RATING: PG... for some swearing
CATEGORY: Challenge - OW
DISCLAIMERS: This is fanfiction. No profit involved. This story is based on the television series "The Magnificent Seven". No infringement upon the copyrights held by CBS, MGM, Trilogy Entertainment Group, The Mirisch Corp. or any others involved with that production is intended.
NOTE: This is in response to the Josiah Fanfic Page "Fire" Challenge:  This is an OW story challenge.  Josiah's Church is on fire and Josiah is still in the building; Which of the seven would go into the burning church to save Josiah?
FEEDBACK: Yes please! comments are greatly appreciated.
SPOILERS: Sins of the Past
APPEARS IN: Fanzine Devine Intervention #2
DATE: December 9, 2001

A Sacrifice to Fire
By NotTasha...who's a little edgy around fire anyway.

Part 1:

Josiah awoke choking.

It had been a hot night, following a hot day.  The curtains at the open windows had hung motionless in the breezeless summer night.  He'd tossed and turned before finally falling to sleep in the unhappy heat, but once he'd settled, he slept peacefully.

The day had been spent working on the church, putting up the tapestries that he'd purchased that day.  He'd been scrimping and saving from the donations, making small sacrifices here and there in order to make larger purchases in the future – stained-glass windows perhaps?  When a drummer passed through the town, with his cartload of wares, the carefully boxed wall hangings had called Josiah's name.

The preacher had fretted over them all morning, and had thought over the proposed expenditure as he ate his mid-day meal.  He'd forgone so many creature comforts as he put the church back together, it seemed absurd to purchase something so frivolous.  Still, what good was money if it wasn't spread around?  Of course, he'd held back that money a few months ago, when Ezra had been looking for investors in the Standish Tavern.  But now, It seemed that the time was ripe to spend it.

The rough building should start looking like a church.  These hangings would be better than fancy windows.  In the tempestuous town, windows would only be broken.  What could possibly happen to cloth?  He struck a bargain with the traveling salesman.  The drummer had promised that they'd last a lifetime and that neither moth nor nesting rodent would shorten their existence.  When the box was opened, Josiah found out that the salesman hadn't lied.  He almost gagged on the scent of them.  It would take days for the odor of the preservative to air out.

The drummer had left the town that afternoon and Josiah set to work, hanging the tapestries on the walls of the rough-hewn chapel.  The three cloths fit the space magnificently and gave the place an air of dignity.  He'd stood in the midst of his church for over an hour, drinking in the ambiance.

That night, he'd dreamed of them, the woven works of art.  He'd dreamed of Eden, of the Last Supper and the parting of the Red Sea.  He woke up choking.

Alarmed, he shot to his feet and, too dizzy to remain upright, fell to the floor almost instantly.  The air was filled with thick black smoke.  He coughed and choked on it, feeling lightheaded and drunk.  Drawing himself to his knees, he tried to get his bearings as he stood and staggered to the doorway.  What was happening?  The chapel was strangely lit, a bright light reaching him through the haze.

His eyes widened at the scene that greeted him.  For a moment he was transfixed, watching as flames licked at the wall hanging on the far wall.  It was as if he were still dreaming, watching the fire that burned but didn't consume the cloth.  It reminded him of sacrificial fires that had once burned in ancient ceremonies, dumbfounding him for a moment.  Finally, he rushed toward the flaming Red Sea.  Had the candle left burning for late night visitors ignited it?

Sanchez lunged toward the tapestry and grabbed hold of an edge not yet engulfed.  He yanked at it, trying to pull it free from the wall, to pull it from the building and save his church.  He strained, popping out half the nails that held it, but the acrid smoke filled his lungs and he fell to his knees.  The tapestry remained, half-tacked to the wall.

