A Friend to Me

by Mitzi

Late in the evening when Vin reluctantly left to answer nature's call, Kestrel staggered over and dragged Buck back to Chris's table. Buck nonchalantly tipped Ezra's hat forward over his brow in passing. It was a playful act that, surprisingly, left a strange feeling of kinship working its way from inside the gambler out. It was a gesture of friendship, of acknowledgement, of presence. Something he would do to JD. Ezra would concede, and only to himself, that it brought an unfamiliar hint of warmth to his soul, for Buck to include him in the family with that single prankish gesture.

Ezra watched Kestrel escort Buck to the back table. He hadn't missed the fact that the tales the elegant gunman wove had been a double-edged sword. He wasn't the only one. He had definitely caught the jaundiced eye the ever-observant tracker had kept on the well-dressed instigator. Instigator? Ezra was surprised how easily that title applied itself to the enigmatic rogue.

Ezra wondered if it were a coincidence Kestrel waited until there were no witnesses before he got Buck and Chris together in their condition and after the stories he had told this night. He didn't have to wait long "Why don't you just do the thinkin' for both of us, Pard? Seems that's the only way to keep you from getting' outta sorts nowadays." Buck said it lightly, with a smile, slumped back in his chair and drank some of his beer and whiskey chaser. He masked his body language and facial expression, but couldn't conceal the tension, the loudness, in his voice that enabled Ezra to hear the escalating argument. It was no damn coincidence at all. Ezra didn't like the man.

"Good idea." Chris drawled. "Me and the boys're ridin' out come morning. It'll take a couple of days for Sheriff Turner to send out his telegrams. And the guy we brought in could rest a day before he travels. You stay here 'til then. Kestrel'll be through with his business and can help you escort the prisoner to Four Corners."

Vin had returned to this conversation. He noted a smug look of amusement on Kestrel's face. Josiah and Nathan had turned to be ready to referee if necessary and JD stood nervously behind Buck. Ezra, another conditioned response, stayed at his table and refused to acknowledge that the tension among his friends effected him. Disgust was plainly written on Buck's face, "Hell, Chris, that's a low blow. I ain't' ... "

"It's an order, Buck, do it or --"

"You don't order me." He interrupted bitterly. "You ask me, as a friend. You tell me it's how things need to be. I work with you because I want to. I don't work for you." The tension previously only in his voice rippled up Buck's body and hardened his features, his blue eyes were suddenly black.

"Take it how you want. Just do it."

"Chris... "

"Stay out of it, Preacher." Josiah raised his hands in surrender. Chris continued, "And I don't need any of those 'holier than thou' looks from you. If you've got something to say, say it."

Buck laughed. "Aw, hell, Chris, you're gonna have to do better than that to push Ol' Josiah away. Can't ya at least attack him personally?" Chris and Buck's eyes met in silent, venomous confrontation. Whoa Ezra thought to himself with a start. What was that? Quicker than lightning a look had passed between the two old friends. That had been a reference to something old and scabbed over but not healed; something only Buck and Chris shared ... except ...Kestrel was enjoying this. Vin threw a look over at Ezra that was almost an appeal. He had seen it, too. The man was manipulative and malicious. Chris and Buck didn't play that way; didn't know when they were being played. Without a word Ezra folded his hand and moved to the back table. He already knew he would be too late.

"Mr. Larabee," Ezra tried to maneuver himself between the two volatile gunmen. Chris shoved him back and, never raising his voice, he left his table to confront Buck face to face. "No one asked you to put up with shit. In fact, I've asked you not to. How many times do I have to ask you to get the hell out?"

Buck recognized the stage. There were levels of intoxication - handsome, witty, bulletproof and invisible. But for Larabee, between bulletproof and invisible, there came mean-drunk. JD moved forward, "Chris, you don't mean that... "

"And you, you little runt ... "

"Chris, don't."

"Haven't you seen enough to know you don't belong here?"

JD faltered as if he'd been hit. Then a form blocked his view. Buck was almost chest to chest with Larabee. "It's the whisky talkin', Son." His voice pleaded with JD to believe him. Buck leaned over and hissed only for Chris's ear. "I know you feel yourself gettin' attached, setting down roots. You think you're forgettin' Sarah and Adam's faces. You ain't. You can have both. Don't run this time, Chris. Don't push these men away. You're in a good place here. You don't want to leave. I don't want to leave."

