Everything on this page is fiction. Any resemblance or reference to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.

Title: Finessed
Author: MAC
Slash Pairings: Chris/Ezra
Universe: An Old West Tale of the Magnificent Seven
Feedback: gentlerainfall@yahoo.com welcomes comments
Disclaimer: I don't own them, or the show they rode in on. I wrote this for fun, and no profit is made from it.
Archive: Starwinder's, You Want Fries With That?, The All-Ezra FanFic Archive, and the archives for AGL and EBOS lists --- all others, please ask.
Summary: Chris tricks Ezra into revealing his affections, but then has to convince the man that Chris returns them. All seven get involved as the town is threatened, then Buck and Ezra are kidnapped.
Warnings: violence, language, slash
Author's Note: The first scene was written originally as a short story answer for Cowboy Dreams' Birch '04 challenge "a first time" story.
Category: Slash
Completed 15 April 2004


Ezra squeezed his eyes shut tightly as the bedsprings squeaked. This was going to be an excruciating night, he decided grimly, tucking his small compact body in closer to his side of the bed.

"Ezra? You still awake?" Chris Larabee's whiskey roughened voice was low.

No. I am not awake. I am deeply asleep, sir. Ezra gripped the thin worn edge of mattress with his right hand, keeping his body still and set. The confounded bedsprings on this bed were so old that there was a tendency to roll toward the center where the springs were the weakest. He fought that with his grip. Keeping silent, he listened as the gunfighter moved slowly on the other edge of the bed. He could tell that Larabee was removing his gun belt from the creak of the leather and small click of the belt buckle as the man lowered it to the floor, close at hand.

A few more rustling sounds, likely shirt and pants. Oh Lord! Ezra grit his teeth and blinked, his eyes popping open of their own accord. The dim gaslight from the far side of the bed barely lit the wall he faced. Larabee's shadow was large upon it. The sharp outline of that head and shoulders caused him to swallow hard and shut his eyes again, warning himself that this had better be a sleepless night because he could not afford to let his subconscious loose.

Through his eyelids, Ezra could tell that Chris had turned out the light, dropping the room into deep shadows, only the moon and starlight graying things a bit through the flimsy curtains on the one street-facing window of their hotel room. The last room to be had in Bell City. It was share a room, and a bed, or sleep in the stable. Ezra would have volunteered for the hayloft if he thought Larabee would have agreed but he knew the man would have wondered. Ezra could not afford to have Chris Larabee wondering. Not about anything like that.

He heard Larabee let out a short gust of air, a sigh, then the bed was moving again, springs moaning as Larabee rolled down onto the mattress. "Night, Ez," was softly uttered, clearly not expecting a response. Safest not to give one, Ezra decided in mute agreement.

Time passed slowly. Ezra tried to regulate his breathing. He listened as Larabee's own breathing began to deepen, not into snores, just slower and deeper. Movement had ceased. Ezra dared to relax his grip on the edge of the mattress. Pins and needles in his hand attested to the fierceness of his long, hard hold. He flexed the hand and carefully loosened the muscles in his back and shoulders, letting his body slump down a bit into the bedding. The adrenaline was seeping out as it became clear that Chris was sleeping soundly.

Their short trip up the Gate River to Bell City was only to meet with Travis, testify at a hearing for a miscreant who'd been caught here, but who they both witnessed attempting to rob the Four Corners bank. Unfortunately, only Ezra and Chris had seen the man's face clearly. So they went.

The trip had been quiet, Ezra had seen to that. No small talk to irritate the man who held his heart without knowing it. He wondered if he'd ever learn to breath naturally again after this trip of constant breathless moments.

His mind drew up the image of Chris bathing that second morning on the trail, he'd waded thigh deep into the slow moving river and scoured himself thoroughly. Had even invited a surprised gambler to join him. Ezra had pointed out that it was wiser to have one on watch and declined, heart in throat, eyes averted after one clear look. Temptation sorely tried him, but he not only loved the man, he respected him and would not even now take any advantage.

Oh, unhappy thought! Ezra mentally cringed as his body reacted to the image of Chris' lean narrow form, slick with river water, glistening in the sunlight. He wriggled experimentally, trying to subdue the heat at his groin.

And then Chris turned over, his far arm coming across and falling on Ezra's chest, trapping an arm as well.

"Chris?" he made the question soft, a breath of air, in case Chris was truly still asleep. No answer. Asleep and moving. Ezra's nightmare come to life. Trapped on a bed with Larabee and unable to respond. Oh Lord.

With a snuffle, Chris rolled further over, until he was neatly plastered against Ezra's side, his arm now firmly holding the smaller man to his own body. Ezra dared not move, nor speak for fear of waking the gunman. A most embarrassing pass that would be. He could imagine the grim look from those sharp hazel eyes. There would be the question, had Ezra somehow invited this? No, no, he had NOT. But he would not be believed. Ezra ground his teeth, biting in a groan of despair.

Hours passed or so it seemed. Then Chris nuzzled Ezra's neck, his breath hot and moist under Ezra's jaw. The hand that held him so firmly began to explore. With trepidation, Ezra felt the strong blunt fingers begin to stroke along his rib cage, until they encountered his left nipple. By now, Ezra was feverish and exhausted from fighting his own body. He felt his nipple tighten and tingle in response to the lazy fingers that toyed with it.

Chris grunted, then inhaled sharply - nearly a snore on the exhale, and fitted his face down into the pillow and against the joining of Ezra's neck and shoulder. Did the man do this with Buck or Vin or any warm body in similar circumstances? Holy mother of ... Ezra suppressed a tremor as his traitorous body responded to the heat of Larabee, the touches. With a wince, Ezra bit his lower lip to stifle a cry, as Chris bit down on Ezra's shoulder, snorted softly, then bit again.

He lay stiffly, hell if one part of him was any stiffer, you could raise a sail and shove him out to sea. He wondered what would happen if Chris woke now. Perhaps he should firmly disentangle himself, be loud and offended? Push the man away. No, god, no, he couldn't do that. This was what he'd always dreamed of, snuggling in bed with the blond. But of course, with a willing, knowing partner, not a sleeping, unknowing bedmate. He swallowed saliva that had inexplicably gathered in his mouth, leaving it dry and wanting.

Ezra dared to turn his head slightly, eyes mere slits of green, desperately wanting a single look at the man pressed against him. What could it hurt? One look. Something to remember, warm his cold heart on lonely nights. The moon's silver light washed the blond hair nearly white, darkening already sun burnt skin beneath. Chris' face was buried, Ezra had to be satisfied with the view of a shoulder and an ear, a long arm that circled over him and held him. Sinews stood out, even in sleep, in that lean muscled arm, furred with silvery blond hair, exquisite. To touch and remember ... would be to die. Not the tiny death, but a real one. For Chris Larabee loved no man. He was a widower, a man's man. He would surely shoot first and ask later.

Ezra memorized the feel of the man, the heat, the texture, he studied the length of him, the lines and form. Then Ezra closed his eyes and mentally locked the image into his inner most private spaces to be pulled out again when alone, gloated over. He shifted slightly, not thinking for a moment as he dallied over the image. Then froze as Chris tucked Ezra's body tighter to his and pressed a dry kiss to the spot he'd bitten earlier. And Ezra came. He felt the heat flood up and gush, pulsing out against the limp linens and scratchy blanket. With a near soundless sob, he carefully twisted away within Larabee's hold, so that none of the cum would dampen Chris, alert him, wake him. Goosebumps flared along his arms and legs, his face burned with the shattered feel of his own body's incredibly fiery betrayal. And then a deep, welling calmness overtook him. Sleep caught the weary man and pulled him under.

Chris slowly opened his greenly glowing hazel eyes and lifted his head cautiously. Ezra's breathing had finally eased into sleep. He gently pet the man. If he'd had any worries about Ezra's feelings, this night they'd been allayed. Ezra had responded to his touches beyond anything he'd anticipated. The man had actually cum while frozen like a rabbit under a stooping hawk's eye. Poor Ez. Chris leaned down and pressed a loving kiss on the alabaster shoulder that rose away from him.

Next time, we'll do it with our eyes open. Chris smiled and lay back, easing the sleeping southerner's body over on top of his own and cuddling the man close within his arms' circle. Yep, next time should be real good ... too.

Lips nibbling softly on his forehead woke Ezra. Warm arms surrounded him. The rise and fall of his resting place informed him of the body beneath him, firm, long, warm. Chris. Ezra blinked lazily and shifted as he snuggled closer to his dream Chris, a sleep smile gracing his own lips. Then his mind caught up with his waking body.

Oh my god. Chris? Ezra caught his breath and tried to edge off the other man's body. The arms circling his body tightened prohibitively. Swallowing hard, Ezra opened his mouth to speak.

Thud. Thud. THUD. The hotel room door shook with the last, hardest pound of someone's fist. "Larabee! You in there, Pard?" Buck Wilmington's sharp call galvanized Ezra.

Chris Larabee had been feeling very good about life for these past few happy hours. The inconvenient testimony in Bell City had turned into his golden opportunity. For weeks now, he'd racked his brain, trying to come up with a way to approach Ezra. The gambler of their group had become very dear to the gunslinger, as he'd gotten to know the private man. Funny, it was hard to think of Ezra as a 'private man' and yet impossible to think of him any other way.

Ezra sighed in his sleep and one hand came up to brush the bridge of his nose. Chris captured the hand gently and pressed a kiss to the knuckles of the finely boned digits. He tucked the errant hand back down under Ezra's chin and rested his own head against Ezra's loosely tumbled chestnut locks. He breathed the scent of Ezra and smiled, still thinking. Remembering.

When the man first appeared in Chris' life, Ezra'd been in the middle of a very dangerous confidence game, stakes as low as a few bills and as high as the man's life. Larabee had recognized desperation and courage in the cocky man. Good qualities for his recruitment into the team that Chris was forming to help the Seminole villagers back then.

Of the courage, Larabee was never in any doubt, but it was hard to read Ezra Standish, the man put out a cheerful, money-hungry image that outsiders took on face value. Their small group had survived their battle with Anderson because of the man's courage. That he'd carelessly gone in search of that Indian goldmine and left them all unprotected, easy prey for the crazy-ass Confederate colonel and his raggedy boys, that was a fact that Ezra didn't deny. But Standish had heard the canon fire, the shooting and returned to save them and to face possible harsh retaliation for deserting his post.

Ezra's breathing changed, became more agitated and he moaned quietly. Chris flattened one hand on the man's back, soothingly rubbing up and down the spine. The tenseness eased. Chris wondered what dream Ezra was living.

Larabee wasn't quite the uncompromising figure that most folks assumed and he'd seen the grays in the Seminole village situation. He had given Ezra another chance with him and never regretted it.

Gradually, as the first thirty days of the group's existence drew to a close, Chris had come to realize the hidden man in Ezra. A sweet and generous soul buried beneath the sly, articulate exterior of the conman from the unrepentant South. Chris, whose own spirit was finally beginning to heal its savaged grief, recognized and was drawn to the inner Ezra while secretly delighting in the mischievous and worldly outward facing Ezra.

