One of Seven

by K Hanna Korossy

Main characters: All

Note: This story originally appeared in the Legends of the Magnificent Seven 4 fanzine (2003)

Chris Larabee, from his position atop the Four Corners bank, saw the small group of riders coming and gave the signal. Across the street, stationed on the roof of the law business from where he could see the bank's front roof, Vin touched the brim of his hat in answer. Nathan and JD in the shadows of either side of the smaller building also nodded back. Chris was glad to see the ease with which Nathan moved; one of the reasons he'd posted the healer there was that Jackson was still recovering from an injury gained in a shootout the week before. He seemed just fine as he then waved at the men inside the bank. Chris didn't have to see through the wood planks beneath him to know Buck and Josiah would also be getting into position, tensed and ready.

The three riders reached the edge of town and slowed to a more civil trot, one tipping his hat to a lady as he rode by. Real gentlemen, Chris thought wryly, just here to conduct some legal business. Sure, and Buck was scared of women. Chris slunk away from the edge of the roof and silently climbed down the ladder propped against the back of the building.

He heard the three ride up to the bank, dismounting at their leisure. Chris had made sure the area around the bank was clear, no civilians at risk if there was a shootout, so it wasn't hard to make out the sounds of the boots casually clumping their way up the wood steps. There was nothing about the men's manner to indicate their intentions were anything less than honest, nothing except for the bit of information Chris had picked up in a ride through Purgatory the week before. He slipped to the back corner of the bank, then, hearing the door open and the three men go inside, moved to the front corner and peered around.

At that oblique angle, he could just see through the large glass front into the bank. Josiah stood behind the counter in full bank teller regalia, pretending to be busy conducting business with his customer. Buck was just starting to count the sizeable wad of bills Josiah had handed him.

It was, as Chris had suspected, too big a lure for the hold-up men to let it go. Instead of waiting until Buck was through and had left, as most prudent hold-up men would have, the three began to reach for their guns.

Chris was already moving, but so were Buck and Josiah. Sanchez simply lifted the gun he'd been holding under the counter, and Buck turned to reveal the six-shooter he had tucked out of sight against his waist. The sight of the weapons slowed the would-be robbers enough that they still hadn't drawn when Chris opened the door and stepped in behind them.

"Hold it right there."

That panicked one, the one at the worst angle for Chris to shoot, half-hidden by his compatriot on one side. The man, the youngest-looking of the three, had already cleared his holster before Chris even had a chance to bring to bear on him, but Josiah fired the same time a rifle shot came through the open door, both finding their mark. The gunman fell dead.

Chris gave the other two a sliver of a cold smile. "Care to try it?" he offered gamely.

They finished their draws very slowly, the guns hitting the floor.

"Smart choice," Chris nodded, then kept them covered as Buck and Josiah frisked and then took in hand the two men. Only then did he holster his gun, still smiling faintly. The plan had turned out perfectly. Well, except for the body on the floor, but sometimes that couldn't be helped. Chris Larabee wasn't one to waste tears on those who'd brought trouble upon themselves.

Outside the bank, he watched as Buck and Josiah escorted their new prisoners to jail, JD joining them within seconds, already talking. Nathan also appeared, sheathing his knife with apparent gratitude he hadn't been needed as a protector, but ready to act as doctor. Chris met his eyes solemnly.

"He's dead."

Nathan didn't look surprised, and his eyes only flickered for an instant before he went past Chris into the building. He wasn't one to mourn after the undeserved, either, but the doctor in him hated death and Chris respected that. He followed Jackson into the bank with his eyes, watching briefly as the man leaned over to check the corpse, then Chris looked up to see Vin crossing the street in easy strides.

"You got him," he said quietly, knowing the tracker would hear.

Tanner shook his head. "Josiah hit him, too."

"Not through the door from 'cross the street." Chris briefly smiled, watching Vin echo him.

"T'weren't no use bustin' another window. Wendle hasn't even had the new one long."

That sobered Chris. The bank had needed a new window after JD had tried to foil another bank robbery and accidentally fired off a shot...hitting and killing an innocent woman inside. For a while, Chris hadn't been sure the young man would be able to pull himself out of his resulting guilt, but JD had proved him wrong, again. He was far more resilient than Chris would have originally given him credit for, but that didn't keep Larabee from trying to keep him as innocent as possible for as long as possible, even as he respected the young man's maturity and skill. And the right to be one of them.

Vin was eyeing him knowingly. "He did fine," he said, and Chris didn't need to ask who he was talking about or why, just nodded. It actually could have applied to any of them. Nathan had been just fine as back-up, and Josiah and Buck were ideal bank decoys, both for their size and experience. Besides, Chris usually preferred hot-tempered Buck where he could see him, and Josiah's coolness made him an ideal counterpoint in the midst of the action.

As for Vin, there was no one else on the face of God's green earth Chris would have wanted more at his back. The tracker was skilled at any form of combat, although his talents were best applied, as he'd demonstrated, in sharpshooting. But that wasn't the only reason why. Chris also trusted the man as completely as he was able to another.

The two men fell into step, trailing the others toward the jail. Ezra was on duty inside, keeping an eye on a man they'd arrested earlier that week for forcing himself on a woman. He'd had friends who had promised retribution, which hadn't materialized thus far, but it wasn't smart to let their guard down. Besides, Chris was always a little more comfortable with Ezra not involved in anything that had to do with money. Not that he didn't trust the gambler in a showdown--he did and had, and never regretted it since that day at the Indian camp. But Chris knew all his men's strengths and weaknesses and how to use them, and Ezra's particular weakness was anything that involved legal tender.

Mary Travis was coming up the street toward them, and Vin said softly, amusedly to Chris, "I'll see ya in the saloon," then turned to head in the opposite direction. They usually met after a confrontation to discuss what had worked, and what hadn't, for the next time. It was a good idea logistically, but even more so, Chris had come to rely on his friend's wisdom. As de facto leader of their group, he used every method and insight at his disposal to keep them and the town safe. And...the companionship, for the first in a long time, felt good.

Mary had barely seemed to notice Vin leaving, her eyes on Chris as she approached, and he stopped to wait for her, noting with some interest the blush of color the exercise put in her cheeks. He'd have to've been blind not to notice she was beautiful, or know why Vin was grinning. Chris had nearly decked Buck when the man had dared mention the word "smitten" at one point; he honestly wasn't that. But...not uninterested, he was willing to venture.

"Chris?" she called questioningly when she was close enough that he could hear her. He liked her using his given name far more than he liked "Mr. Larabee."

"It's over," he answered. "Vin and Josiah had to shoot one, the other two are bein' locked up." He indicated down the street the small cortege just disappearing into the sheriff's office.

"Anyone hurt?" she asked, reaching him and stepping up onto the boardwalk.

She meant among the Seven, but he knew that. He shook his head.

Mary finally smiled. "That's good. It seems your plan worked well."

Chris just inclined his head a fraction. It was his job.

"The Judge should be in town early next week--they can stand trial then."
Another bit of news he accepted in silence, although he'd already known it.

