A/N: All right, y'all asked for a sequel and here it is. Hope you enjoy. Reviews are always welcome and appreciated, but I'm not going to beg.
Disclaimer: Ezra, Nathan, JD, Chris, and Buck do not belong to me and I'm making no profit from this story.
If there was one thing Ezra Standish didn't tolerate well, it was the cold. Tonight was cold. Colder than any night in September had a right to be and he was stuck out in it. The only reason he could think of for him to be sleeping outside, on the ground, in the cold, with Nathan Jackson for company, was that he had done something to get on Chris Larabee's bad side...again. Under normal circumstances, he would be willing to accept his fate at falling under the Larabee wrath, but he'd spent the last three days racking his brain for an explanation and couldn't think of anything he'd done to the man lately that would warrant this kind of torment. Being unable to find an acceptable reason for his persecution only added to his irritability.
It was nights like this that made Ezra miss his southern home. It was never cold in September down there, ever, not even at night. Yes, the humidity in the South was so high that summers often felt like one was living in a sweat lodge but, in Ezra's opinion, it was better than this desert air. So often the air here was so dry he felt like he could hardly draw a decent breathe. And it was green in Dixie, parts of her green all year, not like the brown that constantly covered this place. There were trees as well, forests of them, and while Buck had argued many times Arizona had plenty of trees, there weren't trees like in Alabama, at least not around here. Ezra sighed, he knew all too well from past experiences that this train of thought would only make him homesick for a place that no longer existed and put him in an even worse mood than he was in now.
"You all right, Ezra?" Nathan asked. There was concern in his voice but Ezra knew that it most likely stemmed from the man's nature as a healer more than any real worries about his well being. The moment that thought popped into his head, Ezra inwardly grimaced. He knew better than that.
Although Ezra counted Nathan as one of his best friends, there were times, a lot of times really, that the two of them still clashed. And while Ezra would be the first to admit that he wasn't the easiest person to live with, he was pretty sure most of Nathan issues with him were because he was a Southerner. Ezra would have liked to have been filled with indignation over that perceived bigotry, but, as Nathan being black hadn't set to well with him initially, he really couldn't complain. It was something that made Ezra feel extremely shallow and he'd tried hard to get over it, after the events at the Seminole village he mostly had, but he knew all to well that old prejudices died hard.
"I'm perfectly fine, Mr. Jackson. I was merely thinking on this atrocious weather and how very unlike my homeland it is."
"You missin' Georgia, Ez?" JD asked. The young man, as usual, was far too jovial for the situation. At least for Ezra's taste.
At the dreaded nickname Ezra closed his eyes and took a deep breath. He refused to let it get to him tonight. Letting JD know how much the name irked him would only cause the boy to pick farther and would likely lead to him wanting an explanation as to why the name was so loathed. That would only serve digging up unpleasant memories; memories Ezra had worked long and hard to bury and had no interest in seeing uncovered tonight. So, instead of firing back with the sharp correction he usually had ready whenever the name was used, he composed himself as best he could and dropped his poker face into place. "Perhaps, Mr. Dunne, you could enlighten me as to why so many in the population of our little berg presume Georgia to be my place of birth."
"It ain't?" JD sounded genuinely surprised and Ezra tried to remember if he'd ever told anyone it was. It seemed a common misconception around town.
"No." He deadpanned. "I was more than five years of age before I ever stepped foot in the state."
"Where were you born?"
Only years of practice at keeping his emotions in check kept Ezra from groaning out loud as he realized just how beautifully he'd set that question up. It seemed he would dig up some memories tonight whether he wanted to or not. "I was born in New Orleans." He cut his eyes over the Nathan, who was still watching him, and hoped this wouldn't become too unpleasant for the man. "My preferred residency as a child was in Alabama."
JD's eyes lit up and Ezra silently cursed, he'd known this would happen. He was glad Chris had sent the kid along, JD's enthusiasm had served as a buffer between him and Nathan on this trip and had effectively kept the peace as it were, but Ezra wasn't in the mood for JD's questions tonight. "Hey, Nathan's from Alabama too."
"So he is." Ezra looked back over to Nathan and tried to send him a silent apology but the man was no longer looking his way. This couldn't be something the black man would want to discus, and Ezra was more than willing to let the topic drop right now. JD,however, in typical fashion, was so enthralled by his discovery that he wasn't picking up on how uncomfortable either of his friends seemed to have become.
"What part of Alabama did you live in, Ezra? The two of you might have seen each other before."
"That is hardly likely, Mr. Dunne. However, during my time there, I stayed with my uncle in Athens." He had to smile as he thought about his time there. "Have you ever seen the South, Mr. Dunne, the heart of her?" JD silently shook his head. "She's beautiful." Ezra continued. "She's like a lovely lady and she should be treasured and cherished like one." His face clouded. "The Yankees did horrible things to her, they ravaged and burned her. They destroyed her, and they broke her people. They left terrible scars on her."
"You miss it, don't you?" JD asked with a compassion Ezra found touching.
