The stagecoach bounced over the rugged terrain, every bump and turn jostling its passengers who were thankful that they had the foresight to improvise by using some of their surplus clothing to pad the interior.
There were only three passengers on this journey; a young woman, obviously in the latter stages of pregnancy who sat next to her husband, his arm wrapped protectively around her as he tried to shield her from the numerous knocks, which was a noble but impossible feat. Facing them sat a handsome man in his fifties who was travelling alone and attempting to read a book to pass the time.
The young man's arm could not protect his wife from a particularly nasty bump and she fell forward, almost landing in the lap of the handsome older gentleman.
"Darling, are you ok?" The younger man asked worriedly as he lifted her from the floor with the help of the older gentleman.
Obviously embarrassed, the young lady merely nodded, then turned her attention to the stranger before her, noticing his concern. She settled herself and smiled pleasantly, "I must apologize, sir, I am not usually this ungainly."
The well dressed man sat back in his seat and smiled pleasantly, "No need to apologize, young lady, I do believe that our driver is deliberately aiming for every bump in the road!"
She smiled brightly, "This is the only bump I'm interested in!" she laughed, patting her stomach gently.
"We're heading to Santa Rosa. My wife, as you've no doubt noticed, is expecting a baby soon and she wants to stay with her ma." The young man once again put his arms around her. "This is our first child and she's very nervous."
"We're very nervous," she reminded good naturedly. "I must admit that even though I'm excited, I'm also utterly terrified." She lowered her gaze to the floor. "Silly, isn't it?"
"Not at all, my dear, it's completely understandable."
The young man offered the older gentleman a drink, which he declined with a shake of his head. "Have you any children, sir?"
The older man's face froze for a second, his eyes showing a fleeting moment of apprehension before it was replaced with his previous genial expression. "I have a son who I haven't seen for many years," he explained. "Oddly enough, I'm on my way to see him now."
The lady looked on sympathetically, "So you've gotten back in touch with him?"
The man shook his head sadly. "Unfortunately not. He's oblivious, both to my arrival and to my existence. I've been looking for him for a long time and recently came across some information suggesting that he's currently living in Four Corners."
"We're staying in Four Corners tonight!" The young man exclaimed excitedly, then in a quieter tone added. "You didn't notify him that you were coming?"
"I was afraid that I'd scare him away." He sighed, "The truth is, I don't even know if I'll have the courage to approach him."
A few uncomfortable moments of silence passed while each passenger considered the brief conversation. The young man held his hand out, "I'm Billy Evans and this is my wife, Virginia."
The older man shook the proffered hand, showing his gratitude for the gesture with a dimpled smile that didn't quite reach his clear, green eyes. "Philip Standish, pleased to meet you." He then put his book inside his brocade carpetbag; a copy of a Jock Steele's dime novel, The Magnificent Seven.
It was a typical Wednesday night in The Standish Tavern. JD Dunne's enthusiasm was definitely not contagious as he related yet another one of his terrible jokes to Buck Wilmington and Chris Larabee as they sat drinking at their usual table. "Why did the bowlegged cowboy get fired?" Before either man could reply, JD spurted out the answer, "Because he couldn't keep his calves together!"
Buck shot him an exasperated look and tossed back his beer while Chris gave him his infamous Larabee glare before leaning over and saying in a voice so low that only the three peacekeepers could hear him, "Any more jokes and you'll be riding dawn patrol for the next three weeks."
"Aw, that ain't fair; I was only trying to lighten the mood!"
Their conversation was interrupted by the sound of a raised voice coming from the direction of the table Ezra Standish, cardsharp and fellow peacekeeper, regularly occupied.
Jed Turner was a local businessman who lived a solitary life and had a tendency to become argumentative whenever he drank too much. Tonight was no exception and the target for his outburst was Ezra, who sat calmly among three other men who were playing poker.
"Whaddya mean you don't want my money? I'm not good enough for ya, is that it?" Turner slammed his fist violently on the table, scattering a few coins around.
"What I'm saying, sir, is that given your current state of inebriation, should you partake in this particular game of chance and lose, which is inevitable, your reactions will without a doubt result in either incarceration or injury, both of which I'm sure you would want to avoid."
