Never Released

by Kris

Josiah and JD sat with Ezra as Nathan was called out for a broken leg. Josiah met JD's honest stare with a smile, "Let me take over reading for a while. This is a great part, you can enjoy it with Ezra."

JD nodded eagerly as handed the preacher Ezra's copy of the "Canterbury Tales." JD got lost in the tale and Josiah's voice. Ezra awoke to the low timber of Josiah's voice reciting the much loved tale and smiled ever so slightly. Josiah noticed the small curve of the gambler's lips and sighed inwardly with relief that Ezra was still fighting to live. JD had been too absorbed in the tale to notice any changes in the sleeping man.

Nathan returned to find Josiah still reading an hour later. He checked Ezra's forehead for a temperature reading. He was hotter than he would like, but he hadn't gotten worse. He rustled some of the tea fixings, interrupting the reading. A faint sound had Nathan turning around.

"Please, I want to hear." The voice seemed to dissolve into nothingness, but they had all heard the plea.

Nathan smiled, "Sure, sure....I'll be quieter." Relieved that his patient was conscious and alert enough to follow a story. He brewed the tea as he too listened to the story.

+ + + + + + +

The tracker took them to the dusty town of Playart. A general store and saloon were the two big buildings of the place. The cow pens helped define the place for Chris.

"A herder's town. Trail bosses pick up extra hands here before heading to market." Chris remarked quietly.

Vin nodded and pointed to the saloon and received an answering nod. They hitched their horses and went inside. They meandered slowly toward the counter as they checked for boots, hat or a watch that they would recognize.

Chris put his money on the countertop for a drink and asked casually, "Any herds leave recently?"

As the bar keep scooped up the money, he poured the whiskey. He paused as he thought and nodded his head. "Yeah, coupla hours ago, headed west."

The blond man nodded his thanks. He threw back his drink in one gulp and placed the glass down. He made eye contact with Vin and headed outside.

Vin meandered out slowly and joined Chris by the horses. Vin learned that two herds had gone out today, both headed west. The gunslinger and tracker headed west.

Vin didn't notice the clear blue sky, didn't feel the wind tickle his skin, he was intent on his tracking, wanting to find Ezra's stuff and get back to find Ezra alive.

Chris didn't notice much of anything, he was just pissed. You just don't steal stuff off an unconscious man that hadn't done nothing to you. He brought his horse up along side of the tracker. "How long?"

"They're less than an hour ahead of us. Should catch'em by midday." Vin answered succinctly.

Larabee nodded.

Just over an hour later the two men could see the cow herd stopped at a watering hole. Cowboys on horses, cowboys at rest. There were plenty of cowboys. Chris went looking for the trail boss. Vin went looking for the gear.

Chris approached a silver haired man that carried his authority with ease. A man long used to the role. The trail boss watched as the man in black stopped in front of him and dismounted slowly.

With squinted eyes, he asked, "What can I do you for?"

"Trying to locate three men that hired on this morning." The words came out easy, but the meaning was not lost on the trail boss.

"Didn't hire anyone new, but three of my men did rejoin us this morning. Could check with Gursey, we're sharing the route to the pass. He hired on crew this morning." Sizing up the obvious gunslinger, Naper figured the truth would work best.

Chris nodded, then asked, "The three that returned, where can I find them?"

Naper looked at the man's face, the expression there matched the stance of his entire body. Just don't fuck with me was the message. The boss knew he didn't want to. "Probably close to the chow wagon."

Chris touched his hat as he turned his horse. He moved slowly toward the chow wagon, belying his need to pounce on these men.

Vin had wandered all about the herd with such a practiced ease that no one noticed his presence. He headed for the chow wagon. About that time he saw Chris heading the same way. As Vin got within ten feet of the wagon, Chaucer began snorting. Giving the horse her lead, Vin marveled at how well Ezra had trained her and marveled at how devoted the horse was. She stopped in front of three men that were sitting on the ground. Vin spotted Ezra's boots right off. Another of the fellows had the gambler's black hat.

Feeling Chris at his side, Vin's quiet voice issued an ultimatum, "Ya better be handing over them boots, that hat and the watch."

The man wearing neither the hat nor the boots replied with a sneer in his voice, "Why would we want to do that?"

Chris glared, "The man asked you nice. 'Sides you stole 'em off a friend."

The two men on either side of the leader squirmed as they sat. The leader was too arrogant to see the kind of trouble he was in.

Vin was already off Chaucer. The savage fury in his voice was unmistakable, "You left an unconscious man trapped under a tree, and stole his boots. You're nothing but a mangy cur. You can live if you give the stuff up now."

