Gamblers Don't Bounce

by Hombre

Notes: References made to the episode Achilles and The Collector. Also a reference is made to one of my fics: To Lethe and Tartarus and Back the Long Route. Thanks to Nancy for helping me out with a few technical details.

"Are you sure you don't mind, Mr. Standish?" Mary asked anxiously.

Ezra smiled broadly. "Of course not. It is my pleasure and it will be most enjoyable to escape this dusty haven for a short time. Anyway, I refuse to allow Master Travis to travel on his own all the way from Judge Travis's abode. It is much too arduous a journey for such a young gentleman and not very safe either."

Mary nodded her head in agreement. "I'm very grateful to you. Normally Orin would bring him himself but with Evie being so ill he doesn't want to leave her."

"I quite understand." Ezra patted Mary's arm and smiled as he climbed on board the stagecoach. He settled himself by the window and looked at his fellow passengers. Well, I think I will use the time given to me to catch up on some much-needed sleep. I don't think any of my fellow travelers are poker players. Even if they were, for once, I'm not in the mood. Must be sickening for somethin'.

The two women and one rough-looking man who were seated with him sat silently as the stagecoach pulled out of town. Ezra pulled his hat down over his face and closed his eyes with a contented sigh. He fell asleep quite quickly and began snoring softly.

A few hours into the journey the gambler felt something prod his stomach and he opened his eyes sleepily as he pushed back his hat. He thought maybe he'd accidentally fallen sideways onto his neighbor and they'd poked him with an elbow to wake him and make him move. Instead he found himself face-to-face with a gun.

"Ah. Sleeping beauty's awake at last," the male passenger said insolently as he patted Ezra's cheek. The man then reached above his head and banged loudly on the top of the stagecoach.

Ezra felt the stagecoach slow down and he flicked his eyes toward the two women passengers to make sure they were alright. Once he'd established their wellbeing he turned his attention back to the gunman.

"If you plan on stealing my worldly goods I have to warn you that you will be sorely disappointed," Ezra drawled.

"Shut yer yapping," the man said as he punched Ezra hard in the face and then disarmed his side holster. The man put Ezra's gun in his waistband and snarled, "We ain't interested in you. It's the stagecoach we want."

Ezra frowned as he dabbed at his cut lip and wondered why they would want the stagecoach. It wasn't exactly something that was easy to hide. Before he could ponder the problem any further, the door on the opposite side of the vehicle from him suddenly opened and the driver looked in. Ezra imagined the co- driver was still up on the seat outside because he was not in sight at ground level.

"Right, everyone out," the driver ordered gruffly with a flick of his gun hand.

Both women stood and obeyed immediately. Ezra stayed seated as they disembarked and watched the man sitting opposite him warily.

"Come on. You too," the man said as he waved his weapon threateningly in Ezra's direction.

The gambler flicked a look to the door and saw it was still obstructed by one of the women so obscuring the view of the driver outside. Ezra looked back at the gunman and stood up slowly. The man stood with him and pointed the gun nearer to Ezra to try and encourage him to get out. The gambler reached out with his left hand and clamped his fingers round the trigger and the man's wrist. He then pulled the outlaw and the gun toward him quickly. He kept pulling backward rather like someone using a saw so his elbow ended up pointing behind him with his hand at hip height. The gun was now aiming harmlessly at the seat to the rear instead of at his chest as it had been. At the same time as he was doing this maneuver, he activated his hidden derringer and fired it at his attacker. The man he was holding, however, was still off balance from the sudden pull he'd received and stumbled against him. Ezra fired his gun but his aim was slightly deflected by the jolt he received from his attacker. The man, although hit by the bullet, was not as badly hurt as Ezra had intended. The outlaw sprawled headlong on the floor with a yell as Ezra lost his hold on him when he stumbled sideways as he tried to keep his footing. The outlaw let go of the gun he was holding as he tried to break his fall with outstretched hands. The weapon skidded across the floor and fell out the door accompanied by Ezra's gun that had come loose from the outlaw's belt. Both of the stagecoach's two occupants were now unarmed and they both cursed. The gambler put his now empty derringer back up his sleeve and then turned quickly as he heard the driver shout and climb into the stagecoach. The lady had finally got clear of the doorway and he could see what was going on inside. The man slammed the door shut behind him, trapping Ezra inside. The doorway the other side was blocked by the body of the man Ezra had just shot.

