Cheating Hearts

by KellyA

Webmaster Note: This story was previously posted at another website and was moved to blackraptor in September 2004.

Part 1

"Why Mr. Larabee finds it necessary to wake a man at such an ungodly hour eludes me," Ezra grumbled to the tall cowboy walking next to him.

Buck smiled at his inconvenienced friend. "Ez, it's seven o'clock."

"Exactly my point, Mr. Wilmington, much too early for a gentleman..."

Buck shook his head. "Yeah, 'specially when that gentleman didn't leave the tables till two hours ago." Buck chuckled at the withering glare directed his way. He would never understand the gambler. Ezra was more content spending his mornings in bed and nights at the poker tables. Buck enjoyed this time of day. He felt unhurried and at peace, basking in the quiet of a new day. Although, there were times when Buck preferred to spend his nights and days in bed, preferably in the company of the opposite sex. "Well, Chris wants you watchin' the jail while I go on atrol. Unless, you'd rather take patrol?"

"The jail might not be my feathered bed, but at least it's warm." Ezra pulled the collar of his jacket up against a cool, morning breeze.

Ezra tilted his face up toward the warm sun. A brilliant blue coated the sky and light wispy clouds ghosted through the vastness. Since coming to Four Corners, Ezra had found himself increasingly enjoying the more simplistic aspects of life. He would never admit to the others how much he coveted their company or the new path his life had taken. His mother couldn't understand his sudden life-change and, for that matter, neither ould he. The others still expected him to be self-serving and money-grubbing, but he hoped they also knew he would give his life for any one of them. Ezra glanced out the corner of his eye amused at the Buck's smug demeanor at his mock discontent.

"I'm sure the prisoners will 'ppreciate you rescuing' them," Buck exclaimed.

"Is Mr. Dunne regaling them with his less than amusing witticisms?"

"If you mean he's borin' them to tears, yeah. He got a new dime novel the other day."

Ezra groaned, remembering when he had been forced to listen to the uneducated drivel of one of JD's dime-store novels. Chris considered it punishment for being late to duty last week.

"Isn't that considered cruel and unusual punishment?"

"Nah, Josiah calls it penance. I betcha them boys will think twice 'bout trying to steal anything again," Buck laughed and clapped his southern friend on the back.

Ezra grinned and looked ahead to see JD saunter out of the jailhouse. The youth smiled at the two approaching gunslingers, as he adjusted his gun belt.

With the light-hearted conversation and laughter of the two lawmen the sound of stomping hooves had gone undetected. A husky voice full of hostility ended Buck and Ezra's gaiety.

"You cheatin', slithering, low-down, good fer nothin' snake." The angry and slurred words mixed with the snorts of his agitated horse. "Turn and face me!"

Ezra and Buck halted and turned to face the drunkard. They stared at the irate gentleman who was fighting to stay in the saddle against the effects of too much drink.

"Damn, ain't it a bit early Mister?" Buck quipped, his smile fading and settling into lines of irritation. It was too early for this shit.

Ezra's brow furrowed, recognizing the agitated man. "Mr. Lunder, is something amiss?"

"I'd say somethin's amiss," Bryon Lunder spat. "You think you can ruin my life and git away with it?" Lunder's horse pranced and pawed under the erratic commands he was receiving from his intoxicated rider. "Someone shoulda done something about you a long time ago."

Ezra looked at Buck seeing his confusion; neither man was prepared for the events that suddenly whirled around them. Lunder fumbled for his gun as his perturbed horse spun in circles. As the horse came around Lunder's gun fired, freezing a moment out of the chaotic spectacle.

Part 2

Ezra's eyes widened when he heard the flat, ugly impact of the bullet, for a pair of heartbeats there was silence. Buck stared down at the bloom of red on the front of his shirt. He looked over at Ezra and wanted to laugh at the gambler's strange startled expression. "Aww hell," Buck simply exclaimed with a mixture of surprise and fear on his face.

Ezra grabbed Buck as his knees folded toward the ground and lowered the man to the boardwalk. Lunder squeezed his eyes shut for a moment, keeping his gun aimed at the lawmen as he tried to rein in his frantic horse. Ezra released his derringer and fired at the still present threat. Lunder's eyes rolled up into his head and he toppled from his saddle.

"Buck! Buck!" JD cried out, racing toward his friend.

Ezra cradled Buck's head and shoulders as he pulled out a handkerchief and applied pressure to the erupting wound in his friend's chest. He didn't hear JD's frantic cries, he could only hear Buck's gasping breath in a suddenly too quiet of world.

"You stay with me, Buck," Ezra commanded, his voice uncharacteristically cracking.

"Buck, aw shit, Buck," JD gasped falling to his knees beside his friend.

Ezra continued to maintain the life saving pressure and looked over his shoulder to see Nathan racing across the street toward them. "Just hold on, Buck. Nathan's on his way." The world seemed to suddenly reanimate and Ezra reeled as he relinquished his position to the healer who immediately began to assess the damage.

"Buck, can you hear me?" Nathan called.

Nathan glanced over his shoulder when the boardwalk shook under the combined weight of Josiah and Vin. "Josiah, I need you to keep pressure on the this wound."

The ex-preacher quickly slipped in and took up the task of applying pressure to Buck's wound. Nathan peeled back one of Buck's eyelids.

Ezra slowly glanced up, not surprised to see Chris standing over them. The gunslinger had an uncanny ability of suddenly appearing from nowhere. Chris always seemed to be where he was most needed, carrying with him an aura of strength and courage. Ezra wondered if he would ever be graced with that fortifying presence.

+ + + + + + +

Chris was sure his heart stopped if only for a couple beats. He stared down at his oldest and dearest friend, unmoving, under Nathan's frantic hands. He felt the old pangs of loss trying to engulf him. "Nathan?"

Nathan's head snapped up and he looked at Chris. "I have to get him up to the clinic. The bullet's still in him."

Ezra's mind was racing as his eyes shifted between the others, trying to understand what had just happened. It had been a beautiful day; when had the dark clouds moved in? He had been happy, enjoying the company of a friend. Now, he was watching that friend fight for his life. Ezra's head was muddled with Nathan's urgent commands, JD's constant reassurances and the murmurings of the surround townsfolk.

"Let's git him up to the clinic," Nathan ordered.

Josiah slid his arms under Buck's shoulders as Vin grabbed his legs. They slowly eased the unconscious gunslinger up off the boardwalk. Nathan followed Vin and Josiah as they carefully carried their injured friend across the street.

JD made to follow until Chris's hand grabbed his arm. JD's eyes remained on Buck's limp body being carried up the stairs of the clinic. He hoped this wouldn't be the last view of his friend. JD's eyes slowly came around to look up at Chris's hardened features.

"What the hell happened?" Chris asked, shifting his deadly gaze between JD and Ezra. "Well?"

JD frowned and looked over at Ezra. The cardsharp stood to the side, a placid expression on his face. Everything had happened so fast. "Mr. Lunder was yelling," JD quietly explained, trying to piece together exactly what had happened. He had recognized the man as a small-time rancher who came to town once a month, usually getting drunk and picking a fight.

"Yelling what?" Chris squeezed JD's arm, urging him to continue. He was anxious to get to Buck's side too, but not before he found out what had happened.

JD bowed his head and fought the tears that threatened to spill over. "Lunder was angry and he was yelling something." JD paused and lifted a wary gaze toward the gambler. "Something about cheating, low- down snake and that he ruined his life."

Chris's glare darkened, and his eyes swung around to fix on the gambler. "You know anything 'bout this?"

Ezra stood silently and took a deep breath. He was as stunned as anyone by Lunder's outburst. He glared back at the blond gunslinger feeling threatened.

"Ezra played cards with Mr. Lunder last night," JD suddenly added. "And Lunder wasn't none to happy when he left the table." JD shifted his gaze down at the boardwalk, as anger swelled up inside, it was a rare feeling to the naïve lawman. Was Ezra responsible?

"Is that true?" Chris growled.

Ezra was jolted out of his shock by this question.

"Yes, I did partake in a game of chance with the recently deceased," Ezra replied, trying to regain his smooth manner, but his voice came out rough, choked with emotion. He could see it in Chris and JD's faces; they blamed him.

Chris could feel JD's anxiety, undulating like ants on a carcass. He released the young man's arm. "Go."

JD took one last speculative look at the gambler. Did he really know the urbane southerner? He turned and raced across the street toward the clinic.

Chris took a deep breath and again brought his blue eyes to bear on the conman. Ezra wondered if anyone else ever received that deadly glare, or if it was just reserved for him.

Ezra's brow furrowed, the only outward sign that he was in any way disturbed by Larabee's expression. He thought he was starting to fit in with the six other lawmen. The expression on Larabee's face fueled his belief that he would never be a part of this town. "Mr. Lunder and I did play a friendly game of chance last night, but he was distracted and drinking heavily. He lost a considerable sum of money, but nothing that I would deem life-ruining."

"Did he think you cheated him?" Chris growled. He had been growing to trust the enigmatic conman and even to like him, but as he looked at Ezra's seemingly unperturbed expression and remembered that the man had betrayed his trust on two occasions Chris was finding it hard to hold onto any amount of respect for the southerner.

