Alternate Universe "Highlander"
Characters: HL: OFC Charlotte Sparrow (AKA Pearl Black); Mag7: Maude and Ezra Standish. The rest of the boys show up in the later chapters.
Summary: Charlotte Sparrow receives a visit from her former student Maude Standish who has a small boy in tow. (Yes, I made Maude an Immortal)
Author's Note: Charlotte is an Immortal and an original character created by ithildyn. In Charlotte's bio, It's mentioned that she'd lived in New Mexico in the 1860's, so it was obvious to me she knew the Mag7 boys. I have added the idea that she was Maude Standish's teacher, longtime friend and one of those people Maude would occasionally 'dump' Ezra with. The rest of Charlotte's stories can be found at http://ithildyn.livejournal.com/652634.html
Richmond, Virginia - 1843
"Will that be all, Miss Charlotte?" Olivia asked as she as she set the tea service down on the low table in front of the settee.
"Yes, thank you, Livy. I'll pour for myself," Charlotte replied.
The housekeeper nodded and disappeared through the swinging door that led to the kitchen.
She set her book aside and reached for the tea pot. Charlotte stilled as the buzz of another Immortal entered her awareness followed by ringing of the front bell of the townhouse. She wasn't expecting any visitors and stared at the door, willing it to divulge the identity of the Immortal on the other side.
Olivia had returned from the kitchen and was approaching the door.
"I'll get it," Charlotte said, waving the housekeeper back to her duties.
"Yes, Miss Charlotte," Olivia said and disappeared once more.
Rising from the settee, Charlotte calmly ran a hand across her thick black hair, coaxing a few wayward strands back into the bun knotted at the nape of her neck, before making her way over to the wooden cabinet where she kept her sword.
Cautiously, she approached the door. "Who is it?" Her cheerful tone was at odds with the butterflies in her stomach.
"It's me, Charlotte. Please open the door."
Charlotte let out the breath she was holding as she recognized the heavy southern accent. "Maude?" she asked, just to be sure.
"You know it is, my dear cousin."
Charlotte smiled at the endearment. Maude had been her first and only student and they'd spent many years together when Charlotte had first found the new Immortal. But when Maude insisted on maintaining the nomadic life of the confidence artist that she'd mastered before her first death twenty years before, Charlotte had bid her farewell. It had been almost five years since the last time Maude had breezed into her rather settled life, though they did exchange regular correspondence. Charlotte found she missed the Immortal woman that she'd come to think of as family.
While she was certain Maude was not here to challenge her, there was no profit in that, Charlotte was not so careless as to set her sword aside.
She opened the door and Maude entered with a flourish, setting a small valise by the entrance. "Charlotte, darling," she cried as she embraced her, quickly kissing both cheeks. Maude glanced at the sword as she removed her gloves. "Really, my dear, put that dreadful thing away."
Charlotte leaned the sword against the wall and reached to close the door. It met some resistance as a small figure scooted inside, startling her. She looked from the young auburn haired boy to Maude and waited for an explanation.
"Didn't I tell you?" Maude inquired innocently.
"That you've kidnapped a child? No, I don't recall reading that in your last letter," Charlotte teased.
Maude tried to look indignant at the accusation and failed. "I've adopted a son." She gestured for the boy and he came obediently to stand next to her. "Ezra, say hello to your cousin, Charlotte."
Beautiful green eyes looked up at her. "Hello, Cousin Charlotte," he said. "I'm Ezra." His voice had the same southern lilt to it that Maude chose to affect. Charlotte had never been sure if that was her real accent or just another of her many facades.
She wanted to quiz Maude about what she was thinking, the woman didn't have a maternal bone in her body, but that would have to wait until the boy was elsewhere.
"Very nice to meet you, Ezra," she said as she knelt down to greet him and stilled.
"He will be," Maude answered her unspoken question.
"No, Maude!" Charlotte snapped, looking up at her friend. "You can't be serious." The child was a pre-immortal. What ever Maude had planned for him, Charlotte knew she wouldn't like it.
"Did I do something wrong?" Ezra asked.
Charlotte mentally kicked herself. The child had sensed her displeasure with Maude and thought she was upset with him.
"No, my dear child, of course not," she said as she folded him into a hug. "Your mother and I have some things we need to discuss, that's all."
The boy stiffened and then relaxed into the embrace. When she released him he had a huge smile on his face that revealed two sets of dimples. Charlotte couldn't help but smile back.
"How old are you, Ezra?" she asked.
"Five," he said, holding up one hand to emphasize his answer.
"That is a very fine age," she said. "Are you hungry?"
He nodded, flopping long bangs into his eyes.
"Well then, let's find you something to eat," Charlotte said as she rose and clasped Ezra's hand. She indicated to Maude that she should have a seat as she led the boy into the kitchen.
Charlotte called for her housekeeper, instructing Olivia to keep an eye on the boy while she visited with her cousin. Once Ezra was settled with a sandwich and a glass of milk, Charlotte returned to the drawing room.
Sitting down across from her guest, Charlotte glared at Maude, who still had a smile of contentment plastered on her face. "What's going on, Maude? You always told me how much you disliked children."
"True, but Ezra is special," Maude insisted.
"I realize that, but you can't be serious about raising him," Charlotte said.
"It hasn't been hard. He's a very bright boy."
Charlotte's eyes narrowed. "How long have you had him?"
"More than two years now. It's amazing how sympathetic the marks are to a widow with a small child."
"Two years! You've been using that innocent child to ensnare victims for two years?"
"Don't act so indignant, Charlotte, you used to be so much fun. Besides the boy's a natural," Maude explained proudly.
Charlotte sighed. She'd been friends with Maude long enough to know that once the woman made up her mind there was no changing it. No matter what protests Charlotte might put forth, Maude was going to raise this boy as a partner in the confidence game.
"So why bring him here now?" Charlotte asked.
"I have some business to attend to and I thought, as a favor to me, you might watch Ezra for a few weeks."
"Business? You mean a con," she shot back.
"Well of course, darling, but must you be so crude about it?" Maude chastised her. "We can't all be respectable businesswomen."
Charlotte ignored the slight. She'd been in the shipping business for decades and in her current incarnation since 1835. She enjoyed the quiet life of a respectable widow in Richmond. It was one of the reasons Maude never visited for long; she could only take the quiet, respectable life for so long.
"I don't know, Maude. I'm not in a position to look after a small boy." It was a weak argument. Charlotte had already decided she would watch Ezra. After all, they were family now. Plus, she never could say no to Maude, but she wasn't going to make it easy on the confidence woman.
"Of course you are, darling. This is a big house and you have servants. You will hardly know he's here," Maude insisted. She leaned forward conspiratorially, "Besides I know how much you love children."
And there it was, the real reason Charlotte would never say no. She loved children and had even adopted one of her own. Charles was a grown man now, with his own life and at thirty, older than the twenty eight years that Charlotte had achieved during her mortal lifetime.
"Why can't you take him with you?"
"There's this wonderful man I've met but he is not overly fond of children. Ezra would simply be a detriment to my plans."
"And he's rich and completely taken with you," Charlotte finished with a smile. Maude was a handsome woman. When they'd first met, she had been amazed at Maude's ability to get men to do just about anything for her. Charlotte had always been too independent to play that kind of game. She'd much rather do things for herself rather than charm a man into doing it for her. Another way she differed from her student.
Maude smiled in return. "I knew you would understand." Maude stood. "I will return as soon as I can."
"You're leaving now?"
"Why of course. Now, you take care of my darlin' boy," she said as she held out her arms for a final hug.
"Don't you want to say goodbye to Ezra?" Charlotte asked as she embraced Maude and stepped back.
Maude waved a hand in the direction of the kitchen. "I've left him with friends before. He understands that his mother has business to attend to, and I do hate long goodbyes." She pulled on her gloves and waited for Charlotte to see her to the door.
"You've left him before? With whom?"
"No one you know, darling. Don't you worry about it; Ezra can take care of himself."
"He's five, Maude!" Exasperated Charlotte came to a decision. Having been Maude's teacher didn't automatically make Charlotte responsible for the things that Maude did but like any "parent" she couldn't help herself. She'd been unable to move Maude onto the path of honesty but she could make sure there was as little destruction in her wake as possible.
"Promise me that you will always bring him here if you need to leave him somewhere."
"Really, Charlotte, this isn't necessarily the most convenient location."
Charlotte stepped closer to her. "Promise me, Maude, or you can take him with you right now." It was a bluff and she suspected Maude knew it, but for some reason the younger Immortal agreed.
"All right, dear cousin, I will always bring him here. I promise."
A promise from Maude wasn't necessarily binding, but it would do for now. She led her former student to the door.
Maude reached for the valise that she'd left by the door. "These are Ezra's things," she said as she handed the case to Charlotte.
The suitcase felt half empty and Charlotte assumed that the boy had few personal items. It wouldn't dawn on Maude to spend any real money on Ezra. Inwardly sighing, she knew that a shopping trip was now on her agenda for the day.
"Take care of yourself, Maude," Charlotte said sincerely.
"I always do my dear," she replied and was gone.
Richmond, Va - 1848
Charlotte smiled as she watched Ezra struggle with the wooden rolling pin. She had to keep herself from walking around the table to assist him in his task. The ten-year-old was standing on a stool, using all the strength his slight frame would allow to roll the pie crust flat.
He looked up at her as he stopped to catch his breath from the exertion. "Is that good?" he asked, uncertainty in his eyes.
"You're doing wonderfully. You don't need my help at all," Charlotte assured him.
Smiling, he wiped a flour covered hand across his brow, leaving a white line of powder framing his green eyes. She had to stifle a laugh; the normally fastidious boy was covered in flour, his auburn hair streaked with white.
Ezra returned to his task and Charlotte busied herself with combining the ingredients for the pecan filling that was Ezra's favorite.
It had been almost two months since Maude had dropped him off this time, with no word on when she'd be by to pick him up again. Charlotte didn't mind at all, she loved having him here, and there was a part of her that hoped Maude would never return.
When Maude had first started dropping Ezra off, he'd been sullen and distant. Regardless of what her former student felt for him, the boy loved her and believed her to be his mother, having no memory of life before Maude. It devastated Ezra to be left with barely an acknowledgment, no goodbye, and no word of when she'd return.
She'd caught him crying himself to sleep on more than one occasion during those visits, and it broke her heart that he put so much store by what Maude expected of him. He'd been embarrassed at his weakness and had begged her not to tell his mother that he had behaved in such a childish manner. Charlotte had been appalled that Maude was so hard on the boy, denying his need for simple human connections. She'd sat with him until he'd fallen asleep, his small body curled next to her wrapped safely in her embrace.
But everything had been different when Maude had left him this time. It had been nine months since his last short stay and Ezra was so happy to see her that it warmed her heart as she captured him in a hug of greeting.
Maude, on the other hand, was not as happy. Charlotte knew if Maude decided that she was a 'bad' influence on her darling boy that Ezra might find his way back into the care of some of Maude's less than savory friends.
When Maude made her escape, Ezra had barely noticed, already involved in moving back into the room Charlotte had set aside for him years ago. He'd gone around the room cataloging all the toys and books that she'd bought him over the years, making sure everything was where it was supposed to be. His joy at seeing that his place in her home was still the same was magical.
There had been no tears that first night, a welcome change. Instead, Charlotte had sat with Ezra as he read to her until the yawns over took him. She had ruffled his hair and kissed him goodnight. The angelic smile on his face from such simple attentions almost broke her heart.
Now, as she watched him finish with his baking endeavors, she knew without a doubt that she was a good influence on him. The nomadic life was no life; Ezra deserved better. When Maude returned, Charlotte decided it might be time to take charge of the situation instead of being a passive participant. She was going to insist that she be the one to finish raising Ezra.
+ + + + + + +
After four months, his mother was back. Ezra had dutifully greeted her and then hurried upstairs to pack his things.
Coming back down the steps, Ezra was surprised to hear his mother and cousin discussing him. He stopped, not knowing what he should do. Cousin Charlotte would say that eavesdropping was poor manners, but his mother would approve if such action gave him a definitive advantage in a situation.
Since he was the topic of their discussion, Ezra decided it would be best to follow his mother's advice. He settled on the steps to listen, watching them through the rails of the stairway. From this angle, he was sure that they could not see him.
+ + + + + + +
"Maude, you can not use him this way. He's just a little boy!" Charlotte wanted her to leave Ezra in Richmond but she'd let her emotions carry her into an argument with the other Immortal instead of the logical discussion she'd hoped to have.
"Ezra is my son, and while I appreciate you watching him, you have no right to dictate anything," Maude insisted. "He understands his role in these situations."
"He's a bright little boy who deserves to have a stable home," Charlotte countered. "Not a confidence man to be a partner in your schemes."
Maude waved her hand dismissively. "It's because he is smart that I am helping him develop his gifts for the game. I am giving him valuable skills that will assist him in the future."
