RATING: PG for some language
CATEGORY: Challenge - OW
MAJOR CHARACTERS: Ezra, Chris and Vin
DISCLAIMERS: This is fanfiction. No profit involved. This story is based on the television series "The Magnificent Seven". No infringement upon the copyrights held by CBS, MGM, Trilogy Entertainment Group, The Mirisch Corp. or any others involved with that production is intended.
NOTE: I'm combining three challenges here. First, the July 2002 Magnificent 7 Challenge, Offered by Enola Jones: "A physical change of some kind happens to one or more of the Seven, how he and the others react to it. Any change you want, as long as it's physical -- some kind of disability, sense removal, becoming another gender or another age."   and then Sue on the M7Fic list asked for this challenge "A fic for the 4th of July holiday!  Any length, even a snippet, would be fine, as well as any universe where they'd celebrate the 4th! Could be serious or fun, dealing with any aspect of the holiday"  Heather Lane offered a challenge on the BrigaDear's list: "See if you can write a story that has somewhere in it: Ezra knew something was wrong the second he opened his eyes. He stared at the ceiling for a moment trying to figure just what it was..."  
FEEDBACK: Yes please! comments and suggestions are greatly appreciated
ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS: Kristin supplied the name of Chaucer.  Eleanor T came up with Job.

DATE: July 09, 2002
By NotTasha...who's a bit independent...as long as it's okay with all of you.

Part 1:

Another round of firecrackers exploded in the street, sending horses into a dither. Women gave startled little gasps and children came running to watch. Chris leaned back in his seat to get a better view of the festivities, catching sight of the boys in the street.   Red, white and blue buntings decorated many of the storefronts and the Stars and Stripes were displayed throughout the town.  Independence Day was being celebrated with all the fanfare of a riot in the town of Four Corners.

Buck was whooping it up with JD beside him.  Chris smiled seeing Ezra with them. He had wondered how the southerner would feel about celebrating Independence Day. Ezra's beloved South had fought its own battle for independence and lost. On this day set aside for celebrating the Union of the country, there were many that would have preferred that such a thing no longer existed. If Standish felt any bias against the festivities, the fact wasn't evident. Larabee watched as Ezra pulled another string of firecrackers from his pocket.  Figures, Chris thought -- Ezra would be the one to supply the firepower.

He shook his head, watching their antics, glad that this happened only once a year -- well, twice when you counted New Years Eve... and then of course there was Chinese New Year, Mardi Gras, certain birthdays... and any old time the boys came back from a visit to the Chinese camp.

Standish was about to light the string with his cigar when Buck snagged it from him, hooting and hollering as he ran past the gambler.  Ezra regarded him with raised eyebrows.

Buck moved just out of reach of the conman, lit a match, set off the fuse and tossed it back at Standish.  "Dance, you lily-livered varmint!" he demanded as the crackers started to pop.

Chris rolled his eyes, watching as Ezra -- instead of doing the logical thing and stepping away from the explosives -- started up a jig.  The Chinese firecrackers popped around his fine-made boots and the southerner beat out a tattoo on the hard packed road.   Buck and JD laughed all the louder. The children along the boardwalk squealed - either in delight or horror.

Larabee shook his head and returned his attention to glass of whiskey on the table as the crackers snapped.  Those boys would be the death of him.

The popping of the crackers ended, followed by the laughter of the three men and the children in the audience.  Chris shut his eyes as he heard Ezra's softly spoken, innuendo-laced comments (there were children present after all and the words came cloaked with double-entendres regarding Buck's supposed intelligence and abilities). It must have been enough to set off the cowboy, because when Chris glanced up momentarily, he saw Buck launch himself at Standish, knocking the other man to the ground.

Chris groaned and picked up his glass. He regarded the amber liquid as he wondered if he'd be presented with a laundry bill from one Mr. Standish once this was over. Can't see how that nice jacket of his would avoid getting dirty.

One last firecracker went off, sounding like the report of a rifle -- followed immediately by a startled cry from Ezra, and a frightened "Godddamn!" from Buck. Chris jumped to his feet as Ezra gasped in pain.  "Don't!" Buck yelled. "Don't, dammit!"

As he ran from the saloon, Chris saw a mob of people forming around something in the street.  He shoved his way past the gaping townspeople and found Ezra curled on the ground, his hands desperately trying to reach his eyes. The weight of Wilmington on top of him kept him from completing the task. JD threw himself onto Ezra's legs as Standish thrashed and writhed beneath them, gasping as he did everything he could to free his hands.

"Don't touch it!  Don't touch it!"  Buck kept saying, leaning heavily against the southerner.  As Chris came near, he could see the vivid burns across the gambler's grimacing face.   His eyes were tightly shut, and the lids were as red as the rest of his face, his eyebrows and lashes mostly burned away.

Ezra said nothing more than a pain-filled, "Gahhhh!" as he struggled.

Wilmington looked up at Chris, his face white with worry.  "Nathan!"  he demanded.

Larabee jerked his head up long enough to see Nathan peer from his room above the livery.  Jackson scrutinized the scene for a moment only, before darting away from the window. "Coming," Chris informed them.

"Hang on, Ez," JD encouraged, attempting to keep him still.  "He's comin'. He's comin'.  Nate'll fix it!"

Unable to get his hands free, Ezra started to grind his head into the ground.  "Damn it!" Chris growled, falling to his knees and catching Ezra's head to still it. "Don't move, Ezra!" The conman said nothing, hissing through his teeth and continuing to try and free himself, to rid his head from the agony that consumed it. Standish's face was peppered with black and turning redder by the second as he twisted about helplessly in their grasp.

Someone leaned over Chris' shoulder and the gunslinger snapped, "Get back!" He glared at the townsfolk who crowded in.  "All of you, get the hell back!"  The timbre of his voice was enough to shoo them as far as the boardwalk.

"What happened?"  Nathan demanded when he reached them. His gaze darted about the scene, trying to understand, trying to form a course of action.

"One of them firecrackers..." JD paused as Ezra almost kicked him off. He scrambled to get into better a position onto the gambler's legs.  "...Went off by his eyes."

Nathan crouched beside Larabee and examined Ezra's twisted face as well as he could. "Ezra, Ezra, can you hear me?"

Standish winced.  "Yes," he said through his teeth.

"Can you open your eyes a'tall?"

Larabee watched as the muscles fluttered around Ezra's eyes, as he made an honest attempt to open them on command.  "No," he finally hissed. He was no longer struggling against them, but Chris and the others weren't about to loosen their grips. Buck lay on top of him, his weight on the arms that no longer tried to pull away.

"Let's get him to the clinic," Nathan said.  "Gotta flush out those eyes.  Josiah..." Chris glanced up, surprised to see the big preacher was at their side.  Vin hovered near the boardwalk, one hand pressed against a man who was leaning forward, trying to get a better look.

"Chris...can you and Josiah get him up there?" Nathan continued.  "Let him go, Buck."

Buck looked skeptical for a moment, and then leaned closer to Standish and whispered in his ear, "If I let you loose, hoss, you ain't gonna mess with your eyes none, right?"

Ezra nodded tightly, unable to move his head much in Larabee's grasp. Buck and JD slowly released him. Chris kept his hands clamped around Ezra's head for a moment longer.  "You aim to keep that promise, Ezra?" Larabee asked.

"Yes," was Ezra's quick reply, but his hands moved toward his face almost on their own volition.

Josiah quickly moved in, yanking the gambler to his feet, and pinning one arm as he held him.  Chris did the same on the other side and they propelled him toward the clinic. Standish stumbled along, keeping up with their quick pace as Nathan issued orders to Buck and JD.

"Stairs," Josiah informed the gambler softly before they started their ascension. The toes of Ezra's feet collided momentarily on the bottom step, but he had no time to figure out where they were.  Chris and Josiah pulled him along, lifting him at the stairs with their fierce grips.   Nathan came behind them, muttering to himself as he decided what he was going to do.

Vin picked up Ezra's hat, abandoned on the street. He glared at the audience that had stood about doing nothing, dusted off the riverboat gambler's hat, and then followed the others.

Part 2:

Chris resumed his task of holding Ezra as Nathan flushed Standish's eyes with a pitcher of water.  Larabee sat on one chair, with Ezra's upper torso pulled across his lap, while the rest of Standish was flung on the bed. Larabee kept his arms wrapped tightly around the sharp, trying to keep his hands still.   Standish felt as stiff as a statue, completely rigid as he fought the pain that caught him.

Josiah stood beside them, cradling the gambler's head, holding it just-so as Nathan continued his work.  Vin was on the bed, using Ezra's legs as a couch - ready in case Ezra decided to fight again.

"Hang on, Ez," Nathan said softly as he poured more water across Ezra's face and into the bucket waiting below, using his fingers to force open one eye and then the other.  Standish's hair, his shoulders and most of his upper body were soaked, as was Larabee's legs and Josiah's arms.

Ezra had said almost nothing throughout the process, breathing noisily through his teeth and clenching his hands until his knuckles turned white. He seemed oblivious to most of what was going on around him, consumed by the pain in his head.

"Just one more, Ez," Nathan stated.  "Want to make sure we got 'em good and cleaned."

