DISCLAIMERS: This is fanfiction.  No profit involved. Who in their right mind would pay me anyway?   It is based on the television series "The Magnificent Seven". No infringement upon the copyrights held by CBS, MGM, TNN, Showtime Extreme, Trilogy Entertainment Group, The Mirisch Corp. or any others involved with that production is intended.  
RATING: PG-13 for Language
MAJOR CHARACTERS: Ezra, Chris and all the rest
SUMMARY: First a shoot-out, then an explosion -- a building falls on Ezra.  he's deafened and has to deal with it.
ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS:. Kristen supplied the name of Ezra's horse, I borrowed others from Eleanor T.
COMMENTS: Yes, please! Drop me a note, let me know what you think.
DATES:  Original finish date February 29, 2000

Clear as a Bell
By NotTasha --  clearly

graphic by DJ Aida

Part 1:

Ezra stood at the entrance to the corral and waited.  The report of a gun sounded from the street.  Another shot followed the first, answered by a volley that seemed to erupt from five or six different places at once.  He couldn't see any of the action, stationed as he was behind the empty mercantile, near the little corral that bordered the saddle-shop.  The small herd of horses contained there snorted and stamped their feet.

Another shot was fired.  Standish shifted and drew his Colt Richards Conversion from his shoulder harness, holding it stiffly at his side -- ready.

The gunfire was growing closer.  The action was obviously moving down the street, only a few buildings from him now.  He resisted the powerful urge to follow the noise and assist his companions.  No, he held his location, knowing that he was going to be the last defense. The McHale brothers were not going to get past him to claim their stolen horses.

The shooting continued and he frowned, wondering what was going on, hoping that everyone was safe. He could make out Chris shouting, and Buck replying. Vin must still be near the assayer's office; Ezra could hear him firing his mare's leg at something in the street.  JD yelled to Josiah, then Nathan shouted a warning to Buck and there was more gunfire.

Then, he heard pounding footfalls coming toward him. He turned to see Johnny McHale appear for a moment outside the backdoor of the mercantile.  The young man made a move toward the corral, saw him, and swore loudly.  The outlaw hastily ducked back inside.

Ezra squared his shoulders and took off after him. His appointed post would have to go unwatched; he couldn't let Johnny get the drop on the others. He paused outside the building for only a moment, and entered, his gun ready. The immediate dimness confounded him for a moment.  Light streamed in through the half-boarded windows of the vacant building, illuminating a swirling curtain of dust motes.  A single figure was silhouetted in the doorway.

Ezra leveled his weapon at the form and said distinctly, "You'd best take advantage of my good nature, Mr. McHale, and lay down your weapon now."

Johnny, a man of about twenty-two years, didn't move immediately.  He looked out the doorway as if he wanted to be someplace else and then gazed back at the regulator who held him under the gun.  When the boy met his gaze, Ezra frowned, keeping his aim steady on the outlaw.  The eyes that gazed back at him held a strange mirth in them.

"Hi there, law-man!" Johnny called.  "You gonna arrest me now?"

"Lay down your weapon," Ezra repeated, "and I shall.  Do otherwise and you'll discover that the law can be severe."

Suddenly the young man started laughing.  "Severe?" he cried.  Great peals of laughter escaped the lad and he bent over in an almost hysterical glee.  He clutched at his stomach as his hilarity echoed in the empty room.  Johnny McHale seemed to have lost his senses. 

"What's so funny, Mr. McHale?" Ezra drawled, "Perhaps you can fill me in?"

Johnny shook his head and continued with his fit. Underneath the man's laughter, Ezra became aware of a hissing sound -- strange. But at this moment, it was the least of his worries.  He kept the weapon trained on the hysterical young man and he tried to decide what to do with him.

"If you would be so kind, Mr. McHale," Ezra said, flicking his gun at the man.  He was well aware that he should be back at the corral.  He had one man under his gun now, but he had left those horses available to the other two.  "Perhaps we should adjourn to the jailhouse where we might meet up with your brothers?"

Suddenly the young man drew his weapon.  With a curse, Ezra fired. It was at that exact moment that a realization hit Ezra like a ton of bricks.  The hissing, the inconsequential hissing, was a burning fuse.  He watched the young man reel toward the front door, and without waiting for him to fall, Ezra dove toward the rear exit.

He never made it.

The whole building exploded around him.

He was flying. Ezra had the sensation of being carried up with the sound, and then, the incredible, ear-splitting noise seemed to throw him downward.

He fell and everything went silent.

Part 2:

The explosion rocked the town.

"Son of bitch!" Buck yelled, ducking his head and flinging Tom McHale to the ground in front of him.  Wilmington threw his arms up over his head as the debris fell about him and the church bell clanged in its tower.

McHale tried to scuttle to his feet but Buck threw himself bodily on top of the young man and kept him on the ground.  "Keep still, ya idiot," Wilmington ordered, keeping one hand on the young man as he stood and looked about.

Chris and Josiah had Will McHale in their clutches and were dragging him along as they looked up the street, toward where the explosion had sounded.  "What the hell?" Larabee uttered, shoving Will down beside his brother.

Vin, Nathan and JD ran past them, toward what was left of the old mercantile.  Chris nodded to Josiah and Buck.  "Get these bastards locked up.  We still got one to go."

"Ah, Chris," Buck said with a nod and then a glare at the brothers.  "Johnny is the one that likes to mess with dynamite."

Chris shook his head sharply and headed after the other three lawmen.

"Keep a sharp eye out," Josiah urged as he dragged Will to his feet again.  "I hear their younger brother is not the most level headed of the bunch."

"Thanks," Chris muttered over his shoulder and quickened his pace.  He looked in disbelief at what was left of the mercantile.  The building was absolutely disintegrated.  Dazed townspeople stood in the street.  Shattered windows faced the empty lot.   The people hardly seemed to notice Larabee's passing.  Trance-like, they couldn't divert their gaze from the razed building.

Chris' eyes quickly fastened on Nathan, squatting in the street beside a body.  Vin and JD stood beside him, looking at the destruction.  Larabee sucked in his breath as came alongside them.  "Nate?"

"Johnny McHale," Nathan said with a nod.  "Been shot dead."

"Who shot 'im?  One of you?" Chris demanded. They shrugged and looked to each other. Larabee changed his gaze to Josiah and Buck who were leading the other two boys to the jail.  They had been too far away to perform the deed.   Chris turned his head sharply to the corral where Ezra should have been stationed, the corral that shouldn't have been visible from the street, except for the missing building. The horses were careening about the corral in abject terror, but there was no sign of the gambler.

"Ezra!" Chris shouted, moving toward the corral. He felt a panic rise in him.  "Ezra?"

"Chris," Nathan said, looking up from the body, his voice unsteady. "Whoever shot 'im musta done it from that direction," he said pointing at the wrecked building.  Chris set his jaw and continued his way toward the corral.

"Chris," JD called, following the gunslinger. "You don't think he was in there when it happened?"

Chris turned his gaze from the corral to the pile of shattered wood. No! he thought… he couldn't be.  His gaze darted from the fallen-down building to the shattered windows that faced it.  "Damn it to hell," he muttered.

JD looked devastated. "But, couldn't 'ave been…"

"JD," Chris said firmly, "See if you can find him."


"Check the saloons, his room, the livery… anywhere," Chris ordered.

Vin nodded. "Maybe he just got tired o' waitin'."

Chris jerked his head at JD. "Go on!" JD paused and then trotted off toward the nearest saloon.

Nathan sighed. "I hope to God that you're right, Chris."

Chris looked toward Buck and Josiah who had reached the jail.  Jackson spoke, "Maybe he saw a mark and went off after 'im."

Chris dusted his hands on his pants and said, "Maybe."  He gazing upon the tumbled mess that was left of the mercantile and wondered how could anyone have survived that?

"Ezra," Jackson muttered quietly.   He bent down to lift a long board that rested on top of the tangled pile.

Vin stepped forward to help him. "He's okay," the tracker said to no one in particular.

Part 3:

Ezra wasn't sure how long he was out. His first sensation was a ringing sound, like the tone after a bell was rung, but it rolled on and on. Why were they ringing the church bell? He tried to take a deep breath, but couldn't. The air was filled with dust, and he didn't seem able to fill his lungs. He coughed, struggling to draw in enough air to make it worthwhile.  He struggled to move, but found himself completely pinned at the chest. It was if a giant had placed its thumb on his sternum and said, "You stay there, Ezra Standish."

He opened his eyes and stared into near darkness. Small shafts of light illuminated the falling dust. He watched the dance of the motes for moment, mesmerized.  Blinking, he tried to clear his head.

This would never do.  He craned his neck to see what was above him, but was rewarded with an eye-full of dust. Wood and debris surrounded him. He was on his back, but something was under his head and shoulders, keeping him somewhat propped up. By leaning his head forward he was able to figure out what was on his chest, a beam that must have come out of the rafters of the building. His left hand was trapped between his chest and the beam, and his right was somewhere beside him. He tried to move the right hand out of its position, but it was tightly pinned in place. His left hand was totally incapacitated. He could feel it, along with his shoulder holster and every button of his jacket, pressed into his chest, but didn't seem to have any feeling in the hand itself. His breath quickened with fear.

"Not my hands, please, not my hands," he said aloud. Or at least he thought it was out loud.

"Hello," he tried softly, and coughed again. "Hello?" He couldn't hear his voice above the ringing of that bell. Why were they ringing the church bell?

"Don't let your emotions get the better of you, Ezra," he said to himself. He said the words slowly and distinctly, but heard nothing. "Ah hell," he muttered.  The words never met his ears.  He couldn't hear a thing...not a thing.

Pinned, unable to move or even hear, he was in a hell of a place.  How was he about to extricate himself?

"Hello, anyone?" he shouted.  He paused, waiting for a response and then realized the ridiculousness of that action.  Unable to even hear is own voice, how was he about to hear anyone else?

"I'm here!" He tried to gulp down the required air to put power behind the call, but he was unable to inflate his lungs enough, and the attempt only brought a further bout of unproductive coughs.  He couldn't tell how loud he had shouted. This was no good, no good at all.