Perhaps this wasn't one of your better ideas, Standish, Ezra thought to himself.

Ezra turned to meet this new threat but was not quite fast enough. Although he managed to deflect the gun that was being aimed at him he couldn't avoid the fist that connected hard with his stomach. He doubled over and gasped loudly as he then received a blow to the back of the head with the gun's butt.

"Marty? Get this coach moving!" the driver yelled.

Ezra stumbled as the vehicle began moving with a jolt and he fell headfirst against the seat. The back of his collar was grabbed suddenly by the driver and he was pulled upright again. The two men struggled in the confined space and traded blows equally and Ezra managed to disarm his attacker with a karate chop to his wrist. Ezra could see the scenery outside the window rushing by as he tried to get the better of his opponent and he wondered fleetingly where they were headed.

The original gunman stirred and moved aside quickly as Ezra stumbled backward into him, treading on his leg hard. The injured outlaw joined the fistfight, luckily unable to pick up his accomplice's fallen gun from beneath the feet of the brawling men. Ezra stood no chance whatsoever against his two opponents. Although one was hurt he just tipped the balance in the outlaws' favor.

"Open the door, Pat," the driver ordered as he kept a firm hold on the gambler. He had an idea in mind of how to get rid of the gambler, which at least left the man with a slim chance of survival. The outlaw had no desire to kill Ezra but he'd not really expected to receive any resistance from the passengers in the first place. He certainly didn't want to accidentally shoot his fellow outlaw by mistake in the confined space either, even if he could have retrieved his gun in the first place.

Ezra looked back over his shoulder and watched in horror as the request was carried out. He felt himself pushed backward toward the opening and he dug his heels in as he tried vainly to stop the movement. He grabbed hold of the driver's waist with one hand so if he fell one of his attackers would at least go with him. The gambler then spread his feet apart and placed them on either side of the door opening and locked his knees so it was harder for him to be pushed out. The gambler put his free hand on the doorframe and clung on to it for dear life. The driver head-butted the con man, stunning him but Ezra still wouldn't let go his hold. The second gunman began trying to pry Ezra's fingers off his friend and finally managed to free him. Ezra immediately moved his hand to grab the other edge of the door as well for a bit more leverage. He was now slightly hanging out into the open air and the second man acted to finish things once and for all. He pulled the driver to one side as he kicked out with his foot catching Ezra smack in between the legs. Ezra buckled and let go his tenuous hold in reaction to the agony that exploded in his body. The driver kicked him forcefully in the center of his chest and he fell back out the door with a cry.

The gambler spun in mid-air like a cat and put out his arms to try and save himself but landed awkwardly on one limb only. He rolled over and over, connecting with rocks, bushes and other trailside obstacles in his headlong spill along the ground. He finally came to a halt and lay motionless in the dirt.

+ + + + + + +

"Chris! Pard, we need you over here," Buck yelled as he spotted the black-clad man stalking along the opposite boardwalk from the livery.

The blond changed direction hurriedly and met up with Buck outside the doors. The ladies' man led the way into the building and pointed to two bodies in the corner of one stall who were currently being treated by Nathan.

"Yosemite found 'em just now. They're the stagecoach driver and co- driver," the tall gunman stated.

Chris stared at his friend in disbelief. "What? Who the hell took the stagecoach outta here then?"

"You ain't gonna like what I've gotta tell ya, Chris," Buck said warily.

"Spit it out, Bucklin. I ain't got all day," Chris barked.

"The stage was carrying gold and it seems the men who are now driving it aim to steal it. Question is what they intend to do to the passengers they're toting."

"Shit! Why weren't we told about this? We coulda been on the lookout for trouble."

"They thought it was safer to keep it secret although it weren't so secret, was it?"

