The heat wave, which had held the dusty little hamlet of Four Corners in its unrelenting grasp for the past two weeks, showed no sign of releasing its smothering hold.

 

Unable to sleep, wearing only his trousers, Ezra Standish sat on the saloon roof. The tiles still held the day's heat and were warm beneath his bare feet as he stared at the night sky, reveling in the slight intermittent puffs of breeze.

 

Only a few small fires burned, lighting the dark street beneath him, the flickering flames causing shadows to dance eerily on the closest buildings.

 

'All it takes is friends.' Wasn't that what Chris had said? The innocent statement continued to dominate his weary thoughts just as it had for the past few weeks.

 

Lately it seemed his friends rarely had time to share a meal or sit with him for an evening drink.

 

Ezra released a small sigh as he watched JD Dunne, using his Bowler hat to fan himself, step from the jail, preparing to make a last patrol of the sleepy streets before Vin Tanner relieved him for the night.

 

Rubbing his temples, blaming the heat for the nagging headache, which had plagued him for the past two days, the gambler's thoughts turned to his friends or rather the men he had come to consider his friends.

 

Lately he just wasn't so sure.

 

His strength sapped by the unending heat, Ezra lay back and stared at the stars, letting the breath of a breeze cool his body and wishing it could soothe his troubled thoughts.

 

He had thought the tornado which had destroyed Larabee's home had strengthened the bond of friendship between the seven men, especially between himself and Larabee, but it hadn't been long before the con man began to feel as if he were on the outside looking in -- again.

 

Stating his hands needed to heal, Standish had been left behind to watch over the town with JD, or Nathan as the other men worked to help Chris rebuild his home.

 

The first time Ezra had ridden out to the little valley, wanting to offer his assistance, he'd been relegated to sitting on the sidelines, watching as Buck, and Josiah sawed the uprooted cottonwood into a winter's supply of firewood while Chris and Vin built the framework for Larabee's new home. JD, short on skill, but long on energy, helped out where needed.

 

"'Ppreciate the clean up ya already done, Ez." The soft admission and use of the nickname by Larabee had stunned the con man enough to permit the gunslinger to lead him to the shade of the still standing trees that would shelter the new house.

 

Larabee gave him a regretful smile. "I just got my ass outta the clinic and don't want Nathan puttin' me back there cause I let ya undo his hard work. So ya just sit there and relax."

 

"Ya know, Pard, wearin' gloves when ya engage in menial labor will keep that from happenin'," Tanner had grinned, giving the gambler a knowing wink and nodding to the con man's bandaged palms.

 

The gambler had sat quietly for several minutes before feeling useless and in the way, he had returned to town.

 

Without a word, Ezra had taken the late night shift and afternoon patrols.

 

A week later, while on afternoon patrol, Ezra had ridden into Larabee's little valley and was pleased and pleasantly surprised at the transformation. He knew Amos and several of the other local residents of the immediate area had been to the valley offering Chris aid.

 

The sight before him certainly explained the weary countenance of the men who returned to town each night. None of them thought to question the fact their evening meal was waiting and served almost as soon as they sank into their chairs or that the charge didn't seem to appear on their tabs. Too tired for even conversation, silence reigned as the men satisfied their appetites and relaxed tired muscles with a drink before they dragged themselves to their respective beds, sleeping only to get up and return to Larabee's valley the following morning.

 

Now, as his green-eyed gaze swept over the area, Ezra was astonished by the amount of work the men had accomplished. The only evidence of the downed trees was the wagonload of firewood sitting near the pile, which had once been the old cottonwood. The rest of the wood had been delivered to the Potters and other widows who didn't have anyone to provide the fuel used for heat and cooking.

 

The corrals had been repaired and a lean-to gave the horses temporary shelter from the elements. A small shed had been built, housing the tools Larabee had borrowed or replaced as well as the several bags of grain Ezra'd had delivered anonymously. The wagonload of hay that had accompanied the feed sat beside the little building. Having talked Larabee into accepting the shingles needed for the roof, Standish hadn't wanted to push his luck concerning the grain and hay.

 

Another wagonload of supplies, furniture, dishes, blankets and other household items covered by a tarp sat waiting for the items to be carried inside when the house was finished. He knew while it embarrassed the gunslinger, Josiah had convinced Chris to graciously accept the donations offered by the townsfolk, and his neighbors, explaining they simply wanted to help the man who'd helped them.

 

As loud, steady swearing floated on the breeze, the gambler became aware of Chris, Josiah, and Nathan, using ropes and pulleys, hauling the heavy hewn beams for the roof up onto the framework, holding them in position while Vin and Buck nailed the roof supports into place. A few more days and the shootist would have a new home and a much better one than his destroyed shack. At least in Standish's humble opinion.

 

Ezra could hear the laughter and teasing as he walked Chaucer closer, a smile touching his lips when he heard Larabee grumbling about the tiring process of the trips up and down the ladder to tie off each beam.

 

"Think of it as exercise, Cowboy," Wilmington taunted. "Get the blood pumpin' and yer heart racin' without havin' some fool takin' pot shots at ya."

 

"If ya think it's so good for ya, you can start makin' the damn climb," Larabee retorted.

 

"Unlike you, I get my blood pumpin' and my heart racin' every night, Pard." The womanizer chortled. "In a way that's a lot more fun than climbin' up and down a ladder ever could be."

 

The southerner realized, intent upon the task and the playful argument, the men weren't aware of his arrival. He dismounted and tied the dangling ropes around the next beam to be raised, ignoring the irritation caused by the rough hemp against his still tender palms.

 

"Seems the argument has been resolved quite satisfactorily," Josiah stated from the top of the ladder.

 

"Hey, Ez."

 

Seated on the beam, Ezra's heart skipped a beat as he looked up in time to see Tanner walking along the edge of the wall as effortlessly as if he were strolling down the boardwalk, while the others descended the ladder.

 

"Mr. Tanner, do be careful. How would Mr. Larabee be expected to enjoy his new home with the knowledge you fell and broke your neck during its construction?"

 

"Thinks he's one of them there rope walkin' travelin' show performers," Buck laughed, dropping lightly to the ground from half way down the ladder.

 

"You do this?" Nathan gave the ropes a strong tug, then snagged Ezra's wrist, turning the hand upward to examine his palm. "Don't look like ya did any harm to yerself."

 

"Well than, it seems as if we have the perfect solution." Josiah grinned. "With Brother Ezra here, no one's gotta make that constant trip up and down."

 

Nathan shook his head. "I ain't so sure that's such a good idea. I just took them bandages off his hands yesterday."

 

"Perhaps one of you might have a pair of gloves I could borrow," Ezra suggested.

 

"Ain't ya 'sposed ta be on patrol?" Chris questioned. He wasn't thrilled with the idea of the southerner spending more time under the healer's care because of his desire to help the gunslinger.

 

"I am not shirking my responsibilities, Mr. Larabee." Looking like a chastised child, the gambler rose and crossed to where Chaucer patiently waited. Removing the basket he'd tied to the saddle horn, he passed the container to Larabee before mounting. "Mrs. Travis thought you gentlemen might appreciate something to eat and I promised to deliver this while on my patrol."

 

"Hot damn!" Buck snatched the basket and flipping back the top, proceeded to toss the wrapped sandwiches to each of them.

 

"If you will excuse me, I shall see y'all tonight." Before any of them could protest, the southerner gave them a two-fingered salute and reined the gelding from the yard.

 

Ignoring the sandwich he held, Tanner chewed at his bottom lip as he watched as the con man ride away.

 

He turned, his blue eyes flashing fire as he glared at his best friend. "Why'd ya do that, Chris? What would it a hurt ta let him stay and help us awhile?"

 

"Hell's fire! I didn't mean he had ta leave. I just didn't want him hurtin' himself any worse." Larabee sighed. "His hands are barely healed."

 

"Wasn't Chris that sent him runnin' off," Nathan interrupted, wiping at his mouth with his shirtsleeve. "Was the mention a work that had him hightailin' it back ta town. Ya know Ezra don't believe in doin' any type of physical labor."

 

"I swear, Nate, when it comes ta certain things, yer damn memory's 'bout as long as a tadpole's tail." Tossing the uneaten sandwich back into the basket, Vin shoved his hands in his pockets and spinning on his heel, stormed toward the corral, his worried gaze still on the retreating figure of the gambler.

 

"What's that supposed ta mean?" The healer looked at the others in confusion, receiving a noncommittal shrug from Wilmington.

 

"What it means, Brother, is that ya seemed ta have conveniently forgotten how our resident gambler hurt his hands in the first place." Josiah sighed. "Remember the day after the storm? Do ya honestly think that tornado left those neatly stacked wood piles in its wake or used the rope ta tie the broken railings on that corral fence?"

 

It was Nathan's turn to look properly chastised as he found himself staring at the disappearing figure of the southerner in the distance.

 

Realizing his help wasn't needed at the gunslinger's and trying to convince himself he was being the most useful by taking on their duties, thereby, allowing the other men to aid Chris, Ezra hadn't returned to the valley, instead picking up tidbits of information about their progress in the few words spoken in the evening before they retired or listening to the towns folk talking about the progress of the construction.

 

A week later Larabee had spent his first night in his new home, routines returned to normal and Ezra turned his attention to a situation he'd been considering before Mother Nature had struck out at their small corner of the world.

 

Since finishing the work at Larabee's, the others had thrown themselves into catching up with their own activities. Activities that somehow didn't seem to include the gambler: Josiah spent his free time working on his church. Nathan was tending the ill and checking on his patients. JD spent more time sparking young Miss Casey and Buck spent time with every available woman in the area. Vin and Chris seemed busy doing whatever it was they did when not in the company of the others.

 

Of course, the gambler told himself, in all fairness, they all deserved private time to themselves.

 

No matter how they tried to deny it, Larabee and the others were important to this town. Without them, no one's life would be the same. Without them, Nathan would be dead, hung by vengeful cowhands. Without them, lawlessness would run rampant; Mary wouldn't have her newspaper or more importantly, her son. Without them, Miss Nettie wouldn't have her ranch and Guy Royal would most likely own most of the territory. In addition, Ezra knew that without Larabee and the others, both Chanu's and the Seminole village would have been destroyed.