JD and Buck clattered through the door with refilled pitchers and another empty bucket.  "This enough?"  JD asked as he set the ewers beside Nathan, and Buck switched out the water-filled bucket for the empty one.

"We'll see how it looks now," Nathan said as he poured more water across Ezra's eyes. He paused finally and said, "I'm gonna look at your eyes, Ezra.  I want to see what I'm dealin' with here.  Gonna open 'em wide so I can see 'em."

"No," Ezra responded quickly.  "Leave them alone."  He squeezed his eyes shut even tighter. Beads of water hung from what lashes were left on his lids.

"Want to see if you got anything else stuck in there. Gonna need a look."

Ezra continued to grimace and pull away, but his captors held him too tightly to allow any leeway.  Nathan pulled back one reluctant eyelid and stared into a blood-red eye, noting the pupil that didn't respond.

"Damn it, Nathan!"  Ezra growled as he finally started struggling again. Buck joined Vin on the bed, attempting to keep the gambler's feet still.  Ezra was able to snap his head away for a second before Josiah grabbed hold again, holding it in a firmer grip, while Nathan tried the other eye. JD moved beside Chris, adding his weight to the task of restraining him.

The healer looked, carefully holding back the singed eyelid and then let it close again.  He sighed heavily as Ezra tried to rock his head away from them. "Damn," the healer muttered and headed to his medical library.

"Nathan?" Josiah asked, his voice querulous as he kept his tight hold on Ezra's head.

Nathan stood for a moment before his books, resting a hand on one spine, but not yet choosing it.  He glanced over his shoulder at the little group, seeing that the men hadn't moved from their positions -- all five of them were holding down the motionless gambler.  It was almost comical when one realized how compact Ezra was.  Did it really take five men -- most of them near-giants - to hold down one little wet-headed cardsharp?

"Can ya sit him up and bandage his eyes for me? Josiah, put some batting over them, then wind a cloth around his head. Make it tight, but try to keep his ears free so he can hear good."

The preacher nodded and reluctantly released his hold of the gambler's head. Chris and Vin helped reposition Ezra, sitting on the edge of the bed. Standish swayed for a moment, but kept his place, his eyes still squeezed shut. "Thank you," he mumbled.

"No problem, pard," Vin replied, patting the gambler's moist back.

JD wrung his hands, watching.  Finally, he voiced, "Ezra, you see anythin' when Nate opened up your eyes?"

Ezra didn't respond immediately.  Chris watched as the muscles fired around his eyes again.  "He opened my eyes?" Ezra asked.  "I thought he abandoned that course of action.  Thought he listened to me."

"He did it just a minute ago," JD informed.   "He was right in front of you."

A disconcerted expression crossed Ezra's burned face.  One of his hands started to move toward his face again.

"Keep 'em shut," Chris admonished, ready to hold back the hand, but Ezra dropped it to his lap.

Larabee glanced at Nathan, watching the healer as he finally chose a tome and pulled it onto his desk.  The healer seemed scattered as he hunted for a chapter and finally hunched over the book to read it.

Outside, a band, made up of local ranchers and townspeople, started playing "The Battle Hymn of the Republic" and another round of firecrackers went off, making everyone jump.

Part 3:

The revelers in the street sang, "Mine eyes have seen the glory ..." over and over again, as if they knew no further verses of that favored Union song. All up and down the boardwalk, people celebrated still.  It was the Fourth of July and the town was ablaze in a fervor of righteous patriotism.

Within the small room, something clinked and clattered as basins and bottles were moved about. Buck was pacing, thudding heavily.  Josiah was over by the shelf where Nathan kept his bandages, rustling through the cloths.  Larabee stood for a moment, took a few steps, but came back, sitting heavily in the chair and didn't move again.

JD was babbling.  He kept going over the incident - how it happened. "We got the firecrackers from the Chinese camp, for Independence Day. It was just for fun.  We were just havin' a bit of fun. Ya know, to celebrate. Thought they'd stopped goin' off. We all thought they were done!" The explanation when on and on, but no one seemed to be demanding it of the young sheriff.  He didn't appear able to stop talking.

Nathan was mumbling, moving things about on his shelves, flipping through books, pouring things together - odd scents filled the room.  Vin still sat on the bed, so close that his shoulder touched the gambler's.  Chris laid one hand on his leg.

Ezra sat ramrod stiff on the bed, attempting to open his eyes - to see.

"Keep 'em shut," Chris said again.

The song kept repeating.  For a moment Standish recalled another place and time when he had listened to that same song has he crouched in a dank hollow, fearing for his life and trying to get back to his regiment.  He shook his head sharply to rid his mind of that image, wanting to open his eyes and confirm his present location.  Ezra found only blackness - darkness - nothingness.

Part 4:

Larabee spat and leaned back against the hitching post.  The festivities of the day had ended as the night deepened. Here and there, spent firecrackers littered the dark walkway. A party had filled the street and people had celebrated well into the night. The festive mood in the town was in complete contrast to the somberness that had settled within Nathan's room.

Vin, Buck and JD had left the clinic when it became evident that lawmen were required to quiet down some of the more rowdy celebrants. Besides, Chris had become sick of hearing the untalented little band play the same song over and over again.  He had heard enough "Glory glory hallelujahs" to last him a lifetime, and it obviously wasn't doing Ezra any good. The song seemed to make the conman even more anxious and distracted.

When Larabee suggested to JD, Vin and Buck that they find a way to end it -- the three had immediately left -- confiscating the instruments that made up the poor band, and locking the pieces in the jail.  When the musicians complained, they'd been threatened with the same treatment (but another cell) and the god-awful music finally ceased.

Chris had stayed, helping Josiah to wind the cloth around Ezra's head. He'd helped remove it again when Nathan finally decided on a poultice and assisted in replacing the dressing, once the odd smelling concoction had been laid over his eyes.   Ezra hadn't put up any protest, staying mute as they worked. He had been there to convince Standish to take the dose of something that would allow him to sleep.

He'd watched as Josiah helped Ezra get out of his wet clothing. JD brought him his nightshirt before disappearing again to watch over the crowd. Getting the nightshirt over the headdress caused a moment's concern, but the opening at the top was large enough to get Ezra's bandaged head through and soon he was comfortable as he could be, considering the circumstances.

Chris had been there to place a hand on the cardsharp's shoulder, to still him when he jumped at every damn explosion and gunshot in the street. He had been there when Ezra finally dozed off and when Nathan admitted that Ezra was quite possibly blind -- that he might remain so for the rest of his life.  Nathan had determined that it would be best if Ezra kept his eyes bound-up for two weeks to allow them to rest and heal. He'd change the poultice until the swelling went down, but felt that time would be the main factor in determining whether or not Ezra would ever see again.

Ezra flinched in his sleep at the continuing gunfire and fireworks. The celebration of the 4th of July came to an abrupt halt when Josiah left the room, fed up with the revelry. Sanchez had exited the room quietly, closing the door soundlessly behind him -- while the dark look on his face made it evident that he really wanted to slam it off its hinges.  Once the preacher was in the street, his voice had boomed ominously. And things became rather quiet after that, as the men declared a curfew and everyone was forced to leave the streets.

The celebration of independence had come to an abrupt halt.

Chris stared across the dark street, glad that it was finally over -- that the streets were quiet. He walked the town, unable to sleep, keeping a watch.  Crappy way to end a day, he thought. It's supposed to be a day for fun, for enjoying life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, not for this sort of shit.  He rubbed his hand fretfully over his forehead, worried about the autonomous gambler.  What the hell was Standish going to do if he couldn't see?

Ezra will never be able to live with this.  He just won't be able to survive the loss of his sight.

It was late, nearly morning when he startled at a noise come out of the darkness. Straightening, he silently moved out of the low light cast from a dying street fire and listened as something slid through the blackness.

When he eased his Peacemaker out of its holster, the sound stopped abruptly and a voice called out, "Who goes there?"

Chris shook his head, unable to hide a smirk.  "It's me.  It's Chris, Ezra." Larabee returned his gun to its holster and stared along the unlit boardwalk. He couldn't even see the southerner. "What the hell are you doin' out here?"

"I grew dissatisfied with my surroundings and thought I might return to my own abode."

"Ya damn fool.  Couldn't it 'ave waited until morning?" He could hear Ezra moving toward him again, sliding his feet along the boardwalk.

"I felt it best if I removed myself while I was able."

"In other words, 'while Nathan was asleep'?"

He heard a dry chuckle as an apparition came out of the black. Chris saw only white at first as Ezra edged his way toward him -- dressed in his nightshirt and the white cloth wrapped around his head -- Chris had the distinct impression that a ghost was walking toward him.  "I thought it best to escape while I could." Ezra's hand spidered its way along the wall, coming to rest on the window frame of the saddle shop.

Chris stepped closer and asked, "You doin' okay?"  Standish was standing straight enough and seemed all right -- but it was hard to tell anything about a man with his eyes obscured.

Ezra tilted his head curiously and said, "Managing." His hand felt along the wood and he asked, "Saddle shop?" as he pointed at the store.

Chris nodded and then realized his gesture would do no good.  "Yup," he voiced.

