A Christmas Redeemed

by The Desperado's Daughter


Disclaimer: The characters and universe of The Magnificent Seven belong to Mirisch, MGM and others. This is a work of fan fiction and I make no money from it.

Rating: PG

Spoilers for Love and Honor, Obsession, Serpent, and probably others

Thanks to Katie for helping me with the letter idea.


Ezra Standish would never be one of them--not really. He wished he understood exactly why, but then that might mean he'd have to look at himself too closely. Better he should just keep playing the role.

Maybe that was it. His colleagues were all . . . authentic. That was the word. For any faults they had, for any demons they wrestled, they were all very real. None of them ever tried to be someone else.

Ezra was *always* someone else. He played the role exquisitely. The quintessential Southern gambler, he was well-spoken, well-versed, impeccably groomed and brilliant at his craft. He bore the periferal skills necessary to carry off the ruse--he could shoot, he could deal, he could con, he could ride and he could even fence were it called for.

Strike that last one as his fencing skills had been proven less than masterful when pitted against a slave no less.

Oh no, he didn't mean that. His eyes filled and his throat grew tight. He didn't mean that about Nathan. Lord, forgive me . . .


"He didn't take anything with him," Vin Tanner sighed. "No wallet, no gun . . . "

"No cards," JD Dunne added.

Buck Wilmington ran his hand along the edge of the door. "No sign that anyone tried to break in."

"No sign of a struggle," Vin said.

The three friends glanced around Ezra's room one more time. The gambler had been missing for a few days. At first, no one had had any reason to notice. He hadn't missed any assigned duty. He had completed his shift watching the jail. The last time anyone had seen him had been two nights ago at the saloon and, Chris had remembered, Ezra had left early to return to his room.

Odd. Ezra never left early--especially if there were a game going on. And there'd been a big one.

And Ezra had been winning. Chris had thought it odd, but didn't think on it for long. He had been getting acquainted with a bottle of red eye at the time.

But when Ezra hadn't shown up for the Christmas party, Chris had remembered it. That was last night. His friends had been looking for him all morning.

"So where the hell is he?" Buck snapped--at no one in particular.

"He could be anywhere," Vin said.

"You reckon somebody's got him?" JD asked.

Vin looked walked over to the window and looked at the gray skies. "We'd have heard by now," he said. "Something must be wrong with him."

"Whaddya mean 'wrong with him'?" Buck asked. "Like he's gone loco?"

Vin looked back at them. "Like maybe he's sick or something."

JD walked over to the window and looked out. "And he could be out there in the cold," he said quietly. Vin reached up and squeezed the kid's shoulder.

"We'll find him," Vin said. "He'll be all right."

Buck seemed to be getting impatient. "Well if he's sick, why didn't he go to Nathan's?"

"Maybe he didn't know he was getting sick when he went out," Vin offered.

"Without his horse?" Buck said.

JD kept looking out the window. "Maybe he was so sick, he didn't know what he was doing." His voice was even softer than it had been before.

"So where the hell is he?" Buck almost shouted. He shook his head and opened the door. Vin followed him out, then noticed JD wasn't coming.


JD turned back from the window, his brows knit in thought. "Vin, if he weren't thinking clearly, you think he might have wandered off to that Chinese railroad site? Maybe he'd go looking for that Chinese girl."

Vin raised his eyebrows. "You know, you might be on to something, kid." He thought for a minute. "Or that mine. He might have gone to find that abandoned mine near the Indian village."

"What if he's not anywhere?" Anybody else might have laughed at JD's question, but not Vin. He squeezed the young man's neck and smiled. "We'll find him. I promise."


He knew it would end like this. He'd be alone. Even if he were in Four Corners in the saloon having caught a slug from a disenchanted gambler, surrounded by his "friends", he'd be alone. These "friends" wouldn't stick around for a minute if they really knew him. And sometimes, being surrounded by friends who didn't know you was the most alone a man could be.

His eyes burned and watered and it was hard for him to distinguish between watering eyes and tears. His heart was weeping, but he was too cold to know if he were actually weeping.

His shivering had become uncontrollable. His teeth chattered. The wind whistled through the cracks in the wooden walls and gaping roof offered precious little shelter. Or was it his own wheezing breath he heard. Good Lord, just let it end. Ezra pulled his red jacket more tightly around himself. Why had he left his overcoat at home? He'd had a reason. He was going to do something . . .

Why couldn't he remember?

Suddenly, his breath caught and he coughed so violently he thought he'd tear a muscle. Why didn't God just take him?

Maybe it was his penance. Maybe this was hell.

Maybe God wouldn't take him . . .

Because God wouldn't have him.


If Vin and Nathan didn't get back here soon, they'd have to start without them. Well where was Buck, for that matter? Chris Larabee looked around the saloon. Nobody had taken off their overcoats. Everytime the door opened, a rush of winter blew in. God, if Ezra were out in this--if he'd *been* out in this--he wouldn't survive. What did a Southerner know about surviving winter on the frontier?

By the looks on everyone's faces, Chris knew they were all thinking the same thing. The Christmas decorations seemed to mock them all. Inez was keeping cups full of hot coffee and cider, and when Chris suggested she could slow down and sit, she'd offered a couple of choice words in Spanish. He knew her anger grew from fear. He knew the feeling well.

Chris' men had looked everywhere, and as they asked people in town about Ezra, the townsfolk had taken up the search. Now they had gathered in the saloon--Mrs. Potter, Mary, the Judge, the telegraph man, Nettie, Casey. There they were, all worried about the gambler--the gambler who started out thinking he could win some money in this little "backwater", the one who had run out on them on their first mission, the one who had nearly lost the town its windfall and then nearly lost his soul in the process.

But something kept Ezra from hurting anybody. Something made Ezra take the higher road. These people genuinely wanted to help him. They had seen something noble in him. Chris smiled. The gambler had turned the corner and become something they all wanted to be . . .

A good person.


Vin pulled his collar up again, and tried to duck his chin further into his coat. This kind of cold was so dangerous. And he hadn't felt great when he and Nathan left Four Corners. But Nathan had seemed to be feeling worse. So why didn't they let someone else go? Simple. Nathan was their only healer and Vin was the best tracker. They weren't about to let a head cold stop them.

Still, the search was wearing them down. They'd started out on horseback, following strange tracks that led . . . not to the old railroad site and not to the mine . . . but rather toward an old lean-to. Vin had shown it to Ezra once when they were tracking a bank robber who had used it as a hideout. Might have been a good one if the criminal had had the good sense to cover his trail. Instead, he led them right to him.

But why would Ezra have gone there? It was too far off the road to be decent shelter from the storm. From where the trail left the road, it would have been easier to return to Four Corners than to seek out that sorry little shack. The only thing Vin could figure was that the gambler had confused it with the mine. Damn lucky for him, it was a day's ride closer to Four Corners than the mine at the Indian village.

