The Biggest Gamble Part 3
(Old West)

by Draig

Back to: The Biggest Gamble Part 2

Ezra Standish leaned forward in his saddle, resting his arms crossed on the horn. Vin Tanner was on the ground at his feet, holding the reins of his own mount loosely in his capable hands.

Vin tilted his head up and with a warm smile offered, "and when you see this..." he gently used one hand to brush a leaf out of the faint footprint that he was showing his lover, "you know that you're on the right track."

"Right track." Ezra repeated, much as he had most of the morning. When Vin had suggested a ride out of Four Corners, the gambler had envisaged a pleasant day at the fishing hole that the tracker liked, maybe a bit of skinny dipping, with a leisurely dry in the sun, maybe a spattering of love making in-between.

"Ezra, you're not going to know how to track if you don't pay attention." Vin said, standing and glaring at his lover.

It had been a week since they had become lovers and then nearly lost it all the next morning. Ezra had recovered from his head injury and bruised body but they had yet to have the serious talk about their relationship that Vin had promised they would have. Every time Tanner attempted to bring it up, the gambler would side-track him, either by reminding him that they were in a public place or simply kissing, which lead to wild satisfying sex, when they were in private.

"And why, pray tell, Mr Tanner, why would I ever need the ability to track?" Standish asked, his tone edged with just the right amount of boredom to get a reaction from the man at his feet.

"'Cause you never know when you might need to hunt someone."

"Hunt someone?" Ezra asked, his facial expression informing the other man exactly what he thought of that idea. He pulled up straight in pure indignation and then leant forward again, this time leaning over the horse so that he was up close to the tracker, "and why would I want to hunt anyone... I do my hunting, as you call it, in the saloon back at Four Corners."

Vin had to smile at the expression on the other man's face and his eyes jumped playfully before he reach up and yanked Ezra down towards him. He used his strength to ensure that the gambler didn't hurt himself as he came free of his horse, yet the weight of the other man still drove them both down to the ground.

"Mr Tanner!!!" Standish began but then fell silent as the tracker's lips sealed over his and the next few moments were spent reaffirming their attraction for each other. When he was released, the gambler just licked at his passion swollen lips and smiled until Tanner smacked his backside saying firmly,

"And it's Vin... VIN... not Mr Tanner... how many times...." The tracker started to moan as he gently rolled the other man off him and onto the ground.

"Vin." Ezra repeated, slowly clambering to his feet and brushing at the dust that now covered his clothes. "That was not very nice."

Tanner short him a sideways look that always melted the gambler's heart and left him feeling weak as Vin asked in shocked surprised. "You didn't like the kiss?"

Ezra stopped all motion and looked up sharply from dusting down his clothes then he smiled, it was bright and face filling, before he slowly shook his head and commented dryly, "no... not the kiss... the kiss was as, er... earth moving as always... no..." he continued, "dropping the man you say you love on to the earth to get covered by dust... that was not nice."

Tanner looked at the handsome man he adored and commented quietly. "but I do love you."

The seriousness of the words gave Ezra pause and he felt unable to meet the other man's look, so instead he turned sharply and swung himself up into his saddle, gathering his reins as he did so. His hands were caught and held by Vin's who was looking up at him with a fearful expression in his eyes. "Why... why don't you want to talk about it.. why can't you say you love me?" Tanner demanded. It was not a harsh demand but a beseeching, a need to understand.

Ezra smiled but it was false as he stated, "why Mr Tann.... Er Vin, I've said before that you place far too much important in that little four letter word... I'm here aren't I... surely that is enough to tell you that I am where I desire to be."

Tanner was spinning away before the other man had finished and within seconds he had leapt onto his horse and was riding away from the shocked gambler who was staring in open mouthed astonishment at the tracker as he rode away.

Several stunned moments passed before the gambler gathered his senses enough to ride after his lover. He caught up with him at the fishing hole that he had thought they were going to that morning. He leapt of his horse and raced over to Tanner who was now standing by the water's edge, allowing his horse to drink.

Standish caught Tanner by his shoulder and span him about to face him, his own features twisted with anger, "don't... don't you ever ride off from me like that again... do you hear... never..."

"Why not Ezra." Vin shot back his own tone clipped and angry. "I wanted to be by the fishing pond so here I am..." he paused slightly before he fired back Ezra's own words at him, "...I'm here aren't I... surely that is enough to tell you that I am where I desire to be."

Ezra lost his temper completely, "WHY... Why is it so important to you..." he shouted, scaring both the horses as he ranted but heedlessly carrying on, "It's just a word... a four letter word... would my saying it make you feel better... would it?" He demanded, suddenly getting into Tanner's personnel space, "well... then I love you... There, are you happy Mr Tanner? I LOVE YOU." He stumbled to a stop, breathing heavily, his whole body shaking with frustration.

Tanner coldly watched the display of anger and winced when Standish said the words he'd been waiting to hear but they were a mockery of what he wanted, so he replied, his own tone low and angry, "only if you mean them, Ezra..."

The gambler put his hands in his hair and pushed it roughly back from his face, pulling it as if to rip the answer from his own skull, as he ranted, "I don't know what love feels like... how can I say that I love you when I don't know?"

Tanner closed his eyes and turned from the man in front of him, he could see the fear and terror that was now shining in Standish's eyes and it tore into his own being. "Forget it," he suddenly said, his tone bitter, "it's not important..." Even he could hear the disappointment in his voice and he winced, knowing that Ezra would not respond well to the attitude. Tanner shot a sidelong glance at his lover. Standish was standing very still, his face pale and his eyes suspiciously bright, his anger now gone.