Charlotte's eyes narrowed as she studied her student. "Confidence game or 'The Game'? Maude, please tell me you aren't planning --"
"I don't have to explain myself to you," Maude interrupted. "But you must realize that I am simply preparing him for his birthright."
"Birthright!" she scoffed. "It's not an inevitability. I can offer him a home with schooling and friends. Can't you see that is what he needs?"
"Don't be naïve, Charlotte," Maude snapped. "You know as well as I do it can happen anytime. Are you suggesting I leave him unprepared?"
"No, of course not! But can't you just let him be a little boy?" Charlotte pleaded. "He doesn't have to be training all the time. It's your job to see that he is kept safe, I just want to help see that he lives as normal a life as possible for as long a time as possible."
Maude stood, anger flashing in her eyes. "I resent the implication that I am not doing all that I can for Ezra. He will be what he is meant to be and he will be well prepared to accept it when it occurs. So, while I appreciate everything you've done for Ezra, I don't see that it is in his best interest to continue to come here."
Charlotte realized that she'd crossed a line. If she continued to push, Maude would take Ezra and disappear.
As much as it pained her to admit it, Ezra becoming an Immortal was a strong possibility. Twenty-five years before, she'd found Maude in New Orleans, newly Immortal from a violent death in a con gone wrong. Charlotte knew that that kind of brutality could be visited on them at anytime in the life Maude chose to lead.
She'd hoped that allowing Ezra to have a normal childhood would guarantee he'd make it into adulthood before The Game claimed him. She had a bad feeling that Maude had some internal timetable that caused her to push Ezra so hard, and that scared her as much as some random act of violence. Sadly, Charlotte knew the best she could hope for was to provide Ezra a safe haven. It was time to admit defeat and back off from her desire to keep him with her.
"Please, Maude, I do want to help. You know I love Ezra as if he were my own son and --"
"And that is exactly the problem," Maude interrupted. "You are trying to undermine me at every turn."
Maude's jealousy was an ugly thing and Charlotte knew she'd have to do something drastic to prove that she wasn't trying to steal Ezra away.
Charlotte stood and crossed to the other woman. Grasping Maude's hand with both of hers, she hoped Maude could hear the contrition in her voice.
"I am here for you and for Ezra," she said quietly. "I'll abide by your rules. I'll even find a fencing teacher before his next visit, if that's what it takes for you to understand that I don't wish to come between you two."
It was the truth. Ezra loved Maude, and Charlotte would never dream of destroying the faith he had in his mother, as misguided as she believed it to be. On the other hand, if Maude thought to someday turn Ezra herself, being killed by his own mother would destroy them both. Somehow, she needed Maude to see that preparation was one thing, but tampering with nature was something else entirely.
Maude smiled, victory in her eyes, as she squeezed Charlotte's hand. "I actually do believe you mean it."
The sound of Ezra descending the stairs interrupted any further discussion.
"Mother," Ezra called. "I'm ready to go."
Charlotte watched as he crossed to stand next to his mother. Something about the way he carried himself seemed off to Charlotte. He wouldn't meet her eyes and kept his attention focused on Maude.
"At last," Maude said as she released Charlotte's hand to place it around her son's shoulders. It was a sign of possession that Charlotte understood.
"I am so happy to be going, mother. While I am grateful for Cousin Charlotte's hospitality, I am relieved to be joining you on our next adventure." He smiled at his mother, continuing to act coldly toward Charlotte.
Then it dawned on Charlotte; he must have been listening. Ezra loved coming to visit her, he'd told her as much. He must have decided that showing her too much affection would upset his mother. An upset that would make Maude take him someplace else the next time she needed to leave him behind.
Maude looked triumphantly at her teacher. "I told you I know my son."
"You were right, Maude," Charlotte apologized, the lie an easy one to tell. "You know what's best for him. I will always be here if you need me again."
She saw Ezra relax slightly and only then did he meet her gaze, gratitude in his eyes.
"I shall consider your offer," Maude said, still determined to punish Charlotte for her presumptions concerning Ezra.
"You always know what's best," Ezra said. "I agree that I should always be with you."
Charlotte was trying not to smile as she listened to Ezra utilize the lessons of manipulation that Maude had taught him. She wondered if Maude realized that the student had mastered them well enough to fool the teacher.
Unaware of the silent communication between her son and her cousin, Maude believed herself to be the victor in this contest. "While I would love for you to be with me always, darling boy, I am sure there will be opportunities for you to visit your cousin in the future."
"Of course, mother." He let out an exaggerated sigh, but the twinkle in his eye told Charlotte they'd won the day.
Maude reached out to hug Charlotte. "I do hate it when we fight."
"As do I," Charlotte said as she returned the embrace.
Charlotte stepped back from Maude to look down at Ezra. She reached out to squeeze him on the shoulder.
"Thank you for your hospitality, Cousin Charlotte," Ezra said.
"You're welcome, and I look forward to your next visit," she said as she ushered them to the door.
As mother and son walked down the street, Ezra turned to look back at Charlotte, sending her a small smile. She held his gaze and placed a hand to her heart. They shared a moment of acknowledgment for the game that had to be played with Maude to ensure he'd be back. Charlotte was relieved to know that she would still be part of his life.
Outside Four Corners, New Mexico - 1866
Charlotte wasn't exactly worried, but she was becoming more anxious with each passing day. Ezra had promised to visit her ever since she'd settled in the west, and in the ten years she'd been living in New Mexico, he'd yet to make the trip; partly because of the war and partly because he still spent the majority of his time catering to his mother's cons.
Then a few months ago, she'd received a letter from him postmarked out of Fort Laramie, Wyoming informing her that he was on his way. His proposed date for arrival had passed a week ago.
Charlotte knew that travel across the west was difficult, but now she wondered if something had happened. A part of her knew it was useless worry; Ezra had the potential for Immortality. If he had been killed, he wouldn't stay that way for long. She only hoped that wasn't the case. Immortality was a burden no matter what some thought and she wouldn't wish that on Ezra.
He might call Maude 'mother', but Charlotte thought of Ezra Standish like her own son. She'd spent enough time raising him, maybe more than Maude had. Still, ten years was a long time and the eighteen-year-old teenager she had bid farewell to in Richmond was now a twenty eight-year-old man.
She'd left Richmond in a hurry ten years ago because her activities with the abolitionist movement had gotten her into trouble. When friends in the movement had been killed, she had inherited their three small children and a need to leave Virginia. Truthfully, it had been time to move on as Immortality limited the number of years one could spend in a single place.
Charlotte had finally settled in southeastern New Mexico. These days instead of a shipping business, she owned a ranch and bred horses; instead of watching Ezra whenever Maude had the desire to abandon him, she had six adopted children of her own. She loved having little ones around and was sure that the fact that Ezra was no longer being left on her doorstep had led her to adopt so many. Even if she could never have her own, there were always children in need and she had the maternal instinct to spare.
Charlotte was jerked out of her reverie when the door was thrown open and Timothy rushed in breathless and excited.
"Rider coming in!" he shouted. "I think it's Cousin Ezra! Hurry, Mama!" He raced back out the door as quickly as he'd entered.
Charlotte smiled at his excitement. Jemma had been eight and Timothy six when they'd left Richmond, but they'd met Ezra and they had vague memories of him.
As she stood to follow, Charlotte realized her own heart was racing as well. Smoothing down the front of her plain white blouse she moved to check herself in the mirror on the wall. As she examined her reflection, she was suddenly worried that Ezra might notice that she hadn't aged. He had no knowledge of her Immortality and she wanted to keep it that way.
"Don't be silly," she commented to her reflection. "He won't remember; it's been ten years." Taking a deep breath she opened the door and stepped out onto the porch.
Jemma and Timothy, along with their thirteen-year-old brother Jess, were already accosting the rider. Charlotte took the time to examine the young man who had arrived. A little taller than she remembered, a little broader in the shoulders and the hair a little shorter but it was Ezra.
He was dressed like the riverboat gambler she knew him to be; fancy red coat and low crown black hat. He always was a fastidious dresser; Maude had insisted on that. As if sensing her scrutiny, he turned familiar green eyes to her and smiled revealing two sets of dimples and a gold tooth. When had he picked that up, she wondered.
She returned his smile and held her arms open to him, encouraging him to come to her.
Untangling himself from the trio, he made his way over to her. "Cousin Charlotte, it's been too long," Ezra said. His honey sweet southern drawl was just as she remembered.
She hugged him, planting a quick kiss on his cheek. "Ezra, I've missed you so much. I was beginning to give up hope that I'd actually get you out here for a visit."
"I did promise to visit and here I am."
"Yes, you are," she said as she squeezed his arm. Over his shoulder, she called, "Tim, see to Cousin Ezra's horse."
"Where are your things? Surely you plan to stay a while?" Charlotte asked when she noticed that he hadn't grabbed any saddle bags from his horse.
"Actually, I do plan to stay, but not here," Ezra admitted. "I have taken a room in Four Corners."
"Four Corners?" Charlotte was familiar with the town. It was a little over an hour's ride north, but she seldom went in that direction as the town had developed a rather seedy and wild reputation. She preferred to travel east for her supplies to Doña Ana. "Whatever for? I have plenty of room here."
"I didn't want to burden you. You have collected such a growing family," he said gesturing to the children who had gathered on the porch. He knelt down to greet the newest arrivals. "These must be the twins you wrote me about."
Charlotte nodded and introduced him to ten-year-old Penny and Patrick. Ezra pulled a pack of cards from his pocket. She smiled as he performed a card trick for the youngsters that made them squeal with delight. He'd always had a way with children. Jemma and Jess had stepped onto the porch to see what the fuss was about. A few more tricks followed, including one that involved a floating coin, before Charlotte interrupted the show.
"Jemma, take the children inside, I need to speak with Cousin Ezra."
Jess led the moans of regret as they begged for another trick.
"Listen to you mother," Ezra said as he put the cards away and ruffled Jess' hair. "There will be plenty of time for more entertainment later."
Once the children were inside, Charlotte sat down on the wooden bench that had been built on the front porch, gesturing for Ezra to sit next to her. "What's going on?"
"Nothing." He smiled as he joined her. "I just didn't expect you to feed and board me like old times. I am quite capable of taking care of myself."
Charlotte studied him and even after all these years she could still tell when he was lying to her. "Try again," she said simply. "This time the truth. All of it."
"Dear cousin, you are looking as young and lovely as ever," he said as he grasped her hand and squeezed it. "The west seems to be agreeing with you."
"Don't change the subject. What happened? You were late and I could tell from your letter you left Wyoming in a hurry," she pushed.
Charlotte had never judged the life that Ezra led, never let him see that she disapproved. Always, she had just wanted to be the person that he could confide in, as rarely as that occurred. Maude had raised him to be a gambler and a confidence man. Charlotte had hoped that her influence would raise him above such use of his intelligence, but his letters only served to confirm that he was Maude's creation. The partner that her wayward student planned to raise from the first time she'd dropped the five-year-old on Charlotte's doorstep.
Ezra sighed and leaned back against the house. "I could never lie to you."
"Never; not when you were five and not now," she told him, laughing.
The genuine smile that lit up his face indicated that he was glad for the honesty between them. "I stopped in Four Corners on my way here. My reserves were low and there was quite a crowd in the saloon."
Charlotte knew without him elaborating that he was looking for marks, whether it be a poker game or some other con.
"I found myself being recruited as a hired gun to help protect an Indian village. Now normally I wouldn't be interested in something like that, but I found the leader of the group, Chris Larabee, and his associates to be rather amusing."
Charlotte smiled. She remembered how often she'd encouraged Ezra to try things just because they were fun. It would infuriate Maude because there was no profit in fun. Charlotte was happy to see that her push for Ezra to be adventurous for its own sake had taken hold.
Ezra went on to explain why the village was in danger and how they had successfully defeated the soldiers looking for nonexistent gold. "It was quite the battle. I was even able to lend my assistance to fire off the cannon we had captured from the Confederates."
"You always did like experimenting with explosives," Charlotte teased. "So you helped save the day. You did a good thing and it is a very noble reason for you to be late getting here." She put her arm around him in a hug. It was so reminiscent of the days when he'd been her ward that she found herself wishing he was still small enough to lay his head on her shoulder. "I'm proud of you," she said with a final squeeze before releasing her embrace.
Ezra stared at her, surprise etched on his handsome features at her praise. There was something in his telling that she was missing. The promise of gold had obviously been his initial motivation, but he had stayed and defended his new found friends even though no gold had been forthcoming.
"Ezra?" Charlotte prompted.
He shook his head and laughed. "Not noble. I don't believe that word should ever be applied to my actions."
She wasn't about to argue with him. He'd risked his life for strangers and no reward. That was noble in her mind and it thrilled her that Ezra had let this side of himself shine through.
"If that little adventure is over then why are you staying in Four Corners?"
"In a most unfortunate turn of events, the business that I left behind in Wyoming followed me to this locale. Judge Travis, whose territory now includes Four Corners, was familiar with the exploits of one Ezra Simpson who jumped bail in Fort Laramie." He paused as if waiting for her recrimination, or withdrawal of her earlier praise.
