Illusions of the Past (cont.)

By: knoteach

Part 6

Ezra slept restlessly that night, his fever abating not one bit.  Nathan began to worry the next morning when Ezra didn’t waked for several more hours, but by late afternoon, he began to stir a little and fight his way up toward consciousness.

When it became obvious that Ezra would waken soon, Nathan left the room in case Ezra was still in the grips of the delirium.  Vin had joined them in the clinic that day, and he and Buck, who still wouldn’t leave voluntarily, stayed close to Ezra in hopes of keeping him calm.

As Ezra awoke, he felt like he was floating in a warm fog.  Ezra wasn’t sure what was going on for a moment, but then memories of another time crowded into his mind, making him believe he was in another time and place.  He was unknowingly reliving a nightmare from the past.

When Ezra’s eye opened, Vin and Buck could see the confusion in them, and hoped that the Ezra they had known was back.  Unfortunately, his eyes took on the glassy, far away expression Buck remembered from the last time he had awoken, causing Buck’s heart to sink.

“Have they found them yet?” Ezra asked gruffly.

Vin, not having been present the last time, was confused and blurted out, “Who?”

Ezra, still trapped in the past, but a little more aware of his surroundings, shouted back harshly, “You damned well know who, Sikes!  The animals that butchered Rachel and the boys!”  To his poor fever addled brain, Vin had become someone else, just as Nathan had this morning.  Buck shook his head at Vin and motioned for him to play along to keep Ezra calm, while he went over to the door to talk to Nathan.

Vin, not wanting to start an argument, said, “Yeah, we found them.  They’re all locked up waitin’ on a trial.”

Ezra seemed to accept that answer, but then he started to try to get out of bed.

“What do you think you’re doin’?” Vin asked trying to prevent Ezra from standing.  When Ezra looked up at him, Vin involuntarily took a step backward.  There was so much hatred and rage burning in his eyes, Vin thought that Ezra might very well have been capable of killing with his bare hands at that moment.

“I’m goin’ to see the men that destroyed my life, Sikes,” Ezra stated in a very level controlled voice, thought his expression stayed the same.  Ezra made it to his feet as he spoke and took a step in the direction of the door behind which Nathan was concealed.

Vin stepped in front of Ezra, saying, “The judge is on his way.  Let him deal with them when he gets here tomorra, Standish.”

“No,” Ezra said as he tried to sidestep Vin.  Vin moved with him several times, trying to get Ezra maneuvered back to the bed.

Finally, Ezra took half a step back and, staring at Vin, coldly declared, “For now, I am willing to let the law mete out justice, but I will have it one way or another.  Until then however, I have the right to see these men, and I will speak to them, especially that black-skinned devil. Now step aside, Sikes.”  With that Ezra simply gave Vin a hard shove and walked past him into the other room.

“Standish!” Vin yelled as he moved to follow him.

Buck and Nathan had heard the argument through the door, but there was no other way to leave the room.  When it became obvious that Ezra was determined to see the man he held responsible for his family’s deaths, Buck had looked worriedly at the tortured look on Nathan’s face.  Turning to the healer he asked, “Do you think you can play along?”

Swallowing his nausea, Nathan nodded.  He had hoped his idea was wrong, but now he had confirmation.  It sickened him what men could do to each other.

It was only a few moments later when Ezra pushed through the doorway and immediately spotted Nathan.  He moved forward quickly, his face murderous, but Buck and Vin both grabbed him and held him back.  Ezra jerked to look back and forth between Buck and Vin as he struggled to get free. 

“You said you’d let the law deal with him,” Vin reminded him.

The reminder seemed to do the trick, because he stopped struggling against them, but they retained their grips, not taking any chances.

“Alright,” Ezra said to them; then he stared in silence at Nathan for a minutes.  The silence was as unnerving to Nathan as the shouting Ezra had done last time.

“She helped you, you ungrateful bastard,” Ezra hissed after a few minutes.  “Got you off the plantation, and you repaid her by having her tortured and killed.  And when she pleaded for the lives of her sons, you just laughed.  Jonathan and Josiah were too young to be any threat to you, but you killed them anyway.  Hanging is too good for the likes of you.  There is a special seat reserved for you in hell, and you will be taking you place shortly.  I’ll make sure of it,” Ezra’s voice left no doubt as to what he meant.

Nathan couldn’t keep up the charade, and whispered, “Ezra…”

Ezra’s reaction was immediate and vicious.  Ezra tried to charge forward, but thankfully Buck and Vin didn’t lose their grip.

“Don’t you dare call me by that name!  Ezra died with Rachel and was buried with his sons.  All that is left is Phelan!”  Ezra had barely finished the sentence when he suddenly collapsed.

Vin managed to catch him before he hit the ground, and he hissed as he felt the heat radiating off of Ezra’s body.  “Nathan, he’s burning up!”

Nathan hurried over and felt for Ezra’s temperature.  He swore as he felt the heat coming off the man’s face.  “Get him back to the bed.  Then one of you go over to the hotel and find out it they have any ice.  Hurry!”  Vin and Buck quickly carried Ezra back to the bed; then Vin rushed off to look for ice.

Buck grabbed the wet rag he had been using and soaked it.  He then proceeded to wet Ezra thoroughly with it.  Nathan used a small fan he kept, to move air over the areas Buck dampened.  It was the only thing he could think of to do until Vin got back with some ice.

Buck looked up at the worried healer and asked, “Nathan?”

Nathan met his eyes for only a moment before looking back down at the Southerner.  “We’re losing him, Buck.  If we can’t get that fever down, he probably won’t last another day,” Nathan whispered, his voice rough from suppressed emotion.  He glanced back up at Buck for only a second, but he couldn’t stand to see the grief stricken expression on the man’s face.