"I apologised for what happened last week.. it was stupid of me to attempt to drive you away..." Vin opened his mouth to protest but Ezra held up his hand, asking to be allowed to continue, "it was wrong of me to listen to Mr Larabee..." he let out a bark of laughter. "After all the man does not have a sterling track record himself where this love is concerned..."

"Ezra, that's not fair." Vin interrupted, feeling for the leader who he would follow into hell and back. "and I'm not holding last week against you..."

"Then what is this all about?" Ezra questioned, holding open his arms, as if the sky would enlighten him as to why they were having this discussion.

"This isn't about Chris or anything that happened last week," Vin frowned, knowing that that wasn't right.. "well it is about last week but it's about what happened between us... me and you... and what we have and where we are going to go with it."

"Go with it?" Ezra now looked confused. "Where do you want it to go?" he asked, now at a total loss to understand what Vin was on about.

"Damn it, Ezra, you know I'm not good with words... hell, the most I've ever spoken is during the last week in bed with you and here now..." Now it was Tanner's turn to sweep his hand through his hair. "When two people fall in love they... they form a commitment to each other... a... a kinda pledge."

"Are you asking me to marry you, Mr Tanner?" Ezra demanded, the light of humour suddenly returning to his features but it was dashed away when Vin snapped, his own temper rising.

"No.. Damn it, this isn't a joke... I love you... I can admit it but you... you hide behind you fancy words and pleading that you 'don't know what love is' crap and I'm beginning to wonder if you aren't just using me for sex." As soon as he said the words Tanner knew that he had made a big mistake, a very big mistake.

Ezra stood frozen in front of him, his face so pale that Vin actually thought the man was about to pass out. Instead the gambler just swallowed hard, blinked twice and retorted, his tone almost as frozen as the middle of the night in winter. "if that is how you feel Mr Tanner, then I guess that's all we have to say..."

"Ezra damn it I didn't mean...." The tracker began but stopped when the gambler gave him a glance that would stop a crazed cougar in it's tracks.

"You know what, Mr Tanner..." Standish spat gathering up the reins of his horse and climbing into the saddle as he spoke, "if this... this..." he desperately searched for the right words. "If this... constant arguing... this ripping into each other is how you love someone, then I'm glad that I've been ignorant of it for the past twenty odd years... because if this is love then I hope that I am never a slave to it because it is just too damn painful." And with that he was gone, his horse at a full gallop heading back towards Four Corners.

Tanner hung his head. He had handled the whole situation wrong. He had planned the day so carefully. He was going to show Ezra some tracking techniques, have lunch at the fishing pond, maybe fool about for a bit and then ease the gambler into the conversation about commitment and loving. Instead he'd lost his temper and he'd opened his mouth and out had spilled all the insecurities that he had about their relationship. He honestly couldn't blame Ezra for his reactions, the man was right, he didn't know enough about love to feel easy about it and the tracker knew that and should make allowances for it but no... not Tanner. He had to place both feel firmly in his mouth and then look surprised when he landed on his arse.

He gathered up his own horse and throwing himself into the saddle he set an easier pace after his lover. He was going to have to do some major apologising when he got back to town if he wanted to spend the night in Ezra's bed and if he was honest with himself, that was the only place he wanted to spend his nights. And if allowing the gambler the illusion of thinking that he was not in love, then Tanner was going to have to allow him that, it was either that or maybe lose him and that was something that Vin didn't even want to contemplate.


Ezra reached the outskirts of town and slowed his horse to a trot, then a walk. The poor animal was lathered up and panting, desperately dragging air into its straining lungs. The gambler felt guilty, he hated abusing his horse, at times he felt like it was his only true friend.

"Don't worry." He commented, gently patting the sweating neck, "I'll give you a good rub down and some extra food." he promised. The horse just nickered and plodded on.

Josiah was standing on the steps of the church, wiping his hands clean of the paint he had just applied to the front door when he saw Standish ride up. "Where's the poker game Ezra?" He called out, effectively stopping the other man.

"Mr Sanchez..." Ezra greeted, then enquired, "Poker game?"

"Your horse is looking a mite tired there, Ezra... I just assumed that you thought you were about to miss a game or something."

The light dawned and the gambler smiled, it was a patented smile that didn't reach his eyes. "I can assure you Mr Sanchez, that if a poker game was being played and I wanted to attend, I would not ride my horse into the ground to be there.. they would wait for me." He raised an eyebrow to emphasise the point and the preacher smiled warmly and nodded wisely agreeing.

"Of course... how silly of me not to realise."

With that the gamble tipped his hat and continued on past the church, heading towards the livery stable where he kept his horse. The stable was empty and Ezra was able to cool and brush down his horse without incident and soon the animal was contentedly chewing on the fresh food that the gambler had promised and Ezra was heading over towards his usual table at the saloon.


When Vin Tanner left the livery stable, Chris Larabee was waiting for him. The blond haired man fell into step beside his friend and said just two words. "What happened?"

Tanner shot Larabee an annoyed look and asked deliberately being vague, "what happened when?"

Chris restrained a sigh and stated, "You and Ezra rode out this morning. Ezra rode in about forty minutes ago, horse looking the worse for wear, he's now in the saloon playing poker with a vengeance and with face to match... and you..." Larabee paused, considering his words before he finished, "your face isn't looking much better."

Vin stopped, took a breath slowly counted to ten then let it out in measured breaths, before he said, "Least he got back safe."

Chris look surprised, "Ezra does know how to ride Vin... even fast... now what the hell happened out there?"

