The Tale of Red Fox
a story in The Gambler's Heart Series by Setcheti

 

 

Disclaimer: Don't own them, didn't make any money, don't sue me.

Acknowledgments: Those 'real tough hombres from Rock Ridge' belong to Mel Brooks – sorry Sheriff Bart, didn't have room for you and Jim this time!


Ezra hit his hands and knees and gasped for the breath that both pain and heat were threatening to steal from him, already so uncomfortable that the sharp sting of gravel and loose cactus spines digging into his palms failed to register at all. Opening his eyes made the world spin nauseatingly so he shut them again; he was leaving enough of a trail without adding to it in such a revolting manner. Were they even still following him? He didn't know, and he no longer remembered if he should care or not, the only thought able to surface above the waves of pain and heat was the need to keep running.

Even if he didn't remember what he was running from...

 

JD caught up with Buck late that morning at the livery stable where the ladies' man was checking on his horse. "Buck, I couldn't find you earlier! Ezra's out on patrol…"

Buck chuckled. "That's downright amazing; it's only ten in the morning."

He didn't see the worried look that crossed the young sheriff's face. "Yeah, but he rode out about three hours ago. He was in the saloon when I got there this morning, and Chris…"

"Kid," Buck interrupted with a sigh. "I've told you before, don't get involved in what goes on between Chris and Ez."

"But Buck…" The ladies' man was ignoring him, so JD grabbed his arm and pulled him around. "Buck, Ezra didn't do anything! He was just sittin' there drinking coffee and playing solitaire and Chris just lit into him, told him to hit the south trail in five minutes or he'd shoot him!"

Buck sighed again. "Kid, sometimes Chris is just…he just gets like that sometimes. And I'm sure that even if ol' Ez didn't do anything today, he's probably done somethin' else earlier--or he'll do somethin' else tomorrow to deserve it. Don't let it bug you." He started to turn away only to be hauled back around again. "Dammit, JD…"

"I shouldn't let it bug me that Chris might have just sent Ezra to his death?!" Now he had Buck's full attention. "You know Vin was sayin' just the other day that no one should go out on the south patrol alone 'cause those three outlaws from Rock Ridge were last seen around that area, but Chris made Ez go alone, Buck! Are you tellin' me he deserves that?"

"Shit." Buck's face fell and he shook his head. "Of course not, JD, no one does. I'll go talk to Chris…"

"We need to go after Ezra!"

Buck brushed him off. "Naw, shouldn't be necessary. Didn't you see them big black clouds rollin' in over the hills? First spot of rain on that fancy jacket of his and ol' Ez will be ridin' back into town like the devil was after him, Chris or no Chris. You just wait, I'll bet you he'll be back gamblin' in the saloon by this afternoon."

 

Ezra didn't notice the rain at first, but the increasing coolness eventually brought a measure of clarity to his fevered thoughts. He staggered to his feet after yet another unexpected encounter with the ground and looked around, trying to get his bearings.

It didn't work.

There were rocks, cactus and scruffy scrub pines all around him…but nothing whatsoever that could give him a clue as to his location. He could see that the sun was lowering in the sky but couldn't remember if that was important or not--or what he should do about it if it was. Then the ground came up to meet him again and he lost his train of thought. He did finally register the rain, though, and with some effort decided that he didn't really want to stay out in it. Lifting his head, which felt as though it weighed a hundred pounds, he squinted across the uneven ground and saw some six or seven yards ahead a hollow between ground and rock, a shallow earthen hole just large enough for a small man to crawl into to get out of the rain. So Ezra started to crawl…

 

The torrential rains had been beating down on the town of Four Corners for half the afternoon when JD stomped into the church where Josiah and Vin were working. "Ez ain't back," he announced angrily. "And I know no one gives a damn about it but me, but I just thought I'd let everyone know. Soon as this rain lets up I'm goin' after him, no matter what Buck says."

"Might be a while," Vin said, slipping down off the ladder he'd been standing on and putting down his hammer. "Rain like this could last two, three days."

"What's got you so riled, JD?" Josiah wanted to know. "Our wayward brother's probably just holed up somewhere out of the rain…"

"Yeah, that's what Buck said," JD spat. "He told me Ez was probably hidin' under a rock somewhere and then he went off with Miss Becky for the afternoon. Sure hope that destiny you talk about all the time will work with six men instead of seven, Josiah."

He made to head back out into the rain but Vin stopped him. "Whoa there, pard. What makes you think Ez is in trouble?"

"Just a feelin'," JD shrugged. "Had it all morning, too, ever since Chris sent him out on patrol alone down the south trail…"

"What!" The tracker's grip tightened on his arm. "What do you mean, he sent him out alone? I told you boys about the sign I seen out that way, must be three or four outlaws holed up in those hills, gotta be those real tough hombres from down Rock Ridge way. Nobody's supposed to be out there alone! When did this happen, JD?"

"You weren't back from patrol yet." Relief flooded the young sheriff; he'd found an ally. "He rode out just after six."

"Shit." Vin released the younger man's arm and ran a hand through his hair, grimacing slightly when he felt sawdust under his fingers. "He would've seen that rain comin' and ridden back--would've been long back by now, knowin' Ez. I thought I saw Orpheus in his stall earlier, though…"

"He wasn't riding Orpheus; Orpheus picked up a stone bruise the other day and Ez won't ride him until it's better," JD sighed. "And I ain't sure that livery horse he's ridin' will head home if anything happens."

"Most likely not, those are pretty new horses," Josiah rumbled, shaking his head. "Lord, that boy could find trouble at the bottom of an empty rain barrel."

JD's face went red. "He wasn't doing anything!" he exploded, startling both men. "He'd been just sitting there, I tell you! I thought it was kind of strange for him to be up so early so I sort of teased him about it when I came in, and he said somethin' that I finally figured out meant he hadn't been able to sleep and he didn't want to stay in his room. He didn't say two words to anybody after that, didn't even get up from his chair."

Josiah's forehead wrinkled. "You know, now that I think about it, he did look tired--Nathan and I just figured he'd been up all night playin' cards."

"Ez went up to his room 'bout eleven-thirty last night," Vin said slowly. His blue eyes narrowed. "So, Preacher, you were there when all this was goin' on?" Josiah looked away and the tracker swore again. "Shit, that's just great, Josiah! So you boys just sat there and let Chris…god dammit, how do you think that must've made Ez feel?! He knew about them outlaws--and he knew all of you did, too. And he already had somethin' on his mind…"

"He could have shared it with us…" Josiah began, and then trailed off at the look of disgust and disbelief he was getting from the two younger men. "Well, maybe not."

Vin turned away from him. "C'mon, JD, let's you an' me go get us some coffee and set over to the jail for a spell, both of us get calmed down a mite--we got enough trouble without makin' any more."

"Yeah, guess you're right, Vin. We can't do nothin' until the rain lets up some, anyway."

 

Three days later, the rain finally stopped. Vin had tried to ride out in spite of the weather more than once and each time had been forced to turn back. The look on the tracker's face each time he rode back into town wet and discouraged was like a knife in Larabee's gut.

Chris had gotten over his 'anniversary' the day after the rain started, and had emerged from his room to find that two of his men weren't talking to the other three and one was missing. He only vaguely remembered sending Ezra out on patrol, and the only reason he could recall he had for doing it was that in the black mood he'd been in at the time he'd been unreasonably enraged than anyone else would dare to have a problem of their own in his presence--even having one as quietly as the gambler had been managing to do it. Buck had reminded him about the south trail the next day, trying to take it for granted that Chris had just forgotten about the outlaws because he was drunk…but Larabee knew he hadn't forgotten, knew that at the time he just hadn't cared.

No one said anything, but the other five lawmen knew it too. And they rode out down the trail Chris had ordered Ezra to patrol knowing they were more than likely looking for a body. No one was doing much talking when they found one.

