Warnings/Spoilers: Minor spoilers for Ghosts of the Confederacy.

Thanks: To Kay and Cat, for a few virtual kicks in the can.

Virgin Territory by Lumina~

Part One

Sweat trickled down his back and sheened his face as Ezra flopped back against the pillows arching and wiggling fretfully to find a comfortable position. White sheets, once crisp and cool, were now limp and sticky with moisture. Turning his face to the window, the lank and unmoving lace curtain told Ezra what he already knew. Yet another night with no breeze, no rain to break the late September heat.

Throwing himself out of bed, the green-eyed man padded to the washstand, the light slanting through the window from the three-quarters full moon providing enough illumination to keep him from bumping into anything. Pouring some water into the basin, he splashed his face, the warm liquid doing little to cool his naked skin as it trickled down his neck. Sleeping naked was something Ezra normally enjoyed, the clean cotton sheets gliding against his flesh, the fresh scent filling his nostrils as he drifted off to sleep. Tonight though, and every night for the last week, they had been a torment, sticking to his skin, prickly and itchy, making him feel dirty. Twitching convulsively, he examined his flushed face in the mirror. ĎLord, I thought desert heat was supposed to be dry.í Even his scalp was sweaty, making his hair feel gritty as it plastered itself to his skull.

An insistent pressure make itself known behind his eyes clamping his forehead in a viselike grip, letting the gambler know getting any sleep tonight was a lost cause. Crossing to the window, he leaned on the wall beside it as he gazed out onto the streets of Four Corners. All was quiet, the suffocating heat being enough to keep even the orneriest of the local ruffians at home, safe in their little beds.

Footsteps clattered against the wooden boardwalk below, echoing loudly in the still air. Looking in their direction, Ezra saw Buck on nightly patrol. The tall man stopped in front of the hotel across the street, flipping his hat onto a hitching post as he scanned the deserted streets, his eyes seeming to rest on Ezraís window a moment as they made their way from one end of the main street to the other. A small smile playing about his lips, the gamblerís green eyes sparkled as a sudden thought of how to cool off suddenly occurred to him.

Slipping on his pants and shirt, the gambler briefly considered leaving his shirt untucked, allowing air to circulate freely, but his sartorial sensibilities won out. Tucking in the linen fabric, he did allow that even a well-dressed gentleman could forego cravat and jacket under the circumstances. Just the cut and quality alone of his pants and shirt would set him apart anyway, signifying the standards he set for himself. Eyes landing on his hat, he grimaced ruefully as he placed it on his sweat-soaked hair, settling it at a jaunty angle. ĎA gentleman can only forego so much, and still be thought a gentleman even if thereís no one to see him.í

Satisfied that his appearance was presentable, the green-eyed man quietly slipped out his door, and headed downstairs.

Buck Wilmington wiped the sweat out of his eyes and surveyed the quiet town, his eyes resting briefly on the window of the gambler. A slight fluttering of the curtain caused the lanky gunslinger to smile smugly. Picking up his hat, Buck ambled across the street and leaned against a post nonchalantly as he fixed his eyes firmly on the batwing doors of the saloon.

Sure enough, within a minute, the handsome gambler emerged, raising a sardonic eyebrow when he caught sight of Buck standing just outside the doors, seemingly waiting for him.

"Mr. Wilmington," Ezra said as he started down the boardwalk.

The taller man danced in front of the gambler, walking backwards. "Where you off to, Ez?" he grinned, already having a fair notion of the green-eyed manís destination.

"Is there some reason you need to know, Mr. Wilmington?" Ezra said.

Facing forward again, he continued at the gamblerís side. "Just watching out for the safety of the citizenry, Ez. No telling what might happen to a man out here late at night all by his lonesome."

Ezra snorted. "Thank you for your concern, Mr. Wilmington, but I believe the sultry air has only enhanced the "citizenryís" natural indolence. I very much doubt I will encounter anybody this evening other than this townís stalwart sentinels," he said, nodding graciously at the taller man.

Frowning, Buck said, "Um, yeah. Anyway, youíd best tell me soís if you go missing, we know where to start tracking once you havenít shown back up after two, three days," the blue-eyed man grinned.

"I am overwhelmed by your sense of responsibility, Mr. Wilmington, but I assure you, I shall return unscathed in a matter of hours," the southerner drawled.

"Off to the spring again, maybe, to get all cooled off, hmm? A man could get himself into trouble going skinny dipping all by himself, not to mention whatíd people would think if it got out," Buck replied mischievously.

Smiling winsomely up at the taller man, the gambler man said softly, "Well, Iím sure my secretís safe with you, isnít it Mr. Wilmington?" Then, leaning close to the other man, he whispered, "You are, after all, a gentleman." Drawing back, the green-eyed man touched his fingers to the brim of his hat, and continued down the walk as Buck remained in place, watching his retreating form.

There had been a high flush across the southernerís cheekbones, sweat-dampened tendrils of chestnut hair escaping from underneath his hat brim, lending the sophisticated gambler a more youthful aspect. The fact that he wasnít wearing a jacket was testament to just how much the heat was affecting him. As beads of sweat trickled down his own temples, Buck wiped at them distractedly, wishing fervently that he could join the gambler, that they could both take advantage of the springís waters to cool their heated flesh. The only trouble was, he didnít think heíd be getting too cooled off in the presence of the handsome gambler.

ĎDamn, donít even think about it pard. Donít even think it.í But he hadnít been able to stop thinking about it, not since five nights ago when, riding back to town after patrol, he came across Ezra at the spring. The green-eyed man had just been emerging from the pool, water sluicing down his broad shoulders, across the flat planes of his abdomen and over narrow hips, trailing eventually down well-formed legs.

Catching sight of Buck, the gambler had grinned infectiously up at him as he sat on his horse gaping. "Good evening, Mr. Wilmington. I trust everything went well on patrol," he said as he turned to pick up a towel laying on a nearby rock.

Buckís mouth dropped open further as two firm, rounded buttocks were presented to him. ĎLord, have mercy!í Closing his mouth, Buck pulled his eyes away with effort, focussing instead on a point above the other manís head.

"Ezra, whatcha doiní out here all by yourself? You know thereís rustlers in the area," the blue-eyed man said, glad that no quaver or tremor in his voice betrayed his discomfiture.

Ezraís head emerged from the vigorous toweling it was receiving as he laughed softly. "Mr. Wilmington, as I left my horse in town, I donít think I have anything theyíd be interested in. Well, that is unless theyíd be interested in finely tailored garments, but something tells me the quality of my wardrobe would escape them."

As the green-eyed man continued to dry himself, Buck was intrigued by the golden hue of his skin, the well-defined muscles usually hidden under layers of bulky clothes. Finely tailored they may be, but they did nothing to accentuate the lean, hard body beneath. ĎIf they stumbled across you like this, it wouldnít be your wardrobe theyíd be interested in,í was his thought, but he said instead, "Yeah, well, hurry up and get dressed. You can walk back to town with me."

Running his hands down his chest and abdomen as if testing his skin for moisture, Ezra slanted a glance of amusement at the gunslinger. Buck shifted impatiently as the other man set about dressing, tucking in his shirt with care so that the tails were smooth and unwrinkled under his trousers, then slipping on his jacket and shooting the cuffs so that exactly the same amount of fabric extended from his jacket sleeves. Picking up his hat, he adjusted the angle of the brim before placing it on his head, Buck speculating on how it could have gotten out of alignment sitting on a rock while Ezra took his swim.

"Ezra, weíre just goiní back to town, not to a debutante ball. Now, if youíre ready, letís get to steppiní. I need to get some sleep."

"You neednít have bothered waiting, but as I am ready to go back, let us proceed." Turning his horse, Buck kept it at a slow gait, keeping pace with the man walking at their side.

"Really, Mr. Wilmington, I wasnít aware that you had such gentlemanly proclivities. I could have found my way back to town myself. It is only a short walk."

"I know that, Ezra, but until we catch these rustlers, itís not a good idea to go roaming off by yourself with no horse and no gun neither. No telliní what kind of mischief they might be willing to get up to. Promise me you wonít do it again," genuine concern lacing his voice.

Sighing, Ezra said, "Perhaps youíre right. It was just hotter than Hades tonight." Gazing up at Buck, he added, "Very well. Iíll refrain from such ablutions until the miscreants are caught."

Rolling his eyes, Buck replied, "If that means you wonít be going off for any moonlit skinny dipping, good! Canít you just say anything in plain EnglishÖ."

That had been five nights ago. The rustlers had been caught, and the gambler apparently felt safe enough to resume his "ablutions." That night had certainly been a revelation to Buck. True, he had always thought the gambler a handsome man with his soft chestnut hair, unusual green eyes, almost delicate features, and elegant neck, but there the speculation always ended. Those clothes gave no clue to the highly desirable body underneath.

It had rankled, the more he thought about it, that the green-eyed man had been so unconcerned and unselfconscious of his nakedness, so seemingly unaware of the effect he had had on Buck. For some perverse reason, he felt the incident should have unsettled the gambler as much as it had himself. Buck desired the green-eyed man who not only seemed completely unaware of this fact, but seemed to harbor no such feelings in return, a situation Buck was completely unused to. Having the object of his lust, man or woman, feel the same was not only the most common reaction, it was an absolute norm.

Though he wanted the gambler, indeed had thought about bedding him for the last five days, a recurring refrain had been his constant companion as well-ĎChris would have my hide.í After a rocky start, a balance had been achieved within the seven, a balance none of them wanted to unsettle. Each man had found his place within the group. There was Chris, the leader, and Josiah their conscience. Nathan was the healer, while Vin their touchstone, and JD their innocence. HimselfÖ. Well, maybe he was the court jester. As for Ezra, he was an enigma, the last to be accepted by the group, the last to allow himself to be accepted into their brotherhood. Each man had his strengths and his shortcomings. What one lacked, the others made up for. It was a volatile mix, but, at the same time, a delicate balance that was hard earned. The seven had become an unbeatable team, a family of sorts, something that was precious to them all.

Buck wasnít willing to risk it that balance for a roll in the hay. So he was grateful for the insistent voice reminding him to keep his hands off even if he wistfully regretted never being able to touch that smooth, golden skin.

As Ezra continued down the boardwalk, he shook his head in amusement. He didnít understand what had gotten into the tall gunslinger. Ezra had caught him staring on more than one occasion. The blue-eyed man had even taken to joining him at the poker table on the evenings neither was on patrol, seeming to forego his nightly quest for a comely and willing young lady in favor of the gamblerís company. Lately it seemed as if whenever they were in each otherís presence, the gambler became the center of the tall manís attention. If he didnít know him for the confirmed womanizer that he was, Ezra could almost believe that Buck was interested in him, was indeed, perhaps unconsciously, flirting with him.

Snorting at that unlikely prospect, Ezra thought, ĎMore likely, heís plotting some elaborate practical joke at my expense, and is doing research.í

Crossing the street to take the alley that was a shortcut out of town, Ezra quickened his pace as he passed the bank. Stopping on the corner, he paused just as he was about to step off the walk, the hairs on the back of his neck prickling. A soft noise, metal squealing, met his ears, followed by a clicking noise he couldnít immediately identify. This was followed by a thump, like something soft hitting wood, galvanizing Ezra into action.

Looking up the street, he saw Buck passing the church, losing sight of him as he turned the corner. Backtracking past the bank on his way to get backup, the door suddenly exploded outward, splintering into pieces. The ground shook, knocking Ezra off-balance, a flying piece of wood hitting his middle and sending him to the ground. Trying to regain his feet, Ezra looked into the bank just as a second explosion buffeted him with sound, with light, too much light that was abruptly extinguished as something hard, propelled by the explosion, hit his head, plunging him into darkness.

Part Two

Buck stepped gingerly into the charred remains of the First National Bank of Four Corners. The late afternoon sun pressed down on him, just as a miasma of heat rose from the wreckage of the bank to greet him, bits of wood and cloth and paper still smoldering and steaming, or flaking into ash. As he approached, Chris Larabee slanted a questioning look at the taller man, a look that was answered with a slight shake of his head. Ezra Standish was still unconscious. Lips tightening, the black-clad man returned his attention to the man before him, Mr. Eustace Claymore, the bankís manager.

"Mr. Claymore, right now, Josiah is trying to find out who the dead man is. Vin and JD are out checking for trail, maybe this guy had some help." Glancing at Buck, he hesitated before continuing, "And when Ezra wakes up, he can tell us exactly what happened."

Eustace Claymore, a middle-aged, portly man, ran a handkerchief across his face, florid and sweating in the heat, anger radiating from his eyes. "Mr. Larabee, you men were hired to protect this town. I daresay no one in Four Corners could reasonably question your ability to do so, before last night, that is. You were not hired to be detectives. You should have prevented this from happening." Pointing a chubby finger at Buck, he continued, "He should have stopped this from happening. You were on patrol last night, werenít you? Or maybe you decided to take a little break and visit a lady friend, hmm?"

Bristling with anger, Buck stepped to within inches of the bank manager. "I checked this bank every round. I checked the door to see if it was locked. Never heard anything; never saw anything. Course if youíd leave the blinds open like we asked you to, it mighta helped. But since you didnít and I had other businesses to Ďprotect,í I donít know what else I coulda done short of planting myself in front of the door." Stepping back, he glared at Claymore and hissed, "I donít shirk my duty, mister."

"If he says he checked the bank on every round, then that is exactly what he did," Chris growled. "We do the best we can with the amount of cooperation we get from the people of this town and with the number of men we have."

"Well, your best wasnít good enough this time, was it? Hell, you couldnít even protect one of your own," Claymore sneered, maliciousness in his eyes as he looked at Buck.

Meeting Chrisí eyes, Buck looked quickly away, backed up a few steps, then turned on his heel and strode out of the bank, heedless of where he was going when he flung himself down off the boardwalk. It was a cowardly retreat, he knew, but it wasnít Claymoreís words that threatened him. It was the look of accusation he was afraid heíd see in their leaderís eyes at the truthfulness of these words, the look heíd been waiting to see in the eyes of the others, that caused him to retreat. He hadnít seen it yet, not in their eyes, but he knew, if he looked, itíd be there for all to see in his own, the accusation already firmly in his heart and mind, planted there by his own sense of failure. He meant what he said to Claymore. He hadnít shirked his duty, but it still hadnít been enough.

Guilt and fear had erupted in his mind and in his heart, sparking in his stomach, the moment he saw Ezraís still form lying in the middle of the street after the deafening explosion. Rushing to his side, he had pulled the unconscious man away from the flames licking across the boardwalk from the interior of the bank. Cradling Ezra against his chest, Buck had placed his hand over the gamblerís heart, reassured to feel the gentle rise and fall that indicated steady breathing. Running his hands down the limp arms and across the ribcage feeling for broken bones, he was relieved to find nothing. Turning the gamblerís pale face up to his, Buck stroked the soft cheek gently, smoothing back the hair falling across his forehead then moving his hand to cup the back of Ezraís head. His hand came away sticky and red with congealing blood.

Grasping the gambler more firmly against him, Buck started rocking gently back and forth, panic creeping into his voice as he yelled for help, for Nathan. Moments later, the healer emerged from the hubbub of townspeople like a dark angel against the billowing smoke. Together they had carried Ezra to Nathanís. Lowering him carefully to the bed, the healer immediately set to removing the gamblerís clothes, running his hands firmly, but gently over arms and legs and across his torso examining for broken bones.

Buck had watched the healerís face throughout the examination, looking for any sign, a frown, a grimace, anything to indicate the condition of the green-eyed man. When Nathan raised his eyes from the prone form of the gambler, it was to find Buckís blue ones fixed firmly on his, questioning, hopeful. The gunslinger released his breath in a long, slow exhalation of profound relief when the healer pronounced that Ezra seemed fine except for a large contusion across his abdomen and a probable concussion.

That had been last night. Morning had come, finding the bank nothing but blackened spars of wood standing stark against the sky, the metal vault undamaged, its door open, a dead man lying before it. Morning also found Ezra still unconscious, every hour that passed another hour that deepened the dread forming in the pit of Buckís stomach that the green-eyed man would not awaken, was indeed, more seriously injured than the healer originally thought. Looking up, Buck found himself at the bottom of the steps leading to Nathanís rooms. Smiling ruefully as he climbed the stairs, Buck was not surprised to find his feet had taken him in this direction. He hadnít been away for more than a few minutes at a time since last night.

Josiah was seated in a chair just outside the door, his eyes, as they turned at Buckís approach, calm and compassionate.

"Any change, Josiah?" Buck asked quietly, hope tinging his voice.

Smiling, he said, "Nathan thought Ezra was starting to come around." Reaching up a restraining hand to Buckís arm as he reached for the door handle, Josiah continued, "He doesnít want anyone in there right now. He kicked me out."

Sighing in frustration, Buck strode to the balcony railing, his eyes trailing down the street to the blackened ruins of the bank. "Find out yet who the dead man in the bank was, Josiah?" he asked, as he turned around and leaned back against the railing, his thoughts on the injured man lying on the other side of the door.

"Yes, his name was Pete Dobbs. Drifted into town a few days ago. No one seems to know anything about him other than he was always alone. His body is at the undertakerís. Chris wants Nathan to take a look at him before heís buried, which better be fast in this heat," Josiah replied, as he took his hat off and wiped the sweat from his forehead with his sleeve. Returning his gaze to the tall gunslinger, he searched the handsome face briefly before saying quietly, "No one blames you, Buck."

His gaze fixed on his feet, Buck looked up at the preacher from under his hat brim. "Claymore does."

Snorting, Josiah replied, "No one important blames you." He followed Buckís gaze as it traveled to Nathanís door. "And Ezra wonít blame you either."

"Claymoreís an idiot, Buck." Both men turned to see Chris, the lengthening shadows cast by the sunset making the black-clad man nearly invisible as he stood at the head of the stairs. Moving to stand next to Buck at the railing, he continued, "Hell, all heís interested in right now is keeping his job, which donít look good." Scanning Buckís face appraisingly, he shot a worried glance at the preacher who raised his eyebrows and shrugged.

Clearing his throat, Chris said, "Howís Ezra? What are we doing-"

At that moment, Nathanís door opened. Buck and Chris strode over quickly as Josiah rose from his chair, all three men facing Nathan expectantly as he exited and quietly closed the door behind him. He leaned back against it, his eyes closed as he scrubbed a hand across his face tiredly.

Impatient, Buck said, "Well? Is he awake?"