What he hadn’t told Buck, was that even now he was afraid Ezra could have brain damage.  With first the concussion, then a high fever, it would be a miracle if Ezra survived unscathed.

Part 7

When Vin returned, Nathan convinced Buck to go tell the others what had happened and get a meal.  He went first to the jail, and since there was no one locked up, he easily convinced Chris to come to the saloon so he wouldn’t have to keep repeating himself.  Next he called Josiah from the church, and finally headed for the Saloon where he had seen JD.  When he had them all together, he filled them in on what had happened just little while ago.

All of them were silent for a few moments as they absorbed what Buck had told them.  The first to break the stillness was Josiah.

“Dear God, forgive me the pain I must have caused him.  I should have realized he had a reason why he hated for me to call him son,” Josiah said, hanging his head.

Chris didn’t say a word in response, but inwardly he was wondering how in the world Ezra had stood it.  If any of these men had been named Adam, he knew he would never have been able to.  He would have ridden out of town the next day and never looked back.

“There’s a lot we haven’t learned about Ezra, Josiah,” JD tried to reassure him. Thinking a little farther, he said, “He’s a lot more than we ever gave him credit for, isn’t he?”

They all nodded their agreement, but Buck was surprised when Chris spoke up.

“A lot smarter, too.”  When Chris saw the confused expressions on their faces, he explained, “Ezra gave each of us exactly what we expected to see.  He was probably the most open with Vin and JD because they were the most open to him.  They didn’t have set expectations for how he should act.  He knew what we expected, what we would believe the easiest, and gave it to us.  When a man sees what he expects to see, usually he won’t question in or look closer.”

They all sat thinking about what Chris had said, and found that they agreed with him.  Ezra had given them what they expected to see, and they had assumed that that was what he was.  Even after they had been around him and he started acting differently, the change had been so slow that mostly they hadn’t noticed.  After several minutes, the quiet men were joined by Vin.

“Mrs. Potter came up and volunteered to help, so Nathan sent me down.  Nathan said for us to bring him something when we go back up,” Vin explained when Buck cast a questioning glance in his direction.

“Vin, JD, did either of you ever have any idea about Ezra?”  Josiah suddenly inquired.  He was worried that his preconceptions had clouded his judgment badly.  Had there been signs that he had missed?  Had he been so sure that his opinion of the man was right that he had unconsciously ignored what was right in front of his face?

Vin and JD looked at each other for a moment, before Vin nodded for JD to go ahead and answer.

“I’ve always wondered about that ring he always wears, but I’ve never gotten up the courage to ask him about it,” JD confessed.

The confusion was obvious in Josiah’s voice as he asked, “Ring?  He wears several different rings.”  Josiah knew Ezra wore rings; one couldn’t help but notice them.

“Actually, he usually wears two.  One over the other, but he always wears a weddin’ band,” Vin clarified.  “All of his others are special made to fit over that one and disguise it.”

“When’d you notice that?” Chris asked.

“When Travis had him in the jail,” Vin said.  “One o’ the times I was in there, he grabbed the bars’n I saw it.  When I asked him about it, he jerked his hand back an’ looked real uncomfortable.  He just said that he wore it as a reminder, didn’t say of what.  At the time, I figgered he’d lost her an’ didn’t want to talk about it, so’s I didn’t pry.”

“Why didn’t you ever say anything?” Chris demanded.  He didn’t like it when people didn’t tell him things like this.

“Figured it wasn’t my place to be tellin’ you nothin’, cowboy.  If’n Ezra didn’t see fit to be tellin’ you guys about his life, why in hell should I be tellin’ you what little I know? Especially when I ain’t even sure of what I think I know?” Vin reasoned with him.

Chris winced and nodded his agreement.  Vin was right, if Ezra had wanted them to know, he would have told them.  None of them had bothered to take the time to get to know anything about Ezra except Vin and JD.  The rest of them hadn’t even bothered to notice things that had been right in front of their noses for the last three years.

“Well, we know now,” Chris murmured quietly as he got up to leave to go back to the jail.

“Yeah,” Buck concurred, just as quietly.  And the only reason they knew now was because Ezra’s mind was torturing him with it.  Buck started to get up, but Vin caught his arm.

“Nathan told you to get some food, and I ain’t lettin’ you go back without it,” Vin warned him as he pulled him back down.  Buck thought about protesting, but didn’t think it would do him any good, so he sat back down.  Josiah left the table for a few minutes while they ordered a couple of meals and waited.

As they sat at the table, Vin was thinking over what had happened in the clinic.  One part of the event stuck out in his mind, because he had no idea what it meant.  “Buck, do you know what all that yellin’ Ez was doin’ about his name meant?”

JD, who had also stayed, piped up, “What are you talking about?”

Vin and Buck quickly recounted exactly what Ezra had said in the last few moments of the confrontation in the clinic.  It sounded just as perplexing the second time around as it had the first.

“I’m not sure what all he was talking about, but it sure makes you think there more to it than is obvious on the surface.  I’ve been thinkin’ on it, and do you really think Maude Standish would have named her son ‘Ezra’?” Buck said.

Vin was silent as he thought about it, then replied, “Maybe his Pa named him.”

Buck thought a second, but quickly shook his head.  “It’s possible I guess, but you know how much she changed her name.  She’d have done the same thing to him.  Even if his daddy had named him, she would have changed his name so many times, there’d be no telling what his name was originally.  I’d say it comes from somewhere else, but it means something special to him.”

Vin sat quietly mulling over what Buck had said, and found that it made sense.  The very idea that Maude Standish would name her son after some obscure Biblical character was laughable.  Then where had it come from and why had he reacted so violently to it?

JD also considered it, and agreed. ”I wish we knew what it meant.”  Buck and Vin nodded.

Josiah, who was just returning to the table, caught JD’s statement and asked, “Knew what what meant?”