The spot was a wide, bowl-shaped area surrounded by tumbled boulders and short, chalky cliffs--an ideal spot for an ambush. In spite of the fact that scavengers had already been tearing at it, it was obvious that the horse had died from lead poisoning-the bloated corpse was riddled with bullets. Any hope they might have had died right there. Still, they removed the saddle and saddlebags and cleaned them up as best they could, tying the awkward bundle onto the back of Josiah's mount before scouting around for any sign of the rider.

Vin found the first sign some ten yards away from the body of the horse, a bloody handprint stamped underneath a rocky overhang, protected from the erasing rain. There was more blood on the ground, rust-colored splotches dotting the sandy soil where it looked like the gambler had fallen to his knees – several shell casings scattered on the ground told Vin that he'd probably stopped to reload.

The tracker called the other men over to show them what he'd found. "He took a bullet high on the left side, probably shot him off his horse an' then he took off runnin' while they were still tryin' to get down outta them rocks – it was an ambush, all right."

"How you know where he got shot?" Nathan asked, a little belligerently; the healer tended to be territorial about anything that fell within his 'area of expertise', as Ezra called it. "All I see is some blood, not even that much, could have come from anywhere…"

"Yeah, but it didn't." Vin grinned, but the expression was feral rather than friendly. He held up two bullets covered in dried blood. "These came out of his gunbelt – ain’t never been used. Must've been too slippery for him to hang on to, tryin' to reload his gun, and he couldn't be bothered to pick 'em up. Or maybe just couldn't pick 'em up, I ain't sure about that part, but I am sure that a wound bleedin' bad enough that it runs down over your gunbelt's got to be a right bad one right up under your ribs." He stood up abruptly, dropping the bullets into his coat pocket. "Reckon I might be able to track him a ways," he told Chris. "Got a direction now. You boys stay well back so's you don't confuse the sign--won't be much of it 'cause of the rain, can't afford to miss a single thing."

The other men mounted back up, but Vin stayed afoot and let Chris lead Peso for him. Every once in a while he would stop and look hard at something no one but him could see, and several times he walked back to speak quietly to Chris about what he'd found. The stops gradually became more frequent until finally Vin dropped to a crouch beside a patch of ground where mud had hardened in the sun, partially preserving two shallow ruts. The tracker ran his hand lightly along one of the tracks and then squinted ahead…and suddenly darted forward toward another rocky overhang, this one much lower to the ground and fronted by smooth-worn earth.

Chris dismounted when he saw Vin wriggle partially inside the shallow hole and stalked over to see what it was the tracker had found; he paused to glance at the ruts, a sick feeling settling in his stomach as he realized what he was looking at. Shit, he was crawlin'… "Vin?"

Vin came out unhappy and whispered something to Chris. "Knock that shit off!" Buck yelled, his temper fraying. "God dammit, Vin, just tell us all what you found!"

The tracker sighed. "Rain's done washed away most of the sign," he said. "But he was here – for a good while, looks like, holed up in this old fox den."

The ladies' man wasn't satisfied. "And then?"

Vin looked away, and Chris glared at Buck. "And then something dragged him out," the gunslinger snapped. "Is that what you wanted to hear?"

"Ain't no sign of a struggle, neither," Vin muttered bitterly. "Doubt he even knew what…" He turned away abruptly and stalked off into the rocks.

"God damn," Buck said softly. Josiah crossed himself, and JD just stared. Nathan closed his eyes and shook his head. "So now what?"

Larabee's jaw set. "We find what's left," he growled. "I ain't leavin' him out here."

"Ain't your fault, Chris," Josiah began.

"Like hell it ain't." The gunslinger's voice was flat and cold, but there was a fire burning in his eyes. "I was pissed and he was convenient, so I sent him out here alone – and I goddamn well knew we had a pack of outlaws prowlin' around. I killed him."

"Then so did the rest of us," JD said, surprising everyone. He looked sickened. "None of us that was there offered to go with him, and we all knew about those outlaws." A muscle in his jaw twitched. "And not a one of us had the balls to stand up and tell you to knock it the hell off, Chris."

"Out of the mouths of babes," Josiah murmured. The young sheriff shot him an irritated look. "No offense intended, JD – after all, you were the one who tried to tell everyone something was wrong in the first place."

"Yeah, and no one but Vin would listen," the young man said bitterly. "Just because it was Ez, nobody gave a damn what happened."

"Shit, JD, that ain't true…" Buck began, and then quailed slightly when JD's accusing brown eyes met his; the ladies' man looked away, remembering how he had laughed and brushed off his friend's concerns three days ago. "Ya know I wouldn't have wanted anything to happen to him, kid."

"Didn't say you did, just that you didn't care enough to stop it happenin'," JD said coldly. He sat up a little straighter in his saddle and called out, "Vin, where should we start looking?"

"You take the trail back to town," Chris said decisively, and held up a hand to silence the young man's protest. "You're the sheriff, JD, and we don't know where those Rock Ridge outlaws are right now, so you need to go alert the town, have everybody on their guard. Nathan, you go with him; don't want nobody out here al…want to be sure there ain't another ambush."

It was the healer's turn to object. "But Chris, ya'll might…" The meaningful look he got from the gunslinger and the slight shake of Vin's head stopped the protest cold. "Yeah, you're right," he agreed heavily, dropping his eyes. "C'mon, JD, we need to get back quick as we can; now that the rain's let up, those outlaws might be desperate enough to try ridin' into town or attackin' one of the ranches."

JD nodded but didn't answer; raising two fingers to his hat brim, he wheeled Chelsea around and started riding back the way they'd come. Josiah gave Nathan a warning look. "I don't advise you to use the words 'damn Southerner' today, Nate; that boy's wound tight enough to pop – or to draw on you. You'd best keep your opinion of Ezra to yourself for a while."

Nathan looked slightly offended but nodded his head. "Ain't right to speak ill of the…well, I ain't gonna be sayin' anything. You all gonna be back tonight?"

"If we find him," Chris growled. "Don't aim to come back until we do." The healer rode off without another word, and Vin turned back to the den in hopes of finding more sign. "Where do you think we should start, Vin?" the gunslinger wanted to know. "Don't want to waste time lookin' in the wrong direction, and we've got a powerful lot of ground to cover before nightfall."

At first the tracker didn't answer, still reading what little sign was there for him to see; finally, he stood back up. "We're gonna need help; the Seminole village ain't too far, and we need to tell them what's goin' on anyway – don’t want kids playin' to find…well, what there would be to find, 'cause they all know Ez. And we damn sure don't want anyone stumblin' onto them outlaws by mistake either."

Chris nodded once. "Let's ride."

 

The village was so near that on horseback the four men were within sight of it in fifteen minutes – and that was going the roundabout way. "He was so close," Josiah murmured.

"It's damned amazing he made it as far as he did," Vin snapped. "He kept runnin' until he fell down one time too many an' then he crawled, Preacher – probably dragged himself into that den to get out of the rain. Don't know what more you can expect out of a man."

"Ya know he didn't mean it like that…" Buck began.

"The hell I do!" Tanner snarled. "I know that you like to hold Ez to a standard no man I know could meet, an' then when he don't live up to it y'all treat him like he's lower than a snake's belly. Was it just because he was a gambler, was that it? Was it that damn red coat that made ya decide that if he weren't a hundred percent perfect he weren't worth nothin' at all?"

Josiah blanched. "I just knew he could be better than what he was…"

"What you thought he was," Vin corrected acidly. "Based on the color of his coat – or maybe it was his accent to boot. But he was a damn fine man no matter what you thought, an' he didn't deserve…this just for bein' a Southern gambler." Urging his horse into a trot, the angry tracker rode on ahead, leaving his friends behind.

Josiah and Buck looked at each other, and then at Chris. "What the hell was that all about?" Buck wanted to know.

"What do you boys think it was about?" Chris replied in a tight voice. "One of his friends just got killed because no one cared too much about backin' up a no-good Reb conman, so Vin just redrew the Mason-Dixon line with us on the wrong side – one thing about them Rebs, they stick together."

Buck's mouth dropped open. "Vin's a…"

"Oh Lord," Josiah whispered. "Is that why he was with the Indians? He didn't want to surrender?"