Ezra continued to deal out the cards, his calm demeanor infuriating the drunken man who reached for his inside pocket and took out a large wad of bills. "Does this change yer mind, gamblin' man?" he asked while shaking the bills in front of the gambler's face.
Ezra's poker face belied the shock at seeing such a large sum of money and noticing the sudden looks of greedy interest some of the other patrons were now giving the old man worried the gambler. "Put the money away, Mr Turner," he advised. A quick scan of the saloon revealed that Chris, Buck and JD were watching the proceedings intently and ready to intervene if necessary. Ezra smiled. "It's not prudent to carry such a large sum of money on your person. Now, if I were you I'd put it in the bank first thing in the morning."
Turner seemed to suddenly realize the foolishness of his actions and in a softer voice replied, "No need since I'm leaving town for good tomorrow."
"Can I ask where you are going?"
"Nope," Turner grinned, revealing uneven, stained teeth, "My wife wants us to get back together but I know she's only after my money and she ain't gonna get it! So if a pig ugly woman with a screwed up face asks for Jed Turner, tell her to go to hell!"
And with that he headed for the swinging doors, almost colliding with a man making his way inside.
Two burly, mustached cowboys who had witnessed the exchange left their unfinished beers on the counter and started to follow but had their way blocked by Chris. Buck and JD stood close behind. "Something wrong with your drinks, boys?" Chris inclined his head towards the two unfinished glasses on the counter. The cowboys understood the euphemism; they were to leave the old man alone. "Now, I'm sure Mr Standish would be happy to deal you in the next game, wouldn't you, Mr Standish?"
"Certainly, Mr Larabee." Ezra responded from his table with a dimpled grin. "Poker is an excellent way to while away the hours."
Both men had heard about the peacekeepers and decided not to push their luck. "Yeah, sure. Who knows, maybe we'll get lucky!" The older cowboy said sarcastically, looking at the professional gambler, realizing that they would be lucky to leave the saloon with any money at all.
It was dusk when the stagecoach finally arrived in Four Corners. The final leg of the journey had passed quickly for the three passengers who had been engaged in pleasant conversation ever since Mr Evans had introduced himself and his wife to the older man.
Mrs Evans squeezed Philip Standish's hand after he helped her down from the coach and offered what she hoped would be some words of encouragement. "You are a wonderful man, Philip, and I'm sure your son will love to have you in his life again. I hope everything works out for you."
The words were meant sincerely but Standish had serious doubts. He knew that Maude would not have been completely honest with Ezra regarding his absence during his childhood, but the fact that they still used his surname gave him a little hope that some affection still existed for him. He stared at the lights coming from The Standish Tavern, knowing that the saloon would be most likely place to find his son.
"Well, I guess this is goodbye," Billy Evans said as he stretched to relieve the ache in his muscles. "We're leaving for Santa Rosa in the morning. I'd invite you to dinner but I know you'll want to find your son." He held out his hand. "Good luck."
As they shook hands, Mrs Evans stood on her tiptoes and kissed the older man's cheek. "Now, go and find your son!"
The married couple watched as Philip Standish headed for the saloon. Just as he was about to go through the swinging doors, a drunken man bumped into him, muttered an apology and staggered off.
Upon entering the saloon, Philip quickly scanned the room and his attention was drawn to a group of six men near the bar. Two burly cowboys were just about to head towards the exit when a tall man dressed in black, a handsome mustached man and a dark haired younger man standing immediately behind him effectively blocked their exit. The words then spoken by the imposing man in black, however, momentarily took his breath away.
"Now, I'm sure Mr Standish would be happy to deal you in the next game, wouldn't you, Mr Standish?"
Mr Standish... Mr Standish!
And there he was, his son was a handsome devil dressed to the nines in a crisp white shirt fastened with gold cufflinks, a simple black ribbon tie, a double breasted vest with a brown and gold honeycomb pattern and a beautifully tailored dark green tail coat with a black collar. His hair was a rich shade of chestnut and neatly trimmed, he had an almost innocent face but there was a strange mixture of intelligence, wit and danger in those large green eyes and when he smiled he revealed a flash of gold and the same dimples that Philip had used to charm many a woman in his lifetime, including Maude.
As nervous as he was, Philip knew that he would be a fool and a coward not to seize this opportunity.
