A Friend to Me

by Mitzi

On the surface Ezra was able to manage his calm exterior. Emotionally his conversation with Kestrel the night before had left him a wreck. He hadn't been able to sleep. His chest felt like a metal band was tightening around it. He felt strangely disassociated from his friends. If they looked closely they would see his jaw clamped down in a battle to maintain his unruffled façade. What would happen if he asked them for help? Told them what was going on? He was afraid the bitter expression Nathan cast his way supplied that answer. He had not seen Nathan join the others to keep Kestrel from pursuing him the night before. He had only seen Nathan's reaction to the revelation he had been in Elmira as a Confederate spy. He had not seen the others identify the dashing gunfighter as an instigator. He had only seen his association with Chris Larabee, that he had their leader's ear, his friendship and his trust. Those were things the quick-witted gambler knew he would never have. He wouldn't lose what he did have in Four Corners - well, soon to be the memory of what he did have in Four Corners - by playing what he knew was a losing hand.

Vin contemplated again the damage Kestrel could do with such innocent words. It had to come naturally to the man because the words came so easily. Just the right words to do so much damage. There was an undercurrent of maliciousness. Why? A part of the history he shared with Buck and Chris? The man was up to something and he was real careful not to let Chris hear the way he used amiable words to play people's emotions. Vin knew this wasn't the time to defend Buck at Kestrel's expense, but he regretted that Buck had been left alone to deal with the way Kestrel could turn a phrase.

Josiah sighed deeply. This ride from Sweetwater to Four Corners was very near becoming unbearable. He understood JD's temperament. The friction between Buck and Chris was tearing him apart.

JD deemed his hangover to be penance for the things he had said to Buck the night before. On top of it, here he was on the trail, leaving him behind. Should his loyalty lie with his best friend or his hero? Would Buck believe he had made that decision by leaving this morning? Wouldn't Buck have asked him to stay if he'd wanted his company? The answer was no. He tried to think. Had Buck ever asked for help? Oh, he accepted it when offered, but did he ever ask for help? And why was the answer no? Had Buck asked for help before and been turned down? JD looked at the back of the duster-clad gunslinger. He wished either of his friends were more forthcoming. With sudden realization, JD latched onto the notion that Buck would talk about the rowdy escapades of his past or talk to justify Chris's actions, but never talked about himself other than a vague reference to his mother or being a lawman. JD wished there were more; maybe a way to understand what was going on now or fix it.

Josiah thought he could almost read JD's thoughts and his heart went out to him. On the other hand, there was Ezra. He had no idea what the man was thinking. Since they started out this morning, he'd been a completely different person - cold, drinking, distanced - no, not a completely different person - the person they had first met. Before the Ghosts of the Confederacy had brought them together. And Nathan wasn't helping matters.

"Didn't we just take this trip yesterday?" His voice wafted to Vin behind him.

Vin understood the reference. Ezra and Nathan were distancing themselves from each other just as Buck and Chris had the day before. Only today, Buck wasn't with them and Chris had closed in on himself. "That Clay Kestrel has a talent for making innocent words do lot of damage." Josiah continued.

"Man's past should be his own." Vin's voice was unnaturally bitter. It brought Josiah's eyes around to see if he was all right. "They know each other." His eyes drifted between Ezra and Nathan, "Know they can count on each other."

"Shared backgrounds ... conflicting life experiences. It makes them sometimes think they've known each other longer than they have."

"Don't seem right, to judge a friend ... "

"Or predict how a friend will react?"

"Never judge one man by his tribe. Never trust the tribe because you trust one man."

"What are you trying to say, Vin?" Nathan asked as if he were offended by the conversation he'd ridden up on.

"Not trying to say anything. Trying to understand the why of judgin' a man by how he was in times you didn't know him instead of judgin' him by how he is in times you have known him." Vin kneed his horse forward, not willing to further comment on the question.

"Gets to the heart of a topic, don't he?" Josiah's voice was tinged with humor.

"There's a lot I can't forget, Josiah."

"Don't rightly think you're supposed to forget. Anymore than Chris is supposed to forget his family or the loss he feels."

"But?" Nathan waited.

"Is there a 'but'?" Josiah asked. He pulled out his canteen. Nathan knew he was being left to figure it out himself. But should Chris treat Buck the way he does just because he reminds him of that pain? Should Nathan treat Ezra the way he does just because he reminds him of that pain? Nathan's voice conceded he had come to just the conclusion Josiah had expected. "Damn you, Josiah."

"Too late, I suspect, Brother Nathan." Nathan took the offered canteen with a nod of appreciation for the drink, the words and his friend.