The others watched. They couldn't hear what Buck said, so they waited. Larabee swayed, listened, then his face reddened, warped with hostility and he swung. Buck staggered back with the impact of the punch, but it wasn't enough to drop him.

Buck watched his dear friend reel backwards and support himself on the table. "Go to hell! Get the hell out. Get out!"

"Chris ... " Vin tempered.

But the damage was done. "I can show you how that's done." Buck's voice was ominously void of emotion. There was defeat on Buck's face; more the trying to hide it than showing it. His watery blue eyes found a spot on the sawdust covered floor and froze there as his head sort of nodded a couple of times, his hands came up in surrender, and he backed up several steps. JD tried to comfort this man, the one he had chosen to help him find his path in the ways of the West. Buck brushed him aside as if he wasn't even aware of him. The lanky gunfighter turned to the batwing doors as if to leave. Instead, he stalked back inside, grabbed another bottle and one of the working girls with a yelp and moved to a far table. "Damn it, Buck, why can't you just leave it?" Chris muttered to himself.

"Chris... "

"Stay out of this, Boy." Kestrel's voice was threatening as he addressed Vin. "It don't concern you."

"You sure about that, Brother?" Josiah's hushed tones were more powerful than the earlier shouts; more threatening than Kestrel could hope to be. His barely perceptible nod toward JD was for Chris's benefit. JD was watching a dream fray at the edges. There was silence within the group. The few of the bar's clientele who had been drawn to the altercation had lost interest when no guns were drawn.

Finally, just as JD started to move toward Buck, Vin broke the silence, "Did you see that bird today, JD?"

JD didn't understand the why of the question. He looked confused. He thought Vin might be trying to distract him. "A dove, wasn't it, Mr. Tanner?" Ezra volunteered.

"I thought it had a broken wing." JD finally observed, "The way if flopped around. But then it took right off."

"She was comin' off her nest. Momma dove'll put up a big to-do to make herself look like an easy target to lead danger away from the nest - to protect those under her care from what could hurt them." Vin was looking Chris directly in the eye now, and by force of will denied the dark gunslinger the option of looking away.

"So that's when she flew off? When we were far enough from the nest?" JD was curious now, learning something new from one of his heroes.

"Sometimes, I would think," Ezra spoke up, seeing the analogy, "she miscalculates and is herself destroyed by the predator that threatened her family." His eyes slid to Buck.

Chris finally tore his eyes from Vin, and followed Ezra's gaze. Then he threw each of them a paralyzing glare and stalk over to his enshrouded back table. By the time they were able to move again, it was clear none of them would be welcome there. JD had a confused, 'what just happened here?', look on his face. Josiah steered him to the table he shared with Nathan. Vin accompanied them. Clay was left alone. Ezra studied the man. His guileful ability to manipulate people seemed even more familiar than his face. Ezra almost had it.

+ + + + + + +

Buck avoided all eye contact with his friends as he ushered his latest ladylove toward the exit and the darkness beyond. He had a bottle in one hand, her waist in his other and was focusing on how her hair smelled like lilacs to the exclusion of any other thoughts. One of the ways in which he was like Ezra was that he, too, had his own set of conditioned responses.

JD watched Buck leave. He peeked at Chris who ignored his old friend and drank even harder. Nathan, Josiah, Vin and Ezra seemed to think it wasn't their place to see about the seventh member of their party. To hell with that. The youngest member thought defiantly, and bounded after his mentor before the others could stop him.

Buck and the auburn-haired vixen he'd chosen for the night staggered down the middle of the street. Buck whispered words to her and she smiled sweetly. This man's words didn't require the ribald laughter that most men interpreted as arousal. His smile took her away to more innocent times.

"Buck! Buck, wait up." She saw his face scrunch up in a grimace, but he turned back to the boy that was running up to them. "Are you all right?" The dark-haired youth asked. The fiery beauty on the tall rascal's arm reflected that it would almost be amusing, this naïve child questioning the hardened gunslinger, except that the concern was so genuine, and by the look on the older man's face, so appreciated.

"I will be, Kid, soon as Miss Hannah and I can get some time to ourselves."

"You need to go back in and get things straight with Chris."

"Ain't that easy."

"Just tell him you were thinkin' about him - worried."

"That's not ... "

"That's what you'd do with me."

"That's different."

"Why? Because I'd fall for it and Chris knows better?"

