THE PIED PIPER

By KellyA & Mary McAuley

Special thanks to NotTasha's beta skills.

Part 1

"Gentlemen." The sound of heavy boots punctuated the gruff voice of Judge Travis as he came up the boardwalk. Chris pushed back his black hat and Vin removed his feet from the railing in respect to the esteemed magistrate. The rumble of the deep baritone brought Buck out of the jailhouse and he leaned against the doorframe.

"Judge," Chris greeted.

"I need your assistance." The judge's gaze swept over the three gunslingers. He had been wise to hire them. His decision to make these men the law was proving very fortuitous for all the citizens of Four Corners, including the seven men.

"A family moved onto the old Granger Ranch up at Sutter's Ridge."

"Squatters?"

"No, Mr. Wilmington, they bought the place legal. I just don't think they were aware of the state of disrepair it was in."

"Well hell, Judge, that ranch has been abandon near on five years," Vin said, recalling the condition of the large ranch that lay a few miles east. The owner had passed away and no family had been found to inherit the property. Travis made sure no one tried to take it without the due process of law.

"That's where I need your help." Smiling, the judge fiddled with the gold watch fob that that hung on his vest.

Chris didn't like the tone he heard.

"Winter is settin' in, and I want you all to go and help them rebuild, at least enough so they have a warm roof over their heads."

"C'mon, Judge, you got to be kiddin'!" Buck complained.

Judge Travis glared at the ladies' man. "Mr. Wilmington, you've known me long enough to know I don't kid. I don't want a bunch of dead Easterners scattered on the plains come spring."

"Ah, hell, greenhorns," Buck groaned.

"You want us to leave the town unprotected?" Vin asked.

"I'll be here for awhile and things have been pretty quiet. If we need help, I'll send someone to get you," Travis replied.

Chris drew in a deep breath and exhaled. "We'll take care of it, Judge." He knew they weren't going to get out of it.

"See that you do." Judge Travis tipped his hat and continued down the boardwalk, confident the ethical gunslinger would take care of things. Chris Larabee had a way of inspiring his men with just a look. The judge smiled. He would hate to be on the receiving end of that look.

Buck watched the judge go into the newspaper office then turned to Chris. "Since when did we become caretakers and carpenters?"

Chris stood and stretched. "Since we agreed to work in this town." He stepped off the boardwalk and headed toward the saloon to gather up the rest of his men. Vin smiled at Buck. The perturbed cowboy glared back swatting Vin upside the head, knocking off his slouch hat.

"Hey, what was that for?" Vin asked, retrieving his hat.

"Just 'cause JD's not around," Buck grumbled. "Damn, I had plans to spend the weekend with Miss Daisy."

"It won't be so bad. We'll put up a few walls, patch up a hole or two. We should be done in a few days."

Buck was not placated and brusquely disappeared back inside the jail.

Part 2
Without motivation to hurry, the seven lawmen rode at a leisurely pace. They had no problem with helping folks but they all agreed this was probably a waste of time. Many people came west to start a new life and ended up going back east when they failed.

"So we are now tasked as guardian angels to people who probably have no business being out here," Ezra complained from the rear of the group.

Chris rolled his eyes and Vin smiled.

"It ain't goin' to hurt you none to help," Nathan rebuked.

"That's a matter of opinion," Ezra countered. He looked up at the clear blue sky, feeling the bite from the wind that came down from the mountains. Winter was fast approaching. It was probably only a matter of days before the first snow covered the area, and like rain, Ezra hated snow.

Josiah laughed at his two friends. "Now Ezra, this is a labor of love. It's God's desire that we help our fellow man."

"Please, God rarely seems to address me on any matters of significance," he mocked.

Ezra started to calculate the money he would lose in his time away from the gaming tables and groaned at his lost income.

Part 3
The gunslingers soon entered the boundaries of the ranch, or what was left of it. Much of the fencing had fallen and herds from nearby farms had over grazed the pastures. The fencing would have to be repaired before the settlers could buy their own stock. The large single-level ranch house appeared to be the only building still habitable. The barn was pitted with large holes and its doors and part of the roof were missing. Two buildings that had been bunkhouses for the ranch hands were in dire need of repair.

When they came within fifty yards of the house four men stepped out, rifles held to their sides. Three of the men wore six shooters strapped to their hips. Chris held his pace and continued forward, pulling up by the railing. He laid an arm across his saddle horn and eyed the four dark-haired men. They shared the same large build and square jaws: they were definitely related.

The oldest of the four stepped forward. Unlike the others, his face was weathered from years of working outside and he seemed to hold a confident and more relaxed demeanor. This man was not unfamiliar with the ways of the West. He eyed the darkly dressed gunslinger suspiciously. "The judge send you?"

"Yep. I'm Chris Larabee and this is Buck Wilmington and Vin Tanner." Chris twisted in his saddle to indicate the rest of the group. "This here is JD Dunne, Nathan Jackson, Josiah Sanchez and Ezra Standish."

"I'm Eugene Feldman and these here are my sons: Peter, William and Damen." Eugene eyed the curious collection of gunslingers. He had to wonder why a man as dangerous looking as Larabee would offer to help them. He glanced over at the mustached cowboy and the buckskin-clad tracker; they both seemed friendly enough. The youngest man, Dunne, looked barely old enough to shave. And the black man was a surprise. He hadn't seen many men of color, especially riding with six white men. He noticed that Sanchez wore a crude cross around his neck and took that as a good sign.

Eugene's eyes narrowed at the flamboyantly dressed gambler. He was all too familiar with his kind. The Feldmans had avoided the many conmen who beckoned as they traveled west. Eugene had been a rancher for some twenty odd years. He lost everything during the drought of '51 and moved to New York to raise his family. He worked hard in the mines and saved enough to return to the life he had loved. He would not risk his dreams to foolish gaming. He had convinced his sons to join him, promising a bright future for their children. So far, that future was looking quite bleak.

Three women stepped out of the house followed by five children. "Ah, geez," Vin sighed, as he estimated their ages ranging from four to ten.

A smile lit Ezra's impassive facade at the sight of the little ones. Maybe this trip wouldn't be so bad after all. He always felt comfortable around children. They were not as quick to judge a man on appearance alone and the gambler basked in their honesty.

Chris and Buck smoothly dismounted and tied their horses to the hitching rail. Buck eyed the youngest of the women, hoping she was a single daughter. She had sherry-brown hair that hung loosely about her shoulders and liquid brown eyes. She was probably not much older than JD. His hopes deflated when she took Peter's arm.

A stout woman with ash gray hair secured in a bun took Eugene's arm. "This is my wife, Dorothea. And the other two are Rachel and Amelia, William and Peter's wives."

Chris glanced at the two women who had taken up positions beside their men. They were city-bred and he wondered how long those soft looks would last. Rachel's heavy make-up looked out of place with the plain skirt and blouse she wore. Eugene's wife, like her husband, appeared to be made of sturdier stuff.

"The judge told me he might be sending help," Eugene added. "I told him we didn't need any."

Chris's blue eyes narrowed. He scanned the ingenuous faces of the children who had been uprooted and brought out here to meet the unknown. "Looks to me like you could use all the help you can get. Winter comes mighty quick 'round here."

Eugene surveyed his family and then the ruined ranch. Some of his resolve broke as he considered what needed to be accomplished. The main residence was too small for the entire family to stay in all winter. They were rebuilding the two bunkhouses for his sons and their families until more appropriate homes could be built in the spring. Eugene audibly exhaled and felt his wife squeeze his arm. He looked down into her pleading eyes and smiled. "Yes, I suppose we could use your help," he said grudgingly. "Camp over there by the barn if you like."

Chris nodded. The others dismounted and moved toward the barn to set up camp. Rachel pulled back her inquisitive children as the gunslingers passed by. She glared at the gambler who returned her rebuff with a smile.

"C'mon children, back inside," Rachel said. Amelia and Dorothea helped usher the five youngsters into the house.

The Feldman men remained on the porch eyeing the seven lawmen. "Well, let's hope they work as hard as they look," Eugene commented and headed toward the side of the house to collect some wood.

"What do ya think, Peter?" William asked his older brother. William came west simply because his relatives had decided to do so. Now the thrill of adventure was making him glad he did. Rachel hadn't been too keen on the idea, and he had been surprised when she finally conceded. It was rare that he won an argument with his wife. Maybe this trip would be good for all of them.

"'Bout what?" Peter absently replied.

His brothers heard the usual impassive tone of his voice. They had hoped a change of scenery would break his depression. Since his wife's death, Peter no longer cared much about anything. He had recently re-married, wanting his children to have a mother. His new wife, Amelia, had insisted they make the move and he had offered no resistance.

"Those men, Peter. Do you think they'll be able to help us get this place in shape before winter?" William explained.

Peter just shrugged.

"Hell, don't rightly matter," Damen reminded. "We're stuck here. We spent everything we had to follow Pa out West. Anyway, I'm glad they're here. Maybe we'll get to shoot Indians or desperadoes." Damen pulled his gun and pretended to shoot imaginary outlaws. His older brothers rolled their eyes at his antics, reminding themselves that he was considerably younger then they were. Damen eyed the seven lawmen with envy. "You think he'd let me join them?"

"Who?" William asked.

"Larabee."

"Yeah, right." William stared at the seven hard-edged men. Even the boy looked deadly and self-assured. "They'd chew you up and spit you out." William and Peter laughed.

"WILLIAM!" Will cringed at the shrill sound of Rachel's voice as it broke up their fun.

"Damn woman," he softly moaned.

Damen snickered as his brother went into the house. Peter stared off toward the distant mountains. It was beautiful here. Maybe it would dull the pain of missing his late wife. He knew it wasn't fair to Amelia; he barely spent any time with her. She seemed happy to be getting out of New York. He knew she felt tied down with her stepchildren. Peter's eyes misted. He had been neglecting his children. He felt hopeful about this new life and promised himself that things would get better, for all of them.

Part 4
Buck dropped an armful of wood and began to prepare a fire. "So Buck, how much you want to bet?" JD asked.

"What?"

"Ezra's started a pool. Guess how long these tenderfeet are going to last out here?"

Buck grinned and shook his head. Ezra would gamble on anything. He looked around the area, noting the dilapidated buildings and all the work ahead of them. "Hell, what kind of thing is that to bet on?"

"Well, Ez says they'll be gone in a month, Vin predicts six weeks. I think they'll make it seven weeks."

"What do the others say?" Buck asked.

"Haven't asked Chris or Josiah yet."

"Don't go askin' Nate. You know how he feels about Ezra's games," Buck reminded the young gunslinger.

JD thought a moment and then agreed. "So, how long do ya think?"

"It don't seem right to be bettin' against them staying," Buck replied, rubbing his chin.

JD shrugged and turned to walk off. "Suit yourself the pot's up to twenty dollars."

Buck grabbed his arm. "I give 'em eight weeks." JD grinned and loped off.

Part 5
"Get up, Ez!" Buck yelled prodding the lump under the blanket with his boot. "And don't even think of drawin' that pea shooter."

Ezra groaned and poked his head out from the comfort of the warm bedding. The sun was barely visible and failed to warm the early morning chill. The stubborn conman nested deeper.

"Yer lucky it's me wakin' you and not Chris," Buck said.

"Accept my heartfelt gratitude." Ezra rolled over and started to pull the covers back over his head.

"Oh no you don't." Buck grabbed the blanket and pulled it away. "We got a lot of work to do, pard." He dropped the blanket on the ground and turned toward the small campfire where the others were gathering.

Near the fire Chris squatted on the balls of his feet and tried to coax warmth back into his body. The others slowly converged around the fire, sipping the coffee that Nathan had made.

"Damn, it's cold," JD complained as he pulled his jacket tight.

"Don't worry, you'll be warmin' up soon enough," Vin chided. Josiah started passing out plates of beans and everyone settled down to eat. The sun finally rose enough to call forth a new day banishing the darkness of night. When they finished, JD collected the plates and dumped them into a pot of water to be cleaned later.

"Alright," Chris stated getting everyone's attention. "Vin, JD, you start mending the fences near the house and barn." Both men nodded. "Josiah, me and you will start renovating the bunkhouses. Nathan, you and Buck can start patching up the holes in the barn." Chris took a sip of his coffee and looked around. "Where the hell is Ezra?"