"Yes, I do. If I'd had much choice in the matter I never would have left. Some of my fondest memories are of that place. Unfortunately, there are some very dark ones there as well. It was there my father died. It was also in that town that I learned the hard truth that not all men were as honorable as my father or uncle were."
Things became quiet and Ezra looked up. Nathan set sharpening one of his knives, seemingly oblivious to anything Ezra was saying, while JD set across from him arms propped on his knees taking in everything Ezra was saying. Ezra knew he could stop now; he didn't have to tell JD anything else and the boy would probably accept that. But oddly, he found that since he had started, he wanted to continue. So, instead of waiting for JD's curious mind to think of another question Ezra simply began to talk.
"Uncle Edward was the first person my mother ever left me with. He was a good man; one of the few who acted as though he actually liked havin' me around. Edward and his wife owned small plantation just outside of Athens, and one day, shortly after my father had died and Mother left, Edward took me into town with him. I was sittin' on this bench eating a peppermint stick, wantin' for him, when I saw this white man whippin' a black boy. I'd never seen a slave be beat like that before. Edward owned slaves but he wasn't a cruel man. I don't recall ever seein' him so much as strike one of them, and he certainly never beat them like this man was. I didn't see much of it, Edward came back soon after that and took me back to the buggy. An attempt to preserve what innocence I had left I suppose. I was only five-years-old at time but I've never forgotten that sight. My uncle said later the boy had dropped a bag of flour." Ezra chuckled humorlessly. "A beating like that over a bag of flour."
"You never saw him again?" JD asked quietly from across the fire.
Ezra shook his head. "We passed by him as we were leaving town but other than that, no sir, I did not. There have been many times throughout the years however, I've wondered about him. If he ever became a free man… if he ever grew up at all."
The two fell into silence once more, JD lost in thought as he ran the story Ezra had just told him over in his mind and Ezra in a rather embarrassed shock. He hadn't intended to bare so much of his soul tonight. Suddenly he felt a little venerable and slumped down farther against his saddle. Feeling someone's eyes on him he looked toward Nathan, dreading what he would find there, but instead of the condemnation he expected he found shock. Pure and complete shock as Nathan's brown eyes bored into his green ones.
If Nathan were completely honest with himself he would have to say he'd been dreading the trip to Red Bank ever since finding out Ezra would be coming along. It wasn't that he didn't like Ezra, despite what the others may have thought at times. Ezra had proven more than once his willingness to give his life for his fellow peacekeepers, Nathan included, and it was nearly impossible to hate a man who would die for you. Still, Nathan would be lying if he said there wasn't something about the ex-conman that didn't rub him the wrong way. And he certainly wouldn't be Nathan's first choice as a traveling companion, but at least Chris had sent JD along too. The kid's presence seemed to keep both him and Ezra more at ease and thankfully, they would be home tomorrow.
A heavy sigh came from Ezra and Nathan turned to look at him in concern. "You all right, Ezra?" He knew he was opening himself up to a possible diatribe by Ezra about the difficulties on being on the trail, but there was forlornness in the sigh that he didn't often hear from Ezra, and the gambler had been unusually quiet today.
In fact, now that Nathan thought about it Ezra had been far too quiet and complacent this entire trip. Nathan had hardly heard a complaint out of him the three days they'd been gone, and Ezra could always find some injustice to his person to whine about. Unless he was hurt. For a man who was so vocal about everything else he become a real martyr when he was injured, and Nathan couldn't help but wonder if Ezra was trying to hide something from him...again.
"I'm perfectly fine, Mr. Jackson. I was merely thinkin' on this atrocious weather and how very unlike my homeland it is."
"You missin' Georgia, Ez?" JD spoke up from across the fire.
Nathan saw Ezra close his eyes and take a deep breath before he addressed JD. "Perhaps, Mr. Dunne, you could enlighten me as to why so many in the population of our little berg presume Georgia to be my place of birth."
There had been a grin on Ezra's face when he'd answered JD, but Nathan had seen the tenseness in Ezra before he'd spoke . Or had he? Nathan mentally shook himself. Why was he so sure something was wrong with Ezra? Did the man have to be sick or injured just because he wasn't whining? That was something he should be grateful for.
JD and Ezra continued to talk while Nathan kept watching the gambler, waiting for him to reveal something. Ezra suddenly cut his eyes over to Nathan and the healer wondered if he was making Ezra uncomfortable staring at him, then he heard what Ezra had to say. "My preferred residency as a child was Alabama."
Then came JD's reply. "Hey, Nathan's from Alabama too." Nathan quickly dropped his eyes and began studying the ground. If there was one thing he didn't care to hear about tonight, it was Alabama, and the odds of JD dropping the topic were slim. He was right, JD was ready with another question in no time. "What part of Alabama did you live in, Ezra? The two of you might have seen each other before."
Nathan almost snorted in amusement. The chances of that were so slim they were practically nonexistent. Given what he knew about Ezra and his mother he doubted Ezra's childhood had included a lot of interaction with slaves.
"... I stayed with my uncle in Athens."
Nathan felt the breath leave him. Athens. If Alabama was a topic he wasn't interested in, Athens certainly wasn't. The Jackson Plantation had been outside of Athens, and It had been Mr. Jackson who'd bought his family after they'd left Georgia, after Mama died. That place held very few happy memories for him.
