Common Ground

by KellyA

Webmaster Note: This fic was previously posted on another website and was moved to blackraptor in June of 2004.

Jun 2000

[Thanks to Eleanor T. for all her insight and help. She made a good story great!]

Part 1
Vin walked into the unusually peaceful saloon, his gaze quickly adjusting to the dimness. He removed his hat, slapping it against his leg and sending up a billow of dust. Chris lounged with his back against the bar, watching JD and Buck play a friendly game of checkers at the table closest to him. Ezra played solitaire at his table in the center of the room, waiting for an opportunity to engage in a game of chance.

"Hey, Cowboy," Vin greeted, slouching against the bar next to Larabee. "Pretty quiet night."

Chris nodded in acknowledgment, wondering how long the peace and quiet would last. Inez stepped up to them, placing a beer next to Vin.

"Gracias, Señorita." He gave the beautiful woman a warm smile then turned his attention to the rambunctious laughter of four ranchhands who strode into the saloon.

The undercurrent of energy grew proportionate with the gathering patrons filling the tables and lining up along the bar. Both lawmen knew it would only take one spark to ignite that energy and so they kept constant vigil looking for that spark.

Chris noticed how most men steered clear of the fancy dressed gambler in the center of the room, hoping to hold on to some of their money. Ezra seemed oblivious to the goings on around him, but Chris knew the cardsharp noticed everyone who entered his realm and probably knew who had money to spend and who didn't.

Ezra's eyes shifted as a middle-aged man walked stiffly through the bat wing doors, his jingling spurs announcing his presence to the whole saloon. 'Good Lord, look at what the cat dragged it!' A rube if the gambler had ever seen one.

The newcomer was dressed in a starched white linen shirt and brown leather vest under a brown duster. He wore brown pants and leather chaps, that were so new they creaked when he walked. If you could call what he did walking; all he seemed able to manage was sort of a constrained waddle. Ezra didn't hide the amused smirk that creased his face as it became apparent that the gentleman was unaccustomed to western clothing and its accompanying accessories. He constantly tugged at his gun belt where a shiny new colt was holstered. The Stetson was also proving a challenge, no matter how hard he tried to mold the brim it would always end up flat and stiff.

The gentleman scanned the rustic interior, his gaze stopping on the object of his search.

Chris nudged Vin in the arm and nodded toward the stranger who was stepping up to Ezra's table. Vin's blue eyes narrowed and he leaned over toward Chris.

"That there's Mr. Winslow; him and his family came in on the afternoon stage from back east," Vin disclosed. "They're here to purchase the old Hawkins ranch south of here."

Mr. Winslow tapped Ezra on the shoulder and straightened as Ezra turned his head, hooking his thumbs into his gunbelt. "Sir, I'm looking for a game."

Ezra smiled and eyed the gentleman. "I'm sorry. I only play for high stakes." He returned to his game of solitaire, missing the astonished, and annoyed expression on Mr. Winslow's face.

"I happen to have been one of the best poker players back in Kaskaskia, Illinois, and I have the winnings to prove it," he boasted, patting his coat pocket.

Buck leaned back from his game of checkers with JD. He whistled as Mr. Winslow pulled out a large wallet and dropped it on the table with a resounding thud.

It never ceased to amaze Buck how people willingly gave the cardsharp their money. Playing poker with Ezra was tantamount to just handing it over to him.

Ezra eyed the heavy looking wallet and took a deep breath. He looked over to the bar to see Chris and Vin observing the proceedings.

"It's your move, Buck," JD began, then stopped as he noticed that his friend wasn't paying attention. He tapped Buck's arm. "Your move," he repeated.

"Wait, this might be better than checkers," Buck replied, motioning toward Ezra's table.

Ezra pushed the heavy wallet back toward Winslow. He knew all about the man: A bank manager from back east, who'd come into some money and had decided to make a life for him and his family on the wild frontier. Ezra had seen his share of dreamers like Winslow hoping to make a better life for themselves, only to find hardship and despair.

"I'm sorry sir, keep your money and go home."

"What? You're a gambler, aren't you? I want to gamble. You too good to take me on?" Winslow paused, a smug smile creasing his face. "Or maybe you're just yellow?"

"Aw hell," Vin murmured, shaking and bowing his head.

Chris closed his eyes and turned his back, not having to see what was going to happen next. JD's mouth fell open as Buck buried his head down on his arms to stop the laughter that wanted to spill out.

Ezra's grin widened to show his gold tooth as he scooped up the cards. Pushing out the chair opposite him at the table with his foot, the gambler's smile invited Winslow to sit down.

Vin looked up to see the easterner remove his coat and sit down, flexing his fingers as he watched Ezra dexterously shuffle the deck. Winslow appeared confident and relaxed, something Vin knew wouldn't last.

Nathan stepped into the saloon, his height enabling him to quickly scan the crowd. He grinned and made his way over to Buck and JD's table, easily maneuvering past tables and chairs. The smile dropped from his face when he glanced over at Ezra's table.

"Ay, Nathan," JD greeted the tall healer as he sat down.

"What's going on over there? Isn't that Mr. Winslow?" Nathan asked, ignoring JD's greeting.

"Yep," Buck answered.

"Doesn't Ezra know the man has a family?" Nathan snapped, eyeing the two men. He watched as Ezra occasionally nodded to the loquacious Winslow.

JD rose up out of his chair, grabbing his bowler. "Well, he shouldn't be playin' Ezra then. Buck, I'm going over to the jail for a while."

