Sihn's Empire
The Change
by Kimber

Notes: I have arranged in my story for Ezra to be younger than Vin. I have him about 4 years older that JD. The rest of the fella's just assume he is older.
Warnings: Some violence with a snake, mentioned abuse of unmentionable kind implied.
Thank you to Kris for helping with this story. She has been a kind and helpful beta.


Ezra could not believe what had just happened. All he could do was ask himself, why me? What could Chris have been thinking? Buck was available, so was Josiah. Nathan was out at the Lexmark's; their 4 year old was down with a bad case of the fever, not expected to pull through. J.D. was out fixing a fence for Nettie, and spending time with Casey. Either way, why would Chris trust him, of all people, to ride with Mr. Tanner? It was a four-day ride to Rock Creek, it just did not seem right that he would be one of the only two to ride escort, especially with how little the group of men he rode with trusted HIM. Ezra continued to try and work this out in his head as he paced behind the livery, thinking he was alone and unnoticed. Because no one ever REALLY noticed HIM, they only noticed his bright colorful gamblers clothes and cocky southern persona he displayed for his protection. It was an important survival tool he learned growing up with Maude and various others in his life.

As Chris and Buck stood watching the gambler pace back and forth lost in his mumbling and thoughts, all Chris could do was smile. He looked at Buck and in a cold but amused voice, "Serves him right, let a few nights on the trail teach him to curb his smart ass mouth." Chris still wondered why he kept the gambler around. Wasn't really good for much, unless some sneaky con needed to be performed or the use of his gun was needed. 'Hell that boy can shoot, I gotta give him that.' Chris chuckled. " He is good for a laugh, remember him dressin' up as a saloon singer?"

Buck laughed along with Chris, "Yeah that does bring up some fine memories." Buck continued to watch the events thinking to himself, 'When is that boy going ta learn and keep his trap shut. Does he have a death wish where Chris is concerned?' He had noticed a change in the gambler since they had first met in the saloon 3 months back, taking on the room full of men. He was saving his hide over a con he had played on the men in the bar, so was Ezra now playing a con on them.

"Ya know Chris I can always go to Rock Creek with Vin, in his place?" Buck looked over at Chris offering to take Ezra's place.

"No Buck, I think we all need a break from the man. He also needs to carry his weight around here, we can't let him just do patrol and watch the jail." Chris stated, offering up one of his famous glares.

Buck just chuckled, "Well Chris, I'm not so sure Vin would agree with ya right now." They both started to laugh as they turned to walk back toward the saloon.

"Vin can handle Ezra's attitude better than the rest of us can, without shootin' the man." Chris looked at Buck and smiled.

Vin sitting in the saloon could not believe what he had gotten himself into. 'Damn, what did I do to make Chris mad at me.' Mad enough to condemn him with riding the escort of the two prisoners, to Rock Creek of all places, with Ezra as his only partner. Vin had told Chris the night before that he would help take the prisoners to Rock Creek; he just never thought Chris would allow Ezra to go. 'Well, maybe he would talk the two prisoners to death and leave me alone,' Vin prayed. The more he thought of the situation the more worried he became. Vin just shuddered to think of the 4-day ride back, when Ezra would not have anyone to bother but him. 'Oh, God, what did I do to deserve this,' is all he could think about as he stood to leave and take afternoon patrol from J.D.

As Vin stood to leave he failed to notice that Buck and Chris had come in the back entrance. Buck noticed how preoccupied Vin was with his thoughts and had noted how Vin's body had shaken, like getting rid of a bad thought or something.' He could not help but think maybe Vin was not fine with Ezra as his travelin' companion. 'Sorry pard, I'm not so sure I would be happy either if I was in your boots.'

Chris just quietly watched the tracker go out the doors of the saloon, thinking if he had made a mistake with sending Ezra as Vin's partner.

Josiah stood at the door of the church and watched Ezra pace, and watched Chris and Buck watch Ezra pace. He could not help but chuckle to himself, 'Chris never did let anyone know the whys and the what for, and we just do as he says. Well, except for the man everyone was watching pace at the moment. Sometimes I think that boy just complains to hear himself talk.' Ezra seemed to know just how far to push ole Chris's temper before he would explode and become physical.

The older man continued to watch Ezra as he paced back and forth, so deep in thought he was not aware he was being watched closely. He looked up to the heavens and thanked his maker everyday for bringing this boy into his life. He couldn't help but feel that there's just something special about this boy and someday everyone will find out why. Then everyone will set back and wonder how they missed it. He knew the others in the group did not trust the gambler, and the cocky little southerner did not make it any easier.

People never looked past the clothing and the cockiness to the young man inside. They would have seen it as the con the gambler used to protect himself from anyone getting close. They never looked at the gambler as a boy becoming man, they had all assumed he was one already. He had allowed them to believe him older than his actual years of life, in fact encouraged it. Maude had broken down one day and told him Ezra's real age, and that she had not been the mother to him she had lead everyone to believe. She had implied that Ezra may have the opposite childhood then she had led them to believe.

Who would have thought Ezra was only four years older than J.D.'s age of 20. The southern gentleman handled himself in a manner far beyond his years. It saddened the well traveled preacher, as he thought of the experiences this young man must have gone through that made him the way he was, especially with the way he trusted no one but himself. The gentle giant of a man prayed he would find a way for Ezra to look at life differently, even if it was the last thing he ever did.


Chris, Buck, and Josiah sat at their usual table that evening, watching the activity in the saloon. Nothing was very different: just a little more activity at the gaming tables was all.

They continued to watch the fancy gambler over at his usual table, looking as if he had not a care in the world. They could not help and compare the man tonight at the gaming table, with the man pacing the livery earlier today.

"Seems to have things under control compared to this afternoon," Buck said as he looked over at Chris.

"Well, he had better have his shit together. I won't tolerate it if he messes this up," Chris responded, as he watched the gambler closely. He could not help but wonder about how much the gambler had drank tonight.

"Brothers, I'm sure he is feeling the pressure without you glaring at him and watching him like a hawk." Josiah spoke in his quiet but firm voice as he looked at his cards. "I raise you 2 bits," trying to get the two gentlemen back into the game and away from the gambler.

Ezra could feel the eyes as they burned into his soul. 'Maybe Chris will change his mind and send Buck with Vin, instead of me.' He tried to keep to keep his mind in the game, but so far he had done a poor job of it. He had lost the last three hands so far, because of the men at the other table. Hell, he couldn't even relax and enjoy his whiskey. 'I'm sure Chris has kept count of my drinking.' Ezra moaned silently as he lost his fourth hand in a row.

Vin walked into the saloon, he looked tired and in need of a drink. He noticed Ezra at his usual spot, playin' poker and looking like he was havin' the time of his life. 'I wonder how far into the bottle he is?' Vin watched the gambler with a questioning expression on his face, as he walked over to join the others at their table.

Ezra noticed as Vin looked at him with an expression HE was all too familiar with. 'So I see Chris is not the only one worried about my consumption of the spirits this evening.' Ezra asked for two cards, as he looked at his cards, seeing the three ladies and thinking his luck has changed. 'Why do I even stay here? It will never change; I will always be looked upon as an outcast, and unworthy to really belong here.'

Josiah knew exactly when Ezra's mood changed. He noticed how he had reacted to Vin's look, how he had become more quiet and introspective. "Vin, why don't you come over and play a hand or two with Chris and Buck. I need to go and relieve Nathan from patrol."

"Nah Josiah, I'm just getting some grub. Some of us like to get a good nights sleep before transportin' prisoners." Vin looked over at the gambler to see if his words had any affect, but all he got was a view of the gambler as he raked in the pot of money he had just won.

Ezra had heard every word that the tracker had said. He had given himself a time limit to play, and how much whiskey he would consume. He also knew the longer he sat there being watched and criticized, he would fail to comply with said limit. He would do so out of spite, and then regret it in the morning. Ezra decided then and there to end his night in the saloon sooner then he had planned. He stood excusing himself politely from the game as he apologized, promising more games in the future. He turned and walked past his associates' table and tipped his hat. "Till the morning Mr. Tanner, goodnight gentlemen. Have a safe patrol Mr. Sanchez." As he walked away he heard Buck's comment being spoken.

"Well, good on ya Vin, I guess he heard ya and decided to get some shut eye." Buck pushed out the chair for Vin to take a seat. Inez walked over with a plate of food, a frown set firmly on her face.

"Well, darlin what could cause such a frown on your pretty face, except not bein' with me that is?" Buck chuckled as he waited for a typical Inez response.

Inez had noted how all the men had laughed at Buck's comment and about what Vin had said, except for Josiah. He had looked very sad at the men's comments, and how the others responded to them. She looked at Buck and the others and said nothing, just shook her head and gave them all an annoyed look. She placed Vin's food down in front of him then turned and left, before she said anything improper. All three men watched as she left, confused about what they could have said or done to upset her so. Inez continued to the kitchen to make sure she packed some special things for Mr. Ezra. She could not get it out of her mind how terrible the treated the soft-spoken gambler, and even more how HE allowed it. 'Why could they not see the fragile soul hidden inside this man? I hope they see what a treasure Mr. Ezra truly is before it's to late.'

Vin finished his meal silently, thinking about how he treated Ezra just now. He had seen the poker face and the light go out of his eyes after his comment. He noticed how Ezra's back stiffened after Buck's comment, 'He had to have heard it, cause Buck said it loud enough.' He realized his and Buck's words caused the change in mood. 'But what did they cause? Was Ezra angry, hurt, embarrassed, what?' He could usually read people well, but Ezra had so many barriers and layers, which made it hard to read the southern cuss.