The shorter man was already taking off the boots. His silent partner had already tossed the hat out in front of him. The man in black looked dangerous. But the long haired man looked as though he was intent on killing them. The tall man in the middle put his hand out and stopped the chunky man from finishing the removal of the boots. He stood and faced the men. "I don't know who the hell you think you are, but you can't prove shit."

Chaucer stepped forward as though summoned, and reared. Hitting the ground close to tallest man, she startled him so much, he raised his arms to shield his head. That motion pulled the chain from his pocket.

The deceptively calm voice of the tracker sent chills up the spins of the two submissive men. "That silver watch that was tucked in your pocket is all the proof I need. Ya got to the count of ten before I shoot ya."

The chunky man knocked off his friend's hand and got the boots off his feet and tossed them out and then stepped back and away from his stubborn friend.

Chris signaled the taller man to bring the boots and hat over to him. The man complied without hesitation. He then put himself out of harms way, by the side of the wagon.

By this time the men had drawn some spectators. The insolent man figured he had friends backing him and wouldn't give an inch.

Vin finished counting, "Seven, eight, nine, ten." Vin leveled his mare's leg at the man's heart. Larabee had also drawn his weapon on the beat of ten. "Give it up now." Vin's voice booked no argument.

"Nah, I got my friend's around me now, you won't try nothing." Well no sooner said than the men he boasted on all stepped back. He wasn't worth dying for.

Both Chris and Vin thought the man would give in now, but years of practice didn't let them put down their guard. The stupid, arrogant man thought he'd been humiliated and drew his gun to shoot Vin. The gun never cleared the holster as Chris Larabee already had drawn and shot the man through the heart. The gunslinger's weapon was back in his holster before the newly dead man hit the ground.

Vin walked over and rolled him over with his foot, spying the watch, pulled it from the dead man's pocket. He was about to turn away, when Chaucer moved over to the body and nudged it on the side, snorting. The chunky man stepped forward and whispered for Vin's ears, "He got that man's cash stashed around his belly."

Vin leaned over and removed the money belt from the man. He nodded his thanks, the chunky man felt relieved to get out of this with his life. Vin looked over at Chris and blinked his eyes as a nod. Chris watched as he mounted Chaucer, then the two men turned and headed the way they came. From the cowboys, a collective sigh was released as they rode away.

+ + + + + + +

Ezra awoke to the late afternoon sun shinning on his face. He saw Buck, feet up at the end of his bed. "Mr. Wilmington, why are you here?" The puzzlement he felt evident in his voice.

"Checking on you, keepin' ya company," Buck replied. "We've been kinda worried about you."

"Why should you worry about someone that deserved what he gets due to his lifestyle?" Ezra asked tiredly, the remembered comments still weighing on his mind, the painkiller muting his natural reticence to talk of himself.

Buck answered, a bit uncomfortable, "Well, hey...Ezra, never had the chance to apologize about thinking you started the barroom fight."

"Why apologize for something you believe, Mr. Wilmington?"

"Hell Ezra, I don't really think on you like that." Buck tried to placate the injured man.

"Don't try to con a conman! You think I deserve the problems I receive as consequences for my profession."

"That's a bit strong there, Ez," Buck said, not sure where he'd lost control of the conversation.

"Mr. Wilmington, when you thought I lay unconscious, shot by a man seeking vengeance against Mr. Larabee, you said I deserved what I received due to my dishonest lifestyle. You also fully believe that any problem in the saloon should be attributed to me. I don't believe that I am stating this too strongly." Ezra said dryly.

"Now Ezra........." Buck began, but Ezra interrupted him.

"Save it, Mr. Wilmington, for someone who cares. I'm tired." Ezra shut his eyes and was soon claimed by sleep.

Buck sat there, unmoving, a bit taken back at how Ezra saw him. He thought that he and the gambler were friends. A voice inside his head laughed at him. Friend......ha. You never give him the benefit of the doubt. You always figure he's cheating when he wins at poker. You really do figure that he stars his own fights. Buck shook his head to clear away the voice. He didn't like it.

Vin's words intruded instead, 'Hell, Buck, yer sure able to give the Kid all sorts of room to grow. Ezra is no different. .........besides, is there any one of us that didn't need a new chance or two along the way?.' Hearing the words again made him squirm. Vin had been pretty harsh, but then he remembered JD's words to him, 'you never give him a fair chance. He's changed, just like the rest of us.' Disgust had been in his voice, and Buck remembered being hurt at JD's tone.

