The Fifth

by KellyA

Webmaster Note: This fic was previously posted on another website and was moved to blackraptor in June of 2004.

Part 1

The bright autumn daylight was failing, cloaking the small town of Four Corners in its dying amber light.  The nip in the air forewarning that winter was in the not too distant future.  The town was still full of activity; women hurried to finish last minute shopping, while men sought the liquid warmth and camaraderie of the town saloon.

The gray silhouette of the slowly forming church sat like an aged sentry at the end of the wide main street.  An orange glow emitted from the low windows.  One of the stained glass windows winked as a huge shadow passed behind it.  Josiah moved effortlessly and surely through the dimly lit church scrutinizing the last few hours of work, seeing the imperfections and accomplishments.  He stepped up to an unfinished pew, running an educated hand over the top, feeling the rough wood beneath his callused, yet sensitive fingers.  Josiah leaned into the plane and started to hum in tune with the rhythmic motion of his arm, as he meticulously smoothed out the rough edges.  The former preacher was almost finished with yet another piece of the Lord's house, bringing him peace and anchoring his weary soul.  He listened to the wind outside, rattling the loosely fitted windows and skittering leaves against the side of the building.  His thoughts drifted through the hollows of his mind, examining and dissecting the many aspects and paths of his long life.  His wondering mind enviably went to the six men he now found himself inexplicably attached to.  He had travel many roads in this life time, not proud of some of the paths he had taken, but uniting with the six stalwart men was one path he was deeply thankful for traveling.

Josiah straightened, placing his hands in the center of his back, trying to work out the constricted and tortured muscles.  He was eager to finish his work and join his cohorts in the saloon.  He turned as the huge double doors opened.  A dark figure stepped in behind the rush of cold air that chased out the heavy scent of kerosene.

Sanchez instinctively checked where he had laid his gun.  It was unusual for anyone to come into the church at this late hour; hell, it was unusual for anyone to be coming in at any time.  Josiah normally wasn't sought out as a preacher.

"May I help you, brother?"  Josiah quietly asked, squinting to try and get a look at the person standing within the doorway. 

The figured remained silent for a moment, feeling the cold autumn air cut through the back of his clothing and the warmth of the church on his front.  The figured reached up and scratched behind his ear.

"Are you Josiah Sanchez?"  The gruff, strangely familiar southern accent caused Josiah's eyes to widen and his heart to race.

"Who's askin'?"  Josiah asked as he dusted his hands off on his pants.

The figure took a couple steps forward, entering the small circle of light that a nearby lamp offered.  Josiah looked upon an elderly man of medium height, dressed in a long, dark wool robe.   A shiny gold cross was suspended from around his neck by a gold chain.  What really caught the huge gunslinger's attention were the vivid green eyes that gleamed

back at him. 

The man stood silently for a moment and stared at the huge gunslinger standing before him.

"I am Byron Standish, and I wish to know why you have been asking about me?"  The man exuded an arrogance that filled the church and was uncommon in a man of the cloth.

Sanchez stood dumbfounded for a moment, not sure he had heard correctly.  He stepped back bumping up against one of the pews. 

The reverend stood solemnly, hands clasped in front of him.

The bedeviled gunslinger pulled himself out of his astonishment, trying to hold back the grin that desperately wanted to appear but that felt inappropriate for the situation.  Ezra had told him about his father when he was trapped in a bear trap and in danger of freezing to death in the river.  Josiah had promised himself that he would do everything possible to find Ezra's father.  It had been four months since Josiah had sent a telegram to try and locate Ezra's wayward father.  He had all but given up hope of succeeding.  Now, here he was standing before him-and a preacher no less! Lord, he loved life's ironies.

"You're Byron Standish?" The disbelief resounding in his baritone voice.

"I believe I just said that."  Came the sarcastic reply that only reinforced the truth that this was truly Ezra's long lost father.

"You're a preacher?"  Josiah caught the perturbed look.

"A reverend, I have a small church just outside of Kansas City."

"I'm sorry.  I meant no disrespect," Josiah replied.  "You're just not what I expected."

Byron Standish glared at Josiah, not amused.  "Really, and just what or who were you expecting?" The southern reverend asked.  He had come a long way to discover who had inquired about him.  At first, he ignored the wire, but then his curiosity got the best of him.  And when he found out that it was someone from out west, well, his old wanderlust took over.

Josiah shook his astonishment aside and stepped forward.  "Nothing.  I mean...I didn't know what I was expecting."  Josiah paused a moment to gather his scattered thoughts.  "You may want to sit down, I have something to tell you."

Byron continued to stand and stare at Josiah.  He couldn't imagine what this mountain of a man, in such a backwater town, could possibly have to say to him.  Josiah shifted his stance and cleared his throat, seeing that the reverend was impatiently waiting for him to explain himself.

"I've been looking for you for a friend of mine...Ezra Standish."

Byron's green eyes narrowed and his lips pursed as he met Josiah's blue-gray gaze.  The reverend broke his gaze and allowed it to travel down to the hard wood floors that were covered in sawdust. 

Josiah was surprised at the reverend's reaction to his son's name and started to wonder if he even had the right man.   Byron Standish seemed to be contemplating something as he continued to stare down at the floor.  Josiah wasn't sure what he expected.  How would he have reacted if he were informed about a son he hadn't seen in over twenty years?

Byron's gaze came back up, partnered now with an unpleasant smile.  "You searched me out to tell me that?"

Josiah stood stunned for a moment and ran a hand down his bearded face.  "I don't think I understand.  Aren't you Ezra's father?"

"Oh, I'm his father alright."  Byron turned and prepared to walk out of the church. 

"Aren't you even curious about your own son?" Josiah asked, his bewilderment rising a degree.   He was a little put off by this man's aggravated attitude.  He certainly wasn't like any man of the cloth he'd ever met, but then Josiah had been told the exact same thing many times in his life.

The reverend glared at Josiah, his right hand clutching the polished  cross.  Byron scanned the small house of worship.   The pastoral building reminded him of past parishes.  He found it hard to believe that his son would have any connection to a man of God.  "Are you a preacher?" 

"Once," Josiah replied, taken slightly off guard by the question.

"And now?" 

Josiah grinned.  "Sometimes I'm as far from God as a person can get, and others I'm right in his hip pocket."

"Sir, I know all about my son," Byron brusquely answered, not appreciating the blasphemous attitude of the huge man before him.  He calmly smoothed out his robes and cleared his throat. "I suppose since I came all this way the least I can do is give you your family reunion."  Byron paused. "I'll find him at the saloon I gather?"

Josiah's mouth fell open. 

"Yeah," Josiah softly replied as Byron turned and walked out the door.

Josiah stood motionless for a second trying to gather his wits about him and then chased after the reverend.

Part 2

Josiah caught up with Byron Standish as he stood just inside the saloon.  It was the middle of the week but there was still a substantial crowd. The reverend headed directly for Ezra's table, not even waiting for Josiah to point him out.  His determined strides restricted by his long robe.

Sanchez noticed that Chris and Vin sat at the cardsharp's table, allowing their southern friend the privilege of taking their money.

Chris's eyes narrowed as the stranger, who was obviously a preacher of some kind, and Josiah came up behind Ezra.  There was something very familiar about the robed figure and the look in Josiah's eyes was very unsettling. 

Buck nudged JD as Byron strode pass their table; their eyes followed him and Josiah across the floor and up to Ezra's table.  

