Magnificent Seven Old West
False Fathers

by Tipper

Notes: This was inspired by the whole HaleBop Comet thing (is that how it was spelled?) and the concept of cults. I'm guessing they were just as rampant in the 19th Century as now, so I decided to try my hand at one.

Description: This is about Josiah and Ezra. Oh, and there is a cult of monks thrown in there too. Just for fun.

Part One

Leaning back deeply into his chair, Ezra contentedly began counting the money in his hands. Truth be told, he already knew how much was there, having kept a running tab throughout most of the poker game, but the simple act of sorting the bills was one of his greatest joys in life. With great care, he ordered the singles on top, followed by the tens, the twenties, and finally, and this was his favorite, he placed the fifty on the bottom. What a pretty sight that fifty had been when his opponent had begrudgingly laid it down. Crisp and fresh it looked, even out in here in one of the most backwater saloons in the west, as if it had been minted only yesterday. He was admiring its color and size when he felt those damn eyes on him. Ezra gritted his teeth.

"Would you please stop looking at me like that!" he demanded, swinging around to face Josiah's disapproving stare. "I do not need your worthless recriminations, Mr. Sanchez. Those men knew who and what I was when they sat down. Please do not expect me to deny my calling in life simply because you are hovering over me."

"Normally I would agree with you, son," the ex-preacher replied softly, his deep voice carrying across the loud room to Ezra's ears, ignoring the gambler's irritated twitch at the word ‘son.' "But one of those men was Chester Milton, a new farmer to the territory. That fifty dollar bill was part of the loan he'd just received from the bank to build a home for his young wife and newborn daughter."

Ezra didn't reply, just looked at the bill again, understanding a little better why it looked so new. He frowned, and looked back at Josiah. "I did not tell him to lay it down, Mr. Sanchez. It was his choice. May I suggest you go and try your little morality games on someone who might actually be solicitous of your opinions." With that he tucked the bill in with the others, hid it away in his waistcoat, and returned to shuffling his cards. Despite his best efforts at nonchalance, however, he still felt those damn blue eyes boring into him. His own eyes glanced up to catch the other man's face.

Josiah's look had softened, to the point where it was a mixture of both disappointment as well as disapproval. To Ezra's mind, that was even worse. What the hell did the man want from him? He suspected that Josiah had come to feel slightly differently about him than he did the others, and the thought aggravated him. More than once, he'd caught the preacher watching him with an almost, dare he say it, paternal gaze? Well, he wouldn't let the man get away with it.

"Mr. Sanchez, if you insist on staring at me while I am exercising my profession, then I must ask you to leave. You will undoubtedly distract my opponents, especially as you continue to display that large cross about your neck." Ezra's bristly tone caused Josiah to raise his eyebrows, which the gambler merely sneered at before turning back to his table.

The ex-preacher looked at his companion at the table, who shrugged noncommittally. Nathan shook his head as Josiah got up to approach the gambler. The older man just went looking for trouble.

Josiah wandered up to the gambling table and stood over Ezra. For his part, the gambler ignored him, flipping the deck of cards between his long fingers, waiting for the next gamers to come by. Setting his jaw, the ex-preacher suddenly felt the need to convince Ezra that he should return the young farmer's money. He needed to show Ezra the danger that his chosen path would bring.

"Ezra…" Josiah began, placing a hand on the gambler's shoulder. With the speed of a rattlesnake upon being woken from its nap, Ezra flinched and threw the arm off.

"Don't touch me," he hissed, looking up angrily then immediately turning away.

Josiah blinked, surprised at the nastiness the younger man suddenly showed him. With slow steps, he retreated back to the place he shared with the healer, calming his mind and trying to erase the despair that simultaneously descended on his soul. Nathan, in an attempt to distract his friend, muttered something about touchy southerners, and Josiah allowed himself to smile weakly at the intended pun. He sat down again with a sigh and took a long draw from his nearly empty mug.

Ezra continued to play with his cards, but his mind was no longer with them. Why had he responded so violently? He'd just been so angry at Josiah lately, unable to place a finger on why. Deep down, though, he knew it was because the damn preacher was getting too damn close….

Several more men had wandered over, looking for a game. Ezra smiled, and gestured to the chairs opposite him. As he began to deal, Ezra spared one more angry glance towards Josiah, and pointedly looked towards the batwing doors that led to the outside. Sighing, the large man stood, shaking his head. The gambler merely rolled his eyes at the man's deliberately slow movements, and returned to his first love.

At the table with Josiah, Nathan glared at the gambler. Apparently, however, the healer's gaze was not as "distracting" as the other man's. He stood as well, and followed Josiah as the preacher drifted out of the tavern and into the night air. Across the way, out of earshot in the crowded room, Chris and Buck saw them leave, but did not do anything more than glance at their retreating backs. The defeated slump of Josiah's shoulders was noted then forgotten as they returned to their own simpler game of cards.

Outside, Josiah breathed in deeply the warm summer night. It had only gotten dark about a couple of hours before, and a full moon lit the air around him with a shimmering glow. It was still early for the saloon crowd, especially with the long days and short nights, even though Josiah knew it was almost midnight. Straightening up, he moved off the boardwalk, acutely aware of the familiar sounding steps that came up behind him.

Nathan caught up to the ex-preacher as he slowly made his way home to the church, and fell into step beside him. He marked the older man's dejected countenance, and frowned. "Ezra shouldn't have said that," the healer stated with acerbity. "For someone who prides himself on being a gentleman, he can be a real jackass sometimes."

"No, Brother Jackson, on the contrary, our fellow peacekeeper was well within his rights," Josiah sighed.

"Within his rights?" Nathan spat. "Oh please. You have just as much right to sit in that room as he does. More so in fact, considering the man's low character. Cheating young Chester out of his loan, I mean, really! And where does he get off calling you distracting? Hell, with the way I look, I'm probably more distracting to him than you are."

Josiah smiled slightly, and shook his head. "I don't believe that our gambler friend thinks of you that way anymore, Nathan."

"Oh please," Nathan repeated sarcastically, although he didn't really have anything to refute Josiah's claim. After a few minutes, he shrugged. "Well," he said, changing the subject, "where are you going now?"

Josiah looked at him, an amused expression on his face. They had reached the church steps, and Josiah placed a foot on the lowest one.

"Oh," Nathan emitted a sort laugh. "Well, I suppose it is late. I'll see you in the morning, right? What time do you want to head out to the village?"

"Midmorning. I want to check on the Milton's and their new baby daughter first." The ex-preacher smiled lightly, but his voice lacked its usual assurance.

"Right. Okay." The healer turned and headed back towards the livery and the little room above it that he slept in, only to stop about halfway to call back, "I'll see you tomorrow, then, and don't let that Ezra get to you!" He waved. As he turned away once more, he frowned at the darkness that seemed to have fallen on his friend. He would confront Ezra in the morning and make him apologize.

In the shadows of the church doors, Josiah watched his closest friend leave, wishing he could explain why these black moods descended upon him so often. Then he moved to open the heavy wooden doors, cringing a little at the heavy groan they made as he entered. He had meant to cure that ill by planing them down a little, but somehow never got around to it. There was always something else that needed to be done first.

Shutting the doors behind him, he meandered slowly down the long line of pews, heading towards the room in the back where he slept. His mind drifted as he listened to the sound his shuffling feet made on the flagstone floor, a noise so familiar and yet, not as comfortable as he would have liked. Despite Nathan's advice, he was thinking about Ezra, a subject that often led him to remember his own son.

With heavy thoughts, he entered the back room where he slept and stepped directly to the black table upon which sat most of his worldly possessions – mainly books and bullets. He pulled off his poncho and threw it on a nearby chair, then dipped his hands into the small washbasin filled with water that sat upon the table. Nearby was a smaller bowl, containing his shaving brush and blade, and a small mirror, which he picked up. He grimaced at the reflection, and placed the mirror face down. After splashing some water on his face to get off some of the grime, he pulled off his poncho and shirt and went to sit on the bed.

With exaggerated care, he pulled out the small box that he kept hidden under the simple wooden frame. It was a carved wooden box, given to him by the chief of an Indian village out in California. A peace offering from a time long ago, Josiah had treasured it. It seemed only fitting that he should also keep his own personal treasures inside of it.

He ran callused fingers over the carvings that adorned the sides and lid, each carefully and minutely done, and painted with exquisite care. They depicted images of a wedding, a birth, the meeting of two men clasping arms in friendship, a future of light and joy. Scattered in the corners were animals, including the horse, the coyote and the crow. They were his history, and he smiled at the memory of when her father had given it to him. If only they had seen eye to eye back when it all happened….

His fingers ran down the sides to the base, and he felt for the familiar catch.

The lid opened silently, released by a hidden catch on the bottom. The inside was dark, blackened by the fire that had been used to carve the creation, and it contained several objects, all of which Josiah now drew out lovingly.

The first was a locket of gold, containing a lock of jet black hair. He kissed the necklace to his lips, and murmured a short prayer. His wife, who had died when their son was still only a young boy. She had been beautiful, defying her family and her heritage just as he defied his in order to be with her. He had left his father and his sister to be with her. Together, they thought nothing could defeat them. Then the salesman had come to visit, selling the scarlet fever. Always, it was the flesh that was the weakest.

Beneath the locket lay the old bible, its leather cover scarred from the fire. It had somehow remained intact after her Indian family had come and burned down their home. It was payment for what they perceived to be his part in causing her death. He and his son had hidden in the woods while the Indians searched for them, somehow escaping the rage of his wife's father. At one point, he was sure her brother had spotted them, but the young man had merely returned to the chief with a bowed head. Afterwards, he'd found this bible in the remains, the only thing to survive. It was a shame that Josiah's faith itself had not been so lucky, perhaps he might not have followed the path he did after that horrible day….

He cracked the volume, and let the pages spill beneath his fingers. The two photographs fell out, into his lap. Gingerly, he raised the first to his tear stained face. He'd had it taken in San Francisco, a picture of a hybrid family – himself, his wife, and their three year old son. He looked closely at Francis, his son. The boy had been so happy then. When his mother had been taken away four years later, everything had changed.

He placed the photograph back inside the book, and lifted up the other. This one was just of Francis, at the age of fourteen, three years before his death. Despite the faded brown of the image, Josiah could see his boy's face as clearly as if the image had been burned yesterday.

Francis's eyes were green, a characteristic inherited from Josiah's father and shared by Josiah's sister. They also reflected some of both people's madness. The hair on the boy's head was black, just like his mother's, and his complexion was a mixture of both of them, though the high cheekbones, flat nose and dark lips had definitely been hers. Most telling of all, however, was the cocky grin the boy wore on his face. It was a wicked smile, accentuated by a narrowing of the eyes, betraying the sort of person Francis had become. This picture was taken just before Francis had run away to seek his fortune. It was not lost on Josiah that Francis would have been Ezra's age now, had he lived.

Josiah shut his eyes against the pain, and dug deeper into the box. Below the bible rested the letter Francis had written to him. The letter he had written to try and explain his actions in leaving his father. Josiah did not have to open his eyes to now what it read. Instead, his fingers drifted across the brittle parchment, allowing the words to flow through his mind.

Father, I write this to tell you I am leaving. I can no longer watch as you drink yourself to death, ignoring and forgetting not only who you were, but who I am. Please don't try and follow me. I can't be who you want me to be, anymore than you can be whom I want you to be. I hate this life, and plan to find a better, richer one. We are both lost now, but perhaps apart we can somehow find a way home – you to your church, and me…well, to wherever it is that I belong with this mixed blood. Good luck, father. And good bye.

I will not darken your door again. Your life is your own.


Josiah opened his eyes, and looked once more into the box. That was all he kept there. And, it was too much.

He placed the objects back inside, and shut the top. The click of the lock echoed loudly in his ears, effectively shutting his mind off from the memories – a practice he had mastered over time. He ran his free hand over his face to wipe away the wetness still clinging to his face. With tremendous care, he put the box on the beside table. For some reason, he wanted it close by tonight.

He picked up the thick volume he had been reading which lay on his pillow, and opened to the dog eared page where he had last stopped. It was a new book, written by an Englishman named J.S. Mill. The volume contained a collection of his essays, including one he intended to show Mary Travis called The Subjection of Women. Tonight, however, the beautifully written words seemed to ring hollowly in his thoughts. After attempting to read the same paragraph three times, he succumbed to his morbidity and closed it. Carefully balancing the leather volume on top of the carved box on his nightstand, he blew out the lantern, and lay down.

Sometime later, after all the sounds had died down from the outside, he eventually drifted off the sleep.

He should have stayed in bed. For some peculiar reason, Ezra had gotten up "early," that is to say, prior to ten o'clock, and he was now paying for it. The moment he stepped off the last step onto the saloon floor, and that wraith-like man appeared in front of him, he immediately knew this was going to be a bad day.

Pursing his lips in annoyance, Ezra listened quietly as Nathan tongue lashed him for ten minutes. This time the subject of the healer's anger was the gambler's treatment of Josiah the night before. Apparently, Nathan had seen Josiah head out to the Milton's small piece of land this morning looking as if he hadn't slept. This combined with the man's unhappy attitude of the previous evening led Nathan to heartily believe that Ezra was to blame.

"And I think you should apologize," the healer concluded.

Ezra's eyes widened, and a small smile lit upon his countenance. "Well, Mr. Jackson, if it will make you feel better, then I apologize."

