Learning to Improvise: Chapter 2

by Katherine

Ezra Standish sat silently in front of the small campfire. He took a deep breath, sucking in as much air as he could, as slowly as possible. He held it for a moment, and then let it out just as slowly as he'd breathed in. He did this several times, consciously controlling his rate of breathing, slowing his heart rate at the same time.

Ezra let his mind drift free, flowing randomly from one thought or image to another. The last few days were at the forefront of his mind. Being tied up by Hoskins' friends, escaping, riding hard to get ahead of them, planning to capture them, bringing Hoskins and his remaining friend, Dan O'Brian, to the Sheriff of Bitter Creek.

He skipped over all that in an instant. Skimming the surface of those memories. There wasn't much that he really wanted to dwell on about the journey from Four Corners to Bitter Creek. It was what happened in Bitter Creek, and afterwards, that he wanted to focus on. Wanted to commit permanently to his memory so that he would have them to draw on in the coming days.

He closed his eyes and smiled as those memories came. He had been dealing with his feelings for Vin Tanner for some time. Almost from the moment he'd laid eyes on the longhaired tracker, he'd found him attractive. Attractive, but untouchable.

Initially, Ezra had considered the man to be off limits. For one thing, there was the fact that a relationship between two men was generally frowned upon by good, upstanding citizens. Ezra had been thrown out of enough towns based on his chosen profession as a gambler, he had no real desire to find out if being thrown out for another, more morally offensive crime would be worse.

And for another, Ezra had planned to stay only until his thirty days were up. He wasn't obligated to stay any longer than that. And he had been certain some one would ensure he wasn't permitted to stay any longer than absolutely necessary. There was no point in pursuing a relationship he had been certain was destined to fail. Casual liaisons were not something Ezra made a habit of indulging in.

Now, almost a year later, as he'd gotten to know Vin and spent time with him, his attraction had become something more. Still, he hadn't considered it a viable option. They worked together as part of the group hired to protect the town. Ezra didn't want to upset the dynamics of their assembly. He was convinced that he would bare the brunt of the others' displeasure if he did so. Ezra firmly believed that his position in the group was tenuous at best. He liked being with them, sharing in their camaraderie even if only on the fringe. Having something that resembled a home far too important for Ezra to want to risk it.

In addition to all that was the fact that Vin was a friend. There had been too few friendships in Ezra's life for him to do anything to jeopardize the one he had with Vin. He thought Vin was interested only in women. Or if willing to pursue a relationship with men, he assumed Vin would be more likely to choose their dark clad leader, Chris Larabee. He didn't want to make a fool of himself by approaching the Texan. Nor did he want to embarrass, or worse yet, offend him.

Ezra took another breath and let it out slowly. He realized he was fortunate that the course of events was not left entirely up to him. He had never expected Vin to be the one to initiate a romantic relationship. Not that Ezra had objected very much or failed to be a willing and active participant. He had been simply astounded to find that Vin shared his feelings. That he too had been hiding how he felt for some time.

While in Bitter Creek, he and Vin had explored each other's bodies thoroughly. That exploration had continued over the last few days as they made their way back to Four Corners. What absolutely stunned, and amazed, Ezra was that their interaction was not purely physical.

He found himself sharing details about his life he'd never told anyone before. They weren't something Ezra regarded as deep, dark secrets. They were just bits and pieces of his life no one had ever been interested enough to ask about before. Little things like books he'd read, places he'd been to, relatives he'd stayed with, when and where he learned to use dynamite.

Vin was the first person Ezra had ever met who seemed to want to know everything about him. He was also the first person Ezra trusted enough to share things with. It was a new and heady experience. Ezra realized he shouldn't be all that surprised. He wanted to know as much about Vin as Vin seemed to want to know about him.

Ezra had been pleased to find that he and Vin had a great deal in common. More so than outward appearances might have suggested. Ezra had been delighted to learn that his mother was wrong. Appearances were not everything, not even close.

He could feel Vin watching him from the other side of the fire. He waited patiently for the question he knew was coming. Right on cue, Vin asked. "Ez, what are ya doin'?"

Ezra opened his eyes and smiled. "I am preparing myself for our return to Four Corners."

Vin frowned. "What'd ya mean?"

"We have agreed that our relationship remain between us."


"That means, come tomorrow, when we ride into Four Corners, we must be prepared to act as though nothing has changed. That we are no more than just good friends, fellow peacekeepers."

Vin nodded. He cocked his head to one side as he studied Ezra. "Does that bother you?"

Ezra shook his head. "No. I understand the necessity."

"Ya sure?" Vin's expression was earnest. "It ain't that I don't want ta tell people. Ya know that, right? It ain't that I wanna hide us bein' together, it's jus' that "

"I know." Ezra halted the flow of words with a finger against Vin's lips. "You won't hurt me. I've done this before. Just take it slow." Ezra tilted Vin's head to kiss his forehead, then placed a kiss on each cheek, finally one on his mouth. "Start with your fingers, and loosen me up a bit. You'll need to coat your penis as well."

Vin nodded. In moments of quiet reflection, Ezra would consciously acknowledge the benefits of having a lover who was so attentive to details. At the moment, he could only revel in the physical sensations.

Vin went to work doing everything he'd noticed over the past few days that had driven Ezra wild. Tongue and teeth were artfully applied, hands roamed everywhere drawing forth moans and sighs. He left the gambler panting for breath, writhing, unable to articulate a word.

Vin slipped two fingers in easily. He stretched Ezra the way Ezra had showed him. Ezra rocked, trying to wordlessly encourage Vin to thrust deeper, harder. Vin carefully added a third finger. Ezra sighed, and let himself just enjoy the feeling. He relaxed, and let Vin open him up.

After a few minutes, Vin withdrew, and positioned his cock against Ezra's tight, hot hole. Ezra had brought his legs up to rest his calves on Vin's shoulders. Being limber had paid off many times in the past. Ezra was glad they could do this face to face. He wanted to see Vin.

Vin breeched his opening. He froze when Ezra sighed, and tensed. "Ya...okay?"

"Yes....just give me a moment." Ezra took a breath and relaxed. Yes, he had done this before, but it had been years since he'd done it since. He had forgotten what the initial burn would feel like.

"More, Vin...give me more." Ezra panted. He tipped his head back, eyes closed, when Vin thrust slowly forward. He took his time, letting Ezra adjust to each increment, until he was all the way in.

Vin panted. He shook with the effort of staying in control. Ezra lowered his legs to wrap them around Vin's lean waist and hold him in place.

Vin leaned forward and kissed Ezra hard. "You feel...so good. So tight...so hot...God. Never...knew it could...be like this."

Ezra raised a hand caress Vin lightly from cheek to navel. "It will feel even better." Ezra rolled his hips, in a long, sensuous movement, squeezing lightly with internal muscles.

Vin shuddered. "God...Ez....God." He started to thrust. Slowly at first, and then gradually increasing the length of each stroke, and the speed.

Ezra shifted a bit, and changed the angle so that Vin hit is prostate every time. He shivered, and trembled in response. He forced himself to keep his eyes open. He wanted to watch the ecstasy building on Vin's face, to see him slip over the edge.

Ezra moved a hand to fist his weeping erection. Vin slapped his hand away. "Mine. All mine." The Texan growled low in his throat.

"Yours," Ezra conceded. He shuddered when Vin wrapped his hand around his cock. The feel of that grip against his heated flesh was incredible. Vin matched his hand stroke to his hip thrusts. Ezra felt like he was caught in a whirlwind, spiraling ever higher.

"I can't....sorry, Ez...I'm gonna...Ya feel so...good...Can't hold..." Vin thrust forward hard several times, hips snapping violently, then his whole body went so tense he was vibrating. He tipped his head back, and howled as he came. The site of Vin lost in the throws of his own orgasm was the last straw to bring Ezra over the edge a second later.

Vin collapsed. He rested his head against Ezra's shoulder and sucked in air like a drowning man. Ezra struggled to control his own breathing. He raised a hand, gently caressing Vin's back. He waited for Vin to ride out the aftershocks. He had his own tremors to ride out as well.

Vin raised his head after several minutes. He cupped Ezra's face, and kissed him deeply and thoroughly. He raised his head, and smiled. Ezra smiled back at him, amazed at the beauty of the man.

"That was incredible."

Vin nodded. "Yeah." He shook his head. "Was more'n that. But I ain't got words."

Ezra spoke softly in French. "The little death." Seeing the questioning look on Vin's face, Ezra obligingly translated.

Vin nodded, and grinned. "Sounds `bout right."

Vin moved to pull out and Ezra gasped. Vin froze, looking instantly contrite and worried. "Ya okay, Ez? I didn't mean...I'm sorry--"

"Shh. It's fine. I'm fine." Ezra patted Vin's chest. "No harm done." Ezra stretched and felt muscles twinge in response. He consciously relaxed, and Vin's soft member slid free easily.

Vin reached for a clean towel that Ezra had left near the fire when he'd placed the tin there earlier. He gently cleaned Ezra's chest, and then himself. Ezra put the top back on the tin, and returned it to his saddlebag. Reluctantly they both got dressed. It wouldn't do to be caught out here naked. It was too dangerous.

Vin yawned, his eyes heavy lidded. He looked like a sleepy, well fed cat. Ezra patted his lap encouraging Vin to use his as a pillow. "Lay down. I'll keep watch."

Vin nodded. He leaned in for another kiss, before he settled in, resting his head on Ezra's lap. Ezra combed his fingers through Vin's hair, and he was asleep in seconds.

Ezra would keep watch until just after midnight. Then he would wake Vin, and then he would sleep a few hours until dawn. By late afternoon they would be back in Four Corners. Ezra silently prayed that he would be ready.



Nathan Jackson slipped out of the clinic, and headed for Mrs. Potter's store. Things had been reasonably quiet of late, and he took that as a sign of bad things to come, like the calm before a storm. Best to be prepared no matter what.

He had asked Gloria Potter to order some things for him. Replenish the supplies he'd used and stock up for the future. Nathan might not be a doctor, but he was the only thing close to one for several days. The people of Four Corners depended on him, and he took his duties as a healer seriously. Mrs. Potter told him she was expecting a shipment today. He was hoping the things he ordered were on it.

Nathan stepped inside the store. He noted with some surprise half a dozen children gathered in one corner. They ranged in age from six to thirteen. None of them paid any attention to him or looked up from what they were doing.

Nathan frowned. He stepped closer to see what they were up to. It wouldn't do for them to get into mischief in Mrs. Potter store. There was no telling what kind of havoc a group of children could create.

Each child had a copybook and appeared to be engaged in some serious form of study. Little Sammy Wilson, at six years old was the youngest of the group. He was carefully writing out the alphabet. Jenny Thomas, and her sister, Sarah, eight and nine respectively, were taking turns going over a list of words. They seemed to be working on spelling. Danny Kowalski and his twin brother, David, age ten, were working with numbers. The oldest child present was Cecilia Potter. She was thirteen and seemed to be reading something quietly to herself.

Sammy looked up. "CeCe, I'm finished."

Cecilia used her finger to mark her place. She held out a hand for Sammy's copy book. She studied it carefully. "Very good, Sammy. You got all the letters, and they are all in the right order."

Sammy beamed at her. "Mr. Ezra will be proud a me."

"Yes, I'm sure he will." Cecilia grinned.

"I learned ta sign my name. Look." The little boy proudly showed her where he had carefully written his name in large block letters on the previous page.

"Very good, Sammy."

"Mr. Ezra promised ta show me a card trick if I could sign my name by the time he got back."

Danny and David looked up from their books. The Kowalski's moved to Four Corners just over a month ago. The two little boys had quickly become the talk of the town. To look at them it was nearly impossible to tell one from the other. Same red hair, same blue eyes, same height, they even wore matching outfits. It wasn't until they spoke that a difference became apparent. Danny stuttered. David didn't.