"See ya later, kid," Buck replied, gathering up the checkers. He didn't think Nathan was in the mood to play. He never could understand why Ezra's profession seemed to anger Jackson so much. He knew that his rather enthusiastic behavior with the ladies of the town was a sore spot with JD at times. For some reason Nathan seemed bound and determined to point out Ezra's shortcomings. Buck figured it was Ezra's smart-alec mouth that usually prompted Jackson's aspersions on his character.

Nathan continued to watch Ezra and his victim, not understanding why

someone of Mr. Winslow's prominence would even sit at the same table as the conniving conman.

Part 2

Nathan and Buck pushed their empty plates away, having both enjoyed their steak dinner. The saloon was now packed to capacity, and Buck was searching out his prospects among the young women who were mingling with the patrons. Nathan had barely said two words through the whole meal, more interested on the game that was transpiring two tables away.

"How many cards, Mr. Winslow?" Ezra calmly drawled, his placid demeanor only infuriating the gentleman more. Winslow's earlier arrogance disappeared, and his frustration grew with each losing hand. He slammed down two cards with a growl.

Raising a sandy eyebrow Ezra dealt him two cards.

Mr. Winslow looked at his hand, and a slow smile appeared on his face.

"Sir?" Ezra prompted.

Winslow's grin grew wider, splitting his oval face in two as he lay down two jacks and three queens-a full house. Ezra's expression didn't alter as he lay down his own cards: four eights. Winslow's face and shoulders' fell as he stared at the gambler's hand as Ezra raked in his winnings.

"You cheated me," he murmured under his breath.

Ezra looked up to meet his adversary's enraged brown gaze.

"You cheated me!" Winslow repeated, his voice raising with his anger.

"You're nothin' but a low-lyin' swindler! A cheatin' bastard!"

Mr. Winslow stood up, throwing his chair behind him and listening to it clatter to the floor. The man's outrage did not go unnoticed by the other lawmen in the saloon. The conversation of the other patrons died and all eyes turned to the unfolding scene.

Ezra's face darkened. "Sir, I take offense at that allegation. I did not cheat."

"You're a liar!" Winslow stabbed his finger at Ezra. "You can't fool me! I know all about your kind, stealing a man's livelihood just so you can buy your fancy clothes."

Ezra remained silent. He had played a fair game -- was it his fault the fool had wagered everything he had on a losing hand? Ezra had been considering giving the inept fool some of his money back, having taught him a sharp lesson about tangling with a professional. From the corner of his eye he could see Chris and Vin's shared grins and shaking heads, and no one in the saloon could miss Nathan's disgusted glare.

Chris was only grateful the irate Winslow had either forgotten he had a gun or was afraid to use it. Chris knew Ezra only cheated other cheaters and was probably teaching Winslow the folly of playing a professional gambler. Standish's gambling did get him and the others in trouble from time to time, but his devious mind and talent for deception had also saved them and pulled them out of difficult situations.

Buck ignored what was happening, he'd seen it all before. He turned his attention instead to the beautiful blonde sitting upon his knee with who he was debating the profound question, "Your place or mine?"

Ezra sat back in his chair, not delighting in being everyone's source of amusement, but he refused to battle with someone who was so obviously out of control of his emotions.

Winslow's face was a bright shade of red. Untangling his coat from his toppled chair, he stormed out of the saloon. Ezra calmly counted his money and gathered up the cards to prepare for another game, the incident already forgotten in his mind.

Unfortunately, this did not hold true for Nathan, who saw this as another one of Ezra's self-serving coups. Ezra felt Nathan's presence before he saw him. He bowed his head for a moment, not in the mood for another lecture from the moralistic healer.

"When will you stop cheatin' people of their hard earned money?"

Ezra clenched his fist, trying to control his growing anger. "Mr. Jackson, I don't see where this is any of your concern and would appreciate it if you would refrain from giving me any of your sanctimonious lectures."

"Whew, that was a mouthful," Vin murmured to Chris, who was watching the whole scene intently.

Larabee was not amused. Nathan and Ezra had been at each other's throats since day one. He was worried about what this continued animosity could do to the team, especially during a gunfight. Something had to be done to get those two to bury the hatchet -- preferably not in each other. Downing the last of his beer, Chris strode over to his two men.

Nathan and Ezra shut up as soon as Chris loomed over them. Chris was silent for a moment and stared down at them. He trusted both men with his life. He harbored some doubt about Ezra's integrity when money was involved, but he also felt that maybe Nathan expected too much from the suave gambler. This was Ezra's life, it was the only way he knew how to survive and it was how he had been raised.

"Nathan, Ezra, I need you both for a job," Chris suddenly announced.

"Excuse me?" Ezra replied, tilting his head up to stare in astonishment at the gunslinger.

"What?" Nathan said at the same time. "Chris, you know I'll do any job, but..."

"But what, Mr. Jackson? Any job that doesn't entail riding with me?" Ezra finished.

Nathan sneered at Ezra. The man could really get under his skin.

Chris knew he had to do something soon or these two men were going to come to blows or gun shots.

"Bank needs money transferred to Oak Ridge. Everyone else is tied up right now, so you two are it."

"And if I refuse?" Ezra countered.

Chris bent down and put his palms down on the table nailing Ezra with an icy cold stare. "You'll be pulling morning guard duty until I shoot you for being late."

"Well, that shouldn't be too long," Nathan murmured under his breath, earning glares from both men.

"Be ready at dawn day after tomorrow," Chris said and returned to the bar.

