Green Eyes
(Old West)

by MAC

Disclaimer: I don't own them, or the show they rode in on. I wrote this for fun, and no profit is made from it.
Archive: Starwinder's, You Want Fries With That?, and The All-Ezra FanFic Archive --- all others, please ask.
Summary: Chris accidentally reveals his feelings for Ezra to Mary just before a visit from 'ghosts' of the Confederacy involves Ezra, Chris and the rest of the Seven in a confrontation to protect Four Corners.
Warnings: My stories usually end up with some violence, some angst, some h/c, some *male/male lovin'*, but no death fic.
Author's Note: Some other-worldly aspects to this... and a slight case of Mary-bashing, sorry. Winner of 2003 Diamond Ezzie for Old West Slash Fiction - Long Category
Completed: 17 July 2002
Feedback: gentlerainfall@yahoo.com welcomes comments


"Mr. Standish? May I speak to you privately for a moment?" Mary Travis was short and to the point, she was also nervous and angry.

Ezra Standish, the resident gambler of Four Corners in recent weeks, a member of the newly formed law contingent of seven, hired by Mrs. Travis' father-in-law, Judge Orrin Travis, was taken aback by the quiet, yet imperious, invitation. Mrs. Travis ran the local newspaper and was the power to be reckoned with in this small western town in the Territories. Only recently widowed, she was still vacillating between black widow's weeds and more lively costumes. The arrival of her son back in town, and the subsequent hunt for his father's murderer had made her much more well known to the new lawmen.

However, Ezra considered himself to be a fringe factor in all this. The leader of the seven, Chris Larabee, a widower himself, was one of the main players in the recently enacted manhunt and saving of the Widow Travis' son. All of the rest of the new lawmen had noticed the sparks between Larabee and Mary Travis. Ezra himself , with a hidden heart ache, had laid some quiet side bets with a few of his associates as to when the twosome would become serious. To do so was better than to yearn for the unreachable and it put things back into a semblance of the reality he had to face and live. So far, there was nothing to show for everyone's conviction about the two except for a slight softening of Larabee's grim features and moderating of his tone, when addressing the newspaper editor. Mrs. Travis' large, soft eyes, almost a grayish green, would open wide in her narrow, beautifully angular face, when catching sight of the gunman. To most, the two blondes seemed a match made in heaven, just waiting to be formalized. So, Ezra bowed and tipped his hat to the lady and followed her at a very circumspect distance, back to her office at the newspaper.

He wondered uncomfortably if tales of this rendezvous, not of his making, would now circulate and return to Larabee to further poison the well for him. He knew he was not a favorite of the gunfighter's, merely tolerated for his skills, but he was becoming used to the aura of suspicion here. No worse than anywhere else he'd ever stopped, but here there was actually a positive factor. Here he was able to do something legal, get paid for it, true it was a pittance, and actually be considered a respectable, well, alright, nearly respectable member of the community. Women actually nodded to him and men greeted him by name, shopkeepers ordered goods for him, and the saloon had a running tab just for him. Yes, he was becoming an established presence and he liked it. He even liked the men he worked for and respected Chris Larabee, the leader, like no one he'd ever met before. He had silently given his allegiance to the man by the end of their first mission together, to save the Seminole villagers.

Mary Travis was pale. Being blonde, fair skinned and with light eye color, she was expected to be pale, but now she was nearly white. With equal measures of trepidation and anger, she was on the attack. There was not room in this small town for her and a rival for the affections of Christopher Larabee. Mary hadn't consciously decided to pursue the dark clad gunslinger, though she'd not deny his attractiveness. But, last night, they'd gone out on a stroll that had ended badly, in the back bedroom of her living quarters. At least, from her perspective, it had been less than fully satisfactory. She intended to rectify this at the earliest possible moment and this seemed to be it.

Leading the way inside the newspaper office, Mary waited for the gambler to enter, then shut the door behind him, lowering the shade and locking the door. Once she'd done this, she turned to face her nemesis. Standish, as if anticipating trouble, had continued deep into the room and was on the other side of the cast iron printing press, leaning nonchalantly against the remainders from last week's editions of the Clarion. He raised an eyebrow at her actions, watching and silent. This was Mary's game, let her open the play, it would give him time to try to figure out the rules of engagement because he'd already sensed this was war. Why, he didn't yet know, but he suspected he soon would. Poker face in place, Ezra waited.

Finally faced with Standish, in private, Mary began to doubt the sanity of her intentions. Then, catching sight of Chris, through the window, as he stalked down the dusty street, heading for the jail, her determination returned. "Stay away from Mr. Larabee."

Stunned, Ezra could only blink and stare. His poker face vanished. Utterly speechless at this non sequitur, his mouth parted soundlessly. Stay away from Larabee?

When she didn't get any verbal response, Mary steeled herself to continue. "Mr. Standish, apparently you believe yourself to be eligible for the attentions and affection of Mr. Larabee. I find this distasteful, arrogant, and outside the bounds of decency for this small, Christian community. If you can not withhold your unwanted advances, then it might be best if you simply left."

By now, Ezra had begun to get an inkling of where the angry woman was going with her unexpected attack. She thinks I am after Chris! Totally bewildered by this groundless accusation, Ezra was truly floundering mentally. His normally glib tongue seemed to have grown slow in the past few moments. Finally, mustering his scattered thoughts, he met her pale and penetrating stare. "Mrs. Travis. Dear lady. I do not know where you came by such information but it is obviously either a fabrication or a misunderstanding. I have no personal attachment to Mr. Larabee, nor he to me. I follow the man as leader of the small peace-keeping force your good father-in-law has put in place here. That is all."

Ezra brushed at the white ruffles peeking out from the sleeves of his deep burgundy fine wool jacket. A dreadful mistake, no doubt. He shook his head.

Mary was not to be put off so easily. "Mr. Standish, my knowledge of your attempts to ensnare Mr. Larabee are based upon first hand information." She smiled grimly, satisfied with the man's start at her words. Surely he knew that she knew by now. He can't stay. I will not allow it! She leaned forward, her strong, thin fingers gripping the metal press between them as she frowned. "Leave him alone, or leave Four Corners."

"But," Ezra was flummoxed, "but, Mrs. Travis, I have done nothing!" Never had he felt more confused or pained by an accusation. So many times he'd been guilty of acts that never sat on his doorstep, but this? He'd never, ever let anyone know how he felt about Chris Larabee. That was not for public consumption nor even private knowledge. He simply didn't allow himself to dwell on forbidden fruits. And Larabee was the apple of his own private Garden of Eden. Now it seemed that somehow the virtuous Mary Travis had discovered this hidden sin and intended to throw him out of paradise. One corner of his mouth quirked up in ill-timed good humor, thinking that Four Corners hardly constituted any 'paradise' he'd ever contemplated.

Reaching across the press, an enraged Mary slapped the gambler's face with an open palm, hard. "Don't lie to me!" she hissed angrily. "I know and it will stop. Now." She absently rubbed the stinging palm against her dress-covered thigh. The man was not going to remain here she decided, forgoing her earlier thoughts of simply warning him off of Chris. "It would be best for all if you left."

"Left? You mean leave Four Corners?" Ezra continued to be stunned by this surprise attack. There was no way for her to know the truth, nor any reason for her to act this way, unless she had a very vivid imagination or some how he'd been less discrete than he'd thought. "Mrs. Travis, let me state unequivocally that I have never in any way approached Mr. Larabee nor attempted to make a liaison of the nature you elude to with the man. I respect Chris Larabee and follow him as one of the team of men under his command. That, my dear lady, is all." Hoping he'd laid to rest this acrid accusation, he stepped back further away from the press, creating more distance between them.

Mary stared at him like a mongoose at a snake. He wondered how he could ever have thought her soft or attractive, at this moment she was a true harridan, a woman scorned. Scorned? Was that it? Had Chris rejected her tentative advances? No one could miss her attraction to the gunman, and Ezra had honestly thought it was reciprocated. Until now.

He was lying, she was sure of it. "Last night," she began, intent on driving this unnatural man from her town, "last night, Chris and I shared some moments of intimacy."

Ezra's lips parted again in surprise. Would this nightmare now get worse. Did he really want to stay to hear the rest? He shifted uncomfortably, flicking a searching look over his shoulder to check on the back exit from the room. It might be time to leave. His own eyes were a dark green now with hurt and worry. I know that Chris and I have no future, hell, we don't even have a 'now' so I just do not understand how this woman can stand here, making these statements to me. Why am I to listen to their affair of the evening. It is NOT my business. He started to move, turning to slip out the back since Mrs. Travis stood squarely in front of the entrance door.

Darting around the press, Mary nearly ran to block the rear exit. "No! You'll stay and hear me out! Then you will know that I know and you will leave forever!"

Defeated, Ezra stepped back and clasped his hands together in front of him. "Very well, Mrs. Travis, what is it that you demand that I hear?"

"Chris, last night, when we ---" finally Mary seemed to realize just what she was about to confess in the act of accusing another, pausing to regroup her thoughts and words, she then continued, "last night, Chris called out your name."

"My name?" Ezra squeaked. He gulped and to his intense dismay, found himself taking hope from this tiny fact, so isolated that it was nearly meaningless, his hope a warm cinder that flickered to life deep inside. "I don't understand."

Mary had the grace to look away, but then she was back, a determined, strong woman, out to defend her man. Protect him from things unnatural and wrong. Keep him for herself. "Yes! Your name! At a moment so private and intimate that none other should have intruded in his thoughts." She could be no clearer without revealing too much, yet she knew that Standish understood.

"Mary. Mrs. Travis." Ezra stared into her pale eyes, seeing the burning anger there, "I can not answer for Mr. Larabee's actions or words, I can only assure you that I have done nothing to provoke the intentions that you deduced from his cry. We live in harsh and violent times, we are both members of a small group of peacekeepers who are often in life and death situations. Calling out for an associate in the heat of battle is natural, and, in the stress and exhaustion that follows, events often replay in one's head. Perhaps such an occurrence produced this cry that you heard."

The editor could see that Standish was not admitting to anything and she had no proof she could show to anyone else. Yet Chris had undeniably called out, "Ezra!" as he climaxed in her bed, in her, last night. She shuddered delicately and her anger only grew. She had hoped by simply confronting this snake that he would slink off. But no, he was not reacting as she anticipated. What could she do? She would think of something. This was not over. Not so long as this man remained in her town, tampering with the affections of the man she felt she might grow to love, find comfort with in Stephen's stead. This man was not important to anyone. She would triumph. She had simply to bide her time.

Ezra began to fidget. Mary had yet to answer him. She stared at him as if he was some repulsive creature that had crawled from beneath a rock. Not here! This town was the first place he'd ever considered home, felt as if he could be part of, actually have earned some respect. Her attack was cutting away at his shaky foundations. He eyed her standing there, fierce as any lioness protecting her pride of cubs and mates. His own green eyes sharpened with insight. For some reason, I am the perceived challenger. He could see no way to dissuade her. He took a step to the side, then another, watching her turn to keep him central to her stance, her eyes locked on his face.

Finally she spoke, low and fierce. "Stay away from him," she repeated.

Shaking his head and bowing to the inevitable, he agreed. "I will." What else could he say? He hadn't been near Chris in that sense, but he would not go there now either. He was, however, hopeful as never before. For some reason, in a moment of intense intimacy with another, Chris had called out his name. He called out for me. Ezra hid a small smile behind one hand as he backed up around the press and finally reached the front door. Taking the handle in one hand, he turned slightly, looking back over his shoulder at Mary Travis as she stood there, tall and straight and righteous. Ezra bowed, two fingers going to his hat in a mock salute. "Ma'am."

He opened the door carefully, leaving it open behind him, and walked back out into the sunshine of a lovely day. It was like waking from a nightmarish dream. Behind him, he heard a loud crash, as if Mrs. Travis had slammed a few books onto the floor. He hesitated, thinking he should check on her, then deciding that it might be wiser to send in someone else. He eyed Mrs. Potter, just coming down the boardwalk. "Ah, Mrs. Potter? Mrs. Travis seemed a bit distraught just now, I fear another lady might be better able to lend an ear and perhaps a hand. Would you---?" He gestured toward the open door.

Gloria Potter looked puzzled, but she liked Mary Travis and respected the gutsy news editor. "Why, of course, Mr. Standish," she replied, turning into the doorway without hesitation. He could hear her call out, "Mary, is everything alright?"

Hearing Mary's reply, in a low and steady voice, reassured Ezra that the sound at least had not been of her injuring herself. With that thought, he quickly moved down the sidewalk toward the saloon and sanctuary. He had much to think about.

<><><><><><><><><><><><>

Chris sat at his usual seat at his usual table in the back of the saloon. He had a bottle of whiskey in front of him, near the center of the table, a signal that it was alright for others to share it. Between his strong fingers, a short thick glass stood. He'd moved it several times in the last few minutes, leaving a succession of wet rings on the old scarred wood of the table. His eyes traced the patterns he was creating. His mind was far from the saloon.

He was reliving the night before and examining the startling revelation that his unconscious had thrown out as he lay with Mary Travis in a heated moment. Sure, he had feelings for her. Mixed up ones. She was a widow, still grieving her dead husband, as he did Sarah. She was a mother with a very brave, very smart young son who was sneaking into Chris' heart. She was also brave and intelligent, forthright and passionate. He'd been with plenty of working women since he'd lost Sarah, it had been one of the ways he'd tried to find ersatz comfort for short, mindless periods of time. No obligations afterwards, just relief for his body and temporary suspension of his pain.

But last night had been different. He certainly hadn't planned to end up in Mary's bed. Looking back, he still wasn't too sure how that had happened. The funny thing was, he wasn't all that sure that Mary had any feelings for him. Almost like she'd just decided she needed a man again and that Billy needed a father. 'Course, out here, weren't a lot of ways for a passionate woman, her needs awakened by a husband now gone, to find relief. Not like for men. But he felt uncomfortable. Like he'd been the prey for a hidden trap. Not that he hadn't enjoyed the encounter, he had. A bounce in bed would give him needed relief and some pleasure, even.

Only this time, something strange had happened. Always before, the working girls would tell him and he often heard himself, he'd call out for Sarah at the moment when he came. Not last night. Logically, he should have called out Mary's name. Wasn't a hard name to say or remember, damn it. He shoved the glass further away, slopping liquor over his fingers. So, why had he called out Ezra's name?

Irritated, Larabee shoved back his chair as he stood, tugging down on his hat to the level with his eyes, hiding his face. He settled his gun belt, one hand resting comfortably on his weapon. This wasn't helping. No answers in the bottle, none in his thoughts. He looked up in surprise as Standish pushed his way slowly into the saloon, parting the twin half-doors and moving through them, barely causing them to swing with his passage. The gambler did not look Larabee's way, but Chris knew his men well enough by now to know that Ezra had noted his presence and, for whatever reason, chosen to ignore it. That did not sit too well with the gunman. "Ezra? Like to share a drink?"

Standish, who'd just pulled out a chair at his own regular table, wondering why Larabee was standing in the back of the saloon, looking solemn and poised for battle, was startled enough to jar the chair, causing it to rattle against the table edge. He quickly stilled it's movement and looked toward the seven's leader. "Why, thank you, Mr. Larabee," Ezra's mind raced back to his recent encounter with Mrs. Travis. He bowed slightly and adjusted his cravat nervously. "I think I will decline at this time, sir. I find myself a trifle indisposed from overindulgence this past evening. I shall have to forgo any immediate return to alcoholic consumption." With another bow and turn, he sunk into his seat, cards appearing like magic to dance between his talented fingers, before he began to lay out a game of solitaire. From a distance, he didn't think that Chris could see that his hands were trembling.

Chris stared at the gambler's back. He was actually feeling hurt at the genteelly couched refusal. Hurt was quickly followed by anger. Damn man can't even share a drink with me. He was about to say something, do something, something truly, monumentally, stupid, when he realized that Vin Tanner was standing in the doorway, holding the doors open with both hands, quiet blue eyes studying him. Larabee subsided back into his seat. Vin was here. He'd share a drink with the tracker, there was always a sense of comfort and rightness when Vin was by his side, like a long lost brother, found.

"Hey, cowboy," was Tanner's quiet greeting as he lowered himself into the chair at Larabee's side. Bright blue eyes took in the tense form of his friend and he silently wondered at the scene he'd just witnessed. Ezra was looking shocky and upset, in his quiet, understated way. The sharp-eyed shooter saw the faint tremor in usually quick and steady hands. He'd heard the exchange of offer and withdrawal, curious at both men's unusual behavior. Chris never invited others to join him for a drink. And Ezra, he'd acted strangely, too. He was usually smoother than that, and, would likely have come over for the drink out of curiosity if nothing else.

Vin settled in to watch. Looked like somethin' was brewing.

Buck and Josiah, the two tallest of the seven, arrived a few minutes later, walking over to join Larabee and Tanner, though both nodded in Standish's direction. The team had learned to respect the southerner's distance at times. Usually cheerful and social, when Ezra withdrew, he could be downright dangerous. Best to let him be and wait. Most of the town folk had yet to figure that out about the smallest of the seven, but the gunmen were closer to the gambler and were learning to read him.

Josiah's eyes kept straying to their isolated friend. It was much too early for him to be setting up in wait for some players at his nightly poker game. Sanchez's stare went slowly over to their leader. Larabee seemed unduly tense and hadn't drunk yet from the glass in front of him, his fingers simply playing with the glass, rotating it. Yep, something happened between those two. Unhappily, Josiah wondered what had caused it this time. He knew better than to pry, wasn't ready to get his head bit off. Not yet, anyways.

Buck flickered interested looks between the men at the table. Josiah had caught the whiff of tension, too, he could see by the uneasy look in the preacher's eyes and the way he was shifting in his seat. Vin was laid back, but it wasn't a relaxed slump, he was alert and watchful. And, Chris, his oldest friend, was staring down at an untouched whiskey. Somethin' definitely up. Buck looked over at where they could only see the back of Ezra's jacket. Not his normal seat. Buck raised an eyebrow. Damn. Something is seriously wrong. He scratched his chin and lifted his glass, rising again to his feet in a liquid movement. "Think I'll go sit with Ez for a spell."

Instantly, hard hazel eyes looked up into his, nothing was said, but Buck knew that for some reason, Chris was worried. That surprised him. He'd expected anger from what he'd seen coming into the saloon, but not this. He nodded, letting his dark blue eyes crinkle. "Gonna be alright," he murmured, earning him sharp looks from Sanchez and Tanner. He ignored them in a style of lese majesty that he seldom displayed but which he was powerfully capable of using.

Ezra was not unaware of what was happening at the other table, a small angle of mirror and another reflective surface kept him informed. His shoulders tightened however at the sound of footsteps behind him, even though he'd already seen enough to know it was Buck, not Chris, coming up behind him.

"Hey, Ez." Buck did not ask to join the gambler, just sat down in the chair at Ezra's side and began to study his game. "Looks like that red seven belongs on that black eight." He grinned as an eyebrow went up like a flag and Ezra hunched over his game with renewed concentration - or at least the appearance of that.

Ezra was silently cursing himself. Where was his gifted ability to hide his inner thoughts? To use sleight of hand and body to misdirect others, to conceal his own true self? Buck and the others seemed capable of looking through him as if he was transparent. With a sigh that was more of surrender than of impatience, he looked sideways at his companion. "Buck?" The quiet serious query had the taller man leaning forward attentively, all signs of easy camaraderie gone in favor of a sympathetic and solemn look.

"Yeah, Pard?" Buck managed to convey the privacy of the moment in his quiet tone. This was just between them, even though they sat in a public place, in full view of their friends.

"Does Chris ---? is Chris ---?" Ezra licked suddenly dry lips, studying his cards intently as he gripped the remaining part of the deck in his hands. All motion of the game stopped. He tried again. "What would you say is my role in our little band of merry men?"

Buck stole a glance back over his shoulder at the others. Not one of them was looking their way, but he'd bet his last dollar that they were all focused very much on this table over here. He returned his attention to the smaller man at his side. Ezra was always a surprise, this time no different. He liked the little gambler, full of life, laughter, funny plans for manipulating the fates and winning wealth, and yet, also a good man to have at your side should danger raise its ugly head. In a few short weeks, he and the others had learned what a brave and efficient fighter the southerner was. He suspected that the man's layers were just barely pierced by the newly formed friendships.

What Buck didn't know was that this was the first time Ezra had ever really had any friendship that wasn't dependent on his gift of the con. The gambler waited for Wilmington's answer, wondering at his own stupidity for asking the question, for being tongue-tied to start with. He toted it up to the surreal experience of the confrontation with Mary Travis just a short time earlier.

Buck answered quickly, afraid his momentary hesitation might convey the wrong message to the sensitive conman. "One of us, Ezra, you're one of us. Same as all of us, I reckon." He wondered exactly what Ezra really wanted to know, something to do with Chris, that was clear. He went on, expanding on his theme in hopes of helping with whatever was wrong. "We each are part of the team and do our parts. You're a real good fighter, Ez, know I can trust my back to you and I'd walk down any street in any town, with you at my side." He pressed one large hand on a tense shoulder. "Ezra, we need you, Pard."

Standish blinked back tears of surprise at the praise. Maybe he'd figure out a way to stay here anyway, despite Mary Travis' antipathy. He'd just keep his distance from Chris in public. No need to worry about private, since there was no 'private' for them. He ignored the prickle of despair at that thought.

Buck leaned in closer still, dipping his head slightly to look up into those bright green eyes of Ezra's. For once, they were not hiding anything and the taller man read the pain and sadness there. "Ez? Pard? You want to tell old Buck what's wrong?"

Ezra put his cards down with deliberation. Then pulled a soft linen handkerchief from one sleeve in a simple gesture, bringing it up to his eyes with such aplomb that Buck was full of admiration for him. Admiration and respect. "Hey, Pard, it's a really nice day and I don't have patrol 'til much later, what say you and me take a ride out around the town, check in at some of the ranches? We could be back before dark, before you get any likely players for your poker game." Buck wondered if he'd gone too far. But then grateful eyes slanted up at him.

"I'd like that, Mr. Wilmington."

Buck slapped happily at the shoulder he'd been gripping. "Good! Let's go, Pard." Standing he ignored the cards and Ezra's half-hearted protest, pulling the gambler to his feet with a strong arm. "Come on." He wrapped an arm around the other's stiff shoulders and steered them toward the front of the saloon. Looking back at the others who were now openly watching, he called out, "Hey, old dog, Ez and me are going out for a ride 'round the town, we'll check some of the homesteads out by Pydell's Creek." His casual wave met with surprise from the others.

Chris started to climb to his feet. He'd been watching his old friend go to Ezra, then huddle close. It made him restless, irritable to see the two men like that. No reason, just did. He was as surprised as Josiah and Vin when Buck and Ezra were suddenly standing and moving toward the door to the street. He began to rise as well. An iron grip on his arm stayed his motion. "Don't think so, cowboy." Vin spoke in a low, steady voice. "Let them go."

Josiah, picking up anew on the tension here, turned away from the now empty swinging doors. "Something going on?"

Chris subsided. Vin was right. He didn't know why he was acting so strangely. He shrugged. "No." He didn't add anything to that because he really did not know what else to say.

The silence at the table was broken as JD Dunne, the boy sheriff burst through the hinged doors and into the room, followed closely by their lanky, laid-back healer, Nathan Jackson. JD looked upset and confused, Nathan simply puzzled.

"Hey, guys!" JD dragged out a chair without asking and sat down heavily. Nathan took the empty seat at Sanchez's side.

Vin leaned back to signal Inez, now behind the bar, with a slight jerk of his chin. She caught his gesture and nodded, turning to fill some mugs and set them on a tray. In moments, she was at the table, putting the men's usual drinks in front of each man.

As soon as the lovely barmaid had retreated again, Dunne leaned forward on his elbows and stared around the faces at the table. His own youthful countenance, framed in loose, unstructured black hair, was serious, worried. "Just heard some really strange talk." He met Larabee's gaze steadily. "Mrs. Travis just stopped me, told me that we should be thinking about getting rid of Ezra."

Chris' eyes widened, then lightened, making JD slide backward in fear. He'd only once before seen the gunfighter look like that, and then the man had just killed several outlaws who'd captured and been hurting Buck and Vin. The deadness to the eyes was terrible. He couldn't help but wonder whether Mary Travis was safe. Or Ezra.

"She say why?" Vin interjected, tipping his chair forward on to all four legs.

Nathan interrupted. "I was there, too. Miz Travis was acting mighty peculiar. She seemed to want to tell us more, but she shut up right quick when Miz Potter came by."

JD nodded vigorously. "Something don't seem right."

"Where is Ezra, anyway?" Nathan looked around the saloon, seeing for the first time the cards lying discarded at Standish's regular gaming table.

"He and Buck went out for a ride just now," Josiah said thoughtfully. It was like some great puzzle, with only a few of the pieces yet out on the table and no picture of what the whole would look like. Yet, he began to have a feeling. Not a good one.

Chris stood abruptly, this time shaking off Vin's hand. "Going to go keep watch at the jail."

The others stayed seated as Larabee strode out of the saloon, watching in silence, wondering. Then JD spoke, "Think Chris knows something about all this?"

The older men exchanged looks. No one could think of a thing to say.

<><><><><><><><><><><><>

The mid-day sun burned into Larabee's eyes, forcing him to tug his wide brimmed hat lower over his face. He sniffed the air and let his gaze travel up and down the single thoroughfare of the small town. Down near the livery he could see Buck still leading Standish toward the stables. Why had Ezra refused to sit with him just now? He was getting a strange feeling about things. He didn't buy the polite refusal or the reason said. No, something's wrong.

The blonde woman emerging from the newspaper offices across the street caught his eye. Mary looked tense, tired. He felt sorry for what he'd done last night but there was no way to repair that bridge. He shrugged slightly. He was part of that, but then, so was she. It took two to make that happen and he had never even thought to go there on his own. No, remembering the persuasive words, the small inviting smiles and the gently petting hands, pulling at him, drawing him into her bedroom as he hesitated, the hands so delicately unbuttoning his shirt --- Chris knew he was reacting all over again as he hardened and grew. Almost angrily, he swung away just as the woman spotted him and raised a hand in greeting. He ignored her and stalked down toward the livery, the jail an incidental goal, halfway down the street. The movement and his anger went far to cause his spontaneous arousal to subside again. Chris was nearly opposite the bank when the first shots were fired, the sounds muted within the building, but still carrying.

-/-/-/-/-/-/-/-

The two men had moved in silence once they stepped out of the saloon. Buck kept hoping that Ezra, who could be quite a chatterbox, would start one of his interminable artifices, trying to wangle a partner in some latest get-rich-quick scheme. He always seemed to have one ready. Not today though, the southerner was silent and seemed upset. Damn, if Chris did this --- Buck shook his head, tightening his arm momentarily around the smaller man's shoulders. Nothing to say, he let his touch convey his friendship.

Ezra numbly allowed Wilmington to lead him away, out of the saloon and out from under the troubling gaze of the man in black. Chris and he had not yet found ways to be comfortable around each other. Ezra half-suspected that in his own case, he was hampered by his attraction to the man. Something he was constantly suppressing. Whatever had happened last night between Mary Travis and Chris Larabee, this morning, Ezra felt like prey, beaten out of the woods between two hunters. Mary made her feelings quite clear this morning. And Chris? Ezra sensed resentment, confusion, in the other man. He'd wanted to remain distant the moment he laid eyes on him in the saloon, and then the contrary man had invited him, Ezra Standish, over for a drink! He shuddered at the thought of being caught sitting with Chris over a drink --- and Mary striding into the saloon like a Valkyrie. A subtle tremor shook him and he hoped Buck didn't notice.

But Buck did notice the fine tremble that shook the smaller man's frame. He drew them to a stop there in the street, intent on asking Ez if he was alright. As he opened his mouth to speak, the sound of gunfire interrupted. "Damn!" Releasing the gambler, Wilmington spun around, gun already in hand, identifying the source as the bank, just as he spotted Chris at the other end of the street, nearer to the bank, duck for cover, his gun also drawn.

Ezra's dread at the feel of Buck slowing their progress was abruptly terminated as, at the sound of guns firing, he was released. He stepped back away from Wilmington, anxious to spread them out as potential targets. Like Buck, he quickly assessed the situation, identifying the robbery in progress, Larabee's position, and the rest of the folk out on the street at that moment. Mary Travis was frozen outside the Clarion offices. Several shoppers were already dropping to the ground near the mercantile, some closer to the doorway, scuttling back inside. Other folks melted into alleys or doorways, or sank behind water troughs and wagons.

It was the sight of two children across the way that turned the blood in his veins to frozen ice. Billy Travis and Tommy Jerrold were standing, confused and scared, outside of the large grange. They each held the end of a rope that they'd likely been playing tug of war with. Ezra, keeping them in sight, turned slightly as Wilmington ran for cover back towards the bank, obviously concentrating on the entrance and forming a balanced trap with Larabee's position. The southerner knew he should be moving to make it a tripod but the small boys had to come first. Keeping his eyes moving between his fellow lawmen and the still empty bank entrance, he noted the rest of his colleagues piling out of the saloon to form a phalanx of shooters melting into the cover available near the bank. Just then, even as he ran toward the boys, a short stick flew out of the bank entrance, trailing a thin line of smoke. "Hell!" Ezra dove at the boys.

Larabee ducked down and put his hands over his head as he saw the stick of dynamite fly from the front of the bank, tumbling end over end, fuse trickling smoke, heading his way. It exploded with a deafening roar in midair. The lack of materials to destroy had the explosion simply pushing air out with a fury of sound and force. Windows rattled and hanging items in front of Potter's Store shivered in the new wind. Chris felt as if he'd been slammed to the ground, breathless. He had to force himself up to look around the watering trough he'd been using as cover. Three men were emerging cautiously from the bank. Two held sticks of dynamite, and had cigars held tightly in bared teeth. The third shouldered a bag that was likely filled with the looted money. Larabee shoved himself to his feet, eyes on the men, spotting Buck moving in from the north side of the street, sensing Vin, JD and the others edging closer as well.

"That's far enough." He cocked his gun and held it aimed at the robbers. "Drop the money and the dynamite." His voice sounded hoarse from the dusty grit in the air, still settling from the single explosion.

Instantly, the men spread out, looking around as they aimed their guns at the tall lawman facing them. The one with the money shouted out, "To hell with you! One move and we'll turn this old town into a pile of cinders!"

Each of the two armed with explosives now held their sticks close to the smoking ends of their cigars, the free hands full of guns that aimed at Larabee's heart.

"Two can play at this game, gentlemen." The southern tones rang out over the unnatural stillness. Eyes swung to where Ezra stood in front of two small boys that he'd pushed back into the closed doorway of the old grange. He held what looked like an identical stick of dynamite in one hand, a lit cigar in his other. He didn't wait, once he'd gotten their attention, he lit the 'fuse' and hurled the stick at the outlaws.

One of the two, responded with mirror actions, his attention caught by the fancy dressed man across the street. He tossed his lit stick that way, even as he used his pistol to try to hit the other's flying stick. The other two outlaws had also turned their attention to this new threat and before they could turn back, Larabee had shot the dynamite from the hand of the second outlaw. The man cried out and clutched at his hand, dropping his gun and falling to his knees in pain. The remaining gunman, still holding the bag of money, tried to shoot and run at the same time. By now the rest of the seven were firing and he was cut down quickly along with the first of the outlaws who'd finally realized that the stick the fancy man had hurled at him was only a piece of kindling with a thin bit of rope on one end, still smoldering as it hit the ground near his feet. Too late he turned back to fight, only to be shot several times on his way to the ground and a quick death.

The second explosion threw the men still standing to the ground, only to rise shakily to their feet again when all realized it hadn't been near them and they only experienced the passing explosive force of air. Chris wove over to stand above the two dead outlaws, and looked scornfully at the remaining, wounded one, still on his knees, moaning in pain. Buck staggered out from the porch of the restaurant and joined Chris, putting a steadying hand on his old friend.

Nathan was grabbing, none to gently, at the living outlaw's hand, checking to see the damage as he tossed aside the man's guns. JD and Josiah were already moving into the bank with drawn guns to make sure it was empty and check for anyone left behind within.

Into this bustle of sudden movement, the sound of Mary's shriek was piercing. "Billllllllllyyyyyyyy!"

Then she was darting across the street toward what remained of the front of the grange.

<><><><><><><><><><><><>

Vin was the first to reach the site of the explosion, having already been heading in that direction as the dust settled from the shoot out. He grabbed at broken pieces of wood planking and dragged them aside, somewhere under the collapsed porch roof were his friend Ezra and some kids. He was trying futilely to lift the tin roofing sheet when two other sets of hands joined his. Chris and Buck were at his sides, lifting with him. The three men quickly dragged off the roofing and exposed a jumble of additional timbers, beneath which they could see the back of Standish's jacket, the dark burgundy color draping an unmoving form.

Mary stood hovering over the working men, eyes fixed on the shambles in front of her. Somewhere in there was her Billy. Unconsciously, she wrung her hands and leaned forward, biting at her lower lip in her fear.

Now that the men could see Ezra, they moved with care and more planning in their actions, picking out which pieces of board and tin to lift to free their friend. There had so far been no sign of Billy, though they too had seen Billy and the other boy half-hidden behind the southerner when he called out his challenge to the outlaws. Silently, or with only grunts at their efforts, they continued to unearth their friend's body.

With a mighty heave Buck and Chris lifted and tossed aside the last remaining shaft of wood, Vin sliding in beside Ezra's quiet form as they did so. "Ez? Can you hear me?" Vin's hoarse demand was not answered.

Buck and Chris squatted down beside Vin. Chris hurt, deep inside, in a way that he couldn't interpret but that left him breathless, aching. He rubbed at his chest as his other hand came to rest on the back of Ezra's dark head. "Ezra?" He barely managed to get out the name from a throat squeezed dry in fear.

Buck took a deep breath and carefully gripped the small man's shoulders, easing him up and over onto his back. Exposing two smaller yet huddled shapes, small anxious faces peering up at their rescuers. Vin spared a worried glance at the unconscious body of his friend, resting in Wilmington's arms. He'd felt a pulse before letting go of the man's wrist. Thank god. Turning his attention to the two little boys, he painted a smile on his face and tried to be reassuring. "Here ya go, boys." He easily lifted one, little Tommy Jerrold who squirmed free and was on his feet in a moment, waiting only as Billy Travis was likewise freed.

"Mr. Vin, Ezra saved us," Billy whispered confidingly to the tracker, then with a nod at Tommy stepped away to meet his mother. Mrs. Jerrold was there as well, catching up her Tommy and hugging him closely, weeping in relief.

Mary snatched up Billy in her arms and turned in a circle, holding him tightly and crying his name over and over in her own relief.

Chris who'd seen the boys safely pulled free by Vin, then engulfed in their mothers' arms, looked down on the pale, still face of their gambler. Buck was gently rocking the small man, wiping his face free of dirt with one large, soothing hand. Chris stood, Ezra was alive, that much he knew. "NATHAN!" His bellow caught the healer who was leading the wounded outlaw toward the jail.

JD and Josiah were stepping out of the bank again and quickly relieved Jackson of his prisoner so that he could go to their own wounded team mate. With a half-running stride, the dark healer reached the group sitting among the ruins in front of the grange. He sank to his knees beside Buck and carefully began examining the crumpled form of the gambler.

Chris stood, staring out across the street, his whole body focused on the sounds at his feet but unable to look down. Damn fool southerner. Risking his life for them, and for those children. A bluff. The man had pulled another colossal con out of the hat at a moment's notice. Chris wanted desperately to be on the ground, holding that precious, clever man in his arms. He crushed his fingers into fists and his mouth tightened in frustration. Damn, what's wrong with me?

Mary finally set a now squirming Billy back on his feet. The boy had quickly recovered from his shock and fear and now was ready to look more closely at the damage he'd survived --- and help the man who'd been hurt saving him and Tommy. "Mom, Mr. Ezra, he ---"

Before the young voice could finish, Mary Travis interrupted with a cutting, cold tone. "Billy, get back to our home, go wash up." She turned her son away from the scene still unfolding and gave him a quiet push.

She had witnessed everything - her eyes glued in sheer terror on her vulnerable, exposed son and his little friend as the face-off outside the bank escalated. She'd seen Standish run for her son, dive and shove him and the other boy to the ground at the first explosion. She'd weathered that explosion herself, clinging to a porch post. Then she saw to her horror that Ezra had cobbled something together from the ground and yelled out a challenge to the outlaws. His tactic did divert their attention from Chris Larabee and the rest of the seven, but it focused their attention on him, and incidentally, on her son, Billy. A mother's anger grew now as she sent her son home, safe for the moment.

Fear turned to fury.

This was the same man who already was interfering with her relationship with Chris. Now he put her son's life in jeopardy. "You murderer!" She screamed this and pounced, irrationally accusing Standish of that which never happened, her mind's eye seeing the two little boys as dead children --- all because of this monstrosity.

Buck stared up in surprise at Mary Travis' scream then leaned protectively over the unconscious man in his arms as she dropped down in front of them and reached out claw-like hands, clearly intent on hurting the man. Nathan shouldered his body between Mary and Ezra, confused but unwilling to allow the woman to hurt his patient. Vin and Chris reacted quickly, each grabbing an arm of the hysterical woman, pulling her back.

"He nearly got my Billy killed!" She cried out, tears streaming down her face as she struggled between the two men. Vin was shocked and worried as he tried to subdue her without hurting her.

Chris was getting angrier by the minute. She wasn't making any sense at all. Ezra had saved the boys --- and his fellow lawmen --- with daring and courage. He lay there now bruised, maybe even broken, having used his own body to protect the boys from the second explosion. With a frustration borne of the strange morning and the unexpected night before, Chris spun Mary out of Vin's hands and around to face him. He gripped both her arms now and shook her hard. "Mary!" He shook her again, seeing her face finally ease from its manic tautness. "Mary! Ezra saved the boys, he didn't harm them!"

She wasn't to be put off though, shaking her head and then meeting Chris' greenish hazel eyes with her own pale green ones. "He called out to those men, got their attention. He had the boys with him! What could he have been thinking?" She let her anger and disgust show.

Chris' eyes matched hers. Disgust foremost as he shoved her back a step, letting her go. "He was thinking about saving us. All of us." He let his disgust and disappointment at her behavior show in his voice as he added, "He saved those boys and probably at a cost to himself." He closed his eyes, suddenly tired. Hung his head in fatigue. "Mary, go home to Billy." Dismissing the woman, he turned to look down at Nathan who was still examining their seventh.

"How is he, Nathan?"

The dark brown eyes of the healer rose to meet the hazel eyes of their leader. "Concussed for sure. Got hit pretty hard by some of that wood from the roof, but don't seem to have anything broken." Jackson nodded as if doing a mental tally. "Likely be up and around in a few days."

Nathan climbed to his feet just as Josiah strode up. Mary Travis with a final look of pure hatred for the recumbent gambler, stalked off across the street, a figure of virtuous anger. Chris stood, Vin at his side now, and looked down at Ezra. Standish lay limply in Buck's lap, head resting on the man's broad chest. Larabee had an urge to demand he trade places with his old friend, hold Ezra himself. He repressed the unexpected feeling as Josiah squatted down and eased the small man into his large arms. Standing the preacher sighed as he settled the gambler further into his arms and nodded to Jackson. The two men walked off toward the clinic, leaving behind three worried men.

