Hopes And Dreams
(Old West)

by Sue Necessary

Disclaimer: Not mine, makin' no money y'all know the drill
Rating: NC-17 for m/m sex. If that ain't your thing, now's the time to leave
Pairing: B/E (No, that is not a typo! Y'all can pick yourselves up off the floor now.)
Notes: For this one fic, I have strayed from my beloved C/V to try my hand (metaphorically speaking ) at B/E. This is written for Katy, in celebration of her birthday. She is a truly dear person, a sweet and generous soul (and has been endlessly patient while I've stressed over this thing for way too long ) who deserves only good things. So happy birthday, Katy! I just hope I do justice to your boys!
Thanks: To Kerry and RubyJ. for beta-reading this sucker and just for being my friends. Trust me, sometimes I make the latter harder than the former. ;-) And, Kerry, you can stop smirking now .


"I'm sorry " Ezra Standish stared in outright disbelief at the man seated behind the desk, his usual unshakable composure nowhere in evidence. "I am certain I must have misheard you. Could you please repeat your last statement?"

Marshal Ed Dobbins shifted uneasily in his chair and fidgeted nervously with the pencil held between his hands. He licked his lips slowly, swallowed hard and cleared his throat, set the pencil down and then picked it up again. "I said uh " He cleared his throat once more and lifted his gaze slowly to the outraged jade one threatening to burn a hole through him, then quickly dropped his eyes back to the desk top. "I said you an' an' yer friend Well, I I'd appreciate it if y'all would uh leave town. T'day." He swallowed noisily. "By noon."

Ezra stiffened and sucked in a breath, lifting his head sharply and clenching his jaws and his hands, the latter to keep from reaching across the desk to strangle the pathetic excuse for a lawman opposite him. Anger boiled through him but he struggled to hold it in check, fairly certain that killing the loathsome fellow would not do him or his wounded companion any good, however much pleasure it might bring him.

Hell and damnation. As much as it pained him to admit such, he actually found himself in agreement with the astute if uncouth Vin Tanner. Some people did, indeed, just "need killin'."

But still he fought against that urge, forced himself to think clearly. Loosing a long, slow, deep breath through his nose, he forced his body to unclench one muscle at a time, willed down the desire to paint the shabby office with the marshal's own blood, and reached deep inside himself for the cool calm that had ever been his greatest asset.

Then contented himself with the thought that a few appropriate words to Chris Larabee upon his return home might very well see his desire for blood granted.

"You do realize, of course," he drawled when he could speak without shouting or cursing, "that my companion is injured and is in no true state to travel?" He spoke calmly, evenly, his smooth voice giving no hint of the concern - and guilt - that injury caused him. "And that his injury was suffered through no fault of his own, but resulted entirely from another's malicious attempt to harm me? Mr. Wilmington and I are the innocent parties here, marshal," his fluid tongue turned the title into a foul epithet, "and yet we are the ones being run out of your grimy little hamlet." He dropped his civil veneer then, leaned over the desk and braced both hands upon it, fixing his seething gaze upon the pale and sweating lawman. "Perhaps you would care to explain the reasonin' behind that?" he snarled softly.

Dobbins shuddered and absently wiped the back of a hand across his moist upper lip. He knew who this man was, knew who the injured man was, knew who their friends were. Keeping men like these in town was trouble, he knew that; they'd already proved that they attracted it. He was beginning to suspect, though, that making them leave would just bring more trouble down upon him later.

He needed a raise.

"I just " He cleared his throat again, wishing his voice would stop shaking and breaking. Wishing that fancy-dressed gambler would aim his murderous stare somewhere else. "I just think it ain't wise fer y'all t' stay," he finally managed to rasp. "Rance Manning had friends-"

"And just who might this Rance Manning be?" Ezra asked, the name meaning nothing to him.

Dobbins scowled at that. "The feller you shot?" he prompted sharply.

Ezra straightened abruptly, two chestnut brows shooting up. "That cretin with the knife had friends?" he blurted. "Good Lord, will wonders never cease!"

"Now, see here!" Dobbins protested, rising sharply to his feet. "I know who you an' yer friend are, but y'all cain't jist come bargin' inta my town an' shootin' folks willy-nilly-"

"We did not barge," Ezra reminded him coldly. "We were here at the express request of Judge Orin Travis and yourself to identify that misbegotten miscreant currently awaiting execution at your hands for murders in our town and yours. You invited us here, remember?" he spat. "And, thanks to us, the fair citizens of this dry and dusty wide spot in a non-existent road will soon enjoy the festive atmosphere of a hangin'. But how have we been thanked? I was accosted by your esteemed Mr. Manning, who was as poor an assailant as he was a poker player, Mr. Wilmington was injured by the knife intended for me, and we are asked to leave!" He was appalled to hear his voice rising, but couldn't seem to stop it. The events of the past eighteen hours were taking their toll, and he was perilously near losing control entirely. He needed a drink, he needed some sleep

He needed Buck Wilmington to be all right.

Dobbins pasted a weak smile upon his face. "Doc said he weren't hurt that bad-"

"And how the hell would he know?" Ezra shouted, slamming a fist onto the desk. "The man was drunk when he came up to tend Mr. Wilmington, and he hasn't sobered up since! For your information, I have been the one tending Mr. Wilmington's wound, as your doctor spent the night passed out in my room!"

Dobbins winced at that and bowed his head, closing his eyes tightly. Hell, Doc Watkins did pick all the wrong times to drink

Ezra exhaled sharply and again drew himself upright, clenching his jaws and trying to bring his breathing - and his emotions - under control. He idly straightened his jacket, then tugged at each cuff, his anger visible in the sharp movements of his long fingers. He despised the man before him, he detested this town, and he bitterly wished for a few of Josiah's Old Testament curses to fall upon them both.

"Very well," he said at last, his voice low and uncharacteristically harsh, "we shall leave. However, let there be no mistake about this." He fixed hard jade eyes upon the lawman and poured every bit of conviction he possessed into his next words. "Should any further harm befall Mr. Wilmington on our journey, or should, God forbid, he not survive the journey, you will know what hell is, for I shall bring the horsemen of the apocalypse to your very doorstep, and I shall smile as I turn them loose upon you." He raised a hand and touched two fingers to the brim of his hat, giving the marshal a cold, dimpled grin. "I bid you adieu."

Dobbins watched the Southerner turn smartly on his heel and all but glide out of the office. And as the door closed softly behind him, the marshal collapsed in a limp and sweating heap into his chair.

Forget the raise. What he needed was to retire.

7~7~7~7

Ezra stopped outside the marshal's office and sagged against a post supporting the overhang, his breath escaping him in a heavy, unsteady gust. He closed his eyes and raised a shaking hand to his forehead, trying desperately to regain some semblance of control. He needed to settle down, he knew that, needed to calm himself and think. Thinking had always been his forte. With a cool head, a workable plan and sufficient time, he could extricate himself from any unpleasant situation. He simply had to put that cool head to work

Except that his heart kept trying to interfere.

He groaned at that and straightened, allowing his gaze to sweep absently over the town. And, as he'd instinctively known it would, that gaze reached the hotel and went not one whit further. The hotel, the second floor of the hotel, the room there at the corner

The room where Buck Wilmington lay, injured because of him.

Another groan escaped him and he wrenched his gaze away from that accusing window with an effort, plagued by guilt he knew he did not deserve but could not avoid. It hadn't been his fault, he knew that! He couldn't help it that Manning had been a lamentably inferior player. He couldn't help it that the man hadn't known when to cut his losses, couldn't help it that the brainless oaf had ignored every chance he'd given him to walk away with at least a portion of his money. He'd dealt a scrupulously, almost painfully fair game-

And still Manning had had the audacity, the stupidity, to challenge him and demand his money back! All of his money! And when he'd refused - of course he'd refused; hell, any gambler worth the name would refuse! - Manning had charged him, that cursed knife appearing out of nowhere-

Only to slash into Buck Wilmington's body as he had appeared out of nowhere to hurl himself between Manning and his intended victim.

Ezra shook his head slowly, dazedly, his gaze returning to that window. He didn't understand it. He could have taken Manning, had taken him, had shot him just as Buck had slumped to the table. A neat shot drilled into the center of the bastard's forehead-

A shot that Ezra didn't even really remember making, because all his thought, all his fear, had been centered on Buck.

Who had come out of nowhere to save him.

He stared at the window and let his mind grapple with that thought. Why? Why in the world would Buck put himself in harm's way for a man he had to have known was always prepared for just such a situation? That certainly hadn't been the first time Ezra had been accosted at the tables, and it certainly wouldn't be the last. Fools and their money might be easily parted, but that parting was not always gracious. In fact, it could often turn ugly-

And Mr. Wilmington did so abhor ugly.

Ezra's lips twitched in a fleeting smile. He still so clearly recalled the day Buck had let that little gem fly, could see even now the lively twinkle in those impossibly blue eyes, the mobile mouth curving into a slow, wicked smile under that glossy dark mustache, the sinewy, loose-jointed slouch of that long, rangy body. He could see it all, remember it all-

What continued to elude him, though, was the precise moment when he'd fallen in love with the man.

And it was love, he knew that, was certain of it, despite his long-professed immunity to the ailment. He didn't love, was incapable of love. Love required generosity, selflessness, honesty, and those qualities were anathema to Ezra.

Or so he'd thought

He winced, tore his gaze again from the window and scowled down the dusty street. He'd been associating with those six men for too long. They were corrupting him, tainting him, ruining him. Oh, he might tease Vin Tanner about being "Robin Hood," but to his horror he'd discovered that Tanner and the others were turning him into Don Quixote

And Buck Wilmington was the chink in his rusty armor.

