In Trust

by K Hanna Korossy

Main character: Ezra

Previously appeared in: Legends of the Magnificent Seven 7 (2007)

The stage was running late that day. Not that Chris Larabee was terribly concerned--in his tenure as one of Four Corners' peacekeepers, he'd never known the stage to arrive exactly when it was expected. Still, he sat on the porch of the saloon, thoughtfully chewing a cheroot and keeping an eye on the end of the street where the stage was supposed to eventually arrive. Wouldn't hurt to make sure nothing was wrong that would require looking into.

It was a pleasant afternoon all around. The town was bustling with people going about their affairs, a far cry from the dying town Larabee had ridden into a year or so before. This one was growing, families a more common sight on the streets now, new businesses starting up, people milling freely about instead of living fearfully in the shadows. It was almost a sight to take pride in.

Chris wasn't the kind of man to do so, though, and simply watched with quiet satisfaction.

Three of the other men who'd had a hand in the little town's turnaround also sat on the porch with Larabee, watching the activity in the streets with equal amounts of boredom and interest. Vin Tanner was just off to Chris' side, where he'd been from the very first day. As old and trusted a friend as Buck Wilmington was, it was Vin who'd become Chris' right-hand man and confidante--as much as Chris Larabee was willing to confide, at any rate. Even now the tracker sat in easy vigilance, ready to back Chris at a moment's notice.

Nathan Jackson sat on the edge of the stairs, absently sharpening one of his knives with a whetstone. For a healer, the man had a wicked throwing hand, almost as good with a blade as Chris was with a gun. He had his own demons to keep quiet, if the old scars on his back were any sign, but there was a calm to the ex-slave that Larabee envied sometimes. It was good to know that steadiness could be counted on in battle and afterward, when it was time to bandage the wounds. He had faith in Jackson's doctoring skills, with or without a diploma.

Nathan had been the one to bring Josiah into the pack, and the ex-preacher was off working on his church at the moment, a penance Chris didn't even begin to understand but nonetheless respected. Part man of God, part philosopher, he reminded Chris sometimes of Aramis of The Three Musketeers. Chris had been reading the book to Adam before.... And Buck and JD were probably off getting into mischief somewhere. The last time Chris had seen them, Buck had been chasing the youngest member of their band, hollering something about a loosened saddle cinch. A grin touched Chris' mouth at the thought. The two "young'uns" brought life and humor into their group when it was most needed, although the bond they had was a serious one. Larabee's old friend had found a new person to look after and the two had quickly become a matched set within the seven, having safeguarded each other's lives more than once already.

Which left Ezra Standish, the odd man out. The last member of their group sat in a chair on the other side of the saloon doors, tilted back against the wall with his hat drawn down over his face. The man would have been the perfect picture of sleep if not for his hands lazily shuffling and manipulating a deck of cards. Ezra was the one he least understood, Chris had to admit. For all his grumbling about doing honest work, the gambler was often the first one saddled and ready to go when there was trouble, particularly when one of their own was in trouble. And he had a real intolerance for those who mistreated the innocent, though it was a scruple he took pains to hide. At the same time, he never hesitated to take advantage of those who he felt could afford it and was always looking for an easy mark.

Ezra had run out on them once, when they'd first banded together to protect the Indian settlement from Colonel Anderson and his men, but he'd come back, too, for no reason Larabee could discern. It had taken the Southerner a while to earn his trust after that, but he had. It hadn't hurt that he'd recently risked his own life to save Mary Travis, even if it was "borrowed" money that had saved him serious injury. Just another part of Ezra's puzzle. It had given Chris some serious thought about just what "trust" meant, especially with this man he knew so little about yet trusted with his life, if not with his wallet.

Then again, how much did any of them really know about each other? Buck was an open book except when it came to his mother, whom he never discussed with anyone. JD didn't talk much about his home, either, and no one knew what Josiah was seeking absolution for. Nathan didn't talk about the atrocities of his past, and really all Chris knew about Vin was the bounty on his head and the truth behind it. As for his own story, he himself was trying to forget it. Maybe it was one of the things that bound them together, the desire to leave the past behind, to form new ties. And in a way they had, as close to family for each other as they were ever likely to find.

A rumble in the distance announced the arriving stage and drew Chris' attention. He watched it roll into town, only...two hours late. Well, that was hardly a record. A keen eye saw nothing amiss; apparently they'd just been running slow, as Chris had suspected. Good. He never wished for excitement in the form of trouble to chase the boredom away.

The stage stopped near the saloon, and Chris watched with mild interest as the driver clambered down and opened the door, then started unloading the top of the coach. Nathan and Vin had also turned to look, and even Ezra had pushed his hat back. What looked like a young family climbed out first, a couple with a baby in hand. Chris cut off the ache the sight stirred in him before it could form. A businessman followed--Four Corners was definitely beginning to attract new blood. After him came a young woman, perhaps his wife, as the businessman helped her alight. No, Chris amended, as the two then seemed to collect their own baggage. Just another passenger.

A sharp breath from behind him caught his attention, and Chris turned to see a wide-eyed Ezra rise from his seat, his eyes on the debarked passengers. Now that was interesting. He'd never seen the Southerner so startled, though Vin had mentioned that the unexpected arrival of his mother had also managed to shock the gambler once. Chris watched with a raised eyebrow as Ezra stumbled down the stairs, then actually dashed down the street to the stage.

To the woman. It figured. Standish had as keen an eye for the ladies as Buck, if a little more selective. But this didn't seem to be just any woman. Hardly a few words were exchanged before Chris saw the young lady fling her arms around Ezra's neck. Even more surprisingly, Ezra seemed to be holding her just as enthusiastically. Larabee's second eyebrow joined the first.

"Who d'you suppose that is?" Vin asked softly next to him, a hint of a smile in his voice.

Chris shook his head slowly. "Don't know."

"They sure seem to be acquainted," Nathan said wryly. The embrace finally broke up long enough for the woman to offer Ezra an almost shy peck on the cheek, and Jackson laughed. "Guess not that acquainted."

The lady had taken Ezra's proffered arm and now walked alongside him toward the three men on the porch. Ezra carried her one bag, and her brunette curls brushed his face as she leaned close to say something to him, her words making him laugh. A real laugh, Chris noted with interest. He hadn't often seen Ezra Standish without his gambling man facade. This could turn out to be enlightening.

The two reached the saloon, but if any of them thought Ezra was going to introduce his new friend, they were mistaken. "Gentlemen," was all the acknowledgment they received, with a tip of his hat and a silent nod from the lady. Up close she was hardly stunning, but definitely pretty, flushed from her journey, green apple eyes happy when they looked at Ezra...but sad underneath. It was obvious to anyone who looked, and Larabee found himself unusually curious as to what had put that sadness there.

They weren't to find out then, however, the pair passing them and going into the saloon, no doubt to get her a room. So the lady would be staying a while. Chris canted his head. Well, it was one way to relieve the boredom without bloodshed.

Or so he'd thought.

+ + + + + + +

"Laura?" Ezra's voice was atypically uncertain as he'd drawn close to the woman. And then she turned with a start, and all his doubts vanished.

She was as lovely as he remembered.

Then again, he was prejudiced. It had always been her inside beauty he'd admired, not the outside, but her body seemed to have finally caught up with her graceful spirit. He couldn't believe it when he saw her get off the stage, recognizing her even at that distance, and still couldn't believe it as he stood before her and stared. If she hadn't been his cousin, Ezra would have been seriously tempted to offer to court the young lady right there.

As it was, he admired Laura with a big-brotherly eye, comparing the round face and gentle eyes to the image he had of a little girl in brunette pigtails. One of the few family members who'd had any kindness for him at all, Laura had made his impromptu stays with his aunt and uncle bearable for a young Ezra, who'd been dumped there periodically by his mother. His young cousin had become a surrogate little sister and his informal guide in how to treat the fairer sex. Certainly his mother had been no role model there. "It is delightful to see you," was all he'd had time to untangle his tongue to say before she caught him in a hug. He laughed. As much as Four Corners had become a makeshift home and the men he rode with trusted acquaintances, there was nothing to match a beloved face from his past, someone who knew him thoroughly and with whom the usual acts were unnecessary.

"Oh, Ezra, I'm glad to see you, too. I had no idea I'd find you here!"

Her voice in his neck was softer than he remembered, a little more timid, even for his shy cousin. When she collected herself and drew back, giving him a kiss, Ezra took a moment to give her a good look.

And frowned. There was something in her eyes, something troubling...

Laura gave him no time to dwell on it. "But I'm glad you're here, and I want to hear all about what you've been up to."

There would be time enough to draw her out later; right now he was willing to just enjoy her company. Ezra gave her the smile that came naturally. "I assume you will be staying for a while then, my dear?"

Another fleeting disturbance in those placid eyes, gone almost immediately. "As long as I can. Long enough for us to catch up."

"Well, good." He didn't need his years of experience reading people to know something was wrong, but he tucked his troubled suspicions away. There was no question he would find out later what was amiss. "Perhaps to the saloon then, to secure a room for your stay?" Ezra offered his arm.

She dimpled charmingly, taking it and matching his stride with ease. Her grip was a little tighter than he'd have expected, almost as though she were clinging, but it was only joy in her voice as she leaned close to him to say, "I can't believe I've finally found you!"

"I did try to write," he quickly protested.

"I'm sure you did, but I haven't been home in some time." He opened his mouth to ask why but she was already going on. "I'm famished after that long trip! Would you be willing, kind sir, to keep me company during dinner?"

