A/N: This is the first of what I'm calling my "experimental" fics. Got a lot of new stuff that I'm working on that's out of my typical style range. So let me know what you think of this particular style. Mega-thanks to zookitty for betaing for me and helping me get rid of a lot of unnecessary commas (among other things). Seriously. You need a weed-whacker to get through all my commas the first time around.


I. May 4

On the western horizon, the sun was sinking out of sight and the evening sky was cloudless. The atmosphere burned a deep red-orange that faded into a midnight blue.

Vin shifted his position on the rooftop, shaking his right foot out a little to try and get the blood flowing back into it. He kept his eyes glued to the spot on the horizon where the sun had disappeared – where his friend had vanished two days earlier.

His friend wasn't due back until tomorrow. He was probably fine, but there was deep quiver of dread in Vin's gut that kept him on edge. Vin didn't often question his gut – it had never let him down before – but it had been stirring even before that telegram came, and he hadn't acted on it. He'd let his friend go. He hadn't even said a thing – merely clapped him on the shoulder as he headed into the livery.

Why? Why hadn't he stopped him?

"Anything?"

Vin glanced down. Buck gazed up at him solemnly, his eyes crinkled slightly – a tell-tale sign of worry.

Vin wasn't the only one who was on edge. Somehow that didn't make him feel any better.

"No."

Buck sighed and turned, the planks of the boardwalk creaking under his feet as he stared to the west. "He's not due back until tomorrow."

"I know."

"He promised he'd be back."

"He did."

"Doesn't make you feel any better, either, huh?"

"Nope."

II. May 16

Chatter in the saloon was quiet tonight. A grim silence had settled over the majority of the town's inhabitants over the last week and a half.

One of the Seven was missing – overdue.

History had not proven kind to those of their little band that were overdue. Chris' extended stay in Jericho was a prime example of that.

Josiah swirled the whiskey in his shot glass for a moment before raising it to his lips and tipping it back. The alcohol burned as it went down. He stared at the glass pensively, his thoughts wandering off somewhere towards the west.

He glanced up as a familiar tread of heavy footsteps passed through the batwing doors. "'Evenin', Buck," he greeted quietly as the ladies' man eased down into the seat across from him. He slid the bottle across the table.

Buck grasped it by the neck and brought it to his lips. "Much obliged, Josiah," he declared as he set the bottle down with a loud clunk.

"Anything?"

Buck closed his eyes and shook his head. "No sign of him. His horse ain't at the livery in Ridge City, but he was seen heading east. There's been no word or sighting of him since he left almost two weeks ago."

"Damn," Josiah muttered, pouring himself another shot.

"Vin's still out there followin' some tracks," Buck added, nodding his thanks as Inez set a bowl of soup down in front of him. "They weren't his," he said in response to Josiah's silent question. He sighed as he stirred the soup with his spoon. "Truth is, I think he's just avoiding coming back without him."

"He is coming back, though, right?" Josiah asked immediately.

Buck nodded. "Said he was. Think he's feelin' guilty. Says he knew somethin' bad was gonna happen before that telegram even came."

"He couldn't have possibly known. It's not his fault."

"I told him that. He didn't seem too keen on believin' me, though," Buck replied, slurping a spoonful of broth. He glanced up at the preacher. "He'll come home, Josiah. They both will."

Josiah tossed back the shot. "I hope so."

III. June 1

The sharp raps of a hammer striking heavy nails echoed through the quiet streets. A hot breeze blew through the town, stirring up dust and throwing it against the buildings.

Josiah paused his hammering, rocking his weight back to his knees and calves as he rested on the church roof. He tugged a dusty handkerchief out of his pocket and wiped his sweat-drenched forehead, glancing westward. Noontime heat shimmered just above the earth, but nothing else stirred on the deserted landscape.

"Do you always have to pick the hottest days of the year to work on that roof?"