Larabee watched as Ezra pulled a knife from his boot and cut into the wood of the window frame. He grinned in Chris' direction and then made his way to the far side of the window and made a similar mark.

"Road signs?"  Chris asked.

Ezra nodded as he made his careful cuts, and then fingered them to ensure that they were satisfactory.  "I figure that I'll pass this way again during my incapacitation. It would be best if I knew where I was."

Son of a bitch, Chris thought as he observed the man.  Shouldn't have to worry about this slippery snake. He'll always come out ahead.  "So you come out here in the middle of the night, when you should be resting, to pace the town and mark it up like a deck of cards?"

Ezra's mouth made an astonished 'O'.  "Mr. Larabee?  A marked deck? What are you implying?"

"I'm just sayin' that you should be resting in bed." Chris scrutinized the man for signs of exhaustion, but was frustrated again by the covered eyes. "Shouldn't be traipsing about in your nightshirt in the middle of the night."

Ezra pulled self-consciously at the white shirt. "I was unable to locate my clothing. At least Mr. Jackson is consistent on where he leaves a man's boots, weapons and hat."  Ezra continued along and marked the doorway of the saddle shop.

"You're goin' to'bed now, Ezra."  Chris ordered, watching as Ezra leaned his head against the doorframe as he cut it.  Ah, there it was.  The gambler was as weary as all hell.

"It's my next stop."  The knife was secreted back into his boot and Ezra continued groping his way.

Larabee watched as the gambler edged further along the boardwalk, toeing forward with each step, feeling his way with one hand.  His foot touched one of the benches along the walk and he adjusted his path accordingly. A discarded bottle caused him a moment's trouble. He tapped at it with his boot before he came to the conclusion that it was easily surmountable and then stepped around the obstacle.

"Please," Standish said, "No need to slow down on my account. I'm certain you have rounds to make, things that need watching."

"Yup," Chris responded, but continued along the walk at Ezra's slow pace. Definitely, he thought, things that need watching.  He kept a close eye on the gambler as he made his progress in the dark night.  Probably making these marks now, he thought, to avoid crowds, and questions and 'scrutiny' that come with daylight.  He looked away as he came to that conclusion, wondering if Ezra had felt his gaze upon him.

Ezra kept his determined pace, inching along the walkway toward the saloon where he rented his room.

"Head hurt?" Larabee asked.

"A bit," Standish replied.  "Nothing out of the ordinary." When he reached the saloon's front window, he marked that frame as well. Chris leaned beside the doorway, watching the careful movements of the gambler. He seemed to tremble slightly as he carved a secret mark into the wood. His free hand gripped the wood tightly as he worked. God, he was about to collapse.

"You done?"  Larabee asked when Ezra completed the window and then reached the doorway.

"Just finishing, sir," he replied.  Now that he was so close, Chris was certain of the tremble, could see a paleness to the man's skin.  God, he wished he could see Ezra's eyes! It was impossible to know anything about a man without that window to their soul. He waited, watching as Ezra put the mark at the same level that he'd placed the others.

Still resting one hand on the wall Ezra uttered.  "Perhaps, just a few more."

"Not tonight," Larabee replied.  "Where's your damn key?"

"In my pocket, I'd suspect," Ezra responded and then gestured to his pocketless apparel. "Currently secreted somewhere in Mr. Jackson's abode."

"How d'ya aim to get in?"

With a deft move, the knife left his hand and went back into his boot, replaced with a thin wire.

"Why you even bother with keys anyway?"  Larabee asked with a sigh.

"Decorum," was Ezra's response.  He made a move to put the pick back into the boot when Chris grabbed his hand.  Startled, Ezra nearly dropped the wire.

Chris grimaced, hating that.  "Didn't mean to surprise you any, Ezra, but you ain't puttin' that back. You're goin' to bed before you fall over and then gotta get some stitchin' from Nate."

"Why, Mr. Larabee," Ezra drawled.  "One shouldn't sneak up on a man like that." He jerked his arm out of Chris' grasp, his mouth held tight.

"You hear what I said? You've done enough today. Either you go to bed on your own, or I take you back to Nathan's. Choose!"

"My my my," Ezra muttered as he felt for the lock.  "A threat against my person. The choice, I believe is obvious.  I'll quietly go to my room since I am not quite equipped to put up a fight."  His careful fingers found the keyhole and inserted the pick. In a second the lock popped and he pushed open the door to the blackened room. "No need to follow.  I know my way," he said as he stepped through. "Goodnight, Mr. Larabee." With that he closed the door behind him.

Chris waited outside, listening to the sound of Ezra's slow progress across the lightless room.  A chair suddenly scraped on the floor, accompanied with a quietly spoken curse. Chris groaned as he listened to the sound of furniture being moved about accompanied with a frustrated mumbling.  He tried the door, finding it locked. Bastard!

"Knock it off, Ezra!"  Larabee growled at the latch. "I mean it! Don't you go rearranging the damn saloon."

The noise stopped, and Ezra replied, "But that might be considered menial labor and you must realize that a gentleman...."

"To bed, Ezra! Or I'm comin' in there after you if it means I gotta bust down the door."

"I'm on my way.  Lord, I don't want to catch Miss Recilios' ill favor."

Larabee pressed his head against the door, listening to the sound within -- hearing Ezra climb the stairway at the back of the room.  Chris stepped out into the street and looked up to the upper window, expecting to see a lamp lit and then remembering that there'd be no light. He waited until he heard Ezra's voice call through the window.  "Goodnight, Mr. Larabee."

"Night, Ez," he responded.  He waited for a minute longer, as if he expected something else to happen, but all was quiet.  Finally, he sighed, adjusted his hat, and headed back up the street. 

Damn fool, he thought, jamming his hands into his pockets, but still he couldn't help but feel proud of the stubborn man.  No, not even blindness could keep that southerner still. A hope arose in him that everything would go well and that Ezra would be okay about this.

He stooped to pick up the bottle that had blocked Ezra's path and tucked it under his arm.

Yes, Ezra could meld himself into any circumstance, couldn't he?  He'd be all right. Now that he considered it, Chris realized that the independent young gambler was probably better equipped than most to deal with such a circumstance. He was a chameleon after all and would change his colors effortlessly.

Ezra Standish would be fine.  He would cope. He would adapt.

Chris rubbed his head again as he thought, let Ezra be fine when Nathan takes those damn bandages off of him. God, he's gotta get his vision back. If Ezra were to be left blind... damn.

Hell of an Independence Day.

Part 5:

Ezra knew something was wrong the second he opened his eyes. He stared at the ceiling for a moment trying to figure just what it was.  Why was it so black? -- so ink-black, so god-awful dark?  Why did his head hurt?  He blinked, or at least tried to blink.

As his mind slowly awakened, he recalled everything - the firecrackers in the street, the pain and the darkness that followed. The heavy bandage across his eyes that kept them shut - no, he wouldn't be opening those eyes anytime soon. He lifted a hand and felt the linen bandage that wound around his head.  He smiled at his stupidity. He'd be staring at no ceiling anytime in the near future. That had only been a trick of his troubled mind.

He pushed himself upright and wondered at the time. A quiet din from the street let him know that the town was awake, but the clock at his bedside sat dumb.  He couldn't even judge time by the quality of light that filled the room.

Slowly, he stood and felt his way to the window.  He held back curtain and let the sunlight fall on him. He listened to the sounds of the people below and tried to judge the time of day from their utterances, from the intensity of the sun - but found nothing he could use.

He felt his way to his bureau and opened the middle drawer. He ran his hand through the clothing until he found a little wooden box pushed to the bottom.  From within, he pulled the familiar form of a pocket watch and checked to find it still ticking.  Absently, he wound it as he made his way back to the bed. With a sigh, he sat again.  He ran his thumb across the lid, missing the feeling of his initials. No, his grandfather's watch was back at Nathan's...with his clothing. This was one that he'd won a couple days ago and was destined to be sold the next time he went to a town with a decent jeweler.

It was a finer watch than his favorite one - but all things considered, he'd rather sacrifice this one.  Now, he'd just have to find the right tool to pop off the glass.

He sat on his bed and contemplated what to use and how to find it. Lord, that might be difficult.  He clenched the watch as he comprehended how hard these simple little tasks had become.

Outside the people of Four Corners moved about on their own little journeys, completing simple tasks, out shopping or simply strolling along. They took for granted how easy their lives were -- able to see everything around them -- able to find anything with a glance -- able to find their way without groping.

They moved in light and color.

"How am I going to do this?" he whispered.  "Oh God, how will I manage?"

Ezra dropped one hand to his lap and slowly rolled the watch in it, feeling it thrumming slightly with each tick.  His other hand pressed to his sightless eyes as he tried to fathom it all. He would have cried, but Nathan had for forbid him to do so.

Part 6:

Chris pursed his lips as he pushed open the doors to the saloon and found Ezra sitting at his usual table, shuffling a deck of cards.  He looked so damn strange with that white bandage wrapped around his head, obscuring most of his face.  He'd shaved, apparently and made himself presentable. The gambler was dressed neatly, as usual, but there was something odd about him, and it took Chris a minute to realize that Standish was wearing his dark green jacket with his red vest -- giving him a somewhat ill-timed Christmas look. Dark blue trousers further ruined his appearance.  In short, the usually-dapper gentleman clashed.