Tanner did consider for one second telling Larabee where to go but seeing only genuine concern in the other man's face he admitted. "I blew it."

"Blew it?" the gunslinger questioned, raising his eyebrow as his tone requested more information.

Tanner hung his head, suddenly ashamed at his own actions. "I wanted him to admit his feelings for me... I wanted a commitment.." he suddenly looked up, looking far younger then his years as he pleaded, "is that to much to ask?"

Chris opened his mouth then snapped it shut before he finally admitted, "from anyone else, no.. but from Ezra... with his background... Christ, Vin you've met his mother.. .she obviously not hot on the commitment level... and let's be honest here Vin... it's only been a week... what the hell do you expect.?" Larabee was angry.

Tanner's glance shot up and he glared at his friend saying, "I know he loves me... why can't he just admit it."

"Why can't you just accept that he's doing the best he can?" shot back Larabee before he sighed again. He really wanted to hit Tanner's head against something hard, the man seemed bound and determined to destroy the love he spoke about before it even had time to grow on the gambler. "Vin..." he began desperately wanting Tanner to see the fire that he was playing with. "Give him time... he's having to look at his entire lifestyle here and measure it up with what you are offering him.. it's not easy."

"And how would you know that?" Vin asked, his voice barely suppressing his own anger.

Chris looked away from the fire in the other man's eyes and confided, his voice nearly a whisper, "I felt the same with Sarah... I mean, you know what I was like before I met her.." seeing the look Vin gave him along with a slight shake of his own head he pushed on, "I've heard Buck.. he tells everyone about how we use to tear up the towns between here and Mexico... I... I liked that kind of life.. I was used to it.. never laying down roots... any problems were handled with a gun..." he paused, remembering his life, then with a slight shake he continued, "Sarah changed all that... within a month of meeting her I was sighting out a place to set down roots, had even began to build a cabin... Buck thought I'd totally lost it." He finished with a smile.

"So you reckon that if I give Ezra a month he'd be building a cabin." Vin asked his tone just every so slightly teasing but Chris answered him seriously.

"I can't say that he will but you need to remember that Ezra.... He hasn't had a lot of love in his life and from the sound of it what he did have came with a price attached... hell it will take time for him to even beginning to trust his feelings for you...."

Tanner rubbed at the side of his face and admitted wearily. "I reckon I just got tossed off the bronco then, 'cause old Ezra is not happy with me at the moment."

"Give him a few hours to calm down. You know him, by this evening he'll be looking for you."

Vin sadly shook his head as he confided, "not this time cowboy... I really messed it up... but" he added with a weary grin, "I reckon you're right about letting him cool his heels before I go and apologise to him."

Whatever else Tanner had been about to say was cut short by a yell that went up from the General Store. This was followed by a shot, the sound of smashing glass and a woman's cry.

"Mrs Potter." Larabee said, running towards the building, closely followed by Tanner. Both drew their weapons as they ran and were ready when the three men burst out of the front door, their own weapons waving wildly about as they attempted to complete the robbery and reach the horses that were tired to the hitching post outside the store.

"Drop your guns..." Chris began even as he dived behind the water trough for safety from the bullets that were aimed his way. He fired back and one of the robbers fell dead, spinning off the wooden sidewalk onto the dusty ground.

"Luke!!" cried the robber nearest to the horses, then seeing Larabee poke his head up from behind his cover he started to lay down a barrage of fire towards the water trough.

Larabee was effectively pinned down and in a very dangerous position. Tanner could see that from the alleyway of the building where he had sought cover. Without thinking he called out. "drop your guns... now." He dodged out to fire a shot to emphasise his words and gasped in shocked surprised as raw agony tore though the middle of his body.

Chris again ducked up from cover and fired another round towards the last two robbers. The one near the horses span about and tipped to the ground, his gun falling from his hands as he attempted to reach up and clutch at the gaping wound spilling blood from his neck.

By now the gunfire had attracted the attention of Buck, JD and Nathan from the sheriff's office and the other two men who rushed onto the street from the saloon and started to lay down fire. The third robber seeing his two companions laying in the street, blood soaking the ground about them, suddenly threw down his own weapon and shouted. "I'm unarmed... I'm unarmed." He held up his hand in surrender as Buck moved in to grab him, along with JD who was still covering him with his gun.

"Vin?" Chris called out, after standing and assuring Nathan and Josiah that he was unharmed. "VIN?" This time he voice was laced with fear when his first call got no response. Then he was racing towards the corner where he had last seen the tracker, Ezra close on his heels.

Tanner was laying face sprawled upward in the alley between the two buildings, his arms were flung upwards and out, his gun laying several feet from him but the sight that attracted Larabee's attention and Standish wail of denial was the gaping wound in his side that was pumping out blood at an alarming rate.

"Nathan." Chris called, glancing back and seeing the healer kneeing beside the robber he had wounded in the neck. "Vin's down," he yelled before turning his attention back to his injured companion.

Ezra had slumped to his knees beside his lover, heedless of the blood that soaked into his clothes and pressed both hands tightly to the wound, as if this mere action could prevent Tanner from dying on him. "Don't you die on me, Mr Tanner... do you hear me... don't you dare die on me." He kept repeating the refrain, his southern accent stronger than Larabee had ever heard it. Ezra's face was as pale as the man he was attempting to keep alive.

Nathan was suddenly there, kneeing beside the distraught gambler, trying to work the other's hands from over the wound, needing to see the damage that had been done. "Here... Ezra..." he demanded, not wanting to have to fight the man but seeing no other way as the gambler refused to release his hold over the wound. "Let me see." Jackson finally snapped.

