GUN PLAY
KellyA

[Thanks to my beta NotTasha. Her insight was invaluable and made this a truly wonderful story.]


Billy Travis sat on his knees, staring intently at the blue-rainbow colored marble that sat in the center of the dirt-drawn circle. His mouth was held in grim determination. This was serious, at least for him, and the three other young boys, who encircled the makeshift arena within the confines of the alleyway.

Billy glanced up at his three friends, their young dirt-covered faces showing their growing level of excitement. He smiled and bent down low to the ground, returning his concentration to his intended target. He held out a dark-colored marble, cocked in-between his thumb and forefinger. He shifted his knees in the dust as he closed one eye and took aim at the blue gem that would win him the game.

Everyone took a deep breath and held it as Billy flicked his thumb out and watched as his dark-marble made contact with the blue one, sending it outside the drawn circle. Billy scooped up the marble and held it up. Gleaming as a beam of sunlight passed through the iridescent blues within the glass ball, causing the colors to erupt in victory even as he rejoiced in success. His revelry was suddenly interrupted by another young excited voice coming down the alleyway towards them.

"Hey, look what I got!"

Billy's arm, as well as his excitement dropped when he looked up to see young Caleb McCain, brandishing a gun. The others quickly lost interest in the game of marbles and surrounded the older boy.

"Where'd you'd get it, Caleb?" one of the young boys asked. Eyes as large as saucers stared at the large blue-barrel Colt.

"My pa got it in St. Louis," Caleb declared proudly, rubbing the etched handle of the gun.

Billy glared at the older boy. Caleb was forever upstaging him with his friends. Last week Caleb rode into town on a beautiful sorrel horse that his dad had given him, causing his friends to stop their game of sheriff and outlaw. Billy tried not to be envious, but it was hard.

"You shouldn't be playin' with that," Billy quietly remarked, placing his marbles into his leather pouch and cinching it tight.

Caleb glared at Billy Travis and chuckled. "What's wrong. You afraid?"

"No," Billy quickly remarked, a little too quickly.

To most, it appeared that Caleb went out of his way to humiliate the young Travis boy and only barely tolerated his presence. But in actuality, McCain was envious of the younger boy, who was friends with the seven lawmen, who protected the town of Four Corners.

Billy tried to stand a little taller than his age would allow. He refused to be intimidated. He watched as Caleb slowly raised the gun and aimed it down the alley and across the street. Billy's mouth fell open, and his heart started to pound inside his chest as he saw where the gun was aimed at.

Ezra Standish was standing, a few feet down from the saloon, engaged in a conversation with a young woman. Even from here Billy could see the gambler's winning smile flash across his face, and the woman hide a giggle behind her hand. Billy watched as Ezra tipped his hat and allowed the young woman to continue on her way. It was Friday, and the cardsharp was heading towards the saloon to await the cowhands, who would be coming to town after having been paid.

"What are you doing?" Billy yelled, grabbing Caleb's hand and forcing the gun down and away.

"He's just a no-good conman. My pa says he shouldn't even be a lawman," Caleb snarled at the young Travis boy.

"It still ain't right to aim a gun at someone," Billy declared. He liked fancy dressing gambler. Although his mother frowned on it, Ezra had taught him some harmless card tricks and how to spot a cheat or tell if someone was lying, which had come in handy a few times. The suave southerner also didn't treat him like a little kid.

"Mr. Standish is a good man," Billy defended.

Caleb then pointed the gun at Billy, causing the boy's eyes to go wide with shock. The three other boys stepped back, not sure what to do.

"Hey, Caleb, don't you think this is goin' too far?" one of Billy's friends, a shy brown-haired boy, managed to voice. He shrunk back from Caleb's glare that was suddenly aimed right at him and seemed just as deadly as the gun.

Caleb returned his attention to Billy, who hadn't moved. Why did a piece of metal seem to bring out the worst in people? Caleb was already an intimidating and arrogant boy, now he also appeared dangerous.

"Don't you want to be like your friend, Mr. Larabee?" Caleb allured. He spun the cylinder of the gun, peering down the sights. "Don't worry it's not loaded."

Billy exhaled the anxious breath he had held since becoming the center of the gun's attention. He knew his friends were scrutinizing him, seeing if he would back down from Caleb's goading. Billy sometimes felt they were only his friends because of his association with Chris Larabee and the other six gunslingers.

"Here, you want to hold it?" Caleb asked, holding the gun out towards Billy. "You want respect don't you? Well this can get it for you."

Billy stared at the gun then up at Caleb, then he looked at the eager expressions on his three friends' faces. He felt as if he was being tested. Billy's hand tentatively reached out and took the gun, feeling the weight of it in his hand. He could hear his mother's voice telling him to never touch a gun. And even Chris had told him, you don't touch a gun unless you plan on using it. His fingers wrapped the handle as his forefinger curled around the trigger. As he admired the weapon he thought he actually felt older with it in his hands. Billy allowed himself a slight grin as he pictured himself out shooting an outlaw and saving someone's life.

When the gun fired, all five boys in the alleyway jumped, at first not realizing where the shot had come from. Billy stared down at the gun in his hand, and then slowly looked out upon the street. His stomach lurched, and it felt as if someone had just punched him. There, lying in the dust was the familiar red-coated form of Ezra Standish. Billy could hear the shouts, and see people scattering in all directions, but it felt distant, like watching from a hillside.

Caleb yanked the gun out of Billy's grasp, his own face a mask of horror at what had just happened. He grabbed Billy by the arm, causing him to drop his pouch of marbles into the dust.

"C'mon, let's get out of here!"

Billy allowed himself to be dragged down the alleyway. He looked over his shoulder to catch a glimpse of Chris Larabee racing out of the saloon, gun drawn.

***** Part 2

Larabee raced out of the saloon his gun in hand, Vin coming up behind him. The two gunslingers quickly searched the area for the source of the gunfire. Gunplay was not unusual in the backwater town and at times was nothing more than a drunken cowboy or irate housewife.

"Ah, Hell," Vin suddenly said. At that moment Chris' gaze landed on the motionless form in the dust. A silent communication passed between the two men. Vin kept his mare's leg at ready as Chris jumped to Ezra's side. The street had emptied, everyone hiding in expectation of a shootout.

Vin's keen eyes continued scanning the buildings across the street looking for the unknown danger hidden there. He kept Chris covered as the dark-clad gunslinger knelt down beside Ezra's unmoving form. He placed two fingers alongside the conman's neck; genuinely relieved to feel the soft beat of life.

"Is he alive?" Vin quietly asked, not looking down, but keeping his attention on any possible danger that lay lurking somewhere across the street.

"Yeah," Chris softly replied. JD and Buck were suddenly at his side and he could see Josiah and Nathan running towards them from the church.

Buck stood next to Vin, mimicking the tracker's stance as he searched the surrounding area. JD began ushering people inside incase more gunfire erupted. Both Buck and JD took a second to glance down at Ezra who hadn't moved.

When Nathan and Josiah reached Ezra's side, Chris stood up. "Search the town!" he ordered.

Buck nodded, and then he and JD jogged across the street, keeping a keen eye open for who may have done the shooting. Vin paused a moment to stare down at the fancy dressed cardsharp. He then let his gaze rise up to the other side of the street as if following an imaginary line. Without a word he strode over towards the alley directly across the street, cocking his mare's leg.

Nathan fell to his knees beside Ezra and saw the blood that was darkening the back of his jacket. "Ah geeze, he was shot in the back."

"What?" Chris growled, snapping his head down to lock with Nathan's dark eyes.

Nathan looked over his shoulder at the saloon. "Let's get him up to his room. It's closer. I'll get my things," Nathan instructed.

Josiah and Chris both grabbed under one of the gambler's arms and carefully lifted him up. They dragged him up to his room as Nathan rushed over to his clinic to collect what he thought he might need.

Tanner nodded to Buck who was two buildings down from him on his right. He turned to his left to see JD dart into the Mercantile. Vin entered the shadow of the alleyway his gun held ready. He didn't think anyone would still be around, but he hadn't stayed alive this long taking any chances. His blue eyes scanned the narrow alleyway, noting the crates and several old empty whiskey bottles. He cocked his head as his gaze came to rest on a small leather pouch that lay in the dust amongst a scattering of small footprints. He knelt down and picked up the pouch. He opened it and poured the marbles into his hand. Staring down at the multi-colored baubles he looked over his shoulder at the back entrance of the alley and slowly stood up.

****Part 3

Chris and Josiah laid Ezra down on his stomach on his feathered bed. The healer rushed into the room carrying his bag and pushed them both aside. He immediately went to work cutting away the jacket and shirt. Josiah grabbed the basin and ewer and left to get the water he knew his friend would need. As the fine material was peeled away Nathan stared down at the bullet wound in the center of Ezra's lower back.