Chris headed toward him, and Standish tilted his head to one side as he heard the approach. "Good day, Mr. Larabee," he drawled as Chris drew out a chair.

"How'd you know it was me?" Chris asked, surprised.

A slight smile touched the cardsharp's lips.  "You jingle, sir."

Chris shook one boot, and the spur spun.  "Lots of folk wear spurs, Ezra."

"You have a specific gait which emphasizes your impressive height, the room became rather quiet at your entrance, and ...how shall I say this without offending....I detected a particular odor."

"You're sayin' I stink, Ezra?"  Larabee inquired as he leaned forward on the table.

"You're wearing the serape that Mr. Sanchez gave you, aren't you?"

Chris didn't bother hiding the shock, knowing that Ezra couldn't register it anyway. He tugged at the garment and sniffed it experimentally.  "Ain't so bad."

Ezra grimaced. "Please, sir. It should be laundered.  I believe the scent is only surpassed by Mr. Tanner's beloved buckskin jacket.  Now that could foretell his approach from halfway across the town."

Chris sniffed again and caught something unpleasant emitting from the cloth. It did have a minor 'Top Hat Bob' kind of scent to it. With a frown, he pulled it off and tossed it on the floor.  Definitely -- Laundry. "So the fact that I scare people, stink and jingle was enough for you to know it was me?"

"No. I admit you might have been a stranger." Ezra conceded and flexed his arm. The little derringer sprang into his hand and he smiled.  "I always stack the deck in my favor. If you had meant me ill, I would have been prepared to defend myself."  The gun disappeared back up his sleeve as Ezra continued,  "When you pulled out a chair without speaking first, I decided that you must be either the tacit Mr. Larabee or a stranger who might shortly suffer from a bullet perforating some unexpected part of his body."

Chris smiled as he watched the gambler work the gun back into position. "You talked to Nate yet this morning?"

Ezra nodded. "Indeed. He was at my doorway some time ago." He pulled the pocket watch from his vest and opened the lid. His fingers touched the unglassed face of the watch before he closed it and added, "Well over two hours ago.  He seemed somewhat... annoyed."

"You should have seen him first thing this morning when he burst into the jail," Chris said and then stopped short, realizing what he'd said.  Damn it, Ezra wasn't about to 'see' anything anytime soon.

"Ah," Ezra responded.  "Fortunately for me, I was abed at that hour." He fiddled with the deck, spreading it on the table and then flipping over the Ace of Spaces, and then the Ace of Diamonds.

Damn right, he marks his decks, Chris thought as he watched the Ace of Hearts make its appearance next, followed by the Club. "Nate take a look at you?" The batwing doors swung open and Chris turned to see Buck saunter in.

Ezra's mouth twitched and he took up his deck again, shuffling. "Yes, he removed the bandages and had a look. He tells me that my burns are healing well and the swelling has reduced.  He replaced the poultice with one slightly less offensive and says that it will remain there only until tomorrow if the swelling improves. The bandages will stay for two weeks. He admonished me to leave them alone and protect my eyes from the light. I did as I was told."

"First time for everything, I reckon," Buck interjected. His sudden voice startled Ezra into dropping his cards. "Sorry, pard!" Wilmington quickly apologized, laying one hand on Ezra's shoulder and picking up the cards with the other.  "I wasn't thinkin'."

"Yes," Ezra muttered, recovering himself and fussing with his jacket's lapels. "It seems to be a habit with you."

Buck paled at the comment. "Damn, Ezra. Damn." He dropped the cards he'd been collecting and sat down on the empty seat beside the gambler.  He threw Chris a discontented look before he said, "I sure didn't mean this to happen, Ezra. It's my fault and I aim to make it up to you somehow. I just..."

"Mr. Wilmington," Ezra raised one hand. "Please, desist. I meant the comment only in jest." He smiled to prove the point. "You'll have to excuse me for my ill-made remarks. I cannot see your face and couldn't properly judge your mood, and I'm afraid you missed my laughing eyes."

Buck fiddled with the cards, picking them up slowly and stacking them. Chris sat back and watched.  "Wouldn't have happened if I hadn't thrown those crackers at you," Wilmington commented.  "Wouldn't have happened if I hadn't jumped on you."

Ezra opened his mouth to retort and closed it again.  "Mr. Wilmington, it was an accident."

Buck stared at the linen that wrapped Ezra's head and sighed. "Yeah, one goddamn accident. I just wish there was something I could do. Is there anything you need, Ez? Just ask and I'll take care of it."

Ezra sat as still as a hunted rabbit.  "I can manage quite well, Mr. Wilmington.  I was only slightly hurt by the incident in question."

"But you're blind.  God, Ezra..." Buck choked for a moment.  "Ain't no goddamn 'slightly' in that.  You're blind."

"Temporarily," Ezra said, drawing out the syllables of the word. His voice became harsh as he added, "And I shall not have you, nor any man, feeling sorry for me."

"I just want to make it up somehow.  I just wish I could help.    If you ever need someone to take you somewhere or get anything for you, just ask. Ask, and I'll come runnin', ya hear?"

"Hear? Yes, I can still hear perfectly well." Standish stood abruptly. "I'm quite capable of taking care of myself.  I've done it my entire life and I need no help from anyone."

"Ezra," Buck implored, "I'm just sayin' that I want t'help."

"I need nothing," Ezra replied sharply.  "Good day, sir." He settled his hat atop his head and stalked away, running full-force into one of the supporting poles in the saloon. Buck gasped and jumped to his feet, but was stilled by Larabee's arm. Ezra staggered backward, rubbing his head and then shoved his disrupted hat back onto his head. He jerked his jacket back into place and made his way toward the door as quickly as he could feel the way.

Buck yanked his arm out of Larabee's grasp and made a move to follow. "Let him be, Buck," Chris growled between his teeth.

Buck turned on his friend.  "He's blind, Chris!"

"I know!  You said it more than once already," Chris spat back. "HE knows that, too."

Buck turned back toward the door, expecting to hear some sort of catastrophe, but nothing happened.  Through the pane glass, they watched as Ezra made his way along the boardwalk, slowly and confidently. "He can't go out there alone," Buck mumbled.

"He's gotta," Chris replied.  "It's his way. He ain't gonna be cooped up anywhere, you know that."

"How's he gonna manage?" Buck asked, standing stiffly -- ready to leap into action if anything happened.

"We'll help him."

Wilmington frowned.  "You heard him. He ain't gonna want our help."

"He does," Chris responded.  "He just don't know how to go about accepting it."

Part 7:

It was slow and painstaking work.  His hand groped along the wall, finding the familiar marks he'd left in the doorways and window frames.  His boot, shoved out before him, toed its way forward - seeking out obstructions and trying to find a way around them.  He moved in slow motion.  Ezra figured that he looked like a fool, but if he were to transverse the boardwalks, this was the only way he could manage it.

Yes, he was flying a flag for all to see -- displaying his weakness to the world.  But, the alternative was to stay holed up in his room or ensconced in Nathan's clinic  -- that would be even worse.  He'd rather prove to them all that he was still vital enough to walk the streets.

An easy breeze filled the street.  People moved down the boardwalk and Ezra did his best to avoid them. He ran into one man who didn't move out of the way in time. Ezra spoke a quick apology and received only a grunt for a reply.

Merchants had set out their wares for the day, making his path more tortuous than the night before, but he was familiar with their usual set-ups and found his way through the obstacle course with only a little confusion.  He smiled to himself as he kept moving. It was as difficult as all hell, but he'd find his way.

"Mr. Standish?" a voice called out.  "Oh, Mr. Standish!"

"Ah, Mrs. Potter," Ezra paused, and tipped his hat in the direction that the voice had come from. Apparently the woman had seen him from the other side of the street and had come running.

"Mr. Standish, oh my!  Here, let me help you, dear."

"No, no need, m'lady.  I'm only taking a stroll."

"Oh, but you'll hurt yourself."  He could hear her fretfully moving about.

"No need to worry," Ezra continued.  "I'm more than familiar with this town. In fact I believe I know every inch of it."

"Yes, I should say so." she agreed.  "The rooftops included."

Ezra smiled.  "One must know all of the best vantage points."

"I can lead you somewhere.  Where were you headed?"

"Nowhere in particular, so there's no need for a guide."

She touched his arm lightly.  "Please, let me know if you need something."

Ezra nodded.  "Yes, dear lady, I will.  Now, I have no intention of keeping you any longer. Please, don't delay your errands on my account."  He gently removed her hand from his arm.

She shuffled away a few feet.  "You'll let me know..."

"Yes," Ezra said patiently as he could.  "I will. Now, let me proceed as I was, my dear."

"Well, if you must..." She sounded doubtful.  "Good day, Mr. Standish."

Ezra tipped his hat.  "And to you as well, Mrs. Potter." He waited until he heard her toddle off and cross the street again. He thought he heard her voice, muttering to someone once she reached that side -- Mrs. Travis, perhaps.  He had no time to ponder the subject of their conversation as he continued to grope his way along.

