The Stuff of Dreams

by K Hanna Korossy

Previously published in Legends of the Magnificent Seven 5 (2004)

"You are a fool!," he announced to the mirror.

Ezra Standish, gambler, conman, and secret dreamer, had rarely felt true despair, and even that for no more than the occasional stray moment, before the perfect bluff or the saving deception presented itself. One of the first rules of his line of work was that there was always a way out of a bad situation, and a way to make money off it. After all, a person couldn't persevere in his trade without a certain...reckless optimism.

Of which he could summon none now. No option that had half-heartedly risen on his horizon could make right what had happened this time. It wasn't even that he'd been well and truly ground into the dust, for that would not be a first. No, it was who did the grinding. And what had been demolished along with his finances and plans. There was no fixing this, and the despair that rose from that hopelessness was nearly choking.

Ezra ran a hand through his hair and glanced away from the mirror, around the room, his new room. He'd hastily quit the one he'd had in the Main Street Hotel after his mother had acquired the building, not about to rent from her, abandoning even his rare feather bed in his hurry. Yet another of Maude's spoils. This room in the only other hotel in Four Corners, the Virginia, was neither as clean nor as comfortable, but it was the only haven he had at that moment. For only a little while longer, at least. He would be leaving town with the dawn of the new day and would try to put this whole miserable experience behind him and start over.

Ezra jerked to his feet and grabbed one valise, dumping its wrinkled contents and woodenly beginning to fold and repack the clothes. Starting over—didn't that imply a fresh start, beginning again where you'd once left off? But that was impossible now. If only he could go back to the way things were when he'd first ridden into town, with no greater concerns than the pursuit of pleasure and money, and yet hope for more in his heart. Now he had neither that careless freedom, nor that aspiration for something deeper. Ezra smiled hollowly at the thought as he worked. Yes, indeed, his friends had certainly done a thorough job. No ill fortunes he'd faced before bore this sort of personal betrayal, this deliberate crushing of his dreams. Misfortune he was used to and knew well. The perfidy of a friend, that was new. And more painful than he could have ever imagined. Was this the vaunted virtue of friendship he'd heard of so often and yearned for deep down all those years? Why? Who would want this sort of vulnerability and torment?

His hand was trembling as it clutched one of his fine shirts, and Ezra dropped it with a hissed curse, wheeling away from the half-packed case, to the window. It opened into the alley between the hotel and the general store next to it. There was nothing to see but dirt and unfinished wood, but the sounds of the town drifted in, children laughing and running, the clop-clop of horses and rustle and clanking of wagons, the murmur of voices. A town that would have been rendered a ghost several times over if not for its seven peacekeepers. Ezra had somehow convinced himself it was a noble enough reason to stay, even for small pay and great risk. After all, Kansas City and San Francisco had once had such humble beginnings, and it had taken daring visionaries to build them to their current heights, people to invest in the businesses and build them up. Ezra had once thought himself such a man. At least until his mother had arrived to smash that dream, and drawn his friends into helping her.

A partly empty bottle of whiskey sat on the otherwise bare dresser, and Ezra uncorked it, not bothering with a glass as he took a drink. And smiled cynically again at the window. Well, perhaps she'd done him a favor, uncovering the deceitfulness of his friends, and the blind stupidity of his own heart, before he became irrevocably tied to the town and was destroyed completely. If the people of the town were as ungrateful as to not support him in his venture, and his friends... Ezra's smile wavered. If his supposed friends were so disloyal as to actively subvert his attempt to fulfill his dream, he truly was better off moving on before he gave away even more of his small, precious supply of trust.

If there was any left at all. Ezra's shoulders sank, one hand rising to massage, then cover his eyes.

A knock at the door made him start like a cornered animal. He hadn't even heard the sound of approaching footsteps. His defenses and edge had also been worn down in that godforsaken town over the previous year.

"Who is it?" Good Lord, was that pathetically shaky voice his? Ezra's chin rose in defiance of any further humiliation. They'd taken so much from him; he would not let his pride go, too. With swift, sure steps, he crossed to the door and flung it open.

JD stood there, or rather hopped from one foot to another there, his open expression revealing no sign he could see Ezra's turmoil. "Yates an' two of his men escaped from the jail this morning, not sure how yet. Chris says we're goin' after them, and be ready to ride in ten minutes." And with that breathless pronouncement, he was gone before Ezra could do more than open his mouth.

Ezra frowned. Yates was one of the more insidious men they'd come up against, as cultured and mild-mannered as he was without scruples. He also had nearly strung Vin up, which made him not only a danger but also an object of Chris Larabee's wrath. The felon needed to be caught...but surely six men were enough to catch three. They didn't need Ezra, if they'd ever had. He could still leave as he'd planned.

But Vin Tanner had done nothing to harm Ezra, had never shown him anything but acceptance and the respect of one man for another. Perhaps he was not a friend, but he was a good man and one who deserved assistance.

Ezra set his jaw. Fine. If they needed his gun, he would ride with them once more, for Tanner's sake. And then he would resign properly to their esteemed leader and shake the dust of that little town from his feet. Yes, he nodded to himself, that would be fair. No one could blame him for running out on them then, not even those who were always quick to throw that past mistake in his face. Of course, they , he thought bitterly, had never committed any of their own.

His heart festering at the thought, Ezra slammed his door shut and reached for his guns.

+ + + + + + +

Larabee looked even more of a thundercloud than usual, his darkened face matching his customary black dress as he stood on the jail porch and addressed the six of them.

"Looks like Yates somehow snagged the keys and let himself out while were busy with Eli Joe." Ezra caught the subtly apologetic glance he threw Vin, standing near him. "JD found the cell empty when he came to check up on them. Don't know how much of a head start they got but looks like a couple o' hours, and Tiny's missing some horses. Five of us are gonna ride out after 'em, bring 'em back to stand trial and tell the judge what they know about Eli Joe. Buck, I want you to stay behind with Ezra to keep an eye on things here."

Ezra started—so he wasn't to ride, after all? Perhaps they didn't trust him with the clear mandate to bring back the escapees alive, or perhaps he simply was redundant. But why on earth had he been summoned then in the first place? The urge to leave was rapidly becoming uncontestable.

Buck was also clearly unhappy with the arrangement. "Chris, I can go! They don't need us here. Fact is," he smiled sheepishly as only Buck could, "I could use a little time away. Clear my head a little."

And clear away the memory of his close shave with the expecting Miss Lucy, Ezra nearly smiled. Wilmington could be as transparent as JD.

But Chris was not in an indulgent mood. "I need you here, Buck. Town's stirred up after that shootout—they'll need some calming down. Ezra'll back you up."

There it was again, orders without the courtesy of any sort of explanation. He deserved better than this, Ezra thought darkly, and would have said something except even his resentment wasn't as strong as fear of crossing an angry Larabee. There was speaking up for oneself, and then there was stupidity. At least his obedience now would bolster his claim when he was ready to leave, and make the departure easier. Truly he was unneeded here if even such a small trust as recapturing escaped prisoners did not merit his inclusion, and he was instead left to babysit the town.

"Any questions?" Chris's eyes seemed to pin him briefly, and Ezra returned his stare impassively. "Fine," Larabee nodded sharply. "Mount up. If we're not back by morning, Ezra, I want you to ride patrol."

Morning patrol, his least favorite duty as peacekeeper. "Anything else?" Ezra couldn't help but ask sarcastically.

Chris's eyes narrowed. "I'm sure you'll figure it out if there is," he answered flatly.

Ezra gave a grudging nod. Indeed he would. He'd figured it all out completely.

He stood back in the shadows of the jail porch and watched as the five mounted their horses and rode out of town without a glance behind. JD had seemed as if he might say something before he turned away, but he hadn't, and Ezra didn't wonder about it. As soon as the riders were out of sight, Buck stomped past Ezra also without seeing him, muttering all the way into the sheriff's office. And Ezra was left standing alone, as he'd always been, feeding the animosity inside him until he almost forgot how much he was hurting.

+ + + + + + +

He'd managed to avoid Buck most of that day, which wasn't hard considering the older man was trying to avoid socializing, particularly with the opposite sex. A week before, Ezra would have laid bets with great amusement and relish as to how long their resident Lothario's aversion to female companionship lasted. Now he was just glad for the excuse to be left alone.

So it was with both dread and surprise he saw Wilmington sidle into the livery as Ezra was saddling his horse for the morning patrol early the next day.

"Hey, Ezra. Uh, I was wondering if you wouldn't want me to take your patrol this morning. I know how you hate mornings and all..."

There was a familiar wheedle to Buck's tone Ezra recognized too well. He continued his preparations without hesitation. "Your concern for my uninterrupted sleep would have been considerably more valuable had it been tendered before I rose, dressed, and had my morning coffee. Besides," he paused to look at the man, "we both know Mr. Larabee's patrol assignments are not merely suggestions. Perhaps you are comfortable with altering them, but I am not."