Chris noticed the healer's hesitation and stepped forward. His mouth went dry as he looked into his dark friend's uncertain face.

"What's wrong, Nathan?" Chris couldn't fathom what the problem might be, the wound looked clean and it wasn't even bleeding much.

Nathan eased himself slowly down into a chair, continuing to stare at the wound. "I think the bullet might be close to his spine," Nathan began then wiped his hand down his face. "If I start diggin' 'round I could damage his spine even more or kill him," he sadly disclosed.

Chris removed his hat and ran his hand through his short blond hair, releasing an exasperating breath. He turned and faced the wall, closing his eyes. It was a few moments until Chris turned around to face the healer, who still sat in the chair, staring intently at the wound in Ezra's back.

"What would happen if you left it in?" Chris asked.

Nathan shrugged. "He could die from infection."

"Take it out," Chris said with such finality that Nathan didn't even question it. He stood and reached for his scalpel.

Buck and JD entered Ezra's room stepping off to the side as Josiah came through carrying water and bandages. Buck moved up beside Chris, wincing as he watched Nathan begin to cut into Ezra's back. Josiah stood on the other side of the bed mopping up the blood that started to ooze out. JD's eyes immediately went to some obscure spot on the other side of the room.

"We didn't find anything, Chris," Buck whispered, unable to take his eyes off the sight before him. He'd witnessed many bullet extractions, but for some reason watching Nathan dig into Ezra's back was not sittin' too well.

"What?" Chris angrily growled, then remembered to lower his voice. "Someone shoots Ezra in the back in broad daylight and disappears?"

"You don't think it was someone that Ezra beat at cards do ya?"
JD quietly asked.

Before anyone could voice another opinion. "I see it," Nathan announced, his concentration never wavering as everyone's attention was brought to the life and death scene being played out. The bullet had drilled a devastating path through Ezra's lower back, coming to rest next to a lower vertebrae. Nathan couldn't tell if any damage had been done, or if there would be any impairment.

Ezra groaned and started to stir, pushing up weakly with his hands.

"Easy, Ez, just a moment longer," Nathan soothed.

Josiah gently pushed down on the gambler's shoulders, forcing him back down. He placed a huge callous hand on Ezra's head and gently stroked his brown hair, hoping to pass on some measure of assurance and comfort.

Beads of sweat formed on Nathan's forehead, his eyes and mind strictly on the task before him. He tried not to think of what damage he might be doing. He'd seen these kinds of wounds many times during the war, and had watched skilled surgeons work, but he'd never had the opportunity to do it. He didn't want to think about the outcome.

After what seemed like hours, but was barely thirty minutes, several tense breaths released at the sound of a bullet hitting a porcelain basin. Nathan quickly cleaned and bandaged the wound then pulled a blanket up to the gambler's shoulders. He checked Ezra's breathing, relieved to find it strong and even.

"Is he goin' to be alright?" Chris asked, stepping up behind Nathan, who was wiping the blood from his hands.

"I don't know. We're going to have to wait until he comes to,"
Nathan replied.

Chris turned to Buck and JD. "I want you to go and check out everyone that he's played recently, and check on any newcomers that have come to town in the past week." Chris paused and looked over at Ezra. "I want everyone out looking for that shooter." Chris' voice was firm and even, but everyone could detect the smoldering rage just below the surface.

Buck nodded, his lips held in a grim firm line. He nudged JD in the side, getting his attention.

Chris watched as Josiah wrung out a rag and gently moped Ezra's forehead and the back of his neck. He had always wondered how the ex-preacher had come to care for the, at times, trying gambling man. Chris and Ezra were like oil and water, with both trying to overwhelm the other. There were several occasions when it was all Chris could do not to strangle the urbane southerner, right now, he couldn't think of one of them.

Chris stepped out of the saloon, pulling a cheroot from his pocket and clenching it in-between his teeth. His dark mood seemed to cause even the sunlight to back off. He noticed that the town had already returned too normal; people were quick to resume their business when they knew the danger was past, or not directed towards them. They were all used to the occasional trouble that came with living on the wild frontier and having seven gunslingers as peace officers.

Vin materialized beside Chris, also gazing at the people bustling about. "I think the shot came from that alley." He nodded towards the dark corridor between the dress shop and jeweler. Vin didn't mention the marbles he had discovered; at the moment he was not sure what they meant and afraid to think of the possibilities.

Chris stared off and bit down harder on the cheroot in his mouth. "I have Buck and JD checking on any newcomers. We need to start askin' around, see if anyone saw anything."

"How's he's doing?" Vin asked, bowing his head and closing his eyes. Ezra hadn't looked good when they had taken him up to the clinic.

"He's alive," Chris curtly replied, stepping off the boardwalk and heading across the street.

Vin shook his head. Chris always took it personally when one of his men was injured. The man would die from frettin' someday. Vin smiled at the thought, 'there could be a lot worse ways to go.'

**** Part 4

It was the next morning before Ezra began to stir. The first thing he realized was that he was lying on his stomach. It was early morning, although his room was still fairly dark, being on the west side of the building, something that was a determining factor in his choice of rooms. He saw Nathan's black bag on the floor by his dresser; this was never a good sign. The feeling grew worse when Nathan's face suddenly appeared in front of his own.

"How you feelin'?" Nathan asked, placing his hand on Ezra's forehead, causing the obstinate gambler to grimace at the touch. He had a slight fever, but nothing too bad, for which Nathan was extremely grateful.

Ezra licked his lips with his tongue. "Like hell. What happened?"

"You were shot. I got the bullet out."

The gambler's face scrunched up in confusion. The last thing he remembered was talking with Mrs. Streep, and then walking towards the saloon in anticipation of the evening's festivities. There had been a sudden sharp pain in his back then nothing. Ezra pushed himself up, attempting to roll over.

"Wait, let me help you." Nathan placed a hand under Ezra's waist. "You have to take it easy I don't want that wound opening up." He gently helped ease Ezra over. Nathan grabbed a couple pillows from the chair and propped them behind his back.

Ezra sunk back into the pillows, gasping from the exertion. He felt strange, like his whole body was made of lead, fighting his every move. His brow creased as he stared down at his legs that were covered by a blanket.

Nathan's heart started to race as he saw Ezra staring down at his legs. The healer had poked a blunt stick on the sole's of Ezra's feet, while he was unconscious, getting no reaction. He had hoped what he feared was not coming true. But the look on the gambler's visage was slowly draining that hope away. "Ezra?"

Ezra swallowed the sudden lump in his throat and reached down to pull the blanket back from his right leg. He stared hard at his feet, concentrating, trying to make them move. This is a nightmare, in a moment I'll wake up and... Ezra's thoughts melted away as he looked up at the healer. The truth he was trying to ignore fixed plainly on Nathan's anguished filled face. Ezra then tentatively reached down and touched his bare leg.

"I can't feel my legs," he breathed.

*****Part 5

Before Nathan could react Standish grabbed the scalpel that sat on the table next to the bed. He jabbed the blade into his thigh.

"EZRA!" Nathan grabbed and pulled the knife out, and then quickly pressed a rag on the bleeding wound, not believing what had just happened.

Ezra remained silent as Nathan worked on stopping the bleeding. He didn't care, only staring down at the bleeding wound and thinking, 'no pain--nothing.' He wasn't sure if he wanted to laugh or cry. Nathan was too busy stopping the bleeding to see the maelstrom of emotions flash across Ezra's face. By the time he got the bleeding under control Ezra had his ever-present mask of control firmly in place.

"Mr. Jackson, it appears I have lost all sensation in my lower extremities," Ezra calmly stated.

"I saw this in the war it's not always permanent," Nathan tried to assure. He wasn't sure that Ezra was listening.

Nathan's heart broke at the sadness that washed over the southerner's face, something he never thought he'd see on the normally confident and at times, galling visage. Ezra slowly sank back into the pillows and stared vacantly up at the ceiling. Nathan could see the gambler was fighting to stay in control, trying to keep the feeling of melancholy from swallowing him whole. He checked the leg wound once more to be sure the bleeding had stopped, and then brought the blanket up to Ezra's chest.

"I know this is a lot to take in, but it's too early to tell what could happen." Nathan spoke firmly and confidently, knowing he couldn't let Ezra slip into a well of despair, one where he might never be able to pull himself out. "I'll be back in a little while. You just rest."

Ezra's mind was trying to come to grips with what was happening. Anger, fear and hopelessness vied for possession of his emotions. Finally, his mind could no longer handle what his body was telling it--it retreated. Ezra's eyes closed, and his breathing took on the ease of sleep.

Nathan watched as Ezra's eyes fluttered closed as he succumbed to sleep, knowing the trauma and stress of what Ezra had just discovered was taking its toll on his mind as well as his body. The door slowly opened and Buck's mustached face peered inside. Nathan shook his head, and put a finger to his lips as he quietly approached the door. He slipped out after one last look at the sleeping figure; sleep that gave the illusion of peace.