He wouldn't let this inconvenience keep him down.  No, he wouldn't let this blackness win. He knew this town. It should be as easy as pie to maneuver his way through it.  His foot made contact with something new. He felt about cautiously, finally realizing that it was a crate. It took a moment to find his way around the box and the pile of sacks that sat beside it.

He smiled at that small victory and continued onward.  Where he was going, he was unsure. He just wanted to keep moving - to prove to himself that he could manage this small feat.

"Ezra!" Nathan's voice called from somewhere down the street.  "Wait!"

Ezra froze, one hand feeling along the wall of the dry goods store as Nathan thudded up to him.  "Whatever for?" he asked quietly when Nathan reached him.

"Let me help you," the healer grabbed onto Ezra's arm and asked, "Where you goin'?"

Ezra sighed.  "On a walk. I was just walking...as I always do."

"Oh no, you don't," Nathan responded with a chuckle.  "You can't just do stuff like you used to, Ezra. You gotta be more careful.  We gotta watch out for you now."

"I'm quite capable of..."

"No, Ezra.  No, you're not," Nathan chided.

"I always have been able to..."

"Well, things ain't like 'always' now are they?  Let me help you and take you somewhere. You want to go to the restaurant?  You eat yet?  Probably not, knowin' you. Let me take you over there, okay?  I'll order you somethin' that'll be easy for you to manage."

"No," Ezra responded, trying to jerk his arm out of Nathan's grip. He felt almost claustrophobic as Jackson increased his hold. "I simply wanted to walk along the boardwalk and then sit in my favorite..."

"Ezra, you ain't walkin' so much as slidin' along, lookin' downright foolish. And you're gettin' all the folks here upset."

"Upset?" Ezra listened to the sounds of the other pedestrians. Yes, he could hear the uneasy murmuring now. Was he that much of a spectacle? Were people pointing at him in horror, astonishment and amusement? God, was he the laughing-stock of the town now?

"Come on, Ezra," Nathan said gently.  "Let's get you settled someplace out of the way where you ain't gonna cause any trouble to anyone."

Ezra sighed miserably as Nathan wrapped his other arm around his waist, and directed him toward the restaurant.

Part 8:

From across the street, Vin watched as Nathan guided Ezra. The gambler moved stiffly, like a wooden puppet being jerked along.  Tanner shook his head, knowing that, although he was trying to help, Nathan was going about things all wrong.

Ezra wouldn't take to folks shoving him around. And, obviously, Nathan wasn't listening to him. Vin figured he'd have to speak to Jackson about this. Nathan was doing his best to assist the blinded lawman, but this wasn't right. What Ezra needed was a means toward independence, not someone yanking him nearly off his feet and forcing him to go where he didn't want to go.

The healer pulled the door to the restaurant open and shoved Ezra within. Probably's gonna try and make him eat, Vin figured. That's never an easy battle when he’s ailin’.  Hope they don't get to usin' words they'll later regret.

The tracker tried to figure out the puzzle of how he could help Ezra out, to make things easier.  Already he had seen the little marks carved into some of the business of the town and had divined their purpose. Ezra just needed something to help him move a little faster, to find his way around unexpected obstacles easier.  Vin watched as a couple of the shopkeepers worked at disassembling their street displays.  He smiled to himself, grateful for their small kindness.  Much of the trash in the street had been picked up.  Colorful buntings and flags still hanging from the storefronts were the only sign of the celebration that had occurred the night before.

He had watched as people gave Ezra extra room to maneuver as he shuffled his way along the boardwalk.  It seemed to Vin that the townfolk were adapting to this situation as much as Ezra was.  Given a little help, the cardsharp could probably function quite well. The trick was in getting Ezra to accept help.

Maybe Josiah could figure out something Ezra could use to move about easier.  He was always building stuff.

The door to the restaurant had closed.  Ezra and Nathan had disappeared within. Nate was probably trying to order something at that moment, to Ezra's protests. Maybe Ez had just shut up by this point, unable to fight the healer  -- biding his time.

Vin sat back against the hardware store, waiting.  It wouldn't take long. The southerner would bolt as soon as he had the opportunity.  He wouldn't put up with this close supervision - this infringement on his independence.  Yeah, Ezra would get away and find someplace inaccessible and quiet -- away from prying eyes and grabby hands.  Tanner planned to watch and wait to see where Ezra ended up.  JD was heading his way, looking like he had something to say. Well, the kid was always full of ideas.

Someone needed to keep an eye on that stubborn, crazy southerner. Vin gazed up to the rooftops and sighed, hoping they weren't going to end up on the saddle shop again.

Part 9:

Ezra sat back and groaned.  He was so tired of trying to fight this -- trying to keep moving and feeling his way through the town.  His mind felt as if it was going non-stop, processing everything, reordering his world according to touch and sound. The simplest things had become more difficult than he could imagine.

Escaping from Nathan had proven to be trickier than expected. He'd desperately wanted to disappear out the back door when Nathan was looking the wrong way - the problem was, he couldn't tell where the hell the healer was looking and couldn't know specifically where the back door was. Nathan had propelled him into the restaurant and sat him down before he could get his bearings.

It took several moments to figure out his place in the familiar establishment - listening to the comings and goings of patrons and staff.  He'd had to plot out his route of flight and wait for the right moment. Even once he was able to do that, Nathan spent his time, leaning too close, talking too loud as if he were deaf.  Jackson had shoved a fork into his hand when the meal arrived and would have fed him if Ezra hadn't finally told him to mind his own business.

Nathan had sat back in a huff after that - and Ezra was fairly sure that his dark brown eyes had glared at him as he attempted to eat the lunch that had been ordered for him. God, he hoped he hadn't spilled anything on himself.

Finally, Josiah (thank the Lord!) had appeared at the door and called Nathan over to ask some questions -- outside where sensitive ears couldn't hear.  Jackson had admonished him to stay put and finish the meal -- that he'd be just outside the door and would give him hell if he even tried to escape.  That was, of course, the moment Ezra had chosen to disappear.

He'd made it to the back door, but got confused in the back hall and had found the stairway to the basement instead of the exit.  He'd been in the basement before, in search of a certain delicacy or two, and he had some memory of the place.  Once he made it to the cool cellar of the restaurant, he proceeded to blunder about until he found its egress to the outdoors.  He'd climbed to the top of those stairs, and - finding a fairly comfortable platform just below the slanted door -- decided to stay put. No one would think to look for him just below the cellar door to the restaurant.

He'd been there ever since, had heard someone hustling about outside the door several times, had heard someone descend the stairway from the restaurant only to pause halfway down and return to the top floor.  Nathan, apparently, was looking for him - but the perch he'd found was too dark to be penetrated.  Thank goodness.

After that, things quieted and he was able to rest unmolested. He remained tucked into the small space provided at the bottom of the door.  He sighed deeply and wondered how was he going to manage this? How in hell would he do this?  God, he didn't think he could handle another situation like the one he'd just encountered.

He knew that Nathan meant well.  He knew that he should be doing everything that Nathan suggested.  He knew that he was wrong and Nathan was right - but it didn't help him feel any better. He ran his hand across his jacket lapel, remembering his indecision in the morning.  Unable to decide which vest went with which jacket, he'd done his best to guess -- he only hoped that he didn't clash.  He couldn't even dress himself correctly.  God, what was going to become of him?  He touched his covered eyes again, wishing the throbbing sensation would go away, wishing that he could tear away this bandage and find that everything was perfectly fine.

What would he do if the bandage was removed and he was to find only blackness?  He sighed miserably. He could handle this for two weeks -- hell, he could handle anything for a couple weeks -- but a lifetime?  He shuddered at the thought.

Someone moved at the other set of stairs again - perhaps Mabel from the restaurant was coming down to fetch some fresh eggs.  He wedged his way further into the small space, praying that there'd be no spiders, hoping that the platform was at least somewhat clean. He held his breath and kept still, not wanting to frighten her.

The person walked quietly down the stairs - too light to be Mabel. He tried to make himself smaller, not knowing who was entering the dim basement.

"Ezra," a Texan drawl reached him.

He remained quiet, not knowing if Vin was simply calling - hoping to find him - or if he'd been discovered.  "Ezra," the voice repeated, closer. "You comfy up there?"

Damn!  Discovered. "Mr. Tanner," he responded, pulling himself out from under the door and sitting up.  "It's rather enjoyable here.  Quiet, if nothing else."

"Yeah, well."  Vin shuffled around.  "If it's so nice, you mind if I sit a spell up there, too?"

"If my company is agreeable to you, you're more than welcome."

Vin muttered something as he walked up the short flight and sat down on the platform beside the gambler.  Ezra heard the creak of his leather coat, could pick up that particular odor that he associated with it.  There was a recognizable clink of metal on wood as Vin set down the candle he'd used to illuminate the way.  Ezra could feel the heat of it and smell the burning wax.

"Been here long?"

Ezra pulled out his pocket watch and felt for the position of the hands. "Not so long," he responded.

"It's pretty dark down here."

Ezra smiled.  "Darkness, it would appear, is a rather familiar companion. Besides, Nathan requires me to stay out of the sunlight as much as possible.  I'm only following his orders."