Without thinking, JD told him, “What Ezra means.”

“Ezra means ‘Help’ or ‘Helper.’” Josiah said.

Vin thought for a moment before asking, “You happen to know what Phelan means?”

Josiah frown for a moment, searching his memory, “If I am remembering correctly, it’s an old name from Ireland that means either ‘wolf’ or ‘avenger,’ I’m not sure which.”

“Oh,” Buck’s eyes grew round, thinking of the implications.  Ezra had declared that he would have justice, then claimed a name that meant either wolf or avenger.  He had been giving warning.  If only he could find out more about what had happened.  Buck looked over at Vin to see if he had the same idea that had popped into his head.  When their eyes met, he knew he had.  Judge Travis.  With that, Buck got up and took off for the telegraph office.  Vin just watched him leave.

“What was that about?”  Josiah asked as he watched Buck leave the saloon.

Vin, usually a man of few words, actually answered him.  “Another mystery to solve.”

Josiah looked back at Vin, but knew that was all he was going to get from the taciturn sharpshooter.  When he asked JD what they had been talking about, he explained about what Buck and Vin had been discussing. 

Josiah thought about it for a few minutes, but came up with no more answers than they had.  He really hoped what ever idea Buck had gotten worked.

Part 8

About an hour later, after Buck and Vin had finally gotten to eat, Buck decided to stop back by the telegraph office to see if he had gotten a reply.

Sure enough, he arrived just as the link opened and it came through.  Buck watched the operator and knew something was up by the way the man’s eyes widened.  When Taylor handed him the message, he stared at Buck for a few second before shaking himself out of it and going back to his job.

Buck opened the telegraph quickly and read the message.


     About time someone asked—Standish arrested on contempt of court—caused scene when judge let family’s murderers go—judge implied that white men should not die for killing colored woman—Standish escape—hunt down those freed—killed all six in duels—all above board.


Buck slowly folded the message back up and bowed his head.  How wrong they had been!  Since the beginning they had viewed Ezra as a shiftless, greedy bastard.  A man with no heart or conscience. 

Yet now, they were finding that their friend not only very much had a heart, but that he had survived an experience that would have driven most of them to insanity.  The only one of them that came close to understanding what Ezra had been through was Chris, and Chris had had enough trouble dealing with losing one son.  If he had had two and lost both of them?  Buck shuddered as he thought about that.  There would have been no way he could have held Chris together.

Buck jumped when Vin practically appeared out of thin air a foot from his left elbow. 

“What’s he say?” Vin asked, in his usual blunt manner.

Buck silently handed him the telegram and headed for the saloon.  He needed a drink before going back to face Ezra.  Even if Ezra wasn’t awake at the moment, he didn’t think he could stand to be there and know what he knew.  He knew he needed to apologize, but right now he was afraid he wasn’t going to get the chance.

It was only after he was half way down the sidewalk that Buck realize that the only reason he had been able to hand that telegram to Vin and expect him to be able to understand it, was because of Ezra.  After Ezra had acted so rudely to Vin about the poetry, Ezra had apologized and volunteered to teach Vin to both read and write.  By way of restitution, he said.  Vin was no fool and had taken him up on the offer immediately.  Buck shook his head in frustration with himself.  None of the rest of them had offered, but the ‘shiftless, greedy bastard’ had not only offered, but also had unfailingly followed through on that promise, finding time whenever Vin asked him about it.

As he continued toward the saloon, Buck also thought about all the time Ezra spent with the children of the town every week, or the village if they were out that way.  Since there was no school in town as yet, Ezra had taken it upon himself to teach the basics of reading and writing to the children.  Using his own books, he had set up a system whereby the children would learn to read a passage from one of his books, then he would provide them with paper and other materials for writing so that they could then copy the passage out to keep for themselves.

By this time Buck had reached the saloon, and going in, he got himself a drink and sat down at their usual table.  As he sat there, he continued to think about all that Ezra had done around the town, yet never seem to receive, or for that matter desire, any recognition or credit for.

A little while later the chair beside him was pulled out and Vin dropped into it with a soft sigh.  “Damn!” the usually quiet man burst out after a few seconds as he handed the telegram back to Buck.

Buck remained subdued as he agreed. “That about covers it.”

“We’ve been a bunch’a jackasses to him, ain’t we?” Vin asked.

JD arrived at the table just in time to hear Vin’s comment, and his curiosity was piqued.  “What are you talking about?”

Buck looked up momentarily, but couldn’t seem to meet JD’s eyes. “Ezra,” he answered him brusquely.

When no more information was forth coming, JD prodded, “And…?”

Vin stayed quiet, but Buck finally asked, “JD, did you ever wonder what Judge Travis slapped Ezra in jail for?”

“Of course,” JD countered.  “I asked him at the time, and Judge Travis told me it was for contempt of court.”

“Did ya’ ever ask any more about it?” Vin asked.

“Well, no,” JD replied a little more subdued.  “I figured that was Ezra’s business and he could tell me if he wanted to.”

“Really wish you’d asked Ezra at the time, JD.  I really wish you had,” Buck said as he slung back the last of his drink.  When Buck stood to go, he noticed the look of utter confusion on JD’s face, handed him the telegram, and explained, “The contempt charge was for yelling at the judge that let the men that murdered his wife and sons go.  He skipped out to hunt them down and punish them.”

“Damn!” JD murmured as he slowly opened the telegram to read it.

“That about covers it,” Buck repeated as he slowly strode from the saloon to resume his place at Ezra side.


Later that night, Chris and Buck sat in the clinic with Ezra, taking turns bathing the ill man’s face with a wet cloth.  Three hours after the confrontation, and subsequent revelations that afternoon, Ezra’s fever had started to come down, not a great deal, but enough to where Nathan felt safe leaving Ezra’s side and getting some sleep. 