****Part 6

Buck silently followed Nathan down the stairs. He could tell just by the healer's heavy footfalls and his morose silence that this would not be good news. Everyone was waiting downstairs.

Nathan flopped down in a chair across from Chris. The others silently crowded around the two men. Josiah placed a bottle of whiskey in the center of the table, having a feeling that it was going to be needed.

"He can't feel his legs," Nathan sadly announced, being the first to grab the whiskey bottle and fill a shot glass that had somehow appeared in front of him. He had been up all night watching over Ezra, and his lack of sleep was starting to affect him.

"Ah hell," Buck swore as he straddled a chair backwards, laying his hands on the back of the chair.

Chris stared at the whiskey bottle, but didn't reach for it. Alcohol wouldn't help right now, maybe later, but not now. He had to think.

"What can we do?" Chris asked the forlorn healer, whose eyes were blood-shot and heavy.

Jackson leaned back in his chair and gazed at the five men who surrounded him. How could he explain to them that Ezra's life could be changed forever? He was not a doctor. He had seen men shot in the back during the war, some got feeling back fairly quick. Others were sent home, and he never heard what happened to them, and some died of sickness, or by their own hand. "Nothing, right now. There's always the possibility it might not be permanent," Nathan finally answered. "We'll just have to wait and see."

Nathan gave the others a moment to try and comprehend how Ezra would feel; although, he doubted anyone could actually do that. Even he had trouble trying to comprehend what a person, who had lost the use of his legs might be going through. "I saw this in the war," Nathan started; keeping his voice low, hoping any emotion wouldn't suddenly choke off the flow of words. "He's going to go through denial, fear, despair, and then hopefully acceptance."

"Ezra, scared?" JD asked, the disbelief in his voice causing slight chuckles. They all knew Ezra, and even themselves had been scared many times in their lives, but the cultured conman could hide his emotions behind a glib fa├žade and smart-ass remarks.

Nathan smiled over at the young gunslinger. "Yeah, think about it. Ezra is as independent as they come, now he's going to have to depend on someone else. It's going to be hard for him to come to terms with that." Nathan paused for moment trying to decide if he should utter his next thought. He raised his head and glanced at each one of his friends with a sorrowful gaze. "You have to know, some never get through the despair."

The five lawmen mulled this over and realized what Nathan was implying. Ezra had lived his whole life taking care of himself, never allowing anyone to get to close or become attached. How would this effect the self-reliant conman? None of the six men had an answer. It had been only recently that Ezra had allowed the six gunslingers, he worked with, some insight into the real Ezra Standish. He had showed them all that he cared for them and would lay down his life for them, as they would for him.

Chris raised his eyes, which glistened like shards of blue ice. "The first thing we can do for him is find out who shot him." Everyone nodded in agreement.

*****Part 7

Ezra's mind tried to retreat from the awful reality, but even in sleep the horror of truth would not be denied. He saw himself sitting outside the saloon as usual only when he tried to stand he fell to the ground. His legs lay sprawled out, refusing to obey his commands. He lay in the dust people walking right past him, not seeing him. Laughter caused him to turn his head. There stood his six friends and several town's folk all pointing and laughing. He clenched his jaw to halt the impending tears that welled up in his eyes.

Ezra watched as the six lawmen turned and walked away, leaving him lying in the dust. Left to fend for himself once again, but this time he was unable.

Standish started to toss and turn in bed, caught in the throes of his nightmare that kept replaying itself in his mind, every time the laughter and loneliness threatened to tear away at his sanity.

Nathan and Chris had just stepped up to the door when Ezra's scream threw Chris into action. Drawing his gun he flung open the door. Nathan rushed past Chris and grabbed Ezra by the shoulders.

"Ezra, wake up it's only a dream!" he yelled.

Ezra's eyes snapped opened, and he grabbed hold of Nathan's arms. His breaths came out in ragged pants as he tried to calm his pounding heart. He thought he could actually feel his blood rushing throughout his body, feeding on the remnants of his fear-driven nightmare.

"Easy, take slow deep breaths."

Ezra closed his eyes and did as he was told. Slowly he released his grip on Nathan and settled back down on the bed.

"I do apologize, Mr. Jackson."

Nathan smiled.

"Nuthin' to be sorry 'bout."

Ezra opened his eyes and saw Chris standing at the end of the bed. "Mr. Larabee?"

"Want to ask you something?" Chris moved up alongside the bed, figuring to jump right to his question to help alleviate some of the awkwardness of the whole situation.

"By all means, ask away."

"Do you have any idea who might have shot you?"

Ezra stared back at the darkly dressed man, a man he had come to greatly respect and admire. He knew that he tested Larabee's patience to the point of madness, but he believed that the stalwart gunslinger also harbored a measure of respect for him. What did Chris think of him now, with him being only half a man? Did he still hold some measure of respect or had it now turned into pity?

"I regret to say that I don't have the slightest inkling who would want to shoot me in the back."

Chris cocked an eyebrow and stared skeptically down at his rogue lawman. Ezra understood the disbelief on Larabee's face. Like the dark-clad gunslinger, Ezra had accumulated his fair-share of enemies. "I realize there are probably many who would like to see me dead," Ezra continued. "but none that I believe would resort to shooting me in the back. Gamblers may be an unscrupulous lot, but we do have certain ethics that we abide too. And any miscreant who would lower himself to such a craven level I have already dispensed."

Chris smiled slightly, the arrogance was still present in the gambler's voice, but apprehension lingered in his green eyes. How long would that conceit last under the harsh reality? Chris tipped his hat and strode out. If Ezra wasn't shot because of gambling, then he might have been shot for being a lawman, and if so, the others could also be in danger. Chris made a note to have someone guard Ezra's room at all times.

*****Part 8

The next morning gave promise to a beautiful day, but for six gunslingers, it might as well of been cloud covered and dreary. Nothing could brighten the dark mood that had fallen over the six friends, who were growing increasingly frustrated at being unable to find out who had shot one of their own.

As Chris strode across the street towards the jail he surreptitiously watched as several couples made their way towards the church to attend Sunday Mass. He knew Josiah would be asking everyone to pray for Ezra; some would of course, but others would be praying that he burns in hell-- such is the lot of a conman and gambler. Chris stepped into the jailhouse, seeing Buck and JD immersed in some trivial discussion about rifles and guns. "You guys find out anything?" Chris broke in.

"Sorry, Chris, there's been no strangers in town for the past week. The stage hadn't even arrived by then," Buck exclaimed. He sat on the corner of JD's desk, thoroughly discouraged.

"Yeah, we talked to everyone in town, twice, no one saw a thing," JD added.

Larabee started pacing the small room. "Vin, went out and checked the surrounding areas. He didn't find anything either," Chris absently added. They weren't getting anywhere. Chris suddenly stopped and slammed his hands against the bars of the jail. How could a shooter just vanish in thin air?

As Chris and the others tried to discover who had shot him, Ezra lay in bed thinking about every person he had ever maligned, conned or in some way pissed-off. He stopped counting after the list had grown to absurd proportions, and no one name stuck out. He couldn't think of any one person who would have done this.

Ezra kept his mind working on who might of shot him and why, pushing aside the unpleasant thoughts of never walking again. Ezra was aware that one of his friends was always guarding his door, and this only caused him more anxiety. What if the shooter came back to finish the job? He was nearly helpless, and if one of the others got in the way and was killed he would never be able to forgive himself.

****Part 9

Billy Travis walked slowly up the alleyway, searching the dust for the marbles he had lost. He stopped when he reached the mouth of the alley and looked out onto the busy street. Tears welled up in his brown eyes as he stared at the spot where Ezra had fallen. He knew Ezra was alive, but that was all anyone was saying. His stomach hurt so bad, he'd hardly eaten. Everything felt like a dream, and he thought that if he tried real hard he could convince himself that it never happened.

Billy felt someone grab him up by the collar, and throw him against the building. He stared up into the face of Caleb McCain.

"Wondering where you been hidin'?" Caleb sneered.

"Ain't been hiding," Billy replied, trying to keep the anger out of his voice. He hadn't been able to face anyone and had remained aloof even from his mother, who he knew was growing concerned about his behavior.

"Yeah, well you listen up, you don't say a word 'bout nuthin', you hear me?" Caleb stabbed Billy in the chest, stressing each word. "I put my pa's gun back in the desk, and he's not even aware it was ever missin' and I tend to keep it that way." Caleb hid it well, but he was afraid and not of Larabee or the other gunslingers; he was scared of his father.

Billy's brow furrowed. How could Caleb live with this? How could he? "I don't know Caleb. I mean, it was an accident, maybe if we told
someone..."

