DISCLAIMER: The following is an original work of fan fiction based on the television series "The Magnificent Seven". No infringement upon the copyrights held by CBS, MGM, Trilogy Entertainment Group, The Mirisch Corp. or any others involved with that production is intended. No profit is being made - enjoy!!

Male Bonding

Eleanor Tremayne, Ezquire

Buck Wilmington's familiar, cursing cry cut through the noise of the firefight, telling Chris Larabee he was now down a man.

"Buck!" J.D.'s shout cut through the barking of the gunfire, and Chris just knew the kid was bolting into the open to go after Wilmington. The sudden flurry of bullets from the bad guys as a target presented itself confirmed his gut's hunch.

"Get back here, young man!" he heard Ezra bellow, grinning at J.D.'s yelp as he was grabbed and hauled back into line - and safety.

"I'm okay, Kid!" Despite the pain thinning Wilmington's voice, Chris's grin widened. Pain meant Buck was alive, and probably madder than hell. His old friend's Winchester rejoined the firefight, a sweet, sweet sound in Larabee's ears.

From the corner of his eye, he saw loose rock and dirt slide to his left and he turned to see Ezra and J.D. joining him, a stumbling Dunne being pushed along by the gambler's death-grip on the back of the kid's gunbelt.

"I am," Ezra told Chris, letting go of J.D. to swipe ineffectually at the dirt on his red jacket, "gettin' tired of this soirée. Would you gentlemen be so kind as to provide a distraction for our hosts - that way." Chris followed where the gambler's finger pointed, noting that it was directing them to a spot very close to Buck's position.

"Keep your head down," Chris told J.D., grabbing the youngest of the seven by the scruff of his neck and dragging him along behind him. He had no idea what Ezra was planning, but the way he talked, it would take too damn long to find out. Better to just let the gambler get on with whatever he had in mind.


Buck let out a whistle as bodies and rocks came tumbling down the dry riverbed. "That boy don't mess around...."

"Don't suppose he was too interested in takin' 'em alive," Chris observed, reloading his Colt.

"Were you?"


Another whistle sounded, louder and sharper and coming from the heights. Chris squinted upward and saw Vin Tanner appear from his position. The sharpshooter sent an 'all clear' wave down to his compatriots before disappearing to pick his way down the hill to join them.

"Wonder where he got the dynamite?" J.D. wanted to know, as he fussed at Wilmington's bullet wound.

"Dang it, J.D.! That hurts!" Buck protested.

"Good question," Nathan Jackson answered Dunne, climbing up next to them. Josiah Sanchez helped him up and over into their covert with a shove to the healer's backside. "Damn fool could have killed us all."

Chris had a feeling the gambler had known exactly what he was doing, but kept his opinion to himself as he looked for the flash of red that would alert him to Ezra's whereabouts.

"How's Buck?" he asked aloud.

"I'll live, Chris." It was as much reassurance as a promise and it earned Wilmington a smile.

"You won't enjoy it for a while. You got a bad back sprain and this bullet hole's gonna sting," Nathan told him.

Chris looked up at Tanner as the tracker's shadow fell across Buck and Nathan. Vin touched the brim of his hat in acknowledgement of the unvoiced request, disappearing again.

"Hell, I can ride!" Buck protested.

"We'll camp tonight," Chris explained to the mystified J.D., Josiah, and Nathan. "No sense pushing ourselves if we don't need to."

"For once, Mister Larabee, you are makin' sense," Ezra congratulated, materializing out of the rocks. Chris's eyes narrowed as he took in the gambler's dirty face and the fact that his right hand held his Remington, while the left was out of sight under his shrapnel-shredded jacket. "Might I suggest we vacate this charmin' Parnassus with some alacrity? My enthusiasm to get out of the noonday sun may have rendered it somewhat unstable."

"Huh?" J.D. said.

"Let's move before the rest of the hill lands on our heads," Josiah translated, working with Nathan to get Buck to his feet. J.D. gathered up the groaning and cursing Wilmington's weapon and hat, following the weaving trio out of harm's way.

"Après vous," Ezra invited Chris, indicating the way ahead with an elegant wave of his pistol.

"You hit bad?"

"Minor inconveniences which are made inconsequential by the current circumstances," Ezra replied, a nervous tongue darting along his lower lip as he looked up at the debris still sliding down the course of the dry embankment.

"Where'd you get the dynamite, Ezra?" Chris asked, grabbing the smaller man's left forearm just under his bent elbow to help him down the canyon. When Ezra didn't try to pull away from the assistance, Chris decided to hurry.

Standish looked at the gunslinger like he had two heads. "Dynamite?" he echoed as they slid down the loose shale. "Good Lord.... Unlike you and the rest of your merry band, I do not have a death wish."

"Then how'd you do it?"

Ezra grinned, gold tooth flashing in the bright sun. "Gunpowder, a cigar, and the indulgent grace of Saint Barbara, Mister Larabee."


Vin's knack for finding a good campsite when one was needed came through again, producing trees for shade and enough of a clearing and flat ground for a safe fire and comfortable bedrolls.

Chris and Ezra arrived at it in the middle of Nathan and J.D. tying Buck's arm into a sling. It was a painful process, hurting his wrenched back, which was beginning to let Wilmington know it would have been a truly wretched idea to try and ride the three miles back to Four Corners that day. Vin was the last one to arrive in camp, keeping a watchful eye on the surroundings.

Ezra stopped a few steps from the theatre of operation, lips pressed together in a white line as he waited his turn. At a look from Chris, Vin came up to take hold of Ezra's right arm, just above his elbow. Standish favored the tracker with a glare full of dire intentions, but made no move to shake him off. Judging from the tremble in the muscles under his fingers, Tanner was pretty sure Ezra's knees were trying real hard to buckle under him.

"Ezra's next," Chris announced, as Jackson sat up from his completed labors with a heavy sigh.

Nathan turned his head sharply at the simple words, frowning as he watched Chris and Vin help lower Ezra to a seat on the ground. The gambler's ruined jacket fell open in the effort, revealing bloody fingers pressed hard against his ribcage. Cuts gaped in his waistcoat and shirt, showing at least half a dozen bleeding slices across his right side.

"Please, Mister Jackson!" Ezra snapped, fending off the younger man's attempt to look at his injury. "I've caused my tailor enough aggravation today."

"Suit yourself," Nathan said shortly, sitting back on his heels and watching with ill-concealed impatience as Standish worked his way out of his coat, shoulder holster, derringer sleeve rig, and vest, handing their care over to a surprised Vin. The gunbelt and his Remington, he kept beside him.

Safe from the stubborn green glare that kept the growling Nathan at bay, Chris lent Ezra a helping hand by pulling his suspenders off his shoulders. Halfway through unbuttoning his red-stained silk shirt, the gambler's hands began to shake and a cold spurt of alarm chased itself through the gunslinger. He relaxed a little as Standish finally pulled the tails of his shirt from his trousers and drew them behind his back to allow Nathan access to his burning ribcage.

'Score another one for Ezra,' Larabee acknowledged at the sight. Chris had always assumed that behind those hidden guns and fancy clothes was a soft man who'd be useless if things ever really went to fist-city, but Standish had more muscle on him than a horse. Vin caught his gaze, the rueful glint in his eyes agreeing with Chris's re-assessment of the Southerner.

"Damn it, Ezra!" Buck exploded at the sight of the injuries. "I coulda waited!"

"What happened, Ezra?" J.D. mumbled, swallowing down the sick feeling rising up from the pit of his stomach. What he really wanted to know was, 'Oh my God, did saving me do that to you?'

"An unexpected vein of - flint," Ezra ground out between clenched teeth and precise breaths as Nathan probed and prodded, replying to Dunne's actual question. "I assure you, I am the victim of - my own clumsiness in -" Nathan's searching fingers found a chip of imbedded rock and the muscles from the gambler's neck to hip jumped into tensed relief. Teeth grinding, Ezra fought for the breath to finish his sentence. "...apprehendin' those bastards."

J.D. nodded, accepting the explanation at face value before scurrying off in the direction of the horses.

