Disclaimer & Author's Note: I own nothing of Mag7 except a couple of season's worth of DVDs. This was written for DW's Mag7 Secret Santa exchange.
Ezra pulled himself off the ground and glared at the horse currently running into the falling snow. A snapping crack and a falling branch had startled both horse and rider. He had been unable to keep his seat when the branch landed too close for the spirited creature's comfort.
Naturally. Chaucer would be injured on the day before a snowstorm. At least he would have returned to get me home.
He pulled his coat tighter around his lean frame and began walking.
Now there was an odd turn of events. He could not recall ever having a home before…at least not a place that he would call home. He could name off any number of places he had resided at during his rather colorful life, but not one that stood out as worthy of being called home. He had lived in every style of house: from a small cottage in the country, to a lovely three-story house in the beautiful city of Charleston, to a room on a riverboat, and a more palatial plantation in his native Georgia. He had seen the cities of New York, Philadelphia, and Boston; as well as the more elegant capitals of Europe. What on earth would lead him to consider a dusty little town like Four Corners as home?
Three years ago, it had been a whim of fate that he had chosen to step off the stage to San Francisco for a short break from traveling. Before he could take up his journey again, he had found himself assisting in saving an Indian village. If that had not been enough, he ended up helping bring a murderer to justice before volunteering to help keep the peace in Four Corners for thirty days. Those thirty days had stretched into these past three years. Three years in his first home.
A freezing gust of wind crashed into him, causing him to stagger slightly.
I hope that silly piece of horseflesh runs straight back to the livery.
At least one of the others should be on watch. They would assuredly notice the horse returning rider less and raise the alarm. The thought warmed him despite to cold air. There it was…the true reason he could call the place 'home'…the others. For all of his travels, he had never met anyone else so completely willing to both accept and trust him despite his personal failings; not until Four Corners, not until falling in with six unique individuals.
Something under the snow caught his foot. He tripped.
He shivered as the cold leeched into him. Two snow baths had him soaked to the skin. The snow began falling even harder. Shaking, he continued walking towards the west. The town lay in that direction.
Good Lord, do not let me miss it.
The others would be watching for him, but it would be dangerous for them to get out in this weather. Life in the west was hard; between raiders and outlaws, Indians and overzealous army men. However, none of these held a fraction of the danger the weather did. Heatstroke, flash floods, dust storms, or blizzards – the weather of the west would kill you faster than almost anything else. Surely the others would not dare to leave the safety of the town.
No, Chris would not allow it.
Despite his desire to be home, it comforted him, knowing Chris would keep the others safe.
"And what of you?"
The question, coming out of nowhere, jolted him. His head came up. A slender, dark-haired figure stood a few steps in front of him, her pale white hands clasped in front of her. The woman smiled at him, hazel eyes warm and affectionate. He gave her a bewildered smile in return, slowing to a stop. She gestured for him to continue walking.
As he came up to her, she turned and began walking with him. A sensation of warmth stole over him. Tilting her head, the young woman cast a curious look at him. "You did not answer my question."
"I do beg your pardon, madam," he replied, courtesy and confusion warring for supremacy in his tone. "Would you perhaps repeat it for me?"
"You know that he will keep the others safe…what of you?" She patiently repeated her question.
"As Mr. Larabee is not currently present, I do not believe he has any ability to see to my wellbeing," he replied.
She nodded and they walked along in silence for a few minutes. He watched her out of the corner of his eye. In spite of the snow and the wind, she showed no sign of cold, of discomfort. Her clothing appeared more appropriate for a city back east, not their current location. Something was not quite right about this.
She chose to break the silence. "And if he were here?"
Ezra lifted an eyebrow. "Were Mr. Larabee present, I daresay we would both be struggling to return home."
"You have fallen twice, and it is only going to get colder. Your struggles will become harder soon…perhaps even impossible. Would he leave you behind?" Her question came out so nonchalantly that he almost missed it.
"No!" He exclaimed.
"Can you be sure of that?" she asked, stopping to turn to him.
His eyes flashed. "Chris Larabee can be one mean, stubborn son of a...my apologies, madam. Chris can be difficult to deal with, but he would never leave one of us behind, not if we were in trouble."
