Twilight at Four Corners

Peta Collins and Leigh Richards

Casey Wilkes reached out a hand to halt the torrent of words coming out of JD's mouth. "So what you're saying is - this girl, killed Nathan's girlfriend and Buck's got an interest in her!"

JD frowned at her summary of his rambling. "Yes! I mean No! I don' t know Casey. All I know is what I saw and that girl had an awful lot of blood on her not to be guilty. I saw the way Buck looked at her. It ain't-"

"JD!" Casey interrupted, "Maybe... maybe you should talk to Buck about this, I mean, ain't you always saying his your best friend?"

JD scuffed his shoe absently in the dirt. "Yeah, but I don't know Casey, he's got a lot on his mind." Stopping before he said too much. Casey didn't know how close the town had come to losing two of its protectors. Yet even though JD didn't know how to talk to Buck anymore, he did know that the Seven had agreed to be silent on this issue. Buck still didn't know about Ezra - no one had been game enough to tell him. Ezra had warned them to be silent on the issue, after all it was his story to tell not theirs. JD sighed deeply, when had things got so muddled? Buck liking that bounty hunter had been no secret to him before, but right now it just made him mad. Mad as hell.

"Like what, JD?" Casey asked for the fourth time, shaking his arm roughly when he continued to look down at the ground deep in thought.

"What? Uh. I've got to see how Nathan's doing," JD said hastily, turning and striding away from Casey.

Casey scratched her head in bemusement. "I'll never understand him," she muttered a frown on her face. "Look's like I'd better find Nettie and head back to the farm."

+ + + + + + +

The two women were walking over with Buck as an escort to The Clarion. Mary's blue dress swirled around her, but Mary moved with a grace that Kate couldn't help but envy. Buck tipped a hat to one of the residents, his hand guiding Kate firmly towards the newspaper office. Buck knew Kate wouldn't escape, she could've have a long time. He glanced towards Nathan Clinic's wondering how the young healer was doing. He saw JD enter and hoped that was a good sign. Mary paused on the step allowing the other two to go ahead of her into her home. She had the distinct feeling that someone was watching her. She flicked her hair out of the way as she looked about her, uncomfortable under the mysterious gaze that she sensed.

"Mary? You all right?" Buck asked, suddenly appearing again in The Clarion's doorway.

Mary shook herself 'just my imagination.' She concluded.

"Yes Buck, I am fine," she answered firmly striding past Buck and looked at the dirty woman in front of her and smiled kindly. "Let's see about that bath then?"

"Yes ma'am," Kate answered quietly fingering her dirty clothing and the dried blood that covered the shirtfront. Mary reached out and gently withdrew her hand.

"Looks like you need some clean clothes... my Billy- well!" She laughed quietly, attempting to the put woman more at ease. "You should see him after a day's play with his young friend Malcolm."

Buck laughed realising what the widow was doing. "Oh sure, you ain't seen a mess till those boys have been there." For a moment Buck couldn't help but marvel at the widow's expertise in diverting the former bounty hunter's attention from her dire circumstances.

"That's right," Mary agreed chuckling, "they do know how to make a mess."

+ + + + + + +

Thomas Keppel had watched the two women with interest. He had enjoyed watching the black healer ride in with the girl. It had given him something akin to vengeance, knowing that the girl was going to be hanged or at least imprisoned for a crime she did not commit. He laughed ruefully, wiping his red hair back from his face. Oh, he did like the one in the blue dress, she reminded him of someone he had known a long time ago. He blocked the thought abruptly, feeling himself get enraged. He'd let those feelings out when the time was right, and when he needed too, right now. Right now he needed to focus on his next victim.

He shifted leaning against the wall of the Saloon, feeling the knives he had strapped to his back dig into his flesh. He liked pain; to him there was a fine line between pleasure and pain. Thomas Keppel had learnt a long time ago that he was more inclined to pain. He pulled his hat down covering his face, he wondered at the law in this time. There didn't appear to be any kind of sheriff. He twirled a small knife in his hand wondering where he could go next, the last two times had been too close for comfort.

He frowned, eyeing the Clarion that blond girl had interrupted him and for that she would pay and pay dearly. Thomas Keppel laughed softly, his green eyes hard. This was going to be fun.

+ + + + + + +

Nathan wished the ache in his heart would stop. His throat constricted as he felt grief well up again. He breathed out deeply trying to regain some composure. Josiah Chris and JD had left him alone at his insistence. He was aware that they would probably be returning soon to check on him. He rocked himself in the chair, his mind flashing to the image of Rain lying dead or dying at the hands of that woman. He had thought he was going to marry her, now it was impossible. 'Oh God! What am I gonna do without ya, honey.' He cried silently, his shoulders shaking with grief.