Opening his eyes, Nathan avoided Buckís gaze as he looked out at the setting sun. "Yeah, heís awake."

Buckís initial surge of joy was short-lived as the grim tone of the healerís voice and the concern shadowing his eyes registered on him. He glanced at Chris as the black-clad man said warily, "But?"

Looking at the three men in turn, Nathan closed his eyes again briefly, before opening them and taking a deep breath. "But he canít see. Heís blind."

Ezra lay in bed, his world swathed in velvety blackness just as his eyes were now swathed in soft cloth, "to protect your eyes from the light," Nathan had said. His midsection ached and was sore to the touch, the result of a large bruise, though the healer said he was "lucky" no ribs were broken. His head throbbed mercilessly and was filled with a cacophony of noise, the result of a constant ringing in his ears that had been his companion since he had awakened, and more immediately, the result of a babble of voices across the room.

"Gentlemen, I wish you wouldnít talk about me as if I werenít even in the room. I have retained my ability to hear."

"Sorry, Ezra, weíre just trying to decide whatís best to do, go for the doctor in Eagle Bend or the one in Bittercreek," the voice of the healer replied placatingly.

Struggling to shift himself upright against the pillows, the gambler grimaced slightly as his abdomen clenched in pain at the movement. Two strong hands gripped his upper arms, lifting him against a supporting chest as the soft rustle of cloth against cloth indicated the pillows were being adjusted, the scent of fresh air and the faint musk of sweat wafting to his nose as he was gently laid back. ĎNathan?í

"That better, Ezra?"

ĎBuck.í He should have known. The man had been hovering over Ezra like a mother hen since he had awakened the previous evening, fluffing pillows, tucking in blankets, offering food and water, incessantly asking him how he felt till he thought he would scream from the frustration of being fussed over as if he were a child. Two things stopped him, however.

His world had been reduced to his mind, his body, existing in total darkness and surrounded by an amorphous bubble of sounds, some loud and clear, some soft like whispers on the edge of consciousness, of movement buffeting him from all sides. Smells-the fresh air and scent of sweat on Buck, the medicinal smells of Nathanís room, the aroma of food tickling his nostrils as he bent over his breakfast-these were clear to him. They didnít frighten. The others though were a muddle of the familiar and the unknown, a once innocuous sound such as a doorknob turning causing him to tense and stiffen in wariness until the person entering spoke and could be identified by his voice. His existence had shrunk to just his physical being, all else apart, mysterious and threatening. He had never felt so alone. He didnít want to be by himself for even a minute. So, annoying as it may be, the solicitous presence of Buck and the others was a comfort, a need.

The other thing that stopped him was the concern and guilt flooding the other manís voice every time he spoke. Ezra wasnít used to the first, and he didnít understand the guilt. True he didnít remember the explosion. Nathan said short-term memory loss was to be expected after a concussion, that the incident might come back to him. From what the others had told him however, Buck had not been at fault. So the concern and the guilt were confusing, but still undeniably there.

In answer to the other manís question, Ezra replied, "Yes, Mr. Wilmington, thank you." Smoothing the folds of the blanket covering him, he directed his attention to the other men in the room. "Gentlemen, since you were bandying about the respective reputations and qualifications of the doctors in the vicinity, not your normal venue of conversation, might I assume this is in reference to me?"

"Of course it is, Ezra. Weíre just trying to decide which doctor would be best," the healer explained patiently.

The other manís tone struck Ezra as one an adult would use to explain something to a child that was really beyond his understanding. It grated on his nerves causing him to respond acerbically, "Then why donít you ask me my opinion as I am the concerned party? Unless my injuries have enfeebled my mind, as well?"

"Heís right, Nathan. It should be his choice," Chris said from across the room.

"Thank you, Mr. Larabee," Ezra said gratefully. "So, Mr. Jackson, what are my options?"

Wood scraping against the floor let the gambler know that the healer was pulling a chair up to the bed as he settled beside his patient. "Eagle Bend is closer, just a dayís ride. The doctor could be here day after tomorrow, but, just my opinion mind, heís a quack. Now Bittercreek is a couple days ride. Itíd be four days before the doctor could get here, but he knows what heís doing. Not sure if waiting that long to have a doctor take a look at you might not be good."

"So, two days for the quack from Eagle Bend, or four for the good doctor in Bittercreek." Considering, he asked, "You think the doctor in Bittercreek knows what heís doing?"

"Yeah, everything I hear says heís a good man," the healer responded.

"Mm hmm. Then why donít you just take me to Bittercreek rather than waiting for him to come here?"

"Nathan, is he up to travel?" Chris asked, moving closer to the bed.

"Tomorrowíd be alright, if he gets enough rest today. His headíll still be hurting, but I think itíd be alright. Weíll have to go in a wagon though. Itíd be best if someone comes with us too. Maybe JD-"

"Iíll go," Buck replied from his place on the other side of his bed, his tone stating it as a fact rather than an offer that could be refused.

"That okay with you, Nathan?" Chris asked.

"Yeah, sure."

"Iíll ask Mrs. Potter if we can borrow her wagon." The deep voice of the preacher rumbled across the room causing Ezra to jump. He hadnít known Josiah was in the room, hadnít heard him enter, this ignorance making him feel vulnerable and defenseless. A reassuring hand, Buckís, was placed on his arm, squeezing gently.

"Sheís always been partial to you, Ezra. Iím sure she wouldnít mind," Josiah said, a smile in his voice.

"Alright boys, now that thatís settled, git out of here and let my patient get some sleep," Nathan said, his voice brooking no argument.

As the men moved to comply with the healer, Buckís hand patted Ezraís arm lightly before he rose, saying softly, "Sleep well, Ezra."

Later as he drifted off to sleep listening to the quiet bustling of the healer about the room, Ezra could still feel the warmth of Buckís hand on his arm, reassuring and soothing.

Buck stood in the middle of the hotel room in Bittercreek staring at the one bed. When they had arrived at the hotel, he had unthinkingly headed into the double room with Ezra, Nathan raising a quizzical eyebrow, but wordlessly handing Buck a bottle of liniment before heading down the hall to the other room. Now as he stood there gazing at the bed, Ezra perched on the edge, he wondered if he had made a serious mistake.

Glancing at the gambler, he saw Ezraís head tilted in his direction. ĎProbably wonderiní what the hell youíre doiní just standing here like a big, dumb idiot not sayiní anything for the last five minutes.í

Clearing his throat, he said, "Well, best get to bed." Picking up Ezraís saddlebags, he started to rummage through them. "JD pack you a fancy silk nightshirt to wear?"

With a short chuckle, Ezra said, "Not unless he took it upon himself to gift me with one. I generally donít wear anything to bed."

Raising panic-stricken eyes to the gambler, Buck let out a soft breath of relief when he continued, "For the sake of propriety though, Iíll just sleep in my underwear tonight." With that, Ezra stood up and started to remove his clothes.

Buck watched for a few moments, torn between offering to help or letting the gambler do it himself. He knew Ezra hated to be fussed over, had admired and wondered at his restraint since he was injured at putting up with not just Nathan, but five other nursemaids. As he watched the gamblerís fingers, usually so sure and graceful when manipulating a deck of cards, so steady and firm when handling a gun, fumble with buttons, and when he saw the wince of pain as he bent over to remove his boots, he could stand it no longer.

Striding over to Ezra, he said, "Let me help," his hands reaching out to pull off Ezraís boots.

Ezra swatted his hands away. "I can do it." Then his voice softening, he said, "I would appreciate it though if you could hang my clothes up, assuming this hostelry has a closet, that is."

Smiling and shaking his head, Buck said, "Yeah, this Ďhostelryí does. Donít worry. Iíll hang Ďem up nice and neat soís youíll look real pretty for the doctor tomorrow."

Ezra harrumphed and thrust his clothes in the general direction of where Buck was standing. Buck chuckled as he gathered the clothes in his arms, then picking up the bottle of liniment, he pressed it into Ezraís hand. "You need help with that?"

"Thank you, no, Mr. Wilmington."

Hanging Ezraís clothes carefully in the closet, he turned to see the gambler once again seated on the edge of the bed, his underwear pulled down to his waist as he applied the liniment to the inflamed area over his abdomen. The light from the oil lamp on the nightstand cast a soft glow over the gambler, creating a mesmerizing play of dark shadows and amber light across the planes and muscles of his chest and arms, burnishing his hair a rich copper. Buck stood transfixed as he followed Ezraís hand smoothing the liniment across his middle in slow gentle circles. Feeling a heat flooding his body that had nothing to do with the late summer temperature, Buck pulled his gaze away.

ĎMaybe I can move these two chairs together, and sleep on them.í he gulped. Sighing, he sent up a silent plea. ĎLord, Iím giving you a second chance here. I asked for mercy before. Well, judging by all the lustful thoughts Iíve been having about Ezra, you didnít see fit to oblige. So Iím askiní you this time to just let me get through this night without embarrassing myself here.í

"Mr. Wilmington, could you please put this on the table?"

Buck turned and took the bottle of liniment from Ezraís outstretched hand, placing it back on the nightstand. As Ezra shrugged back into the sleeves of his underwear and slipped into bed, Buck tucked the covers up under his chin. Unconsciously smoothing a stray lock of hair from the gamblerís forehead, he trailed his hand down the smooth cheek, cool to his touch. "You warm enough Ez? You need another blanket?"

"Good lord, Mr. Wilmington! I donít even need this one," he said, as he separated the sheet and the blanket, flinging the latter to the foot of the bed. Settling back down, he smirked up at Buck. "Are you going to read me a story and kiss me goodnight, too?"

Heat suffusing his face, Buck laughed nervously and said, "Just go to sleep, Ez."

Turning the lamp down, Buck removed his clothes down to his underwear, and moved over to the chairs by the window. Pulling them together, he was in the process of trying to arrange them comfortably as a bed for his tall frame when Ezra said, "Mr. Wilmington, what on earth are you doing?"

"I thought Iíd sleep in these chairs. I donít want you to be uncomfortable."

Frowning, Ezra said, "Donít be ridiculous, Mr. Wilmington. This bed is certainly big enough for two." With that, he flipped aside the sheet on the unoccupied side, inviting Buck into his bed. Hesitating a moment, Buck moved towards the bed, deciding that trying to explain why he preferred to sleep in the chairs would arouse the gamblerís suspicions only resulting in more questions. Slipping under the sheet, Buck made sure no part of him touched any part of Ezra as he arranged himself as close to the edge of the bed as he could without falling out.

Putting an arm behind his head, he said, "You worried about tomorrow, Ezra?"

"Worried? No, I wouldnít say that," came the soft reply.

"No, you donít seem worried. Didnít even seem like it when you first woke back up. You kinda act like itís already settled, like you donít think thereís anything the doctor can do."

The gambler was silent a moment, then replied, "Iím not resigned to that yet, but Iíve certainly accepted it as the most likely possibility."

"Ez, thatís not right! Thereís always a chance, and even if this doctor canít help you, thereís always others we can go to."

"I donít have that kind of luck, Mr. Wilmington."

"What the hell you talkiní about Ezra? Youíre the luckiest man I know," he exclaimed, dismayed at the resignation he could hear in the gamblerís voice and words.

Giving a rough snort of laughter, Ezra said, "My luck runs to inconsequentials, Mr. Wilmington. Yes, I win far more than I lose at the gaming tables, would probably win most any wager youíd care to make. I was even lucky enough not to have my money in the bank when it blew up. I lost my sight instead. It may surprise you, Mr. Wilmington, but even I value my eyesight more than money."

"You couldaí lost a hell of a lot more than that, Ezra! You couldaí been killed. Now if thatís not luck, I donít know what is. As to being blind, we donít know thatís the way itís always gonna be. You gotta believe thereís a chance."

"Iíll try, Mr. Wilmington. Good night," he said as he turned on his side, his back towards Buck.

Shortly, soft even breathing indicated the exhausted man had fallen asleep. Looking at his bedmate, his cloth-clad back gleaming white in the moonlight streaming through the window, Buck thought about what the other man had said, the resignation in his voice and the bleakness of his words. Closing his eyes, he sent up another silent plea, praying that all went well with the doctor tomorrow and that whatever demons from his past had hold of Ezraís spirit would loosen their grip and allow Ezra to hope.

Part Three

"What the hell do you think you're doing?" Nathan exclaimed, exasperation straining his voice.

"It's time for another application of this odorous emollient, is it not?" Ezra said, his nose scrunching as he delicately sniffed the fumes wafting from the open bottle of liniment he was holding. "I was merely going to affect that application," he replied meekly as the healer grasped the neck of the bottle and removed it from the slender fingers of the gambler.

Carefully balancing a tray holding breakfast for Ezra and Nathan, Buck quietly closed the door to the room he shared with the gambler and moved to place the tray on the table in front of the windows, skirting the latest fray brewing this morning between the healer and his patient.

The morning had started well enough; quite pleasantly, in fact. Buck had awakened slowly, a drowsy lassitude permeating his long body as he languidly stretched his muscles and turned his head on the pillow. During the course of the night, he had moved from the edge of the bed to the center while he slept, so that as he looked over to his sleeping companion, he found his face within inches of the other man's. Buck smiled as he took in the appearance of the gambler as he slept, his soft hair tousled, stray locks a rich brown as they curled over the white bandage covering his forehead and eyes, one hand tucked under his face while the other arm wrapped around his middle as if bracing it against pain. The smooth, relaxed features of his face seemed to indicate that he was sleeping peacefully, however, his breathing even, caressing Buck's face in warm, sweet exhalations.

Buck shifted onto his side, enjoying the unguarded view of the gambler, sleep having stripped him of the studied air of nonchalance he usually carried like a shield, revealing the man underneath, a man more youthful and vulnerable than the one presented in wakefulness. A surge of protectiveness swept through Buck as he recalled the gambler's words of the previous evening, words at once resigned and pessimistic, designed to defend and protect. What had his life been that he felt the need to hurt himself before others and outside influences could do it first?

Raising himself on one elbow, Buck reached out a hand to the other man's shoulder to gently awaken him when a loud knock at the door was followed by the abrupt appearance of the healer. Seeing Buck awake and leaning over the sleeping form of Ezra, the healer paused a moment, frowning before uttering a wary, "Mornin'."

Flushing slightly, but keeping his gaze steady with that of the healer, Buck drew back and said, "Good morning, Nathan. Sleep well?"

"Hmm, yeah, alright." He paused before continuing. "Howíd he do?" Nathan asked, as Ezra began to stir.

Rolling onto his back, the gambler sighed, bringing one arm up to lay across his forehead, the other flopping onto the mattress as he said, "How's an invalid supposed to get any sleep around here with you two jabbering away? Itís not exactly the glorious sound of birdsong one expects to grace one's ears when he awakens."

Snorting, the healer said, "And what would you know about morning birdsong? Youíre never up in the morning."

"On the contrary, I know quite a bit about it as it usually lulls me to sleep after a hard night of gambling," Ezra said, grinning impishly. Bracing his hands on the mattress, he struggled to sit up, his movements stiff and slow. Immediately the healer's steadying arm was supporting the gambler's back, his other arm pulling back the sheet and swinging Ezra's legs over the side of the bed.

With that gesture, the healer erupted into a flurry of activity and officiousness, issuing instructions to Buck to make arrangements for a bath for Ezra and reciting the menu for the gambler's breakfast as he quelled the gambler's protests that he didn't want anything to eat. Sitting his patient down in a chair by the window, Nathan lowered the window shade before removing the bandage wound around Ezra's head for one last examination of his own before their visit to the doctor later that day.

Buck hurriedly dressed and fled the room to carry out his appointed tasks, flinging a last glance over his shoulder to see Nathan unbuttoning Ezra's underwear to examine his abdomen, gently, but firmly, pushing the gambler's fingers away as he tried to undo the buttons himself. Ezra's hands dropped to the arms of the chair, fingers tensing, his mouth tightening in a frown.

As Buck closed the door and headed downstairs, he again wondered at Ezra's restraint in allowing the healer to direct his actions without protest since he was hurt, silently letting Nathan poke and prod him at will, and generally smothering him with his fussing and fretting. Buck knew the healer's actions were the result of genuine concern and caring for his patient, but the end result was a subtle erosion of the gambler's control and independence. Obviously, the nature of his injury required a certain amount of dependence on the others, but not to the degree that the gambler was allowing. Buck had seen that spark of independence last night when Ezra refused his help undressing, in fact, had felt a rush of pride that the gambler had felt able to be more open, more his old self than he was with Nathan and the other five.

Now, after placing his tray on the table by the window, Buck turned and again saw Ezra's lips clenched tightly as if biting back a reply, his hands crumpling the sheets beneath him as Nathan took the liniment bottle away from him. Buck frowned, anger igniting as the healer assumed control and as, yet again, the gambler allowed his independence to be diminished.

Another emotion was making its presence known, as well. As Buck stood watching, the healer poured some of the liniment into one hand, and started applying it to Ezra's abdomen, his large, dark hand moving purposefully over the gambler's skin, smoothing the liquid over the large contusion and catching the drips that trickled down to the other man's waistband. The newborn worm of jealousy formed in the pit of Buck's stomach as he watched that hand touching Ezra's skin. Objectively, he knew Nathan was only doing so to apply medicine to his patient's wound. The unobjective part of him, the part that was causing him to stand fidgeting and resentful, wanted to go over there and yank that hand away, replacing it with his own to caress that skin with the medicine.

As Nathan put the top back on the bottle and buttoned Ezra's shirt, he looked over at the tray Buck had brought up with him. "Ainít you eatin'?" he said, noticing the tray held only two plates.

"Uh, I ate downstairs. Figured I'd just be in the way up here," he replied, refraining from adding that he doubted that watching Ezra take a bath while he sat eating breakfast would be good for his digestion.

Gripping Ezra's arm, Nathan started to guide him to the table. "Come on now. Let's get you breakfast."

Ezra gently shrugged out of Nathan's grip, and said, "I want to shave first."

Rolling his eyes, Nathan said, "Ezra, you're just going to see the doctor. A few whiskers ain't gonna bother him. Now come on and eat your breakfast. I'm hungry," he said as he again took Ezra's arm and guided him into a seat at the table.

"Mr. Jackson, I will not present myself to the good doctor with two days worth of growth on my face, especially as he is no doubt going to be examining me at very close quarters. I may be blind, but I will not appear in public unkempt. Now if you don't wish to help me, please just kindly hand me the razor, and I'll do it myself," Ezra replied evenly as he carefully pushed himself away from the table and rose, a steadying hand lightly gripping the back of the chair.

