RATING: PG... for some swearing and violence
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 November 2001 Magnificent 7 Challenge, offered by Bern: Start a story with -- Ezra Standish pressed the gun harder against the suspect's left temple. An evil smile crossed his features as he pulled the trigger. He knew the chamber was empty, he had checked it himself. The sound of a gunshot exploded around the room. Blood splattered across Ezra's face. He stood in shock, staring down at the man he had just killed."Ezra!" Vin yelled at him, "What in the hell have you done?" – it took some thinking but I got it figured out
FEEDBACK: Yes please comments are greatly appreciated.
APPEARS IN: Fanzine Devine Intervention #2
DATE: November 3, 2001

A Stone, Turned
By NotTasha...who gathers no moss

Part 1:

Ezra Standish pressed the gun harder against the man's left temple. An evil smile crossed his features as he pulled the trigger. He knew the chamber was empty, he had checked it himself.  The sound of a gunshot exploded around the room. Blood splattered across Ezra's face. He stood in shock, staring down at the man he had just killed.

"Ezra!" Vin yelled at him, "What in the hell have you done?"

Ezra looked up, stunned to find himself in the saloon with the tracker looking at him quizzically.  Tanner chuckled and added, "You got beer all over yerself."

The gambler jumped to his feet, suddenly aware of the dropped mug and the brew that was spreading across the table and dripping off the edges.  His heart pounded as he touched his face, finding it wet from the splatter that had accompanied the drop.  It had seemed so much like blood a second ago -- it had all seemed so real.  Why had this memory come back to him now?  Calm down, he told himself.  Relax.  You're not there... you're not. You can't be.  It was too long ago... too far away.   And he took a deep breath, trying to slow the gallop of his heart.

He'd tried for years to forget it -- to push the memory away and not let it ever be thought of again.  God, he’d hoped it was long buried. Something must have brought it to his attention; something must have made him remember.

Ezra scanned the room, his eyes finally lighting on the black man at the table near the bar.  His heart sunk as he recognized him -- must have seen him earlier without even realizing it.  It couldn't be? How did he be here?  Ezra looked away casually, trying not to draw any further attention to himself, but that was about to become impossible.

"Madre de Dios!"  Inez shouted as she stormed out from behind the bar.  "What do you think you're doin', eh?  You dirty up my clean place?"  Still she tossed a clean towel to Ezra to allow him to tidy up before she started mopping up the mess.

"My apologies, Miss Recilios," Standish muttered, daubing the splattered beer from his face and trying to dry his shirtfront.

"You, I think, of all of them would be the last to spill his drink.  You, I think, would have better manners than that, eh?"

"You okay, Ez?" Vin asked, concerned about gambler's sudden clumsiness, seeing a pale shade in the gambler's complexion.

"Yes, quite all right, Mr. Tanner.  I'm afraid I'm just behind schedule," Ezra murmured.  "I should be at the jail to take up my shift.  I must have grown inattentive in my haste.  If you'll forgive me, I'll be going."  And he handed the towel to Vin, turned quickly and exited the building, hoping that the man at the table hadn't recognized him.

He'd almost made it out the door when Josiah caught up to him, grabbing his arm to keep him from getting any farther.  "Ezra," the preacher intoned softly.  "What's wrong?"

"Wrong?" Ezra started, keeping his voice low.  "Why, nothing at all, Mr. Sanchez.  I'm simply running late.  Mr. Wilmington will be dismayed if he's unable to join the festivities.  Besides, I promised Mr. Dunne I'd look over the latest batch of wanted posters.  He's forever thinking it will prove to be a worthwhile expenditure of my time."  He shook his head with a wistful smile.

"Do you have a problem with that man over there?"  Sanchez inquired softly.

"Now, why should I be troubled by that gentlemen?" Ezra didn’t look at the man as he spoke – he couldn’t.

"You seemed to go a little white when you laid eyes on him." Josiah held Standish tightly as he observed the usually calm and collected conman.  Ezra was sweating and anxious.  “What did he do to you, Ezra?” he asked quietly, concerned.

Ezra’s gaze shot up to meet his and a look of confusion crossed his face.  "Nothing!  He's done absolutely nothing to me.  He's far too decent a man for such charges."

"Ezra," Josiah growled between his teeth, not letting loose his grip.  "If something's wrong, you'd better tell us.  I don't want to get caught in a gunfight because of something you're not saying."

