The Pied Piper

by KellyA & Mary McAuley

Part 17

Damen and William carried pails of pitch across the yard. The weight was staggering. Damen stumbled a bit, then stopped, setting the heavy pails on the ground. William set his pair down, too, and stretched his sore back muscles.

"Look at that!" Damen pointed at the gunslinger's camp. It was clear someone was still sleeping, face down, his arms around a blanket.

"That's gotta be the laziest SOB I've ever seen," William said, shaking his head.

"It's that gambler." Damen felt a rush of fear. Standish had actually seen him with Peter's wife in his arms. There was no telling what a man like that would do. Surely the conman would use the information against him, but how? Would he try blackmail? Damen decided not to give Standish the chance. He resolved to get Amelia and leave soon.

"Let's get back to work, Will." They picked up the buckets, lugging them to the barn. Damen began to work out the details of the escape in his mind. His eyes narrowed. First of all, he would need money.

Part 18

Chris Larabee returned to the camp and found Ezra struggling to get up; he could see the pain etched on the man's face. Chris shook his head, damn, stubborn cuss, he thought. He hoisted the man to his feet.

"Thank you, Mr. Larabee," Ezra said, straightening his clothing, "I'm fine now."

Chris picked up the black crown hat that Ezra wore and dusted it off. "Why don't you go back to town?" He handed him the hat.

Ezra raised green eyes to the gunslinger.

"It's not a punishment. It's just that you're not going to be any help to us with busted ribs. You won't even be able to play with the kids." Chris smiled. "Judge Travis could probably use you in town."

The gambler's face fell. He wasn't ready to leave the children, yet.

"I'll consider it."

Part 19

"It ain't funny, Brother." Josiah held a thin strip of wood to the edge of the window frame. If they nailed it on just right it would keep the winter wind out of the bunkhouse. Chris hammered cautiously, trying not to split the wood. Buck's head appeared suddenly in the empty window, an amused grin lit his face. He rested both arms on the sill and leaned out like a ticket-taker at a fair.

"Now c'mon, Josiah! Can't you just see it? Ezra Standish climbing a tree and sittin' up there in his fancy clothes" Buck slapped the new sill, shaking with laughter. "I'm sorry, preacher but I would have loved to see him come tumbling down." Chris and Josiah tried to ignore him but smiled inspite of themselves.

"Mr. Larabee? May we speak with you?"

The tone of Eugene Feldman's voice drained the merriment from the three men. Now what? His eyes slid from the father to the two sons. William was openly angry but Damen wore a different expression. He's up to something, Chris thought, but what?

"We've been robbed," Eugene announced.

Chris set down his hammer and glared at the man. He had come to respect Feldman over the past few days. He was starting to believe the family actually had a chance of survivingeven making a decent living.

"What was stolen?" Chris folded his arms across his chest as Josiah moved to stand near him.

"Five hundred dollars. It was the money we saved to get us through the winter and start our herd in the spring," Eugene explained

Chris leaned back against the bunkhouse wall. "Where was it kept and who knew about it?"

"I had it hidden in a compartment in my wagon." Eugene looked at his two sons. "We all knew about it. It belonged to all of us. Someone broke into the wagon last night and took it."

Chris ran a hand down his face. "I'll look into it."

"There's no need to look into it, Mr. Larabee." William took a step forward. "We already know who took it."

Chris watched William, his head slightly tilted. Danger made its appearance and Josiah could smell it. Buck moved quietly from the window to the door where he leaned, casually.

"Yeah, it was that lazy good-fer-nothing gambler," Damen spat. "We think he tricked the kids into telling him where the cash was kept."

Chris pushed away from the wall and clenched his teeth. "You better have some damn proof before you accuse one of my men."

Eugene held up a hand. "Now, wait! I'm a fair man, but Mr. Standish is the most likely culprit. He may be good with the children but he's still a gambler; it's in his nature."

"It's not in his nature," Buck defended. "He's not a thief."

"Buck's right, Mr. Feldman," Josiah said. "He's a good man. I'd trust him with my life.

"We need that money." Eugene bowed his head a moment, distraught. "Without it, we may as well give up and go back east."

"Give us time," Chris stated. "We'll find it." Ezra didn't take the money, Chris knew that, but he also knew he wouldn't be able to convince the Feldmans of it. They needed to find the money and the true thief.

"Alright, you've proved yourself a hard-working, honest man, Mr. Larabee. I'll let you handle it your way, for now," Eugene conceded.

William was not satisfied but he followed his father's lead, obedient as always. Damen stood rooted, his hand on his gun.

"Let's go, Damen," Eugene demanded. "Now."

Reluctantly, Damen turned from the gunslingers and marched back to the house. His father followed and studied him, suddenly aware of how much the boy had changed since they had moved west.

The three gunslingers watched the youngest brother's retreat, as well. They could read something in the swagger of his step and they didn't like it.

"You don't think Ezra took the money do you?" Buck asked.

"Ezra was practically unconscious last night," Josiah said. "But even if he could dance a jig, I don't believe he would steal anything."

Chris paused for just a second. "No, I don't, either. He nodded at the two men. "Find the others. Meet back at camp in twenty minutes."

Part 20

Standish stood on a low hill near the woods. He watched the children from a short distance as they darted into the trees collecting firewood. When this chore was complete, he had promised to teach them one more card trick. Chaucer snorted and nudged him gently from behind.

"I agree with you, my old friend." He stroked the animal's neck. "I wish we could stay longer as well." He would entertain the kids one more time then bid farewell to their families and his fellow lawmen.

Larabee was right. It was better to return to town now. But there was more cause to go than Chris understood. The injuries from the tree supplied a reasonable explanation for his departure. He would be gone before young Damen Feldman and his lovely paramour invented some contention to force him to leave. He couldn't care less about the couple's devious liaisons and he loathed becoming involved.

"We've done it!" Garrett shouted. "We've got enough wood for two more days!" The other children danced near the stack of dry branches anticipating their reward. Ezra walked Chaucer down the slope, looping the reins on a branch near the small creek.

"But where is Elizabeth?" The gambler scanned the woods for her as he took a deck of cards from his pocket.

"She went back to the house." Garrett said as the children gathered to sit in a half circle near Ezra. "She was too sad."

"Yes, that's true." Little Annie was becoming more confident and stood up to have her say. "Mr. Wilmington told Garrett about how you are a cat." Ezra's face lit with surprise. "So, this morning we asked Grandma if we could keep you. She said no, that you weren't a pet. She said you'd go back to your own home soon."

"And she was right. Because here you are with your horse all packed." Caleb interrupted. "And Elizabeth didn't want you to see her cry."