Buck accepted a grip from Vin and hauled himself to his feet, dusting off his pants and looking around at the devastation with tired eyes. "Seems like we can't ever keep this town in one piece."

Vin quirked a small smile. "It's our destiny," he said ironically, quoting their friend, the mystic preacher.

Chris watched Nathan and Josiah as they took his southern gambler away. He wanted to call out, tell them to be careful, be gentle, with the brave man. He sighed as they disappeared up the stairs to the clinic.

Turning to his remaining men, he grimaced at the mess at their feet. "Looks like we got some cleaning up to do." Better to be occupied for now, they'd find out soon about Ezra. He tried not to think about their seventh, not to worry. Nathan had said he thought Ezra would be alright.

Chris bent over and picked up an armful of timber shards and walked over to the mouth of the nearby alley, dumping them there. When he faced the grange again, he saw that Buck and Vin had likewise begun to work on the shattered bit of building, other townsmen joining in now that the gunfire was over. He stepped closer, noticing something shining on the ground where Ezra had lain. Stooping, he picked it up. A pocket watch, Ezra's. Chris closed his hand around the timepiece, his heart calming and centering. Somehow, he felt as if it would all be alright now. He slipped the small watch into his trouser pocket and joined the rest of the men working on the broken porch. The slight bulge of the small clock in his pocket was a comfort. He refused to think about Mary Travis and her hysterical accusations. She'd calm down, once she recovered from the fear of that past moment. Everything would get back to normal.

<><><><><><><><><><><><>

Evening shadows were kept at bay in the small town with the scattered bonfires that lit the main street each night. Tonight those flames were fed with the broken bits of the grange's collapsed front porch and roof. The dusty hamlet stirred in the coolness of the evening, men strolled with wives on their arms, enjoying the evening coolness, exchanging passing pleasantries. Inside the saloon, other men were gathering for a bit of relaxation, maybe some entertainment, a chance to meet with friends over a warming drink. Or two. The gambler's table had a few players, working a desultory game without the resident master of ceremonies to preside over the event. No flashy colored clothing, no gold lit smile with dimples deep and merry, green eyes gleaming in secret amusement as the man would keep the game lively, relaying interesting tales and anecdotes that entertained and distracted. The rest of the seven peacekeepers were only seen briefly, in for a drink and out again. Patrolling the streets, guarding the prisoner in the jail, checking in at the undertakers, keeping watch over their seventh as he lay, unaware, on the healer's bed.

Chris sipped gratefully at the cup of hot coffee that Josiah had handed him, Sanchez having just arrived from the saloon. The preacher was now listening attentively to Jackson's report on the gambler. Chris had heard it all. He simply sat in the chair beside Ezra and waited. Once he'd helped clean up the mess at the grange and made sure the bank and the jail were secure, he'd allowed himself to come to the clinic. He'd been here ever since and had no plans to leave until Ezra opened those glorious green eyes of his. Chris closed his own in embarrassment. If his men could only hear his thoughts! He shook his head slowly. Took another sip of the dark brew cupped in his hands, cold with banked fear. Ezra, just open your damn eyes. Please.

Sanchez kept one eye on Larabee, hunched over on the seat next to Ezra's bed, as he listened to Nathan describe Ezra's injuries and treatment. The healer sounded tired as he finished with a summary. "So, he's not really that bad. Got some bad bruises on his back, shoulders --- it's a miracle that his bad shoulder didn't go out on him, and some splinters on his hands, but mostly, it's his head that we have to watch. Got hit hard. Won't know how bad it is until he wakes up." Nathan sighed, wiping his face. Then added quietly, unable to keep his own fears to himself any longer. "If he wakes up."

Chris looked up sharply, clearly having been listening without comment until now. "What?"

Nathan looked over at the black clad gunman staring at him in horror. "I'm sorry, Chris, I ain't no doctor, and head injuries are always dangerous. We just got to wait and see."

His honesty might not protect him this time, Josiah thought as he gazed at his long time friend, then turned to face Chris Larabee who was rising to his feet with a look of pure rage. "CHRIS!" Sanchez's booming voice froze the gunman. "Sit down." Sanchez took two long steps into Larabee's face and put big hands on the tense shoulders, pushing. When Chris resisted, he simply pushed harder, and suddenly Larabee was sitting again, looking up resentfully. "We are all doing what we can. Now we wait. Ezra doesn't need fussing around him right now."

Larabee leaned back and turned to stare at the small body curled up in the narrow bed. Ezra had moved, turning on his side and kicking back the blanket covering him. Chris ignored the others to reach out and pull the blanket back up. If Ezra was moving, even in this unconscious state, that had to be good. Chris said nothing to Jackson and Sanchez, choosing to keep this thought to himself, not wanting some voice of reason to cut away his new found surety with justifications for hopelessness. No, he'd sit here and wait for Ezra. Ezra, you are going to stop playing possum soon, damn it, and then we are going to have us a talk about this morning. And, maybe about last night.

-/-/-/-/-/-/-/-

Mary tucked her son into his trundle bed, making sure the quilt was high over his shoulders and warm around him. Tenderly, she brushed back his long blond hair. Every day she could see more of Stephen in him. She kissed him lightly on the forehead and stood up, leaving the room quietly, a nightlight still lit within. Slumping shoulders, she walked down the stairs to her office and through it to the kitchen and sitting room beyond. When did things go so wrong? ` She could still see the dead look in Chris's eyes as he'd chastised her earlier this afternoon. When she'd gotten so mad at that damn gambler. Ezra Standish simply had to go. He'd nearly gotten her child killed today. Last night, he'd invaded her bed, in spirit anyway, to steal away the love of the man she had decided she wanted. Mary sank onto a stool in the sitting room, drawing her knees close to her chin with long thin arms. Pensively, she stared into the low burning fire of the small fireplace.

She tried to reach for rational thought but her feelings were strong and passionate and at the moment, governed her heart. With determination, she shook off her melancholy and moved over to the hearth to shovel ash over the fire. Time to go to bed, alone.

-/-/-/-/-/-/-/-

Two long days. Chris Larabee stood at the clinic window and stared down on the early morning street. He wanted to be anywhere else, wanted to renew his hopes which were slowly dying, along with the man still comatose in the bed behind him. Nathan had spoken to all five of the peacekeepers here in this room the night before.

"It's been too long. I wired some doctors for advice; they all sent back the same. If he don't come round in 24 to 48 hours, there's not much hope he ever will, or, if he does, that he'll be himself anymore."

"What's that mean? Himself?" JD wanted to know, moving closer to Buck Wilmington without actually touching his friend.

Nathan looked down at the floor, this was not news he willingly shared with the others, but needed to be said. "Might not be able to remember too well, might not be able to think too well, might not be able to do things normally, like walk, talk, feed himself ---" He trailed off, looking up to meet shocked eyes. "Nothin' more I can do, I'm sorry."

Sanchez put a comforting hand on his shoulder. "Easy, Brother Nate, we know you are doing all you can." His voice came out a grieving rumble.

Buck stood taller, casting a sad glance over at the unmoving con man. "Don't seem right, Ezra not being all there. Be better if he didn't make it at all, if that's what's likely to be happening to him."

Vin nodded without speaking. The thought of Ezra as slow-witted and handicapped left Vin numb with sorrow. The lively conman was smart-mouthed and bright-eyed, nimble-fingered and quick on the draw, a deadly shootist and a trusty fellow fighter; the man didn't deserve such a fate. Might not know he'd been dealt that hand, but the rest of them would have to look at him, see the man he was in the man he had become. Oh, god, Ez, please.

JD had choked back a cry, turning to bury his face in Buck's nearby shoulder, not afraid to show his feelings in front of his 'brothers.' Buck was glad to hug his little 'brother' to him, comforting both of them in the process.

Chris Larabee had been stoic throughout Nathan's assessment and final confession. When Jackson finished, he turned back to face Ezra and picked up one small, fine-boned hand, capturing it in his own work-worn, calloused one, gently stroking the back of it with a tender touch. Come on, Ez, show them all. Show them that you're still here. Please.

-/-/-/-/-/-/-/-

It was the morning, the second day. Chris moved back away from the window. He was alone with Ezra. Even Nathan needed to sleep sometime and had left them a few hours earlier, promising that someone would be by with food later.

He sat down beside his silent friend and picked up a lax and thin hand again. Held the precious commodity in his own larger hand, careful not to press too hard, leave a fresh sore on the unresponsive flesh. He let his other hand trail lightly over the back of Ezra's hand. Please Ezra, come back to me.

Ezra lay in a stupor. He knew he was somewhere safe and warm, the pains in his body were like muffled drums in the distance. They did not impinge upon his inner sense of self. He was lost in a fog, dark and formless, he floated incorporeal and weak, unable to even struggle for a single thought. Hands touched his body, cleaning it, cooling it, covering it, touching, touching, touching. One touch among them all warmed him, penetrated his confusion, gave him strength. One touch. One hand that held his, gently soothing his skin with a tender touch. Chris? "Chris?" he murmured softly.

Larabee blinked and straightened in his seat, staring hard at the gambler. Had he just imagined that?

"Chris?" a breath of air, nothing more.

"Ezra?" Hope colored his voice as Chris leaned forward and ever so gently turned the smaller man's body back towards him, never relinquishing his hold on the man's hand. "You awake?"

"I think so." Opening his eyes with an effort, Ezra stared up into worried, hopeful hazel eyes. No anger, no disgust, no disquiet. Heaven, he'd died and gone to heaven and angel Chris, his dream lover, was there to greet him. "Hello."

"Hello yourself!" Chris could not suppress the grin that broke out across his face. He carefully stroked down the side of the southerner's face, utterly happy at the sight of those longed-for green eyes that studied him so intently.

"Are you here to take me?"

Ezra's hesitant question struck fear anew into Chris' heart. He remembered in a rush all the warnings about how Ezra might be upon waking. This strange question worried him. "I'm here to watch over you, welcome you back, Ez. You've been out for a couple of days now. We've all been worried."

"Then ---" Ezra swallowed with difficulty, "Then you're real?"

Chris stared in shock. Oh, god, no, Ez, please, be alright. Aloud he simply answered, "Yep. Now let's get you sitting up a bit so I can give you something to drink, you must have a powerful thirst by now."

With slow, deliberate care, Chris Larabee tended to the weak, confused man. Easing him up on the bed pillows, supporting him with strong arms as he held a cup to the small man's lips. "Slowly, Ez, sip it slowly."

The patience and care were a new side of Larabee that Ezra had never before seen or experienced and it left him still wondering where he really was. Tired and unable to do much more than keep his eyes open, he finally succumbed to temptation. As Larabee leaned over him, tucking in the quilt around the reclining man, Ezra lifted his head and kissed the nearest cheek. Unable to keep his head up, he dropped back down to the pillows and waited.

Chris froze. Then slowly turned to look down into mild green eyes that stared back at him with no hidden screens, just a look of curiosity and amusement, tempered with what looked like affection. He tentatively raised a hand to his cheek to touch where a heartbeat ago, he'd felt dry lips press against his skin. "You just kissed me," his astonishment clear in his hushed tones.

Ezra nodded weakly, eyes already drooping. "Angel Chris." His head moved slightly, tipping to the side, eyes closing, a small smile lighting his features. "Nice place, this heaven."

Softly, he answered, "Damn it, Ez." But Chris smiled now, understanding a bit better. Ezra thought for some reason that he was in heaven.

He leaned close, hesitated, and then, pressed his thin, dry lips on the moist feverish brow of Ezra Standish, gambler, conman, gunman, lawman, and his friend. His very special friend. He'll get better, Chris assured himself. Nothing else would do. He needed Ezra, they all did.

<><><><><><><><><><><><>

"Chris!" Mary Travis stood in the open clinic doorway, hissing his name in something between anguish and anger.

Larabee straightened away from Ezra, hoping the man was really asleep. He shifted slightly so that he stood between Mary and the gambler's bed. "Mary?" He wasn't sure what she'd seen, but he really didn't care.

Coming swiftly into the room, Mary faced the dark clad gunslinger, the leader of her father-in-law's troop of peacekeepers. "Chris, what are you doing? What did he do to you?"

The tall blond gunman looked the distraught woman up and down. He hadn't seen her since the morning of the attempted bank robbery and now she had barged into Nathan's clinic and was making demands that he really didn't see she had a right to make. "Maybe best if you left."

"Left? I just got here!" She tried to step past him toward the bed, but he stepped sideways with her, then caught her shoulders firmly.

"Yes. Now." His hazel eyes were hard as flint. This was going to stop now. "We have nothing to say to each other, and I don't want you anywhere near Ezra."

The woman paled and swayed in his grasp, staring up at him with wide eyes. "We have nothing to say to each other?" she repeated, stunned. "But Chris, the other night ---"

"Sorry about that. Hadn't intended to go there, Mary, but somehow we did." The gunslinger's eyes softened in regret. "Didn't mean to lead you on, either. It just happened."

"You --- you called out HIS name." It was an accusation.

Chris hung his head for a moment, then raised his eyes to meet hers. "Yes, I did."

"You and he? You're together?" She knew she sounded lost but she couldn't help herself, surely he'd deny this, tell her it was all a mistake.

"No." The word was spoken slowly, consideringly. "Not yet."

"I don't understand, Chris." Mary realized, even as she spoke, that she'd lost this man. To another. To that gambler. It was inconceivable.

"No need for you to understand anything except that there's never likely to be any 'us', Mary." Chris spoke gently but firmly.

Mary was about to try yet again when the weakened voice of the gambler sounded behind them. "Angel?"

Chris dropped his hands from Mary Travis' shoulders and turned swiftly, going down on one knee beside the bed. "Hey, Ez, thought you were going to sleep some?"

"Voices."

"It'll be quiet now," he stroked the unruly hair back from the southerner's broad brow, smiling softly. Then as he watched, the glowing green eyes widened and darkened. Looking back over his shoulder, he saw that Mary had come closer and was practically hanging over him, staring directly at the gambler. When he turned back to Ezra, the smaller man was already trying to scoot back in the bedding away from Mary. "Hey, easy there. You're fine." He caught the struggling man and held him down. Without looking at her, he spoke up, away from Ezra. "Mary, be a good idea if you left right now."

"I told him to do that, two days ago." Mary's voice was full of scorn now.

"What?" Chris chanced a glance away from the timidly hunched form in his hands. "What the hell are you talking about?"

Mary stood back up, tall and proud. "I talked with this man the next morning. I warned him to stay away from you. I told him I knew about what he'd done to ensnare you and that it would be best if he left town."

"You did that?" Larabee thought back to that morning, nearly three days ago, when Ezra had come into the saloon, acting strangely and refusing to sit with him, to share a drink. "Get out, Mary, now, before I do something we'll both regret."

Mary Travis stepped back at the vicious tone from the gunslinger. Suddenly she saw him with new eyes. Not the quiet, grieving widower, who could also use a gun, lead men. Now she saw the anger, the rage and the deadly killer. How could she ever have thought that this man might be right for her son's stepfather? For her second husband? Shivering at the fates that had rescued her from peril, she turned on her heel and fled the room, feeling only relief to be making distance between herself and that man.

Chris didn't bother to keep watching as Mary Travis quickly left the room, he had other troubles right now. "Ezra? Ezra, calm down. She's gone."

By this time, in the distraction of the last minutes of conversation with Mary, he'd loosed his grip on the small man. Ezra had nearly twisted free, weak as he was, he was trying to climb out of the bed at the foot of it. Chris stood up, still holding on to what he could of the squirming gambler and simply sat down on the bed, dragging the man into his arms, onto his lap. "It's alright, Ez. You're safe with me. She won't hurt you anymore." He soothed with words and hands, holding the man close to his chest, tucking Ezra's head in against his shoulder, petting his arms. Finally he felt the other begin to relax, his weight suddenly more solid against his thighs.

"Angel?" Ezra strained to look up. "Is this a dream? Or am I really dead?"

"You are not dead, Ezra and this is not a dream." Chris stroked the man's face tenderly. "Likely was a nightmare for a spell, but it will get better now."

"Now?"

"Yep, now that I know you care. Just figuring out that I do too."

Ezra sighed. Closed his eyes and melted against the bigger man who held him so securely. "Angel Chris. Hope I remember this when I wake up." He yawned and his eyes shut, his breathing evening out easily as he was snuggled in Larabee's arms.

-/-/-/-/-/-/-/-

After a bit, Chris eased his burden back down onto the bedding and slipped out from beneath him. He stood up and stretched stiffening muscles. He had a lot of thinking to do.

The sound of heavy footsteps on the clinic porch had Larabee pulling his gun and edging toward the door. Buck stumbled in a moment later, hands full of a tray covered in a bar towel. "Hey pard, might want to put up that pistol, there." The rangy lawman grinned and laid the tray down on Nathan's table. Then his face sobering, he looked over to Ezra's bed. "Any change?"

Chris couldn't contain his grin. "Yep. He woke up, spoke to me, even drank some water." Larabee looked over fondly at the still form under the blankets. "He's sleeping now."

"Well, I'll be! That's great news, old dog!" Buck's grin returned, even wider than before. "He know himself alright?"

"Seemed to. Knew me, too."

"That's great! Wait 'til I tell old Nate, he'll be pleased as punch."

Chris nodded wearily, now that the tension of the last few days was past he was suddenly exhausted, drained of all energy.

Buck noticed the change and moved quickly to his friend, gripping his arm strongly and leading him to the other cot. "Here, Pard, you best be sitting down." Once he was sure that Chris wouldn't fall over, Wilmington stood back and said, "I think I better go get Nate now. You just stay right there, Chris. Lie down if you can. Get some rest."

-/-/-/-/-/-/-/-

Chris realized he must have drifted off because when he was aware again there were a lot of voices nearby, his men, discussing Ezra.

"He'll be better once he starts eating again." That was Nathan.

"It's good to see some color in his cheeks." Josiah.

"Shouldn't we wake him up or something? Get him to talk to us?" JD.

"Let him be, kid. He needs time." Vin.

"How 'bout old dog, over there? Should we move him?" Buck.

"No, he's fine there. Just likely tired. Hasn't left Ezra's side since the explosion, near enough. Now that we know Ezra's gonna be alright, he just plain collapsed from tiredness." Nathan again.

"Maybe we should jest let'em both sleep it off." Vin.

At this point, Larabee could no longer contain himself. "Yeah. Sleep would be nice. Ain't likely to happen though if you all keep going like this." His growl cut through the others' conversation, leaving silence for a moment only.

"Hey, Pard! You're awake again!" Buck.

Chris opened his eyes to see that it was night, lanterns providing the only light in the small room. The rest of the seven were standing around the center table, staring at him.

"Yep. Now how 'bout you all scoot and let ole Ez and me get some decent shuteye?" Chris' growl had a plaintive sound to it.

Josiah smiled and clapped JD and Vin on the shoulders. "I do believe we are being asked to leave, boys."

Buck leaned over Nathan's shoulder to add with a smile, "Seems a bit unfriendly just now."

Nathan shook his head. "Fine. You get some more sleep, Chris. But holler if Ezra wakes up again and wants anything. I should really check him out, just don't want to wake him while his body's getting some needed rest."

Larabee raised his head and nodded, meeting the healer's eyes. "Deal."

With laughter and much touching of shoulder and head, the men all bid good night to their leader, casting smiles over at the sleeping gambler. The night absorbed their sounds of departure, a stillness settling over the small clinic. Chris rolled his head on the pillow so that he could study his sleeping friend. Not much to see from here. Ezra was well buried under a pile of blankets, only the thatch of dark, curling chestnut hair showing. "Goodnight, Green Eyes." Chris smiled. He could swear the other man sighed, and turned slightly towards him before sinking deeper into sleep.

<><><><><><><><><><><><>

The smell of coffee roused the sleeping man. He rolled over in the narrow cot and blinked sleep dulled eyes at the ceiling. "Feel like some java, Pard?" Buck's voice was a sweet sound in the background. He felt better than he had for a while, for having grabbed a good night's sleep.

"Coffee?" His growl was the best he could do for greeting.

"Right here." A cup appeared in front of his face, then a strong arm helped him sit up and get oriented. He grasped the cup and brought the strong hot brew to his lips, smiling in satisfaction as he swallowed. He sat up away from the arm and swung his legs over the side of the cot, letting his feet hit the floor and brace him.

Buck stood there beside him, looking happy. "You done slept a real long spell there, Chris. Nate finally sent me to get some coffee and try to rouse you."

Larabee nodded. His head still felt like cotton wool but he also felt stronger, knew the sleep had done him some good. Wonder how Ez is doing? He lifted his head and looked across at the other bed. Empty. "Ezra!" He tried to stand too quickly, nearly lost his balance and fell heavily back down on his bed. "Buck, where's Ezra?" He didn't bother to try to keep the urgency out of his voice.

"Hey, Pard, relax. Old Ez was feelin' much better and argued Nate into letting him go sleep in his own bed over at the saloon. Me and Josiah helped him over there."

Chris stared at the empty cot. In his head, he heard again Ezra's mild voice, slightly fuzzy, calling him Angel. He felt unaccountably cheated. He wanted Ezra here, with him. He looked up at Buck and sighed. "So, he's doing better?"

Buck smiled and nodded. "Nate says he'll likely be a bit woozy for a spell yet, might be a bit sickish from the concussion, but mostly, he's just tired. Kinda like you, Pard."

Chris nodded again. Lifted the cup back up to his mouth and drained it. Dropping it on the bedding beside him, he stood, more slowly, cautiously, this time. "Time I left here too."

"You sure?" Buck looked dubiously at the slightly swaying gunslinger, but even as he studied his old friend, Chris steadied and stood more firmly, his eyes clearing of sleep and filling with that old determination that was damn near unstoppable. "Okay, then, best get dressed first."

Chris looked down and realized someone had removed his boots, pants and shirt, leaving him in his long johns.

-/-/-/-/-/-/-/-

The rumble of sound coming from Standish's room over the saloon resolved itself into Josiah's voice, reading from a book. Larabee rolled his shoulders and cricked his neck, first to the right, then the left, trying to work out the tension he felt. Nothing to it, really, just walk in and say hello, see those delicious green eyes warm and soften as they met his. He casually opened the door, unsurprised to see Josiah comfortably ensconced in the rocking chair, which had been dragged over to a post beside the big feather bed. Lying on the bed, beneath a down comforter, Ezra was propped up slightly on a mound of pillows. His eyes were closed and his pale face was still. Josiah stopped reading at Chris' entrance. "Brother Chris, good to see you up and around again."

"'Siah." Chris walked over to the edge of the bed, studying the quiet man there. "He asleep?"

"Hard to tell," Josiah smiled. "Just when I think he's drifted off, he'll ask me something about what I'm reading."

Chris reached out and burrowed a hand beneath the coverlet, seeking Ezra's. Got it. He lowered himself to the bed, feeling the softness support him. He folded his hand around the gambler's, drew it out and into his lap. "Hey, Ezra? You in there?"

In answer, the man stirred and tilted his head slightly. Then those wicked green eyes flickered open and turned toward the waiting man. The eyes were cautious. "Mr. Larabee?"

Chris closed his eyes, hopeful thoughts dashed. He clenched tighter on the hand held in his. Heard the soft grunt of pain. Let the hand go and it withdrew back under the covers. "Ezra, I heard you were feeling better?"

"Yes," the pale man watched him quietly. "You are looking rested also. I was told how you stayed by my side for so long. I am indebted to you, sir."

"Stop it." Chris swallowed the angry words that wanted to spill out. Where the hell was his Green Eyes? "Ezra, no thanks needed. That's what friends do." He paused then decided to ask despite Josiah's presence. "You remember anything about waking before?"

Ezra cocked his head and looked thoughtfully at Larabee. "Not really. I'm told I woke with you alone much earlier, yesterday morning, in fact. I do not remember. Apparently we had a conversation or two? The next time I awoke, it was to find you sleeping in the other cot at the clinic and dawn quickly approaching, so I would hazard a guess that a period of nearly twenty-four hours intervened."

Chris nodded. Nothing much more he could say for now. But, somewhere behind that placid, slick fašade, Ezra Standish was lurking. He wanted to find the man again. He had discovered something very important yesterday. He had discovered that he not only needed the man, he wanted him, loved him. And, based upon Ezra's wandering mind and semi-lucid comments, Ezra carried feelings for him as well. Now all he had to do was figure out how to get them back on the surface, out in the open. So they could do something about them. He reached out and gently patted Ezra's comforter covered stomach. "Good to see you lively again, Ez. I'll just leave you with Josiah then." He hid a smile as he saw a look of disappointment quickly hidden. Yep, the feelings were there.

-/-/-/-/-/-/-/-

Christopher Larabee began planning his campaign. Nathan predicted that Ezra Standish would be back on his feet by the end of the week, cheating them out of their pay within a day of that. Chris had snarled at the other man at that unsolicited remark, causing the dark healer to clamp his mouth shut in shocked surprise. The amused looks he received from the others had him rethinking his remarks and making some mental adjustments.

Vin was the first to realize that things had changed dramatically for Larabee. Their brotherly closeness was the wedge that broke things loose. A late evening over a bottle and Larabee, still trying to come up with a decent plan, confessed his feelings. Tanner mellowed out and told of a few times he'd tried that path, back on the Indian Rez. It hadn't worked out back then, but he'd liked it, had special feelings for the man he'd been with. By the wee hours of the morning, Vin was giving inebriated advice to an equally drunken Larabee. Logic no longer had much to do with the plans that varied wildly from courting rituals to kidnapping. Morning found both men with heads pillowed in folded arms, snoring at the table.

None of the plans looked too good in that clear morning light, but at least Chris now had an ally. It was nearly noon when the impeccably dressed con man minced down the stairs at the back of the saloon and into the great hall. He nodded and tipped his hat to his compatriots and joined them pleasantly at the table, receiving hoots and laughter from Buck and JD, a pleased grin from Josiah, a careful once over from Nathan, and morose eye-rolling from Vin and Chris who were both recovering from an obviously nearly fatal dose of alcoholic poisoning.

Ezra managed to slow his fast beating heart at the sight of the darkly dressed gunman slouched down in misery at the table. Oh, lord, even now he can move me. Ezra's formidable shields got a bit firmer and his placid countenance became more pudding like. He didn't reach out yet for the coffee cup that Inez set in front of him, he had to wait until his hand stopped shaking under the table's edge. Then, ever so carefully, he snared the tin mug and lifted it congenially to his mouth. Chancing it, he looked over again at Chris, only to find hazel eyes locked on his face, looking desperate. Why is he looking at me like that? Does he despair of me ever leaving? Mary wants me gone, maybe I am an impairment to his success with that genteel succubus.

He looked at me, really looked at me! Chris felt triumphant even though Ezra had immediately moved his gaze. Chris had seen the nervousness there, the awareness. Just got to be patient. I'll figure this out yet.

Plans were once again running through his head as he sat there surrounded by his fellow lawmen, his friends, his attention riveted on the small gambler on the far side of the big table.

JD suddenly sat up alertly. "Stage comin' in." He pushed back, setting down his mug of milk, and headed for the batwing doors.

Buck rose and languidly followed. Nodding to the others, he said, "Might be a pretty lady or two in need of some assistance."

Josiah and Nathan shook their heads and smiled, sipping more coffee. Vin simply lowered his head back down on to the table with a groan. Chris pulled his hat up by the neck string and set it on his head, pulling the brim forward to make his own privacy. Ezra pulled out his deck of cards and began a lively shuffle, studying the remaining men without speaking.

Larabee took a deep breath. Okay, I'll ask him to go out on patrol with me. Hell, I'll order him out there. Take him out to my cabin. We'll talk. I'll talk, he'll damn well listen. I'll ---

The batwing doors flew open as JD slid back inside. "Judge's here!" He'd barely stepped aside before the short, stout arbiter stalked into the room, Buck bobbing in his wake, toting a carryall.

"Gentlemen." Judge Travis speared the seated men with a gimlet eye. Vin Tanner reluctantly raised his head and sat back gingerly, bringing coffee once more to his lips.

Travis seated himself uninvited and stared around the table, Buck and JD joining them, Buck dragging in an extra chair since the judge had sat in his. Chris nodded noncommittally, "Judge."

"Glad to see you are all here." Travis picked up Buck's coffee and took a sip, grimacing at the cold liquid. His eye caught that of Inez, who nodded and turned to pour a fresh mug of coffee for the elderly man.

Travis turned his attention back to his mission and these men. "Got word of raiders coming into the Territories. Group something like the men you faced off at the Seminole village a while back."

The men around him had all come alert now. He nodded and continued. "Looks like this new gang or group is heading your way."

Silently, Chris cursed his luck. Shit. How the hell was he supposed to court Ezra if he was busy chasing some damn gang of malcontents? Shit. Damn bad timing that.

Ezra breathed a sigh of relief. Whatever was going on with Chris, this would delay it and he'd have enough time to conjure up a new protection to allow him to remain in this little town, stay near Chris and the others, and not be sent away. Yes, this could be a very good thing.

Travis nodded again, plainly complacent with his special force of law enforcers. He spoke again. "Standish, I have special plans for you."

<><><><><><><><><><><><>

Chris tensed up, looking sharply at the judge. "Judge, Ezra's one of my men."

The older man nodded. "Yes, Chris, and you all are paid by me." He focused again on the small conman. "Mr. Standish, I want you to infiltrate this group, use your rather extensive talents at misdirection and fabrication, become part of them." He steepled his fingers and leaned forward on to the table. "Several law enforcement groups, including the Texas Rangers and the US Cavalry have attempted to capture or trap these men without success. From my sources, I ascertained that it is because the group trusts no one and they have their own sources. They seem to be allied with old remnants of Quantrill's Raiders and other Confederacy ragtags."

Vin had straightened in his seat at the slurs against the south and Texas, was sitting slit-eyed now, angry. Chris was also getting angrier as he realized that Ezra would be leaving him for this and would be in danger, alone.

Ezra's heart sank, would he never leave his reputation behind? He really didn't want to do this but the Judge had the power to send him away permanently and he already had trod on shaky ground with the man's daughter-in-law. There was no predicting what Mary might say to him. Best to simply do what was asked. His mind began to switch to possible scenarios that might gain him admittance to this wandering band of ex-Rebels. His own true background, a soldier in the Army of the South, was a closely held secret, or so he hoped. Now it might be the key.

The judge was still talking, describing the last known locations of the group of marauders. He turned to face the tracker now. "Mr. Tanner, I believe it might be in our best interest if you went along with Mr. Standish. Your accent and your skills will help him find and enter the group."

Tanner, already scowling, leaned back, a deep v between his brows. "Kin do that."

"Yes," Judge Travis frowned, pausing to see if the laconic man would add anything to that. When he didn't, Travis nodded back at Larabee. "That will leave you five men to guard Four Corners until such time as Messrs. Standish and Tanner send word that they have set up the gang for your take down."

Chris felt better knowing that Vin would be going with Ezra, but still, he didn't like splitting up the team. We work best together, he thought silently, then took a sip of his coffee. Cold. Like my heart. He eyed Ezra, seeing that unfocussed look that he'd come to know as Ezra thinking up a scam or proposition. My little manipulator. He sighed. Looks like personal lives are going on hold here for a bit. He sat forward and stared hard at the judge. "We do this your way only so long as my men are safe. Something goes wrong, I go in there and pull them out." Even as he spoke a niggling idea was worming into his thoughts. Maybe there was another way. One that would keep Ezra with him.

Travis nodded agreeably. He was really surprised he didn't have more of a fight on his hands. He knew how close Tanner and Larabee were. Clapping his hands together and rubbing them slightly, he nodded once and pushed back his chair. "That's all I'd expect. Good. Settled then. Mr. Standish, Mr. Tanner, I wish you well."

The two named men both tipped their heads at the judge and then returned to contemplations of their own. Travis looked around at his group of men, thinking that these seven men had turned out to be one of the best ideas he'd ever had. Now, this settled, he was ready for a visit with his grandson and the boy's mother. He pulled his hat on and with a final nod to the seated men, turned and left the saloon with a lighter step.

-/-/-/-/-/-/-/-

Larabee stared at the end of his cheroot. "Only one change in the judge's plans."

The other men looked at him questioningly. "I'm going in with Ez instead of Vin."

No one said anything for a moment, then Buck spoke up. "You sure that's smart? You don't show 'southron.'"

Chris shot him a quelling look. "I can claim to be from Kansas." All the men knew that that poor state had been torn apart by the war, tugged at by both sides. Larabee's Midwest accent would fit that state. He sat back and surveyed the group. "Vin, you'll go with us 'til we locate this gang, then fade back. Keep an eye on things from a distance, be ready to get the others and lead them to us if that's what it looks need doing. Buck, you'll head up the rest here, until we signal we're ready."

-/-/-/-/-/-/-/-

Nathan cornered Larabee later in the morning, while Vin and Ezra were off packing their saddlebags and getting supplies. "Chris, I want to give you some stuff for Ezra."

The blond paused then finished cleaning his gun, laid out on the saloon table in front of him. He still had his rifle to clean. He tilted his head to indicate he was listening.

Jackson read the sign and continued. "He ain't altogether fit yet, I figure he's still going to have dizzy spells and sickness, maybe even see things fuzzy for a while, maybe another week before he's back to normal again." Jackson withdrew a small buckskin packet from his coat pocket. "This is some of my willowbark tea for pain. Also got some herbs for settling the stomach and helping sleep."

Larabee looked at the package lying on the table now. "Don't know that we can afford to have him sleeping so he can't wake."

Jackson thought for a moment, then opened the folds of leather. He took out one small bag. "Alright. I've just left the willowbark tea and the stomach medicine. The tea is in the brown sack, the other is in the tan one."

Larabee nodded his thanks. "He know about this?"

"Ezra?" Nathan snorted. "You know him, he's always 'fine.' Reckon if I tried to give this to him direct, he'd just laugh in my face."

"But---?"

"Hell, Chris, we all know he's plumb scared of you." Nathan grinned derisively, "he'll take it if you tell him to."

The gunslinger's eyes darkened but he didn't answer right away. Scared of me? If everyone thinks that, likely he is. This is going to take a bit of doing. He frowned. Looked up at Jackson. "Alright. Leave it with me. I'll see that he takes it if he has a need."

Satisfied, the healer nodded his goodbye and left the quiet gunman in contemplation of the widening crevice between him and Ezra Standish. Don't want that. Got to figure a way to build up our trust in each other, so he knows not to be scared of me. Guess that's gonna have to be the first step.

-/-/-/-/-/-/-/-

With marked distaste, Ezra withdrew some rather old looking clothing from the back of his closet. He would not enter the enemy's camp as a gaudy gambler. He'd be a bitter Reb veteran, unhappy with the war's outcome and the way fate had dealt with him since. He'd be poor and angry, ready to turn his hand to lawlessness without question, especially if tied to some false sense of allegiance to a faded ideal and a vanished army. He dusted off his kepi. Although he'd ended the war as an officer, he'd never lost the Confederate cap that he'd worn through three battles. It was stained in places, had a singe from a loose burning fuse in one spot when he'd pounded out the errant thread with the cap. Delving deeper, he found the gray trousers with red stripe. He'd not grown much since then, they'd still fit. The war had provided the malnourishment that, during his final years when normal youths had a growth spurt to adulthood, had left him with the frame of an adolescent, much as he had been at sixteen, in the war.

He'd not overdo, no gray jacket, just his tan work coat with a simple homespun shirt, well-worn and patched in spots. The simple shirts had been part of a con and he seldom wasted anything. This would be their first use since then but they'd be perfect. He pulled out his oldest boots and then, from beneath a loose board under the bed, a weapon that had seldom been used in the last few years. Unwrapping the heavy thing, removing a thick piece of torn blanket, he looked down at it lying there in his hands, deadly and dark. His artilleryman's short sword. That would definitely be the final touch. He looked at it grimly. Nathan might be good with a rapier, but he doubted the healer could touch him when it came to short swords. This bit of metal had saved his life more than once when his battery had been overrun by union soldiers. He fingered the dark blade and shook his head. This was not a time of his life that he'd wanted to relive.

He laid his saddle bags on his bed, quickly adding the few items that would help paint the picture that he needed to present to these ruffians. Now, he lifted a flat box from where the sword had been kept. Out of the box came several sticks of dynamite, some short and long fuses, a couple of flares, and some long matches. Wrapping them all in oilcloth, he added them to the saddlebags. You never knew.

-/-/-/-/-/-/-/-

Vin shifted to his other foot as he squatted beside Peso's hind leg, tending the hooves with care. Best take care of your beast if you wanted to have it take care of you. He sighed. Hadn't wanted to go into that gang, but now that Chris was going instead he felt uneasy. Larabee could take care of himself, so could Ez for that matter. But, the two of them together? Vin rubbed his face on his sleeve and stood, dropping the horse's foot. He knew that Chris had changed, was holding some strong feelings now for the little gambler, but still, way he saw it, they were like oil and water. Wasn't sure how they'd mix or fit. And, old habits die hard. He shook his head and walked to his horse's head, stroking the ornery fellow's soft nose. "Don't know about this, Peso, just got a funny feeling."

-/-/-/-/-/-/-/-

Chris looked over at Ezra. The man was definitely full of surprises. He'd appeared in rebel gray trousers and kepi, his brown work coat and old boots. His hair was ruffled as if run through with careless fingers. Gone was their immaculate and colorful con man, in his place was a tired looking Reb, disenchanted with life, still holding a grudge from those war weary years. Chris noted the sword hung from an extra scabbard tied to the livery hack's saddle. They'd agreed to use hacks so that they would be less noticeable, more convincingly desperate. So Chaucer and Git were left behind in the comfort of their stalls.

Larabee hadn't seen fit to alter his own wardrobe, figuring it would work for the tale they'd tell. Vin, in his buckskins, would also blend right in, but Ezra, Ezra would be their most telling and convincing piece. Always figured he'd been in the war. Artillery made sense when he thought about that day at the Seminole village. Looking closely, he saw the unhappiness in the smaller man's eyes. This isn't something he wants to do. Likely bringing back bad memories. Chris shook his head, weren't no good memories from that war. He'd fought through it for the north, but both sides had suffered, hurt. No, not where I want to be rememberin' either, he thought sadly.

Ezra clucked at his ride. "Come, Gull, come." The muddy brown cut male stood forward nervously, fighting the rein. Standish mastered the animal in a few swift but gentle moves and words. He looked over at Chris. "Whenever you are ready, sir."

Larabee nodded. Work now, we'll find a way to learn to play later. He checked that Vin was also ready, mounted on Peso. "Let's ride."

The three men headed down the street and out of town with simple nods to the townsfolk, many of whom stared, mystified, at the short man riding with Larabee and Tanner. He looked familiar but it was hard to place him.

<><><><><><><><><><><><>

Buck stood on the end of the boardwalk and watched until his three friends shrank from sight and disappeared into the dusty haze. His mind was stuck on the image of the three warriors as they'd rode quietly out of town, an odd assortment to look at, but when you looked inside. Well, Pard, when you look inside, you see pure gold and steel. Yep. Gold and steel. He sighed and silently wished them god's speed.

-/-/-/-/-/-/-/-

It wasn't until the second night on the trail, heading in the general direction that the Judge's sources had told him might cross trail with this marauder crowd, that Ezra broke his own silence. Until then, he'd kept his own council, and with Vin and Chris, two monosyllabic men, it hadn't been hard. But, now they were getting closer and some things had to be set into place.