"You think that's wise, cowboy?" Vin asked as Chris settled in next to him. He watched as Nathan strode out and Ezra ordered a drink.

Chris shrugged. "Either they'll find a way to get along or they'll kill each other." Vin cocked an eyebrow and a faint smile lifted a corner of his mouth.

Part 3

Later the next day the whole town had heard how the bank had turned down Mr. Winslow's request for a loan. He had been unable to come up with the down payment for the ranch he'd come to purchase and another buyer had quickly stepped in.

Ezra came upon Mrs. Winslow and her young son, sitting outside the telegraph office. The elegant woman was dressed in a beautiful long green dress, which would have been more apropos within the balcony of some grand theater than on the boardwalk of some dusty little town.

"Mrs. Winslow, I'm Mr. Standish," Ezra greeted her, bowing slightly.

Mrs. Winslow's lips tightened into a firm straight line as her hazel eyes stared up at him.

"Ma, that's the man who cheated pa," the young boy beside her exclaimed.

Ezra stiffened at the remark, but smiled down at the small boy.

Mrs. Winslow passed a coin to the boy. "Tommy, why don't you go to the store and pick out some candy?"

Tommy sneered up at Ezra, but took the coin and ran off.

"You have a good boy there," Ezra said.

Mrs. Winslow smiled as she watched her son cross the street and head for the store. She then turned her attention back to the handsome cardsharp.

"My husband is a good man, and I would be less than honest, Mr. Standish, if I said I was angry that you cheated him," Mrs. Winslow paused a moment, turning to look into the telegraph office where her husband was.

"Harry is trying to get some money, so we can go back east," she continued. "I never wanted to come out here, it was all Harry's idea. To start a new life and have an adventure." Mrs. Winslow took a deep breath. "I was glad we lost the ranch. I was happy back east. I'm just not sure what we're going to do now... It was all the money we had."

Ezra removed an envelope from his jacket and handed it to the charming woman. Her brows came together in confusion as she took the envelope and looked inside. Her eyes went wide at the sight of a large sum of money.

"This is the money your husband lost to me last night," Ezra explained.

"I don't understand?" she asked.

"I suggest you use it to return home."

"How will I explain this to my husband? He does have his pride," Mrs. Winslow asked.

"Tell him I had a stroke of guilty conscience and returned it."

Mrs. Winslow sealed the envelope and looked up at Ezra.

"You didn't cheat him, did you?" she asked.

Ezra smiled, turned and walked away.

Chris was sitting outside the saloon, his legs stretched out before him and his hat pulled down. He had been watching Ezra since he approached Mrs. Winslow, seeing him hand her an envelope. When Ezra left Chris stood and strode across the street toward the telegraph office.

+ + + + + + +

The next morning Ezra met Chris and Nathan outside the bank at the appointed, ungodly hour. The gambler had decided to be on time, for the simple pleasure of annoying the hell out of Nathan.

Chris tied the heavy saddlebags onto the back of Nathan's horse. "Just drop the money off and get back here," Chris explained.

"Don't worry, I'm not staying away any longer than I have to," he replied, glancing over at Ezra, who's face was shadowed by the brim of his black Stetson.

Chris shook his head. He hoped that alone on the trail these two might be able to work things out. It was a long lonely ride to Oak Ridge, long enough to give a man time to think. Now as he looked at his two obstinate friends, he wasn't so sure this had been the best idea he'd ever had.

Nathan spurred his horse forward. Ezra tipped his hat to Chris and reluctantly followed Jackson, vowing revenge against the dark-clad gunslinger when he returned.

Part 4

They had been on the road for over an hour with neither lawman saying a word. The tension and animosity that existed between them simmered beneath their contrasting exteriors. Even their horses felt their owners distrust and displeasure and kept respectful distances from each other.

A cool breeze from the North kept the late summer heat from making the long trip even more miserable. Nathan was trying to enjoy the quiet and relax. He cast a sidelong glance at Ezra, only to see the familiar pompous expression on Ezra's clean-shaven face. He couldn't hold his anger back any longer.

"It wasn't right," Nathan said disapprovingly to the fancy dressed man riding alongside him.

Ezra fastidiously swiped at the dust on his tan jacket, appearing unperturbed by his companion's agitation. Since his game with Winslow, Nathan had been even more vocal about his ethics, never missing a chance to slip in a nasty comment. The other lawmen had ignored the verbal abuse, not realizing how much Nathan's words or their silence hurt Ezra. They had all been working together for a couple months now, and whereas Ezra was starting to feel some camaraderie with the other lawmen, Nathan and him had been unable or unwilling to put aside their differences.

Ezra and Nathan were barely civil to each other, at times, with Nathan always questioning the gambler's motives, and Standish was weary of Nathan's hypocritical indignation. Whenever the two men seemed to be getting along, something would occur that would undermine the slowly building foundation, causing it to crumble to the ground.

"Mr. Jackson, I did not force Mr. Winslow to engage in our little game of chance. He did so of his own volition," Ezra explained for the hundredth time, becoming annoyed at Nathan's constant harping.

Nathan threw a disgruntled glare at the scheming conman as his roan pranced sideways, feeling his owner's agitation and trying to distance itself from its cause.

"You know that was all the money he had," Nathan angrily muttered, jerking his horse back in line. Nathan had talked to Mr. Winslow after the game, which had only made Jackson madder. Winslow truly believed that Ezra had cheated him.

"I left him enough to get back east," Ezra countered, not bothering to tell Nathan that he had returned the money. It wasn't good business for a skilled gambler, such as himself to return money, and anyway, it had nothing to do with the issue of cheating that Nathan accused him of.