+ + + + + + +

"Come On, Chris. We can't just sit here and do nothing," JD fumed, his brown eyes clashing with the other man's. "Kate murdered Rain, I ain't gonna sit here--"

"Just calm down. JD. We're just gonna wait till Vin and Ezra return and figure things out from there." Chris held up hand to placate the young lawman. "JD, all of us want to find the killer as much as you do," he stated flatly. Feeling more than seeing Josiah's rumbling agreement beside him. "And if Kate is the killer, than she'll hang like any other murderer," he finished, straightening his vest coat as he leaned against the pillar on the deck outside the Saloon.

"That's right son," Josiah agreed. His thoughts turning to the young black woman who had brought his friend so much happiness in such a short amount of time.

"Maybe not Buck," JD murmured quietly, looking away from the two men.

"What was that JD?" Chris asked quietly, noting the sudden mask that overcame the young man's face.

JD shrugged his shoulders expressively. "Nothing Chris. I was just wondering where Kate is being kept now."

"She's back in the gaol," Buck interjected, moving over to the join the others on the porch. "Mary's with her. Poor thing's as scared as a rabbit being hunted by foxes." His cobalt eyes met JD's and Buck flinched at the sudden disgust he saw there. "JD?" He asked.

Chris glanced between the two men and was startled by the amount of animosity clearly written over the young man's face. He threw a look to Josiah and noted that he had seen it as well.

JD clenched his fists, trying to control himself. "You can't help yourself can you Buck!" He said icily.

Buck frowned in confusion. "What are you talking about JD?"

JD waved his hand towards the gaol. "You're a sucker for a pretty face ain't you, Buck? You fell for her once and I got shot, now Rain's dead and you think -" He ranted.

"JD-" Chris began warningly, worried that Buck wasn't prepared or had recovered enough for this it was too close to the 'incident.'

JD ignored him. He had kept it to himself for too long. Quite frankly he had enough. "You think," he repeated maliciously. "You think the girl is innocent because she bats her pretty eyes at you. Hell why do you reckon Rain's dead? She's dead because we set Kate free..." No man on the porch was blind to the inference that it had been Buck that had made the judge go lenient on Kate Stokes. Buck stepped back from the verbal onslaught coming from the former sheriff.

"That ain't fair JD, and you know it," Buck retorted softly, his face tense.

"Ain't fair!" JD said incredulously "Hell I don't even know if I can talk to you anymore. I mean can you handle it? We're all walking on eggshells around ya now. And you carry on as if everything is normal. It ain't right Buck. It ain't."

None of the men were aware of the bounty hunter and gambler slowly riding into town. "Mr Tanner, it appears there is some trouble," Ezra observed, taking in the tense situation in front of the Saloon.

"Better check it out," Vin agreed with a nod of the head.

Vin and Ezra flinched when they heard the next few words come out of the young friend's mouth.

"God Buck, you don't even know that it was you not Maude who pushed Ezra over the edge. You made him go catatonic."

"JD, that's enough!" Chris ordered, grabbing the other man by the arm roughly and pulling him back from Buck who had gone white. 'Oh Christ.' Chris thought.

Josiah placed a comforting hand on the ladies man's shoulder. "Easy, brother."

Buck shook him off. His mind whirling with this blow. He saw Ezra slowly slide off his horse before joining the other men on the wooden deck. Vin quickly followed.

"Was it me?" Buck asked desperately wishing for it not to be. He didn't wait to see their answer he could see it on all their faces. "I uh." Buck stopped unable to pull his thoughts together. Turning abruptly, he shied away from the outreached hands of the Tracker and preacher. Turning, he walked quickly away, head down never looking back.

"WHAT THE HELL WERE YOU THINKING!" Ezra boomed suddenly in the heavy silence that had fallen after Buck's departure.

JD hung his head, his brown bangs covering his face. Remorsefully he looked up. "I don't know okay!" He conceded. "I just don't know. I was so-"

Ezra held up hand. "Not right now Mr Dunne. I believe Buck needs my attention."

"I am sorry," JD whispered his eyes filling with tears at the enormity of how much he had hurt his friend came crashing down on him.

"I'll go with you, Ezra," Chris offered. His ice blue eyes filled with worry for his old friend.

Ezra shook his head, "Perhaps later, Mr Larabee. But right now Buck and I need to clear the air." He pulled the fringes of his coat together and brushed off the dust on his sleeves. His eyes snapped over to the forlorn man still being held by Chris. "Then we will talk, JD," he promised, and JD couldn't help but wonder just how badly he had ruined things between the men, with a tip of his hat to Josiah and the boys he was gone.

JD pulled himself free of the grip and looked at the other men. "I am sorry it's just-" he paused. "Oh hell," he whispered feeling his stomach churning all of sudden. "Excuse me," he whispered a hand flying to his mouth, turning he raced to the privacy of the bathhouse.