Settling back on his saddle, he stretched his legs towards the low burning campfire and cradled his tin cup of coffee. He eyed his two colleagues. Vin had been his usual reserved self, but also, as always, a glint of humor would spark in his eyes and he'd toss out some quiet joke or comment that provoked raised eyebrows and answering smiles. Chris had been --- different. Ezra wasn't sure exactly how, just that the man had seemed quieter in a more peaceful way, almost --- almost tranquil. The southerner let his thoughts follow each other down this puzzling path. Yes, the anger was missing. He was calm and he listened, to both Vin and Ezra. Standish's brows went down in a frown. Was this some new ploy? But this was Chris who'd rather bull his way through a china shop than dance around a question. Blunt, honest, usually angry, and always sparing of words, that was Chris Larabee. Only, not now. Ezra had the uncomfortable thought that Vin knew why, too. Like a conspiracy of two, the other men shared their silent thoughts and treated Ezra --- differently. With respect. There. That was what was different. Ezra doubted his own analysis. Respect? He couldn't deal with this now, he decided and turned his thoughts to their mission.

"Gentlemen." Both gunmen raised their eyes to meet Standish's. "We need a plan."

Chris shifted slightly and waited out the first thing that sprang to his lips. Was getting easier. "Thought we had one?" he asked mildly.

Ezra shot him a timid look, then took a deep breath and firmly shook his head 'no.' "We have a general concept here, Mr. Larabee, but we can not maneuver among such miscreants without definite roles and concurrence in them."

Vin cocked his head at the con man, slowly picking the meaning from the words. Chris, who caught the idea instantly, slowly nodded in turn. "See what you mean. What do you have in mind, Ezra?"

Now this was getting downright strange. Ezra looked down at his coffee and spoke without looking up. "We need names and identities, Mr. Larabee. Once we are there, fabrications should be basic and few."

"Alright." Chris studied the smaller man. He's still showing scared, he thought regretfully. Kind of like Vin said last night, treat him like a wild colt, treat him gentle and tame him like a horse whisperer would, don't break him. "So, what do you want me to call you?"

"I went by the name Ezra Sutler durin' the war."

"Sutler." Chris rolled that on his tongue. He could remember that, no trouble. "And for me?"

"We best not use Larabee, you have gotten yourself a bit of a reputation out here. Chris --- Chris James." Ezra finished with a finality that made Larabee curious.

"'s'okay with me, but any special reason?"

"Jesse James rode with Quantrill on the raid of Lawrence, Kansas." Ezra spoke matter of factly.

Vin nodded. He'd heard that too.

Chris squinted at their con man. "So I'm a relative?"

"We'll not say that. Just that you're from Kansas. Let them decide the rest. If anyone asks, just say you're a distant relation."

Vin smiled. "Looks like I'm hanging out with some real desperadoes."

The blond smiled a bit and shook his head. "Cowboy, just be glad you aren't gonna hang out with even more."

Vin sobered and nodded. "You two be careful."

"Mmm." Ezra had a look of unfinished business.

Chris couldn't help but ask, "So that all?"

"No," Ezra shook his head slowly. "I have an actual history as a member of the Army of the South. If I meet old comrades, three will be no conflict in my story."

"But I don't." Chris nodded. He tilted his head and suggested, "Could just make something up. Knew some of the units that I fought against."

"No." This time Ezra was definite. "Lies come back to bite. We keep your history vague. You weren't in uniform but were sympathetic. Rode with some unnamed groups, in support of the South, but can't talk about it, them." Ezra looked faintly satisfied.

"Sounds like a lot of nothing." Larabee wasn't so sure about this. "But what if someone asks?"

"You say you can't talk about it, some of your former partners might have their lives at risk if the truth became known." Ezra eyed the gunslinger. "If you act like you normally do, it is highly unlikely anyone will care to question you too closely." He allowed a small smile to cross his face. "I can be vouched for, and I in turn will vouch for you by virtue of the fact that we ride together. Be gruff and blunt and use few words."

"Sorta act natural, cowboy." Vin sounded helpful and teasing at the same time.

Larabee grunted and sank back on his saddle blanket.

Ezra cleared his throat. "One last thing. We met in Kansas City and have been riding together since then. We've been together for a few months now. We won't admit to criminal acts but will look knowing. We ride together for convenience and because of past ties to the old South."

"And because we're friends." Chris added almost sharply, remembering to moderate his tone at the last moment. Sounded almost choked as the result.

Ezra looked doubtful but nodded. "Alright, friends."

-/-/-/-/-/-/-/-

Vin cut trail on the third day, in the late afternoon. The tracks showed a large body of men on horseback, moving rapidly but not staying on the normal roads and trails. They were traveling across country, in a fairly straight line though, so Vin was able to estimate their destination easily. "Heading for Gopher's Creek. Likely for the old Wheeler campsite there." The other men recognized the name of the hidden, legendary stopping place. A wagon train bound for California on the old Santa Fe Trail had lost their way and come to grief there in the early 1850's. Tales said there was a flood, the small creek becoming a huge flood plain within minutes. The wagons were broken and dragged downstream, the animals and folk largely drowned. What had been a quiet, safe valley became a burial ground for foolish, unprepared pilgrims. No one camped there now, but many knew of it.

Chris pulled up on his hack, waiting for the other two men to circle back and rejoin him. "They'd know that ain't a good place to stop."

Vin scratched his chin and looked blankly up at the sky. "Maybe, but the ridge right above it would be a right nice spot, hidden too."

Larabee thought that over. Made sense. He looked over at Ezra who was waiting patiently, clearly leaving this part of their mission in Vin's and his hands. "How close can we get before they spot us?" Chris didn't want to let them see Vin.

"Figure, if you head into Wheeler's, down by the creek, to water your mounts, they'll spot you and I can just fade back out of the way."

Ezra reined his horse back a bit, then spoke. "I do believe our time for 'joining up' has arrived." He sounded tense but firm. "Mr. Tanner, safe journeys." He touched two fingers to the brim of his kepi.

Tanner nodded, then looked at Larabee. Chris smiled at his men. "Time to dance with the lady, boys." Both men grinned nervously in response. Vin led the way on Peso as they headed out.

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The approach to Gopher's Creek was fairly straightforward through rolling high plains, semi-arid land with scatterings of brush and stunted trees, little good forage for animals. The green swath cut by the creek was a meandering line spotted from one of the hilltops. Above the bend in the creek was a line of higher hills, foothills to the mountains beyond. The ridge of the first taller hill, cut away by old floods into a bluff like appearance, overlooked the spot known as Wheeler's campsite.

Vin turned Peso aside just before the crest of that last roll of the plains before the creek, keeping below the horizon line. He took an animal trail back into some rougher looking arroyos and vanished from sight. Both men left behind were sure that while they could no longer see Tanner, that he would not lose sight of them.

Chris rode beside Ezra now as they headed over that crest and down toward the creek. It was running low but still deep enough to splash up on their stirrups as they forded the water on horseback, ending up on the ridge side of the creek. Ezra dismounted and made a show of taking pleasure in the fresh water, pounding his clothing, raising a large cloud of dust, flapping his arms widely. Chris, still on his ride, sat there leaning over the pommel of his saddle and stared, not quite open-mouthed at the antics of the little gambler.

"Ez?"

Ezra sighed dramatically and raised his eyebrows at the taller man. "Mr. James. I have just come from riding through bone-dry and spit-sparse terrain, I am enjoying the fresh water and cooler air of this succulent spot." He let a small dimpled smile of smugness grace his features as his green eyes met Larabee's greeny-hazel ones.

Chris had a sudden desire to shout with laughter. Ezra was so perfect just now. He seldom saw the conman in action, unless he was Ezra's target so this was a different side of the man, confident - almost arrogant, maybe even cocky, and as bright as a new-minted coin. He liked what he saw. With a smile that he hid in his collar as he swung from the saddle, Chris joined Ezra by the creek.

They let both horses drink their fill before tethering them to a line back from the creek, near some large quaking trees that loomed tall over the watercourse. In the dappled sunlight, the two men set up a small working camp, gathered water-rounded stones to make a campfire ring and wood fall for the fire. Chris was the first to pull a looped line from his saddlebag and put a tiny metal hook on the end of it.

"Chris?"

Larabee jerked up in surprise at the sound of his first name, pricking his thumb with the fishhook. Damn! He grimaced and grit his teeth, trying to pull the end from his digit. Then two smaller hands were there, pushing away his larger one and tugging the injured one downward.

"Ah'm so sorry!" Ezra's rich southern vowels ballooned in his chagrin at causing the small mishap. What did I do now? How did this happen? Ezra was flustered beyond belief. Things like this never happen to the rest of the men, well, except maybe for JD and he had his youth and brashness as an excuse. I don't have one. "I didn't mean to startle you. Here, let me get that out."

Chris stood stone still, watching Ezra hunched over his hand. The pain receded as he absorbed the feel of those light, delicate touches to his hand, his rough calloused hand. "Ouch!" Damn, that hurt! Even Ezra couldn't make the pain go away when working the sharp bit of metal back out of his thumb, but he did do it cleanly, swiftly, and without fuss. Chris realized that Ezra had paled considerably in the past few minutes, that and his panicked apology were clues enough. Oh, shit, he blames himself for my clumsiness. "Ezra, I'm the one to say I'm sorry, it was my own fault I did this."

Standish looked doubtfully up at the bigger man. "I fear my form of address is what was the trigger. I only meant to speak thus as part of the roles we are playing." He looked back down at the hand still cradled between his own two. "The bleeding's nearly stopped." He brought the hand up to his mouth and then in a move he would later stare at, in absolute amazement and mortification, he began to suck on the bleeding thumb.

Oh, my god, what the hell is he doing now? Chris had been shocked into mishandling the fishhook when Ezra called him by his first name, but that was nothing compared to now. Ezra was actually sucking Larabee's thumb. And, then in a moment of sheer disjuncture from reality, Chris found that the rest of his own fingers on that injured hand curled, quite naturally, around Ezra's chin and jaw. He found those curling fingers touching skin still soft and smooth after nearly half a day's ride. Chris knew that Ezra had shaved that morning, hell, the man was religious about it, he'd seen that on the trail often enough. And now, those fingers were stroking that oh, so soft skin, feeling the bones beneath, feeling the jaw work as the man sucked him. Chris' eyes began to lose focus and drift half-shut, his knees began to bend, and his center seemed to be in the thumb of his left hand.

Ezra's eyes actually did close as he lost himself in the sensation of a part of Chris inside of his mouth. Oh, god, I must be dreaming, this can't be real. Then Chris began to respond, began to stroke Ezra with the fingers that half-cupped his chin.

Someone moaned.

Two sets of eyes opened wide and Ezra let go of Chris' hand, the thumb slipping out, wet but no longer bleeding. Chris opened his mouth to speak and nothing more than a half-hearted croak emerged on the end of an exhalation. What the hell was that?

Ezra was beginning to look as green as his eyes. What in the world was I thinking? Oh, please! Thinking? There was NO thinking involved in this, Ezra-child! Beginning to shake, he backed up a step, both hands going to his mouth now in almost-horror at what Chris would think of him now.

Larabee, though, was belatedly realizing he'd just missed a golden opportunity. His Green Eyes had briefly surfaced and instead of welcoming him, he'd gaped at him. Then, even when he HAD begun to respond, he'd not been deliberate enough, not shown enough of his feelings. No wonder Ezra was now doing the staring, eyes wide with some unhappy emotion. Damn, now how do I fix this?

"Ah, thanks, Ez." He tried a slow grin on. "Feel a bit like Androcles' lion here."

Ezra relaxed. It was alright! He was forgiven! He stood a bit straighter and a smile lit his own face in answer to Larabee's. "Well, then, should Ah bandage your 'paw'?"

Chris held up the thumb. "Nope, think it's fine as is, thanks to you." Shit, did it again! He could see the disappointment flash briefly in those surprisingly open eyes before Ezra nodded and turned away.

Mentally chastising himself for hoping for too much, Ezra set himself to the task of setting out the bedrolls. He hesitated at the second one. On each side of the fire or the same side? He looked over at where Chris was now fastening the fishing line to a longish branch he'd cut from one of the younger saplings edging the shade trees.

With a few quick strokes of his knife, Larabee had trimmed the pole and was now ready to cast his line and hope to catch some supper. With a glance over his shoulder, he saw that Ezra was standing with his bedroll in hand, by the campfire, looking hesitant. A closer look told him that Ezra had one bedroll set up and was clearly hesitating over where to put the second one. "Put them on the same side of the fire, Ez. That way we can see each other without going fire-blind in the night looking across the flames. Never easy to see into the shadows if we did that." There that made some sense --- he hoped. All he really wanted was that the two sleeping spots be close together. He really didn't care what excuse was used to get them that way. However, Ezra wasn't questioning him, just setting up the second set of bedding beside the first.

Oh, this is just dandy. Right beside him. Well, I will get absolutely NO sleep tonight. Ezra finished folding the second blanket. On the other hand, he'll be right there. Right next to me. A small unbidden smile warmed his eyes. Something to remember for later. He let his fingers brush, ever so swiftly and gently, over Chris' blanket. Very close.

"Got one!"

Ezra looked up in surprise, swinging around to face the creek. There was Chris, his glorious blond angel, standing there in the streaming sunlight, flashing the most adorably proud grin and holding up a glittering, wiggling freshwater trout. The scales shimmered silver in the sunlight as the fish dangled from the suspended line. Oh, I will remember this too! This picture of him laughing and smiling --- at me!

"You, dear sirrah, have provided a most excellent basis for our evening repast!" Ezra stepped away from the campsite and held out his hand. "I'll remove him from your keeping and start on dinner whilst you try to catch his cousin." Ezra enjoyed the silent flicker of surprise in the gleaming hazel eyes. Oh, yes, Chris, I still have a few surprises for you. Some are even nice ones.

Larabee expertly flicked the hook free of the creature's mouth and passed it over, fingers caught under the gills on one side. He'd somehow expected Ezra to be squeamish at the sight and touch of a freshly caught fish. Far from it, the man seemed ready to play cook. Damn, I wouldn't mind if that gang takes a while to notice us. 'course, Vin's out there too, but, Chris perked up a bit, he knows where I want to go with Ez. With a considering look at the retreating back of the coatless Ezra, now just in rolled up shirt sleeves, he turned and tossed the hooked line back into the water. Gotta go slow.

Ezra was feeling delightfully domestic. With Chris, I could get used to this. He gazed around the lightly wooded glade and down toward the shallows of the creek. With squinting consideration, he looked over the available wild herbs, evaluating them with an expertise that would have left both Nathan and Vin gaping in surprise. Of course, he'd learned to identify herbs when he lived with a chef in New Orleans as a callow youth foisted off on the dear man by Maude for nearly six months. It was a happier than normal memory. Jean-Paul had been tolerant, amused, and pleased when the young boy began to watch closely, then try some of the kitchen magic the Cajun chef regularly worked for one of the best hotels in the city.

He plucked some greens from the edge of the stream, and some fine wild onions from nearer to the woods. His hunting knife, which rarely saw the light of day in the company of the seven, flashed as he gutted and cleaned the large fish. This was going to be very tasty, he'd see to that. Unselfconsciously, Ezra shoved his sleeves even further up his arms, both bare since the derringer had seemed an inappropriate choice for his new persona.

Chris had caught a second fish within a few minutes, gutting this one himself since he'd not do any more fishing now. Bringing the freshly cleaned catch to the fireside, he discovered that Ezra had a medium fry pan heating on the rocks. Loose scales clung to Ezra's forearms, the sheen of the silvery bits highlighting the musculature that was usually hidden from view. Chris yearned to touch the firm, strong limbs. Instead, he set the second fish down beside the one that Ezra was sprinkling with what looked like some new greens. Just then both men heard a twig break back in the glade.

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Through the shadow broken sunlight, the waiting men watched as a form gradually took on substance, became a traveler leading his horse. Now, as if realizing that others were near the stream ahead of him, a voice hailed the camp. "Halloo the camp! Alone and coming in peaceful."

Chris dropped his temporary fishing pole at his feet and called an answer. "Come in unarmed and welcome."

Then the stranger was out of the shadows of the trees and in the clearing, his horse looking rather fresh for one who'd presumably been traveling for a while. The tall thin man had a straggling mustache that made his face seem longer than the already horse-like features were. He stood before them in an odd collection of old clothing, some patched, all looking in need of cleaning, Ezra thought with distaste. Larabee saw the iron beneath the mild manners and kept a wary stance. "You need some coffee?"

With a sigh, the other answered. "Sure would like some, haven't had a decent cup in a spell. Name's Gant, Ralph Gant." He offered the last slowly, watching as if to see the reaction of the other two men.

Ezra instantly recognized the name and then, more slowly, the face. He cursed his constant headache that left him with blurring vision in waves that he could not control. At the moment, the other man was a rather fuzzy creature. He looked down at what had been a clear pan full of fish and herbs and now was a brownish spotted blur. Slowly, he lowered himself to the ground beside the campfire.

Chris, who'd been about to respond to Gant, looked over in alarm as Ezra paled and slowly sat down, looking rather dizzy. "Ezra? You feelin' poorly again?" He ignored Gant as he squatted beside the small gambler, putting a hand on the damp, chilled forehead. He needed to get some of Nathan's tea into the man. The last few days, Ezra had seemed fine, or maybe, just hidden it well. With Vin present, it was easier to be distracted. Had he just not seen this? Chris worried as he pulled the buckskin packet of medicine from his saddlebag. A small pan of water was quickly put on to the campfire, and then, when a pinch of the tea was added, and Ezra settled down on his bedroll, looking rather drawn and quiet, Chris finally turned back to their visitor.

Gant had remained quiet, watching as the smaller of the two men suddenly faded in front of them. Before the bigger man, all dressed in dark clothing, could answer Ralph, the one he called Ezra was down. The interaction that followed told Gant a lot more about these two men than any searching conversation might have. They were good friends, cared about each other, that was clear. The big'un seemed to be a bit worried about the other who wasn't doin' too well.

Larabee broke the small silence. "Name is Chris James. This here is my friend Ezra Sutler." He didn't volunteer any more, remembering Ezra's coaching to remain vague.

"Sutler there don't seem to be doing all that well."

"Building fell on him a few days ago." Chris damned his errant tongue. He hadn't meant to say that. He cast another look over at Ezra whose eyes were now closed. No change.

"That's a bit hard on the body," Gant admitted curiously. "How'd that happen?" He settled down by the fire on his heels.

Chris wished for Ezra's glib tongue and looked rather desperately over at his partner. Ezra responded. Likely been listening all along, Chris decided as the southern tones shone in rounded syllables once more. "More mah fault than mah friend's. Ah underestimated mah explosives." Ezra managed to convey a shrug without moving. "Ah can promise that won't evah happen again."

Larabee hid a smile by ducking his head to check the water, now steaming, the tea herbs discoloring it as they steeped in it. He just had to think about the rough band of men and what they had done lately to lose the smile. He looked up into assessing brown eyes. "We got enough food, if you want to stay for a meal?"

"Right kind of you, James." Gant nodded. "You sound like you're from the Midwest?"

"Kansas, once upon a time." Chris felt comfortable with this role thanks to Ezra. "Ez is from the deep south, though."

Gant smiled slightly. "Yeah, I figured that out." He stood and stretched. "I'll just unsaddle my ride for a bit, let her graze." He sauntered off as Chris watched him.

Turning back to Ezra, Chris did not like the way the man still looked so wan. "Ezra?"

"Chris, it's just the concussion acting up. I'll be fine in a bit, I'm just sorry I didn't prepare the meal for you yet." Chris was touched by the regret that colored Ezra's tone. He wanted to do that for me. Chris strained to hear the quiet voice, fading slightly now. "I don't think I'll manage any food myself now. You share with our new friend. I think I'll just rest a while."

"Ezra!" Chris sat down beside his friend and slipped an arm under the smaller man's back, lifting him up against his chest. "Don't sleep yet, Ez, I have some willow bark tea for you --- it'll help with the pain."

Standish blinked at the concern in Larabee's voice. For me? He looked up, owl-eyed, trying to stay awake. The sudden confusions and vision distortions making it difficult. "I'll try to stay with you."

Gant, coming back and overhearing the low conversation, hunkered over the campfire and grabbed at the pan with a bit of cloth lying there. "Got a mug for this? I'll pour it in for you."

Chris nodded his thanks and jerked his chin to the side where Gant spotted the small pile of items dumped from a saddlebag. He pulled out a mug and put the tea in it carefully, then handed it over to Chris James. James took it with a muttered, "Thanks," and turned to face his ailing friend again.

Gant studied the pan of fish. Looks like this is ready for the fire. He shifted it over on to the flames, adding the rest of the chopped greens from the small mound by a flat end of wood that had obviously been the temporary chopping board. He poked through the small hoard of cooking supplies and came up with a sack of salt, adding a pinch to the frying fish. He tossed the small wild onions into the pan that had held the tea, adding a bit of salt and water. Put that on the flames too. This would be right tasty he thought. When he looked up, it was to see the other two men still sitting together, Chris watching him silently, while the smaller man, Ezra, seemed to have nodded off, his head resting on Chris' shoulder.

"Seem to be right close friends," Ralph ventured carefully.

"Yeah." Chris looked down at Ezra, who had drunk down the tea without complaint, clearly knowing it was from Nathan. Ezra had closed his eyes then and quietly drifted off to sleep. Chris had cursed himself and Judge Travis for sending this man out on a job when he was still recovering from an injury. Of course, Travis hadn't yet heard about the explosions and the attempted bank robbery when he'd come into the saloon that day from the stage. But later, before they'd left Four Corners, he'd been told and still hadn't said anything. If anything, he'd looked rather strangely at both Chris and Ezra but didn't comment.

Wonder if Mary done poisoned the well? Chris wanted to spit at that thought but turned his thoughts outward instead. Too late for recriminations, we got us a situation to deal with here.

"Thanks for setting the dinner on the fire."

"Least I could do, seeing as how you offered to share it."

Both men were silent then, waiting for the fish to finish, the onions adding a pleasant scent to the air, as did the herbed fish. Gant pulled the cooking pans from the fire and hunted up some tin plates. "Don't bother for Ezra. He told me he won't be able to keep any down just now."

Ralph shrugged and divided the small meal into two portions. He handed one plate with a metal fork to Chris, took another and sat down on a handy rock. Chris put the plate on his lap so he could eat single handed, his other arm still holding a sleeping Ezra close to him. This feels so natural. I like this. He ate with contentment.

Meal over, Gant volunteered to wash the pans and plates down at the stream. Chris agreed gratefully, he was focused again on Ezra who was feeling hot, got a slight fever. Larabee didn't notice Ralph leave, too busy setting the small gambler on to the blankets and tucking him in. Need to get some fresh, cold water, wash him down, get him to drink some too. He rose and pulled a shirt from his saddlebag, headed down to the stream.

Chris found Ralph there, scouring the pans with river sand and rinsing with water. "Ezra's running a bit of fever. Figure I better keep him cool, make him drink."

"Lucky you're here at a fresh water stream." Gant could see that the other man was distracted, might be a good time to get some more information as he'd intended when he'd come down to check them out. "You boys headed anywhere particular?"

"Nope."

Damn man seemed to like saying nothing. Gant tried again. "Not much out this way."

"Why we're here. Needed to get away from crowds for a bit. Was getting hot and uncomfortable for both of us."

Gant nodded wisely. "Same with me. I'm meeting up with some boys, will ride with them for a spell. If you're not too particular, you could join up?"

Chris wondered how he should answer. Decided to stray on the side of caution. "Maybe. Have to meet them first." He looked back over his shoulder. "Got to make sure Ezra's ready too."

"Noticed he's still wearing the Gray."

Chris nodded slowly. "In his heart, he never really left the south or General Lee."

"Like that, huh?" Gant didn't say any more but these old boys looked like promising candidates for his band of men. Gant himself had been a scout with the Confederate cavalry but after a bad defeat in an overmatched encounter, he decided to try his hand at guerilla tactics. He'd heard of Quantrill and quickly decided to emulate the man. It wasn't hard to gather other malcontents, hearts pinned to the South, but unhappy at the bitter defeats.

When the South officially surrendered at Appomattox, Gant and his followers did not admit defeat. They continued to wage war with small raids. Gradually, as the years went by, their honor bound motives blurred and their targets became more those of profit than those of revenge. But still, by keeping to certain standards, they had protected themselves and kept safe. Never would a Yankee ride with them. Never would they ride to harm those of the South, lessen they be black. Simple rules that kept the group together and free of betrayal.

Now it looked like they could add at least one, maybe two --- here, Gant looked doubtfully down at Sutler --- more men to the group. It had dwindled of late, a few deaths, and a few just rode away, claiming age, aches, and just plain exhaustion.

"If you stay here a day or two, I might be able to introduce you to my friends."

Chris figured they had done it. They were in. As easy as that. "Don't look like we'll be ready to go anywhere for a spell, anyway." They were back at the campsite by this time and he knelt by Ezra, wiping the sleeping man's face with the cold, wet cloth. When Ezra stirred, he helped him raise his head enough for drink some of the fresh water from a canteen. "Easy there, Ez." He let the water trickle into the waiting mouth. "Drink slow."

When Ezra had had enough and started to refuse more water, Chris eased him back down on his blanket and covered him up, wiping his forehead once more. Leaving a hand resting on his man's chest, feeling the even rise and fall of breathing, he faced their guest. "Got to warn you, we ain't welcome in some towns. Bit of a dust up here and there."

Ralph grinned. "Same here. Ought to get along right well."

The afternoon passed quietly after that. Chris stayed awake, bathing Ezra's face, later his arms and chest when the fever got higher, finally spiked and then began to lessen. Larabee watched as Gant set up a bedroll on the other side of the fire, lying down and taking a nap, at least, that's what it had looked like. Don't much fancy that man, he's too smart. Too confident. Larabee felt the hairs on the backs of his arms rise but this is what they were here for, nothing to do but wait, hope Ezra would get better and that they could get this over with. He looked down at the sweet, sweaty face that lay, half-turned, into his thigh. Sweet Green Eyed man, you have me, if only you knew it. He gently brushed his fingers through the damp curls that framed that childlike face.

"Angel?" The soft whisper had Chris hunching down.

"Right here, Green Eyes." Chris smiled, rubbing a knuckle across one cheek that bloomed with the blush of departing fever. "You just rest, I'm keeping watch." He called me angel again! One of these days, I'm gonna get that out of him when he isn't sick, Chris vowed with a smile.

Ezra sank into sleep with the sound of that wonderful purring voice, calling him Green Eyes and saying he'd be watched. Safe with his angel, Ezra slept.

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Ezra dreamt of a battlefield veiled in gun smoke, the cries of the wounded keening against their fates. He yearned to leave this place, to be rid of war and all the misery and death it brought. He struggled with the huge cannon that was his to command, his men strained to follow his orders as the direction of battle moved closer and fellow confederate soldiers fled back through the ranks, through their battery.

Cavalry troopers came next, lathered mounts jumping over the carillons with squeals of pain at abused and bleeding flanks. Some were rider-less, others becoming so as they crested the gun mounts. An officer fell beside Ezra, his long frame like a scarecrow's. Ezra caught him under the arms and dragged him clear of the gun's rebound path. Dark brown eyes, lit with anger and pain, looked up into his tired green ones. A straggling mustache outlined the man's upper lip.

Ezra was pulled back to the moment by the scream of one of his powder boys, then he was adjusting the sight on the cannon and stepping back with a cry of "Fire!" Sharp acrid smell of smoke mingled with the taint of blood and made steady stomachs sick. Then the tall cavalry officer was by Ezra's side. "Captain Ralph Gant at your command, sir!"

Ezra flashed a bright dimpled smile, his teeth white against his smoke-darkened face. "Sir, Captain Ezra Sutler, sir!"

The smells faded, the smoke seemed to gray more and fill his vision, the sounds of battle muting until finally he floated in a subtle haze of dream-sleep. Gant's name emerged again. "It's Gant's Guerillas!" The angry cry coming from one of the scouts that drew savage rein on a sweating mount, dragging the poor steed down on its haunches as it spun and dashed back out toward the skirmish going on up the road. Ezra ordered his battery of cannons deployed in a curving arc to face the road, form an anchor for his company of men. The troops ahead were fighting a pitched battle with their own side, with renegades who still wore Gray and swore they were loyal to the South but who did not flinch from raiding the dwindling supplies of the Army of the South as they fought for their own survival. Ezra struggled to ensure that all the guns were loaded and each sight aimed just so. There was a blast of trumpet and then the sound of massed horses charging up the road toward them. "It's Gant!" the cry went up and some men fled, to Ezra's dismay. He pulled his pistol, but his own crews held fast, more loyal to their officer than to the cause. They'd stay by Sutler to the end, he had long since earned their respect, obedience - and loyalty.

Chris wakened to the quick movements and struggle of the tired man at his side. He'd somehow fallen asleep beside Ezra, intending to stay watch. He stole a look across the smoldering remains of the campfire. It was early evening and their visitor, Gant, sat there, back against his saddle having evidently brought his gear to the fireside. As an obvious courtesy, he'd not set up directly across the fire, but at an angle so that he could be seen without the smoke interfering. He sat with his feet crossed at the ankles, smoking a short cigar and watching the other two men.

Chris didn't bother to speak, his attention pulled back to his partner, as Ezra moaned softly and cried out something incomprehensible. "Ez. Ezra, wake up now, it's alright." He put hands on the small man's shoulders and held tight, squeezing firmly. He was rewarded by the opening of those green eyes, confused and sleep-muddled now, but still stunning. He smiled into their hazy depths. "Hey, Green Eyes, take it easy, was just a dream."

Ezra locked onto the hazel eyes of his secret love and was reassured. It would be alright now, Chris was here. Why had he had that dream? It had been so long since the nightmares of that unfortunate war had left him, to reappear now was disheartening. Not totally unexpected though, after all he was dressed in Confederate Gray and pretending to be still tied to that dreadful time emotionally. No, it was more than that, it was --- "Gant!" the name came out as a hissed cry.

Across the way, Ralph sat up a bit. Something was going on here, the sick man had just called out his name. He knows me somehow. Gant shrugged and sucked on his cigar, waiting. His men weren't far and were alert for any signals. He wasn't in any danger.

Chris was puzzled and simply rested one hand on Ezra's cheek. "What is it, Ez?"

Standish was trying to sit up, the dizziness and blurred vision gone again. He fought off Chris' hands so that he could sit up straight and face the man he sensed across the campfire. "Gant!" This time he spoke clearly, loudly.

"Yeah?" Ralph wasn't too sure what the man called Sutler wanted, but he seemed a bit upset.

"Captain Ralph Gant?"

"Sir, you have the advantage of me." Gant didn't rise, but he pulled his legs up, to sit cross-legged and face the pale man leaning on the dark clad Chris James.

"Captain Ezra Sutler, Battery Commander, sirrah, at yoah service, sir!" Ezra had managed a salute with that last. He sagged back against Chris now and waited. He really didn't need the physical support anymore but was not above using the opportunity to be close to his companion. Alert now, rested and feeling better, Nathan's teas were good, no doubt about it, he was ready to return to the 'game.'

Gant narrowed his gaze, studying the small man sitting there with a proud, defiant look. "Yes. I do remember you. Think I lost my seat just above your gun while in a final losing battle?"

"You fell to earth at mah feet. Nearly got yourself run over by a firin' cannon."

"You pulled me free of it. I remember you now, Captain." Gant did in fact remember. The young captain, fighting on so valiantly in the face of defeat. He even remembered envying the younger man's stanch willingness to hold his post no matter what. "You look a bit different now, Captain."

"Captain no more." Ezra laid a hand on Chris' nearest thigh, possessively. Felt his leader tense then relax beside him. He does trust me! Ezra fought to keep his attention on the man across the fire. "The South betrayed me in the end. I've been wandering a bit since then."

"War's been over for years, Sutler."

"For some Captain Gant, for some."

"For me, it has, and I too am captain no more. Though," here he paused to study the two before him once again, "though I think I've fared a bit better than you."

"No, sir, if you are alive, and I am alive, we have BOTH of us fared better than our unfortunate compatriots who languish now, most assuredly in unmarked communal graves. Abandoned like so much rotted refuse from the fields of battle, never to be called fields of honor in my hearing!" Chris slipped an arm around behind the man at his side, circling tautly muscled shoulders that trembled with feeling. He was shocked at the bitterness and anger emanating from Ezra. The gambler usually seemed to let nothing bother him deeply and now this was like a festering wound just lanced and leaking vile, putrefying hate. At whom was it directed, he wondered uneasily, holding tightly to his companion now.

Gant had listened with growing interest and sympathy for this compatriot. "Seems like we've traveled the same path, Sutler."

Ezra didn't answer, staring into the low flames that sparked among the remnants of the fire. Gant followed his gaze, then got up to his knees to feed the fire and prod it back to life with a long stick. Settling back, he found that Chris James now sat against a saddle and had gotten the smaller man to sit in front of him, so that now he sat encircling Sutler with his longer arms. Chris spoke next. "Ezra don't need you, though, he don't need anyone except me."

Gant cocked his head and met the steady green gaze of the former gunnery commander. "Like that, is it, Sutler?"

Ezra had to back Chris' play even though he didn't like what the older man had done. By admitting to such a close relationship, no matter how untrue, he was showing a weakness that could later be exploited. The trouble was that Larabee just didn't have the mind to appreciate that, he couldn't see down the twisted paths that were second nature to the gambler and conman. "Yes." What else could he say? Ezra felt the quick hug from Chris and wondered. Turning to the their adversary, he continued. "Chris and I have been together for a while now, but two alone find the world a difficult place."

"I was telling your partner about my men. A group of like-minded boys who ride with me. We're meeting here in the next few days. If you want, you'd be welcome to ride with us." He looked sharply at the supine shape of the small ex-Confederate officer, adding, "If you have recovered enough by then."

"Ah shall be fine. Just a minor inconvenience at the moment. Mah doctor had informed me the affects might linger for a week that is nigh on done now. This last little relapse was likely in fact the very last." Chris looked down doubtfully at that but kept his mouth closed. Very wise, Mr. Larabee, let the master work.

Chris saw the spark of amusement glitter briefly in those telling green eyes of his little siren and thought that he'd really, really like it if Ralph Gant would just ride on out, now. Of course, if wishes were horses --- he sighed and thought about how he could manage to keep Ezra in his arms as long as possible. Don't want to ever let him go.

<><><><><><><><><><><><>

Vin had inserted his lean body into the dry brush of the neighboring hillside, his tan buckskins blending with the dry landscape. He had ground tied Peso some distance back and was sprawled out on his belly as he watched Chris and Ezra through his spy glass. By the time he'd found this spot and scouted out the hidden gang camp up on the ridge, they'd been right, there were about thirty men up there just now, he'd decided to watch and wait for now. Weren't really that big a bunch but no telling if this was all of them. He'd seen the one sneak down the ridge and approach Chris' and Ez's camp though a screen of trees.

The meeting seemed to go well enough until Ezra collapsed. Vin cursed under his breath. That damn concussion from the grange roof landing on the man's head. He knew that Nate had warned it was still on the mend, but Ezra had seemed so natural on the ride here that he and Chris hadn't had any sign of Ezra being still sick. Now they had sign. Vin curled on to his side and continued his watch.

-/-/-/-/-/-/-/-

Gant offered beans from his saddlebags for dinner. Chris added some hardtack that could be softened in the beans, help flavor them. Ezra, who'd been feeling himself for a while suggested they might like some biscuits. The other two men had eyed him in surprise but he pulled a small bag from his tack and added water from the canteen to it in a small bowl. He'd melted a bit of lard on the bottom of a pan and now put some flattened rolls of the dough on the pan, edging it close to the fire. By the time the beans and beef were stirred and heated, Ezra had flipped over the small mounds of now golden pastry, and had six medium sized biscuits ready and warm.

The men feasted on the beans, beef and sopped it all up with the soft, warm biscuits. "You been holding out on me, Ez?" Chris asked quietly as he gathered the tins to take down to the creek to wash.

Ezra blushed and smiled cheekily. "Never pays to be without a surprise or two, mah friend." He was dusting his hands on his trousers carelessly. This was definitely a different Ezra, more relaxed in some ways, less finicky for sure, but also strung out some in other ways, Chris was going to have to watch him.

Gant sipped at the coffee and accepted a nip of whiskey from Sutler to add to it as James went off to do the pans and tins at the creek, saying Gant had done it at midday, was his turn now.

"You been a long time on the trail, Sutler."

"Please, Ralph, if I may?" Ezra paused and accepted the nodding permission, "I feel as though we've known each other for years, it seems hardly right to continue last names, call me Ezra. And, Chris will answer better to that than his last name. He has some problems because of distant family members."

Gant nodded knowingly, "Thought that might be a connection, him being from Kansas and Jesse and Frank James being from there too."

"He hasn't seen them in a long time and doesn't like to talk about them," Ezra warned.

"Can understand that." Ralph turned at the sound of Larabee's return. "Hey, Chris, everything alright down there?"

Larabee entered the clearing, one eyebrow raised at the use of his first name in such a friendly fashion, must be Ezra working his conning again. Chris shrugged, "Seemed quiet enough to me."

Gant looked out into the night, knowing the campfires on the ridge would be invisible from down here by the creek bed. "Maybe tomorrow I'll ride out and look for the boys. If I find 'em, should we head back this way? You two want some company?"

Ezra exchanged a look with Chris. It was the older man's place to answer, even though Ezra knew this man a bit. This was why they were here. "Sure. Why not?" Larabee let his voice reflect his solidity and his lack of worry over this new development.

Agreement reached, the men settled in for coffee and then sleep, Chris making sure that his bedroll was between Gant's and Standish's. He was only trying to keep things calm, he defended himself silently. Sure you are, Larabee, his 'self' answered him smugly.

-/-/-/-/-/-/-/-

Morning saw Larabee and Gant waking instantly with Standish half-up on his knees in bleary alertness at the sounds of a mule deer barging through the brush and trees, heading for the water and then startled to find the campsite in it's path. "What? What?" Ezra's gun was out but pointed ground-ward as he looked around in confusion.

Larabee, who was holstering his own weapon, grinned at the befuddled man. "Ezra, it was just a deer. Put away your gun."

"And thus be deprived of venison?" Ezra was staggering to his feet by now, looking ready to chase the meal on legs to the ground.

Gant nearly laughed aloud. The little guy was full of surprises, probably how he survived the war, he thought more soberly, returning his own gun to his tie down. "Don't think it hung around long enough for you to find it now, Ezra."

Standish whirled to face Gant, his gun coming up momentarily before recognition set in. By then, Chris had put a hand up over Ezra's gun hand and forced the barrel sight away from Gant's direction. "Easy there, Ez, Ralph's been with us since last night."

Ezra dropped his hand the rest of the way to his side and looked apologetically over at Gant. "Sir, I am sorry for my brief lapse of manners."

Gant grinned. "No problem, long as your partner there keeps you on a tight rein."

Ezra glanced down at Larabee who still sat on his own blankets. "Yes, well, he tries."

The tall thin outlaw stood now and offered, "I'll fill the coffee pot with fresh water."

The other men didn't object, so he strolled down to the creek, pulling a small flat piece of polished steel from his waistband. He could signal the boys from down by the water, if he crossed to the far side.