“He seems to be happy enough at this moment and I wouldn’t want to destroy that good mood. ” Ezra added, “He, I can assure you, would prefer to never lay eyes on me again.  I should be away before he notices the ruckus you’re causing.” He tried to pull away without increasing the disturbance.  “Please, Josiah.”

The plaintive sound of Ezra’s voice caught Josiah, but his concern didn’t allow him to loosen his hold.  “How do you know him?”

The gambler sighed, and spoke in a low voice, "It was long in the past. There are things that are best never mentioned again. There are stones that are best left unturned."

"Ezra," Josiah lowered his voice to match Ezra’s.  "What's the matter?  Why don't you want to be near him?"

Ezra regarded Sanchez, his eyes bright as he fought with his thoughts. He dipped his head suddenly, his face twisted in a pained grimace. "I killed his son," he whispered.  "I held a gun to his head as he begged for mercy, and then I blew his brains out as that man watched.  The boy, he cried and I…” Ezra stopped speaking abruptly.  “Now please, let me go."  And he jerked his arm out of Josiah's grip.

Part 2:

"What was that all about?"  Nathan asked Josiah as Vin helped Inez mop up the mess.

Josiah returned to the bar, watching the saloonkeeper fume and the tracker quietly assist.  "It seems that our brother has some history with that gentleman." He nodded to the table near them, where the black man sat, watching the show as well. Sanchez mulled over what Ezra had told him, not quite able to comprehend it yet.

Nathan snorted.  "He knows that man?  I’d think he’d have nothing to do with a black man.”

Josiah startled and turned to his friend.  "Now, Nathan," he voiced, "You know it's not like that. I've never seen Ezra treat a man poorly solely for the color of his skin."

Nathan sighed and nodded.  "Yeah, I know."  He rubbed the back of his neck, troubled that he had once again jumped to a conclusion without much evidence.  Their first meeting had found Ezra caught in a life-threatening situation, trapped by the angry losers and then by this group of unknowns who knew his secret about the blanks.  Nathan had since decided that Ezra had been trying to find a means out of the situation when he'd refused to ride with a black man.  There'd been some true emotion behind his words, but the gambler had apologized - in his own way.  Jackson realized that he learn to get beyond that -- to remember that what Ezra said and what he actually felt were often to different things.  "What was he so upset about?  He say anythin' about it?  Anythin' you could believe?"

Believe? the preacher thought -- no, not really.  Josiah couldn't believe that Ezra had killed that man's son so cold-bloodedly.  Put a gun to a boy's head and shot him?  No.  That couldn't be right.  Well, there was one way to find out for certain and that was to talk to this man.  Josiah strode to the table, followed by Nathan.

The black stranger looked up suddenly, seeing the big preacher looming over him.  A look of fear crossed his face until he saw Nathan and then he smiled. "Good evening," he greeted, and nodded.  "Would you care to join me?"  He was an elderly gentleman, his dark skin lined with age and long days in the sun.  His large hands, thick from hard work, lay on the table before him.

"Thank you.  Don't mind if we do," Nathan replied, pulling out a chair and sitting.

"Josiah Sanchez." Josiah offered his hand as he sat down.  "And this is Nathan Jackson."

"Cornell Williamson," the man replied, accepting the handshake and Nathan's as well.  "You from around here?"

"We live here," Nathan replied.  "We're the law in Four Corners."

Cornell's eyes widened.  "You're a lawman?  Lordy, I never thought I'd see the day."   He chuckled.  "So the two of you look after this place?  Must keep you plenty busy."

"There's seven of us all together.  There's also Vin," Josiah inclined his head toward the tracker who had just finished helping Inez and then headed over to his table to rejoin his companions.  "And JD and Chris."  He indicated the men at Vin's table.  The doors flew open and a mustachioed cowboy entered.  "And that would be Buck."

"And Ezra, too," Nathan added.  "He's the one who made the mess."  Josiah waited for the man's response.

"Ezra?"  Cornell uttered, smiling thoughtfully.  "My Lord, I haven't heard that name since…" and he shook his head and lost the smile, as if wanting to rid himself of the thoughts that came to him.  Josiah sat forward, noting his reaction.

"You know him?" Nathan prodded.