He rolled away from the flaming specter as the Egyptian army was consumed.  The cloth burning like a wick, burning into the wall as well.  He hacked and coughed and tried to breathe in spite of the horrible air, but the room was swimming around him.  It was so incredibly hot, so unbearable.  He hunched over, seeking air at the bottom of the room, trying to breathe as everything around him darkened.

It was burning.  His church was burning.  He struggled, trying to rise.  He couldn't let it burn – not the church.  Lord, not the church!  He'd worked too hard, struggled, sacrificed and sweated over it.  This place was his penance and his salvation.  He couldn't allow it to become consumed.  He wouldn't sacrifice it to fire!  If it were to be destroyed, than all of this would have amounted to nothing.

If he were to lose this church, then his life was pointless.

He tried to rise, to stand and beat back the flames, but he was quivering now, struggling to draw the slightest breath.  All around him, the black smoke roiled.  He fell to his side, gasping.

"Josiah?" a voice urgently called, distant but coming closer.  He raised his head, but couldn't see who had called.

"Josiah?  Where are you?"  Someone was searching for him in the smoke.  He wanted to answer, but couldn't find enough air.


He could only gasp as the voice kept calling.

"Josiah!" the voice reached him, just beside him.  "Thank the Lord!"  A pair of hands grasped him and tugged at him.  "Come on, let's get out!"

"The church…" Josiah tried to gasp.  "Let me save the church!"  He'd given up too much for it.  He couldn't let it burn.

He fought feebly to stay, but whatever had hold of him, didn't stop.  It got under him, dragging him to his feet.  He couldn't see.  His head was spinning and his feet no longer worked properly.  If he could only breathe!  He was stumbling, trying to walk as he was pulled along.  Trying to breathe and cough and walk and think at the same time had become an impossible task.  The heat fell on him like a heavy blanket, dragging him down as something else pulled him forward.  Sweat ran into his eyes, blinding him further.

A voice kept talking to him, coughing and talking and pulling at him.

He was being dragged away.  How could he save the church if he was being taken away?

"My church!" he cried again and made an attempt to stop their progress.  I can't let it be consumed!  It's all I have.  He reached out and grabbed hold of a pew, but just as quickly, something lashed out, slapping his hand away and dragged him onward.

Suddenly the smoke cleared and sweet air reached him.  He collapsed, greedily sucking in oxygen.  The night that had been so hot was soothingly cool now that he'd reached the front steps of the church.  He fell at the edge of the short porch and gasped air into his uncooperative lungs.

"Josiah!"  That voice called again, and the preacher turned his head, surprised to see Ezra squatting beside him, with a handkerchief tied around his mouth and nose.  Only his vivid green eyes were visible above the mask and beneath the black hat.  "Are you okay?"  His voice was urgent, his eyes wide and concerned.

"My church!" Sanchez croaked and erupted into another fit of coughing, spitting out black globs.

Ezra pulled another handkerchief from his pocket and pressed it into Josiah's hand.  "Let's get you out of here," he declared.

Josiah grabbed hold of Ezra's arm with as much strength as he could muster.  "My church!  Don't let it burn!  Please, Ezra, don't let it be destroyed!"  If he couldn't save it himself, then Ezra must in his stead.

Josiah was coughing again.  Someone was shouting, but he couldn't tell who was yelling.  "Please," he gasped.  "I can't do it… can't move…  Please, Ezra… you must save it."

Ezra looked down the street and yelled something, then turned back to Josiah.  "What's important is that we get you out of here, get you to someplace safe and–"

"Please, Ezra."  Sanchez could feel his strength fading, already his sight was growing dim as he forced air into his struggling lungs.

Ezra shook his head.  "I just got you out of there!  There's nothing of worth to return for."

Josiah increased his hold on Ezra's arm.  He gasped out, "It's the only thing… that means anything to me… the only thing…"  He choked as he tried to gulp in air.  "If I were to lose it… I'd…"  And he fell back in another spate of coughing, unable to immediately speak.  "You must!" he finally spat out.

