Illusions of the Past

By: knoteach

The name Harvest Hills might for some bring to mind rolling hills and fruit orchards or some such similar pleasant sight, but in reality, the town of Harvest Hills was just like any other New Mexico territory frontier town with dusty dirt streets and clap board buildings.  It was to this town Buck and Ezra were sent on an errand for Judge Travis.  There wasn’t much to it; they were to deliver some papers to the bank, then return to Four Corners, the whole thing taking less than a day.

Buck and Ezra had finished their job and had stopped at the saloon for a drink before heading out.  It was a hot day and both were thirsty. While there, they couldn’t help but over hear a man proclaiming loudly that it wasn’t right for a black woman to own a shop.

Buck and Ezra immediately knew who the man was speaking of since Judge Travis had kept them informed about the towns surrounding Four Corners, including any strange happenings and noteworthy events.  The murder of the freedman that had owned the local grocery had been dealt with, but the man’s widow was now running the shop and people were a little unsettled.  This man however went passed vaguely uncomfortable and was airing his opinion loudly and publicly. 

Buck could tell that Ezra was getting angry quickly, but he told him to try to ignore the man.  Buck saw Ezra swallow a sharp comment he wanted to make, but Buck turned away and went back to his drink.  But when he heard the man quite confidently declare that the only place for a colored woman was on her back, he started to turn and set the man straight.  Before he could move he heard the man croak and turned to see that Ezra had the man by the throat was dealing with him quite well

“I take great offence at those remarks,” Ezra growled at the red faced cowboy in his grip who was struggling for breath.  Shaking the man hard, he continued.  “If I ever hear anything of a similar vile nature from you again, I will quite happily beat you within an inch of you life.”  Ezra then leaned closer and whispered something that Buck couldn’t hear, but whatever it was caused the odious man to go limp in Ezra grasp and his eyes to grow to the size of saucer plates.

Ezra then flung the man away to land on his ass on the wooden floor.  Ezra looked at the man with cold eyes full of disgust, anger, and, to Buck’s surprise, hatred.  Buck had never seen Ezra so enraged.   Buck took a step back when Ezra turned to glare at everyone else in the saloon that had been sitting listening to the man.  After a few moments of uncomfortable silence, Ezra raised his eyes and caught Buck’s gaze.  Nodding to Buck, he then turned and strode swiftly from the saloon. 

Buck quickly finished his drink and got to the livery just in time to see Ezra gallop out of the town as if all the demons of hell were on his tail.  Buck hurriedly saddled his horse and rode out after him.  He found Ezra waiting for him about a mile outside of town.  When Buck came up beside him and they started out for Four Corners, Ezra didn’t say a word.  He just kept himself at parade attention with his eye straight ahead.

“What the hell was that all about?”  Buck asked after they were a mile or so farther down the road.

Ezra remained silent for a couple of minutes before saying, “I once knew of similar circumstances where no one stood up for the woman in question.  The situation was not resolved in so agreeable a manner.”  Ezra’s voice was very stiff, as if he had to force himself to say the words. 

“What happened?”  Buck pressed, hoping Ezra would confide in him exactly what was bothering him so badly.

Again Ezra was silent, and Buck was about to ask again when he finally said, so quietly that Buck almost missed it.  “She and almost her entire family were murdered two days later by the same men.”

Buck pulled back on his reins in shock.  Ezra let his horse take a few steps farther before stopping and looking back at Buck, his face the bland, blank mask that Buck had come to know meant that Ezra considered the subject closed and would not be revealing anything more.  Understanding that some things are better left as they are, Buck simply maneuvered his horse up beside Ezra and they started off for Four Corners again.  The rest of the ride was made in total silence, neither of them saying one more word.

Part 2

If Buck thought the incident would just blow over quietly after they were back home, he was much mistaken.  When they arrived, Buck and Ezra went through their usual routine, reporting to Chris how their errand went, if there had been any complications or impediments, that sort of thing.  But after they were finished, Ezra disappeared up to his room for several hours, not coming back down until the next day for his patrol.  When asked about it, Ezra had just said that he had needed the extra time to rest.   At the time, Buck thought everything would be find, but it soon became very obvious things weren’t. 