Nathan lagged back to initiate general, harmless conversation with Ezra. The con man, surprised to say the least, forced himself from his self-imposed solitude to reciprocate in kind.

Josiah glanced over his shoulder and got a quick wink from Ezra. The little shit. He'd been listening all along. Josiah sighed again. At least he'd taken heed as well.

Josiah moved up to keep company with Vin. "Think that'll work with Chris and Buck?" Vin asked, noncommittally.

"I hope so, I hope so. But there's a lot more shared regrets there, shared walls."

"A lot more to lose."

+ + + + + + +

The rest of the ride to Four Corners was spent in comfortable familiarity. They were all still aware of the rift between Chris and Buck, Chris's standoffishness and that JD would make himself sick worrying over it, but any other erosion initiated by Kestrel had been avoided. Vin was beside Chris as they rode into town. Josiah and JD followed Ezra and Nathan.

Josiah peeled off toward the Clarion. He knew a ripple went through the town anytime they rode in less than seven, less than whole. He would make a few stops - Mrs. Travis, the Mercantile, and the hotel; to explain that all was well.

Ezra had been touched by Nathan's attempt to remove the distance that their varying pasts presented and had gone into con artist mode to be cordial. He hated using his talents to conceal from the dark healer his true emotional state, but he figured the ends justified the means. It had been a hard pretense to maintain in light of what he anticipated the next few days would require of him; one he thought he couldn't maintain any longer. To that end he planned to head straight to his poker table and isolate himself from those who could possibly see through any crack in the façade. But then he saw Chris enter the hotel's restaurant.

Ezra pushed himself into the restaurant and forced himself forward toward their oppressive leader. Snippets of thought Let's get it over with and By God, I will do this sober. interfused themselves with the words he was trying to put together for this confrontation. Larabee, although he had a beer with his meal, had a bottle of Red Eye on the table nearby.

Chris rubbed his tired eyes. He was surprised to find Ezra standing over him. He made no offer for the man to sit. Finally, Ezra took a seat anyway. They sat in silence for a long time. The cunning gambler used the motion of flicking imaginary lint from his sleeve to check out the rest of the room. He saw Union blue in among the clothing of what he would otherwise have assumed to be ranch hands or drifters. Ezra took a deep breath and finally a drink. The air around the southern gambler made Larabee look at him. "Mr. Larabee, it seems a darker part of my past has caught up with me."

"You bring it on yourself?"

"As it is the victorious who will write the history books, I submit that question has yet to be answered."

"Don't bring it here."

"To that end, I must excuse myself from our small community to resolve the matter."

"It'll have to wait. Too much going on for you to leave."

"I'm afraid that's not possible."

"Men around the countryside killing innocent people and you're running out?"

"I sincerely believe I can do more good on my anticipated mission."

"Justify it how you want. You'll be running out when we need you."

The gambler rankled at the accusation. He'd heard it or sensed it from the brooding gunfighter too many times. "Other than my one indiscretion when we first met, have I ever given you cause to doubt my dedication to this vocation?"

"Standish, every time you open your mouth, every time you work a scam that dances the line between right and wrong, I expect you to cross over. Guess this time you just see it as in your best interest to finally cut and run."

"And it would surprise you that perhaps I am looking out for the best interest of our small cadre?"

"You're cuttin' out on us when we need you. Brazen enough to think you can convince me it's for the best. Am I supposed to be surprised?"

"As long as you demand the best yet expect the worst from everyone? No." Ezra passed up the shot glass to drink from the bottle and drink until he had to catch his breath. Vin walked up in time to see this, "Ezra, what ... ?"

Ezra was furious with this sanctimonious, self-imposed outcast. He needed time to think - to decide if it was worth getting himself killed to voice just how disgusted he had become. He pushed away from Tanner only to be caught in Josiah's firm grasp and forced back into the seat. "Not yet, Ezra. I want to run this past the group." Ezra struggled to stand, but was no match for Josiah's firm grip. Vin watched with a frown, trying to decipher the body language and moods around him. Chris didn't look up from his beer.

Vin noticed Nathan and JD were with Josiah and something was up. "I've had Nathan and JD with me going over the newspaper articles and teletypes that are available in regard to these various killings." The gentle giant began.

"We couldn't find a common denominator for the men who were killed, but I think Josiah found a link in their cause of death."

That got everyone's attention. "Assuming multiple bullet wounds to the chest could represent a firing squad, all of these men, 27 strangers, have met their ends in a manner associated with executions - hangings, firing squads, flogging ... " Josiah offered his theory and waited for a response.