Ezra was glad to have the deck of cards in his hands. The fluid movement of the familiar pasteboards soothed his heartache. He drank the children's honesty like a sweet liqueur. Each of them looked directly into his face, waiting for his next response.

"Then I shall give you your card trick here," he said with a flourish of the deck, "And then we will proceed to the house and do another one, just for Elizabeth." The group settled back happily. Even Annie sat down then, close enough to hold the edge of this splendid man's blue jacket.

Ezra fanned the cards in one hand, pressing their backs to align the edges in an 'S' shape. "What we have here, my friends, is a simple deck of cards." He moved his hand around the group for all to observe. "I ask that one of you select a card without revealing its identity to me." He saw that Annie was examining him carefully, a look of wonder on her face. He paused.

"Are there any questions so far?"

"Yes!" Annie jumped to her feet. "Is it true that you have eight more lives?"

Part 21

"He's not in the barn, either, Chris," JD said, returning to the gunslinger's camp. "And Chaucer is gone, too."

"Well that's damn inconvenient!" Buck said. "What could have made the man decide to take off now?"

"I told him to leave." Everyone turned to Chris but he didn't continue. He was turning over events in his own mind.

"Makes sense." Vin sat on a log, his legs crossed easily in front of him. "Pretty banged up. Weren't no help to anyone." He shifted forward, folding his hands in his lap. "What's it matter?"

Chris stared hard at the ground. Nathan looked at Josiah and shrugged. "He was well enough to ride. He should make it back just fine." The healer wondered why they were all gathered here. To discuss Ezra's health?

Chris sighed heavily. "The Feldmans were robbed last night. They think Ezra took their money." Vin and Nathan absorbed the information quietly. JD did not.

"That's ridiculous! Ezra passed out before the sun had even set!" JD glanced at the faces around him. "He didn't do it, Chris. He would never do something like that. I'm sure of it." The young sheriff's faith spread through the camp lifting their spirits.

"Go get him, JD," Chris said. "He couldn't have gotten far. When you get back, we'll figure this out."

JD nodded once and ran his hand though his unruly black hair. He picked up his hat and dusted it off. "I'll find him." He walked to the edge of the camp then turned. "That should give you boys just enough time to finish patching the bunkhouse roof. When I get back, all the work will be done." He smiled as he picked up his saddle. He twisted suddenly; easily dodging the stone Buck threw.

Part 22

William and Damen did not follow their father into the house. They walked to the side yard where Peter was splitting wood.

"Well?" Peter asked, resting the axe on the cutting stump. He shifted his weight to one hip and wiped the sweat from his face. His brothers were obviously fuming. "What did Larabee say? Will he tell the gambler to give us back our money?"

William deferred to his younger brother. Damen seemed to be the driving force in the effort to regain the cash. "No." Damen faced Peter, his hands crossed tightly on his chest. "He says Standish didn't take it."

"How does he know that? Did he even ask him?" Peter was incredulous. "Do you think they're covering for him?" He stared into Damen's face trying to read him but saw someone running just beyond Damen and looked that away.

"Elizabeth!" Peter called to his daughter. She turned anxiously toward him, tears shiny on her cheeks. He dropped the axe and spread his arms to her. "Come here, child! What's wrong?" He was relieved to have her in his arms. Her affection was so honest compared to the confusion of events in the rest of his life.

Elizabeth pressed her cheek to his warm chest. "It's Mr. Standish!" Her voice was muffled by her father's hug. He pulled away and held her at arm's length.

"What happened? Did he hurt you?" Peter's heart ricochet in his chest. He would kill the man. The three Feldman brothers seemed to form a wall in front of the child.

"No! But he's leaving!" She said alarmed. "He leaving right now!"

Peter let go of his daughter and grabbed William's arm. "Get the guns." He turned to Damen and stopped shorthis youngest brother looked almost joyous. "Damen, get a hold of yourself! We just want to talk to the man before he goes. We'll make sure he doesn't have our money."

Elizabeth was confused. Had Mr. Standish taken her father's money? Was her father 'foolish'?

"Elizabeth! Go to your grandmother." Peter and his brothers moved with purpose across the field.

Part 23

"Do you have a different card trick to show Elizabeth or will you do that one again?" Caleb skipped beside the gambler. Ezra kept an easy pace so everyone could keep up.

"I have a brand new one, never before attempted in front of a human audience!" The group reached the small creek where Chaucer was grazing tethered to a branch. Ezra picked up Annie and swung her onto his saddle. Then he set Melissa on the horse's back behind her cousin.

Melissa sat straight gripping Annie's waist and surveyed the ranch from her high vantage point.

"Papa!" She called pointing up the slope. The three Feldman brothers crashed through the brush at the top of the rise and approached quickly. Ezra's first impulse was to trigger the derringer rigged to his arm but he held back. This was clearly not a social visit but surely the men would conduct their business with civility in front of the children.

He kept an impassive façade as William lifted the girls off the horse and set them near their brothers. The gambler's mind was racing. What could they possibly want from him? He was ready to return to townwouldn't Damen be relieved?

The children were silent; they could feel the tension in the men. "Go back to the main house, right now!" Peter spoke in a tone that could not be disobeyed. The children climbed the hill with an air of defeat, but after a short distance Garrett stopped and faced his father and uncles.

"What are you going to do?" William was surprised and pleased with his nephew's audacity. He had something to learn from the boy.

"That's none of your concern. Get!" Peter gestured to the house with a sweep of his arm. Still Garrett did not move. He turned to Ezra, ready to defend him.

Ezra nodded to the child and tipped his hat graciously. "We shall meet again, sir." Garrett weighed his friend's words, then nodded in return and jogged up the hill.

"Is there something I can do for you, Gentlemen?"

The three men surrounded Ezra. Peter was trembling with rage but before he could speak Damen grabbed the front of the conman's jacket and yanked him near. "You ain't goin' no where." Ezra saw the twisted exuberance in Damen's features and shoved him away, taking a step back. His mind raced to understand the deception Damen had surely created.

"Give us back our money. I saw you take it." The accusation astonished the gambler moving him back another step.

"Mr. Feldman." Ezra quickly regained his balance. "I have stolen nothing." His answer was simple and rang so true that William and Peter stopped their advance and exchanged glances. Damen was not deterred.

"Then you wouldn't mind if we searched you?" Again he grabbed the lapel of the blue jacket this time pulling it open. Ezra pushed him away and shrugged his coat back on.

"I most certainly would." He held his hands carefully over his guns. "Gentlemen, I suggest we discuss this in a more enlightened manner."

Ezra kept his eyes trained on Damen Feldman's face watching the man's loose connection with reality shred. He didn't expect Peter's attack. The oldest brother swung his whole body into the punch with anger fueled by a year of frustration and grief. It landed squarely on the gambler's cheekbone, split the skin and sent him flying backward.