He heard Vin chuckle.  "Yeah, well, he does like to give out orders.  Sometimes he does it too much, I figure."

"Ah yes, you've been under his supervision as well," Ezra replied nicely. "I suppose you have some understanding."

"I know what he's like.  Maybe he won't be so troublesome to you now."

Ezra stiffened, wondering what Vin was implying.  "Did you say something to him?"

Vin rustled, and Ezra had the distinct impression that the tracker had shrugged. "Just was talkin' to him about stuff."

Ezra kept still, hoping that the candle didn't allow Vin to see is face easily. "Oh, I see," he replied.

"Just talkin' a bit, that's all.  Figured he needed to know that you ain't so feeble that you need him watchin' you all the time."

"Thank you, Vin," Ezra replied, not knowing what else he could say.

"Not a problem."

Outside, a dog barked.  Someone dropped a glass in the room above them. A woman made a little excited exclamation. The warm scent of fresh baked bread wafted down to them, coming up over the rich basement odors of stored foods.

"JD told me he'd do somethin' if you want,"  Vin continued.  "Only if you want though."

"What's that?"

"He figured he could arrange your closet for ya so you can find the stuff that goes together."

Ezra paused, feeling a little sick just to hear the suggestion.  Lord, had he sunk that low? He needed someone to lay out his clothing for him?

"He'd get it all set up any way you want.  Make it easy for ya."

"Oh," Ezra replied.

"That way you don't have to ask nothin' of nobody when you're gettin' ready in the mornin'.  Figure you'd like it that way. Just reach in and grab hold of somethin' and know it'll all go together. That's only if it's okay with you though."


"Yeah, Ez?"

"Does this look bad to you?"  Ezra pulled at his jacket and turned his head in the direction of the tracker.

Vin laughed.  "Cain't rightly say, Ez.  You picked yourself a pretty dark place to sit. Nobody said nothin' about it.  JD just figured that since you cain't see no colors that it'd be a help to you."

"I suppose..." Ezra responded.

Vin kept talking.  "Josiah's made this thing."

"A thing?" Ezra prompted when Vin would go no further. "Mr. Tanner, he's always making things. Lord, Mr. Sanchez is a relative of the busy beaver, always at work."

"Ya see, he found somethin' that was left by some fella."

"You're growing more opaque, Mr. Tanner and that is something I don't need at the moment."



"Yeah, don't figure on how it got there, but it's this wood stuff called 'bamboo'."

"Bamboo isn't wood, Mr. Tanner.  It's a semi-tropical grass that..."

"What it 'was' don't matter no more.  We talked a bit and he's workin' on gettin' it fixed up. He figures it'll work fine for you."

"Fixed as what?"  Ezra sat up and drew in his legs.

The Texan sighed.  "I seen ya earlier on the boardwalk and it looked like you were feelin' your way with your foot all the time. Now, you were doin' fine but I figgered it'd be good if you had some sort of a stick to feel the way with.  Ya know, so you wouldn't have to worry about people wantin' to lead you around none." Vin paused to take a breath, and continued, "So I told Josiah what I thought, and he knew about that bamboo wood and made this thing."

"A cane," Ezra realized.  "A blind man's cane."

"Yeah," Vin concluded.  "He's puttin' a handle on it and got it cut down to a nice length."

Ezra bit his lip.  His seat at the top of the cellar stairs was cool, and the realization that he needed a cane made him feel even colder.  He'd be the joke of the town, tapping his way along the boardwalks and streets.

He rubbed his head, wishing the throbbing would stop -- wishing the world would stop lobbing snowballs at him.  Vin said nothing and the two sat in silence on the cool platform at the top of the stairs.

With a cane, Ezra realized, he might have a little freedom.  He'd be able to move faster. With such a device, maybe Nathan would let him be.  Maybe well-meaning townspeople wouldn't see fit to grab hold of him and lead him about.   The two of them sat for well over a minute as Ezra pondered and Vin apparently had nothing more to say.  Finally, the gambler came to decision and uttered, "Well then, let's try it out."

Part 10: 

Nathan, Chris, Josiah and Vin watched from inside the jail as Ezra made his way past them with his pliable bamboo cane.  He swung it back and forth, pausing from time to time to rest his hand on a windowsill, doorframe or roof support -- reading the road signs.  In the past week, the little marks had mysteriously appeared on every vertical landmark in the town.  Sneaky little snake, Chris thought watching the man as he tapped along the edge of the boardwalk, finding the step and treading carefully into the street.  Must have crept out every night, teaching himself how to find everything, marking his cards and stacking his deck.

People gave way as he passed, giving the gambler extra room to maneuver. Most of the time, Ezra was oblivious to their existence, but often enough, he'd stop and greet whomever he passed -- sometimes calling them by name.  The banners and flags displayed for Independence Day had finally been put away, but the town hadn't returned to normal.  The boardwalk had become tidier as shopkeepers rearranged their wares to make things as simple as possible for their blinded peacekeeper to manage the thoroughfare.  Less debris littered the walkways.

"Do you think he's doin' alright?"  Josiah asked.

"Those burns on his face seem to be okay, so I don't got a poultice on 'em anymore," Nathan responded.  "Can't say for sure about his eyes though. We gotta keep 'em covered for another week yet.  Let 'em heal.  He tells me that he don't hurt so much. And now that he's gotten used to walking around he's not quite so cranky."

Vin snorted.  "Been less cranky since you gave him a chance to try stuff on his own, Nate."

The healer gave Vin a sharp look.  "I'm just lookin' out for him.  Look at him! He can't see!"

The gamester cocked his head, listening carefully before he headed across the street. The cane glanced across of pile of manure and Ezra adjusted his path.

Vin shrugged.  "Seems to be doin' right fine."

"He's doing very well," Josiah added.

"Stumbles sometimes.  Falls," Nathan put in.

"Yeah," Vin responded.  "But he gets back up.  Looks as embarrassed as hell, but 'long as no one says nuthin', he just goes on like it didn't happen."

"Can't quite understand how he's been able to manage though," Josiah continued.  "He has troubles but seems to be able to negotiate the streets."

"He knows what's where," Vin suggested.  "Good thing he's lived here for a spell. He's got a good memory, too.  I think he'll make it through this next week just fine."

They watched as Ezra made his way to the livery. Once he reached the building, he tapped along the wall until he found the opening and disappeared inside.

Nathan frowned.  "He ain't thinking of taking a ride, is he?"  He glanced to Vin and the others. "I told him to stay off that horse."

Chris shrugged.  "Just gonna visit a bit, I think.  He likes to take care of that spoiled beast."

"Wish I really knew how he was doing," Josiah said with a sigh. After a moment, he added, "Getting JD to arrange his closet was a trick."

"He wants to look good," Vin said.  "He trusts JD won't make fun of him and knows the kid can dress himself pretty good."  The tracker paused and then added, "If you forget about the hat."

"That cane was a gamble," Nathan included.  "Could 'ave gone off on you about that one, Vin."

"Naw," Vin responded.  "It just needed to be presented right. If I were to shove it in his hand, he would 'ave hated it. If he were to find JD going through his closet without his permission -- that would have gotten the kid a couple bullet holes."

"So you conned him?"  Josiah asked, raising an eyebrow.

"Nope," Vin replied.  "Just talked to him is all.  He's mighty fond of conversation. Pity so few folk take the time to talk to him."

Josiah sighed.  "He isn't the easiest to speak to sometimes. He tends to doubletalk me anytime I want a straight answer, and he just won't say much about anything personal."

Chris snorted. "I'm betting that damn horse is going to hear more then any of us ever will about what he's feeling."

Part 11:

"Hello, my friend," Ezra said softly as he made his way to the back of the livery. His cane got caught up in the straw that littered the floor, but he didn't need it to negotiate here.  He knew the place well.

Horses snorted and stomped, moving about in their stalls. The sharp rich smell of hay, straw, horse, leather and manure filled the building - a comforting and simple essence.

Chaucer neighed loudly when he saw his owner, and romped about in his stall. As if he knew his owner couldn't see him -- he put up more racket than usual as Ezra drew nearer.

"Quiet now, quiet.  You'll wake your neighbors." Ezra reached out one hand and touched the velvety muzzle of his horse. Chaucer blew through his fingers, pressing against him. "My friend, my dear friend," Ezra muttered as he pushed open the door to the stall.  "Yes, it's me." Once the door was clear, Chaucer stepped forward and dropped his head over his owner's shoulder and seemed to draw him closer in an equine hug.

The gambler chuckled and patted his horse's neck. "Miss me?" he asked softly and Chaucer chortled in response. "Yes, yes, I know I've been errant.  Sorry, old friend, but I haven't been able to ride you recently. Certain matters have made this impossible.  I've been ordered to stay put."

Chaucer plucked at the strange white binding around his man's head, as if he wasn't sure what to think about it.  Ezra gently corrected him, pushing his long head away from his own. "No, my friend, let it be. I know you want to see my eyes, but we must do as we're told and leave it in place."

Chaucer snorted unhappily.

"I know," Ezra responded.  "I've never really cared for following orders, but..." He shrugged.  "...I figure that this is for the best. Perhaps, Mr. Jackson is correct and my vision will return if my eyes are allowed proper rest. He said that it'd only be two weeks." He fumbled about on the shelf and found the brush. Chaucer moved about excitedly, waiting for the reassuring feel of the brush on his side.  Ezra complied.