"Hey, whoa, I ain't asking ya to go against Chris. I'm just saying...well, I need to get out of town for a while, Ezra, you know what I mean? Get some fresh air, stretch my legs—"

"—Avoid Miss Lucy," Ezra finished sagely as he drew the cinch tight. The young lady was no longer trying to trap him in marriage, but Buck hadn't completely lost his wariness. It would have been amusing in other circumstances.

"Well, yeah, that, too—that little girl almost did me in! But—hey! How 'bout I ride along with ya? That wouldn't hurt anything, right?"

Ezra suppressed a sigh. Just what he didn't want, company. "And what about the town?" he asked with false patience.

"Town's not gonna miss us for a couple o' hours. All seven of us have ridden out for longer than that."

All seven of us. Even after the events of the last week, it still sounded enviable, to be a part of something rather than on one's own. But that something had been used against him once too often. It was an ideal his heart yearned for, not the reality of "friends" who had injured him worse than any of his enemies.

"So what do ya say?" Buck asked eagerly.

What was one more abuse in a year full of them? Ezra shrugged, face blank. "Where you go is your business, Mr. Wilmington." He walked his horse out of its stall and just outside the livery doors, and mounted, glancing over the waking town as he did. It was perhaps the last time he would see it thus, as he left for the last patrol he would ride, and the thought was both troubling and comforting at once. There were, after all, some sweet memories mixed in with the acid: Mrs. Travis's kindnesses, the children who gathered around him sometimes to clamor for a story or a trick, the respect and even friendliness in the faces of some of the townfolk, the acts of friendship and fealty he'd witnessed among the other members of the seven. Rarely toward him, but it had given him hope once, to see that sort of selflessness and affection. Now it was the bitter dregs of his time there, seeing what was possible and knowing it would not be offered to him. They would risk their lives for Vin, or JD, or Nathan, but they would not even hazard a little money and support for Ezra's dream. Perhaps it wasn't friendship that was the problem. He'd seen evidence with his own eyes of its existence and worth. Perhaps it was just not to be for him.

Buck's horse clopped up behind him, and Ezra pulled his jacket a little tighter around himself to ward off the sudden fierce chill in the air. And he set off to fulfill his last obligation to a group he no longer belonged with, if he ever had.

+ + + + + + +

"...So then I opened the door and walked in, and there was Miss Lucy on top of this fella, Luther , who was about as skinny as a beanpole and half as smart..."

Ezra closed his eyes, trying to shut out Buck Wilmington's rambling relation before it got far more detailed than he'd wished. Well, even more so than it had already had, anyway. He hadn't shown his companion the slightest indication of interest or that he was even listening, but that hadn't slowed the diatribe that had run on ever since they'd left the town nearly two hours before. Much longer and Ezra was quite certain he'd settle forever the matter of his staying in town by shooting Buck. The thought made his mouth quirk in the first smile he'd felt like all morning.

"Yeah, you think that's funny, but then I found out the baby was Luther's all along! And Miss Lucy hadn't even wanted me, she'd just been usin' me to make Luther jealous. Can you believe that?"

Ezra sighed silently and pointedly looked in the other direction.

"Yeah, me neither. Sometimes you just don't know who you can trust in this world."

"Amen," Ezra said softly, fervently.

Buck's eyes turned on him and Ezra got the abrupt impression the older man was really seeing him for the first time that day. It was not a comfortable feeling. "Say, uh, Ezra, is somethin' bothering you? JD said..." He fell silent.

And Ezra knew he should have seized on the moment of peace, but instead found himself asking, "JD said what?"

"Well, that maybe you were mad at losing your saloon." There was a strange hesitancy in the usually shameless voice.

JD Dunne. He'd always entertained some hope about that young sheriff, and Ezra found himself softening slightly at the thought of the young man's concern. "I'm not mad," he said quietly. And it was true. No matter how he'd tried to talk himself into fury, it had been just so he wouldn't feel the ache, not out of any real irritation. How could you blame someone for not wanting to be your friend?

"That's good." Buck sounded uncertain. "I was just thinking, uh, you—"

"I don't wish to discuss the matter further," Ezra said firmly. And around the sudden swell of his throat.

There was silence for a long moment, silence in which he could feel the other man's puzzlement and unease. No doubt at finding someone less willing to shrug off the arrows of life than he was. Buck was a little quieter when he finally said, "Well, soon as the others get back, we're gonna have some changes 'round town. Once we get the gang to talk and clear Vin's name, things'll get back to normal again in no time, you'll see."

"I'm certain they will," Ezra agreed. What a shame he wouldn't be there to witness it.

Another long pause, more awkward than the last. Wilmington was wondering what was eating him, and that suited Ezra fine. Let someone try to figure him out for once, instead of him always struggling to understand and accommodate. He was tired of it. Lord, he was just tired .

He was almost beginning to think the remainder of the patrol would pass in blissful silence, when Buck drew his horse to one side, away from their path, and called out, "I'm gonna stop at the creek, throw some water on my face. Be right back."

Ezra pressed his mouth shut in displeasure but didn't say a word, just silently turned his mount to follow. He was feeling rather parched himself, the stale, lukewarm water of his canteen not particularly enticing. The sun wasn't yet at its zenith nor was the day promising to be one of the scorchers they often got, but it was unpleasantly warm. A drink of creek water sounded pleasant.

Morgan's creek was one of those fed by underground streams, usually on the chilled side no matter the weather. Ezra dismounted gratefully to partake, making certain he was considerably upstream from the slurping and splashing Buck Wilmington. Honestly, the man sometimes behaved like a child. No wonder he and JD were such friends. Ezra swallowed, and bent to drink.

Buck suddenly let out a bellow, his whoops of pleasure becoming a cry of what sounded like pain.

Ezra jolted upright, wondering frantically what he'd missed, to the sight of Buck leaping away from the creek bank, his movements lacking their usual grace. He crashed more than landed, one leg going out from under him and dumping him to the ground.

Something brown flashed where he'd stood a moment before. No, not just flashed, slithered. And the sound of a rattle, hidden by the splash of the water before, finally reached Ezra's ears.

The gun his hand had flown to a moment before was suddenly in his hand. The snake was dead by the second shot, nearly severed in a pool of gore. And Buck sat staring at it from a few feet away, rubbing at the leg where he'd been bitten.

Ezra jammed his gun into his holster and cleared the space between them in a few long strides, dropping to one knee beside the larger man. "Let me see," he ordered tightly, and Buck didn't argue, pulling his hand away from the bloody puncture marks on his thigh. There wasn't much to see through the pants, and Ezra frowned, about to tear the material when Buck held out the knife he'd retrieved from somewhere.

"Try this."

He stared for a long moment at the gambler, Ezra staring back. There was a plea in Buck's expression, and apology for what he was asking, but also something else, a trust that he would help. It was...mesmerizing, and Ezra found himself momentarily caught in his old hopes and wishes for that kind of faith.

But of course Buck had faith in him. What other choice did he have?

Shaking off the moment of weakness, Ezra took the knife and grimly cut through the tough fabric, exposing the two bleeding puncture wounds. That was a good sign—flowing blood would help wash out some of the venom, but not nearly enough. They both knew what he had to do.

"Try to hold still," he said quietly, probably unnecessarily, but felt Buck nod and brace himself against the ground.

Ezra took a deep breath and, gnawing on his lip, drew the knife swiftly over each of the two wounds, slitting each. He ignored Buck's indrawn breath as he dropped the knife and, forgetting his gentlemanly distaste over such things, leaned forward to suck the blood from the first cut, spitting it out just as quickly to one side. Ezra repeated the action several times before moving on to the other cut and doing the same. That done, he quickly went and rinsed out his mouth at the creek before returning to Buck's side.

"Thanks." There was a gentle embarrassment in the larger man's voice.

"We're not finished yet, Mr. Wilmington. You may still curse me before we're through."

That earned him a snort, then, as he pulled out his clean handkerchief, "It was a big one," Wilmington said softly. He was staring past Ezra at the dead snake.

"Indeed," Ezra reluctantly agreed as he folded the square of white linen. It was one of his finer kerchiefs, but that was inconsequential now.

"Lot of poison in the big ones."

Ezra met his eyes again. "Certainly for a small child. I trust for an adult of your size, it will merely prove a discomfort."

Buck's mouth twitched. "An adult of my size?" He sobered. "I think you're bein' a little optimistic, Ezra."

"What would you suggest then, that I bury you now?" Ezra asked with sudden, strange irritation.

Buck seemed surprised by it, too. "No, just...tellin' you there might not be anything you can do."

It took a moment to sink in, and stilled his hands at the realization. Buck was offering absolution in case he died. And there was no possible motive to that as far as Ezra could see except kindness. Even common decency wouldn't usually drive a man who'd been possibly mortally wounded to such an act. And for the second time in a week, Ezra's worldview tipped on its side.

His hands finally began to work again, but he spared the injured man a quick but real sideways smile. "I trust you don't mind if I test that assertion."