"It couldn't be the same one…" Cornell's voice trailed off again.  He continued on, muttering to himself.  "Ezra is a Bible name, isn't it?  I haven't heard of another person with it, but there must be many.  The man in that blue jacket couldn’t be the one I knew -- he looks nothing like Owen. But then again, the Ezra I knew didn't really look like him either."

"Owen?" Josiah prompted.

"Master Lucas Owen," Cornell spat out.  "The Ezra I knew was kin to that man.  The boy came to Owen's  plantation." He rubbed his chin in thought.  "Lord, that man could be the boy.  Had the same color hair I recollect.  Maybe he looked a little like that boy.  What color are his eyes then?"

"Green," Josiah supplied.

"His mother? Do you know her name?"

"Maude," Nathan said, leaving off the last name because there was no telling if ‘Standish’ was her actual name or not.

"Oh Lord," the man sighed.  "It's him."  He rested his elbows on the table, and cradled his head in his hands.  He shuddered and was silent for a minute, staring at the top of the table.  Then, he seemed to pull himself together as he said, "The memories tied up with that boy are a bit to hard to take sometimes.  I can still see him in the fields as our overseer.  I can see him…” He closed his eyes tightly as if a sudden headache had caught him.

"So you knew him when he was a kid?" Nathan probed.  "Was he on the plantation where you were…?" The healer couldn't complete the phrase.

The miserable look left Cornell's face as he said, "The boy showed up one day.  I couldn't guess how old he was.  Might have been eight or nine by his size.  Could 'ave been a grown man by the way he talked.  Lindy figured he was about eleven, so maybe that was right. First time I lit eyes on him was when he was sent to oversee us in the field."

Cornell sat back as he continued his tale, drawing on old memories from a place he'd long ago tried to forget.

"There were a whole mess of us on the Owen Plantation, for it was a big place. And it was usually one of Master Owen's hired men that looked over us  -- Mr. Conway or Mr. Greaves.  They were evil men who treated us like animals, and ran us 'til we were tired to the bone.  We dreaded the days, took rest in the evenings, and slept like the dead at night from pure exhaustion."

"Then one day this boy came dragging an old chair out into the field.  Never seen him before, but he come among us  without fear as if he was forever used to new things.  He come back for a bucket of water to slack our thirst.  Finally, he come back with the rifle that was kept close. Then he told us all to behave ourselves and he sat back on that chair to start to reading. The boy read most of that day, hardly lookin' over the top of his book.  I think he was in a different place when he was readin'.  He'd stop t'move the chair and bucket and gun as we went further down the rows, making sure that none of us was thirsty as we went along. Never once did he raise his voice to us and he learned all our names straight off and always called us by them, respectful-like -- not like Mr. Conway, Mr. Greaves or Master Owen who hardly knew who we were after so many years."

"He was always so neat and clean, concerned about the way he looked, even if nobody but a mess of slaves took any notice of him.  Sometimes Lindy or Lizzy would tell him how nice he looked, and he always looked happier after those words."

"Lil worked in the house.  She told me that this boy was nephew to Master Owen.  Seems his mother sent him there for a spell.  Master Owen never knew how to handle a child since he and his missus never could have a baby.  Mostly he just ordered the boy to keep silent, to keep still, and obey him.  Lil said that neither Master Owen or his missus wanted him there, but they had to take him on.  They never let the boy forget that either.

"He was careful with his books.  He'd read 'em aloud to us, and it was nice way to pass the time.   Many times he'd hush up real sudden-like and then Master Owen or one of this hired men would appear.  The book would be disappeared into one of the boy’s pockets and he'd be standin' on that chair with that rifle held tight as if he meant to use it if any of us flinched the wrong way.  Sometimes he'd start speakin' to us mad-like, orderin' us about.  When Master Owen or the others went away, he'd apologize and sit back as he'd been before.  It was a strange thing to get an apology and it made us all feel a little like we were people and not just slaves in a field."

"He'd been with us all summer and we all got to be happy with him there.  He was decent to us, and it was good to hear him readin'. Once though, he wasn't fast enough in hiding that book and didn't see Master Owen until it was too late."

"The man slapped that boy so hard he was knocked clean off that chair, and hit him again when he started spinnin' a tale about why he had that book.  We couldn't do anythin' but watch as he got dragged off to the house.  All the time Master Owen was yellin' curses at that child for what he'd done, as if readin' to the darkies was the worst sin a man could commit."