He realized that JD had been championing the gambler for quite a while now. Buck figured the Kid had been feeling guilty at falling for 'ol Maude's scheme and how much it had really hurt Ezra. But then JD had asked to have patrols with him, same as Vin. Buck knew he had never asked why he had done that, but he had felt a little jealous that JD wanted to spend time with Ezra over him.

Buck knew he had never looked deeper at Ezra, for after all he was a gambler and conman. He knew to, that Chris didn't trust him......but then again, other than Vin, Chris usually took a long while to actually trust anybody. He also knew that Vin's words yesterday had affected Chris and that he was rethinking Ezra himself.

Buck sat quietly trying to shush up his thoughts, but they squeaked in anyway. He knew that Ezra, same as JD and Josiah had experienced some immense changes as they worked through some of the difficult situations they had been faced with. Shucks, so had Vin and Nathan, hell, even Chris didn't react the same way to stuff as he had in the past. So to be fair...his thoughts were interrupted by Ezra as he started coughing.

Buck sprang up and yelled out the door, "NATHAN." Then he hurried over to Ezra and tried to get him into a sitting position. The coughs racked his body and caused movement in his ribcage, which in turn, caused him lots of pain.

The coughing continued even as Buck held him upright and tried to keep him from moving violently. It was just as Nathan burst in the door that Ezra let out a yelp of pain before collapsing into unconsciousness.

Nathan ran his hands over the oblivious man as Buck laid him back down. "A coupla of the ribs moved and are laying atop each other. We're gonna hafta to spread him out using his shoulders and guide the ribs into place." Buck nodded his head mutely.

Nathan showed Buck where to place his hands and talked him through how to push down as he shifted the ribs into their proper place. Ezra's groans made Buck gnash his teeth together.
JD nearly knocked the door in as he entered, he was in such a rush. Buck's yell had scared him. Josiah was in right behind him. They watched as their two friends worked on the third. JD went up to Ezra's head and softly talked to him as Vin would of, hoping to lend the man some desire to fight. He watched as the healer nodded his head to Buck and Buck gently released his hold on the gambler's shoulders.

Buck gave a sigh of relief and looked into JD's worried eyes and realized his biggest problem was that he was plain jealous. It had felt like he had lost Chris to Vin and now he was losing JD to Ezra. He needed to talk with JD later.

Nathan tucked a blanket around his patient. He made some more of the pain reliever tea, then pulled up a chair to watch over Ezra in case another coughing fit should occur. Josiah volunteered to stay with Nathan and Buck left with JD to get something to eat.

Buck ate the first half of his sandwich before he said a word. JD could sense that Buck wanted to talk about something, so he just waited for Buck. Buck stared at the brown eyes of his friend and finally asked JD the question he been fretting on. "JD, how come you changed your patrols to ride with Ezra?"

JD's eyes opened wide as he looked at his friend, "It always seemed like he was odd man out. I just wanted him to feel like part of the group. Sometimes I got the feeling that Ezra felt like he was on the outside looking in. Vin noticed too, so we took turns requesting him."

Buck looked at JD, wondering when in the hell did he grow up. "Well, that's right nice of you," Buck said aloud, thoughts rushing around inside his head, 'so it didn't have nothing to do with his not wanting to be with me.' Buck was relieved.

"Buck," JD said sadly, "It didn't help none, he still left. Chris , you and Nathan have made him feel like he can't ever belong." Those puppy dog eyes made Buck feel about a foot high.

"Vin kinda mentioned that we we're pigheaded and blind. Guess I'm gonna hafta open my eyes." JD smiled at his friend, hopeful that they could get Ezra to stay.

+ + + + + + +

- Ezra woke up to Josiah's voice reading from a book of poems. Ezra didn't really concentrate on the words, just the timber of Josiah's voice, pleasant and ever changing.

Nathan noticed that Ezra was awake and spoke to him. "Hey there, Ez. Up for some soup?"

"Just thirsty, really."

Nathan helped Ezra to a more upright position, placing more pillows behind his back. He picked up the cup and held it to Ezra's lips and the gambler brought one hand up to hold the cup himself. He then nodded his thanks. He cast his eyes about, "Vin all right?" He knew Vin hadn't been around and he found himself disappointed.

Josiah cleared his throat and Ezra's eyes flew to the large man, expecting bad news. "When Vin and Chris found you, someone had stolen your hat, watch and boots. Vin and Chris are tracking them now." Josiah didn't miss the flash of fear that crossed the gamblers face. Losing all his money would make it hard for him to leave. Josiah blinked and it was gone, leaving only the neutral face in place.

"I see," Ezra hid the distress and none of it could be detected in his voice. But Ezra was so distracted Nathan was able to get him to sip a few mouthfuls of the sleeping draught.

