Vein of Honour

by Suzy B.

It is in men as in soils where sometimes there is a vein of gold which the owner knows not of.

- swift

The best index to a person’s character is (a) how he treats people who can’t do him any good, and (b) how he treats people who can’t fight back.

- Abigail Van Buren

She cowered under the pounding blows that rained down on her. She didn’t even know what she had done to deserve his wrath this time. Almost as if it was some sort of penance, she didn’t defend herself, she was certain she had caused whatever had sparked his rage. It would be how it always was. He would eventually pound his way through the rage that gripped him and leave her alone. All she could do now was endure until that moment. Endure and protect her precious cargo whatever way she could.

Ezra watched for the space of a heartbeat from the other side of the street, mortified that the townsfolk watched uncaring the spectacle that unfolded before them. What seemed like hours was indeed only seconds before his own sense of chivalry would allow him to remain passive no longer.

“Stop!” he roared forcefully as he stalked rapidly across the street, his lips compressed into a thin angry line.

“Leave the young lady be.” He spoke carefully, his accent thick with barely suppressed rage.

“Don’t tell me how to treat my wife.” The angry man spoke sharply as he lifted his arm to hit her again.

Ezra’s arm snapped out to catch the upraised limb.

“Don’t touch her again," Ezra growled as the enraged man pulled out of Ezra’s loose hold dragging his wife with him.

“Who the hell are you to tell me how to treat a lazy wife?” He cackled at Ezra as he spitefully pushed her so that she fell heavily, his foot catching her sharply on her hip as he prodded her to rise.

With a smooth lightning slick move the gambler’s derringer was nestled in his hand, trained on the cruel man in front of him.

“If you hurt her again, I will drop you where you stand,” he spoke loudly, his voice eerily calm.

“Big man aren’t you?” his opponent snarled “You can clearly see I don’t wear a gun.” He directed his words at the gathering crowd. Using that admission to garner support throughout the crowd.

“Your wife is unable to defend herself,” Ezra spoke smoothly “I am unable to stand by and watch a defenseless woman beaten," he shrugged, looking pointedly at the men in the crowd.

“She’s my wife,” his opponent added as he nudged her with his toe, a smug smile crossing his face when she stumbled back to her knees.

Ezra reflexively moved his arm to fire a shot into the ground at the husband’s feet.

“Ma’am,” Ezra spoke softly; his comforting words directed to her. “Are you all right?”

She nodded her head quickly, “Please, Mr. Standish,” she spoke gently as she climbed to her feet “Please, I’m fine” she muttered.

“You don’t appear fine,” Ezra spoke “Perhaps I should take you to see Mr. Jackson,”

“I’m fine really” she insisted.

Ezra watched her pointedly for several minutes, glowering as he turned his angry gaze on her husband before he returned his gun to its habitual position. The crowd began to clear as Palmer smugly dragged his wife after him.

Ezra’s anger consumed him as he moved to leave the alley. He knew this couple in passing. Jane the young wife, a frail and timid woman had found herself some odd jobs working in the restaurant and the hotel. Andrew, the husband, a man bitter and twisted after losing their farm to the bank, was working on the James Ranch. They had lost their only home and now lived in a drafty wagon similar to Vin’s. He had parked it at the end of an alley in the center of town, then sold the team to the livery.

Ezra worried about the condition of Mrs Palmer. She was heavily pregnant and also bore the marks of her husband’s impotent rage. Concern for her, however, was wiped from his mind as he watched an elegant, well dressed woman step from the stage that had arrived unnoticed in the midst of his struggle with the Palmer’s. His mother was in town. He cast a longing gaze towards the saloon, trying to decide if he could make good his escape before she noticed him.

“Hey Ezra!” JD called from the boardwalk in front of the jailhouse “Ezra it’s your mother!”

Ezra acknowledged JD’s call with a short wave before he began the short walk to her side.

“Ezra,” she greeted him demurely leaning towards him for a chaste kiss to be placed on her cheek.

“Judge Travis. Ezra tipped his hat to the older gentleman climbing from the stage.

“Mother," he spoke with a smile as he kissed her on the cheek in greeting. “What are you doing here? You never told me you were coming.”

“Can’t a mother surprise her son?” she smiled at him.

