Disclaimer: The Magnificent Seven are owned by lots of other people, including MGM, CBS, TNN, John Watson, Trilogy and their associates. As always, I guarantee that I will make no money from this, and never intend to. I hope I’m not stepping on anyone’s toes.

Notes: I wrote this about a year ago, and it was my first one. I hadn’t even seen half the episodes yet when I scribbled this, but, as many have, I fell in love with Ezra’s character almost immediately and couldn’t resist. Many of the characterizations are not mine (I was inspired by you fan fic folks mostly), but hey, I had to start somewhere. After this, the characters in my stories become more stable, more like the men on the actual show. Oh, and obviously I am not a doctor. My medical knowledge is scant at best. Don’t laugh too hard.

Description: Ezra, Vin and Chris are the heart of this story, but Buck, JD, Nathan and Josiah are all there as well. Chris decides to punish Ezra for always being such a pain in the ass by sending him out with Vin, and, of course, it all goes downhill from there.

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The Quiet Week

Part One

Friday…false dawn…the middle of nowhere

The smell of gunpowder pervaded the still dry air around the campsite. An eerie silence had descended, broken only by the ragged breathing of those still alive. Closing his eyes against the ringing in his ears, Ezra sighed and braced himself to stand up.

The pain in his side from the bullet caused him to grunt, but as it wasn’t deep, and it wasn’t enough to stop him from trying. After a couple of attempts, he managed to stagger to his feet, using one of the coarse pine trees circling the site for support. Breathing heavily and leaning against the bark, he looked over at his companion and grimaced.

Vin was unconscious where he lay on the ground, the knife embedded in his right thigh still quivering. Blood bubbled up around the blade, turning his buckskin trousers an ugly shade of purple. On his head, an ugly red welt was forming near the right temple where the rock had hit him. One of the outlaws had thrown the stone in desperation and had gotten lucky by actually hitting the tracker. ‘Course he wasn’t lucky enough to stop Ezra’s derringer from piercing his heart a few seconds later.

Vin moaned softly.

With one hand pressed tightly to his side, Ezra looked around to make sure no one else had gotten lucky. The four men on the other side of the smoldering campfire were completely quiet, none of them betraying themselves with a rise of the chest or a twitching leg. Pushing himself all the way upright, Ezra staggered over to ensure that it was indeed over. Lifeless eyes stared up from surprised faces on all but one man. The large man in the center had gone to his death wearing a mask of pure hatred, his gruesome eyes still reflecting his fury. Ezra smiled maliciously.

"Anger only gets you so far, Mr. Cavendish," he whispered at the prone figure, kicking him lightly in the side. Satisfied all were accounted for, Ezra made his way back to Vin.

Bending down on one knee, the gambler quickly looked over his friend. The bruise forming on his head didn’t look to serious – it was pretty high up on the man’s forehead, and would hopefully only result in a really bad headache. The leg, however, was another matter. He couldn’t tell from his small knowledge of anatomy whether, as Nathan would say, the knife had "hit an artery." All Ezra could do was remove the knife, clean and bandage the wound as best he could.

Interestingly enough, throughout the whole melee, no one had managed to tip over the cook pot on the fire. The water inside still boiled away nicely. Moving across to one of the dead men’s packs, Ezra removed what looked to be a fairly clean cotton shirt. Within minutes, he had it ripped into strips for bandages. He threw a few pieces into the boiling water, then went to rip open Vin’s trousers around the knife wound.

The old buckskin resisted some, but, after fishing out a small carving knife from a neighboring satchel, Ezra soon made quick work of the worn leather. Pulling out a hot strip of fabric from the cookpot, he tenderly cleaned away some of the blood and dirt from around the knife. Then, grabbing a half empty whiskey bottle that was laying nearby, he poured the liquid over the wound, grimacing at the slight hiss it created.

Vin moaned in his sleep, and started shifting to get away. Ezra held him down, whispering in his ear.

"It’s alright, Vin. You are going to be alright. I promise. Just hang on."

Vin seemed to quiet at his voice, returning to his pain induced slumber. Pursing his lips in concentration, Ezra wrapped his right hand around the knife handle, placed his left on the thigh just above the area to apply pressure, and exhaled slowly. All at once, with a sharp intake of breath, he pulled the knife out. Vin cried out in agony, his forced unconsciousness not as deep as Ezra hoped. Blue-gray eyes flew open and looked wildly at Ezra.

"What the hell…?" the leather shod man gasped, his mind a mass of confusion. His legs jerked beneath him, and the fire running up and down his right leg was impossibly painful. It felt as if someone was sawing his leg off. He could see Ezra’s concern filled eyes looking down at him, and the gambler was saying something. But the blood pumping in Vin’s brain was too powerful, and he quickly lost consciousness again.

Ezra sighed as Vin’s head fell back to the ground, the brown shaggy mane covering half his face. In response, Ezra ran a shaking hand through his own short black hair, and quickly went back to his ministrations.

Soon, he had both of Vin’s injuries tended to, and, from the looks of it, the blood was slowing beneath the makeshift bandage on the leg. Now Ezra looked to tend himself.

He shouldered off his dust covered navy jacket, ignoring the pain that stretching the muscles in his torso was giving him. Next, he pulled off the blood stained silk vest, the silver lined fabric completely ruined. Last, he pulled open his light white cotton shirt, and pulled the offending fabric gingerly off the wound in his left side. It ripped at the wound’s ragged edges as he pulled the shirt from the skin, and he hissed at the sharp stinging sensation.

He couldn’t see the wound very well, being fairly low and almost completely off to the side. He was pretty sure it wasn’t deep enough to have done any major damage, but he also knew that wouldn’t help him if it got infected. He sighed with relief as he realized the bullet had passed straight through.

Trying not to think too much about the horrible stickiness running over his fingers as he followed the same procedure with his wound as he did with Vin’s, Ezra swabbed the two tiny holes. He finished by rigidly pressing a pair of bandages against them, frowning at the pain now lancing up his side, and chuckled at the thought that if any one else had been tending him, he would surely have complained. After a few minutes, he released the pressure, hoping he had succeeded in stanching the flow. In any case, the makeshift bandages remained attached to his side, stuck to the wounds, giving him the chance to wind some cloths around his waist to hold them there. He knew it was impossible for him to tie it tightly by himself; he just hoped that the others would find them before he collapsed from blood loss.

Finally, he picked himself up and wrapped quick makeshift bandages around his and Vin’s shackle burned wrists, his last project before attempting to get them out of here. As he was wrapping the bandage around his right wrist, using his teeth to help pull it tight, he looked up at the sky to see how much time he’d wasted. It was still early morning.

Crows circled above the small stand of pine trees in which the campsite was hidden, waiting for him to leave so they could feast on the fresh meat. He knew that, soon, other predators would come to this place drawn by the smell and the promise of an easy meal. Ezra shut his eyes at this last thought, and shook himself out of his morbid reflection. Now was not the time.

Steeling himself, Ezra rose once more to his feet and made his way to Vin. The tracker was lying on his side where Ezra had left him, still unconscious, but his face did not look pained. Ezra smiled at small favors. Quickly, the gambler gathered together some provisions and more cloth strips and shoved them into the soft leather satchel that one of the bandits had favored. Then he found his gun belt and, after reloading the Remington, wrapped it around his hips. His shoulder holster and Colt he stuffed into the same satchel, along with Vin’s sawed off Winchester, and belted it closed. Last he filled some canteens from the nearby spring and draped them across his shoulders. He turned back to Vin.

"Mr. Tanner?" Ezra asked quietly, shaking his friend, and not getting a response. "Mr. Tanner," Ezra repeated, slightly louder. When Vin still didn’t respond, Ezra propped him up so that his back was against one of the pine trees. "Mr. Tanner," Ezra’s voice was more insistent, his southern drawl receding beneath the forcefulness of the tone. The gambler tapped the quiet man on the cheek. With a slight groan, Vin opened his eyes and looked blearily out at the world.

"Mr. Tanner," Ezra breathed, smiling. "I am afraid I will be in need of your assistance for a brief time, and then you may return to the land of sweet slumber. Firstly, do you think you might get put this small satchel over your shoulder?"

Vin gave Ezra a slightly puzzled from, but didn’t protest as Ezra leaned him forward and slipped the satchel over his head. Quietly, Ezra tightened the strap so that it wouldn’t fall off Vin’s back. Still smiling, Ezra then focused intense green eyes on the tracker’s drifting gray ones in an attempt to keep the man awake.

"Now, Mr. Tanner, I was wondering if you might be able to brace yourself enough on your left leg so that we could get you upright?"

Vin blinked at Ezra, his mind feeling as if it were full of gray fuzz. At this moment, he had no idea why Ezra was asking him to do this odd thing, but he saw no reason why he shouldn’t comply. He nodded slowly, a small smile on his lips as if to say, ‘sure, whatever you want Ezra.’

"Good, good," Ezra nodded. "Okay then, here we go." Ezra braced his hands under Vin’s armpits and slowly pulled as Vin pushed himself upwards using both the tree behind him and his left leg for support. Something told the tracker not to use his right leg in this endeavor, so all his weight was forced onto a very shaky left limb. Ezra’s jaw muscles flinched, the only sign that this movement was causing his injured side any pain.

As Vin reached full height, his eyes understandably began closing once more, his throbbing skull and pained leg demanding he fall back asleep. Ezra bent over and put his right shoulder against the tracker’s torso, and let the man fall forward over him. Grunting, Ezra stood up, Vin now ensconced over his right shoulder in a fireman’s lift. Pain shot down the gambler’s left side, but Ezra ignored it through gritted teeth. Slowly, the gambler carried his friend out of the shelter of the trees in the direction of Four Corners.

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Tuesday…Three days earlier…Four Corners…early afternoon

Ezra raised his frosty green eyes from his cards to find the smiling faces of JD and Buck staring down at him. The two men were circling around like jackals over their prey, and the gambler told them as much.

"Aw, come on now, Ezra, you’re the one that got yourself into this mess. Isn’t that right JD?" Buck replied, his grin broadening as he glanced over at his protege. He slapped Ezra companionably on the shoulder, earning an annoyed grunt from the smaller man.

"He’s right, Ezra." JD replied, his head bobbing up and down with tremendous enthusiasm. "You did this, and no one else. You got Chris so angry with you that he hasn’t had a drink in almost a whole day! All he can do is rant about how you’re a lazy, good-for-nothing, conniving,…"

"Two-timing, gambling, cheating,…"Buck continued.

"Fancy clothes wearing, money grubbing, shiftless…" JD chimed.

"No-good rascally varmint!." Buck concluded, his grin on full wattage.

Ezra looked across at the three cowhands he had been playing with, who were doing their best to ignore the two lawman standing over them. Nevertheless, they kept glancing nervously up from their cards as if wondering whether folding now and getting the hell out of there might not be the best thing. Ezra sighed, and looked at the pot in front of him. It was still very small. No one had raised yet in this game. Buck and JD continued in the background to come up with more names to call the gambler, the key term being "lazy." Buck even asked Ezra if he could help them find synonyms for that particular word.

"Gentlemen," Ezra sighed, ignoring his "friends" and addressing the cowhands across from him, "I must apologize for the horribly uncouth behavior of my fair weather colleagues. Unfortunately, from what I can gather from their nonsensical chatter, it appears I will have to cut this day’s exercise in the art of card playing short. Nevertheless, I am sure that once I leave, they will no longer be a burden upon your afternoon." He folded his cards on the table and tipped his hat at the other players. Rising, he felt even more put out when Buck and JD slid into his seat and the one next to it to take his place. Rolling his eyes to the ceiling at their laughter, Ezra stiffly made his way outside where Chris was sitting on the saloon porch.

The characteristically black clad gunslinger was leaning back in a chair, his hat sloped forward so as to cover his eyes. To all intents and purposes, it looked as if Chris were sleeping, but Ezra knew full well that his leader’s steel blue eyes were very much open beneath that brim. Absently, Ezra brushed some of the dust off the navy, three quarter length jacket he wore, wondering, as always, at how quickly it gathered. He completed the movement by adjusting the lapels and smoothing down the silver vest underneath.

"Mr. Larabee," Ezra stated matter-of-factly, leaning against one of the posts and crossing his arms. He stared down the dirt covered road and tapped a boot heel on the boardwalk. The wind was playing with the a piece of newspaper near the livery, picking it up and depositing it down on the earth in a cyclical manner. Dust swirled around the paper, glittering in the heavy sunshine like tiny embers. It was the most interesting thing to happen in Four Corners for the past two weeks, Ezra mused.

"Ezra," Chris replied, his voice just as deadpan. Neither man spoke for a few minutes, the silence becoming almost competitive. Tension radiated between the two men, getting stronger with each quiet tick of the silver watch in Ezra’s pocket. The gambler felt more than heard the time go by, and he tried to ignore the fact that his heart was beating a little faster than normal. None of this was obvious on his completely calm face, however. In fact, a little smile played at the corners of his mouth as he waited for the explosion.

The quiet that had settled on the little burg was excruciating for Chris, as it gave him too much time to think, or more precisely, to remember. The black-clad man envied the others their past times which allowed them to be distracted from the monotony of life and the memories of past sins. All Chris had was the bottle. Well, the bottle and getting angry at Ezra. It was almost part of his routine now to find some fault with the gambler, whether over his "artful" business dealings, his laziness, or simply because Ezra refused to react to Chris’ angry stares with the right amount of respect. And the southerner’s penchant for long words and long sentences only made it worse. It was almost as if Ezra wanted Chris to be mad at him.

Ezra sneaked a peak at the gunslinger, sitting on the chair with his legs outstretched before him, looking for all the world as if the hot summer sun was not baking him alive in that outfit. Actually, it was the sun that was really beginning to annoy the gambler, as it forced him to squint at his surroundings to accommodate the glare. He wished Chris would simply do as he always did and order him to go somewhere pointless simply so he could go back inside and pack. All this squinting was giving him a headache.

Chris, meanwhile, was relishing the power he knew he had over the recalcitrant gambler. Despite Ezra’s ingrained intractability, he would do what his leader ordered him to when necessary. And today, that peculiar loyalty was going to be his downfall. Merely pay back for Ezra’s actions of the day before, Chris reflected, the gunslinger’s anger still simmering.

