Retribution and Redemption, part seven


Disclaimers, etc. in part 1

Vin looked at the scene in the courtyard, anger building as he watched Ezra being half carried, half dragged to the rock. He started shaking as the fury overtook him when Peter Nichols plans for his friend became blindingly clear. Without thinking Vin cocked his gun and readied himself. No way was Ezra going to have to go through this cruel torture, it looked like he had suffered enough.

Vin sighted along his Winchester, he only had one chance or he might hit his friend as well as his enemy. He saw the axe rise, blade gleaming in the late afternoon sun. It was now or never. The axe descended and Vin gently squeezed the trigger.

Everyone below heard the gun go off, and it seemed the world stood still. Then, impossibly, the descending axe handle splintered in half, the axe head falling harmlessly to the ground. The Nichols brothers and their hired guns stared briefly in shock, Peter looking at his hands with a stunned expression. Then the moment was over and the Nichols raised their weapons.

"Stop!" A woman's voice pierced the tension filled air. "Stop this in the name of God!"

"Ma?" John cried out, lowering his Colt in surprise. Maybe this would work out after all.

"Lord above children." Ma Nichols appeared from the door behind Nathan. "I couldn't believe what I was told, you going against my wishes. I thought I taught you better than that!"

'We had to teach these sinners lesson." Peter shouted right back at her, causing John to cringe. "It's our duty to our family and to God. You know that Ma!"

"And I told you, this course of action was forsaken by God." The older woman sighed, this was not going well, she could feel the cold hand of death on her neck. Death was coming and she couldn't stop it.

"We have them , Ma." Peter scowled. "Now stand aside and let us do God's work and destroy these sinners."

Ma Nichols looked on her son, her dark eyes welling with sadness. "Son, don't you understand, this is not God's work? And He will visit His wrath on you from taking His powers of judgment on yourself."

Peter scowled at her. "Now, Ma, " he said patiently, "I know you've been confused lately, but you'll come to know that this is for the best."

She gave him a sharp look. "For the best?" she exclaimed angrily. "How can it be for the best, when the rest of my boys might end up lying dead? Has our family not lost enough? I'm not as sure of my path as I used to be, Peter, but I know this much: This all has to stop. Now."

There was silence for a few moments, as mother and son stared at each other. Chris and his men fidgeted in the hot afternoon; Chris could see the other Nichols boys exchanging glances. The kid with the glasses seemed particularly nervous; the other two were frowning.

Finally Peter began to slowly shake his head, his eyes burning.

"Blood demands blood, ma," he said quietly, dropping the splintered axe handle and drawing his pistol. "One way or another."

"I said stand down!" MA Nichols tried again. "You go through with this and I cast you out of the family....forever!"

Peter frowned, anger on his face. He looked rebellious, not contrite. Ma Nichols had lost the battle, her sons were lost to her now.

"If you're not with us Ma, you're against us, and God." Peter raised his pistol, aiming it at her head. "Stand aside or I will execute you along with the rest of the refuse that abounds."

"I can no longer align myself with murderers." Sadness tinged her voice. "You are no longer my Son, and any of the rest of ya who follow him are no longer my kin either. If you do this I would rather call that man who lays at your feet my son than you. At least HE has honor!"

"You would align yourself with him and his kind!" Peter felt the rage boil up inside him. "Then you can die along side of him."

Peter snarled and aimed his weapon, he would teach her to reject him!

Unnoticed in the general tension, Ezra had somehow managed to painfully climb to his feet. MA Nichols proclamation of his honor had stunned him into this last rash act. Ezra knew deep in his soul, he wasn't going to survive this battle, but he was going to take victory from Peter in any way he could. And not letting him kill Ma Nichols was a good start.

The pain was excruciating, every little scrape and scratch felt like it was a hot poker digging into this hide. But still Ezra stayed on his feet. He raised the half of the axe handle he had somehow managed to grasp and just before Peter could fire, swung it with the last of his strength. It soundly connected with Peter Nichols head, with a rather satisfying hollow thud, Ezra thought. His lips turned in an unexpected grin as he watched Peter fall to the ground, momentarily stunned.

"One should never, no matter how provoked, harm ones mother." Ezra said, his voice wavery as his body turned numb and the sky started to spin. He could hear every little sound like it was a cannon, and suddenly his legs gave way and he was on the ground, shaking as the last of his strength left him.

Peter gained his feet, a bloody cut along his left temple. His mother had been ushered inside and each side regarded each other with anticipation. It was going to be now or never. Peter aimed his gun and fired at the man whose father-in-Law had killed his brother, then, while he scrambled for safety, delivered one final , vicious kick to the helpless gambler's ribs. Smiling as he heard and felt the bones give way beneath his boot.

The sinner's debt would soon be paid.

Josiah had looked on in abject fascination as Ezra struggled to his feet, a splintered half of an axe handle in his unsteady grip. Everyone else had been so focused on Peter pointing the revolver at his mother, deadly intentions in his eyes, few noticed the gambler until the swung handle connected with Peter's face.