It was like being ten years old again. He grinned at her. "I would be delighted, my lady." They climbed the saloon stairs, gaining curious stares from his three compatriots gathered there, unabashedly watching the two of them. Ezra was disinclined to appease their curiosity just then, however, giving them only polite acknowledgment, echoed by Laura. Introductions could be made later, but for now he wanted her to himself.

The saloon crowd was still thin, too early for dinner or the evening's activities to have started up yet. Room arrangements were quickly made with the proprietor, and Ezra took up his cousin's bag, then tipped his hat and promised to wait downstairs while she washed up. The room was next to his--he'd made sure of that. If there was something wrong, he wanted to keep an eye on her.

The suspicion gnawed at him as he returned to the saloon. Laura hadn't said anything--not that they'd had much chance to talk since her arrival--but Ezra still had the distinct impression she was running from something, something she feared. Running to him, or maybe he'd just happened to be there, but whatever the case Ezra was bound to find out and ameliorate it. If necessary, he'd ask the others to help, too, though that was a decided last resort. Family matters were supposed to be dealt with in the family, and Laura Brooks was among the few Ezra didn't hesitate to include in that circle.

She was already coming down the stairs, looking even more charming with the prairie dust washed off. Her gloves were gone, too, and a simple gold band glinted on her left hand, giving him a private start. Married--another little detail she'd failed to mention. She'd signed in under her maiden name. But his smile didn't hesitate as he reached out a hand for her to take. He'd learn what was going on soon enough. And until then, it would be a true pleasure to have some enchanting company for the evening.

He tucked her arm under his elbow, pulling her close to his side as he swept his other arm to invitingly encompass the near-empty room. "I do believe you mentioned dinner, but wherever shall we find a seat?"

She giggled, and his heart melted a little more. Enchanting company, nothing--she was a breath of fresh air for a drowning man.

Perhaps she would end up doing him as much good as he hoped to do for her.

+ + + + + + +

The rumble of his stomach finally convinced Josiah he'd done enough work for the day. All the window frames had been sanded down now, ready for a fresh coat of paint to be applied as soon as he had enough money for it. Even so, it already made the place look a little less neglected. Little by little, the church was shaping up into a place that God would not be ashamed to call home.

The sandpaper was stashed with the rest of his tools in a small wooden crate, then tucked away under the pulpit. Josiah washed the sawdust off his face and hands and headed out the door for the saloon.

Chris, Nathan, and Vin were already there, keeping each other silent company, the crisp late afternoon light throwing their faces into sharp relief. Larabee looked unusually relaxed, rolling an unlit cheroot between his teeth as his gaze rested on the street. Vin cleaned his rifle with the easy strokes of a man passing the time, and Nathan seemed deep in thought. But it was his old friend who saw him first, his face lighting into a smile as Josiah came into view.

"Finally remembered your stomach?" Nathan teased.

"Finally forgot I have a lot of work left to do," Josiah countered with an answering smile.

"Well, see how far you get with it on an empty stomach." Nathan stood slowly, stretching for a moment. He turned toward the others on the porch. "What about you two, you ready for some dinner?"

Vin shrugged, breaking the gun barrel to glance down it before he snapped it back into place. He looked up at the two of them. "Reckon I could eat."

Chris didn't even answer, just pushed himself to his feet, the cheroot already gone.

"I'm tellin' you, Casey doesn't like them flowery words. She just tells me to come out and say what I want."

JD's voice came loud and clear from behind Josiah, and he turned with the rest to see the speaker.

Sure enough, the young man was striding toward the saloon, trying to outpace a dogged Buck at his heels. "All girls like them flowery words, whatever they say. You can't court a girl by just askin' her to go fishin' with you!" JD was half-turned even as he kept walking. "Oh, yeah? Why not?"

"Well, it just ain't done." Buck was sputtering, and the corner of Josiah's mouth inched up at the sight.

"Yeah, well, maybe if you'd tried some of that plain talk with Julie Ann, you'd have gotten somewhere with her by now."

Buck squinted at him. "What do you know about Julie Ann?"

"I know she's going out with Elliott Marshall instead of you."

"Why that...." Buck's ire had a new focus now, and he passed the rest of them without even seeming to notice, muttering under his breath. JD followed with a smug glance at them all.

Vin just shook his head, but Josiah could have sworn he saw amusement in Chris Larabee's eyes.

Family. It had taken all of Josiah's life to find it, and now it was hard to imagine going without for so long.

Only one of their members was missing, and Josiah saw why as soon as he walked into the saloon beside Nathan. Ezra Standish was already there, in the midst of dinner with a lovely companion Josiah didn't recognize. No wonder he hadn't waited for them.

Buck, naturally, noticed the new addition at once and didn't hesitate to stop at her table and say hello. "Ezra, you gonna introduce us to your new friend?"

Standish's face curled into the amused, enigmatic one Josiah knew well. "In a word, Mister Wilmington, no. Have a good meal, gentlemen." And with the subject closed, he returned to his dinner companion.

Buck raised his eyebrows at JD, who shrugged back before they both broke into grins.

"She just arrived on the stage," Nathan leaned over to stage-whisper to Josiah. "He didn't introduce her but looks like they know each other real well."

"Indeed," Josiah observed quietly. "Despite the fact that the young lady already appears to be spoken for." The gold band on her finger was hard to miss, but Nathan's eyes widened as he caught sight of it for the first time.

"Yeah, you're right--she was wearin' gloves when she got off the stage. Wonder who she is?"

"Curiosity is the tool of the devil," Josiah warned sagely, and led the way to the table the others were heading toward.

They didn't often eat at the same time, having different duties and plans, but Josiah usually enjoyed the group meals. It was a chance for the conversation that their job didn't often allow and that he sorely missed after hours of solitude in the church. Not that he had any misgivings about what he chose to spend his time, but the contrast and mental stimulation were refreshing.

That evening's conversation seemed to be tediously stuck on Ezra and his new friend, however. Josiah listened idly as speculation ran from her being a well-hidden sister--though she had no resemblance that he could see to the redoubtable Maude Standish--to a long-lost wife, to a former lover. Buck, JD, and Nathan were doing most of the talking, Chris and Vin not much for speculating, and Josiah eventually tuned them out.

Actually, what interested him most was not the girl, but rather her effect on the last member of their team. Ezra Standish, master of the poker-face and redirected question, was laughing and talking freely and thoroughly enjoying himself.

For all his charm and sociability, Ezra had always been in some ways the most reserved of their group. While the others seemed not to want to talk about their pasts, a sentiment Josiah shared wholeheartedly, the Southerner almost seemed to fear it, unwilling to let down his guard even that much. It was still with some guilt that Josiah thought of the one serious conversation he'd had with the gambler.

Ezra had come to him a month or two before to admit, haltingly, that he'd been hurt by the group's lack of trust in him, having always hoped his friends would know him better. It was a tremendous admission for him and no doubt had cost him considerably. But Josiah had been in no mood for it, battling his own temptations, and had driven the Southerner nearly to tears with a harshly condemning reply.

It had been deserved in some ways: Ezra had, indeed, betrayed the trust he'd so craved and taken part of the money left in his care. And then he'd turned back to warn them about the hired killer he'd caught sight of on the street, ultimately throwing himself between Mary and a bullet.

Whoever had claimed a person who couldn't be trusted with little things couldn't be trusted with big ones, had never met Ezra Standish.

Josiah had tried to apologize once for his lack of empathy; for one who had so much to be forgiven, he'd been merciless. But Ezra had laughed him off, pretending he had no idea what Sanchez was talking about, and Josiah realized he'd missed an opportunity that would not soon come again. He didn't even know for whose sake he regretted it more, his or Ezra's.

The gambler's companion, however, seemed to have brought out in him all the emotions that were usually locked away from the world at large. There was an openness to his face whenever Josiah glanced over that the older man approved of and had never seen before, not even between Ezra and his mother. The green eyes shone by turns with joy, concern, and rare contentment. If the ex-preacher would have had to make a guess, he'd have said she was a friend from childhood, for the lack of reserve in their interactions and conversation was too easy to have chiseled through all of Ezra's layers. Josiah figured she'd known him before all those layers were in place, and had kept her spot close to his heart over the years. That bond spoke highly of her in Josiah's estimation, and he sent her silent thanks for what she was doing for Ezra, and for the glimpse she'd offered into their reserved seventh member.

A nudge from Nathan drew Josiah back to the dinner conversation with a start. The topic had moved on to duties for the next week, and Josiah offered his input as needed. But he still kept an interested eye on the table halfway across the room.

Ezra and the girl were still there, as deep in conversation as ever, when the six of them finished dinner and eventually wandered off, Josiah headed toward bed. If he'd ever doubted curiosity belonged to the devil, the way it vexed him that evening would have removed all question.

"So what brings you to our humble town, my dear?"

They'd reminisced and caught up during dinner and the hours afterward until the saloon closed and they had to leave, as if by mutual agreement that more serious subjects could wait until later. But now they were strolling unhurriedly behind the row of buildings that made up the main street of Four Corners, and Ezra had to know. He watched the play of moonlight over her face as it drew into a troubled, saddened frown, and she looked away from him for a long time before turning back to meet his gaze.

"I got married two years ago, Ezra."

"So I observed," he gestured at the ring, her gaze following his.

"I don't even know why I keep that on--I didn't keep his name. It's Robert, Robert Pinckney." From the way she said it, Ezra already knew he wouldn't like the man. "I didn't really love him, but he was very persistent and Mama and Papa were for the match, so I finally said yes."

Ezra remembered well his aunt and uncle, and their approval cemented his distaste for the man he'd never met. "And," he prompted gently when no more seemed to be forthcoming.

" turned out I'd married a monster."