Everything was quiet that was true, but that was also the problem.  Ezra was too quiet, and everyone in town was noticing.  The normally gregarious gambler remained silently contemplative.  He didn’t try to entice newcomers into his games.  He had even been seen to turn some men down when they asked for a game.  While he had kept his amiable disposition, he was as quiet and introverted as Tanner on a bad day.  Everyone was getting worried about him. 

Chris even noticed and wondered if he might need to step in.  After a couple of weeks of this, he corralled Buck and asked him point blank what had happened on that trip to Harvest Hills to set this off.

Buck wasn’t sure what exactly he should do, so he just told him that they had run into a situation that had brought up so very painful old memories for Ezra.  Chris fully understood how badly memories could affect a man, so he let it go and moved on.

Buck, however, was getting more and more worried about Ezra.  Since the town was well taken care of at the moment, he decided to go out to a secluded pool about a half mile outside of town and think.  He had found it about three months after they had come to town, and in all that time, he had never seen anyone else there.  Today, he was surprised to find Ezra sitting among the rocks that edged the pool looking intently at something in his hands. 

Not sure what he should do, Buck stayed hidden in the shadows of the bushes, silently wondering if he should leave him undisturbed or step forward and announce his presence.  Just as he decided to leave Ezra in peace, Ezra spoke up. 

“Mr. Wilmington, please come out and make yourself comfortable.  I will be leaving momentarily.”

Buck jerked in surprise, then stepped forward asking, “How did you know I was here?  I didn’t make any noise.”

“An old survival skill, Mr. Wilmington.  It is prudent to be familiar with the positions of the people around you are at all times.”  Ezra looked up as he finished, “Such skills have kept me alive this long, Mr. Wilmington.  It would be very difficult and very ill-advised to disregard them now.”

Buck nodded that he understood what he meant, but he didn’t say anything else and continued watched his friend.  This man had been with them since the very beginning, yet Buck knew the least about him that he did about any of them.  Ezra kept to himself and no one ever pushed him, only gleaning what little they could from his actions and words.  However, they had made some big assumptions when they first met, and Buck was beginning to think they had made some big mistakes.

Buck just about gave voice to one of the questions that had been bothering him for a while when Ezra rose and called his horse over to him and prepared to leave.  That horse was one of the things that bothered Buck.  He was perfectly trained and cool under fire, the kind of animal that could save you life in battle, but what was Ezra doing with him?  Chaucer wouldn’t let anyone ride him but Ezra, so Ezra had to have been the one to train him.  But according to Ezra only a fool would have gotten mixed up in the war, so why would he have occasion to train a horse for battle?  For that matter, Ezra himself was more than your average rider.  Ezra could control just about any horse you put him on.  He never used spurs and unless he had to leave in a big hurry, Ezra always checked all of his tack before mounting.  Just like now.  Even though all he had done was ride out to the pool and let the horse wonder around for a while, he was checking everything from the cinch to the bridal to make sure absolutely nothing had come loose.

As Ezra finished his inspection of the tack and slipped the item he had been looking at into the saddle bag, he moved around to mount and accidentally kicked a scrub bush growing beside the rocks.  Buck was horrified to hear the bush start to rattle and see a snake begin to unwind itself in anger from its resting place.  Knowing instinctively that there was no way Ezra could move in time, Buck drew and fired without hesitating.  He hit the snake dead in the head, but Ezra, startled by first the appearance of the snake and then the sound of the gun shot, twisted quickly and lost his footing on the slippery, moss covered rock and fell into the water, striking his head on the rocks on the way down.

Buck was over to the pool and in after him in less than five seconds, but Ezra was floating face down, out cold when he got there.  As fast as he could, Buck got him turned over and pulled him out of the water.  Dragging Ezra up the shore, Buck called, “Ezra?!”  Ezra was breathing he was relieved to find, but remained unresponsive, so Buck grabbed Chaucer’s reins and tied them to the back of his saddle.  The horse hadn’t so much as flinched at the sound of the shot and was still standing exactly where Ezra had maneuvered him.  Carefully, Buck heaved Ezra dripping wet form up into his arms and then onto his own horse in front of the saddle.  Ezra never so much as twitched.