Standish was incapable of understanding and kept his hands firmly pressed over the wound, gulping and gasping out words to the man laying in front of him. Nathan seeing this and finally understanding that Ezra was as much in shock as any injured party, reached out and taking both of the gambler hands he pulled them away from the wound saying at the same time, "Chris, help me out here.... Ezra's in some sort of shock... get him away from here... I can't afford to have two patients at the moment."

Larabee moved in and attempted to grab Standish. The younger man let out a cry of pure anguish at having his hands removed from his dying lover. The gambler was like a man possessed as he struggled to regain contact with Tanner but Larabee knew what had to be done and he also knew that Ezra was not the man that Vin needed now. With a strength he rarely called on, Chris yanked the gambler up and away from the unconscious tracker and began to pull him bodily out of the alleyway, giving Nathan the space he need to work.

Standish became more agitated and distressed at being removed and it was only with the sudden approach of Josiah, who grabbed Ezra's other arm, that both he and Larabee were able to keep the gambler away from his lover. "No... Vin... you promised..." Standish kept crying out, twisting about trying to get a glimpse of Tanner... "let me go.... Damn you... let me go..." Larabee suddenly span the gambler to face him and slapped him hard across the face. The sound of the attack vibrated about the shocked town and suddenly Ezra slumped in their grasp as if the ability to fight had left him. He turned pleading eyes towards Larabee, gasping, uncaring of what the others thought of him in that instant. "Chris... please, he can't die... what am I... going to do?"

Larabee felt for Standish, could sympathise with the terror he saw reflected in the other's eyes, knew what pain it was to lose a loved one but Tanner was not dead. Not yet and with Nathan's help and a lot of prayers to God he might survive. "Let Nathan work, Ezra..." he advised gently trying to give the other man the hope that he didn't feel. He'd seen men die from injuries less servere then the one that Vin had. "He'll do his best... but let him work."

Standish seem to crumple before their eyes and it was only the gunslinger and the preacher's support that was now keeping him on his feet.

Then Buck was there all fire and anger. "How's Vin?" he demanded, before he answered the question he saw in Chris's eyes. "JD's watching the one we took to the jail... those two." He contemptuously indicated the bodies in the street, "are dead... Mrs Potter's alright… just shaken... Mrs Travis is with her... Now... how is Vin?"

"Nathan's seeing to him." Chris stated, then as if on cue the healer called out.

"I need help here to get him to the clinic.." All four men surged forward but only Buck and Larabee made it to Nathan's side. Josiah kept a firm grip on Ezra to prevent him from returning to the alleyway.

"Josiah." Ezra pleaded, fighting to keep the sanity in his tone. "I'm alright now... please... please... I just want to... want to..." he stopped unable to continue. He just wanted to make sure that Vin was alive, that his own reason for living still existed. As if sensing this Josiah nodded once and slowly released him but followed him closely, ready to capture him again if it looked like he was going to lose it again.

As soon as he was released Ezra forgot about Josiah and rushed towards the alleyway but stumbled back as the other three men emerged, Vin seeming dead as he hung limply while being carried very carefully by Chris and Buck with Nathan holding a wad of cloth over the wound. "Vin?" The gambler gasped but not getting a reply from any of the three men, he settled for stumbling along behind them as they cautiously made their way to the small room that Nathan used as a clinic.


The next several hours passed as if in a daze for the men who protected the town of Four Corners. Once Nathan had Vin settled in the bed, he had shooed out everyone except for Josiah, who would help him remove the bullet from the bounty hunter's side.

Larabee had waited about for several minutes before he had left to check on JD and the rest of the town. He didn't want to leave but he knew that he still had a duty to the town and he had to set up a rota for watching the prisoner and contact Judge Travis to let him know what had happened.

Buck sat outside the small room, casting concerned glances over at the gambler who had not made a sound since the sickroom door had been firmly closed in his face. Finally Wilmington could stand it no longer and he burst out, "Nathan's good at what he's does Ezra... Vin will be alright... just you see." He winced as he spoke as the words sounded hollow even to himself.

Standish looked over at him, then away again, his face pale, his eyes tormented with a terror that he had never felt before. He twisted his hands and slowly began to rock. If this was love then he was better off without it, this tearing agony, the hole in his middle that was threatening to drag him down into a pit of despair where he could hardly breath. He swallowed hard and remembered the cruel words that he had tossed at Vin that morning. How could he... how could he have been so stupid to even argue with the man. He knew... he knew that Tanner was the most important thing in his life, had he not lain awake the night before, gently running his hand over the other man's sleeping body thinking that very thing and yet, that morning when Vin had asked him to voice his feelings he had denied them and now... he gasped, unable to keep the pain in any longer, now he might never get the chance to tell that wonderful, gently man exactly how much his, Ezra's existence depended on his survival. The gambler began to shake.

"Ezra?" Buck asked growing even more concerned. The man had not answered his words of encouragement but had gasped as if in pain.

The gambler shook his head, warding off the other man. "Please Mr Wilmington... just let it be."

Suddenly Wilmington was reminded of another tormented soul, another loss of a loved one and he blinked back the sorrow that overwhelmed him. Was Ezra about to suffer the torment that Chris had gone through when his wife Sarah had died. Seeing the haunted expression that filtered across the gamblers fragile features he was not so sure that this man was as strong as Larabee and he wondered if he would survive the lost.

"Buck..." Chris said coming up the steps and stopping in front of the two men. "I want you to take over guarding the prisoner at six... then I'll take over from you at twelve... then either JD or Josiah will take over from me."