Nathan's voice was withdrawn. "Descriptions have most of them strong men when they disappeared. That man we found was emaciated."

"Several of the men wore guns and knew how to use them. They wouldn't have been easy targets." Vin offered.

There was another silence at the table. The young gambler couldn't believe the way he was letting his current hand play out. He forced his body to stay relaxed, he shuttered his clover-green eyes . He struggled to maintain the illusion that he was interested in the conversation but had no insight beyond his fellow peacekeeper's current hypothesis. There were too many eyes, too many ears, too much at stake.

"We were assuming robbery or greed motivated the disappearances. Execution would suggest revenge." It was Chris.

"The body we found? Looks like he'd been tortured before he died." There had been a feeling at the table that had Nathan hesitant to say this. JD suddenly had to fight to breathe. Then the healer knew the source of the apprehension had been the boy. His eyes were like black onyx against a now pasty white skin.

"JD?" Nathan's tone was of concern.

JD shook his head dismissively, but the physical symptoms of fear remained. His eyes fell to hide his reaction.

"JD!" Chris this time. The tone was unmistakable. Tell me what's bothering you. Tell me now. Tell me all of it. JD could not say no to his idol. In fact his voice pled for reassurance.

"You can't let Buck stay out with those men ... "

"He'll be back tomorrow." Larabee didn't mean for it to sound so impatient.

"So you ain't gonna ask Buck to leave?" Chris was stunned. Where the hell did that come from? JD couldn't read all the emotion that flickered across the older man's face.

"JD, this is Buck's home." Vin stated when Chris didn't respond fast enough.

"It's all of our homes, son. That's what makes it home."

The damn had burst. All of the guilt the youngster had been holding in flooded forth. "It was me not thinkin' what got you and Buck at odds back at Nettie's. Then the stupid hat. Then he's all worryin' 'bout you two havin' words and I jump on him."


JD's eyes fell. "Buck ain't gonna let nothin' come between you two, Chris. When I keep causin' trouble, he'll get fed up ... and then that Kestrel said ... "

"JD." This time the tone said 'shut up and listen'. More gently, Chris continued, "Buck knows better than to listen to Kestrel."

"He's listening." JD whispered. Ezra reflected that the boy must have seen such hurt in his protector's eyes at Kestrel's words. Because that hurt was reflected through his own eyes and tone of voice. An often hidden part of the con man was on a slow boil. He had been stifled in his earlier confrontation with Larabee and it simmered as he saw how blind the man was to how he affected those around him.

"I'll just have to knock a little sense into Buck's head."

"You think that will make things better?" Ezra purred.

"Likely to make me feel a damn site better."

"May I propose that has been the problem all along? You and Mr. Wilmington are both worrying about what will make Chris Larabee feel better. When was the last time you considered Mr. Wilmington's best interest?"

"Shut up, Ezra." Vin warned for his friend's own protection.

"I can't help but wonder, Mr. Larabee, you seem to hold such great stock in loyalty; abhorrence at the thought of someone 'running out' on you. I submit that you have abandoned a soul whose loyalty the likes of which may never come your way again." Ezra had seen that Buck defended who couldn't defend themselves, even if they didn't know it. Even if it was Larabee. He even defended them from themselves. He decided his last great act of defiance would be to defend the defender. What the hell? He'd probably be dead by this time tomorrow, anyway. "Betrayal? Abandonment? Physical and emotional, Mr. Larabee? Who is the most guilty?"

"Standish, you're trying to talk about a lot of things you don't know nothin' about."

"If you refer to your and Mr. Wilmington's past, I agree. But I do have a frame of reference. I submit that every time you turn your back when you can't settle something with your gun, that is betrayal. You turned your back and walked away when Buck took up Don Pablo's sword. Did you think he didn't see? You turned your back and walked away when the Marshal would have taken our guns. You left him in jail - a butt of your joke rather than a good bye - and then to leave town? You expected to be able to stick a straight edge to his throat and still ask him to go against 8 to one odds?"

"Get the hell out."

"Concerned that I might open the eyes of your new best friend? One that hasn't yet put these observations together? To see the bastard Buck had to put up with all these years?"

Chris stood, slowly. He was ready to draw on the sanctimonious son-of-a-bitch in front of him. And Ezra had worked himself up to the point he wanted the confrontation as well. JD started to move forward. Josiah held him back. Any movement could upset this delicate balance, or he would knock some reasoning into these two himself.