"What the hell does that mean?" Buck was trying to sober up now. Why was the boy so upset? "What the hell's eatin' you, Kid?"

"Don't fight my battles for me. Not if it puts you at odds with Chris."

"Things change, Kid." Damn did he say that out loud?

"Not if you two will start acting like adults and talk out your differences. He's your friend."

"You're my friend, JD."

"I won't let you make me the reason you two can't get along."

"I wouldn't do that. But it's stuff you need to stay out of the way of."

"Why? Because I can't think for myself? Decide who's right and who's wrong? That sounds like something Chris would say to you. Maybe you deserve it, but I don't."

Hannah suddenly felt the entire makeup of the man beside her shift. He leaned on her heavily and stared at the young man in front of them. "I don't need this shit from you just now, Kid." He didn't mean to sound as harsh as he did.

"You sayin' Chris is right ...?"

"... Ain't he always? Far as you're concerned?"

"Maybe we do need some distance." JD, devastated, thought his best friend was pushing him away. Buck heard Chris's rejection in his youngest partner's every word. And in Buck's mind he finally gave up trying, and became what he heard them accuse him of being. Buck turned and held on to his lady. She couldn't get that close, she couldn't hurt him this way. He held her as if she were an anchor; that otherwise he would be washed away.

Hannah watched the handsome cowboy beside her close his eyes; drained. She couldn't make out exactly what he said, but it was something like, "God, JD, you could turn out just like him if I'm not careful. You sound so like him ... " The courtesan decided the words weren't meant for her and weren't healthy for this man she was beginning to like more than her role called for. She kissed him gently to shut off the words. He immediately sought comfort in her arms and her lips. Hannah let Buck pull her hair on top of her head and kiss her neck as she glanced at the clueless boy-child with a mixture of contempt and sympathy.

JD watched Buck turn away from him and his fears; ignore the fact that he was waiting patiently for the overprotective big brother he loved so much to put an arm around his shoulder, or grapple him by the neck, or throw his hat to the ground ... to tell him everything was going to be okay.

When it didn't happen, a dejected young man made his way back to the noise of the saloon. He didn't know what else to do.

+ + + + + + +

Ezra had forsaken the temptations of the poker tables for the rest of the night to sit with Vin, Josiah and Nathan and watch things progress. "Chris and Buck have been at odds for days. Since before Nettie's. I didn't even see it comin'." Nathan confided.

"I suspect, neither did they."

"It's probably a cycle of their friendship none of us have been privy to before." Josiah offered.

"Which leads me to believe I may have been wise to avoid such entanglements in the past."

"Buck ridin' hell bent for leather after those two today didn't help smooth things over."

"Thinking back on it, we would have all ridden into a potentially deadly ambush if Buck hadn't given us time to see that those men reacted as if they had the upper hand."

"Unfortunately, that serendipitous outcome does not annul Buck's negligent recklessness... " Ezra mused, not looking up from the cards he manipulated in his hands.

"Buck's wound too tight. They both are. But Buck's comes out so ... so ... "


"And breakin' cover today ... "

"Damn, Chris was mad."

"I believe Mr. Larabee was afraid for Mr. Wilmington. Our Mr. Larabee is uncomfortable with the gentler and more vulnerable emotions. They all come out as anger."

Josiah blinked owlishly at Ezra's insight. "I'll take that as coming from the expert." He smiled. Ezra was able to hold his poker face long enough to raise a sardonic eyebrow at the preacher. Then he used the excuse of concentrating on his card shuffling to look away.

Vin was surprised when he saw Clay dared migrate in their direction. "This Kestrel guy doesn't seem to be making things any better." He reflected. Ezra raised his eyes to take in the saloon and watch suspiciously as Kestrel walked up to the table. Josiah filled Nathan's shot glass with whiskey, dropped it to the bottom of his beer mug and chugged the resulting concoction.

"You're not welcome, here." Vin stated matter-of-factly.

Kestrel ignored him and turned to Ezra. "Haven't figured out where you know me from, yet, have you. E.Z?"

Ezra choked on his brandy. His chair scraped loudly as it ground across the floor and away from the table. He was almost to his feet when he regained some control. Too late, he tried to make the move look as natural, as relaxed, as possible and covered it by a trip to the bar for another bottle. It apparently didn't influence him that the bottle already there was almost full. Josiah watched the trip; watched the body language he had become used to evaluating as their only way to judge Ezra. Nathan didn't consider the body language. He wanted straight forward. He didn't like it when he had to read people. He had to read Ezra. He had to read Chris. Lately he'd realized he had to read Buck. He was tired of it.