“You are always a veritable cornucopia of surprises mother,” he replied graciously as he extended an arm for her to clasp then escorting her to the hotel. Shaking his head as a small mountain of luggage began to pile up on the boardwalk. It was safe to say that his mother had ‘arrived’ for another visit of questionable reasoning.

+ + + + + + +

Long into the evening, disheartened by his mother’s unexpected arrival and unable to find his usual solace in the poker table, Ezra found himself playing a far from profitable game of chance with several visitors to their dusty municipality.

Andrew Palmer pulled up a chair at Ezra’s felt-covered table. Throwing some bills on the table he looked up into the eyes of his nemesis from this afternoon and waited patiently to be dealt in.

“Your money is no good here sir,” Ezra spoke coldly.

“What the hell does that mean?” the dirty man spoke.

“I mean you are not welcome at this table,” Ezra stated plainly.

“My money is just as good as yours,” he snapped, casting his gaze around the other men that sat at the table, “Or theirs.”

“You barely have two coins to rub together and a pregnant wife that lives in a drafty wagon you laughingly call home.” Ezra explained bluntly, his voice filled with ice as he threw a chip from his own pot at the man he openly despised.

“You won’t be gambling here.” Ezra’s eyes spat green fire at the disheveled man

“Damn You” he railed at the gambler as he pocketed his money - and the chip - and stormed from the saloon.

Hours later, unable to settle comfortably at the poker table, the day’s events leaving a bitter taste in his mouth, Ezra set out for a short stroll around town to clear his head before turning in for the evening. The horizon was already beginning to show the pink tinges of an approaching sunrise as he moved silently along the streets of the town that had unwittingly become his home. A frown crossed his face as he heard sounds of a scuffle in the alley behind the saloon. One hand hovering above his gun, he crept through the shadows into the mouth of the alley. His eyes widened as they took in the scene he encountered. Uncaring of his own safety, he set his mind on protecting the young woman he had already encountered once today.

“You touch her again, you will answer to me,” Ezra said softly and calmly as he put himself between the young quivering woman and her husband.

“You’ll be sorry you have interfered in my business,” he spoke.

“I sincerely doubt that” Ezra almost snarled as he felt the fear emanating from the young woman behind him.

Flicking his jacket away from his gun he stood a little taller, intent on intimidating the bully that he faced. His opponent’s eyes flicked to the now unimpeded gun, a sudden and almost imperceptible fear flashing through the hard dark eyes before they returned to Ezra’s face. Ezra had meant the gesture as a show of his dominance of the situation, not a genuine threat, but as the larger man began to advance towards Ezra his whole plan went to hell.

The victim suddenly became the aggressor and the abuser the hunted as the woman’s hand darted forward and lifted Ezra’s gun from his holster. Frozen momentarily by his surprise at her sudden movement, his gun was clear of his holster, the hammer pulled back, before he reacted. Her finger tightened around the trigger as his own hand knocked the gun down, his scream of, “No!” echoing throughout the town even as the sounds of the gunshot were swallowed up by the night to be replaced by the simple sobbing of a woman driven too far. Ezra pulled the young woman into his arms and lifted the gun from her grasp as she sobbed into his chest.

The town became a flurry of activity. The townsfolk who lived closest arrived to find one of their peacekeepers, his smoking gun still in his hand, the pregnant wife of his victim wrapped in his arms. Both were apparently oblivious to the arrival of others. When Ezra’s associates arrived, their eyes widened at what they saw but no judgement was offered. Nathan and Buck, his tortured breath gurgling in his throat lifted Bill Palmer, barely alive and not long for this life,, while Ezra almost carried the near catatonic young woman to Nathan’s rooms. Ezra paused briefly, watching the struggle to keep Palmer alive before he slipped out of the room and returned to his own lodgings.

Nathan worked to save the life of a man he knew in his heart would soon be drawing his final breath. Dabbing at Palmers forehead with a damp cloth, he pressed his lips together in frustration at his own lack of knowledge, combined with anger at the people who had forced their way into his rooms. Some he could understand, Chris and Orrin need to be here to witness the events that unfolded, but the others who flatly refused to leave under the menacing Larabee glare annoyed him.

Turning his thoughts back to his patient he was surprised to see Palmer looking at him. His eyes flat and near lifeless, his breath was gurgling in his throat, frothy red blood bubbling at his lips. Nathan knew that this man’s end was near. All he could do was attempt to make him comfortable and moved aside to allow Josiah a few moments to sanctify his soul before its final journey.