7~7~7~7

He woke slowly, reluctantly, not yet ready to return to consciousness, to the pain he knew awaited him there. Even now, drifting between sleep and waking, he could feel it, but only vaguely so, like a half-formed memory lurking just at the edge of his awareness. He knew it was there, biding its time, and he would gladly have let it wait just a while longer

If only the voice calling to him weren't so insistent.

"Buck, please," Ezra said softly. Seated in the chair next to the bed, he leaned over and set a hand on Wilmington's broad shoulder, trying not to notice the hardness of muscle or the warmth of smooth flesh beneath his fingers. Trying to fight the urge to caress. "I know you need to rest, and I truly wish I could leave you to that, but I fear I cannot. Please, Buck," he entreated, leaning closer still and unconsciously breathing the man's scent into himself, "I need you to wake up now. We have rather a pressin' matter before us."

Buck stirred weakly and moaned softly as that voice pulled him toward wakefulness, toward the pain. He wanted to resist its lure, but couldn't. Soft and supple and smooth, it slid through his mind like sun-warmed honey and brushed against his thoughts like silk. He couldn't fully understand the words, but didn't need to. The voice itself was enough, a rich, sweet siren's call that he was powerless to deny.

Ezra.

Relief swept through Standish in a hard wave as that whisper reached his ears. "Yes, it's me," he breathed unsteadily, absently stroking Buck's shoulder. Immediately, though, he stilled his fingers and forced that part of himself down, unwilling to take such base advantage of the man's weakness. "I'm sorry, Buck, but you have to wake up," he insisted gently. "I'm afraid I have some bad news."

Buck stirred again, then gasped harshly and stiffened as full knowledge of the pain swept through him on a searing tide. Fire erupted deep in his body and exploded outward, tearing a harsh groan from him. Instinctively he reached for something to grip, and closed his fingers hard about the hand that slid into his. "If yer gonna tell me that I'm hurt," he ground out through gritted teeth, "I think I done figured that out!"

Ezra was startled by the force of Buck's grip on his hand, but strangely reassured by it, too. Perhaps the wound wasn't that bad "Yes, well, while I do certainly admire your perspicacity," he drawled, "I fear the bad news pertains to another matter."

Buck cracked open an eye and scowled up at the man above him. "Wanta try that in English this time?"

Ezra sighed and ran his free hand through his already-disheveled hair. "I said we have a problem," he clarified.

Buck gave a breathless chuff of laughter and arched two dark brows weakly. "Hell, pard," he whispered, "wouldn't be us if we didn't." He closed his eyes again and tried to relax against the bed, exhaling unsteadily as the pain receded to a more bearable level. "So what's wrong?" he breathed, feeling Standish's tension through the hand clasped in his.

Ezra stared down at Buck, took in his pallor and the lines of pain etched deeply into his handsome features, and felt another stab of anger at Dobbins. They shouldn't have to do this, Buck shouldn't have to do this, but that wretched excuse of a marshal had given them no choice.

"Ezra?" Buck prompted softly. Worry gripped him and he forced open his eyes, fixing them on the gambler's face. Even through his pain, he could easily read the anger, the worry, written there, and that alone concerned him. While he'd gotten pretty good at reading the man, or thought he had, Standish rarely made it so simple for him. And for Ezra to make anything simple, things had to be bad. "Ya gonna tell me or make me guess?"

Standish sighed heavily and shook his head, his features twisting into a scowl. "It seems," he answered tightly, "that we are bein' run out of town. Not that this is exactly an unfamiliar occurrence to either one of us, but the timin' is most inconvenient!"

"Got another game brewin'?" Buck asked with a faint grin.

And that grin only added to Ezra's anger. "Of course not!" he snapped. Good Lord, could the man take nothing seriously? "But you, as you have so shrewdly deduced, are wounded and in no condition to travel! That imbecile in the saloon nearly killed you-"

"No, he didn't," Buck put in, a trace more strength in his voice. "I been nearly killed lotsa times and this ain't nothin' like that."

"Very well, he could have killed you-"

"But he didn't." He winced and slid his free hand to the bandage wrapped about his waist, feeling the deep, painful throbbing of his wound. However much it hurt, though, he couldn't regret what he'd done. Not if it meant he'd saved Ezra. "So why are we bein' run out?"

Only now realizing he still held Buck's hand, Ezra quickly released it and rose sharply to his feet, turning away from the bed and pacing about the small room. He hadn't slept at all last night, had stayed awake to tend Buck and was exhausted. But the man's nearness and vulnerability were playing hell with his frayed nerves, and he needed, for his own sake, to put some distance between them.

"The town marshal, a cowardly cretin named Dobbins, fears that we might be targets for associates of the late, lamented Mr. Manning - if indeed any such associates actually exist - and that they will attempt to exact some form of retribution from us for their comrade's untimely yet deserved demise," he answered acidly.

Buck sighed, winced and closed his eyes, his tired and pain-fogged mind picking its way slowly through the Southerner's convoluted speech. "He thinks that sonuvabitch's pards are gonna come after us?" he finally breathed.

Ezra rolled his eyes and shook his head. "I believe that is what I just said," he snapped.

"Coulda fooled me," Buck retorted. He shifted again on the bed, trying to find some position that offered any escape from the pain, and gave a breathless groan when he failed. "Damn," he rasped, tensing beneath the renewed onslaught.

Ezra whirled around at that soft admission of pain and took an unsteady step toward the bed, then stopped himself abruptly and swallowed hard against his worry. Buck's face, pale and beaded with sweat, was a tight mask of suffering, the hand at his side clenched into a white-knuckled fist. Everything in the gambler ached to go to the man and take him in his arms, comfort him, but he fought against that urge with a desperate strength, refusing to betray himself so. He had to get Buck home, and he couldn't very well do that if the man shot him dead for making unwanted advances.

At least, he thought they were unwanted

He turned away again and moved on leaden legs to the window, staring through it but seeing nothing of the world beyond it, consumed in his own confusion. There were times when Buck looked at him and he thought he saw a glimmer of something in those deep blue eyes, something that reached out to him, beckoned to him-

But no. It couldn't be. The man's love for women was notorious, and he'd never given the smallest sign of feeling any attraction to men. Ezra decided it was own attraction that was causing him to imagine that peculiar softening of Buck's gaze when it fell upon him, decided it was his own longing to possess those mobile lips that made him think they smiled just a bit more tenderly at him. He was seeing only what he wanted to see, and simply would not be made a fool of by himself.

Buck sighed in sorrow as he watched Ezra turn away and draw into himself. He'd long known that he'd have to woo the man gently, carefully, that his most daunting task in winning Standish's love would first be winning his trust. So many times he just wanted to blurt out his feelings, to pour them all out in a stream of words, but he knew that would only have sent Ezra running so fast and so far that Buck would never see him again.

And he just couldn't have stood that. Somewhere along the way, Ezra had found and settled into a place in Wilmington's heart that no one, man or woman, had ever occupied before. The man was crooked as a sidewinder and slick as greased glass, had a weakness for money that was sometimes painful to behold, but for all that there was an elemental goodness to him that surfaced at the damnedest moments, taking even Ezra by surprise. Standish tried to pretend it wasn't there, could attribute some base motivation to almost any selfless act, but the plain truth was that the man had a conscience and a heart that defied his most determined efforts to deny them. He was a better man than he knew, and Buck loved him for it.

He just had to figure out how to make Ezra see that.

When he felt more in command of his emotions, Ezra turned away from the window and walked back to the bed, sinking once more into the chair at its side. "Perhaps you now understand the gravity of our situation," he drawled softly, clasping his hands together in his lap to keep from reaching for Buck's. "We have been given until the most unimaginative hour of noon to depart these environs - clearly, Marshal Dobbins reads those same dreadful books as JD - and yet you are certainly in no shape to ride."

Buck sighed and raised a heavy hand to rub tiredly at his eyes. "He say what he'll do if we don't go?"

Ezra winced delicately. "I believe he mentioned something about arresting us and then telegraphing Mr. Larabee with news of our incarceration."

Buck let his hand fall to the bed and stared up at Standish in sick horror. "He's gonna lock us up an' then wire Chris ta come get us?" When Ezra nodded, he groaned and closed his eyes. "Shit," he breathed, easily able to imagine just how well his old friend would take that bit of news. "Why the hell don't he just go on an' shoot us?"

"Thus you see our dilemma," Ezra said, arching a chestnut brow. "Caught between one man who loathes danger and one who is the very embodiment of it. If we stay here and Chris is called upon to retrieve us, he will not be happy. If we leave and I deliver you to town in your present condition, Chris will not be happy. Whatever we do at this point," he shrugged, "Chris will not be happy."

"Hell, Ezra," Buck forced a grin and a wink, "if folks only did things that made Chris happy, wouldn't nothin' ever get done."

Ezra had to laugh at that. While their leader was not nearly as dour as he'd been in the early days of their association, he certainly was still an intimidating presence. They had all learned to tread lightly upon Larabee's sometimes hair-trigger temper. Except, perhaps, for Vin, who seemed to take a perverse delight in aggravating the combustible gunman into near apoplexy.

Sometimes Ezra had to wonder at the tracker's bizarre idea of fun

"Ain't got a choice, do we?" Buck sighed, again sliding his hand to the wound at his waist. Damn thing hurt like hell with him just lying here. He didn't want to think about what having to ride would do to him.