He looked upward again, but the falling dust made it impossible to see anything. He was stuck, hopelessly stuck, and nobody knew where he was. He was supposed to be by the entrance to the corral. What would they think when they couldn't find him? Would they think he had run off on them again?  Good Lord.  His heart quickened again at that thought.

Did the remaining McHales get past? Nobody was on guard at the corral and they would have gotten to the horses. What if the other six thought the McHales had captured him? They would go after the criminals to try and free him. He hoped they didn't come to that conclusion. It could get them killed. It would be better if they thought he'd run out.

Long minutes passed as he listened to the ringing that never seemed to lessen.  What could he do?  He decided to take inventory. He could move his right hand, but not his arm.  He hoped that meant that the rest of the arm was in one piece. He tried his left hand next, but it was trapped too tightly to be sure. He could flex the muscles in the hand at least, even if he couldn't get any movement.

He breathed in and out slowly, a task that seemed to be getting harder. He didn't know if it was because the beam was settling or that he was getting tired. There was no pain in this action. His ribs were, for the time being at least, intact. He rolled his neck from one side to the other. His head was in one piece.

Next, he tried his feet, and was pleased to find that his right foot was free. He could move it fairly easily in a small area, so at least part of his body had mobility. Something was holding his left foot down and he tried to move the offending barrier with his right foot. He worked slowly and patiently to get the toe of his boot under the edge of the object, and flip it out of the way. The action was more trouble that good though, as it brought down something large that effectively trapped both feet. "Intelligent move, Ezra," he muttered.

He decided to keep still for a time, perhaps regain some energy and try again in while.  He would have to get himself out of here in one way or another and he needed to regain his strength.

Part 4:

Buck and Josiah quickly settled the two outlaws in their cells.  Jed Green, who ran the little shop next-door, quickly volunteered to keep an eye on the prisoners while Sanchez and Wilmington joined the others.   His mother-in-law was in town, poking her nose into the store business, so Jed was eager to find a way to escape her scrutiny.  They noticed JD running from one saloon to the next.  Buck called to him, but the young man was intent on his task.  The two quickly joined the others, noting their grim manner immediately.

"Brothers?"  Josiah questioned.

"Where's Ezra?" Buck input, noting the missing team member.

The other four men didn't offer a reply, but only glanced to the newcomers.  There was no need to say anything.

"Fuck!" Buck muttered and stepped in to help.

The preacher paused long enough to utter a short prayer before he moved in to aid in disassembling the pile.

They removed the remains of the building as quickly as they could manage, calling as they went. From time to time, Chris would silence them and the men would stand listening, hoping to hear a reply, wishing to hear some sort of response, but they heard nothing.

Other townspeople joined in, and the pile slowly diminished. Johnny McHale had been found near the front of the building, so they worked on that half of the pile first.  They had excavated half of the building down to the dirt floor of the basement before JD returned, looking frantic.

"I looked everywhere," the young man said. "He's not in any of the saloons, not in his room, the restaurant, none of the stores. I checked the clinic thinkin' maybe he got hurt, but he wasn't there either," the sheriff kicked a discarded plank. "Chaucer's still in his stall." JD grimaced, thinking that maybe if he had looked hard enough, he would have been able to find the gambler safe and sound.

"Ya did a good job, JD," Chris said encouragingly.

Buck added, "We can use a hand here now.  Step on in."

Dunne nodded and jumped down into the pit beside the ladies' man to help him with the task of emptying the debris into the street. "Couldn't find him," Dunne muttered.

"We will," Josiah assured.  Although he did believe they'd find the gambler, he was becoming worried about exactly what state the man would be in upon discovery.  Lord, let him be all right.  The preacher pulled back a large sheet of wood and revealed a familiar yet flattened shape -- a black hat. He exhaled slowly as he picked it up.  He fixed the squashed crown and tried to pat off some of the dust before he handed it to Chris.

Chris held the low-crown Stetson for a moment, feeling its weight in his hand, and realizing what its discovery meant. There was no doubt now. Ezra was somewhere in this mess.  Why the hell did you have to go in there, Ezra?  Damn it, Standish, you can't be dead! He set the hat down on a board that lay on the basement floor, careful to keep it off the dirt.

They continued their work with a more frantic pace.  JD gasped when he made his discovery.  He held up the gun that usually resided in Ezra's shoulder harness. "Maybe he dropped it?" JD tried.

Chris retrieved it from him and set it alongside the hat. "Maybe," he responded.  Maybe he's safe and sound somewhere and not blown to bits by a two-bit horse-thief.  Maybe he ain't hurt at all and we'll find him without a scratch on him.  Maybe nothin's wrong at all.

"He's okay," Vin said again, echoing Chris' thoughts.  He stood near the top of the remaining pile, trying to decide where to next attack the wreck.  Cupping his hands around his mouth, he shouted, "Ezra? Come on, Ez! Say somethin'." He bit his lip, waiting for a response. "He's gotta be okay."

The tracker shifted a plank and tossed it out of the pit and onto the growing pile in the street.  Beneath him yawned an open cavity. He looked into the dimly lit space and sucked in his breath when he saw a head of chestnut hair.

Part 5:

Ezra started to see flashes of light. He had been trying to wiggle his way out from under the heavy beam, without any luck whatsoever.  His ribs were starting to ache at the abuse, making his breathing more difficult.  He stopped, knowing that it would do him no good at all if he were to pass out.  He closed his eyes and concentrated on breathing and that strange ringing. With any luck, the pointless ringing would stop soon.

He hadn't yet figured out how he was going to escape.  Somehow he would need to get free of this beam.  If he could only do that, he could work his way out of here, couldn't he?

He didn't need his hearing to get out… but his hands.  Lord, he needed his hands.  He flexed his right hand to ensure that he could still move it.  His left seemed to be even more disconnected.  God, he had to get out of here… had to free his hand from that weight.

He was so tired.  The urge to fall asleep tugged at him.

He fought to keep his eyes open.

Part 6:

"Ezra!" Vin shouted, "It's okay, we've found you!" The head didn't move. Vin's heart sank, seeing the size of the beam that trapped the southerner. Oh God, no, he thought. No, no!  Ezra was so totally still; Vin couldn't even see if he was breathing.

He lay down over the hole and reached, his hand just missing the head beneath him.

"Oh, please. Jus' let me get 'im," he muttered, not even realizing that the others were beside him. He extended his arm just a little further and caught the very top of Ezra's head. He was surprised to feel the head move away from him. He glanced down. Yes, the head had moved. Vin smiled.

"Hey, Ez," he called, gazing down his arm. The head continued to move away from him and the tracker chased it as best he could, finally snagging his fingernails into the hair. "Come on, Ez.  It's me, Vin. Tell me you're okay," the tracker pleaded, finally being rewarded by Ezra tipping his head. Vin grinned when he saw Ezra's green eyes glinting up at him.

Ezra said something softly, but Vin couldn't quite catch it.

"Quiet!" Tanner yelled, aware that Chris and Nathan were both trying to push him aside, talking loudly, asking him questions.  He ignored them.   "Ez? What'd ya say, Ez?" The tracker still wasn't able to understand him, and he was pulled off the hole before he could try again.

"Ezra!" Nathan yelled, looking down at the trapped con man. His mind raced, seeing the beam and noting how Standish was pinned, cataloging a list of possible injuries. "Are you all right?" He had to turn and tell the others to be quiet. Why was everyone talking at once? Ezra was saying something, but he couldn't hear him.  It seemed that he was having trouble breathing.

Nathan stepped back from the hole and declared, "We gotta get him out of there, now!"

JD stepped to the opening as the others started working at an increased speed. "Hey-ya, Ezra," JD shouted down. He could just barely make out Ezra's head in the dimness. The young man gasped when he saw the beam. "Oh my God," he muttered, causing Buck to jump forward and jerk him aside.  Dunne touched his own chest in empathy.

"Damn!" Buck swore, looking downward. "Hey, Ez, you doin' okay? Huh?" He tried to keep the worry out of his voice. "You don't look too comfortable, huh? We'll getcha out in a minute, no problem. Just you hang in there, okay?" He watched as Ezra turned his head slowly away without responding to him, until Buck could no longer see his face.

"No, no, no, Ezra! Come on, look up here!" Buck demanded, as he started throwing the nearest boards aside. "Ezra, answer me. Come on, answer me!"

Nathan was at the hole again. "What happened?"

"He just stopped lookin' up," Buck said worriedly. "Ez, say somethin'!"

"Ezra, look up here!" Nathan ordered. "Ezra!"  There was no sign that Ezra had heard him.  "Damn it!" he looked to the others. "I think he's unconscious."

Chris grunted as he threw another board aside. "Is he gonna be alright?"

"Dunno," Nathan mumbled. "Let's just get to him."

Part 7:

At first he had thought that a board had fallen on his head and nothing he did would dislodge it.  Ezra couldn't believe how happy he had been to look up and see that mangy tracker's face appear above him.   He watched as faces appeared and disappeared, but it was so hard to keep his head turned in that direction.  He finally had to face forward again.

He had tried to explain to them that he was all right and he had hoped they understood.  They looked damned worried, but he couldn't share that particular emotion.  No, he was rather elated to see his deliverance at hand.

When he looked up again, he saw the hole was significantly opened and Chris was over him.  Larabee looked as if he said something, reaching through the hole and grasping his shoulder.  But the words were lost and Ezra felt surprisingly weary as he straightened his neck again.  Larabee didn't remove his hand, and Ezra felt rather comforted by that simple weight.

Jackson's sudden appearance startled him, as the healer leaped down beside him.  An unheard word or two was spoken and he started taking his pulse, feeling his head and any other part of him that was exposed. More words were spoken and it was obvious that Jackson was expecting a response.  It was so strange to see his mouth move and be unable to hear the words.

"I assure you ...that I am well... Mr. Jackson," Ezra said, at what he hoped was a reasonable tone. It was impossible to tell. "But if you ...would be so kind... as to free my arm...I'd be... indebted."