A fleeting grin flashed on Larabee's gruffly blunt face, the white teeth revealed against the sandy tan. Images of an outraged Nathan, a confused Josiah, a conspiratorial Vin, an excited JD, and a guffawing Buck rose to his mind's eye as he saw some of Ezra's many schemes and antics, caustic comments and shy flashes of eye contact fly through his memories of the past few months. He hugged Ezra briefly, then eased up as the sleeper squeaked unconsciously.

Chris wondered how much time he had until daybreak and Ezra's waking. He mentally shrugged, savoring this first time holding Ezra. He closed his eyes and concentrated on the feel of Ezra.

Knowing himself to be the 'bad element' as Mary Travis labeled his sort, Larabee had grown into his role unawares as he staggered wrathfully through life. Blind to his bitter and deadly impact on others, he'd sought oblivion or at least surcease from the agonizing hole where once his wife and child had dwelt. Now his soul craved the love of another once more. He was ready. And, for mysterious reasons, his heart chose the gambler. The little bad boy in a man's clothing. Well, maybe not that mysterious, he realized as he thought back over his musings.

Once he had recognized the direction his affections had grown, Chris Larabee was all for taking what he wanted. But he was also smart enough to realize that this time it would be neither easy, nor necessarily welcomed. Ezra, his many masks worn in quick succession, could dance through any situation, without giving anything of himself away. Chris had no idea of Ezra's feelings in the heart's country. Land he was navigating himself afresh now, with caution.

So it was with hope that he'd saddled up for the trip to Bell City, a journey of several days with only Ezra at his side. Surely an opportunity would occur, a time when he could pry Ezra out of his layered protections and discover if the man returned his attraction.

But Ezra, that irritatingly suave and smooth surface persona in place, had traveled silently by Chris' side, or, when possible, in his wake. Chris, never a very talkative sort, was frustrated at every turn. He'd even tried to inveigle Ezra into the river on the pretence of bathing. But the damn man insisted on standing watch - the other way. Chilled to the bone in the cold river water, Chris had not been in a good mood when they finally got to Bell City.

The news that the place was overflowing and only one room was to be had, gave him new hope. This could be his chance, maybe his only one. So he had taken it. And Ezra had shown his colors. Chris grinned ferally in remembrance of the way Ezra had actually cum with a few caressing touches as Chris pretended to accidentally fondle the man as they slept. It had been desperation and inspiration. He hadn't yet figured out how to ask Ezra outright, cautious with the fear that he'd drive the private man even deeper within his protective shell, even if Chris guessed right. And then there was the fear of what might happen if he'd guessed wrong. Would he be given the chance to woo the man in that case? Or, would Ezra flee from Chris, leaving him heartbroken?

Then, when he'd found Ezra already in the bed tonight, his course of action had sprung fully formed in his thoughts. The simple ruse had worked and he knew Ezra must care. The response had been incredible.

And, oh, there was the feel of Ezra's skin, the texture of the nipple as it hardened, wrinkling tight and tall under his touch, the smell of him exotic and spicy, the taste of him - oh, the taste. Chris had been unable to resist. His body rubbed tightly against his desire, the exposed neck and shoulder, so firm and delicate too, it had been too great a temptation for Larabee. He'd bit down, not hard, but enough to mark his possession. Ezra belonged to him. That was definite. The man might not know it yet, but he was Chris' now.

Chris licked his lips in memory of that taste of salt and soap and linen, smoky spices and flesh. Ezra. His Ezra. Unable to resist, knowing that when Ezra woke, they'd have to talk. Knowing that now that he'd confirmed Ezra's response to him, he could open up to Ezra and encourage the man to do the same. Knowing that soon they would be seeing each other with open eyes, and he hoped, open hearts, Chris indulged in another taste. He nibbled Ezra's forehead, lips moist from licking moved gently over the furrowed brow.

And then Buck shouted at him through the door.

One moment Chris was holding Ezra close to his heart, cuddled on his chest; the next moment, the man was scrambling off in a burst of elbows and knees, the normally graceful man an explosion of hard bony points and shifting weight. With an 'oof' that would do a horse proud, Chris jack-knifed in the middle of the old mattress as Ezra used Larabee's body as a spring board for a leap to the far side of the room.

Chris gasped for breath, hand to his now sore sternum and tried to speak. Facing him in baleful outrage stood the gambler, short knee-cut silk under drawers his only cover. The man's body was shaking, his normally green eyes were black holes, his face paled to a nearly transparent white blanch.

Before Chris could manage to capture enough breath for a word, Buck had put a shoulder to the door and burst it open. Larabee saw Ezra's eyes open impossibly wider and then Chris had to turn his head to face Wilmington, promising himself that he'd get rid of his inconvenient friend fast.

"Hey! Chris, Ez! Sorry to wake you up but we got trouble back in town."

Chris gulped in much needed air. Shoving stiff fingers through his dirty blond hair, he kicked his legs free of the bed coverings and squinted at Buck Wilmington. Buck hung in the burst open room door, hands clenched on the door's frame, as he leaned in from the hallway.

"Buck, what the hell are you talkin' about? What trouble?" Chris' sharp tone cut across the room; he was uncomfortably aware of the silence behind him.

Wilmington pushed his old battered hat back out of his eyes with one hand and cocked a hip against the doorway. "Not sure, Pard. Found a telegraph waiting for me from Josiah when I got to Bade's Junction."

Larabee nodded distractedly. Buck had been sent north over a week ago to meet up with a prison wagon, deliver Taylor Bent to the wagon, bound for Yuma prison by way of several other towns. The plan had been for Buck to meet up with Chris and Ezra for the return trip from Bell City.

The nerves in Chris' neck crawled. What was Ezra doing? Why hadn't he said anything yet? Chris stared at Buck and fought to keep from turning around to check on Ezra.

Oh Lord. How did this happen? Damnation, I must have been sleep walking! Shaking badly, Ezra stumbled to a halt and spun to face Chris Larabee. The pounding of the door stopped. Chris looked right at him, his face as unreadable as Ezra hoped his own was. The door crashed open and there was Buck Wilmington, half inside and already speaking.

Ezra sagged down on the wooden chair by the window as Larabee's attention was forced away and over to their intruder. A quick glance down had a red blush streaking up his neck and flushing his face. The stain of his indiscretion was plain on the thin silk drawers. With a swift movement, as his two colleagues engaged in an exchange of information, Ezra pulled on his shirt from the night before, the tails covering him. Then a tug and the drawers dropped though he had to peel the front away from the dried stickiness. Back to the room, Ezra quickly dampened an edge of the fabric and wiped himself clean, using the water from the ewer and bowl set that had been left in the room.

With short, savage moves, Ezra managed to drag on fresh under drawers, trousers, jab shirttails within, button hook his suspenders and thrust on his vest before turning to face the room again. Buck was still talking.

"Josiah's message just says that Vin's gone, they got a pack of renegade 'pache and outlaws raiding the small ranches, and the Garson Brothers showed up at the saloon last night."

"Why didn't he send word here?" Larabee's question was muffled by cloth as he dragged his shirt on over his head, not bothering with buttons.

Buck crossed his arms and shook his head, "Lines are down here."

Larabee stood, grabbing his jeans and pulling them up, fumbling with the buttons and dropping his head as Ezra finally spoke.

"Mr. Wilmington, did Mr. Sanchez explain Mr. Tanner's absence?"


Voice sounds steady enough, Chris thought and finally turned his head enough to look at Ezra. The man was nearly completely dressed, working on his derringer rig. No sign of the panic Chris had felt when Ezra dove out of the bed moments ago. Shit. Now he and Ezra'd have to wait to come to an understanding. No way to do it in Buck's company and they had to ride. "You ready?" He asked his gambler.

Ezra's head came up and shuttered green eyes stared back with no expression. "Of course, sir. Let us depart."

Buck nodded from the doorway, face still grim. "I got your horses from the livery, see you down on the street."

Chris rose, feeling a reprieve in the few minutes that Wilmington had unknowingly granted them. "Ezra," he searched the bland countenance, unable to see sign of the passion he'd uncovered during the night, "Last night-"

"Mr. Larabee, we should be packing." Standish's sharp interruption was so unexpected that Chris blinked in surprise, his mouth still open around unsaid words.

Taking a deep breath, Chris strode over to where Ezra had swung away and was stuffing saddlebags with unusual carelessness. He leaned over and captured one of Ezra's hands. "Ezra."

Snatching back his hand, the shorter man backed away with a quick step and looked up into Larabee's face. "Mr. Larabee?"

"We've got to talk-"

Shots sounded out on the street and Chris stopped. Buck was out there somewhere. He took a long step over to the window, brushing up against Ezra who was turning to look out the casement. They could see two cowboys laughing and swinging whiskey bottles in the air. One had clearly shot off a few rounds into the air from the pistol he was waving about.

Both men relaxed slightly, and then Chris turned around toward the room and found himself face to face with Ezra. He inhaled the scent of the man, learning it again. Last night already seemed a lifetime ago. He leaned forward, intent on the half-parted lips so close.

Ezra had thought he'd covered himself well. Cleaning up and dressing in a nonce, he'd managed to make things look remarkably normal as Buck nattered on about Josiah's incomplete telegraph. He'd watched in disappointment as Chris Larabee's skin was covered with a shirt and swallowed hard, pushing such thoughts fiercely down and away. Bad enough that his body had betrayed him last night, he would not invite derision and enmity in the daylight.

And then Buck was gone again and Chris was coming towards him. Wanting to talk. Ezra panicked when Chris took one of his hands, the touch burning him. He pulled away quickly stepping back as well. But Chris followed. Only the gunshots from those wretches in the street saved him from the further embarrassment of a full confrontation. Maybe by the time they'd returned home, things would be back to normal. And he could continue his fruitless yearnings at the safety of a discreet distance.

Ezra flicked another glance out the window, sighing in relief that the shots had not involved Buck, then he looked up, and directly into hazel eyes. Chris had turned back from the window and was too close, his eyes intent, a look on his face that commanded, demanded. Ezra watched as Chris leaned in and his lips approached. Surely not. Surely he didn't intend to-? Ezra shook his head and ducked away, not wanting to reveal how much he wanted his cockeyed view to be reality. Certain he was reading this all wrong.

Chris clenched air. Slippery little weasel. He stifled a groan. How the hell did I fall in love with you? he thought as he shook his head. It would be funny if he wasn't so sure, so needy. But clearly Ezra wasn't yet convinced of Larabee's gentler intent.

No time to get things straightened out now, Chris thought grimly. He strode from the room, swinging his saddlebags onto his shoulder and removing a cheroot from his inner coat pocket. With a lift of his jaw, he signaled Standish to follow, confident in his man, even if they hadn't got to the rest of it yet. Standish, already moving, likewise encumbered with bags, touched his hat brim in silent acknowledgement of the order. Chris bit the cheroot tip off and spat it on the stairs as they clumped down them. Damn fool will follow me into blazing guns, certain death, but shies from a blasted kiss.

By the time they'd reached the street, Buck was there on his gray, their horses saddled and ready at the hitching rail. Larabee sighed and looked up at the brightening blue sky. "Let's ride."

