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And the Most Enduring of These

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           He opened his eyes, trying to figure out why he was so cold.  The bed under him was comfortable enough but… everything in front of him was black.  He waited a minute trying to adjust to the absence of light.  It was so dark he could barely see his hand in front of his face.

          And in one quick flash of pain, it all came back to him.  He groaned, trying to ignore the rocks and trees dangled around his legs.  Avalanche.  He was laying on his side, effectively trapped from the waist down. They had been crossing the last small range to Four Corners, trying to get home in time for Christmas.  Not that Ezra would admit to that being the reason for his hurry.


            “Ezra?”  Buck suddenly questioned.  “You okay, pard?”

            “I am in one piece, Mr. Wilmington,”  Ezra drawled slowly.

            “Good enough to get me out of this?”  Buck was not put off by Ezra’s avoidance of a direct answer.

            There was a moment of silence.  “That, I fear,”  Ezra said quietly, “maybe beyond me at the moment.”

            Buck took a minute to consider this.  So, the gambler was lying about how bad he was hurt.  “Damn.”

            A slight chuckle answered him.  “That does seem to sum up the situation.”

            “The horses okay?”  Buck wondered, gasping as a wave of pain ran up his leg from where it was trapped.  He was vaguely surprised by that, he had thought he was numb everywhere.

            “I believe they are on their way home,  which should facilitate our rescue, as I’m sure Mr. Tanner will be able to track them, even in the newer snow.”

            Worried by how Ezra’s voice kept fading in and out, Buck twisted, trying to see though the dark and the snow.  He strongly suspected that Ezra might be in worse trouble than he was.  From what he could feel, he wasn’t hurt that badly, though he thought his right leg might be broken.  The problem was the cold.  He didn’t know how long he had been out but it had been full daylight when they had been swept down the hill. 

            “Ezra, how long do you think it’s been?”

             “You were unconscious for several hours,”  Ezra confirmed.  “I am sure it is fast approaching midnight.”

            Shifting carefully, Buck tried to slide out from under the confining debris.  Pain erupted long his leg again.  “Shit, shit!”

            “Buck,”  Ezra said in that overly patient way that usually got on Buck’s nerves.  “Buck, I believe it would be better if you remained still.”

            Taking a deep breath against the pain, Buck nodded.  “Yeah, might be right there.  Got any brilliant ideas for getting us out of here?” 

            “Not at the moment,”  came the dry reply.

            Buck sighed, deciding that staying still really wasn’t so bad.  For a minute he let his thoughts drift, thinking about the presents tucked in his saddlebags, about the dinner Angel had promised him, about how Chris had finally agreed to spend Christmas with Mary and Billy.  He chuckled silently.  The incident with the wagon train had rattled Buck’s friend more than Chris would ever admit, and even through that had been almost eight months earlier, he had been much more attentive towards Mary in that time.

            “Buck!”

            “What?”  he finally managed to say.

            “I think you should try to stay awake, Mr. Wilmington,”  Ezra said simply.  “I am not familiar with all the effects of hypothermia but I know losing consciousness is generally not considered to be a good sign.”

            The long winded explanation amused Buck enough for a laugh.  “I’ll tell you, Ezra, long boring explanations like that ain’t gonna help keep me awake.”

            He was answered by a rare laugh from the gambler, could almost imagine the glitter in the green eyes.  “And what would?”

            “Oh hell, Ezra, as much as you can talk, talk to me about something interesting,”  Buck demanded.

            There was the whisper of a sigh behind him.  “It might be better if you were to talk, Buck, that way I would be aware of any change in your mental status.”

            Buck’s eyes started to drift closed again though.  “Sorry, Ezra, but I’m too cold to talk.”

            Silence again.  A touch trailed along Buck’s back, making him jump.  “Ezra, what are you doing?”

            “Attempting to secure enough body heat between us to allow you to ramble on,”  Ezra replied.

            Warmth, blessed, comforting, wonderful warmth covered his back, seemed to reach all the way through him.  “Damn, Ezra, you need to eat more,”  Buck commented.  “You don’t weight hardly anything.”

            “In my profession, the ability to move swiftly should never be compromised with extra pounds.”

            “Yeah,”  Buck snuggled back a little, pressing into the heat, refusing to consider his reputation.  “But now you don’t have to worry about being run out of town or shot in the back, do you?”

            There was another silence.  “No, thanks to you and the others.”  Ezra’s voice seemed to carry all the warmth that was holding Buck so carefully.

            Strangely touched, Buck said quietly, “I’m glad you finally found us too.”

            “So,”  Ezra’s voice returned to it’s normal near sarcastic level.  “Have you found enough heat to regale me with your latest amorous adventures?”

           

            He talked a long time, then listened as Ezra spoke of his adventures on the riverboats.  When it was his turn again Buck told Ezra how happy he was about Chris and Mary, how proud he was of JD.  Ezra replied with how much he enjoyed Vin’s quiet  company, how proud he was to ride with Chris, what he had learned from Nathan.

            Eventually though not even Ezra’s warmth and voice could keep the cold from sapping Buck's strength.  He knew his stories were starting to ramble but could do nothing to prevent it.  With an effort of intense concentration, he managed to say, “Ezra, I’m proud to have had you with me these passed couple years.  I’m sorry we ain’t gonna make another one.”

            “Buck,”  Ezra said sharply, trying to draw his attention.  “Do you know why I stayed after Marshall Renfield came and we were dismissed?”  Buck shook his head.  “Because you all came looking for me.  In all my life, Buck, no one had ever come for me, not because they wanted something, not for a con, but just because it was me.”