Ezra felt the Union soldiers' eyes on him. In a flash he remembered what was at stake; what would happen if he got himself incapacitated or killed in this moment. Finally, Ezra stood down from his ready position. It was a slight change in body language, but made it clear that he would not finish this here, now. "As I told you, Mr. Larabee, I have other pressing obligations. They are, at present, more important than the final culmination of our escalating hostility. Perhaps we will get this opportunity again someday. Until then I defy you, Mr. Larabee, identify this thing you cannot fight with a gun, and challenge it." With a touch to his hat, he was out of the bar.

JD was in shock at what had just passed. Josiah, Nathan and Vin stared at Chris. Chris took several deep breaths to compose himself. When he spoke, it was to Josiah, "Get some teletypes out. See if your execution theory holds in the other towns. See if it gives us anything on what these men had in common they had to die for." Then he strode out the door, his duster whipped around his legs when the wind caught it. The air of indifference he used to conceal his buffeted emotions would have done Ezra proud.

Vin silently moved to the window. Where Ezra had headed toward the saloon, the spectral form of Larabee glided toward the livery. A slight nod from Josiah as he stood spoke volumes. Nathan would stay and tend to JD. Josiah would look for Ezra. Vin followed Chris.

+ + + + + + +

Chris checked Buck's dapple gray, made sure she was healed, gave her a carrot and some alfalfa for the late season cold front that threatened to come in on the gusty wind. He could tell JD had checked on her, too. And Vin.

As if on cue the stealthy tracker appeared next to him. He scratched Paladin under the chin. The mare extended her neck to encourage the action.

"How's Buck's horse?" Small talk? From Vin? Great. Just what I need.

"Fine. Good. Misses him, I think." Small talk? From me? Great. Just what I need.

"Wanna talk?"

"Don't push, Vin. Buck pushes."

"Ya ain't gonna rile me, Cowboy."

Reticent, too long fighting to be alone, he couldn't find the words. Betrayed He thought. You turned your back. Chris began to absently brush Paladin. Was I supposed to support Buck those times? He hadn't been thinking, hadn't ... hadn't done things the way I wanted them done. Well, one thing about Buck, he never let me make his decisions for him ... even about our friendship. He thought about that. Buck is my friend because we have been friends and he didn't want to give that up. When was the last time I earned that friendship? When was the last time I deserved that loyalty? From any of them? This brought his hazel eyes to Vin's.

Enough time had passed that Vin had thought there was no answer coming, but then, in a slightly amused, self-depreciating tone, his friend, murmured, "Ezra pegged me pretty good tonight."

"Ezra's seeing things through his eyes. His fears, his regrets. Don't mean everyone sees things his way. Don't mean Buck does. Don't mean I do." The silence was more comfortable now. It didn't take much for them to get back on track. "What about this Kestrel fella?" Vin continued.

"He stirs the pot for fun sometimes. Never seen anything spiteful in it."

"Buck feel the same way?"

"They butt heads some." What had Clay said? He wanted some time to set things right with Buck? Damn. To make him ride with Kestrel. But their old time friend had made it sound so sensible. It didn't help that he'd been so angry. First he wouldn't split the group of men then the next thing he knew he'd left hotheaded, barely in control Buck with Clay to transport one of the men. His anger let him make another mistake. Like all the mistakes Ezra had thrown in his face to get him boiling. "Maybe we'll head back to Sweetwater. Handle the prisoner transfer ourselves. For JD."

Vin smiled knowingly and nodded his approval. "For JD."

Vin convinced Chris to turn in. Nathan convinced JD everything would be all right and to turn in as well. Nathan, Vin and Josiah spent most of the night looking for Ezra. They never found him.

+ + + + + + +

Vin walked into the bar. He had to let his eyes adjust to the darkness that contrasted the bright morning sunlight. He recognized Chris, Josiah and Nathan at breakfast and joined them. Chris poured an extra cup of coffee at his approach. Vin didn't take it. "The prisoner's in the cell."

Chris's head snapped up to meet his best friend's eyes. What the hell happened to the telegram?

Vin let the other boot drop, "Buck's gray's gone." He tried to keep his voice nonjudgmental but there was a tremor of emotion in it. And he was glad to see a whisper of concern flicker over Chris's face.

Chris glanced up at him then back to his coffee. Without a word he pushed back from the table and left. On the street he looked to see if Paladin was tied to any of the hitching posts. Vin followed him to the boarding house and Buck's room.

Nathan stayed in his seat. In the back of his mind, he determined it would be rather silly for three grown men to follow another grown, quite capable man to look for yet a fifth highly capable man. He could wait here and get any news when they returned. Josiah had stayed, too. But the look on his face indicated a more serious thought process. "Josiah?"