-/-/-/-/-/-/-/-

Vin crawled back to his vantage point. He'd slept the darkest part of the night, his senses on alert for any strange noises but it had been peaceful, quiet. He stretched carefully so as not to give away his position as he raised his eyeglass for a peep. He just made out the stranger walking off towards the water with the coffee pot in one hand. Ezra and Chris were folding up their bedrolls back by the campfire.

He lowered his eyeglass to swipe at his eyes when he heard a distinctive click beside his ear. Vin froze, a curse full blown in his mind, but saying nothing.

"Good boy, now you just stay right still, boy and you might just live to see another sunset."

The rough voice did nothing to sooth Vin's fear. How had anyone snuck up on him? Passing Peso? The man was good, better than he was, Vin acknowledged.

-/-/-/-/-/-/-/-

Gant was pleased to get a return signal from the heights as he stood knee deep in the water looking above the creek-side glade. They'd been keeping watch and would send down some men now.

He returned to the simple camp to find that both Chris and Ezra had tidied away all the things except for coffee and mugs, the bedrolls tied behind the saddles still sitting royally in abandon on the ground.

Joining these two, he set the coffeepot on the fire and added the ground beans that Ezra offered wordlessly. No one was talking now. Not an uncomfortable silence though, just three taciturn men. Gant smiled, yep, they'd fit in perfectly with his bunch.

As they were finishing their coffee, the clatter of several horses on the stones of the creek bed warned the trio that their space was about to be invaded. Chris and Ezra both drew their weapons and moved back to more protected spots among the fallen trees. Ralph smiled and stood waiting, the other two men eyeing him suspiciously.

Then the new comers were in the camp, their horses dwarfing the small space as they twisted about trying to find room to maneuver. Gant called out, "Dismount, boys!"

The group of six men climbed off their mounts and stood facing Gant, in a loose half-circle. One, with dark red hair and bright blue eyes, stood forward. "Hey cap, everything alright here?"

Ralph grinned and clapped his hands together. "Just great, Bart, and I think we got us some new recruits, too." He gestured to the half-hidden men to come out of hiding. "Like you boys to meet Chris James and Ezra Sutler. They've said they'd ride with us."

The one called Bart nodded but the rest of the men simply eyed the strangers distrustfully. They were indeed a rough looking bunch, Ezra decided as he slipped his gun back into its holster. If half of what the good judge said they'd done was true, then he was looking at some truly evil men, murderers. Thieves. Vandals. Ezra put on a bold face and walked up to Gant's side. He made a show of looking over the men that were staring down at him, once again, he was the shortest man in sight, he sighed. "These are your 'boys,' Ralph?"

Gant hooted a laugh and slapped his thigh. "Some o'them, anyways." He glanced over his shoulder to see Chris James had yet to put down his weapon and was looking at the intruders with caution. "Hey, Chris, these boys belong to me, no need to worry none." He watched as James slowly re-holstered his weapon and came forward to stand just behind Ezra without touching.

There was a loud "Halloo!" followed by new noise coming from the opposite direction on the creek bed from where these men had come. With great splashing and then clattering of hooves, two more men arrived, with, Chris saw, Peso on a lead rope, and, his heart sank, Vin Tanner draped, hopefully just unconscious, over the saddle, tied in place.

<><><><><><><><><><><><>

Ezra watched the drama unfold with a tingling sensation. This was the old days come to life, a con in progress, a new twist that had to be accommodated. Only this time, the new twist was the body of one of his friends. The two men who brought Vin Tanner's body into the clearing drew to a halt only a few feet from where Gant stood, arms now folded as he frowned at them.

Both of the men were dressed in clothing very similar to Tanner's buckskins making Ezra think they too were scouts or trackers. The older looking of the two men spoke. "Circled round like always. Found him spying on ya, looked from his dry camp as if he'd been doing it since at least yesterday."

Ezra spoke up now, hoping to salvage something. "Vin Tanner." Everyone swung around to look at him and he felt a strong hand clench at his shoulders. Trust me on this Chris, he thought hard to his companion without sparing a backward look. "That man is a bounty hunter. He's been after us for a bit, thought we lost him back yonder." Ezra gestured vaguely in the direction from which they'd come. He'd already decided that it would be best to indicate they'd traveled the same path, he could only hope these two men in front of him weren't good enough to tell that Tanner had led them part way.

"Shoot him then, cap?" The younger tracker looked ready to do the deed but Ezra interrupted again.

"Ralph, no, wait. He's got a price on his own head, over five hundred dollars alive. Besides, Chris here has some personal 'business' to settle with him. Let us have him?"

Gant looked over at James who stood like stone behind the smaller man. He does look angry, Gant thought, might be a way to get some loyalty if I give him something for nothing. "We won't slow down none, once we hit the trail, Ezra, you sure about this?"

"If we can't keep him up with us, Chris will dispatch him."

Gant checked again on the dark clad gunslinger who nodded agreement.

"Alright, he's yours for now." He watched as Chris James walked stiff-legged over to the body of the bounty hunter and checked the bindings, checking the man as well, then taking up the lead of the horse and leading it over toward where their other mounts were still tied down. Man sure don't say much, Gant decided, turning back to Sutler. "Ezra, I'll introduce you to the rest of the boys once we make camp, you and Chris saddle up."

Standish exhaled lightly through his nostrils, keeping his face congenial and cooperative. Chris had been a powder keg from the moment Peso entered the clearing carrying Vin's body. It was all he could do to derail that train before they had a major wreck.

For now, things were at least under minimal control, and, Ezra decided, it was up to him to see that they remained that way. Chris would be useless now that he was hovering protectively over his best friend. Ezra chided himself on the sudden hollow feeling in his chest. Meaningless. Imagined. Self-delusional. He stiffened his spine and blinked back a drift of sadness at the sight of the tall blond now so far from his side. It had felt good to have Chris beside him, there for him. Well, he still was, just had another priority now, which was as it should be, Ezra reminded himself brutally. After all, Vin was their friend, and he was hurt and captive, he needs Chris --- and me.

Since their camp had essentially already been taken down it was the work of only a few minutes for the three men to saddle their mounts and move out with the rest of Gant's men.

-/-/-/-/-/-/-/-

Pulling into the ridge camp, a subtly familiar bivouac, Ezra looked around curiously. They were high above the meandering watercourse of Wheeler's Campsite now, with Gopher's Creek unseen but suggested by the fringe of willows and old growth trees that created a great green swath along its path. The camp was laid out with simple two and four men tents, four around each campfire, the fires running in line along the crest of the ridge. They'd be impossible to spot from below because of the width of the ridge and the trees that marched up the rolling back of the hill. Low scrubs edged the bluff face that cut away down to the creek below. It had taken a switchback trail to reach this height from the camp below.

The riders dispersed once they'd ridden into camp, dismounting and leading their animals to the remuda lines at the far end of the camp, leaving Gant with his newest recruits and the captive, still dead to the world. One of the other riders had led Gant's horse away.

Ralph Gant stood looking out over his men and their camp. Disciplined and quiet, it spoke of good management. He let a little pride swell his chest for a moment before turning back to the new men. "We have some extra tents at the moment. I'll give you a four-man tent. You can stake out your prisoner in it with you." He waited for objections but the two men in front of him remained stoic, nodding. "Carlton!" he called to a passing young man, barely out of his teens. He waited for the youth to come to him before issuing orders. "Set up the extra four-man over by Bart's tent. Show these men how to do it, where to put their horses, where to get supplies. Ezra, Chris, this is Carlton, he'll take care of you." With that Gant strode off, intent on meeting with his second in command, Bart McMurray. They'd a few things to settle before the next raid.

The young man was a washed out blond with stringy hair and a pimply face. He shrugged at the two newcomers and led the way to a campfire with only three tents. Chris ground tied the horses and started for Vin, but Ezra caught his sleeve and shook his head. Chris frowned, damn it, he needed to tend to Vin, why was Ezra stopping him?

Ezra saw the stubborn set of Larabee's jaw and leaned in close, chest-to-chest and stared up at the dark hazel eyes. "Chris, you must wait just a little longer or we will kill Vin by revealing all. Please."

Larabee met those telling green eyes and sighed. He could read the troubled sincerity there and knew Ezra was right. When did the man get to be so smart? Guess he always was. He flicked a glance over at the motionless tracker still bound to the saddle of his own mount. Wait, Vin, we'll get to you soon. The tension he felt made him wonder about his feelings for Ezra. Sure he respected what the man had just done down by the creek, saving both Vin and him, but now, he seemed so bloodless, so unfeeling. While Chris felt himself torn with worry over his friend, his brother Vin. How could Ezra not feel the same? Damn it Larabee, you know why not, Vin and you have a very special thing going, ain't like Ezra has anything like that. And that made a sharp pain shoot through him. He nearly ducked at the sudden bolt to his stomach.

Thoroughly confused, he watched silently as Ezra assisted the pimply youth in setting up the simple box tent that could sleep four men according to Gant. It reminded him of the army tents from the war. Ez was going to kiss the kid's goddamn ass in a minute, Larabee thought grimly, watching the conman's slick antics. The kid was actually laughing and sharing whispered comments with Standish now. This was the same sour faced kid who'd met Gant with an expressionless look. Ezra surely did have a gift. But, damn it, they didn't have time for this, Vin didn't have time. And just as he thought that, Ezra gave the young man a pleasant slap on the shoulder and a last remark, still unheard by Larabee. The kid wandered off and Ezra was swinging around to Larabee, his face dropping the mask of amused pleasantry for one of earnest concern.

"Come, Chris, let's get our things inside, and the prisoner." He spoke fairly loudly now, anyone near by could hear. Larabee made a bee-line for the unconscious form draped over the saddle. It was only a moment's work to cut the man free and pull him off. Vin's dead weight carried Larabee nearly to the ground, but Chris was up and hefting the lean tracker on to his shoulder immediately. Standish stayed out of the way, then moved in to remove saddle bags and personal weapons from their gear. He dumped everything just inside the tent. He could see that Chris already had Vin on the ground and was trying to rouse him.

"Chris?" Ezra waited until the other man turned around. "Keep your voice down, be careful. Here are our saddlebags, and Tanner's. I'll take the horses over to the remuda lines and unsaddle them."

Chris waved a hand of acknowledgement before turning back to his friend. "Vin? Come on, pard, wake up." He knelt there worried about the tracker whilst another part of him wanted to go, follow Ezra, make sure the conman was safe, had someone to watch his back. But Vin needed him right now and Ezra seemed in perfect control, the con man running his con. Chris sighed. When did things go so wrong? Get so complicated? He grit his teeth as he pulled Vin's lax body close, supporting his head on one leg as he wiped away the blood from a bad gash on the side of his head. He reached over and pulled a canteen close, then Ezra's saddlebags. The guy was bound to have extra clothes, might not be his fancy stuff, but he couldn't abide bein' dirty so there'd be extras. Delving in one-handed, he retrieved another plaid work shirt. This'll do. He tore off a strip from the bottom and moistened it with water from the canteen, preparing it for the ex-bounty hunter's head.

As he worked, two bright blue eyes blinked open and a soft voice asked, "Chris?"

"Hush, Vin. You're alright. We got you." Larabee tried to be reassuring but wasn't sure how convincing he sounded. Just then Ezra came back into the tent, carrying horse blankets.

"I thought these might help with the ground." He noticed that Vin was finally awake and smiled. "Well, hello there, Mr. Tanner! How are you faring?" He came over and squatted down beside the pair, but at a slight distance. Chris frowned. He recognized what Ezra was doing and didn't like it but wasn't sure what to do about it --- again.

Vin stared at the gambler, his mind clearing. "Got caught." He turned to look up at his best friend. "Sorry, Chris. They was better'n me, snuck up on me."

Chris touched the frown away from his friend's countenance. "Not your fault."

"Yes, well, now that we've settled that," Ezra cleared his throat and sat back on his heels, keeping his poker face firmly in place, "you need to know that you are our prisoner, Mr. Tanner. We recognized you immediately when Gant's men brought you in. We knew you were the bounty hunter that had been following us. Gant offered to kill you for us, but I pointed out that you had a bounty on your head, if caught alive, and that Chris James here had some personal business to conduct with you." He knew it was a lot but he'd purposefully kept his vocabulary down to the common level, needing Vin to understand and absorb the information quickly, even in his possibly concussed state.

Tanner had listened attentively as Chris tied off the bandage he'd been creating. "Got it, Ez. So I'm your prisoner now." He cocked an eyebrow up in amusement at Larabee, one side of his mouth quirking as well.

"So see that you hop to it if I give you an order." Chris managed mock anger towards the tracker, smiling.

Ezra rose gracefully to his feet and backed away, knowing he was intruding on a private moment. He wasn't sure why he felt such a sense of loneliness just now, but he pushed it away and set to organizing the rest of the bedding. He'd sleep by the opening of the tent, he could sleep light when he needed to, another surprise, Mr. Larabee, he thought, wondering why he felt so sad. He kept his back to his two friends, unable however to keep from overhearing Chris' soft reassurances to Vin that he'd be fine, that Chris would protect him. Ezra hunched his shoulders and tidied the already orderly row of their few belongings. Then, with a pain he could no longer deal with effectively, he stood and went to the opening. "I think I shall see what there is to see of the camp. Do not worry, I shall not wander far and will be back with news of dinner and our situation within the hour." With that, not looking back, he slipped out into the gradually, increasingly busy camp.

<><><><><><><><><><><><>

Ezra emerged from the tent, dropping the canvas fold down to provide privacy for those still within. He fought off the sense of loss. No time for that, for those feelings. He'd been promised nothing. Nothing. He rolled his shoulders to try to ease his growing tension. Focus, focus. Trouble was, just being here was what was at least part of what was making him so tense. First Travis, wanting him to impersonate an embittered ex-Confederate soldier, then Gant, who turned out to be the leader of this lawless bunch --- and who had personal history - however limited - with Ezra, and then, just the whole ambience of the camp. It was like stepping back in time. Something he really had no desire to do. Not a choice, mah friend, so make the best of it. He tugged his kepi down over his brow and started back toward the head of the camp, walking slowly, letting the other men get a good look at him, and incidentally, getting a good look at them.

The first things he noticed were the deep lines on all the faces, carved there by time and anger. No one was smiling or laughing. The men were somber, depressed. Sullen almost. Tired. Many were his age or slightly older, they would have been, like him, very young during the war. Perhaps idealists? Or renegades. No matter, Gant had obviously collected them, kept military standards to a certain extent, somehow, even after all these years, keeping the group cohesive. Ezra's respect for the other man grew grudgingly. He didn't believe in any 'cause' associated with the Old South anymore, and, he doubted that Gant did either, but, whatever the motivation, he had honed a tight knit group together. Ezra wondered if they still called themselves Gant's Guerillas. Not that it mattered.

"Sor."

Ezra stopped and looked across the campfire he'd been traversing. A lumbering giant of a man, almost brutish looking, was standing stiffly at attention, facing him. The conman felt a brush of ghostly recognition raising the hairs on the back of his neck. Was this fate? He knew this man, or a younger version of him. "Harry?"

"Sor. Cap'n Sutler, sor." The big man saluted, then dropped his stance and strode across the small squared clearing, to envelop Ezra in a bear hug of elephantine proportions.

"Harry!" Ezra was speaking into a suffocating chest as he was lifted off his feet. "Harry! Let me go!" His muffled order must have penetrated for he was gently released and lowered back on to his feet. Standish looked up in wonder. "My god, Harry Walton! I thought you were dead."

"So'd the rest of the army, cap'n. When I got woke up proper, weren't nothing but dead to be seen or smelt," this last said with a look of disgust. He shrugged his massive shoulders. "Figgered I was dead as far as the army was concerned, so I slipped away." He got a far-off look on his face, staring out toward the sky, then his soft blue eyes met Ezra's as he continued. "Met up with Gant soon after. He 'convinced' me I was better riding with him than being an outright deserter." Harry sighed. "Once started, was easier to just keep on riding."

Ezra stared at the man. Some things were not being said. He hadn't seen his corporal in years but could still read the man. He didn't like being here or part of this. Not that that excused him, but still. Ezra found he could not look at the world as only good men or bad, since he himself was some of each. At least he hoped he was good as well as bad. Wonder what Josiah would say? Or Nathan? He sighed. Moral dilemmas were not his cup of tea, nor was this the time nor place to practice philosophizing. It was, however, the perfect place to build an alliance or two. "Harry, my friend and I were invited by Captain Gant to join this group. He has not yet provided any details however." Ezra left it there and waited to see what he'd hear.

Walton suddenly seemed very interested in the ground, kicking at a loose pebble. "Sor, yes, sor. 'Spect he'll tell you soon, sor."

Ezra, alerted by the renewed formality, looked over his shoulder to meet the bright blue eyes of Bart, Gant's second. "Ah, Bart?"

"Bart McMurray." The redhead nodded as he walked forward. He looked toward Walton who swiftly moved back away from them. "Ralph would like to speak with you and James."

Ezra nodded. "I can come now, Chris, however, is still detained with our prisoner. Perhaps I can be of service to Mr. Gant first?"

McMurray's eyes never left Ezra's face, as if sure to catch out any falsehood just by studying the man closely. Good luck, mah friend, bettah men than you have had no fortune there. When Ah do not wish to be 'read', I can be impenetrable, Ezra thought with comfortable certainty, not pride. Mother dear taught me well.

"Maybe so." McMurray led the way along the edge of the large camp to the far end where a single, larger tent had been erected. McMurray heard light whispering murmurs as they walked. The little soldier who walked so tall beside him was made of tough material, that was clear. Those they passed looked on with a glimmering of respect, something Bart had not seen in those washed out eyes in years. The men were noticing. If Walton remembered Sutler, and it was clear he did, then there might be others. Even those not knowing the man seemed to recognize something special here. Could be good, could be dangerous. He'd let Gant know. Leading the way inside, he waved Ezra on.

Gant looked up from his camp table. He saw a look of uneasiness on Bart McMurray's face. Wonder what that's about? Then he spotted the smaller of his two new men. I'll speak to Bart later.

Ezra flicked an evaluating look around the tent. A few folding chairs were scattered about the medium sized 'room.' A Spartan cot was set up in one corner. Ralph Gant stood over a table with a large map on it.

"Sutler. Come on in." Gant looked over Ezra's shoulder at McMurray. "James?"

"Sutler here said he was still busy with the prisoner."

Gant turned his gaze upon the small Confederate captain. "Ezra?"

"Ralph, Chris's with the prisoner, Tanner." He deliberately continued to use Gant's first name, having seen how the men called him captain or cap. We had similar ranks when it mattered. I see no reason to give him more respect than others yet, courtesy yes, the rest would wait, Ezra decided coolly. "I can get him here if it is necessary, but I can also relay to him your words just as easily, Ralph. We are partners."

Gant nodded. That he'd already seen. Fine. "See here, you know this territory at all?"

Ezra nodded, "Yes, some. Been riding in and out of it a bit."

Gant gestured to the large US Army ordinance map. Ezra raised an eyebrow at the map. Now where did you come by this, I wonder? He walked over to the table to look closer. Gant was bent over the map, his finger planted firmly on the hills north of Wheeler's campsite. "We're here."

Ezra could see the main trails all marked, the small towns and even the larger ranches. "Yes." No point in volunteering anything needlessly.

"We're within a few days ride of several towns." Gant's eyes had turned cold, dead, as he looked up and met Ezra's. Suddenly, Ezra had no trouble believing that this man was capable of ruthless viciousness. "What we do, Ezra, is pick a place, ride in and take everything of value, making sure that we leave no one in any condition to follow."

Standish waited a beat. Time this right, Ezra, or you shall be looking up out of a six-foot hole. "Your purpose being?"

"Survival. We got to survive, Ezra, if we are to help the South to rise again."

Ezra bent over the map and pretended to study it. He felt his tension increase to an almost painful level. The South to rise again? Ah, a trace of insanity here. Not good. "What about the army? They are strongly encamped in these territories. There are many forts, patrols."

"We keep off trails. Ride cross-country. Got real good scouts. Mountain men and Indian hunters. We keep to disciplined plans and we are in and out without leaving any extra sign."

The con man could see how these men had managed to evade capture or even identification all these years. They were basically still campaigning against an enemy that did not know it was still at war. Ezra drew in a breath, this was going to require his finesse. And, Chris' force of will, and, the fortune of the Seven. He just hoped it would be enough. His musings were interrupted as a long thin finger dropped down on the map.

"I figure this town is our next likely target."

Ezra's face never changed, not even a muscle in his jaw or neck gave him away as he stared at the name of the small town. Four Corners. Indeed, where else?

-/-/-/-/-/-/-/-

Vin watched Ezra slip back out of the tent, looking hollow-eyed. He was getting better at reading the gambler and recognized that hurt look. It was as if Larabee never even noticed that Ezra left. That ain't right. Got a feelin' things have been going hard on old Chris lately, he decided. Chris was still murmuring reassurances at him but Vin was feeling better, figured he didn't get concussed by the blow to the side of his head, just knocked out for a spell. He looked up at Larabee.

"Chris, fer chrissakes, stop. Listen to yourself!" The irritation in the tracker's tone stopped the gunman cold.

"What?" Larabee stared down into impatient blue eyes.

"Chris, you just damn near drove Ezra outta here."

Larabee looked up and around wildly as if he's spot his other man lurking in a corner of the tent. "But ---"

Vin pushed himself up to a sitting position and knocked his hair out of his eyes with his still tied hands. "Hey, I ain't complaining that you wanted to make sure I was okay, but the way you done it." He shook his head. "I thought you were having feelings for Ezra?"

"I am, I do." Chris sat up away from the tracker now, watching him warily. "I just wanted to make sure you were alright." He slowed as he spoke, finally staring away from Vin, toward the tent opening, draped closed now. "Damn," he said quietly.

"Yeah." Vin sighed. Then he offered his tied hands. "You think we can take this off? I can rig a knot that will make it look like I'm tied up."

Larabee leaned forward and untied his friend, but it was clear that his mind was elsewhere. Vin flexed his hands and shook out his wrists, then took up the piece of rope. With a few twists, he had fashioned a figure eight with a double slip-knot center anchor. He could slide his hands in or out of the two looped openings easily, but when on, it appeared to be a securely cuffed knotting.

While Tanner was busy with the rope, Larabee pushed himself to his feet and walked over to the front of the tent, only to stand there staring blankly at the flap of canvas. In his mind's eye, he was reliving the events just passed. He saw himself hovering anxiously near Vin, barely able to conceal his worry, as Ezra smoothly got them situated within the camp. He saw himself lost in his efforts to revive and treat Vin, ignoring Ezra's efforts, Ezra's comments, actions, and --- feelings. Damn. He kicked himself mentally. He saw Ezra slipping away from the tent again, saying something about seeing the lay of the camp and being back soon, not to worry about him. Saying it as if it needed saying because Larabee, horse's ass that he was, was not saying it. I didn't even ask how he was feeling. Damn it, the man collapsed yesterday. Now I don't even check on him. Hell, I don't even know if he's hurting right now. Larabee stirred restlessly, suddenly anxious to be with Ezra, make sure HE was fine. Chris shut his eyes. I am a damn fool. He swallowed a painful knot in his throat, his main concern shifting from Vin to Ezra. Hell, am I supposed to chose now? Damn it, no! One's my best friend, but the other --- Ezra, I'm hoping to make you much more than just a friend. Was hoping. Damn it.

Vin relaxed back on the blankets, watching his friend, easily reading his body language, nearly following his thought process, the tension and posture were so clear to him. Man's gonna bust a gut if he don't settle down some. "I'll be fine here, after all I am all tied up," he offered. "Why don't you go find Ez?"

Chris Larabee turned to look back at the tracker. Vin could see something in those hard hazel eyes. Almost like the man was reinventing himself, he thought intuitively. The blond nodded once, a decisive gesture. "Yeah. Think I should go check on Ezra." He flicked a look around the tent. "If anyone comes in, you're asleep, make sure your tied hands are in plain sight." The firm, blunt words, the assurance in the tone, told Vin Tanner that Larabee, the leader of the seven, was back. The hesitant lover, the worried friend, had been set into the background, or maybe re-absorbed, re-integrated into the man. Whatever had just happened, Vin realized that this was the Chris Larabee that he, and Ezra, and the Territories needed right now. Ezra maybe most of all. Vin smiled as Larabee disappeared out under the tent flap. Things would git better now.

<><><><><><><><><><><><>

Chris' long, dark shape moved away from their tent, his eyes sharp and assessing as he inventoried the immediate area, noting the remuda lines only one more campfire over. No sign of Ezra. He started down the line of campfires, seeing the orderly rows more clearly this time. His earlier panic over Vin's capture and condition eased now. The newly recognized feelings he had for Ezra began to strengthen as he moved through the busy camp, taking in his surroundings and searching quietly for the small con man. Where are you, Ezra? No sign of him but no sign of disquiet in the gathering of men either. Like he'd vanished without a trace. Chris found his hand resting on his gun butt as he moved yet more purposefully ahead.

At the far side of the third campfire, Chris ran into a wall in human shape. Stopping and looking up, he met the amused eyes of a rather ugly looking giant. He was ready to take a step to the side to continue when the big man laid a hand on his shoulder, pinning him in place. "You with the cap'n, sor?" The deep woods, southeastern voice was low and quiet.

"With Gant?" Chris tilted his chin up to better confront the giant.

"No, sor, Cap'n Sutler, sor." The respectful way the giant spoke made Chris pause.

"Yes. We ride together."

"My name is Harry Walton, sor. I rode with the cap'n once." The wistful tone wasn't lost on Larabee who relaxed.

"A while back?"

"Sor, yes. During the war. Corporal Walton, then, sor." Harry dropped his hand and straightened. Then he cast a look over his shoulder and lowered his head to speak more quietly still. "He's with Gant and McMurray right now, in the headquarters' tent."

"But you don't want to go there," piped up a younger voice, cracking on one or two of the words.

Chris started, so intent had he been on the big man, and swiveled to look at the callow blond youth that had helped Ezra set up their tent earlier. Cal? Something like that. His blank look must have been enough for the boy spoke again.

"You're Chris James, Ezra told me. Name's Carlton Winger." He shoved his long stringy hair back with a gesture reminiscent of JD Dunne. Chris felt a pull at his heart. He missed the others, a new feeling. Now, time to get to Ezra before the man got himself into too much trouble.

Larabee looked back and forth between the giant and the thin, shorter youth. "Nice meeting you both, but I gotta go find Ezra."

Carlton spoke again, stepping forward dangerously into Larabee's space. The gunman tensed but waited. The younger blond twitched nervously. "Some of the men are getting restless. We been on this trail for a long time."

"Some of us for years," added Walton, his hands becoming fists at his sides. "Getting tired of following Gant."

Carlton's head never stopped moving, eyes in constant motion, alert for some threat that Chris couldn't see. "I only been with 'em a year or two, but we done some things." The boy trailed off, looking pale and unhappy, dropping his eyes momentarily.

Walton nodded. "With the cap'n here, we might could stop this, break his hold on us, Sor."

Larabee rocked back on his heels. This was unforeseen. For some reason, Ezra had made a convert out of the boy Carlton, and, had found an old friend from the war. The two seemed ready to turn coat on this gang. He was cautious though. "You'd do that?"

"I'd foller the cap'n anywheres. Done told that to some of my chums here, too, Sor." Harry smiled, his face cracking like a crevasse growing across a plateau. "He could lead us, Sor, iffn he had a mind to." The last was said rather sadly.

Chris was charmed. For some reason, the allegiance these two so very different men were giving to Ezra was like lighting up a new room, letting Larabee see his friend in a new and fascinating way. Before he could speak, Carlton was looking up at Walton with mouth agape, a look of worry clearly writ on his face. "You think he might not?"

Harry ignored the boy and looked down at the gunman. This man gave off an aura of danger all by himself. A blond but not like any Harry had ever met, he seemed chilled and dark, his hazel eyes hard. The hand resting ready on the big gun at his hip was another signal. Walton wasn't dumb, this man could be a challenge to Gant too. If he really was a close friend of the Cap'n's then the hope Harry'd felt on seeing Sutler had an even better chance.

"Ezra Sutler was the best officer I ever served with, Sor, back during the conflict. He always looked out for his men first. Had the courage of ten. Always led from the front, got dirty with us. Bloody." A dreaming look drifted across the large face. Then the blue eyes sharpened and met the watching hazel ones. "Only, I think it hurt him. Seeing so many boys die, no matter what he did. And the killing? If you ask me, he didn't like that one bit, even though he was the best there was at it, Sor. Was real good with those big guns of his." Walton cricked his neck to look around the camp, they'd been standing there for several minutes now and were beginning to draw attention. "Look, Sor, I'll walk you up to the main tent, where Cap'n Sutler is. Just think about it. Tell him for me, I'll go with him when he's ready to leave."

Carlton quickly flashed a gap-toothed grin and nodded. "Yep. I heared what Harry had to say about Ezra. I'll follow him too." Then the boy moved back and away from the two taller men.

Chris was thinking fast now. Open rebellion was appealing, a good way to cut the underbelly of this beast, but they'd have to find out first just how many men were ready to break out. If it was just the corporal and the boy, then he and Ezra would have to stick to their original plan, and find a way to free Vin and send him for the others. He started walking again, following Corporal Harry Walton, one of Ezra's men, on through the camp. He felt a warm glow of pride for his Ezra. The man was a mystery that continued to unravel for him, new bits of his past revealing much more than the clever con man had ever let on in his short time in Four Corners. It didn't change Chris' new feelings, but, if anything, deepened them, making him even more ready to find a way to convince the smaller man that his place in the future was tight by Chris' side.

As they walked, he noticed the undercurrents of the campfire groups. The men shifted and whispered as he and Walton walked by. Several looked up at the giant, one or two nodding almost secretively. Chris' worry for Ezra hadn't lessened but his concern was beginning to shift. Somehow, these men were finding new hope with Ezra's mere presence. Not a bad thing, unless it bit back at Ez. I'll be there, cover your back, Ezra, he vowed, quickening his step. You won't be alone again. Finally got my head on straight thanks to some hard talk from Vin. He wore the certainty like a mantle, the new strength it gave him caused him to move ahead so that he was keeping pace with the larger man. Those they passed were watching with interest. This new man had the mien of a warrior, a leader. And, he was the friend of Captain Sutler, the other new man to the camp. Heads turned, eyes brightened.

-/-/-/-/-/-/-/-

Buck sniffed at the shifting wind from his tilted chair in front of the jail. Smelled like a storm comin' in. Vin hadn't come back yet, and no word from Chris and Ezra. Josiah appeared on his left, coming from Potter's store, heading for the saloon.

"Hey, Josiah!"

Sanchez stopped and looked over at Wilmington, then changed direction and moved toward him. "Brother Buck?"

"Been a while now, what do you think about Chris and Ez, Vin?"

Sanchez didn't answer right away. If the tall rangy lawman was beginning to worry, then there was probably cause. He thought about Ezra who'd still been concussed when they rode out on Travis' mission. He hadn't liked it then, he didn't like it now. "You want to do something about it?"

Slowly, Buck nodded. "Think I do."

"Hey, Buck! Josiah! What's goin' on?" JD was a quick charged energy bolt that sizzled the air with his constant excitement, sheer enjoyment in life.

Buck leaned forward and stood up from the chair, grasping the wood rail on the front side of the porch. "Josiah and me were thinkin' of heading on out, look for the others."

"But weren't we supposed to wait for word, wait here?" JD didn't sound like he objected, just wanted to make sure he understood.

Buck nodded. "Yep." He turned to look at Josiah. "Might have a need for Nate, you never know."

"So, what you're saying is --- is you're going out after 'em?" Dunne sounded curiously excited. When no one answered him directly, he continued, "No way you're leaving me behind! I'll get some supplies and extra ammunition, meet you at the livery in thirty minutes!" And, he was off and running, leaving the two older men behind to stare at the spot he'd been standing.

Josiah seemed to return to the present first, shaking his head with a smile for the exuberance of youth. "Sounds like we better hurry or we'll be the ones left behind!"

Less than an hour later a very tense Mary Travis and an angry Judge Orrin Travis stood outside the Clarion, watching the remaining four of their seven peacekeepers ride out of town.

"Mary, I'm not sure what you think was going on with Chris and Standish, but I'll tell you this, those seven men are closer than any band of brothers I've ever seen." Orrin squinted into the dust to watch the four riders slowly disappear down the road. He sighed. "Devil take the man," he hesitated, then with a quick telling look at Mary, added, "or woman, who tries to stand between any of 'em." With that pithy comment made, Travis nodded and walked down toward the restaurant for his mid-morning coffee, leaving Mary Travis behind, staring at the now empty road.

-/-/-/-/-/-/-/-

Chris and Harry Walton had nearly reached the last and biggest tent in the camp when new riders appeared at the head of the trail. Three men on horseback rode in single file. They pulled up in the open space before the big tent. Walton leaned toward Chris and muttered. "Watch that'un. That's Jeb Morgan and his son, Sam. Don't know the other feller, but the Morgans are bad business. Act as part of our scouts and spies."

Chris heard all this as a bad feeling rolled through him. Please, Ezra, don't come out of that tent yet. He stepped to the side, clear of Walton and brushed back the side of his dark duster, freeing his holster and gun clearance. The third man he knew. Jimmie Baxton of Stewart James' place. Crap. And the man had an attitude and thought he had the hands to go with it. The seven had had their share of bad times with Baxton, and now it looked like they were about to have more.

"Holy Shit!" Baxton, dismounting had just noticed Larabee. "Morgan, you know who you got in this camp? That's Chris Larabee of the law of Four Corners!" Baxton leapt to the side, drawing his gun even as he spoke. Chris didn't see he had a choice, dipping and swaying as his hand and arm drove down for his own gun, then up, firing as he came to bear. A second shot, from Baxton, sounded just seconds behind Larabee's. Baxton pitched over dead with a bullet through the heart. Chris grabbed his right arm, holding tight to slow the bleeding of the small graze on the fleshy part of the arm. He kept hold of his gun in his right hand, leveling it half way up from the ground, not quite aiming at anyone. He watched to see what would happen next.

Ezra heard the shout of a familiar voice, identifying Chris, followed before he even had time to react, by the sounds of two gunshots. NO! CHRIS! Ezra drove his fingers, claw like, into his thighs as he sat beside Gant, reviewing the ways into Four Corners. Their conversation ended abruptly with the shots. Both men and Bart McMurray ran for the tent opening and burst out on a deathly still scene.

Chris Larabee AKA James stood weaving slightly in the open area, gun in one hand, blood streaming from beneath his other hand where it pressed with white knuckles on the arm wound. He was being covered by two armed men, one much younger than the other but with a clear family resemblance. "Jeb, what happened?" Gant demanded as he came to a stop beside the confrontation.

<><><><><><><><><><><><>

"Jeb, what happened?" Gant asked again when no one answered immediately.

Even as Gant spoke, Ezra hissed, "Chris!" and moved swiftly to Larabee's side, hands going to the bloody place on the blond's sleeve where Chris' hand pressed tightly. Ezra ignored Gant and the others, pulling a rough handkerchief from his pocket and tying it tightly around Chris' arm.

As Standish worked, Gant watched, and listened to a low-voiced explanation from Jeb Morgan who came to stand next to the marauders' leader. Sam, Jeb's son, still held his rifle aimed directly at the blond and bloody stranger. Nodding his understanding, Ralph walked over to the two new men and motioned for Walton, who was standing nearby to take Larabee's gun. As soon as Harry did, tucking it in his own waistband and stepping back, Gant began.

"Alright, who are you? Chris James or Chris Larabee?"

Ezra, who had by now spotted the body of Jimmie Baxton, understood what had happened. He flicked a quelling green-eyed look up at Chris who stood looking shocked and unhappy. Speaking before the silence became too obvious, he said, "Ralph, Chris is both. His real family name is James, but he has been in and around the Territories using the name Larabee." Ezra smiled gently up at Chris, raising one hand to stroke the blond's cheek in a clearly possessive manner. "He has done very well for himself, he is very quick." The smirk on Ezra's face had Chris blushing and looking at the ground and Gant looking suspicious and, then, understanding flooded his countenance.

"You and him." Gant remembered the tender, caring moments back in that small camp at Wheeler's and Chris' admission back then.

Ezra turned to face Gant, putting himself between Larabee and the other tall man. Out of the corner of his eye he could see Harry standing alertly, one hand on Larabee's gun. He swallowed. He really did not want to start a gun battle here. They might win the initial skirmish but they would not win the battle, no less the war. Not like this. "Yes." He leaned back against Chris who automatically caught him with his undamaged arm wrapping around Ezra's waist, high up. Ezra placed his hands on the arm and smiled. "He even did a stint as the law in Four Corners, so he can probably fill you in with more information. Unfortunately, he and Mr. Baxton there did not get on too well." Ezra decided not to embroider too much so he stopped talking and waited.

The older of the two men who'd just ridden in leaned forward to mutter in Gant's ear again. Ralph nodded and relaxed, signaling the other man to lower his weapon. "Jeb here says Baxton called Chris out, said he was Four Corners' law, and then shot at him before he could even answer. Jeb said if your man hadn't been so damn fast, he'd be dead."

Chris felt Ezra's shudder right through their joined bodies and squeezed the smaller man slightly, trying to convey reassurance. Ezra showed nothing visibly to Gant except relief. "Yes, as I said, Chris is very fast." He cricked his neck to look up and back at Larabee. His eyes were a soft and sultry green in invitation. Come on, Chris, we need to put on a little show here, Ezra silently urged.

Larabee felt his heart speed up and hoped to hell he was reading Ezra right as he leaned down and in to capture those sweet looking lips in a possessive kiss. He felt Ezra's response as the lips below his parted and suddenly he was supporting nearly all of Ezra's weight as the smaller man sank back against him more completely. He pushed a bit to hold up the little gambler and deepened the kiss, probing with his tongue, tasting Ezra for the very first time. A thrumming sensation seemed to speed up his very heartbeat as he spread his legs slightly and snugged the compliant form of the gambler tighter still against him, his second arm, despite the wound, coming up to wrap also around this small, precious form, his hand flattening and sliding up Ezra's chest to wrap around the slender column of throat. He could feel the rapid pulse fluttering beneath his palm.

Gant looked away as the twosome got lost in each other, clearing his throat and waving Jeb and his son toward his tent. He looked back just as Chris let Ezra up for air.

"Boys, you might want to take that inside." He smiled and shook his head. "And, I'd like you both back in my tent to talk."

Ezra nodded but twisted slightly to grasp the blond's injured arm. "Can I see that this is taken care of first, Ralph?"

Gant paused at the threshold of his tent. Looked over at Harry who still stood by, waiting. "Walton, might as well give James back his gun, then go get our bandage kit, bring it here."

Harry ducked his head once in acknowledgement and then plucked Larabee's weapon from his belt, handing it butt first to Chris. Larabee reached out with his good arm and grasped the gun's handle only to discover it was still firmly held by Walton. By this time, the two Morgans, McMurray, and Gant had all disappeared within the tent and Carlton was dragging Baxton's body away. The rest of the gathered men were already beginning to disperse again. Harry bent in close to Chris over Ezra's head and muttered, "You be more careful, Sor. Don't want to see my Cap'n hurt nor anything." The warning in those cold blue eyes was even clearer to Larabee than the words or tone. Harry would not take it kindly if Chris hurt Ezra in ANY way. Chris found himself smiling as he stared back at the big brute and let his chin rest against Ezra's head for just a moment.