They were about an hour's ride from the main road. The trail was becoming difficult for the horses to travel. Once they reached the hills, they had to travel on foot. They left the horses at the bottom of the first hill, the trail becoming too narrow and rocky for them. They'd know in a minute whether or not Ezra had headed up this way. The snow was coming down harder and the tracks were becoming impossible to make out. Vin turned to see how Nathan was doing. The healer was struggling, his steps slower and more difficult. Vin trudged back down and grabbed hold of Nathan's arm. They made their way slowly toward the top, holding each other up as they did. Vin was starting to wonder how they'd get Ezra home if they *did* find him. He was wondering how they'd get home at all.


Buck had a sick feeling--a weight on his heart. On one hand he felt a twinge of guilt searching the gambler's room without his consent. On the other hand, he hated feeling like Ezra might never see his room again. He had a good reason for turning the room upside down. If Ezra were sick, or missing, Buck wanted to find Maude. Josiah had corresponded with her until she went out of the country. Ezra had mentioned that Maude had come into a great deal of money and that she was going on some kind of safari or something. He hadn't sounded too pleased--said it was a wild and dangerous land. He had explained that there was no civilized town on the whole continent of Africa. Buck suspected it might be sour grapes. Why should Maude come into this much money gambling when Ezra worked at it so much harder than she did? But Josiah suspected he was worried about her traveling so far on her own. Deep down, Buck knew Josiah was right.

"Oh come on, Ezra," Buck said to himself. "You and Maude wrote to each other . . . now where would you keep her letters?" Buck rested his hand on the bed and eased himself down to the floor. His knee cracked and he muttered, "I'm getting too old for this." He sighed. He'd looked through the closet, the top drawers, the wardrobe. Now it was time to look at the bottom drawers and under the bed. Buck couldn't imagine anyone looking under his own bed and he certainly didn't relish looking under another man's bed. But getting in touch with Maude was the most important thing just then.

He'd think up a way to apologize to Ezra later.


Someday, he'd have to figure out why he hadn't realized this before.

He was sick.

Ezra laughed at the realization. Of course he was sick. What else could it be? He was so weak. He remembered wandering through town. He'd gotten almost everybody a Christmas gift. But there was one he hadn't gotten yet. What was it? What had he been looking for in town? Was something coming in the mail? Who had he missed?

He was finally getting a little warmer, but he couldn't see the fire in the fireplace. No matter. He tried to think through what he'd gotten for each person--but everything ran together.

Maybe if he could picture each person.

Chris--he'd gotten Chris a couple of beautiful frames. Since that woman had come in and destroyed Chris' pictures of his family, Ezra had taken the torn pictures and had them restored and then framed. Ah, that wouldn't erase the hurt, but it might help Chris find a little peace. And it was one thing that might take away from her victory. At least she couldn't steal the memories.

Ezra smiled to himself. He wanted to see Chris' face when he opened it. It was a nice thought. Ezra was feeling a little warmer and a little sleepier. He wasn't fearful like he had been. Maybe his friends wouldn't want him to be alone.

For Nathan, he'd bought a set of fencing swords. Maybe Nathan could teach him some. What is this, Mr. Standish? Are you becoming humble?

Something was bothering Ezra . . . about Nathan . . . and fencing . . . He pressed his eyes closed and tried to remember. Why did he feel a twinge of guilt? He thought for a few minutes--or a few hours--time was becoming irrelevant.

Oh--his "slave" thought--that's right. That's what he felt bad about. Truth be told, Ezra admired Nathan, more than he'd ever admitted publicly. He hoped Nathan knew that. Ezra knew first hand what kind of life Nathan had lived before he'd been emancipated. Oh, Ezra's people never owned slaves. He chuckled. He didn't have "people" either. Nobody'd ever trace Ezra's pedigree. He and Maude. That was the extent of the Standish family tree. Maude may not have known her father. But give her credit for choosing one of the most revered family names since the founding of the colonies.

Ezra had never owned slaves, but he'd seen them. He'd seen how some were horribly mistreated. But most Southerners, like him, had been too poor to own slaves. Ezra wouldn't have, even if he'd had money to. He didn't believe one man should own another.

And yet, when he'd first met his six comrades, he had not considered Nathan an equal. He had harbored long-held prejudices against an entire race of people.

Now--he still didn't consider Nathan an equal. No, Ezra wasn't worthy of being considered Nathan's equal. Nathan was a better man, and now that Ezra was going to meet his Maker, he needed to admit that. He just wished he'd had a chance to tell his friend before he went.

Ezra had gotten Vin the very latest in navigational gear: a brand new compass and a state of the art surveyor's glass telescope. He'd also gotten him a large container of casting paste. He'd be able to put this substance in a track and make a copy of it in relief. He hoped Vin would be able to use it.

He'd think about everyone else after he slept for a few minutes. He was warmer still. Maybe he was home after all.


JD tapped his foot nervously on the hard floor of the saloon. A sharp glare from Chris Larabee made him stop.

"Where's Buck?" Chris barked.

JD stuttered a moment before he answered. "He's looking in Ezra's room for a way to get in touch with Maude."

Chris' voice softened. "Go get him, would ya?"

JD nodded, and ran out, glad for an excuse to burn off some of the worry energy that was driving him crazy. The biting wind stung his nose and cheeks. With every breath, it seemed like his throat would freeze. He remembered this kind of cold from living in Boston. Only in Boston, he'd have been dressed for it. Even with his coat and scarf on, he wasn't dressed for this weather. Surely Ezra wouldn't be.


"GET UP!!" Vin cried. Nathan was kneeling in the snow.

"Can't. Sick!" Nathan answered. "Go on up without me."

"No way, Nathan. I'll hold you, but you've gotta keep moving."

Nathan tried to stand, but slid back down into the snow. Vin leaned over and pulled his friend's arm over his shoulder. With a yell, he hoisted the healer up. He staggered back a couple of steps then regained his balance.

Both men were winded from the effort. Vin kept the healer's left arm over his shoulder. He hooked his own right arm around Nathan's waist and they hobbled the few feet to the little shack. If they didn't find Ezra there, if Ezra had wandered somewhere else, there wouldn't be enough time to save him from the ravages of the blizzard.

And this was, in fact, a blizzard. How would any of them survive?


God, even Ezra's sock drawer was neat. He sure was a fastidious son of a bitch. (Buck had learned the word "fastidious" from Ezra himself when Buck couldn't find an ideal word to insult Ezra with.) He shook his head and closed the last drawer.

Awkwardly, Buck dropped to his belly on the floor. Why was he creaking around so much? He felt old today. Maybe it was the cold. Buck looked under the bed, and his throat suddenly got tight. There were beautifully wrapped packages filling the space from the headboard about three-quarters of the way down to the footboard.

"Aw, Ezra . . ." Their first Christmas together, Ezra had not gotten a gift for anyone . . . well, he chipped in on the gift they'd gotten JD, it being his first Christmas without his mother. Buck had decided then that Ezra had a bit of a heart. Either that or he figured that Chris Larabee might make good on his threat to make Ezra a soprano if he *didn't* chip in.