It had begun when Ezra was (as usual) late for patrol. The man refused to wake before noon, which meant that he was two hours late for the shift change at ten. Vin, whom the gambler was supposed to replace, didn’t mind. He was happy to scout around outside of the dusty town for the rest of the day, much preferring the open air, even though he wouldn’t have minded some breakfast. So he hung out just outside of the west side of town, content to patiently wait for Ezra to show up. Chris, on the other hand, had stood at the door to the jail watching the saloon with extreme agitation the whole morning. He was damned if he was going to wake Ezra up for the third time in two weeks. No, when Ezra woke up today, he was going to take some punishment.

Sometime around noon, the gambler had wandered out of the establishment looking as if he hadn’t a care in the world, and started to stroll over to the livery. Chris was on him in seconds.

"Where do you think you are going?" the blond man hissed. Ezra looked at him with pure innocence, stopping his casual walk to face him.

"Why, out on patrol, Mr. Larabee, just as you so gracefully requested of me yesterday."

Chris’s eyes narrowed, "You were supposed to relieve Vin two hours ago."

Ezra tilted his head, "I am sorry, Mr. Larabee, but you must be confused. I am certain you told me that the time was twelve. Surely you can’t be suggesting that I have purposefully deferred doing my duty simply for a few extra hours of sleep?" The smile on Ezra’s features was guileless, and his eyes would have made a rock question its rockiness. For a moment, Chris doubted himself, but he quickly came back.

"You know perfectly well I said ten, Ezra."

"Now, Mr. Larabee, I know no such thing. As you can see, it is now twelve. I was supposed to go out and relieve Mr. Tanner at twelve, and hence I am going. Had the time been ten, then I would have left then. But it was not ten, but twelve. Now, I should really be going, as I am sure that Mr. Tanner is getting quite hungry. Really, you shouldn't deprive your men of their daily repast, Mr. Larabee, it is wholly unbecoming in a leader. Proper nourishment is the cornerstone of a healthy lifestyle." And with that, Ezra lightly stepped away from Chris’s slightly confused gaze.

Shaking his head as if to clear it, Chris watched Ezra walk away and felt his face flush with anger. His jaw clenched, and his muscles tensed beneath the black fabric. For that brief moment, Ezra had gotten the better of him, and, oh dear lord, that rubbed Chris the wrong way.

It got worse after Ezra returned around six, two hours earlier than he was supposed to on the eight hour shift. His excuse had been that, upon finding Mr. Tanner, he had discovered that Chris had in fact been correct in his estimation of the timing of patrols. He was supposed to have been out there by ten. He apologized and expressed tremendous remorse to Mr. Tanner and Mr. Larabee for that foolishness. But of course, that also meant his shift was officially over at six. He saw no reason to prolong it simply because he made an error in judgement.

The result was a shouting match. Actually, it was more like Chris shouting and Ezra answering in very quiet, placating tones. Of course, this only riled Chris up even more. The saloon had cleared out except for the rest of the seven, who sat watching Chris and Ezra with amused stares.

The evening had ended with Chris taking a swing at the smaller man, and Ezra deftly jumping back as if he suddenly found a rattlesnake in his hand. The fact that Chris’s fist didn’t connect only drove him into a greater rage, and he leapt at Ezra like a cat, driving the gambler to the floor. Before he could get a hit in, however, Josiah and Buck were there, pulling Chris away, the man in black screaming his protests. Ezra, for his part, simply got back up, brushed down his soft cotton pants and smiled. Then, with a small nod at the others, and a tip of his hat, he disappeared swiftly up the stairs.

It took some doing, but Josiah managed to calm Chris down, his words working like a salve on a burn. That was when the wicked gleam had entered the blond man’s eyes, his lips curling into a sneer. Josiah sighed, Nathan shook his head, and Vin lowered his eyes. They all knew what was going to happen. Buck and JD, meanwhile, started grinning like wildcats and, had they both had little black curled up moustaches, would undoubtedly have started twirling them.

"Vin?" Chris asked, looking sideways at the young tracker, "How do you feel like getting lost tomorrow?"

So here it was, a little after noon of the next day, and Chris and Ezra were playing the waiting game. Ezra sighed. It had been five minutes, and he really didn’t feel like standing there any more. He was about to open his mouth when he saw somebody coming out from the stables leading Peso…and Chaucer. Ezra sighed again, but this time because he recognized his fate. He was being sent out with Vin.

Now, Ezra liked Vin, liked him a lot. As he felt with the other five members of the group, Ezra likened the quiet tracker to a brother. He was someone Ezra would have laid his life out for without a moment’s thought, and was sure Vin would do the same. However, Vin had one annoying rather annoying habit. He didn’t talk. Now, for someone of Ezra’s loquacious talents, not having someone to talk to on long rides can be almost unbearable. Even before being told of the trip, Ezra was already dreading it.

Chris tipped his hat up, allowing some of the seething fury he’d amassed to be released at the sight of Vin pulling the horses. "The town of Chelmsford needs some help, Ezra. I’m sending you and Vin. As timing is of the essence, I took the liberty of already packing your saddlebags for you."

That sense of dread in Ezra’s stomach became even deeper. First, at the fact that they had touched his things. Second at the fact he had never heard of Chelmsford. At least, not one around here. Ezra waited for the rest of the shoe to fall.

"Turns out a gang of bandits attacked their hotel. Five people died when it didn’t go as smoothly as planned. They lost track of the bandits in the desert, but thought they might be headed here. I want you and Vin to go and see if you can’t pick up their trail. Vin is going so as to follow them in the wild, and you are going to ask discreet questions in any towns you might come across on the way. I want telegraphs from every town. Be back in a week if you find nothing." Chris dropped the hat back down so Ezra wouldn’t see the small smile on his face.

Ezra grimaced. Chris knew that if bandits were out there after a robbery gone wrong, they would go straight to the town of Purgatory to lie low. There was no real need to send him and Vin out there except to punish him. Of course, it wasn’t punishment to the tracker, whose idea of bliss was being out in the country. But to Ezra, a week in the saddle was hell. And they packed for him? Good lord.

Vin rolled up out front of the saloon and took in Ezra with a light smile. Ezra glared back. Silently, the two men mounted and headed out of town.

Josiah wandered up just as their dust trails were coming to rest, and sat down next to Chris. "How long do you think before Ezra figures out there ain’t no Chelmsford and their ain’t no bandits?" he asked.

"Hopefully," Chris replied, settling himself back further in the seat, "not until he has a good number of blisters."

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Ezra and Vin headed in a south westerly direction for a while, Ezra content to let the tracker lead him. He thought about looking through his saddlebags, but decided against it. No need starting the day off feeling completely sorry for himself as opposed to only slightly sorry. He let out another sigh as Vin trotted ahead of him.

"So, Mr. Tanner, how long is the journey to this worried municipality?"

"We don’t need to go all the way to the town, Ezra. They were tracked by the Chelmsford Sheriff to an abandoned barn several miles outside. The bandits killed his deputy there, then took off. We’ll start from the barn."

"Oh," Ezra replied, disappointment clear in his voice. At least seeing a new town had suggested a good night’s sleep and a brand new saloon at which to try his skills. Now it looked as if even that small glimmer of hope would be denied him. "So, how long until…"

"We’ll get there tomorrow at around midnight. We’ll stay in the barn over night, then start out at dawn."

"Wonderful," Ezra replied, sarcasm dripping from the word. Vin just smiled crookedly back at him, and then turned around again to face the burning noonday sun.

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The plan, as Chris had laid it out, was that Vin should lead Ezra from the barn on a route so incredibly confusing that the gambler would be hard pressed to figure out how to get home. Then Vin was to make some excuse to separate from Ezra, and disappear for a while (though without getting too far away). After a few days of being lost, Vin would then show up out of the blue with some story about the bandits being caught and how they could go home. Chris hoped the time alone would be enough to drive Ezra a little crazy. A suitable punishment, so he thought, since Ezra had been driving Chris crazy for two weeks.

Vin sighed. Sure, it was just a practical joke, but it was one he hadn’t liked. He thought Chris was being too harsh on the gambler, and, besides, he had a funny feeling something might go wrong. Chris had told him that, if he still felt uneasy after separating from Ezra, he could find the nearest town and telegraph their position and someone would go down to meet them. And, if he still felt like something might go wrong, Vin could simply cut the lesson short. But Chris didn’t want the lesson cut short, and a cold stare made sure Vin knew this. So Vin agreed. After all, it got him out of the town for a while and into the country where he belonged.

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Wednesday…early evening…a day and a half’s easy ride from Four Corners

It was almost nightfall, and by Vin’s estimation, they still had a couple more hours to go before reaching the barn. The early summer heat started to lift from the barren terrain, and a cool breeze played at the two riders’ jackets. Ezra pushed his hat more squarely down on his head, and drew the lapels of his midnight blue jacket closer together over his silver vest. There was a thin layer of dust over all his clothes but Ezra didn’t really notice. Instead, his thoughts were introspective.

He had spent much of the ride trying to keep up a conversation with his monosyllabic partner, but Vin was typically not forthcoming. In some ways, Ezra likened the silence of the tracker to that of an animal. Only making noises when absolutely necessary. Ezra, of course, considered himself to be like a bird. He was filled with song and poetry. That had set him of a mind to try and compose a verse about their trip. He was on verse three and was stumbling for words to describe the dull monotony of grass covered rolling hills, rocks and the occasional tiny forest. So, he thought to try and engage Vin again.

"Mr. Tanner?" he asked politely, his southern drawl slipping off his tongue like butter. He figured it was safe since they had gone without words now for at least an hour. Vin, on the other hand, rolled his eyes. He’d been dreading hearing Ezra’s voice again. For him, it was like listening to the constant chirping of a prairie dog in heat.

"Yeah Ezra?" he sighed. He squinted in the deepening gloom hoping to see a sign that they were closer than he estimated.

"I was wondering if you might help me in a small dilemma of the poetic kind?"

Vin snorted. "Poetry, Ezra? Last time we talked poetry you spent most of it laughing at me." The coldness in the tracker’s voice was brittle.

Ezra started a little. He’d forgotten all about that, and guilt seeped into his soul. He hadn’t meant to laugh at Vin, well….he had, but alcohol had certainly played a role in that moment. Now, he cursed himself slightly for bringing it up. When he’d seen the poem the following day in the paper, he’d been surprised by its honesty. The man had a gift, and Ezra had made fun of him for it. He bit his lip as he searched for words to apologize with.

"Mr. Tanner, Vin, I didn’t mean…what I mean to say is….I’m, uh, I’m sorry, Vin. I wish I hadn’t reacted in that manner. I guess, I just….You know, that poem of yours was actually quite lovely. Good, I mean. Really good. I don’t think I could have written something so…truthful." Ezra paused, mulling over what to say next, his slow manner of speaking a result of feeling unsettled.

Vin furrowed his brow. He hadn’t meant to snap back there, it was simply something he didn’t like to think about. But listening to the gambler’s stilted speech, he felt a little better. Ezra had not only used his first name, but had stumbled for words with which to apologize by. Vin knew full well that the gambler only responded that way when he was hoping desperately to be believed. So, he let a smile touch his features and looked back at Ezra trailing behind him. Ezra immediately perked up, as Vin’s eyes told him far more than the smile did. They were clear and open.

"So, what do you want help with?" Vin asked.

"Well," Ezra replied, spurring Chaucer forward to catch up with the tracker, his mind rewinding to his thoughts of before, "I was wondering if you might enlighten me as to why you love this landscape so much."

Vin looked puzzled, and glanced around at the scenery. "Why?"

"I have been spending the time trying to compose a verse about our travels, and I have gotten mired in the descriptions. Unfortunately, as you well know, this land is not as wondrous for me as it is for you."

"Reckon that’s true," Vin replied. He contemplated the terrain around him, but for the life of him, Vin was unable to put his feelings into words. The landscape permeated his skin, seeping into his body like a strong liquor, until it controlled his consciousness. He could feel every shift of the wind, every leaf that fell, every slither of every snake patiently awaiting its prey. It was who he wanted to be – balanced and complete. In the background, Ezra waited patiently while the tracker organized his thoughts. Vin knew he was about to fail the gambler.

"Its…not something I can really break down for you, Ez. I guess, I like it out here because its so simple…you know. Its just so…nice." Vin shrugged, and heard Ezra sigh.

"Nice, Mr. Tanner, is sadly not the word I was looking for. You may not realize this, but the word ‘nice’ is derived from the same place as neat. It means something that is small and tidy. Something that you can package up in a box and tie with a bow. I am sure that is not what you meant to convey in your last statement."

Vin pursed his lips in irritation at the didactic tone of his partner. "Well, what sort of word were you looking for then?"

Ezra sat back in the saddle and focused green wistful eyes on the setting sun, the deep hues of red and orange caressing the gentle hills. "I suppose, Mr. Tanner, I was looking for a metaphor. Some personal analogy that you could attribute to the hills that most people wouldn’t think of, but that they would still understand. For example, if I remember rightly, in your poem, you described the plains as solitary. A word like that is what I would like. A word like," he paused, "well, like delicious." He seemed proud of himself, and his stomach growled slightly in agreement. Their dinner of a few hours ago had been anything but.

Vin laughed. "Delicious, Ezra? That means good food! What does that got to do with country?"

Ezra looked annoyed. "I realize that the term is generally used for objects of edible consumption, Mr. Tanner, but it can also be used to describe a feeling. For example, when something is delicious, it creates a feeling of total joy within you, does it not? The food, or drink, may tickle you palette or smell divine. It also usually has the quality of filling one’s belly to satisfaction so that all you want to do is lean back and enjoy the sensation. If it is spicy, it might linger on your tongue like a good memory. If it is hot, it might warm cold bones. Or if it is cool, it may alleviate some the heat of a hot summer day. All of these feelings are gathered up into one word, delicious."

"Okay, so…" Vin said, not quite getting the connection. He was actually getting a little tired of being preached to.

"So, sir, if what you feel for this scenery around you is similar to the happy feeling of having eaten a good meal, you could describe it as delicious."

When Vin didn’t answer him for a few moments, Ezra plowed on. "Of course, you don’t have to say delicious. I personally don’t like the word – I was just feeling a little peckish in this late hour. I obviously don’t have your skill at turning a phrase." He sounded a little contrite. He knew he had sounded like a school marm there for a moment, and hoped he hadn’t driven Vin back to silence.

The tracker shrugged in the half light, shaking his head a little. "I’m sorry, Ezra. I guess I’m simply not in the mood to try and help you find words, whether they be…what did you call ‘em? Metaphors?…or just plain ones. Delicious just sounds too darn silly to use to me."