"Wouldn't give up his guns," Larabee confirmed. "Think he headed Missouri way when the War was ending and then on back to Texas when one of those Missouri boys convinced him to keep ridin' – farmer named Josie, if I remember right."

"Not…"

"Yeah, Buck, that Josie," the gunslinger said. "Vin mentioned once that I remind him of the man, have to say I was a mite flattered – it was real obvious that Vin set a right store by him, would've followed him to hell and back if Wales would have allowed it."

"Thank God he didn't," Josiah said, shaking his head. "I heard Wales met a bad end somewhere down by the border, that it was his own captain that surrendered and sided up with the Union that killed him."

"Yeah, and it was a Union officer that killed Ezra, too," was the grim reply. Chris sighed. "Don't reckon Vin will be stickin' around much longer, not after this."

"But Ezra wasn't no…" Buck trailed off when he saw the look on Larabee's face. "God dammit, Chris, just how long have you known all this shit?! When did he tell you?"

"Neither of 'em did," was the gunslinger's answer. He frowned at his two men. "What, you mean I'm the only one who noticed that Ezra didn't have no problem makin' that cannonball land right where he wanted it to the first time we came out here? He didn't learn that sittin' at a poker table, boys."

"You ever checked it out?" Josiah wanted to know. "Find out where…"

"Nope." Chris shrugged. "It was his business, not mine – and not yours, either, Preacher, and especially not Nathan's. He turned a hard eye on the older man. "You just keep your damn mouth shut about this, Josiah, I mean it; a man's past is his to keep or leave, and Ezra real obviously left his somewhere down South. And if we owe the man anything, it's the courtesy of lettin' it stay there."

 

Grey Owl was waiting when the three men rode into the village, greeting them with a welcoming smile that seemed out of place considering the circumstances – and they knew the old man had to know what had happened because Peso was lazily cropping grass beside one of the adobes. Vin was nowhere to be seen. "We had wondered when you would come! I was certain it was only the rain keeping you away."

"Um, yeah." Chris dismounted and shook the offered hand distractedly. "Where's Vin got to, Grey Owl?"

Grey Owl gestured to one of the adobes. "He is with Red Fox."

The name meant nothing to the three men. "Did he tell you what happened?" Chris demanded.

"Yes," the old man answered gravely. "We were already keeping a watch to the north hills. Those who did this were evil men, as Red Fox himself warned us last night. Have you caught them?"

"Ain't even looked," Chris admitted – they had shown that much courtesy for Ezra, at least, even if it was too little too late. Then a thought struck him. "Why were you keeping a watch? And who the hell is this Red Fox person?"

Grey Owl didn't get a chance to answer. "Chris! Josiah!" Buck had wandered over to the adobe to see what Vin was up to; his first look inside had almost stopped his heart. "Guys, it's Ezra!"

Vin suddenly appeared in the doorway, glaring. "Shut the hell up, Buck," he ordered quietly, and held out a warning hand as the other two men rushed over. "Y'all just stay back an' keep yer voices down; he's sleepin'…"

The anguish Larabee had been feeling had drained away at Buck's yell; now anger rushed back into the void. "Well, wake him the hell up!"

Chris found himself on the receiving end of three effective imitations of his own glare and one very stern look from Grey Owl. "I have been giving him strong herbs to ease the pain and lower his fever; Red Fox will be asleep for a little while yet," the older man informed him reprovingly. "Will taking your anger out on him ease your fear and guilt? Will it change the fact that your demons almost brought about his death?"

The gunslinger flushed, remembering what JD had said earlier that day. "What's he been sayin'?"

Grey Owl's expression did not change, but a flicker of anger appeared in his dark eyes. "In the heat of his fever, many things; since he awakened last night, only words of gratitude and pleas for us to find a way to tell you where he was – and to warn you of the outlaws who attacked him."

"He say how many there were?" Buck wanted to know. "We thought there might be three or four…"

"Red Fox said six, possibly more," the old man told him. "He could not be sure, some were hidden in the rocks."

Vin swore. To everyone's surprise, from inside the adobe Ezra responded with a rustle of movement and a murmur that might have been Vin's name. The tracker was back at his side in an instant. "Ez? Pard, you back with us?"

The other men followed him inside, careful to be quiet. The man they'd been fearing had died a truly gruesome death was laid out on a narrow cot, dressed only in a pair of rough-woven drawstring pants such as the other men in the village wore with a wide swath of bandages wrapped around his waist and the lower half of his ribcage and narrower ones wound around the palms of both hands. A vaguely troubled expression crossed the gambler's sleeping features; his eyelids fluttered but didn't open. "Vin, careful…ambush." Vin put a comforting hand on one bare shoulder, feeling the heat still radiating off the pale skin. Ezra sighed breathlessly. "Too many…"

Josiah shrugged at Vin's worried look and handed the tracker the empty clay cup he'd found by the cot. "If this is what they've been giving him, it's a wonder he woke up this much."

Vin sniffed the cup and then grinned. "Well, at least we know he ain't feelin' no pain."

"Or much of anything else, I'll wager," Josiah rumbled, but he wasn't smiling. He turned worried blue eyes to Grey Owl. "It was that bad?"

The older man nodded. "Had the children not found him, he would most likely have died by nightfall."

Josiah groaned and hung his head, and Buck and Vin swore softly. Once again, the familiar sounds seemed to get Ezra's attention. "'siah, Buck…here?" His eyelids were fluttering again and this time his expression was confused. "Here…why?"

The innocently plaintive whisper fell into a shocked, guilty silence. "We were out lookin' for you, Standish," Chris growled.

It never would have happened if he'd been awake…but Ezra wasn't awake. Trapped by fever and strong medicine somewhere in the confused twilight world that lies between sleeping and waking, his reactions to the world around him reduced to the purely instinctive, Ezra flinched like a man expecting violence and knowing he can't avoid it. Larabee's jaw dropped. "What the hell…"

Vin came up out of his crouch beside the cot like a rattlesnake uncoiling, his blue eyes darkening with an emotion that almost made the shocked Larabee take a step back. "Buck, get him out of here," the tracker ordered. "Don't none of us need this shit right now – 'specially Ez."

"Didn't I say somethin' like that to you earlier today?" Buck wanted to know as he grabbed his oldest friend's arm--and then grabbed again and took a better grip when the arm was jerked away.

"I was in the wrong then," Vin agreed coolly. He nodded his head toward Chris. "He's in the wrong now. JD is right, we all gotta start growin' some balls, stop treatin' ol' Chris here like dynamite that's fixin' to go off. Go tend the horses, Cowboy, until you've settled down enough not to scare the hell out of people." He gave Buck a look, sharing for a moment the same silent communication with the ladies' man that he usually shared with Chris. Go make him talk about it, we gotta put a stop to this before he gets one of us killed--came too damn close this time. He'll listen to you.

Buck touched the fingers of his free hand to the brim of his hat in unconscious imitation of Ezra. Sure hope so, pard; I'll give it my best shot and hope for the best. Then he unceremoniously pulled an even more shocked Larabee out of the adobe without a word. Chris looked over his shoulder as they cleared the door, seeing Vin stroking the gambler's hair and whispering reassurances--and seeing Ezra's tensed muscles relax as he was gently soothed back into a deeper healing sleep. Grey Owl caught and held the gunslinger's gaze as he turned to follow Buck, and it was Chris who looked away first, not liking the reflection of himself he saw in those dark, knowing eyes.

 

When Ezra awoke a few hours later, he was surprised to find Vin sitting next to him. He couldn't stop the smile that crept over his face. "Mr. Tanner, what a pleasant surprise." He pushed himself partially upright on one elbow, the other arm automatically wrapping around his injured side. A worried look replaced the smile as a thought occurred to him. "Those…ruffians who were…chasing me…didn't head in this direction, did they? Ah tried to warn…"

"Ain't nobody headed for the village," the tracker reassured him, shoving a bundle of soft hides and worn cloth behind Ezra 's back and gently pushing him back down against it; the gambler gave way with a sigh and a wince. "And they weren't headed toward town, neither, near as I could tell."