Laura had stopped walking, seeming to shrink into herself at the revelation, or perhaps the memory, and Ezra glanced quickly around. They were right behind the livery, sure to be abandoned that time of night, and he smoothly opened the back door and ushered her inside. For once, he paid no attention to his fine clothing as they settled on hay bales across from each other.

Laura curled forward on hers. "I thought I was doing something wrong at first, when he'd just yell or slap me. I tried harder, I really did, but Robert just got worse. He started hitting me every day, sometimes so bad that I couldn't sleep that night. I had to wear...shawls to cover the bruises."

She wasn't looking at him, and Ezra shut his eyes for a moment in sudden fury. A man who abused a woman was the lowest form of life possible, but who the woman was this time made it very, very personal. One of his hands had curled into a fist without his notice, and he consciously relaxed it, reaching out to gently lift her chin until she was looking at him.

Staring at him, in fact, as if drawing strength to finish her story. "When he started choking me and threatening to kill me, I knew it was time. I packed a bag and left. But...he came after me. I've managed to stay ahead of him, but he's following me, I know it, so I've kept moving..."

Ezra had heard enough. Taking both her hands in his, he leaned toward her. "This is where you stop," he said firmly. "There are seven of us here safekeeping this town, and only one of him. Rest assured that he will not be able to harm you further here."

If it was possible for Ezra to be more dismayed, he was when her eyes filled with tears. "You don't know Robert, Ez. He's cruel, but he's smart. If he wants something, he'll find a way to get it. I don't want to get you into any kind of trouble--"

He didn't let her finish, a finger on her lips. "It's no trouble." He gave her a thin smile. "What kind of a relation would I be if I let my favorite cousin fend for herself against such a miscreant?"

Laura's sudden grin shone even through the tears. "I see all that time you spent reading the dictionary as a child paid off."

Ezra almost laughed, brushing the dampness away with his thumb. "As I recall, I also had an excellent fellow pupil."

"Indubitably," she answered without hesitation. And then her smile disappeared as her situation reasserted itself, her eyes miserable again as her lip trembled. "Oh, Ezra..."

The face he made wasn't at his cousin, and he leaned forward the next moment to take her in his arms. "Now, now, don't fret. Everything will be just fine."

"Well, well, what a surprise."

The new voice behind Ezra, cool and hard, made Laura jerk in his arms even before he'd even had a chance to be startled. He was already turning, the derringer sliding into his waiting hand as her reaction registered and he knew without doubt whom he was facing.

A man who had a rifle already trained on the two of them.

Ezra kept the pistol out of sight as he coldly eyed the man. Sharp, pig eyes stared back at him underneath a black hat not unlike the one Chris Larabee wore. A long coat no doubt kept the rifle out of sight until needed, and was dusty from a long journey. The barrel was pointed unerringly at his heart, but even as Ezra watched, those cruel eyes slid past him to Laura tucked deliberately behind him.

"Mr. Pinckney, I presume," Ezra said flatly.

"Didn't take you long to find a new man, did it, Laura? I always suspected you were a tramp." Pinckney's voice grated on Ezra's patience, even more so when he felt his cousin tremble against his back.

He had long practice with keeping anger hidden, but couldn't help letting a little creep into his words. "If you had any rights as far as Miss Brooks is concerned, you forfeited them the moment you first struck her. I suggest, sir, that you consider the matter concluded and be on your way."

It was not all bluff, but a hefty piece of it was. This was not how Ezra had intended a showdown, with Laura there and the element of surprise in the enemy's hands. The derringer pressing into his palm was reassuring, but even Ezra wasn't fast enough to draw on someone who already had a rifle aimed at him.

Pinckney smiled; Ezra's hand was being called. "I'm not ready to leave just yet--got some unfinished business. No woman runs out on me and lives to tell about it. Just move out of the way, mister, and let me take care of my own."

He'd already been unconscionably stupid to let the man sneak up on them, but it was then that Ezra made his second mistake of the evening. Being so focused on your mark that you didn't pay attention to your surroundings was a good way to get killed. Intent on watching Pinckney, he didn't feel Laura slide out past him until she was already standing away from him, behind him and to one side. Pinckney's gun stayed on Ezra and Standish didn't dare move to bring it to bear on her, pulling fruitlessly instead at her arm, trying to pull her back to safety once more.

He'd forgotten how stubborn his cousin was. "I'm right here, Robert. There's no need for that rifle."

A mouthful of discolored teeth opened into an ugly grin beneath the pig eyes. "I told you I'd find you, Laura."

"Well, you have. You don't have to be threatening anybody else."

Pinckney's eyes darkened. "Still telling me what to do? You never did learn. Seems I'm going to have teach you the hard way."

Ezra heard the purpose in his voice before he saw the gun barrel begin to move, the minute motion of the finger tightening on the trigger. He was in motion before he had time to think about it, lurching in front of Laura, trying to pull her down and out of the way with him, the derringer a moot point now.

The rifle went off.

Something hit him hard enough in his side that it sent him off-balance, knocking him and Laura down into a far less graceless pile than he'd intended. And for a moment, all Ezra could think about was that at least he'd been hit instead of her.

It didn't hurt, not yet, but the air seemed gone from his lungs and he gaped like a fish drowning in air. Even as Pinckney's shadow moved to loom over them, he could no more make his hands move than he could fly. The best he could manage was to edge himself over so that he was once more shielding Laura with his body, even as spots danced before his eyes and a rush of noise thundered through his ears.

Too blind and deaf to catch Pinckney's reaction, but something apparently satisfied the man. The next thing Ezra knew, his shooter was disappearing out the front stable door.

Maybe he thought he'd hit Laura. That would be too fortunate, though Ezra hated the idea that his cousin's would-be killer was getting away. He should ride after him, drag his sorry carcass back to stand trial before Judge Travis. Ezra just couldn't seem to get his body to work.

And then he heard the rattle of breath that wasn't his own.

A different fear returned him some control, and Ezra levered himself up on one arm to get a good look at his cousin. His breath stopped again, this time from a throat closed up with horror.

Some of his blood was on her, but the majority spread across her chest was her own. It welled up even as he watched from a wound near her heart that Ezra knew with awful clarity was mortal. Now freed from his weight, her body heaved against it, eyes wide and blank.

"Oh, Lord, no," he groaned, trying uselessly to press his hands against the wound and stem the blood. How could a bullet that had already passed through him do so much damage? Even if Nathan had been there that moment, there wouldn't have been anything the healer could have done, not with death already creeping into her eyes. It didn't stop Ezra from casting a desperate glance for help around the empty stable. A shot in the middle of the night should have drawn attention, but the livery was at the far end of town and nights on the prairie weren't quiet. No one seemed to have heard.


The weak voice immediately drew his attention back, and he only grimaced as her mouth tried to pull into a smile. He gave her dark hair a stroke, not caring if he brushed it with blood. "Hush, Laura. Everything will be just fine." Oh, God, could she hear how false a promise that was?

"Oh, Ez...'m sorry...didn't mean to bring...."

He couldn't bear it. Ezra swallowed tears as her breathing grew worse, gurgling now, and he tried to prop her up against him to ease it.

But she was still trying to make him feel better. "Can't hurt me now," came the murmur from his chest. "It's all right...."

And then she was gone.

He'd have cried out if he'd had voice to do it, but all Ezra could manage was to hold her tight to him with a sob. It was a minute before he gently set her back down on the stable floor. He rubbed at his wet eyes fiercely, then smoothed his childhood playmate's hair into place, clasping her hands over her chest, covering the wound that wasn't bleeding any longer.

And then he dragged his eyes, full of hatred, to the stable door. It was time for him to go.

His own side was sluggishly leaking blood but Ezra couldn't feel it yet, couldn't seem to feel anything. Still, he paused long enough to pull out his handkerchief and press it to the hole in his vest. It almost took the starch out of his legs, but he had a mission. Deliberately, he stood, waited until his vision cleared, then slowly, one-handedly brought his horse out and saddled it. He could call the others--they would probably come ride with him if he did. But maybe not. Ezra was the first to admit things looked incriminating for him, and he was not the most trusted member of the group. One last glance at the body of his cousin gave him new resolve, and Ezra eased himself up on his mount. No, he couldn't take the chance. Slowly, he rode out, even his injury forgotten in one single-minded thought.

Kill Robert Pinckney.

+ + + + + + +

Vin was usually the earliest riser of the six, except for Josiah, who often went out in the pre-dawn hours to commune with God on some local hilltop. Tanner grinned at the thought. What a strange bunch it was he rode with. He usually took it for granted that they just worked together well, but when he gave it some thought, it beat him as to how.

Washed up, Vin pulled on his jacket against the chill of the morning air. It was late spring but still cold as a mountain stream in the mornings, though the frost melted off the grass the moment the sun's rays reached it. A fine morning. Good time to take a ride, check out the area around town to make sure there was no sign of trouble.

Settling his hat on his head and his weapon against his shoulder, Vin headed for the stable to retrieve his horse.

And froze at the sight of women's shoes and the trailing edge of a skirt extending out of a stall.

The shock only lasted a second, then he was rushing to her side. But even before he fell to one knee beside the body, he could tell it was too late to help. Her skin was white and cold to the touch and her lips blue. One glance at her face was enough to know it was Ezra's friend from the night before. She was laid out flat on her back, her chestnut hair fanned around her and her hands almost reverently folded over her chest. The large, maroon stain spread outward from beneath her hands, and as he lifted them for a moment, the small singed hole over her breast told how she'd died.