As they sat quietly beside the bed, each of them thinking of the years they had known this enigmic man, yet in all that time, neither of them could think of a time where Ezra had given any indication of the magnitude of loss he had experienced.  There had been a few small clues that they had missed, but Ezra had hidden so well, they had never suspected anything.

“How, Buck?” Chris suddenly asked.  “Just answer me that.”

Caught off guard, Buck responded, “How what?”

“How did he hide it?” Chris said.  “Standish…Ezra… he’s suffered so much, yet none of us had a clue.”

Sighing, Buck answered, “He’s had a lot of practice hiding it, Chris.  He’s been practicing for years.  You remember what Maude is.  She taught him to hide everything, every emotion, every pain.  He probably never thought of not hiding it.”

“It’s still hard to realize that he’s lost more than even I have, and yet I never suspected a thing.  He hid it so well that I never saw it,” Chris lamented.

“We also never looked for it either.”  Buck pointed out.

Seeing the belligerent expression growing on Chris’s face, Buck continued, “You know I’m right, Chris.  We’ve never taken the time to get to know Ezra Standish, the man.  We’ve been too busy being wary of the Gambler that that was all we saw most of the time.  For the last three years, we’ve not bothered finding out who he is, being too concerned with what he is.”  Buck looked back down at the sweaty, still face lying on the pillow as Chris thought about what he had said.

Instead of blowing up, as he might once have done, Chris stopped and really thought about what Buck had just said and found that he agreed.  “Yeah, I guess so.  That damn mask he wears all the time fooled us all.  Why he wants it that way, I don’t know.”

Buck shook his head as he said, “I don’t think it’s that that is the way he wants it, so much as that is the only way he knows how to be.  Maude forced him into that way of life as a child, and that seems to be the way he makes his living now.  Probably the only time where he has ever been able to live as himself was while he was married, and the memories would be….”  Buck stopped when he saw Chris wince and knew that he understood what Buck was trying to say.  Ezra’s life had probably always been a façade, and it would be a hard habit to break, but Buck was determined that when Ezra got better, he would not be allowed to retreat behind that front again.  Buck wanted to get to know the real Ezra Standish; the few glimpses he had seen fascinated him, and he wanted to know more.

Even as he made that decision, he heard a low moan coming from the man under his hand, and both he and Chris moved closer to the bed, ready incase Ezra started trying to move around.

“Ezra?”  Buck called quietly, mindful of what Nathan had told him about making sure Ezra came fully to consciousness, but not shout at him.

Ezra turned his head toward the familiar voice as he tried to figure out who it was.  Very carefully he blinked his eyes open and squinted up and the indistinct figure standing over him in the dim light.  “Buck?”

Buck’s heart leaped as Ezra said his name.  Glancing up he saw a smile growing on Chris’s face to match the one he knew was on his own face.  Ezra was back with them!  Reaching out, he touched Ezra’s forehead and found it even cooler that it had been before.  “Ezra, how are you feeling?”

“Lousy,” Ezra grunted. “What the heck happened, Buck?”

Buck noticed that Ezra’s accent was shifted and his speech was vastly different from the Southerner’s usually cultured tones and fifty cent words, but for the moment it was enough that Ezra recognized him. “You fell and hit you head on the rocks out by the pool at Thompson’s Rocks.”

“Oh,” Ezra closed his eyes and he carefully brought his hand toward the bandages that covered the left side of his head.  “That explains why my head is pounding so badly.”  Buck pulled Ezra’s hand down away from his head when he winced as he gently touched the bandages.  “Damn, that hurts.  What time is it, Buck?”  Buck was surprised by the question and didn’t answer right away, but Ezra looked toward the clinic window and realized it was dark out.  “Shit, I’ve got to get home.”  With that Ezra started trying to get out of bed, but both Buck and Chris held him back.

“Hold it, Standish,” Chris said, as he held one hand in the middle of Ezra chest to keep him down.  “You’ve been more out than in consciousness for the better part of three days, damn it.  You not going anywhere until Nate says you can!”

Ezra stopped trying to get up and looked at Chris in confusion, “Three days?”

When Ezra relaxed back onto the bed, Chris and Buck backed off slightly, no longer holding Ezra down, but ready to move if Ezra should try again.  “Yeah, three days,” Chris confirmed.

Ezra looked up at them in confusion for a second, but finally his face cleared.  “Oh hell, Rachel’s got to be really worried by now.  She’s never going to let me go out alone again after this.  She’ll insist on going with me every time from now on.”  As Ezra spoke, Buck and Chris’s hearts sank.  When he finished, Ezra turned his head away from them and closed his eyes, drifting into a healing sleep.

“Ezra?” Buck called, worried.

When Ezra didn’t answer, Chris put his hand on his forehead. “His fevers still down.  He’s probably just exhausted from the infection,” he tried to reassure the worried man.

Both men sat back down and were about to discuss what had happened when Nathan entered the room and asked what had happened while he was gone.

“Ezra woke up and seemed to know me, but he was thinking Rachel was still alive and waiting for him to get home,” Buck explained as the healer came over to examine his patient.

Nathan actually smiled as Buck described what had happened.  It was the first time the man had had reason to smile in days, indeed since this whole thing had started.  Finally he looked up at the two anxious men waiting nearby and said, “He’s on his way back.”

“Why did he think Rachel was still alive, though?”  Buck asked, still concerned for his friend’s mental state.

“That should correct itself as he heals.  Right now, his mind is still trying to sort out the past from the present,” Nathan explained as he smoothed the covers and tried to make Ezra more comfortable.

“He’s speech was different, too,” Chris pointed out.

“Probably more of the same,” Nathan reassured them.