"Go on," she said, not supplying any judgment in the phrase.
"In offering my services to help bring a murderer to justice, he pardoned those offenses. As penance, I am required to participate in the protection of the town, along with my six compatriots, for the next thirty days."
"You are the new law in Four Corners?"
"Do not laugh at the odd turn of events," he said. "But it seems that I am."
"Ezra, I'm not laughing. I think this is wonderful," she said.
"Wonderful? For the pittance of a dollar a day I am forced to endure the indignity of jumping at Mr. Larabee's every command."
Charlotte just smiled.
"I find the whole situation to be monumentally ridiculous," Ezra insisted. "I've spent my entire life on the other side of that line and now I find myself having to uphold it."
"And you're enjoying every minute of it," she concluded.
He met her gaze and broke into a wide grin. "I suppose I am. Mother would be apoplectic at the thought of me being a lawman."
Charlotte's hand flew to cover her mouth as she let loose a huge belly laugh. "Oh my, I would pay good money to see my cousin's face when she learns of your latest occupation."
Ezra chuckled and playfully bumped shoulders with Charlotte. "Well, she will be reading of my new address soon enough. I too wish I was able to see her reaction in person."
Charlotte sobered immediately. "You told her you were living here, near me?"
Even though her former student had seen fit to use Charlotte as Ezra's main babysitter over the years, Maude was constantly jealous over the close relationship she'd developed with him. Now that he was nearing Maude's magical timetable for Immortality, she worried that the younger Immortal might do something rash if she thought she was losing her darling boy to Charlotte's influence.
"Yes. Is that a problem?"
Flustered, Charlotte quickly composed herself. "No, of course not. I just haven't seen Maude in years and I suppose your proximately might encourage her to visit," she finished with a forced smile.
"Oh dear lord, let's hope not," he said with a laugh.
Thirty days had come and gone. Charlotte was pleased that Ezra showed no signs of leaving his position as a lawman in Four Corners. He dutifully arrived every Sunday to share lunch with the family and stories of his adventures in town.
Ezra had returned to using Standish, a familiarity for which she was grateful. She had reminded him that she was still going by Pearl Black, the alias she'd adopted upon leaving Richmond. Since he'd spent his life switching names as easily as his coat, Ezra hadn't blinked an eye when she'd informed him of her additional guise as a widow these past ten years. As much as his easy acceptance of her altered biography saddened her, she knew that if he ever did become Immortal, Ezra's ability to shed names and identities would serve him well.
Leaving Jemma and Timothy to watch the younger children, she and Jess had taken the wagon and set out for town that morning. At thirteen, Jess was itching for more responsibility, and the isolation of the ranch could sometimes be stifling. Accompanying her for a supplies run was the perfect opportunity for him to use up some of that restless energy.
Her real motivation in traveling to Four Corners, however, was to meet the men who had won Ezra's loyalty. He refused to refer to them as friends but she knew that they had become important to him. She'd told Ezra to bring them by for lunch but he'd yet to extend any invitations. Charlotte was sure he hadn't shared her existence with them. Privacy was one thing, but she was family and if something did happen to Ezra, they should know to contact her.
Charlotte had therefore decided she was going to extend the Sunday lunch invitation herself.
As she steered the horses down the main street, she kept an eye out for Ezra. Truthfully, she wasn't surprised that he was nowhere to be seen. His habit of playing poker well into the wee hours meant that rising early was something he only did when necessary. He'd groused more than once about Mr. Larabee's lack of consideration for his schedule.
She pulled the wagon to a stop. "You have the list?" she asked Jess, who nodded emphatically and showed her the precious paper. He was excited to be given the responsibility of purchasing their supplies while Charlotte set about achieving the second reason for her visit. She watched him climb down from the wagon and enter the store.
"Howdy, Ma'am. You must be new in town."
Charlotte turned toward the greeting to find a tall, mustachioed man, with a huge smile on his face and his hand extended as an offer to help her down from the wagon.
She took the proffered hand. "Thank you kindly, Mr. -"
"Wilmington," he supplied. "Miss-"
"Mrs. Black,'" she said, returning his infectious smile. "Mr. Wilmington, it is so nice to finally meet you. You are exactly as my cousin described."
Buck's smile never left his face, but Charlotte could see the worry behind his deep blue eyes. He seemed to be mentally cataloging anyone named Black and if he should worry why Charlotte knew of him.
"Cousin?" he asked warily.
"Why yes," she said airily. Ezra had said that Buck was quite the ladies man and she wasn't above a little teasing. "I was never mentioned?"
When Buck shook his head, she continued. "That is odd. Ezra has told us so much about you and the other men he rides with."
Buck gave a hearty laugh mixed with relief. "Ezra's your cousin? Boy never said a word."
She chuckled with him. "Well, Ezra tends to be very private, but I am surprised you didn't know he had family nearby."
"That's Ezra," Buck said. His smiled turned a bit lascivious. "I'll have ta speak to him about keeping his beautiful cousin a secret. Will Mr. Black be visiting town anytime soon?"
"I'm afraid Mr. Black passed some time ago."
"I am so sorry to hear that." The breathy tone of his voice indicated that he wasn't really that sorry to hear it at all. "Why don't I see if I can help you find Ezra," he added, offering his arm to her.
"I'd appreciate your assistance, Mr. Wilmington." Charlotte had to suppress a giggle at the thought that Buck was flirting with her. Ezra was right; the man had no shame when it came to his conquests of women. Still, she never minded a little harmless flirtation. She wasn't about to fall under Buck's spell, though as she looked up into the handsome smiling face with his sparkling blue eyes, she understood why so many women would.
Buck led her down the street toward the saloon. He pushed open the batwing door and held it as she stepped inside. "Ezra keeps a room upstairs," he explained, ushering her over to a table where five others sat talking and drinking. Ezra was nowhere to be seen.
"Hey fellas, this here's Ezra's cousin," Buck announced to the group.
Charlotte knew them immediately from Ezra's descriptions, but allowed Buck to introduce them properly.
Space was made for her at the table as JD was sent upstairs to wake their missing member.
"Where 'zactly is your spread?" Vin asked.
"About an hour south by horseback," she said. Anticipating their next questions she continued, "I've been there almost ten years. I haven't had much call to come to Four Corners for supplies, as Doña Ana is equally close and I must say has a better reputation. I understand this town is much safer now that you gentlemen have been employed."
There were appreciative smiles around the table. "We just do what's needed," Nathan said.
"Iffen you're that close we should include your spread on some of our patrols," Vin said. "We check on places 'bout that far out all the time."
"That's very thoughtful of you." Charlotte was touched by his concern. "Ezra comes by every Sunday, so there's really no need."
"So that's where he disappears to on Sundays," Chris said. "Let me think he was running off to some poker game at Eagle Bend and trying to avoid his duties."
"I find that surprising. Ezra has constantly been such a help to me, but then I always use pecan pie as an incentive," she said, eliciting a few chuckles from the men.
"Did you two grow up together back east?" Nathan asked.
Ezra had mentioned that he and the healer had gotten off on the wrong foot. Nathan automatically assuming that because Ezra was from the south that he held something against the man because of the color of his skin. Charlotte understood the unspoken aspect of Nathan's inquiry and decided to take the opportunity to settle Nathan's mind not only about her but Ezra as well.
"He stayed with us in Richmond many times. In fact the last time I saw him was almost ten years ago after my husband had passed. He was so helpful when we were forced to leave town because of our involvement in the abolitionist movement." Charlotte spun the truth in with the lies of the life she'd created upon moving to New Mexico. There had been no Mr. Black, but a widow was the safest persona for an unmarried woman with children in the west.
"Ezra was an abolitionist?" Nathan asked, incredulous.
Charlotte nodded. It was the truth and Maude hadn't liked it all. There was no gain in political activism she'd insisted when she'd come to take Ezra away that last time. "I always dragged him willingly into my causes."
Ezra was going to be upset that she'd revealed he had a conscience about such things, but she had no qualms about dismantling the pampered gambler persona he'd created. It's for his own good, she told herself.
"Man's full of surprises," Nathan observed. The others nodded their agreement.
"Still don't explain why he kept such a lovely creature such as yourself a secret," Buck mused.
"So that I wouldn't find you roosting in my cousin's parlor uninvited," Ezra said as he joined them at the table.
"Now, Ezra, I'd never force myself on your cousin uninvited," Buck teased, indicating that he fully expected to be invited.
Ezra rolled his eyes as he greeted Charlotte, who had risen to face him, with a chaste kiss to the cheek. "What are you doing in town? You should have told me if you needed something and I would have delivered it on my next visit."
His stiff demeanor indicated that he was uncomfortable with her presence. The life of a conman was one unencumbered by connections. Having family in town meant that he was more tied to Four Corners than any of them. He continued to keep himself separated from the men at the table and she was determined to put an end to that.
"Ezra, your friends have been most gracious to entertain me as we waited for you."
"Yes, they are quite the gracious group," he replied drolly. "If you gentlemen don't mind, I'd like to steal my cousin away for a visit." He took her arm. "Shall we?"
"Just a moment, Ezra," Charlotte said, placing a hand on his shoulder to stop him from dragging her away. "Since you have failed to mention me, I can easily assume that you've failed to invite your compatriots to Sunday luncheon as I've repeatedly asked you to do."
She ignored the glare Ezra sent her way as she addressed the men at the table. "I would so enjoy getting to know you all better. Would you join me and the children for a meal this Sunday?"
She could feel Ezra stiffen next to her as the chorus of acceptance rang out.
"Saw your boy in the wagon," Buck said. "Can't believe you have a child that old."
Buck never stopped it seemed.
"Actually I have six, the eldest, my daughter Jemma, is eighteen." Charlotte made no apologies for the warning in her voice as she replied to Buck's inquiry.
"She's knows you already, Bucklin," Vin teased.
Charlotte realized she needed to have a talk with her daughter before Mr. Wilmington graced their doorstep.
"You must have been a baby yourself when you had her," Josiah observed.
"They are all adopted," Charlotte replied, grateful she didn't have to explain her youthful appearance in regard to the ages of her children.
"My cousin has a distinct propensity for picking up strays."
"That include you too, Ezra?" Chris quipped. A round of stifled laughter came from those gathered.
"And y'all as well," the gambler quipped back. "She loves children."
Charlotte was heartened by the interplay between Ezra and his friends. And they were his friends; she surmised it was up to her to make him see that.
"Until Sunday, gentlemen," she said as she finally allowed Ezra to lead her from the saloon.
The lawmen had made pigs of themselves over Charlotte's exceptional repast. Ezra was secretly pleased and a bit surprised at the easy camaraderie that had developed between his cousin and his colleagues. Ezra busied himself with checking over his tack for the ride back to town, when he felt a presence behind him.
"Why don't you stay?" Chris said.
"That is not necessary, Mr. Larabee," Ezra replied.
"Enjoy your family, Ezra," Chris said, smiling as he looked past the gambler to where Charlotte and the children waited on the porch. "We'll see you back in town tomorrow."
Ezra followed the man's gaze and found he didn't want to leave just yet. "I believe that I shall spend the night." Ezra matched the gunslingers smile. Patting the gambler on the back Chris left to see to his own horse.
"Anyone seen JD?" Buck asked.
"He and Jemma went for a walk out back," Penny said, giggling along with the other children.
"Did he?" Buck chuckled and started to dismount from his big grey to chase down their youngest member.
"I'll find him," Ezra said as he strode past Buck and headed toward the back of the house.
The southerner turned the corner to find the two young people leaning, shoulder to shoulder, against the back wall.
He cleared his throat and watched with amusement as JD jumped away from his cousin who blushed at the interruption.
"Ezra!" Flustered, the young man gestured at Jemma. "We were just talking and I should have said something to you. You being her cousin and all -"
Stifling a smile and trying to look stern, Ezra held up a hand to stop JD from rambling. "Everyone is leaving and I simply came to retrieve you."
"Right," JD said. He tapped two fingers to his hat in Jemma's direction. "Ma'am," he intoned solemnly before heading toward Ezra.
Ezra stopped JD with a hand to his chest. "We'll talk about this when I return to town tomorrow. That is if you survive Buck's teasing," he finished with a smile.
JD groaned and continued on his way.
The gambler turned his attention to his cousin.
"Please don't be angry," Jemma said shyly.
"Why would I be angry?" He was confused by her plea. He'd only thought to tease JD.
She looked relieved as she took his arm to be lead to where everyone waited.
+ + + + + + +
After the six lawmen had ridden off and the children were sent inside to clean up, Ezra settled himself on the front porch.
Charlotte appeared and handed him a glass as she sat down beside him.
Ezra took the drink and smiled. "Scotch and the good stuff too."
"Only the best for you."
He downed the drink and set the glass on the railing.
"That wasn't so bad now was it?" she teased. "Playing the respectable family man."
"Respectable?" Ezra snorted. "You," he poked a finger into her shoulder, "are ruining my reputation."