Vin stood up and faced Clay Kestrel. He wasn't nearly as tall or as big as the man, but readily defied the slick drifter to start something. He might be smaller, he might allow himself a more temperate disposition around these men who had earned his trust and respect, but he had hunted men, faced them down and killed to protect what needed protecting. Vin was beginning to believe they all needed protecting from Clay Kestrel. "I said get the hell away from us." Clay laughed as if he found such protectiveness amusing and wandered off a couple of feet to lean against the bar.

Ezra took full advantage of his trip to the bar. By the time he returned, no one could prove there had been anything to his earlier reaction. He didn't speak. He continued to drink. He wouldn't look over toward Kestrel. But he wouldn't meet the eyes of his friends, either. Kestrel watched and waited. He knew what was coming. He knew how to read men. "Easy?" Nathan observed with a touch of humor, trying to make conversation. "I'd have to be told how you came by a nickname like that."

A cloud of memory that had wafted across Ezra's face began to build like thunderheads. He took another shot. "It was at Elmira." He ignored JD who slammed back into the bar after his confrontation with Buck and stormed over to his friends' table.

Vin, Nathan and Josiah gasped. JD was brought up short as he tried to scrounge his memory for the name. Then his eyes widened as he had it. Elmira - a Union Andersonville. After the prisoner exchanges of the Civil War were halted, the facilities became vastly inadequate. The structures at this particular Prisoner of War camp were meant to support only ½ of its 10,000 prisoners. The rest were forced to try to survive in tents. It was winter. New York. The death rate averaged 5% per month. Most of the prisoners were sick. One tenth of the prisoners had no blankets. The food, when available, was usually spoiled.

"It was a short incarceration," Ezra muttered, as if to minimize what he'd been through.

"Only enlisted men were held there, Ezra. I don't see you as a ... "

"It was after the 'Cartels of Exchange' ended, Mr. Jackson. The choice between being hanged as an alleged spy or being transported to New York as a drone was not a difficult one." At the time. Josiah heard the rest of the statement even if it wasn't out loud. If he had known the truth did Ezra truly believe he might have chosen the rope? Josiah bowed his head.

"Ol' E.Z. got attached to a lad ... " Kestrel laughed from the bar. "Wasn't really much difference in their ages, really, but E.Z. acted older."

Ezra froze. "Kestrel ... " Josiah whispered the name as a threat. Kestrel ignored him.

"Where was he from? Must've been interior Georgia. Wasn't learned. Didn't know his letters. And sick ... the boy couldn't get off that scraggly blanket you scrounged for 'm."

"Mr. Kestrel!" It was as close to a plea as could come from Ezra.

"They're your friends, E.Z." Kestrel seemed to enjoy his discomfort. Josiah regretted later that he didn't tell the man to stop, but thought at the time they should hear; should get this insight into the gambler's former life; and to show him that they were still his friends no matter what. "E.Z. started teachin' the boy letters. He'd use his finger to write them in the dirt beside the blanket."

Ezra's finger, of its own accord, was making motions on the table top. "Finally, Ezra wrote out his own name." Kestrel laughed. "Told the boy to sound it out. Figure out the word. Well, his drawl was so bad, he read it as E.Z.R.-h. Get it? Easier? EZRa. Easierah ... Hell, I can't even say it the way the Rebs do. Say it, E.Z."

"It was a distraction for the ailin' youth, as well as myself." Ezra tried to rationalize the act of kindness.

"So Ezra became EZRah then E.Z."

"Did he learn to read?" JD asked.

"He died." Ezra stated without emotion.

"I thought sometimes the ones who died were the lucky ones." Kestrel volunteered.

"Ezra, you ... " JD sounded as if he wanted to apologize for something.

"You were also a prisoner there, Mr. Kestrel?" Nathan asked.

He ignored the question, reliving the times in his mind. "E.Z. learned, though, oh, he was a quick learner. Saw that the guards ignored the ones who were sick or acted ignorant. He started acting just like that uneducated loser." He saw the look in Nathan's eye. He had taken advantage of a dying boy? "And it worked. Didn't pay much attention to him. Not enough. E.Z. led an escape. Thirty-seven men made it out before the others were stopped. Twenty-five men made it clear. They were only able to retake and hang three of 'em. How many Union soldiers died in that breakout?" For the first time there was a hint of festering anger in his voice. But then it was gone. "And afterwards? Trying to round you up? That ol' colonel? You scarred him for life. He hated you, E.Z. Reckon he still does?" Kestrel looked him in the eye again. A smoldering something the usually perceptive gambler couldn't or didn't want to identify was there, just below the surface.