For the second time in two days Ezra lay flat on his back in the woods, trying to suck air into his lungs. But this time adrenaline immediately shifted him upright and he reached for his guns. Damen's was already drawn and aimed.

The bullet slammed into Ezra sending him back to the ground. He saw the trees at first but the sun seemed to be growing, exploding. It filled the sky with white-hot light, melting the leaves, their trunks and then the faces of the men that looked down at him. It burned inside of him.

"Damen! " Peter screamed. "What the hell did you do?" He dropped to the gambler's side. Ezra lay sprawled in the mud near the creek, blood already blooming on his white shirt. Peter put his ear against Ezra's chest desperate for some sign that they had not killed him.

"He was going for his guns!" Damen growled. "He was going to shoot us and leave with the money!" Damen turned and looked at William. "Search him, dammit!"

William was stunned. He felt detached as if watching actors perform an unfamiliar play. His brothers were strangers to him. He stared blankly at Damen and wished his father were here to tell him what to do.

Damen seized his brother and shook him. "Search him for the money, William! Look in his boots. I'll search the horse." William did as he was told, checking Ezra's pockets and removing his boots. He found fifty dollars but it was old, worn money. Not the crisp bills their father had hidden. Peter patted the front of the gambler's jacket for something hidden in the lining.

"It's not here." Peter was desolate. "My God, he didn't steal it. You shot him for nothing. What are we going to do?"

"Of course he stole it," Damen raged. "Who knows where he's hidden it? We have to search every inch of him." Damen paced the small clearing looking for an escape, forming a plan.

"We've got to go back to the ranch. Father will be looking for us soon." William and Peter listened, slack jawed. "We'll just leave him here for now. It looks like he was leaving anyway. They're planning to finish tomorrow and go back to Four Corners." Damen stopped pacing and faced his brothers. "As soon as they leave I'll come back. I'll find the money and bury him."

William was dumbfounded. He could not imagine how this strange performance would conclude. Peter stared at Damen. In the few months since leaving New York, Damen had evolved from his little brother into someone Peter did not know. Someone he would not choose to know.

"But the man is not dead." Peter sat boneless on the ground, his hand on Ezra's chest.

"He will be." Damen looked at Peter then kicked the forest debris over the gambler's body. And by then your wife and I will be long gone.

Part 24

Five men knelt on the roof of the bunkhouse, their hammers producing a deafening cacophony of sound that rivaled the Anvil Chorus. Buck paused in his work and shifted back on his heels, gazing down the trail that led to town. Nothing disturbed the bright blue sky that spread over yellow fields of brush. It was a crisp, cloudless afternoon but something was building in the west, maybe snow.

"Any sign of him yet?" Chris paused, his hammer held frozen over the head of a nail. He knew Buck was looking for JD. Buck worried over the kid, couldn't help himself. They all knew JD could handle the errand on his own, and was probably enjoying the ride but Buck didn't expect he'd be gone this long.

Work on the roof halted as the others listened to Buck's musings. "I bet he caught that gambler a mile away from here. The two of them are most likely loungin' in the sun, playing poker, waitin' for all the work to be done."

"Now that's somethin' I'd bet on." Nathan smiled.

Josiah lifted his hat to wipe the sweat from forehead. He ran his fingers through his coarse gray hair from his forehead to his neck plowing the curls into neat rows. He flashed a toothy smile to his coworkers and slapped his hat back on. "Then I suggest we get finished here, boys. The longer we take the more money JD is gonna lose."

The earsplitting noise began with a renewed vigorthey agreed they would finish it today. Josiah was on one end of the row of men and he heard something different, out of rhythm with the hammers: a sharp bang, like a shot fired from a gun. He turned his head, trying to locate which direction the sound had come from. He glanced at Vin working on the other side of the roof. Vin looked up, responding with a slight tilt of his head. He saw that the tracker hadn't heard anything unusual. Josiah just nodded, stretched his sore muscles and went back to work. I'm getting too old for this.

Part 25

Eugene Feldman wore a long leather apron tied around his neck and waist. He was covered in blood. The carcass of the butchered buck was spread eagle in front of him. He paused in his work as his sons approached.

"Where have you been, boys? I could use some help here." Eugene returned to carving the deer meat. "William, what's wrong? You look like you've just seen a ghost." He didn't really expect an answer; William was easily overwhelmed.

"Ain't nothing wrong, Pa. It's nothing."

"Good. Then take that bucket of meat there to the women in the kitchen. They're waitin' on it."

William reached for the item but Damen got there first. "I'll take it to 'em." As his brother strode to the house William blinked and turned to his father.

"Use those knives, boys." Eugene indicated the utensils in a pile at his feet. "Let's use the shank for chop meat. Peter; cut that chuck into two equal portions. It'll make the cooking chore more manageable. The men are leaving tomorrow so we won't be feeding an army." Eugene used a sharp knife to free the ribs from their grizzly outer meat.

William raised his blade to the shank but bile rose up in his throat and he stopped, closing his eyes. He pictured the wound on Standish's chest, saw the bloody shirt and jacket. They had left the man to die alone in the woods. William dropped the knife and staggered over to a tall, leafless elm retching on its gnarled roots.

"Good Lord, Will!" Eugene was covered in gore and did not approach his son. "It's just a slaughtered buck. This hasn't ever bothered you before."

Peter went to William placing his hand on his brother's back. "I can't do it, Peter." William's whisper was harsh. He wiped the back of his hand across his mouth. "We can't just leave him there to die. We've got to help him."

Peter turned his brother to look squarely in his face and grasped both of William's shoulders. "What are you saying?"

William continued to meet his brother's eyes but he spoke firmly, with steel in his tone, directly to his father. "Mr. Standish has been shot, Pa. He's in the woods by the creek. We need to help him."

Eugene was stunned, hardly recognizing his son's voice. He threw down his gloves, crusty with blood and tore off his apron. "My God! Why didn't you say something!" William was already running for the house with Peter close behind. Eugene followed his son's lead and called after him, "William! Wait for me!"

Part 26

Damen swung open the back door that led to the kitchen. He hoisted the bucket to the heavy wooden table in the center of the room, swatting the door closed behind him. The long walnut table had traveled west with them from New York and was worn smooth from years of scrubbing. Rachel and Amelia were in the kitchen with his mother.

"Here it is!" Dorothea greeted him, grasping the bucket handle and hauling the meat to a cast iron pot. She turned to add it to the stew, talking to him over her shoulder. "Where did you boys disappear to? The children said you were down by the creek."