Buck's face creased in a full smile in return. "I was hopin' you'd say that."

Ezra got to work. There was a real comfort in knowing what to do and doing it, a state that had been more the exception than the norm of late. But while treatments for snakebite were as many as treaters, there was only one method Ezra had seen work personally, as a child on the plantation of his uncle: poultices applied to the wound to absorb the venom, made from whatever was handy. In this case, it was the wet clay of the creek bank Ezra slathered onto the handkerchief, then tied around the still leaking cuts. After an initial start, Buck gave a long sigh of relief at the coolness against the wounds.

"Better?" Ezra asked with a touch of amusement at the other's expression.

"Sure is. Think I might come to you next time for doctorin' instead of Nathan." It was said with a wink.

The thought of their resident healer sobered Ezra just as fast, first for the twinge of pain the reminder of another of their traitorous band caused, then at the realization Jackson probably wouldn't be there to treat Buck when they reached town. Well, they would just have to do the best they could. As Wilmington had pointed out, burying him already was rather premature. "I would charge for my house calls," Ezra easily slung back, making sure the makeshift bandage was secure.

"Never mind then."

Ezra shook his head, then sat back on his heels. "I suggest we return to town as quickly as possible. Any movement will speed the poison's effect and as much as I enjoy your company, Mr. Wilmington, I'd rather not play your nurse in the midst of this wilderness."

"No offense, Ez, but you ain't really built for the part, either," Buck said pleasantly, then took Ezra's hand and pull himself upright.

It surprised them both how much effort it took to do so, and then to mount his horse. By the time they sat side-by-side on their mounts, sweat beaded Wilmington's forehead and upper lip, and his hands shook a little as they held the reins. But he was secure in the saddle and, by Ezra's estimation, they were only an hour's ride or so from the town. They would make it.

They set off at a deceptively leisurely pace, Ezra riding close to Buck and holding his arm to make sure he didn't fall off. They should make it. They had to.

+ + + + + + +

They didn't.

Ten minutes into the ride home, Buck had begun to sway in the saddle. Fifteen minutes and he was listing, either leaning hard into Ezra's hand or pulling away from it. They weren't going to make it at that rate and Ezra knew it, but while Buck persisted, he would, too.

And then Buck suddenly stopped, turned to him with a white face and blank eyes, and murmured, "I'm feelin' kinda strange, Ezra," before he began to topple over.

That was a maneuver Ezra never wished to repeat again, trying to hold up 180 pounds of Buck Wilmington while dismounting from his own horse. The best he could do was a controlled fall for them both, and they ended up on the ground between the two patient horses, Ezra half underneath and cursing for them both.

Buck muttered something about trying to help but didn't move, his dead weight resting against Ezra.

"Wonderful," the gambler grumbled, struggling to get out from under the heavy limbs. "A little more such assistance and we won't be returning to town at all."

To which Buck's only response was to roll over onto his side and heave up his breakfast.

"I didn't mean it quite so literally," Ezra murmured. He lunged forward to catch Buck before he fell over into the mess.

When the heaving ended, Wilmington was again on the edge of consciousness, an ungainly heap as he flopped against Ezra, starting to shake with chills. "Sorry, Ez," he slurred, adding several more r's to the "sorry" than usual.

Ezra Standish had rarely before felt at such a loss. "Understandable, Mr. Wilmington," he said lamely, trying to straighten out arms and legs while easing out once more from beneath the larger man. "Although my virtue is starting to become compromised."

He managed to extricate himself, and watched with a wince as Buck curled up where he lay, wrapping his arms around himself to try to still the tremors.

"I suppose this is as good a place as any to make camp," Ezra murmured, trying for wry but revealing the worry curdling his insides. In truth, he was well and thoroughly shaken by how quickly and severely the venom had taken effect. Snakebites were usually unpleasant and, often even without treatment, led to a day or two of discomfort and mild illness with treatment, but they didn't often knock a grown man so completely off his feet, and within minutes. True, the snake had been a large one, as Buck had pointed out, and had bitten the man near his torso, which was always worse than a bite on the ankle or hand. Perhaps Wilmington really was in danger, as he'd feared. And there was no Nathan to ride to town for now, or help to seek. All Buck had was Ezra, who only an hour before had been anticipating riding away from him and the others for good.

And who couldn't at that moment remember wanting anything as much as for Buck to be all right.

Ezra tore off his jacket and went to work.

Making the injured party comfortable came first, and it didn't take long to lay out Buck's bedroll and then Ezra's on top of it. Dragging Buck into it took considerable more effort, even with Wilmington's feeble attempts to help, but finally he was buried under several layers, his shaking slightly abating as the warmth penetrated.

It wasn't enough. Even though it was still midday, Ezra soon had a fire going as near to Buck as possible, gathering enough kindling to keep it going through the night. One glance at Buck's drawn face and shivering form, and Ezra had every reason to believe they'd be there a while.

They were still only a few dozen feet away from the creek, which they would have ridden alongside another mile or so before breaking away to head into town. Now, Ezra was grateful they hadn't gotten farther. His next task was to refill both canteens with fresh water, as well as to soak a handkerchief he'd found in Buck's saddlebag, and return to their small camp.

He crouched beside the bedroll. "Mr. Wilmington?" There was no response from the hunched figure, just another tremor. Ezra slid a few inches closer. "Buck?" Eyes that obviously had trouble focusing opened halfway and Ezra made an attempt to smile. "I brought you some water."

To his surprise, the mouth underneath the mustache pulled into what could have been a smile or a grimace. "Always liked you, Ez," Buck whispered, reaching with an unsteady hand for the canteen.

Ezra's throat closed at the sentiment even knowing it was a tease, and he was silent as he helped Buck hold his head up and keep the canteen steady so he could drink.

Buck gave a grateful sigh when he was done and Ezra eased him back down, mouth twitching again into a brief smile as the soaked handkerchief was draped over his forehead. And Ezra stood again on legs that felt almost as weak as Buck's to stare down at him.

What was this feeling he could not understand? He'd seen men die before, even a few he'd made some attempt to help. It never left him unaffected and deep down he'd hoped it never would, but it had in no way been like this, this squeezing of his heart and shortness of breath. It wasn't a wholly unfamiliar feeling; there had been twinges when he'd seen young JD Dunne stabbed, when his mother had once taken seriously ill, when the seven of them had ridden their separate ways after Marshal Bryce had temporarily taken over law enforcement in Four Corners. But never this suffocation, not for someone he'd known only a year. It didn't make sense.

Of course, there was the wholly rational fear of what Chris Larabee would do if his oldest friend died in Ezra's company. He was not an understanding man and would no doubt assume the worst. Ezra had been at the wrong end of his glare more than once and wasn't anxious to repeat the experience. But he found himself profoundly disinterested now in what their mighty leader might think. There was only his own conscience to grapple with out there in the wilderness if he didn't keep Buck Wilmington alive, only his own sorrow...

Sorrow. Ezra pinched his eyes shut and rubbed his face with one hand. You didn't feel sorrow for someone you didn't care about, yet it was an apt word. The simple fact was, despite all the disappointments and hurts, he cared if Buck Wilmington lived or died. A great deal. More than he should have, perhaps, and maybe his disinterest was one more thing he'd lost in that miserable little town. But that didn't change how he felt, or what he needed to do, regardless how the others had treated him. And if and when they got out of that mess, he could still ride away, knowing he'd done all he could.

More unsatisfied than ever and at a loss to explain why, Ezra turned away from Buck's side with a sharp curse and went to tend the horses and fix some food. They had a long day and night ahead of them.

+ + + + + + +

The stars were out in their full majesty that evening. Ezra rarely took the time to look at them anymore, too busy indoors at night to enjoy the humbling sight outdoors, but that evening his eyes kept being drawn upward. There was a sort of hope in something that beautiful and unchanging. It was an assurance he could use just then.

Buck had, unsurprisingly, grown worse with the passage of time. Between periods of sleep—or unconsciousness—he lay listless and pale, eyes squinting with pain. He groaned sometimes without seeming to notice, other times breathing harshly for long minutes, and there was little Ezra could do to steady him through those torturous swells besides babble inconsequentials or squeeze Buck's near shoulder. He'd changed the poultice twice, switching to grasses and herbs to draw out the poison, but the wound was more swollen and discolored each time. The last change had required both their handkerchiefs tied together to circle the leg. The obvious worsening had made Ezra furious enough to pound the ground with his fist afterwards and rail at a fate that had brought six men into his life who could cause him such agony.

Buck still drank when offered water, though, and sometimes spoke to Ezra with surprisingly clarity, and where there was life, especially such unquenchable life, there was still hope. It took increasing effort to ignore the despair that lapped at him, much as it had in the hotel room an interminable day before, but Ezra would not bury the man before his time.

Even if the uncertain wait was killing the gambler.

