Chapter 7

Patrick Standish stood off to the side of the room, intently watching his son. He'd be waking soon. At least, Patrick hoped he would. He assumed when Ezra was ripped away from him his request that his son live was being granted but so far, Ezra hadn't given any sign he was rejoining the land of the living. Patrick didn't know the exact time but dawn was quickly coming. Soon the veil would thicken and cut off his window to the other side. He wanted, needed, to see his son open his eyes before that happened.

Forcing himself to look away from Ezra, Patrick gazed around the room at the other men, men with obvious concern for his son. They'd finally stopped hovering over Ezra some time ago and a couple even looked as though they were nodding off. Patrick got the impression none of them would leave until Ezra's outcome was known once and for all. For that Patrick was grateful. It was good to know Ezra had people in his life he could count on; he deserved it.

Ezra wasn't the only one who'd been less than honest tonight. The truth was, Patrick knew far more about Ezra, Maude, and their lives over the past twenty-odd years than he'd let Ezra believe. He'd told Ezra he'd received glimpses into the living world, but he hadn't told how often it happened. Every time the veil thinned, Patrick looked in on them. There was plenty he hadn't seen, but he'd seen enough.

He understood why Ezra was hesitant to share things with him tonight. It wasn't just Maude or certain parts of his childhood Ezra was hiding. The war and the following years had taken a terrible toll on Ezra. Patrick suspected his son had needed some kind of anchor for a long time. Judging by the men scattered around the room, he thought Ezra might have finally found that.

Wondering if Ezra could still feel him or at least sense his presence, Patrick went over to where his son lay and sat on the edge of the bed. "I didn't realize I'd have more time with you. Maybe I don't. Maybe you can't hear me anymore, but since we're both here it's worth a try." Patrick smirked. "And you can't protest or interrupt now, Boyo, so listen to me. You've got a good thing here. I know it was rough for a while, too long, but I think you've got yourself a home here if you want it. These people care about you, Ez."

Ezra moaned softly and Patrick stopped talking. He watched Ezra closely, wondering if it was a response to being talked to or if he was about to wake up. When there was no further reaction from Ezra Patrick spoke again.

"I don't mean that as a rebuke, Ezra. I know it's hard to drop your guard, but sometimes it's worth the risk. I told you to take care of your mama if she'd let you. Well, now I'm telling you that it's alright if someone takes care of you every now and then too. There ain't no shame in it."

Patrick placed his hand on top of Ezra's. His time was short and he wanted just a little more contact with his boy. It was funny, but he still saw Ezra as his boy. It didn't matter how old he actually was, when Patrick looked at Ezra he saw a little boy. The young Mexican woman came back to mind causing Patrick to amend that thought. Ezra was his boy but maybe he wasn't so little at that.

"And don't forget about that woman. I know you don't believe it, but I'm still older than you and I've been married so, I know a thing or two. There was more than simple concern in her eyes tonight. And I never understood what your mama saw in me either."

That statement drew no reaction from Ezra.

Patrick sighed. Time was getting too short now. When was Ezra going to open his eyes? All this would mean nothing if Ezra ended up joining him on the other side.

"It may be a lot easier to bestow my wisdom on you when you can't interrupt but I need you to wake up, son. Come on, boyo. Wake up."

He needed Ezra to wake up, even if he couldn't see it, Patrick needed it to happen. He supposed it was a father's natural worry; he wanted his son to have a long happy life, not die in his prime.

Leaning over, Patrick gently kissed Ezra's forehead. "Please."

Another moan came from Ezra, this one louder than the previous one.

Patrick pulled back. "Ezra?" Ezra began to grow restless and pulled away from him. Something was different; Patrick could feel it. "That's it, Boy."

The other men started to gather around the Standish men and Patrick assumed they could tell something was changing as well. He was now certain Ezra was waking. He looked around noting that Ezra's friends were speaking but he was unable to hear them. He was losing his contact with the living but it didn't matter now. Ezra was going to live. He knew it.

"Wake up, Ezra," he said offering up one last request.

Slowly Ezra's eyes opened. His gaze met Patrick's but he seemed dazed, not quite sure where he was or what was going on. He also seemed to be oblivious to the others surrounding them.

Patrick grinned. "Morning's coming, Ez. It's time for me to go, and time for you to go enjoy your life. I'll see you later."

Ezra's eyes drifted shut and when they opened again Patrick could see the difference. Ezra was back with the living, exactly where he belonged.

His part in all this was over, but Patrick stayed by his son a little longer. The others were talking to Ezra now and even though Patrick couldn't hear everything being said he knew everything was fine. Ezra was awake and responding to the men and their questions. His boy would be back to normal soon and it was time for Patrick to leave. Standing, Patrick found himself flanked by the one Ezra called Chris and the one in the buckskin jacket. Patrick started to step around them but thought better of it. After all, as long as he was in this world he might as well have a little fun.