"Jeez, Ezra's on it, ain't he? Dammit, get Vin and we'll go after it. Nathan and Josiah better stay to tend these men. Get onto the Stagecoach Company too and tell them what's happened, will ya? Tell Mary that Billy ain't comin' home and send a telegram to Travis too to tell him of the delay." Chris reeled off his demands as he stood watching Nathan work.

Buck disappeared to the telegraph office to carry out his orders after first finding Vin. The tracker hurried to the livery to find Chris hurriedly saddling his horse for him.

"You hear what those damned fools done?" Chris snarled angrily as he turned to face his friend as he finished putting the saddle on Peso.

"Yeah. Sure hope Ez is alright."

"Well, we're only goin' after the passengers. Damn the gold. Thought the Stagecoach Company woulda learnt their lesson after last time. If anyone's come to harm because of their stupidity there'll be hell to pay," Chris growled ominously as he moved toward his own horse.

Vin and Chris mounted up and set off out of town at the gallop to begin their search for Ezra and the stagecoach. Vin easily followed the plain tracks left by the large wheeled vehicle and the two men slowed their pace. After a few hours, Chris pointed at two figures wandering slowly toward them and the two peacekeepers pulled their mounts to a halt beside the female passengers from the stagecoach.

Vin dismounted quickly with fear in his soul. Why ain't Ezra with 'em? he wondered. He put a finger to his hat brim and asked, "You two ladies alright? You were on the stagecoach, weren't ya? You're not hurt, are ya?"

"No. Just a bit shaken. They forced us out and stole the stage."

"We know, ma'am. Can you tell us what happened exactly?"

The older lady said, "One of the other passengers was in the gang and the other gentleman tried to intervene. We got out of the stagecoach first and then I heard a gunshot. The driver climbed inside the stage while the co-driver set the coach moving with the three of them still fighting inside."

Vin felt his heart skip a beat at the news. "Okay thanks, ma'am. Look, we need to go after the stagecoach and the other passenger. Can you make it to the nearest homestead if I give you directions? It ain't far to go."

"Sure. We'll be fine."

Vin gave very detailed instructions and watched as the two women set off in the right direction. He didn't like leaving them to find their own way but there was nothing much else he could do. He couldn't afford the time to take them there. He remounted and set off again after the missing stagecoach with Chris following silently behind.

Vin squinted into the distance and his heart leapt into his throat. "Over there! Is that him?" he shouted to Chris as he pointed at a dusty lump at the side of the trail.

The two men kicked their horses into a lope and dismounted quickly near the body of their friend. The gambler was covered in dirt and was very bloody and bruised.

"Musta thrown him out while it was still goin' fast, I reckon. Jesus Ez, can't you do your heroics on non-moving objects?" Chris asked as he wiped some of the dirt from the con man's face gently after he'd turned him over. "God, he's a mess. Can we get him back to town, do ya think?"

Vin raked the gambler's battered body with his eyes and winced when he saw the man's twisted and bent arm. He bent down and began checking the man over thoroughly. "Busted up bad by the look of him, which ain't surprising. Quicker we get him back to Nate the better, cowboy. Ain't broken his lower limbs but he's broke one arm real nasty. Musta landed full on it when he hit the dirt. Banged his head too but that mighta knocked some sense into him."

"Can he ride with one of us?" Chris asked worriedly after hearing Vin's report.

"Gonna have to, ain't he?" the tracker shrugged.

"Put him up with me then when we've seen to his hurts," Chris instructed.

Vin treated the gambler's many injuries with the limited medical supplies he had with him. The tracker hesitated to touch the injured man's arm but in the end he straightened it as best he could and tied it to Ezra's chest. Chris then quickly mounted his horse and Vin lifted the gambler up to him awkwardly. The small, injured man wasn't heavy but it was still an effort lifting him so high despite Chris's help from above.

"When you get into trouble you sure do it well, don't you, Ez?" Chris said before moving the gambler so he was sitting sideways in front of him. He held his friend gently making sure he didn't touch his badly injured right arm. Chris started his horse moving slowly and after a few miles had passed by in silence Ezra suddenly gasped and moaned quietly. "Ez? You'd better not be waking up. Got a long way to go 'til we get back home," Chris murmured.