Ezra finished raking in his winnings and didn't notice the growing quiet of the saloon, until he felt the presence of the men behind him.  He looked across the table to see Chris and Vin's curious gazes directed over his shoulder.

"I see your mother succeeded in corrupting you and turning you into a good 'fer nothing gambler after all."

The familiar southern voice rose up from behind him, reaching inside and pulling out a flood of long buried memories.  Ezra dropped the winnings he held and jumped to his feet.  Spinning around his green eyes flashed wildly, and his breath caught in his throat.  He stared at the man in front of him.  The face was older.  The once chiseled features were lost under the hard years of life, but it was still the same face he remembered.  The same emerald eyes that comforted him after a bad dream, now flashed with condemnation.

Chris eased back in his seat, placing his elbows on the armrests and steepling his fingers in front of his face.  He glanced over at Vin who was also intent on the scene being played out in front of them.

Ezra didn't know what to do; here was a man he hadn't seen in twenty-five years, who he had believed dead, now condemning him.  He tried to replace the shocked expression with a more passive facade.

"Oh, don't even try that with me, boy," Byron scoffed. "I was master of the poker face long before you were even born."

"Who?"  Ezra whispered, already knowing the answer, but wanting to hear it.  He stepped back bumping into the table and only Chris and Vin's sudden weight kept the poker table from flipping over.

Chris never thought he'd live to see the day when Standish's indomitable mask of self-control and neutrality shattered into so many tiny pieces right before his eyes.

"Yes, I'm your father," Byron announced in a scathing tone, crossing his arms over his chest.  "Not that I'm proud of the fact.  Father to a cheat and liar."

Chris didn't know who was more shocked, Ezra, or everyone else in the saloon.

Buck, who had been using his feet to rock his seat back and forth, set the chair down with a loud clunk that reverberated across the now silent saloon.  Chris flashed an icy glare in his direction and Buck shrugged in an apology.

Ezra's green eyes scanned the saloon glancing at the other patrons.  It was as if the room had become a still life, faces locked in expressions of surprise and disbelief.  His hands gripped the edge of the table, trying to hold onto any sense of reality, his cool facade slipping once more.  He lowered his head and took a deep breath in an attempt to recoup. 

"How, how did you find me?"  Was the soft spoken question that came out as Ezra raised his head.

"Oh, that was easy, I just looked for the nearest saloon."  Byron scanned the room.  "Don't see your mother.  Is she busy with one of her get rich schemes?  Taking some poor soul's money and breaking his heart as an added bonus."

Ezra's fists clenched.  How dare this man malign his mother.  "I mean how did you find out I was in this town?"

"Your friend," Byron glanced over at Josiah.  "Mr. Sanchez felt the need to reunite us."

Ezra straightened his jacket and then began to make his way toward the door.  He was growing uncomfortable with all the attention directed toward him.

"That's right run away, just like your mother," Byron called out.

Ezra's measured steps stopped as he reached the doors.  His face showing none of the emotions that were threatening to overwhelm him.

Josiah noticed the stares from the other patrons and decided this was not the place for a father and son reunion.  He stepped between Byron and Ezra.  "How 'bout we take this somewhere else?"  Josiah suggested looking over his shoulder at Ezra who remained at the door.

Byron nodded his head in acceptance.  He didn't wanted to air family matters in front of a bunch of strangers.  "I don't guess the church would be an appropriate venue for you?" Byron said with the slightest hint of a smile in his smooth voice.

Ezra's shoulders tightened within his red jacket.  With his indomitable mask in place he slowly turned.  "The church will be adequate."

"Mr. Sanchez, since you are responsible for this maybe you should join us," Byron suggested.

"Yes, I believe Mr. Sanchez should join us," Ezra added, his voice carrying a distinct note of displeasure and betrayal.  Josiah's gaze dropped away at his friend's accusing stare.  Ezra abruptly turned and pushed past the swinging doors.

Byron smiled and nodded graciously at Chris and Vin, although the smile never reached his eyes. 

Part 3

Buck, JD and Nathan joined Chris and Vin at the table as the three men left the saloon, heading for the church.  The murmurs of the saloon customers rose in volume.  The five gunslingers could hear the insinuations and jokes being bandy about.

Vin regarded Nathan's self-satisfied grin.  "What'cha smilin' 'bout, Nate?" he asked.

Jackson shook his head and lowered his voice.  "Ezra's father... a man of God."  Nate chuckled.  "I can't believe it, maybe he can straighten Ezra out."  The healer could hardly contain the laughter that wanted to bubble out.  The irony was almost more than he could handle.

JD stared back at the healer.  He wasn't sure he understood.  He didn't think Ezra needed any straightening out, and he hadn't found the situation amusing.

"I don't know 'bout you all, but it didn't appear to me like Ezra's father was overjoyed to find his long lost son," Vin commented.

The five gunslingers regarded each other and Nathan's amusement dwindled as he realized that what Vin said was true.  There had been no joyful reunion between father and son, who hadn't seen each other in almost twenty-five years.  It was more like a reunion between two mortal enemies.

Part 4

Ezra entered the church and walked unwaveringly up the aisle his heart pounding like a team of horses.  He had stayed ahead of his father and Josiah, trying to think, but his mind was a mixture of past images and gray shadows that refused to coalesce.  When he reached the end of the aisle he turned, watching as Josiah and Byron entered the dimly lit house of worship.  Josiah slid down into one of the pews as Byron continued toward Ezra.

Byron Standish took in the ostentatious appearance of his son.  The bright red jacket; opened to reveal a brocade vest and crisp white shirt.  The smug attitude hung on Ezra like a badge of honor.  Byron had to smile; was he ever that brash?  No, he was more so.  The smile left Byron's face.  His son was but a pale imitation of him in his younger days and a disgrace now.  Lord, why hadn't he just left when Josiah told him the reason he had been searching for him?  Because deep down Byron hoped his son had not turned out like him, it hurt to be proven wrong.

"To what do I owe the pleasure of this much belated visit?"  Ezra finally managed to ask.

"Your friend thought I'd want to see what had become of my son,"

Byron answered, glancing back at Josiah who was trying to make himself disappear.  "Like I didn't already know what you had become:  A conman, gambler, cheat, coward.  Does that about cover it?"  There was no mistaking the animosity; Byron Standish was ashamed of his son.

Josiah couldn't believe the anger that the reverend was directing toward his friend.  He could see Ezra fighting to maintain control over his emotions against this onslaught of disgust. 

Ezra didn't understand what he could have done to warrant such verbal abuse from a man he hadn't seen in years and never believed he'd see again.

Byron rocked back and forth on his heels. "You built up quite a reputation back east.  I've heard all about your numerous escapades, and to tell you the truth I was sickened to know you were of my blood," Byron sneered.

Josiah dropped his head into his hands.  What had he done? 

"You knew where I was.  Why didn't you ever inform me that you were alive?"  Ezra asked, trying to ignore the fact that his own father was maligning his whole existence in the span of a few moments.

"I guess you do deserve to know that much.  I was a conman, just like you when I met your mother.  I did whatever it took to make money.  My life was the game, and nothing else mattered but winning.  Destroying another's life meant nothing, and I could do it as easily as I could breathe without any regret.

Ezra stiffened at this confession.

Byron started slowly pacing up and down the narrow aisle.  His thoughts conjuring up a life he had long buried.  "Your mother and I were quite a team, although she wasn't quite as heartless as I was." 