Ezra nodded. "Quite," he replied after a moment.

The silence resumed.

_______________________________

Thursday…Early a.m. …Two days from Four Corners (or the middle of nowhere)

They arrived at the barn a little after midnight, the cold desert air biting at their cheeks and hands. Ezra pulled out his black gloves, but they were more designed for show than wear. Consequently, he spent much of the latter part of the evening complaining. Vin, for his part, kept silent. Still, he was looking forward to dumping the gambler tomorrow so he could have some peace and quiet. He ruminated on the next days events with a smile on his face.

They corralled the horses inside the barn with them, then built a small fire. Within minutes of arriving, they both fell into an exhausted sleep. The last thing Ezra thought as he dropped off was how odd it was that Vin hadn’t suggested setting up a watch. Must not be worried, the gambler mused.

It seemed only minutes late that he felt a rough hand shaking his shoulder.

"Up and at ‘em, Ez," the tracker said, his blue eyes dancing in the early morning light. Ezra groaned, and dug himself deeper into the blankets.

"Please, Mr. Tanner, is it absolutely necessary that we wake up even before the dew has left the grass? This barn is warm, and while it may not be the Royal Hotel in New Orleans, I can assure you that, at this moment, leaving it would be most disagreeable. Truth be told, even moving from this bedroll would be beyond my capacity to achieve with any degree of equanimity. Moreover, my name is Ezra, or Mr. Standish, not ‘Ez.’" Ezra had made this entire speech without releasing his head from beneath the confines of the blanket, forcing Vin to strain a little to understand him. Or at least, hear him. Understanding Ezra was something Vin hadn’t quite figured out how to do yet. Vin frowned.

"Ez, just get up, will ya," he said in a voice that brooked no argument. With a huge sigh, Ezra popped his head out, green eyes searching Vin’s face. The tracker returned the stare with a look of grim determination and some aggravation. Ezra scrunched his face up like an impertinent child who has realized his options are not good, and muttered as he crawled out of the blankets.

Cold morning air bit at his calves where his pant legs had ridden up during the night, and he pushed them down roughly, attempting to remove the creases. Then, after relieving himself off to one side and shaving, he returned to the cook fire, brushing away bits of hay and dirt from his hair, his vest and soft linen shirt. The next step in his routine was to buckle on his Remington and put on the shoulder holster that held the Colt. The derringer could wait until they were ready to leave. Vin shook his head at Ezra’s ministrations, and bent over the cookpot for breakfast. He’d already made the coffee, and was now proceeding to pour oats into a pot of boiling water. Ezra poured himself a tin cup of the black brew, and stood over the tracker, his eyes on the food.

"I don’t suppose we have anything to sweeten that with?" the gambler asked. This was not the first time Ezra had traveled with Vin, but most times he packed his own bags. Usually, he was certain to bring some cinnamon sticks and sugar cubes in preparation for Vin’s tasteless porridge. But not this time. Oh no, they made sure he had nothing more than his bedroll, a change of clothes (of which nothing matched) and a few other necessities. He’d never packed this light in his life.

"Apples," Vin answered, motioning towards his own packs. Ezra’s eyes lit up, maybe this wouldn’t be such a bad a morning after all. He tipped the bag over and watched as four, small, slightly bruised apples rolled out. They looked a little squished, but Ezra didn’t mind. He picked one out and reached for the knife to cut it up.

The sound of a branch breaking outside caused him to switch his hold on the knife to a throwing posture.

Vin looked up, trying to hide the puzzlement on his face. He had thought the sound might have come from an animal, but for a moment there he thought he could hear the sound of footsteps running away. How could that be? They were in the middle of nowhere. The closest town was Four Corners and it was a two day comfortable ride away. They should be alone. He looked across at Ezra squatting near the bags, knife in hand. The gambler rose slowly to his feet, his left hand resting on the Remington at his hip.

Vin picked up his Winchester and glided to the front door of the barn. With Ezra backing him, he peeked out. Nothing.

Chaucer whinnied at the change in mood, and Ezra absently patted the horses muzzle. Seeing Vin’s shrug, Ezra turned and moved to the back of the structure to look out the single window. The flap was raised halfway off the sill, propped up by a thin stick, and Ezra leant out to look around. Again nothing. Quietly, he climbed out and crouched down to scan the area.

In front, Vin scanned the low lying hills for any sign of movement, with particular focus on the area he imagined he heard the footsteps had run too. Shaking his head, he moved to the left sign of the barn. Ezra, meanwhile, was checking around the other side of the barn. His eyes weren’t as good as Vin’s but he knew that, if there was something to see, he would see it.

Above them, the gray light of dawn was rapidly being replaced by sparkling blue as the sun climbed the firmament. By the time the two lawmen met each other again to compare notes, warm rays were already heating their hatless heads. Mystified, but wary, they returned inside to prepare for the day.

_____________________________

A few hundred yards away, six men stood hidden within a copse of pine trees. When they had arrived at the barn last night, tired and exhausted from having walked all night after a busted raid, they had expected to find it empty. Finding it occupied instead had left them in a bad mood. It had become a sort of hangout for this particular group of outlaws, and they didn’t like their territory trespassed upon. However, owing to the fact that one of them was hurt and they had no idea if more men might be coming in the morning, they had thought it prudent to wait until dawn to approach the trespassers.

Now five stood patiently as the youngest bent over, his ragged breath coming out in great gasps as he recovered from his sprint back from the barn.

"Well Matt?" the largest asked, his patience wearing thin. This man, the obvious leader of the troop, stood straight backed, making him seem taller than his already six foot four frame. Swathed in dark leathers and sporting numerous scars on his features and bare brown arms, he towered over the breathless Matt.

"Two…" the youngest panted, swallowing hard to refresh his dry mouth, "two men…two horses…all inside the barn. One is dressed all in buckskin leather, with brown hair that goes to his shoulders. He looks like a tracker. I recognize him from somewhere, but I’m not sure where." He took another deep breath and swallowed again. "The other wears the clothes of a gambler, all bright and flashy. Shoulda seen the vest he wore – looked like it was made of silver."

"Weird sounding pair," one of the other men said quietly. This man wore his arm in a sling, his pale denim shirt ripped from the shoulder above the wounded limb. He looked to be about thirty, though the lines in his face made him seem older. Blue eyes and messy blond hair topped his head above a tall, skinny body.

"Could you hear any talk of why they’re here?" the large man asked, ignoring the wounded man’s comment. His mind warily considered the idea that one of them was a tracker. The description his boy gave seemed oddly familiar, but the coincidence seemed too great.

"No, just the gambler complaining about being woken up. I tried to get a better look, but I made a noise. I’m sorry father." Matt looked properly contrite.

The large man stopped, his dark eyes narrowing as his tanned brow furrowed in thought. After a moment he flexed an eyebrow at the boy, "Was the gambler in the custody of the tracker?"

Matt mimicked his father’s furrowed brow, and scratched at the rough brown hair that stuck out in great tufts from his square head. "Uhh…no, I don’t think so. They sounded too friendly, plus I think the last thing I saw was the gambler putting on his guns. But then, the gambler didn’t use the other one’s first name. So maybe not too friendly."

"What name?"

"Mr. Tanner, he called him."

"Tanner?" the large man looked surprised, and a grin spread across his features. "Well whaddya know. Was he a pretty boy, the tracker?"

"I guess so. He weren’t ugly."

The larger man moved and clapped his son on the shoulder, causing Matt to stumble forward a bit. "Son," he said happily, "I think things are looking up." Glancing around at the others, he favored them all with the same grin. "Boys get your stuff together. There is five hundred dollars sitting in our barn and I think it is time we collected."

"What about the idea that there may be more of them? I mean, ain’t that why we didn’t approach ‘em last night?" This was asked by a skittish creature with plain brown eyes and lanky black hair. He was the smallest of the group, and equally the most nervous. His eyes darted nervously from the large man, to Matt, and back again.

"Naw, Malone, this Tanner is a loner. Used to be a bounty hunter – even managed to catch me once, though not for long. As for the gambler, I have no idea who he is. My guess, though, is that they’re probably just traveling companions. Should be real easy to grab ‘em."

Fifteen minutes later, the six bandits were quietly flanking the dilapidated wood structure. Three approached from the back – the wounded man, a tall black-haired man in a faded Union jacket, and a small ferret faced man in a red jacket. The large man, his son, and the skittish Malone crept up to the front door. Signaling to each other to go in on the count of three, the large man nodded once, twice, and….

"Freeze!" he yelled, throwing the heavy barn doors back. He was greeted by silence…and an empty barn. "Shit," he muttered.

___________________________

Thursday Morning…Four Corners

Chris looked up from where he sat in front of the saloon, an empty bottle of red-eye in his hands. Somehow, in the past two days he’d managed to make himself completely soused. It had begin with a minor celebration for having gotten Ezra out of his hair on Tuesday, but then the depression descended. The ever-present mantle of guilt for some reason became heavier with each passing hour, and Chris hadn’t managed to put the bottle down since that night. He drowned in the invented image of his wife and son screaming for him when he wasn’t there to help, and nothing could shake him from his morose preoccupation.

He looked blearily up at the noonday sun, hoping that by scorching his eyeballs he might sober up a little. Across the way, he saw Mary Travis frowning at him. She was standing in the doorway of the Clarion, her arms folded across her chest. Before her, Billy and some of the other children were playing pirates. All Chris heard, however, was the sound of Adam playing in the yard of his and Sarah’s ranch.

Upon seeing Chris’s eyes on her, Mary stood up straighter and stalked back into the office. Behind the gunslinger, heavy footfalls came close, the wood creaking loudly under the increased weight.

"Hey Pard, how’re you doing?" Buck asked jovially, settling himself down on an empty barrel to the left of Chris’ chair. The normally happy go-lucky gunslinger wouldn’t say it straight out, but he was worried about his best friend. He knew Chris was falling back on his old ways as a result of this enforced stillness. After Sarah and Adam had died, Buck had forced Chris to keep moving, to try and find him a new sense of purpose. He’d thought he finally succeeded here at Four Corners, but Chris was more fragile than he let on. It had only taken two weeks of quiet to send Chris back to the bottle. Actually, make that two days.

Buck started a little at that thought, the meaning of it surprising him. It suddenly occurred to him that, until Ezra and Vin left, Chris was at least distracted by something. The tall man frowned. Maybe sending the gambler away had not been as funny as they all thought. He smoothed his moustache down and flexed an eyebrow as a plan formed in his mind.

Chris hadn’t answered Buck’s question, indeed, he barely heard it. All he knew at that moment was that he was becoming entirely too sober. He lifted the bottle to his lips again, annoyed at finding it empty. He rose to go into the saloon for another one. Buck stopped him with a hand to his arm.

"Hey, now, maybe you’ve had enough, huh?"

Angrily, Chris shook off Buck’s touch, and glared at his light hearted friend.

Buck swallowed as he saw the pain in those blue eyes. Damn, he had let Chris get too far away from him. Still, one thing Buck never did was quit. "I’m just saying that you might need to rethink drinking. Its you patrol soon." He reminded quietly.

Chris put a hand to his face, rubbing the bridge of his nose. "Buck," he slurred, "nothing is happening. There’s no point in patrolling."

"That’s not what you told Ezra the other day…" Buck tried. The jab worked, Chris’s eyes flashed with renewed vigor.

"Leave that lazy son of a bitch out of this, Buck."

"I was just thinking that if that lazy s.o.b., as you put it, were to see you now, he might find some amusement here." Buck knew he was pressing it, but the tactic seemed to work.

"Oh, he would, would he?" Chris replied, his slur receding as his anger came to fore. "Well, to hell with him." Chris spun on his heel away from the saloon, threw the empty bottle at the ground where it shattered beautifully, and stalked towards the jail. Buck couldn’t suppress the grin on his face as he watched Chris walk away.

"Well, whaddya know?" he said quietly.

_____________________________

Something in Vin had convinced him they needed to make a hasty exit from the barn, and they were out and into the hills fairly quickly. Ezra looked at him curiously. He realized immediately that something was not quite right. He couldn’t tell if Vin was following a trail or not, since the tracker had not once dropped from his horse. Still, as they were only a couple of miles from the barn, he decided to give his friend the benefit of the doubt and remained quiet.

Eventually, the worry gnawing at Vin’s bones subsided in the quiet of the scenery, and he remembered his purpose. He slowed Peso down and jumped off, looking at the ground as if he could see tracks. Ezra looked around at the horizons and frowned a little. He didn’t see one familiar landmark. It occurred to him that, perhaps he should have been paying more attention on the ride down here. He wasn’t even sure he could get home from the barn, even if he could find it again.

After a few minutes, Vin jumped back on Peso and they trotted forward at a very slow gait. As designed, he zigzagged all over the landscape and, looking back at Ezra, he could sense the gambler was effectively lost. The man had been on the lookout for trouble almost from the get go, so hadn’t been aware at the meandering tour he’d been led on. Vin almost felt sorry for the city man.

Up ahead, a large outcropping of rocks split the land in two. Vin smiled. As they reached it, he pretended to scour the ground, then swore loud enough for the gambler to hear.

"What’s the matter?" Ezra asked. His eyes were narrowed against the brightness of the sun, and from what he could tell, they had barely moved more than five miles from where they started.

"They split in two here. Some went north, and the rest went south." Vin exhaled in mock sadness, and leaned against the horse. Gray eyes found green. Ezra looked down at him from Chaucer’s back, and suddenly got the strangest feeling that Vin was lying to him. He could see it in the tracker’s face.

Vin, sensing the scrutiny, dropped his eyes back to the ground to hide his expression. The hastiness of the move was not lost on the gambler. It reinforced his belief that Vin was lying.

"I think it best we split up, Ezra. I’ll head that-a-ways," he indicated to the south of the rock, "and you go north."

"Mr. Tanner, you know full well that I do not possess your tracking skills. I will invariably lose the trail." Ezra replied, choosing to go along with the game for now.

"Oh, I don’t know. The trail goes pretty straight, Ezra, and there’s a town not far in that direction. If you keep north, I don’t think you’ll have a problem. We can meet back here tonight if neither of us has any luck," Vin said this a little too quickly, and Ezra instantly felt secure in his suspicions. Still, the gambler nodded. Why not let Vin have his way? If this were all just an elaborate ruse to teach him a lesson, then it would be over by tonight and they could go home. Till then, he’d follow the north "trail" until he found a nice place to spend the day, then he’d come back.