If possible, Nathan's glower became even darker. "Not to me, you idiot."

"Oh, really?" Ezra reached up a hand and scratched at the back of his nape. "Because honestly, Mr. Jackson, I find it difficult to believe that Mr. Sanchez was truly so distraught as a result of my actions last night that it continued to affect him this morning. Far worse things have been done and said to him, I am certain." He looked outside the saloon, just happening to catch Josiah as the older man moved quickly past on his horse towards the stables, the usual benign look on the older man's face. He was obviously back from his errand and looked perfectly normal. Ezra grinned a little wider.

"If you ask me, Mr. Jackson, I would check to see that he is not simply going without his morning cup of coffee first before accusing your fellow lawman of unjust behavior. He looks fine to me…" He motioned outside with a nod of his head. Nathan's eyes narrowed, never leaving the other's green ones, clearly not caring what Ezra had seen.

Nathan scowled, and took a step forward. "Just do it, Ezra," he stated firmly.

With a enormous sigh, Ezra lifted the black hat in his hand and brushed some imaginary dust off of it. He completed the ritual by placing it jauntily on his head, then bowed slightly to the healer.

"Your wish is my command, my good friend. As long as it makes you feel that you have accomplished something this day…." Ezra grinned and tipped Nathan a two finger salute before heading out of the saloon and towards the church.

As he walked, he looked up at Josiah's work-in-progress, his eyes trailing over the half built steeple and rough walls in need of painting. The ever-present smile on his face faded a little, but, with a shrug, threw off the odd sense of foreboding that briefly lit upon his shoulders.

The doors to the hallowed structure were slightly ajar, testament to the fact that they were not completely flush with the frame. Ezra only had to push on one a little in order to allow his lean frame to squeeze through, and then they fell silently closed behind him. Padding up the aisle, he headed straight towards the back, not giving the rest of the room more than a cursory glance. His mind was already on the trip he planned to take to Snowville later that day.

He'd been given the ridiculous task of escorting the children of the apothecary, Mr. Greene, to that fair city to spend some time with their aunt. While he enjoyed spending time with Elwyn and Jeremy, he rarely enjoyed long journeys on horseback, especially when he would be the only adult besides the boy's boorish nurse. Still, at least Chris was allowing him to spend a couple of nights in the other town to "sharpen his skills." The thought made Ezra smile as he passed through the door in the back.

The only unfortunate aspect was that he had returned that fifty dollar bill to Chester Milton, along with whatever else the man had lost, via the night manager at the hotel last night. Mr. Sykes would get it to Milton's wife when she came into town today for supplies. The night manager had tapped his nose as Ezra quietly handed the envelope over, recognizing the need for discretion. He was now used to this early morning ritual of the gambler's -- to return the money gambled away by those unable to afford it. But, the small act of good will meant Ezra wouldn't have that lovely bill to play with at the Snowville taverns. He released an extravagant sigh as he stepped into the short hallway, wondering, not for the first time, what had happened to his strong, not to mention eminently practical, sense of greed.

Sucked dry by the dirt of this town, he brooded, just like the spring rains.

With a smirk of derision for his new found deficiency, he turned down the short hall and looked into the back room where Josiah slept, his hand raised to knock on the wall and announce his presence. He stopped when he realized that there was no one there yet.

The room was fairly large, and nearly devoid of any furniture. It contained Josiah's cot-like bed along with a black iron nightstand, a large table littered with random objects, a wardrobe, a couple of broken pew benches and, of course, the enormous amount of candles.

Candles existed everywhere, resting in large and small candelabras, jutting out of various oddly shaped candlesticks, or just loosely strewn about, to cover every spare inch of space. Ezra was pretty sure Josiah lit every single one of them almost every night. Thing was, there was not much to see. He himself only used a couple of oil lamps in his bedroom, one for the nightstand and one for the dresser and the washbasin. Josiah didn't even have a dresser, as he had only three sets of clothes. Shaking his head in wonder, Ezra wound his way over to the bed and contemplated the candle fixation. For all that they must shed a lot of light and warmth, this was not a room to take pleasure in.

Shrugging a little, Ezra sat on the edge of the bed, grimacing a little as he realized that the mattress was completely hard. What was it made of? Granite? Shifting to get comfortable, and knowing that his friend would be coming through the door at any minute, Ezra planned to wait quietly. The sound of Josiah pushing inwards the great oaken outer doors to get inside would alert him of the man's impending arrival.

After a few moments, he began to get bored. What the hell was Josiah doing in the stable? Giving his damn horse a bath? He jumped up, striding as best he could about the cluttered space, glancing at the various objects strewn around. His eyes caught the book on the nightstand, and he picked it up.

"On Liberty," he muttered, and smiled. He knew of this book, but had not yet had the chance to peruse the writer's essays as of yet. He was impressed to see it in the preacher's room. Ezra's mother had told him of some of the egalitarian views this Englishman espoused, and the gambler was interested to know where Josiah had heard of it. The man was obviously interested in keeping up with the times. The preacher climbed a few notches in his estimation.

He had begun to flip through a few pages when he noticed the box that had been lying under the volume. The book became forgotten in his hands as he admired the box's detailed workmanship, knowing intuitively that the item meant something very important to Josiah. He unconsciously tucked the essay collection inside his waistcoat, as he tended to do with all his books, and knelt down to look more closely at the box.

Tentatively he reached out and delicately lifted the exquisite piece of work up off the bedside table with both hands. He felt the objects shift a little inside, but he was not interested in them. The box itself was what captured his attention, and he brought it closer in order to look at it more carefully. So caught up in its detail, he never heard the outer doors groan open.

"What the hell are you doing! Put that down!" Josiah boomed angrily. He was suddenly at Ezra's side, pushing the gambler backwards with a heavy hand to the shoulder, as if trying to separate the younger man from the object he held. Unbalanced, Ezra fell backwards onto his rear, unable to prevent himself from dropping the box in the process. It hit the floor with a thud, causing the lid to spring open. The bible, photos, locket and letter spilled out, collecting in a small pile between Ezra's legs.

"Josiah, I'm…you startled me," he stuttered, moving to sit up. He gingerly lifted the photo of Francis up from off his leg.

"Don't touch that!" the ex-preacher growled, grabbing the picture away. "What the hell did you think you were doing, boy? How dare you be in my things!"

Ezra backed up a little from the man's tone, never before hearing so much unwarranted fury in the preacher's voice. He watched with amazement as Josiah gently placed the objects back in the box with disproportionate care, as if he were placing newborns into their cribs. His green eyes unconsciously took the objects all in, including the glimpse he got of the family portrait -- a much younger Josiah, a young and beautiful Indian woman, and a baby. Presumably the young man in the second photograph that he had seen first was the same as the child. Josiah's son? He recoiled as Josiah's rage filled eyes focused on him again.

"I…I'm sorry, Josiah," he replied, his voice as small as JD's after the boy pulls one of his fool stunts and is reprimanded by Chris or Buck. "I did not mean to…."

"I don't care what the hell you meant to be doing here, boy, but I would never intrude upon your home like this. Do you see me going through your personal things? No, because I would never presume to do that to you. Do you hold me in such little regard that you feel you can not offer me the same courtesy?" Josiah shut the box violently, and shoved it under the bed. With that he stood up, and looked down at the still floored gambler. Ezra swallowed.

"I was…I was simply waiting for you….I promised Nathan that I would….for last night, you understand? And I was only admiring the box, I was not going to open it, I swear…."

"Oh ho, and I suppose your word is worth something to me? I know exactly how much you value other people's possessions, Ezra Standish, especially those that you can pawn." The older man's lips curled into a sneer of derision, his eyes narrowed to slits as he looked down on his prey.

"So, how much did your calculating little mind figure my box was worth, huh? Because I guarantee that, whatever you got, it would never be close to how much it means to me." He turned his back and walked to the cell door. "Get out," he ordered, his arm raised to point out towards the main doors of the church, "and believe me when I tell you that I will hide that box so that you won't be able to find it again."

Despite his position, Josiah's statement about his honor had cut into Ezra, causing him to frown as his face reddened in anger. "Watch what you say, Josiah…." he began menacingly.

"I said out, wretch. I will not tell you again," Josiah interrupted, his eyes wild. His hand moved to the large Smith and Wesson by his side, emphasizing the point.

Ezra swallowed, his mouth clamped in a fine line. The fingers of his right hand moved, the tendons of his arm feeling the comforting weight of the derringer mechanism. But just as quickly as the impulse came, it was gone, though the anger remained. After a moment's pause, he nodded. "Fine, Mr. Sanchez, believe what you will."

With exaggerated care, he got up from off the floor and brushed himself off, no longer able to look Josiah in the eye.

"Please accept my apologies," the younger man said curtly as he stepped past the preacher, the sarcasm in his voice only thinly hiding the hurt. "I did not mean to intrude. Do not worry yourself further about my obviously nefarious intentions; you will not have to hide the item."

As he reached the end of the short hall, Ezra paused, his back to Josiah. "Goodbye, Mr. Sanchez, and have no fear. I will not to darken your door again. Your possessions are safe, and your life your own." He ignored the sharp intake of breath that Josiah took, assuming it to be the forerunner of another tirade, and quickly fled.

Had Ezra seen Josiah's face, he probably would have stopped. Utter distress filled the older man's features. His son's letter rose unbidden to his mind, especially the final two sentences. I will not darken your door again. Your life is your own. How the hell had Ezra managed to quote it so closely….Darkness gripped Josiah's heart. He had to get out of there.

Nathan stood a little outside the church, waiting for the two men inside to come out. He was feeling proud of himself, both for having knocked the gambler down a peg, and for, he hoped, curing a little of Josiah's melancholy from the previous evening. Thus it was that he was cruelly disappointed to see Ezra slither out of the church doors as if he had a whole host of demons on his coattails.

"Ezra?" he called across the road, as the gambler steadily strode back towards the saloon. Ezra glanced over at him, his green eyes glassy and his face red. The gambler's face darkened.

"Leave me alone, Mr. Jackson," he replied angrily, never slowing his step. Nathan stood up straight, annoyed that Standish had obviously screwed up his plan. He shook his head as Ezra all but ran back to the saloon, and hoped that Josiah would be in better shape.

He took a couple of steps towards the doors when the man himself appeared. It was immediately apparent that Josiah was not feeling better. In fact, he looked far worse. Tension lined the man's shoulders as he slammed the protesting doors shut, and headed towards the livery. A full set of saddlebags was thrown over his shoulder, along with a bedroll.

"Josiah!" the healer called, forcing the preacher to stop. Josiah looked back, his mouth set in a straight line. Nathan continued to approach him.

"Nathan," he intoned in his deep voice, a slight quaver evident. "Please forgive me, but I will not be travelling with you to the Seminole village today. Something urgent has come up and…and I need to get away for a while." He looked down at the ground, covering up for the obvious lie. Nathan stopped moving, his face clouding with anger.

"What did he say to you?" the healer demanded. Josiah shook his head.

"This has nothing to do with…" he began, then changed his mind. "Brother, please, leave him alone. This is not his fault. Right now, we just both need some time. Please."


"Nathan, promise me you will not say a word to him, either in anger or to tell him that I have left." Josiah looked up, fixing his friend with a determined stare. "And, please cover for me with Brother Larabee. I promise will not be long."

Nathan was about to argue, but the haunted expression on the normally stoic face threw him. Instead, he nodded curtly, a little frightened by the relieved look that crossed Josiah's face. As the tall man turned to head towards the stables once more, Nathan called softly after him.

"I hope you find what it is you're looking for…" he whispered on the wind. Whether Josiah heard him or not, the healer didn't know. Five minutes later, Nathan watched from the saloon boardwalk as Josiah galloped out of town.

Josiah had perhaps been galloping for a few hours when he realized that his horse was beginning to struggle under the hot sun. He slowed the lathered beast, and slid from his back, apologizing to it the whole time for being so callous. Looking around, the ex-preacher recognized that they were near a small watering hole he knew about, hidden within the depths of a nearby forest of ash and pine trees. He led the beast inside, heading directly for the small grove.

As he brushed the creature down, he silently berated himself. For some fathomless reason, his unconscious mind had sent him in the direction of Snowville, the same way that his conscious mind knew Ezra would be travelling in a few hours. What was he trying to do to himself?

He rested his head against the horse's flank, breathing in its heady smell and willed himself to calm down. He should head south now, away from Four Corners and Snowville, and towards Vista City….He shook his head, and turned wet eyes up to look at the deep blue sky through the tree tops. What he needed was to take a step back from it all. Closing his eyes, he dropped the brush and walked deeper into the small forest, taking deep breaths. His eyes popped open abruptly as he realized he could hear chanting.

"Am I going crazy?" he wondered to himself, as he approached the sound. It got louder, and he could make out the Latin phrases that were drifting across the breeze. He had heard the chant before, when, as a child, he and his father would occasionally stay at the monasteries sprinkled throughout the territories. It was sung at funerals.

Quietly, he approached the grotto that sat about a hundred yards away from his own little grove. He could make out the chanters now, and counted ten men standing in a rough oval around what Josiah presumed to be a grave. They all wore black homespun robes, and had their heads hidden within deep hoods. Most wore wooden crosses similar to his own, although one wore a silver cross that contained a small amount of filigree. This man also seemed to be the one leading the chant. Josiah stayed back, the tension leaving his frame as the soft sounds blanketed him, speaking only of peacefulness. For the first time in a long while, he felt good.