He really couldn't understand why Nathan felt the need to reprimand him on his life style. He was a conman and always would be. The others accepted his profession and rarely made any objection to it, except for the occasional roll of the eyes or shake of the head.

Larabee had hired him fully aware of his profession. Hell, the taciturn gunslinger had admitted he thought a conman would come in handy. Vin had later told him that Chris had used the word 'cheat,' which Ezra took exception to. Sometimes Ezra wondered how long that need would remain. Would he be asked to leave if Chris felt his talents were no longer required? For some reason he refused to define why this thought distressed him.

"What about his family?" Nathan demanded. He had grown up watching people being taken advantage of, and he just couldn't abide it now.

"I was doing them a service," Ezra sharply replied.

"How you figure?"

"Women and children should not be subjected to this hostile environment."

Nathan snorted. "You're nothing but a self-serving, money grubbing, bastard." Even Jackson was shocked at the venom in his voice, but there it was, all the cards laid out on the table so to speak. He had tried for months to ignore Ezra's unscrupulous dealings for the sake of the team. Where he tried to help people with what little medical knowledge he had learned, Ezra seemed hell bent on taking the money of everyone who passed through town, or even his fellow peacekeepers, constantly planning or plotting some get-rich quick scheme.

Nathan was taken aback by a fleeting, unfamiliar expression of hurt and anger that flashed across Ezra's face; although, it had only lasted a second and was quickly replaced with his usual mask of indifference, it made an impact on the healer.

'What was that?' Nathan thought, 'an attempt to elicit sympathy'?

Ezra angrily pulled up his horse. Larabee could force him to work with this man, but he would not tolerate being abused in this manner. He was just barely able to keep his voice steady, but his green eyes flashed hell-fire at the dark man.

"Mr. Jackson, we may have to work together, live in the same town and maybe even share an occasional libation for the duration of my employment in Four Corners, but that does not mean I have to stand here and allow you to malign my character."

"Hell, Ezra, you ain't got no character." Nathan didn't know where this anger was coming from, but he was more than willing to release it on the southerner.

He didn't understand why Ezra stayed on at Four Corners after the thirty days that had earned him his pardon. They'd all expected him to leave, but after two months they had all discovered a comfortable partnership. Although, between him and Ezra that partnership was about as comfortable as sitting on a cactus at times. Nathan kept telling himself his dislike of the urbane conman had nothing to do with him being a southerner - he just wasn't sure he believed it anymore.

The first crude structures of Oak Ridge appeared on the horizon and Ezra spurred his horse ahead, not wanting to do or say something he might later regret. He didn't understand why what Nathan said was affecting him so much. Why should he care what this man, this ex-slave thought of him? Since he had become a part of the seven gunslingers, who protected Four Corners, a bothersome streak of conscience had managed to weasel its way into his soul. Ezra was discovering a conscience was something that was not easy for a conman to have.

Part 5

The two men rode silently and stiffly into the town of Oak Ridge. Nathan noticed the slight slump in Ezra's shoulders and a pang of guilt twisted in his gut; maybe he'd been too hard on the enigmatic gambler.

They pulled up in front of the small bank. Oak Ridge was about the size of Four Corners and was used as the central station for stage lines from Tucson and San Francisco, so the town bustled with newcomers from all over. Ezra smiled at the sight of so many expensively dressed individuals. He leaned over and laid a tan-sleeved arm lazily on top of the pommel of his saddle.

Nathan recognized the glint in the cardsharp's eye and shook his head in resignation. Dropping to the ground he threw the reins over his horse's head and secured him to the railing. He went to untie the saddlebags from the back of his saddle.

"I'll take the money to the bank then get something to eat. Meet you back here in an hour," Nathan said, looking over to watch Ezra smoothly dismount.

Ezra gave Nathan a curt nod, Jackson's earlier words still ringing in his ears. He eyed the leather bags flung over Nathan's wide shoulders. Back at Four Corners he hadn't failed to notice that Chris made sure Nathan handled the money. He knew the others didn't trust him; hell, he didn't trust himself. Maybe Chris thought the temptation would have been too much. Ezra shook the thoughts away as he watched Nathan enter the bank and searched the town for the only place that would give him solace.

+ + + + + + +

An hour later and after a good meal Nathan found himself sitting astride his horse waiting for Ezra, his growing impatience showing on his handsome face. He wanted to get back to Four Corners before dark. He didn't look forward to the ride home. He mentally promised himself he would try and initiate a more civil conversation with the gambler.

Nathan knew Chris had sent them together hoping that he and Ezra would find a way to work out their differences. Unfortunately, it only seemed to have widened the chasm between them. How could he find common ground with a man he believed only cared for his own needs and put money over and above anyone or anything else?

Nathan's black gaze traveled over the tightly packed, gray clapboard building fronts until they came to rest on the saloon, the place the gambler considered home. He drew in a calming breath and exhaled, then dismounted and walked across the street trying not to let his anger take over.

Nathan stepped into the dusty saloon, immediately seeing the wayward gambler sitting at a table with three other men, evidently deep into their card game. By the size of the money pile in front of Ezra, it was obvious that lady luck was once again gracing him with her presence. Nathan shook his head. He believed the gambler was cheating and this only heightened his disgust.

Nathan stepped up beside the cardsharp, folding his arms across his chest.

"Ezra, we're leaving."

The observant cardsharp had seen the healer enter the saloon and had felt dread settle over him. He was not looking forward to the trip back. He knew Nathan was as uncomfortable with his company as he was with Jackon's.