 

Without them, he wouldn't have met Nica.

 

As if deciding Mother Nature had wrought enough havoc to satisfy herself for awhile, fate had seemed to smile on the western town and its law men, keeping criminals and other nefarious neer-do-wells away from Four Corners, allowing the peace keepers a few days of relaxation before the summer sun began to beat down on them in earnest, causing tempers to rapidly shorten and everyone to be on edge.

 

A comment taken the wrong way, an accidental brush on the street, a glance at the wrong person, quickly erupted into intense arguments.

 

Even the peacekeepers found themselves sniping at each other over insignificant issues or a teasing remark, finding fault where there was none.

 

'All it takes is friends.'

 

His headache easing, Ezra pushed to his feet, preparing to return to his bed. He had made his decision. In the morning, he would remove a few bricks from his wall and ask his friends for their assistance.

 

*******

 

Ezra's footsteps faltered as, over the batwing doors, he saw the six other peace keepers sitting at their usual table. He pushed through the doors, too tired to walk the distance it would take to use the back stairs.

 

"Where the hell have you been?" Larabee growled as Ezra stepped up to the bar, wearily requesting a bottle of his favorite scotch from Inez, to enjoy with his bath. "You were supposed to have the afternoon patrol."

 

'Aww, hell...’ With a silent groan, the southerner momentarily closed his eyes. He wasn't ready for this. He'd been late relieving Chris the previous evening, stirring the older man's temper and now he'd completely forgotten a scheduled duty. Taking a deep breath and steeling himself, he turned to face the gunslinger.

 

"My apologies, Mr. Larabee. I confess the time simply got away from me and regret any inconvenience my absence may have caused," Ezra drawled.

 

The apology took a spark of fire out of Larabee's wrath although the hazel eyes still glowed with anger. "Well, since Buck took your patrol, you can ride with Josiah ta Eagle Bend tomorrow. Judge sent some papers he needs delivered to the courthouse there."

 

"That-" the con man began, only to be cut off by Larabee's angry huff of breath.

 

"Don't wanna hear no shit from ya, Ezra! Just plan on draggin' your sorry ass out of bed in the mornin'. Ya leave at first light." Chris watched, closely waiting for the con man's reaction. While Larabee himself was irritated, he was secretly hoping to make the gambler mad enough to let them know what was on his mind.

 

Standish clamped his lips together, refusing to respond to their immediate assumption he'd been about to protest. In fact, Larabee's announcement saved him from thinking of an excuse to make the trip himself.

 

"Hey, Ez, we saved ya some of the catfish," JD interjected, hoping to defuse a potentially explosive situation. "Josiah and Nathan caught 'em and Inez cooked 'em. They're great!"

 

"Thank you, but at the moment I desire nothing more than a bath." Ezra bit back the sarcastic retort that he would rather eat glass than anything the preacher and healer had provided. In truth, he'd had a queasy stomach all afternoon and the combination of overpowering smells in the large room was making him even more nauseous than he thought possible.

 

"If you gentlemen will excuse me..." Grabbing the bottle from the bar, the gambler fled up the stairs.

 

"That boy's been as prickly as a cactus the last coupla days." Josiah stared at the now empty upper balcony, a frown creasing his brow.

 

"Heat's got everybody on edge," Nathan shrugged, hoping his own concern wasn't apparent. Being from the south, Ezra usually tolerated the heat better then most of the town's residents. It was the cold, which truly bothered the southerner more than anything did.

 

Buck scratched his chin, his own thoughts on the gambler's recent behavior, wishing he'd taken the time to talk with the con man when Ezra had approached him the previous morning. He had seen there was something on the younger man's mind, but hadn't pressed the issue when Standish assured him it wasn't anything important. Now he had to wonder at that statement's validity.

 

Beer sloshed over the rim as Inez practically slammed the pitcher onto the middle of the table, giving them all a glare of pure anger. Before anyone could question the woman's actions, raised voices drew their attention and the peacekeepers found themselves attempting to put a stop to an outbreak of violence before it destroyed the saloon.

 

*******

 

Ezra took another swallow from the bottle, letting the alcohol warm his insides. The steaming hot water eased the soreness from his aching muscles. He found himself wishing the combination could soothe his troubled thoughts as easily.

 

He lay his head back against the rim and let his mind wander.

 

Ezra had watched the morning stage disappear in a cloud of dust, then turned, and tentatively approached the church.

 

He had hoped to talk to Vin first since he'd discussed the situation with Tanner when the idea first came to him, but the sharpshooter had departed before the gambler arose, riding out to finish up some work at Miss Nettie's.

 

Approaching the church, the southerner hesitated as Josiah exited the sanctuary, carrying two large buckets. He wasn't used to asking for help in any part of his life and suddenly found himself at an overwhelming loss for words. He opted to plunge ahead. "Mr. Sanchez, I was wondering if I might request your assistance with a small --”

 

"Sorry, Ezra,” the preacher interrupted before Standish could even give voice to his request, "but I'm gone take advantage of the weather and white wash the church. Harry gave me a good price on several buckets.”

 

"Perfectly understandable, Mr. Sanchez.” The disappointed gambler nodded. "I'm certain your parishioners will be quite pleased." With a dismissive wave, he made his way down the street.

 

The con man had met JD and Buck on the boardwalk outside the restaurant. "Gentlemen, if you have no plans for the day, I was hoping to ask--”

 

"We're surprisin' Casey and Molly by takin' 'em on a picnic,” the young sheriff announced. "Buck says girls think things like that are romantic.”

 

"In this instance he is most likely correct. And you certainly have a lovely day for it.” Ezra smiled before giving them a tip of his hat and turning away.

 

"Hey ,Ez?”

 

The gambler hesitated, schooling his features before slowly turning back at Wilmington's call.

 

"Did ya need somethin'?” Buck questioned quietly

 

Standish forced a smile. "Nothing of importance.”

 

"Ya sure?” the womanizer pressed, a frown creasing his brow.

 

"Of course. Enjoy your picnic.” Giving them a two fingered salute, the southerner turned away, only to be stopped by the young sheriff.

 

"Ezra?”

 

"Yes, Mr. Dunne?” Ezra sighed in exasperation.

 

"Why don't ya get Nica and come with us?”

 

"Thank you for the kind invitation, but I must decline. Perhaps another time. Good day.” He could feel Wilmington's eyes on his back as he hurried down the street. He was well aware he couldn't ask Chris because with the others busy, Larabee would be watching over the town.

 

"Mr. Standish.” The owner of the hardware store hurried up the boardwalk as Ezra was about to enter the saloon. Lowering his voice, the shopkeeper glanced around to be certain they weren't overheard. "I made that delivery last night just like ya wanted.”

 

"Thank you, Mr. Johnston. Your diligence and discretion are greatly appreciated.” Despite the man's protests, Ezra insisted he accept the few bills he pressed into the man's hand, telling him to use the money to make up the loss on the deal he'd given Josiah.

 

"Sure are glad yer gonna be round permanent, Mr. Standish.”

 

Ezra frowned slightly. "The supplies were not for me.”

 

"I know," the storekeeper nodded agreement, unable to completely stifle his grin. Johnston and Mrs. Potter had been silent witnesses to many of the gambler's anonymous gifts and knew the con man's generosity was carefully hidden even from his small circle of friends. Oft times only Johnston or Mrs. Potter knew the truth of who paid for the much needed items, which mysteriously seemed to appear when people needed them most.

 

"Let me know iffen ya need anything else." Johnston truly liked the southern gambler and with a good idea of what the con man was up to, he was equally certain it meant the cardsharp would be remaining in Four Corners for a long time to come.

 

Ezra took another swallow from the bottle.

 

Pushing through the batwing doors, Ezra saw Nathan standing at the bar having a cup of coffee and watching Inez stroll up and down in front of him, the dark healer checking for any sign the ankle she'd twisted earlier in the week had completely healed.

 

"I trust Miz Inez will suffer no ill side effects from her small tumble.”

 

"I am fine, Senor Standish.” She smiled at the gambler. "Just proving it to Nathan.”

 

"He can be quite persistent when it comes to looking after his patients,” the gambler murmured

 

"If anyone is proof of that, it is you.” The barmaid moved to pour Ezra a cup of coffee.

 

Ezra continued his conversation with the Spanish woman. "At least you weren't subjected to an extended stay in his clinic. He tends to hover and--”

 

"Y'all do realize I'm standing here, don't ya?” the healer questioned brusquely, trying to appear piqued by their teasing.

 

"No offense intended, Mr. Jackson. Your tenacity when it comes to caring for your patients is partly what makes you such an attribute to the healing arts.” Ezra raised his cup in a toast. Knowing how the healer felt about him, he hated the mere thought of asking, but taking a deep breath he turned to the older man. "Mr. Jackson, I was wondering if I could ask your help wi--”

 

Nathan's tone became business like. "Ya ill, Ezra?”

 

"No, nothing like that,” the gambler was quick to assure him. "I was hoping --”

 

"Forget it, Standish! I ain't helpin' ya run no con or get outta doin' work,” Nathan sneered as he dismissed the gambler and turned his full attention back to the bar maid, seemingly unaware of her stunned expression that he wouldn't even hear the southerner out. "Ya try and take it easy on that ankle for a couple more days, Inez.”

 

Wanting to avoid the all too wise and observant gaze of the Spanish barmaid, Ezra kept his attention on his coffee cup as Nathan exited the saloon.

 

Setting the bottle aside, the cardsharp scrubbed at his skin, wishing the whiskey had washed away his anger as easily as the soap and water washed away the dirt and grime of the day's activities.

 

'All it takes is friends.'

 

"Guess that depends on who considers ya a friend," the con man mumbled.

 

*******

 

"Saw old man Riker leave on the mornin' stage."

