by Cheryl W.

Disclaimer: I don't own Magnificent Seven nor is any copyright infringement intended. I have the greatest respect and jealous for those who do own them.

Summary: Ezra and Vin ride into a troubled town.

It had been a hard ride and the two weary travelers were looking forward to a soft bed for the night. However, duty called first.

"Would you care to bet that Chris has been lounging in the saloon all day while we have endured the heat of Hades?" Ezra drawled as they drew closer to the town limits.

Vin smiled over at his companion, "I ain't bettin' against that one, Ezra."

Just then a rider flew by them, causing both of their horses to skitter about.

"Dang fool," Vin cursed, turning around to watch the horse and ride eat up the trail.

Ezra indignantly brushed off more trail dust from his already covered apparel. "Seems that gentleman wore out his welcome in this town."

"I guess you would know the look," Vin sallied back with a smirk.

"Funny as usual, Mr. Tanner," Ezra retorted.

Their banter fell silent as they entered the town and they tensed at the commotion. The boards were scattered with people, deep in hushed talk, and all looking the same direction. Vin and Ezra tracked the looks to the west side of the boards where a loud group of men gathered outside the saloon. Without warning, five teenage boys ran right in front of Vin and Ezra's path, the first boy yelled to his companions, "I saw his body. He ain't the fastest no more."

At the boy's words, Vin's very heart lurched to a stop and he shot a terrified look to Ezra. He had never seen Ezra look so pale. As one, the two men pulled their horses to the nearest hitching post and dismounted.

Ezra was trembling so severely that his legs threatened to dump him on the ground when he dismounted. Clutching onto the saddle horn to keep his feet, he berated himself, 'Don't jump to conclusions, Ezra. Discern the facts and then ....Just pull yourself together!'

Vin was clenching his jaw so tightly his teeth ached. He knew what the boy had said, but, hell, lots of people were fast. But his heart, once it started beating again, wouldn't slow down it's galloping pace.

"Man with his reputation shoulda known better than having his back to the door," a man criticized to his friend as they walked down the boards by Vin and Ezra. His companion's reply was "Fool thought his reputation would protect 'em. It ain't gonna do 'em any good in Hell neither."

Ezra swallowed hard at the conversation but put his feet in motion. His mother taught him to always "look" like he could handle anything life threw his way. He came to stand by Vin and guessed he looked as shell shocked as Vin. So much for mother's advice.

'It ain't him. It ain't Chris,' screamed through Vin's head. 'Chris is too smart, too cautious!' But in his mind's eye he could picture the times Chris sat in Four Corner's saloon, his back to the door.... even when he was the only one of the Seven in town.

Meeting Ezra's eyes, Vin knew the gambler was feeling the same as he was. Half believing, half not believing and more scared than he could ever recall. The truth lay not more than twenty steps the saloon. But he wasn't sure he could live with the truth. He could ride out right now and head for Tascosa, let the truth alone and spare himself agony he knew he couldn't bare. His eyes told Ezra that the choice was his.

For as long as Ezra had known Vin Tanner, he had never seen the man back down...from anything. Not man, not nature, not life. But here, now, Vin Tanner was backing down. Worse, he was getting ready to run. Ezra knew all about running, he had made it a way of life...until Chris Larabee gave him someplace and someone to run to. Ezra found that he couldn't resort back to his old habits and disrespect the honor Chris had bestowed on him.

Stepping onto the boards, Ezra felt immeasurable comfort as Vin walked by his side. Their eyes met and a pact was made. They'd do this together, like Chris would have wanted them to. Their steps were slow, measured but not halting.

A group of men passed by them, their conversation loud and boisterous. "He got what he deserved! It turned my stomach when I heard he was callin' himself a lawman. Man was a cold blooded killer sure as I'm standin' here." "Fastest SOB I ever saw with a gun. Some years ago, he got called out by a kid no more 'em seventeen. He shot that boy right through the heart. No mercy. Then he went back into the saloon, ordered another whiskey and finished his cigar."

Vin stumbled to a halt and leaned heavily against a pole. As much as he wanted to count the men's words as proof that they weren't talking about Chris, he couldn't. He loved Chris Larabee like a brother but he knew how dark Chris' life had once been, he had seen it in the gunfighter's eyes. It was the same haunted look he himself wore.

A hand gently touched his shoulder and Vin raised his head to meet Ezra's look. For the first time Vin spoke. "I can't Ezra," he choked out, his voice breaking, and his eyes dull with agony.

Ezra's hand dropped from Vin's shoulder, not in disgust but in defeat. Vin knew Chris as well as Buck did, maybe better. And Vin believed Chris was dead. Taking a step back, Ezra tried to not let the emotions that were surging through him conquer him. He would have to deal with he had dealt with life before the six men had burrowed their way into his soul.

With a nod to Vin, Ezra began again the journey to the saloon. 'I can handle this. I can handle this. I've dealt with mother abandoning me as a child, I can certainly handle...loss,' ran through Ezra's head as he forced himself to take one step after another. He stopped at the crowd at the saloon entrance and let the conversations swirl around him.

"I saw it plain as can be. Man came up behind 'em, said "Take that" and shot 'em in the head. I ain't never seen so much blood 'fore." "With the poker hand he was holding, he woulda wiped me clean. Two pair-Aces and Eights. I'm beholden to the man that shot 'em." "When his eyes rested on ya, it was like the devil himself came knockin'"

Closing his eyes in anguish at the onslaught of words, Ezra took a steadying breath and then resolutely pushed through the crowd. Having made it into the establishment, he stumbled to a halt. A stool lay turned over, cards and chips littered the ground and a dark stain of blood covered the floor.