She was studying him, seriously enough that it was starting to make him feel self-conscious, then said as primly as if she were asking him to a formal event, "Would you be interested in joining me for lunch, Mr. Larabee?" But there was a glint of mischief in her eye.

Of course, when she said "Mr. Larabee" like that, suddenly he didn't mind so much. Chris confined his own smile to his eyes. "I'd be honored, Mrs. Travis. Just need to check on our guests first."

She seemed to have expected no less. "And I'll tell Mr. Wendle he can have his bank back. Meet you at the hotel?"

He nodded, then watched her walk away, shaking himself out of it when he realized he'd been watching a little too obviously. Chris continued down to the jail.

Who'd have known when he'd come to that half-dead little town, that it held a new life for him? Not just a new life, a reason to live. He'd become the leader of six other men, responsible for their safety as well as the town's they protected. He'd also gained a new, good friend, regained an old one, and was more than a little connected to four others. And then there were the thoughts he was starting to entertain, thoughts he'd never thought he'd have again about a woman. Guilt and grief were still constant companions, but he didn't have the time to be good hosts to them anymore. Looking after the others and the town had become a full-time job.

Chris shook his head as he walked up to the jailhouse door. It wasn't as bad as he'd once thought.

He opened the door, to the sight of Buck sitting on top of JD, the kid's bowler hat in Buck's hand and a wide grin on his face. Ezra and Josiah looked on in unconcealed amusement as JD protested, loudly. Chris swallowed a sigh. And sometimes his role was more that of parent to a bunch of rowdy youngsters.

No, it wasn't bad at all.

+ + + + + + +

Nathan whistled softly to himself as he passed the outskirts of town, riding at a comfortably slow pace. There was no hurry on a clear, cool night like that one, especially when he was coming instead of going. The Tremain baby was over the worst of the colic, and Nathan was enjoying both a sense of a job well done as well as the unusually pleasant November weather as he rode back home.

There were a lot of second thoughts in his calling. Even though he made no claim to being a doctor, Nathan was still the closest thing to one the town had and so was often expected to know and do more than he was able. He'd heard of no medical school that took colored folk, though Nathan wasn't sure he would have left Four Corners for the years such school would have taken, anyway. Maybe he wasn't no doctor, but he was still the best they had and had saved more than one person with his meager skills, some of them his fellow peacekeepers. Still, at least the chance to talk to a real doctor, to ask all the questions that had built up in him...well, that would have been real fine. Someday, maybe. Until then, a fella could dream.

And, honestly, besides those dreams, his life wasn't that bad at all.

As he passed the first of the dark houses on either side of the street, Nathan's whistling turned into a satisfied, soft humming.

It was late, getting close to midnight, and most of the town had turned in. Only the saloon still spilled light into the street, and a little further on...

Nathan fell silent, frowning. The sheriff's office? Why would someone be at the sheriff's office, especially that time of night? Their four guests from the previous week, including the two bank robbers they'd caught, had been tried and sentenced by Judge Travis just the day before. Three of the prisoners had been taken off to the state prison, while the fourth, a mild-mannered farmer accused of theft, had been acquitted and set free. There had been no trouble since then, and no reason for anyone to be at the jail unless something had happened while he was gone. Concerned, Nathan spurred his horse to a brief trot and pulled up a few moments later in front of the lit windows of JD's office, one of the Seven's unofficial gathering places. His bag stayed strapped to his saddle, leaving his hands free to rest reassuringly on one of his knives and his revolver. Nathan jogged up the steps of the small building and opened the door.

Six pairs of eyes turned to look at him, three hands briefly moving toward holsters before actually seeing him. Interesting--he would have expected Chris, with the man's hard edge and harrowing experience, and Vin, used to looking over his shoulder, but Ezra also aborted a wary movement before relaxing back onto the edge of JD's desk. And they all continued to stare at him, unusually unreadable expressions on his friends' faces.

"What's goin' on?" Nathan asked slowly. It didn't look good, whatever it was.

Buck, standing almost opposite him and in front of the main jail, silently stepped aside to reveal two occupants sitting behind the bars. One man, young but mean-eyed, sat on the bed, while an older man prowled along the back wall. Both started at the sight of Nathan, giving him particularly unfriendly looks.

"Either of 'em look familiar?" Chris asked quietly.

The one on the bed had stood to join his friend at the jail door, the two of them giving him identical glares. They clearly knew him, and something about them was a little familiar, too... But Nathan couldn't place the cold faces. He shook his head. "No, why?"

Vin answered. "Was out takin' a walk when I saw somebody slippin' into yer room. We went up t'see who it was and found these two, waitin' to bushwhack ya."

Nathan's eyes rounded, then narrowed as he stared again at the two men, his would-be assailants. "They happen to mention why?"

"No, but we did get their names," Chris said, studying Nathan in turn. "John and Joseph Fallon."

For a second, even that drew a blank, then it snapped into place. Fallon. As in, Jeremiah Fallon, the man Nathan had once tried to treat, unsucessfully. He'd been too ill to save. The resulting attempted lynching by Fallon's men had been interrupted by Chris and Vin. Heck of a way to meet two men who were to be his friends and colleagues.

Nathan swallowed, taking an unbelieving step closer. "You two were after me because of your father? After all this time?"

"We were busy someplace else--doesn't mean we forgot," the younger prisoner sneered.

"We pay our debts." That was quieter and deadlier, from the older sibling. "You think we'd just forget how you killed our pa?"

JD stirred angrily, Buck taking the two steps to the jail door and giving the bars an open-handed slap. "You two shut up in there or I'll come in and do it myself."

A pair of defiant looks, but the two weren't idiots, especially outnumbered seven to two and on the wrong side of the bars, and fell silent.

Nathan shook his head speechlessly. He knew what hate was like, could still feel it burn in his blood when he thought of his old master, the man because of whom his mother had killed herself. But such determined revenge, for something he hadn't actually done, years later, shook him up. If Vin hadn't seen the brothers, Nathan could have walked into death and never even known what hit him. The thought was as stunning as the violent hate.

It was Ezra who spoke up, his eyes a little too perceptive as they watched Nathan. "Their intentions were amply clear--I doubt Judge Travis will have any difficulty finding a verdict of guilty of attempted murder, whether they had the opportunity to attempt it or not. I believe your...old friends will be safely out of the way for a considerable length of time."

It was meant to reassure him and it did, some. A close shave always took time to get over, whether you knew it was a close shave at the time or not, and Nathan still felt his heart pounding away in his chest. But it was true old Fallon's sons wouldn't be posing him a threat again any time soon, and Nathan had never been a man to dwell on might-have-beens. He took a deep breath, gave Ezra a hint of a smile, and got one back from the gambler.

"So, y'all just standin' here keepin' an eye on two men who ain't goin' nowhere?" Nathan asked with determined humor. He caught the traces of amusement and acceptance on five of the other faces as they recognized he had taken it in and was ready to move on. Only JD looked like he was about to protest.