So enamored was he, that he almost didn't notice when the song ended. The monks fell back from the grave, and pushed their hoods away from their heads revealing an odd mixture of faces and ages. About half of the men were young, perhaps just in their twenties, while the rest appeared to be over sixty. It seemed strange to Josiah that there should be such a lack of the middle aged, but not impossible. The leader, if indeed that was what he was, looked to be about sixty five.

The group began speaking quietly among themselves as they gathered their things together in order to leave. A fairly large monk, bigger than Josiah, with a shock of white hair, came forward with a large wooden cross. With a grunt, the monk aimed the staked end of the cross at the ground at the head of the grave and drove it in with brute force. One of the younger monks came forward then with a mallet, and helped to drive it deeper. Josiah wondered briefly at why they would carry a mallet with them, since it would seem to only have this sort of purpose, but then he considered how difficult it must be to be travelling monks in this sort of territory.

He squinted to try and read the name carved on the cross, but he wasn't close enough. Curiosity got the better of him, and he took a step forward, not seeing the dry twig beneath his foot. An audible snap rang out across the clearing, and ten pairs of eyes took him in with surprise.

Blushing deeply, Josiah moved out of his hiding place, his hands raised in front of him. The one with the silver cross moved forward to meet him, a hand on the knife at his belt. It was the first time Josiah noticed that these men were all armed with such knives. He also noted that several of them had also thrown rifles across their backs.

"Brother," Josiah apologized, "I am truly sorry to trespass in this manner. I was watering my horse nearby when I heard your song, and I must admit that I allowed my wonderment to get the better of me. Please forgive me."

The leader watched him warily for a moment, then dropped his hand. He smiled benignly, shaking his head. "And I am sorry, Brother, for being so untrusting. It does not befit men of our calling. I see you wear a cross around your neck, are you such as we?" His voice was scratchy, as if he had just smoked a whole sheaf of tobacco without taking any cleansing breaths in between. His tone also suggested how tired these men probably were. Josiah dropped his hands, drawing them together behind his back.

"I was once, yes. Unfortunately, unlike you good souls, I have lost my way." He inclined his head to take them all in. "However, I believe I am finding my way back. Certainly witnessing such a peaceful scene as yours helps greatly, however inadvertent. But there again, I must beg your apology for my rudeness on this sad occasion." He kept his head bowed as he looked around. The other monks looked to their leader, waiting for the older man's response.

The leader inclined his head, his smile becoming warmer. "Of course you have it, my Brother. We are all family here. As for the sadness of this occasion, while a death is always a loss for those of us left behind, for the one who dies, we are content to know he has gone to a better place." He looked over at the grave, then back at Josiah. "Please, will you join us? We were about to travel back to our main camp and have lunch." He gestured vaguely to the south. Josiah's own face broke into a pleased smile as he nodded.

"Thank you, I would love to."

This broke the awkwardness, and the monks went back to their tasks, gathering wood and so on for the trip back. Josiah approached the leader and introduced himself. He also explained that he had some food of his own he might contribute, although it was back with his horse. The leader smiled.

"Thank you, Brother Josiah. That is very kind but unnecessary," the older man said, "We have more than enough. I am Brother Calvin, by the by, and the leader of this small group of wayward monks." He grinned wider, noting Josiah's raised eyebrows. "I use the term ‘wayward' in that we were supposed to be travelling to a monastery in the Dakota Territories but got sidetracked. At first, we simply got lost, but, somewhere along the way, a handful of us decided that we might better serve the population of this Godless place if we stayed among the people. Now, we no longer heed to any one particular order – preferring to create our own."

Josiah took this in with a nod, not wishing to delve too deeply, and looked around at the other monks who moved quickly past them. "Is this all of you?"

The smile fell a little from Calvin's face. "Yes. Most of our initial group continued north to the monastery." He sighed, "We tried to persuade them, but not everyone has our, shall we say, passion for life?" He chuckled dryly as he led Josiah out of the clearing and towards the main camp.

The other monks had already disappeared in that direction, having gotten lost in the trees in their dark clothes. Josiah wondered at how quickly these men had adjusted to life in the wild, he hadn't even heard them as they left. Calvin continued to speak, prompted by questions from Josiah about how long they had been out here and where they had been.

"I suppose we have been travelling for about a year now, heading generally in a westerly direction deeper into the heathen lands. We have dedicated ourselves to spreading the word of God, although not as missionaries. We do not believe in trying to force the heathens to our way of life until our own people have seen the light. As such, it is towards those of our race that we dedicate our energies, trying to cure the sins of gambling and death that have infested this land." He laughed a little at Josiah's grimace. "I never said it was an easy goal, Josiah, merely the one we have chosen." He sighed, "At the moment, we are on our way to visit Snowville next, and then down to Greeley."

"Not Four Corners?" Josiah couldn't resist the question.

"Is that you're home?" Calvin returned, looking up at the much taller man. Josiah didn't answer immediately, then nodded curtly.

"For now," he replied.

Calvin nodded as well, not pressing. Ahead of them, the forest opened to reveal a large clearing filled with a variety of tents and several small fires. The monks were bustling about, obviously getting lunch together. Calvin gestured towards a centrally located tent, and together the two men headed towards it.

"Well, perhaps if you will be there, we might stop and visit," the monk grinned. Josiah grinned back, and happily let himself slip back into the religious atmosphere of the camp as if he were slipping into his poncho.

He was so well distracted, that he was not even thinking about the gambler as Ezra and his two young charges drifted past on the outskirts of the forest about an hour later. For his part, Ezra saw the smoke from the cooking fires above the trees, but chose not to investigate. Vin and JD would be by this way on patrol soon and would be in a better position to ensure that nothing was amiss.

The gambler placed a hand to his chest, feeling the outline of the leather bound volume of essays he still held there. He hadn't meant to take it, and part of him wondered if Josiah had been right about his penchant for thievery. Briefly, he thought of returning it, but found he was too much of a coward to face Josiah again that day. The damn preacher had a way of cutting Ezra's heart to shreds with a few words, and, even after the incident with that assassin's ten thousand dollars, he still held on to the vain hope that Josiah still believed in him. The others didn't trust him, but Josiah….Well, damn the man. Ezra didn't need any of them.

Yeah right.

He wiped a tired hand across his dust covered face, and closed his eyes. Look into your own heart, Ezra. Blame yourself.

The boys yelled for his attention, and he allowed himself to be drawn into their game.

After several hours, Josiah was feeling extremely comfortable. Lunch had been wonderful, and to be able to talk dogma with these men had been so refreshing. He found that the monks had quite a few opinions that diverged with his own, but for the most part he felt as if he really fit in. His happiness must have been obvious on his face, because as the monks began to break camp in order to travel the rest of the way to Snowville, he found Calvin by his side asking Josiah to go with them.

Josiah sat up straight, amazement on his face. "What? You mean join your order?"

"Umm," Calvin smiled, looking around, "yes, in a matter of speaking. Of course it is not as simple as just agreeing, and what we do is not for the faint of heart…."

"Oh, of course," Josiah replied, his eyes . "I did not mean to sound so flippant. Its just, well, it is a surprise…." He shrugged, one hand moving up to scratch self consciously at his neck. Calvin nodded his understanding.

"I realize this is not a simple decision Josiah. However, my brothers and I have spoken, and we believe you would do well within our ranks. You clearly care deeply for the Faith, and your strength and courage would be a welcome addition." He stood, and Josiah quickly stood as well. Several of the others were watching them, though most pretended that they were not listening.

Calvin continued, "From what you have told me about what you do in Four Corners, I thought that perhaps you were not happy with your current way of life. I am offering you a new one."

"Brother Calvin, I am truly…thankful. But you do not know everything about me. My past holds a great deal of darkness, and while I am trying to return to the light, I am not sure that I am there yet…."

"Josiah, what you have been and done in your past does not concern me. Many of us here have shady pasts, myself included, all happening before we found God. You are an honest man with more to offer than a gun. You have the ability to save men's souls, brother, and it is to that future and that future alone that I look." Calvin stepped back, his face firm and his stance steady. "What do you say?"

Josiah swallowed. Maybe this was it? The crossroads where he could finally find a way home – to the church he had lost so long ago. Again, his mind was taken back to Francis's letter, and Josiah marveled at how so much could happen in so short a time. These monks were offering him the life he thought just last night that he'd lost forever, the life he'd secretly wished he would return to someday. He looked down at Calvin, who was still watching him quietly.

Josiah took a step back and hurriedly went over in his mind what he would leave behind: a ramshackle church without a congregation, a town that would probably disappear back into the dust from whence it came within a few years, a rough life of guns and blood, a thankless job protecting people who barely registered his existence….Not much to hold on to. But then…there was his friends. Those six men who had come to mean a great deal to him, and, he was pretty sure, he meant something to them as well. They were men that he counted on as if they were his blood. Especially the one he sometimes forgot was not his own blood. Could he leave them?

Calvin sighed, seeing the warring emotions playing across the other man's features. Perhaps he was wrong, he thought. This Josiah was obviously a God fearing man with the qualities of the Archangel Michael, and he had tremendous potential, but perhaps he was not as true a believer as he seemed. The older man shrugged, looking away. Perhaps Snowville would provide the solution, a way to prove to this man the strength of their path. Calvin's eyes glittered – they needed men like Josiah. He would not give up yet.

"Josiah, I realize that we sort of sprung this on you. Do not believe you must make a decision now. We will be passing this way again, in order to travel to your Four Corners. Perhaps you would be kind enough to meet us here tomorrow evening. I am certain by that time you will be able to see more clearly who we are and what we do." With that, Calvin nodded farewell and headed towards the wagon on which he and several of his elder brothers rode. The rest of the monks uncharacteristically rode horses.

Waving farewell, Josiah shook his head a little after the clearing emptied of everyone except himself and his horse, whom he had brought into the grove a few hours ago. He headed to the horse now, and took his saddlebags and bedroll off the mare's back. He would spend the night here, for he had an awful lot of thinking to do.

It was leading towards twilight when Vin and JD started drifting through the woods on their horses to where Josiah rested. It was their final stop on their way home after their patrol, and both were looking towards a few long draughts and a deep sleep. They were not even going to stop, but they saw the smoke from Josiah's campfire.

Picking their way through the dried leaves, Vin cupped his hands to his mouth and called into the clearing and the lone man resting there, "Hello the camp!"

Josiah stood up and returned the greeting, surprising both newcomers. Vin scratched at his head as they rode up, and JD grinned. Surreptitiously, Josiah placed the nearly empty bottle of whiskey back on the ground by his wobbly legs. Only Vin had noticed the death grip the man had had on the bottle before letting go.

"Hey Josiah!" the young sheriff greeted, "what are you doing out here? I thought you were with Nathan at the village."

"I am merely sorting a few things out, brother Dunne. Needed solitude. What about you?" Josiah's words slurred slightly, and JD's smile faltered a little. His surprise at realizing Josiah was drunk prevented him from answering immediately.

"We saw your camp, thought we should check it out," Vin replied, covering for JD's loss of words, and looked around him. He took in the trampled grass and still smoldering fire pits. "Looks like you were not the only one to use this field today."

"Nope. There were some monks here earlier."

JD blinked. "Monks? As in long robes and funny haircuts?"

Josiah smiled, shaking his head a little. "Well, not exactly, though you got the robes right. Actually, they were a very interesting group of men. They claim to be on a quest to save the souls of men such as ourselves." Taking in Vin's frown, Josiah nodded understandingly.

"They are not here to save those who do not share our faith, Brother Vin. They will leave our Indian friends alone, although I may have convinced them to visit Four Corners." Vin continued to frown, but tempered it a little in the face of Josiah's strange mood – he seemed to be sitting somewhere between euphoria and utter despair. Meanwhile, Vin noted, the bottle wasn't helping. Next to Vin, JD merely wanted to hear more.

"How did you meet ‘em, Josiah? I always thought Monks were supposed to be taking vows of silence and all that."

The rumbling laugh from the large man echoed a little in the clearing. "Don't believe everything you read, Brother Dunne. These men are big talkers, and singers. Indeed, it was their singing that awakened me to their presence. They were singing over the grave of one of their brothers over yonder." He pointed vaguely North. Vin followed his direction, planning to have a look later. Just in case. He'd never heard of Monks just wandering around like that, and a nagging feeling itched at his spine.

"Well, sounds like a great experience, Josiah. I wouldn't mind meeting some monks, if for no other reason than that I can tell Casey about it," JD mused, patting down his horse who was getting a little bored just standing around. Vin's Peso shifted a little as well, and the tracker smiled lightly one more time down at his friend.

"We'd best be heading home then, Josiah. You going to be alright out here on your own?"

"I've been out on my own for more years than you've been alive, brother Vin," The ex-preacher chastised. Vin nodded and turned Peso's head around towards the direction of the grave. If Josiah noticed, he didn't say anything. Instead, the ex-preacher sat down heavily, and took a long swig of the amber liquid, finishing the bottle. Another was quickly fished out from his saddlebags. JD blinked where he sat on his horse, thrown by the abrupt end to the conversation and Josiah's amazing ability to hold onto his alcohol, and looked after Vin.