Josiah glanced down at Nathan, who was glaring up at him, hands folded across his chest. "Least I know I won't get rained on," he replied with a grin.

Nathan snorted as he shook his head exasperatedly. "No, but you will get heat sickness, and then you'll snap your neck when you fall from there," he shot back.

Josiah sighed and gave the nail he'd been pounding one final rap. He tucked the hammer between his elbow and arm as he shuffled to the ladder perched on the far edge of the roof. Nathan came over and held it steady as the big preacher scaled down. "Anything?" he asked quietly as Josiah's feet made contact with the ground again.

"Not a thing," Josiah replied with a sad shake of his head. He took a long drink from the canteen Nathan offered, the tepid water relieving the dry ache in his throat.

Nathan sighed, turning slightly as he looked to the west. "Where is he?" he murmured, his eyes darkening.

Josiah quietly recapped the canteen. "Safe, I hope."

IV. June 19

Gun smoke hung thick in the air, filling it with the harsh tang of sulfur. Several bodies lay unmoving in the street, their limbs sprawled out wildly as blood pooled beneath them in the dust.

Nathan emerged from his sheltered spot, keeping his gun aimed at the body closest to him. After nudging the robber's leg with his outstretched foot, the healer holstered his gun and knelt down next to the body, placing two fingers on the side of his neck. The skin was already cooling beneath his touch, and no life stirred within the artery.

Nathan sighed, his shoulders slumping forward as he let his eyes roam up from the gunshot wound in the chest to the thief's face. It was a young man – just a boy, really; one who'd been caught up in the romantic notion of the glamorous life of gun fighting and had paid the ultimate price because of it. Nathan had seen plenty of kids like these during the war. He swallowed hard as he closed the dead man's eyes, the clouded irises a hauntingly familiar shade of–

"Anything?"

Nathan jerked out of his reverie and glanced up at JD. The healer sighed and stood, shaking his head. "No. He's gone."

JD chewed his lip, his dark eyes automatically looking west. "Nathan, d'you…"

Nathan tilted his head as the young gunslinger trailed off. "Do I, what, JD?"

JD tore his gaze from the distant horizon to look at his friend. "Do you think we'd… that we'd know if he – if – he were…" He trailed off again, eyes darting down to the body.

Nathan's chin lifted in understanding – JD had seen the eerily similar eye color as well. "We're gonna figure out what happened to him, JD."

"It's been so long, though… he could be anywhere out there," JD replied, looking back at the healer.

"JD," Nathan said softly, placing a firm hand on the young man's shoulder. "Do you think me, or Vin, or Buck, or any of the others would ever give up on him?"

JD swallowed visibly. "No," he whispered.

Nathan squeezed his shoulder before letting his hand drop. "We're going to find him."

JD glanced down to the body near his feet. "Sometimes that's what I'm afraid of."

V. July 1

Dusk was generally a welcome time of day. The sweltering temperatures dropped off at night, bringing relief to the town's residents who found it difficult to cool off during the daytime. The summer sun was relentless in this part of the country.

But dusk also brought another day to a close – another day of uncertainty. Days had turned to weeks, and weeks were edging into months, and there was still no sign of the seventh. It was as if he'd vanished off the face of the earth.

JD nodded at Yosemite as he guided Mica into the livery and dismounted. He gave the young horse a gentle nose rub as he grabbed the bridle and lead the tired animal to his stall. He couldn't help but glance at the empty spot on the other side of Buck's big gray.

With a sigh, JD loosened the cinch and tugged the saddle off, blankets and all. He settled it on the post jutting out from the wall and snagged the brush.

"Anything?"

JD nearly jumped at the quiet question but calmed himself as he brushed Mica's sweaty coat. "No sign of trouble," he replied quietly.

"But?"

JD glanced up as Chris leaned against the stall gate. "I saw Vin. He says he's gonna check Whitley Pass again before coming back."

Chris' eyes slid closed and he dropped his head. JD swallowed and continued brushing Mica, his movements instinctive and automatic as his mind wandered.