Ezra's attitude was not out of any sense of disregard, but a safety valve, a way to distance himself from any emotional harm. He had his mother to thank. As a boy, every time his mother left him he would harden himself a little more, until the pain faded. In time, it became automatic and something he was no longer aware of.

"If Mr. Lunder believed me to be dishonest, he did not voice any objection," Ezra smugly replied, a little too smugly.

Ezra's chin became the recipient of Larabee's fist, slamming him against the wall of the building. Ezra maintained his feet, holding his jaw.

"If he dies because of your damn cards..." Chris stammered, his voice pulsing with rage. Ezra's hand hovered near his revolver for a moment then relaxed. He didn't know if Chris had noticed or chose to ignore the impulse. The blond gunslinger turned away and followed the same path of the other lawman.

Ezra pushed himself away from the wall and wiped the blood from his mouth. Damn, he thought he was starting to have a home here.

Part 3

Chris stopped short, inches from the clinic door. His hand hovered over the doorknob. He couldn't open it. He couldn't open a door to a life without Buck.

The door opened and Vin stood in front of the stoic gunslinger.

"He's still alive, Chris," Vin quickly said, stepping aside to allow the distressed gunslinger passage. He flanked his friend, hoping his presence calmed Chris's growing worry.

JD had explained to them what had happened and Vin knew that judgments had already been made. He hoped that Ezra wasn't responsible or that there was more to the story.

The healer straightened from his position over Buck and drew the blanket up to his chest. JD sat on the other side of the bed, his hand resting on Buck's arm. He looked like a little boy, so lost and innocent. Buck protected that innocence as he taught the young easterner to survive on the wild frontier. If Buck died, what would happen to that innocence?

"The bullet's deep." Nathan explained. "I gave him something to knock him out."

"What are his chances?" Chris asked stepping up to Buck's bedside. His normally animated and gregarious friend looked unnatural. Buck was always filled with life, to see that life so still filled him with a fear he'd never known before.

Nathan wiped a hand down his face. "I've got to get the bullet out soon or risk infection. It's going to depend on how much damage was done. It's near his heart."

Nathan paused and glanced at the door at it opened and watched as Ezra slipped inside. The southerner stood quietly in the doorway, not missing the disgust in the healer's gaze. He also didn't miss the disappointment in Vin and Josiah's melancholy faces. But nothing compared to the lost expression on JD's young visage. The young sheriff glanced at him, his face unreadable for the first time, but Ezra felt the uncertainty, the ondemnation and worse the distrust. He knew he wasn't welcomed.

Ezra forced his gaze down to Buck and his heart sputtered. The two lawmen had a growing friendship, at least what Ezra perceived as friendship. Ezra never had many friends in his life; friendship was not advantageous to a conman. Ezra stepped back out of the doorway, leaving the room. He pressed his back up against the outside wall. It was overwhelming, the feelings of animosity he felt. He'd never been affected before by what eople thought. Why were these men so different? Maybe his mother was right; he shouldn't have allowed himself to become so involved-- Never set down roots, emotionally or physically, it was a recipe for disaster.

Part 4

Ezra raised his head as Chris, Vin, and JD stepped out of the clinic. Chris slapped the wall with his bare hand. Nathan had forced them out of the clinic. Chris's anger and frustration were coursing through his body like a couple of agitated rattlesnakes. He couldn't lose Buck. Buck had saved him on numerous occasions. Buck was a connection to his past and a afeguard for his future.

JD stared at the wooden door that hid the battle for life. He had discovered a brother within the ladies' man. What would life be like without him? It felt as if they'd known each other all their lives, even though it had only been a few months. He didn't want to believe that Ezra might be responsible. If it were true, he'd never forgive the southerner. Ezra's card playing might finally have brought an end to the seven.

Chris audibly inhaled, held it, and then slowly exhaled.

"I better get out on patrol," Vin tiredly exclaimed.

"No." Chris's voice halted the tracker. "Ezra git your ass out here." It was the least the self-seeking gambler could do.

Ezra thought about challenging the order. Instead, he turned and alked away without saying a word.

"Think you're being a little tough on 'im," Vin quietly said.

"Buck's lying in there, maybe dying because Ezra feels the need to play with people's money and livelihood," Chris stated. "You can't take everything a man has without suffering something for it."

"He doesn't cheat," Vin defended.

"I know that," Chris breathed out, releasing some of his pent up fury. "but others don't." Chris's blue eyes locked onto Vin's. "How many times have we had to stop a brawl or someone from shooting him because of his cards? They're nothing but trouble."

"So are your guns," Vin defended. "and my bounty."

Chris ran his hand over his guns, knowing that the intuitive tracker was right, but he didn't use his guns to start trouble, just end it, and Vin couldn't control someone trying to collect the bounty on his head. Ezra had control over his chosen profession. "It ain't the same; I don't play with people's money, or give them false hope that they're going to get rich, and you can't control someone coming after you for money. Ezra as a choice."

"Do you really believe that?" Vin asked not expecting an answer.

Part 5

Ezra slammed the door to his room and threw his hat onto the chair. It didn't make sense. Yes, he and Lunder had played cards. And Lunder had appeared preoccupied and agitated when he sat down at the table. Lunder's anger grew proportionately to the amount of alcohol he was ingesting. Ezra didn't think that Lunder had left the table due to any perceived underhanded tactics from himself. Lunder's attention seemed to be elsewhere when he abruptly left the table, leaving the remainder of his oney.

Ezra stopped his pacing in front of his mirror. Was he responsible? In Lunder's drunken state could he had believed that he had been cheated? Damn, if Buck died... Ezra's fist lashed out and slammed into the mirror shattering the looking glass and slicing his knuckles. He fell back onto his bed ignoring the pain and blood. If Buck died, his life here would e over, hell if Buck died; Chris would see that his life was over. Ezra slowly got up from the bed. He moved to get his hat and caught his image in the broken mirror. His life was now as devastated at the mirror and about as useful. He grabbed his hat and left his room to perform his final duty.

Part 6

Ezra had remained on patrol throughout the rest of the day and into the night. The morning sun hailed the return of the exhausted and fearful gambler. He figured if Buck had died during the night Larabee would have hunted him down already.

Ezra felt the change before he saw it in the townspeople's eyes. He had left to smiles and nods of acknowledgments. He returned to angry glares and disgusted sneers, at least from people who even bothered to look at him. Funny, how people's opinions could change at the drop of a hat, or in this case, at the drop of a lawman. He knew many of the townsfolk only tolerated him, and would love to see him fall.

Ezra made his way slowly up to his room to get cleaned up. He then planned to look in on Buck, whether the others approved or not. He'd already decided that his time here was done. As soon as he knew of Buck's condition, he would leave.

Part 7

Ezra ascended the stairs to Nathan's clinic, realizing his steps were slow, his mind racing with his heart. Scenarios played through his head like a thundering herd of wild stallions, all racing toward an unknown end. He halted on the last step and stared at the door. A door that led to healing, also held his future. He quietly entered, feeling like an intruder as he stepped inside. The others were all there, barely glancing up as he stepped off to the side.

Chris and JD sat at the head of the bed. JD mopped his friend's brow. Chris's face was sullen and Ezra knew the blond gunslinger's thoughts were returning to the loss of his family years ago. What would happen to Chris if he lost Buck? Ezra's heart ached when he looked upon JD's visage. The young gunslinger looked liked a small boy waiting by a parent's ickbed. JD needed Buck.

Nathan walked over and laid a hand on Buck's brow then took up his wrist. Chris looked up at the healer.

"His fever's broke and his pulse is strong," Nathan exclaimed. "He should be fine with rest."

There was an audible sigh within the room. Nathan fell into a chair and smiled. JD's face lit up and life seemed to again flow through the young man. Chris closed his eyes and bowed his head for a moment. Ezra wondered if the gunslinger still prayed.

Ezra cleared his throat, getting the lawmen's attention. "I am much relieved to hear about our Mr. Wilmington's pending recovery."

"Yeah, no thanks to you!" Nathan spat, rising from the chair despite his exhaustion.

"Brother?" Josiah said.

"No, Josiah, it's gotta be said," Nathan exclaimed. "This is all because of his damnable cards. Can't you see the trouble your game playin' causes?"

Ezra clenched his jaw and gazed at each of the gunslingers.

"Why don't you just give up them cards? We'd all be better off,"

Nathan continued.

"I could no more give up my cards than you could give up your ilettante medical skill, or Mr. Larabee his morose demeanor,"

Ezra replied.

Nathan snorted at the southerner's long-winded excuse and turned his back.

Ezra glanced around the room as he tried to square his shoulders against the fatigue he felt. He was drained, both physically and emotionally. There was only one recourse. "I shall be gone come tomorrow." The words almost caught in his throat, and he was surprised at the sudden ache that struck him.

"Ez, you don't have to leave," Vin softly said, his gaze casting a plea for his friend not to leave. Ezra smiled faintly.

"It weren't your fault, son," Josiah added.

Nathan snorted his skepticism.

JD's eyes narrowed in contempt, and he looked sternly at the man he once respected. Ezra had been the first to welcome him. Now all he saw was the gambler responsible for almost killing his best friend. "Yes, it was his fault!" JD angrily blurted out. "Lunder was gunnin' for him. He doesn't care about how his card playing can hurt others. He doesn't care about anyone but himself."