"Well, one rib's cracked, maybe busted," Nathan reported, sitting back and wiping his hands on a whiskey-soaked cloth. "Got a bad rupture over it, too - looks like something big got bounced offa it. It'll need stitches, so will some of those other cuts. They're all dirty, too, but once we get 'em cleaned out, you should live long enough for your bad habits to kill you."

"Don't expect any compliments... on your encouragin' bedside mannah, Mister Jackson..." Ezra panted.

Nathan laughed despite himself, rummaging through his medical kit for a brown bottle. "This here's laudanum. It'll help with the pain."


"Ezra," Nathan explained patiently, "we've got to get them wounds cleaned. That means cuttin' into you, pushing around on a broken bone, and then stitchin' you up. Whiskey ain't any good for that kind of pain. You'll need this."

"I said, "No"." Ezra's voice sharpened and Nathan understood the threat it held: Do what I tell you, or die. The former slave had learned to recognize and obey that tone of voice early in his life, when he was a frightened child trying to stay alive. Standish had resurrected that fear in him more than once since they'd met, giving the Southerner a power over Nathan that made him furious.

"Damn it, you're gonna take this if I have to force it down your throat," Nathan swore, looming over the smaller Standish with the bottle of opiate in one hand, his other raised in a fist.

Vin grabbed Ezra's arm, holding down the gun that suddenly appeared in his hand. Chris put a hand on Nathan's chest to stop him from going any further.

"He said 'no'," Chris repeated quietly. Nathan packed a hell of a punch, but the gunslinger had a feeling Ezra's Remington would beat it. His gut told him that the gambler wouldn't hesitate to shoot if he was pushed into a corner.

"Fine. Then we can just leave him be until he dies in a week or two, or you can hold him down," Jackson spat.

"You sure about this, Ezra?" Buck asked, quietly.

"I'm ready... when you are... Mister Jackson." Standish holstered his gun with the insufferable smile that Nathan always ached to slap off his face.

"Get his bedroll," Jackson told Josiah. "Once I'm done helpin' this fool, he won't want to be moved."

"I'll get a fire made," Vin volunteered, heading out to collect the tinder and kindling he'd need.

Chris saw J.D. pass Josiah on his way back to Ezra from the horses. The kid carried his saddle and wore a determined expression. Smiling at Ezra, he hefted the saddle up to show the gambler. "Figure you can rest easy while you're waitin' for Nathan to get ready."

Ezra decided not to ask for J.D.'s definition of 'easy' as the young sheriff put the saddle down behind him. Instead, he let Dunne help him sit back against it, letting the curve of the seat support his neck and shoulders. The lower angle marginally eased the pain and effort of breathing.

"Thank you... Mister Dunne," he grunted, closing his eyes. Good Lord, how had he wound up in this predicament? 'Ezra,' he chided himself yet again, 'you should have kept riding...'

"Don't touch that," Nathan said, slapping Ezra's left hand away from his right side. Reaching into his bag, he pulled out a bottle of whiskey and a pad of clean cloth wrapped in brown paper. Uncorking the spirits with his teeth, Jackson doused the bandage. He handed the bottle up to Chris, folding the cotton into a compress that he pushed into Ezra's left hand.

"Thank you," Standish breathed, carefully positioning the alcohol soaked pad over his rib and the worst of his cuts. He blinked rapidly as it made contact with his ripped flesh, struggling to keep control of his breathing.

"Give him some of that whiskey," Nathan directed Chris. "Won't do much, but it's better than nothin'."

"That's entirely... a matter of opinion," Ezra breathed, refusing to take the bottle. "I'll use my own, if you... don't mind."

Chris watched the gambler reach for his flask of hammered silver, bending over to draw it from its harness as Ezra's hand began to flutter like a butterfly's wings. Handing Buck the bottle, Larabee dropped to his haunches beside Standish.

Ezra raised an eyebrow at him. "How do you... do that... wearin' spurs?"

"Practice," Chris grinned, unscrewing the lid of the flask. "Easy," he cautioned, steadying Ezra's hand as the gambler gulped the liquor down.

Standish let Larabee take the flask from him when he was through, fighting to keep his oxygen-starved lungs from expanding too deeply against his ribs. The single malt would hit his blood stream presently, blurring the clarity of the pain. Nathan was right: It wouldn't do much to help him through what was coming, but it was certainly better than nothing, and far, far better than the rotgut corn mash Jackson had offered.

"Hey, Ezra," Buck said, his voice low as he watched J.D. and Josiah lay out the gambler's bed.

"Mister... Wilmington?"


Buck watched the gambler's watering eyes look from J.D., to him, and then back again to J.D.

"My... pleasure, sir," Ezra acknowledged, wincing as Buck raised the bottle to his lips. He reached to take the flask from Larabee, thought better of it, and instead directed the gunslinger to pass the flask to Wilmington.

Oddly touched, Buck let Chris unscrew the flask before accepting it.

"Much obliged," he toasted Ezra, taking a healthy swallow. He blinked, holding the flask away from him with an unimpressed frown. "What the hell kinda watered-down hooch is this?" he demanded.

"That is... real whiskey, sir.... Born and bred... on a foreign shore... cradled in arms of oak... to its proper maturity..." Ezra nearly crooned between careful, labored breaths.

Nathan put the back of his hand against the gambler's forehead. "Fever's startin'," he sighed.

Buck shrugged, handing the flask back to the curious Larabee. Figuring Ezra wouldn't mind - much - he helped himself to a quick swallow.

"Damn!" he muttered, helping himself to another. "This stuff's got to be older than J.D.!"

"That whiskey... might be older... than you," Ezra said weakly.

Vin joined them, nodding to Nathan to let him know the fire was ready. He reached for the flask, figuring that since Ezra had his eyes closed, what he didn't see wouldn't hurt him.

Like Buck, the smoothness of the scotch left him wondering what had impressed Chris so much. A second, larger swig failed to tell him, so he handed the flask back to the gunslinger with a shrug. Chris grinned at him, waiting. '...three, four, five, six...' Larabee counted to himself.

Vin blinked - and Ezra grinned.

"Damn..." Vin muttered, half in admiration for Ezra's ability to see through his eyelids and half in recognition of the whiskey's ambush. "Stuff sneaks up on ya."

"You want some more, Ezra?" Chris asked.

"Is there any... left?"

Chris shook the flask gently, reassured by a healthy slosh. "Some."

"Perhaps Mister Dunne... would care for... a libation?"

J.D. beamed at his inclusion with the big boys, before remembering that he was one of the big boys and clamping down on his delighted smile. "Thanks, Ezra."

"Smooth, huh, Kid?" Wilmington grinned, listening to J.D. clear his throat and cough.

"Better than the horse piss you drink," J.D. countered.

"Touché... Mister Dunne...." Ezra's chuckle ended in a bitten-off groan.

"You okay, Ezra?" J.D. asked.

A venomous, green-eyed gaze squinted eloquently up at Dunne.

"Sorry," J.D. apologized. "Can I get y'anything?"

Ezra let his eyes screw shut again. "Cold..." he finally answered, hoping one word would suffice. The pain in his side was growing deeper and sharper, driven by the shivers that were becoming impossible to control. It was growing more difficult to breathe, let alone speak. He heard the scuffle of dirt and the chime of spurs and let himself look out through his lashes in time to see a dusty serape descend over him. Seeing Vin also on his feet and showing every sign of shrugging out of the mangy carcass he called a coat, the gambler once again took refuge in darkness. He would rather not see what sort of vermin scurried for cover when their den was shaken out. 'You couldn't fetch my jacket?' he thought at the tracker.

"Better?" J.D. asked, once Vin's jacket had been added to Chris's poncho.

Ezra swallowed, risking the slightest of nods.

The back of a hand pressed against his brow, staying there despite Ezra's attempt to push it away.

"Fever," Vin announced, worried.

'Good Lord...!' Ezra thought. 'Have you never seen a wounded man, Mister Tanner?' Of course there was fever - there was always fever, and it would be there until the dirt and rock and filth that had been driven into his side were removed and his body could fight off the infection of their presence.

"Nathan's almost ready," Josiah's voice rumbled above the gambler.

"Oh, joy..." Standish sighed, very quietly.