“Murder.” Bill Palmer’s voice was barely above a whisper as he voiced one word that shattered the nerves of all that heard it.

The room grew deathly silent as all eyes focussed on the dying man’s lips.

Eager to find the truth and absolve his peacekeeper, Orin stepped forward. “I don’t understand, son,” he spoke calmly.

“Jane,” Palmer spoke haltingly, “Standish.” His resolve grew weaker as his body began to fail him “Running” his final breath left him in a soft sigh, none of the men witnessing his death understood the gentle smile that curved his lips as his soul slipped away.

The men all watched as Bill Palmer drew his last shallow breath, some relieved, some chagrined, but all seeking justice for the crime they believed had been committed. None but Vin, who noticed the relief on the face of the young wife that was quickly replaced with a look of horror.

“He has to be arrested,” one of the townsfolk spoke.

“Gentlemen, let’s not make hasty decisions,” Orrin spoke calmly, fixing them with a steely gaze.

“You heard Bill, Judge Travis,” the most vocal citizen stated “Standish murdered him. He should hang” he stated flatly.

Chris stepped forward, his face cloaked by an angry glare.

“How many times has he saved your sorry hide, Jones?” he pointed out as Orrin placed a restraining hand on Chris’s arm.

“We will arrest him when the case is fully investigated and only if he has a case to answer to,” Orrin nodded.

“Lynch mobs have had far less evidence than a victim’s death bed confession” Jones spat as he turned to walk from the room.

Chris’s arm snapped out like lightning to catch Jones by the collar and spin him around to face him once more.

“If a hair on Standish’s head is harmed,” Chris growled, “yours will be the next neck stretched, Jones.”

Forcefully releasing the bunched cloth he pushed the repugnant man from him. Silence filled the room as Jones scurried away from Chris’ imposing wrath.

“Better take JD and bring Ezra in before they get it into their fool heads to take justice into their own hands,” Orrin wearily sighed, watching as Chris stalked from the room his spurs jangling angrily.

JD knocked sharply at Ezra’s door. Several moments later a fully clothed but slightly disheveled gambler answered the summons.

“Mr. Dunne,” Ezra spoke wearily, then cast his eyes deeper into the predawn shadows of the hallway. “Mr. Larabee,” he added, “to what do I owe this pleasure?”

“I’m sorry, Ez” JD muttered softly.

“Sorry?” Ezra frowned. “What for?” His gaze flashed between his two friends. “What happened? Is someone hurt?”

“No.” JD shook his head. ”It’s worse than that, Ezra,” JD stammered.

“Spit it out Mr. Dunne,” Ezra spoke completely confused.

“We’re here to arrest you, Ezra,” he spoke quickly. “Palmer died.”

“Surely you must be joking?” Ezra frowned then turned incredulous eyes on Chris.

“It’s true Ezra.” Chris nodded, his face unreadable, the unrestrained anger in his voice evident to the gambler.

“And you believe I deliberately killed him?” He didn’t want to believe their lack of trust, but they had already shown their lack of faith in him once before.

“Of course not.” JD seemed distressed that the gambler could even think that.

“The town is baying for your blood Ezra,” Chris murmured, “We need you in custody before some fool does something stupid.”

+ + + + + + +

The sun had barely had time to warm the dusty streets, but the news of Ezra’s arrest had traveled like wildfire. The news raised Maude’s ire and forced her to seek out her offspring.

She walked authoritatively into the jailhouse, her skirts rustling. She paused briefly in front of the desk that Buck sat behind.

“Mr. Wilmington, I wish to speak to my son alone please?” she asked politely, but they all knew that she would not leave with out achieving her objective.

Buck looked warily at Ezra, who nodded slightly. “I guess that’s alright Ma’am,” he spoke. “I’ll be right outside.”

Maude waited until he had closed the door behind him then turned on her son.

“It would appear to me that I have raised a fool” she spoke as she stepped closer to the cell, wrinkling her nose at the musty smell.

“What are you talking about Mother” he laid back on the bunk wearily.

“Come, Come, Ezra,” she spoke angrily. “We both know you didn’t do this.” She waved her hand dismissively. “Tell them that and cease this unjustified incarceration.”

“A man died mother,” he sighed. “I doubt if his family would see my incarceration as unnecessary.”