Quickly Buck mounted behind Ezra and grabbed the reins, cradling Ezra’s limp body back against his chest.  He then spurred his horse toward Four Corners, Nathan, and help.


Josiah threw down his hammer and hurried off the church roof as fast as he could as soon as he saw Buck coming in at full gallop, Ezra’s limp form clutched in front of him, bellowing for Nathan.  He got to the clinic stairs just as Buck pulled his horse to a stop and helped him to gently lower the injured man.  His worry heightened as he heard Nathan hiss through his teeth as he tried to examine the wounded gambler.  “Nathan?”

Nathan just ordered, “Get him up stairs.”  Without questioning, Buck and Josiah maneuvered the gambler up the stairs and into the clinic proper.  Only after they had arranged the unconscious man on the cot and he could start cleaning the bloody head wound did Nathan ask what happened. 

“There’s a pool out on the south side of Thompson’s rocks.  I go out there to think some times,” Buck hurried to explain as Nathan worked.  “Ezra had beaten me out there and was about to leave as I got there, but as he was checking his tack, he kicked one of the scrub bushes and disturbed a rattler.  I shot it to keep it from striking, but Ezra was caught off balance.  He twisted and lost his balance on the rocks.  I think he hit his head as he went down into the water, but I got him out as fast as I could.”

Pulling Josiah around, Nathan showed him how to hold the pad against the still bleeding head wound.  Nathan then quickly unbuttoned Ezra shirt and stripped it off him.  Putting his ear to Ezra’s chest, he listened then muttered, “There’s water in his lungs all right.”

Buck looked up at Josiah with a stricken expression.  He had hoped he had been fast enough to keep that from happening, but to no avail.  His attention was drawn back to Ezra when the unconscious man started heaving, and Nathan and Josiah quickly rolled him onto his side.  After a few minutes, Nathan shooed him out so that he and Josiah could work better.  Buck stood outside staring at the door helplessly for a few moments, and then turned to go stable the horses and tell the others what had happened.

Part 3

Two hours later, Buck, Chris, and Vin were waiting on the landing outside the clinic when Nathan and Josiah finally came out. 

“Where’s JD?” Nathan asked.

“Watching the jail,” Chris returned. “I’m going to go fill him in when we get done here.  How’s Ezra?”

“Not good, Chris,” Nathan sighed.  “He’s coughed up most of the water he swallowed, but there’s still some in his lungs, so he’s at high risk for a lung infection.  Worse than that though is the concussion he suffered.  From what I can tell he actually hit his head twice.  His pupils aren’t right and there are two impact bruises, here and here.”  Nathan touched the side of his own head to indicate the left temple and then a spot about five inches farther up and back. 

“Will he survive?” Chris asked quietly, his voice harsh with suppressed emotion. Nathan wasn’t painting a very encouraging picture of Ezra chances, and the thought of losing one of his men through a simple accident was heartrending.

“I don’t know, Chris,” Nathan admitted. Nathan has seen many things over the years.  He had seen men with much worse wounds recover with no lasting effects, and he had seen men hurt a lot less that died.  Head injuries were tricky things and there was no way for him to know which way it would go this time.

Looking around at the men gathered there, Nathan noticed the horrified and guilty expression on Buck’s face. 

“Buck, it wasn’t you fault,” Nathan tried to reassure him.

“Ezra fell because I fired,” Buck argued despondently.

“If you hadn’t, he would be dying from the snake bite,” Chris reminded him.

Buck just shook his head, and replied, “I should have been more careful.  There had to have been a better way that wouldn’t have gotten him hurt!”

Chris and Nathan weren’t sure how to answer that.  They both knew Buck had a tendency to feel things very deeply and had become good friends with the enigmic gambler.  Chris had seen how concerned Buck had been for Ezra since their return from Harvest Hills.  Neither man had any idea how to deal with his guilt.

Vin, however, knew that it had to be dealt with now, before it totally crippled Buck.  “Ez’s strong, Buck.  You’ll see.  Pretty soon he’ll be up and around and telling you so hisself.”