Two months. Ezra had been missing for nearly two months. Two months ago today, he'd received a cryptic telegram from his mother. Chris had managed to persuade the telegraph operator to give him a copy of the message three weeks after Ezra had vanished, but no one had been able to make heads or tails of it. All attempts to track down Maude's current location had failed.

For almost two months, they'd been tearing up the countryside looking for him. All of them had been over to Ridge City at one time or another – some of them more than once – but each time the story was the same. Ezra had ridden in, stabled his horse for one night, met with a blonde woman (presumably Maude) for dinner, spent the night in the hotel, and had set out the next day heading east. Heading home.

But he never made it back.

Vin had spent nearly two weeks roaming around, following tracks and investigating possible routes Ezra might have taken out of Eagle Bend. Even now he was gone more than he was around, and JD was worried that it would only be a matter of time before the tracker decided to move on, thus finishing what Ezra's disappearance had set in motion – the permanent disbanding of the Seven.

JD hadn't been ready for that possibility when Marshal Bryce had come to town two years ago. He definitely wasn't ready now.

"Make sure you get some rest," Chris declared finally. JD looked up as the black-clad gunslinger strode out of the livery. He watched as Chris' duster flapped when he stepped outside, and the young gunslinger rested his head against Mica's flank.

Chris would be next. He'd already gone back to wearing the all-black ensemble that he had been wearing when they had first met. All of the colored shirts he had bought over the last few years seemed to have disappeared. And once Vin left, JD knew Chris wouldn't stick around for very long. There was a bond between all of them, sure, but nothing like what Vin and Chris had. It was both similar and opposite to JD's own relationship with Buck. Where JD and Buck were loud and rambunctious, Chris and Vin were silent – each able to read the other's thoughts with a glance. But they were just as close as Buck and JD were – like brothers, even if they weren't blood related.

The others would laugh at his analogy, but JD felt the Seven were like a pile of boulders perched together to make a wall – each strong, able to withstand the elements relatively unscathed. They fit despite – or perhaps because of – their differences, and they stood strong against any outside force. But remove one, and the rest fell down in a spectacular display of thunder and dust.

Without Ezra, there was no team, and with each passing day that wall came closer to collapsing. JD didn't think he'd be able to handle the landslide that would happen when it finally gave way.

VI. July 23

The town was quiet at night. Only a few of the street fires were lit – the ground was dry from drought and water was scarce. A stray ember could prove devastating.

Chris paused at the end of the boardwalk, the tips of his boots hanging off the edge as he stared out to the west. He used to like the quiet of the night. It gave him the chance to be alone; to retreat into his thoughts; to observe the people of this town he'd come to call his own; to watch the men he'd come to call friends.

But that was before. Now, the silence of the night only emphasized the fact that one of his friends – one of his family – was missing. Vanished into the great expanse that was the American West.

Some nights he walked into the saloon still half-expecting to see the gambler seated at his usual table, gold tooth flashing in the dim light as he cheekily lightened travelers' pockets before going out on patrol. On a few of those nights, there had been a gambler at that table – one who'd arrived on the day's stage, looking for a cheap meal and a group of easy marks.

Those gamblers had disappeared through the batwing doors within a few minutes of Chris' arrival.

"Anything?"

Chris shook his head as Vin materialized out of the darkness next to him. "You?"

"No," Vin said softly, his own gaze focused on the horizon as well. "I was thinking–"

"No. You should stick around for awhile."

Chris kept his eyes on the horizon as he sensed Vin's glare. "What?" the tracker asked, voice dangerously soft.

"It's been almost three months, Vin."

"What, so we're just going to give up on him?"

Chris turned his head to look at his friend. "No, but it doesn't do you any good to keeping riding out there. You did everything you could."

Vin snorted. "Bull shit."