The reverend stopped and stared up at one of the stained glass windows.  He wished the sun were out; he always loved the way sunshine gleamed through the designs.  "Your mother was very ambitious and ignored many of my more truculent stratagems.  I wanted everything that life could offer and more." 

Byron turned around and faced his son, seeing the practiced poker face firmly in place.  Byron chuckled softly and thought, 'he's exactly like me.'  Byron's face grew serious as he continued, "When you were born and I held you for the first time, something in me changed.  Nothing felt right.  What I had done all my life no longer held any meaning for me.  Your mother couldn't understand my miraculous transformation.  When I looked upon you, my heart grew and opened and I never pulled another con. Money and material wealth ceased to hold any meaning to me. I had given life to another human being.  I was granted the understanding of what life was really all about.  The Lord spoke to me and wanted me to go and spread his word.  To tell the world how a conman, an undeserving soul, had been saved."  Byron's eyes burned bright with purposefulness in the flickering lantern light.  Byron closed his eyes and tilted his head up slightly, his hand clasped firmly around the crucifix that hung from his neck.

Ezra grew uncomfortable as the quiet continued for several long seconds.   "I gather Mother was less than enamored with your soul-saving mission." Ezra stated, picturing his elegant mother traipsing through the wilderness and among the masses trying to save their mortal souls.  She was more apt to try and steal them.

Byron broke from his trance like state and replied, "I tried for years to persuade your mother to join me in my crusade.  I would do what I could to enlighten people in the same towns where your mother was swindling them.  She turned her back on God and eventually on me.  One night I told her I planned on taking you with me and we got into a terrible fight.  I had no choice but to leave.  I returned a few days later only to find you both had gone."

Ezra chewed at his bottom lip as he recalled that night his father had left.  His mother had been incensed.  Ezra remembered her angrily packing their bags, swearing that Byron had lost his mind and would rue the day that he ever deserted her.  Ezra, barely five, hadn't understood what was happening.  Every time he asked where his father was, Maude would reply that he'd join them later--Later never came.

"I tried for years to find you, but your mother was good at not being found," Byron explained.

Ezra couldn't recall the many towns him and his mother had traveled through, after awhile they had all looked the same.  Even as an adult, he always felt the need to keep moving.  Whether he was running from something or trying to find something he no longer knew.  "But you did find me eventually, didn't you?" Ezra charged.

"Fifteen years ago I was preaching in a small church just outside St Paul.  You and your mother came to town.  Of course, you never saw me since you never came near the church.  You both swindled several of my parishioners out of their hard-earned money.  I realized then that Maude had turned you into an amoral conman.  I had always hoped you were special that you would have been able to fight her influences, but I was wrong."  

"I was only a child," Ezra breathed, trying to control the churning emotions.  Did his father really believe he had a choice? "Mother was my only influence.  What did you expect?" 

The dejection that filled those words caused Josiah to raise watery eyes to the heartrending scene.  Ezra's suave demeanor was barely being held together.  Josiah could only imagine what his friend was feeling.  The words were like daggers, each one cutting into the very fiber of his soul, shredding it.  How could a father be so cruel?  Byron Standish knew nothing about his son, yet he was quick to condemn him on what he believed.

Byron either didn't notice or didn't care what effect his words were having on his son.  He continued unfazed,  "The day I saw you in St. Paul I prayed for your worthless soul, but I no longer considered you my son."

Ezra's fist slowly clenched and trembled; he felt numb.  He was a disappointment to a father he hardly knew.  His heart felt heavy and seemed to struggle to beat within his chest.  He knew he wasn't always the most honest of people, but he never considered himself so bad that his own father would reject him.  Moreover, the past few months had proved to Ezra, and others, that he wasn't as unscrupulous as everyone once believed.

Without saying another word or acknowledging his father's disparaging words, Ezra walked past his father and down the aisle toward the doors. 

Josiah's hand reached out and took hold of the gambler's arm.  He immediately released his hold when he looked up into Ezra's withering gaze.  Josiah stared back at Byron who bolstered a self-righteous smile on his face.  The man was actually proud of debasing his only son.

"What the hell was that all about?"  Josiah raged as soon as Ezra left, raising his large form out of the pew.

Byron frowned at the huge man's profanity within the walls of the church.  "My son is a conman, a swindler.  He takes pleasure out of other people's misery, even causes it.  Surely, you can not condone such behavior."

"That's not true," Josiah responded, his fervor dwindling.  He knew that once Ezra was a proficient conman, but was he ruthless?  "He's an honest gambler.  He doesn't cheat.  It's a job, it's not what he is--he's a good man." 

"Mr. Sanchez, you are a good friend with my son?"  Byron asked.

"Yes, I am," Josiah answered assuredly.

"So, I can't expect you, a defrocked priest, to be unbiased.  Maybe you see only what you want to see."  Byron paused. "And if my son is anything like I was, or like his mother, you see only what he wants you to see."

"You're wrong," Josiah softly replied, but Byron heard the doubt that lingered on his words.  The reverend smiled faintly.

"We'll see.  May I use your church for my prayers before I retire?"   Byron asked.

Josiah nodded then solemnly turned and walked away, leaving the man with his God.  Josiah looked over his shoulder before stepping out the door.  Byron stiffly dropped to his knees, wincing as his arthritic joints made contact with the hard wood floor.  How could a man of God work to save complete strangers but not be able to forgive his own son?

Part 5

Ezra slammed the door to his room with enough force to rattle the walls.  He sat on his bed and looked around the small room that he had called home for the past four months.  He felt detached from everything.  The container in his mind where he'd put all his memories of his father seemed to have sprung a leak.  Ezra had long since sealed those feelings away: Thinking about them hurt too much.  He didn't dare let anyone see him hurt.  However, the old emotions, including the deep-seated desire for approval were still there.  His hand shook as he pulled out his flask and took a long draw.  What was Josiah thinking?  Was he trying to hurt him?  No, Ezra knew that his friend had been only trying to help.

The fact that his father was a man of God was totally unexpected, although the Standish family did seem to have the charisma it took to be fine orators.  Ezra found it ironic, recalling a rather lucrative scam as a faux priest.  He had caught himself more than once contemplating the feasibility of becoming a man of the cloth, an absolute ridiculous notion.  Maybe he should just ride out.  Coward.  Ezra flopped back onto the bed staring up at the colorless ceiling.  He had fantasized time and time again what it would be like to meet his father, that his father would open his arms and hug him, telling him how much he missed him and how much he loved him.  Ezra closed his eyes; his last thought being that his dreams never did come true.

Part 6

Larabee stepped into the saloon to see five of his men gathered around two tables.  The quiet of the room disturbed him.  His men were not known for their placid behavior.    

Chris sat down across from Josiah who looked liked he and sleep were distant partners.  He stared at the partially eaten meals that sat in front of his men.  Josiah had told them a little of what had happened in the church last night.  They all found it hard to believe, but then they had only known Ezra for four months.  No one really had any idea what the gambler's life was like before.

"So what do we do, Josiah?"  Buck asked. 

They hadn't seen the suave southerner since last night, although it was only noon.  Buck feared that Ezra might decide to leave.  Damn! They still believed that when things got tough Ezra would run.

Josiah sighed.  "I don't know brother.  I thought I was doing something good in finding Ezra's father, but now."  Josiah shook his head.  "I don't know.  It seemed that Byron Standish took great pleasure out of condemning his son," Josiah sadly replied.