Josiah spotted the conman already surrounded by the children. "Brother Chris, I believe Ezra has already been recruited and is otherwise engaged."

"What? A damn babysitter?" Nathan growled. That man sure knew how to get out of work.

Chris shook his head. He would deal with the indolent gambler later.

"Damn, some people have all the luck!" Buck muttered under his breath. Nathan slapped him on the shoulder in agreement and headed to the barn.

Josiah smiled as he watched Ezra and the children. He would never understand the little ones' fixation with the Southerner. Maybe it was the colorful clothes or the boyish grin that appeared so readily. When it came to children Ezra was the pied piper: they naturally trusted him. What did children see that adults could not?

Part 6
Ezra squatted, eye level with the children that surrounded him. He removed a deck of cards and shuffled them with one hand. The children stared, fascinated by the fluid movements. "So, little lady, what is your name?" Ezra's gaze swept over a young girl, probably no more than eight but already on her way to becoming a very beautiful woman. "I'm Melissa," she responded with confidence. "And this is my baby brother Caleb."

"I'm not a baby!" The boy protested as he tried to stand a little taller.

"You most certainly are not, sir."

Ezra smiled and looked over at the oldest girl in the group. She responded to the attention immediately. "I'm Elizabeth."

"Elizabeth," Ezra repeated, his Southern drawl giving the name a musical lilt. "A name fit for a queen." The young girl blushed and smiled at the handsome card shark. She pointed over to her five-year-old brother. "That's Garrett."

Ezra noticed a small girl hiding behind the young man. "And who is this lovely young lady?"

Garrett puffed out his chest and stood protectively in front of his sister. "This is Annie; she's shy."

"Yeah, since our ma died she doesn't say much," Elizabeth explained.

"I see." Ezra's brow furrowed as he looked at the timid little girl. He didn't attempt to draw her out, only smiled as she peeked from behind her brother.

"My Pa says you're a conman and that you take money from people," Caleb stated.

Ezra chortled at the boy's directness. This was one of the reasons he loved children. "Your Pa is correct but I don't con anymore. However, I am a gambler." As if to prove this fact, he proceeded to do a card trick. "I only take money from those foolish enough to challenge me," Ezra said with a glint in his eye.

"You wouldn't take our money would ya?" Melissa asked.

Saddened that a child would even think such a thing Ezra met Melissa's gaze and spoke with a serious tone, "Are you foolish, my dear?"

"No," she returned without having to stop and think.

"Are any of you foolish?" He asked as he gazed at each of the children in turn.

"No!" The giggling chorus replied.

"Very well then. Your money will be safe from the likes of me."

"C'mon, Mr. Ezra," said Garrett. "Show us another trick!" The children had complete faith in him.

Part 7
Chris and Josiah stood and scrutinized one of the bunkhouses. "So, where do we start?" Chris asked, wondering if it just wouldn't be better to tear the whole thing down and start from scratch.

Josiah scratched at his beard and wondered the same thing.

The two men walked into the building through the open doorway, dozens of mice scattered in their wake as they crossed the room. "God, I hate mice!" Chris muttered as a shudder raced up his spine. Josiah smiled and looked up at the ceiling.

"Well, the support beams still look sturdy enough," he assessed. "I suggest we start by cleaning this place out and putting up some dividing walls. Chris removed his duster and began forcing open shutters as Josiah started to throw out several bunks.

The heat of the day belied the coming of winter. Coats and jackets were soon removed, and shirts became soaked with sweat. Everyone was pitching in wherever they could, trying to beat Mother Nature's cold dark days.

Nathan wiped the sweat from his brow with his free hand as he held a board in position over a hole in the barn wall. Buck positioned a nail in the wall. Holding the hammer over his head he swung at his target, when the laughter of children distracted him. "Damn, damn," He dropped the hammer and sucked on his thumb. Buck glared angrily, catching sight of Ezra and the children playing follow the leader. The Southerner's red jacket shone like a conductor leading a parade.

"Hope Ez ain't straining himself," Buck spoke around his thumb still sticking in his mouth.

Peter approached carrying several boards. He leaned them against the barn and gazed at the playful group in the field. A twinge of jealousy twisted in his heart when he saw the ease the conman shared with the children. Since his wife had passed, he had been unable to speak more than a few words to them. Amelia showed absolutely no desire to bond with her stepchildren. He noticed Annie following her sister closely, apparently enthralled with the gambler. She reminded him so much of her mother: same auburn hair and large dark eyes. He turned his head as grief swam over him. Who did that conman think he was?

"That gambler sure has a way with children," Peter spat. He wasn't sure he liked someone of Ezra's dubious character deceiving his family. Children were easily influenced and they had suffered enough heartache already.

Nathan picked up one of the boards. "More like he knows how to get out of workin'."

"Not sure I like him 'round the children," Peter stated.

Buck raised an eyebrow and turned to face Peter. "Don't worry 'bout Ez, he's harmless." As the three men continued their work on the barn Buck added, "At least when it comes to kids, he's harmless."

Part 8
Rachel and Amelia crossed the sunny yard heading to the house. Rachel knew her sister-in-law didn't hear her words. Amelia was clearly absorbed with the sight of the tall, mustached cowboy who was working on the barn. Buck had removed his jacket and sweat made his shirt hug the contours of his muscular body.

Amelia chewed her lip. Sighing, she watched the strain of Buck's muscles undulate as he worked. Her husband was a strong man, too, and a good man, but he just wasn't as exciting as she wanted. Until now she hadn't regretted her decision to marry Peter. She had desperately needed a way to get away from her own family and he had needed a mother for his children. But the arrival of the seven gunslingers proved a definite distraction.

"Amelia, Amelia."

"Wha...what?" Amelia answered, her fantasies shattered.

"You haven't heard a word I've said," Rachel admonished.

"Sorry, Rach, it's just that..." Amelia's eyes shifted over to the bunkhouse where Chris was hammering down loose boards on the steps. She found the man's dangerous demeanor thrilling.

"You are a brazen hussy," Rachel stated with contempt.

Amelia grinned at the older woman as if the comment were a compliment. "Now, Rachel, don't tell me you haven't noticed how handsome our seven saviors are?"

Rachel huffed. Of course she had noticed they were extraordinarily handsome, but such strong willed men made her nervous. Her husband, William, was a good man, but like her father, he was weak, someone she could manipulate, and that's the way she liked it. She had allowed him to talk her into coming out west so he would think he held some measure of control over her.

"These men are hired guns. Lord only knows what they've done in the past." She looked toward the fence to see the gambler playing an impromptu game of tag. She saw her own children, Caleb and Melissa laughing loudly and cavorting around like young lambs. The gambler fell on his backside, allowing the children to catch him.

"What kind of man is that?" Rachel complained to Amelia as they continued across the compound. "It's disgraceful the way he uses our children to get out of working like the other men. I'm going to have William speak to Mr. Larabee. That man can't be a good influence on our young ones."

Amelia stole a glance at the handsome card shark and felt a flutter of butterflies rise up in her stomach. She sighed. The animated activity of the children was relentless. It tired her just to watch them. "Well, I don't know. Better him than me."

Ezra felt the hostility of the Feldman women. The disdain of the adults was all too familiar. He turned his back to them and swept his gaze over the more playful group.

Elizabeth stood apart from the others, staring at her father as he helped Buck and Nathan fix the barn.

"Darlin' is something troubling you?"

The young girl drew in a deep breath then exhaled. "He doesn't love us anymore."

Ezra's eyes went wide and he looked over at Peter Feldman. "What makes you say that?"

"Ever since our mother died he can't hardly even look at us," she explained.

Ezra knew what it was like to be ignored and unwanted, but he didn't think this was the case. He knelt on the ground and pulled the girl close.

"Elizabeth, it's hard to lose a loved one," Ezra started. Elizabeth closed her eyes and bit her lip to hold back the tears. "You lost your mother; but remember your father lost his wife and companion. Someone he hoped he would spend the rest of his life with." Elizabeth opened her eyes and looked into the gambler's face. The child had been hurting so much inside that she never considered how her father might be feeling.

"Give him time, Elizabeth. Your father will remember how much he loves you and Garrett and Annie."

"You think so?"

Ezra smiled and pushed Elizabeth's hair out of her face. "Yes, I know so."

Part 9

Larabee stepped out of the bunkhouse and tilted his face to the noonday sun. Wiping his hands on a rag, he scanned the diligently working men. At the other side of the house he saw Ezra still entertaining the children. Chris was at a loss to explain how a conman who had never had children could be so at ease with them. After Adam died, he couldn't bear to have other children near, reminding him of the son he had lost. Chris caught the delight in one of the girl's faces and smiled. It was good to see children happy.

Josiah stepped out of the bunkhouse as Dorothea approached with a bucket of water. The elderly woman had a strong, no nonsense presence: one that could not be ignored.

"Mr. Larabee, Mr. Sanchez, would you care for some water?"

"Why, that would be most appreciated, ma'am," Josiah said as he bent down to retrieve the ladle.

Dorothea gazed at the bunkhouse. "You men are certainly hard workers. I can't believe how much you've done already."

Chris and Josiah both smiled at the compliment. The screams of young girls grabbed their attention and they all turned to see Ezra staggering blindly about trying to catch one of the children who darted around him. He stopped and lifted the corner of the blindfold only to be reprimanded by the children for cheating.

"Seems your man is pretty good with children," Dorothea noted. It had been a difficult trip for the youngsters. She was grateful they had this brief opportunity to enjoy themselves. There was so much hard work for them ahead.

Chris bowed his head. "He's not much into manual labor."

Dorothea raised both eyebrows. "Mr. Larabee, I raised three boys and trying to keep them out of trouble and entertained 'bout wore me out. I don't know what you all would call it, but amusing five children hardly constitutes leisure."

Josiah smiled at the insightful woman, his respect for her rising.

Part 10
The gunslingers flopped down around the campfire; stretching sorely abused muscles.

"God, I haven't been this sore since..." Buck began.

"Don't say it, Buck," JD interrupted, groaning at the ache in his legs. He didn't want to hear yet another tale of his friend's physical prowess with some lovely courtesan.

"What? I was only going to say since having to fix up the saloon after the last brawl," he innocently replied. JD rolled his eyes and laid his head back on a log.

As Nathan threw more wood on the fire Ezra appeared out of the darkness and sat down next to Vin.

"Wouldn't hurt you to give us a hand," Nathan remarked.

"Sir, I applaud your every effort," Ezra replied as he slowly slapped his hands together.

Vin ducked his head to hide the smile on his face. He looked at the splinters embedded in his palms. They were deep but he knew that Nathan could get them out.

Ezra slid off the log and tried to get comfortable on the ground. His backside was sore from a rather brutal tumble taken in blind-man's bluff. He was also hungry having passed on lunch. The Feldman's prepared ample meals, but Ezra knew that he was barely tolerated by the family. He figured it would be best to keep his distance from the adult members. Especially, since he didn't want to be told to keep away from the children.

Part 11
The next day the gunslingers continued their labor at the ranch. By late afternoon, the ramshackle buildings were starting to look like something livable.

Chris Larabee crossed the dry yard that led to the fenced corral. Vin and JD were suppose to be repairing the fence but the sound of their hammering had ceased. Halfway across the yard Eugene Feldman intercepted him. The older man had been working hard preparing the main house for winter.

"Mr. Larabee," Eugene called out. Chris stopped and waited for the rancher. "Just wanna thank you and your men for all the hard work." Eugene ran a hand through his thick gray hair. "Guess I got too used to doing things on my own. Didn't seem right askin' for help."

"Best get use to askin' for help and acceptin' it or you ain't gonna make it out here," Chris sternly replied.

"You're right, I know that now. With all your help I'm beginning to think we might just make it 'fore winter sets in. Thank you." Eugene held out his hand and Chris grasped it firmly.

The two parted and Chris continued to the section of fence where Vin and JD were supposed to be. He saw no sign of Vin but JD was there. His back was to Chris, both hands poised above his guns, his feet squared for a duel. Chris was baffled, his eyes darting in front of the kid seeking the adversary. JD moved in slow motion, drawing his guns and then giving them a quick twirl.

