by Heather F.
Disclaimer: This story is a piece of fanfiction containing characters which are the property of MGM, Trilogy, and CBS. I do not make any claims to these characters.
Maude Standish stepped from the stagecoach in her normal regal fashion. Her sharp light blue eyes quickly roamed the limited view she had of Four Corners as she thanked the stagecoach driver for the assistance down. She was somewhat surprised her son had not come out to greet her or at least one of his friends. Funny she thought, she never figured Ezra for having friends. Acquaintances yes, but not loyal friends not like the ones he had found here. At first she had been very much against his apparent settling down, but as time passed she had come to see a change in her son. A change she had originally feared very much. As she had read his correspondences over the last eighteen months she sensed a change in the tone of his letters. The jaded, overcast tones had slowly melted from his discourse. He had begun to find respect and trust in those around him. Again this frightened her. Her son and her were not in the trusting business. She had always told him, 'Ezra, son, the day you trust someone it's the day you pick the wrong person.' Now here he was fiercely loyal to six men he hardly knew. What she found equally miraculous is they trusted him just as much. Maude smiled, yes a true miracle, especially for someone who would never believe in miracles. Mrs. Standish watched as the stagecoach driver and assistant piled her luggage none to carefully on the boardwalk. In her business-like, no nonsense tone, she berated the ungentlemanly persons for their brutishness but her tone was lacking its normal knife like edge. She felt it in her gut, as she stood by herself with all her French genuine leather luggage, that something was wrong.
"Chris, stage is in." Vin said. Chris Larabee and Vin Tanner sat in chairs in front of the sheriff's office. The tension emanated from them like a physical entity. From the outside they appeared no different, the townsfolk knew of the misfortune that had befallen one of the group. As a result the citizens stayed clear of the two fearsome men. As the stage pulled forward it revealed one of its recent occupants. "Oh shit." Vin drawled. Both he and Chris immediately stood. "I'll handle this." Chris said. As leader of the group it was his duty.
Maude Standish nearly clutched her stomach as she watched Chris Larabee cross the street toward her. His body language said it all. She knew that Mr. Larabee held serious reservations about her son, not unjustified. She also knew, without Ezra telling her so, that Chris Larabee was probably one of the few people her son ever respected. So seeing the black clad gunslinger purposely making his way over to her, his body language speaking volumes, Maude Standish knew without a doubt something had happened to her only valuable treasure on the this earth. Ezra was either dead or close to it. She could not wait, and forgetting her luggage and all her possessions she met the gunslinger in the middle of the street.
Larabee watched as Maude closed the distance he already knew she knew. He wondered what gave it away. Or maybe it was 'mother's intuition' Sarah had it when it came to Adam, as did his mother when it concerned himself. Somehow Chris could not imagine Maude Standish having any kind of maternal instinct but then again even wolves fiercely protected their own. "What happened to my son, Mr. Larabee?" No flowery language no formal greetings. Damn she knew already. Maude was somewhat glad it was Chris who came to her. He was a direct man and dealt with things head on he would not circumvent the issue. "He's up at Nathan's clinic." He no sooner got the words out than she turned on her heels and headed to the second story landing to the place Nathan Jackson called home. She heard Vin Tanner trot silently up behind them. She nodded her head toward the tracker in simple acknowledgment. "How bad?" She inquired curtly. Concern not anger. They made it to the stairs. With agility that denied her age and genteel manner she nimbly ascended the steps. "Nathan and Josiah are still with him." It was then she noticed Buck and JD outside the clinic door on the small porch. The worry on their faces re-enforced her fear. She reached for the door. JD blocked her way, "You shouldn't go in there, ma'am." Tears threaten to spill over his soft brown eyes and his voice shook with a slight tremor. Maude felt a pang of fear. But no one was going to keep her from her son, not now not today. "Unless you want to join my son in the next bed, I suggest you move young man." she hissed. Anger and fear molted together, articulating a mother's greatest terror. Buck reached over and pulled JD out of the way thus allowing Mrs. Standish undenied access to her son's room. As the door shut behind her Buck whispered harshly "JD never get between a mother and her child." He paused and added more kindly, "no matter how grown they are." Buck admonished the younger man quietly. Wilmington truly believed Ezra's mother would have thrown the young man out of the way.