Vin sighed a little at Ezra’s nod. Maybe I’m not as bad at this lying thing as I thought, the tracker congratulated himself. With a tip of his hat, he remounted Peso and headed south past the rocks. Ezra just shook his head, and pointed Chaucer north.

None of this was lost on the six outlaws who shadowed them on foot. Amazingly enough, the tracker and the gambler had moved around a lot without getting very far, which was a good thing for the horseless outlaws. When they saw the two lawmen split up, all eyes followed Vin as he loped away, still moving slowly. Grins grew broader on their faces.

_____________________________

Vin didn’t get far from the large outcropping. In fact, he stopped almost immediately at a small grouping of pine trees. He’d been here many times before, and it had become one of his favorite places to just sit back and relax. He led Peso between the quiet pines to a small stream in the center of a meadow. The water bubbled up from a small spring off to one side, and Vin reveled in its sweet sound. Wildflowers thrived in this cool, wet place, and Vin felt instantly at home. He was taking off Peso’s tack when a noise behind him made him jump. Surely Ezra wouldn’t have found him out already? He spun around, hand on his Winchester, and felt his heart leap. Five guns were trained on him, and all Vin could think to say was, "Aw, hell."

"Well, hello there, Mr. Tanner. So nice to see you again. Would you mind dropping your weapon please?" This came from the large man in the middle, causing Vin to focus on him. He hissed in surprise.         

"Dan Cavendish," he stated. "I thought they hung you already."

"Ah, nope. No thanks to you though. But I’m not one to hold a grudge, specially since you are about to make me and my friends here a tidy profit. Say in the area of five hundred dollars?" Cavendish asked this in the form of a question, but he needed no answer. Vin’s tense silence told him everything he needed to know.

"Dan, he’s still holding the rifle…" a small man chirped, the hold he had on his own weapon a little shaky.

"Malone has a point, Tanner. I’d suggest you drop the gun before my young colleague here becomes too nervous. The poster I saw in Clear Ridge said ‘dead or alive,’ and I gotta say, bringing you in dead sounds pretty good right now." Cavendish spoke the words almost nonchalantly, and this, more than any anger he might have been shown, worried Vin enough to comply. Quietly, he withdrew his sawed-off rifle and threw it down.

"Good man. Simon, get the shackles." Next to Cavendish, a black haired man in a dusty Union jacket pulled a pair of handcuffs from the satchel he wore over his shoulder. Cavendish smiled at the nasty looking irons.

"I knew those would come in handy," he said. "Got ‘em from the sheriff in Clear Ridge after he attempted to accost me and my friend Cal over there." The large man motioned to a blond man with his left arm in a sling. "Unfortunately for him, he didn’t know I had so many friends."

Simon roughly pulled Vin’s hands behind his back and placed the cuffs on him, snapping them tight. Then he pushed Vin down so that the tracker was on his knees. The wet meadow earth seeped into the fabric, causing Vin to shiver involuntarily.

If possible, Cavendish grinned even more broadly, assuming the shiver was the result of fear. "I’d kill you now, Mr. Tanner, but then I wouldn’t get the opportunity to see you swing at the hands of the same law you used to serve. Fact is, I would be disappointed to miss that. Seems so fitting, somehow. Almost poetic."

Vin blinked at the word, ‘poetic,’ and thought of Ezra. Could the gambler find him? Would he even know where to start? Oh crap, Chris, how the hell did you convince me to do this! All of a sudden, Vin was interrupted from his reverie by the sound of running feet.

A young man broke into the clearing, startling his five compatriots, and stopped, hands on his knees, panting heavily. Then he looked up at Cavendish, dark brown eyes flashing. "The gambler, pop, he’s coming back!"

Cavendish looked down at Vin. "Bring him, Davis," he ordered, strolling out of the enclosure. The ferret faced man in red roughly pulled Vin to his feet, stooping to pick up Vin’s Mare’s Leg in the process. He tossed the heavy gun to the boy Matt, who grabbed at it eagerly.

________________________________

Ezra hadn’t gotten very far before he decided he didn’t want to play anymore. The hot noonday sun was weighing heavily on his arms, and he shifted his sweaty shirt a little to get more comfortable. Moreover, he was sore from the saddle, and wanting a bath. He figured Vin wouldn’t have moved that far from the rocks, so Ezra decided to find him. Enough was enough, and he wanted to go home. He figured if they left now, they could be back in Four Corners by tomorrow night. So he turned Chaucer around and spurred him back to the outcropping.

As he reached the spot where they split up, he got the nagging feeling that someone was watching him, and it didn’t feel like Vin. He pulled out his Remington and laid it across his lap, and slowed Chaucer to a walk. When he reached the turning point, he jumped off and slowly made his way to the other side. He gasped at the sight before him.

Vin was kneeling down, his arms obviously trussed behind his back somehow. He also had the barrel of a rifle pressed firmly against his skull by a large leathery skinned man who clearly spent way too much time in the sun. Behind the brute stood a quiet ferret faced man in a dark red coat, and a nervous looking small man with huge brown eyes.

"Drop it, gambler," the large one barked.

Ezra hesitated a moment, but the cocking of the rifle (and several others around him indicating more gunmen) made up his mind. He threw the Remington to the ground and raised his arms.

"Gentlemen," Ezra drawled, a smile lighting his face, "may I inquire as to why you have this man trussed so rudely? And why you feel it necessary to draw on me as well?"

"Can it, boy. We know you and Tanner here were together. Simon, get the rest of his weapons."

"He has a Colt Richards Conversion in a shoulder holster, pop. I saw it at the barn." Ezra glanced sideways to see a young man not much older than JD sitting on the rocks and eagerly pointing Vin’s Winchester at his head. A tall man in tattered Union fatigues, with wiry black hair and dark eyes appeared from somewhere behind him and started to pat the gambler down. He found the Colt, and the knife from earlier which Ezra had loosely stuck in his belt, handle showing. As was typical, however, he neglected to check Ezra’s arms, so the derringer remained hidden. Simon then walked across to the large leader, throwing the guns at his feet.

"Well, aren’t you a pretty one. I see what you meant by the vest, Matt," the large man smirked, and the boy on the rocks giggled a little maniacally. "So what is your story, gambler?"

"No story, sir. I was merely accompanying Mr. Tanner here on his journey, and we parted ways at this rock. I returned because I changed my mind as to the direction I wanted to go in."

"Well then, gambler, I must say that this is not your day." The large man raised the rifle from Vin’s head and pointed it at Ezra. The gambler quickly waved his hands in front of him. Vin lowered his head.

"Wait, wait, I don’t think you want to do that!" Ezra said. "I am worth more alive!"

The large man hesitated, and tilted his head. "Explain," he barked.

"I am guessing that the reason you have taken Mr. Tanner into custody here is because you plan on taking him for the bounty on his head, correct? Well, you may be interested to know that I too have a bounty on my head. Although smaller than Mr. Tanner’s, I assure you it is not something to throw away."

Cavendish pursed his lips, then indicated with his gun for Ezra to continue. The gambler relaxed a little as he felt his con taking effect. "My name, sir, is Ezra Standish, and I am, as you so rightly guessed, a gambler by trade. As a result of that choice of profession, I have unfortunately made some errors in judgement which have led to my incarceration at times. At one point I managed to escape from the confines of Fort Laramie, which resulted in the placing of a bounty on my head. My most recent clash with the law, however, was in the town of Four Corners, not two days ride from here. Once more I was arrested and escaped. I am sure that the law of that town would pay handsomely for my return."

Cavendish lowered the gun a little, his tongue licking his lips. "How much are we talking, Standish?"

"After Fort Laramie, the bounty was $200. However, I am betting Four Corners will pay more than that. At that little township, I may have acted a little more scurrilous than was necessary upon my capture, and I undoubtedly salted the wound when I escaped." He grimaced as he thought of Chris’s angry stares. The con is always more believable when you interlace truth with the lies. In some ways, there was more truth than fiction in the tale he spun.

Cavendish looked around at his other men, and indicated they should have a meeting. Motioning to Matt to stay where he was with the gun on Ezra, he handed his rifle to the quiet ferret faced man to hold on Vin. Then he, the wounded Cal, Malone and Simon gathered off to one side.

"What do you think?" the large man asked.

"You think it’s the truth? He may just be trying to save his hide." This came from Cal, who was itching his arm wound from outside the sling. As one, they all looked at the ex-Union man.

Simon pursed his dry lips, then shook his head. "No, I don’t think so. I’ve heard his name before. I remember something about a gambler getting out of Fort Laramie when I was in the army a year back. It was a real embarrassment." He half smiled, "should of seen the way those pompous officers were running around demanding that we get out and search for him. They had no idea that we all really wished the gambler’d get away. Yeah, I recall now. Ezra...the name fits."

Cavendish shrugged, "Well, works for me." Cal nodded, shrugging his acceptance. Malone just sighed. As a group they looked at Ezra, then Simon moved to pull the other pair of shackles out of his satchel. Ezra saw this and repressed a relieved smile. He had at least gotten them some time.

Cal and Malone moved forward to look at Chaucer, the chestnut stallion shying away from their inspection. "Damn, this is a nice horse for a tinhorn gambler," the wounded man said.

"Must be worth something, huh?" Malone added, touching the handsome hide.

Ezra placed his arms behind his back to allow Simon to cuff him without touching his arms too much. One solid grip to his right arm would give the derringer away. Plus, it is always good to act submissive. He looked over at the men with his horse, and it occurred to him that there were no other horses around.

"You men are on foot?" he asked, genuinely surprised.

"Well, not any more," Cal laughed, patting Chaucer’s rump with his good hand. The horse became even more skittish. "We have this beauty and the tracker’s stallion which we left over in the meadow yonder. I must thank you fellas for not moving too fast after you left the barn this morning. It made following you real easy."

Ezra grimaced, and looked at Vin. The tracker was looking extremely apologetic. He wouldn’t even meet Ezra’s gaze. Simon pushed the gambler over so that he was kneeling next to Vin, and knocked Ezra’s hat off. Matt bounded off the rock and went to join his father and his friends who were standing around the beautiful horse. The ferret faced Davis stayed his ground, gun still trained on the back of Vin’s head. Meanwhile, Simon shoved Ezra’s hat on his own head and started strutting, causing the other men to laugh.

"Mr. Tanner," Ezra whispered beneath the racket, "I take it this was not part of Chris’s plan for revenge?"

Vin flinched, and looked at Ezra with wide eyes. "How did…?’

"You are a terrible liar, Mr. Tanner. I thought it odd I’d never heard of Chelmsford, but your expression just now confirmed my suspicions." He exhaled slowly, "So where exactly are we?"

"Less than two days ride south east of Four Corners."

"Is that the closest town?"

"Yes."

"Good." Ezra replied, then straightened up. "Excuse me!" he called out. As one, the five men by the horses turned. The ferret faced man raised his rifle a little.

"Calm down, Davis. Can’t have you shooting away our profits now, can we?" Cavendish called. The ferret faced man relaxed his position, and the large man came strolling over.

"Something I can do for you gambler?" he asked, with feigned politeness.

"Actually, I have a suggestion for you, sir." Ezra replied, an innocent smile on his features. Vin just kneeled there, praying Ezra wasn’t about to get them killed. Cavendish frowned, but didn’t reply. Ezra took this as an assent for him to continue.

"As your clever man has already noted, sir, my horse is really quite a beauty. In fact, both he and Mr. Tanner’s horse are of sufficient quality that, if you were to trade them, you could probably get enough nags to put all your men on horses." Cavendish looked slightly puzzled.

"You are a little slow, Standish. We already thought of doing that when we got to Four Corners."

"Ah, yes," Ezra nodded, "it is a good idea. However, I can see that both you and your men are very weary, especially after tracking Mr. Tanner and myself all day. The long walk to Four Corners would do none of you any good, especially for your wounded colleague. Might I suggest that two of you take the horses and ride on to Four Corners, which I also believe is the nearest town, and trade them first? The rest of us could stay in that lovely meadow I heard about, and await their return."

Simon and Malone had walked up to hear this exchange, leaving Matt and Cal with Chaucer. They looked over at their leader to see his answer. Cavendish looked skeptical.

"What is in it for you," he drawled, eyeing Ezra distrustfully.

Ezra shrugged, his smile disarming. "I am afraid you have caught me out, sir. I don’t want to walk either. My legs were built for city sidewalks, not dusty hills." He looked properly chagrined. Cavendish smiled, and eventually started laughing. Simon smiled, and Malone sneered. The ferret faced man, Davis, barely moved a muscle.

"Can’t argue with such powerful laziness, now, can we men?" Cavendish nodded, "It’s a good idea, gambler." He looked back at where Matt and Cal stood, and waved them over. Quickly he outlined Ezra’s plan, acting as if it were his own.

"What are you doin?" Vin whispered.

"Let’s just say I get the feeling that either you or I wouldn’t survive the walk to Four Corners, Mr. Tanner," Ezra hissed back.

"If you ride through the night, you should get there by late afternoon tomorrow, but don’t run the animals too much. We want them looking pretty for when you trade ‘em in," Cavendish was saying to Matt. The boy stood straight, proud to be the one on whom his father trusted this job. Cavendish continued, "I’ll expect you and Davis back in less than three days, got it? Oh and take the last of the bank money from Clear Ridge in case the horses ain’t enough."

Matt fairly jumped in his eagerness to meet his father’s wishes. He ran over to the small woods to get Peso. Davis moved slowly over to Chaucer and started checking the cinch on the saddle. Then he moved to swing himself into the saddle, but Chaucer sidestepped away, leaving the ferret faced man to fall on his face. The other outlaws started guffawing. Vin looked at Ezra, and saw the gambler’s face tense around his false smile. Chaucer whinnied and tried to walk over to his master.

"Shh, boy, its okay," Ezra soothed over the laughter of the others. Chaucer stopped and looked at him, clearly confused. Davis picked himself up and moved back over to the horse. Ezra leaned forward on his knees to give himself more height. "Go with him, boy. It’ll be alright."

Chaucer listened to his master’s cool tones, and nickered softly. Ezra continued to say soothing words, and this allowed Davis to climb up without further incident. Ezra sank back to his knees with relief.