            “Ezra…”  Buck knew he starting to doze again.

            “And I refuse to let you leave now!  Mr. Dunne would never forgive me.”

            “He can be a hand full,”  Buck muttered.

            The warmth seemed to grow for a minute.  “You came for me, Buck, and you have my word that I will always be there for you.”

            There was so much determination in the soft voice, that Buck almost found the strength to laugh.  “I believe you, Ezra.  Ain’t sure how you’re gonna do it this time but…”

            “It’s all right, Buck.”  Ezra said with a smile in the smooth voice.  “You can sleep now.  The others are here.”

            Through the first streaks of Christmas dawn, Buck could make out the image of horses, coming cautiously down the steep incline.  They had made it.

            “I see them,”  he said hoarsely, the cold and long night having robbed his voice.  “Thanks, Ezra.  Don’t thank I could have made it without you.”

            “Thank you, Buck,”  Ezra said.

            “For what?”  Buck returned.

            “For more than you can ever possibly imagine.”  Ezra said from very far away.

 

            Buck jerked awake.

          “Easy, Buck.”  A hand touched his shoulder, not holding him down, just offering assurance. Warmth was the first thing Buck acknowledged. His vision cleared and he was  stared at the wooden roof over his head. The small room Nathan used as a clinic was filled with sunlight and warmth from the iron stove.  Shifting his gaze, he found Chris sitting next to him.  Nathan was behind him, pouring something in a large cup. Vin was standing to one side, his head down. Buck lay back, a large smile splitting his face.

            “Damn, we made it.”  He looked up at Chris.  “How’d you find us in the dark like that?”

            “Weren’t that dark,”  Vin suddenly spoke from the other side of the room.  “Full moon, white snow.”

            “Well, it was plenty dark where….”  Buck paused, looking around.  “Where’s Ezra?  Back in his room?”

            The silence was heavy and sad.  Buck glanced up at Chris, startled and scared to see the tears shining in his eyes.  “Chris?”

            “Ezra’s dead, Buck,”  Chris said softly.  “He broke his neck in the fall.”

            Buck stared at them, glancing between the three men.  They all wore the same sorrow, all had tears glittering in their eyes, all seemed to have aged in only a few hours.

            “No… no…,”  Buck denied, shaking his head.  “No, that ain’t possible.

            “Buck,” Chris started.

            “No, Chris,”  Buck cut him off.  “You don’t understand!  He kept me talking. Damnit! he’s the one kept me warm, kept me alive.”

            Nathan stepped forward, put his hand on Buck’s shoulder.  “Buck, when a man is freezing, hurting like you were, the mind can do all kind of …”

            “No, no,”  Buck turned away from the too kind eyes, closing his own.  The voice had been real, the warmth had been real, the promise had been real.  He could feel it in his soul.

           

            Everyone headed off, Chris with a soft touch to Buck’s shoulder, a promise to be back for him in a little while.  Buck only nodded, pulling the blankets tighter around him, feeling the wheelchair shift as he did.  There had never been any argument over whether they would get him to the funeral.  JD had produced the wheelchair and the others had managed from there.  Most of the town had come out. Mary and Billy stayed to the side,  as if sensing that Chris belonged with the others, the six men who were standing together against a loss that was soul deep. 

            He didn’t actually remember much of the service, though he had wondered at how hard it must have been on Josiah, how much worse it must be to say words over a friend the day after Christmas.  Taking a deep breath of the frigid air, Buck sighed.  Of the others, only Josiah and Vin had believed him.  Unlike the others, they didn’t try to talk him out of the knowledge that Ezra had been with him. He looked over at the small dark wood cross that carried only the gamblers name.

            “I’m sorry it was you and not me, Ezra. Vin and Josiah says there’s a reason behind what I think. Couldn’t get either one to tell me what they thought it was.”

            Brushing at the tears that had started falling, he said, “Guess I don’t really need them to tell me.  Guess even an old dog like me can tell when love is too strong to let go.”

            It struck him suddenly at how plain everything was; the brown cross, the white snow and black earth.  He smiled.  Ezra had liked color.  Taking off his bandanna, he laid it over the marker.  As if the voice just now reached him, he thought of the words Josiah had spoken.

           “There are those,”  Josiah had said in that deep, calming voice,  “that will wonder how unfair it was that our brother Ezra died on Christmas day.  To those folks, I say, Ezra’s death and Buck’s survival are, rather, a reaffirmation of what Christmas is all about – the miracle of enduring love.   When we remember Ezra, let us always remember that above all else.”

           Nodding, Buck whispered,  “Guess that sums it up real nice.  You enjoy heaven, Ezra. Keep all those angels on their toes till I get there.”  Smiling, he added, “And I’m holding you to that promise."

 

            Hot.  He was smothering under the heat.  Josiah rolled over, fighting to breath.  Smoke.  Burning. Damn, he was dreaming of hell again.  Or maybe he’d just finally gotten there.

            “Josiah!”

            Ezra’s voice.  Not in hell then.  Dreaming.  Ezra wouldn’t be in hell.

            “Josiah!  You have to wake now!”

            He’d missed that smooth southern drawl, that hint of indignation, that touch of sarcasm.

            “Josiah, please wake up.”

            Taking a deep breath, Josiah fought his way out of sleep. Getting his eyes open was tougher than he would have thought and he didn’t understand why.  Darkness meet his gaze, darkness filled with heat and smoke.  He was awake immediately, coughing, choking.

           “Ah, damn,”  Josiah muttered.  “This is hell.”

           “No, but you are closer than you might feel comfortable with,”  Ezra continued.  “You are in the Red Fork Inn, which is currently on it’s way to burning down.  And I fear if you do not get your riding anatomy out of that flea infested bed, you will be headed for that place all good Christians fear.”