“You know what I mean son,” Maude spoke softly.

“Yes, mother,” he spoke his voice flat ,“But I also know that whatever happens is for the best.”

“I don’t want to see you hang Ezra.” She slipped one lace gloved hand through the bars to gently caress her son’s face.

“Believe me mother,” Ezra paused with a wry grin “Neither do I.”

+ + + + + + +

Orrin looked around the packed courtroom, his eyes lingering briefly over its occupants. It had taken longer than normal to fill the jury. Not because they were afraid of reprisals, but because no one really wanted to be the one to pass the verdict against what had become one of the towns stalwarts.

As trial’s went this was probably the most simple Orrin had ever presided over. The accused offered no plea other than guilty and despite Josiah’s best attempts at a defense, no excuses were offered. All present knew that without further explanation Ezra was putting the noose around his own neck. But he would not be budged.

As the sun began to sink below the horizon, Orrin dismissed the packed courtroom. There would be time to hear the Jury’s verdict the next day. He sighed deeply unhappy at the turn of events and his inability to mend the apparent injustice he could see being committed.

+ + + + + + +

The young woman slipped quietly along the wall of the jailhouse, terrified that she would be seen. The six men who remained as protectors of this town had steadfastly remained with their ‘brother’ and refused her repeated visitation requests to the man whom had done everything he could for her. Stopping nervously outside the barred window of the cell, she glanced either way down the lane, torn between running away and doing what she knew in her heart was right.

“Mr. Standish?” she whispered softly. “Please talk to me, Ezra,” she murmured more loudly and more urgently.

“What are you doing here, Mrs. Palmer?” Ezra asked her calmly from within the cell.

“I can’t let you do this. ” she shook her head, her whispered words sounding harsh.

“I assure you madam, you aren’t letting me do anything,” he answered with a self-deprecating smile.

“Then why didn’t you tell the court that you didn’t do it?” she asked him softly. Her voice was a mere whisper as she shook her head in confusion.

“But I am guilty,” Ezra forestalled her words.

“I shot him,” she frowned. “I know I shot him.”

“But I killed him as surely as if I pulled the trigger, Madam,” he replied.

“I didn’t take enough care.” He shrugged. “If I hadn’t interfered the way I did your husband may still be alive.”

“And beating me every day,” she murmured turning her sad eyes to the green gaze that watched her from the shadowed cell, knowing the she couldn’t let this man be the absolution of her sins. “I’m going to tell the judge the truth in the morning.”

“No!” Ezra spoke sharply, reaching for her, cursing the thick bars that impeded his actions.

“I can’t let them hang you,” she shook her head, heavy tears collecting on her lashes.

“Please let me do this,” he spoke softly “Think of your child” he murmured “If you tell them that you will be throwing away the life of your baby before it has even had a chance.”

“But I shot him,” she stated, reaching for his hand and holding it tightly.

“Jane” he spoke quietly almost introspectively “I am a cad and a cheat, always have been, I was born to be a gambler” he murmured “I have always looked out for number one. Me," he paused “I want to do this. Please let me do this, if not for you then think of the baby.”

“It’s wrong.” She shook her head. “I can’t live with your death on my conscience when I know that I did it.”

“This is the first pure and honest thing I have done in my life.” He looked deep into her teary eyes “Please don’t take that from me.”

“What if it’s the last thing you do” she sobbed as she ran uncaring down the alley, neither of them noticing the sudden movement as part of the shadows broke away from the others and followed Jane Palmer.

+ + + + + + +

Orrin watched as his jury filed back into the courthouse and resumed their seats. He didn’t need to cast a glance at the seven men who protected the town; they already knew the outcome. Truth be told the whole courtroom knew the verdict, they just needed verbalization from the foreman to confirm their assumptions.

“Have you reached your verdict?” he turned his attention to the foreman.

“We have your honor.”

“And how say ye?” he asked his nerves brittle waiting for the answer .

“Guilty Your Honor," he spoke loudly.

Six men felt their hearts sink at those three simple words. Any hope that they had held at Ezra going free was dashed. Their eyes turned to the judge waiting for his decision after hearing the verdict, none ready for whatever it was they were about to hear.

Orrin repeatedly banged his gavel waiting for the furore to die down.