"My boy, Charlie, wanted to pick up that book, but I told him to leave it where it lay because Master Owen would be even angrier if one of us was found with it.  Mr. Greaves come out in a minute to watch us and he had Lizzy move the chair to where it was shady so he wouldn't have to stay in the sun.  He sat there under the trees and didn't refill the bucket with water when it went empty.  The book, he threw in the rubbish fire."

Lil told me that the boy was sent to the train station that night, his mouth still bleeding from Master Owen's hand and half his face swollen up.  Said they sent him to is mother, stuck him on a train goin' somewhere, all by his lonesome."

Nathan rubbed his chin as he leaned over the table, suddenly having a new picture of Ezra.  "I always thought he'd grown up next to his mother.  I figured he'd lived in nice hotels and in saloons all his life.  I didn't think she'd send him off like that."

Josiah sighed, "He never has been easy to figure out.  Never has said much of anything about his past." The preacher imaged the lonely child: bruised and alone, riding a train toward a place where his mother might-or-might-not be.  No wonder, Josiah thought as he concentrated on that image. No wonder he's so slow to trust, so quick to put himself apart. Josiah hoped that someone on that train had been kind to him.  Maybe there was an old lady who gave him some comfort.  Did anyone make sure he’d had something to eat?  Maybe someone had spoken kindly to him and made sure he arrived all right?

Cornell continued, "When I was a boy, my mother was sold from me." Nathan nodded sadly at that news, remembering his own pain, knowing that so many similar stories existed.  "When I growed and found my wife, Lindy and I were able to keep together, along with our two young'uns.  We were a family, and I always feared that some day we might be split apart and I could lose any of them.  I would ‘ave kept them safe from all harm if I could.  I would ‘ave…" His voice choked as he remembered, and he had to pause before he could continue.  "But Ezra was free, and his mother, too.  I still can't figure why she'd send him back to his uncle after the way he was treated before."

"He came back?"  Nathan asked in disbelief.

Cornell nodded and continued with his tale, "After about a year, Ezra come back, a bit taller.  Lindy thinks maybe he was twelve or so -- younger than my Charlie.  I'd grown watchful of my boy.  He was near a man, and I feared he might be sold away if I wasn't careful.  I did everything I could to keep that boy, keep him quiet and well behaved, but Charlie had a mind of his own.  He wanted his freedom and I feared for him every day.

Ezra came back, and soon he was sitting in the fields on that chair with water and that rifle but no book.  We were all happy to see him because it meant that we'd be treated well again, but he was awful quiet at first.  He didn't say much to us, just sat in the chair, staring off into the distance, but soon enough, little Lizzy asked him if he had brought us something to read.

I wanted to hush the child, but that boy said that he didn't need a book anymore because he'd put a whole mess of poems to memory and could do without book readin' them.  So he told those poems from his memory as we worked.  It put him in mind of something else -- so he wouldn't have to think about where he was.  We all liked the pretty words and told him how nice it was.  He started smilin' more then.

Charlie asked him if he liked St. Louis and he told us that he didn't stay there more than a few days.  He never did say if his mama was there or not.  He took another train to Georgia where he went to live with another of his relations for a while.  He'd looked after the man's young'uns because the mama had died. He stayed until that man got himself married again and didn't need Ezra nomore.

Charlie wanted to ask him why he'd come back to this place, but I got him to stop his talking about that.  And so we worked in that field with that boy watching over us, talking poetry sometimes to make the work less hard.  We were happy for a time, I think   -- as happy as we could be under Master Owen.

But Charlie kept takin' about runnin' off.  He tried to get me and my Lindy and Lizzy to go with him.  But Lindy, his mama, was ailing and I wouldn't leave her.  I begged my boy to stay with us, but he got an urge to get away from Master Owen and when he saw a chance, he took it.

Master Owen left a wallet on the back steps one day. I think he was plannin' to take it with him to the town, but in changin' his clothes it got left and Charlie swooped it up and hid it in the shack, tellin' that he'd wait until dark and be gone.  He figured that money might buy him some help when he was runnin'.  Master Owen recollected where he'd left that money and when he saw it was gone, he went to get the hired men to search the shacks.  My Charlie, he took that hid money and ran to a place where he thought he could stay until they stopped their looking.  He couldn't go far while it was still light.