The next Christmas, he'd gotten each of them the same thing . . . an imported head cheese. No one knew what it meant, but they thanked him for it anyway. Last Christmas, he'd gotten cleaned out in a high stakes poker game and couldn't buy anyone anything. (His reputation had been restored when Judge Travis had reported that the other player had been arrested for running an illegal gambling racket. That player and his cohorts had cheated in every town from Kansas City to San Francisco.) So this stash of gifts took Buck Wilmington completely by surprise.

Finally, he spotted a crude-looking box. He slid his long arm under the bed to pull it out, and wound up having to slide his head under the bed, too. He reached it before it occurred to him that he could have pulled the bed away from the wall and retrieved it much more easily. He slid back out with it and propped himself up against the bed to study it's contents.


"Why aren't we *doing* something??" Inez asked, eyes blazing--accusing. Chris' expression wasn't what she expected. He didn't snap back at her. She'd have known what to do with that. Instead, his eyes were very sad. He took her hand.

"A few minutes ago, I was ready to mobilize everyone into an all-out search. I knew that would be risky. But the storm is worse and there's not enough light anymore. As it is, we can't leave until morning." The legendary gunman looked at the floor. "And we may wind up looking for Vin and Nathan, too."

As painful as his words were, Inez knew he was right. She reached up with her free hand and touched his face, turning it up to her. "Your men are as resourceful as their leader," she said. "They'll find a way."


He'd liked Josiah Sanchez from the start. There was a certain wit about him--a dry humor that appealed to him. It was that humor that drew Ezra to the preacher. But it was the spiritual core of the man that made him the only one who could re-introduce Ezra to his God.

Somehow, Josiah had had the strength to challenge him. It was Josiah that forced him to look at himself and to decide, once and for all, whether or not he would give in to the demons that dogged him.

Ezra had spent many hours talking with the preacher after having tried to leave with a stash of money that wasn't his. Josiah had told him that the Lord did indeed work in mysterious ways. Even though Ezra believed he would have left Four Corners and never looked back, Josiah believed that God wasn't gonna let that happen. When a life was at stake, Ezra gave up all that money to do the right thing. "Why torture yourself with 'what if's'? Josiah would ask. "Think of it as God giving you another opportunity for redemption. You still had to make the choice."

Ezra had become a stronger man because of Josiah's influence. And he had made his peace with a God he'd never really known before. Ezra liked Josiah's God much better than the one people hid behind in church. Some churches. Ezra finally realized that God had been able to establish some churches that didn't kill and torment in His Name.

Now he remembered what he'd gone into town for. . .


Buck didn't know Ezra owned anything that could be considered "crude". But this funny little box sure was. It looked like a child made it, and sure enough, when Buck turned it upside down, he found E Z R A S. carved in big awkward letters. Buck hadn't really considered that Ezra had ever been a child. He couldn't quite picture it.

He didn't have to.

Buck opened the little latch on top and found a picture glued inside the lid of Ezra when he was a little boy and Maude as a very beautiful young woman.

No wait--it wasn't one picture. It was two. They had been glued side by side to look like the same picture. Maude's looked like a publicity photo. She looked like an actress, wearing a fancy dress and an even fancier hat. Ezra, however, was barefooted. The picture was taken outside. Buck hoped the little boy's face and clothes were dirty because he'd been playing outside. But he doubted it. Ezra looked like a poor child. He had dark circles under his eyes and, even though he was smiling, he looked like he might have been hungry. Buck sighed. Even though he himself had been raised in a brothel, he'd never been hungry and he'd always been well-dressed and clean. This one little picture told so much.

Inside the box were letters--years of correspondence between Maude and Ezra. Buck didn't let himself read any of them. He just thumbed through them to see if there were any current letters.

No such luck. Buck suspected that this little box hadn't been opened in years. It probably moved with Ezra everytime he moved.

A knock on the door. "Buck?"

"Come on in," Buck called.

JD stepped inside the bedroom. "Chris wants you."

"Any news?" Buck asked.

"No . . ." JD squatted beside his friend. "You find anything?"

"I found a lot, but not what we need. There are lots of letters in here but they're all from when he was a kid."

JD ran his fingers over the old wooden lid of the little box. He didn't ask to look inside.

"Where'd you find it?"

"Under the bed."

"Want me to put that back?"

Buck nodded and scooted over.

"Where was it?"

"On the other side by the footboard."

JD took the box from his friend and stood up. "Can't I just pull the bed out?"

Buck laughed, but JD didn't get it.


At first, Vin didn't even see him. There was very little light and it was hard to distinguish anything in the dismal shed. Then he saw the sleeve. Then a hand that was very nearly gray.

"Oh, God . . ." Vin said. "Ezra . . . " Vin pulled off his heavy gloves and stepped carefully over the rubble and snow and touched the hand.

A groan.

"Ezra? Come on, now. Wake up for me." Vin brushed the snow from his friend's hair and face. "Ezra?"

Vin started pulling Ezra out. "Nathan! Come here. We found him!" Vin slipped his hand up to the gambler's throat. He couldn't find a pulse. . .



"Move," JD commanded Buck.

Buck was too tired and frustrated to get into it with the kid. He didn't even feel like teasing him. He just stood up and helped JD move the bed. JD pulled the footboard . . .

And it came off in his hand.

"Damn it, JD!" Buck hissed. "We ain't even supposed to be in here."

"I didn't mean to . . ." JD said, as Buck jerked the ancient footboard from the young man's grasp.

"Let's just fix it," Buck said. But JD gripped his arm.

"Wait," JD said. He was looking at . . . something

"We ain't got time."

"Just wait!" the kid repeated, and he slipped between the footboard and the end of the bed.

"What are you . . ."

JD's voice stayed soft. "Set it down for a second, will you?" The young man sat on the floor a lot more easily than Buck had a few minutes before. Buck set the footboard on the floor and rested it against his leg. He tried to see what the kid was looking at.

JD reached under the frame, but he couldn't get at whatever it was he had found. He lay down on his back and slid under the bed a little ways. Reaching into his back pocket, he pulled out his little pocketknife and started working.

"What is it, son?"

"A really old piece of cardboard, or a card or something. Looks like its been up in here for a hundred years. Bring me a lamp down here, would ya?"

"Yeah." Buck leaned the footboard against the wall and took the oil lamp off of the table top.

"Set it down here by me."

"Be careful," Buck said, picturing JD elbowing the lamp and burning the boarding house down.

JD didn't answer. He just kept working until he loosened the item. Finally, he pulled out what appeared to be a folder or something. "Got it," he said, breathlessly. Buck put the lamp back on the bedside table and then pulled JD up to his feet. Neither said anything as they sat side by side on Ezra's bed.

JD was holding a brown folder with a flap that folded over it. A black ribbon had been tied around it and the color had faded into straight marks across the front and back of the folder. There were water marks that had faded the surface in places. It was sealed.