"Want some whiskey, Josiah?" J.D. asked, certain that Ezra wouldn't want to leave any of the seven out.

"Don't mind if I do," Sanchez grinned. "Bed makin's thirsty work." Josiah took a moderate sip, mindful of the alcohol's better uses in their current situation. "This isn't whiskey," Josiah intoned reverently, looking at the silver flask - and Ezra - with new appreciation. "This is the water of life itself."

"I need you boys sober," Nathan admonished, joining the men clustered around Ezra.

"This isn't drinking, Brother," Josiah corrected, proffering a sample. "This is a religious experience."

Nathan had the flask in his hand when Ezra wheezed, "I would prefer..."

The healer froze while Ezra fought to get enough air at his command to keep his voice steady.

"...if Mister Jackson..." the gambler pressed on, "...would... wait... until after... he's finished with... me... before he... partakes."

Nathan blinked.

"Ezra, if they ever hang you, you'll die of old age sayin' your last words," a relieved Buck laughed.

"And the problem... with that... would be...?"

"Let's get this over with," Nathan said, shaking his head. How a man with a mouth like that had survived in the West this long was beyond him.

"May I have... my coat?" Ezra asked, his tongue darting out to lick his dry lips as he opened his eyes.

Vin got it for him out of the neat stack he had made from the gambler's clothing and guns.

"Right inside... upper pocket..."

Vin searched and found a monogrammed handkerchief. He held it up in front of him, at a loss to understand what the gambler wanted it for.

"I despise... the taste of leather," Ezra explained, taking it from him with an unsteady hand, twisting it in his fingers along his left forearm, rolling the fine lawn into a small rope. Realizing what Standish intended, Chris took over, doubling the rope back on itself to thicken it.

"It's ready," Josiah informed Nathan, coming to help Jackson get Ezra as close to his feet as Standish could manage. Chris screwed the lid back on the flask and slipped it in his back pocket in order to lend a hand in helping J.D. with the burden of Buck.

Ezra smothered another groan in his throat as he was laid back on the thin blanket separating him from the lumpy ground.

"You sure about that laudanum?" Nathan asked Ezra, laying out bowls of hot water, whiskey, and clean bandages next to his surgical tools.

"Positive." Ezra put as much snap as he could into his response.

"Your body," Nathan shrugged, hoping that it wouldn't be the gambler's funeral, too.

Buck made Chris and J.D. put him down at the head of Ezra's bedroll, where he could at least pretend to be useful. Vin gave him a supportive pat on his good shoulder as he took up a position at Ezra's right, opposite Chris.

Pulling out the flask before he knelt down beside Ezra, Chris opened it and liberally soaked the corded handkerchief. Standish reached out and Chris let his trembling hand take it. He watched the gambler put it in his mouth and work it between his jaws to cushion his teeth and protect his tongue, to make sure it wasn't going to choke him.

"I'm going to need your help, J.D.," Josiah said, calling Dunne away from Buck's side. He'd discovered that the trembling in the legs he held under his hands came from formidably corded musculature. "I'll hold him," Josiah explained to the anxious to help J.D. "You hold me."

Taking a deep breath, Vin put one hand on Ezra's shoulder, pressing it down into the blankets and grass. He tried to put the other on Ezra's wrist, but the gambler had a different idea. The tracker found his grip pushed to just under Ezra's biceps as Standish grabbed the back of his arm.

'Ow!' Vin thought, as Ezra's fingers dug in. He winced, and Chris grinned at him, half in amusement and half in sympathy. He knew he was shortly going to be bailing the same boat as Tanner.

"You ready?" Nathan asked Standish. The Southerner pulled the compress he held off his congealing wounds, handing it to Nathan by way of answer.

'Arrogant sonovabitch,' Jackson silently swore, knowing the gesture had hurt like hell. He'd seen this kind of pride in the war, seen it kill a lot of good men. 'Well, not this time, Mister Standish,' he promised himself. 'You're gonna live through this whether you like it or not.'

Chris grinned. "Do it," he told Nathan, pressing down on Ezra's shoulder and upper arm with his right arm. 'Ow!' he yelped to himself as Ezra's fingers grabbed his left forearm like a vice.

Nathan took his pair of bent forceps in his right hand and a small, whiskey-soaked scrubbing brush in his left, and got on with the job of scouring out Ezra's cuts and the hand-length, inch deep rupture of popped skin over his injured rib.

"Whoa!" Vin cried as Ezra's body jerked and Ezra pulled down hard on the arms he held. Tanner caught his balance by throwing his weight onto the side that held the gambler's shoulder down against its involuntary fight to rise against his agony, narrowly avoiding a collision with the equally off-balance Larabee. The tracker and the gunslinger silently agreed that they were impressed: Standish was actually helping them hold him down.

'Ezra's done this before,' Buck realized as he watched the grunting, struggling tangle of men in front of him. The gambler's head rose off the blanket, his straining neck lifting toward his heaving chest.

"Easy, easy," Buck coached, trying to corral Ezra's head with his good hand. The gambler's short hair was slick from the sweat that poured off his trembling body, and Wilmington's fingers skidded off the planes of his skull twice before he slipped his injured arm out of its sling and took Ezra's face between his hands. Digging his fingers into the smaller man's scalp, Buck gritted his teeth as he pushed Standish's head back down to the ground. Vin gave him a look of thanks - Ezra's loss of leverage helped him keep the grip that threatened to slide off the drenched fabric of the gambler's ruined shirt.

Time passed slowly, one minute rolling into two, two into five as Buck watched Ezra's contorted face go from pale to white.

"How you comin', Nathan?" Buck demanded when Standish could no longer contain the grunt of pain muffled against the handkerchief with each short, jagged breath he drew.

Jackson didn't spare a glance from the wounds his scouring had set to bleeding. Ezra's body was trembling, the muscles jumping so much his forceps often came away from their probing empty. "Goin' as fast as I can, Buck. We don't want t'have t'do this again."

'No,' Chris thought, 'we sure as hell don't.' Ezra was doing his best to curb his body's natural desire to rise up against the pain being inflicted upon it, but Chris was hard put to remember a tougher wrestling match. Well, there had been that one time during the war when they'd got Buck drunk to get the bullet out of his backside, and they'd learned the hard way that pain has a tendency to sober a man up very quickly.

"Damn!" Nathan swore, sitting back on his heels and laying the bent forceps down on a clean cloth. Just when he'd thought he was nearly through, his cleaning had revealed a sharp splinter of flint imbedded in the thin layer of muscle over the injured rib. "That rib's cracked for sure...." Taking a deep breath, he picked up the larger, stronger, scissors-handed forceps and swished it through the bowl of whiskey, then did the same with his sharpest, finest knife, laying them to hand on a clean bandage.

"Hang on to 'im, now," he ordered them. "He ain't gonna like this much."

Ezra's eyes squeezed open and Buck had to grin at the merry hell dancing through their tears of pain. Lord, the man had a mouthful on his mind. Probably best for Nathan that he was gagged. 'Probably best for Ezra, too, come to think of it...' Wilmington chuckled to himself.

Gritting his teeth, Nathan straddled Standish's right thigh. Somewhere in the back of his mind, he heard Buck laugh out loud and filed it away to be curious about later. Right now, his attention was focused on the razor sharp dart of flint buried in Ezra's flesh. He had to be very careful in how he extracted it - the thin flake of stone was as fragile as glass, and he didn't want to risk snapping it off and leaving God only knew what buried inside the gambler.

Picking up the scalpel, he made two quick incisions on either side of the puncture, cutting down to the rib, giving himself room to work. Ezra's body bucked, trying to shake him off, every screaming nerve triggering a survival reflex his will couldn't quite subdue.

"Keep him still!" Nathan snapped. He'd only get one chance at doing this the easy way.

The five men redoubled their efforts to hold the twitching, sweating body under their hands in check. Chris felt himself sliding off the slippery material of Ezra's wet shirt and risked a lightning change of position, thrusting his hand under the gambler's collar to grab the bare shoulder in a grip of iron.