"Remember how Chris was acting when he came back from his search for Ella or those bushwackers?" Nathan nodded. "Did you catch it in Sweetwater, he said he had run into Kestrel during that trip?"

"You think that man's been playing some game for that long?" The look Josiah gave him asked the question right back at him. They stood as one and followed after their friends. Something Nathan had tried to rationalize away now told him there was too much to lose and they should meet this together and fight it together.

+ + + + + + +

The door to Buck's room was partly ajar. Chris pushed it further open. JD sat on the bed. He looked lost and deserted. The dresser drawers were partially opened and empty. Molly squatted in front of JD, tried to get his attention, get him to listen, to understand. "JD, please, Buck didn't want you to be like this. He said it was best you stayed with Chris and the others. Said they could take better care of you ... "

"I don't need takin' care of!"

"No, he just meant... "

"He couldn't even say goodbye?" JD couldn't help it. It hurt. It had hurt when his mother passed, and he missed her and wondered what he had done wrong to make God so angry that he took her and he wondered if he could have done more to make things right. But his mother hadn't wanted to leave him. She had died. Buck just made the decision he didn't want to be around him anymore. And it hurt even more, because he knew what he had done and said had caused it and he could never fix it. Men weren't supposed to let people know they cared. They sure weren't supposed to show it. He knew that from reading his dime novels - and by watching his heroes. But what was he ever going to do to make this feeling, this regret go away?

Molly saw the men at the door. "Mr. Larabee?" It was a plea. She hoped he could find words to reach the boy. JD looked up and confirmed that Chris stood in the door. "He's gone." He whispered as if hoping someone would tell him it was a mistake.

Chris's eyes were black. The muscles in his jaw twitched. He turned to leave without a word or acknowledgement to anyone. There was no hostility in Vin's body as he blocked the retreat. "Ain't smart you ridin' alone, either."

Right now Chris just wanted some course of action to keep his mind busy and push back the chaotic thoughts.

"Safety in numbers, Brother." Josiah offered. Larabee looked over and Josiah nodded toward JD, devastated, on the bed. Good old Josiah, always a calming steam of thought to follow out of the rapids.

"JD, Josiah, get Ezra and get the horses ready. Nathan and I'll see if anyone knows what direction he took off in. Vin, talk to the livery boys then follow up on what they tell you.

+ + + + + + +

An hour later, Larabee and Jackson strode toward the stables. They had had no luck. Townspeople gave them a wide berth.

Gone. Just like that. Hell, driving me insane. Why do I care that he's gone? That the thought even crossed his mind brought forth more anger from the dangerous gunslinger and he directed it at himself until he saw a better outlet for his wrath leave the restaurant, "Kestrel!" He picked up his pace to enjoin the confrontation. Kestrel stopped, pushed his hat back off his forehead, smiled and waited.

"When did you get in?"

"'Bout sunrise."

Chris cursed under his breath. "I told you to wire ... "

"I don't work for you." His words echoed Buck's angry words earlier.

"Did you see Buck leave?"

"Oh, hell, yeah. He changed horses and was gone."

Vin and the others, leading their ponies, arrived as Chris grabbed the arrogant brigand by the collar of his shirt and threw him against the wall of the restaurant like kindling. "You know what kind of men are out there."

"He's a big boy, Chris. You seem to make a point of that when he's around ... "

Chris released him with a last shove. Kestrel's back met the wall with even more force than the first time. "Let him go. He ain't in no danger from those nightriders." Kestrel said. Chris registered the confidence in that statement, but didn't take time to evaluate it. Mounting horse, Chris growled. "Where's Ezra?" His horse pirouetted in response to his owner's impatience.

"Ain't found him." JD offered.

"He told you he had personal business." Kestrel stated impassively.

Chris glared at him. "How did you know that?"

"You ain't gonna find your Johnny Reb, and Buck don't want to be found. Said he'd leave if I'd stand by you; saw he'd worn out his welcome."

"What the hell's that s'posed to mean?"

JD supplied the answer, the last of the secrets he was hoping Chris could make it right. "Kestrel said Buck was the reason you couldn't forget the past and settle down. He was always there to remind you."

Chris's face froze in anger. The air crackled.

"Said Buck should get the hell out before you had to pack up and leave Four Corners because he wouldn't ... "

"Be out of this town when we get back." Larabee ordered Kestrel and was gone. JD, eager to be moving, was right behind him. Vin, Josiah and Nathan moved a little slower, staying long enough to make eye contact with Kestrel and reinforce Larabee's warning.