So where was Ezra? Vin glanced around the empty stable. The stall that usually housed the gambler's mount was empty. Examining the area around the body with an experienced eye, Vin could see the straw had been stirred up around the woman's body as if an animal had gone wild in the stable...or there had been a scuffle. Further searching revealed more blood, liberally dripped on the straw in front of the woman. Next to her lay Ezra's derringer, though checking it revealed it hadn't been fired. And then Vin's eyes caught on something else deep in the shadows of the stable's corner: a black hat.

Ezra's hat.

Vin's jaw tightened. Standing, he grabbed the hat and then the closest horse blanket slung over a stall partition to drape over the body. Then, without a backward glance, he headed for the saloon.

Ezra's room was his first stop, but it was as empty as he'd expected it to be, the bed showing no sign of having been slept in. Vin hadn't any idea which was the lady's room but it didn't matter much; he doubted he'd find anything of use there. It was time to talk to Chris. He knocked softly on the door, unsurprised at immediately receiving a call to come in. Vin slipped inside the darkened room.

Chris was sitting up in bed, his hand on his holstered gun beside him on the nightstand. The moment he saw his visitor, the hand pulled back, running instead over his unruly hair. Any welcome he would have offered disappeared as he got a look at Vin's face. "What's wrong?"

"That woman that came in on the stage yesterday, Ezra's friend--she's dead. Found her with a bullet in the chest out in the stable."

Chris' voice was as flat as his voice. "Ezra?"

"No sign of him 'cept for this." Vin held out the black hat. "Found it in the livery with the lady. Horse is gone, too."

Larabee was already climbing out of bed and pulling his clothes on. "Wake the others. Try not to let anyone else know what's going on."

"They're gonna know soon as they see the body."

"Nathan and I'll take care of the body." Chris put his gun belt on even before his shirt, just as Vin had seen him do every time they were on the trail together overnight. "Then we'll start figuring out who she is and what happened."

Vin knew his friend was cursing himself the fool for not having asked the evening before, but Ezra's business had seemed his own. It was none of their affair who his friends were or what guests he entertained.

At least until his guest turned up murdered.

"You thinkin' Ezra did it?" he asked quietly.

Chris met his eyes. "I'm thinking it doesn't look too good for Ezra."

Vin nodded silently, and left to do what Chris had asked.

He didn't like the thought of suspecting one of their own, not at all. Trusting somebody to watch your back under fire had a way of bringing even very different folks together, and to then suspect that person of murder rubbed him wrong. Of course, if it turned out Ezra had done it, Vin wouldn't be the only one who'd been taken in. But somehow he couldn't quite buy it. He wouldn't have trusted Ezra with two bits, but the man wasn't a killer, certainly not of a helpless woman. If anything, the gambler seemed outraged whenever the vulnerable were threatened. He'd been ready to jump on Vin for what he felt was Vin's defending the killer of young Claire Mosely, and Vin wouldn't have much blamed him for doing so.

No, maybe he didn't know Ezra real well but he knew the Southerner hadn't killed the woman out in the stable, at least not in cold blood. Which meant there was a story to unravel somewhere, and the sooner they started on it, the likelier it was they'd find the answer, and Ezra.

The thought spurred him as much as Chris' order, and Vin was shortly knocking on doors the length of the hallway, collecting the rest of their group.

If the seven of them had learned anything during their time together, it was to move fast and ask questions after. It was an alert, quiet bunch that gathered in the saloon not ten minutes later, Josiah the last one to be fetched from the church and a sober Nathan and Chris just coming in to join them. "What's going on, Chris?" Buck was yawning as he pulled on his coat, but his eyes were keen.

"Ezra's lady friend from last night is upstairs in Nathan's room, shot dead. Vin found her this morning in the stable. Ezra's gone and so's his horse."

That was a splash of cold water if Vin had ever seen one. Everyone stood in stunned silence, taking that in.

"You don't think Ezra did it, do you?" ventured JD finally, and Vin threw him a sympathetic look.

"Doesn't matter what I think--we need to keep the town from finding out about this until we find Ezra and sort things out. Until then, everyone's a suspect."

Josiah looked troubled. Vin couldn't help but remember the time the former preacher had been locked up on suspicion of being a murderer of women. He hadn't done much to help clear his name, true, but it had bothered Vin then, too, to suspect one of their own as a killer. He didn't think Ezra any more guilty now than Josiah had been then.

But all Josiah said was, "Won't be easy." Whether he meant keeping the murder a secret or finding Ezra, Vin didn't know, not that it wasn't true in both cases. As eager as the townsfolk were to keep their seven guardians, they were just as quick to turn on them when they perceived one of them to have done wrong. It had taken a while for the suspicious glances at Josiah to fade, and even now there was a little animosity lingering against JD for the young man's accidentally shooting a woman while stopping a bank robbery some time back.

It wasn't inconceivable that the good citizens of Four Corners would raise some sort of posse/lynch mob to find Ezra and hang him untried. If they found him. That was the other part, tracking down Standish, and Vin had no idea yet if he'd even left town or if they'd find his body stashed somewhere, too. Wasn't a pleasant thought.

It seemed to have occurred to the others as well, from the frowns he saw on the faces of the five. For all Ezra's occasional orneriness, he had a place with them and they were all worried.

"No, it won't be easy," Chris answered Josiah, "but it's gotta be done. Vin, you and Buck find Ezra. If he's left town, track him down wherever he's gone. Josiah and Nathan, I want you to find out which room was the lady's and go through it piece-by-piece. Maybe we can figure out who she is. The rest of us are gonna work on keeping things calm around here and finding out what we can at this end. But 'til we find Ezra, he and his lady friend have just gone off for a visit together, got it?"

They all nodded. It sounded like as good a plan as any, but then, Vin never had any doubts about Chris having a good head on his shoulders. For all the man's demons, he usually thought more clearly and objectively in a crisis than the rest of them.

They disbanded then, Josiah already heading over to talk to the proprietor about which room the visitor had taken, Chris and JD going outside. Vin nodded at Buck.

"You ready?"

Wilmington's face was as serious as Vin had ever seen it. "Soon as I grab my hat and some supplies. Meet you out at the stable."

They weren't even sure yet Ezra wasn't somewhere in town, but Vin thought that less and less likely so he simply nodded and followed Chris out.

The sun had just gotten a foothold in the sky, finally turning all the darkness into light, and the town was beginning to stir. Vin went back to the stable, looking more closely at the ground he could see now.

The tracks were muddled, too many horses going in and out of the stable each day to have left even a small patch of undisturbed dirt around the building. But the freshest tracks were on top, and Vin knew well the tracks of each of his fellow peacekeepers. It took only a few minutes to single out Ezra's horse, with the nail missing on the right rear shoe. It had a slightly uneven gait, as if the rider rode heavily on it.

Further study determined that Ezra's tracks were trailing that of another, unfamiliar set that had ridden in to the stable and then out again the previous evening. So Ezra, assuming it was Ezra on his horse, had ridden out of there following someone. That was interesting. Not proof of anything in itself, but a good start.

One more discovery, and it made Vin wince. Two drops of blood, both closer to Ezra's tracks than the stranger's, distanced about ten yards apart. Someone was bleeding slowly and it looked to be the gambler. Vin was liking the whole mess less and less every second.

Buck joined him a moment later, stuffed saddlebags slung over one shoulder. "You find anything?"

"Enough. Looks like Ezra didn't ride out alone, and he might've been bleedin'."

Buck's face was stony but his eyes fairly glittered. Ezra was a common target for all of them, his casual greed not exactly an invitation to become best friends, but he was also one of them and, yes, a trusted friend in the ways that counted most. Buck and JD had seemed to get the closest to the Southerner, and Buck could get mighty protective of those he cared about. Not that anybody messed with any one of them without pulling the other six down upon himself. It was one of the reasons they were so successful together.

"What're we standin' around for then?" Buck was angry but not at Vin. "Let's ride."

Two minutes later they were doing just that, Vin tracking and Buck wary and ready for action next to him. It would definitely be interesting. Vin couldn't wait to see if, when they found their missing member, Buck would sock him in the jaw for disappearing on them like that or slap him on the back in relief for finding him.

If they even found Ezra alive.

There was no use borrowing trouble when they had enough to spare. Dropping that sobering thought, Vin put conjectures aside and concentrated only on the tracks he was following.

+ + + + + + +

The morning haze was abominable that day, and it only seemed to thicken as he rode. Ezra squinted and tried to peer through it, wiping the sweat wearily out of his eyes as needed.

He was cold, frozen soul-deep. The creeping chill had numbed the fingers that were cramped around his saddle horn and reins to keep him from rolling off his horse, and shook him with shivers that drew involuntary moans. Every movement, every step of his mount was a fresh burrow of pain into his side. Breathing was also a similar exercise in masochism, and Ezra was beginning to wonder if it had been such an inspired idea to go riding after his cousin's killer in less than optimal shape. In fact, the few moments he could think clearly enough to be honest with himself, he had to admit it was quite possible the trip would be one-way.

And yet he didn't turn back, for the grief in his heart was far worse than any physical pain his body could torment him with. Laura had been one of the few unadulterated bright spots in his life, and he could no more leave the quenching of that light unavenged than he could ignore a high-stakes poker game.

No, he ruthlessly amended that. A game hardly would have mattered now. This was about what was truly important.

Of course, he could have gone to his six fellow peacekeepers and set the matter before them. Their not wearing a badge didn't mean they wouldn't go out of their way to see justice was done; he'd had plenty of proof of that. It would have also meant he could have gotten medical care instead of riding off like a tottering drunk after a killer.

But would they have believed him? The lady had been seen in his company--the others didn't even know who she was--and was now...dead, murdered with no witness save himself and the killer only he'd seen. His...friends had already made it clear they would not trust him with a sum of money. How would they take his word on something far more serious? Even Josiah, perhaps the most morally upstanding member of their group, had been a jailed suspect in that string of unfortunate murders. Ezra's chances of being believed were next to nothing, and those were not odds he cared to take, not with Laura's memory.