Getting 'go ahead' nods from Chris and Vin, Jackson picked up the large forceps. Taking a deep breath, Nathan thrust his left hand into the wound he had made, brutally compressing the injured rib as he pushed the skin apart to reveal the shaft of the bloody shard. As he did, Ezra's body arched in protest against the rough invasion with a strangled moan.

Chris pushed hard against the movement, trying to shove Ezra's shoulder down into the grass beneath him. His heart stopped when he heard a snapping crackle and felt the shoulder under his hand move in a way flesh and bone were never meant to.

Ezra's moan became a shrieking bellow as his common sense took charge of his outraged body. Vin collided with Chris as the gambler sent him flying into the gunslinger as the quickest available way to get Larabee's weight off him. J.D. and Josiah were kicked from legs trying their best to leap to their feet to run the hell away, Josiah receiving a glancing blow from a boot heel that broke his nose yet again. Nathan caught a right fist under his jaw that sent him sprawling back into the preacher, and Buck - Buck caught Ezra, grabbing him in a bear hug from behind as the whimpering gambler tried to curl himself around his dislocated shoulder.

"Ezra!" Buck yelled, trapping the smaller man between his legs to try and prevent Standish from rolling through the dirt in a vain attempt to get away from the molten pain in his side and shoulder. "Ya gotta keep still, Ezra!"

Ezra wasn't listening, his teeth tearing through the cloth in his mouth as his head flung back on Buck's shoulder, his churning legs tumbling Nathan's bowls, bandages, and tools. "Ezra," Buck commanded desperately, "y'gotta stop this!" The gambler grabbed the arm around his upper chest, his fingers white as they clawed into Buck's wounded arm, trying to pry it off so he could get away. Buck hissed at the pain, but didn't let go.

"What the hell happened?" a spooked Vin demanded as he rolled off Chris, rubbing his forehead.

"Shoulder dislocated..." Nathan answered, shaking his own head to clear it as he crawled up beside Larabee. "We gotta get it back in the socket."

'We tried it your way,' Larabee decided, his ears still ringing from the impact of Vin's skull cracking against his cheekbone. His concern for Ezra's pride ended with the welt swelling under his right eye. Moving quickly, he straddled Standish's hips, putting those dangerous legs out of range. "Where's that laudanum?" he demanded.

Nathan found and opened the brown bottle, slapping it into Chris's waiting hand. Reaching out with his other one, Larabee grabbed Ezra's wet jaw, forcing the writhing Southerner to look at him. Blurry green eyes took in the angry gunslinger - and the bottle he held.

"Nnrrrr!" Ezra cried through his gag. Desperate feet troughed a purchase in the earth, and Chris had to let go of Ezra's face to keep from being pitched off the frantic Standish.

"Damnit, Chris, put that stuff away!" Buck bellowed, as Ezra pushed back against him, trying to get away from the menace in front of him. "I got 'im - I'll hold him - just put the damn bottle down!"

Chris did, and not because Buck told him to. He handed the laudanum back to Nathan because he recognized the expression in Ezra's eyes when he'd seen the bottle and realized what Chris was intending to do to him. The gunslinger had seen it many times before in the eyes of men who had just discovered he was faster on the draw than they were.

"If I get kicked," he grated at Buck, "I'm shootin' you."

Buck nodded at Chris, accepting his terms. Ezra's struggles to get away from Wilmington ceased as Chris moved off his body. Standish shook uncontrollably, his body paying dearly for the escape attempt.

"That's it," Buck encouraged as Ezra fought for coherence and control. "Just calm down so we can get you taken care of..."

Ezra squeezed Buck's arm through his spasms, letting the other man know he was trying to oblige him, even if his rebellious body wasn't.

"Do it," Buck ordered Nathan. "I got 'im - do it, damn it!"

Chris and Vin joined J.D. in pinning the gambler's scrambling legs while Nathan grabbed, jerked, and pulled until a 'snap!' told him the ball joint had popped back in its socket.

Ezra sagged in Buck's grip, the sudden absence of the new torture allowing the old one to flare to greater heights.

"Hurry," Buck urged Nathan, watching the tears Standish couldn't stop mingle with snot to track down his gray face.

Josiah, having re-molded the cartilage of his nose between thumb and forefinger with an audible crunch, appeared at Jackson's side, helping him find and clean his instruments with whiskey.

"Oh, hell," Nathan growled as he went searching for the shard of flint and found what was left of it.

"What?" Chris demanded from somewhere around Ezra's kneecap.

"Bad news is the flint's snapped off at the bone," Nathan informed him grimly. "Good news is it ain't cracked no more - it's broken, so I can get it out."

"Almost over now," Buck assured Ezra, as Nathan finally came away with a quarter inch sliver of gore-covered rock in his forceps. "Just gotta stitch it," Nathan let them all know, willing his hands to stay steady as he hunted for his needles.

Ezra made a sound like a dying animal, turning his face to hide against Buck's neck.

Josiah handed Nathan the needle and the silk thread, and smiled through the blood drying under his nose and around his mouth and chin. Nathan smiled back, taking his mind away from the picture the seven of them made. If he started laughing now, he'd never finish sewing Standish up. As it was, it took him nearly half an hour to tie the last knot.

Heaving a sigh from the depths of his being, Nathan let the thread drop into Josiah's waiting hands and wiped the sweat from his eyes with the rolled up cuff of his shirt.

"It'll just take a minute to wrap those ribs and that shoulder," he assured his fellows with a cheerfulness he was far from feeling. With Josiah acting as his assistant, he padded the stitches and wrapped the gambler's ribs. When he tightened the dressing over the broken rib, Ezra's head lolled off Buck's shoulder, his chin dropping to his chest in a dead fall. Jackson thought Standish had finally given up and passed out, but a soft cry halfway between a groan and a whimper forced itself through the muzzle of the handkerchief in Ezra's mouth to prove him wrong.

Angry with himself for being annoyed with the gambler's endurance, Nathan muttered to himself as he cut away the gambler's sweat-stained shirt from his body. He was very, very gentle as he bound the insulted shoulder, wrapping it across Standish's pectoral muscles and under his arm and across his back to spare his bruised and broken ribcage any further pressure.

"That's it," he announced, moving away from his patient. "We're done, Ezra."

Slowly, Chris, Vin, and J.D. released their grip on the Southerner's quivering legs, sitting up and looking at each other in a manner that made Josiah hand them an unopened bottle of medicinal spirits from Nathan's supply bag. Chris did the honors with the cork, helping himself to a liberal swig before handing it to Vin. Vin took a long pull before offering it to Dunne.

J.D. ignored it, scrambling to his feet with more energy than his elders felt he had a right to, so Vin passed the bottle on to Nathan. Jackson accepted it gratefully, his eyes narrowing as he realized his work for the day wasn't over. The bandage on Buck's arm was bloody, no doubt from the aggravation of Ezra's death-grip. Buck ignored the pain, intent on supporting the spent Standish.

J.D. re-appeared, his canteen over his shoulder. Dropping to his knees in the spot Jackson had just vacated, he said, as if everything was perfectly normal, "I've got that, Ezra."

Nathan tried not to kick himself as he watched J.D. help Ezra remove the wadded handkerchief from his dry mouth and realized that Standish had been trying to spit it out for some time now.

J.D. helped Ezra lift his head back against Buck's shoulder. "Want some water?" he asked the gambler, unscrewing the lid of the canteen. Ezra's eyes stayed closed, but his ashen lips formed the word 'yes'.

"Here it comes," Dunne said, bringing the canteen down to the shaking hand that lifted from Buck's arm to find it. He held its weight and helped Ezra's hand make it up to his lips, making sure he got some water without drowning himself. When he had to stop swallowing in order to breathe, Ezra let his hand fall to his side.

Reaching into his pocket, J.D. produced his own handkerchief of sturdy linen. He wet it carefully, putting it into Ezra's upturned palm. Once again, he was the strength that raised the gambler's hand to wash his face and neck free of mucus and the salt of dried tears.

"How 'bout some of your whiskey?" J.D. suggested.

Ezra's eyes fluttered open for a moment. "Please," he almost managed to whisper.

"Here," Chris said, handing the flask up to Dunne, who handled it the same way he'd handled the canteen. When Ezra had taken as much as he could, he pushed the flask and J.D.'s hand away.