Buck looked at Ezra, saw that the man was still in his own world and offered, "Sure... no problem..."

Once satisfied with his arrangements, the gunslinger then turned his attention to the gambler. The man was totally oblivious to them as he continued to twist his hands and shake. "Ezra." Chris said, coming to crouch in front of the man in question. "Ezra..." he repeated trying to get the gamblers attention. "You need to go and change."

"No... No... Vin..." Ezra stopped and swallowed hard before he forced himself to continue, "Mr Tanner might need me." He looked deep into Larabee's eyes and nodded, his own expression now open and vulnerable.

"Ezra." Chris tried again, this time reaching out and gripping the shaking hands. "You're covered in blood... you really need to go get changed... Vin will be worried if he sees all that blood on you."

Standish blinked owlishly for several seconds before he tilted his head to look down at his hands and then the front of his suit. It was as Larabee had said, the man was covered in drying blood. "Oh God..." he gasped, realising that it was Tanner's blood that covered him. "Oh no... no." he began to chant, as his breathing became erratic.

Chris suddenly stood and dragged the gambler up and shook him hard, "Damn it Ezra this isn't about you... you need to keep yourself in hand... Vin's going to need you once he's awake and he's going to need to know that your alright... You can't do that if you keep falling apart like this..."

"Chris." Buck had stood up, his voice cautious. "enough... I'll take him... see that he gets cleaned up..."

Larabee shot Wilmington a surprised look but then released the other man, who appeared to have gathered himself somewhat since the verbal thrashing that Chris had given him.

"Come on Ezra... lets get you washed up and into some clean clothes." Buck said, carefully removing the gambler from Larabee's personnel space. When the gambler would have protested he said firmly, "We'll come right back.. but Chris is right.... Vin doesn't need to see all that blood on you." Finally admitting defeat Standish allowed himself to be lead away.

Larabee watched them go before tuning away as if unable to watch the way that Buck was carefully guiding the other man down the stairs, as if Ezra was some small lost child, He firmly pushed away the nagging memory that Wilmington had been just as gentle with him when they had discovered the burned bodies of his wife and son. With a shaking hand he wiped away the sweat that had gathered on his face. It was sweat he told himself, because to admit that he was still crying for his lost love would send him over the same pinnacle that Ezra was balancing on the edge of.


Finally Nathan washed and wiped the blood from his hands and turned back to face his patient. Removing the bullet had been a hard and draining task but he had finally manned to snag it and draw it from the wound.

Now all Tanner had to worry about was the growing fever that had started to attack his body. The bullet might be out but he was no nearer to surviving the attack. Only time would see if the healer had done a good job.

"What now?" Josiah asked, taking the cloth and drying his own hands. He also wiped the sweat from his face. It had been a long afternoon.

"Now we wait," Nathan said, his voice dull from the strain. "And hope... a prayer would not go astray."

"I will make sure to mention both Vin and Ezra in my prayers."

"Ezra!" Nathan said in some surprise, before he sighed. "I guess we'd better go and let them know what's happening." As he spoke he headed towards the door and opening it he walked out to be confronted by Larabee, Standish and Wilmington. Without pausing he said, "The bullets out... but he's lost a fair amount of blood and well.. he has a fever..." He paused then slowly shaking his head he offered, "I've done all I can... now... now it's up to him."

"Can I..?" Ezra began, slowly moving forward, his face still too pale, his eyes reflecting the fear that even his best poker face was unable to hide. "Can I please sit with him?"

Nathan looked away and swallowed. He had never really approved of the gambler, didn't like the way the man drifted through life, never accepting responsibility for his actions nor the pain that he caused. Yet the healer could not find it in his soul to refuse such a heartfelt request. It was obvious to anyone who looked, really looked at the smaller man who stood before him, that Ezra was suffering the torments that he had never even knew existed until he had taken the tracker as his lover. "Of course Ezra... just... just..." again Nathan stopped, not sure that he could really offer any advice for this man. To lose a love was not something that any man could guard another from and certainly no mortal words would stop the pain for Standish, so instead Jackson changed his words and finished, "Just keep bathing him and keep him cool.. I'll be back in a while to check the bandage."

The gambler smiled hesitantly then looked at the others who stood about him, before ducking past to enter the room where his lover lay terribly wounded. Larabee made to follow but Jackson laid a surprisingly strong hand on his arm and slowly shook his head saying in a whisper. "Leave them.." His eyes met those of the man he had long considered a friend. "This may be all we can give them... I think Ezra needs... time with Vin... alone."

Larabee felt tears prick at his eyes and clenched his jaw to force back the feelings that welled within him. He could not deny his own feelings towards the bounty hunter, the man who had accepted him, faults and all from the first but he also knew that Nathan was right. It was not his place to sit by the tracker's bed this night but the man who truly loved him. Even if he could never admit it out loud, it was obvious to all who had seen his reaction that day that Ezra Standish loved Vin Tanner with all his being, heart and soul.

"I'm going.." Buck began, then coughed to cover his own errant emotional display before he forced the words out past the lump that had gathered in his throat. "I'm going to keep JD company and let him know how Vin is."

"I think I will go to the church, I feel that I need to have a few words with the Lord," Josiah said very softly, nodding towards the other two men before following Buck down the steps onto the main street.

"What are his chances... really?" Chris asked, his eyes looking deep into those of Nathan.

The man in question slowly shook his head and offered weakly, tiredly. "I honestly don't know... I've seen men on a battlefield survive worse wounds then this and yet I've known others to linger for over a week before the fever took them.. I'm sorry... I just can't say..." he ended his tone bitter and angry. "I can't think if there is anything more that I should be doing or that I've not done... I just...." He stopped as his frustration started to boil over.