Master Owen had us all stand in front of our shacks and he seen right away that Charlie wasn't there.  He started to searching and couldn't find him noplace, so he took up my little Lizzy and held her down, sayin' he'd shoot the child if Charlie wasn't found. He had Greaves hold down Lindy, and Conway took Lola, who was just as young as Lizzy and as close as a kin to me.  He said he'd shoot those 'worthless' women folk if Charlie didn't come forward.  But Charlie was well hid and couldn't hear.  He would 'ave come if he knew his mama and those girls were in trouble, but he was out of earshot.

Owen was a cruel man with no sense."  Cornell furrowed his brow.  "He'd take the lives of those three women, take the loss of workers without a blink, just to find the one who made a fool of him.  Their lives alone were worth savin', but that heartless man didn't even seem to care about the cost of…" he choked again, "…replacin' them with new slaves."

His hands formed fists for a moment, and then he straightened them, pressing his palms onto the table surface.  "It was Ezra that stepped forward and said he knew where Charlie had hid. He seemed reluctant to speak, but Lizzy and Lola were cryin' so.  Lindy just looked back at me with her eyes wide and scared.  Ezra showed the way.  Me and some of the other menfolk followed along.  The boy looked ailin' when he led us all to the tool shack on the far side of the barn, and that's where my Charlie was tucked in. Ezra called to him as we came close, but Charlie stayed quiet as a rabbit.  He was wild and scared as Owen hauled him out from under the bench.  Owen, he pulled his pistol from his belt…" Cornell trailed of again, his eyes unseeing, focusing on something that happened long ago.

"Charlie was so scared… he was so scared.  My boy, when he saw that gun, he went sorta limp. Ezra begged Owen not kill Charlie, tellin' Owen that my boy would be good, promisin' that he'd watch out to make sure of it. I wanted to cry out for Charlie, but there was Mr. Greaves with his rifle, and Mr. Conway, too.  They told us to hush when we started to shoutin' so the only sound to be heard was the cries of that boy, Ezra, 'cause my son was like half-dead with fear and couldn't say nothing himself.

Owen looked at his kin and said that he was a good-for-nothing boy, unworthy of his blood and brainless for his cryin' about that slave-boy…my child. Owen said he was just goin' to put a fear into my boy.

He turned his back toward Charlie and he emptied out his pistol into his hand.   When he saw all those bullets come out, Ezra settled down a bit thinkin' that Owen was just goin' t'scare my boy.  But, I looked at Ezra and saw hate in that child's eyes as he watched his uncle, the handful of bullets, and that gun still clenched in his hand.

Owen held my son down and said, 'You're suspected of thievery, boy!  Of takin' what's mine and of runnin' off."  

"Owen put the gun to Charlie's head and made him beg.  Made him pledge to behave, to be a good 'boy', to obey his every word.  Owen told Charlie he'd kill his mother if he misbehaved again, kill his sister and put a bullet through his brain just for fun if he ever tried to run again, if he ever thought of stealing or running.

My boy cried and begged and promised.  He promised Master Owen everything and Owen pulled the trigger."

Cornell stopped talking.  He grasped his empty mug in his hands and looked up to Nathan.  "I seen him remove the bullets from that fancy gun.  I did!  But he hadn't.  I thought he'd only meant to put a powerful fear into my boy.  But he'd done it as a joke to his nephew.  There was one left in!  One bullet was left!"  He wiped his eyes on his shirtsleeve.  "I saw my boy die because he wanted to be free."

Nathan and Josiah sat in stunned silence and finally the healer stretched out one arm and laid his hand on top of Cornell's.  The man gathered his strength and continued with his tale.

"Owen was smilin' over the body. Blood and …parts of his head was splattered all over that little shack. He was laughin' at that boy Ezra, because he was so terror-struck, so sick.  Greaves and Conway held their rifles at us.  I fell to my knees, not able to do anything but cry.  It was that boy, Ezra, that finally moved.  His face was all covered with my boy's blood -- he'd been standin' so close, thinkin' that nothing would happen.  He wanted to be there to help my Charlie after Owen finished his game.

Ezra jumped at Owen like a wild cat.  The master couldn’t get an upper hand at first. The boy was small, but he was strong and angry and drove that big man to the ground.

Cornell clenched his hands in anger, his face darkening with the memories. "I wanted to be the one who was beating on Owen -- but I had Lizzy and Lindy to think of, Lola and all the others too.  I'd be as dead as my boy if I stepped forward; they would hurt what kin I had left, so I had to let that child do my fighting.