The two men just couldn't seem to find common ground on which they both could stand. Their pasts and current life styles couldn't be anymore contradictory. He, a southern gentleman with a penchant for the high-life and not above doing whatever he could to attain that lofty position, and Nathan, an ex-slave, who used his meager skills to help the less fortunate and seemed happy with his more plebeian lot in life.

"I'm not ready to extricate myself from this very lucrative game, Mr. Jackson." Ezra knew this would not be an acceptable answer, but at the moment he didn't care. He would not allow this man to dictate to him. He had his pride, and Chris was a long way away from Oak Ridge.

Nathan dropped his arms to his side and took a deep breath to calm his exasperation.

"Look, I want to get back by sunset, so we have to leave now," Nathan tried to explain in a non-threatening manner. He knew he wouldn't get anywhere with the southerner if they started arguing.

Ezra leaned back in his chair, a smile that didn't light his green eyes caressing his handsome face.

"I will leave when I'm damn good and ready, Mr. Jackson," he snarled through the smile as he discarded two cards, slapping them upon the table's surface. The other three men at the table looked up, sensing the anger that was like a living thing between the two men.

Nathan bent over, laying his fists, knuckles down, upon the table, his gaze returning the same menacing stare as Ezra's.

"Fine. You can explain to Chris why I came back alone." He slapped the table top and abruptly turned to go. His ire came out in the heavy pounding of his feet on the wooden floor as he left the saloon. He wondered if the threat of facing Larabee's anger unnerved the conman at all; he hoped so.

"You'll have to forgive my associate, absolutely no sense of priority." Ezra grinned and took a deep breath. He laid down his cards-full house, aces high. His smile grew at the muffled groans of the other players as he watched them slap down their inferior hands.

"Damn, uppity nigger," one of the other players murmured loud enough for Ezra to hear.

Ezra's smile vanished and he turned his head to the man who spoke.

"Sir, you will refrain from such vulgarity in my presence," he snarled. The dangerous look in the gambler's eyes immediately put the man on the defensive.

"Ay, I'm sorry. I didn't mean anything by it." The gentleman couldn't get up fast enough and scurried out of the saloon. The two remaining men nervously looked at each other, wondering if they should follow suit.

"If you'll excuse me, Gentlemen." Ezra picked up his money folding it and placing it inside his jacket. "It's been a pleasure, but I have other, more pressing matters to attend to." Ezra stood and tipped his hat. It wasn't that he was afraid of Chris's wrath, he only thought it prudent not to push the intimidating leader's limited patience. He also found himself more than a little concerned about the impulsive healer being out on the road alone.

Ezra left the saloon figuring he could readily catch up with the riled lawman. He would allow Nathan to chastise him, thus returning things to their status quo.

Part 6

Nathan was still fuming as he brought his horse down to a walk, after leaving the town two miles back. His churning anger prevented him from seeing the three men who suddenly appeared out from behind a small rock outcropping to block the roadway. He instantly got a bad feeling as he pulled up. The three men smiled wolfishly, and Nathan immediately began to feel like a stray calf. He looked over his shoulder in hopes that Ezra was coming up the road. The road was deserted.

"Well, lookey here," the man in the middle sneered. He appeared to be a couple years older than the other two and had the air of being the leader. He rode slumped down in his saddle, a hand resting on his thigh. He nudged his horse closer to Nathan's. "Where do you think you're goin', boy?!"

The slur of the last word said it all. Nathan's eyes narrowed and his heart started to race. He had encountered people like these three men all his life. He had hoped being set free would entitle him to be treated like any other man. He had discovered early on in his freedom that this was far from true.

"I'm not lookin' for any trouble," Nathan replied, trying to keep any challenge or fear out of his voice. He didn't want to provoke these men; the odds were not in his favor. He berated himself for not waiting for Ezra.

"You hear that, Billy, this darkie doesn't want any trouble," the older man mimicked, looking to the youngest of the three. "Well boy, that's too bad, 'cause you found it. You think you have the right to ride down our road just as pretty as you please?" Hate laced every word that came from the man's snarling lips.

"This darkie must think he's free or somethin', huh, Jessie?" Billy replied, causing all three of the men to snicker.

Nathan swallowed the lump that had developed in his throat. Since hooking up with the other six gunslingers, his life had become one that was both fulfilling and secure. He was well liked and well respected in his small corner of the world. He had forgotten what it was like for people like him in the 'real' world, without the protection of friends.

The three men surrounded him with their mounts. "Look, Jake, this Nigger carries a gun, and look at these fancy knives, lord I never thought I'd see the day." Jake shook his head in disgust as he pointed out Nathan's shoulder rig to his brother. He tossed Nathan's Remington over to Jessie.

Nathan bit his tongue, knowing any comment would only escalate the situation.

"I think he needs a reminder about his place in this world," Jessie sneered his face turning ugly as he glared at Nathan. He reached behind his saddle and grabbed his lariat.

At the sight of the rope a cold sweat broke out all over Nathan's body. He couldn't help himself, his heart raced and his tongue couldn't even ease his dry lips. He spurred his horse forward, trying to break away, but the three men were ready.

Jake grabbed the reins and jerked the horse to a stop. The sound of a gun being cocked froze Nathan. Looking back over his shoulder, Jackson saw Jessie pointing his own gun directly at him. Nathan hoped the knot in his gut didn't suddenly travel up this throat. Why hadn't he just waited?

