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

2002 Ezzie OW Slash Fiction, Long Magnificent Seven tale of the Old West, slash-style...

Title: Stopping
Author: MAC
Pairing: Ezra/Chris
Rating: Slash - mostly action/adventure/romance, just a little NC-17 for spice at the end <G>
WARNING: Same sex lovin' ...some violence...and strong language abounds
Disclaimer: I don't own them, or the show they rode in on. Wrote this for fun, no profit is made from it.
Archive? Yes, just tell me.
Comments welcomed: email addy - gentlerainfall@yahoo.com
Author's note: I've used the names of the horses that have appeared in other fanfic, choosing ones that have rung true for me. Hope I haven't stepped on anyone's toes.

by Mac

Chris felt warm and comfortable with Ezra snuggled up against his chest, soft chestnut hair tickling his chin. A smile cracked his lips open and he breathed deeply, inhaling the scent of their recent sex and the humid warmth of their bodies. His hands never stopped moving over the smaller body glued to his, palms gliding over the smooth expanses of lean muscle and elegant bone. Elegant. There was a word for Ezra, none other could better describe the gentleman. Except, maybe, gentle man. Yep. His gentle man. He hazarded a kiss into the jungle of curls and his smile grew.

The crackle of the campfire was a cheerful counterpoint to the velvet darkness beyond. Soft night sounds were notes of safety for the two men, as long as nature chirped and growled and hissed, no man-shaped predators were near. That's all they had to worry about. Vin had duty at the jail tonight and he was the only other danger to their liaison out here in the verge of the desert country. Leaning forward slightly, Chris reached his smoldering cheroot and slipped it between teeth to clench it in his mouth. Hand free again, he returned to stroking his lover.

Ezra stirred slowly, vaguely aware that it was still night and he was with Chris. A smile softened his face as he rubbed his nose against a nearby nipple. It hardened and the body attached to it stiffened quickly.

"Ezra." He was gripped in two firm, large hands and lifted up and away from the haven of Chris' chest.

With an irritable sigh, Ezra struggled weakly to return to his spot but Chris held him away. "Lemme go, Chris, just wanna be close..." the words seemed to drift off as he began to drop back into sleep.

As Ezra's head nodded forward and eyes, never really opened, relaxed back into sleep, Chris eased the man's body back down onto his. Shaking his head affectionately, Chris tugged the blankets back up over them from where they had slipped down to the earth. He enjoyed the closeness but wasn't ready for another round of heavy petting yet. Ezra had been easily subdued, however, and now he nestled the gambler back against him.

How many more times could they do this? Get away with it? Or, maybe more important, could they stop? Not so long ago, he would have said that he could stop anytime he wanted. It was just a safe way to let off some tension, relax. But they'd been doing this now for nigh on three months and it was becoming an addiction for Chris. He found he craved this more than liquor these days. When the world seemed to crash down on his head, all he had to do was take Ezra in his arms and the world righted itself. All was well again.

It really hit home to him on his anniversary. His wife Sarah and son Adam were gone now but that date always brought them back. Oppressive grief smashed his heart anew each time it came around and the only relief, ever, had been to wash it away with liquor. That was, until this year. As the day approached he found himself seeking out his secret lover, seeking solace in the man's arms, in his body. He'd actually made it through that dreaded day and night without touching a drop of drink. 'Course, Buck had been near hysterical with worry when Chris disappeared mid-afternoon. The man had torn the small town of Four Corners nearly apart looking to see where Chris had hid himself until the liveryman had told him that Larabee had ridden out with Ezra Standish on patrol.

Chris puffed out a smoke ring and bared his teeth in a reminiscent grin as he remembered the look on Buck's face the next morning when he and Ez'd come riding back into town. He told Wilmington that they'd done a long swing through the outlying area and camped out for the night. The disbelief, then uncertainty on Buck's face had been priceless. But, he'd had to accept the story and Chris was stone cold sober.

That was the first real sign for Chris that what he had with the gambler was more than just some casual sex. Standish never said anything, just rolled with the punches, sometimes real punches depending on Chris' mood. Ezra never fought back with fists and seldom with words. He'd just kind of shrink a little and become brittle for a while. You had to know him pretty well to even tell that though, Chris thought, letting his head lower to rest on the crown of Ezra's. Rubbing his chin against Ezra's skull, he let his mind and heart wander. So, could they stop anymore? So, could he stop anymore?

Contrary to popular belief, Ezra did not need to sleep for more than eight hours, and in fact, less was usually more than sufficient. He'd long ago learned to supplement nightly repose with timely dozes or naps taken in short, strategic bits. So now, having slept deeply in the afterglow of loving, he woke in the pre-dawn light. Waking was between two breaths, one asleep, then next awake and ready. Only Chris knew this well-kept secret. As far as the rest of the world, including the rest of the seven, was concerned, Ezra was slow to waken and dangerous for that. Not a bad perception, the conman knew.

Now, though, he woke. Chris' warm, strong arms surrounded him in a loose hold. Knowing Larabee, the man had stayed up, keeping watch. Time to let him get some much needed sleep, if he would. Ezra craned his neck and looked up into the quiet face of his lover. Larabee's face was smooth and calm, no signs of the usual tensions that kept a slight squint to the eyes or pressure at the line of the lips during their time in town or with others. I'm good for him, Ezra decided once again. He reassured himself of this often since Chris did not speak much, and never of the things that Ezra's heart yearned to hear. Ezra had to use all his talents as an adept observer to read his lover.

Chris had caught the movement and was looking down at him now, hazel eyes warm and soft. Ezra caught his breath at the sight of those beautiful eyes. "Good morning," he murmured, the last of the words nearly swallowed in the kiss that Chris pressed down on his parted lips. He responded by opening his own mouth and welcoming the probing tongue. Comforted by the feel and touch and taste of Chris, Ezra pushed up even closer to that talented mouth. A growl from Chris had Ezra sagging slightly, relinquishing control again. Letting Chris lead.

The moment was over all too soon as far as Ezra was concerned but he knew better than to argue, besides, he did want Chris to get some sleep. "I'll keep watch?" he offered as Larabee stretched now, arms long lean lines against the not quite ebony sky.

"Umm." Chris nodded and stroked Ezra's face briefly, then sank down into the muddle of blankets, snoring before Ezra had even fought free of the tangle. Trust. Standish felt good. He knew that Larabee would not let go like that for just anyone. Yet, here he was totally vulnerable and exposed, safe in the gambler's watchful protection. With a nod to himself, Ezra knelt up and then out of the blanket cocoon he'd been wrapped in. The cold morning air snapped him to further alertness.

Slipping away from his sleeping friend, he built up the fire and started some coffee. Chris would not sleep for long, just enough to take the edge off the long night. He'd sleep later in town, once he was sure that everything was alright there, had checked in with the other town's protectors. Ezra would have liked to hold Chris as he slept but had learned from experience that the man would only wake again and be unable to sleep. That disturbed the gambler yet he wasn't sure what was the cause of Larabee's restlessness, he only knew that if Chris was to get any sleep, it had to be alone. So, Ezra sat nearby, but not touching, eyes traveling the clearing and beyond, then ending, as always, back on the sleeping form at his side.

Three months. Ezra Standish mused. When Larabee had first approached him one night, on the trail, the gambler had been startled and fearful. The gunslinger was not very clear on what he wanted and it would only be much later that Ezra realized the man had been drunk. Seeking something in his stupor that he would not have sought sober. Comfort, human touch, safety. Since the gambler was not adverse to close male companionship, just hadn't had any in a long time, he'd quietly allowed the clinging man his place beside him. In the morning, Larabee had been sober and wordless. But he'd come back to Ezra's bedroll that next night too. Sober. They hadn't really done anything, just snuggle close. Ezra, accustomed to using words, had been silent, silent and accommodating. It had been just the two of them on a long trail ride to a distant town and back, four nights on the trail each way. It was the first night traveling back that Larabee's liquored state had broken their barrier.

And they hadn't talked about all this yet. Ezra was thoughtful as he eased the coffee pot back from the licking flames, letting it simmer now. Kind of like their standing with each other. Near the flames but not too close. This unlooked for link was quickly becoming an integral part of the conman's well-being. As strange as it was, their times together were now something he lived for. That gave him pause. Larabee had all the control in this simple, lustful partnership. He chose when and where and how much. He was in charge. It had never been discussed but Ezra was sensitive enough to realize that it was the only way it would happen. He kept his mouth shut and watched, answering the unspoken signals better even than their friend Vin could.

Mind still wandering down paths that were unclear, Ezra poked at the fire and tossed in a few sticks. He rolled his shoulders back and looked up into the fading night sky, stars still visible at the apex of the bowl of darkness. Control was important to him. Self-control was vital, drummed into him by his mother at an early age. Control of others was all part of his trade, whether conning others or simply guiding a game of cards. Yet, with this man, this one man, Ezra gave away all control. Well, not all. He still kept himself well in hand, knowing that anything else would be unwelcome.

So, here they were. Another little rendezvous done. If anyone else ever found out, he suspected it would end this tenuous relationship, dead in its tracks. That sent a sharp pain to his chest. Swallowing he wondered when things had come so far that he didn't think he could stop them. Ever. No, if this ever stopped, it wouldn't be him that did the stopping.

Josiah's bushy eyebrows lifted as he noticed the approaching riders. From his vantage on the pole-line of the church's roof, he could see far down the trails into their little town. What was a penance as he repaired the derelict building was also an opportunity to stand look-out as one of the seven protectors of the tiny hamlet of Four Corners. He recognized the dark, lean silhouette of their leader, the gunslinger Chris Larabee. A more stubborn, more brilliant leader he'd never met. By his side rode their odd man out, the gambler and conman, Ezra Standish. Josiah didn't stop to question himself as to why he automatically labeled the smaller man the odd one out. It was just the way it was.

Stopping to wipe the sweat from his forehead with a large calloused hand, Josiah sank back on his haunches and studied the riders. Chris rode as if he and Solon were one, the black shapes a single form melted into movement. Ezra, though, rode in a distinct and quite different fashion. Astride his mount, the temperamental gelding Chaucer, he rode as if posting in an equestrian parade, spine ramrod straight, shoulders wide and set back, chin nearly tucked under that flat black hat of his. The coat tails of his dapper ducktail jacket flipped and fluttered behind as he rose and fell with the rhythm of the gait. Little soldier, Josiah thought with mild admiration for the seat. Wonder where he picked up that style?