Josiah laid a hand on JD's shoulder silencing the young man, but it was too late, the words had struck like daggers and done their damage. Ezra showed no visible wound, but his gut had clenched and his heart began to harden. How could JD believe that he only cared for himself?

Vin bowed his head in regret. He knew that JD's words had hurt the gambler more than any bullet could have. He hoped that the young sheriff didn't end up regretting his rash outburst.

"Give up the cards and stay," Chris growled out. He didn't want to lose one of his men, not even Ezra. The gambler had proven himself many times over and they all worked well together. Buck was going to be alright, maybe they could get past this? Chris glanced over at JD- -Maybe.

Ezra smiled faintly, at Larabee's ultimatum. His smile dropped at JD's refusal to look at him. Nathan's face didn't hide his opinion of the self-serving gambler. Josiah's expression reminded him of his mother's own disappointed glares. As usual, Ezra couldn't read the cogitative tracker. He guessed that Vin had yet to make up his mind.

"As I told Mr. Jackson, that is not possible." Ezra turned, grabbed the doorknob and stopped. "It's been a pleasure and an honor serving with you gentlemen." With that the enigmatic conman quickly departed.

"Chris, it ain't right, him leaving," Vin exclaimed. Chris stared at his friend then looked over at Buck.

"It weren't right for Buck to almost die, because of his damnable cards." Chris turned his back on the tracker and returned to his vigil.

Vin's shoulders slumped. He could go after Ezra, but only Chris or JD could keep the man from leaving. He hoped one of them wised up before it was too late.

Part 8

Buck could hear the voices, they broke into his consciousness along with the pain that radiated from his chest. He heard himself groan, it ended the jumble of other voices he heard in his head.

Chris's head snapped up at the small groan that passed Buck's lips. He leaned forward in his chair. His mouth twitched when he saw the grimace on Buck's face.

"C'mon, you old dog," Chris urged.

JD jumped to his side at the same time as Nathan.

"Chriiis," Buck breathed through dry lips. He felt a hand snake behind his head and ease it off the pillow. The cool water that touched his lips sent shock waves of relief throughout his body.

"Easy, Buck, drink it slow," Nathan said.

Buck was lowered back down, and he slowly opened his eyes and smiled at the grim features of his friends staring down at him.

"Damn, boys, I ain't dead," Buck croaked out.

"God, Buck, it sure is good to see you awake." JD smiled.

"Thanks, kid. What happened?"

"You were shot," Chris explained.

"Here, Buck, you need to drink this." The healer forced a cup of water and herbs down Buck's throat.

"Enough, Nate," Buck sputtered. "Who shot me?"

"Mr..." JD began.

"Don't worry on it now," Chris broke in. "Ezra took care of him."

Buck's head sank deeper into the pillow. "Ah, good. Where are the others?"

"Josiah's prayin' for your miserable soul," Chris laughed. "Vin's out and about, and Ez's..." Chris paused a moment. "Ez's probably down at the tables," he lied.

Buck's eyes were beginning to close and he hadn't caught the hesitation in his friend's voice.

"Good. Glad everything's alright," Buck quietly said as his eyelids grew heavy.

"Yeah, everything's fine," Chris numbly replied staring over at JD. "You rest."

Part 9

Ezra woke early, not wanting to run into anyone as he left. It was hard enough to leave without the last image of this town being the expressions of anger and disappointment on the faces of the men he had considered friends. Buck was going to be fine and that brought relief to his tattered soul. This fruition was short lived as the realization that he would be leaving the one and only place he'd ever considered home.

Chaucer snorted his displeasure at being saddled at such an hour. "Sorry, old friend. It's time to move on." Chaucer stared back at his owner as if askin' why. "We don't belong," Ezra answered to Chaucer's perceived expression. Ezra looked out the stable doors. "Towns like these aren't meant for people like me. Anyway, we can do better in a more lucrative municipality. We're getting too soft here." Chaucer continued to stare at his owner, not believing a word he said. Ezra rested his head on his teed's neck and exhaled. "Damn, what good am I as a conman? I can't even convince myself."

+ + + + + + +

Vin stood out on the balcony, outside the clinic, and watched as the flamboyant gambler rode out of town. He saw that Ezra only carried his saddlebags and one carpetbag. Vin wondered if he would send for the rest of his belongings. Maybe after Buck recovered, the others would be more willing to forgive and Vin could track down the conman and bring him home. The others always believed that Ezra would leave eventually, move on to reener pastures, but Vin wasn't so sure. They had been together almost three months. After the first thirty days the gambler could have left anytime. Vin felt the connection, the link that held the seven of them together. He believed that Chris also felt it. Vin wondered if the others did too, and if so, did that connection include the gambler?

Part 10

Ezra rode quietly, letting his horse pick its way along the rutted road. He thought back on Chris's ultimatum to give up cards. He was raised to play cards, it was all he had ever known. It started as a way to gain praise from his mother and became a way of life. He could no more stop playing than stop breathing -- could he? He was responsible for Buck being injured. Maybe it was time for a change. Ezra pulled up his orse and stared off into the distance. The unknown lay ahead, open and waiting. He had seen it numerous times before, and at times looked forward to it. He looked back the way he had come, toward a town he had come to love. Could he give up the only life he knew for another? Being a lawman was not something he ever aspired too, but for the past three months, he had up held the law and protected the citizens. Ezra smiled. He had pretended to be many people in the pursuit of monetary gain, was

his peacekeeping another con? And if so, to what gain? He thought he had become a competent lawman.

Ezra never felt the bullet that creased his head and threw him from his horse.

Part 11

Nathan allowed Buck to wake later that day. His only had a slight fever and the wound appeared clean and free of infection. No one wanted to tell the wounded gunslinger that Ezra was partly responsible for his injury.

"Hey, I get the complete welcoming committee this time," Buck whispered hoarsely and sluggishly turned his head. He frowned when he didn't see Ezra. As he looked at the faces of the other lawmen, and unsettling feeling caused him to raise his hand to his chest, the thought that Ezra could be dead flitted through Buck's cloudy brain.

"What'cha remember?" Nathan asked laying a hand on the prone man's forehead.

The lines on Buck's brow deepened as he absently replied, "I was shot." He stared over at Chris, who stood at the foot of the bed, his arms crossed over his chest. He was finding it hard to ask the next question. "What happened?"

Buck saw all eyes shift to the blond gunslinger as Chris answered, "We think you were shot by someone gunning for Ezra."

This was not the answer Buck had expected and his eyes narrowed in puzzlement. It did explained why the southerner was not present, but something didn't feel right. Buck was about to question the assumption when thee door flew open. Vin and Chris went for their guns, halting when a pretty brunette rushed in.

"Oh, Buck, I just heard. I'm so sorry," the woman cried out, staring with wide brown eyes at the injured cowboy.

The surrounding lawmen stood with mouths agape as the whirlwind brunette crossed the room. JD abruptly stood and the woman quickly took up his vacated chair.

"Claire darlin', wh..what'cha doing here?" Buck stuttered, surprised at the woman's entrance.

"I only just found out and I'm so sorry. This is all my fault. Why, just look at you." Claire's hands caressed the bewildered gunslinger's face.

"What are you talking about?" Buck asked, taking the woman's hands in his.

"I didn't think Bryon would do something like this. I mean, when he found out about us he just went crazy. I couldn't stop him or warn you."

"Bryon Lunder?" Nathan asked as something went cold inside him.

"Yes." Claire turned to the healer. "He was my husband."

The air seemed to rush out of the room as everyone took a collective breath. Buck's face went white and he groaned.

"Buck, Bryon Lunder is the man who shot you," JD said, trying to understand what was being said.

Buck swallowed the sudden lump in his throat. "Claire, darlin'." Buck tried to push himself up and winced. "I thought you was parted from your husband."

The woman blushed and looked around the room, suddenly realizing that she had an audience. "Well, Bucky, I was plannin' on telling Bryon that we were over. I just hadn't gotten 'round to it. He has such a frightful temper."

"Buck, what the hell is going on?" Chris growled from the foot of the bed. He was getting a bad feeling about this.

"Ah, well, Chris," Buck stammered and squeezed Claire's hand. "Me and Claire here...well, you know."

"Mrs. Lunder, maybe you could explain what our friend here is trying to say," Josiah said as an unpleasant sensation rippled through his soul.

Claire looked at the five lawmen then back down at Buck. "Go ahead, darlin," Buck quietly urged as he closed his eyes.

"Well, Bryon's brother, Asa, saw Buck and me together a few nights ago. Bryon went into a rage. I thought he would kill me. I tried to deny it, but then he said he suspected all along. He locked me in the cellar, and then I heard him ride out." Claire wiped at the tear that fell from her eye. "I was so scared, Bucky, I just knew he was going after you."

"He came to town," Chris said. "Lookin' for Buck."

"Yes, I prayed that you all would be able to protect my Bucky," Claire said. "And my prayers were answered." Claire smiled down at Buck.

"That's why he was angry while playin' cards with Ezra," Vin said.

Buck's eyes opened at the condemnation in the tracker's voice. Damn, where was Ezra?