"We just need to give Ezra some time to accept the fact that his father is a God-fearing man, and for his father to accept that he's a conman," Nathan added, not hiding his self-satisfying grin.  He couldn't help it; this quirk of fate was just too good to believe.  It proved to him that Ezra could change if he wanted too.  "Maybe this is some divine omen," Nathan stated.

"I don't think so," Josiah replied.  He knew that Nathan was enjoying this; to actually see the normally arrogant cardsharp falter was something Nathan never thought he'd live to see.

"I don't know 'bout any divine omen but has anyone thought 'bout what this is doing to him.  I mean, he was just ridiculed in front of the whole town by his own father," Vin exclaimed.

Josiah furrowed his brow and even Nathan's grin faded.

The sound of a clearing throat brought everyone's attention to the bottom of the stairs where Ezra stood.  He glared at his friends, having overheard their conversation--they knew.  The thought flashed into his mind before he could stop it.  They knew he was a disgrace to his father.  He could see the pity in their eyes, except in Nathan's, whose dark eyes seemed to light up with mirth.  It almost caused him to turn and walk away.  They probably wondered how someone like him could even have a father.  Didn't they know that before Byron Standish's divine metamorphosis he was once the best conman and gambler east of the Mississippi?  Ezra went over to a corner table and sat, his stance informing the others he was not in the mood to discuss matters.

"Shouldn't we go over there and talk to him?" JD whispered.

Chris glanced over.  He could see the strong set in the gambler's jaw, and the somber attitude that enshrouded the man.  "Nope, he's armed."  Chris grabbed a biscuit off of Buck's plate and sat back in his chair.

"Well, I'm not just going to sit here."  JD made to stand up but his progress halted as Byron Standish pushed aside the doors and stood, contemplating whether to cross the threshold of Satan's abode. He nodded toward the gunslingers at the two far tables and allowed the doors to flap shut.

JD eased back down into his chair.  Maybe the elderly man was here to make amends with his son.

Ezra's stern gaze never faltered as the older man approached and sat down, clasping his hands on top the table. 

"I prayed for you last night," Byron started.  "I asked for guidance, and like a bolt from the sky I was given an answer.  You can atone for all your sins by joining me on my eternal quest."  The reverend grinned as if he had proclaimed some grand revelation that Ezra would be all too happy to embrace. 

"Join you?"  Ezra quizzed.  First, this man called him worthless; now, he was asking him to join him.

"Yes, I can save your soul, son."  Byron's eyes burned bright as he leaned back in his chair with a self-satisfied grin forming on his face.  "I'm your salvation.  This is why I was brought here."

The word "son" caused Ezra to cringe.  This man had no right to this paternal appellation.  "I have no desire to be saved.  Ask Mr. Sanchez or Mr. Jackson about their failed attempts at saving my godless soul."

Byron flinched and the smile dropped from his face.  "Do not mock me, boy," he growled under his breath.

Ezra leaned forward and lowered his voice. "Maybe I'm your deliverance," he threw back.  "You left me without a father, my mother without a husband.  We had to fend for ourselves the only way we knew how."

"I did what I had to do," Byron replied boldly.  "I could no longer live that life. I had to leave."

"No, you didn't," Ezra flatly accused.

Byron glared at his obstinate son and leaned back in his chair clasping the cross in his hand.  His gaze softened as he looked upon Ezra's proud countenance, seeing himself thirty years ago.  "We can travel this untamed territory and bring the word of God to the masses," Byron continued.

"I have a job," Ezra numbly replied.

"I've heard of the gunslingers who protect this town.  Although they live by the gun they are strong-willed and honest men."  He had talked to several of the town's folk and found that most were grateful to the gunslingers.  "You don't belong here."

Ezra stiffened.

"I know you. You're probably planning your next con as we speak.  You may have them fooled but not me," Byron conspiratorially said. "I remember what it was like.  I fight back that demon every day; it's my cross to bear."  Byron clasped Ezra's hand in his.  "Give up this life and your material possessions.  I can give you a better life, a life with meaning."

Ezra pulled his hand out of his father's grasp.  Emotions trampled each other for first place:  love, hate, and disbelief. "Give my life meaning you say.  You have this preconceived idea of what and who I am.  Now you want me to give up a life I've come to cherish to follow you.  My answer is no."

Byron's eyes narrowed. "I'm your father.  The commandment says honor your father and..."

"You are not my father!" Ezra yelled, slamming his hands upon the table.  "I haven't needed a father since I was five."  Ezra took a deep breath and ran his fingers through his hair.

"You're going to hell, boy!" Byron snarled.

Ezra eased back in his chair and allowed a faint smile to grace his face.  "Well, I certainly couldn't disappointed Mother, now could I?"

Byron stood up, flustered by the mocking remark.  He glanced up, half-expecting a bolt of lightening to strike down his son.  "You truly are a lost soul and one that the fires of hell will greatly enjoy."  He turned and strode out of the saloon.

Ezra bowed his head and allowed his shoulders to drop.  Josiah suddenly materialized beside him.  "Ezra, I'm so sorry.  I had no idea...I was only trying to help."  

Ezra looked up at the huge sorrowful man and slowly stood.  He sent his fist into the ex-preacher's face.  Josiah staggered back a couple steps and rubbed at his jaw as Ezra walked out of the saloon.

Josiah returned to the others, still rubbing his jaw.  He had a feeling that Ezra had held back on the punch but it still hurt.

Nathan shifted uneasily in his chair, feeling suddenly sorry for the wily cardsharp.  He had hoped that Ezra and his father would reunite, and that maybe Byron would have a good influence on him. 

"We need to talk to Ez," Vin stated.  "No tellin' what this is doing to him."

Vin looked at Nathan who bowed his head.  He then shifted his gaze toward Buck who only shrugged.

Chris's eyes narrowed. "I don't think we should interfere."

"Why not?" Vin asked.

"It's none of our concern," Chris flatly stated.  "This is between Ezra and his father.  I don't think he'd take kindly to our meddlin'."

Vin crossed his arms over his chest and glared at his friend.  When it came to Ezra, Chris had a tendency of letting him take care of his own problems.

"Well, I better get out on patrol," Buck stated, hoping to distract to the two men who were glaring at each other.  Buck shrugged and headed out the door. 

Part 7

Wilmington froze as he stepped into the livery, seeing Ezra saddling his own horse.  The gregarious cowboy was having a hard time feeling sorry for the educated gambler.  He would give anything to have at least one of his parents alive and well.

"What are you doing, Ez?"  Buck dryly asked coming up to the stall and resting his arms across the top.

"Going on patrol," Ezra absently replied, tightening his horse's cinch and grabbing the reins.

"It's not your shift."

Ezra stopped and faced the mustached cowboy, his eyes showing the sorrow that was threatening to drown him.  "I need to get away for awhile, Mr. Wilmington." 

Ezra clicked his tongue and started out of the livery.  Buck grabbed the gambler's arm and spun him around to face him once again.

"Do you realize that you're the only one of us who has a real family--a whole family? That makes you pretty damn lucky in my book.  I'd give anything to have my mother back, to know my father," Buck choked.

Ezra pulled his arm out of Buck's grasp.  "That's where we differ, Mr. Wilmington.  You and the others were loved and wanted by at least one member of your family.  I was wanted by neither of my parents, and I wish more than anything that I had been raised by wolves."