Solon was a tall horse, beautiful and strong, he would have suited a knight's ride in distant times, Josiah decided as he settled his hands on the roof shingles, hammer quiet. The black's head was high and steady, tail a waving banner, his hooves thudded down on the dry road bed, leaving little streams of dust behind. He and his rider were a matched pair. Quiet, potent, lethal.

Chaucer, the glossy chestnut, arched his neck proudly, mouthing the bit playfully, occasionally tossing his head with a wicked eye. His tail rose in a high plume just now, his front feet lifting just a bit higher than necessary. Likely done just to show off as they entered the town, not a gait he could sustain, Josiah grinned. If the rider gave any sign of this showy action on the part of his mount, Josiah couldn't detect it. But then again, Josiah had observed the gambler up close when they rode together, and the man had very quiet hands, rode as much with his body and his words, soft commands, often in another tongue, to his mount. Two of a kind, I guess, he thought as he imagined the rider and horse parading through some grand plantation or old city thoroughfare. That horse, makes me think of those Tennessee Walking Horses I saw that time back up near Kansas City in that circus. Now they really were high-steppers.

Josiah chuckled and raised a hand in greeting as the two riders, nearly abreast of his perch, both looked up in a synchronized movement that they could not have perfected if they'd practiced for days. Both men raised hands to hat brims in gestures of acknowledgement and continued on into the main street of the town.

Just as the duo passed his lookout, the riders split, Ezra heading for the stables at the livery, Chris continuing on down the middle of the street, probably headed for the jail and then the saloon. Nodding with satisfaction that all seven were once again safely back, Josiah lifted his hammer and once more struck at the slightly bent nail he was trying to re-use as he fastened weathered shingles onto the roof pole.

Vin observed the approaching riders from his spot outside the small jail, leaning back against the outside wall on a chair that was tilted on its two back legs. His slouch hat was pulled low against the morning sun but his bright blue eyes missed nothing from beneath the leather brim. A tiny smile quirked at his lips as he saw Chris Larabee riding slowly into town. Like he owns the place. With a flash of a grin, Vin thought, well, in a way, he does. Tanner spared a glance at the sight of the gambler splitting away, directing his contrary mount toward the stables. Poor Ez, out early again. Chris does drag his butt out at odd hours, leastways it seems to calm down the big shootist. Vin, eyes sharp on the still visible rider in black, let his mind trace back over that last thought.

Funny, in a way, he realized. Chris always is better after he takes off dragging old Ezra outta town for a while. Shame he takes it all out on the little con man, but better him than the rest o'them. No, that didn't seem jest right somehow. Vin squinted into the sun as Larabee got closer. Whenever Chris gets too riled up, too ornery, he snaps at everyone, starts to drinking and even Buck can't derail that train. Then he'll eye Ezra, who is always doing something wrong. At that Vin chuckled, the man must have more crooked bones in his body than straight ones. And, then -- then Chris'll say something and Ezra, he'll quiet right down, or stop whatever he's doin' and foller Chris out on some usually unnecessary patrol. And the town will be peaceful again. Pondering this, Vin tipped his hat back to look up into Larabee's frown as the man pulled up his mount in front of the jail.




"Nothin' we couldn't handle."

Larabee nodded once, hazel eyes meeting sky blue ones, assurances passing more clearly than the words. "Gonna have a drink and some grub at the saloon."

Vin let his hat fall back down with a slow smile of acknowledgment as Larabee pulled Solon around and they plodded over toward the hitch rail to the saloon. By the time the dark rider had dismounted, a young boy from the stable was at his side, panting. He tossed the reins to the youth with a nod and slowly climbed the boardwalk steps up to the batwing doors of the small saloon.

Vin watched the boy, little Ben, tug Solon toward the stable. Ezra musta sent him, Tanner smiled. Yep, this was Larabee's town alright. And he probably doesn't even know it. Thoughts of Ezra Standish brought him back to his pondering. He settled deeper into the rickety chair and slid his gaze up and down the street once more, lazily thinking about the man who puzzled them the most among the seven. Man can say more o' nothing with bigger words than anyone Tanner had ever met. He'd risk more in a fight than the others, too, almost as if he didn't really care none about his own health. Vin shook his head. Manages to rile up ol'Chris a lot too, between what he says, what he does, and jest plain being him.

Josiah said onct that Ezra'd reminded him of a peacock. Now Josiah'd had to explain what that was to Vin but it had sounded like a real purty bird, showin' off them fancy feathers. He'd seen some on a lady's hat one time, recognized 'em from Josiah's description. Yep, Ezra was like that bird, all fancy and colorful. Cain't miss him in a crowd, might be part o'what bothers Chris. Ain't that safe to be that noticeable, even if he was that way to attract folks to his gamin' table. Kinda like putting bait in a trap, his way of thinking. Vin shrugged. Leastways he wasn't coming back looking bloody or bruised from this trip out with Chris. That was good. With that thought, Vin returned to observing the town.

Buck clumped down the inside saloon stairs with energy, tossing a grin over his shoulder at Miss Millie who was leaning over the balcony rail, slightly disheveled and smiling at him. He touched his hat brim to her, "Thank you, Miss Millie, I'll be seeing you later."

"Sure thing, Buck." The laughter in the working girl's voice was clear.

Buck spun around and continued his bounce down to the upper platform of the saloon. Here he came to a stop at the center table, empty at the moment but filled in his imagination with poker players, Ezra Standish presiding with that wicked sense of humor and cheerful disposition. Wonder how Ez is doing, out with Chris on patrol again? The grin on his face faded a bit as he gently laid hands on the chair's back rung of the gambler's seat. That boy could try the patience of a saint sometimes, and Chris was no saint. Buck was grateful to no longer be the target for his old friend's angry outbursts, but sometimes he cringed a bit inside when Chris got a hair across his ass and tore into the hapless gambler. Naw, Buck grinned, Ezra ain't no helpless babe, that was for sure.

He still remembered that first glimpse they'd had of the conman right here in this saloon, facing off some big angry cowhands. Done it on his own, too. Just like always. Buck sighed, he'd like to think it had changed now but the reb was a stubborn cuss, independent as hell. Still doing it his way, often as not, despite the rest of the seven. Patting the wooden chair rung, he moved on, striding down to the main floor of the saloon, noting the few early patrons and the bar maid, Inez, serving a platter of what looked like eggs and bacon to one knot of dusty looking cowboys.

"Hey, there, senorita! How 'bout getting old Buck here a breakfast like that one?"

The Mexican woman looked up with a flash of a smile at the bantering tone from the ladies man. She tossed her head but nodded silently. Before she could turn away though, a second voice added to the order.

"Make it the same for me, Inez." Inez nodded again and swished away.

Buck's head snapped around and a grin grew big on his face, curving his mustache up in a devilish manner. "Chris! You're back! Everything ok?"

Larabee nodded, his hat dropping a shadow down over his face but not before Buck saw the small smile. Yep, Chris was ok. So, that meant, so was Ezra probably. Buck didn't ask though. He just moved to join the black clad gunman at their regular back table. Both looked down on their young sheriff who sat there wolfing down his breakfast with gusto. As Chris settled to one side and Buck to the other, JD Dunne gulped down his mouthful of food and grinned at them, turning to face first one, then the other of his friends. A ring of milk circled his mouth. "Chris! Buck!"

"JD." Chris sat down and slumped back away from the table, surveying the room from beneath his hat brim.

"Hey there, little brother," Buck shoved the younger man in the nearest shoulder causing his mug of milk, just raised toward his lips to slosh down his shirt front.

"Buck! Cut that out!" JD thumped the mug down, causing further sloshing as he hastily brushed at the mess on his clothing.

"You need to improve your reflexes, kid, otherwise how you ever gonna pull down a gun like Chris here?"

"Indeed," interrupted the cultured voice of their resident gambler, "reflexes are everything in the game of life." He continued his quiet entry into the main saloon, his arrival at the doors of the room having gone unnoticed by Buck and JD, but noted without comment by the dark gunslinger.

"Hey, Ez, old pard, see you and Chris got back in one piece."

"Was there any doubt, Mr. Wilmington?" Ezra brushed at his dark burgundy jacket and raised a questioning eyebrow. The twinkle in his eyes was message enough to Buck that all was well.

"Naw, just didn't want Chris here to chew you up and spit you out in itty bitty pieces, pard."

Larabee stirred, leaning forward, his movement stopping the teasing conversation. "That's enough, Buck."

Buck eyed his old friend but refrained from further comment, a thoughtful look on his face. JD looked up with wide eyes, mouth half-open. Then Inez was there, setting platters down in front of Larabee and Wilmington, and posing a question for the gambler. "Senor Standish? Some breakfast?"

"Ah, Senorita Recillios, no, thank you. Some coffee would be most welcome, however." He ignored the grunts from JD and Buck and the silent glare sent his way from their leader. Breakfast was not a meal he partook of, ever.

Pulling out a chair, he sat down, careful as always to have a good angle of the room in the bar's mirror. Chris watched silently before picking up a fork and joining JD and Buck in eating. Standish let his eyes wander the part of the room he could see and check the mirror for the rest of the establishment's patrons, a deck of cards materializing in his hands to dance between them.

JD grinned, wiping his mouth now and shoving away his empty plate. "Ezra, you ever go anywhere without those cards?"

For a moment, the conman looked startled, then smiled slyly and let his eyes drift down to trace the cards' dance for a moment before looking back up at the young sheriff. "Mr. Dunne, they are after all my trade."

"But you're one of us now," the youngster continued earnestly, elbows now crowding the table as his hands circled his sweating mug. "You're a peace-keeper."

Buck nearly choked on his mouthful of hash browns and glinted a look over at his old friend. Chris had a smirk as he raised his coffee cup to his lips. Ezra simply smiled more widely and tipped forward to drop his cards to the table as he accepted his coffee from Inez who had appeared at his elbow. "Thank you, my dear." Raising his cup in a half-toast, the gambler smiled at Dunne. "And, thank you, Mr. Dunne for thinking of me in that light, but a leopard can not change its spots so easily as I'm sure Misters Wilmington and Larabee will confirm. I am a scoundrel first and foremost, a reluctant member of this little band as a distant second."