"It's not how fast you shoot," he said pointing his guns at the empty horizon. "It's how deadly you aim."

The young Damen Feldman nodded furiously. "Let me try now, JD!"

"JD, what the hell are you doing and where is Vin?"

JD quickly holstered his guns. "Sorry, Chris."

"It's my fault Mr. Larabee. I asked 'im to show me," Damen explained. "Never knew any gunslingers before."

"Vin sighted a herd of deer," JD said, standing tall. "And decided to go and get one."

"Why don't you come back and help me and Josiah at the bunkhouse?"

"Sure, Chris."

"Damen, why don't you go see if your father can use any help up at the main house?" Chris indicated the building with a tilt of his head. He hadn't seen much of the younger Feldman and wondered what he'd been up to. Damen's cocky attitude disturbed him.

"Yes, sir." Damen nodded, turning to JD. "Mind showing me some more tricks later?"

Chris glared at JD.

"Ah, yeah, maybe later, Damen. You better get to work now."

Damen ran off toward the house.

"Sorry Chris, he just wanted me to show him some simple moves."

"I think you've showed him enough, JD. Let's go."

Near the bunkhouse Chris caught sight of Ezra hiding behind a tree.

"You go ahead JD, I'll catch up."

JD kept walking, pretending that he had not seen the gambler. The young sheriff knew he had narrowly escaped Chris's wrath and he didn't think Ezra would be so lucky. Larabee was not in the mood for fun and games.

Chris took a step toward Ezra. What the hell did the man think he was doing? They had hours of work ahead before this family could survive. His hands pulled into tight fists. He could no longer tolerate Ezra's laziness.

As if on cue, four children sprang from behind the bunkhouse and tackled the card shark driving him to the ground. Chris watched in surprise as the children tried to restrain the struggling man, each one releasing their own primal shriek of joy. Ezra managed to get to his feet with two of his captors still hanging on his arms. But a third child tackled him, bringing him to his knees.

Chris had to smile. He paused before returning to work and listened to the delighted laughter for a moment. Maybe Mrs. Feldman was right.

Part 12
Chris and Josiah finished their work at the bunkhouse for the day. Chris turned to scrutinize what they had accomplished. It still needed a coat of paint but the new windows and doors were a definite improvement.

"Ay, cowboy." A smooth Texas drawl came up from behind him.

"Any luck?" Chris asked.

"Yep, got a nice buck. Should feed 'em for awhile."

"Good."

"Mr. Larabee."

Chris looked over Vin's shoulder. William and his wife, Rachel, approached.

"What can we do for you?" Josiah asked.

William stood, shifting nervously and wringing his hands until his wife nudged him in the ribs. A half smile lit Vin's face. It was clear who wore the pants in that family.

"Ah, yeah, we ah, the others and us would like you to ask Mr. Standish to stay away from the children," William stammered. These men made him nervous.

Chris stiffened. "And why would I do that?"

William looked to his wife. She rolled her eyes and stepped forward. "Who knows what notions he's putting into their young impressionable minds? He's a gambler!"

"Yes ma'am, he is," Josiah commented. "But he wouldn't do anything to harm those children."

"The children really should be helping. They're not even doing their chores," William added.

Maybe Ezra was a bad influence, Chris thought. He even got the children out of work. Chris looked over at Vin who was trying to hold back a grin.

Larabee cleared his throat. "Mr. Feldman, Mrs. Feldman, at the moment you have six able-bodied men working for you. They'll be plenty of time for the children to catch up on their chores later. Besides, they'd only get in the way with all the heavy work that's going on. I think they deserve a break, don't you?"

"We want him gone," Rachel snarled. "Someone like that has no business around decent folk."

The three gunslingers lost all pretense of good humor. Chris realized that Ezra had automatically been construed as a self-serving thief. Chris understood too well. He knew that they had labeled him 'dangerous' just as thoughtlessly. Although they both deserved their reputations, to some extent, there was much more to them than mere appearances portrayed. No one bothered to look any deeper, except maybe the children. A feeling of shame washed over Chris as he realized that he, too, had misjudged Ezra.

"No, Ma'am. I won't tell 'im. You'll have to do it yourself." Chris barely kept the anger out of his voice. Abruptly, he turned and strode away.

"A word of warning," Vin added, leaning close. "He's pretty quick with a gun." Josiah and Vin tipped their hats and followed Chris to the bunkhouse.

Rachel looked at her husband. She knew he wouldn't do anything more. She huffed and went back toward the main house leaving William to wonder where he was going to spend the night.

Part 13
"EZRA, EZRA!"

Ezra dropped the bucket of oats he was bringing to the horses. He ran in the direction of Elizabeth's screams, scanning the field for the children. He had only just left them to check on the animals. They had planned to pull the big stones from the garden area and carry them to the creek for a stepping stone bridge. Why wasn't Elizabeth in the field?

He heard more shouting near the path to the creek and saw Elizabeth racing toward him, her braids flying. When she caught sight of him she skidded to a stop and turned around. She knew he would come. Over her shoulder she shouted, "Garrett is falling! He can't hold on!"

Ezra followed Elizabeth to the edge of the wood. The rest of the children circled the base of a large oak that stood inside the perimeter of the ranch. Garret swung high above them, clutching desperately to a branch. His eyes were shut tight and he was shaking from the exertion of holding on.

Ezra began to remove his jacket. It didn't look like the boy was up that far. "Garrett," he called. "Don't worry, son, I'm coming to get you."

"Snake!" Garrett howled, "I saw a snake!"

"It wasn't nothin' but a garter snake, Garrett!" Melissa called to him. "Caleb caught it to show you!" Caleb proudly swung the snake into view, its green skin glistening in the sunlight. "C'mon! Open your eyes!"

"Nooo!"

Standish moved quickly, handing his dark blue jacket to Melissa. She accepted the coat like it was made of gold. Ezra was a good climber. He had often been chased by bullies as a child. Their pursuit was an excellent incentive to learn how to gain access to the most inaccessible places. Ezra grabbed hold of a branch and hoisted himself up. The tree was old and the limb creaked under his weight. He climbed up another ten or fifteen feet of the tree without any trouble.

"Alright, Garrett, hang on. I'm almost there." Slowly Ezra pulled himself along the branch until he reached the frightened boy. "Okay, son, I'm here. All you have to do is inch your way back."

"I can't. I'm scared." The child's voice had reached a frantic pitch.

Ezra moved farther out along the branch toward the boy. "I promise I won't let you fall." When he was close enough he leaned out and clutched one tiny wrist, holding tight.

"Don't worry about the snake, Garrett." The Southerner's soothing voice and sure presence began to take effect. "We'll just have Caleb introduce that reptile to Mr. Larabee. One look from Mr. Larabee and that snake will slither all the way to San Francisco."

Slowly Garrett released his death grip on the branch, allowing Ezra to pull him into his chest. "There, now! Just hang on and we'll be down in a moment." Ezra held the child close. With the sudden shift of weight the branch cracked and split away from the tree dropping the pair to the limb below.

Ezra instantly wrapped his right arm firmly around the boy, pressing him to his chest. He twisted his body and used his left arm to divert branches as they slapped into them. Ezra's back broke through several thick limbs as they descended. Time seemed to slow and Ezra watched the horrified faces of the children below as they approached. "Don't be afraid," he thought as his body slammed the ground and Garrett's banged on top of him.

Elizabeth reached them first and pulled Garrett into her arms. He was startled and exhilarated, happy to be on solid ground. As one they turned to Ezra. He lay motionless, flat on his back. His eyes were closed and his lips were parted as though he were about to speak.

"He's dead!" Garrett screamed.

"Mr. Standish!" Elizabeth collapsed next to the unconscious man and gripped his shoulder. Her face was a mask of terror. "Mr. Ezra, please! Get up now!"

"He IS dead, Garrett!" Caleb whispered. He indicated the gambler with a swing of the snake. "You killed him!"

Garrett knelt next to Ezra and hung his head. "I didn't mean to. I'm so sorry." He was devastated and remained rooted beside the man. Tears spilled over his face.

"Wait!" Melissa leaned closer. "I saw him move! He's not dead anymore!" Everyone sucked in a breath and held it hopefully as they watched the man. The gambler's head rolled to the side and he groaned.

Ezra felt like he was in a vortex. A low buzzing sound filled his head and his vision blurred. Suddenly air rushed back into his lungs and sound assailed his senses. He realized the children were clinging to him and calling his name.

"Can you hear me, Mr. Standish?" Elizabeth asked, "Please wake up now." She was just inches from his face. He felt the rush of her warm breath.

Ezra slowly opened his eyes. He bent his knees to raise himself to a sitting position but a sharp pain lanced through his side. He rested back against the ground and took careful note of each child. He saw the tears on Garrett's face and reached out to him.

"Are...you...alright, Master Garrett?" he gasped.

"Yes," Garrett said with a single nod, wiping his nose on his sleeve. "Thank you." Little Annie moved to her brother's side and patted him comfortingly on the shoulder.

Ezra smiled and tried again to sit up. His left side ached and it hurt to take a breath. The pain twisted his expression and a sheen of sweat oiled his pale skin.

"Are you OK?" Melissa asked in amazement.

"You sure fell a long way, Mr. Standish," Caleb looked up into the broken tree.

Ezra smiled. "It's not the fall, but the sudden stop at the end that is undesirable."

Annie moved over to Ezra. With both her hands she held one of his. "C'mon, Mr. Ezra." Her voice was soft but determined. "We'll help you get up. We have to show Mr. Larabee the snake."

"CHILDREN, COME AN' EAT!" Dorothea's call echoed over the field. The children jumped at the sound of her voice but no one moved.

"Go children, your grandmother is calling," Ezra urged, grateful for the interruption.

The children raced off but Elizabeth stopped and looked over her shoulder. Ezra smiled and waved her on.

When the children were out of sight Ezra braced himself for the pain. He rolled on his side, and carefully rose to his feet. His shirt had a long tear in one side. He pulled open the garment and observed the broad scrape and bruise already forming. He limped carefully to the small creek inside the wood. He wet a handkerchief and applied cool water to the abraded skin. Ezra hissed as he proceeded to clean the injured area.

Giggles off to his left raised the gambler's eyebrows and he slowly made his way down the narrow trail. The laughter continued and he parted the underbrush only to witness a sight he wished he hadn't seen.

Part 14
William's wife Amelia and young Damen Feldman were wrapped around each other in a passionate embrace.

"Oh, Damen," Amelia gasped as Damen devoured her neck. "When are we going to get away from here?"

He came up for air and replied, "Soon as we start making money on this ranch."

Amelia suddenly spotted Ezra and pushed away from her lover. She gathered her clothing around her covering her partially bare chest. "Mr. Standish, how dare you!"

"Sorry, my mistake." Ezra smiled and tipped his hat as he backed away. And I thought I was the one who was supposed to be devious.

"Ah shit!" Damen swore and pulled up his pants. By the time he had them on the gambler was gone. "What if he tells Peter?"

"He won't." Amelia assured.

"Damn, I knew this was a mistake," Damen said.

"What? Do you think I am a mistake?"

"You are the best mistake I ever made," Damen growled. "But we need to find some place more secluded."

"What we need is to get out of here!" Amelia quickly buttoned her blouse and pulled back her hair.

Part 15
Ezra waited for the cover of darkness before returning to camp. His left side and back were throbbing. His head ached and his vision had not yet cleared completely. He tilted back his flask, draining it; disappointed that the liquor had not done more to ease the pain.

As he approached the small camp he could make out the shifting silhouettes of the others circled around the fire. He listened to the quiet chatter and laughter of his friends. Even after all this time he still felt like an outsider; still had the need to keep things from them. He would not reveal what he had seen at the creek. That affair was not his business. And the fall from the tree was something else he would keep to himself. He didn't want to engage the help of Nathan-a good night sleep and he would be fine.

Vin frowned when he saw the dark form creep toward the camp. He watched as Ezra gingerly arranged himself on his bedroll and appeared to go to sleep. He wondered why Ezra didn't join them. Vin had heard some of the Feldman's ridicule about Ezra's lack of work ethic. He was sure that Ezra had heard it too. Maybe the gambler was just tired of it.