"Vin, if ya want I will pull Ezra off escort and Buck or I will go?" Chris watched the tracker closely for any response.

Vin looked at Chris and was about to take him up on the offer till he remembered the poker face and stiff walk of the gambler. 'Could Ezra ever look any of us in the face again if Chris pulled him off this job? No, it would be a slap in the face, that told him HE was not good enough, and could never be trusted. It would then cause the gambler to leave.' Vin was not sure if he wanted that to happen. This thought caught Vin by surprise. Why would he be worried if the gambler left? When did the welfare of the gambler become his concern? Vin mentally shook himself away from such thoughts.

"Nah Chris ya can't do that ta Ezra. Ya can't hand him a chance to prove himself and then take it away before he's had a chance to do so. It just wouldn't be right." Vin looked into his best friends eyes, letting him see he was okay with the decision of Ezra going with him.

"I don't care about Ezra's feelin's. I don't want anyone hurt, or killed because I let him go. Hell, even if it's his own self that gets killed." Chris couldn't help but snap at the tracker.

"Now pard, Vin is right. If ya do this to him now ya might as well just ask him to leave. Because he sure enough won't feel like stayin' if ya take him off the job now." Buck looked at Chris with a serious look not seen often on the scoundrel's face.

"Anyway, I think it's my decision, and I have decided to keep Ez as my partner." Vin stood up and turned to leave.

"Well, ya had better be careful and watch your back." Chris glared at Vin's back as he turned to leave.

Vin turned around and looked at Chris, and for the first time he realized what Ezra had been going through. "WE will be careful, and WE will watch each others backs." Vin offered Chris a glare of his own before he turned and walked out of the saloon.

"Well, I guess Jr. has the right idea." Buck stood and walked over to Betty Sue, who had caught the ladies man's attention earlier in the evening.

Chris just stood up and left the saloon, as he rolled his eyes and shook his head at Buck's attempt at wooing Miss Betty Sue.

Ezra had fought the urge to slam the door when he entered his room. It had taken everything in him not to pack up and just leave, and not look back. He had gone so far as pulling out is carpetbag and place it on the bed. But he found he could not follow though with packing it. For some reason he wanted to stay here in the God forsaken town, and this scared him. What scared him the most was the thought of not seeing a certain pair of blue eyes ever again.

'God, what would mother say right now?' How she would belittle him and his feeling of wanting to belong somewhere. 'I have to calm myself down, or I will never get any sleep.' Ezra undressed and prepared himself for bed. Ezra made sure everything was packed and ready for the journey in the morning, before he went to bed. Vin would be waking him up to leave at the ungodly hour before the sun would even show itself.

Ezra went to bed with the thought of it being too early for him to retire, or even to be in his room. He tossed and turned unable to get his thoughts about the tracker out of his mind. 'This may be the biggest con yet of my life, and the most important one to play out.' He hoped that he would be able to keep his feelings for a certain blue-eyed tracker hidden.


Vin woke up looked around his wagon, he still felt angry with Chris. He still found it hard to believe how unimportant Ezra's welfare was to Chris. He felt awful guilty that Chris appeared to place HIS safety above Ezra's. Vin looked outside and noticed by the color of the sky, he had about an hour before daybreak.

Vin left the wagon with the intent of preparing for the journey of taking the prisoners to Rock Creek. His thoughts traveled back to Ezra and his gut feeling that Ezra carried a lot of pain inside of him, judging what he saw last night for the first time. No wonder he doesn't trust no one. Vin was so caught up in his thoughts about Ezra he did not notice Josiah right off.

Josiah had been watching the young tracker since he had left his wagon. He watched closely and noticed how deep in thought the longhaired man was. 'Well I guess it's time I whispered a little word of wisdom concerning our little black sheep to his Shepherd.'

"Vin, what has you so deep in thought? I almost ran over you." Josiah's warm voice caused Vin to jump at the sound.

"Oh Josiah, sorry I didn't hear ya is all. Lost in my thoughts I guess." Vin chuckled as he looked at the big man now standing next to him.

"So are you still worried about travelin' with Ezra?" Josiah's voice was soft and inviting. Offering Vin a chance to share his thoughts.

"Well, not about travelin' with him, but how I've come to realize how others treat him. Most of all how he lets them treat him like he does." Vin turned a perplexed frown at the preacher man, like maybe he had the answer.

"Vin, there is a lot about Ezra that not even his mother knows about. We have not walked in his shoes, and he sure does not share any of his past life with us. What we know is assumptions mostly, because he never confirmed or denied accusations made about him."

"Hell, ya listen to Maude, he had the best of everything growin' up." Vin turned at that time looking at the window of the gamblers bedroom.

Josiah again noticed the perplexed frown he noted earlier on the tracker's face. "Vin, did you ever notice when Maude talks about Ezra he either is gone? Or he puts on that poker face of his and leaves. As much as I admire Maude's beauty and her ability to land on her feet, I don't believe much, if anything, she says about Ezra's growing up." Josiah shook his head as he allowed the sadness shown on his face to be seen.

Vin noticed the emotion on Josiah's face, and his gut feeling was Josiah knew more then he was telling anyone about the gambler.

"Vin, just during this trip, sit back and watch our black lamb. See for yourself what kind of man you think Ezra P. Standish really is like. Try and get to know the man behind the mirrors he hides behind. Look past the clothes and cockiness and see the person underneath the layers." Josiah placed his hand on Vin's shoulder and smiled.

"Well, I think I'm going to wake up Mr. Standish. I would like to wish him a safe journey, as I also wish for you brother Tanner. May God keep you both safe and return both safely back to the fold." Josiah turned toward the saloon his heart feeling lighter knowing that Vin had started to open his eyes concerning the gambler.

Vin watched as the big man with a soft heart, walk toward as he walked toward the saloon, taking his life in his own hands. "Be sure to go in low preacher man, he aims high." He heard the warm chuckle of the gentle giant as he walked onward.

Vin continued toward the livery to ready the horses for travel. 'Hell, I might surprise Ezra and have that devil he calls a horse saddled too, if the damn thing will let me near it.'

As Vin led the horses toward the saloon he noticed Josiah and Ezra drinking coffee on the bench in front of the saloon. He smiled to himself as he remembered Josiah's challenge, to look closer at the gambler and get to REALLY know the MAN.

Inez was giving Ezra an extra pair of saddlebags. He noticed how she kissed his cheek and whispered in his ear, causing the gambler to blush and look uncomfortable. He watched as Ezra took the saddlebags then bowed slightly as he took her hand in his and kissed the back of it lightly. For some reason this made Vin uncomfortable as he looked around to make sure Buck was not around. He thought to himself, 'When did Ezra and Inez become so friendly.'

Ezra looked up surprised that Chaucer was saddled and being led by Vin. "Why I must thank you, Mr. Tanner, I was just planning on leaving to prepare my trusty steed for our journey. I hope he did not give you any trouble?"

Josiah handed the coffee back to Ezra as he smiled at the gesture offered by the tracker.

"Well, I had thought if I got the horses ready ya might have gotten a little extra sleep, ya not bein' a mornin' person and all." Vin smiled at Ezra and gave him a wink before he looked over at Josiah giving him a nod.

The comment and wink caused the gambler to almost choke on his coffee. "Well, I know my sleeping habits are not a secret. I again thank you, Mr. Tanner." Something was different, only Ezra could not put his finger on it. This was not the Vin of last evening who had looked at him with such mistrust.

Josiah found it hard not to laugh, seeing the gambler almost lose his coffee over being joked with. He smiled at the conflict he noticed Ezra having with how different Vin was treating him. 'Son if its my last dying breath, you will know what it is like to belong to a family.' The gentle giant looked at both young men and wished everything worked out like he wanted. 'Ezra needs a friend he can talk to, and Vin would be good for him. They have more in common then they know.' He wished them both safe journey and then went in search of his bed.

Inez handed Vin a cup of coffee and some light breakfast. Ezra finished his coffee and placed his belongings on his horse, along with the extra items given to him earlier by Inez. Without either man saying a work they walked their horses together toward the jail.

Chris had stood on the porch as he waited for them. He had watched the scene on the porch, and wondered what had transpired that made Ezra almost lose his coffee, and make the tracker and the preacher smile. 'Good thing Buck wasn't here to see Inez kiss the gambler's cheek either, wonder what that was all about.'

Chris noticed when the two men began walking their horses toward the jail. The gunslinger turned and walked into the jail to help J.D. retrieve the prisoners. As the young men approach the jail Chris walked out with the prisoners. Both were handcuffed in the front, making it easier to tie them to the horns of the saddles.

"Well, Ez I didn't hear any shootin' must have been easy to wake ya up. Must have been that early night ya had." Chris looked close at Ezra to see if he looked fit for travel. "Maybe ya should to the same in the future when ya have early patrol."

The relaxed look from a few minutes ago disappeared quickly from Ezra's face, replaced with his poker face. His back stiffened up as he replied to Chris, "Good morning to you also, Mr. Larabee, yes I had a wonderful sleep, thank you for asking." Ezra found it easy for that little lie to be told. 'If you only knew how much sleep I had. I wonder if you did would you still allow me to go?'