Squeezing between the two men, Patrick pushed the one with the buckskin jacket back a step while whispering "keep an eye on him" to the other one. Both men reacted and Patrick saw them exchange a look; they were both puzzled and, dare he say, unsettled. Grinning like a fool, Patrick slipped away, leaving the land of the living behind him. Outside, the gray light of dawn was just starting to color the eastern sky.

XXXXXXX

The rest of the night passed quietly for the six anxious men inside the clinic. Ezra didn't improve any, but his condition didn't worsen either and when it became apparent he wasn't going to meet his maker in the immediate future, some semblance of normalcy returned to the group. There was still a fair amount of tension in the room but everyone relaxed enough that they stopped hovering over Ezra. Nathan stuck close, but the others soon fanned out to different spots in the room, finding seats on anything that happened to be available, with Vin even taking up residence on the floor.

As the night dragged on, sleep began claiming the others. JD was the first, using Buck's shoulder as a pillow, and Josiah's snores quickly followed. Minutes later, Buck sighed and closed his eyes as well. Chris looked over to his left where Vin sat. The younger man had pulled his hat down over his eyes but judging from his steady even breaths, Chris guessed he was sleeping too. Chris then glanced over to Nathan. The healer was slouched down in his chair but his eyes were still glued on Ezra.

As quietly as he could, Chris rose from his seat and went over to the bed. "How's he doin'?"

"I really ain't sure. His fever's dropped some but he still ain't showin' no sign of wakin'." Nathan stood and stretched. "I just can't figure it, Chris. I've never seen anything like this."

"You think he's getting better?"

"Well, the fever dropping seems to be good but it's not uncommon for people to rally before the end."

Chris smiled wanly and nodded. He had kept a close watch on Nathan all night, knowing that would be his best indicator of how Ezra was doing. Earlier, Nathan had clearly been poised for the worst; now he appeared to be cautiously optimistic. It was obvious Nathan was surprised by Ezra's apparent stableness but he was also leery of the situation. Chris understood; just because Ezra wasn't declining at the moment didn't mean he was coming back. Once again Chris couldn't help but think if they could just make it through the night, Ezra would be fine.

He looked over at the window where nothing but darkness was visible and grimaced. What was it about this night? "If he makes it through the night, what do you think his chances are?"

Nathan opened his mouth and quickly shut it and seemed to think about the question. After a minute he shrugged. "Can't really say. If that fever keeps going down it'll help a lot, but I'm still not sure why he ain't woke up. Fevers do seem to get worse at night for some reason."

Chris nodded. "I remember Adam's always did." His eyes went back to Ezra. "He sure makes things hard sometimes, don't he?"

Nathan couldn't stop a smile. "That he does. And sometimes I don't think he even means to." Sitting back down, Nathan stretched his legs out in front of him. "Why don't you try to get some sleep too, Chris? As I've said before, us staying right by him every minute ain't gonna change what's gonna happen."

"Yeah," Chris muttered making no move to leave.

"Have you slept at all since Ezra was shot?"

"Probably as much as you have," Chris countered as he leaned up against the wall.

Nathan smiled. "I can't argue with that."

Chris's semi-relaxed state vanished when he felt that presence again; if he didn't know any better he'd swear there was someone else in the room. He straightened from his slouched position as his eyes darted around the room making sure everyone was accounted for. Just as he suspected, there was no one but the seven of them there and everyone was exactly where they'd been just minutes ago.

"Somethin' wrong?" Nathan asked giving Chris a strange look.

"No," Chris replied leaning back against the wall and cursing the jittery nerves brought on by some cultural holidays he'd barely known about until tonight.

"Seriously, Chris, why don't you try to get some sleep?"

"Maybe in a little bit." Tired as he was, Chris expected to have trouble finding sleep. It wasn't just his uneasiness either. Rest didn't come easy when something was amiss with his men, even though he told himself there was no reason for that. True, he'd naturally fallen into the position of leader, but they were all grown men more than capable of taking care of themselves. But they were his family now too. Even if he wasn't anyone's keeper, that didn't mean he couldn't prefer for things to be calm and for everyone to be safe. Any normal person would want that.

Pulling out his watch, Chris checked the time and looked back out of the window. Daylight wasn't far off now. He couldn't explain it to anyone, he wouldn't even try, but his gut told him if Ezra could hang on a little longer, things would be fine. They just had to make it until dawn.

A moan broke through the silence signaling Ezra was again growing restless. Chris straightened and Nathan moved up to the edge of his chair.

"Ezra?" Nathan said. "Can you hear me?"

Ezra stirred and for the first time since he'd been shot he seemed to be responding to someone.

"Nathan?" Chris asked.

Nathan shook his head and spoke to Ezra again. "Ezra?" He placed a hand on Ezra's shoulder and shook him gently. "Ezra, wake up."

One by one the others woke up and joined them around the bed as Nathan continued to coax Ezra awake. He was eventually rewarded with another groan and finally, ever so slowly, Ezra opened his eyes. A collective sigh passed through the group but their relief was short-lived. A quick look at the gambler would tell anyone something wasn't right. Ezra's eyes were open but he wasn't seeing them. He merely stared, almost blindly, straight ahead. Nathan continued to talk to him and Josiah added a few words of encouragement as well but Ezra gave no indication he heard anything being said.