"All part of the plan." She smiled. "They were very appreciative of the meal."
"They adored you."
"It was the pie."
He shook his head. "I've never seen Chris laugh that much. I shudder to think what stories you were sharing at your end of the table."
"Just family anecdotes and very little about you; I promise."
He eyed her with disbelief. "I know you've said something to Nathan. The man has changed his attitude toward me practically overnight."
Charlotte shrugged. "I have no idea what your talking about."
She was trying not to look pleased with herself and it was all the evidence Ezra needed that she was lying. "What have you been telling him?"
"Nothing. Maybe he just likes you now that he's gotten to know you."
"I doubt that," Ezra quipped.
"Don't do that," Charlotte snapped. "Don't dismiss yourself like that."
"You may be misguided enough to think highly of me, dearest cousin, but those men are not so easily taken in by my charm."
"Charm? Is that what you call it?" She laughed.
"And what did you say to Buck when he helped you in the kitchen; the man looked positively stricken when you both returned."
Charlotte chuckled. "I simply told him if he wished to remain a buck, he needed to stay away from Jemma. The fact that I was handling a rather large butcher knife at the time seemed to drive the point home."
Ezra laughed heartily. "Yes. He definitely got your message."
"I don't think I have to worry about him chasing after Jemma," Charlotte said with relief.
"No, now you have to worry about JD." Ezra told her of the scene he'd found when he went searching for the young gunslinger. "You must face the fact that Jemma is a pretty girl and will be attracting a great deal of attention."
Charlotte nodded. "Do you think highly of JD?"
Ezra hadn't really given the matter much thought. "I certainly trust him to watch my back and I believe him to be an upstanding and honest young man. Why?" His eyes narrowed as he studied her.
"I like him too," she said as she patted his hand. "Tomorrow you will talk to JD about your expectations concerning his behavior should he choose to pursue a courtship."
"Me? How in the world is your daughter's virtue my responsibility? Besides you handled Buck just fine. I suggest a similar approach with JD if you wish to scare him away."
Charlotte laughed. "You are Jemma's oldest male relative. It would be best for you to handle these types of conversations."
Ezra paled. "What are you doing to me, Lottie? I don't want that responsibility."
She rolled her eyes at the awful nickname. "Face it, Ez," she said using his equally hated one, "You are a lawman and a family man now. You have certain responsibilities whether you want them or not."
"Good Lord, mother was right."
"What are you talking about?"
"She always insisted that if I spent too much time with you, I might become respectable," he said.
"Respectability becomes you," she confirmed
Ezra grabbed the glass from the railing and rose from his seat. "I need another drink," he grumbled.
Charlotte's lilting laughter followed him into the house.
Three weeks later
Nodding to Vin, Ezra settled himself into the next chair on the boardwalk. He automatically pulled out his cards and began mindlessly shuffling them as he surveyed the street in front of them.
"Stopped by your cousin's place yesterday," the Texan drawled.
It had been a few weeks since Charlotte had had them all out for lunch. It had gone much better than Ezra expected. He was surprised how often one of his associates would deliver a message from his cousin having checked on the ranch during their routine patrols.
"I thank you for your attention to my relations," Ezra replied. "And what kind of pie enticed you out to my cousin's home this time?"
Vin chuckled. "Apple."
Ezra nodded knowingly.
"Reminds me. She asked me ta give you this list of supplies." Vin reached into his buckskin coat, pulled out a piece of paper and handed it over. "She wanted you to bring them out on Sunday."
Ezra scanned the list. "Mr. Tanner, just how much pie did you have?" The list was almost exclusively items needed to restock Charlotte's pie baking ingredients.
The tracker blushed. "Not my fault. She just kept bringing more. Hell, Ezra, you know she makes the best damn pie in the territory."
"I have to agree," Ezra said laughing. If the way to a man's heart was through his stomach, Charlotte had easily won the affections of the motley crew of gunslingers with her delicious confections.
He tucked the list into the pocket of his green coat. The two settled back into companionable silence as Ezra resumed his card shuffling to pass the time.
Ezra couldn't remember the last time he'd felt this contented. No, that wasn't true, he'd always felt happiest when he'd been left with Charlotte. The fact that she was back in his life and had taken his friends under her wing was very satisfying. Friends. Was it possible? He looked from Vin to where Josiah stood leaning against the support post. Maybe Charlotte was right, these men were becoming his friends and they saw him as a friend too.
He smiled, enjoying the unusual feeling of happiness that stole over him.
"Now there's a vision that makes a man believe in God," Josiah intoned.
Ezra looked to see what had captured the preacher's attention and felt his heart drop; the moment of contentment was gone in a puff of smoke as he stared at the woman who had stepped off the stage. Mechanically, he rose and pushed past his friends.
"Mother?" The words escaped his lips as he continued toward the figure in black, fervently hoping he was wrong.
+ + + + + + +
Ezra assisted his mother in settling into her room at the hotel.
"What are you doing here, mother?"
Maude busied herself with the task of unpacking. "I just missed you, darlin' boy," she said without looking up.
"Yes, I'm sure that's it," he said, the sarcasm carefully modulated. "What happened in St. Louis?"
She turned to face him, hands on hips. "Really, Ezra, I wanted to see you. St. Louis had become," she waved a hand, "tedious."
"And I wanted to see Charlotte too. She's camped out around here somewhere with her ever growing brood."
"Hardly a camp site, Mother. She has a very large home on her ranch south of here," Ezra said. "And that is no way to refer to our cousins."
Maude shook her head. "Don't tell me you're becoming attached to her collection of misfits. How long do you plan on staying in this ridiculous little town catering to that woman's whims?"
Ezra stiffened at his mother's dismissal of Charlotte. "I am here because I choose to be, not because of Charlotte."
It was entirely false. He'd found himself here because he had been caught up in events on his way to visit Charlotte. He stayed because he enjoyed the proximity of his beloved cousin and, he had to admit, because of the growing friendships he was developing with the six other peacekeepers. Always there had been jealousy in regards to his affection for Charlotte; Ezra knew better than to feed his mother's green-eyed monster.
She smiled. "So you do have a plan. Who is the mark? Can I help?"
"There is no mark," Ezra said. "I am simply biding my time until a better opportunity presents itself."
"Of course, darling," Maude said as she stepped closer to him. "Maybe I can find us an acceptable diversion to pass the time."
"Please, mother, behave yourself. There are no confidence games to be had here, I assure you."
Maude laughed. "Then you aren't looking hard enough." She grew more serious as she stared at him and raised a hand to run it along his cheek. "I may have a surprise for you later, if you're a good boy."
Ezra clasped her hand. "I'm not five. I do not need a reward for good behavior."
Maude smiled enigmatically. "No you're not. You're the perfect age aren't you?" she mused, her eyes taking on a faraway cast as if she was entranced by her own internal thoughts.
"Mother, are you well?" he asked.
She snapped her attention back to him. "I'm just a little tired from the trip."
"Of course," he replied, not entirely convinced. "I'll leave you to get some rest. We can meet later for supper if you're feeling up to it."
"Thank you," she said as she ushered him to the door.
"How long do you think you will be staying?" he asked, pausing on the threshold.
"Why as long as it takes, dear boy," she answered cryptically.
Ezra chuckled as he headed down the hallway. He never could get a straight answer to a simple question.
After spending the day in the saddle in the company of Josiah and JD, all Ezra wanted to do was fall into bed. He'd learned from them that his mother had been busy ingratiating herself with his colleagues.
He was angry to hear that she had been plying her cons on them, though JD seemed unaware that he'd been duped into giving his mother money. They had no way of knowing she wasn't the fine upstanding woman that Charlotte was. He hoped Maude's deceitful behavior would not be discovered and possibly change their high opinion of his cousin.
He pushed open the door to his room to find his mother sitting on the bed, reading and waiting for him.
"Mother, what are you doing here?" He sighed as he shed his coat and placed it over the footboard.
"I was waiting for you."
"It's been a long day," he said as he removed his guns, setting them on the dresser. "Was there something specific you wanted to discuss?"
"I found the perfect mark today. We can use the cotton-gin investment scam we pulled in Chicago."
Ezra turned to face her. "No." When Maude stared at him as if she hadn't heard, he repeated it. "No, mother, I won't help you."
The disappointment in her eyes cut him to the quick. He moved to sit by her on the bed. "Please understand; I will not risk my position in this town by participating in something illegal."
"Illegal? Don't be ridiculous, this is your livelihood. I thought this protection job was just a front."
Ezra hesitated. He wanted to tell her that it wasn't a front. That for the first time in his life he'd found a modicum of respect from those around him and that he actually wanted this life on the legal side of the line, but she would never understand. "Of course it is," he said as he patted her hand and stood to finish undressing. He didn't want her to see the lie in his eyes.
"Ezra," she entreated him.
He stood silently in front of his dressing table as he removed his tie, keeping his back to her.
"Ezra, don't tell me you've actually joined the ranks of the employed. That would be a waste of your God-given gifts," she said.
Ezra continued his silence, chuckling to himself at the irony. She would never understand that the things she was most proud of in him were the things he was most ashamed of.
"I raised you better than that," she exclaimed angrily when he still had not responded.
The words were like a glass of cold water being thrown in his face. He felt anger welling up at the ridiculousness of this entire conversation.
"Raised me?" he asked, incredulous that she would even make that claim. He turned to face her. "Raised me? You mean dumped me at every friend and relative's place you could find unless you needed me for a con. If it weren't for Cousin Charlotte"
He stopped his accusations as Maude's eyes grew dark. "I did the best I could! Are you suggesting that Charlotte was more of a mother to you than I was? She doesn't care for you the way I do. She's the one who wants to deny you your birthright."
"Don't!" he snapped. "Don't even suggest that you care for me more than she does. If it weren't for Charlotte, I wouldn't even know what it meant to have some semblance of a stable home. This trade you taught me is no birthright."
"You have no idea what you will be capable of someday, I do," Maude insisted. "As for Charlotte, she's nothing but a stuck up snob who thinks she knows what's best for everyone."
Ezra's hands gripped the footboard as he held himself back from lashing out. "You have no right to speak of Charlotte that way," he hissed through clenched teeth.
Maude stood and met his angry gaze. "If you are too caught up in her do-gooder mentality to see that I'm right, I may have to take action before she ruins you completely." She stormed out the door, slamming it behind her.
Ezra stood paralyzed by the venom that his mother had spewed toward Charlotte. He tightened his hold on the footboard so that he wouldn't go racing after her to apologize. She might be standing right outside the door waiting for him to call out to her. He wasn't going to do it.
He meant what he said. He just hadn't meant to tell his mother. He had expected some jealousy but he was shocked to find out she had such a low opinion of his cousin.
Throughout his life, Charlotte and his mother had been the only ones who mattered. His mother's life lessons had taught him to trust no one but he always trusted Cousin Charlotte. Would his mother be callous enough to make him choose?
Charlotte. He knew instantly that he would never give her up no matter what his mother asked of him. He'd learned tonight that he could say no to her. Now he just had to see it through and not give in to his constant need to make his mother happy.
He was an adult and his mother needed to understand that this was his life to live. That brought him back to the musings he'd had the morning his mother had arrived before it had all gone sour. He was happy here, working as one of the seven, with Charlotte nearby.
Nodding to himself, he knew he could face his mother. When she was calm tomorrow, he would find her and explain that this was how things were and if she didn't like it she could leave; but he wasn't coming with her any more.
+ + + + + + +
Ezra spent the next two days helping the rest of the seven trap a murderer. He'd actually been relieved that there had been no time to talk to his mother about what had been said in anger. He was still trying to determine how best to get what he wanted without upsetting her further.
Growing up, he would have done anything to win her approval. But he was finding her approval mattered less today than it ever had.
His mother needed to understand that he loved Cousin Charlotte too. It should be possible to have both of these women that he cared about in his life. There was no way that he was going to dismiss Charlotte, as he'd done in the past, just to keep the peace.
Mumbling to himself, he walked toward the hotel to talk to his mother. He rehearsed what he was going to say as he tried to prepare for the confrontation ahead.
"Talking to yourself there, Ezra?" Vin called from his seat in front of the jail.
Ezra stopped and tilted his head toward the tracker. "I often find that my own conversation is more enlightening than any I can find around here."
"'Spose that'd be true." Vin chuckled. "You headed off to talk to your ma?"
Ezra was constantly amazed at Vin's ability to read people. Sometimes he thought it might rival his own. "Actually, I am. So if you'll excuse me." He gestured up the street.
"She ain't there."
That was surprising. She hadn't been in the saloon when he'd come down from his room and he hadn't seen her on the street. "As you appear to have superior knowledge concerning her location, would you care to enlighten me as to where she might be?" he asked as he climbed the steps to stand beside Vin.
"JD took her out to your cousin's."
Ezra paled as he tried to comprehend Vin's simple statement. "JD took her to my cousin's," he repeated.
"That's what I said." Vin laughed. "You not hearing so good this morning?