Maude stepped through the door shutting it quickly behind herself. She steeled herself for what she might see, taking a deep breath she crossed the wood planked floor. Nathan stood hunched over with his back to the door. Josiah stood on the opposite side of the bed facing the outside door but staring intently at Nathan's quickly moving hands and sneaking furtive glances at the person who lay between them. On the bed stripped of most his clothes lay the patient, his upper abdomen swathed with blood. "Chris I said stay out." Jackson practically shouted without looking at who entered.
"He is Mr. Jackson." Josiah's head jerked up, seeing Ezra's mother cross the room and take a spot at the head of the bed resting her hand on her son's clammy forehead. "Keep your attention focused on the task at hand Mr. Sanchez." Maude intoned. She gazed down at her only son. His light green eyes were shut, a large laceration adorned his left forehead sheeting that side of his face in hard dried caked blood. His blood crusted hair appeared darker and stood up on end. She rested a well-manicured hand on his bare chest and felt the strong rapid heartbeat and shallow breaths. His color was pale at best. She lifted his left hand so not to disturb Nathan. The healer worked feverishly over the right side patching up the large deep wound that gouged the right upper quadrant of the abdomen. Maude noticed, though her son's hands were well cared for, calluses had started to form on his palms. He had even reduced himself to manual labor. She smiled half-heartedly, these men had begun to change her son, and she could not say she really minded... some aspects of it. Maude pressed down on the pale nail and observed how long it took for the color to return to the blanched skin. It took longer than it should. She rested the limp hand across his chest and sat on the bed next to her son's head. She took a rag and started cleaning his face and the abrasions. The unnatural stillness of her son unnerved her more than she dared admit.
On this autumn morning, Maude Standish, did something she had not done since Ezra's father had been taken from her. She said a prayer, came up with a silent plea with a deal thrown in, exchange a life for a life. Take a mother's life spare the son. Though no words were uttered, Josiah Sanchez kept a surreptitiously gaze at the conwoman and knew what transpired between her and her God. "Ma'am you really shouldn't be here." Nathan said as he started stitching up the wound. Ezra's blood adorned his hands and lower arms. 'So much blood' she thought. 'Too much, please, please don't take my boy.' She heard Mr. Jackson's comment and thought it funny. Where else should she be? Maybe the gaming tables, not a bad idea actually. She did not want to watch her son die. Games of chance were things she knew, could control and manipulate. She took comfort in it, something Ezra would most definitely understand. She responded to Nathan's innocent remark.
"You really shouldn't be practicing medicine, let's both be glad neither of us do what we should." She smiled pleasantly when the healer gazed up at her with shock in his brown eyes. When he saw the small smile he chuckled.
"Well at least Ezra comes by his orneriness honestly."
"Yes," she sighed, "His father was trying at times."
This caused Josiah to laugh uproariously. He truly admired Maude Standish.
Outside on the porch Chris, Buck Vin and JD sat silently. Buck and JD for lack of anything better to do carried Mrs. Standish's luggage up to her customary suite. Only the best. Now the four men fidgeted outside resting on the small bench, pacing and sitting on the railing trying to whittle the time away. Then they heard Josiah's baritone laugh rock the inside of the room. Smiles of relief spread across their faces. Twenty minutes later the door opened. They all stood. The good news preceding the messenger. Nathan's toothy broad smile only cemented what they believed. "We've got the bleeding stopped. Bad head wound, concussion, no fracture. Three fractured ribs on the left side, should slow him down some. The knife missed all vital organs, traveled up between the muscle layers and embedded itself in one of his ribs." Chris let out an amused chuckle and Buck vocalized what they were all thinking, "Luckiest son of a bitch alive."
"You can say that again, brother." Josiah said coming to the door.
"Can we see him?" JD asked. He thought for sure Ezra was a dead man. By rights it should have been himself and not Ezra who lay bleeding and fighting for his life in Nathan's clinic. The crazy gambler had pulled another unselfish act and shoved the young sheriff out of harms way thus putting himself in jeopardy. JD hated when he did that, not unappreciative, but the guilt weighed heavily on the young man. He would rather have the broken ribs, and concussion and stitches just so Ezra would not have to go through it again. Yes again. Second time the unpredictable gambler had saved JD's life.