 

Nathan's comment pulled Vin's attention back to the conversation around him. He hadn't been listening, his thoughts centered on the gambler. Having settled the altercation before anyone was seriously hurt, making the combatants pay for the table and three chairs they broke, the peacekeepers had returned to their table.

 

They all knew the elderly widower who lived a half mile from the edge of town had been looking to sell his few acres, wanting to move back to Ohio to be with his son and daughter-in-law who were expecting their second child.

 

It was a prime piece of property with a small house, barn, corrals and pond, a small stream cutting through the back acres. The old man had been offered more than it was worth, but didn't want to sell the place to the likes of Guy Royal.

 

Riker had scoffed at the suggestion he let the bank handle the sale and send him the money. He didn't trust McMurtry to follow his wishes, believing the banker would surrender to his own selfish greed and possibly even cheat not only himself, but the buyer as well.

 

"He finally sell the place?" Chris questioned with interest.

 

"Said he did. Lock, stock and barrel." JD shrugged in answer to Larabee's question.

 

"Hope ta God, he didn't break down and sell ta Royal. Ass hole causes 'nough trouble 'thout him livin' damn near on top a us," Buck grumbled, his dark gaze constantly traveling to the swinging doors, hoping to see the absent gambler stroll through the bat wings. He knew it was most likely if the con man wanted to avoid them, he would use the back stairs, but he also knew the only thing Ezra usually avoided was his own emotions.

 

"Didn't say ta who, just that the new owners was real good people and belonged here."

 

'Damnit!' Tanner chewed at his bottom lip, hoping he wasn't correct, praying Ezra hadn't gotten his heart broken again.

 

*******

 

Ezra grabbed the railing as the world suddenly spun out of control. Swallowing hard to control the nausea that rolled over him, he closed his eyes and took several deep breaths, his grip tightening to keep from tumbling down the stairs.

 

As the dizziness faded and the world straightened itself, the gambler stumbled the rest of the way up the stairs.

 

Quickly locking the door of his room behind him, Ezra crossed to the closet and with a trembling hand, opened the small tin he pulled from the top shelf.

 

His heart sank as he removed the last tiny package.

 

Tomorrow.

 

He would have more tomorrow.

 

Dissolving the powder into the tiny amount of water, he swallowed the bitter mixture and lay back on the bed.

 

Tomorrow everything would be all right.

 

*******

 

With the excuse it was time to make a patrol, Vin exited the saloon. Storekeepers were closing, citizens were heading home for the evening or sitting on their porches, seeking relief from the heat in the pitiful breeze created by the objects they used to fan themselves.

 

Certain the town was momentarily safe, the tracker made his way to the livery, sensing that's where the person who'd been following him about would feel safest.

 

Murmuring to the horses as he cut an apple in two, he gave half to Peso and the other to Chaucer, waiting patiently.

 

A sudden change in the air signaled movement and he spoke without turning. "It's all right, Kne'ka. I ain't gonna draw on ya or nothin'." He knew Ezra had warned the young woman about unintentionally sneaking up on the wanted man. "Ain't nobody around."

 

Earlier, the observant sharpshooter had seen the young woman peek over the saloon doors, before quickly hurrying to the other side of the street.

 

The young Indian woman stepped from the shadows, silently crossing to stand beside the Texan. Chaucer nickered a greeting, nudging her hand as she stroked his muzzle.

 

She hesitated for a moment before blurting, "Ol' Ez trusts you. He talks to you."

 

"Sometimes," Vin nodded. "Sometimes it's easier gettin' money outta him than it is gettin' 'im ta say anythin' important."

 

Her voice became quieter as her gaze fell to the straw. "I have done something to offend... or anger him."

 

"I doubt that!" He tilted his head, hoping to better see her expression. "Why would ya think somethin' like that?"

 

The young woman shrugged, avoiding his intense blue eyes. "When I first came here Ol' Ez, he came to see me often. We would talk..." The words trailed off as she wiped at the tear that trickled down her cheek. "He has not been to see me for several days."

 

"That ain't nothin' ta be worryin' 'bout." The sharpshooter was quick to reassure her. "Things have just been kinda crazy what with the storm and then this heat... Ol' Ez, he's- "

 

She shook her head stubbornly. "It is more than that. He would not let me ride with him yesterday. .He was not on patrol. I asked. I remember what Chief Larabee said."

 

Vin pressed his lips together, his gaze dropping to the hay covered floor in a desperate attempt not to smile. 'Chief Larabee.' Chris would shit if he heard that and Buck would never let him live it down.

 

"Ol' Ez, he--" her voice drew him back to her worried words.

 

"Kne'ka, listen ta me." All levity gone, Tanner gently took the girl's arm, turning her to face him. "Do ya trust me, Kne'ka?"

 

Finally meeting his eyes, the woman nodded vigorously, unwilling to hurt this man's feelings. He had not only saved her life, but befriended her as well. She knew of those he considered friends; Ol' Ez was closest to this man and would do anything for him.

 

"Then believe me when I tell ya, ya ain't done nothin' ta make Ez mad," he was quick to reassure her. 'Hell, wished I could tell ya that boy's just plum loco 'bout ya.' Vin mused. "Ol' Ez just kinda keeps ta his ownself when he's got somethin' he's gotta work out in his mind. Ya understand what I'm tryin' ta say?"

 

The sharpshooter watched, as she seemed to struggle with his words than nodded. "He is troubled?"

 

"Reckon that's so," Tanner agreed, "but you'll see, oncet he works it out ta his own satisfaction, he'll be back ta his old self in no time a'tall." Taking her chin, he tilted her head up until their eyes met. "Now ya promise me ya ain't gonna worry 'bout nothin'. Ez'd be right upset iffen he thought ya was frettin' over him."

 

Nica swallowed and nodded. "I promise. I would not want to make Ol' Ez frettin'."

 

"Come on, I'll walk ya home and then I'll go check on Ez." He wrapped her hand in the crook of his arm, leading her to the door.

 

'Maybe I can help him work through what's botherin' 'im.’

 

*******

 

The dark shadows of night were just beginning to fade into false dawn when Tanner softly knocked on Ezra's door. He'd already seen Josiah cross to the livery and not wanting Ezra to face Larabee's wrath if the gunslinger awoke and found the con man wasn't ready to leave for Eagle Bend, the sharpshooter had made his way to the saloon as soon as JD relieved him.

 

"Come in, Mr. Tanner."

 

Vin pushed the door open with a small frown creasing his handsome features. "How'd ya know it was me?"

 

"You skipped the third step from the top. Besides myself, the only other person to avoid that particular squeaky tread is Mr. Larabee and in a high temper, prepared to drag my sorry ass outta bed, I greatly doubt he would have been considerate enough not to break the door down, waking everyone else in the process and he surely wouldn't worry about that step."

 

"Probably right 'bout that." The Texan's grin faded as the gambler finished tying his tie and turned from the mirror. Dark circles made the man’s emerald eyes seem even more vivid and emphasized the washed out complexion. Tanner noticed the slight tremor in the man's hand as he reached for the jacket lying on the rumpled bed.

 

The previous evening, using the back stairs, Vin had made his way to the southerner's room only to find the door locked and the cardsharp refusing to allow anyone entrance. Through the wooden barrier, he had assured Vin he was fine, just tired and wanted a short nap before indulging in his favorite pastime.

 

Now, seeing the other man's face, Vin couldn't hide his shocked reaction.

 

"Damn, Ez! Don't mean no offense, but ya look like hell," Tanner commented before he had a chance to think. He immediately discounted the possibility the gambler was suffering a hangover since the bottle he'd gotten from Inez the previous evening sat on the dresser and was still three quarters full.

 

"The heat isn't exactly conducive to sleep and I might point out, you don't exactly appear as fresh as a dew covered daisy, Mr. Tanner." The con man sighed. "Honestly, when was the last time you slept?"

 

"Gotta couple hours last night afore I relieved Chris." The sharpshooter shrugged. Vin didn't point out it currently wasn't hot enough for the light sheen of sweat the gambler was now mopping from his forehead with his handkerchief.

 

"Heard Riker sold his place." Vin wasn't surprised when he received no reaction to the statement. For whatever reason, Ezra had his poker face firmly in place.

 

"I heard that as well." The gambler dismissed the news and changed subjects as he moved about the room gathering his gear. "While I appreciate your diligence in looking after my welfare, you needn't worry. As you can see, I have no intention of drawing Mr. Larabee's anger by keeping Mr. Sanchez waiting." Adjusting his hat, the con man forced a smile. "Although I abhor the very thought of rising from my bed before the sun has graced us with its brilliant presence, even I see the sensibility in traveling before the heat once more has a chance to take hold of the day."

 

The small speech seemed to sap the southerner's energy and chewing at his lower lip, Vin pretended not to notice the tiny tremor which visibly wracked the wily cardsharp's body. Tanner wasn't sure what was happening with the enigmatic con man, but his observant gaze couldn't spot any obvious injuries. Other than the minute lines of pain at the corners of Ezra's eyes and mouth, there was nothing, which would indicate blood loss, broken bones or even bruises. However, even to the tracker's untrained medical eye, whether Standish was just suffering the effects of the heat, which in itself was unusual, or a simple headache, the gambler definitely was not well.

 

"Actually, Ez, I came by ta ask ya a favor." Vin hated lying to his friend, but he was aware he had to handle the situation carefully or he'd be doing nothing but wasting his breath.

 

A healthy Ezra Standish would bitch, moan, complain and try to wiggle out of doing any favors or con his way out of something he really didn't want to do, doing his level best to live up to the image he worked so hard to portray. But they all knew, an ill or injured Ezra Standish would work twice as hard as any of them, afraid of appearing weak.

 

"Was wonderin' if ya'd mind iffen I was the one that went with Josiah." Wanting the gambler to believe he was doing the Texan a favor, Vin rushed on. "Miss Nettie's birthday is comin' up perty soon and I saw something in one of the stores there I thought she might like." It wasn't a complete lie. Nettie's birthday was less than a month away.