Greaves and Conway forced us back as that skinny boy beat back his uncle for what he'd done. Owen was scared.  I'd seen it in his eyes as the boy fought him, But Owen was bigger and stronger and it only took a little time for him to get the upper hand.  He hurt that boy. He said things to that child that no man should ever have to hear, told him how worthless his life was, how not a soul in the world would want him, how he never should ‘ave been born.  He hit that boy as he spoke his poison.  By the time he was done, the boy was layin' on the ground just outside the shack the held my boy.  Covered in his own blood and Charlie's, too.

He was so small.  How could a man hurt a boy like that?"  Cornell looked up at Josiah.  "How could a man hurt a child, his own kin?  How could he kill my boy?"

Josiah couldn't find his voice immediately.  "I don't know," he finally managed to croak out.  "Lord, I hope I never understand such things."

"The boy was hardly movin', and we were told to keep clear.  The lady of the house sent for the doctor, who took him away, promised to look after him.  I hear that his mama came for him after some days passed and we never did see him again."

Neither Josiah nor Nathan spoke, so Cornell added, "He kept sayin' he was sorry -- that he killed my boy.  He kept blamin' himself for the evil of his uncle."

Josiah stood suddenly and headed toward the door.

"Josiah?" Nathan called after him as he placed his arm around Cornell's shoulders to comfort the distraught man.

"Gotta go talk to him," Josiah answered and headed out the door.

"You know he won’t want to talk about this,” Nathan said.  “He ain’t gonna like it.”

Josiah shook his head sharply.  “There are stones, Nathan, that need to be turned.”  And he stepped out of the saloon, leaving puzzled faces behind him.

Part 3:

Damn him, Josiah thought as he strode down the boardwalk to the jail. For how long had Ezra had the events screwed up in his mind?  The guilt of revealing Charlie's hiding place had grown into the guilt of killing him, of holding a gun to his head and shooting the boy in cold blood.  My God, that must have torn at him.  Sick with guilt, so close to that terrible execution, beaten, cursed and left behind, just a child, Ezra had misremembered how it all happened.  Josiah slowed his pace as he approached the jail and then slowly opened the door.

Ezra was sitting at the desk, looking through a pile of wanted posters. He looked up with red eyes as Josiah came in. Ezra said nothing at first, lowering his head and continuing to scrutinize the posters in front of him.  Then, he smiled good-naturedly and said, "This man owes me twenty dollars." He pointed to one image. "If they catch him, I want that money back." He indicated another and added, "They'll never catch Pierre Ruddy if they keep sayin' he's six feet tall.  He's not an inch beyond five and a half and there's no mention of his nose."  He chuckled.  "Ruddy has the largest nose I've ever seen on a man.  I recall an elephant whose acquaintance I made…"

"You didn’t shoot that boy," Josiah blurted out.  "It wasn't you that shot him."

Ezra sat back.  His eyes fixed on the preacher, his semblance of jocularity gone.  "Don't tell me what I know, Mr. Sanchez.  I was there and I recall the events vividly.  I murdered that child in cold blood."

"YOU were a child," Josiah said quietly.  "It was your uncle that did it.  Owen hurt you.  It's no wonder you don't remember it right."

Ezra stood and backed away from the desk and Josiah.  "I know what I did, Josiah," he hissed.  "I robbed that man of his son."  He flung out his arm, pointing a finger toward the saloon.  "That man had nothing…nothing but his family and I killed his son!  How could I do such a thing?  I killed him for no reason beyond the fact that he wanted his freedom!  How could I kill him?  How could I do such a thing?"

"It wasn't you," Josiah insisted. "It was your uncle."

"But I remember!"  Ezra stood firm, looking like a man ready to attack.  "I held that gun.  I removed the bullets, but I didn't.  I must have left one in."  He shook his head in frustration, unable to resolve that problem with his memory. "Then I killed Charlie after making him beg! I made get down on his knees and plead before I shot him down. I smiled as I did it, as I pulled the trigger and killed him.  I murdered that poor boy, coldly, heartlessly."

"No!" Cornell's voice boomed from the doorway. Ezra jerked toward the shout and reached for his weapon. With an agonized look, he realized who was at the door and pulled his hand from his gun and stepped back again.

"No, Ezra, it was Owen," Cornell insisted.  "Owen is the one that did it."