Nathan coughed, choking on the bite of food he had just put in his mouth, his fork clattering to his plate as he gazed at the gambler in bemused consternation. "You canít be serious," he said, rising hastily as Ezra headed in the direction of the washstand, bumping into the corner of the bed on his way and stumbling.

Buck had been leaning against the wall watching the exchange between the healer and the gambler, pleased at Ezra's act of defiance, the first show of independence with the healer he had shown in days. As he watched the other man move across the room, his hands itched to reach for him and guide him safely, but he stopped himself. Much as a toddler needs to take a few tumbles on its way to learning to walk, Ezra needed to risk his first few steps in order to retain his control and independence. So as he watched nervously, Ezra crossed the room, miscalculating where the corner of the bed was and losing his balance in the process. In one swift stride, Buck was before Ezra, his hands gripping his shoulders, preventing him from knocking his head against the bedpost. A few tumbles, yes. Serious injury, no. 'Never again. Not when I can stop it.'

"Ezra, you cannot shave yourself. You can't even-" The healer cut himself off as Buck glared at him over the gambler's head.

Feeling the muscles beneath his hands stiffening at the healer's words, Buck turned to Ezra and said quietly, "He's right, you know. You can't do it yourself," hastily adding as he saw the full lips of the gambler thin in a frown, "Not just yet anyway. Let me help you with it today, alright?" he coaxed, bending slightly at the knees to bring his face level with the gambler's. The other man slumped beneath his hands and sighed before nodding his acquiescence.

Smiling broadly, Buck patted Ezra on the shoulder before sitting him on the bed. "You just git on with your breakfast, Nathan," he said waving the other man back into his seat.

Nathan grunted and resumed eating while Buck pulled a chair over to the washstand and set about getting things ready. Sitting the gambler down, Buck wound a towel around his neck, tucking the edges in around the collar of the pristine white shirt. The backs of his knuckles brushed against Ezra's still damp hair in the process, the strands clinging softly and disengaging with feather soft tickles as he reluctantly pulled his hands away from the tantalizing tendrils.

Picking up the brush, Buck lathered the other man's face with the cream, smoothing it over cheeks and around the nose and mouth. Just as he was about to tilt Ezra's chin back to reach his neck, the gambler tilted his head back, exposing the long column of his throat to the brush. Even clenched around the brush, his hand seemed large against the slender neck. Tenderly, Buck swept the brush across the jaw line and below, then set it aside and picked up the razor.

Having never shaved another man before, he decided to follow the example of the professionals and work from behind. He set to work using his left hand to tilt Ezra's face this way and that as he stroked the razor carefully over the soap-covered skin, the blade rasping slightly over two days worth of stubble. As he moved to his neck, he tipped Ezra's head back, the gambler giving more access by tilting his head back further and arching his neck much like a cat exposing its belly to someone it trusts. Buck started as Ezra's head came to rest against his stomach, igniting a spark of heat in his belly at the contact. He felt a thrill of excitement at the intimate contact the gambler was allowing him, out of necessity perhaps, but he wanted to believe that he wouldn't so easily allow it for someone else. He wanted to believe that it was because it was him that made Ezra so easily lean against his body, allowing the support and the touch out of trust and, maybe, hopefully, a growing sense of regard for the gunslinger. 'And I really don't want to think about his head laying against Nathan's belly like this when he took care of shaving him before we left Four Corners.'

Laying the razor down, Buck took the towel from Ezra's shoulders and wiped the excess cream from his face. Running his hand over the smooth, moist skin, 'just checking for stray whiskers,' he told himself, he was unable to resist temptation as he used his thumb to flick a dollop of lather away from the corner of the gambler's mouth, running it across the lush lower lip with a slow, light touch.

"How's that feel, Ez?" he said, his voice husky as he watched the other man's tongue snake out and travel the path his own thumb had followed along the full lower lip. 'Lord, that mouth is made for sin,' he groaned inwardly.

"I'm sure it's fine, Mr. Wilmington," he replied as his long fingers lightly traced his jaw line. "I never had any doubts about your tonsorial skills. Your own facial ornamentation is, after all, always splendid looking."

Buck grinned, a flush of pleasure rising at the compliment. "Well, good. Git to that breakfast then before it's stone cold."

"Too late for that," Nathan grumbled as the gambler made his way across the room. Moving to his side, the healer guided him into a chair and pressed the utensils into his hands as he explained the arrangement of the food on his plate.

Buck had started at the words of the healer, having forgotten that he was in the room. Now as he cleaned the razor and put away the shaving equipment, he met the eyes of the other man. Those eyes were appraising and questioning as they stared at Buck. He met that gaze steadily with his own, quirking his lips in a slight, almost defiant smile. The healer held his gaze for a minute before turning away, his attention again focused on his patient as Ezra futilely chased a bit of egg around on his plate.

Buck's eyes narrowed as Nathan put his large hand over Ezra's smaller one, guiding the fork to spear the fugitive food. He knew the healer was only trying to help a friend and aid a patient, but Buck couldn't quell the worm of jealousy that grew larger in his belly every time the other man touched Ezra.

After he was done eating, Buck helped Ezra on with his jacket, settling it across his broad shoulders with a gentle sweep of his hands across the back. Again he met Nathan's eyes over the head of the smaller man as the healer grasped Ezra's elbow and pulled him away from Buck and towards the door, saying, "Let's get goin'."

Nathan led Ezra down the stairs, his hand resting at the small of his back. Buck trailed behind, his eyes focusing on that hand. Sighing, he thought, 'Lust, guilt, concern, possessiveness, jealousy. Don't even much care that Nathan's worryin' on what I'm up to. This ain't just wanting his body anymore.'

As they emerged from the hotel into the oppressive midmorning heat and wound their way through the busy sidewalks towards the doctor's office, Buck knew what he was feeling wasn't going away anytime soon, and he didn't think he wanted it to. Smiling ruefully, he thought, not for the first time, 'Chris'd have my hide.' As they stepped off the sidewalk to cross the street, the sunlight caught in Ezra's hair turning it into a molten display of browns and reds, glistening softly and inviting touch. 'My touch,' Buck said to himself adding, 'And Chris can go to hell.'

"I don't see why I can't ride up beside you, Mr. Jackson," Ezra said, a note of petulance seeping into his tone.

"Ezra, I told you why. It's the same reason you couldn't sit up here when we were comin' to Bittercreek. Without your sight and with your concussion, your sense of balance is off. First bump in the road and we'd be pickin' you up from the dirt." As the gambler opened his mouth to protest, the healer forestalled him. "And yes, I know you're feelin' better. And the doctor said we could go back to Four Corners today, but one of the conditions was that you continue to ride in the back of the wagon. And you agreed. And that's that."

"Mr. Jackson-"

"Now, Ez, why don't you just sit back and enjoy the ride. You look real lordly sittin' there all propped up by those sacks and all. Just think how the folks'll be lookin' at ya when we get back home."

Snorting, the gambler said, "Yes, I'm sure they'll be duly impressed with my being toted around like a child in a conveyance meant for the cartage of foodstuffs and dry goods." Ezra shot what he hoped was a feral look at the gunslinger, but judging by the snickers emanating from the other man, his attempt failed. 'Ah well, it would be difficult to look fierce when half your face is covered in bandages and you're perched on a pile of potato sacks.'

"It's for your own good, Ez. You heard what the doctor said. 'Sides Ezra, you'd best listen to Nathan. He's done alright by you so far, hasn't he?"

This raised a sardonic eyebrow on the gambler, it's effect lost due to the bandages. Ezra settled for an exasperated "Hmpfh," as he settled himself against the side of the wagon in as dignified a pose as possible, ignoring the other man's soft chuckles. He heard Buck pull his horse up beside Nathan in the driver's seat, his laughter floating back to the gambler's ears.

Sighing, Ezra leaned his head against the side of the wagon, turning his face up to the sun. Listening to the other men as they bantered good-naturedly, the gambler reflected that the visit to the doctor that morning had affected them all in more ways than one. When the doctor had delivered the news that he believed Ezra's blindness to be due to gazing directly into the bright light of the flames of the explosion, and in his considered opinion, given time and care, his sight should return, Ezra felt his world lurch. For once, it seemed that the fates were on his side in something that really mattered.

He smiled hesitantly as Buck immediately let out a whoop and caught Ezra up in a fierce bear hug, his arms tightening as he whispered in the smaller man's ear, "I knew Lady Luck was with you on this one," before releasing him to Nathan.

The healer gripped him on the shoulders, his fingers flexing convulsively, a smile in his voice as he said, "Congratulations, Ezra." One hand still on the gambler's shoulder, he patted him absently as he turned to the doctor, shooting a barrage of questions at him as to the future care of his patient, his relief evident.

While the doctor had been examining Ezra, Nathan had given a detailed account of how he had been injured and how the healer had treated his wounds. His anxiety and uncertainty that his skills may not have been enough, may have, in fact, contributed to Ezra's plight, was readily apparent as he quizzed the doctor on how he should have proceeded. The doctor's reassurances that the healer had done everything as it should have been, and his prognosis for Ezra's future recovery seemed to have relieved the healer of a heavy burden, his mood lightening steadily as they departed Bittercreek.

The discord he had sensed between Nathan and Buck seemed to have lightened, as well. He wasn't sure what had caused it, but ever since they had left Four Corners, there had been uncharacteristic silences between the men, disagreements, and a tension that was palpable. Now, as he listened to the soft rumble of their voices punctuated with the occasional burst of laughter, he hoped things were back to normal between them. He also hoped the lessening of the guilt he knew they both felt would result in a cessation of their mother hen behavior towards him. Their nearness was reassuring in his dark world. He truly dreaded being alone in that void, but having to depend on others for even basic needs was a humbling experience, one he hoped would be short-lived.

Slouching down, he yawned broadly, the warmth of the sun and the gentle bouncing of the wagon making him drowsy.

Nathan's deep voice drifted to his ears. "Huh, looks like he was listenin' to the doc after all. Nap's just the thing for him."

Buck's reply was too soft to make out, but Ezra smiled slightly as he pillowed his face against a scratchy burlap sack. Nathan's care and concern, while smothering and inhibiting, had admittedly warmed Ezra, pleased him. That the two of them, with such disparate attitudes and philosophies towards life, had advanced from a wary working relationship to a hard earned, but steady friendship was a personal victory that he treasured. One he valued as much as his relationships with the other men he worked beside though he was damned if he'd let them know it.

Buck, on the other hand, was becoming something of an enigma to him. Not just the man himself, but his own feelings towards him. While Nathan's solicitude and friendship heartened him, Buck's attentions elicited entirely different reactions from him. True, the gunslinger fussed over him, but always seemed to know when to back off and allow Ezra his own way. He had been there every step of the way so far, and Ezra knew he was beginning to depend on the other man, not just for his help with daily tasks, but for his emotional support as well. This dependency scared him. It had been a long time since he had allowed himself to relinquish even a tiny bit of his independence to another. Lessons learned long ago taught him how brutally that could backfire on you. Nevertheless each day he found himself tearing down just a little bit more of the walls he'd erected around himself years ago, entrusting more of himself to the other man.

Then there was the other thing. The way he was beginning to respond to Buck's touch. The comfort and ease of sharing a bed with the other man that he was certain he wouldn't feel with the others. The strength and reassurance he'd felt from just resting his head against Buck while he shaved him, and the tiny frisson of pleasure that quivered through him as Buck ran his thumb lightly against his lip, his callused fingers sweeping across his face in what felt like a caress. There was no denying the heat he felt burgeoning even now as he recalled the other man's tight embrace in the doctor's office, his breath a warm, soft whisper against his ear. No denying the sense of anticipation and rightness he felt as he expected and felt Buck's large hand come to rest at the small of his back as he escorted him out of the doctor's office.

All of these things terrified him. Leaving himself wide open and vulnerable to another wasn't a step he was sure he was ready to make. He was ready to allow that maybe Lady Luck was on his side where regaining his sight was concerned, but he didn't want to make odds on her faithfulness should he decide to do anything about his feelings for Buck. That he was even considering such a thing astounded him.

As his eyelids became heavy, he found himself soothed by the soft murmurs of the gunslinger's voice as he talked quietly with Nathan. 'Lord, what are you doing to me that just his voice calms me?' Snuggling deeper into his nest of lumpy sacks, his last thought as he drifted off to sleep was, 'Fate is kind to me with the inconsequentials, but you, Mr. Wilmington, are most definitely, not inconsequential.'

Part Four

"Buck, we need to talk."

Buck looked down at the restraining hand on his arm then back up into the large brown eyes of the healer. The lightness and camaraderie with which they'd started their trip back to Four Corners had gradually given way to a renewed tension between himself and Nathan as the afternoon progressed. As the gambler drowsed in the back of the wagon, they had carried on their conversation in soft voices, voices that eventually dwindled to long silences as neither man wished to waken Ezra from a much-needed healing rest.

As the day wore on and conversation ceased entirely, the lazy afternoon quiet was broken only by the occasional squawking of a bird or the buzzing of insects and the sound of wagon wheels and horses' hooves grinding the fine dirt of the trail. Buck found himself dropping back from riding beside Nathan where he sat in the driver's seat to a position parallel to the back of the wagon, his gaze more often than not drawn to the sleeping form nestled amongst the burlap bags piled there.

Sunlight slanting through the overhanging branches of trees lining the road dappled the gambler with a shifting pattern of golden light and the fluttering shadows of leaves. The steady, even breathing of the other man assured Buck that he was still asleep even as his lips curved in a gentle smile of pure innocence. Buck's own lips answered that smile with one of his own as he chuckled inwardly at the contradiction that innocent smile presented when he compared it with the waking man he knew. The man of the sardonic wit, the sharp, crafty mind always looking for an angle, his poker face always firmly in place. Buck wanted to know both sides of the man that was Ezra Standish. Only then would he know the true, whole man, and with clarity of astonishing simplicity and certainty, Buck realized that reconciling the dichotomy of this man was something he very much wanted to do. He wanted to be the one, the only one, to hold in trust the secrets, dreams, desires and history that made this man the enigma that he was.

Only just realizing what this man meant to him, Buck's eyes again strayed to the stirring figure in the back of the wagon. Rolling over onto his back, the gambler dislodged his hat bringing his face into the full light of sunshine as the wagon emerged from the stretch of trees that had been shading their path. Leaning from his saddle, Buck reached over to tilt the hat back over his face to protect it from the sun. His hand stayed though before he reached it, dropping instead to sweep back the hair that had fallen over the gambler's forehead. Relishing the silky texture, he carded his fingers through the strands gently, careful not to awaken the sleeping man. His eyes traced the fine-boned features below the white bandage before slanting the hat brim so that it cast a shadow across that face, all the while wishing he could see into the other man's green eyes, and hopefully see a reflection of his own burgeoning feelings.

As he had straightened in the saddle, he felt the healer's eyes on him just as they were now focused on him. Then they had been filled with shrewd speculation. Now Buck only saw concern and understanding in their depths.

Sighing, he leaned back against the wagon and said, "Yeah, Nathan? What do we need to talk about?"

Releasing his grip on the other man's arm, Nathan said, "You know what, Buck."

"Maybe you better tell me, Nathan, 'cause I'm not sure I do."

Heaving an exasperated sigh of his own, Nathan leaned against the wagon beside Buck transferring his gaze from the lean gunslinger to the gambler who sat beside the fire in the middle of a small clearing underneath a sheltering copse of trees. Shaking his head and rolling his eyes to heaven, Nathan gave a rough snort of laughter and said wryly, "Never thought I'd have to be askin' this, but since you seem to want me to spell it out for youÖ. I'm askin' just what are your intentions towards Ezra?"

Smiling noncommittally and raising a quizzical eyebrow, Buck asked, "What makes you think I've got any 'intentions' towards Ezra?"

Hmpfhing, Nathan said, "I got eyes, Buck, and they work. I see the way you look at him, the way you touch him. And I don't need eyes to hear the way the whole tone of your voice changes when you talk to him. Now what's goin' on with you?"

Narrowing his eyes, his voice tight, Buck replied, "I ain't sayin' anything is goin' on, but if there were, what business is it of yours? Why all this concern all of a sudden about Ezra?"

Surprised at the underlying hostility in the other man's voice, Nathan studied his face for a moment noting the tight lips and the hard eyes before the shock of its cause suddenly hit him. His face erupting in a smile, his eyes filled with restrained mirth, the healer said, "Buck, I ain't interested in Ezra that way. You'd best not be lettin' your mind go down that path either 'cause you're gonna be hearin' that question again from Chris or one of the other boys. You ain't hidin' it well, Buck."

Objectively Buck had known that Nathan didn't have the same feelings for the gambler that he did. That didn't stop the relief that coursed through him though at hearing it confirmed by the healer's words and seeing the truth of it in his friend's eyes. Smiling ruefully, he said, "And what do you think 'it' is that I ain't hidin' well?"

Gazing at the gunslinger, Nathan replied, "At first I thought it was guilt, just like I been feelin'." At the startled look Buck gave him, the healer continued, "You know. What could I have done differently. Did I do anything I shouldn't have. You have no idea how worried I was that something I did, or didn't do, mighta made things worse for him." Taking in the grimace that flickered across Buck's face, Nathan said softly, "Well, maybe you do at that. But Buck, there wasn't anything either one of us coulda done different."

"Nathan, there wasn't any need for you to feel guilty. You did the best you could for Ezra, just like you always do for all of us."

Lips twisting sadly, his eyes wistful, the healer replied, "I ain't no doctor though. Gotta realize that I can't hold myself responsible for things that I ain't got control over. Gotta learn that there ain't no sense in wastin' time worryin' over mighta beens." Nathan turned his eyes to the man beside him, his voice quiet as he said, "'Course that's easy to say, but not so easy to do when you're talkin' about someone you care about as much as you care about Ezra, ain't that right Buck?"

Buck returned the steady gaze of the healer for a long moment seeing the question there, and the concern, before letting his eyes drift back to the gambler huddling close to the fire. A freshening breeze had arrived with the setting of the sun, its waning light casting a rosy hue across the clearing as the shadows of the trees lengthened and a sudden chill chased away the relentless heat of the last few weeks. Scuffing his toes against the dry grass and the hard earth, Buck idly speculated if the cooling winds would bring the relief of rain to the thirsty ground.