Josiah looked at Ezra, "Vin and Chris were very determined to reclaim your possessions."

Ezra nodded, not trusting his voice a second time. Disheartened, he closed his eyes and sleep claimed him.

"He should sleep several hours. It's what he needs most. Sure hope Vin and Chris are successful." Nathan said as he covered the conman.

Josiah looked at Ezra's sleeping face as he said quietly, "So do I, my friend, so do I."

+ + + + + + +

Ezra awoke to a dark room, but knew immediately that it was Vin sitting in the chair next to the bed. "Well, Mr. Tanner, did you draw the short stick?" Ezra asked as a way of greeting.

Vin shook his head even though the occupant in the bed couldn't see it. "Nah, I wanted to be here when you woke up. Got your stuff back. Money too."

Relief spread quickly at the knowledge he wasn't trapped here anymore. "Thank you Vin." To cover his lapse into familiarity, he quickly questioned, "Do the miscreants still reside in the land of the living?"

Vin knew by the use of his first name that Ezra was truly grateful. He also knew that he was uncomfortable with that affinity. "Two are. One isn't."

Ezra raised his eyebrows, he had only said that as a distraction, "What?"

Vin was able to read the gambler's expression with the sliver of moonlight that peaked in the window. "Chris shot him, man didn't want to give up the watch."

Vin placed the watched in the gambler's palm. Ezra squeezed it tightly, grateful to have it back. It was one of the few items that he had from his past. Green eyes conveyed the deep felt thanks, and the blue signaled their understanding. Ezra closed his eyes as sleep beckoned.

The next time he woke up, the sun was streaming in through the shutters. Vin was in the same spot, chin on his chest, asleep.

Ezra looked at his.............friend. He knew that's what Vin was. It was an odd feeling, acknowledging that he had a friend. He hadn't really had one since childhood. He had begun to believe that he had found several friends, he now knew that he had been fooling himself. But this tracker and sharpshooter was an enigma. He didn't really seem to want anything......well, except his trust. Something the others weren't willing to give him.

He had thought Vin like the others, he had wanted his money to help Nettie. But he had given it back the same afternoon. Then unlike most others, he heeded his advice to help save Chris. The sharpshooter had saved his life in a timely manner several times and then eventually made a promise to be his friend.

Ezra had released him from his promise, but maybe Vin hadn't gotten that part of the message, he would have to tell him.

"Breathing any easier?" Vin startled Ezra out of his deliberation with the question.

"Yes, a bit, as long as I don't cough."

"Damm special horse you have there, Ez." Vin commented.

Ezra smiled as he thought of Chaucer, a companion that had never disappointed.

"She insisted she had to come along, and identified the thieves. Ez, she reared back and discovered where your watch was hidden. Damm fine horse." Vin smiled at the remembrance.

Ezra was bemused with the tale. He must bring her some extra special treats.

As if reading his mind, Vin added, "Gave her some special treats. "

"Thank you, Mr. Tanner." Ezra then sighed, "Mr. Tanner about your promise......"

"Forget it Ez. I made it and it don't change."

Ezra's eyes widened at how eerie Vin could be. Then began again, needing Vin to understand, "Vin, I just don't belong here. You are released, please. I must leave."

"No. Ezra, this is where you belong right now. Running away won't work this time."

Stung, Ezra came back with, "I wasn't running away. I left a letter that clearly defined why I had to go. For reasons I can not fathom, I am not the same as I entered this town. But I am unable to gain the trust needed to belong here. So I need to seek out a place I can belong." Ezra was still amazed at the pain those words continued to inflict.

"Ah hell, Ezra, this is the place. Just takes some folk longer to realize it." Vin answered as though he was privy to inside knowledge.

"Mr. Tanner, Mr. Larabee and Mr. Jackson let their opinion of me be known daily. That is not always easy to accommodate." Then in a rare moment of honesty, "It is also hurtful."

Vin didn't comment on Ezra's last statement, knowing that the gambler would soon regret such open emotion. "Ezra, we all need to get and give second chances." The meaning of Vin's words weren't lost on the conman and he took the message into his sleep.

+ + + + + + +

Nathan returned as Ezra started to cough. He slipped some warm molasses on his tongue and it quieted the coughing before it got too intense. He had Ezra drink more of the teas, letting him know he would be eating the next time he awoke.

The six peacekeepers helped where they could in the rebuilding of the town. When all the rubble had been cleared, the damage didn't seem so overwhelming. By the end of the week, the town was almost back to normal, even with a few improvements.

Ezra was up to eating soup, but had spent most of the week asleep. Nathan knew the only chance the ribs had of setting was to keep the gambler drugged.