The thought twinged deeply, a different kind of ache than that of his wound. He'd thought he'd proved himself, if nothing else than by risking his life for Mrs. Travis, and still he had no demonstration that they had any belief in him. What was he even doing riding with a group that didn't have the faith in him he had in them, who didn't consider him a friend when he'd dared to assume as much?

Ezra had no answer. The hole in his heart had grown until it seemed too big to ever be filled, and in all his solitary travels, he could never recall feeling so utterly alone. All he had left was the determination to see that justice found Robert Pinckney.

If only he could warm up a little and think....

At least the tracks weren't difficult to follow. The ground was still soft with recent spring rains and held hoofprints well, and no other imprints threaded that way to muddle Ezra's weak tracking skills. It was almost too easy. Not that that would diminish his pleasure one bit in finding the man.

The flicker of his horse's shrinking shadow made Ezra squint up at the sky. It was nearly noon--how could that be? Time had slowed and slipped away from him, measured only in how much the chill and aching fatigue had spread through his body. The morning haze hadn't burned off in the sunlight, either, and Ezra was beginning to suspect it was his vision that was obstructed, not the air. Swallowing was too much effort, though he'd have given all he owned for some water, and he no longer had the strength to spare to wipe the sweat out of his eyes. It was an ill sign when tumbling off one's horse almost seemed enviable, but at least it would have afforded him some rest.

It only took a reminder of Laura's body, though, for Ezra to once more spur his horse on.

And nearly into his prey's camp. Ezra blinked several times before he realized what he was seeing, what the big black horse tied to the tree some distance away meant. Almost there. Thank God, he'd made it. He would have his revenge yet.

Sliding off his horse was more-or-less a controlled fall, curiously slippery. His mount's side was painted red--surely the beast hadn't been shot as well, he wondered blearily? But it made no difference now. The animal moved when he tugged the reins, and somehow Ezra managed to stumble on toward the edge of the small camp.

His horse he left tied to a tree farther out than the one Pinckney's mount was bound to, and Ezra crept the last few feet nearly bent in half. Sneaking up on his enemy, euphemistically, but truth be told he doubted he could have stood straight if he'd wanted to.

And then Pinckney came into sight, and all the rest was forgotten.

The big man looked as though he was just finishing lunch, pouring the last of a small pot of coffee into a tin mug. Ezra silently pulled his gun and levered himself upright before stepping into view, intent on nothing other than finishing what had been begun.

"Pity you won't be able to finish that cup," he said dryly, announcing his presence.

Pinckney's head jerked toward him, the small pig eyes widening in surprise.

Ezra's smile was grim. "Surely you didn't think you could kill her and then ride away as if nothing had happened."

The man slowly climbed to his feet, careful to keep his hands away from his guns. "Nothing did happen. She was barely worth the bullet I put in her."

Anger momentarily flushed away the chills, and it was with a tremor of rage that Ezra raised his weapon higher. "It is clear, sir, that your foul mouth and cruel nature are exceeded only by your blind stupidity. My only regret is that I was not able to put you down before you rid this world of one of its shining assets." And he cocked his gun.

It was the worst possible timing for his body to cave in. The earth seemed to heave, setting him off balance and graying his vision. One more minute--he'd only needed one more minute...

Ezra righted himself with difficulty, dragging a sleeve over his eyes to clear them, only to find it was too late. His moment's weakness had given Pinckney the upper hand and the hated rifle was once more pointed at his chest, while Ezra's own gun hung loosely in his hand. Ironic, that his life and Laura's would be taken by the same man and same weapon. Appropriate, perhaps. "You will not get away with this," he said flatly, his final words.

The man sneered. "You won't be around to know, now, will you?" And his finger tightened on the trigger.

Ezra stared Pinckney in the eye, unwilling to give his enemy the satisfaction of seeing him cower in that last moment.

A shot went off.

And Pinckney slowly crumpled to the ground.

Ezra blinked. Of all possible outcomes, that wasn't one he'd foreseen. He peered with confusion at his own gun, still pointed at the ground, then back at the heap of Robert Pinckney.

Two other figures entered the circle of camp, both armed, one lowering a rifle from his shoulder as he came. Ah, another rifle--that would explain some things.

It didn't seem to matter who the two were. With heady detachment, Ezra dropped his gun and staggered single-mindedly closer to make certain Pinckney was dead.


He ignored the voice, reaching the body at the same time the other two did, vaguely avoiding a grasping hand as he gave the body a shove with his foot. It almost unbalanced him again, but also allowed him sight of the exit wound in the corpse's chest. Robert Pinckney was most definitely dead.

"Thank God," Ezra murmured. Laura could rest now. And so could he.

The scenery around him, already unsteady, began to spin in earnest, and he with it. And then he was falling and didn't even seem to care.

He heard a soft "whoa" and something caught him, eased him to the ground that refused to keep still beneath him. Ezra shut his eyes against it before it made his stomach turn.

"Easy, take it easy," the familiar voice went on, and he focused on that instead. Far more attractive a prospect than paying attention to the hands that reawakened the fire in his side as they prodded and poked.

He should have struggled, pulled himself together somehow, and a part of him panicked at the loss of control. There were always those around who took advantage of every vulnerability, and he'd learned the hard way not to show any, for it was a good way to get yourself killed--or worse. But he couldn't seem to move, couldn't even seem to think besides that vague sense of alarm...and a paradoxical instinct that he was safe even without being in control.

It was very confusing, and he was too tired and in too much pain to sort it out.

"What do you think?" That seemed more distant--not directed to him? He was having trouble keeping all his senses straight. Even his eyes wouldn't open.

"We'd best get him back to Nathan, fast."

He knew that voice, too. Vin, his mind finally cooperated. And Buck before. No doubt come to take him back for trial. It didn't matter now--Laura's killer was dead, her death avenged. Nothing they did could change that. Or bring her back to life.

He winced, curling up against the returning cold. He would freeze before the trial--that would settle things. There would be no one to mourn him, anyway.

"Ezra? Stay with us."

Still those invasive hands. Oh, God, he hurt. The agony filled his body, made his mind drunk on it, and even though he thought he finally opened his eyes, all he could see was blackness. No, the faint outline of a black mustache. But it was fading even as he tried to focus on it. So, Pinckney would claim his life, too, even after the man's death. The irony made him want to laugh.

"Ezra, don't you quit on us now!"

They obviously didn't see it. If only he had the time to enlighten them. "I ask...the impossible, Mister...Wilmington," he managed to whisper. A warm, rough hand brushed his forehead, and he was stung with sudden surprising regret that he couldn't at least see the faces of his friends before he had to leave.

And then even that was gone and all was still and black.

+ + + + + + +

"Of all the thick-headed, mule-brained..." Buck was actually sputtering for lack of a serious enough insult. "...crazy stunts to pull, this one wins the prize. The man's shot up and bleeding and still rides off--alone!--to take on a killer."

The anger didn't make it past his words, though. His grasp was careful and gentle as it held Ezra's limp figure up against him, Standish's back to his chest. Already he could feel the blood from the wounded man seeping through his shirt, but that didn't matter much. What was far more important was he could make sure Ezra was breathing that way, and give access to Vin as the tracker bound Standish's side.

Not that Buck could really blame Ezra, not without a healthy dose of hypocrisy. He and Vin had arrived in time not only to save Ezra from being shot twice in twenty-four hours, but also to catch an earful about why the two men were facing off to begin with. If Buck had had any doubt as to Ezra's innocence before then--and he hadn't--they would have been laid to rest then. Clearly, whoever the lady was lying cold and stiff back at Nathan's, she'd been important to Ezra, and the other man had killed her, probably shooting Ezra in the process. If that wasn't a good reason to hunt a man down no matter what shape you were in, nothing was. There were several people Buck would have done the same for without a moment's thought.

And, somehow, the unconscious man bleeding all over him had become one of them.

Still, it didn't mean he liked the situation one bit. They were several hours' ride outside town, Ezra looked like he wouldn't make it several minutes on a horse, and Vin wasn't saying anything as he studied the wound, just had that lock-jawed look that meant he wasn't happy. That was plenty of reason to sound off, in Buck's opinion.

But Vin was becoming graver all the time, and Buck found himself suddenly subdued.

"Looks bad, huh?"

All he could see from where he crouched was the top of Vin's hat slowly shake from side-to-side. "Doesn't look good. Lost a lot of blood and he's got a fever."

Blood loss alone had nearly killed JD when he'd been shot a while back, and that was before fever had really had a chance to set in. Buck couldn't help but be impressed that Ezra had made it that far on his own. He pressed his lips together. "We didn't come all this way to take a corpse back, 'cept for his." He nodded back sharply at the still-nameless man lying by an equally dead campfire. "You 'bout done?"

Vin didn't look up. "Soon."

Buck gave an impatient sigh. He'd somehow hoped that Vin had been wrong back in town about Ezra getting hurt but should've known better. Not only because Vin was too good a tracker for that, but also because they oftentimes were blessed with the sorriest luck Buck had ever seen. You could fill a couple of six-shooters with the bullets they'd caught between the seven of them, including one not too long ago that Ezra had taken for Mary Travis. Buck hadn't been all that surprised to hear the circumstances of that one, or about the money that'd been on Ezra at the time. Everyone had their weaknesses after all, right? As long as a man owned up to his mistakes and could be trusted at your back, Buck could forgive most anyone anything. And Ezra had proven himself trustworthy in that respect several times already. It bothered Buck that the gambler hadn't given the six of them the chance to return the favor.