Pulling out one of his knives Nathan began to sharpen it. It wasn't as though anyone was forcing him to listen to the conversation so he'd just do his best not to. But try as he might, he couldn't block out the story Ezra began to tell, the story of him seeing a white man beating a black boy because he'd dropped a bag of flour. Nathan could hardly breathe at all now. A white boy sitting on a bench eating candy, now that he thought about it he remembered the boy all too well; the boy as well as the anger he'd felt when he'd seen what a perfect and carefree life the kid seemed to have. He also remembered when the buggy had gone by later; how the boy had watched him and how he had turned away when Nathan glared at him. That had been Ezra? It didn't even sound possible.
"There have been many times throughout the years however, I've wondered about him. If he ever became a free man… if he ever grew up at all."
Nathan pulled out another knife as he listened to the gambler. Ezra still thought about that day? It hadn't crossed Nathan's mind in God only knew how long. Eventually, that whipping had run together with the dozens of others he received throughout his years as a slave, then he'd escaped, the war had started, and he'd eventually come west. As the years passed that one beating had hardly stood out as anything significant to him. Ezra, obviously, had seen it differently.
He looked back to Ezra and JD as their discussion ended. Ezra had sunk down lower in his blankets looking somewhat miserable. Nathan knew that, despite Ezra's faults, most of his problems with the gambler stemmed from the fact he was a Southerner. It really wasn't a good reason for the animosity he occasionally felt and he'd tried hard to forget it over the past couple of years. After all, it was hardly Ezra's fault he'd been born in the south, but it wasn't easy to forget old hurts. But somehow after watching him tonight and hearing that story... Ezra suddenly looked over and the unusual uneasiness Nathan saw in the man's green eyes made him feel like he was ten-years-old again.
Silence fell over the camp. Nathan continued sharpening his knives, Ezra set and brooded, and JD was soon asleep. After a while Ezra glanced at JD, making sure the younger man actually was asleep, then spoke to Nathan. "Mr. Jackson, if my talk with Mr. Dunne earlier resulted in bringing forth any unpleasant memories I offer you my sincere regrets. That was not my intent."
Ezra may have been speaking to him but Nathan noticed the gambler kept his eyes trained straight ahead. "I reckon a man's got a right to talk about his home if he wants to."
Ezra sighed. "Do you ever miss her? Dixie."
"No." Nathan replied without hesitation. "I didn't leave too much behind down there."
Ezra breathed a laugh. He hadn't left much behind either. The Yankees had seen to that.
Nathan had been debating with himself for the past little while as to whether or not he should tell Ezra about his discovery tonight and as silence began to grow again he decided he needed to. The event had left quite an impression on Ezra it seemed, and he deserved to know the fate of the boy he spent so many years thinking of. Nathan cleared his throat. "I hated you, you know. That first time I saw you."
Ezra was a little taken aback at Nathan's words. He knew they hadn't seen eye to eye in the beginning, they still didn't most of the time, but hate seemed like kind of a strong word. Then again he had almost refused Chris's offer because of Nathan's skin color so maybe hate wasn't too far off. He turned to Nathan with a slight smile. "You weren't my first choice of companions at the time either if you remember."
Nathan took a deep breath. "No, not the saloon. That day in Athens, when I saw you outside the store, I hated you."
Few and far between were the times when Ezra was at a loss for words but as Nathan's meaning began to sink in he found himself nearly speechless. In Athens? Outside the store? He slowly looked to Nathan. No, that wasn't possible. "When you – you…Wha…That was you? You were the – you were the boy."
Nathan had to smile at Ezra stammering. "When I saw you sittin' there eatin' that candy, I figured your life must have been just about perfect."
Ezra took a moment for the thoughts racing around in his head to settle seem before he answered. "I'll make no claim that my life was as tryin' as yours but I assure you, Mr. Jackson, it was far from perfect."
"I don't guess nobody's life's perfect."
Ezra merely set, brow furrowed, his mind still swirling was thoughts. He didn't have any reply for the man right now. This was unbelievable. He'd spent more than twenty years wondering what had happened to that boy. He'd never in his wildest dreams thought he would see him again, much less that he'd become a friend… a brother.
"I just wanted you to know that boy did get his freedom." Nathan said quietly putting his knives away. He wasn't looking for a heart-to-heart with Ezra, and knew the gambler wouldn't want that either.
Ezra looked back at him and nodded. "Thank you, Nathan."
Nathan nodded in return.
As the two stretched out to sleep that night Nathan decided there was one more thing the Southerner needed to know. "Ezra, you were right."
"Right, Mr. Jackson?"
"About Dixie. She is beautiful."
Ezra chuckled. "She is indeed." He sighed deeply. "Well, Mr. Jackson, do we tell our young Mr. Dunne of our discovery? Since he was so sure we must have crossed paths before."
"Nah, we tell him he was right and we'll never hear the end of it. Nobody else would either."
As Ezra fell asleep that night he noticed that the homesickness he'd felt before had eased considerably.