Ezra thought for a moment, then nodded curtly.  "I'll take care of it," he assured, then stood and turned toward the church.  Squaring his shoulders, adjusting the simple mask, and pulling down the brim of his hat, he disappeared back into the black acrid smoke.

Josiah coughed and wheezed as the smoke billowed from the open door.  He bowed his head as everything swam around him.  The only thing he could manage was to cough out the blackness that filled his lungs.

Something grabbed him and was tugging at him again.  He was so intent on trying to breathe that he didn't have time to notice anything else.  Had Ezra given up and left the church to burn?

Horrified at that thought, he opened his eyes and found himself at the base of the clinic stairs.  Coughing still, he turned his gaze to Nathan and Buck who had their shoulders under him, pulling him toward the clinic.  The street was filled with people.  A bucket brigade formed.  Chris was shouting orders and he could see JD and Vin running.  Where was Ezra?

Josiah stopped, turning back toward the smoking church.  The fire illuminated the windows as if a thousand candles burned within.  Chris was getting the people organized, JD was in the midst of it all, Vin was searching out buckets.  And still, there was no Ezra.

Josiah felt his stomach drop out.  Oh dear God, he thought.  What have I done?  He tried to struggle out of their hands.

"Easy, Josiah," Buck said.  "You 'bout strained my back."

"Ezra," Josiah murmured, hacking again.

"What's that?" Nathan queried, unable to clearly hear him.

"Ezra's in there," Josiah gasped out.  He yanked one arm out of Nathan's grip and pointed toward the church.

"Damn," Buck muttered, his face suddenly pale.

Nathan changed his hold on Josiah and said, "I got this one, Buck.  Go after that pig-headed southerner."

When Buck released Josiah, Sanchez started coughing again.  He heard Wilmington sprinting off behind him, shouting to Chris, shouting Ezra's name.  His knees wouldn't hold him any longer and he fell upon Nathan, coughing and striving to breathe.

Part 2

Josiah's throat burned, yet still he coughed.  A clearing of the throat that never seemed to end.  Even as he fluttered between conscious and unconscious, he coughed out the foul smoke that burned at his lungs.  His chest ached from the hard work.

He heard voices murmuring around him, but he couldn't convince himself to wake.  He was too hot, too dizzy, too entirely weak.  His head hurt fiercely and he felt disconnected, as if he'd been dosed with laudanum.  He wavered between dream and reality.

He tossed in his bed, sticky with the heat of the too warm weather.  He coughed until he thought his lungs would tear apart.  Someone kept pressing a glass to his lips, forcing more liquid and medicine down him.  He choked on some of it, as he coughed and drank at the same time.  Someone would pound his back, wipe his face, and then he'd slip away again.

He'd gaze with hooded eyes at those who administered to him.  Sometimes it was Nathan, but the healer was gone as often as he was there.  He'd also seen Chris or Buck, Vin or JD beside him.  Their words came to him, breaking through his hazy mind, speaking soothingly and comfortingly to him – but he never heard the honeyed tones of that over-educated southerner; he didn't see those concerned green eyes fixed on him.

Where was he?  Surely, if he were able, the gambler would be here.  Anytime any of them was hurt, Ezra always spent a great deal of time at his bedside.  As much as he denied the fact, Josiah knew that the con man could perform the task of 'nurse' with great skill.  His compassionate glance and gentle hands were familiar to all of them when they were under Nathan's roof.

So where was he?  Why hadn't he been here?

The fire!  Good God, the fire!

The burning tapestry kept returning to him, the church illuminated by the bizarre conflagration, burning and not being consumed.  He kept replaying everything:  running toward the fire, falling to the floor, the blackness that filled his head, a voice calling his name, and then Ezra pulling at him.  He kept seeing Ezra's face as he nodded, and then seeing only his back as he disappeared into the church again.

Dear Lord, Josiah moaned inwardly, I sent him into a burning building.  I sent him back into the flames.