"I heard you," Ezra snapped. "Why did JD go?"
"She didn't know where it was and JD offered to show her. 'Spect it was a good excuse to see Miss Jemma again," Vin said with a knowing smile. "They hitched up a wagon and took off."
This was not good, Ezra thought. "How long ago did they depart?"
Vin leaned forward to look at the sky. "'Bout an hour ago, I'd guess."
Ezra left without saying goodbye and practically ran to the livery.
"Everything ok, Ezra?" Vin called after him.
The gambler did not acknowledge the question but kept up his pace to get his horse and get out to Charlotte's as quickly as possible.
He hoped his concerns were unfounded. Certainly Maude couldn't do anything to turn his cousin against him; yet he was unable shake the feeling that a confrontation between his mother and his cousin would not end well. When he was growing up, Charlotte had always given in to Maude's jealousy. Many times Charlotte had let him leave when they both knew he'd rather stay. It was a game they played, pretending that it was best for him to be with Maude.
Doubt gnawed at him. Maybe Charlotte wasn't playing a game; maybe she did find his presence a burden when faced with Maude's displeasure. He tried to push away the thought that he had been the one fooled, that given the choice Charlotte would side with Maude. She had enjoyed having him around all those years, hadn't she?
He scoffed at his own insecurities. His mother's presence was like a poison to his relationship with Charlotte. He needed to hear Charlotte take his side against Maude; needed to know that everything he believed about their relationship was true. He didn't know what he would do if Charlotte asked him to go.
With a single-mindedness that seemed to make his mount nervous, Ezra went about the business of saddling Chaucer.
"Hey, Ez, you okay?" Vin asked. The man had followed him.
"I am fine, Mr. Tanner," Ezra said. "I simply wish to make sure my mother arrived unharmed."
"JD's with her. Ain't nothing ta worry about."
Ezra sighed as he continued with his task, wishing Vin would go away. "I'm sure they are. I just feel the need to go too."
Vin nodded. "Want some company?"
"That isn't necessary."
"I am more than capable of getting there on my own," Ezra said. He looked up to see the frown on Vin's face.
"Just thought - " the tracker stopped and shrugged.
As concerned as Ezra was about what might be happening at Charlotte's, he had to smile at the man's barely concealed reason for wanting to accompany him. "I will make sure to bring you back some pie."
"That obvious, huh?" Vin sent him a small smile.
"Yes it is," he replied. "Your fondness for my cousin's confections is well known."
"I'll still come, iffen ya want the company."
"Again, your offer, while appreciated, is unnecessary.'
"Well okay, just don't forget the pie," Vin teased before exiting the livery.
Vin's sincere offer of companionship had gone a long way to lifting his dark mood. Chuckling to himself over the magical properties of pie, Ezra returned to his task and was on the trail in less than five minutes.
+ + + + + + +
Ezra arrived at the Black homestead to find JD and Jemma sitting demurely on the porch, deep in discussion.
As he rode up, JD jumped to his feet and came off the porch to greet him. "Hey Ezra," he said. "Jemma and I, we were - I mean it is okay that I came out."
Dismounting, Ezra waved a hand at his friend. "JD, I trust you with my cousin. I'm sure that you were behaving like a gentleman."
JD beamed at him. "Yep, sure was."
"Good but the next time my mother asks you to bring her out here, don't."
"Sorry, Ezra. She seemed real anxious to get out here and didn't want to disturb you."
"Yes I'm sure she did," he grumbled. "Now, where is she?"
"She and Mrs. Black went to the barn down by the stream. Something about wanting some privacy."
Ezra nodded, remounted his horse and headed off to find his wayward relatives.
Ezra pulled his horse to a stop next to Charlotte's wagon. Dismounting, he flipped the reins over the hitch and strode to the barn door. Ezra's hand stilled on the latch as the raised voices from inside reached his ears. They were arguing about him. The moment brought back memories from when he'd been little and had eavesdropped on another conversation concerning his welfare. As he'd done then he waited, listening to what they were saying about him.
"I can not believe your lured my son to this godforsaken wilderness," Maude said. "And he's become a lawman! If it weren't so ridiculous, I'd be crying."
"I didn't lure Ezra anywhere. He makes his own decisions and he has decided he wants a different life. I support his choice."
Ezra smiled as he leaned against the barn door. All the fears of rejection that had gathered during his ride out the ranch were banished in an instant. Charlotte understood him, she supported him. His mother never would, and that thought, though sad, did not surprise him.
"He's wasting his time here," Maude insisted. "He needs to come with me and you need stay out of the way."
"He's not some child you can drag away from my care anymore, Maude."
"You need to stop filling Ezra's head with these ridiculous heroic notions and see the world as it really is."
"No, you need to open your eyes and see the good man he's become in spite of -" Charlotte stopped.
"No finish. You were about to say 'In spite of me'," Maude sneered. "How dare you insinuate that? I am a good mother!"
"You weren't fit to be a mother, Maude!" Charlotte shouted. "You found Ezra in an orphanage saw his potential and raised a tool for your own purposes, not as a child that needed your love. I should have been his mother, not you! I should have never let you take him from me."
Ezra stepped back and stared at the barn door as if it had betrayed him. He was only peripherally aware of the conversation that continued inside. He must have heard Charlotte wrong. Maude had found him? She wasn't his real mother?
That was impossible. He searched for his earliest memory going back as far as he could. Maude was always there, she was the only mother he had ever known.
The door was flung open and Maude stopped her exit when she saw him standing there. "Ezra!" she said. Her eyes narrowed as she studied him. "It's very rude to eavesdrop."
"Is it?" He said quietly. "I do believe you taught me that eavesdropping was a very useful skill."
"Ezra, I can explain," Maude said as she realized what he must have heard.
"Can you, moth- Maude?" Ezra wasn't sure he ever wanted to call her mother again.
Her body tensed as she whirled to step back inside to accost Charlotte. "This is all your fault; you and your high and mighty principles."
Charlotte ignored Maude's tantrum. "Ezra," she called to him. "I'm sorry you had to find out like this."
Mechanically, he entered the barn and crossed to stand in front of his cousin. "You knew she wasn't my mother," he said angrily, glaring at her, "And yet you let her drag me around the country and raise me like this!"
He knew he should be directing his anger at Maude but he had put his faith in Charlotte. He'd trusted her and somehow the fact that she'd left him to Maude's ministrations felt like a betrayal.
"I am your mother," Maude snapped from behind him but she was ignored.
"I wanted to keep you with me. You must believe that." Charlotte pleaded. He could see the tears pooling in her eyes. "I love you like my own son but Maude had the legal rights to you. I couldn't risk that she'd take you away and never return. That would have broken my heart."
Ezra nodded, afraid to speak for fear of dissolving into very childlike tears. Her words filled him with joy and he instantly forgave her. Just knowing she wanted him and thought of him as her own child banished any misunderstandings he might have had. He grasped her hand and with his other wiped a wayward tear from her cheek. Her eyes told him how much she regretted not being there for him everyday.
He smiled at her and she returned it. Nothing had changed between them except that he no longer felt guilty that he cared for her more than Maude.
"Stay away from him, Charlotte," Maude said angrily. She would not be ignored any longer and pulled Charlotte roughly away from Ezra.
"Maude, leave her alone," Ezra commanded. "Haven't you done enough?"
"Ezra, regardless of whether I gave birth to you, I am your mother. I have only had you best interests at heart," Maude said.
He snorted in disbelief. "I doubt that. I see it all too clearly now. I have allowed myself to fall prey to your greatest con. The one that had me constantly trying to earn your love and attention; but it was all a lie wasn't it?"
"Charlotte has finally succeeded in turning you against me as I always knew she would."
Charlotte opened her to mouth retort but Ezra motioned for her to stay out of the argument and she obeyed.
"You believe that, don't you?" Ezra scoffed. "All I ever wanted was to be the son you wanted me to be, but I see now that you never wanted a son; just a partner for your games."
"Ezra." Her whole manner softened as she stepped close to him. "You are my darling boy and always have been. I love you. I pushed you so hard because I knew that a great destiny awaited you."
She reached out to stroke his cheek, and Ezra closed his eyes at the familiar touch. A part of him wanted to believe that the circumstances of his birth didn't matter, that she was his mother, but the years of neglect and abandonment told a different story, one he was much more inclined to believe.
He grabbed the hand that rested on his check and pushed it away. "I will always care for you, Maude, but you must understand that I will no longer participate in you games. The life of a confidence man is no longer my 'great destiny'."
Maude stepped back, laughing. The harshness of the sound surprised him. "You don't understand. You think that Charlotte is so wonderful, but she wants to deny who you are. Someday you will come into your birthright and only then will you truly understand how I am the only one you can trust."
"Stop, Maude!" Charlotte insisted as she stepped between them, her back to Ezra. "Think about what you're saying."
Ezra watched as something he didn't understand registered on his mother's face as she looked past Charlotte to stare at him. His cousin placed a hand on Maude's shoulder and the gesture seemed to snap his mother's attention back to Charlotte and a calmer state. More secrets? His confusion grew. He had wondered if his mother was going insane with their ramblings about destiny and birthrights. Yet Charlotte seemed to know what Maude was talking about. He suddenly got the feeling that being an exceptional gambler and confidence man wasn't the destiny his mother was referring to.
"Charlotte, what's going on?" Ezra demanded.
She turned to him and he could see the lie in her eyes as she said, "Nothing, your mother is just distraught because of everything that has been revealed today."
"Charlotte's right," Maude agreed. "I admit I'd hoped you'd never find out about the adoption and certainly not this way. Please, Ezra, let me make this right between us."
Ezra was stunned. He looked between the two of them and his head started to ache. His whole world was torn asunder and just when he thought that everything was fine between him and Charlotte, she'd taken Maude's side exactly as he'd feared.
He stumbled back, and when his legs hit a bale of hay, he sat. Nothing made sense. His emotions were in turmoil. He wanted to understand why Charlotte lied to him. He looked at her, the question in his eyes, but she wouldn't meet his gaze. What did that mean?
"Look what you've done, Charlotte, he's in shock," Maude chastised her cousin, her tone sweet with false concern. "I'll handle this. Why don't you give us some privacy?"
"Maude, promise me you won't upset him further," Charlotte pleaded.
Maude waved a hand at her. "I am over my shock. I need to repair the relationship with my son and that is best done without an audience. You understand, don't you, darling?"
"I don't think it's a good idea for me to leave."
"I have no intention of doing anything to hurt Ezra," Maude assured her. He watched as another unspoken message passed between the women. "He's had enough of a shock for one day."
"I don't know, Maude." Charlotte walked over to sit beside him. "Ezra?" she cajoled. "I'll stay, and we can talk about this."
He looked at his cousin. He wanted to believe the concern on her face was genuine. A part of him wanted to know what other secrets she and Maude were hiding, but he wasn't sure he was truly ready to hear them.
Suddenly, he realized he wanted to be anywhere but here. He didn't want to talk about any of it. He wanted to go back to Four Corners and follow Chris' example of crawling into a bottle when things were too upsetting to be faced. Ezra doubted either woman would just let him ride away. No, they would want to talk and Charlotte wouldn't stop until she believed he was feeling better.
He put on a false smile. "Any chance you have some of that scotch hidden in the barn?"
Charlotte shook her head. "I could go get some." She reached over and squeezed his hand. "Do you want me too?"
"Please, I promise not to start any arguments until you get back," Ezra said.
"I think we could all use a drink," Maude said seating herself on a neighboring hay bale.
Charlotte leaned over to whisper in Ezra's ear. "I love you, you must believe that." More loudly she added, "I shouldn't be more than ten minutes. Behave yourselves." Without waiting for a reply, she headed for the door.
Her declaration of love filled him with hope; Ezra wanted to accept that she was sincere. If there were more secrets, he had to have confidence that Charlotte was keeping them for a good reason. He desperately wanted to believe he could trust his cousin. Later he would ask her why she lied. If she lied again then he would know that trust was gone
He turned to face his mother, steeling himself for some self-righteous tirade against Charlotte once the door was closed.
"Speak you piece."
"Ezra, I have only had you best interests at heart, you must believe me." She reached out to hold his hands in hers.
He pulled them away. "Forgive me, but I don't."
"I never thought it mattered that you were adopted," she explained. "Why should it bother you so much?"
"It just does." It mattered because somehow it would have been easier to understand and accept her coldness. She was no more connected to him than some of those awful stepfathers he'd been forced to endure.
"Well, if you insist that I am not your mother, then you should know that means Charlotte is not your cousin." His mother rose and came to stand in front of him.
He let loose a rueful chuckle, refusing to look up at her. "You really don't understand. It's not blood that makes her dear to me."
"I knew it would come to this someday."
He was about to ask what she meant when he heard the cocking of a pistol. He looked up to find her derringer pointed at his heart.
"Mother?" He laughed. "Is this a joke?"
"No," she said. "I'm fulfilling your destiny."
