him, all for the life of a nigger. The thought sickened him as much as the sight of this Reb sickened him. He firmly believed that he could out-draw this gambler pretending to be a lawman. God would guide his hand, and he would not fail. He would spit on this man's grave and show the southerner's six friends that Frank Mason was not a man to be taken lightly.

When Ezra saw the shift in Frank Mason's eyes, he drew. His bullet went through Frank's arm as he was raising it to shoot. The gun jumped from Mason's hand and landed in the dirt. Ezra had had no intention of killing the demented father if he could at all help it.

Frank's dark eyes went wide as he gripped his bleeding arm. He looked up to see Ezra, standing silently, his gun held down at his side. Mason released his bleeding arm and started to bend down to retrieve his gun, stopping when a bullet kicked dirt up at his feet. He turned to see Chris glaring at him, his gun in his hand.

Jake ran out and wrapped a handkerchief around his father's bleeding wound, then looked over at the gambler. The young man nodded to Ezra, grateful that Standish hadn't killed his father.

Ezra slowly holstered his gun. He was suddenly very tired and everything seemed to be moving in slow motion. He didn't even notice Frank Mason reaching for his second gun.

'Enough was enough, this was going to end now!' Chris thought as he again fired at Mason's feet. "The next one'll kill ya!" he warned.

JD pushed his bowler back and whistled. "Lord, I had no idea Ezra was so fast!"

"Well, hell, as fast as he can deal them cards it's no wonder he can shoot as fast," Nathan joked his smile lighting up his face. He was just glad the obstinate southerner was still standing.

"Divine intervention, if you ask me," Josiah laughed.

Chris smirked, wondering if he and Ezra would achieve the rarity of a double-kill if they ever drew on each other. Nathan grinned as Mason stood in the street, blood oozing past his fingers. He didn't think the man would appreciate his help, so he didn't offer it. He just hoped that Frank Mason realized how lucky he was that he was still alive.

Out of the corner of his eye Vin saw the glint of metal from an alleyway, directly across from Ezra. He brought his rifle up.

"Ezra, Down!" he yelled, causing everyone to draw their own weapons as Ezra dropped to the street in answer to Vin's warning. He hissed and his fingers clawed at the dirt as a sharp pain radiated from his side.

Vin fired. Frank and Jake watched in horror as Billy took two steps forward then fell face first onto the boardwalk. They raced to his side already knowing they would be to late.

Nathan rushed to Ezra's side as the gambler struggled to his knees. He knew the man Vin shot would be dead and it was all right for him to stand. If he could manage it...

Nathan got an arm under Ezra's shoulder and helped him up, then he looked under Ezra's jacket. "Easy, you broke open your wound," he said upon seeing the blood already soaking the clean white shirt.

"Aww hell," Ezra murmured, shaking his head. He felt Josiah's hand grasp his other arm to help hold him steady.

Chris stepped up to the distraught Mason, kneeling over his dead son. He tried to feel sympathy toward this man, but failed in the attempt.

"It's over Mr. Mason, go home while you still have one son left," Chris said, regret in his voice. He turned and followed as Josiah and Nathan helped Ezra toward the clinic.

JD and Vin entered the saloon and JD bounced over to where Buck still laid unconscious and snoring. Josiah had stretched Wilmington out on the floor and folded his arms over his chest. The young gunslinger squatted down next to his friend and slapped his cheek, trying to get a reaction.

"Hey, Vin, how long you suppose he'll be out?"

Vin stepped up to stand over JD and looked down at Buck. "I don't know; I've known one of Nathan's concoctions to keep a man out for hours."

"Really?" JD replied, the speculative amusement in his voice bringing a smile to the tracker's scruffy face.

"What'cha have in mind, JD?" Vin asked. Both men had been the victims of numerous pranks perpetrated by the now sleeping cowboy. How could they pass up on an opportunity like this? JD looked up to see the same devilish glint in Vin's eye.

+ + + + + + +

Ezra lounged lazily outside the saloon, Chris and Nathan on either side, like silent watchdogs. Their eyes all went over to the jail across the street at the sound of Buck's enraged bellow.

"AHHHHHHH! I'm gonna kill 'em!" Buck shouted from the jail as he stormed out the door. He stood in the doorway, gun in hand, a blue peasant skirt wrapped around his waist and a light ruffled blouse, trying in vain to cover his barreled chest.

Nathan fell out of his chair, doubling over in laughter. Ezra had to hold his side and try to contain himself. Chris only smiled at the sight of his long time friend dressed as a woman.

Buck charged across the street and came right up to the threesome. "Where are they?"

"Where are who, Miss Wilmington?" Ezra chortled, wincing at the sudden pain in his side. Buck snarled at the smart-ass gambler.

"JD and Vin! I know it was those two who did this."

"Funny thing, Buck -- they volunteered to ride over to Oak Ridge earlier today to pick up a prisoner," Chris explained. He had wondered why the two were so eager to ride out.

Buck was preparing to leave, then stopped. "Nathan, how much longer does Ezra have to convalesce?"

Nathan looked over at the smartly dressed southerner, taking in his still pale face. "Two more days," he answered.


"And why the sudden interest in my recovery, Mr. Wilmington?"

Buck leaned over the railing. "Oh, I haven't forgotten your part in all this."

Chris pulled his hat down over his face to hide his smile as Ezra's grin quickly faded away.

Buck stormed into the saloon as two women passed by stifling their chuckles behind their gloved hands.

"Ah, Mr. Jackson, could you see fit to extend my recovery indefinitely?" Ezra asked.

"What, you askin' to stay sick?" Nathan asked incredulously.

"It would be preferable to death."

Chris and Nathan busted out laughing; it was going to be an interesting next few days.

The End