"We just wanted to make sure they," Buck jerked his head back toward the jail, "were safe from you. Judge Travis wasn't too happy about them gang you shot up last time." His expression was sober but his eyes were dancing.

"Ah, yes, that was a mess," Josiah nodded seriously.

The two men stirred in the jail, looking a little less hostile.

"And I so dislike cleaning up blood." Ezra picked imaginary lint off his jacket.

Understanding was dawning on JD's face. "Not to mention the guts," he added with a dramatic shudder.

Nathan was going to start laughing soon if this kept up. It was already a struggle to keep a straight face as he nodded with obvious reluctance. "Long as they're behind bars, I'll restrain myself," he promised. Ezra's mouth twitched at the disappointment in Nathan's voice, and he had to work again not to blow the act.

"I told ya he wasn't no doctor," the younger would-be assassin muttered to the older one, looking more scared than tough now.

Chris gave them a hard look, enough to make them both back away a step from the bars. "Nathan Jackson's been all the doctor this area's had since before your pa got here. He's done his best even for those who didn't deserve it. If he couldn't save your pa, it wasn't 'cause he didn't try. But that don't mean he or any of the rest of us are gonna put up with you or your kin looking for revenge. This healer knows how to use a gun, too." He suddenly smiled. "Am I makin' myself clear?"

Two reluctant nods. And Nathan's cheeks heated at the unexpected backing up, even though it shouldn't have surprised him. His time in Four Corners had taught him, among other things, to be able to expect others to look out for him. It was a new feeling, which, once he could trust it, was mighty easy to get used to.

The lingering fear eased back out of his heart. Really, had this close call been any worse than those he'd already faced a few dozen times before since taking that job? Or since setting out his shingle? In fact, it had been more dangerous back then, as his near-hanging testified. Now he had six men at his back who didn't cotton to one of them being lynched. It was probably as safe a home as Nathan would ever have in his life.

Home. That was the biggest thing he'd had to get used to.

The two prisoners looking cowed and momentarily harmless, the six men scattered comfortably about the room were starting to stir and rise. Nathan pulled himself up, too, reaching back for the door handle. "Think I owe y'all a drink at the saloon," he said with a smile.

"Perhaps you gentlemen would be up for a game?" Ezra offered pleasantly.

"It's after midnight, Ezra!"

"Since when has that been an obstacle for either of us, Mr. Wilmington?"

Nathan snorted as he prepared to follow the arguing pair out, turning to give the two prisoners one more glance. The malice still glinted in the older man's eyes, even if it was now banked.

Nathan startled as Vin clapped a hand on his shoulder. "Nothin' we can't handle, right?" he said for Nathan's ears alone.

Nathan nodded, first slowly, then firmly. "That's right."

A squeeze of his shoulder and then Vin was out the door after JD, leaving only Chris to trail behind Nathan. That position was no accident, either. In their own way, they were all looking out for him.

Then again, that was what home and safety were all about, right? Nathan hadn't even realized how much he'd longed for that all his life until he unexpectedly had it.

Dropping the Fallons from his thoughts, Nathan Jackson relaxed into the banter flowing between his friends and, for once, let himself simply enjoy the company.

+ + + + + + +

Funny, the kind of crowd a saloon attracted, Buck thought to himself as he idly scanned the room. The saloon always seemed to be the heart of a town, attracting all types. Well, almost all types, he silently amended--married women didn't often show up to darken their doors, but then, married women weren't the ones he was partial to. In fact, Buck thought with a grin, they were about the only kind of woman he wasn't partial to. He preferred women like that lovely Melissa, just serving a drink to the table next to the bar, bending down so far he could almost see...

Down, boy, Buck reined himself in. He had a rendezvous in just a half-an-hour with the even more luscious Miss Jane Everly, the new town seamstress, and there was only so much a man could do in one evening. The wee hours of the morning, however...

With a frustrated groan, Buck dragged his eyes away to study the other patrons of the saloon. Far less pleasant to look at, without a doubt, but ever since those two no-good brothers had tried to ambush Nathan in his room two evenings before, all seven of them had been paying a little closer attention to strangers in town.

It seemed pretty much the usual crowd that night, however. The typical few businessmen passing through were busy being relieved of their money by Ezra at a corner table. How the gambler didn't get tired of the game, Buck didn't know. He enjoyed a hand here and there, himself, but not the hours a day Ezra gave to it. Then again, if you found something you enjoyed and were good at... Another smile tugged at Buck's mustache.

Nor had he missed that the gambler had situated himself so he was facing the door, the wall to his back, or that Ezra was covertly screening every face that came in. His game seemed to be suffering some for it, too, more than one hand lost to one of the businessman, even though the gambler was still coming out ahead nevertheless. Most of the rich city fellas didn't seem to mind being fleeced, but there was one who squirmed occasionally, clearly unhappy with his losses. Nursing his drink, Buck idly wandered closer.

Well, the fidgeter's mood wouldn't be improving that hand, not with the cards he was holding. Buck silently shifted position and planted himself behind the player, watching the man and taking an automatic occasional sip.

Ezra had caught his eye, frowning him an obvious "go away" message Buck calmly ignored. This was a hand he was curious to see to the end.

Sure enough, Ezra's full house won the round, taking with it most of the unhappy loser's remaining money. And the liquored and suckered businessman's hand strayed almost unwittingly toward his gun.

Buck swallowed a sigh, then leaned over and whispered in the man's ear. "I wouldn't do that if I were ya."

Startled, the player jerked around to stare at him, and at the gun at Buck's hip. He paled, turning stiffly back to the table. "I'm out," he muttered, gathering the rest of his money and then edging past Buck, toward the door, as if Wilmington had a contagious disease.

Ezra had watched the whole exchange in silence, looking torn between amusement and chagrin, but finally he gave a slight nod of thanks. The businessman had posed no threat to him and they both knew it, but it allowed the game to go on uninterrupted, which meant more profits and less problems for the gambler. Including the ever-so-slight possibility that this was the one that would have been a threat. Buck tossed Ezra a grin and headed back toward the bar.

The incident hadn't gone unobserved by Chris, who also nodded his thanks at the quiet solution as he sat in the back corner of the saloon, another man who liked a wall behind him. Buck didn't worry about his back so much since his arrival in Four Corners, but he knew the instinct would die hard in his friend.

A little of his smile faded as he saw Chris working on his second bottle that night. It didn't dull his old friend's edges, not unless Chris let it, but it was clearly being used to try to dull some pain. Buck knew too well what pain, had known it since the day before, when he'd seen the date on Mary's paper.

Vin had come in earlier and settled comfortably at the end of the bar near the door, nursing a drink of his own. And also keeping an eye on the place, his own gaze straying repeatedly to Chris in the back. Buck moved innocently closer to the tracker, thunking his glass on the scarred wood in request of a refill. As the bartender moved closer, Buck leaned toward Vin.

"Sarah's birthday today."