Ezra turned a confused look from Josiah to Cornell to Nathan who'd come in behind the man.  "But I remember it all," he whispered.  "It's all so clear, as if it happened yesterday.  How could I ever forget what happened?  You can't confuse me on what I know!"

Cornell moved forward, cautiously yet sure, like a man who was well acquainted with how to deal with flighty horses and mismanaged dogs.  "But you are confused, child.  It wasn't you.  I swear, it was your uncle's doin'."

"But I gave up his hiding place…I…"

"Owen would have killed the womenfolk if you hadn't,” Cornell admitted, reaching Ezra and taking hold of his arm.  "Charlie would have come if he'd known.  He would have come right away.  He wouldn't want any hurt to come to them."  He looked at the grown man and remembered the boy, bright and decent and smiling; treating them as if they were people, always speaking politely, apologizing; reading; letting them rest and making sure that they always had enough to eat and drink as they worked.  He remembered those clear green eyes and his kindness.  He remembered plainly his bravery and his resolve to fight even when the odds were so severely stacked against him.  This was that boy, grown now to a man.  He hadn't changed really -- not much at all.

"I killed him," Ezra's voice was tense, his face twisting in an old pain.  "I remember…" He tried to lift his arms in frustration, but Cornell had pulled him forward in an embrace.

"Oh, Lord," Cornell cried, tightening his arms around Standish.  "Lord, it wasn't you.  It was that evil man who is no kin to you.  I know, child, I was there.  I saw it all.  I saw what he did to you for bein' brave enough to face him.  I saw it all 'cause I did nothing."  His comforting embrace became clawing as he started to cry, holding onto Ezra more for his own support than for Ezra's.  "He had no right to have done this to you, to have led you to remember it all wrong.  He had no right to cause so much pain."

"I remember…" Ezra said softly.

"I watched him put that gun to Charlie's head and I did nothing.  You were the one who stepped forward.  You put your hand on my boy's shoulder, tryin' to help him.  You were the one who screamed and caught my boy as he fell.  I stood silent as you hit that bastard.  I let a boy do my work.  I let a boy get hurt for bein' the only one man enough to fight.  I let a boy lay in the dirt because I couldn't…"

"Hush now," Ezra muttered, looking over Cornell's shoulder at Josiah and Nathan, wondering how much they knew.  “There was nothing you could do.  They had their guns, and you had your wife and daughter.”  The scenes the old man presented suddenly started making sense to the southerner.  From his disjointed memory, a truer one took its place.  He could remember it all now, watching his uncle hold the pistol to Charlie's head.  Charlie pleading and crying, cringing away from the gun as Uncle Lucas Owen smiled, the sound of the shot - a loud pop and the spray of blood and brain that followed.  Ezra flinched at the memory.  Charlie falling to the ground lifeless, and then the blinding rage overtook him.  It had blinded him to everything until this moment.

"Not a thing you could have done."  Ezra patted Cornell's back as he spoke quietly.  "We both know what would have come from it if you had."

The big man was bawling, clutching at Ezra as he wished he could have clutched at his son.  "My boy's gone. If I'd only stood up to that hateful man sooner…"

"It's over now.  It's done," Ezra tried to comfort the former slave, blinking his eyes against the tears that were coming again – tears of relief, of grief, of compassion.  He couldn’t say, ‘it’s alright,’ because it never would be all right – no, nothing about this was right.

"My boy," Cornell whispered, clinging to Ezra. "My boy…" He could almost imagine it, hugging his grown son, alive and well and free. He buried his head against the gambler's neck and pretended that Ezra was his Charlie, that his boy could still laugh and smile and hold onto him as he once had.  "Charlie, oh Charlie."

He could imagine his boy, could almost see him.  He heard the voice of another say, "It's done now.  It's done.  Hush."

Suddenly Cornell pulled away from the southerner. It seemed so real.  But this man wasn't Charlie.  The boy was gone, long gone.  "I'm sorry.  I usually don’t..." Cornell patted Ezra on the shoulder, trying to hide the wet marks left by tears.  "I'm sorry…"

"No reason to be sorry.  You have every right," Ezra said as he straightened his jacket.  He ducked his head to try and disguise his moist eyes and not to look embarrassed about Nathan and Josiah's observance of the proceedings.