Every fiber in Ezra rebelled at the sight. It couldn't be Chris' blood. Chris was too damn bull headed to die. 'And too human not to die,' burned through Ezra's head. Swinging around he pushed roughly through the crowd and barely made it to the alley before becoming ill.

Leaning against the wall of the saloon, Ezra cursed himself for ever going to the Seminole village, for ever staying in Four Corners but most of all, for letting down his barriers and loving Chris Larabee like a brother. Loneliness he could have lived with, but this pain....this pain went beyond any he had ever felt before. Tears streamed down his face and he made no move to conceal them.

Seeing Ezra's quick exit and bout of illness, Vin slid down the pole and sat heavily on the boards. He knew loss. Hell, he had lost his parents when he was just a boy. But somehow he figured that pain was a boy's pain, a boy that knew nothing, had experienced nothing. And he had foolish thought that, now that he was a man, he'd never experience that level of pain again. He had been wrong.

Chris Larabee may not have been kin of his blood, but he had been kin of his heart. And losing him was no different than losing his parents. The same red hot agony of soul seared through Vin. A hangman's noose would have been kinder than facing this day. Tears streamed down his face and he made no move to conceal them.

"What the hell's goin' on in this town?"

Vin's head snapped up at the voice. "Chris!!" Vin exclaimed as he surged to his feet and enveloped legendary gunslinger Chris Larabee into a fierce bear hug Buck would have been proud of.

"Vin, I can't breath," Chris choked out as Tanner's hug constricted around him like a Boa.

Pulling back but not releasing Chris, Vin sheepishly murmured, "Sorry," but his huge beaming smile said differently. "I think you best collect Ezra over there in the alley," he advised with a gleam in his eye even as he reluctantly dropped his hold on Chris.

Sensing a trap, Chris gave Vin a warning glare but Vin playfully pushed his friend toward the alley. Steeling himself for whatever Vin had in mind, Chris walked to the alley and came up short. The very proper Ezra Standish stood in a muddy alley, leaning against the very filthy wall of the saloon and wearing a look of total desolation.

Worry seeped from Chris' one word, "Ezra?" as he approached the gambler. Ezra's eyes flew open and he swallowed hard at the sight before him. Lord help him if this was just some hallucination. Reaching a hand out, he touched Chris' chest. At the very tangible flesh before him, Ezra's smile lit up the darkest corners of the alley.

"You truly are a sight for sore eyes, Chris," and then Chris found himself engulfed in another bear hug. When Ezra released him, he found himself under the close scrutiny of both Ezra and Vin.

"I miss something?" Chris softly asked, searching for answers in both men's eyes.

Vin and Ezra exchanged looks and then Vin said, "Nope," even as Ezra said, "Not to my knowledge." But in unison both men declared, "Let's get the hell outta Deadwood."

And before Chris could react, his two men had swung him around and began ushering him down the boards. "Where ya goin'?! The saloon's back there!" he protested as he pointed behind him. "I wanna go there!"

Again Vin and Ezra's sentiments were the same. "Hell no!" Neither man relinquished his hold on Larabee even as Chris attempted to halt their locomotive progress.

Two men passed the hurrying trio on the boards, "I knew that Wild Bill Hickok would come to a bad end."

Suddenly Chris found himself still walking while his compatriots had halted in their tracks. He swung around to face them, surprise written on his face. "Hickock's dead?" Then a hurt look came into his eyes, "You thought I killed him?!"

Both men quickly dispelled that thought from Chris' mind with a firm, "No!"

Chris' face screwed up in confusion and then a smug smile took over his features. "You thought it was me, didn't you? You thought I was dead?"

"Don't be absurd"/ "You're loco Larabee" came firing back at him.

But Chris' smile grew brighter. "I'm touched guys."

"Yeah, touched in the head," Vin snorted back and strolled by Larabee.

"Yes, maybe you've spent too many hours under the sun's harsh rays, Mr. Larabee," Ezra drawled as he to walked by Chris.

Chris didn't turn around to face his men but sighed, "Maybe you're right. I think a drink at the saloon will do wonders for me." He had taken but one step before his arms were gripped tightly, Ezra to his right and Vin to his left. "You boys gonna join me?" he taunted looking from one man to the other.

"Well, I mighta thought it was you 'stead of Hickok, for a blinkin' of an eye," Vin lightly confessed.

"As for myself, the man's notoriety was dangerously similar to your own and caused me fleeting alarm," Ezra allowed.

Chris met each man's eyes in silence contemplation and then that cocky smile was back. "So you do care 'bout me?!" he accused with a twinkle in his eye.

"Too damn much," Tanner growled.

"More than is healthy for my well being," Ezra bite out.

Sensing the true anguish his friends had endured, Chris eyes gentled, "Now you know how I feel," and he ruffled both men's hair affectionately, earning him two boyish smiles. "Let's go home."

"As Josiah would say, Amen to that," Vin joked.

"I would still like to maintain that I concluded it was not Mr. Larabee..."Ezra began in protest as the three men climbed onto their horses and steered them for home. Chris shook his head with a smile and a "good ole Ezra" look.

Vin, however, shot a fake glare to his friend, "Ezra, don't make me shoot you."

"Yeah, that's my job," Chris drawled and smiles broke unto all three men's faces.

For the three men, it would be good to get home but there was something special about the journey, especially when traveling with family.

The End

I'd love some feedback!

Author's Note:
OK, I freely admit, I "tweaked" history's time line here. James Butler "Wild Bill" Hickok died on August 2, 1876 in Deadwood, Dakota Territory. It is true that he was shot in the back of the head while playing poker, holding two pair, aces and eights, which has come to be called a "Dead Man's Hand." However, it seems out of place for Chris and Co. to be in the Dakota Territory and the date doesn't work but hey, I had this crazy idea and no logic (or factual history) could dissuade me.