Josiah's brow furrowed. "It seems this day is only getting worse," he sighed rubbing his brow for a moment.

"I reckon he's angry and hurting," Vin said, his blue eyes on the departing figure, leaning against the wall of the Saloon.

Chris agreed with a small quirk of his lips. "Yeah I reckon he is. Question is who's he mad at Buck or himself?"

Josiah shook his head, "Both I'd say, Chris. Best to leave him for few moments to allow him to compose himself. I think his going to be feeling a mite sorry for himself when it hits."

Vin rolled his shoulders looking at the preacher. "What started it all anyway?" He questioned quietly looking at the two men, his eyes narrowing when he saw the sudden look of grief that covered their faces.

"Rain's dead. Nathan found her this morning when he rode out to the village. He found Kate Stokes and he reckons she's the killer and JD does as well," Josiah explained, his deep baritone voice filled with remorse and grief.

"Where's Nathan?" Vin asked.

"In the Clinic," Chris said curtly, neither man missing the glint of fury in his eyes. He turned away from the two men his eyes flying over the street and doing a quick sweep, all three men saw JD enter the gaol head down a very dejected figure. Chris sighed. "Guess I'd better talk to JD."

Vin shifted uneasily. "Chris, before you go there is something that you should know." Quickly and succinctly he explained the gruesome finding of the day.

"Sweet Lord have mercy," Josiah breathed out, his voice full of empathy for the unfortunate victim.

Chris swore. "OK Vin find Ezra and Buck then talk to Kate see what she knows about the..," he paused for a second his throat closing on the words. "Body at the Seminole Village. If there's a murderer on the lose we're gonna catch him. Josiah, I want you to check on Maude, then see if Nathan needs anything."

The tracker and the preacher nodded at the words of their leader before hurrying off to do his bidding. Chris unconsciously tugged at his hat and then slowly moved off the boardwalk heading towards the gaol. He needed to set things straight with JD. His spurs clanged and rang on the ground and he swaggered as he walked a unconscious attempt to delay entering the office. With a knock on the door, he entered. "JD son, I think you and I need to have a chat."

+ + + + + + +

Ezra followed the ladies man, he had believed that the man was going towards his room. But, now as he paused at the fence surrounding the cemetery he wondered what exactly he could say. And why on earth Buck had come here. He saw him sitting down on the ground beside the fence, a shadowed figure in the twilight of the descending darkness. Ezra fixed his sleeves, unsure as to how to approach the man.

"Not now, Ezra" Buck said quietly. His blue eyes flashed over to the gambler before they were hidden underneath his hat. He couldn't face Ezra right now. He needed to think and placing his head in hands he pondered why everything he touched turned to dirt. 'Just when everything was coming together, it all falls down. Like one of Ezra's house of cards. What had he done?'

Standish started, he hadn't been aware that the man had known of his presence.

"On the contrary my good friend, now is the time," Ezra drawled, coming to stand beside the tall man, as he flicked some dust off his dark green coat.

"Am I your good friend?" Buck disputed sadly, his eyes hooded as one hand rubbed dejectedly over his face. Had he, Buck Wilmington, destroyed the gambler? 'Oh God it was my fault.' He thought suddenly, feeling his heart race at the thought. His heart was in his throat and he swallowed convulsively.

Buck didn't want to look at the man standing beside him or hear the answer. He heard the other man sigh and he looked at him sideways, seeing the con man's gaze resting on the horizon.

For a dreadful moment Buck thought the con man wasn't going to answer as he tapped his thumb on his lip. A sure sign that he was thinking intently on something. Buck stood, beginning to walk away from Ezra. The silence was an answer in itself when he heard the soft southern drawl as the gambler responded.

"Indeed, Buck we have dallied long enough on this matter," Ezra commented.

Buck heard the slight hesitation in the other man's words. He couldn't help but wonder at what it was for was Ezra afraid of what he must say now to him? Or was Ezra also afraid of what he felt? Turning to face him, Buck looked intently at the pale washed out expression on the normally impassive face. 'I caused that.' He thought belatedly.

Turning away again, Wilmington asked quietly, "Was it me? I heard talk about you when I came back after..," he paused slightly his blue eyes darkening at the memories of that time. "I was just so focussed on trying to forget it all." He heard rather than saw the deep breath that the gambler took.

But Buck didn't know that he could push the other man to talk; after all what right did he have to do that... after? Buck rubbed the back of his neck; he didn't know if he wanted to hear the answer. Buck speculated if Ezra had felt the same way in Eaglebend, not wanting to know what they thought, but needing to know?

Buck sighed smiling sardonically he knew without a doubt conversations on porches were bad news.