Josiah also noticed Ezra's clandestine return. He found it strange that the usually nocturnal card shark was turning in so early, but maybe the children had been especially boisterous.

"My twelve o'clock!" Vin whispered suddenly. The casual atmosphere at the camp froze as the group turned to watch directly in front of Vin. Only the sound of the crackling fire filled the quiet but the tracker often heard things first: or maybe he just felt them. They were all poised for action, hands held over guns, when they saw it. A white, billowing apparition raced across the field between the house and the camp.

"It's one of the kids," Vin said. "It's Garrett."

Josiah stood and watched the little figure in a nightshirt approach the camp. He caught the child as he sailed near and set him on his feet. Garrett was completely distraught, tears streaked his face and he shivered in the late autumn chill.

"Hold on there, little fellow!" Josiah soothed. "Where are you going in such a hurry?"

"I'm so sorry," Garrett stuttered. "I killed Mr. Ezra before and I wanted to make sure he wasn't dead again."

Vin and JD snorted with laughter but Buck pushed between them, elbowing them both. "Quiet now, boys! We got us a serious problem here." He turned to the child sympathetically. "Ain't nobody dead here, son. Mr. Ezra already went to bed right over there. And you should be in bed now, too."

"I know. I was sleeping but I had a bad dream about falling. I just had to make sure that Ezra was okay."

Josiah's brow furrowed and he looked over at the sleeping form across the camp. He pulled a blanket from his bedroll and draped it around the boy. "Let's ask Ezra to say goodnight and then I'll take you back to the house."

The child walked between Buck and Josiah and squatted next to the gambler's prone form. Nathan appeared above them holding a lantern. Josiah grasped Ezra's shoulder gently trying to wake him.

"Smells like he drank his supper tonight," Buck noted

"Josiah, I ain't givin' him nothin' for a hangover. He can just suffer," Nathan quipped.

Josiah ignored his friend's remark and gently turned the conman onto his back eliciting a small groan, but still, Ezra didn't wake up. Josiah touched the back of his hand to Ezra's face. He felt feverish.

"Brother Nate, I believe your services might be needed."

Nathan handed the lantern to Buck and knelt near the conman. He took hold of Ezra's face in both hands. His skin was heated and Nathan's hands slid down to check the pulse at his neck. His long fingers felt a knot at the back of the gambler's head. The healer pulled open Ezra's shirt and ran his hand over the right shoulder looking for the dislocated joint that so often plagued the man. Everything was in tact but a dark bruise marked the center of Ezra's sternum.

"What the hell is that?" Nathan felt the bone and Ezra jerked at the touch, pushing Nathan away. Buck and Josiah caught the gambler's arms and restrained him.

"Easy, pard," Buck said, "Looks like somethin' smashed into ya."

"That's where my head hit," Garrett offered.

Nathan opened the rest of the shirt as Ezra struggled to get his bearings. The long cut on his side looked black in the low light.

"What happened here, Garrett?" Nathan asked the boy. "Tell me all about it."

"Well, there was a snake," Garrett began. "It was huge: a rattler or maybe a cobra." The other men moved forward not wanting to miss the tale. "It chased me into a tree---about a hundred feet---I couldn't get down. So Ezra came up and got me. But the tree broke."

Garrett was trembling and Buck drew him close. "And then what happened, son?"

"We fell. My head hit there," he said pointing at the bruise in the center of Ezra's chest. "And Mr. Ezra was laying on his back, dead."

Josiah met Nathan's quick glance and they grasped Ezra's arms and turned him over. Nathan's knife sliced easily through the ripped shirt revealing the colorful injury. The tree limbs had left horizontal rows of cuts and bruises from his shoulders to his lower back.

Nathan jumped to the other side of the gambler and knelt down moving the others away. He swore as he prodded the injury. Ezra moaned again and tired to pull away but was stopped by Josiah's hand on his shoulder.

"Easy, Ez," Nathan soothed. "Stay put."

Buck scooped up their little visitor and carried him back to the house, talking to him quietly as they went. "Now don't you worry, pard. Ezra ain't dead.. That man is like a cat. I don't know if anyone ever told you but a cat's got nine lives. So, let's see, that means ol' Ez has at least eight left..."

"He gonna be OK?" Chris growled, squatting down next to Josiah. "Why didn't he say anything?"

"Because he's a mule-headed...son of..." Nathan started.

"Nathan."

Nathan felt guilty for having thought the worst of the enigmatic gambler. Would he ever be able to get past Ezra's southern heritage or ambiguous life? "Sorry, Josiah, but sometimes he just makes me so mad."

"It's a talent he aspires to," Josiah replied. "You've been riding him pretty hard about not doing any work. I suppose he just didn't want to hear it anymore, from any of us." Josiah stared at each of his friends, sending a pang of guilt through all of them.

"Ah, Ez knows we don't mean it," JD defended.

"Does he?" Josiah asked.

JD stared down at the injured conman and had to wonder.

"Why ain't he wakin' up?" Vin was worried.

"I've seen him playing with the little ones all day. Their parents told me those kids are so tired they barely get through supper without falling asleep," Josiah said.

"Between the alcohol, exhaustion and the bump on his head he'll probably sleep all night," Nathan replied. "Looks like he cleaned it up pretty good, but I think he busted a rib. I'll bandage him up, but he's goin' to be plenty sore for awhile."

Chris tilted his head to scan the Southerner's strained features. When would they understand him? Moreover, when would he start trusting them? "Let 'em sleep in tomorrow."

Everyone nodded in agreement.

Part 16

When Ezra woke it was almost mid-day. He lay on his chest, comfortable enough in the blankets but his shirt was gone. His mouth felt like it was stuffed with cotton and his head throbbed. He wasn't sure if it was from his indulgence of alcohol or the fall. He lay still, trying to clear his head. Why hadn't the others wakened him?

"Good morning." Josiah's baritone voice broke through his confusion.

Ezra tried to rise and immediately regretted the action as pain clutched his side and took his breath away.

Josiah moved closer. "Easy there, you've got a busted rib. Nate strapped you up good, but you need to take it easy." Josiah supported Ezra's shoulders when he tried to get up again and helped him roll onto his back. The preacher picked up a cup of water and boiled herbs. "Here, drink this, it'll help."

Ezra winced in pain and confusion as he drank the noxious concoction. What the hell happened last night?

"Why didn't you tell us you were hurt?" Josiah kindly rebuked.

Ezra ran a hand over the bandages around his chest. "Didn't think it was that bad."

"Humph...bad enough." Josiah produced a clean shirt and helped Ezra put it on. Even seated on the ground he felt unstable. Then the preacher found another blanket and rolled it up, making a pillow. "When you gonna realize you can trust us?" He didn't expect an answer. He could see that Ezra was already feeling the numbing effects of Nathan's tea. Ezra made a move to stand but Josiah easily intervened and laid him back. "Just rest now, son."

Josiah finished the last of the coffee while he waited for Ezra to fall asleep. The distant sounds of the other men working filled the air. When he heard the shouts of children approaching Ezra's eyes opened.

"Don't even think about it," Josiah warned him. "Not today." He stood and watched his friend's eyes close. "Tomorrow."

The children moved with purpose toward the camp, a flurry of energy. Josiah intercepted the group, redirecting them like a dam changing the course of a river. Cut short from their goal they were frustrated--and worried.

"But Mr. Sanchez!" Caleb protested, racing to stay astride the preacher. He glanced back at the camp hoping see Ezra. "We've finished all our morning chores and Grandma said we could go find Mr. Standish!"

"That's because your Grandma doesn't know Ezra got hurt. Did you tell her that the object of your vigorous affection needs to recover from yesterday's adventures?" Caleb's brow creased in concentration. "No, sir."

"Is he alright?" Elizabeth asked. Josiah stopped walking and the children halted with him, serious and silent. "Yes, honey. He just needs to rest. If y'all get ahead on tomorrow's chores now, it'll give you more time to play with Ezra when he's well."

Part 17
Damen and William carried pails of pitch across the yard. The weight was staggering. Damen stumbled a bit, then stopped, setting the heavy pails on the ground. William set his pair down, too, and stretched his sore back muscles.

"Look at that!" Damen pointed at the gunslinger's camp. It was clear someone was still sleeping, face down, his arms around a blanket.

"That's gotta be the laziest SOB I've ever seen," William said, shaking his head.

"It's that gambler." Damen felt a rush of fear. Standish had actually seen him with Peter's wife in his arms. There was no telling what a man like that would do. Surely the conman would use the information against him, but how? Would he try blackmail? Damen decided not to give Standish the chance. He resolved to get Amelia and leave--soon.

"Let's get back to work, Will." They picked up the buckets, lugging them to the barn. Damen began to work out the details of the escape in his mind. His eyes narrowed. First of all, he would need money.

Part 18
Chris Larabee returned to the camp and found Ezra struggling to get up; he could see the pain etched on the man's face. Chris shook his head, damn, stubborn cuss, he thought. He hoisted the man to his feet.

"Thank you, Mr. Larabee," Ezra said, straightening his clothing, "I'm fine now."

Chris picked up the black crown hat that Ezra wore and dusted it off. "Why don't you go back to town?" He handed him the hat.

Ezra raised green eyes to the gunslinger.

"It's not a punishment. It's just that you're not going to be any help to us with busted ribs. You won't even be able to play with the kids." Chris smiled. "Judge Travis could probably use you in town."

The gambler's face fell. He wasn't ready to leave the children, yet.

"I'll consider it."

Part 19
"It ain't funny, Brother." Josiah held a thin strip of wood to the edge of the window frame. If they nailed it on just right it would keep the winter wind out of the bunkhouse. Chris hammered cautiously, trying not to split the wood. Buck's head appeared suddenly in the empty window, an amused grin lit his face. He rested both arms on the sill and leaned out like a ticket-taker at a fair.

"Now c'mon, Josiah! Can't you just see it? Ezra Standish climbing a tree and sittin' up there in his fancy clothes..." Buck slapped the new sill, shaking with laughter. "I'm sorry, preacher but I would have loved to see him come tumbling down." Chris and Josiah tried to ignore him but smiled inspite of themselves.

"Mr. Larabee? May we speak with you?"

The tone of Eugene Feldman's voice drained the merriment from the three men. Now what? His eyes slid from the father to the two sons. William was openly angry but Damen wore a different expression. He's up to something, Chris thought, but what?

"We've been robbed," Eugene announced.

Chris set down his hammer and glared at the man. He had come to respect Feldman over the past few days. He was starting to believe the family actually had a chance of surviving--even making a decent living.

"What was stolen?" Chris folded his arms across his chest as Josiah moved to stand near him.

"Five hundred dollars. It was the money we saved to get us through the winter and start our herd in the spring," Eugene explained

Chris leaned back against the bunkhouse wall. "Where was it kept and who knew about it?"

"I had it hidden in a compartment in my wagon." Eugene looked at his two sons. "We all knew about it. It belonged to all of us. Someone broke into the wagon last night and took it."

Chris ran a hand down his face. "I'll look into it."

"There's no need to look into it, Mr. Larabee." William took a step forward. "We already know who took it."

Chris watched William, his head slightly tilted. Danger made its appearance and Josiah could smell it. Buck moved quietly from the window to the door where he leaned, casually.

"Yeah, it was that lazy good-fer-nothing gambler," Damen spat. "We think he tricked the kids into telling him where the cash was kept."

Chris pushed away from the wall and clenched his teeth. "You better have some damn proof before you accuse one of my men."

Eugene held up a hand. "Now, wait! I'm a fair man, but Mr. Standish is the most likely culprit. He may be good with the children but he's still a gambler; it's in his nature."

"It's not in his nature," Buck defended. "He's not a thief."

"Buck's right, Mr. Feldman," Josiah said. "He's a good man. I'd trust him with my life.

"We need that money." Eugene bowed his head a moment, distraught. "Without it, we may as well give up and go back east."

"Give us time," Chris stated. "We'll find it." Ezra didn't take the money, Chris knew that, but he also knew he wouldn't be able to convince the Feldmans of it. They needed to find the money and the true thief.