Chris, seeing this, reached out and gripped the arm in front of him saying firmly, "Nathan... you've done all that you can... Vin's a fighter and well... he's got more to fight for now than he had two weeks ago." As he spoke he nodded into the room and Nathan turned to see that Ezra was faithfully, gently wiping the cooling cloth other the sweating brow and face of the man he loved. "Come on.." Larabee continued, "have you eaten... no... well I think you need to get something inside of you..." he gently but determinedly pulled the other man towards the stairs.


Ezra sat by Vin's bed, allowing the cooling breeze of the hot day to gently drift across the room from the open window to the door. He wrung out the cloth once more in the water and gently began the ritual of wiping it across Tanner's forehead, cheeks, neck and down across his chest. The wound was in his lower side and firmly wrapped with a bandage. The sheets had been pulled back to reveal the firm bronzed body that he had grown to crave above all others.

Tanner was weakly mumbling and twisting on the bed, his mind caught up in some fevered dream that Ezra could only imagine. The sweat standing out on his body only made him look more like one of those Greek hero's that the gambler had read about in his childhood.

He wanted to grab the injured man up, to hold him close and whisper in his ear that all was going to be well, that he, Ezra Standish was going to ensure that Tanner never suffered any more pain again. Yet the gambler was so frightened that even gently touching him with the cloth would prove too much and send him over into the waiting arms of the reaper whom he was sure he could sense standing in the corner of the room. Ezra was so afraid that he would not even glance in that direction in case it brought the apparition closer to the bed and his beloved.

"Ezra..." Vin suddenly gasped, raising an arm as if reaching for his lover.

"Vin." The gambler replied, gently stilling the cloth on the other's chest and, reaching up, he clasped the reaching hand in both of his own. "I'm here Vin... just relax... please... fight it... don't leave me... not yet... please."

"Ezra..." Tanner repeated but this time is was no more then a gasped whisper, a benediction and not, the gambler hoped, a parting.

He clutched the fevered hand tighter and lifting it up he kissed the knuckles, then opening the hand he pressed his trembling lips to the palm. "Here... here my soul... you hold my life within this hand Vin.. please.. please don't leave me... I was a fool... this morning..." he stopped unable to continue, his voice so tight, his jaw aching fiercely from the pain of stopping his teeth from chattering. Yet he pushed those selfish feelings aside and struggled to continue, taking even the slimest chance that Tanner might hear his words and use them to decide whether to stay or go.

"I was lying this morning... at the fishing hole.... I knew." He confessed bitterly, "I knew that I loved you... but... I couldn't... say..." he stopped again and gasped a couple of times before he rushed on, "I didn't want you to use my love against me... please Vin... don't leave me..." he was unable to stop the splatter of tears that dripped over his lashes to sweep down his face but he didn't care, as he shook his head saying, "all my life I've wanted to have a taste of that love.. and yet... ever since I was a child, whenever I would reach out, I always discovered afterwards that it was a sham... a way of either controlling me or taking what I had..." Again he kissed the palm that was held so close to his lips. "I love you Vin, with my heart, my body... my soul... that is my pledge to you and I will do whatever you want... it's yours... whatever it takes..." He shuddered again, fighting to breathe as he finished, "not even death will part us... not now... not now I've found you." Grasping the limp hand more firmly he rested it against his wet cheek and kissed the palm again and again as if this act alone would give the tracker the strength he needed to fight the fever that now tormented his body.

"Ezra..." the bounty hunter gasped again. Standish glanced up, hoping that he would look into the deep coloured eyes of his love but Tanner was still deeply unconscious, it was only his fever talking.

Swallowing hard and pulling himself together, Ezra carefully laid the injured man's hand back on top of the blankets and, picking up the cloth, he rinsed it out and again began to wipe the accumulated sweat from the other man's body, raising a hand and not even noticing as he wiped the fast drying tears from his own face.


Thirty-six hours passed and still there was no real sign of improvement in Tanner, who was still caught in the grip of the fever. He tossed and turned, fighting an unseen army of attackers and not once during that time did Ezra leave his bedside. When the fevered dreams turned to frightening nightmares of his past, it was the gambler who held his shaking body and used his gentle, soothing southern tone to scare the dark thoughts away.

When Nathan needed to get water or the weak broth that he had brewed into the bounty hunter it was the gambler who gently teased and then stroked the sweating neck to ensure that Tanner swallowed the brew. Carefully, he allowed sip after sip of water to slip into the mouth of the injured man and much as if he was caring for a small child he would entice the man to accept the offering passing his parched lips. Never giving up, never sleeping, never seeming to tire from the task of caring for his lover that he had set himself.

Chris stood back, near the door and watched as Ezra was once more attempted to get Vin to drink the foul smelling herbal drink that Nathan had made up to help fight the fever. "Has he had any sleep?" he asked the doctor indicating the man sitting by the bed.

Nathan looked up in some surprise, he had been intently watching the scene playing out before him, in total astonishment. If anyone had ever told him that Ezra Standish would put another person before himself he would have laughed them out of the room but not now, not after having witnessed the man's selfless devotion of the last day and a half. "No." he finally admitted. "I tried to get him to sleep... when I woke during the night but he won't move and." He paused not sure how to put it into words so he finally just admitted, "and his presence does seem to help Vin.. once when Ezra just slipped out to relieve himself... he got really restless... it was almost as if he knew that Ezra had left him..."