No one spoke after that. Larabee remained quiet, eating slowly and studying the conman without directly staring. Buck picked up on his old friend's mood and remained quiet except for an occasional tease thrown at their youngest. JD seemed unaware of any undercurrents at the table, just happy to be among his heroes. And Ezra Standish sat in rare silence, simply enjoying the companionship of the others.

Folding his cravat carefully on the dresser, Ezra smoothed away a wrinkle and stared thoughtfully out his room's front window. The street below was dark except for the glows of the street fires that were dying down now. He'd put in a late night at the table, playing poker with some salesmen who'd arrived on the afternoon stage. The men were eager to part with their profits it had seemed. He'd made sure that he did not empty their pockets, though. With a wry look at his own small quarters, he wondered why he'd bothered. But he knew. It was that pair of hazel eyes gleaming in the darkened corner of the saloon. He couldn't fail them. Couldn't disappoint them, not ever again.

Squaring his shoulders, he did an about face and moved toward his closet where he hung up his shirt and trousers and suit jacket. His boots he set upon a small stool, and decided they could wait until the morning for a good buffing. In a nightshirt, he stood to blow out the lamp near the window, nearly missing the movement down below. Cursing his momentary blindness from the light, he squeezed his eyes shut fiercely and groped for his Remington, holster hung over one of the spindle tops of his rocking chair. With pistol in hand, he leaned close over the window ledge and peered out into the dark, toward where memory said an alien movement had been.

Nothing. No movement, no untoward sounds. Ezra hesitated, but no, he had not imagined that. Shifting slightly to retain balance, he stuck a foot out over the window's edge and onto the porch roof. Straddling the ledge, he quickly brought his other leg out to join the first and quietly slid down onto the slippery shingles. Barefoot made it easy to keep his position as he crouched there overlooking the quiet street and neighboring alleyways.

There. Again, and this time he didn't lose sight of the drifting shadow, no shadows. More than one. Heading down the alley across the street. Soundless. Men, though, he could tell by the height and breadth of the shadows. Not his compatriots. They had no reason to sneak about like thieves in the night. Which meant, he thought with a sigh, that these were thieves in the night. Damn. No time to snatch appropriate wearing apparel. If he shouted, he'd only make a very nice target of himself.

With a muttered further curse, he crab-walked to the edge of the porch roof and gripped the gutter with one hand, his other hand full of pistol and nowhere else to put the thing. Very well, time to do it. Gritting his teeth, he sprung clear, using his momentum and his grip to leverage an adequate somersault to the earth. Gasping, he staggered erect and half stumbled toward the alley, following the shapes that were fading as he watched.

"Ezra! What the hell do you think you're doing?" Chris' voice cut through the night air like a knife, low and gruff, angry.

Whirling, relief washing the tension from his stance, Ezra spotted the tall gunman standing poised in shock at the batwings of the dark saloon. Must have just been coming out, he thought. "Men, don't know how many," he answered breathlessly, "down beside the Mercantile, in the alley."

Chris tore his eyes from the nearly naked sight of his lover in the middle of the main street of town and flicked a quick look in the direction of the alley. "Nothing to see now."

"They were there, Chris!" Ezra's voice was pitched low. "That direction will put them behind the bank."

Stepping clear of the doors and onto the boardwalk, Larabee touched his gun briefly, then looked down at Standish. "Ezra, go get Buck, he's at the jail on night shift. Wake Vin, he's in his wagon."

"Chris, there may not be enough time."

"Just do it. You are not going anywhere near those men like that."

Ezra stopped and frowned. "Like what?"

"Half-naked." Chris answered impatiently, already striding past the smaller man, moving silently toward the mouth of the alley, gun now drawn. He didn't spare a glance at his friend or he might have seen the look of shock on the gambler's face.

A look that melted into confusion and, then seeing where Larabee was headed, fear. With quick darting movements, the conman spun about and ran toward the jail, hissing for Buck as loudly as he dared.

Wilmington stood up from his seat in front of the empty jail, seeing the white apparition floating toward him. Damn, looks like a ghost. Then Ezra Standish was there panting in front of him, in nothing but a white nightshirt. "The bank! Chris is after some robbers, they've gone around the back -- he's alone."

"Got it, Pard." Buck took off at a dead run.

Ezra sucked in his wind and reversed course, making it to the side of Vin's wagon in only seconds. "Vin! Vin!" His quiet cry as he nearly collapsed against the tailgate was met with the quiet click of a trigger. "It's me, Ezra!"

"Ez?" The tracker was in long johns and his trousers, peering out over the barrel of his sawed-off rifle.

"Robbers -- bank -- Chris and Buck!" By now breathless, Ezra delivered his message in hurried pants.

Vin nodded and swung over the tailgate, landing on the ground in moccasined-feet and took off down the back of his alley. Ezra tried to follow but found bare feet were not the wisest way to traverse the small town's rutted streets. Shivering in his single long shirt, he trotted after Vin, trying to ignore the increasing pain in his feet.

Ahead of him he saw a flash and then a loud bang followed. Gunshots rang out, snapping and popping. He raised his weapon and continued, Chris was out there, and Vin and Buck.

Larabee was furious with the gambler. He stalked the street, ready to wreck havoc on the bank robbers but wanting to go back and spank the damn man for wandering around the street in nightclothes. Bad enough when he walked down the main street in broad daylight in nothing but a tablecloth, his hat and his boots! And that had been before Larabee had staked his claim. Despite the urgency of the moment, Chris came to a screeching halt. My claim? Then he heard the unmistakable sounds of a door being forced. His mind went blank and then he was focused on the night's darkness ahead of him.

Whispering and the sound of more breaking wood. Then the muffled clatter of the door springing open and hitting back against the outside wall before it was caught. Just as he reached the edge of the building, Buck skidded to a stop at his side. "Howdy, Pard," the ladies man muttered, asking, "How you want to handle this?"

"I'll go high."

Buck nodded. "Got low, then."

The two friends didn't wait, striding forward in tandem, as Chris called out, "You in the bank, come out now."

There was a loud bang and flash of light from within the bank, nearly blinding the two lawmen who ducked down and to the sides as the night erupted in gunfire.

The crack of Vin's rifle was coming from the side and Buck and Chris exchanged wolf-like grins. Moving up, behind cover now, they continued a steady barrage of fire.

Ezra had reached the back of the bank and could see the gun battle blazing. What they needed was a flank attack. He was still unknown to the bandits, so who better to do the attack? Keeping his Remington cocked and ready, he made his way along the side of the bank building and around to the front. There was as yet no one there, though he could see lights now from Nathan's clinic and Josiah's church, the men had heard the shooting and would be making their way here soon. But, he didn't think he should wait. Not while Chris and the others were trapped in a lethal battle.

Taking up a random horseshoe nail from the ground, not hard to find at the moment with his feet still bare and now a bit ragged from pebbles and other small bits of refuse, he made his way to the front door and quickly picked the lock. Small bloody footprints were silent mementoes of his passing. In silence, he crept into the building, gun held ready.

Inside, the bank was a shambles. The robbers had evidently decided to blowup the vault but hadn't realized just how thick the doors to that vault were. The safe stood solid and locked amidst shattered bits of wooden furniture and cabinetry. At least four large men were milling around arguing angrily, while another stood hunched over by the back doorway, shooting randomly into the night.

Ezra straightened and held up his gun, arm out in front. "Gentlemen, and I do use the term loosely, please cease and desist. Lower your weapons, now."

This might have been effective if he hadn't been standing there in his nightshirt. As it was, the men turned and looked at him in stark disbelief for a moment. Grins cracked faces that moments before had been shadowed with angry worry. "Oh, gosh, you think this here is the law, Shelby?" one of the ruffians asked loudly.

"Mighty small fer a lawman, but he shore do dress up pretty." The men were spreading out now, fanning out in front of the gambler who swung his pistol from side to side, backing up slightly.

"No more movement please, or I shall be forced to shoot." Ezra imbued his voice with as much determination and force as he could. It was effective for a moment as the men froze, but then the fates laughed at him. Ezra's shifting foot came down on a ragged splinter in the mess of bombed out wood. Even though he drew in a deep painful breath and tried to keep his hand steady, his balance was thrown and eyes watered.

It was enough to allow the men to rush him. He shot rapidly, knowing he'd hit at least one, maybe two of the miscreants before he was thrown painfully to the floor beneath a heavy body. He felt the rough debris scrape his legs and face, even his hands. His gun was wrested from him and then he was dragged back to his feet, one arm held tightly behind him, forced up his back. With a grunt, he was lifted nearly off his feet as the angry robber behind him shoved him forward.

"Let's go, he'll be our ticket outta here." The hoarse voice behind him was evidently the boss.

"What about the others?" a rough looking bald man asked bluntly.

"Leave them."

Half-dragging, half-shoving the small gambler in front of them, the two remaining outlaws reached the side of the younger looking redheaded ruffian who'd been holding off the law with his shooting from the back door. "Alright, Hank, let up," The boss directed and then nearly tossed Ezra into the doorframe. The southerner wobbled on his raw feet, his back arched up in pain from the force of the restraining hold on his arm. He knew he'd been bruised a bit in the fall when they'd grabbed him and that now he had several small cuts on his exposed legs and face. He must look a mess. It was damn embarrassing.

"You out there, we got a hostage. Let us go and we'll free him outside a town. The safe didn't open, we ain't got none of the money. Jest let us go."

There was silence for a moment, then Ezra heard Buck's voice. "Chris, no!"

In the sudden silence as the robbers stopped shooting, both Chris and Buck held their fire as well, waiting to see if the fools had come to their senses and would surrender. Larabee glanced over to the side where Vin had been shooting, saw his brief signal and nodded, more a lifting of the head than anything. It was enough for the tracker who slipped away, heading around the front of the bank, hoping to force his way into the front of the bank and catch the outlaws by surprise.

Chris trusted Vin to do the job and waited stoically for the outlaws' next move. A shock rippled through him when he saw Ezra forcibly shoved into the empty doorway, looking battered and held up by a large ugly man who seemed like a giant behind the small gambler. There was a gun held hard against Ezra's head, pressing his jaw up and to the side. The man holding Ezra shouted.