“I hope you’re right, Vin,” Buck said as he stared at the door into the clinic, as if he could see through it to the man lying insensate on the other side.  Quietly, Buck walked over to the door and stepped into the clinic.  In his mind, it was his responsibility and nothing short of Ezra telling him otherwise would change his mind, and maybe not even that.

“Amen to that,” Josiah muttered as he followed Buck into the clinic.

Vin, Chris, and Nathan watched them go, all troubled that they hadn’t been able to help Buck. 

Looking back at the others, Nathan said, “You do realize that the longer he’s unconscious the worse his chances are, right?”

They nodded that they understood.  Chris asked, “Any indication that he’s coming out of it?”

Nathan sadly shook his head.  “Not so much as the flicker of an eyelash,” Nathan said with a sigh as he turned to enter the sick room again.

Vin and Chris looked at each other a moment, before they turned to leave.  Both were unsettled, each having seen in the other man’s eyes the same sense of foreboding that he felt.


Two days later, things were looking even worse. 

Ezra had developed an infection within the first twelve hours, and was now gripped tightly by the raging fever.  In the forty-eight hours since the accident, Ezra had barely stirred, giving them little hope that he was coming out of the concussion either.  Nathan had taken to mopping Ezra with wet cloths almost constantly in an effort to combat the fever burning through the man’s body. 

Buck, still holding himself responsible for his friend’s condition, rarely left the sick room unless forced.  He sat beside Ezra for hours, wiping the cloth across his face and chest.  As he sat and cooled Ezra, he would babble on about a range of topics, everything from JD’s newest dime novel and Buck’s success with woman to what Ezra could have done with the stuff shirt that had gotten off the stage that afternoon. 

Nathan had tried once to tell him that Ezra couldn’t hear him, but Buck had only replied that there was no way of know that for sure, and he was going to make sure that Ezra didn’t think he was alone. They had all learned long ago that Ezra hated to be alone, even if he would never admit to it.  After that, Nathan had left Buck alone as he chattered away.

Just as Buck was considering regaling Ezra with another story about Chris and him in their younger days, he was startled to see Ezra move his head.

“Nathan!”  Buck exclaimed.  When Nathan hurried over, he continued, “Ezra moved his head.”

Nathan smiled as he leaned over to examine his patient.  As soon as Nathan touched the bandage on his head, Ezra moaned and moved his head away.  “Ezra?” Nathan called, but the only response he got was a groan, so he tried again.  “Ezra, open your eyes.  I need you to open you eyes.”

Ezra turned toward the voice calling and struggled to open his eyes.  For some reason, he knew it was important, but it took almost all of his energy to do it.  When he had accomplished it though, he was presented with a mystery. “Who are you?” Ezra asked.

Nathan and Buck’s hearts sank when Ezra spoke.  It just got worse with Ezra’s next questions.

“Where am I?  I want to see Rachel.  And where are Jonathan and Josiah?” 

Neither of the two men could think of a thing to say to the confused man on the bed.  As it turned out they didn’t have to say anything, since he drifted off to sleep again quickly.  Nathan and Buck looked at each other in shock. 

Buck looked back at Ezra and sat down in the chair, then lifted the cloth to resume wetting Ezra’s brow.  Recovering slightly, he looked up at Nathan as asked, “What the hell was that about?”

Nathan just shook his head, “I have no idea.”

Part 4

Buck was still mulling over what had happened a couple hours later.  Nathan had gotten him to leave long enough to get some food and fill the others in on what had happened, but now he was back at his post beside Ezra’s bed. 

It frightened Buck that Ezra had not known them.  And who was this Rachel he had asked about? And Jonathan and Josiah?  He obviously hadn’t meant Sanchez, so who were they?  Buck kept trying to remember any time Ezra had ever talked about people he knew before coming to Four Corners, but he was coming up with precious few instances, and even fewer facts to work with.

Chris had joined them and was discussing Ezra’s condition with Nathan by this time.  Nathan was a little encouraged that Ezra had woken, but still worried about his mental state and the fever that was still hanging on. 