Philip Standish was so engrossed by the sight of his son that he was unaware that Chris Larabee was watching him closely; Chris sensed immediately that the stranger had a hidden agenda.
Ezra looked up when the smartly dressed man approached his table. The stranger looked vaguely familiar and he was concerned that he could not remember where he had seen him before. As a former conman, it was essential for him to recognize faces from the past... his mother could be right, he was getting sloppy!
Philip smiled, which caused the gambler to frown slightly before he decided that the man looked harmless enough. "I am just about to start a game, sir," he said as he placed a deck of Stutz playing cards on the table. "Would you care to join us?"
The man shook his head but didn't move. "I gave up gambling years ago."
"Then how can I help you?" Ezra was uncomfortable with the scrutiny from this stranger. "Have we met? You look vaguely familiar."
After a brief pause, Philip nodded. "We knew each other a long time ago."
"Perhaps you are an old paramour of my mother's? It's hard to remember, she's had so many!" Ezra scrutinized the stranger, looking for a reaction but Philip merely smiled at the minor attempt at provocation.
"Maybe we should continue this discussion over a drink?"
Ezra looked at the two cowboys who sat across from him. The hope that the game would be cancelled was written clearly on their faces but despite this, Ezra's curiosity got the better of him and he followed the vaguely familiar stranger to the bar.
Chris, Buck and JD watched as the two well-dressed men walked over to the bar. Ezra was a grown man and could look after himself but there was something about the stranger than unnerved the gunfighter. The older man didn't look dangerous but instinct told Chris that he was here on some kind of mission and Ezra was a part of it.
The three lawmen watched as Ezra became increasingly agitated while the older man looked like he was actually trying to placate him. The stranger put his hand on Ezra's shoulder in a friendly fashion and attempted to calm the younger man down but he was rewarded with a right hook to the face that sent him sprawling on the floor.
"Go to hell!" Ezra yelled, looking like he was on the verge of tears.
His friends were there in an instant and stared angrily at the downed man. "What's going on here, hoss?" Buck asked, troubled by the uncharacteristic emotions Ezra was unsuccessfully trying to curtail.
Ezra pointed down at the man on the floor, who had not attempted to get up. "This gentleman claims to be my very own lovin' father!"
"It's the truth!" Philip said.
"It's impossible! My father died when I was three years old!" Ezra was on the verge of tears now and just wanted to leave before he disgraced himself in front of his friends.
Chris, noticing the physical similarities turned to the man on the floor and asked angrily, "What's your story, mister?"
Philip Standish explained that when Ezra was three years old, he had gone to prison for a con that went wrong and when he was finally released both Maude and Ezra had disappeared. He spent the next few years frantically searching for his family. He wanted to make it clear that he never gave up, but he was lonely and eventually started a relationship with a woman called Masie. Masie knew nothing of his previous life and because of her influence he gave up all his vices and led a relatively normal existence. With great sadness, Philip told the peacekeepers that Masie had died of consumption only a few months ago. He was completely heartbroken and the only thing that kept him going was the thought that one day he might see his son again.
Ezra listened quietly. If the story was true then his whole life was an elaborate con. He shook that thought from his head. He grew up without a father; he certainly didn't need one now so with a cold look that belied the inner turmoil he was feeling he said softly, "I'm afraid you're wasting your time, sir. I'm finding it impossible to believe what you are saying and even if you are telling the truth, it matters not as one way or another I lost my father a long time ago. I never want to see you again."
Philip finally got up and wiped the dust from his clothes. He should have realized that it was a mistake to turn up without any warning but he didn't want to scare his son off. Sighing heavily, he decided to give his son an ultimatum. "I'll be leaving on the stage for Santa Rosa tomorrow morning. If you should reconsider then I will gladly stay but if I don't hear from you by the time the stage leaves town then I'll honor your wishes and you'll never see me again."
And with that Philip Standish left the saloon.
Ezra had spent a sleepless night mulling over the events of that evening. When he told his 'father' that he never wanted to see him again he was certain that that was what he wanted, but now he wasn't so sure.
He looked out of his bedroom window, his eyes focusing on the stagecoach on the far side of the street. The coachman was assisting a young couple with their luggage and in the distance he spied Philip Standish walking slowly towards the carriage.