Before Ezra could truly register her intent, the gun went off. He didn't feel the bullet at first and tried to draw his Remington but his arm would not respond to his command. Breathing became difficult as the pain in his chest exploded. He looked down to see a red stain spreading across his gold vest.
His head swam as he swung his gaze up to his mother. She was still smiling and trying to tell him something, but his mind couldn't make out the words.
She'd shot him. His own mother had killed him. He closed his eyes and fell backwards across the hay bale as the world ended.
Charlotte closed the barn door behind her, walked over to Ezra's horse and greeted the animal. Using Chaucer would take less time and she knew Ezra wouldn't mind as she'd ridden him before.
Leaning against the horse, she struggled to get her emotions under control for the ride to the house. . He had every right to be angry with her. Even though she knew instinctively she'd done all she could to balance the careless way Maude had treated him, it didn't help assuage the guilt she felt about all those times she'd let the woman take him away.
At first it seemed that Ezra understood why she'd never confronted Maude about his upbringing, but then she'd lied about having additional secrets. She'd seen him react to the lie and knew that she would have to work hard to win back his trust. But she was unsure how to do that without sharing her biggest secret: Immortality.
These past months had been so wonderful. Ezra had embraced his role as peacekeeper and patriarch of the Black clan. He was happier than she'd ever seen him. Charlotte took pride in the fact that she'd helped nurture that good and decent side of him. She'd hate to see all that fall apart if he couldn't bring himself to really trust her again.
God, she needed a drink too. It was a mess. Swiping at her eyes, Charlotte mounted the horse and was guiding him across the field when she heard the shot.
Charlotte stopped Chaucer in his tracks as she tried to process what she'd just heard. Her worst fears were confirmed as the sound of a second shot assaulted her ears. She turned the horse around and headed back to the barn trying to keep her growing fears under control.
How could she have been so stupid as to leave Maude alone with Ezra? She'd been preoccupied with her own feelings of guilt and the need to make things right with him. Still, even in her most morbid dreams about this day she truly never believed Maude was capable of killing her own son.
She was furious at Maude for being so damn selfish. She'd had enough. Charlotte dismounted and headed to the wagon. Pulling her sword from its hiding place under the seat, she thanked God that she'd thought to put it there when Maude had insisted they go off for a private talk. Something about the way the woman had shown up on her doorstep with JD in tow instead of Ezra had put her on her guard.
Charlotte pushed open the barn door to see Maude standing over Ezra's prone body, the Derringer still in her hand. Charlotte hesitated, looking at Ezra's hand; he hadn't had time to pull his own Derringer, so she was relatively certain that Maude had fired both of the shots she'd heard.
Emboldened, she strode forward. "You bitch!" she shouted. "I can't believe you actually did it!"
Maude swung the gun towards her and fired, but the chamber clicked; a hollow empty sound. She tossed the gun aside and held up her hands.
"I am unarmed, dear cousin," she cried.
"But you would have shot me if you could." Charlotte continued her advance. Maude took a step back for every step she took forward. "Where's your sword, dear cousin?" she sneered. "Didn't think you had anything to fear from sweet, little Charlotte? Did you forget who I am?" She was enraged in a way she hadn't been for years and it felt good to finally let it loose on Maude.
"Please, Charlotte. Let's talk about this. You know I only had - "
Don't say it!" she shouted. "Don't even try to insist you only had Ezra's best interests at heart. I am sick of that generic proclamation you spout as if it justifies everything. I have had enough of you and your plans!"
Maude pleaded with her as she continued her backwards retreat. "Search your heart and you will realize that I did the right thing." The placating tone only further enraged Charlotte.
"You truly believe that?" Charlotte asked, incredulous. "I should take your head right now!"
Maude was trapped as she reached the far wall of the barn. Her hands came up in an attempt to protect her neck. "That wouldn't be very honorable."
"I really don't care at this point," Charlotte snarled as she smacked Maude's hands down and brought her sword up against the other woman's throat. "I should have done this a long time ago."
There was real fear in Maude's eyes. "You don't mean that," she stammered. "We're family."
"Family!" Charlotte spat out. "You don't know the meaning of the word."
"Please don't do this," Maude begged, trying to push Charlotte away. But the sword stayed pressed against her throat.
"I. Will.Never.Forgive.You!" She growled each word.
"How can I convince you that I love and care for Ezra?" The words came out in gasps as Maude's fear caused her to hyperventilate.
"Don't make me laugh! You have always been a selfish woman, but I never thought you'd stoop so low as to kill him just to prove a point!"
"Can you put the sword down please? Let's talk about this rationally. I understand you're angry, but killing me won't change the fact that Ezra needs us," Maude entreated her. "Please! Don't do this! What would Ezra think?"
Charlotte stared into the other woman's eyes. She was surprised to see concern mixed in with the fear. Charlotte hated to acknowledge it, but Maude did care for Ezra in her own twisted way. As much as she wanted the woman to pay for what she'd done, a valid concern had been raised.
"I'll stay my hand but only for Ezra's sake." Her anger was like a tightly coiled spring and she had to fight her urge to hurt the woman. "The transition to Immortality will be harrowing enough for him. I won't add to that by having him wake to find the decapitated body of his mother on the ground." She pulled the sword away and stepped back.
"Thank you," Maude said, relief flooding her eyes.
"I loved you like a sister, Maude. I thought somehow I might reach that distrustful mind of yours. Put up with all of your baggage because I wanted to remain in Ezra's life. I see now that I was wrong, and Ezra has paid the price for my stupidity."
Maude rubbed her neck, sidestepped away from Charlotte and moved out of reach of the sword. "You have always believed in the innate goodness of everyone." She smirked. "I'm not you; I know better."
"I have to believe in the good," Charlotte said. "Or what's the point?"
"The world is a hard, cruel place. We are players in a Game that forces us to trust no one and kill to survive. You are naïve." Maude's composure was restored and she went on the attack as if she hadn't just been moments away from decapitation.
Charlotte wondered if she really could take the head of her own student. Based on how she felt right now, it might have happened if Maude had had her sword. Charlotte was many things, but she was an honorable woman and ultimately she wouldn't stoop to Maude's level by giving into her anger.
"Maybe I am, but you just ushered Ezra into that Game. How will he react to being killed by his own mother? Do you honestly believe he'll be grateful?"
Maude waved a hand dismissively at Charlotte. "He will understand when he realizes I have preserved him at the height of his youthful charm and good looks," Maude said. "Or would you have preferred he be old, with strangers and unprepared for what happens next?"
"That's not the point," she countered. "You have stolen his normal life from him. He had a right to live unencumbered by the Game and the burden of Immortality."
"Ezra is my son!" she snapped, smacking a hand against her chest. "My son, not yours, as much as you've tried to change that fact. Everything I taught him will help him survive this new life."
Maude had spent her whole life preparing Ezra for this day. Ezra was already trained in sword play, though he'd need additional instruction. He would be twenty-eight, the same physical age Charlotte was, forever. He would wake and be told instantly what had happened. It was true, Maude had really thought about this, but it was still a selfish act. She'd sacrificed Ezra's childhood for Immortality; giving him the life she would have chosen for herself and not the best life for him.
"You don't know him or understand him," Charlotte replied. "I won't support you in this."
"I don't need you to," Maude said. "And you're wrong. This little vacation in New Mexico is over. Once he sees the gift I've given him, he will return to the life he was meant for.
Charlotte shook her head. "You have no idea how wrong you are, but I'll let Ezra tell you himself. I'll support whatever decision he makes in regards to his relationship to you, but either way, after today, you are no longer welcome in my home."
"Don't be ridiculous, darling. You will forgive me when you see I've done the right thing."
Charlotte's eyes narrowed as she stared at the woman she'd once thought of as family. "I already told you, I will never forgive you." Her voice was cold. She felt such disgust for Maude as she gripped her sword. Once again, she had to fight down the desire to take the woman's head. Methos would have done it.
She was saved from having to make that decision by the tingling at the edge of her awareness. She saw that Maude was smiling. They both felt it. Ezra was waking up.
Ezra felt like he was wading through a heavy fog. There was a searing pain in his chest, but it was rapidly disappearing. What was growing stronger was the buzzing behind his eyes. It wasn't exactly a headache but he felt as if he was following the feeling toward consciousness. He gasped for breath as the sensation of suffocation hit him along with the strange thought that he hadn't been breathing a moment before.
He took a long deep breath as he opened his eyes. Blinking, he tried to register what he was seeing; the barn, Charlotte's barn. His last memory hit him like a blunt object. His mother had shot him.
Bolting upright, he quickly unbuttoned his vest and shirt looking for signs of the bullet wound. He let out a heavy sigh of relief as his searching hands encountered no such wound. He must have imagined it. But then why had he blacked out and where had the blood on his shirt come from?
He felt eyes on him and looked up to see his mother - he supposed he would always think of her that way - and Charlotte watching him.
Charlotte moved first and sat down beside him. "Ezra, I know this must seem odd to you, but there are things you need to understand," she said as she laid a hand on his arm.
His head buzzed at the nearness of her, almost like she was generating the feeling. "I had the strangest dream --"
"It was no dream, darling boy," Maude said as she took a seat to his left.
Ezra turned toward her, sensing the same sensation that was coming off Charlotte. "Of course it was a dream. I know you can be a bit cold sometimes, but I hardly think you would ever shoot me," he laughed.
Maude looked down and then past him to meet Charlotte's eyes. Ezra was feeling a bit uncomfortable. He reached up to examine his chest again. The memory of the bullet seemed so real. As his hand ghosted across his shirt, he found a bullet hole.
Pushing his finger through the tear, he stuttered, "I don't understand. How could it have missed me and yet done this damage to my shirt?"
"It didn't miss you," Charlotte explained. "Maude shot you and you were dead."
"That's impossible, unless - " Ezra jumped to his feet and backed away from the two women. "This is the afterlife. Hell?"
It didn't feel like Hell, but Ezra was quite certain he'd never gain entrance to the other location. That meant that Charlotte and his mother were figments of his imagination; not real. The occupants in his own personal Hell.
"You're not in Hell and you never will be," Charlotte insisted.
He laughed without humor. "Cousin, your faith in me even in my own imagination is still misguided."
"Ezra, stop being so difficult and sit down," Maude commanded as she patted the hay bale.
He stared at the illusion of his mother. "You shot me!" he shouted as the reality of her actions penetrated. "I'm dead because of you! Why would I come anywhere near you again?"
Maude stood, anger pouring off her. "Ezra Standish, I am you mother and you will not speak to me in that tone!"
"You're not real! I can speak to you however I choose," he retorted, feeling emboldened by his rage. "You chose to end my life when your jealousy over Charlotte became too much and I no longer wished to be you partner in criminal activities. Hardly the act of a supportive and attentive mother. But then you weren't, were you? Charlotte was right, you were never meant to be a mother."
Maude stepped forward and slapped him. "How dare you say such things to me?"
Charlotte forced herself between them and pushed Maude back. "You've done enough, Maude! Let me handle this. He's confused and angry as I warned you he would be."
Maude poked a finger into the other woman's chest. "No, Charlotte, I will handle the explanations."
Ezra listened with half an ear as the two women argued over him. He reached up to massage his temple; the buzz had settled into white noise behind his eyes. "Stop it!" he yelled.
They fell silent as they both looked at him. It was then Ezra noticed that Charlotte was holding a rather large sword. He blinked and shook his head. Why would he imagine a version of his cousin wielding such an odd weapon?
He felt himself giving into the panic of the surreal situation. His mother had shot him. As many times as his brain repeated that fact, he really couldn't process the enormity of what it meant. It was getting harder to breath. He needed to get outside; get away from them and the last confirmation that his life had been so sad and pathetic that his own mother had chosen to end it. Without a word he started toward the barn door.
"Wait, Ezra, please." Charlotte walked to intercept him. "I know things seem odd, but I promise you there is an explanation, starting with the fact that you are not dead."
Ezra tried to push past her but she grabbed his right wrist. He marveled at the very real feeling of her hand on his arm. He reached over to take her hand in his own and held it tightly. He clung to the comforting emotion that holding her hand in his always engendered. As the panic started to fade, he looked up to meet her eyes and saw nothing but concern.
"I'm really not dead?"
Charlotte smiled at him. "You are very much alive. In fact, you are Immortal just as Maude and I are."
He heard but did not comprehend her statement. When Charlotte sensed his bewilderment, she tried to explain. "We can not die."
That's what he thought she'd said. He shook his head. "That's impossible."
He wanted so badly to believe that she could force it all to make sense, but Immortality. That was not logical.
"I know this is confusing," Charlotte said as she squeezed his hand. "Come sit down and I will explain it better."
When Ezra hesitated, she looked back at Maude. "We have to show him."
"Show me what?" Ezra asked. He clung to the feeling of Charlotte's hand as proof that he was alive. The rest was too bizarre to contemplate yet.
Charlotte ignored him and continued to stare at Maude.
"Why me?" Maude asked as she crossed her arms defiantly.
"You know why!"