Nathan pulled back on the board that trapped Ezra's right arm, and he was finally able to move it. Jackson helped ease it out of its cramped position and Ezra held the hand before his eyes and flexed it. It didn't seem to be broken, thank goodness. Now he'd have to see about the left. What good would he be if his hands were damaged? He wouldn't be able to handle a deck of cards or a gun. He was as adept at using the left as the right. Without both them, he would be worthless.

He could see that the others were working at uncovering his legs and suddenly that vexing board had been removed from his feet. He was feeling better now. With so much of the debris gone, he could now see that he was in the basement of the mercantile, and he could see the full size of the beam. It was massive, running across the entire length of the ruined building. One splintered block of wood held it up high enough to leave a tiny space for him. If it hadn't been for that block, he would have been crushed to a colorful paste.

He watched as Josiah, Vin and Chris tried to lift one end of the beam. They strained at the task. For a few seconds it was easier to breath, but the three ended up setting the board back where it was. Nathan patted him on the shoulder and apparently said something. JD arrived with an armload of boards and the lifting process was tried again. He watched as JD shoved a piece of wood between the block and the beam, and the beam was raised an inch. Again, he could breath and he could finally move his hand. Another board and he could pull his hand free. Another board, and Nathan and Buck gently pulled him out from under the wretched beam.

Nathan was checking him out, talking the whole time, pulling open his shirt, feeling his ribs, looking for broken bones, waving fingers in front of his eyes.

"As I have already assured you, Mr. Jackson, I'm quite well." Ezra held his numbed left hand in front of him and flexed it slowly. It was white from the lack of circulation, but he was least able to move it. He let Nathan feel for any broken bones and the healer seemed to be satisfied that there weren't any.

Using Nathan's shoulder for help, Ezra was able to stand, somewhat shakily. He looked at the others as he took a moment to gain his balance. He was aware that they'd been talking to him. "I haven't been ignoring you gentlemen," he said. "I'm simply enjoying the wonders of being able to move again. I thank you most humbly for extricating me from this difficult situation."

He found his Remington and derringer were still holstered. He looked about and saw his Colt and his hat resting on a nearby board. He holstered the gun and took a moment to dust off the hat and attempt to reshape it.  Lord, it would have to be blocked again before it was acceptable.  He placed it on his head, somewhat dubiously, aware that it wasn't up to his usual level of perfection.

After he turned, he discovered the beam that had been balanced on the block and boards was now on the ground.  How had that happened?   He shuddered, glad that he wasn't under it at the time.

Now, to get out!  He could see that the only way was to climb up the rubble that had recently entombed him. Before anyone could stop him, he did exactly that and made his way to the surface. He stepped out of the wretched basement and straightened his clothing before striding away.

As he headed toward his room as he hopelessly patted his clothes, raising a cloud of dust. He would have to give the laundry woman an extravagant tip this week, he thought.

Something grabbed him, startling him to a stop.  He dropped his hand to his gun and tried to spin out of the grip, finally noticing Chris hanging on his arm. Larabee spoke, his brow furrowed.

"Mr. Larabee, I'm fine, as I've stated before. All I want at this moment is to take a hot bath and to change into something presentable." He tugged his filthy jacket. "This isn't fit to be seen in."

Chris leaned closer to him, and Ezra realized that he had been probably speaking too softly. He would be damned if he would raise his voice pointlessly. Chris spoke again.

Ezra raised his hand to stop him. "Please, a bath and a change of clothing." And he turned back to his room. He hoped no one would stop him, and this time no one did.

Part 8:

"Damn!" Buck muttered, watching Standish strut unsteadily toward the saloon and his room.  "Never would 'ave believed it if I didn't see it with my own eyes."

Nathan shook his head wonder. "He had hardly have a scratch on him."

"Luck of the devil," Buck said with a grin. "He had the all of us worried.  Meanwhile he was just relaxing in there while all of us sweated, tryin' to get him out.  Didn't say a word while we were callin' for him!"

"Course, he had a whole buildin' on him, Buck," JD said with a laugh.  "Might be reason enough to take it easy."

"Think he's okay, Nathan?" Josiah asked.

Nathan shrugged.  "A bit bruised and scraped.  Didn't seem to 'ave broke nothin'.  Hell, you saw him get up.  I'll get a look at him later, but he was pretty set on gettin' himself cleaned up."  He chuckled.  "He'll be easier to manage if he ain't so agitated and there's one sure fire way to agitate Ezra and that's to get him dirty."

Chris shook his head in relief and ran his hand across his forehead.  He was sweating from the exertion and the stress that the last hour had placed on him.  But, all in all, he felt pretty good.  Standish was alive…not only that, he appeared to be perfectly fine.  "Damn lucky!"

Vin watched silently, suspiciously, as Ezra entered the saloon that formed the doorstep to his room.

Part 9:

The manager of the bathhouse, Mr. Breen, gave him no trouble. Ezra was fairly good at reading lips, as long as he could clearly see the speaker and the words made some sense. It was a necessary talent of his trade. Breen was always easy to read.

Ezra settled himself into a tub of hot water and tried to soak away the trouble. He was sore all over. He could find a hand shaped welt in his chest, and strange little round pits left by the buttons. He was glad that his Colt Richards Conversion wasn't holstered at the time.  Indeed, that would have left a mark. He was bruised, scraped, but otherwise fine. He moved his left hand slowly in the water, feeling a definite tingling sensation. At least his hands were okay. His ears were another story.

He slid back into the bath and let his head partially submerge, letting his ears drop below the surface. Maybe they were just filled with dust, maybe the hot water would help. It was strange to feel the water rush into his ear canals but not hear it, only the sound of the bell that rang on unmuffled despite the water. He sat up again and let the water run out, but that ringing continued and he could hear nothing else.

He sighed and tried it again, but the results were unchanged. What was he going to do? It was going to be very difficult getting along without anyone wising up to his situation. He didn't intend on tipping his bum hand to anyone at this moment. It never did any good to let someone know of a weakness. This was a fact that he had lived with all of his life, something he had learned from childhood.  Give someone a means to exploit you -- and they will.  He stayed in the bath until the water cooled, and then returned to his room.

It took him longer than usual to dress.  His numb hand made him awkward and he found he had to rely mostly on his right.  He flexed the left hand constantly to try and draw the feeling fully back into it.

He was impressed by his revitalized appearance when he looked at himself in his mirror. Refreshed by the bath and new clothing, he didn't look as if he had been nearly crushed an hour earlier. He didn't look as if he couldn't hear. He smiled at his image, hoping that he could carry this off. The ringing was so loud he wondered if anyone else could hear it, as if he was the bell that had been struck and was resounding still. He smirked at the thought. What he really needed at this moment was a drink.

In the saloon, he found the other six around their usual table. They hadn't noticed him at the top of the stairs and he took a moment to observe them as he descended.  Their mouths moved soundlessly as they talked and joked.  Buck was rocking backward, his mouth open and Josiah was leaning forward on the table, apparently leading the discussion.

With a sigh, Ezra realized that he didn't have a chance. He was too tired and too sore to put up a front. He'd be better off back in his room. He went to the bar for a bottle of bourbon.  Rutledge, at the bar, knew what was wanted and brought it without being told.  He brought the appropriate bottle and a clean glass.  Standish nodded his thanks, setting the necessary amount on the bar with his regular tip and then turned to go. If he just slept on it, he was sure his ears would have recovered by the morning.

Hands grasped him before he made it the stairs at the back of the bar.  He resisted the urge to fight his way out of their grip as Buck and JD stepped in front of him.  They half-dragged him to the table. Both seemed pleased to see him, eagerly talking about something. Their mouths opened and closed rapidly.  Ezra silently took his seat and filled his glass. He tossed back the drink and pour another. He glanced up to see everyone looking at him. They all seemed to be talking at once. "Gentlemen, I've had a rather trying day. You'll excuse me if I'm not up to a scintillating conversation."

He sipped at his drink and tried to ignore them. That ringing bell was getting rather annoying. It was too dim in the saloon to see the others well enough to read their lips. Besides, he really didn't feel up to it at that moment. He looked up to see Josiah talking to him. It looked as if he had said, "How's the head?"

"My head's fine." Ezra replied, not mentioning the fact that the constantly ringing bell was giving him a headache. Nathan turned toward him and said something that Ezra couldn't catch.

Ezra sighed and said with a certain amount of rancor, "I'm quite fine. I believe I've stated that before." Then they were all talking to him at once. He thought he saw JD say, "My horse just had puppies," and he knew this was just not going to work tonight. He was too muddle-headed. The ringing was too loud. He was too damn sore and tired.  He picked up the bottle and stated, "I believe I shall make an early evening of this. Goodnight, gentlemen." And headed to his room.

Part 10:

"Ezra?" Chris called quizzically as Standish stood and turned his back on them.  It wasn't like Ezra to walk away in the middle of a conversation.  No, that southern gentleman knew his manners and this incivility didn't seem right.   "Listen, Ezra…" And still Ezra did not turn around.  Larabee made a move to follow, when a hand came down on his arm.

"He can't hear you, cowboy," Vin said quietly. "He's deaf."

"What?" JD asked, astonished, jumping to his feet and nearly knocking his chair to the ground

"Can't hear," Vin repeated.  He glanced back and forth between his friends. They looked at him in disbelief. "Knew it from the minute Buck knocked down that beam after we got Ezra out from under it.  Didn't flinch or nothin' though that thing made a racket."  He nodded firmly.  "Figured he'd have jumped clean outta his skin at that sound."

"Ah, shit," Buck muttered.  "That blast musta done it -- that goddamn dynamite!"

Chris stood and started to follow Ezra, but he stopped in his tracks and strode over to the bar.  Nathan was halfway up the stairs as Chris retrieved piece of paper and a lead pencil from the bartender.

Part 11:

Ezra had walked as quickly, and with as much dignity as possible up the stairs to his room. He was thankful that no one stopped him. Everything will be all right, he thought. I only need to sleep on it and, certainly, my hearing will return in the morning. 

He had made it halfway across his dim room when he saw a suspicious shift of shadow as something moved behind him. The derringer was in his hand in a second -- without its gratifying 'click' of release -- and he spun around to face his attacker.