"Alright, you've proved yourself a hard-working, honest man, Mr. Larabee. I'll let you handle it your way, for now," Eugene conceded.

William was not satisfied but he followed his father's lead, obedient as always. Damen stood rooted, his hand on his gun.

"Let's go, Damen," Eugene demanded. "Now."

Reluctantly, Damen turned from the gunslingers and marched back to the house. His father followed and studied him, suddenly aware of how much the boy had changed since they had moved west.

The three gunslingers watched the youngest brother's retreat, as well. They could read something in the swagger of his step and they didn't like it.

"You don't think Ezra took the money do you?" Buck asked.

"Ezra was practically unconscious last night," Josiah said. "But even if he could dance a jig, I don't believe he would steal anything."

Chris paused for just a second. "No, I don't, either. He nodded at the two men. "Find the others. Meet back at camp in twenty minutes."

Part 20

Standish stood on a low hill near the woods. He watched the children from a short distance as they darted into the trees collecting firewood. When this chore was complete, he had promised to teach them one more card trick. Chaucer snorted and nudged him gently from behind.

"I agree with you, my old friend." He stroked the animal's neck. "I wish we could stay longer as well." He would entertain the kids one more time then bid farewell to their families and his fellow lawmen.

Larabee was right. It was better to return to town now. But there was more cause to go than Chris understood. The injuries from the tree supplied a reasonable explanation for his departure. He would be gone before young Damen Feldman and his lovely paramour invented some contention to force him to leave. He couldn't care less about the couple's devious liaisons and he loathed becoming involved.

"We've done it!" Garrett shouted. "We've got enough wood for two more days!" The other children danced near the stack of dry branches anticipating their reward. Ezra walked Chaucer down the slope, looping the reins on a branch near the small creek.

"But where is Elizabeth?" The gambler scanned the woods for her as he took a deck of cards from his pocket.

"She went back to the house." Garrett said as the children gathered to sit in a half circle near Ezra. "She was too sad."

"Yes, that's true." Little Annie was becoming more confident and stood up to have her say. "Mr. Wilmington told Garrett about how you are a cat." Ezra's face lit with surprise. "So, this morning we asked Grandma if we could keep you. She said no, that you weren't a pet. She said you'd go back to your own home soon."

"And she was right. Because here you are with your horse all packed." Caleb interrupted. "And Elizabeth didn't want you to see her cry."

Ezra was glad to have the deck of cards in his hands. The fluid movement of the familiar pasteboards soothed his heartache. He drank the children's honesty like a sweet liqueur. Each of them looked directly into his face, waiting for his next response.

"Then I shall give you your card trick here," he said with a flourish of the deck, "And then we will proceed to the house and do another one, just for Elizabeth." The group settled back happily. Even Annie sat down then, close enough to hold the edge of this splendid man's blue jacket.

Ezra fanned the cards in one hand, pressing their backs to align the edges in an 'S' shape. "What we have here, my friends, is a simple deck of cards." He moved his hand around the group for all to observe. "I ask that one of you select a card without revealing its identity to me." He saw that Annie was examining him carefully, a look of wonder on her face. He paused.

"Are there any questions so far?"

"Yes!" Annie jumped to her feet. "Is it true that you have eight more lives?"

Part 21

"He's not in the barn, either, Chris," JD said, returning to the gunslinger's camp. "And Chaucer is gone, too."

"Well that's damn inconvenient!" Buck said. "What could have made the man decide to take off now?"

"I told him to leave." Everyone turned to Chris but he didn't continue. He was turning over events in his own mind.

"Makes sense." Vin sat on a log, his legs crossed easily in front of him. "Pretty banged up. Weren't no help to anyone." He shifted forward, folding his hands in his lap. "What's it matter?"

Chris stared hard at the ground. Nathan looked at Josiah and shrugged. "He was well enough to ride. He should make it back just fine." The healer wondered why they were all gathered here. To discuss Ezra's health?

Chris sighed heavily. "The Feldmans were robbed last night. They think Ezra took their money." Vin and Nathan absorbed the information quietly. JD did not.

"That's ridiculous! Ezra passed out before the sun had even set!" JD glanced at the faces around him. "He didn't do it, Chris. He would never do something like that. I'm sure of it." The young sheriff's faith spread through the camp lifting their spirits.

"Go get him, JD," Chris said. "He couldn't have gotten far. When you get back, we'll figure this out."

JD nodded once and ran his hand though his unruly black hair. He picked up his hat and dusted it off. "I'll find him." He walked to the edge of the camp then turned. "That should give you boys just enough time to finish patching the bunkhouse roof. When I get back, all the work will be done." He smiled as he picked up his saddle. He twisted suddenly; easily dodging the stone Buck threw.

Part 22

William and Damen did not follow their father into the house. They walked to the side yard where Peter was splitting wood.

"Well?" Peter asked, resting the axe on the cutting stump. He shifted his weight to one hip and wiped the sweat from his face. His brothers were obviously fuming. "What did Larabee say? Will he tell the gambler to give us back our money?"

William deferred to his younger brother. Damen seemed to be the driving force in the effort to regain the cash. "No." Damen faced Peter, his hands crossed tightly on his chest. "He says Standish didn't take it."

"How does he know that? Did he even ask him?" Peter was incredulous. "Do you think they're covering for him?" He stared into Damen's face trying to read him but saw someone running just beyond Damen and looked that away.

"Elizabeth!" Peter called to his daughter. She turned anxiously toward him, tears shiny on her cheeks. He dropped the axe and spread his arms to her. "Come here, child! What's wrong?" He was relieved to have her in his arms. Her affection was so honest compared to the confusion of events in the rest of his life.

Elizabeth pressed her cheek to his warm chest. "It's Mr. Standish!" Her voice was muffled by her father's hug. He pulled away and held her at arm's length.

"What happened? Did he hurt you?" Peter's heart ricochet in his chest. He would kill the man. The three Feldman brothers seemed to form a wall in front of the child.

"No! But he's leaving!" She said alarmed. "He leaving right now!"

Peter let go of his daughter and grabbed William's arm. "Get the guns." He turned to Damen and stopped short-his youngest brother looked almost joyous. "Damen, get a hold of yourself! We just want to talk to the man before he goes. We'll make sure he doesn't have our money."

Elizabeth was confused. Had Mr. Standish taken her father's money? Was her father 'foolish'?

"Elizabeth! Go to your grandmother." Peter and his brothers moved with purpose across the field.

Part 23

"Do you have a different card trick to show Elizabeth or will you do that one again?" Caleb skipped beside the gambler. Ezra kept an easy pace so everyone could keep up.

"I have a brand new one, never before attempted in front of a human audience!" The group reached the small creek where Chaucer was grazing tethered to a branch. Ezra picked up Annie and swung her onto his saddle. Then he set Melissa on the horse's back behind her cousin.

Melissa sat straight gripping Annie's waist and surveyed the ranch from her high vantage point.

"Papa!" She called pointing up the slope. The three Feldman brothers crashed through the brush at the top of the rise and approached quickly. Ezra's first impulse was to trigger the derringer rigged to his arm but he held back. This was clearly not a social visit but surely the men would conduct their business with civility in front of the children.

He kept an impassive fa├žade as William lifted the girls off the horse and set them near their brothers. The gambler's mind was racing. What could they possibly want from him? He was ready to return to town--wouldn't Damen be relieved?

The children were silent; they could feel the tension in the men. "Go back to the main house, right now!" Peter spoke in a tone that could not be disobeyed. The children climbed the hill with an air of defeat, but after a short distance Garrett stopped and faced his father and uncles.

"What are you going to do?" William was surprised and pleased with his nephew's audacity. He had something to learn from the boy.

"That's none of your concern. Get!" Peter gestured to the house with a sweep of his arm. Still Garrett did not move. He turned to Ezra, ready to defend him.

Ezra nodded to the child and tipped his hat graciously. "We shall meet again, sir." Garrett weighed his friend's words, then nodded in return and jogged up the hill.

"Is there something I can do for you, Gentlemen?"

The three men surrounded Ezra. Peter was trembling with rage but before he could speak Damen grabbed the front of the conman's jacket and yanked him near. "You ain't goin' no where." Ezra saw the twisted exuberance in Damen's features and shoved him away, taking a step back. His mind raced to understand the deception Damen had surely created.

"Give us back our money. I saw you take it." The accusation astonished the gambler moving him back another step.

"Mr. Feldman." Ezra quickly regained his balance. "I have stolen nothing." His answer was simple and rang so true that William and Peter stopped their advance and exchanged glances. Damen was not deterred.

"Then you wouldn't mind if we searched you?" Again he grabbed the lapel of the blue jacket this time pulling it open. Ezra pushed him away and shrugged his coat back on.

"I most certainly would." He held his hands carefully over his guns. "Gentlemen, I suggest we discuss this in a more enlightened manner."

Ezra kept his eyes trained on Damen Feldman's face watching the man's loose connection with reality shred. He didn't expect Peter's attack. The oldest brother swung his whole body into the punch with anger fueled by a year of frustration and grief. It landed squarely on the gambler's cheekbone, split the skin and sent him flying backward.

For the second time in two days Ezra lay flat on his back in the woods, trying to suck air into his lungs. But this time adrenaline immediately shifted him upright and he reached for his guns. Damen's was already drawn and aimed.

The bullet slammed into Ezra sending him back to the ground. He saw the trees at first but the sun seemed to be growing, exploding. It filled the sky with white-hot light, melting the leaves, their trunks and then the faces of the men that looked down at him. It burned inside of him.

"Damen! " Peter screamed. "What the hell did you do?" He dropped to the gambler's side. Ezra lay sprawled in the mud near the creek, blood already blooming on his white shirt. Peter put his ear against Ezra's chest desperate for some sign that they had not killed him.

"He was going for his guns!" Damen growled. "He was going to shoot us and leave with the money!" Damen turned and looked at William. "Search him, dammit!"

William was stunned. He felt detached as if watching actors perform an unfamiliar play. His brothers were strangers to him. He stared blankly at Damen and wished his father were here to tell him what to do.

Damen seized his brother and shook him. "Search him for the money, William! Look in his boots. I'll search the horse." William did as he was told, checking Ezra's pockets and removing his boots. He found fifty dollars but it was old, worn money. Not the crisp bills their father had hidden. Peter patted the front of the gambler's jacket for something hidden in the lining.

"It's not here." Peter was desolate. "My God, he didn't steal it. You shot him for nothing. What are we going to do?"

"Of course he stole it," Damen raged. "Who knows where he's hidden it? We have to search every inch of him." Damen paced the small clearing looking for an escape, forming a plan.

"We've got to go back to the ranch. Father will be looking for us soon." William and Peter listened, slack jawed. "We'll just leave him here for now. It looks like he was leaving anyway. They're planning to finish tomorrow and go back to Four Corners." Damen stopped pacing and faced his brothers. "As soon as they leave I'll come back. I'll find the money and bury him."

William was dumbfounded. He could not imagine how this strange performance would conclude. Peter stared at Damen. In the few months since leaving New York, Damen had evolved from his little brother into someone Peter did not know. Someone he would not choose to know.

"But the man is not dead." Peter sat boneless on the ground, his hand on Ezra's chest.

"He will be." Damen looked at Peter then kicked the forest debris over the gambler's body. And by then your wife and I will be long gone.


Part 24

Five men knelt on the roof of the bunkhouse, their hammers producing a deafening cacophony of sound that rivaled the Anvil Chorus. Buck paused in his work and shifted back on his heels, gazing down the trail that led to town. Nothing disturbed the bright blue sky that spread over yellow fields of brush. It was a crisp, cloudless afternoon but something was building in the west, maybe snow.

"Any sign of him yet?" Chris paused, his hammer held frozen over the head of a nail. He knew Buck was looking for JD. Buck worried over the kid, couldn't help himself. They all knew JD could handle the errand on his own, and was probably enjoying the ride but Buck didn't expect he'd be gone this long.

Work on the roof halted as the others listened to Buck's musings. "I bet he caught that gambler a mile away from here. The two of them are most likely loungin' in the sun, playing poker, waitin' for all the work to be done."

"Now that's somethin' I'd bet on." Nathan smiled.