Chris and Vin worked at getting each prisoner on their horse with hands secured to the saddle horns. Vin looked at Chris and found he still had nothing to say to the man.

"Well, cowboy we should be seein' ya in about eight days if all goes well. Maybe nine if we decide to stop in Eagle Bend for a short visit." Vin just looked at Chris, waiting for his reply.

"Just send word when you arrive, when you leave, and if you stop in Eagle Bend. I expect you both back here at the same time." Chris looked at Ezra as he spoke. Chris then looked at Vin with a small smile, "Ya had better be careful."

"Don't worry, Mr. Larabee, Vin will return to you safe and sound." With that said, Ezra turned his horse leading one of the prisoner's horse as well and left.

Vin turned and glared at Chris, "Yeah, Mr. Larabee, Ezra will return to ya all safe and sound too." Vin turned and grabbed the reins of the other prisoner's horse and followed Ezra out of town. 'Me and the cowboy is goin' to have a serious conversation when we get back.' Chris's behavior shocked the tracker; he really needed to rethink his friendship with the man in black while he was gone.

Chris realized he made a mistake just now with the tracker. A mistake by the look Vin gave him that will be discussed when he returned. 'When had Vin become Ezra's defender and protector. That belonged to the preacher man who took over the job of pa, it seemed when it came to the gambler.' Chris thought about this as he headed for some breakfast at the hotel. He did not have much of an appetite, feeling a little uneasy about what just had happened with him and Vin.


Vin rode fast till he caught up with Ezra. He noticed that the gambler's back was still stiff and his poker face still intact. He slowed down just a few feet away from the angry man, giving him his space now.

Ezra knew exactly when Vin caught up with him. The presence of the tracker helped the southerner to relax. He had looked back as he left town and noted how uptight the gunslinger had become at the tracker's abrupt leaving. 'What could Vin had said to have made Chris angry?'

Vin watched the gambler start to relax. He could not believe what had just happened back in town. 'Who the hell does Larabee think he is? Who gave him the right to pass judgment on who is more important then the next?'

They continued to ride in silence. Ezra continued to keep an eye on his prisoner; something just was not right with this man. He knew Cal Wilkins was a dangerous man on his own, but with a partner he could only be more threatening. The man was wanted for murder and bank robbery, Rock Creek being the last town he had robbed. This time he had killed a ten-year-old little girl, and he was going to pay for it.

Vin was watching everything at once, a habit from being a bounty hunter once. He kept a close eye on his prisoner, Frank Parker. He could not believe these men felt no remorse over the little girl's death. Hell, he heard Wilkins shot the girl point blank, and Parker laughed. 'I'm thinkin might just stay for the hangin' myself.'

"Hey Ez, there's a clearing up yonder good for a break and some food. It has a nice spring near by to water the horses, and refill our canteens." Vin called out to the gambler. They had been riding for about 5 hours now and could use a break.

"Mr. Tanner I think that would be a marvelous idea. I'm sure our guests would love a break as well. We don't want to appear inhospitable, now would we?" Ezra loved the idea; it would give him a chance to watch his prisoner a little closer.

Wilkins could not believe his luck, just when he almost had one hand free. 'Damn gambler couldn't he have just said no.' He then worked harder to release his hand before they stopped.

Ezra noticed how Wilkins was working at his cuffs, the need for speed making him sloppy. 'Well it seems our guest doesn't like his jewelry, amateur. I would have had both hands free before we made it out of town.' Ezra laughed at this thought as he made the horses go faster, as he did so placing his hand close to the Remington on his hip.

Ezra and his prisoner made it to the clearing, as he jumped off his horse, his Remington cocked and ready to shoot. He ran over to Wilkins horse and jammed it in his chest. He noticed the rope was loose, but the handcuff still locked. He grabbed the low life child killer and yanked him to the ground. "You, sir, are in need of better training in escaping. You are looking at a man that has escaped far worse contraptions then this, and in far less time."

Vin was amazed at the speed of the gambler as he over powered Wilkins. He noticed that Ezra pulled his gun almost as fast as Chris would have. "Ez, you okay? Anythin' ya need from me?" Vin pulled his Mare's gun up and pointed it at Wilkins as he pulled up next to the gambler. He did not pay any attention to Parker, bad mistake.

Vin had not been aware that picking handcuffs could be so easily done, when hands are also tied to the saddle horn. He had not noticed that Parker had freed both of his hands. Parker took advantage of the ex-bounty hunter's lack of attention, and jumped the young man, taking his Mare's gun, hitting him on the head. Vin fell back as he noticed his own gun being turned on him, blinding pain in his head.

Ezra noticed Parker jump off his horse onto the tracker, striking him before Ezra could yell out a warning. "Vin, damn you Parker you do not shoot an unarmed man you fool." Ezra hoped Parker would then point the gun at him. "You are a dead man sir." Ezra took advantage and placed himself between Vin and Parker.

Vin watched as Parker then turned his attention on the gambler. Everything happened so fast Vin could not take action, his head still feeling funny from Parker hitting him on the head.

Parker then aimed the gun at Ezra; at the same time the gambler released his derringer, keeping the Remington on Wilkins. Wilkins jumped up trying to knock the southern bastard down, got in the way of the Mare's gun. Ezra pulled the trigger of the small gun and watched as the bullet entered Parker between his eyes. The gambler then looked at Wilkins and noticed he also was dead, shot in the back between the shoulder blades by his own partner.

Ezra then bent down beside Vin, shaking with fear. He had never felt like this for another person in all his life. When he approached Vin he noticed how dazed he appeared. "Vin, are you okay? How many fingers to you see me holding up?"

"Damn Ezra, ya sound like Nathan. I'm fine, and ya are holdin' up two fingers, I think." Vin still could not forget how the gambler risked his life for HIM. "Thanks pard, I owe ya my life."

Ezra blinked several times, hearing Vin thank him and call him pard. The gambler felt other than being dazed, the tracker was okay. He double-checked that both men were dead, before moving Vin. He then undid Vin's bedroll close up under the tree closest to the spring. He assisted the dazed tracker over onto the bedroll, giving him a cup of water and a cool cloth for his head.

Vin could no longer fight the darkness, and closed his eyes worried about the gambler, too tired to check on the southerner. 'I didn't even make sure he was okay first. Please be okay Ez, wouldn't want ya hurt.'

Ezra was worried at first, till he noticed how easy he tracker was breathing. This relaxed the gambler enough so he could finish setting up camp. When finished with the camp, he then took care of the dead bodies, as he rolled them in the blankets, and then tied them to the horses. He knew if it was not done now the bodies would be to stiff in the morning to do so.

Ezra sat next to the soft-spoken Texan and continued to observe the man while he slept. He took advantage at times and stroked the soft long hair back from the face he had memorized. He knew he had to stop soon. Last thing he needed was to be caught, and have to explain why he was touching the man so intimately. Ezra stood and walked toward the stream to cool himself.

Vin woke with a start, looked around trying to find the gambler. "Ezra, Ez, EZRA." He tried to stand and go look for the man. 'Damn it, I should have checked and made sure he wasn't hurt.'

Ezra broke into a run when he heard Vin calling his name. "Vin, what is wrong? Are you okay?"

"Damn Ez, where was ya? I was worried somethin happened to ya." Vin could not hide the worry and concern in his voice.

"Vin, I'm okay, honest. I was just over by the stream getting some water for dinner is all." Ezra felt happy to see the tracker awake, and shocked he had been worried about HIM of all things.

"Ez, are ya sure your okay? I promise I will hurt ya if your lyin' to me." Vin placed his hands on the gambler's shoulders giving them a tight squeeze.

"I give you my word Vin I'm fine, I would not lie to you if I gave you my word." Ezra felt a shock run through his body with the touch of the tracker.

"Good Ez, I like that ya are callin me Vin by the way, and not Mr. Tanner." Vin then smiled into the gambler's eyes as he squeezed the shoulder again, amazed how muscular he felt under his clothes.

Ezra having become uncomfortable with the touch shrugged off the hands. "Well, Mr. Tanner dinner is ready, seems Inez had fixed us a feast."

Vin frowned at the change of formality the gambler reverted back to. 'Damn why didn't I just leave well enough alone?' He sat down across from the gambler as he took in the feast that Inez had packed, as he heard his stomach growl.

Later in the evening Vin could not sleep, no matter how much he tried. His thoughts kept going back to Josiah's words before they had left Four Corners. Conflict was the best description of where his thoughts had gone. What with Josiah's words, his previous beliefs about the gambler, and how he remembered that Ezra was willing to take a bullet for him earlier in the day.

'Ezra would have taken that bullet for me, no questions asked. What would make HIM do that for ME.' Vin sat up and looked over at the gambler, who was fiddling with the cards in his hands. He could not believe Ezra could be so calm, he could have lost his life today, or been seriously hurt.

"Mr. Tanner, seems you are restless this evening, mother nature's bed not giving you much comfort this fine night?" Ezra asked as he noticed how the tracker tossed and turned on his bedroll.

Ezra sat on the hard ground as he tried to sort out his own thoughts and feelings. He did not have to look at the silent tracker to know he was being watched. He found it hard dealing with the concern he noted in Vin's face, or was it guilt, he really didn't know.

"Ezra, Can I ask ya a question and ya give me a straight and honest answer? None of your fancy five dollar words either." Vin stood and walked over and sat across from the gambler.

"Yes, Mr. Tanner, you may, with the understanding I can refuse to answer if I so desire." Ezra replied, as he continued to shuffle his cards, not looking up at the tracker.