“Mr. Standish I realize that there were extenuating circumstances, but there is no excuse for taking the life of an unarmed man. Therefore you shall be hung by the neck until dead at dawn tomorrow”.

He watched as JD and Buck led Ezra back to the jailhouse, casting his gaze over the ruckus that was his courthouse, then with a sad shake of his head walked back to the Clarion offices.

+ + + + + + +

Jane stood in the shadows watching as the men built the gallows in the center of town. Because of her an innocent man was going to hang. She gently caressed the mound that was her unborn child. Without the added burden of her pregnancy she would have already confessed to her sins, but she couldn’t allow her baby to suffer because of her poor choices and bad judgement. Tears welling in her luminous eyes she turned away from the scene before her, trying to find a way in her confused mind to justify the senseless hanging of an innocent man all to save her own life.

“Hard to deal with an innocent man on your conscience ain’t it," Vin spoke softly.

“I don’t know what you mean.” Jane shook her head at his words.

“I think you do,” he nodded following her as she began to walk away.

“Too late to have second thoughts when he’s gone,” he reasoned.

“Please leave me alone,” she spoke urgently as she walked faster but Vin kept step beside her.

“Shame too,” he nodded, “since he’s only just found a family that cares about him like your care about your young'un.”

Jane stopped dead in her tracks. “What are you telling me Mr. Tanner?”

“Just thought you should know that his sense of what’s right is hurting a lot of people," he shook his head sadly. “Shame when you can make things right.” He looked at her long and searchingly before turning and walking away.

None of the seven slept well that night, nor did anyone who really knew the tender hearted gambler. A chill in the air a short time before dawn, his friends and family gathered in the small jailhouse to say their farewells as requested. Ezra cast his glance about his friends and was struck by the absence of one. His absence hurt more than he cared to admit even to himself. Of all the men that had forged this strange little family, Vin was the one that he thought he could rely on to stand by his friends no matter what. He had spent a lifetime reading people and yet the one who was most like him yet still a world apart he had so completely misread.

He ran trembling fingers down the sleeves of his favorite jacket as he stepped through the cell door that Chris Larabee held open. Walking towards his gathered friends he was dismayed to see them all reluctant to meet his gaze. Stopping in front of their youngest member, he prayed he still had the courage to say his good-byes to the people he truly did count as family. No matter what his head told his heart.

“JD," he spoke softly, “Look at me please.”

JD looked up from the scuffed toes of his boots into Ezra’s face, his hazel eyes huge and filled with unshed tears.

“I have a favor to ask of you," Ezra asked quietly “Will you walk with me to the gallows?”

He watched the young man puff up with pride at the faith that had been placed in him, and then watched him almost deflate as he realised he was accompanying him to his death.

Almost unable to voice the words JD’s teeth worried his lower before he choked out “Sure," with a quick nod, renewing his interest in the toes of his boots.

Ezra lifted JD’s chin with a finger and looked into the face of a man, who still held so much of the boy that he had been when they first met. The face that was now streaked with tears that he didn’t want to show.

Drawing him into a tight embrace, he couldn’t help himself and ruffled the too long ebony hair “Never change JD” he spoke against the younger man’s ear. Lifting his hand he wiped away the tears that had trickled down too pale cheeks, before turning away.

Like the guardian he had always been to him, Buck was still at JD’s side. Words were neither necessary nor possible between the two men who barely held their emotions in check. Emotion glazed green eyes met tear fill blue eyes filled with compassion. They looked at each other for several long moments neither knowing what to say to the other, before Buck pulled Ezra into a tight bear hug.

Pulling out of Buck’s embrace before he could break down and not complete what he needed to do, he paused briefly to gather his tattered emotions. Turning quickly Ezra almost stumbled into Nathan as he stood waiting.

Ezra looked up into Nathan’s face then extended a hand to shake “I’m sorry that I haven’t been a better friend to you Nathan," he spoke softly.

“No," Nathan stated “I’m sorry I judged you," he spoke softly “I never meant to.”

“Yes you did.” Ezra smiled wryly “But I understand.”

“I’m…” Nathan began to speak but Ezra interrupted him and pulled him into a tight embrace.

“No need.” Ezra shook his head as they shared a tight embrace. An embrace that transcended the differences in their pasts and their cultures. An embrace that was filled with the friendship that they had spent two years forging yet had stubbornly remained unspoken.