Caleb pulled Billy forward then slammed him hard against the building, hurting young Travis' back and forcing his head to connect with the wood slats of the building.

"We don't tell no one! If my pa ever found out I touched his gun he'd have my hide." Caleb's face grew threatening; he was only a couple years older than Billy, but at that moment he looked twice his age and twice as dangerous. A malicious grin crept across Caleb's face, only adding to his deadly demeanor. "What do ya think your friend Larabee, and the others would think, huh?"

Billy's eyes widen. "It was an accident," he stammered.

"Yeah, right, maybe they'll believe that. But even so, if Mr. Standish dies how could they forgive that, huh?"

Caleb released his hold on Billy's shirt. "You think Larabee would still take you fishin' or want anythin' to do with your ma, knowin' you killed one of his men?"

Billy's heart raced and the panic showed in his eyes. He felt trapped.

Caleb threw a brotherly arm over Billy's shoulders. "We stick together on this and they'll never know. Heck, they're all runnin' 'round like chickens with their heads cut off looking for some outlaw, so we're in the clear." Caleb laughed and patted Billy on the back as he walked out of the alleyway.

Billy just stood and watched him go, unable to move. Could he keep this a secret forever? He looked down at his hands, still feeling the gun and hearing the shot. Billy slowly sank to the ground, wrapping his arms around his knees and burying his head. His shoulders shuddered with his sobs.

*****Part 10

Ezra had been compliant for the past week, not complaining or putting up any kind of fuss when Nathan came in to check and clean his wound. He would close his eyes when Josiah came in and lifted him from the bed, placing him in a chair that Nathan had made a hole in and placed a bed pan underneath, so he could relieve himself. He was grateful that at least he could tell when he had a full bladder. He already believed that urination was the only use he'd ever get out of that part of his anatomy ever again. His legs were massaged every day. Nathan said it helped to keep the muscles in condition just in case he was ever to walk again, but as the days slowly passed it was getting harder and harder for Ezra to hold on to the hope that he would walk again. Looking at the suave southerner's placid features no one would suspect the fear that raged through him, unless they chanced a glance into his intense emerald eyes, there he couldn't hide the dismay he felt.

On the rare occasion that Ezra was left alone he would stare morosely up from his feather bed. A bed that he once relished for the small comfort it brought him in the uncivilized atmosphere he was forced to endure, now, was a prison from which there was no escape. Ezra knew his life as a gambler could continue, although his conman days were over; he could never outrun an angry mob. What really bothered him was how the life he had come to love in Four Corners, in particular the six men that he worked with, would change. He no longer felt a part of them and how could he be? A peace officer had to be whole because the outlaws usually were.

Ezra propped himself up on his elbows and reached down, throwing back the coverlet from his traitorous limbs.

Okay, Ezra Standish, get your lazy ass out of this bed. You've laid around long enough. Ezra smiled, hearing his mother's berating influence in his head. Sweat beaded up on his brow as he struggled to swing his useless legs over the bed. He had to prove to everyone that he was going to be okay...not helpless. I can do this. I can walk...I mean...anyone can walk. He looked down to see his feet resting on the floor, shaking away the thought that he should feel the wood underneath. Ezra took two deep breaths and just as the door to his room opened he pushed himself up.

Nathan and Buck entered in time to see Ezra crashing to the floor. The two men raced to his side.

"Ezra, what the hell do you think you're doing?" Nathan yelled, trying to turn the gambler over. Ezra lay on his side, panting through clenched teeth, eyes shut tight.

"Leave me alone," Ezra spat out.

Buck and Nathan regarded each other with worried frowns. "C'mon, pard, let's git you off the floor," Buck said, placing a hand on Ezra's shoulder.

Ezra shrugged Buck's helping hand away. "I said, get a way from me!"

Nathan could feel Ezra trembling under his hand and knew he was about to lose all control. He grabbed Buck's arm. "Buck, c'mon let's give him some time." The two men stood. "I'll be back in a while, Ez," Nathan said.

Standish nodded his head, and then listened as his friends left the room. As soon as the door closed massive sobs racked his body. He curled himself up into a ball, using his hands to pull up his legs. Ezra Standish, a proud and self-reliant bastard, cried until there was nothing left.

****Part 11

Mary Travis looked up from her work on the printing press to see Chris standing on the other side of the counter, patiently waiting for her to notice him. She quickly pushed a loose strand of hair back in place and wiped her ink-stained hands on her apron.

"Chris, hope you haven't been waiting long."

"No, I like to watch you work anyway," he admitted.

Mary smiled, which lit up her whole face. The smile fell as Billy stomped into the Newspaper office and walked right by without saying a word to anyone.

Mary's worried gaze followed her son until he disappeared from sight behind a divider. Billy had been sullen and unresponsive for the past week. She had tried to talk to him, but he had refused to be drawn out, and then had become combative as she tried to push him into talking. Billy had actually run out of the house during dinner last night. Mary had always believed that they had a very good relationship and could tell each other anything. Right now she felt as if she was losing her only son right before her eyes. Mary returned her attention to Chris, who was staring at her, concern written on his rugged face.

"I'm sorry, what can I do for you?" She smiled, even though the smile wasn't as bright as it was before.

Chris pulled a piece of paper from his shirt pocket and handed it to the newswoman. "I'd like you to post this in your paper. It's asking if anyone has information about the shooting to please come forward. We're even offering a small reward."

"Sure, you're just in time I'm just getting ready to print out the next issue." Mary looked up at Chris, seeing the weariness etched around his eyes. The burden of leadership was weighing heavy on him. "No luck?"

"No, and we're running out of options."

"How is Ezra doing?" Mary asked.

Chris thought a moment, wondering if he should tell her. They had been keeping Ezra's infliction quiet, knowing he couldn't tolerate the pity of a whole town. But it was more than that, they were all afraid to say, as if by saying the words what they feared most would come true.

"He's paralyzed, can't feel his legs."

A crash from the back room sent Mary and Chris running to see what happened. They found Billy kneeling down among scattered letters of type. Billy kept his head down as he picked up the letters. When he heard Chris tell his mom that Ezra couldn't feel his legs his whole body had gone numb and the tray had slipped from his fingers.

"What happened?" Mary asked.

"Sorry, it just slipped," Billy murmured without raising his head.

Chris stepped forward and squatted down, laying a hand on Billy's shoulders. He could feel the tension bunched in those small muscles, like a coil spring ready to be released. "Here, son, let me help ya."

Billy's head snapped up, and his dark eyes glared with such intensity that Chris froze. "I'm not your son!" he retorted back hotly.

"Billy!" Mary admonished. "You apologize to Mr. Larabee."

"It's alright, Mary."

"Leave me alone. Everyone just leave me alone!" Billy yelled as he scrambled to his feet and raced out the back door, leaving Chris and Mary bewildered in his wake.

Mary knelt down to help Chris pick up the letters. "I'm sorry Chris, I don't know what's gotten in to him lately."

Chris gathered up the remaining letters and stood, giving Mary a hand up and handing her the tray. "Maybe it's just growing pains," he exclaimed, staring at the open door that Billy had raced out of.

"I don't know. He actually told me last night that he wanted to move back to his grandfather's," Mary sadly admitted.

Chris' brow furrowed, and he scratched at the side of his face. "Him and Ezra were friends. Maybe this is affecting him more than we thought."

Mary brightened slightly, willing to grasp any explanation for her son's rash behavior. "Maybe you could have a talk with him later. You know man-to-man."

Chris smiled. "Sure."

****Part 12

The sunny day seemed to mock the tragedy that was unfolding in the quiet frontier town. Chris stopped outside the saloon and allowed his gaze to travel up to the window of the second floor to a room that was fast becoming Ezra's prison. It had been close to two weeks, and they were no closer to finding out who shot Ezra. Chris continued inside to find his five other lawmen having an early lunch, before it opened its doors to other patrons.

As was becoming routine Chris sat down across from Jackson. "How's he doin, Nate?" Chris asked.

"Not good. He's hiding it, but I think he's fighting depression."

Nathan pushed his plate aside. Chris noticed the healer hadn't done more than push the food on the plate around. He knew this was frustrating for the ex-medic. There was nothing anyone could do.

"I sent a telegram to Maude, telling her the situation," Chris abruptly said.

"You think that was a good idea?" Buck asked. He was none to fond of Ezra's mother. The woman had already shown that she cared little for her son beyond his capability to carry out a con. She never hid the fact that she was not the motherly type, something that had grievous consequences on Ezra's upbringing.

"She deserves to know," Chris replied.

"Ezra's not talking much anymore," Nathan added. "He's losing hope."

JD bowed his head. He couldn't imagine what it would be like to lose the use of your legs. What would a person do? Of course Ezra could still gamble, well as long as he didn't cheat and people didn't take advantage of him because he was crippled. How could he protect himself?