"We need you around here, Vin. JD's on edge all the time. So're Josiah and Buck. They all think you're going to leave, just like…"

"Just like Ezra?" Vin asked tensely when Chris trailed off. "You think he ran off again?"

Chris remained silent, turning his gaze back to the horizon.

Vin clenched his fist. "You sonuvabitch," he snarled, shoving Chris violently. "You think he ran off again! Even though he promised you – promised all of us – that he was coming back, you still think he up and left." His eyes narrowed as he stared at Chris. "Ez keeps his promises. He wouldn't run – not without saying goodbye."

"Better that than the alternative!" Chris snapped back.

Vin blinked once, eyes clouded with confusion. Understanding dawned on his face a moment later, and his shoulders slumped. "Damn it," he breathed, looking back to the west.

Chris nodded once. "I know."

They were down to two choices, and neither was appealing. But they couldn't be sure which one was the right choice, either.

And that was the kicker. When Sarah and Adam had died, Chris had thought it was the worst feeling in the world – that certainty that they were gone and they were never coming back.

He'd been wrong. This was worse – so much worse. This uncertainty, this not knowing what had happened, this wondering if Ezra was somehow still alive, if he'd died alone, if it had been quick, if he'd just left, if he was alive but in bad shape… this was draining. Devastating.

"So that's it, then? Either he's up and left without a reason or he's dead?"

"He would've sent word if he could have," Chris replied quietly. "And we haven't found anything else to prove something did happen."

Vin sighed. "It's not supposed to be like this," he whispered.

Chris swallowed. He understood Vin perfectly. They were lawmen – not only that, but they were the Magnificent Seven. If one of them went down, it was supposed to be in a blaze of glory.

Not this. Not disappearing for some unknown reason into the distance, never to be seen or heard from again. Not them. Not Ezra.

Chris let his chin drop to his chest. "I know." It wasn't supposed to be like this. But it was. And there was nothing any of them could do to change it.

VII. August 5

Rain drizzled down, turning the streets into a muddy, sloppy mess. Children were running around, jumping and splashing in the mud as they laughed as shouted. Some of the parents even stood in the street, twirling and laughing while the rain soaked their clothing as they celebrated the first rainfall since late April. It was a welcome relief from the hot, dry summer.

Vin adjusted his weight against the support post in front of the saloon, keeping a watchful eye on both the townspeople and the stage that was rolling down the street. His eyes drifted from the coach to the direction it had come from, automatically scanning the western horizon, even if there was no real hope left.

Ezra was gone.

Perhaps it was time for him to be moving on as well. He'd spent years here – probably years more than he should have, if he were perfectly honest with himself. He'd allowed himself to get attached, to settle down, to call a single place "home."

He'd had a pretty decent upbringing, despite being orphaned so young. The people he had spent his youth with had generally been kind and caring, and he had lots of fond memories. But he hadn't called any place else "home" since he was five years old.

Now he remembered why.

"Thinking about taking off?" Nathan asked from behind him.

Vin glanced over his shoulder as the healer drew up next to him. Both looked back out at the street as the stagecoach driver pulled to a stop across the street from the saloon. "What makes you say that?"

"You've got that look in your eye – the one that freaks us all out a little," Nathan replied. He tilted his head as he looked down at the tracker. "I wouldn't blame you if you did, though."

"Really?" Vin asked, taking his gaze off the stagecoach to look Nathan in the eye.

Nathan nodded once. "Been thinking about doing the same thing. The town's big enough now – they could use a real doctor. They don't really need me anymore."

Vin narrowed his eyes a little. Nathan was the last person he'd expected to leave the area. He'd been here before most of the rest of them, and he had a lot of good friends here – not just the lawmen. "Where would you go?"

Nathan shrugged. "Dunno. Maybe ta Wyoming or Montana territory. They've probably got need of a healer."

And they were far away from Tascosa, Vin noted silently as a realization came to his mind. "Wyoming, huh? Haven't been there for awhile."