Please, the preacher begged, in his hazy sleep, let him be okay.  Maybe he's on the cot beside me.  Maybe he's just resting.  Maybe he's nearby.  Maybe he's not too badly hurt.

He rose and fell in a roiling sea.

Part 3

It was night again when his mind cleared.  The weather was still too hot for comfort.  He felt sticky from it and worn out from his illness, tired from the act of breathing.  He turned his head slowly, first seeing Nathan asleep in the chair beside him.  The healer slouched down in the seat, quite familiar with the position, sweat tricking down one side of his face.  Next, he noted Chris by the back wall.  The man's black shirt clung to him and he seemed lost in thought, gazing off through the window.

As he slowly looked about the room, the preacher searched for another cot, but saw nothing.

Nothing.  He was the lone patient in the room.  If Ezra wasn't here, if Ezra had never been at his bedside, then…  Oh God, no.

He squeezed his eyes shut in agony.  Lord no, he thought.  What did I do?  That young man, so quick with a smile, so clever and beguiling, so irritating and contradictory… how could he be gone?

Ezra, capricious and ungrounded, so in need of someone to guide him, was lost now forever.  Josiah had wanted to be that guide, to set Ezra on the straight-and-narrow path, to help him along, to answer his concerns and direct him toward the righteous life.  He wanted to be like a father to that man.  There was so much good in that young gambler, so much potential – how could he be lost now?

But did Standish even need such a guide?  Hadn't Ezra stepped into a burning building to help his friend?

Lord, no!

"Ezra?" he tried to say, but his sore throat allowed nothing more than an unintelligible squawk.

Chris snapped out of his state and moved beside the bed.  "Josiah, you're back?" he whispered, careful not to awaken the exhausted healer.

Where is he? Josiah wanted to ask.  He went back in!  Did you find him?  Did you get him out?  Tell me that he didn't burn!  He isn't dead, he can't be dead – not because I made him go back in.  What happened?  How long have I been here?  Is he okay?  But his dry lips, ravaged throat and smoke-weakened lungs wouldn't allow it.  He could only cough.  Tears came to his eyes, from the effort it took to breathe, and the realization that Ezra was gone.

Larabee gave him water.  Then, the gunslinger poured syrupy medicine into a spoon and fed it to him.  The sweet syrup soothed the pain in his chest, but another larger pain had taken over.

He can't be dead, Josiah's mind pleaded.  But what else could have happened to him?  He'd be here – hurt or well – he'd be here if he were living still.

Chris watched the big preacher and saw the emotions that flickered across his face, saw the man struggle to speak.  "Don't talk, Josiah," Chris said sternly.  "Nate says to keep quiet yet.  Don't want to wake 'im anyway."  His voice was soft, hardly above a whisper.  Nathan never moved as Larabee spoke.

Chris smiled, but Josiah could see a tightness to that expression.  Something wasn't right.

"Please," Josiah tried to say, but hacked instead.  The drug that Chris had given him was already working; he was just too tired to resist it.  Please, he thought.  What happened to Ezra?  Tell me!  I need to know.  He reached out and weakly grasped Chris's arm.  The gunslinger eyed the hand and returned his gaze to Josiah.

Where is he?  I sent him back.  Did I kill him?  Did he die because of what I said?  Because I valued a damned building more than him?  He's a good man and deserved better than that.  He deserved so much more.  Please, I need to know.

But weariness and his lungs wouldn't allow for words and he slipped back into sleep.

Part 4

Josiah was aware first of the heat, the constant heat of the relentless summer, but then he started to notice voices near him, JD and Buck talking.  They weren't understandable at first, but then the words became clearer as Josiah came closer to waking.  They were saying something about the fire at the church, and 'poor Ezra' and then something about Ezra being underground, about the cold and dark.

Josiah's world stopped as the horror of this confirmation struck him.  "No!"  He bolted up in bed, his arms shaking as he sat upright after so long asleep.  His head spun at the quick change in position.  "Dear God, no!"