"Oh, sure, Ezra," J.D. agreed, handing the flask and its cap to an astonished Nathan. Josiah grinned at the healer.

"It's your turn," Sanchez reminded him.

Nathan blinked at Ezra. He couldn't open his eyes, but he remembered this? Laughing at himself for being angry at his own pleasure in the simple act of sharing this white Southerner's whiskey, Nathan took a sip from the flask. "Not bad," he complimented, screwing the lid back on. "Not bad at all.... Let's get him lyin' down, boys. He'll breathe better."

J.D. and Josiah did their best to straighten the chaos of his bedroll, as Nathan moved to help Buck lay Ezra down on it.

"He's awful warm, Nate," Buck said, cradling his arm as he scooted away from Ezra.

"Fever," Nathan explained. "We'll need to keep him warm tonight. J.D., would you mind gettin' my blanket?"

"He can have mine, too," Dunne offered, heading off to the horses.

"...Lord..." Ezra murmured faintly, his eyes still screwed shut in his wan face. "...Forgotten... how much that... hurts..."

"It's not too late for that laudanum," Nathan pointed out. "That pain's gonna get worse, now."


"Why the hell not?!" Buck yelled at Ezra, dashing his hat to the ground in frustration.

"...Doesn't... agree... with me..."

Nathan frowned, then patted Ezra's leg gently in understanding before rising to his feet and taking a well-earned stretch before he tended to Buck.

"We went through all that 'cause he gets a tiddly stomach?" Vin asked, gingerly pressing the tender bump on his forehead as he and Chris stood up next to the tall healer.

"Probably not," Nathan explained quietly. "Seen opium do a lot of things to men in my time. Seen it kill some, take others into fits like apoplexy - even seen it run some men crazy to the point where they'd try to kill themselves 'cause of what they thought they were seein'. If'n you get too much of it too regular, it can be hell itself to stop takin' it. If you're like that, one dose is all it takes to put you back where you'd murder your own kin to get it."

"Ask a stupid question..." Vin sighed.

J.D. returned to Ezra, his arms full of blankets and Buck's bedroll.

"Back to work," Nathan said, handing Ezra's closed flask to Chris. "Lemme see that arm, Buck."

"Why'd he decide to blow up the mountain, anyway?" Vin wanted to know, as he watched Wilmington submit to Nathan's examination. "We were winnin'."

"Ran out of time," Chris explained, with a nod in Wilmington's direction. "He didn't know how bad Buck was hit."

"Get an answer you don't want'a hear," Vin concluded, trudging off to get his blanket for Ezra.

"How you doin'?" Nathan asked Buck, putting the back of his hand against the big man's forehead.

"I'll be all right," Wilmington answered shortly, pulling away from Jackson's touch.

"Gotta watch for fever in you, too," Jackson told him.

"This ain't the first time I been shot," Buck growled peevishly.

"My ma'd kiss me to see if I had a fever," J.D. teased with a poker face Ezra would have admired.

"Just try it, Kid."

"How's that saber cut?" Nathan asked, slicing through Buck's soiled bandages.

"Hurts," he admitted quietly. Chris's shadow fell over him and Buck looked up to catch the worry in Larabee's gaze. The gunslinger immediately looked away. "Ain't nothin' I can't handle," he said, talking to Nathan, but speaking to his old friend.

"Want some of Ezra's whiskey?" Chris offered.

"Hell, no," Buck snapped. "I need somethin' that'll kick this back a'mine all the way down."

"You got it," Chris said, slapping Buck on his good shoulder. Rewarded by a grunt and a baleful glare, Chris walked past J.D. and Ezra on his way to where Josiah was bedding his horse down for the night.

"...Saucer..." Ezra mumbled as Chris went by, his eyes snapping open.

"What?" Chris asked, astonished to find that Standish was struggling to rise. "Oh, no," Larabee said, dropping down beside him as J.D. laid a restraining hand on the gambler's bare shoulder. "We're not doin' this again, Ezra."

"...Saucer..." Ezra said again, unable to fight the gentle pressure putting him back on the ground.

"What saucer?" Chris asked J.D.

Ezra sucked up as much breath as his weakened fortitude allowed. "Chaucer..." he said, loudly and clearly. A plaintive little whinny answered him. "...My horse..." the gambler finished in a whisper, trying again to lift himself up to answer the call.

"We'll take care of your goddamned horse, Ezra," Chris growled.

"...Profanity... upsets him..." Ezra frowned at the gunslinger.

"I'll take care of him," J.D. promised, grinning at the expression of vexation on Chris's face. "He likes me, remember?"

Ezra's eyes closed in acceptance, if not satisfaction. Truth be told, there wasn't much else he could do, he admitted to himself, other than close his eyes and do everything in his power to control the nausea rocking his stomach. And J.D. was right - Chaucer had taken to the boy, after he'd gotten that first bite out of the way.

Vin joined the two men beside Ezra, carefully tucking his blanket around the trembling gambler.

'Just what I need,' Ezra thought ungratefully. 'Tanner's fleas...'

When the blanket didn't seem to ease the gambler's shivering, Vin bit his lip.

"C'mon," Chris said, slapping the tracker's shoulder. "I'll get my blanket, you build another fire."

Vin inclined his head, glad for something to do, and the two men separated.


"Hey, Josiah," Chris called quietly as he reached the horses. "Who's Saint Barbara?"

Sanchez didn't bat an eyelash at the question: He was a man accustomed to the Lord working in mysterious ways.

"She was the daughter of a Greek merchant, whose conversion to Christianity and subsequent preaching of the Word so enraged her father that he cut off her head."

Chris frowned.

Josiah grinned at Larabee's obvious disappointment. "So God took her soul to heaven and sent a lightning bolt to turn her father into ashes. I've always been rather fond of Saint Barbara..."

"Lightning, huh?" Chris repeated.

"That's why she's the patroness of Fire, Cannon, Firearms - pretty much everything that explodes."

"Like... artillery?"

"She's the patron saint of artillery men."

Chris laughed, nodding his head.

"Has Saint Barbara touched your life recently, Brother?"

"Think so," Chris said, touching his swelling cheek.

"Ah," Josiah nodded. "Brother Standish..."

"Wish I understood him better."

Larabee's confession surprised Josiah. The gunslinger was a fiercely private man, and he extended that courtesy to others as a matter of course. He knew Larabee would be amused if he ever pointed out how well Chris actually followed the Golden Rule in his doings with mankind.

"I got this feeling most of the stuff he says is pretty damn funny. Thanks, Josiah." Tipping his hat to the older man, Larabee took his bedroll off his horse and headed back toward the gambler.

"Well, well, well," Sanchez mused aloud. "This has been a day for revealing hidden depths."


J.D. looked up as Chris approached.

"Ezra sleepin'?" the gunslinger asked, shaking the blanket out over the gambler.

"Some," Dunne replied, worry plain on his young face as he took an edge of the blanket to help cover Standish. "He's awful restless..."

"He'll be all right," Chris said, with a confidence born of the experience of a long war and a hard-riding life. "You did real good with him, J.D."

The young man smiled at the praise. "My mother got awful sick before she died. We couldn't afford proper nursing, so I took care of her. It's... easy to forget sick people need their dignity."

Chris nodded, finding himself oddly pleased with J.D. Vin joined them, piling the materials he'd gathered for the fire a few feet from Ezra. He watched the gambler twitch, his right hand crawling out from under the cocoon of blankets. J.D. replaced it under the covers for the third time in as many minutes. Without a word, Vin turned and walked back to where J.D.'s saddle sat in mute testimony to the beginning of their ordeal. Picking up Ezra's gunbelt and putting it over his arm, Vin drew the Remington from its holster, emptying its chamber. As he walked back to the gambler's side, he stowed the six bullets among their fellows in Ezra's belt.

Reaching Standish, Vin laid the gunbelt down next to his head and pulled back the blankets. Ezra's right hand was halfway back into the open air. Vin slid the gun butt first into the tapping fingers and Ezra visibly relaxed as his hand closed on it.

Vin looked at Chris. "If you ever have to wake him up," the tracker advised, "go in low. He shoots high."