Then again, maybe after the grief they'd given him about that money, he hadn't been quite sure they would have backed him up.

"Dang it, Ezra," he muttered softly.

The dark head was lolling at an uncomfortable angle, and Buck tilted it back against his shoulder just as Vin must've done something particularly harsh, because Ezra woke with a gasp and a moan.

"Now, don't move, just sit still. You're gonna be okay," Buck soothed with exaggerated optimism. He still had hold of Ezra's chin and steadied the wobbly head with a light hand. "Take it easy."

"Your getting quite...repetitive, Mister Wilmington."

Buck grinned at the ten-dollar words despite the thin-as-water voice they were spoken in. "Well, if you'd stay awake more, maybe I'd have more interesting things to say."

"I shall..." Ezra groaned as Vin pulled something tight. "I shall...endeav--oh, Lord." The last came out strangled, one of Ezra's hands clutching at air. With a grimace, Buck grabbed it, not liking how cold and damp the skin felt. The gambler hung on to him with a fierceness that made clear just how much he was choking back, and Buck found his admiration for Ezra's tenacity increasing. "Hold on, now." That was Vin, looking Ezra steadily in the eye as he finished whatever he was tying off. It was a good thing Buck had brought tending supplies with him. "Ain't gonna feel good but should do the trick 'til we get you back to Nathan's."

Not feel good turned out to be an understatement as Ezra arched away from Buck, then fell back with a grunt, panting, when Vin was done.

"You hangin' in there, Ez?" Buck asked worriedly, trying to see the gambler's face from behind. All he could see from there was that it was too white, skin slicked with sweat, his eyes half open. Vin was studying him, too, and wasn't looking all that reassured.

If he was hoping for more fancy words to set his mind at ease, he was disappointed, getting only a faint nod. That definitely wasn't good. Buck traded a look with Vin over the sweaty, drooping head: time to go. The travel wouldn't help Ezra but it sure beat staying there to watch him die.

But first, Vin retrieved his canteen and a blanket, and knelt in front of them again. "How 'bout some water, Ezra?"

No answer to that, but holding the canteen up to the injured man's lips revived Standish enough to drink, almost eagerly.

Vin stopped him before long. "Not too much, now--ain't good if you've been gut shot." He replaced the stopper in the canteen, then unfurled the blanket and wrapped it around Ezra with Buck's help, gingerly shifting the injured man around until he was more or less swaddled.

It helped almost immediately, Standish's trembling diminishing. "Much obliged," he mumbled.

But Buck was grimacing. He'd hoped the wound was higher up--gut shots were notoriously dangerous, and painful. They'd probably been lucky to find Ezra still alive.

Vin presented the next problem. "Don't think he'll stay on his horse."

Buck considered that. It was probably true. When he'd taken the shot JD back to town on the kid's horse, they'd had a shorter distance to travel and JD had been more conscious than Ezra was now. The Southerner was going to pass out at any moment, and a fall from a horse was the last thing he needed. "I'll take him with me," Buck finally decided. His horse was bigger and stronger than Vin's mount, bred for work as much as speed.

Vin nodded agreement. "Best wait 'til I get the body loaded up."

Buck had nearly forgotten about the dead stranger, and couldn't help but resent the time spent on him when they should be heading back, but it wouldn't have been right to leave him there for the buzzards, either. Even if Ezra might have thought so. Once again, Buck had to wonder what the story was behind Ezra and the woman and the dead man.

The injured gambler stirred weakly against him and Buck held onto him more firmly. It took him a moment to realize Ezra was watching what he was: Vin getting the body ready to take back to town.

"He is dead?"

"As a doornail," Buck answered the slurred question.

"Good." Another slight movement. "I assume...a trial follows."

Buck frowned, wishing again he had a clear view of Ezra's face, though the man was probably so confused it wouldn't have mattered. "They don't have trials for dead men, Ezra."

"I am...not yet deceased." He almost sounded insulted.

Leaving Buck more puzzled than ever. "Not for you, for your friend over there," he said patiently.

"Pinckney. He shot...Laura." Buck couldn't tell if his wince was for physical or emotional hurt. "I couldn't..." Ezra's voice, already faint, faded completely.

At least Buck had names now, and a bare bones idea of what had happened. It made him angry and sympathetic at once, but anger at a corpse didn't do much good. "I'm bettin' you did everything you could to stop him," he said kindly.

Again no answer. He couldn't even tell if Ezra was still conscious, but it didn't seem like it. Buck had to hang on with both arms just to keep the limp body from falling over. He sighed. Well, it was probably for the best; conversation just took energy the gambler didn't have to spare. But Buck sure wasn't looking forward to the trip back to town. Ezra had just better make it, after all they'd gone through already. "Just hold on, pard," Buck murmured to the still figure of his friend. "Hold on...."

+ + + + + + +

He was dying, he was certain of it.

The cold seemed to have settled into each crevice of his bones and muscles, every movement feeling like it would shatter the frozen joints into pieces. At the same time, the fire burned on and on in his middle, agony no matter which way he turned to escape it. How it was possible to burn and freeze at the same time, he had no idea, but very little was making sense.

There had been an interminable ride, a horse jolting and swaying beneath him. He could remember that, and the intense desire to stop and just be left alone to rest, to curl up and die even. But someone wouldn't let him. Buck, he thought sometimes in his clearer moments, though what he'd done to Wilmington to deserve that kind of torture, he didn't know. The man was relentless, holding him upright, talking to him, not letting him sink away into the escape darkness offered. He was sitting in front of Buck on the man's horse, he realized at one point, the bigger man's arms around him to keep him from falling off, and humiliation had joined frustration and anger. But Buck had somehow realized and made some joke about not breathing a word of it to anyone for fear of hurting his reputation, and he'd found he could still laugh, even though it made the pain crescendo and he faded out for a while again.

The disorientation grew even worse after that. The dizzying sensation of being carried, and then of lying in a bed. It would have felt heavenly if someone hadn't been stabbing a sharp auger through his side the whole time. He was given something to drink, and then finally was allowed to fall into blissfully pain-free blackness.

He couldn't sort out dreams, reality, time after that. There were moments when he stood over Laura's body, her verdant eyes opening to stare at him with such condemnation that he was cut to the heart. No sooner had he begged her forgiveness than Robert Pinckney stood before him, firing. The shot tore him into pieces, as sundered as his heart at the sight of Laura's body.

And then there were hands and voices, coaxing him, manipulating him. Taking advantage of his weakness and befuddlement, every instinct in him warned, and he tried to push the shadowy figures away but didn't have the strength. He didn't know what was going on--how could he know which scam to use then, who to be? And that confusion frightened him more than anything else, even more than the fear he was dying. Without the ability to control the situation, he had nothing, at the mercy of a cruel and callous world.

And yet, what he could understand didn't support that fear. When he was thirsty, his head was lifted and he was given sweet, untainted water. When he was burning up inside, his face was patted with coolness. Something different to drink took away the worst of the pain when it grew unbearable, and when he was sure he would freeze to death, the weight of warmth lying over him increased. And through it all the hands were gentle, the voices soft, even...concerned?

Almost as if they were friend instead of foe.

My friends would know me better. The words came out of his muddled memories, floating around in his thoughts. Wasn't that the ultimate luxury, friends with whom there was no need for all the elaborate acts and facades? Friends who knew him better.

But Laura was dead...

Laura was dead but there were others...if only he could make sense of it...

He twisted in suffocating bedsheets, trying to escape the unrelenting hurt crawling ever deeper into him. The hands returned, straightening out his shroud and then holding his arms, holding him back, holding him down...holding him.

"You're safe, Ezra. Just rest now."

A soft voice he could trust. Words he believed.

And too weary to fight anymore, Ezra obeyed and sank into the deep blackness once more.

+ + + + + + +

"How's he doing?"

Chris' quiet question brought Nathan's hanging head up. He rubbed at the back of his aching neck as he looked at the patient in question. "Not too good. Fever's gone up."

A nod of acknowledgment. Nathan doubted Larabee had been expecting anything different.

He hadn't been too optimistic, either, since his first sight of Ezra, slumped in front of Buck on the older man's horse. Standish had already looked more dead than alive, his face gray except for the cheeks that glowed red with fever, his clothes and Vin's rough bandage and even Buck's shirt soaked with blood. Nathan had half expected him to not be breathing when the three of them had eased Ezra off the horse and up into his room, but it wasn't the first time he'd underestimated the Southerner's perseverance. Ezra was still hanging on hours later. But the sick tended to worsen at night, and he had unquestionably deteriorated, his skin hot to touch and his strained breaths filling the quiet room. The loss of blood had weakened him considerably, but the fever was what was slowly killing him. Nathan was treating it with everything he knew, but what he didn't know was if Ezra would make it through the night.

Nathan hadn't said as much, but the others understood. It was the middle of the night and yet they were all crowded into the gambler's small room, waiting. Buck sat next to the bed opposite Nathan, fiddling absently with the hat clasped between his hands as he cast occasional glances at Ezra or JD on his either side. Otherwise he stared at the floor. JD sat obliviously against the wall on the opposite side of the door, hunched over with his chin on his hands. His eyes stayed glued to the bed, and Nathan wondered if he was remembering his own fight for life just a few months before. Josiah sat next to him with one hand on JD's shoulder, reading his Bible to himself. He would read aloud if and when the time came, offering benedictions for the departing spirit, and Nathan already dreaded hearing his friend's deep voice. Vin looked the most casual of them all, slung over a chair in the far corner in front of the closet, but it was an act and Nathan knew it. The tracker's face was set, his eyes alert as they swept the room, returning again and again to the feverish patient. And now Chris stood in the doorway as if deciding whether to stay until the end or find business elsewhere, torn and trying not to show it. Or feel it, Nathan added to himself. Vin looked up to meet Chris' eyes across the room, something unspoken that Nathan wasn't privy to flashing briefly between them.