With a weary sigh he made his decision. He couldn't watch this man leave with so many questions unanswered. He would hear him out and if he still wanted nothing to do with him then he and his friends would make sure that he left town within the next couple of days.
Chris, Josiah and Vin stood outside the sheriff's office watching the man who claimed to be Ezra's father walk towards the stagecoach carrying a large carpetbag. This was the first time Josiah and Vin had seen the man and both noticed not only the obvious physical similarities but also the graceful way the older man walked and the way the tip of his tongue peeked out between his lips reminded them of one of Ezra's more amusing subconscious traits. Vin even chuckled at the thought; Ezra just couldn't control that tongue of his!
The three peacekeepers then noticed that Ezra was marching towards his father, a curious look of determination and confusion on his face.
"This should be interesting," Vin said as he stood up from the stool in order to get a better view of the proceedings but just as both Standishes came face to face the three other peacekeepers heard a groan coming from behind them.
They turned and saw Jed Turner staggering towards them. Blood from a deep head wound covered the right side of his face. The men ran over to him. Chris caught him just before he collapsed and gently lowered him to the floor using his own lap to support the injured man's head.
"My money! They took my money!"
Although the head wound was evidence enough to suspect a concussion, Chris also noticed that Jed's pupils were uneven. "Vin, go get Nathan."
Vin ran off towards Nathan's clinic, dodging Ezra who was making his way towards the others.
Jed's eyes closed and he slumped in Chris's arms. "Chris?" Ezra didn't need to complete the question.
"He's alive." The former gunslinger looked around and noticed the two cowboys who were intent on following Turner the night before, mounting their horses. "Josiah, stop them."
Josiah turned to where Chris had motioned. "With pleasure, brother." He headed towards the two men, his deep voice offering no alternative other than compliance. "Get off your horses NOW!" The two men dismounted; they really couldn't wait to leave Four Corners.
Chris then looked at Ezra. "Jed said 'they' took his money so we're dealing with at least two men. Now, he didn't get a chance to say who did this but nobody leaves town until we find out who's responsible." He looked towards the stagecoach. "They ain't going anywhere until we get some answers."
Ezra turned and walked towards the stagecoach where his father and the young couple were waiting. "I'm sorry but nobody is leaving town until we find the miscreants who did this."
The young pregnant woman started rubbing her baby bump. "That man, is he dead?"
She looked very upset and Ezra felt like a cad for causing her further distress. "No, ma'am, he's not. Hopefully, he'll regain consciousness soon and be able to identify his assailants, and then you can leave."
The young man turned to Ezra, obviously irritated. "But my wife and I have to be in Santa Rosa tonight. Her ma will be waiting for us!"
"Surely you can't believe that we had anything to do with this?" The young lady asked, worry etched on her face. "Oh my!" She held her stomach as if she was in pain then turned to the older Standish. "I apologize, I had no right to expect to be treated any differently. We are all suspects." She shot Ezra an angry look. "Philip here knows that we're heading to Santa Rosa to stay with my mother and she's expecting us tonight, don't you, Philip?"
Philip had remained silent, wondering if his son also considered him a suspect. He was, after all, a well-known conman in his youth. Also, deep down Philip wondered if Ezra would have been happy to see him arrested. Their reunion had been anything but amicable however when Philip saw his son walking towards him only a few minutes ago, he hoped that Ezra was there to ask him to stay.
Philip's silence was a result of him reflecting on his relationship with his son, but Billy misunderstood and thought that he was in fact refusing to confirm their intentions. Even though Ezra had made it clear that nobody was going anywhere, he decided to enter the carriage. "Get on the stage, Vivian."
Ezra grabbed the man's arm, preventing him from getting on the stage. "I said nobody is leaving town right now. Now I'm sure that it won't take long to uncover the perpetrators of this heinous crime and then you can leave without any further delays."
Ezra turned briefly to see Vin, Nathan, Buck and JD running towards the scene. Vin and Nathan went over to Chris and Jed. Nathan immediately started to inspect the prone man while Vin kept an eye open for any trouble. The man survived what should have been a fatal blow and whoever was responsible was still out there and might want to finish the job. JD headed towards Josiah and Buck headed towards Ezra.
Ezra looked at Philip and frowned. The man had been far too quiet. "Do you have anything to say?" He asked the older man.