Ezra inhaled sharply, enjoying the tang of fresh grass-sweet air as he rode following along behind Chris and Buck, traveling back along the trail to Four Corners. He tried not to think back on the night before. Even not thinking of it led to heat in his belly and a thickening below, uncomfortable in the saddle. He pulled his shoulders back even more, his seat as always, correct and proud as he was taught.

Ezra could not imagine how slumping in the saddle could be comfortable, despite the fact that all his cohorts seemed to do so. Of course, Vin, who probably spent more time horseback than the rest had back problems, of that he was certain. Man always slouched, leaned, sprawled. With a quirky smile, Ezra realized his meandering thoughts had eased his heat, relaxed his body's frustrations.

He wondered how long they'd keep up the ground-eating canter. They were two days out of Four Corners, no matter how hard they pushed. His gaze returned to the dark shoulders rising and falling ahead of him. Chris. He licked his lips and raised one hand, thumb rubbing against his lower lip pensively.

Larabee wanted to scratch the itch between his shoulder blades. With a hidden smirk, he figured Ezra must be staring a hole there. Now that he knew for certain that Ezra had feelings for him, Chris realized that he had become sensitized to the gambler's moods and thoughts. Kinda like with Vin, only more a sense of what Ezra was feeling than just signals in a gunfight or parts of a plan that seemed obvious to the two of them, him and Vin. Seemed like he and Vin just plain thought alike.

Chris paused in his ruminations. No way. Ain't no way that Vin feels like that too. For Ezra. Chris felt a surge of black anger and jealousy, near to hate for the quiet Texan. Then common sense reared up and he shook his head at himself. No, if Vin had wanted Ezra, he was sneaky enough that he'd a'thought of a way to get to Ezra by now - and woulda done it. Nope. Ezra was safely his. Chris firmed his lips around the short butt of cheroot, nearly scowling. All he had to do was figure out a way to let Ezra know that.

Buck Wilmington rocked in the gray's saddle, at one with his horse. Like when he rode Miss Molly. He grinned and raised his head, sniffing in the fresh smells of the countryside. Sure beat the hell out of towns. Ladies were in those towns, though, and always smelling pretty, tasting mighty nice, and feeling oh, so good. Buck's face rounded in a smile of dreamy contentment, the ends of his mustache rising in a bow.

Chris thundered along just behind him and Ezra behind Chris. Wonder how they got along on the trip out? The smile slowly faded. Damn, hope they weren't getting too much on each other's nerves, those two never seemed at ease together. Not a question of meanness or anything, just seemed to rub each other wrong. Always a sharp word from Chris, a tart response from Ez. Click, clack, like flint on pyrite. Sparks flew. Might be wise to keep 'em apart on the trip back, so every one would be ready for whatever nastiness might be waitin' on them. Mind set, Buck nodded to himself. Yep, he'd see that they kept the peace. He could be their fence, keep'em in their own paddocks like two bulls waiting for the heifers.

That got Buck on to another thought. Wonder if I can move that along any? Get Chris to spendin' more time with Mary? Do him good. Know he finds his way out to places, like that Wickes Town was, to ladies like Lydia, but the man is a family man at heart. Needs another Sarah. Needs to settle down. Figure Mary might just be right for him, smart, sassy, stand up to him and get him thinking. He shook his head, sounded just like old Ez. He chuckled that thought away and then looked sharply to his left as a pheasant took wing from some low brush. The bird was favoring a wing and flying low.

Mama out to decoy us away from her nest. Buck shrugged. He didn't think they needed game for the night's meal, not enough to steal a mama from her young. He clucked at the gray, moving the slowing animal back up to the pace they'd set, and wiped his face with the back of one hand. Was getting a bit warm, now that the sun was rising.

The men continued doggedly throughout the morning, pacing their horses, walking, trotting, short canters, then back to walking. It would be a long ride. Although nothing was said, none of them felt in any danger yet. Two days out of Four Corners was likely too far out from the troubles. But, come tomorrow, closer to the town, they'd all be more alert.

Chris decided they'd need to set up a watch for the night on the trail, no sense being bushwhacked so close to town when they already knew there was trouble in the area. He'd been watching the horizon, letting Buck pick the trail and lead. Waiting to see sign of smoke, a sure signal that the band of raiders of Josiah's message had struck again. So far, the sky was clear.

Ezra was irritated by his mood swings. He'd hoped that back on the trail, especially with Buck along, that he'd feel more himself. Each time he let his guard down, though, flashes of last night would return, scaring him with the intensity with which he felt them.

Chris risked a look to the rear, raising up in his saddle and turning, resting a hand on the cantle. Ezra was staring right at him from the back of his smooth-gaited chestnut. Chris smiled and nodded, tickled when Ezra's eyes widened, then glazed into that bland self-protective mask. Ezra touched his hat brim in acknowledgement and Chris winked. He couldn't help himself. Standish's bland look became a glare of suspicion. Chris turned back to face front again, suddenly not sure that he should have succumbed to that temptation. The hole between his shoulder blades began to grow. Nope, that wasn't too smart. Gotta stop teasing the man and put him out of his misery. With a gusty sigh, Chris vowed to himself that somehow, tonight he'd manage time with Ezra, maybe while Buck slept. Got to clear the air soon. He twitched in his seat, feeling the tightness again down there. Yeah, very soon.

Now what in the world was *that* all about? Ezra stared blackly at Larabee's back. He WINKED at me. He doesn't wink at me. He doesn't wink at anyone. Chris Larabee doesn't wink. Maybe he got something in his eye just then? Perhaps it was just an automatic closing of the eye in response to a particle of dust. It looked like a wink. Ezra growled low in his throat. Chaucer threw up his head in startled surprise and Ezra had to pat the arched neck and murmur calming words. When the horse settled, Ezra returned to his thoughts. He didn't know if he should be insulted or curious, ignore the provocation or demand an explanation. He bit his lower lip and began to worry it with his teeth. Was there some significance to that wink? Did he wake during the night? Did he know that I lost control? Ezra paled at the very thought. Would he now think that fodder for jest? Over the fire tonight, will he relay the episode, with much chuckling and elbow ribbing to Buck? Whilst I sit, forlorn, an object of mirth, on the far side of the fire? He WINKED at me. Stunned, Ezra's mind reeled about, grasping for reasons for the uncharacteristic expression, and none of the reasons were good. I shall keep my distance tonight, give him no further grist for his humor mill. He and Buck can enjoy themselves at my expense, but I shall overlook it. Calm, yes, serene, uncaring, that shall be my tack. Oh Lord. He winked.

A very frustrated, downright exasperated Chris Larabee remounted his horse. The black's coat shivered in empathy with his rider's disgruntlement. The noon break had proved to be like some weird childhood game of musical chairs.

Every time he tried to sit down next to Ezra or get near him, something happened. First Buck damn near tripped over his own feet, almost landed in their small cook fire, and ended up sprawled nearly in Ezra's lap. Chris had hauled the man up but Ezra had already shifted away from the debacle and was settling across from them. Chris had crossed back toward Ezra's spot after making sure Buck was alright. Buck had laughed good heartedly at his own foolishness and suggested coffee to go with their hardtack. Since he was rubbing one shin as he said this, Chris found himself detouring to the saddle bags to retrieve his battered coffee pot and some ground beans in a sack.

Once he'd gotten the pot going on the fire, he turned back toward Ezra, ready to sit down next to the gambler. Gone. The weasel had wriggled away again. Flashing a look of irritation around the camp, he started to rise to his feet.

"Call of nature, Pard." Buck was stirring the fire now with a peeled stick, pushing the hotter embers towards the pot.

"What?" The question squirted out before Larabee could control himself.

"Ezra. Figured you were looking for him. He headed off into the trees while you were setting up the pot here."

Chris sighed and sat down on a crumbling log beside the folded bedroll that Standish had left behind. He'll come back to sit here, Chris decided smugly.

The two men sat in comfortable silence, waiting for the coffee to heat, Buck gnawing on a piece of hardtack. The small sounds of crushed dry leaves, a snapped twig, and a crunched snail shell foretold Standish's return. Chris stared straight into the fire, don't want to scare him off. Especially after that look he gave me while we were riding.

Tidy trousers with buffed boots appeared to the side and strolled lazily across the edge of Larabee's vision. He figured it was safe to glance over. Dammit. Ezra was leaning against a tree, clearly with no intentions of coming to sit by the fire. He was drying his hands on a handkerchief.

"Ez? You want some coffee?" Buck's casual manner crashed through Larabee's concentration. He realized he'd been staring. With a flush, he lowered his eyes.

"That would be most welcome, Mr. Wilmington," the southern sounds licked across Chris' belly, making it twist.

"How 'bout you, Pard?"

Larabee nodded and thrust out his tin mug. With savage satisfaction, he realized Ezra had left his own mug on the blanket roll. Now he'll have to come over-

"Toss me Ezra's mug, will ya, Chris?" Buck had a feeling that his old friend had been laying in wait for Standish, and to judge by the gambler's cautious distance, so did Ezra. Buck would be a buffer, be safer for all concerned.

Larabee nearly growled as he hefted the mug across the fire to Buck. If he didn't know better, he'd think the two of them had planned this. Chris stood abruptly and stalked over to his horse, drinking down the hot liquid in one punishing, long swallow, then shoving the mug back into his saddle bag. "We should be going."

Blue and green eyes both swung toward him in surprise. But, no one spoke. Standish leaned over and caught up the pot, refilling Wilmington's mug and his own, then pouring out the rest of the coffee on the fire. He shook it and then set it down to cool.

Chris abandoned all pretense and stared as Ezra picked up his unused blanket and, still sipping coffee, walked over to Chaucer's place on the tether. Man walks with uncommon grace. Chris burned to touch him again.

Buck watched Larabee. Okay, gotta derail this train soon before we have us an explosion. "Hey Chris? Can you take your pot?" He managed a fairly convincing grimace, "My leg still smarts something-"

"Sure, Buck." Chris Larabee's voice grated. Both Standish and Wilmington took note, the gunman was not happy.

Chris reined over his black, waiting impatiently for Ezra and Buck to catch up. They had a long ride still before night camp, and then they'd only be halfway back to Four Corners. He had a feeling that tonight wasn't going to go well for his plans with Ezra. Well, he could just grab the man and shake him senseless, then knock some real sense into him. So they could share a bedroll. He didn't think he'd last the night if he couldn't touch Ezra, not now, not after last night. Somehow, deciding to force the issue seemed to ease his tension and he actually had a smile for the other two men when they finally rode up and joined him on the trail.

Buck and Ezra exchanged looks of confusion. Chris was smiling at them almost cheerfully. On Larabee, that expression looked downright dangerous. He nodded at them and turned his horse back to the trail, gigging it into motion. They followed, Buck a bit bewildered by Larabee's changeable moods, Ezra with the stirrings of an idea.

It couldn't be that-? In his mind's eye, Ezra reconstructed Chris' behavior at the noon camp. Maybe it could.