Nathan wanted to say, 'no,' but he also knew that the others had to see for themselves, beside he knew they would just sneak in and check on him without his permission anyhow. Nathan Jackson sighed and rolled with the tide, "Of course, come on in but keep it down." He warned.
Maude still sat on his son's bed but now on the left side. She glanced up when the other men entered. It did not surprise her. "He sleeping?" JD asked as he hesitantly edged up to the bed. He peered at the now cleaned face of the unconscious conman. A dark deep purple bruise wrapped itself around his forehead and halfway down his cheek. In the middle of the contusion a deep well sutured laceration swelled. A blanket had been pulled up to his bare shoulders and his left hand rested on top of the blanket, the wrist wrapped in white bandages where the ropes had cut through the skin. Mrs. Standish brushed a hand against her son's unbruised right cheek checking absently for fever. None so far. Nathan and Josiah made a good team. They could make a killing here if they actually charged for their services. She would approach them on that subject later on in the day.
"No JD he hasn't come around yet. It's gonna be a while." Nathan spoke softly, more for the young sheriff's benefit than for his patient.
"How much longer?" Buck asked.
"I don't know, a day or two." Jackson answered. Then Maude spoke up, resting her hand delicately on her son's slowly rising and falling bandaged chest. She could feel the strength returning to the beat. "Care to make a wager on that?" She drawled out. She ignored the exasperated look on the healer's face. Larabee chuckled, Vin mirrored his smirk. "A small wager." she continued. Josiah picked up the thread, "How much?"
Maude smiled relieved, the preacher actually understood. Tanner saw the brief relaxed expression that quickly crossed the beautiful features. Everyone dealt with pain and worry in different manners. Ezra and his mother were so much alike at time it was almost scary. No wonder those two fought. " A simple dollar. Guess a time whoever comes closest wins the pot. I say he comes to in twelve hours." She picked up Ezra's discarded black flat-brimmed hat and used it to collect the wages. All the men made bets, except Nathan, he could not bring himself to bet on the healthy recovery of one of his patients. They all understood. Josiah penciled down the times. Money clanged into the hat, Maude tried not to notice the blood that stained its silk liner.
The men gathered in the room when it neared a waged time. Nathan had not left the room. Mrs. Standish had left only to clean up and join Josiah for lunch. As it neared a marked time, the others would gather in the small room and wait for Ezra to come to. He would disappoint them. He lay unmoving in the bed, just as they had left him earlier that morning. It had to be one of the few times Maude Standish wished she lost a bet, Tanner mused. Each time they filed out the tracker watched as the mother gazed back at her son, wishing he would magically jump up and start playing cards. Instead her expression would falter only briefly before the ever-present smile spread across her features and she faced the rest of the world. Tanner kept his observations to himself, Josiah seemed think he had the woman figured out. He was in for a surprise. Maude Standish threw up more false trails and obstacles than her son. They knew him a whole lot longer than his mother and who would have thought the conman would pull such an irrationally unselfish act to save someone else's life and knowingly endanger his own. Vin had to admit he was beginning to become less and less jarred by such loyal acts of friendship from the gambler. Josiah, Vin mused, had no idea what he was getting into. Tanner laughed outright. He's a big boy he can handle himself, but then again he had never taken on the likes of Maude Standish.
Eleven and a half hours later they gathered quietly in the room. Nathan gazed up at the others. He did not understand how they could make a bet on something like this. They all came in quietly watching to see if the gambler came to or not. Jackson was surprised to find that though the men were worried there seemed to be a bit of amusement in the air as well. Strange, but not unwelcomed. Nathan should have been completely disgusted but secretly he wondered who would win. Maude rested her hand on her son's chest and then his forehead. She smiled knowingly at the others and settled down in the chair beside her son's bed. "Mr. Jackson could you please gather my winnings." As if on cue Ezra moaned, a leg moved slightly under the blankets. "How did she know?" JD whispered to Buck, as the others swore under their breaths, both for losing and relief. Maude answered his question, "JD, my dear boy," she drawled out kindly genuine relief lacing her words, "I've known him since he was an itty bitty baby, before then even. I know him better than anyone."
"Oh." JD answered not fully understanding. Buck would probably explain it to him later or maybe Josiah. For now another groan escaped from Ezra as he rolled his head.