"A good man, then?" she asked, continuing the walk towards town.
"One of the most honorable men I know." He followed her.
They walked in silence for a long while before she stopped once more. Turning towards him, she held out a slim hand. "It has been a privilege to meet you, Ezra Standish."
He took her hand. Once more an odd sensation of warmth poured into him. "I am afraid you have the better of me, madam."
She gave him another affectionate smile. "Colleen…Colleen Dunne."
He blinked. She vanished. The warmth remained. He did not know how long he stood there, gaping, before another voice echoed in his mind.
"Well, come along then. There's no call to be standing out in this mess."
His head swung around. Another woman awaited him, her hands on her hips. This woman stood taller than her predecessor, but had a stockier build. Her black hair and dusky skin stood out in stark contrast to the snow around her. Deep brown eyes twinkled at him as she waved him forward.
"You'll catch your death if you keep dawdling out here."
"Ah, yes ma'am," Ezra replied with bemusement as he walked towards her.
I must have hit my head.
His puzzlement grew as she gave a slight laugh. "You leave the doctoring to others, young man. You didn't hit your head."
He stopped, staring at her. She took hold of his arm and pulled him along. He felt another burst of warmth filling him at her touch.
Shaking his head, he glanced at her out of the corner of his eye. "If I might be so bold as to inquire, would you perhaps be Mr. Jackson's…." He hesitated.
"I would be," she replied, a familiar grin crossing her face. "Hepzibah Jackson."
"Not that I would in any way complain about the company," he began.
"But you're not sure why we're here?" she finished.
He just nodded.
"You're going to have to be a bit more patient for that one. You'll get your answers soon. I'm just here for a few minutes, and I wanted to ask you about that Preacher friend of my boy."
"Mr. Sanchez?" he guessed.
"That'd be the one. Got a bad temper, that one does," she said with a frown. "Reminds me of others my son's dealt with."
"Mr. Sanchez does indeed have a temper, but Mr. Jackson has nothing to fear from it."
"Hmph," huffed the older woman. "Seems none of you should have anything to fear from it, but he turned it on you quick enough last year."
"We all have our own demons to battle," he replied, sidestepping the question.
She stopped and gave him a direct look. "He had no business turning on you that way."
Ezra gave a slight shrug. "I cannot honestly say he was wrong. I did give into the temptation after all."
"And then stepped in to save that young woman," she sighed. "It still wasn't right."
"I have never seen anyone as persistent about pursuing goodness as Mr. Sanchez…his own or on behalf of others."
She reached out and touched his arm. "You're a good man, Ezra Standish. Even if you don't believe it."
Stepping back, she disappeared. He rubbed his forehead with one hand.
I must be imagining things.
"Do you truly think so?"
This time the feminine voice did not surprise him. He looked to find a brown-haired, brown-eyed woman giving him a serene smile. Her skin held a tanned, weathered look that spoke of travel or outdoor work. She reached out a hand.
"Come along," she said calmly. "We should keep moving."
Moving forward, he allowed her to tuck her hand in the crook of his arm. Warmth spilled over him. They walked in silence for nearly fifteen minutes before he spoke.
"Is there something you wish to ask me?" he inquired.
She smiled. "I thought we were figments of imagination?"
"That is indeed most likely the case," he replied. "However, it does seem rather rude to ignore you on the chance that you are something more."
A quiet laugh spilled from her. "Well, since you asked so politely, perhaps you would tell me about your tracker friend."
"Is it not dangerous for him to remain with you?"
He pondered the question. "It most likely does increase our danger somewhat, but no more than any other trait shared amongst the company."
"My gambling," he shrugged. "Chris's past; JD's innocence; Mr. Jackson's skin color; Mr. Sanchez's anger; Mr. Wilmington's...ah…appreciation of the ladies."
She nodded. "You trust him then?"
"Yes," he replied. "A more honest man I have never met."
Stopping, she turned to face him. Her gentle brown gaze fixed on his face. She reached out and clasped his hand in both of hers, warmth flowing from her touch. "You keep trusting in those men, Ezra Standish. You have a place with them, a family with them. That is something that some will never find."
"Yes, ma'am," he agreed, staring down at her.