Buck looked back and forth from the man on the bed to the healer that had worked so hard to keep him alive.  He trusted Nathan implicitly, but that didn’t allay all of his fears for Ezra.  “Now what do we do?”

“We wait.  There nothing we really can but wait,” Nathan lamented.

The three men set about getting things in order for the night, but they were both reassured and worried.  It was good that Ezra had woken up and seemed aware of his surroundings, but they were worried that he had mixed the past with the present.  They could only hope that his mind would heal as his body healed.

Part 9

All of them were relieved when Ezra slept peacefully through the night with his fever staying down throughout.  The next morning, Josiah had replaced Chris in the clinic, so that Nathan, Buck, and Josiah were now watching over the sick man.

Josiah had taken over from Buck, sitting at Ezra side and gently wiping his forehead with a damp towel, for while his fever was way down, he still had a slight one and they didn’t want to give it a chance to catch hold of him again.

“So blind,” Josiah murmured quietly.

Buck, who had been lost in his own thoughts, muttered a startled, “Huh?”

Josiah didn’t turn from his contemplation of the man that had been revealed as so much more than they had thought.  “Just thinking, that he’s asked me so many times not to call him son, yet because he never gave me a direct reason, I paid him no mind.  Thinking back now, I can see the pain in his eyes whenever I’d say it.  How could I not have seen it before?  Or was I so convinced I was right, that it didn’t matter to me?”

Nathan sighed as he nodded in agreement.  “Yeah, me too.  I can remember times when I’d accuse him of not liking my color or rail at him about something, and he’d just stare at me with a pained expression on his face.”  Nathan looked embarrassed as he confessed, “I always thought he was faking it.”

Both Buck and Josiah glared at the dark-skinned man.  “If Ezra had judged us on first impressions, what would he have thought of us?” Buck challenged.

Nathan winced as he thought of that first meeting in the saloon.  Even though it had been a toss up whether who was conning whom, at the time, they had nearly stood by while a man was mutilated or possibly killed over a few dollars.  Thankfully Ezra had been able to pull another one out of his hat, or sleeve as the case might be, and get out of it. 

“As men that stand by while others are badly hurt,” Nathan finally responded, when Buck kept staring at him to get him to answer.

“Exactly,” Buck said, but before he could continue Ezra started to moan softly and his attention was diverted.  Unsure of how Ezra would be when he awoke, Nathan backed away a little as Buck and Josiah drew closer.  Nathan didn’t want his presence to disturb him.

Buck nearly cheered when Ezra opened his eyes and looked at them, but his elation soon faded as Ezra simply continued to stare at them with a frighteningly blank expression

“Ezra?” Buck said quietly. 

Ezra slowly looked over at him, proving he could hear, but he still didn’t say a word.

Getting very worried, Buck asked, “Ezra, can you understand me?” 

Ezra stayed silent for a few moments, before quietly answering, “Yes.”

Casting a nervous glance back over his shoulder at Nathan, Buck tried again, “How are you feeling, Ez?”

Again Ezra was silent for a while before answering.  When he did, though, all he said was, “Okay.”  Seemingly he lost interest in Buck and looked back at Josiah, who had remained still so far.  When Josiah didn’t say anything right away, Ezra continued his survey of the room, his gaze finally coming to rest on Nathan.  Buck and Josiah saw a momentary flicker in Ezra’s eyes when he saw Nathan, but it was gone too fast for them to identify what it had been. 

Finally Josiah spoke, “Ezra?”  Ezra brought his gaze back to Josiah, but made no sound in response.

“Nathan?”  Josiah looked over at the healer as he asked a multitude of questions in that one word.  Not the least of which was, ‘Is he all right?’  This extreme quiet was so foreign that all three of them were getting very worried.  Ezra might have been withdrawn before, but this was way past that.  

Nathan, deciding that Ezra was at least aware enough that he shouldn’t react to him as violently as he had before, started forward to check him out.  However, as soon as he started to reach out to touch him, Ezra jerked away from him.

“Ezra, it’s all right.  I just want to make sure you’re okay,” Nathan soothed, again reaching for the ill man.  This time Ezra allowed the contact, staring up at the tall man with a look of confusion on his face.

After a few moments Ezra shook his head, as if to clear it after a blow.  Looking back up at Nathan, he squinted into the glaring morning light.  “Nathan?” Ezra asked, his voice filled with a combination of hope and uncertainty.

“Yeah, It’s me, Ezra,” Nathan answered as he went on with his examination.  Ezra’s wound looked like it was finally healing properly, but Nathan hadn’t up to this point been to sure about his mental state, not withstanding the reassurances he had given the others.  That Ezra was able to figure out who he was, was a good sign.

“You weren’t there,” Ezra suddenly stated with conviction. “You’re a good man.  You wouldn’t have helped them.  I know you wouldn’t.”

“You’re right, Ezra.  I wasn’t there, but you’ve had a high fever for sometime and it’s dragged up a lot of memories.  You need to put them away again, Ezra,” Nathan told him, trying to coax him back into the present.

Ezra’s only response was a mumbled, “Oh,” and a thoughtful look.

When the silence stretched on for several minutes, Buck suggested, “Ezra, it might help if you tell us what happened.”

Ezra looked back and forth among the three men standing around him for a few moments before coming to a decision.  “Chris.”  With that he turned over and started to stare at the wall behind the bed.

For a moment, Buck was confused, but it quickly dawned on him what Ezra meant. “I’ll get Chris,” he volunteered, then headed out of the clinic to retrieve him.  He was back with Larabee in tow in less than five minutes, to find Josiah and Nathan had arranged four chairs around Ezra’s bed.

Ezra had stayed in his position facing the wall, so Josiah gently touched his shoulder to get his attention. When Ezra looked up at him, he spoke, “S…Ezra, Chris is here.”  Josiah wanted to kick himself for almost slipping.  Thankfully Ezra didn’t seem to take notice, and just turned over to where he could look at them as he spoke.