Part 7

Ezra thought about the young healer as he rode, knowing Nathan's life had not been an easy one. Nathan had managed to pull himself up from the depths of slavery onto the level of a respected healer, lawman and citizen of Four Corners. Ezra had to admit Nathan harbored an indomitable spirit, which really came in handy being a black man in a white man's world. Lesser men would have crumbled and fell a long time ago, but Nathan had triumphed and thrived. He respected Nathan Jackson, even if he didn't always like him.

Ezra thought for a moment about himself. He was arrogant, cocky and perhaps somewhat vain; he possessed a certain charm that attracted women and influenced children. He felt superior to most men, especially the ones he chose to make a living off of. With the six other lawmen he never felt superior, or inferior. Equal was a nice word to describe his position with the others. It suggested harmony and tranquillity,--Well, maybe equal wasn't quite the right word after all. It did speak of friendship and respect though, and friendship and respect were things that had been definitely lacking in Ezra's past life. He wondered if Nathan respected him at all?

Ezra urged his horse into a quicker gait, it had been almost half an hour since Nathan had left town without him and he was starting to get anxious. His green eyes scanned the straight flat road ahead. He could see for perhaps three miles and still no sign of Jackson.

This was the only road he could have taken; unlike Mr. Tanner, Nathan was not one to take short cuts through uncharted wilderness. The thought of entering Four Corners without Jackson gave Ezra a sinking feeling right in the pit of his stomach. The thought of the healer being injured in some way only intensified the feeling.

Ezra's brow furrowed and he halted his horse at the sound of boisterous laughter, rising up from a nearby grove of trees. He lightly heeled his horse off the main road and down an overgrown path toward a copse of aspens.

When he reached the bottom his heart stopped at the sight laid opened to him, a sight he had thought he left behind in the South. Three men, their backs to him, were taunting Nathan, who was sitting upon a horse, a noose wrapped snugly about his neck. The other end was thrown over a lower branch and tied strongly to the base of a tree. The glee in the three men's voices belied their pernicious intent.

The fear in Jackson's eyes was palpable as one of the men threatened to release the horse out from under him.

Ezra had harbored his own bigotry, only recently seeing Nathan as something more than just an angry ex-slave. A sudden, protective anger boiled up in Ezra. No human being should have to endure such humiliating treatment by another.

Ezra's shoulders tensed, it felt as if he'd snap every muscle he had if he moved. His face maintained the imperturbable facade he'd been schooled in since birth. It was moments like this where being a conman paid off in more than just monetary gain.

Ezra's quick mind took in the situation and his options. Nathan's arms were tied behind his back, but he was still able to control his horse with his legs. Standish was grateful the healer's horse was not a skittish animal. It seemed to be tolerating the abuse of the churlish man standing next to it. The other two men stood a few feet away, enjoying the repugnant show. Ezra was fairly certain only a slap to the horse's rump would make it bolt. Gun shy horses were of no use to lawmen.

Nathan swallowed convulsively as the rough fiber of the rope bit into the soft flesh of his neck. He couldn't believe this was happening. He glanced down to his left where Jessie stood, a switch in his hand. The man's wide, toothy grin crinkled his eyes to mere slits. Nathan looked over at the other two who seemed equally amused. God, he didn't want to die this way. He closed his eyes trying to quell the panic inside him that wanted to rise up and take control.

"Gentlemen, is this a private party?" Ezra asked, his southern drawl coming out rich and thick as he broke through the brush.

No one was more surprised than Nathan at the gambler's sudden appearance. He tensed when the three brothers simultaneously drew their guns at the intruder.

Ezra reined in his horse and raised his hands in mock surrender.

Nathan held back the chortle at the innocent smile pasted on the gambler's face. The three hooligans grinned at Ezra's colorful attire and southern accent.

"What 'cha want?" Jessie menacingly asked, eyeing the newcomer suspiciously; something about the flamboyant dresser made him nervous.

"Well hell, Jessie, he probably just wants to join in the fun," Billy laughed.

Ezra inwardly cringed. Even though he was counting on these men automatically assuming he'd be party to a lynching simply because he was a southerner, it still cut him deeply.

"Hey Reb, how much would this nigger be worth in the good old days?" Jessie asked, smiling as he lowered his gun. Billy and Jake laughed uproariously and holstered their guns, returning their attention to Nathan.

These men didn't see Ezra as a threat to them, Nathan suddenly realized, they saw him as an ally -- one of them. Ezra was pegged as a bigoted murderer just by opening his mouth. Nathan suddenly understood that if he hadn't known Ezra Standish, he would be thinking the same thing as the three brothers were.

Ezra slowly lowered his hands and smirked. "And why, pray tell, is this man hanging precariously by the neck?" He lazily asked.

"Thought he could ride all high and mighty down our road. We're just goin' to teach him his place," Billy announced proudly.

Ezra cleared his throat. "That place being at the end of a rope?"

"Yeah," Jake giggled.

"We're just teaching this nigger a lesson," Jessie coolly remarked, twirling the switch between his fingers. "You're welcome to join us. I'll even let you do the honors."

Nathan's gaze locked with Ezra's green eyes and an understanding passed between them; a realization that they had more in common with one another than either one cared to admit. Both men finally saw the truth behind the other's posturing, and with this discovery found common ground on which they both could stand together as equals and friends.

Ezra suspected the man, the others called Jessie, who stood over by Nathan was the crux of this nasty little trio. The other two seemed to just follow along, although, they too were enjoying themselves far too much. Ezra figured if he took away the third leg of this little band of miscreants, the stool would topple. Nathan watched anxiously as Ezra pulled his jacket away from his gun. He tensed, prepared to hold his horse if gunplay came about.