"Oh," JD said, "I guess that means we're leaving. Okay. See you later Josiah!" He waved and headed out after Vin who was already half way across the field. Josiah watched them leave with a sigh, his mind returning to the fact that they were very good friends…friends he would miss terribly.

Vin leapt off Peso's back as he reached the graveside. In the deepening gloom, the area took on the uneasy quietness of a cemetery. Shaking off the foreboding in his soul, the tracker knelt by the grave and tried to make sense of the letters etched into the wood. He was learning still, but he felt he should be able to make sense of a name by now.

"Can you read it?" JD asked, thinking of the lack of light in the secluded glen.

"Of course I can," Vin spat angrily, peering more closely. Not understanding the tone, JD jumped from his horse and came to stand next to where his friend knelt.

"Oh. Just thought you could use a match," the young Sheriff said quietly, not wishing to offend again. Not that he knew why he offended in the first place. He looked down at his feet, then over at the horses.

Vin shut his eyes and mentally slapped himself. Looking up, he nodded. "Yeah," he said, "a match would help. Sorry I snapped, guess I'm just tired."

Brightening immediately, JD pulled a book of matches from his pocket and handed the book to his friend. He stepped forward as Vin struck one and held it to the cross. JD hissed in surprise.

"Lyle ‘liver-eating' Jones?"

Equally surprised, Vin had dropped the match, forcing him to light another. They checked the name again. JD stepped back, looking wonderingly at the place, and back towards where they left Josiah. "That's the man we arrested by accident when Governor Hopewell was here last year, right? The one who told us about Stutts and his son?"

Vin shook his head. "Well, he did say he found God."

"Jones weren't no monk, Vin. And, while I may not know much, I'm pretty sure someone like him would need to do an awful lot of praying before he'd be allowed to be one. It seems awful quick."

Vin stood and looked back towards the tiny glimpse of firelight they could still see through the trees. JD made to head back to his horse, intending to go ask Josiah again what he saw. Vin clucked his tongue, stopping the younger man.

"Not tonight, JD. Josiah's not in the mood for questions."

The young sheriff looked ready to argue, but he too knew what Josiah was like when he was drunk. They remembered all too well what happened the time the Pinkerton Agent came to town. Josiah's near suicidal temperament at the time had nearly cost him his life when he wouldn't deny killing Irene. Not that any of them had believed that Josiah had done the killings, but his behavior had been scary, to say the least. Only Vin knew what had charged it. Seeing Josiah drunk in the field reminded Vin of that time, and he wouldn't press the man now.

"Then we'll come back in the morning," JD answered. Vin merely nodded. Quietly, both men led their horses away from the gravesite and back towards Four Corners. They gave the campsite a wide berth.

Snowville was bigger than Four Corners, and held more money. It also boasted a far rougher group of clientele. Normally, Ezra made sure he stayed sober and alert when he visited its depths, but not tonight. After dropping off the children, he gave into the depression and anger that Josiah had dredged up inside of him and started to lay waste to several bottles of good Tennessee whiskey.

Sometime around midnight, Ezra found himself smiling blearily through the alcohol induced haze that shrouded his eyes and watered down his brain. In his amazingly steady fingers he held the winning hand, nodding slightly as the man to his right raised the pot yet another five dollars. He dug into the rather large pile of cash in front of him and raised himself, tossing bills into the center pot. The man to his left scowled, and threw his cards down, muttering some cliché about this game being too rich for his blood. Ezra glanced at him with disdain, and then eyed his next opponent. He grimaced slightly as he watched the man suck at his cheeks, obviously working on a spectacular amount of saliva.

The large rancher spit loudly into the spittoon near the bar, releasing some of the chewing tobacco in his mouth along with the saliva. Black liquid ran down his chin, causing him to rub a roughened palm over his well tanned skin to wipe it away. With the hand still on his chin, he glared narrowly at Ezra, his smaller mind obviously trying to calculate the odds that Ezra had already worked through…and sneered.

"I call," he growled hoarsely, ignoring Ezra's raised eyebrow. Down the line, the others called as well, until it returned to the red coated gambler. With a calm demeanor, Ezra laid down the four of a kind – all deuces.

"Bastard!" The caller yelled, standing up quickly. "Cheater!"

Ezra sighed as he drew the pot towards him. He'd already been thrown out of the only other saloon in town for getting into a fight with the last man to call him cheater. His luck was too good tonight to risk getting tossed out of this one as well.

"I do not cheat, nor would I need to with such opponents…." he drawled thickly, sorting the bills into a nice wad and tucking it away in his pocket. "However, if you wish to check my sleeves I would be happy…." Suddenly he felt an arm around his neck. Somehow, without his noticing, his accuser had rounded the table and taken him into a choke hold.

This was really too much, Ezra thought absurdly as he struggled for breath. Green bloodshot eyes looked around and quickly realized that no help was forthcoming. Gritting his teeth, he flicked his wrist to release the derringer and lifted his arm to point it over his shoulder. His consciousness on the verge of fleeting, he aimed at the man's arm, trying to graze him.

"Hey," the rancher yelled, his arm loosening as he saw the weapon. His call was too late, however, and Ezra's shot rang out. His assailant screamed and fell backwards like a ton of bricks, bringing the gambler and his chair with him to the floor. They fell to the ground with a loud clatter.

The whole room silenced, then the shouting began as Ezra slowly moved to pull himself out of the other man's grip on the floor. For his part, the large rancher had begun yelling, screaming bloody murder as he gripped his left arm. "He shot me! Bastard shot me!"

Several other men approached the gambler, probably intending to take him down, something Ezra expected. Quickly, he spun around, the tiny gun still in his right hand, his reflexes moving to simultaneously pull the Colt out from his shoulder holster with his other. Unfortunately, his inebriated semi-conscious state refused to permit such a rapid move, and he fell sideways into a nearby table, flipping it upwards. With large roars of anger, the table's occupants took offense at having their drinks spilled and their money scattered.

That was when the fighting began in earnest.

At some point, Ezra found himself crawling on the floor, men, alcohol and shattering glass all around him. He never actually managed to remove his guns from their holsters, so, with only his derringer in hand, he slithered steadily towards where he hoped the back door would be. Someone stepped on him, bringing his face to the floor with a painful whoosh. Shaking the dizziness from his mind, he tried to keep to his goal of escaping. Gamely, he got up once more to his hands and knees. Again, however, he was not to be successful.

This time, someone was pushed over him, falling heavily across his aching back. Ezra felt himself lose his balance, nearly falling into a heap with the man who had been pushed. Somehow, though, he managed to catch himself. His relief was short lived, however, as the pusher, seeing Ezra's position on the ground, proceeded to deliver a rib busting kick to the gambler. Gripping his side with his free hand, Ezra collapsed onto his back with a yelp, staring upwards and gasping as an unknown face grinned down at him.

"My," the gambler whispered up at the grinning face standing over him, "how you mother must have cried when she saw that face come out of her." With a speed borne of anger, Ezra whipped his legs around to sweep the laughing stranger of his feet, bringing the bastard down to the floor with a harsh thud. Then the gambler got up and poured a handy glass of beer over the man's head. He grinned, his gold tooth flashing at the man's pitiful spluttering.

A bottle smashed somewhere near his head, startling the lawman. Staring about wildly, he ducked and remembered where he was. At once, he was headed once more to the back of the saloon, this time on foot. Men pushed at him from all sides, and he shoved back, but he didn't lose any time. Shots rang out near the front of the saloon as the local law arrived, calling an end to the revelry. Embarrassed, and hoping to avoid a night in jail, Ezra found the rear and lit out through the kitchens to the back door.

With a huge sigh, he stepped out into the cool night air, pushing his derringer back into place under his sleeve, and thanking Fortune for letting him escape. Taking a deep breath, and groaning a little as his bruised ribs protested, he made to look around to find the quickest way back to the hotel.

Of course, that was when the blow fell.

The pain was sharp and sudden, forcing bright stars to dance before his vision. He collapsed forward into utter blackness, his last thoughts damning the fickle goddess for her inconstancy.

Calvin looked up as the large silver haired monk pushed through the door of the disused barn on the edge of town, carrying a large sack over his shoulder. Four younger monks bounced inside after the large man, and one came forward with a blissful smile on his face.

"We got him, Brother. This is the sinner who started the brawl in the Silver Mine Saloon earlier, as well as the fight that just ended in the Golden Goose." He looked around as the large man dropped his burden to the floor with a heavy thud, allowing a red coated arm to spill out of the black burlap. With slow movements, the other monks moved forward to extricate the gambler out of the rest of the sack. "From what we observed, he is an inveterate gambler, a cheat and a con, and a drunk. As if that was not enough, he shot a man in the arm in the Golden Goose, as well, in order to save himself."

Calvin nodded, and stood to look down at his new charge. Ezra lay unconscious on the floor, black blood crusting on the back of his neck. The monk knelt down and brushed a hand across Ezra's forehead, brushing back the hair almost gently.

"Welcome to your salvation, my son," he whispered. He looked up at the men around him. "Tie him to this chair. We'll begin in the morning. By tomorrow afternoon, we will be able to present him to our newest member with pride." With creaking joints, Calvin stood up and silently drifted off. He knew his orders would be carried out without question.

Part Two

Vin looked up at the darkened windows of Nathan's clinic above the livery, and tensed his jaw. If something was going on with Josiah, the healer was probably the best one to explain what. But Nathan was away, and wasn't expected back until noon the next day. Part of the younger man wondered whether they should wait for the healer's presence before going out and questioning Josiah about the grave.

It was pretty clear to Vin that something was not quite right with Josiah. He had that same lost look on his face that he held whenever he came back from visiting his sister. But this time there seemed to be confusion in the older man's eyes. As if he were standing on the edge of oblivion, and wasn't sure which way was up.

Sighing, Vin nearly jumped as JD wandered up to stand next to him. The boy smiled, pleased that he seemed to have gotten the jump on the tracker, even if it was unintentional.

"You thinking we should wait for Nate to get back?" JD asked, yawning. He too looked up to gaze at the dark windows.

"I don't know. Maybe we should ask Chris in the morning." He paused, pursing his lips. "You know, JD, there maybe nothing to this."

JD looked askance at his friend, "But you think something is wrong."

Vin thought on this for a minute, then nodded.

"Then something is wrong," JD announced. "We'll talk to the others in the morning." He yawned again and stretched his back. "Right, I'll see you then."

Vin smiled as he watched the young sheriff walk quietly away. Damn it felt good to be so trusted. Then his smile fell as he realized that, what was being trusted was that something was wrong with Josiah and his so-called monks. Not for the first time, Vin wished one of his hunches was wrong.

Dull, irritated aches intruded upon the blackness of his mind, calling attention to various different parts of his body. His legs ached, his arms throbbed, especially at the wrists, his chest complained and his head….Oh god. As he became more aware, the discomfort began to translate into throbbing bursts of pain, radiating from his skull down his back to his legs. Everything hurt, and to top it all off, his bladder was on the point of agony.

Then he realized he couldn't move.

Green eyes shot open, and a cry of irritation escaped his lips at his fettered state. His confused, hung over brain desperately tried to take stock of his surroundings, but nothing made sense. Was this reality? Was he really in some cobweb filled barn somewhere, tied rudely to a chair, surrounded by figures dressed like death?

No, not death. Dressed like…monks? What in the world?

Slightly more cognizant now, he took stock. His head hurt like hell, why? A blow to the head and a nasty hangover. The fight in the saloon. Were these men here because of that? Did they work for the rancher he'd shot? Monks, working for a rancher? He shook his head, trying to clear it. His ribs hurt like hell, from the abuse at the saloon he understood. Also, the tight bands of coil around them, holding him to the chair, weren't helping, especially as they pressed Josiah's book irritatingly into his skin. These men hadn't removed it…nor had they taken his clothes other than his jacket and hat. He sat there in his shirt and heavily brocaded waistcoat, its thick material effectively hiding the book tucked neatly inside, and shivered slightly. Of course, his weapons were gone….

Blinking rapidly to bring some liquid into his dry eyes, he watched haplessly as a monk with a silver cross about his neck approached him quietly. He looked wonderingly up at the slight figure, unable to keep the confusion from his face.

"Welcome, sinner." The man announced, his face deeply hidden in the recesses beneath his hood.

Sinner? Ezra closed his mouth, his brow furrowing. His headache pulsed angrily in response.

"I am Brother Calvin, and we are here to save you from yourself," the monk continued, smiling, his white teeth flashing in the half light of the ramshackle structure. Stepping back into a sliver of sunlight that peeked between the cracks of the disused barn, the monk threw back his hood to reveal himself. As Ezra got a good look at the man's face, he couldn't repress the hiss of worry. The insanity that dwelled within the man's features was as plain to the gambler as red cardinal in the snows of Missouri. Such was the gambler's gift of reading people, as infallible as Vin and his hunches.

Course, being tied to a chair in a filthy disused barn helped.

"Brother John," Calvin indicated a huge man standing taller than Nathan behind him. The man threw back his own hood, revealing white downy hair. "John will take you out to relieve yourself of some of the filthy liquor you imbibed last night. Then you and I will begin your work."

Still unable to speak, Ezra watched dumbfounded as the other monks also dropped their hoods, revealing similarly maddened visages that he perceived as easily as the color of the hair on their heads. He tensed involuntarily as the huge man named John came forward with a knife. For a second, he thought of running, but the sound of several rifle hammers being cocked changed his mind.