Ezra took a deep breath there was so much riding on this conversation and he marvelled briefly how this day could get any worse. His mother, a murdered young lady and now JD spilling the truth of what had occurred.

Ezra shook himself; he felt irate at JD for that. He would have spoken to Buck, when he not JD felt that Buck was ready. Also he supposed, 'when I felt ready as well.' Grant you he hadn't known when that day would come, but it was information that he should have imparted to the distraught man in front of him.

"I know Buck. I know that... I am aware that you were shutting down in a manner of speaking. Although I must confess that I'm not really up with the facts of that particular time," Ezra chuckled ruefully his green eyes flickering as he looked away, before turning back to the man. It was time to lay it on the line; the way Buck had in Eaglebend.

"When I was in the saloon in Purgatory. What I heard you say was not that you didn't need me, but rather that none of you needed me." Ezra saw Buck pale even further grimacing at the memory of the conversation between them. Holding up his hand, to halt Buck when he went to speak, Ezra continued clearing his throat over the tightening of his throat.

"I suppose it wasn't what you said, well it was that." He laughed a little self-mockingly. "But what you didn't say that made the most impact. You declared that I didn't need you... but I didn't hear that." Pausing he licked his suddenly dry lips as he recalled the bitter words that had flown between them in Purgatory.

"It never occurred to me, to really see what you were facing. I knew that you had been going through something, I just didn't pay much attention so intent was I on helping myself through you. I think I was even looking for a way to see that you had all lied to me. I was looking for one of you to make a mistake and you made it so easy to just shut down... hell you said as much... So I lashed out at you. I went to help you Buck, but I only made it worse... much worse." Standish stopped unable to look at the other man as the magnitude of what could have happened rocked him again. He had practically forced this man to attempt to kill himself. 'God it was his fault. Buck wasn't to blame here. He was.'

"Ezra," Buck drawled sadly seeing the guilt in the other man's face. Chris had mentioned that Standish blamed himself for his attempted suicide.

Yet for all Larabee and he had fought, they had one similar trait accepting responsibility for everyone. Buck couldn't let Ezra take the blame for something that was entirely his responsibility. Buck saw the same pain there and he had to ease it.

"You didn't really push me to it, Ezra. Heck I was already about to ride off to do it. You just delayed it for awhile... I don't know if we could have helped each other then. We're a sorry pair, aren't we?" Buck sighed heavily as he took off his hat, to run a hand over the battered edges.

"Perhaps," Ezra agreed, as he gazed back towards the town. He could just make out Vin jogging somewhere as if he was looking for someone. Frowning slightly, he drew his attention back to the man beside him.

"I'm sorry you thought that, Ezra," Buck murmured his voice coloured with his pain. God, how could he have said that to Standish? He should of known that would be how the gambler received it. He ran his hands over the wooden fence that circled the cemetery. It felt rough and raw just like how he felt. His eyes shined tears, "Seems that I'm doomed to always be making the same mistakes."

"In what way?" Ezra prodded gently, his green eyes focused solely on the Lothario. Buck was finally opening up about the past. A past that had driven him to desperate measures.

"Easy Ezra, you went catatonic, Chris well..." Buck laughed harshly. "And then there's JD, he got shot because of me... in every situation it's me that causes it. Don't get me wrong I am glad to be alive and all, it's just sometimes... When I was I child, you know that I grew up in a whorehouse. It wasn't easy," he explained softly. Chuckling at the raised eyebrow that Ezra threw his way. "It just left a lifetime of scars that I am still trying to get past..." He stopped breathing out heavily. "I am sorry Ezra for everything, I guess this really was my fault," his voice shook and he felt his gut twist and clench with the turmoil of his emotions.

"No matter," Ezra responded carefully trying to ease the pain in the man's heart. "You were far more direct than my mother's lies..," his voice trailing away still unable to go there after this mornings revelations. The wound was too fresh.

"You probably were the catalyst Buck, but by no means the one to blame. I think I was already there... waiting for one of you to lie to me again. I had the example of Maude lying is it any wonder I believed you would do that too?" Ezra contested, feeling the wind begin to stir up in the chill of the night.

Buck frowned hearing the unspoken emotion in the young man's voice. Glancing at Ezra, he realised suddenly that this had been a real hellish day for him, after dealing with his mother he'd had to come out and deal with him.

"Well, that may be so, but it don't make it right. While your mother had her reasons it ain't right her lying like that and it ain't right that you thought that I lied to you. You gotta trust what this group has.... Even in the rough patches," Buck stated firmly, unconsciously helping the man beside him instead of dealing with the pain that JD's words had caused him. It had really hurt to hear the young man say those things, but in a way Buck supposed JD was right.

Ezra nodded a dimple appearing as he agreed. "Yes family, and the way our resident tracker saw the situation is that we both gave as good as we got." Ezra saw a smile appear as the light twinkled momentarily in the sky blue eyes.