They shook hands tightly as he moved on to Josiah. His sympathetic eyes had followed Ezra’s movement around the room and had seen how hard this was for the conman. No words were needed. He pulled him into a tight embrace and then turned him towards their leader. Smiling wryly at the way the normally effusive man had become so silent.

“Standish," Chris spoke his voice resounding throughout the forced silence of the small room.

“Ezra faced him with a nod, somehow just as nervous under his steely green gaze as he had been the first day they had met.

“Regardless of what you hear," he paused wearing his lips nervously “I wasn’t running away.”

“Never said you were," Chris spoke softly.

Ezra shrugged nonchalantly “Thank you.”

Chris never missed the way that Ezra’s eyes closed briefly in relief.

“There’s still time for you to tell the Judge the truth," Chris stated, flatly and to the point as always.

“I am the reason he is dead Mr. Larabee," Ezra spoke his eyes never really meeting his leaders “There is no question in my mind.”

Chris nodded his head “Just needed to be sure” he nodded as he shook hands tightly with the younger man.

Ezra was not surprised as the other men began to file from the room, giving him the privacy to do the hardest thing he had ever done in his life.

“Mother” he turned to the woman who stood watching with red rimmed eyes.

“A mother shouldn’t outlive her offspring Ezra," she spoke softly “there’s still time for you to confess the truth.”

“There’s no confession to be had mother," he spoke gently “I am guilty.”

“This is me Ezra," she spoke angrily “Your mother… I taught you how to lie.”

“ I’m not lying mother," he sighed wishing that their last encounter could be spent in something other than sarcastic argument.

“You know I thought this time might be different.” he turned back on her angrily, “I thought you might actually be proud of me for saving that young woman from a life of hardship and beatings.”

“Proud.” Maude frowned “Proud you say.” her voice beginning to grow louder. “How can I be proud of the fact that you are throwing your life away.”

He wheeled on her. “You could be proud of the fact that you raised me to be a lowlife conniving card sharp.” he waved one elegant hand in the air, “Oh we may have all the trappings of the well educated and well dressed but that is all it is.” he paused “an appearance.”

“What exactly are you saying?” she looked at him with shocked eyes.

“I’m saying that all I am is a cheat and a liar.” He looked her in the face. “The elegant clothes and the large vocabulary doesn’t make me a good man," he paused, “I don’t expect you to understand,” he hit his chest harshly, “It’s what’s in here that matters and frankly until Bill Palmers death I didn’t like what was in here.”

“I brought you up the best way I could Ezra” Maude spoke haughtily.

“Please mother lets not get into that again," he sighed wearily, “In a life filled with trickery and deception can’t you allow me just a moment of nobility.

“Fine," she spoke as she flicked her skirts and stepped towards the door. “But I refuse to watch you die,” she looked at him her pain clearly in her eyes as she looked him up and down once more “Nobility doesn’t suit you Ezra” she spat at him as she turned and walked briskly from the room.

+ + + + + + +

Minutes after Maude stalked out of the room Orrin Travis walked in closely followed by JD. Orin stopped in front of the condemned man and extended a hand to him which Ezra readily accepted and shook

“I suppose there is no chance of a pardon?” he asked with a wry grin.

“I wish there was son," Orrin spoke sadly.

“No matter," Ezra murmured waving a hand in dismissal of the idea.

“Ezra” the judge turned serious eyes on him ‘There are no second chances here. You still have time to tell me what happened.”

“I don’t want a second chance.” Ezra nodded his head in understanding “This is what has to happen.”

“You are a damn stubborn fool” Orrin smiled sadly extending a hand for a final handshake, turning and slowly leaving the room.

JD stood quietly twisting his bowler through his fingers before he looked up from the toes of his boots.

“It’s time to go Ezra," he spoke his voice catching as the words forced their way past the lump in his throat.

“I know," he replied softly realizing that his time was indeed drawing short.

“You know I never imagined that I would meet my maker this way.”

“I don’t know if I could do what you are doing," JD spoke softly.

“When you look at it I’m not doing all that much JD," Ezra stated wryly “The hangman is doing all the work.”

“You know what I mean Ezra.” JD looked at him pointedly his knowledge of the truth evident in his eyes.

“You would find the courage within you my friend," Ezra spoke as he lifted his hat from the table and stepped in front of JD his hands extended for the application of handcuffs.

