Magnificent Seven Old West

by Heather F.

Disclaimers: Not mine, no money made,

Thanks: Mitzi. Any similiarities to Mitzi's story, 48hrs(OW) was unintentional

The horses' breath crystallized on the frosty early afternoon air. Their riders huddled against the wind bundled in layers of wool and leather clothing. Josiah's tan weather worn hat secured to his head by a wool scarf tied under his grizzled chin. His bay gelding's black mane had iced over white, with a mittened hand he patted the frosted furred neck encouragingly. In front of him rode Buck and Vin both men dressed similarly. Vin's wild colored paint led now giving Buck's chestnut horse a rest from breaking trail. Sanchez swiveled around in his saddled and smiled at Ezra. The large ex-preacher chuckled, "How you doing Ezra?"

Standish rode just behind Josiah his roan gelding had icicles hanging from its whiskers and nostrils. The southern gambler's sarcastic smile was hidden by his upright overcoat collar and merely nodded. Josiah laughed. Ezra, having been born and raised in the deep south was unaccustomed to below freezing weather. He put up with it gamely. Buck and Vin decided to rest the horses under the protection of large bull pines. They dismounted rubbing the animals down but not unsaddling them. Josiah and Ezra reined in behind them dismounting as well. The men moved slowly at first their legs and feet stiff and sore from the cold. The trees acted as a buffer against the relentless wind. The sun shone high in the blue cloudless sky but offered no warmth. Standish raised a mittened hand to his light green eyes and gazed at the sun with accusation.

"Come on Ezra we'll lead the horses for awhile." Tanner said, his amusement hidden under a multicolored scarf. The tracker led the way Standish following, then Josiah and Wilmington. The snow varied from knee deep to mid thigh depending on the thickness of the stand of trees they passed under.

"Hey Josiah, this weather is great, don't you think." Wilmington said pulling his scarf down off his face revealing a bushy dark haired moustache highlighting his toothy smile. His cheeks wind whipped appeared rosy pink contrasting sharply with his icy blue eyes.

Josiah chuckled, of the seven men Buck Wilmington was the fun loving carefree type, "Don't let Ezra hear you say that he's liable to shoot you." Wilmington laughed out right.

"He sure doesn't like this cooler weather, does he." Sanchez watched as the gambler trudged gamely through the snow doing his best to keep up with the nimble tracker. Buck and Josiah both stood just over six feet and Vin barely brushing six, but Ezra's 5'8 frame struggled through the deep snow his complaints muffled by raised coat collar and scarf. Josiah headed out after the two men followed by the grinning Buck.

They still had another day's ride back to Clear Water. The unusually cold air had frozen land that had not seen ice in over a hundred years. The four men had decided to build camp in a small clearing surrounded by pines. Vin and Ezra had gone off to get water. The canteens had frozen but the bladder skin bags Vin carried needed filling. Buck and Josiah stayed behind and made camp and tended the horses. The tracker and gambler cleared the timber into a snow covered field. The sun hung just above the tree tops casting long shadows on the crystallized ice.

"Kind of a flat meadow isn't it" Ezra remarked as he surveyed the heavy snow hidden field in front of him. It sprawled out before them for 7-10 acres.

Tanner slapped the conman's back, "It's because it's a lake not a field." The tracker strode purposely past the southerner and out onto the ice.

"Aren't you worried about the ice breaking, or something?" Standish paused before taking a tentative step onto the frozen lake, momentarily his frozen feet forgotten.

Vin turned back at Ezra, "No this has probably been frozen since early fall." To stress his point Vin carelessly shuffled out a few more yards and jumped up an down on the ice. Standish started to smile at his own squeamishness, then as Vin should have landed on the ice he disappeared from view.

"Vin!!" Ezra screamed sliding and reaching forward and then stopped not sure what to do. Suddenly Tanner broke through the surface, his deep brown eyes wide his mouth open gasping for breath and trying to scream and just as soon as he appeared he was gone again. Standish turned and screamed for Buck and Josiah and then continued out further on the ice replacing his fear of falling through the ice, with loosing his friend. As he neared the hole's edge he laid on his stomach and peered into the icy black water. The water had already begun to refreeze. Tanner struggled just below the surface. Standish ripped his mitten from his hand with his teeth and reached down through the thin ice shell grabbing the tracker by the top of his long curly brown hair and pulled his head above the surface.