"Yeah, I think we did," Buck answered holding out a hand to the gambler, who gripped it firmly. The words like a balm over the raw wounds that each man bared on their souls. No matter what happened they were brothers.

Buck whispered, "Family" seeing Ezra nod his eyes shimmering slightly, before letting go.

They paused as Buck looked over the graves. "As bad as it got... I couldn't do it, I came real close, but I couldn't do it".

Standish's eyes roamed over the field as he cocked his head to the side. "Yes and that is all that matters." Slapping the man gently on the back. "I am glad you didn't."

They stood silently for a moment gazing steadily out over the dusky plains as the crescent moon began to rise. Before turning to walk back to the town.

Ezra matched the loping gait of his friend as he they continued the long trek back.

"Care to enlighten me on what had Mr Dunne so riled up?"

Ezra was unprepared for the response.

"Kate Stokes," Buck replied his shoulders sinking slowly and the twinkle in his eyes disappearing even his footsteps seemed to become heavier. "Reckons Kate Stokes killed Rain," he continued. Standish stopped walking staring in stunned silence at Buck. They were unaware that Vin was approaching them.

"Rain, Nathan's paramour," Ezra stuttered "Is dead?" Looking desperately at the other man, almost begging for it not to be true.

"Yeah." Wilmington nodded wearily. He was just so damn tired. He couldn't face the kid not right now. He respected and was relieved that Ezra had not pushed him there. He hadn't explained everything and Buck was very much aware that Ezra knew that as well. That was one thing he was thankful for: Standish's ability to know when to push and when to back off. Occasionally he did but today he had seen that he couldn't talk yet. But, he knew when he was ready Ezra would be there and for that he was thankful.

Buck noted Tanner jogging up to them, his face tight with some unreadable emotion. But, he saw Vin blue eyes focused on the man standing still beside him.

"Dead?" Ezra repeated trying to deal with the day's events. He allowed the larger man to steady him with his hand.

"You okay, Ez?" Vin asked urgently catching his other arm whilst nodding at the ladies man.

"No," he replied simply swaying ever so slightly, before he seemed to compose himself. His eyes met Vin's and he nodded at the other man. Ezra could see the same thoughts registering on the Tracker's face.

"We gotta ask Nathan," Vin agreed his voice heavy with grief for his friend. Neither man willing to disturb their friend.

"What are you two yabbering about?" Buck asked exasperated, briefly wondering where Chris was, probably with JD. Buck knew he had to clear the air between them, obviously whatever had been going on with JD had been building for sometime. How hadn't he seen it? Bowing his head he breathed out deeply. He just wasn't sure if he had the strength. Glancing up Buck pushed his feelings aside willing himself to handle this... he could. Only thing was Buck just wasn't sure if JD would let him in. He also couldn't be certain if he could allow him in either. The thought saddened him no end.

"What about Ms Stokes?" Ezra words interrupted Wilmington's thoughts. As he turned his attention back to them.

Buck frowned suddenly angry. "What about her?" He asked darkly glaring at the two men. "She didn't kill Rain," he said stubbornly crossing his arms in front of his chest.

Standish cast a quick glance at Tanner who motioned for him to continue. "We know she didn't kill Rain, there's a killer out there, because we found another dead body this morning." Ezra shivered remembering the gruesome scene. Vin reached out a steadying hand, he wasn't sure if it was for Ezra or for himself.

Wilmington gazed at the two men, they were serious and if they were? Then they had more trouble than first thought, judging by the haunted expressions on the men's faces. No wonder Ezra looked like a ghost. He was having one heck of day. He saw Vin was thinking the same thing as he gently began to guide the Gambler towards 'the Clarion. Falling into step beside them, Buck came to the conclusion that they all had.

Tanner wondered idly if this might push Ezra back into his self-imposed isolation from them. He knew he didn't really have to worry. But it would be a long time before Vin would be able to forget the distraught figures of these two men.

His eyes straying over the guns the lanky man carried around his waist. Nope, he wouldn't forget those images for a very long time.

Knocking softly on the door of 'The Clarion.' Mary opened the door raising an eyebrow as she wiped her hands on her apron. There was flour on her face and all over the apron, she had been cooking a feast it seemed. The smell of food roasting reaching them making their mouths water. "Gentlemen," she greeted with a smile. "Come in, there's plenty to go around."

The men nodded, tipping their hats at the offer. Her blue eyes quietly cataloguing the tension in each of the men. She only had to wait a moment for them to explain their visit.

"Mary, we need to speak to Kate" Buck stated quietly.