"How do you know all that, Mr. Kestrel?" Josiah repeated the question in a tone that demanded an answer. Kestrel didn't reply but had that enigmatic smirk on his face.

"He was one of the guards at Elmira." Ezra answered in a cowed voice. "Gentlemen, if you'll excuse me?" Ezra stepped drunkenly out of the bar. When Kestrel made to follow him, both Vin and Josiah blocked the path.

"No hard feelings, E.Z." The self-styled adventurer called to the retreating back. JD and Nathan stared at Kestrel. There was shocked silence. Everyone knew the atrocities and hardships inflicted on prisoners. How could this man so callously reminisce about those times?

"Kestrel, I don't know what business you got in Four Corners, I don't know what history you got with Chris and Buck in spite of all your talk and stories, but I know that business better never start the kind of grief I seen you dishin' out tonight. Do you understand?" Vin moved closer to Kestrel with each word. The bounty hunter, the taker of lives, the damaged soul raised by his tribe only to have them murdered, stood before this man. There was no hint of the gentle spirit that had emerged since his stay in Four Corners.

Kestrel looked from Josiah to Vin to finally Nathan. Even the healer seemed to agree with the ultimatum. The boy, he's just grateful some of these so-called "Magnificent Seven" are finally standing up for each other. Kestrel never let the disgust reach his face. He laughed and walked back to the bar.

Josiah watched Clay Kestrel dribble whiskey down the front of one of the working girl's neck then lick it off her chest and cleavage. All night the man's words, on the surface, had been good-natured, his carriage affable. So why was Chris drowning himself in self-blame faster than the whiskey he was consuming? Why had Buck disappeared to lick his wounds and Ezra tried once again to outrun his past? Why did they think they had to fight their demons without the support of the others? Did they think they could? He sighed as he turned his winter-ice eyes first to Nathan then to JD. Nathan was staring unseeingly into the amber liquid of his glass. JD was trying to deaden his emotions in the drink as his hero did. They were fighting demons, too. How had Kestrel done it without saying a single inflammatory word that they could call him on?

Well, Buck and Ezra were out of his sphere of influence for the night. Vin would see to Chris. The best way to distract Nathan from his ghosts was give him someone to worry about.

With a whispered word of concern, Josiah had Nathan's help to steer a drunken, frightened, depressed JD toward the boarding house. He fought and argued with the larger men as much as his size and condition would allow. "Gotta find Buck, tell him I'm sorry ... I said ... he said I sounded like Chris."

"You can talk to Buck in the morning, Son."

"I don't want to sound like Chris when I talk to Buck. Okay, Josiah?" He passed out and would have fallen if not for the brotherly arms that supported him.

Vin and Josiah exchanged poignant smiles as they each turned to their separate charges. Vin knew sleep would be a long time coming for him tonight, just as he knew Josiah and Nathan would have a restful sleep. The two had some kind of inner peace. They could sleep because they knew they would need that sleep later; that fretting over things didn't make them go away. Vin used to be that way, he mused; before he had so much to lose. He knew how important their friends and the like in Four Corners were to the other two, but somehow they could still attain a dreamless rest. It was the kind of rest Vin used to associate with not having any commitments such as friends, brothers, responsibility. He was aware when that brigand Kestrel left for the night, and sighed with relief. Lost in his thoughts, not sharing a table with Chris, but watching over him, he didn't realize how much time had passed.

But then, in the wee hours of the morning, there was Buck. They alone shared the bar with Chris. And they sat at the far end from him allowing the man in black his solitude. The bartender was gone. He'd left his key and the responsibility of locking up with Buck, not willing to be the one to tell Chris Larabee he needed to leave. He knew the man's reputation.


"Don't wanna talk, Vin."

Vin tried to get the sinewy ladies' man out of his beer mug, "We need to get him up to his room"

"Be my guest."

"What's that mean? He's your friend. What's going on the you two?"