"I will." He let his own hard hazel eyes answer more fully and could see that Harry read the message there easily. Yes, his Green Eyes was safe with him now and that was the way it was going to stay.

Just then the two tall men heard a gentle throat clearing down below their line of sight. Harry stepped back to look down as Chris pulled his chin back to cock his head and glance down at Ezra. Standish shook his head at his two protectors. "Gentlemen, please. Ah can look after mahself just fine. Now, if Ah may?" He moved out of Larabee's arms; Chris letting him go reluctantly. "Harry, the medical supplies if you please? Chris and I shall be in Gant's tent. Chris? We need to move if you can?" He looked worriedly at Larabee's still bloody sleeved arm, ignoring Harry who he'd dismissed with that casual but authoritative command.

Harry left with a snap of heels together and half salute. Chris stared down at his small friend. This was certainly a different Ezra than he'd been privileged to see before. He found he was totally captivated by the combination seducer and soldier, neither of whom he'd 'met' before. "Chris?" Ezra's bright green eyes were becoming more worried by Larabee's lack of response.

"Sorry, Ez," Chris nodded with a shy smile, "I can move, it's just a scratch." He followed as Ezra turned to lead them back into Gant's tent, but caught up in a large stride to whisper down into one sweetly shaped ear, "Later." Then kissed Ezra just under the ear, a tiny kiss that ended in a lick. Hum, tastes so good, salty and spicy, Ezra was going to make an excellent dish, served cold, warm, or sizzling hot. Chris smiled to himself. Somehow the mission had lost much of its interest for him. He didn't miss Ezra's reaction to his advance and that excited him too.

Ezra started as if he'd been shot himself, then took a quick step ahead of Larabee to widen the distance between them. Ezra found himself feeling both relieved and confused. Relieved that Chris had played along so well, helping to extricate them from a perilous moment. But, he was confused as well. Chris was no actor, his 'performance' had too much of a feel of truth to it. The way the tall blond had held him, moved with him, hell, the feel of an aroused member pressed tightly to his ass! The way Chris had kissed him. It was the first time they'd ever kissed and it was all Ezra had ever dreamed it might be, ever yearned hopelessly for it to be. It was all that, and more, because Chris had been gentle, tender, possessive, and loving. Ezra had held to only a forlorn hope before, when Mary had told him that Chris cried out Standish's name during lovemaking; Ezra's hope now blossomed, grew, swelling into a huge feeling of incredible happiness. Where before he hoped, now he let go of his restraint and recognized that he was hopelessly in love, head over heels in love with the wicked blond gunman who led the Seven.

Ezra didn't dare look back. He cares for me. He isn't a good enough actor to do what he just did and not mean it at all. No, he really does have feelings for me! Ezra desperately wanted to find a private place to explore this new possibility. Grimly he focused on the tent flap. Not now and not here. Not like this. I shall keep my angel near, though, very near. Entering the shade of the tent's interior, he led Chris toward the table where Gant sat with the one he'd called Jeb.

<><><><><><><><><><><><>

The four riders slowed as they neared the approach to Wheeler's Camp. They, like Vin, suspected the gang's camp to be on the bluffs above. It remained to be seen if they were right or not. They had seen no sign of the tracker, either, which was worrying. As they drew rein and dismounted in the tree line south of the creek, JD spotted a dust cloud on their trail, coming in from the east. In moments, the four men were watching as three armed riders loped easily past. Two were strangers, looking much like their own scruffy tracker, but one was a known and highly disliked hand, Jimmie Baxton, from Stewart James' ranch.

"Don't much like the looks of that," Buck said quietly, reining in his gray.

JD looked his question, while Nathan asked, "Why would Baxton be riding out here? Ain't no where near Stewart James' ranch."

Josiah gave a deep full body sigh and tugged his horse around by the reins. "I suggest we follow and find out, brothers. Like Buck, I don't much like seeing friend Baxton over here, so close to where we suspect the marauder camp to be."

Buck had already clicked his mount into a quick paced trot and the others fell in behind. They rode single file into and out of the groves of trees by the meandering creek, looking for a way up the bluff.

It was Josiah, whose patient eyes, studying everything along the way, spotted the game trail heading away from the creek. He called out a warning in a low voiced but penetrating hoot. The others drew rein and came back to join him at the head of the faint trail.

"Whoo-ee, Josiah, don't know how you spotted this!" JD stared at the trail then turned to Buck who had assumed the leadership role in Larabee's absence. "We gonna take it, Buck?"

The tall ladies man was studying the signs and, while not as good as Vin, he was a seasoned trail hand and realized this trail had not been used by shod ponies so it was probably a safe way to get closer to their quarry unannounced. He nodded slowly. "I reckon this may be our best chance." He looked around and made eye contact with each of his friends. He saw only agreement and worry. With a decisive nod, he spoke firmly, "Let's ride."

-/-/-/-/-/-/-/-

Ezra stood close beside Chris at Gant's map table. He wanted to work on Chris' wound, shallow though it was, he could see it had yet to stop bleeding. Where was Harry anyway? He chaffed at the delay, but kept his eye on Chris as he listened to Jeb Morgan explain what Stewart James wanted. Should have known that low life was behind bringing in these men to wrest control of Four Corners from the town folk and peacekeepers. The rancher wanted nothing more than to flatten the small hamlet and return the land to open grazing.

Morgan hesitated as he stared over at Chris who was beginning to lean on the edge of the table, head hung over the map. Ezra, who'd turned to watch Morgan, looked back at Chris in alarm, just as the gunslinger began to sway, his eyes closing. Swallowing his fear, Ezra gripped the wounded arm. The pain from the sudden pressure brought Larabee back to the present and he stood up again, eyes opening. "'m alright, Ez," he muttered, while Standish stared in dismay at the blood beginning to stain the edge of the map, dripping steadily now from beneath Chris' sleeve, down his wrist and hand on to the map.

Gant, who'd been listening to Jeb Morgan swung around at the sudden movements from Sutler and James. Man would need to have that tended to soon. He figured they had time since the gunman was still on his feet, so he spoke to the man in black. "Chris James? You any relation to THIS James too?"

Larabee scowled and shook his head. "No, not likely."

Ezra interrupted. "That is one of the reasons Chris used the surname Larabee here in the territories, we did not want to call attention to their shared family name, even if there is no blood tie."

Gant frowned. "Understand that. Now, this business of being law in that town?"

"Good way to look over the place." Chris was proud of his answer, he was not used to subterfuge but could carry off a limited part if push came to shove. He had a momentary flash of memory of 'shooting' Buck in an angry rage in Purgatorio as part of a ruse to save his oldest friend from a gone-bad lawman. Yep, can do it when I need to. He stole a glance over at Ezra, finding himself in need of the conman's approval.

Ezra caught the look and nodded slightly, good answer. He continued as if part of the answer was his to give. "And, while he was playing lawman, I was playing gambler. We know that little burg quite well now."

Bart McMurray, who'd been silent until now, moved closer to the table and studied the map. "What would be the best way in, do you think?" His question gave tacit acceptance to the newcomers' stories. Gant edged closer while Sam and Jeb Morgan squinted over at Larabee, then Standish. The two scouts had already picked out trails, but Bart had whispered his suggestion to them as they entered the tent that he use their knowledge to check on the trustworthiness of the new men.

Ezra didn't even hesitate, leaning over, his elegant hand moved quickly to the main trail south to Four Corners. "This is the best road into the town," he paused, seeing without revealing his observations that the Morgans were both trying to repress grins. "Of course, if you are trying for surprise," he waited again, the master of the con, seeing the two scouts lean forward subconsciously drawn in by his words and pacing, "then, this back trail is probably better." The scouts rocked back on their heels, both sighing softly and shrugging at each other before nodding at Bart. Thought so, you slick miscreants. Ezra did not let his smile of triumph show. "Now, if you are bringing wagons?"

"No, never use wagons, we have a string of mules for packing out our gear and anything we take." Gant spoke absentmindedly, already tracing this lesser used route with one finger.

He looked up from under his thick brows and opened his mouth to ask another question just as Harry Walton appeared at the tent flap. "Sor?"

Sighing and waving the big ex-soldier in, he stood back and went over to where a small folding side table held a bottle and several glasses. He poured a finger of whiskey and watched as his man handed Ezra Sutler the medical supply kit. Sutler looked over at him and asked, "Captain Gant, Ralph? Would it be permissible to take Chris back to our tent. We've left our prisoner alone for some time and I can sit Chris down there to deal with this injury."

Gant stared down at his drink for a moment, then tossed it down his throat and thumped the glass on the table. "Sure. Go ahead. Bart and I will go over the trail with Jeb here. Later, though, I want to meet with you two about what's in that town. Bank, stores, likely problems."

Ezra smirked. "Of course, and we can easily answer such questions at your convenience." He lifted the kit of bandages and supplies, hefting it in one hand as he grasped Chris by his uninjured arm, turning him toward the tent flap. "Until then, sir, adieu."

Just as Ezra guided his silent friend through the opening of the tent, Gant called out, "Ezra? I'll just come on down to your tent with Bart when I'm ready."

The conman smiled over his shoulder, "That will be fine, Ralph." He gave a half salute with the hand holding the medical kit and moved on out of the tent with Chris in tow.

Harry Walton followed them out and through the camp, a silent protective shadow, which both lawmen appreciated. Chris who was feeling faint by now from the leakage of blood, reeled at one point, his boot coming down wrong on an exposed tree root. Ezra who had never let go of Chris' good arm, held on tightly but was grateful when Harry's big hands came out to hold the taller man's shoulders and steady him. "Thanks, Harry," Ezra said quietly, not looking up.

"My pleasure, Sor." Harry had been trying to decide if Ezra was really paired with this wicked gunman or if it was all play-actin'. He'd watched that kiss with his jaw nearly on the ground. But the way the Chris feller had looked at Ezra Sutler had near convinced him. Later, the way Ezra had looked when he took the medical stuff from Harry and turned to watch that Chris, well, Harry wasn't an insensitive clod, even if he might look like one. There was love in that look. Now, seeing the worry in those glittering green eyes, Harry vowed that he'd keep Chris James or Larabee, whatever he called himself, safe. Safe for his friend Ezra. With a light pat to each shoulder, he released the gunman once it was clear that Chris was back in balance on his feet.

-/-/-/-/-/-/-/-

"Still bleeding where he's been hit. Looks like Ezra has some stuff to fix him up with, though." Nathan watched tensely when Chris wobbled, then was steadied by the hulking man following their friends through the camp and away from the large tent.

Buck watched narrowly. No sign of Vin, and now that they'd finally spotted Chris and Ezra, it was to see that Chris was wounded, though it looked to be just a graze. Then the two had gone into the big tent and only now were leaving. "Wonder who the big guy is?"

JD spoke up. "Seems more like a friend than not, way he's acting."

Josiah agreed. "Ezra and he appear to have some sort of a bond, too, from what we can see of their faces and the way they speak to each other."

Nathan edged closer to the screen of brush that hid them. "Like to get a look at Chris' arm."

Buck put a restraining hand on one arm. "Not yet, Nate. Ain't like he's bleeding ta death or nothing. Ez'll look after him. We can't risk tipping our hand yet."

None of the four wanted to leave their friends deep in the gang's camp but there were too many men there for them to try to liberate them. Besides, no one had seen any sign of Vin yet. They had made it to a hidden lookout near the camp in time to see Baxton being dragged away. They'd heard the two gunshots but not seen what happened.

No one said a word as they'd watched Chris pull Ezra into an embrace and then kiss him deeply in front of several men.

Still wordless they'd seen the two disappear into the large tent, only to emerge after about ten to fifteen minutes, just after the big hulk returned from some errand and entered the tent.

-/-/-/-/-/-/-/-

Chris staggered slightly as he ducked to enter their smaller four-man tent. Ezra quickly tossed the medical kit inside and grabbed for Larabee with both hands, helping the bigger man to move over to where Vin lay on a bedroll, watching them. He didn't speak, his blue eyes quietly assessing Chris' injury before turning to watch a huge man shoulder his way into the tent behind his friends. Gunshot most likely, didn't look too bad. This big guy isn't making any problems and both Chris and Ez seem fine with him. Vin continued to play dumb. He made sure his 'roped' wrists were visible.

Tossing a look over at Harry, Ezra eased Chris down on to the bedroll next to Tanner's. "Harry, your word."

Walton straightened as much as the small tent allowed, his neck bent and chin against his chest. "Since I've known you, Sor. Ain't ever changed, never will. Sor, you have it."

Ezra smiled, his green eyes dancing. "Harry, I'd like you to meet a friend of ours, Vin Tanner. He, Chris and I are here on a mission to waylay or destroy your little band of men."

Harry's beefy face lit with a relieved smile. "Pleased ta meet you, Mr. Tanner." He made no comment about the ropes.

Vin wasn't sure what was going on but since Chris didn't shoot this Harry - or Ezra - he figured it was alright, so he nodded at the big guy and drew his hands out of the knotted bit of rope. "Harry. Call me Vin." Vin's gruff, scratchy voice was low.

Just then Chris groaned and his head dipped. "Chris!" Ezra's hiss brought the other two men to his side. He carefully tipped the reclining man's head toward him and saw that Chris had passed out.

"Lost a fair 'mount of blood, Sor," Harry murmured, competently pulling the duster and shirtsleeve off the injured arm. Ezra was rooting through the kit, pulling out rolls of bandage and some carbolic acid.

"Let's get it cleaned while he's out." Ezra and Vin pulled the arm clear and worked together on Larabee's gun arm. "Doesn't look like it even needs stitches." Ezra's tone was of relief and Vin, who was in silent agreement, smiled.

"Reckon old Chris'll be around for a spell more, Ez. You kin relax."

Standish sat back on his heels as Harry and Vin wrapped the cleaned graze with some of the gauze. "Thanks to you and Harry, Vin."

Vin raised an eyebrow while Harry lowered one. Both men shot Ezra looks of sad understanding. It was Vin, the usually silent Vin, who spoke first. "Ez, you done more'n your share, too, Pard. And from what you and Harry said, Chris is likely alive now because of you. Already know I am. Thanks to YOU, Ezra Standish."

Ezra's pale face was now flagged by two bright red spots of embarrassment. Good Lord, couldn't they see that his conniving ways were not something you praised, simply used and were done with it. He raised his head, however, and nodded to each man with a small smile. "I stand corrected, Mr. Tanner. Thank you." He could see his newer and older friend were both unhappy with his response but it was all he could give them.

<><><><><><><><><><><><>

A scratching at the closed tent flap had Vin scrambling to get his rope 'restraints' back on as Harry rose to face the intruder and Ezra leaned protectively over Chris where he lay unconscious on one of the bedrolls. "Who goes there?" Harry spoke calmly.

A dirty blond head of stringy hair appeared at the flap. Carlton peered in anxiously. "Cap'n Gant's comin'." The young man's head disappeared again rapidly.

Vin lay down and curled back into a posture of submission, closing his eyes and tipping his head down.

Ezra knelt up to face the entrance just as Ralph Gant swept aside the flap and moved in to the tent, Bart McMurray close on his heels. Neither man showed surprise that they hadn't caught the others off guard. Walton nodded to Gant and slipped outside to wait. He smiled at Carlton Winger who was now sitting cross-legged in front of one of the other three tents that faced this communal cook fire. You done good, kid, he thought affectionately. He'd have to keep an eye on young Winger. Hadn't really paid much attention to the sapling before but now that the youngster had come down on Sutler's side and confessed his own dissatisfaction with the way the gang of men looted and pillaged, why he'd have to watch out for young Carly.

-/-/-/-/-/-/-/-

"You get the feeling that not ever'one in that camp is in agreement?" Buck mused from where the remaining members of the Seven sat in silent watch over the tent where at least two of their number were hidden.

Josiah smiled. "That young man sure popped in and outta Chris' and Ezra's tent mighty like he was warning them of something."

"I think that tall man that just went in might be someone real important, maybe their leader." JD had watched the ripples of reaction from the men in the camp as the tall man strode through. Fear, awe, respect, even anger, showed up on the other men's faces.

Nathan had to agree, he too had seen the reactions. It made him nervous to think of his friends in that small space with the vicious pack leader. He always felt a bit frustrated at such times as this, when his team mates seemed to know instinctively what to do next while he was still fumbling with the thought that he needed to act. Never feel this way once I am doing what I do best, guess this is simply not one of those things I do best. He was flooded with gratitude suddenly as he looked around at the other men. They ain't never complained. Not once. Couldn't ask for better friends. With regret he turned back to staring at the blank faced tent. What was going on inside?

Buck shifted position and put a comforting hand down on JD's spine where he lay next to the mustachioed ladies man. "How you holding up there, JD?"

The youngster flashed a look of irritation at the man who had become like an older brother to him. Sometimes Buck took his 'brother' role a bit too seriously. JD sighed, still was nice to have family. He tried not to think much on what they'd witnessed earlier, but his mind kept returning to the scene, like a dog with a meaty bone. Chris had hauled off and kissed Ez real good. Man, that was hot, that kiss. He was still not sure that he wanted to know whether it had been for real or not, but he had to act like it was real. He sighed and pushed himself back to the present. "I'm fine, Buck."

-/-/-/-/-/-/-/-

"---ripe for the plucking, gentlemen." Ezra's voice, sounding sonorous. He's working the con, Chris decided as he lay there with his eyes still closed, trying to get a feel for what had happened when he'd fainted. Damn, lost too much blood. Feel okay now, though. Ezra paused, and Chris was beginning to recognize the cadence, pitch and intensity of the little gambler and conman. He's pitching now, Chris tried to suppress a smile.

"What kind of resistance should we expect?" Gant.

"Nothing too forceful," Ezra answered, his hand moving to play through Chris' loose blond hair. "A retired preacher, an ex-slave, a kid, and a lothario."

"Lothario?" Bart's tentative pronunciation wrapped around the word.

"Ladies man." Ezra looked down at Chris as he felt a slight movement of the head on his lap. "Welcome back, Chris," he murmured tenderly as he now gently forked his fingers through the blond's hair again. He lowered his head to touch lips with the bigger man who lay supine beside him. Look at me, I am kissing Chris. The sparkle in his eyes became even brighter as Chris returned the soft kiss, then pushed at the lips with his probing tongue.

Gant, who was sitting facing the two men, shook his head and wondered how much more they'd get out of the lovers just now. As he watched, Chris put a hand around the back of Ezra's neck and pulled the smaller man down on top of himself, then began to calm the younger man with tiny kisses and petting motions with his hands.

Vin struggled not to smile as he watched Ezra initiate the kiss but Chris take it over. He's got you now, Ez. Likely for life. Vin smiled again.

Bart looked away in distaste. Not like he hadn't seen the likes before but he still didn't think much of it. Man kissing man, having sex. Just weren't natural. Once they had Four Corners, they should get rid of these two before they set a bad example for the men.

Ezra nearly moaned as Chris deepened the kiss and wrapped arms tightly around his captive. We really need somewhere a bit more private, he thought regretfully, pushing Chris back down on the bedroll and looking up to meet Gant's eye.

Ralph shook his head. Damn, don't these two think of anything 'sides sex?

"Ez?" Chris reached up to try to recapture the little gambler, make him my own, he thought hungrily.

Ezra put a firm hand down on Chris' chest. "Easy, Chris, we'll let you use up some energy later tonight."

Hot hazel eyes looked up in sultry defiance, "Promise?"

Ezra lost track of everyone again as he was caught in those hungry eyes. "Promise," he whispered for Chris' ears alone.

-/-/-/-/-/-/-/-

"Honest, I can do it!" JD was taking off his gun belt as he spoke, thrusting it into Nathan's hands. "I want to help them. They're our friends!"

Buck finally nodded concurrence. "Be careful, kid." He, together with Josiah and Nathan, watched JD sink to his belly and literally slither off.

JD had to dig his fingers into the rocky soil of the exposed bluff edge as he crept closer and closer to the tent. He could hear voices now, just barely. With great caution, he lifted the edge of one tent wall and peered beneath. He had to squint to make anything of the shades of gray in the dim interior. As his eyes adjusted, he moved into a more comfortable position. There were several men in the tent. Vin! There was Vin! But he was tied up and cringing against the far wall of the tent. He saw the men that they'd seen earlier near the big tent. Then one of them turned and JD recognized him as of the same cloth as their saloon patrons, cowboys, and drifters. He'd have to work hard to get near Vin's space.

Then the huddle of men beyond Vin shifted and JD's eyes went automatically toward the new movement. It was Chris on his back, and Ezra lying on top of him. They were squished real close and damn if Ezra and Chris weren't kissin' again.

-/-/-/-/-/-/-/-

Vin looked over behind his legs at the edge of the tent wall. JD looked back at him. Holy HELL! Vin fought to keep still, not show his shock, but then he sensed someone watching. Turning he saw that it was Ezra, still in a kissing clench, held tight by Chris, nonetheless it was Ezra who'd spotted JD's presence. He closed his eyes again. So, if JD was here, that meant at least Buck as well, and knowing Buck, it meant all four of their companions were lurking somewhere close by.

Just as fast as JD had shown up, just as quickly, he vanished again, like a rabbit down the hole. Vin wondered how long it would be before these men would realize that Chris and Ezra were acting. Or, were they?

-/-/-/-/-/-/-/-

JD gasped for breath, his skin an interesting shade of green. He was caught! Two wiry hands had grabbed hold of his ankles and were pulling hard.

"Shush, now." The dulcet tones of the south adjusted JD's thinking. More'n one man can sound like that! JD squirmed but could not dislodge his assailant's grip. Then a second set of hands joined the first, but there was no fighting this set. The huge hams clamped down on the boy's thin shoulders.

JD's eyes opened wide as he found himself on the ground face to face with the huge man that they'd spotted earlier, following Ezra and Chris, helping Chris when he nearly lost his balance. The man smiled and shrugged. "Easy there, young Sor. Now what would you be doing, lad, spying like that? Who be ye, anyway?"

JD licked his lips and whispered, "Friend of Chris and Ez." He didn't add anything else, not sure of what even that admission might not do to his two missing friends.

Harry saw the honesty and fear in the boy's eyes. He let his shoulders settle and released the boy slowly. "Sorry, Sor. We're trying to keep the cap'n safe.

<><><><><><><><><><><><>

"The captain?" His northern accent was questioning. JD really was bewildered and nervous. These two didn't seem to want to hurt him though.

"Cap'n Sutler." When that didn't elicit any response, Harry tried again. "Cap'n Ezra Sutler and his friend, Chris James."

"Ezra and Chris?" JD nearly fainted himself in relief. "You're their friends?"

"Yes, Sor." Harry studied the scruffy looking youth. Honesty shone from those dark eyes. "And you be?"

"JD." The boy blushed. "Ah, JD Dunne, sheriff of Four Corners."

"Ah." This explained much. Harry looked wisely over at Carly. "Winger, you foller this sheriff back to his posse. Let'em know the lay of the land. And, Carly?" Harry waited until the youngster's eyes were on his. "Tell 'em everything."

The blond nodded convulsively, then grinned at JD and jerked his head to get the other boy to follow him. The two slithered off through the under brush and were gone in moments. Harry waited only long enough to be sure that no one took notice, then returned to his vigil outside of the cap'n's tent.

-/-/-/-/-/-/-/-

Vin was growing weary of holding his pose of prisoner but Gant and McMurray had a lot of questions for Chris and Ezra. The majority of the answers came from Standish but as Larabee recovered his equilibrium, he sat up and gave a share of the answers. Both men were very truthful with everything except the status of the law there in Four Corners. Vin wondered if there was ANY law in the town just now. Well, maybe the Judge was still around. He had to suppress a grin at that thought.

Then Gant and his second in command were rising to their feet from where they sat on the ground with their new men. Gant's height, much like Walton's, forced the man to crouch slightly as he said goodnight to his recruits. "Tomorrow we'll ride as far as the approach in to the town, see what we can from there. Maybe send in some of the boys to set up at the saloon, hotel, and wherever else they can." Ralph Gant was getting hungry for another town and this one sounded mighty fine.

Ezra rose to his feet as well, nodding their 'guests' out of the enclosure, one hand on Chris' shoulder to keep him seated on his bedroll. The blond looked more surprised than rebellious, Vin thought with renewed amusement.

McMurray spared a glance at the prisoner. "You still want to keep draggin' his carcass around?"

Ezra's green eyes flew in alarm to where Tanner lay. He shielded well, though and only Chris caught the look. Then Standish turned back to face Bart McMurray. "We will get quite a tidy sum for that carcass, alive. So far it has not been a hardship. If it becomes one, no doubt my dear Chris will deal with it."

'My dear Chris?' Larabee struggled to hold back the smirk 'that' wanted to bring to his face. Ezra's walls were dissolving, he was sure of it. Ah, Green Eyes, I love you so damn much. Don't know how it happened, maybe it was all those times you faced me off, argued me into the ground and then waltzed off with that all-knowing smile of yours. Damn, I got it as bad as I did for Sarah and she was just like you - no respect at all, just a snippy miss. Well, you ain't no 'miss' but you're a real hellcat, Ez, a real fine hellcat. Chris lay back and folded his hands across his belly, staring at the ceiling of the tent as he listened to the men's movements as they left, then the sound of Ezra dropping the tent fold. There was another scratching and then Harry Walton's voice.

"I'll just be outside here, Sor." Ezra's said something in a low voice and Walton answered. "Yes, Sor, saw him. Young Carly has gone off with the Sheriff and no doubt will report back in a while." A moment of silence, then, "I'll make sure to warn you before I come in, Sor."

A further scuffle, then Ezra's face was replacing the patched roof of the tent in Larabee's view. Green eyes glittered and cheeks dimpled, gold tooth shining. "Hello there."

"Ezra, get your butt down here." Chris wriggled into an even more comfortable position. "Now."

Ezra glowed. No two ways about it, his happiness was clear as he knelt down beside the dark clad gunman. Chris could see the tenderness in those bright green eyes as his newly declared love lowered himself to the ground beside Larabee. Chris rolled onto one elbow and smiled, raising a hand to gently stroke the little gambler's face. "Ah, Ezra, we're gonna get some time after this and I'm gonna show you just how much I love you."

Ezra relaxed onto his side, facing Chris, enjoying the tender touch of the other man. "Um, can hardly wait, Chris."

Tanner lifted his head to watch the two. They might not be lovers yet but it was gonna happen, soon. "Boys, hate to say this, but maybe you best wait until we get ourselves outta this mess."

Larabee sighed,then cupped Ezra's chin in one hand and held him in place as he leaned in to taste those lips again, even if only for a short moment. Ezra moved closer in response and his lips sought out Larabee's. Then Chris' other arm came around to tug the smaller man closer again, until they were chest to chest. "Ezra." He kissed his love deeply, feasting on those tender lips, letting his tongue explore freely within, then pulled back once again. "Green Eyes, sweet, sweet Green Eyes."

Ezra's eyes misted and he smiled softly as they broke apart. "My Angel."

Chris crushed the little gambler to him, exultant. He finally did it! Called me Angel when he was in his right mind!

Vin cleared his throat and tried again. "Ah, boys?"

Ezra dragged himself the rest of the way free from Chris' arms and sat up facing Vin. "Sorry, Mr. Tanner, we shall try to be more circumspect."

Vin looked confused for a moment, then nodded. "Think that might be wise considerin' where we are and what we gotta do yet. Does Chris know about JD?"

Ezra shook his head after quirking a look at the mystified Larabee. "JD appeared from under the tent wall a few minutes ago, while Gant and McMurray were still here." He straightened his clothing and shrugged. "Harry tells me that he sent Carly back with JD to see the rest of our associates, fill them in on our situation."

Chris Larabee shook his head. He hadn't expected this, and especially not in the middle of his courtin' of Ezra. His brain felt like mush, nice mush, but mush. He ran a hand through his unruly blond bangs and winced at the shooting pains in his arm as he did it.

Ezra's face took on a firm look. "Chris, you must give that arm a chance to begin healing. Please try not to use it." He reached out and captured the bandaged arm, lowering it to the bedroll.

Chris let his friend fuss over him, sending Vin a wry look. There was a rare mix of amusement, tolerance, and affection in that look and Vin took notice. Chris has it really bad, he thought with a smile. Then looking at the way Ezra knelt next to his friend, Vin decided that Ezra did, too.

With a grunt as Ezra tucked the blanket back over his injured arm, Chris said, "Sounds like the rest of our men are here. Odds'll be, what? 'bout five to one, huh, Ez?"

Standish sat back on his heels and nodded,"If nothing changes, yes."

"Well, Vin, that's about normal for us, isn't it?" Both men heard the humor in Larabee's voice. It had been awhile since that teasing tone. They grinned back at him.

Ezra added, "Some of the men may not chose to continue their fight with this ragged band."

Larabee cast another telling look over to Tanner. "Yep, heard that. You met Harry, right Vin?" When the tracker nodded, Chris continued, "He tells some interesting tales about our friend Captain Ezra Sutler."

Ezra looked down, flushing. This was something he had never wanted, for his past to meet his present.

Chris sensed Ezra's discomfort but Vin needed to know. "Ez had a strong following in the war. He went up through the ranks, had quite a loyal group of men who rode with him. Was in the artillery."

Vin assessed Standish's downcast features, could see the embarrassment there and then chagrin. But, he could also hear the pride in Larabee's voice. "Real proud to ride with you, Ez." Tanner nodded, then flashed his teasing half-smile, "But, were proud to ride with you afore this anyhow."

Green eyes flicked up and caught his skyblue ones. A momentary silence, then Ezra grinned again. "My unfortunate past may come to our rescue in our current situation, I admit." He leaned over Larabee to pluck one of his saddlebags and bring it to his lap. "On the other hand," he smiled down at his busy hands, hands which withdrew several items from one of his oilskin wrapped parcels, "these may also be useful." He held up two sticks of dynamite, eyes twinkling with mischief.

-/-/-/-/-/-/-/-

Buck's face creased into a frown as he saw JD reappear with a shadow. "Who the hell is this?"

Dunne was up on his knees by now and smiling broadly. "This is Carly, a friend of Chris' and Ezra's."

Josiah reached out one long arm. "Pleasure to make your aquaintance, young Carly."

The awkward blond youth ducked his head but shook Josiah's hand. "Yes, sir."

Nathan peered curiously at the boy. "You know how Chris is?"

Carlton eyed the black man anxiously. "You one of the cap'n's friends, too?"

Before Nathan could answer that, JD interrupted. "Yes, he is." He then turned to the others. "Seems Ezra is known to lots of those men as Captain Sutler from the war."

"A captain?" Buck smiled, not really surprised. Their Ezra was always bringing out new talents when needed, so why not some past?

Carly nodded vigorously. "Yes, sir. And Harry served with'em. Says he was the best commander he'd ever had. Was in the artillery. Now, Harry says that he thinks the cap'n might lead us out from under Captain Gant." Winger gulped a breath, then went on in his eager patois. "There's a bunch of us, don't like riding with Gant no more. Done too many mean things and just for spite, not for the South."

The listening men quietly exchanged glances. Buck smoothed down his mustache and nodded. "If you can get your men organized, we can break this Captain Gant's gang wide open."

Carly squinted back toward the camp, hidden from view. "Might be, iffn the cap'n will lead."

<><><><><><><><><><><><>

Chris' eyes opened wide at the sight of the sticks of dynamite held so casually in Ezra's hands. "Ezra! Put those things away! I don't want you risking yourself. We'll get out of here together and then deal with Gant and his gang."

Vin watched silently as Ezra froze at the tone of Larabee's sharp words. He could tell that the little conman was not happy but that he was trying to work with them. Before Vin could intervene, however, Standish had moved back away from them and was seated crosslegged on the ground facing them, the dynamite still in his hands. He tilted his head to the side as he looked at Chris. Vin could almost feel the emotional tension rise within the small tent.

"Chris, Ah will do as Ah see fit. Ah can make no promises because we do not yet know what we face tomorrah." The southerner's accent was becoming more prominent again, a sure sign he was not as calm as he appeared.

Larabee's shoulders slumped and he pulled himself up on to his feet, to squat opposite his man. "Ez, you know I'm only worried about you."

The fine tension in Ezra's face seemed to melt a bit at that, although he remained unmoving. "Ah know." He looked over at Vin. "There is Mr. Tanner to consider as well."

Chris nodded. He duck-walked over beside Ezra and settled on his heels next to the smaller man. "Ezra, Buck and the rest are nearby, Carly's gone to meet with them. Harry is organizing the discontents. They'll follow you. Think, Green Eyes," Chris was turned by now to half-face his friend, roping him in with one arm as he met those telling jade eyes and smiled into them softly. "Think about what you mean to these men - and to me and Vin. You are the key now. You can't afford to go off on your own without us. We can't afford to lose you." He hesitated, then leaned in and touched his lips even more softly to the pouty ones in that handsome face, "I can't afford to lose you."

Ezra's eyes drifted shut with the light kiss, then opened slowly again. Chris was right and he knew it. He looked over at Vin and saw the same truth there in those bright blue eyes. Dropping his gaze to the explosives in his hands he gave a soul-deep sigh and nodded.

"Very well." Ezra wrapped the unfused sticks back into the oilskin packet and tossed the anonymous package back towards his saddle bags before leaning into Larabee's arm and resting his head for just a moment against the taller man's chest. "We'll do it together."

"Good." Chris kissed the broad forehead with affection and smiled over at Vin who was lying on the bedroll across from them, watching with interest.

Tanner spoke up again now that things seemed to be settled with his two friends. "Gant said they'd ride tomorrow. Might be a good idea to get Harry back in here and see what he can do to get ready." His two friends nodded agreement and with a final hug Chris released Ezra who headed for the closed flap of the tent.

-/-/-/-/-/-/-/-

"We'll stay hid here tonight, have a dry, cold camp," Buck decided, after listening to all that Carly Winger had to say. His fellow lawmen all nodded in agreement. "Carly, you git back to Gant's camp, let Ezra and Chris know that we're here and ready."

Carlton Winger seemed to swell with the importance of his continuing mission as go-between. He nodded sharply, scooping his lank blond hair back in a gesture that mirrored JD's often similar one. The other men watched in silence as he merged back into the brush and disappeared.

Once he'd been gone for a few minutes, the four lawmen sat down in a circle. Buck began, "Think it'd be best to scout out the trails here about."

"Carefully," cautioned Josiah with a nod up the hill. "Seems like they have pretty good scouts."

Buck nodded grimly, "JD, you git back up there and keep watch, Carly might come back lookin' for you. Nate, you head off to the east, I'll go west, Josiah, you stay here and keep watch on our camp."

The men quickly parted and headed out into the twilight, it had already been a long day.

-/-/-/-/-/-/-/-

"Harry?" Ezra stood hunched in the tent entrance. "Can you come inside?"

The big man stood up and stretched from where he'd been sitting on a log by the central campfire for this set of tents. He made a small gesture toward a nondescript man all in brown who had been sitting across the fire from him. "This here is Toby Benjay, Cap. He's gonna help out. He'll keep guard."

Standish stood free of the tent and extended his hand to Toby. "Mr. Benjay, it is a pleasure."

The other man rose to his feet and grasped the offered hand firmly, nodding and speaking quietly. "There's more'n you might think, Captain Sutler, that are ready to end this. We're with you. Heard all about you from Harry here. In fact, I served in another battery during the Conflict, heard about you back then too. It's an honor, sir, to serve with you."

Ezra straightened and gave a brisk nod. "Sir. The honor is mine." He looked around the campsite, noting that several other men lounged there without talking. He met each pair of curious and assessing eyes as he swung around. "We shall prevail, gentlemen." He addressed the quiet gathering in a low voice but the conviction in his tone was clear. Several of the men sat up a bit and nods were seen, tightening of the eyes, firming of the mouths, hands drifting to weapons to rest there, ready. Ezra could see that these men were serious. They wanted their private war to end. There must be a way to get them out of here without undue repercussions, he thought, at the same time wondering if the judge would approve of his intentions. To hell with him, Ezra decided, these men are victims as much as any of those they struck against. They're willing to stop and leave and that's what the judge wants. We do it my way. He stopped in his thoughts as Harry lifted the tent flap for him and he turned with a casual two fingered salute to the waiting men. Well, not MY way, but our way. Ezra met hard hazel eyes as he re-entered the tent, that is, if I can convince Chris.

-/-/-/-/-/-/-/-

JD watched as Carly emerged from the steep slope and brush and back into the same campsite. Several men sat around that campfire, not doing anything but sipping coffee. One, all in brown, stood near the tent that JD knew contained his friends. Carly went directly to that man and stood speaking in a low voice. After a moment or two, the man lifted the tent flap and said something toward the interior, then waved Carly within.

JD settled down in his nest of vines and dry brush and got ready to wait. Not a good idea to risk slipping back into that tent when Carly can bring word.

-/-/-/-/-/-/-/-

Bart McMurray spent a bit longer with his friend Jeb Morgan, then re-joined Gant at his map table. "Morgan don't really trust Sutler and James that much."

Ralph Gant looked up. "Don't much matter. They're tucked in safe among us. We don't let them loose to get in that town without us and can't see how that's a problem."

Hesitantly, Bart nodded, his firey red hair sticking up from where he'd run worried fingers through it. "Yeah. Well, Jeb and Sam will stick close to them. Tell you what, if I can get one of them alone, I'd do a bit of checking on my own. That alright with you?"

Gant considered that for a moment. "They're tight. If you do get one alone, likely just have to threaten the other and you'll get cooperation without no fight." He thought about that for another moment. "I expect that Sutler is likely the weaker link there, that James feller is one tough egg."

"Ok, then," Bart moved toward the tent opening, setting his wide-brim hat on his head, the glory of red hair disappearing beneath it. "I'll let you know what I learn, if this works out." And he left the tent.

Once outside, he found both Jeb and his son Sam at his elbows. "Boys, we're gonna go man-huntin'," he smiled slyly at them each in turn and led them down the bivoucs toward his own tent and the tent of the new recruits. Already he was thinking how he'd part Sutler from James, and from Walton, who, he'd noticed, seemed to be sticking close to the shorter man.

-/-/-/-/-/-/-/-

Harry sat down on a spare blanket that Chris had thrown on the ground inside the tent. "Now, Sors, what can I do for you?"

Ezra, who'd followed Harry inside, sat down beside Larabee and spoke. "Gant wants to head for Four Corners in the morning. We'd like to be ready to disrupt his plans at an opportune time. That may not be until we are within the confines of that small community. We know it well and can organize resistance, even from afar if all goes well with young Carly's rendezvous. Then, Harry, if your Toby and the others can form a cadre within Gant's riders, to split free, perhaps break them into at least two groups, we can flank them and cut them down while they are in disarray."

Walton listened closely and nodded, seeing Chris and the other one named Vin, sitting forward tensely. "We can do that, Cap." He shrugged massive shoulders and flicked a look back over his shoulder as Toby lifted the tent flap to call inside.

"Carly coming in."

The men waited until the youngster slipped inside and settled next to Walton. He looked excited and alert, sitting tall. "I talked with a man named Buck and he had two other men with him, one a negro, besides JD." Gulping his breath back, he went on. "Said they'd be ready for whatever you wanted them to do, that they'd keep a cold camp tonight and follow in the morning, or come in at your signal."