"Mr. E-e-ezra comin' back t-t-today?"

Sarah Thomas piped up, looking very important. "I heard the sheriff tell Mr. Larabee that Mr. Vin and Mr. Ezra are due back this afternoon. They got a telegram that said so."

Nathan was surprised by how happy they all looked. Ezra does have a way with kids. But it don't seem right that they's waitin' for him. Nathan didn't know the children even knew Ezra. Or that Ezra knew them.

Man spends alla his time in the saloon. Those kids better not be hangin' out `round there. Ain't no place for children. Ezra knows better than ta let them in a place like that.

Josh Potter burst through the door. He stopped quickly, barely avoiding a collision with Nathan. "Sorry, Mr. Nathan." Josh darted around him and head for the other children.

"Mr. Ezra's back." He announced. Sammy jumped of from his stool. Sarah and Jenny did as well. They looked ready to run out the door to see for themselves, when Cecilia stopped them.


Nathan blinked. Her tone and inflection had been exactly like Ezra's. "What did Mr. Ezra say?"

Sammy hung his head, and Jenny looked away. It was Sarah who answered. "He said we are to comport ourselves the way ladies and gentlemen do."

Cecilia nodded. "And that does not mean running around like hooligans." Again there was the echo of Ezra's voice in her statement.

She closed her book, and nodded toward the books the other children had dropped in their haste. All three quickly picked them up. She smiled, suddenly looking like the thirteen-year-old girl she was, and less like the young woman she was becoming.

"Now we can go see him."

David piped up. "He'll be in the livery. He always takes care o' Chaucer first."

They trooped out together, leaving Nathan alone in the store, staring after them in amazement. Somewhat bemused, Nathan followed them, forgetting for them moment the supplies he'd come for. Ezra was just dismounting, and heading in the livery with Peso and Chaucer when the children reached him.

Wonder where Vin is. Horse o' his is almost as temperamental as that one o' Ezra's. Only person who can handle him most o' the time is Vin. Most people steered clear of either animal, wary of being kicked or bitten.

Ezra handed Chaucer's reins off to Josh and Cecilia. The two Potter children smiled in response and led the gelding in to the livery. To Nathan's surprise, the horse followed placidly. Huh. None o' the rest o' us can get that horse ta do that.

Ezra followed with Peso, listening as the children spoke animatedly about something. Nathan walked over curious to see what the children had to say to the gambler, and why they were so excited to have him back in town. He also wanted to find out where Vin was. If there had been trouble someone would have come for him by now. Nathan stopped just inside the door.

Josh and Cecilia had put Chaucer in his usual place. Ezra put Peso in the neighboring stall. "Thank you, Mr. Potter, Miss Cecilia. If you would be so kind as to loosen the cinch."

"Sure, Mr. Ezra." Josh nodded. "Ya want me ta put yer tack away too?"

Ezra nodded. "That would be acceptable."

Nathan frowned. Typical. Making someone else do his work for him.

Danny stepped forward. "C-c-can we b-brush him m-m-r. Ezra?"

Ezra crouched down in front of the little red haired boy, putting himself at eye level. "A gentlemen should not rush his words, Daniel." He smiled gently. "It causes him to misspeak, and to be poorly understood."

Nathan scowled. Ain't got no call to make fun of that little boy. Thought he was a better man than ta do somethin' like that.

"Now then, Daniel. Take a breath." The boy did so, wide eyes on Ezra the entire time. "Good. Think about what you wish to say, order the words in you mind. Have you got them the way you want them?"

Danny nodded. "Good. Now ask me your question."

"Can we brush Chaucer, Mr. Ezra?" Danny asked clearly, with no hesitation or speech impediment. Nathan raised his eyebrows. He had never heard the boy speak plainly before.

Ezra grinned, dimples readily visible, drawing a similar grin from Danny and his brother, David. "Certainly, you may. But it might be better for you to ask him, than me." Ezra gestured toward Chaucer with a graceful wave of his hand.

Danny moved to stand in front of Chaucer. He took a breath and clearly asked, "May we brush you, Chaucer?"

Nathan wasn't sure what signal Ezra gave the horse, but Chaucer nickered and nodded his head several times. Danny shared a delighted grin with his twin, and together they raced to get the brushed that Ezra kept in his tack box just for his horse.

Nathan held his breath when the twins entered the stall. He had stepped forward to stop them, but waited. He knew Ezra would never have let them near the horse if he thought they were in any danger. He watched warily, ready to intervene if necessary. Chaucer never moved. The gelding stood very still, calmly letting Danny and David go to work. Josh and Cecilia had moved away, carrying Ezra's tack to his box without any fear the horse would hurt them.

Sarah, Jenny and Sammy stood in front of Peso's stall. "Can we help with him, Mr. Ezra?"

Ezra hesitated, and then shook his head. "Peso is more reserved than Chaucer, and does not enjoy the attention of so many at one time."

Sammy nodded. "Peso's shy." He declared with sympathy.

Nathan suppressed a snort. Shy...hell. That horse is just plain mean.

Ezra tipped his head toward the three children. "And the polite thing to do would be what?"

"Not ta make him uncomfortable." Jenny stated, smiling brightly. "A lady never knowingly does anything to embarrass a guest or a friend."

"Quite correct, Miss Jennifer." Ezra nodded his approval of her answer. "So while I do appreciate the offer, it would be better for me to take care of Peso without your assistance."

Sammy sighed, clearly disappointed. He dug a furrow in the dirt with the toe of one shoe. "Wanted ta help."

Ezra raised an eyebrow. "You may help by keeping me company while I take care of Peso."

"We can do that." Sarah stated confidently.

Ezra deftly stripped Peso of Vin's saddle and bridle. For anyone else the ornery horse would have danced and threatened with hooves and teeth. But for Ezra he stood patiently, apparently unconcerned with what was going on around him. Amazing.

"Have you all worked on your lessons in my absence?"

A chorus of eager yes's were his answer. Nathan listened; dumbfounded to hear each child run down the list of things they had been studying. Ezra appeared to follow each child's enthusiastic input. He seemed to know exactly what they were talking about. Asking questions occasionally that would set off another round of excited answers.

When Ezra finished with Peso, he sat down on a nearby bale of hay. Each child came forward with their copybooks, eager to show him what they had done. Ezra studied one book after another.

"Very impressive. I must commend you for keeping up with your assignments even while I was unavailable. Miss Cecilia, you did an outstanding job acting as my proxy." Cecilia blushed prettily, and then curtsied.

Man acts like he's some kind of teacher. Guess he thinks since he was `the masser' that he's the best qualified. Won't hurt `em to get some schoolin' but I ain't sure if Ezra's the right man for the job. Those kids ought ta have a proper teacher not some conman with fancy airs. Have ta ask Mrs. Potter an' Mrs. Kowalski and the other mothers if they know what that damn gambler's been doin'.

"Will ya show me a trick now?" Sammy asked, eyes pleading. "I signed my name all by myself."

Ezra pulled a deck of cards from his pocket. He performed a trick for each child. The children watched in awe as he made the cards dance and disappear at will. Nathan was impressed as well. He knew it was all just slight of hand, but Ezra made it look like magic.

"Mr. Potter, would you bring me my saddlebags please?"

Josh nodded, and placed the bags at Ezra's feet. Ezra opened one, and withdrew a peppermint stick for each child. He handed them out, receiving grins and thank yous as he did so.

"Now then, your mothers' must be wondering what has become of you."
Jenny quietly asked. "Will ya be there tomorrow, Mr. Ezra?" Six other pairs of eyes fixed intently on the gambler. "Momma says travelin' wears a body down. Jenny hesitated, but reluctantly continued. "So we'd understand if you was too tired. We could always do it another day."

Ezra smiled. "Your mother is correct, Miss Jennifer. Travel is often exhausting. However, I am not that tired. Rest assured, little ones, I will be there."

Seven children positively beamed in response. Nathan frowned. Be where? Jus' what are you plannin'? Nathan watched the gambler with narrowed eyes. He objected on moral grounds to most of Ezra's schemes and money making plans, but he couldn't imagine what he might be planning that would involve children. Be best to keep an eye on him and make sure he don't lead those kids into some kind o' trouble.

"Off with you now before y'all are late for supper."

The children turned and dashed off. Racing past Nathan. The healer watched them leave. His attention was called back to Ezra when the cardsharp spoke to him.

"It is unseemly to lurk in shadows, Mr. Jackson." Ezra hadn't looked up from where he was ordering his cards. He patted the deck in place and returned the cards to his jacket pocket.

Nathan blushed. How does he do that? Man never even looked my way. "Wasn't lurking, Ezra." Nathan stepped further into the stable. "I was just waitin' until you were done."

Ezra raised an eyebrow, but didn't comment further. Nathan could easily read the disbelief in that silence. Somehow he and the gambler just never saw things the same way. From the day they met they seemed to be on opposite sides. Nathan liked to think things between them were improving, but at times like these he doubted that.

"Where's Vin?"

"The last time I saw him he was conversing with Mr. Larabee at the jail." Ezra reached into his saddlebag and withdrew an apple. Both Peso and Chaucer immediately hung their heads over their stall doors, ears pricked forward, watching Ezra intently.

"I offered to attend to his faithful steed, while he attended to our illustrious leader."

Probably just tryin' ta hide from Chris. Man wouldn't volunteer ta do a lick a work if there wasn't somethin' in it for him. Wonder what he did. Maybe it's what he's plannin' ta do.

The gambler pulled a knife from his boot, cut the apple in half, and handed one half to Chaucer, the other to Peso. So that's how he gets Peso ta behave. He bribes him.

"You have any trouble getting Hoskins ta Bitter Creek?"

Ezra returned the knife to his boot, picked up his saddlebags, and rose smoothly to his feet. "Nothing that Mr. Tanner and I couldn't handle." Ezra raised two fingers to the brim of his hat as he moved past Nathan. "Good day to you, Mr. Jackson."

Nathan was tempted to stop him, and ask what he was doing with the children, but knew the conman wouldn't give him a straight answer. Man couldn't tell the truth if his life depended on it. Just going to have to keep a close eye on him. Wouldn't be right for him ta take advantage o' those kids.



Chris Larabee watched as Ezra rode away, leaving Vin to fill him in on what happened on the trip to Bitter Creek. Ezra had been quick to offer to take care of Peso. It wasn't obvious, but Chris knew the conman was uncomfortable in his presence. Ezra never let down his guard around Chris. He wasn't afraid, of that Chris was certain, more like wary and vigilant.

At first, Chris had wanted the gambler to be on edge. He didn't trust the man, and wanted him to know that he was being watched, his every word and action were suspect. But lately, it had begun to bother him that one of his men would avoid him rather than ask for help. It wasn't right that one of his men thought Chris would let him hang if push came to shove. He found it unnerving that after working with him for a year, Ezra seemed to consider him more of an enemy than an ally.

The Texan's eyes followed Ezra to the stable. Chris frowned. "Somethin' wrong?" I know Ezra can handle Peso. Hell, Standish is the only one other than Vin that damn horse hasn't tried to trample.

"Nope." Vin shifted his gaze. His sky blue eyes met Chris' darker blue gray. Chris nodded, reading the truth of Vin's statement, but noting there was something more. Nothing was wrong, but maybe not everything is all right.

"Got a telegram from the sheriff in Bitter Creek. Said ya brought in two men." The telegram Vin had sent said only that he and Ezra had made it to Bitter Creek. The sheriff, Tom Wilton, had sent a telegram the next day giving more information and letting JD know when to expect them back.

Vin nodded. "Hoskins had friends. Met up with `em on the trail."

"Any trouble?" Chris hadn't noticed any injuries on either Vin or Ezra. But knowing how well those two hid things, it wouldn't surprise him if they had lost a limb and managed to keep it a secret.