Ezra could hear the pain, and the faint but unmistakable note of fear, in the big man's soft voice and was immediately gripped by a fresh resolve. "Of course we do," he snapped, straightening in his chair and lifting his head defiantly. "We will simply make our own choice. We will stay right where we are-"

"And what?" Buck asked wearily. "Shoot the marshal when he comes ta get us?"

Ezra snorted derisively at that notion and waved one elegant hand in dismissal. "The man is incapable of such a confrontation!" he spat contemptuously. "If he possessed that kind of courage, he wouldn't be asking us to leave! He knows full well that we are the aggrieved parties here-"

"Don't have ta confront us," Buck sighed, allowing his heavy eyelids to slide closed. "We'll need food, water." He shook his head faintly against the pillow. "He can make it impossible for us ta get any. If he wants us gone that bad he won't rest 'til we go."

"But you cannot-"

"Ain't got a choice." He wrenched open his eyes and stared blearily up at Standish, a wan smile ghosting about his mouth. "You'd be surprised what a fella can do when he ain't got a choice."

Ezra opened his mouth to protest, wanted to protest then closed his mouth and bowed his head when he realized that any further protest would be useless. Buck was right. Dobbins had any number of means at his disposal to make it impossible for them to stay, and any attempt to thwart the man would likely bring more harm to Buck.

And he couldn't allow that to happen.

"Very well," he answered on a sigh, "we shall acquiesce to his demand. But," his voice hardened and he leaned forward, snaring Buck's gaze with his own and holding it ruthlessly, "I want your word that you will listen to me, that you will do everything exactly as I say, and that you will not fight my attempts to care for you. Your life is in my hands, and I will expect you to submit to me without any argument at all, do you understand?"

Buck stared at him a moment, then again a faint shadow of his familiar grin ghosted around his mouth. "Why, Ezra," he breathed, "I thought ya'd never ask."

7~7~7~7

Marshal Ed Dobbins stood in front of the hotel and watched through narrowed eyes as the fancy-dressed gambler stood at his wounded partner's leg and made certain the man was securely seated on his horse. They were leaving, but they were taking their own damned sweet time in doing it.

The Southerner had forced the hungover doctor at gunpoint to check over and tend the injured man, then had accompanied the doctor - still at gunpoint - to his office and had taken from it all the medical supplies he might possibly need. And when the doctor had requested payment, the gambler had lowered his gun slightly and asked in which leg he'd like to receive it.

Doc Watkins likely wouldn't come out of the saloon for days.

After pillaging the clinic, Standish had next gone to the livery and purchased a pack-horse, demanding that the hostler write out a bill of sale in the presence of a witness the Southerner had grabbed on his way into the stable. From there, the gambler had stalked to the mercantile for provisions, again paying for them, again demanding a written receipt of purchase with each and every item listed. Dobbins had followed the man at a discreet - and safe - distance, chilled to the bone by the implacable hatred and barely-leashed fury in the eyes that burned like twin green fires in the otherwise blank white mask of his face.

He just might be joining Doc Watkins at the saloon later.

Now, though, he was watching the two men leave. Finally. Standish took a few moments longer seeing to his friend, then left him to make a thorough - and leisurely - last check of the pack-horse, testing every cinch and strap with a maddening slowness. Finally, apparently satisfied, he sauntered to his own horse and climbed into the saddle, tugging at his hat and coat sleeves and brushing dust from his lapels before taking up the reins. He glanced once more at the pack-horse, once more at his companion, then settled a withering stare on Dobbins.

"You've won this hand," he said in a cold, smooth drawl. "Pray the pot doesn't cost you more than you were prepared to ante." With that, he turned his horse and finally, finally started down the street, with Wilmington at his side and the pack-horse in tow.

Dobbins gulped, shuddered and looked at his watch. It was less than one minute to noon.

7~7~7~7

"Buck? Buck, wake up. We're here."

"Hunh?" He lifted his head with an effort and pushed himself upright in the saddle, then peeled open his eyes to look groggily around. "Here?" Where? He couldn't see the town, couldn't see much of anything really, and couldn't remember them riding long enough to be back home already. "Town?"

Ezra sighed and bowed his head, closing his eyes tightly and running a weary hand over them. They were only four hours out of Cedar Springs and had stopped twice already before now. The last time he'd had to stop the bleeding from Buck's wound, and had felt the first heat of a fever in the man's skin. Then, remembering this place from their ride in, he'd given Buck enough laudanum to allow him to ride just long enough to reach it.

This far and no further. He'd done as Dobbins had demanded; they were out of town. Not by much, but he didn't care. He didn't believe anyone would trouble themselves to avenge Manning's shooting, suspected that Dobbins didn't believe it either. More likely the marshal - and wasn't that an affront to justice? - was just a weak little man who couldn't face trouble and was afraid of those who could.

And, much to his own surprise, Ezra had realized that his own days of running were over.

"No, Buck," he said gently, setting a hand on Wilmington's leg and gazing up into the man's confused and fever-flushed face. "Not town, not yet. It's just a small, deserted shack I noticed on our way in-"

"Shack?" Buck croaked, that word catching at his befuddled mind. "Chris's shack?"

Ezra permitted himself a small wry smile, knowing how Larabee hated it when anyone referred to his rough, dilapidated cabin as a "shack." But the truth was the truth. "No, not Chris's shack," he explained patiently. "That's much too far away. We're still only a few hours out of Cedar Springs. You do remember Cedar Springs, don't you?"

Buck licked his lips and tried to concentrate, all the while clinging desperately to his saddle horn just to keep himself from falling. Pain throbbed hot and heavy through his middle, starting at his side but radiating outward in torrents of fire. He was weak and dizzy and thirsty as hell, and felt as if he were being roasted alive from the inside. He should've been in bed, he knew that Had been in bed, he knew that, too "Cedar Springs," he finally rasped. "Marshal made us leave."

"Yes, well," Ezra said coldly, "I plan to have a few words with our associates about that."

Buck frowned, still trying to think through the thick fog of pain, fever and laudanum clouding his mind. "Ass ass Y' mean Chris 'n the boys?" he slurred.

Ezra's lips twitched and one brow lifted. "Well, I am fairly certain that Mr. Larabee would not appreciate you referring to him as an 'ass,' but, yes, I do mean him and the others. But," he swept a gaze over Buck's bowed form, "while it would no doubt be entertaining to mull over all the ways Mr. Larabee might choose to make his displeasure over our mistreatment known, I fear we have more pressin' matters at hand. Like getting you off your horse and into that shack." He sighed heavily and shook his head slowly. While he'd always admired Buck's towering height and strong physique, for now he found himself wishing the man weren't quite so much bigger than he. "It should be an interesting few minutes," he breathed.

In the end, though, it wasn't quite as difficult as he'd feared. Buck was conscious enough, aware enough, to give him some help, and, between the injured man's weak efforts and his own grim determination, he managed to help Wilmington off his horse and into the shack without inflicting too much damage on either of them. Still, by the time he lowered Buck into the cleanest corner he could find, he was sweating and breathing hard and trembling from a combination of exertion and sheer exhaustion.

He really did need to sleep!

But that would have to wait. Buck needed help, needed him, and for now that commanded his whole attention. When fairly certain that the man would remain sitting upright where he'd left him, Ezra went back outside to the horses and began unpacking those items he needed immediately. Blankets for a bed, the bag of medical supplies, water. As was old habit in a time of crisis, his mind began to function with a mathematical precision, cold and calculating, shutting out everything else that would only get in the way.

Like feeling. Especially feeling. That only complicated matters, clouded matters, got in the way and turned clarity into chaos. Hadn't his time with these six men proven that? How many times had he gotten mired in some difficulty with them because he'd forgotten the first rule of survival and allowed himself to feel? Maude was right; his association with them was dulling his edge

And, Lord, how he wished they were with him now!

Returning to the shack, he set about doing what he could to care for Buck, unrolling the blankets and making a pallet for him, then easing the injured man to his feet, helping him to the rough bed and lowering him carefully down upon it. Once he had Buck settled, he leaned over him and pressed the back of one hand to an unshaven cheek, wincing deeply at the heat burning in the man's flesh.

God, they needed Nathan!

Unable to help himself, he gently stroked his fingers over Buck's cheek, overwhelmed by worry and the sick realization of his own helplessness. He was a gambler, not a healer. True, he had some rudimentary knowledge of wound care - any man who traveled in these desolate, uncivilized parts would be a fool not to - but it seemed impossible that his few skills would be enough.

And yet they were all Buck had

He continued to stroke Buck's face, knowing it was wrong, foolish, but unable to stop. Weariness and worry had weakened his resolve; at least, he told himself it was weariness and worry. And he had wanted to do this for so long! Marveling at his temerity, and bemoaning his idiocy, he deftly traced the curve of Buck's glossy dark brows, rubbed a thumb against the lines of pain furrowing the man's forehead, then slid that thumb feather-light down his nose. Wilmington truly was a beautiful man, his features finely chiseled and cast to perfection. Next Ezra's thumb drifted to Buck's mouth and delicately stroked his lips, amazed at their softness. He absently licked his own lips, wondering anew how Buck's would feel against them, would taste against them

And snatched his hand away with a softly snarled curse when he realized what he was doing. God, the man was hurt and all he could think about was kissing him! Fine friend he was! The man's life was in his hands and this was how he chose to exercise that responsibility? By daydreaming about what could never possibly happen? Buck deserved better. He needed better

He needed Nathan, damn it!

Ezra exhaled unsteadily and bowed his head, covering his eyes with a shaking hand. But he was all Buck had. And somehow, God, somehow, he would have to be enough.