+ + + + + + +

Larabee gazed silently around the small office. He had brought JD here under the pretence of helping Mary Travis sort some things out. JD had resisted at first, but had given with one look from Chris. He had brought the former Sheriff here so the both of them could keep an eye on the woman downstairs. If anything happened, he would hear it. Instinctively he knew that this had been Stephen Travis's workroom. Chris looked out, watching as Josiah left the 'Ritz' and Maude, striding over to the Clinic.

Mary had arrived earlier when he was about to talk to JD, to request that Kate came over to the Clarion for dinner. Chris had gone with her, leaving JD alone for a moment... the young man needed to collect his thoughts together as well.

Mary had acknowledged Chris with a brief wan smile as she had entered the gaol. Looking at him for only a moment before declaring, "That Kate wasn't a killer." Her tone had brooked no argument and he, Chris Larabee, had folded, unlocking the bars that held the petite woman. JD had watched this silently, he hadn't said a word as he watched Chris stride forward, unlocking the bars a click. Then stood watching after them with a look of restrained anger. Chris had decided to leave him be as he escorted the women past the former Sheriff. Mary had been the one that had given him the reason to bring JD over to the Clarion and Chris had smiled in response to her suggestion. Mary could be devious when she put her mind to it.

Kate hadn't raised her eyes as she stepped out of the metal cage, meekly following after Mary. The imposing figure in black had walked beside her, steering her towards Mary's quarters with a gentle hold on her arm.

Mary had looked pale underneath her tan, her blue eyes not holding Chris. Chris noticed that she seemed a little tired and frail. So like Sarah. 'Oh God, why did Nathan have to go through this?'

Nathan had all but admitted to him recently what he had been feeling for the tenacious black woman. No, it wasn't right that loved ones were taken from them. And with a shake of his short black coat, Chris knew he couldn't risk it again.

Despite how much he longed for Mary's sweet smile, he knew he couldn't let himself fall. Things had begun to grow a little more serious and their timid attempts of friendship had ensnared him. He was suddenly struck with the realisation that he had already fallen for Mary. Chris pursed his lips. He was just as sure he could never risk losing her.

Chris watched silently as JD poured himself another drink. Chris had seen JD kick back more shots today than he had ever seen the young man. JD was wallowing in his pain and it was heartbreaking to watch. Chris could feel his men were falling apart around him. Nothing seemed to divide JD and Buck, but lately everything had conspired to do exactly that.

"JD, talk to me," Chris urged softly, his eyes steady as the slightly unfocussed gaze met his.

"I can't forget Buck's face... I shouldn't have said anything." He dropped his head to rest on his arms. Chris felt the words hit him like a slap in the face.

"JD, you ain't at fault, we all are," Chris countered, resting a hand on the man's head. Feeling the slight shaking of the shoulders and he pondered why he hadn't seen it. JD was barely hanging on, through everything over the past months the young man had been solid as a rock, barely faltering as he helped everyone around them. Why had he missed it?

"Oh JD," Larabee whispered, feeling like a father as he gathered the younger man close. JD wrapped his arms around his waist as he cried.

"She shot me, Chris," he whispered brokenly, "and he loves her... how can I be at peace with that? Kate let Mady shoot me. It's so clear - everything is from that day," JD mumbled, pushing himself away from his hero to gaze around the small office.

Chris frowned, rubbing his jaw absently. Buck loves Kate? He wasn't sure about that - Buck had a weakness for the women in general. But love? If anything it was just the first tentative strands of friendship between the two. Yet he couldn't deny the obviously current of attraction between the girl and Buck. He had seen it, just as surely as JD had.

"I want to understand why he loves her... I can't. All I feel is the pain of everything that happened. First, Annie died by my hand and the whole town wanted me gone and you all stood by me, then Casey said she could never..." JD stopped, swallowing hard as he gazed back at the blonde man. Chris nodded encouragingly.

"Then I slept with Mady, and it wasn't anything I was proud of. But, I never thought she would do that, she just aimed her gun and fired. I had my gun on Del Spivak, and I kept asking her what was going on. Then I heard her fire... Nothing hurt like that Chris, Nothing." JD shook his head as he rested a hand over his eyes trying to stop the memories. While the other hand strayed to his stomach where the bullet had struck.

"AND BUCK TRUSTS HER OVER ME!" JD roared suddenly into the quiet of the room, as he swung back to face his friend, and leader. His anger slowly faded as he caught sight of Buck in the street with Ezra. He turned away again facing the wall.

"JD, I can't pretend that I understand what you're going through, but are you angry at Buck or angry at yourself for what happened?" Chris asked gently, rising to stand and walking over to the younger man. Resting his hands on both sides of his chin he raised it so he looked at him, seeing the doubt and pain in the man's eyes.

"I don't know," JD answered shakily as he bit his lip, he didn't want to cry again.

"I think you do, and you need to confront what it is," Chris stated seeing the slight nod of the other man. He smiled gently as he pulled him into a brief fatherly hug. JD was so like Adam. He wondered if Adam would be like JD if he had grown.