Buck stirred next to him, and Ezra leaned down again, unstopping the canteen. He'd just filled it a few minutes before and the water was still cool. "Drink," he offered quietly, sliding a hand below Wilmington's neck to raise it higher. The effort was clumsy, but the colorless lips moved, taking in the water. Ezra let him have several sips before pulling it away. Buck had thrown some of it up before and neither of them were anxious for a repeat.

"Th-thanks, Ez."

Buck had been calling him that all afternoon, as if Ezra's full name took more energy than he could spare. In the past, the others had sometimes used that name for him, too, and while he'd never corrected them, it felt strange. No one had ever given him a nickname before. "Rest, Buck," was all he answered in return. "Mister Wilmington," for once, sounded ridiculously formal. He'd always said he used their family names out of gentlemanly respect, but Ezra had started to wonder if it wasn't just another way of keeping distance. One that obviously hadn't worked. But now it was a moot point. They were neither distant nor gentlemen out there, just two souls intent on surviving however possible. If only his mother could see him now, Ezra half-smiled.

"Somethin' f-funny?"

Buck was squinting up at him, and Ezra smiled in earnest, again dropping a hand on the man's shoulder. Why the contact mattered, he hadn't the vaguest idea, but it made him feel less lonely somehow, and seemed to do the same for Buck. "Not particularly. I was just imagining my mother's reaction to our dilemma. I doubt she would understand."

A weak laugh. "Your mama's not 'xactly the understanding k-kind. Competin' against her own s-son's s-saloon."

Ezra stiffened, the wound reopening inside him. "She not only competed, she won," he said softly. "The saloon is now hers." He lifted his head. "But she did it to keep me in practice," Ezra added, not without irony.

Buck was staring at him with woozy disbelief. "Makin' a m-man rise to th'occasion and beatin' him down when he does...ain't the same thing, Ez."

It was the truth he hadn't wanted to accept in his own heart, but hearing it so matter-of-factly from another dragged it unavoidably into stark light. She had wanted to beat him down, he just hadn't wished to believe it. What mother would...

Ezra blinked, dragging a sleeve over his eyes and steadying his voice before he spoke.

"I suggest you get some sleep. I'll keep watch."

There was a long minute when he thought Buck had done just that while Ezra studiously fussed with the fire, his shirt sleeve, and the edge of Buck's blankets. Until a quiet "sorry" broke the silence.

Ezra's face drew into a grimace as he sat for a long time staring into the fire. His hand had crept back to the blanketed shoulder beside him, feeling the tremors that passed beneath it. Buck still wasn't sleeping, he could tell, too uncomfortable to get much rest. Maybe talking to him would be a good distraction.

They said confession was good for the soul, anyway, and Ezra was desperate to relieve the torment of his own.

"It was my dream." The words tore out of him. "The saloon—it was what I always wanted, to have a place I could call my own. I know it was modest, but I was proud of that little tavern... In a year's time it would have been mine completely. And then mother came along."

Ezra was silent for a moment, gathering the will to speak what hadn't come together completely in his heart before.

"It wasn't so much that she was in competition with me, although she certainly was good at that." His mouth twisted into an unhappy smile at the memory. "It was that she never relented, not even at the end when she saw how much it meant to me. And that she'd used my friends to twist the knife deeper."

Something in him crumbled and broke, and it was raw pain speaking now.

"Mother I've learned not to trust. My friends I thought I knew better. When they crossed to her side, bought with a smile or flattery or a few dollars...that was a betrayal I could not overcome. Mother truly took everything I had, just as she'd intended."

His admission faltered, embarrassment flooding his face as Ezra recalled where he was and who he was baring his soul to. True, Buck Wilmington had not been among those who'd turned against him, too busy with Miss Lucy to take either side in the saloon war, but he was closer to the others than Ezra and it was certain which side he would fall on. If he'd even heard Ezra in his feverish state. Ezra was too mortified to look but he expected Buck had fallen asleep during his shameful divulgence.

What he didn't expect was Buck suddenly struggling to rise, making it to one elbow to stare him in the eye and say with quiet force, "I'd take a bullet for you, Ezra. And everyone else feels the same way, even Chris. Maybe we don't always know how to show it—shoot, Ez, I don't think even you know what you want sometimes." His laugh left him breathless and weakened but he held off Ezra's attempt to help him lie back down and stubbornly went on. "Dang it, Ezra, let me finish! I know JD's been feelin' bad about going to Maude's, and I think Nathan's conscience has been eatin' at him, too. But you make it awful hard sometimes to know where the game ends. We didn't know how much this meant to ya—truth is, we didn't think anything we did or said mattered that much to you." His eyes softened at whatever he saw in Ezra and his voice gentled. "Guess what we're feelin' cuts both ways, though. That's good to know."

He abruptly flinched, curling in a little on himself, unable to stop a moan, and this time Ezra was insistent, easing him back to the ground before he collapsed, and drawing the blankets back up around him.

Buck caught his wrist in a surprisingly strong grip. "Ez—"

"You need to rest," Ezra said, choked.

"This 's important—important you know. If we'd 've known, we'd 've stood by you." He gave Ezra's wrist a strengthless shake. "We always will. Want you t-to know..."

"I understand." But he was talking to himself because Buck had already drifted off into the twilight between sleep and unconsciousness, his face smoothing out at the brief escape from pain. Only his fingers remained curled around Ezra's arm, not letting him go.

As if Ezra had any intention of departing. Blinking away his own blurry vision, he loosened the injured man's warm grip with care, tucking his hand back under the blankets. "You are a rare man, Mr. Wilmington," he said softly, shaking his head.

He'd pressed his spare shirt into service a few hours before, and now he took a piece of it and wet it from the canteen, dabbing it over Buck's face. It wasn't helping as much as it had before; while the injured man was still sweating, his chills had gotten worse and he was more cold than hot. When Buck twisted away from the feel of water on his face, Ezra's expression grew hard. This wasn't working.

But the fire was as hot as he could make it and every blanket the two of them had was already tucked around Buck. There was only one more option Ezra could think of, and while it lacked any semblance of dignity, decorum hardly seemed to matter at that moment. He would have been willing to walk down the main street naked if it would have helped...charming thought as that was. This would hardly be a challenge to his propriety.

There was a tree to their left, near the fire, and Ezra took hold of the edge of the bedrolls and struggled to drag them and their contents almost to the base of the tree. The rifle and canteens he moved there next, then settled himself by the trunk, squirming until he found as comfortable a position as he could. Finally, with some additional minutes of pulling and maneuvering, he managed to get Buck propped up against his chest. Buck barely uttered a murmur throughout, just nestled feverishly closer to the new warmth, not even a suggestive smile curling his lips, for which Ezra was immensely grateful. He was probably too drained for that, came the sobering thought immediately on its heels, and Ezra hurried to pull the blankets and bedrolls back into place, then wrapped his arms around the bundle, holding what warmth there was trapped against them. No doubt he'd be sweltering in no time, and the rough bark behind him was already digging into his back, but Buck seemed to rest easier that way, breathing better and not shivering quite as badly. That was what mattered.

Because friendship seemed to have its own rewards. Buck had talked of the others being willing to stand by him, if they knew he was in trouble...or that something mattered to him. Had he ever discussed the saloon in terms other than those he'd used for any other idea or scheme he'd presented them, making clear how important it was to him? Ezra thought so but he wasn't certain. He had to admit it was possible they hadn't known what was at stake for him, had thought it was just another game as so many he'd played with them before. Trust, in Buck's quaint words, cut both ways, and Ezra had not always been generous with it. He suspected Buck was somewhat optimistic in his contention that the rest of the seven felt toward him what Ezra did for them, the affection and concern that had developed in him no matter how much he tried to deny it, but maybe they didn't need to feel that way. Being able to trust them, especially if he was honest with them, could be enough.

We'd 've stood by you. We always will. When had anyone ever promised him that much? Certainly not Maude.

Perhaps he had been hasty in his plans to leave town. Reality had not met his ideal, but neither had he given it a fair chance. And while reality had a tendency to tarnish and be imperfect, six men who watched his back, who tended him when he was hurt and went after him if he disappeared, was a lot more than he'd ever had before in his life. Maybe he'd been foolish in looking for anything beyond that.

It could be enough, Ezra decided, settling back. It wasn't what he'd always hoped friendship would be, but it was still more than he was used to and not a small thing. He would make it be enough.

Reassured but unaccountably sad, Ezra descended into sleep.

+ + + + + + +

There were worse things that sleeping all night in one's clothes, sitting up, with an rough-barked tree behind you and a large, restless sleeper in front of you, Ezra was sure of it. But at that moment he couldn't think of a single one.

Rain, maybe. Clouds were edging up threateningly on them, but even the dew had made his clothes damp enough to stick. It was an altogether unpleasant sensation, and Ezra tried not to groan as he creaked and dragged his sleeping limbs out from under Buck Wilmington to restart his circulation and go relieve himself. This was getting to be a habit, finding himself pinned by the weight of the second largest member of their party, and one Ezra was determined not to get used to.