“It’s good that he’s come to once, but I’m worried about his fever,” Nathan explained, “We need to get it down soon.  It hasn’t risen any more in the last few hours, but it’s still dangerous.  I’m hoping that as the fever comes down, Ezra’s mind will heal too.  Sometimes things like this have a way of straightening themselves back out.”

Buck cringed internally at the unspoken statement that sometimes they didn’t.  He looked at the flushed, still face on the pale pillow and swallowed hard.  Loosing any of them would be hard, but he was convinced that this was his fault.  If Ezra died, his blood would be on Buck’s hands alone.  Buck closed his eyes and breathed deeply, trying to control the grief and guilt that welled up at the thought.  He opened his eyes just in time to see Ezra’s eyelids flutter.

“Nathan,” Buck called softly. 

Nathan arrived at the side of the bed with Chris just as Ezra’s eye opened fully.  Buck was surprised to see a look of pure hatred and fury cross Ezra’s face when he saw Nathan standing there.  He didn’t have a chance to say or do anything before Ezra tried to launch himself out of the bed at Nathan, his hands extended reaching for his neck.  Buck and Chris grabbed him and pushed him back down on the bed, but they had their hands full.  Ezra was much stronger than he looked, and Buck and Chris had a hard time controlling him.

“You bastard!  WHY?!?  What could she have possibly have done?  She helped you!  And the boys!  What about them?!?”  Ezra shouted at Nathan.  He didn’t seem to really notice that Chris and Buck were in the room, he just fought to get at Nathan.  The hatred on his face and in his voice was staggering.

Confused, Buck shouted, “What the hell is he talking about?”

Nathan had backed away a few steps and was looking at Ezra with a mix of sorrow and anguish in his eyes.  “Buck, he isn’t seeing us,” Nathan replied.  When Buck looked toward him in confusion, he explained, “Look at his eyes, Buck.”

Buck looked down at the face of the writhing, struggling man on the bed and understood.  There was no awareness in Ezra’s eyes this time.  They had the glazed, distant look of a man firmly gripped in delirium.  Ezra’s emerald eyes stared straight past Nathan into a scene only he could see, and all they could do was keep him from hurting himself or someone else.  They could do nothing to help him with the demons that tormented his mind.

Suddenly Ezra went completely stiff for a few second, then collapsed limply back against the bed.  Buck yelped when he jerked forward and butted heads with Chris as he lost his balance.  He managed to catch himself before he landed on Ezra, but he and Chris were going to have headaches for a while.  Nathan immediately moved forward to check Ezra out.

They were shocked when they saw the first tears well up in Ezra’s eyes, then spill down his face.  In all the time that they had known Ezra, he had never cried where others could see him.  Once or twice they had seen evidence of dried tears on his face, but never had he allowed them to see him.  He was more likely to go completely quiet in rage and fight like hell to fix what was wrong.  After the situation was dealt with, he would quietly slip away to deal with his grief. 

Now Ezra wept openly and unashamedly in front of them and they felt very uncomfortable, almost as if they were intruding. 

“Rachel, my darling,” Ezra sobbed.  “All this…my fault.  Forgive me.  I killed you the day I married you.  I’m so sorry, my love.”  Ezra continued to ask forgiveness from the absent and apparently deceased woman, while the three men stood around in astonishment and helpless distress.  They could barely believe what they were hearing, but they were forced to because delirious men couldn’t lie.  Within ten minutes Ezra had exhausted himself and fallen back to sleep.

Buck regarded the ill man lying there in light of the things that had just been said and found that some previously confusing things now made sense.  Why Ezra had reacted so greatly to the deaths of Clair Mosby and Irene Dunlap.  Why Ezra had reacted so violently in Harvest Hills and his subsequent retreat into depression.  Dear God, the man had seen more pain than any of them could dream of except Chris, and they had never known.

Chris was the first to find his voice after Ezra quieted. “That explains a lot,” he muttered as he also thought of Ezra reaction to the bodies of the two murdered young woman.

Buck hearing him, shook his head and sat back down.  “Explains more than you think.”

Chris and Nathan both turned questioning expressions to Buck, wondering what he was talking about.