Vin noted that the gambler's voice was cool and held very little emotion to it. The poker face was in place, which caused the tracker to wonder if he would be told the truth.

"Ezra, why did ya stand between me and Parker? Ya could have taken him out without doin that ya know. Ya could have been killed taken a chance like that." Vin attempted to keep eye contact with the very quiet southerner.

Ezra had stopped shuffling the cards after the question registered. 'Why is Vin worried about why I saved his life? Could he be worried I'm going to hold it over his head?' Ezra was the first to break eye contact, not wanting the tracker to read his thoughts. 'God, Vin I would die for you, you life is more important than mine.'

"Mr. Tanner, you should not let something like this worry you so much. What's done is done, neither of us are hurt, and the prisoners are no longer a threat." Ezra spoke, unable to look directly into the tracker's eyes. 'If he continues to look at me that way, I will kiss him.' Ezra closed his eyes and imagined their lips touching, as he wondered what the soft lips and mouth would taste like. The thought alone made Ezra's groin tighten, making his pants uncomfortable. 'God, how I want this man, never have I wanted anything more in my life.'

Vin noticed a look of shock and surprise on the gambler's face before the poker face recovered. If he had not watched the gambler closely he would never had seen it. 'How can a man have so much control of his emotions?'

"Ez, ya still didn't answer my question. Why?" Vin moved closer to the gambler as he felt a need to have this man close at hand. The tracker stopped when the gambler's body stiffened and moved away from the close contact.

"Mr. Tanner, it just felt right at the time. I felt I had plenty of time to assist you in avoiding a bullet as I returned fire on our felons trying to escape our hospitality. It seems I was right, we are very much alive, and they are very much dead. Now is that explanation enough for your understanding? No five dollar words used, that I could recall.

"Yeah, Ez, it works for now. Just don't be riskin' your life like that again. I don't think I want anythin' to happen to ya is all. I don't think I could live with the guilt of someone dyin for me, wouldn't feel right about it." Vin then stood and returned to his bedroll, not sure he believed all he had been told by the con man.

Both men went to sleep wondering what tomorrow held in store for them. They still had a three-day journey ahead of them. Neither could see why they had to turn back. Rock Creek deserved to know these men were truly dead, and the parent's of the little girl needed closure.


Vin found himself awake before dawn feeling unsettled, like his life was about to change. He had awakened sometime during the night. He had been unable to fall back asleep and checked on the camp and the horses. As he walked back to his bedroll, he decided to check on the gambler. He could not help but think how much younger the southern man looked asleep, and peaceful. 'Hell, he looks as young as J.D.' He'd had sat and watched the gambler as he slept for little over an hour, before he felt like he could fall asleep.

He continued to watch the gambler as he slept while daylight approached. He looked peaceful and innocent in his sleep, like an angel. 'Hell, Ez, ya ain't no angel, but ya ain't evil either.' He remembered back when he had first seen the gambler, and noticed how handsome he was.

He had been attracted to the southerner at first, never been sexually attracted to a man before. He had been with men before, just for sexual relief when on the trail. He had fought the attraction he had felt for the gambler, he wanted to explore what him and Chris had first. Nothing sexual had happened between them. After the first two months with Chris he knew it was as a brother he cared about him, nothing more. He had buried any attraction he had for the gambler till now, looking at him closely and admiring what he saw.

It was because he watched the gambler so closely: he observed the change in the gambler as he slept. The southerner's expression had become troubled, and his sleep restless. Ezra's expression changed from being troubled to anxiety then down right fear. Sweat had started to form, soaking the gambler's hair and shirt. Vin heard the fear in the gambler's voice, as he repeated, no, no, over and over again, each time getting louder. Ezra's eyes opened suddenly as he jolted awake screaming, NO, at the top of his lungs.

Vin watched as the frightened gambler jumped to his feet. He looked into his friend's eyes as he watched the raw fear and confusion come over the gambler. Vin approached the southerner slowly as he brought himself into the gambler's vision. The pain and fear he had heard in the other man's voice brought him to a stop.

"Don't come any closer, please," Ezra begged.

The despair and raw fear Vin had seen on his friend's face shook the tracker to his core. He did not want to think what horror's had brought such a look to this man's face standing before him.

"Ez, are ya okay pard? It's me, Vin. Look at me Ez, it's goin to be okay, I promise." Vin stopped his approach when he noticed Ezra backing away from him. He continued to talk softly, offering reassurances with his words. He tried to sooth Ezra's fears like he would a scared animal. 'Damn, Ez, what has gotten ya so scared? Was it a dream, or a bad memory?'

Ezra prayed for his control to return, for he felt it slipping further and further away. He did not recognize where he was, still caught up in the terrible nightmare. He could hear a vaguely familiar voice as it called his name. The left over effects of the dream made it hard for him to respond.

"Look at me Ez, come on pard look at me. I will get ya through this, just look at me." Vin tried to get the gambler's attention, by offering simple directions. He repeated the same thing over and over again.

Ezra heard that voice over and over again. Each time the words would become clearer, and the gambler would focus on the words being said. He soon recognized it was Vin calling to him as he looked for the blue eyes of the tracker. Still unnerved by the dream, Ezra had not been able to hide his emotions behind his famous poker face.

Vin was shocked at the raw emotion shown in the other man's face as their eyes met. Vin worked very hard at hiding his shock, concentrating on the troubled soul in front of him. 'Hell, we thought he was a cold fish. He just don't carry his pain for others to see.' He noticed how deep the fear had affected the gambler. Vin walked slowly toward the gambler speaking softly, never breaking eye contact.

Ezra had felt the tears as they fell down his face. The dream had never been this intense before, that it shook him so deeply. In the past, he would just wake up with the feeling he had dreamt something really bad. But this time, he remembered in parts what he had dreamt, and it scared him.

He remembered being in a room with another man, but he was much younger. He was uncomfortable with what the man had done, just couldn't remember what had happened. What stood out the most about the dream was the fact he was holding a gun, and the bad man was dead. A feeling of deja vu crept over him that caused him to shudder.

Vin could see the conflict in Ezra's eyes. Eyes that held such pain and sorrow, Vin felt like crying. 'Ezra, what could have happened that brought ya such pain? How could ya have held it in so long? Why didn't any of us see this before?' Then Vin began to understand Josiah's words more clearly. 'Because we looked at the package, and not at the man wrapped inside of it.'

Ezra needed an anchor at that moment, and Vin was there. Vin reached out and touched the gambler softly on the shoulder, as Ezra stepped into the touch. Their eyes never broke contact with the other. Vin squeezed the shoulder tighter as he offered his support. Vin continued to offer reassurance with a calm soft voice. He felt the tension start to leave the gambler's body, as the effects of the dream began to wear off.

"Ez, ya want to talk about it? I'm not pushin or anythin, just think it might help." Vin spoke softly not breaking eye contact. 'Never really looked at his eyes before, green like the jade he had seen once, beautiful and rare.

"Mr. Tanner, I am fine now, I assure you. It's nothing but a bad dream, brought on by the events of yesterday. I cannot even remember much about it." Ezra loved the fact he could think fast on his feet. He did not want the tracker to know anything about his dreams, which would initiate a discussion of dream versus reality. It would also give him too much power if anything about the dream actually happened.

"Are ya sure Ez? If ya want to talk about it, I'd be glad to listen. I won't judge ya or anythin like that, just listen." Vin knew this had nothing to do with what had happened yesterday. He could see Ezra, the con man, coming back. He could see the shutters falling down, and he would find nothing out today.

"Really, Mr. Tanner, I AM OKAY, I really wish you would not make a big deal out of a mere dream." Ezra turned away breaking all contact with the tracker, feeling a loss as he did so. He walked over and grabbed his saddlebags and walked down by the stream. 'Damn, why did this have to happen now? Why in front of this MAN of all people?' He knew that Vin would now watch him very closely. 'I'm sure I did not do a convincing enough job with my little story.'

Vin watched the gambler as he walked to the stream. Something just was not right with the explanation given by the stubborn southerner. 'Ez, ya are hidin somethin, I just know it, I can feel it in my gut, and it ain't pretty either.' Vin preoccupied himself with makin some coffee, and fixin a short and easy breakfast. They would pull out for Rock Creek after they ate. 'It won't be a nice ride draggin two dead bodies with us.'

The day passed quickly, and they had been able to get a lot of miles behind them. Vin enjoyed the quiet and the scenery as they traveled. 'There just ain't nuthin more relaxin like Mother Nature when the sun is shinin.' Vin looked back at the gambler and noticed the relaxed rhythm, as his body swayed with his horse, shuffling his cards.

Ezra had felt tense and a feeling of dread during the first few hours of their travel. He waited with baited breath for the long-haired Texan to continue with questions. He knew the ex-bounty hunter had not been satisfied with his answer earlier. He began to relax as he noticed how the tracker communed with the nature surrounding them. He had not fooled himself it would last, there was tonight in camp.

The men continued to travel making good time, breaking once to water the horses before continuing on. Vin thought they might make it to town earlier then he previously thought. He never at any point forgot about the gambler, just kept his concern hidden. 'Hell, Ez, ya ain't the only one that can hide your thoughts at times.'