Vin shrugged. "Nothin' me and Ez couldn't handle, Cowboy."

Chris nodded. He wasn't surprised to hear that. Whatever his misgivings about Ezra the man could handle himself in firefight. "Sheriff said ya brought four dead men too."

Vin leaned against the porch railing. "Yep."

Chris let it go. He wasn't going to get any more information from Vin. Wonder if I asked Standish if I'd get more. Man can talk like nobody's business, but he don't say a damn thing.

"Let's get a drink." Vin nodded and followed Chris to the saloon.

"Anythin' happen in town?"

Chris shook his head. "Nothing much. Things have been pretty quiet lately." Chris was hoping they would stay that way. He liked the peace and quiet.

"Buck got patrol?"

"Yeah. He should be back in another hour."

Chris and Vin stepped into the saloon. Vin sauntered over to their usual table, while Chris stopped at the bar to get a bottle of whiskey and two shot glasses from Inez. He slid into his chair and passed Vin a glass.

"Ya sign me up for the mornin' patrol?" Vin asked as he poured himself a drink.

He nodded. Morning patrol was usually taken by Chris or Vin. Occasionally Josiah, JD or Nathan would take on that shift, but not very often. Chris used to assign the early morning shift to Ezra when he was pissed at the cardsharp. But he had finally realized that it was more aggravation than it was worth to get Ezra out of bed that early. The gambler had no problem taking late evening. In fact he was the one Chris routinely assigned the midnight to morning shift. Knowing Vin and Ezra would be back today, Chris figured he might as work them back into the rotation.

"Ya got Ez workin' tonight then?"

"No. Josiah and JD already got it covered. Ezra has tomorrow night."

Vin nodded. He sat back, and sipped his drink. Chris noticed when he made a face. "Somethin' wrong?"

"Not as good as brandy."

Chris didn't quite know what to make of that comment. Brandy? What the hell? Chris shrugged mentally and let it go.

Vin tipped his chair back on two legs. Chris enjoyed the companionable silence between them. He'd missed the Texan over the last few days. He missed Vin's calm, laid back attitude, and having someone to share his coffee with in the morning. If he were honest with himself he missed the flamboyant gambler too. The saloon didn't seem quite the same without Ezra holding court at his usual table.

Speak of the devil. Ezra entered the saloon. He casually scanned the room. But Chris knew his study was anything but casual. Chris did the same thing often enough to know Ezra had just categorized every person in the room in terms of their identity, position, and possible threat.

Ezra headed for the bar. He spoke to Inez for a moment. She laughed lightly at something he said, and then handed him a bottle and a glass. Ezra tipped his hat to her, before making his way across the room to join Vin and Chris.

"Mr. Larabee. Mr. Tanner."



Ezra sat down in the chair next to Vin. He poured himself a glass of what Chris figured had to be Scotch. Ezra wouldn't drink whiskey if there were Scotch on hand. Chris knew for a fact that Inez had just gotten a shipment in today. She ordered it especially for Ezra, and adamantly refused to give a bottle to anyone else. Inez said it was Ezra's private stock.

"If you want a drink of it, you will simply have to ask Senor Standish for it." She told him tartly every time he'd ask. Chris had never asked Ezra because he was certain the man wouldn't share.

"Ya get Peso put away okay?" Vin asked.

"Yes, Mr. Tanner. Your fractious mount is safe and sound in his own stall."

"He give ya trouble?"

Chris was surprised to hear a genuine note of concern in Vin's voice. Normally the tracker didn't worry much about how Peso behaved. Sometimes, Chris was convinced he encouraged that damn horse to act up.

"He was a perfect gentlemen." Ezra smirked and shot a look at Vin that Chris couldn't interpret. "Unlike his owner."

Chris raised an eyebrow when Vin ducked his head, and blushed. Wonder what that's all about. He couldn't remember ever seeing Vin blush before.

Vin cleared his throat, and downed the remainder of his drink. He tipped his head toward Ezra's bottle. "That better'n brandy?"

Ezra raised a shoulder in a move far to elegant and precise to be called a shrug. "Scotch is something of an acquired taste, Mr. Tanner. It is as different from brandy, as brandy is from the rotgut whiskey you just finished."

Vin nodded. "But is it better?"

"I prefer it, but to know for certain if you would agree with that assessment, you would have to try it for yourself. Everyone's palate is a bit different."

Vin held his empty glass out toward Ezra. "Can I?"

Ezra tapped a finger against his lower lip. "The correct question is `may I?', Mr. Tanner. And certainly you may." To Chris' astonishment Ezra filled Vin's glass.

Ezra raised his glass to touch Vin's and then with a quick swallow he downed his drink. Vin cautiously sipped his drink. He smiled. "Nice. Smooth. But I think I like brandy better."

Chris stared. Ezra arched one eyebrow sardonically. "Yes, Mr. Larabee?"

What the hell? Worst he can do is say no. "May I have a drink of that?"

Ezra tipped his head, seemed to consider his request of a moment, and then filled Chris' glass. Chris sipped it and closed his eyes. Man, that is good. Haven't had aged scotch in years. "That's good, Ez. Real good."

Ezra nodded, and then picked up his bottle. He stood up, adjusting his clothing with a few deft movements until they lay perfectly. "Now, if you gentlemen will excuse me, I think a bath might be in order before I partake in a game or two of chance this evening."

"Thanks for the drink, Ez."

"You are welcome, Mr. Tanner." Ezra hesitated for just a moment. He glanced toward Chris, and then turned away. Just that quickly he was gone.

Chris stared after him, and then looked at Vin. Vin continued to sip his scotch. "How did you do that?"

"Do what, Cowboy?"

"Get him to share. The selfish bastard has never offered to share a drop of his private stock before."

Vin's eyes narrowed. "Ya ever ask him to?" His voice was cold and hard.

Chris blinked, surprised by the sudden change in Vin's demeanor. "No."

Vin nodded. "Well then, there ya go." Vin said calmly, his tone matter of fact.

"That simple?" Chris frowned. Nothing with Standish is ever simple.

Vin shrugged. "Sometimes. Amazin' what ya get when ya ask for it." Vin sipped his drink again. His blue eyes measured Chris with an appraising look. "Ain't like you've ever bought him a drink either, Cowboy."

Chris scowled not liking where this was going. "Meaning?"

"Why should he offer ta share with ya? Ain't like you'd be willin' ta do the same. As it is, ya didn't even thank him for the one he did give ya."

Chris opened his mouth to deny it, but realized Vin was right. He'd bought drinks for the others in the past. Hell, he'd just bought Vin a drink a few minutes ago. But he never once offered to buy one for Ezra. Never offered to share a bottle with him.

"Man can afford to buy his own damn drink." Chris growled, trying to justify his actions. An' why the hell should I thank him? Man must have a dozen bottles o' that scotch, but he's too miserly ta share more than one drink.

Vin raised an eyebrow. "I can't buy my own? Buck is broke? Josiah and Nathan too?"

"When Ezra takes all their money playing poker they are lucky to have two nickels to rub together."

Vin brought his chair forward, sitting squarely on all four legs. "Ez doesn't TAKE their money. They're dumb enough to play week after week. He don't force them ta sit down and play. They're grown men. They make their choices. If they wanna keep their money they ought ta know better than to gamble with it. Every game has a winner and a loser, ya'd think they'd have figured that out by now. If they ain't prepared ta lose then they should know better than ta sit down at the table and ante up."

Chris sat back, surprised by Vin's vehement defense of the gambler. It was also the most words he'd ever heard the reticent tracker say at one time. Ignoring for the moment the fact that the Texan was right, Chris asked, "Why are you all of a sudden defending him?"

Vin pushed his chair back. "Because it's about damn time someone did. We're s'posed to be a team, Cowboy." Vin got up. "Ain't right, and it ain't fair, ta treat Ez different than we treat each other." Vin slammed his glass down on the table, and left heading out the back way.

Chris sighed, and rubbed his forehead. That went well. Was I thinking I missed them?

He regarded the glass in front of him. With a shrug he finished, his drink enjoying the smooth taste of well-aged single malt. Vin's right. Ezra doesn't force the others to play with him. And before today I never thought to just ask him for a drink. Knew I treated him different, but didn't think it was over little shit. Figured it was jus' when it came ta the job, or money.

Chris shook his head. He wasn't sure he knew how to fix this. Hell, until two minutes ago I didn't even know it was broken. Chris sighed again, and successfully resisted the urge to bang his head against the table.



Vin woke at his usual time shortly before dawn. He breathed in deeply before opening his eyes. He smiled, enjoying the scent of Ezra. Sandalwood, lavender, and somthin' that is just him.

They had agreed to maintain their normal routines, so Vin had left the saloon last night at his usual hour. But instead of heading for his wagon, he had slipped up the back stairs. He snuck into Ezra's room using the key Ezra had given him, careful to make sure no one saw him. He knew Ezra would stay in the saloon until closing time, playing poker, and then helping Inez clean up.

Vin had been stunned when Ezra offered him the key yesterday morning as they broke camp. "Won't ya need it?"

Ezra shrugged, and grinned, dimples flashing, gold premolar visible. "I can pick the lock. I thought you might want to access my room without drawing attention by knocking." Ezra had placed a warm, gentle kiss on his lips. It was a promise of more to come.

"It wouldn't do to have you skulking in the corridor like some villain either. And there is no reason for you not to enjoy the comforts of my bed while you await my arrival."

Vin had looped a rawhide cord through the key and hung it around his neck, tucking it safely out of view inside his shirt. Throughout the day, he raised a hand to pat it just to make certain it was still there. There was something reassuring about having real, tangible proof Ezra wanted them to continue their `liaison'. Not that the conman had given any indication he didn't, it was just nice to have something solid to hold on to.

Vin had slipped silently up the stairs and into Ezra's room unobserved. He lit the lamp on the bedside table, but kept it low. He spent several minutes just wandering around Ezra's room. The only time he'd been there before was to wake the gambler, and that had been more of a duck and run experience, leaving him with little more of an impression rather than specific details.

Unlike the other boys, Ezra's room was well ordered, and clean. His clothes hung neatly in the closet, or were stored in the dresser. There was nothing lying scattered around the floor. Even the bed was made.

The room should have had an impersonal feel, but it didn't. There were traces of Ezra's scent that lingered in the air. The rocking chair near the window added a homey touch. Vin could picture his lover sitting there reading or just watching the street. The quilt folded, and lying at the foot of the bed, was a bit frayed and looked like it had seen a lot of use. Vin ran his hands over it, and knew immediately why Ezra kept it. Soft.

Vin noticed several books stacked in one corner. Curious he'd picked up one. He'd been working diligently on learning to read with Mrs. Travis when she had time. But he found Ezra to be a better teacher.

Ezra had come to him after laughing about his poetry and apologized, repeatedly. He had been ashamed of his behavior and had wanted to make up for doing what he called an `unconscionable act better suited to a cretin than a comrade'. He had offered to make it up to Vin.

Vin knew the gambler had been drunk, and decided to cut him some slack. He should have known better than approach the man when he was in that state. So he asked Ezra to teach him to read as a way to make it up to him. He hadn't honestly expected the gambler to take him up on it. To his surprise, Ezra was more than willing to do so. For several months, he had secretly helped Vin struggle with the learning process, patiently teaching him to read and write.

Vin had stopped going to Ezra when he realized that his attraction to the gambler was growing, and being alone with him made it hard to concentrate. He had decided it was better to stay away before he did something he'd regret. Before he lost control and did something that would damage the growing friendship between them.

Vin was proud of the fact that, thanks to Ezra, he could make his way through most of the Clarion now without too much difficulty. He frowned studying the book he held. He couldn't make heads or tails of the writing on the book he held. Huh. Letters are all backwards. Vin picked up another book to compare them. He could read the title on the second book. Have ta ask Ez what the other one says.