"Has he eaten?" Chris continued, a frown marring his handsome face as he took in the pale worn features and the almost haggard expression on the gambler's face, his bright green eyes now dull with constant worry and fear.

Again Nathan shook his head. "I tried Chris... but he's just not listening...."

Nodding again, Larabee seemed to come to a decision and moved towards the bed saying in a quite but firm tone. "Ezra." The gambler didn't hear him and continued to mumble encouraging words as Tanner slowly accepted the brew being offered him. Chris spoke louder this time getting the other man's attention as wide frightened eyes were turned towards him, Ezra words pausing on trembling, almost white lips. "Ezra... you need to eat... rest... Nathan says you've been here for nearly 36 hours... you're not going to do Vin any good if you collapse yourself." To Larabee's ears it sounded like a reasonable request but to Standish it was like a death knell.

"I can't leave... not yet..." The gambler's words tumbled out, no longer was he the cultured southerner gentlemen but a frightened lover afraid to lose his love. "If I go..." he stopped and carefully placing the now empty cup on the bedside table he raised a shaking hand and push the dark hair back from his face. "I... my place is here... I'm fine... Nathan said that I'm helping Vin by being here... he got really restless when I went outside earlier... he... he needs me here."

Chris suppressed a sigh, desperately trying to keep the annoyance and anger from his tone. He could see the man collapsing right before his eyes and he didn't like what he was seeing, mainly because he had been there and he knew that unless he broke the close connection that Ezra was establishing with Vin at this time, then if anything did happen to Tanner they could not ensure that Standish would survive. "You have to come with me now... to eat... get a few hours sleep... then you'll be better able to look after Vin tonight... please." He didn't mean to end on a plea but if it took begging to draw Standish away from Tanner then Larabee was not above begging.

"Mr Larabee." The gambler began, the poker face suddenly slipping into place, "I can assure you that I am not in need of either rest or sustenance... I am perfectly fine right here... and as I have already told you... Mr Jackson said that Mr Tanner rested easier when I was in the room."

"Ezra...." Chris began again but this time he was cut off by Standish's angry retort.

"This matter is no longer open for discussion Mr Larabee... if you want me to leave this room, it will only be after you have shot me..." The eyes flashed with such fire that Larabee almost took a step backwards away from it. Almost but not quite as he felt his own anger raising.

Whatever he had been about to say was cut short by a weak voice from the bed. "Ezra?" It was not the fevered ramble of the previous day but a hesitant, gasping enquiry.

"Vin?" Ezra replied, leaning over the man he loved and looking deep into the sleepy, blinking eyes that now focused, fever free, on him.

"Had a... dream..." the hunter mumbled, a sweet smile curving his lips.

"A dream?" Ezra questioned hardly daring to believe that Vin was awake and talking to him.

"Yeah..." Vin agreed, then sighed, "you said you loved me..." there was such a wistful tone to the voice that it twisted Ezra's heart as he confided, uncaring that the other two men in the room had moved closer to the bed when the realised that the hunter was awake.

"That was no dream Vin... that was my heart talking to yours..." his smile was a little bit shaky at the way that Tanner stopped blinking and fixed his look firmly and deeply on the eyes of his lover. Leaning forward so that he was the only thing that Tanner saw, Ezra stated firmly, determinedly, leaving the injured man in no doubt as he said, "I love you Vin Tanner... look... you were right... you can see it in my eyes... can't you?"

Tanner looked at the man leaning so close above him, the pain that he had been feeling faded as he got lost in the green eyes that he loved so much, then slowly nodding his head he had to agree in awe. "Yep... it's there... I knew... it would be... 'cause I love you too..." Whatever else he'd been about to say was washed away by the lips that gently, oh so gently, caught at his own and they traded breaths.

When Ezra finally pulled back he whispered, gently raising a shaking hand and sweeping aside a string of hair that had fallen across Tanner's forehead. "Now you rest... that's right... just close your eyes... sleep.. I'll be here... when you wake... shhh that's right..." he whispered as he watched the tiredness overtake the other man who easily slipped into a healing sleep.

Once he was sure that Tanner was sleeping deeply Standish tilted his head to glance back at his friends who stood smiling behind him. Seeing the looks, Ezra raised an eyebrow and offered, "I take it that's a good sign Mr Jackson?"

Nathan was unable to hide the grin that ripped across his handsome face as he nodded and agreed, "I guess you could say that..." then moving forward he quickly checked the man sleeping on the bed. "The fever's nearly gone.," Pulling the blanket back he carefully revealed the wound and looked at it closely before pronouncing, "that's healing well... looks clean."

Larabee also felt a wave of relief wash over him and he blinked as he realised that he had just witnessed something very special, something that very few people actually got to enjoy in their shorts lives. He'd had it with Sarah and it had made his life worth living. Even after her death he'd wrapped the memory of her love about him like a shield and it had kept him warm on many a dark night when he'd only had his own tormented soul for company.

Firmly pushing those thoughts aside Larabee returned to the conversation he'd been having with the gambler before the tracker had awoken. "Ezra... now that the fever's broken I really think you need to eat and freshen up."

The denial rose to the gambler's lips but then Nathan placed his weight behind the suggestion by saying, "Vin's going to sleep for several hours I would bet and you don't want him to worry about you when he wakes and sees how bad you look."

Standish looked from one man to the other and finally agreed, slowly standing up. "I guess it would not hurt if I was just to go back to my room and quickly freshen up.. maybe grab a bite to eat and let the other's know that Vin is feeling better."

Larabee smiled and nodded saying, "come on I'll walk with you..." He never got to finish his words as he suddenly saw the colour drain from Ezra's face and the man began to sway dangerously. It was only Chris' quick reaction and leap that saved him from ending up a heap on the floor. "Nathan!"