"Josiah!" JD and Buck cried together, startled.

"Ezra?" Josiah asked, coughing again, but not so harshly as before.  He could breathe finally without constant difficulty.

"Here, Josiah," JD said, grabbing the pitcher and pouring a glass of water.  "Nate says we gotta get you more water and some of this cough syrup."

Josiah pushed away the glass.  "What happened?"

"The church was on fire," JD explained simply.  "You barely got out."

"Ezra got me out.  Where is he?  Please!"

Both JD and Buck looked dour.  Their hesitation told Josiah everything he needed to know.

"He was in the church when it caught fire," Buck explained.

"No." Josiah shook his head violently and felt woozy at the movement.  "He went in after me.  Went back because I told him to."  He grasped hold of JD and yanked the young sheriff toward him.  "Tell me what happened."  The glass sloshed, water spilling onto the bed.

"Someone was shouting that the church was on fire so we all came runnin'," Buck started, noting JD's pained glance.  "Nate and I found you at the front steps.  Hell, you could hardly breathe.  Nate said we'd better get you away from that smoke, so we started takin' you to the clinic.  Then you said somethin' about Ezra."  Buck rubbed the back of his neck.  "So, I went back to the church, but could hardly get in 'cause the smoke was so thick."

"You did go in?"  Josiah's question was a plea.  "You didn't leave him?"

"Hell yes, I went in!" Buck responded.  "Damn, I ain't never seen more smoke in my life.  The stuff smelled worse than anything I've ever come across, black as pitch.  Nate figures that what they put on those wall hangings must have been pretty bad stuff – poison.  Burned like a wick and smoked like a sum'bitch."

"Ezra," Josiah demanded.

"I seen him through that smoke."  Buck paused and fiddled with a button on his shirt.  "That big cloth had came down on him, knocked him to the ground."  Buck sighed.  "Well, I pulled it off of him and got him out."

"It was on fire," Josiah murmured, clutching JD and making Dunne cry out in pain.  "That tapestry was on fire."

Buck didn't meet Josiah's eyes.

"Oh Lord."  Josiah released JD and sunk his head into his hands.  The tapestry still flared in his mind.  Surely, Ezra would be here if he'd been burned.  His absence meant only one thing.  Josiah sucked in a miserable breath and said, "Lord, forgive me for killing that young man.  It was my fault.  I sent him back in there.  I told him to go.  Lord, forgive me."

JD looked perplexed.  "He ain't dead, Josiah," he explained.

"That cloth was burnin' on the top side, but not so bad on the other," Buck explained quickly.  "I think that stuff that was coating it was what was on fire, and not the cloth really.  It caught him and burned him a bit, but I got him out."

Sanchez raised his head.  "But he isn't here."  His voice was soft, confused.  "If he's hurt, he should be here."

"It's too hot up here, Josiah," Buck responded, pulling at his sweaty shirt.  "Nathan wanted to put him someplace cooler, so we got him in the basement of the hotel.  Might 'ave took you there, too, but none of us wanted to carry you down two flights of stairs.  It took Yosemite and Nathan to haul you up here in the first place."

Sanchez sighed, relieved, as he leaned into the pillows.  "Thank God," he sighed and then turned to Buck.  "Is he hurt real bad?"

JD answered this time.  "Nate's been keepin' an eye on him.  His back got burned, but seems to be doin' okay.  Hurts him a lot but won't be so bad once it's healed.  Won't no one see it when he's got a shirt on and Nate said it won't scar much.  He didn't get as much smoke as you did so he's breathin' a lot easier."

"I have to see him."  Josiah struggled up again, wheezing and coughing at the effort.  Suddenly a light had been sighted in his nightmare.  Ezra was alive.  He was almost giddy at the thought.  But the fact that he was hurt made him anxious to see him.