Chris made his choice and came in after all, easing himself into the one remaining chair, next to Vin.

"How're things outside?" Nathan heard Vin's low question.

"Quiet. I don't think anybody saw y'all ride in."

They'd avoided the main street for just that reason, coming to the back of the saloon and bringing Ezra up the rear staircase. Nathan didn't like the secrecy any more than the rest of the situation, but he could understand its necessity. Ezra had enough to fight without an angry town being after him, too.

Ezra muttered something in his restless sleep, and Nathan re-wet the cloth he used to try to bring the patient's temperature down. It seemed to make him more comfortable but wasn't affecting the fever, as far as Nathan could tell.

Chris had stopped to watch them and Buck as he put a hand on the Southerner's shoulder to keep him quiet. They'd had to do that a lot, through bouts of delirium Ezra shouldn't have had the strength for. He was a lot more of a fighter than Nathan would have ever given him credit for, and the healer was rapidly gaining respect for this member of their team he'd known--and liked--the least. Nathan was already aware there was more to the man than met the eye; the simple fact that Ezra stayed and put his life on the line with the rest of them had made that clear. And then there was what they'd been piecing together had happened in the stable the night before, both from what Buck and Vin had learned and from Ezra's feverish ramblings.

In all, it painted quite a different picture of the gambler than any of them had seen before. Nathan hadn't been quite prepared to believe that Ezra had killed that girl, but trying to save her from being killed certainly put things in a different light. She'd died anyway, a person Ezra had seemed to care for, and now it looked like Standish might follow. Nathan shook his head. Sometimes things just weren't fair.

"So what're we gonna do?" JD asked quietly.

He didn't specify as to what, but Buck always seemed to understand the kid. "Won't matter much if Ezra doesn't make it. We just tell everybody what happened--nobody's gonna argue with everyone involved dead."

JD shook his head once as if not accepting that. "Ezra ain't a quitter--he's gonna make it."

Nobody seemed to have the heart to argue that. Chris finally said, "We all know pretty much what happened, but if Ezra lives we'll have to prove he didn't kill Miss Brooks, or he'll stand trial."

They'd learned her name from the proprietor's books, though it wasn't much help. None of them had heard Ezra mention her before, not that he talked a lot about his past.

"What about the other guy? Isn't he proof?" JD demanded. "Not if we can't show he was the one who shot the lady, not Ezra," Chris answered patiently.

"Hard to mistake a revolver bullet for a rifle." Josiah hadn't even looked up from his Bible, his calm interjection surprising even Nathan.

They all froze a second. Of course! Chris' eyebrow rose, and he turned to trade a slightly stunned look with Vin. Then looked at Nathan. "Nathan...?"

The same light had dawned in the ex-slave's thoughts. Why hadn't they thought of that before? The bullet was still buried inside Miss Brooks' chest; there hadn't been any reason to dig it out. Nathan was already on his feet. "I'll go check." And then remembered his still-living patient. He hesitated, frowning, and glanced at Buck. "You think--?"

"I'll handle it."

And he would. Most of them had already taken turns sitting with Ezra, tending him and trying to keep him calm when he got agitated, but it was Buck who seemed most determined not to leave his side until something happened, one way or another. From what Buck had privately shared with Nathan, about Ezra's expectations about being put on trial and apparent anticipation of not being trusted even by his friends, Nathan couldn't really blame him. Seemed they all had a little making up to do with the Southerner.

If Ezra lived that long.

Nathan was a realist but he wasn't a pessimist, nor did he believe in burying the dead before their time no matter how bad it looked. He had to believe his patient had a chance or else he could do him more harm than good. Nathan offered Buck a small smile, then hurried out the door, jamming his hat on his head as he went.

He could hear Chris and Vin following him as he went downstairs and around to the back of the saloon to his room. He'd always appreciated having one that opened out into the street instead of into the saloon hallway, with its increased privacy and accessibility. Now, he was grateful for the breath of fresh night air it allowed him, clearing his head and a little of his somber thoughts. He'd already saved more lives in that little room than he'd ever have thought possible. Ezra was in his own room due to the body already in residence in Nathan's, of course, but it was the care and the patient that mattered, not the place. Nathan could hardly have asked for a more stubborn patient than the one he had, and he was determined to use all his skill to try to save him. Only time would tell if it was enough.

The woman had been dead a little over twenty-four hours, her body still stiff in rigor, the blood pooled on the underside of her limbs. Nathan knew he wouldn't be able to keep her there much longer without the smell starting to be a problem, but hopefully by then he wouldn't have to. A lot would depend on the little piece of lead in her body.

Chris and Vin lingered by the door, not all that anxious to get close to the corpse, but Nathan got started right away. At least there was no need for boiling instruments now. He took out one of his scalpels and started to cut.

Five minutes later, he had the battered bullet in his hand. There had been only one casing to be found on the floor of the stables, and the wound in Ezra's side had gone clean through so Nathan guessed the bullet had traveled through his body before lodging in Laura Brooks. No wonder it was beat up. He hoped it still had what they needed, but Nathan was no expert in the matter. He wiped the bullet clean and handed it to Chris.

Larabee turned the piece of metal over in his head, then offered it to Vin, who also examined it. "I'd say it was a rifle bullet," he finally offered.

For the first time that day, Nathan saw Chris' face crease into a smile. "Let's check it out." And with a nod to Nathan, they disappeared, no doubt to go find the dead man's rifle and Ezra's gun and make the comparison.

Well, he'd done his part. Nathan washed his hands, then covered the gaping wound with a clean rag. As much as he was used to death, he didn't have to like it. It was his enemy, more so than any of the desperados who rode into town looking for trouble, and Nathan fought it with all he had. He'd never gotten a chance with the girl, but that didn't mean he wouldn't do what he could for her afterward. Seeing to a proper burial would be a start, and making sure her murderer was the one got the blame, not her friend. And most importantly, not letting death also get that friend.

Nathan's friend, too. Though he still wouldn't have admitted it to Ezra's face.

The thought almost made him smile, and then Nathan grew serious, shoulders straightening as he stood to return to the sick room. It wasn't time for laughter, not yet.

First he had a fight to win.

+ + + + + + +

Oh, Lord, he felt awful. His head seemed to have been stomped by a horse and some small fur-bearing creature had obviously crawled into his mouth and died there. And why on earth were his bedclothes saturated? Surely he hadn't fallen asleep in a water trough? Apparently he'd been up far later and imbibed far more than he should have.

That wasn't even the worst of it. Puzzlement started to become panic when Ezra found his body wouldn't turn or his eyes open when he told them to. Fierce concentration only produced slight stirrings and real fear as even that was acutely painful.

"Calm down, Ezra. You're okay. You got hurt and you're not ready to move around yet, but you'll be okay."

He had to think about every single word before it made sense, but they were spoken in such an unhurried, calm manner that he understood and found his anxiety easing.

"Can you open your eyes?"

It seemed a reasonable question, and Ezra's breath quickened as he found the answer still wasn't so easy in coming. But with concentration, he managed to at least pry his eyelids apart a fraction to admit...dim blurriness. He made a sound of frustration.

A hand on his shoulder, as reassuring as the voice. "Don't worry about it--you've been pretty sick. Takes a body a while to recover from that."

Sick--he'd been sick? Or injured? The questions piled up unanswered and Ezra didn't like unanswered questions, particularly when they applied to him. It made him feel out of control, and there were few things he hated as much as that. Of course, what could you call not even being able to move your own body?

He applied himself more determinedly, and succeeded in blinking away some of the myopia. Two faces came into focus, both bent anxiously over him.

Nathan and JD.

Ezra's breath suddenly came easier. And he wondered briefly at that for he was no more in command of himself than a moment before. But at least he was in the care of friends instead of someone he'd have to watch his words with and keep straight his story for. These two already knew him.

And wasn't that a frightening idea?

He set it aside for later, trying to moisten a desert-dry mouth to speak. JD must have improved his powers of observation because he was quickly holding out a glass of water and helping Ezra drink.

Oh, to have sunk so low that he couldn't even satisfy his needs by himself, to be at another's mercy, even a supposed friend's. It should have been mortifying but Ezra was too grateful for the refreshing water. Never had a non-alcoholic beverage tasted so good.

His tongue no longer pasted to the insides of his mouth, he tried again. "I trust I've not been...a burden?"

It seemed like a great deal to say, requiring a breath midway, and it already made him tired. Ezra frowned to himself. Just how ill had he been?

Both the faces above him were smiling, Dunne with that unabashed joy of youth, Jackson more knowingly. As if he'd said something brilliantly inspired, but even Ezra couldn't claim that.

"No, you haven't been a burden, though it sure makes me glad to hear you ask that. We were worried about you there for a while."

Even as he said it, dark memory seemed to cloud Jackson's face. Ezra felt unease crawl up his spine. They were worried about him? Him? The need to know what had transpired while he was unconscious grew more urgent. He couldn't for the life of him remember how he'd gotten there, but if he'd been in such danger that even Mister Jackson, who rarely looked at him with anything but annoyance, was concerned, it had to have been bad. And Ezra didn't know what was worse, how close he may have come to dying or what kind of mortifying state others had seen him in while he hadn't retained his faculties. What had he unwittingly revealed?

"Perhaps you'd be so to enlighten me...on what I missed." His voice didn't sound like him at all, weak and halting, but truth be told he was already battling to keep his eyes open. Only the need for information, always his ace in the hole, was keeping him sharp. Nathan and JD exchanged a long look. This appeared bad.