"You out there, we got a hostage. Let us go and we'll free him outside a town. The safe didn't open, we ain't got none of the money. Jest let us go."

Chris stood up. Gawd damn man couldn't follow a simple order if you tacked it to his forehead. He lifted his revolver and straightened his shooting arm, squinting along the barrel of his gun. There was a roaring in his ears now, remotely he realized it was his own blood rushing through his veins, thundering now in his absolute rage. A veil of red seemed to wash across his sight as he paced forward toward the creature that held Ezra. Distantly he heard Buck shout his name but his focus was tightly controlled now, aimed at the center of the creature's face, between the eyes.

He shot. Once. The shot was soundless. Blood blossomed on the man's face, the head exploded outward. Ezra was splattered with blood. Ezra fell with the other. Bloody. Ezra.

Chris ignored Buck who was bellowing some rot in the background now and paced forward, gun still raised, looking for the next target. There was another shot, somewhere inside the bank. He recognized the sound of Vin's weapon. Someone was screaming not to shoot. Chris kept going, his pistol never wavering. He was standing over Ezra now, looking for a new target, but there was no one else in front of him. Vin. Vin was standing to the side, securing a red-haired man who was on his knees behind the door, sobbing brokenly. A bald man lay beyond them, clearly dead. Facing toward the front of the bank. Vin must have come in. Chris shook his head to clear it, the rushing sound gradually diminishing. He lowered his gun.

"Dammit, Chris, you coulda got yore fool self kilt doing that!" Buck scolded as he bounded up beside his old partner. Wilmington didn't seem to notice the trance-like state that Larabee was only now coming out of. Tanner, though, Tanner was staring boldly at his friend, a watchful look in his eyes.

"Ah, gentlemen? If someone could assist me in disentangling myself from this miscreant? It would be most appreciated." There was a tremor in the voice, even though the words were calmly spoken.

Larabee shifted to look down now that he heard Ezra's plaintive voice, still alive. It sang in his blood. Chris leaned against the doorjamb and simply looked down at the gambler who was struggling to free himself from the heavy arm of the dead man beneath him. One side of Ezra's face was covered in gore and he was trying to wipe that away at the same time. As Chris watched, those telling green eyes looked up and met his. The green eyes wide and shocky. And then life started again and Chris was furious.

In an incredibly fast motion, he had holstered his pistol and grabbed the front of the gambler's nightshirt, dragging the man up and onto his feet. Shirt bunched in his fist, he brought Ezra's face up close to his own and started to yell. "You damn fool! I told you to go for help and then STAY OUT OF IT!" He began to shake the man, "Damn it, Standish, when are you going to follow orders? You fuckin' poor excuse for a --"

"CHRIS!" Buck was there, arm somehow across his throat, pulling him back, restraining him, shouting in his ear. "CHRIS! STOP IT!"

The red faded away. Chris felt himself begin to tremble and knew that shakes would follow if he gave into his body. He shut up and looked, really looked at the man hanging from his fisted grip. Ezra was staring at him, silent. Huge green eyes seemed to fill his face, the face itself smeared with blood. "Ezra?"

Buck's arm left his throat and he felt a strong hand on his shoulder. "Pard, let him down so we can help him."

Chris shook his head and let go. What was he doing?

Unfortunately, Ezra's feet chose that moment to let him know that they were in no condition to support him any longer. Dropped from Larabee's grasp, he landed hard on said feet and the instant agony was enough to nearly black him out. As it was, he cried out in pain and crumbled to the ground. "Ow! Ow! Ow! Shit, damn it all!" Angry at himself, confused at Larabee's anger and still stunned from the impact of a dead man's head exploding against his face, Standish half-sat, half-lay on the ground, muttering curses and clutching his ankles, unable to care any longer about appearances.

Chris blinked and looked down at the gambler, curled up at his feet. He was hurt. "Buck, get Nathan, then help Vin. Vin, take that crap to the jail, lock him up. Get Josiah and JD to help clean up back here." He stooped down beside Ezra, not even bothering to look at the others. "Easy, Ez." He could see the lacerated feet now and realized what was the trouble. In a smooth motion, he slid his arms under Ezra's knees and around his back, lifted.

"Mr. Larabee!"

"Shut up, Ezra."

Swinging about, the smaller man held up in his arms, Larabee stalked toward the alley and main street beyond.

"Do you intend to carry me all the way to Nathan's clinic?"

"Shut UP, Ezra. Yes, I do."


Josiah and Nathan burst into the alley at this point, partially dressed in hastily snatched pants and boots, both held guns at the ready.

"Chris? Is Ezra hurt bad?" Nathan moved close, Josiah pressing behind him.

"His feet, I'm bringing him up to your place."

"Feet?" Nathan circled round to look and grimaced at the sight of the torn flesh. "I'll go ahead and get things ready, lessen you need me here?"

Larabee had not stopped walking, drawing the other two along with him by sheer force of character. "Nope. You go ahead." Turning his head slightly, the blonde spoke to Sanchez. "Josiah, Vin could use your help at the back of the bank."

JD appeared at the head of the alley, desperately blinking back sleep, guns in hands. Sanchez intercepted him with a long arm, swinging him clear of Larabee and Nathan. "Come on, JD, you can help too."

As Chris followed Nathan out into the street he could hear JD's bewildered, "Is it over, then?" and a rumble that had to be Sanchez answering him.

Alone now as Nathan disappeared up the stairs of the clinic at a run, Larabee looked back down at his burden. Only to find Ezra quietly staring up at him, head resting on his shoulder, cocked at an angle that was more curiosity than pain.


"Oh, I'm allowed to talk now?"

"Shut up, Ezra."

Chris hitched his armful higher, conscious of the bare skin of thighs beneath his right hand. That somehow irritated him again and his anger began to build, again. "You could have put on some pants at least."

"There was no time."

"It was just a bank, Ez, you coulda made time," he said flatly, reaching the foot of the stairs up to the clinic.

"I didn't know that then, did I?"

With a sigh that Ezra could surely feel, Chris conceded defeat. "Nope, guess not." Then he was climbing the stairs and Nathan was waiting at the top.

"You want help with him, Chris?" Nathan stood ready to assist, but backed away as Larabee kept coming.

"Naw, he's not heavy. Where do you want him?" The blonde gripped the smaller man tightly, ignoring a squeak as he sidled through the clinic door.

"Right here on the bed, set him down so his feet hang over." Nathan had pulled back the covers and already had a large basin on the floor. He moved to the stove and started it up, intent on heating water. "Ezra? You okay for a moment?"

The conman had to catch his breath at his sudden change in position as he found himself on the clinic bed, still in Larabee's arms, in Larabee's lap. "Ah, yes." Then quietly, "Chris! He meant to put me on the bed! The mattress, Chris, the mattress!"

Chris simply sat there, holding tight and shifting the man in his arms into a more comfortable position, legs dangling over his own. "I got you."

"Yes, I know, but --"


"Yes, yes, shut up, I know."

Nathan, who'd been busy at the stove turned now and raised his eyebrows at the sight of the dark gunslinger sitting there holding their fellow peacekeeper in his lap. "Um, that'll work, I guess." He blinked and then shrugged. Not his business. "Now, let's see about cleaning up those feet of yours."

Ezra squirmed again. Chris held tighter, and Ezra squirmed, again. "Dammit, Ezra, sit still."

"Mr. Larabee, you have rather long legs."


Ezra sighed. "So, mine don't fit over them too well for what Nathan is trying to do. If you could see clear to letting me sit on the bed?"

Chris gripped hard on Ezra's waist, where he had been holding onto the wiggling gambler and finally grimaced in agreement. He obviously knew that it made sense, even if he seemed very reluctant to let go. The fact that Nathan saw him holding Standish like this hadn't even penetrated yet, that was easy for Ezra to see. The conman stole a glance down at Nathan who was kneeling on the floor, bathing his feet. With daring that he hadn't known he possessed, Ezra reached up one hand and stroked along Chris' strong jaw line. Very quietly he murmured, "Chris, it's ok. I really am fine. You need to let me go."

Hazel eyes met green ones and began to clear, then widen. "Oh, shit."

Chris shifted to the side suddenly, sliding Ezra on to the mattress none too gently.

Nathan looked up in surprise as Standish's feet dropped lower into his hands without warning. If he noted that Larabee had finally released the conman, he didn't comment. Instead he held the slim ankles and asked, "Ezra, you holding up ok?"

"Oh, yes, Mr. Jackson, just fine." Ezra found that without the comfort of Chris surrounding him, the pain in his feet was now announcing itself with vicious thoroughness, or maybe it was just the alcohol that Nathan was using to now clean out the raw flesh.

"Got a couple of mean lookin' splinters in there, Ezra, you want to hold on to something while I pull them out?" His big gentle hands continued to pluck the debris from the soles of Standish's feet. Man had no sense at all, running around barefoot in the dark, in those back alleys and then in that bombed out bank. He needed to see better. "How 'bout we get you on your stomach? You can hang your feet off the end of the bed and I can get a better look at what's got to be done."

The gambler nodded amiably and twisted up and around on the bed, watching as Larabee rose to his feet to get out of the way. "Nathan? He gonna be alright?"

Jackson was up now as well, easing Standish's legs into position and guiding his feet off the edge of the bedding. "Oh, yeah, won't be doin' much walking for a bit. Probably not be able to put on boots for a few days. But he'll heal."

Ezra remained silent, already thinking about how he was going to manage with this unexpected handicap. Well, only a few days. He'd do it. Somehow. He always managed.

Chris' hand came down on the back of his neck, warm and large, flexing against the tendons, curling in the nape hairs. "We'll see that you get help, Ezra."

Ezra tensed, not wanting to relinquish himself to others, to depend upon others. He tipped his head to the side to look up at Larabee. Chris had come to squat at his side and met his eyes straight on. He'd felt Ezra's new tension through his hand but hadn't released him. If anything, he was massaging the muscles there now. Ezra opened his mouth to say -- something when a sharp pain ran up one foot, leg, and into the center of his system. Grunting in an effort not to scream, he closed his eyes and grabbed the edges of the mattress, straining. More pain followed, sharp, biting, agonizing. Through it all, a warm hand stayed on his neck, comforting him, a second hand now stroking his hair and quiet words, that he could not understand through the over-worked pitching nerves, washed over him.