Maude continued to resist. "I know no such thing."
Releasing Ezra's hand, Charlotte walked over to her. "You've done serious damage to your relationship with Ezra that I know you wish to repair," Charlotte reminded her. "Plus, you can trust I won't take your head, I on the other hand, have no such faith in you."
"Charlotte!" Maude tried to sound indignant. "I would do no such thing."
"Maude!" Charlotte barked, the command for the conwoman's cooperation implicit in that one word.
Ezra was perplexed not only by the words exchanged but by the way Charlotte was behaving. She was in control and his mother was backing down. The dynamic was all wrong and the strangeness of it was unnerving. He felt Maude's eyes on him, but he refused to look at her. He only wanted Charlotte to return to his side to share the rest of the enlightenment she promised.
"All right, I'll do it for Ezra. He needs to see what I am willing to endure for him," Maude said. "If this will help him appreciate what I did than I am ready to be the one to demonstrate our abilities."
The concern in her voice got his attention and he finally dared to meet his mother's gaze. She smiled at him and nodded. He was taken aback by the connection he felt to her at that moment. Maybe Maude really did care for him, and unlike so many times before, she actually had lowered her guard enough to show him.
"Thank you," Charlotte said. Switching the sword she'd been carrying to her left hand and without taking her eyes off Maude, she reached her right toward Ezra. "Your Remington please, Ezra."
Ezra didn't move, but his curiosity got the best of him. Before he added to her arsenal he had to know about the sword. "Cousin, I couldn't help but wonder at the blade you seem to have an iron grip on. Is there some reason you need such a weapon if, as you say, we are not in some improbable afterlife?"
Charlotte sent him a comforting smile as she walked back to his side. "I will explain the sword, but first I need your gun for a little demonstration that I think will put all your doubts to rest and," she threw an amused look back at Maude, "make me feel better in the process."
Maude rolled her eyes and began unbuttoning the bodice of her emerald green dress.
"Mother, what are you doing?" Ezra asked as he watched her open her blouse, and while still keeping her breasts covered, exposed her chest.
"I don't plan on letting Charlotte put a bullet hole one of my favorite dresses," she explained.
He titled his head in confusion as he looked to Charlotte for an explanation. She stood beside him, silently smiling with her hand raised beckoning for his gun. Without further debate, he pulled his weapon and gave it to her. If she needed it in order to provide answers, he was willing to go along with her request.
Indicated that he should follow, she walked back to stand in front of Maude.
"Ezra, being an Immortal is complicated. To really understand everything that goes with your new existence, it is sometimes best to see a demonstration of what we are," Charlotte explained patiently.
He smiled as he recognized that she had gone into teaching mode. It brought back memories of his childhood when Charlotte had sought to educate him on everything from history to music.
"I am willing to learn all you have to share," he said as he tried to grasp what Charlotte really planned to do. "But I'm not sure Immortality is something I can accept as quickly as many of the other thing you've taught me."
"Which is why I'm going to do this."
Before Ezra could process what was happening, Charlotte had raised the gun to Maude's exposed chest and shot her through the heart. Ezra watched as his mother's lifeless body fell to the ground. For the second time that day, he felt his world end.
Charlotte chastised herself a bit for enjoying the sight of Maude crumbling to the ground. She was still so angry with the woman and had to admit that she felt a great deal of satisfaction in killing her, even if it wouldn't last very long.
She set the weapons aside and turned her attention to Ezra. What she saw tore at her heart strings. He was staring at Maude's body, confusion and grief played war across his face. She could see him restraining himself from going to her.
"Ezra," she said quietly, laying a hand on his shoulder. "All will be well. She isn't really gone. Because we are Immortal, we can't die permanently from that kind of wound."
Charlotte watched as he blinked back unshed tears. He was so still and seemed so defeated. Maybe shooting Maude had been a selfish act on her part that only served to add to the trauma of the day. The woman was, after all, still his mother and no child ever wanted to watch their parent die.
"Ezra," she repeated, trying to get his attention.
"I should feel worse seeing her lying there like that." His voice had taken on a dull monotone. "Instead I just feel - numb." He continued to stare at the body as he let out a shuddering breath.
He was in shock she realized; emotional overload. Charlotte took his hand and guided him to a seat on the hay bale. "She'll be back. Trust me."
Ezra nodded slowly as he settled in next to her. She put her arm around him and he immediately dropped his head onto her shoulder. It reminded her so much of that very first night Maude had left him with her. The scared little boy who didn't know what was happening. She had to bite her lip to prevent herself from giving in to the tears.
As much as she had recently wished he was still the little boy who needed her comfort, she found she wanted him to be the clever confident man she'd gotten to know these past months. The dead look in his eyes and his silence was scaring her. She prayed that Maude's stupidity hadn't permanently damaged him in some way. She knew some people couldn't handle the transition but would not allow herself to believe that Ezra was one of them.
She squeezed his shoulder as she moved to face him. "Ezra, before Maude wakes up, I must tell you everything you'll need to know about being an Immortal. Do you understand?"
He took a deep breath and let it out slowly. "How did she know I wouldn't die when she shot me?"
She rubbed a hand up and down his arm. "Because all pre-immortals give off a feeling that identifies them as potentials."
"That's how it happened?"
Confusion showed in Charlotte's eyes and he clarified the question.
"In the orphanage, that's why she picked me because she knew I - that I - that someday --" he trailed into silence.
"Yes, I believe so." She hated to confirm that to him, but she had already decided there would be no more lies between them, no matter how painful the truth was.
His head drooped and his shoulders sagged. "She didn't want me just my potential."
She wasn't about to defend or try to explain Maude's complex feelings toward Ezra. Charlotte only knew how she felt. She placed a finger under his chin and tilted his head up to look him in the eye. "I never cared about that. From the first moment I saw you when you were five, I loved you. You are the child of my heart and I will always love you for the wonderful man you are in here." Charlotte placed a hand over his heart before pulling him into a hug. She could feel his ragged breath on her neck as he clung to her.
"I love you too." It was said so quietly, she almost missed the admission.
She held him close, willing her strength to him. Finally, Ezra separated himself from her. She reached up and brushed a wayward curl from his forehead. He barely acknowledged the gesture.
"Are you ready to hear all about what it means to be an Immortal?" she asked.
He raised a hand to his temple. "This buzzing behind my eyes. It feels like it's coming from you, but I don't feel it from Maude any more."
"I like to think of that as an early warning signal," she said lightheartedly, trying to draw him out of his melancholia. "Now that you're Immortal, you'll always sense when I'm around."
Ezra met her eyes and there was finally a hint of a smile. The first since he'd awoken. "I like that idea. Always knowing when you're around."
Charlotte smiled and felt her heart lift a little. She hated having to share the rest of the story just as he seemed to be coming back to himself. "But it is also a warning. Not all Immortals are friendly and it's a way of protecting ourselves."
Ezra took her hand. "Immortality," he sighed, and Charlotte could sense he was still struggling with the concept. "So, this was the big secret you and Maude were keeping."
Charlotte nodded. "We guard the secret because most people wouldn't understand."
A surprised look crossed his face. "I would have understood."
She reached up to stroke his cheek. "I know, dearest, but I was trying to protect you." She was rewarded with a shy smile at the use of his childhood affection. "Realizing that you might become one of us someday, I wanted to spare you the details until you needed to know."
"I guess now I need to know."
Charlotte gathered her thoughts and plunged into the explanation of the Game and the rules that went along with it. She told him of the mythical prize, the need for secrecy and why he must become a better swordsman. Lastly, she told him that all Immortals were foundlings with no blood ties to anyone, and ultimately alone. Ezra sat patiently, without interruption, absorbing all she had to share. Charlotte watched him carefully trying to gauge how the things she was describing were affecting him.
"Those are the basics," she said as she finished, waiting for him to begin asking the torrent of questions she could see in his eyes.
Ezra was silent as he picked through the information. "Tell me about you; who you really are."
Charlotte was surprised that this was the information he wanted first, but she shouldn't have been. Everything had changed and he needed to set their relationship back on an even keel. Hearing her history would allow him to really know her again.
"Well, I was born Charlotte Black in 1739 and I died in 1767 at the age of 28," she began.
"I'm twenty-eight. It seems we are the same age," he smiled at that revelation and she could see that the connection pleased him.
She laughed. "Not exactly. I'm one hundred and twenty seven but I look twenty eight."
"And you will always look twenty-eight?"
She nodded. "I must admit I was surprised you never noticed that Maude and I hadn't aged."
He studied her as if really seeing her for the first time. "I guess I believed you looked so young and beautiful because somehow I always wanted you to be that way."
Charlotte smiled and bumped shoulders with him. "Flatterer. You're as bad as Buck." She could feel their camaraderie returning and it gave her hope that their relationship would not change.
"I'm sure Mr. Wilmington would have said something even more appropriate," he teased. "He's a professional." Ezra stilled but there were signs of distress returning to his eyes. "The others, what can I tell them? Will this change everything?"
"It doesn't have to. They don't know what happened here. Even JD was too far away to have heard the shots. What you do with your Immortal life is your choice," she assured him.
"I don't know what I want to do yet," he admitted. Charlotte was relieved to see the panic fade away as quickly as it had appeared. He was master of his own destiny, even if he didn't know what that destiny was. Charlotte knew he'd never felt he had the power to choose.
"Do you want me to continue with my history?" she asked. "I haven't gotten very far."
Ezra opened his mouth to encourage her to continue, then stopped and glanced at Maude. "Why? Why did you spend all those years catering to her demands and pretending she was your cousin?"
This was the one question she had asked herself again and again over the years. After today, she would carry the guilt of her friendship with Maude, and the choices she'd made, because of what the woman had done to Ezra.
"I was her teacher, as I hope to be yours," she said. "You must understand that the relationship between mentor and student is one of the most profound we as Immortals have. There is trust at the highest level. Trust that the other won't take your head, especially during the vulnerable months of training. It creates a bond as strong as any family."
"And you thought of her that way?"
"Yes. Maude had her faults, but like any black sheep you always hope that you will be the one to bring them back into the fold. I felt a sense of responsibility for Maude. I was wrong and you paid the price." There it was: her failings as a teacher and mentor laid open for Ezra to see.
Ezra looked at her, no blame in his eyes. "What Maude did to me was not your fault."
"I left you alone with her. Not just today, but too many times."
"And do you honestly believe that Maude and I would have never been alone the rest of my life?" Ezra asked. "No, dear cousin, this was always her plan and she would have found a way to fulfill it. Truthfully, I am glad it happened with you present. I would have hated to have been at her mercy when I awoke."
"Cousin?" Charlotte smiled.
"That has not changed." The matter-of-fact way he said it warmed her heart.
The logic of his words should have assuaged some of her guilt, but that would take time. "I am glad that I was here for you too," Charlotte said. "But I can not forgive myself for -- "
"I forgive you," Ezra said simply as he held her hands. "Whatever wrong you think you've done to me, I forgive you."
Charlotte was about to protest when she sensed Maude's revival. "Your mother's waking up."
Ezra's eyes grew cold. "Don't call her that."
Charlotte nodded. "Whatever decisions you make with regard to Maude, I will support. I hope you'll stay, but if you want to go-- "
"Go?" Ezra snorted. "You think I would actually go anywhere with her ever again?"
Smiling, Charlotte knew in that instant that all of Maude's plans had failed. She'd raised Ezra poorly, not thinking of the consequences of her inattention. Maude had turned him Immortal, and only succeeded in turning him from her completely. Charlotte felt some satisfaction as she anticipated what was to come and the emotional pain it would cause her student. It was heartless, she knew, but nothing less than Maude deserved.
Fascinated, Ezra watched as Maude sat up. "I don't think I actually believed it until this moment," he said quietly.
Grumbling about the pain bullets cause, Maude proceeded to refasten her bodice and moved to sit on the hay bale next to Ezra.
"I hope you are convinced," she said, smiling when she noticed them watching her. "Because I really dislike that particular demonstration."
"He is," Charlotte replied.
"Good," Maude said as she laid a hand on Ezra's. "Then you understand this gift I've given you."
Ezra lifted her hand and set it back on her own thigh. "Gift?" He was incredulous. "That's what you think this is?"
Maude looked confused by his coldness. "Charlotte, you said you were going to explain everything."
Charlotte chuckled. "I did, but I warned you he wouldn't see it the same way you do."
"Ezra, surely you see the advantages of Immortality in our line of work. There are so many cons that we can play. We can fake our deaths to great benefit for blackmail and--"
Ezra put up a hand. "No," he said simply.
"It's obvious you don't understand. With two of us it is much easier to play the death con because the other is there for protection," she explained. "When you see it in action you will understand. I have the system all ready to go, I've just been waiting for you to join me."
Charlotte had to stop herself from laughing as Maude misinterpreted his resistance.
"That's what this is about? You tolerated me for all these years so you could improve your ability to swindle people?"