Sighing, Buck said, “Remember I was telling you that the situation in Harvest Hills brought up some bad memories for Ezra?”  When Chris nodded that he did, Buck went on. “There was a man in the saloon there that was mouthing off about the lady that owned the grocery.  He kept sayin’ that no black woman should own a shop.”  Buck hesitated a moment before finishing. “He said that a black woman’s only place was on her back.”

Buck saw the disgust and fury that lit both Chris and Nathan’s faces and nodded. Turning back to watch Ezra, he said, “Yeah, me too.  I was going to do something, but Ezra beat me to it.  He grabbed that guy by the throat and threatened him.  Shook him hard enough to rattle his eyeballs.  Ezra glared down anyone in the saloon that might have wanted to stand with the guy.  Then he lit out of there like a pack of wolves was on his tail.

“When I caught up to him, I asked him what was going on.  He told me that he had known of a similar situation that didn’t turn out well.  I asked him what happened.”  Buck looked up at Nathan and Chris.  “He said that no one had stood up for her, and she and most of her family were killed two days later.”

Nathan’s mouth nearly dropped open in shock.  “But…”

Chris closed his eyes and quietly whispered, “Damn it.”

Buck knew that assumptions had been made when Ezra first joined them.  It had taken them two years, with a couple of false starts, to start breaking down the walls Ezra had built around himself.  In the two years since that however, Buck thought that they had grown into a close knit group.  A kind of family of brothers, so to speak.  Now he was wondering if they had ever known Ezra at all.

His musings were interrupted by Nathan blurting out, “But that’s impossible.”

Buck looked up directly into Nathan’s eyes and said, “How do you know that?”

“You said the woman they were insulting was black.  Ezra wouldn’t have married no black woman, Buck.  You remember what he said that first day,” Nathan reasoned.

“You ever hear Ezra make any other comments like that?  Has he ever done anything against you?  I ain’t never seen him choose no favorites when he goes to play with the children, in town or at the village,” Buck challenged him.  He could tell Nathan still wasn’t convinced, so Buck got up and headed for Ezra’s saddle bags, which were being kept in the clinic for the moment.

“What are you doing?” Chris asked.

“Ezra was looking at something the other day out at the pool.  It looked like a miniature.  He put it in here before he fell.”  Buck took a few minutes to find what he was looking for, but when he found it, he sat back on his heels and murmured, “Oh, God damnit!”

Chris and Nathan walked over to see what Buck had found.  When Chris reached him, Buck stood and handed him the small picture without being asked, then headed back to his seat beside Ezra and resumed wiping Ezra’s face and forehead with the wet towel.

Chris looked at the picture for a few moments before he closed his eyes, wishing he could go back in time and recall some of the words he had hurled at the Southerner.  Words born in his pain that accused a man who had lost more than he had of not understanding what pain was.

When Chris didn’t say anything, Nathan maneuvered beside him to look over his shoulder.  What he saw was a small painting, incredibly detailed, of Ezra and a delicately beautiful dark-skinned woman, each of them holding a young boy of about two years.  They were obviously twins, and Nathan had the sinking feeling that these were the Jonathan and Josiah Ezra had asked about.

Part 5

“Mulatto,” Nathan whispered in surprise.

“Yeah,” Chris rasped harshly.

Buck didn’t look at him as he said, “I don’t know why Ezra didn’t like you that day, but it wasn’t because of your skin color.  For that matter, if Ezra had really been a bigot, do you really think he would have gone with us at all?  We were going out there to protect a tribe that was a good half former slaves, for crying out loud.  Yet he goes with us, he keeps the children entertained and out of the way, gets them to set up decoys to help us.  I still remember what he told that one kid about courage.”

Nathan and Chris looked at each other to see if the either of them knew what Buck was talking about, but they both came up blank.  Seeing their confusion, Buck quoted, “’There are two types of courage.  There are those that seek battle and do not fear death, like them. And there are those that run from battle, but will stand and fight to the death if their loved ones are threatened, like them.  That is true courage.’”  Buck finally looked up at the end. “We were the first group, the villagers were the second.  He knew what he was talking about, too.  I’d like to think that we’ve been growin’ into the true courage group since then, but I’m thinkin’ we have a long ways to go yet.”