+ + + + + + +

Ezra sat before his campfire and drank the coffee. He hadn't fixed a meal. He knew he should. With what he was getting into, he didn't know when he'd get another chance. "Never pass up the chance to eat or use the privy." He quoted the words of Old George that first day they had dragged a young, frightened Southerner into the Prisoner of War camp. "Or get warm." Ezra thought to himself. "You should have added never pass up a chance to get warm."

"Hello the camp!" A voice sang out. Ezra tensed Oh, God, already? So soon? "Ezra, that you?"

Immediately relief flooded Ezra. Just as quickly it was replaced by apprehension for his friend. "Buck?"

The tall shadow materialized as it moved into the circle illuminated by the fire. "Damn, Ezra, you need this bonfire goin'?" Despite the campfire that was, as Buck observed, more of a bonfire, the cold continued to wrap itself around Ezra.

Without waiting for the offer, Buck took Ezra's cup, tossed the lukewarm liquid into the fire and refilled it for his own consumption. Ezra scowled good-naturedly, retrieved a second cup for himself and responded, "To what do I owe this company?"

Buck hesitated. "Got the wanderlust." There was more to it than that.

"By that are you intimating that you have chosen to leave Four Corners?" Ezra was taken by surprise and it showed.

Buck ignored the question and challenged with one of his own, "You got a good excuse being out here on your own? 'Cuz Chris'sll ...

"Mr. Larabee informed me in no uncertain terms any historical dilemmas that have reemerged from my colorful past are mine alone."

"Damn, Ezra, I'm sorry."

"On the contrary, Mr. Wilmington, I agree with him. I would not have imposed upon him or the others for assistance in this situation."

"What situation? Maybe I can help?" Buck watched the Southerner's face. It remained impassive. The silence stretched out. Did he even know how to accept help from others? Buck wondered. Oh, in a gunfight, sure, when watching each other's back was a matter of mutual self-preservation, but what about when he needed help and thought he had nothing of value to give in return? He must know the bond the seven had forged over the months showed they were there for each other. To Buck's way of thinking that's just what friendship was. They had fought through Josiah's past with his sister and Nathan's with his father. They'd been ready to go against a U.S. Marshal for that bounty on Vin ... Oh hell, what had Ezra said? 'Mr. Larabee informed me in no uncertain terms any historical dilemmas that have reemerged from my colorful past are mine alone.' Damn it, Chris, had he been trying to ask you for help and it wasn't offered? They had fought the demons that had chased the others since they had joined together. Chris had told the conman he was on his own. "Ezra, we'll help you with whatever's coming. You know that."

Ezra's face danced with orange and yellowish glows from the fire, his expression defied Buck to continue. "Whatever Chris said to you, it ain't personal." He wasn't getting through to the man across the fire from him. "Or maybe it's too personal. He's not afraid of much, but he's afraid of you because you are a friend." Ezra's face showed flagrant incredulity but the words had gotten his attention - along with a derisive laugh. Buck hurried forward to convince Ezra that Chris hadn't been withdrawing from the gambler, he had been withdrawing from himself. "He's pushin' people away because he's scared. He's gettin' attached. He really don't have it in him to go through somethin' like Sarah and Adam's death again. Or so he thinks. So when he starts to form attachments, he pushes everyone away." Buck had heard this from Chris on one drunken night when the whiskey led to words coming more freely. Buck looked sadly at Ezra. "He's gettin' ready to leave Four Corners. He's just got to convince himself ever'body there's so pissed at him they want him gone. That's to be sure he won't talk himself into comin' back."

"He must surely understand the majority would never hold such animosity against him, no matter ... "

"Don't matter what folks really think. Matters what he can convince himself they think." Buck laughed. Ezra didn't. His evaluation of Buck Wilmington took another gut wrenching shift when he acknowledged the caring it must have taken for a man like Buck, a shootist, a rounder, who believed that softer emotions should be left to the gentler sex - or at least only shared with them - to analyze his friend's pain-driven motivations. "Now I think he's seein' Ella in every shadow and thinks she'll hurt someone because of him. So it's time to move on."

"And you're leaving first influences that outcome how?"

"I'm the one who reminds him of his ghosts. I always thought I was doing the right thing, sticking it out with Chris when he got this way. Turns out it was me what reminded Chris of the past, not goin's-on in the towns we stopped at. He'd look at me and be reminded of what he'd lost. And that it could happen again. Chris always left in the past because I wouldn't."

"Did Kestrel put those ridiculous thoughts in your head?" Ezra almost shouted with sudden insight.