"We are not just figments of your imagination." She told him with a smile. He started to ask a question, but she interrupted him. "You'll find out why we are here soon enough."
"Well," he lifted a brow. "If I am not allowed to inquire about your presence, may I know your name?"
Her eyes crinkled in amusement. "My name is Miriam Sanchez."
"Mrs. Sanchez, it is an honor to meet you."
"And you still believe I am a hallucination brought on by the cold." She gave a gentle laugh. "When you get a moment back in town, tell him about me and ask about his sister. That should be proof enough."
Before he could comment, she too departed.
"Aren't we just too much?"
The jovial question drew his eyes forward once more. A tall, black-haired woman with a smile to match her bright blue eyes stood before him. By her dress, he immediately marked her as a "working girl" such as could be found in any sizable town.
She gave a sparkling laugh as he blinked at her. "Not what you were expecting?"
"To be quite truthful, madam, I have moved beyond expecting anything at this point."
"You think you're lost in a fever dream, don't you?"
"A rather high probability, yes," he replied. "I can think of no other reason for me to be walking with a succession of ladies in the snow."
"Well, I could try to convince you otherwise, but I figure you'll see in time." She shook her head, eyes still bright with laughter. "Come along then, give a girl your arm and let's start walking."
Stepping forward, he offered her his arm as requested. The familiar warmth spread through him again. She strode along beside him, her head held high. "So, gambler man, you've finally accepted this place as home, have you?"
He mulled over the question for a few minutes before answering. "Actually, I do not believe it is the place I consider to be 'home'. The locale does not have any particular hold on me."
She nodded. "The people then?"
"Yes," he replied. "They have…accepted me. That is a…new experience for me."
"Refreshing one, I'll wager," she laughed. "Folks like us, those that make their living from the weaknesses of others, don't often get that."
"No," he answered. "This day has taken a most perplexing turn."
"Because you are talking to ghosts?" She asked with a grin. "Or because you are telling us all this?"
He blinked. "I will concede to a little of both. I am still unconvinced as to the veracity of these happenings. Nathan will be waking me shortly to take some unquestionably foul concoction to fight off some fever or another." She just continued to smile as they walked along. He shrugged. "However, I have never spilled so much information to anyone so quickly."
She gave a shrug in return. "Well, if we are fever dreams, then you are safe enough; you are merely talking to yourself."
"And if I am not dreaming?" he asked.
"You're still safe," she replied with a wink. "Who are we going to tell?"
"True," he laughed.
"Well, now, since we have decided it is safe for you to talk to me," she said. "I've been wanting to ask how the kid has been settling in."
"Ah, young JD; he is growing into a rather remarkable young man." He stared into the distant horizon.
She nodded, her grin softening to a loving smile. "You other boys have had something to do with that. Seems to me you've each given him a piece of yourself…teaching him how to survive either on the land or with people."
"Perhaps." He considered her remarks for a few quiet minutes. "However, I think he has given back to us just as much. JD has so much faith in us…in our group. We endeavor to live up to his expectations, falling short quite often…myself in particular."
She stopped and turned to him. Reaching out, she took his face in her hands. "Maybe you do fall short, but I doubt it is as often as you think. At least you try; you make the attempt. That's more than most folks. Most give up and grow hard…they decide that faith is too hard to live up to and give up before they even begin. Time to quit selling yourself short, Ezra Standish."
His eyes fell from hers in embarrassment, but she just gave an understanding laugh. As his gaze rose to meet hers once more, she gave him another bright smile. "I'm Belle Wilmington, and it has been a pleasure."
She released him and vanished. He shook his head.
I should have guessed.
He glanced ahead and found his next visitor waiting for him. A small woman with dark blonde hair and soft blue eyes stood waiting. She gave him a warm smile and tilted her head towards the west. Returning her smile, he stepped forward and offered his arm. Another outflow of warmth engulfed him.
They had walked in silence for a long while before she glanced up at him. "Are you happy here?"
"Yes, ma'am," he answered simply.
"Good," she replied.
They shared another long stretch of quiet walking. Unlike most silences, however, he found this one to be comfortable instead of awkward. Usually he preferred to be surrounded by noise and light, distracting himself from his own thoughts. Something about his new guest gave him solace and allowed him to just rest his mind. That was a rare gift indeed.