"I heard him come back home," Claire continued. "It was late and he was drunk. He started smashing things and cursing. I was relieved, I knew he hadn't found Buck. I called up from the cellar, trying to plead with him, but he wouldn't listen just kept calling me a jezebel and swearing to kill Buck. He left and I knew I'd never see him again."

"So your husband was gunnin' for Buck all along?" JD asked, looking worriedly at Chris.

Claire bowed her head. "Yes, and I'm so sorry. I never meant for anyone to get hurt. My husband got what he deserved. He was a beast and I'm glad he's dead."

Chagrin flickered across Buck's face as he looked at Chris's flat, hard expression. He then noticed the discomfort that had taken hold of the four other lawmen. JD appeared ready to pass out, and he hadn't known that Nathan could actually pale. "God, Chris, I'm sorry, but I'm going to be alright, so everything is okay." Buck eased back into his pillow a faint smile on his face. The smile fell as the solemn expressions remained on his friends' faces. There was something they weren't telling him.

"Chris, everything's alright, ain't it?" Buck stared sternly at his friend. "Where's Ez?"

"He left town," JD softly answered.

"What? What do you mean he left? Why would he leave?"

Nathan bowed his head a moment, guilt weighing heavy on his broad shoulders. He hadn't known the conman long and it was hard to trust the urbane southerner and even harder not to think the worst.

Buck began to push himself up, the perplexing behavior of his friends was beginning to scare him.

Nathan put a large hand on Buck's chest and held him back. He didn't want the injured gunslinger to hurt himself further. "We thought Lunder was gunning for Ezra and shot you by mistake," Nathan hesitantly replied.

"We forced him to leave," Josiah added. Lord, he would be repenting and getting drunk for months over this.

"We blamed him," Chris began. "We thought his card playing had finally led to someone being hurt. We weren't sure you were going to live."

"Yeah, I was so angry I couldn't..." JD said, bowing his head and letting the sentence hand as he recalled the things he had said to the gambler.

"Aww hell." Buck threw an arm across his eyes. "We need to find him."

Ezra hadn't deserved this, they had all jumped to conclusions based on the cardsharp's life. Ezra had changed since joining with them, they all had. The conman's self-serving attitude made it hard to see the real man inside. Buck had begun to see Ezra for who he truly was, a man just as loyal and deserving of their friendship.

Claire glanced over at the darkly clad leader and immediately shifted her gaze to Josiah. "It's a good thing that Mr. Standish is gone."

"And why is that, sister?" Josiah asked.

"Because Asa is out looking for the man who killed his brother," Claire simply explained.

"Aw hell," Vin murmured.

"CHRIS, YOU FIND HIM!" Buck yelled as Larabee turned and strode out of the room with Vin and Josiah quick on his heels.

JD remained rooted to the floor beside the bed, thinking about the last things he had said to the cardsharp. His close friendship with Buck had clouded his thinking. He might have ruined any chance of a friendship with the southerner because of his narrow-minded foolishness. He stared at Buck realizing that some of his admiration for his mentor had diminished.

Buck looked up at JD and winced at a face that had lost some of its veneration, maybe this was for the best. "I'm sorry, JD. Never thought my fondness for the ladies would cause so much trouble."

"Ezra probably never thought his fondness for cards would either," JD dryly replied. He was angry with Buck for his womanizing, but more angry at himself at jumping to conclusions about Ezra. JD roughly put on his hat and left.

Nathan turned his back and busied himself with several vials of medicine on the dresser. He wondered if he would get the chance to apologize to the complicated southerner?

"Did I do something wrong, Bucky?" Claire whispered not understanding the sudden shift in mood and fast exits.

"No, darlin , it's just that we all might have lost a good friend because of something I did."

Claire's face softened with sympathy, not really understanding, but knowing that somehow she was involved. She squeezed Buck's arm and frowned at the distant expression on the Buck's tired face.

Part 12

Ezra slowly regained consciousness to find himself lying on his side. He felt the warmth of the rough sand under his cheek. His head felt like it was trapped in a vice and something was caked on the side of his face pulling the skin taut. He next wondered who was humming. He tried to focus his mind and pondered if the humming was just the first sign of insanity. The tune was aggravatingly cheerful and only compounded the pain in his head. He forced open his eyes only to squeeze them shut against the bright sunlight. He waited a moment hearing the scuffle of rock and sand as his cheerful visitor shifted his position. Ezra wisted his hands feeling the ropes that bound his wrists behind his back. He opened his eyes and tried to bring the blurry images into focus. The groan escaped before he could stop it and the humming stopped.

"Hey, 'bout time you came to," a gruff and equally chipper voice exclaimed.

Startled, Ezra twisted his head toward the voice. Slowly, a large grizzled man solidified in front of him. He was sitting on the ground a few feet away and appeared to be carving on a slab of wood.

"What'cha given name?"

Ezra's brow furrowed.

The large man leaned forward and smiled. "You with me son? What'cha given name?"

"Ez..." Ezra cleared his dry throat. "Ezra." His head hurt and the questioned baffled him enough to just answer without thinking of the reason.

The man returned to the piece of wood. "Is that E.Z.R.A?" he spelled out.

Ezra slowly nodded.

"Good name. I already know your surname, at least, I hope it's your real name. I know how you gamblers sometimes use different names," the stranger chuckled. "What year were you born?"

Ezra's brow scrunched and the date just came out. "1847." This was probably the first time he had ever told someone his actual date of birth, but the situation was just too bizarre to think of lying.

The strange man grunted and again applied his knife to the wood.

Ezra turned his head around as far as he could and looked over his shoulder. He lay beside a dark hole. He didn't think he was too far from town. "Who...?" Ezra tried to swallow the dryness in his mouth. "Who are you?"

"One thing at a time," the large man answered. He blew at the wood and held it at arms length to admire his handiwork before turning it around. What'cha think?" The large man chuckled, something Ezra wished he would cease doing. It was very unnerving.

Ezra's eyes widened as the jagged words came into focus and he read: Ezra Standish b: 1847 died 17 Oct 1876. Ezra's face twisted in cold fear--That was today's date.

Part 13

Vin and Chris rode into Cedar Ridge, the closest town to Four Corners, hoping that the citified gambler wouldn't want to spend the night out on the desert. No one had seen any sign of the fancy gambling man. Chris had remained silent throughout the ride, mentally berating himself for his part in the whole mishap. Why had he thought the worse of the suave cardsharp? He always needed someone to blame and Ezra was an easy target. Chris's reputation as a gunslinger wasn't so reputable that he had the ight to force Ezra to give up the only thing he knew. He had assumed that the conman's profession had been the cause of Buck's misfortune. Chris looked up into the sky. He had always warned Buck that one day his hound-dog ways would get him in trouble. Damn, why hadn't he'd seen it? Why did he automatically blame Ezra?

"Where next, cowboy?" Vin asked, breaking into Chris's thoughts.

"Let's head back home, see if anyone's heard anything."

Part 14

Ezra tried to coalesce his muddled thoughts. What the hell was going on? He took a deep breath and slowly released it. "Why?"

The large man set the marker down and looked at the cardsharp like he was the town idiot. "You killed my brother."

Ezra's brow furrowed as he tried to recall his part in any recent deaths.

The big man glared at the gambler's confusion. "I'm Asa Lunder, Bryon Lunder's older brother."

Ezra closed his eyes for a moment. Death and money always brought family out of the woodwork. Ezra took a deep breath and tried to shift his body to relieve the cramp in his arm. "Please accept my deepest apologies for the untimely demise of your brother."

"Yeah, well," Bryon stammered trying to understand the erudite southerner. "Well, you know I can't let something like this go unpunished, blood is blood."

"Your brother shot Mr. Wilmington," Ezra explained. "He didn't give me much of a choice."

"Well, it weren't like that scoundrel didn't deserve it."

Ezra's head was clearing but things still didn't make any sense.

"I mean, a man shouldn't mess with another man's wife, should e?" Asa continued.

"Your brother was aiming for Mr. Wilmington."

"Hell yeah, I caught that low-down skunk with Bryon's wife a few nights ago. Now my brother weren't no saint and I didn't always like the way he treated Claire, but a man's wife is a sacred thing."

Ezra rolled onto his back and would have laughed had his position been less precarious. Well, that explained a lot. "So, what is to become of me?"

Asa seemed to consider this. "Do you have any brothers?"

Ezra smiled. If this man had asked him a few days ago he might have said yes. He had come to consider the six other gunslingers as close as brothers as he'd ever known. "No," Ezra sadly admitted.

Asa's face saddened for a moment. "Sorry, 'bout that. I know you was just protectin' your friend, but family is family. I promise you I'll do it quick. I'm real good with a knife." Asa held the knife he'd been using and ran his thumb lightly down the sharp edge. "I'm afraid the ground is too hard here to dig a decent grave, but I don't think anyone will disturb you down in that old mind shaft."

The whole scene was surreal and Ezra took a deep breath to keep panic from washing over him. He was a gambler, his life was a game, a shuffle of the deck, a cut of the cards. Right now he wasn't holding a good hand and he hoped someone re-dealt or folded. Ezra thought of the six stalwart men he had inadvertently fallen in with. They were teaching him that there as more to life than the game.