Philip looked at Ezra and then turned his attention to Mrs Evans. "Vivian?" He said her name as though he was lost in thought.
"Yes, Philip?" She looked concerned. "Are you ok?"
"You said your name was Virginia..."
Ezra shot his father a look, then turned his attention back to the young couple. The man was sweating heavily by now and the woman gave a sharp intake of breath. Ezra turned to his friend, "Buck, search the luggage."
Buck was just about to comply when Ezra noticed the slightest smile on Billy Evan's face, they would find nothing in the bags but he was now convinced that this seemingly ordinary young couple had something to do with the assault on Jed Turner. His eyes darted to the baby bump and he quickly recalled one of his mother's cons from his youth. "Hold it, Buck, maybe we should find Mrs Travis first."
"Mary? What the hell are you talking about, Ezra?"
"We need someone to search this young lady... thoroughly."
Just as Buck was about to make another comment all hell broke loose.
Ezra heard Philip shout his name out loud. He quickly turned his attention back to Billy, who was now aiming a revolver at him. Ezra's father moved swiftly, desperate to push his son out of danger. Ezra heard a chorus of voices echoing his name as he tried to activate his derringer. There were several shouts mingled with the sound of bullets piercing the air and then... darkness.
Nathan's clinic was bustling with activity but Philip Standish ignored everything except the unconscious form on the bed. Nathan was busy applying pressure to Ezra's side, desperately trying to stop the flow of blood while Vin was following the healer's instructions, but the words were a blur to the man who stood silently by the door.
Philip couldn't even remember arriving in the small room. He remembered pushing Ezra out of the way of a potentially lethal bullet but by the look of it, he hadn't been fast enough for his son to avoid sustaining serious injury. When Ezra fell lifelessly to the floor and Philip saw the blood pooling around his immobile form, his vision became hazy and he felt an odd detachment... he truly thought his son was dead and his world was shattered.
Chris came storming into the clinic. He pushed past Philip, ignoring the older man and went straight to the bed, blocking Philip's view of his son. Philip was shaken out of his stupor, frustrated with himself for not being focused enough to even know if his son was going to make it. "Will he be ok?" he asked Nathan, who just ignored him but Philip didn't really expect an answer so he turned his attention to the man in black, who stood watching his boy closely. "Do you think he'll be ok?" But still, there was no answer. Surely these men weren't still angry at him for turning up and upsetting their friend? The boy was going to stop him from leaving; there could be no doubt that Ezra must have reconsidered and wanted to form some kind of relationship, or at the very least give him a chance to prove that he was telling the truth. He started to get angry at the silent treatment. "He's my son!" he snapped, "I have a right to know!"
Chris didn't even acknowledge the man but Philip got the answer he was looking for when Chris merely said one word, "Nathan?"
Nathan looked up and shook his head. "The bullet tore a large chunk out of his side. He's lost a lot of blood but I seem to have it under control now. He also got a lump on his head from when he hit the floor but his pupils are even so I don't think it's too bad. He'll be out for a while and when he wakes he'll be weak as a kitten but he should be fine."
Everyone breathed a collective sigh of relief. Chris moved over to the window and looked out onto the street below. "Josiah, Buck and JD are taking care of things outside." He shook his head solemnly. "What a mess!" He paused briefly as he turned to watch while Nathan washed his hands, preparing to stitch up Ezra's wounds, while Vin was making sure that the bleeding was under control. "Turns out that the Evans are con artists and, get this,Vivian is actually Jed's niece through marriage. Jed's ex-wife told her that he was leaving today and mentioned the money. She said the plan was to drug him and take the money. By the time he woke up they would be long gone. They saw him come out of the saloon and acted instinctively. Evans hit him over the head but he wouldn't stay down, so he kept hitting him until he collapsed. They took the money and hid it in a made up contraption, a bag that Vivian tied around her body to make it look like she was pregnant. She thought, wrongly, that nobody would suspect a pregnant woman. She also thought that even if something happened and she was searched nobody would think of looking there."
Nathan looked at the pale gambler lying on the bed and smiled affectionately. "Only a conman would suspect a woman of fabricatin' a pregnancy to avoid suspicion and to have a place to hide the money!"
"Well," Vin said from his position on the bed, "I bet she didn't think she'd lose her husband either." The sharpshooter placed a hand on the gambler's forehead, "Nathan, he's a mite hot."