"I stayed to protect his back. Now he's got all of you to do it. He never had that before. Never let himself have that. This time I can leave. The others need him." Buck wasn't even talking to Ezra anymore. He was justifying his actions to himself. "Damn, why didn't I see it before?"

"Because it is not true. Mr. Kestrel's treacherous ability to convince people of such things ... "

"Maybe Josiah would say it was fate. This is the best place Chris has been in since that day. Maybe I should get Josiah to put in a thanks for me."

"Buck, did you voice any of these concerns to Kestrel?"

"Like he didn't already know."

"Clay Kestrel is a malicious, duplicitous, blackguard. When he was a guard at Elmira he had the talent to start whisper campaigns that would sever the closest ties; scar the best of comrades. We were barely able to organize because of the dissent and suspicious he constantly sowed.

The pain of leaving showed in Buck's face then. Then it was gone and Buck gave him a huge smile. But he wasn't listening to Ezra. "Hell, I'm ready to move on. The War Dog showing up to take my place may not have been a coincidence it may have been a sign."

"Indeed." Ezra murmured suspiciously. He stared at Buck, trying to think of the words to convince him to go home. "What about JD?"

"Yeah, he's gonna be pissed." Buck changed the subject. "Your turn, Pard. What's got you out here you think you have to handle on your own?"

Ezra's eyes took on the look of a deer walked upon unaware. He realized that, unlike Buck, he had been listening. He couldn't accept Buck's help. It was too dangerous. But then, again, if he didn't come back, at least one person would know he hadn't run out on them.

+ + + + + + +

It was getting too dark to track. Chris knew that. But Buck hadn't tried to hide his trail. He really thought we'd just let him ride out ... thought I'd let him ride out. Chris clamped down on the thought. Vin was slightly ahead, tracking. No, that wasn't right. It was too dark to track. He was just keeping the path Buck had set. So why didn't he fall back with the others? Kestrel. Hell with it, Vin, Clay's a good man. A good gun. Not too rowdy, not too much like me, not too innocent or too helpful or too irritating or too forgiving ... not someone you have to get close to despite yourself. Things change, Vin. And if you don't like Clay because he and Buck don't see eye to eye ... well, the man was pushin' a little too hard, but Clay was just being Clay. Chris looked around. They were moving at a good clip for the minimal light the waning moon supplied. JD seemed to be trying to keep a distance from him. Nathan and Josiah rode to either side of the boy. Good. Keep him together 'til I knock some sense into that big brother of his and drag him back where he belongs. Chris's eyes flickered around the group then he kneed his horse to catch up with Vin.

+ + + + + + +

Ezra, you can't do this to yourself. Buck sat silently in thought. He was a little shocked, a lot angered as he absorbed the story. He was vaguely aware of his friend's movement around the campsite. Nothing he needed help with, just movement. Probably to distract him from the confidence he had just entrusted to Buck.

Ezra hunched down slightly behind Buck. For what he had to do next, he needed the big man distracted. "What good do you think you can do in Tuscosa?" Buck spun around so fast that they bumped into each other. Gotcha. Perfect. Buck looked at Ezra like he had the second sight. Ezra laughed and moved over to do something with the horses. "You're heading that way. You may have decided not to watch Mr. Larabee's back for the foreseeable future, but you're still doing it, by making sure those who can, are around and free to do so."

"He watches mine. Don't doubt it."

He must. Ezra didn't voice it. That kind of loyalty can't be bought, but it can't be so one-sided as it sometimes appeared during the stay in Four Corners. Could it be guilt, not loyalty that drove Buck? No. He wouldn't believe that. God, he was getting just as starry-eyed as JD. No not guilt, but the allegiance was colored with that darker brush stroke.

"Chris would be here with you. You now that, don't you, Ezra? If you'd told him what was going on? They all would. In a minute."

"I will not have someone endanger themselves for me out of a misplaced sense of duty."

"Misplaced? Haven't you been listening to me?" Any rebuttal was cut off by the jangle of the bridle hardware as several horses surrounded the campsite.

"We're unarmed!" Ezra called to the men who were yet to show themselves.

Buck's hand slapped for his Colt. The holster was empty. He spun on Ezra who was close enough to whisper, "I have secured your weapon in your saddle bags, Mr. Wilmington. I couldn't afford to let your characteristic protectiveness win you a bullet in an altercation which, by its very nature, must have only one outcome."

"Damn it, Ezra."