Asa stood, dusted off his pants and started walking toward the bound conman. He licked his lips in anticipation. Asa had lied about making it fast. He wanted to kill the gambler, to feel the man's life seep out. He would slowly ease the knife into the gambler's pliable skin, watch as the blood welled up around the knife and ooze out. He would hold the dying man as he fought to live, and he would watch as the blood flowed out onto the ground. He would elate as he felt gambler's strength fade. If he were lucky, the gambler would plead for his life. Now, that would eally get his blood boiling. He loved to kill and rarely needed a reason. He didn't even really care that his brother was dead. They hadn't been that close. It was too bad Ezra wasn't a woman. He remembered a whore, at some mining town he visited several years ago. He had slit her throat as they had sex, it had been the most exhilarating feeling he'd ever experienced.

Ezra's eyes shifted back and forth, trying to think of an escape...there was only one. The dark hole that was to be his grave was also his only avenue of escape. He hoped it wasn't too deep. It was a risk he'd have to take.

As the avenging brother advanced, Ezra could feel Asa's depravity; he could see the man's lust for death in his dark eyes. This made it easier, Ezra took a breath, closed his eyes and allowed his body to roll over the edge.

Part 15

Ezra's thigh caught the sharpened edge of a rock. His scream was cut off with his sudden stop at the bottom.

Asa leaned over the hole, disappointment showing on his face, the conman had taken all his fun. "Damn you to hell, gambling man," Asa hissed. "I hope you're still alive. I woulda made it quicker." Lunder scooped up a handful of dirt and allowed it to trickle into the hole. "Ashes to ashes, dust to dust...".

Ezra felt the dirt hit his face, but he didn't have the strength to move. His body was numb for the moment. He could feel the warmth of blood oozing out beneath his leg, but it felt remote and unconnected.

Thump! Thump! Thump!

Ezra listened to the pounding from above; the rhythmic beat took his mind off the growing pain that was spreading throughout his body. He was going to die here--slowly and alone.

Asa straightened and scrutinized the rough marker he had pounded into the ground. He then loaded up his supplies onto his horse and took one last look at the hole. Damn, that conman had more grit than he thought possible. He mounted and turned his horse toward town. He would have to find some way to expel the excitement that still surged through him.

Part 16

"Any sign of him?" JD asked, jogging alongside the weary and disheartened lawmen as they rode solemnly down the street toward the stable.

"No. We're going to get something to eat and fresh horses then go back out," Chris stated, keeping his eyes straight ahead.

"Chaucer came home an hour ago," JD reluctantly exclaimed, keeping pace with the two lawmen.

Chris's jaw clenched. "I need you to wire every town within a six hours ride. See if anyone has seen him."

JD stopped in his tracks as the two lawmen continued down the street. His heart pounded hard beneath his breast. He squeezed his eyes tight and took a deep breath. He hadn't been able to eat and his stomach hurt. They would find him, and he would spend the remainder of his days making it up to the aggrieved southerner. JD opened his eyes and looked up into the darkening sky. "Please, give me the chance to make this right," he

whispered, hoping that the God he had forsaken long ago was still willing to listen.

JD glanced up at the second story window of the clinic. He had admired Buck from the first time they met. The convivial gunslinger always appeared unconcerned and confident, and JD had wanted to be just like him. Now, he wasn't so sure. Something had diminished and, for some reason, JD felt like he'd just lost a friend--maybe two.

Josiah stepped out of the jailhouse and moved to intercept the two riders. "Asa Lunder is in town," the penitent preacher exclaimed.

Vin and Chris pulled up their weary horses and began to dismount.

"When?" Vin asked as he tied his horse to the hitching post.

"'bout an hour ago. Been in the saloon. Figured you might wanna have a little talk with 'im." Josiah had wanted desperately to go and talk to Bryon Lunder's brother, but if they were to have any chance of finding Ezra he couldn't risk scaring Asa or worse killin' him.

Chris handed his horse's reins to Josiah and started across the street. Vin pulled his mare's leg and followed after the determined gunslinger.

Part 17

Chris slowly pushed apart the bat wing doors of the saloon. He let his gaze drift around the saloon. It was still early in the evening, but even so, over half the tables were occupied. Asa Lunder stood, bent over the bar, joking with two ranch hands. Chris stepped in, allowing the doors to flap shut only to be caught by Vin.

Silence slowly descended upon the room like someone turning down the wick of a lantern. Asa Lunder slowly turned to face the deadly gunslinger. He had been expecting a confrontation with one of the lawmen sooner or later.

"Where is he?" Chris growled.

Lunder smiled and took a swig from the beer he held. "Where's who?"

Chris had not been sure about his accusation at first, until he looked into Asa Lunder's eyes. His hand lashed out and grabbed the brash man by the dirty shirt, pulling him close. Lunder's glass slammed onto the bar, sloshing the remaining beer over the side.

"Where's Standish?"

"Oh, you mean the lowlife who killed my brother?" Asa laughed. "Hell, he didn't even have the nerve to face me." Lunder turned his head to the right and his grin fell slightly as his recent companions had edged away. Lunder returned his attention to Larabee. The expression on the blond gunslinger's face erased any trace of joviality and Lunder's insides seemed to melt. He glanced around the room, no longer seeing any support or familiarity.

Asa chuckled. "Everyone's glad he's gone. He did the town a favor." Asa made to turn around.

Chris yanked the arrogant man closer. "Where is he?"

Lunder flinched and his eyes dropped slightly as he answered. "I don't know."

"You're lying."

"Prove it," Lunder spat, feeling the sweat starting to collect under his collar. "You can't do a thing, lawman."

Larabee's mouth twitched and Lunder's smile grew along with his confidence. He could beat the scrupulous gunslinger. He just had to hold strong. He knew if he told them that Standish was dead, he would soon follow. As long as they didn't have a body, there wasn't a thing they could do. They were lawmen after all.

Larabee glared at Lunder. He knew the man was lying; he could feel it. He grabbed Asa by the arm, dragged him toward the door, and threw him at JD as the young sheriff entered. "Lock him up!"

"What for?" Asa asked.

"Pissing me off," Chris replied.

JD took Lunder's guns and ushered the man out.

"You can't hold me forever, Larabee," Asa yelled out, laughing all the way to the jail.

"What we goin' to do, cowboy?" Vin asked, flanking the blond gunslinger.

Chris leaned over the bar clasping his hands together. "We keep searching."

Part 18

He awoke slowly, in stages, aware of nothing but the twin facts that, one, he was lying on his side and, two, he felt terrible. He didn't know how long he'd been in this miserable position as he kept going in and out of consciousness. Ezra supposed that eventually he would stay permanently out. He tried to move and screamed as he ignited a surge of agony that threatened to take him further over the edge. He squeezed his eyes shut and tried to calm his breathing and remain still. The pain slowly ebbed.

He didn't bother opening his eyes. The night had capped the hole, making it feel more like a grave. It would be over soon.

Part 19

It was his fault. If he hadn't been messin' around with another man's wife... Buck slammed his fist on the bed. He knew that Ezra was in trouble, he felt it. They all did.

"We ain't goin' to find him are we?" Buck grimly stated. Chris glanced over at him from the window.

"Vin and I are going back out come morning," Chris said. "JD's got replies from a couple towns; none of them have seen him."

Buck grimaced as he took a deep breath, consciously hurting himself, hoping to appease some of his guilt. "I'm responsible."

"We all are," Chris said, turning back to the window. "We all thought the worst. We let him leave, hell, I didn't give him a choice, told him to give up the cards." Chris shook his head at the absurdity of Ezra P. Standish never touching a deck of cards.

"I'm the one who started it all. If I'd only kept it in my pants..."

Chris chortled. "It ain't in your nature." Chris stepped away from the window and grabbed his hat off the dresser. "You rest, I'll let you know if we find out anything."

Buck watched as his oldest and dearest friend left. There was a strangeness now, neither man was comfortable with the other, and Buck knew he might have destroyed his friendship with all the regulators. He had to find a way to fix things. He had to find Ezra.

+ + + + + + +

JD sat outside the jailhouse, sipping a cup of coffee. He needed a break from Lunder's knowing expression. The man was positively gloating. The anger he had felt toward Buck for the past day had withered into indifference. The Lunders were the only ones deserving of his hatred. Asa Lunder knew where Ezra was, JD could see it in the man's ugly face. JD finished off his coffee trying to figure out a way to get Asa Lunder to talk. His guilt was increasing and threatening to choke him. JD's greatest fear was that he would have to learn to live with that guilt.

Part 20

Buck swung his legs over the bed and stopped to catch his breath and come to grips with the fire in his chest. He couldn't just lie around while everyone else was trying to find Ezra. No matter what Chris said, he knew he was responsible. His games of the heart might finally have proved more deadly than Ezra's games of chance.

Buck took hold of the bedpost and hauled himself up, fighting to stay conscious. He managed to pull on a pair of pants, a shirt, and grab his gun belt. He stumbled out of the clinic and down the stairs.

Buck ignored the perplexed stares of the townsfolk as he shuffled barefoot across the street. He only hoped none of the others saw him and stopped him. He'd hate to have to shoot any of them.

Buck entered the jailhouse, his focus on the man in the jail cell.

"Buck, what the hell are you doing?" JD jumped up from behind his desk.