Tanner didn't even look at him, but the nod was thoughtful and his shoulders came down a bit, relieved to have a reason for Chris's melancholy. Even as Buck concentratedly worked on his new glass, he watched Vin out of the corner of his eye as the younger man sauntered back to Chris's table, setting himself down and then just sitting in silence. Chris gave him a wary look, but when no questions seemed forthcoming, merely shoved the bottle over to share.

It was a start. Vin would know where to go with it from there.

The door opened and Buck watched as an irate-looking Nathan came in by himself, heading for a table without even glancing around. Wilmington had caught the healer looking over his shoulders a few times the day before--a man doesn't find out folks are out gunning for him and then just forget about it--but that day he already looked more relaxed. Buck smiled to himself as he thought for a moment of the show they'd put on in the jail. The two rats behind bars were neither happy nor, most likely, dissuaded, but they were a mite more calmed down and behaving themselves, and Nathan's hackles had finally settled again. Until now. But it didn't look like it was fear on his mind.

Buck left the bar to go join his friend at the otherwise empty table.

"What's eatin' you, Nathan? I've seen happier-lookin' grooms at a shotgun wedding," Buck said with a grin.

"Yeah, well, I bet even them shotgun weddings took place in a church."

Buck scrunched up his face, puzzled. "How's that?"

"The church. With it bein' Thanksgiving next week and the church finally done, you'd think Josiah would be ready to have a service in it, but no, he says he ain't good enough for that. What's Thanksgiving without thanking the Lord?" Nathan waved a hand in disgust.

Oh. Little out of his area there. But Buck had seen before the desire in Nathan, usually buried and silent, to have the traditions and memories that a slave child would never have been able to have. It was the same wistfulness Vin and Ezra showed sometimes, too, and Buck had been looking forward to the holidays in part for that reason, to celebrate what some of them had rarely had the chance to before. The year before he'd hoped the same, but influenza had struck the town along with several of the Seven, and there hadn't been much celebrating that year. Of course, Buck had never needed a church to enjoy a holiday, but Nathan had a point. There was something...reverent about thanking God in His own place.

Maybe phrased that way, it would change Josiah's mind. The ex-preacher wasn't always comfortable with his God, and no doubt that had tainted some of the holidays for him, too, but he was also good at putting his own feelings aside for the others. And it would do them all good to have a real celebration. Even Chris, Buck cast a sidelong glance at the back table, glad to see Chris talking and Vin listening.

"He taking the holidays hard, too?" Nathan asked, catching the look.

Buck simply nodded. There was no need to go into details with everyone.

Nathan sighed. "Guess some of us still have it better 'an others. Maybe I shouldn't be complainin'."

"Oh, I wouldn't give up on Josiah just yet," Buck grinned. "Thanksgiving's still a week away. Man can change his mind a dozen times 'fore then."

Nathan gave him a suspicious look. "You plannin' somethin', Bucklin?"

"Just gonna have a talk with Josiah. I think JD could use a Thanksgiving service, too, y'know?"

An understanding look. "Yeah, I do." All of them had felt along with the kid after he'd mistakenly shot Annie Neuhaus, and rejoiced with him when he pulled himself together and reclaimed his badge. Another sigh, this one a release of tension, and Nathan suddenly grinned at him. "Anyone ever tell you you're good t'talk to?"

Buck leered back. "Talkin's not what I'm known for."

"Yeah, well, that's not a side of you I'm really aimin' to get to know." Nathan was still grinning even as he shook his head and motioned to the bartender to place an order.

Buck would have to have that talk with Josiah, but for now, the mention of JD had reminded him the kid was due back soon and Wilmington had intended to be there to meet him. The young sheriff still went out to the Neuhaus ranch each week to give Hiram a hand with some of the household chores. He apparently knew how to do women things from his ma, and while it had taken a while for Hiram to forgive him, the widower seemed grateful now for JD's help. And JD for the chance to help. Miss Jane would be in soon, looking for Buck, but...she would understand. Buck just wanted to make sure his friend was all right first.

Tipping his hat at Nathan as the other man ordered some supper, Buck took one last glance around the room and, satisfied all was in hand, slipped out the door.

There was no sign of JD yet, but Buck made himself comfortable in one of the chairs on the saloon porch, watching as his breath frosted. For November, it was still uncommonly warm, which meant he was cold but not in danger of frostbite just yet. At any rate, worth the wait.

He'd used to sit out on porches like this years before, both to catch the eye of some pretty lady and to keep a lookout out for Chris Larabee. He'd shadowed his friend every time Chris ran, keeping a moderate eye on him, paying an old debt. It had been a purpose in an otherwise damnably shallow life.

And look at him now. There were other friends now to look after, and the little bit of a hand he could offer to each, he did. Even now, there he was freezing his toes off waiting for a kid to come home instead of going on his promising rendezvous. Two years before, Buck might've called that loco. Now, it felt like being useful.

Truth be told, it felt good. Who knew being responsible was so fulfilling? And that even the skirt chase would be more fun if it was a diversion instead of a reason for living? Heck, if he'd known that, he would have settled down and become responsible a long time before.

Maybe. It wasn't like he could have found as varied and loyal and close a group in every town as he had there, right? Maybe he was just lucky.

He'd only really learned the meaning of that word in the last two years.

A figure on a horse appeared at the end of the street, and Buck bounced to his feet to wait for it. JD was running a little late and he'd give the kid grief over it, especially if Miss Jane went on without Buck as a result, but even though he wouldn't have told JD as much, the thought didn't bother Wilmington too badly.

When it came down to it, he wouldn't have traded what he had for anything.

+ + + + + + +

JD Dunne stood in front of the general store, eyeing both the stable and Mary Travis' office, trying to decide where to look first. He'd already checked the saloon, the room upstairs, and the bathhouse, and there just weren't that many other places to be in their small town. Finally deciding on the newspaper office, he trotted down the steps and across the dusty street.

It wasn't necessary, but he knocked before opening the door, a bit of manners his ma had taught him that he still remembered. Besides, you treated a lady different than one of the guys.

But there was no one in the front office, and JD stood, hat in hand, craning to see around the large printing press in the middle of the room. "Mrs. Travis?"

"Just a minute." Her voice came faintly from the back room, and a moment later, Mary Travis appeared in the far doorway, patting her hair into place with a smile. "Can I do something for you, Mr. Dunne?"

"I was just looking for Chris, ma'am."

"Oh." Her hand fell, the gesture looking almost nervous for no reason JD could see. "Well, he's not here. I haven't seen him this morning yet. Is everything all right?"

"Yes, ma'am. I was just gonna ask his advice about somethin'.'re a woman--maybe you could tell me."

She smiled again, her face flushing a pretty pink as she did so. She was a handsome woman; JD admired her often, mostly because she reminded him of his ma. "I'd be happy to help if I can. What seems to be the matter?"