          “Fire?”  Josiah said groggily.

          Rolling out of bed, Josiah dropped to the floor.  Coughing hard, he tried to remember the way he had come into the hotel last night, Red Fork’s only hotel, a three story, fire waiting to happen.  Smoke rose through the floor, blinding him and making breathing even more difficult.

            “This way,”  the familiar soft voice urged.

            Something brushed his shoulder, making him jump.  He knew that voice, that voice that wasn’t a dream.  He started crawling forward.

            “Ezra?”

            “Talking would probably not be prudent at this point, Mister Sanchez,”  Ezra joked lightly.

            The door loomed in front of Josiah.  He reached up, opening it just enough to squeeze through.  The hall was filled with even thicker smoke.  Josiah natural protectiveness overrode his fear and amazement at hearing Ezra’s voice.

           “We have to warn –“

           “They are all out,”  Ezra told him.  “None of the other patrons of this fine establishment would venture to the third floor to alert you.”

           Josiah rubbed at his smoke filled eyes, turned left.

          “No, no,”  Ezra chided calmly.  “To your right, sir.”

          For an instant Josiah thought of arguing with the man but since there was a reason for him to be hearing his departed friend, he decided it would be best to follow his advice.

         “Ezra, you’re dead near two years now,”  he said.

         “Yes, I know,”  Ezra said patiently.  With a touch of amusement, he added, “And it seems to be a good thing, otherwise I would not be here to assist you in escaping this fire trap passing for a hotel.  Really, Mister Sanchez, it would have been better to sleep in the livery rather than this bug ridden establishment.”

         Laughing made Josiah cough more but he couldn’t help it.  It was so good to hear Ezra carry on.  Traveling blind now, Josiah’s hand touched a wall.  He squinted into the dark, seeing the glow of flames toward the stairwell.  Panic hit him, he had seen men burned once on board a ship, the smell and screams still lingered in his memory.  He started to surge to his feet only to feel the slightest brush of wind against his back.

         “Stay down,”  Ezra snapped.  “Just follow my voice.”

         Fighting away his fear, Josiah vaguely wondered if he were already dead, or crazy.  “Ezra, I don’t understand.  How come you’re here?”

         A soft laugh and Josiah could almost see the gold tooth flash.  “I have already explained that, Mister Sanchez.  To save you.”  More softly, he added,  “The others need you.”

        Sorrow swamped Josiah.  “Ain’t been much good to anyone lately it seems.  First you, then Miss Nettie.”

        “Josiah,”  Ezra said quietly.  “You know that death is the way of things.  You mourn the ones gone, and comfort the ones remaining.  You did the former for considerably longer than necessary and the latter most admirably.”

        The smoke was scratching his throat, making him light headed.  “It was you with Buck, wasn’t it?”

        “This way,”  Ezra urged instead of answering.

        Josiah turned again but his strength was flagging.  “How much further?”

       “Not far, only a few feet to the window.”

       “Few feet,”  Josiah said to himself.  The only thing he could see was darkness.

       “Those were kind words you spoke at my funeral, Josiah. Thank you.”

       He wanted desperately to talk to Ezra, to ask about heaven, about what it was like, about being dead.  But the oxygen was too precious now, his determination to make it to the window too strong to let him waste effort on questions.  Wood met his questing hand, a few inches above that he felt the coolness of glass.  All he had to do was open the window and climb out to the roof.  His numb fingers fumbled with the latch.

       “You can do it,”  Ezra urged calmly.

       The reluctant window rose and the open air sucked the smoke away from him.  Josiah heaved himself over the sill, landing on his back on the slanted roof and taking great gulps of the life giving air.  Now all he had to do was get off the roof.

       “To the rear of the building,”  Ezra said.  “There is a wooden ladder nailed to the sidewall.”

       The smoke was pouring from the windows of the hotel, seemed to take on a life of it’s own, following him, refusing to let it’s victim escape.  Still woozy, he stayed on his hands and knees.  Josiah could make out the sound of the crowd in front fighting to contain the blaze.

       “Lead the way,”  he told Ezra.

       A chuckle answered him and a minute later he was looking down the thirty feet to the ground.  At least he hoped the ground was down there. He paused to take a few deep breaths, steadied himself.  Carefully, very aware of how dizzy he was and still fighting not to cough, Josiah eased himself off the side and slowly climbed down the simple wooden boards.  When he touched ground, his legs gave way and he found himself on his butt in the cold alley. It occurred to him that the voice he had been following was quiet now.

       “Ezra?”

       “Yes?”

       “Just wanted to make sure you were still here.”

       “Misters Tanner and Wilmington have just arrived.  They will be searching for you.”

       “Ezra,”  Josiah said softly. “I wish I could have saved you.”

       “You did, Josiah,”  Ezra whispered back.

        And he was gone.  Josiah knew it, just as he’d known it really was Ezra and not just his air starved mind.  The sound of running feet near the alley entrance drew his attention up.  Buck and Vin trotted toward him.

       “You okay, pard?”  Buck asked in concern.

       Josiah smiled up.  He would tell the other two about his encounter later, being that they would believe him.  For now, he only said, “Yes, a friend showed me the way out.”

 

            It was high spring, the time of year when flowers exploded across the windswept prairie, giving color to the normally drab world.  Josiah smiled at that thought as he laid the flowers to join another small bunch on the grass covered grave.  He looked up at the new bright red bandanna hanging off the simple wooden cross.  As soon as one faded even a little, Buck brought a new one out.