Everyone had gasped then, noticing him standing there, on wobbly legs, over Peter Nichols. Josiah wondered where the strength had even come from. Then Josiah had seen his eyes, and he knew. Ezra said something then, but Josiah missed it in the hammering of his heart. Then Ezra had collapsed to the ground, his strength gone.

The fight had broken out not much after that. Nathan came up next to Josiah, a worried frown on his face. His gaze was on Ezra who had just received a vicious kick in the side as Peter Nichols passed him on his way to the shelter of a column. After the kick, Ezra hadn't moved.

"Think he's still alive?" Josiah asked, snapping a shot off at one of Finn's men.

"Don' know." Nathan shook his head. "But we need to get him out of the line of fire, and fast."

Josiah nodded scanning the area for gunmen. He counted four near him and Nathan. Snapping off a shot at the same man, Josiah smiled in grim satisfaction as the man fell over. One down.

"Think you can cover me?" Josiah glanced at Nathan, who nodded. "I'll grab him and come right back."

Nathan prepared himself, then nodded at Josiah. "GO!"

As Nathan peppered the positions of the enemy with rapid fire, Josiah leapt out and ran as fast as he cold to Ezra. He glanced around, Nathan was keeping the men from shooting with his cover fire. Josiah gently turned Ezra over and almost cried as the bruised and broken features were brought into view. He looked much worse up close.

But the new kick to the side had added another problem. Blood was trickling down the corner of his mouth, bubbling with each gasped breath. Josiah had seen this before and he felt his blood grow cold. The last kick had done it. Ezra was bleeding inside, he was dying.

A shout of pain startled the preacher out of his reverie, Josiah knew that voice! He turned his head to see Nathan lying on the ground, clutching his arm. He'd been shot! Josiah knew he had lost his cover, and with a silent apology, scooped Ezra up in his arms and ran to the scant cover the wagon provided. At least they were out of the main line of fire.... but they were trapped there, unable to get back to the mission.

"Josiah...." The whispered sound startled him and he turned his head to look at Ezra. His eyes were open, pain lined his whole face and he struggled to breathe.

"Don't talk Ezra." Josiah quietly shushed him, looking up to see if anyone was coming. "We'll get you to Nathan soon, he'll fix you up.

"Your... a terrible....liar. That's ....my ....job." Ezra gasped, and then groaned as the movement sent waves of pain through him. His ribs felt like they were crushing him ,the agony was so intense. It was getting more and more difficult to breathe, he couldn't seem to get enough air anymore. Ezra knew it was beginning, he was dying.

"Hush now Ezra." Josiah said in a sterner voice. "If you don't keep quiet, you'll get us both killed!"

Ezra would have laughed, if he hadn't felt so bad. He knew he would die one day , but this wasn't quite like he had imagined. Not at all. He figured he would either die an old, wealthy, happy man, or he would die shot in an ally like some members of his family always said he would. But this... dying for others, was something Ezra had never dreamed of....even more amazing was the slight feeling of peace that thought awarded him.

"I'm too late." John Nichols sad voice startled both men, Josiah went to shoot the man but Ezra's feeble arm got in his way.

"On... our.. side..." Ezra looked at John.

"Peter sent me to kill you." John looked off to his left. "I'm going to shoot the ground next to both of you. Look dead for awhile and he'll forget about you. Then get away, I'll cover you."

Josiah nodded and gathered Ezra into his arms. It was their only chance, and on what Casey and Ezra had said, he could trust this boy. "Do it."

Two shotgun blasts rang out and two figures slumped together, leaning against the wheel of the wagon, and lay still. John waved at his brothers and managed a grin. Peter nodded and turned his attention away from the wagon. The problem solved for him, now on to the others.

John kneeled down next to Josiah and Ezra, the young mans face a mask of regret and sorrow. "I'm sorry."

Then he was gone. Josiah kept his pose, sheltering Ezra from any further harm as he listened to the gamblers labored breaths. Not knowing what else to do, Josiah prayed. He prayed that that no one else would be hurt, he prayed for JD, he prayed for Casey, he prayed for all the others...then he prayed for Ezra. And all he could think to pray for was a quick end to the mans suffering.

The irony of Ezra dying because of a lie struck Josiah as a cruel joke. Many had criticized the con man for his ability to lie, cheat and take advantage of people, but the sad truth remained that if Ezra hadn't been so good at convincing the Nichols brothers that day back in Four Corners, Chris would be dead. And now Ezra was suffering and dying for that lie.

"Tell...Chris....." Ezra seemed to have sensed his thoughts.

"Tell him what Ezra." Josiah didn't want to hear this. And he knew he didn't want to relay the message Ezra was about to give to him. The pain of the telling was going to be the death of his faith.

"Tell him... I would do it again..." Ezra smothered a cough, wincing as he tried not to move, everything was fading out.. tuning to grey. "It was...worth....it."

With that Ezra was silent. Josiah held his breath until the next ragged hitch came from Ezra. Then relief washed over him. Ezra was out, but not dead yet.