 

"You are most welcome to join us on our journey or if you wish, I could pick up the desired item for you, but I'm afraid Mr. Larabee would be most displeased if I foisted my assigned responsibilities off on you." In truth, the gambler wanted nothing more than to jump at the opportunity to crawl back into bed for a few more hours.

 

"What with tempers runnin' so short, the more of us around the better and it wouldn't be foistin' off none a yer responsibilities. Ya could take my next patrol so it'd be more like tradin' off."

 

Ezra ran his thumb across his bottom lip, considering the ex-bounty hunter's offer.

 

"I got first patrol day after tomorra and I know that still means gettin' up with the sun, but ya'd really be doin' me a big favor," Tanner pressed.

 

"I don't suppose Mr. Larabee could find any fault in such an arrangement..." Ezra mused, certain Chris would be convinced he'd conned the tracker into taking his place. He forced a small smile. "And if he does, I'm sure I can profit from the wagers on how long that little vein in his forehead throbs."

 

"'Ppreciate it, Ez." The sharpshooter returned his grin. "Might as well try and get some more sleep afore the heat gets too bad."

 

'You, my friend, are a rotten liar.’ The gambler kept that thought to himself as the tracker crossed to the door. 'However you're learning. You almost had me convinced....’

 

The con man knew Vin had learned to read him enough to know he was feeling poorly and had come up with this little scenario to give the gambler a plausible excuse for remaining in town.

 

"Mr. Tanner..." Ezra stopped him at the door. "It's my turn to ask a favor."

 

"Sure." Vin turned, his hand on the door knob.

 

"Would ya mind picking up a package Mr. Spencer is holding for me?" Pulling some bills from his vest pocket, the con man pressed the money into Tanner's hand. "Please use the rest of the money to buy Miz Wells a birthday gift from the rest of us. I trust your judgment in picking something appropriate."

 

"Sure thing." Vin shoved the money into the pocket of his jeans without counting it. "See ya this afternoon."

 

"Safe journey. Mr. Tanner." As soon as the door closed behind the Texan, Ezra gave into his trembling muscles and sank onto the bed.

 

*******

 

"Hey, Chris, Nate was just tellin' us 'bout catchin' the Wilkerson boys tryin' ta talk some a the girls inta a moonlight swim last--"

 

"Anybody seen Vin?" Approaching the three men seated in front of the jail, Larabee interrupted the young sheriff. Chris had spent the morning with Mary and Billy, but wanted to invite the tracker to accompany him out to his valley that afternoon to check his stock.

 

"I saw him ride out with Josiah this mornin'," Buck offered without thinking.

 

"You mean Josiah and Ezra, don't ya Buck?"

 

Wilmington instantly realized his mistake at seeing the anger suddenly flaring in Larabee's hazel eyes.

 

"Wonder how he conned Vin inta takin' his place," Nathan grinned with a small shake of his head. Out of the six men that counted Ezra as part of their family, Tanner was usually the least likely to fall for one of the gambler's schemes.

 

"Damn!" The womanizer jumped up from the bench following his oldest friend as the gunslinger turned and strode purposefully toward the saloon.

 

*******

 

Ezra sipped at the lemonade, letting the cold liquid soothe his dry throat.

 

"Delicious my dear." He smiled at the Spanish woman, certain Inez had made the pitcher full just for him. Lemonade wasn't something most of her customers would be interested in.

 

His headache had finally dissipated and having slept the morning away after Vin's departure seemed to have helped restore his health. Perhaps he had been wrong and had simply been suffering the effects brought on by the overwhelming heat.

 

After all, how many years had it been since he'd suffered any symptoms? Of course, he had always been careful to follow Dr. Benson's orders. He always tried to get as much sleep as possible, ate at least one large meal a day, avoided over engaging in menial labor, especially during the hottest part of the day and always kept a supply of the powder on hand.

 

'Until recently.' His inner voice chided. 'Lately you haven't followed any of those orders and how could you be so stupid as to...' The thought trailed off as the batwings were flung open with enough force to take them off their hinges. The gambler didn't have to look up to know who was bursting through the doors like the devil himself. ‘Then again,’ his inner voice chided, ‘you might be better off if it was Satan.’

 

"Wanna word with you, Ezra."

 

"Yes, Mr. Larabee, I thought you might," the gambler mumbled before turning to face the gunslinger. Ezra was surprised to find the anger in the hazel eyes wasn't burning nearly as ferociously as he'd imagined it would be.

 

"Ain't ya supposed to be on your way to Eagle Bend with Josiah?" Larabee questioned, folding his arms across his chest.

 

The con man saw the look of warning Buck tossed him as the other three peacekeepers settled at the table behind Larabee.

 

Ezra pulled the watch from his vest pocket, flipping the lid open and glancing at the hands. "Actually, I would imagine Mr. Sanchez should be returning any time now. He's not one for dawdling about once a job is completed."

 

Chris took a deep breath, trying to control the anger threatening to overwhelm him. He had promised himself he was going to do his best to stop flying off the handle when it came to dealing with Ezra. "The point is, Ezra, shouldn't you be with him? I very clearly remember you standing right there yesterday when I told you that you would be leaving at first light to ride to Eagle Bend with Josiah."

 

"Your memory is as accurate as your aim, Mr. Larabee."

 

"Then ya wanna tell me how come you're standin' here tellin' me how accurate my memory is, steada out on the trail with Josiah?" The black clad leader studied the shorter man intently, struggling to keep his anger under control. Maybe, this time, Ezra had a good excuse for ignoring orders.

 

Although he hid it well, there was something in the gambler's emerald eyes, just a hint, that something was still troubling the con man. Chris also knew Ezra well enough to know the only way to make the southerner disclose what that something was, was to either make him so angry he completely lost control or get him too drunk to enforce the wall which protected his emotions. The gunman also knew neither task was easily accomplished.

 

"You needn't worry. Knowing the importance of the trip, I would never have let Mr. Sanchez make the journey alone." Ezra sighed suddenly very tired, certain no matter what he said he wouldn't be believed. "I was about to leave my room this morning when Mr. Tanner asked if I would allow him to accompany Mr. Sanchez."

 

"And why would he do that?" Nathan asked, his eyes raking over the gambler momentarily wondering about the slight flush in the southerner's cheeks.

 

"Regardless of your opinion, Mr. Jackson, I didn't con Mr. Tanner into taking my place." Anger sparked in the green eyes that focused on the healer. "He led me to believe he had business in that bustling metropolis and before anyone asks, if you want to know what that business might be, I suggest you question Mr. Tanner upon his return."

 

"Ezra I didn't--"

 

"I might add that it was a fair trade off of responsibilities as I will be taking Mr. Tanner's next patrol," Standish added, pushing away from the bar and exiting the saloon before anyone could think of a reason to stop him.

 

*******

 

Fury visibly radiating off her like heat waves off the desert floor, Nica pushed through the saloon's swinging doors and stormed across to the room to the peacekeepers’ table, stopping to stare at the four men who sat there.

 

"What did you do to Ol' Ez?" she demanded, her arms folded in front of her, unconsciously mimicking Larabee's earlier stance and expression.

 

Nica had seen the gambler leave the saloon soon after Larabee and the others entered. She had immediately recognized the weary slump of the southerner's shoulders and the aching hurt in the emerald eyes as the indignation disappeared a moment before his mask of indifference dropped into place. She had seen the con man force a dimpled smile as Emma rushed up to him, excitedly displaying something she'd discovered while playing.

 

The young woman had wanted to rush to him in the same manner, offering comfort, but had held back, instead observing the southerner as he talked with the child. She watched, as the minutes he spent in the child's company seem to work as a soothing balm. It was as relaxed as she'd seen him the past few weeks.

 

"What'da ya mean?" JD posed the question as the other men exchanged confused expressions.

 

Nica stared at them in disbelief. "Can you not see he is hurting?"

 

"Ezra's hurt? That stubborn--"

 

The small woman poked the healer hard in the chest as he started to rise from the chair. "He hurts... here!"

 

From the corner of her eye, Nica saw Inez's nod of approval as she confronted the men. As a child, the native woman had quickly learned being alert to her surroundings often meant staying alive and it had held her in good stead. She had been in Four Corners long enough to know those who truly cared about the green eyed gambler and those who wanted nothing to do with him.

 

During their evening visits or afternoon rides, the Indian maiden had listened intently as Ezra talked, telling her about his life, these men and the people of the town. She listened because she loved him. She loved the sound of his voice and the way his eyes twinkled when he was describing one of Vin's practical jokes or talking about the town’s children. She listened because she was truly interested and wanted to know as much as possible about this man.

 

With her, Ezra was completely open and honest, his protective walls gone as if they had never existed. Nica could see every emotion - every dream - every sorrow - every hope and -- every hurt.

 

At a distance, she had watched the con man with the other men, observing the way he reacted to each of them, fascinated, as he became whatever that person expected at that moment. Most importantly, she saw the admiration and respect Ol' Ez held for each of them and she saw his deep desire to be fully accepted as one of them.

 

She knew Inez cared for the con man, seeing the true man who hid behind his walls, presenting a charming smile and self-confident facade to the world. Nica suspected, when it came to the southerner, Inez saw and understood much more than she revealed.

 

Suddenly aware she had attracted the attention of the few other customers in the saloon, Nica hesitated, certain Ezra would be embarrassed by her defense of him, maybe not to these men, but to the strangers who watched and listened.

 

She pulled herself to her full height and straightened her shoulders, but kept her voice low. "You are his friends... his family. I do not understand how at times you can treat him like my people treat those who are outcast."

 

Gathering her dignity about her, she turned on her heel and left the saloon, not seeing Inez's wide smile and nod of approval.

 

*******

 

"What'da ya think she meant by that, Buck?" It was several minutes before JD pulled himself from his stunned stupor, still staring at the empty spot where Nica had stood.

 

Before the womanizer could respond, Josiah's shouts for Nathan had them rushing out into the street.

 

Josiah reined the horses to a halt at the bottom of the clinic stairs. Dropping Peso's reins, he leapt from his own horse, hurrying to help the tracker, who was slumped in the saddle, his fingers tangled in the horse’s mane.