Larabee leaned forward, consideringly. "Ez, that means we got two groups to work with - Harry's men and Buck's. Should be able to cut Gant off with all that."

Ezra turned back to Walton. "Just how many men are we talking about, Harry?"

Walton looked down at his hands, thinking. There was a silence as he seemed to be counting mentally. Finally he looked back up and said, "Sor, I figure we can count on about ten men out of the thirty-six that ride with Captain Gant."

Vin's eyes widened in surprise and as he looked toward Larabee he saw that his friend was also startled. That was nearly a third of the men, enough anyway to really make a difference, even if all they did was ride away.

Ezra nodded slowly. "That's a goodly number, Harry. I didn't see that many just now so I take it that some are still among Gant's core men?"

Walton smiled. "Figured it would be better not to be too separate."

"Correct, Harry. You are most wise. Tonight, please contact every one of them, let them know that we expect them to ride tomorrow and at a given signal to fall back and follow you or me."

"Can do that, Sor. What might the signal be?"

Ezra cast his gaze over to his partners with a questioning look. Larabee smiled back at him and said, "Seven." Ezra puzzled for a moment, then smiled too.

"Yes, that's perfect. Harry, the word is 'seven' - when it's called out or shouted, that's the signal."

"Seven?" Harry nodded. "I'll tell 'em." He clearly wanted to ask about this but restrained himself, rising back to his feet. "Good night, Sors." With a gesture to Carly who'd been silent as he avidly listened to the others, he led the boy from the tent.

The three friends remaining relaxed now, settling back onto their blankets. "I suppose I should organize some dinner for us," Ezra muttered from within the returned arms of his love.

Chris squeezed him a bit tighter for a moment and stole one more kiss before agreeing. "Yep, you're the most likely to get something for us."

Vin nodded towards their saddlebags, "We got dry rations though, could make do, might be better."

"Yes, Mr. Tanner, we could, but I like to keep my friends happy. Hot food would no doubt be better, and perhaps some coffee?" Both men listening to Ezra were happily surprised by his casual reference to them as friends. He usually used the term associates and this new openness was both refreshing and reassuring.

"Don't go too far, Ez," Chris cautioned as the smaller man moved toward the tent flap. With a sudden premonition, he too rose and followed. "On second thought, I think I'll come and help."

Vin leaned back and smiled. "Guess I'll stay here." His quirky smile acknowledged that he could do nothing else anyway at the moment. His friends both grinned at him before ducking outside.

Ezra came out first to find that most of the men from earlier were gone now, though Toby Benjay was still sitting on a log. Toby looked up and past him, standing nervously. Ezra swung around to face Bart McMurray followed by the two Morgans.

"Gentlemen?"

"Sutler, Captain Gant wants to talk with you some more. Asked that you come back to his tent so he can use his map." Bart spoke glibly, the Morgans crowding at his back, failing to completely hide their smirks.

Ezra took note and decided that he'd better go but said, "Chris and I can come immediately."

"No," Bart interrupted, "only you, Sutler, Jeb here wants a word with James about the town, don't ya, Morgan?" He elbowed his friend who nodded vigorously.

Feeling uneasy but not sure what to do, Ezra nodded his agreement. Chris stood stiffly, uncomfortably behind him, then spoke up. "Seems to me that Morgan here can talk to me down there by Gant's tent as well as here. I'm coming." That said he began to walk closely behind his partner.

Bart frowned, but followed, the two Morgans bringing up the rear. They'd only traversed one more campsite and were between campfire circles when Jeb moved ahead quickly, his long rifle swung up high and smashed down on Chris Larabee's skull. The tall gunman fell limply to the ground without a sound.

"Chris!" Ezra spun as he sensed the sudden violent movements behind him, only to face the muzzle of Sam Morgan's six gun.

"Move." Morgan gestured to one of the tents just ahead as Jeb and Bart dragged Chris Larabee's body off the path and dumped it into the brush along the side of the bluff. When they released it, it rolled and crashed down into the scrub below. Ezra hesitated, his heart in his throat as he tried to head for Larabee despite the gun in his face.

Bart was back though, grabbing his arm and jerking him around, Jeb Morgan coming up on his other side and snatching at Standish's other arm, then rabbit punching him in the gut. Ezra gasped and folded over, held up by the two bigger men who now dragged him into the tent that Sam Morgan was standing beside. If anyone else in the camp saw the sudden activity, no one was offering help or comment. Ezra's boot toes left twin trails as he was dragged inside.

<><><><><><><><><><><><>

JD eased himself closer to Chris' body, careful to remain hidden from the camp above him. Larabee lay unconscious, his lax body tangled with a twisted scrub pine and some brush. "Chris?" JD touched the man's neck, feeling the pulse to reassure himself. He quickly dismissed the idea of dragging his friend away to safety, he'd make too much noise and only earn them both a bullet. He had to get to his other friends and get help. Buck. Buck would know what to do. JD slid and skittered down the hillside, then over toward their own camp.

-/-/-/-/-/-/-/-

"Now, Mister Reb-who-was-a-captain, we need some answers." Bart savored the way the smaller man hung between the two Morgans. Father and son grinned back at him, each holding a wrist and twisting it roughly, forcing the trembling man to stagger and shuffle his feet, trying to keep a balance. McMurray drew back one muscular arm and punched the little man in the face, hearing the crunch of bone and cartilage as nose gave way to fist. Sutler's head jerked back and then he was snorting blood, shaking his head.

"No, not to you, you swine." The sharp words were brave from someone so helpless but none of the other three were impressed.

"We'll see about that," Bart began to batter at his captive, sinking fist after fist into the sagging form, paying special attention to ribs, chest, and stomach. The two scouts would jerk up every few minutes, forcing the fading man upright with the torque on his arms. Sam, the young and stronger of the two was the one to apply too much pressure in his enthusiasm, not having the experience of his father. An audible crack and Sutler cried out, his first sound beyond heavy breathing and an occasional grunt. Sam dropped his grip in his surprise, seeing the new awkward angle of the left wrist as the man swung like a hinge on the remaining arm lock, held there by Jeb Morgan.

McMurray spat in disgust as the man collapsed at his feet. Jeb let the other arm go and Sutler curled up on the ground, clutching his broken wrist protectively to his center. "You think this was bad, Sutler? We're gonna do your friend next. He's gonna be wolf-bait by the time we're done with him." Bart's smile grew as panicked green eyes squinted up at him.

"No! Leave him be. Ah'll tell you anything, jest let him be." Ezra's choked, nasal words were rapid and weak.

"Hey, Jeb, I think we done found us a canary, ready to sing real sweet for us." Bart slapped the older man on the shoulder and stood by him for a moment before squatting down in front of the ragged, beaten man. He saw that Sam had retreated to a place by the tent's only opening. Boy wasn't as tough as his old man yet. Turning his attention back to the former Reb captain, he began. "Sutler? What are you and James really doin' here?"

"Bank - " Ezra lowered his eyes to the ground.

"Bank?" Bart blinked and studied the defeated man consideringly. "You mean you were gonna rob one?"

Ezra nodded jerkily. "Yesss." His word coming out on a hiss of pain.

"Where?"

"Four Corners." Ezra closed his swelling eyes, the broken, smashed nose creating a raccoon affect on his face. He let his forehead drop to the ground. How is Chris? Is he alright? He damned these men and swallowed on his fear for Larabee.

"Where Gant wants us to ride?"

Ezra didn't bother to speak, simply nodding once. Bart wasn't satisfied however and rose up to kick the man in the leg, his pointed boot toe causing a deep bruise in one thigh. Ezra moaned softly and then answered, "Yes, there."

"You think he's telling the truth this time?" Jeb Morgan asked low voiced.

"One way to find out." Bart smiled nastily. "Go drag his partner back up the hill and in here." He drew his six gun and spun the revolving chambers, chuckling to himself. "Heard of a game once, called Russian roulette."

Standish's head came up sharply at the last statement. He could hear his breath sawing and gritted his teeth. Where were Harry and the others? How was he supposed to get Chris safely out of here when he couldn't even save himself? He coughed and spat out some bloody saliva, his cheek dropping down again to rest in the dirt of the tent floor. "He doesn't know anything, it was my idea. Please." The last was barely murmured as Sam and Jeb returned, dragging the still form of Chris Larabee between them.

Bart indicated that they drop their burden close by the crumpled Sutler. He dug his hand into the blond's hair and yanked back, smiling widely when the hazel eyes opened blearily, nearly crossing. "Sutler?" He waited for the green-eyed little man to roll over slightly and look at his partner held tightly in Bart's hands. He dragged the muzzle of his pistol up against Chris James' temple and cocked the pistol. "Ready to play?"

"No!" Ezra found strength from somewhere to lurch up and forward, knocking the redhead to the ground and the pistol away from Larabee's head. "NO!" Ezra wasn't finished though, his flash of adrenaline still coursed through him as he wrestled the bigger man down and on to his back, grabbing the gun hand and forcing it towards the other's head.

Jeb and Sam who had stepped back to let Bart play out his game, ran back in now and tore at Sutler's right hand where it seemed welded to Bart's, both over the single pistol, two fingers on the trigger.

Sutler fought silently now, kicking, biting, and twisting, his left hand useless, he threw out his elbow sharply using it as a weapon as well. Within seconds the men were a heap over the limp body of the blonde gunman who stared vacantly up at the violence. There was a crack of sound as the gun went off and everyone stopped.

Stillness and then other men were crowding into the tent, guns drawn.

Harry, who had returned to find that Ezra and Chris had been led away by Bart McMurray and the two scouts, had hurried to the big tent only to find it empty except for Gant. He'd retraced his steps anxiously but without finding any sign of the others. Then, just in front of him, the Morgans had come out of a tent and moved over to the edge of the path. As he stopped to watch them, narrow-eyed with suspicion, Sam had clambered off the trail and was pushing and pulling a man's body back up toward his father, Jeb. Harry recognized Chris immediately. He watched them drag the man back into the tent and followed cautiously.

Harry was still outside the tent when the gunshot went off. He burst in, knowing other men were quickly following him to fill the tent. It was a moment's work to tear apart the human pile that confronted them, both Morgans rolling clear quickly and slinking back and out of the tent. That left Ezra and Bart in an unlikely embrace, their meshed hands still caught in the trigger guard of the pistol just fired. Neither was moving as Harry Walton carefully turned Ezra off of the bigger man and onto his back beside him. There was a great deal of blood.

"Aw, Sor." The giant cried out softly in dismay, his heart breaking.

-/-/-/-/-/-/-/-

"He was right here!" JD's hiss of frustration had Nathan clapping a consoling hand on one stiff shoulder.

"Easy, JD, we'll find'em." Jackson could see the broken and crushed branches as well as the rest of them. It wasn't hard to imagine a man's body crashing down into the brush and small tree, doing this damage. No telling what damage was done to that man, though. But, if he wasn't here, they could hope he weren't hurt too bad.

Josiah was already worming his bulk closer up to the path as they heard the sound of shot close by. Buck was instantly at his side, both tall men straining to understand what they saw. The one Carly called Harry was rushing into a tent nearby, other men following him. After a few minutes, he came out, carrying a small man in his arms, the man dangling there dead or unconscious. Two more men emerged, with Larabee suspended by legs and shoulders between them. They followed Harry down the trail. With a sadness that gripped his soul, Josiah realized the small form had been Ezra Standish's. He bent his head in a silent prayer before turning to see more men stumble out of the tent, two dragging what was clearly a dead man, red hair bright even now.

If that man was dead, likely Ezra wasn't Josiah decided, his thoughts lightening with hope. Buck, beside him, was already shifting away, to parallel the group bearing two of their friends. JD and Nate followed, Josiah bringing up the rear.

-/-/-/-/-/-/-/-

Harry hurried his steps. He'd get the captain and his friend back to their tent, away from all the eyes of the camp, then work on fixin' them up. He wasn't sure what had happened but he'd protect them with his life if necessary. He hung his head over his friend's body as he walked, shamed that he'd let this happen at all.

Toby was waiting and raised the tent flap, Harry not even acknowledging him as he crouched into the tent and lowered his burden to a bedroll next to the one named Vin.

Tanner looked on in alarm. He'd heard the muted gunshot, then nothing. Now here was an unconscious Ezra looking bloody and, then, as he watched, Chris as well, being hauled inside and deposited on the ground. Larabee looked like he'd been knocked out but otherwise seemed unharmed, at least, from a distance. Vin breathed hard as he controlled his urge to go and help, maintaining his pose as a bound prisoner.

Harry glanced once over at Chris. He was already semi-conscious and floundering weakly on the ground, saying something so softly that it couldn't be understood. Harry turned back to Ezra and gently straightened his limbs, feeling the broken bones in the left wrist and cursing. With caring hands, he patted the smaller man's body, checking for other injuries. Finding bruised ribs and leg, battered face and broken nose. With one large hand, he squashed the smushed bone and cartilage back into a semblance of the original form, eliciting a sharp cry from Ezra. "Easy there, Sor, had to be done," he consoled.

Then the man's eyes cracked open, glints of green filled with fear and anger, as he looked up at the giant, torn lips shaping a word. "Chris?"

"'s'Alright. He's gonna be fine, just knocked out." Harry wished he could say the same for Ezra. The smaller man looked like death itself, pale and bloody, torn and broken. To his utter amazement, though, his captain struggled up on his knees and half-crawled over to Chris.

Larabee, who was slowly regaining his wits, tipped his head and saw the apparition moving slowly and painfully toward him. "Ezra?" Oh, my god. Chris was rolling over now and holding out his arms. "Ezra!"

The smaller man made it to his friend and dropped into the waiting arms, falling safely into oblivion as two strong arms wrapped around him.

Vin, seeing that now the only one still inside was Harry, spoke up. "We need some help." When he had the other's attention, he continued, "We got us a healer with us, Nate can help then. Get your boy Carly to go fetch him."

Harry considered this as he studied the two men lying tightly together. Ezra's wrist needed setting, likely his nose needed some work too. Probably needed his ribs wrapped. With a final glance at the others, he moved back toward the tent flap just as it opened, thrust aside by a firm hand.

Ralph Gant. Captain Gant stood in the opening.

<><><><><><><><><><><><>

Buck signaled to the others to stay down as he edged closer to the concealing tent that contained his friends. Dragging himself forward on elbows, one hand holding tightly to a fisted six gun, he did not much resemble the jovial ladies man that he normally was. Right now, grim faced and determined, he was a very dangerous man.

Harry rose to his feet, head bent to accommodate the low ceiling of the tent. "Cap'n Gant, sor."

"Walton, what's going on? Jeb just told me that Bart is dead." Gant strode into the tent and stood staring down at the two battered men lying at his feet, then over at the prisoner, cowering against one canvas wall. It looked like letting Bart have his way had been a bad mistake.

Walton folded his thick arms over his chest. "Seems like McMurray and the Morgans decided to 'question' Cap'n Sutler here, sor."

Gant's dark eyes rose again and met the washed out blue ones of the giant. His face remained blank but his mind was working furiously. Jeb had met him part way back up the encampment, told him what had happened as they paced back down here. He was angry to have lost McMurray who'd been a good second in command, but the man had done this to himself. It was clear that the new men were tough and if they'd been going to rob the bank in Four Corners as Jeb now claimed, that wasn't any cause for worry, after all, he intended to do that himself, among other things.

"Looks like things got a bit outta hand." Gant nudged the collapsed men with one toe.

They were hunched together and Larabee's head lifted to stare squint-eyed at the gang leader. You snake, I know you had something to do with this. Chris' lip curled in a silent snarl. He pulled an unconscious Ezra closer against his chest, arms snaking even more firmly, protectively around the smaller man.

Gant shrugged when the prostrate men didn't speak, then looked back at Walton. "See what you can do for them. We ride in the morning and I want them with us." He paused to look searchingly down at Sutler and James. "If Sutler can't ride, we leave him, likely James will be able to lead us."

"But Sor, if we leave the cap'n?"

"Dead men don't talk, Walton." Gant rubbed a hand down his face and moved back toward the tent flap, turning back at the last moment to face Walton again. "See to it."

Harry's brows came down to meet over eyes that flashed angrily but he only nodded in response. As soon as Gant disappeared, he strode over to the opening and peered out. Spotting Toby, he called low voiced, "Get Carlton. And," he looked back into the tent for a moment, "send in some hot water and the medical supplies." Ducking back into the tent, sure that his words would be followed, he crouched down beside the injured men.

By now, Chris had levered himself groggily to a sitting position, hauling Ezra's body up to keep it against his own, holding him half across his lap, head held carefully to the side, resting on his chest. As he cradled the little gambler, he watched Walton carefully, suspiciously.

"I've sent for Carly to go find your men." Harry reached out and lightly stroked the damp, curly chestnut hair of his former captain. He met the hazel eyes that stared back accusingly. "I'm sorry, Sor."

Chris held his breath for a moment as he rode out his gut instinct to expode in a temper. He knew that Vin, close by at his back, also worried about Ezra, so still in his arms. No point in reaming Walton's ass, the man was trying to help and it wasn't his fault that Gant's men had fooled them, gotten the drop on them. He nodded slowly, silently.

Vin started as the tent wall beside him was lifted suddenly, and Buck Wilmington's head and gun appeared. The worried dark blue eyes took in the scene quickly. The gun unerringly swinging to aim directly at Harry Walton. Vin simply leaned over and slipped his hands from his knotted ropes, then pressed down on Buck's gun hand. "Easy there, Bucklin, Harry's on our side."

Wilmington let Vin distract his aim as he listened to the caution. "How are they?" He didn't bother with introductions.

Harry, still crouched down next to Chris and Ezra, one hand resting on Ezra's head, said, "The cap'n is hurt but he'll make it. He's real tough." He looked down sadly, though, as he added, "Got a broken wrist and nose, ribs is pounded pretty good, but not broken."

Buck's eyes met his oldest friend's. "Chris?"

Larabee stared back. "I'm okay, just got knocked out for a few minutes." He looked down at the man in his arms. "Ezra could use some help." Buck could hear the anger and fear in Larabee's voice.

"We got Nate with us, Pard." He switched his attention back to the giant. "Can you keep folks out of this tent for a spell?"

Walton came forward on to his knees beside the other men. "Who's this Nate feller?"

Vin spoke again. "He's the healer, remember? I told you about him." He turned back to Buck. "Harry here will see to it we get some time, you send in Nate." He stood swiftly, causing Walton to rise also. "Easy, Harry, just gonna go guard the door." The buckskin clad man moved gracefully and silently to the side of the flap.

Chris looked up into two doubtful blue eyes. "Trust us, Harry. We're all Ezra's friends. We need your help so we can help him. Please?" Larabee found the last word falling easily from his tongue, though he sensed the surprise from both Vin and Buck. Normally, Chris would simply order or demand. Only these weren't normal times.

Harry heard the truth in Chris' words and stood back, turning to silently face each of the men one at a time. The eyes that met his were all clear and honest, colored with worry for their fallen friend. "I'll stand watch outside the door, pass in the hot water and bandages when they get here." He met Buck's eyes, instinctively knowing this man was in charge at the moment. "Should I still send Carly for your man Nate?"

Buck grinned and squirmed the rest of the way into the tent. "No need," he said as he rolled clear so Nathan could get in. The healer followed him in immediately. They had left Josiah and JD to watch their back trail and escape route.

Harry's eyes widened as the dark skinned man crawled in and made a bee line for Ezra and Chris. Shaking his head, he moved out of the tent, lowering the flap behind him. Vin maintained his place by the side of the now closed canvas, a hunting knife having magically appeared in one hand. Buck now knelt to one side of the injured men as Nathan tried to ease Ezra from Chris' arms. He met resistance.

"Chris, you gotta let him go so I can look him over." The dark healer tugged again, meeting once more with a solid, passive refusal.

Buck put one hand on Chris' nearest shoulder. "Let Nate tend him, Pard." He smiled reassuringly at the haunted look in his old friend's eyes.

Ezra shivered with chill. He felt the warmth of hands on his body but the steady heartbeat that had been the comfort at his ear was gone. He stirred, finding pain at every slight movement. Chris. He had to get back to his Angel Chris. He clawed his way to wakefulness, determined to find Chris. "Chris?" He licked split, cracked lips. "Angel?"

Nathan soothed the waking man, feeling the agitation in the tiny disjointed movements. "Easy there, Ezra, we'll get you fixed up soon."

"Nathan?" Ezra was confused. What was Nathan doing here? Had he dreamed this whole mission? And Chris? Had he dreamed that Chris wanted to be his lover? Loved him? With a catch in his breath, Ezra tried to push himself upward, only to cry out in agony as he put weight on his broken wrist.

"Lie still, Ez, I got to splint that wrist of yours." Nathan's large, sure hands covered the injured area as he laid thin sticks against it. Then Buck was handing him strips of cloth to bind them to the wrist, hold it in position for now.

Chris, who sat beside them, watching the expressions chasing each other across Ezra's face, knew that his little gambler needed some reassurance. He lightly touched the nearest cheek, mindful of the swelling flesh and bruising. "Hey, Ez? I'm right here. You be good for Nate, he's gonna set things for you."

"Chris!" Ezra's head turned quickly, too quickly to the side to see his partner, causing a wave of dizziness and momentary blackness to his vision. When it cleared, there was Chris, there beside him, looking anxious. Worried. For him? "Are you all right?" The words came out hoarsely and garbled. He coughed and tried again. "How do you feel?"

Nathan interrupted sharply. "Ezra! You be quiet now. Chris is jest fine, only got a little lump on his head."

Larabee ignored Jackson and leaned in closely, meeting those dull green eyes with his own, "Hey, Green Eyes, I promise, I'm fine and I won't leave you, not ever again."

"Wasn't your fault," Ezra was feeling better suddenly. It hadn't been a dream, Chris had just called him Green Eyes again, and in front of Nathan and Vin and --- and Buck. He smiled at the ladies man who was hovering now over Chris' shoulder. "Mistah Wilmington? You take care of Chris for me?"

"Always, Pard." Buck wasn't sure what was happening but he cared deeply for his friends and Ezra and Chris were hurting. "You just get yourself better for us, hum?"

Vin turned away from the closed tent flap. "We gonna try to break outta here? Or keep going?" The sharpshooter had been thinking about this since Buck had arrived and they knew they could slip away safely. They'd get out of here, take care of Chris and Ezra who were hurt. Only, Gant's men would ride into Four Corners tomorrow and it could be a massacre, the total destruction of the tiny town. Seven against nearly forty men. They'd done it before but how many times could they succeed at those odds? His eyes sought out Larabee's.

Chris knew in that moment that they needed to stay, see this through, if Ezra could do it. He was the key to breaking up the Gant gang. Hazel eyes dropped to the savagely beaten body of his partner. Oh, god, how could he ask it of him? The little gambler was a mess. Torn, broken and bloodied. Eyes that were a brighter green now, looked up to his. Saw the concern --- and the decision.

Ezra's quick mind had seen the whole situation even as Vin posed his hard questions. Can I still do this? He took a careful, deep breath, meeting the question in Chris' eyes. With a gasping grunt, he shoved himself up to a seated position with his good arm, disregarding Nathan's angry hiss. "We stay."

The pride in Chris' eyes was a gift that Ezra would hoard for years to come. His shoulders stiffened and he sat there as at attention. He could do this. He would do this. With his Chris at his side.

"Chris, I don't think that Ezra should ---" Jackson never got to finish his sentence as Larabee talked across it.

"You sure, Ezra?"

"Yes, sir, Ah am." Ezra smiled as Chris sidled up beside him on the blanket and slid an arm around him to support him. "Especially now." His smile grew until a gold tooth shone. The dark circles forming around his eyes and bruises from the broken nose gave him a nearly sinister look, but the wide smile was enough for Chris who hugged his sweetheart gently.

Chris looked over at a disgruntled Jackson who was readying larger bandages to wrap Ezra's ribs. "Nate, Gant is planning on raiding Four Corners, he rides tomorrow." The other men froze momentarily in shock. "Ezra's reputation from the war may break off as many as a third of Gant's men, give us a flanking action. But, only if Ezra here leads them." He leaned in now and brazenly kissed Ezra on one cheek. Ezra beamed at him, obviously smitten.

Buck cleared his throat, eyeing the unlikely couple, then said, "You sure you can still do this, Pard?" He addressed himself to Standish.

"Ah shall be capable of mah role once our good friend Mr. Jackson completes his minstrations of my unhappy body." Ezra sent a tentative smile toward the healer who was shaking his head still.

"I'll do what I can, but you're hurt pretty bad, Ez, likely won't be free of pain until we can get you some rest in a bed for a week or so."

"One day is all Ah need, Nathan." The use of Jackson's first name, now that Standish was fully awake, was a measure of how sincere he was. The dark healer sighed and gestured to Larabee.

"Sit him up straighter now so's I can wrap his ribs." Chris nodded his silent gratitude to Jackson for not fighting this, for showing his respect for the smaller man by allowing him to do this without argument.

Vin turned back to the crack he'd made in the canvas flap, seeing Harry sitting just outside the tent, whittling on a stick. He watched as men came and went, sparing Walton only a few words as each approached the giant. Vin began to keep count. With the ones he already knew about and these, if they were buying into the breakaway group, then Ezra would lead close to fifteen men out of Gant's camp. Damn. With a soundless whistle, Vin sunk to his heels and shifted the canvas slightly so he could continue his watch. He'd always kinda liked their conman but more he thought the little guy was funny, fun to tease. Picturin' him as a leader, that was harder. He was a damn good fighter, for sure. Like he'd said to Ez earlier, he was proud to ride with him. And he had men like Harry just about salivatin' at the thought of ridin' with him again. Like to see our Ezra in action this time, not sure how I'm gonna do that. He squatted silently, still as a predator waiting for its prey.

Behind Vin, Chris caught Ezra as he sagged after the painful activity of the bandages strapped around his chest. Ezra rested his head back against Chris' own chest as Nathan now carefully probed the broken nose. Chris could feel the tremors shaking Ezra's body at the new source of pain. "Hold on, sweetheart, he's nearly done."

Wild green eyes flicked to the side to try to see Chris' face. Sweetheart? Ezra fought down the urge to turn and hug his partner. It was all he could do to remain still as Nathan tested the shape of the injured nose. Harry had done a job on it though and the shape, though swollen now, was essentially normal. Nathan nodded in approval, not sure who had reset the bones and cartilage but they'd done a good job. No way to splint it or even brace it, but, if left alone, it should heal all right. He looked up and realized that Ezra was not even paying attention. The smaller man was trying to see Chris without moving his head. Boy's got it bad, he thought. "Okay, Ezra, think you're going to be fine. For now, take it as easy as you can. Don't put any pressure on your nose, and try not to strain your ribs." Wasted he knew. At least until Ezra and Chris finished their parts in tomorrow's fight.

Buck patted Chris on one shoulder. "We need to get out of here before someone spots us. It's risky to stay longer than we have to."

"I'm done 'til we can get Ezra to my clinic." Nathan tidied away his medical bag. "You see that he makes it, Chris." He directed his warning to Larabee without any humor. By now, all the men present could see the new relationship between their leader and the small gambler.

Larabee held out his free hand to shake Nathan's. Catching it, he shook it firmly and spoke with feeling. "Thanks, Nate. I will." Then, he turned back to Ezra and met trembling lips with his own in a sweet, soft kiss. He let his feelings speak through that kiss and felt Ezra's tender response, lips parting to welcome Chris home.

<><><><><><><><><><><><>

Chris steadied the hack that Ezra'd been riding. He had it saddled and ready, his own as well. Morning had come with a brazen sun cresting the ridge where the camp perched, a line of dead campfires now all that remained of the bivouc. The men had been busy, striking tents and equipment. Everything that went with them was now strapped on a line of pack mules with two hostlers to ride herd on them. He glanced over at where Ezra stood, looking remarkably fine.

Harry had somehow procured a gray jacket to replace Ezra's brown work one. While not the perfect fit his tailor might have produced, it did give him an aura of times past, not so very long ago. His kepi had been replaced as well, traded really, at Carly's insistance for an officer's wide brimmed Reb cavalry hat. Carly, who'd kept the other as a souvenier, now proudly wore Ezra's old kepi.

Standish was chatting quietly with Walton and two other men, a group of close to a third of Gant's men had slowly gravitated back toward where Ezra's 'troop' was forming. Gant, without his second in command, had chosen Jeb Morgan to assist him and was busy at the head of the encampment, going over the trails with Morgan and several other men. No one seemed to have noticed the slow transformation of the gang into two groups.

Chris stroked the soft muzzle of the gelding. It was a decent enough mount, though no comparison to Ezra's Chaucer. He wished for the intelligent and stubborn steed now, wanting his friend mounted on the best possible horse. This one should be alright, though. He waited patiently. This was Ezra's show now.

Chris looked over his shoulder at the place where Vin had broken out just before dawn. Only on that wicked Indian pony, Peso, could the tracker have managed his escape so daringly. They'd decided that it would be safest to get Vin out of the camp before the gang headed on for their attack on Four Corners. The lean sharpshooter had the cooperation of Walton and his cohorts in getting away. Sneaking past a 'blind' picket, he'd freed Peso, mounted bareback with just a bridle quickly looped in place, and the two had plunged down the steep bluff face, through the heavy brush until they hit one of the myriad game trails, and then disappeared from sight.

The commotion of Tanner's escape had been short-lived. Gant, told by Chris and Walton that the man had been unconscious during discussions in the tent and knew nothing of the gang's plans, decided not to set a chase after the bounty hunter. As far as he was concerned, the only ones in danger from the escapee were Sutler and James. Gant didn't care especially about these new men, so he let Tanner go.

Chris knew that the rest of the seven, now likely rejoined by Vin, were back at the town, setting up defenses, enlisting the help of townsmen, and readying for Gant's offensive. He and Ezra had quiety discussed strategies for the upcoming struggle. Although Ezra had been an officer, he'd been in the artillery units, not, as Chris had been, in the ground troops, and later cavalry units. The former Major Larabee had good advice on troop movements for the former Captain Sutler. Heads together, shoulders rubbing, the friends had plotted their actions. Chris would be at Ezra's side. He refused to even consider any other option.

The smaller man, much recovered, though still moving stiffly, finally agreed. With only one truly useable hand, he'd be unable to do much more than guide his mount. Or so Chris thought. Ezra chose not to dissuade him from this understanding. Soon enough for that. In war, you did what needed doing and didn't worry about injuries in the heat of battle, time enough for that later.

The call to mount up was passed down the line of men and animals.

Leather groaned and creaked as saddles were filled, the chink and rattle of bridles and bits, weapons and spurs, filled the air. The sound of hooves stomping and stepping restlessly followed. Then, far up at the front, Gant called out his orders and the troops of men fell into easy groupings, more casual than an actual soldierly unit, and moved out after him.

Standish had climbed into the saddle of his horse as Chris held the animal steady, taking up the reins he'd nodded to the dark clad gunman. Their eyes met, messages of affection and determination, worry and pride, passing back and forth. Then Ezra turned away to nod to Harry, already mounted beside him. Chris leapt into his own saddle, quieting his hack with firm hands.

Ezra, sitting as always with a firm, high seat, spine arrow straight and shoulders back, looked every inch the officer that he was. He'd held back on the reins for a few moments, allowing a gap to form in front of him. Now with a nod, he clucked at his horse and started out, keeping the animal on a tight rein so that the space between the men that followed him and the men in front remained.

Larabee fell into place at Ezra's side, stealing quick glances to reassure himself that the little gambler could still maintain his seat, had the strength to continue with this unforeseen charade. But Ezra sat tall and his chin was lifted as he flicked a glance of his own back over his shoulder at 'his' men. His perceptive eyes could see the way those men rode, sitting taller now than their compatriots in front of him. There was a renewed pride to the splinter group, a reclaimed sense of worth that years of following the basically criminal activities of Gant had whittled away. They were not guiltless, but if their efforts helped to save Four Corners and his friends, they would be redeemed in his eyes. And, they knew it.

The ride down off the hills and into the low rolling reaches of high desert took only a few hours. A cold camp was set up at noon near the banks of a shrunken streambed. Gant asked for Sutler and James to join him to look, once more, at his map and speak about approaches to Four Corners. Walton wasn't happy to see his friend led away, but kept the men remaining settled. They'd wait.

"Sutler, you say that if we come out of the hills here, they can't see our approach?" Gant was hunched over his map spread on the ground in front of him.

Ezra took in quickly the restless looks of the men surrounding Gant, the Morgans looking deadly and bored but with sharp eyes, several other tough looking riders. Not an easy audience, he thought with amusement. He knew that Chris was uncomfortable with all this, but it was basically a con, something he was very good at. Now that he was feeling a bit better, the pain, while present, largely subsided from the beating of the day before, he moved forward with confidence to squat beside the tall gang leader.

"Yes," he let a finger trace their ride of the morning, "we are here, correct?"

Jeb Morgan nodded silently in response to the challenging tone, unhappy to be forced to respond at all to this man he still didn't trust.

Ezra flashed a patented smile and rested his hands, one wrist bound, on his knees. He knew that Chris stood at his back, hovering like a dark angel of retribution should anyone threaten him. "Then, yes, that will take us in 'unannounced' if you will." His tone droll, he opened his eyes just a bit, conveying sincerity without overdoing it.

Gant studied the map silently. Finally he looked up and over at his scout. "You agree, Jeb?"

Morgan nodded again, still suspicious of Sutler but unable to find reason to argue against this plan of attack. It was what he'd been ready to suggest when he and his son Sam rode back into camp from their scout. Only, this stranger who'd become trusted by Gant, had known the area and already pointed it out. Sitting back on his heels, where he squatted, he spat out some tobacco juice from his chaw, the brown juices splattering on the ground near Chris James' feet. The gunman blinked lazily at him, like a reptile awakened from its nap on a hot rock. The deadly look, still and penetrating, made Jeb nervous and he shifted slightly, looking away. The byplay was not lost on Ezra who had to fight the smirk that wanted to break out on his face.

A few more moments of desultory conversation and then Gant stood up. Jeb was left to fold up the map and tuck it in a pouch at his waist as Gant surveyed the camp and men. He nodded and looked over at Sutler. "That's it, then, we ride now."

The men dispersed, the few still on the ground quickly mounting up. Now that they were in more open country, the riders clumped in groups that were two or three abreast, circling once then riding out after their leader. Ezra once more holding back enough to subtly separate his men from the rest.

Chris wasn't a superstitious man as a rule. He'd once thought, not long after losing Sarah and Adam, that he'd seen them. Spiritual apparitions that appeared for him during a wakeful, grieving night. But, he could never be sure it hadn't just been a dream. Now, though, something was happening. The hairs on the back of his neck were rising and he had to hold himself rock steady to keep from twisting continually in the saddle to check for someone following them. No one else seemed to notice anything strange. Likely just nervous, don't like the idea of Ezra being so exposed in all this. Only, the thing was, he kept spotting more riders on either side of them, shadows really, that vanished when he turned to look at them straight on. When his eyes went back to the front, though, he once more 'saw' glimmerings at the corners of his vision.

Ezra noted Chris' uncharacteristic tells. The man, bless him, was nervous, but they'd get through this. He'd see to it. He sat up slightly, rising in his stirrups to see past Chris on one side, then Harry on the other. Was there something there? But no, the wide land remained empty. He could not think on that now, with a shrug, he settled into his normal posting seat.

Chris decided that what he noticed most about Ezra now as they rode, the smaller man in the lead position, was that Ezra looked dignified. It was not a term he had ever particularly associated with the little gambler, though, now that he thought on it, it did fit. Dressed as if stepping out of Chris' own past, the con man looked every inch the Confederate officer, a worthy opponent when Chris had faced off across many a no man's land during the war.

A dust plume rose up along the line of riders. A tattered flag of the Confederacy led with Gant's point men. It seemed incongruous among such desperadoes. The men rode with discipline and order, a slight break in the line about two thirds of the way back, but otherwise looking a formidible group. They broke from the trail they were on, led by the scouts Sam and Jeb Morgan, up into some gentle folds of hill that hid their final approach to the tiny town that was their target today. Their prey.

Ezra drew rein in the final dip of land, watching the rest of the men follow Gant over the crest. He knew that Four Corners lay just beyond. With a tug, he had his horse pirouetting on its hind legs, so that he could face his new following. As he turned, he met Chris Larabee's hazel eyes. There was a timeless moment of deep intensity as the two men silently pledged their love to each other. Then Chris leaned forward and up in his saddle, saluting Ezra smartly. "The men are ready, sir."

Green eyes widened and a spark of sheer surprise and pleasure answered Chris. Ezra seemed to swell slightly, his dark bruised features taking on a shine and firmness as he swung his glance clear of his friend and out over the men beyond them. Chris' little soldier was ready.

As Ezra's eyes swept over the men, there was a ripple as each in turn echoed Larabee's actions, sitting up tall and saluting their new chosen leader. Gazing at the men, noting Harry at his elbow, feeling Chris on his other side, Ezra was transported back in time seeing not these men but the men who'd fought so long, so hard, so desperately with him at the barricades, at the batteries, on the many fields of battle of that horrendous conflict. Faces he'd long since forgotten merged with the faces that looked to him now. He returned the salute with a tight chest, swallowing hard. The sudden ache he felt in his heart he knew was grief too deep to be acknowledged now. "We'll make you proud of us, boys," he murmured in promise to men who were not there.

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Gant sat tall in the saddle, staring boldly at the town spread out below him. From his station on the final crest of rolling low hills, he and his men were ready to ride down on the town. He smiled grimly, thinking of the men he'd sent ahead last night, to infiltrate the town. Those ten men were his secret weapons, spies who became unexpected flankers at the moment of attack.

He swung his gaze to the sides, frowning. Only about twenty men sat horses in a line with his. The rest were lagging. He hauled back on his reins and backed his horse, casting a look over his shoulder, seeking the remainder of his gang. There. Riding abreast also, the remaining fifteen men were riding up the back of the hill now. That new man, Sutler and his companion, Chris James, were riding in the center of the line. Ralph Gant frowned again. The men, the whole line of them, were riding differently. It took him back to the war years, watching them, sitting smartly in their saddles, weapons at the ready. He looked across at the rest of his men but they sat slumped as normal, fingering their own guns, looking down at the town, expressions of greed and arrogance set on their faces. With a shrug at the anomaly of behavior of his following men, he turned back toward the town and raised one arm boldly. "We ride, boys!"

With yells and screams, the front line of Gant's men charged down the hill toward the defenseless town.

-/-/-/-/-/-/-/-

Buck locked the second cell door behind the last of the strangers, grinning at their looks of disgust and defiance. JD Dunne stood back, cradling a rifle in his arms as he watched. They had Clarence Boxwood and Ned Bullings here to stay with their prisoners, the two older townsmen both volunteering in the saloon earlier during the impromptu town meeting that Josiah and Judge Travis had organized. When the rest of the Seven had returned to Four Corners the night before, they'd met immediately with Travis in the saloon. Getting the townspeople to cooperate had been easier than Buck had expected. Mary Travis pointed out, however, that the men had been here long enough now so that they were trusted and respected. She'd started to qualify that with another remark about some being trustier than others, when Travis had interrupted her with a sharp word. She'd been looking up toward the back of the saloon and it didn't take much imagination for Buck and the others to realize she'd been eluding to their seventh, the gambler. He shook his head in remembrance. Something wrong there, Buck was sure, but he couldn't decide why Mary Travis suddenly seemed to have it in for Ezra. Looking at their prisoners, he mentally shrugged, Chris would deal with it when he got back.