Taking his hat off, Buck swiped a hand through his hair distractedly before turning sideways against the wagon to more fully face the other man. Studying his hat, unconsciously twisting it with his hands before replying, his voice falsely jovial, he said, "Well, we all care about Ezra, Nathan."

When the other man didn't immediately reply, Buck looked up and met his uncompromising stare. Knowing Nathan wasn't going to let it go until he got a real answer, Buck's eyes again were drawn to Ezra. The gambler had also removed his hat, his head tilted into the wind, allowing the breeze to lift the tendrils of his hair in a mad dance while the slanting rays of the sun gilded the chestnut locks a fiery auburn. The gambler cocked his head to one side, a frown forming on his lips as a sudden forceful gust sent dry leaves scuttling across the parched earth.

Buck smiled indulgently. He could almost see the wheels turning as Ezra tried to puzzle out the sources of all the noises surrounding him. Rather than seeming fearful though, the gambler seemed to almost be enjoying himself, his lips curving slightly as the wind ruffled his hair, his smile broadening, perhaps with each new discovery. The raucous twitter of birds as they settled for the night. The snap of the fire as it spread its warmth. The rush of tree limbs whipping in the wind.

Buck felt a wave of warmth burst through him as he watched Ezra. The beauty of this man mesmerized him. His intelligence and humor fired his own mind causing him to see past the limits he thought were there to reach beyond. Ezra's bravery and loyalty had been proven over and over again. The only one who seemed to still doubt it was Ezra himself. Buck wanted to protect this man, to support him. He wanted to touch his body and his mind. He wanted to shower him with affection and love. Because that was what 'it' was. He loved Ezra. And suddenly it didn't matter if Nathan knew it. It was a part of himself that he wouldn't deny. Not to himself, not to Nathan, and not to Ezra.

His eyes shining with the surety of his newly found realization, Buck turned back to the healer. "But I-" He hesitated, conviction strengthening his voice as he continued, "I don't just care, Nathan. I love Ezra. I'm in love with Ezra."

A wide grin split the healer's face as he clapped Buck on the shoulder. "Glad to hear it Buck."

Buck stared at Nathan, a bemused expression on his face. He wasn't sure what he had expected from the healer with his revelation-anger perhaps, condemnation, concern. But not the pure pleasure shining from his dark eyes, nor the verbal confirmation of his approval. Cocking his head to one side, he raised an eyebrow and asked, "It doesn't bother you? Two menÖ." His words trailed off as the healer shook his head.

"Nah, Buck. I ain't gonna judge you. I seen too many people with nothin', nobody left that they loved." Sadness creeping into his words, Nathan watched the last sliver of the sun as it inched below the horizon. Softly, he continued, "Nah, Buck. I can't judge you or Ezra. I say take love where you find it 'cause ain't no guarantee you'll ever find it again."

Sighing, Nathan returned his attention to the gunslinger. Exchanging small smiles, Nathan said, "Just one thing though. What about all your women?" Raising his hand to forestall the other man as he opened his mouth to reply, Nathan continued, "No, you wait, Buck. You'd best be listenin' here. If you start something with Ezra, mean it. 'Cause if you don't, we'll lose both of you. It took a lotta time and effort to make Ezra one of us, to make him feel like one of us. If you hurt him, he'd leave for sure. And youÖ. Well, if Chris didn't kill you, I would."

The words were uttered with a quiet vehemence that left Buck in no doubt that Nathan meant every one. Tilting his head back, Buck saw the first stars appearing in the night sky, brilliant and clear in the crisp evening air. Shaking his head as he replaced his hat, he wondered at how totally his inscrutable gambler had wormed his way not just into his own heart, but into the hearts of the other five as well.

"Lord, Nathan, those women don't mean anything. That's just sex. And it ain't just women either. There's been a few men too." Grinning at the surprise on the other man's face, he continued, "I just don't noise that around. I never felt this way about anyone before, Nathan, and I don't ever wanna stop feeling this way. Hurting Ezra is the last thing I wanna do. All I want to do is make him feel about me the way I feel about him, and make it last."

Nathan studied the gunslinger for long moments. Apparently satisfied with what he heard and saw, he again clapped Buck on the shoulder. His lips again lifting in an infectious smile, he said, "Don't worry about that, Buck. I'm thinkin' our Mr. Standish might already be a little sweet on you. And if he ain't, well, I'll just help you push him in the right direction." Grasping Buck by the shoulders, he gave him a gentle shove towards the fire. "Now git on over there and start layin' some groundwork while I collect some more wood for the fire. It's gonna be a cold night. Lord, I ain't never seen such a sudden change in weather."

The healer pulled the collar of his jacket up about his neck muttering to himself as he collected wood leaving Buck to drift over to the fire. Hope surged through Buck at Nathan's words and at the welcoming smile curving the sweet lips of the gambler as he took his place beside him at the fire.

Buck added another piece of wood to the fire and stirred the embers watching the flames leap towards the night sky as sparks drifted on the breeze and winked out. Nathan lay huddled tightly in his blankets on one side of the fire, snoring softly. Buck had taken over the night watch about an hour previously, and during that time, he had been gradually moving closer and closer to where Ezra lay on the opposite side of the flames.

When he'd first relieved Nathan, the gambler had been sleeping peacefully, only the top of his head peeking out from the shroud of his blankets. Soon after though, it became apparent that the sleep of the other man was disturbed by nightmares as he began to twist and turn, muttering unintelligibly as a frown marred his face. Buck was debating whether or not to wake Ezra from his troubled sleep when the other man gasped loudly and pushed himself up, tangling in his blankets in his efforts to push them away.

Buck reached out for him, wrapping his arms around the smaller man even as he tried to push him away. Holding him tightly, Buck crooned softly, "It's all right Ezra. It's me. It's Buck. I've got you. Nothin's gonna hurt you. It's okay." As the other man's frantic movements slowed and finally stopped, Buck maneuvered Ezra's head against his chest, gently stroking his hair and rocking back and forth. "I've got you, Ezra."

ooOOOoo

Ezra woke from a nightmare of fire followed by an all-enveloping darkness, a darkness that traveled with him into wakefulness. Trying to free his arms and legs from the oppressive weight holding them captive, he felt strong arms encircling him, arms that steadied him, allowing himself to free his arms and push against the one holding him. A soothing voice gradually cut through his confusion, a familiar voice. Buck's voice.

Ezra felt unaccountably grateful for the gunslinger's presence, letting Buck guide his head to his chest where he could hear the steady, even heartbeat of the other man. Using that heartbeat as a counterpoint to his own racing heart, Ezra relaxed against the other man, letting the gentle rocking motion he started and the feel of the large hand stroking through his hair calm his jangled nerves and bring him back to the reality of full wakefulness.

Reveling in the feel of the arms holding him tightly and the chin resting lightly on the top of his head, Ezra remained still in the gunslinger's embrace for several long minutes, enjoying the comfort and security. More than that, he found himself enjoying the feel of the other man's body as his own arms circled his lean waist and his cheek rubbed against the firm planes of Buck's chest underneath the scratchy fabric of his jacket.

"You all right now, Ezra?"

Ezra immediately pushed away from the other man's chest, a warm flush sweeping across his cheeks, embarrassed at his weakness for clinging to the gunslinger like a child seeking comfort from his mother after a bad nightmare. 'Never let them see your weaknesses, son,' his mother's words echoed in his mind. They were words he'd always lived by. Abiding by this tenet had never failed him before. So why did he now feel a sense of loss as he moved against the restraining arms, and said, "Of course, Mr. Wilmington. Please forgive me. It can be confusing for me these days when I first wake up, especially if I've been dreaming. It takes me a bit of time to orient myself to my surroundings again." Trying to wriggle out of the arms that were even now drawing him back to the other man's chest, Ezra said, his voice questioning, "As I said, I'm quite all right now, Mr. Wilmington. You can let me go now."

"Well, Ezra, I don't know," Buck said in a low, husky whisper. "That seemed like a pretty bad nightmare. Can still feel you trembling. 'Sides, it's kinda nice, isn't it? You're all nice and warm from being cuddled up under your blankets, and I'm cold sittin' out here keepin' watch. You don't mind helpin' me warm up, do you?"

"I suppose not," the gambler said hesitantly as the larger man pulled him close and again settled his head against his chest.

Confused, Ezra allowed himself to be arranged against the other man. He would have expected barely concealed amusement, even scorn from the gunslinger at his show of weakness, not this concern, this tenderness. Even his plea to help him stay warm didn't fool the gambler. Buck obviously knew he still hadn't shaken off the remnants of the dream that had awakened him, the nightmare that even now seemed closer to a reality he didn't want to remember than a dream.

Ezra sighed and allowed himself to relax within the clasp of the larger man's arms. He was tired. Tired of waking from darkness to find himself still in darkness. Tired of being afraid that he would never see again. And he was afraid. Afraid that the life he'd made for himself in Four Corners, with the other six whom he now thought of as more his family than his own mother ever was, would be irredeemably shattered.

He wasn't sure why Buck was offering this comfort. Even considering the amount of guilt he knew the other man felt and the efforts he had been making to help with his care, being held this way seemed above and beyond the call. Still, he couldn't deny the sense of peace and security he felt within the circle of the other man's arms, the shiver of pleasure running up and down his spine at the gentle circles the gunslinger traced on his back. Nor could he persuade himself to insist that he was all right and move away from that haven.

Having no desire to go back to sleep, Ezra turned his face into the breeze, finding its chill gusts refreshing after so many days of intense heat. A pleasant lassitude flowed through his limbs as he listened to the wind sigh through the trees overhead. He smiled as he discerned the sleeping rumbles of the healer on the other side of the fire. And a small ball of warmth somewhere in his middle answered the warm exhalations of the gunslinger's breath tickling the top of his head.

"You want to talk about it, Ezra?"

The last thing he wanted to do right now was talk about his nightmare, preferring instead to enjoy the few moments of quiet peace in the other man's arms. Sighing, he replied, "Not really, Mr. Wilmington."

Buck shifted his arms, grasping Ezra by the shoulders and pushing him away a little, Ezra presumed so that he could get a good look at his expression. As he schooled his features into his trademark poker face, Ezra was glad, for the first time, of the bandage covering his eyes. His mother always said the eyes would always give away what a mark was thinking. Indeed, his eyes were the last feature he had mastered to impassivity at will, but he didn't think he would be able to call upon that skill with this man. He was no longer certain he even wanted to.

"Sometimes it helps to talk about it, Ezra. Get rid of those demons," Buck said softly.

Smiling slightly, Ezra said, "There's no demons here, Mr. Wilmington."

"No?" Buck said as Ezra felt the gunslinger's long fingers grip his chin and turn his face up.

"No," Ezra breathed as he moved his face out of the other man's grip, instantly regretting the loss of the warm fingers against his skin.

He didn't escape them for long though as they traveled to his hair, lightly stroking through his wind-ruffled strands before trailing down his cheek, leaving in their wake a streak of tingling nerve endings. Confused, the gambler cursed his inability to see the face of the other man, to pick out clues as to his intentions. Did he intend to set this fire that was coursing through his veins at his feather-light touch, to stir the butterflies swirling in his stomach as the gambler sensed the other man coming closer? Or was the gunslinger merely seeking to offer support and comfort to a friend? Unsure, the gambler moved back slightly only to feel the brush of the other man's legs against his own as he followed Ezra across the blankets.

"Where you goin', Ezra?" the gunslinger said, a smile in his voice.

'Damnit! Why am I acting this way? Buck's going to think I'm a complete and utter fool if I keep acting like this.'

Clearing his throat, Ezra replied in what he hoped was a steady voice, "Nowhere, Mr. Wilmington. I just thought you must be sufficiently warm by now." A low, throaty chuckle from the other man met his words as he again felt Buck shift closer. Trying to surreptitiously slip backward along the blankets, Ezra continued, "You asked about my dream. I think it was more of a memory actually about the night of the explosion."

Ezra startled as he felt Buck's callused fingers again brush against his face. "Do you want to hear about what I remembered?" he asked, his tone asking an unspoken question as he felt the other man's warm breath close against his cheek, his hair tickling his skin as it drifted against him in the wind.

Buck traced his thumb along the gambler's lower lip in a repeat of the gesture he had made the previous day. His voice husky, he said, "You can tell me anything you want to, Ezra."

Before he could say anything, the gunslinger's lips were pressed to his own, soft and warm, gentle as the other man's arms pulled him up against his chest, those arms tightening as his tongue flicked across the gambler's lips. Ezra's breath was stolen only to be replaced by the sweet exhalations of Buck as he opened his mouth. Buck's tongue slipped inside, gliding across his own slowly and languorously before being withdrawn. The lips retreated as well leaving Ezra dazed and almost able to believe he had just imagined the touch, it was so brief, if it weren't for the burning left behind on his lips, the surge of heat spreading from his middle, and the breathless man pressing his forehead against his own.

"Ezra," Buck panted, "when we get back homeÖ. We need to talk, Ezra."

Feeling the other man's slight quiver beneath his hands, Ezra gave a short laugh, surprise and amazement creeping into his voice. "Yes, I guess we do, Mr. Wilmington."

Chuckling softly, Buck wrapped his arms around the smaller man and pulled him into a hug, Ezra's head finding a home on the other man's shoulder. Ezra allowed the embrace, his body still tingling with the unexpected pleasure of feeling Buck's mouth on his own, a sense of anticipation seeping into his being at the thought that this man might care for him as more than just a friend. But there was one thing Ezra had to tell Buck now. One thing that couldn't wait till they returned to Four Corners.

"Buck, I remembered something about the night of the explosion. At least I think it's a memory and not just part of a dream. If I'm right, there was more than one person in that bank that night."

Part Five

That mouth. His mouth, the same one that could cut you dead with just a few words uttered in the politest of tones, but which was soft and tender and warm when pressed against Buck's lips. The way it moved and responded, the way it opened under his own mouth, set his skin on fire and awakened a multitude of butterfly wings that had yet to cease their fluttering in his stomach. Buck hungered for it again. It was the sweetest mouth he'd ever tasted. And he knew his appetite for it, and for the man himself, would never abate.

They had returned to Four Corners in the late afternoon, their arrival met by the remaining four of their group, each man taking his turn greeting the gambler and congratulating him on the prognosis for a complete recovery that he had received from the doctor in Bittercreek. Chris had shaken his hand and offered a "Good to have you back," the smile in his voice softening the brief statement. Vin had just stood there smiling at the gambler, then reached out and laid a hand on his shoulder, gently stroking it as the other man was hugged first by a beaming JD then caught up in a fervent bear hug by Josiah.

The townspeople allowed the seven this private reunion. Then after a decent interval, ones and twos of their membership drifted over, clapping Ezra on the back, shaking his hand, and offering their own words of greeting. Through it all, the gambler wore a shy, gratified smile, his words of thanks spoken with surprise and wonder evident in his voice. Buck could see the gambler becoming increasingly uncomfortable, however, his body jumping slightly with each clap on the shoulder or grab at his hand as townspeople approached him from all directions and as an embarrassed frown replaced his smile. Ezra inched backwards until he was almost touching Buck's chest. Buck smiled, a warm flush of pleasure streaking through him at this inferred seeking of support from the other man, and brought his hand up to the small of the gambler's back, lightly rubbing his thumb back and forth in a gentle caress. Ezra tilted his head in Buck's direction, his lips turning up in a grateful smile.

Buck caught the eyes of the healer over the head of the shorter man, and in unspoken agreement, they began edging the gambler towards the jail, pleading business that needed to be discussed amongst the seven. As he ushered the other man through the door, Buck heard a whispered "Thank you" as Ezra slipped past him. Steering the gambler into the chair behind the scarred, wooden desk, Buck glanced at the other five men pouring into the room, their attention occupied with quizzing Nathan about Ezra's condition. Taking advantage of the momentary distraction, Buck leaned down and brushed his mouth against Ezra's ear inhaling the clean scent of fresh air in the other man's soft hair as he murmured, "Anytime, Ezra."

Dropping his hand on the other man's back, Buck trailed his fingers to his shoulder giving a gentle squeeze before releasing the man and retreating to the corner of the room where he leaned against the rickety file cabinet standing there. As the other men settled about the small room, Ezra began to relate the events of the night of the explosion, the recollection of which had been initiated by his nightmare of the previous evening. More and more details were revealed to him as the last day of their journey back to Four Corners progressed, reinforcing the memories garnered from his nightmare. Two things had become evident. The soft whisperings he'd heard that night indicated that there were at least two people in the bank before the explosion. And the gambler was positive the clicking noise was that of the combination lock on the safe being turned followed by the faint squeal of the door as it was opened.

As the soft southern drawl floated across the room, Buck found himself losing focus on the words themselves, instead just relishing the sound of the smooth tones. His eyes lingered on the full lips as they formed the words, and as the tip of the gambler's tongue flicked out to lick the corner of his mouth as he paused. It had been a very long day's journey back to Four Corners, his mind and body reliving the moment of his first taste of Ezra. He wanted nothing more at this moment than to steal the gambler away and explore further that hot, tender temptation that had bedeviled and teased him all day with its nearness.

Now as he listened to the voices of the six men as they swirled around him, he was unable to tell if the heat suffusing his body was the result of the warmth emanating from the wood stove in the too close room, or if the cause was an internal fire all his own.

He became aware of the quiet of the room just as a sharp elbow was jabbed into his ribs. Looking up in surprise, Buck encountered Nathan's eyes sparkling with mirth, his lips quirking in barely concealed amusement as he indicated Chris with an inclination of his head.

Studiously ignoring the shrewd knowledge apparent in the healer's features, Buck turned his attention to Chris. "Uh, sorry. What did you say, Chris?"

The blue eyes of the leader of the seven stared hard at Buck, his lips thinning in a frown before replying. "Just askin' if you're sure you didn't see anybody circlin' 'round from the back of the bank after the explosion?"

Buck quashed the brief flare of anger that erupted at the other man's question, realizing Chris was merely reviewing all the facts available to them again in light of the new information, rather than accusing him of any laxity in performing his duties that night. Buck knew he had the faith and trust of his old friend. Still that knowledge didn't stop his own fear that he might have missed something that could identify a murderer, someone who had almost cost Ezra his life.

"Nah, Chris. I told ya'. All I saw was Ezra," he replied, unable to keep the remnants of fear remaining from that sight from creeping into his tone. "And a whole lotta' smoke."