Moments later, they heard hooves galloping from somewhere behind them, and a loud "whoo hoo!" yelled in Matt’s voice. Seconds later, the boy came into sight and pulled back hard on the reins, causing Peso to rear. Ezra heard the growl in Vin’s throat, and nudged him to stay silent. Matt quieted the horse, and looked over at Davis.

"Ready to go, pard?" he asked gleefully. Davis simply nodded, and without further ado, the two outlaws galloped off in the early afternoon sun.

A pang of despair gripped Ezra as he saw the harsh handling of his beloved horse, and knew Vin felt the same. It was something the two shared in common. None of the other members of the seven felt so attached to their mounts, except maybe Chris.

"Any harm comes to that horse…" Vin whispered tensely, not finishing his threat, his eyes shooting daggers at Cavendish’s back.

"I’ll help you," Ezra agreed. Cavendish turned, and smiled broadly.

"Well, boys, I think its time we moved back to that lovely rest stop we found Tanner in. There we can relax and determine how much agony we can place our two new friends in without actually killing them."

___________________________________________

Part Two

__________________

Ezra had no doubt as they were lead into the small woods that the large man had meant what he said about hurting them. Actually, it was at Vin that the man’s gaze had focused, and Ezra realized he was going to have to think of a way to distract the men so they left the tracker alone. Vin, however, seemed resigned to his fate. Where he moved in front of the gambler, his shoulders remained slumped, his head bowed.

Vin hated being beaten. It wasn’t his first time by a long shot, but that never made the inevitability of the pain any less frightening. He just hoped Ezra would stay out of it. Somehow, he doubted it.

The tracker actually smiled as he thought of the gambler walking protectively behind him. Damn, the man could be clever sometimes. Not only had Ezra saved him from having to walk to Tuscosa and his death, but had gotten the outlaws turned around into thinking that Four Corners was the place to go first. Even better, by sending the horses on ahead, he guaranteed that the rest of the seven would be alerted to their predicament and come get them, long before Cavendish caught on. Now, if they could only survive until then….

Vin was interrupted in his thoughts by the lightening of the area around them. They had reached the meadow. Somehow, it didn’t look as inviting as it had an hour ago. What a shame.

Both he and Ezra were roughly shoved to the ground, the cuffs on their hands preventing them from catching themselves. Simon then came over and pulled them both into sitting positions, propping their backs against a couple of pine trees. Malone and Cal stood off to one side while Cavendish approached them. The evil in his look was so vicious that Vin was already cowering a little. Tension filled the space between them.

"Sir, before you lay into Mr. Tanner, might I inquire as to how I should address you and your motley crew? I mean, it seems awfully rude of me if all I can do is call you the large man, the wounded man, the army man and the smaller one." Ezra’s sweet southern charm eased the moment, and he smiled, gold tooth flashing. Cavendish stopped, and looked a little surprised. Simon glanced up from where he crouched next to the captives and shrugged his shoulders as if to say, ‘why not?’

Cavendish rubbed a bristled covered jaw and contemplated Ezra. The gambler certainly looked harmless enough, and the knowledge wouldn’t do him that much good in a few days. Sticking a meaty thumb at his chest, the large man replied, "Dan Cavendish." Then he indicated to the ex-Union man and named him as Simon. The wounded Cal and jittery Malone came next. Ezra nodded at each man as the introductions were made.

"Lovely to meet you all." He tilted his head sideways, his gaze on Cal. "May I ask how you came upon such misfortune, my friend?" Cal opened his mouth to answer, but Cavendish shushed him.

"No," the large man stated firmly. He knelt in front of Ezra and looked him deep in the eyes. The gambler didn’t blink. "Do you always talk this much, Standish?" Cavendish asked.

"Only when I’m nervous, I assure you. And I must admit to being a little nervous. Wouldn’t you be in my position?" The words spilled out in a torrent, causing Cavendish to shake his head. Then he backhanded Ezra sharply across the mouth.

Ezra rolled to one side, gasping, feeling the flush of the hit on his skin. Simon leant over and looked at him upside down, grinning like a Cheshire cat. From somewhere before him he heard Cavendish speaking again.

"I wonder how many men have wanted to do that, Mr. Standish. A word of advice. You talk too much." The large man looked at Simon, and smiled. "Gag him." Ezra grimaced.

Well, that went well, he chided himself.

______________________________

Thursday…mid-afternoon…Four Corners

Chris viewed the bright clear sky with enormous distaste. He stumbled down the boarding house steps with the same pounding headache he’d had since this morning, the painful reminder of how much alcohol he had drunk previously and how little of anything else had passed his lips during that time. After Buck’s remarks this morning, Chris had resolved not to have another drink until he was sober enough to handle it. Unfortunately, it had only taken a few hours of listening to Josiah’s incessant hammering on the church roof while he was trying to take a nap to drive him back to the saloon. The headache forming behind his right eye had convinced him that only whiskey would soothe this new pain.

This time, however, when he entered the saloon, Buck was sitting up at Ezra’s table, shuffling. Not playing, not drinking, just shuffling. He called Chris over as he entered, and all it took was one question to reanimate Chris’ anger.

"Can I interest you in a game of chance?" Buck asked innocently as the cards flowed beneath his fingers. Chris merely glared at Buck, and turned around. Part of him was aware of what Buck was doing, but his remembered anger at Ezra was too much in control. He almost slammed the batwing doors off their hinges as he left.

Buck sighed as Chris left, and placed the cards on the table. He rubbed his tired hands and wondered how Ezra could keep up the monotonous movement for so long. All that shuffling had left his fingertips tingling.

JD and Nathan passed Chris on his way to the livery, their leader looking hell bent on getting away from town for a while. Chris had acknowledged them with barely a nod. As they reached the saloon, Josiah had joined them, needing refreshment after hours spent fixing up the church. Josiah looked past them, seeing Chris’s black duster disappearing into the stable.

"Is he still…?" Josiah asked, trying not to show too much concern in front of the boy. Interestingly enough, though, it was JD who answered, once more proving himself not to be as young and naďve as expected.

"No, he looked sober. Sober and mean, to be exact." JD shrugged, and walked into the bar. Josiah and Nathan shared a glance, and followed. Their feet naturally began to carry them over to their usual table when a loud jovial call made them turn.

Nathan stood stunned to see Buck waving them up to Ezra’s card table, a deck of cards at the tall gunslingers fingers. It was like looking at a painting of a landscape but someone had replaced the trees with oversized pitchforks. The tableau was all wrong. As they wandered up to join Buck, the healer couldn’t resist a jibe.

"Aw now, Buck! Don’t tell me you’ve started to emulate Ezra. One blackguard is enough in this band." Nathan tried to look disappointed, but JD slipped into the seat next to Buck without a thought. The young man smiled up at the other two.

"No, no, don’t be stupid," Buck admonished in a hushed tone, and hastily indicated that they sit. He waved them in closer, ignoring the puzzled expressions, and hurriedly whispered, "You seen Chris?"

"He just left," Josiah responded, "I think he’s going for a ride."

Buck leaned back with a huge sigh of relief and grinned. "Thank god, I thought I’d have to sit up here and shuffle all night long. I’ve been having weird daydreams that these cards are going to slowly but surely take all the skin off my fingers." He pushed the deck away, and JD picked it up, preparing to shuffle them himself.

"Why would you want to sit here all day and shuffle?" Nathan asked. Buck was about to respond when cards spewed out across the table top. JD looked up sheepishly, and started gathering them back together.

"Because," Buck said, leaning over conspiratorially, "I figured out it stops Chris from drinking." He moved back, looking extremely pleased with himself.

JD paused, looking completely nonplussed at the remark, and Nathan narrowed his eyes. Only Josiah cocked his head, his eyes showing immediate comprehension, and the expression was not lost on Buck. The gunslinger’s moustache twitched into a smile.

"Why would shuffling…." JD began, but Josiah was already talking.

"Very clever Buck. I think you’ve hit on it," the preacher said, nodding.

"Hit on what?" the young sheriff said. Nathan looked at the cards in JD’s hands, and his eyes widened.

"Wait," Nathan said, "you mean all it takes…."

"Is the right distraction!" Buck finished.

"Okay, now I’m really not…" JD tried again.

"How long do you think it will work?" this from Josiah.

"Until he gets back. Then, I think, life should get back to normal."

"But you can’t just shuffle cards for two more days, maybe more," Nathan argued, not entirely sure he liked the idea. Buck opened his mouth, but JD slammed his hands on the table, causing the cards to fly around again. Inez, who had been approaching with four beers, quietly turned around again.

"Would someone please tell me what you all are talking about?" the boy seethed. Josiah chuckled, and Nathan looked somewhat rueful. Buck started to pull the cards together again as he explained.

"JD, you know how Chris gets when there is nothing to do…" He looked up, not sure of the reaction he was going to get. JD surprised him, just as he had the others a few minutes before.

"Of course. He starts thinking too much about Sarah and Adam, and then he starts in on the bottle. But I’ve only ever seen him really get drunk a few times."

"You ever wonder why that is, as there have been more than a few quiet spells that have hit us before?"

"Well no, not really. I just try to avoid him when it does happen." JD looked down at the table, ashamed at what he’d just admitted. Buck patted him on the back. Josiah continued, picking up on Buck’s train of thought.

"Most people do, son, me included. Nobody likes to see a man fighting his demons and losing, especially when that person won’t let them in to help. With Chris its even worse because he can get dangerous."

"Yeah, but that don’t stop Buck," JD replied, looking at his best friend.

"I’ve had years of practice, kid," Buck replied quietly, "but I’ll be the first to admit that I rarely succeed. Usually something has to happen to get Chris to come back, and, since we been here, things seem to happen all the time." He grinned, and JD couldn’t resist a small smile in return. "But something else has been different since we been here, and that is, Chris ain’t alone anymore. He’s healing ‘cause of that, but that doesn’t mean he still doesn’t withdraw into himself. He still needs distractions." He paused, drawing in a breath. "What I figured out today is that something else in particular has been keeping him on his toes in quiet times, and I think that, more than anything, has been what has kept him sober…" and here he tapped the cards for emphasis.

JD looked at the cards, and then up at Buck. His face remained puzzled, but it was clear that the gears were working. Suddenly he brightened.

"Oh, you mean the fact that he fights all the time with Ezra!" he fairly yelled this statement, much to the dismay of the quiet healer and preacher. Buck laughed. Inez nodded, judging that the time was right, and came forward again with the drinks.

"So, what?" JD continued as Inez carefully placed the mugs down, "You figure that if we just keep reminding Chris of what Ezra might think or say, it will keep him sober?" He upturned the last phrase into a question, his eyes searching Buck’s. He was gratified when the dark gunslinger nodded, a grin on his face.

"Yeah. But I need your help. I can’t shuffle these cards alone."

Nathan grimaced. "I’m not sure I like the idea of us acting like Ezra," he stated. The healer shared Chris’s dislike of Ezra’s favorite pastimes, although his stance was more on moral grounds. Chris just found Ezra frustrating because he constantly shirked his duties as a result.

Buck frowned, "Oh, now, I don’t mean we all start gambling and conning people. Hell, I wouldn’t even know where to start. That’s why I need you guys to help me."

"I think, my friends," said Josiah, "that we need a plan." He tapped his skull, "and I think I may have got one."

______________________________

Thursday night to Friday morning…middle of nowhere

Luckily for the Vin and Ezra, the outlaws got tired pretty quickly with the game of beating up on the two men. The tracker certainly got the worst of it, earning him some bruised ribs and a black eye from the meat fisted Cavendish. It left him barely conscious. Simon seemed to be the one who most disliked Ezra, giving him a split lip and threatening him with the knife he had stolen from Ezra earlier. Horribly for the gambler, the gag had stayed on the whole time, and he nearly choked as some of the cloth in his mouth made it down his throat. It was the quiet Cal who saved him, removing the gag briefly so Ezra could cough up some of the fabric. Unfortunately, then he replaced it. Malone was no where around while this happened, apparently hunting for their dinner.

In the end, the long day was felt more by the bandits as it came to a close, the result of having spent several days on foot prior to meeting up with Ezra and Vin. Dinner was meager, as it was clear the outlaws didn’t have much to split between them. Malone had finally shown his usefulness by getting them a couple of rabbits to stew, but the tough meat had no compliments. There was no bread, or vegetables with which to eat it with. Neither of the lawmen were offered any food. However, they were allowed to crawl to the spring to drink.

Ezra bathed his stinging jaw and lip under the cool water, and relished in its slight comfort. Rough hands pulled him away, however, and Malone threw him back to where Vin lay as if asleep. Simon came over and stuffed the cloths back into Ezra’s mouth, enjoying the obvious discomfort this was causing to the man’s lip and jaw, then tied the gag around his head again. Meanwhile, Malone began to fill up the canteens.

Ezra moved over next to Vin and nudged him. The tracker peered up at him through one swollen eye and one half lidded one. He had been on the verge of sleep. Ezra motioned that they should move back and get into the shadows of the trees so as to seem more innocuous. Together, they shifted backwards until they each leaned against a tree. Vin closed his eyes again, and fell asleep. Ezra continued to regard the scene in front of them.

From out of Malone’s satchel, two bottles of whiskey had appeared. Apparently, they were for a special occasion, and this appeared to be one. Ezra shook his head at the complete confidence these men had in their plans to sell him and Vin. The bottles were handed around until all four of the outlaws were completely inebriated. The revelry continued until around about an hour before dawn, then they all fell asleep in a drunken haze. All, that is, except Cavendish.

Seeing his men snoring all around him, the large man got up and stumbled over to Ezra. He had felt the gambler’s eyes on him all night, and for some reason, this had made him extremely angry. He couldn’t even remember why they’d let the man stay alive in the first place. He knelt in front of Ezra, and smiled at the dark shadow that encompassed much of the gambler’s jaw beneath the growing stubble.

"Howizz yer head, little man?" Cavendish slurred. When Ezra didn’t answer, Cavendish laughed. "Oh, I forgot. Hol’onna minute." He leant forward and ripped the gag from Ezra’s mouth. The gambler gasped at the roughness, and swallowed a few times to work some saliva into his dry mouth. Cavendish continued to smile.

"So, little man, whatizz it ya do that makes men put bounties on yer head?" the large man asked, his whiskey laden breath blowing into Ezra’s face. The gambler was hard pressed not to flinch away.

"I talk too much," he deadpanned, his voice hoarse. Nearly choking had really hurt his throat, and much of his cockiness was lost. Cavendish laughed at the remark, then knocked him sideways again.