When JD read the front, his breath caught in his throat:

"For my little boy Ezra."


"Folks, we can't do anything tonight, not with the storm like it is. Why don't you go on home, and we'll try this in the morning."

Chris Larabee looked . . . defeated somehow. Mrs. Potter stood up. "Well, Sir, if it's all the same to you, I think I'll just stay for a while. When your boys do get home, they'll need tending to. Everybody will need a hot meal and I think that's too much for you and Miss Inez."

"The newspaper's already gone out," Mary added. "I think I'll stay, too." Chris smiled his thanks.

Miss Nettie argued that she wouldn't dare try to go home when it's this bad out. It seemed that every other resident of Four Corners had some reason to stay in the saloon that night.

Although the evening was shrouded with worry, the little town drew strength from the fact that they were facing the crisis together. Mary looked around the room and realized for the first time that the men who had been hired to protect the town had also galvinized it. And maybe the town had given something back to the men--men who had, each for his own reasons, become loners. Now they had become part of something, and she figured, part of each other.

What other reason could there be for this outpouring of concern for a man who, four years ago, had come to Four Corners intending to swindle as many of them as he could.

Yet here they were--waiting, worrying, and ready to help.


JD fingered the document holder. "What do you think it is?"

"Could be anything." Buck took the item from JD. "It ain't been opened, so Ezra probably doesn't even know it exists."

JD got up and pulled the little box of letters out from where he'd put it under the bed. He opened it, and gasped when he saw the picture of Ezra when he was a little boy. He looked up at Buck, a question in his eyes.

A question Buck couldn't answer.

JD looked in the box again and he pulled out a letter. He held it up next to the folder Buck had. He pointed to the lettering on the folder.

"That ain't Maude's writing," JD said.

Buck waited a long time before speaking. "Then . . . it's gotta be . . . "

". . . Ezra's father's." JD's voice finished his friend's thought. It was little more than a whisper. "What should we do?"

Buck looked around the room. "Well, first thing is to clean this place up. I've made one hell of a mess. Then . . ."

"I mean about the folder."

"I know what you mean." Buck tapped it while he thought about it. After a moment, he handed it to JD. "Hang on to it. We'll show it to Ezra when he gets home." JD's expression was clouded. Buck slapped him on the back. "C'mon, kid. Let's get to work."

"I'll do it. You've gotta get to the saloon. Chris really wants you to be there."

Buck nodded, and pulled on his muffler and gloves. JD looked at him intently. "I think . . . he needs you, Buck."

"I know. I'm going. You get back as soon as you can."

"I will." JD looked back over his shoulder. "And you might get Josiah to come up and help us put the footboard back on. I don't think Ezra'd be too happy to find out we broke his bed."

Buck suddenly felt the rush of laughter--the kind that helps a man get through a difficult situation. "Son, I wouldn't want to have to explain to Ezra that we broke his bed."

The humor was lost on the boy.

And Buck was glad.


Hours passed. Clumps of people were scattered throughout the saloon. Some sat at tables, some at the bar. Casey was curled up on the floor asleep. JD's coat swallowed her, and served as a warm blanket. JD sat close by -- but not *too* close, not with Miss Nettie keeping a sharp eye on them. JD was staring into the fire. Inez was asleep at a table. Mary sat talking softly to the judge and Josiah. There was a makeshift bed in front of the hearth. It would be the warmest place for Ezra.

Buck and Chris sat together at a table. They had talked about nothing for a long time. It was evident to the others in the room that Chris had relaxed as soon as Buck arrived. In times of trouble, nothing was so calming as an old friend.

The clock had just chimed three when the saloon doors suddenly swung open and Vin and Nathan staggered in, dragging a near-dead Ezra Standish between them.

"Sweet Jesus," Mrs. Potter exclaimed and the room erupted into action. With a nod to Chris, Vin collapsed, leaving Nathan to catch the gambler. Exhausted, Nathan began sliding slowly to the ground with Ezra, when Josiah and Chris reached them.

"Easy," Josiah said, whether to Nathan or Chris, it didn't matter. Nathan was powerless to help and Chris was already easing Ezra up into his arms. He looked over his shoulder at Buck. "See to Vin," he said.

"Here," Miss Nettie directed and she led Chris to the bed they'd made near the hearth.

"Not . . . too close," Nathan instructed weakly. "Heat . . . shock." Josiah was half-carrying the healer to the hearth as well. Nathan kept talking. "Frostbite . . . be careful."

"We're taking good care of him, Mr. Jackson," Nettie said. She and Chris started stripping Ezra of his soaked, near frozen clothes . . . well, Vin's clothes partly. The tracker had given Ezra his overcoat and gloves. The sight of Ezra's hands caused Nettie to gasp. "Dear Lord," she said softly, and she started rubbing each of his hands between hers. "Casey!" she called and her sleepy niece was at her side immediately. Nettie showed her how to tend to his hands, then she started pulling off his boots and socks.

Buck immediately knelt beside Vin. The tracker's face was lined with pain . . . or was it worry. Vin grabbed Buck's arm. "Don't let him die, Buck," his voice cracked.

"He ain't gonna die," Buck said, trying to sound convincing, but a tear trailed down the tracker's face. Buck was pulling the soaked clothes off of his friend. "C'mon, Junior, quit fretting about it. You're tired and you've been freezing your ass--" Buck's jaw dropped when he realized Inez was helping him . "Beg your pardon, ma'am." He turned back to Vin and corrected himself. "Freezing your backside off." Vin actually smiled slightly. "Now that's better," Buck said. He looked over at Ezra. "Looks like they're taking real good care of him. He'll be winning money offa you in no time."

JD had gotten out of the way of the group working on Ezra. Instead, he knelt beside Nathan. "How you doing?" the kid asked.

"Better," the healer answered, and he started trying to sit up.

"Stay there," JD and Josiah said at the same time.

"Can I do anything?" JD asked whoever could tell him.

Nettie was working to warm Ezra's feet. "Get as many blankets as you can and warm them by the fire at the boarding house."

"Yes ma'am," JD said. He squeezed Nathan's shoulder. "I'm so glad you're back. You found him."

"I. . . hope . . . we weren't . . . too . . . late."

Nettie looked down at the gambler, whose lips were gray-blue and whose skin looked like a corpse's.

And she lied. "He's already getting his color back. He'll be all right, Mr. Jackson."

JD looked at Ezra and felt his heart plummet. The gambler almost didn't look real. JD looked at Miss Nettie in the eye. He could read the truth there, but she shook her head, no. Don't tell Nathan any different. JD squeezed his eyes closed and bit his lip to hide the emotion he felt. Then he nodded back.

He went over to where Buck and Inez were helping Vin. He knelt beside the sharpshooter. "Hey, Vin," he said softly. Vin opened his mouth, but JD interrupted him before he could say anything. "Don't try to talk. It's ok."


"He'll be all right."