Ezra's eyes opened but the landscape was just a blur. The movement of the horse did nothing to help his feeling of dizziness and nausea and he groaned.

"Don't... feel...," he mumbled quietly in Chris's ear.

Chris looked down anxiously at the man who was leaning hard against his chest. He heard the dark-haired gambler's breathing suddenly increase as he paled considerably. The blond had never seen anyone turn pure white so quickly before. Chris knew what was going to happen and he acted fast.

"Try and hold it in, Ez. Don't you dare puke on me." The blond pulled his horse to a rapid stop and then bent Ezra forwards and slightly to one side. He was just in time as the con man threw up violently. Instead of covering Chris in vomit, the gunfighter's horse came off worst. "Better you than me, hoss," Chris apologized as he patted his mount sympathetically. "Ez? How ya doin'?" Chris asked as the gambler puked again. "Vin help me get him down, will ya? I don't think this is working."

Vin quickly dismounted and took the gambler in his arms and laid him on his side on the ground away from the horses. Chris got down and knelt beside the tracker anxiously.

"Wish Nate was here. What the hell we gonna do?" he asked as he flicked a quick look at his companion.

"Well, there's no blood in the vomit so that's good. We could either wait a while and see if Ez feels better or I can ride into town now and get Nate to come back."

Chris looked down at Ezra who was now unconscious again and looking greeny-gray in color.

Vin looked thoughtful as his eyes got a faraway look in them. He sat up a bit straighter and said, "Nettie ain't far away, is she? We could take him there and then go for Nate. Least he'd been under cover and being cared for proper."

"Okay. Let's do that. He ain't puked again so let's hope that's it for a while. He might even stay unconscious 'til we get there if we're lucky. Pass him up to me again, will ya?" Chris agreed as he nodded decisively.

Vin did as he was asked, "I'll go to town now, or do you want me to help get him to Nettie's?"

"Stay with me 'cause I might need some help if he's sick again."

"Okay. Come on, the sooner we get goin' the sooner I can get Nate to look at him," Vin said as he started his horse moving.

They rode on but had several lengthy stops when Ezra woke and threw up. They finally reached their destination after an hour and Vin dismounted and hurried up to Nettie's door. The elderly lady opened it and smiled in pleasure when she saw who it was. She then realized that all was not well with her young friend, and her smile faded quickly to be replaced by a worried frown.

She reached out a concerned hand and placed it on the tracker's upper arm. "Vin? Whatever's the matter, son?"

"Ezra's hurt, Nettie. Can we bring him in? He's busted up real bad and don't look too good."

"My, my the poor boy. Bring him inside at once and take him through to my room, son. Casey? Ride into town and bring back Mr. Jackson," the old lady yelled.

"No Nettie. I can go when we've got Ezra settled," Vin objected as he shook his head.

"Don't argue with me, young man. You'll be of more use to me here," Nettie said before turning to her niece. "Go on Casey, move yer butt girl. Time's awastin'."

"Take care, sweetheart," Chris said when the young woman ran out onto the porch. "Tell Nate that Ez fell from the stagecoach. He's busted his arm real bad, he's puking a lot and keeps losing consciousness."

"Sure Mr. Larabee."

Vin reached up and got hold of Ezra again while Chris dismounted and tied his horse up. He then helped carry Ezra into Nettie's bedroom.

"Stand back and let me look at him," Nettie ordered. The two men obeyed without question. "Now then, Mr. Fancy-pants, what you been doin' to yerself? Fallin' from a stagecoach of all things. What ever next? Let's get him out of these clothes, boys."

Vin reached out a hand and pulled the lady back. "Nettie, perhaps it's best if we do that."

"Landsakes, why ever for? I've seen all that men have to offer. Some have more to offer than others in certain respects, I have to admit."

Vin snorted with laughter, knowing what Nettie meant.

The lady smiled and said, "Come on. Ain't got time for being coy. He won't know will he and I'm sure he ain't got nothing to be ashamed about."