           “You sure brought some color to our lives, Ezra,”  Josiah said with a smile.  “Reckon you still do.  Told my tale about you saving me.  Bucklin believed, of course, and Vin.  Others think I was smoke addled.”

          Kneeling down, he pulled some of the weeds away from the well tended grave.  “Made a good story though, had everyone smiling and remembering, even if not believing.”

          “Buck told me why he thought you were still helping.  Seems to me that he pinned it exact, that love is too strong to give up.”  He stood and slipped his hat back on.  “Thanks for not giving up on us, Ezra.  God bless you.”

          A cool wind blew through the cemetery, making the red cloth wave cheerfully at him.

 

 

            Nathan took a deep breath, just like he always did in these kind of dreams, in the ones where he knew he couldn’t save someone.  The dreams always seemed to worsen when Rain and the children were gone. The darkness parted and Ezra was standing in front of him, blood soaking the tailored jacket, turning the fine white shirt a sickly crimson, running in slow rivers down to color the red dust.  Nathan’s eyes snapped shut, he didn’t want to see the recrimination in the gambler’s green eyes.

            Sinking slowly to his knees, Nathan pleaded quietly, “I’m sorry.  God, Ezra, I’m sorry.”

            “Nathan, the martyr act is really not you.”

            Ezra’s voice was sharp, but there was gently quality to it also, and something different.  Nathan opened his eyes to find the other man standing rather defiantly in front of him, arms crossed, hat pushed back.  The blood was gone, the dapper gambler looking fit and fine and a little put out.

            Coming to his feet, Nathan glanced around, wiping the tears from his eyes.  This wasn’t the nightmare he had been expecting.  They were standing in the saloon on what looked like a sunny afternoon.  With a sigh, he accepted that maybe this wouldn’t be too bad.  Still, he wished he could wake up.

            “Mister Jackson,”  Ezra said sternly.  “I also require you awake, but when you have accomplished that goal there is something you need to do…”

            “This is a dream, Ezra,”  Nathan argued simply.

            At that Ezra scratched his chin, then squinted up at the healer.  “Well, this isn’t exactly your average dream.”  The gambler managed to look a little hesitate.  “Unlike our more open-minded teammates, Mister Jackson, you are a hard man to converse with.”

            Looking at him blankly, Nathan finally smiled.  “Ezra, you don’t make anymore sense in dreams than you did alive.”

            The green eyes he remembered so well regarded him for a moment, as if trying to decide what to say.  “Mister Jackson, Mister Larabee has been injured.  You need to go retrieve him before it is too late.”

            Nathan flinched, so this was the same dream, the one where he was helpless to do anything for his friends.  A heavy sigh drew his attention back to Ezra.

            “Nathan, you need to wake up and go find Chris,” he insisted.

            “I’ve had this dream before –“

            “I am aware of your nightmares, Mister Jackson, but rest assured that this is not one of them.”

            “Ezra, you’re dead, so this has got to be a dream,”  Nathan countered a little strongly.

            “I am more than aware of my demise,”  Ezra snapped back.  “And we are wasting time having me repeat myself.  You are needed –“

           “This isn’t real,”  Nathan returned.  “I’m dreaming and when I wake up all I’m gonna do is feel bad about you being dead.”

          “I cannot understand how you can argue with me even when I’m dead!”  Ezra’s eyes flashed just like Nathan remembered.

          A touch of sorrow hit him, he also remembered those jade eyes filled with shame and pain when Nathan would sometimes say something that hurt the southerner. He shook off the sorrow – it was just a dream.

            “Argue with you?’  Nathan nearly yelled.  “You’re the damn stubborn man who argued with me every single day we knew each other.  So, don’t you be trying to tell me when to ride out in the middle of a storm….”

            He stumbled to a stop.  If it was a dream, how did he know about the storm?  It had been a peaceful night when he had gone to sleep.  Still, he was probably just hearing the thunder. 

            “Chris is in trouble.  He is at the crossroads near the turn to James’ ranch –“

            “You’re saying this is some kind of… vision, like Vin claims Indians have?”  Nathan ventured with a notice of sarcasm.

            Looking hopeful, Ezra took a step closer.  “Yes, exactly.  You have to –“

            “Damnit, Ezra, despite what you think I ain’t no superstitious field nigger –“

            As soon as he had said it Nathan knew, after seven years, why he had argued with Ezra, knew why he took things the man said in ways that the gambler had never meant them. Ezra had made him feel like a ignorant field hand.  Not on purpose, just by being what Nathan had always thought of as the master.  He looked at the man standing in front of him, into green eyes fill with a too well remembered hurt.

            “I never thought that, Nathan,”  Ezra started. “Never.”

            Shock still evident in his voice, Nathan now took a step forward.  “I know that.  I know that. I ain’t mad at you  It was never you.  It was me.” 

           And he knew the other part of the truth, the one that had nagged him since Ezra’s death. “I… oh, God, Ezra, it hurt to lose you.  I never told anyone how much I missed you.  I never told you how much I …. Thought of you like a brother …I ….”

            “Nathan,”  Ezra said softly, a smile gracing his face now.  “I knew.”

            For a long time, Nathan just stood, staring at the gambler’s gentle look, letting the truth and warmth soak through his tired bones.  Finally, a slight smile worked it’s way into Ezra’s eyes and he smiled, gold tooth flashing in the afternoon sun.

            “So, Mister Jackson, do you wish to continue this argument or would you rather wake up and rescue your wayward leader?”

            Despite all their words, Nathan still shook his head.  “Ezra…”

            “Nathan!”