Chris and Nathan stood in the doorway, and both looking extremely startled. Ezra swore to himself. He never heard them follow him, never heard them open the door, never heard them at all. Shamefaced, he pushed the weapon back into its place and said, "A thousand pardons. I'd no intention of drawing on you."

Chris took Ezra by the elbow and sat him down on the corner of his bed. The gambler could see the concern in the gunslinger's face and it startled him.  Larabee said nothing, rather he held up a piece of paper with a short sentence written in block letters.

"CAN YOU HEAR?"  Ezra blinked at the note, realizing what it signified.  They knew…

Ezra smiled grimly.  Damn, he thought, I couldn't fool any of them.  I couldn't fool a babe. "No, I cannot," he replied. "Not a sound."  He saw the expressions of the two men fall.

Nathan patted him on the shoulder and then grabbed a kerosene lantern and lit it.  He moved to the side and held it up to Ezra's head to peer into his ears. Ezra could feel the heat of the lamp as Nathan brought it in close. He did his best to keep his head as still as possible, despite the closeness of the flame and Nathan's intense stare.

Chris wrote something further on the paper and held it up to Ezra. 


"No, no pain," Ezra answered quietly.


"High C," Ezra replied with a grin. When he received a puzzled look in response, he rephrased, "A loud ringing, nothing else."

The next message was, "HEADACHE?"

Ezra replied, "Not too bad."  He watched Chris' grim face with interest.  Larabee certainly seemed bothered by something.

Nathan switched to the other side and Ezra could feel the warmth of the lantern near his other ear, could see the bright light out of the corner of his eye. Chris was talking to Nathan, and Ezra waited. In a way, he was glad that they had found out. If his hearing had continued to go missing, it would be a difficult ruse to keep up, not that he was doing any good at it up until now.

Nathan had set down the lamp and was behind him, with Chris talking over Ezra's head. The darkly dressed gunslinger looked at the gambler from time to time, but made no attempt to communicate with him. After a few minutes it became rather aggravating. "If you're going to talk about me, please do it elsewhere. As I cannot join in on the conversation, I see no need for my presence."

Nathan came back in front of him and looked into his eyes for a moment, as if trying to see into the gambler and glean something silently from him.  He took the paper from Chris and wrote "I'LL BE BACK WITH SOMETHING THAT MAY HELP."

"Just as long as I don't have to drink it," Ezra replied dubiously.

Nathan smiled, but only slightly. He took the paper again and wrote "IT'LL GO IN YOUR EARS."  He pointed to Ezra's dead ears for emphasis.  Then said something to Chris and the two of them headed toward the door.

"Nathan," Ezra said quietly, and the healer turned. "How long will this last?"

Nathan started to say something, and instead he just shrugged, his face solemn.

"Will it come back? Eventually?"

Nathan looked noncommittal and shrugged again. They remained for a moment, as if expecting Ezra to ask them another question, but not receiving one, they left the room. The door had shut when Ezra suddenly remembered.

"Chris!" he called and the door suddenly flew back open, Chris looking at him in alarm. Damn it, Ezra thought, I must have shouted too loud. I must control myself, get a handle on my own voice.

The two men stared at him.  "The McHales, I neglected to inquire about the McHales." Ezra lowered his voice and Chris needed to step forward to hear him.

Chris smiled, and mouthed, "we got them." 

Ezra nodded, grateful for the news, and Chris closed the door.

Part 12:

 "Well?" Buck asked when Chris and Nathan appeared on the stairs.  The men walked slowly down with an air of dejection around them.

"Deaf as a post," Nathan said sadly as he found a seat. "He didn't hear a thing. I even cocked a gun behind him. That explosion must've done him in."

"Damn," Vin said, staring at his drink.

 The six sat around the table silently. "What are we going to do?" JD asked, finally.

"We'll just have to wait," the healer responded. "There's a chance his hearing will come back."

"Got any odds on that?" Buck asked.

Nathan shook his head. "I can't say right now."  He stood slowly.  "I gotta go mix up something.  I got a remedy that might help a bit.  Works sometimes."  He didn't sound thoroughly convinced.

"Damn," Vin said again.

Part 13:

Ezra sat in his usual spot, shuffling. He watched the cards as they dovetailed into each other without making a sound. He bridged them without hearing the riffle. He touched the deck to the table without that reassuring 'tap', and tried a more fancy shuffle.

With a shower of black and red, he lost control of the cards and half a dozen floated off the table. He grimaced and rubbed his left hand dolefully. It was still a little numb from being crushed the day before, but the problem was more than that.

He hadn't realized how important just hearing the sound of the cards, falling into each other, was. The world had become so strange -- everything seemed disconnected and out of place. He had trouble walking down the stairs, unable to hear the sound of his own feet on the planks. It had been difficult to shave without hearing the rasp of the razor. Even filling a glass with water took an extra effort. And the ringing was almost intolerable. He'd hardly slept due to the endless bell-tone that filled his head. On top of that, he'd missed the reassuring din from the saloon.

Nathan had stopped by his room that night with a bottle, which he handed to Ezra to examine.  Standish had been surprised at the scent of brandy, and was curious about a floral smell carried with the alcohol.  It was familiar, drawing him back to a time long ago.

FOXGLOVES, Nathan had written and Ezra nodded, remembering the flowers from Aunt Annie's garden.  She had a wonderful garden, but her library was even better.

Still, Ezra considered it an odd use of good brandy.

Jackson had carefully dropped the mixture into Ezra's ears and soaked a bit of cotton in the liquid before stuffing them in after the drops.  Nathan had then gestured for him to lie down and rest, his face solemn and concerned.  Ezra had expected the cotton to muffle the ringing tone, but it continued as it had before.

After Jackson left, he had lain awake for hours.  When he finally drifted off to sleep, he'd dreamed of being trapped beneath the beam again, slowly being crushed by the weight of it, and had awaken silently gasping for breath. He doubted that he slept more than a few hours total all night.

At first light, he'd excitedly sat up and removed the cotton stoppers from his ears, expecting to be assaulted by the myriad of sounds that usually filled the air.   He'd been met only with disappointment.   No matter.   He hadn't finished yet.  Nathan had given him directions the night before, using hand gestures and hastily scribbled notes.  He needed to clean his ears. That had to be the reason why he still couldn't hear.

For a moment Ezra's hopes had soared as he used water, a basin and a syringe to flush out his ears.  He'd followed the instructions perfectly…and failed utterly.  He still had been unable to hear.

He had sat for several disillusioned minutes on his bedside before he finally stood and dressed to face the day.  He'd left his room unnaturally early that morning and settled himself at the saloon.

Vin had been by the table earlier. The tracker had said nothing, and the two had sat together for an hour or more, doing nothing more than drinking coffee. Vin had seemed content in the silence. Ezra admitted that it was a pleasant enough visit, and was somewhat disappointed when Tanner eventually took his leave.

He looked out across the saloon, watching the activity of the early morning patrons.  They flitted in and out of his vision, half-mesmerizing him in their silence.  They seemed almost like dancers, moving to an unheard music, like mimes, performing a Greek Tragedy to an audience composed of one.

He rubbed his eyes tiredly, realizing that it was lack of sleep that had drawn him into that dreamy state.  Good Lord, he needed some rest.

An apparition came up at him suddenly from below the table and it was all Ezra could do to keep from pulling a gun on the face that met his. It took a precious second before he recognized the grinning face that met his -- Buck, holding the lost cards.

"Thank you, Mr. Wilmington," Ezra said, hoping his voice didn't betray his alarm. "I was about to commence a search for the orphans." He would have to get a handle on that. People were constantly sneaking up on him now, coming out of nowhere.

Buck said something and then pointed to the mug and Ezra said, "Yes, Mr. Wilmington, it's coffee, only coffee. Since it seems that my senses are already impaired I saw no reason to muddle them further." He placed the lost cards back into the deck and set it down beside him.

Buck spoke as he sat down, but then shook his head, remembering. He motioned to the bartender and received a cup of coffee for himself. For a minute, Buck's attention was on the mug.  Then, he looked over to Ezra and opened his mouth as if to speak but instead just shrugged. Ezra picked up the cards again and tried the move that had caused the lost cards earlier. It worked this time.

JD suddenly arrived, smiling and talking, waving at Ezra as if he were half-blind and sat down next to Buck. Dunne pulled out a pad of paper, looking rather proud of himself. He wrote for a moment and pushed the pad across to Ezra. "HOW YOU FEELING?" It asked.

"Deaf," Ezra replied, sipping his coffee. He saw JD's expression fall and added, "but otherwise well."

JD pulled back the pad and wrote, "DID YOU GET HURT?"

"No, Mr. Dunne, as I've stated several times before, I was otherwise unharmed by my detainment beneath the mercantile."


"It was an unpleasant experience to say the least, but I had total faith in the abilities of my compatriots. I'd no doubt that my unfortunate position would be discovered within moments and I'd be emancipated directly."

Buck rolled his eyes and Ezra could make out JD saying something about 'five-dollar words.'

"Although my auditory abilities has been inhibited, my vocabulary has not."

Buck grinned and JD looked surprised. "You can hear!" JD mouthed.

Ezra smiled. "No, but I do have certain talents."

Buck spoke, but Ezra was unable to catch it. Wilmington was difficult for Ezra. Buck's mustache certainly didn't help, but he spoke too quickly and moved his head too much.

JD, noting Ezra's puzzled look, pushed the pad over to Buck, and Wilmington wrote, "YOU GOT TO SPEEK UP."

Ezra took the pencil from Buck and corrected the spelling and handed it back. "I find it difficult to modulate my voice at the moment. I'd rather speak as a gentleman than a hooligan."

The men both opened their mouths as if they were laughing. The two attempted to keep a conversation going. JD seemed fascinated by the fact that Ezra could understand him most of the time, but Buck only occasionally. But after a short time, it became obvious that they were struggling to come up with something to say or write.

This manner of communication was an obvious strain on the two.

Ezra was doing his best to keep up a good front. His headache was growing worse as he fought to understand JD and to decipher Buck's cryptic messages. Finally, hoping for a little peace, he asked, "Could I interest you gentlemen in a game of chance?"