He looked around; the battle was being joined furiously, as both sides opened fire on each other. It was some distance to the mission; they would need cover, and John had gone off to his brothers. Josiah palmed his gun and watched keenly for a chance to make a break for it, praying that they would not be discovered before that chance arrived.

Nathan felt the slug slam into his arm, and at the same time he heard a cry -then he realized it was he himself who had cried out. Damn! Josiah had been counting on him. Nathan felt strong arms help him up, half dragging him to the doors of the church. Whoever was helping him paused long enough to get a few shots off then resumed his task.

Nathan never took his eyes off of Josiah, watching him carry Ezra to the wagon. He watched as the kid, John, made his way over to the wagon.

"No. . . " Nathan hissed, seeing that his friends were sitting ducks.

"NO!!!!!!!!!!!!" Nathan screamed as he saw the kid get two shots off at point blank range. "Let go of me!" Nathan cried, as he drew his weapon. But the strong arms helping him wouldn't let go. Nathan looked up to see Chris Larabee both moving him and shielding him from the gunplay.

Pling.

A bullet whistled past Nathan's ear, and, in a swift move, Chris hurled Nathan inside the safety of the church.

"Bastards!" Nathan screamed, and he pulled himself up to one of the windows. He switched his weapon to the opposite hand, and got one awkward shot off at John Nichols. The kid's hand shot up to his neck, and Nathan realized, heartsore, that he had only grazed him.

"What can I do?"

Casey had run up to the healer, bandages in hand. Nathan nodded toward his arm. "Tie off a bandage above the wound to stop the flow of blood." Nathan grimaced as he held his arm out.

"A tourniquet?" Casey asked.

Nathan nodded, taken aback by Casey's knowledge. The girl not only used a bandage to make the tourniquet, she also used a short stick to rotate the bandage tightly enough to stop all blood flow. She periodically glanced out the window to keep abreast of the situation outside.

"How's JD?" Nathan asked, his voice thick with pain.

"The same."

Suddenly she grabbed Nathan's weapon, slammed against the door forcing it open, and she aimed and fired. In the midst of everything, Nathan could hear the sound aof a body landing heavily on the ground just outside.

A voice from outside called. "That little bitch got Jack!"

"Get her!"

A storm of bullets rained on her, but Casey couldn't move. Vin did his best to cover her, and finally Nathan pulled her out of the way just in time. She huddled on the floor against the dusty wall and curled tightly into a ball, paralyzed with fear.

"Casey!" Nathan yelled at her. "CASEY!!"

Only Vin could see that Josiah and Ezra hadn't been hit. So, only he knew that John Nichols was working for them. He reloaded and felt his heart pound in his throat as the enemy made its way toward the mission.

"Chris!" he called. "Draw them toward you." Chris nodded and started making his way around the other side.

"Calm down, JD . . ." Buck's voice carried over the din.

"Casey!" JD's throaty voice called.

Pling. A bullet bounced off the wall over Buck's head.

"Shit." Buck swore, then he aimed and fired.

"Where's Casey, Buck?"

"I can't look right now, kid. Got a problem here." Buck was waging his own battle from the vestibule window. And not doing all that well.

This time the bullet didn't whiz past Buck's head. Instead it grazed his cheek and threw him back against the wall.

"No!" JD cried.

*

Josiah whispered into Ezra's ear. "You with me, Ezra?" he asked. But his friend didn't answer. "Hold on, my friend," he said. He reached his big hand up to the gambler's throat. God, let there be a pulse. Please.

A pulse - very weak, but there. Well, that was something. Josiah could hear the gunplay move away from him. Maybe he could chance a run for the mission. Very carefully, he looked around the side of the wagon. Luke and Matthew Nichols were still there.

Josiah and Ezra were still trapped.

Ezra wheezed. He needed help. But Nathan had been hit. Who else could possible help Ezra?

Josiah prayed. What else was there to do?

"Chris." JD tried to call for help. If only he weren't so weak. He could get help.

But Buck was dead.

Casey was dead.

He couldn't fight any longer.

What was the point?

He closed his eyes.

And let go.

Vin eased out of a window on the side of the mission - the opposite side from where Chris was leading Fin's men. He strained to see Josiah and Ezra. He needed to signal. They would have to communicate somehow.

He whistled. Josiah would recognize that.

The whistle.

God, let him hear it. Let him be paying attention. Let him listen. Please .. .

*

"Mother." There was blood in the corner of his mouth. Ezra's breath rattled. "Don't feel bad." Ezra's beaten face reflected pain. Physical pain, but now emotional pain as well. "I know . . ."

Josiah held him close. Giving him comfort he may never have experienced as a little boy. "Don't try to talk, Ezra."

Ezra's head fell back over Josiah's arm. "Tell Maude . . ." For a split second, he pulled himself up slightly, clutching at the preacher's shirt. "I. . . love her. . . " A smile pulled at his lips. "Sort of." Ezra patted Josiah's chest. "Don't tell her that." The gambler sighed lightly. "It doesn't hurt anymore."