He scrubbed his hand over his face, took several slow, deep breaths to calm himself, then forced some semblance of clarity into his tired mind and returned his attention to the task at hand. Again ruthlessly thrusting his feelings aside, he removed Buck's gunbelt, then began the struggle to strip the unconscious man of his vest, shirt and undershirt. He numbed himself to what he was doing, refused to acknowledge the allure of the body in his arms, forcefully ignored his own body's response. After long, difficult moments, he laid Buck back down, the man's torso naked save for the bandages swathing his trim, taut middle.

The blood-stained bandages. Dear Lord, the wound had come open again!

Barely fighting back a wave of despair, Ezra stared at the dark stain marring the white bandages and forced himself to think. Heaven knew he'd seen Nathan deal with a bleeding wound often enough in the past. If nothing else, the six men with whom he had thrown in his lot were good for a medical education!

So what would Nathan do? And just how in the hell could the man do it as often as he did with such unfailing calm?

He thought a few moments more, recalling the many times he'd watched Jackson work on one or another of his injured comrades, and told himself he could do this. He had to do this. Taking another deep, calming breath, he steeled his resolve and pulled the bag of medical supplies to him, then went to work.

And marveled all the while at the unnatural steadiness of his hands.

7~7~7~7

Buck drifted helplessly, buffeted by hard gusts of pain, swept by waves of searing heat. The torment never released him, allowed him no rest. Even the once-simple act of breathing hurt almost beyond bearing.

Yet even through the agony he could feel gentle hands tending him, stroking him, could hear a low, sweet voice murmuring softly, soothingly to him, and knew instinctively that he was safe. When the pain was at its worst, strong arms cradled him; when the heat raged at its hottest, nimble fingers bathed him. And always, always that supple voice spoke to him, wound about him, bound him to this place, to the man at his side, and kept him from drifting away.

Ezra.

The sure and certain knowledge that Ezra was with him lent him more comfort than any amount of laudanum could, infused him with a strength that came more from his heart than from his wounded body. He gave himself completely into the Southerner's care, sought refuge in the man from his suffering.

And knew he was exactly where he belonged.

7~7~7~7

For two days Ezra tended Buck with a mixture of dogged determination and loving tenderness, draining and cleaning the ugly knife wound in his side, bathing his fevered body, spooning mouthfuls of water and broth into him. He seldom strayed far from the wounded man's side, was too painfully aware of Buck's precarious condition to leave him for long, was gripped by the irrational fear that if he did leave, Buck would just slip away.

And he simply couldn't have borne that.

Yet, even seated right next to him, Ezra realized that already he missed Buck terribly. Missed his easy, even temperament, the quick flash of his wit, the rakish charm that was his calling card. More than that, though, he missed Buck's warmth, that deeply empathetic and compassionate side of the man that somehow allowed him to take just about everyone he met into his heart and cradle them there for safekeeping. Ezra had never known anyone who truly cared as much and as deeply as Buck Wilmington and at first had been leery of so open and generous a spirit. It was his experience, after all, that no one ever gave so much of themselves without expecting, and eventually demanding, something in return, and he'd braced himself for the inevitable day when Buck would do the same.

That day had yet to come, and he was only now accepting that it never would. What Buck gave, he gave without condition or reservation and without ever attaching a price. And he loved in exactly the same manner, withholding nothing of himself, offering everything he was and everything he had, pouring himself out completely for those he held dear. Whether he was nurse-maiding Chris through another dark bout of painful memories, trying to protect JD from his own youthful exuberance or easing the burdens of one or another of their bizarre band with his understanding and patience, Buck Wilmington was one of those select few who were at their best while taking care of another.

Ezra thought it the height of irony that he, who'd never cared about anyone but himself, should now be the sole care-taker for a man who was the very embodiment of that role.

"You have to get well, Buck," he murmured, again leaning over the man to bathe his face with a damp cloth. Almost immediately after settling into the shack, he'd discovered that the water pump out front was rusted and useless beyond repair. To his great relief, though, he'd found that the well out back, likely spring-fed, still yielded a good supply of water; water he'd been using almost constantly since in his fight to bring down Buck's fever. "You mean too much to us to me to leave just now. I'm afraid I I have come to to depend on you "

He swallowed hard and bowed his head, closing his eyes tightly against the chaotic rush of so many unfamiliar emotions. He didn't know what to do with them, how to deal with them. His first instinct, as always, was simply to force them back down and hide them, deny them, but he knew that was no longer possible. Somehow the events of the past few days had sent a crack through his soul that he was powerless to close, and now every feeling he'd kept locked so carefully inside was spilling out into the light of day. "You have to come back!" he pleaded harshly. "You have to help me I don't know how to do this!"

"I'd say yer doin' fine."

He looked up sharply, his eyes flying open, at that breathless whisper. To his shock, two glazed blue eyes were open and gazing up at him, a faint smile on Wilmington's lips. "You you heard me?" he gasped in horror.

Buck's smile softened and he slid a leaden hand to Ezra, curling his fingers weakly about the gambler's. "Been hearin' ya all along," he breathed. "Yer voice yer touch what's kep' me hangin' on."

The words, and the inference behind them, tore a sharp, startled breath from Ezra, and he sat absolutely still. At least, he thought there was an inference behind them hoped there was Or, God, maybe his lack of sleep was simply catching up with him.

Weak as he was, still in pain, still fevered, Buck nevertheless recognized the doubt running through the man and knew he had to lay it to rest once and for all. He'd told himself that he needed to wait until the time was right. He figured it wouldn't get any righter than this.

"Wondered when ya'd finally let yourself admit it," he said, clinging to Ezra's hand with what little strength he had. "I know yer scared. Know y' ain't got much experience with this." He swallowed and licked dry lips, doggedly forcing himself on through his pain and weakness. "But you need t' know that I love ya an' that all I want is just ta show ya how much."

Ezra suddenly felt light-headed, light-hearted and terrified out of his mind. Buck's admission was everything he'd wanted, everything he'd hoped for, and everything he feared. He tried to speak, but no words would come; tried to breathe, but seemed to have forgotten how. Buck loved him

"You're delirious!" he rasped unconsciously.

Buck gave a weak, pained laugh, but held all the harder to Ezra's hand. His eyes wanted to close, but he fixed them on the Southerner's face and wouldn't let them waver. This was too important, and he wouldn't let either of them be robbed of it.

"Then I've been delirious a good while now," he breathed. "I've tried lettin' ya know but every time I came too close you just skittered away an' closed yer eyes to the truth. I ain't delirious, Ez," he insisted weakly. "I love ya. I'm as clear on that as I've ever been about anything in my life."

"But all your women," Ezra protested weakly, still unable to accept this. "Inez "

Buck sighed softly, realizing this might just be harder than he'd thought. For both their sakes, though, he knew he couldn't give up. "I know Inez don't want me that way," he said through his pain. "Known it all along. Chasin' after her just a diversion."

Ezra frowned at that and shook his head slightly, not understanding. "Diversion?"

Buck swallowed again. "Could I get some water?" he asked. "I'm a mite parched here."

"Oh, Lord!" Ezra gasped, irritated at his own distraction. "I'm sorry!" He set the damp cloth down on the corner of Buck's pallet and reached for the cup of water he kept nearby. Then sliding his other hand under Buck's head, he lifted slightly and placed the cup to the man's lips, tipping a small portion of the water into the injured man's mouth. "Slowly," he urged gently. "I wouldn't want you to choke or worse."

Buck sipped gratefully, delighting in the cool, wet glide of the water into his dry mouth and down his throat. Of equal delight, though, was the feel of the strong hand cupping his head and the thumb slowly stroking through his hair. He hated this pain, this weakness, but if nothing else it had finally allowed him to know the feel of Ezra's hands upon him.

Now he just had to convince the man that they could both have so much more

"Thanks," he sighed when he'd finally finished the water. Ezra withdrew the cup and lowered his head back to the blankets, and he gazed up at the Southerner with a soft smile. "Been takin' real good care of me," he said, "Means more'n y' know."

Ezra grimaced and looked away, all too aware of his own insufficiencies in this area. "Yes, well, no doubt you would have done better to have one of the others, but I fear I am all you have-"

"Don't want nobody else," Buck assured him solemnly, again reaching for Standish's hand and latching onto it. "Wish I could make you understand that." He watched as the green eyes turned slowly back to him and saw the struggle being waged behind them. That struggle only strengthened his resolve. "I know you've seen me chase after a lotta women," he said, forcing what little strength he had into his voice. "Chased after some men, too though I doubt ya've seen that. But," he tightened his hand about Ezra's and stared compellingly up at the man, "you tell me this, Ez. You ever in all the time ya known me ever once known me t' lie ta any of them women? Ever once heard that I've led any of 'em on with false promises?"

Ezra remained silent and still, green eyes fixed on Buck's pale and pain-lined face. And knew what his answer had to be. They had all often teased Buck about his sexual escapades and his "animal magnetism," but they also knew that for all his seeming lechery, the big man was scrupulously honorable, in his own strange way, when it came to his conquests. He didn't lie, didn't make promises he never intended to keep. The secret to Buck Wilmington's success was his absolute and heartfelt sincerity.

Dear Lord

Buck saw Ezra's eyes widen, heard the sudden breath he sucked in, and knew the truth was finally penetrating the thick walls around the Southerner's heart. He smiled slightly and nodded weakly. "Ain't ever lied ta any of 'em, Ez," he said softly. "Ain't lyin' ta you. I love ya been lovin' ya fer a while now an' I just want a chance ta show you how much."