"You don't remember anything?" JD asked with a frown.

Ezra was getting a little exasperated, and more than a little uneasy. His expression, thankfully, must have said as much because Jackson jumped in with the gentlest voice Ezra had ever heard him use.

" know a lady by the name of Laura Brooks?"

Laura? How did they....

He remembered.

Laura was dead. He could recollect that too well, the way her face had been so composed, the eyes green as new grass staring lifelessly until he shut them. The blood that soaked her mahogany dress, turning it black. Pinckney had shot her, but Ezra had then tracked Pinckney down and...killed him in return? Pinckney was dead, he was somehow certain of it, and Laura...

He closed his eyes, throat bobbing to keep in the emotions that suddenly threatened to burst him. Laura had come to him in fear, looking for help, and he'd been unable to do anything but watch her die.

There was a stir of movement around him, a reminder that he had an audience. Ezra tried to collect himself--no doubt it was his recent injury that had made him so susceptible to emotional displays. He was a very private man, but still, the need for propriety seemed rather unimportant in the face of Laura's death.

A hand on his arm squeezed very gently. Comfort, Ezra realized with difficulty--someone was trying to sympathize with him. He couldn't figure out if he was grateful or vexed.

"I know it's hard--I've had to bury a few loved ones, myself. And everything seems worse when you're sick and worn out. We took the lady over to the undertaker this morning and they're gonna wait with the burial until you can be there."

Still Nathan in that kind voice. Ezra didn't know what to think anymore, soul rubbed raw and exposed. A classic mark, ready to be taken advantage of, yet he couldn't seem to get past the welling grief to do anything about it.

But Nathan wasn't taking advantage, wasn't even commenting on Ezra's appallingly obvious struggle for self-mastery, just sat there offering his silent presence. The comfort of company. And Ezra, with fading reluctance, accepted it.

He thought about Laura, their times together some of his few good childhood memories. Indeed, she'd been his first friend. Perhaps it had been her example that had allowed Ezra to fall in with the six men he rode with now. Like the one who was sitting with him for no good reason beside comradeship. Who would have thought he'd ever find common ground with a ex-slave?

His cousin had given him more than she'd ever known, more than even Ezra had realized. And he missed her fiercely. The force of grief was suddenly choking.

Nathan patted his arm. "I'm gonna leave you to rest now, but I'll be right outside if you need anything." Apparently JD had already gone, for the room was soon empty, leaving him to grieve in privacy.

He finally did, mourning for a too-short life, a cruel death, his inability to help her when she'd needed it, and for how much he'd miss her. It didn't seem fair, but then, there were some odds even Ezra couldn't do anything about. His only comfort was that at least she'd died with someone who'd loved her instead of the piece of garbage she'd married. And that she hadn't left him quite alone, after all.

The tears run out and his strength gone, Ezra gave in to exhaustion with a weary, unfamiliar feeling in his heart.


+ + + + + + +

"How's it going, Ezra?" JD bounded up the saloon steps with ease but then stopped, hesitating, at the top. Nathan had told him to take it slow and steady around the gambler until Ezra was back on his feet, and with the memory still fresh of how close Standish had come to dying, JD was taking the order very seriously.

A small smile curled Ezra's mouth, a sight JD was delighted to see. "I presume it was your turn to sit with the convalescent?" Ezra quietly drawled.

JD wasn't positive what a "convalescent" was, but he got the picture. In fact, one of them did usually try to be around Ezra those days both if he needed help with something and to keep him company, even Chris. But JD hadn't exactly thought of it as taking turns and was pretty sure Ezra wasn't supposed to know about it. He started to stumble through a reply about happening to be going that way.

The gambler waved a hand. "Forgive the misplaced sarcasm. Your presence would be sincerely welcome." And he gestured at a chair next to him.

Ezra had refused to use the wheelchair that JD had been stuck in for a while after getting himself shot, but he still couldn't stand for too long and even grew tired after sitting for a few hours, needing help to rise afterward. Nathan had finally talked him into at least settling in front of the saloon where he could get some air and interact with people and be in the middle of things. If there was anything that livened up Ezra, JD had realized early on, it was being in the middle of things.

Still, it had been a while before Ezra had started returning to his old self. All six of them had been astonished to learn the lady killed in the stable had been his cousin, and Ezra had taken it hard. He hadn't shed a tear at the funeral, which he did have to attend in the dreaded wheelchair, but JD had seen it in his face nevertheless. He hadn't talked much for a few days after that and had smiled even less, and a silent, serious Ezra was disconcerting. But Nathan and Buck had said to just give him time, Buck reminding JD of how he'd felt when he'd first lost his mama and Nathan recommending keeping Ezra company without pushing him to talk. He could do that. Ezra had stopped in to see him several times when he'd been recovering, too, and JD hadn't even been mourning anybody.

He leaned back in the chair, watching the busy street in front of the saloon, occasionally glancing over at the older man. Ezra looked a lot better now, his color almost back and his eyes no longer that washed-out green they'd been when he was tired and in pain. His fancy clothes were one thing he had quickly gone back to, but they were all but hidden in the blanket he was bundled in. JD bit down on a smile. Nathan's doctoring didn't always end when the patient was ready for it to. Ezra had sure seemed impatient to forget the whole thing and go on, but even he didn't cross Nathan when the healer laid down the law.

Speaking of going on, JD straightened up in his seat. "Mary just got a telegram from Judge Travis."

Ezra wasn't looking at him and his voice didn't change, but JD could see him tighten even as he calmly answered, "Indeed?"

"Yeah. He said from the evidence Chris had and your testimony, it seemed to him that justice had already been done." The bullet in the dead woman had matched Pinckney's rifle and had made clearing Ezra only a formality as far as the six of them were concerned, if a technically necessary one.

Ezra glanced at him very briefly with as fake a smile as JD had ever seen. "Well, that is good news."

JD chewed on the inside of his cheek. He'd hoped for a happier reaction than that. Nathan had said not to push, but he couldn't help being curious. "Ezra...why'd you think we wouldn't believe you that Pinckney had killed your cousin? We would have gone after Pinckney, and putting you on trial would have just been dumb."

There was a long silence, Ezra turned away and sitting too still. JD immediately regretted the question. He'd said too much--Buck was always saying he talked too much, although coming from a man who couldn't shut up when a lady was around, that had always seemed unfair to JD. But this time he'd gone too far and hurt when he was supposed to be helping. He was just opening his mouth to take back the words when Ezra spoke, his tone more muted than it'd been even in that last week.

"Trust...comes easier to some than to others." The green eyes glanced at him, skipped away, then back again, as if unable to land anywhere, and a sad, sober smile twisted his mouth. "You seem to have an abundance of it, Mister Dunne, no doubt due to your sainted mother. That is a...precious commodity indeed. I, on the other hand..." He shook his head once without seeming to realize it. " not find it so easy to offer, or accept."

JD found himself at a loss for words. That was a big deal, coming from Ezra, and he wished one of the others, older and smarter than he, was there to say the right thing. It didn't help that Ezra had cause to feel that way--hadn't it been just a few weeks before that they'd practically laughed about how Standish couldn't be trusted with money? If he'd been in Ezra's shoes, JD wouldn't have much trusted himself, either. No wonder the gambler had expected to stand trial for his cousin's death and not counted on anyone to believe him.

"Well, gee, Ezra," he finally stammered. "We might poke fun at ya sometimes for your...liking money so much...I mean, you yourself were pretty tempted by that ten thousand..." He was saying this all wrong. "But that doesn't mean we don't trust you when it counts. We know you better than that. I mean, look at how much I get teased for being so young, but you guys were great when I kinda lost faith in myself and was ready to go back East. It just means you're one of us--we're practically family." It was like he'd inherited a bunch of brothers, one older one in particular. Ezra had never quite seemed to have that same closeness, but JD couldn't even imagine doubting that he still belonged.

Another long pause, Ezra silently staring at him with an expression JD couldn't read, and the suspense was killing him. For all he knew, his ham-handed attempt at encouragement would be what drove the skittish gambler from trusting them ever again.

He didn't expect the words that finally came.

Ezra swallowed. "I appreciate the sentiment, JD, more than I can express. I have not been too...fortuitous in my relations, save for a cousin God saw fit to bestow and then take away from me. It is good to be...reminded that there are friends who know me as well as I might have wished my family to, and who are prepared to stand in its stead."

JD had an idea that maybe Ezra had meant another word instead of "reminded"--surely this wasn't news to him completely? But the emerald eyes shone dark with emotion and sober sincerity. He felt himself blush a little in return. Good thing Buck wasn't there or his friend would've never let him forget that little speech. On the other hand, Buck knew there were some things you didn't make fun of, too.

Before either of them could regret the conversation or dose of honesty, JD quickly spoke up. "Does this mean you're gonna let me win at poker sometime?"

It was amazing how Ezra's face cleared, a sudden startled grin replacing his somberness. "Er, no, I'm afraid that would be both dishonest and misleading, and I'm certain you're aware how reprehensible I find those two behaviors." He was actually trying to look like he was serious, and JD was losing the battle not to laugh. "Perhaps Mister Wilmington could give you a few pointers?"

"You beat him the last three games you played," JD feigned accusation, but he wasn't being too convincing, either.

Ezra gave him an innocent look. "And the problem there is...?"

JD gave up, snorting a laugh while he shook his head, happy to see similar amusement on Ezra's face. A little seriousness remained in his eyes, but maybe that meant he'd really been listening...whatever it was JD had said.

Life was good. JD leaned back in his chair to sit and enjoy it with his friend.

The End