Buck looked up quickly. How did the kid know that? One look at the boy's red eyes said it all. He was telling a kind lie. Buck's own eyes stung.

JD reached out and rested his hand on Vin's shoulder. "You did a good thing out there--giving him your coat and all," he said, then he rose to his feet again. He looked at Buck. "I'll be back with warm blankets soon."


Nathan watched Nettie and Chris working on Ezra. At first he was hoping they could save his hands and feet. Now he just hoped they could save his life. Josiah kept trying to get him to settle down but Nathan would have none of it.

Clearly, the process of raising Ezra's body temperature was excruciating to the gambler. He was moaning as they warmed him and he cried out when they started treating the frostbite on his hands.

"Easy now," Nathan cautioned. For some reason, he felt very protective of the gambler. "You gotta . . . go really slow." Just talking was exhausting.

"Whatever made him sick seems to have run its course," Nettie said.

"It's a miracle he survived," Nathan said.

"Nathan?" Everyone was shocked to hear Ezra's weak voice.

"Just rest, Ezra. You're going to be fine."

Ezra struggled to open his eyes. "Nathan . . . I'm . . . sorry."

"Don't talk, now," Nathan soothed. What was Ezra sorry for?

"Please," Ezra cried. "Sorry . . . misjudged . . . you."

The effort was too much and Ezra lost consciousness again.

Nathan leaned over his friend. He could feel Josiah's strong hands supporting him. "No need to say any sorries to me," Nathan said. "You're . . . my good friend."

Once he'd said it, Nathan let Josiah help him lay back down. Then he felt Josiah's big hand press against his forehead. "You got fever, Nathan."

"I'm sick," Nathan said softly. "Don't make anything of it."

"I won't," Joaish said. "Vin?"

"He's got it, too."

The preacher sighed and looked back at Buck and Inez helping Vin, and over at Nettie and Chris helping Ezra. It was tedious work. Everyone else was doing whatever they could to help. It was going to be a long night.


A day and a night went by with Ezra barely hanging on.

Christmas Eve. It sure didn't feel like it. JD remembered another Christmas Eve, sitting by a sickbed. He worried about his friends anytime they were hurt or sick, but when someone was sick on Christmas Eve, there was a sense of foreboding.

JD didn't realize he was tapping his foot until Vin reached his hand over and grabbed his knee.

"Sorry . . ." JD mumbled, and he shifted around so he could sit on his foot. Vin chuckled. "It's all right, kid."

"How do you feel?" JD asked, since Vin was awake and all.

"I'm all right."

"Didn't answer my question."

"OK, I feel lousy."

"That's better . . . oh, not that you feel lousy, but that you're telling me the truth."

"I knew what you meant." Vin looked over at Nathan. "How is he?"

"Fever's still high. He's breathing better, though."

"That's good." Vin looked back at JD. He watched him for a moment.

"What?" JD asked finally, wondering if he had something in his teeth or something.

"How are you?"

"Me? Oh, I'm fine. Hell, I'm not the one who's sick."

"Ain't much of a Christmas for you, is it?"

JD couldn't believe this. Why did Vin care whether or not he was having a good Christmas? "Doesn't matter about Christmas. You and Nathan got Ezra back here alive. That's all that counts."

JD felt really uncomfortable about this conversation. He was bringing Vin down--making him worry. He didn't know how he was doing it, but he must be doing something wrong. Maybe he should go. "Vin, I'm sorry. Let me get Buck. He'll cheer you up. I didn't mean to make you worry about anything." JD stood up, but Vin grabbed his arm.

"Wait, JD. You didn't do anything. Sit down. I want to talk."

JD shrugged his shoulders and sat back down. "Oh," he muttered and he remembered to sit on his foot so it wouldn't tap.

"I know you're worried about Ezra, but he's gonna be all right."

"I know."

"Me and Nathan are OK."

"I know."

"So . . . what's going on with you?"


The tracker grinned. "And they say I'm quiet."

JD had to chuckle. Usually no one could get a word in edgewise once JD got going. But now . . . well, there was too much in his head. He didn't know where to start. Maybe he should wait. Maybe he should keep it a secret.

Vin started to pull himself up in the bed. "Help me sit up, would ya?"

"You think that's a good idea?"

"I'm gonna go nuts if I lay flat on my back for another minute," Vin said. JD hooked an arm through Vin's and pulled him all the way up.

And Vin started to fall forward. JD caught him, then sat on the bed in front of him.

"Whoa . . . " Vin cried as a wave of . . . dizziness? overwhelmed him. He pressed his head against JD's shoulder.

"Easy," JD said, keeping his voice gentle. Instinctively, he cupped the back of his friend's head. With his other hand, he rubbed Vin's back. It was soaked with sweat. JD was alarmed.

"Are you dizzy?"

"No." Vin's voice was muffled against JD's shirt. "My head is pounding."

"Want me to get Miss Nettie?"

Vin waited before answering. After a long moment, the tracker raised his head. "No. It's letting up." He sat like that for a minute. Satisfied that Vin wasn't going to fall out of bed or anything, JD stacked a bunch of pillows behind his friend. Vin finally slumped back into the mountain of down.

"Thanks, kid."

"You're welcome." Now that Vin had gotten distracted, he might not push JD into talking. That meant JD had a little more time to decide what to do. He helped Vin change his wet shirt. That had to feel better.

"Don't try to get out of bed without help, OK?" JD said.

"Yessir," Vin answered with a salute. It took JD a second to realize that Vin was teasing him. Once he did, though, he grinned and saluted back.


The saloon didn't look like a saloon. It didn't look right somehow. It was, on one hand, decidedly festive. But it was, on the other hand, a makeshift hospital.

How strange! The smells of Christmas were prominent--hot cider and gingerbread, ham, fresh baked bread . . . perhaps he was dreaming. The smells mingled with linament, alcohol and salves. There were beautiful garlands and wreaths and decorations. There were bandages and beds.

It seemed so odd. . .

He looked at the tall man asleep in the chair by the bed. Buck Wilmington? Why? Buck didn't really like him. But there he was. And Ezra knew vaguely that Buck had been there a long time.

What day is it?

"Christmas Day,"

Was that Mr. Larabee? Ezra hadn't realized he'd asked the question aloud.

"Christmas," Ezra repeated. Damn. What had he forgotten? He needed to do something. He'd better get up.

"Whoa there," Chris said and an uncharacteristically gentle hand pushed him back into the bed. "You can't get up yet."

"Why not?"

"You've been sick and you've hurt your hands and feet."



Ezra tried to lift his hand, but he could only turn it a little. Chris lifted Ezra's arm and showed him the bandages on his hands.

"Thank the Lord," Ezra said. "My feet?"

"They'll be all right, but it'll take a while for them to heal." Chris sat in the chair on the other side of the bed. Buck never stirred. "Ezra, you must have a guardian angel watching over you. You were so lucky."

"Seems that I have six," Ezra said, and he felt a smile tug at his mouth.