As the sun lowered and the day became a dusky evening, both men knew it was time to make camp. Vin noticed how tense the gambler had become when they stopped. He had a feeling it was because he was afraid of being questioned further about his dream. Vin knew he had to earn the gambler's trust before he would find any answers. He planned to take things slowly and let the gambler see he was a friend. This caused Vin to smile sadly, 'I wonder if he even knows what it's like to have a friend?'

"Ez, I'm goin to see if I can get somethin for dinner. Any special requests?" Vin decided he would give the gambler some time alone to relax.

Ezra had tried very hard to keep busy, and away from the tracker. He knew it would not be easy, but still had tried for as long as he could. 'Please do not ask me anything about my dream. I'm not sure I want to find out anything more about it myself.' So when Vin said he was going hunting, Ezra was able to breath easier for a while.

"No Mr. Tanner, no special requests, I will trust in your judgment of finding something appeasing to our appetites."

Vin returned to camp carrying two items. He could not wait for Ezra's response to what he had to say. He knew the gambler's response would be a memory he would not likely forget for a long time.

"Ez, what's ya wantin for dinner? I found a nice big rabbit, and also the snake that was about to make it his dinner. Which do ya want?" Vin had a hard time not laughing out loud at the expression on the handsome gambler's face, his green eyes wide in shock. 'Handsome? When did I start looking at the man as handsome?' Vin shook off the thought, as he remembered that morning and where his thoughts had taken him, not wanting to return to them.

"Mr. Tanner, how in the world would you even consider ME having snake? When a rabbit is much more tender and, and, well, it does crawl on the ground. I choose the rabbit." Ezra turned and walked away feeling frustrated at losing his composure. He had an unexplained paranoia about snakes, did as a child. 'The nerve of that man, asking such a thing." The gambler made like he was checking on the horses, giving them both an extra sugar cube. Peso gave his hand a nudge, wanting to be petted.

Vin smiled at the gambler's loss of words over the snake. Vin prepared both rabbits and placed them on the spike over the fire. He never had caught the snake, just wanted to tease Ezra. He looked over at the gambler, now over by the horses. He could not believe what he was seeing; Peso was letting the gambler pet him. 'That damn horse won't even let Chris near him, and he lets Ezra pet him.'

Ezra walked toward the fire, after checking the horses carrying their burdens. He had given them each a sugar cube and extra attention as well. He smelled the rabbit, his stomach growling in response. He looked around for the snake, when he noticed the smile on Vin's face.

"So, Mr. Tanner, where is this snake you caught?" Ezra looked around making sure it was not anywhere he would take a seat.

"Ez, I was just teasin ya, I didn't kill no snake." Vin smiled up at the gambler as he gestured for curious man to have a seat.

"Not a nice joke on a man who despise such creatures." Ezra held back the shudder of even thinking of said creature. Ezra had such a fear of snakes, which is why he hated sleeping on the trail so much. The fear of one getting in his bedroll is why he took such pain in tucking in the edges, the act that had been the brunt of jokes and comments from the others.

"Ez, are you afraid of snakes?" Vin softly asked. He had noted the brief flash of fear in the green eyes that now fascinated him. Vin felt that the eyes of the gambler were the key to breaking through Ezra's protective barriers. Maybe even the windows to his soul.

"Mr. Tanner, who in their right mind would not be afraid of the sneaky bastards," Ezra replied.

"Yeah, but I get a feelin it's more then that for ya. Did ya have a bad experience once or somethin?" Vin looked at the gambler, letting his sincerity show.

"Mr. Tanner, I vaguely remember something as a child. There was a pit of vipers, and me being bitten. It's rather hazy and distorted, not even sure it really happened." Ezra could not believe he had just opened up like that. He looked into Vin's eyes and just let it out. This unnerved the gambler, 'I have to find more control around this man, before it's too late. Before he knows just why I tell him more then I have ever told anyone in my life.'

"Is that why ya tuck your blanket in so tight?" Vin asked, even though he knew the answer.

"Yes, Mr. Tanner, it is exactly, like it would make a difference." Ezra looked in Vin's eyes, feeling relaxed for the first time he could remember around another person. He felt warmed and the concern the tracker offered him; no one had ever been concerned over him before.

"Well, Ez, we had better turn in. I think if we make good time tomorrow, like today, we should make Rock Creek next mornin," Vin smiled at the gambler when he stood. "Thanks for sharing, and don't worry, it stays between us. But you have to clean up. During the conversation both men had finished their meal.

"Mr. Tanner, it would be my pleasure to clean up after such a charming meal provided by your hand." Ezra smiled at the tracker, a smile that reached his eyes, making them sparkle.

"Just tuck yourself in nice and tight Ez. I will be right here if ya need anythin. I promise all that has happened will stay between us." Vin nodded and went to bed; the smile and sparkling eyes touched Vin deeply. Vin decided he liked the smile very much and wanted to see more of it.

Ezra smiled as he realized what the tracker had promised, that his dream would be safe. The soft-spoken man of his dreams would tell no one about his dream, including the others. Clean up was fast and easy, but sleep eluded the southerner. He tossed and turned, unable to close his eyes for long; afraid the dream would return.

Vin pretended to sleep as he watched the gambler toss and turn. When the gambler's movement slowed and breathing became soft and even, the tracker then gave into the power of sleep.


Chris felt like something bad was about to happen. He could not shake the feeling, no matter what he did. Vin and Ezra had been gone one day, and already he was worried about the tracker. He could not forget the look on the tracker's face when he had left town with Ezra. He knew that the tracker was going to have some words for him when he returned as well. He remembered last night in the saloon. He thought about the conversation between the remaining peacemakers as they played a few hands of poker.

"So pard, what's got ya not thinkin on the game?" Buck knew it had to do with the tracker. He was sure that he and Vin had not parted in the best of ways. He had come out in time to see Vin's glare as he turned away from the gunslinger. He watched as Chris walked over toward the hotel. He had seen that look before, and left him alone with his thoughts.

"Just can't get this feeling of somethin bad is about ta happen is all." Chris frowned at his cards. He could not help but feel that sending Ezra with Vin was a mistake.

"Ya are beginin to sound like Vin, with that gut feelin and all," Nathan snorted. He never did have much belief in the southern gambling con man. He could not believe that Vin let him go along.

"I wonder what Vin and Ezra are doin about now?" J.D. asked. He smiled at his cards, not paying attention to the men, and their reactions to the men he had mentioned. If he had he would have regretted even saying their names.

"I'm sure Ezra has his feet up and Vin is doin all the work," Nathan spit out. 'That man is more a pain in the ass then he is worth sometimes. He only thinks of himself and what profit he can make.'

"I don't think Vin would put up with that. Ya should have been here when old Jr. said loud enough, even for Ez to hear, about getting enough shut eye," Buck replied. He looked at the cards in his hand, noticing the poor hand he had to play with. If he had not known any different he would think the gambler was in the saloon, at the table dealin.

"Ya tellin me that Ezra listened to Vin, and went ta bed." Nathan responded with a look of disbelief.

"Yeah, he finished his hand and then tipped his hat as he went upstairs." Buck looked at Chris for confirmation. He was not thinking about being favorable toward the gambler right now. One of the ranch hands leaving one of the saloon girls room the other morning saw Inez kiss the southerner good-bye. So right now Ezra was not his favorite topic.

"He even offered Josiah a safe patrol on his way upstairs." Chris looked at Nathan as he spoke. Buck had asked him about seein Ezra and Inez kiss, was not sure how Buck found out. He told the ladies man of the innocent kiss Inez had given Ezra on the cheek. So, he knew right now, Buck was a bit upset with the gambler.

"Well, I be damned, our Vin did that. Good for him." Nathan could not help but laugh. "Still don't know why ya sent HIM of all people, with Vin?" The healer could not help but ask the gunslinger point blank.

"I don't rightly know, Nathan, except he needs to pull his own weight. I just hope I did not make a mistake." Chris frowned as he said the words. The words caused the worried feeling to intensify in his gut.

Josiah's heart sank as he listened to the men belittle his black lamb. 'I just hope Vin has discovered what a lost lamb he really is and can help him, before it's too late.' The preacher bowed his head and sent a soft prayer for both young men's safe return. The young gambler had wormed his way into his heart with out lifting a finger or meaning to do so. In fact, if Ezra had his way, there would be no feelings good or bad toward him.

"Brothers, are we not here to play cards?" Josiah looked sternly around the table at the men he had come to think of as family. "He who has not sinned speak up now, then sit upon judgment on us that have." All the men looked down, unable to look at the preacher in the eyes. They had forgotten how attached the big man had become to the gambler, like a father to a son.

Chris was the first to look at Josiah and respond to his preaching. Chris cocked his eyebrow and in a firm voice of his own question the large man. "He already has a father. What's he goin ta do with two of them?" Chris was tired of Josiah coming to Ezra's defense. 'Hell, even Ezra don't defend himself, maybe because it's all true?'

"What do you know of Ezra's father Chris? Have you met him, and we don't know about it?" Josiah asked. 'If only you knew that I have met Mr. Standish, and it was not a nice experience.' The last name had been familiar to him, when he had first met the gambler. He did not put two and two together till he met Maude. Then what he remembered made him cringe at what a young Ezra Standish had possibly went though in his young life.

"Damn, Josiah, ya know I haven't met his father. I have just met that woman who calls herself his mother." Chris barked at the preacher. 'Damn even when that selfish bastard's gone he causes trouble.'