Damen nodded to the two young women and Rachel returned to her work. She saw in that moment that something had passed between Amelia and Damen. She felt her face flush and she stiffened, keeping her back turned to the man. It appalled her that Damen would betray his own brother and forfor what? The affections of a shallow woman like Amelia? She considered what this liaison would do to Peter and stopped short. He probably wouldn't even notice if Amelia left.

"We did go to the creek, Ma. We wanted to talk with the gambler before he left. Just wanted to ask him ourselves if he had our money." Damen kept his eyes locked on Amelia.

"Tonight." Damen mouthed the word silently to Amelia. "We leave tonight."

"And what did he say?" Dorothea turned to her son and saw that he was as edgy as a mountain lion, ready to pounce.

"He said he didn't take it. We saw him leave. He headed out for town but there's no tellin' where he'll run to."

Dorothea studied her son. She saw dishonesty in his eyes; something had corrupted the spirit in the boy and carved him into an ineffectual man.

"Mr. Larabee knows what he's doing, Damen. He'll get that money back to us," Dorothea challenged him.

"Excuse me, please," Amelia interrupted, "I'll be back soon." They all turned to watch her move swiftly to her room, her unfinished bread left rising on the breadboard.

"I don't have time to discuss this. I've got chores to attend to." Damen opened the door to leave but pulled back, stunned at the sudden presence of William in front of him.

"Get out of my way, Damen." He shoved him out of his path. "Now."

Part 27

JD slowly walked the last mile back to the ranch, leading his horse. He felt as tired and thirsty as the animal. He searched the ground for clues asking himself for the twentieth time how he could have missed Ezra's trail. He hadn't looked for it starting out. He'd ridden fast expecting to see his friend at every turn in the trail. Why wasn't he there?

He hesitated as he approached the ranch. Ezra's absence didn't bode well for the gambler. The Feldmans will certainly blame him for the stolen money. Hell, it'll be hard enough to convince Nathan of Ezra's innocence. JD tried to imagine that Ezra was guiltytried to picture him stealing the money last night. No, it wasn't possible.

He stopped on the trail, well into the perimeters of the ranch and examined some tracks. They led down to the small creek in the woods. He followed them. If nothing else they'd have a drink before facing the others. He led his horse over a rise that led down to the stream. She tossed her head and whinnied in greeting to Chaucer who stood tethered to a branch.

"Chaucer!" JD gasped. He approached her, rubbing her neck and she gave him a friendly shove with her head. "What are you doing here, girl? Where's Ezra?" The horse sidestepped and nodded as if responding. JD led his horse to the stream and unhooked his canteen from the saddle. He squatted at the muddy bank watching the water bubble into the container and took up a handful of the icy water to his own dry mouth. That's when he saw the bodya motionless hump on the side of the rise, covered with leaves. He skated through the dry grass and brushed the filth from Ezra's face.

"Ezra! Jesus! What happened?" He held the gambler's face gently in both hands, just inches from his own. Ezra's skin was sleek with sweat and his bruised cheek was caked with dried blood. JD swept the debris off the gambler and saw the blood soaking the front of his once white shirt. He stood, grabbing the canteen and then sat on the ground, pulling Ezra into his lap.

"Ezra! Have you been here all this time? " JD dribbled water into Ezra's slack mouth and he coughed, gagging.

"Sorry, Ez. Are you OK? I gotta get Nathan." JD impulsively hugged Ezra, his hot forehead to JD's cool cheek. Ezra reached up and gripped the front of JD's jacket.


"Yeah, Ezra it's me. I'm gonna get you out of here."

"JD be careful" His whole body trembled with the effort to speak. His features were pulled tight in pain. "Damen-he'll shoot you"

"Damen!? That little shit? Damen shot you?" JD settled the gambler on the ground again. He shrugged his heavy wool jacket off and put it around Ezra. He slid one arm in easily and worked the other in, Ezra groaning in pain. He was surprised to feel the derringer still rigged inside Ezra's thin coat. The attack must have been a surprise if he hadn't even engaged the hidden weapon.

JD yanked the bedroll from his saddle, snapping a blanket free. He pulled the gambler up to wrap him, covering his head like a monk in robes. Ezra's breath came in hitching gasps with any movement. He was loosing consciousness.

"Ezra." JD put his arm behind his friend. "I'm going to put you on Chaucer. I don't want to leave you here alone."

Ezra heard JD's voice and held on to the sound of it. It was a lifeline thrown to him in the torrent of hell. It moved far away and then close. Ezra tried to scream, to ask JD to stay with him but he could not make the sound. It felt like a torch was burning his flesh and bone near his hip and he needed all his strength to move away from it.

"HERE! Over here!"

JD heard the Feldman brothers' voices and jumped in front of Ezra drawing his guns. The group crashed to a stop at the top of the rise and fell back.

"Don't take another step." His tone was deadly. They heard the cocking of his guns in the sudden silence and froze in fear. It was clear he was prepared to shoot. JD examined each of their faces, the father dazed, clinging to William with one hand. Peter's expression was open: he was ashamed. But William was prepared to act.

"Please, Mr. Dunne." He took a step forward. "We want to help."

Ezra raised his arm at the sound of their voices and snapped the mechanism on his derringer. He never even lifted his head; his aim was instinctive. He pulled the trigger twice in quick succession. William fell back as the shots rang out, knocking into his father.

Ezra's aim was true but the shots went wide, missing their target and thunking solidly into the heart of an old oak. JD had kicked the small gun from the gambler's hand as he tried to shoot. The young lawman picked it up and slipped it into his pocket. Ezra was soundly unconscious now, his arm awkwardly angled over his head from JD's blow. Speaking soothingly to him, JD gently repositioned the limb and smoothed the blanket around him.

JD looked up at the people on the hillside. The old woman and William's wife had arrived to see the shots fired and stood paralyzed near the men.

"Get Nathan!" he shouted.

Part 28

Vin slid on his butt to the edge of the bunkhouse roof. He turned over when he reached the side, pushed away from the edge and dropped to the ground, buoyant. Josiah watched him with hooded eyes.

"Show off." Josiah worked his way to the roof's end. "Get me the ladder, Vin. Ain't a prayer I'd float down like that."

Vin smiled wide and hoisted the ladder up to the side of the house. "Here ya go, Granddad."

Chris and Buck came around from the other side of the house. Buck dashed to help with the ladder. "Take it easy there, Josiah! Go slow nowya ain't as flexible as you used to be." He and Vin were delighted with their joke and shook the ladder a bit as Josiah stepped down between them.

"Thanks, boys." Josiah raised both arms as if to stretch his sore muscles and then suddenly shoved both men hard, landing them on their backsides. They went down laughing and neither chose to get up again. Vin lay back, his knees bent at lazy angles. He pulled up a piece of tall grass and commenced chewing on it. Buck gathered a handful of twigs and tossed them, one at a time at Josiah.