Vin slipped out of his boots, and hung his jacket over the rocking chair. He made himself comfortable on the bed, settling in to wait for Ezra. When Ezra had slipped into the room later that night, Vin had woken from his light sleep immediately. He hadn't recognized who Ezra was at first, and greeted him by pointing his mare's leg at him. Ezra raised an eyebrow. Vin shrugged, unapologetic.

"Sorry, Ez. Old habit." It was a habit that had kept him alive too long to quit.

"My fault. I should have announced myself. I shall remember to do so in the future."

Vin liked the sound of that. It was tacit permission to come back as often as he liked. And Vin intended to spend a lot of time with Ezra.

"Browsing through my library?" Ezra nodded toward the books Vin had left on the bed.

"Ya don't mind do ya?" Vin wondered if he shouldn't have been quite so free in his examination of Ezra's things.

"No. I don't mind. Feel free to avail yourself to anything you find interesting." Ezra slipped out of his jacket and moved to hang it up in the closet. He undid his string tie leaving it on the dresser, and hung his hat on the mirror post. Ezra unbuttoned his cuffs, as he moved toward the bed.

"What struck your fancy?"

Vin held up the book whose title he'd been unable to read. Ezra looked at him in surprise. "I would not have thought you'd be able to read this one."

"I can't." Vin tried to hide his embarrassment at not being able to.

Ezra reached out, putting a knuckle under Vin's chin, gently forced his head up. "Nothing to be ashamed of. The reason you can't read it is because it is written in Greek. Not English."

"Greek?" Vin felt better hearing that. It wasn't his fault he couldn't read it.

Ezra smiled softly. "Yes. It is Homer's Iliad and Odyssey. It has been translated many times, but I prefer to read the original."

Vin frowned. "Ya didn't tell me you could speak Greek." Ezra had told him he could speak French, Spanish, Italian and Portuguese. He hadn't mentioned Greek.

Ezra chuckled. "That's because I can't. I can read it. But I am not able to speak it with any degree of fluency. Certainly not to the same extent as the other languages I'd told you about."

Probably speaks it better'n I do English. Wonder what he figures it takes to be fluent. Vin tapped the book. "What's it about?
Ezra smiled. "The first part, the Iliad, is about a war between the Greek city-states, and Troy. The second, the Odyssey, is about one man's long journey to get home after the war is over."

Vin frowned. "This war recent?" He'd never heard of Troy. Only war he knew anything about was the one he'd fought in.

"No. The story is ancient. A classic. Part history, part myth and legend. No one really knows for certain how much of it is real and how much is simply invention."

Vin nodded. He put the book aside. He wasn't interested in it anymore. Not when Ezra had started undoing the buttons of his vest, and then his shirt.

Vin licked his lips remembering the bout of lovemaking they had engaged in. He stretched, easing stiff muscles, careful not to disturb Ezra. Just when he thought it couldn't get any better, Ezra went and added something new.

Ez really has a knack for teachin'. And I mean more than just readin'. Vin grinned at that thought. He enjoyed these lessons a lot. He was looking forward to the next one.

Vin sighed. Wish our normal routine included me hangin' out in bed with Ez. He's right `bout this feather bed. Thing is real comfortable. Can see why he don't want ta get up in the mornin'. Vin couldn't remember sleeping better. Course it might be the company, and not jus' the bed.

His shift on patrol would start soon, and he needed to get dressed and get moving before he was late. He didn't want anyone to see him sneaking out of Ezra's room. Vin reluctantly pulled away from the warm body he'd been wrapped around. Ezra made a sleepy sound of discontent. Vin placed a kiss on his shoulder.

"Shh...it's okay."

Ezra shifted and rolled toward Vin, his green eyes opening. "Good morning." Ezra's normally smooth drawl was rough with sleep.

Vin smiled, and ran his fingers though Ezra's sleep tousled hair. "Mornin'."

Ezra sighed, closed his eyes, and moved closer to Vin, eliminating the distance Vin had created just a minute ago. As much as he enjoyed the feel of Ezra snuggled in close, Vin knew he couldn't stay. "I gotta go, Ez."

"Okay." Ezra didn't move.

"I got patrol."

"Hhmmm." Ezra nodded his head against Vin's shoulder.

Vin chuckled, and pulled away. Ezra didn't try to restrain him, but his green eyes opened to follow every move he made. Vin slid out of bed, and gathered up his clothes. After making sure he'd put the key around his neck for safe keeping, he quickly got dressed. Vin made a point of not looking at Ezra as he did, knowing he'd be unable to finish the job if he did.

Ezra clucked his tongue. "A shame to see such beauty hidden away from view."

Vin looked over his shoulder. "Ain't beautiful."

Ezra arched an eyebrow. "I am afraid that I must disagree. You are the embodiment of perfection."

Vin blushed. He was flattered that Ezra thought he was nice to look at, but he didn't think of himself that way. "Women are beautiful. Not men."

Ezra smirked at him, green eyes sparkling with amusement and affection. "Nonsense. Beauty is not limited by gender. Both men and women can be beautiful. And you, Mr. Vin Tanner, are most definitely beautiful."

Vin shrugged. "If ya say so."

Ezra nodded firmly. "I say so."

Vin pulled on his boots, and then stepped back to the bed. He leaned in and placed a warm, gentle kiss on Ezra's lips. He was careful to keep the kiss from getting too deep or passionate. It was just a little morning hello and a tender good-bye. No point in startin' somethin' we can't finish.

"When will you be back?" Ezra asked when Vin forced himself to let go.

"Should be back by noon."

Ezra stretched, and pulled the covers up as he snuggled back into the bed. He didn't normally put in an appearance until mid-morning, so it didn't surprise Vin that his lover looked to be settling in to stay for a while. "Vin...Would you care to meet me for lunch?"

"Would love to." It wasn't uncommon for any or all of the seven to meet up for lunch. The two of them getting together wouldn't seem out of the ordinary. Vin tucked the covers in closer, knowing how much Ezra hated being cold. He caressed Ezra's cheek as he did so. "I'll see ya soon."

Vin slipped out silently, careful to go out and down the back stairs unseen. He headed for the jail first to check in. Josiah greeted him.

"Good morning, brother Vin." The ex-preacher was sipping a cup of coffee and saluted Vin with his cup.

"Mornin', Josiah." Vin headed to the small stove and poured a cup of coffee from the pot resting on the top. He sipped the bitter brew, mindful that it would be hot. "Things quiet?"

Josiah nodded. "Did my last round just half an hour ago. No sign of trouble."

The midnight to morning shift consisted of making regular rounds through town checking the buildings and alleys, seeing to it the saloon and its patrons shut down peacefully. Vin preferred the morning shift, not just because he was an early riser, but also because that shift usually meant riding out of town and checking the outlying ranches.

"Saloon close up okay?" If there were problems at all that was where they usually started. Vin hadn't heard anything, and he knew Ezra would have said something last night if there had been trouble. But it was a routine question, so Vin felt obligated to ask Josiah.

"Yes. No trouble at all." Josiah smiled. "Things there are usually calmer there when Ezra is around."

Glad I'm not the only one who noticed Ezra keeps things quieter there. Ez can jus' put a stop to it `fore it gets outta hand. Vin paused trying to remember the word Ezra had used. De--something. Got it. Defuse. Said it was similar ta keepin' dynamite from explodin'.

Chris stepped through the door. Vin had already poured a cup for him and handed it to him. Chris tipped his head and nodded his thanks.

Josiah stood and stretched his arms high over his head. He scratched the stubble on his chin. "If you boys will pardon me....I'm," Josiah yawned widely, "going to bed."

"G'night, Josiah. Sleep well." Chris offered with a faint smile. The larger man just tipped his head, and headed out the door. Vin knew he would be in the church until mid-morning. Probably'll surface `bout the same time as Ez.

Vin finished his coffee. He moved to follow Josiah out the door when Chris stopped him. "Vin?"

"Yeah, Cowboy?" Vin turned to look at Chris and waited.

The blond gunslinger hesitated. "I'm sorry."

Vin frowned. "Fer what?"


"Ain't me you owe an apology to." Vin kept his voice neutral and non-judgemental.

"I know." Chris nodded. "I'm gonna try and make it up to him." Chris made a wry face. "Don't know how, but..." Chris sipped his coffee, and shook his head. "He say somethin' to you on that trip?"

Cowboy, you have no idea. But none o' that has anything ta do with what yer askin'. Vin didn't even blink at Chris' question. He understood where the gunslinger was coming from. His defense of Ezra yesterday was bound to raise an eyebrow, but he just couldn't sit back and let Chris belittle the gambler.

"He thinks y'all don't trust him."

Chris sighed. "I do trust him."

"Then maybe ya should act like ya do." Vin pointed out calmly.

Chris pursed his lips thinking about that, and then nodded. "He say anythin' else?"

"Plenty, but nothin' I'm gonna tell you."

The gunslinger looked at Vin in surprise. Vin shrugged. "Ya want ta know somethin', Cowboy, ask him. He might jus' surprise ya. `Sides, you would do better ta hear it from him. Talkin' ta me ain't gonna fix the problems ya got with him."

Vin looked toward the clock. It was time he got going. "I'll see ya later."

"Be careful." Chris warned, his expression thoughtful. Vin knew that what he'd said had hit home. Maybe he'll set things straight with Ez. Hope so.

"Always am." Got even more reason ta make sure I come home in one piece. Ezra will be waitin'.



Ezra had gotten up at eleven. He didn't really hate mornings, he just couldn't understand the need to be up with the sun if he didn't have to be. It wasn't like he'd been assigned any duties that required getting up before he felt like it. He had been conditioned for most of his life to being awake when most others were ending the day.

Since it was usual for Chris to assign him the midnight to morning shift, Ezra didn't typically get to bed until the sun was rising. And when he hadn't been assigned that shift, it was usually 2 am before he retired to his room. Most of the time he would spend an hour or more reading. Last night there had been more interesting activities to engage in.

Ezra smiled at his reflection thinking about what happened when he had gotten back to his room. Sleep hadn't been a high priority at the time. He shivered, remembering just how he and Vin had spent the wee hours of the morning.

Ezra took a deep breath, and then another. With the ease of long practice he controlled his emotions, and facial expression. The man looking back from the mirror wore a pleasantly bland expression, and appeared totally at ease. Better. It would not do to give away the game. Not yet. Not ever.

Satisfied that both his room and his appearance were once more in order, Ezra headed down stairs. He sauntered over to the restaurant. With any luck Vin would arrive soon.

Ezra noticed that JD and Buck were already present. He forced himself not to show any disappointment. He knew that it was unlikely that he and Vin would be able to share the midday meal alone, but he had hoped they would have that opportunity. Ah well, perhaps another day.

He watched Buck and JD's antics for a moment. He envied their close relationship. Ezra had never really had the opportunity to experience what it was like to have a younger brother to look out for, or have an older brother look out for him. And despite the lack of blood ties, Buck and JD were most definitely brothers.

"Hey, Ez." JD called to him.

"Mr. Dunne." Ezra nodded as he made his way to their table. "Mr. Wilmington."

"'Bout damn time you got up, Ez." Buck slid a chair toward him. "Was beginnin' ta think you were gonna spend the whole day in bed."

Ezra rolled his eyes. "I fail to see the appeal for rising with the sun, Mr. Wilmington."

Buck grinned. "Well ya know what they say...early ta bed, early ta rise, makes a man healthy, wealthy an' wise."

Ezra gracefully sat down, and shot a mocking look at Buck. "And tell me, Mr. Wilmington, what use have you made of all the wisdom, and wealth, this daily regimen has garnered you?"

JD laughed. "Yeah, Buck, where ya been hidin' all that money?"

Buck stroked his mustache, and leaned back in his chair. "Well, now in ol' Buck's case it ain't money or health that he gets, it's animal magnetism. Ladies jus' can't resist me."