It didn't matter, all that mattered was that JD was okay. His mind wandered to his other men, he couldn't help Nathan, Josiah was watching over him. He heard the soft voices as Buck asked to speak with Kate.

He nodded to himself, not releasing the hold on the younger man. Wilmington knew what was going on now, all he had to do was tell JD. But that could wait. Finally JD pulled away.

"I'm all right Chris," he whispered, scrubbing a hand roughly over his face.

Larabee nodded, resting his hand briefly on the bent head as he replied "No you're not, but you will be, son".

JD looked up at the words, his eyes shining with gratitude for the understanding there. Squeezing the smaller man's shoulder gently he exited the room, leaving JD with his thoughts.

+ + + + + + +

Josiah pushed the door open to the clinic his eyes straining through the darkness to find his friend. Glass was strewn everyone, books tossed on the ground. The bed was over turned and stripped. His troubled gaze followed the path of destruction as he lit the lamp. Making his way carefully, he paused, his heart breaking as he heard the harsh wracking sobs of his friend as he lay on the floor. Kneeling down beside him, he rested a hand gently on him. Nathan's eyes fluttered open as the tears streamed down. His mouth worked, but no sound came out. Josiah eased the man up as he sat beside him, enfolding him in his arms. As Jackson gripped him like a lifeline, hands clenched as they wrapped into his shirt.

"She's gone..," Nathan murmured in between sobs. Looking at his oldest friend for reassurance that this was some bad dream.

"I'm afraid so, brother" Josiah's baritone rumbled regretfully as Nathan's eyes filled as he bent his head to rest on the large chest. As he wept.

Nathan felt as if the world had stopped. Everything that had mattered was gone. His love was gone, for all he had tried to deny what they shared... he loved her. He should never have left her, he should of stayed. He should of... he mind shut down. Rain was gone, dead. And all that he could feel was the all-encompassing despair that laced his heart.

+ + + + + + +

Mary had hid a smile, as the three men had stared in unabashed admiration at Kate Stokes, lady bounty hunter. With her hair pulled back and clean, Kate truly was a beautiful woman. Mary was glad she had lent Kate the soft floral dress, it really suited her. But tomorrow she would give her a dress as a gift. Every woman deserved a dress.

"Chris and JD are upstairs in Stephen's office," she offered as she placed a plate of steaming hot tea in front of each man. Ezra smiled his thanks.

"Well, we don't need them just yet," Standish drawled slowly, eyes roaming lazily around the room. Buck's eyes travelled towards the staircase, before he turned his head away.

"Mary, I think you had better leave," Buck said softly as he sat down in the chair. He saw her begin to frown, but as she caught the serious gaze of the three men. She nodded her eyes turning to Kate who sat stiffly, eyes staring resolutely at the tabletop.

"Don't worry, Kate. You will be all right," Mary said reassuringly, squeezing her shoulder gently as she went by. Kate glanced up briefly, her own wide blue eyes accepting the comfort that the widow offered.

"Come on, Billy," Mary ordered, softly taking her son's hand she exited the room. She hoped that no one saw her turmoil. She wondered when it was that she had lost control in this situation. She hadn't referred to that room upstairs as Stephen's office for a very long time. Why now? Mary saw Billy trying desperately to head up the stairs towards Chris, towards the man he longed to have for his new father. And her heart clenched. Why now?

+ + + + + + +

"What's all this about?" Kate asked directly, she wasn't in the mood to be lied too.

"We reckon there's a killer out there, and we need for you to tell us what you know of Rain's injuries before she died," Tanner asserted bluntly. This lady had been a bounty hunter she knew what he was asking.

"I didn't see nobody, just heard a scream," Kate said focusing her attention on the hunter. She knew he was giving her the opportunity to fight for her freedom.

Standish looked at the three people, he heard Mary admonishing Billy gently as he tried to re-enter the parlour. Exchanging a quick glance, he sighed as he picked up a plate of cake and headed out to entertain the young Mr Travis.

Buck and Vin grinned at each other, hearing the delighted squeal from the youngster as Ezra began to charm the boy.

+ + + + + + +

Chris Larabee paused as on the stairs, watching Mary as she bit back a laugh as Billy tried desperately to see where the coin the gambler was toying with had gone.

God, he couldn't do this. He didn't know if he had the strength to fight this. It was then that the gambler saw him. His green eyes flicking over him and Chris was surprised at the pain in them. He wondered if Mary saw it. She rested a brief hand on Ezra's arm as Billy reached for some cake. Whatever she murmured quietly to Standish had him stare at her in surprise. He nodded, swallowing visibly. The moment was broken as Billy caught sight of him.