Chris looked around the saloon at the sleeping peacekeepers--Buck in the chair, Nathan and Vin in the beds, Josiah in a chair between the two of them and JD on the floor, leaning back on Josiah's legs.

"You surely do, Ezra. You surely do."


By Christmas night, Nathan and Vin were able to move to their own rooms. Vin had improved enough to have Christmas dinner in the saloon with the peacekeepers and their friends. Ezra was asleep by the hearth.

"How is he?" Vin asked, as he walked over and knelt beside the bed they'd set up there.

"He's better," Chris said.

"He's still sleeping an awful lot, isn't he?"

"That's part of the healing," Nettie said. She came over and put her arm around Vin. "He's gonna make it. It's just gonna take time." Vin nodded, standing up. He hugged her.

"How are you, Miss Nettie," he asked.

She touched his face and looked down at Ezra. "Grateful," she answered simply. "I'm just mighty grateful."

He smiled and looked around the room. A few folks were already seated at the long table. The saloon bore little resemblance to their drinking establishment. It looked more like a huge dining hall--well, a huge dining hall with a bar. Inez and Casey were bustling around the table and in and out of the kitchen. Josiah was trying to help, but Inez would slap his hand. Chris was drinking . . . something in a mug. Vin suspected that it wasn't coffee or hot chocolate. He went over to sit by him and when Chris set down the mug, he glanced in it. He grinned and leaned down by Chris' ear.

"Red eye?" Vin asked.

"What? You don't think it's festive?"

Vin chuckled. "I might wanna join in the festivities myself." Chris raised his mug to Inez and nodded toward Vin. She smiled, looking like she was in on some kind of conspiracy or something. Vin smiled back.

Evidently, Buck saw what was going on because he raised his mug in a toast to Chris, and he winked at Vin.

Vin could account for almost everyone. Nathan would be in his room. Everybody else was here. Everyone except for JD, who was conspicuously absent.

"Where's the kid?" he asked.

Inez arrived with a mug for Vin. "He took dinner up to Nathan," she said. "He didn't want him to have to have Christmas dinner alone."

"He's a sweet kid," Vin observed.

Buck laughed. "Don't let him hear you say that. You'll spoil his 'tough outlaw' image." Then Buck sighed and shook his head. "You're right, though. He has a good heart."

"Seems Christmas is mighty hard on the boy," Nettie said.

"Well, this hadn't exactly been a normal Christmas," Chris said. "This one's been hard on everybody."

Vin nodded. "I say we don't give each other gifts until we can do it with Ezra."

"I agree," Chris said.

Buck and the others concurred.

All but one.

"I will not be responsible for disrupting everyone's holiday any more than I already have."

"Ezra??" Buck cried and he jumped up and ran over to the pallet by the hearth. He knelt beside the gambler, Chris and Josiah right on his heels. Vin followed slowly.

"I can't believe I'm glad to hear you talking again!" Buck said.

"I believe that is what they refer to as a 'back-handed compliment.' Thank you, Mr. Wilmington."

Buck looked around at his friends. "Yeah, whatever." Vin touched Buck's shoulder and everyone backed away so he could see Ezra. He wobbled a bit.

"Easy there, Cowboy," Chris said, gripping his arm firmly. Buck slid the chair up for him and they both helped him sit down. Nettie got around to Ezra's other side and looked into his eyes.

"Hello, Mrs. Wells," Ezra said.

"And hello to you. How do you feel?"

"I . . . can't tell yet."

"Well, when you've been awake longer you'll figure it out."

"How long have I been asleep?"

Chris answered."About three days. You woke up a couple of times. Do you remember?"

"No . . . "

"You may have been asleep longer than that," Chris said. "We don't know how long you were out before they found you."

Ezra looked around at everyone, and his eyes fell on Vin. "You . . . you and Nathan . . . "

"Yeah," Vin said. God, it was good to see Ezra awake. Suddenly, Vin felt a lump in his throat. "You look good, Ezra."

Ezra started to say something, but he didn't. Instead, he reached out awkwardly toward Vin, but couldn't touch him with his hand bandaged like it was. Vin leaned forward and held his friend's wrist with both hands. Ezra's green eyes filled and for the first time since they'd met, Vin saw tears roll down the gambler's face.

Ezra tried to speak again, but his voice was thick with emotion. "Thank you . . . Mr. Tanner."

"You're welcome," Vin grinned, "Mr. Standish." He eased Ezra's hand back to the bed.

Ezra frowned. "You don't look well."

"Seems like you and Nathan and me got sick from something."

Ezra's brows knit together. "Is Nathan . . . ?"

"He's in his room," Chris said. "He's getting better. JD took some dinner up to him."

Ezra kept looking at Vin. "You were sick and you went out looking for me anyway? In a blizzard?"

Vin was embarrassed. "I wasn't that sick--thought I had a cold. And Nathan was too pig-headed to tell me he was sick. But he was afraid you'd need help and he'd be the only one who'd know what to do."

An unfamiliar expression crossed Ezra's face. Was it shock? Sadness? "He's a good man," Ezra said, finally.

"He is," Josiah said. "And he'll be really glad to see you."

"We all are," Casey said.

"Well, hello, Miss Wells," the gambler said. Vin could see a hint of Ezra's old charm. "How nice to awaken to such a vision of loveliness."

Casey looked around at everyone who'd gathered around the bed. She'd looked both pleased and bashful at his praise.

"Why, thank you, Mr. Standish."

"So how *do* you feel?" Josiah asked, and a wry smile crossed his face. "Can you tell yet?"

"I'm very . . . tired."

"All right, all right, everyone leave him alone," Inez whisked out from the kitchen. "Go back to your place at the table. Dinner is ready and Seņor Standish needs to rest."

Reluctantly, his friends moved away from the hearthside bed. Well, Vin didn't jump up right away. He was slow moving still. Besides, it was worth it to watch Ezra's expression when Inez leaned over the gambler . . .

And kissed him like she really knew how.


Nathan and JD had a quiet dinner--a nice dinner. Afterwards, JD had taken the dirty dishes and stacked them on the dresser, then he sat back down in the chair next to him. It seemed to Nathan like JD was glad not to have to be around a lot of people. Nathan was glad for the company. It was a beautiful Christmas to him. His friends were alive and they were going to be just fine. Nathan was a free man. Folks may not realize that he thought about that, but he did. He'd spent many Christmases as someone's property. It was hard to celebrate Christmas when you were afraid--when you didn't know if you'd ever spend another Christmas with your family. And he remembered the first Christmas without them. Once he was free, he decided to celebrate the holiday as fully as he could, in honor of his people.

"Are you OK?"

It took Nathan for the question to cut through his thoughts. He looked up at the concerned eyes of his young friend.

"I'm . . . wonderful, JD." Nathan smiled, and that seemed to puzzle the young man even more.

"Why?" A simple question. An honest one. And JD must have thought it sounded silly because he immediately blushed. "I didn't mean it to sound like that. I just thought . . . I mean, 'wonderful'. Here you are--sick in bed at Christmas. You sure you're 'wonderful'?"