Ezra mulled over his new perspective. Larabee had tried to get near him repeatedly during the stop. Between Buck and his own actions, Ezra had managed to keep them apart. Now he began to wonder exactly what Chris' intentions had been. If he'd only wanted to mock Ezra, he could have just talked with Buck, rather like Ezra had originally imagined. Instead, he'd seemed determined to approach Ezra again. That smile promised something. Ezra wondered. He began to foolishly hope, unable to quash the feelings that were rising inside, warm and tender.

As dusk began to hide the trail, Chris cut off and into a group of trees where a brook sparkled with lights from the setting sun. It was a good camp spot, an old circle of hearthstones, blackened from multiple uses, testified to that. The others followed easily, all dismounting together and leading their horses to the stream to drink.

Setting up night camp was a more elaborate procedure than nooning. A watch had to be set, too. Chris would take first watch, then Ezra, then Buck. A simple stew and more coffee were supper.

They'd had a long ride today, Buck figured with the tiredness and having watches, he had no need to try to keep his pards apart. Didn't seem like they was busting to get at each other's throats anyway. With a grunt, he flipped open his bedroll and dropped down on to it, barely hearing the answers to his, "G'night."

Ezra had watched his ally desert him for the arms of Morpheus. He turned to see Larabee standing by the fire, smoking a cheroot, he seemed to be stargazing. Well. Ezra smoothed out a spot across from Buck on the other side of the campfire. He carefully unrolled his sleeping blankets, folding back the layers to let them warm a bit by the fire.

With a dusty plop, another bedroll landed beside him. Startled, he looked up to find Chris looming over him looking determined.

"Before you hightail it for the brush, let me just say a few words."

The strain in Larabee's voice froze Ezra where he knelt beside his blankets. Flashing a look over at Buck - still sleeping - he swung his hips over on to the blankets and pulled his legs in, crossing them closely. He tried for an attentive expression as he sat and watched the blond gunman sink down on top of the other, unrolled, set of blankets.

Once settled facing Ezra, Chris bit his lips. Hell, this wasn't going the way he planned at all. He snuck a look over at Buck - asleep - and crossed his arms tightly across his chest. He tried to look nonviolent but wasn't too sure of his success, Ezra's face for once was easy to read and what he read was fear.

"Ezra-" All right, that was a beginning. Chris frowned. Ezra flinched. Chris nearly shot forward to grab him but instead simply fisted his hands and tucked his crossed arms in tighter. "Ezra." Dammit. Why was this so hard?

"That is my name, Mr. Larabee." Ezra was leaning back a bit now, not budging from his seated position exactly, just ensuring a spot of safety. Mr. Larabee looked unhappy which did not bode well for this rather stilted conversation. With trepidation, Ezra decided to try to make this a bit easier, assuming, of course, that he was correct in his earlier guesses. "I feel I must tender an apology for last night."

"YOU?" Chris started, his arm muscles bulged inside the dark shirt, stretching the fabric as he strained against his own pose. Chris was a blunt man. Time for some home truths. "No, you don't owe me any apology Ezra. But I owe you one." He paused and dropped his eyes, then brought them up again to meet Ezra's. "I wasn't asleep."

Oh dear. So his first supposition had been right. Chris had awakened to see, hear, hell, probably even smell his embarrassing lack of control. Ezra blushed. His tongue came out, just the tip, between his parted lips, moistening them in his nervousness.

Oh god. I can't stand too much more of this. Larabee lurched forward, only to rock back when Standish raised a hand defensively. Shit. "Ezra, I don't know what you think you know, but I never went to sleep."

Ezra's mind, whirling at high speed, came to a clanking, clattering halt. "Never?"

"No. I-" Chris breathed deeply, "I've been in love with you for a while now-"

"-in love-" Ezra stared.

"Yes. Only, I couldn't tell what you were thinking about me. I mean, I could," Chris shrugged, "Figured you didn't like me much."

"-didn't like you-" Ezra's mouth fell open.

"But I thought, maybe, underneath, since I cared so much for you," Chris paused wondering why he was shaking so bad, then plowed ahead anyway, "that you might, that is, that you could care - you know, for me too." Hazel eyes looked hopefully into glazed green ones.

"-me too-" Ezra felt like a stunned parrot.

Suddenly angry at the lack of progress they were making, Chris let his arms - now boneless - drop to his sides. "Can you please say something? Besides repeating me?"

Ezra worked his mouth but only a puff of air came out. He shrugged and shook his head. Overwhelmed, I am simply undone. He didn't know if he should be outraged or charmed. Resentment at Larabee's manipulation warred with relief that they both felt the same way and that Chris had taken the initiative to find that out. What Ezra felt most, was confused. Alright, yes, and irritated, resentful, um, and, oh the hell with it, I'm in love.

Chris sighed. He reached out one tentative hand and caught one of Ezra's, folding his fingers in between the gambler's graceful ones. "Ezra, last night, you responded to me. I know you did. I figure that means you care about me. Think you could say it?"

Ezra tipped his head to the side, staring deep into clear hazel eyes, eyes that burned for him. For ME. Tendrils of warmth unfurled within his chest. "You care about me."

Chris sighed, again. "Yep. Said that. Now," he edged forward a bit on the blanket roll, "how about you?"

There was another moment of silence. Ezra wanted to say so much, tell Chris that there were other ways he could have tried, to find out if Ezra cared. But somehow, he felt bogged down in his emotions, almost comatose with relief. He still couldn't seem to find any words.

"Fer gawd's sake, Ez, give the man a break and answer him or I'll never get any sleep here!" Buck's frustrated yell from the far side of the fire startled both men.

Ezra twisted around to try to see Buck and his boot tip caught on the blankets beneath him, tumbling him to the side and back. Strong hands caught his shoulders and righted him. Then pulled him back, away from the fire, into warm, strong arms.

"Go back to sleep, Buck." Larabee's voice sounded like a suppressed chuckle of relief.

"You got it, chief." Buck's grin could be heard in his voice.

Ezra found himself cradled closely in those encircling arms as with a nudge of a booted foot and knee, a long leg came out and around him on either side, knees bending up to fence him in. Suddenly, none of it mattered as much as these arms holding him close. "Is this entrapment, Mr. Larabee?"

"If that's what it takes, Mr. Standish." Chris spoke softly now, letting his warm breath blow directly into Ezra's nearest ear. Then he kissed said ear lightly.

Ezra shivered. "Ooh. That was nice." He relaxed back into the firm hold and felt Chris' chest supporting his back. He turned his head to try to see the man but their positions allowed him only a peripheral glimpse.


"Yes, it's true." Ezra P. Standish telling the truth. A truth that could have gotten him killed. Trust Chris. Ezra smiled into the fire and snuggled deeper into Larabee's hard arms. "I have cared for you from the first I saw you, when you discerned my simple ploy-"


"-con in the saloon." Ezra's smile grew and he tipped his head straight back. Chris nuzzled his hair.

"I want to sleep with you again tonight, Ezra."

"The watch?"

Chris wrapped his arms tighter around his gambler. "We'll just sit here and watch together until it's Buck's turn."

"And then?" Chris could hear the smile in Ezra's voice.

"And then, we put these two bedrolls together."

"That sounds quite nice, I do believe I'll-"

From the dark came a known voice, "Vin. Coming in!"

"Before you hightail it for the brush, let me just say a few words." Chris. Buck frowned. Shee-it. Maybe I done bowed out too soon. Buck listened, wide-awake again the moment he heard that tone in Chris' voice. Chris was really trying to say something, something that was hard to get out. Buck had been there when Chris was trying his damnedest to woo Sarah, stumbling over his own tongue, needing coaching from Buck to pick the right words.

Buck eavesdropped shamelessly. Chris was nearly strangling himself, trying to express himself to Ezra who wasn't helping at all. Fool seemed to have lost all his fancy words in the face of Larabee's struggle to find some. Buck regrouped mentally. So, not trying to tear each other a new asshole, nope, seems they like each other's just fine as is. Buck grinned to himself in his hump of blankets. Like that is it?

He began to feel a bit impatient though as Ezra choked on words and Chris tripped over them. He could feel the level of frustration rising. When Chris asked for the second or third time, "-how about you?" Buck decided it was time to give the recalcitrant con man a push.

He took a deep breath and bellowed into his bedroll, "Fer gawd's sake, Ez, give the man a break and answer him or I'll never get any sleep here!" He had to stifle the chuckles that wanted to break out at the silence that followed *that* little announcement.

"Go back to sleep, Buck." Buck could hear the relief and amusement in Chris' voice.

"You got it, chief." Now, maybe they'd settle down and he could get some sleep. He closed his eyes tighter and eased one arm up over his head, over his skyward ear, muffling anything more that might happen on the far side of the fire. Not what he'd expected, but if that's what the boys wanted, least he could do was step out of the way. He wriggled into a more comfortable position, a beatific smile etched across his face.

The quiet murmurings across the way had a lulling sound, so when Vin Tanner's voice called in, "Vin, coming in," rough, grating, and carrying, Buck shot up, wide awake yet again. Fuck. Buck rolled up to a sitting position, one hand full of 45, the other scratching at his head as he turned over to face the fire.

Tanner emerged from the shadows at the fire's edge, hands open and free of any weapon. Meant that whatever was going on, nothing was happening right now. Buck relaxed and spared a look over at his trail mates. Chris was sitting up, with Ezra's back against his chest, nesting the smaller man against him, cuddled up sweet as could be. Buck's mouth stretched into another half-smile. They got guts.

Tanner had swung wide of the encampment of raiders and slipped through the broken growth toward the trail from Bell City. Figured Chris, Ezra, and Buck were likely to be headed back soon, hoped to catch up with them. He'd smelled the fire before he spotted it through the screen of brush and scattering of trees. He knew this trail stop, had used it himself before. Good shelter, water.

Moving like a ghost, Vin Tanner was the embodiment of oneness with the land. Josiah might talk all spiritual about rocks and trees, but Vin could be one. He floated closer, could see the sleeping form, hear the muted sound of low voices, saw Chris sitting there. Holding Ezra. Vin worried for a moment that Ezra might be sick or hurt, but Chris' face was funny. If Vin were pressed to describe it, he'd a' said, tender. Vin, at the edge of the camp now, blinked. Readjusted his thinking, and took a deep breath. Better now than in a few minutes, if I read this right.

He moved into the light, calling out a warning. "Vin, coming in." Made sure his voice was loud and easy to recognize. No point gettin' shot.

As it was, Tanner faced three guns when he came to a stop in front of low flames of the campfire. Chris uncocked his first, reholstering it as the Buck and Ezra lowered their guns. Looking down the bores of three pistols wasn't something Vin enjoyed. He gave them a moment to see him and then squatted on his haunches in the circle of light.

"Evenin' boys."

"Tanner, you could lose your cajones that way." Buck was gruff. Vin showing up like this meant the trouble was closer.

"Buck." Chris' one word warned off his old friend. They all knew what Vin was like. His appearance was typical of the man, emerging from the dark of night like a wraith.

"Mr. Tanner, your timing, as I have so often had cause to state, is impeccable." This time though, they all heard not admiration but regret in Standish's voice.