"Bottom of the feet can be down right sensitive," Nathan commented as he drew out a two inch splinter that had pierced the heel at an angle. "Nasty." Dropping the wicked bit of wood into the bowl below Ezra's feet, he squeezed more alcohol over the newly cleared puncture. The jerking in the feet had eased to a continuous tremble, too much pain he figured. Seen it before, in bad cases of shrapnel, too much for the body 'n' brain to handle. "There now. That's it, far as I can see."

Chris looked over his shoulder at Nathan, raising one brow in question. Nathan nodded, "Just got to put on some poultices to draw out any infection, then bind them up for a while. I'll change everything in about four, five hours. See if anything's getting mean looking then."

Jackson climbed to his feet wearily. He'd been roused out of bed in the middle of the night and was not really as rested as he needed to be. "Ezra, you just try to get some sleep now. I got some tea I had simmering, will help with the pain, if you like?"

Chris turned his attention back down at Standish, pushing his head gently to the side, drawing one hand up through the tousled hair. "Ez?"

Ezra almost smiled at the touch and sound of the man, but his body was still trembling from reaction to what had seemed like endless torture. "What?"

"How about some of Nate's painkiller tea?"

The gambler's face screwed up in distaste, but he nodded. Chris looked back up at Jackson. "He'll drink some. Just give it to me, then you go get some sleep."

Without looking back toward the clinic's door, Larabee raised his voice slightly. "Ezra's gonna be fine, Nate said so. Just needs some rest. So do the rest of you, now scat."

There was a moment more of silence and then several sounds of relieved laughter. Buck's voice soared over the rest of the men who had quietly gathered just inside the doorway to see how their fallen was faring. "How 'bout you, hoss? You need some rest too. One of us can --"

He got no further as Larabee interrupted. "Buck, take the rest and clear out. Once Ezra's settled down, I'll get some shut eye here."

There was a bit of murmuring and Chris clearly heard Vin say, "Buck, it's his place to --" and then the men were shuffling out, JD's higher pitched voice a counterpoint to Josiah's rumble and a drifting laugh from Buck.

Nathan bent down and handed Chris the cup of herbal tea for Ezra. "Try to get him to drink all of it." Standing back up, he stretched his spine and yawned mightily. "Call me if you need anything, I'll be in the next room."

And with that, the healer was gone and Chris and Ezra were alone.

Chris studied Ezra's form sprawled out on the clinic bed, still only covered in his nightshirt. Be hard to swallow Nate's tea like this. Squinting down at the now thoroughly wrapped feet he decided to risk shifting Ezra onto his back and then a sitting position. "Here you go, Ezra, just turn over real slow." With hands at shoulder and hip, he more or less did the moving for the pain-exhausted gambler.

Chris lifted Standish's shoulders now and slid under, so that he could support the southerner as he fed him the tea. The smaller man was still shaking badly, minute tremors that raced through his body, reaction from the agony of Nathan's thorough cleaning of the ruptured flesh. "Easy does it." Chris' arms came up to accustomed positions around his friend and he pulled him slightly closer, rubbing his cheek in the dark auburn hair. So far, the gambler had not spoken but had moved a bit, trying to cooperate with Larabee's manipulations. Chris brought the cup up to Ezra's lips. "Now, drink this, nice and slow."

Ezra took one taste and had second thoughts, turning his head and making a face, then tucking his head into Chris' shoulder. "Ez? Ez, you need to drink this. Now."

The sound of a direct order from Chris Larabee would have many a man shaking in his boots, but Ezra simply sighed and slowly, reluctantly complied. He liked the feel of Chris around him again, it was comforting and unlooked for. They'd never done anything like this in town before. He tried to raise his eyes to see Chris' face but it felt as if someone had put heavy weights on his eyelids and after the barest, blurriest of glimpses, his head dropped down and his eyes fell shut.

"Erza?" Chris spoke quietly, just to make sure but when there was no answer, he knew that the gambler had fallen asleep. The trembling had stopped. Chris swallowed and wrapped both arms tighter around his armful. Leaning back on the headboard of the bed, he let his hands play over the southerner's compact form. Feeling the chill setting in on the exposed skin, he long-arm reached for a blanket and pulled it up over Ezra. Weren't we just doing this, Ez? He smiled crookedly and relaxed. Just last night out in the desert.

Sitting in the clinic, Chris' thoughts wandered back to the question he'd asked himself out on the desert. Would he stop this? Could he stop this? Somehow, after all that had happened this night, those questions didn't even seem to have any relevance.

In a flash of insight, Chris realized that he would have killed anyone standing between him and Ezra, killed anyone who was hurting Ezra, and done it without compunction. Sure, he'd rescue or protect any of the seven, but not like tonight, not like what he'd done tonight. There'd been no question in his mind, only focus. Even now, he tensed in recollection of that moment when the bank robber had shown at the door of bank with Ezra bloody and hurt in his hands, gun to Ezra's head. All questions were answered then. Nothing, no one else mattered.

Chris Larabee sucked in his breath painfully as the clarity of the thought, the absolute conviction of the thought rang through him. He felt as if his heart was being squeezed it was so painful. Why did it hurt so much? A soft, sleepy groan made him look down and realized he'd been clenching Ezra unconsciously. Carefully relaxing his hands and loosening his hold let the man in his arms slump down against him, with a unintelligible murmur. "Sleep, Ezra, I've got you." He ran fingers stiffly through the errant hair and then stroked it gently into place again, feeling Ezra nuzzle up towards the touch. Smiling, Chris bent down and placed a kiss on the sweaty head.

"Like that, huh, cowboy?" Vin stood in the doorway, slouching against the doorjamb. At the silent glare from the gunslinger across the room, he stepped in silently and stood looking down at the two men on the bed. "He's good for you."

Larabee closed his eyes and fought down momentary panic, then looked up into accepting blue eyes. Suddenly, it didn't matter that what they had wasn't secret anymore. Maybe it really never had, at least not where his friends were concerned. "Yeah. Very good." And saying that made it so, he found. Yes, Ezra was very good for him. Very precious to him.

"He know that?"


"You tell Ez that yet?"

"Hell, Vin, we been together three months now."

Tanner sat down on Nathan's rocker and began to rock slowly, using his scruffy mocs to heel-toe the rock. "You lost it tonight, cowboy."

Larabee didn't try to deny Tanner's statement, it was true. He had lost control, might have really made a mess of things. Even now he could almost hear Buck's cry and later shouted reprimand. Damn, Buck mighta followed him out there, gotten hurt because he wasn't thinking straight. Because of Ezra.

Vin Tanner watched quietly as his friend's face and eyes told him what he was thinking. Saw when Chris looked down at Standish with a look that made Tanner regret his remark. "Larabee, don't go there. It weren't Ezra's fault."

But the dark clad gunslinger had gone past that already and was only blaming himself. My fault for letting him in, for letting him mean something to me. Too much to me, for me to care that much is dangerous. I can't. "No, not his fault. Mine." Chris met Tanner's eyes and Vin saw the guilt and pain.

"You need to figure out what you two want, then settle in. It'll be alright onct you know. Right now, I can tell you're still not hard on this. Not set."

"No. Not set." Chris hugged the smaller man to him again and then worked his way out from under Erza's limp form. Gently he laid him back down against the pillows, ignoring a muffled mutter of protest. Standing up and staring down at the sleeping form, he mulled over his options. None looked too promising and he really hadn't promised Ezra anything. Ever. Can't afford to get him hurt, nor anyone else either. Better to stop this now. Biting his lip and lowering his chin to his chest, Chris Larabee felt like his newly warmed heart had just frozen and shattered. Stop this now.

"Cowboy?" Vin was worried now. Something in the way Larabee was standing there, back to him, looking down on the sleeping gambler, had him worried.

"Thanks, Vin, for setting me straight." Chris' face was pale as he turned on his heel and started out the door, totally unaware of the tears that were drawing a line through the grit down one cheek. "Watch him 'til Nate gets back, will you?"

And with that, he was gone.

Ezra was slowly going crazy he decided. Confined to Nathan's clinic bed with sore feet, for goodness sake! The trouble was, they really were sore, painfully so. He'd made an effort to try to get out and nearly fainted from the pain. He still could not figure out how he'd managed to walk and run as far as he had that night three days ago. And I didn't even feel anything then. He shook his head at the memory. It changed nothing. His feet were healing and Nathan assured him that he should be able to bear weight on them by tomorrow, if he was careful. Since all he desired at this point was to vacate these premises in favor of his own, and perhaps the poker table, after all one didn't need one's feet to play poker, then he'd be a happy man.

The others had stopped by often, regaling him with tales of their daring-do in various altercations about town or out on patrol. Josiah had regularly spelled Nathan the first two days, changing the poultices on his feet until they were sure there would be no infection. And he was grateful, really, he was. But he felt caged in, under constant observation and there was nothing wrong with the rest of him. Well, nothing important. Scratches, bruises, all minor and healing well. Only a few stitches needed here and there, really nothing at all.

Ezra fingered the thin burlap that made do as a curtain on the window overlooking the main street of town. He could actually see, if he tilted his head and peered just so, the jail house. JD was sitting there at the moment and Buck was standing in front of him, gesticulating rather wildly, but grinning, no doubt relaying some exaggerated tale of manly overachievement. There was Vin, leaning against a post by the saloon, just watching the town folk move about their business.

Ezra dropped the curtain and sat back with a grunt. Josiah had brought over one of Ezra's volumes of poetry so that he could read, pass the time. How to explain that that is not what poetry was for? Ezra shrugged. He picked up the narrow volume and fingered the bit of ribbon he'd inserted, one of the shorter sonnets that he especially enjoyed. He could recite it without looking but there was something so soul-seducing about seeing the printed page sing the words, shape them to life with rich textual delight. He sighed, it was probably an aberration of his to think such flights of fancy, he would never share the notion with any in this hamlet. Mr. Tanner was a talented poet but did not share the love of the printed page that he had. Mrs. Travis, now there was someone who knew about printed pages, but he had a feeling that she viewed print in a very prosaic fashion, just a tool to carry her messages. He separated his hands and let the book fall open to the anticipated page. Drank in the images and words, hearing them with his mind's ear. Lost in the mystery of this effect he did not hear the healer's entrance.