Ezra gazed back at the exasperated cowboy with his own mixture of aggravation and indignation.  Buck's irritation deflated as Ezra's eyes dropped and he led his horse out.  Buck wiped a hand down his face and swore, deciding to allow Ezra his solitude.  What harm could it do?  He would make himself scarce so that no one would ask any questions.  A smile broke out on Buck's rugged face.  He knew exactly where he could go.  The new barmaid had left him an open invitation to call on her anytime, now was as good as time as any.

Part 8

It was late when Ezra tiredly led his mount into the darkened stable and into his stall.  He stiffly removed the saddle and blanket.  "Sorry old friend, we're going to have to pass on that brushing tonight."  Ezra patted the horse on the neck.  Standish's heavy steps and slumped shoulders showed the extent of his fatigue.

Ezra stopped just outside the stable and looked up at the luminous moon, that airless satellite that constantly circled the earth like an eternal dance partner.   He had spent all day in the saddle barely seeing the scenery as memories shuffled for first place.  He had spent hours trying to find an answer; the only problem was he didn't know the question.

Ezra flinched as a soft Texas drawl came out from the shadows.

"Pulling double duty?"

"My apologies, Mr. Tanner, time got away from me," Ezra tiredly explained.  He didn't think anyone would have really cared that he was pulling extra shifts.

Vin had seen Buck sneaking into one of the barmaid's rooms and figured out that Ezra had taken his patrol.  The insightful tracker could understand the solitary cardsharp wanting time away to think, but when he failed to return after the shift Vin decided to wait. 

Tanner stepped off the boardwalk and leaned up against the stable wall.  Ezra raised weary green eyes.  "Mr. Tanner, I'm tired and wish to acquaint myself with my feathered bed in the near future."

The tracker's brow furrowed.  What was Ezra trying to prove? 

Vin stepped in front of his friend.  "Just been wonderin', if'n your father really thought of you as a disappointment, why'd he keep tabs on you for all these years?  It's just a thought," Vin said tipping his hat and walking away.

Part 9

Byron Standish stepped into the jailhouse to see the young sheriff seated behind the desk reading a book.  JD jumped up when he saw the reverend.

"Ah, hello Father, can I help you?"  JD didn't feel comfortable around the pious man, but he had been brought up to respect all men of God.

Byron smiled at JD's nervousness.  "You're not like the others."


"You're sort of young for a sheriff, aren't you?" Byron asked.

JD hitched his thumbs into his gun belt.  "No sir, not out here."

Byron stared into the young gunslinger's dark eyes.  "You haven't been hardened like the others.  They've seen too much evil," he sadly said.

"Well, er, that sort of comes with the territory," JD explained.

"Does your mother know what you do?"

JD's eyes lowered.  "She's gone."

Byron nodded knowingly.  "Still, would she be proud of what you are doing?"

JD took a moment to think then replied with certainty.  "Sirfather, I think she would."

Byron smiled.  "You're a good man, JD Dunne, don't let the evils of this world pull you down."  Bryon looked intently at JD.  Why couldn't his own son be more like this sensitive and naïve young man?

"No sir, I won't," JD promised.

Byron squeezed the young man's shoulder and left.  JD slowly resumed his chair and wondered what that had been about.

+ + + + + + +

"Father, hold up," Josiah yelled as he jogged across the street to meet up with Byron.

"Mr. Sanchez, what can I do for you?"

"We need to talk."

Byron nodded, and locking his hands behind his back, started walking down the boardwalk to make their conversation more private.  It was early in the afternoon and the streets were busy with people going about their business. 

"What is it we need to talk about?"  Byron asked.  He sensed that Josiah cared a lot for his son.

"I'm trying to understand how you can show such contempt for your only son?"  Josiah blatantly asked, knowing that would be the only way to get an answer from the narrow-minded reverend.  Josiah held back a smile; Byron was as good at the poker face as Ezra was.  He had hoped for some small reaction, but the reverend's face remained stoic.

"Mr. Sanchez, I have dedicated my life to helping lost souls, surely you can understand that."

"Yes, I can."

"If people were to learn that my own son was a conman what would that say about me?"

Josiah cocked a bushy eyebrow.  That was it.  The man was afraid of how he would be perceived having a conman as a son.

"If I can't turn my own son, what good am I at spreading the word of God?"

"Ezra is a good man. You would see that if you gave him half a chance," Josiah's voice rose with his anger.

Byron exhaled and came to a halt.  "I believe I've seen and heard enough through the years to know what Ezra Standish is really like.  I plan on returning to my congregation by the end of the week."

"You changed; don't you think your son could?"  Josiah asked.

"Are you so sure that he has, Mr. Sanchez?"

"How do you know he hasn't?"  Josiah countered.

"He's his mother's son."  Byron turned and walked away.

Part 10

The next morning found Ezra walking into the saloon.  He ignored Vin's disapproving stare and fell heavily into a chair. 

"He's taking everyone's patrol," Vin muttered to the men sitting across from him.

Chris's head snapped up, and he stared back at the tracker.  He then looked over at Ezra.  The gambler was still wearing the same clothes he had on yesterday.  Vin took a swig of his coffee.  "He took Buck, JD's and my patrol yesterday, and stayed out longer during his own," Vin explained.

"If'n he don't git some rest and food soon he's goin' to git sick,"

Nathan softly stated, having scrutinized the suave Southerner.  He didn't understand what was driving the gambler.  Why didn't he just try and understand what his father was trying to do for him?  What was so bad about a father trying to redeem his own son?

"Damn, I don't need this," Chris murmured as he pushed away from the table.  He didn't like to interfere in his men's lives, and especially Ezra's.  The gambler was highly protective of his privacy.  Nevertheless, Ezra's reckless behavior could be dangerous for them all, he didn't need a man who wasn't at a hundred percent.

Standish slowly raised his head at the sound of boot steps.  He expected Vin and was mildly surprised when he stared up into the perturbed blue eyes of Chris Larabee. 

"No more patrols.  Go get some sleep," Chris ordered.

"The others aren't complaining.  As long as a patrol is being maintained why should you be concerned?"

Chris leaned over and placed his hands, palms down, on the table.  He glared at the obstinate cardsharp.  Was Ezra serious?  Did he really think no one cared?  Chris let his head bow.  Damn, of course he did.  When Chris raised his head his eyes had softened, but his voice still carried the threat. "If you don't git some rest I'll throw you in jail."

"You wouldn't dare," Ezra growled.

Part 11

A moan echoed in his ears and the cot creaked as he rolled over. Ezra tried to open his eyes but the pain in his head was making it difficult.  He finally managed to open them only to be rewarded with the familiar gray walls of a jail cell.  Ezra groaned again and threw an arm across his eyes. 

"Ay, Ezra, it's about time you woke up we were getting worried,"

JD cheerfully announced from the other side of the bars, causing the gambler to wince in pain.  He really wished the young man would curtail his cheerfulness.

Ezra struggled to sit up, rubbing at his sore jaw.  Larabee packed quite a punch.  He gingerly felt the knot on the back of his head; apparently, no one was able to catch him in time.

"How long?" Ezra hoarsely asked.

The young sheriff pushed his hair back.  "You've been out fourteen hours.  Nathan came by earlier and checked on ya.  He said you were just exhausted."

Ezra didn't hide his shock, which was quickly replaced with dread as Josiah and Nathan entered the jail; a smile immediately came to the ex-preacher's long face.  He had been worried about the wily cardsharp.

"How you feelin', Ez?"  Nathan asked, eyeing the cardsharp critically.  He looked better after getting some sleep.