"Son, a few days ago, we didn't know if Ezra was alive or dead. Now we know he's gonna be fine--we all are. And that whole town waited in the saloon to be sure Ezra and Vin and me got home safe. I got a warm bed and a full belly and I got a family here."


Nathan reached out to grab the boy's arm. "Right here, JD." He loosened his hold and rested his hand on JD's shoulder. "Friends are the family we choose. And the seven of us? I'd say we've chosen right well. So yeah, son. I'm wonderful."

Nathan wasn't expecting what happened next, but JD's eyes glistened and suddenly tears streamed down his face. The young man didn't say anything. Nathan didn't either, but he pulled JD toward him. The boy let him and wound up kneeling by the bed, his face hidden behind folded arms, sobbing silently. Utterly silently.

And Nathan just stroked his hair while JD let go of his pain.


New Year's Eve. And while the rest of the world was preparing to ring in the New Year, the peacekeepers of Four Corners were gathered in Ezra Standish's room exchanging Christmas gifts. Ezra was still bedridden, but much better. He was beginning to use his hands again, even though walking would be another week away at least.

This year, the gifts were more meaningful. The men knew each other . . . and had come to treasure each other. Even Chris, who had not really participated in the last few celebrations, had not only bought gifts but obviously had thought about them way in advance of the holiday season.

Ezra vaguely remembered focusing on each of these friends during his ordeal as a way to stay alert. And his friends' reactions to his gifts . . . exceeded his expectations. Vin was so overwhelmed with his surveyor's equiptment, he could hardly speak.

"Purely self-serving, I assure you," the gambler said. "If you'd have had these before I wandered off, you and Nathan might have gotten to me a day earlier."

Vin and Nathan laughed heartily at that.

Buck was as excited about Nathan's swords as Nathan was, but Ezra's request that Nathan teach him seemed to mean more to the healer than the gift itself.

Ezra held his breath as Chris opened his gifts. Perhaps he'd taken too great an initiative having those pictures restored.

But when he saw the expression on their leader's face--the joy and the relief--Ezra realized, maybe for the first time in his life, the true joy of giving.

"Thank you," was all Chris had said. But it said volumes.

The rest of the ritual went on for another hour. Vin had faded pretty quickly and had fallen asleep on the floor leaning against the wall. Nathan had sat down next to him--to help him--and within ten minutes, he'd fallen asleep as well. Ezra realized he wasn't gonna be able to stay awake either. It was still three hours before midnight. Finally, Chris started herding the men out, but at Ezra's request, Josiah remained. The others all thanked him and each other then Vin and Nathan headed to their rooms to fall into bed. Buck and Chris headed to the saloon. And JD said he might come down later. Right now he was sleepy.


Josiah had given Ezra a set of games--pinocle, backgammon, and of course, a full compliment of cards and poker chips. Ezra, however, had asked to give Josiah his gift in private.

Josiah sat in the big leather chair beside Ezra's bed and waited.

"Josiah," Ezra began, finding his voice to be less than responsive. "You have given me something I didn't even know was there." Ezra swallowed hard. He leaned over to the bedside table, and pulled out the drawer. "You've given me . . ." Oh why was this so hard to say. "You've given me . . . a soul."

Ezra pulled out a leather purse and held it for a moment--as though he could "feel" the essence of what was inside. "I have had . . . a good year. I've had a lucrative year, Mr. Sanchez, and I've been setting aside a portion of my earnings," he looked up and grinned at the preacher, "well, more often, my 'winnings'." Josiah smiled back. Ezra placed the purse in his friend's hands. "I figure I have a lot of years to make up for. This should let you finish your church."

Josiah's jaw dropped, and he turned the purse over in his hand. "Ezra, you don't need . . ."

"You're right, Josiah. I don't need to give money to the church to save my soul. My soul was taken care of the day I got shot and Mary didn't. And I don't need the money to live well. I have what I need. This," Ezra smiled broadly ". . . is a gift. I had been trying to get to the bank to retrieve the funds when . . . I seemed to wander off in search of a mine. This is what I was looking for."

"You haven't been to the bank since you've been back."

"That is why I enlisted the help of Judge Travis. Turns out that a New Year's Eve exchange of gifts was good timing after all."

Josiah appeared dumbfounded. "I don't know what to say."

"You don't need to say anything, Josiah."

The preacher stood up and extended his big hand to Ezra.

As they shook hands, Ezra knew he'd done the right thing.

And what's more, he felt good about it.


This was it. JD Dunne was damn near quaking in his boots. His heart pounded and his mouth got dry. Josiah tried talking to him, but JD didn't have time for that. The preacher wouldn't let up.

"Later!" JD said, more harshly than he intended. Then he shook his head. "I'm sorry, Josiah. Please, could we talk . . ."

"Later," Josiah finished for him with a smile. "It's all right. Just don't carry that weight for too long, John Dunne."

"I won't."

And he meant it. Josiah walked off and JD realized that it was time. He couldn't put it off any longer.

He knocked on the door. "Ezra?"

"Come in."

JD took a hesitant step into the gambler's room.

"Is it too late?" JD asked, wishing for a moment he could postpone this.

"No, just the shank of the evening." Ezra was in a better mood than JD had seen him -- well . . . forever. "Have a seat, Mr. Dunne."

JD pulled the big leather chair over to the bed, and sat down.

"Are you nervous about something?" Ezra asked him.

"What? Why?"

Ezra pointed at his knee, that was bouncing furiously.

"Oh, sorry." Embarrassed, JD sat on his foot . . . again.

"You're not worried about breaking my bed, are you?" Ezra asked--a twinkle in his eye.

Oh shit! "You know about that?"

"Your partner in crime already told me about it."

Damn it, Buck. You could have told me you'd told him. "I'm sorry, Ezra."

"It's all right, son. I know why you 'ransacked' my room. I'm just sorry your search for my mother's whereabouts was fruitless."

JD cut his eyes up at Ezra.

Ezra raised an eyebrow. "Well, all right, I'm *not* sorry you didn't get in touch with her. No need for her to cut her wild safari short just because her only son is missing in a blizzard."

He sure sounded bitter. Oh God, JD didn't want to be here.

"Did Buck tell you anything else?"

"Only that you found something tucked in the bedframe." Ezra's voice lost the bitterness. "He didn't know why you insisted on bringing it to me yourself--without him."

Oh no, it was happening. JD felt like his heart would explode, it was beating so fast. He kept his eyes trained on the floor.

"JD, when I first got this bedroom suite from Maude's uncle, I found all sorts of things in the backs of drawers. Nothing more than a little memo book, a handkerchief, an old confederate dollar. It's all right. What did you find?"

JD felt his eyes sting, and he couldn't move. Funny, just a moment before, he couldn't *stop* moving. Ezra sat up on the side of the bed. "What's wrong, son?"

JD finally looked up. His voice quivered. "I opened it. God, I'm so sorry. Buck said not to, but I did. I opened it."