JD and Buck exchanged glances, looking somewhat reluctant. "Sorry Ezra," he could make out JD saying. Then Buck took pad and wrote "SHORT ON MONNY." JD nodded and pointed to the note.

Of course, it was the day before payday. He should have remembered that. Ezra resisted the impulse to correct the spelling again and returned to restlessly shuffling his deck.

It probably wouldn't have worked anyway. Ezra was finding that he felt totally unbalanced. He was unable to hear the catch in his opponent's voices, the slick sound of their cards dragged across the table, the intake of breath, the squeak of a chair, the thousand tiny sounds that betrayed his opponents. Even if the two were playing with him out of sympathy, he doubted he could have been up to his usual level. It probably wouldn't have helped his mood at all either.

Buck and JD were talking to each other now, looking at Ezra, apparently trying to think of something else to write, but were unable to come up with anything. Ezra watched as Buck tapped the pencil soundlessly on the table. Standish stared at the pencil in fascination, until Buck suddenly stopped, noting Ezra's observing him.

This was getting old fast. Ezra hadn't realized how much he would miss simple conversation. When he had first met up with this group, he had been confounded sometimes by their lack of intelligent conversation. But that had changed over time. He just hadn't realized until this moment how much he enjoyed talking to these men. This awkward conversation was a pale replacement.

Nathan appeared out of the corner of his eye, making Ezra jump again. Damn it, why were people always sneaking up on him? The healer, standing too far to the side for Ezra to see clearly, spoke and Ezra said, "Still deaf, Mr. Jackson." He picked up his cards and returned to shuffling as Nathan sat down beside him. The pad was shoved in front of his eyes. "ANY CHANGE AT ALL?"

Ezra pushed away the pad so he could see the cards. "No, Mr. Jackson, I'm afraid not."

Nathan wrote again and held up the pad.  "DID YOU FOLLOW MY INSTUCTIONS?"

"I'm not a fool, Mr. Jackson.  I did as you prescribed."  He fanned out the cards in a rather intricate move. "The hands seem to be working better today."

The pad was employed again.  "RINGING STILL?"

"It continues unabated, making it rather difficult to concentrate. Perhaps I'd be able to focus more efficiently if it weren't for the constant interruptions."

He felt Nathan pat him on the shoulder and then rise to leave. JD and Buck stood with him, waving at him as they left. And he was once again alone at the table, shuffling the cards soundlessly.

Part 14:

JD and Buck dogged Nathan out of the saloon. Chris caught up to them on the boardwalk and the four headed toward the jail. "How're the prisoners?" Chris asked.

JD replied, "I'm just heading over to relieve Josiah. I hear those McHale brothers been pretty unhappy about being locked up."

"Well, they shouldn't have stolen those horses," Chris responded.  He added with gravity, "And, how's Ezra doin'?"

Nathan shook his head. "Still the same.  Says he still ain't able to hear anythin'."

"But, he's gonna get his hearing back, right?" JD asked.

Nathan frowned. "I was hoping he'd be hearing a bit by now. I'll get him up to the clinic later where I can look at 'im again. Don't know if it'll make any difference though.  Seen this sorta thing before, in the war."

"And that stuff you used on him?" JD asked.  "It'll do the job, won't it?"

"Might," Nathan responded, remembering the thundering cannons that deafened so many during the war, throwing them into a silence that nothing could retrieve them from.

"He seems okay though," JD added. "I mean, if I lost my hearing, I'd probably be locked in my room crying my eyes out about it. Ezra, he's up and around, just fine. He can tell what you're saying, some of the time at least."

Nathan nodded, hoping that everything worked out for the best.

Part 15:

Ezra remained in the saloon for as long as he could stand it. People were coming and going, constantly entering and exiting his line of vision, moving erratically. He felt as if he was going to jump every time anyone walked by him. Some seemed interested in asking him questions and nobody understood that he couldn't hear a single word they said. It was only by concentrating that he was able to read anyone's lips in the dim saloon, and now his headache had grown rather severe. The ringing didn't help that any.

Finally, unable to put up with it any longer, he exited the saloon and stood on the boardwalk. There were just too many people inside. He needed to get away from them. He wished he could get away from that ungodly ringing just as easily. People hovered past him. Horses and wagons moved down the road noiselessly. He could see Yosemite bringing his hammer down on his anvil without any noise at all. One of the Potter children was running down the boardwalk opposite him, her mouth open as if laughing, but quiet. He stood, looking over the town that had become something of a home to him -- a town that had been utterly transformed.

With an unheard sigh, he lowered himself to one of the chairs outside the saloon.

Part 16:

JD was glad the prisoners were quiet for a change. They had been rather loud for the last half-hour. The two boys were sitting together on one bed, glaring at the lawmen. The three brothers had been known to be troublemakers in town. Many had said that it was only a matter of time before they came to no good. The two remaining brothers had been screaming earlier, throwing whatever they could get their hands on. JD tried to feel sorry for them, for they had just lost their younger brother, but he just couldn't build up any sympathy for the man that had nearly killed his friend.

Buck and Chris were going over the duty roster, trying to reshuffle everything to accommodate Ezra's present condition. "Ya don't have to cut him out entirely," Buck suggested. "I'm willin' to ride with him."

"Sure," JD interjected, "Me, too. He just needs someone around to be his ears for him until this all straightens out for 'im.  We can just double up with 'im for a while."

Chris shook his head. "I don't want anyone riskin' their lives for no reason -- not Ezra -- not any of you." Buck was about to speak but Chris cut him off with a glare.

Buck frowned.  "He ain't gonna be happy with that."

JD chuckled.  "If it'll get 'im out of mornin' duty, I don't think he'll mind."

Chris rubbed his chin as he looked over the list.  "He ain't on the schedule for a couple days anyway.  With his luck, he'll be fine by then and there won't be a need to make anythin' of this."

Buck didn't look convinced.

Tom McHale suddenly stood and cried, "Our Pa is gonna get us outta here, you'll see!"

Will spoke up next, "Yeah, and yer all gonna pay for what yer friend did to Johnny.  Him and all of you are gonna pay."

Buck grabbed a nearby broom and stalked towards the cell. "Shut up!" he yelled, banging the broom handle loudly against the bars.

The two jumped back and glared at Wilmington.  "Knock it off!"  Tom shouted.

"Yeah," his brother put in, glancing to Tom.

Buck pulled back the broom handle and glared at the young men. "You keep quiet in there, or I'll use it on the both of you next."

Tom and Will dropped back to the cot and silently regarded their captors.

Part 17:

Nathan and Josiah strode purposefully toward the gambler, who looked out across the town with hooded eyes.  Standish slowly rotated his head and noticed them.  He smiled and nodded.  "Gentleman," he said, too softly to be easily heard.

"Come on, Ezra," Nathan said.  "Let's go to the clinic.  I wanna take another look at you."

Ezra frowned in concentration as he watched the healer speak.  "Ah, well, I think your diagnosis was correct last night and there is no need for further examination.  I'm deaf, Mr. Jackson."

Jackson was taken aback.  He hadn't expected that Ezra could truly read lips and he glanced over to Josiah.

The preacher smiled. "He's a talented man.  You'd best take care."

Ezra looked perplexed, apparently unable to understand Josiah with his head turned.  Sanchez obligingly turned to face Standish.  "Come on, brother," he said as distinctly as possible.  "Nate brought me as moral support, but he also figured he may need some 'muscle' support.  We'll carry you up to the clinic if necessary."

Whether or not Ezra understood 'everything' that Josiah said was unknown.  Apparently he had been able to decipher enough though.  He stood abruptly and muttered, "That would be uncalled for."

"Come on, Ezra," Nathan said. "I just want to check if it's gotten any better, okay?  Maybe your hearin's comin' back a bit.  That'd be a good thing to know, wouldn't it?"

Ezra's eyes watched him intently.  Nathan fought the urge to step back from that intense stare.  Damn, the healer thought.  He felt as if he was being looked through.

"Ah," Ezra said after a moment's thought.  "Perhaps you're right. I would rather want to know. Yes, let's adjourn to your place of business."  He took the lead immediately, leaving Nathan and Josiah to fall in behind.

Once in the clinic, Ezra pulled a wooden chair from the desk and set it in the middle of the room.  He glanced to Nathan to ensure that he had placed it adequately.  The healer nodded dumbly and so Standish sat, flipping back his coat tails with a flourish.

"Begin," Ezra said with a wave of his hand.

Josiah glanced to Nathan, puzzled by Ezra's manner, but Nathan understood.  It was the gambler's way of getting a grip on the situation.  Jackson glanced around the room, his gaze falling on a little silver bell that he employed when someone was sick in the clinic and he had to leave a patient alone.  It was a means of calling for the healer when he wasn't in the immediate area.  Use of the bell was restricted -- very restricted.  He picked it up and then stood in front of Standish.

"I'm gonna ring this bell," Nathan said, holding it up for Ezra to see.  Ezra's eyes moved from his face to the bell and back again to Jackson's face.  "You just tell me if you can hear it."

Ezra moaned.  "Lord, Mr. Jackson.  Couldn't you find some other sort of noisemaker?"

Nathan grimaced.  "It'll do just fine, Ezra."  He shook it and the little silver bell pealed, a pretty but piercing sound.  "You hear that?"

The gambler watched the movement of the bell and licked his lips.  His eyes looked distant for a moment.  Suddenly, he smiled.  "Yes, Mr. Jackson.  Just barely."  He nodded happily.  "I do believe I heard that!"

Josiah smiled.  "That's wonderful, Ezra!"  But, he wasn't in Standish's line of vision and the comment was apparently unnoticed.

Nathan looked to Josiah and then at Ezra.  "Ezra, I'm gonna have Josiah stand in front of you here, and then I'll ring this bell near your ear.  You just need to tell me if you hear it, okay?"

"Certainly," Ezra said with an eager nod.  "Let's get on with this then."

"I'm gonna want you to keep you eyes on Josiah.  No place else."

Ezra nodded and gestured to Josiah.  "Come, Mr. Sanchez.  Let's not hold up the experiment. Mr. Jackson asks that I only have eyes for you.  How can I deny him that?"