The men moved into the circle of light and surrounded them. Damn is right, thought Ezra. It was suddenly even colder. That fire still wasn't warming him. Then where did the sweat come from that chilled him as it crept down his back? The men wore various remnants of Union blue. He recognized a couple who had been in the restaurant earlier. Ezra's increased heart rate echoed in his ears. He was glad there were so many of them. Now he had no choice but to go through with this. Otherwise, he didn't think he could do it.

Buck, beside him, was vibrating with anger. Damn, no one was supposed to be here. Don't do anything stupid, Buck, please, don't get hurt.

One man, with a thick red mustache and freckles, sidled his big roan closer to Ezra. The animal pranced nervously as it was forced nearer the fire. The whites of its eyes reflected the flames it watched so cautiously. "Ezra Smith, Ezra Simpson, Ezra Standish. I am Captain Thomas Dirkson, of the Union Army. You are under arrest for war crimes discharged against the United States of America during the Insurrection of the South."

"We must be fortunate, Mr. Wilmington, to be in the presence of these men with their penetrating acumen. To levy such charges after President Lincoln saw fit to forgo the condemnation of war crimes in his attempt to facilitate the healing of the nation."

"Lincoln tweren't at Andersonville!" The closest man growled as he kneed the horse closer to Ezra.

Buck suddenly kicked at the campfire flames. Sparks and embers skittered across the ground and flared into the night sky. The man's horse reared in terror. Buck bowled Ezra out of the way of the pawing hooves then pulled on his collar to get him to his feet. "Run!" He demanded. Buck made a dash for his saddlebags. The other men leapt from their horses, cut him off and surrounded them. Buck fought like a panther. Ezra defended himself and Buck's back. Briefly the idea of besting the five to one odds entered Ezra's mind. That was not supposed to happen, he smiled, but with Wilmington, like the others he had thrown in with you could never tell ... the thought broke off as out of the darkness, one of the men dove, hit him below the knees and tackled him to the ground. Ezra barely missed landing in the fire as he wrestled his attacker.

Buck had two men in head locks; kicked another in the gut when he tried to move in. A third man came out of the darkness. As Buck spun to deflect this attack, the man rammed a knife into the darker protector's back. Buck's own momentum kept him moving and the blade slashed a deep gash across his lower back. Ezra saw this and fought to get out from under the men who penned him down. A much larger man grabbed hands full of the gambler's hair and banged his head against the ground. Lights flashed behind his eyes. Ezra continued to fight for leverage against the man on top of him when the best he should hope for was to remain conscious. He renewed his efforts when he realized that Buck was still on his feet and fighting out of sheer determination. Then he saw the rifle butt rammed against Buck's skull. Ezra cringed at the impact; the way Buck fell immediately and without a sound. And then there was the blood. Ezra struggled to get to his fallen friend. It brought more fierce blows to his body until, "Cut it out, Michaels," a voice ordered. "They want this one alive for sure." Ezra sensed the pummeling stop. Several hands held him tightly. A man leveled his gun at Buck.

"No!" Ezra demanded. "He's not guilty. He fought for the Union!"

"Sympathizer" The growl was accusatory.

"He was trying to help a friend, not a Confederate soldier. He didn't know." Ezra lied quickly, smoothly. Small words. He couldn't take the chance of being misunderstood. The man hesitated but still leaned toward getting rid of a loose end. Move, Buck, please, let me know you're alive "He's one of the shootists from Four Corners. Friend - good friend of Chris Larabee. You've heard of him. You've heard of their tracker." Ezra never stopped speaking, babbling almost, as he was dragged to his feet and his hands tied roughly behind him. He vaguely registered the pain from bruised muscles and ribs. He pushed that to the background as he fought for words to save his friend. "Do you want those men tracking you? What will that do to your plans? They don't stop." Now he was roughly thrown on his unsaddled gelding. He kept his diatribe flowing. Any words that might save his friend. "What would your Commandant say if you bring those kind of men down on your holy crusade?" Damn. Damn. Damn. The sarcasm slipped in. The man raised an angry eye at him. He was going to shoot Buck now in retribution. Ezra closed his eyes. What have I done?

Suddenly another soldier broke through the night. "Rider's comin'. We leave now, we'll have a 30 minute lead."

"If he's alive, they'll stop to tend to him." Ezra offered as an appeal. "You don't know those men. Daylight or dark, you'll need every minute to lose them." Ezra held his breath. The man pulled back and issued a vicious kick to Buck's injured side before he gave the order, "Let's ride." Ezra noticed Buck didn't move when he was attacked. Please be well, my friend He thought to himself as he was led out of the circle of light surrounded by hate-driven extremists.


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