"I've never been. Heard there's some pretty mountains, though. Might be cool to see."

Vin nodded a little, chewing his lip as he stared at the mud. His eyes flicked up for a moment as he heard the stagecoach driver offer a passenger some assistance. He looked away again, his mind still dwelling on Wyoming and Nathan's unspoken offer. The healer didn't want him to go off alone, even though it meant him giving up his own home.

Still, Vin didn't think he could stay much longer. Maybe he and Nathan could –

Nathan stiffened beside him. "Vin," he murmured urgently.

Vin's eyes shot up, taking in the shocked look on the healer's face before turning to follow the gaze. His eyes widened, and he straightened up off the post.

The driver was helping a man down the steps of the coach. He had a definite limp, his left arm was bound to his chest underneath the coat loosely draped over it, and his back was curled forward, shoulders hunched in obvious pain. His face was hidden by a black hat. Nathan and Vin would have recognized him in an instant even without the deep green coat and pinstriped pants.

Ezra.

"Get the others," Vin breathed.

But, as if they were magnetically drawn out, the others appeared. Josiah and Buck stepped out of the saloon behind them. JD appeared in front of the jail, his boots clunking on the boardwalk as he jogged over to join them, and Chris was suddenly just there, standing only a few yards from Vin and Nathan.

The curved shoulders straightened as soon as Ezra's boots hit the muddy ground. "Thank you," he said softly, tipping his hat at the driver.

The big man nodded, holding out a smooth, polished cane. Ezra hesitated for only a moment before taking it, gripping the handle tightly with his free hand.

Finally he turned towards the group, keeping his head bowed. The six had formed a line at the edge of the boardwalk, each frozen as they stared at the gambler. No one wanted to run forward and break the illusion.

Slowly the hat lifted a little until a familiar pair of green irises were visible. His lips twitched a little as he looked at them. "Gentlemen."

"Ezra!" JD suddenly shouted, splashing down into the mud and scrambling towards his long-lost friend.

As if a spell were broken, the rest of the lawmen were surging forward. "Ezra, you're here! You came back!" JD exclaimed, a huge grin on his face as he slid to a stop next to the gambler. His smile fell a little as he saw fading scars under Ezra's left eye and eyed the bandages holding Ezra's arm to his chest, and he held up his arms a little. "Can I – are you –"

Ezra shifted the majority of his weight to his right leg and rested the cane against it. "Good to see you, too, JD," he declared with a smile, extending his right hand forward.

JD grasped it and shook it vigorously, his smile widening back to full-force. "God, it's good to have you back."

"We missed you," Josiah added, gently grasping Ezra's right shoulder.

"What happened to you?" Nathan demanded, shouldering his way through so he could take a closer look at the conman.

Ezra chuckled softly, releasing JD's hand so he could grab Nathan's trembling one. "I'm alright, Mr. Jackson." He glanced down at his bound arm, then amended, "I will be, anyway."

"What would you like us to do with these, Mr. Standish?"

They turned to see the driver holding up Ezra's saddle and saddle bags. "Would you be so kind as to deposit them at the livery? Yosemite will know where to put them," Ezra replied, reaching up and tugging his jacket higher on his left shoulder to prevent it from sliding it off. The driver nodded and handed the saddle off to a helper.

"Where's Equiano?" Vin asked softly.

Ezra grinned broadly as he grasped his cane again. "Oh, he'll be along shortly, I'm sure. He's been unusually agitated over the last few weeks. When we were a few miles outside of town, I had them remove his bridle so he could run loose. Once he's finished his exercise, I'm sure he'll follow his instincts to find his evening repast. He's very clever, you know."

"Too clever for his own good," Buck said, his grin widening at the sound of the long-absent Southern drawl.

"Perhaps, Mr. Wilmington. Perhaps," Ezra agreed. "Now, gentlemen, I do believe this little reunion should be taken into the shelter of the saloon. As excellent of a caretaker as she may be, I'm afraid Esther is severely lacking in the discipline of the culinary arts, and I have the strong desire to partake of some genuine cuisine again."

