Webmaster Note: This fic was previously posted on another website and was moved to blackraptor in June of 2004.
He read the letter again like he was trying to burn the words into his brain or maybe make them less hurtful by numbing himself to them.Dear Son,
I don't know what has suddenly brought about this rise in sentimentality
for an utterly useless celebration. It only serves to remind us how much
closer to the end we are. I'm sorry, but I'll be unable to meet with you
as I'm in the midst of a very lucrative business venture. I'll be passing
close by your little backwater burg next month and we can make
Love & kisses,
Ezra tossed back the bottle of whiskey, taking a long swig, ignoring the glaring eyes of his associates.
"Somethin's bothering 'em, Chris," the lean tracker noted. Larabee gazed dispassionately over at the lone gambler then turned back to his friend. Standish had been surly all day, refusing to talk to anyone. Chris had thought the man was finally coming around to being a part of the family, then something would happen and the roguish conman would seem to revert to his old ways. Wilmington carried the black eye to attest to the man's rather touchy attitude of late.
Chris raised his shot glass and downed the fiery liquor. "Well, he won't tell us and I'm not about to ask while he's in that mood. He just better be able to do duty tomorrow morning," Chris sneered. He was losing patience with Standish, a person could only tolerate so much insolence.
"Well, I'm goin' to find out what's wrong," JD declared as he pushed himself away from the table. He was half way to Ezra's table when the fancy dressed cardshark rose, glared at the young gunslinger and headed upstairs to his room. Dunne shrugged and returned to his recently vacated chair. Buck threw an arm across his shoulders.
"Maybe tomorrow he'll be more receptive," Buck tried to placate his young friend.
Ezra entered his small quarters over the saloon, throwing his jacket over the nearby chair. He fell across the bed, not planning on falling asleep. He had rounds at 4 in the morning, it would be easier if he just stayed awake until then. He sat up and lit the nearby lamp, planning on reading the book he had recently purchased. He regretted leaving like he did; he saw the dejected look on JD's boyish countenance and it cut him like a knife. He didn't blame the others, they didn't know it was his birthday and he didn't know why it was affecting him so much. Maybe because for the first time in his life he had friends to celebrate with. He needed to pull himself out of this mood before Larabee shot him. A shiver went through him and he covered a slight cough; he had been feeling poorly all day.
Standish woke to one of the worst bouts of coughing he'd ever had. It seemed to radiate from his chest and almost brought him to his knees. When it finally subsided he poured himself a glass of water and checked his watch. 'Shit,' he inwardly swore, it was already ten after 4. Luckily, he was relieving Vin.
Ezra entered the warmth of the jail house, seeing Vin sitting behind the desk his feet up.
"Wondered if you were goin' to make it," Tanner chuckled, the smile left his face when Ezra came into the lantern light. His face was pale and there was a sheen of perspiration. "Are you okay, Ezra?"
"I assure you, Mr. Tanner I'm fine. I'm sorry to have been delayed."
Vin waved it off. "Don't worry about it." He stood and stretched, stifling a yawn. "I did rounds about an hour ago."
Ezra nodded and sat down behind the desk. He felt weak for some reason. Vin took one last look at the gambler then left. Standish let out the breath he had been holding, his chest still hurt from coughing. He never got sick, hurt and injured yes, sick, no. He leaned back in the chair and rubbed his eyes, which burned slightly.
Four men rode into town just as the day was trying to push away the night. They knew that seven lawmen protected the town, but they also knew only one or two would be on guard this early. They knew the bank was loaded and it was just too much to pass up. The four outlaws made their way through the still quiet streets toward the bank. The smaller of the four outlaws knelt down and made short work of the lock and then they slipped inside, no one the wiser.
Ezra woke with a start, his head ached, hell every muscle in his body ached. He stood and grabbed the nearby canteen, taking a swig of the cool water. He grabbed the rifle that Vin had left and went out to make rounds.
Another bout of coughing caused him to slip into a nearby alley as the hacking brought him to his knees. He put a hand to his chest, feeling like he was going to cough up a lung. What was wrong with him? He stood when he heard shouting and gun fire, and made his way out of the alley way in time to see four men riding out of town in a hurry. The bank manager swearing and chasing them on foot. He got a sudden sinking feeling, and knew this was not going to be a good day.
Larabee and Vin were the first out onto the street after hearing the shouting. The bank manager was a tense little man. "They robbed the bank, where the hell were you?" He ranted at Larabee.
Chris scowled as the others joined him, then he saw Ezra standing just outside the alleyway. Larabee strode over to him, clenched his fist and brought it crashing into the man's jaw sending him to the ground. "Where the hell were you?" He yelled at the downed man, who only looked up at him, blood coming from the cut on his lip. Ezra was about to explain when his anger took over and he kept his mouth shut. They wouldn't listen anyway.
The dark-clad gunslinger didn't wait for an answer. He turned on his heel and went back to the others. Tanner continued to stare at the gambler, noticing how hard it was for him to pick himself up. "Okay, let's get mounted." Chris turned and sneered. "That goes for you too!" Ezra only nodded, his face an unreadable mask.