"Dreadful.  When am I to be released?"

"Chris says you can leave after you eat everything on your plate," Josiah replied, opening the cell and setting a plate of food down on the small table.  Ezra looked down at the food and his face scrunched up in disgust.  He looked up at Josiah's smiling visage.  "You sir, are enjoying this too much."

"Now, Ezra, we're just watchin' out fer ya," Josiah replied.

"Ez, you can't avoid your father forever," Nathan remarked.

"And why not?  It's what we both want."

"He's still your father," Josiah added.

Ezra couldn't hold back the short laugh.  "And what pray tell told you that, Mr. Sanchez? The love in his eyes, or maybe that heart rendering reunion we had."

Josiah flinched as if struck.  "You need to show him that you're not what he thinks you are."

"I don't have to do any such thing.  What my father chooses to believe about me is his prerogative," Ezra curtly replied then turned his attention to the plate of food he was being forced to eat.

Part 12

JD stepped out of the saloon and took a deep breath of the cool evening air.  Things had quieted down; both Ezra and his father chose to keep their distance, something that saddened the young gunslinger.  JD caught a glimpse of a solitary form leaning against the railing, the lit end of a cigar burning a beacon in the darkness.

JD stepped up alongside the pensive gambler.   

"Yes, Mr. Dunne, what can I do for you?"  The words were unadorned, his sarcastic humor and easygoing manner having deserted him.  He felt hollow inside.

JD didn't know what to say to his friend.  He knew Ezra was hurting.  Who wouldn't be if their father considered them a disappointment and worthless? "I don't know, just thought you might like some friendly company for a change."

Ezra smiled, letting his perpetual anger of late dwindle away.

"Standish," a gruff voice gave way to three men who stepped out of the darkness and into the diffused light emanating from the saloon.

Ezra straightened and tossed his cigar aside then stepped in front of JD.  "Yes, gentlemen, what can I do for you?"  He casually pulled back the corner of his jacket and laid a hand on his gun.  Ezra had played poker with these men earlier and they had been none too happy about losing.  He had left them enough to get out of town, and had hoped they would have done so.

"You cheated us," the taller of the three growled.

JD pulled back his own jacket hearing the danger in the man's voice.

"I did no such thing. It was a fair game. You even had the advantage of me not being at my best," Ezra explained, keeping his voice even.

"You smart ass sonofabitch!" The three men went to draw their weapons.

Ezra shot the man in front before the sore loser's gun cleared his holster.  The two other men fired, taking the opportunity their comrade's death offered.  Ezra dropped down to one knee and fired again.  He heard JD's twin Colts but didn't have time to check on the young lawman. 

The silence was abrupt, and Ezra could only hear his panting breaths as he tried to calm his racing heart.  The smoke and frenzy cleared but the night still shrouded the remnants of the gunfight.

"JD!"  Buck yelled from across the street as he came charging to his young friend's side.  Buck's frantic cries turned Ezra's attention to JD's unmoving form, which lay face down in the street.  Buck slid down next to him and slowly turned the young gunslinger over, cradling his friend's head.

Ezra stared at JD and his gut clenched in fear.  He winced as he pulled himself up using one of the saloon's supporting posts.  Ezra didn't even hear the others as they crowded around.

"Let me see, Buck!"  Nathan yelled trying to pull JD from the distraught cowboy's grasp.   Nathan checked the bullet wound in the young gunslinger's shoulder.

"What the hell happened?"  Chris barked out.  Even in the night, his glare sparked.  His deadly gaze alighted on the suave cardsharp who stood on the boardwalk, leaning up against a post.

"Isn't it obvious?" Byron blurted out, kneeling beside the prone sheriff.  "My son's godless ways got this boy shot!"

"What are you talking about?"  Vin asked. 

Byron pointed at the three dead men lying in the street; he had been next door talking with the widow Potter and had heard the conversation.  "Those men were gamblers," he stressed.  "They were cheated by my son and sought retribution." 

Byron turned his divine wrath and an accusatory finger toward his son.  "You are totally to blame for this young man being injured!"

Ezra's mouth fell open, but he didn't say a word.  What could he say? His father was right.

"See my son's true self, see what the devil has wrought," Byron preached.  "One whose own self preservation comes before anyone else." 

The words his father fired at him twisted in his gut and cut a furrow through his heart.  Ezra lifted jaded eyes to see his friends' gazes, which were already labeling him.  Seeing only a fancy dressed gambler, a man they weren't even sure they knew or trusted.   

"If that boy dies, let it be on your conscious forever!"

"Enough!" Chris shouted.  He knew the gambler's nightly activities, at times, caused minor problems, but was Ezra responsible for JD being hurt? "What happened?"  He turned his question to Ezra.

Ezra swallowed and licked his lips.  "Those gentlemen felt cheated and decided to dispense their own form of justice," Ezra explained.  "Mr. Dunne was just in the wrong place at the wrong time."

"You son of a bitch!"  Buck yelled as he charged violently toward the gambler. 

Josiah's huge hand lashed out and grabbed the enraged gunslinger.

"Now is not the time, Buck," Josiah pointed out in a low voice, warning the cowboy that he was prepared to enforce his subtle mandate.

Buck glared at the cardsharp over Josiah's shoulder then roughly pulled out of his grasp, turned and went back to JD's side.

"How is he?" Chris asked the healer.

"We need to get him up to my clinic so I can get the bullet out,"

Nathan hurriedly replied.  Buck gathered up his young friend and headed toward the clinic with Josiah at his side.

"Take care of him, Mr. Jackson," Ezra quietly spoke.  Nathan turned a moment to stare at the conman hidden within the shadows.  He then quickly followed Buck and Josiah.

Chris glared at the enigmatic gambler, swore and turned on his heel with Vin falling in alongside him.

Ezra stared at the three bodies cooling in the street.  He then shifted his gaze to the blood that had soaked into the dirt just in front of him--JD's blood.  His stomach churned and he had to swallow to keep the bile from rising in his throat.

"See what your impiety has wrought!" 

Ezra's head fell to his chest at his father's voice.

"You have endangered that boy's life with your need for material wealth and your egotistical comportment."

A look of unbridled disgust contorted Byron Standish's features.  He didn't see a son, he saw the devil incarnate.  "The demons of hell will feast on your eternal soul.  That boy's life is worth ten times what you'll ever amount too."

Byron's face turned red with rage and his eyes seemed to spark.  "You should never have been born!"  With this last damning statement Byron stormed away and disappeared into the darkness.

Ezra slowly holstered his gun and pushed off from the post.  His legs felt weak as he turned and strode through the bat-wing doors to enter the saloon.  The light from the saloon washed out over the boardwalk and up the supporting post, revealing a partial bloody handprint.

Part 13

Standish walked numbly past the other patrons who glared at him with accusing eyes.  Wonderful, everyone was playing judge and jury, he thought as he crossed the room, making his way toward the stairs.  His foot slipped off the first step bringing a grimace of pain to his face.  He had his jacket wrapped tightly around his slim frame.  Ezra took a deep breath and continued on the stairs toward his room.