"Not 'til I tell him, no," Vin laughed.

"Vin!" Chris warned angrily. "Ez needs seeing to now so stop yer laughing. He needs help now, dammit."

"Sorry, cowboy," the tracker replied contritely because it wasn't often that Chris lost his temper with him.

The two men undressed Ezra's lower half first. Chris then held Ezra upright against his chest while Nettie gently extricated the gambler's broken arm from his jacket. She cut the fabric, which she knew Ezra would not be pleased about when he found out. Ezra woke as she worked and he cried out despite the woman's tender touch. He jerked violently on the bed in reaction to the intense pain in his injured limb. Chris held him tight but after a while he felt the man's body go limp in his arms as he passed out again. The blond then laid Ezra down when the rest of the man's clothes had been carefully removed.

"Put this on him," Nettie said as she handed over a nightshirt.

"Need to see to his hurts first before I put that on him, Nettie," Chris disagreed while he continued looking at his friend's injuries worriedly.

"I know, I know, young man. I ain't senile yet. I was just tellin' you it was there when you were ready," Nettie scolded the gunfighter. Many a man would never have been so bold as to correct the lady in the first place and Chris managed to look suitably ashamed. "I'll heat you some water," the woman said as she hurried to the kitchen.

Vin, meanwhile, rechecked Ezra's broken arm with great care. "Damn but he's broke it good, Chris." The tracker drew in a whistling breath between his teeth as he shook his head in awe. Ezra stirred back to full consciousness as the painful, injured limb was touched again. Vin patted the man's cheek and said quietly, "Alright, Ez. Don't

you start frettin'."

The gambler opened his eyes as he heard Vin's voice and looked around him in bewilderment.

"Yer at Mz. Nettie's, Ez. Do you feel any better?" Chris asked when the con man's eyes finally settled on his face.


Chris helped Vin get the gambler upright so he was sat between them and being steadied by hands on his back and chest. Nettie hurried in after hearing the quiet conversation and hastily passed over a bowl.

"Great timing, Nettie," Chris said as the gambler threw up as if on cue. Chris rubbed the con man's back as he coughed and groaned and then the blond wiped his mouth with the damp cloth the lady passed to him.

"I have to apologize to the horse. Poor horse, poor horse," Ezra whispered as he rested his head momentarily against Vin's.

Chris laughed. "He was a mite disgruntled, Ez. He'll get over it though."

The blond finally noticed the strange expression on Ezra's face and he frowned worriedly. "Ez? What's up?"

"Poor horsy. I'm sorry, horsy. I didn't mean to be bad, Ma," the con man said quietly as he saw Nettie walk in with a bowl of warm water.

Chris raised a hand in concern and felt Ezra's brow. "He's getting feverish, Vin."

"Sounds delirious too, don't he?" Vin commented. "Hey Ez, get some rest. You might feel better later on." Vin patted his shoulder comfortingly and helped the man lay down after he'd thrown up again.

Nettie put the bowl of water down and the two men moved aside, so she could treat the gambler's many scrapes and bruises. When she'd finished, the two peacekeepers dressed their friend carefully in the nightshirt and covered him with a blanket.

"Hot. Too hot. Put out the fire, Ma." Ezra mumbled as he fidgeted on the bed with his bright, shining eyes staring at the ceiling.

Nettie lay a cool washcloth on Ezra's brow. "Go to sleep, Mr. Gambler. Casey will be back soon with the healer."

Ezra turned his gaze to Nettie and frowned in confusion. "Ma? Is that you?"

Nettie flicked a quick look at Vin and Chris before looking back at Ezra. She patted his cheek and said, "Yes son. Now do as yer mother tells you and go to sleep."

"'Kay Mama." Ezra's eyes closed as he lost consciousness totally again.

"He's back to his childhood, ain't he?" Vin said as he stared anxiously at the man in the bed.

The black-clad gunfighter nodded. "Yeah, sure sounds like it. Hope Nate gets here soon."

The two men sat with their injured friend while Nettie made them a meal. Just as they'd finished eating they heard fast approaching hoof beats and then an insistent knock at the door. Vin went to answer it and came back with Nathan in tow.