"Son-of-a-bitch, why didn't Ezra warn us? " JD angrily complained as he threw his saddle on his horse.
"He was probably still drunk after last night's binge?" Buck replied in the same bitter tone.
"Damn useless if you ask me," Nathan murmured.
"I'll deal with Standish later," Chris remarked, adjusting his stirrups.
Vin clenched his jaw when he saw Ezra enter. He knew the man had overheard. Everyone got quiet as Ezra moved to his horse and began to saddle up. He would never fit in here. No matter what good he did, as soon as he made one mistake that was all it took, everything else was erased and forgotten. It just reminded him that they all couldn't forgive him for running out on them the first time.
Vin hadn't said a word as he finished saddling his horse. He didn't think the others were being fair when it came to the maverick gambler.
They had been on the outlaws' trail for four hours and were starting to catch up. Chris and Vin rode point, with Vin checking the trail occasionally to make sure they were still going in the right direction. Buck and JD, as usual, followed close behind with Josiah and Nathan directly behind them. Standish lagged in the rear, letting his horse just follow the others. He had thrown on a heavier coat as he couldn't seem to keep warm, even though he knew the sun was beating down hot. He wanted a drink from his flask, but didn't dare for fear of retribution from Chris.
Sanchez furtively glanced over his shoulder, noticing the slump in the gambler's posture as he rode. He also saw for the first time how pale he appeared. Josiah touched Nathan's arm to get his attention and nodded back to Ezra. Jackson reluctantly looked back and worry immediately washed over him at the gambler's appearance. He slowed his horse, letting the lagging conman catch up. "You alright, Ezra?"
Standish raised his eyes to meet Nathan's penetrating gaze. "I'm fine, Mr. Jackson," he lied, his green eyes vibrant with fever. He tried to still the sudden shudder that coarsed through him.
Nathan rode up ahead to join with Vin and Chris. "Chris, I think Ezra's sick."
"Yeah, probably still has a hangover from last night," Chris sneered. He was still too angry to feel any sympathy toward his seventh man.
"Chris, he didn't look to good when he relieved me, but I don't think it was a hangover," Vin added. He knew something was wrong and was starting to get angry that the rest were all ignoring it.
Nathan turned in his saddle at the sound of coughing, and saw Ezra almost doubled over in his saddle. The outlaws picked that moment to send down a rain of gunfire upon the distracted lawmen. Everyone jumped from their horses; Ezra more or less fell from his. Josiah ran to his side and dragged the unconscious man to cover.
The lawmen made short work of the four outlaws and recovered the bank's money.
As soon as the shooting was over Nathan ran to Josiah, who was hovering over the prone conman, Vin right behind him. Nathan placed his dark hand on the gambler's forehead and swore. He didn't think he'd ever felt such a high fever. He opened the fancy jacket, vest and shirt, putting his ear to Ezra's chest Nathan listened to the rattles in his chest.
"Oh God, he's got pneumonia."
Everyone gathered around with Chris being the last to arrive. Vin couldn't hold his anger in any longer. He smoothly stood, bringing his fist up, he knocked his best friend into the dirt. Chris sat on the ground stunned, rubbing his jaw and looking up at the enraged tracker.
"What the hell was that for?" Chris snarled.
"He's got pneumonia," Vin spat for everyone to hear.
"When did he get that?" JD asked.
"He didn't just get it JD, he's probably had it coming on for a couple days now," Nathan explained.
Chris stood up, glaring at his best friend.
"You all just can't get past him running out on us the first time. Whenever he makes one mistake you'll are ready to lynch him without a trial," Vin declared. He didn't know where this was coming from, maybe it was because he knew what it was like to be the odd man out, the whippin' boy. "If'n it was anyone but Ezra who was on duty when those robbers hit, you would a told 'em it wasn't their fault, but Ezra you hit. He was probably to sick to do anything."
What Vin said hit some barrier of truth in all of them. Were they unable to forgive the conman or trust him, even though they told him they did? Guilt washed over Chris, he was the worst offender. He knew he held Ezra to a different standard than the others. If Ezra made a mistake they all immediately believed he was returning to his old conniving, unscrupulous ways.
Vin turned his back on the blond leader and knelt beside Nathan. "Is he going to be okay?"
"We have to get him back to town."
Vin saw the letter poking out of the red jacket and picked it up. He opened it and tried to read it. Finally relenting, he gave it to Josiah, who quickly scanned it and moaned.
"What is it, Josiah?" Buck asked. He was also feeling the same guilt that Chris was feeling.
"It was his birthday yesterday and his mother decided it wasn't worth coming by for a visit," he sadly exclaimed.
"Shit," Chris murmured under his breath.
Ezra moaned and got everyone's attention.
"Ezra?" Nathan called out.
Ezra's eyes fluttered and managed to open half way. He looked up into the concerned features of the ex-slave and grimaced. He tried to rise. "I'm fine, let's go." Josiah grabbed the suddenly gung-ho lawman and forced him back down, which wasn't hard.
"Easy there, it's over we caught the bad guys," Josiah explained to the confused conman.
"Awww hell. I'm sorry."
"What for?" Josiah asked his brow knitted in confusion.