"Who's Esther?" Chris queried quietly.

Ezra tilted his head a little as he studied the gunslinger's face. Finally he smiled a little and said, "A delightful woman that you will be hearing about very shortly, Mr. Larabee. Shall we?" He waved a hand toward the batwing doors.

"Do you need a hand or anything?" JD asked immediately as the parted slightly to allow the gambler to move forward.

Ezra grinned wryly. "Why, are you volunteering to cut yours off, Mr. Dunne?"

Buck laughed loudly, clapping Ezra on the right shoulder. He opened his mouth for a moment then chuckled and shut it again, shaking his head as he squeezed the shoulder beneath his large hand.

Together the lawmen made their way through the muddy street towards the saloon. A few of the townspeople had formed a small gathering near the doors, wide smiles on their faces. "It's good to see you, Mr. Standish," Gloria Potter greeted.

Ezra raised two fingers to his hat. "How is business, Mrs. Potter?"

"I'm sure it will be much better now with you back," she replied with a teasing glint in her eyes. "You order more clothing than most of the women in town combined."

"Yes, well, one must maintain appearances," Ezra said, eyeing his rain-soaked jacket and mud-splattered pants. He tugged at the jacket again, scowling slightly as the empty left sleeve slapped against his brocade vest.

"Ezra! Ezra!"

A small blond head suddenly plowed through the lawmen and collided with Ezra, sending the conman stumbling back a step. His face went white for a moment. However, when Josiah and Nathan reached out to help him, he held up his free hand before using it to pat the top of Billy Travis' head. "Hello, Master Travis."

Billy looked up from where he had buried his head in the lawman's stomach, his face beaming. "I missed ya. We all did," he declared.

The lawmen saw a strange expression flash across Ezra's face. It was gone a moment later as Ezra let his hand rest on the boy's shoulder. "I missed you, too," he murmured.

"Billy! You need to be careful – Mr. Standish is hurt!" Mary called breathlessly as she ran from the direction of the newspaper office.

"It's quite alright, Mrs. Travis," Ezra declared, giving Billy's shoulder one final squeeze before the boy pulled away. "But if you will excuse me, it's been a long journey, and I am greatly anticipating having a bowl of Senorita Recillos' stew."

The lawmen stepped up onto the boardwalk, the six instinctively surrounding the seventh in a protective circle as they cut through the small crowd. Ezra smiled and nodded as the townspeople greeted him enthusiastically.

Inez had already placed food and drinks at the lawmen's customary table. She came out from the back room with a large blanket. "Take off that wet coat before you catch your death of cold," she demanded fiercely, her sharp gaze focused on Ezra.

Ezra's eyes narrowed as he glared back. "I notice you are not hounding the others in such a fashion."

Inez snorted. "None of the others look like they're about to fall over," she replied.

The others chuckled as Josiah eased the coat off the gambler's shoulder and right arm. "She does have a point, brother," he said, wrapping the blanket around Ezra's shoulders. Ezra scowled but didn't stop their ministrations.

They settled into their seats around the table. Ezra hissed a little as he jostled his left elbow on the armrest. The others noticed but didn't comment on it, instead choosing to dig into the meal in front of them.

After a few minutes of eating, Chris broke the silence. "Where have you been?" he asked, his gaze sharp as he watched the conman.

"Yeah, Ez – why didn't you ever send us a letter or anything?" JD added.

Ezra sighed as he chewed a bite of bread. "It is a long tale," he warned finally, his gaze focused on his stew.

"We've got time," Vin replied casually.

Ezra's lips twitched reflexively. "I suppose you would," he said, looking up. He took another few spoonfuls of stew before he began.

"Three months ago, I received a telegram, as you all know. My mother was stopping over in Ridge City on the train and had requested my presence for the evening of her stay."