Nathan asked Chris to dampen a cloth and place it on Ezra's head to try to bring down his rising temperature while he carefully started to stitch the ugly wound. Philip Standish watched these men take care of his son, his offers of assistance falling on deaf ears so he decided that antagonizing them would be a bad idea and instead stood by, maintaining a silent vigil.
He hadn't even realized that Billy Evans, or whatever the hell his name was, had died and he felt an incredible surge of guilt. When had he become so oblivious? He used to be a conman and should have recognized the signs... he frowned, were there any signs? His mind had been so preoccupied with the idea of possibly seeing his son after nearly 30 years that he paid little attention to anything else. He also felt guilty because it was when he heard Evans call his wife by another name that set off the chain of events that culminated in the young man dying and Ezra being shot. He should have taken Ezra aside and informed him privately but instead voicing his discovery so impulsively panicked Evans and had dreadful consequences.
Philip slumped in a chair and realized that he was lucky the peacekeepers hadn't kicked him out.
Philip Standish maintained his vigil for two days. Realizing that talking to the other men was futile, he only spoke to his son, trying to encourage him to wake up. The other peacekeepers were constant visitors and, despite their differences, the older man was happy to see how much these men truly cared for his boy.
Vin was the first of the peacekeepers who saw signs that Ezra was finally waking up. He saw Ezra's eyes flicker and the smile on Vin's face lit up the room. "Come on, Ez, you're late for patrol!" His joke resulted in a moan from the man, which made Vin smile even wider.
Philip laughed heartily and smiled at his son. "Yes, son, wake up. We have a lot of catching up to do when you feel up to it."
"Go 'way!" the gambler muttered, but it was said without any malice.
Vin laughed out loud. "I'm going to get Nathan, you stay put, ok!"
"'I'm not going anywhere," he said weakly before he began to snore lightly.
Philip placed his hand on top of Ezra's. "I'm sorry for not being there for you when you were growing up. I know now that I should have tried harder to find you," he said softly, "But give me a chance and I'll be here for you till the day I die."
The sound of footsteps running up the stairs silenced Philip and he moved out of the way before he was pushed aside.
He wasn't surprised to see all of Ezra's friends filling the small confines of the clinic. The whooping and cheering from these men was contagious and he found himself grinning broadly.
Nathan quickly went up to the bed and checked Ezra over, and then turned to the group, who were now silently waiting for his prognosis. "He's sleepin' like a baby," he grinned. "Now everybody but Chris get outta here. You can come and see him later; he needs to rest."
JD looked disappointed. "Rest? He's been asleep for days!"
Buck slapped his head playfully. "Don't you know ol' Ez likes his beauty sleep?"
Nathan gave everyone in the room a glare that Larabee would have been proud of. "I said get outta here, now git!"
Philip felt the need for some air now that he knew his son was going to be ok. He followed the other men out of the room and into the saloon. He didn't feel like a drink so he sat among the peacekeepers who were talking amongst each other. Most of them were talking about Ezra and how many times he cheated death. According to these men, his son sure was lucky. "That's debatable," Philip thought out loud. He overheard Josiah talking about the funerals of the recently departed.
He had forgotten all about Jed Turner, he must have died as well as Evans. He never met the man but the news saddened him. His thoughts then turned to Masie, the love of his life. Before he met her he was not a good man. His selfishness and greed had ruined many lives but she had made him a better person, someone who cared about others. This empathy was painful but he knew it was a good thing; it kept him from returning to a life of crime.
If either of the Evans had a woman like Masie in their lives, then the two men would still be alive, the woman in jail would be free and he would be getting to know his son right now, not waiting for him to recover from a gunshot wound.
Emotional detachment was overrated. He'd have to tell Maude that if he ever saw her again. Maude! He was looking forward to seeing the look on her face if she ever turned up to visit Ezra and saw them together. That was if he was still around.
He looked up and noticed that he was alone. His lack of focus was so frustrating but he knew where everyone would be and he made his way back to the clinic.
The next few days were like a blur to Philip. His disorientation and memory lapses were beginning to worry him and he decided that he should go and ask Nathan for some advice as soon as it was ok for Ezra to be left alone.