"Hold on Mr. Tanner." Ezra said between clenched teeth struggling desperately to haul the tracker out of the icy water. Vin weakly tried to help but dropping body temperature and soaked winter clothing sapped the strength from him. Standish swore as Tanner began to slip from his grip and slide back under the ice. Without thinking, Ezra slid into the water behind his friend.

The water's icy grip crushed the breath from him. His whole body cramped and his muscles at first would not respond, he could not catch his breath. He pushed Tanner to the ice edge and shoved the struggling tracker up onto the ice. Vin fought to get his elbows on the ice and with his head bowed and Standish urging him from behind he scrambled half way out of the black freezing water. Using the gambler as leverage Tanner managed to wiggle out of the water, submerging the conman under the surface. Ezra broke water near the ice ledge attempted to haul himself out, but the cold water burned his skin, his breath caught in his throat. It felt as if his head was caught in a vice. His boots having filled with water acted as weights pulling him back down. Terror gripped him as he suddenly realized he was going to drown.

Buck and Josiah had made it to the lake's edge just as Ezra had slid into the water. Buck raced back to the gear and grabbed lariats and a horse. "Hurry up Buck." Sanchez shouted. He watched Vin crawl out of the break in the ice and collapse. After a few moments he tried weakly for the gambler with no results. Sanchez creep cautiously out onto the ice carefully but quickly trying to cover the fifty yards to the two men.

"Josiah!" Sanchez stopped and grabbed the loop end of the rope Wilmington tossed to him. Sanchez crawled on his belly as he reached Vin. The tracker still reached desperately for the gambler but neither man's frozen hands or muscles were responding to command and would could not grasp. Tanner watched helplessly as Ezra disappeared again under the quickly crusting water. Vin reached blindly ,desperately feeling Standish's hair but was unable to get a grip. Suddenly Josiah was beside him. The giant ex-preacher thrust a massive hand through the thin shell of ice and hauled Standish's head above water. Fully clothed and semiconscious his waterlogged dead weight forced Josiah to briefly relinquish his hold his friend. Standish immediately slipped back under the water, without a fight.

Vin grabbed anxiously for the conman, who suddenly, struggled weakly to stay above the surface, fear and panic etched clearly on his grey blue features as he went under for a fourth time. Tanner swore attempting to throw himself back into the water, Sanchez laid a restraining on him. "hold on Vin." With the rope positioned more manageable, Josiah fished back under the water searching for the gambler. He dove his arm in its full length sweeping back and forth finally he pulled urgently upward hauling the gambler back to the surface. His green eyes half hooded stared blankly at nothing, his slack open mouth drained water passively. Josiah quickly manipulated the loop of rope over and around one of the gamblers shoulders. He turned back to Buck who waited impatiently on shore, with the end of the second rope dallied around the saddle horn.

"Ok Buck!" Wilmington led the horse back toward the trees quickly taking up the slack in the two combined ropes. Josiah firmly held onto Ezra's coat and as the tension increased it cinched tightly around the unconscious gambler. Then with combined effort, the tow line and Josiah heaved Standish out of the frigid water and onto the snow. "Hold on Buck!" Josiah shouted and flipped Ezra onto his back, the gambler showed no sign of life. "Ok!"

Wilmington slapped the horse into a slow trot and dragged Standish across the snow and ice to the shore. Josiah grabbed Vin's frozen coat by the upper arm and hauled him to his feet. Tanner's legs gave out as he shivered uncontrollably, "Forget me help Ezra." He managed between chattering teeth.

Sanchez draped the tracker's arm over his shoulder's and guided him back to shore. "Buck's got Ezra. He'll be alright."

Wilmington ran back to Standish and quickly freed him from the rope. Buck was surprised to find the gambler's clothing already frozen stiff. Without waiting for Josiah and Vin, he draped Standish over the saddle and hurried back to their small camp fire. Having been slung belly down over the saddle helped drain water from his stomach and chest, once cleared his body instinctively took great choking gasps of air. Buck nearly threw him to the ground next to the camp fire, and immediately began stripping him of his wet ice covered clothes, and slapping his face roughly.