The raspy voice of the tracker piped up from where he slouched against the desk beside Ezra. "Makes sense, Chris. Somebody coulda got out the back. The fire didn't spread to the back of the building right away. And if he didn't leave town, his tracks woulda just got lost in all of 'em left by the people puttin' out the fire."

"And the sound of the combination lock spinning would seem a fair indication that our miscreant is a bank employee," Ezra said.

"Which leaves us with Mr. Eustace Claymore," Chris said, the sneer audible in his tone, "and what, three bank tellers?"

"Yep, there's three, but my money's on Claymore," JD said. As the other men smiled indulgently at the younger man, he continued defensively, "What? Why not Claymore? He sure woulda had the ability."

"Much as we'd all like to think that Mr. Claymore is the guilty party, at this point we have no more reason to suspect him than any of the other bank employees," Josiah replied. "Can't accuse a man just because we don't like him, JD."

Buck grunted and said, "I take it Mr. Claymore hasn't changed his opinion of our abilities, eh?"

"Not only has Mr. Claymore not changed his opinion, he's felt free to give voice to it all over town," the preacher answered.

"And that's gonna stop," Chris snarled. "Startin' now, Claymore and his employees will be answerin' our questions. Tomorrow we'll start talkin' to the tellers, and Josiah, see if you can find out any more about that Dobbs fella'." As the preacher inclined his head in assent, Chris continued, "Right now boys, I think I'll have a little chat with Claymore. Saw him ridin' into town a little bit ago. Seein' as how he's such an important man in town, it's only right we question him first." Sarcasm dripping from his voice as a feral smile curved his lips, he said, "Only fittin' for a man of his position after all."

Smiles and small chuckles greeted the man's words as the other six men each considered themselves lucky that they would not be the other half of the 'little chat' with the formidable gunslinger.

As the little group broke up, Nathan and Josiah drifted off together followed by JD on his way to make the rounds of the town. A burst of cold air swept by them into the room as they left setting the few papers on the desk to scurrying and causing the blinds to flap against the glass of the windows. Buck found the coolness of the air welcome against his heated skin, the scent freshening the stale air of the small room. His eyes on the gambler, Vin hovering over him as they talked quietly, Buck started to move across the room towards them when he was stopped by Chris' hand touching his arm.

Impatient to leave and take the gambler with him, Buck glanced at his old friend before returning his gaze to the two at the desk wondering what they were discussing in such soft tones, their heads close together.

Distractedly, he said, "Yeah, Chris?"

"Just wonderin' if you were all right, Buck," Chris replied, a trace of concern coloring his tone.

Surprised, Buck was touched by the reflection of that concern he saw in his friend's blue eyes and in the slight, worried frown he wore. He also cursed the astuteness of the man who had known him for so long, knew him almost better than he knew himself. He could tell Chris anything. He knew that. They had seen each other through years of good times and bad, relished the finer qualities of the other just as they accepted the faults they each had occasion to demonstrate.

Chris had found a new family with the other six men, not a replacement for the family he had lost, but still one that had found a place in his heart. His friend would fight tooth and nail against any outside influences that threatened that family, just as Buck knew he would also protect it from itself. He didn't expect to be condemned or judged ill by the other man. He did expect concern for the ramifications a relationship between Ezra and himself would present for the group as a whole. Still he wasn't ready to discuss his newfound feelings for Ezra yet. Not until he knew there would be a relationship to be concerned about.

Again impatience surged through him and a sense of urgency to be alone with the gambler, to touch him the way he would never be able to touch him in public, to share with him the feelings and desires awakened in him by the other man. And hopefully to hear from those teasing lips that his feelings were returned.

Turning back to his friend, he said, "'Course I'm all right, Chris."

Another cold gust blasted into the room as Buck saw Ezra and Vin leave the sheriff's office, the door slamming shut behind them as it was sucked closed by the wind. Inching towards the door, Buck said reassuringly, "Just kinda tired from the trip, I guess."

Chris scanned his face with his shrewd gaze before nodding and saying, "Well, get a good night's sleep then. We've got our work cut out for us."

Buck nodded and smiled as he sprinted towards the door with all the eagerness of a child on the last day of school before summer vacation, feeling a small pang of guilt as the look of concern still on Chris' face registered on his mind.

Emerging into the street, Buck caught a glimpse of Ezra and Vin as they entered the livery stable. 'Damn infernal gambler,' he thought. 'Knows I want to talk to him, and what's he do? Goes traipsing off with Vin!'

Stuffing his hat firmly down over his head, Buck set off across the street, the strong wind buffeting against him. Iron gray clouds carrying the promise of rain obscured the sun. It was still late afternoon, but already the soft amber glow of oil lamps and lanterns was appearing in the windows of houses and of the shops still open. Running the last few yards to the livery, Buck slipped inside and quickly stepped to the side of the doors to avoid the continued onslaught of the weather.

Vin paused in the process of lighting a lantern at Buck's entrance, smiling and tilting his head in the direction of a stall as he said in response to Buck's questioning look, "'Ay, Buck. Ezra wanted to visit his horse. Make sure he's bein' taken good care of."

"Ah," Buck replied, peering into the stall with Vin as the other man hung the lantern on a hook.

Ezra had always doted on his horse, and it was clear from the way the horse was nuzzling against the chest of his master that he also held him in warm regard. Ezra withdrew some sugar cubes from his pocket and extended his offering. Buck raised an eyebrow in wonderment at the resourcefulness of the gambler in procuring those cubes in their short time back in Four Corners. He noted the slender, long-fingered hands gently stroking the glistening coat of the animal, hands always so nimble when shuffling a deck and so sure when handling a gun. Hands that had tentatively curled around his waist the previous night, their light touch searing through his clothes to his skin. Hands he hoped would soon be busy in even more intimate touches.

The chestnut coat of the horse gleamed in the glow of the lantern. Buck couldn't help grinning at the thought that the gambler had picked out the animal for just that feature as the color of its coat so closely matched the shade of its owner's own hair.

Stroking the horse's ears, Ezra said, "It would seem you gentlemen have taken splendid care of my friend here. Thank you, Mr. Tanner."

"Weren't nothin', Ezra. Wanted to make sure he was ready for ya' when ya' needed him," Vin replied.

Ezra smiled gratefully at the implied statement of the other man that he would be able to ride the horse again. Softly, he said, "Yes, well, I thank you. And so does my friend here." Ezra gave one last stroke to the horse's muzzle before stepping out of the stall. "Now could I prevail upon one of you gentlemen to assist me to my room?"

"I'll take ya', Ezra," Buck said quickly taking the gambler's arm in a firm grip. As the other man's lips quirked in a smug smile, Buck could just imagine the teasing, wicked gleam that would be in his green eyes if they weren't swathed in white bandages. 'Damn infernal gambler.'

Vin slipped into the stall for his own horse calling over his shoulder, "See ya' tomorrow, boys."

As they stepped out of the livery, Buck stepped to the side of Ezra that would shield him most from the raging wind. Gripping his elbow with one hand, Buck slid his other hand down Ezra's forearm and entwined his fingers with the other man's, satisfied that he had a good excuse to be holding Ezra's hand in public. Buck smiled to himself as the long fingers of the other man wrapped around his lightly after first hesitating.

Leaning his head down towards Ezra's so he could hear him over the wind, Buck asked, "Nathan say you could stay in your own room now?"

Smiling slightly, Ezra said, "I asked him if I could. I've got to start learning to be on my own."

Remembering the other man's dislike of being alone since the explosion, Buck said, "You sure you're ready for that?"

"No, but I've got to start sometime," he said with a smile of false brightness. Continuing, he said, "I believe I can expect one or two visits from the good Mr. Jackson during the evening, and perhaps the occasional coincidental visit from one of the other gentlemen as well."

Chuckling, Buck said, "You may just be right about that."

Reaching the saloon, Buck opened the doors that had been closed against the weather behind the batwing flaps. Leading the gambler through the sparse afternoon crowd, Buck guided his charge up the stairs and into his room.

Gray light filtered through the lace curtains at the windows leaving most of the room in shadow. The bandage circling Ezra's eyes shone startlingly white, his face below pale and seeming to float in the dimness as the dark clothes he wore caused his body to blend into the shadows. All day long, Buck had felt the need to talk to the gambler insistently nudging his mind like an itch that couldn't be scratched. Now that he was alone with the man, all thought of talk fled as the desire to touch overrode it thoroughly.

Remembering how the sudden touches of the townspeople as they greeted him had disturbed the gambler, Buck fought the urge to simply grab him up in a fierce embrace. Stepping to within a hairsbreadth of the other man, Buck raised a hand, gently trailing it down the smooth cheek. As Ezra leaned into the touch, Buck wrapped his other arm around the gambler's waist, pulling him against his own body. Leaning forward, he caressed the gambler's mouth with his eyes briefly before pressing his lips against those that had been teasing him all day with their words, with the way they moved, and with the remembered feel of them against his own.

It was even better than he remembered as, this time, Ezra's arms snaked around him and his lips opened beneath his own. As he slipped his tongue in the warm haven, its mate glided along its length as it traveled into the welcoming interior of his own mouth. Buck reveled in the tightening of Ezra's arms around him, in the combined sweetness of the gambler exploring his mouth as he swirled his own tongue through the hidden depths of his opposite, and in the little moan of pleasure that escaped the other man as they broke apart.

Wanting to taste as well the pale skin of the slim neck that seemed to glow with a pearly luminescence in the bleak light, Buck nipped and kissed his way across the smoothness, delighting in the little gasps of pleasure escaping the gambler's mouth.

His fingers tangling in Buck's hair, Ezra pulled his head away and said breathlessly, "I thought you wanted to talk."

"Talk?" Buck murmured as he moved to examine the other side of the neck he found so fascinating.

Ezra gently pushed Buck away slightly as he repeated, "Talk."

Buck looked down into the face of the other man, the cheeks flushed, lips slightly parted as little pants escaped them. And he heard in that one word, all the uncertainty and confusion he knew would be reflected in the green eyes if he could see them.

Cupping the other man's face in his hands, Buck whispered, "Why, Ezra, I just had one thing I wanted to say. I love you."

Buck held his breath as he felt Ezra still beneath his hands. Ezra lifted a hand tentatively to the other man's face and ran his fingers lightly across its planes as if trying to read his expression and feel the truth there. Buck felt a pang pull at his heart that the other man couldn't just believe the truth of the words.

While it was only the space of a few moments, Ezra's continued silence made Buck afraid that he had spoken too soon, that he had pushed too fast. A frown of concentration appeared on the gambler's face as he cocked his head to one side.

"Ezra?" Buck said, a note of hesitation entering his voice.

Ezra brushed his fingers against Buck's lips again and whispered, "Shhh. There's someone at the door."

A brisk knock immediately followed his words as a voice dripping with honey called out, "Ezra darlin'? Are you in there?"

Identifying that voice, Ezra lifted his face to the ceiling as he groaned, "Good lord!"

From the moment she strode briskly into his room with a rustle of silk, the scent of expensive perfume wafting behind her, Maude Standish had taken charge. Immediately ordering Buck to light a lamp, she, moments later, ordered him to turn it down as she and Ezra would be going over to the hotel for dinner anyway. As Ezra had protested, explaining that he and Mr. Wilmington were in the middle of a private discussion, she had shushed him preemptively. Exclaiming over the weight he had lost since her last visit, she had proceeded to pull him towards the door ignoring his muttered complaints and imprecations.

As an afterthought, Maude extended a half-hearted invitation to Buck that, of course, he was welcome to join them. Buck accepted that invitation with alacrity, and, after a moment's hesitation, Maude had graciously expressed her pleasure in being escorted to dinner by the two most handsome men in town. Ezra had almost laughed out loud and silently thanked God for Buck. Ezra had no desire to be alone with his mother right now, and that slight pause, while too subtle for most people to have even noticed, indicated that Maude had wanted to talk to him in private. And that always meant trouble.

Now as the three of them sat in the hotel dining room, Ezra again found himself grateful for the presence of the other man as it relieved him of his share of the burden of conversation. Much as he didn't want to be alone with his mother, he also felt the need to get a grasp on what had happened between him and the gunslinger before her arrival, to think and to sort out the myriad of emotions clashing inside him. Gratitude for the tenderness Buck exhibited. Surprise that the other man seemed to instinctually know that he needed that gentle, slow start. Passion and desire sparked to life by his touch, and a surge of elation and warmth at the man's words followed closely by more familiar emotions, confusion and doubt.

Ezra had thought that what Buck was feeling was lust. Now to have a declaration of love thrown into the mix turned his expectations upside down and sideways. For the first time since his injury, Ezra found himself fervently and actively hoping and praying that he regained his sight. He had heard the sincerity in Buck's voice, felt the earnestness in his features and in the slight trembling of the other man beneath his fingers, but he wasn't sure he could believe it until he saw it in his eyes. Again he heard his mother's words. 'The eyes will always give them away.' And Ezra was very much certain that he wanted to see it there because he was now sure that there would be a mirror reflection of it in his own eyes.

During the course of dinner, Maude had done most of the talking, chattering brightly about St. Louis and her most recent adventures with Buck throwing in the occasional brief comment. This two-sided conversation allowed him his much needed time to think. Gradually however the clatter of cutlery against china, the shifting of logs in the grate, and the hum of the other patrons' voices surrounding their table became more prominent, the conversation at their own table having dwindled to nothing. Ezra could almost feel the eyes of his companions on him, Buck's worried and concerned, his mother's intent and speculative.

Clearing his throat, Ezra said, "So Mother, you never did tell us what brings you to town."

Maude sighed briefly, and replied, "Why you, of course, darlin' boy. I came as soon as I received the telegram from Mrs. Potter concerning your accident."

Ezra turned his head towards Buck and drawled, "Mr. Wilmington, remind me to thank Mrs. Potter for her kindness."

Buck gave a short laugh as Maude continued, reprimand clear in her tone, "Of course, it would have been preferred to hear the news from my son or one of his friends."

Ezra heard Buck shift uncomfortably in his seat as he started, "Mrs. Standish, we-"

Ezra cut in, saying, "It's all right, Mr. Wilmington." Turning to his mother, he continued, "I asked them not to notify you, Mother. I really didn't want to worry you unnecessarily until it was certain what my lasting condition would be." It was a half-truth. He really hadn't felt it necessary to inform her of his injury until that matter was settled, but part of him was also afraid that she wouldn't come if she did know.

Ezra felt the cool touch of his mother's fingers on his hand as she leaned forward. "Ezra, IÖ." she paused, her fingers lightly stroking his own before scooping them up in a tight clasp, her other hand cupping his cheek. "You look tired, darlin'. Of course, you must be after your long trip and everything else that's happened. Let's get you back to your room and get you into bed. We can talk tomorrow after you've had a good rest," she said softly.

The tenderness and worry evident in his mother's words surprised Ezra and filled him with a remembered warmth he hadn't felt since childhood on the too rare occasions when he had been in her care, and she had tended to his illnesses and injuries. He returned the firm grip of her hand on his as they rose to leave, a hesitant smile gracing his lips.

As they paid their bill, Buck said, "Mrs. Standish, I can take Ezra back to his room. Don't make sense for you to go out into the cold what with you stayin' here in the hotel and all."

Maude replied pleasantly, "Thank you, Mr. Wilmington, but you'll have to forgive me. I'd like to tuck my boy in tonight. A mother's indulgence, you know." With that she patted Ezra's hand and tucked it in the crook of her arm as she led him away from the table. An embarrassed flush rose in his cheeks as Ezra heard Buck's snort of laughter at his mother's words.

Leaving the warmth of the hotel, Ezra welcomed the cool air rushing against his face. His mother's skirts billowed against his legs as she took his arm. The wind had not lessened as evening fell, its strong blasts setting hanging signs creaking ominously. Somewhere in the distance, Ezra could hear wood slapping against wood, a shutter or door caught in the grip of the wind. A scraping noise skipped past him at his feet, perhaps a discarded copy of the Clarion or a poster let loose from its moorings. The thud of Buck's boot heels on the wooden boardwalk and the jingle of his spurs were reassuring as the gunslinger trailed behind them in the deserted streets.

Ezra heard all these sounds with a new clarity and found himself enjoying trying to puzzle out the source of each one. Slightly ahead, he could hear the clanking of metal pots as they hung outside the dry goods store waiting for purchase. As they neared that store, the abrupt retort of a gun sounded from across the street and behind them, followed by the whizzing of a bullet ricocheting off one of those metal pans. Then the sound of Buck's voice crying, "Get down!" as first the small form of his mother, then the larger body of the gunslinger crashed into him taking him to the ground.

Part Six

"Damn it all to hell, Chris," Buck growled glaring at the other man in frustration.

Chris sat on the edge of the desk in the sheriff's office as he scrubbed a hand across the stubble on his chin, weariness etched in the lines of his face. "Buck, we can't haul four men's butts into jail just because they worked at the bank. We don't know whichÖ. Hell, we don't know if any of 'em had anything to do with the explosion or the shooting last night," Chris explained patiently as he watched Buck pace back and forth in front of the desk.

"And ain't it all just so convenient that they all have alibis? Hell Chris, Claymore's alibi is his wife," he sneered throwing a sideways glance at Chris as he continued his frenetic movements. The jail was cold and damp, the fire in the stove having gone unattended throughout the previous night and the long day following as the town's regulators sought any clues, any evidence that would lead them to a murderer. A murderer who was now apparently trying to add the death of Ezra Standish to his list of crimes.

Buck didn't feel the chill in the room, its icy fingers failing to penetrate the heat of anger that suffused his body or the nervous energy that had kept him in motion since the night before. Tendrils of fear still curled around his heart and slithered into his belly as he again saw Ezra lying on the wooden boardwalk after the shots rang out only to be followed by dead silence. A tumult of activity had erupted as the other five lawmen came from every direction, Nathan at their side almost instantly. The healer had gently pulled Buck's frantic, searching hands away from Ezra's body replacing them with his own as he ran them over the gambler's torso feeling for blood. Ezra's assertions that he was all right were overridden as the healer continued his examination only to find he had a new patient as Maude slumped against her son, blood seeping from her shoulder.

Maude Standish was not a woman that Buck particularly admired or liked. He had seen on more than one occasion the hurt and disappointment that shadowed the gambler's green eyes at a thoughtless word or action from his mother before the curtain of studied indifference dropped into place. But he would never forget the way she had flung her body across her son's, shielding him and taking a bullet that was meant for him.