            Nathan sat straight up in bed.  Thunder rumbled outside the window.  With a sigh he lay back, remembering snatches of the dream. He looked out into the darkness.  The dream was fading now, leaving only feelings behind.  Watching the water run in rivers down the sagging glass Nathan felt two images raise to the surface – Ezra’s soft, forgiving voice and his urgency that Chris was in trouble.  Nathan snorted at the idea, started to turn over, go back to sleep.

            “…I could not have wished for a better brother…”

            The words floated softly in the room.  Nathan came up off the bed, grabbed hastily for his bag, slipped on his slicker and headed out to look for Vin.  As he started to close the door behind him he said, “Damn, conman, you have to win every argument.”

            Over the rain, he thought he heard a sly laugh.

 

            He used to like rain.  When he had been raising horses, spring rain meant good grass and a fat herd.  He knew the farmers would appreciate it, knew it would mean more food for town.  Chris almost laughed.  The lawmen had been enough to feed when they had first come to town, now there was JD’s two children, Nathan’s three and Josiah’s adopted…. How many now?  Eight or nine?  A soft smile lifted his mouth.  And soon one of his. 

            The rain pounding down now though didn’t remind him of anything but death.  When the bridge had given way under his horse they had tumbled into the fast moving creek, then were swept down stream. Now, he was firmly trapped between the dead animal and the unforgiving rocks.  Chris sighed. The water wasn’t even particularly cold, though it was rising steadily under the continuing rain.  The sad part was that he could have fought his way out from under the horse if his leg wasn’t twisted between the stones.  And in the thin dawn light he could see the trail of his blood joining the water.

            Once more Chris found himself on the verge of laughter.  He found it hard to believe that once he would have welcomed the chilling, permanent darkness closing in around him.  That was before six other men had come in to his life, before they showed him by their unshakable loyalty and steadfast friendship that life could be good again.

            Unbidden, it came to him that Ezra had hated the rain.  The memory brought a frown and a touch of guilt.  He hadn’t thought about the smart-assed gambler in a long while.

            “Life is not meant to be spent thinking about those who have gone before.  And I did not hate the rain.  I disliked what it did to my coats.”

            “Aw, shit,”  Chris muttered softly.  Now he was hallucinating, hearing Ezra’s soft southern drawl. 

            While he felt he should have been worried, Chris found a certain relief in being able to remember the voice so well after all these years. 

            “Mister Larabee?”

            Chris knew answering the soft call meant he was going to be talking to himself, but right now he wanted to think about something besides dying on a rainy summer evening.

           “Ezra.”

           There was silence and then the slightly aggrieved tone came back and said, “You aren’t going to inform me that I’m decreased, are you?”

           “No,”  Chris said, “I reckon you’d know that better than anyone.”

           Laughter sounded over the rain.  “A wise answer.”

          As the merriment died down, Chris asked his unseen visitor, “You here cause I ain’t getting out of this one?”

          “I am not the angel of death, Mister Larabee.”  He could hear the indignation in the smooth voice, like when Ezra had argued into riding against James’ men from behind a barred cell.  “If you will recall, I did help Buck and Josiah.”

          Warmth touched Chris’ thoughts even as he struggled to keep his head above the water.  “Appreciated that, Ezra.”

          Silence again, as if he had surprised the other man.  “Nathan is on his way, Chris,”  Ezra told him.

          Chris didn’t bring up the thought that the healer would be too late.  He closed his eyes as he remembered the pain of losing Ezra, coupled with the joy that Buck had survived.  A chill snaked down his back as the water now reached his neck and he fought a little, managing to get straighter.  A trail of heat went through the water, easing the chill and the fear.  He suddenly realized that this was how Buck must have felt when Ezra had talked to him, had kept him alive while he waited rescue from the snow.  Well, if he was going to talk to the man, Chris was going to ask one question he had always wondered about.

         “Ezra, why’d you come back that day?” He knew he didn’t need to mention the Seminole village for Ezra to know what he was talking about.

         There was a slight hesitation, then Ezra said, “Because I wanted to prove to myself that I was not a coward.  Because…. because I desired to belong.”

         The first reason didn’t surprise Chris, he had figured it out before.  He considered the other one, and found that it didn’t surprise him either.  Through all the lame excuses for staying and for joining them in the first place, Chris had sensed in Ezra the same thing he had felt in all of them, the same need, the same drive to belong.

        “Mister Larabee?”  Ezra drawled softly.  “Why did you let me stay?”

         Despite the deepening water, despite talking to a dead friend, Chris had to smile.  “Because you proved you weren’t a coward.  Because we needed each other.”

         The water grew a little warmer around him and he could hear the smile in Ezra’s voice.  “So true.”

        Chris looked down at the bloody water, over at the log that was holding the water in it’s small pocket.  “Ezra, will I be able to see things, you know, afterwards?  Mary’s –“

        “It’s uncharacteristic for you to surrender so easily,”  Ezra observed with a touch of heat.

        “Hell, Ezra, I’ve tried for two hours now to get loose and nothing’s moved.  I even tried to get that big log out of the way.  If I could move it, the water wouldn’t be trapped in this little pool here.”

        Straightening again, Chris emphasized his point by spitting out a mouthful of water.  He wasn’t afraid, more sad than anything.  Mary would be raising their child alone.  No, that was wrong.

        “I guess Mary’ll have plenty of help with the baby,”  he offered aloud.  “He’ll have five uncles to help raise him.”  He twisted as a small wave splashed clear water over his lips.  One more thing, then maybe going wouldn’t be so bad. “Ezra, I’m sorry there ain’t six uncles.”