Drawn back to the issue at hand, JD shifted uncomfortably, kneading the brim of his bowler as he spoke. "It's Casey. She's got it in her head that...well, that we should be courtin' by now, but...I don't know anything about courtin'. I mean, I thought things were good as they were. We do a lot of stuff together and I buy her things--I mean, what else is there supposed to be?" Chris had seemed like a good candidate to ask, the only one of them to ever be married--that JD knew of, anyway--but then, Mrs. Travis had been a courted girl and wife once, too. He looked at her hopefully and hoped he wasn't blushing.

Her smile got softer, reminding him even more of his ma as she took his arm and led him over to a chair by her desk. Her own she pulled out so it was facing his. "It's a good question, but actually, courting isn't a lot different from what you've already been doing. It still means going places together and doing nice things for Casey. But it also means that, well, you're announcing your intentions of maybe getting married at some point, and that you won't be doing those things for anyone else but Casey."

JD blanched. This was more serious than he'd thought. "You mean, engaged?" he blurted.

She almost laughed but she didn't look like she was making fun of him. "No, not exactly. It's kind of like you're seeing if you'd like to be engaged. You don't have to get married at the end, you're just thinking about it." She leaned closer, not smiling anymore, just looking kind. "You are thinking about it, aren't you?"

JD squirmed in his seat. "I don't know," he mumbled. He'd been dreading this. It was why he hadn't broached the subject with Buck, knowing he would never have survived the teasing, even if Wilmington would have eventually been well-meaning and earnest when he saw JD was serious. After all, Buck had been the one to try to help Casey become a lady for him, and to show JD what he was missing. And for all his flirtatiousness and "animal magnetism," Buck had never shown the slightest interest in Casey. Everyone seemed to think she and JD belonged together. But Those were big things.

"What does your heart tell you?" Mary asked quietly.

His heart. His mouth often ran away with his pride, but his heart...It had been what had dreading dying from Maddie's bullet because he wouldn't have been able then to tell Casey how he felt. He hadn't felt such so much love in his life as when he'd woken to find her asleep at his bedside, waiting for him. His heart seemed a lot more sure of itself than JD's head was.

Maybe that was the point, though. It was his heart that had led him to jump off the stage in that little town, the best decision he'd made in his life. His heart was the one that had told him he belonged with the six men who were riding to defend an Indian village, and had urged him to stay there and become one of the Seven. It had also gotten him in trouble more times than he could count and could be stupidly impetuous, but his heart had generally been a good guide. And now it said he couldn't lose Casey, even if it took a commitment he wasn't sure he was ready for. After all, courting wasn't engaged, right? Trying it out, seeing if he--if they--wanted that: it sounded pretty good, actually.

JD grinned and stood. "'Scuse me, Mrs. Travis. I think I'd best go talk to Casey."

She didn't ask, didn't seem to need to, just nodded with a smile. She smiled a lot. Just like his ma had.

JD hurried out the door and down the boardwalk. Now that the decision was made, he felt so much lighter, and anxious to see Casey. He'd been avoiding her that morning, not knowing what answer to give her, and now there seemed no time to waste.

"Where's the fire?" Buck's easy voice came from his right, and JD jerked to a halt, surprised and chagrined. In his haste, he hadn't even seen his friend leaning against the wall, watching the street.

"No fire." JD mustered a smile, turning back and pretending he wasn't itching to keep running. He ran a hand through his hair and plunked his hat back on. "Can't a fella go someplace without it being an emergency?"

"I wasn't the one who almost tripped over my feet 'cause I was goin' so fast." Buck's stance and tone were still casual, but the blue eyes were sharp, looking him over. Not just curiosity--concern. The same concern that had lingered there through JD's struggle over Annie Neuhaus's death and then almost meeting his own end through Maddie's bullet. He didn't quite hover, but he still met JD each time the younger man came back from working at the Neuhaus farm, as he had the night before, pretending to just be friendly but clearly keeping an eye on him. Buck had never been good at hiding his true feelings, at least not from someone who knew him like JD.

Of course, the opposite was also true. JD grimaced, knowing he wouldn't be getting away with evasions this time. He pulled himself up, at least trying for nonchalant. "I was looking for Casey--you seen her around?"

Buck's eyebrows rose, his smile widening. "Casey? Haven't seen her this morning. Why, you, uh, got some news to tell her?"

Here it came. He raised his chin. "I wanted to ask her if I could start courtin' her. Officially." No need to add it had been her idea first. Buck would give him enough grief as it was.

But it wasn't mischief that glinted in his friend's eyes. JD couldn't quite tell what it was, besides an obvious happiness, but it reminded him a little of his ma's pride in him when he did something well.

JD's puffed chest slowly deflated.

Buck clapped him softly on the shoulder. "That's nice--real nice. You're a lucky man."

All the times Buck had called him "kid" and even "young'un," this was the first time he could remember Wilmington calling him a man. Nor was there any teasing in him, just that look he sometimes gave JD when they'd come through a dangerous situation, when JD first woke up after an injury, when he was hurting or overjoyed. It wasn't something JD had ever consciously given name to, but he knew it when he saw it.

It was love.

"Thanks, Buck," he said earnestly, and giving his friend a slight smile, he touched his finger to the brim of his hat, got a return salute, and went on to look for Casey.

Here he'd been thinking about starting a family, but it would really be adding to the one he already had. Okay, not flesh-and-blood, but JD knew no other name for the advice and support and the requisite kick-in-the-pants as needed, and, ultimately, friendship and love he received. He still missed his mother fiercely sometimes, but between his six friends, and Casey, and Mary, and Nettie and the Judge, JD Dunne already had everything he could have asked for.

Who would have guessed you could go so fast from being an orphan alone in the world to having so many people who cared about you?

Grinning with the sheer joy of it, JD hurried on to share his revelation with one of those who now mattered most to him.

+ + + + + + +

Someone was watching him.

Vin half-turned, giving the buildings and street around him a surreptitious sweep as he had several times already that last hour, seeing nothing as he had all the previous times. No signs of anything amiss, of strangers in town, of anyone following him. Nothing he could take to Chris. And yet the hairs on the back of his neck continued to prickle and rise, a warning he couldn't quite ignore.

He tied the flap of his wagon tight, casually swinging his mare's laig over one shoulder as he cast one last glance around. His strongest instinct was to get on his horse and ride out of there, face whatever trouble it was alone and out where he could see trouble coming from miles away. Instead, he turned from the wagon and headed determinedly up the street.

There had been a day, not even that long ago, when he would have followed that instinct, when instincts like those were all he lived by. They'd kept him alive more than once, and he trusted them. Then his eyes had met a stranger's across the street, and with a speed he never would have believed, he'd come to trust someone else as much as himself. He wasn't about to run out on Chris Larabee now, or lose faith in him.

Vin kept on walking, feeling the invisible eyes on the back of his head. And a pair of sharp blue eyes he knew well following him from the porch of the general store.

Chris was the one he really trusted and knew, his brother in many ways, but there were five others who he'd also gotten used to having at his back. Vin wasn't a man to lean easily on another, but the six other men who guarded Four Corners...well, they made it feel natural. Weren't many men who knew his secret and could not only be trusted with it, but stood by him, anyway. They'd rallied around him when the fake marshals had tried to take him away, Chris saving his life once again, ridden with him to find Eli Joe when they had nothing to gain for it themselves, then fought with him against Eli Joe's men. He was proud to ride with them, and call them his friends.