Ezra looked surprised. "Buck went through all my personal belongings. It seemed . . . necessary at the time. Why did you open it?"

"I read the front," JD started to explain, but his words . . . his reasoning sounded so weak. "I was . . . afraid . . ."

"Afraid of what?"

Oh, JD couldn't sit and talk about this. He jumped up and started pacing. "When I was about . . . eleven or twelve," he took a big breath and went on. "Somebody came by and claimed he was my father. My mother got a folder like the one I found in your bed. It had papers saying she had to . . . give me over to him."

JD didn't look at Ezra. All he could do was stand by the dresser facing the wall just to get this story out.

"What happened then, JD?"

"The judge . . . made me go."

JD felt a weight on his shoulder and jumped.

"Easy, son," Ezra said.

"You shouldn't be up. You're not supposed to walk . . . "

"Well," Ezra let a hint of humor color his voice. "I *do* walk down the hall to the privvy."

JD still looked shocked--fearful . . .

"It's all right, JD. I'm being careful. It doesn't hurt." Well, that was a little lie, but at the moment, his pain wasn't as great as his friend's.

"I'm sorry, Ezra. I wasn't gonna tell you all this. I haven't told . . . anybody . . . about this."

"You don't have to tell me, either. It's all right that you opened my folder, JD. You don't need to dredge all of this up if you don't want . . ."

"I have to. I have to . . . get it out of my brain . . . out of my nightmares."

Ezra's voice was soft. "Good Lord, son. What did he do to you?"

"He kept me away from my mother for a year. He lied to us--he wasn't my father. He was a f***ing judge, Ezra. He could do anything he wanted. The law couldn't touch him." JD felt a dry laugh escape his lips. "He just needed a . . . slave boy." Ezra reached up and, using his wrist, turned JD's face toward him. Seeing such anguish in his friend's young face, Ezra felt an emotion that he used to squelch--an emotion that he'd become quite familiar with, of late.


"Did he hurt you?" Ezra asked.

"He kept me from my mama."

Ezra took the boy's shoulder and turned him so they were facing each other fully. He rested his wrists on each of the boy's shoulders and spoke more firmly, "Did he hurt you, son?"

Evidently, JD hadn't let himself remember for years. But now it all seemed to come flooding back. And JD told Ezra all of it--fists, black eyes, broken bones, working sun-up to sundown, trying to hide, trying to run away.

And JD wept in the arms of his friend.


Ezra looked at the boy curled up asleep in the big leather chair. Neither had noticed the coming of the New Year. They had been talking . . . about mothers and fathers, childhood, Christmas, friends, secrets, sins . . .

And redemption.

Ezra looked at the pocket watch he had laid on the bedside table. He squinted at the watchface--and that made him feel old. 4:30. Hm. Well, no sense in getting JD up just to have him go to his room. Ezra put the watch back, then he lay back on the mountain of pillows he kept on his bed. He studied the ceiling and let his bandaged hand rest on the rumpled page that had been liberated from the bedframe where it had been lodged nearly thirty years ago.

But its words meant more to him now than they ever could have before.

JD had worried so over that folder. Initially, he had been horrified by it--for it appeared so similar to one he and his mother had been given some fifteen years ago. The one JD had received had declared that the woman who had raised him had lied to him all his life. It had said that a judge was his father and his mother had stolen him away. And it required him to leave his mother to go live with a man he'd never met.

And on the cover it read "For my son, John."

Ezra squeezed his eyes closed as he thought of his young friend trying to decide whether or not to open the folder which read so similarly "For my little boy, Ezra." JD had been so afraid it would contain something horrible--something that would ruin Ezra's already fragile relationship with his mother.

And if Ezra had been dying . . .

Well, JD hadn't been willing to take that chance. So he opened it -- a folder intended for only Ezra and Maude.

Once he had opened it, JD realized he had learned an incredible truth about Ezra that Ezra himself didn't know. Maude probably didn't either. The young man had carried the guilt of knowing he had invaded their privacy when Buck had already advised him not to. Ezra looked back over at the boy, sleeping peacefully. He doubted that JD had gotten any sleep over the past week. Between the worry for his friends, the guilt over opening the folder and the resurrection of his own childhood demons, that young man had had one hell of a week. Well, come tomorrow, JD would tell Buck about his year of living with the judge and he'd begin to put that chapter of his childhood behind him for good.

"Sleep well, my friend," Ezra whispered, and he turned over to read the letter one more time. Maybe he'd let his "brothers" read it tomorrow. For right now, though, he'd savor the experience all by himself. He scooted the letter across the mattress toward the light so he could see the extraordinary handwriting . . .

Of his father.

My dear Ezra,

Oh, how I wish I could be there with you to see you turn five. I hope this letter arrives a day before so I can be the first one to wish you a happy birthday. I miss you so much, son, and when I'm well enough, I'm gonna hop on a stage or maybe even a train and ride straight through 'til I get to you. Then we'll never miss another birthday.

Your aunt Millie says you are growing tall. I can just see you. At night before I go to sleep, I look at your picture. Then I imagine you growing up. You're becoming quite a little man, I'm sure of it. Of course, sometimes I like to think of you as a little boy. I'm afraid for you to grow up too fast because I don't want to miss anything.

I write you every week, Ezra, every single week. I want you to know that. But sometimes, the letter comes back to me. Your mama has to travel so much and I don't always know where you are. I don't mind saying that that scares me, son. Oh, I know your mama leaves you in good hands or she takes you with her, but I still worry that I might lose track of you somehow. Now, there's not much your daddy is afraid of, but he's afraid when he doesn't know how to find you. Your mama doesn't like to write, but your aunt Millie writes everytime she has any news about you

This time I figured out a way to be sure you get my letter. If you were here to see me, you'd see a twinkle in my eye. The mailman might lose a letter, or send it back if he can't find you. But NOBODY is gonna send back a bed. I figured I could put the letter in the bed frame, and someone'd find it when they put it together.

Now this is a mighty big bed for a little boy, but you'll grow into it. This was my bed when I was a young man. And it was your granddaddy's before that. I know he'd be proud for you to have it. I sure am.

Oh, Ezra, there's never been a father prouder of a son than I am of you. I only wish I could be there with you every day. And when I get well, I'll be there, and we'll catch up with each other. You can tell me all your stories and show me your toys and I'll teach you everything I can about being a man.

I love you, son. I've loved you since the first time I held you in my arms. And there wasn't a sadder day in my life than the day I had to leave you to go fight. You couldn't possibly remember that. I'm glad you can't remember that sadness. But I wish you could remember me.

No matter. We'll get to know each other again. And we'll ride and rope and have a big time. Until then, you be a good boy. You don't have to make me proud of you, Ezra. I already am.

I'll keep writing to you every week and when you learn how, you write me back. But maybe I'll be home in time to teach you myself.

I will see you as soon as I can. Have a very happy birthday!

All my love, Daddy


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