Vin misinterpreted Buck's sardonic laugh. He shoved his chair back rougher than necessary and started to rise. A vise like grip on his wrist stopped him and redirected his attention. He looked down, ready to jerk away. But something in those eyes stopped him. Buck's face showed a tiredness, some kind of resignation, but the eyes, - the eyes still cared. The contradictions gave him pause.

"Not yet" Buck offered.

"He's had a full bottle."

"The memories? The mood, the whiskey, they swirl around different every time. Sometimes half a bottle puts him under, this time, the full effects of that one're gonna have to hit him before ... "

"Before what? He's passed out sitting up."

"You go over there now, Pard, he'll punch you out. I know you think Larabee'd never hit ya, but he'll drop you to the floor." It was not a threat, not an accusation, but emotionless words wrapped around an unwanted memory.

Vin took a step toward his friend's table. Buck made no second move to stop him. But he stopped himself. Buck was so sure of his words. It had been Buck who didn't think Chris would hit him that day so long ago, hadn't it? Vin walked back and sat beside the lanky gunman. The chance he didn't want to take was that Larabee didn't hit him and Buck would have to again question his friendship with the man in black.

"What's goin' on, Buck?"

"Like he said, a few days here ... a little distance between us ... Sometimes you have to ... I will save this friendship."

"By separatin'?" Vin pushed.

"It's worked before. I thought."

"There are others to consider this time."

"Maybe I am."

"Buck ... I don't like you ridin' with this Kestrel character. Give me your take on him. You're history ... "

He was interrupted, "Vin." Vin focused his attention back to Buck who lifted his chin in the direction of Chris's table. Vin followed his gaze. "See how his chin's down to his chest?" Vin nodded. "Now watch. See? His head moves up ever so - like a fishing cork bobbin' in a creek."

I'll be damned. Vin thought. You'd have to be looking to see it. He hadn't even been able to tell Buck was watching their despondent friend. "He's tryin' to get himself together enough to get up. Now, go. He'll let you help him get home."


Buck drained his shot glass and walked toward the back of the saloon. "I've got to start locking up." Several different emotions swirled around as Vin steered Chris out of his chair and out the doors. And questions. What was the friction between Chris and Buck this time? Why did it feel different than the other times?

Buck, grateful for Vin's calming influence on Chris, made sure the Texan could handle their friend before he locked up the bar and headed to the boarding house himself. Neither of them noticed Ezra in the darkness as the street fires had dwindled.

The Southern gentleman watched the others turn in for the night. He contemplated the reddish glowing embers of his cigar. What a group he'd thrown his lot with. So strong and yet so vulnerable.

"E.Z." Ezra spun at the name and the voice. He wanted so badly to shoot this man. Kestrel stood there with three others. These men wore shreds of Confederate gray.

Kestrel put his hands up in a position of surrender. "We need to talk."

"You need to go to hell."

"Why didn't you tell Larabee I had been a guard at Elmira?"

"I didn't recognize you at first. By the time you identified yourself, it was already clear you were a close confidant to our illustrious leader. I personally believe, sir, that you should be skinned with a potato peeler, covered with honey and buried in a red ant mound. I'm afraid that my alliance with Mr. Larabee is not one that could endure such a disparity in our points of view."

"What are you doing running with the likes of Larabee?"

"I have yet to examine all the facets of that question myself."

"I've got a job for you."

Ezra stared dumbfounded and not caring that the emotion showed. Then he laughed uproarishly. "What would I, what could I, possibly do for you? And why?"

"It's not just for me. It's for a lot of people. And it will get me out of Four Corners and away from your friends all the faster." Ezra remembered the man now, in detail. Did he look that much different, or had Ezra just blocked that out of his mind? Kestrel had been notorious for vicious whisper campaigns at Elmira. He could make enemies out of the best comrades-in-arms. With just a slight, well-placed word he could breed mistrust like maggots where no mistrust should have been. This gave Ezra knew insight into the problems between Chris and Buck. Friction had already been there. Kestrel could fan it into hatred if he tried. Would he? Could Ezra take that chance?

Ezra thought back to the events of the day, how Clay Kestrel seemed able to take a precarious situation between two old time friends and send it spiraling into a calamitous freefall. He had done it to amuse himself. Now, suddenly, Ezra realized he might have also done it to show him how much damage could be done. "What do you want?"