 

Hurrying to help, Buck was barely aware of Ezra hesitating momentarily in the door of the livery, his face draining of all color at the scene before him.

 

"What the hell happened?" Larabee growled moving to slide a shoulder under the sharpshooter's arm as Josiah eased Vin off the horse.

 

"H-hey, Pard!" Tanner gave the gunslinger a lopsided grin, his blue eyes glassy and pain filled. "Ain't n-noth...in'..."

 

"That's why you're bleedin' all over the street, right?" Chris quipped as they steered the longhaired man to the steps, his own heart racing at the sight of the tracker's blood soaked shirt.

 

"J-just a...scr..."

 

Larabee and Sanchez adjusted their stance, taking on the extra weight as the Texan's eyes rolled back in his head and he sagged between them. Chris stepped aside as Josiah scooped the younger man up into his arms and finished climbing the stairs.

 

Everyone crowded into the clinic, moving out of Nathan's way as the ex-priest gently lowered Vin onto the bed.

 

"What the hell happened?" Chris repeated the question as Nathan began cutting away the makeshift bandage and removing the tracker's shirt to examine the wound.

 

"Couple of fools stopped us a few miles outside a town. Planned on stealin' our horses or at least one of 'em." Josiah sank into the rocker, raking a hand through his short hair, prepared to help Nathan if needed.

 

"Where are they now?" Chris demanded to know, his voice sharp.

 

"Probably hidin' out lickin' their wounds... or dyin' from 'em." The large man crossed himself. "A couple a stupid kids... Probably not much younger than Vin."

 

Pulling his worried gaze from the sharpshooter, Buck chewed at his lip glancing at Ezra who stood beside the clinic door, his face pale, his emerald eyes full of fear, thinking how they all had a tendency to forget just how young Vin and, for that matter Ezra, really was. Unlike JD, who was growing up fast before their very eyes, Tanner and Standish just gave the appearance of being older than their years, having experienced more in their short lifetimes than most men years older.

 

"Get a hold a 'im," Nathan ordered, crossing to the cabinet for the bottle of carbolic. "This is gonna hurt like hell. He sure ain't gonna like it any."

 

"Sonuvabitch! He wasn't even supposed ta be there!" Chris muttered angrily, getting a firm grip on the ex-bounty hunter's slender shoulder.

 

"You are correct, Mr. Larabee. Mr. Tanner is not the one who was supposed to be on that trail and he isn't the one who should be laying in that bed now." The distinct southern drawl clearly indicated who had spoken.

 

'Aww, hell!’ Chris looked up, meeting Ezra's haunted emerald eyes at the southerner's quiet statement. "Ezra--"

 

The tracker's ragged scream as he arched away, trying to escape the pain caused by the burning liquid used to clean and disinfect the wound, jerked Larabee's attention back to the more immediate matter.

 

As Nathan tended the wound and Tanner finally relaxed, the gunslinger lay a gentle hand on the tracker's head, his hazel eyes finding and silently questioning the healer.

 

"Took a chunk a hide outta him, but ain't too bad." Nathan stated. "Gonna need a few stitches is all."

 

Nathan stitched closed the narrow groove left by the passing bullet and forced the sharpshooter to drink a cup of medicinal tea, assuring everyone he was going to be all right. As Tanner settled into a healing sleep, they realized the gambler was no longer in the clinic and none of them had seen when he slipped out.

 

*******

 

JD poked disinterestedly at the food on his plate. Mary had come by the clinic, insisting the men go get dinner, saying she'd sit with Vin and send for them if needed.

 

Josiah seemed to be the only one of the five with any kind of appetite and even his meal was only half eaten.

 

The young sheriff's worried gaze settled for the hundredth time on the empty chair at the gambler's gaming table. "Where ya think he is?"

 

"Probably hidin' in his room or on the roof, sulkin'." Nathan shrugged, struggling to hide his own worry about the con man.

 

'Or more likely feelin’ guilty.’ Ignoring his own food, Larabee poured a shot of whiskey, tossing back the fiery liquid. It didn't matter that there was no reason for the guilt, the gambler would be blaming himself exclusively for Tanner's injury. Chris only hoped the con man hadn't gone off alone after the men who'd caused that damage.

 

"I don't know, Nate. I think he's mad 'bout somethin'. Mad at us." JD pushed his plate away. "Seems ta me he's been outta sorts with us the past few days."

 

"Ezra don't get mad," the healer smiled, trying to reassure the kid, "he gets even."

 

"He gets mad," Buck stated quietly. "He just hides it. Like everything else he's feelin'."

 

Larabee's hazel eyes met those of his oldest friend. One thing Chris had finally learned and had no doubt about was the fact Ezra felt the emotions he tried to hide more deeply than most people did. The cold calculating con man was merely a role Standish portrayed for appearances' sake. The cocky confidence and uncaring facade served to keep the world at bay, which was Ezra's attempt to protect himself from hurt.

 

"Josiah," JD stared at the fingers he twisted nervously, "how...how do the Indians treat outcasts?"

 

The ex-priest sighed, leaning back in his chair and scrubbing a hand through his short gray hair. "The Indians are usually very accepting of others, but when someone brings shame to the tribe, they're forced to live on the outskirts of the village. They're ignored, given the leftovers of the hunt, basically forced to fend for themselves as best they can and are the last to be protected if the village is attacked. Being an outcast is a constant reminder to every one of the sins the person committed." He stared at the young sheriff in bewilderment, suddenly curious about the question. "Why ya askin’?"

 

Their youngest shrugged without looking up. "Nica said there are times when we don't treat Ezra any better than they do the outcasts."

 

"Well, she was wrong," Nathan protested firmly, "we don't treat him like that at all."

 

'Don't we?' Chris tossed back another shot of alcohol, wishing it could wash away his own feelings of guilt, seeing his dark thoughts reflected in the eyes of the other men, each of them remembering the times they had ignored the gambler, invited him to join them as an afterthought, or seldom bothered to ask to accompany him. For that matter, when in a gun battle, they all watched the others' backs but seemed to look out for their partner first and that often left the gambler to his own protection.

 

How many times had they thrown Ezra's temporary desertion at the Seminole Village in the con man's face, either outright or through innuendo? How many times had they automatically questioned his motives simply because of his livelihood?

 

As much as they might want to deny it, they all knew Nica was right.

 

"So if she was wrong, how come none of us put up an argument?" JD pressed.

 

"There's two theories about arguin' with a woman, JD," Wilmington began.

 

"And neither of 'em works." Chris grinned, remembering the womanizer making that same statement to him, when he and Sarah had their first argument.

 

"Speaking of women..." The usually jovial gunslinger waved over the Spanish barmaid. "Reckon we should find out just what we've done ta piss off our favorite saloon keeper before she poisons our drinks."

 

*******

 

'Sonuvabitch! No good sonuvabitch!!’

 

Ezra furiously drove the nails into the hard wood, hoping for a release of his anger and self-hatred.

 

'How could you be so stupid? It's all your fault! Ya let him talk ya into taking your place! Doin' your damn job!’

 

Each strike of the hammer against the head of the nails reverberated through his skull, increasing his headache ten fold.

 

'He took that bullet because he was where you were supposed to be! He took that bullet cause he knew you're weren't man enough to deal with a minor illness. A headache and upset stomach had ya retreating to your bed like a babe wantin' his mama! Vin's layin' in that clinic cause you're nothing but a damn weakling, Standish! Larabee oughta follow through on his oft repeated threat and just shoot ya! Put everyone out of their misery!’

 

Letting the hammer slip from his fingers, Ezra leaned against the repaired barn stall, using the back of his hand to wipe away the sweat, which dripped into his stinging eyes.

 

'Damn! What the hell kind of friend are you, Standish?’ He continued to silently berate himself. 'Vin's dyin' in your place and you don't even stick around to say thank you...or...good-bye.’

 

Gripping the wooden rails, his stomach roiling uncontrollably, his trembling muscles refusing to hold him upright, the southerner eased himself to the hay covered floor as the world around him seemed to tilt on its axis.

 

Damnit!

 

How was he supposed to say good-bye to the first true friend he'd ever had? A man who'd been willing to defend him before he even knew him. A friend who didn't judge or try to change him. A man who'd helped teach him what friendship and family truly meant.

 

He couldn't!

 

Drawing his knees to his chest, he wrapped his arms around them and curled on his side, the pain his body was enduring mild when compared to the pain in his soul.

 

'Vin's gonna die knowing you to be the coward you truly are,’ was the con man's last conscious thought.

 

*******

 

Everyone looked to Buck, as angrily muttering lowly in Spanish; Inez quickly began gathering the almost full plates from in front of the men, placing them on her tray with a loud clatter.

 

A minute smile touched Larabee's lips as his eyebrows arched, his expression clearly telling the womanizer this was his idea so deal with it.

 

Wilmington rose and taking the tray, handed it to the young sheriff. "JD, take this to the kitchen would ya?"

 

"I do not need your help, thank you." The woman grabbed for the tray. "I would not want to trouble you gentlemen by asking you to assist a friend."

 

"No trouble, ma'am," the young man assured her, casting the others a confused look before heading for the kitchen with the laden tray.

 

"I don't think that comment had anything to do with carryin' a tray ta the kitchen for ya, did it?" Josiah questioned as Buck held the empty chair where Vin usually sat, motioning for her to sit down.

 

She raised her chin, her dark eyes flashing. "I have work to do."

 

"Please, darlin'. We really need ta talk ta ya 'bout Ez," Wilmington coaxed.

 

Inez stared at the chair a long moment before finally sitting down, casting a look of disdain in the direction of the preacher and healer. "And what is it you want to ask me?"

 

"Let's start with; do ya know where Ez is?"

 

"No."

 

"Have ya seen him since Vin and Josiah got back to town?"

 

"No."

 

Her brusque one-word answers were quickly beginning to frustrate them all.

 

"Does that mean he didn't come back here or ya didn't see him grab a bottle to hide out with?" Nathan persisted.