Ezra shifted in his saddle, his knowing smirk dropping into something very dangerous. He covertly flicked his derringer into his hand "Gentlemen, your amusement has come to an end. You will kindly cut him loose from that demeaning position."

The three men stared slack-jawed at the smooth-talking gambler, not exactly sure what he had just said. It suddenly dawned on Jessie what the stranger was demanding.

"What fer? We're just gettin' ready to have some fun." Outrage and suspicion manipulated the three men's nearly identical faces.

"Well, gentlemen, and I do use the term loosely, this man has every right to ride down that road without being accosted."

Ezra's green gaze narrowed intently at Jessie, who remained near Nathan's horse. He could read the murderous intent in the man's depraved eyes.

"Are you sayin' this Nigger is as good as us?" Jessie laughingly sneered, looking over at his two brothers, who added their grins.

"Heavens no! On the contrary..." Ezra chuckled outright, enjoying the look on Nathan's face, a mixture of anger and bewilderment that almost matched the expression of his captors. A devilish glint sparkled in Ezra's green eyes as he finished,

"He's bettah."

Jessie's eyes widen as he raised his gun. Ezra raised his hand, which held his derringer and without seeming to take aim fired. The bullet tore through Jessie's chest, sending him falling backwards. With whatever life was left in him, Jessie brought the switch down on the horse's flanks, making the animal bolt.

Nathan tensed his neck muscles as he was jerked up and back, he was now dangling from the tightening noose, trying not to flail as he was slowly strangled. Jackson tried to call out to Ezra, but the noose only allowed a raspy spit of sound to escape. His chest started to tighten from lack of oxygen, his vision blurring.

Billy grappled for his holstered gun; with a trembling hand, he brought it up, using both hands to steady it.

Fear inspired adrenaline coursed through Ezra's body as he saw Nathan's eyes roll up into his head and drool run down his chin. Ezra diverted his aim from Billy and fired, severing the rope strangling Jackson at the lower limb. Nathan crumpled to the ground, his body taking a moment before realizing it was free before he began gasping and coughing for air.

Billy fired the moment after Ezra did, the bullet ripping into the gambler's left side, causing him to lose his grip on his derringer. In one fluid motion he drew his colt and shot his assailant in the arm. Billy hissed and grabbed his wound, his gun falling from his grasp. Ezra then took aim at Jake who immediately raised his hands.

Nathan struggled to his knees, taking in great gulps of air. Ezra drew his Remington, a gun now held in each hand.

"Mr. Jackson, are you well?"

Nathan nodded.

"Now, untie him or join your brother," Ezra told Jake, his voice no longer held any of his earlier humor.

Jake slowly made his way over to Nathan, his eyes never wavering from the gun pointed at him. He fumbled with the ropes until they fell away.

Nathan rubbed at his chafed wrists and pulled the noose over his head, dropping it in the dirt, like it was a serpent. He balled his fist and smoothly swung upward, connecting with Jake's jaw and sending the young man sprawling to the ground. Then Nathan strode over and picked up his guns and knives from where they were piled next to the tree, and then grabbed his Remington from beside Jessie's inert body. He retrieved his horse and remounted, drawing his own gun.

Billy had moved to check on his fallen brother. "Mister, you just killed our brother. You're a dead man," he snarled up at Ezra, his hand resting on Jessie's unmoving chest.

"I do apologize, but he left me little choice. You see this man you all were about to hang is a friend of mine." Ezra placed his Remington back into his shoulder holster, keeping his eyes on the two men. He could feel the warm blood running down his side.

"We were only havin' a little fun, you didn't have to kill 'im," Jake spat out, his face red from tears and anger.

"Your choice of entertainment leaves much to be desired," Ezra countered. "And whether you admit it or not, your brother had every intention of killing this man." Ezra could read a person like he could a deck of cards, and he knew that Nathan's life had been meaningless to the man who now lay dead.

"C'mon Ez, let's get out of here," Nathan insisted.

"Gentlemen, on the ground if you please," Ezra instructed, motioning with his gun.

Nathan dug his heels in and his horse surged forward. Ezra guided his horse backward with his legs. He holstered his colt and collected up the reins, jerking his horse around and following after Nathan.

Jake and Billy watched from their positions on the ground as the two men disappeared up the hill, then they looked over at their dead older brother.

"C'mon, let's git Jessie home," Billy sadly told his younger brother.

"Pa ain't going to like this," Jake added.

Part 8

Nathan pulled up as he crested a slight rise in the road, giving him an unobstructed view of the road behind him. He had begun to grow concerned when Ezra started to lag further behind. He thought the gambler was just staying back to cover their escape, but when he didn't catch up alarm bells started sounding in Nathan's head. He turned in his saddle when Ezra came up over the rise and frowned when he saw the pain etched in the gambler's face.

He immediately dismounted and met up with Ezra, who was doubled over in his saddle. Ezra's face was bathed in sweat and his breaths came out in uneven pants.

"Mr. Jackson, I suggest we keep moving as I believe we will be pursued," Ezra gasped, his hand clenching the saddle horn tighter as a wave of pain and nausea surged through him.

"You're hurt." Nathan pulled Ezra's jacket aside and swore upon seeing the blood covering the lower half of his left side. "Let me tend to your wound."

Nathan quickly checked for an exit hole and didn't find one. He didn't think anything vital had been hit, but there was considerable blood loss and the bouncing around had to be agony. Nathan grabbed some rags and a long strip of cloth out of his saddlebag.