The healer smiled at Nettie and said, "Casey's staying in town with Mary. Thought you could do with the space out here. How's he doin', Chris?"

"Not good. Did Casey give you the details?"

"Little bit. He still being sick?" Nathan asked as he bent over the man in the bed and pulled open his closed eyelids. He automatically felt Ezra's brow and sighed.

"Yeah. He keeps passing out too and we're real worried about some of the other effects of his head injury. He started acting like he was young again. Talking like a kid and callin' Nettie, Ma. Seems to have lost his mind a bit, Nathan."

"Was he doin' it when you first found him or just recent?" the healer inquired as he continued with his examination.

"Just after we got him back here. He only spoke once before that so I can't say if he was like it then," Chris shrugged.

"Looks like he had a terrific blow to the back of his head. Not surprised he's suffered some ill effects after that. The impact when he fell shoulda killed him really when you think about it. It's much worse than falling from a horse I should imagine. Hope he'll come back to his senses eventually but all we can do is wait and see. He's got a slight fever too and he's quite hot but not dangerously so." Nathan pulled back the blanket covering Ezra and began to check the man's arm. He clicked his tongue and shook his head worriedly. "Broke in quite a few places. Have you touched it?"

Vin nodded and admitted, "Yeah. I did, Nate. It was real bent and I had to move it so we could get him back here without doin' any more damage. Did I do the wrong thing?"

"No, it's okay Vin, you did a real good job. It's just gonna be difficult to get it to heal straight again anyway, I reckon. Can you two help while I try to get the bones back in line?"

"Sure. What do ya want us to do?" Chris asked.

"Can one of you hold his legs and the other his shoulders? I don't wanna give him any laudanum with his head injury so it's gonna hurt him some."

The two men took up position and Nathan undid the bandage that Nettie had temporarily swathed the injured limb in. He then gently felt along the length of the bone again. Ezra moaned and opened his eyes as Nathan began straightening the limb as best he could.

"Don't touch, Mama. Pains me bad," the gambler pleaded with wide, green eyes.

"Alright, son. The healer's trying to mend yer arm but he can't help hurting ya in the process," Nettie said from where she stood in the doorway watching.

Nathan saw Ezra transfer his confused gaze to him instead of Nettie. The healer smiled and said, "Hey, Ez. It's Nathan. You've broke yer arm real bad so it's gonna take some time before I've finished fixin' it."

"Did I fall out of a tree, Mr. Nathan?.. Moving tree...Real fast.faster than a horsy. Poor horsy, all sicky," Ezra mumbled.

Nathan pursed his lips and looked at Chris quickly. "That's right Ez, you fell but not from a tree. Can you remember what really happened? Do you know who I am?"

"You're Mr. Nathan, you just told me." Ezra frowned as he tried to remember what had happened to him. His face finally cleared as some vague thoughts jumped into his mind, although they didn't make much sense to him. "I fell out. Pushed out... but I didn't bounce," the con man replied sulkily.

The healer couldn't help smiling. "No, well gamblers don't bounce, Ez. They've usually got too much money in their pockets weighing 'em down."

The con man smiled in reply to the grin on the healer's face, so while Ezra was not concentrating properly on what was being done to him Nathan aligned the next bone in his arm. The gambler cried out and writhed about in the bed despite his friends' best attempts to keep him still. Chris adjusted his grip and held his shoulders down forcefully until the healer finally finished his task. Nathan splinted the arm and then strapped it to Ezra's chest to provide even more support. He made Ezra drink one of his herbal remedies and the expression on the gambler's face told the men what he thought of the taste.

Vin sat on the bed and ruffled Ezra's hair as he smiled kindly at the injured man. Ezra shifted slightly on the mattress as he adjusted the covers to make himself more comfortable. Vin happened to move at exactly the same time and the gambler's broken arm made contact with Vin's thigh. The pain from that blow, piled on top of the agony from Nathan's ministrations, proved too much for the gambler. Ezra groaned loudly and his eyes rolled back in his head as he lost consciousness.