Buck looked over at JD's somber face and opened his mouth to say something, then closed it, realizing there was nothing really to say.

Josiah bowed his head, and Chris knew the big man was about to speak. "Maybe, we should look into a hospital for him. We don't know how to take care of him." Josiah didn't raise his eyes, didn't want to see the possible hatred that would be directed at him.

JD stood up so abruptly that his chair tipped over. "NO!"

Everyone stared at the suddenly enraged gunslinger, but JD didn't seem to care.

"I know what those institutions are like, people are no better than guinea pigs and no one really cares. They'll just lock him up somewhere and he'll be forgotten." Even JD was surprised at the vehemence in his voice.

Wilmington was the first to break from his swirling thoughts. "JD's right. Ezra has to know we'll be here for him." Buck frowned as he noticed the uncertain looks in everyone's eyes. "What! He's part of us. We have an obligation to be there for him."

"You're askin' a lot, pard," Vin replied, his eyes not diverting from Buck's accusing glare.

"So what if I am?" Buck growled, moving menacingly towards the tracker, who stood his ground.

Vin was ashamed of his thoughts, but he had his own set of problems. He still had to find some way to prove he was innocent of murder. He hadn't planned on staying in Four Corners forever. The thought of hanging from a noose seemed to make Ezra's problem insignificant.

Josiah slipped in between the two men, cutting off any physical altercation. "Now, brother Buck, Vin is right. It is asking a lot for someone to possibly give up their dreams for someone else."

JD shifted uncomfortably behind Nathan his hands shoved deep into the pockets of his coat, suddenly wondering what this could do to his chances of ever joining the Texas Rangers. He knew he didn't want Ezra sent to any hospital, but none of them had planned on spending the rest of their lives here.

Some of the anger diminished from Buck's stance. He had dreams too. He looked down at Chris, who sat silently at the table his fingers templed in front of his face. Buck also hoped that one day Chris would find the life he had lost so long ago.

"Anyway we don't know that he'll never walk again," Buck voiced.

"It's been two weeks," Vin reminded.

Everyone looked to Nathan who bowed his head. "The longer he goes without walking the less likely he'll be to gain use of his legs," Nathan explained. Everyone grew silent, not wanting to believe that Ezra might never ride with them again.

"Listen, we don't have to make any kind of decision right now," Josiah's voice of reason helped to calm fraying nerves. "Let's just take it day by day." Everyone nodded in agreement, but one thought was already planted in the six gunslingers' minds. What if Ezra never walked again?

"So, what can we do for Ezra?" Vin asked, trying to make amends for coming across so unfeeling before.

"We need to show him he can still be useful," Nathan answered.

"Lord, how do we do that?" Buck asked.

"I don't know yet, but I'll think of somethin," Nathan answered.

**** Part 13

"What is going on? I demand you put me down!" Ezra snarled as Josiah carried him down the back stairs and into a first floor room. Josiah knew this was embarrassing for the gambler, but it had to be done. "Is this the way you all help, by humiliating me into submission!" Josiah winced at the rebuff.

"This is your new room, Ezra," Nathan explained. "It'll be easier for you to get around."

Ezra guffawed. "Sir, you are not amusing. How will it be easier for me to get around?" Josiah placed Ezra down on the bed.

Then Ezra saw it. In the corner of the room sat a wooden high-back chair with two large oversized wheels attached to the sides. The seat was made of cane and the whole chair was painted black. Ezra's face fell.

"Ezra it's a..." Nathan began.

"I know what the hell it is, now get that portable monstrosity out of my sight!" Anger colored the southerner's face, and Josiah advanced towards the chair prepared to remove it.

"Wait, Josiah," Nathan said and turned to Ezra. "The chair stays."

Ezra glared daggers of hatred at the dark healer, and Nathan hoped that this would not fracture their fragile friendship. It had taken them the longest of the seven to find common ground and finally call each other friend.

Nathan motioned for Josiah and the two men left the room. Ezra stared at the wheelchair and the chair seemed to stare right back at him, showing him his future. Ezra's hand trembled as he wiped his face. He was finding it harder and harder to keep his composure. His life had been turned upside down, and he now believed it would never be right again.

In the hallway outside Ezra's room, Josiah grabbed Nathan's arm. "Why'd you leave that in there you could see what it did to him?"

Nathan had to stand up for what he believed was in Ezra's best interest. "He has to face the facts if he's ever to have a normal life."

The ex-preacher's face screwed up in confusion. "Normal life?"

"Yes, I believe he can if he is led to believe he's still a valuable member of this town and team."

Josiah bowed his head, knowing his friend was right. Ezra still had enough arrogance and pride in him to survive; they all had seen it. But every day it was being chipped away by his reality. When Josiah looked at Ezra he just wanted to protect the younger man, but by protecting him he was sentencing him to a life of dependence and pity. What Nathan was trying to do would force him to stand on his own, so to speak.

"Where'd you get the chair?" Josiah asked.

"I built it. Wanted something that he could control so he wouldn't have to rely on someone else pushing 'im around all the time," Nathan explained.

Josiah looked at his friend with newfound admiration. "Well, let's just hope all your hard work doesn't go to waste."

****Part 14

Vin watched from his spot outside the jail as the young Travis boy strode down the street, keeping his head down, and his hands shoved deep in his pockets. He had hardly seen the boy in weeks. Vin continued to watch as Chris intercepted the boy, only to be rebuked. The tracker felt the bag of marbles that still lay in his pocket and a small tingle of dread clutched at his gut.

Chris stood in the middle of the street for a moment, watching as Billy entered the newspaper office. Billy had refused to talk to him. Chris saw the anger in his face, but his eyes held a sadness that seemed to drain the very soul from the boy. Chris didn't know what was going on, but he planned on finding out.

"Got a telegram for ya," Vin said as Chris stepped up to the jail. Chris took the piece of paper and quickly read it.

"Damn, it's from Maude."

"What she want?" Vin could tell by Chris' tone that it wasn't good news. Anything concerning Maude was usually a mixture of apprehension, curiosity and out and out turmoil.

"Get everyone together at the saloon. They all need to hear this," Chris explained.

Minutes later the six men had assembled in the saloon. "Okay, I just got a letter from Maude," Chris said, quieting the banter that was going on between his men.

"Yeah, what does the witch want?" Buck slurred, throwing back the last of his beer.

"She wants Ezra."

"What do you mean?" Nathan asked, getting a very bad feeling.

"She's coming in on the stage at the end of the week. Says she's taking Ezra to a hospital in Denver for proper care," Chris explained.

Everyone was silent for a moment then Buck, Nathan and JD were on their feet talking at the same time.

"You can't let her, Chris," Buck voiced.

"You know what she has planned, some institution where they'll just lock him away so she won't have to worry 'bout being bothered," Nathan almost yelled. What they all feared was coming true.

"God, Chris, we can't let her take 'im," JD added.

"I know," Chris admitted.

Josiah leaned forward in his chair and clasped his huge hands together on the table. "Brothers, it appears to me we have to make that decision sooner than we thought." He raised sad eyes and gazed at each and every one of them. "Do we stick by Ezra, maybe for the rest of his life, or do we give him to Maude and leave him to his fate?"

The silence seemed to last forever. "Ah, being Sheriff is way better than any Texas Ranger. They wouldn't let me wear my hat anyway, " JD answered, throwing a lopsided grin on his face.

"Hell, I can't leave the kid alone; he'd git killed and probably because he's wearing that stupid hat," Buck piped in, earning him a good-natured glare from his young friend. Josiah smiled and turned his attention to the others.

Vin sat back, leaning his chair back on two legs and chewing on a piece of grass. "Well, hell, as soon as I clear my name I guess I'll be needing a place to settle."

"You know me Josiah, I have to make sure them crows don't git you, since I know it'll be taken you forever and a day to finish that church," Nathan broke in.

Josiah's gray-blue eyes then came to rest on Chris, who returned the gaze with a half smile. "Been meanin' to enlarge that cabin of mine anyway."

Josiah's smile grew; they had come through for him and for Ezra.

"So, what are we going to do about Maude?" JD broke in.

Josiah's smile twisted slightly. "You leave Maude to me."

**** Part 15

A soft knock on the door failed to break Ezra from his despondent reverie. His eyes were glued to a spot on the ceiling, but his mind was miles away. He had fallen into that well of despair and was allowing himself to just float in the hopelessness that had a grip on him.

Buck, Josiah, and JD quietly opened the door expecting to see Ezra asleep. Upon seeing that the conman was awake in bed the threesome entered.

"Hey, Ez, how 'bout a little game of cards?" Buck cheerfully asked, waving a brand new deck in his hand.