One thing he knew for sure, these men were not monks.

Maybe they were missionaries?

Ten minutes later he was being tied again to the chair by the same large, and silent, monk named John. The gambler grimaced slightly at the soreness in his ribs and the way the volume of essays dug even deeper into his skin. However, at least one part of his body wasn't screaming in pain at him anymore, and he hoped water would be forthcoming soon. He turned quieter eyes on the one named Calvin.

The old monk approached him, and grabbed the bound man's chin roughly in a vice like grip. Ezra held his breath, but didn't take his eyes off the fool in front of him.

Calvin nodded, happy to see that the gambler's pupils looked even. No concussion. Probably just a terrible headache. He smiled.

"Well, sinner, how about we begin by you telling me your name?"

Annoyed, Ezra didn't answer.

Calvin smile listed strangely, and he tilted his head to one side. "Well, I suppose it isn't necessary for you to tell us. You see, we have your wanted poster in our possession." He released Ezra's chin and looked towards a young blond monk, no older than JD. "Brother Peter found your face on an old bill from Fort Laramie, Mr. Standish. Bail skipping. Interesting. Care to tell us what the charge was?"

In the background, young Peter held up the faded bill in his hands to show Ezra. The gambler's own face looked back at him, poorly drawn, but definitely him. Ezra looked away.

When the gambler once more didn't answer, Calvin sighed. "Fine, well, again, I suppose it doesn't matter. We have easily discerned from watching you last night that you are a gambler and a con. Also, an attempted murderer."

Ezra's eyes narrowed, then realized that Calvin must be referring to the rancher he had shot in the arm in self defense. He considered arguing, but something deep inside him told him it would be pointless. He would just have to ride this out.

Calvin kneeled in front of Ezra, and looked up at the younger man's face. "However, Mr. Standish, I will not tolerate insolence like yours for long. At this point, it would appear that actions may speak louder than words, especially as you seem to be at a loss for them. Something which I believe is rare in your profession," Calvin smiled, then turned to a short, rather plump, young, black-haired monk. "Brother Paul?"

John, Paul, Peter? What was this, the cult version of the last supper? Ezra looked up as the black haired boy approached him, knife in hand. He reflexively flinched backwards as Paul grabbed his left shoulder and ran the knife across his upper arm. A shocked cry of pain burst from his lips, and he had to shut his eyes to try and calm the abused nerve endings.

"Not mute after all, eh?" Calvin grinned. Paul proceeded to rip the rest of the fabric off of Ezra's arm, leaving it bare.

The gambler took a few deep breaths, then opened his eyes once more. The knife wound wasn't deep, just painful. He glared at the monk. "Pray explain why you felt it necessary to abuse such a fine shirt," he demanded.

"It always amazes me how men of your ilk value such transitory possessions," Calvin replied, shaking his head. "Nevertheless, the action has done as I'd hoped and loosened your tongue. To answer your question, Ezra, this is the first step on your road to redemption. For the ruination of a mere material possession and the temporary shock of pain, we offer salvation." A beatific look lit upon Calvin's face, and the other monks stepped closer behind their leader.

"Salvation," Ezra repeated, waiting for the other shoe to drop.

"You must repent your sins, sinner Ezra, and embrace the true faith. You must believe in the light of God, and forsake the devil that has you in its embrace. When we have helped you find your way, you will be ready to take the last steps on your own. At that time, we will release you from this mortal coil to join your brothers above, where you can face God with a light heart, and we will sing your praises as your soul is graced." Calvin's arms became outstretched as he said this, his eyes taking on a far away look.

"When you have released me from my mortal coil…" Ezra's eyes widened, his body shuddering a little at the meaning behind those words. "Does that mean what I think it does? Um, forgive my ignorance…gentlemen…but isn't killing a man sort of against your code? I mean, isn't the point to send the saved back out in the world so that they might also spread the word, so to speak?" The gambler looked at the four men who stood behind their leader, all young except for John. Ezra wondered how many more were outside. Calvin just regarded him benignly, now the one not answering. Ezra swallowed.

"And what if I don't repent?" the gambler asked.

Calvin's gaze focused intently on the bound man. "That won't happen, my son. You will be saved."

Ezra's jaw clenched, bristling at use of "son," and thinking suddenly of Josiah. From there, his mind drifted to the others, and he realized they had no idea that he was in trouble. His only hope was that he might stall the monks long enough for the others to get worried. He looked up at Calvin, and managed one of his famous smiles.

"Don't bet on it," Ezra drawled. "My money will be on my friends when they come to ‘save' you once they learn of your little cult."

Calvin's face fell slightly, but it was clear he was not about to be daunted so early in the game. The older man spun on his heels and indicated to Paul. The young monk disappeared out the door. Calvin then nodded to Peter, who put down the wanted poster still in his hands and picked up a bible.

"Brother Peter will read you a few relevant passages of the Good Book, while Paul helps our other brothers cleave you of your mortal possessions," Calvin smiled wider.

"So Sayeth the Lord," the gambler said mockingly, wondering what they could have of his other than his jacket, cards and weapons. Calvin merely favored him with a look, then Peter opened the bible and began reading. Sighing inwardly, Ezra settled down for a long wait.

Suddenly, the whinnying of a horse caught his attention beyond the prattle of Peter's words. As much as his bonds allowed, Ezra sat up even straighter, recognizing the screams of his closest companion. Calvin raised an eyebrow at Ezra's sudden change.

"How the hell?!" Ezra yelled, "How did you…? My God, let him go! Bastards! Let him go!"

Now both of Calvin's eyebrows were raised. Outside, Chaucer continued to scream and snort in fear and anger. At that same instant, Paul ran back inside and jogged up to Calvin's side, his face flushed and looking wild. As he whispered urgently into the older monk's ears, Calvin's eyes clouded over and he glared at Ezra. He then looked over at John. The large white haired monk stood attention.

"Bring him outside to witness," Calvin barked, then followed Paul back outside with the blond Peter on his tail. Ezra allowed himself a small smile as he realized that Chaucer would not give in easily. John cut the rope tying him to the chair, but not the ones around his wrists. These John kept bound behind Ezra's back. Nearby, one other monk had remained and had a rifle bead drawn on the gambler. John pulled Ezra roughly to his feet, then pushed him out of the barn.

The first thing to become clear was that they were in the middle of nowhere, though, Ezra surmised, they can't be that far from Snowville. Or at least, he hoped not. He also noted that the sun was just peeking over the horizon, indicating it must still be early morning. Without a word, John continued to shove him in the direction of the side of the barn. As he rounded the corner, the gambler stopped, digging in his heels.

Had he not been bound, Ezra would have killed each and every one of these sick men.

"Let him GO!" Ezra screamed, his eyes tearing as he strained to be released from John's sudden grip on the back of his waistcoat.

Before him, Chaucer was being held down by several ropes, held by at least four men. Lines of dried blood were obvious on the bay stallion's back and rear, and Chaucer's eyes were white with fear. Fury filled the gambler. How the hell did they get him here? How did they even know Chaucer was his horse? How long had they been watching him? His composure completely gone, Ezra began shouting again wildly for Chaucer's release.

The horse strained against its bonds, raising its head towards Ezra's voice, and whinnied even louder. Two men were unconscious on the ground near the horse's back hooves, earning a smile from the gambler, but there was one old monk standing off to the side that brought chills to Ezra's heart. The grizzled old man was clearly waiting for an opening, holding tight to the branding iron in the fire.

Calvin approached Ezra from where he had been standing near the grizzled monk, his usual smile gone from his face. "Calm your beast down, Mr. Standish."

"Go f--k a nun!" Ezra spat, his rage unmitigated by his fear. Calvin's head reared back as if physically slapped by the insult, his nostrils flaring. John released his hold on the gambler to slap him hard across the back of his head, and stars flashed across Ezra's vision for a moment. He ended up staggering forward a little towards the man in charge.

"Fine, then we will simply have to kill him," Calvin replied angrily, turning away to give the signal.

That was it. Before either John or his armed companion could react, Ezra leapt at Calvin, driving the smaller man into the ground. The young monk who had been covering Ezra with the rifle cried out, dropping his weapon uselessly to the ground so that he could go and help his master. Meanwhile, Ezra had rolled away quickly and jumped to his feet. Without thinking, he ran in a desperate charge towards Chaucer, a quickly recovered John close on his heels.

Screaming bloody murder, Ezra barreled into one of the monks holding Chaucer down, knocking the man into the ground. Without that man's counterbalance, a monk on the other side similarly lost his footing and fell backwards, the rope useless in his hands. Chaucer, feeling the sudden release, started fighting even harder, and managed to kick one of the remaining monks in the knee. Then he was free!

Driven by fear and confusion, Chaucer took off, galloping hard. He didn't pick a direction – all the horse knew was that he had to get away as fast as possible. Calvin, sitting up in the dust, signaled to his men to fire, but, thankfully, every shot missed.

At the same instant that Chaucer was freed, John had jumped on Ezra, bringing the gambler down, and was followed by several other monks, creating a pile of crushed limbs. The gambler didn't put up a fight, especially as his hands were still bound behind him. Indeed, when John finally pulled him out, Ezra was unconscious.

"Wake him up!" Calvin ordered, standing over Ezra where he had been bound again to the chair. Someone threw a large bucket of water at the inert form, shocking the gambler back into awareness. He blinked hurriedly and noticed first that his dull headache from before was now much louder. He gritted his teeth and focused on seeing his surroundings. Unfortunately, that meant looking at that madman's face again, as well as the circle of black robed cronies.

Calvin watched him owlishly, waiting for the gambler to come to full attention. Ezra smiled when he noticed a slight purpling on the side of the older man's face from his fall. Calvin didn't return the favor. Instead, The silver haired monk appeared to be taking deep breaths, as if preparing for an ordeal. As he saw Ezra's eyes on him again, he took one final breath and tried to appear calm.

"It would appear, young Ezra, that you have been brought up to value the worth of a mere beast over that of your fellow man."

Young Ezra? That was almost worse than son. "Did he get away?" the gambler asked, not really expecting an answer. Calvin's jaw muscles flinched, and he shook his head.

"If you mean by ‘he,' did your wild beast escape….Yes."

A smile broke on Ezra's face. Calvin scowled, but quickly regained his composure. He got in closer to the gambler, kneeling down and placing a hand on his captive's leg. Ezra's smile wavered somewhat.

"It would seem that our Ezra has been taught the beliefs of the heathen," Calvin whispered. Nods came from the men in the background. Unconsciously, Ezra raised his eyebrows at the odd moment. Calvin patted his thigh.

"You must have been taught very poorly, my son, to place the life of a possession over that of your own. Tell me, in what belief were you brought up?" Calvin asked quietly, tilting his head to the side like a teacher to a naughty pupil.

Ezra simply shook his head. Calvin's eyes narrowed.

"This is not a trick question, young man. All I am asking is, who trained you?" He paused, pursing his lips, and tried again, "In what is it that you believe?"

"What do I believe?" Ezra repeated, and a mischievous glint came to his eyes. "Oh, that's easy. I believe you're crazy," Ezra whispered back, his smirk back in full force. Calvin shook his head and looked disapprovingly at the gambler.

"No son, I am not asking you that." He sighed, his face taking on an expression of infinite sadness. "I am asking if you believe in God."

The gambler looked at Calvin for a moment before answering. He knew exactly what this man wanted, but he was damned if he was going to give it to him. "What I believe," Ezra finally replied, licking his lips, "is my own."

Calvin used Ezra's eyebrow trick, frowning slightly, but he didn't give in to his urge to hit the younger man for his insolence. "My son…." he began, but Ezra interrupted.

"Hold up, Cal. That's the fourth time you have used that term, and I think you should know that I am not, nor will I ever be, your son. There is only one man whom I might suffer the privilege of calling me such, and believe me, you do not even deserve to breathe the same air as him." Ezra spoke harshly, betraying some of the anger under his own cool exterior.

"Ezra, Ezra," Calvin clicked his tongue as if at a wayward child. "Please try to stop being so caustic. My question is a simple one. There is only one God, Him in whom we all believe, and all I ask is that you profess your belief in him as well…as I know you must."

"Then you know very little," Ezra replied. He took a deep breath, ordering his thoughts. They wanted an answer? Well, fine.

"I do have beliefs, Cal. Strong beliefs. I believe that I can feel the dirt beneath my feet, and that there is a sky over my head. I believe that there are trees that shed their leaves in the fall, and snakes that shed their skin as they grow. I believe that mankind will continue to grow at an amazing rate, and that you can do nothing to stop the growth of ideas and beliefs that will come with it." He paused taking a breath, happily noticing that the smile on Calvin's face had begun to falter. Quickly he plunged on.

"But more importantly, Cal, I believe in my right to think. We live in a country that is based on the freedom of ideas, including the free exercise of religion. Or, as some would have it, freedom from religion." He smiled a little, aware that he was bordering on the trite and loving it. "What I believe, Cal, is that this country has a Constitution that protects us from people like you; from having ideas and beliefs imposed upon us. How effective it will be still has yet to be seen, but I will continue to have faith in the ideals it is based on. The right to be free and equal, Calvin, and the right to make up my own mind. That is what I believe in."

Calvin's smile had almost disappeared from his face. Ezra's eyes narrowed, and he leaned forward as far as the ropes would allow. The book that sat over his heart seemed comforting now as it pressed against him. He sneered at the monk.