"Yep," J.D. agreed, leaving Chris and Vin to watch over Ezra while he checked on Wilmington.

"How y'doin', Kid?" Buck asked, as J.D. pulled up a piece of dirt next to the saddle the big man leaned back against.

"Me? Heck, I didn't get hurt, Buck."

Wilmington settled back, giving J.D. time to spit it out on his own.

"I guess I was pretty stupid today, huh?"

"Breakin' cover 'cause you thought a friend needed help? Hell, ain't a man here that ain't done that." Wilmington's eyes strayed to Ezra. "At least once..."

"Guess it's one of those things you grow out of with experience, huh?"

Buck grinned. "Nope."


Vin and Chris sat with the central campfire between them, comfortable with each other's silence. Chris was on watch, Vin's having ended an hour before.

Vin stopped chewing for a moment, glancing at Chris.

"Where you goin', Ezra?" Chris called out quietly, and Vin resumed working on his midnight snack.

"...Behind... a tree... Mister Larabee..." breathed a rather urgent reply.

Vin swallowed, stowing the pemmican in its pouch and wiping his fingers off on his coat as he and Chris rose to assist the gambler in his moment of need. As they passed Josiah, the big man opened his eyes to let them know he was awake.

They had to hoist Ezra to his feet, the gambler unable to contribute much more to the effort than not screaming. Half-carrying Standish to the fauna growing on the slope running away from the camp, Vin and Chris put his back to the trunk of a scrub pine in a reversal of the time-honored tradition of offering libations to the bushes. A minute ticked slowly by and Chris began to get a horrible picture of having to help Ezra out of his trousers.

"...Gentlemen..." the gambler ground out, "...if you... don't mind..."

Vin looked at Chris, just to make sure he had the correct translation of Ezra's desperate request. The grin on Larabee's face told him he had, and they turned together, putting their backs to Standish.

A moment later, Chris had to bite his lip to keep from laughing at the sound of the sigh Ezra couldn't completely restrain as he allowed nature to course.

"Nice night," Vin said conversationally. "Think it looks like rain?"

Chris choked, drawing blood in his efforts to keep himself under control. Tanner had a wicked streak a mile wide, and a wit to match Ezra's. Between the gambler, the tracker, the Buck-and-J.D. show, and the running commentary of Josiah and Nathan on the spectacle the four of them made, Chris had laughed more in the last three weeks than he'd laughed in the last three years. It made him vaguely uneasy to realize how much he was enjoying himself.

"...How is... our water... supply...?" Standish asked unexpectedly, a minute or so after silence had announced the completion of his mission.

Neither Vin nor Chris dared to turn around.

"You thirsty, Ezra?" Vin deadpanned.

"...I would... like to... wash my... hands..." the gambler replied with palpable asperity.

Not trusting himself any further, Chris strode off into the darkness toward the stream that ran fifty yards away from Ezra's tree.

"...Mister... Tanner...?"

"Ezra?" Vin was hard put to keep his voice steady.

"...Could I trouble you..."

'Better than anyone I've ever known,' Vin silently acknowledged.

"...to fetch me... my... saddle bags...?"

Vin did so, wondering what the hell was taking Chris so long.

"...This one..." Ezra pointed with a shaking finger, and Vin unbuckled it for him. Standish let the tree hold him up as he sorted through the contents, removing a small silver box. Vin sat the saddlebags down and took it from the gambler's palsied hands.

Chris rejoined them, his dripping hat full of water, just as Vin opened the box. The scent of lavender hit the air and Vin blinked as he carefully unfolded the waxed paper wrapped around a bar of blue soap.

"...Thank you..." Standish said, taking the bar from him and immediately dropping it with a splash into Chris's black gaucho. With impressive determination, Ezra retrieved the slippery rectangle. The cold water was delicious on his fevered skin and he found he couldn't stop at his hands, needing to clean his face, his arms, what parts of his chest he could reach. Shaking fingers raked themselves through his matted hair, tugging out the tangles. Watching the lather of the soap soak into the leather of his hat, Chris could only wince in anticipation of the next downpour he'd have to ride through.

"...Towel..." Ezra muttered, pointing his chin at the saddlebags. Vin searched and found a soft white towel, a tin of tooth powder and a boar-bristle toothbrush rolled up in its center. Vin held the brush and tin, offering the towel to Standish. Ezra proffered the little piece of lavender soap in trade, taking the toothbrush away from the tracker before it could disappear inside a dusty pocket with the tooth powder. He put it into his mouth for safekeeping and to give him something to bite down on against his pain.

Vin accepted the soap carefully, deciding that it was actually a compliment that the gambler would share such an intimate item on the assumption that Vin would expect him to. A strange compliment, but then that suited Ezra. When he was finished washing his hands, he left the soap in Chris's dripping hat, taking it from the gunslinger. 'Your turn,' Vin smiled at Larabee. He'd be damned if he were the only one whose horse was going to try to eat his hands for breakfast come morning.

"...Canteen...?" Standish asked around the toothbrush, dropping the towel in the general direction of Larabee. Chris, much quicker about washing his hands, caught it before he handed Standish the canteen hooked over his saddlebags. Larabee took his hat back from Vin, rescuing the soap as he dumped the water from it.

Ezra somehow managed to get his traitorous hands to coordinate long enough to get the toothbrush out of his mouth and water from the canteen over the bristles without dropping anything. Vin produced the tin of tooth powder, shaking it liberally over the toothbrush as he took the canteen from Ezra.

A quick scrape or two with the toothbrush was all his weakening body allowed him, but it was enough to remove the fuzzy wool socks that had been coating his teeth. Vin helped with the canteen when he rinsed his mouth. Spitting nearly killed Ezra, and he let the bark digging into the skin of his back help support him for a moment.

The tracker washed off the toothbrush before sticking it in his pocket with the tin. The gambler mourned its fate, deciding he'd buy a new one as soon as they got back to town.

Chris handed the soap to Vin, who carefully wrapped it back up in its waxed paper and box. The gunslinger got a glimpse of the contents of one of Ezra's bags as the tracker stowed the soap, and had he been a less disciplined man would have been sorely tempted to go snooping.

"...Shirt...?" Standish requested, indicating the other saddlebag. Vin found one easily, an immaculately white, ruffled creation. It was wrinkled but clean, and Tanner had the unsettling notion that somewhere in its folds, there lurked an iron. He shook it out, and found that the flat lump that fell into his hand was a small, green book. Vin surveyed its cover and spine before handing it to Chris.

"Byron's Childe Harold - Complete," Chris read aloud, squinting at the gold lettering on the spine of the small green volume. He hadn't had to turn it around to see the letters right side up, and Ezra realized that Vin couldn't read. 'One of nature's gentlemen, our Mister Tanner...' the Southerner mused, filing the observation away.

"Do what?" Vin asked, lost.

"...A poem... of violence... vice... heroic deeds.... Its melancholy... wisdom has... lately appealed..."

Vin shifted his weight from one foot to the other, the frown between his eyebrows making the gambler smile in spite of his howling nervous system.

"...Its author... resembles... Mister Larabee..."

"Chris?" Vin blinked, powerfully intrigued as to how the gunslinger could remind anybody of a poet.

"Byron was... 'mad... bad... and dangerous... to know'..."

Vin laughed out loud.

"I like it," Chris grinned.

Ezra ran a jittery thumb over the stubble on his chin, a motion Chris caught. From the moment he could get hold of some hot water in the Seminole village, the gambler hadn't been seen with so much as a five o'clock shadow.

"I know... my limits... Mister Larabee..." Standish said, acknowledging the unspoken offer as he made a clumsy mess of trying to fasten his shirt. "...and I... have... reached them..."

Shoving his wet hat onto his head, Chris reached out and finished buttoning up Ezra.

"...Thank..." was all Ezra managed to get out. Vin left the saddlebags for later, helping Chris get Standish back to his bed.

Ezra breathed out through clenched teeth as they lowered him to the ground. Working together, Chris and Vin tucked Standish in, allowing him to leave his right arm outside his covers.