And was more relieved than he could say to, at least for a while, stop looking over his shoulder and rest somewhere. The wanderlust in Vin Tanner was born of need and not knowing anything else, not innate restlessness. Shaking the dust from his boots for a while felt kinda nice.

Deep down, however, he knew life flowed on, that word of his being there would eventually get out. The reward on his head was no small sum and would attract all sorts of bounty hunters, no way around it. One day he'd have to move on, or he'd be buried in Four Corners.

Was it that day?

He passed the General Store, Chris still watching him, but the unease that crawled up and down his back didn't come from his friend's attention. Someone, somewhere out there, meant him harm.

Vin's footsteps never faltered as he made his way past the saloon, then the bathhouse. Soon, he'd run out of town. As if he'd been planning it all along, he angled his path so that he was headed now toward the alley between the bathhouse and the building next to it, his movements still as unconcerned as if he were on an afternoon stroll instead of heading into some sort of showdown.

The alley was wide enough for several men to stand side-by-side in it, and the walls on either side high enough that it felt enclosed, private. Stifling, actually, but Vin channeled the unease into focused readiness, one finger hooked casually in the trigger guard of the shotgun. It was the perfect place for an ambush, if someone was looking to spring one on him.

He felt the man before he heard him, whirling with the mare's laig in place, aimed and cocked in one smooth motion. A lone figure stood at the street end of the alley, the raised revolver in his hand reflecting the sun from its shiny barrel. Hair nearly as long as Vin's but dirtier and blond framed his face, and his clothes bore the signs of wear and dust of someone who'd just reached town.

"Mr. Tanner?" he said softly, probably trying not to draw attention to himself.

"Got me confused with someone else, Mister," Vin answered evenly, stance rock solid.

"I don't believe that, not after the way you just handled that thing," he nodded at Vin's weapon. "I've come a long way to find ya."

"Sorry you came for nothing."

The man grinned, teeth a nauseating yellow. "I aim to get what I come for. Bounty on you's enough to pay off my debts and then some."

"Yeah, well, hate to disappoint ya, but I don't aim to come with ya." Vin was calculating, knowing he could take the man out before the man got him, but also too aware he really would be guilty of murder then. Bounty hunters worked inside the law--mostly--and Vin killing one just to get away, even if he ultimately turned out to be innocent of the charge against him, was breaking the law.

Which the man wouldn't have known he had any qualms against, yet he continued to stand there, grinning. Was he that confident?

And then another gun clicked as it was cocked behind Vin, and his breath caught. Two of them. No wonder Yellow Teeth wasn't worried.

"Bounty's for dead or alive. You gonna do it the hard way?" the bounty hunter in front of him asked pleasantly.

"I like the easy way myself," a new voice suddenly spoke up behind Vin, and the tracker's shoulders relaxed a fraction, the corner of his mouth turning upward. It was Chris, and whoever the bounty hunter's partner was behind him had ceased to be a concern. Vin turned his full attention again to the man in front of him.

The yellow teeth had disappeared, the shiny gun wavering a fraction. Not so sure of himself when he didn't have back-up, which was just what Vin was counting on. And then the gun steadied again.


Vin was about to open his mouth to ask what next, when he saw movement from the front of the bathhouse and on the opposite side, and before the blond bounty hunter knew what hit him, Ezra and Buck had relieved him of his gun and had him covered.

Vin relaxed his stance, glancing back to see Chris similarly standing next to the other stranger, the barrel of his gun pressed against the other man's neck. Vin nodded fractionally, and the dark blond head nodded back.

The four of them gathered at the mouth of the alley with their two prisoners, Vin and Buck watching them warily, Chris speculative, Ezra apparently unconcerned. "Jail?" offered the gambler.

"They didn't do nothin' illegal," Vin answered reluctantly. As long as he was a wanted man, he had no protection or rights under the law.

"We can't just let 'em go. They'd be back here 'fore nightfall, probably with friends." Buck looked as worried as Vin felt.

But Chris was smiling, ever-so-slightly. Vin stared at him, puzzled.

"Y'all recognize this one?" Chris shook Yellow Teeth by the arm. The bounty hunter glared at him. "Shad Carter, wanted for stagecoach robbery and theft of U.S. mail. Which means there's probably a poster out on you, too," he turned to the other man, a sullen, stout fella with dark hair and an unkempt beard.

"You mean, they did break the law?" Buck asked, eyebrows rising.

"How convenient," Ezra put in with a faint smile of his own.

It was, although Vin wasn't about to argue the luck. Bounty hunting attracted those on both sides of the law. He could run from either, but only the wanted ones could he stop and put in jail. The fact that Carter had obliged him only eased his worry a little bit. It solved this dilemma, but what about next time?

With a nod from Chris, Buck and Ezra led their new guests off to jail. They were getting quite a usage from the little cells those last few weeks. Vin knew them from both the outside and the inside. It was the life of a wanted man, and he'd been foolish to let himself forget it.

Chris was still standing next to him, a cheroot back in his mouth and his eyes on the street. "You wanna leave?" he asked suddenly, conversationally.

Vin's arm dropped, the mare's laig now hanging loosely from his hand as he watched the prisoners being led away. "Thinkin' 'bout it."

"They'll still come after ya."

"I got room out there to run."

"And hide?"

He didn't bristle. "If I haveta."

Chris glanced at him, then out at the town again. "What if one corners ya again, one who ain't wanted?"

"Guess I'll need t' figure it out then."

Chris's mouth twitched. "If that's all the plan you got, Cowboy, you can do that here, too."

"I'm a sitting target here, Chris."

The blue eyes swung back to him, very, very serious. "With six of us to watch your back."

Vin grimaced at his friend, flummoxed. It was true--the intervention of his friends had stopped the situation from ending badly, either him or the two men getting shot. Staying was a risk, but so was leaving, if he were honest. Who was to say where the better odds were?

But he knew which he preferred.

"You got an answer for everything?" he finally asked with mock irritation.

Chris snorted. "I ain't ever been asked everything, have you?"

It was a good reminder. No one knew the future. They could only make decisions in the present. And, presently, he didn't want to go. Having someone at your back--trusting someone enough to have them at your back--let alone six someones, was an asset Vin Tanner wasn't quite able to give up. And an almost-forgotten warm feeling he didn't want to lose.

Chris clapped him on the back. "Buy ya a drink?"

And, without looking behind him, Vin went.

+ + + + + + +

The letter crinkled in his vest every time he moved, a constant reminder he didn't need. Ezra Standish glowered at his cards, then at the other players at the table, wishing again he'd taken the godforsaken thing up to his room before starting to play. He'd thought the game, a friendly one with some of his fellow peacekeepers, would keep his mind off it, but it hadn't, he was just playing abysmally. And the letter was starting to feel as if it were made of lead, a physical weight in his breast pocket.