"So, Chris, how do you know Ezra knew his father? We don't. In fact nothing is really known about the boy for sure. He does not talk at all about his past. He does not confirm or deny accusations made on his past. Why do you ask? Because he knows it would not make a difference, you have already pegged him guilty." Josiah looked around the table and noticed nothing had changed. They could not open themselves to the thought of Ezra being more than what he appeared to be.

"I like him Josiah, he has been nothing but good ta me. He takes time to explain things to me like an adult, not like a child. He does a lot of nice things too, but doesn't let anybody know it was him that done it." J.D. looked at Josiah and smiled. He didn't care if Buck got mad at him. He never liked how the others treated the gambler either. Just never had the nerve to speak up before.

Josiah looked at J.D. and smiled. The boy's innocent nature helped him see the good in most everyone. It is what gave the gambler a chance with being accepted by J.D. with out being judged first.

"Yes J.D., you are right, Ezra does a lot for others secretly. He knows if anyone knew they would not take the offer from a low life gambler. In fact they would return it if they ever found out. They would only question, what was in it for him?" Josiah looked at the unbelieving faces of the remaining three men.

"What has he done? Just tell me one thing he has done that did not benefit him." Chris dared the preacher man.

"He was the one that bought the part for Mary's printing press that time last month," Josiah replied.

"Hell, that would have been for his advantage, he likes to read. He even told me once that was how he found marks when he conned." Buck replied as he gave a concerned look at J.D. He was going to talk to that boy about trusting everybody.

"He is the one that bought the spellers for the new school." Josiah looked over at Nathan and raised his eyebrows. He waited to see if anyone would attempt and reason this one away. He should have known someone would, they just did not want to see any good done by the gambler.

"Hell, Josiah, he wanted to impress the new pretty school teacher." Chris replied as he looked around the table. Everyone nodded their heads yes, but Josiah and J.D.

"But he never told her. So how could this impress her?" Josiah stated.

"He ain't had the chance yet. They was just delivered last week, and with him leavin town an all. I'm sure he will make her aware of his gift when he comes back. I just hope she is smart enough to leave him alone." Nathan smiled at his logical explanation.

The last comment drove a pain so deep into Josiah's heart, he felt like crying. Josiah looked down at his cards as he tried very hard to keep from grabbing Nathan by the neck. The look that had come over Josiah face warned all conversation about Ezra to stop.

"I think the bet was on you, Chris?" Josiah asked. He had not hidden the anger he was feeling; you could hear it in his voice. 'Alone, they want my boy left alone, by himself. I can't let that happen, it has gone on too long as it is.'

Chris placed his bet, ignoring Josiah's anger. 'What has gotten Josiah so upset? He always defends Ezra, never to the point of an argument before.'

They finished the hand of poker, and everyone watched J.D. with suspicion when he raked in his winnings. In fact, he won the most out of all of them tonight.

Buck looked at J.D. and knew he was going to have to watch the interaction more closely between the boy and the gambler. 'Ezra, if you are teachin this boy about gambling, I will personally make ya sorry.'

J.D. looked at the winnings he had made tonight, thanking the gambler quietly for his help. 'I can get that new book now that Ezra told me about.' When J.D. had told Ezra his interests in reading, the gambler had lent him some of his books. Some times the words were hard to understand and pronounce. But Ezra helped him with out making him feel dumb.

"Well I'm thinkin it's time to call it a night. I see little ole Mable is looking a mite bit lonely over yonder." Buck stood and walked over toward the small blonde standing by the bar.

"Buck will never change." Chris laughed as he watched his old friend walk away toward the pretty woman.

Everyone said their good nights; Josiah just nodded his head at everyone as he turned to leave. The big man left with a heavy heart. 'I'm not sure I can continue to stay here if my boy leaves. I know I will not be able to control my fury if anything happens to HIM. I was not in a position to protect him before, but I am now. No one will hurt him as long as I can prevent it.' He walked to the church praying Chris was wrong about something bad happening.


Ezra tossed and turned on his bedroll, he could not wake up from the dream. He could see clearly the man coming toward him, talking gibberish. Saying he was a sinner and was about to die. Ezra saw himself lifting the gun and pointing it at the man, but couldn't hear what he was saying to the man. Next thing he knew, the gun goes off and the man fell dead. He saw Maude and another man enter the room, their lips are were moving but he couldn't hear what they were saying to him.

He now saw himself pointing the gun at himself, placing it up against his head. He could see Maude crying and mouthing the word no. The man was walking toward him, tears running down his face. He holds out his hand for the gun, for some reason Ezra feels safe with this man. As he hands the gun to older gentlemen Maude rushed up and slapped his face. He could now hear Maude screaming, "How could you do that Ezra? Why dam it, why?" She then turned and ran out of the room, with the man following behind her, calling her name.

Vin had awakened at the first sign the gambler was struggling in his sleep. He quickly moved to the gambler's side to wake him up. He quickly assessed the situation to see what he could do to help calm the man down. He watched the gambler's head sharply turn to the right as if he had been slapped. He noticed the tears streaming down his face.

"Ez, wake up pard. Your havin another dream is all," Vin whispered softly.

Vin stretched down beside the gambler and took him into his arms. He could feel the gambler's body shaking, like he was chilled to the bone. He whispered soft reassuring words into Ezra's ear.

"Ezra, it's me, Vin, relax I will help ya out of these here blankets. Just relax pard, I'm here just like I promised." Vin brought the gambler tighter against his chest after removing the blankets. He stroked the gambler's back tryin to help him to relax. As he stoked the gambler's back he noted how wet with sweat it was. He then reached for the blankets and covered them both, bringing Ezra even closer against his body.

"Ssssh, Ez, it's goin to be okay, I promise ya. I won't let nothin hurt ya, Ez, listen to my voice." Vin closed his eyes and started to rock side to side, cradling the gambler close. The gambler's head placed on his chest over his heart. "Listen to my heart Ez, it will always guide ya home." Vin began to relax as he felt the gambler stop fighting. The tracker smiled as the southerner snuggled closer, wrapping his arm around him.

"That's it pard, just go back to sleep. I gotcha your back for ya." Vin bent and whispered in the gambler's ear, before he lightly kissed it. It felt right for the gambler to be in his arms, like he belonged there. Vin rested his chin on top of the soft chestnut hair, and drifted of to sleep, smiling.

Ezra woke to a warm feeling of being held. The warm feeling was like nothing he had ever felt before. When he opened his eyes he noticed he had a pillow, 'A human pillow at that.' Ezra lifted his head and looked up into a pair of indigo blue eyes. He noticed there was nothing but concern in the blue eyes looking at him.

"Mr. Tanner, I see that something must have happened to bring you so close to my person?" Ezra asked.

The tracker knew exactly when his human blanket had started to wake up. He had felt the gambler tense when he realized Vin was his pillow. Vin had liked waking up with Ezra in his arms.

"Mr. Standish, I was afraid of a snake carrin me off. So I thought I'd sleep over by you for protection." Vin winked giving his words the best imitation of a southern drawl he could come up with. Vin felt it would be better if the gambler brought up the dream.

"Vin, did I have another dream last night?" Ezra's voice was soft and vulnerable. He was unable to look the tracker in the eyes at this time.

"Yeah, Ez ya did," Vin replied. Vin allowed the gambler the control of asking the questions, letting him ask what he was comfortable asking.

"Did I say anything in my sleep?" Ezra's voice a small whisper.

"No, Ez, not a word, ya just was fightin the blankets like they was about ta suffocate ya is all. I tried wakin ya, but ya wouldn't wake up. So I just took ya in my arms and held ya till ya calmed down. When ya calmed down I decided to stay with ya, in case ya had another bad dream," Vin softly replied.

Ezra looked up into the tracker's eyes, looking for a sign the tracker was lying. He was not prepared for the warmth and caring he found there. The look in Vin's eyes made Ezra's heart feel like it skipped a beat. There was no sign that Vin had lied about what had happened.

Ezra noted that Vin was lying on the solid ground, not blanket or bedroll beneath him. This caused his to feel guilty, as he broke free from Vin's hold. The southerner quickly stood up, offering his hand down toward the tracker. Vin reached up and grasped the hand offered, allowing the gambler to assist him to his feet.

"My apologies, Vin, it seems you have spent an uncomfortable night because of me." Ezra stated, his voice full of remorse.

"Ez, look at me." Vin replied as he took the gambler's hand. "Ya did not give me any discomfort. I'm just glad I was there for ya. Ya would have done the same for me." Vin never let go of the gambler's hand as he squeezed it for reassurance.

"Vin, please." Ezra started to say before Vin placed a finger against the gambler's lips. They felt so warm and soft; it took all of Vin's will power not to kiss the man standing in front of him.

"Don't Ez, enough said. I consider ya a friend, and I help my friends. I don't know if ya know much about havin real friends, but I aim to teach ya about havin em." Vin spoke with a determination unlike Ezra had ever seen from the Texan before. He thought how right the tracker was, he never did have any one he could call a friend.

"I'm sorry, Vin, you are right. I don't know what it is like to have real friends. Never stayed anywhere long enough to try," Ezra replied.

"Well, your first lesson is ya keep callin me Vin. Friends call each other by their first name. Now if ya feel the need in public ya can still call me Mr. Tanner." Vin punched Ezra in the arm as he smiled.

"Fine, I will call you Mr. Tanner in public. I do have a reputation to maintain you know." Ezra smiled at the teasing banter between them.