"You don't have to be so crude about it, but now that you're Immortal we can do so much more!" Maude was getting excited. She stood and began pacing as she laid out their future together. "We need to go back to town and get your things. Once we are away from here, I'll teach you the new act. I think Chicago would be an excellent starting place. You always enjoyed it there." She stopped pacing to look at Ezra. "Unless you prefer San Francisco?"
Ezra stood slowly and came to stand in front of Maude. He took her hands gently as he met her gaze. At his kind gesture, triumph lit up Maude's face. "Mother, and I use the term for the last time, I will not go anywhere with you, I will never be your partner again and I most certainly hope you go to hell."
Maude looked liked she'd been slapped. Ezra flung her hands away from him and headed for the door. Charlotte threw Maude an "I told you so" look as she followed.
Ezra paused outside the barn to finally button his shirt and vest. He studied the blood and the hole in his garments as he put himself back together. His mother had killed him. Ezra knew it would be a long time before he'd be able to forgive her for all she'd put him through.
He felt Charlotte standing behind him. "Are you all right?" she asked.
He chuckled at the absurdity of the question. Today he'd learned he was adopted, had died and then been reborn as an Immortal. And in addition to all that, he'd severed ties with Maude. He thought about these events and realized he was fine, in fact, better than fine.
Ezra turned and sent her a huge smile. "I feel liberated. I'm well and truly over the shock. Ironic that it took dying to finally know that I have the ability to take control of my own life."
Charlotte returned his smile. "Oh, Ezra, you can't know how happy it makes me to hear you say that." She walked over to embrace him.
As he held onto Charlotte, it all became clear. He knew without a doubt what he wanted. He'd never been more sure of anything. Was it his Immortality that made him feel this confident in his own opinion? Did it matter?
He broke their embrace and smiled down at the wonderful woman who was the true mother of his heart. He felt such joy that she was in his life.
"Charlotte, I want to stay here. Immortal or not, this is where I belong. Near you and the children and working along side my friends. My friends,," he repeated the phrase, savoring the words.
He looked past Charlotte when Maude stormed out of the barn.
"Ezra, you are being ridiculous," she insisted as she walked toward them. "Charlotte has obviously misrepresented the benefits of Immortality!"
He put himself in front of his cousin. "Charlotte explained everything perfectly and I meant every word."
Ezra glared at her and Maude flinched. He smiled to himself as he thought it might rival one of Mr. Larabee's because Maude was certainly backing down.
"We need to talk," she said, congenially.
"No, Maude, we don't. You need to get in the wagon and when we get to the house, JD will take you back to town. You will then get on the stage and leave this territory."
"But you're Immortal now, everything has changed. You need me." There was desperation in her voice which caused it to slip into a whine. This kind of anxiety was something he'd never seen in his mother before.
Ezra laughed without humor. "For the first time in my life I don't need you. When I was a child, Charlotte bowed to what you wanted and I have always done everything you asked without question. Now you will do what I want, and I want you to leave."
"You are sending me away?" The whine was becoming more pronounced. Ezra realized Maude wasn't used to losing to him or to Charlotte and no longer knew how to play the scene to win.
"Yes I am. Not a pleasant feeling to be sent away, is it? Well, you did that to me my whole life. You did a selfish thing when you claimed me as your son and then again today you took away my mortality. You have to live with the consequences."
"It wasn't selfish. It was for you."
Ezra shook his head in exasperation and looked at Charlotte.
"She won't ever understand," his cousin confirmed. "Don't even try to explain. Go up to the house. I'll get her in the wagon."
He reached out to squeeze Charlotte's hand. "Thank you."
"Ezra, don't so this." Maude pleaded.
"Goodbye, Maude. If I see you again before the turn of the century, it will be too soon." Without a backward glance he mounted Chaucer and rode away. Maude had always worried that he'd pick Charlotte over her, but the truth was he was picking himself. For the first time he was going to do what he wanted, and he'd never been so happy in his life.
+ + + + + + +
Ezra opened the door to the house looking for JD. He found him encircled by the Black clan and in the midst of telling one of his horrible jokes. As JD finished the punch line, the younger children roared with laughter.
"It seems you have finally found an audience who appreciates your sense of humor," Ezra said drawing their attention to him.
"Told you they were funny," JD said, a huge smile of satisfaction on his face.
"It seems we all underestimated you outstanding comedic abilities," Ezra snickered. JD beamed at the praise, missing the sarcasm as Ezra knew he would. "JD, I have a favor to ask of you."
"Sure, Ezra, whatcha need?" The young gunslinger rose from the settee and crossed the living room to stand in front of the gambler waiting for his assignment.
"Would you please escort my mother back to town and make sure she is on tomorrow's stage?"
Confusion crossed JD face. "Don't you want to do that yourself? Say goodbye and all."
Ezra shook his head. "Charlotte needs me here and mother understands. I will return to town in a few days. Please inform Mr. Larabee of my extended absence."
"Okay," JD agreed, unsure of why Ezra wasn't doing this himself but obviously pleased to be given the responsibility. "I'll take care of her."
Ezra stilled and raised a hand to massage his temple as the buzzing hit him. Smiling, he understood that the sensation indicated that Charlotte was near. He had not lied in the barn, being able to feel his cousin at a distance comforted him immensely.
"You feeling all right?" JD asked noticing his reticence.
"I am fine. I simply heard the arrival of the wagon," Ezra explained as he ushered the younger man toward the door, followed closely by the children.
Charlotte was already out of the wagon and halfway up the steps by the time Ezra and the others exited the house. She had a look of supreme satisfaction on her face as she met his gaze.
"JD has agreed to take mother back to town," he confirmed her unasked question. Ezra then turned his attention to Maude.
He was jolted by the look of pure defeat he saw on her face. He had a moment of regret for his harsh words at the barn before the memory of all that had happened today overrode his programmed response to please his mother.
Playing the dutiful son, he walked over to the wagon to say his goodbyes. He held out a hand and assisted her as she climbed down. Maude searched his face for absolution, sighing as she realized there was none to be found.
Putting on her best mask, Maude assumed her part in this play for those watching. "Goodbye, my darling boy," she said as she leaned in to kiss him on the cheek.
Ezra congratulated himself on not flinching at the contact. "Take care of your self, Mother."
"I always do." Maude then made her farewells to Charlotte and the children before Ezra assisted her back into the wagon. She sent him one final imploring look which he rebuffed. She nodded and sat resignedly waiting for JD to take her away.
Ezra smiled as he turned his attention to JD and Jemma who were also saying goodbye. He still hadn't had that talk with JD, but watching his gentle manner with his cousin he doubted there would be a need for it.
He returned to the porch. Standing next to Charlotte, her hand grasping his in a sign of solidarity, Ezra searched for feelings of regret or loss as he watched the wagon disappear over the horizon. There were none. He was finally free of Maude and all he felt was contentment.
He squeezed Charlotte's hand. "Any trouble after I left?"
"I finally made her see that what she'd done was wrong and," she smirked, "it didn't hurt that I was still holding my sword."
Ezra looked stunned as he realized what must have transpired. "You threatened to - " He made a slashing motion across his throat to simulate decapitation.
"I'm quite good, I'll have you know. Maude would be no match for me," Charlotte laughed. "And you'd be surprised how effective that particular threat can be."
This was a whole new side to his cousin, one that he would be getting to know very soon. "I have no doubt. She certainly was no match for you today."
"In her own way she really does care for you."
Ezra shook his head. "I'm not sure that I will ever believe that," he sighed.
"I've known her for almost fifty years and I may never understand the woman," Charlotte said sympathetically. "But I convinced her to disappear for a few decades and try again after the turn of the century."
Ezra laughed. "Profound advice, dear cousin. Let us hope she takes it."
One Month Later
The gunfire fell away as the last of the bandits were subdued. As Ezra kept his gun trained on one of the miscreants, he reached inside his coat to hold himself upright. Even though he was Immortal now, the bullet wound still hurt like hell. He could sense it healing. He just had to keep still and away from Nathan long enough for it to finish.
Suddenly he was spun around to face a very irate man in black. "What the hell were you thinking?"
"To which thought were you referring, Chris?"
The gunslinger glared at him and Ezra enjoyed the moment. He shouldn't ramp the man up so much, but it had become a bit of game between them and he suspected there was a part of Chris that enjoyed it when they butted heads as well.
"You know damn well," he said. "Running into the street like that, making yourself a target."
"I was simply preventing that man," he gestured to the criminal that Vin was now leading away, "from shooting JD. If I hadn't acted, our young compatriot might have been irreparably harmed." It had been a reckless act, and the wound he suffered might have killed any other man, but he didn't have that problem any more. In fact, he felt a great deal of satisfaction for his ability to take a bullet for his friends and keep them from harm.
"Yeah, Chris, he saved my life," JD said as he approached. "Thanks, Ezra. That was too close." The young lawman slapped the gambler companionably on the shoulder.
Ezra tried not to wince from the friendly contact. "My pleasure, JD," he said.
"It was still stupid. We don't need to be trading one man for another." Implied in the gunslinger's tone was that Ezra was just as important as JD. It still surprised the gambler when he recognized such sentiments being directed at him.
Chris studied him. "You're hurt."
"I assure you, Chris, I am fine."
"Then why are you standing funny?"
Ezra cursed to himself as he realized that he was unconsciously favoring his side, supporting the wound. "You are mistaken."
Chris ignored his protests as he spotted their healer. "Nathan. Get over here, Ezra's hurt."
Nathan jogged over and took in the way Ezra was holding himself. "Foolish man. Wonder you ain't got yourself killed pulling a crazy stunt like that. Now let me see."
Ezra waved him off. "I have no need of your attentions, Nathan."
He backed away from the healer and bumped into Buck and Josiah who each laid a hand on one of his shoulders preventing his escape. They had obviously finished installing the remaining outlaws in the jail and had joined the group to see what all the fuss was about.
With his free hand, Buck reached over to JD, flipped the bowler hat to the ground and ruffled his hair. "You ok, kid?"
"Cut that out, Buck," JD groused as he bent away from Buck to retrieve his hat. "I'm fine thanks to Ezra."
Buck gave the gambler's shoulder he was holding a squeeze. "You done good, Ezra."
"Thank you and please release me, Buck."
"Can't do that," Josiah said "Let Nathan do his job, son."
Ezra deflected once again, now that he sensed that the wound was fully healed. "Do you gentlemen seriously believe that if I was bleeding from a shot to the gut that I would resist Nathan's ministrations?"
"He's got a point," Buck said as he loosened his grip on Ezra's shoulder.
"You sure you're not hurt?" the healer asked.
"I am sorry to disappoint you, Nathan, but I assure you I am unharmed."
"Yeah, big disappointment because you are such a cooperative patient," Nathan teased.
This evoked a round of laughter from those gathered.
"If your bedside manner were to improve, I would have fewer qualms about allowing myself to catch bullets with my body," Ezra responded with a laugh. "As for today, my garments are the only things wounded because of the gunplay."
Ezra stuck a finger through the hole in his red jacket, careful to not reveal any of the blood on his vest. "I am dismayed at how often I must repair this type of damage," he groused dramatically.
Buck looked down at the location of the hole and whistled. "You are one lucky son of a bitch."
His performance seemed to put to rest any thoughts that he was injured. He noticed the relief in the faces of his friends and he was profoundly touched by their concern. With each passing day, he was growing more comfortable with the idea that these men cared about him. Immortality, instead of separating him from his mortal friends, had somehow given him the courage to get closer to them.
"It was a calculated risk, Buck. Luck had nothing to do with it." Ezra said. "Now if you'll excuse me?"
"Where the hell do you think you're going?" Chris said, the twinkle in his eye at odds with the sternness of his words.
"To the saloon for a drink," Ezra explained, confused by Chris' demeanor.
"Don't think so, pard," Vin said. Ezra hadn't noticed when their seventh member had joined the group. The man moved like a ghost.
The tracker had a smirk on his face that Ezra recognized and returned. "Of course, how could I have forgotten? We are all invited for supper at my cousin's.
"And we're late," Chris said as he gestured for the men to head toward the livery. "Let's get a move on. Don't want her worrying about us."
"But what of our prisoners, surely one of us must stay and watch over them?"
Ezra had to restrain himself from laughing at the stricken looks that passed between his friends at his suggestion. None of them wanted to miss a meal at Charlotte's.
"I'll ask some of the livery boys to keep an eye on them. Shouldn't be no trouble," JD offered.
"Good idea, kid," Buck said.
The others tossed in their approval of the plan as the seven headed down the street.
"What kind of pie you think she made this time?" Vin asked.
Ezra chuckled. "Now, Vin, does it really matter?"
"Hey, Ezra," JD called as he came to walk beside the southerner. "I just noticed something."
"And what miraculous observation has captured your attention, JD?"
"You don't call nobody by their last names anymore. How come?"
Ezra stared at the young man as he thought back over his conversations from the past few days. It was true and the reason made him smile. "One should always address ones friends with familiarity," Ezra explained.
Chris looked over his shoulder and grinned. "About damn time."
Follow-up story: The Truth is Immortal