"Ezra? Everything alright?" Nathan hung his hat on a peg by the door and dusted off his hands as he walked over. Standish could see the fatigue in the tall man who seemed to plod with effort.

"All is well here, Mr. Jackson. Did your visit to Mrs. Crosby go well?"

"She'll be better given time enough off her feet," Nathan hesitated, still uncomfortable criticizing white folk in front of the southerner, even though his heart knew he was right, so he plowed on, "only she's not likely to get it, her husband wants her back out in the fields with him, to make the seeding in time."

Ezra noticed and ignored the healer's hesitation, he'd long ago given up understanding the tall man, too many puzzles there. Instead he responded to the plight of the farmer's wife. "Poor woman, her husband should be treasuring her, not working her to death, but you have done what you could Mr. Jackson."

Nathan shrugged, suddenly angry at what he perceived to be Ezra's casual dismissal of the woman and his abilities. Unable to think of a suitable reply, he said the first thing that came to him. "You sure did what you could too, Ezra, driving Chris Larabee right out of town like that." The minute he finished, he knew he shouldn't have spoken so. None of them had told the gambler that Larabee had left for his homestead that night and not yet returned.

"Mr. Larabee left?" Ezra hadn't seen Chris since that night but then in town they didn't go looking for each other, it simply was not what and who they were. He was gone? Because of me? Ezra turned cold. What did I do?

Nathan hung his head and then reached up to scratch his scalp, unwilling to back down but feeling guilty about what he'd said anyway. "Yeah. Guess he needed some time away."

"But you said," Ezra paused, looking sharply at the shamefaced healer, "You said that I was the cause?"

Nathan sat abruptly on the chair across from Ezra, where the man was tucked into the rocker by the window. "He got right riled with you getting yoreself took hostage that night, nearly got himself shot saving your hide. From what I heard, he'd told you to stay away and you didn't."

Ezra flushed. He really hadn't thought about that. I thought I was helping. It did work out, none of us were hurt, well except for me. And I really don't count. How did Chris come to see this as an offense against him? I just don't understand. We do things like this all the time, we're a team, the seven of us. He swallowed hard. Unless. Unless he doesn't want me to be part of that team anymore? Did our private association become too much for him? Did I intrude too much? Ezra wished for nothing more than to flee from the man who sat across from him, flee this place and these men. Oh, god. What did I do?

Nathan watched Ezra's face flush brightly, then pale. Well, man needs to think before he acts, then maybe he won't get hurt and neither will anyone else. Self-righteous in his inner guilt, he rose and headed for his room in the back. I'm not running away, just tired. "Ezra, I'm gonna get some sleep, I'll be in the back if anyone needs me."

"Certainly, Mr. Jackson. Rest well." Ever courteous, the southerner nodded, his eyes not quite meeting the healer's, the bleakness there hidden.

Chris had plenty of time to think out at his place. Vin had come by the second day, clearly wanting to talk but unsure what to say. Finally simply telling Larabee that the gambler was getting better, likely be on his feet again in a couple of days. Larabee had listened, face a still mask, and nodded.

Vin had stayed a while, but neither spoke anymore that time. Then he'd left and Chris had returned to his thoughts.

Ezra Standish was never far from the center of them now. Funny, when they'd been going along day to day, nothing had needed saying. Just was. That was enough. Being with the man had been nice, then relaxing, then -- special. And, finally, necessary. Though he hadn't realized that until faced with losing it, him. Only, what was it they had? Really? Some nights spent together. Some good sex. Some companionable moments, some touches that weren't pure lust, friendship, even comfort. Maybe something more. Dammit, he knew it was more. Walking away from it wasn't the answer. It couldn't be the answer. Stopping it wasn't the answer. No. He'd have to learn some control, a new kind of control, for future confrontations with, as Ezra would say, miscreants. Especially if the gambler continued to be part of the seven. And he would, it was who he was now. And that, too, was part of what Chris loved about him.

Um. Taking a deep breath, the lean shootist bent his head and closed his eyes. Oh, shit, Sarah, I love him.

He and Ezra needed to talk, privately, spend some time together. Vin said the man would be able to walk on those feet of his again in a couple of days. Fine. He could come out here then. And they could talk.

Suddenly, the air smelled a lot sweeter, he could hear the sounds of honeybees among the bluebonnets in the meadow, and the sky turned a cleaner shade of blue. Yep, they'd talk.

Josiah was whistling to himself as he climbed the stairs to the clinic two at a time. The sun was bright, Ezra should be able to stand today, walk. He knew the young man had been unhappy in the clinic, unable to fend for himself. He'd seen the trapped look in Ezra's eyes, despite his simple words of courtesy to Nathan and him. Josiah grinned, looking forward to the delight he anticipated seeing in Ezra's eyes when he was 'liberated' from the clinic. I'll just be there to catch him if he falls first time he starts totterin' around on those tender feet of his. A secretive smile replaced his grin. Almost like a papa watchin' his child take his first steps. Won't ever tell the boy I had that thought, he decided in amusement.

Reaching the clinic porch, Josiah started across the weathered planks just as Nathan appeared at the door, striding out with a disgruntled look on his face. "Nathan? Something wrong?"

Jackson looked up and faced his best friend, feeling his face hot up some in embarrassment. "He's gone."

Josiah slowed to a stop. "He? Who? Ezra? Ezra's gone? Already?" He couldn't help the disappointment that surfaced in his voice. He had really wanted to be there when the boy stood up for the first time. And now, Nathan was looking strange, he could swear the man was blushing, despite his natural pigment's already dark tone.

But Nathan was already recovering and deciding that that fool southerner just couldn't wait until he was told it was time. Just took off in the dead of the night, like the slippery conman he was. "Yeah, he musta left sometime in the night. I come back tired from the Crosby's place late, spoke a bit to him, and then went in to sleep. Must have been more tired than I thought," Nathan paused to wipe at his face with one hand. "Slept right through until now," he admitted, "and when I came out of the back, he was gone."

Josiah stared at his friend. There was much unsaid here. But, knowing Nathan, he'd only get defensive if pushed and he had done a good job of healing Ezra. Likely they had words last night, Josiah shook his head sadly, and then his boy just left as soon as Nathan had retired. With a sigh, Josiah glanced over his shoulder at the saloon. He's probably sound asleep over in his own bed right now and not likely to welcome someone waking him before noon. Ah, well. He's better, well enough to walk himself out of the clinic and that's all that really mattered. Nathan and Ezra never seemed to see eye to eye, that was nothing new, and Nathan's forbearance in the face of Ezra's grumpiness the last few days was probably a Herculean effort anyway. With a shrug of his massive shoulders, the preacher smiled into his kind friend's eyes. "It'll be alright," he clapped a hand on one shoulder, "Now, how about I treat you to some breakfast?"

"Sounds good, sounds right nice in fact," Nathan's whole face lit up and his shoulders rose, shedding the last remnants of guilt. Josiah was right, he and Ezra always tussled, nothin' new there, and it was a lovely day. Breakfast did sound good.

Chaucer was picking his way with care through the rough, rocky canyon floor, the early sunlight barely lighting his way. He swished his tail, vaguely worried about his rider. They never went out in the night and now they had been traveling for a very long time, long enough so that the sky had turned light. It had been several days since he'd seen his friend and was happy to feel that caring hand stroke his neck, always pleased at the sugar cube offering, but even more pleased simply to be able to wuffle close to the man's chest and smell the man's smell. It had been a surprise when the man got him ready for a ride, saddled him but he hadn't objected. He trusted his man. They'd gone slow from the start, moonlight kept them from making a wrong step on the road out of town and sunrise found them still walking slowly away from Chaucer's comfortable stable. The horse chuffed philosophically, he was with his man again, that made everything alright.

Ezra had waited until he was certain Nathan slept, then carefully dressed and with great caution slid his feet into his oldest boots, brought to the clinic for that very reason earlier. They pinched a bit, but he'd suffered worse in the past. With slow, careful movements, he'd actually made it down the stairs, though he'd had to stop and sit on the bottom step for a few minutes to let his feet recover. They stung, almost a burning sensation, but it was tolerable.

He thought longingly of his own room and things, but decided he wasn't ready to climb the saloon stairs to his abode and down again. With a slightly unsteady gait that improved as he continued, he made his way directly to the stable. The pain in his heart hurt much worse than any discomfort in his feet. I don't understand what I did. Why does Chris blame me? What did I do? It had become a litany inside his head since Nathan's startling accusations. Nathan didn't know how to lie so it must be true. Ezra shrank from the feeling that somehow he'd lost Chris in this mess. Just the thought of losing the dark gunslinger made him hunch over and pause in body clenching pain, hand to his chest. Oh, oh. Please, no. Oh, Chris, what did I do? he wailed silently in his head. I've tried so hard to be good. To be what you wanted. With a jerk of his head, he bottled up his desperate feelings and fought for control. I need some time alone and away from everyone. I have to figure this out. Guess I'm not so different from Vin that way. Thinking of the tracker, he knew that he'd be followed if he wasn't careful. Vin had confessed once that even he couldn't track someone over the lava fields near Sandstone Canyon. So, that's where he'd head first.

Ezra's short-ration day kit was always ready in the stable, he saw to that just as the others did their own. Too many times they'd had to ride without preparation after some outlaws that had mistaken their small town for a ripe plum. He checked to make sure the canteen was full and added the bedroll and kit to the back of Chaucer's saddle. "Old friend, we need to depart for a while. I have some thinking to do." Stroking the nodding head, he smiled sadly at the uncomplicated love the two shared. With a wistful sigh, he pulled himself into the saddle, teeth gritted against the pain of having all his weight momentarily on one foot, but then he was seated and although the foot thrummed with new pulsing blood flow through new tissue, he was sure nothing had been truly hurt.

Flicking the reins and kneeing his friend, they had left the stable quietly and then slowly left the town, shadows against the buildings, nearly invisible against the low burning street fires.

Chris rode into town at a steady trot. Decisions made, ready to talk with Ezra and get them on a firmer footing, he was actually in a cheerful mood. From what Vin had said, today Ezra should be able to walk again, use his feet. Which meant they could go off together for a spell. He'd just check in first with the others, make sure that nothing needed his hand. If things had gotten really bad, they would have sent someone for him but he'd heard nothing so he wasn't really expecting any trouble.