"Here... sit him back down." The healer advised, pulling the chair closer and helping Larabee lower the gambler back onto the seat. "Damn, I knew he was pushing it..." he stated as he carefully pushed Ezra's head lower so that he was slumped over his own knees. The fainting man began to struggle weakly but Nathan stopped him by snapping, "Just stay still Ezra... let it pass... you've just pushed yourself too hard... that's all... now take it easy..." he cautioned as he let the gambler slowly sit up.

The gambler looked surprised as his own collapse but at least some colour had now returned to his face. "Alright?" Nathan asked, crouching down in front of the gambler.

"I'm perfectly fine Mr Jackson." Standish insisted, finishing, "I just stood up too quickly... after sitting for so long."

Nathan opened his mouth to fire back a retort then he snapped it closed again, shaking his head he continued saying, "Ezra... Chris is going to take you to get a warm meal inside you, then you are going back to your room to get some rest..."

"No... no I promised Vin that I would be here when he woke." Standish argued, his eyes flashing and his face firm.

Nathan opened his mouth to argue but paused when he felt a warm hand resting on his shoulder. He glanced back at Chris as the gunslinger said, "How about if we make up a bed on the floor... can Ezra rest on that?"

Nathan didn't look happy but seeing the nod that this got from Ezra he finally nodded his own agreement saying firmly, "but only if he eats a good meal and has a bath and changes his clothes... only then." He finished looking back at the gambler to see if he was in agreement.

Ezra nodded keenly, he was willing to accept whatever Chris suggested as long as it meant that he could return to Vin's side.

"Alight." Jackson finally agreed, moving back and carefully helping the gambler to his feet again, "Now you take it easy there Ezra... and let Chris go down the stairs first..." he stopped then said, "no on second thoughts I'll go in front and Chris can follow."

"I can walk down the stairs on my own." Ezra groused in annoyance but his words petered out as another wave of dizziness started and he snapped shut his mouth and nodded. He was not about to give Nathan any reason to argue against his returning to Vin.


Several hours later, Nathan sat next to Vin's bedside waiting for the other man to awaken. He had been showing signs of climbing back towards consciousness for the last five minutes. The healer glanced over the bed to the blanket covered bundle on the floor. Ezra had returned in record time looking bathed, freshly dressed and fed, so Chris has assured Nathan.

Ezra had then checked on his lover one last time before he had settled on the well padded blanket bed that Nathan had made up on the floor for him and was asleep in seconds, one hand gently resting on top of the bed cover, just touching Vin's.

"Hey." Nathan said in a hushed voice as Vin blinked open his eyes. "How you feeling?"

The tracker carefully considered his answer before he offered weakly, "Like I was kicked in the side by a very angry mule."

Nathan smiled, "well you certainly gave us all a scare."

"Ezra!!!" Vin suddenly gasped, looking frantically about.

"Hey... Hey... he's right there." Nathan said pointing at the bundled up figure under the blanket by the injured man's bed. "He refused to leave you... but we finally managed to get him to rest..."

Tanner shot Jackson a surprised look before he confided, "Ezra hates sleeping on the floor."

The healer smiled warmly and offered, "well I guess he hates leaving you even more... he jumped at the chance to sleep there rather then his own room."

Vin smiled drifted off his face as he grew serious before asking, "How's he been?"

Nathan seriously considered lying to the other man but then he realised that Vin would see right though him, so he stated instead, "we were really worried about you both there for a while."

"He said he loved me." Tanner suddenly remembered, his face brightening with the memory.

"Yep.. he sure did... and that has got to be worth a few rounds of drink when you're feeling better."

"How do you expect anyone to rest when you keep talking is beyond me." A southern voice suddenly drifted up from under the huddle of blankets. Then the covers were moved back and Ezra clambered to his knees and carefully leant on the bed, mindful of Vin's healing injury. "Hi there," he said, his voice just husky enough to send a ripple up Tanner's spine.

"Hi yourself." The tracker breathed back.

"How are you feeling?" Ezra asked, gently resting a hand on the other's cheek to check for fever. He smiled brightly when he felt none.

"Better for having seen you..."

Nathan coughed loudly and said in mock disgust. "Well seeing as Ezra's awake now, I'm going to get a cup of coffee.. without sugar." He finished tartly before adding, "there is far too much sugar being shovelled about here anyhow!"

Vin laughed carefully, a flicker of pain reminding him of his injury but he pushed it aside as he watched the other man leave the room. The laugher was a shaky sound and both the men who remained knew that Tanner still had a fair distance to go before he would be properly healed.

"I really missed you Vin." Ezra confided, reaching out and taking the hand that he had held during his lover's fever.

"Sorry that I worried you." Tanner offered weakly.

"I'm sorry about what I said at that fishing hole..." Ezra began, looking at the blankets, suddenly unable to glance into Vin's eyes. The tracker carefully, painfully reached over with his other hand and slipping it under the other man's chin and raised his head up so that he could look directly into his lover's eyes saying firmly.

"Don't shield your eyes from me Ezra... I like to see that you love me in their depths."

"I believe Mr Tanner that you are talking that Hughy that Mr Dunne is always accusing Mr Wilmington of." Ezra's tone was light and joking and the love that Tanner talked about was shining very clearly in his eyes as Vin rolled his own eyes and demanded in a mock angry tone...

"And it's Vin, Ezra... not Mr Tanner!!"

The Biggest Gamble Index On to: The Biggest Gamble Part 4

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