At first he thought it was a combination of stress and day dreaming but now that his son was improving he couldn't understand why he still had what he could only describe as blackouts although he never woke up on the floor. It was like he switched off for hours at a time and woke up in the same upright position. It was most curious and disconcerting.
It was after one of these episodes that he woke up staring at his son, fully dressed, struggling to put on his boots.
"Get back in bed, Ezra, you're in no state to be walking around," Nathan admonished, looking like he wanted to shove the man back onto the bed, but Josiah and Chris were there and something told Philip that this was more than just a visit.
"I have to go, Mr Jackson." Ezra smiled triumphantly as he finally managed to put his boot on. "Besides, what could possibly happen when I have two guardian angels looking after me?"
Josiah grinned broadly. "We might be your guardians, son, but we're no angels!"
"You ready?" Chris asked, helping the younger man up from the bed.
Ezra winced at the movement and nodded. "As ready as I'll ever be."
Josiah and Chris helped the injured man down the stairs. For two such physically imposing men they had a delicate touch when necessary and Ezra reached the bottom of the stairs without suffering too much pain, though he couldn't stifle a sigh when he saw a horse drawn carriage in front of him, knowing that he would doubtless be in agony before too long.
Philip looked at the carriage and couldn't believe his eyes. Surely his son was in no condition to go on a carriage, no matter how short the journey! He should be convalescing in his own bed. "What do you think you're doing, Ezra?" he asked, a tad harsher than intended.
Ezra looked down at the floor. "I just wish things had turned out differently. It's time to say goodbye." Chris helped him up and both he and Philip followed closely behind him while Josiah got onto the driver's platform and took hold of the reins.
Josiah looked over his shoulder and gave his young friend an encouraging smile. "Come on then, it's not far." And with a click of his tongue he set the horses off at a gentle trot.
Philip then wondered if someone else had died. Someone close enough to cause his son to risk the chance of opening up his wounds just so that he could pay his respects. He had read Jock Steele's dime novel countless times and was certain that all seven were still alive. He looked at his son who looked like he was in so much pain he was on the verge of tears. "Son, why are you doing this? Look at you, you're obviously in agony, you should go home."
Chris turned to Ezra, "Do you want to stop?" he asked gently.
Ezra shook his head and Philip's heart broke when he saw a tear run down his son's pale cheek. "You know, Chris, when I was little I used to look at mother's paramours and hope that one of them was my daddy, I'd convinced myself that he was still alive and that he'd come back one day." Philip suddenly felt like a cold hand was squeezing his stomach. "Then later, when mother used to leave me at some aunt or uncle's house and disappear, I started hating him for leaving us. It was easier to believe what my mother told me, that he was dead. Now, I discover that my dear mother has been conning me all my life!" Ezra started to laugh bitterly, then stopped abruptly. "And now I'll never get the chance to know him." He angrily wiped the tears from his face as Philip watched; shock and denial gripped him like a vice. "Why did he have to jump in front of a bullet for me? I was practically a stranger!"
"NO!" Philip's panicked cry was as loud as thunder but nobody heard him. Trying to find some logical explanation he thought that maybe this was an elaborate con designed to unsettle him. "Ezra, I'm here! I'm right in front of you!" He waved his hand in front of his son, but there was no reaction. "Ezra, look at me, please!" There was nothing to indicate that he had been heard.
The carriage stopped and Ezra's friends helped him get down. Philip walked wide eyed behind his son and friends to a plainly constructed wooden cross with a simple inscription that read:
Philip Standish, Died 31st October 1872, RIP.
Both Chris and Josiah stood next to Ezra. They were determined to offer the younger man strength and compassion if necessary, they were also ready to catch him should he fall.
Philip fell to his knees in shock as he watched his son throw a single red flower on the newly dug grave. "Goodbye, father. I guess deep down in my heart I always loved you." He turned to Chris, "Can we go now?"
Philip watched as the three men turned and left. These were the men who Philip thought had deliberately ignored him but he now knew did not even see him. "What now?" he asked sadly, wondering if he should follow the men back to Four Corners or stay.
"Now..." said a feminine voice, "... you take my hand and come with me."
He turned to see Masie smiling down at him. He stood up, smiled at her, took her hand and as they disappeared into the distance he thought that maybe death wasn't so bad after all.