Chris and Vin settled in around the fire, keeping a subtle eye on Ezra as he fought to button his cuffs properly. Once that was done, the gambler settled his Remington in his right hand and closed his eyes. When Chris saw the finger poised on the trigger relax, he looked over at Vin.

"He's like havin' a damn cat," Chris chuckled.

"That cat's wild, Chris," Vin warned softly. "Best not get too attached."

Chris slapped his damp hat against his thigh with a frown.

"Judge's thirty days're almost up," Vin reminded him. "Come this time next week, his pardon won't be conditional anymore. Don't reckon he'll stay with us much past then."

"No," Chris agreed, his expression turning angry as he looked at the sleeping gambler. "Reckon he won't."


"Buck!" Ezra shouted, sitting bolt upright out of a shallow, dream-plagued sleep.

"What?!" Buck bellowed in reply, snapping awake and trying to leap to his feet.

The ensuing duet of agony from the two wounded men made sure that their startled companions couldn't just roll over and go back to sleep.

"Don't you pull them stitches," a sleepy Nathan warned Standish, who was giving a superb fish-on-dry-land imitation.

"Gggnnnnhhhhhmmffccchhh," Ezra gasped. A disapproving neigh floated across the pre-dawn air, proving too much for the slumber-drugged Larabee.

"It ain't funny, Chris!" Wilmington growled at his laughing friend.

"I'll make the coffee," Vin decided, taking the pot away from Josiah, the last man to stand guard duty.

Ezra groaned louder.

"Thank you, Brother," Sanchez told Vin, his voice thick as he raised a hand to gingerly touch under first one eye, then the other. "How do they look?"

"Right spectacular, Josiah," Vin grinned. He was certain the preacher would be putting a few more bottles of whiskey on Ezra's tab in return for his two black eyes.

"Well, hell, the town'll at least think we're earnin' our pay," Buck chuckled, letting J.D. help him to his feet.

"Are you... insinuatin'... we're not...?" Ezra challenged feebly, thinking better of trying to lift his right arm to shield his eyes from the gruesome sight of rosy-cheeked dawn.

"Mornin'!" Buck boomed, putting more enthusiasm into his greeting than he actually felt. "Damn! Sun's almost up - time to rise and shine, Ezra!"

"Go... piss up... a rope... Mister Wilmington...".

"How you feelin'?" Nathan asked Ezra through a yawn.

"Divine... Mister Jackson..."

"Three days dead and buried?" Josiah guessed.

"You'll probably feel worse after we change them bandages," Nathan assured the gambler cheerfully.

With an audible exertion of will, Ezra pulled his blankets over his face, mumbling something that sounded like Spanish, but wasn't.

Chuckling quietly, Josiah wasn't surprised to find five sets of eyes turned toward him.

"Tuos patres sunt frates," he explained. "It's Latin for 'your parents were brothers'."


Ezra didn't move again until the salt pork hit the frying pan, the aroma spreading on the breeze. The blankets twitched, twisting as Ezra struggled up from a shallow sleep to respond to the primal call from the pit of his stomach. Finally managing to free himself of the suffocating wool, Ezra took a deep breath that he instantly regretted. His broken rib slapped him but good for his temerity, and the nausea in his stomach leapt instantly into his throat at the rancid fumes of the burning meat.

"Damn," Nathan swore, hurrying to assist Standish as he tried to roll over onto his stomach and up onto his knees.

"Where y'goin', Ezra?" J.D. asked, beating Nathan to the gambler's side.

"My own... bed..." Ezra ground out from between clenched teeth.

"You ain't in no shape to be ridin'," Nathan informed him, helping Standish in his quest to climb up Dunne to his feet.

Ezra didn't chance an answer, concentrating on snagging his gunbelt with the toe of his left boot. If he was very careful, he might be able to get it in his hands and keep his eyeballs in their sockets...

J.D. took pity on Ezra, snaring the gunbelt and holding it while the gambler holstered the Remington.

"Don't encourage him, J.D.," Jackson snapped.

"Nathan..." J.D. said, looking from Ezra to the healer. "Look, I ain't even close to a doctor, but I can't see how stayin' here's gonna do Ezra any good. You don't have enough bandages to change his dressing once, let alone twice. One of us could go back to town and get a wagon, but Chaucer's got a lot smoother gait than a flatboard. "

"He also... knows how to... avoid potholes..." Ezra gasped.

"Best we get goin' now, before the heat of the day. Look, I'll start back with Ezra; you guys finish your breakfast. Hell, you'll catch up with us long before we get to Four Corners," J.D. said.

"Wasn't very hungry anyway," Nathan sighed, giving in. "You get his damn horse ready, I'll see what I can do about getting' him ready for the ride."


"How's that bite, Nathan?" Josiah asked, stretching his legs out in front of him in the saloon after the longest three-mile ride of his life.

"Damn horse is worse than he is," Nathan groused, shifting up onto his left hip in the hard chair, to ease the soreness of the equine displeasure that had torn his trousers and bruised more than his dignity.

"Profanity upsets him," Chris deadpanned around a cigarillo, pulling up a seat at Ezra's table.

"So would a two-by-four," Jackson threatened.

"No, that'd upset Ezra," Josiah grinned.

"God forbid," Nathan rolled his eyes. "What'cha got there, J.D.?"

Dunne put the calico-covered basket he'd carried into the saloon in the middle of the table, pulling up a chair with a smile.

"It's from Mrs. Potter, for Ezra."

"Mrs. Potter?" Nathan echoed, astonished. He pulled back the calico napkin to reveal a jar of beef tea and other mild foods appropriate to an invalid's delicate digestion.

"I told her not to worry, that you said he'd be up in a couple a days, makin' trouble. She says if you need any help with nursin' him, you're to let her know. She'll be glad to help."

"She will?" Nathan gawped.

"What'd you do with Buck?" Chris changed the subject, suddenly not wanting to hear any more stupid questions.

"Left him in the arms of some ministering angels." J.D.'s smile turned into a grin. "I explained everything Nathan didn't want him to do to Miss Lucy, and she said she'd make sure his butt stayed in bed for the next couple of days." A smug satisfaction crept into J.D.'s tone of voice. "And all by its lonesome, too."

The swinging of the saloon doors heralded Vin's arrival at the table. Chris eyed the basket he carried and the white linen napkin that covered its contents.

"From Missus Travis," the tracker explained, sitting it down next to Mrs. Potter's basket. "For Ezra." Vin shot a look at Larabee. "She wants you to go over to the Clarion, tell her what happened so's she can print it."

"You couldn't tell her?"

"Reckon there's a dinner invitation included. Ain't my place to refuse it for ya."

"Nope." Chris polished off his shot of whiskey and rose. Good thing those thirty days were almost up - this town was getting a little too used to having them around for his comfort.


The spring was back in Ezra's step as he came down the stairs into the saloon. A small weekday crowd, he noted; one serious game going on for fairly small stakes between a local yokel and a fellow who'd arrived in town on the stage yesterday, en route to the train up to San Francisco. Three of his fellow peacekeepers sat drinking around the table he'd staked out as his own, Buck and J.D. arguing about the true meaning behind the slap Wilmington had just received from one of the resident demireps. Chris sat between them, facing the door and laughing silently at their antics.

"Behold," Ezra declaimed as he approached them. "The personification of the three ages of man: The Innocent, the Idealist, and the Realist."

"Think he's callin' you old, Chris," Buck observed.

"Perish the thought, Mister Wilmington," Ezra chided as the saloon door opened to admit Nathan and Josiah. "Oh, Lord..."

Nathan's smile turned to a frown of disapproval as he saw the gambler. "Ezra -"

"Enough, Mister Jackson. I'll not have your morbid fascination with causin' me pain ruinin' the celebration of our impendin' unemployment."

Sighing, the healer gave up the cause. If Standish pushed himself too far, he'd be able to say "I told you so" in a most satisfying way.

"Celebration?" J.D. repeated, unconsciously looking at Buck for reassurance.

"At midnight tonight, our obligation to this dusty hamlet ends," Ezra reminded him, signaling the bartender for a whiskey. He braced himself against the bar as Josiah and Nathan took the only chairs that didn't have their backs completely to the door. "I cannot think of a better reason for raisin' a glass."