"Let me help you down." Nathan grabbed Ezra's forearm prepared to help him off his horse.

"If I dismount...I don't believe...I'll be able to get back on. We don't have much farther to town," Ezra stubbornly resisted.

Nathan bit his lower lip, knowing Ezra was probably right.

"Can you get out of your jacket?"

Ezra cautiously slipped his arms out of his jacket and lay the coat in front of him. He then undid the buttons of his waistcoat.

Nathan pressed the rag against the wound, causing Ezra to arch his back and hiss as pain lanced through his body.

"Sorry," Jackson murmured as he began to wrap the cloth around Ezra's middle to hold the bandage in place. He stepped back to examine his work. "Well, it should at least get you back to town with some blood left in you."

Ezra managed a grateful grin. "That would be preferable, Mr. Jackson."

Nathan placed a hand on Ezra's leg. "That was some mighty fine shootin', I'm grateful," he forced out.

Ezra smiled and nodded his acceptance of the compliment to his marksmanship as well as the thanks. The two men traveled in silence for half an hour, but it wasn't the hostile silence of earlier. Nathan kept glancing over to his right, seeing the clenched jaw protruding on Ezra's pale face. Knowing the man was in considerable pain, his heart went out to him.

Ezra knew he was being scrutinized, but he could no longer keep up the façade of normality, he just hurt too much. Every beat of the horse's hooves sent daggers of agony through him. It took all his concentration to stay on his horse.

"Why do you do it, Mr. Jackson?" Ezra unexpectedly asked, keeping his glassy eyes straight ahead. He needed something to focus on besides the pain and conversation seemed to be the only option.

"Do what?"

"Use your God-given talents to help people such as those miscreants we just removed from our road?"

"Not everyone is like those men. I've met a lot of fine people in Four Corners."

Ezra chuckled weakly. "Everyone is like those men, just in differing degrees." Ezra could never understand Nathan's uncompromising belief in mankind. Even after everything the healer had experienced in his life the man still managed to maintain a positive attitude. To Ezra, everything came with a price and the price was usually high.

Did Ezra really believe everyone was just a mark? Nathan wondered. Someone not to be trusted? Nathan had to admit he was surprised that

Ezra had come to his rescue; hell, he was surprised he came at all. The whole time Nathan sat in that saddle with the noose around his neck he had no doubt that he was going to die. Then lo and behold, a miracle in the guise of Ezra Standish had appeared.

Before Nathan could question Ezra's motivation he saw that Standish was starting to list to one side. Nathan stretched out his hand to help steady the injured man.

The world had started to lose some of its reality for the wounded gambler, and Nathan watched as Ezra fought not to lose consciousness. The flush of fever had risen in his pale face. Ezra's horse suddenly stopped dead in its tracks, not sure of the instructions it was receiving from its incoherent rider.

Nathan reached over and took Ezra's reins without protest from the gambler. "You just hang on."

Ezra nodded, to weak to argue. This only worried Nathan more. They couldn't continue walking all the way back; it would take too long. He hoped Ezra's horse had an even gait as he spurred his horse into a canter.

Part 9

Night had just tucked its blanket of darkness over the town. A few folks leisurely strolled the boardwalk, enjoying the warm evening. Two drunken cowboys fell out of the saloon and made their way up the street toward the hotel, singing some off-key and slightly off-colored song about a whore and a farmer.

"CHRIS, JOSIAH!" Nathan shouted, interrupting the drunken cowboy's song and shattering the peace that had fallen over the town.

"I NEED HELP OUT HERE!" Nathan dismounted and went over to Ezra, who was hunched over his horse's neck, barely conscious.

Jackson eased Ezra from the saddle. He was worried about the fresh blood saturating the gambler's bandages.

Chris, Josiah and Vin ran out of the saloon in time to see Nathan struggling to keep a blood soaked Standish from crumpling to the ground. Josiah quickly stepped in swinging an arm around Ezra's waist to help lower him gently to the street.

"We have to get him up to my room now!" Nathan urgently explained to the three men, his voice sharp with concern. He placed a hand on Ezra's fevered brow and swore. The hectic ride had taken its toll of Ezra's strength. He should've taken the chance and taken care of the wound on the road, but fear of being caught and hanging from that rope again allowed him to be dissuaded by Ezra.

Chris heard the fear in Nathan's voice and anxiety filled his soul. He looked down at Ezra's pale features and a surprising sense of dread gripped his heart.

Buck and JD suddenly materialized within the glow of the saloon lights. Chris stared down the street into the darkness, looking for any sign of trouble.

"What happened?" JD asked, his dark eyes going wide at the sight of the injured gambler. Without a word Josiah collected up the smaller man and headed toward the clinic.

"He was shot saving my life," Nathan answered, starting to follow Josiah toward the clinic.

"What?" Chris's head snapped around, and he grabbed Nathan by the arm.

"I'll explain later, but you might want to post a guard," Nate suggested, then raced off to catch up with Sanchez and Ezra, Buck and JD right on his heels.

Chris clenched his jaw and watched as Josiah easily traversed the outer stairs with his injured burden. Ezra looked like a lifeless doll in the bigger man's arms.

"Vin," Chris called out, getting the tracker's attention away from Standish. "Nathan thinks trouble might be comin', take first watch."

"Did he say what kind of trouble?"

"No, but I'm sure we'll know it when we see it."

Vin nodded and jogged off toward the tallest building in town.

Chris again looked down the quiet street and into the surrounding darkness, wondering what was coming and why.