God, help him. We're losing him.

Ezra's eyes were glassy and he looked beyond Josiah. "Tell Maude . . . she did fine." And his beautiful eyes closed.

"God, help him!" Josiah breathed.

Then he heard it. A familiar whistle.

Praise God, help was on the way.

Chris gritted his teeth as he fired, squinting to see past the bright sunlight and the haze of smoke. There were three men, Peter Nichols and two of his brothers, working their way towards the mission, their way covered by the rest of their group. The front of the mission was becoming riddled with bullet holes, plaster and stucco chips raining ceaselessly down with each shot. Chris scowled as he fired again; they would have to shoot the front of the mission to pieces before he would allow them inside.

He looked over to Vin, wondering what he was up to; the tracker had grabbed Nathan, checking to see how badly he was hurt, whispered something in his ear then ran off, firing as he went, towards the wagon.

The wagon. Chris's gut twisted, but he couldn't mourn Josiah and Ezra now, with so many other lives in peril still. Later, when Nichols and his men were dead or imprisoned, then he and the others would honor their memory. Right now all Chris could do was channel that anger into his hands, and fight for what they had fallen for.

But God, he thought. This is the end of us. No matter what happens...

He pushed that thought away. Just fight. Sophia said it was part of God's plan.

If only Chris could be so sure.

Just fight...

Nathan, one arm dangling bloody and barely moving, crouched before Casey and hustled her inside, saying urgent words in her ear before gently pushing her through the door. Then he began making his way towards Chris.

The gunslinger glared furiously at Nathan as he peeled off another shot, keeping Peter and his men at bay. "Nathan, dammit, you're wounded! get inside!"

"Still got one good arm to shoot with," was the calm reply as Nathan crouched behind the overturned table and fired. "Just wanted to tell you, Vin says Josiah an' Ezra are all right. He's gonna get 'em, wants you to keep them men occupied."

Chris stared at him for a second. It seemed like a miracle. Then he nodded.

"Just get inside, we'll hold 'em here!" Chris cried, and went back to firing, feeling some satisfaction as he saw Nathan duck into the mission.

Peter ducked behind a large rock as he fired; he and Fin and Mike were pinned down in the courtyard for now, but it wouldn't be long until their foes ran out of bullets. And Peter's group had all the ammunition they needed.

"I can't believe Ma's defending those bastards," Matthew was saying as he wrapped a grazed shin, involuntarily crouching as a bullet sprayed the rock they were sheltered behind.

"She's actin' mighty odd," Luke agreed, putting his rifle over the rock and firing before ducking back down. He thought for a moment as he wiped the sweat from his face and looked at Peter. "But you know, Pete, you didn't have to pull that gun on her. Pa wouldn't have liked that."

Matthew laughed as he tied off his bandage. "Aw, c'mon, Luke, he was only tryin' to scare her. Pete wouldn't hurt Ma."

He chuckled and looked up at his older brother for confirmation. Peter simply gazed at him, his bearing calm and steady.

Matthew stopped laughing, and he and Luke exchanged uneasy glances, then Matthew turned worried eyes back to Peter. "Well, that's right, ain't it, Pete?"

Peter looked at his brothers in silence for a few moments, then turned away, concentrating on his weapon. Matthew and Luke looked once more at each other, then returned to their duty. Now was not the time.

Peter looked up to see Fin running in a crouch towards him, ducking bullets, his top hat gone, his long blonde hair flying in the hot wind.

"Damnedest thing, me lad," he panted upon reaching the safety of the rock. "I think there's a man I know firin' at us."

"No kidding, Fin?" Luke said, snapping his newly-reloaded rifle shut. "Who?"

"Dat long-haired wild-lookin' fella," was the gasped reply, as Fin crouched and checked the chamber of his pistol. "Had to dodge 'im quite a few times before we made it to Mexico. Say, y'don't mind if I make sure he don't bother us no more, do ye, Pete?"

Peter smiled as he finished loading his gun.

"Fin, my friend," he said pleasantly, "you may indulge yourself."

Vin scrambled towards the wagon, Winchester at the ready, watching his opponents carefully as he got closer to his destination. It was sitting only half-way between the mission's gate and the mission, but the heat, smoke and rain of bullets made its closeness irrelevant; getting to it would not be easy.

Most of the men were firing at Chris now, but the men still back at the wall were aware that Vin was out there too; they saw him hazily, as he saw them through the dust and smoke, but that did not prevent them from trying to drop him.

Bullets sprayed the dirt as he ran; he primed his gun, fired, and kept running. One purpose pounded through Vin's mind: protect Josiah and Ezra, stop the Nichols, save the people he cared about. Battle had simplified his thoughts to their most basic level, as it always did, and while he did not exactly glory in it, he found himself swept away by its relentless rhythm, and focused on his goal with undistracted determination. Fight for what you loved: that was all that really mattered. No need for life to be more compicated than that.