Tying Solon to the hitching post by the jail, he walked in to find Buck and JD playing checkers in the coolness of the adobe building. "Hey Chris, welcome back!" JD's enthusiasm always made Chris hesitate, he wasn't used to such exuberance from a man and JD was becoming one, naw, he was one.

"JD." Chris nodded and turned with a raised eyebrow to his oldest friend. "Everything ok, Buck?"

The lanky ladies man smiled and stretched, "Pard, with two such virtuous lawman as us here guardin' this town, couldn't be otherwise."

While JD grinned and shook his head, just glad to see Larabee back again, Chris tipped his head to one side and a sly smile flitted across his face. "So, Buck, since when you become 'virtuous'?"

"Ah, Pard, you wound me!" Wilmington managed a fair imitation of a lady's swoon, then leaned forward and hopped one of his pieces over several of JD's in a zigzag course across the board. "Game!"

"Hey! That's not --! That can't be --" JD's dark wings of eyebrow came down in a sharp V as he swiveled back to face the board and tried to figure out what his friend had just done.

Buck was cheerfully picking up the jumped pieces in one hand as he casually remarked to Larabee, "Been quiet, Chris, no trouble."

Larabee nodded, trusting Wilmington to know. "Gonna get a bath," felt his chin, "and a shave, then I'll be stopping by the saloon."

"We'll be there after JD's shift," Buck nodded, then shoved forward suddenly, rattling the board. "You lost, boy, time to try again!"

Chris left to the heckling sounds of the two friends laughter as they argued good-naturedly about their game.

With a stretch, he headed for the stable trailing Solon behind him. Get his horse set in the stable and then he'd just stop in and see Nate, make sure that everything was ok with Ezra. Then a bath and shave, and he'd convince his -- his friend, no, his lover, that they needed to talk. With a smile at the world, Chris Larabee walked down the dusty street toward the stable.

Vin Tanner let Peso run the last bit into town, their morning patrol over, the horse wanted to stretch his legs. In a dust cloud that trailed behind them like a windstorm in the making, the horse and rider charged down the trail that quickly became the south road into Four Corners. At a distance, Vin could see Chris leading his black, Solon, toward the livery. So, he's back finally. Some of the tracker's worry eased seeing his friend return. Maybe he got his head on right finally and can set things right with Ezra, too. Tanner knew that Ezra'd been doing ok, likely hadn't known that things were wrong with Chris and Vin was too much of a coward to tell him. 'Side which, weren't like there was much they could do until Larabee showed himself again. Now, maybe it would work out. He liked both men and hoped they could find some peace together. Neither of them had found any on their own, he was sure.

The tracker gathered his horse into a more acceptable trot as they entered the town itself, the dust swirling up around them from their earlier fast pace. He could feel Peso settle in better now, run some o' the kinks outta his tail, he thought with a hidden smile, riding up to slow to a walk at Chris Larabee's side.

Larabee slanted a look up at his friend, and gave him a small smile, confident that would be enough for Vin. No words passed between the two as Tanner tipped his hat and slid from his mount to walk next to the black clad gunman. In companionable silence the two led their horses, heads bobbing quietly behind the men.

Just as they reached the large, open door to the livery, Larabee asked, "Patrol?"


The dark shadow of the livery's interior seemed almost cave-like after the bright sunlight and dusty street. Both men paused to let their eyes adjust a bit, savoring the cooler temperatures within the shaded confines of the stables. Too early in the day for stable boys to be about yet, the place was silent. They could see curious horses lift heads over stable gates in a succession of soft nickers as the rest of the seven's mounts greeted their herd mates.

At first, neither man noticed the missing inhabitant of the end box stall. Peso was eager to get to the oats he knew were waiting. Solon was just looking forward to the more comfortable quarters and companionship of the other horses. Each headed, almost of their own volition, toward their own stalls. Solon really hadn't been out long and so Larabee decided to just let him in his stall for a moment as he strode down the rest of the runway to Chaucer's. Was only a horse, but at the moment it was the closest he'd been to Ezra in a bit and Chris felt like he needed some reassurance.


"Gawd damn it!" Larabee whirled about, surprising Vin who was unsaddling Peso in his stall.

Tanner stepped forward to peer over the top of Peso's stall to see what was wrong, Larabee's voice had sounded almost panicked.

Before Vin could ask, Chris was yelling and slamming shut the empty box stall. "He's gone, Vin! What the hell is he doing out now? He should barely be able to walk yet!"

Tanner couldn't help it, he had to grin. "Well, cowboy, don't take much walkin' to ride a horse." He stifled a laugh and continued, "Likely wanted to git far from Nate's hands for a spell, you know Ez."

With a frustrated sigh, Chris nodded his agreement and brushed his hat back from his brow, his agitation still fresh. It had been a blow to see the empty stall. Unsettled his whole world. He'd been planning on seeing Ezra, making sure he was ok, then taking him out to one of their private places, maybe near the desert, or up in the hills. Keep each other company for a while. And talk.

Only Ezra was out on Chaucer, gone and Larabee's plans were so much dust. For a moment, he contemplated following but he wasn't the tracker Vin was and Vin had just come in off patrol. Tanner was probably right, Ez just needed some space after being holed up in the clinic, and took it. Just like the man to decide something and do it, never mind checking in with Chris. Somehow, the fact that Larabee hadn't been around simply didn't occur to the shootist.

Ezra roused himself in the saddle, Chaucer was grazing on a rather poor selection of dried grasses and weeds that had somehow forced their way out between rocks in this desolate canyon. Here, deep in the earth's slash, spring would come late. Almost no shadow, meant it must be close to noon. Without encouragement, the chestnut had simply wandered to a halt and begun to forage.

Pulling up on the reins lightly, Ezra leaned forward and stroked the gelding's silky neck. "Never mind, my friend, we have much better ahead. Come now, let's continue, it's not far."

The horse willingly gave up on the sparse feed and followed his rider's directions. Soon they were climbing out of the rough and tumble canyon on a game trail, abruptly high above the dried water course, they seemed on top of the world. A very different world, green and lush with new growth. A spring-fed pool released a trickle that became a small brook, wending down through open hilly grasslands, a trick of gravity and fate depriving the earlier watercourse of its source. The new run was young and fresh, barely leaving a shallow path of weedy pebbles and muddy pools in its wake. Willows had sprung up about the spot where the spring pushed up from the earth, grown large, their roots a tangle that seemed to mesh with the drooping arms of their boughs. There was the culprit, one root grown large enough to redirect the flow from the water source, deprive the rocky canyon of all moisture.

Although Ezra had been largely raised in cities and among crowds of people, he wasn't as adverse to the open spaces of nature as his associates thought. He simply preferred the comfort of his bed to the uneven and unyielding hardness of the ground. He smiled as Chaucer quickened his pace toward the bright green fresh new grass, undoubtedly tender and moist. "Easy, old friend," the southerner murmured, "let me free you from unnecessary confinement first, then you may feast to your heart's content." Drawing rein, the gambler leaned forward onto his stomach, ignoring the punch of the saddle horn and thus got one leg up over the back of the saddle without pressing too hard down on a single foot. It was a moment's work to let himself slide to the ground now, both feet together to equally bear his weight. Chaucer was already cropping eagerly at the new growth and seemed oblivious to his master's actions, unless one looked to see both ears swiveled back attentively.

With a gasp of reaction to still sore nerve endings in his feet, Ezra steadied himself against his horse and then, once feeling capable, loosed and removed the saddle and gear with a bit of strain and grunting for the added weight on his newly healed soles. It took only another moment to pull the bridle loose, though Chaucer fussed to be tugged away from his feast for even a short time. Contrary beast! Ezra patted one tall shoulder with affection. "Enjoy, my friend, enjoy." There was no point in tethering the gelding, the horse was too smart by half and would work free from any unwanted restraint very quickly. But there was a bond between them, the southerner knew his old friend would not desert him, he'd be near when needed.

Setting up camp didn't take long, even when he was forced to hobble rather than walk normally. It soon got easier he found, though, as he moved about the small campsite among the willows. He used the same ring of stones that he and Chris had found two months ago for a campfire. This was one of their favorite spots when they knew they could stay out over night and were not expected back early. It would let him feel near to the man without fear of rejection. Slipping free of his jacket, he folded it methodically and sat on the temporary pillow it made. Too bad he'd not been able to get back to his room for more clothing, but these were clean, had been waiting ready for his emergence from the clinic. They would do, even if not perhaps the wisest choices for roughing it he thought, as he smoothed down the black satin vest and tapped at the folded dark green jacket.

Bird song from the branches over his head, a gentle breeze and the fresh air of the prairie grasses beyond the low hills that dipped to grazing land -- it was a pleasant aspect. Of course, two strong arms wrapped around him would have made it a perfect aspect. He shivered, his skin goose bumping at the remembered touch.

With his small pot of water bubbling for coffee, Ezra let his gaze skim over the horizon, where the sun was now lowering. He wasn't hungry yet, maybe tomorrow. Right now, coffee would be fine. Chaucer had settled beneath one of the taller willows and seemed to be dozing on his feet, head hung low, eyes closed, tail flicking erratically, perhaps in equine dreams. Leaning back against his saddle, Ezra let himself float without directed thought. Daydreamed of other times here, with Chris. He refused to let the despair that edged his thoughts take over. Not yet. For now, he'd simply enjoy the feeling of closeness he could almost taste here in their little hidden oasis.

"Are you certain he hasn't been here at all?" Chris was confused which made him irritable and abrupt with Inez. The bar manager shrugged again.

"Senor Chris, if Senor Ezra came in today, I did not see him. That, Senor, is all I know." She nodded toward the staircase and upper level balcony. "You can look for yourself." She slapped a spare key down on the bar.

Larabee glared at her and then decided to do just that, taking the key and heading up the stairs in moody silence. He'd gotten Solon taken care of in the stables, gone to the bathhouse to wash off trail dust and met up with Vin there again. They'd soaked in amiable silence, though Chris kept an ear cocked for sounds of Ezra, somehow thinking he might appear for a bath following his ride this morning. But their baths were uninterrupted.