Buck wanted a few minutes alone with the gambler. He'd been fretting most of the week and he needed to clear the air. He relieved Nathan, told him he wanted to sit a spell. Nathan headed out for some hot food.

Ezra recognized Buck's relaxed posture and remained silent. But Buck was more intune than most would give him credit for, he noticed the change in breathing and took a gamble himself. "Know you're awake, Ez."

"Indeed, Mr. Wilmington, you are correct."

"Ez, I want to get something straight.......most of the comments I made about you came from my being ...........jealous." The last word was said with embarrassment and was hard for Ezra to make out.

Curious, despite himself, he asked, "What?"

"Jealous. Ezra, jealous. JD was switching patrols so he could ride with you and I thought he liked you better."

"Highly unlikely, but I wasn't aware there was a contest."

"That's it, there isn't and JD said he can have more than one friend, but I wasn't thinking.....sorry about that..." Ezra was astounded, Buck jealous of him. "I see, well, I can understand that." Ezra wasn't sure what else to say.

"But Ezra, you were wrong on one thing. I never said you deserved to be hurt cause of your profession. When I said that I was talking to the outlaw Chris had shot for whining too much.... and he had been whining about that too. Vin and Nathan were there, they could back that up."

Ezra took a deep sigh. Then he looked up into earnest brown eyes, not youthful like JD's, eyes that had seen too much, but could still look forward to tomorrow. He took a chance on them and nodded to Buck.

Buck let out his own sigh, "Ez, did I tell you about the new waitress at the hotel? Well let me tell you......."

Ezra smiled as he fell asleep to Buck's tall tale.

+ + + + + + +

By the end of the third week, Ezra was refusing any more tea. He was tired of being asleep. He wanted to move around.

Nathan had been dreading the return of this stubborn gambler. But he knew that meant he was really on the mend. The healer conceded to let him sit outside in the sun as long as he didn't move around. "One more week, Ezra, then you can start walking around." Nathan had Vin and JD help the weakened man out front of the healer's place.

Ezra had to admit he was glad to feel the sun on his face. "Thank you, gentleman."

The week didn't go by near as slow as Ezra figured it would. He got out for a bit each day and seemed to sleep the rest of the time. He forced himself not to think on his current situation until he was healed enough to ride.

The beginning of the following week Nathan kept his word and Ezra was able to sleep in his own room and could walk about with the healer's blessing. By the end of the week, Ezra sat at his table for several poker games a day.

Saturday had an influx of cowboys in the saloon and several tried their hand at the poker table. The ruckus at the gambler's table drew all eyes. Nathan was at the table with Ezra and three other gamblers.

A large man with a mean face shouted, "You cheated. You're nothing but a cheat," and he drew his gun and pointed it straight at Ezra.

As the man's other hand moved forward to take all the cash off the table, he heard the hammer clicks of several guns. He looked to his side to see five guns pointed at him and another from one of the other players. He looked to obvious leader, "Look at him, he nothing but a cheater."

Without a moments hesitation, Larabee said, "I think not. That man don't need to cheat, and he didn't cheat you."

"Hell, that man's a gambler, of course he cheats, and I'm telling you, he cheated me."

Nathan looked over at Ezra, then back to his accuser, "The only thing that man has cheated recently is death."

Vin said in his low and dangerous voice, "You better be moving on."

Chris added, "Sooner the better."

The man began to bluster, but realized that he had lost this one. With a scowl and a dirty look, he left the saloon. Chris and Vin took the vacated seats. Ezra was surprised as he felt championed, something unexpected from Chris.

They played many hands, and ended when they could see that the gambler was obviously tired. They were the only ones left in the saloon. Ezra put his cards away as the others called out their goodnights and left.

The gambler was surprised again by Chris as he stayed behind. The man in black leaned over the table and looked Ezra in the eye, with a quiet, but emphatic voice, said, "I know ya tried to release Vin from his promise, but knowing Vin, that didn't happen. .......Ezra, I can be just as stubborn, I'm not releasing you from your promise. You stay here with us 'til were done. We started this together, we'll finish it together, all seven of us. Ya got that?"

Ezra felt that the hazel eyes were drilling into him, but he understood what the man was saying and he nodded. His green eyes registered the delight in the simple words. Chris nodded, satisfied.

Chris left silently, intent on his own thoughts. He didn't notice the tracker sitting in the dark, outside the saloon. The tracker had heard the leader's words to the gambler, and now as he stood and watched the smile that played about the gambler's lips, Vin let out a breath of contentment. This group was staying together. Just as he knew it should.


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