"Got a telegram from Judge Travis," Chris informed the gambler. "He's been unavoidably detained - wants us to stay on a few more days, until he can get here. Rest of us have decided to wait for him."

Ezra's expression froze into a benign mask. "I agreed to thirty days."

"Your choice," Larabee told him.

Ezra smiled, his index finger tapping along the rim of his shot glass. "I can see no advantage to extendin' my tenure any further, Mister Larabee."

"Didn't say there was any."

Ezra saluted Chris with the shot glass, throwing back the drink with the ease of experience. He turned to the bartender and the view the mirror behind him offered of the saloon's activities, putting his back to the others. It was a simple thing to casually broaden the distance between them and him, drifting away from the commitment they were expecting him to make. Stay in this rat hole any longer than necessary? No; as far as he was concerned, Four Corners and its denizens were best relegated to a footnote in his memoirs as soon as possible.

J.D.'s worried look at the empty chair made him smile tightly. 'It's an illusion, Mister Dunne,' he thought at the boy. 'This 'friendship' isn't real. It is a false brotherhood; the child of War and Love, and in the absence of the former, the latter is soon fickle - as you yourself have so aptly demonstrated.'

"Think he'll stay?" J.D. whispered to the table at large and Buck specifically.

"No," Chris answered, his voice equally low. Buck gave Ezra the benefit of the doubt and shrugged.

Ezra caught a flash of movement where movement shouldn't be, and he turned his attention to the poker match behind him. He tapped the counter, letting the bartender know he wanted another one. He played with it as he watched two hands go by. The traveler was definitely cheating, but not always to win. No, he'd let his young mark win every third or fourth hand, get back just enough of his money to keep throwing more into the pot. By the end of the night, the traveler would have everything of value the kid owned, and the kid would be convinced he would have won it all, if his luck had just been in. He was, in fact, leading the sheep Ezra had spent the last month fleecing to the slaughter.

His common sense told him to let it go, that he wasn't prepared to play this kind of match. His derringer and shoulder holster were upstairs, his body still too battered for him to wear them effectively. If things went wrong, the odds were against his ribs letting him cross-draw fast enough to get out alive. No, he'd finish his drink and spend the last three hours of earning his freedom sleeping peacefully.

J.D. gave up on watching Ezra when he noticed the way Chris and Buck weren't looking at the poker game going on in front of them, but followed every twitch the players made just the same. Keeping his voice very, very low and his gaze on the top of his beer, he asked, "Think someone's cheatin'?"

"Gentlemen," Chris heard Ezra say as the gambler walked past him, "would it be possible for me to join you in your devotions to Dame Fortune?"

Chris looked at Dunne. "Yep," he answered.

"What?" The young farmer blinked up at Standish.

"Can I play?" Ezra tried again.

"Of course, amigo. This is just a friendly game to while the night away," the traveler smiled, waving Ezra to take a seat. The gambler did so, adjusting the angle of the chair so that he could see the mirror and as much of the door as possible.

Ezra let the status stay quo for a few hands, getting the rhythm of the traveler's cheating, learning the Tells of his opponents before starting to play his own game.

Watching Ezra toy with his unsuspecting mice, Chris found his mood growing blacker. In a few hours, Standish would be gone, the beginning of the end.... For the life of him he couldn't explain what would be ending, but he had a horrible, hollow feeling that he would miss it like hell - and the one thing he didn't need in his life was to feel any more empty than he already did. He would go with Vin to Tascosa and more than likely be able to do nothing more than watch him die, or die with him. Buck would stick with J.D. until the kid got him killed, or he got the kid married off. Nathan and Josiah would stay here and take care of the town until it became too respectable to want them or they died in its defense. Ezra.... Hell, Ezra would either die staked out in the desert, or in bed, rich, old, and guilty. Mary - he didn't want to think about what could happen to Mary, good or bad. He didn't want to think about Mary Travis at all.

Buck grinned, watching the young farmer rake in a large pot. He was pretty certain Ezra had made sure the kid had won back about as much as he'd lost in the game, which meant he was ready to lower the boom on the other fella. Ezra was fair, in his own fashion. A 'Gentleman Adventurer' is how Standish had described himself once, and Buck had decided it was a line worth trying on an impressionable female sometime in the future.

Sure enough, the farmer started getting hands so bad he had no choice but to fold, and sweat began to bead along the upper lip of the traveler. Ezra fed his own tricks back at him, enjoying the opportunity to go at it bare-knuckled for the first time in over a month.

The farmer threw down yet another hand in disgust. He'd thought for sure if he was the one dealing his luck would turn right.

The traveler read the frustration and decided to fan it into anger. "I think," he said casually, "you're being cheated, friend."

It was easier than he'd thought to provoke his idiot mark. The kid didn't even try to find out if the accusations were true; he just tipped over his chair as he rose, clearing leather at a respectable speed. The traveler drew as well, waiting to see which one of his adversaries would be left to shoot in a tragic crossfire.

Ezra's body resisted his urgent command to stand and draw, simply unable to meet the demands he made of it. 'This is it,' Ezra thought frantically. 'This is the day I'm too slow to stay alive - you should have listened to your Mother, Ezra! Stupidity is its own reward, and you're about to find yours six feet under -'

Ezra's mind shut up as it realized he ought to be dead by now. Blinking, he let his Remington slide back into its holster and resumed his seat. His two opponents stood frozen, the barrels of six pistols and one sawed-off Winchester rifle rooting them into place. 'I didn't even know Mister Tanner was in the room...' a dazed thought chased across the back of his mind as he regarded the two men in front of him with stone-cold anger.

"You're bein' cheated, son - but not by me." Reaching out to the farmer's pile of winnings, Ezra helped himself to a scant half. "For my trouble," he explained. "You see, this gentleman has been palmin' cards all night. Even someone as grossly ignorant as you can surely see that winnin' one hand and losin' three will get you nothin' but broke."

"Who the hell are you?" the traveler demanded.

Suppressing a groan as he pulled his watch from his waistcoat pocket, Ezra checked the time. Eleven-thirty-eight post meridiem.

"The law," he drawled. "And as such I advise you to get the hell out of this town."

The traveler nodded, reaching for his stake.

"Consider it a donation to the widows and orphans fund," Ezra suggested.

He wasn't happy about it, but the six men with the seven big guns convinced him to be generous.

"Mister -" the farmer began.


"Yes, sir."

"Don't let me catch you back here, young man. You're too hot-headed to play this kind of game."

"Yes, sir." The kid snatched up the remnants of his money and left in a hurry.

Reaching across the table to collect the pot and the traveler's stake, Ezra let Vin make sure the two players got out of the saloon safely. He sorted and stacked bills and coins with happy efficiency, peeling off several bills as he rose. Passing by Josiah, he tucked the bills in the other man's vest pocket. "I'm sure I can rely on you to find some widows and orphans," he told the astonished preacher. Tossing a few silver dollars on the counter, he told the bartender, "See to my friends."

Nodding to the five men who were wondering if they were seeing a thank you or a farewell, or perhaps both, Ezra smiled. "It's been a pleasure, gentlemen."

"See you in the morning, Ezra," Chris said. The gambler didn't reply, climbing the stairs to his room.


'Midnight,' Ezra thought, looking at his watch. 'Midnight. The witching hour, when glittering illusion returns to dross..."

Dear Lord, his body ached. He'd barely made it up the stairs, but he'd had to leave, before he'd done something foolish - like sitting down with those six Galahads, with the door to his back and the mirror behind the bar out of his line of sight.


He'd kept his word, stayed and done the job without stint or subterfuge. It had been years since he'd felt the need to do that. It was definitely time to leave, before he forgot the way the world worked, forgot who and what he was - and why. He should leave tonight, before he started thinking he had found a place where he could sit facing the wall.

"To hell with it," he said aloud, hanging his coat over the back of his rocking chair.

'I'll leave tomorrow...' he decided, settling himself into the comfort of his goose-down mattress and pillow, boots on his feet and Remington in his hands. Closing his eyes, he steadfastly ignored the worried little voice nagging at the back of his weary mind, trying to warn him that the trouble with tomorrow is that it never arrives.


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