 

Laying a gentle hand on Inez's arm, halting her dumbfounded rise from the chair, Larabee threw the healer a look of utter disgust. They'd been through this with Ezra before. Taught never to show his feelings, the southerner chose to disappear, dealing with his emotional upheavals in solitude.

 

"Inez," he began quietly, "he needs to know Vin's gonna be all right."

 

"He will be pleased." She gave him a short nod.

 

"Do you know what's goin' on with him lately?" Chris asked, deciding to get right to the point. "He seems a little -- distracted," he finished lamely.

 

"Do you really care?" Her terse question stunned them all.

 

"Of course we do!" Josiah stated adamantly. "Ya know we do! Ezra's our friend."

 

She met the preacher's gaze steadily, seeing the sincerity in the blue gray depths, releasing a sigh. "I know you care for Senor Standish and he knows you care but..." She trailed off, shaking her head.

 

"But?" Buck urged.

 

"But you have said yourself, he is just learning of friendship. What is he to think when he offers his help and is rejected?" She glanced at Chris a moment before turning to Nathan. "Or when he asks for help and is ridiculed?" Inez pushed to her feet. "You should ask yourself if that is the lessons you truly wish to teach him about friendship."

 

As the men dropped their gazes, refusing to meet her eyes, she shook her head again and returned to the bar, leaving them sitting in guilty and confused silence.

 

"He's not in his room."

 

Chris wasn't surprised by JD's revelation. Shortly after realizing Ezra had left the clinic, he'd checked the livery. Chaucer's empty stall was a solid indication the gambler had left town, probably riding patrol, wrapped in his own silent guilt. As he had before, he would return late in the night, slipping silently into Nathan's room to check on his injured friend.

 

It did surprise the gunslinger that the sheriff had slipped up the back stairs to check on the con man, rather than returning to the table immediately. Of course his act of concern had spared Dunne the retribution delivered by the barmaid. While they certainly deserved the rebuke, JD did not.

 

"His hands had just healed..." Larabee muttered under his breath.

 

"She wasn't talkin' about you, Chris." Nathan interrupted, releasing a deep sigh before continuing his admission of guilt. "She was talking about me. Ezra asked for my help the other day and I didn't even bother ta let him talk. He said he was feelin' fine and I just assumed -- I told him I wouldn't help him run a con or get outta work. I didn't even bother ta find out what he wanted."

 

"Lord help me," Sanchez intoned, wearily scrubbing a hand over his face. "I didn't even let him finish askin'. Told him I was busy. Was plannin' on whitewashin' the church."

 

"Least ya wasn't off on a picnic," Wilmington shook his head, wishing again he'd taken the time to make Ezra voice his request.

 

"Nope. I went fishin'." The large man gave a self-loathing chuckle. "Musta made Ezra feel real fine. I can't take the time ta listen ta him, but I can drop what I's doin' ta go fishin' with Nate."

 

"Shit! Inez is right." Chris tossed back another shot of whiskey. "We're teachin' him some real damn fine lessons on friendship."

 

*******

 

At that moment, the subject of their conversation was burrowing deeper into the hay strewn on the barn floor, seeking warmth as tremors wracked his body.

 

*******

 

"I know Vin's special to ya. Hell, ta all of us, but do ya really wish it was Ezra layin' in there 'stead a him?" Wilmington leaned against the railing of the clinic balcony.

 

Well aware he was liable to end up with a straight razor at his throat again, or perhaps facing the business end of Larabee's gun if he thought Buck was butting in where he didn't belong, the womanizer was nonetheless willing to take that chance. He knew Larabee better than anyone alive and was certain the comment had been nothing more than a release for the other man's anger and frustration at the situation, but someone needed to stand up for the absent southerner.

 

The gunslinger's life depended on his being in control at all times, being aware of what was happening and prepared for every contingency. That need had intensified when Larabee had allowed the other six men into his life.

 

"You know better than that!" Larabee growled, watching the smoke from his cheroot drift up into the dark sky, trying to control his growing anger that his oldest friend would even consider such a thought, let alone voice it.

 

"You're right, I do know better, but I don't reckon Ezra does." Wilmington turned serious eyes on the man he cared about more than anyone in the world did.

 

With the acceptance of Judge Travis' offer, Larabee had also accepted responsibility for the six men who helped him protect their corner of the territory. The gunslinger silently watched over those men, giving them hell for irresponsible or irrational actions, quietly fretting over their health. He joined in their laughter, enjoyed their happiness, shared their sadness, and sat by their bedside with the guilt of an injury to any of them weighing heavy on his shoulders.

 

Buck knew that, while he may not always show it, Chris cared about each of them, including the stubborn gambler. There wasn't a shadow of a doubt in the womanizer's mind Larabee considered the con man a vital part of his newly formed family.

 

Wilmington also knew without a doubt, the two men were more alike than either of them would ever admit, but every so often Chris needed to remember that Ezra wasn't the callous unfeeling hard ass he pretended to be, no more than Larabee himself, was the heartless, cold-blooded shootist, people believed him to be. The gunslinger just needed reminding that a verbal wound could hurt just as profoundly as a physical injury.

 

"Damnit! It all went ta hell, Buck. It shoulda been me on that trail. I didn't plan on sendin' Ezra with Josiah. Fully intended ta go myself but...I --"

 

"Ya wanted ta piss him off. Ya hoped if ya pushed him far enough or made him mad enough, Ol' Ez'd at least give ya a hint of what's been botherin' him lately."

 

A smile touched the gunslinger's lips as he realized once again just how hard it was to slip anything past the man who'd watched his back for so many years. He nodded ruefully. "Should a known it wouldn't be that simple. Nothin' ever is with him."

 

"He's too much like you for that," Buck agreed, stifling a grin as the other man's hazel eyes widened in disbelief.

 

"I'll give ya about half a minute ta explain that before I kick yer sorry ass to the other end a town," Larabee growled.

 

"Ya mean try ta kick my ass.... Ya can outdraw me, Larabee, but ya know I always could whup your ass. And no, I ain't gonna explain. Gonna let ya figure that 'un out your ownself." Wilmington chuckled then sobered. "Hell, ain't just you, Chris. We all tend ta fall into the trap of forgettin' just how good a con man Ez really is. He comes across so damn cocky and confident we forget just how - lost he can get. He knows we'll watch his back in a fight but --"

 

"But he still has trouble believing he can count on us for other things, too. The little mundane things the rest of us take for granted," Larabee finished.

 

"Yeah. But then again, reckon he still ain't learned how ta ask for help when he needs it."

 

"Well, that's somethin' we got a chance of teachin' 'im. I don't think he'll ever learn ta stop feelin' guilty for every damn thing that happens." Seeing the jovial gunman quickly suppress a smile, Chris realized it was one of those things he and Ezra had in common. "Just shut the fuck up, Buck. I don't wanna hear it!" Larabee straightened and with a last draw on the thin cigar, crushed it beneath his heel. He gave Wilmington's shoulder a light squeeze and entered the clinic.

 

*******

 

Vin stirred and stretched, flinching slightly at the small twitch of pain as he pulled the stitches.

 

"Gonna have ta be careful how ya move for a few days."

 

The lopsided smile that automatically came to Tanner's lips faded to be replaced with an exasperated groan as he opened his eyes, looking at the gunslinger seated in the bedside rocker. "Aww, hell... Since I never wake up in my wagon with ya sittin' aside my bed, reckon that means I'm in the damn clinic."

 

"Reckon you're right about that." Larabee grinned.

 

Nathan had assured them between the medicinal tea and sheer exhaustion, Tanner would most likely sleep straight through until morning. Chris had spent the night sitting at Vin's bedside, not because he feared for the tracker's welfare but because he'd hoped to be there when Ezra slipped in to check on Tanner.

 

"Course the good news is Nate says ya don't have ta stay, long as you're careful so ya don't break them stitches. Feel up ta breakfast?" He pushed to his feet reaching for the clean shirt he'd brought from the tracker's wagon.

 

"Now that's a damn stupid question iffen I ever heard one," the sharpshooter quipped, easing back the blankets, and reaching for the clothes Larabee held.

 

*******

 

"Well, you sure don't look none the worse for wear," Wilmington chuckled as Vin carefully eased into the chair, setting the brown paper wrapped package he'd insisted on getting from his saddlebags on the table and snagging a slice of bacon from the womanizer's plate. "Course you're runnin' outta shirts damn near as fast as Ezra does."

 

"Least ways mine don't cost near as much as his," Tanner grinned as he slathered butter on the biscuit he stole from JD’s plate.

 

"Mite hungry, are ya?" Josiah smiled, sliding a cup of coffee toward the Texan before the tracker helped himself to one of theirs.

 

"My stomach done thinks my throat's been cut," Vin mumbled around a mouthful, eyeing their plates.

 

As Chris sank into the chair across from him, the preacher caught the gunslinger's eye as Larabee gazed toward the upper level and gave a slight shake of his head. 'No Ezra didn't return to his room.’

 

"Thank ya, ma'am." Tanner nodded, reaching for a fork as Inez set a plate piled high with food in front of him.

 

"It ain't gonna run away, kid, and I promise if any of these yahoos so much as reaches for something on that plate, I'll break their fingers," Buck stated as the men exchanged amused smiles, watching as the tracker shoveled biscuits and gravy into his mouth as fast as he could swallow, following it with another slice of bacon and a quick swallow of coffee to wash it all down.

 

Finally taking the edge off his appetite, the sharpshooter slowed his consumption of the meal and leaned back in the chair. "Least Ezra didn't say nuthin' 'bout my lack a mann...." The words trailed off and the smile faded as he realized the gambler wasn't seated at the table. "He still sleepin'?" As his blue-eyed gaze roamed around the table, he saw the other men avoiding his gaze. He turned to Larabee. "Chris? Where's Ezra? He on patrol or still not feelin' well?" Concern filled his raspy words.

 

Nathan's head snapped up at the question. "What'da ya mean, not feelin' well? Ezra tell ya he was sick?"