Ezra stared at him as disbelief warred with desire within him. "I w want that, too," he whispered. His hand strayed helplessly to Buck's face and stroked lightly, lovingly, his fingers shaking. Then they wandered to the lips that had fascinated him for so long and he traced their beautiful shape, then absently licked his own.

Buck stayed absolutely still, letting Ezra caress him, allowing the man to come to terms with this in his own way, in his own time. Much as he wanted this, he wouldn't rush it, figured Ezra was worth waiting for.

"I never dreamed "

Buck sighed sadly as the man's words trailed into silence. "That's a shame, Ez," he breathed. "A man needs ta dream. Gives him life. Gives him hope."

Ezra grimaced and shook his head. "Perhaps. But when one has had hope snatched away so many times, indulging in it becomes little more than an exercise in self-torment."

"I ain't goin' nowhere, Ez," Buck assured him. "You go ahead an' hope in me."

"I am not accustomed to hoping," he admitted slowly, his gaze intent on Buck's face. He had learned early to read men, had built a life on that ability, was a master at it. And all he saw in the man gazing back at him was complete and heartfelt honesty. "I am not certain I know how."

Buck smiled gently. "Them let me teach ya," he urged, his strength waning. "I won't hurt ya. I promise."

Those words, so weak but so sure, sank through Ezra and took root in his heart, his soul, giving him a strength and a courage he'd not had in a very long while. They banished doubt, cast out fear, gave him a reason and the will to believe. Slowly, very slowly, he let the last wall inside himself fall, let his hope, fragile and almost forgotten, rise, and marveled at how good, how right it felt. He drew a deep breath, the first free breath he felt he'd taken in ages

Then leaned down and, without a hint of hesitation, brushed his lips lightly against Buck's. "Teach me," he whispered against the man's mouth. "Teach me how to hope."

7~7~7~7

Buck's fever broke that evening and, after finishing a whole cup of broth and two of the biscuits Ezra had made, he dropped into the first truly peaceful sleep he'd had since being stabbed. Ezra, worn out from more than three days of constant care of and worry for him, lay down at Buck's side, rolled himself into his blankets and dropped almost immediately into deep and dreamless sleep.

And somewhere during that night, Buck's arm found its way beneath him and he curled easily into that long, lean body, molding himself perfectly, contentedly, into Buck Wilmington.

7~7~7~7

"Ya got a real talent for this, slick," Buck sighed in utter, unabashed contentment as Ezra dragged a cool, wet cloth slowly over his shoulders and down his chest.

"Yes, well," Ezra answered with a gold-toothed grin, sliding the cloth between the man's well-defined pectorals, "as an unrepentant creature of pleasure myself, I simply understand the salubrious power of a bath."

"Well, I got no idea what 'salubrious' means, but," Buck let his gaze drift down to his groin, where he felt an all-too familiar stirring, then lifted his eyes back to Ezra and grinned wickedly, wagging his dark brows suggestively, "you fer damn sure got another power goin' here."

Ezra felt a wholly uncharacteristic blush heating his cheeks, but couldn't deny his delight. He had stripped Buck of his filthy trousers and underpants, to much lewd teasing by the big man, and had them soaking in a bucket of water. To preserve Buck's modesty, or whatever passed for that in Wilmington's case, he'd draped a blanket over the man's middle. Yet now he could see a slight tenting in the blanket at Buck's crotch, and absently licked his lips as he felt his own cock stirring in response.

"You, sir, are a hound," he accused breathlessly.

"Yeah, I know," Buck answered happily, sliding a hand to Standish's thigh and stroking slowly. "Ain't it a beautiful thing?"

Ezra shivered as that slow-moving hand ignited a delicious warmth in his flesh and sent a most pleasant tingle along his nerves. He'd had other lovers, male and female, some pleasurable, some merely convenient. Yet never had any of them touched his heart simply by touching his body.

Still, he was keenly aware of Buck's weakened state and knew any true exploration of their feelings, of their bodies, would have to wait upon the man's recovery. "Be careful not to begin anything you cannot finish," he warned. "I am not certain that either of us has the strength to see you through a relapse!"

"Aw, now, Ez," Buck protested with a pout, blue eyes dancing wickedly. His hand slid a bit further up Standish's thigh, and he was delighted to feel the unflappable man squirming beneath his touch. "You wouldn't deny a sick man a little fun, would ya?"

Ezra reached down to stop that hand's advance and arched a chestnut brow in mock severity. "Why do I get the impression that your idea of 'a little fun' and anyone else's are not entirely the same thing?" he asked dryly.

"Maybe because I'm a whole lotta man?" Buck retorted with a wink.

Ezra dropped his head with a dramatic sigh. "My God," he moaned, "what have I gotten myself into?"

Buck freed his hand from Standish's and resumed its slow movement upward. "Reckon that's fer me ta know an' you ta find out," he breathed in a low, sultry voice.

Ezra shivered again and exhaled unsteadily as that voice and Buck's touch sent tendrils of desire shooting through him. Heat pooled in his belly and blood drained to his cock, but he warred against the sensations swamping him with an effort, determined to keep his head.

Dear Lord, how had Inez withstood this man for so long?

Buck saw the flush of heat rising in Ezra's face, watched the jade eyes darken and deepen, and felt a wicked twinge of triumph. As much as he admired the gambler's command of himself and his emotions, knew what an asset that command had made Ezra to their band, he also understood that it was a defense the man had been forced to cultivate to protect himself from a truly hurtful life. Ezra had grown up in a world where trust was a luxury he could not afford, where every weakness would be cruelly exploited for another's gain, and had learned early on to hide the most vulnerable parts of himself for his own safety. Buck bitterly regretted that Standish, that anyone, should have to learn such hard lessons, and was now determined to start teaching some infinitely sweeter ones in their stead.

He wanted, needed, Ezra to believe that he never had to hide any of himself from him.

"Perhaps we should continue this later," Ezra suggested unsteadily, gazing helplessly into the midnight eyes that refused to let his go. "When you are stronger-"

Buck lifted his other hand to Ezra's and closed his fingers gently about the man's wrist, holding that hand where it rested against his chest. "I'm fine, slick," he breathed, slowly stroking Standish's wrist with his thumb. "I ain't gonna do nothin' foolish, I promise." He smiled tenderly, all teasing gone from him. "But I like the way ya touch me, an' I want you ta get used t' doin' it. I plan on us doin' a lotta touchin' from now on."

Ezra's lips parted slightly as another wave of warmth slipped through him. This time, though, it was not Buck's passion that moved him, but the man's unmistakable love. For him. "That sounds most appealin'," he drawled softly.

"Glad ya think so," Buck murmured, shifting his grip on Standish's wrist to pull the man down to him. "Got a few other ideas ya might like, too."

"Oh?" Between Buck's unspoken invitation and his own desire, Ezra was soon draping himself over the man, careful not to jar his wound in any way, yet fitting himself as best he could against him. "Pray tell me what ideas you might be entertainin'," he urged in a low, husky voice.

Buck wound one long arm about the Southerner's trim waist and pulled the man closer still, then lifted his other hand and cradled it to the back of Ezra's head, smiling into smoldering jade eyes. "Somethin' just a mite better'n touchin'," he breathed, pulling Ezra's head down to him and claiming his mouth in a long, slow, tender kiss.

Ezra moaned softly and melted into that kiss, all but undone by the utter, aching sweetness of it. Then Buck's tongue was playing at his lips, seeking passage between them, and he gave it willingly, desperate now for whatever taste of this man he could get. Buck's tongue slipped into his mouth and his own rose at once to meet it, the two twining, twirling, teasing in an intricate, intimate dance. He groaned and clutched at Buck's shoulders and buried his mouth hungrily in the man's, abandoning every last vestige of control and knowing without the smallest trace of doubt that it was safe to do so.

When at last the kiss ended, he exhaled unsteadily and dropped his head against Buck's shoulder, breathless and trembling and more content than he could ever remember being. He tried to remember why he'd resisted this for so long, what he'd ever thought he had to fear from this man. And then let such thoughts go, knowing they no longer mattered.

Nothing mattered now, except the knowledge that he'd finally been granted his fondest hope.

"Think we'll be doin' a lotta that, too," Buck breathed, cradling Ezra to him and slowly stroking his back. "Always wondered if ya taste as good as ya smell."

"And?" Ezra asked softly, sliding a hand down Buck's chest to his heart, treasuring the feel of that strong and steady beat against his fingers.

Buck thought a moment, licked and smacked his lips noisily, then shrugged lazily. "Ain't sure," he muttered thoughtfully. "Reckon it's gonna take a lot more kissin' fer me ta really tell."

"Ah," Ezra breathed. "A thorough man." He smiled and turned his head, pressing a kiss into Buck's warm throat. "I do so admire a thorough man. Attention to detail is everything."

"Oh, yeah," Buck agreed, a broad, bright grin splitting his face. "An', trust me, pard," he turned his head and winked roguishly at the gambler, "I plan t' study ever' one of yer details with all the attention I got ta give!"

7~7~7~7

"Buck, please!" Ezra slapped away the hands grabbing at him and scowled imperiously down into Wilmington's devilish eyes. "Your clothes are dry, and I do believe it would do us both a world of good if you would put them on!"

"Rather take yers off," Buck countered, making another grab for the gambler's shirt. "See what I'm gettin' myself in for here."

"Trust me, you will not be disappointed! Now, behave yourself and-" He broke off suddenly and cocked his head to listen as a distinctive sound filtered in through the shack's two broken-out windows. "Horses," he breathed.

Buck's playfulness immediately faded and he struggled to sit up, hissing sharply as his wound pulled painfully. "Shit!" he whispered tightly.