Standish glared silently at the boisterous cowboy. Wilmington was generally a very animated individual, but Ezra could tell his spirited presence now was just an act. Ezra also noticed that JD appeared apprehensive and held back. They all were uncomfortable around him, not
knowing what to say. He even noticed how they all tried to avoid looking at the wheel chair that still sat in the corner of the room.

"C'mon Ez, you don't need your legs to gamble," Buck said, hoping to get some kind of response even a smart-ass one.

Ezra raised his eyebrows. "I don't need you telling me what I can and cannot do, Mr. Wilmington."

"Ezra, you don't have to worry 'bout nothing anymore," JD suddenly said, coming forward.

"Whatever do you mean, Mr. Dunne?" Ezra tiredly asked.

"We're all staying," he answered. JD thought telling Ezra that they had
all decided to stay would make him feel better. He wouldn't have to worry about being left behind unprotected. What the young gunslinger didn't realize was that this was the last thing that Ezra would want.

Buck and Josiah stared at JD then looked over at Ezra not sure what to expect. "We all talked it over, and we'll be here to take care of you for as long as you need," JD continued.

Realization settled in on what JD was saying. "Nooo," Ezra quietly voiced, the sadness of that single word was so crushing that Buck and Josiah turned to each other in regret.

JD's smile fell as he noticed the expression on Ezra's face. He turned to Buck and Josiah as if asking for advice.

"Brother, Ezra, what JD means is that someone will be here to help is all," Josiah added, hoping to put a better light on what JD had said. The ex-preacher had noticed the sudden change in Ezra's demeanor at JD's
announcement. The look in the southerner's face reminded Josiah of a sailboat that had lost the power of the wind; left adrift and alone, with no power to direct its own course.

"Please, leave," Ezra quietly asked. This was it; he was truly an invalid, a cripple, even in their eyes.

"Ezra, we only want to help," Buck implored.

Ezra's drawl thickened as emotion filled his words, which came out somewhat shaky. "Help? Do you want to put me in bed every night, and get me out every morning? Help be to the bathroom and clean my ass when I don't make it in time?" Ezra allowed his anger to grow. "I am not a child! I am perfectly capable of taking care of myself. Now if you gentlemen don't mind I find myself growing tired." Ezra closed his eyes in dismissal.

Josiah took hold of Buck and JD's arms and started to force them out.
"I think we've done enough. Let's go." The three men left the room, leaving Ezra adrift and alone.

****Part 16

"You two are doing a wonderful job," Mary praised the two, dirt-covered men. Chris stopped from his labors and used a rag to wipe the beads of perspiration from his brow. Mary felt her face grow flush as she took notice of Chris' sweat-glistening shoulders and bare chest. "I brought you some water," she stammered slightly, quickly diverting her eyes.

"Why, ma'am you are an angel," Josiah said, putting down his hammer and lifting the ladle of water to his lips.

Chris stepped up to stand next to the blonde newswoman and scrutinized his and Josiah's handiwork. The two men had been working for over a day building ramps to reach every boardwalk in town.

"This is a very good thing you're doing," Mary uttered.

Josiah sat down on the steps and wiped at his face. "Yeah, if we ever get Ezra to use it."

"He'll come around, Josiah. He just needs time," Mary assured, trying to sound confident.

The stage suddenly roared into town, kicking up the dust as it came to a stop in front of the post office. Chris stared at the stagecoach then looked down at Josiah, whose hand was pulling down on his chin. They both knew who was on that stage.

Josiah stood. "If you all will excuse me, there's somethin' I have to take care of." Chris couldn't stop the smirk from coming to his face and Mary cocked her head at him, wondering what the two men were up to.

Josiah drew up to the stagecoach and leaned his massive form against the door.

"Why Mr. Sanchez, what a pleasure to have you meet me," the genteel southern drawl floated out of the stage, and then Maude's head stuck out.

"Maude, always a pleasure to see your sweet smilin' face."

Maude pushed on the door slightly, bewildered when Josiah didn't move.

"Ah, Josiah, I would like to depart the confines of this stuffy and most uncomfortable transport."

"Sorry, Maude, you're not staying," Josiah calmly replied.

Maude's eyes narrowed. "What are you talking about? Release this door at once."

Josiah pursed his lips a moment. "Can't do that." He then shouted up to the driver. "Hey, Hank, when's your next stop?"

The driver looked over the side at Josiah. "Rocky Flats."

"That'll work," Josiah murmured, turning his attention back to Maude who's face was growing red from exertion as she tried to force open the door. "He's part of our family now. We'll take care of him."

Maude ceased her efforts and stared incredulously at the ex-preacher turned gunslinger "For the rest of his life?"

"If need be."

This was said so confidently that for a moment Maude was taken aback. She was truly surprised that these men would put aside their own lives for her son.

"This is outrageous! Ezra is my son. I should be the one to take care of him." Maude knew of a hospital in St. Louis that supposedly did research on just this sort of thing. The hospital took care of their every need. Each patient was remanded to a two-man room that was nothing more than a dressed up cell.

"He's a grown man, Maude."

"Right, so let me out of this stage, and he can make his own decision."

Sanchez bowed his head. "Come back in a month or so when he's strong enough to hold his own against you. Right now it wouldn't be a fair fight."

Josiah raised his head and found himself peering into the small barrel of Maude's derringer. He had to admire the woman's tenacity.

Josiah stepped away from the stage and allowed the elderly conwoman to exit. She smiled at Josiah, but the deadly glare remained in her eyes as the gun remained in her hand. Josiah watched as Maude swept across the street towards the saloon.

Josiah looked up at Hank, who was trying to stifle a grin. "Hang 'round a moment, Hank," Josiah asked.

***** Part 17

Chris blocked Maude's entrance into the saloon. Maude eyed the bare-chested gunslinger, her first thought, 'If I was just twenty years younger,' she quickly pushed the lascivious thoughts aside and got down to the business at hand.

"Mr. Larabee, please don't force me to apply the same primitive tactics I was forced to use on Mr. Sanchez. I will see my son."

Short of bodily removing the older woman and throwing her into the stage there wasn't much Chris could do. He stepped aside and Maude nodded in appreciation and continued on into the saloon. Josiah came up alongside Chris.

"You think Ezra's up to this?" Chris asked.

Josiah chuckled slightly. "No one is ever prepared for that woman."

Maude entered the first floor room where her son now resided, appalled at the crude furnishings he was being forced to endure.

"It's good to see you keeping up on your god-given talents." Ezra raised his head at his mother's entrance; he had been dexterously shuffling a deck of cards with one hand.

Ezra rolled his eyes and continued his exercise. "Hello, mother," he wearily replied. "And what brings you to our quaint little community?"

Maude's hand pressed against her chest. "Why Ezra, as soon as I heard of your unfortunate mishap I hurried here as fast as I could."

Ezra guffawed and shook his head. "Mother, it's been almost three weeks since I was shot."

Maude flustered slightly. "Well, I was in the middle of a rather delicate business transaction. I'm sure you wouldn't have wanted me to of just dropped everything?"

"Of course not," Ezra muttered, he had noticed that Maude refused to look at the specially made chair that sat in the corner of his room.

Maude came up alongside the bed and began fluffing the pillows behind his head. "Now, I've found a hospital that will cater to your every need."

Ezra stared up at his mother his eyes narrowing with suspicion. "I'm not leaving, at least not yet," he replied.

"Ezra, be reasonable. What can these people give you? You are nothing but a burden to them now."

This stung more than Ezra showed, especially since the same thoughts had gone through his own head. "I'm not ready to be closeted away quite yet."

"Ezra! How could you even think such things? This is a very reputable hospital. Only the most affluent and best people go here. It required me to call in numerous favors and pull one of my best cons to get you in," Maude proudly explained.

Ezra smirked slightly. "And I presume I will be expected to put my god-given talents to use on the inmates of this fine establishment."

Maude's features darkened slightly. "Why of course, you'll need to find some way to finance your stay and remain sharp," she replied, ignoring her son's obvious sarcasm. "This place ain't free."

Ezra exhaled an audible breath. Even when in his most dire need, his mother still threw the burden of his care to someone else. "If the time comes where it's necessary that I be placed in such an institution, I will see to it myself."

I don't understand you," Maude angrily replied. "I bent over backwards to get you into this sanatorium. They don't generally take people like us." Maude pulled a handkerchief from her sleeve and dabbed at her eyes.

"Please mother, it's my legs that don't work, my brain is still functional."

Maude sniffed and shoved the handkerchief back into her sleeve. "I'm going to continue on to Tucson on business. When I return I hope you regain some sense and return with me to St Louis." Maude bent down and gave Ezra a perfunctory kiss on the cheek then left.

Maude stopped and stood in front of the worried gazes of Chris and Josiah. "Mr. Sanchez, would it be too much to ask that my son be granted some measure of comfort?"

"No, we'll bring down his things," Josiah replied. He knew this was Maude's way of asking that they take care of her son.