Nathan returned from the barn where he had put the tools and saw Chris, a few steps away from the others, staring hard at the horizon to the west.

"Where the hell are those two?" Nathan asked the question but they all wanted the answer. "It's getting late."

"I'm going after them. I'm serious, now." Buck stood and dusted the grass from his clothes. "Ya coming with me, tracker?"

Vin jumped up and faced the group. He nodded once. It was a simple, wordless communication but it meant a new course of action. JD and Ezra could be in trouble.

As if to indicate the start of a race, two shots rang out in quick order from the woods. The men turned to the source of the gunfire.

"That weren't a shot gun." Vin was already running. "It sounded like Ezra's pea shooter!"

Part 29

Garrett stood in the opening to the barn's loft, high above the yard. The air of the early winter afternoon washed over him. The game inside was intense and he was glad to rest for a minute. He unbuttoned his jacket and then his pants, peeing into the grass far below; a thin, steamy yellow arc. It's good to be a man, he thought, leaning far out to see what effect his private act had on the world.

He could see people running. Everyone seemed to be running. He grasped the doorway's edge and swung half his body out to get a better view. Ezra's friends were all running to the creek and Grandma and Aunt Rachel were running to the house. Then from behind he saw Uncle Damen and Amelia running to the barn. They saw him, too.

Garrett came inside to the loft and flopped down on his stomach at the opening to the barn below, peeking cautiously over the edge. The other children saw him and climbed down from the hay to investigate. He signaled them with a finger to his lips and they crept to the opening in the floor with exaggerated stealth.

Below, Uncle Damen's horse was already saddled. Amelia was tying a carpetbag onto a second horse, working quickly.

"Come down here, children, all of you." Damen's voice sent a bolt of fear through Elizabeth and Garrett but the younger children jumped up. Something exciting was happening. They came down the ladder and stood in a clump, together.

Elizabeth saw that Amelia was dressed to travel. Without thinking she gripped Garrett's elbow and clasped Annie's hand. Amelia was their stepmother. Would she try and take them with her?

"We only have a minute to say good-bye." Damen knelt down on one knee in front of the group, touching Garrett's shoulder. "There is something very important I need you to do." Their Uncle took a soft leather wallet from inside his coat and handed it to Garrett.

"Damen! What are you doing?" Amelia had mounted her horse and spoke from far above them. "We're going to need that!"

"Give this to your father, Garrett." Damen ignored Amelia and looked intensely into his nephew's eyes. "This is very important, son. Give it to him and tell him I'm sorry."

Part 30

Vin was the first to reach the field at the edge of the woods. Mrs. Feldman and William's wife were running toward him.

"Bring him to the house!" Dorothea called over her shoulder as she went by. She did not hesitate in her pace as she moved past.

Who? Ezra must have shot someone, but who? The five gunslingers fanned out at the top of the rise.

"Nathan!" JD shouted to them and they plunged down the hill. JD was sitting on the ground holding Ezra's head and shoulders in his lap. William and Eugene Feldman knelt next to them. William had pulled open Ezra's shirt and pressed the heel of his hand over the bullet wound.

"Keep it there." Nathan touched the back of William's hand adding pressure. He stroked Ezra's face and felt a burning fever, then slid his hands to his throat and found a racing pulse. The gambler's body was slack, one arm held tight against JD's chest, the other loose on the ground. Nathan picked up Ezra's free hand. It was ice cold.

"He's alive." Nathan stood and faced the rest of the men who waited for his prognosis. "Let's get him to the house." Chris reached in front of JD, snaking his arms under Ezra. Josiah matched his movements on the other side. They lifted Ezra gently, tightening the blanket. Nathan ran up the hill ahead of them. "Get my saddlebags from camp!" He shouted back to the remaining men. "Both of them!"

"I'll git 'em." Vin jogged from the clearing. Buck reached a hand out to JD who grasped it and allowed Buck to pull him to his feet. "You OK, kid?"

JD nodded, brushing off his clothes. He folded his arms around himself, shivering. Buck draped his long arm across JD's shoulders and they moved to the horses, picking up Ezra's boots and JD's canteen as they went.

"What the hell happened?" Buck asked quietly.

JD stopped and looked thoughtfully at his friend. "I don't know, Buck. I honestly don't know. "

"I do," William said.

Part 31

Nathan came in the front door of the main house and heard frantic movement in the kitchen.

"Bring him in here!" Dorothea Feldman had cleared the heavy kitchen table and placed a blanket on it. She and Rachel were moving quickly, positioning towels and buckets of fresh water near it. The heat from the stove filled the room and water boiled in the kettle.

Nathan doubled back and held the door open. Chris came in first, walking backward and then Josiah, the gambler between them. Ezra had opened his eyes once on the way, gasping and trying to warn JD of something but he quickly lapsed back into a tormented senselessness.

They laid him along the length of the table. Josiah kept the gambler's limp form sitting upright with one hand to the back of his neck. Chris worked JD's coat off and then Ezra's own blue jacket from underneath. The derringer's rigging was still strapped to his arm and Chris removed it. The starched white shirt was wet through with sweat as though he had stood out in the rain. The material was heavy with blood in the front and Chris opened the buttons and removed it in one piece. The bandage that wrapped Ezra's ribs had absorbed blood. Nathan reached over and slit through it with his knife keeping pressure on the gut wound.

Dorothea slipped a folded dry towel under his head as they laid him back. She used a second, wet one to wipe his face, cleaning the wound on his cheek. She didn't know who shot himshe didn't want to know. She just wanted him to heal. The perspiration ran down his neck pooling over a vivid round bruise in the middle of his chest.

Vin came in the kitchen door and placed Nathan's saddle bags at his elbow. He saw his friends hovering around the table and in the spaces between them Ezra's naked torso, his gut sucking in with each labored breath.

"Stay, would ya, Vin?" Nathan pulled back the cloth to examine the wound. "The bullet is still in there. We're gonna need ya."

Vin shrugged out of his coat and piled it on a chair with the others. He moved opposite Nathan and leaned over the table, getting a grip on the waistband of Ezra's pants and then laid his arm lightly across his friend's legs. Ezra lurched suddenly as Nathan probed the wound and Vin held tighter.

"Don't," the gambler huffed, "Don't, Don't."

"Ya got a lantern?" Nathan's voice filled the tense space in the room. Rachel came forward and held the light over the wound. The bullet had torn through Ezra's hip at an angle and wedged itself against the bone. In the harsh light Vin could see the flesh swelling around the injury. He unbuttoned Ezra's pants and slid them down his hips relieving the binding pressure.

"Good," Nathan said. "I see it now."