"Everything..." Ezra's eyes closed.
They got Ezra back to town and quickly up to Nathan's clinic. Nathan rattled off a list of ingredients to Buck, Josiah and JD. "I need this stuff quick."
"Nathan he's going to be alright, right?" JD asked as he looked at the pale, sweating complexion of his unconscious friend.
"I don't know JD, a lot depends on how much he wants to fight."
The three men rushed out to get the needed supplies. Nathan went to a bowl of water and removed a cloth, wringing it out and placing it on the southerner's forehead. He couldn't believe what an uncaring ass he'd been, but then Ezra always made it so easy. Why did he and the others treat Ezra like they did and why did the man tolerate it? He turned to the sound of the door opening and nodded as Chris strode in grabbing a chair and placing it at the head of the bed.
"How is he?" He solomnly asked the healer.
"Not good, Chris, I honestly don't know if he's goin' to make it."
Chris' head snapped up.
"I'm sorry, I haven't told anyone else...," Nathan began.
"You're wrong Nate, he'll make it," Vin answered as he strode in. Chris bowed his head unable to look the ex-bounty hunter in the eye.
"I hope I am. If Buck, JD and Josiah can find everything I need he might have a chance. I need to go get something to eat I probably won't get much time later."
"Go ahead Nathan I'll stay with 'im," Vin replied.
Vin grabbed another chair and put it on the other side of the bed. He could hear Ezra's labored breathing, every breath a struggle.
"I'm sorry, Vin. I don't know why I treat Ezra differently," Chris explained.
"Yes you do, you don't trust him. All you see is a gambler, a conman, a cheat, not the man," Vin explained, releasing some of the vehemence he felt towards the dark-clad gunslinger.
Chris was about to object, then stopped as he realized Vin was right. He leaned back in his chair and crossed his arms. "He is a trying cuss."
Vin looked over at his friend and swallowed. "If Ezra decides to leave, I'm goin' with 'im."
Chris' blue eyes widen. "Why?"
"Because no one should have to go through life alone. You have Buck and the others, Ezra has no one."
"That's not true, Vin. We just need more time. I trust Ezra, he's proven himself time and time again I just need to remember that and realize he's only human and a mistake shouldn't put us back to square one."
Nathan had concocted a chest dressing poultice out of a bromide mixture, flax seed, corn meal and oiled silk, quilts were then piled atop the gambler. A flower called Boneset, which Nathan had acquired from his last visit to the nearby Indian tribe was made into a tea and forced down the fevered man's throat several times a day. Everyone took turns administering to the ailing gambler. Vin was constantly at his side and Chris had to finally bodily remove him and force him to get some rest.
Buck entered the small clinic to find his oldest friend gently wiping Ezra's brow and face with a cool cloth. He sat quietly in the opposite chair.
"Why do I sometimes treat him like shit?" Buck asked.
"Because he's used to not being trusted or cared about, and he makes us think it doesn't bother him." Chris wrung out the cloth. "And maybe once it didn't bother him but he's come to care about us."
Buck nodded in agreement. Ezra's eyes fluttered and his head rolled to the side. "Ezra? can you hear me?" Chris asked.
The green eyes slowly opened, surprised to see Wilmington and even more surprised to see Chris Larabee. He licked his lips and Buck raised his head as Chris brought a cup of water to his lips, allowing him to take a couple sips.
"Go get Nathan."
Buck smiled and left the two men alone.
"How you feelin?"
"Three days, we weren't sure you were going to make it. You had pneumonia. Scared us all to death." Ezra stared up at the somber face. "Even me."
Nathan came rushing in followed by the others. He put his ear to Ezra's chest and listened, a smile coming to his face. "His chest is clear, I think he's going to be alright." Ezra fell back to sleep to the sound of elated voices.
Ezra was sitting up in bed playing solitaire. He was still weak and Nathan threatened to tie him down if he even thought about leaving the bed. He didn't want the smooth-talking conman having a relapse. Ezra began to wonder where everyone had gone. He remembered waking up and seeing everyone around him and how they all stayed close by for the past couple days, but he'd been alone all morning. A knock on the door broke him from his musings and it opened to allow the huge frame of Josiah to step through. "How you feelin, up for some visitors?"
The rest of the gunslingers forced their way in laughing. Ezra's eyes widen at the sight of Chris Larabee holding a birthday cake. He also noticed all the fancy decorated boxes that everyone carried; he didn't know what to say.
"Sheeese, he's speechless, thought I'd never see the day," Buck laughed, a grin breaking out on his rugged face.
"We're sorry we missed your birthday," Vin declared coming up alongside the bed.
"We're sorry about a lot of things," Chris added, placing the cake on the table. "You're a part of this family. My present to you is to realize that just because you're difficult and obstinate at times, you're still a man I've come to respect and trust and want to call friend."
Ezra quickly wiped away a tear that was trying to break free from his watery gaze.
"Happy Birthday, Ezra!" JD replied his contagious smile bringing a slight grin to the flustered gambler's handsome face.
The stunned conman couldn't believe it. He looked upon the six gunslingers he would forever call friends. "Thank you."
"Okay who want's cake?" Buck yelled.