"Jeez, I'm sorry, Ez," Vin said quietly as he stood up rapidly before anything else could happen.

Nathan rechecked Ezra's condition and then looked up at Chris apologetically. "As much as I'd like to, I can't stay to look after him, Chris. I got three people back in the clinic now that need caring for. I'll try and come out as often as I can but I've got my hands full back in town. Can you and Vin stay with him for the moment until I get something sorted? Just keep him cool and quiet if ya can."

"Sure Nate. We'll come get you if he gets any worse."

The healer packed up his equipment and left a few supplies with Nettie to tide them over until he could visit again. Nathan headed outside but turned to Chris just as he was walking out the door.

"Meant to say earlier. We had a telegram from the Stagecoach Company saying they want us to go after the gold."

"Bet they do but I ain't helping 'em seeing as they nearly got Ez killed," Chris growled. "I ain't clearing up their mess for 'em again."

"Don't you wanna catch the thieves for what they did to Ez?" Nathan asked curiously.

"Rather be here to look after him. Get Buck and JD to go instead, will ya? Vin, you'd better go with 'em."

Nathan shook his head quickly and a bit apprehensively. "They're sending their own tracker," he informed the already angry gunfighter.

"Jeez. Don't that beat all? The bastards want our help but only so far. Godammit that's insultin'," Chris ranted.

"It's alright, Chris. Don't get upset on my account, cowboy. I'd rather be here with Ez too," Vin said quietly.

"I'll get the others to go then. Sure leaves us short in town though," Nathan said as he turned and mounted his horse. He waved and set off back to Four Corners.

+ + + + + + +

Nathan arrived in town late afternoon and found Buck in the saloon. He wandered over and sat down wearily in the chair beside him. He took off his hat and ran a hand over his face as he sighed loudly.

"Bucklin? Chris asked if you and JD could go after the stage when that tracker arrives. Ez is hurt bad and they wanna stay with him."

Buck nodded in agreement but looked slightly taken aback. "Sure. Why don't Chris wanna go? Thought he'd be aching to get those bastards."

"Na, he's royally pissed but he says he don't wanna help out after what happened to Ez."

Buck shrugged, not understanding his oldest friend's thoughts. "Alright. Me and the kid'll go but they'll be long gone by now though. Waste of time, if you ask me. How sick is Ez?"

Before replying, Nathan took a long sip from the glass of beer that Inez place in front of him. He wiped his mouth on the back of his hand when he'd finished and said, "Pretty bad. His arm especially. Got a nasty head injury too."

Something about the way Nathan said the last sentence made Buck curious and worried. "Nate? He's gonna be alright, ain't he? What's up with him?"

Nathan shrugged. "Lost his mind."

"What do ya mean? Has he forgotten who he is like he did when he was forced to kill that man last year?"

The healer met Buck's eyes fleetingly. "No, not like that. He thinks he's a kid again and I can't help admittin' I'm worried, Bucklin."

The ladies' man patted Nathan's back encouragingly. "You've done all ya can, pard. Can we go out and see him?"

Nathan shook his head hastily. "Na, I'd rather ya didn't. Don't think he could take it. He don't know who anyone is and thinks Nettie is his ma."

Buck narrowed his eyes at the unwelcome news. "Well, you keep us informed."

JD pushed through the batwing doors as the two men continued talking. The kid headed straight toward his two friends and slumped in the seat next to Buck.

The tall gunman looked up grimly and said, "Ain't got time for restin', kid. We gotta go after the gold on that stage. I also want a word with those bastards for hurting Ezra. Got a few hours daylight left so we may as well start as soon as we can."

JD struggled to his feet wearily again and accompanied Buck to the livery. The two men set off when the tracker had arrived by train a few hours later. They followed the route normally taken by the stagecoach for quite a way until they saw where the vehicle had gone off to one side. A few miles further on they found the stagecoach abandoned in a clump of trees.

"They unhitched the horses and went that way and they met up with a wagon by the look of it," the tracker said as he pointed.

"Okay, lead the way, pard. We're right behind ya."


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