"Not now, kid." Buck shuffled across the floor. Sweat trickled down his face and glistened on the first hairs of his chest. He stopped in front of the cell that held Lunder.

JD remained behind his desk. Maybe, Buck could get Lunder to talk.

"Where is he?" Buck growled. His eyes burned with fever and hate.

Lunder stretched and sat up, trying not to laugh out loud.

"Well, well, if it ain't Casanova. Hoping you'd 'ave died, but Bryon never was very good with a gun, especially when he's drunk."

"Where's Ezra?"

Lunder chuckled and looked at the gunslinger. Blood was seeping through the bandage that was wrapped around Buck's chest. He didn't think the gunslinger would be standing much longer. "Maybe if'n you weren't messin' with another man's wife we wouldn't be here now."

Buck swallowed hard and his shoulders slumped. Lunder was right and the words stole some of his moral determination. He should be sitting in the next cell alongside Lunder.

"Just tell me where he is," Buck pleaded.

Lunder stepped up to the bars, his grin growing as he studied injured lawman. He glanced over Buck's shoulder to see JD still standing by the desk. His gaze returned to the desperate man in front of him. He'd never thought the seven gunslingers were anything special. "You'll never find him," Lunder whispered. "He's off dying right now, alone, and there's nothing you can do about it." Lunder's smile grew and he crossed his arms over his chest.

Buck pulled his gun and pointed it at Lunder's head. Lunder flinched slightly, but quickly composed himself and allowed his smile to return. He knew that the cowboy couldn't shoot him, he could see it in his eyes


Chris's sharp voice broke the battle between his friend and Lunder. Chris stepped up quietly behind Buck and gently eased the gun from Buck's shaky grip. Buck's world spun and he shifted his stance to maintain his balance. He felt Chris's grip on his arm. "C'mon Bucklin, let's get you back to bed. Nathan's madder than a wet hen."

Buck turned sad eyes toward JD. "I'm sorry, kid."

JD could only stare sadly at his friend as Chris led him out the door. The young sheriff glanced at Lunder who sat back on his cot with his hands behind his head and a grin pasted on his face.

Part 21

Chris and Nathan eased Buck back into bed.

"Damnit, Buck, what are tryin' to do? Rip open them stitches and bleed to death?" Nathan berated as he checked over the wound. Chris stepped back allowing Nathan room to examine the stubborn cowboy. Vin remained in the shadows, watching and listening as Nathan and Chris tended to Buck.

"I killed him," Buck quietly voiced. He turned his head to look up at Chris. "I don't think I can live with this."

"He ain't dead, Buck. We'll find him. You just git some rest," Chris tried to assure.

Buck finally succumbed to his exhaustion and pain. Chris watched as the look of defeat and loss vanished behind closed lids.

"Is he alright?" Chris asked the distraught healer.

"Yeah, he should be if he gets some rest," Nathan explained. The healer straightened and turned toward Chris and Vin. "You really think Ez's alive? It's been two days..."

"Just take care of Buck!" Chris growled. He didn't need the healer's doubt adding to his already dwindling hope.

Nathan's chin rose and his jaw clenched. He had tried to hold onto the hope that the enigmatic southerner was still alive. Nathan knew he would have to live with the knowledge that he was partially responsible for Ezra's death, if only he hadn't jumped to the wrong conclusion. It was so easy to think the worst of the conman. Nathan looked down at Buck who stirred then settled back down. Ezra's card playing was constantly under scrutiny, while Buck's less than proper antics with women were either gnored or envied. Nathan had to admit his own prejudice against the southerner was partially to blame. He never believed an ex-slave and southerner could ever find common ground.

Part 22

His hope was fading along with his will to live. Ezra wondered if the others discovered what had happened to him would they come for him or even care. They'd thrown him out of the only place he had ever cared for. If they thought about it they probably believed they were better off. He was always the outsider, the loose wheel, unreliable. He'd proved it when they first met. Why had Larabee given him a second chance? Maybe he wanted to see him fall again.

He didn't feel the cold anymore. His arms were numb from lack of circulation. He would miss the six stalwart gunslingers. A tear drew a path through the dirt on his face. It was too soon, he wanted more time to experience this new life he had been inadvertently thrown into--It was too soon.

He hoped that Buck fully recovered. He closed his eyes to try and stop the flow of memories, and listened to the distant bay of a lone coyote.

Part 23

Chris leaned over the hitching post and hung his head. The morning sun revealed the tiredness that marred his face. He didn't know where else to look for Ezra. He knew he was just wasting his time riding town to town. He was losing hope and it infuriated him. The comfort they all had felt with each other was gone, replaced with something foreign and distasteful. They all tried to hide it, tried to cover it up.

Chris knew that Buck was hurting, not just from his wound but his own culpability and, if they didn't find Ezra, he was afraid of what it would do to his charismatic friend. He knew all too well what the pain of guilt could do to a man. Chris turned his head and looked over at Vin who stood on the boardwalk, his sharp blue eyes focused on the jailhouse across he street.

Vin reached down and pulled a large knife from his boot. Chris straightened and released a long held breath. "What'cha thinkin', cowboy?"

"Thinkin' of finding Ezra?" Vin replied matter-of-factly, hiding his heart pounding and blood boiling with the sublime thrill of being on the edge of both control and madness.

Chris stared at the tracker, seeing the reflection of steel in Vin's suddenly cold gaze. Chris knew that the tracker's taciturn demeanor belied the savageness of his life. Chris didn't say a word as Vin stepped off the boardwalk and strolled purposefully across the street. He knew that Vin was about to cross a line that they all had sworn to stand behind. They were lawmen, sworn to protect the citizens of this town. They sometimes used unorthodox methods to correct a wrong, but they lways remembered that they were lawmen. Chris squeezed the rough wood under his hands and pushed away from the hitching post, vowing to follow his friend across that line, no matter how far they had to go.

Part 24

"Hey, Vin, what's..." JD began when Vin strode through the doorway and continued across the room. JD came around the desk and stopped as Chris entered.

"Chris, what's going on?" JD asked.

"Go see Buck."

"But what's Vin...?"

"Go see Buck." Chris glared down at the young easterner. JD's eyes went wide, and he looked at Vin who stood at Lunder's jail cell.

Lunder sat up on his cot and wiped his eyes. JD grabbed his hat and, knowing full well the consequences of his actions--left.

"What the hell is going on?" Lunder's voice tried to carry a sense of irritation. Lunder squared his chin and stared back at the lean tracker standing before the bars holding the bowie knife. He would not be intimidated. There was a creepy calm on the tracker's face that began to whittle away at Lunder's resolve. He swallowed and looked over at the darkly clad gunslinger. "Larabee, you can't let this happen. You're a awman."

"Where's Ezra?" Chris asked.

"I ain't tellin' ya. He got what he deserved for killin' my brother."

Chris pursed his lips and pulled down his hat. He had given the man a chance. He turned to head out the door.

Lunder's mouth fell open as he realized that the buckskin-clad tracker was not leaving with Larabee.

"You can't leave me here with him!" Lunder had heard that Tanner had spent time with the Indians and had once hunted men for bounty. Here was a man who could be just as dangerous as he was.

Chris stopped at the door and turned his head around. The corner of his mouth lifted. "Yes, yes I can."

Larabee stepped outside and closed the door of the jail. He pulled a chair in front of the door and sat down. Leaning unconcerned against the door, he smiled faintly at the first scream.

Part 25

The screams continued for several minutes, mixed with several pleas to stop. Chris casually rolled a cheroot and nodded at curious and aghast onlookers. He could overhear Vin demanding to know where Ezra was, and he listened to Lunder's waning refusal to tell. Then the screams would begin again.

Chris lifted his eyes dispassionately as Nathan and Josiah approached.

"Chris, you can't let this continue," Nathan said as he approached the jail. JD had come up to the clinic and told him what was happening. Nathan had stayed in the clinic for as long as he could before his conscience got the best of him. He didn't want Vin to end up killin' the man.

Josiah moved off to the side and leaned against the supporting post. Asa's screams didn't bother him, and he hoped that Vin was able to extract the whereabouts of the southerner. He had prayed continuously for hours trying to cleanse his heart and mind of the guilt he now harbored. The man had not deserved treatment he had received from the others or him. Josiah only hoped he was given the chance to atone for his istake.

"It'll stop when we find out where Ezra is," Chris simply stated, he was fairly confident that the ex-bounty hunter wouldn't kill Lunder, only make him wish he were dead.

Nathan shifted uncomfortably at a strangled cry and Josiah smiled as he said a silent prayer. Chris cocked his head at the abrupt silence. All three lawmen came to attention as the door opened. Vin stepped out wiping the blood off his blade. "I know where he is. We're going to need ropes." For a moment the others didn't recognize their friend, then slowly Vin's features softened and the sensitive tracker returned. Vin stepped off the boardwalk and headed toward the stables.

"Nathan, you have five minutes to patch 'em up," Chris said as he stepped off the boardwalk and made to follow the tracker.

Nathan hurried into the jai

to see what he could do for the tortured man. He hoped they found Ezra alive or his efforts would probably be wasted.