Buck was still sleeping as Ezra returned to camp, feeling the slightest bit more human. He'd done as much as he could to shake out the wrinkles ironed into his clothes by heat and pressure, and splashed some creek water on his face, about the best he could do in the middle of nowhere. Now it was time to look after his patient.

Wilmington had spent a restless night, in and out of consciousness, temperature high and pain sometimes soaring even higher, but he'd seemed to quiet some around dawn. It was either a bad sign or a good one and Ezra had put off figuring out which, worried more than he'd admit at what he'd find. But there was no more putting it off.

Laying one hand against the man's throat and then against his cheek, Ezra frowned at what he found. Still hot, but was it possible it was a little cooler than during the night? Or had the chilly night air made the fever seem worse? Ezra wasn't certain, and wished fruitlessly once more for Nathan's instruments, or better yet, the healer himself.

He moved down Buck's body to his injured leg and lifted the blankets out of the way. The bulge was still there, darkened to a ripe plum color. Ezra flinched just to look at it—surely that hadn't improved. He untied the poultice, wincing again as Buck reacted even in his sleep, pulling away with a mutter. Ezra went down to the creek bank for clay for a fresh wrap. The grass hadn't seemed to do much good and the wet clay at least seemed to assuage some of the pain of the wound. If he couldn't help heal, the least he could do was make the man more comfortable.

It seemed precious little at that, and Ezra's jaw flexed in frustration as he scooped up mud for the new poultice. Never again would he disparage Nathan Jackson's concoctions and remedies, no matter how dreadful their smell or taste. Ezra paused to wash his hands in the creek, musing absently how disgusted he'd have been in other circumstances by the filth that caked his fingernails and the crevices of his hands. Now he was too distracted to give it more than passing notice.

Ezra walked slowly back to their little encampment, shoulders bowed, trying to collect his scattered thoughts. They definitely wouldn't be going anywhere for at least another day, and rain would surely fall before then. He'd need to build or find some sort of shelter for them or else they'd be fighting pneumonia along with Buck's snakebite and Ezra's fatigue. Already the wind had risen, blowing warm air into his face with a sting that almost made it feel cold.

It also carried the scent of honeysuckle from wherever it came. Ezra was surprised at the realization, and let himself pause for a moment just to breathe in the sweet smell. It brought back an old memory, one that made him smile despite his circumstances and that unexpectedly lightened his heart. Each time despair threatened to overwhelm him, the God of creation seemed to send some reminder of grace to give him hope.

Tenuously heartened, Ezra picked up his pace to where Buck lay and uncovered the leg again to apply the fresh wrapping.

And received even better encouragement when he realized sleepy blue eyes were watching him work.


"Right here, Mr. Wilmington," he said, unable to help a grin. The title now felt as fond to him as Buck's "Ez."

"Wondered if you'd got tired of nursemaiding." Even though he still sounded feeble and hoarse, Buck was also smiling, and one of the weights in Ezra's chest released its hold.

Ezra was still grinning as he worked on the leg, allowing the familiar dryness to creep back into his tone. "And leave this delightful company, repast, and lodgings? Surely you jest."

"How's it look?"

Buck had grown serious and Ezra did, too. "Not good, but I believe your fever's gone down a degree or two—that's an encouraging sign." He tied the poultice on as tight as he dared, checking Buck's face for discomfort. Wilmington's face was shadowed with it, but it seemed to ease at the feel of the cool wrap.

"Not better, huh?" Buck's voice was also a ghost of itself, too, even the effort to talk visibly using up his strength, but nothing slowed Buck when he was determined. "Listen, Ez—I've been thinking."

"Always a dangerous concept," Ezra said automatically, but he was wary at the serious note. No, afraid. It was the way men sounded when they knew they were going to die.

Buck just shook his head, nearly a wobble, at Ezra's attempt at levity. "Listen. If I don't make it back—"


"Shut up, Ezra." Buck nearly reared up from where he lay, but weakness kept him from doing more than staring intently at the man who sat beside him. "If I don't make it, I want JD to have my stuff. Tell him...tell him to watch his back for me. Don't want him to come...join me too soon."

It took all of Ezra's skills to keep his expression even, but his eyes were burning. He remained silent.

"An' tell was a good ride. All of you—I've got no regrets."

Ezra swallowed with difficulty. "I'm sure I speak for the others when I say, nor have I."

Buck's nod was barely there, and then he went slack again, back into the sleep that offered him no rest.

Ezra sat rubbing his gritty eyes for a long minute, until a distant roll of thunder reminded him there were things that needed doing. With a deep sigh, he gathered his strength and rose to his feet to go do them, loath to leave his companion but having no choice.

Yet again.

+ + + + + + +

Neither he nor Buck had packed for an overnight excursion, and of course neither had thought to bring a rain tarp with him. But Buck's large rain poncho was stuffed into his pack and necessity was the mother of invention. Between the poncho and the far-flung branches of the tree, Ezra managed to cobble together a decent covering over the small patch of ground Buck slept on. The fire would be unprotected and wouldn't last, but there was no helping that.

Ezra completed the task just in time, too, the rain arriving all at once in torrential sheets. He scrambled between the sapling poles of their little shelter and edged close to Buck to watch the downpour from a relatively dry vantage. Okay, so there was a little bit of rain trickling down his back, but Ezra had long given up the idea of dryness or comfort on this trip. What mattered most was that his companion remained as much at ease as possible. And while Buck continued to look drained and unwell, he was resting in relative peace, oblivious to the deluge around them. Ezra adjusted the blankets around him, then turned up his own collar and leaned back against the tree trunk to wait for what came next.

The sound of the rain, the warm dampness, and his sleeping companion, not to mention the exhaustion of the last 24 hours—no, actually, the last week—contributed to a coziness that had Ezra blinking sleepily and slouching where he sat. He hadn't slept much the night before, and while he was used to functioning on even less sleep, anxiety had added its own tiring burden. When he returned home, he would crawl into his feather bed and sleep for a week.

Except, his feather bed was now unreachable in his mother's hotel, and he still wasn't sure Four Corners was his home. The old insecurities crept back into the silent peace to jab at his heart and Ezra sighed. He was so tired of all of it, of the nomadic life, of the act he always lived, of never being sure who to trust. The gilt edges had worn off that lifestyle a long time ago, but he'd known no other life. His six fellow peacekeepers didn't know just how willing Ezra had been to let himself be convinced to stay and learn one. He hadn't asked for much and expected even less, but somewhere along the way he'd come to think friendship was part of the bargain, and that he'd stumbled onto the deal of a lifetime. But now...

And if Buck died, there truly would be no place for him there. Yet that wasn't the reason he wanted the older man to survive.


As if woken by his thoughts, Buck stirred, reaching for him. Even as Ezra took his hand, he could feel the awful heat of it, and his own heart's responsive plunge.

"Ez..." It was barely a breath. Buck tried to blink but was clearly having trouble seeing him. "Y'ere a good...friend."

And then the hand went slack, the elusive peace finally stealing over the still face.

Ezra sat stiff, disbelieving, the lifeless hand still clutched in his own. Tears blurred his vision and he dashed them away just so he could keep seeing the man who lay next to him. If there had been any doubt Buck Wilmington had been his friend, a true friend, the grief that washed through Ezra swept it away as the small thing it was. What a fool he'd been not to know what he had until he lost--

A clap of thunder shook the air around them, rousing Ezra from his half-doze with a start. It awoke Buck, too, who reached instinctively for the gun that wasn't at his side.

He wasn't dead. It'd just been a dream. A dream that had left Ezra's cheeks wet and his heart scoured.

He checked the injured man's motion, noticing at once that this time, in reality, Buck's temperature had cooled to warmth instead of heat, his skin no longer slicked with sweat. "Easy, Buck," Ezra soothed as his fingers slid around the wrist to check the pulse. It had steadied, too, no longer the gallop of before. "It's only the storm," he added distractedly.

"Ez?" For a moment the blue eyes squinting at him and the tired voice were too like his dream, and Ezra tightened his grip on the hand he held, feeling it bewilderedly squeeze back, to anchor himself in the truth.

"I'm here, Buck." His own voice was soft to his ears and Ezra cleared his throat, about to repeat himself, but apparently Buck had heard.

"Dreamt me 'n Miss Lucy got married," Buck said drowsily, "...only she named our boy Eudora." He shuddered once, and it wasn't from fever. "Crazy female..." He fell back into sleep.

Ezra stared at him for a long moment, then found he was smiling. No, grinning, the sheer joy he felt stunning him. It didn't even compare to holding the deed of his saloon in his hand. For the first time, he felt with the certainty of an experienced gambler that Buck would live. In fact, with that kind of zest for life, he'd probably outlive them all.

"Sleep well, my friend," he said quietly, his tone betraying his wonder.

A minute later, giving up the fight, Ezra slid down to curl up on the ground beside Buck and borrow one of his blankets, and also surrendered himself to sleep.