"Come on Ezra hang in there, Pard' don't do this to us." Standish did not stir but a breath rattled in his chest, he still lived. Buck ripped through the sleeping rolls and grabbed his and Ezra's wool blankets throwing them hurriedly over Ezra. He spread the two sleeping rolls out and slid the gambler onto them. Wilmington opened his over coat and removed his hat and scarf. He laid down next to Standish under the blankets and began vigorously rubbing the gambler's back and arms, "Come on pard' stay with me. Come on Ezra talk to me."

The gunslinger lifted one of Ezra's eye lids trying to see if any life was coming back, instead the dilated eyes constricted sluggishly but showed no other sign of life. Wilmington placed his dry hat on Ezra's ice crusted light brown hair and then continued to rub his cold clammy skin. Buck's attention shifted when Josiah came in carrying Vin across his broad shoulders. "How's Vin.?" Wilmington inquired as he hugged the conman from behind, rubbing his arms intensely.

"Near froze and worried about Ezra." Sanchez said as he too stripped his charge and laid him near the fire under blankets.
A few hours later, the sun having set, Buck leaned up over Standish's right shoulder and gazed across the fire at the sleeping tracker. "Hey Josiah," he waited a few seconds and Sanchez peered up at him. Buck pushed the collar of his over coat down, to get a clear view of the preacher, Josiah peered at him questionably, and Buck continued, "What are we going to do?"

Josiah merely shook his head, "get through tonight." He paused, "How's he doing?"

Buck felt Standish's forehead and then neck and cheek, "getting warmer, might even be running a little fever. He's breathing easier, though." Buck adjusted the blanket and the coat. Josiah whispered, "good." The preacher then crawled out from under the blankets he and Tanner shared and placed more wood on the fire. Sanchez gazed up at the black sky he could not remember the last time he had seen so many stars in the heavens. He said a silent prayer, checked on the horses and settled back down under the blankets.

"Whoa Josiah what's he doing?" Buck asked jarring Sanchez out of a troubled slumber. Ezra had begun shivering uncontrollably. Buck sat up grabbing the gambler by the shoulders. "Hold on there Ezra, relax Pard' take it easy." Sanchez finally roused from sleep scrambled over and helped Buck. The preacher eased a saddle over and behind Wilmington laying it up on end.

"He's warming up alright. His teeth chattering so bad he might chip one." Josiah leaned Standish forward while Buck slid in behind the gambler's rattling form. "Just hold onto him." Buck leaned back into the upright saddle as Josiah eased Ezra back into to Buck. Sanchez sat down next to the fire and watched as Wilmington tried to keep the gambler warm and still in this freezing winter night. After a few moments Standish's body relaxed, exhausted. He slumped against the gunfighter slipping gradually from unconsciousness to sleep.

Early morning saw the sun slowly rising over the tree tops. Ezra's eyes blinked open. At first he was disoriented, confused, a fire blazed only a few feet from him. He felt relatively comfortably but his whole body ached, sore as if he had run or labored all day. He watched the flames fighting off the overwhelming drowsiness that coursed through him. Ezra tried to roll over and bumped into something. This surprised him and as he shifted position and lay flat on his back he noticed Buck. The gunslinger sat behind leaning against a saddle. Standish tried to make sense of what had happened, he remembered the ice and falling through.

"I hate this weather." he muttered thinking only to himself.

"It really isn't that bad if you stay out of the water." Standish was surprised to find Josiah bending over him, smiling. The preacher rested a hand on the gambler's forehead, slight fever still, "go back to sleep Ezra you need it." Standish did not need any urging and easily slipped back to sleep. Josiah watched him for a minute, the color had returned to his face and lips. Sanchez adjusted the blankets and then started to working on breakfast.