Part 26

Nathan urged his mount faster to keep up with Chris and Vin. They had soon lost sight of Josiah and JD, coming up behind in a wagon. He didn't know where they were going, he only hoped they got there in time. His thoughts went back to Asa Lunder. He had been shocked when he first entered the jailhouse. Lunder had been tied spread eagle to the bars of his jail cell. His shirt had been removed, cuts decorated his chest; it looked like some kind of design was being etched into his skin. None of the ounds were life threatening, but they got progressively deeper and Asa's torso was covered in blood. A blood smear on the front of Asa's pants marked where the knife had rested on the man's genitals.

Nate had to give the man credit for lasting as long as he did. He had cut Asa down and quickly bound the compliant man's wounds. Asa Lunder remained silent throughout his ministrations, even the application of alcohol to the wounds. A shiver had run down the healer's spine at Asa's blank stare, the man had been pushed over the edge.

Vin urged Peso up the rocky slope. He pulled up as the land leveled off and eyed the scarred barren landscape. Mining had stripped the life from the once vibrant desert. Vin dismounted as Chris reined up beside him. "It's here somewhere," Vin said. Lunder had told him that Ezra was down a hole out near McCain's mine. He couldn't tell the tracker if the gambler was alive or dead. He had told Lunder that if Ezra was dead he would return and would be hell to pay and he would be collecting. "There!" Vin elled.

They all saw the grave marker and their hearts sank. Ezra was dead. Vin wasn't ready to give up and sprinted across the sandy ground, dropping onto his stomach in front of the dark hole.

Chris glared at the rough marker, leaning out of the ground. He took in the dates-was Ezra really that young? For some reason the small dash made him heartsick. That small line between birth and death was all that denoted a man's life. How could one thin line encompass a person's happiness and sorrow, triumph and strife?

"Do you see 'im?" Nathan asked as he fell on this stomach alongside the tracker. The least they could do was bring the conman home and give him a decent burial.

"No, it's too dark," Vin replied and yelled down the hole. "EZRA!"

The three lawmen listened for any sound from the dark abyss any hope that their ill-treated friend was still with them and they would have a chance to make amends. The dark hole gave up nothing.

Nathan glanced over his shoulder grateful to see Josiah and JD cresting the slope.

"Josiah, bring a lantern," Chris hollered as the preacher jumped down from the wagon.

Josiah reached around and pulled out a lantern from the back of the wagon. He handed it to Vin and stared solemnly at the hole. He couldn't bare to think that Ezra had been down there for over two days. Josiah sneered at the morbid marker and suddenly lashed out with his foot, smashing the wood to bits. "Is he alive?"

Chris stared at the broken pieces of wood then replied, "Don't know."

Vin lit the lantern and lowered it into the hole. Everyone held their breath and strained to see beyond the darkness. The lantern light slowly pushed back the blackness.

"Shit," Vin swore.

Chris squatted beside Vin and bowed his head. The weak glow of the lantern unveiled Ezra's still body. The flickering light gave the illusion of movement but the men above could hear no sound.

"I can't tell if he's alive," Nathan said as he took in the scene. Ezra had fallen about twenty feet. The ground appeared sandy and that could have softened his fall, but Nate noticed that Ezra's hands were tied behind his back. He had no way to break his fall. "Git me down there, now!"

The others were spurred into action by Nathan's urgent command. JD remained rooted in place for a moment, staring at the hole that could be Ezra's grave. What would happen to all of them if Ezra was dead? What would happen to Buck? The grim thoughts galvanized the young easterner and he went to take care of the horses and gather supplies.

Part 27

Nathan pushed away from the wall as he descended into the hole. He kept his eyes on Ezra, who had yet to move. He quickly stripped off the rope when he touched the ground, then froze. He didn't want to know. Nate looked at Ezra, who lay a few feet away, and the all too familiar pain of loss engulfed him. It shocked him that he actually felt grief over the egotistical southerner.

"Brother, are you alright?" Josiah called down.

"Yeah...Yeah." Nathan sniffed back a tear and knelt at Ezra's side. He reluctantly laid two fingers on the side of Ezra's neck. 'Please, please, let him be alive.' Nathan allowed the tear to fall, and a smile to break across his face as he felt the faint flutter of a heartbeat. "He's alive," he whispered then remembered the anxious men above and shouted, "He's alive!"

Carefully, mindful of the possibility of harming him even more Nathan cut Ezra's bindings and eased his right arm up and over.

"Nathan." The soft Texas drawl startled the healer, having grown used to the quiet. He hadn't heard the tracker come down.

"Hold his head, Vin, as I turn him," Nathan said.

Vin squatted at Ezra's head. He brushed the dirt from Ezra's gray face and placed his hands on his cheeks. "Nathan, he's cold."

"I know." Nathan eased Ezra onto his back, hoping he wasn't causing anymore harm.

A moan quivered past Ezra's lips and his face pressed into Vin's hands.

"Ezra, can you hear me?" Nathan lifted up one of Ezra's eyelid. "Damn, he's got a concussion." He had noticed the deep gash on the side of the gambler's head. The lantern light made the dried blood dark and ugly on Ezra's face. "Looks like a bullet grazed him." He then saw the darkness on his thigh. "Shit." Nathan pulled out one of his knives and delicately cut up Ezra's pant leg. He moved the light closer to examine a deep gash on the gambler's thigh. The bleeding had stopped, but Ezra had lost a lot of blood. "I'll have to wait till we get him back to town to clean it." Nathan quickly wrapped the wound then continued his examination, not surprised to find Ezra's left arm broken. He reached into his bag and pulled out two splints.

"Don't you worry none, Ez. Nate's going to fix you up just fine," Vin soothed.

Nathan paused and glanced at the tracker, wishing he could summon up the same belief. He undid Ezra's jacket, vest and shirt and sat on his heels, covering his mouth with his hand in concern. Vin looked down to see the purplish, red discoloration that covered the left side of Ezra's chest and stomach.

"Damn," Vin breathed. He had been trying to convince himself that Ezra was going to be fine, but looking at the deep bruising on the gambler's torso, it was getting hard to maintain that belief.

Nathan gently ran his hands down Ezra's body feeling the broken ribs. If Ezra was hurt bad inside there was nothing he could do. "We have to get him out of here without hurting him, and I need to get him warm."

Vin stood and tilted his head up. "Chris, we need some kind of sling to hoist him up."

"Josiah's workin' on it," Chris called back.

"And send down some blankets," Vin added. There was instant activity above and he stepped forward to grab the tossed blankets.

Nathan looked up when he felt Vin's hand on his shoulder. "He is going to be alright, ain't he?" Vin asked, his blue eyes softening with a misty gaze.

Nathan turned away, laying a blanket across Ezra's legs. He had to wonder how this man, one now so caring and concerned for another, could have done what he did to Lunder in the jail. Men had many sides, and Ezra was no different. He had judged Ezra based on his profession and not who he truly was inside. Nate knew that Vin was a good man, but like so many others he harbored a deadliness that revealed itself when someone he cared about was threatened. Nathan hoped he always remained one of the tracker's friends. "Vin..." Nathan paused reconsidering telling Vin about he seriousness of Ezra's condition. "He's got a broken arm, broken ribs, a concussion and he's lost quite a bit of blood, and that leg wound is infected."

Vin frowned, he could hear the healer's hesitation. "What ain't you tellin' me, Nate?"

Damn, no wonder he lost at poker. Nathan gnawed on his bottom lip for a moment. "He might be busted up inside."

Vin's eyes widened, and he stared down at his friend. Ezra was almost bone white, and his breaths were coming out in soft struggled gasps.

"Now, he ain't dead yet," Nathan quickly added. "Maybe whatever is hurt inside will fix itself, given some time. I need to get back to the clinic and read up some."

"What can I do?"

"Hold him so I can splint his arm and wrap his ribs. Then we'll get him out of here."

Vin took hold of Ezra's injured arm. Nathan carefully pulled the bones until they slipped back together. He watched Ezra's face for any reaction. Vin felt Ezra's arm jerk slightly and began to stroke the brown hair under his hand. "Hang on, Ez, we need ya."

Part 28

Josiah devised a simple net of ropes and together they managed to ease Ezra out of his potential grave. Chris and Josiah laid the injured gambler onto a bed of hay in the back of the wagon.

'God, Nathan he looks de..." JD bit back the words. Nathan jumped into the back of the wagon and laid a hand on Ezra's chest.

"Well he ain't. He finally found a use for that stubborn streak of his," Nathan quipped. Chris smiled and nudged his horse alongside Vin. "Take it nice and easy, Josiah."

"God will smooth the road for us, brother," Josiah said and flicked the reins gently against the team's flanks. Nathan kept his hand on Ezra's chest to hold him against the sudden jar.

+ + + + + + +

Pain spiked through him. His first thought was his sense of motion. What had happened? Was he dead? He had been forced to leave town. He hadn't wanted to leave. He had found a home and friends in Four Corners. He thought he heard the voices of his friends and wondered if they were real. Had they come for im?

"Ezra do you hear me." Nathan had seen a subtle wince pass across the gambler's face. Nate quickly grabbed his canteen and snaked an arm under Ezra's neck. "C'mon Ez," Nate urged.

Josiah glanced over his shoulder.

"," Ezra gasped.