+ + + + + + +

"Are you certain you don't need a rest? We can stop—"

"Ezra, you ask me one more time if I need to stop and I'm gonna ride off and leave you behind."

It was an idle threat, as Buck wouldn't have stayed in the saddle long without Ezra's holding his arm to keep him steady. Even Wilmington's voice betrayed his exhaustion and infirmity for all its attempted outrage, but Ezra was already well aware how likely it was he'd be left behind in the dust. No, they were in this together until the end. But his companion's whine nevertheless brought a smile he quickly hid and an increasing lightness to his heart he reveled in.

They'd spent a second night in their camp, waking to a dry and beautiful dawn, and a Buck definitely on the mend. After he'd groused about his hunger, his ruined pants, and the mud that caked the slightly less swollen leg, Ezra had decided him fit enough to finish their trip home. With any luck, Nathan would be back to take over the grouchy patient. Of course, Buck was still as weak as a wind-blown leaf and wouldn't have made it much farther than Four Corners even if wild savages had been on their heels, but Ezra was very grateful for what he had. Very grateful.

Even if he'd miss the stars. And maybe the quiet honesty of the conversations held beneath them.

The town had finally come into view and was ever growing on the horizon, the odd collection of rough plank buildings in the middle of nowhere that Ezra had called home for the last year. And with it the earlier heaviness returned. He was undeniably glad to be bringing Buck back to it, and to his friends, whole and alive. There were no regrets there. But as for him, where he stood, whether this was a return home for him, Ezra wasn't at all sure. But he had an idea he wouldn't be staying long.

He started to be able to make out people on the street, the small ant-size shapes hurrying about their business. He knew most of them by name now, and wasn't certain if that was a good or bad thing. Despite all the reservations on both sides, they were mostly a good community of people, and he'd had no regrets protecting them that last year. There were worse things for a man to do, and Ezra had done some of them.

Buck's head was hanging, the ride using up his meager reserves, and Ezra tightened his grip fractionally, clucking at his horse to pick up its pace. Buck turned just enough to give him a wan grateful smile, no longer bothering to argue the concern. They were close enough it wasn't worth it to stop and rest now. Ezra just wanted to reach town as soon as possible and get the recovering man to bed to rest. Ezra smiled back at his...friend, then returned his gaze to the town.

One of the tiny people had stopped on the boardwalk in front of what seemed to be the jail, turned their way and seeming to be watching them. All Ezra could see of him was that he was dressed all in black, and his smile became wry. Odd how one could feel such relief and trepidation at once. He turned their path ever so slightly to head for Chris Larabee rather than the center of town.

Chris stood motionless for a long minute, then Ezra saw him step over to the doorway of the building beside him. Another figure emerged, slightly shorter and in brown, paused for a moment, then hurried down the street, turning toward Nathan's clinic. By the time he reappeared, the healer in tow, they were close enough that Ezra could make out faces, the drawn brows watching the two of them ride in. The three of them were soon joined by a loose-walking fourth in buckskin and, from the saloon, their fifth member, sun glinting off silver hair.

"'We few, we happy few, we band of brothers,'" Ezra murmured, then added for Buck's ears, "I believe we are expected."

Buck managed to lift his head, and groaned at the sight of the welcoming committee. "Great—now they're all gonna know I was laid out by a little rattlesnake. Told ya...we shoulda gone the back way, Ezra."

So it was back to "Ezra," the gambler couldn't help but note, but he gave a soft chuckle nonetheless. "I would venture to guess our late return and your undoubted weakness for the next several days would have given that away already, but if you wish to turn away and try another route..."

They both knew Buck was on his last legs, and Ezra didn't hide his amusement at the disgruntled look that earned him.

"If it's any comfort, Mr. Wilmington, I will be willing to swear the rattlesnake that foolishly attacked you was the largest I'd ever seen and surely would have killed a lesser man."

"Really?" Buck asked hopefully.

"For a small price." He got a choked laugh for that, but as Buck glanced at him again, face gray with exhaustion, Ezra added quietly, "We're nearly there."

A slight nod. The arm he held was trembling with fatigue, swaying harder in his grasp now.

And then their colleagues were running up to them, JD and Nathan and Josiah swarming around Buck's horse to help him off and up to the clinic. Ezra let him go with a faint, hidden reluctance, and dismounted his own horse to face Chris, Vin standing quietly behind him.

"What happened?" came the direct, almost accusatory question.

Ezra held his head high, his shoulders squared. Chris Larabee no longer scared him. "Mr. Wilmington decided to go on patrol with me two days ago. While refilling his canteen, he was bitten by a large, rather irate rattlesnake. We've been camping by Morgan's Creek ever since, waiting for Mr. Wilmington to recover enough to return to town."

Chris was watching—no, assessing—him. Ezra held his gaze without flinching.

And then the unexpected: Chris's face softened. "It was bad, huh?" he nodded.

Ezra did look away at that, fumbling with the reins in his hand in a manner most unlike him. "Yes," he said simply.

Another long moment, and an even greater surprise as Chris's hand landed on his shoulder. "You all right?"

As it had been its annoying habit to do those last few days, his throat closed on him, and Ezra had to clear it before he looked up, half-smiling. "I was fortunate enough to be several feet away and avoided the serpent's fangs."

"'S not an answer," Vin observed mildly from past Chris.

Why were they dwelling on this? "I'm fine," Ezra restated. "Merely fatigued. Did your mission meet with success?" It wasn't a subtle change of subject, but it would suffice.

Chris nodded at the jail. "Back where they belong."

"Wonderful. Now, if you'll excuse me..." He began to lead his horse around them, heading for the livery.

"Thanks for bringing Buck back," Chris's voice came quietly from behind him.

He was tempted to say he hadn't done it for Chris but held his tongue, merely nodded and walked on.

The livery was unusually quiet for mid-morning, and Ezra took his time tending his horse, despite his weariness. The poor animal had put up with minimal food and a good soaking, even more so than he, and deserved the rubdown he gave it and the fresh hay and extra oats. Only once he was certain his oldest friend was taken care of did Ezra head for the Virginia. He had some long overdue rest to catch up on, and then some packing to finish.

JD Dunne stood waiting before his door, twisting his bowler into shapes it wasn't meant to be.

The peace of the stable disappeared, and Ezra approached the young man with weary suspicion. "Mr. Dunne. What can I do for you?" His eyes sharpened. "Is Buck all right?"

"Buck's just fine," JD said, eyes widening. So, that hadn't been why he'd come. "Nathan says you probably saved his life."

Ezra smiled, his relief more real than the youth would know. "I think Mr. Jackson underestimates his patient's tenacity."

"I just...I wanted to thank you, Ezra. I don't know what I would have done if..."

He broke in before the lad followed that train of thought too far. "Say no more, Mr. Dunne. I understand completely." Unfortunately.

"Well...thanks." Ezra made a move toward his door and JD edged away from it, then stopped, still in his way. "There's something else I wanted to say to you."

Nothing good would come of a determined statement like that, JD looking as if he'd screwed up his courage to say what he really felt. Ezra braced himself for it, trying for the nonchalance that let hurts slide off without penetrating.

"I'm real sorry about your saloon."

So much for no penetration—it felt like he'd been punched in the gut.

But JD's face was the picture of his usual earnestness even as he squirmed in embarrassment. "I know I shouldn't have gone over to your mom's, she just made it sound like money in the bank, you know? But I still shouldn't've done it. If you're still looking for investors..."

It was one of the hardest acts he'd ever done, the smile he formed muscle-by-muscle, the careless tone. "I appreciate it, JD, but that won't be necessary. Mother has purchased the deed and is the new owner of the Standish Tavern, and I must admit, I'm glad to be rid of that albatross. The idea of tying myself down to a saloon, in such a small town, seems rather ridiculous in retrospect, don't you think? Now, if you'll excuse me, I have some urgent sleep to attend to."

JD wasn't moving, though, just stood frowning at him. "But it was your dream," he faltered.

"Well, as you also discovered with your schooling, dreams die," Ezra said flatly. The young man still hadn't budged, but he slipped past him into the room, shutting the door firmly, gratefully behind him. And listened until, after nearly a minute more, JD's footsteps faded down the hallway.

Well, that had been...painful. And unexpected. The young sheriff's apology meant a lot, as did his commendable, if tardy, loyalty. But no doubt Buck had talked to him—JD had shown no recognition of Ezra's distress earlier—and possibly there would be other such forced visits to come from other members of their little band. But Ezra hoped not.

He sank onto the edge of his bed, not caring for once what the mattress was stuffed with, and pulled his boots off his aching feet. A bath sounded heavenly but far too much effort at that moment. Perhaps after some sleep, before a second nap.