Nathan moved closer and laid his hand on Cornell's arm.  "Ain't nothin' wrong," the healer said softly.  "Not a thing wrong with a few tears."  He said the words as comfort for Cornell and for Ezra as well, who wouldn't look up.

Josiah watched in silence, as Cornell rubbed at his eyes and Ezra continued to tug at his jacket and became concerned with buffing his brass buttons.  How many times had those who should have protected him, betrayed him? How many had hurt and abandoned him?

Cornell returned his attention to Ezra, watching his fastidious motions and remembering the child who sat so straight in that chair, keeping his clothing clean. He smiled at the memory, seeing that boy plainly now in this grown man -- how had he missed it before?

"For all the pain Owen caused me and my family, I’m sorry to learn you have suffered so much for it, too."  Cornell sighed.  "Believe me, you saved my family.  You saved Lindy and Lizzy's lives.  Charlie would have killed himself if he'd learned his mama and little sister died because of him.  I couldn't have survived losing all of them.  You did the right thing when you showed them where my boy was hid."

Ezra shook his head mournfully, never able to accept that fact.

"And you gave me the bravery to face that man when it came time. I remembered how he limped for weeks after you attacked him, how his face was bruised and one eye swollen shut. Those healed in time, but his ear was always torn from where it was bit.  We’d all look at that torn ear and get a bit braver.  I kept thinking that if a boy could do that on his own, what could a whole mess of people do, when the time came…" And Cornell grew silent, remembering a dark and never mentioned time.

Ezra nodded.  He'd heard about what happened to his uncle during the war and had celebrated silently when the news reached him.  He looked into Cornell's eyes and knew that this quiet and gentle man had learned fury.

"It's best not to talk of such.  Some things must be left unmentioned," Ezra said quietly, knowing that nothing would go beyond that room, but one must always be careful.

"It's good to see you again, Ezra," Cornell stated.  "So good to see you."  He clasped Ezra's arm, amazed that the boy had grown up and was standing before him.  "I'm so glad I came."

"As am I," Ezra admitted, feeling the relief of that old sin removed from him.  "As am I."

Part 4:

Josiah stood beside Ezra as they watched the stagecoach depart. "I hope his journey is pleasant," Ezra said quietly.

"Should be," Josiah answered. "It's a good time of year for it."

"Indeed," Ezra replied.  "He shall be back with his lovely wife in no time.   I'm glad to have heard that they are happily settled, and their lovely daughter is married and doing well."  Ezra cocked his head at Josiah.  "For all they've been through, they deserve this better life."

"Yeah," Josiah conceded.  "There are those that deserve better than they got.  It's good to see them gaining some reward.  It's nice to know that they're happy."

"Wisely spoken," Ezra remarked. "Now, if you forgive me, I have a game waiting for me."  And he smiled and walked casually to the saloon.

Josiah watched him go, regarding that smile, wondering about the conman. Ezra had thought he'd been a cold-hearted killer for nearly twenty years.  How could a man carry that knowledge for so long?  Why had no one set him straight?  Was it because no one ever talked of the incident or because no one ever bothered to comfort the boy, to assure him of his innocence?

As Ezra walked away, Josiah noticed no difference in the man's movement. The ultimate conman, he'd been able to hide this sorry knowledge without a trace of it showing.  You'd think there'd be some change in him, Josiah thought, now that this weight has been removed.

One of the Potter children ran up to Ezra and he squatted before the boy to listen to whatever excited words young Paul had to offer.  Ezra nodded and smiled at the child and said a word or two before releasing the boy to whatever new thing had caught his attention. Ezra straightened and watched the boy go, before returning to his original path.  He was graceful, as always, walking with a slight kick in his step.

Josiah smiled when Ezra pushed open the batwing doors. Even from where Sanchez stood, he could hear Buck and JD cheerfully call to the gambler and Ezra's spirited reply. The gambler rubbed his hands together as he stepped into the saloon and the doors flapped closed behind him.

Ezra had lived for so long thinking he'd done a terrible thing, when all he'd tried to do was protect women and children, to comfort another child, to make decisions that were well beyond the oldest sage.  He had long carried this act of bravery with him as a terrible burden, as a false memory of villainy.

Ezra had said that some stones were best left unturned.  Well, perhaps that was true in some cases.  But there were times when a burden must be lifted, to expose what's underneath to the light of day. Some stones must be turned.

THE END - by NotTasha

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