"Easy son." Maude soothed. She rested a hand on the top of his head trying to offer some comfort.
Jackson made his way over to the other side of the bed and started speaking loudly, "Ezra can you hear me?" He waited as the green eyes fluttered open, rolled and closed. "Come on Ezra time to wake up. Ezra, open your eyes." Nathan said again loudly. The green eyes unrolled and opened, blinked, reopened, blinked again and stayed open. Nathan watched as Ezra tried to focus on him. The eyes were glazed and but responsive. "Welcome back. How ya feelin' pard?"
"Head hurts." He whispered softly. "I bet it does. You took quite a blow, can you tell me how many fingers I've got up?" Nathan held up his index finger before the hazy green half hooded eyes. He watched as Standish concentrated on the finger in front of him, "Three?" Nathan smiled and said, "Close enough." Ezra blinked tiredly then a thought hit him, "Mother?" Ezra stared at the healer, trying to figure out which dark blurry figure to actually speak to, it proved more difficult than he expected. Jackson smiled, "right beside you." A pained expression crossed the younger gambler's face, the healer could not be sure if it was from the injury or the questionable presence of his mother. Ezra carefully rolled his head and saw her smiling features, "Aww hell," he breathed out. Maude never missed a beat. "Ezra, son, you have made your mother proud."
He blinked at her and then it dawned on him what she was getting at it. A crooked dimpled smile creased his face as he tried to lift a hand to his eyes. Nathan easily stopped it by placing his hand over the gambler's. "How much you win?" Ezra's voice scratchy and dry as he tried focused on his mother's wavering features. She chuckled, "five dollars." The six listened and watched the exchange. Josiah and the others finally getting a better glimpse at the unusual relationship between mother and son. They began to develop a clearer understanding of how Maude and Ezra dealt with the world.
"I get 25%," he intoned.
"5%," she bargained back.
"You needed me to wake up... at least 10%," he countered, tiredly. Nathan wanted to put an end to the outlandish argument but he could not help but noticed how pleased the twosome seemed to be with the haggling.
"How about we settle on a good steak dinner at the hotel when you are on your feet?" She watched as his clouded mind tried to work out the angle. Maude could not hide the joy that she felt when her son bargained with her for the winnings. She watched as he moved his lips as if talking to himself. His brow furrowed, his eyes closed and he finally he breathed, "That's less than 10%, mother." Maude ignored the light sighs and soft laughter that echoed around the room. "Rest Ezra we'll discuss it later, when your mind is on a more even keel."
"Keel?" He whispered in puzzled response, his brow wrinkled over closed eyes, "Ahh mother, not the riverboats again." A sigh he nestled his head more comfortably in the pillow and uttered just loud enough for all to hear, "I don't feel much like swimming to shore again." The laughter that rang around the room was lost on the gambler as he fell into a deep slumber.
The six men and Maude Standish ate a quiet steak dinner at the hotel restaurant. It lacked most of the opulence she had become accustom to in New Orleans, but the company made up for the lack of atmosphere.
"How come Ezra would swim to shore if he were dealing on the river boats?" JD asked. He liked Ezra's mother. She treated him like a kid but then again if she could have a son as old as Ezra then JD guessed she could think of him as kid. Maude stared briefly at the young man, and then to Chris Larabee. The gunslinger merely nodded his head once, yes JD was that naive.
"Because Mr. Dunne on occasion, my son's alligator mouth sometimes gets his tadpole posterior in a lot of trouble."
Vin nearly choked on his steak. Buck spewed out his beer. Nathan covered his mouth and Chris bit back his laughter, "Some things never change, brothers." Sanchez laughed. JD contemplated what she said for a moment and then joined the others. They ate dinner taking great pleasure in Maude's stories of young Ezra Standish's exploits and misadventures, some contrived some twisted and manipulated around fact but most based in truth. Not that it mattered, the six peace keepers and lady conman caroused into the night, not leaving the camaraderie of the dinner table. Empty plates and partial full beer mugs littered the table. Vin was wiping tears from his eyes his sides hurt from laughing. He did not care about the validity of the tales Mrs. Standish wove, like her son, she could keep you in stitches.