Buck clapped JD on the shoulder, nodded at Boxwood and Bullings and led the way out into the street. JD followed, with a final look back at the ten men that had been rounded up late last night and throughout the morning. Josiah, Nate, Buck, and he had the whole town on alert and as each suspicious stranger drifted into town, the man would be identified and quietly removed from circulation. Protests were answered with 'temporary detainment,' a phrase, the good judge had explained, would allow the detention without arrest.

The dark haired youth with a sheriff's badge looked up at the roofline, spotting Vin's figure on the flat roof of the mercantile. It reminded Dunne of the captain's walks of the New England seaside homes of his younger years. From there, Vin Tanner could see out in all directions, all approaches to the town. They were fairly certain, from Chris' and Ezra's description of Gant's map and the 'recommended' trails, of where the attack would come but no one was taking any chances.

Buck shoved JD in the shoulder as he hesitated on the boardwalk in front of the jail. "Come on, kid, we gotta get in position."

JD nodded without comment, stepping off the boards and on to the dusty street. The tall ladies man stepped down beside him and the two lawmen strode toward their appointed places in the alleys cutting through the town. They'd each be hidden at the outside exits of the alleys, leading out toward the hills that rose slightly to the north of town. These alleys cut north - south across the small community whose only main street ran east - west. Danger usually rode down the main street, but from what Ez and Chris had told Buck, it was likely that this time the attack would come from the north.

Vin swiped his hat off his head as he knelt up alertly, looking at the mounted men suddenly appearing in a thin line along the crest of the hill north of town. This is it. He leaned down over the narrow wood trim of the roof front of the mercantile and gave a piercing triple whistle. Heads popped out of unlikely places looking up at him. He signaled with a broad arm swing and several townsmen, Nate, and Josiah, all responded with waving hats. Having warned his friends about the approaching men, Vin settled back on a knee, raising his long rifle and drew bead on the lead man that he recognized as Ralph Gant. Time for you to die, compadre. You've run your gang long enough. Vin's lips quirked into a smile as he noted the nervous way Gant eyed his men, then pulled back his horse to look back for the rest of them. Just noticin' that some are missing, are you?

Buck and JD split up and ran for their spots, Vin's shrill warning whistle and arm signal spurring their movements. Just as Buck slid into a belly flop, rifle in front of him, at the mouth of his chosen alley, next to the livery, he heard a sharp inarticulate command from up the shallow sloping hillside, and then men were riding down, full bore on the town, screaming, yelling, and firing off their guns. Buck picked his target carefully and fired. One of the riders dropped to the ground. From his right, he heard the crack of JD's rifle and another rider fell.

Vin fired and cursed when his shot only winged Gant whose mount had lifted over a fallen log just as he fired. By now, Josiah and Nathan were firing from their spots in second floor windows, then general firing began as the attackers continued down the hill, shooting, and hidden townspeople, the judge among them, returned fire. But there were a lot of men coming down at them. Then, above them, another line of mounted men appeared, rising like smoke on the crest. Vin caught his breath.

He'd expected maybe fifteen riders with Ezra and Chris. He spotted his two friends at the center of the line, but what had Vin rubbing his eyes was the size of the troop. More than twice what he'd expected, the thin gray line of soldiers seemed to go on for an indeterminate distance in each direction and vaguely, it looked like even more men just behind. "What the hell?"

Then Ezra stood up in his stirrups and yelled something, raising his hat and waving it. The answering Rebel yell from multiple throats had the attacking men below swinging around in surprise.

Gant, holding one arm, trying to staunch the bleeding as he dragged his reins and turned his mount, spat a curse. Ezra Sutler was charging down the hill and firing directly at his men. To each side of the small man, a line of his own men had joined the former Reb captain and were likewise firing at them. Firing back with anger, he saw his men wheeling into a defensive circle, facing both the armed camp of the town, another unexpected surprise, and the rear flanking action of part of their own troops. Damn! What was happening? Gant watched Jeb Wheeler go down, with his son screaming his father's name and dropping from his own mount to kneel by his dead pa, shooting wildly back up the hill.

Gant dropped from his animal, releasing its reins as it bucked and backed, then fled once freed. He knelt behind the body of another horse that still strained to rise up on a broken foreleg. That goddamn shit, he's turned my men! Gant had eyes only for Sutler as he braced his long barreled Colt and took aim. His finger whitened as he squeezed on the trigger, but before the weapon could discharge, Gant fell lifeless to the ground, a bullet between his eyes.

Chris lifted his Colt and looked for another target, his gun smoking.

He rode close by Ezra and began shooting methodically at the men trapped below, between the town and Ezra's troop. Turning in the saddle to shoot at an escaping man on horseback, Chris froze for a moment, seeing now the gray and ghostly line of men that rode silently with them. Like smoke dancing in a breeze, the gray images of ragged, mounted Confederate troops flickered in and out of existence as they kept pace easily with his own mount, the men's faces amazingly clear as they turned to look toward him and beyond, he knew, toward Ezra.

"EZRA!"

Larabee's shout had Standish's head whipping around in fear. But Chris was safe beside him, their two horses steady and together as they rode down into the melee. Just beyond Chris, he saw the ghostly cavalry that accompanied their charge. Somehow, he knew not to fear and smiled. No, no fear at the sight of old friends, long dead, who rode once more with him. With a nod that was answered, he turned slightly to grin at Chris.

"It's alright, Chris! They're friends!" That's all he had time for as his horse stumbled and jerked to a stop at the pile up of men and mounts at the bottom of the hill. Dismounting, he dragged his short sword free of the extra scabbard, and ignoring the pain, grabbed his saddlebags with his injured arm. Larabee was off his own horse now and they were facing the grimly fighting men of Gant's command. Ezra slashed out with his sword at a bolder man who had leapt over several corpses to try to smash into the smaller man and get past him to a free horse and safety. With a final thrust, Ezra left his sword buried to the hilt in the man's chest and fumbled with his bags, pulling two sticks of dynamite loose.

He managed to get a cigar out of his jacket and lit in seconds, crouching beside the body of his opponent. He dimpled at Chris whose eyes had opened wide at the sight of the dynamite.

"Ezra, no!"

But Standish had already lit the short fuse and stood, flinging one stick, then a second, into the air. The twin sticks twirled lazily above the confusion of the fighting, then dropped down into the midst of the still fighting men standing in a tight knot.

Two loud explosions, so close together as to be a single sound, burst. The clap of sound was followed by an echo of silence, then cries of wounded and dying men.

Harry Walton shook his head in regret, the sounds a too familiar echo from his past for his liking. But the explosives had ended the fight. Slowly he holstered his gun and sheathed his rifle, one weapon had been in each hand. No one was left standing among Gant's attacking force, except for one horse that cried out pitifully as it tugged its reins free of a dead man's grasp and trotted away from the death at its feet. He saw that James was staggering to his feet and reaching for Ezra, so he caught up the reins on their loose horses, swiveling in his seat to look at the rest of Ezra's men. Sutler's band was milling about in confusion, no clear enemy left to fight. He could see armed men emerging from buildings' shadows and the mouths of alleys of the small town. Harry stirred uneasily, trotting his mount up to where his captain now stood silently surveying the bodies of the dead. His friend stood at his side, one hand resting on the captain's slumped shoulder.

"Sor." Harry saluted with his free hand, his other holding the reins of his horse and the following ones.

Ezra blinked away tears that he just now realized were falling. He ignored Harry Walton's voice, shaking as he looked at the dead men at his feet. He knew that Chris was beside him, a silent support. It still hurt to do this, after all these years. He dragged the gray hat from his head and threw it angrily on the ground, then was shrugging out of his borrowed jacket, Chris' hands there to help. Once free of it, he threw it savagely to the ground to join the hat. "No more!" he grit out in fierce anger. Then his eyes flew up to meet Larabee's. Pleadingly, he said again, "No more."

Chris nodded, pulling Ezra into his arms and holding the shaking man tightly. He whispered in the nearest ear, "No more, Ez, I promise."

Finally looking up, green eyes met hazel ones, and Ezra nodded jerkily. Then he pulled free of Larabee's embrace and raised his eyes to Harry who waited patiently on horseback only a few yards away. "Go home, Harry. Take the men and go."

Ezra turned to Larabee. "If they ride out now, we don't stop them." It wasn't a question. Chris nodded anyway. He understood. Second chances had been earned.

Walton dropped the leads on the other two horses and saluted. "Sor, it's been a pleasure. Thank you." He wheeled his horse and called out. Carly, rode up to join him, waving once, then sending a salute toward the small man standing there so straight among the dead. Gradually, the rest of the men who'd wanted to break free of Gant and now were, joined Walton who nodded once to Larabee and raising his hand in another salute, held it there as he rode past Ezra, leading out these men.

Chris and Ezra stood there, watching as the ragtag remnants of Gant's men rode off toward the east. Behind them, Chris could hear the sounds of Buck and Josiah calling out as they moved forward to check the bodies on the ground. Chris' eyes rose to look north and his teeth clicked together. "Ez. Look there."

Standish turned to face the crest. There, sitting horseback, was a line of men. They were a ghostly remnant of the Army of the Confederacy, silent and passive, their horses' heads bobbing in place. Then, one stood up in his stirrups and raised an arm high. For a moment more, the images were clear and sharp, then, they softened and faded, gently dissipating on the morning air. Another few heartbeats and the vision was gone, leaving a hillside of soft dry grasses and a scattering of wildflowers bending in a slight breeze, the sunlight bright and hazy on them.

Ezra stood there, staring at the place where moments before long-gone friends and fellow soldiers had been. He wiped his face with a steady hand and murmured, "Fare you well, mah friends." After another moment, he swung to face Larabee. "It's done."

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By now, Buck and Josiah had reached them and came to a halt, turning to once more survey the field of battle. Buck shook his head, it was too much like the war all over again. Not good. Raising his eyes to meet those of his old friend, he saw the same reactions reflected there. Sadness, tiredness, dissipating anger. Nope, don't want to do this again. He turned to look over at Ezra who was still gazing back up the hillside at the now empty crest.

"Hey, Ez, saw you come riding in at the head of those men. Like to be a sight from my nightmares, Pard, bringin' the war back at me." Buck spoke softly, trying to say something important without wanting to hurt his friend. He reached out and rested a hand on one shirt-clad arm.

Ezra looked around to find dark blue eyes studying him. He sighed. "Ah know, Mr. Wilmington. It is a nightmare that Ah regret havin' to have lived again as well." Then he turned a questioning and nearly fearful gaze to the tall silent ex-preacher. "And you, Mr. Sanchez, have you anything to say?"

Josiah smiled ruefully, his pale blue eyes encompassing the gambler, Larabee, Buck, and the dead men spread out around them. "Son, I never was in that unhappy war, but if this is a sample, and I suppose it to be from Brother Buck's remark, then I am very glad I was not." He stood back slightly and straightened. "Though, Mr. Standish my friend, you were an impressive sight." He touched two fingers to his brow and then nodded as he lowered his arm and turned away.

Ezra watched him go with an expression of surprise and wonder.

"He's right, you know," Buck dropped his hand from Ezra's arm. "You were a sight to see, riding down that hill in Reb officer get up, them men at your back. Damn, Ez, I'd follow you any time. Always knew you were a deep one." He clapped Chris on the back of one shoulder and grinned. "You got yourself some competition here, Pard."

"No, no, Mr. Wilmington, never that." Ezra smiled over at Chris who was standing there, hands on the handles of his re-holstered guns, face bland but eyes sparking with humor and pride --- and love. "Mr. Larabee's job of leader of our small band of brothers is safe from any challenge. I chose to follow also."

Chris stepped slightly closer, as if to lend support. "Buck and Josiah are right, Ezra. You did good. You make a damn fine officer and leader." Chris folded his arms across his chest as if to put closure to the conversation, glad that both of their friends had seen and recognized Ezra's powerful role in the day. He wanted Ezra to hear their words and take them to heart. He deserved them and much more. And now to put this day behind them. "Buck, you and Josiah get the undertaker's wagon back here. This mess needs cleaning up before nightfall."

JD had been cornered by several of the townsmen, excited and nervous about their parts in the events, wanting some praise which JD gladly and generously gave them. He saw Buck and Josiah speak with Ezra and Chris briefly before moving on. Saw the way Ezra slumped as their two tall friends left, turning to face Larabee with almost a plea on his face. Dunne wanted to help but wasn't sure what was wrong. Nodding and patting the backs of various men, from ancient to mere teenagers, he started edging towards where his two friends still stood.

Nathan Jackson didn't waste time, clambering down the stairs of the building he'd used for his perch, anxious to see to his friends. He knew that Ezra must still be hurting. He had that broken wrist and nose, take them a while to heal, and his body wasn't in too much a better shape. He carried with him the image of Ezra leaping from his horse, drawing a short sword as he did, and fighting a charging outlaw with only the sword, running it through in a few swift and skillful strokes. Damn, the man held out on me, making me think I was the better swordsman! I gotta tell him I saw that.

Bursting out of the nearest alleyway, Nathan strode over to his friends. "Ezra!" The man swung around to face him, knees bending slightly as he began a defensive crouch only to relax and stand up again as he evidently recognized Jackson. Nathan smiled broadly, "That was some move you made with that sword." With a quick movement, Jackson put his foot on the ribcage of the dead man and drew the sword from its corporeal sheath. "This yours?"

Standish was backing away from Nathan's enthusiasm, head lowering and hands dropping to his sides. He turned his face slightly to the side, without rudely turning completely away. He began to chew on his lower lip. Then he was bumping into Chris who stood there behind him. One of Larabee's hands came up to clamp firmly on Ezra's shoulder. "Don't worry," Chris' voice was low, hardly more than a whisper meant only for Standish's ear. "He means well. He just hasn't thought this all through yet. Nathan's got a good heart."

"Ah know." Ezra smiled up and back into those talking hazel eyes. "Thank you."

Chris smiled slightly and squeezed the shoulder under his hand.

By now, Jackson was in front of them. Holding out the short, bloody sword. "This yours?" He repeated quietly, sensing finally the mood of the other two men.

"It was." Ezra did not reach out for the reddened blade. "Ah do not wish to retain it any further." He looked down at his hands, splattered with the blood from that final thrust. "I've too much blood on mah hands as it is." Somehow, both listening men knew that Ezra was not referring to the few droplets coating his hands at that moment. Chris' hand began to rub at Ezra's shoulder now, thumb pressing deeply behind the ball.

"We all do."

Nathan looked back down at the weapon he held. Somehow, all his excitement was waning. Like the knives that he kept honed for protection in his new job as lawman, this sword was only for harming folks. His first love was helping, he had other blades for that. He dropped this blade to the trampled, grassy ground. "Yeah, guess that's right."

For a few silent moments, the three men stood there contemplating the short sword where it lay on the ground. Then JD joined them, looking from face to face perceptively. "Some day, huh?"

Ezra leaned back against Chris and nodded slowly, "There, Mr. Dunne, you have said it all with brevity and wisdom."

JD's eyes gravitated to the bloody sword. "That was yours during the war, wasn't it, Ez?"

"Yes, Mr. Dunne." The weariness of the response was not lost on the others, Chris finally giving in to his instincts and circling the waist of his friend to provide support. He felt Ezra sag back further against him, accepting the support and closeness without his usual protests against assistance from others.

"You don't want it anymore, huh?"

"No, Mr. Dunne, Ah am finished with it." Ezra turned aside his head, not wanting to see the weapon any more or the gleam of pride in JD's eyes.

"Could I have it, Ez? Y'know, like a remembrance? Of the war and of you?"

"My dear JD," Ezra was flushing as he looked back to face JD Dunne. "It is yours if you so desire." He thought of his own youthful studies of history and his eagerness to be part of that war when it started so short a time ago. It had aged him prematurely, in ways that even Maude's wayward method of raising a son had never done, left him with a past that he did not want to relive. He shook his head, "War is best remembered by those who were never part of it. Take the thing, but remember this also, JD," he looked deeply into the dark brown eyes watching him with such attention, "It is a thing of death, not life."

"Sure, Ez," JD wasn't sure which was the greater honor, the possession of the sword, or the fact that Ezra had addressed him by his first name and spoken to him so seriously. Stooping, he lifted the heavy thing and with a bashful smile, turned away to head back into the town. Several young boys hanging back near the buildings swarmed forward to meet him, clearly plying him with questions as they each delicately touched the sword he carried, following him back into the main street.

Nathan, ashamed now of his earlier unthinking comments, moved slowly closer to where Chris held Ezra, the two men nearly swaying. "Ezra? How about we go back up to my clinic, let me clean you up some and check your wrist?"

Ezra closed his eyes for a moment, then opened them and sent a silent appeal up over his shoulder to the man tenderly holding him.

"How 'bout I take old Ez here over to the bath house first. We can both get cleaned up, I'll see that he doesn't over exert himself." Chris felt the small body against him relax. He added, to appease Nathan --- and his own worries, "We'll come up afterwards for you to check him."

Nathan was about to protest when he caught the silent command in those glinting hazel eyes. Chris wasn't asking permission, just telling how it would be. And, Nathan had checked Ezra over back at the gang's camp. Just from where he stood, he could see there was no new injury to deal with, so, the rest could wait a spell. "Long as you get him up when you're done." Chris or no Chris, Nathan wasn't about to lose a patient to carelessness when a few moments checking healing bones could prevent it.

He reached out and patted Ezra on his arm, then nodded to Larabee and started back into town. There were a few minor injuries he'd spotted among the town's defenders, not the Seven, but some others. A few cuts from falls, a gunshot graze. He'd see to them and wait for his friends.

Chris crooked his neck so he could look down and around at Ezra's face. "Shall we go?"

Green eyes looked back up, clearly tired and in some pain that the smaller man no longer tried to suppress, but also filled with affection and a dollop of mischief. Chris' heart clenched at the sight. Damn, when did I fall in love with this scallywag, anyway? He's got me good. He smiled. "Green Eyes, let's get you cleaned up and fixed up. Then, after Nate takes a look at you---"

"Yes?" Came the breathy question, those dear green eyes large and expressive, telling Chris more than any words just how much his little gambler cared.

"Why then, Ezra P. Standish, we're going up to your room and really get to know one another."

"We are?" Ezra felt a rush of pressure building inside, like a capped volcano. He wanted to grab hold of the taller gunman, press kisses all over his gorgeous face, tease those sweet lips apart, see the humor and love, so carefully hidden and seldom seen by any, in those mystical hazel eyes, changeably green, brown, and blue. My sweet, sweet angel. "Angel," he breathed out softly.

Chris smiled into those soft, vulnerable eyes that he just knew no one had ever seen, and felt the love there. And, he called me angel again. Don't feel much like one, except when Ezra's here in my arms, then I am in heaven. That thought, though, led to another, much more realistic one. Hell, we're standing out here for God and country to see, mooning at each other. Won't help us none to act this way in public. With a final hug, he turned his loving hold into a more obviously supportive one and began to guide Ezra out of the field of dead and toward the back entrance to the baths. That was when he spotted Vin, standing quietly in the shadow of the nearest building, his long gun in the crook of his arm, clearly standing watch over them. Protective, their friend. He nodded at the blue-eyed sharpshooter and urged Ezra forward.

Confused green eyes looked back up at his. "Ezra, we need to get you moving and if we want any future together, the middle of town isn't the best place to get it started."

Eyes sharpening with awareness, Standish paled at what he and Chris had nearly done, out in plain sight. Oh my goodness, Mother would shake her head at her careless baby boy. His lips quirked into a suggestive smile. "As long as there's a later, back in mah room."

"Yep, that's another promise, Green Eyes." Chris' voice had a smile.

Ezra pushed ahead while holding enough on the arms that helped him keep upright so that they didn't part. This was one touch he'd make sure to prolong, he thought, with a small smile that he smothered into his clean, poker face for the townsmen. He saw Vin standing to the side and sending a silent nod at Chris over his shoulder. Good friends are indeed treasure, he decided as they made their way back towards the bathhouse's rear door.

<><><><><><><><><><><><>

"JD?" Mary caught up with the young sheriff just as he and his following crowd of young boys reached the middle of the main street. She'd hung back until then, having witnessed much of the attack from a window in the hotel, down the street a bit from the main brunt of the charge, but close enough so that she saw Standish and Chris lead the second group of men in some sort of a rear guard attack. She had no idea where the second group had come from, unless her father-in-law, Orrin Travis, had enlisted them somehow. She wasn't on very good terms with the man at this moment, though, so she would get her information elsewhere. She'd watched the carnage with a tight frown, clutching her own rifle to her chest, ready to fire if more assistance was needed. She wanted more of the townspeople, however, to become involved, to actually step forward and help defend their town. So she'd watched and waited. She would have quite a few names for a town defenders' honor roll for her next edition of the Clarion. The townsmen would be proud as peacocks, absolutely insufferable for a while, but at least they'd be more likely to help out Chris and his men if the need arose another time.

His men. His man. Standish! Damn that man. He acted so funny out there. First brandishing a sword of all things, and she had no idea where he'd gotten that from. Probably won it in a poker game, she thought disparagingly. Then he'd fought along side Chris. She'd spotted the way Larabee favored one arm slightly. He must be hurt. I need to go to him, soon, let him know that I do care. Then, then she'd seen Standish put on an act worthy of any thespian. Nearly swooning like a woman. Here, Mary paused and frowned, damn, I shall NOT start using such phrases, so derogatory of women! She gathered her scattered wits and recalled again how the town conman had managed to get Chris to hold him up, so closely. Even Nathan had seen that there was nothing really wrong with the man, he'd gone right up to them, then left them without even checking Standish like he normally would one of the men when an injury was suspected. She bit her lower lip in anger. Chris had still supported Standish as they headed into town, moving toward the back of the bathhouse. Oh, that was really good, oh, yes, the bathhouse. Wouldn't our Mr. Standish be able to make hay in there? She gritted her teeth into a smile for JD Dunne who now stopped his forward progress toward the jail and tipped his hat to her with his free hand, his other one holding Standish's sword.

"Yes, Ma'am, Mrs. Travis."

"I saw some of the fighting," she began in a rush, trying for some solid enthusiasm as a reporter. "That sword. I saw Mr. Standish wielding it. I imagine it has quite an interesting history?"

JD swelled up, smiling broadly, the small boys who still clustered about him an avid audience. "Ma'am, it was his sword during the war. He was kinda tired just now, so we didn't discuss it much, but I'm hoping he'll tell me more about when he used it and where, once he's feeling better."

"Feeling better?" Mary managed an innocent, concerned tone to her voice with back teeth gritted in disgust, the conman had conned poor JD too.

"Yeah, he seemed a bit out of it just now." JD sighed, "He's hurt and was kinda sad-like, too."

"Ah, yes." Mary nodded wisely and began to edge away slightly. "Where could I find Mr. Larabee, do you know? I'd like to ask him a few questions for the story I'll write on this."

JD looked doubtfully at Mrs. Travis. "I think he's kinda occupied right now with Ez. When I see him again, I'll tell him you want to talk with him, Ma'am." JD tipped his hat again as the newspaperwoman nodded her thanks and was off in a swirl of petticoats. For just a moment, JD hesitated, unsure why he suddenly felt a bit uneasy. Then he shrugged it off to the way the last few days had been and led his eager audience on toward the water trough in front of the jail. He'd wash the sword first, get rid of the blood. Maybe Ezra would look on it more calmly without that reminder of the day.

-/-/-/-/-/-/-/-

"Easy now, Ezra," Chris warned as he led the way up the slickly wet back steps of the bathhouse. With a tap on the door, he moved them on inside without waiting for an answer. Ezra was still walking with only a bit of a lean, but Chris figured once the adrenaline high wore off, his friend was going to be hurting. The hot water would help ease that. He'd make sure of that himself, he thought with a smile. Feel good to me, too. He shifted his injured arm, feeling a twinge of pain. At least I'm not light-headed anymore.

It took only a few seconds of conversation to get the bathhouse tender busy bringing in the buckets of hot water for the curtained area that Chris selected. He tugged the drapes in place to help Ezra undress. With a supporting hand on the smaller man's good arm, he unbuttoned and gently pulled off the simple shirt. Oh, my. In keeping with his role, Ezra had no undershirt on, and the bits of smoothly firm torso revealed between strips of bandage, even this small view, had Larabee licking his lips in anticipation. "You're so beautiful, Ez," he whispered into one ear as he pulled the man against him to lean there as he unfastened the old Confederate gray and red trousers and tugged them down, along with simple under shorts, until both puddled around his rough riding boots. Encouraging Ezra to use him for a support, he bent over to lift first one, then the other leg clear of boots and clothing. A gloriously naked Ezra stood wobbling in front of him now, a nest of golden reddish brown hair curled beguilingly around the rosette of his genitals. Chris blinked at the sight, finding his mouth suddenly dry as he stood back up and rested his hands on the sleek arm muscles of his friend. The battered ribcage was still wrapped, as was the broken wrist, the face badly discolored, both eyes darkening on either side of the broken nose. Very gently, Chris planted a butterfly light kiss on the end of Ezra's nose, watching those green-lantern eyes cross as they followed him on his mission of tenderness.

"Ez, I'm gonna unwrap those bandages and then let's get you into a tub, Ez."

The next few minutes were painful for Standish and thus also so for Chris who worried he might make things worse for his friend. He helped the man step in and lower himself down into the long tin tub of hot water. The sigh of relief from the little gambler was echoed by the tall, lanky gunman who had yet to shed his clothes. After making sure that Ezra could keep himself seated in the tub and that he could reach soap and sponge, Chris rapidly stripped and stepped into the neighboring tub, the only other one in their cubicle of curtained space. He reached over the two rims separating him from Ezra and began to soap up Ezra's chest, using the sponge to wipe away the foam afterwards. Ezra moaned in pleasure at Chris' touches, finally leaning back in the tub and sinking down as his knees rose up in the soapy water. The gambler closed his eyes to better savor his enjoyment of the sensations on his skin, tipping his head against the high back of the tub. Smiling, he hummed tunelessly as Chris sponged his shoulders and began to work on his neck, wiping up the sweep of throat to stroke the underside of the jaw.

The curtains were flung open with a savage haste and there stood Mary Travis, her blonde hair pulling free of the French twist and strands hanging loosely around her face, her pale green eyes flashing with irritation. "Mr. Larabee!"

Chris looked up calmly, not stopping his actions, not even hesitating. Fuckin' woman could watch if that's what she wanted. He noticed that Ezra had stopped humming but otherwise was still, almost looking like he'd fallen asleep, eyes closed and head back, body seemingly relaxed in a sprawl in the filled tub. Only Chris could feel the sudden tension beneath his hands at Mary's intrusion.

Speaking slowly and dryly, Chris answered. "Mary."

Mary Travis stood there, vibrating with anger, staring hard into Chris Larabee's darkened hazel eyes. How dare he act like what he was doing with Standish was appropriate! "Don't you think that Mr. Standish can bathe himself?"

Chris' eyes slid half shut, the lowered lids shielding his own temper. He would not explode in front of Ezra, if it was the last thing he did. He knew Mary was upset with him and, after his vocalizing the other night, by extension, with Ezra, but Ezra had done nothing to deserve her cutting tongue. "Mary. You don't belong in here when men are bathing. Leave."

Fuming, the widow wanted to scream but tightened her lips expressively, a harsh 'v' of frown lines creasing her forehead between her brows. "If the people of this town knew about you two," she left her statement unfinished, a half-veiled threat.

Ezra had been holding his breath now for some time. Slowly he let it out, still not opening his eyes. Chris' hands continued to stroke him with the soapy sponge and the rhythm was unchanged. Our relationship is unchanged. He's mine now, Mary, you can't have him, Ezra thought with unaccustomed anger. His breath caught at that realization. Do I have the right to feel this way? He let his head sink forward down on to his chest, no, perhaps not.

Chris noted the change in Ezra from relaxed and appreciative to tense and uncomfortable. This stops now. Heavy lidded, he met Mary's angry eyes with his own, hiding nothing. "Only way they might think they know somethin' is if you tell 'em. Then Ez and I will leave, likely the rest of the men will follow. Think on that, MRS. Travis."

Then, Chris twisted slightly in his tub, letting his body rise enough to expose more of himself than was decent to a proper lady, and turned more toward Ezra. He leaned over the smaller man and pushed the sponge back up Ezra's chest until he'd forced it under the lowered chin, pushing that up in the process. And, bringing Ezra's sadly down-pressed mouth within kissing range. With a small smile at the still closed eyes, he leaned in, watching, as he kissed those lips gently. Two startled green eyes flicked wide-open, total surprise for both Mary and Chris to see. Ezra tried to speak only to find that Chris was taking advantage of the now parting lips to insinuate his tongue within Ezra's mouth, licking and probing delicately, lovingly. When he finally pulled back, Ezra's eyes were closed again and a beatific smile was painted across his damaged face. My angel, he thought, calm once more, knowing with supreme confidence that Chris would handle Mary Travis.

Chris kissed each bruised cheekbone tenderly before turning to look over his shoulder to where Mary still stood, frozen in outrage. She looked like pale death itself. But her eyes were shuttered and her face was still, emotion having fled to leave a cold and expressionless visage behind. Not as good as Ezra's poker face, but not bad, he had to acknowledge.

"I see." Mary Travis did see, more than just the arrogant gunslinger whom she thought might make a good father for her son, husband for her. More than just the dashing of those half-formed plans. She saw, as ever, her vision of this town, the one her Steven had fought so hard for. That she now guarded fiercely. This town still needed these seven men, it still needed Chris Larabee. She wasn't so sure it needed one Ezra Standish, but she was not a stupid person. If Larabee wanted Standish, and he was being hurtfully blatant about it now, then she would have to let Chris have him. At least, for now.

"Good. Now, get out." Chris turned away from her again, half kneeling in his tub to bend over Ezra's. "Ez and me are busy."

Without another word, Mary Travis spun on her heels and left the way she'd come. She didn't see Vin Tanner lounging, back to the inner side of the bathhouse door. Didn't feel his eyes as they followed her out the door. Didn't see him move to quietly close and secure the door behind her. She's gonna bear watchin' some. Woman scorned, think Buck said one time, is a dangerous thing. Vin moved past the curtained space where his friends were. He could hear Chris' voice, a low murmur, but no answer from Ezra, and he distinctly heard the sound of a large splash. He smiled and continued on to the front of the bathhouse where he took the empty seat at the door and sat again. Shoulda locked that back door ta begin with, he shook his head at his own lack. Know better next time. He tipped his chair back on two legs and pushed his wide brimmed hat forward to shade his eyes, his long gun settled on his lap between two relaxed but ready hands.

<><><><><><><><><><><><>

Ezra had been feeling dreamy with Chris' tender kiss. He heard Chris send Mary Travis away and felt whole, healed for the first time in a long time. Chris cares for me. Ezra P. Standish. Me. Ezra was smiling, eyes closed, whole being relaxed when Chris leaned further over Ezra's tub, precariously balanced on one knee in his own neighboring tub.

"Hey, Ez? Open those great green eyes for me, love."

The southerner's smile grew and his eyes opened to find Chris hovering just above him. He cricked his neck to look up into Larabee's happy eyes, seeing the gorgeous form of his naked love there for his pleasure. With a mischievous glint, Ezra reached up with his uninjured limb to tickle the exposed stomach, sleek and taut. Chris let out a choked, half muffled chuckle and ducked. Unfortunately (or fortunately, depending on your point of view), that pushed his balance off center and with an awkward scramble, Christopher Larabee tipped into Ezra's tub, headfirst. There was a loud splash as the bigger man landed in the bath water, his feet kicking free of his own tub in the process, only adding to the mess. With a twist and wriggle, Chris pulled himself back up and into Ezra's tub completely, ending up in a tangle of legs with the man, facing him. Ezra grinned, water dripping off his face and hair from the mighty splash. "Welcome to my humble abode of the moment, Mr. Larabee."

Larabee grinned back. "Not so humble. After all, you're in it." Then he dove forward and let his hands slide under the water to fumble for his new goal.

Ezra sat up straighter and tried to close his knees together - too late! "Chris!" he gasped.

"Just checkin' to make sure nothing important is missing or hurt." The carefree tone and playful fingers had Ezra blushing a florid pink all over.

Chris leaned back, lightly dragging his fingers along the insides of Ezra's thighs, from where they had been stroking his genitals down to the backs of his knees. Ezra inhaled sharply, his toes curling involuntarily, only to find them brushing against the undersides of Chris' own thighs. Chris slid closer with a wicked smile. "Feels like you're intact." He leaned in and stole a quick kiss, not lingering, then leaned back away to study his little gambler. "Ya know, Ezra, you really are cute."

"Cute? CUTE?" Ezra tried to look affronted but couldn't maintain the frown. Chris thought that he looked cute. A dimple began to form. "Well, mah friend, you have a certain dashing charm, when viewed in the altogether, yourself."

Chris looked down at himself where he sat in the water, his body looking scarred and worn to him. If Ezra was happy with it, that was all that mattered. He reached out and looped his arms gently around Ezra. Mindful of the beating and the damage inflicted to the smaller man, feeling his own twinge of pain at his bullet graze, Chris carefully drew the other closer and closer through the water until their legs were straddling each other and they were glued, chest to chest. Experimentally, Chris flexed his hips, pushing his now hard shaft up against Ezra's rapidly filling one. "Ah!" With an inarticulate cry of sheer pleasure, he repeated the motion, feeling Ezra's arms come around him, the one holding him with a tight clench, the other one with the broken, still splinted wrist, more tentatively. "How's that?" he asked hoarsely.

"That, Chris, is most certainly the most wonderful feeling I've ever felt." Ezra was trying to emulate Larabee's hip movement, copying the thrusting, rubbing motion. Both moaned this time and began to stir against each other, still held tightly in each other's arms. The friction, lubricated by the soapy water, was becoming increasing heated. Panting now, Ezra hissed, "Don't stop, please, don't stop!"

"Couldn't if I wanted to," Chris muttered into Ezra's ear and then moaned again, Ezra quickly joining him in a chorus of faint animalistic sounds. Those only stimulated Larabee further who found himself growing painfully hard, throbbingly so, as he continued to press close and rub against the wiry curls of Ezra's pubic hairs, scrotum wrinkles, and slickly thick penis with his own. Their thrusting heads dueled beneath the water as Ezra succumbed to the enactment of a fantasy and began to chew on Chris' shoulder where it joined with his straining neck muscles. In turn, Chris bit down blindly, fiercely on Ezra's neck, marking his lover.

With choked off screams, both men reached full heat at the same moment, spasming and ejaculating against each other's groins in the bath water. With a sigh, Ezra ceased to gnaw at Larabee's now reddened shoulder and rested his forehead in exhaustion against the strong muscle and bone there. Chris expelled a held breath on a sigh of his own, almost another groan. That had been the best he'd ever had, ever. Wonderingly, he lightly traced his fingers over the lightly freckled pale skin of Ezra's back, planting soft kisses all along Ezra's neck and jaw line, the only part he could reach as his lover's head was buried against his shoulder. "That was fine, Ezra, mighty fine." His murmur was barely above a whisper but Ezra could hear the smile in the words.

"Oh, yes," the southerner was sublimely happy now, wet and clinging to Chris Larabee in an tired ecstasy of afterglow, all pain temporarily subsumed by their encounter, "and, don't forget your promise. After this, mah room."

"Hum. Think we intended a visit to the clinic in there somewheres."

"Ah suppose so, but really, Ah am feelin' ever so much better now."

"Ez, so am I but you know what I mean." Chris slowly separated them and sat back still loosely holding his friend by the arms. "I want us to be together from now on and that means making sure you're well again."

"From now on?" Ezra's eyes began to fill with moisture.

"Hey. Green Eyes." Chris wiped away an errant tear that escaped the brimming eyes, "I love you. Took me a while to get it, you know, 'cause you can be right ornery when you want, a regular bad boy."

"A bad boy?" Ezra mused, blinking away the wetness still threatening.

"Yep. But I figure that I'm what our distinguished newspaperwoman calls the bad element, so why not match up the bad element and the bad boy?"

Ezra grinned reluctantly, raising his uninjured wrist and hand to wipe at his eyes. "Indeed, why ever not?" Neither made further reference to Mary Travis.

"And, I definitely don't intend to move on, Ezra." Chris' tone became serious, dropping the teasing quality. "You are my forever."

"And you are mine, Chris." Ezra kissed his new lover, new love, with equal seriousness and commitment. Then he added, a bit plaintatively, "So, now can we move this to mah bed?"

"Boys?" Vin's voice sounded from outside the curtain.

Chris grinned at Ezra and kissed his damaged nose again with another feather-light touch. "Yeah, Vin?"

"'less you want to carry on with Nate in there with you, I suggest you get movin'."

"He's coming?"

"Yep, nearly at the steps now."

"Aw, hell." Vin's compact smile quirked up higher at the ends at the sound of frustration in Ezra's voice.

"Yeah, well, better hurry."

Chris grasped the edges of the tub and heaved himself up. Stepping free of the tub, he looked down at a pouting Ezra. With an affectionate smile, he patted the diminutive man on the top of his curly chestnut haired head. "Time to get out, Ez." He reached down and hooked his arms under the other man's and lifted the smaller man easily to his feet.

Nathan found them standing beside the tubs, Chris toweling Standish dry, another towel knotted about his own waist.

-/-/-/-/-/-/-/-

Josiah leaned over to knock shoulders with Buck where the ladies man stood in the street, looking toward the bathhouse. Both men had seen Mary Travis emerge from the nearby alley, the hem of her dress suspiciously damp. "Chris is in there with Ezra, isn't he?"

Buck nodded. "Yep. That's what Nate told me. Said he was going to check him out after Ez and Chris got cleaned up some."

Josiah tipped his head toward the vanishing back of Mrs. Travis as the flustered looking newswoman entered the offices of the Clarion. "Trouble, then?"

Buck nodded again. "Looks like." He thoughtfully rubbed his chin. "Well, after what we seen up at the gang's camp, and the way Chris stuck to Ezra just now, guess any chance Mrs. Travis thought she had is gone."

The preacher kicked at the dust in the street. "Now we just have to sooth some ruffled feathers, maybe console a hurtin' heart."

The ladies man looked askance. "We? Now just a minute there, Josiah, I don't ever go lookin' for trouble with an angry lady, just don't pay."

Sanchez frowned, eyes still on the newspaper office. "Not a good idea to leave it as is, brother. Our sister could make things very difficult for our brothers if she chooses." He weighed his next words with care. "How are you doing with them being together?"

"Ezra and Chris?" Buck's eyes were scanning the now returned to normal street in front of the two lawmen. "Figure that's their business."

"Chris is an old friend?" Sanchez probed quietly, eyes finally leaving the unchanged office door to meet midnight blue eyes as serious as his own paler ones.

"Yeah, he is. And Ezra is a new one." Buck smiled and clapped a hand on the solid shoulder of the big man. "I'm happy for them."

Sanchez finally smiled. It started as a simple folding of the lips, but grew, exposing teeth until Josiah's entire face was an enormous toothy smile. "Me too, praise the lord." He scratched his head and sighed. "Want to keep them happy, and us too. That means finding a way to heal a certain lady's heart."