Halfway there. A bullet nicked his hat; he dropped to his stomach and squeezed off a round at the wall, heard a cry. Whether his prey was wounded or killed, Vin had no time to wonder; in an instant he was on his feet and running once again, his mind clear and free, his heart racing. He looked up to see the old wooden wagon before him, its splintered hulk phantom-like in the swirling sun-scorched haze.

He was almost there.

The air of the courtyard hung so heavy with smoke that Josiah could not see if any of his adversaries still lurked there. Josiah felt himself becoming increasingly anxious; where was Vin?

Ezra stirred beside him. Josiah pulled out his dusty handkerchief and dabbed at the red stream at the gambler's mouth; a useless gesture, but it seemed right, and it was all he could do for now. At the touch, Ezra flinched a little and opened his eyes, looking at Josiah in confusion. His eyes were swimming slightly, as if he had opened them in the middle of a dream.

"Just take it easy," Josiah soothed, wondering if Ezra even knew where he was any more. "We'll be gettin' out of here soon."

The gambler drew in a ragged breath, blinking as he tried to focus, and Josiah heard him mutter, "Father?"

The former preacher started a bit; he recalled Ezra telling him that his father had disappeared when Ezra was five years old and was probably dead. "Sorry, Ezra, no. It's Josiah."

Ezra stared at him, recognition slowly working its way into his light green eyes. Then a painful gasp, and Ezra's hands weakly plucked at Josiah's sleeve; the preacher bent down to hear the faint words.

"Is-JD-"

Josiah paused; should he tell the gambler JD was dying? He thought for a moment, then tried to make his tone reassuring.

"We found JD, Nathan's lookin' after him," he said. There was a silence, and Josiah could have sworn that the expression in Ezra's eyes indicated that he knew exactly what Josiah was, and wasn't, saying. Then Ezra coughed softly, and took a short breath, weakly grasping Josiah's sleeve again.

"Casey?" was the frantically whispered question. Josiah took Ezra's hand and grasped it for a moment before laying it on Ezra's chest.

"She's fine, she's in the mission. Now calm down, I don't want to have to answer to Nathan for your gettin' all worked-"

A form suddenly appeared in front of him, coming around the end of the wagon so fast that Josiah didn't have time to aim his gun. He looked up in surprise, ready to protect his fallen comrade, only to feel relief wash over him as he recognized the intruder.

It was Vin.

He was covered with dust, and blood trickled from several minor scrapes and grazings. His blue eyes filled with horror at the sight of Ezra's injuries.

"Y'OK?" Vin said through gritted teeth, his Winchester grasped tightly in his hands.

"I am," Josiah replied. "We gotta get Ezra to Nathan fast as possible."

"C'mon, then," Vin said, casting his eyes quickly over the courtyard. "I'll cover ya, Chris diverted some of 'em, but they'll likely be back soon."

He danced backwards slightly, weapon at the ready, as Josiah knelt and slid his arms carefully under Ezra's crumpled body.

"Sorry, Ezra," he grunted, and lifted his partner as gently as he could. Ezra gave a brief, gurgling cough, then went limp, his eyes closing once more.

"Try to get in the side door," Vin said as they approached the end of the wagon. "They got the front door covered. Go!"

Josiah knew exactly where to run; he settled Ezra in his arms and dashed out, ducking slightly as he ran.

"Hey! They're alive!" he heard someone yell; then the bullets came, exploding in the dust around his feet as he ran for the small side door. It seemed a mile away, but something gave him the strength to practically fly towards it; he could see Josef standing there, rifle at the ready to help him in, and heard Vin firing furiously behind him. Ezra felt impossibly light in his arms, but the halting rising and falling of his chest indicated that he was still alive, if barely.

Just a few steps more-

A bullet caught Josiah's arm, tearing the sleeve and sending a burning pain up its length; he bit his lip and continued to run. Another clipped his calf; he stumbled a little but recovered, and thanked God for the smoke which spoiled their aim.

Finally he was in; the mission seemed dark and cool, compared to the light and heat of the courtyard. He paused, gasping for air, as Josef closed and locked the side door. After nodding his thanks, Josiah hurried to the sanctuary, where he knew Nathan was with Buck and Casey. But his heart sank as he looked at Ezra's pinched, drained face, the blood trickling anew from his mouth; even the best doctor in the territory could do nothing but pray for him now.

The sanctuary's air now smelled of gunpowder, as the nuns huddled and prayed in frightened whispers at one end. Ma Nichols sat alone, praying as well, in increasingly desperate tones. Buck stood anxiously by the window, firing relentlessly at their adversaries, his face covered with sweat, his expression deadly grim.

Casey sat by JD's bedside and holding his hand, her expression anguished as she stroked his hair and gently talked to him; the boy's eyes were closed, and he seemed farther gone than before. Casey's gun lay at her feet, forgotten for the moment. Nathan, his wounded arm now bound in a bloodied bandage, had seen Vin cover Josiah's escape, and stood to see Sister Sophia standing nearby, her eyes wide.