"Buck, you are so full o' crap." JD stated firmly. Buck retaliated by trying to knock off JD's hat. The young sheriff managed to duck out of reach just in time. He stuck his tongue out at Buck, making the tall cowboy laugh.

"If that's the best you can do, Kid, I'm gonna have to teach you better."

Ezra didn't want to contemplate what those lessons might entail. "Anything interesting happen in town while Mr. Tanner and I were absent?"

JD gave him a run down of who did what and went were. Ezra found it fascinating just how much the younger man could get out of one breath. He idly wondered if it were possible for someone to pass out from saying so much so fast, and breathing so little.

Ezra could tell immediately when Nathan and Josiah enter the restaurant. The ability to be aware of everyone and everything in the room while seeming to concentrate on something else was a survival trait he'd mastered years ago. He never let his guard down in a public setting, and rarely did it even in private. Ezra wouldn't have lived as long as he had in his line of work without constantly monitoring his environment.

Buck greeted the new arrivals in his usual boisterous fashion. JD stopped relaying the latest news long enough to greet them as well. Ezra settled for tipping his head politely to both the healer and the ex-preacher.

Nathan took the seat opposite JD. Josiah clapped a hand on Ezra's shoulder as he sat down in the vacant seat to Ezra's right. "Ezra, son, it is good to have you back in town."

Ezra clamped down hard on his first, instinctive reaction when Josiah touched him. Over the course of his life, Ezra had found that unsolicited contact was usually the harbinger of pain. He was all too familiar with people laying hands on him to restrain, immobilize, threaten or inflict harm. Ezra could count on one hand the number of people who had touched him with the same degree of familiarity that Josiah just had, that hadn't done so with the express intent of hurting him. Even his own mother had often only engaged in physical displays as a means of controlling him or as part of a con, not as a way of exhibiting any real maternal affection. Vin was a recent addition to the select few who's touch he not only allowed but actively welcomed and encouraged.

Ezra forced himself to sit still, to not shy away, or violently remove the larger man's hand from his shoulder. It was a credit to his ability to control himself that the others never saw the slight stiffening of his posture as anything more than simple annoyance. "Mr. Sanchez, I really must insist that you give up this delusion that we are somehow related."

Ezra narrowed his eyes, and looked pointedly at the hand on his shoulder. "And accosting my person will not change that fact."

Josiah laughed, patted Ezra's shoulder and let go. Ezra knew it was futile to get the man to acknowledge his request, but he kept trying, unwilling to admit complete defeat on the issue. Why is so hard to honor a simple request? He has made it clear on more than one occasion that I am not what he would consider acceptable in a progeny, so why persist in calling me son?

Ezra studied Josiah for a moment. How can he not realize that continuing to call me son, ignoring my wishes, only serves to emphasize how little regard he has for me? If he thinks that calling me son will induce me to amend my habits and behavior in some effort to win paternal approval, he is sadly mistaken. Ezra sighed silently. It was an issue for another time.

"Hey, Ezra?"

"Yes, Mr. Dunne?"

"Tom Wilton said you and Vin brought in four dead men with ya when ya delivered Hoskins. Said ya brought in another guy too. Somebody named O'Brian."

"Yes, we did." Ezra nodded.

He tried not to think about the young man who had gasped out his last breath in Ezra's arms. When he had devised his plan he had meant only to incapacitate Hoskins and his gang, not to kill them. In his darker moments, Ezra wondered if it made him a bad man that he regretted the death of the horse Vin had been forced to put down more than he did the death of the boy. At least the boy had a choice, the horse was never given that option.

"I thought you said you didn't have any trouble." Nathan frowned, dark eyes watching Ezra suspiciously. "Four dead men, and an extra prisoner, don't sound like no trouble."

"Mr. Jackson, what I said was that Mr. Tanner and I had not run into trouble we couldn't handle." Ezra corrected Nathan quietly. "I never said there was no trouble."

"Sounds like ya handled it all right." Buck whistled clearly impressed. "If we'd known there was gonna be trouble more of us coulda gone with Vin. Don't sound like the odds were real good."

Ezra smiled tightly, noting that Buck's concern was for Vin not for himself. "Yes, I'm sure Mr. Tanner would no doubt have appreciated your capable assistance."

Josiah raked him from head to toe with hard blue eyes. "Either of you get hurt in this little dust up?"

"No wounds of significance were sustained by either of us."

"That isn't the same thing as saying no, Ezra." Josiah growled.

Ezra smirked. "Most perceptive of you, Mr. Sanchez." He told Vin he never lied to him. He'd never lied to any of the others either. He just picked his words carefully.

Nathan glared at Ezra. "I haven't seen Vin since he got back. He get hurt? That why you were takin' care of Peso?"

Ezra cocked his head, unfazed by the black man's hostility. "Why don't you ask him yourself, Mr. Jackson?" Ezra casually waved a hand toward the door. Even with out looking he knew when Chris and Vin had entered.

Chris took the seat that positioned him at what could be considered the head of the table. Vin slid into the vacant chair next to Ezra's left with his usual boneless grace. "Ask me what?"

"Did you get hurt?"

"When?" Vin looked at the healer, his expression completely innocent.

"Taking Hoskins to Bitter Creek."

"Nope." Vin looked at Nathan steadily, his clear blue eyes easily relaying the truth of that simple statement.

Josiah fixed his attention on Ezra, but directed his question to Vin. "Ezra get hurt?"

Vin shrugged one shoulder. "Jus' a scratch. Nothin' ta worry `bout." He cast a questioning look toward Ezra.

Ezra half-smiled. "It seems the good sheriff of Bitter Creek took it upon himself to inform our associates that we arrived with more in tow than just Mr. Hoskins."

"Ah." Vin nodded. His eyes sparkled with quiet humor. Ezra knew Vin was aware of the telegram Wilton sent. He'd known that the sheriff was planning to tell the others when they left Bitter Creek so they would know when to expect them back.

Chris looked around the table. "Knew `bout that even `fore ya got back. What's the big deal?"

"No one said anything to me about four dead men and another prisoner." Buck declared, obviously put out at the thought of not being informed. "You just said they got there okay."

"And they did." Chris waved a hand to encompass both Vin and Ezra. "They got home okay too."

Nathan shook his head. "Damn, Ezra, ya could have told me that yesterday."

Ezra raised an eyebrow. "I answered the question you asked, Mr. Jackson." He kept his tone and expression blandly neutral.

Nathan muttered something darkly under his breath that Ezra chose to ignore. Vin slouched further in his chair, and moved so he could bump his knee against Ezra's. Ezra knew he was silently asking if there was a problem. Ezra bumped him back, and shook his head just enough to signal that everything was fine.

Ezra was somewhat relieved to get through lunch. It was a subtle, and sweet torture, to be so close to Vin and not to act on the urge to touch him more blatantly, to act normally. Looking for the silver lining, Ezra decided it was a good test of his skills. It was a challenge, and a part of him honestly delighted in exercising his skills. Never had to work so hard to stay sharp before.

Buck pushed his plate away with a satisfied sigh. He patted his stomach. "Man, that was good grub." He pushed his chair from the table getting ready to leave. "Guess I better get on patrol. Vin, which way did ya ride this mornin'?"

Afternoon patrol generally consisted of visiting those ranches that weren't already checked on that morning. Vin had circled to the west and north. Buck would take a route that went east and south.

JD got ready to leave as well, giving Buck a playful jostle as he got to his feet. "I'll be in the jail if any o' ya need me."

Buck shoved back. "Now why would anyone need ya kid? Town's been quiet for more'n two weeks."

The two men left arguing good-naturedly as they did so. Ezra withdrew his pocket watch and checked the time. It was nearly one o'clock. "If you gentlemen will excuse me, I must also take my leave. I have an appointment to keep this afternoon."

Nathan pursed his lips. "Something you been plannin' with the children?"

Ezra knew Nathan had been listening in the stable, so his question didn't come as a surprise. "Yes, as a matter of fact."

Deciding to pre-empt any objections or condemnations from the healer, Ezra made an offer. He often found the best defense was to attack. "You are welcome to come along if you wish."

Chris regarded him with surprise. "You doin' something with kids?"

Might as well inform everyone now. Deal with all the recriminations at once. I'm sure Vin will have no objections since he was willing to let me assist in his desire to become literate. Hmmm, I just realized he was my first pupil. But the others...well, no time like the present to find out. Let the chips fall where they may.

"Mrs. Potter was concerned that Joshua and Cecilia had not received any formal instruction for several years. She came to me and wanted to know if I would be willing to act as a temporary, surrogate instructor until a more suitable teacher could be found and induced to stay in Four Corners."

"Why'd she pick you?" Nathan asked. He looked genuinely interested and more than a little surprised.

Ezra shrugged. "You'd have to ask the lady yourself to ascertain all her reasons, but she led me to believe that she considered me to sufficiently well educated and more than able to pass on rudimentary instruction to her children."

Ezra brushed one hand down his sleeve, pretending to remove imaginary dust, but in reality, checking his derringer. It was a habit so ingrained he didn't actually think about it. Every time he adjusted his clothing, he was routinely checked his weaponry to be sure of it was within easy reach and ready to fire. It also let him keep his hands busy without actually making any gestures that might be perceived as nervous.

"What `bout the others I saw ya with yesterday?"

"When several other mothers in our fair hamlet, were bemoaning the lack of a qualified teacher and the uneducated state of their children, Mrs. Potter suggested they join Joshua and Cecilia in receiving lessons from me."

Chris raised an eyebrow. "Jus' how long have you been doing this?"

Ezra paused to consider that question. He hadn't really even thought about it until Chris asked. He shifted a bit, and felt more relaxed when he could feel just the faintest touch of Vin's hand on his thigh. It was reassuring to have Vin there, and know that the Texan would see nothing wrong with him teaching the children, even if the others found his actions suspect.

"The Potter children, approximately three months. Jennifer and Sarah Thomas joined in a month or so after that. The Kowalski twins were included shortly after the family arrived. Samuel Wilson is the most recent addition. His mother felt that he was now old enough to begin undertaking some form of schooling."

"Seven children in all." Josiah noted.

Chris frowned. "There are more kids in town than that."

Ezra nodded. At last count there some fifteen children in town, not to mention another twelve that lived on the outlying ranches. "Indeed. More than enough to warrant having an actual school house and a certified teacher. Mrs. Potter has assured me that she and the others are diligently working toward finding someone eminently more qualified."

Chris shook his head. "That wasn't what I meant. I meant, why aren't you teaching the rest of them?"

Ezra raised an eyebrow. That wasn't a question he'd expected, not at all. He shrugged one shoulder. "I am only teaching the ones who's mothers have requested that I do so. I was under the impression that Mrs. Potter had taken it upon herself to inform every mother in town that she had engaged my services. Having not spoken to any of the others, I can only assume they are choosing to wait for a more appropriate instructor to arrive." Someone with a less questionable profession and reputation no doubt.

Chris raised an eyebrow at that. "How long ya think it will take them to find someone?"

"I have no idea, Mr. Larabee." Ezra honestly didn't know how one went about acquiring a certified teacher. He wasn't even sure what channels to go through. It was why he'd left that task to someone better able to undertake it, Mrs. Potter.

"How often do you do this?"

"I have tried to spend a few hours a day with them. Allowing, of course, for my other obligations." Ezra smiled slightly and tipped his head toward Chris. He didn't want Chris to think he had shirked the other duties he had been assigned.

"What do you teach the little ones, son?"

Ezra chose to ignore being called `son'. "For the most part I have focused on the basics. Reading, writing and arithmetic. Occasionally, I have discussed history and some science with them. Today we will be having a lesson in geography."

Vin spoke up for the first time. "Geography?"