Ezra awoke a second time to people talking. A fire still crackled close by, he attempted to shift position but his legs ached terribly, in fact all his muscles burned as if exhausted. It would have been easier to just drift back to sleep, even his eye lids proved difficult to open. As his body checked in he focused on the voices, Josiah and Buck spoke somewhere close by. Standish opened his eyes and found everything dark at first he panicked but as he focused he soon realized his slept with his head under a blanket. Ezra wiggled his head out from underneath the blanket and immediately regretted the move. The wind still cut through the trees blowing the snow around, threatening to dowse the small fighting fire. Buck still sat beside Standish, huddled in his large fur lined overcoat. Josiah sat across the fire with Tanner presumably under the mountain of blankets beside the large ex-preacher. The sun shone down on the small clearing but again offering no warmth, but at least it hadn't stormed yet.

"Welcome back." Sanchez said when he noticed the gambler peek out from under the blankets. Buck peered down at Ezra and tilted the conman's head back so he could see is face.

"Hey look at you, how are feeling, Pard'?

Standish shivered slightly and a crooked smile crossed his dimpled face, "Better I think. How's Mr. Tanner?" Buck pulled the blankets up over the gambler's bare shoulders.

"Better, he woke up earlier and had some breakfast. You hungry?" Josiah offered him a piece of hard tack but Standish's queasy stomach did not feel up to it. He merely shook his head no. Standish blinked lazily again, his muscles tremored, still trying unconsciously to maintain and raise his body temperature. It hurt when they contracted and spasmed, he felt exhausted, and already fighting back the urge to slip back to sleep.

Josiah noticed this from across the fire and kept quiet. Tanner had gone through the same thing, despite his best efforts at staying awake Vin's body had put out enough energy earlier and would not give much more, so like Ezra now who gamely fought to stay awake, he too like Tanner slid back to an exhausted slumber. Wilmington peered over Standish who now slept, snow collecting on his short brown hair. Wilmington pulled one of the blankets up over the gambler's head, trying to prevent further heat loss.

Buck Wilmington tossed more wood on the fire and then stared over the flames at Sanchez. "They aren't going to last out here, not like this, not in this weather." Despite the sunny cloudless day the temperature still dipped below freezing. The wind cut through the area despite the protection from the stand of trees, dropping the temperature even further. They did not have enough feed for the horses to last another extra day. Worse despite their best efforts, Tanner and Standish were still hypothermic, the muscle tremors attested to that and it left them as weak as new borns. Twice both had come to only to pass back out after a few minutes of conversation. To put them on horses in this piercing wind they would not last, but stood less of a chance out here in the open. Even Josiah and Buck had begun to feel the effects of the cold and relentless wind and they too were tired.

"We don't have much choice, lets get the horses ready, if we push hard enough we might make town by tonight." Sanchez said not liking the lack of choices.

Mid morning found the foursome trudging through the snow on horse back. Wilmington lead followed by Tanner then Standish and finally Sanchez. They rode with the two middle mounts ponied together. Both men rode huddled, bowed heads trying to protect themselves from the wind. They rode that day without stopping, Josiah and Buck alternating the lead trying to pace the horses. As night began to descend the temperature plummeted. Ezra had pulled his arms out of the sleeves of the coats he wore and hugged them across his belly. Tanner hunched even further down in the saddle tucking his chin to his chest his forehead nearly touching the horn. Twenty minutes later they entered town.

The bitter cold made the streets deserted. No snow covered the ground here, and no trees buffered the relentless wind. Josiah lead the group to the saloon, unsure of the time, no matter how late it was the saloon always had an open door and more importantly a fire. He slid from the frozen leather saddle to numb feet. It hurt to walk, it made him empathize with Tanner and Standish even more. Ezra's leather boots still wet had been packed away and he forced to wear multiple layers of wool socks. Vin's soft leather boots dried easily enough but prevented them from fitting him with more than one pair of socks. Josiah gazed past the two slumped men and their frosted mounts to Buck who also gingerly dismounting his ice covered horse.

"I'll get some help." Buck merely nodded, tethering the animals to the hitching rail. Sanchez lumbered up the step to the boardwalk and entered the saloon. The light from the saloon forced him to squint, and the heat from the wood stove felt like a physical wall. Heat blasted him.