 

"Didn't have ta. Could see it for my own self." The sharpshooter saw the shame in the healer's eyes as Nathan thought over the last few days, but he was getting angry and didn't care if the other's feelings were hurt. "Reckon that's why it was so easy ta con him inta lettin' me take his place."

 

"You conned Ezra?" JD's dark eyes filled with admiration and he let out a small whistle. "I didn't think that was possible."

 

"Reckon he let me con him," Vin amended with a shrug, flinching slightly at the pull on his stitches. “He weren't tryin' ta..." The sharpshooter hesitated, replaying Ezra's words in his mind, "shirk his responsibilities." He turned to Chris. "Said ya wouldn't be any to happy 'bout it."

 

"Why the hell didn't he just say somethin'? I wouldn't expect any of ya ta travel if you're sick." Larabee stated firmly, slamming down his coffee cup. "Mule headed--"

 

"Think he was plannin' on goin' even afore ya said anything. Asked me ta pick up this package Spencer was holdin' for him."

 

"Spencer?"

 

"Hey, that's Ezra's!" Tanner protested. His reactions slowed by the injury, Vin wasn't fast enough to stop the healer from grabbing the small package, quickly untying the string holding it closed.

 

"He's right, Brother." Josiah laid a large hand over Nathan's, halting the man from peeling back the brown paper. "We have no right to invade Ezra's privacy."

 

"Ain't bein' nosey, Josiah." The healer gazed at each of them with worry filled dark eyes, remembering the flushed cheeks, the pale complexion, the lines of pain around the gambler's emerald eyes and the weary countenance, "Vin's right. Shoulda noticed it myself. That mornin' he asked for my help. Ezra said he wasn't sick but.... Been sittin' here thinkin' 'bout it... things I've noticed over the past week or so, but just didn't pay no 'ttention to... Damn! He's been ailin' and I didn't even take note."

 

"Still doesn't give any of us the right--"

 

"Chris, Spencer is the apothecary in Eagle Bend. Knowin' what he bought from there could tell us what he's ailin' from."

 

"Ya mean besides not bein' able to count on his friends ta help him out?" Wilmington commented dryly.

 

"Open it, Nathan." Vin finally nodded. "If ya really think it'll help out Ez."

 

The five men held their breath as the dark man pushed aside the wrapping, revealing dozens of small individually wrapped packets.

 

"What is it, Nate?" JD questioned as the ex-slave opened one of the packets using his little finger to taste the powder encased inside.

 

"Aw hell..." He made a face at the bitter taste.

 

"Nathan?" Larabee pressed, seeing the healer's distressed expression.

 

"Quinine. It's quinine, Chris. He's got the fever."

 

*******

 

"This is Riker's old place." JD announced unnecessarily as, a short time later, the six men turned down the lane. "What would he be doin' here?"

 

Tanner said nothing, concentrating on finding the gambler, praying Nathan was wrong, equally certain he wasn't.

 

The healer's protests that the others should wait in town had been ignored, each man determined to prove their loyalty and friendship to the con man, wanting to be with him if the unthinkable were to happen.

 

Not wanting to start a panic, the ex-slave had kept his voice low as he explained that no one was certain what caused malaria and that while this was most likely a relapse, they couldn't be sure Ezra wasn't contagious.

 

"Then we already been exposed,” Larabee pointed out. He knew it was useless to order anyone to stay behind and had no desire to make such a request. Standish was part of their family and they'd stand beside him, just as they had when Jake Cole attempted to take him from them, just as Ezra had stood by them each time trouble came their way.

 

"At the very least you should stay here, Vin. An injury weakens your system and makes ya more susceptible.”

 

"I'm fine, Nate, and I'm goin'. Gotta perty good idea where Ez is, but iffen I'm wrong, we're gonna have to trail 'im.” He gazed at the ex-slave somberly. "Any of ya, able ta do that?”

 

"Hopefully the medicine is just a precaution." None of them believed Ezra would intentionally endanger the town folk. "Ya know our black sheep has a habit of being prepared for anything, but if he is sick, he's gonna need ya, Nate. What you have to understand is that the rest of us need to be there for him... and for us." Josiah's quiet rumble put an end to any further arguments.

 

The front door of the little house stood open, but no one stepped out to greet them as the six men reined to a stop in the small yard. A saw and the remnants of recently cut lumber lying next to the barn were the only signs anyone had been at the farm since Riker had left on the morning stage.

 

Chris leapt from his horse and crossing the porch, gave a quick rap on the door, calling out a warning before entering.

 

The furniture inside was old and worn, but comfortable. There were minor repairs needed, but the inside of the small farmhouse was neat and tidy as if recently scrubbed. Calling out another warning, Larabee strolled through the sitting room, checking the two bedrooms before moving to the kitchen at the back of the house.

 

Boxes of supplies sat stacked in the corner, the kitchen chairs were overturned, one lay broken against the wall, but it was the emerald jacket tossed casually on the table beside Ezra's Remington and derringer rig, the matching vest laying in a crumpled heap on the floor, which caused Chris' heart to race. The only time, Ezra treated his belongings that carelessly were when he was angry or ill.

 

JD was returning from the barn when the gunslinger stepped back onto the porch. "Didn't see Ez, but Chaucer's in one of the stalls."

 

"He's here. Somewhere." Larabee agreed with a nod. "Spread out and find 'im. Be careful, we don't know who else might be around." He suppressed the urge to order Vin to wait inside the house, knowing it wouldn't do any good. The sharpshooter would collapse before he stopped searching for his friend.

 

With no sign of the gambler in the immediate area, Buck and JD rode to the few apple trees in the meadow that with a giant stretch of the imagination might be called an orchard, hoping the southerner was taking advantage of the shade. Buck waved acknowledgment when Chris called a reminder to check the upper branches. Nathan and Josiah headed for the pond and to search the riverbanks.

 

"He's here, Chris. He's close," the sharpshooter stated confidently. "I... feel it."

 

Larabee watched silently as the Texan's blue-eyed gaze slowly traveled about the yard, taking in every detail. He followed silently as the tracker crossed to the cut lumber, gingerly stooping down to study the ground before rising and moving to the barn.

 

The gunslinger, himself, had searched the hayloft, knowing the gambler's penchant for taking to the high ground when needing time alone.

 

Entering the cool dimness of the barn, pausing beside Chaucer's current home, Tanner absently reached out stroking the chestnut's long nose. His intense blue-eyed gaze raked over every detail of the structure's interior.

 

The newly replaced wall slats of the nearby stalls stood out in stark contrast to the rest of the weatherworn building. Vin started to move towards the area where the gambler had apparently been working.

 

Chaucer whickered, pawing the ground in agitation and Vin's head whipped around at the quiet sound of rustling, his studious gaze settling on the box stall at the back of the barn.

 

"Vin-" Chris began.

 

The tracker held his hand up for silence. It was possible what he'd heard was nothing more than a mouse or some small wild animal searching for protection from the heat but... he was certain he'd heard something more.

 

There! There it was again.

 

He didn't realize he was moving until he'd reached the open stall door, the toe of his boot striking a dropped tool.

 

"Aww, hell!" Another barely audible moan had Larabee pushing past the Texan and dropping to his knees, he began digging frantically through the hay piled unnaturally high in the back of the stall. As he shoved the dried grass aside, it revealed the missing con man curled into a tight ball.

 

"It's all right, Ezra. You're gonna be okay," Chris muttered, pulling the shivering semiconscious southerner against his chest, soothingly brushing the stalks of hay from the man's thick chestnut hair.

 

The gambler's sweat soaked clothes clung to his flushed skin and the older man could feel the heat of fever emanating from the smaller man.

 

"C-c-col," Ezra stuttered as shivers wracked his body, "s-so...c-cold."

 

Ignoring the sharp pain in his side, Tanner quickly stepped to the exit and drawing his weapon, fired three successive shots into the air before hurrying back to Larabee and Standish.

 

Chris tightened his hold as the con man jumped at the sound of the gunfire, trying to wiggle closer to the gunslinger even as his hand instinctively searched for the Colt on his hip.

 

"Easy, Ez, it was just Vin lettin' everybody know we found ya," Chris reassured him. "Ain't in no danger."

 

As the familiar voice penetrated his fevered thoughts, Ezra forced open his eyes and weakly attempted to pull away, the flush in his cheeks deepening with embarrassment. The gunslinger released his hold, not wanting to further upset the ill man.

 

"Mr. Larabee...I-I...." Ezra stared around him in glassy eyed confusion.

 

Chris and Vin both moved to help as, after several futile tries, the gambler finally gripped the wooden wall and attempted to pull himself to his feet, his body refusing to obey commands, his weak muscles unable to hold his weight.

 

"Whoa there, Pard." Vin forced a smile, as the two men stepped closer to support him. "Let's get ya inta the house where ya can be comfortable."

 

"'M f-fine," Ezra protested weakly.

 

"Know ya are, but ain't you the one always tellin' me the hard ground ain't no place for a gentleman ta sleep?" Tanner kept his voice soft.

 

Standish swiveled his head to focus blearily on the Texan beside him. "V-Vin?"

 

The sharpshooter's smile saddened at the con man's bewildered expression, as Chris took more of his weight when Ezra swayed drunkenly. "Ya believe what Chris is telling ya, Pard. He's right, ya know. Everything's gonna be just fine."

 

*******

 

"Nathan?" Larabee posed the unasked question as the healer sank down on the porch steps, leaving Wilmington inside to watch over Ezra.

 

Settling the gambler into one of the bedrooms the men had spent the next several hours fetching water and taking turns helping the healer care for their resident con man. Larabee had sent JD back to town with instructions to retrieve the southerner’s clean clothes and nightshirts as well as any items Nathan might need from the clinic.

 

The sheriff had been instructed to inform Mary of their location in case of trouble although it had been decided one of the men would return each night to watch over the hamlet and one of them would make a daily appearance.

 

"He's gonna be pretty sick for the next few days, but the quinine's already helping." Nathan rubbed the tense muscles in the back of his neck. "Hell of it is, this could probably have been avoided. At least most of it."

 

"Meaning?" Josiah queried.