"Think you’re so clever, doncha, Stannish," Cavendish hissed in his ear. "Well soon you’ll be hangin’ at the enna a rope and words ain’t gonna save ya."

Ezra merely glared back at the large man, his green eyes piercing. Once again, that unsettled feeling washed over the outlaw boss, and left a nasty taste in his mouth. Standing up, he pulled out his gun and aimed it at the gambler’s head. Ezra merely blinked. Then he willed himself to look suitably terrified, letting fear make his whole body tremble. Part of him was a little annoyed at himself because it hadn’t been that hard to bring the emotion to the surface. Nevertheless, it had the desired effect. Cavendish saw the fear, and, as expected, smiled gleefully. Then he turned away and made his way back to the campfire and his men. Within minutes, his loud snores rocked the meadow.

Ezra sighed and brought himself back to a sitting position. He was still shaking a little and had to breath out a few times before he got himself under control again. Then he looked up at the sky, and over at Vin. Scooting over, he nudged the tracker a few times. Slowly, Vin regained consciousness, something he’d had a lot of trouble hanging onto earlier. He looked at Ezra above him, and noticed the gag was off.

"Time to go, Ez?" he asked sleepily. The gambler nodded his head, while indicating him to be quiet.

"I need you to reach into my vest pocket and get out the length of wire I have hidden in there. Can you do that?" the gambler whispered hoarsely. Vin nodded, and struggled to his knees.

The tracker turned so his back was facing Ezra, and felt around the gambler’s midsection with his hands. When he found one of the pockets he heard Ezra tell him, "No, the other side." Creeping across the man’s stomach, Vin quickly found the other pocket and started poking around for the wire. It was embedded into the fabric, and Vin had to pull some to get it out. He heard the stitching tear as he pulled it out, and Ezra’s mutterings about what he had to go through to help his friends. This caused Vin to smile.

When he looked over his shoulder, he found Ezra had turned around as well, his cuffed hands outstretched. Understanding, Vin dropped the wire into the gambler’s hands. Then he moved back to the tree and leant back to wait. He didn’t even notice that he fell asleep again.

Insistent shaking on his shoulder brought Vin back to the living, and he found Ezra leaning over him. He moved so Ezra could unlock him. A couple minutes later, he heard the shackle lock click, and sighed happily as the heavy irons fell from his hands. Ezra smiled at him.

"Sorry it took so long," the gambler said, "but its been a while since I’ve had to use that particular skill." Vin nodded, and looked up at the lightening sky. He got to his feet shakily, one hand on his bruised ribs. Ezra, meanwhile, had tiptoed over to where the other men slept, and was fishing around the bags for his guns and the Winchester. He grinned broadly as he found his Remington and the Colt, happy that everything was going to plan, and was about to remove the other guns from the slumbering outlaws when Vin hissed something. The smile abruptly fell from Ezra’s face as he heard the sounds of some kind of animal racing through the woods.

Swearing, he rushed back to Vin’s side, shoved the Remington into the man’s hands and motioned for him to sit back down. The wild pig plunged into the meadow, waking up all the outlaws at once. In seconds, the four men were on their feet, guns raised. Squealing, the pig raced from the area, and one by one the outlaws started giggling. One hour’s sleep had not been enough to clear their heads of the whiskey, but, unfortunately for the lawmen, it did not look as if the outlaws were going back to sleep anytime soon. Sleepy eyed, Simon looked over to ensure that the two captives were still sitting by the same trees. Ezra and Vin looked back without expression.

Cavendish stretched and yawned, and ordered Malone to get the water boiling in the cookpot. The smaller man quickly complied, and Cal turned away to go relieve himself off to one side. Simon continued to stare at the captives, certain something was wrong. Then he looked more closely at Ezra, and realized what it was.

"Hey," the ex-Union man said to Cavendish, "where’s his gag?"

Vin’s eyes widened, unaware that it had been Cavendish himself who had removed the gag the night before, and jumped to his feet. Cavendish, for his part, simply responded by yelling and charging at the gambler. In a flash, Vin had the Remington up and aimed at Cavendish’s heart. The man fell like a ton of bricks. At almost the same instant, Vin felt the knife pierce his thigh where Simon had thrown it. He collapsed back against the tree. A second shot rang out, and Vin saw that Ezra had gotten Simon in the chest with his Colt. The third shot came from Cal, and Vin watched helplessly as Ezra slammed backwards into his tree, the Colt falling out of his hand. Vin fired on Cal, but didn’t see if the shot connected. From somewhere, a rock hit his head and he blacked out.

Ezra didn’t even think after he saw Cal fall from Vin’s last shot and Malone desperately fling one of the rocks that sat around the cook fire at the tracker. Instantly, he engaged the mechanism that allowed the derringer to slip into his right hand and he fired, bringing Malone down with a shot to the heart. And it was all over.

____________________________

Friday…midmorning…Four Corners

Chris had spent the rest of the Thursday riding around and visiting the outlying ranches, part of the patrol route they’d been ignoring since yesterday. When he returned, he got himself a little dinner, and only peeked in the saloon. He saw the others in there playing poker at Ezra’s table, so he moved on. His headache was almost blinding at this point, and he saw no shame in retiring early. Unfortunately, the alcohol still in his system kept him tossing and turning for a while before sleep actually came. The result was that it was already mid-morning before he crawled out. A thought nagged his brain that he was getting as bad as Ezra.

He stood out in the quiet street, listening to the townspeople bustle about on their morning errands. Luckily, Josiah had not started hammering yet. He rubbed his eyes fiercely, and considered the just opening saloon. Inez would already have been up for a while, and he could, if he wanted, go and get a small drink to settle his head. Licking his lips in anticipation, he started over. A cordial call from the jail interrupted his walk.

"Hey Chris!" JD called, his voice bubbly with unrestrained zeal, "come here! I want to show you something." Chris sighed, looking longingly at the saloon, then turned to join the young sheriff. JD was already inside, sitting at his desk, and he had two decks of cards in front of him. Uh oh, Chris thought.

"I’ve been practicing all morning, and I think I got these figured out. Can I try them on you? I already tried ‘em on Buck and Josiah last night, but I kept messing up. I thought if I practiced on you, I could really impress Buck later by getting them right."

Chris looked sideways at JD, "Show Buck what exactly?"

"Oh! Gosh, I’m sorry, Chris. You see, Ezra’s been teaching me all these card tricks…"he stopped at Chris’s grimace, and quickly tried to explain. "Oh no, not gambling tricks. He’s been teaching me magic tricks. You know, sleight of hand? It’s the stuff he shows the kids. Can I try them on you? I really want to have these down before Ezra gets back. Please?"

In the back of his mind, Chris was itching to run from the jail and get away, but JD’s huge puppy dog eyes were too powerful. Reminding himself that he really had nothing better to do, Chris nodded at the boy and sat down in the chair opposite the desk. JD fairly whooped with delight, and immediately started in.

____________________________

Friday…noon…middle of nowhere

Ezra was only aware of two things as he plodded towards Four Corners with Vin over his shoulder: the trail in front of him blazed by the other two outlaws, and of putting one foot in front of the other along that trail. Contrary to what Chris, Vin and the others believed, Ezra was not wholly incapable of tracking people. Indeed, after watching Vin for the past year, Ezra found himself becoming more and more adept. He simply chose not to make this fact known for fear that the others would force him to use that knowledge. Why track when you can follow? But here, Ezra had no choice.

Had he known the term, Ezra would have described his current perspective as "tunnel vision." Nothing existed beyond what was in front of him. His hearing, his pain, the heat, all this was submerged beneath the need to move forward. Even his thoughts were dulled, focused only on perceiving Chaucer and Peso’s hoof prints and noting their direction. Nothing else mattered.

Vin, meanwhile, was having a nightmare. Someone had thought it would be fun to stick him on top of the may pole in the town near where he grew up in Texas, with the tip of the pole pressing uncomfortably into his stomach. Ribbons were attached to his fingers and legs, and the children were spinning him around and pulling with all their might on his pained limbs. He was getting stretched out of control! He yelled at the children to stop, but they just kept laughing. His fingers were so swollen that they were huge, pulled out of proportion, and his legs, especially his right leg, were on fire. And throughout this, he still knew it was a dream. A dream. He had to wake up. He would die if he didn’t wake up. "WAKE UP!" he screamed at his mind. Open your eyes….

Bit by bit, Vin regained consciousness. His dried and filth coated lids pulled back from his eyeballs, revealing tired red eyes. He realized that he was not on a maypole, but being carried on someone’s pointy shoulder. His fingers were swollen, and his head throbbed with the blood that had rushed to it. His legs felt numb, his right leg in particular seemed almost disconnected from his body. What the hell had happened?

He thought about the leg. Wasn’t there a knife? Yes, a knife thrown by the ex-army man called Simon. Simon…Cavenidish…Ezra! His memory came back in a flood, his last thoughts being that Ezra had been shot. He blinked, suddenly afraid. He stared at the feet below him, slowing making their way. They were nice boots, expensive. They looked like Ezra’s boots. He hoped they were Ezra’s boots. He licked his dry lips, and croaked out a weak "Ez?"

When no answer came, Vin’s fears grew. He tried again.

"Ez?" Still no answer.

"Ez, can you hear me? Is this you? Ezra? Ezra!"

A slight hitch in the boots movement indicated he was finally heard. From far away a voice returned, "Welcome back, Mr. Tanner."

"Oh thank God! Ez, what happened? Where are we?"

"You were injured. I am taking you home." The response was dull, completely without the southerner’s usual inflections. Vin thought about this, trying to make sense of it all.

"Why…couldn’t we have stayed in the meadow? Waited for the others…"

Ezra’s voice came out very quiet, and he took enormous breaths between every few words. Vin had to strain to hear him. "Can’t guarantee they’d come," the gambler said. "My plan to escape failed, so couldn’t know my plan for help to come would succeed. You were injured, couldn’t risk staying there and having the other two outlaws come back. Plus, predators would be coming for the bodies. Too dangerous. And the bodies would spread disease. Had to get you away." He faltered in his steps, but quickly regained his momentum.

Vin shut his eyes. His world was spinning. He recognized Ezra’s point, but right now all he could think of is how much he wanted a drink from that spring. He was also pretty sure he was going to vomit soon. He opened his eyes again. He had to get Ezra to stop before he died of thirst and dizziness.

"Ez, we have to stop," he said. Once again, no response came. "Ez?" Vin tried again. "Ezra, talk to me!" He would have yelled, but his chest felt very heavy, so he had to do with a mere raised voice. Ezra’s steps faltered again.

"Yes, Mr. Tanner?"

"We have to stop. I need water."

Ezra slowed, then veered off the trail. Vin had reminded the gambler of how tired and thirsty he also felt, and all his other senses came into force with a painful vehemence. He stepped through the long grass until he found a small clearing. With tremendous care, he bent over and allowed Vin to slip off his shoulder. The tracker immediately fell to the ground, moaning about his leg. Ezra stayed on his feet, afraid to sit. He pulled one of the canteens from off his shoulder and handed it over. Then he placed shaking hands on his hips to scan the horizon for riders.

Vin was not aware of much beyond his need for the liquid. Nathan’s voice in his head reminded him to be sparing, however, and he tried not to be too greedy. Wiping his mouth on his sleeve, he looked up at his partner. Ezra was not looking at him, his eyes focused somewhere else. The man didn’t look hurt, which seemed inconsistent with what he remembered. He was sure he saw Ezra get hit….Abruptly, bile rose in this throat. He had just enough time to twist away from the gambler before he threw up.

Ezra looked back at Vin, unable to keep the worry from his face. God, this was all his fault. He had pushed Chris too far, and now they were out here in the middle of nowhere. Why wasn’t he alone? Why did he have to drag Vin down with him?

Vin, for his part, felt surprisingly much better. Of course, the retching had not helped his bruised ribs, but it had cleared his head. He was no longer spinning. He took another tentative sip of the water and was pleased to note it seemed to be staying down. He tapped Ezra on the leg with the canteen to indicate he was done. When the gambler bent over to retrieve the water, his coat fell open and Vin gasped. Ezra’s shirt was soaked with blood on the left side. He looked up into green eyes.

"Just a graze. Looks worse than it is."

"Ez, are you sure? That’s a lot of blood…"

"Would I be able to carry you if I was really hurt?" came the reply. Ezra took a swig from the same canteen.

Vin pondered this. He recognized that this was a deflection, not an answer. He knew Ezra would be too stubborn to admit he couldn’t get Vin home, and thought that probably the gambler was not telling the truth. He also realized that he could smell the blood on the gambler. He wouldn’t be able to do that from this distance if it wasn’t fresh.

"Ez, you can’t carry me anymore. I’ll stay hidden in this grass while you go get help. Just leave me…."

"There are some apples in the satchel I tied around your back, and some jerky. I suggest you eat some." Ezra had looked away again.

Vin couldn’t help but get annoyed at this second attempt at distracting him. "Ezra…" he began menacingly.

"I have no qualms about knocking you out again, Vin." Ezra’s statement was quiet, and unquestionable. Vin just sat there, staring up at Ezra’s profile. Then he pulled the satchel around and found the apples. He thought of using a knife to cut one up, but he couldn’t even look at a knife right now. He started eating slowly, pausing after a couple of bites to see if it would stay down. Satisfied, he took a few more bites the handed the rest up to Ezra. The gambler finished the fruit, and tossed the core. Then Ezra put his hands out to pull Vin back to his feet. Vin hesitated, but not for long. He let Ezra pull him up and throw him over his shoulder again. Vin could still feel the apple in his gullet.

Pain lanced down Ezra’s left side, and he staggered a little. Vin said something, but he ignored him. Ezra started walking again, and slipped back into his tunnel vision. Unable to get a response from the gambler, Vin gave up trying to convince him to change his mind. It felt like he was talking to a brick wall. He thought about how ironic it was that, on the way here, he couldn’t get Ezra to shut up. Now, all he waned was to hear the gambler’s voice. Feeling defeated, the tracker allowed himself to fall asleep.

___________________________

Friday afternoon…Four Corners

It was close to noon when Chris finally extricated himself from JD’s clutches. The young sheriff had shown him no less than eight different tricks. The first few were actually quite clever, and JD did a good job. Then he started to mess up. He would insist each time as he reshuffled and prepared to do the trick over that he knew what went wrong, but once more the trick would elude him in practice. Finally, Chris’s patience gave out, and, excusing himself to get some lunch, almost ran out the door. JD sighed in relief as he left. In truth, the boy couldn’t believe he’d held on to the black-clad gunslinger for so long.