"They're bringin' another wounded man in, Sister," he said briskly. "Better get ready."

Josiah burst into the room, causing gasps among some of the nuns; Ma Nichols looked over, her expression turning sick before she went back to her prayers, their tone more feverish now. Casey and Buck turned their heads to stare in horror at the latest example of the Nichols's brand of justice.

Nathan rushed up, his face contorting with anger as he saw how badly Ezra was hurt. Then he saw the blood on Ezra's mouth, and knew his lung had been punctured. He sighed.

"Aw, damn, Josiah."

The other man only nodded and quickly moved to one of the nearby cots, set up for the fallen of the battle. They could hear the gunfire still raging outside, and Buck occasionally squeezed off a few rounds from the window.

"I have to go back," Josiah said as he eased Ezra onto the cot. Nathan nodded as he holstered his gun.

"Thanks, Josiah."

The other man glanced at Ezra's still form. "I already prayed for 'im, Nate. Don't know if there's much you can do."

Nathan didn't like the defeated tone in Josiah's voice.

"Least he don't got to die in the dust. Go on now, Chris needs you. We'll get 'em on the run."

Josiah nodded, and palming his gun once more headed for the front of the mission.

As Nathan prepared to do what he could for Ezra, he sensed someone behind him, and turning saw Casey's slight form, with Buck behind her, his hands on her shoulders. Her eyes were wide and full of tears, one hand to her mouth.

"Casey, you better get on back to JD," Nathan said softly but quickly.

"I saw one of my uncles bleed like that," was the quiet reply, as she moved closer and knelt by Ezra's bedside. "He...Is Mr. Standish gonna die?"

Nathan pursed his lips, the answer shining in his grim eyes. Casey gasped slightly as she gazed at the man who had shared her imprisonment and helped her escape at his own expense. In one quick movement, she placed her hand on Ezra's hair and kissed him on the cheek; then she was gone, hurrying back to JD's bedside as she wiped the tears from her eyes.

Buck stood still for a moment, his smoking gun still in one hand, ready for further work. Nathan could see the fury in Buck's eyes as he stared at Ezra, doubtless remembering that he had left Ezra to the Nichols's mercy.

"Wasn't your fault, Buck," Nathan insisted, pouring some water into a basin.

Buck didn't reply, just stood silently, and Nathan could see he was shaking, his blue eyes burning with fury.

"I know whose fault it is," Buck said finally, his voice soft with rage. "Damn, Nathan, you'd think takin' a young man's life would be enough for these men. Now they got Ezra too."

"They ain't got nobody yet," Nathan replied, soaking some clean rags in the cold water. He knew, though, that it was only a matter of time before these words were proven false, and he found himself gripping the rags with a tight fist.

Buck nodded absently, his mind seemingly elsewhere, then he raised his gun.

"Well, they ain't gonna hurt nobody else, an' I'm swearin' that before God right now," he said, his voice even. "I know you'll take care of 'im, Nathan. Scuse me."

With that, he turned and walked back to the window near JD, and Nathan could see him rejoin the battle with renewed determination.

Nathan watched him go, his anger at the Nichols mounting as he bent to examine Ezra. Then he turned that anger aside, or tried to, as he concentrated on the task at hand; but seeing what they had done to Ezra-to all of them- only made the anger worse.

There was only way this fight could end.

*

//Ezra had lost track of time. One moment he saw Josiah through a foggy haze; the next, his mother, gazing down upon him with concern. Cannon fire rumbled as the Yankees poured over the Carolina country-side; dust and smoke filled the gambler's nose as he, Josiah and Buck snapped off shots at the Nichols brothers from inside the saloon. It was all vaguely disconcerting; he knew the time had come for him to die, but he really much preferred to enter Eternity with his sanity intact.

Ezra pushed away the confusing dreams and relaxed. Stillness enveloped him, and he relished the world of light which contained not even the barest echo to inflame his tired nerves. He recognized an unfamiliar sense of peace; tentatively, he wondered if he had by some fluke made it to the gates of Heaven.

A flash of movement before him caused him to glance up, startled. Green eyes stared back at him, intense, slightly arrogant, carrying a touch of bemused affection. At first Ezra thought he was seeing himself - the young, well-dressed man with the emerald eyes and chestnut hair could have been his twin. Yet something about the face, the demeanor -

The stranger's slender hands moved and Ezra saw him cut a worn deck of cards. Realizing Ezra's perplexity, the man's gaze softened, and the gambler recognized the look - he had seen it on his mother's face when she didn't know he was looking. A mixture of pride, guilt, worry, and love. His father. All at once, Ezra felt as if a twenty-year-old ache in his heart had finally been soothed, bathed in cool, sweet elation.

He sensed, rather than heard, a slow, rasping flutter. Then thump

thump

thump

thump

thump -

with each muffled vibration, his father dealt the Ace of spades

the king of spades

the queen of spades

the Jack of spades

the ten of spades.