Josiah Sanchez marveled fondly at the woman he sat beside. This morning she thought and almost did lose her only child. A few hours ago she broke down and cried in the privacy of her room for that near loss. Josiah had stood outside her door afraid to interrupt. Now she worked her magic to make the six men, her son considered family, find joy in a dismal day. She worked her charms on them like Ezra did on children. Josiah wondered if mother and son ever knew how much they complimented one another. Probably not, they spent too much time trying to cheat and out wit each other. He listened as she spun yet another tale. This one he knew to be true, for she introduced a character neither son nor mother ever mentioned.
"When lil' Ezra was about 4 years old his father thought it was his parental duty to introduce his son to the catholic church." She smiled at the men around the table. She had told enough tall tales to keep them guessing which stories were true or not. This one being true, "You see his poor father being raised an Irish Catholic thought his son should be brought up the same." She smiled amused at the memory. The other men listened intently. Ezra's father was a complete mystery, ground no one dared tread on. "He started taking Ezra to mass with him every Sunday, during the Christmas season." She sipped the same glass of whiskey that had sat in front of her all night. "This went on for about 4 Sundays. Then on Sunday, Christmas morning, his father dressed the boy in a fine suit with shoes." She paused and shook her head, " a chore in an of itself, that damn boy would never keep a pair of shoes on his feet." The others chuckled, she continued, "Anyhow off to church they go. Ezra forced his father, as usual to the first row, right in the middle, the boy wanted to be sure not to miss a thing. All through mass Ezra fidgeted, up and down, looking under the pew, over the bench, turning around, left and right. All the while his poor father trying to keep him still without appearing to." Maude laughed again at the memory. "I stood in the back of the church that mass, I had a feeling what was about to occur." She paused, shaking her head a smile lighting her face "That poor man never stood a chance. About hour an a half into mass just at a moment of silence, Ezra suddenly stands up on the pew and bellows out, "all right Da' that's' it. I've 'ad all I can take. It's all a sham. They're con'in us Da. Let's go." Maude dabbed tears of laughter out of her eyes. "His poor father tried desperately to pull him back into his seat but the little monster stood his ground, now stomping his feet, 'Da' he says, ' they're con'in us but good.' His father tried to grab his wrist but Ezra can be quite squirrelly at times." Maude explained matching the knowing glances from the six men around the table. She chuckled, "so he pulls from his father and explains, 'Da, we've been comin' here now for over 4 weeks and we still 'aven't gott'en to see God.' With that he one handed vaults over the pew into the aisle and cuts across the aisle to the head of the congregation and with his hands on his hips all indignant he shouts, 'Come on Da' lets play poker.' he fans his cards and then turns to leave but stops, faces the congregation and says, 'suckers' then walks out all disgusted." Maude dabbed at her eyes, mixture of unadulterated joy and loss at the memory. " His father stuck in the middle of the pew had to follow his son and vault over the bench front as well and chase the boy out the door." She sighed as the deep laughter rolled across the table, "Needless to say that was young Ezra's last official visit to an established church."
JD fought for breath and said, "Boy his dad must have tanned his hide."
Maude smiled and said, "Oh no Mr. Dunne, Ezra's father never raised a hand to the boy. He figured, his little boy would live a very long time especially if the good tended to expire early." Maude entertained the others into the early morning hours of the next day.
Ezra woke with the morning sun piercing through his eyes. He blinked and tried to roll over but broken ribs and a knife wound prevented it. His limbs felt heavy, and weighted, and his head hurt so he did not put much effort in to trying to adjust his position. "Ezra, darlin' you awake?" He heard his mother's voice. Ezra could not figure out how his mother got to Nathan's. Why was she at Nathan's? He followed the voice.
"Mother is that you?" He did not realize his mother sat beside him in the rocking chair.
"Of course it is darling. How are you feeling?" She leaned forward resting a practiced hand on his forehead still no fever. Mr. Jackson did indeed do good work.
"Fine." He muttered, gawd his throat was dry.
"That may work with your friends but not with me." She sighed. Sometimes she wondered if she taught her son too well.
"My head hurts, it hurts to breathe," he answered quietly. Suddenly Nathan was at his side and lifted his head off the pillow forcing some tepid tea down his throat. "Drink some of this Ezra, it'll make you feel better." It tasted awful but it did feel good to get some liquid, no matter how foul. "Gawd that's horrible." Standish croaked.