Buck finally stilled as he leaned against the wall across from Chris dropping his head back as he looked at the ceiling. Shaking his head, he said bemusedly, "Never thought I'd see the day that Maude Standish would do something like that."

Chris smiled as he crossed his arms and drawled, "Guess there's more to her than we all thought. We owe her."

Buck chuckled as the inferred irony of the other man's statement struck him, that Chris and the others thought of Ezra as belonging more to them than to his own mother. Again he marveled at the way the passage of time had shifted the levels of tolerance, respect and caring amongst their number even drawing the recalcitrant gambler into their fold and creating a better family than Ezra had ever had with his mother.

Buck raised his gaze to see Chris studying him, cool speculation and perception evident in the depths of his eyes.

"Tell me," Chris said.

Buck contemplated for a second feigning misunderstanding, but knew it would be pointless with this man. Chris knew him too well. He would have preferred waiting, but it seemed as if the time had come to share a simple truth with his oldest and best friend.

Holding his gaze steady with Chris', he said, "I'm in love with him."

Chris stared at him for several long moments before squinting as he asked, "Are you sleeping with him?"

Buck waited a beat, anger flaring, before answering his voice tight. "Not yet," he said as the hope rose within him that this would only be a temporary situation.

Chris sighed as he looked away from Buck for a moment before returning, "Buck, do you have any idea what this could do? Ezra'sÖ. He hides it well, but he's fragile. I don't want anything messing up what we have here. Not even one of us."

"Damnit, Chris! Did you hear what I said? I said I'm in love with him. Have you ever heard me say that before? I'm not lookin' for a quick roll in the hay!" Buck shoved away from the wall, his eyes brittle with anger as he growled, "And I resent the hell out of you thinkin' I'd do anything to mess up what we have here, what you have here." Buck glared at his friend for a minute before returning to lean against the wall continuing to stare at Chris defiantly.

"BuckÖ." Chris closed his eyes briefly and sighed before returning his gaze to Buck. "I know you wouldn't intentionally, Buck." Then raising a conciliatory hand as his friend's eyes sparked with anger again, he continued, "All I'm sayin' isÖ. Do you even know how he feels? Do you really know what's between you yet?"

Buck gave a rough snort of laughter as he replied, "We ain't exactly had a whole lotta time alone together lately."

Chris nodded. "Then I'm just sayin'Ö. I'm just askin' that you wait till this is all over before you say anything to him." Reading rightly from the expression on his friend's face that it was too late to ask this, Chris looked towards the ceiling and sighed. "Okay, then I'm askin' that you wait till this is over to do anything about it."

Buck said nothing, his eyes turning towards the window and the church down the street shining like a beacon in the dimming light of twilight. He knew as soon as he left here his steps would take him there as the gambler was stowed in its interior for safekeeping for the night.

Apparently taking Buck's silence for acquiescence, Chris patted his friend on the arm and said, concern in his tone, "You look tired, Buck. Me and the rest of the boys got things covered tonight. Go and get a good night's sleep. Think about what I said."

Buck shifted his gaze back to his friend as he said, "Good night, Chris."

Reaching the door in a few quick strides, he heard his friend's quiet, "Good night, Buck," in reply as he slipped outside closing the door behind him.

Buck hated going against Chris' wishes. Chris' questions had angered him, but he knew they stemmed from genuine concern and worry for the family he had created here. He hated causing his friend any anxiety that he would do anything to risk that, but Buck knew he couldn't wait to talk to Ezra. Within the space of a week, he had almost lost him twice. That is what he wouldn't risk. Not again and not without having the chance to love the gambler and find out if he was loved in return.

"Sorry Chris," he muttered as his eyes fixed on the church the warm glow of candles wavering in its windows. "You said to sleep, but you didn't say where."

It had rained most of the previous night and long into the day turning the main street into a quagmire of mud and puddles. The solid cloud cover had finally broken apart leaving patches of starlit sky and the moon intermittently visible as its remnants floated onward and away from Four Corners. The wind was still strong and cold though, turning the occasional desultory raindrops falling from the passing clouds into stinging pellets against the skin. Picking his way down the street, Buck moved towards the church, determination lengthening his stride, anticipation sparking in his belly as he resolved to speak to the gambler before the night was through.

Buck carefully scraped the mud from his boots before entering the quiet sanctuary of the church, his arrival presaged by a low whistle from Vin to the sentinel inside. The few raindrops clinging to his jacket turned a liquid amber in the soft glow of the candles illuminating the interior, his footsteps echoing hollowly across the worn floorboards as he walked up the center aisle towards Josiah.

"Evening, brother Buck," the preacher said as he leaned back against the pew he was sitting in, the hand holding his gun dropping casually to his side.

"Josiah," Buck replied his eyes scanning the room and returning to the preacher, a question in their blue depths when he failed to spy the gambler.

Josiah lifted his chin in the direction of the small room he used as his bedroom and said, "He's sleeping."

Buck sighed, disappointment deflating his anticipation at seeing Ezra, frustration defeating his resolve to speak to the gambler. Peeling off his coat and hat, he laid them on the pew as he sat beside the preacher. Running a hand through his hair, he turned to the other man and said, "How is he?"

"Tired. Brother Ezra had a long day, an even longer night before it. Still it was all Nathan and I could do to convince him to leave Maude to get some rest. The only thing that convinced him was telling him that it was safer for her if he was elsewhere for the time being."

"How is Maude?" Buck asked the image of her clasped in her son's arms, blood seeping from her shoulder, the loss bleaching her face a deathly white, still fresh and vivid in his mind.

Josiah smiled, merriment twinkling in his eyes as he answered, "She's fine. Recovering nicely according to Nathan and a most gracious patient so he says. Ezra is the one who was driving him to distraction. Apparently our resident gambler is even worse at holding the bedside vigil than he is as a patient." His eyes sobering, he continued softly, "I think this has really shaken him up. He and his mother have had their ups and downs. Always will I expect, but I don't think he ever really considered the possibility of her dying before."

Buck's eyes traveled to the door concealing the gambler as he rose to his feet, his steps restive as he paced back and forth.

The preacher's blue eyes followed the other man's movements, his expression neutral as he continued. "Maude's a vibrant woman. Full of life. She keeps him on his toes, and can still run circles around him. A constant thorn in his side, but one I think he'd miss if she weren't there. I think the idea that Maude is mortal finally occurred to him today. That coupled with everything else that's happened to him recentlyÖ. Well, he's got to be exhausted."

Buck nodded, his need to see the gambler, to touch him right now warring with his concern for the other man. The desire to just enter the other room and wake Ezra up, to find out 'what's between' them was strong, but so was the instinct to protect the other man from any harm, however slight, even if, especially if, it was from him. In the end, protective instinct won out.

Buck turned his attention back to Josiah as that man's eyes, sharpened with shrewd assessment, watched the play of emotions cross his face. Buck groaned inwardly as the other man smiled at him, seemingly having reached some conclusion as a result of his scrutiny. 'Lord, Buck! Nathan sure as hell was right. At this rate, everybody in town is gonna know.'

Buck arranged his features in an expression of neutrality as Josiah opened his mouth to speak.

"And you, Buck? How are you? You look tired," the preacher said his voice gentle with concern.

Expecting something else, a questioning like he'd received from Nathan and Chris, Buck was taken aback at the calm acceptance he saw reflected in Josiah's eyes. Surprised, he replied, "Why, I'm fine, Josiah. Must look like hell though since everybody's tellin' me I look tired." Buck rubbed the side of his face as he met the other man's eyes and smiled sheepishly.

"Well, if you want to get some sleep, there's some extra blankets in the other room." Josiah stood and gently propelled Buck in the direction of the closed door. "I'm sure Ezra won't mind the company." Josiah chuckled softly as he dropped back into his seat on the pew.

Buck threw a bemused glance over his shoulder as he headed for the door needing no further prompting, his heart rate already increasing at the thought of laying eyes on the gambler even if it was only to watch him sleep. Shaking his head, he thought, 'Lord you have it bad, Buck.'

Buck quietly entered the room, his eyes automatically travelling to the bed in the corner only to be stopped by the dark shadow of Ezra drifting across the floor towards him. "Ezra, what are you doing up?" he asked his voice a whispered counterpoint to the wind still gusting against the weathered frame of the church.

The room was awash with a kaleidoscope of darkness and light. A small stove near the bed bathed that corner of the room with a golden hue as it spread its warmth. The moon's pale light streamed over the top of a drooping window shade intermittently broken by scudding clouds. Buck's breath caught as Ezra stepped into a pool of that light, its luminescence gilding his skin and white shirt a silvery blue. He looked ethereal, the effect heightened by his bare feet and the shirt hanging loosely about his frame. The tailored garment was normally a perfect fit. 'Maude was right. He has lost weight.'

"I've been awake for awhile," Ezra replied softly. "I heard your voice." Hesitating minutely, he continued, "I'm glad you came. I wanted to talk to you."

Holding out one hand, Ezra took a small step towards Buck. Buck reached for that hand, the tips of his fingers touching Ezra's lightly before sliding across the back of that slender hand and grasping it tightly. A breathless hush seemed to permeate the room at the moment they touched, a frisson of excitement playing along Buck's spine at the innocent contact. Buck studied the face tilted towards him wanting nothing more than to smooth away the frown he saw there, to see the dimples he'd come to miss appear when the gambler rewarded him with one of his wickedly sweet smiles.

Ezra broke the hushed silence, his voice a husky whisper. "Did you mean it?" he asked simply.

Buck knew the gambler was referring to his declaration of love the previous evening. He wanted there to be no doubt in the other man's mind of the truth of his words, no thought that he regretted saying them. He replied without hesitation imbuing his tone with as much fervent sincerity as he could muster, his answer honest in its simplicity. "Yes."

Ezra brought his free hand up repeating his gesture of the night before. Buck turned his face into the cool hand as it skated across his features, depositing a kiss in the palm as it glided across his lips. Its passage stopped as it reached his cheek stroking gently as Ezra said, "Show me."

Buck stilled, his mind hearing all the uncertainty in that simple request, his heart constricting at the past disappointments implied in the words of the other man. Ezra used words as weapons, as tools of deception. He'd learned those lessons well from his mother, and Buck guessed his life experiences had shown him rarely that they could be used otherwise. Saying the words was easy, but he suspected the gambler thought his living up to them would not be. Buck had hoped to hear a reciprocal declaration from the other man, but Ezra was too guarded, too full of self-doubts to reveal himself until he was convinced of the truth of Buck's love. Another lesson learned from his mother. It had been easy for Buck to say the words because he meant them with all his heart, but if action was what was needed to make him believe, Buck was only too happy to comply.

Buck cupped Ezra's face between his hands and placed a kiss on his forehead resolving to show with his touch what Ezra couldn't believe in his words. He pulled the stiff body of the smaller man into his arms lightly tracing soothing patterns along his back until he felt the hard muscles there begin to relax. Ezra's arms crept around his waist holding him in a loose embrace. Buck smiled at the tentative touch and turned his face towards Ezra's hair. The soft tendrils tickled his nose, the fresh scent of rain lingering amongst the strands. Turning his attention to the ear presented to him, he slowly explored its whorls with the tip of his tongue, his breath wafting warm across it, eliciting a giggle and a small squirm from the man in his arms. Taking note of the ticklish spot, he lightly nipped the lobe before moving on.

Focusing on the mouth that always fascinated him with its facile words, he concentrated now on the shape of it, the feel of it as he brushed his own lips across it. Ezra's lips were soft and warm as he gently stroked his own across them, back and forth slowly in feather light sweeps, only allowing the kiss to deepen, his tongue to reach out when the other man's mouth melted beneath his own. Sliding into the moist, sweet interior of Ezra's mouth, Buck reveled in the remembered taste of it, his tongue reaching into the furthest corners as its mate welcomed it. Gliding slickly against each other, each explored, tasted, performing their own mating dance as Ezra met Buck's increasing passion with a matching fire of his own.

Breathless, Buck pulled his mouth away. Encouraged by the small groan of disappointment from the other man, Buck slipped his hands under Ezra's shirt seeking the skin underneath that he'd longed to touch since that first night at the waterhole weeks ago. It was softer than he thought it would be, smooth and firm, but not like a woman's. The muscles underlying it were too hard, bespeaking a hidden strength belied by his outward appearance.

Groaning, Buck grasped the bottom edge of the shirt and, without waiting to unbutton it, swept it over the other man's head, tossing it aside as he gripped both of the upraised wrists with his free hand. Entwining his fingers with the slender ones of the gambler, he brought Ezra's hands back down behind his back keeping hold of them as he again brought their bodies up close and tight. Gently swaying, he created a friction, heat flooding the already growing bulge of his groin as it pressed against the body in his arms, an answering hardness pressing against his thigh. The little breathy gasps emanating from the man in his arms further aroused Buck, further increased his need to see and to feel the whole of what he had been denying himself for what seemed like forever.

Releasing Ezra's hands, he quickly unbuttoned the gambler's pants and slipped his hands into the waistband to ease them down over the lean hips. Encountering the cool smooth curve of the man's bare rear rather than the fleecy feel of underwear, Buck emitted his own breathy gasp as he pushed the garment down to pool at the gambler's feet.

Closing his eyes, he rested his head against Ezra's as he pulled him into another tight embrace, wanting to remember always the love and pleasure he felt at holding this man in his arms like this for the first time. The combined smells of fresh air, rain, soap and Ezra's own distinctly individual musk were intoxicating. The soft hair had the texture of the finest silk as he rubbed his cheek across it. And he thought he'd died and gone to heaven at the feel of the hard, strong muscles playing under the satiny smooth skin. But more than anything, he was overwhelmed by the joy he felt at the chance he was being given to show this man that he was loved, to soothe away his self-doubts and distrust, and, hopefully, experience his love in return.

Chuckling softly as he realized they were still standing in the middle of the room, he said, "Maybe we should move this to the bed."

"Excellent suggestion, Mr. Wilmington," Ezra murmured as he stepped back.

Buck trailed his hands down Ezra's arms as he reluctantly allowed him to pull away watching entranced as the gambler, even while blind, stepped out of the pants tangled at his feet with effortless grace. Buck's breath caught at his first full view of the man, his skin luminous in the moonlight, shadows caressing dips and planes, his arousal beautiful, even more so because he had caused it. Taking Ezra by the hand, he paused as he let his eyes follow the tantalizing curves, jealous of anyone who had ever been here before him.

A frown creased Ezra's mouth as the moment stretched. "Mr. Wilmington?"

Seeing the frown, hearing the question and knowing the doubt behind it, Buck opened his mouth, then closed it. He wanted to tell Ezra how beautiful he was, but decided it was more important to tell him something else. Framing the face with his hands, he whispered, "I love you." Then with a soul-searing kiss, he drew Ezra towards the bed gently lowering him to it as he followed him down.

As he bent for another kiss, his bandana skimmed across Ezra's chest, eliciting a giggle as it tickled the sensitive flesh. Reaching up, Ezra gave the offending garment a small tug as he said, "Aren't you a bit overdressed, Mr. Wilmington?"

Rolling his eyes at the 'Mr. Wilmington', Buck grunted as he withdrew, his eyes never leaving the wiggling form on the bed as he quickly stripped off his clothes. The skin that had just a moment ago been bathed with the cool beams of the moon was now aflame with the burnished light of the fire as it shone through the stove's grate. Wanting to feel that heat and match it with his own, Buck tossed the last article of his clothing aside as he again lowered himself to the bed.

Each man moaned as, from head to toe, naked skin met naked skin and arousal met arousal. Buck followed the squirms of the man beneath him with his own body, never letting the contact lessen as he took Ezra's hands in his own. Kissing and sucking the slender fingers, feeling the strength hidden beneath the deceptive exterior, he entangled his own amongst them as he drew them over the man's head and reached for a kiss from the full lips already parted and inviting his entrance.

Achieving his goal of leaving Ezra panting and breathless from his kiss, he tried to control his own breathing as he raised his head to look at the face beneath him. Gently sweeping aside some wayward hair trailing over the high forehead, he watched the firelight dance in the strands, the auburn streaks it created reminding him of the sunset gilding the gambler's hair just two evenings ago. He whisked his fingers over the white bandage wishing he could see into the green depths of Ezra's eyes and read the gambler's thoughts as they raced across their surface like quick-fire.

Raining the beautiful face with a shower of kisses, he parted from it with a last one trailing down the sweep of nose. He teased its tip with his tongue before leaving it with a small nip, a slight squeak of offense his reward. His lips traveled to the slender, pale column of neck that he found so fascinating. He thought he'd never seen a more tantalizing neck on a man, especially now as its cords strained beneath the smooth flesh as its owner writhed beneath him seeking more contact.

Buck was happy to oblige as he nipped, kissed and licked his way down its length following his course downwards to the other man's torso. Exploring with his mouth, he found the breadth of shoulders, felt the shifting of muscles beneath the fine skin. He felt the slight protuberance of ribs and reminded himself to see that Ezra ate more. He lavished special attention on the nipples leaving them moist and red and standing at attention. He swirled the tip of his tongue in the depths of the navel before sweeping light kisses and gentle fingertips over the purple contusion still staining the flat abdomen.

Everywhere his mouth went, his hands followed, kneading and caressing, as much soothing the quivering form beneath him as they were doing everything in their power to heighten Ezra's excitement and arousal. Reaching the narrow waist, he let his hands wander down the gentle curve of hips as he gazed back up at the face of the man he loved.

Ezra's hands gripped the sheets tightly as he squirmed and strained towards Buck's hands and mouth. His breath came in slight pants and gasps, and his skin was lightly sheened with sweat. The golden light of the fire was now rivaled by the internal flame ignited by Buck's ministrations leaving Ezra's skin dusky and heated.

Kneeling between the other man's legs, Buck trailed his hands up and down their length finding another ticklish spot as his fingers whispered across the soles of his feet. Moving back up, his hands stopped their travels as they glided across the firm muscles and satiny skin of the inner thighs before lowering his head to the ultimate prize. Ezra jumped, his writhings increasing as Buck took his proudly jutting arousal in both hands, lightly squeezing and stroking before allowing his tongue to touch. Starting at the tip, he delicately tasted Ezra's essence before laving and swirling his tongue around the surface down to the base and back up again before engulfing the whole length in one swift movement.

He grasped Ezra's hips firmly as the other man lifted up at the contact. Buck savored the taste of this man as he sucked and licked trying to control his own need as he sensed the imminent release of the gambler. They were both too close from too long denied need and desire. This wasn't the way he wanted it to be though.