Ezra made no effort to move from Larabee's embrace. At the first sound of Vin's voice, Chris had shot an arm down over his shoulder, and chest in an obviously instinctive and protective move. Ezra rather liked that. At his comment to Vin, Ezra felt Chris' fingers dig into his ribs for a moment, but the man didn't remove his arm. Ezra relaxed and let his weight lean into Larabee as he holstered his Remington.

"Vin?" Chris stared at his best friend and waited.

Tanner was quick to see that Larabee wasn't the least uncomfortable with the way he'd been found, in fact, he seemed to have wrapped himself pretty thoroughly around Standish who looked mighty pleased in a quiet, cat ate the bird sort a way. Figure that's them now. Vin shrugged ever so slightly. Okay with me, Cowboy. Then he picked up a peeled thin branch that had been discarded near the circle of firestones. "Found the camp of the fellers been raiding outside a' town." He drew a few lines in the dirt. "Just northeast of us here."

Chris leaned forward over Ezra's shoulder, chin ending up resting on it as he studied Vin's quick sketch. "How many?"

"Maybe thirty. Hard to tell. Keep riding off in huntin' parties, then coming back."

"All Apache?" Buck asked. He was sitting up now, his long barrel resting across his lap as his fingers played with the trigger casually.

"No. Some renegade 'pache, no real leaders, and about as many whites. Real nasty though, not just stealin', they been leaving a trail of dead behind 'em."

"It would seem we have a vile group of filth to remove from our little corner of the world, gentlemen." Ezra felt - relaxed, at ease, *right*, in Chris' arms, surrounded by him. That Vin and Buck were both there and not saying a word was fascinating. Neither looked shocked nor outraged. Just business-like. And - ridding the world of such demonic citizens was their business.

It amazed Ezra that the world was changing for him in such a short time, he'd gone from panicked morbidity to comfortable coziness in just a few words, a few moments, a few touches. They still hadn't even kissed, yet here they were, acting like old lovers, casually intimate in front of their friends, and planning a campaign against marauders. Ezra grinned. Ain't life grand? He held tightly to the thought.

No one slept that night as Vin slowly drew out further details of the camp of marauders and the character of the men, describing the individuals closely as he recalled them, sometimes even names that he'd heard in exchanges amongst them. Buck had made more coffee and then some beans and biscuits for Vin.

Ezra remained within the circle of Chris' arms for sometime, growing more uncomfortable with the sideways stares of Tanner and Wilmington as the men settled in at the campfire. It wasn't that either man had made any comment or even given him pause with a look, but Ezra felt the scrutiny.

Every time Ezra shifted, Chris moved with him, stroking him, petting his chest as if gentling an untamed creature. Listening to Chris' voice with the warm air of his breath against Ezra's ear was proving his undoing. If I do not escape soon, I may very well go insane.

Larabee tried to listen to Vin. Really. He knew they needed to get these raiders contained, stopped and soon. But Chris was growing afraid. Not of the damn raiders. He was becoming worried about his newly established footing with Ezra.

Chris could tell from the stiffness in Ezra's posture, that he was unhappy to be seen like this, but if Chris let him go, he wasn't sure if he'd be able to recapture him. Damn it, Ezra isn't some wild animal that I have to keep caged. But he couldn't seem to shrug off the fear that Ezra would manage to ignore their new footing and try to pretend nothing had happened. Damn near nothing HAS happened, Chris thought with disgruntlement, eyeing Buck and Vin across the fire with impatience. All he'd needed was a bit more time. Just a few more hours in that hotel room before Buck showed up, or even here in camp before Vin showed up. Unconsciously, tightening his grip in irritation at fate and friends, he heard Ezra's quiet grunt. Shit. Chris loosed his hold, this isn't working.

Ezra was uncertain of how to deal with this new situation. Dream and reality were not close, not by a mile. Yet, he was in Chris' arms. Something he'd dreamed of at night and fantasized by day. Chris had declared himself, demanded Ezra do likewise. But love should be a private thing, surely? Sitting here on display for their associates was ill conceived, perhaps mad. Neither Buck nor Vin had voiced objections but tolerance did know bounds, of that Ezra was certain. Experience told him that this was all going much too easily.

He couldn't prevent a surprised grunt when Chris hugged him hard. The arms eased up almost the instant he reacted, but he'd felt trapped in that moment. Maybe wanting and getting were not the same. Maybe dreaming of Chris and having the man return his affections were not the same. Maybe this was a very bad idea.

Time to put some distance here, normalize things for everyone. "Mr. Larabee, I beg leave. Nature calls and I must answer, sir." When Larabee did not respond, nor release him, Ezra blushed slightly and corrected himself with a certain formality in tone, "Chris." He did not attempt to turn and look up into the blond's face, instead Ezra stared straight into the fire. He waited and the arm across his chest was slowly withdrawn.

Ezra rose to his feet and nearly stumbled as numb legs, too long crossed were slow to respond. Before he could fall, Chris was up and behind him, steadying him with hands on his arms.

"Don't stray too far, mio," Chris murmured in the nearest small ear.

Ezra shivered, feeling goose bumps rise along his arms and he nodded with a quick jerk, nearly wrenching himself free of Chris' embrace in his haste.

Vin and Buck apparently both needed deep sips of coffee suddenly, their hat brims dipping as they drank. Ezra's color rose and he hurriedly brushed his jacket sleeves down and smooth, then straightened his cravat and vest with trembling fingers.

"Ez?" Chris' hoarse voice was tender and concerned. He gently touched Ezra's shoulders and tugged him around so that they could face each other. Chris had eyes only for the smaller man standing stiffly in front of him and he could tell that Ezra wasn't happy anymore, even though he'd responded at first. Now Chris sensed fear, maybe even pain, in the man's voice and stance. This wasn't going the way he hoped and Ezra looked likely to be running out on him. Chris was ready to mount up, with his gambler, and leave the boys behind rather than hurt Ezra. To hell with those damn raiders.

The southerner licked dry lips. Larabee seemed intent on mortifying him in front of the others. Taking a deep breath, Ezra stepped away from and around Chris, and away from the direct light of the campfire. "I'm fine, Chris, just a momentary stiffness of muscles." He sent a penetrating glare toward the other two men who still hadn't looked up. "Gentlemen, you will excuse me, I'm sure." And he was gone. Walking quickly into the darkness of the nearby trees.

Buck raised his head and took in the new tension. Damn, these boys need some time to figure this all out. Too bad they ain't gonna get it any time soon. He took another draught of coffee and pursed his lips as Ezra, without waiting for a response, turned away and slipped into the shadows.

Vin, quiet at best around the others, leaned back slowly on one elbow and finally met Chris' eyes. "You okay, cowboy?"

The blond was more frustrated than upset, but both his friends could obviously read his unhappiness. He shoved a hand through his hair and squatted back down to reach out for his abandoned cup of coffee. "Yeah." He cast a glance out into the night, in the direction Ezra had disappeared. "Yeah," he repeated, thinking that Ezra was right about timing.

With a sinking feeling in his stomach, Chris figured that there was no way Ezra would return to his arms tonight. He was right. When the southerner returned, he headed for the coffee pot and, upon filling a cup, took himself to a nearby log, midway between Larabee and the other men.

Chris, Buck and Vin had completed their plans while Ezra was gone and Buck, sensing the building anger across the fire, turned to the gambler and explained their strategy. Start out now and try to intercept the raiders, maybe even catch them between a ranch and themselves.

Ezra listened without comment, sipping his coffee with a blank face. His shoulders were hunched, a 'tell' that he was cold, but he made no move toward the folded blankets at Larabee's side. Chris felt his heart begin to sink. Shit.

Vin leaned in and added some more wood to the fire, as if reading the situation and in his own way trying to help. By now, both Vin and Buck were deeply sorry for interfering with the new lovers' night. Trouble had a way of finding all of them and it didn't wait for a good time to show. Vin picked up his empty plate and wandered off to clean up. It seemed to be the unspoken signal. Buck and Chris both rose to their feet and started gathering their blankets, breaking camp.

Ezra finished his coffee and stood, instantly on guard as Larabee came over. No, not now! Please. Ezra's green eyes deepened in his tension. He watched Chris carefully but the man simply handed him his tied bedroll and took the empty cup from his hands without a word. Hugging the rolled blankets to him, Ezra walked over to where the horses were picketed, put down his bundle and began to saddle up. I can do this, I can pick up the pieces and rebuild myself after all I am a superb confidence man.

Even though dawn was still a ways off, with Vin along, they all agreed it was time to hit the trail. Everyone began to get their mounts ready.

Cinching his gear, Ezra looked over Chaucer's back at the now empty campsite. Even the fire was out, someone had kicked dirt over it. What just happened here? He stole a glance in Larabee's direction. Concerned hazel eyes met his and his insides began quiver. He licked his lower lip and turned his head. And wondered what Chris really wanted from him.

Marcus Yarrow was getting tired of Charro and his raggedy bunch of desert warriors. The Apache had added firepower at a good time during Yarrow's ambush of a stage run, then took the horses from the traces of the stagecoach as reward, his men calling out in high-pitched screams of triumph as they ran them in a circle around the disabled vehicle. Yarrow's cousins, Calvin and Jacob, had staggered up from behind their rock shelters with jaws agape whilst Yarrow had charged in on his buckskin along with the other eight members of their gang.

The moment of confrontation between the outlaw gang and the renegade Indians had been a long drawn-out silence. Then as his warriors sat back on their ponies, shaking ancient rifles, their leader, in a faded red union suit and yellow leather breeches, had ridden forward and sat staring at Yarrow whose cold demeanor demanded a certain respect.

The men had recognized something in each other and a partnership was born. With growing numbers of both outlaws and renegades joining their original group, Yarrow and Charro's unholy bond had grown less comfortable with time. Each kept a close count on the members that formed allegiance to them but neither had a clear advantage and so they continued their work in concert. Now close to thirty men, their band was attacking isolated ranch houses and small settlements, raiding for anything of value. Charro's braves kept the livestock stolen, while Yarrow's men took everything else from cash to valuables, women upon occasion as well.

Marcus Yarrow kept hoping for a big catch, enough to get him out of this alliance and away from the Indians that were beginning to make him nervous. His cousins, like two peas in a dark haired pod, grumbled between themselves and no longer confided in Yarrow. The tall, thin man with the hatchet face and squinting black eyes stared with lingering intensity at their latest target, a small homestead with outbuildings, and a tall windmill with watering trough near a paddock full of prime cattle.

If Charro's group took those beef, he'd be left once more with the slim pickings of the homesteader's household. Not very satisfactory. Marcus scratched his unshaven jaw and contemplated the place. Charro and his men weren't waiting and with yips of battle cry, the whole bunch surged over the hill where they'd gathered and charged.

Yarrow held his riders back, their horses dancing in excitement. His group would be the second wave of the attack. The outlaws had quickly found that keeping apart was safer and easier for both them and the renegade Indian warriors. Yarrow held them at the tree line on the top of the hill, still hidden. He swung his eyes over the circle of horizon and spotted four men riding in from the north, breaking over the hillcrest behind the ranch and coming to a halt four abreast. The lead rider, all in black, on a big black gelding, drew his attention. Larabee!