Larabee and Jackson spotted the giant preacher, "Josiah." Chris called across from the near empty barroom. From his appearance the two men knew something was terribly wrong, before they could ask Sanchez confirmed their suspicions.

"We need help, Vin and Ezra fell through the ice." Without another word the gunfighter and healer were on their feet and out the doors before Sanchez could turn around.

Buck was in the process of easing Vin off his horse, when Chris nudged in beside him, "I've got him Buck git on inside." Larabee supported the tracker under the arm and half carried and half dragged tracker inside. Jackson and Sanchez attempted to ease the gambler off the saddle but as they gently pulled him down Standish collapsed from the horse in a heap.

"Whoa hold on Ezra." Nathan said with clenched teeth as he guided his friend to the ground. Sanchez and Jackson hauled the gambler up and followed close behind, but with Standish's arms tucked in next of his belly, Nathan and Josiah had to support him by the waist. They shuffled inside the saloon, "over by the stove," Nathan said. They gently eased the two men down on the floor. Tanner shook uncontrollably his teeth chattering with such force it seemed they threatened to crack. He tried repeatedly to curl up into a ball instinctively trying to trap what little body heat he had left.

"Hold on Vin, you're gonna be alright." Larabee quickly stripped off the layers of clothes, noticing that the outer layer belonged mostly to Josiah.

"Hey what's going on?" J.D. asked casually entering the saloon and spotting the frantic action by the crackling wood stove.

"J.D. take care of the horses and then hurry back here." Larabee commanded meeting the young man in the eye so there was no mistaking the urgency of the situation. The young sheriff disappeared out the door without further word.

"Lizza draw up two hot baths quickly." Jackson uncharacteristically ordered. The healer never took his attention off Standish, who unlike the tracker did not shiver, his face slack and eyes half hooded his head rolled left and right as Jackson and Sanchez stripped his clothes from him. Nathan rested a black hand on his patients shallowly rising and falling abdomen, "He's freezing." He glanced over at Josiah, "When did it happen?"

Sanchez tossed a coat over the gambler, "Last night. Vin fell through and Ezra jumped in and pushed him out. It took us awhile to get him out, he went under at least three times. He was unconscious when we pulled him out." Josiah said.

J.D. barged back into the saloon out of breath, "took care of the horses." He panted, "what now?"

"Go up stairs and get some quilts, hurry up." Jackson said. Nathan then checked for pulses in the feet and wrists of both men, as J.D. ran across the saloon dodging cleanly between chairs and tables and took the wood stairs two at a time. Vin continued to shake as Larabee tried to force semi-heated whiskey down his throat. The young sheriff could be heard rummaging around the second floor and suddenly skipped and jumped down the steps dragging two large quilts. Once wrapped snugly beneath heavy blankets, Tanner's muscle tremors slowed gradually.

He gave Ezra a side long glance, "How's Ezra?" He managed between shutters. Larabee gazed over at Jackson and the worried expression on his face spoke volumes.

He watched Nathan put on a smile and faced Vin, "he's gonna be alright." Except he did not look alright, one did not have to be a healer to recognize the pale grey features, shallow rattling breath and cold clammy skin, no Ezra did not look good at all.

With combined effort Josiah and Nathan hauled the gambler into the back room of the saloon and slowly slid him into the steaming hot bath. Jackson was forced to hold the gambler's bowed head out of the water. Sanchez soaked his now defrosting hands in the water, as the circulation increased to his hands they began to burn and tingle.

Nathan watched the preacher silently, then finally spoke, "Go get something hot to eat, I've got Ezra for now, when the water cools off I'll call for you." Josiah gazed hesitantly at the gambler but with Jackson's gentle urging left the room.

Lizza remained behind heating more water. "Is Senior Standish and Tanner going to be alright?"

Jackson merely shrugged and muttered "I don't know."

Larabee guided Vin up the saloon stairs to one of the empty rooms. The gunslinger eased the tracker onto the double bed and covered him over with both quilts. He muttered inquiries about the gambler under heavy eyelids.