Chris opted for the hotel for lunch, deciding that solitude was needed at his moment. With a full meal on his bones, he felt decidedly better. Only the hotel’s manager interrupting him and asking when he thought Mr. Standish would be returning soured his meal. Apparently Ezra had promised to pull some strings and get the manager some needed supplies before the weekly supply run on Monday, and the manager hadn’t heard anything since. All Chris could do was shrug, and this caused a miniature tirade from the normally quiet hotelier. The tongue-lashing did little to ease Chris’s mood about Ezra.

Thus, it was with a slightly bitter air that Chris finally breezed into the saloon. He needed a drink to settle his nerves, and nothing was going to prevent him from getting it. Nothing…except perhaps the shock of seeing Buck in a cravat.

The normally down to earth gunslinger was standing in front of one of the Saloon’s mirrors admiring his image. He was resplendent in a three quarter length dark brown jacket, matching cotton trousers, a dark green vest, ruffled shirt and silk reddish-brown cravat. It was with the cravat that he was fiddling as Chris entered. The sight stopped the black-clad gunslinger in his tracks. Buck saw him in the reflection and turned around, a huge smile on his face.

"So what do you think?"

"You’re not serious," Chris said, his lip curling in disdain.

Buck tried not to look offended, and smoothed down the jacket. "What? are you saying I don’t look good?"

Chris didn’t know how to answer, and replied by shaking his head. When he saw Buck’s face fall, he moved to explain. "Oh, no, you look fine, Buck, its just….Where did you get that stuff?"

Buck seemed cheered by Chris’s response, his smile broad. "Oh, Ezra gave them to me on my last birthday. He said that every man should have one fine set of clothing for special occasions. Well, since its been a few months and no real special occasions have arisen, and since its so quiet, I thought I should see how they looked. Plus, I think the girls are getting a little tired of the same old Buck." The last statement was said in a mock whisper.

"Yeah, but….Really, Buck, it just doesn’t suit you."

Inez approached from behind and snaked a hand around Buck’s torso. "Well, I think Senor Buck looks very handsome," she breathed huskily, moving to straighten his tie as she would Ezra’s. Buck stared back at her dreamily, before throwing Chris a triumphant look.

Chris just blinked, amazed, and once again, his instinct was to get out of there. Things were just getting too weird. Without saying goodbye, he backed out of the saloon and looked around for an escape route. His eyes fixed on the church, and he suddenly felt a strong need to go and help Josiah.

Buck followed him out, a smile on his face. He grinned back at Inez, who acknowledged him with a smile and a slight nod as she returned to the bar. Thank goodness, he thought, now I can get out of these clothes! As he walked out onto the boardwalk, Buck put a finger beneath the ruffled shirt’s collar, itching to rip the constricting fabric from his throat. A silken voice from behind broke him from his reverie.

"Why, Mr. Wilmington, is that you?"

Buck wheeled around to find himself staring into the huge brown eyes of Miss Alice Macklin. She was one of the few girls in town that Buck had not managed to charm into his loving embraces. Indeed, most of the time she remained aloof, her body posture telling him that he was not yet worthy her attentions. Clearly, Buck thought as she sidled up to him and placed a hand on his arm, something had changed.

"Such beautiful fabric, Mr. Wilmington," she cooed as she ran her fingers up his arm. "Well befitting a gentleman of your noble stature. Actually, I was wondering if such a busy man as yourself might have the time to go for a walk with me?" She tilted her head coyly, allowing strands of perfectly curled brown hair to swing around her face. Buck needed no further invitation, and within seconds, they were walking arm in arm down the street.

Chris made his way into the church warily. Something felt odd. Normally when one went to see Josiah, the ears were immediately assailed by sounds of sawing or hammering, or the nose assaulted by the harsh smell of fresh paint or wood stain. Today, though, the place was deathly quiet.

Chris wandered down the pews, looking in the shadows for movement. As he reached the nave, he inched forward to peek around the alter. He couldn’t resist a slight huff as he found Josiah leaning lazily on the back of the alter, tossing cards into a hat. Upon hearing Chris, he looked up and smiled.

"Hello brother. To what do I owe the honor?"

"Josiah?"

"Last time I checked. You need something?"

"Yes. No. I mean, I came here to give you a hand, but from the looks of it…." He waved his hand loosely at the hat and cards. Josiah grinned, and sat up a bit straighter.

"Oh, I can always use you, Chris! I simply felt I deserved a day of rest. I realize that is normally reserved to Sundays, but it seemed like too nice a day to ignore the tranquility that has embraced our home. The sun is warm, the sky is clear…a perfect day to just laze around."

"Laze? Josiah, you hate laziness."

"Oh now, you know that is not true, brother Chris. I often sit with you and the others and have a drink in the saloon and play cards."

"Josiah, you know perfectly well that is not laziness. That’s a release from hard work. No, sitting on the floor tossing cards into a hat like….Wait a second." Chris put his hand to his forehead. "I get it. JD’s card tricks, Buck’s clothes….I take it this is some sort of sick joke to get me back for sending Ezra out with Vin." He shook his head, sneering at the preacher. "Oh, very funny," he said sarcastically.

For his part, Josiah tried to look back with wide innocent eyes, but he hadn’t Ezra and JD’s knack for it. Chris turned and stalked from the Church, his anger at Ezra now turning into anger against his fellow lawmen. Think they can make a fool out of me? Well, I’ll go spend time with the one person who I know would never imitate Ezra. And with that in mind, Chris strode purposefully towards the clinic.

Nathan was inside in his little office off the sickroom, his feet propped up on the pine desk. In his arms was a large text, and he was peering at it intently when Chris strode in.

"Nathan," Chris acknowledged, dropping into the chair opposite the desk.

"Chris?" Nathan asked, looking up questioningly. "Something wrong?"

"Nah, just thought I’d stop in. What is that, another medical textbook?"

"Ah, nope. It’s a dictionary."

"You’re reading a dictionary?" Chris couldn’t keep the slight mocking tone from his voice. Who reads a dictionary?

"Well, not at first. You see, Ezra gave it to me. Its his. I needed it ‘cause I was having problems understanding some of what they were saying in my textbooks. But, after a while I started noting how many words there are in here. I mean, there are hundreds of words you’ve never heard of!  Like…" he trailed off and peered at the book. "Obs…strep...err…us. Obstreperous. Have you ever heard of such a funny sounding word? It means noisily defiant. Kind of like Buck, don’t you think? And here’s another: Ob-lo-key. Obloquy. That one means slanderous language. Just think, next time someone calls you names, they are using obloquy. And you can respond by…um…ah! By objurgating them. Neat, huh?" Nathan looked up smiling, but the smile fell as he saw Chris’s aghast expression.

"You’re all crazy!" Chris spat.

"What?" Nathan asked, the innocent look coming more naturally to him than Josiah. But Chris didn’t respond. Instead, he jumped out of the chair as if it were on fire and darted from the room. Nathan slammed the dictionary closed with panache (yet another lovely word he’d just looked up), and grinned heartily.

Outside Nathan’s clinic, Chris sank down on the steps and sighed. He went over the day in his head and noted that it was already almost evening. How had the day disappeared so quickly? He decided he needed to get out of the town once more, and started to head towards the livery. On his way, he noticed a dust cloud bearing down on the town. Two riders moving at a racing pace. Even from this distance, he could see that it was a Peso and Chaucer, recognizing the horses from the way they looked and moved. He also saw a flash of red on the back of Chaucer. Leaning against the railing to the saloon, a smile crossed his face in relief. Maybe now life can get back to normal, he mused. His smile fell as he got a better look at the riders.

Matt was having the time of his life! The black horse he rode moved like the wind, and he couldn’t resist challenging Davis to a race as they got within range of the town. His partner had agreed, and they were now neck and neck at a gallop. He edged his tired horse onward, roughly slamming his boots into the horse’s hind, not caring that both Peso and Chaucer were exhausted and nearly spent. As he reached the limits, he whooped as he saw Peso was slightly ahead of the chestnut gelding, and claimed his success by pulling harshly on the reins and cheering. Davis just shrugged and told him he got lucky. Neither noticed how the horses barely crawled the last few hundred yards up to the saloon where the outlaws planned to spend the night, and neither man took more than a passing glance at the man in black who hung out front.

Matt jumped from Peso’s back had threw the reins over the hitching post. "Hey cowboy," he said addressing the man he had seen there while he tied the reins, "any idea where I can trade…." He stopped. It’s a natural reaction when someone has a gun in your face. Davis reacted by going for his own weapon, but the sound of a rifle being cocked changed his mind. He looked over at the saloon porch to see a rather disheveled looking tall gunslinger in wrinkled fancy clothes aiming a gun at his head.

"Where are they," Chris hissed.

_________________________________

Friday evening…a little over a day’s ride from Four Corners (not quite the middle of nowhere)

Vin was having another nightmare (or was it "daymare" he wondered to the part of himself that was still lucid enough to know it was still day in reality). This time he was being dragged up the side of a ravine on his stomach, like a sheep stuck in a mud pit. As it was, he was staring down the ravine, being pulled up by his feet. But someone was holding on to him, trying to keep him from being pulled up. Looking down, he could see it was Ezra. The gambler was gripping his hands and tugging on them so hard that they felt like they were breaking. Turning his head in the other direction, he could see a large black dog above him, its jaws clamped on his right leg, pulling him upwards. He begged Ezra to just let him go, to let the dog have him, but Ezra was too stubborn. He could see it in those bright determined green eyes. Let me go, Ezra. Please, I want to go. But the man didn’t answer, he just kept holding on. Soon, Vin was pulling Ezra up with him.

The feel of Ezra suddenly tripping brought Vin back, and his eyes snapped open. Somehow, Ezra managed to regain his footing before completely falling over, and he readjusted Vin on his shoulder.

The tracker looked at the still long grass around them, and tried to figure out if it had gotten darker. He wanted to look up at the sky, but that simple movement was denied him. All he could see was the ground and Ezra’s boots. He could see that the step seemed slower now.

"Ez?" he said. This time the lack of response was expected. "Ezra, please talk to me. Can you even hear me? Ez, please." Vin shut his eyes at the silence that was returned. How could the gambler have become so shut off? He must really be hurting. Sucking in a ragged breath, Vin tried again, rallying himself to shout as loud as he could.

"EZRA!"

He felt himself jerked, as the whole of Ezra’s body spasmed at the sudden noise. Vin almost cried out in relief at the sweet southern accent that drifted back to him.

"Yes, Mr. Tanner?"

"Ez, I need you to talk to me. Please. I keep falling asleep and I don’t think I can handle that anymore. My ears are ringing from all the blood rushing to my head, and the silence is deafening. Please, I need to hear you talk."

For a second Vin wasn’t sure Ezra heard him, then a small laugh reached his ears. "Do you realize, Mr. Tanner, that you just used a metaphor?"

"A what?"

"You said the silence is deafening."

"I did?"

"Yes."

"Well, whaddya know. Maybe I know what a metaphor is after all." He paused, then laughed lightly. "Must be innate. Still doesn’t mean the landscape is delicious, though."

"No," agreed the disembodied voice.

"But maybe…how about…honest?"

"It’s a start."

Vin waited for Ezra to continue, but the gambler wasn’t taking the bait.

"How about," the tracker tried, "you quote me that poem you said you were writing on the way down here. The one in your head?" There was a long pause, and Vin was about to call Ezra’s name again when the gambler replied.

"I have a better idea, Mr. Tanner. Why don’t you try and compose one, and recite it to me."

Vin pursed his dry lips. He could feel a canteen pressing into his chest where it was pressed over Ezra’s back, but he thought he could wait a little longer for water. Plus, he wanted to hear Ezra talk, not himself. He had a feeling that, if he started reciting some of his own stuff, Ezra would stop paying attention. He needed to keep the gambler alert. He sighed, and smiled at the ground.

"I’m not sure I can, Ez. Besides, you talk prettier than I do."

"Matter of opinion."

"What does that mean?" Another pause.

"I’m tired, Vin."

Vin swallowed, he could still smell the blood on Ezra. This was crazy, he had to get the gambler to stop. He considered shifting to force Ezra to drop him, but his muscles felt like lead weights. Still he had to try. He brought his arms up and tried to push himself off the gambler’s back. Ezra cried out, and nearly fell. Then Vin felt Ezra grab his right leg, just above the knife wound.

"Do that again," Ezra whispered, "and I will squeeze until you pass out. Got it?"

"Ez," Vin pleaded, "this is crazy. You can’t carry me all the way home, not when you’re hurt. Hell, I wouldn’t even trust you to do it healthy!"

"Are you saying I can’t do it?" came the hushed reply. The menace in the tone was heavy, as if acid dripped from each syllable.

"No, Ez. I don’t think you can. It’ll kill you first." There, Vin had said it. Ezra had to listen to him now. He waited, and was greeted by silence. Ezra didn’t stop his plodding steps. After a while, Vin realized Ezra wasn’t going to answer. He considered trying to force the gambler to stop again, but somehow knew Ezra would make good on his promise to knock Vin out. Damn.

"Ezra?" he called. Silence. Damn, Damn, Damn. Vin sighed and tried to be content to watch the ground move by slowly beneath him.

______________________________

Matt was amazingly closed lipped about what had happened, despite being clearly terrified of the wraith-like Chris Larabee. Lucky for the rest of the seven, however, Davis had no qualms about betraying his employer. The normally silent man had sung like a canary, and, within an hour of the two outlaws arriving, the rest of the seven rode out into the darkening gloom.

_______________________________

Vin opened his eyes again for the third time, happy to note that, while he had slept, he hadn’t dreamed. It occurred to him that this probably meant his head wound was no longer a problem. Of course, every time he tried to stretch his right thigh muscle, he was greeted by searing pain. He looked around him and noticed that his surroundings were definitely getting darker. It had to be getting close to night.

"Ez," he croaked. Ugh, his throat felt like sandpaper. "Ez, wake up. I need water. Ezra!" He paused, thinking he’d heard the gambler grunt. "Damn it, man, say something!" For about ten minutes, Vin waited. Finally, he was about to scream, when he felt Ezra change course.