Chaucer continued snorting, and pulling at the bits of the bandage when he was able - sometimes roughly.  "Chaucer, please," Ezra muttered as he worked, "Quiet now." 

"Only two weeks, and that's half over," Ezra continued.  "I can manage another week.  Certainly, Nathan was right and all will be well by that time." He brushed the animal slowly and carefully, not needing to see to know that his horse was happy with this simple action.

He was silent for several minutes when he finally asked in a low voice, "What am I going to do if this continues, my friend?" Not receiving a response, he continued, "I have learned my way around town, but I was already familiar with the byways of this unfashionable burg.  Certainly, if this condition is to persist, I won't be able to stay here forever."

The horse pressed against him gently.

"I won't force them to take care of me, as I know they'll try.  I must be able to make it on my own. I always have."  Ezra continued his careful brushing, knowing every angle of his horse, tracing the familiar paths.

"But how am I going to survive if I don't know how to function in the world? How am I going to live when we start traveling again? You know we must, eventually, leave. We always do."

Chaucer snorted discontentedly and swished his tail.

Ezra furrowed his brow under the bandage as Chaucer started to pick at it again. "My friend, we must do something about this, otherwise I will become a hopeless encumbrance to them all.  Time is wasting."

Part 12:

Chris and the others kept their vigil at the jail, watching the front door of the livery and waiting for Standish to emerge again.  They all watched out for him. It became a duty to always keep an eye open for their gambler, to watch his path and make sure he stayed out of trouble.

They waited and watched.

Suddenly, a 'whoop' cut the air and a chestnut horse bolted from the doorway, turning sharply and running out of town.  A southern gambler rode low across the gelding's neck, urging it to faster speeds.

The four were on their feet and through the door in a minute, watching as the horse sped away, kicking up a cloud of dust.  Vin and Chris exchanged a glance and Chris nodded sharply.

"Wonder why it took him this long," Tanner muttered as Chris headed to the livery.

"Damn him!"  Nathan growled as he stood in the doorway.  "Ezra!  Ezra!" he shouted. "Get your ass back here, you idiot!"  He stomped in frustration. "What the hell does he think he's doing?"

"Dear God," Josiah sighed, leaning against the wall.  "He's gonna get himself hurt."

"Never does what I tell him.  Never!"  Nathan groused as he started toward the livery. "Let's chase down that fool and haul him back."

Vin held up his hands. "Hang on there, Nate, Josiah.  Chris is gonna ride after him to make sure he's fine. Rest of us is gonna let him be."

"Vin!" Nate cried.  "I should get my bag.  That damn fool horse might run him off a cliff. What if it tries to jump a fence?  Chaucer is about as tricky as a horse can be and if he..."

"Wouldn't do a thing to hurt his man," Vin concluded. He nodded as Chris exited the livery on a hastily saddled Job. "He just wants to ride for a while.  Get a bit of distance behind him."

Part 13:

Ezra's smiled he pressed against the horse, as he felt those incredible muscles work under him.  It took little urging to set the gelding to a gallop. Chaucer wanted to run as much as his rider did.

The wind filled his ears as the horse pounded across the hard-packed earth.  Faster and faster, they flew. God, it felt good to move, to forget about being blind and stupid and helpless.  As Chaucer worked beneath him, Ezra felt alive.

He angled the horse's direction, trusting Chaucer to understand. They'd head out toward the McKenzie property - befuddle any followers.

They raced the wind.

He grinned as he felt a change in the horses gait... preparing himself.


Chris knew that Ezra had a good lead on him, and that high-spirited racehorse of his took him nearly out of view.  He kept an eye on the colorful spot, and tried to close the distance -- get in close enough to lend a hand if Standish got into any difficulty.  Yet, he wanted to make stay far enough away so that he was out of earshot. He followed and made sure that the gambler was safe - that's all.

Everything changed as the rider and horse approached a fence at full speed. Larabee sucked in a breath as they neared it, and then they took it without slowing. Ezra clung on as if he was born to ride, as if he saw every movement of his horse. The chestnut gelding landed, not missing a step and his rider never faltered. The two sped onward on the other side.

"Damn him!"  Chris growled.  It was one thing to go for a little ride - another thing entirely to risk his life on a stupid stunt.

Several long minutes passed before Larabee reached that same obstacle.  Job shied. The big black wasn't dumb and wasn't about to risk breaking a limb. With a snort of disgust, Larabee dismounted and pulled away the upper rungs of the fence before grabbing hold of Job's reins and pulling him through. "Get on now!" he grumbled as Job took his time stepping over the low rails.  Frustrated, the gunslinger quickly mounted, leaving the resetting of the rungs for later. He took a moment to scan the horizon, but Ezra was out of sight.

"Son of a bitch did that on purpose!"  Larabee growled as he brought his horse to a gallop again. He was well behind the gambler now. His eyes scanned the landscape, hoping to find their missing conman. "Gonna wring his goddamn neck when I catch up with him!" he uttered.  "Don't give a damn if he can't see me comin'!"

He continued onward, searching.


Ezra gave an almost unconscious command and the horse slowed and then stopped.  He felt about until he grasped the handle of the cane and pulled it from his rifle's scabbard.  Cautiously, he dismounted and toed about, making sure that the ground around him was safe.  Certainly, Chaucer was smart enough to have stopped in an area free of such things as rattlesnakes, mud and gunk.

Ah, everything seemed perfectly fine - open space - plenty of room to maneuver and explore.

He smiled and wielded the cane about, feeling the unfamiliar territory.  He had no idea where he was.  He simply knew he had to try this - to move about in a land where he knew nothing.

He stepped forward.  He could do this.


Where was he?  Where did that slippery little snake get off to?  That weasel, that little prick. 

Where the hell is he?

Chris glowered and searched, urging Job onward, looking for the missing man.




Son of a....

Ah, hell.

Part 14:

Chris' heart caught in his throat as he finally saw the chestnut again.  Chaucer – riderless in the distance.  Chris touched his spurs to his horse's sides.   There was no sign of the gambler as he approached.   No! What the hell did Ezra do? Chris' mind raced as he tried to find him.  Goddamn!  I was supposed to keep an eye on him and couldn't even do that.

"Ezra!" he shouted, closing on the animal. "Ezra!" Chaucer looked at him and dropped his head, deciding to eat some grass. "Ezra!  Where are you?"  Chris cried.

A white swathed head suddenly popped up from behind a rill, turning one ear toward him.  "Mr. Larabee," Ezra drawled, a catch in his voice was the only sign that he was upset at all.  "Come out for a bit of exercise?"

"What the hell do you think you're doin'?" Chris demanded, slowing his horse to a trot as he came closer.    His face grew red with rage at the nonchalant way Ezra turned his head.  "You could have gotten yourself killed!  That was a damn fool thing to do!"

"Yes, yes," Ezra responded, a note of defeat in his voice.  "I know."

Chris dismounted, noting that Ezra hadn't moved from where he crouched. As he drew closer, Chris shook his head and sighed. Ezra was entangled in a formidable patch of cactus. It had caught onto both of his jacket-sleeves and wrapped into his pant leg, holding him tightly.

"Looks like you got yourself in a bit of a tangle," Chris commented.

Ezra sighed dolefully. "I had only wanted to go for a bit of a ride -- to be on my own for a moment."

"Should have stayed on your damn horse."

Ezra nodded, turning his blind head away from Chris as if he could feel the man's stare.  "Yes, well, in hindsight, there are a lot of things I shouldn't have done."

Chris squatted down beside the gambler and tried to discover the best way to free him from the long spines.  One of Ezra’s sleeves had gotten entirely twisted up in the plant. Larabee couldn't quite figure out how Ezra had managed to do that. Standish probably could have freed himself in a couple seconds if he simply let the fabric tear - but knowing Ezra, he wanted to save the damn clothing that he couldn't even see.

The gambler continued in the same shamed voice. "I had only dismounted for a moment -- to try my luck at walking in an area where I had no familiarity.  Apparently, I missed this monstrosity and when my foot became entangled, I tried to free it."  He shook his head miserably.  "I only managed to make matters worse." He nodded toward his hands for emphasis.  Chris noted the flecks of blood on Ezra's fingertips, where he had tried to negotiate the spines, but failed.

"Should 'ave brought along some help."

"I must learn how to live on my own," Ezra said quietly. "No sense in forcing innocent bystanders to cope with me. How can I survive in this world if I cannot even walk five paces without something like this happening?"  He jerked his hand in frustration, but stilled the movement as he felt the fabric start to give way.

"You only got a week - just a few days left before Nathan takes off those bandages, Ezra," Chris replied.  "You don't got to worry so much."

"Perhaps," Ezra replied softly.  "But, what if..." he paused and started again. "If my eyesight doesn't return when Nathan removes these bandages, I must know how to manage."

Chris reached forward to grasp hold of the gambler, but realized that he'd better warn him first.  "I'm gonna start gettin' you out of this," Chris stated. "Gonna grab onto your arm so I can do that, okay?"