"Go to sleep Vin." Chris said turning down the kerosene lamps. Larabee stood by the door way and watched as Vin drifted off into a deep sleep. Satisfied that Tanner was ok Larabee slid out the door gently clicking it closed and headed down stairs to help Jackson. Chris noticed Josiah dozing in a chair next to the fire and Buck bent over a table with an empty bowl of stew pushed out in front of him sleeping. Larabee let the two men be and headed to the back room where Nathan sat with the gambler.

Jackson gazed up when Chris entered the small room, Lizza heated another pot of water. Larabee squatted beside the healer, "How's he doing?"

Jackson merely felt his charges forehead the chest, "He's getting warmer but I don't know Chris, you hear him breath?" Nathan quieted down and soon the small steamy room filled with the the harsh rattling breath of the gambler.

"Pneumonia?" Larabee asked.

Jackson shrugged his shoulders, "I don't know I'm no doctor, but he doesn't sound to good." Nathan thought for a moment, "Where are the others?"

"Vin's upstairs sleeping, Josiah and Buck are dozing in the saloon and J.D.'s..."

"Right here." The young man said as he entered the room, "Ezra's room is all set for when you bring him up."

"Thanks J.D." Chris replied. The two men looked to Jackson "Yeah alright lets get him upstairs." He turned his attention to the barmaid, "Lizza you want to give us some privacy." The pretty young woman quickly disappeared out the door.

A few minutes later the gambler was deposited under two quilts. His breath did not come any easier. "I'll stay with him for a little bit make sure he's ok." Jackson said. J.D. and Chris left the room silently. Nathan pulled up a chair next to the bed and settled down for the night. He watched silently at the rise and fall of the quilt with each breath. Strange, Jackson mused, Standish did not strike healer as the kind to risk his life for anyone. In fact if anyone other than Josiah recanted the story Nate would not have believed it.

Jackson and Standish had started on a rocky relationship, Nate being an ex-slave and Ezra coming from the deep south, it seemed as though they were doomed from the beginning, and it started out that way. But as time slipped past an uneasy peace developed and slowly blossomed to an understanding and almost a friendship. Jackson had a problem with the conman using people for his own gains, or conning innocent people of hard earned dollars. Standish had difficulty handling Jackson's disdain for his profession.

It was Josiah who had explained it to Nathan that one could not change the stripes on a cat, but only learn how to manage and persuade the cat. At first Jackson was confused as to what the preacher meant until he watched Sanchez casually guide the conman into acting with some as semblance of a conscience, without preaching or threats. Heck Jackson figured Standish was being manipulated like the cons he ran on others. Nathan found this intriguing and became even more surprised when he realized that the preacher did the same to him.

After a few months the gambler and ex-slave found a common ground and were found to share a friendly beer or even card game. It turned out neither man was as bad as the other had thought, and came to understand one another. Still there were certain things that neither could or would change, Standish trusted no one to help him and Nathan continued to berate the conman for taking advantage of unsuspecting people. Now as Nathan sat beside Ezra's bed watching him wheeze for breath, he mused over how far they had come.

A year ago Standish would not have slipped into the water unless gold rested at the bottom of the lake, (even then he would have scammed someone else to do it), and Nathan, though would have tried to save the gambler's life would not feel much attachment or concern for the southerner. Time had changed the two and though they were not fast friends they respected each other and would defend one another.

Larabee swiped Josiah's feet off the table and shook Buck's shoulder. Both men groggily woke up. "Go get some rest we've got it from here." Both men labored slowly to their feet, Josiah rubbed his face tiredly, feeling the two day stubbly growth on his wind burned cheeks.

Wilmington arched his back and stretched, cracking his back, "How are they?" Buck inquired quietly he had a headache.

"Upstairs sleeping." Chris poured himself a shot of whiskey and faced the two men, "Go get some sleep," Neither man argued and shuffled out the door to the boarding house.

Vin first became aware of the fact he felt warm. He quickly realized that he lay under a thick warm quilt on a soft bed. At least he was no longer riding a horse, or laying in a frozen clearing. His legs ached, as did his shoulders and abdomen. In fact the more he thought about and the more he lay there he realized his whole body ached. His eyes blinked open and at first they too burned. He swallowed trying to work moisture back into his mouth, and found even his throat hurt.