"Be careful!" Ezra snapped, immediately taking the man in his arms and supporting him against his own body. "I will not have you doing any further damage to yourself."

"Help me get my pants on an' gimme my gun," Buck rasped, waiting for the pain to subside. "Then you get my rifle, see if you can tell who's comin'."

Working with a quick efficiency, Ezra helped Buck don underpants and trousers, but left him to button them himself. Once certain that Buck could manage, he rose smoothly to his feet and went for their weapons, donning his gunbelt and then grabbing Buck's revolver and his rifle. He crossed back to where Buck sat and knelt down beside him.

"Are you certain you're all right?" he asked anxiously, his eyes frantically tracing Wilmington's pale face.

But Buck smiled thinly and took his gunbelt. "Ain't got a choice, do I?" He leaned forward and quickly kissed Ezra. "Amazin' what a man can do when he ain't got a choice," he breathed, echoing his own words from days earlier. "Now, let's see who's comin' fer dinner."

Ezra helped him stand and buckled the gunbelt about his waist, then led him to one window, not liking this one bit but knowing they had no choice. He drew Buck's gun from its holster and pressed it into his hands, then pulled the man down to him for a tender kiss. "Be careful," he whispered against his lips.

"Always," Buck breathed. "You know me."

"Yes," Ezra retorted archly as he drew back. "And that is precisely why I mentioned it." He winked at Buck, then crossed the shack to take up his position at the other window.

"Hello, the shack!"

The call rang out even before the riders came into view, startling both men. The voice was distinctive and deeply familiar.

"Chris?" Buck asked sharply, throwing a puzzled glance at Standish. "How the hell did he find us?"

"Bucklin', Ezra, y'all in there?" hollered another familiar voice, this one a raspy Texas drawl.

Ezra chuckled quietly and relaxed. "Well, I suppose that answers your question," he quipped, lowering the rifle. "Mr. Larabee brought along his human bloodhound."

"I swear that boy could track a flea in a sand storm," Buck sighed, wilting visibly as the rush of adrenaline receded.

"Oh, good Lord," Ezra breathed, hurrying to the sagging man. He took Buck in his arms and lowered him carefully to the floor, propping him against the wall. "Stay put!" he ordered harshly. "I will not have Mr. Larabee taking it out of my hide if you've broken that wound open again!"

"Aw, hell, Ez," Buck groaned weakly, "Chris ain't so bad-" As a chestnut brow lifted sharply, he reconsidered his words. "Well," he amended with a faint grin, "he does have his good moments."

"Indeed he does," Ezra agreed, rising to his feet. "And the very moment I witness one, I shall have Mrs. Travis publish it in her newspaper." He eyed Buck a moment more, shaking his head slowly, then turned on his heel and went to the door, opening it and stepping out onto the small ruined porch.

Moments later, Chris, Vin and Nathan rode into view, obviously having been waiting behind the trees for some sign that it was safe to approach. To his own surprise, Ezra felt a sharp rise of relief at seeing them, and wondered yet again just when he'd gotten so dependent on these men.

"You all right?" Chris asked as he drew up rein before the shack, his sharp gaze sweeping intently over Standish. "Heard there was some trouble in town."

"I am fine," Ezra assured him as the three dismounted. "But Buck was wounded. Stabbed-"

"We heard," Nathan said, grabbing his medical bag and rushing forward. He stopped just long enough to cast an anxious, appraising gaze over Standish, then rushed inside.

Ezra turned a puzzled stare upon Larabee, but got no answer. The gunman was only a few steps behind Nathan and disappeared quickly inside. Ezra heaved a sigh and clamped his mouth firmly shut.

"Don't mind him," Vin advised, moving with his customary unhurried ease to the porch and stepping up onto it, then curving into his familiar lean against one of the posts supporting what was left of the overhang. "He's jist pissed."

Ezra stared at the tracker in a mixture of curiosity and dread. "Pissed? At whom?"

Vin lifted two brows and stared at him as if the answer should be obvious. "That shitty excuse fer a marshal in Cedar Springs," he drawled. Then a sly grin played about his mouth and he winked. "Hell, I reckon that sonuvabitch is still pissin' himself!"

Ezra had no idea what Vin meant. Not an unusual occurrence with the laconic tracker, but this time he felt as if he were missing something he should know. "Could you please explain yourself?" he pleaded. "And, for once, try using complete sentences."

"Always do," Vin answered simply and with absolute innocence.

"Good Lord!" Ezra groaned, wondering why in the hell he had missed such maddening men.

"Aw, hell, Ez, where's yer sense a' humor?" Vin asked. When the gambler fixed a withering stare upon him, he sighed and rolled his eyes. "All right." He thought a moment, then, as if talking were a taxing chore, sank down to sit cross-legged on the porch. When the gambler made no move to follow, he squinted up at the man and invited quietly "Why'n'tcha sit a spell? Y' look plumb wore out."

Unable to argue with that assessment, Ezra sank down onto the porch with a weary sigh, only now realizing just how much the past four days had taken out of him. "Please proceed," he invited quietly.

Vin nodded once. "When y'all was late comin' back," he began, his words as unhurried as ever, "Chris got worried. Y' know how he c'n be. So he wired Cedar Springs. Marshal wired back, said y'all'd left, ever'thing was fine." He shrugged. "So we went back ta waitin'. Only y'all still didn't come. Chris didn't bother wirin' this time, jist grabbed up me an' Nathan, said we's goin' after y'all." He fell silent and nodded again, as if that explained it all.

Except that it didn't, and Ezra only barely resisted the urge to reach over and strangle the man. "And?" he prompted through clenched teeth.

Vin's lips twitched as he recognized the gambler's impatience. As with Larabee, he could never quite resist the urge to needle the Southerner, thought they both needed to let go of their precious control more than either would admit. Might get him shot one day, but he figured a man did what he had to do for his friends.

"Marshal weren't around when we got t' town," he finally continued. "We went ta the saloon, heard some folks talkin'. Mentioned a fancy-dressed gambler an' a big cowboy." He grinned slightly. "Figgered that was y'all."

"Your powers of deduction never fail to amaze me," Ezra muttered.

Vin scowled at him, but continued. "So we started askin' around. Folks didn't say much at first. Then," he grinned wickedly, "Chris got pissed, an' they seemed ta open right up after that."

Ezra had to chuckle at the mental images Tanner's words invoked. "I can well imagine!"

"We-ell," Vin frowned and scratched his chin, "once we got the story outta them folks, we went lookin' fer the marshal again. Found him this time, an' Chris had a real nice chat with him." Blue eyes narrowed slightly and hardened. "Took a few minutes, but he finally told us ever'thing."

Ezra heard the undercurrent of ice that had slipped into the soft, raspy drawl and couldn't help feeling intrigued. "And was Mr. Larabee the only one 'chatting' with Marshal Dobbins?" he asked.

The coldness melted away as if it had never been and Vin shrugged again. "Hell, y' know me, I ain't much fer words." Mild blue eyes returned Ezra's gaze. "I jist kinda stood there. But I reckon I's bored, started playin' with my knife some."

Ezra smiled thinly at that. He'd seen Tanner "play" with that wicked Bowie knife before, knew how good, and how frightening, he was with it. And felt a malicious glee for what terrors that wretch Dobbins must have suffered.

But Vin's mildness faded, his eyes and voice growing hard. "Bastard told us he'd made you an' Buck leave even though he knew Buck was hurt," he growled. "Said he done it ta prevent any more trouble." He slanted a predatory look at Standish. "Reckon he's got a whole new understandin' of jist what 'trouble' means now," he said in a low snarl. "Sonuvabitch had no right doin' that ta Buck or ta you."

Ezra blinked in surprise. "Me?"

"Yeah." Vin arched a brow. "Buck was hurt an' you was left with the responsibility of carin' fer him an' tryin' ta git him home. Couldn'ta been easy on ya, thinkin' on what all could go wrong. Had ta weigh real heavy on yer mind." He paused a moment, then added more softly, "An' on yer heart."

Ezra gasped sharply and stiffened at those words. "Mr. Tanner, I I have no idea-"

"'S all right, Ez," Vin assured him. He unfolded his legs and rose to his feet with a limber grace. Hitching his thumbs into his gunbelt, he smiled gently down at the gambler. "Been wonderin' when you was gonna come ta yer senses." He tossed down another wink, then turned and slipped into the shack.

Ezra remained seated where he was, too stunned to move, eyes wide and mouth hanging open.

EPILOGUE:

Chris picked up the card Ezra dealt him and scowled at his hand. "How long's it been?" he growled.

Vin picked up his new card, tucked it into his hand, then slouched loosely back into his chair. "Mebbe five minutes since the last time y' asked," he retorted. "Damn, Ez, could ya make these cards any worse?" he complained, ignoring the glare Larabee was leveling at him.

Ezra grinned at the tracker. "Would you like me to try?"

"Shit," Vin sighed, tossing his cards face down. "I fold. And it ain't even been a minute," he said as Larabee's mouth opened again, "so don't even bother askin'."

"Hell," Chris growled, reaching for his beer. "Man's only been outta the clinic a week, and already he's roamin' around the countryside! Fishin'!" He took a long drink of beer, then slammed the glass down on the table. "Why the hell did he need ta go fishin'?"

Vin shrugged lightly, watching Ezra from the corner of his eye. The gambler seemed utterly relaxed, but Tanner couldn't help noticing the barely perceptible tightening of his fingers against the cards whenever Buck's name was mentioned. "Likely did it jist t' piss you off," he answered Chris.