Ezra blinked at him. "Rain washed out the trail?"

Vin shrugged. "Don't rightly know--weren't their trail I was followin'." He grinned at the gambler's start of surprise. "What, you thought we wouldn't come lookin' for ya if ya didn't come home?"

"Thought Mr. Larabee might come huntin' me," Ezra chuckled softly – and winced again. Vin was quick to offer the re-filled clay cup, but the gambler shook his head. "No thank you, ah would like to remain conscious for a little while, if you don't mind."

"Let me know if you want it," Vin replied, and put the cup back down; from the corner of his eye, he saw Ezra relax again as he realized that the tracker wasn't going to try to force the medicine on him. That's right, Ez, he thought. You can trust meand I aim ta prove it to ya. "Found the spot they ambushed you from, and Grey Owl said you thought there was at least six of 'em?"

The gambler nodded. "Five or six, or so ah would guess. They were holed up in the rocks, must've been waiting for someone to ride through; unfortunately, it just happened to be mahself. Ah was fortunate to escape relatively unharmed." Vin raised an eyebrow at that, and Ezra just stopped himself from chuckling again. "Ah guess you had to be there; considerin' how thick the bullets were flyin' and that mah pursuers were not hampered by injury, ah'd say ah was incredibly fortunate."

"Guess so," Vin agreed. "Lucky thing those kids found you, too; Grey Owl said they was just in time to save ya. What happened to your hands?"

Ezra's brow wrinkled in thought. "It's all rather vague," he finally answered. "But ah seem to recall several instances when the ground leapt up to meet me durin' the course of mah flight to safety; ah would have to assume the damage was done then." He held up his bandaged hands and studied them, flexing his fingers slightly and wincing again. "Ah don't remember it hurtin' at the time the injuries must have been incurred, howevah."

"Betcha had other things on your mind," Vin said quietly. "And you must've been in a pretty bad way. Grey Owl said ya just woke up last night – you rode out on patrol four days ago, Ez. Rains flooded everything, kept us from searchin' until today."

"Perfect timin', apparently," Ezra said absently. "Although ah'm certain if you'd found me any sooner, Mr. Larabee would simply have finished the job the outlaws started on grounds of dereliction of duty – considerin' the length of unexcused absence involved, ah'm certain ah've missed several of mah scheduled patrols."

The tone was joking but the glassy green eyes were bleak, and Vin realized with a pang that the gambler at least partially believed what he was saying. He automatically pushed back the anger that surged up toward the other men…and then the thought hit him that maybe his anger was what Ezra needed to see. The tracker allowed a scowl to form on his face. "Ya reckon it's time for us to be ridin' out of here, Ez?"

Ezra didn't quite flinch. "Ah take it mah presence is required?" he queried with a soft, resigned sigh. "Ah believe ah could attempt the ride tomorrow…"

"The hell you will!" Vin exploded – but he was careful not to explode too loudly, not wanting to draw anyone else into the room. "That weren't what I meant, Ez," he told the astonished man firmly. "Hell, Grey Owl says you ain't gonna be up to ridin' for another three, four days at least. But when ya are…" he lowered his voice. "I'm startin' to wonder if a couple a' Southron boys like us might do better someplace else."

"A couple of…" Ezra stared at Vin like he'd never seen him before. "You mean, you want to leave Four Corners? And you want me to go with…"

"I'll only leave if you do," the tracker said solemnly. "Think JD might want ta come along, too, he's right mad about what happened – he ain't barely spoken two words to Buck these past few days." At Ezra's puzzled look, Vin elaborated. "The kid hunted ol' Buck down twice after Chris sent you out, wanted to ride out after you."

Ezra nodded slowly. "I'm guessin' Mr. Willmington had bettah things to do."

There was no surprise in his tone, not even any recrimination; he was just stating a fact. Vin gripped his arm, surprising him all over again. "What they did--or what they didn't do – was somethin' I ain't gonna forget any time soon," the tracker said in a low, intense voice. "I don't think any of them will either. We thought…" His grip tightened and the anger drained from his face, leaving only the anguish of the past four days. "Dammit, Ez, we were lookin' for a body – an' if those kids hadn't come across ya when they did, we would'a found one."

The gambler's eyes widened. He licked his lips and laid a shaking hand atop the tracker's. "Vin, ah'mah'm sorry."

"Ain't no need for ya to be," Vin replied gently, putting his other hand over the gambler's. "Like JD kept sayin', ya didn't do nothin' wrong, pard. And I meant what I said; if you can't stay after this, I'll leave with ya." He grinned conspiratorially and leaned in closer. "Might want ta hang around and watch 'em grovel for a while, though; should be downright entertainin', if you ask me."

"It would prove to be a novel occurrence in mah experience, anyway," Ezra replied with a faint smile of his own. He cocked a questioning eyebrow at Vin. "A 'couple of Southron boys', Mr. Tanner?"

"Sharpshooter with the Second Ground Battalion out of Arkansas," the tracker confirmed. "Served under Captain Barkdale."

Ezra smiled. "Knew of him by reputation," he replied. He was silent a moment, biting his lip, and then said quietly, "Ah was a captain with the Fourth Artillery Battalion out of Richmond." At Vin's appreciative whistle he shook his head. "Field promotion – ah was the only officer in our unit still alive after Fredricksburg."

"Still impressive," Vin told him. "All the way around – Fredricksburg was bad medicine no matter when you fought there."

"Ah'd say that ground was cursed," Ezra agreed. He gave Vin a worried look – the lingering fever had rendered his 'poker face' all but nonexistent. "You ever tell anyone?"

"Nope," the tracker reassured him. "Ain't plannin' on it, either. I'm pretty sure Chris knows, but he won't say nothin'." He patted Ezra's hand and released it, giving his arm a gentle squeeze. "That why you couldn't sleep the other mornin', Ez? Thinkin' about the war?"

"Thinkin' about a friend," the gambler corrected. He sighed. "Would've been his birthday, he was the same age as me – Orpheus had been a birthday gift to him from his father, as a mattah of fact, and we trained him together. Michael gave him to me before he died."

"Fredricksburg?"

"No, a swamp fever." Ezra sighed again and shut his eyes. "Nearly wiped out our entire unit, only a few of us survived. We all had to be discharged, of course – relapse is always a danger in the more severe cases of such afflictions, especially if one overexerts oneself."

A gentleman does not stoop to manual labor, Vin remembered, understanding now; what they had mistaken for a lazy gambler being overly fussy about his physical comfort was actually a cautious man guarding himself against a return of the illness that had nearly killed him. "You could've told Nathan, he would've understood…"

Ezra opened his eyes and gave Vin an incredulous look. "Even assumin' that he would have believed me…really, Mr. Tanner, can you imagine Mr. Jackson's reaction to me confessin' that ah had contracted a particularly virulent form of swamp fever while ah was servin' as a Confederate officer in Virginia?"

Vin chuckled. "Yep, see your point, pard – but if we decide to light a shuck, I think you should tell him just to see the look on his face. It would be a sight to see."

"That it would." The gambler smiled at the thought. "Assumin' ah could count on you to keep him from knifin' me once he got over the shock, that is."

"I'd watch your back," Vin replied. His tone became serious again. "Ya got my word as a Tanner on that, Ez; if'n it ever comes down to it I'm with you no matter what. Ya got that?"

Ezra nodded. "Got it, Mr. Tanner," he replied, the words forcing themselves out past the lump in his throat. Green eyes met blue, shimmering with unshed tears. "You know, Michael said much the same thing to me once."

Vin felt an uncharacteristic lump form in his own throat at the flash of trust he saw reflected in those liquid green eyes, something he'd never seen before from the aloof gambler. "He must've been a real good friend," he said softly.

"He was mah best friend," Ezra confirmed, closing his eyes again--this time against tears, the same tears he'd been trying not to shed for Michael that morning in the saloon. He swallowed hard. "He was like mah brother, the brother ah nevah had."

"Well, you got more now," Vin told him. "Ya got six of 'em – even if four of those are assholes most of the time."