Then his attention turned outward when someone out of his eyesight spoke, "How ya feeling?" Tanner rolled his head and saw Chris Larabee sitting on the edge of his bed.

"Hey." he did not even recognize his own voice.

"You're looking better." Chris continued. Vin smiled half heartedly he felt better.

"When we get back?"

"Early last pm." Chris answered watching the tracker closely. He seemed ok, worn out but a lot more coherent than he did the night before.

"How are the others?"

"Josiah and Buck are down stairs eating everything in sight." He thought for a moment, "You hungry?" Vin nodded and tried to sit up but Larabee held him down. "Stay put, I'll bring it up to you." The gunfighter stood up and made his way to the door. It was then Tanner realized the omission on Larabee's part.

"Ezra?" He asked. He noticed Chris paused before he turned around, no smile graced his hard face.

That was one thing about Larabee he did not beat around the bush, "Nathan's still with him." Chris answered avoiding a direct answer, but hopefully saying enough to satisfy Tanner.

The tracker quickly translated, "Not to good huh?" Larabee contemplated an answer and found the truth was always more reliable, "I don't know." He simply stated and left the room.

Larabee walked one door down and knocked softly before entering. He cracked the door open and poked his sandy brown head in, "Nate you want something to eat?" Jackson stood up and stretched trying to work the kinks out of his muscles.

He crossed over to the door, "How bout some coffee and bread?"

Larabee nodded and then added, "How is he?" Nathan looked back over his shoulder, Standish had buried himself under the blankets curled in a loose ball. He appeared as a lump in the double bed.

"Hasn't come too yet but his breathing is a little easier." Jackson paused and leaned tiredly against the door frame, "I don't know? His color has come back." He fought a yawn "he should wake up anytime soon, I guess." Larabee smiled tightly and nodded closing the door.

Standish woke and had never felt as tired as he did now. He woke to aching muscles and a burning chest. He lay still for a moment trying to figure out where he was and why he could not see anything. After a few moments he realized he slept under blankets. He tried to roll over onto his side, his back hurt like hell, almost as much as his legs. It seemed as if he were weighted down it took an incredible effort to move and when he did he groaned. This sparked interest from somewhere in the outside world. Ezra blinked his eyes open. They burned and had difficulty focusing.

"Hey hey welcome back, you had us worried." Standish found himself staring up at Josiah.

"Josiah?" His voice was gruff and raw, skewing the southern accent and twisting the name to being almost unrecognizable.

"Here drink some of this." He eased Standish's sweat drenched head off the pillow and tipped a sip of water through his dry cracked lips. "That's enough for now, better?" Josiah asked lowering Standish's head back on the pillow.

"Yeah." Ezra blinked a few times and took in his surroundings, "How long have we been back?" He had difficulty seeing over the quilts but recognized enough of the small room to realize he slept in his own room above the saloon.

"Since early last pm." Sanchez answered. He, himself, did not wake up till midmorning. It now pushed past midday. "You hungry?" Josiah asked. He had been when he first woke up.

Standish thought about it for a moment, "No, not really. How's Mr. Tanner?"

"Fine downstairs eating lunch." Sanchez answered leaning back in the rocking chair. He watched the conman, trying to figure out if Standish really was not hungry or just did not want to rely on anyone for help. It seemed funny as a group they had been together for over a year, working and playing, putting their lives on the line. So much had changed and the group had come to depend on one another but occasionally one of them would revert back to an old way of life.

Larabee, a loner and a gunman, lost a family and invested emotion in no one, and at one time depended only on his gun. Wilmington, the joker of the group had no trouble relating to anyone especially the ladies. JD only wanted to belong somewhere and the six had taken him in as a younger brother. Tanner bounty hunter and tracker by trade crossed the law and found protection, though unasked, in the companionship of the other six. Even he Josiah, ex-preacher going out against conventional preaching found a flock if not an unwilling one in this group of tempered men. The most confusing of the group lay in Ezra, the gambler trusted no one and took advantage of most people he met. He dressed in fine clothing and displayed proper manners, a sharp contrast to his childhood of thieving and conning for food and shelter. He trusted only his cards and good looks to get what he needed.