Nathan placed the canteen on Ezra's lips and smiled as he took a small swallow. He then eased Ezra's battered body back onto the hay and smoothed his brown hair away from his face.

JD sat in the corner of the wagon holding onto Nathan's bag and handing him whatever he asked for. The young gunslinger stared at Ezra's pale face. He was as responsible as the others. How could he have treated a friend like that? Would Ezra ever consider him, or the others, friends again?

Part 29

Vin and Josiah carried Ezra's limp body into the clinic, allowing Nathan to rush past and pull down the coverlet of the bed. Buck woke and rose up on his elbows.

"Nathan, oh God, what the hell happened to him?"

"Stay put, Buck. I don't have time to tend to you or any of your foolishness," Nathan groused, grabbing a medical tome from the shelf and starting flipping through the pages.

Chris moved next to Buck to keep the anxious man from leaving the bed.

"I need water, lots of hot water and bandages," Nathan rattled off. Vin and JD raced out the door. "Josiah, I need you to make up some black root tea."

Josiah nodded and left the clinic.

Nathan sat down next to Ezra, still looking at his medical book.

"What the hell are you doing, Nate?" Buck angrily said.

"I'm trying to save his life." Nathan stood and opened Ezra's shirt, studying the bruising on his torso and then looking at a picture in his book. "If his spleen is hurt there's nothing I can do for him. If his liver or kidneys are damaged we need to keep him still and hope they heal." Nathan closed his book and closed his eyes.


The healer opened his eyes to Chris's firm voice. "We've always trusted you. I think even Ezra trusted you. Do what you can for him. No one will blame you and we'll all know you did your best."

Nathan pressed his lips into a firm straight line. Yes, they all would know he had done his best and so would Ezra. He would not let the southern bastard die.

Part 30

Nathan applied a wet dressing of crushed roots and leaves that were good for bruises to Ezra's torso. He wished he could get some medicine down him, but Ezra had remained deeply unconscious since they had returned. Fever raged through his battered body and Nathan didn't think Ezra had the strength to fight.

"Nathan?" Buck called from his bed.

"He's in bad shape, Buck," Nathan tiredly said, knowing the question. He continued to use a cool rag to try and bring down the gambler's fever. "We're just going to have to wait and pray."

Buck eased back into his pillow his eyes never leaving the ashen features of the man in the next bed. Buck could only watch as Nathan and the others worked tirelessly to save their wronged friend. Chris had explained to him where they'd found Ezra. Buck had then wished he'd pulled the trigger when he had Lunder in his sights.

Nathan had finally forced everyone to get some rest. He didn't think hey'd stay gone for long.

Chris was the first to return to the clinic. He found Nathan asleep in his chair. Chris gently shook the healer's shoulder.

Nathan wiped his eyes and peered up at the gunslinger then looked over at Ezra.

"Go get some sleep, I'll watch 'em," Chris said.

Nathan stood and laid a hand on Ezra's forehead. "He's still got a fever. Call me if he gets worse. I'll be back in a few hours."

Chris nodded and sat down on the chair between the two beds. Chris stared at the unmoving cardsharp. For the past day and a half Ezra alternated between bouts of delirium from the fever and pain to an almost catatonic state. Chris wasn't sure which was worse.

"Nate says he can't last much longer." The darkness didn't hide the sadness in Buck's voice. Chris listened to the rustle of blankets as his friend eased himself up onto his pillow. "You think he'll forgive me."

Chris glanced over at Ezra's dark form. "Yeah he will," Chris tiredly answered. He didn't know why he was so sure, maybe he knew the gambler better than he thought. "I gave him an ultimatum."

"You did?"

"Told him to give up the cards."

"Ah, hell, Chris. I'm the one who should be given the ultimatum."

"You might need to curtail your affections, at least to women who are married," Chris said. He had irresponsibly blamed Buck for the loss of his family, he would not make the same mistake twice. They were all to blame.

Buck chuckled. "Yeah, already planned too. Believe me Chris, I thought Claire was parted from her husband, honest."

"I believe ya." Chris exhaled. "We're all going to have to find a way to show Ezra that he's still very much needed and wanted."

Buck smiled, Chris hadn't given up hope.

Part 31

"Ezra Standish was a no-account cheat and coward. He failed his friends and himself. His death is a blessing to all of us..."

Ezra's eyes widened. He looked up from the bottom of a hole. This wasn't right. He had been rescued. He listened to the words. He couldn't make out who was speaking, but he understood the words and they cut his very soul.

"The world will be better off with one less conman." These words were followed by the sudden appearance of Larabee's grinning visage, looking down at him. "Ashes to Ashes, dust to dust," Larabee maliciously exclaimed. Laughter erupted from above and the faces of the five other gunslingers appeared, grinning down at him as shovel fulls of dirt began to rain down. Ezra screamed.

"Ezra! you have to calm down," Vin shouted over the conman's rants. Chris, Vin and Nathan laid their bodies across the struggling gambler.

"Damnit, Ez you're going to hurt yourself," Chris growled.

"It's only a dream, Ez," Nathan quietly whispered into Ezra's ear. "It's only a dream."

Ezra's struggles ceased, and the three lawmen eased themselves up. Nathan grabbed a wet rag and mopped the gambler's brow. Confused green eyes blinked and stared up at the three men.

Nathan smiled down at his friend. "Good to see you awake. Think you can drink a little something for me?"

Ezra slowly nodded his head and Nathan reached for a cup of medicine. Vin lifted the shaky conman up and Nate coaxed the tea down his throat.

"How you feelin'?" Nathan asked. It had been two days, with Ezra barely hanging onto life, and Nathan and the others fighting to keep him among them.

Ezra licked his lips. "Tired."

Nathan began to gently probe Ezra's stomach. "Any sharp pain?"


Nathan smiled and Ezra felt and heard the relief that spread through the men as his eyes slowly closed.

Part 32

"How did you find me?" Ezra asked. He had awoke the next morning to a room filled with men he didn't think cared. Several decks of cards lay piled on the table next to him.

Chris glanced over at Vin. "Asa Lunder had a change of heart and told us," he explained.

"He did?" Ezra said, not hiding his astonishment. "Mr. Lunder didn't seem the humanitarian type."

"Yeah, well, Vin had a little talk with him," Chris added, smiling at the southerner's quizzical expression.

Ezra turned his head and looked over at the tracker. "I'm grateful for your ersuasive abilities, Mr. Tanner."

"It got you back, all that mattered," Vin stiffly said.

Ezra frowned at the look in the tracker's eyes.

Chris knew that Vin was going through a hard time in dealing with what he had done to Lunder. No one talked about what had happened. The others had accepted it as a necessary evil, one that kept them whole. Chris had told the judge that Lunder had had a run in with a mountain cat. Chris knew the judge only bought the story because of the circumstances, and he knew he was now in the judge's debt.

"Ezra, we all owe you an apology for how we treated you," Chris abruptly said.

"Mr. Larabee, I'm just grateful you found me." A small shudder raced up Ezra's spine at the memory of the impromptu grave.

Chris glanced at each of the other men. He knew they would all have to find a way to convince the gambler that he was still a trusted and valuable friend.

"Ez," JD nervously said as he approached the bed, unsure how he would be accepted. "I didn't mean those things I said. I'm so sorry."

"I know, Mr. Dunne, your worry for Mr. Wilmington justified your outburst," Ezra said.

"No it didn't," Nathan sternly interjected. He couldn't stand the gambler's complacent attitude. He had been greatly wronged. "None of us had the right to blame you, even if it was because of your cards you are not responsible for someone else's actions."

Josiah smiled at his friend, the others stood open mouth. Nathan was the last person anyone expected to say something like this. "Now, we're apologizing, don't go trying to defend our stupidity."

Ezra stared up at the healer like the man had suddenly gone mad right before his eyes. "Mr. Jackson, I accept yours and the others apology." The tension of the past week seemed to rise up and float away.

"You're going to stay, aren't you, Ez?" JD asked.

Ezra looked over at Chris remembering his words and his face fell. "I will not give up my cards."

"No one's askin' you to," Chris firmly stated. He glanced over at Buck. "You couldn't give up your cards anymore than Buck could give up women."

"Hey, I could give up women if I had a mind too," Buck retorted to the laughter of the other lawmen.

Part 33

"So Ez, I ah...jeez, I don't even know how to begin. I'm sorry about everything. I'll give up women..."

"Mr. Wilmington, please, I could never ask you of all people to give up female companionship, and I just ask that you maybe be a little more discreet."

Buck chuckled and nodded. "Yeah, Chris sorta told me the same thing."

"How is Miss Claire?" Ezra asked.

"Oh, she decided to go and live with her sister in Tucson."

"So, your little affair is over?"

"Yeah, Claire decided she enjoyed her freedom as much as I do," Buck answered, actually he had urged Claire to leave. He had almost lost a friend due to his indiscretion and Claire would always remind him of that.

"Now any ideas on how to amuse ourselves during our convalesces?" Ezra asked.

The door to the clinic suddenly opened and JD peered in. "Great, you're both awake." JD rushed in and pulled up a chair in-between the two injured men. "I just got a new book, "Outlaws of the West," and have you ever heard the one..."

Ezra and Buck groaned and pulled their blankets up over their faces.