Ezra made it to his room, gasping at the pain that stabbed through his side.  He shrugged out of his jacket and looked down at the growing red stain, another shirt ruined.  He grabbed a fresh shirt out of his drawer and stuffed it inside, applying pressure to the bleeding wound.  Ezra sucked in his breath and fought back the darkness that was slowly trying to snatch him away.   He stood and reached out, grabbing the nearby dresser for support.  His vision blurred, and he realized that he was in a lot worse shape then he first believed.  He considered going to Nathan, but the image of JD lying motionless and bleeding on the ground flashed before him.  No, JD needed Nathan.  Ezra fumbled with the carafe and tumbler and managed to pour himself a glass of water.  He drank the liquid and staggered backward a couple steps, dropping the glass where it crashed on the floor.  Ezra reeled back another step bumping into the bed where he collapsed, blood slowly oozing out over his coverlet.

Part 14         

Buck kicked in the clinic door and laid the unconscious easterner down on the cot.  Nathan went over to a basin and quickly washed his hands as Josiah removed JD's clothing.  The young man moaned and his head lolled to the side.

"Easy, JD," Buck soothed, laying a hand on his young friend's cheek. 

JD's eyes fluttered open, and he stared into the open worry of his friends.   "Don't you worry any, JD.  Nate will fix you up," Buck assured, running his hand over JD's dark hair.

"Ezra?"  JD whispered.

"Don't go worrin' none about him.  He's fine," Buck growled.

"Not his fault, Buck," JD answered hearing the accusation in Buck's voice and seeing the anger in his eyes.  He looked over at Chris who stood solemn, his back against the wall.  JD winced as Nathan started to probe his wound.

"Chris, they didn't...give Ez...any choice," JD defended.

" more talkin'," Nathan admonished.  "Here drink this."

Nathan forced a cup of water and herbs down JD.  Nathan laid a hand on his young friend's forehead and watched as JD's eyes fought to stay open.

The reverend stepped up to the side of the bed and mumbled a prayer then stepped back.  Byron looked at the five men, seeing their concern for the young gunslinger.  He didn't approve of their life style, but he couldn't condemn them for their compassion.  For a moment, he wondered if that concern encompassed his son.  He shook the thought away.  How could anyone care for someone who made a living as a parasite?

The young gunslinger finally surrendered to the effects of the herbal medicine, allowing Nathan to begin working on his shoulder.

"I will go to the church and pray for your friend," Byron said, placing a caring hand on Buck's forearm.

Buck nodded his gratitude his lips pressed together in a firm straight line as he gazed down at JD.

Part 15

It was two hours before Nathan stepped out of the clinic.  Four anxiously waiting men met him.

Buck was immediately on his feet.  The long wait had eaten away at his anger, leaving only agitation and anxiety.

"Well," Buck prompted.

Nathan wiped a hand down his face.  "I got the bullet out.  I don't think there was any damage, but he lost a lot of blood.  He'll need to rest and regain his strength."   Nathan slid down the wall, bringing his knees to his chest.  Chris patted him on the shoulder.  

"Can I go in and see him?"  Buck asked.

"Sure, just don't wake him," Nathan said.   

Buck went quietly into the clinic.

"Has anyone seen Ezra?"  Vin suddenly asked.

Josiah, Chris and Vin regarded each other for a moment, and then Chris released an audible sigh.

"No, but I have a few things to say to 'im," Chris growled as he headed for the stairs.

Part 16   

The three lawmen strode back over to the saloon.  Chris would wring the gambler's neck if he found him playing poker, but when they entered the saloon, there was no sign of the suave cardsharp.  They headed upstairs.

As the three lawmen neared the gambler's door they all felt it--Something was wrong. 

"Chris, look," Vin muttered pointing out the blood on the doorknob.

Josiah grabbed the doorknob, finding it unlocked.  The three lawmen entered the dark room, the hallway light throwing a slice of luminance across the bed, revealing a pale and blood covered soul.

"Aww shit!"  Chris voiced as he rushed to Ezra's side, putting two fingers against the man's neck.  "He's still alive.  Vin, go get Nate!"  Vin was gone before the words were out of Chris's mouth.

Chris and Josiah quickly removed Ezra's shirt and applied pressure to the gunshot wound.  The Southerner didn't make a sound.

"You stupid bastard.  What were you thinkin'?"  Chris curtly admonished, looking down at the unconscious conman.

Josiah looked up at the somber lawman seeing and hearing the concern.

Vin rushed up the stairs of the clinic to find Nathan asleep where they left him.  Vin grabbed the healer's shoulder and shook.

"Nathan! Nathan!"

"Wha..What is it?" Nathan started and tried to get his bearings.

"Ezra's hurt."

"Damn!"  Nathan wiped the sleep from his eyes and Vin gave him a hand up.  "I need to get my bag."  The two men entered the clinic to find

Buck positioned in a chair next to his sleeping charge.

"What's wrong?"  Buck asked.

"It looks like Ez took a bullet," Vin explained. 

"Awww hell," Buck murmured remembering his earlier thoughts.  He had wanted to beat the tar out of the gambler, feeling that he was responsible for JD being hurt.  When he calmed down Buck came to realize that he was out of line.  Ezra would never intentionally allow any harm to come to JD, or any of them for that matter.  He had allowed Byron Standish's words to erase four months of working and playing together, of learning to trust and rely on each other.

Buck got Inez to watch over JD and he followed Nathan and Vin back to the saloon.

Part 17

Nathan gently rolled Ezra over not finding an exit wound.  "Ah, Ezra why didn't you say something?" He asked the unconscious man.

"He'll be alright won't he, Nate?"  Josiah asked.

"I have to get that bullet out," Nathan answered.

The bullet was deep and the tension in the room grew the more Nathan swore.  For his part, Ezra never made a sound, even as the healer cut into the wound and searched for the bullet.  The healer dropped a bloody rag into the basin and leaned back in a chair.  He had finally managed to get the bullet and stop the bleeding.  Ezra's face was as pale as the pillow and Nathan couldn't even tell if he was breathing.  The healer leaned forward and laid a hand on the gambler's chest, waiting for the slight rise and fall.  He peeled back an eyelid than slumped back into his chair.  Nate could feel the fever already burning in the gambler, and he wasn't sure Ezra had the strength to fight.

Vin pulled the blanket up to the gambler's neck and sat down on the edge of the bed.

"Nathan?"  Josiah's voice was full of sorrow.

Nathan took a deep breath, held it, and then exhaled. "He's lost a lot of blood, maybe too much," Nathan sadly exclaimed.

Josiah stared down at the man he had come to respect and care for.  He had learned early on that he couldn't force the cardsharp to change.  Ezra was like a sturdy oak tree, unmoving, but the branches of the tree would bend to avoid breaking.  Josiah had seen the small give and takes; he had seen the changes in the obstinate gambler.  He'd seen what was really in Ezra's heart and soul.  If he could see it, why couldn't Ezra's own father?  Something in the former preacher snapped and he charged out of the room.  Buck was about to follow until he saw the sharp shake of Chris's head.  They both knew what Josiah was going to do and it was long overdue.

Part 18          

Sanchez strode purposefully down the street toward the church.  He had failed Ezra, allowing his father to malign and demean him.  Josiah had thought he was doing his friend a favor by finding his father.  The truth was that Byron Standish stopped being Ezra's father over twenty years ago if he ever really was.  Josiah now regretted whole-heartedly ever searching out the uncompromising reverend.  He wasn't sure if he'd ever be able to repair the damage that Byron Standish had done, but if Ezra lived, he would try.

Josiah threw open the doors of the church with enough force to put twin holes on either side of the wall.  Byron pulled himself up from his kneeling position in front of the altar and turned to see Josiah charging up the aisle.  The huge gunslinger grabbed the reverend by the front of his wool robe and slammed the smaller man up against the wall.