When Josiah met him he had the ethics of a snake but somewhere in there Josiah knew that he only wanted place to call home get something to eat when he was hungry and to sleep in a bed without having to steal or con it. Nathan and he had not hit it off very well at all but if either one of them had truly looked hard enough they'd find they were more similar than either would care to admit. Nate raised as a slave led a life of hardship and mistreatment starvation and brutality. Standish hid it behind a dimpled smile, and slight of hand tricks, his life consisted yes of freedom, but cruelty and hunger did not restrict itself to the slave class. Both men turned their anger at the world in different directions. Nathan tried to heal the world doing his best to make the world better. Ezra stole what he could smiling at his own cleverness to take what he wanted not caring who he hurt in the process.

Sanchez stopped his musing and stood, "Hungry or not have something to eat." Josiah helped the gambler sit up and propped pillows behind his back. This sparked a racking dry cough leaving Standish with watering eyes and clutching his chest. "You alright?" Josiah asked watching the gambler, Jackson had been afraid that this would develop. Sanchez placed a warm bowl of stew in front of the conman. Standish peered at it with disdain. Josiah read the expression, "You can either eat it on your own or I can feed it to ya."

Ezra gazed back up at the giant man trying to measure if he were serious or not. Josiah met his gaze, serious, oh yeah he would do it. Without a word the gambler with trembling muscles spoon soup into his own mouth. He swallowed it hurt the back of his throat and chest, he grimaced at the burning pain.

"Throat hurt too?" Sanchez inquired, Nathan had warned him that the gambler would have discomfort in the chest and most likely the throat. Josiah had been mildly surprised how accurate the healer seemed to be, Ezra had not woken up until now and Nathan did not have a chance to speak with Standish, but deduced from sitting with him what would be wrong. It would seem he was correct. Ezra did not answer right away, but suddenly found his soup very interesting.

Standish could not remember much after falling through the ice, bits and pieces had filtered back, what he did remember was extremely unpleasant. Even now he felt chilled, though he lay in the relative comfort and warmth. Ezra was not surprised to have woken up save back in town, the men he had become associated with were tough and relentless. Did his throat hurt? Yes of course it did, but did Josiah need to know? Standish peered at his soup trying to figure if there was an angle to the simple seemingly benign question. Sanchez watched the gambler, gazing down at the bowl of soup as if waiting for some sort of seering to occur within the broth. The ex-preacher knew what Standish was trying to divine from the bowl. He waited patiently busying himself with the wash basin and compresses that Nathan had used to help cool the gamblers forehead because a fever had spiked the night before.

Standish chuckled to himself, "yeah it's a bit tender."

Josiah merely nodded and added, "Nathan said it would be."

Larabee sat by himself playing solitaire. The sun had set almost an hour ago throwing the winter early evening into darkness. The uncharacteristic bitter cold still gripped the land forcing most people to stay close to home. Buck, Josiah and Vin had retired early that evening still trying to get over the grueling trip. Nathan had slipped quietly back to his room, hoping to catch up on much needed rest. J.D. had disappeared with Casey somewhere, probably getting into trouble. Larabee smiled inwardly at the two youngsters. His attention suddenly diverted from his game when Standish eased himself down in a vacant chair. It was the first time the gambler had appeared downstairs having slept most of the day away. Chris poured whiskey into a shot glass and gently pushed it over to the gambler.

"Thanks." Larabee watched as the conman carefully sipped the fiery liquid, Josiah and Nate were right, despite his best effort to hide it, the gambler was not at the top of his game. His hands uncharacteristically trembled, and he appeared pale and gaunt. Dark circles hung below his bloodshot pale green eyes. Even his breathing labored after the small effort of getting dressed and descending stairs.

Lizza watched as the gambler carefully picked his way down the stairs and joined Larabee at a table. She sidled over and stood between the two men, "Could I interest either of you in something to eat?" As far as she knew Standish had only eaten a small amount of soup earlier that day. Both men nodded and ordered. Larabee steak and Standish soup, again.

The End