"Watch your manners." His mother warned. Nathan turned away to hide his smile at Ezra's puppy whipped expression. "Now son I've got to catch the morning stage." She ignored the hurt expression that crossed her son's bruised face. "You just listen to what Mr. Jackson has to say and you'll be just fine." She stood to leave when a gentle hand rested on hers. She turned and stared down at her grown son, she had missed allot of his growing up after the loss of his father, for that she was sorry. But he had turned out to be a better man than neither she nor his father had ever hoped to expect. "Mother..." she waited, the same hurt and despair still shown in his eyes at her leaving even after all this time. He swallowed fighting to keep his eyes open, Nathan had given him something for the pain, "my 10%" barely a whisper a sly smile creasing his dimpled face. Maude patted his hand, relieved he was not angry at her abrupt departure and said, "Your friends ate it last night." she smiled back. His eyes had glazed over and fluttered closed. She rested a comforting hand on his head as he muttered an, "aww hell."
Josiah Sanchez walked Maude Standish to the stage. The other lawmen watched from the boardwalk of the saloon, with Mrs. Travis. "You think he'll ever win her." Buck asked, no one in particular. "I don't know Buck but if he does I think Josiah would learn what is meant by grabbing a tiger by the tail." Mary Travis responded. Chris and Vin nodded in agreement.
"Watch over my boy Josiah." Maude asked as she prepared to enter the stage. Sanchez smiled and nodded, "God watches over fools and children Maude, that leaves the rest to us."
"Give this to Ezra, it might not work. I must confess I would be surprised if it did." She handed an envelope to the preacher with her son's name on it. "But if this is all you and Nathan require for services rendered in aiding my son so be it." With a flourish she disappeared into the dark confines of the coach and rode off. Josiah watched the coach slowly fade away in the distance. "What a woman."
A few months later, Ezra Standish paced nervously outside at the base of the church steps. He knew the services would start soon. The place was packed. How his mother ever got him into this mess he did not know but he would get even. A strong winter wind blew off the desert, cutting threw his coat. "Aww hell." he muttered he was going to the saloon. Just as he was about to make his hasty retreat two sets of strong hands grabbed each of his upper arms. "Oh no you don't. A deals a deal." Chris Larabee said. Josiah had made the others privy about his and Nathan's payment from Maude. Chris and Buck now reined him back toward the church and up the stairs into the building. The Church had standing room only. Vin, Nathan and JD were already there. The tracker mirrored Ezra's uneasy posture and flight response. Josiah stood before the congregation, "Ahh the prodigal son has arrived." Heads and bodies swiveled around and stared at the standing six peacekeepers. Standish's face turned as red as his crimson wool tailored coat. He muttered a curse under his breath and earned an elbow in his ribs for his trouble. He held his tongue when he growled up at Larabee. Buck pulled the gambler's black hat off his head and shoved it into the gambler's chest, forcing the conman to hold it. Josiah smiled and continued, "before we begin I would like to make one thing clear to all the youngsters who are attending tonight's service and to our Mr. Standish,"
Ezra became increasingly more red-faced, as people turned and stared at him briefly from their seats. Ezra clenched his jaw not sure what to expect. He wanted nothing more than to slink out of this suffocating building. He listened as the preacher spoke, "barring any miracles this fine Christmas eve mass, God will NOT be making any personal appearances tonight." Laughter boiled from the congregation.
Ezra moaned and dropped his head. Both Buck and Chris grabbed him preventing any hasty retreat. Standish gazed down the aisle a crooked smile found his clear features, and matched Josiah's stare. Ezra would get even.
On this Christmas eve night, dark snow laden clouds hung low in the night sky, a biting wind whipped through the small burg of Four Corners. One building on the edge of the small one street town seemed immune to the cold. The Church windows gave off a soft glow and silhouettes could be seen through the windows. With a congregation full of varying religions and beliefs, a deep slow growing laughter rolled through the congregation, vibrating off the walls and echoing into the still night. In the back of that modest building stood six men, finding family in each other's company. (However the red-faced gambler, held fast by his surrogate bothers, plotted a sweet revenge on the seventh member.
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