That made Ezra laugh…which in turn made him wince and swear. Vin offered the clay cup again and this time the gambler didn't refuse it, drinking down almost half of the contents before pushing it away. "Mr. Tanner, for a man who hardly speaks you certainly have a way with words," he finally managed. The tracker just grinned at him and shook his head, carefully removing the makeshift pillow and helping his friend lie down flat again. "And ah…don't think we need to plan on 'lightin' a shuck', as you put it, any time in the near future; ah believe ah should like to see how this hand plays out first, if you don't mind."

"Fine by me, pard," was the quiet reply. "Kind of thought you might feel that way; ain't never known ya to walk out in the middle of a high-stakes game."

"Very high stakes," Ezra echoed drowsily, his eyelids fluttering but not opening as the powerful herbs exerted their influence over his weakened body. "Friends…are a valuable commodity, not easy to win."

"Ya got that right, pard," Vin whispered, smiling a little sadly as the gambler slipped back into sleep. "Real valuable – maybe none of us realized how much 'till we thought we'd lost ya."

 

Night had fallen when Vin walked out to join Chris, Buck and Josiah by the fire. "Sleepin," he said before they could ask. "Sleepin' real sound, and his fever's all but gone. I helped Grey Owl change the bandages a bit ago, looks like he's healin' up all right – gonna be a while, though, bullet cracked one of his ribs and I guess they had a devil of a time diggin' it out. And that ain't all." He dropped down next to Buck and pulled something out of his pocket, looked at it for a moment and then tossed it to Chris. "We gotta find those guys before they do this again," he said grimly.

Chris caught the bullet and turned it over in his fingers, squinting…and then he swore. Buck took the bullet out of his hand and looked and swore as well. "God dammit, hangin's too good for these sons of bitches! I say we gut-shoot 'em all and leave 'em to die slow." He took in Josiah's puzzled expression and handed the bullet to him. "Don't know if you've ever seen this trick, Josiah; cut grooves in a bullet and then pack 'em with filth, let it harden in the sun a few days 'fore you use it." He sighed. "Get one of those stuck inside of you and you'll be lucky not to die from the infection even if you get the bullet out and the bleedin' stopped in time. Ez is damn lucky, is all I can say."

"Ain't sure I'd call this lucky," the ex-preacher rumbled softly. He looked up from the cold little lump of metal in his fingers, turning his pale blue eyes on Vin. "They never caught up with him because they weren't never really chasing him, is that it?"

"Yep," the tracker growled. "Just followed him enough to make sure he'd keep runnin' 'til he was far enough away so nobody would find him in time – or maybe even not at all. And just so you know, this ain't the kind of trick an outlaw tries 'less they can catch a lawman alone.  It weren't just a random ambush, they were waitin' for one of us to ride through alone so they could pick him off easy-like."

"Don't be beatin' a dead horse, Vin," Buck said softly.

"Horse is dead, the lawman ain't," Vin countered sharply. "The lawman's been flat on his back and out of his head with fever for near four days and he won't be leavin' this village for another week 'til he's healed enough to sit a horse. I ain't gonna leave this alone, boys, not until I'm damn sure nothin' like it's ever gonna happen again. Chris?"

Larabee took a deep breath. "Me and Buck had us a right long talk," he said slowly. "Reckon he did most of the talkin', after a while I started to listen. Don't think Sarah'd be to happy with the way I've been keepin' her and Adam's memory lately – matter of fact, if I'd pulled a stunt like this and she was here…" he glanced at Buck, who smiled slightly and nodded, "…well, I'd have been sleepin' in the barn with the horses, and not just for one night."

"And I would've been bunkin' with him," Buck added. "She would've banned us both from the house, maybe even from the barn if she was riled enough. Sarah expected me to keep Chris in line when she weren't there, let him know when that devil temper of his was gettin' away from him." It was his turn to look sideways at Chris. "Reckon I've been lettin' her memory down too, makin' excuses for his shit instead of callin' him on it." The ladies' man's eyes narrowed. "Don't intend to make that mistake no more."

Vin nodded. "Me either, Buck; I've been doin' it too. How 'bout you, Preacher? Got anything to say?"

Josiah sighed and looked at his hands, seeing the calluses earned over a lifetime of hard work…remembering how much of that work had been mandated by a father who had never found even his most diligent efforts worthy of anything but harsh demands to improve or acid recriminations for not maintaining that impossibly high standard on a permanent basis. His own words from earlier that day came back to haunt him – I just knew he could be better--and it sickened him to realize where he'd heard those words before. "I don't rightly know what to say, Brothers," he finally replied. "Seems to me that I've been actin' out the sins of my own father on that boy-and you were right, Vin, a part of it was because he wears his colors so proud and some of it was most probably because of what Nathan hears every time Ezra opens his mouth. It didn't have that much at all to do with the man himself, now that I think about it, and somehow I don't think my penance for this is somethin' I can work out by repairin' the church."

"Nope, but I'm sure you'll figure somethin' out," Vin told him. A slight grin appeared on his face. "Y'all should have lots of chances to show him you ain't assholes in the next few days – he's gonna need a lot of help 'till he starts gettin' his strength back, and you know he ain't the type that'll ask for it."

Chris shook his head. "You got that right, Vin; man's as stubborn as a prospector's mule."

"Yep," the tracker agreed. "But I think it has more to do with him not bein' sure."

Buck frowned in confusion. "Not bein' sure? Not bein' sure of what?"

Josiah sighed, feeling his burden get a little heavier. "Not bein' sure we'll say yes, Brother, not bein' sure we'll say yes."

 

Josiah had never realized how painful it could be to be right. Vin had left early the next morning with Chris and Buck, heading back to Four Corners to let everyone know that Ezra was still alive and to warn them about the newly revealed ruthlessness of the outlaws from Rock Ridge. The ex-preacher had checked in on the gambler twice already that morning and found him asleep, so when he came back for a third look he was horrified to find Ezra outside and crumpled on his knees on the ground, obviously on his way back from somewhere; one arm was wrapped tightly around his bandaged waist, the other rested against the adobe wall, fingers digging into the rough surface in white-knuckled desperation. The younger man was oblivious to Josiah's panicked approach, eyes squeezed shut and breathing shallow, biting his lip against the pain, and he didn't respond to the large hand on his shoulder or the worried voice calling his name except with a tight shake of his head and a barely whispered, "Ah'm all right, just…give me a moment."

Josiah didn't bother to refute the obvious lie; instead, he gently pried the clenched fingers away from the wall and pulled the gambler into his arms--and became even more frightened when after a few seconds of stiff resistance Ezra simply melted against him, his head resting limply on the ex-preacher's broad shoulder. Josiah lost no time getting him back inside the adobe and depositing him carefully on the cot, where Ezra promptly curled up on his left side, eyes still tightly closed, a sound escaping his clenched teeth that might have been a whimper. Josiah rested a hand on the sweat-damp brown hair. "What were you tryin' to do, son? You shouldn't be out of bed yet."

"Nature called," the gambler panted. One puzzled green eye opened and focused on him. "Josiah?"

"Yep. You could have asked for help, you know."

The eye stared at him and then closed again. "Didn't know you were here…and ah have the feeling ah've had plenty of 'help' over the past few days while ah was lyin' here medicated into insensibility." A violent blush crept across his pale skin at the thought. "There are some things a man should only do for himself."

"Gotta agree with you there," Josiah agreed with a chuckle. "Guess we'll have to make some other arrangements for when Nature calls again." He ruffled Ezra's hair affectionately and then removed his hand to the still-trembling bare shoulder. "Why don't you let me take a look at that bandage, make sure you aren't bleedin' again?" He took silence for agreement and gently but firmly straightened the smaller man out of his tight, defensive curl, then checked the thick bandaging at his waist and was relieved to find it only slightly stained with blood. "Well, looks like you didn't tear anything loose." The gambler nodded and swallowed, and Josiah was quick to press a cup of water into his bandaged hands, helping him hold it steady while he drank. The cup was empty when Ezra finally released it and the ex-preacher put it aside with a mental note to refill it as soon as possible. "Better?"