"But what I believe in the most right now, Calvin, is this. There is no way in hell that I would ever believe in you or your sick, perverted version of a god. The God I believe in, if I believe in him at all, is one who is beautiful, loving and kind, strong and forgiving, like a certain man I know. God would never sanction what you do, false father, and he most certainly will not bless you for it in the hereafter."

The irritation plain on his face, Calvin stood up and struck Ezra hard across his face, rocking the man's head back. Then the silver haired monk turned to Peter, who flinched back a little at the glare.

"Is Brother Thomas ready?"

Peter trotted to the door as Calvin returned an angry gaze to the man in front of him. Ezra stared back as impassively as possible, though his vision was blurring alarmingly as a result of the second blow. His head could not take much more abuse. Added to the burning ribs protected poorly by Josiah's book, and the new bruises from the fight, pain emanated from almost every part of his frame. Of course, he was not about to let this bastard know that.

Peter trotted back in, a smile on his face. Calvin nodded at him, and looked at Ezra.

"Well, sinner, you are about to receive your second lesson in not listening to your betters. First, though, I expect you must be thirsty?"

Ezra's eyes narrowed suspiciously as he watched John come forward with a large wooden bowl. As it got closer, he realized that it was merely water sloshing inside, so did not fight when John put the bowl to his lips. Had his nose not been bleeding from the previous fight, he might have noticed the sweet odor that came from the liquid.

After John took the now almost empty bowl away, however, the effects of the opiate began to take effect. Ezra blinked as his vision began to swim.

"Oh lord…" he muttered, shaking his head to try and clear it, "what have you done to me?"

"Oh, just a little aid that I picked up visiting some of the Chinese camps along the railways," Calvin smiled. "Along with this…." Something yellow flashed in his hand.

One of the other monks, Ezra's slipping mind not quite able to grasp who, had handed Calvin a bamboo switch. The old monk slapped the cane down into his own palm with a sharp thwack, as effectively as any old school marm with a ruler. Ezra swallowed, trying to relieve the sudden dryness in his mouth.

"We will be letting you take sips of the drink throughout your lessons, young Ezra," Calvin said, his voice taking on a booming quality. "But first, Thomas will ensure that your sins are there for all to see." The monk's voice seemed to echo inside the gambler's head, and his mind could follow only sluggishly. Was the monk always this loud? And why doesn't he stand still?

Then the door opened, and Ezra's breath quickened as he recognized the old grizzled monk from earlier, the one who was going to brand Chaucer. This monk, apparently, was Brother Thomas. As the grizzled monk raised his arms in seemingly slow motion, the red heat from the branding iron in his hand became obvious.

"No, no…you…can't be sssseriousss," Ezra pleaded as Thomas came forward. He felt someone grab the bare arm that Paul had cut earlier. He shut his eyes, his mouth grimacing in anticipation.

The anguished scream that burst out into the cold morning air from the barn seemed to echo throughout the whole valley, lasting an incredible amount of time. Spooked cattle looked up from their morning repast, their eyes whitening, and several smaller animals scattered away across the golden plain.

Part Three

Josiah woke with a start, his breath fast and his body soaked in sweat. For a moment, he thought he'd heard Ezra yelling his name, but a quick look around the quiet pasture brought him back to his senses.

Breathing deeply, he noted with some disgust that the sun was high in the sky, and the headache from his alcohol soaked night began to beat in earnest. He drew a tired hand across his eyes, then gathered his things together.

His horse whinnied from nearby, wanting to go where he knew Josiah was headed. Smiling softly, Josiah loosed the mare's reigns from the tree branch and led her to the watering hole nearby.

Josiah was going to bathe…he wanted to be at his best when the monks returned to collect him. He smiled as he thought that he would take them with him to Four Corners to say goodbye that evening. He paused a moment as he wondered whether Ezra would be back in time to see him go. He shut his eyes and shook his head, knowing the gambler didn't plan to return until late afternoon the next day. Josiah would be long gone by then, which was probably for the best. Josiah was pretty sure that would be what Ezra would want. He'd be doing the young man a favor by disappearing from his life….

Chaucer slowed, his sensitive ears catching the edge of the scream. His fear addled mind finally began to calm down, and he tried to register whether the scream was his rider's voice. That thought faded as he became more aware of his surroundings. With a heaving chest, he came to an abrupt stop and looked around, shaking his beautiful chestnut head.

Nothing was familiar.

As his small brain cleared, he recognized that he had to find home. He needed help, for himself and for his rider.

He looked at his back trail, knowing that he could get home from the same place he'd just escaped from. It would require going back, then simply going around the bad place so those men didn't see him, then heading North to home as fast as possible.

His simple mind decided, Chaucer turned around and started galloping back the way he came, hoping he'd smell water somewhere along the way before he failed from dehydration.

Four Corners was oblivious to the agony of one of their own as the sun drifted across the horizon. No one even spared the gambler's usual table a passing glance, instead, four men were gathered outside watching the church and the livery with equal attention. The sun was just beginning to wane when JD whooped and started down the street to the livery, the others right behind him.

Nathan estimated it to be about four o'clock as he made his way back into Four Corners. He frowned as he was accosted the minute he entered the livery by his fellow lawmen – minus two.

"Nathan! We're so glad you're back!" JD announced cheerfully. Vin and Chris stood off to one side, and Buck leaned against the door frame. Nathan eyed them suspiciously.

"Why?" he asked, his voice low.

"We think there may be something up with Josiah or, at least," JD looked behind him at the others, "at least Vin does. And so do I." He looked back at Nathan, who suddenly looked worried.

"We were hoping you might be able to shed some light on his disappearance, Nathan," Chris agreed quietly. Nathan licked his lips, and turned back to his horse, unsure what to say. He started stripping the saddle.

"Nathan," Vin stated quietly. "We ran into Josiah on patrol, and he was long gone into the wrong kind of spirits." He smiled grimly, and Nathan nodded in understanding. Vin ploughed on, "Listen, we know where he is, we just want to make sure he is okay. That, is to say, if…if something were to happen, he would be okay to handle it."

Nathan stopped his movements, and looked at the tracker. "If something were to happen?" he repeated. "What do you mean?"

Vin opened his mouth, then shut it. JD watched the tensing of the jaws, the gathering of thoughts behind the tracker's stony face. Nathan looked down, already knowing the answer. Nothing had happened…yet. But Nathan knew as well as all of them that Vin could sense a thunderstorm coming even though the sky above remained perfectly clear.

"Is he hiding from something, Nathan?" Chris asked quietly. After Vin and JD had come to him and Buck this morning with their story, both he and his old friend had recalled their last view of the ex-preacher in the saloon the night before last. This time, with the benefit of hindsight, Josiah's stooped shoulders had been obvious.

Nathan looked up at Chris's clear blue eyes and nodded slowly. "I don't understand that much, Chris, but it has something to do with him and Ezra. They're fighting about something, and its hurting both of them, especially Josiah. All I know is that, after a meeting with Ezra in the church yesterday morning, Ezra looked like hell and Josiah….Josiah looked like he'd seen a ghost. I've not seen him so pale since he last came back from Vista City."

In the background, Vin shuddered a little, knowing exactly what Josiah had hidden away in that convent town. It was something that the preacher had lost a long time ago. Vin had hoped Josiah was better able to deal with her now that he had the rest of the seven to bolster him up, but maybe not. Then there was that whole fiasco with Ezra getting his head knocked silly a few months back, when the Lady Marshal was in town. The tracker huffed, bringing the other's attention to him.

"Damn it, I knew something like this was going to happen, the minute Ezra called him Da that one time…I saw it on his face," the tracker growled. Chris sighed, agreeing without saying a word. The leader looked back at Nathan, his face expectant.

Nathan grimaced, his eyes meeting those of his friends one by one. "Josiah took off yesterday morning, asking me to cover for him. Said he had to clear his head. I hoped he might be back by now…." Nathan shook his head to indicate this was all he knew.

Chris nodded in response, and gathered himself up. He turned to Vin, "How far away is he?"

"Not far," the tracker replied. "About three hours, hard riding. About halfway to Snowville."

"Isn't that where Ezra is?" JD asked. No one answered. Buck stood up and stretched.

"Well, then" the ladies man smiled, "let's go and bring the big guy home."

Chaucer exploded into Four Corners and stared around wildly. Without a second thought, he found the water trough and was drinking thirstily, his heaving chest screaming at him to take a breath before he drowned.

After a few moments, Chaucer had quieted enough to look around. Several folk were watching him curiously, and he saw someone approaching him. The woman with the colorless hair.

"Chaucer?" Mary asked, coming to stand in front of him. "Oh dear," she whispered, recognizing the gambler's saddle and reins, despite their having been shed of their saddlebags.

"Isn't that Ezra's horse, Mary?" Mr. Greene called from in front of the apothecary's shop where he had been sweeping.

"Yes, I believe so." She reached a hand out to pat the sweaty hide. Chaucer was too tired to bite at her, as was his usual wont. He kept his face in the trough. Mr. Greene came over, his face puzzled.

"Ezra took my sons to Snowville yesterday, Mrs. Travis. My sister telegraphed to say they had arrived safely, and that she believed Ezra to be on his way home…." His voice trailed off as he bit his lip. Mary stared off into the distance towards where the others had gone.

"And the others just having left too," Mr. Greene added, realizing the purpose of her look. Chaucer looked up suddenly, spraying water everywhere, and stared at the apothecary, almost as if he could understand him. Mr. Greene stepped back and shook his head. Too much damn intelligence in that horse's eyes, he thought.

"Someone should go after them and tell them about Chaucer," Mary said thoughtfully, looking back to Mr. Greene. How the lawmen had missed seeing the chestnut stallion as he charged in, she couldn't imagine. He must have come in from the side.

Chaucer looked out in the direction where the colorless one had turned her head initially. He could just taste the faint smell of his brothers on the breeze, heading off in that direction. The same direction he'd just come from. Damn, he didn't want to go out there again, but, then, these decisions were not his to make. Shaking off his exhaustion, Chaucer reared, causing Mary to fall back with a yelp. Moments later, the stallion was gone and after the others.

Mr. Greene and Mary just looked at each other, too amazed to speak.

At the same time that the rest of the seven rode out of Four Corners, an exhausted Chaucer on their heels, Josiah watched as the group of monks rode slowly back into the clearing where he waited, his mind almost free of the alcoholic tinge that had colored it for the last twelve hours. The long day had been spent in quiet contemplation, and Josiah had managed not to take a single sip the entire time.

Calvin was sitting in front of the covered wagon where they kept their supplies, waved a greeting. Josiah raised a hand in response, his smile broad.

That was when he saw him.

Ezra was sitting on the back of a strange horse, his hands and legs securely bound to the saddle to stop him from falling. The younger man's chin rested on his chest, and, even from where Josiah stood, he could see the thin cuts in the man's clothing, angrily scarring his legs and his arms with red lines. Most disturbing of all was the thick, filthy bandage that covered his upper left arm. The whole limb appeared red and swollen, as if infected. The gambler looked ready to fall forward any moment, his body swaying erratically with the slow sway of the horse. Only the ropes prevented him from complete collapse.

"Oh God," Josiah whispered. He ran forward, ignoring the surprised look from the other men, and grabbed the reins of Ezra's horse from the man leading him.

"What have you done!" he yelled at no one in particular. He dropped the reins and moved to the gambler's side, his hands already working on the ropes. "Ezra…Ezra…son, can you hear me?"

In the background, Calvin and the others dismounted, and Calvin watched Josiah's actions with worry and surprise. With a nod to his leader's silent command, John went to stand just behind the ex-preacher, while two others lifted rifles.

Josiah released Ezra's hands from the saddle horn, though they continued to sit listlessly atop it. Pulling out his knife, he started cutting away at the ropes tying the rest of the young man down. Throughout all this, he didn't stop calling the gambler's name. When he cut through the last bond, he look up and was surprised to see a dazed Ezra smiling down at him.

"Hey, Josiah!" Ezra said happily, sleep heavy in his tone. "What are you doing here?"

When Josiah didn't reply immediately, the gambler looked around, his head moving very slowly. He squinted at the green surroundings.

"Hell, what am I doing here?" Ezra asked, his lips pursing as he tried to work out where he was. "Where's the barn?"

Josiah's brow furrowed, and his lips hardened into a straight line. "Ezra, are you alright son?"

Ezra's wide, bloodshot green eyes returned to his friend. "Sure, yes, fine, lovely." He leaned down in the saddle, and Josiah stepped closer. Ezra didn't notice, still babbling, "So lovely, in fact, that I don't mind that you called me son. I'm getting better, huh?" He chuckled, his tone dropping to a conspiratorial whisper, "Ah, but don't tell crazy Calvin. He keeps trying to call me son, but I keep telling only you can call me that. He won't listen." He shook his head. Then the grin was back.

Josiah whirled around to face the monks, his eyes going straight to Calvin. If he saw John or the rifles aimed at his and Ezra's heart, he didn't betray it. Ezra continued to sit unsteadily in the saddle, the only one still mounted of the group. Through half lidded eyes, he watched the what was going to happen with a sense of great amusement.

"What have you done to him," Josiah hissed.

Calvin's jaw tensed. "You know this man, Brother Josiah?"