"CHRIS!" he cried running forward and jumping into his arms. Larabee caught him easily swinging him up as he walked forward into the room.

"How ya doing, Billy?" He asked as he sat down.

Billy shrugged " All right, just want some dinner." He looked pleadingly at his mother.

Mary smiled slightly. "In a little while, honey," she drawled her eyes briefly meeting Chris.

Ezra bit back a knowing smile as he motioned for the young boy to come forward, pulling out his cards, he began to entertain the entranced boy. His eyes briefly lingering on the two other people in the room watching him, as much as they watched each other.

Chris slowly rose to his feet walking to the window to look over the dark town. It wasn't too long before Mary joined him at his side.

"It seems so quiet," she whispered folding her arms across her chest as she remembered the night her husband was killed.

" Yeah," Chris responded seeing the pain that now creased the face of the woman beside him. "Mary, what's wrong?" he asked softly gently touching her arm.

She looked away biting her lower lip, her eyes travelling over to Billy before looking back at the man beside him. The man that was coming to mean as much to her as Stephen had. "It's like the night he died," she whispered softly. So lightly, that Chris had to strain to hear it.

Blue eyes swung to him, "I didn't expect when I came home that he would be dead...." she stopped hand flying to her mouth as she obviously fought her emotions. Tears shimmered in her eyes.

"It's okay, Mary," Chris murmured wrapping her gently in his arms. Nodding at the gambler, who smiled sadly before returning to the young charge that struggled to wield the cards as the con man could. It just had to be okay. Chris thought as he gently ran a hand over the soft blonde hair. It had to be.

+ + + + + + +

Kate paused watching the two men, as they gazed after the fancy dressed man. The gambler. The man who had won her freedom. There was a tight bond between these men. It was obvious to anyone that wasn't a part of it. But to them she guessed the bond probably became as much a hindrance as it was their lifeline.

Seeing their attention come back to her, she rested her hand on the table knife before picking up the knife. Concisely, her gaze on Vin, she described the wound she had found showing him the sort of movement the killer would have used. Kate saw Tanner frown as he listened, his eyes narrowing.

"Damn," he cursed, nodding at her he left the room calling softly for Ezra to follow him. He ducked his head back into the room, his eyes serious. "Buck, stay here, protect them, if this guy's who I think he is then we are in serious trouble."

With that he was gone with a worried Ezra following close behind. Chris and Mary strode in looking at the two bewildered people at the dining table. Buck held up a hand to stall Chris's question. "I have no idea, but from Vin's reaction it ain't good."

Chris sighed easing himself and fluffing Billy's hair as he ran by. "He'll get back to us when he knows more."

Mary walked over to the stove and reaching down she pulled out the roast. Buck smiled at the widow when she placed the food on the table. "Now Mary, you have out done yourself," he laughed at Mary's sigh of exasperation.

Buck swore he could almost hear Josiah giving that look while he said. 'Yes sir, you sure know how to sweet talk a woman.' Chris raised an eyebrow at Buck's mysterious smile. Buck shrugged embarrassed to be caught out. "What did you say?"

"Mary just asked you if you want to carve the roast," Chris said dryly, well aware of what Mary was doing. So too was Buck.

Buck shook his head, his eyes twinkling for the first time that day. "Aw heck Chris, you know how bad I am at that, perhaps it would be better--"

Kate nearly laughed at the look Mary and Chris both gave Buck. She exchanged a wink with Buck as he leant back in his chair, watching Chris and Mary fuss about the table. Kate brushed her hair back, it felt odd to be seated here in such a fancy dress. But from the looks of appreciation in the men's eyes, it was a good thing. Yet, she sure did miss her long coat, yet it had been ruined in the winter. No hope of repair, when she had no money to spare.

Chris hid a smirk, maybe JD was right. Perhaps the feelings between Buck and Kate ran deeper than he first thought. Billy raised his plate up waiting for the meat and the four adults laughed at the eagerness of youth. Chris couldn't blame him; it smelt delicious.

Buck sipped his drink, frowning at the mix of emotions just looking at Kate brought him. He loved women; he couldn't deny it. Never tried as a matter of fact. But Buck couldn't help but wonder when Kate had crossed the line in his heart, he had built up walls to stop himself from loving. At the moment though he couldn't take his eyes away from Kate, there was something about her that drew him in. So strong and vulnerable at the same time. Buck sensed she felt it too. He sighed toying with his food, He had felt that way once before and she died. Died saving him. He wondered when he had begun to feel this way. Honestly, never expecting to again. But, now there was a chance here for something special and he wouldn't lose the woman he loved again.

The sound of laughter drew him in to the easy banter and with a smile and a wink at Billy, Buck delved into the lighthearted debate on dinner etiquette. It was easy for the four adults at the table to just forget at least for a moment or two the reasons they had come together.