"Specifically, it is the study of the earth and its topographic features, as well as man made points of interest like cities and railroads."

"Maps." Vin declared with a smile.

Ezra smiled back warmly, pleased with how quickly Vin had translated what he said into something he understood. "Exactly. In this case we will be looking at maps of the United States. Mr. Lovitt has recently acquired several new maps, and has graciously agreed to allow the children an opportunity to study them."

Nathan frowned and then raised an eyebrow. "Mr. Lovitt? The bank manager?"

"The one in the same." Ezra nodded.

"Where do you hold these classes?" Josiah questioned. He sat forward, clearly interested.

"Mrs. Potter has set up a place in her store room to accommodate the children. It is adequate until something more suitable can be constructed. Although, for today we will be utilizing Mr. Lovitt's office."

"Yer takin' the kids ta the bank?" Vin looked puzzled. "Wouldn't a thought that would be a good idea."

"Ordinarily, you would be correct, but today is Wednesday." Ezra stated. "The bank usually closes early today to allow Mr. Lovitt, and his associate, Mr. Neville, the opportunity to review the books and go over the week's business. With no customers to deal with, he seemed to think use of his office would not be a problem. And this ensures that his maps do not actually leave the premises. I have been given to understand that they are rather costly."

Ezra pushed back his chair, and moved to stand. "Now, I really must be going or I will be late. The children are expecting me."


"Yes, Mr. Jackson?"

"That invitation still open?"

Ezra wondered about the hesitant nature of the question. It wasn't like Nathan to be unsure about much of anything. Odd. Ah well, no matter. I'm certain he wants to keep an eye on me and ensure I do not unduly corrupt the children.

"But, of course." He waved a hand toward the door, indicating Nathan should precede him. Ezra very subtly let his hand ghost across the back of Vin's chair. His hand moving in a quick caress from one shoulder to the other as he left.

Together, he and Nathan made their way down the boardwalk to Mrs. Potter's store. The children were all eagerly awaiting his arrival. Mrs. Potter looked up from her counter when they entered.

Mrs. Potter patted her hair in place with a quick, deft touch. She came forward from behind the counter, moving with a grace that belied her age. She held out a hand to Ezra, and he gently took it, bowing to kiss the back of her hand.

"Mrs. Potter, I see this day finds you as lovely as ever."

Mrs. Potter smiled warmly. "Mr. Standish, I'm so glad you could make it. The children were worried that you might have been unable to."

Ezra tipped his head to the seven small individuals all trying hard to restrain their excitement. He smiled to see them lined up and ready to go, each one holding their copybooks and a pencil. Rather puts me in mind of JD. I can't remember if I was ever that eager.

"Did I not tell you I would be here?"

Jenny nodded, speaking for the group. "Yes, you did Mr. Ezra."

Sarah spoke up. "But sometimes yer busy doin' other stuff."

Ezra nodded. "Very true. But a gentlemen would have sent word if he were unable to keep an appointment. It is only the polite thing to do. I do, however, apologize for my tardy arrival. I was unavoidably detained."

Sammy grinned. "I knew you were comin'."

Ezra chuckled. "I am most gratified by your faith in me, Samuel. Are you all ready then?"

"Yes, Mr. Ezra." Came from seven different voices.
"Excellent." He nodded toward Nathan. "Children, I know you all know Mr. Jackson. Would any of you have any objections if he accompanies us today?"

David Kowalski looked up at Nathan. "You wanna learn `bout geography too?" The child was clearly awed to find an adult wanting to learn the same things he was.

Nathan smiled at the little red haired boy. "Ezra tells me that is what y'all will be studying today. I could use a some brushin' up on my skills, refresh my memory and the like."

Ezra looked at each child in turn. "Objections? No? Well then, let us be off." He tipped his hat to Mrs. Potter. "M'lady. I bid you good day."

Mrs. Potter nodded her head graciously. "I will be expecting them back in two hours, Mr. Standish. Josh and CeCe have some chores they need to finish."

Ezra nodded. He held out a hand and Sammy took it. Jenny took David's hand, and Sarah took Danny's. Josh held out an arm, offering it to Cecilia, as a young man should to escort a lady. Cecilia grinned, and curled her hand around the inside of his elbow exactly as a young lady should.

"Mr. Ezra, " Sammy pulled at his hand, "Mr. Nathan doesn't have a partner."

Ezra cocked his head to one side. "You are correct, Samuel. That will never do." He looked to the children, and Jenny quickly moved to one side of Nathan, and David to the other. Smiling broadly, they both held out a hand for him to take.

"Excellent." Ezra grinned, sharing an amused look with Nathan. "Problem solved."

Ezra and his charges, with Nathan in the center, made their way to the First National Bank. Ezra opened the door. In another ten minutes the bank would be closing down for the day. They would have the place to themselves. More or less. Not counting Mr. Lovitt, and Mr. Neville.

Mr. Earnest Neville was in the process of ushering the remaining customers out the door. He was a slender man, shorter than Ezra by a good three inches, and nearly twice his age. He reminded Ezra of a pixie. A gentle soul, that in the past year, Ezra had never heard raise his voice, or be out right rude to anyone. Not something that was easy to do given the sometimes irate clientele he had to deal with.

"Mr. Lovitt will be with you momentarily, Mr. Standish."

Ezra nodded. "Thank you, Mr. Neville. We will wait over there." Ezra pointed to a small waiting area on the left. There were several chairs and Ezra had each child pick one, getting them to sit quietly. Nathan casually leaned against the wall.

Ezra crouched down in front of the children, putting himself at eye level. "Now, you must remember that Mr. Lovitt is a busy man. He has been very kind to allow us the use of his maps. We must remember to thank him, and above all to comport ourselves with due decorum."

"What's d-d-decorum?" Danny asked.

"It means to act with good manners, and conform to the behavior polite society expects."

Mr. Lovitt came out of his office smiling. He was a balding, portly man, generally thought of as having a jovial nature. Ezra knew him to be a shrewd business man who's good humor was more for show than real feeling. But he didn't doubt the man would be cordial to the children. I'll make certain of that.

Mr. Neville had just shooed the last customer out the door. He was getting ready to lock it when the door was suddenly, and forcefully, pushed open by a man who was easily as big as Josiah if not bigger.

"I'm sorry, sir, the bank is closed. You'll have to--"

The large man slapped Neville nearly driving the petite man to the floor with the force of the backhanded blow. Three other men followed in close behind him. All were brandishing weapons.

The large man glared at Mr. Neville. "Don't try anythin' stupid, little man." He called over his shoulder. "Cal, lock that door. An' draw them shades."

Nathan pushed off from the wall, intent on stopping them, when one of the men leveled a shotgun in his direction. Ezra was quick to note that the man was tall, and thin to the point of being emaciated. But what got his attention were the wild, crazy eyes. Not sane, this one.

Having made a living out of reading people, he knew the man was not going to stop at simply brandishing the weapon. He had every intention of firing. Ezra rushed forward, tackling Nathan just in time. Instead of killing the healer, the shotgun blast blew out the window. The sound of it reverberated around the room.

Jenny, Sarah and Cecilia screamed. All of the children slid out of their chairs to cower on the floor, and huddle close together. Mr. Lovitt ducked behind the counter. Ezra patted Nathan's shoulder, trying to find out if he had been in time to prevent the healer any injury. He was reassured when Nathan rolled to look at him and let him know he was okay.

"Thanks, Ezra."

"Your welcome." Ezra smiled but quickly turned his attention back to the armed men in front of them. They were all young, probably in their early twenties at most. He didn't recognize any of the men.

Good. Perhaps they will not recognize myself or Nathan either. It would not improve our situation any if they knew we were members of the peacekeeping force of this town.

"Damn it, Otis." The large man berated his wild-eyed companion. "I told you not to fire that thing `less ya had to."

Otis scowled. "Ya saw that nigger comin' fer me, Clem."

The large man raised a fist as though he were going to hit Otis. He held back when Otis cowered way and whined. "Ya saw him, Clem. He was comin' fer me."

"Cal, Jack...you two keep watch out front. Somebody will have heard that damn blast." Clem snarled. "Was gonna be simple. Jus' come in here while the bank is closein' up. Empty the safe, tie up the manager and the little man, and we could leave. Quiet like. No muss. No fuss. No one gets hurt. We'd be gone `fore anyone even knew we'd been here. But, no...you damn idiot. You gotta let the whole town know."

"Bank was s'posed to be empty, Clem." Otis whimpered. He pointed to where the children still cowered, and where Ezra and Nathan were slowly getting to their feet. "None o' them were s'posed to be here."

Clem glared at him. He turned toward the counter. "Banker get yer ass out here where I can see ya. Keep your hands clear too."

He waited until Lovitt stood and came around the counter, before he turned his attention to Nathan and Ezra. He held a six shooter in each hand, and pointed one at each of them. "Who the hell are you?"

Ezra shifted slightly, making sure that he was between Clem and the children. He held up both hands, palms outward, showing he was unarmed. Well, at least not visibly armed. He still had is derringer, and today he had chosen to wear his Colt Richardson Conversion in its shoulder holster. His jacket effectively hid both weapons having been expertly tailored to do just that.

"Ezra Standish." He answered calmly. Ezra tipped his head toward Nathan who was also holding his hands in front of him. "And this is Nathan Jackson."

Clem grunted. He looked them both over. "Otis get the darkies' gun."

Otis stepped forward, his expression gleeful. Nathan eyed him warily, and Ezra thought with good reason. Ezra watched the feral man the same way he would a rattlesnake. The man was even more dangerous because Ezra wasn't sure he could predict his behavior.

Otis chortled as he took Nathan's gun. "Uppity nigger." Otis raised a fist and punched Nathan. Ezra moved to intervene by a warning look from Clem kept him in his place. Under other circumstances he might not have been so easily dissuaded, but there were seven children behind him he wasn't prepared to risk.

Nathan staggered from the force of the blow, but didn't go down. He raised one hand to wipe the blood from his lip. Otis raised his fist to hit him again, when Clem yelled at him.

"Otis, enough! Damn fool. Get over there and watch the banker, and the little guy."

Ezra breathed easier when Otis moved away. He was relieved that it didn't occur to them to search him for any weapons. At least one of us is still armed. That it better than nothing. He traded a look with Nathan.

"Mr. Jackson, are you all right?" Ezra whispered.

Nathan nodded, his tongue darting out to check his lower lip. Ezra wiggled the fingers of his right hand just enough to signal that he was still armed. Nathan tipped his head, almost imperceptibly. It was enough to let Ezra know he'd gotten the message.

Neville had moved to stand near Lovitt. Both men had their backs to the counter, and were fearfully watching the four armed men. Otis stuffed Nathan's gun in his belt, and leveled his shotgun at them with an evil grin.

Clem glanced toward the door where Jack and Cal were watching the street. "Cal...Jack...Anyone movin' out there?"

Ezra guessed the man who looked over his shoulder, back toward Clem to be Jack. "No one stirrin' yet, Clem. Street is empty." His voice was high pitched and squeaky. Ezra wondered if that were his normal speaking voice or if it was a side effect of fear, or possibly excitement.

There was enough of a resemblance between Jack and Cal that Ezra suspected they might be related. Why is it always brothers? Did no one in their family have enough sense to see them employed in some other line of work?

Ezra knew the good citizens of Four Corners had weathered enough gunfights to make themselves scarce when shots were fired. At the moment, he wasn't worried about innocent people outside the bank. He was worried about the innocents inside. He studied the robbers carefully, hoping to find a way he could extricate the children quickly and without injury.

He could hear the girls crying quietly behind him. Ezra glanced over his shoulder, and smiled at the children. He winked. He received tremulous smiles from all of them. Good. No panic yet. A truly sad state of affairs that children so young should become conditioned to violence.