With a sigh of frustration, Yarrow knew he should call off the raid. No point losing men when reinforcements like this arrived unexpectedly for the rancher.

"Hold!" Yarrow hollered, yanking back on his horse's bridle. He had no desire for a bloodbath where some of the blood might be his. His arm went up in command. Hauling at reins and dragging mounts into skittish circles, with grunts and cries of alarm, the men bound to Yarrow pulled back, still within the protection of the tree line. "We ain't fighting no lawmen and one of them new men is Chris Larabee."

Several other men nodded, one spitting in disgust at the ground. They recognized the name of the shootist who was now out of Four Corners as a peacekeeper. Turning aside, Yarrow led his part of the marauder band through the trees and down to a creek bed that had been at their backs, away from the barking sound of gunfire.

If Larabee and three of his men were here, then Four Corners, with its plump bank and fattening storekeepers, was his. Yarrow's narrow face creased into a nasty grin and he kicked his mount's flanks, his men streaming after him.

The Four Corners peacekeepers had been riding for several hours at a quick trot. Two abreast in the dim light of near dawn, Vin and Chris leading, Buck beside Ezra, they rode cautiously, careful of the footing for their horses. It had been decided to swing by the Gardner spread. It was not far off their track back towards Four Corners and it fit the description of the type of isolated ranch or homestead that was falling to the renegade marauders' attacks.

They topped a hill overlooking the spread. Even as their horses blew and stomped up the crest, the sounds of a firefight had them searching out the scene below. Vin was the first to spot the renegades but the rest of them quickly drew rein as the cries of Apache war screams came from their right. The lawmen could hear the sounds of rifle fire from the ranch house and bunkhouse, and they could see small figures scurrying for cover with small puffs of white smoke appearing from doors and windows, testifying to the resistance that the rancher, his family, and hired hands were ready to make.

Up on the crest of the hill, Chris Larabee stood tall in his stirrups for a moment before meeting Vin Tanner's blue eyes with firm hazel intent. A nod between them was enough, but Larabee swung over to look at his old friend Buck who was already checking the load on his Sharps. Buck glanced up, controlling his Gray with his knees, keeping the experienced gelding easily in check. Buck flashed a grin of wolfish intensity. Chris let a slash of a grin cross his own face before worry suddenly flooded his system and he turned to the fourth member of the group. Ezra Standish was looking straight ahead, chin high, one hand grasping his long rifle stock, the other close-reining his chestnut gelding, who arched its neck, ears pricked forward, hide trembling with restrained excitement. "Ezra?" Chris' questioning call was terse.

The bright green eyes that flashed his way were full of determination and high-flying excitement. "Ready, sir!" and the tip of the rifle's barrel touched the low black gambler's hat in salute. It felt good to be back on an even footing with the rest of his friends, no one looking at him sideways to see how Chris and he were getting on. Just fellow men, ready to fight. And, he was one of them. Ezra confidently flashed a golden glinting grin, his dimples creasing his cheeks, adding a certain cockiness.

Chris swallowed any foolish words he might utter. Damn, they'd fought side by side before. This was no different. But it felt different, knowing that Ezra was his now. Not having had time to do more than declare his intent, not even get a damn kiss yet. He grunted and swung to face the on-going battle and blotted out fearful thoughts of Ezra's satin smooth skin pierced by a bullet. "Let's get'em, boys!" he gritted out and slashed his rowels into the black's flanks, causing the animal to leap forward with a squeal, bugling.

Below, the attackers were already losing enthusiasm for their raid, the resistance from the isolated ranch was greater than anticipated. Usually by now the white outlaws would have joined in, adding more firepower. Not this time. Charro gathered in his pony as he circled away from yet another charge at the bigger building, his sharp hearing picking up the high-pitched scream of a horse. Looking up the steep hillside beyond the smaller buildings, he saw four white men - not his white men - pitching down the incline at an impossible speed, firing rifles. He spun to his left to see two of his warriors fall from their ponies, then as the crackling sounds grew louder, his brother's son, close by, was punched back off his pony's hind quarters into the dirt to lie still.

Furious, Charro raised his feather-decked long gun and shook it while crying out to his remaining fighters. The others turned away from their fruitless attack and bravely faced the new threat. But the men riding down on them did not slow or falter, their horses nearly squatting at the near-cliff they skidded down, each rider was standing in his stirrups, rifle raised, coolly firing off telling shots.

And Charro raised his rifle and squinted along the barrel. One rider had broken free of the others, his white-faced black skidding down the incline with the look of an Indian pony. Charro sent a curse and prayer up to the spirits and squeezed the trigger, yipping with savage joy as his target fell back and off the charging gelding. The man, likely a hunter or trapper by his buffalo hide coat and slouch hat, somersaulted down the rest of the cliff-like hill ending in a sprawl at its base.

Charro jerked as he felt a harsh pain on his right arm, numbing it, his own rifle falling away now to the trampled dirt at his pinto's feet. He drew his hunting knife in his left hand, tossing lance to his now empty right hand and led his seven remaining men directly into the path of their new enemy. His target was the man he'd shot, a scalp waiting for his belt.

Chris swore as he saw Vin hit and fall. Yanking his mount to the side, he avoided trampling his friend's body as he reached the bottom of the steep hillside and drove forward. He felt guilt rip his heart as he led Buck and Ezra on against the braves arrayed against them, leaving one of his partners, his best friend behind. He hastily dropped his rifle into the saddle sheath and his pistol leaped to his hand in blinding speed. The sharper, more biting sounds of Buck's gun told him without looking that his old friend had done the same as the distance closed with the renegades. A wild Rebel yell let him know that Ezra was still with them. He dragged Cap to a stop, and held his pistol high, arm straight as he picked off another brave.

Ezra schooled Chaucer closer to Larabee's flank, firing methodically and with good effect at the wild-eyed young men riding with effortless grace and great savagery towards them. He grunted as a streak of fire pulled at his ribs, then ignored it. Beneath him, Chaucer's head was down, ears back, and Ezra could hear his beast's snorts as the animal practically danced in position, still obedient to his leg's nearly subconscious commands.

Buck, already turning away from Chris, with Ezra at his side, was facing off the extended edge of the renegades' charge. A shocked and mournful cry brought him around to see the red-shirted leader arch up on his pony, a darker spot already blossoming on his shirt. Weapons falling to the ground, the man toppled off his ride. The freed pony ran straight on, shouldering between Chaucer and Cap.

In the confusion that followed, a barrage of shots from the remaining Four Corners' lawmen demolished the few remaining attackers. Sitting stiffly on their panting mounts, sweat streaming off the men's faces and the horses lathered sides, the three horsemen drew rein. Chris spun Cap about and took off for Tanner's still form, while Buck and Ezra, sparing worried glances over their shoulders, canted this way and that, leaning widely over saddle pommels to check on the new dead.

Dropping off his horse before it even came to a stop, Chris sunk to his knees next to Vin, a prayer on his lips. Vin looked like a toss of old clothes, laundry day at the Seminole village, Chris thought with creeping fear. "Vin!" His cry was harsh and carrying. Back to the drama, Ezra, still on Chaucer stiffened and his face fell into lines of regret and sadness.

Chris pulled Tanner up and onto his lap, cradling young man's shoulders with trembling hands. "Tanner, you damn well better be alive!"

Blue eyes cracked open painfully and squinted up at Larabee. A small smile quirked dry lips. "No fear, Cowboy," he whispered.

The blond closed his eyes in thanksgiving. Then ducked his head to look into those talking eyes. "Where're you hit?"

Vin coughed softly. "Right side, low." He tried to rise but couldn't fight Larabee's grip or his own lightheadedness. "Mighta broke some ribs too on the fall." He coughed again and one hand automatically gripped at his friend's dark shirtfront.

That's how Ezra and Buck found them a few moments later.

A shot from Buck's heavy pistol had them all swiveling to look, seeing one last attacker subside to the ground, a lance dropping from a now forever limp hand. Chris helped Vin up on to Cap and mounted behind him, then reined the black horse over and led the way at a slow walk toward the ranch house, knowing that the other two had their backs.

The front door of the small house was thrown open and a weeping woman, Emily Gardner, wife of the rancher, tottered out, three small children's heads peering from the edges of the door frame, but not one of the youngsters came out.

A cry of "Emily!" from the direction of the horse barn was followed by the running feet of Herb Gardner, the rancher, who ignored their rescuers as he ran for his wife. Chris Larabee drew rein and waited on black Cap, supporting Vin who was sitting taller now. Together they watched the frantic reunion, Vin with a small smile, Chris impassively.

Ezra walked Chaucer back away from the little scene before turning his gelding to watch the yard, observing the hesitant ranch hands emerging from the bunkhouse and barns. He pressed hard on the now painful bullet track on his ribs, seeing the men cautiously begin checking the dead Apache that lay scattered in the wide-open yard and near the paddocks. The warriors' ponies stood in small groups, huddled near their dead riders.

Buck dismounted near the ranch house porch, slapping his dusty trail hat on one long leg, his face blank. His dark blue eyes rose to meet the sky blue ones of Vin Tanner who, stared down vaguely.

"Mr. Larabee, thank you." Gardner, arm tightly holding his Emily close, now had time to look up at the tall gunman on the black horse. "You and your men made the difference." He hugged his wife, then asked, "Can we help with your man there?" nodding toward Tanner who was still seated in front of Chris on Cap's saddle.

Chris tipped his head with reserve, "Glad we got here in time. Thanks for the offer, think Tanner here could use some cleaning up." He stepped down from Cap and kept a hand on Vin's thigh. "Vin? Get on down."

Helping Vin slide from the tall black, Chris looked bleakly out at the yard. "Your men take care of this?"

Gardner nodded as he scanned the dead. "Yeah."

"I'd take the rigs off those ponies and let 'em go," Tanner spoke up, from Larabee's side. His voice was husky but already sounding a bit stronger. "Less chance of trouble later."

Squinting at the nervous animals now being caught by his men, Gardner nodded again. "We'll do that." He patted Emily again and then, releasing his wife, he tipped his hat at the lawmen and walked to where his own men were standing, holding the reins of the Indian ponies.

"Mr. Larabee?" Chris swung his eyes back to see Emily Gardner wringing her hands in her apron, standing at the edge of the porch. "Can you bring in your friend? We can clean him up inside, see what needs doing."

"Thank you, ma'am." Chris started to guide Vin up the steps but the tracker's hold on consciousness took that moment to slip away. Eyes rolling up in his head, Vin Tanner's knees folded and he began to collapse. "Damn!" Chris caught up the man and rose with a stagger, Vin a deadweight in his arms. It hadn't looked that bad, but Vin took a bad fall off of Peso - Chris worried. Buck was suddenly there, offering his strength to help Larabee carry Vin indoors.