"Don't worry Ez, no matter what ya have done in the past don't matter. We all have done things we ain't very proud of. I'm sayin this cause if ya ever need some one ta talk to I'm here. That is somethin else friends do." Vin reached out and squeezed the southerner's shoulder. "Well, we had better get a move on, Eagle Bend is looking like a mighty nice possibility to me."

Both men worked on packing up camp. Each grabbed something light to eat, wanting to be on their way. Both men felt something special had just developed between them. Ezra felt amazed about having found a friend, even if he wanted more than mere friendship. Vin felt like friendship was a good place to start.

Chris picked at his breakfast for about a half an hour now. He could not stop the feeling that something bad was going to happen. This was how Buck found him, staring off into space, his expression brooding. Buck knowing Chris the way he did knew this was not a good sign. If not handled correctly the gunslinger could become pretty nasty.

"Chris, are ya okay?" Buck asked.

"Buck, I don't rightly know. I feel like somethin is goin ta happen, somethin bad." Chris answered as he rubbed his face with his hands, like rubbing away a bad dream.

"Ya think it involves Jr.? Don't ya?" Buck had known the answer, but had to see if Chris knew it as well.

"Bucklin, I am not sure really, but I can't help but think that sendin Ezra was a bad idea," Chris replied.

"We could leave now, travel till we met up with em." The ladies man searched his oldest friend's face. He knew if anything happened to the young Texan it would break him. 'I just wonder if the boy knows how much ya really care, cowboy?'

"No, Vin had said somethin about stoppin in Eagle Bend on the way back." Chris voiced, sounding frustrated and angry with himself.

"Hell, Chris, if we leave now we could catch up with them by the ole weigh station," Buck smirked. 'I love it when a plan comes together.'

Both men looked up as JD entered followed by a familiar face from their past. Buck jumped up and hugged the man, like they had known each other forever. Chris smiled and shook the hand offered tightly. JD was surprised, the man never mentioned he new his two friends.

"Well look at what the dogs of hell brought ta town," Buck hollered.

"Looks like you boys have done alright for yourselves. Nice ta see ya back ridin together," the older man stated.

"We can't never stay away from each other for very long. Hell, Cal ya know that." Buck slapped the older man on the back.

"Someone has to make sure some scorned husband don't shoot the scoundrel in the back." Chris could not help but feel like this was not a personal visit. Cal Roger's did not make personal visits, did not come with the job of Federal Marshall. "Ya a bit out of your territory ain't ya?"

"Christopher, you will never change. Direct and to the point as always I see. I hear you have a couple prisoners I might be interested in." Cal smiled at the gunslinger, happy Buck was back riding with him.

"What prisoners? We had a couple, but all of them are gone to other places." JD replied.

"Did you have a Frank Parker, and a Wilkins in your jail at one time?" Cal hoped they had not escaped.

"We just sent them to Rock Creek, seems they killed a little girl there durin a robbery." Chris watched his old friend for his reaction. The three men had met many years back in days Chris and Buck rode with the Texas Rangers.

Cal was as honest as they came, and took his job seriously.

"How many men did you send for the escort?" Cal asked. 'Please tell me more than a couple, god please.'

"Two was all. Why?" Buck asked, as he felt heaviness in his chest, making it hard to take a breath. 'Chris was right somethin bad was about to happen, and Jr. is involved.'

"Have any of you heard of the Wade gang?" Cal could tell they had by the looks on their faces. "Frank Parker is Marcus Wade's cousin, and right hand man. He plans the robberies, stakes out the town. Wilkins works with Frank, and at times they do some jobs on the side. Marcus is not going to sit by and take kindly to a member of his family being hung, especially his right hand man."

"Buck, get the others. JD, go and tell the livery boy to get our horses ready to ride, and JD, tell him I said NOW! Then I want ya right back here, now go. Cal, I'm goin ta need ya to telegraph the Judge in Rock Creek, and let him know about the connection between Parker and Wade. I don't need ta ask ya if your ridin with us, that's a given." Chris looked at Cal seeing the confirmation in his eyes, he was with them all the way.

Chris knew he had to go and tell Mary what was going on. He had promised Billy to take him riding this afternoon. He also had to see if Clint Wilson was available to watch the jail, and keep an eye on the town. Clint and his brother Jason helped watch the town, when the seven had to ride out together.

Chris found Mary as she was sitting up the press for tomorrow's paper. He wondered if she would return the new part, if she knew it was Ezra that had bought it.

"Mary, me and the boys are leavin town on business. Looks like Vin and Ezra may be in a bit of trouble. I really don't have time with all the details right now. Could ya tell Billy for me, I promised him I would take him ridin this afternoon." Chris spoke firmly and quickly, before the reporter had time to take over.

"Chris, just be careful, and bring everyone home safe. Could you give this to Ezra when you see him?" Mary asked as she took out an envelope out of her pocket.

"What is it?" Chris asked before taking the thick envelope. 'What did she find out Ezra bought the part for the press? And she is paying him back.'

"I don't know, Maude sent it to him via me. Stated in her letter to me that things were not going well between them. That he is returning all her mail back unopened. She instructed he should read this before she comes to town." Mary just shrugged her shoulders, as she looked at the object in Chris's hand.

'Not only do I have to get there in time, I have to be a messenger boy to the damn southern cuss.' Chris attempted to hand the letter back to Mary.

"Chris, please take it and give it to Ezra. I would hate for him to face his mother with out being forewarned as to her intent of coming here," Mary's eyes pleaded.

"Mary, this is between Maude and her son. Why are you gettin involved?" Chris demanded as he felt a strange feeling of jealousy come over him. 'Why is Mary worried about that no account good for nothin gambler. First Inez and now Mary. Next thing ya know Mrs. Potter will act like his mother.'

Chris's attitude aggravated Mary to no end. 'How could this man be so blind, when it came to Ezra? Has he not noticed how much the young man had changed since riding with them? She would have to have a long talk with Josiah when they got back. It was time to open up the eyes of a few people here in Four Corners about Ezra Standish. 'I think I might even thank him in public for the part to my press, and the spellers he purchased for the new school. That might change a few opinions about the young man.'

"Mr. Larabee, again have a safe trip and I hope EVERYONE returns safely. I will give Billy your regrets, and he will understand." Mary turned her back on the gunslinger and returned to the printing press. She had left the letter in Chris's hand in the process.

Chris turned and left the Clarion to meet up with the others, but first had to stop at the telegraph office. Mary's behavior confused him; she had been the second person to question him why he kept the gambler on as a peacekeeper, when they first formed the group. As he approached the telegraph office he noticed the livery boy bringing down the first of the horses.

Chris stepped onto the telegraph office and sent a short brief message.

Judge Travis

Tell Vin stay in town


Chris then went across the street to the jail and began to formulate a plan; it was simple, started with ride like hell


The young men and their burdens had been traveling most of the day without much of a break. Vin had wanted to make good time; he wanted to relieve themselves of the bodies as soon as possible. He was sure that the bodies were a force behind Ezra's dream being so intense. 'They must be bringin some bad memories he had hidden away.'

The tracker had kept a close eye on the gambler. He would see how deep in thought Ezra would become. He knew just by how his face would become tight and frightened at times that he was thinking about the dreams, trying to figure what they were about.

Both men rode in a comfortable silence, neither minding the quiet surrounding them. Ezra was aware that Vin kept checking up on him. For some reason this did not bother him, but calmed his nerves. He continued to piece together what he could remember of his dreams. 'Hell, I can't even tell if it's a dream or a repressed memory.'

Vin noticed how the sun had began to set, judged that soon they would need to stop for the night. The tracker noted the landmarks around him and knew that a place up a head would be a great place to camp.

"Ez, there's a place up ahead great for campin for the night. Might even be able to catch up some fish for dinner." Vin looked back at Ezra noticing how tired the man looked. 'Ya ain't gettin enough sleep there pard.'

"Vin, I will place my trust in your judgment." Ezra smiled. He could not wait for the moment he could get off his horse and rest. He knew they had pushed the animals harder than usual, but he would make it up to Chaucer when they got to town.

The young men worked together to set up camp. Neither had to ask the other what needed to be done. Vin joked with the gambler about finding some prairie rodent for dinner. Ezra then came back with how awful it would be for a friend to allow another friend to starve. Both men laughed and joked feeling at ease with each other for the first time.

"Ez, how about we go for a swim. We might even catch dinner. There's enough sunlight left." Vin asked the gambler as he wiggled his eyebrows.

"Vin, I could use some entertainment. I would find it very amusing to watch you fish in your underwear." Ezra laughed as he watched the tracker's eyebrows.

"Ya are missin the point there Ez ole buddy, WE are catching dinner together," Vin stated. He could not help but smile at the shocked expression on his friend's face.

"Vin, you would trust me to catch dinner?" Ezra questioned softly.

"Ez, I think ya will do just fine. Ya can't live the life ya have not knowin somethin about findin dinner on the run. Come on I'll race ya. Last one in guts the fish." Vin laughed as he watched the gambler undress as he ran toward the river.

Vin's memories of the area placed them about a five hour ride out of Rock Creek. This would be the last night before they made it to town. The bodies would be delivered and explanations given. But for now the tracker just wanted to show his friend how to have fun.

Vin laughed out loud as the gambler jumped in the river with his shirt and underwear on. He jumped into the water in the clothes Mother Nature provided him. The water felt good as he swam under the water for a while. When he came up for air he heard the worried voice of the gambler as he called his name.

"Ez, I'm over here. Look over to your left, I mean right." Vin started to swim toward the man threading water looking around him frantically.