Pleasure touched his lips; a royal straight flush. His father winked at him. Heaven, indeed. Wouldn't Peter Nichols be surprised.

Ezra's numb body registered a soft jolt, and out of habit he opened his eyes -//

Sunlight diffused through a few humble stain-glass windows. The room flickered in shades of red and blue, though a definate yellow-white illuminated certain faces, certain nooks and crannies. Nathan Jackson leaned over him, lips moving as he muttered silently, checking Ezra's wounds. The healer favored a bloodied arm, but didn't let it impede his ministrations. Someone stepped up behind Nathan, and the gambler's blood seemed to warm, flushing his sore body with relief. Casey's face was drawn and anxious, but the girl appeared otherwise unharmed. She said something that Ezra couldn't hear, and Nathan turned slightly to answer her. The gambler stared up into the healer's smooth, gentle face, taking care to grieve upon the lines of tension and worry he saw there, before letting his tired eyes fall shut. I am not your responsibility, he longed to tell the him; you owe me nothing. He didn't have the breath to speak - it rattled lethargically beneath the shattered wieght of his ribs - so he had to settle for the flash of guilt which festered in the fire of his wounds. Ezra knew he had much to acount for; he knew he deserved all the disgust, anger, and condescension he had ever seen directed at him through Nathan's eyes.

For a moment the reverent silence of the church seemed to break under the roar of confused activity. Ezra flinched against the explosions of sound and anger before he could shutter himself away behind his dying. The Nichols brothers had no idea, he realized. They would bring their fight into this house of God, and they would fall. The underlying tranquility of the sanctuary was no trick of ambiance; it was a promise.

Sanctuary. Perhaps Josiah would say a prayer for him when he died, absolve him of his sins with that voice so laden with kindness and unconscious sanctuary. The gambler began to drift away from the sanctuary again, lulled by the heavy, struggling beat of his own heart. No, he didn't need absolution. He did not regret who he was, only that he couldn't have been more. Especially to the man whose dark-skinned hands even now sought to administer impossible healing to the dying gambler.

//Another shuffle of the cards, more abbreviated this time. As his father dealt another hand, Ezra basked in the warmth of the white snowscape, and in the coolness of the unfettered rays of the sun. Never mind the incongruity of these images; who was he to question the numinous?

Ezra wished he could find his voice. He was desperate to know what had happened to his father all those years ago, where he had disappeared to. He wondered what his father thought of the life Ezra had fallen into. Yet he said nothing, just watched his father's slender hands slap the cards down between them.

Ace of hearts, king of hearts, queen of hearts...damn, another royal straight flush. The gambler could get used to death.//

"Damn, Ezra." Nathan's voice crackled through the quiet otherworld and yanked Ezra briefly back into life; pain shrieked through his battered lungs the healer's fingers probed his broken ribs. The gambler gasped, blood clogging his mouth, and, gagging and convulsing, Ezra heard Nathan's distant apology. A sigh; the healer's voice a whisper,

"You jus' couldn't prove me wrong this once, could you. Damn, *damn* it, Ezra...."

The gambler felt his head turned, and he managed to drool the blood from his mouth. He blinked, vision a little cloudy and confused by the spectrum of color dancing through the room. Just across the room lay a supine figure; Casey watched over him. JD, obviously, was the individual on the cot; the realization caused a strange emotion to surge through the gambler, like love but unlike anything he'd ever felt for his mother or father, or for the few women who had ever meant anything to him in his life. This feeling was overlaid with a well-known sense of sadness - he remembered from the cruelly flippant taunts of the Nichols brothers that they had left JD in a bad way. He wondered if the maelstrom of light which seemed to spring up from the boy's unmoving form was JD's death. As pleasant as it would be to have another familiar face in the afterlife, he didn't wish death upon JD. Not now, when the boy was so young, and still able to live with such enthusiasm. Had JD even kissed Casey yet? JD really needed to live at least until he'd worked up the courage to kiss that sweet girl. Ezra refused the gloomy thoughts, closed his eyes, and continued to die.

//It seemed forever before the next shuffling of the cards. While Ezra waited, the irridescence surrounding him gained brilliance. His father's face grew suddenly more defined, shadows and light deepening the emotions that sprung up as the man's slight smile faded. The gambler felt oddly chastised, and had to fight the urge to squirm as frustration drew his father's eyebrows into a frown.

Thump. A Voice filtered in from outside of him. Someone was speaking, and the tone insisted that he listen. Irritation flickered through him; he could hardly gather strength enough to focus on the card his father dealt, and yet someone insisted on dogging him to the very moment of his death with words of strength.

Thump. Thump. He listened vaguely to the Voice, made out something about forgiveness.

Thump. Thump. Thump.

As he suddenly lost the ability to meet his father's determined gaze, he realized he'd been dealt one card too many. His mind's eye labored to glance at the cards he held, even as the Voice tumbled through the thickening cocoon of whiteness which cradled him....//

*

Peter Nichols could barely have been bothered by Vin's actions during the fight, so intent was he on getting past Chris and into the mission. But the gunslinger was proving very formidable indeed, and he, Luke, Matthew and Fin were still stuck behind the large boulder. Vin was over by the wagon, on the other side of the courtyard, and Peter figured the others could handle him, and if they couldn't Fin could. He had bigger concerns.