Ezra nodded sharply so Chris carefully took the gambler by the wrist and worked at freeing the fabric from the spines, glad that he had thought to put on his riding gloves before his chase. The cactus was caught in Ezra's clothing, and not in his skin.  Thank goodness for that. "You shouldn't get too worried about it just yet," Chris said softly as he worked.  "Might work out fine."

"Time is wasting," Ezra returned.  "Every minute that passes without my learning how to handle this situation is time ill spent."  He shifted, but was still too tightly held by the cactus to get comfortable.

"Just hang around town for one more week, Ez," Larabee said as he managed to partially free Ezra's less-encumbered hand.  "You done half of it already."

"But I'm already familiar with the town," Ezra responded. "I need to learn how to manage in an unknown location. I need the ability to travel about, to be independent. How am I to survive in this world if I can't manage walking in a straight line without running into something? For Christ's sake, the only thing in my way was this contemptuous cactus and I manage completely entangle myself in it! How in the world am I to manage in a strange town?" In frustration, he kicked out his left leg -- the only appendage that was still mobile -- striking his cane and sending it flying.  Ezra frowned, realizing what he'd done and he let out a sorrowful little, "oh." He shook his head again. "Apparently, this only proves my thorough incompetence and inability to even do the simplest, most asinine tasks."

Chris, having just worked the last of the spines out of Ezra's left arm, gave the arm a sharp jerk, turning the gambler toward him.  "Listen to me, you stupid son-of-a-bitch! Ain't a goddamn thing simple about this, Ezra.  I don't know how the hell you've been managing it so far, but you're doin' damn good."

"Hell, I'm falling on my ass half the time!" Ezra spat out.  "I'm running into things, making a fool of myself!"

"No one thinks you're a fool," Chris returned.

"I'm an object of pity."

"Don't see so many people lookin' on you with pity.  Mostly I see admiration."

Ezra's mouth worked for a moment before he said, "But I must do better. I must find a way to handle this alone. All my life I've counted on my ability to take care of myself. My blindness is just another hurtle to cross, another barrier that I must learn to circumvent."

Chris let go of Ezra's left arm and started working on his right. "Sometimes, Ezra," he said his voice softening again. "You gotta go ahead and let yourself be dependent on others. I know it ain't easy, but it's right."

Ezra rubbed his freed hand along his bandaged face.  "All my life, I've managed on my own. Never, have I counted on anyone for support.   I must find a way to do this alone."

Working with great care to free the fabric from the cactus, Chris didn't look up at Ezra, thinking about what Ezra had just revealed. No one had ever supported him?  Why was that?  Damn shitty way to live.  It was high time things changed.

Continuing his work, Chris said, "You don't got to manage it on your own. There aren't any 'innocent bystanders' amongst us, so you don't have to worry about any of us 'coping' with you."  He picked at the spines, removing them from Ezra's sleeve. Ezra stayed quiet, so Chris continued speaking as he worked.  "Me and the boys are behind you. If you need anything, you just ask and we'll see it gets done. Doesn't matter if you think it sounds stupid or too damn simple or anythin'. I know you're havin' to work extra hard at every little thing. I promise, Ezra, I'll do whatever I can to help you."

He managed to free the arm and started working on the leg. Ezra rested his hands against his lap, his head bowed as he listened.

"Ezra, I'm damn proud of you.  You're doin' a mighty fine job, and the whole town looks up at you for it.  The fact that you can walk through the whole town and get damn near anywhere just impresses the hell out of me.  I can't think of anyone else who could have managed that."

"Oh," Ezra responded quietly.  "I'm sure there's others. You... Mr. Tanner perhaps?"

Chris chuckled as he finally was able to free Ezra's pant leg from the cactus.  "Yeah, maybe Vin. JD too, I bet.  Not Buck though.  He'd take it as an opportunity to spend more time with the ladies."

Ezra laughed.  "Ah yes," he chucked.  "The pity of doting ladies  --  they'd be all over him."

Chris laughed with him, glad to hear the cardsharp laugh again -- genuinely. "You ready to get up?" the gunslinger asked.

"Yes, yes," Ezra muttered and started to move his hands to shove himself up.

"Let me help you," Chris said firmly, hoping that Ezra didn't refuse him. "Don't want to get caught in this crap again." Ezra nodded in response and Chris got the cardsharp to his feet and maneuvered him away from the plant that had caught hold of him. They walked toward the kicked cane and Chris was about to pick it up when Standish surprised him by bending down near where it had fallen and finding it after only a minimum of fumbling.  Chris chuckled and when Ezra tilted his head in his direction, Larabee repeated, "You impress the hell out of me."

Part 15:

"Okay, keep your eyes shut tight while I get this unwound from your head," Nathan said.  "I got the curtains pulled so the room is pretty dark."

Ezra nodded slightly, his hands clasped tightly in his lap.

"You doing okay, Ezra?" Josiah asked as he helped Nathan remove the bandage.  Again, Ezra managed to nod in spite of the bandage being unwound from his head.  He couldn't trust his voice.

Finally, the white cloth was removed, revealing the pale healing skin beneath. Only the wads of batting still covered Ezra's eyes. Josiah placed a hand on Ezra's shoulder as Nathan carefully removed the bits of cotton. Beneath, Ezra's eyelashes had started to grow back. His singed eyebrows gave him an astonished look, and his eyes remained tightly closed.

"Ezra," Nathan said softly, laying a hand on the southerner's shoulder. "I want you to try to open your eyes really slow.  It might seem mighty bright in here, so blink 'em a lot and keep 'em kinda squinted, okay?"

Ezra nodded again, his hands tightly clenched.  Larabee leaned against a dark wall of the clinic, watching. Vin, Buck and JD crowded near the door.  Ezra would probably have protested the idea of an audience, so Chris and the others had entered the room silently.  Most likely, Standish knew that they had come, but since no one has spoken of it, their presence was allowed to go uncontested.

Ezra opened a narrow glance, squinting heavily and then squeezing his eyes shut even before they fully opened.

"Ezra," Nathan said softly.  "You see anything?  Can you see light?"

The gambler tried again, blinking furiously as he tried to open his eyes. Chris held his breath, as he saw those startling green eyes for the first time in two weeks.

"Can you see anything?"  Nathan asked.  "Is it just shadows? Can you make out shapes?"

The conman continued to squint and blink, changing his gaze from Nathan to Josiah, and then to the three near the door, squinting further due to the light coming in at the doorframe.  Finally, his gaze met Larabee's and he smiled, not needing to say a word.

Buck hooted and slapped JD on the back.  Josiah and Nathan both patted Ezra like a favored pet. Chris looked to Vin and smiled at the tracker, seeing a look of relief on Tanner's face.  Hell, they all looked damned relieved.

Part 16: 

Ezra moved down the street with the same ease as he always displayed. He nodded to Chris as he approached and greeted with a, "Mr. Larabee."

Chris smiled at the gambler and made a gesture toward his face.  "What do you have on your head, Ezra?"

Ezra returned the smile and pulled off the unusual eyewear.  His eyes narrowed as the light became too bright. "Spectacles with smoked lenses," he replied, displaying the dark glasses.  He settled them again on his nose and said,  "I think they make me look rakish. Nathan insists that I wear them for the next week or so whenever I'm out of doors.  They do cut the sun's glare quite nicely.  Perhaps someday they'll become a necessary fashion accessory."

"Yeah, we'll see," Chris responded skeptically. "Can't see a man wearin' those sun-spectacles all the time if his eyes ain't weak."

Ezra shrugged and seemed non-committed. He turned his head, as if modeling the glasses.

"Glad to see you able to use them in any case," Chris continued.

"As am I."  Ezra pulled out his favorite pocket watch and checked the time, running his thumb along the glass.  "If nothin' else, the return of my vision frees you from any of the obligations you previously mentioned."


Disinterestedly, Ezra continued fiddling with the watch. "You need not worry about helping me out of...situations. I'm now completely capable of handling things on my own.  You're free of any promises made."

Chris shook his head, hating the dark glasses that again hid Ezra's eyes. Why did people insist that Ezra never revealed his emotions? Chris had learned that the gambler's eyes expressed more than the man ever spoke.  "I haven't been freed of anything, Ezra."

Ezra pursed his lips and closed the watch. "I'm more than capable of taking care of myself."

"I know you're capable, Ezra," Larabee grumbled. "You're capable of damn near anything you set your mind to. But, you also got some friends now, friends you can depend on in a pinch."

"Yes," Ezra responded.  "A pinch."  He pocketed the watch, and stiffened slightly. "Thank you, Mr. Larabee, for your help over the past few days."

"Not a problem, Ezra."

Ezra smiled and touched the brim of his hat, giving away nothing.  He turned and continued on his way.  Chris watched him go, shaking his head again.   He didn't know if he'd ever get through that thick skull of the southerner.

Wouldn't give up trying though.

It had been over two weeks since the 4th of July -- a day set aside for celebrating independence.  Chris realized as he watched the sharp saunter away, nodding to the town folk that he passed, that there was plenty to celebrate indeed.  He was damn glad that their own independent con artist was going to be all right. Chris wouldn't have it any other way.

THE END - by NotTasha

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