"Hold on now, Josiah."  Buck stepped forward and pressed him back to the pillows.  "You rest here a bit and when Nathan gets back from checking on his other pain-in-the-ass patient, we'll see about that."  JD stepped in to help.

"Gotta see him," Josiah reiterated, struggling weakly against Wilmington and Dunne.

The door opened suddenly and a voice boomed, with a peeved tone, "What'cha ya doin', old man?"  Nathan was soon beside them, helping Buck and JD settle Sanchez back in his bed.  "You don't get yourself riled, now.  You'll get to coughing again and there'll be no stopping it."

"Got himself worked up about Ezra," Buck explained.  "Wants to go see him."

"Please," Josiah said, coughing.

"Not now," Nathan responded.  "He's just gotten t'sleep and I ain't gonna let you wake him with stumbling about and coughing.  He's havin' enough trouble sleepin’ without you vexin' him."

The preacher's hand reached out and caught the healer's.  "Please, Nathan, is he gonna be all right?"  He's got to be okay, Josiah thought.

Nathan clasped the hand and met Josiah's eyes.  He stared into them a moment before replying, "Yes, he's gonna be fine.  Just needs to take it easy for a few days.  I want to keep him where it's cooler for a while so his back don't hurt him so much."

"He's been havin' a hell of a time sleepin'," Buck supplied.  "So if he's gettin' some shut-eye, you'd better leave him be."

Nathan nodded.  "Got himself exhausted now, but I think he's healin' all right.  He's already asking to leave so I think he'll be up and around soon."  The healer frowned, knowing that Sanchez wouldn't stay here much longer and would have to make the trek to the hotel's basement very soon.

Josiah sighed and sank back into his bed.

"Your church is fine, too," Nathan added.  "Burned up that wall hanging of yours and scorched the walls pretty bad.  Plus everything got plain soaked by all the water we threw in there.  Gonna need some new wood and plaster on that side and a new coat of paint all over.  It'll be okay."

Josiah didn't really hear him; all he cared about at that moment was that Ezra was alive – hurt, but alive.

Part 5

In little less than an hour Sanchez slowly descended the stairs and into the dark basement under the hotel.  His shirt, stained with sweat, was cool against his skin as he made his way down.  He wheezed at the work, but managed to quiet his breath as he moved down the stairway.  Josiah could understand why Nathan had brought Ezra here.  The heat from a burn was bad enough, it didn't need to be further irritated by the hot day.

He paused, halfway down the stairs and stared at the figure on the cot.

A lamp illuminated the area of the otherwise dark cellar.  Ezra was asleep on his stomach, his head turned to one side on his folded arms.  Bare from waist up, a linen cloth was draped over his back  -- a sheen of ointment coated the cloth and the room smelled of the medicine.  Josiah sighed deeply, leaning against the railing, feeling weary again.

Ezra twitched in his sleep and seemed to half-wake to find a new position but, with a frustrated sigh, gave up and lay still again.  Vin, sitting beside him, stiffened as the gambler moved about feebly, and sat back as he settled.

Tanner looked up and nodded at the preacher.  He held a finger to his lips and moved silently as Sanchez completed his way down the stairs.  The tracker smiled, clasping Josiah's shoulder, glad to see him on his feet.  He nodded a greeting and then, quiet as a cat, strode up the stairs and left Josiah alone with Ezra in the basement.

Josiah stood for a long minute after Vin silently departed, watching Ezra try to sleep.  He'd jerk and mutter and fall back into a disturbed slumber, unable to remain still for long.  Soft curses escaped his lips as he tried to move without pain and failed.  The preacher sighed again and stepped forward.

"Who goes there?" Ezra called, as Josiah came close.  He blinked his eyes and tried to stretch, but stopped immediately with a quick inhale.  When he turned, he smiled, recognizing the visitor.  "Josiah, it's good to see you.  I didn't realize you were feeling well enough to be up and around again.  I'd stand to greet you properly, but…"  He gestured with one arm.  The movement was awkward and foreshortened as Ezra pulled the arm back under him.  "Mr. Jackson insists that I stay recumbent for a time yet."