"Much." Ezra's breathing had evened out; he opened both eyes this time and blinked up at Josiah. "Thank you, Mr. Sanchez. Sorry…"

"No need to apologize, Ezra," Josiah rumbled quietly. "I should be the one apologizin', I should have been here to help you--I knew you'd be wakin' up soon. Feel like having some breakfast?"

Ezra barely registered the question; his head was spinning. Had Josiah just apologized? To him? Maybe he was still feverish…he raised a hand to his forehead to check only to have Josiah move the hand and replace it with one of his own, frowning. "Still kind of warm, but you just had a little more exercise than was good for you, too. You feelin' sick?"

The gambler shook his head. "Ah…could try to eat somethin'," he said dazedly. "Ah'm not feelin' too hungry, but ah know ah need to try. We'll have to be gettin' back…" Josiah frowned again and shook head and Ezra's eyes grew round as saucers. He swallowed hard. "All right, ah understand--but ah shall still have to go back to retrieve Orpheus…"

Josiah felt his heart almost stop. Oh Lord, Vin was right, he really does think… He felt tears well up in his eyes and blinked them back as he leaned over the younger man and once again rested his large hand on the soft, damp hair. "Son, you're still confused from your fever," he lied quietly. "Listen to me, you don't 'have to be gettin' back' to anywhere until you're well enough to ride home, and from what I've been told that'll be a good week from now at least--and one of us'll be stayin' here with you until then, every minute. Understand?" A wide-eyed nod was his answer and Josiah made himself smile before standing up. "I'll be right back with some breakfast; you stay there, all right?"

Ezra nodded again and watched him leave the small room. Once he was alone again, he shut his eyes and tried to make sense of what was happening. Perhaps Vin was right, he thought. Perhaps ah do have six brothers now…or is that five brothers and one surrogate father? Good lord…

 

Chris, Vin and JD rode back into the village the next afternoon, the two younger men pausing only briefly to exchange greetings with Grey Owl before heading straight in to see Ezra; Chris hung back, wanting a private word with the village elder. As they neared the adobe, the sound of laughter could be heard coming from inside, interspersed with breathless protests. "Dammit, Josiah…quit…makin' me laugh!"

The ex-preacher's deep chuckle cut through Ezra's light tenor. "Can I help it if you seem to find my stories amusing?"

"You can if…the amusin' ones…are the only one's you're tellin', you incorrigible reprobate!"

"Now, now, son, you save those insults for someone who don't understand them. I believe they have a wonderful effect on Brother Buck."

"That they do – and ah'm not your son."

Vin decided it was time to make their presence known and stepped into the small room, dragging JD along with him. "Can anyone join this here party, boys?"

Ezra was sitting propped up, holding his bandaged side against the spasms of laughter Josiah's stories had been causing. He greeted the two men with evident pleasure. "Mr. Tanner, Mr. Dunne, ah believe you are here just in time to save me from Mr. Sanchez' runaway sense of humor."

Vin gave Josiah a mock glare. "Have you been pickin' on Ez, Josiah?"

"Yup," the big man chuckled. "He's been givin' as good as he gets today, though, don't let him fool you." Josiah cocked an eyebrow. "JD, what's wrong?"

The young sheriff didn't answer, just stood there staring at Ezra. He slowly moved forward until he was by the gambler's side and then went down on one knee to look him in the eye. His uncharacteristic silence worried Ezra, who lifted one bandaged hand to gently shake JD's tense shoulder. "Mr…JD, are you all right?"

JD just stared a moment longer and then all but threw himself into the astonished gambler's arms. "I just knew you were dead," he whispered.

Ezra froze; Vin had said JD was upset and not talking to Buck…but he hadn't expected this. He gingerly folded his arms around the younger man, hoping the gesture would be reassuring. "Ah'm sorry, JD…"

To his surprise, JD pulled away. "You didn't do nothin', Ez!"

The intensity of the anger that appeared in the younger man's face horrified Ezra; he recognized a festering wound when he saw one…and discovered that he didn't like seeing one in JD, not at all. Without a word, he pulled JD back into his arms and held on as tightly as he could, waiting. He didn't have to wait long; after a few moments of stiff tension, the young sheriff relaxed in his embrace and then began to tremble, and when Ezra felt the wet warmth of tears against his chest he knew that the wound was draining itself of the poison that would have warped his young friend's bright spirit. "Ah'm all right, JD," he said soothingly, raising one hand to stroke the soft black hair. "Everything is goin' to be all right, you'll see."

"Y-you almost died," was the muffled reply. "We almost k-killed you, Ezra."

"Had you been with me, the outlaws would no doubt have killed us both," Ezra told him. "A circumstance ah am very glad did not occur. Are you back on speakin' terms with Mr. Willmington yet?"

"N-no."

"Then ah expect you to remedy that situation soon as possible," the gambler said softly but firmly. "A mistake made in a moment of thoughtlessness is no reason to forsake a friendship as special as the one you have with Buck."

"A 'moment of thoughtlessness', is that what you're calling it?" A shadow had darkened the doorway; Chris Larabee was standing there.

JD heard the strong, soothing rhythm of Ezra's heartbeat suddenly become a frantic staccato; gently disentangling himself from the unresisting gambler's embrace, he looked up into his friend's face and recognized the same expressionless mask he'd seen a week ago in the saloon. JD looked at Vin; the tracker was frowning, as was Josiah. "Didn't know you were here, Mr. Larabee," Ezra said smoothly, and quickly stood up. Only Josiah knew how much it must have cost him to force himself upright, but not even a flicker of the pain he had to have been feeling showed past that infamous poker face as the gambler looked up at the man who had very nearly sent him to his death.

Chris, for his part, was shocked by how far down he was looking at Ezra; barefoot, without the height lent by his boots, the gambler was even shorter than JD – a fact made more noticeable since he had placed himself marginally between the young sheriff and the gunslinger in an unconsciously protective gesture. A wounded fox protectin' his kit from a wolf, Larabee thought, suddenly appreciating the appropriateness of the name the village children had gifted Ezra with. Look at him, standing there just as tall as he can, tryin' not to show any weakness, tryin' not to show any fear…because the wolf might rip his throat out if he does. Well, I've got news for you, 'Red Fox'; we're not gonna play this game no more. Think you get enough of it from your mother, anyway-and there ain't no way I want to be compared to your mother. Slowly, he walked forward until he was standing directly in front of the smaller man and dropped a gentle hand on one bare shoulder, frowning down at him. "Ezra, you shouldn't be out of bed."

The unexpectedly gentle, caring touch – not to mention the sincerely concerned tone the words were spoken in – hit the already overtaxed gambler like a bolt of lightning; the next thing Ezra knew, he was flat on his back on the cot again and choking on a mouthful of whiskey with four worried men bending over him. "Goddamit, Standish, you don't half know how to scare a man," Chris said without heat when he saw Ezra's eyes open. "You back with us now?"

Wide-eyed and obviously confused, Ezra nodded. Vin patted his arm. "Ya know, Chris, if this is what happens when you try to be nice to someone, I'm thinkin' maybe we should just let ya be an asshole all the time after all--might be safer for everybody in the long run." He grinned when Larabee snorted and turned his attention back to Ezra. "And I think you just bought yourself another day in bed, pard; Josiah told us about you sneakin' out to the privy yesterday an' him havin' to carry you back."

The gambler reddened, embarrassed. "It was a bush…not a privy. And…ah didn't sneak."

"It's true, he didn't," Josiah rumbled, smiling. "I wasn't in here and he didn't know anyone was around to help, so I guess you could call it a foolhardy action born of necessity."

"You…wouldn't be callin' it foolhardy if you…were the one Nature was callin' at the time." Ezra tried to sit himself up and was embarrassed all over again when four sets of hands put a stop to the effort and took over the task themselves, propping him up comfortably against his makeshift cushions again with much more solicitude than he felt was actually necessary but for which he was grateful all the same--his entire body seemed to be possessed of a trembling weakness that made every movement a colossal effort and his left side from hip to ribs was a solid throbbing ache. "Thank you for the…assistance, gentlemen. Much obliged."