"Of course I know him, Calvin," he stated, intentionally omitting the familiar title of Brother. "Ezra Standish is a member of the law of Four Corners, and someone for whom I care very deeply. I demand to know what you have done to him and why." In the back of his mind, Josiah secretly hoped that Calvin would say they merely found the gambler in this state, but the ropes were too much to ignore.

"Well, then, Brother, I am afraid this man has pulled the wool over your eyes. Ezra Standish is not only a gambler, a con and an attempted murderer, but he is a bail jumper."

The ex-preacher's eyes narrowed, "And where, pray tell, did you get this obviously flawed information?"

"By our own witness, Josiah. He took nearly two saloons down with his drinking and immoral behavior in Snowville, including shooting a man in the arm in an attempt to kill him."

"Oh come now," Ezra protested drunkenly, "I only winged him. Besides, he was choking me….." Shaking his head, the gambler meant to raise his left arm to bring a hand to his throat and hissed as pain exploded into his reverie. The burnt arm barely moved. A sliver of clarity broke through, and his eyes widened enough to really see the man by his side. "Josiah? What are you…?"

Josiah looked around, and favored Ezra with his calmest expression. "I am going to get you out of here, son. Just hold on," the ex-preacher whispered. Ezra just shook his head again in response, and shut his eyes.

"No, no, please, you must go, please. They're not what they seem…He's…They… They're all…." Ezra shook his head again, unable to articulate his fears clearly. All of a sudden, the smile was back, and Ezra laughed, his mind once more unattached.

Josiah looked back at Calvin, who had come closer to face the larger man. "This," Josiah spat, "is how you bring people to the light? What is he on – opium?"

Calvin's eyebrows shot up, suitably impressed at the man's knowledge. He nodded and smiled benignly. "We have found that it does wonders to soothe the soul, Brother. It helps the stubborn to see more clearly, and to become more responsive to our work." He tilted his head, ignoring Josiah's dangerously reddening face. "Perhaps you should try it sometime."

Josiah's eyes narrowed, and he turned back to the man on horseback. He patted Ezra on the leg, bringing Ezra's eyes open again. "Can I get off now, Josiah? This nag isn't anywhere near as nice as my Chaucer…." The con man whispered, before lilting strongly to one side. Josiah reached up and pushed him upright.

"I'm taking you home, Ezra," he stated, then he turned to Calvin. "I am taking him home. Now."

Calvin merely shook his head.

"We are leaving, Calvin. The only way to stop me is to shoot me."

"If that is what you feel is necessary," Calvin responded coldly. With a nod of his head, the rifle hammers were cocked back. The sound echoed ominously in the clearing. Josiah looked around, his fists clenched in rage, and finally realized he was surrounded by ten men with weapons. Men, not monks. Fury coursed through his body, but he could see no outlet that wouldn't result in both him and Ezra paying with their lives. He looked closely at Calvin, and saw the ugliness there that he had somehow been oblivious too upon there first meeting. No doubt, Ezra had spotted it immediately. The ex-preacher bowed his head, the fury slipping into the blackness that he had embraced so easily lately.

"You're all mad," Josiah whispered, shaking his head in sadness.

Calvin looked at John, ordering that Josiah be bound and placed in the same tent as the gambler as soon as camp was set.

"You disappoint me, Brother Josiah," Calvin said sadly as he watched John tie Josiah's hands in front of him. "I thought I saw some of myself in you, but I suppose it is too far gone. Nevertheless, I am not cruel. I will let you spend your last few hours with this one whom you call son. When the sun completes its cycle, you will both be committed to God's hand."

Perhaps half an hour later, Josiah was pushed inside the newly erected canvas tent to land in a heap beside the quietly slumbering gambler. Gathering himself up to sit, the ex-preacher glanced at his friend and tried to ascertain exactly what was wrong with him. He could see the angry red color of the left arm, and cuts and bruises over the rest of the body. The blood on the back of the neck worried him, and he just hoped that there wasn't a concussion to go with that nasty wound. He pushed at Ezra's good shoulder with his bound hands.

"Ezra?" he asked and prodded harder when he didn't get a response. "Wake up, boy. You need to be awake." When this again didn't bring results, Josiah sighed and lay back on the ground.

"Why didn't I see this coming, Ezra? There was no warning. No signs to show me the way. Nothing." He looked up through a tear in the canvas above his head, at the clear blue sky overhead. With a tilt of his head, he could just make out the edge of the sun as it made its descent. He measured about three hours left.

"Or maybe, I didn't want to see," he mused, shaking his head. He looked at Ezra, and thought about what Calvin had said about the saloons in Snowville. He knew that the gambler only lost control when he was at his most self-deprecating, which must have been the case for him to be involved, nay the instigator, of two brawls in one night. Upset because of him.

"My God, Ezra, I'm sorry," he whispered. "I've been so trapped in my own hell lately that I failed to notice I was dragging you down with me…."

He studied the younger man, wondering how he had ever thought Ezra would want or need his attentions. He knew full well that Ezra deliberately shunned human contact beyond a friendly slap on the arm, and that he despised emotional ties even more fiercely. This was obviously the result of Maude being more of a leech than a mother, and, for all Josiah knew, Ezra's father had been even worse. The man wanted a father figure as much as Vin wanted a new silk suit. All this he knew, and yet Josiah had proceeded to view and treat the gambler like his son anyway. He'd gotten too close, and Ezra couldn't handle it. He must vented that anger in Snowville, and that led him to be branded a sinner by this cult of male maenads.

Josiah sighed and lay back again, staring back up through the tear. It already looked darker outside to him, though he knew it was only his imagination. He sat back up and stared down at his bound hands morosely. He knew he should be trying to think of some means of escape, but he felt as if his brain were suddenly made of lead. They were going to die, and he will have done it again. He will have killed his son again.

Ezra woke slowly, as if his mind were swimming through molasses. He could tell his arms were still bound behind his back, though his left arm felt almost detached from the rest of his body as he tested its strength. He shivered as a numb, yet throbbing ache responded. The rest of the welts and bruises were stinging, but not pervasive enough to take his mind off what those bastards had done to his arm. He didn't even know what mark had been placed so permanently upon his shoulder, only that it had hurt like hell.

After that, the next few hours had been a blur. Calvin had continued to yell and demand answers from him, and, after a while, he had told him anything he wanted just to stop being hit by that damn stick and being forced to drink anymore of that mind numbing liquid. Heaven knew how long it had been since he'd last passed out. Where he was now, he could not even fathom.


Josiah? Was he still dreaming?

"Ezra, I can tell you're not sleeping. I can hear it in the way you're breathing. Come on, son, open your eyes. Please. We haven't much time left."

With supreme effort, Ezra cracked his eyelids to stare blearily out at the figure before him. He himself was lying on his right side in the dirt under a tent, and Josiah sat in front of him, watching him carefully. Josiah's face broke into a relieved smile.

"How are you feeling? Can you still feel the drug in your system?"

Ezra blinked a few times, trying to recall how Josiah was here. Wherever here was. An image of being on a strange horse flashed across his mind, and of Josiah by his side, promising to get him out of this.

"Where…?" he croaked, and coughed a little.

"In a clearing just a few hours from home. Unfortunately, not close enough for anyone to hear us. How lucid is your mind?"

Ezra contemplated the question and closed his eyes. With a crooked smile, he answered as truthfully as he could. "Stuffed with cotton balls," he replied, opening his eyes more brightly this time.

"Good," Josiah nodded. "Listen, do you know how you got here?"

"Yes," Ezra replied slowly, licking his dry lips, "but not how you got here."

Josiah bowed his head, "I met them yesterday, on their way to Snowville. I was waiting for them to return."

Ezra looked puzzled, "Why?"

"Because I believed them to be who they said they were. Monks on an odd pilgrimage. I heard them singing over the grave of…" Josiah paused, and it suddenly occurred to him that he didn't know who the grave belonged to. He grimaced, shutting his eyes tightly as he wondered if it might have been someone such as Ezra.

"Odd is a colossal understatement, Josiah," Ezra stated. He tried to boost himself upright, but failed. Even that simple movement seemed too taxing for his weakened state. Josiah shifted over and helped him, eventually letting Ezra lie against his shoulder. The gambler nodded his thanks, and willed his mind to clear some more. They had to get out of here.

"I was going to go with them," Josiah stated. Ezra's eyes flew open again. He wanted to ask why, but wasn't sure how. Luckily, Josiah didn't need prompting.

"I thought they could help me find my way back to the man I once was. A man filled with an unshakeable faith and hope in my fellow man and God up above. They invited me along, and, for a brief moment upon my short time with them, I thought I belonged with them." He sighed. "I need peace, Ezra. I thought they offered it."

Ezra took this in quietly, his mind sharp enough to feel the pain in the man's voice. Josiah shifted a little, to make Ezra more comfortable. They sat in silence for a while, until Josiah spoke again.

"I'm sorry, Ezra."


"You're being here, it is my fault."

Ezra blinked, and screwed up his face in puzzlement. "I don't understand."

"I drove you away. I know that the reason you got into so much trouble at Snowville was because of what I said to you."

Ezra shut his eyes tightly, amazed at such irrational thinking. "You think very highly of yourself, Josiah. For your information, I am far more to blame for my actions than you."

"No, son…"

"Damn it, Josiah. You may have been the source of my mood last evening, but my behavior was entirely of my making. You know perfectly well what sort of man I am. I was a gambler, a cheat and a con long before you ever showed up in my life. Blame yourself, remember? Trust me when I tell you that starting brawls in saloons is not a new thing with me."

Josiah's jaw clamped shut, not willing to accept any release from the guilt that ate at him. Ezra sighed, knowing that Josiah hadn't really listened to him, and shifted again, his left arm barely registering the movement. He tried wriggling his fingers, but only a slight twitch was his response. With a silent prayer, he hoped it was only temporary. Neither man spoke for a while.

"When are they coming for us?" Ezra asked finally.

"Less than an hour."

"Are they killing us both?"


"Well, great," he muttered sarcastically, looking up at the darkening sky through the same tear that Josiah had looked through earlier. "Any chance of rescue?"


Ezra looked about him, and nestled closer to Josiah for warmth. At some point, he'd started to shiver. Odd, considering how hot it was. Silence blanketed them for a while, until Ezra couldn't stand it any longer. Lifting himself off Josiah, he shifted so he could sit on his own and look at the man with him. Josiah eyed him wanly, and Ezra pretended not to see the tear rolling down the man's usually stoic visage. He had to break Josiah out of this, to make him angry enough to fight back. If there was one thing Ezra knew he could still do, it was make a man angry with him.

"So, how old was your son when he died?" he asked nonchalantly.

Josiah jerked back, and his brow furrowed in annoyance. "My son?" he asked evenly.

Ezra tilted his head, pleased that he had gotten Josiah to react. "The picture you keep in that box of yours. His mother was Indian, yes? Must have been tough to be a half-breed in your white world. Can't imagine what that father of yours must have thought. Surprised he didn't shame you into leaving the boy to fend on his own."

Josiah was up on his knees instantly, his bound hands raised as if he would hit the gambler. Ezra smirked as he shrank back reflexively, though keenly aware that it wasn't enough to avoid a blow. He shut his eyes, and waited. When nothing happened, he risked opening one of them to look out. Josiah was watching him carefully, but the anger was gone. Damn, Ezra thought.

"His name was Francis," Josiah said, settling himself back down again with a grunt. "And he was only eighteen when he was hanged."

"Hanged?" Ezra repeated incredulously, in spite of himself. He hadn't expected that. "Oh Lord, Josiah, I didn't…I mean, I was only trying to…."

"I know, son," the preacher replied tiredly, "and I also know what you were trying to do."

Ezra collapsed into silence, unable to respond. Josiah saw the way the younger man shivered, and moved to be next to him again. At first, Ezra resisted when Josiah maneuvered the smaller man so he was leaning against him again, but he was just too tired. He sank against the older man's shoulder, and sighed.

"I met his mother when I was still traveling with my father and sister," Josiah began. Ezra's brow furrowed at the mention of a sister, yet another fact he didn't know about the quiet preacher, but he remained quiet. Meanwhile, Josiah's voice took on a wistful tone as he remembered his beautiful wife. "Her name was Aivsmay….though in my ugly tongue I just called her May."

"While in their village, I found myself spending a great deal of time with her -- something my father didn't dissuade as she was the chief's daughter." Josiah grinned, remembering the way his father had clapped him on the back for being so diligent in his quest to save the girl's ‘soul.'

"When my father deemed it time to leave, it was already too late for me. May and I ran away that night, all the way to San Francisco. That was where we had Francis." Josiah sighed, "He was so beautiful. Green eyes almost as clear as yours, and black hair like his mother's. His skin was so soft that I was afraid to touch him with my callused hands." The ex-preacher looked down at his now bound limbs, and shook his head. Ezra stared at the ground, seeing nothing, but hearing everything.

"We moved into a cabin halfway between the city and her tribe's lands, knowing we didn't belong in either anymore. That was where she died, when Francis was seven, of the fever." He paused, letting the loss sink in again, though finding its pain easier to bear for the first time in a while.