Taking a deep breath as he gave each of them one last look, he plunged headlong into the history that had tortured him for the last few weeks.

“After the war was over, I longed for my home.  Not the cities that Maude loved so much, but the country side of Louisiana where I had spent my first years, so much against Maude’s wishes, I headed for the bayou country.  When I got there, I found that nothing was as I remembered except the language.  The war had not been kind to the land or the people. 

“I had only been back a few weeks when I met Rachel.  When we met, it was love at first sight, and we married within six months.  To us, the difference in the color of our skin was no difference at all, and we could see no reason it would be anyone else’s business.  Her heart was big enough for the whole world, even a white Southern gambler. We had twin boys a year and a half later, Jonathan and Josiah.  We always said that those boys were the Lord’s healing, for both of us.  We were so proud of them.”  Ezra’s face had taken on a beautiful smile as he spoke of the woman he had married.  Ezra might usually hide his emotions, but right now, all the love he had felt for his family was on display for the entire world to see.

Suddenly the smile dropped from Ezra’s face, and all four of them knew they were not going to like what they were about to hear.

“Rachel and her family had been part of the Underground Railroad since long before the war, and when the boys were three years old, a man they had helped to the North came back, with the intention of marrying Rachel and taking her with him out west.  She refused him, of course, declaring that she loved me and would never leave me.  My brother-in-law was there at the time and made sure that he left peaceably.  A couple of days later, however, some drifters came to town and started to mouth off like the one Buck and I saw in Harvest Hills.

“Except that no one in our town had the guts to tell them to shut up.  Jacob, the man that Rachel had known before, told them that I was away and not expected back for a few days.  He even went with them to help.”  By now, Ezra was crying again, not the heaving sobs of a few days before, but silent tears streamed down his face as he spoke.

“I had come home early to surprise Rachel because it was her birthday and found them in the house.  I tried to fight them, but they out numbered me seven to one and over powered me rather easily.    

“They made me watch as they tortured and murdered my family!”  Finally Ezra completely broke, curling up into a ball on his side, Ezra tried to hide his face from them as he sobbed.

Part 10

Buck sat completely silent, tears of compassion running down his face as he listened to the hell his friend had lived through.  Needing to do something to convey comfort, Buck reached out a slightly trembling hand and rested it on his friend’s head. 

Chris sat in his chair, wanting to kill someone for the pain they had put Ezra through, but he knew that they were all dead already.  He felt so helpless right now, and he hated feeling like this.  There was no way to go back and change what had happened, and there were no more culprits to hunt down.  Finally he also reached out to rest a hand on Ezra head. 

Nathan was also crying as he listened.  He had misjudged this man so badly.  He had himself been guilty of what he had accused Ezra of so many times.  He had judged him by the color of his skin and the sound of his voice, not by his actions.  Moved more than he could ever remember being before, Nathan reached out to touch the tormented man, as the others had.

The last to reach out was Josiah, who could barely breathe as he listened to the anguish pouring out of the young man he had actually thought of like his own son in ways.  He had been so blind, and in his blindness he had hurt him so badly.  Finally he reached out and connected the other three men’s hands with his large hand.  The only thing he could do now was pray.

After several minutes, Ezra started to calm and they took their hands away.  Finally Ezra continued, sniffling once in a while, but gaining strength as he went on.

“They eventually shot me and left me for dead, locked in the house with their bodies.  Rachel’s brother came by and found me and took me into the town to the doctor, though, and I eventually healed.  They were found, and brought back for trial a few weeks later.   Of the seven men involved, only Jacob was convicted and hung by the judge that presided over the case. 

“After the sentence was read, I was furious.  Just because of the color of her skin, the judge let them off.  I got out of the jail at the first opportunity that presented itself and started to hunt them down.  I wasn’t going to let them get away with killing her or my boys.”  Ezra’s voice hardened as he spoke of hunting the men that had killed his family, and Buck, Josiah, Nathan, and Chris were all convinced that Ezra would do it all over again if he had to.

“I was fortunate that the bastards seemed to prefer the South, where duels are still fairly common.  Six duels…six dead murderers.  No tricks, no cons, just speed and skill.”  The steel and fire in Ezra voice and on his face were unmistakable. 

The Ezra sudden wilted, “But after I had my revenge, there was no reason for life.  I went back to the life Maude had taught me, it was easy and I didn’t have to feel or think about it.  Rachel would have hated what I’ve become.  After a while I realized that, indeed I think what really drove home that point was meeting all of you here in Four Corners.  Actually, that was the first time I had used the name Ezra since the trial.  Rachel gave me the name before we got married; she said it fit me better.”  Ezra informed them with a small sad smile.

“She’d be proud of you now, wouldn’t she?  Even if you’ve been hiding behind the Gambler, you’ve been using it to help people,” Buck pointed out, trying to find something that would cheer Ezra up even if only very slightly.

Ezra’s smile brightened just a touch as he thought about it. “Yes, maybe a little,” Ezra agreed, then he suddenly frowned again.  “But not what I nearly did to Chris.  She never would have forgiven me for that if it had worked.”

All of the men in the room looked at each other in confusion.  None of them could remember anything that Ezra had done to Chris that would account for this.  Granted, he could annoy the hell out of Chris without trying, but Ezra was making it sound as if he had done something horrible to him.

“What are you talking about, Ez?” Buck finally asked, when Chris didn’t say anything.

Ezra closed his eyes with a pained expression.  “I’m sorry, Chris.”

“For what, Standish?” Chris finally spoke up when Ezra didn’t continue.