“I won’t take you handcuffed.” JD looked into his eyes “I know I can trust you not to run” he smiled gently.

“Thank you my friend.” Ezra took his hand and shook it pulling him into a tight embrace before placing his hat on his head then gestured with his hand towards the door.

“Shall we?” he questioned.

Wordlessly JD opened the door and allowed Ezra to precede him onto the boardwalk. Stepping up beside his friend he walked beside him, his head held proud and high. As they left the steps in front of the jailhouse, four men fell into step behind them. Ezra didn’t need to turn his head to know who they were. Chris, Buck, Nathan and Josiah followed like his own personal guard of honor.

A slight smile split his face as he strode proudly forward. His step faltered almost imperceptibly as he began to climb the steps to the gallows. The only ones to notice his hesitation were the men who had come to know him almost as well as he knew himself.

JD paused at the bottom of the stairs his eyes glazing as he realized that this really was going to happen. This wasn’t just some bad dream that they would all wake from. He could count the minutes of the remainder of Ezra’s life on ones hand and he sure as hell wasn’t going to make it any harder on him than it was already. Taking a deep cleansing breath he climbed that stairs and faced the task that Ezra had asked him with the same dignity that Ezra himself met his.

Reaching the top Ezra had seen enough hangings to know what was about to happen. He took his place over the trapdoor and under the noose. He cast his clear green gaze across the crowd that had gathered to watch his demise and smiled at the people who had given into their morbid fascination and ventured out to see him meet his maker. Blocking his sight of the gathered crowd, JD stepped in front of him, the heavy noose in his hand. Seeing his hesitancy, Ezra lifted his hat from his head and handed it to JD.

“I realize that Mr. Wilmington may not agree that this is a real hat," he smiled weakly. “But I would like you to have my hat my young friend.”

JD turned his face to Ezra’s “I don’t know if I can do this Ezra," he spoke softly accepting the hat with shaking fingers.

“Yes you can JD," Ezra murmured “You can be the brother that I know you are and do this final thing for me.”

JD nodded tightly and lifted the noose over Ezra’s head, settling the knot behind his right ear and tightening the noose.

The gentle nickering of a familiar horse drew his attention over the soft murmuring of the townsfolk. Spinning his head quickly, neither man noticing when the knot twisted to behind his neck he quickly picked out Josiah’s large form standing beside a horse that Ezra knew well. His own horse saddled and ready to travel. He met Josiah’s slow grin with a matching smile and turned his head to almost imperceptibly check the roofs of the towns’ businesses. Sure enough his keen gaze picked out Vin prone on the roof of a building directly in front of the gallows.

Watching the torment that his young friend was enduring, he knew without a doubt that JD was not part of their gallant yet foolhardy plan. Both men waited until Judge Travis mounted the stairs to the gallows.

“Ezra P Standish you have been sentenced and convicted by a jury of your peers to hang by the neck until dead.’ he spoke loudly for the towns benefit. “Do you have any final words?”

Unable to trust himself he spoke quietly “I am prepared to atone for my wrongdoing," he spoke calmly “I am satisfied with the jury’s findings," he trailed off.

Orrin nodded almost imperceptibly to JD who stepped back to firmly grasp the handle that would open the trapdoor and send Ezra plummeting to his death. A brief moment hesitation and he pulled the handle forward. Almost simultaneously Jane burst out of one of the buildings that lined Main Street.

“No," she wailed “I’m the one you should be hanging," she screamed as she watched Ezra drop through the trap door the rope pulling taut.

The startled gasps of the watching townsfolk masked the movements of the men who had just endured watching one of their number hang. Ezra fell through the trap door, the rope burning the skin of his neck as he struggled against it, his own weight his enemy.

Buck and Nathan rushed to the gallows to help their slowly strangling friend as he frantically fought to draw air into starving lungs. JD fell to the floor lying on his belly trying to grab the slowly swinging Ezra and pull him back to solid footing. What seemed like hours but had only been minutes or seconds passed as Chris turned to where he knew their sharpshooter was hidden. A shot rang out effectively severing the rope that had barely begun to bear the weight of the gambler.