        “Chris – “

        The sound of too stressed timber filled the growing daylight.  Chris snapped his head around as best he could, watched in horror as a tall pine, its support washed away, fell toward him.  He closed his eyes, waiting for the pain.  There was a tremendous crash, the roar of water and snapping of shattered wood.  Water splashed up over him and he held his breath, wondering what good it would do.

       Air.  Warm summer air touched his face, filled his lungs.  Sputtering, Chris opened his eyes.  The falling tree had missed him.  More importantly, it had dislodged the other log, sending it down river and letting the small pond become part of the flow.  Even though he was still trapped, the immediate danger had passed.

      Chris whispered.  “Ezra?”

      A hearty laugh answered him.  “No, no, Mister Larabee.  As much as I would like to take credit for this, it is beyond my meager capabilities.”

     “Damn.”  Chris admitted in a shaky voice,  “Guess miracles do happen.”

     “And sometimes they come disguised as second chances,”  Ezra said, voice fading softly into the sound of the running water.

 

     The summer rain had settled to a wet drizzle that would soon be driven away by the sunlight trying to cut through the clouds.  Chris shifted a little in the wheelchair, glad they had reached the cemetery.  It was just too embarrassing having Nathan push him around in the damn thing.  Nathan gave a little grunt as he shoved the contraption over a rock and up to the grave.

     They had not talked about coming here, had not really talked at all except when Nathan had expressed his belief that Chris had inherited Ezra’s luck.  If the gunslinger had managed to pry himself out before Nathan had gotten there, he would have probably bleed to death, due to a deep cut on his thigh.  When Nathan had said the gambler’s name, Chris had stared at him, desperately wanting to ask what had prompted the healer to leave his warm bed on a stormy night and come riding out to find him.  He had wanted to ask but he hadn’t.

     “Looks like it’s time for Buck to be buying a new bandanna,”  Nathan observed as he came around and squatted next to the chair.

     Chris only nodded.  He looked up into the lightening sky, thinking about what had happened.  It had been good to be able to tell Ezra what he had felt all those years ago when the gambler had died.  It had also been good to know that the others were right; their friend was still watching out for them.

     “I argued with him,”  Nathan said quietly.

     The words were lightly spoken, but Chris could hear the question in them, could hear the need to believe warring with the need to deny.

     He had no answer for the other man, only another question, “Do you think it was real, Nathan?”

     Nathan frowned.  After what seemed a very long time, his frown turned up at the edges and he said with a laugh, “Reckon Ezra’s the only person would argue with me after he was dead.”

     This time Chris’ nod was occupied by a smile of his own.  “Well, I’m sitting here, so that must mean something.”

     A warm, comfortable silence claimed them and for just a minute Chris thought he could hear a very familiar laugh.  He looked over at Nathan.

    “Think you could roll me over to the general store, Nathan, I understand Misses Potter just got some new red bandanas in.”

 

     JD put his head into his hands and fought off the tears.  He vaguely realized that the tears wouldn’t have fallen, they would have frozen to his cheeks.  He looked around, once more seeing only snow and white for as far as he could.  Turning, he went back inside the small, warm room. The blizzard had come on fast and hard, burying the town, keeping everyone in or everyone out; keeping him and Casey isolated in Nathan’s place, keeping Nathan at the reservation.  He went back into the small room.

     The birth only five hours before had been easy.  It wasn’t as if he hadn’t done it five times before; first with Nathan’s help, then four times on his own.  His second son had been in a hurry to get in to the world, practically falling into his hands after an hour of labor.  Casey was fine, the bleeding having stopped.

     He turned and looked at his wife with total love.  She still looked so young, despite the harsh life and demanding country, despite the five children. His gaze shifted to the crib, to the little gasps for air he could hear even over the hiss of the gas lamps.  Feeling guilty for the moment he had stepped out, he rushed to the swinging wooden crib and eased his son into his arms. A hour earlier the baby had started having trouble breathing, and JD had no idea what to do. 

     “You can’t blame yourself for that, Mister Dunne, you are not a doctor.”

     JD’s head came up and he smiled, wide and in relief.  “Ezra!”

     There was a moment of silence and JD wondered if he hadn’t heard what he thought he had. 

     “You don’t seemed especially surprised to hear from a dead man, Mister Dunne.”  Even Ezra’s vaulted control couldn’t hide his amused shock at JD’s reaction.

     “Heck, Ezra,”  JD explained patiently, “’cept for me and Vin, you’ve talked to all the other guys.  I’ve been waiting nearly eighteen years to hear from you.”

     “Mister Larabee and Mister Jackson actually yielded to telling of their encounter with me?”  JD had to smile at the sheer surprise in the smooth voice.

     “Yeah, well, after we got them really drunk,”  JD explained.

     Laughter filled the room.  But it stilled suddenly and a warm breeze touched JD.  JD’s relief now gave way to concern.  Chris had told them that Ezra had been outraged at being called referred to as an angel of death, yet…

     “Ezra….”  JD held his son a little tighter.  “You ain’t here….”

     “Come now, JD, if you’ve heard Chris’ tale, you know that I am not here as an escort.”  The southern accent grew soft as Ezra said, “I’m here to advise you on aiding your new son.”

     Hope swelled again, just as when he’d first heard his long lost friend’s voice, first felt the warmth that seemed to fill the room.  JD ran a hand through his still black hair.  “Is it bad?”

     “It is serious, JD, but nothing that we can not beat together.”

     JD looked down at the small, wrinkled bundle in his arms.  “What do I do?”

     “You are going to need coffee, brewed very strong and whiskey.  The other item, a glass straw, is in the cabinet over the pump.”  There was sympathy and comfort in the tone.  “You can put him down, Mister Dunne.  He will be fine.”