Chris saw past the polite veneer to the pain the gambler was trying to hide behind it and smiled; pity Ezra wasn't always this easy to read. Guess we'd better have a talk before you get inscrutable again, he thought. Before you start flashin' your tail and irritating the hell out of me just to prove you ain't scared. "Vin, JD," he ordered abruptly. "You two go on out and set us up camp for the night." The two younger men nodded and left, JD hanging back for just a moment to pat Ezra's shoulder reassuringly. "Josiah, when was the last time Ezra ate anything?"

The ex-preacher knew a hint when he heard one and decided to take it. "Couple hours ago," he replied, standing up and stretching. "'Bout time to eat again, I think--gotta get some of that weight put back on that he's lost. I'll see to it." He repeated JD's gesture, resting a large hand on Ezra's shoulder and wishing he couldn't see the faint shadow of betrayal in the gambler's green eyes as his friends left him to face Chris by himself.

Larabee only waited until Josiah had cleared the door. "Had something I wanted to say to you," he began. He saw Ezra stiffen slightly and scowled, giving the man a gentle slap on the arm. "Would you knock that off?! Shit, Standish, I'm not drunk now!"

The light smack made Ezra jump – which in turn made him wince in spite of himself. "Ah didn't realize intoxication was the determining factor in your…dislike of me," he said cautiously. "Ah had assumed it was simply…"

"You were convenient," Larabee interrupted. "It ain't an excuse and I'm not proud of it, but there it is. You seem to be convenient a lot lately." He was actually starting to suspect that the gambler did it on purpose sometimes to deflect Chris's anger away from other targets, much the way Buck had on numerous occasions in the past, but he also knew he wouldn't be able to get Ezra to admit to it. "And I do like you, Ezra; if I didn't, you wouldn't be ridin' with us." He had to laugh at the astonished expression his words produced on the other man's face. "What, you thought I just kept you around because you're good for a con?"

The response he got was not the one he expected. "So ah've been told, Mr. Larabee."

That hit Chris like a punch in the gut; he stared at Ezra in disbelief. "And you…"

"Believed it? Ah had no reason not to." Ezra cocked his head, frowning; this wasn't what he'd been expecting from the gunslinger and he wasn't quite sure how to handle it. Honesty appeared to be what was required instead of his usual habit of obfuscation, and that was a situation he hadn't been prepared to face with Chris Larabee – especially not unarmed. "Ah…couldn't imagine any other motive you might have for retainin' me in your little band of peacekeepers."

Chris saw the little flicker in the green eyes and heard the unspoken words, although I'd have liked to think there was one. "So why'd you stay, then?" he challenged. "Why didn't you just take off and go to one of those big cities you talk about so much?"

A bitter little self-depreciative smile crossed the gambler's face, but his eyes were thoughtful. "Mr. Larabee, our country's metropoli are wonderful places to sojourn in for brief periods of time, but becomin' a permanent resident of one is not an option ah would contemplate with any seriousness."

Translation: 'I like living in Four Corners, I just bitch about it all the time so you won't figure that out and use it against me. Chris sighed, not having realized just how thoroughly Ezra had covered his own ass up until now. A terrible thought struck him; was that why the gambler had ridden out on what amounted to a suicide mission that morning without a single word of protest? Had he become so attached to the town and the men he rode with that he was more afraid of being ordered to leave than he was of…

Oh shit, of course he had – they all had. The events of seven days ago suddenly took on a whole new meaning, and the hardened gunslinger was sickened by what he'd done in that 'anniversary's' hot haze of whiskey and self-pity; he'd given Ezra that choice, the ultimate choice…and the supposedly self-centered, uncaring gambler had made it without a moment's hesitation. "Ezra, I'm sorry. This whole mess should never have happened, it was entirely my fault."

To say Ezra was shocked was an understatement; even he didn't realize just how surprised he was by the uncharacteristic apology until he realized that Chris was shaking him and telling him to breathe. He sucked in a deep breath…and winced when his ribcage expanded just a little too far. "You were…havin' a bad morning," he managed. "Ah shouldn't have been there..."

"Ezra, you have just as much right as anyone else to sit in the saloon of a morning," Chris countered, slowly releasing the gambler and sitting back again. "Hell, you have more; you live in the damn saloon! And now that I think about it, you didn't look like you were havin' the greatest of mornings either."

"Perhaps not." Ezra took another breath – not quite so deep this time. "Apology accepted, Mr. Larabee--although it wasn't strictly necessary. Ah do understand how…out of sorts certain 'anniversaries' can make a man feel."

Ezra didn't offer an explanation and Chris didn't ask for one; but the gambler did offer his hand, which the gunslinger shook gravely. "I don't aim to let this happen again," Chris told him. "But if it does, I've had it on good authority that four of my own men have every intention of throwin' me in jail and leavin' me there until I'm back on an even keel again."

The gambler smiled. "Make that five, Mr. Larabee," he said. "Assumin' the occasion doesn't arise in the next week or so, of course. Now tell me, have you caught the unwashed barbarians who ambushed me yet?"

"Haven't seen a trace of 'em," Chris answered. "Got all the towns we could wire on the alert, though, now that we know just how dangerous the bastards are." Seeing Ezra's puzzled look, Chris sighed and shook his head. "Sorry, forgot you didn't know; they were using dirty bullets, Ez." He saw the gambler's hand creep over the thick bandage at his side in unconscious reaction to that revelation but didn't comment on it. "Looks like they'd just been waiting for some lawman to ride through there alone – and considerin' where they were, it's more than likely they were waiting for one of us."

"And they found one of us; next time they'll find all of us and we'll leave what's left of them for the wolves and crows to finish," Josiah said from the doorway, startling them both. He had a bowl in one hand and the clay cup in the other. Ezra groaned. "Now, now," the ex-preacher chastised him gently. "I had him make it weaker this time, you can stay awake if you want to. But you need to eat first, either way."

Ezra made a face but took the offered bowl and slowly began to spoon the contents into his mouth while Chris told he and Josiah about the recent goings-on in town and the efforts they'd made to track down the Rock Ridge outlaws. Six spoonfuls…he could feel a fine tremor in the hand holding the spoon…seven…with an effort he kept the spoon steady all the way to his mouth…but at eight the wooden handle clattered against the side of the bowl and the gambler released it immediately, handing the bowl back to Josiah with a sigh. "Thank you, Mr. Sanchez, I believe that was all I require..."

"Ain't gonna work, Ezra," Josiah interrupted firmly. "Didn't work yesterday, ain't gonna work today either. Stick out your hand." The gambler folded his arms across his chest and scowled, but it made him look more like a sulky child than anything else and the older man just grinned. "Isn't that cute?" he asked Chris, who was watching with disbelief; this was a side of the normally poised and polished gambler he hadn't seen before. "Didn't know the boy could pout like that until yesterday, bet if he was inclined to use that look on the ladies in town Brother Buck would be goin' to bed alone every night. Now go on and stick out your hand, Ezra; if you can hold it steady I'll let you quit."

"I said I don't want any more…"

"Only because you can't hold up the spoon any more. Can't do it, can you?"

The scowl deepened, but the gambler shifted and with obvious effort stuck his right arm out straight in front of him, hand flat and fingers extended. He smiled smugly at the two men, gold incisor catching the light. "Steady as a rock, gentlemen."

"Yep." Josiah essayed a slight, amused smile and idly stirred the stew around in the bowl. "Now let's just see how long it stays that way, why don't we?"

Ezra's smile faded as the seconds ticked by; his jaw clenched and a few drops of sweat broke out on his forehead as he exerted every ounce of willpower to make his muscles obey him…but the tremor broke through anyway and he dropped his arm and sank deeper into his cushions, shutting his eyes. "Dammit," he muttered dejectedly.

"Did your best, son, can't expect more than that." Josiah scooped up a spoonful of stew and held it up to the younger man's lips; to Chris's surprise, Ezra opened his mouth for the spoon but didn't open his eyes, passively allowing the older man to feed him the remainder of his dinner although his blush showed how he felt about the situation. The clay cup of herbal medicine was offered and accepted in the same manner, and it wasn't long at all before the green eyes were closed not from embarrassment but from sleepiness. "Want to stay up for a while more, Ezra?" Josiah asked quietly.