Josiah lifted his hat to wipe the sweat from forehead. He ran his fingers through his coarse gray hair from his forehead to his neck plowing the curls into neat rows. He flashed a toothy smile to his coworkers and slapped his hat back on. "Then I suggest we get finished here, boys. The longer we take the more money JD is gonna lose."

The earsplitting noise began with a renewed vigor-they agreed they would finish it today. Josiah was on one end of the row of men and he heard something different, out of rhythm with the hammers: a sharp bang, like a shot fired from a gun. He turned his head, trying to locate which direction the sound had come from. He glanced at Vin working on the other side of the roof. Vin looked up, responding with a slight tilt of his head. He saw that the tracker hadn't heard anything unusual. Josiah just nodded, stretched his sore muscles and went back to work. I'm getting too old for this.

Part 25

Eugene Feldman wore a long leather apron tied around his neck and waist. He was covered in blood. The carcass of the butchered buck was spread eagle in front of him. He paused in his work as his sons approached.

"Where have you been, boys? I could use some help here." Eugene returned to carving the deer meat. "William, what's wrong? You look like you've just seen a ghost." He didn't really expect an answer; William was easily overwhelmed.

"Ain't nothing wrong, Pa. It's nothing."

"Good. Then take that bucket of meat there to the women in the kitchen. They're waitin' on it."

William reached for the item but Damen got there first. "I'll take it to 'em." As his brother strode to the house William blinked and turned to his father.

"Use those knives, boys." Eugene indicated the utensils in a pile at his feet. "Let's use the shank for chop meat. Peter; cut that chuck into two equal portions. It'll make the cooking chore more manageable. The men are leaving tomorrow so we won't be feeding an army." Eugene used a sharp knife to free the ribs from their grizzly outer meat.

William raised his blade to the shank but bile rose up in his throat and he stopped, closing his eyes. He pictured the wound on Standish's chest, saw the bloody shirt and jacket. They had left the man to die alone in the woods. William dropped the knife and staggered over to a tall, leafless elm retching on its gnarled roots.

"Good Lord, Will!" Eugene was covered in gore and did not approach his son. "It's just a slaughtered buck. This hasn't ever bothered you before."

Peter went to William placing his hand on his brother's back. "I can't do it, Peter." William's whisper was harsh. He wiped the back of his hand across his mouth. "We can't just leave him there to die. We've got to help him."

Peter turned his brother to look squarely in his face and grasped both of William's shoulders. "What are you saying?"

William continued to meet his brother's eyes but he spoke firmly, with steel in his tone, directly to his father. "Mr. Standish has been shot, Pa. He's in the woods by the creek. We need to help him."

Eugene was stunned, hardly recognizing his son's voice. He threw down his gloves, crusty with blood and tore off his apron. "My God! Why didn't you say something!" William was already running for the house with Peter close behind. Eugene followed his son's lead and called after him, "William! Wait for me!"

Part 26

Damen swung open the back door that led to the kitchen. He hoisted the bucket to the heavy wooden table in the center of the room, swatting the door closed behind him. The long walnut table had traveled west with them from New York and was worn smooth from years of scrubbing. Rachel and Amelia were in the kitchen with his mother.

"Here it is!" Dorothea greeted him, grasping the bucket handle and hauling the meat to a cast iron pot. She turned to add it to the stew, talking to him over her shoulder. "Where did you boys disappear to? The children said you were down by the creek."

Damen nodded to the two young women and Rachel returned to her work. She saw in that moment that something had passed between Amelia and Damen. She felt her face flush and she stiffened, keeping her back turned to the man. It appalled her that Damen would betray his own brother and for...for what? The affections of a shallow woman like Amelia? She considered what this liaison would do to Peter and stopped short. He probably wouldn't even notice if Amelia left.

"We did go to the creek, Ma. We wanted to talk with the gambler before he left. Just wanted to ask him ourselves if he had our money." Damen kept his eyes locked on Amelia.

"Tonight." Damen mouthed the word silently to Amelia. "We leave tonight."

"And what did he say?" Dorothea turned to her son and saw that he was as edgy as a mountain lion, ready to pounce.

"He said he didn't take it. We saw him leave. He headed out for town but there's no tellin' where he'll run to."

Dorothea studied her son. She saw dishonesty in his eyes; something had corrupted the spirit in the boy and carved him into an ineffectual man.

"Mr. Larabee knows what he's doing, Damen. He'll get that money back to us," Dorothea challenged him.

"Excuse me, please," Amelia interrupted, "I'll be back soon." They all turned to watch her move swiftly to her room, her unfinished bread left rising on the breadboard.

"I don't have time to discuss this. I've got chores to attend to." Damen opened the door to leave but pulled back, stunned at the sudden presence of William in front of him.

"Get out of my way, Damen." He shoved him out of his path. "Now."

Part 27

JD slowly walked the last mile back to the ranch, leading his horse. He felt as tired and thirsty as the animal. He searched the ground for clues asking himself for the twentieth time how he could have missed Ezra's trail. He hadn't looked for it starting out. He'd ridden fast expecting to see his friend at every turn in the trail. Why wasn't he there?

He hesitated as he approached the ranch. Ezra's absence didn't bode well for the gambler. The Feldmans will certainly blame him for the stolen money. Hell, it'll be hard enough to convince Nathan of Ezra's innocence. JD tried to imagine that Ezra was guilty--tried to picture him stealing the money last night. No, it wasn't possible.

He stopped on the trail, well into the perimeters of the ranch and examined some tracks. They led down to the small creek in the woods. He followed them. If nothing else they'd have a drink before facing the others. He led his horse over a rise that led down to the stream. She tossed her head and whinnied in greeting to Chaucer who stood tethered to a branch.

"Chaucer!" JD gasped. He approached her, rubbing her neck and she gave him a friendly shove with her head. "What are you doing here, girl? Where's Ezra?" The horse sidestepped and nodded as if responding. JD led his horse to the stream and unhooked his canteen from the saddle. He squatted at the muddy bank watching the water bubble into the container and took up a handful of the icy water to his own dry mouth. That's when he saw the body-a motionless hump on the side of the rise, covered with leaves. He skated through the dry grass and brushed the filth from Ezra's face.

"Ezra! Jesus! What happened?" He held the gambler's face gently in both hands, just inches from his own. Ezra's skin was sleek with sweat and his bruised cheek was caked with dried blood. JD swept the debris off the gambler and saw the blood soaking the front of his once white shirt. He stood, grabbing the canteen and then sat on the ground, pulling Ezra into his lap.

"Ezra! Have you been here all this time? " JD dribbled water into Ezra's slack mouth and he coughed, gagging.

"Sorry, Ez. Are you OK? I gotta get Nathan." JD impulsively hugged Ezra, his hot forehead to JD's cool cheek. Ezra reached up and gripped the front of JD's jacket.

"JD?"

"Yeah, Ezra-it's me. I'm gonna get you out of here."

"JD-be careful..." His whole body trembled with the effort to speak. His features were pulled tight in pain. "Damen---he'll shoot you..."

"Damen!? That little shit? Damen shot you?" JD settled the gambler on the ground again. He shrugged his heavy wool jacket off and put it around Ezra. He slid one arm in easily and worked the other in, Ezra groaning in pain. He was surprised to feel the derringer still rigged inside Ezra's thin coat. The attack must have been a surprise if he hadn't even engaged the hidden weapon.

JD yanked the bedroll from his saddle, snapping a blanket free. He pulled the gambler up to wrap him, covering his head like a monk in robes. Ezra's breath came in hitching gasps with any movement. He was loosing consciousness.

"Ezra." JD put his arm behind his friend. "I'm going to put you on Chaucer. I don't want to leave you here alone."

Ezra heard JD's voice and held on to the sound of it. It was a lifeline thrown to him in the torrent of hell. It moved far away and then close. Ezra tried to scream, to ask JD to stay with him but he could not make the sound. It felt like a torch was burning his flesh and bone near his hip and he needed all his strength to move away from it.

"HERE! Over here!"

JD heard the Feldman brothers' voices and jumped in front of Ezra drawing his guns. The group crashed to a stop at the top of the rise and fell back.

"Don't take another step." His tone was deadly. They heard the cocking of his guns in the sudden silence and froze in fear. It was clear he was prepared to shoot. JD examined each of their faces, the father dazed, clinging to William with one hand. Peter's expression was open: he was ashamed. But William was prepared to act.

"Please, Mr. Dunne." He took a step forward. "We want to help."

Ezra raised his arm at the sound of their voices and snapped the mechanism on his derringer. He never even lifted his head; his aim was instinctive. He pulled the trigger twice in quick succession. William fell back as the shots rang out, knocking into his father.

Ezra's aim was true but the shots went wide, missing their target and thunking solidly into the heart of an old oak. JD had kicked the small gun from the gambler's hand as he tried to shoot. The young lawman picked it up and slipped it into his pocket. Ezra was soundly unconscious now, his arm awkwardly angled over his head from JD's blow. Speaking soothingly to him, JD gently repositioned the limb and smoothed the blanket around him.

JD looked up at the people on the hillside. The old woman and William's wife had arrived to see the shots fired and stood paralyzed near the men.

"Get Nathan!" he shouted.

Part 28

Vin slid on his butt to the edge of the bunkhouse roof. He turned over when he reached the side, pushed away from the edge and dropped to the ground, buoyant. Josiah watched him with hooded eyes.

"Show off." Josiah worked his way to the roof's end. "Get me the ladder, Vin. Ain't a prayer I'd float down like that."

Vin smiled wide and hoisted the ladder up to the side of the house. "Here ya go, Granddad."

Chris and Buck came around from the other side of the house. Buck dashed to help with the ladder. "Take it easy there, Josiah! Go slow now--ya ain't as flexible as you used to be." He and Vin were delighted with their joke and shook the ladder a bit as Josiah stepped down between them.

"Thanks, boys." Josiah raised both arms as if to stretch his sore muscles and then suddenly shoved both men hard, landing them on their backsides. They went down laughing and neither chose to get up again. Vin lay back, his knees bent at lazy angles. He pulled up a piece of tall grass and commenced chewing on it. Buck gathered a handful of twigs and tossed them, one at a time at Josiah.

Nathan returned from the barn where he had put the tools and saw Chris, a few steps away from the others, staring hard at the horizon to the west.

"Where the hell are those two?" Nathan asked the question but they all wanted the answer. "It's getting late."

"I'm going after them. I'm serious, now." Buck stood and dusted the grass from his clothes. "Ya coming with me, tracker?"

Vin jumped up and faced the group. He nodded once. It was a simple, wordless communication but it meant a new course of action. JD and Ezra could be in trouble.

As if to indicate the start of a race, two shots rang out in quick order from the woods. The men turned to the source of the gunfire.

"That weren't a shot gun." Vin was already running. "It sounded like Ezra's pea shooter!"

Part 29

Garrett stood in the opening to the barn's loft, high above the yard. The air of the early winter afternoon washed over him. The game inside was intense and he was glad to rest for a minute. He unbuttoned his jacket and then his pants, peeing into the grass far below; a thin, steamy yellow arc. It's good to be a man, he thought, leaning far out to see what effect his private act had on the world.

He could see people running. Everyone seemed to be running. He grasped the doorway's edge and swung half his body out to get a better view. Ezra's friends were all running to the creek and Grandma and Aunt Rachel were running to the house. Then from behind he saw Uncle Damen and Amelia running to the barn. They saw him, too.

Garrett came inside to the loft and flopped down on his stomach at the opening to the barn below, peeking cautiously over the edge. The other children saw him and climbed down from the hay to investigate. He signaled them with a finger to his lips and they crept to the opening in the floor with exaggerated stealth.

Below, Uncle Damen's horse was already saddled. Amelia was tying a carpetbag onto a second horse, working quickly.

"Come down here, children, all of you." Damen's voice sent a bolt of fear through Elizabeth and Garrett but the younger children jumped up. Something exciting was happening. They came down the ladder and stood in a clump, together.

Elizabeth saw that Amelia was dressed to travel. Without thinking she gripped Garrett's elbow and clasped Annie's hand. Amelia was their stepmother. Would she try and take them with her?