Josiah's gaze never left the soaked linen on Standish's back.  He could smell the sweet oil, turpentine and bees wax used to combat burned skin.  Various containers of Nathan's concoctions covered a table near the cot.  The small bottle of laudanum was partially empty.

"Oh God, Ezra, I'm sorry," Josiah stated as he stood beside the southerner.

Ezra tried to turn his head, winced and said, "Please sit down, Mr. Sanchez.  I can't keep my eye on you in that position." 

Josiah quickly settled in the seat beside the bed and said nothing immediately.  He wrung his hands as he stared at Ezra's back.

Standish sighed deeply, noting Josiah's glance.  "Please, Mr. Sanchez, it's not so bad.  The daring Mr. Wilmington was able to rescue me before I was severely burned.  Honestly, the worst part of all this is that I must remain here for the time bein'.  Although I enjoy the coolness, it's decidedly dull.  I have my books of course…"  He gestured to the tomes under the head of the cot.  "And the others of our fine group who have provided me companionship, but I'm dreadfully bored with all of this.  I can't find a decent poker game without new marks to savage."  He paused to cough, reminding Josiah that Ezra had been caught in that smoke, too.

Josiah hadn't responded.  Ezra glanced to him, seeing the guilt on the preacher's face.  The gambler coughed into his hand again and then said, "It was an accident, of course.  There should have been some warning sent with those tapestries, declaring that they couldn't be used near open flame.  Good Lord, what was the manufacturer thinking?  Didn't they realize that a church might have candles?  Perhaps we could track down the gentleman that sold them to you and sue him for damages?"

The southerner looked regretful as he continued, "Mr. Larabee decided to remove the remaining wall hangings.  I'm sorry, Mr. Sanchez.  I know you were fond of them, but I understand that he destroyed them that same night.  I hear he stormed into your church even before the bucket brigade had been totally disbanded in order to dispose of them.  Regardless, the damage to church is quite repairable, I'm assured."  He smiled tiredly.  "You see, the church was saved after all."

Josiah mournfully kept his gaze on the bandage across Ezra's back, seeing the tightness of his shoulders, the obvious exhaustion on his face, and the limited motions of the usually fluid gambler.  He wished with all his heart that he'd never set eyes on those tapestries in the back of the drummer's wagon.

Since Josiah hadn't responded, Ezra continued, "It all turned out well in the end."  He leaned his face against his arms since he was unable to catch Josiah's eye.  "No harm done."

"Damn it, Ezra!" Josiah shouted, jumping to his feet.  He started coughing again, his throat irritated from the interjection.  He leaned against the bedside table.

Ezra looked up at him with concern.  "There's water–" he started.  He tried to sit up to indicate the ewer, but fell back to the cot with an undisguised gasp.

"Look at you!  How can you say there's no harm done?" Josiah continued and coughed, sitting down.  He shook his head in disgust, struggling to breathe.

"Please, Mr. Sanchez, calm yourself.  Mr. Jackson will not be pleased if I allow you to choke."  Ezra closed his eyes again, obviously weary.

Josiah sank down, resting his arms on his knees.  "You could've been killed."

"Yes indeed, many say that Mr. Larabee's ire must not be tried, but it is my belief that it's Mr. Jackson's anger that must be avoided at all costs.  I would thank you if you don't work yourself up while conversing with me.  He'll certainly have my hide (what's left of it) if you were to–"

"You could have been killed by the fire, you fool," Josiah snapped, unable to hide the irritation from his voice.  Why did Ezra insist on clouding everything?