Ezra watched from a safe distance, nearly leaping from the saddle at the sight of his friend, Vin, collapsing at the porch steps. But Chris had been there, then Buck, and together they had things well in hand. With a sigh, feeling a bit abandoned even knowing that he had no cause to feel that way, Ezra rode over to where Gardner and his men were removing halters and gear from the Indian ponies. He neatly cut Peso out of the nervous herd and reached out with a grunt to snatch up the lead reins of the white-faced horse. The stretch hadn't helped his own minor injury. He turned away, leading Peso. Best get Peso secured and then seek some assistance as well.

The several yells from the ranch hands, followed by the multiple thuds of the stampeding ponies, echoed behind Ezra as he rode toward the now silent ranch house. He could hear Gardner issuing orders to his riders. He guessed a mass grave would be started soon. Reaching the front hitching rail by the ranch porch, he dropped from Chaucer, slapping Cap's rump to move the big horse over a bit. He could see Buck's Gray beyond. The amiable animals stomped and blew lightly, greeting Peso and Chaucer as Ezra tied up the two geldings. The herd animals welcomed each other's proximity.

One foot on the bottom step of the ranch house, Ezra paused. A voice, halfway between shout and cry came from within. Vin's, if I'm not mistaken. The murmur of what could only be Chris' tense voice followed. Rubbing at the back of his neck, Ezra decided not to intrude. Not that he'd likely be noticed anyway. Vin was rightly the center of attention. Ezra swung around and saw that Herb Gardner was approaching.

"Mr. Gardner?" Ezra tipped his hat genteelly. "Might I trouble one of your hands for some assistance?"

"Sure." The rancher nodded agreeably, looking the fancy dressed man up and down. He'd been riding with the others, part of Larabee's group. Funny kind of man to be with that gunslinger and his crowd. Looks like a gambler. Like a fish out of water here. Gardner started up the steps, expecting the other man to come along.

Ezra remained where he was and called to the retreating rancher. "Mr. Gardner, if you could simply direct me to someone who could render some treatment to a very minor injury?"

Gardner turned back at his front door, puzzled. "You hurt?" Without waiting for an answer, he gestured within. "Come on in, the missus will be able to help out."

"No, no, thank you, kind sir. I do not wish to remove her attention from the more seriously wounded Mr. Tanner." Ezra lifted his jacket away from his shirt and vest. A small dark spot was beginning to seep out there. "Just someone to help me clean and wrap this?"

The rancher nodded, made sense not to take his wife away from tending the hurt rider inside already. "Cummings can get that for you. He doubles as cook."

Ezra's lips quirked up and he nodded his gratitude. A cook was often also the 'doctor' for trail herds, so why not for a ranch. He listened as the rancher hollered for this Mr. Cummings to come forth. No point in letting Chris know. He has enough on his mind right now. Ezra ignored the small spike of sadness that he savagely labeled jealousy and repressed with strict self-abnegation. Ezra swallowed hard at a lump in his throat and turned back from the ranch house, walking toward a broad, squat, bald man who was answering his boss' summons.

Three small children, who'd fled their house with the arrival of the large men dragging in a wounded man, emerged from around the back of the ranch house. Their mama had shooed them away. While they avoided the dead men being dragged out of the yard by the ranch hands, young Peter, Laura, and Wesley had a new interest - the bright red jacketed man who was following Mr. Cummings toward the front of the cookhouse.

Inside the ranch house, Vin had awakened as Emily Gardner began cleaning the wound in his side. Unable to repress a cry at the unexpected return of sharp pain, he lurched up from where they'd settled him on a bed in one of the back rooms. Chris and Buck were both there, Buck holding his legs down, Larabee bracing his shoulders back and holding on to his arm above the bullet hole. "Easy, Vin. Mrs. Gardner's just cleaning you up."

Nodding and blinking, more fully alert, Tanner offered a simple smile to the busy woman beside him. "Ma'am." He gasped as she pressed hard on both the front and back holes in his side.

"You'll be fine, Mr. Tanner," she answered with a smile, her care-worn features warm. "The bullet went through, close enough to your side that I don't think anything inside was damaged. You just need some rest to let this heal."

Chris leaned over and looked down on the man in his arms. "That means you can't just start in riding again, cowboy."

Buck, at the foot of the bed, chimed in. "They're right, Pard, you need to stay off your feet for a spell." He patted one booted foot and stood back, arching his back with a sigh, then looking around and away from their injured friend for the first time. "Hey, where's Ezra?"

Gardner arrived in the doorway of the back room, wiping his hands on his pants, just as the tall mustached rider asked about someone named Ezra. Realizing that must be the red coated man still outside, the only remaining member of Larabee's crew, he spoke up. "That fancy looking feller?"

Buck spun on his heel to face the rancher and grinned, "Guess you could call Ez a fancy feller, yep." He snuck a sly glance over at Chris rising from the far side of Vin's bed. Tanner had pushed himself up stiffly, his bruised, not broken, ribs tightly banded. He began buttoning his shirt, absently nodding his thanks to Mrs. Gardner. Both men turned to stare at the rancher.

"He's out with Cummings, getting fixed up."

"'Getting fixed up?'" Larabee's question had an ominous tone.

Suddenly, unaccountably, nervous, Herb Gardner nodded quickly. "Said it was only a 'minor injury,' just needed some help getting it fixed. I got my cook, Ed Cummings, lookin' at him now."

Larabee was already striding straight at Gardner, or more probably through him for the door, thought Buck, as the blond's forward motion brushed the rancher to one side. Guess I better see to Vin, Buck thought with a small hidden grin.

Ezra sat gingerly on a narrow simple bench at the rear of the cookhouse. Mr. Cummings, 'most folks just call me 'Ed',' was working the pump handle of a close-by well, filling a bucket with fresh water. While waiting for the man's tender mercies, Ezra picked at the small mother of pearl buttons on one of his simpler white shirts. White no longer, he thought, tugging out the tails and examining the dark stain where the shirt had rested against his left side. He looked beneath the shirt and vest that he'd already pulled back and could see that the bleeding had stopped. It really was only a scrape. Surely within the expertise of 'Ed.'

Sitting carefully erect, Ezra waited as Cummings poured off some water into a kettle and disappeared inside the back door of the cookhouse. This might take a bit, apparently there was no hot water ready. He risked leaning back against the rough board wall behind him. That's when he sensed that he was being watched.

Laura was the boldest of the three children, a middle child and the only girl, she was seven. She leaned way out around the corner of the cookhouse to stare at the pretty stranger. It did not occur to her that 'pretty' was not a word you used for a man. Peter, her older brother by two years, hissed at her to come back where he and their younger brother, Wesley, still hid. She stuck out her tongue and turned back to watch the quiet man. He was just sitting there, eyes closed, leaning against the cookhouse wall.

"Are you hurt?" Her curiosity could not be contained. Behind her, she heard Peter moan softly. She saw no reason to hide though.

Ezra opened his eyes wide and looked over at the bright young lady standing in a simple cotton pinafore and loose sagging wool jacket. He watched her appearance through carefully slitted eyes, not wanting to startle the child who evidently had cohorts since she was shooting glares, nearly Larabee-strength, off to the side of the shack where he sat. "Yes, but it is nothing of consequence." Nothing like what Vin was suffering through. It would have been nice, though, very nice to have had Chris by HIS side now. Looking out for him. Watching his back. Not that he needed it. And it was a very small scrape. Of no consequence at all. Still, it would have been nice.

The young girl's light brown head tipped to the side, pale blue eyes studying him. "You fought along with those other men."

"Again, correct, m'dear." Ezra tipped his hat courteously. "I am Ezra Standish, my lady. May I be so bold as to enquire - who might you be?" He cast a sly glance to the side and smiled, dimples appearing as if to share a secret joke as he added, "And perhaps you might also introduce your companions?" By now he'd spotted two other small heads poking around the shack's corner.

"I'm Laura." She smiled and Ezra caught his breath. The child became a vision of future beauty, sunshine in her small round face wreathed in a curiously charming smile. She waved imperiously to the side. Two boys came forward into view, one slightly taller than her, one slightly smaller. "These are my brothers, Peter and Wesley."

"I am honored to meet y'all." Ezra's soft southern accent deepened, a trick he'd long ago learned was less threatening to children for some reason. He sketched a slight bow, still seated.

Laura's smile grew and the two boys edged closer, the older one eyeing his weaponry, the shoulder holster loosed for medical attention, should it ever reappear.

"Saw you shooting." Peter's voice was clear and high, confidently the eldest son of the rancher. Now that his initial shyness was past, he was ready to ask questions, lots of questions.

"Yes." Ezra acknowledged the comment. "My companions and I were fortuitous in our timely arrival, driving those savages from your doors."

"Ya killed 'em all." Wesley had to remove two fingers from his mouth to pronounce this, his nearly white-blond hair hanging low over his eyes.

"I fear they have all gone to their maker, some with my assistance," Ezra's smile became sad.

"Thank you." Peter nodded. By now, all three children were directly in front of Ezra, in a small row. Diverted by his unusual clothing from the earlier horrid events, they stared hungrily at him. It wasn't often such a person came to visit.

Ezra smiled back and answered softly, "You are welcome."

Chris stormed across the wide ranch yard, head swiveling from side to side, unable to see Ezra in plain sight. Chaucer and Peso were tied up with Cap and Gray at the ranch house. So, where's Ezra gone off to? Chris felt like strangling the little weasel, again. You'd have thought he'd know to follow us inside. Mouth in a thin, grim line, Larabee came to a vibrating halt at the door to the cookhouse. Just as he was about to march inside, he heard a child's giggle, then a second one. Sounded to be around back. The tightness in his shoulders abruptly eased and he felt relief flood his body. Where there's kids, there's Ezra. If there was one golden rule for the seven, that was it. He altered his course for the rear of the cook shack, veering around the wide veranda out front for the humbler working set up at the back.

Sure enough, there was Ezra. Chris caught his breath at the sight of this man. Burnished chestnut locks gleamed in the sunshine. Milk white skin was exposed to the day, shirt and vest pulled away from that smooth, firm chest. Chris sucked in a lungful of air and clenched his fists to hold himself back. All he really wanted to do was snatch that damn fool up in his arms and kiss him silly.

But there was a rather large man leaning down beside Ezra, tying off a small bandage near his waist on the left. Ezra was leaning over to the side, left arm raised to give the man room to work. Three children, the ones he remembered peeking out the front of the ranch house behind Mrs. Gardner, stood close by, watching and giggling as Ezra made outrageous faces at them, adding a stream of outlandish noises as well. He seemed to be exaggerating his pain for their amusement.

Chris shook his head and moved closer. There was a milking stool to the side, nearly behind the big man who must be Cummings the cook. Ezra was so busy with his little pantomime that Chris was able to quietly seat himself on the stool, half-hidden behind the cook.

"Ow! Ow! My good man, no need to take an axe to that! I do not intend to offer part of my hide for the dinner menu!" Ezra's huffing complaints had the children grinning more widely, giggles rippling.

Then little girl laughed and clapped her hands, calling out, "Oh, I bet you taste good, Mr. Ezra!"

Chris couldn't agree more.

The cook, balding and heavy-set, chuckled and turned partway around to shake a finger at the little miss. "That ain't nice, Miss Laura." He didn't sound very upset though, a laugh in his voice.