+ + + + + + +

Larabee grimaced as the morning sun crept through the window. He didn't remember getting here, but he knew the routine. He raised his head enough to check out the room. Nope. No Buck. At least that meant he hadn't been so far gone his old friend had feared alcohol poisoning. He had been safe to leave alone the night before. Unfortunately that left him functional enough to recall fragments of memories as well.

He groaned softly as the recollections came back. Not only did he tell Buck he would ride with only one partner to transport a member of this deadly gang, he had said that partner would be Clay Kestrel. Damn. Granted Kestrel said he wanted to make the trip with Buck - to mend fences - but to even consider it had to be alcohol induced reasoning.

Larabee buried his face in his pillow. He would splurge, sleep in. He would leave JD and maybe Josiah to ride along on the prisoner escort. JD would be a boost to Buck's ego. And Josiah wouldn't put up with Kestrel's guff. That way Chris's act of contrition wouldn't be so obvious. That wasn't their way.

Nathan waved Larabee over as soon as he walked through the restaurant doors. Vin was already on coffee. He evaluated Chris's condition, but not obviously so. JD picked at the food on his plate. Chris motioned that coffee was all he needed for breakfast "'Mornings" were exchanged.

"JD" Chris drew the boy's attention as he sipped the morning brew, "Round up Ezra and Buck after you finish - "

"Buck's already left." JD was subdued, almost frightened as if Larabee would blame him for the absence.

Larabee demanded he continue with a look "Sheriff wanted to see the spot we were ambushed. Figured since he was stayin', he'd show 'em. Was gone before anyone but Vin was up." Nathan filled in.

Larabee was silent for a moment. Then he addressed the preacher. "I thought you and JD might hang back. Ride with Buck ... "

"Not such a good idea, Vato." Kestrel purred as he joined them, swung a chair around and straddled it. "Don't think our boy'd take it right, any hint you didn't think he was up to the job you gave him." The man's jet-black hair hung down around his shoulders. He stared into space as if offering an opinion; acting on it or not fell to Chris's judgment.

"It's too risky, you two alone when you know that man's gang is ... "

"I'll wire you when we leave. Get a couple of deputies to escort us. You can meet us half way and take over from there. You got a town to protect same as Turner does." Chris rubbed his eyes. It made sense. Minimize everyone's numbers for the shortest time possible. He visually conferred with the others. They didn't like the idea, but they were learning the damnable thing about Clay Kestrel. Everything he said was so undeniably logical.

+ + + + + + +

Josiah sat back in the saddle and let the crisp morning air chase the last sleepiness from his body. Nathan tied his saddle bags, then joined him. Josiah's face broke into a wide grin. Ezra actually carried a tin cup of coffee with him on the horse. The smile faltered some when he watched the Southern gambler dollop brandy from his flask into the morning elixir. Ezra, surly in these hours on a good day, seemed to take being in the saddle this morning as a personal affront. His mood rivaled Larabee's who hid any effects of the previous night behind a caustic wall of silence.

Kestrel watched them ride out of the town. He rolled a cigarette impassively, putting it to his lips and lighting it as Larabee led his pack to the outskirts of town. Turning back to the alley behind him, he faced the men concealed in the early morning shadows. The same men who had been with him when he confronted Ezra, they had little in common except the subtle remnants of military attire about their clothing and a worn, determined countenance. "They'll head directly back to Four Corners. Don't follow them. That tracker'd feel you behind them like a deer senses wolves."

"You're goin' to meet with ... "

"Oh, yeah, he finds out I'm about to hand him Ezra Simpson, he'll be too distracted to think about anything else."

"We want this over, Kestrel." Bonner, the grizzled, oldest of the three men stated flatly.

"I do, too. But everything falling together like it did in Four Corners? It's a sign. A reward for your suffering."

"We don't want more people dying than have to." A reticent, sensitive second soldier volunteered. The boy's floppy, sweat stained hat couldn't contain his fine, wild, stringy blond hair. The gusty wind blew an errant strand into his mouth. He pulled it out as he watched the imposing figure before him.

"Darby, how many people have already died? How many people are we saving? Let's take just a little time - a few days. To think of ourselves."

Carson, the leader of the three, knew Kestrel used that indulgent, patient tone with the boy to endear himself to the others. So be it. It just meant he knew where he stood with Carson and his men.

Darby's glance deferred this decision to Carson who responded, "We can't do anything until you sell Simpson out, anyway." Kestrel refused to rise to the bait. He tipped his hat and, leaving them in the darkness of the alley, stepped into the sunlight.


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