Ezra chose two cards to discard, then realized as he reached for new ones that he'd just thrown away one half of his two-pair. Truly his mind wasn't on the game, and if he kept on he'd just clean himself out on top of everything else.

Not even waiting for the bet to come around to him, Ezra tossed the cards down with a sigh. "I fold, gentlemen."

Three surprised faces looked up at him. Well, perhaps there was some comfort in the fact his reputation was so secure that a few bad rounds were a shock. Not that he usually had bad rounds, of course, but even those fifty-two old friends of his couldn't reclaim his attention that day.

Ezra stood, draining his shot glass before announcing, "I believe I shall retire. It's been a long day."

The eyebrows were climbing on those surprised faces. "Uh, Ezra," young JD Dunne finally ventured. "It's only 8:30."

"You know what they say," he answered automatically, tucking away his remaining funds. "Early to bed, early to rise, makes a man healthy and very, very wealthy." He offered JD, Nathan, and Josiah a patent smile and walked out of the saloon.

Actually, his room was upstairs, but he wanted a little fresh air first. Perhaps it would clear his head like nothing else had been able to since mail delivery that morning. Not that he had much confidence anything would help. In the privacy of the dark street and only his own company, Ezra's expression sagged, unfamiliar tears prickling his eyes.

The saloon doors swung open behind him, and it was just the inducement he needed. The poker face slid back into place as if it had never been gone. And slipped again as a pair of drunken cowboys staggered past him, oblivious to the gambler, heading toward the livery. Their horses would probably take them home. Ezra watched them dispassionately, shoulders bowed once more.

"Bad news?"

The voice behind him startled him enough that Ezra jerked around, unprepared. Exposed. He covered it immediately, but Nathan had already seen, his eyes softening from wariness into concern even as Ezra stammered out a "What?"

"That letter you got this morning. It was bad news, wasn't it?"

His lips stretched into a smile, moving already to form some pleasant lie. A poker face wasn't only for the card table, and Ezra was quite used to keeping up the act of complete control whenever he was in company.

Then again, the company he kept didn't usually inquire about him so earnestly, with the gentleness Nathan Jackson usually reserved for the patients of his he was worried about. Ezra's mouth worked for a moment but nothing came out, and finally, exceedingly vexed with himself, he shut it.

Nathan was looking like he was already starting to regret the question. The concern was still there, but so was a limit to his patience. "Look, if you don't want to tell me, you don't have to. It's just been pretty obvious all day somethin's botherin' you. Figured it was the letter."

Ezra hadn't even been aware of anyone else there when he'd read his mother's note, let alone seen his reaction. He really was slipping. But the usual glib explanations still wouldn't come. As closely as Nathan was watching him, he'd know if he were getting anything less than the truth.

And...for once, Ezra longed to confide the truth. The thought both appalled and appealed. To have friends who knew him too well for him to fool...wasn't that what he'd always wanted? And always worked to avoid?

Nathan was about to leave--it was clear in his body language as the silence stretched on. Yet he hadn't. Ezra abruptly decided to take the gamble. "Yes. It was...bad news." His shoulders instantly hunched again, half from the weight of misery, half to protect his newly exposed vulnerability.

But there was no triumph in Nathan's eyes, no sign of conquest, only...compassion? Ezra was rusty in the reading of finer emotions; he was far more used to looking for hints of greed, anger, malice.

The healer stepped a little closer to him, his voice dropping. Offering him privacy?

"Anything I can do t' help?"

It was, as far as Ezra could tell, a sincere offer. "No, thank you--" the automatic reply was already coming out, but he checked himself. And took another chance. "Actually, yes. I would appreciate your...advice in a medical matter."

A little surprise in the dark eyes, nothing suspicious as of yet. "Medical? I can try. Somebody sick?"

Ezra swallowed, ducked his head. Even with the unusual lubrication of trust, the words were hard to get out. "My mother."

"Maude? Where is she?"

"A Mississippi hospital. A nurse wrote the letter for her. They say she has...Diphtheria." He forced his chin up, facing Nathan almost defiantly.

The black man frowned. "Diphtheria. I heard of that--some of the soldiers came down with it sometimes." He shook his head. "It ain't always fatal."

Ezra shrugged. "I believe the key word is 'always'." He was nearly choking on the casual tone.

Nathan's voice softened again. "The worst cases die, ain't no way 'round that. But if Maude's in a hospital, they're gonna take good care of her. There's no cure, but there're treatments, and it'll help she's a strong lady."

He wasn't making any empty promises, and Ezra appreciated that even as the continued unknowns scared him. He offered Nathan a thin smile. "She is strong, no question of that."

Nathan smiled back at him, sympathy shining in his gaze. "All you Standishs are stubborn as mules. Can you see Maude giving up anything without a fight?"

Ezra actually laughed at that, surprising himself. "Hardly."

"Well, don't give up on her yet, then."

He mutely shook his head, the lump in his throat too large to swallow.

Nathan's hand on his shoulder startled him into looking up again, and the healer gave him a reassuring smile and nodded back toward the saloon. "Why don'tcha come back in, just have a drink, sit a while. JD an' Buck are already at it--we stopped playing after you left."

It actually sounded tempting, but Ezra shook his head. Miseries were to be borne alone. He'd already said too much. "No, I...I should go." He waved vaguely toward his room.

"You shouldn't be alone right now, Ezra. It's easier if you're not. C'mon, I'll even buy ya a drink."

He hesitated, torn. The empty, silent room upstairs had no appeal except for its offer of privacy, but that was what years of instincts compelled him toward. On the other hand, the offer of company, distraction, definitely drew him. The companionship of friends.

The pitying looks, the knowing smiles that he was vulnerable.

But it wasn't pity nor dominance in the expression of the man in front of him--his friend. And it occurred to Ezra to wonder how it was that he understood so easily what he read in Nathan's face. Could it be this was a mutual benefit of friendship? That he was just as transparent in return?

And yet the only advantage taken of him had been Nathan pressing to find out what was bothering him.

Ezra blinked hard to clear his vision. Maude's news had left him unusually responsive that evening. "How can I resist such a generous--and rare--offer?" he finally said in a tone so soft, it made him wince inside.

Nathan, for once, didn't seem to notice. Or maybe was thoughtful enough not to. He just clapped Ezra's shoulder and grinned at him. "Considerin' you usually win half my money off me, there's a good reason for that." He turned them both toward the saloon.

Ezra hesitated once more, faced with the bright lights and sounds of the crowd. "Perhaps--"

"It'll be fine," Nathan whispered. "You'll see." He ushered Ezra gently inside.

And it was. That evening with his friends had even brought him to laughter a few times, and when Ezra had finally gone to bed, it was with a somewhat more eased mind and heart.