Chris grasped Ezra's left wrist; bending the limb at the elbow and pinning him like an arm wrestler championing an exhausted opponent. With his free hand he stroked Ezra's forehead, smoothing back the damp hair that stuck to his face.

"Listen, Ezra. Nathan's takin' the bullet outta ya. Do ya hear me?" Ezra's eyes were red rimmed and glassy. He stared hard at Chris. "We're gonna stay right here with ya. You're gonna be OK." Chris wanted to sound definite; to reassure Ezra but the words came out with a query attached. Will you be OK?

"Chris." Ezra spoke through gritted teeth. "Chris, it's burningit's burning me." He shifted on the table trying to escape the pain, pulling hard against the others when Nathan prodded the wound again.

"Mr. Jackson, I've got laudanum." Dorothea held up the bottle.

"Goodget it in 'im." Nathan didn't look up from his work. Josiah lifted Ezra's head and shoulders slightly. He allowed Ezra's right arm to remain straight at his side, but pinned the wrist firmly to the table. Ezra worked his trembling hands, stretching and flexing both, trying to break away. The woman spooned some of the liquid into his mouth. He swallowed it.


"No, Ezra. It's Josiah. Drink some more of this, son." Dorothea got more of the pain medicine into him on the second try. She leaned close holding Ezra's jaw in her hand.

"JD!" Ezra whispered clearly, his eyes closing with fatigue. "Watch out for Damen, Damen shot me."

His words pierced Dorothea as surely as the bullet that had pierced Ezra.

Damen shot me. It is impossible. Her son would never inflict such pain on another. It's a mistake. The poor man must be losing his mind with pain. She kept her hold on his chin and spooned more of the syrupy laudanum into his mouth. He swallowed most of it but gagged and choked up the last bit.

"Hold him now!" Nathan demanded. "I've got it." The men leaned hard on Ezra keeping him still. Nathan removed the bullet, holding it up to the light like a lump of gold. Ezra was fighting them with all his remaining strength but Vin had a good hold and held his palm up.

"Give it, Nate." Nathan smacked the bullet into Vin's palm, glad to be rid of it. He picked up a clean rag and a bottle of alcohol.

"I'm gonna clean it now. This'll hurt 'im"


No one moved or released their grips on Ezra but all eyes slid to Dorothea. She disappeared from the circle of light, banging around in a drawer. She returned quickly with a thick, worn wooden spoon. She stood at the end of the table and bent over Ezra's face. She laid her hand across Ezra's wet forehead and pressed down on his chin. When his mouth opened she laid the spoon's handle in like the bit on a horse's bridle. He clamped down, gasping louder around the wooden handle.

"It's helpful," Dorothea stated.

Josiah could see that the old spoon already had teeth marks deeply engraving it, but he could not read the message of agony they had forged. He heard Ezra's teeth grinding, adding their own story to the tiny totem.

The woman did not release her grip on Ezra and he stared at her as she floated upside down. She moved in and out of his line of sight. The world rocked and shifted above him. He felt his empty stomach heave.

"Chris!" The gambler sputtered around the spoon's handle, still fighting his constraints. "Chris" Ezra could see Chris' face above him now. It slid slowly to the left with the rest of his field of vision but he knew his friend was near. Stay with me.

Nathan held the wound open and poured alcohol into it. Chris heard the wood on the handle of the spoon crush. Outside, Buck and JD heard Ezra scream.

Part 32

"No! Wait, JD!"

JD vaulted across the outside porch and grasped the handle of the kitchen door. Buck pulled him back, encircling JD with his long arms.

"Hold on, kid." They struggled for a minute but Buck held fast, backing up to the wall of
the house and turning JD away from the door. Eugene Feldman stood in front of him now, lined up with his sons, William and Peter. They were rigid, respectful yet uncomfortable, as if attending an unfamiliar religious service.

The scream was brief and followed by silence.

"It's best we stay out, JD." Buck spoke quietly at his ear. "Nathan's got him all cleaned up and we'll just bring the filth back in with us."

JD was breathing hard, leaning on the sanity that Buck provided. He regarded the Feldmans with disgust. Idiots. Ezra never took your money. JD was sure of it and felt like shooting anyone who wasn't.

He took a deep breath and pulled away from Buck's hold. He began to pace the short porch with an uneven rhythm. Jamming his hands in his pants pockets he found Ezra's small gun and ran his fingers over it, tracing the design engraved on the handle like it was a message in Braille. "C'mon, Ezra." JD didn't even realize he was speaking out loud. "You can do this."

The kitchen door squeaked as Vin came out to the porch blocking JD's route. The tracker stood in front of his friends with an open palm. They gazed at the bullet he held: a small plug of metal capable of taking Ezra's life.

Buck and JD watched Vin's face hopefully.

"Nathan sewed 'im up." Vin winced at the memory of it. "Stubborn bastard finally passed out. Nate's wrapping him in bandages now."

"Mr. Tanner?" William Feldman's voice broke into the exchange between the three men. The gunslingers had forgotten the ranchers were there. "Will Mr. Standish recover?"

Chris Larabee moved onto the porch and met William's gaze. "You better hope so." Chris stepped into the yard and scanned the area. "Where's Damen?"

The ranchers glanced at each other. "We don't know." Eugene said. "I'm sorry."

"Sorry for what?" JD spat.

Josiah and Nathan came out to the porch then, Nathan wiping his hands on a towel. Josiah seized JD's arm. "Good tracking, JD." The preacher slapped JD on the back. "Ezra would be dead now if you hadn't found him."

"No!" Peter said as if on trial. "We were going to help him."

The six men focused on Peter with such intensity that it pushed him back a step. Eugene regarded his son William with surprise: William moved forward.

"I will tell you what happened." He moved his gaze from one face to the next. He knew approaching these men might mean his own death but he was finished with fear. He had done nothing as Peter attacked Ezra. And he had done nothing when Damen shot the gambler like a lame horse. And then he walked away, leaving him to die. By doing nothing he had nearly killed a man. Fear and apathy were his weapons and he threw them down.

"We made a mistake," William explained. "We misjudged Mr. Standish."

Dorothea and Rachel stood in the doorway and listened to William. Rachel watched her husband speak and felt she had never heard him speak before. She wanted to stop him and ask him to say it all again. Dorothea squeezed her arm. "We shouldn't leave Ezra alone. Go back to him." She tilted her head to the door of Damen's room where Nathan and Josiah had laid the unconscious gambler. Rachel went inside, the voice of her husband continuing behind her on the porch.

She sat next to the bed, pulling a chair close. The side of Ezra's face was purple and swollen from the corner of his eye to his chin. He was still trembling. She held his hand in both of hers.

"I'm so sorry," she whispered.