After a minute Chris started to get nervous. Was it possible there was something Nathan had missed before? Some kind of head injury? The possibility Nathan let something serious slip by him was just as hard for Chris to believe now as it had been earlier but he didn't know what else to think. Had Ezra lived just to be in this state? Ezra wouldn't want that.

"Come on, Ez," Buck finally said. "You're wearing Nathan out and worrying the life out of the rest of us."

Another moan came from Ezra right before his eyes slid shut.

"What's goin' on, Nathan?" Vin asked.

"I ain't sure. Ezra?"

"Wake up, Standish," Chris snapped. Maybe they were all being too sweet. Maybe Ezra just needed something to get his attention, something normal. "Ezra," he ground out. Josiah gave him an odd look but judging by the smile Nathan was biting back he understood what Chris was thinking. Chris wasn't sure if his reasoning made sense, but it couldn't hurt.

Just when Chris was ready to give Ezra a good shake, his eyes came back open, only this time, they looked like Ezra's. They belonged to an exhausted Ezra, but they were Ezra's and when Nathan called his name, Ezra slowly looked his way.

"Welcome back," the healer said with a grin. "Are you with me?"

Ezra blinked and tried to reply but his voice was little more than a rasp. His second attempt yielded the same result and Nathan put a hand on his arm.

"Take it easy now, you just woke up. Vin, hand me some water."

Vin filled a cup from the pitcher sitting beside the bed and passed it over. Nathan slid an arm under Ezra and raised his head enough to allow the man to drink. "Better?" he asked once Ezra had taken a few sips.

"Yes," Ezra replied weakly, his voice cracking from disuse. "How . . . ."

"Long have you been here? Two days."

"You remember the robbery?" Chris asked.

Ezra seemed to think about that then nodded. Another sigh ran through the group only this one seemed to blow away all the remaining tension in the room.

"Good," Nathan said. "Now you just take it easy for a minute." He was grinning as he lowered Ezra's head back onto the pillow but when he looked at the others he was all business. "Alright, Josiah can stay but everybody else, get out." A chorus of protests came from the men around him but Nathan stood his ground. "He ain't going nowhere for a while, believe me. I want to look him over and I don't need an audience. Josiah's stayin' just in case I need any help."

"Well, I guess we just got told off boys," Chris said.

"I guess we did," Vin replied. "Watch him will you, Josiah. We don't want him noddin' off when he's supposed to be taking care of Ezra."

"I'll keep one eye on each of them," Josiah promised.

Feeling better than he'd felt in days, Chris turned to go. Before he took two steps, however, he felt something brush up against him and the words "keep an eye on him" were very clearly whispered in his ear. He froze and fought the impulse to look around; he knew he wouldn't see anything. He was ready to pass the incident off as either insanity or sleep deprivation until he saw Vin. The Texan was also wearing a puzzled expression. Chris didn't take the time to dwell on it as he hurried outside.

Once outside the stress of the last two days fully fell away from the four peacekeepers not in the clinic. Buck and JD were soon back to acting like Buck and JD and Chris noticed he could finally take a decent breath. He was ready to forget all about his odd feelings of the last several hours when Vin touched his arm. "Hey, Cowboy?"

Chris stopped. "Yeah."

Vin seemed unsure of himself and glanced around as though to make sure no was listening before he said anything else. "Inside just now, before we left. Did you . . . ." Vin trailed off.

"Did I what?" Chris asked his eyes narrowing.

"Did you . . . did you feel like maybe . . . somebody ran into you?"

Chris thought back to all the times he'd felt like someone was right there beside him, the voice he knew he heard, and tales of veils thinning and spirits crossing over. Suddenly, he didn't want answers. "You know, Vin, I really don't wanna talk about it."

Vin nodded almost looking relieved. "Guess we need to tell Inez the good news," Vin suggested once they were back down on the street with Buck and JD.

"Looks like she's gonna meet us," Buck said nodding in the direction of the church.

They looked to find Inez coming their way. Her brow was furrowed but the tension on her face started to fade as she approached them and saw the smiles they were wearing. "Senor Standish?"

"He's awake," Chris told her.

"Looks like he's gonna be just fine too," Buck added.

Closing her eyes she muttered a prayer before a smile lit up her face. "This is good. Are you hungry? Come; I'll make breakfast for you. I can make something for Senor Standish too if he is able to have it." She grabbed JD's arm and marched him off in the direction of the saloon, Buck on her heels insisting she'd grabbed hold of the wrong man.

"Was that an invitation or an order?" Vin asked when Buck's protests died out.

"I'm not sure," Chris admitted. "But I still don't think we ought to try her."

Vin broke into a grin and hurried after the others.

Chris took a deep breath of clean crisp morning air and followed them. He wasn't sure what had gone on last night and he wasn't sure he wanted to know. For now, everything was as it should be, and for now, that was good enough. The darkness was gone and it looked like it was going to be a beautiful day.

The End