The gambler headed off to the left side, and Vin felt the cooler air of a group of trees brush across his cheek. Slowly, the gambler wound his way through the small copse and carried the tracker to another low lying clearing. He started to lean forward to release the tracker from this shoulder when he collapsed. Vin rolled off in a heap, and quickly gathered himself together despite tingling limbs. He scrambled over to the gambler’s side.

Ezra had fallen flat, but somehow through strength of will managed to pull himself up on his hands and knees. His eyes were open but unfocused as he stared at the dark dirt beneath his fingers. The arms holding him up were shaking.

"Ez, its okay. We can rest here. We’ll camp for the night, okay? Then you can get back to stretching my stomach muscles in the morning."

Ezra nodded, and shifted himself backwards onto his knees so that he was sitting up straight. He pulled the canteens off from around his shoulders, and watched through half lidded eyes as Vin pulled off the satchel. They traded.

Vin brought the cool water to his lips, letting them soak up the moisture like a dry sponge. The he greedily drank several gulps before passing it back. Meanwhile Ezra slowly sifted through the satchel. He pulled out some cloth strips and handed them to Vin for the tracker to rewrap his leg.

"Would you like me to do your side as well?" Vin asked as he examined his thigh. The knife wound didn’t look too bad, though it felt like it was five times bigger than it was. He was amazed at how small the incision actually was. Ezra merely nodded in response, and pulled off his jacket. Slowly, he unbuttoned his shirt, all his muscles screaming in protest. For a moment, everything went black. When he was awake again, he was lying on the ground and Vin was inspecting his wound.

"Just a graze, huh," the tracker chastised. "Damn it, Ez, its probably been bleeding on and off again all day, and I can tell its getting infected. We’ll have to clean it again. Is there any alcohol in that bag?" This time Ezra shook his head, and the tracker sighed. "Damn. Well, I’ll have to just use water and we’ll hope for the best."

Vin tended the wounds quickly, and pressed new bandages fiercely to the gambler’s side. For his part, Ezra barely felt it. His whole body was numb. He looked at Vin, and noted how far away the tracker’s voice seemed. Almost as if someone had stuck cotton in his ears.

"There, I think I’ve gotten it to stop. You’re one stubborn idiot, Standish." He smiled down at his friend, and was pleased to see Ezra smiling back. In the fading light, though, it was clear that Ezra’s face was too pale, almost transparent, and it made him look almost ghoulish. The purple bruise on his jaw wasn’t helping the picture. ‘Course, Vin thought, touching his swollen eye, I probably don’t look much better. But he felt strong, thanks to being carried all day. He shifted and tried to get to his feet. Ezra rose to stop him.

"No, no, don’t worry. I think I can hobble around okay, and I’m not going to fall over from a concussion. My head seems to have cleared up. I’m going to go get some firewood. You just rest." He handed Ezra the canteen, then, slowly, he limped into the woods.

It took the tracker some time, but, by only bringing a few pieces at a time, he managed to gather enough to keep a small fire going for a while. As he put it together, he noted Ezra had fallen asleep, the canteen in his arms. It occurred to him that he hadn’t heard Ezra speak this whole time, as if the gambler’s voice had dripped away along with his blood. Vin laid the navy jacket over him, and sat up to watch the stars emerge. His worry subsided somewhat as he took in the bright vista. How he loved being able to look up and see the sky!

________________________

Saturday…a few hours past dawn

The next morning found Ezra blinking away exhaustion and trying to bring himself to move. Vin had fallen asleep next to him, using body heat to keep them both warm through the cold night, and was still clearly deep in slumber. Careful not to wake him, Ezra shifted sideways onto his right side and attempted to lever himself upwards. The combination of incredibly sore muscles, and the throbbing in his left side caused him to grunt, and stop for a moment. He glanced back at Vin, and was pleased to see no reaction. Eventually, Ezra was up and walking slowly around, trying to get the blood pumping in his veins. He swung his arms around in small circles, then immediately stopped as he felt the wounds on his left side tear. He wrapped an arm around his waist.

Vin rolled over and looked up, also having difficulty getting the cobwebs from his mind. His leg throbbed, and much as he tried to get himself upright, he found the leg simply wouldn’t bend. It was stuck.

"Ez…" he moaned. Ezra turned around and grimaced, instantly understanding the problem. Vin’s leg had stiffened. There was no way he could move without being carried. Vin, meanwhile, noticed that Ezra was still very pale. The circles under his eyes belied the fit condition that gambler was attempting to portray. He frowned.

"Ezra, why don’t we stay here. Your plan was good, and they’re probably already on their way. We have enough water to last us another day, and I think I could get us enough to eat for a while. If we watch the trail, we’ll see them coming. At the very least, if only the kid and the ferret come back, we could use the element of surprise and steal a couple of horses."

"I am taking you home, Vin," came the simple response. Vin smiled, happy to hear that Ezra had found his voice again.

"Maybe you can, but do we have to?"

Ezra looked around, his arm still gripping his side. He had no idea how far they’d come, or how far they had to go. But Vin couldn’t move on his own, and he wasn’t sure how much longer he could stay awake. If he stopped, he knew he would give up. Closing his eyes, he looked back at the tracker.

"I want to keep going."

"Ez…"

"I need to keep going. If we don’t, you may as well shoot me now."

"Stop being so damn melodramatic! We both need rest. Wait a day, and then we can try again."

Ezra hung his head, and stared at the ground. Vin sat up as best he could, and looked at his traitorous leg. The bandage was bloodied from all the movement he’d done the night before. It occurred to him that, like Ezra’s wound, it could quickly become infected. Ezra saw what Vin was looking at and shook his head.

"We have to keep going. If we get sick, neither of us will be fit enough to do anything. And the water supply will run out. We can’t afford the risk of hoping someone will find us."

Vin shut his eyes, and lay back down. "How about a compromise," he suggested. "We keep going until we find water. Then we stop."

Ezra looked at him, and nodded. "Fine."

"Your word, Ez." Vin looked back up at him. Ezra stared back, then nodded again.

"Fine, then let’s get ready." Vin pulled out the last apple and tossed it to his partner. Then he fished out a strip of beef jerky and started chewing.

About ten minutes later, they were back on the trail, Vin once more over Ezra’s shoulder. Silence filled the air for a while, then, not being able to stand it any longer, Vin started talking. He began with a poem he had made up the night before about the night sky. It was short, but sweet, and Ezra couldn’t help but smile. Then Vin told him some limericks he’d heard from some Irishmen in a bar, and was rewarded by weak laughs from the con artist. Then things quieted a little, and Vin started thinking about how they had gotten into this mess in the first place.

"Ez?"

"Yeah."

"Why do you go out of your way to get Chris mad at you?"

"He’s an easy target."

"Oh bull."

"Would you believe me if I told you I enjoy getting him angry?"

"No."

Ezra sighed, and looked up at the horizon. His vision blurred a little, and he shook his head to clear it. Then he returned to looking at the ground beneath his feet. Vin nudged him, still wanting an answer.

"Well, let’s just say…I’d rather have Chris hitting me than hitting the bottle." He said this so quietly, he wasn’t sure Vin heard. Then the tracker’s voice floated back to him.

"God, Ez, you really are crazy."

"Vin?"

"Yeah?"

"I’ll deny everything."

"I know. How long do you think you can keep it up before he kills you?"

"Forever. So long as I have the rest of you to protect me." Vin smiled, and patted Ezra’s calf with one of his hands.

"And Vin?"

"Yeah Ez?"

"About the nickname Ez…."

"Oh come on, Ezra…." Vin began in an irritated tone.

"I like it."

Vin suddenly laughed at this, his shuddering frame causing Ezra to lose his grip a little. He shifted the tracker higher up on his shoulder, and was repaid with a grunt. Then he heard some mumbling about "watch the ribs, damn it." Ezra grinned despite himself.

"Hey Ez," Vin called, "you know any real poems? By real poets, I mean?"

"You’re a real poet, Vin."

The tracker blushed, an odd effect considering his face was already flushed from being hung upside down. "Published poets, I mean."

"A few."

"Can you recite them?"

Ezra swallowed, and tried to recall the one his mother had taught him as a means to sweet talk a female mark. It rose to his mind, and he focused on the words. It was by his favorite poet, Wordsworth, and his eyes took on a dreamy as he spoke….

"It was a beauteous evening, calm and free,

The holy time is quiet as a Nun

Breathless with Adoration; the broad sun

Is sinking down in its tranquility…."

Suddenly, Ezra started coughing, and he was forced to stop. He held tightly onto Vin as he calmed his breathing, until he was sure he wouldn’t fall.

"Want to put me down?" Vin asked.

"No." The reply was hoarse, and tired sounding. Silence descended for a while, and, eventually, Ezra started walking again. Vin tried again.

"That was pretty Ez. Couple of them metaphors in there, huh."

The gambler responded by grunting, afraid to trust his voice again. Realizing this, Vin started making up poems off the top of his head to keep the gambler amused. Eventually, however, he fell back asleep.

__________________________

Chris had only let them rest very briefly in the night, just enough time to water down the horses and get a few hours of sleep. Then they were up before the sun graced the sky and following the trail.

___________________________

Ezra was stumbling. He could feel the world spinning around him, and he knew that, despite it all, he was going to fail. They’d been moving now for hours, with the sun sitting somewhere about late morning, and they were still wading through that same long grass. Vin would die because he couldn’t walk the few extra miles to get him home. God, but he had tried.

He knew Vin had fallen asleep again, and had expected it. He was sure there was a fever in the young man’s body, just as he was sure there was one in his. Just keep moving, he said, one foot in front of the other. Nothing else matters. Just keep moving.

His legs felt like lead weights, and his side burned with such intensity he kept expecting to see flames, or at the very least, to smell smoke. Suddenly, he felt the earth trembling. He looked up, blinking tears to try and make out what was happening.

There, an enormous dust cloud on the horizon. God, he had to hide! He had to get them away. No, it was too late. Gently, he lowered Vin to the ground and pulled his guns. How many riders? Two? No, more. Five. Five! He saw the black horse and the black rider in front, and dropped the weapons. He raised his hand to wave. Then he fainted, his last thought being that he hoped he didn’t fall on Vin.

___________________________

Chris saw them first, and spurred the horse faster. He saw Ezra drop Vin to the ground and pull his guns. Then, just as quickly the man dropped them. He knew. Chris would have jumped for joy, but JD beat him to it. The boy was screaming hurrahs as they bore down on the gambler. Together, they saw Ezra wave, then collapse.

Seconds later, they were at their friends’ sides. Nathan was inspecting them, and ordering JD to get out the medical supplies. He also ordered Buck to start a fire and get water boiling. The tall gunslinger pulled the small collection of dried wood he’d attached to one of the spare horses and quickly got flames going.

Meanwhile, Chris was looking down at Vin, a hand on his shoulder, and Josiah knelt with a hand on Ezra’s forehead. They both tried to ignore Nathan’s cursing as he inspected the wounds, and started muttering about fool headed men who thought they could carry someone with a bullet wound in their side. At one point, Vin woke up and saw Chris staring down at him. The smile on the younger man’s face was priceless.

"I knew his plan would work," the tracker muttered. Then, more seriously, he grabbed Chris’s arm. "How’s Ez?"

The black clad gunslinger looked over to where Nathan was cleaning Ezra’s side. The gambler was pale and not moving. Nathan looked up at Chris and shrugged. Vin knew instantly the answer when he saw Chris’s expression falter.

"Damn, damn, damn," he mumbled, letting go.

Buck and JD came to sit by Vin, while Chris moved across to Ezra. Nathan was holding compresses that he’d soaked in milk and linseed oil to the wounds, while Josiah simply sat with Ezra’s head in his lap, brushing his hand through the gambler’s hair. Both looked up as their leader knelt down, before returning to their ministrations.

Chris leant over, and brought his lips close to Ezra’s ear. "Don’t you die, you bastard. The rest of this lot make really poor substitutes." He looked up and caught Josiah in the eye, who was the only one to hear what Chris had said. The preacher had the presence of mind to look sheepish. Chris stood to tower over his men as the others continued to care for their fallen, and nodded.

"We’ll get you home, boys. Just hold on."

_________________________

About a week later, both Vin and Ezra were hanging out in front of Nathan’s clinic, soaking up the rays of the sun. Their faces were upturned, and their eyes closed as they let the summer heat play across their cheeks.

Chris wandered up, a slight limp in his walk, and threw a dust covered saddle at Ezra’s feet. Ezra looked astonished, and an expression of pure innocence filled his face. The gunslinger was covered from head to foot in dirt and dust, and the scowl on his face was spine-chilling.

"Why, Mr. Larabee, this is an unexpected pleasure. I thought you had departed with the ever charming Buck and JD to convey our prized prisoners to their incarceration?"

"I had Ezra. The cinch on my new saddle broke almost immediately I got on."

"Oh, I really am sorry, Mr. Larabee. But I assure you, when I was given that saddle, I was assured in good faith that it was in mint condition."

"I should have known something was wrong when you sold it to me, you conniving, low down…"

"Mr. Larabee! You know I would never intentionally desire to see you fall off your beautiful stallion!"

"I want my money back."

Ezra cocked his head to one side, and actually looked puzzled by this statement. "I’m sorry, Mr. Larabee, but I believe I must have misheard you just then. I do not believe that I ever guaranteed that particular piece of merchandise, and, frankly, I am afraid a refund would be unworkable."

"Ezra…" Chris’s voice rose in pitch as his rage came to a boil.

"Please, Mr. Larabee. You know my rules when it comes to business. No refunds." Ezra crossed his arms and looked to Vin for confirmation. Shrugging, the tracker nodded at Chris, though he did look apologetic. The black-clad gunslinger took a step forward, then seemed to gather himself.

"Damn it, Ezra, if you weren’t hurt…." Chris gripped his hands into fists, then turned and stalked away, trying to remain as dignified as possible as dust fell off of him in great waves. Vin chuckled, and looked over at the con man, who once more had his face turned to the sun. A beatific smile played across Ezra’s features. Vin just shook his head.

"You really are crazy, Ez, you know that?"

"Why, Mr. Tanner…" Ezra began, his voice pleading innocence.

"But it’s a delicious kind of crazy."

Ezra burst into laughter, and Vin joined him. Their mirth echoed down the street until it fell on the ears of their leader as he strode away. Chris lowered his hat so that no one would see the unlikely smile that suddenly played across the older man’s face.

End.