Chris nodded, Ezra was a wise man at times, but he could cloak that astute soul and hide it so well that you wondered how the man had lived as long as he had.  “Still doesn’t explain that first day, but we may never know why, unless we can get him to tell us.”

Nathan moved over beside where the insensate man lay, still gripped by the fever.  In his mind, he tried to make sense of this new knowledge and fit it with what had happened so long ago. A sickening thought came to him, and it showed on his face.

“Nathan?” Chris asked, concerned about the suddenly anguished expression on the healer’s face.

“Why did he go for me when he woke up?” Nathan asked.

“You said he wasn’t seeing us,” Buck reminded him.

“No, he wasn’t, but he could have latched onto something general,” Nathan said.

“Like skin color?” Chris asked, his voice low.

Nathan nodded.  “They could have been black.”  Nathan swallowed his nausea and explained how he had come to that conclusion. “Some would have considered her marrying a white man betrayal of her people.  Ezra said that he killed her when he married her, so that would fit.  And Ezra said that whoever this was, she had helped.  There are few white people that would need or accept help from a colored woman.”

Buck swallowed repeatedly to keep from throwing up.  The harm men could do to each other was something he could not fathom at times, but that a man could destroy a woman, one of God’s most perfect creatures, because she had fallen in love with and married a man of a different color, was something that he wasn’t going to even try.  It was completely incomprehensible.

Chris’s rage was just waiting for something to flatten, but there was no bandit to chase down and punish.  This was something that had happened years ago, and there was no one to vent on.  Ezra was unconscious and couldn’t be counted on to show up late for patrol, giving Chris a reason to explode.

With a start, Chris realized how many times Ezra had given him the release he need, just when he needed it.  Ezra would calmly stand there and take whatever verbal abuse Chris could dish out, and then go about his business as if nothing had happened.  Chris had a sneaking suspicion that he did it on purpose.  How many times, he wondered, had Ezra stood by and watched Chris’s building temper and decided that he should be the one to bare the brunt of it.  It was rarely anything of any consequence that got Ezra into trouble, usually just being a few minutes late for a scheduled shift or complaining a little too much about things.  Chris vowed then and there that he as going to find some other way to vent his temper, because he knew if he didn’t, Ezra would continue to draw Chris’s temper on himself.

Buck broke into his thoughts when he suddenly asked, “What about the boys?”

“Huh?” Chris asked, not making a connection.

“The two boys in the picture,” Buck asked again.

Both men looked at Nathan, who visibly winced. “They were probably killed, too.”

When Chris left the clinic a few minutes later, the room was silent except for the harsh breathing of the sick man on the bed.  Buck and Nathan were both thinking of how badly they had misjudged the gregarious gambler.  They had assumed that what they saw was the reality of the man’s life.  Even after they met Maude and found out what she was and had done to her son, they never stopped to re-evaluate what their concept of the man.

When they had first met him, Ezra had seemed like your typical gambler.  Greedy, conceited, untrustworthy.  It had taken him almost two years to prove to them that he could be trusted.  After the village, only the incident with the assassin’s money cast any shadows on Ezra’s character, and that was as much their fault as it had been his.

After a while, Vin and JD started growing closer to the gambler.  The elder members of the group had been wary, lest Ezra became a bad influence on them.  Buck could remember one particular occasion, when Nathan had started harping on Ezra about his gambling.  Ezra had eventually gotten tired of it and left.  JD had asked Nathan what the big deal was and told him to leave Ezra alone.  When Nathan had started arguing that he had seen Ezra win a lot of money off of a local farmer who had a mortgage payment due soon, JD had asked what the big deal was.

JD explained to him that Ezra had agreed to play with the man for a fee, and then they had gone to the bank together to make the payment.  The farmer gotten to have some fun playing what seemed to him like a high stakes poker game and make his payment to the bank, too.  Nathan had been dumbfounded, and then complained that Ezra should have just told him that.  Vin had spoken up then, pointing out that Nathan hadn’t asked and it wasn’t any of his damn business away.

Buck sat there wondering if there were others things like it that they had jumped to conclusions about.  Probably.  It would take a quite a while for them to make up for it, Buck mused.  Looking at the still figure on the bed, he just hoped they would get the chance to try.