"Vin, you gave me a fright. I thought the river's current had dragged you under. The water dripped down the tracker's face into his eyes, causing him to blink. It took all of Ezra's control not reach out and wipe the water out of the man's face. He wanted to tangle his hand into the long hair and pull the man into a kiss.

Vin noticed the intense look of desire in Ezra's eyes, before it disappeared. This made him smile to himself and think about the possibilities this could mean. 'Maybe I'm not the only one lookin for more than friendship.' The tracker also knew deep down that Ezra was not ready for a loving relationship right now. He reasoned that the gambler first needed to learn how to trust someone with his friendship, before he could give over his heart.

"Ez why did ya wear your shirt into ta water?" Vin smiled as he swam closer toward the gambler.

"The truth, Vin, is I cannot abide preparing freshly acquired fish. It takes everything I have not to lose my dinner, before I have even partaken the pleasure of eating it." Ezra laughed as the tracker tried to understand what he had said. "I'm sorry, Vin, the sight of gutting fish makes me want to throw up."

"That's okay Ez, I can gut if you do the cookin. Then we can clean up together," Vin stated. He looked at the gambler and smiled at the gift just given him. Ezra trusted him enough to tell the truth about something, that made the gambler uncomfortable, this made Vin very happy.

"That my friend is a deal I can live with. Now do you wish to show me how we catch our said dinner?" Ezra asked.

"Ez, I'm goin ta need your shirt. It will act like a net." Vin couldn't wait for the gambler's reaction. He did not have to wait long, and was not disappointed in the response given.

"What do you mean, my shirt? What about the smell the fish would leave? I'm not so sure about this. Is it to late for finding a rabbit? Or something more suitable, that I don't have to catch with my clothing? Ezra was surprised that the man would even think he would give up his shirt.

"We ain't goin ta leave the fish in it. Just catch em throw them on the riverbank. We only need a couple, maybe four or five." Vin looked at the gambler as he waited for the response.

Ezra thought about what the tracker had said, and consider all the angles. He was hungry, and he did have other shirts till they returned home. Could even have it cleaned in Rock Creek before they returned home. Ezra removed the shirt and handed it to the tracker. He felt uncomfortable being without his shirt in front of Vin. The only article of clothing left was his underwear, and they would not hide his attraction for the tracker, if it would become evident.

Vin had to dunk his head under the water to keep his moan from escaping. He could feel his body reacting to the sweet visual he was getting of the gamblers chest. He had never seen Ezra without his shirt before, and never expected what was hidden. The chest was very muscular and defined, skin looked smooth as silk. 'Damn, Ez, I want ta touch ya so bad. I want ta see if that skin feels as smooth as it looks.' Vin returned to the surface with his control back in place. He took the shirt from Ezra and within fifteen minutes they had caught seven fish.

"I think we did good Ez. Now we need to fix em up for eatin." Vin could not wait fro them to get dressed. He was finding it harder and harder to resist acting on his feelings of want. He wanted Ez badly, like nothing he had ever wanted in his life. The depth of how much he wanted this man shook him. 'Hell where did these feelin's come from.'

Both men made their way toward the riverbank to retrieve their dinner. As Ezra wadded back his foot slipped with him going under the water as he fell. The slippery rocks impeded his ability to recover right away. When he was able to stand he noticed Vin standing on the bank laughing. For the first time he realized the tracker was nude. He noticed how muscular and firm the man's body was. He quickly looked away not wanting Vin to notice him admiring his body. He again attempted to walk toward the bank and out of the river. He made it on dry land and when he looked toward where the tracker had been, he was gone.

He looked around and found Vin gathering his clothes, putting on his buckskins. The action helped calm the gambler; he did not know how he would react to a nude Vin for very long.

Vin kept himself occupied by gathering their clothes and getting dressed. He could not trust himself, to watch the gambler leave the river. He knew he would not be able to hide his desire, watching the water drip and roll down the gambler's firm body. When Vin finished dressing he assisted the gambler in finding all of his clothes as they returned to camp.

Vin told Ezra to go and see to the horses as he gutted the fish. Ezra smiled his thanks as he first saw to the two horses carrying their burdens. He gave them each extra sugar cubs and oats. He found some long sticks he could use to cook the fish with, removed his little pocketknife and prepared them.

Vin call Ezra over when everything that was gutted from the fish had been removed and out of sight. Ezra then smiled at Vin when he pulled out his sticks and placed the fish on them and over the fire slightly.

Ezra pulled out his trusty deck of cards and looked at the tracker with a smile that displayed his dimples. "How about a few games of chance while we wait for our dinner to cook?"

"I don't have anythin to bet with Ez," Vin smiled back.

"That is quite all right Vin, we will make small like challenge like bets. Something just to make the game fun." Ezra began to deal out the cards.

"The first game is the winner talks with the Judge." Ezra looked at the tracker and smiled.

"I don't know Ez, that a big bet for ya to lose on." Vin chuckled.

They continued to play as their dinner cooked. Both men smiled as they joked and bet back and forth different challenges. Vin noted that he won most hands that dealt with dealing with the Judge and Chris. Ezra won most of the challenges concerning who would decide where they would stay in Eagle Bend, and such.

Ezra noted that Vin had placed their bedrolls closer. This relaxed and calmed him as well as made him slightly uncomfortable. Vin helped Ezra clean up after dinner. They then both decided it was time to turn in.

"Ez, I'm right here if ya need me." Vin looked at Ezra as he laid down on his bedroll.

"Thank you Vin, I do feel a little more at ease knowing you will be close." It took a lot for the gambler to acknowledge such a feeling of trust. But Ezra felt he could count on the tracker to keep his word. Both men feel asleep easily. The long day of riding as well as the swimming had tired them out.

Chris paced the group so not to overtire the horses. He felt the dread in his gut grow stronger. Vin had a two-day lead on them. 'Damn why did I send the weak link?'

Buck looked at the man in black and shook his head. He knew he would have to stay close to his oldest friend, for the next few days. The connection between Chris and the young tracker was strong, 'Just don't know HOW strong? Could Jr. be the reason Chris stays away from Mrs. Travis? Lord, don't let anythin happen to that boy.' The scoundrel felt his old friend would not deal well with the loss as all.

Nathan had made sure he packed as much medical supplies he could carry before they left town. 'I just wish some one else was with Vin, to watch his back. Ezra might run, or even worse join up with the enemy ta save his own southern hide.'

JD rode with a determination, 'No one will hurt my friends. If they do they will pay.' JD never held one friend above the other; they were just all his friends. Buck was special, like an older brother he always wanted growing up. He would do anything for any of his six friends.

Josiah prayed the boys would be found healthy and injury free when they caught up with them. If he lost the gambler it would be like loosing a son. When he had met the gambler he had felt the connection of their souls. He knew he would have to work very hard to gain his trust. A lot had happened in his adopted son's life, to keep him from trusting anything. The thought of calling Ezra his son brought a smile on to his face.

Cal watched the determination on the faces of the five men he rode with. He could feel the strength of the bond between them. 'I wonder what it would feel like when the seven men are together?'

He had known of the special bond between Chris and Buck, 'Brothers by spirit.' He noticed how concerned Buck was for the gunslinger, as always, the scoundrel thought of others before himself. The older man knew he would watch Buck's back, while the scoundrel watched Chris's.

The men rode until they came to a stream up ahead. The horses needed a break, so did the men. Each man settled his own horse and broke for a quick meal.

"So, what are your two friends like?" Cal asked of the group of men around him.

The group looked at Chris and Buck with worried expressions. Cal was their friend, if they trusted him with Vin's name, then they would trust him. Chris had to think hard about letting Cal know about Vin.

"There's Vin Tanner, he is our tracker and sharpshooter. Good man, and honest as they come," Chris replied.

"Vin Tanner, same Vin Tanner wanted in Texas for murder?" Cal looked at Chris straight in the eyes. He had know Chris a long time, if he thought the Tanner man was okay, then he was okay. He had learned working with both Chris and Buck in the Rangers, how trustworthy and dependable they were.

"Cal, he was framed for it. I met the man who framed him, but had to kill him before he could tell anyone of importance that he had done the crime." Chris looked back at his friend with a sad smile.

"Well Chris, if you say he is a good man, he must be a pretty good man. I have never doubted you before. I'm not about to start now." Cal reached out and patted the gunslinger on the back. The group of men relaxed at the Marshall's statement.

"We had better get a move on, daylight is a wastin." Chris stated as he went toward his horse.

"You never said the name of your other man," Cal asked.

"Ezra P. Standish is his name, brother. He is our lost lamb of sorts." Josiah spoke up; he knew the black web the others would weave about his son.

It took every thing in Cal's power not to react to the name mentioned. 'There can't be more than one Ezra P. Standish.' He could not believe what could be happening. He has finally found him, and now he was going to make sure Ezra was set straight about a few things. He could now understand the feelings these men had about the errant young man. He could see that Josiah had taken a liking to the gambler. He was sure the young man would not remember him, but Maude will. Once Maude found out that he had found young Mr. Standish she would do everything in her power to up root the boy again.

The men continued their journey after their brief resting period. They traveled till they could not safely travel any longer. As they camped everything was quiet. No one talked, afraid someone would mention one of the missing members of their group. They closed their eyes and slept. Chris planned on having them up and ready to go as soon as the sun lit the sky.


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Story posted to The Magnificent Two