"Was she all right?" Nathan asked. "You seemed real worried when you left."

Ezra smiled ruefully. "Yes, well, generally when my mother sends such requests, it is for one of two reasons: she needs assistance in a con, or she needs assistance in evading her last… unfortunate victim."

"And what was it this time?" Josiah inquired.

Ezra's smile grew wistful. "Neither, apparently. She told me she wanted to visit but did not have the time to make the sojourn out to our fair municipality. We spent a pleasant evening together, and I set out for home the next day."

"We knew that much," Chris informed him, lips twitching a little at the gambler's use of the word "home."

Ezra nodded. "Yes, I would have assumed no less. I merely wanted to reassure you that my mother's telegram was not as urgent as I had first thought."

Buck leaned back in his chair. "So what happened? Where've you been all this time?"

Ezra swallowed a few more spoonfuls of stew. "Not long after leaving Ridge City, I was waylaid by a small band of highwaymen."

"What did they do?" Josiah growled. Nathan nudged the preacher's foot with his own, trying to keep the sometimes-vengeful man grounded.

"Not nearly as much damage as you may believe," Ezra replied softly.

"Looks like enough to me," Vin replied coolly.

Ezra ducked his head a little. "Yes, well, the majority of my injuries occurred after my encounter with them. They successfully managed to shoot me off my mount. Unfortunately for me, I was traveling along the edge of a rather sizable ravine."

"You rolled down into it," Buck guessed. Ezra nodded silently.

"How'd you get out?" JD asked.

Ezra smiled. "It was all Equiano's doing, actually. Once I had been unseated, he ran off. He happened to cross the path of one Esther Crowley, who followed him back to where I had gone over the edge. Apparently he was rather persuasive."

"Sounds like Equiano," Chris muttered wryly, sipping his beer. Stubborn as his master and loyal to a fault. Chris had a feeling that the chestnut would be receiving a lot of treats from the other lawmen over the next few weeks.

"Why didn't you send for us? We would've come to get you," Nathan said.

Ezra's gaze dropped to his meal again as he stirred the stew with his spoon. "I'm afraid it was entirely impossible," he said quietly.

"Why?"

Ezra glanced up at the tracker. Vin tilted his head as he stared back. "By the time I remembered exactly who I was and where I needed to be, it was nearing the end of June," the gambler declared quietly.

Silence fell over the group for a moment as they all stared incredulously at Ezra. "You – you were unconscious for that long?" Buck asked.

Ezra shook his head. "No. Esther said I woke up within a few days of the… incident. But my head must have collided with a rock as I tumbled down the side of the ravine."

"Scrambled you up a bit," Nathan guessed.

Ezra nodded. "It was another month before I could even consider resuming my journey. Esther is a very stubborn woman. She strongly reminded me of Nettie Wells."

"Who is she?" JD asked. "Esther, I mean."

"As good fortune would have it, she was a field nurse during the war, and as such had seen a fair share of serious injuries. Much like you, Mr. Jackson," Ezra answered with a nod in the healer's direction.

"Why didn't you send us a message once you got unscrambled?" Vin demanded.

"Esther is a widower who lives a day's journey from Ridge City. She was loathe to leave me by myself, and as I was in no condition to travel anywhere, we were thoroughly isolated from any form of communication."

"And?" Chris prodded knowingly.

Ezra eyed the black-clad gunslinger. "And… I feared that any communication sent to you after so long of a silence would not be well received." He stared at their faces for a long moment. "Clearly I was mistaken, and I apologize for the inconvenience my absence must have caused."

"Inconvenience?" Josiah repeated incredulously. "Inconvenience?"

"Ezra, we thought you were dead," Chris cut in before Ezra could respond. "That wasn't an inconvenience – that was damn devastating."

Ezra's mouth opened and closed silently for a moment. His gaze dropped to the table again, and the fingers clenched around his spoon tightened until the knuckles were white. "I am sorry," he whispered.