     Half an hour later, the smell of rich coffee filled the small room.  JD turned and looked at Casey, still sleeping on the bed.  He was afraid the smell might wake her.  He wasn’t sure how she would feel about awaking up to a sick baby and a husband talking to a ghost.  A long missing chuckle joined in the warmth of the room.

     “The charming Misses Dunne will repose a little longer,”  Ezra assured him.

     JD nodded and eased the liquid laden straw into the baby’s mouth.  The first few doses had been a struggle and JD had worried that he was going to choke the boy.  But the warmth he knew to be Ezra had eased his worry and stilled the baby’s fighting. Better still, he could see the difference, the baby was breathing easier, the body taut with struggle slowly relaxing as the precious air gained entrance.

     “Ezra,”  JD said softly, “can I ask you a question?”

     “JD, it would be a pleasure for me to answer an inquiry from you once more.”

     JD laughed, remembering the thousands of questions he’d asked the other six men over the years.  Sorrow touched him as he thought about the Christmas they had lost the elegant cardsharp.  It had seemed so long ago, but now, hearing the huge vocabulary tangled with the smooth drawl brought the pain back fresh.  Tears sprang to his eyes as he recalled with startling clarity the words Josiah had spoken that day.

     “I’m sorry, Ezra…” JD said.  “I didn’t think hearing you would…”

     “Pray continue with your query, Mister Dunne,”  Ezra urged.

     JD felt the warmth wash away the sorrow that had swept over him. “When my mom use to take me to Mass, well, the priest would talk about purgatory, and paying for sins – “

     The laugh this time was filled with merriment.  “Is that what you believe I am doing, Mister Dunne, paying for –“

     “No, I don’t believe that,”  JD said quickly.  “But I was just wondering why you were still here.”

     Instead of answering, Ezra said, “I fear the child may need this concoction frequently during winter for a few years.  I did.  Two additional doses, JD, then our newest family member will be fine until Nathan can return home.”

     Silence filled the room.  “Ezra?” 

     Even as he whispered the name, JD knew he had his answer.

 

     Casey held on to his arm as a slippery patch of ground gave way under her.  JD looked down in the soft brown eyes, into the face that had shared his life for twenty years now.  When she had awakened upon Nathan’s return, he had told her and the healer the whole story of the baby’s ill health and the startling visitor.  There had been doubt in her eyes as he started the story, but as he talked, as he recounted what Ezra had advised, the disbelief had turned to gratitude.  Nathan and the others had merely smiled and loudly thanked their missing member.

     It was numbing cold, despite the incredible blue of the sky.  He had not been sure about bringing the baby out in it, but something had urged him to go.  After taking the rest of his family to Chris’, he and Casey had bundled the child in several layers, including the birthing gift of a doeskin wrap from Vin and come here.

     The gate swung open with a frozen squeal.  JD smiled as they walked toward the grave.  The new marble headstone they had put up that fall had a small cross on the top, put there for one reason only, to hold the red bandana.  The circle of cloth was brand new, having been brought out only a month before by Buck and the near thirty children that now comprised their family. It seemed that Uncle Buck had decided to pass on the tradition.  While JD was not sure what he had said, all the children had seemed very aware that it was important to remember the man they had never met.

     Easing just enough of the cloth and leather aside to see the baby’s red flushed face, JD put his arm over Casey.

     “Son,”  he whispered, “this is Ezra Paul Standish, and he’s the reason you’re going to grow up in the biggest, best family a boy could wish for.”  With a smile, he added, “And he’s why you’ve got two near brothers named Ezra Larabee and Vincent Ezra Sanchez.”

     Nodding toward the snow covered grave, JD cleared his throat and said a little louder, “Ezra, I’d like you to meet my new son, Paul Ezra Dunne.”

 

 

     “Howdy, Ezra.”

     Vin watched Ezra smile slowly.  “I seemed to lost my ability to surprise anyone in this unique group,”  Ezra sighed.

     “Hell, Ezra,”  Vin said, “I believed in you after Buck’s story forty years ago.”

     Squinting a little against the bright afternoon light, Vin was having a hard time controlling his joy at seeing his long lost friend.  He would have been tempted to hug the man but getting out of bed was too much effort. Actually seeing the dapper gambler was a sign that something was about to happen and Vin was pretty sure he knew what it was.  Still, there were appearances to keep up.   

     “Ezra, I hate to be the one to tell you this, but those clothes kinda went out of fashion a while ago.”

     A quick laugh, a flash of gold tooth.  “And what would you know of fashion, antiquated or otherwise?”

     “Had to buy a new suite last year,”  Vin explained, shifting a little to get more comfortable on the sunbathed bed.  He flinched as all the old wounds and injures twinged. “Wanted to give little Grace away proper, being the last of the grandkids to get married.”

     Ezra came over and sat down on the side of the bed, a soft, gentle smile lighting the jade colored eyes that Vin remembered well even after four decades.  A warm breeze floated over Vin’s body and the pain faded away.

     “You here to take me home, Ezra?”  Vin asked carefully, remembering his response to Chris’ angel comment.

     Squinting out of one eye, Ezra said,  “Yes and no, Mister Tanner.”

     Vin laughed at that.  “Hell, Ezra, even dead you manage to avoid a direct question.”

     “A talent just as useful still.”  Quietly, Ezra told him, “I’m here to help you stay just a little longer, Vin.”

     “Ezra,”  Vin sighed.  “I ain’t so sure I want to stay.  Hell, best guess makes me eight two come summer.  I’m blind as a bat, deaf as a rock….”