Josiah changed positions so that he was in front of Ezra and Nathan moved behind him.  Once he was out of Ezra's range of vision Nathan said, "Josiah, make sure his eyes don't wander none.  He's gotta keep them on you.  I don't want him seeing this bell out of the corners of his eyes."

Josiah nodded in response and Ezra smiled slyly at him.  "He's talking about me, isn't he?" 

The preacher grinned.  "Yes, he is."

"I thought as much," Ezra turned his head.  "Are you going to start?"

Nathan frowned and pointed.  "Eyes on Josiah!" he demanded.

Ezra sighed expansively.  "Yes, of course." And again he placed his gaze on the preacher.

Once Nathan was certain that Ezra couldn't see him, he rang the bell near Ezra's left ear.

"You hear anything, Ezra?" Josiah asked encouragingly.

Ezra smiled and nodded.  "Yes, just then."  He turned toward Jackson, but was ordered forward again by the healer.

"Don't say anything this time, Josiah," Nathan said and rang the bell again.

"There it is again." Ezra smiled triumphantly as his eyes sparkled.  "A little faint, but indeed, it's there."

Josiah smiled broadly as the experiment continued and Nathan tested both ears with the same results.  Every time the bell was rung, Ezra immediately responded that he'd heard it. Nathan grinned in satisfaction.  Everything was going to be all right!  Ezra's hearing was returning and there would be nothing to worry about.  The cocky gambler wouldn't be forever handicapped and would soon be his familiar pain-in-the-ass self.  Nathan shook his head and increased his grin at the thought.

"One last time," Nathan said, swinging the bell briefly.  He looked up just as the little bell rung and noticed something.

"I heard that quite distinctly," Ezra said delightedly.  "It seems to become clearer by the minute."

Nathan felt a heavy sorrow fall on him.  He came around and stood in front of Ezra again.  "Maybe this ain't such a good idea," he stated.

"It's an excellent idea," Ezra said happily.  He beamed at the healer. "And might I thank you for encouraging me to participate in your experiment.  It's only a matter of time and my hearing will return.  You've proven that and I thank you.  Your healin' tonic must have worked wonders on me overnight.  At first, I thought it a poor use of such an exquisite brandy, but I've been proven wrong.   Thank you, my friend."

"I'm thinkin' that you don't need  no one to watch-dog you."  Nathan nodded to Josiah who looked perplexed by Nathan's demeanor.  "I think we should try this without you right there, Josiah." Nathan signaled the preacher out of his position.  "Let's try it again."

Ezra blinked as the preacher and healer moved behind him.  He turned in his seat and looked at them.  "Certainly, this is unnecessary," he said quietly.  "I wasn't bothered by Mr. Sanchez' presence."

"Just wanna try it this way for a while, Ezra," Nathan said, resting his hand on Ezra's shoulder.  "Now, I need you to face forward again."  He gestured for emphasis when Ezra looked confused.

Standish nodded and did as he was told.  Nathan rang the bell as soon as Ezra was situated.

A long minute passed before Ezra spoke.  "Just then," he said.  "I believe you rang it...just then." But the certainty was gone from his voice.

Nathan held the bell still, wrapping his hand around it to further stifle the little instrument.  He waited.

"Again," Ezra said with a determined nod, though his voice lacked the confidence.  "You rang it just then." He turned his head and looked toward the two.  "Didn't you?"  His face fell when he saw the disappointed expressions, the muffled bell.  "I thought... Perhaps I was wrong."  He searched their faces, seeing everything he needed to know.

He smiled again, but the joy had left his face.  "Thank you, Mr. Jackson, for taking the time to prove to me that I am indeed stone deaf."  He turned away from them, stood quickly and made his way to the door.

"Ezra!" Josiah called, but the cry was unheeded as the gambler exited the room, slamming the door loudly behind him, vibrating the bottles on the shelf.

Josiah and Nathan remained where they were, Nathan's hand still wrapped tightly around the little bell.

"He was readin' me, wasn't he?" Josiah asked after a moment.  "Readin' me like a book.  I must have been giving away every ring of that bell."  He shook his head, waiting for a response from Nathan, but the healer remained quiet.  Finally, Sanchez asked, "What did he hope to gain by conning us?"

"I don't think it was us that was gettin' conned," Jackson said after a moment. "I think he wanted to hear that damn thing so badly, that his brain went ahead and told him that he had heard it every time you gave it away."

Sanchez sighed and sank into the chair that Ezra had just vacated. "Lord, help him," he spoke softly.

Part 18:

Ezra could feel the heat of shame on his face has he hurried down the stairs from the clinic.  Good Lord, how could I let them embarrass me like that?  He paused at the bottom step, letting his hand rest on the railing.  This was insufferable.  I'm the laughing-stock of the town.

Why did they do it?  Just to make a mockery off me? he thought as he strode down the boardwalk.  He could imagine Nathan and Josiah laughing at him now.  Hell, they were probably laughing the minute his back was turned -- not even waiting for him to leave the room -- probably laughing at him even as they performed their little 'experiment'.  Still, his pace slowed, remembering the matching expressions on their faces.  No, there was no delight in their visages.  There was no mirth... only disappointment.

Lord, how I disappointed them.

He came to a full stop as he realized how he had let them down.  What do they think of me now? he thought.  Surely, they must think I'm useless to them.  He sighed and shook his head.  He had finally found a town where he felt needed, and now, he was too deaf to be of any worth.

Suddenly, a body flew at him in a blur of blue and white.  Ezra jerked himself out of the way, just missing the wrangler being ejected from Digger Dan's.  Ezra looked at the man rolling in the street for a moment, before another wrangler followed.  The second man, a man in a faded calico shirt, jerked the first, wearing a blue vest, to his feet.  Calico hit Vest across the jaw.  Vest reeled backward, windmilling his hands to catch his balance.  He managed to stay afoot and came back at Calico.  Fists were flying in a strange silent ballet.  Vest caught Calico across the nose and blood spurted in a wide arch.  Calico grabbed at his damaged nose and doubled over as Vest tried to grab Calico's head and forced him to the ground.

Ezra laughed.  It was all rather comical.  He stood to the side and merrily laughed at the strange scene unfolding before him.  The two were still going at it.  Calico had given up on his nose and had given Vest a knee to the groin.  Vest's mouth formed an "O" as he hopped around, clutching at his crotch and Calico prepared for another assault.  They were both bobbing about without making a sound.

Ezra grinned. Good God, he needed a reason to smile.

Something grabbed violently at Standish, forcing him almost off his feet.  Ezra reeled, prepared to pummel whoever was pulling him backward.  Only his quick reflexes saved Buck from getting his own broken nose.

Wilmington's eyes widened as he saw the cocked fist and he mouthed, "It's me!" before shoving Standish into the wall and continuing forward toward the combatants.

JD was right behind Buck.  He patted Ezra on the chest as Standish steadied himself after his collision with the wall.  JD said something to him, but his head was already turned and he gave Ezra another shove as he went off to help Buck peel Calico off of Vest.

Ezra watched the proceedings coolly, no longer feeling any need to laugh.

Part 19:

"He was doing what?" Chris asked as he sat at their regular table in the saloon.

"Laughing," Buck said exasperatedly.  "Emmett and Pete were beatin' the snot out of each other outside of Digger Dan's and he's just watching it all, laughing his head off."  Wilmington shook his head.

Larabee raised an eyebrow and looked to Nathan, who shrugged.

"Maybe he just thought it was funny," JD said into his beer.

"He could'a gotten hurt," Buck grumbled.  "I mean, he was right there in the street, laughing at Pete Drake.  After Pete got through with Emmett, you can bet that he would'a taken a poke at Ezra.  Wouldn't give a damn that the man couldn't hear him."

Vin smiled.  "Ez would'a given him a run for his money.  Don't need ears to fight a man."

JD nodded.  "I know I wouldn't want to go up against him."

"Fights dirty," Vin responded.  

"Yeah, that Pete's trouble," JD commeneted.

Vin smiled.  "Was talkin' about Ezra.  Prefer to have 'im on my side."

Josiah sighed. "The man has no sense when it comes to some things."

"Has there been any sign of him hearing again?" Chris asked Nathan.

"Naw," Jackson replied.  "Not yet.  Been using brandy with foxglove."

"Doin' any good?" Vin asked.

"Ain't seen any change yet," Nathan replied.

JD looked pensive and then asked quietly, "Maybe if we got him to a city with a good hospital or somethin'?  Maybe they could fix it?  Maybe if we got him to a ...real doctor...?" He ducked his head, not wanting to meet Nathan's eyes.

The healer smiled at the sheriff's reluctance.  "I ain't a doctor, JD.  I got no shame in admitting that.  I do what I can."

"So ...maybe..." Dunne started again, scooting closer to the table, "Maybe I could take him to Ridge City and get him on a train?"

Nathan glanced around the table.  "Even if we did get him to a hospital, I don't think that there's a thing they could do.  The ear is tricky business, with lots of little parts.  Things get broke pretty easy and it ain't a place where you can just cut in and fix."

"If they can't do any better for him elsewhere, I'd rather he stayed put," Chris stated.  "We're not gonna send him packin' if it can be helped."

The others all stared at their leader for a moment.

"A hospital might be a better place," Josiah tried.

"It's bad enough he can't hear," Chris continued sharply.  "Least he can have is some familiar faces around."

"Yeah," JD agreed heartily.  "I think he'll be gettin' better at understandin' us, too.  He may even pick up on what Buck says from time to time."

Buck snorted and threw JD a derisive glance.

Chris added, "I'll try and track down his Ma.  The woman should know what's happened."

"What'd you 'spect her to do?" Vin inquired.

"See her boy," Chris responded.

"Could be she'll want to be the one that packs him up," Vin drawled.

Chris grimaced.  Part of him wanted to keep the woman in the dark, but the part of him that was a father knew what he had to do.  "We'll let her know," he said.  "Won't let her do anythin' that Ezra doesn't agree to."

Buck shook his head.  "That lady can sure bully a fella, and Ezra ain't at his best right now."

"He's got the six of us to back him up," Larabee replied.  "We'll see to him."