There was an uncomfortable silence for a moment before Nathan asked, "So what's wrong with you, then?"

"Besides the usual," Buck interjected quickly with a grin.

Ezra snorted as he glared at the ladies' man. "And to think, I had been missing your wit, Mr. Wilmington."

"Aw, hell, Ezra, how can you miss somethin' that ain't never been there?" JD quipped, ducking reflexively as Buck swung at his hat. The others laughed loudly as JD stuck his tongue out at the older man.

"In answer to your question, Mr. Jackson," Ezra declared as the group quieted down, "there is not a lot that is 'wrong' with me. The bullet that unseated me from Equiano lodged up against my left collarbone, causing it to break. I also dislocated the shoulder."

"And your leg?" the healer asked.

"Broken ankle and a strained knee. My body was a giant bruise the first month and a half of my stay at Esther's, but all things considered, it could have been much worse," Ezra replied.

"How come your arm's wrapped up so tight?" Vin asked.

"Esther's effort to keep me from re-breaking my collar bone," Ezra answered simply, sopping up the last of his stew with the remainder of his bread.

"That happen often?" Chris inquired.

Ezra paused for a moment before admitting, "Twice."

The others winced reflexively. "You going to be alright getting up the stairs to your room?" JD wondered.

"It may be a bit of a chore, but I think I will manage, Mr. Dunne," Ezra said with a nod.

"You better get some rest. I'll go make some tea to ease the pain and help you sleep. And I'll wanna take a look at that shoulder and ankle," Nathan declared, standing up.

Ezra rolled his eyes as he and the others got to their feet. "Just what I was hoping for upon my arrival – one of your noxious brews."

Nathan smirked. "The worse it tastes, the better it is for you," he said, heading out the batwing doors for his clinic.

"I do believe I win the bet, Mr. Wilmington," Ezra immediately declared, whirling toward the taller lawman.

Buck made a show of checking his pockets. "'Fraid I'm broke, pard," he declare with a grin.

Ezra made a face as he limped over towards the staircase, his cane tapping softly against the hardwood floor. "I haven't played poker with you in three months and yet you still have not a penny to your name. I'm afraid you can no longer blame me for your pitiful financial state."

Buck chuckled as he, Josiah, and JD hovered behind the gambler as they started mounting the stairs. "Just because I can't doesn't mean I won't," he shot back.

Vin came up and stood next to Chris as they watched the rag-tag group slowly climb the stairs. "Good thing Inez and JD kept insistin' on airin' out his room," the tracker muttered.

Chris nodded, his sharp gaze watching the gambler until he disappeared from sight. "Think I'll go keep an eye out for that damn ornery horse of his. Make sure he gets back alright."

"I'll keep an eye on the town. I have a feeling the others won't be coming down for awhile," Vin commented.

Chris eyed the younger man. "You could go up there, you know."

"I know. But as glad as Ez may be to see us, I doubt he's changed that much. And he's always hated it when people hover around him," Vin answered with a shrug. His lips twitched into a slight smile. "Plus, I figure if I tell Mary the story, we can head off most of the town's questions."

Chris chuckled. "True enough," he declared, tugging his hat onto his head. He glanced at the stairs one more time. "Good to have things back to normal."

Vin snorted. "Has anything about this group ever been normal?"

Chris tilted his head, one hand resting against the batwing doors. "Good point," he acknowledged with a grin.

"It's good to have everybody back, though," Vin said softly.

Chris' grin faded to a soft smile as he nodded once and headed through the doors. Vin shook his head with a smile, nodding slightly as Nathan breezed by him on his way to the stairs, teapot in hand. He lingered a little longer, chuckling as Ezra's muffled complaints about the foul-smelling tea drifted down the stairs, before heading out the door. He glanced off to the west for a moment, gaze lingering on a shaft of light that had pierced through the cloud cover, and grinned.

It was good to have a home.

End.