Buck shook his head. "'Siah, be careful. I don't think it's her heart you gotta worry about none." He continued slowly, "With Mrs. Travis, this town and her Billy come first. Think she liked the idea of Chris being top dog of the law protectin' her town. Don't hurt none that he gets along so well with her son, neither. Thing is, I think she was real interested in Chris for husband material, but not so sure she had any real feelings for him."

Josiah had listened, realizing as he did that Buck was more insightful than he'd given the ladies man credit for. And, he was probably right. Never had he seen any signs of true love between the two blondes, but he certainly had recognized it when he and the others saw Chris with Ezra in that camp. So, he was dealing with an intellectual puzzle, not a broken heart. Hum.

<><><><><><><><><><><><>

Nathan stood wiping his hands with a towel, getting the extra ointment off. He'd applied it liberally to Ezra's torso before re-wrapping the ribcage to support the bruised ribs and muscles. Already the swelling was reducing on the nose and it looked like the rough early medical help he'd gotten had placed the broken bones and damaged cartilage right. Ezra's classic features were re-emerging. The rainbow hues on face and body would remain for another few days, gradually fading already. Nathan cocked his head as he studied the job he'd done on the broken wrist. Ez will be tempted to use that so I put on extra splints to keep it from movin' for a while. He could tell by the way Standish was hunched over on the bed's edge, staring at the immoveable appendage, that the man was not happy.

"Nathan? Can we go now?" Larabee's quiet, patient tones gave the healer warning that the man was tired and ready to depart on his own but was trying to be courteous.

Turning to look over the gunslinger, Jackson remained serious. "Try not to use that arm too much, Chris. It's healin' fine but the scabbing will break easy for a day or two. Use that paste I gave you."

Chris grimaced but nodded. The stuff was greasy and smelled of herbs and some earthy pitch, maybe pine tar, he wasn't sure. It did keep the rough wound soft and pliable, though, and he trusted Nathan to know what would help. "Yeah, I will." Then Chris flicked his eyes over to where Ezra sat in silence. The man must be exhausted, between the pain, the tension, and the exertions. Time to get him into bed --- to sleep. He smiled briefly at the thought of the arguments that might provide. Nah, Ezra is a sensible man and he knows he's tired. And, we got the rest of our lives. This brought the smile back and kept it hovering on his face as he addressed the little gambler. "Ez? If you're ready, I'll walk you over to your room."

Instantly, the chestnut haired head came up, green eyes smiling. "Yes, Mr. Larabee, that would be quite acceptable," here Standish turned toward Jackson, "if the good Mr. Jackson is done?"

"All done for now, Ez, but I want to check that wrist in the morning. Now you see that you don't loosen that splint none, we want those bones to mend up right."

Ezra nodded in gratitude. "I shall be careful, and, thank you, Nathan."

Brown eyes widened and a pleased look showed Ezra that the healer was touched by the way Standish had addressed him.

The two men rose and Chris led the way out of the small clinic, with a final nod to their friend Jackson. Nathan stood pondering his friends, long after their departure. He understood the changed relationship between the two men. Couldn't say he approved or disapproved, simply found it another example of the way humans could adapt. He'd seen plenty in his short life and as long as these men didn't harm each other or anyone else, it was alright with him. He had to chuckle then, a smile sliding and widening across his face. Them boys were gonna have some fun, just hope they restrained themselves a bit until they were both better healed. Shaking his head, he thought, maybe it's time to take a ride out to the Seminole village, visit with Rain. With light heart, Nathan tossed his head back in a laugh.

-/-/-/-/-/-/-/-

Josiah walked slowly, crossing the now busy late afternoon main street, and stepping up on to the boardwalk. With a grunt, he turned to face Buck where the other man had settled on a chair in front of the saloon. Vin had joined him at some point. They'd all seen Nate escort their friends up to his clinic from the bathhouse. Guess Vin figures that Nathan'll protect them there. His pale blue eyes taking on a distant look, Josiah Sanchez made his way up the boardwalk to the offices of the town's only newspaper. Inside he could hear the sounds of clicking, type being set. Mary was busy. Sanchez wondered what he should say. Maybe nothing. Maybe just be there, lend an ear. He stopped at the open door and leaned against it negligently, idly. In the dimmer interior, he could see Mary Travis' hands flying across the type board, clearly composing as she set the small bit of metal type. Damn, that's a talent all by itself, he thought with admiration.

"Yes, Mr. Sanchez?" Without looking up or slowing, Mary asked. Josiah noticed the smudge of printer's ink on one high pale cheekbone.

"Looks like you'll have your story done for tomorrow's edition, eh, Mary?"

Now the busy woman did stop and look up, her hands settling delicately over the half-done type set. "Yes. It will be largely descriptive though, unless you have any information to add?" she asked, hopefully.

The upset woman from earlier was evident only in the slight flush to her cheeks and ear tips. Josiah smiled gently. "Not my place, besides, didn't see much of what led to today. You'll need to get that from Chris or Ezra."

"Um, yes." Distractedly, she brushed back a loose strand of blonde hair with the back on one hand. "They did seem to be in the thick of things. JD told me that they were going to be at the clinic, with Nathan." She made it into a question with her inflexion.

Sanchez nodded, eyes turning concerned as he momentarily let his thoughts wander to his injured friends. "Yes, Ezra was hurt before, Chris too."

"Nothing too serious?"

"No, they should be fine." Josiah came further in to the room. "And how about you?"

Mary's light green eyes grew round as she looked up at the quiet preacher. "Me? Why, I am fine, Mr. Sanchez."

"Saw you earlier, seemed a bit upset?"

"Oh," Mary looked down at her hands. "I --- I tried to speak with Chris, with Mr. Larabee, at the bathhouse. But he was occupied."

"With Ezra." Josiah's voice sounded confident which drew Mary's eyes back up to him, startled.

"You know about them?" she breathed out.

"Know they're good friends. Mine." Sanchez was too wise to speak more clearly. Not about this, ever.

Mary nodded. She understood. She sighed and leaned back against the press behind her. "I thought --- that is, I ---" she shook her head in frustration. "Mr. Larabee is quite an impressive man, a leader and a brave man. He's so good with Billy. I had hopes that there might be something there." She hesitated again, shaking her head slowly. "For us."

Josiah nodded without comment, his silence encouraging.

Mary had pinked some now as she essentially confessed, "The other night, he and I, we, we had a private moment." She looked up to see how this would be accepted. Josiah stared back at her with calm placidity. She swallowed hard and looked away nervously. "He called out Mr. Standish's name."

"Ah." Sanchez saw light now. This explained a lot. Not the best way to end a relationship, however tentative. Hard on her. Wonder if Chris even knew? He waited.

With a small shrug, Mary continued, "I went to see him the next day, Mr. Standish, that is. I---" she met Josiah's gaze with pride and courage, "I threatened him." She dropped her gaze again. "I had no right, I realize that now."

"Mary, they are good men."

"I know that, Josiah, it's just that I thought---" she closed her eyes and drew in a lungful of air, replete with the sour smell of the printer's ink and machine's oil. "They have something special, don't they?" the last was said with quiet envy.

Sanchez relaxed and smiled, nodding as he leaned back against the doorjamb more fully. "That they do. Not everyone ever finds that in life."

"No, not everyone. I was very lucky, I had Stephen." She smiled up at Josiah now, calmer and more centered, as if just talking had somehow made things more acceptable. A great pressure seemed gone from her heart, she felt nearly light headed with relief. Her smile grew. "I loved him very, very much," she added softly.

"Then, Mary, you and he were blessed. And, your love brought Billy into this world."

"Yes." Mary's smile of maternal pride and love glowed on her face. Then a small cloud passed across it. "Do you think that Chris, that Mr. Larabee, will still find time for Billy?"

Josiah's full belly laugh could be heard clear out in the street. "Without a doubt, Mary, without a doubt."

-/-/-/-/-/-/-/-

Vin watched proprietarily as Chris and Ezra climbed down the stairs of the clinic, Chris in the lead, his long, slim, dark form a sharp accent to Ezra's shorter, compact form. At the foot of the stairs, Larabee waited, then put a hand on Ezra's nearest shoulder in a gesture which could be construed as simple friendship, but which Vin recognized as much more possessive. He smirked at the lovers. Figure whatever they did in the tub ain't nothing compared to what's gonna happen up in Ez's room. He tipped his chair back and nudged Buck who grinned knowingly back at him, then winked lasciviously. "Gonna be hot, today," the ladies man said innocently.

Vin nearly choked on his laughter, the front legs of his chair coming down with a sharp bang. Across the street, Chris looked up from where he'd been murmuring to Ezra and spotted their two seated friends by the saloon door. A secretive smile flitted across his face before he assumed his normal unreadable expression. Ezra, who'd been focused on Larabee, followed his gaze and smiled blandly at Buck and Vin.

"Make a nice pair, huh?" Buck said under his breath to Vin.

Just as the tracker was about to respond, another voice cut in sharply from in front of the hotel's restaurant entrance. "Mr. Standish?" Judge Travis did not look happy. "If I could have few minutes of your time, please?" And, when Larabee turned with Ezra, as if to go with him, Travis added, "Alone, please."

<><><><><><><><><><><><>

Vin watched with Buck as Ezra turned toward Judge Travis's voice. Chris turned with him, and at the judge's question, it was clear that Chris intended to accompany their con man. Until Travis said, "Alone, please."

Larabee glared at the judge. "Ezra's hurt and needs to rest."

"I believe that Mr. Jackson would still have him in the clinic if it were serious." Travis' tone was one of dismissal.

"It's alright, Chris," Ezra said in a low voice, "I'll see you in the saloon in a few minutes."

The gunslinger was unhappy and it showed, but he backed off, releasing his hold on Ezra's shoulder and standing still as he watched the smaller man walk slowly over to where the judge waited on the hotel's boardwalk. Chris didn't move until Ezra followed the older man back into the shadowy interior of the hotel. Then he spun on his heels and stalked over to the saloon, eyes sparking dangerously.

Vin and Buck exchanged knowing looks. They didn't comment, but trailed after the angry spirit that marched into the saloon. Buck tossed his hat on to their regular table and Vin slumped into a chair next to Larabee's regular seat, facing the room, back to the wall. Chris went directly to the bar and retrieved a new bottle and several glasses, moving with single-minded determination back to the Seven's table. Thumping down the drink and glasses, he sunk into his chair, accepting a filled glass from Buck who'd taken over that duty.

"Thanks."

"Don't mention it, Pard." Buck poured a glass for the tracker, then one for himself as well. "What'd Ez do this time, anyway?"

"Nothing!" Chris threw back his head, swallowing the shot of whiskey in one go, then slammed the empty glass on to the table and shoved it towards Wilmington for a refill. "Not a damn thing!" Both men noticed the worry overlaying the anger in Larabee's voice.

Vin pushed his hat back and stared at the bright shape of sunlight from the fading day over the split saloon doors. "Heard tell that Mary was a bit unhappy with Ezra. JD told me she was saying some mean things about Ez." Blue eyes locked with hazel ones. "Not to just anyone, mind you, just ta some o'us," Vin clarified. "Still, if she said them things, likely said 'em to family, too."

They all knew that Travis was Mary's father-in-law. No one commented on that, but Chris bowed his head over his fists where they curled on the table. Then he expelled a sharp breath and muttered, "Shit. This is all my fault."

Buck clapped the man on the shoulder. "How you figure that, Pard? You ain't even been here."

Angry hazel eyes threw daggers as Larabee snarled. "Back off, Buck." He hung his head again and continued, "I --- I called out Ezra's name, when I was with Mary."

"Oh, man, that's got to hurt," Wilmington said sympathetically, looking over toward the open door of the Clarion. He shook his head, "Pard, you got a lot to learn about women."

Larabee shook his head in denial, "Nope, don't want to learn nothing more." Then a sly humorous twinkle lit his face, the anger and worry subsided for the moment. "Got Ezra now. He's all I need."

Vin cocked his head to the side and his smile was wide as he said, "Seems to me, cowboy, that Ezra has YOU." He saw again, in his mind's eye, the way Chris had clung to Ezra back in Gant's camp, at their shared tent.

Chris nodded, his eyes continuing to flick back to the front doors of the saloon, hoping to see Ezra come swinging through them any moment. "Yep, also." He started to climb to his feet but two firm hands gripped his arms, his two best friends pulling him back down.

"Easy, Pard, he don't come in through them doors in thirty minutes, we'll all go take a mosey over to the hotel together."

"Just set a spell, cowboy. Ezra is pretty good at takin' care of himself."

Chris nodded, allowing himself to be held in the seat, his face impassive, or as much so as he could manage. He twitched but didn't fight the men seated with him. They were right. He just felt as if he needed to be there, to protect his green-eyed little gambler from men like the powerful and blunt judge. Ezra might come across as tough, but Chris was finally beginning to figure him out, and Ezra, well, he wasn't all that tough under the skin. Nope, a sweet, tender heart, and feelings that bruised mighty easy. He accepted another glass of whiskey but his eyes drifted back until they were glued once again to the empty doorway. He'd just wait those thirty minutes. Then he intended to get up, get Ezra out of there, and find someplace quiet where they could finally have some uninterrupted time together.

Ezra mounted the steps slowly, stiffly. He nodded graciously to the man waiting with a face like a thundercloud for his arrival.

"Judge."

Without a word, Travis turned and led the way in to the hotel lobby. With a nod to the clerk, he said, "Jenkins, we're going to use the parlor, and we do not want to be disturbed."

The clerk's head bobbed in agreement, when Judge Travis spoke, folks paid attention. One of Ezra's eyebrows rose silently at the instructions, but he dutifully followed the lawmaker into the side room, waiting as Travis swung the door shut behind them.

Orrin was suddenly nervous. He liked to lay things out clearly, simply, bluntly. Tell folks what the law said, make a ruling, enforce the law. This, this pussyfooting around with people's private lives was distasteful to him, but his daughter-in-law had forced his hand. He cleared his throat and gestured to one of the two wingback chairs grouped in front of the open hearth of a small-screened fireplace. "Sit down, Mr. Standish."

Ezra moved without his normal grace, his steps slightly stilted. Travis saw the pain, quickly hidden, on the small man's face. He hesitated. Maybe now was not the best time to do this. Hell, there was no best time. Just get it over with.

By now, Standish was perched on the edge of the indicated chair, his unusual wardrobe making him look out of place in the ornate little room. Without his usual fancy dress, the man looked even smaller, younger, that is, until one looked at his face, in those eyes. Right now, they were looking very old, tired, and sad.

"Sir, I am at your disposal."

Orrin looked sharply, trying to see if the words were meant sarcastically, but in fact, Standish seemed quite genuine. He nodded and planted himself squarely in the other seat. "Some things have been brought to my attention." He harrumphed noisily, clearly uncomfortable. "Mrs. Travis, my daughter-in-law, was quite upset."

Ezra sat back, relaxing into the armchair. So. This was about that. So much had happened since then, it was hard to believe that this held any importance any more. Of course, Mary HAD appeared at the bathhouse a short time ago, still wrathful. But he'd really thought that Chris had set her straight. He studied the older man in front of him and waited.

"She came to me. Made some rather wild accusations. About you, and your personal habits, preferences."

"My personal---?"

Travis' face became flushed, turning nearly beet red. He folded his hands on his lap and looked down, suddenly feeling like a young law student at the bar for the first time. With irritation, he shrugged off the feeling. Damn it, this man is just a gambler, con man, and recently pardoned bail skipper. He looked back up, and realized just how unworthy those thoughts were. No, he's a member of the law of this town, by my order, and he's done well with that. Orrin sighed and hunched forward over his hands, maintaining his eye contact with the dignified younger man seated across from him.

"Mr. Standish, she accused you of some rather," Travis cleared his throat, "some unusual, that is to say, some behaviors that are considered unacceptable by society and frowned upon by the law." When Standish just looked at him, Travis was forced to continue. "She said you were attempting to seduce Chris Larabee."

Ezra blushed. He couldn't help it. After all that had happened. This. And, Chris was waiting for him. It began to look like Chris would be waiting in vain. I shall have to leave, quietly, now. Depart before any of this tarnishes Chris. Oh, my beautiful love, my angel, I shall miss you with all of my heart. Ezra closed his eyes to prevent the watching judge from seeing the soul-deep hurt that the thought of departing this town, leaving his lover behind, meant to him. With heart breaking, realizing that the pain was too great to hide, he opened his eyes again to face this man who held their lives in his hands.

"No, that I never did."

"But you and Mr. Larabee?"

"I can speak only for myself, Judge. Mrs. Travis is correct in this, I am deeply in love with the man. I had not acted upon this, despite Mrs. Travis' assumptions and accusations." Ezra spoke quietly, firmly, honestly. No deceptions, not now, not here.

Orrin sat back. Somehow he'd expected the man to try to squirm out of this, not lay bare his heart. He was experienced enough in the ways of men to know that this man spoke the truth. Not that it really changed anything.

Ezra didn't wait for the judge to comment. "Mr. Larabee is not to be involved in this, sir. It is only I that you need deal with. He is the leader of your police force in this town and essential to its continued survival. He keeps the men together, functioning, and safe. I can be out of town before sunset." Ezra did not drop his gaze, even as he felt his insides fold up and crumble, leaving only dust in the hollow space where once he'd had a heart.

"Perhaps that would be for the best," the judge said pensively, his eyes no longer meeting those of Standish.

-/-/-/-/-/-/-/-

Josiah drifted across the street, a contemplative smile on his face as he reached the opposite boardwalk and mounted the steps to the saloon. Peering into the gloomy interior, he saw three of his friends sharing a bottle of whiskey at their regular table. Pushing aside the swinging doors, he ambled in and joined them, dragging a chair out slowly.

"Bit early, isn't it?" he remarked, while helping himself to one of the spare glasses on the table and filling it from the communal bottle.

Vin smiled at him and stretched mightily, saying nothing. Chris, sitting there tense as a bowstring, simply downed his current glass of whiskey and poured another. Buck, however, knew the mission that had recently occupied his friend the preacher. He leaned forward in his seat, to cage his glass with long fingers as he rested his elbows on the table. "How'd it go?"

Both Vin and Chris squinted first at Wilmington, then at Sanchez, clearly puzzled by the non-sequitur. Josiah, however, let his smile grow as he took a sip of the raw liquor. "Better than you might have expected, brother Buck." He rested comfortably back in his seat and lifted his glass to study the amber lights that gleamed through it from late afternoon sundogs.

With a quick look at Chris Larabee, who was now ignoring the incomprehensible conversational gambits, Buck asked, "What'd she say?"

Josiah, too, looked over toward Larabee before answering. By now, Vin was sitting up alertly. This had something to do with Chris. Josiah thought for a moment before answering. "I think she just needed to talk it out. Seems our brother Chris, here," at this Larabee sent a questioning, irritated glare from under beetling brows, but Sanchez just smiled all the more benignly and continued, "our brother here spoke out of turn in a very inappropriate moment with Mrs. Travis. She took offense at the time but now sees that it was her own aspirations that were the problem, not brother Chris --- or brother Ezra."

Larabee sat up straight now too, and angrily crashed a fist on the table top, rattling the glassware. "What the hell are you going on about, Sanchez?"

Buck, knowing both his oldest friend and the preacher, chose to intervene. "Pard, just take it easy now. Josiah went to talk with Mary. We both saw her take off from the bathhouse like some polecat was on her tail." He clamped a hand on Larabee's shoulder and ignored the other man's abrupt shrugging attempt to remove it unsuccessfully. He squeezed hard and waited. Angry hazel eyes rose and met his. He finished then. "'Siah decided to try to get Mary to talk about things, make her see that she wasn't going to have no luck with you."

Sanchez nodded and leaned forward heavily. "She talked for a spell, Chris," his usual pedantic embellishments now missing as he decided to cut across the other man's anger quickly. This was no time for teasing or vagueness, he'd take his cue from Buck. "She realized that you and Ezra have something special and that while she might have liked thinking of a union with you, she had no special affections to be rebuffed. More a case of common sense that went astray." He tapped a finger on the table, then looked up again into Chris' now quiet eyes. "Said she was envious of you two, glad she'd had something like that with her Stephen. Only hoped you'd still find time to be with Billy." Josiah folded his arms and nodded, more to himself than the others, "I told her I was sure of it."

Chris' shoulders slumped beneath Buck's hand. He sighed deeply. "She said some pretty mean things to Ezra."

"She's sorry now, likely try to make amends after awhile. Just got to deal with her pride, I think."

Vin had listened quietly to the exchanges. Now he spoke. "Still be careful round her for a spell, cowboy."

The others nodded slowly. No one spoke for a moment, then Larabee abruptly rocketed to his feet, throwing off Buck's hand. "Damn it! Ezra's still with the judge."

Everyone looked blankly at Larabee for a moment, then three sets of eyes lit with comprehension. "She was madder'n a wet hornet, before," Buck said slowly.

"Mighta said something more'n we thought, to Travis." Vin added grimly.

"Perhaps this meeting needs a few more folks in attendance?" Sanchez stood, setting his glass down deliberately. "Should I get Mary?"

"No." Larabee settled his hat on his head. "Only stir things up more." He kicked back his chair and headed for the street. The other three men behind him looked at each other and as one, followed their friend out of the saloon.

Chris reached the boardwalk first, shoving open the doors with anger. He stepped out into the afternoon sunshine and blinked to adjust his vision. There in front of him stood JD Dunne. "Hey, Chris, was just coming in to see if Ezra was with you."

The kid sheriff had been caught in mid-stride and now hurried forward again. He was at the bottom step to the saloon when Larabee spoke. "Ezra's not here." Then Chris brushed past the youth and into the street, heading across toward the hotel with a quick step.

JD slowed to a stop again and turned to watch. Looks worried. Wonder what's wrong. He was about to follow when he heard the others at his back. Turning again, he faced Vin, Buck, and Josiah all crowding out the doors of the saloon. "Hi guys! What's going on?"

Vin answered, "Just watching Chris' back, JD."

"And Ezra's," added Buck, with a quick pat on the kid's shoulder.

"I was lookin' for Ez. He gave me his sword. I cleaned it all up, thought he might be willing to tell me a bit about it and when he'd used it." JD's enthusiasm for his interest waned slowly as the others' comments began to register. "What's that about watchin' their backs?"

Josiah, last to leave the porch, moved past JD now, Buck and Vin already well into the street trailing Larabee. "Son, we fear that there may be some trouble with the Judge for Ezra and Chris. Just want to try to prevent it."

"Trouble?" JD swung into line with Josiah and looked up at the taller man as he matched steps. "What can I do?"

"Come along," Sanchez smiled. "Think they could use the support." He looked up and saw Nathan standing on the balcony porch of his clinic, watching the men cross the street. With a wave of his arm, Sanchez signaled the healer to come down and join them. Nathan didn't need a second invitation, it looked like trouble was brewing. Josiah would fill him in once he got to his friends.

JD saw Josiah signal Nathan and a bad feeling began to burn in his guts. "Josiah! What is happening?" the urgency of his question making the older man pause.

"We may be needed to support our friends in the face of adversity. We should know more soon, patience, my young brother."

Nathan, who'd hurried down the steps and jogged across the short distance of street, joined them at this point. "What's going on?"

"Not sure yet, but Chris and Ezra may need our help." Josiah eyed the dark healer, his own best friend, adding, "Ezra got called in for a meeting with the judge. Chris is headed there now."

JD's eyes opened wide. He'd seen enough at the camp, like the others, to know what wasn't being said. Shit. Ez and Chris were good for each other, the judge didn't need to be bothering them. He stiffened and hurried to keep up with the wide strides of the bigger men. Ahead of them, he saw Larabee reach the hotel porch and mount it in a few brief strides, straight-arm the door and disappear within.

Just behind him, Vin and Buck stepped up on to the porch, but slowed slightly, turning to look at each other before continuing, entering the building with shoulders brushing each other, side by side.

Now he was stepping up beside Josiah and Nate. Sanchez led them in, Nate and he following. It was dim inside and the clerk was standing wide-eyed and nervous, arm still raised from pointing out where Judge Travis was meeting in the parlor with the town gambler. Larabee was at the door already, the tall shape of Wilmington and the slouched shape of Tanner close behind him. JD blinked at the tension in the air and bit his lower lip as he quietly walked up behind the other men, together with the preacher and the healer.

-/-/-/-/-/-/-/-

Chris silently swung open the door to hear Ezra's voice, sounding sad and lost, yet determined.

"Mr. Larabee is not to be involved in this, sir. It is only I that you need deal with. He is the leader of your police force in this town and essential to its continued survival. He keeps the men together, functioning, and safe. I can be out of town before sunset."

"Perhaps that would be for the best," Chris heard the judge respond, "but, not for you or your friends. And, I think that given the facts and the emotions," this last said in a distasteful tone, "I think I shall simply have to deal with my daughter-in-law in private. You stay."

"Good." Chris Larabee walked in, all his earlier anger and worry dissipating as he looked on the man who'd stolen his heart. He didn't bother to acknowledge Travis, simply dropped to one knee next to his little gambler. "Ezra. You hear that? You stay." He picked up the man's fine boned, compact hands and held them tightly to his own chest. "You stay here, with me. Don't ever think you can run out on me, I won't let it happen. I'd follow you to the ends of the earth and beyond."

"Chris." Ezra breathed out softly, returning the pressure of his hands to Chris'. "I simply thought---"

"Thinking can get you in more trouble, Ezra," Chris shook his head in mock sorrow, adding firmly, "on this, you just trust me. You stay. We are together now. If someone doesn't like it, they answer to me. We'll move on together, if need be."

"There will be no need," Orrin Travis said gently from his chair, watching the sight of new love and feeling his own heart quicken in memory of his early days with his own sweet wife. At least he'd had the luxury of being able to show that love openly. Chris Larabee and Ezra Standish were two very brave men to be so open, even here, in this very private place. He glanced up, to see the rest of the Seven lawmen crowding in the doorway of the parlor. "This town still needs all seven of its peacekeepers."

Everyone seemed to relax as the rest of the men came fully into the room and took up stations at the edges of the parlor. Vin quietly re-closed the door. Chris hadn't broken eye contact with Ezra yet, willing him to see the commitment and love for him in his eyes.

Ezra was stunned beyond thought. He'd been in a well of despair just moments ago, preparing himself to give up the only true happiness he'd ever found, giving up his home, so that his lover could survive. And now, here was the man himself, assuring him that they would not be parted, and that Ezra wouldn't have to leave.

"I don't need to leave?" Everyone heard the hesitation and hope in the words.

Chris simply groaned and tugged the captured hands closer, ignoring his audience as he dragged Ezra off his chair and into his arms there on the floor. Hugging the smaller man carefully out of respect for bruised ribs, he spoke into one ear. "Never! Not without me, Green Eyes."

Travis cleared his throat noisily and looked around the room, away from the two men in a clench at his feet, to look at the other five men ranged around him. Each man was watching the two men, each of the five had a soft look to his face. A bit of a smile, a kind of glow.

Ezra nodded against Chris' chin, then pushed back and smiled at the man. "Alright." His smile dimpled and grew, the very air in the room lightening with the happiness shining from that pair of bright green eyes. Eyes that now flitted around the room, widening in shock to see all their friends smiling down at them, and the judge --- oh, dear lord, they were still in the parlor with the very dignified, gruff Judge Orrin Travis. "Chris," Ezra hissed in panic, "the judge!"

Larabee gathered Ezra back up against his chest and twisted his neck slightly so that he could face Travis without releasing Ezra. "Judge."

"Chris."

"You got a problem with us?"

"No, no, I don't." Orrin leaned back in his wing chair and crossed his ankles, eyes twinkling. "My daughter-in-law seems to, but I shall see that it goes no further." He cleared his throat again. "Providing, gentlemen, that you are a bit more discrete in public than you are at this moment?"

"Think we can manage that," Chris answered, then turned to look back down at the man in his arms, "what do you say, Ez?"

"Yes."

Larabee grinned, his relief and joy easy to read, as he looked back over his shoulder again at the judge. "There are times when he don't say much."

Travis raised both eyebrows but didn't speak. There was another moment of silence, then the room broke into guffaws as the rest of the Seven began to laugh. Josiah threw an arm over Nathan's shoulders and whacked JD on the back, sending the young man forward in a stagger. Vin and Buck both grinned and slumped against the walls where they'd been standing like sentries on either side of the door.

Josiah interrupted the moment to catch the judge's attention, "Your honor, I don't think Mary will be a problem, we had a little talk and I think she's resigned to how things are now."

Travis met the pale eyes of the preacher and nodded his thanks, seeing the compassion and understanding there. Then, clapping his hands together, he stood up. "Gentlemen, it seems my meeting is over. When you are ready to vacate the premises of this fine hotel, just let the clerk know. Any charges for the use of the room will be billed to me." He walked stiffly to the door, then turned to look about the room at the seven men. The dark clad gunslinger was helping the smaller gambler up off the floor, nothing particularly noticeable in their actions, no hint at the earlier intimacy. The preacher stood with an arm over the broad shoulder of the healer. The young sheriff was a small distance from them, smiling and rubbing at one shoulder in an absent-minded way. The tracker and the ladies man stood watching the judge closely from their posts by the door, clearly ready to defend the rest if need arose. With a nod at the men, a feeling of relief and satisfaction welling up inside, Orrin Travis opened the door to the parlor and walked through, out into the hotel's lobby. He didn't close the door behind him, leaving that decision to the group of men still within.

<><><><><><><><><><><><>

Chris looked around the hotel parlor at the ring of friends that surrounded Ezra and him. Good friends. He took up Ezra's nearest hand and wove his fingers through the little gambler's enjoying the warmth of their joined flesh. Ezra looked sideways at him with a light dancing in his eyes. Chris spoke softly. "Thanks, boys."

Buck nodded. "Pard, we're just plain happy for you. Take care of each other now, you hear?"

JD was grinning, ear to ear, as he bobbed his head in agreement. "Yeah. You two are so lucky. It isn't everyone who finds someone special to love."

"Brother, bless you, that is a graceful way of saying it, true and from the heart." Josiah chuckled, then added directly to Larabee and Standish, "We will stand by you."

"Always." Vin gave a single nod to his best friend and to their gambler, who had also wormed his way into this solid fellowship of friends.

Nathan, who'd stood back watching and listening, stepped out now from beneath Josiah's exuberant arm and closer to the couple. "Ezra? You still okay? You want to come back to the clinic?"

Shocked green eyes flashed at the healer. "No, thank you, Mr. Jackson, I'm fine."

Jackson shook his head and looked over at Larabee. "Figure he's you responsibility now, Chris. You watch over him, he don't ever know when to say he's hurtin' or sick. And tonight, he's likely to be hurtin' pretty bad, once he tries to settle down."

Larabee shot a look of concern down at the top of his short friend's head, then over to the healer. "I'll watch him, Nate, thanks."

"If you two are done discussin' me?" Ezra grimaced up at the two taller men, ignoring the chuckles from the rest.

Chris leaned down and pecked Ezra on the cheek, lightly so as not to aggravate the vivid bruising. "Yep. All done."

"Then, perhaps we can finally finish our journey to mah room?" This was said on a sigh.

"Think we might." Chris looked up at the rest of his men. "You boys want to act as escort?"

"Kinda like a weddin' party, huh, Pard?" Buck's teasing was only half in jest, knowing eyes meeting Larabee's and conveying approval and support.

"Yeah," Chris raised his and Ezra's still joined hands to kiss Ezra's ring finger.

Vin swung the door all the way open from where the judge had left it partially open. He stepped out into the lobby, one hand resting casually on his still holstered mare's leg.

Buck went next, thumbs hooked into his gun belt, eyes evaluating the area.

JD slipped out next, with a simple nod and tip of his bowler to the new lovers, his friends. He stepped to the side of Buck once past the door, tucking his simple tweed jacket back from his holstered twin Colts.

Nathan and Josiah stood back, letting Larabee lead Ezra out next. Chris released Ezra's hand and grasped his elbow lightly in a publicly acceptable hold of support for an injured friend. Standish wished for his black gambler's hat to pull low over his eyes and shade his battered face from view as they emerged from the temporarily private room. Instead, he simply held his head erect, a bland look once more, poker face in place. Nathan Jackson and Josiah Sanchez, two tall, big men, followed them out the door.

Once in the street, the men walked casually and openly back over toward the saloon.

Buck caught sight of Judge Travis near the door to the Clarion. Travis had stopped and was watching his peace officers. When he caught Buck's eye, the judge gave the team's two-fingered salute. Buck nodded back, face smooth and serious, eyes sharp as he continued to scan the streets. There really wasn't any need to worry, the bad folks had been stopped and Mary Travis had been deflected already. But still, he knew that Chris and Ezra had been frustrated for several days now and he wanted his two good friends to finally have some time together. Some private, special time alone.

Vin glided across the street, climbing up to the porch, only to turn and face the street, providing cover for any interference. Josiah suddenly broke free from the small silent convoy, striding over to intercept Gloria Potter who seemed ready to call out to Standish from her perch at the front of her store. He caught her at the elbow and turned her around, bending his head to ask something in a low voice. From the way she answered and led him deeper into her store, the others figured he'd derailed that delay.

Nathan was next, stepping over to stop Billy's forward rush toward Chris. He spoke with a broad gesture toward JD. Billy's face lit up and he ran now to the young sheriff who bent to hear the little boy's request. JD grinned and puffed out his chest, putting a hand importantly on Billy's shoulder as he led the boy off toward the jail. Chris only heard a word or two of that conversation, something about a sword. He sighed and pushed Ezra forward gently, he could guess what it was about and he didn't want Ezra to know, it would only distress him.

Ezra noticed all the interactions of his friends to protect Chris and him, and he was wordlessly grateful. He wanted to do something for these kind and caring men and he would, perhaps at the next poker game. But first he really, really wanted to be with and love his angel. Just for one whole, entire, uninterrupted night. He began to quicken his pace, finding Chris keeping with him without difficulty or objection.

The remaining men filtered in through the saloon's doors, Vin and Buck peeling off toward the bar, Nathan heading slowly toward the Seven's table, where their abandoned bottle and an array of glasses still stood. Chris and Ezra continued through the room and directly up the stairs, Ezra leading now. His back was straight and head high. His simple work shirt and military trousers a far cry from his usual attire, but carried with such dignity of posture that they took on a look of elegance on the small figure. Chris was not blind to Ezra's magic, but was distracted as he found himself captivated by this new view of his lover's rump, the old worn trouser material clinging in a very complimentary fashion to the sweetest ass he'd ever laid eyes on as they mounted the stairs with Ezra in front of and just slightly above Chris. Fascinated, he didn't even notice as Vin and Buck joined Nathan at the table, carrying a pitcher of beer and some taller glasses.

Buck nudged Tanner and tossed his chin toward the quickly vanishing pair. "Old Chris has it bad, ain't seen him like this since his courtin' days with Sarah."

Vin chose to lift his newly poured beer and hide his mouth in the foam, so his smile wouldn't provoke more lively comments from their lothario. Nathan's own smile grew wider and he shook his head.

"They best be careful, tonight at any rate, Ezra's in no shape to do anything too active."

"Pard, love don't have a hell of a lot to do with common sense."

Vin finally lowered his beer to the table and blinked. "Jest better be around come mornin' Nate. In case you're needed." Then he flashed a grin at the other two men who'd been stunned to silence by his remark. Both Nathan and Buck instantly burst into laughter. They were still chuckling when Josiah arrived shortly thereafter. JD showed up as the final chorkles were subsiding. The five would stay up late that night, just to be around 'in case they were needed.'"

-/-/-/-/-/-/-/-

Ezra opened the door easily with a bit of wire he retrieved from above the lintel of the door. Larabee, whose hands were now pressed around those sweet cheeks that he'd admired all the way up the staircase, practically threw the smaller man into the room, closing the door firmly behind them. "How you going to lock this door now, Ezra?"

Standish came back to stand very closely beside Larabee as he showed him the bolt that had been installed just below the normal door lock. Sliding the bolt home, Ezra turned to face his lover.

"We're here. Alone."

"Yep." Chris lifted his arms and wrapped them around Ezra's shoulders, enfolding him in his warmth. He rocked them together as they stood there. "Love you, Ezra."

"Oh, Chris, I love you so very much!" Ezra's reserve seemed to have deserted him and he found he didn't mind at all. He only wished he was in better shape for their first free night together. His broken wrist was definitely going to be a challenge, the ribs as well, though they could work around the broken nose. He smiled up into warm hazel eyes. "Let's get naked. I want to touch you, feel you, all of you."

Chris nearly burst out laughing, nodding unable to speak as Ezra tried with quiet frustration to undo buttons with one hand. "Here," he finally chuckled with amusement, "let me do that for us. Least wise, 'til you're healed."

Ezra dropped his good hand and stood still as Chris first removed Ezra's shirt, then his own duster and shirt. Then he paused to let his fingers roam over the exposed flesh. The bandages were awkward, but the gunslinger still found flesh to touch, stroke, pet. His little gambler began to squirm, trying to get closer. Holding him at arms' length, he smiled. "Only be another few moments, Ez." Then he quickly stripped off boots, socks, pants and underclothes from first Ezra, then himself.

"Ezra." Chris stroked the sleek form, trailing one finger down Ezra's delicious spine, then across the rounded buttocks below, enjoying the tingle that came to his finger with the touch. "So soft."

Happy green eyes stared up at Chris. Ezra shivered. "Not everywhere," he said, thrusting a very hard member against Larabee's thigh.

Chris looked down and smiled, taking the hard, leaking shaft in one large hand and tugging gently. "Um, how 'bout we take this to bed?"

"My thoughts precisely, Angel."

"Not going to always be an angel in the bed, Green Eyes." Chris looked sternly at his teasing lover, adding a cautionary, "But for now, we best wait a bit." He gently released Ezra's cock.

Ezra flashed him a deliberately flirting look of denial.

By now they'd reached the feather bed and sat together on the edge. Chris eyed all the bandages wrapped around the southerner's torso and wrist. He reached up to cup the badly mauled face and delicately licked the bruised lips. "So sweet."

Ezra tried to climb closer but grunted in pain as his injuries set up a chorus of protests. "See that? You remember what Nathan said? You just relax, lie back down, Ez." Chris coaxed as he stood again and helped his lover into the big bed.

"I'm sorry, Chris," Ezra muttered disheartenedly. He shut his eyes, his erection fading as he hunched back on the coverlet.

"Ezra!" At Chris' sharply spoken tone the green eyes popped back open. Chris lay down next to his little gambler and slid an arm beneath the man's head and neck to cradle him closer, the gentleness belying his belligerent tone of voice. "Look at me, Ez." Chris stared deeply into those jade green depths. "I love you, this isn't some one night stand. You and I don't have to do anything but stay close tonight. The rest will happen soon enough once you're well again."

Ezra searched the hazel eyes above him, the tough, no-nonsense face. This man loves me. I surely do love him. It is more than enough. He dimpled, his eyes losing their look of uncertainty and worry. "Thank you, Angel." Ezra dropped his head back on to Chris' arm and snuggled as close as his protesting body would allow.

Chris smiled back and lowered his head to rest it beside Ezra's. "You're welcome, Green Eyes." He placed a tender kiss on contented, curling lips. His little gambler was finally where he belonged, safe in Chris' arms. "Sleep for now, my sweet Ezra, and we have all the time in the world, all our tomorrows."

THE END

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