Chris grinned, then blinked as the smallest boy, about Billy's size, looked over his shoulder as if knowing someone else was there. The boy's tiny face was already stretched into a happy smile. He raised his arms to Chris, saying quietly, "You helped too!"

Before he knew it, Larabee had a lapful of tiny boy and looking over the tyke's head, met green eyes. The dancing good humor, that he'd seen in those beautiful jade green eyes when he arrived back here, faded now - a look of hesitation, dammit, fear, replacing it. Deciding he probably looked a lot less intimidating with the boy in his lap, Chris adjusted his hold, automatically fitting the child to him as he'd once held Adam. The thought didn't even give him pause, just warm memories now. He let his small smile grow, trying to coax a similar response from Ezra.

Here he is! I didn't even see him arrive and here he is! Ezra distractedly nodded his thanks as Ed patted the knots he'd tied in the small bandage. The other two children were crowding close now, leaning on his knees, making escape impossible. Ezra swallowed and tried to return a smile to his face. Chris is sitting here, a child in his lap. He's smiling at me. He's not angry. Ezra's head dipped slightly to the side, peering more closely. At least, I don't think he is.

The youngsters at Ezra's knees turned as one to see what was causing their younger brother to scream suddenly in laughter. Wesley was squirming and laughing in the tall stranger's lap, catching at tickling fingers. The man, dressed in black, was smiling widely at the little boy, ignoring the rest of them.

Laura and Peter instantly gravitated to the fun that young Wesley was having. "Me too!" Laura called out gaily, charging at the seated man who was tickling her little brother.

Chris, trying hard not to look at Ezra, trying to just show Ezra that he wasn't always a hard-assed gunman, concentrated on little Wesley. He didn't see the look of chagrin cross Ezra's face as he rose slowly from the bench. Chris didn't see the cook step away and turn to watch the tumbling children now converging on him. Chris didn't see Ezra tidily refasten his shirt, tuck it in smoothly, and then button his vest, all the time walking away with a sedate, dignified gait. He didn't see the bland, blank look that set on Ezra's beautifully expressive face. He didn't see Ezra tip his hat to the cook or look one last time at Chris who had been pushed to the ground off his stool by the happily playful children now piling atop him.

Gasping for breath as three sets of tiny hands tickled him without mercy, Chris finally pushed himself up to a seated position next to the overturned stool. He cast a look full of shared amusement over at Ezra's bench. But the eyes that met his were dark brown, not green. The cook sat there, chuffing with good humor at the children's antics, folding some unused white bandages.

Carefully parting the children who continued to wrestle and tickle each other oblivious to his departure as he emerged from their tangle, Chris looked all around. Dammit. No Ezra.

Ezra breathed deeply as he rounded the cookhouse. He moved quickly to assist Buck with Vin when he saw the tall former ranger helping Tanner down the steps of the front porch of the ranch house. A light bead of sweat quickly appeared on the tracker's face.

"Mr. Tanner? Are you certain you should be up?"

"I tried to tell him, Ez, but the damn fool is too stubborn by half." Buck shook his head while steadying Tanner with a hand to one arm.

Standish came up beside the wobbling tracker to hold his other arm. "Perhaps you should still be in bed?" Ezra's own confusion over Chris Larabee's appearance behind the cookhouse faded as he watched Vin straighten.

"I can ride." Vin's voice was hoarse and his two friends could feel the tremble in his muscles.

Emily Gardner came to the door, having followed her patient out of the ranch house. Her husband stepped up behind her, hands resting lightly on her shoulders. She crossed her arms and frowned. "Mr. Tanner, I know the ribs aren't broken but that bullet wound could become serious if you don't rest and take time to heal."

Vin turned to face her slowly. Ezra and Buck stood at his sides ready to catch the recalcitrant man if he faltered. "Ma'am, I'm grateful for your help."

"That means he ain't gonna listen." Buck interjected.

Shooting a disgusted glance at the mustached man at his side, Tanner tried to steady his balance and look ready for the trail. "We have to ride. The rest of that band of raiders might be heading for our town."

"IS heading for it." Larabee strode up and joined the men, coming to a stop directly behind Ezra Standish. Chris continued, "Took a look from the barn roof," he nodded up at the tallest building on the property, "and I can see a dust cloud bound for Four Corners."

"Then we better get going." Vin shrugged away the tentative grips of Buck and Ezra and started toward Peso.

"Don't think so, cowboy." Chris, who hadn't moved, looked over at his oldest friend. "Buck." His eyes and head motion were enough.

Wilmington grinned and patted Tanner on the back, "Let's go, Pard," he pressed one hand down on Vin's shoulder and pushed him back toward the porch. "We'll tell you all about it later."

"Chris!" Vin tried to appeal to Larabee over his shoulder, digging his heels into the dirt to the obvious amusement of Wilmington.

"Not this time, Vin." Chris shook his head. "You wouldn't last in the saddle and we won't have time to tend you. Don't want to lose someone else through having to leave them with you when you fall off."

With a sigh, Vin's shoulders slumped and he allowed Buck to help him back up the steps to the porch. Mrs. Gardner, smiling now, stood back to let the men re-enter the house. Her husband stomped down to the yard, passing the men.

"We're glad to keep him for you until he can travel." Gardner looked around the yard slowly. "You think they might come back this way?"

"Not likely," Chris looked out toward the low, rolling prairie. "Nope, this wasn't the whole band. Figure some of the whites might have recognized us coming in. They must figure that with us here, the town is fair game."

Ezra stood frozen in place. Chris had come up directly behind him, and now stood there, pressed so close that Ezra could feel the man's breath on his neck. When Gardner turned away to answer one of the ranch hands across the yard, Ezra felt a warm, firm touch at his shoulder, pressing deeply. "You have to stop running, Ezra."

Anger flaring, Ezra whirled, freeing himself and set his feet to confront Larabee. He faced a mild expression of patience and clear love in the hazel eyes watching him. What does this man want from me? Ezra grit his teeth. "I am not running out on you, sir."

Chris lowered his voice, never losing eye contact. "Looks like it from where I stand." He moved to close the distance between them again.

Panicking at Larabee's move, Ezra backed up, bumping directly into Peso. The big black gelding turned a white-blazed face toward him and nickered almost questioningly. Ezra quickly ducked under the animal's reins and began to untie Chaucer's leathers with shaking fingers. "I - am - not - " Ezra ripped the leather straps free of the rail, "running - out - on - " Ezra caught a hand to Chaucer's face and pressed, causing the gelding to drop his head and begin to back out of the narrow space between Peso and Cap at the hitching rail, "you." He stood up into the stirrups and sat down into the saddle, to finish backing Chaucer clear of the other horses.

Chris stared up at the agitated man. I'd be dead right now, if looks could kill you. He folded his arms and stared back at Standish. Stubborn, irritating fool. He yearned to drag the beautiful man off the horse and go find some quiet place to have a heart to heart. Now was not going to be that time.

Buck, who'd tried to give the two men time, realized it wasn't working and came back out on to the porch. "Got Vin settled."

"Then let's go." Larabee broke eye contact with Standish and headed for his mount. Soon he and Buck were ready, and with a final tipping of his hat toward Mrs. Gardner who'd emerged once more from the ranch house, Chris gigged Cap into a slow trot.

It wasn't until they were out of the hollow and a hill beyond that Chris called a halt and dismounted. He waited as Buck joined him looking out over the succession of low hills between them and Four Corners. When Ezra didn't immediately dismount, Larabee looked back, speaking sharply, worry showing, and then started walking back. "Ezra?"

Standish let Chaucer walk slowly the rest of the way to his waiting friends and then half tumbled, half slid from the saddle, startled to find himself falling into Chris' waiting arms.

"Shit! Thought you weren't hurt bad!" The alarm in Larabee's voice had Buck springing forward to help him ease Ezra to the ground. Chris held on tightly to Ezra's shoulders, kneeling to look directly into the man's flushing face. Ezra looked at the ground, face darkening even redder.

"Not too bad, really." Ezra muttered, embarrassed to be the center of attention under such circumstances. "I just had a momentary lapse of balance." He was not about to admit that the tension with Chris had left him light-headed from inability to eat or drink. And he knew the injury was minor but it hurt like the very devil from where the primitive bandage was chaffing the new scraped flesh of his side.

Buck, peering over his old friend's shoulder, realized that the wound wasn't any danger to their gambler. From the nervous look to those shimmering green eyes, Buck figured it was likely more shock and a bit of pain, plus a hovering lover. Buck suppressed a smile and eased back on his heels as he squatted beside the two huddled men, then spared a glance out toward the hills beyond. Buck dusted his hands on his pants and stood. He quirked a look down at Larabee. "He'll be fine, we ain't losing old Ez today." Buck bared teeth in a humorless smile as he began to survey their surroundings.

Chris heard his friend but concentrated on the feel of Ezra beneath his hands. "Scared me."

Ezra was confused, his own emotions mixing with his pain and leaving him anxious. Somehow he ended up answering truthfully, to his utter mortification. "I was scared too. Not about this," he gestured toward the small bandage at his ribs, then looked back up. "I feared for your health."

"It'll be harder now." Chris was no longer talking about the fight just past. He willed Ezra to understand him.

"I - yes, perhaps. Yes." Ezra's hesitancy and short replies let Chris know that Ezra was still uncertain. Chris realized that he had a ways to go still with his friend. Hadn't been any easier with Sarah, she'd fought him off at first, until he finally convinced her of his love. Looking back now, he thought that maybe she'd been sure all along, just wanting to make sure that he knew it, felt it, too. Got to find a way to convince Ezra.

Buck pulled Vin's spyglass out of his saddlebags and standing hipshot against Gray's patient form, he stared out over the landscape, over to the horizon, eyes towards their town. He rubbed at the back of his neck, adrenaline flash dissipating with the easing of tension.

Larabee stood up, then reached down, grabbing hold of Ezra's hand and pulling him to his feet. Chris looked past him to Buck, meeting his old friend's dark blue eyes. The tension that stiffened the tall man had Chris feel alarm flood his system again. This time, though, not for Ezra, but for their small town. He turned back to meet Ezra's green gaze, hardening with purpose, tempting lips so close that he bit his own in regret. He sent a silent vow, a promise to Ezra, then turned away. "Buck?"

"Think you're right, that's the outlaw half of the pack up ahead. They're riding fast. Kicking up quite a cloud. I can see trail dust of a fair number of riders."

"That would be them."

Chris met Ezra's eyes with a question. Standish nodded and then turned, breaking away again from that fierce gaze. He picked up his hat and moved toward his horse. Larabee watched for moment, feeling the urgent need to be touching Ezra again. He flexed his fingers and strode over to Cap, mounting in one fluid motion. "Come on!"

Ezra rubbed his arms. He began to wish for another shoot out, anything was better than this cat and mouse game that Chris seemed to be playing with him. He climbed on Chaucer. Once he and Buck were up on their horses, the three men rode on at a fast lope, anxious to get back to their town in time to help.

Continued on page 2 of 3

Everything on this page is fiction. Any resemblance or reference to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.