Ezra forced himself to maintain his focus on the armed men. It wouldn't do to let his concentration on the problem at hand lapse. No matter how much he would like to do more to console the children, his first priority was to get them safely away from this situation. That meant paying attention to the danger these men posed. Without ever taking his eyes off the four men, Ezra very carefully stepped back, putting himself closer to the children.

Clem threw a bag toward Neville. "Fill that." He ordered curtly. "Otis, go with him ta keep an eye one him."

Neville shakily made his way to the back of the room where the safe stood next to Mr. Lovitt's office, its door still open. He bent down and quickly began to fill the bag. He kept shooting nervous glances towards Otis.

Clem looked Nathan and Ezra over. Dark eyes narrowed with suspicion and worry. "What are you doin' here? Bank is supposed to be empty."

"I brought the children here to review maps recently acquired by Mr. Lovitt. They were to receive a lesson in geography." Ezra opted to answer truthfully. It seemed the wisest course of action for the moment.

Clem raised an eyebrow. "Dress pretty fancy for a teacher."

Ezra shrugged one shoulder. "It is a temporary position."

He could almost feel Nathan silently urging him not to say anything to anger the giant. The others had accused him of being unable to control his mouth, letting it get him in trouble on more than one occasion, but Ezra rarely spoke without thinking. Things in this situation were too precarious for him to push as hard as he would like to.

Risking himself was one thing. This was altogether something different. He had every intention of getting out of this alive. The children were counting on him to get them safely away. It was also his job as a peacekeeper to ensure no harm came to Mr. Lovitt, or Mr. Neville. And I have not had nearly enough time with Vin. Not even close. I intend to share a lifetime with him, and these damn miscreants are not going to deprive me of that.

Clem grunted. He frowned looking at Nathan clearly trying to figure out how a black man fit in the grand scheme of things. "You with him?" Clem pointed to Ezra with his chin.

"Yes." Nathan's answer was simple and straightforward. He shifted so he was closer to Ezra, incidentally hiding more of the children from immediate view.

Further questions were halted when Jack called to Clem. "We got trouble. Looks like three guys out front. One is all in black, one is damn near as big as you, an' the other one o' `em is wearing a badge."

Buck is on patrol...unless he has not yet left town. He may still be close enough to have heard the shot. Sounds like Chris, Josiah, and JD are all out front. Vin...Vin will be where he can't be seen. Up high I would imagine. Where he can get a good view and a clear field of fire. Good. Ezra sent a silent prayer to what ever god or goddess would care to listen that Vin stayed safe. He didn't want anything to happen to the tracker. He didn't really expect any higher deity would honor a request from him, but he hoped that by making on the tracker's behalf one might look on it favorably.

"You in the bank!" Ezra heard Chris shout. "Come out now and no one has to get hurt. Don't make me come in and get you!"

Ezra rolled his eyes. The fine art of diplomacy is not practiced here in Four Corners. Really, Mr. Larabee, would it kill you to learn some tact?

"Jack, you watch these two, and them kids." Clem ordered, as he moved toward the door. He opened it enough to yell back at Chris. He was careful to stay hidden from view, not giving the men outside a clear shot.

"You stay right where ya are. I got people in here, kids, and I'll kill `em if you try anything. You hear me??!!. Stay where ya are, or I will kill `em."

"I would advice against that." Ezra said. He had heard the faint whimpers of fear behind him when Clem mentioned killing the children. He had to find a way to get them out of here. The sooner the better. And since it seems decidedly unlikely I could talk them into just giving themselves up, I suppose the next best thing is to find away to convince them they could actually escape with the money without having to hurt anyone.

Clem had stated earlier the plan was to rob the bank when there were as few people present as possible. And while he had hit Neville, and let Otis strike Nathan, he had not really undertaken this operation with the intention of major violence. With any luck he can be talked into a peaceable solution.

Clem slammed the door, and scowled at Ezra. "I didn't ask you for your advice, fancy pants."

Ezra sighed. He carefully folded his hands in front of him, doing his best to look harmless. He ignored the warning looks Nathan was sending his way. "Hurting the children will do little more than guarantee your death warrant. It would be better to use them as a bargaining chip."


"Let them go as a show of good faith. The town may forgive the loss of its funds, but it will not allow you to leave unmolested if you harm these children."

"We can't, Clem. They'll rush in here if we let them kids go." Jack said, his voice squeaking even more.

"Jack's right, Clem. We're safe in here `long as we have these kids." Otis stated.

Ezra regarded Clem steadily. "And just how long do you intend to stay here?" He asked dryly. "You can ask anyone, the men outside, Mr. Larabee in particular, are not known for their patience."

Ezra cocked his head to one side, studying Clem. He hadn't heard them ride up, and there were no horses in front of the bank when he had entered earlier. That meant the horses were stashed somewhere in town for safe keeping, most likely behind the bank. "And your horses are not likely to go unnoticed for any length of time. The longer you stay here the better the odds that your mounts will not be where you left them."

"We could jus' use `em as shields when we bust outta here." Cal offered. Unlike his brother, his voice was a smooth tenor. He looked uncertain. Cal kept shooting nervous glance toward the children. He didn't look at all that enthused about his suggestion.

Not a seasoned or hardened desperado. Even better. Ezra raised and eyebrow. "How long would you use them? You cannot hide behind them for very long."

"Don't need them for long. Jus' `til we get to our horses."

Ezra shook his head. "Do you honestly think the three men out there will simply let you ride away. That they could not or would not follow you?"

"We could jus' take the kids with us. Make sure they don't."

"That will only guarantee a sizeable manhunt. Surely, you aware that the good citizens will follow you with the intention of retrieving their progeny."

Clem frowned. "You think lettin' them go will keep them from bustin' in here?"

Ezra pursed his lips. "You would still have four hostages you could use to guarantee your safety."

"Shut the hell up, Standish." Lovitt hissed from his position near the counter.

Ezra ignored him. Under normal circumstances he could understand the man resenting being viewed as a shield, but this situation was far from normal. "A show of good faith would make them less inclined to kill you out right."

Clem sighed. He looked hard at the children where they cowered. Large frightened eyes stared back at him. Ezra could see him waffling. Especially when Sammy's lower lip quivered, and Jenny and Sarah continued to cry quietly.

Ezra seized the opportunity to offer some words of encouragement. "It's all right, children. Don't worry."

Josh hugged his sister. "See, CeCe, it'll be okay. Mr. Ezra will take care o' us."

Ezra sincerely hoped Josh's faith was not misplaced. Clem shifted his weight. He looked at Ezra, sizing him up. "I watched this place for two weeks so I'd know the routine. Talked ta some people casual like. Knew the Bank closed early every Wednesday. Everyone leaves. Streets are pretty much empty this time o'day. Was gonna be easy."

Clem sighed and nodded toward the children. "They weren't s'posed ta be here."

Ezra nodded. "I know. And they shouldn't be here now."

Clem frowned. "Don't really hold with hurtin' kids. Ain't right."

"Then do the right thing and release them." Ezra urged softly.

Clem straightened his shoulders. "Okay. Fancy pants, get `em ready ta go. You," Clem pointed at Nathan, "go ta the door and tell `em we are gonna send the kids out as a show of good faith. Tell `em no funny business or I change my mind. Still got four of you I can kill if they get stupid."

Ezra turned to the children. "All right then, little ones, it is time to affect your emancipation. Everyone stand up."

The children stood. Ezra smiled at them gently. He handed a handkerchief to Jenny and Sarah. "Dry your eyes now, Darlin'. That's better. Ladies such as yourselves should not be seen looking less than their best."

"Now, I want Miss Cecilia to lead the way. Behind her I want Miss Jennifer, and Miss Sarah. Samuel, Daniel and David will go next."

Ezra rested a hand on Josh's shoulder. "You, Mr. Potter will go last. I am counting on you to ensure the rest of the children get safely away from here."

Josh straightened, squaring his shoulders to take on the responsibility Ezra had just given him. "I'll take care o' `em, Mr. Ezra."

Ezra nodded firmly. "Good man." It wasn't hard to picture Josh as a young man in a few years. "I want all of you to stay together. When you are all outside, move down the boardwalk until you are a few buildings away. Some one will no doubt come for you. Understand?"

Ezra waited until each child nodded his or her head. He then had the children lined up according to the order he'd set. They still eyed the armed men nervously, but remained quiet. Ezra took Cecilia's hand ready to move with her toward the door.

Clem stopped him by leveling his weapon in Ezra's direction. "You jus' stay right were ya are Mister." Ezra let go of Cece's hand giving it a gentle, reassuring squeeze as he did. He could hear Nathan yelling out the door what Clem had instructed him to say.

Clem cast a glance toward the children. "You kids go ta the door. Cal, wait `til I tell ya ta let `em out."

Sammy looked at Ezra his eyes wide. He shot quick, fearful glances at Clem. "You gonna be okay, Mr. Ezra?"

Ezra was touched by the little boy's concern for his safety. He cupped Sammy's face with one hand. "I'll be fine, Samuel. Just do as the man tells you and you'll be back with your family in no time."

"What `bout Mr. Nathan?"

"Mr. Jackson will come to no harm." Ezra hoped he hadn't just lied to the child. Once he got the little ones out of here then he could focus on Nathan's safety, and his own. There was also Mr. Lovitt and Mr. Neville to consider. First things first.

Sammy nodded. Clem gave the order to Cal to open the door just enough for each child to slip out. Ezra waited silently, his face not giving away how anxious he was as each child slipped out. Please, Mr. Larabee, please don't do anything stupid. Wait for each child to be safely away.

Ezra slowly let out the breath he had been holding. He didn't breath again until Josh slipped out and the door was firmly closed again. Ezra had almost expected Clem or one of the others to keep a child behind. Doing so would have ensured not only his good behavior but also Nathan's. Ezra silently thanked whatever Deity had been listening that Clem was a man of his word. Either that or simply to stupid to realize the opportunity when it presented itself. No matter. I'll take what I can get.

He would never have forgiven himself if one of the children had come to harm because of him. It was his fault they were in the bank today. Ezra was pragmatic enough to realize there was no way he could have predicted four men would attempt to rob the bank today of all days, but he still felt responsible for putting the children in harm's way. Mrs. Potter really must find someone more suitable for this sort of thing.



Chris had watched Ezra and Nathan leave the restaurant with a bemused expression. That was the first time Ezra had ever given him a straight answer. Or sat still long enough to answer so many questions at one time. Chris was somewhat stunned. Twice now it has been as simple as just asking. He looked at Vin and saw the tracker's blue eyes were bright with amusement. He knew what the tracker was thinking. Damn if he wasn't right. All I had to do was ask.

Josiah looked at him and chuckled. "Did you know he was teaching?" He directed his question to Vin.


Chris frowned. He got the distinct impression that Vin knew more than he was telling. The tracker had looked almost proud of the gambler. Not as surprised as the rest of them had been. He knew Josiah had gotten the same impression, which was why he directed the question toward Vin.

"He didn't say if he was being paid for his services." Josiah mused.

Chris could almost feel Vin stiffen at that comment. He realized that it would be easy to take what the preacher said the wrong way. Given how quick Vin had been to defend Ezra the other day, Chris wouldn't be surprised if Vin took that the wrong way.

Attempting to forestall any arguments, Chris asked Josiah, "Ya don't think he deserves ta get paid? Town would have ta cough up some money for a regular teacher. Understand they don't work for free."

Josiah blinked. "I was just making an observation, brother. It would be unlike Ezra to undertake such a task without seeking payment for his time. An' Ezra is not a certified teacher, Chris. He's a gambler."

"Man's a peacekeeper too. Same as you." Vin raised an eyebrow. Chris noted his eyes had lost all trace of earlier amusement. "You think he's not doin' a good `nough job ta get paid for his time?"

Josiah sat back. "He is arguably the best educated man in town. There is little doubt about that. And he is good with children."

"But?" Vin waited.