Ah, of course.
Ezra smiled down at her. "Is there something I may do for you, Mrs. Tanner?"
"Emma," she replied.
"Yes, ma'am," he agreed.
She gave a soft laugh. "Not that you will use it, I know. You keep so many at a distance by that."
He winced. "I intend you no insult, Mrs. Tanner."
"No," she sighed, patting his arm. "You don't. You've learned to trust the men here though, haven't you? Even the healer?"
"Yes, I believe I have," he replied. "Mr. Jackson is assuredly one of the most compassionate men I have had the privilege to know. I am not sure how he has managed to retain such a sense of empathy for his fellow man."
She smiled. "His past has taught him that hatred is fruitless. He seeks to go the other way…to reach out in healing."
He nodded. "He is a better man than I."
"That is enough." She turned towards him and put a hand over his heart. "Listen to me now, Ezra Standish. If you were as bad as you think, you would never have stayed past those first thirty days. As soon as you had your pardon, you would have left. You did not. You stayed; you've fought and bled with the others to keep everyone safe. The others have a good friend in you."
She faded away even as she finished speaking. He bowed his head.
Not as good as they are to me.
"You are so much like him."
Glancing up, he found himself looking at a beautiful brunette woman with solemn brown eyes. As his eyes met hers, a smile both welcoming and sorrowful graced her lips. She reached out to him. Warmth practically overflowed as he took her hand in his. They began walking.
He glanced down at her, but she shook her head. "Before I answer you, I would ask you something," she said.
"About Mr. Wilmington, I presume?" he inquired.
She smiled. "Well guessed."
"No guessing was required," he replied. "He is the last of them; the only one not yet asked about. Is there something in particular you would like to know?"
"How is he?"
"Quite well, I would imagine. Mr. Wilmington was uninjured when last I saw him."
"No," she shook her head. "I mean, how is he?"
He stared down at her, a look of consternation stealing over his face. She gave a small laugh. "Is he happy?"
His face cleared and a smile eased across his face. "Yes."
"Such a simple answer."
"In this instance," he acknowledged, dimples flashing. "It required no embellishment."
A delighted smile lightened the sorrow in her face. "He was always a dear friend. It is good to know he has found joy once more."
This time Ezra stopped. He searched her features through narrowed eyes. Something tugged at his memory.
Not the mother this time…
"No," she agreed.
And not my imagination.
She shook her head as her lips curved gently in amusement, though sorrow still dwelt in the depths of her gaze.
He took a deep breath before giving her a slight bow. "Mrs. Larabee."
Fondness sparkled in her eyes. "You were right. Chris would never endanger the others. All of them wanted to come after you, but he would not let them leave town."
"Good," he replied, eyes closing in relief. "Bad enough that I am having to deal with such inclement weather; it would be most…unsettling to discover the others had endangered themselves on my behalf."
"Do you know how many prayers are being lifted for you right now? How many have been lifted since your horse reached her stables?"
"I beg your pardon?" he asked in honest confusion.
She sighed and reached up to touch his cheek. "An entire town has been praying for you, particularly your six brothers."
"Ah…" he began, trying to withdraw, but she shook her head.
"They are your brothers in the only way that counts…of the heart; even Chris…who hasn't prayed in far too long. Do you think no one would listen?"
He simply stared.
She smiled, running her thumb over his cheekbone. "Every one of those prayers was heard. Since your brothers could not come out after you, we came in their stead. Do you see that shadow there?"
He turned to look in the direction she indicated and spotted a tall shadow not far ahead of them.
"Yes," he replied, turning back to her.
"Good," she noted, returning her hand to his face. "That is Josiah's church. They're inside…some more willing than others, but all of them waiting for you."
She stepped forward and placed a kiss on his cheek. "Go home, Ezra Standish. Go home to your brothers."
She faded away with a final smile. He stared at the emptiness, hand reaching up to touch his cheek.
No one will ever believe me. I am not sure I believe me.
Lifting his head, he directed a grateful look to the sky.
Thank you…and I do believe I owe Mr. Sanchez an apology.
Taking a deep breath, he began making his way towards the promised safety of home…and family.