Allowing himself one last taste, his mouth released Ezra regretfully. Then moving back to Ezra's mouth, he put his fingers to the soft lips and whispered, "Shhhh," as the man protested his abandonment. Sealing their lips together, he shared the exquisite taste lingering in his mouth with its creator, mingling it with the sweet flavor to be found there.

Breaking apart, he traced the beautiful features of the other man with his eyes, soothed the tension he saw there with his gently stroking hands as he breathed into one ear, "Together."

Then, as they were both so close, he set up a languorous rhythm, gliding his sweat slick body along the one beneath him creating a delicious friction. Within moments of each other, they reached their peaks, Ezra first, then Buck. Each shuddering with his release, they gripped each other tightly until the waves of passion eased, and finally ceased. Buck gave one last thrust against the body in his arms wanting to prolong the experience of holding this man this way for the first time. Collapsing on top of Ezra, Buck decided the sweetest sound he ever heard was Ezra gasping his name as he climaxed. Buck. Not Mr. Wilmington.

Smiling, he raised himself up on one elbow and ran the backs of his fingers along Ezra's jaw before leaning down and peppering kisses on the flushed face.

After a few moments, Ezra lifted a hand running his fingertips over Buck's features and whispered, "I wish I could see you."

Buck heard the question in those words, the uncertainty, the disbelief. And with that the words of his friends came back to him.

'He's fragile.'

'If you hurt him, he'd leave for sure.'

And Ezra's own words. 'Did you mean it?'

Buck knew the fragility was there. He had seen it, brief glimpses before the shutters of the skilled deceiver came down. And he'd heard it in the gambler's words disguised as sardonic wit and cynical humor. But he also believed in the strength of this man. It was there in the muscles earned through hard exercise relaxing under his hands. It had been demonstrated when he returned to the Seminole village and had been evidenced countless times since as he worked side by side with the other six. And it was there in the simple fact that he was still here in Four Corners abiding by a promise he had given Chris when it would be so much easier for him to simply leave.

Buck counted on that strength now. Counted on it to help Ezra see past his own disbelief and doubt to the love that he was holding in his arms.

Gathering the smaller man up, Buck flipped positions arranging Ezra on top of him. Relinquishing control and placing all his love and trust in the other man's care, he scooped up Ezra's hands. "Then see me, Ezra," he breathed as he kissed the palms of the other man's hands. Placing those slender hands against his own face, he repeated, "See me."

ooOOOoo

Part Seven

"See me."

Ezra stilled at Buck's words as the other man took his hands and placed them on his face, his own fingers reaching up to gently trace Ezra's jaw line. The sounds of the gusting wind and the rattling windowpane were drowned out by the whispered words of Buck. "Whatever you want." The warmth of the fire crackling in the stove near the bed was barely felt after the sultry caress of Buck's breath seared his fingertips as they passed over his lips. All of his senses were focused on the man lying beneath him, the man offering himself for Ezra's pleasure. Never before had anyone given himself to Ezra like this man was. Never before had anyone put his needs and desires before his own as Buck was.

Tenderness and not a little awe filled Ezra. He swept his fingers lightly over the planes of the face he had seen countless times with his eyes, but only felt he knew now through the searching explorations by his hands since he lost his sight. Running his fingers over the lines creasing Buck's forehead, he wondered at the worries and fears that had brought them about. They were balanced though by the tiny lines at the corners of his eyes, lines that were even now deepening as Buck's lips raised in a smile.

Ezra lowered himself to that mouth hovering over it hesitantly as each man's breath warmed the other's face in tiny bursts of heat. Reaching out with the tip of his tongue, he sought the sensuous curve of Buck's lips, lips that opened freely allowing access to the moist depths within. Their mouths met, moving against each other restlessly as their tongues performed their own dance, stroking each other in their own form of embrace.

Breathless, Ezra pulled away gratified by the labored breathing of his partner as he trailed his tongue down Buck's sweat-slick skin relishing the salty flavor. Ezra trailed his hands down Buck's body his own sliding across it in languid undulations. Buck's body was all sleek lines, supple muscles and lithe sinew that moved powerfully beneath his ministrations seeking more contact. Ezra was rewarded with a throaty groan from the other man as his hands found the warm hardness rising from a nest of soft curls. He smiled as Buck's movements became more restive as he held that hardness. Gently running one hand up and down its length, his mouth moved back up across Buck's belly leaving small kisses behind as he counted ribs on his way to the hard chest.

There was a long, thin scar streaking across that chest, jagged and rough underneath his fingertips. It was a scar received in honor, in defense of the Seminole village so long ago. Then Buck had been just one of six men he had joined, recklessly and impulsively, five dollars to be his only reward for his efforts. They had been six men who were to be left and forgotten as soon as he received his remuneration. The fates had dealt him an unexpected hand however as each man, over time, had wormed his way into Ezra's heart, but none more so than this man. Ezra remembered how close Buck had come to dying that day as he kissed that badge of honor from one end to the other. Laying his head against Buck's chest, Ezra was infinitely comforted by the rapid, but steady beat of the heart against his ear just as he was shaken to the core that he would never have known this passion, this love if Buck had died that day.

Depositing a kiss reverently over Buck's heart, Ezra moved to straddle the other man's legs his hands hesitating as they ran up and down his aroused length. Buck seemed to sense his uncertainty as he abruptly sat up causing Ezra to drop into his lap. He heard a soft fumbling at the bedside table before Buck turned back to him and, cupping his face with one hand, whispered again, "Whatever you want."

Buck's hands took Ezra's own hardness in their grip coating it with something wet and oily. Surprise coursed through him as he realized Buck's intent. No one had ever offered him this before. Those who came before were always eager to take, but never to give. Ezra had never felt this wanted before, this needed. Elation swept through him as he believed entirely for the first time that this was not a seduction on Buck's part, but was truly love. And suddenly, it was more important to Ezra than it had ever been to give someone, to give Buck, everything that he was.

Leaning his forehead against Buck's, Ezra took his hands in his own and directed them to Buck's arousal coating it with the remainder of the slick substance. Kissing Buck with the full force of his passion, he rasped, "I want you. I want all of you."

Buck sucked in his breath as he returned Ezra's kiss with equal ardor. He pulled away long enough to gasp, "You don't have to," before continuing to nibble at Ezra's lips.

"I want to," Ezra breathed.

"Have you everÖ" Buck broke off concern evident in his voice.

"Yes," Ezra panted.

With that one word reassurance, Buck pulled Ezra to him in a fierce embrace ravishing his mouth with smoldering kisses as his hands roamed feverishly over his body. Shudders ran through Ezra as those hands made love to him touching him everywhere and preparing him in the most intimate of places. One last burning kiss, and Buck was laying back down as he grasped Ezra's hips and positioned him over top of him.

Ezra expected Buck to thrust upwards and enter him, but instead the other man stayed still running soothing caresses over Ezra's rear, relaxing him, allowing Ezra to set the pace and even now ceding control to him. Ezra took it gratefully lowering himself in one slow steady plunge. Fully impaled on the other man's length, he stilled for a moment as he waited for the burning pain to ease. Both men moaned as Ezra began to rock gently his movements increasing in tempo as the man below him matched him thrust for thrust.

Buck shifted slightly finding the tiny nub of gland inside causing lightening bolts of pleasure to quiver through Ezra as he stroked against it. Ezra's breathing became ragged as he met each upward thrust of Buck's body with an equally powerful downward motion of his own. His muscles contracted around Buck eliciting a rough groan from the other man as he arched upwards his body trembling under Ezra's hands as he reached completion his own ministrations bringing Ezra with him moments later.

Both men stayed still, their breath escaping in gasps, their bodies slick with sweat. Then suddenly Buck rolled Ezra beneath him covering his smaller body with his own as he rained kisses over his face. A soft cloth touched his belly as Buck gently cleaned him then drew him back into his arms whispering, "I love you," close in his ear as he settled them comfortably in the bed.

Ezra smiled sleepily as he clasped Buck tightly his heart swelling with joy at the proof of the words he held in his arms as exhaustion overcame him pulling him over the edge into sleep.

Drifting towards wakefulness, Ezra ruthlessly quashed the instinctive fear that washed over him as it had every morning since he had lost his sight. It was fear of the darkness that followed him into wakefulness mixed with confusion, both still too new for his mind to understand upon first awakening. This morning Ezra pushed past that fear consciously focusing his other senses depending on them to dispel the mysteries of his surroundings.

Wind no longer battered against the weathered frame of the church, no longer shook the pane of glass in the window, its absence accentuating the clarity of water droplets plopping irregularly to the ground as they slid off the roof and the trees surrounding the building. The chill in the air and the busy chattering of birds echoed by the first stirrings of the townspeople in the distance indicated it was near the dawn hour. The mustiness of the room assailed his nostrils and a cold draft nipped at his face, the fire in the stove having long since dwindled and died during the night.

Warmth suffused Ezra, however, spreading outward from within as he recalled the activities of the night before. It was matched by the heat of the body pressed closely to his own under the thin blankets. The arm flung across his waist tightened possessively, Buck's other hand toying with his hair as his breath wafted warm and close against his ear.

"You awake sleepyhead?" Buck whispered huskily.

"Mmmmm," Ezra purred his body gliding against Buck's as he stretched and turned his head more fully against the hand caressing his hair.

Buck chuckled lightly as he stroked the silky strands. Gazing down at Ezra's face, he traced the other man's mouth with a fingertip watching the lips curve in a sleepy smile. "Ezra, I didn't hurt you last night, did I?" Scanning the other man's face worriedly, he continued, "You're all right, aren't you?"

"Mmmhmmm. More than all right, Buck," Ezra drawled as he put his hand on the back of Buck's neck and drew his lips down towards his.

Having been half afraid that Ezra would revert to 'Mr. Wilmington' with the coming of morning, Buck felt a thrill of pleasure stab through him at the sound of his name uttered in the honey sweet tones of the other man. As their mouths connected, Buck covered the man beneath him with his body, a groan escaping his lips as Ezra thrust his hips against him.

"Ezra," he breathed as he trailed kisses over the stubbled chin and down the long neck presented to him.

"Yes?" Ezra gasped as Buck dipped his tongue in the tender hollow he discovered at the base of the other man's throat.

"I really need to get out of bed now," Buck answered his voice a husky whisper before his lips continued their exploration blazing a trail down the other man's torso.

"Okay," Ezra rasped as his body strained upward seeking contact with Buck's mouth.

His hands following the course set by his lips, Buck reveled in the feel of the smooth skin beneath his fingertips, pale against his own darker flesh, and in the sight of hard muscles beneath shifting and quivering from his touch. He stopped when he reached the large bruise on Ezra's abdomen. Frowning as he thought of the cause of this injury as well as the more serious one that robbed Ezra of his sight, he ran his hands lightly over it and placed a kiss there before stealing one last kiss from the mouth smiling up at him enticingly.

Groaning, he pulled away with reluctance. "I really, really need to get up now. Chris wants to get an early start today."

Ezra's hands dropped to the bed releasing Buck as he said, "Of course."

Hearing the tightness in the other man's tone, Buck turned back catching the fleeting unhappiness that crossed his face. "What's wrong?" he asked worry creeping into his stomach.

Ezra shook his head briefly before saying, "It's just-" Turning away, he sighed impatiently, "I just feel so damn useless. I can't do anything to help you find the killer. Hell, I can't even leave this building without an escort."

"Ezra," Buck said turning the other man's face back towards him. "We wouldn't even know there was a killer if it weren't for you. Everything we know so far came from you. Now I call that help." Buck placed his fingers on Ezra's mouth as the other man started to interrupt. "Let me finish. Now I know you gotta hate bein' cooped up here. Gotta be borin' as all get out, but you gotta take time to get well. Whoever this bastard is has almost killed you twice now. We gotta keep you safe till this is over." His voice lowering gruffly, he said, "I need you to be safe."

Ezra raised his hand to Buck's face, his questing fingertips again skimming over the other man's features. Buck welcomed the touch, growing accustomed to the feather light searches, suspecting that a small part of him might miss the intimacy of the gestures when the other man regained his sight.

Ezra nodded as he continued to stroke Buck's cheek. "You're right, I know." Arranging his features into an expression of innocence, he said, "I'll be good. I promise."

Snorting, not at all fooled by the guileless attitude projected by the gambler, Buck dropped a kiss on his head as he rose. "You better be. You ain't got much choice."

Laughing as the gambler sniffed disdainfully and settled back underneath the covers, Buck retrieved his clothes from where they had been discarded on the floor the night before and quickly dressed. Picking up Ezra's clothes, he ineffectually tried to smooth out the wrinkles as he said, "You'd best get dressed too 'fore Josiah comes stormin' in here with breakfast."

"Goodness, yes. I wouldn't want the good man to catch me in flagrante delicto." Ezra sat up reluctantly running his hands through his hair as the blankets dropped away from him.

Stoutly ignoring the alluring curve of butt exposed by the other man's posture, Buck laid the gambler's clothes across the foot of the bed before grasping the other man's shoulders and pushing him back on the bed. He growled, "You'd best not be lettin' anyone else catch you in flagr- whatever. 'Sides, something tells me he already knows what went on in here last night," he continued mischievously as he stared down into the surprised face of the gambler. Seeing the question there, he started gently bouncing on the mattress setting the bedsprings squeaking and the headboard tapping lightly against the thin wall behind it.

A becoming shade of pink spread across the gambler's cheeks as realization dawned. Smiling at the other man's discomfiture, Buck said, "He knew anyway. Practically pushed me in here with his blessings last night." Studying Ezra's expression watchfully, he continued, his voice tinged with uncertainty, "Does it bother you if Josiah knows?"

Ezra smiled and said gently, "No, it doesn't bother me if Josiah knows."

Relief coursing through him, Buck grinned as he rose from the bed. "Good. Now get dressed. I gotta get goin'." Leaning down to kiss the gambler goodbye, he was stopped by a hand placed on his chest.

"Would you do something for me today?" Ezra asked quietly.

"Of course. Anything."

"Would you check on my mother? See how she is? If she needs anything?"

"'Course, Ezra," Buck replied gently as he looked down into the other man's upturned face. "Is there anything you want me to tell her?"

Ezra smiled ruefully as he said, "No. JustÖcheck on her please."

Struck by the wistful expression on Ezra's face, Buck smoothed back his sleep tousled hair tenderly as he replied softly, "I will." Then with a parting kiss on the silky lips that met his eagerly, Buck pulled away reluctantly and headed for the door. "I'll be back soon as I can. You behave yourself," he said sternly.

The gambler smiled impishly as he reached for his clothes. "I'll do my best," was the soft reply that followed Buck through the door.

Shaking his head and smiling, Buck shrugged into his jacket as he walked into the church, stopping short as he caught sight of Chris leaning against the pulpit. The black-clad gunslinger raised his eyes to Buck their blue depths flinty and cool as they regarded the other man.

"Mornin' Josiah," Buck said directing a nod towards the preacher.

"Good morning, brother Buck," Josiah replied as he rose from the pew he'd sat on most of the night stretching and flexing the muscles of his long body as he smiled tiredly at Buck.

"Mornin' Chris," Buck said meeting the hard gaze of his best friend unwaveringly.

"Buck," Chris said tersely. Then shoving himself away from the wooden lectern supporting him, he strode briskly down the center aisle as he threw over his shoulder, "Let's get movin'."

Buck sighed as he moved to follow. Catching the preacher's sympathetic gaze, he tilted his head in the direction of the bedroom door as he walked backwards up the aisle.

Josiah smiled and said, "I'll see brother Ezra gets breakfast, then I'm getting some sleep. JD'll be taking over here."

"Thanks Josiah." Spinning on his heel, Buck quickened his pace and stepped out onto the front steps of the church. Chris was waiting for him his eyes squinting against the morning sun.

The two friends stood in tense silence for a few minutes as they surveyed the bustling activities of the townspeople as the town came to life. The wind had died during the night taking with it the remnants of clouds that had obscured the sky for the past days leaving it a tender and pale blue. The air was sharp and cold, the high, bright sun doing little to dispel the chill even as its reflection shone like hundreds of tiny jewels in the pools of rainwater and moist earth that were the main street this morning.

"That wasn't what I had in mind when I told you to get a good night's sleep, Buck," Chris said, his words bitten off, short and sharp.

"I know it," Buck replied evenly turning to face his friend.

Chris threw a sideways glance at Buck, his lips compressed, his eyes narrowing in appraisal as he regarded the other man. Buck met his gaze steadfastly ready to answer the reprimand he was sure was coming. Surprise filled him however when Chris turned his eyes back to the street and merely said, "I'm gonna get some breakfast. Wanna come?"

"I'll meet you at the restaurant. I want to check on Mrs. Standish first."

Chris gave a short nod then said, "All right." With that, he descended the steps of the church and strode down the street picking his way around the puddles and mud patches, his stride never slowing as he dodged the town's tradespeople as they went about their business.

Buck followed his friend with his eyes his lips quirking in amusement as people and animals alike instinctively moved out of the path of the oncoming gunslinger. Buck knew from experience that his old friend was a force to be reckoned with, used to people listening, and doing, when he spoke. He also knew he'd been granted a temporary reprieve this morning. But if, more likely when, Chris decided to press the issue of his relationship with Ezra, his old friend was going to learn it was decidedly not within his area of control.

Buck let himself out of Nathan's clinic quietly closing the door behind him. As his boot heels echoed hollowly down the steps, Maude Standish's words repeated themselves in his head.

'When this is all over, I'm taking Ezra to St. Louis with me.'

Though he hadn't uttered the words, his gut reaction had been, 'Like hell you will.' It would have been an empty threat however. Buck knew Ezra's mother had offered him opportunities to leave town before, but they had all been resisted. The promise Ezra had made to Chris surely played a factor in his decision to stay in Four Corners, but would even that hold him here should his sight not return?

Ezra's words played though his mind. 'No, it doesn't bother me if Josiah knows.'

Had he imagined the slight emphasis on 'Josiah?' Would it bother him if the others of their group, if his mother, knew? Uncertainty licked at Buck's insides as he considered the events of the previous night. Ezra hadn't said the words, but Buck was sure he had felt his love in his touch, in the trust he had offered, in the way he had opened himself to Buck. He hoped Ezra's sight returning and a promise to Chris weren't the only things that would hold the gambler to Four Corners. Buck determined to find out that night if that were indeed the case.