“That day at the village, I left not to look for gold, but for another reason, but then I heard them coming and I knew I wouldn’t be able to get back to the village in time to warn you.  I waited until they were past me and tried to come up behind them, but there were too many scouts for me to move all that fast.  By the time I got around all of them, it was too late and you had already been taken.  You all know what happened from there,” Ezra told them.

“So why did you leave?” Josiah asked.

Even as they watched tears welled up in Ezra’s eyes again, shocking them all over again.  “I’m so sorry, Chris.  I’m sorry,” Ezra whispered brokenly.

When no one spoke, Buck reached over and nudged Chris, who nodded and cleared his throat.  “Standish, what ever happened, just tell me and get it over with.”  Not knowing how else to lighten the atmosphere, Chris tried a weak joke, “I ain’t goin’ ta shoot you over it now.”

They all jumped when Ezra suddenly gave a bark of bitter laughter.  Then next words out of his mouth made their blood run cold.

“But that was what I wanted!”

Chris, who had been leaning forward, jerked backward as if he had been slapped.

“I was sure when I left, that when I was late coming back from patrol, you would shoot me yourself, and I wanted that more than anything else at the time.  I wanted death, but didn’t have the courage to take my own life,” Ezra confessed.

It was Nathan that voiced the question that had popped into each of their minds after that statement.  “Ezra, did you want to die that day in the saloon?”

Ezra turned to look directly at Nathan, the first time he had looked directly at any of them since he had started his story. “Yes.  That was why I chose them for my game.  That’s why I cheated when I could have won easily.  But mutilation, no.  When I saw the article in the paper the next day, even though I knew it was exaggerated, I believed either the fighting would kill me, or I could provoke you into getting rid of me permanently.”

Chris quickly tried to squash the fear that was rising, and the anger that always accompanied that fear, for he knew Ezra was in no condition to have to deal with his emotions and reactions.  Swallowing hard, he asked in a level controlled voice, “Why did you stay afterward then?”

“At first, because you gave me a second chance,” Ezra said, with a slight, but genuine, smile.  “Then, of course, Judge Travis stepped in.  He knew what had happened in Louisiana, and figured out what I tried to do with you.  He clapped me in jail, first to find out whether I was still a danger to myself.  I’m not sure I ever fully convinced him at the time, but he could tell that just the few days I had known you had been good, so he made the bargain to keep me here for a while with out anyone asking me any questions.  He knew I need the chance you had offered out at the village.

“After the month was up, I didn’t want to leave.  I had found a place where my life could have meaning again.  I could make something of myself here.  I had begun to hope again,” Ezra admitted.

“And thank God you did,” Buck declared firmly.  “We’re a family here, and it wouldn’t be the same without you.”

Seeing that Ezra was having a hard time keeping his eyes open, Nathan stood and shooed the others out of the clinic.  Only Buck put up much of a protest, but when Josiah reminded him that they needed to find Vin and JD and fill them in on what had been said, Buck acquiesced and went along with them.

Chris got up and headed for the door, but then waited for Buck and Josiah to leave before turning back and saying, “Ezra, you were wrong.”  When Ezra just looked up at him in confusion, he explained, “It wasn’t cowardice that kept you from killing yourself. It was courage, for it takes more courage to keep on living with the pain, than it does to give up and die.”  Ezra was stunned as he watched the black clad man walk out of the clinic. 


After rounding up Vin and JD, Chris, Buck, and Josiah headed for the saloon, which they knew would be fairly empty this time of day.  It only took them a few minutes to fill them in on what had happened in the clinic.  After they were finished, JD looked like he wanted to throw up, and Vin looked ready to kill.  They all sat quietly for several minutes, but Buck noticed that Chris was starting to drink hard and fast.

“Chris, you all right?” Buck asked, getting worried about the man.

The fire of anger in Chris’s eyes when he looked up at him surprised Buck.  “Hell, no, I’m not all right.  I judged a man guilty on circumstantial evidence and come to find out I couldn’t have been more wrong about him!”  Chris poured himself another drink as he continued.  “Ezra’s been here for three years, I’ve operated on the assumption that that first meeting was all there was to the man.”

“So did we,” Buck pointed out.  “He hides so well that we never thought to look closer.  The only ones that noticed anything were Vin and JD.”

“An’ we didn’t push it.  We noticed a few things, but we didn’t follow up on them,” Vin put in.

Josiah nodded as he agreed, “Vin’s right, we’re all at fault.  I have been called a man of God, but I didn’t care enough to see his pain.  I only cared about trying to get him to conform to what I thought he should be.  He even came directly to me looking for help and I turned him away.”  Josiah added the last with a wince.

They were all silent as the remembered the fiasco with the assassin and the money they had found.  It had been a hard time for them all, to forgive themselves and each other.  Chris had actually clobbered Josiah when he had found out what he had done to Ezra.  They all remembered how upset Ezra had been about that; he had been more upset about it than Josiah, who had thought he deserved it.

Chris sat silently contemplating the drink in his hands, as he remembered all the times Ezra had done something seemingly out of character, all the hints that they had been given that there was more to this man than they thought.   There were many, some of which still hadn’t been explained.  Clair Mosby, Irene Dunlap, Li Pong, the ring he always wore, Chaucer, his skill with weapons.

Chris knew that they would find out eventually, but he knew also that they would be looking for the explanations.  He just hoped that it would take another incident like this to do it.

Setting the glass done on the table, still full, Chris looked up and met the eyes of each of his men it turn.  “Things are going to have to change around here. There’s to be no more sidelining him or cutting him out of things.  Ezra’s a member of this here brotherhood, let’s start acting like it!”

“You said it,” Buck agreed.

“Yeah!” JD threw in enthusiastically, excited that they older men had finally seen what he and Vin and glimpsed a few times over the years.

“Amen,” Josiah concurred.