     “It isn’t for your benefit that I’m asking,”  Ezra said gently.  “Chris is on his way.  It’s important for him to say good-bye to the first of his family.”

     Vin looked at him.  “He got to say goodbye to Josiah and Buck.”

     “True,”  Ezra admitted.  “But you and I both understand the love he has for you.  Had you not rescued his soul at the same time as you secured Nathan’s life, there would have been no Magnificent Seven.”

     Vin let his eyes close for a minute as the single most important moment in his life returned with a clarity it had never lost; Chris’ blue-green eyes meeting his across a dusty frontier street. He smiled as other memories drifted after that one, good and bad, gunfights and births, winters and springs; children, grand children, great grandchildren; none of his own, but all feeling that way just the same.  There had been so much joy, sorrow, so much living. The warmth returned, surrounding him. He opened his eyes, it was to see Ezra’s hand resting on his. 

     “Just a bit longer, Vin,”  Ezra urged.

     “Well, then,”  Vin said firmly.  “Just don’t sit there like a lump, tell me what you been doing all these years.  Reckon it was you got that guy to confess to hearing Eli Joe plan to frame me.”

     Ezra merely straightened the silk cavaet around his throat.  “Yes, well, let us just say that several wrongs needed to be corrected before that certain gentleman passed to his reward.”

     “Was it you got little John Dunne out of that mess down there in Cuba?”

     “Little John,”  Ezra said with a hint of his old sarcasm, “is six foot four and very much living up to his grandfather’s talent for getting into trouble.”

     “Hey, Ezra, will I be able to help keep an eye on everyone?”  Vin wondered.

     “Believe me, Mister Tanner, I welcome the help with open enthusiasm!”

     “Can I get my coat back?”  Vin asked, reaching a shaky hand up to push back his gray, still long hair.

     “Why in heaven’s name would you want to?”  Ezra exclaimed.  “I’m sure I can find you something much more refined.”

     “Ezra, you was the only refined thing I ever had anything to do with.”

     They both laughed.  An old ache, having nothing to do with his arthritis touched Vin, causing his smile to fade a little.  “Ezra, I know lately I ain’t thought of you but – “

     “Mister Tanner,”  Ezra said firmly.  “As I told Mister Larabee, life is far too short to spend worrying about friends long gone.”

     From far into the hills surround Vin’s small house the sound of a chugging motor interrupted their conversation. “Natalie must be bringing Chris.  Damn man would still be riding one of his horses out here at his age, don’t trust that Ford contraption.”  Vin laughed again, noticing that it was easier this time.  “Image that, Chris the last of us.  Who’d a thought that old bastard would outlast all a us.”

     “Fate is indeed a strange master,”  Ezra said quietly.

     Vin looked up into the green eyes.  “I know it’s a mite late, Ezra, but I wish you’d a been with us longer.”

     “And what brings you to the erroneous conclusion that I was absent from the festivities surround the lives of the west most famous, or infamous in most cases, lawmen?”  Ezra demanded.

     But Vin would not be kidded this time.  “Guess where you’re at is good, Ezra, but you know what I mean.”

     Ezra gave him a warm smile.  “I understand.  I too wish my participation had been corporal longer.”

     “Damn!”  Vin said with a grin.  “I missed not understanding you.”

     The engine sound grew stronger, then cut off completely.  The warmth around Vin increased and he drew strength from it.  He closed his eyes with a sigh, enjoying the love in the warm touch.

     “Ezra,”  Vin said quietly.  “There’s one more thing I got to apology for.”

     “What’s that, Vin?”

     “Well, I reckon my funeral’s gonna be a mite bigger than your’n was and I’m right sorry I’s more popular.”

     The green eyes widened a bit, then Ezra laughed.  And suddenly Vin found himself joining in, the sound coming easy and deep.  The door swung in with a soft rush of spring air and Vin looked up to find his best friend standing there.  When Chris’ eyes met his there was understanding in the still sharp blue eyes.

     “See ya in a bit, Ezra,”  Vin whispered as Chris knelt next to him.

 

     Ezra sat on one of the tombstones, watching the large progression of mourners leaving Vin’s gravesite, heading back toward their cars and trucks, wagons and horses.  He had not bothered to count the assemblage, knowing already who was there and who was absent.  It was still easy to spot Chris Larabee. Ezra smiled at that.  Even at over ninety the man still had a commanding presence.

     The ex-gunslinger was walking on the arm of one of his grand daughters, while near their legs ran a small bundle of energy that was Chris’ fourth great grandson.  Not only was Chris’ presence strong but obviously so was his line; both his descendents looked remarkably like him.  As Ezra watched, they detoured from the fresh grave to another one, an older one, the marble headstone streaked by rain and wind. Despite the age of the marker, a slightly faded piece of cloth rested on the top. 

     Moving closer, Ezra stood behind Chris as he lifted the old cloth away and laid a new bright red bandana over the cross.  The small boy tugged on Chris’ pants leg.

     “What’s it say, Grandpa?”  he demanded gesturing to the carved letters on the marble.

     Chris knelt down, pointing to each one as he read: “He shall give his angels charge over you.”

     The boy smiled brightly.  “That’s the same thing it says on Uncle Vin’s, ain’t it?”

     Nodding, Chris stood up, taking the boy’s hand.  “Yep, it is, Little Ez.”

     Smiling, Ezra reached out and let his hand drift down Chris’ back.  The warmth was more than that offered by the sun. Chris stiffened a little, turned.  For just a second Ezra let the blue-green eyes meet his, let the reflection from his gold tooth hit the black hat.  Chris only smiled.

     “Thanks, Ezra,”  he whispered.

     “You’re welcome, Mister Larabee.”