Until he heard one of Fin's boys yell out, "Hey! They're alive!"

The the young man's head snapped around, and he saw, through the smoky haze, dim figures moving towards the mission, clearly recognizable as the preacher carrying the limp form of Ezra Standish. Ezra Standish, who was supposed to die in agony, alone, in payment for his crimes against Peter and his brothers.

As Peter stopped and stared in shock, he heard Luke say, "Didn't John shoot them two?"

A bullet whizzed past Peter's ear, and he realized that he had stood up and exposed his position. He ducked down, his face purple with fury, and yelled to all his men: "KILL THEM!"

The preacher was halfway to the mission, and his way was covered by the long-haired tracker, who was laying down a pretty heavy fire, apparently heedless of the bullets directed towards him. Larabee was covering them too now, and before long the despairing Peter saw his quarry pass into the mission, and safety.

"Goddammit!" Peter cried, slamming his fist against the rock. Matthew threw him a critical look.

"Aw, c'mon, Pete, the guy's gonna die anyway," he said. "'Sides, we'll be in there before long, and you can put a bullet in him yourself."

"Yes," Peter agreed, ducking as one of Vin's bullets sent pieces of their sheltering boulder flying into the air, "but first that long-hair's got to be dealt with."

Fin smiled and drew both of his guns. "Allow me, me lad."

Peter gazed at him, then nodded. "Do whatever you want to him, Fin. Meanwhile," he looked back towards the wall, "I've got to go talk to our dear younger brother."

Matthew and Luke exchanged nervous glances, but before they could say anything Peter was off, running back to the bullet-chipped mission wall where Fin's men and John were sheltered. Fin chuckled as he checked the chambers of his weapons.

"What a devil your brother is when his dander's up!" he said, shaking his head. "Well, cover me, boys. Time to thin the enemies' ranks a bit."

From the shelter of the stuccoed wall of the mission gate, John had seen Vin find Josiah and Ezra, watched as he had covered their escape. He didn't know why he had felt relieved-these men had killed his brothers, he should be hoping for their own deaths, not saving their lives. It was all very confusing, and he didn't want to get a headache by trying to figure it out now, because he knew that Peter would see it too, and want an accounting.

Sure enough, he saw Peter rise and start back for the wall. He fidgeted a minute; what should he do? He looked over to the men next to him, both of whom were busy covering Fin and Peter, then silently slipped away from their side, walking quickly down the wall to his right and around the corner.

John paused; the wall was high enough to hide him, and no one had seen him leave. But there was nowhere for him to go, unless he could climb over the wall and get into the mission. And they'd kill him as soon as he stepped foot inside. Unless he could find the preacher first...

Angry voices wafted above the sounds of gunfire; Peter had discovered he'd gone. There was no time to think about it; John ran down the length of the wall, towards the back, until he felt that he could climb over and be able to slip in the back of the mission. He reached up and grasped the top of the wall, preparing to haul himself over.

A bullet whizzed by, grazing his knuckles. John yelped and staggered back, grasping his bleeding hands together and scrabbling for his gun, as Peter walked slowly towards him, his gun pointed at his face.

"I wouldn't bother with that gun, John," Peter said evenly. "It appears your aim is very defective of late."

"Now, Pete," John said, stepping back. Was he really drawing on his own brother? "I-it's just, I think there's been enough killing."

Peter nodded. "Yes, and they've done most of it. Don't you remember they started this, John? All we're doing in trying to finish it, and you've only prolonged the fighting by helping our brothers' murderers."

"But it was already finished, Pete!" John insisted. "It was finished when Mark died, when they all died. Ma wanted it over. And so do I."

Pete snorted. "Ma's a confused old woman now, John, they've taken the fire out of her. As for you-" he cocked his gun.

John was astounded. "For God's sake, Pete-I'm your brother!"

Pete shook his head. "You've betrayed us, just like it says in the Bible. Brother shall turn against brother-"

John ran forward, tackling Peter to the ground and knocking his gun arm away; the weapon discharged, the bullet flying harmlessly into the sky. They wrestled for the gun for a moment; Peter finally heaved his brother off of him, sending the young man tumbling to his hands and knees. As the older Nichols righted himself and tried to aim again, John's fingers closed around a fist-sized rock; palming it, he quickly lunged at his brother and smashed it across Peter's temple. Peter fell back, dazed, as blood trickled from a gash on his head. John leapt to his feet, staring in horror at Peter for a second before tossing the rock away. By the time Peter recovered, John had scrambled over the wall.

Peter slowly got to his feet, panting and cursing the stinging welt rising on his temple. He picked up his gun and began walking back to the others, his expression dark as he considered this latest betrayal.

The time to move was now, and there would be much to atone for.

Part Eight