Again Larabee glared at Tanner, and again he was ignored. "Hell," he spat, "don't he know that's your job?" He sighed and threw down his cards. "I fold. I'm gonna go drag his ass back-"

"Why'n'tcha let Ez here do it?" Vin suggested mildly. Two startled green gazes flew to him, and he returned both easily. "Man ain't done a lick of work since they got back." He ignored Standish's scowl. "An' Nathan'll be pissed if he has t' put Buck back t'gether 'cause you done beat the shit outta him."

"Let me see if I understand this," Ezra put in before Larabee could draw his gun and shoot their tracker. "You are inferrin' that I should leave a perfectly good saloon and ride out into the wilds in the heat of the day just to retrieve Mr. Wilmington, who for all we know is well and happy where he is?"

"Fresh air'll do ya good," Vin said, only barely fighting back his smirk.

Ezra picked up his brandy. "And if he doesn't wish to return?"

Vin watched the man put the glass to his lips and take a sip, then said easily, "I reckon you'll find a way ta make him come."

Ezra choked and spewed brandy across the table, and all over Chris. Larabee shot to his feet with a curse and glared at the gambler, then immediately shifted it to the tracker. But Vin only shrugged innocently and Larabee stalked away, muttering under his breath about his piss-poor choice in friends.

Vin rose to his feet a moment later and slapped the still-coughing Standish on the back. "Have a nice ride, Ez," he said, then turned and went to join Chris at the bar.

As Ezra finally stopped choking, he had to remind himself that if he shot Tanner and claimed the bounty, Larabee would likely kill him for denying him that pleasure.

7~7~7~7

Buck lay contentedly on his blanket at the water's edge, reveling in the feel of the sun's warmth as it poured over his body. He'd been cooped up in town long enough, had started to chafe under the constant attention of his friends. He knew they meant well, knew they'd been worried about him, but he'd never been one to feel comfortable on a short leash, so he'd chosen today to make his bid for freedom. But, not being a fool, he'd also made sure all six others knew exactly where he was going.

No sense making it to too hard to find him for whoever Chris sent to drag him back.

He chuckled softly at the thought of the gunman, and at the image he presented to the world. The man could snap and snarl and growl with the best of them, could be cold as ice and hard as iron, could make the biggest, meanest man hunt for cover with just a look. But none of that was the real Chris, the man Buck had known for more than a decade. Try as he might to hide or deny it, the man cared, and cared deeply, about his friends, about the little town they'd all hired on to protect. Chris Larabee's soul might be singed and scarred, but it was still there, and Buck treasured it as he did his own.

As he did Ezra's.

He wondered if Chris and Ezra had any idea just how alike they really were. Hell, how alike they all were, despite the vast differences between them. Each one of them battered by life and sometimes damn near broken, yet somehow finding a healing, a wholeness, in the strange band they had formed. Buck gave thanks daily for whatever fate had thrown them all together. He couldn't imagine not having any of them in his life now.

He especially couldn't imagine not having Ezra.

His musings were interrupted by the sound of an approaching horseman. With a sigh, he rolled over and picked up his watch, then grinned as he checked it. Hell, Chris was gettin' awful damn predictable in his old age! He let the watch fall back to his shirt and sat up, turning on his blanket to await his visitor. And grinned delightedly when he recognized Ezra.

God love Chris Larabee.

Ezra smiled when he saw Buck, then gasped and reined his horse to an abrupt stop when he watched the man sit up. Good Lord, he was stark naked! Then Buck rose to his feet with a leisurely grace, and Ezra very nearly choked.

The man was beautiful.

Gone from him was every trace of his recent injury and illness. The ruddy glow of good health had replaced the pallor in his flesh, and once again his body radiated strength and power. Ezra's gaze now tracked slowly over that body, drinking in its long, lean lines, the supple play of hard muscles beneath smooth flesh, the easy, loose-limbed grace. He'd never in his life get his fill of looking at the man, he knew. Today, though, he would finally be able to do more than look.

God love Vin Tanner.

He shook his head to clear it, then urged his horse forward, gazing raptly at Buck from beneath the brim of his hat. As he drew nearer, he watched Buck set big hands on trim hips, then let his gaze slip slightly downward to the thick shaft of flesh jutting proudly from a nest of black curls.

"Well," he drawled, absently licking lips, "may I surmise that you are pleased to see me?"

Buck saw that tongue dart across those lips and grinned wickedly, then slid one hand from his hip to his erection, curling his fingers about himself and stroking slowly. "Perfect day just got better."

Ezra swallowed hard, then stopped his horse and slid from the saddle, ground-hitching the animal. In a fluid gesture, he removed his hat and sailed it through the air, barely noticing as it landed precisely on Buck's clothing. He started slowly toward the big man, shrugging out of his dark green jacket as he walked.

"A bit warm out, don't you agree?" he asked in a low and throaty voice, tossing the coat onto the growing pile.

"Very warm," Buck agreed hoarsely, mesmerized by the man approaching him. Ezra's green eyes shimmered like a forest in summer, deep and dark and filled with heat and promise. A promise he intended them both to keep.

Ezra stopped a few feet from Buck and held the man's indigo gaze with his. "I have been sent to retrieve you," he explained quietly. "Yet before we undertake such a long ride in this infernal heat, I believe I should first ascertain the exact state of your health." He tipped his head slightly to one side and arched a chestnut brow. "Make certain of your endurance as it were."

Buck's eyes widened, then darkened, and a slow smile spread across his face. "Like you said before," he breathed, "gotta admire a thorough man."

"Details," Ezra reached up and slipped the first button of his brocade vest through its hole, "are everything." With unhurried movements he unbuttoned his vest, nimble fingers almost boneless in their grace. When he had finished, he slowly peeled off the garment, swung it loosely from a long forefinger, then added it to the pile of clothing. "Damned heat," he purred. "Most uncomfortable."

Buck could only watch in rapt and helpless fascination as Standish made a seductive show of disrobing. Whatever uncertainty the man might once have felt about this new relationship was gone without a trace, replaced by the unwavering certainty shining from the jade eyes.

And Buck Wilmington fell in love all over again.

The gambler's gunbelt disappeared, followed shortly by his crisp white shirt and pristine undershirt. Boots were toed off and sent flying, socks quickly dispatched. Now only the fine black trousers remained, and Buck found himself staring hungrily at the prominent bulge at their front.

"Seems yer happy t' see me, too," he rasped, taking a shaky step closer to the Southerner.

Ezra smiled, his gold tooth winking in the sunlight, and dropped a hand to his crotch, brushing long fingers over the hard ridge of his swollen flesh. "Dear Mother, for all her faults," he breathed in that molasses-thick drawl, "always taught me that a gentleman never arrives at a party without bringin' a gift."

Buck swallowed hard and licked suddenly dry lips. "Always said," he croaked, "your mother's a fine woman."

Ezra snorted softly. "My mother should be locked away to ensure the continued survival of civilization," he retorted. "But at least she is wreaking havoc far from here, and we are, I believe, alone." Again that chestnut brow lifted and his fingers trailed slowly over the tenting in his trousers. "Whatever shall we do?"

"Oh," Buck stepped closer still, then reached out and grasped Ezra's arms, pulling the smaller man slowly to him, "I'm sure we'll think of somethin'," he whispered, bowing his head to capture that inviting mouth with his own.

Ezra moaned softly and melted into that kiss, opening his mouth in invitation for still more. Buck responded immediately, slipping his tongue between Standish's lips and teeth in search of the treasure that awaited him there. Ezra's tongue rose at once and joined with his, sweeping against it, dancing around it, and Buck growled low in his throat and pulled the man closer, burying his mouth in the gambler's.

Ezra shuddered at the fierce urgency of that kiss and wound his arms around Buck, pressing himself as close against the big man's hard body as he could. Heat erupted within him and sparks shot through him as Wilmington's thick cock raked against his own, bringing him to greater fullness still. For days now, he'd fought to keep this want, this need, under control and hidden from any potentially prying eyes. Now, though, he could finally release it in the joyous knowledge that at last he was to have what before had only been a faint and fragile hope.

They kissed and caressed each other with an unhurried thoroughness, refusing to rush, determined to savor every moment of this time. Mouths and hands roamed freely over flesh, lips suckled, teeth nibbled and tongues tasted while long, hard fingers stroked and kneaded and committed the feel of each other to deepest memory. And time after time their mouths came together in deep, demanding kisses, each feasting hungrily upon the other, neither man able to drink his fill, both knowing they never would.

This thirst between them, this hunger, would never die.

With a groan, Buck pulled away from Ezra and sank slowly to his knees, burying his face in the gambler's crotch and inhaling deeply of his scent. Smoke, tobacco, soap and rich musk washed over him, through him, in a heady cloud, filling his mind and settling into his soul. This was Ezra, and he never wanted to draw another breath that didn't carry this scent upon it.

Ezra exhaled unsteadily and buried his hands in Buck's thick dark hair, moved almost to tears by the man's worship of him. He had never in all his life been loved like this, completely and in his entirety, had never known such a love existed. Yet he felt it in exactly this same depth and enormity for Buck, couldn't imagine now how he'd ever lived without it.

God, how empty his life had been!

Buck rose once more to his feet and smiled tenderly down at Ezra, blue eyes dark and infinitely deep. "You sure?" he whispered.

Ezra smiled in return and trailed a hand lovingly down Buck's chest, jade eyes shining brilliantly. "Completely," he answered simply.