"Thank you." Without another word the elegant conwoman headed back to the stage.

*****Part 18

"Get out!"

Nathan backed out of the room, ducking away from the plate of food that followed him out the door. "Damnit, Ezra you have to eat," he shouted back into the room. Ezra only glared from his position in bed, his arms folded over his chest in childlike defiance. They had brought down his things including his feathered bed of which he was grateful. It still felt like a prison, but at least it was a better-furnished prison.

"No, I don't, Mr. Jackson, and if you would give me your gun I'd end this madness even sooner." Ezra couldn't control the anger that at times plagued him. He didn't really want to end his life, but sometimes he grew so frustrated it was all he could do to hold on to his sanity. His mother's visit had not helped. He started thinking that maybe she was right, and that maybe he should go to St. Louis. At least then he wouldn't be a burden to anyone. He could forget the world and the world could forget him.

Nathan was struck dumb. He had no idea that Ezra had had thoughts of ending his life. He closed the door and walked out into the bar where Chris and Buck sat having overheard everything.

Nathan fell heavily into a chair, dropping his face into his open palms. He didn't know what else he could do for the obstinate southerner.

Chris looked at his friend, anger burning in his blue gaze. Nathan had gone out of his way to help Ezra every way he could, and what did Ezra do but throw it back into his face. "Is he well enough to take me?"

Nathan lifted his face from his hands and scrunched his brow in confusion, not realizing at first what Chris was asking, then nodded. "Yeah, physically he's okay."

"Hiram, another plate of food," Chris called out to the bartender.

After a few moments another plate of eggs and bacon appeared on the counter and Chris stood, picked up the plate and headed to Ezra's room.

Nathan looked at Buck who wore an obnoxiously gleeful smile. Ezra had been making life miserable for everyone. He grumbled every time anyone came in with food or to give him a massage. His southern genteel and good humor was definitely lacking these days.

"What'cha grinnin' 'bout?" Nathan asked.

"If anyone can straighten Ezra out, Chris can," Buck replied.

Larabee didn't even bother to knock, forcing his six-foot frame into the room and dropping the plate of food on the table next to the bed. He then took a couple steps back and crossed his arms.

Ezra glared at the dark-clad leader, wondering what he was up to. He then stared down at the food and back at Chris, a devilish smile appearing on his face. He always wondered what would happen if he pushed Larabee far enough. Now he could find out, having nothing lose.

Chris could almost see the wheels in Ezra's mind working. "You throw that at me, and I'll personally pick it up off the floor and shove it down your throat," Chris growled, his stance and glaring features stressing the truth of his words.

Ezra threw up his chin. "I don't need this."

"What?"

"I don't want anyone taking care of me," Ezra replied, but his tone lacked his usual confidence.

"Really?" Chris raised a skeptical eyebrow. "Well, "I'm going to stand here until you eat, and if you want to continue acting like a spoiled brat, I'll have Josiah an Buck come in here and we'll force feed you." It was hard for Chris to maintain this callous attitude. He knew Ezra was hurting inside, and he was hurting for him, but this act of defiance wasn't doing anyone any good.

Ezra sunk back into his pillows, trying to harden his resolve, which was wavering slightly under the older lawman's scrutiny.

"I don't want to live like this. You don't know what it's like, the looks of pity the 'oh that poor man' said behind my back. I can't stand it."

Chris bowed his head. "You're right, I don't have any idea what you're going through. But I do know there are people who care about you. You are still a man, Ezra, and you can still be a useful member of this team."

Ezra had to hold back a laugh. "You'll have to forgive me Mr. Larabee, for my amusement over the absurdity of that statement."

"Don't you dare run out on me," Chris growled the threat he had used when Ezra had run out on them the first time.

"I couldn't even if I wanted to," Ezra replied. "It's a one in a million chance that I'll ever walk again."

"That's still a chance," Chris countered.

Ezra stared back at Chris Larabee, a man who was larger than life to some people, but Ezra knew the real man behind the legendary gunslinger. This was a man plagued by demons that would of destroyed lesser men. If this man believed in him, maybe he should start believing in himself once again. Ezra slowly picked up his fork and started eating the eggs.

****Part 19

Sanchez entered the darkened church, ready to call it a night. He had just finished massaging Ezra's legs. He had carried most of the conversation, as Ezra had appeared lost in his own thoughts, of which Josiah was sure Chris played a part in. He had heard that the two men had talked for a couple hours earlier that evening. Josiah put his hands in the center of his back and stretched, hearing his spine pop and crack. He released a tired breath and continued down the aisle of the church. He stopped at the third row of pews when he noticed a dark form sitting in the front row.

He smiled faintly as he recognized the small form as Billy Travis. "What can I do for you, son?" Josiah's smile dropped from his face, as he grew closer to the boy. Sanchez knelt down in front of the young boy and put a huge hand under Billy's chin, forcing his face up. The lantern that sat on the altar threw out enough light to reveal the redness of the boy's face and the pain in his eyes.

"CHRIS! CHRIS! He's gone!" Mary came screaming into the saloon, running into Chris' opened arms.

"What? Who's gone?"

"Billy, I went into his room to kiss him good night, and he was gone." Tears streamed down Mary's pale face. "Something's wrong I just know it."

Larabee turned around to see Buck, JD and Vin at his side. "Let's go." Chris gently led Mary to a nearby chair and eased her down. "We'll find him, Mary, don't worry," he assured.

The four gunslingers headed towards the stables.

"Okay, Vin, you go and check the surrounding woods. JD, Buck..." Chris stopped when they heard Josiah's baritone voice call out to them from the church steps.

"Guys, over here, and bring Mrs. Travis."

Josiah led Chris and Mary into the church followed by the others. When Mary spotted Billy sitting in the pew her relief was almost palatable. She started towards him until Josiah stopped her.

"Ma'am, no offense, but somethin' mighty powerful is eatin' at him. I think Chris should talk with him," Josiah suggested.

Chris looked to Mary for permission and watched as she closed her eyes and nodded her head. Vin came up alongside handing Chris the pouch of marbles.

"I think these belong to Billy," he explained. Chris held the pouch and looked at the buckskin-clad tracker in puzzlement, but decided now was not the time to ask questions. Chris slowly walked down the aisle towards the front of the church.

"I bet he's got quite a story to tell," Vin softly said. Josiah was the only one to hear and raised his eyes to the perceptive tracker. Billy hadn't been able to talk to him, but Josiah felt that whatever was tearing up the small boy inside was going to cause major changes in everyone's lives.

****Part 20

Chris's spurs jangled lightly as he stepped down the aisle and then slipped down in the seat beside Billy, who was staring down at his hands. Chris looked up at the rugged cross that hung over the altar. Since the death of his family he hadn't had much use for the church, but he did feel a certain amount of peace whenever he was inside.

"You really scared your mother, disappearing like that," Chris started.

"I know, I'm sorry," Billy replied, his voice husky with emotion and so sorrowful that it almost broke Chris' heart.

"You know, if you talk about it sometimes it makes things better."

Billy raised his head and looked at Chris' profile in the flickering light. "Really?"

Chris turned his head to look down at the young boy, who reminded him so much of his own son. "Yeah, it does, and maybe together we can fix whatever is wrong." Chris' brow creased, seeing how Billy's features and shoulders dropped.

"Nothing can fix this," Billy bowed his head as sadly proclaimed.

Larabee took hold of Billy's chin and forced him to look at him. "Give me a chance to try."

Billy's lips began to quiver and his eyes started to well up with tears. Chris watched as the watery pools overflowed, sending down streams of tears. "I shot Ezra."

"Ohmygosh," JD breathed out.

Mary's heart fell into her stomach at her son's confession, and Buck watched incase he would have to catch the shocked woman. Josiah noticed that Vin didn't seem that surprised.

"It was an accident the gun just went off..." Billy started sobbing uncontrollably cutting off his words. Chris gathered up the highly distraught boy and pulled him close into his chest. He looked over his shoulder to see the shock on everyone's faces.

Mary was suddenly sitting on the other side of her son and laid a hand on his small quivering shoulders. This seemed to calm him and Billy raised red-rimmed eyes and looked over his shoulder at his mother. "I'm sorry, ma."

"I know, honey," Mary soothed, stroking his hair as he crumpled into her arms. Mary looked worriedly over her boy at Chris, who didn't know what to say. He stood up and then remembered the marbles that Vin had given him.

"Billy, I believe these are yours," Chris said, holding out the small pouch.

Billy tentatively took the bag of marbles and looked into Chris' understanding face. "I didn't mean too."

"I know you didn't, son," Chris replied, rubbing Billy's head.

Billy buried his face once again into his mother's shoulder. Chris returned to the others and came up alongside Vin.

"You knew?"