Dreams die. Even innocent JD knew that. There was no reason it should have been such a shock to Ezra. But then, it had taken him so long to admit, to himself and others, that this was his dream. Dreams meant something you wanted, something meaningful to you, and that was a weakness. And then there was the way the dream had died. It was not its insupportability that had caused the death pangs to be so sharp. If the saloon had failed in honest competition, despite his friends' backing, he could have borne it with far more ease.

Ah, yes, there was the biggest flaw of all, his senseless insistence on calling the others his friends. Buck was, Ezra was certain of that now, but the big-hearted man's concern and kindness only served to play up what was missing in the rest. Ezra had thought he could settle for mutual safeguarding, some refreshing stability and common courtesy and concern. But he'd just been fooling himself. To have that from those he couldn't help but feel something more toward, and not have that care returned, hurt worse than having nothing at all. He would tie up his loose ends in town, pack his few belongings, tender his resignation, and leave.

But only after some sleep. With a tired groan, Ezra lay back on the bed, uncaring if he was still in his muddy clothes. He was worn out in body, mind, and spirit, and while sleep wouldn't cure all three, it would make the rest tolerable.

Ezra pulled the edge of the blanket around himself, and a moment later he was asleep.

+ + + + + + +

It was still light out when Ezra awoke. It took longer than usual to orient himself, the fog of sleep still hanging over his mind, but recent events returned with one glance at his soiled clothing. He would not be able to afford such leisurely wakings and heavy sleep for much longer. The strength refreshed by rest ebbed at the thought of what lay ahead, and Ezra crawled out of bed without his usual enthusiasm for new opportunities. All the ones he cared about lay behind him in the dust of the town.

He needed a bath. It was good to have a plan of action, and Ezra embraced it without looking beyond. Choosing together one of his finer outfits, he went out the door and headed toward the bathhouse with a heavy tread.

It was light out, but one look at the sky discovered it was early morning—he'd slept nearly a day. Ezra arched an eyebrow in surprise. No one had woken him for some duty or another he was surely missing? Perhaps a two-day patrol satisfied even their demanding leader's idea of duty. How generous of him, Ezra thought dully.

The way lay past Nathan's clinic, and Ezra couldn't help but turn to look at the flight of stairs as he came upon it. Perhaps he should have stayed with Buck initially and heard Nathan's prognosis before retiring? Just because to his untrained eyes the man was improving did not mean he was out of danger, no matter what JD had said. In the past, Ezra would have relinquished his charge and all responsibility for him as soon as possible and be glad to be rid of it, but that accursed town had changed him too completely to be satisfied by that. Besides, Buck had been...kind. Ezra owed him for that.

He slowed down, then decided and turned his steps to the stairs leading to Nathan's clinic, climbing the steps without energy. Ezra paused uncertainly at the top before knocking, quietly in case the patient slept.

The door opened quickly, Nathan looking at him in mild surprise.

"Ezra. Everything okay?"

"I was about to ask you the very same question." He craned his neck to see past the healer, but could make out nothing in the room. "I came to visit Mr. Wilmington and find out how he was faring after our little adventure."

Again the dark face registered surprise. "Buck ain't here—he was doin' so well, I sent him to his room to get some sleep. I was gonna go in a little bit and check that leg of his—he said you did the doctoring out there?"

Relief at the news of Buck's continued improvement gave way to embarrassment. "Merely some...attempts I'd picked up from here and there. Poultices made of clay and prairie grass to absorb the poison. I would hardly grace my feeble attempts with the term 'doctoring.'"

"Well, it was good work—might've saved his life. From the symptoms, sounds like Buck got a lot of poison in him."
"Yes, well..." Enough was enough. "So I take it Mr. Wilmington will recover completely."

A nod. "Swelling's going down—he's just sleepin' it off now. I figure he'll be back to flirtin' by the end of the week."

"Knowing our undaunted Romeo, I'd wager before that."

Nathan grinned. "You're probably right."

Ezra turned to go, mission completed.

"'re you doin'?"

He barely paused in his approach of the stairs. "Filthy. If you'll excuse me..."

A hand grabbed his arm and it was all he could do not to tear himself away. They always wanted something from him, no matter how much he gave. Despair-fed anger geysered up from somewhere deep in him, and Ezra turned back to Nathan with a fury that surprised even him.

Nathan must have seen it because he took a startled step back, letting him go.

"I didn't mean to—what the devil's the matter with you?"

The rage had taken over...and if felt good. For the moment, the hurt was gone and Ezra felt powerful. "Surely nothing the 'Physician on Premises' couldn't cure," he hissed.

Nathan actually flinched, his expression one of fervent desire to find a rock to crawl under. It nearly made Ezra smile. "That was...that was wrong. I don't know why I let her do that—your mother's a pretty persuasive lady, Ezra. Didn't even know what was happening 'til it was done."

Persuasive didn't even begin to describe Maude Standish, as Ezra well knew, and more than once he'd also found himself doing something he'd never agreed. But he wasn't going to budge. Not this time.

"Fact is," Nathan's eyes dropped to the plank floor of the porch, then rose again determinedly. "I was gonna apologize. I know we don't always agree, but that was a good thing you were trying to do and we coulda backed you up on it more, and I'm sorry 'bout that. I know it ain't easy to get your own business going."

His own clinic had been assembled piece-by-piece, some of them costlier pieces provided by Ezra under the excuse of insurance in case he was ever in need of Nathan's services. It seemed now yet another sign of how soft he'd grown, and Nathan's apparent guilt at the reminder didn't sway him. Ezra looked him over coolly. "I see Mr. Wilmington has been busy."

Nathan frowned. "What's Buck got to do with this?"

"I don't know what he told you or put you up to, but let me assure you, Mr. Jackson, losing the saloon was the best event that could have befallen me. It has opened my—"

"You lost the saloon?" Nathan cut in, shocked.

At least he looked shocked. As Ezra's triumphant declaration stumbled to a halt, he stared, stupefied, at his fellow peacekeeper and saw nothing but genuine dismay and surprise at his news. So...Buck hadn't told them. But even so, where was the smugness, the triumph he often saw in Jackson's eyes when he failed at one of his schemes, or even simple disinterest? It wasn't as if the healer had lost any investment.

"It was Maude, wasn't it?" Nathan continued, and only then did any scorn enter his eyes. "That..." He seemed to Ezra's astonished mind to be lacking the proper expletive. "I can't believe I fell for it. Ezra, I'm sorry. God's own truth—I had no idea it'd go that far."

Ezra's mind was filled with questions: Why should Nathan care? What if he had known? And just what lies had Maude told his friends? But all he managed to croak out was, "Just a game, isn't that right?" Ezra smiled sickly.

Nathan was looking at him with an odd expression Ezra couldn't muster the thought to decipher. "Well, it's not like you usually tell us when you're bein' serious." His own lips twisted wryly. "But that's just an excuse, isn't it."

Ezra had totally lost control or comprehension of this conversation, the anger, the power all abandoning him. He stared at Nathan a long moment, feeling utterly lost, before finally stammering, "I—I need to go."

Nathan didn't try to stop him this time, just nodded. But his expression was contrite and...concerned. And Ezra could feel the dark eyes watching him as he stumbled down the stairs.

It felt like Nathan had torn something inside him, some place that was now leaking his stored betrayal and pain and resentment in a trail of blood behind him, and with it his determination and certainty of what he had to do. It had seemed so clear before: he had given without getting so long, opening himself to injury, and it was time to stop the foolishness and move on.

But...maybe he'd lose even more if he did.

It made no sense by any logic Ezra could apply. But then, neither had investment in a small-town saloon, really. Some things one did on faith, following a dream.

And, in the confusion of Ezra's heart, came a quiet truth. The saloon hadn't been his only dream.

How much was he willing to risk on the ideal, the perhaps unattainably distant dream of friendship?

He was at the bathhouse door, and Ezra went inside for a badly needed soak. A half-hour later he emerged refreshed and clean, a new man on the outside.

But the inside was as muddied and bewildered as ever, and it was without any real sense of rejuvenation that Ezra wandered back to his room.

He needed to think.

+ + + + + + +

Thinking got him nowhere. In the shelter of his room, Ezra could piece together a thousand scams, relive poker games to examine and learn from them, and shuffle words like cards, arranging and rearranging them until they could woo even the most stubborn mark. But he had no skills to deal with emotions like these, no way to lay them out so they made sense. They didn't fit any reason Ezra knew.

There would be no answers in his room. Ezra finally gave up and returned in desperation to what he did know. The poker table held no surprises, nothing he could not understand, and there he had the power, he was king. It meant returning to the saloon that had once been his and that made him cringe, but he could forget even that for a while in the stretch of green baize.

Luck was with him yet again. The stagecoach kept rolling in newcomers, many of them with disposable income. Ezra didn't have much trouble coaxing them to come dispose of it at his table. There was no lack of players and Ezra willingly lost himself in the game. There wasn't much time for food or sleep, but after the no-doubt ungentlemanly glare he'd given Inez when she'd recommended both, she'd stopped bothering him. And none of his redoubtable fellow peacekeepers had dared ventured into his territory, either, for which he was exceedingly grateful.