Without another word, Buck took Ezra's hand in his and led him to the blankets he'd spread for himself earlier. Once there, he went again to his knees and turned his attention to the gambler's trousers. Long, skilled fingers made quick work of the buttons, then he was dragging them and the underpants beneath down Standish's legs, unable any longer to deny his need for this man. They pooled down around Ezra's ankles and Buck steadied him as he stepped out of them, then snatched them up and cast them carelessly aside, never taking his eyes off Standish. A low, unsteady gasp escaped him, then he leaned forward and nestled his face into the thick thatch of hair surrounding the man's hard, thick cock, again breathing in that miraculous scent.

And all this was only for him.

He looked up at Ezra, took the man's hands in his and tugged lightly at them. "C'mon down here," he urged softly. "Think we've waited long enough."

Ezra obliged willingly, eagerly, sinking down onto the blankets and, at Buck's insistence, lying back against them. Buck loomed over him, gazing raptly down at him, and Ezra shivered at the naked love and want darkening the man's eyes.

Buck lowered himself slowly over Ezra, covering the smaller man's body with his own and reclaiming that sweet mouth with his. But the kiss lasted only a few moments before he pulled away and slid slowly down, his mouth tracing a wet path down the Southerner's body. He licked a trail between the man's pectorals, pressed gentle kisses to his flat belly, tongued his shallow navel and blew soft puffs of air through the thick chestnut curls at his crotch. But that cock beckoned to him, and he couldn't resist. Turning his face to it, he pressed his tongue against its thick base and licked slowly, slowly along the prominent vein to the flushed and weeping head. He slid his tongue under the foreskin and lapped cat-like at the salty-sweet fluid leaking from the slit, nourishing himself, his soul, upon this taste.

Ezra cried out softly and dug his fingers into Buck's broad shoulders, then arched his back and cried out again as Buck drew him into his mouth and began sucking slowly, hungrily at him. Fire shot through him in white-hot torrents, threatening to melt his bones and sear the flesh from them and sending his blood boiling through his veins. He couldn't see, couldn't think, couldn't breathe, could do nothing but cling to Buck as his entire world erupted into a firestorm of sensation.

Buck feasted on Ezra as a child would candy, licking and sucking ravenously, growing drunk upon the man's taste. He took Ezra as deep as he could, then slipped a hand between his legs and grasped his balls, rolling the heavy sacs between his fingers and squeezing them as he sucked ever harder at his cock. As Ezra groaned and shuddered violently, Buck released his balls and trailed his hand to the tight hole behind them, rimmed it slowly, then slipped his finger into it.

Ezra cried out harshly as that finger penetrated him and played inside him, as the man drove him over the edge. Heat churned within him and pounded through him in a molten tide, engulfing him, consuming him. He was powerless to stop its rise, was swept helplessly along upon its crest. Then Buck's finger brushed against his prostate and Ezra howled as the heat exploded, as he erupted into shattering orgasm and jetted into his lover's mouth.

Buck caught that stream and swallowed it eagerly, greedily, sucking ravenously at Ezra's cock and milking his balls for still more. Only when he had drained Standish dry did he let the softened flesh slip from his mouth, licking the last drops of the man from his lips. He slid back up Ezra's body and reclaimed his mouth in a tender kiss, sharing the man's own taste with him. Then he lay down and drew Ezra into his arms, cradling the shaking body close against his own.

Ezra nestled into that embrace, spent and elated. As Buck's hands rubbed slow circles into his naked back, he wondered yet again how he'd finally managed to let down his walls long enough to let this man into his heart.

You'd be surprised what a man can do when he ain't got a choice.

Buck's words from the day they'd been forced to leave Cedar Springs came back to him, and he smiled. And he supposed they were true; he really hadn't had a choice.

His love for Buck hadn't left him one.

"Yer lookin' awful happy there, slick," Buck said softly, still stroking Ezra's back.

"Really?" he drawled lazily, tracing small circles on Buck's chest with a forefinger and smiling to himself. "I cannot imagine why."

Buck chuckled softly at that. "Ya don't give nothin' away, do ya?"

Ezra raised his head and set his chin on Buck's chest, gazing earnestly into the man's blue eyes. "On the contrary," he said quietly, soberly, "I have given everything away. To you."

"Yeah," Buck breathed, cupping a big hand gently to the gambler's face. "An' I reckon that makes me about the luckiest damn man in the world. I love ya, Ez," he breathed tenderly. "An' that ain't ever gonna change."

Ezra gazed at him a moment longer, then made yet another choice. He pulled out of Buck's arms and rolled onto his back, smiling up at the startled man. "Show me," he invited softly.

Buck stared at him, almost afraid to breathe. He knew what Ezra was offering, knew what it meant, and was stunned by the gift. There could be no going back from here. "You sure?" he whispered.

Ezra took his hand and smiled. "Absolutely certain," he said. "You said you would teach me how to hope again and you have. Now let me see that I have not hoped in vain."

Buck's head swam, but an enormous grin split his face. Almost immediately, though, that smile dimmed as practicality intruded. "Hell," he sighed, "I didn't bring nothin'-"

"Look in the inner pocket of my coat," Ezra instructed with a small smirk. Buck arched an eyebrow at him and he gave a dimpled grin. "As I said, I have learned how to hope."

Buck's brilliant smile returned and he sat up quickly, snatching up the jacket and reaching eagerly into its pocket. He found a small tin inside and cast away the coat, then lifted off the lid of the tin, catching a whiff of the fragrant salve inside. "This how ya keep yer hands so soft?"

Ezra arched a brow. "Calluses interfere with my shuffling," he said primly.

"Can't have that now, can we?" Buck teased. He slipped two fingers into the salve and scooped out a generous portion. "This oughtta do the trick-"

"Wait," Ezra interrupted, "please." He sat up and wiped the salve from Buck's fingers onto his own, smiling into the big man's eyes. "Let me do this for you." Buck merely swallowed and nodded, and Ezra leaned forward and kissed him. As he did, he reached for and closed his hands around Buck's cock, slicking him with slow movements.

Buck gasped and shuddered as that hand stroked and pulled at his shaft, as deft fingers tormented him into throbbing fullness while coating him with the salve. When at last he could stand no more, he growled and grabbed Ezra's shoulders, bearing him back against the blankets and slipping between his legs. Another shudder racked him as Ezra bent his legs and spread them to open himself more fully, as Buck realized he was truly about to have what he'd wanted for so long.

God, this couldn't be real!

But it was, and his breath caught in his throat at the wonder of it. His heart throbbed heavily in his chest and his hand shook as he extended it to slide a long finger over the man's balls to the puckered hole behind them. He rimmed the hole slowly, stroking, pressing, and his own cock twitched in urgent need. Unable to wait a moment longer, he slipped his finger into Ezra's body.

Ezra gasped sharply as that finger entered him, as Buck slowly stretched him. A second finger slipped inside, the two pressing deep, and Ezra felt his cock filling again in response. A third finger entered and he moaned, a hard shudder running through him.

At last Buck felt the tight ring of muscle loosening and withdrew his fingers with a ragged gasp. Trembling and sweating, his every nerve on painful edge, he pressed his aching cock to that hole and pushed carefully inside.

Ezra cried out sharply and arched his back as the pain of that penetration assailed him. But Buck's hands gripped his hips and steadied him, the man's voice spoke softly, soothingly to him, and within moments the pain was gone, replaced by the incredible pleasure of Buck's hardness filling him.

"Move, please!" he begged.

And Buck did; slid slowly, slowly in, forcing restraint upon himself, sheathing himself in Ezra. Then he withdrew just as slowly, until only his head remained, and pushed once more forward. Time and again he slid in and out, gradually increasing the strength and speed of his strokes, until he was driving into Ezra with a furious force, impaling his lover upon his hard and hungry flesh.

Ezra thrust just as urgently against Buck, seeking to drive the man more deeply still into his body, needing to feel the man driving into his very soul. Then Buck's hand closed about his cock, stroking and pumping in that same frenzied rhythm, and Ezra all but came undone from the ruthless assault on his senses. Worked inside and out, he abandoned all restraint, all control, and surrendered to the primal pleasure of being claimed body and soul by this man. Buck hit his gland again and again, and he shrieked and bucked wildly as intense, unbearable pleasure exploded through him, then howled again as he burst into release.

Ezra's muscles clenched hard about Buck as he came, and that pressure, coupled with the feel and pungent scent of Ezra's seed, sent Buck over the edge and into shattering climax. He threw back his sweat-sodden head and loosed a harsh cry, then strained furiously into Ezra and cried out again as he poured his seed into his lover's bowels.

Empty and trembling, he slipped out of Ezra's body and collapsed to the blankets at his side, his breath coming in sharp, heaving gusts. But, unwilling yet to be separated from his lover, he reached out and gathered the smaller man into his arms, holding Standish close against himself.

Ezra exhaled unsteadily and relaxed into Buck, treasuring the feel of the man's arms around him, of his warmth against him. Peace and contentment unlike any he'd ever known before washed through him and he let himself sink into them, let himself sink into the knowledge that, with this man, he had all he'd ever need. And more than he'd ever hoped for.

"Chris give ya any certain time he wanted us back?" Buck asked at last, his voice breathless and slightly slurred.

"None that I recall," Ezra murmured, nestling still closer to the man. "Why?"

"'Cause I ain't sure I can walk." Buck lifted his head slightly and smiled down at the man resting against him. "Damn, slick," he breathed, "I never woulda guessed you had that in ya!"

"Yes, well," Ezra turned his head and gave a gold-toothed grin, lifting two chestnut brows, "as a wise man once told me, you'd be surprised what a man can do when he doesn't have a choice."

"No choice, huh?" Buck asked.

"None whatsoever," Ezra sighed, pillowing his head against Buck's chest and letting his eyes close. "And I wouldn't have it any other way."

THE END

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