At the barbershop, Larabee lost himself to the heat of the steaming towel that Big Mason wrapped on his face after a close, smooth shave. Drifting in steamy relaxation, images of Ezra, skin bare and smooth like his newly shaved chin, rose uninvited and he felt himself growing hot and not from the towel. As he twitched in new discomfort from suddenly too tight jeans, he flicked the towel off his face and sat up.

Startled, the barber looked up from his other customer. "Mr. Larabee, is everything alright?"

Flushing, Chris nodded, surly at anyone questioning him. "Yeah, just got places to be, Big, we square?"

Mason wiped at the shaving soap he was brushing on his other customer, "Yes, sir, your account still has a balance, Mr. Larabee."

"Fine." With that, Chris lurched free of the tilted chair and grabbed his hat and short black jacket. Time to go find that damn gambler, he'd been gone long enough.

Key in hand, he stomped up the stairs, his spurs clinking with menace. Once in the room, it was clear that Ezra hadn't been back in some time. There was a fine layer of dust over everything and the closet still held his many jackets, shirts, and vests. Chris had even checked under the bed and spotted the travel valise that Ezra had used on a long assignment for the Judge, when he'd traveled by stagecoach. So, he hasn't gone for good. Funny how just knowing that eased some of Chris' tension, even though he'd never really consciously thought that the conman would desert them again. Still, it was good to know this irritating man was still part of the seven.

Two frustrating hours later, Larabee sat at a table in the saloon, drinking his lunch in sullen silence. Chaucer had not returned and the stable boys knew, on fear of disfigurement, that they were to notify Mr. Larabee the moment the seventh reappeared.

JD and Buck came in, Vin trailing behind, for some of Inez' enchiladas for lunch. Josiah was covering the jail and they'd promised to deliver some lunch when they were through. Nathan wandered in while Buck was attempting to flirt with the pretty Mexican, to no avail, as always.

All four men brought beers to their regular table, their cheerful faces faltering slightly at the grim look on their leader's face and the half-empty bottle of whiskey on the table. "Ey, Pard, want I should order some food for you, too?" Wilmington set his beer down at the seat next to his old friend, realizing that something was wrong but not sure what.

"Nope." Larabee brought a shot glass full of amber liquid to his lips and sipped.

Vin slid into the seat on the other side of the blonde, and JD and Nathan pulled out chairs across the table. For a moment, no one spoke, everyone sipping the cold beers that Inez kept that way with earthenware jugs half-submerged in the ground in the dirt-floored storeroom. Savoring the cold brews, each man relaxed, the warm spring day and quiet town, good trusted companions near, making them all easy with the day. The only tense note was their dark clad leader brooding over his drink. Not that that was all that unusual, just hadn't happened that much the last few months, Buck thought casually, studying his friend surreptitiously from under his brows.

Food, ready in the back, arrived quickly and the men set to eating and drinking, Buck entertaining them between mouthfuls with a tall tale of his night with Miss Millie. Larabee remained a silent sentinel in their midst, all aware of him, but respecting his space. Drowsy with warm food and cold beer, the four men all sat back and smiled at each other as Inez cleared away the plates. Ignoring the other men, the woman hesitated by Larabee as she turned to take things back to the kitchen behind the bar. "Senor? There has been no sign of him." Message delivered she continued on her way, leaving a pool of deep interest and silent communication behind her.

"Pard? You expectin' someone we should know about?" Buck didn't like surprises, especially Larabee-style ones, which often were young punks eager to make a name against the notorious gunman or dangerous outlaws showing up unannounced.

Chris frowned. Shouldn't they all be worried by now? Why was he the only one concerned? "Seems Ezra's been gone all morning. Thought he was just now gettin' better, Nathan?"

The unasked question, why had Jackson let his patient leave like this, stung. As if I could stop him, even if I'd been there when he snuck out. Nathan's angry defensiveness kicked in again, and Josiah wasn't there to mediate. "He's fine now. Fine enough to sneak out last night, probably upstairs right now, sleeping a fine sleep on his DOWN pillow." The resentment and dark anger of the black healer was clear to the entire group.

Before Chris could answer, Vin spoke up. "Chaucer was gone when me and Chris went in the livery, few hours ago."

"And," Larabee interrupted before Jackson could respond to that, "He hasn't been up in his room at all. Nothing's moved and it's dusty."

"Musta gone straight out on Chaucer then," Vin said.

"Aw, hell, Nate, what happened?" Buck's sad question sat the healer up, head high.

"Didn't nothin' happen. I came back late last night, from tendin' to Mrs. Crosby. Ezra was in the clinic, we talked for a few minutes and I went back to go lie down for a bit. Was tired," he defended. Eyes on the table now, he continued, "Real tired, I guess, 'cause I didn't wake up 'til little past sunrise this morning." He looked up at the circle of faces, serious now, listening. "He'd left." He swallowed and took up his nearly empty beer mug, drinking down the dregs. "Musta snuck out last night sometime, you know he don't like fussin' and he knew I was gonna let him out today."

"Let him out." Larabee repeated the words between gritted teeth, furious beyond reason and coldly calm. "What did you say to him, Jackson?"

"I didn't --" the others watched Nathan's face gray as he closed his mouth tightly.

"What? What'd you tell him?" The icy words silenced the group. JD shivered and hunched back in his seat, glad that Buck was between him and the dangerous man in black.

"Chris." Buck's hand on one dark cuffed wrist was flung back angrily.

"No, Buck, I want to hear this."

Vin tried from his side. "Cowboy, you know they don't get along all that well, don't mean Nate here done anything specially."

Hazel eyes locked with brown ones. "What - did - you - tell - him?"

Jaw jutting out, Jackson braced himself. "I told him you'd left the night of the robbery, left town and weren't back yet, that you were likely angry at him for not obeying your orders and then gettin' himself hurt and nearly gettin' you killed along with it." He looked around at the aghast faces of his friends. "What? It's what y'all told me!"

Larabee's glare was glacial as he froze Jackson to his seat, then swung his gaze around at the others. "I speak for myself." No one tried to comment.

Standing, he tossed back the rest of the liquor in his glass. "Vin? You think you can track him?"

"I kin try." Tanner rose and together the two men walked out without a backward glance.

JD looked at the two remaining men in momentary confusion. "But, that's what happened, ain't it? Isn't that what you told me, Buck?"

"Sorta happened like that," Wilmington agreed, watching the healer who had sagged back down and was staring at his empty beer mug morosely now. "Nate? Pard, you really gotta watch your temper around old Ez, I know he kin get you riled up, but he's not as hardnosed as folks think."

Jackson nodded having nothing to say to that.

"That's it." Tanner sat slouched in his saddle, hands crossed, wrists resting on the horn. "Shoulda knowed soons I saw where he left the trail."

Larabee stared out across the lava flats. No one could be tracked across the wasteland of rock, like hardened pudding partially spilled and folded, layers flat and black. A deathscape of black rock. It went on for several miles before breaking up, spread out, it's birthplace a mystery, the field was mute testimony to eons of change for the earth's surface.

The tracker looked ahead to where the sun was slowly lowering toward the mountain skyline in the distance. "Be dark soon. Can't find any new tracks then. Best we can do is start circling, look for where he come off the flats, if he did."

They both knew there were plenty of places within the flats to hide, rocky caverns, almost level with the flattish surface, or rising within scrabbly fingered rock crags. Chris sat there, feeling helpless and angry. He knew there was nothing more that they could do than what Vin suggested. His head pounded with the liquor he'd ingested and the hot spring sun. Twisting his shoulders, then neck-reining Solon, he started slowly moving to the left. Didn't really matter which way, just so they started around. Tanner followed without comment.

The day passed slowly for Ezra, he slept most of the afternoon. As evening fell, he built up the fire and made sure he had enough dry wood and brush from the tree falls to keep the night at bay. Chaucer moved closer to the fire as dusk settled around them.

I should go to Chris. He's at his cabin, I'm sure of that. We could talk. If he's angry, I'll apologize. I thought I did the right thing, but no one else thinks so. I don't care anymore whether I'm right or wrong, so long as I'm with him. Let him forgive me, please, Ezra thought to the first bright twinkling star that broke the night sky. I don't want to lose him. He swallowed hard and closed his eyes.

"Chris, no more." Vin pulled up Peso when the pony stumbled for the second time. "The horses could go lame if they step wrong. It's getting too dark to see."

The dark shape ahead of him came to a halt, a frozen silhouette against the lingering twilight. "You're right." The flat Midwestern drawl was clipped and emotionless. Then Chris dismounted and the two men moved further away from the crumbling edge of the flats, out into brush to make an evening dry camp.

"Shelby, you sure this is a good idea?" Harkness tossed his cold coffee toward their campfire, causing it to briefly flare, lighting the ring of hardened faces around it.

The group's leader laughed, a rough sound. "Harky, we meet up with Tern and the rest of his boys and then sweep the territory. Soft country round here, they ain't got no organized law like Texas has, no rangers."

"Maybe so, but --"

"No, you wait. We made it through that damn pass, didn't we? You kept saying it was too steep, too much snow, but we're here, ain't we?" He looked around the circle for confirmation but tired eyes didn't look back up at him, the others staring into the fire and ignoring this argument. They'd heard it too often before. As long as they got their share of whatever was going around, the gang of lawless men really didn't care who was leading or who was the most right.

Harkness sat back and closed his mouth, no point until they saw for themselves how things stood. Whether Tern and his men would be at the promised rendezvous as telegrammed three weeks earlier. One more day on the trail, moving down out of the high reaches of the mountains ought to do it. Then they'd be at this hidden spring that Shelby claimed he knew of, he and Tern, from when they were young scouts for the army. Only a day's ride, to hear him tell it, from at least three little towns, all ready for their unexpected visits. Ray Harkness' teeth gleamed in the firelight. Been on the trail too long, time to visit us some town, taste some women and some liquor.

Sparks showered upward again as Tice Shelby stood across from him, dumping his own coffee remnants into the flames. "Turn in, we need to make good time in the morning." No one argued.

Chris and Vin were up before dawn, drinking coffee and cleaning up the camp. They each had double canteens so they weren't worried yet about water, and Vin claimed to know every watering hole in the area. Pre-dawn found them saddling up, Vin leading Peso as he walked along the edge of the lava field, looking for sign. Chris walked behind him, leading Solon. Theirs was a comfortable silence.

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.