Buck nodded and then turned to Nathan.  "But you think that this stuff you're usin' will do some good?"

Nathan looked at his hands.  "In the war I seen a lot of folks gone deaf from the cannons.  The doctors used that foxglove on 'em and it seemed to do some good sometimes."

"Sometimes," Vin prompted.

"Could'a been just time that healed those few."  Nathan looked glum.  "Most of 'em just never heard anythin' again."

Chris sighed and sat back again.  "Keep an eye on him," he demanded.  "We'll get through this."

"But what if he don't hear again?" Buck asked.  "I mean, what if it's gone for good?"

"We adapt," Chris replied.

Part 20:

Ezra sat on the boardwalk, watching the traffic pass.  It was so strange to watch people and horses move.  Everyone seemed so ghostlike.  It was like watching clouds passing.

Soundless... his world had become hopelessly soundless.  He was deaf.

Lord, how he had hoped that the sweet-scented brandy would have cured him.  He truly had thought he had heard that damn bell in Nathan's office.  But the healer had confirmed to him, without a doubt, that his hearing was totally gone.  His imagination had played a cruel trick on him.  Only that insidious ringing remained, stoking the headache that never wanted to abate.

What in the hell could he do now?  He couldn't play poker without being able to hear every little nuance of the game.  He was hopeless as a peacekeeper now.  Why would any one want him?  He watched the townspeople drift by with a careful eye.  Limited now, he had to pay extra attention to everything.  From time to time he would jump as something came at him unexpectedly, so he did what he could to watch everything -- to not be startled.  Thus, he knew Larabee was heading toward him, even before the gunslinger came fully into view.

"Mr. Larabee," Ezra greeted.

Chris moved until he was in front of the gambler.  Ezra watched as his mouth moved to form the words, "How're you feelin'?"

Ezra squinted.  Larabee's face was partially in shadow, making it difficult to read what he said.  "My hands are functioning quite well."  He held up the mentioned extremities.

Chris frowned and seemed to be studying Ezra as intently as the gambler was studying him.  His lips performed the sentence, "Where's your ma?"

Dear Lord, Ezra thought, his smile faltering for a moment.  Why?

Larabee moved until his face was better illuminated.  "I need to know where your mother is, Ezra," he seemed to say.

Standish smiled again.  "Mr. Larabee, I have no idea."  The con man quickly recalled that his last letter was sent over a week ago and Maude had moved on since then.  Even if someone had remembered the address on the envelope, it would be of no help.  She would be using one of her other husband's names by now and would be untraceable.  She had sent a telegram two days ago, with her latest pertinent information, coded as usual.  No, they would be unable to find her.

The gunslinger looked away for a moment and said something.  He turned toward Ezra again, midway through the speech and Ezra only caught the last part of the diatribe.  Larabee was saying something about how it was for the best and that a mother should know what had happened.

Ezra cocked his head.  "What exactly do you expect my dear mother to do?"  Yes, what?  Come running to my side?  Soothe her poor damaged son?  Bring comfort to her now-useless offspring?  Come now, when has she ever done that?

"If you require me to be shut away in an asylum, then perhaps that is the avenue to pursue," Ezra said offhand.  "Mother has always been very tidy in her dealings with infirmity."  Yes, she had always been quick to bundle him away when he had fallen ill during his youth.  He recalled long weeks in a hospital during an influenza epidemic -- long, lonely frightening weeks.  There had been another incarceration while a broken collarbone and arm mended.  No, she couldn't be bothered with the trouble.  "I understand that they have many pleasant activates at such places: basket-weaving, leather-work, broom-making, caning chairs.  Perhaps those are the only occupations now open to me?"

She would find no use for him in her cons now, so why would she possibly want to have him with her?  No, he would be nothing but an insufferable burden to her.  If he had only thought up this scheme earlier, he may have been able to feign deafness in order to gain an advantage.  Now, with the malady truly imposed upon him, there was no hope that she would want him in her plans.

"Is that what you require?  Should I be preparing for departure?"

Apparently Chris had been trying to talk, but Ezra had overridden him.  The gunslinger frowned severely.  He spoke again, evidently nixing that idea, somewhat angrily, too.  He paced back and forth, severing his communication with the gambler, but creating a rather lengthy reply.  He stopped short, and turned to face Ezra again.  "Ain't gonna happen that way," Chris mouthed.

At least, for now, Ezra amended to himself.  "If that's all you have to say, I'd like to repair to my room.  I'm rather tired."  And he was. This constant need to be on the alert was wearing him down.  The endless ringing and his pounding head was making it ever more difficult to keep his eyes open.

Chris seemed to want to say more, but nodded.  He said something about sending Nathan up to his room with more of the worthless brandy mixture.

"Ah yes," Ezra replied.  "Perhaps it will work this time?" He smiled and Chris returned the expression somewhat grimly.

Part 21:

Vin slowly walked down the boardwalk, toward the jail.  It was late, far past midnight, and the town was asleep.   Josiah was currently keeping watch at the jail, reading Thackery as the McHale boys slept.  It would be three more days before Judge Travis arrived for their trial and until then, the two young men would be guests of the city of Four Corners.

The tracker watched the town, keeping a lookout for the boy's father.  They constantly threatened the peacekeepers with his appearance, but so far, the older McHale never showed his face.

It was a beautiful night. Tanner smiled, glad for the quiet. He inhaled deeply as he walked along the boardwalk, breathing in the crisp air.  It was nights like these that made him yearn for the trail.

He wasn't a townperson, not a city boy.  He was born for the great outdoors and this clear, quiet weather made him yearn to saddle-up his horse and put some distance between himself and this town. Yet still, he continued his rounds.

Damn, when had he become civilized? -- somewhere around the time he joined forces with these other six men.  They had come to mean something special to him.  They were his link to humanity.  All things considered, he was rather content in this life.

Everything was so quiet and still that Vin was startled to hear music.  He paused in his steps, wondering at first if he had simply imagined it.  A melody surrounded him, matching the night with its beauty.

Breathing slowly, he decided that the music was indeed real.  It emanated from somewhere nearby.  He stepped forward, trying to locate where it was coming from.  Never before had he heard anything like it; it was like the voice of heaven.

Finally, he stopped in front of Digger Dan's and pressed his head against the saloon door.  Yes, he could hear the music clearly now.  Someone was playing the piano.  Leo Quail, the 'pianist extraordinaire', usually plied the keys of that instrument with such old favorites as "Bonnie Blue Flag" or "Der Dietcher's Dog" or "Little Brown Jug".  This was something else -- it was poetry.  He laid his hand on the latch and tried it.  The door was unlocked.  It wasn't like Dan to leave the place open for the night.  Someone must have jimmied the lock.

Carefully, he pressed the door open, wincing at the squeak of hinges.  He paused, the door half-open, expecting the music to stop, and perhaps be replaced with the sound of a cocking gun.  But the soft melody continued, and Vin further opened the reluctant door.  He peered in, to see a lamp lit beside the piano, and one lonely form on the stool, playing the poor misused instrument.

There in the golden glow of the oil lamp, was Ezra, his coat tails tossed over the back of the piano stool, his arms moving back and forth along the keyboard as the delicate song flowed from his actions.  His face was solemn and his eyes half-closed.

He can hear again, Vin thought with a smile.  Thank God!  "Hey, Ez," he called as he shut the door behind him.  "I didn't know you could play that thing.  That's real perty." 

He expected the music to stop, but it didn't.  Ezra gave no sign of hearing the shouted greeting and continued playing unabated.

"Ez?" Vin tried again.

"Ah damn," Vin muttered.  The ambrosial tune seemed sadder every moment as Vin realized that Ezra couldn't hear a note of it.  "Ah, hell," Vin groaned, leaning against the door and watching Ezra's animated movements.

But the music stopped abruptly, Ezra's hands over trembling over the keys.  The gambler leaned forward, turning his head and sending Vin backward into the shadows. Standish pressed his head against the sounding board and drew an audible breath as the last chord died.  For no reason, Vin held his breath, too.

"Please..." he heard Ezra whisper softly.  And the room became completely silent.

The hands, still hovering above the keys, flew into movement.  They came down violently, slamming out a crashing chord.   Ezra pressed his head even tighter against the piano, his eyes squeezed shut as he raised his hands again, forming fists and again smashed down on the keys.  The delicate melody was brutally replaced with the tuneless pounding.  The piano seemed to be crying out against the abuse as Ezra took out his frustration on the keys.

Vin unconsciously raised his hands to his ears, trying to drown out the cacophony as he pressed against the door.  "Damn it, Ez," he whispered.  Faster and faster, Ezra attacked the keys, filling the saloon with the tuneless mess.  It was if the noise held all the frustration, fear and anger contained in the man.

Tanner shoved open the door as the pounding suddenly stopped.  Ezra jumped to his feet.  The stool slammed to the floor, spinning in a half-arch as Ezra stood panting beside the piano.  Vin quickly backed onto the boardwalk and shut the door, desperate to be out of the way before Ezra noticed him.

Vin turned and headed back toward the jail at a quick clip, determined to get as far from the saloon as possible.  He knew that Ezra would never want to be discovered in such a state and he did his best to be somewhere else.  He stopped when he heard the door open again and turned to see Ezra peer out and look around.  Their eyes met. Damn.

For a moment, Ezra looked undecided, but finally he stepped clear of the closed saloon, shutting the door. "Mr. Tanner," he called loudly.

Vin sighed and walked back toward him.  "Hi, Ez."  He stopped beside one of the night fires that burned still.

"Lovely night," Ezra said, his voice still too loud for the late hour.  As he came into the light, Vin could see his face had a flush to it, his eyes held a wildness.  He searched Vin's countenance carefully.

"Yeah," Vin agreed.

"Anythin' unusual happening?" Ezra asked leadingly, staring intently at the tracker.  The iffy illumination of the night lit his face strangely.  "Anything out of the ordinary?  Something I should be concerned about?"   His hands moved nervously at his sides.

"Naw, nothin'," Vin lied.   Concerned, he thought...plenty to be concerned about.

From somewhere behind Ezra, a man leaned out his window and shouted, "Shut the hell up!  You got any idea what time it is?"