"Suspected, hoped I was wrong," Vin replied. Chris nodded.

*****Part 21

Billy reluctantly opened the door to Ezra's room. He peered over his shoulder to see Josiah, Vin and Chris encouraging him inside. Ezra opened his eyes and smiled.

"Young Mr. Travis, to what do I owe the pleasure?"

Billy removed his hat and began vigorously rubbing at the brim, keeping his eyes downcast; his speech came out stuttered and unsure. "Ah, Mr. Standish...there's something...I gotta tell you."

Ezra's brow furrowed, noticing Billy's extreme distress and having no idea what could cause the boy such turmoil. He started to get a sick feeling in the pit of his stomach.

"I'm the one who shot you."

Ezra stared at the young man who stood at the foot of his bed. At first anger flooded him like a tidal wave, until he realized who he was looking at. He didn't say a word, didn't know what to say to such an admittance. He had come to believe that some miscreant that he had wronged at some time had finally got his revenge.

Tears started streaming down Billy's face and the words now started to tumble out, like the walls of a dam bursting to release their burden. "It was an accident...Caleb had his father's gun and we were looking at it and I...it went off and..."

Ezra closed his eyes.

Billy slowly raised his eyes, scared at what he would see. "I'm so sorry," his voice was barely above a whisper.

Ezra opened his own green eyes and stared intently at the repentant boy. "I forgive you." Ezra inwardly chuckled, never thinking he'd be the one saying those three words. Josiah must be rubbing off on him.

Billy ran into Ezra's arms and the flabbergasted gambler slowly stroked his hair. Billy sobbed into his shoulder releasing all his pent up guilt. Ezra looked up to see three of his friends standing in the doorway, smiling.

****Part 22

The next day found five of the lawmen relaxing in front of the saloon. The gentle spring days were giving way to the harsher days of summer. A small heat wave had already enveloped the town, sending most people indoors.

"I wonder how Billy's doing?" JD asked as Josiah joined their small group.

"Him and Ezra had a long conversation yesterday," Josiah replied. "I think he'll be okay in time."

"He has a lot to deal with," Vin added.

"But he's taken the first step by facing up to what he's done," Josiah replied. "And I've already seen to Caleb McCain. I don't reckon' he'll be ridin' that sorrel mare of his anytime soon."

"Now, what are we going to do with that stubborn son-of-a-bitch?" Buck asked, frustration evident in his voice.

A crash and litany of curses coursed through the saloon. The six lawmen all stood and stared in disbelief as Ezra fought with a bar stool that had got tangled up in the wheel of his chair. He finally managed to free himself only to find that he was trapped between another chair and table. Vin and Buck were about to assist until a dark hand fell on both their shoulders.

"Let him do this," Nathan said.

Ezra grabbed the obstructing piece of furniture and flung it over the table. He then continued to awkwardly maneuver the wheelchair towards the batwing doors. The others backed up as Ezra finally made it out onto the boardwalk. "I will definitely have to talk to the management about widening the path between the tables.

"But Ezra, you're the manager," JD replied a little confused.

Ezra smiled and looked up at his young friend. "So I am, then I guess it will be easy for me to get that little problem rectified." Ezra's smile grew, revealing his gold tooth, as he looked over at Buck and Vin whose eyes widened in understanding. The two gunslingers made their way into the saloon.

"Make sure you account for my turning radius, gentlemen," Ezra added.

"Ezra what gotcha up and going?" JD asked. Josiah cringed slightly and bowed his head. Sometimes JD just had no tact.

Ezra bowed his head and smiled at JD's directness. "Well, Mr. Dunne, I can't have young Mr. Travis wallowing in self-pity for the rest of his life." Ezra paused a moment. "And whatever would you all do without me to raise the level of sophistication in this cow town."

Ezra smiled. There was one more reason for his sudden determination. He knew they were planning on sacrificing their lives and dreams for him, and he was determined not to let that happen. He would show them that he could care for himself so they wouldn't feel obliged to stay and take care of him. What Ezra didn't know, and neither did the others, was that they were all destined to stay together, their lives forever interwoven, and nothing could break those bonds.

Chris stepped up to his wheel chair bound friend. "Well, now that you're up and about you can get back to work."

Ezra stared at Chris with open mouth. "And what pray tell could I possibly do?" he asked.

"You can still guard prisoners." Chris was not going to let his friend fall back into a morass of uselessness. He would find or make-up duties for him if he had to.

Ezra smiled. "Indeed I can."

Ezra reached into his jacket pocket and pulled out a deck of cards. "Is anyone up for a game of chance? I believe you all have a fair amount of wages due to my absence, which I feel honor bound to relieve you of. And as Mr. Wilmington has noted to me I don't need my legs to play poker." Everyone broke into laughter and started filtering into the saloon.

Nathan grabbed the back of Ezra's chair and began to push it inside then stopped. He wasn't sure how Ezra would feel about the offer of help. He looked down to see Ezra looking up at him. Nathan continued inside as Josiah and JD held the doors open for them.

****Part 23

Standish resumed his customary position at the poker table. He had to get used to the others helping him from time to time. Ezra became a common figure wheeling down the boardwalk, at times giving children rides down the ramps. Billy became a common fixture at his side. Ezra allowed the boy to aid him, knowing it was helping Billy alleviate some of his guilt, but he planned on ending the self-servitude soon.

Like mothers worrying about their child, everyone furtively kept an eye on the freewheeling gambler. They knew Ezra could take care of himself, but they also realized that he was at a disadvantage, and they just wanted to be there in case the playing field needed to be leveled out. Chris and the others did all they could, without being too obvious, to make Ezra feel that he was still part of the team. And Ezra for his part worked hard at proving he could take care of himself.

Everyone was a little nervous when Ezra was to guard a prisoner that Buck and Vin had brought in. The man was wanted for bank robbery. The outlaw kept making cracks and insults about being guarded by a cripple until Ezra fired a bullet into his cell and between his legs.

"Sir, if you continue this irritating and unkind line of conversation you will lose the use of something even more valuable," Ezra calmly threatened. The outlaw immediately sat down and didn't say another word. Everyone stopped worrying after that.

One morning Chris lay stretched out on a chair the heel of his boots resting on the railing outside the saloon. He smiled as Ezra wheeled past. He saw the Ace of spades that was now etched into the back of Ezra's wheel chair. His smile fell as he realized what it meant. Ezra was coming to accept that he would be locked in that chair forever. For the first time Chris actually got a taste of the sadness that his friend must feel.

Ezra was quietly reading a book inside the jail when the shooting started. He was getting more adept at using the chair and was able to spin it around on a dime. He raced out the door, his gun in his lap. He watched as five men raced out of the bank, firing down the street as they took cover. Ezra looked down the street to see Chris and the others scattering, and trying to find adequate protection as they attempted to keep the robbers pinned down. Ezra's heart fell into his stomach as he saw one of the outlaws taking a bead on Josiah, who was busy covering for Buck.

"JOSIAH, LOOK OUT!" Ezra yelled. But with the gunfire and chaos filling the air Josiah couldn't hear the warning. Ezra started to roll towards the ramp, but then his wheelchair suddenly tilted as the left wheel fell into a large break in the boards. Ezra maddeningly struggled with the wheel unable to get it out. He looked up to see the outlaw sneaking up closer to the unsuspecting ex-preacher.

When asked later what happened, Ezra could never say for sure. One minute he was trapped in his chair the next, he was standing. One hand firmly grasped around the support post of the jail as his other held the gun that abruptly ended the outlaw's life.

Josiah turned to see Ezra standing, albeit a little unsteady, but standing nonetheless. Without any thought for himself he ran over to Ezra's side and caught the gambler before he crumbled to the ground.

The others did not miss Ezra's actions, and their hearts soared with realization and the tide quickly turned. Within minutes the outlaws were subdued or killed.

Josiah held Ezra up as the others crowded around, no one saying a word. Ezra wearing the most ludicrous smile on his face. He looked over at Chris. "Mr. Larabee, remind me never to bet on long shots, a million to one is not bad odds after all."

Chris and Ezra smiled as everyone realized that they weren't privy to this joke. Nathan moved in. "Okay, Josiah, Buck, let's get him to his room, he needs to rest." Ezra's eyes widen. "Don't argue with me you have to take this slow and easy."

"Sir, I'll be riding my horse by the end of the week," Ezra announced as elation filled him, washing away all the feelings of dread and desolation that he had been living with for the past month.

"Over my dead body," Nathan snarled. "I'm getting you back on your feet, and I'm not letting you do anything to jeopardize that."

Everyone laughed as the two friends continued to disagree as Josiah and Buck carried Ezra towards the saloon.

It was a little longer than a week, but by the end of the following month Ezra was back to riding his horse on night patrol and again driving Larabee and Nathan the to edge of their patience. Everything was back to normal.

The End