As he dropped into the arms of the two men who had tried so valiantly to hold him upright, his fingers scratching at the rope that was burning into the skin of his neck, effectively cutting off his breath. They lowered him to the ground Nathan’s long fingers batting Ezra’s away trying to loosen the rope. As the rope fell away and air began to reach deprived, panicked lungs Ezra’s frantic struggles ceased and he slumped in his friend’s arms, neither willing to give up their hold on him just yet.

Chris moved quickly to grab the young woman that struggled though the crowd towards Ezra. It didn’t take Vin long to reach their sides and watched as Buck pulled Ezra to his feet and he and Nathan half walked half carried him to the clinic closely followed by the rest of the seven, Jane and the Judge. All of them determined to get to the bottom of the deception.

He waited only until they had the obviously distressed gambler settled in the bed in Nathan’s clinic then he spoke. “You," he spoke harshly directing his glare at the terrified Jane Palmer, “Start talking.”

“I took Mr. Standish’s gun," she spoke softly “and I shot Bill.”

“Why didn’t you come forth sooner?” Orrin asked.

“I was worried about my baby.” Her tear heavy eyes began to overflow. “I know I was wrong and I shouldn’t have listened to Mr. Standish," she whispered, “but I couldn’t let him die.”

“But he could have and very nearly did," Orrin spoke forcefully pointing a gnarled finger at her, then turned angrily on Ezra.

“And you, you stupid southern fool," he ranted, “How dare you perjure yourself in that fashion," he growled “I have a good mind to throw you in jail for contempt of court.”

“Don’t worry” Chris growled throwing him a menacing glare “ Jail will be a holiday for him when I’m finished with him.”

“I try to do something noble and still I’m denigrated.” Ezra smiled gently his fingers stroking the torn flesh at his neck.

“You damn near made us all outlaws," Josiah laughed gruffly.

“We had a plan ready for your escape," Buck added with a grin.

“You’d do that for me," Ezra asked astonished.

“Couldn’t let you hang for something you didn’t do.” Vin smiled.

“Why didn’t someone let me in on the plan?” JD put his hands on his hips feigning as much anger as he could considering he was almost giddy with relief that they wouldn’t be losing Ezra.

“Couldn’t tell you little buddy," Buck spoke, “couldn’t risk you giving it away to Ezra," he paused “and before you git on your high horse you know he can read you like a book”

“Besides Kid," Vin spoke “There’s already one kid outlaw in the west and there’s only room for one Jesse James. Can’t have you horning in on his territory.”

He nodded then looked up in surprise, “I can’t believe you’d leave me behind.”

“I wouldn’t Mr. Dunne," Ezra stated flatly.

“Still not right," JD muttered as he smiled conspiratorially with Ezra.

“Under the circumstances madam," Orin spoke to Jane “I believe I have no choice but to take you into custody.”

“I understand," she murmured as she sank into one of Nathan’s chairs her hand gently caressing her belly.

“Do you have any kin?”

She nodded weakly “I have an older sister in Chicago” she stated softly.

“Good," Orrin spoke calmly “Due to the extenuating circumstances, while your husbands death was not justified it will at least be tolerated by my court. And though personally I can never forgive you for almost letting a good innocent man die, neither of you should have gone through this charade. I have a good mind to throw you in prison for obstructing justice. But I’m a soft old fool Mrs Palmer," he paused “I can see the lengths you went to save your child. You are free to go if you return to your sisters domicile at the earliest possibility and never return to this town," he spoke shortly and soundly, everyone in the room clear that his words were final.

“Yes your honor," she nodded, her heart at peace for the first time since she had become Mrs Bill Palmer, as she sank back into silence.

“And you," Orrin spoke to the gambler who was patiently seated on the bed his head tilted painfully back as Nathan applied healing salve to the torn and blistered skin that adorned his already bruising neck.

“I assure you judge I never lied under oath," Ezra spoke softly.

“How is that possible," Orrin spoke bewildered by Ezra’s calm assertions.

“I never said that I shot him," he stated slowly “I merely stated that it was my fault that he is dead and I maintain that opinion sir," he explained, “If I had not been there he may still be alive,"

“Yeah,” Buck spoke in derision, “and she may be dead,"

Ezra lifted his fingers to touch the abraded skin at his throat, having his hand slapped away by the dark healer before he got the chance to touch the flesh still tingling from the fibers of the rope. Casting his eyes around the room he lingered briefly on each of the men, knowing that no matter how noble his actions could have been, the faith of his new family was infinitely more important to him.