"We only have a minute to say good-bye." Damen knelt down on one knee in front of the group, touching Garrett's shoulder. "There is something very important I need you to do." Their Uncle took a soft leather wallet from inside his coat and handed it to Garrett.

"Damen! What are you doing?" Amelia had mounted her horse and spoke from far above them. "We're going to need that!"

"Give this to your father, Garrett." Damen ignored Amelia and looked intensely into his nephew's eyes. "This is very important, son. Give it to him and tell him I'm sorry."

Part 30

Vin was the first to reach the field at the edge of the woods. Mrs. Feldman and William's wife were running toward him.

"Bring him to the house!" Dorothea called over her shoulder as she went by. She did not hesitate in her pace as she moved past.

Who? Ezra must have shot someone, but who? The five gunslingers fanned out at the top of the rise.

"Nathan!" JD shouted to them and they plunged down the hill. JD was sitting on the ground holding Ezra's head and shoulders in his lap. William and Eugene Feldman knelt next to them. William had pulled open Ezra's shirt and pressed the heel of his hand over the bullet wound.

"Keep it there." Nathan touched the back of William's hand adding pressure. He stroked Ezra's face and felt a burning fever, then slid his hands to his throat and found a racing pulse. The gambler's body was slack, one arm held tight against JD's chest, the other loose on the ground. Nathan picked up Ezra's free hand. It was ice cold.

"He's alive." Nathan stood and faced the rest of the men who waited for his prognosis. "Let's get him to the house." Chris reached in front of JD, snaking his arms under Ezra. Josiah matched his movements on the other side. They lifted Ezra gently, tightening the blanket. Nathan ran up the hill ahead of them. "Get my saddlebags from camp!" He shouted back to the remaining men. "Both of them!"

"I'll git 'em." Vin jogged from the clearing. Buck reached a hand out to JD who grasped it and allowed Buck to pull him to his feet. "You OK, kid?"

JD nodded, brushing off his clothes. He folded his arms around himself, shivering. Buck draped his long arm across JD's shoulders and they moved to the horses, picking up Ezra's boots and JD's canteen as they went.

"What the hell happened?" Buck asked quietly.

JD stopped and looked thoughtfully at his friend. "I don't know, Buck. I honestly don't know. "

"I do," William said.

Part 31

Nathan came in the front door of the main house and heard frantic movement in the kitchen.

"Bring him in here!" Dorothea Feldman had cleared the heavy kitchen table and placed a blanket on it. She and Rachel were moving quickly, positioning towels and buckets of fresh water near it. The heat from the stove filled the room and water boiled in the kettle.

Nathan doubled back and held the door open. Chris came in first, walking backward and then Josiah, the gambler between them. Ezra had opened his eyes once on the way, gasping and trying to warn JD of something but he quickly lapsed back into a tormented senselessness.

They laid him along the length of the table. Josiah kept the gambler's limp form sitting upright with one hand to the back of his neck. Chris worked JD's coat off and then Ezra's own blue jacket from underneath. The derringer's rigging was still strapped to his arm and Chris removed it. The starched white shirt was wet through with sweat as though he had stood out in the rain. The material was heavy with blood in the front and Chris opened the buttons and removed it in one piece. The bandage that wrapped Ezra's ribs had absorbed blood. Nathan reached over and slit through it with his knife keeping pressure on the gut wound.

Dorothea slipped a folded dry towel under his head as they laid him back. She used a second, wet one to wipe his face, cleaning the wound on his cheek. She didn't know who shot him-she didn't want to know. She just wanted him to heal. The perspiration ran down his neck pooling over a vivid round bruise in the middle of his chest.

Vin came in the kitchen door and placed Nathan's saddle bags at his elbow. He saw his friends hovering around the table and in the spaces between them Ezra's naked torso, his gut sucking in with each labored breath.

"Stay, would ya, Vin?" Nathan pulled back the cloth to examine the wound. "The bullet is still in there. We're gonna need ya."

Vin shrugged out of his coat and piled it on a chair with the others. He moved opposite Nathan and leaned over the table, getting a grip on the waistband of Ezra's pants and then laid his arm lightly across his friend's legs. Ezra lurched suddenly as Nathan probed the wound and Vin held tighter.

"Don't," the gambler huffed, "Don't...Don't."

"Ya got a lantern?" Nathan's voice filled the tense space in the room. Rachel came forward and held the light over the wound. The bullet had torn through Ezra's hip at an angle and wedged itself against the bone. In the harsh light Vin could see the flesh swelling around the injury. He unbuttoned Ezra's pants and slid them down his hips relieving the binding pressure.

"Good," Nathan said. "I see it now."

Chris grasped Ezra's left wrist; bending the limb at the elbow and pinning him like an arm wrestler championing an exhausted opponent. With his free hand he stroked Ezra's forehead, smoothing back the damp hair that stuck to his face.

"Listen, Ezra. Nathan's takin' the bullet outta ya. Do ya hear me?" Ezra's eyes were red rimmed and glassy. He stared hard at Chris. "We're gonna stay right here with ya. You're gonna be OK." Chris wanted to sound definite; to reassure Ezra but the words came out with a query attached. Will you be OK?

"Chris." Ezra spoke through gritted teeth. "Chris, it's burning...it's burning me." He shifted on the table trying to escape the pain, pulling hard against the others when Nathan prodded the wound again.

"Mr. Jackson, I've got laudanum." Dorothea held up the bottle.

"Good-get it in 'im." Nathan didn't look up from his work. Josiah lifted Ezra's head and shoulders slightly. He allowed Ezra's right arm to remain straight at his side, but pinned the wrist firmly to the table. Ezra worked his trembling hands, stretching and flexing both, trying to break away. The woman spooned some of the liquid into his mouth. He swallowed it.

"JD?"

"No, Ezra. It's Josiah. Drink some more of this, son." Dorothea got more of the pain medicine into him on the second try. She leaned close holding Ezra's jaw in her hand.

"JD!" Ezra whispered clearly, his eyes closing with fatigue. "Watch out for Damen...Damen shot me."

His words pierced Dorothea as surely as the bullet that had pierced Ezra.

Damen shot me. It is impossible. Her son would never inflict such pain on another. It's a mistake. The poor man must be losing his mind with pain. She kept her hold on his chin and spooned more of the syrupy laudanum into his mouth. He swallowed most of it but gagged and choked up the last bit.

"Hold him now!" Nathan demanded. "I've got it." The men leaned hard on Ezra keeping him still. Nathan removed the bullet, holding it up to the light like a lump of gold. Ezra was fighting them with all his remaining strength but Vin had a good hold and held his palm up.

"Give it, Nate." Nathan smacked the bullet into Vin's palm, glad to be rid of it. He picked up a clean rag and a bottle of alcohol.

"I'm gonna clean it now. This'll hurt 'im"

"Wait!"

No one moved or released their grips on Ezra but all eyes slid to Dorothea. She disappeared from the circle of light, banging around in a drawer. She returned quickly with a thick, worn wooden spoon. She stood at the end of the table and bent over Ezra's face. She laid her hand across Ezra's wet forehead and pressed down on his chin. When his mouth opened she laid the spoon's handle in like the bit on a horse's bridle. He clamped down, gasping louder around the wooden handle.

"It's helpful," Dorothea stated.

Josiah could see that the old spoon already had teeth marks deeply engraving it, but he could not read the message of agony they had forged. He heard Ezra's teeth grinding, adding their own story to the tiny totem.

The woman did not release her grip on Ezra and he stared at her as she floated upside down. She moved in and out of his line of sight. The world rocked and shifted above him. He felt his empty stomach heave.

"Chris!" The gambler sputtered around the spoon's handle, still fighting his constraints. "Chris..." Ezra could see Chris' face above him now. It slid slowly to the left with the rest of his field of vision but he knew his friend was near. Stay with me.

Nathan held the wound open and poured alcohol into it. Chris heard the wood on the handle of the spoon crush. Outside, Buck and JD heard Ezra scream.

Part 32

"No! Wait, JD!"

JD vaulted across the outside porch and grasped the handle of the kitchen door. Buck pulled him back, encircling JD with his long arms.

"Hold on, kid." They struggled for a minute but Buck held fast, backing
up to the wall of the house and turning JD away from the door. Eugene Feldman stood in front of him now, lined up with his sons, William and Peter. They were rigid, respectful yet uncomfortable, as if attending an unfamiliar religious service.

The scream was brief and followed by silence.

"It's best we stay out, JD." Buck spoke quietly at his ear. "Nathan's got him all cleaned up and we'll just bring the filth back in with us."

JD was breathing hard, leaning on the sanity that Buck provided. He regarded the Feldmans with disgust. Idiots. Ezra never took your money. JD was sure of it and felt like shooting anyone who wasn't.

He took a deep breath and pulled away from Buck's hold. He began to pace the short porch with an uneven rhythm. Jamming his hands in his pants pockets he found Ezra's small gun and ran his fingers over it, tracing the design engraved on the handle like it was a message in Braille. "C'mon, Ezra." JD didn't even realize he was speaking out loud. "You can do this."

The kitchen door squeaked as Vin came out to the porch blocking JD's route. The tracker stood in front of his friends with an open palm. They gazed at the bullet he held: a small plug of metal capable of taking Ezra's life.

Buck and JD watched Vin's face hopefully.

"Nathan sewed 'im up." Vin winced at the memory of it. "Stubborn bastard finally passed out. Nate's wrapping him in bandages now."

"Mr. Tanner?" William Feldman's voice broke into the exchange between the three men. The gunslingers had forgotten the ranchers were there. "Will Mr. Standish recover?"

Chris Larabee moved onto the porch and met William's gaze. "You better hope so." Chris stepped into the yard and scanned the area. "Where's Damen?"

The ranchers glanced at each other. "We don't know." Eugene said. "I'm sorry."

"Sorry for what?" JD spat.

Josiah and Nathan came out to the porch then, Nathan wiping his hands on a towel. Josiah seized JD's arm. "Good tracking, JD." The preacher slapped JD on the back. "Ezra would be dead now if you hadn't found him."

"No!" Peter said as if on trial. "We were going to help him."

The six men focused on Peter with such intensity that it pushed him back a step. Eugene regarded his son William with surprise: William moved forward.

"I will tell you what happened." He moved his gaze from one face to the next. He knew approaching these men might mean his own death but he was finished with fear. He had done nothing as Peter attacked Ezra. And he had done nothing when Damen shot the gambler like a lame horse. And then he walked away, leaving him to die. By doing nothing he had nearly killed a man. Fear and apathy were his weapons and he threw them down.

"We made a mistake," William explained. "We misjudged Mr. Standish."

Dorothea and Rachel stood in the doorway and listened to William. Rachel watched her husband speak and felt she had never heard him speak before. She wanted to stop him and ask him to say it all again. Dorothea squeezed her arm. "We shouldn't leave Ezra alone. Go back to him." She tilted her head to the door of Damen's room where Nathan and Josiah had laid the unconscious gambler. Rachel went inside, the voice of her husband continuing behind her on the porch.

She sat next to the bed, pulling a chair close. The side of Ezra's face was purple and swollen from the corner of his eye to his chin. He was still trembling. She held his hand in both of hers.

"I'm so sorry," she whispered.

A quilt covered him to the middle of his chest. She adjusted it and wondered about the round bruise on his breastbone. She wet a cloth and held it gently to Ezra's hot forehead. His eyes danced beneath closed lids. Suddenly, he sucked in a long, quick breath and grabbed a fistful of the sheets beneath him. His back arched as if he were falling. Rachel put her arm firmly across him.

"Shhhh...quiet now!" She soothed, stroking his arm. "I've got you." How odd, she thought; Garrett has this nightmare, too.

Part 33

Garret and Elizabeth stood at the side of the barn. They continued to watch the trail to the east long after the figures of Uncle Damen and Amelia had disappeared. Elizabeth would never forget the sight of Amelia riding away. The horses had moved fast, kicking up clouds of dust. Even the dust trail had settled now. Elizabeth was happy. She wondered if Mr. Standish could stay. He could have Uncle Damen's room.

Garrett patted the soft wallet in his chest pocket importantly. He watched the sky darken in the east. It didn't feel cold enough for snow. It would probably rain. He would wait here until the rain came. That should be long enough.