Ezra's eyelids fluttered once and he shook his head. "Tired…"

Josiah's large hand gently stroked the hair back from his friend's forehead. "We'll just get you comfortable, then, so you can sleep. All right?"

A sleepy affirmative noise was the only response. The two older men carefully removed the makeshift cushions and settled Ezra back onto the cot; his soft, even breathing told them he was already asleep even before they had covered him with a blanket. "Thought you told him he could stay awake if he wanted?" Larabee asked in a low voice – the idea that Sanchez had been lying to the gambler didn't sit well with him, not after all that had happened. "You told him the medicine was weaker this time."

Josiah shook his head. "I did and it was," he replied gravely. "Brother, I would hardly lie to the boy right now; those herbs were at half-strength, he's just too weak to fight them. Tomorrow he'll hold out longer, I'll wager."

Chris frowned. "Maybe we should have brought Nathan with us after all. He wanted to come, but at the time I just didn't think it would be a good idea."

"I think you thought right," was the quick reply as the two men took their conversation outside the adobe. "Grey Owl has done everything that needed to be done, but more importantly…" Josiah glanced back through the door at the sleeping gambler and sighed. "Ezra respects Grey Owl, Chris, and he won't really argue if Grey Owl tells him to do something. But he'll get stubborn and dig in his heels when Nathan starts ordering him around because Nathan…well, Nathan…"

"Because Ezra can't be sure what Nathan's intentions are," Chris finished for him. "I know, I've seen it. But he has pretty much the same problem with all of us."

Josiah smiled slightly and shrugged, thinking over the past two days and the way Ezra had started to relax around him, to trust him--and of the way the gambler had slipped so easily into the role of a protective big brother today with JD. "I think that's a problem we're well on the way to solving, Brother," he said. "The boy's learning fast; now we just need to decide who's gonna stay with him to finish up his lessons before he comes home."

 

It ended up being Vin who had insisted on staying with Ezra in the village until the gambler was able to leave. "You boys need to stay in town," he'd told Chris. "With them outlaws still holed up god knows where out here, it just ain't a good idea to be doin' all this ridin' back and forth along the same trail and splittin' up our numbers any further. We got Orpheus here now, and as soon as Grey Owl says Ez is up to it we'll be headin' home to join ya." Then he'd grinned. "'Sides, I need some time outta town anyways--been feelin' a mite hemmed in lately."

"I noticed," had been Larabee's amused response, slapping the tracker on the shoulder. "All right, you stay--I just don't want you boys to come back flyin' the Stars and Bars, do you hear? We get enough of that shit from Nathan, and I for one would like to leave the War where I left it."

"I hear ya, pard," Vin had said, nodding. "Ez and I, we feel the same way. We ain't gonna come back whistlin' Dixie, if that's what you're worryin' about; hell, I bet you won't even know we're back at all until we show up in the saloon!"

 

True to Vin's word, the two men came riding into town mostly unremarked early one afternoon four days later and headed straight for the livery, where one very spent gambler had insisted on at least going through the motions of making his horse comfortable. "Ah owe him that much at least," he said with a tired smile, leaning his head against Orpheus' neck and closing his eyes; the horse whickered softly at him. "Without his smooth gait and steady pace, ah'm afraid ah would have been hard pressed not to stop halfway home and sleep in mah bedroll on the unforgivin' earth instead of bein' able to ride on to the promise of mah nice warm feather bed."

"Your probably right there," Vin agreed easily, scooping up Ezra's saddlebags and tossing them over his own shoulder. "Which means I owe him too, 'cause I wanted to get home just as bad as you did. Got him all settled?"

"As well as ah'm able at present," was the tired reply. Ezra nuzzled his horse's sleek neck one last time before straightening up with an effort. "Much as ah hate to say it, Vin, ah believe ah shall require your assistance to return to mah room – ah might make it as far as the saloon, but ah know the stairs would defeat me."

"Yep, I was thinkin' the same thing," was the tracker's answer. He smiled and shook his head, thinking about how much the friendship between himself and the gambler had grown in the past week; Ezra's casual, unembarrassed request for his help was proof of that. Vin took up a position close at his exhausted friend's right side in case his support was needed before they reached the saloon and without another word the two of them headed out of the livery's cool shadows and into the afternoon sunlight.

They had barely gone five steps along the boardwalk when their path was blocked by Nathan and Josiah. The healer was grinning broadly. "'Bout time you got back, Vin. Now, let's get Ezra up to the clinic so's I can look him over…"

"Don't think so, Nate," Vin interrupted with a grin of his own – but something hardened in his blue eyes and he dropped a protective arm around the gambler's stiffened shoulders; Ezra's poker face had slammed back into place at the healer's words. "We've just come off a mighty long ride, think I could use a drink an' ol' Ez here wanted to go on up to his room for a spell. You'll just have to visit with him later."

Nathan's mouth fell open, but surprise quickly gave way to indignation and his grin became a scowl. "He can rest in the clinic. I need to check him out, make sure…"

"Ah believe Grey Owl has already 'made sure', Mr. Jackson," Ezra said coolly. "Else he most certainly would not have allowed me to attempt such a journey as we just undertook to return to this quaint little hamlet we call home – and it's a pleasure to see you again too. Shall we continue, Mr. Tanner? Ah believe ah hear the feather bed in mah room callin' mah name."

"And I hear a bottle of whiskey callin' mine." Vin touched his hat brim to the two men and then he and Ezra neatly detoured around them and continued on to the saloon.

Nathan turned around and watched them go. "Did you see that, Josiah? They just…he just…"

"Told you no?" the ex-preacher said with a chuckle that earned him a hard look from the healer. Josiah shook his head, the humor leaving his face. "I would have too, Nathan; you didn't even say hello, glad to see you, how you feelin'…you just ordered Brother Vin to drag him up to your clinic, never even spoke directly to Ezra at all."

"I just wanted to make sure he was all right! Josiah, the man almost died…"

"I think we all realize that," Josiah said with a slight edge to his voice. "Don't think anyone's likely to forget it for a while, as a matter of fact. But if our wayward gambler had needed your help, Vin would have been yelling for it at the top of his lungs the minute they rode into town – so you not only insulted Ezra, you insulted Brother Vin as well."

Nathan shrugged. "I'll have a talk with Vin later; I'm sure he understands."

No, that would be Ezra, thought Josiah, That boy understands only too well; Vin may be a different story all together. But all he said was, "Guess we'll see. You headin' over to the saloon?"

"Nope, got work to do." The healer gave the saloon's swinging doors one last frowning glance and then turned back to his friend with a sigh. "You?"

Josiah shook his head. "Need to finish that leaky window at the church before it rains again," he replied. "Old Bertram says another storm'll come tomorrow, gotta get those shutters fixed before then." Old Bertram was Four Corners' resident 'character', a seemingly ageless trapper who claimed to have been in the area since before the town existed; and although the old man's stories had to be taken with a grain of salt, his weather sense was unimpeachable. "You might want to have a look at those loose shingles on the clinic roof if you get a chance. Wouldn't do to get a leak in there."

"Shore wouldn't," Nathan agreed. "Almost forgot about those shingles. I'll see you 'round later, Josiah."

"Yeah." The two men parted company and Josiah headed back to the church with a lot on his mind. In spite of the noises he'd made about penance a week ago and the time he'd spent with Ezra before coming back to town, it had been far too easy to slip back into the old patterns again and he felt disgusted with himself. The situation was different for Nathan; the healer hadn't been with them at the village, hadn't seen the gambler flinch in his sleep when Chris raised his voice or try to convince JD to patch things up with Buck or blush and pout when Josiah insisted on feeding him after his small reserve of strength was exhausted…or faint dead away when the man who almost got him killed expressed genuine concern for his well-being. Nathan had never met Red Fox.

But Josiah was damn glad he had.


 

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