Reaching the street, Buck caught a glimpse of Chris, black duster billowing behind him, just entering the livery stable. His brow creasing in puzzlement, Buck altered course and headed after him. Entering the shadowy interior of the stables, Buck saw Chris exiting through the back. Following, Buck emerged into a small clearing behind the building, its grass bright green, the rain-wet blades sparkling in the sun. Chris was standing behind some rocks on the far side of the clearing staring intently at something on the ground.

Buck rounded the pile of small rocks the question on his lips going unasked as his eyes found the object of Chris' scrutiny. Lying there was the lifeless form of Eustace Claymore, the bank manager, his body arranged in a graceless heap, his eyes open and unseeing as his head lay in a pool of his own blood.

Chris' eyes flickered to the new arrival as did Vin's from where he crouched beside the body. Vin looked from one man to the other as he said wryly, "Guess this means Claymore ain't our murderer."

Part Eight

Buck lightly trailed his fingertips up and down the cool, smooth skin of the smaller man spooned against him. Muted afternoon sunshine filtered through the window shades casting its golden light across their intertwined limbs. He closed his eyes inhaling deeply of the now familiar scent of the soap favored by Ezra, his cheek rubbing across the fine silk of the other man's hair as they lay together. His fingers finding the gentle curve of hip, he rested his hand there pulling Ezra's body more closely to him in his need to just be near him.

He had taken the first available opportunity since they found Claymore's body earlier in the day to return to the gambler. His need to see Ezra, to touch him and to hold him, to reassure himself that he was all right had steadily increased in intensity as had his feelings of frustration at always being one step behind the killer. His intention to speak to Ezra, his desire to hear the other man say his love was returned was put aside for another day as he swept Ezra into a fierce embrace and pulled his clothes off with undeniable insistency.

Their loving had been frantic, filled with a desperate urgency as Buck sought to assure himself of the safety, the life of the other man. Eager lips met the pliant mouth of the gambler and naked skin felt the warmth of the other's flesh. Restless hands stroked and teased until each reached completion, the sight of Ezra's sweaty body arching and shuddering against his, and the sound of breathy gasps escaping his mouth enough to send Buck over the edge. Now, as he held Ezra, he was surprised at how comforting the simple sound of another's steady, even breathing could be.

He heard Ezra inhale deeply before exhaling with a small sigh as his hand traveled down Buck's arm to tangle with the fingers caressing his hip. Bringing Buck's hand up to his mouth, he kissed it lightly before holding it to his chest and saying quietly, "You want to talk about it?"

Buck issued a sigh of his own before placing a kiss on the nape of Ezra's neck and tightening their embrace yet again. He loosened his grip somewhat as Ezra turned over to face him and lifted his hand to trace the features of the gunslinger.

"Buck?" he said a note of concern in his voice.

"Hell Ezra, I'm just tired of being led around by the nose by this bastard. All we seem to do is get there in time to clean up his messes, but we ain't no closer to knowin' who we're after than we ever were. Makin' us look like idiots. Guess Claymore was right. We ain't no detectives."

Buck looked down at the face turned up to his absently smoothing the ruffled hair as his eyes lingered on the mouth he'd been kissing just minutes before. He ran his finger tenderly over those lips as he continued his voice husky, "I ain't never been so afraid of losing someone before, Ezra."

Ezra smiled his face alight with happiness as he pulled Buck's head down to his. Their lips met in a feverish kiss devouring each other then settling into gentle caresses before breaking apart breathlessly. Ezra stroked Buck's chest tenderly as he said, "You're not going to lose me Buck. I have no doubt that you and Mr. Larabee and the others will hunt this miscreant to ground soon and bring him to justice. In the meantime, I have no intention of leaving either voluntarily or involuntarily. Especially not when things are just starting to get interesting in this town."

Reaching up to touch Buck's face, his voice caught before leveling with certainty as he continued, "I'm not going anywhere Buck. Not when I have a winning hand."

Buck pulled Ezra to him the other man's arms clasping him just as tightly as a rush of warmth raced through him at the gambler's words. Right now all he wanted, all he needed was to hold this man close and keep him safe.

They stayed that way for a few minutes before Ezra said, "When do you have to be getting back?"

"Soon. Not yet."

Ezra nodded as Buck pulled the blanket over them and settled the other man's head comfortably against his shoulder as they lay back down content just to hold each other for a few minutes longer.

Ezra's mind slowly rose towards wakefulness reluctant to leave behind his dreams of a body pressed close to his, of teasing hands gliding over his flesh creating a fire that burned through to his soul, and of whispered words of love that answered the yearning of his heart. He smiled inwardly, a warm flush of happiness coursing through him as the realization that this was no longer just a dream, but the reality of the last few days struck him.

After Buck had left him that afternoon, he had spent his time talking with Nathan the latest of the other six to be assigned his guard duty. As the afternoon passed and faded into evening, he had retired to the bedroom to await Buck's return. It was a marvel to him how in such a short time the other man had become such an integral part of his life. The pang of loneliness and the gnawing of anxiety he felt during the few hours since Buck had left would have convinced him of his love for the other man if his craving for the touch of his mind and his body had not already done so. He had partially undressed leaving on only his shirt and pants determined to stay awake until Buck's arrival when he could revel in the feel of Buck's feverish hands tugging off his clothes with the single-minded purpose of reaching the skin underneath. Weariness overcame him, however, and as night fell, he drifted off to sleep.

Now he lay awake aware that something had nudged him towards consciousness. A quiet pervaded his surroundings, not a sound to indicate the presence of the man keeping watch on the other side of the door nor the town outside this building invading the room. Ezra tried to gauge the time, his ears straining for the sounds of activity from the town beyond the window. Not so much as the murmur of townspeople's' voices nor the splash of wagon wheels or horses' hooves negotiating the muddy, puddle-strewn streets disturbed the silence. It was night, but not late otherwise Buck's warmth would be pressed firmly against his back, his arms tightly encircling him.

The silence was eerie, unnerving, the more so because something, some slight noise had awakened him. Ezra lay still for a few moments listening for the sound to manifest itself again when the chill at his back seeped into his consciousness. It was caused by more than the keenly felt absence of Buck's body. The fire in the stove was burning strongly, almost too strongly as he had complained to Nathan when the overly zealous healer threw yet another piece of wood onto the grate before leaving the gambler for the night. He could feel the warmth emanating from the stove along the front length of his body. Why then did he feel this chill at his back that raised the hair on the back of his neck and brought out goose bumps on his flesh? The damp, loamy aroma wafting against his nostrils gave Ezra his answer. The window was open.

And there. He heard it again. A creaking of wood, the slight shifting of floorboards across the room by the window. Someone was in the room with him. And suddenly the chill he felt on his skin crept beneath the surface and entwined itself around his heart causing its steady rhythm to increase in pace and pound against his chest. His instinctive reaction was to tense, but he made a conscious effort to relax his body, to keep his breathing even and steady as if still asleep. Without his sight, Ezra knew that might be his only advantage, and he prayed he hadn't already given himself away.

He knew it wasn't Buck standing across the room. The tall gunslinger would be in bed with Ezra submitting to his palpable need to hold the gambler, to touch him as if by this alone he could keep him safe. And just as he knew it wasn't Buck, he knew it was none of the other peacekeepers. They would not be so negligent as to open the window no matter how hot the room became nor did he believe any of them would feel the need to stand silently in the corner of the room watching over him as he slept. And watching him was indeed what the intruder was doing.

Since that subtle press of weight against wood, there had been no further movement. A quiet hush again descended on the room broken only by the crackle of the fire in the grate and the occasional snap and shifting of logs as they burned, and by his own breathing playing counterpoint to the just discernable exhalations of the other. What was he waiting for? He had already missed the perfect opportunity to kill Ezra if that was his intent. And as he listened to that breathing, another stronger fear twisted in his belly.

What of the men standing guard over him-Vin outside who would surely be watching the church closely enough to notice anyone stepping foot on the grounds let alone creeping in a window, and Nathan in the other room ready to protect him against anyone who got past Vin's vigilance? Anger flared in him like quick-fire at the thought that any harm had come to either man protecting him as he slept. It was an anger that focused his mind away from the fear for his own safety and settled it solely and with cold determination on preventing this person from bringing harm to anyone else he care about. He had already killed two people, injured his mother, possibly hurt Vin and Nathan, and blinded himself. He was damned if he was going to just lie here and wait while the killer made up his mind what he was going to do next.

Reaching that decision was easy, but coming up with a plan of action was not. His blindness put him at a serious disadvantage as did his lack of any weapons. The time for planning was taken out of his hands, however, as he heard the main door of the church bang open and the quick strides of a single man he instinctively knew was Buck crossing the floor. Those footsteps paused briefly before quickening their pace towards the door to the bedroom, Buck's voice calling out "Ezra!" frantic fear coloring his tone.

Another familiar noise sounded, unnaturally loud in the small room. The sound of a gun being cocked, a gun Ezra knew was not pointing at him.

Panic engulfed him, his heart pounding in his ears, as he threw himself out of bed and hurtled across the room in what he hoped was the direction of the door just as it slammed open. He yelled, "Buck! No!"

His body connected with the taller, lanky form of Buck, his momentum carrying them both to the floor just as a gunshot rang out. They hit the floor hard, Ezra cringing inwardly at the sound of fragile flesh thudding against the wooden planks. He recovered quickly, running frantic fingers over the unmoving body beneath him as he heard footsteps approaching behind him. Fear surged through him in another wave, fear that he would be unable to protect Buck till help arrived.

Hands grasped him pulling him roughly away from Buck. Ezra twisted in their grip becoming a whirlwind of motion kicking with his legs, trying to connect his fists to any part of their assailant's body that he could reach all with the single purpose of directing his attention away from Buck. Ezra expected at any moment to feel a shot slam into his body, to at least feel the other man's fists raining blows against him, but they never came. The other man seemed intent only on deflecting Ezra's own hands, eluding them long enough to get to Buck.

Ezra heard a yelp of pain as one of his flailing legs caught the other man in the stomach, his body collapsing on top of Ezra's, a forced rush of exhaled breath gusting against his face. Ezra squirmed underneath the other man seeking to throw off the heavy weight pressing him into the floor, his own breath shortened by his exertions. Muffled shouts and running footsteps reached his ears then just as the other man pushed himself away from Ezra's body. He seemed to hesitate a moment, Ezra feared, as if trying to decide if he had time to finish the job he had started, but the sound of boot heels on the wooden steps of the church apparently decided him against it. He pushed down on Ezra, his face close, his hair brushing across Ezra's cheek as whispered in his ear, his voice raspy and breathless, his words strangely intimate, "Don't forget me again."

Then he was gone his steps taking him towards the window and through it bare moments before Ezra heard, with infinite relief, his friends entering the room.

Buck leaned against the railing outside Nathan's clinic and tilted his hat down over his eyes as he surveyed the bustling streets of Four Corners. The mid-morning sun shone brightly over the townspeople as they went about their daily routines, the very normalcy of the scene a relief to him after the surreal activities of the night before. Yet his gaze traveled down the street to the charred remains of the bank, its blackened splinters of wood a jarring reminder of everything that had happened in the last week, of everything that had changed in his life. He smiled as his eyes caught sight of Ezra standing outside the hotel talking with Josiah, the bandage encircling his eyes a brilliant white as it reflected the bright morning sunshine. Not everything that had happened had been bad.

Quiet footsteps sounded behind him before Chris too was leaning against the railing at his side. They stood in silence for a few moments, the other man's gaze following Buck's to the tall figure of Josiah and the smaller form at his side. Chris glanced at his friend before turning around to face Nathan's clinic, folding his arms across his chest as he leaned back on the wooden railing.

"Nathan say you could be outta' bed?"

Buck gave a short snort of laughter before replying, "It's just a scratch, Chris. 'Sides, I think Nathan's got a headache of his own to nurse."

Chris studied the tight lines of Buck's face before nodding once. "Sheriff from Eagle Bend is escortin' 'em back tomorrow."

Buck closed his eyes briefly against the dull throb in his head before saying, "Hell Chris, if our heads hadn't been up our asses, they never woulda gotten to Eagle Bend. One of the bank tellers and Claymore's wife? And we couldn't figure that out?" He met Chris' gaze his own eyes sparking with his long-held anger and frustration of the past several days.

Chris' blue eyes were calm as he replied, "It wasn't any bank teller in that room last night. Whoever it was was smart enough to know I'd pulled Vin off the church to go after that bank teller and Mrs. Claymore and sneaky enough to clobber Nathan before he even knew he was there. Ezra was right. Seems to me we got three killers and that man last night was tryin' to kill you."

Buck shook his head, his voice tense as he said, "We know a whole lotta nothin', Chris." The words of the dead bank manager came back to him, the words he had repeated to the gambler just the day before. "We ain't no detectives, that's for damn sure."

Chris' lips quirked slightly, whether in amusement or anger Buck wasn't sure, before he said, "Maybe not, but weíre gonna learn. Ain't no way in hell, I'm lettin' someone get away with this, or try it again."

Buck heard the menace in the other man's tone, the determination. It was a determination he shared. He smiled as his eyes drifted back to the gambler picking his way through the busy streets towards the clinic with Josiah's guidance. He knew it was a feeling that all seven of their family felt.

Chris turned back to the street his own gaze following Ezra's progress as he said, "Nathan said just a couple more inches to the right and you woulda been dead." A slight smile lightened his face as he continued, "Reckon Ezra saved your life."

Buck grinned, his voice filled with pride for his lover as he said, "Reckon so. Not bad for a blind man, is it?"

Chris answered Buck's grin with one of his own before sobering. "Did ya' get any kind of look at that guy at all?"

Buck sighed. "Naw, all I remember is seein' a shadow in the corner of the room before catchin' an armful of Ezra then the lights went out. It was too dark to see who it was."

"And Ezra doesn't know who it was either?"

Buck shook his head. "He's workin' on it. Figures from what he said that he musta' known him from before, but he hasn't figured it out yet. He will though."

He flicked his eyes towards Chris before again turning to watch the red-jacketed form of Ezra weaving in and out amongst the traffic on the street occasionally stopping to converse with members of the townsfolk.

Taking a deep breath, he said, "You gonna have a problem with us?"

Chris smiled as he asked, "You askin' permission?"

Buck regarded his oldest friend's face catching the rarely seen mischievous glint in his eyes and matching it with his own. "Hell no. Just wanna know if we need to be lookin' for another town to live in, is all."

Chris pushed away from the railing and clasped Buck on the shoulder before drawling, "The only problem I'll have is if you hurt each other." Then with a last squeeze to the shoulder, he moved away as he said, "So make sure you don't."

Buck watched the black-clad figure of his friend walk down the stairs as he said to himself, "I intend to."

Chris met Ezra at the bottom of the stairs just as Josiah left the gambler there. The two men spoke for a couple minutes before Buck saw Ezra shake his head then start to ascend the stairs. His steps were hesitant at first then evened out to a slow, steady pace as he ran his hand lightly along the railing. Buck caught Chris' eyes where he had remained at the bottom of the steps watching the gambler's progress. Chris' lips curved in a smile, his eyes shining with pride as he touched his fingers to his hat before turning and disappearing amongst the busy traffic of the main street.

Buck's own lips lifted in a smile as his eyes tracked the gambler, his own heart swelling with pride at Ezra's show of independence. Nevertheless, he inched closer to the stairs ready to catch the other man should he stumble when he reached the top. Ezra stopped, however, precisely on the top step pausing a moment as if checking his balance before continuing along the railing towards Buck.

As he approached, Buck said softly, "You keep that up, you won't be needin' anybody's arm to lean on."

Ezra stopped at Buck's side, his hand continuing to slide along the railing until it touched Buck's. The slender hand lingered a moment, warm and soft against Buck's skin the fingers lightly brushing across it before being withdrawn. Buck felt a pang of loss as that small, innocent touch was pulled away, but knew, for the sake of propriety, that it was necessary.

Ezra smiled up at him pleasure in his achievement setting his face aglow. "That is unlikely to happen. At least when it comes to certain peoples' arms," he said wryly.

Buck grinned. "How'd ya' know when ya' got to the top?"

Ezra answered, a pleased note in his voice, "Quite easily. The railing stops angling upwards when you reach the top. Not to mention Mr. Sanchez and I counted the steps this morning when we descended."

Both men leaned then against the railing in companionable silence for a few moments, Buck watching the townsfolk scurry to and fro his gaze again traveling down the street towards the bank where workmen were clearing away the debris in preparation for rebuilding the structure. Turning his attention back to the smaller man at his side, Buck watched the shifting expressions on Ezra's face enjoying the evident and simple pleasure on the normally inscrutable gambler's features as he worked out the sounds around him.

"Did you get your mother settled in the hotel all right?"

Ezra chuckled. "Indeed yes. My dear mother is in her element. She is currently ensconced in the finest suite the establishment has to offer, and has the entire staff catering to her every whim."

"She's feelin' better then? Plannin' on leavin' us soon?" Buck asked tightly.

"I believe she is feeling better, but not to worry. She will milk her injury for all the sympathy it's worth. As to when she's planning on returning to St. Louis, she hasn't said."

Buck hesitated before replying, "She said somethin' about takin' you with her when she goes back."

Ezra drawled, "Yes, she made some mention of that to me as well."

"Ain't gonna happen," Buck said his voice low and husky with a fierce possessiveness even as he dreaded what the gambler's reply to his mother might have been.

"Yes, that's exactly what I told her," Ezra replied the meekness of his tone belied by the smug grin dimpling his face.

Buck smiled his smile turning into a grin then into laughter as relief coursed through him. Relief that this man at his side was safe. Relief was outmatched though by the love that flowed through him for this man. This man who hid himself behind the pretty words that spilled from his mouth, words that were eloquent yet seldom revealed anything about the inner man who uttered them. This man was opening himself to Buck bit by bit each day showing his love through his touch, through his actions. As long as he had that, Buck could wait for the words.

Lowering his voice, Buck said, all the love he felt for Ezra in his voice, "Have I thanked you yet for savin' my life last night?"

"Yes, but it's not necessary," Ezra replied just as softly. He slid closer, his arm touching Buck's from shoulder to elbow where it rested on the railing. Buck leaned into the slight pressure there as Ezra continued, "My motivations were purely selfish really. After all, what would I do without this arm to lean on?"

 

The End.

Continued in Storm Set

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