"I sent word to her father, so that he could come and say goodbye, but he came with fire instead. He burned down our cabin, while I hid Francis and myself in the woods. We were lucky to escape the rage that had controlled the man at the time. All that was left was a burnt bible, which you saw in the box." Against his chest, Josiah felt Ezra's head nod. "I moved Francis away after that, but her loss was too much for me. After all I had given up for her….I resorted to alcohol more and more often, and…and I ignored Francis because he reminded me too much of her face. He…." Josiah stopped, the tears flowing freely down his face, his voice shaking with emotion. Ezra shut his eyes, knowing instinctively what was going to be said next.

"He grew wild, taking to gambling and gun fighting as if it were his salvation. I heard the way the people we met talked about him, but I wouldn't listen. I just let him carry on. By the time he left, I didn't even know him anymore." The preacher took a deep breath, as he aimed for the conclusion.

"He ran away at fifteen, with a note to say that I shouldn't try to follow. He wrote that he would never to darken my door again…that my life was my own." Ezra stiffened, recognizing the words he had spoken to the preacher only yesterday morning. If Josiah noticed the gambler's reaction, he didn't say anything.

Josiah grimaced, his eyes far away, "But I did see him again."

"Francis had joined a group of outlaws robbing towns, acting as their scout. He'd ride in, go straight to the saloon and involve himself in a poker game. If the town had money, he'd learn all about the law protecting it and where it was kept all in the matter of a few hours, then he'd leave. Next day, his group would charge in and lay waste to the area. By an odd coincidence, the town that took him down was one that I happened to be living in at the time."

"I joined the posse that rode out to capture them, not even recognizing Francis until we ran them down. We dragged them all back to the jail, and the gallows were built that night. The boys never even got a trial." He shook his head.

"I was left guarding the cells that night, and I could have let him out at any time. But he never asked…and I never did. I never said a word to him the entire time. The next morning, as they led him up to the gallows, he turned to look at me, a reassuring smile on his face. I nodded to him, and he nodded back. I knew then that he didn't blame me for his death, but that didn't mean I didn't blame myself." Josiah took a final shaky breath, and Ezra shut his eyes again. "I left before I saw them drop him. Of course, I heard the cheer of the crowd from atop the bluff I had ridden to." He paused.

"That was almost twelve years ago, Ezra. Twelve years of hell. The only things that kept me going were the fact that I need to take care of my sister in Vista City, and that box under my bed. May's father gave that to me a year after Francis was hung. To this day, I don't know how he found me. In some ways, that meeting saved my life. He came, he said, because he wanted my forgiveness. Mine." A smile lit upon the older man's features. "That seems a lifetime away now." He looked down at the young man curled up against him, and smiled even more broadly.

"I thought I would never be able to take pleasure in being alive again, Ezra, then those damn crows tricked me into joining up with a group of six misfits on a suicide mission. Problem was, one of them was too damn good of a healer to let me die – despite being shot twice!" He laughed heartily, and Ezra couldn't resist a smile of his own as Josiah continued. "A group of demon riddled men who would invade my soul and change my life. They helped me to remember a world that was no longer constantly tinged with blackness – despite Brother Larabee's penchant for the color. They filled a hole I didn't even know I could fill…." He voice drifted off, and he contemplated what he had just said.

"It sounds as though you have already found your peace, Josiah," Ezra whispered after a few moments. "So why do you fight it so hard?"

"Maybe…for the same reason you do, Ezra." Josiah replied, equally as quietly. Ezra didn't respond. Josiah looked upwards, and grimaced as he realized the sky was nearing sunset. Both men watched silently as the world darkened above.

"He loved you, you know," Ezra muttered eventually, shifting his gaze to stare out the front of the tent. He could just make out movement beyond the cream canvas heading in their direction.

Josiah frowned, "Who?"


Josiah swallowed, and shook his head. "How do you know?"

Ezra smiled. "Because I do," the gambler replied simply. Josiah shut his eyes, and at the same instant Calvin threw back the tent flap.


Chaucer had fallen back few times, unable to keep up with the fresh horses ahead of him, but he never gave up. He rested for a moment as he watched the others moving fairly quickly away from him in the distance. He thought he knew where they were going…the forest on the far side of the hill ahead of them. There was water there. Not much farther now, and he would have them. He could tell them that Ezra was in trouble. Just ten more minutes.

With a deep breath, Chaucer set out at a brisk trot, his mind focused on reaching the grove.

Ahead of him, Vin slowed as they crested the ridge to take out his spyglass. With a grimace, he noted the smoke rising above the trees, clearly coming from several fires. The monks were back, and Josiah would be in the middle of them.

Chris reined in next to him and glanced over. Vin nodded, causing the man in black to frown.

"We'll be there in five minutes. C'mon boys," the leader called. As one, the five men spurred the horses into a gallop.

They dragged Ezra and Josiah from the tent and stood them facing each other, about five yards apart. Ezra could barely keep his feet under him, and his shivering was causing his teeth to chatter. Beside him, the ever silent John stood a stony watch, his hand gripping the gambler's right arm to keep him upright.

On the other side, with Peter and Thomas at his back, Josiah kept his eyes to the ground.

Calvin came to a stop right in front of Josiah, a stern look of disappointment clear on his face. He pulled a knife from his belt and started to saw away at Josiah's bound hands.

"I am going to release you, brother, because I still have faith that you can be turned to the light," Calvin explained as he worked the ropes. Josiah raised his gaze and watched him icily. Calvin pretended not to notice.

"This man you call your friend is not an innocent man; he has lived a life of debauchery and scandal, but through tremendous care, we have helped him to see the light. He has admitted to us his Faith in our God, and repented his sins. Now all that remains is for us to commit him to heaven."

"Ezra is a con artist, Calvin. How do you know he was telling the truth?" Josiah hissed, his blue eyes boring into the old man's skull. Calvin merely smiled.

"No one lies to us, Josiah. We would know."

Josiah shook his head, and looked over at Ezra. The gambler slowly formed a dimpled smile in return.

"Ezra," the preacher called, "what do you believe in?"

The gambler didn't hesitate. "My friends' belief in retribution, Josiah, when they learn of this….And you."

Calvin frowned as he pulled the ropes away from Josiah's wrists and stepped back to look over at the gambler. Ezra stood proudly on shaky legs.

"Is that all?" the silver haired monk asked quietly.

Ezra paused and looked down, as if pondering this question deeply. When he looked up again, his eyes were bright with mischief. "Never draw on an inside straight? Oh, and never put your faith in a god whose followers make the Bacchae seem chaste."

Groans came from all around, and several monks turned away in sadness. Calvin's face turned a shade of red, and he shook his head in anger. Spinning around again, he turned to look back at Josiah.

"One last chance, Josiah. I am giving you one more chance." The old monk held his hand out, and was rewarded by the placing of Josiah's Smith and Wesson into his palm by Paul. With a flip, he turned it and held the gun butt first towards Josiah. "Kill young Ezra, or we will kill you both."

Josiah stared at the gun for a moment, then at Ezra. The gambler nodded fiercely. If it would get Josiah out of here, he was all for it.

Josiah turned his eyes back to the gun and to Calvin. Finally, he shook his head.


Ezra sighed. Fool.

Calvin's face twisted with rage, and he yelled in frustration. With a fluid motion, he flipped the gun in his hand, turned, and shot Ezra in the heart. The gambler collapsed to the ground, face first, without a sound.

Josiah stood in shock as he saw Ezra fall, and his world shattered into a red haze. Without even being conscious of his movements, he screamed and grabbed the silver haired monk by his neck, throwing him sideways into the ground. He was vaguely aware of the sudden appearance of gun fire around him, but he was too far gone to understand anything other than the need to destroy. He attacked the cult members near him, throwing them to the ground as if they were no more than sacks of feed. At one point, he was aware of big John's arms around him, but this only made him angrier. He threw the huge man over his back, then proceeded to rail down upon him with all the rage he could muster.

"Josiah! Stop Josiah!" a vaguely familiar voice was calling his name.

Another man threw himself at him, and Josiah lifted the grizzled Thomas over his head. The old man was screaming in fear, begging to be let down, and Josiah complied with glee. And a lot of force. Thomas didn't move where he lay face down.

"Stop! Josiah, STOP NOW!" This voice was commanding, and more than just familiar. With crazed eyes, the preacher whipped around to see Chris watching him.

The rest of the seven had entered the clearing at a dead gallop at the same time that they'd heard the first gunshot. When they arrived, it was to see Josiah in the middle of a group of men going berserk with rage. Without thinking, they had joined the fray, firing upon those who quickly turned their rifles towards the newcomers, bringing a swift end to the cult's campaign. They were finished in their work within moments, only to realize that Josiah was still on his rampage.

"Chris?" Josiah asked in wonder from where he stood over the still forms of the four men he'd killed with his bare hands – Peter, Thomas, Paul and John. The man in black nodded. Then Josiah realized that Vin, JD, Nathan and Buck stood nearby, weapons drawn and pointing at any black robed man still standing. He focused on Nathan, then looked towards where Ezra lay face down.

"Nathan…Ezra…." He pointed towards the gambler's still body.

Nathan looked puzzled for a moment in the fading light, then understanding dawned as he followed the gaze. "My god," he breathed, recognizing the prone figure. As one, he and Josiah were by Ezra's side, tipping him over, Josiah quickly explaining how Ezra was shot. The others hissed in surprise and fear when they saw this slack features.

"No blood…." Nathan mumbled curiously as he reached to inspect Ezra's chest, then jumped as the gambler suddenly jerked awake.

With a groan, Ezra blinked furiously up at the faces hovering over him, then instinctively put his right hand to his chest. With a bemused smile, he slowly reached inside his waistcoat to pull out the book of essays. The bullet was embedded almost dead center in the middle of the gold embossed word "Liberty." Without a word, he handed it to the amazed Josiah.

"I'm sorry," the gambler whispered with a grin. "I accidentally borrowed this."

Josiah took the book in wonder, then started to laugh. Ezra joined him, then started coughing as his injuries overtook his senses. Nathan started fussing immediately, and ushered Josiah away. He grimaced at the sight of the burnt and infected left arm.

The preacher sighed with happiness as he looked at his friends around him. JD and Buck smiled back, while Chris and Vin began to check out the bodies. That was when Josiah noticed Calvin was missing.

"Wait," he boomed, "Where…?" He looked up as a loud whinny reached his ears.

He saw Calvin almost to the trees, his dark cloak having hidden him from the other's view in the gloom. The cult leader yelled in terror as Chaucer appeared like a ghost in front of him, forelegs raised in anger.

"No!" the silver haired man screamed, his arms raised up in front of him, but it was too late. The force of Chaucer's angry charge threw Calvin back several yards, until he lay still where he fell, his neck broken. Chaucer danced over to him, jumped over the prone form a few times for good measure, then came forward to join the others.

The other six men just stood in amazement, while Ezra grinned in relief at seeing his old friend. Chaucer limped forward to be near his master, and calmly started to eat the meadow grass, as if it were just another day.

Ezra tipped back the chair that sat outside the saloon, and peeled back the bandage on his arm again. It was the third time in less than an hour, but, for some reason, he couldn't get over the healing, but ugly mark on his arm. Nathan clicked his tongue at him as he came out through the batwing doors, Josiah on his heels.

"Stop that Ezra, you want it to get infected again?" he asked as he slapped the gambler's fingers away. Ezra stuck his tongue out at him.

"How is it looking?" Josiah asked pleasantly, leaning against one of the posts.

"Like an S, Josiah. Like a huge, ugly, God forsaken S." Ezra replied, frowning. His fingers aimed for the edge of the bandage again. And Nathan batted them away again.

"Its not huge, Ezra. It's barely an inch wide," the preacher stated.

"I suppose, somewhere in the addled brains of those lunatics, the letter was to designate me a Sinner for all the world to see." Ezra groused, staring with irritation at Josiah.

"Could also stand for Standish, Ezra." Josiah replied. Nathan leaned back against the rail, smiling.

Ezra shrugged, and took a deep breath. "Well, I guess Standish is as good a name as any other," He looked at the others despairingly, then sat up straighter, his mood changing. "Oh," he said, as if just remembering something. The gambler reached down by the side of his chair and came up with a package. He handed it to Josiah, who opened it wordlessly.

The preacher grinned as he looked at the new copy of "On Liberty" in his hands.

"I thought you might be needing a new one, Josiah, so I took the liberty of ordering that one for you." Ezra explained, pleased at Josiah's response. His face fell a little as Josiah handed it back.

"Actually, son, I'm very fond of the copy I have. In fact, I've added it to my little collection in that box you liked so much. But perhaps you might give this to Mary. I think she would enjoy it immensely."

Ezra smiled lightly as he looked at the volume returned to his hand, then shrugged. Josiah repressed an urge to muss the younger man's hair, and looked down the street to where Chris and Mary were talking to Mr. Greene about something. Following the gaze, Ezra took the book in a tighter grip and unconsciously tucked it inside his waistcoat, as per his long ingrained habit. Seeing this, Nathan began to laugh. Josiah looked back, and started chuckling as well as Ezra realized what he'd done. The gambler rolled his eyes, pulled the book out, and leant back, refusing to acknowledge the other's gaiety at his expense.

Meanwhile, Nathan wondered if either of them noticed that Ezra had not flinched at Josiah's use of the word ‘son.' Well, for whatever reason, the healer was not going to jinx it.

"Thanks, Josiah," Ezra said eventually, and the preacher bent his head.

"Now, about that fifty dollar bill of Chester Milton's…." Josiah began.

Both healer and preacher laughed loudly at the gambler's heartfelt groan.

The End