The other children were playing up in the barn's loft again. They came to the hay door and looked down at their cousins. "C'mon you two! Let's go to the house," Caleb called. "I'm hungry."

"No!" Garrett answered. "Not yet--wait for the rain."

Part 34

Eugene stared blankly at his wife. They had listened carefully to William and couldn't deny that Damen must have stolen the five hundred dollars. Their youngest son had taken his brother's wife and the money they needed to survive. He felt hollow inside, his head buzzed. Dorothea could not come to this conclusion and went through the story again in her own mind.

"Let's go after them." JD was still full of angry energy. Vin nodded. It was almost dark and rain began to fall. "They couldn't have gotten far."

"I'll come with you." William came over to his parents and put an arm around his mother. "Peter will be here if you need him."

They turned to Peter but he was watching the children approach from the barn. They marched to the porch in a group and stood in front of him. He knelt down wearily, prepared to face their questions. Rain tapped on the porch roof and the others crowded under it.

"Father." Garrett spoke conscientiously, trying to recall his Uncle's precise words. The gunslingers paused, regarding the little fellow with affection. "Uncle Damen asked me to give you this." He produced the wallet from inside his coat and handed it to Peter. When he spoke again it was amid shocked silence. "He said to tell you that he is sorry."

Peter didn't look at the billfold. He handed it to his own father and pulled Garrett into his arms. "You remind me so much of your mother." Elizabeth and Annie drew near him.

"I miss her, Papa," Elizabeth said, leaning against his shoulder.

Annie patted her father tenderly. "But we don't miss Amelia."

JD put his hands on his knees, squatting to get Garrett's attention. "Did you see them ride off? Which way did they go?" The rest of the gunslingers shifted in attitude. The child would never tell, they could see that. Garrett made up his mind and walked off the porch into the rain. He pointed straight west.

"That way, Mr. Dunne," he lied. "They left long, long ago and it's dark now and it's raining, too."

JD stood with his hands on his hips and regarded the young man. He was furious. He pulled his hat off and threw it at the ground. "Dammit, Chris! He shot Ezra! We can't let him just ride off."

The children were stunned. "No! No!" Elizabeth screamed and flung herself at JD pounding on him with tiny fists. "Ezra can't die!"

JD dodged her blows, pulling backward as she hit him just below the belt. Buck swung in from behind, hugging her tightly. He sat on the porch step with her in his lap. Garrett stood close by regarding Buck with relief. This was the gunslinger that understood Ezra wouldn't die.

"Shhh...quiet now, darlin'. You know ol' Ezra wouldn't give up that easy. What did I tell you about him, Garrett?" Garrett smiled at Buck.

It was four year old Annie who spoke first. She turned to the men as if lecturing a very tall group of simpletons. She spread her hands out in front of her, making it easy for them. "He's a cat." Her arms spread wide, a gesture intended to show that she had stated the obvious. Eugene gripped the leather wallet, dazed.

Caleb and Melissa stood with William. "Can we see him then, Papa?" Caleb swung on his father's arm. William looked at Nathan.

"Well, if there's one thing I know about cats." Nathan reached for Garrett's hand. "It's that they're real lazy and they like to sleep all day." He walked slowly into the house herding the children. "Ya gotta be quiet. Real quiet."

Part 35

"We'll never find 'em in this." Vin watched a hard, cold rain pound the empty garden.

"We're goin' after them tomorrow then, Vin." JD sat on the porch rail, rocking in frustration. He wanted to pace but there wasn't room. "He can't get away with it."

"JD is right." Chris folded his arms across his chest. "Let's stay here with Ezra tonight. When this rain clears, we'll go after them." A half-smile lit his face. "East."

As the group moved from the porch to the warm house Josiah sympathetically patted JD's shoulder. "You OK, son? She was hitting ya real hard there." JD rolled his eyes, "Shut up, preacher."

"Don't worry, Josiah." Vin moved quickly out of JD's range. "He ain't got a whole lot there to injure."

Part 36

Buck and Nathan stood quietly with the children in Damen's room. A lantern glowed softly. Ezra had rolled slightly and lay on his side, his bruised face in stark contrast with the white pillow. His skin glistened with sweat and his breathing was still deliberate. He was wrestling with fever. Nathan lifted Ezra's arm off the bed and had Buck hold it up as he checked the bandages for bleeding. It looked good. The fever should be coming down. Ezra moaned softly.

"He is alive then!" Melissa whispered.

"See! What did I tell you?" Buck spoke in a serious, hushed tone. "He's got at least seven lives left. Now we have to let him sleep."

"Good," Caleb said, "I'm hungry." The children went to the kitchen leaving Elizabeth standing at the bedside. Her fingers danced delicately across Ezra's palm. She wished he would open his eyes.

"He'll wake up tomorrow, Elizabeth." Nathan brought the lantern to the other side of the bed to check the injuries on Ezra's back from the fall. He probed the spot where he suspected a broken bone. Ezra jerked and closed his hand tightly around the girl's wrist. She slid into the chair next to him.

"I'd better stay here with him, Mr. Jackson."

"Yes, Ma'am. You're a comfort to 'im."

In half an hour she was asleep and Peter carried her from the room. Nathan pulled the quilt down and turned Ezra on his back. He soaked towels and ran them over the gambler's body. Chris came in with fresh water.

"He's too hot, Chris."

Only the children slept during the night. The others rotated through Damen's room, bathing Ezra with cool water and spooning Nathan's earthy teas into him. By dawn he was breathing evenly, the fire in his fever doused.

Part 37

JD was ready to ride. He sat on the edge of Ezra's bed avoiding the wet sheets. He touched the back of his hand to Ezra's face: it was still warm, but not burning.

Ezra opened his eyes. "JD?"

Chris and Nathan were in the room, too. They moved closer.

"Yeah, Ezra. It's me."

"JD...are you OK?"

"Yeah, I'm fine," JD said gently. He smiled. "How about yourself?"

Ezra's eyes roamed JD's face and clothing, confused. JD didn't know about the danger. Ezra wanted to warn him about something-- but what was it? "Where are you going?"

"I gotta ride, Ezra. Gotta find somebody."

Ezra panicked. "No!" He grabbed JD's sleeve and tried to sit up. The gambler was sure JD was going to be shot. That's it: someone was shooting at them. He felt the fire burn in his gut and hands pressed him back to the bed. He held tightly to his friend. "Don't go, JD....stay here, please...wait."

"Whoa, easy Ez! It's okay, I'll stay with you a while." JD grasped Ezra's hand. "Don't you remember what happened?"

Ezra continued to stare wide eyed at JD. "Some of it." He slowed his breathing and tried to regain some composure. He felt that if he had a chance to think it through he would remember. Still, he held tightly to JD, keeping him safe.

"Tell me, JD.... Please be kind enough...to enlighten me."

JD told the gambler what he knew. He seemed to be the only one with energy left to tell it. Dorothea came in with dry bedclothes. Chris and Nathan lifted Ezra while she stripped the bed in one tug and she and JD flipped the mattress. They settled him back on a dry sheet. His features were drawn tight and small gasps of pain escaped from him. Dorothea held a cup of water for him and he drank.

"So, that's about it, Ezra." JD was running out of steam. "Except the part about the cat and that doesn't make any sense at all."

Ezra was quiet. He remembered everything. He understood the impulsive blow from Peter, and saw the expression on Damen's face as he pulled the trigger. When he closed his eyes he could see Damen and Amelia clinging to each other in the woods. He remembered every detail.

"I don't remember any of it."

The room was silent. Everyone present peered into Ezra's face.

"Of course you do, Ezra!" JD was incredulous. "You told me Damen shot you. You were trying to warn me about him."

"But I can't remember now." He turned his face into the pillow. "And you can't arrest the man for attempted murder when...when the victim can't accuse him...of it."

"What!? This is crazy!"

"JD, please...I'm so tired."

Chris stood up, slowly shaking his head. "C'mon JD." He ushered the young man from the room. "Let Ezra sleep." Nathan and Dorothea sat on opposite sides of the bed, Ezra between them.

Nathan gently rubbed the gambler's shoulder. "Are ya sure about this?"

"Yes, Nathan." Ezra closed his eyes. "I'm sure."

Dorothea brushed the hair from his face and touched his cheek fondly. "Thank you, Mr. Standish." She leaned forward and kissed his forehead. He kept his eyes closed and drifted off, sleeping easier now.

Part 38

"We get to keep him! We get to keep him!" The children pranced with merriment barely avoiding the puddles of mud that pitted the front yard. Annie wrapped herself around Buck's leg like a cub attempting to climb a fur tree.

"Now, wait a minute! Y'all can't keep him forever, just a week." Buck peeled the child off his leg and swung her onto his back in one fluid motion. "And he's gonna sleep a lot at first. That's on account of his species."

Chris laughed. "In a few days you might ask him to get all those mice out of the bunkhouse. He'd be real good at it."

JD moved among the horses. He tightened the cinch on his saddle and then checked the back leg of Vin's horse. Peso had cut herself somehow but it was healing well. He stroked her neck and his own horse nuzzled him for attention.

"Ain't in the mood for human company?" Vin rubbed the length of Peso's nose.

"Not really." JD was sullen.

"He's got his reasons for lying, JD." Vin cinched his own saddle tighter, not looking at the young lawman. He knew JD just needed time to accept Ezra's decision. "Five good reasons."

JD looked over Peso's back at the five children climbing on Buck. It still didn't seem fair that Damen would go free. If I ever see him again, I'll shoot him myself.

Josiah lounged in a chair beside Ezra's bed, his long legs crossed at the ankle and extended in front of him. He watched passively as Nathan became more and more rankled. Ezra was curled up on his side and gripped the quilt that covered him.

"Will you listen to me, you stubborn fool?" Nathan was becoming irate. "We did NOT just change the bandage! That was 12 hours ago. Ya been asleep for 12 hours."

"I do not require your ministrations, Mr. Jackson." Ezra burrowed further into his pillow, his voice muffled. "Our esteemed colleagues are growing impatient. You should be on your way."

The big preacher smiled. That sounded like good ol' Ezra. Josiah got up and sat on the bed facing the gambler. He yanked the quilt from his hands. He rolled Ezra onto his back and pinned both wrists as easily as if he were wrestling a child.

"Mr. Sanchez." Ezra's face was red with fury, "This is an assault on my dignity."

Nathan huffed righteously and drew the blanket to Ezra's hips. He slit the bandages covering the wound. A neat row of black stitches stood out sharply from the purple, bruised flesh.

"I don't give a hoot about your dignity right now, brother." Josiah smiled. He shifted his weight off Ezra's chest but did not release his wrists. "I gotta ride all day with him and we won't have a moment's peace if he don't get to change that bandage."

Ezra's gaze remained locked with Josiah's. He panted hard when Nathan prodded the wound but held steady.

"Are ya coming?" The door banged open and JD walked over to the bed. He bent close to observe Nathan's progress.

"Geez, Ezra. That is really hideous."

Ezra rolled his eyes. The humiliation was daunting. "Perhaps you'd like to invite the rest of the group in for the festivities?"

Josiah's toothy smile spread in front of Ezra and Nathan chortled. JD slapped Josiah's shoulder companionably.

"Just hold still another minute, Ezra, I'm almost done." Ezra clenched his jaw as Nathan finally tied off the new bandage. Josiah released his grip and gently pulled the quilt up to Ezra's chin, ignoring the scowl directed at him.

Ezra cleared his throat. "I thank you for your....thoughtfulness, Mr. Jackson." JD stood quietly against the wall; his hands shoved deep in his pockets.

"Mr. Dunne? Is something troubling you?" Ezra knew his sudden memory loss had irked the young gunslinger. He truly valued JD's spirited friendship. Had his lies for Damen discolored the trust between them?

JD stared into his friend's placid visage. The swelling on Ezra's cheek was gone, the purple bruise yellowing. The gambler had regained his poker face but JD saw concern in the green eyes. He smiled.

"Nah, not a thing, Ezra. I'll see you in a week." He moved to the bedside and shook his friend's hand warmly. "Take it easy." Ezra felt the understanding he offered and accepted it gratefully.

"Thank you, JD."

THE END