A quilt covered him to the middle of his chest. She adjusted it and wondered about the round bruise on his breastbone. She wet a cloth and held it gently to Ezra's hot forehead. His eyes danced beneath closed lids. Suddenly, he sucked in a long, quick breath and grabbed a fistful of the sheets beneath him. His back arched as if he were falling. Rachel put her arm firmly across him.

"Shhhhquiet now!" She soothed, stroking his arm. "I've got you." How odd, she thought; Garrett has this nightmare, too.

Part 33

Garret and Elizabeth stood at the side of the barn. They continued to watch the trail to the east long after the figures of Uncle Damen and Amelia had disappeared. Elizabeth would never forget the sight of Amelia riding away. The horses had moved fast, kicking up clouds of dust. Even the dust trail had settled now. Elizabeth was happy. She wondered if Mr. Standish could stay. He could have Uncle Damen's room.

Garrett patted the soft wallet in his chest pocket importantly. He watched the sky darken in the east. It didn't feel cold enough for snow. It would probably rain. He would wait here until the rain came. That should be long enough.

The other children were playing up in the barn's loft again. They came to the hay door and looked down at their cousins. "C'mon you two! Let's go to the house," Caleb called. "I'm hungry."

"No!" Garrett answered. "Not yet wait for the rain."

Part 34

Eugene stared blankly at his wife. They had listened carefully to William and couldn't deny that Damen must have stolen the five hundred dollars. Their youngest son had taken his brother's wife and the money they needed to survive. He felt hollow inside, his head buzzed. Dorothea could not come to this conclusion and went through the story again in her own mind.

"Let's go after them." JD was still full of angry energy. Vin nodded. It was almost dark and rain began to fall. "They couldn't have gotten far."

"I'll come with you." William came over to his parents and put an arm around his mother. "Peter will be here if you need him."

They turned to Peter but he was watching the children approach from the barn. They marched to the porch in a group and stood in front of him. He knelt down wearily, prepared to face their questions. Rain tapped on the porch roof and the others crowded under it.

"Father." Garrett spoke conscientiously, trying to recall his Uncle's precise words. The gunslingers paused, regarding the little fellow with affection. "Uncle Damen asked me to give you this." He produced the wallet from inside his coat and handed it to Peter. When he spoke again it was amid shocked silence. "He said to tell you that he is sorry."

Peter didn't look at the billfold. He handed it to his own father and pulled Garrett into his arms. "You remind me so much of your mother." Elizabeth and Annie drew near him.

"I miss her, Papa," Elizabeth said, leaning against his shoulder.

Annie patted her father tenderly. "But we don't miss Amelia."

JD put his hands on his knees, squatting to get Garrett's attention. "Did you see them ride off? Which way did they go?" The rest of the gunslingers shifted in attitude. The child would never tell, they could see that. Garrett made up his mind and walked off the porch into the rain. He pointed straight west.

"That way, Mr. Dunne," he lied. "They left long, long ago and it's dark now and it's raining, too."

JD stood with his hands on his hips and regarded the young man. He was furious. He pulled his hat off and threw it at the ground. "Dammit, Chris! He shot Ezra! We can't let him just ride off."

The children were stunned. "No! No!" Elizabeth screamed and flung herself at JD pounding on him with tiny fists. "Ezra can't die!"

JD dodged her blows, pulling backward as she hit him just below the belt. Buck swung in from behind, hugging her tightly. He sat on the porch step with her in his lap. Garrett stood close by regarding Buck with relief. This was the gunslinger that understood Ezra wouldn't die.

"Shhh quiet now, darlin'. You know ol' Ezra wouldn't give up that easy. What did I tell you about him, Garrett?" Garrett smiled at Buck.

It was four year old Annie who spoke first. She turned to the men as if lecturing a very tall group of simpletons. She spread her hands out in front of her, making it easy for them. "He's a cat." Her arms spread wide, a gesture intended to show that she had stated the obvious. Eugene gripped the leather wallet, dazed.

Caleb and Melissa stood with William. "Can we see him then, Papa?" Caleb swung on his father's arm. William looked at Nathan.

"Well, if there's one thing I know about cats." Nathan reached for Garrett's hand. "It's that they're real lazy and they like to sleep all day." He walked slowly into the house herding the children. "Ya gotta be quiet. Real quiet."

Part 35

"We'll never find 'em in this." Vin watched a hard, cold rain pound the empty garden.

"We're goin' after them tomorrow then, Vin." JD sat on the porch rail, rocking in frustration. He wanted to pace but there wasn't room. "He can't get away with it."

"JD is right." Chris folded his arms across his chest. "Let's stay here with Ezra tonight. When this rain clears, we'll go after them." A half-smile lit his face. "East."

As the group moved from the porch to the warm house Josiah sympathetically patted JD's shoulder. "You OK, son? She was hitting ya real hard there." JD rolled his eyes, "Shut up, preacher."

"Don't worry, Josiah." Vin moved quickly out of JD's range. "He ain't got a whole lot there to injure."

Part 36

Buck and Nathan stood quietly with the children in Damen's room. A lantern glowed softly. Ezra had rolled slightly and lay on his side, his bruised face in stark contrast with the white pillow. His skin glistened with sweat and his breathing was still deliberate. He was wrestling with fever. Nathan lifted Ezra's arm off the bed and had Buck hold it up as he checked the bandages for bleeding. It looked good. The fever should be coming down. Ezra moaned softly.

"He is alive then!" Melissa whispered.

"See! What did I tell you?" Buck spoke in a serious, hushed tone. "He's got at least seven lives left. Now we have to let him sleep."

"Good," Caleb said, "I'm hungry." The children went to the kitchen leaving Elizabeth standing at the bedside. Her fingers danced delicately across Ezra's palm. She wished he would open his eyes.

"He'll wake up tomorrow, Elizabeth." Nathan brought the lantern to the other side of the bed to check the injuries on Ezra's back from the fall. He probed the spot where he suspected a broken bone. Ezra jerked and closed his hand tightly around the girl's wrist. She slid into the chair next to him.

"I'd better stay here with him, Mr. Jackson."

"Yes, Ma'am. You're a comfort to 'im."

In half an hour she was asleep and Peter carried her from the room. Nathan pulled the quilt down and turned Ezra on his back. He soaked towels and ran them over the gambler's body. Chris came in with fresh water.

"He's too hot, Chris."

Only the children slept during the night. The others rotated through Damen's room, bathing Ezra with cool water and spooning Nathan's earthy teas into him. By dawn he was breathing evenly, the fire in his fever doused.

Part 37

JD was ready to ride. He sat on the edge of Ezra's bed avoiding the wet sheets. He touched the back of his hand to Ezra's face: it was still warm, but not burning.