Until one lengthy round wound down. The other three players were either exhausted or broke or both, lounging in various positions of lassitude around the table, and Ezra found himself idly shuffling cards. If he could keep himself busy long enough, sooner or later there would always be someone else, and even poor business was far preferable to facing his empty room. And...there! The chair across from him screeched across the floor, pulled back to allow a newcomer to sit down. He moved with unusual slowness, but that could work to Ezra's advantage, and the gambler looked up with a welcoming smile. Which froze on his face as his eyes met those of Buck Wilmington.

It was hard to believe he was the same man who had been so intimate with death just a few days before. There was still a hint of pallor to his face and he moved with a slow stiffness that wouldn't have stood out to any but those who knew the man. But he looked almost well, and Ezra found himself smiling—truly smiling—for the first time in days.

"Cat got your tongue, Ezra?" Buck teased softly. He glanced around the table at the other players, but the only one who hadn't fallen asleep had taken advantage of the distraction and shambled off. They were, in effect, alone.

"Not at all, Mr. Wilmington. I'm merely pleasantly surprised to see you up and around so expediently. I take it Mr. Jackson is not aware of this little excursion?"

The familiar roguish grin beamed from under his mustache. "Nathan said to take it easy, so here I am."

"Indeed. Well, then, could I interest you in a game?" Ezra's hands had never stopped shuffling and he leaned forward in a tacit offer to deal.

"Actually, I wanted to talk to you about something, Ezra," Buck said more seriously, also leaning in.

Oh, Lord, he didn't think he'd survive another serious discussion with one of his colleagues; his discussion with Nathan had nearly done him in. But Ezra only said cordially, "I'm at your service, sir."

"I wanted to thank you for what you did out there." It was strange how Buck gained intensity as he lost volume.

Well, this at least he could deal with. Relieved, Ezra quickly jumped in to avoid a lengthy appreciation. "I assure you, Mr. Wilmington, I only did what any other conscionable person would have done in my position, including yourself, if I'm not mistaken," he pointed the deck at Buck. "Please don't give it a second thought."

"I wasn't talkin' about savin' my life, Ezra." Buck had grown even quieter. "Don't get me wrong, I'm grateful for that, too. Nathan says, judgin' by the symptoms, that rattler really pumped me full of poison and I wouldn't've lasted long out there on my own, and I'm not ready to put out to pasture just yet, if you know what I mean." He let a leer slip in for just a moment, to Ezra's amusement, before he got serious again. "But givin' up your blanket, holdin' a man when he's cold, coolin' him off when he's got the fever—that's not something anybody would do. That takes a friend."

Cards flying through his hands, Ezra felt himself pale at the damning word. He couldn't seem to get away from it.

"But I know we haven't 'xactly been returnin' the favor lately, Ezra, an' I wanted to say I'm sorry. An' I'm really sorry about the saloon. I know how much it meant to ya, and I think everybody else's figured that out, too, by now."

His thoughts were a jumbled clamor in his head, and Ezra began speaking, not sure what he would say, "Mr. Wilmington—"

"Hold on, now—I ain't done." With a barely restrained grin, Buck pulled a folded, well-creased piece of paper from inside his coat and placed it on the table between them. The bulge of bills tucked inside was unmistakable. "This's for you."

Ezra's hands went still as he stared bleakly at the money. So, it had come to this, paying him off like some sort of child who'd thrown a temper tantrum. Well, that certainly simplified things. Pity they hadn't done it sooner, saving him a few days of angst and soul-searching. He could have left town days earlier.

"We want you to have it," Buck was saying, oblivious. "Took up a collection. Now, it ain't charity," he quickly added. "I wrote down there who gave what an' everyone's expectin' something back for their investment."

Of that he had no doubt, Ezra thought bitterly.

Buck was starting to realize something was wrong and stumbled over his words. "I know it's not enough but we figured...well, at least it's a start, right? We could talk to Wendle at the bank..."

Ezra sat in silent despondency.

Wilmington's face was creased in puzzlement. "Everybody gave what they could, Ezra, soon as they heard what it was for—"

Humiliation and misery stabbed deeply into him. "And just what was it for, Mr. Wilmington?" Ezra asked with all the calm that rattler must have shown before it struck. "To assuage their guilty consciences for not helping when it would have mattered? Or as payment for services rendered in returning you safely into their midst?"

"Ez—" Buck was gaping at him, apparently shocked by his honesty and ability to see right through them.

That did it. Ezra pushed blindly to his feet and bent toward the older man. "Or perhaps they're the scraps thrown to the dog to keep it quiet and obedient because its services are needed. Thank you, Mr. Wilmington, but I have some pride left and must decline." He turned violently away, ready to leave and not look back.

"Ezra, hold up now—please!"

It was the timbre that stopped him, not the words. There was a...fear to it he could not ignore even in all his fury. What did Buck have to be afraid of?

Then, softly now, "It's not like that, Ez."

Another tone change that intrigued him; Ezra knew utter sincerity when he heard it. And that name, uttered with all the affection Buck had given it out at the creek.


"I am not blind, Buck," he ground out with such force that the words wavered.

"Neither are we," Wilmington instantly countered. "Sit down, huh?"

He hesitated, then turned back and sat with stiff movements, sullen and hurt and wholly unconvinced but listening.

"This isn't about guilt, Ezra, or me gettin' bit. I can't blame you for seein' it that way, but I swear on my sainted mother's grave that's not why we did this."

Ezra believed him. It was either that or admit he'd never known Buck at all, and Ezra was certain of what he'd heard back at the creek. But it didn't make sense. "Then why?" he asked at last, suspicious.

Buck could have been wooing a woman, for all the gentleness in his face, his voice. "'Cause like it or not, we're your friends." Ezra's expression must have reflected his disbelief because he hurried on. "I know sometimes we don't act like it, and let's face it, Ez, you don't always make it easy with them get-rich schemes and bein' as prickly as a cactus. But you've got a good heart under that greedy hide, and you're there when it counts. We just wanted to return the favor."

He was thawing despite himself. And it hurt. "It 'counted' a week ago, not now. It's too late, Buck."

"Well, now, maybe. But Josiah and Chris are already trackin' down Maude, and if them two can't make her change her mind and sell that deed, I'll eat my hat. Better yet, JD's hat. And between this," he jabbed the money that lay on the table, "and the fortune you've been rakin' in this week, I think we can pay off a good chunk of it, don't you?"

Ezra's mind was reeling. They were going after Maude to get the deed back? Chris and Josiah, of all people? For him? There had to be angle to what Buck was saying, but Ezra couldn't find it. "Yes, but...why?" he asked feebly. He knew he was repeating himself, but it didn't make any sense .

Wilmington smiled, his eyes crinkling warmly. "Why'd you do what you did for me out at Morgan's Creek? That wasn't charity, was it?"

"No." He felt dizzy. "You needed help."

"Yeah, well, so did you, we just didn't get it right away. Doesn't mean we didn't want to help, Ez. This isn't any more charity than what you did, an' we didn't have to do it any more 'n you did. It's just helpin' out a friend." He laughed. "You're not usually this thick, pard."

Helping out a friend. Ezra was shaken to the core by the thought. Did they truly consider him that? "It's not 'thickness,' Buck, merely...lack of experience," he admitted in a near-whisper.

Buck's expression slowly transformed into an embarrassment of sympathy as he realized what Ezra was saying. "It's been there all along, Ez," he said gently. "You just ain't used to lookin' for it. Chris left you in town 'cause he knew you had business to take care of an' he wanted to help you out. JD's tried to apologize a couple o' times, and I practically had to sit on Josiah so he wouldn't explode when Inez told him what your Ma'd done. We weren't tryin' to betray you, this is just kinda new to all of us, y'know?"

He shuddered, trying to take it all in. "I know." Had it really been there all along, the friendship he saw in the others also offered to him, after all? How could he not have seen it?

Then again, maybe he had—there had to be some reason he'd stayed in that town for so long—the doubts had just run too deep to believe it. But he couldn't deny Buck's stripped-bare honesty of the last few days, or the truth that resided in his face now.

It was just so difficult, rewriting all life's experience—and his mother—had taught him. Perhaps impossible.

Buck's mouth curved into a small smile as if he could hear Ezra's doubts, and he sounded reassuringly certain as he simply said, "It's gonna be all right, Ez."

His friend. One of six, if Buck was to be believed, and the money on the table backed him up. A gift, the support to help Ezra fulfill his dream. Or at least one of them. The other...well, that might have come true already.

Friends. The word felt foreign to his tongue but like a long-lost piece to his soul. He didn't trust it completely yet, not even with all of Buck's earnesty behind it. But...he was willing to try to learn, and to give it another chance.

He needed to give it another chance.

Ezra met Buck's eyes with shy gratitude and a new peace, and smiled.

"I think you're right, Mr. Wilmington," he nodded. "It might turn out just fine, after all."

The End