Ezra raised an eyebrow, but didn't open his eyes.  "But I wasn't.  Surely this result is better than the other."  He let his arms drop and his hands rested alongside the cot.  Josiah could see the recent gouges that had been dug in the wooden legs from where hands had tightly clasped it, where nails had bit.  He stared at the scratches and looked at Ezra's usually well-manicured fingernails.

"Why did you go back in there?" Josiah murmured, angry at the whole situation.  "You should've stayed out."

Ezra opened his eyes again, looking up at Josiah.  "It was important," he said softly.

"No," Josiah returned.  "Not at all."

Ezra shook his head against the cot.  "You had me well convinced otherwise.  It seemed to me that you valued the survival of your church above all things.  I must have misheard."

"I was wrong," Josiah declared.

"Ah, I see," Ezra replied, his eyelids drooping.  He changed his position slightly and winced at the small movement and sighed miserably.  His forehead creased in frustration before he gave up and remained as he was.  "And what have you found to surpass your chapel?  It certainly is deserving of rescue and it was obviously of great importance to you.  I couldn't allow it to be destroyed.  I did what I could, but didn't manage much."

Josiah rested his big hand on Ezra's head and leaned close to him, smelling the medicines that Nathan had used.  The gambler blinked as Sanchez touched him and gazed back at him out of the corner of his eye, too tired to do anything else.

"You're far more important than that building," the preacher whispered, close to his ear, rubbing one thumb gently across Ezra's temple.  "I never would have sent you into that place if I'd been able to think straight.  I wouldn't have sacrificed you for it.  If I could do it all over, I'd let the place burn."  His voice was soothing and quiet as he stroked the young man's head.

"But you've put so much time into it, so much effort," Ezra said quietly, his eyes closing again, relaxing almost instantly at the kind touch.  "It's a bastion to your good works."

"I'd burn it myself if it meant keeping you from harm."  Ezra looked back at him in shock and then closed his eyes once more.

God, he must be tired, Sanchez thought.  Those burns must have allowed him little chance of relief and hardly any rest.  He continued to gently rub Ezra's head as the young man fell into a light slumber.

Sleep, Ezra, the preacher thought, Rest.

That startled look would haunt the preacher.  Why did Ezra find it so unbelievable that someone would feel that way?  That someone would be willing to sacrifice for him?  Certainly his mother had made such concessions for him as a child, as any parent would.  Still, Josiah had trouble imagining the glorious Maude making any such sacrifices for young Ezra.

Josiah thought back to another time in his life, thinking that he could have been a wonderful father if things had worked out a little differently.  He always dreamed of being a papa.  He could have been the best.

He knew that Ezra wasn't a good choice to work out his parental urges upon – too damn stubborn, morally vague, and contrary to the point of ridiculousness, but courageous, intelligent, kind and selfless, too.  He went back into that burning building because Josiah had asked him to – because Ezra knew it was important to him.  Who could ask for a more dedicated child?

Ezra sighed in his sleep, tried to move and stopped immediately.  He started to wake again, but Josiah spoke softly, "Sleep, son.  It's all right.  Go back to sleep."  He continued to softly rub the young man's head and Ezra seemed to drop into a deeper sleep.  "That's right.  It's okay."

Forgive me, Josiah prayed silently, keeping a light weight against Ezra's head – just enough to let him know that he was still there.  Forgive me, Lord, for making a mistake.  Let him heal, lessen his pain – pain that is my fault.

His throat still ached and his lungs were still uncomfortable from the smoke, but he'd survive that.  Ezra would survive this, too.  Josiah moved his hand so that he could rest it against Ezra's face and the gambler sighed softly in his sleep.  Josiah smiled, glad that he'd had the opportunity to be here with Ezra.

He had thought his penance lay in the reparation of a church.  He'd sacrificed so much for it, but now it was time he started thinking of the people.  For a church was only a building.  It was the people within it that truly mattered.

Ezra stopped his pointless movements and breathed deeply in his sleep.  Josiah smiled, grateful, and settled into his chair for the evening.

THE END - by NotTasha 

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