Ezra opened his eyes. "JD?"

Chris and Nathan were in the room, too. They moved closer.

"Yeah, Ezra. It's me."

"JD are you OK?"

"Yeah, I'm fine," JD said gently. He smiled. "How about yourself?"

Ezra's eyes roamed JD's face and clothing, confused. JD didn't know about the danger. Ezra wanted to warn him about something but what was it? "Where are you going?"

"I gotta ride, Ezra. Gotta find somebody."

Ezra panicked. "No!" He grabbed JD's sleeve and tried to sit up. The gambler was sure JD was going to be shot. That's it: someone was shooting at them. He felt the fire burn in his gut and hands pressed him back to the bed. He held tightly to his friend. "Don't go, JD.stay here, pleasewait."

"Whoa, easy Ez! It's okay, I'll stay with you a while." JD grasped Ezra's hand. "Don't you remember what happened?"

Ezra continued to stare wide eyed at JD. "Some of it." He slowed his breathing and tried to regain some composure. He felt that if he had a chance to think it through he would remember. Still, he held tightly to JD, keeping him safe.

"Tell me, JD. Please be kind enough to enlighten me."

JD told the gambler what he knew. He seemed to be the only one with energy left to tell it. Dorothea came in with dry bedclothes. Chris and Nathan lifted Ezra while she stripped the bed in one tug and she and JD flipped the mattress. They settled him back on a dry sheet. His features were drawn tight and small gasps of pain escaped from him. Dorothea held a cup of water for him and he drank.

"So, that's about it, Ezra." JD was running out of steam. "Except the part about the cat and that doesn't make any sense at all."

Ezra was quiet. He remembered everything. He understood the impulsive blow from Peter, and saw the expression on Damen's face as he pulled the trigger. When he closed his eyes he could see Damen and Amelia clinging to each other in the woods. He remembered every detail.

"I don't remember any of it."

The room was silent. Everyone present peered into Ezra's face.

"Of course you do, Ezra!" JD was incredulous. "You told me Damen shot you. You were trying to warn me about him."

"But I can't remember now." He turned his face into the pillow. "And you can't arrest the man for attempted murder whenwhen the victim can't accuse himof it."

"What!? This is crazy!"

"JD, pleaseI'm so tired."

Chris stood up, slowly shaking his head. "C'mon JD." He ushered the young man from the room. "Let Ezra sleep." Nathan and Dorothea sat on opposite sides of the bed, Ezra between them.

Nathan gently rubbed the gambler's shoulder. "Are ya sure about this?"

"Yes, Nathan." Ezra closed his eyes. "I'm sure."

Dorothea brushed the hair from his face and touched his cheek fondly. "Thank you, Mr. Standish." She leaned forward and kissed his forehead. He kept his eyes closed and drifted off, sleeping easier now.

Part 38

"We get to keep him! We get to keep him!" The children pranced with merriment barely avoiding the puddles of mud that pitted the front yard. Annie wrapped herself around Buck's leg like a cub attempting to climb a fur tree.

"Now, wait a minute! Y'all can't keep him forever, just a week." Buck peeled the child off his leg and swung her onto his back in one fluid motion. "And he's gonna sleep a lot at first. That's on account of his species."

Chris laughed. "In a few days you might ask him to get all those mice out of the bunkhouse. He'd be real good at it."

JD moved among the horses. He tightened the cinch on his saddle and then checked the back leg of Vin's horse. Peso had cut herself somehow but it was healing well. He stroked her neck and his own horse nuzzled him for attention.

"Ain't in the mood for human company?" Vin rubbed the length of Peso's nose.

"Not really." JD was sullen.

"He's got his reasons for lying, JD." Vin cinched his own saddle tighter, not looking at the young lawman. He knew JD just needed time to accept Ezra's decision. "Five good reasons."

JD looked over Peso's back at the five children climbing on Buck. It still didn't seem fair that Damen would go free. If I ever see him again, I'll shoot him myself.

Josiah lounged in a chair beside Ezra's bed, his long legs crossed at the ankle and extended in front of him. He watched passively as Nathan became more and more rankled. Ezra was curled up on his side and gripped the quilt that covered him.

"Will you listen to me, you stubborn fool?" Nathan was becoming irate. "We did NOT just change the bandage! That was 12 hours ago. Ya been asleep for 12 hours."

"I do not require your ministrations, Mr. Jackson." Ezra burrowed further into his pillow, his voice muffled. "Our esteemed colleagues are growing impatient. You should be on your way."

The big preacher smiled. That sounded like good ol' Ezra. Josiah got up and sat on the bed facing the gambler. He yanked the quilt from his hands. He rolled Ezra onto his back and pinned both wrists as easily as if he were wrestling a child.

"Mr. Sanchez." Ezra's face was red with fury, "This is an assault on my dignity."

Nathan huffed righteously and drew the blanket to Ezra's hips. He slit the bandages covering the wound. A neat row of black stitches stood out sharply from the purple, bruised flesh.

"I don't give a hoot about your dignity right now, brother." Josiah smiled. He shifted his weight off Ezra's chest but did not release his wrists. "I gotta ride all day with him and we won't have a moment's peace if he don't get to change that bandage."

Ezra's gaze remained locked with Josiah's. He panted hard when Nathan prodded the wound but held steady.

"Are ya coming?" The door banged open and JD walked over to the bed. He bent close to observe Nathan's progress.

"Geez, Ezra. That is really hideous."

Ezra rolled his eyes. The humiliation was daunting. "Perhaps you'd like to invite the rest of the group in for the festivities?"

Josiah's toothy smile spread in front of Ezra and Nathan chortled. JD slapped Josiah's shoulder companionably.

"Just hold still another minute, Ezra, I'm almost done." Ezra clenched his jaw as Nathan finally tied off the new bandage. Josiah released his grip and gently pulled the quilt up to Ezra's chin, ignoring the scowl directed at him.

Ezra cleared his throat. "I thank you for your.thoughtfulness, Mr. Jackson." JD stood quietly against the wall; his hands shoved deep in his pockets.

"Mr. Dunne? Is something troubling you?" Ezra knew his sudden memory loss had irked the young gunslinger. He truly valued JD's spirited friendship. Had his lies for Damen discolored the trust between them?

JD stared into his friend's placid visage. The swelling on Ezra's cheek was gone, the purple bruise yellowing. The gambler had regained his poker face but JD saw concern in the green eyes. He smiled.

"Nah, not a thing, Ezra. I'll see you in a week." He moved to the bedside and shook his friend's hand warmly. "Take it easy." Ezra felt the understanding he offered and accepted it gratefully.

"Thank you, JD."


June 2001

Comments: KellyA