"Very well," Ezra continued in his voluble voice.  "I suppose I might take a walk as it's a beautiful evenin'."

"Yeah," Vin answered.

Ezra nodded and touched the brim of his hat as the man yelled an obscenity and slammed his window shut.

"Good night," the gambler shouted as he turned and ambled down the dark boardwalk toward the opposite side of town.  Vin watched as the gambler slid in and out of the light created by the dying fires.   First he was there... and then he was gone...to return again farther away.

Vin considered following him, but was well aware that Ezra knew that his impromptu concert had been overheard.  No, he probably didn't want any company right then.

Wish I could talk to you, Ez, he thought.

Vin sighed, remembering the beautiful melody.  It was the first time he had ever heard anything like it and it hurt him to think that Ezra might never hear the same again.

Part 22:

Ezra steeled himself before he came down the stairs.  "Courage, Ezra, courage," he said to himself.  At least, he hoped it was to himself.  He started downward, keeping a close eye on who was in the room as he entered.  He easily found the other six, sitting around their usual table, drinking coffee.  The room was dim as always, but a kerosene lamp was sitting on their table, making it unusually bright.

His gaze paused a moment on Vin, and he felt again the keen embarrassment of the night before.  The tracker had undoubtedly witnessed his display at the piano -- if not visually, then aurally. At least the bounty haunter had found the decency to let the abashment go unnoted.

He strode to the table, nodding to his co-workers as he approached.  "Good mornin', gentlemen," he said as he pulled out his chair without hearing it skid on the floor, though he felt the vibration.  He didn't raise his head to see them as he said, "And before the inquiries begin, I'm still quite deaf."  Yes, he had tested his hearing that morning, tapping a spoon against a glass -- and receiving nothing beyond the constant ringing that followed him everywhere.

He was able to catch the disappointed looks on their faces, but he did his best to keep up a good front.  He had to be able to do that, for what did he have left outside of his ability to put up a good front?

Nathan pulled at his sleeve and waited until Ezra turned to face him.  "You gettin' any sleep?" the healer mouthed.

Ezra nodded.  Technically, it could be called sleep.  "Yes, Mr. Jackson, of course," he replied.  One or two hours of sleep per night was enough, wasn't it?  How could anyone sleep with that constant pealing?

Jackson went on about how he was going to give him a sleeping powder.

Ezra felt his heart constrict. "No, that won't be necessary," he said as levelly as possible.

The healer looked annoyed and started going on about how he knew what was best.

Ezra talked right over him.  "Mr. Jackson, I'm already hopelessly impaired.  I'm not going to further destroy my remaining senses by submitting to a drug."

The others at the table were talking and Ezra did his best to take them in, but they were all jabbering at once.  He looked up when he saw the motion of the door and noted that one of the telegraph operator's children had entered.

Little Casper Juje approached the table, at first only noticed by Standish.  Ezra fished a coin out of his waistcoat pocket and held it.  The boy went right to him and exchanged it for the telegram and then high-tailed it out of the saloon.

Ezra scanned the message quickly and then said out loud, "It would appear that the sheriff of Red Rock is asking for assistance.  He has suffered the loss of eight prisoners, dangerous and deadly.  He requires assistance in rounding them up and has asked for help from Four Corners."

The gambler watched as the six men stood as a group and headed out the door.

Ezra followed.

Part 23:

It was good; that was Chris' thought as they strode to the livery.  There was no need to speak a word.  There was a job to do and they would do it.  It was good to be part of such a team.  He felt his heart race as they approached their horses and the animals moved excitedly, stomping about in their stalls, snorting and whinnying, knowing what was about to happen.   It was good.

He went immediately to Job's stall and started to saddle him. The black horse rippled his skin in anticipation.  His men were well practiced in this activity and they would be underway in minutes.

Yes, he thought, this was good.

"Chris," Buck said under his breath from the adjoining pen, with his horse, Clyde.  "Chris." He jerked his head toward the stall on the far side of his grey, where Ezra was preparing his own horse.

There seemed nothing odd about it immediately.  This was the way it was supposed to be. Ezra was tending to the temperamental creature that seemed determine to crush him against the dividing wall. Ain't nothin' peculiar about that, Larabee thought.  But, the reality of the situation descended on him.

"Aw, hell," Chris muttered, watching as the gambler finished settling the saddle blanket and then lifted the saddle onto the prancing chestnut's back.  With a sigh, Chris pushed past his horse and exited the stall to stand in front of the one at the back corner.

"Ezra," he called, but the gambler's back was to him.  "Ezra," he said again, touching Standish on the shoulder. Don't make this hard, Ezra.

"A moment, just a moment please," Ezra said, not turning.  Chaucer was tossing his head and stomping his feet in excitement as Ezra tightened the cinch on the saddle.  "Don't step on me, old friend," he muttered to his horse.  "It'd be ill-advised."

"Ezra," Chris said as he touched the gambler's shoulder again.  "Come on, Ez."

"Distractions are not helping this situation," Ezra responded.

"You're not helping either," Chris mumbled.  "Let's get this done, Ez."  With a sigh, he shoved against Ezra's shoulder to turn him, but the gambler was braced against the horse and couldn't be moved.  Chaucer glared at Larabee.

"No need for such encouragement," Ezra said with bite in his voice.  "I'm going as fast as I can."

Chris looked over his shoulder to see the other five men had all stopped their preparations and trained their gazes on him.    Larabee realized he'd best get this over with immediately.

Chris waited until Ezra had released his grip on the saddle, then he firmly grabbed Ezra by the forearm and hauled him from the stall.

"Mr. Larabee, please!" Ezra exclaimed as he stumbled.  He stood and straightening his hat.  "You're delayin' our departure."

"Ezra, stop acting like such a stubborn..."

Ezra cupped a hand behind his ear.  "So sorry," he said.  "I can't quite catch what you're sayin'."  He turned back toward the stall, trying to snag the bridle from its place.

If that's the way it's gonna be...Larabee thought as he grabbed Standish again and shoved him toward the light near the door.  Ezra fought to keep his balance on the straw-littered floor.  You're makin' this hard on yourself, Chris thought.  Don't make it any worse.

"Listen!"  Chris shouted once he was sure that certain that Ezra could see his face clearly.

Ezra smiled and shrugged. "I would if I could, Mr. Larabee.  Now if you'll let me return to my horse, we could be underway.  Red Rock awaits."

"You ain't comin'," Chris said as civilly as he could manage.

"I'm nearly ready.  If I weren't so rudely interrupted, I'd be finished by now."

"Ezra!" Chris slapped a hand against one of the roof supports in frustration.  Open his damn ears! he inwardly cried.  Don't make this so damn hard! "You can't come."

"But certainly, I'm more than capable of shooting my firearm.  My eyes are unaffected and my hands have totally recovered from the ordeal.  There are outlaws on the loose that must be apprehended."

Chris paused.  When the hell did Ezra really become a lawman?  Who would have believed such words coming from this self-indulgent card sharp?  Larabee tried a new tactic. "I need you to guard the prisoners."

"Undoubtedly Mr. Green would be willin' to help out. His mother-in-law is in town and he's eager to be away from the house for a while yet."  He grimaced theatrically.  "In-laws," he intoned and looked knowing to the others, "nothing but trouble."

Chris waited until Ezra's gaze swung back towards him.  "You have to keep an eye on the town."

"Ah yes, an eye.  At least that still works.  Still, why bother?  We've left the town unguarded before.  Why is this instance any different?"

"The McHale's father..."

"Really, Mr. Larabee.  You are listenin' to half-grown horse-thieves now?"

"Damn it, Ezra!" Chris barked, finally giving into his frustration.  "If you go, you'll get yourself shot."

"That, Mr. Larabee, is my concern." And Ezra tried to step around him and get back to his horse.

Larabee grabbed hold of Ezra's jacket and shoved him back against the doorway to the livery.  Ezra collided into the frame with an 'ooof'.

"Listen to me, you stubborn son-of-a-bitch!  I can't let you do this!  There's no sense to it. Your life is MY concern." 

Ezra wrapped his hand around the hand that clenched his jacket and gave Chris a deadly glare.  His other hand landed on his Remington. "I absolve you of that responsibility."

The other five were behind Larabee now.  "Chris," Buck said.  "Maybe it'd be okay?"

"We'll watch out for him," JD promised.

"I can't count on you, Ezra," Chris said, calming his voice, trying to soften the blow.  "What if Buck gets shot 'cause he's lookin' out for you?  What if JD gets hit 'cause you were suppose' to be coverin' him, but you couldn't hear anyone coming? What if Nathan's tryin' to get your attention and takes a bullet 'cause you're not lookin' in the right direction?"

Ezra released his grip on Chris' hand and said nothing for a moment. His face was impassive as his other hand fluttered from the gun and rested at his side.  "I see," he murmured.  "You've made a valid point."  He made a gesture of submission.  "I acquiesce to your greater intelligence."

Chris released the con man's jacket, which Ezra quickly straightened.   He dusted the lapels and didn't raise his head as he said, "Now, if you will let me pass, I'll return my mount to his previous state and will bid you adieu to commence my task of watching the town."

Chris stepped aside.

"Hey, Ez," JD said as Standish passed him.  "Ain't so bad.  Just think of it as a bit of a break." But Ezra didn't turn; his eyes were fixed on the horse.  With experienced hands, Ezra quickly had the saddle loose and returned to its place in the stall.  He ran a hand across the animal's bare back as he removed the blanket.  Chaucer nickered in confusion.

"It's really for the best," Nathan said as Ezra exited the stall. "We're just watchin' out fer ya."

"Truly, Brother," Josiah agreed.  "We don't want to see anything happen to you."

"Yeah, Ez." Buck nodded.  "You'll be all set to go next time.  You'll see."

Vin watched silently, wishing that Ezra would look his way, look up at any of them, but the conman's eyes remained averted.

Chris contemplated blocking Standish's path so that he could have one last word with him before they left, but Ezra looked as if he would charge right through him, and he let the gambler go.

But Ezra never raised his head and left the livery without saying another word.  Chaucer whinnied at his departure and the men looked to each other silently.

CONTINUE on to the second half