Byron's eyes went wide and he winced as his back made violent contact with the side wall.

"You want to know what your godless, self-serving son is doing?"  Josiah yelled, spitting into the man's face.  "Dying!"

Byron's face twitched and his brow furrowed, trying to understand what the enraged gunslinger was saying.

"He took a bullet but didn't say anything," Josiah explained.  "He didn't want to take Nathan away from caring for JD!"

Josiah's grip tightened and he leaned into the cornered man.

"You think you know your son--you know nothing!  He's not you, never has been, never will be."

Part 19

Byron stepped into Ezra's room looking over his shoulder at the men who stood in the hallway.  He then looked down at his son's pale form laid out on the bed and for a brief flicker of time he saw the little rag-a-muffin boy he used to hold in his lap.

"How'd you persuade him to come see Ezra?"  Chris whispered over toward Josiah. 

"Told 'em the wrath of God had nothing on me."

The six gunslingers had decided to allow Byron a moment of privacy, hoping that maybe he would finally see the truth about his son.  They were going to give him a chance, but it didn't mean they were going to allow the pious man to cause their friend any more harm.  The lawmen  sidled up to the doorway to listen.

Byron sat down in the chair next to the bed and laid a bony hand on his son's forehead.  An unexpected lump lodged in his throat and it took a moment to gain his voice. "I failed you," Byron croaked and cleared his throat.  "I guess I really didn't even try, but I knew how strong Maude's influence was.  I guess I didn't want to admit that I failed."  Byron raised his head and looked out the window at the clear star-studded night sky.  In the beginning, it hurt to know what his son was becoming.  Later, he consoled himself by accepting the fact, that there was nothing he could have done.  Ezra was destined to be what he is.

Byron brought his gaze back to his son.  "Go toward the light. This is your chance.  The kingdom of heaven will open up for you now. You will be welcomed, this will be the best thing you can do in your life..."

"You sanctimonious son-of-a-bitch," Chris yelled, barging into the room.  The others right on his heel.  Chris didn't know where the anger came from, but when he heard a father telling his own son to die, it lit a fire in him.   

Byron sprang up from his chair at the gunslinger's enraged intrusion. 

"What the hell do you think you're doing?  You may not want him but we do," Chris protested, stopping within couple feet of the startled priest.

"You don't understand," Byron tried to explain.  "He has committed a selfless act.  It could be his one and only chance for redemption.  A chance to enter into the kingdom of heaven."

"Hell, Ezra wouldn't want to go to heaven.  We'd never see him again," Vin mocked with a smile.

Byron glared at Vin's impertinence.

Josiah stepped forward and looked sadly upon the reverend.  The man didn't know what he was throwing away.  A chance to know his son and what a wonderful person he really was.  "Are you sure this isn't about your own redemption?"  Josiah abruptly asked.

Byron's brows arched.

"You believed you failed," Josiah continued.  "You doubt your own faith now.  You're wondering that if you couldn't turn your own son to God, how truly successful have you been as a man of the cloth?  Did you ever consider that God might have his own agenda for Ezra just the way he is?"

"I have had to live with the knowledge that my son was a man without morals or conscious.  I regret that I couldn't have raised him in the light of God's love but he now has that chance."

Josiah bowed his head in disgust.  Byron no longer wanted to listen to anyone's truth but his own. 

"Get the hell out of here!" Chris growled.  He had never hit a man of the cloth, as long as you discounted Josiah, but there was a first time for everything.

"He is my son," Byron stated, but his words lacked conviction.

"No, he's one of us now," Chris stated confidently.

Byron stood silently a moment, glaring at each of the men standing before him.  "You will all burn in hell!"  He sneered and walked out the door.

Chris moved to the bed and placed his hands on either side of Ezra's head.  "Listen up Standish.  We're your family now! Do you hear me! We're all you need, and we need you.  Don't you dare die on us," Chris yelled into the slack features of the unconscious man.

Nathan caught movement out of the corner of his eye.  He looked over to see Ezra's hand twitch.  A slow smile came to the dark healer's face.  He knelt down beside the bed and gathered up the limp and pale hand.  "Ezra, do you hear me?  Unless you want Chris in your face again you better come around," Nathan good-naturedly threatened.

Standish's eyes fluttered briefly and they all watched as his Adam's apple went up and down.  Ezra's eyes opened and he focused on the five faces staring down at him.

"You must 'ave scared old Beelzebub away," Buck mocked.  Chris glared at his friend.

"Wha...what are you all...looking at?"  Ezra slowly gasped out.

"You, you stupid son-of-a-bitch," Buck laughed.

Ezra licked his lips and then felt his head slowly lifted off the pillow and a glass of water brought to his lips.

"Take it slow, but I want the whole thing down ya," Nathan instructed.

"Vin, git Inez to bring up some broth," Nathan called over his shoulder.  "We have to build him back up."

Ezra's breathing quickened and his eyes widened.  "JD?"

"Is fine," Josiah assured.

"Why didn't you tell us you were shot? You almost bled to death," Nathan asked.

"At the time, I didn't think it was significant."

Nathan stared at the southerner not sure if he believed him.

Part 20     

Ezra watched from the window of his room as Byron handed his luggage to the driver of the stagecoach.  It had been two days since the shooting and he was slowly improving.  His father had come to see him but only when he was sleeping.  Ezra wasn't sure if that was his choice or his friends.  Josiah had told him that his father had wanted him to die.  Strangely, this didn't bother him.  Ezra had spent the past two days putting things into perspective and evaluating his life.  He now knew who his real family was.  Ezra picked up the letter that sat on his nightstand and carefully opened it.

Dear Son,

I still don't condone your life style, but certain things have been brought to my attention that give me hope for your soul.

                                        Your Father

Ezra smiled as he re-read the letter staring at the elegant handwriting that washed away the years.  He was back in their little house, a family once again, with his father teaching him card tricks, the light of love glistening in those deep green eyes.  He had to wonder what 'things' his father referred to and thought perhaps six very persuasive men had something to do with his sudden optimism.

Ezra continued to stare out the window in full view of the street below.  Byron Standish stopped at the back of the stage and raised his head.  Matching green eyes met and locked for one last fleeting gesture. The reverend wrapped his hand around his cross and smiled up at his son.  He then turned and entered the stage.

+ + + + + + +

Josiah stepped out of the church into the bright autumn sunlight.  He grinned when he saw Ezra stretched out at the bottom of the steps.

Josiah made his way down the steps; his heavy foot falls causing Ezra to open one eye.  "Brother Ezra, isn't it a bit early for you?" Josiah asked as he plopped down next to his friend.  It had been a week since  Ezra's father had left.  Ezra had remained in his room, for which Nathan was grateful, not having to force the stubborn cardsharp to take it easy.  The last two days Ezra would ride off before noon, returning by nightfall.  The others knew their friend had a lot on his mind and gave him the time and space he needed, but they still kept an eye on him.

"Do you believe someone like me could ever belong in a place like this," Ezra commented staring at the rustic church.

Josiah took a moment to mull over Ezra's question.  "The church is not a warehouse for good souls, but a hospital to fix the broken ones," he explained, clasping the gambler on the shoulder.  Josiah grinned as Ezra made no move to shrug off the gesture.  "How would you like to come inside I have a couple holes that need mending."  The two men stood and made their way into the church. 


Comments: KellyA