Vin nodded, not saying anything verbally, but the look in his eyes and on his face said it all.  If any of them failed to do so, they were going to be answerable to him.  A glance at Buck confirmed that he would be glad to lend Vin a hand if he should need it.

Part 11

Over the next four days, every time Ezra awakened, one of the others was there and invariably the first thing out of their mouths was an apology.  Ezra unfailingly told them that apologies were unnecessary, but they weren’t about to take that answer.  After a while it got tiresome and he finally told them that he would shoot the next man that apologized, then looking down at himself, lying on the clinic bed in nightshirt and without a gun in sight, he amended that to he would shoot them as soon as he was able to find out where they had absconded to with his weaponry.  After they all had laughed at that, things loosened up a bit.  Thankful the first time he woke up with Buck there, they had a long talk about what had happened out at the pool, and Ezra was finally able convince Buck that it had only been an unfortunate accident.  But the others six were still feeling off balance.  They had thought they had known him so well, only to find that they didn’t know the man at all. 

Vin took the chance to bring some of Ezra books over and get more lessons in reading, which Ezra was quite happy to provide. 

Buck and JD stuck to telling Ezra’s stories while they were there, Buck mostly of past exploits, JD of the latest novel he had read. 

Chris usually was quiet when he first arrived, but after a few minutes, Ezra would ask him a question about Sarah or Adam, and for the first time, Chris could talk to someone other than Buck about them and know that the person understood.

Nathan was there most of the time, since he lived behind the clinic, but he and Ezra would talk, too.  Usually keeping to topics that dealt with their lives since coming to Four Corners, but once in a while, they would discuss the areas of the South they both knew. 

Josiah would usually end up engaging Ezra in political or philosophical debates, and found that the young man, whom he had always thought of as intelligent, had actually been holding back on him before.  It was a pleasure for him to find someone he could discuss such ideas with in greater depth than he had ever been able to before.

Finally after a week in bed, however, Nathan begrudging agreed to let Ezra out of the clinic for a while.  With some trepidation he agreed to Ezra going down to the saloon for a few hours for lunch.  He even acceded that if he dealt all right with that, he could finish his convalescence in his own room, with Nathan coming by to check on him daily.

The trip down the clinic stairs drained Ezra badly, but he had been shut up there for so long, he didn’t care.  It felt great just to be outside in the fresh air again.

When Ezra and Nathan arrived at the saloon, they headed immediately for the Seven’s usual table.  Sitting down, Ezra gave a sigh of relief and smiled at Inez as she brought over some glasses and a bottle of whisky.  At Nathan’s request, she went back and retrieved a cup of coffee for Ezra.  Ezra started to protest, but the stern look on Nathan’s face silenced it before it was even spoken.

Within ten minutes all of the rest had shown up and joined them.  Many of the townspeople even came by to wish the gambler well also.  It surprised Nathan a little that so many people came by, since few knew what had been going on thanks to Buck warning Taylor not to say a word.  It saddened him greatly that he had refused to see what had apparently been obvious to others around them.

Even though it was the first time they had all been together in over a week, for the next half hour conversation was stilted, as if the others weren’t sure how to talk around the Southerner anymore. 

Finally Ezra broke the uncomfortable silent that had fallen on them again. “That’s enough pussy footing around.  I will not break because of something you say.  While it will feel good to drop some of the affectations,” Ezra paused as he shifted his expression into and back out of the well known greedy smile that had dominated their image of the man, then continued, “I’m not prone to falling apart over little things.  The lassitude of the weeks leading up to the accident was a product of the situation on Harvest Hills and the unfortunate timing.”

Buck was plenty willing to get things back to normal, but he had to ask, “The timing?”

A sad smile covered Ezra’s face as his eyes took on a far away expression.  “The day of the accident would have been our tenth anniversary.”  Everyone at the table remained silent as Ezra seemed to fall into the memories for a couple of minutes.  Shaking himself out of it Ezra continued, “But it’s good to finally have it out in the open.  It’ll be nice not to have to pretend anymore.”  With that Ezra gave them all an open friendly smile, one that actually lit his eyes, something that they had rarely seen before.  As part of, as Ezra had put it, “dropping the affectations,” he had foregone his cravat and jacket, and now he even went so far as to unbutton his shirt cuffs and roll the sleeves up to the elbow. “How about a friendly game, then?” Ezra offered after they had eaten their meal.

Everyone agreed and started digging in their pockets for something to play with.  They were all surprised when Ezra laid his hand on Chris’s arm and shook his head. “What I had in mind, gentlemen, was exactly that.  A game only of friendship and skill, with no money involved.”  All of them stared at him in dumbfounded silent for a few seconds then, beginning with Buck, they all smiled at him reaching over to lay a hand on his shoulder to a few seconds.

Ezra continued to smile as he dealt the cards.  The newly renewed camaraderie was refreshing for all of them after the stress of the past weeks.  The game went quickly, with Ezra winning most of the hands as usual, but all enjoyed it as they never had before.  When a second game was suggested, by Vin of all people, the others agreed readily and the cards were dealt again.

As the second round was dealt, the card flying from his fingers in some incredible maneuvers, Ezra said, “Now, I must warn you, this type of game may not be a frequent occurrence as I do have a living to make.”

All of them looked up to grin at him, but JD actually began to snicker. “Ez, you never made that much off of us in the first place.”

Ezra grinned at the younger man and admitted, “True, but appearances must be maintained.”

“Not around us, St…Ezra,” Chris very consciously modified his normal way of addressing the man, which warmed Ezra’s heart.  “We don’t want to see a front; we just want to see you.”

Ezra didn’t answer right away, but when he did it was in a whisper, “Thank you, Chris.” 

Not wanting to get emotional in the middle of the saloon, Chris grunted back at him and told him, “Glad you understand, now let’s get back at the game.”  Everyone chuckled lightly at that and turned back to their cards.