When the melancholia threatened to return the next morning, Buck and JD somehow talked him into taking a trip to one of the neighboring towns for the day, where the unusually rich pickings and Dunne and Wilmington's antics on the way had provided surprising distraction. And the following day it was Vin asking his help in writing a letter, an arrangement Ezra shamefacedly but willingly agreed to, remembering his unkind response the last time Tanner had asked. Then Josiah had needed some help that afternoon with copying hymns for the Thanksgiving service to take place in two days, and somehow only Ezra had been free.

It was, he realized soon enough, a conspiracy to keep him busy and his mind off of Maude, somewhat lacking in subtlety but no less appreciated. Nathan had obviously shared his news, but Ezra couldn't seem to mind, not when it helped so much. And once it sunk in his friends were only trying to help him.

When the telegram arrived the next day that Maude was finally on the mend, Nathan had been the first one Ezra had gone to to share the good news with. All his friends had rejoiced with him.

Maude, ironically, would never have understood. Ezra wasn't sure he completely did, either. But to have friends with whom he didn't have to always keep up the act, who knew him better and not only still cared about him but even tried to help...

Well, that was just about the luckiest hand he'd ever been dealt.

+ + + + + + +

Josiah Sanchez, wanderer and searcher, had found some peace. Perhaps it was just that day, but he was grateful for even that. It gave him hope for the future.

The Thanksgiving service had drawn far more of the town than he'd thought it would. Most of the area farmers and businessmen and their families had crowded into the small church to give thanks to God for what they had. It was hard not to preach from a thankful heart at the sight of such a crowd.

And to also give thanks for what he had. Not just a new church community and a refurbished building, but also the six men who had sat with various degrees of ease in the back pew of the church. Josiah's own version of a family.

Chris had been motionless at one end of the pew, stiff and formal, eyes turned inward. Josiah rather doubted he'd heard much of the sermon, but just the fact he'd shown up said a lot. Maybe some of it had to do with Vin, sitting beside him and pulling awkwardly at the shirt and tie one of the others--Chris?--had loaned him but listening to Josiah with interest. Josiah had to wonder if he'd ever been to a church service before. Perhaps with his mother when he'd been young, but not lately. And certainly not celebrating the holidays.

JD next to him listened just as attentively but with the shining eyes of someone for whom it brought back memories. No doubt he was thinking of his mother, too. Buck on his other side seemed well aware of that, alternating between casting concerned glances at him and beaming at Josiah. It was thanks to Wilmington's persuasiveness they were having a service at all, but Josiah had no regrets about being talked into it. As unworthy as he was, it wouldn't have been the first time the Good Lord had used him to fill a need.

Nathan's small smile and glowing eyes told Josiah that need was being fed like a hungry man at a feast. Everyone needed to believe in something, particularly in a life like theirs, but for Nathan it was an old foundation, not a new find. It wouldn't have been the first thing Josiah had admired his friend for. And Ezra at the end sat with his usual appearance of carelessness, but his eyes were sharp as he listened. Perhaps his mother's recent close brush with death had made him more interested than usual. Or maybe the interest had always been there, one of the many things he'd learned to hide over the years. Josiah had underestimated the gambler before. All of them, really, even himself, though the last two years had taught him a few things. The seven of them were a motley bunch to be sure, but they worked well together in spite of it, or maybe because of it. Josiah had always known the Lord had a sense of humor.

The sermon ended and the last hymn sung, Josiah gave the blessing and the crowd filed out, on their way to their own Thanksgiving celebrations. Leaving seven bachelors standing awkwardly about in any empty church, not sure what to do next. Mary Travis, sometimes the mother of the group, had left with Billy and the Judge the day before, after the latest round of trials cleared the jail, to spend Thanksgiving at the Judge's home. Casey and Nettie had also traveled to see in-laws. Josiah happened to know JD had been invited to go along, but he'd begged off on the excuse that it would leave Buck celebrating alone. Even Inez was in Mexico on a visit with her family they'd urged her to take.

JD cleared his throat, immediately drawing six pairs of eyes to him. "I think we should have dinner together. You know, a real Thanksgiving meal. My ma and I...we used to have one each year." He'd only faltered a moment, and Josiah gave him a small smile, as did Buck.

"That sorta thing takes some preparation, JD, not something you just decide to do at the last minute," Nathan said apologetically.

"Not t'mention money," added Vin.

"And a place to hold it, and somebody t' cook, 'cause I know you can't, and food..." Buck was ticking the list off on his fingers. Too busy to catch the look JD and Ezra exchanged.

"As to the food and location, I believe our little hotel will be amply sufficient," Ezra said.

Nathan shook his head. "Not if they weren't expecting us."

"What makes you think they weren't?"

JD looked rather like he was going to burst with joy, and the corner of Josiah's mouth began to turn up.

"I think JD's been plotting behind our backs," Chris dryly spoke Josiah's thoughts.

"An' Ezra, too--he paid for most of it." That hasty announcement was followed by a blush and contrite look at the gambler, who had suddenly developed a cough. He muttered something about "an investment," and no one embarrassed him with a response although Josiah saw a few more knowing grins circulate.

"So the dinner's all ready?" Nathan asked, eyebrows raised.

"Ready when we are," JD nodded.

"I don't know 'bout y'all, but I'm starving." Vin was smiling even as he pulled yet again at his collar and tie. Without hesitation, Buck reached over and yanked the tie off him.

That did it. The awkwardness broke, the seven of them turning toward the entrance of the church and heading out, down the street to the hotel.

Josiah brought up the rear, stopping to close the door of the church and give the small white building a lingering glance before he left. It was long enough for Nathan to hang back and say in an undertone, "I'm real glad you did that service, Josiah. Day wouldn't have been the same without it."

"A man can give Thanksgiving to his God anywhere," Josiah answered, finally turning away and descending the steps to join him.

"Yeah, but it means more here somehow. And with your friends and family."

"Family?" Josiah asked soberly. Obadiah Jackson was buried in the town's small graveyard, having succumbed to his illness just a few short weeks after his reunion with his son. Josiah knew his friend had been glad for the time spent together but still mourned the old man.

Nathan grinned wryly. "What do ya call that?" He nodded toward the group in front of him.

Vin was explaining something to Ezra while JD looked on, while Buck and Chris were quietly talking in the lead. They walked with the easy gait of men who were relaxed, enjoying themselves, the company, the evening. He remembered them when they'd first met: Chris, angry and grieving. Vin a loner, always looking over his shoulder. JD full of enough energy to get himself killed. Buck, determined only to have fun, and Ezra pretending that was all there was to life. Nathan, wary and with an edge of bitterness. And himself, without faith or hope, knowing no other salvation but his mindless mission to rebuild the old church. It was finished and there he still was, rebuilding himself now, watching his friends doing the same.

Faith wasn't to be placed in men, he knew that. Mislocated and then lost in his father all those years, Josiah had despaired of ever getting it back. But these men gave him hope his faith in God wasn't pointless, after all. He hadn't just found a family. He'd found the way back to his soul again.

He dropped a hand on Nathan's shoulder, squeezing it with sincerity. "I call it a miracle."

Nathan slowly nodded. "Amen to that, brother."

And that rather seemed to say it all.