"But showing them card tricks and playing games with them is not the same as teaching them to read and write."

Vin rolled his eyes, and pushed his chair away from the table. "Maybe ya should ask Mrs. Potter if she thinks he's doin' a decent job. Then ya can find out if he's robbin' her blind while yer at it." Vin's voice was soft but his tone was totally disgusted.
"Vin...I didn't mean--"

"Sure as hell sounded that way, preacher." Vin calmly cut him off as he stood to leave. "If ya got real concerns ya shoulda gone with Nate. Then the two o' ya could a watched his every move."

As Vin walked away, Josiah shot a confused look at Chris. "What did I say?"

Chris shook his head. He wondered if he had been that clueless. No wonder Vin went off on me yesterday. Deciding he didn't really have an answer for Josiah, Chris got up and followed Vin.

He met up with Vin on the boardwalk. Vin had stopped not too far away and was slouched against one of the support poles. Chris pulled out a cheroot, and lit it. He sat down on the nearby bench. One of the things he liked best about his friendship with Vin was that they could be silent with each other and not feel uncomfortable.

After a few minutes, Chris asked, "You okay?"

Vin smirked. "Me? I'm fine. Nobody questions why I do anythin'. Nobody second guesses me, or watches me ta see if I'm gonna slip up."

Chris sighed. Deserve that, I suppose. "Josiah didn't mean anything by what he said. I think he was just surprised."

"Uh-hunh." Vin looked at him, his expression sarcastic. "Ya know he calls Ez son all the time, you'd think he'd have more faith in him than that."

Vin sighed heavily. "Can see why Ez don't want him to call him son. I sure as hell hope his real daddy didn't have so little faith in him."

Chris had never really given that much thought. They all knew about Ezra's objection to being called `son' by the big preacher. Chris had thought of it as nothing more than a term of affection the same way Buck called JD `kid'. Maybe Ezra doesn't see it that way.

"Ez is a good teacher."

Chris raised an eyebrow at that. He could have sworn that Vin had told the truth when he said he didn't know Ezra was teaching the children. "How do you know?"

"Cuz he taught me ta read."

That was said so quietly for a moment Chris wasn't sure he'd heard Vin correctly. Chris had found out by accident that Vin couldn't read or write when he'd walked in on one of Vin's lessons with Mary. He'd understood the shy tracker's wish to keep his lack of reading and writing skills a private affair. And he had respected the younger man's desire to learn.

"I thought....I thought Mary was teaching you."

Vin shrugged one shoulder. "She's busy with the newspaper, and her son. `Sides, Ez was better."

Well, that certainly explains how the two of you managed to become better friends. Wasn't really an over night sort of thing. Wonder how I missed that. Chris considered for a moment if he should be upset that Vin hadn't come to him. "You could have come to me. I would have helped."

Vin regarded him steadily. "No offense, Cowboy, but I don't think ya'd have had the patience ta take me on."

Chris smiled slightly, and conceded that Vin might be right. Hard to argue that point. "Ezra was good?"

Vin nodded. "Real good. Man has a gift when it comes ta showin' me things."

Chris' curiosity was piqued when Vin smiled. It was a secretive little smile that hinted at more than just reading lessons. It made Chris wonder what. The sound of gun fire kept him from getting the chance to ask.

Vin immediately straightened up from his slouch, eyes moving up the street. "Came from the bank."

Oh...shit. Ezra. Nathan. The kids. Chris was on his feet sprinting after the already moving Texan.

Vin crouched down where he could get a clear view of the bank, and still be out of sight. Chris knelt next to him. The shades were drawn. Chris was quick to note that the side window had been broken, shards of glass glittered in the alley.

"Vin, get somewhere you can get a good view. We'll need cover fire."

When Vin didn't respond, Chris nudged him. The tension he could feel in the younger man surprised him. He'd never know the tracker to so much as blink about an upcoming gunfight.

"Vin?" No answer. Chris jostled his friend harder. "Vin?"

Vin shook himself all over like a wet dog. "Yeah, I hear ya." As he slipped silently away, Chris wondered about the brief flashes of devastation and then rage he caught a glimpse of in the normally serene blue eyes. JD and Josiah joined Chris a moment later forcing him to let it go for the time being.

"Any idea who it is?" JD asked.

Chris shook his head. "Not yet."

"Who would rob a bank in broad daylight?" JD asked, his tone clearly stating just how stupid he thought it was to do that.

Chris resisted the urge to knock off JD's hat. I could have sworn I just said I didn't know. "Better question is how many people are inside?"

Josiah paled slightly. "Ezra and the children might be in there."

"Yeah. Nate too." Chris sighed. He hated situations like this.

"Ezra's in the bank?" JD looked confused. "He's s'posed to be teachin'."

"You knew about that?" Josiah frowned. Chris shared his confusion. JD had already left the restaurant by the time Ezra got around to mentioning having an appointment.

"Well, yeah." JD looked at them clearly mystified as to why they were surprised that he knew about Ezra teaching. "Knew `bout that months ago. He spends a couple hours every day with the Potter kids, and a couple others. Well, `cept for Sunday. Don't teach on that day."

Chris was beginning to wonder if he was the last one to know about everything. He made a mental note to ask JD about it later. "Doesn't matter now. He said he was takin' the kids to study some maps at the bank. They could be in there."

"Aw hell." JD cursed softly.

Sums it up nicely. "Vin ought to be in position. Let's go see if we can talk to these idiots."

Together the three of them stepped out into the street. Chris noticed that it hadn't taken the good citizens of Four Corners long to vanish. One shot an' everybody scatters. Can't quite decide if that's a good thing or not.

Not all the citizens had totally vanished Chris noted. He could see Mrs. Potter waiting anxiously in the doorway of her store. He was glad she had the good sense not to run head long into danger. She watched the bank with frightened eyes, her hands fisted in her apron.

"You in the bank!" Chris shouted. "Come out now and no one has to get hurt." Just for good measure he added, "Don't make me come in and get you!"

"Keep your eyes open." He quietly instructed Josiah and JD. Chris tensed when the door opened slightly. Not enough for a clear shot.

"You stay right where ya are." The man inside yelled out to them. "I got people in here, kids, and I'll kill `em if you try anything. You hear me??!! Stay where ya are, or I will kill `em."

Guess we know for certain now about the children being in there. Damn. Damn. So much for hoping they hadn't gotten there yet.

JD looked to Chris. "Now what?"

Chris' mind worked furiously. They needed an opening of some kind. He wasn't going to put the children at risk if he could help it. Problem was, he didn't have any idea how to get them out of there.

Chris spotted Buck out of the corner of his eye covertly moving toward them from the livery. Good ol' Buck. Didn't think he'd gotten too far yet. He motioned to Buck discretely with one hand to head around the side of the bank. So far the men inside had only seen three of them, and Chris wanted to keep it that way.

Chris really didn't want to engage in a long stand off if he could help it. Laying siege to the bank wasn't exactly the best option, but at the moment it was the only choice. "For now, we wait."

Chris glared at the shuttered bank doors wishing he could see inside. For all he knew someone could already be dead or wounded. He chose not to think about that. It wouldn't help.

He tensed, eyes narrowed, when the door opened again. He could just barely make out Nathan. It looked like his lower lip was swollen. Some one busted him one in the mouth.

"Man says ta tell you that he's willin' ta let the children leave as a sign of good faith." Nathan spoke loudly, and clearly. He didn't seem scared, but Chris could tell the man was definitely uneasy.

"Says you are not to try anything or he'll change is mind. He don't want to hurt the children, but he will if you make him. Says he's keepin' the adults to make sure ya don't do anythin' stupid."

Chris motioned for JD and Josiah to fall back, and to the side. It put them closer to cover, and gave them a broader view of the action. He waited where he was, in plain sight. Chris hoped that the men inside were as good as their word. They hurt any of those children and I'll skin `em alive.

The next time the door opened, Cecilia Potter slipped out. She hesitated for just a second before moving to the right. She waited until Jenny and Sarah had also slipped out before moving further down the boardwalk. Sammy was next, followed quickly by Danny and David. Josh was the last one to leave.

Chris was surprised to see them all move in a calm and orderly fashion. No panicked running, no screaming. Holding hands, they moved briskly away from the bank. The children all stopped when they were two buildings away.

"JD, keep an eye on the bank, and stay behind cover." With Buck, and Vin also watching the bank, Chris felt comfortable leaving the young sheriff on his own for a few minutes. "Josiah you come with me. Wanna talk to the kids and see what they can tell us."

Chris loped over to where the children waited. He knelt down in front of them. He complimented them on being so brave. Chris let them know he approved of their behavior. He was relieved that he hadn't had to worry about them scattering pell-mell.

"Was jus' doin' what Mr. Ezra told us to." Josh said. He puffed up a bit hearing Chris' praise. "I told CeCe that Mr. Ezra would make sure nothin' bad happened ta us. He got the bad men ta let us go."

Chris pursed his lips. Wish I had the chance to hear that conversation. I'll have to ask about that later. More pressing things to consider here. "I know you really want to go home, but I need to ask you some questions first. Okay?"

Small heads nodded. Chris smiled slightly. "Good. How many men are there inside?"

Josh answered him. "Four. Clem is the big one. He's bigger'n Mr. Josiah."

"Otis is the mean one." Jenny asserted. "He tried ta shoot Mr. Nathan. But Mr. Ezra stopped him."

Josiah gasped. "Was anyone hurt?"

"No. Mr. Ezra shoved Mr. Nathan outta the way. Otis shot out the window."

Josiah breathed easier. Until David spoke up. "Otis hit Mr. Nathan when he took his gun."

"Did he hurt him bad?" Nathan hadn't looked injured, but their view through the door had been limited.

"No. Only hit `im one time. Clem yelled at `im an' didn't let `im hit Mr. Nathan again."

Chris nodded. This Clem must be the one in charge. "They didn't take Ezra's gun?"

Sammy shook his head, dark eyes wide and solemn. "Mr. Ezra wasn't wearin' it. He don't like to wear it `round us. Says it makes a bad impression."

Chris raised an eyebrow at that. Ezra never goes anywhere without that derringer o' his. And I'm pretty sure I saw his colt this morning. Come ta think of it, he wasn't wearin' his gun belt. Still, I'd bet money he's armed.

"What about the other two?"

"Cal...and...Jack. They watched us...and...the door."

Chris smiled. "Thank you David."

The little red-haired boy grinned. "I'm Danny."

Chris frowned. He thought it was Danny who stuttered. Mentally he shrugged. Maybe I got it wrong.

Josh spoke up again. "Clem said they just came for the money. Said we weren't s'posed to be there. He thought the bank would be empty, `cept for Mr. Neville, and Mr. Lovitt."

On any other Wednesday it would have been. "I want all of you to head for the mercantile. You stay there until it's all clear. Y'hear?"

"Yes, Mr. Chris." Seven voices answered in unison. The all rushed off down the boardwalk. Chris shook his head. It was nothing like their previous orderly exit from the bank. He wondered if Ezra had told them what to do. Knowing the conman's attention for detail, it wouldn't surprise Chris if he had. What did surprise him was that they had apparently followed his instructions. Vin was right. I'll be he is a good teacher.

Mrs. Potter enfolded both her children in a fierce hug when they reached her. She hugged all the others as well. It reminded Chris of a mother hen they way she gathered them all under her arm, and quickly ushered them into the store.

Chris straightened, relieved that the children were safely out of harm's way. He looked at Josiah. "So...four men, no wounded. Clem's in charge. We got lucky they were willin' ta let the children leave."

Josiah shook his head. "It wasn't luck, brother. It sounds like Ezra worked his usual magic." He sounded decidedly proud of the gambler.

Chris nodded. "You're right. Damn shame he's not out here to work it." Chris sighed. "Let's get back with JD and see if we can't find some way of ending this.

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