 

"Meanin' he ain't been doin' what he should. He's supposed ta eat better and get more sleep than he does. With this heat we been havin', he shouldn't have been exertin' himself, which is probably the only thing he's been doin' right. We all know how he feels about menial labor."

 

In his days as a slave, Nathan had seen plantation owners retreat to the comfort of their homes, shutting themselves away from the heat. He'd seen share croppers plow their fields using torch light and the richest owners, fearing for their lives, run from the lowland regions at the beginning of the fever season. The healer suddenly found himself wondering exactly how much of the gambler's loudly vocalized distaste of physical labor was merely another con.

 

"Meanin' if he'd told me 'bout this in the first place, I coulda watched over him, looked for the signs and maybe prevented some a this from happenin'."

 

"Which is most likely why he didn't say anything," the ex-priest pointed out with a weary sigh. "He knows what woulda happened if he'd told you or any a us, he'd survived a bout a malaria. We'd all a started watchin' over him, scrutinizing his every action and expression. Reckoned we'd try mollycoddling him."

 

"Would you want ol' Chris, there, watching yer every move? He's damn near as bad as Buck when it comes ta mother hennin'. Or how 'bout Nate hoverin' around, ready ta haul yer ass up ta the clinic first time ya sneezed?" Tanner gave them a lopsided grin, taking the sting outta his words.

 

"Hell, Vin he'd just look at that as another opportunity ta drive 'em both nuts." Josiah chuckled.

 

Larabee kept his silence. He had his own suspicions of Ezra's reasons for keeping his condition a secret. Reasons he would discuss with the gambler when Standish was once more able to defend himself.

 

"Need ta get as much fluid in him as possible, till his fever breaks. Keep 'im from dehydratin'." Nathan hurried back inside at the distant sound of another coughing spell.

 

"Seein' as how we're acceptin' the hospitality of neighbors we ain’t even met yet, it seems to me we might appear a bit more friendly if we finish up some of the repairs they started," the preacher stated, mentally running down a check list of the few things he'd noticed needed fixing in the house and around the property.

 

"I still don't understand what he's doin' here." JD leaned against the porch rail, his worried gaze on the door. "Ya reckon he knows the new owners? Nobody's said anything about 'em arrivin' in town. Maybe he met 'em on patrol or knew 'em from someplace else."

 

"I reckon he most likely knows 'em." Vin shrugged. Unable to completely suppress a small smile, the sharpshooter avoided meeting the other men's eyes.

 

"Come on, Brother Dunne," Josiah clapped a large hand on the smaller man's shoulder, steering him into the house. "Let's start with that broken chair in the kitchen. Least ways when they come back from town -- or where ever -- they'll have some place ta sit and eat. Might keep 'em from shootin' first and askin' questions later."

 

"Ya wanna tell me what's goin' on?" Larabee questioned Vin as soon as he was certain the others were out of hearing.

 

"'Bout what?" the Texan asked artlessly.

 

"Don't pull that innocent act with me, Tanner," the gunslinger warned, a teasing tone in his voice as he folded his arms across his chest. "Ya know damn well --" The words trailed off as the Texan suddenly straightened, once more motioning for silence.

 

The wanted man stood motionless, listening, before a small smile graced his lips. "It's all right, Kne'ka," he called softly. "Nobody's gonna hurt ya."

 

Larabee struggled to hide his surprise as the young woman hesitantly stepped from the cover provided by the small shed situated between the house and barn.

 

*******

 

EPILOGUE

 

Chris gently lifted the small woman into his arms and, gingerly stepping over the tracker who was stretched out on the bedroll on the floor, carried the exhausted woman to the second bedroom where Buck had the bed already prepared with clean sheets, the quilt pulled down.

 

"Shh, Ezra's gonna be just fine, little one," Buck murmured when she stirred as they pulled the blankets up over her shoulders. "Ya been a real big help. Ya just get some rest now."

 

Nica had admitted following JD from town, but stubbornly refused to leave, insisting she wanted to repay Ezra for taking care of her when she was injured. She had steadfastly ignored their arguments the southerner would be upset if she fell ill because of him, saying the spirits would protect her. Realizing she wasn't going to leave, short of being hog-tied and dragged from the yard, they had no choice but to allow her to stay.

 

The past few days she'd left the gambler's side only long enough to help prepare the meals for the six men or to wash the bed linens

 

Ezra had slept peacefully through the day since his fever had finally succumbed to the quinine and Nathan's ministrations.

 

"Get some sleep, Nica," Larabee whispered, laying a soothing hand on her head as she mumbled the con man's name. "We'll come and get ya when he wakes up."

 

"Hey, Pard, looks like when it comes ta women, Ez's luck has finally changed," Buck nudged Chris as the gunslinger pulled the door closed behind them. "We might wanna take advantage of the situation and start sitting in on his poker games more often. Ya know what they say about luck when it comes ta love and cards." The jovial womanizer grinned, wiggling his eyebrows.

 

"Ya really think luck has anything ta do with his card skills?" The gunslinger chuckled, moving down the short hallway as Buck grimaced at the thought of losing his money to the suave southerner.

 

*******

 

The light of pre-dawn had just begun to chase away the darkness when Ezra released a small sigh, stretching sore muscles before forcing his eyes open, startled to find Larabee sitting at his bedside, offering a glass of water.

 

Chris slipped an arm about the southerner's shoulders supporting the gambler as the cool liquid quenched his thirst and eased his parched throat. Returning the emptied glass to the nightstand, Larabee propped another pillow behind Ezra's back.

 

"Thank you, Mr. Larabee."

 

"How ya feelin'?"

 

"Tired. Better. Confused --"

 

The gambler's eyes widened as the gunslinger suddenly loomed over him, gripping his shoulders, anger flaring in the dark hazel eyes. "When the hell are you gonna learn ta trust us? We wouldn't a thrown ya out on your ass, ya know?"

 

"Ex-excuse me?" Ezra stammered, bewildered by the gunman’s words and actions.

 

"Isn't that why ya didn't tell us? Because you were afraid we'd run your ass outta town? Afraid a catchin' it ourselves?" Larabee pressed, not giving the gambler time to think of a lie. "We wouldn't have done that, Ezra. We'd a stood by ya, just like we did. Just like you do every time one of us needs help."

 

"Mr. Larabee I apologize if --"

 

"Ain't no need for your apologies, Ezra." Chris straightened. Folding his arms, Larabee's gaze softened as he stood staring down at the southerner. "There is, however, a need for you ta learn that you're one of us. You'd have to do a lot worse than get sick before we'd throw your conniving ass ta the wolves. I know there are times, Ezra, when... well, it seems we forget how much you've changed but even then...."

 

Praying no one else interrupted, Vin kept his breathing even and his eyes closed as his friend searched for the words he needed to say to the enigmatic black sheep of their unique family.

 

"...The truth is we do forget how much you've changed -- how much we've all changed since we first came together. And the hard truth is, most people only believe what they want to believe --"

 

"You can't change human nature, Mr. Larabee," Ezra quietly pointed out.

 

"That's not true." The gunslinger pulled the chair closer, sitting down and resting his forearms on his knees. "You're proof of that. We all know ya don't cheat at cards -unless it's needed." Chris smiled at the pink tingeing the gambler's cheeks. "How many times have ya ignored your ma's number one rule in order to help one of us? Ya went outta your way-"

 

"Please, Mr. Larabee, let's not pretend I'm some kind of reformed saint," the gambler scoffed. "You seem to have conveniently forgotten that I also intended to abscond with all that money when the governor was in town --"

 

"If you had really wanted to leave, you and that money would have been long gone and Mary Travis would be dead."

 

"Are you forgetting my attempt to con Mr. Jackson out of the property left to him because of the gold it was reported to contain?"

 

"We've all seen ya run a con, Ezra." Chris grinned. "Do you really think any of us believe if you'd seriously wanted that property, you've have approached Nathan instead of the other settlers. The ones he gave it to."

 

Ezra tried to look offended. "I simply discovered the gold was nothing more than a rumor."

 

"I don't think so. I think you knew you could easily con them outta that land. If nothing else, you could have sold it for a healthy profit, but that would have meant leaving Four Corners. That would have meant leaving the six of us. Leavin' your family." Larabee's expression sobered. "Ezra, we all know how hard it is to go against what seems ta come natural. What I'm sayin' is we all need help at times. You just gotta trust us to be there when ya need that help."

 

Certain that anything more would overwhelm both men and not wanting to give the con man a chance to think about the fact he had attempted to ask for help and been refused, Tanner made a show of stretching and yawning before pulling himself into a sitting position. "Hey, Ez, good ta see ya awake. Feelin' better?"

 

"Good morning to you, Mr. Tanner, and yes, thank you, I'm feeling much better." The southerner smiled. "Might I inquire as to your own well being?"

 

"Starvin'!"

 

"Well my biscuits aren't as good as Nica's, but I'll see if I can rustle us up some breakfast," Larabee volunteered. They'd all been surprised at how much Miz Potter had taught the Indian woman.

 

Attempting to stifle a yawn, Ezra froze. "Nica? Here?"

 

"Yeah, Pard, she's been here damn near the entire time," Tanner explained, taking the chair Chris had vacated. "She's sleepin' in the other bedroom. Tried ta send her back ta town, but she's damn near as stubborn as you. She's a good woman, Ez. One who'll stick by ya."

 

"The same can be said for your Miz Garth." The corners of the con man's lips tilted upwards with the soft words as the emerald eyes fluttered closed.

 

*******

 

Surrounded by his friends, Ezra was seated on the front porch, laughing as Josiah, JD regaled them with the return of Homer Jenkins, and the hardheaded Missouri mule he called Sally Mae.

 

Seated cross-legged on the floor beside him, Nica found herself caught up in their amusement as the others told their own stories of the miner, the gambler's dimples deepening at her laughter.

 

"We brought back some stuff ta restock the supplies we used since bein' here," JD announced. "Don't want the new owners thinkin' we're thieves or somethin'."

 

"I greatly doubt anyone would consider such a thing, Mr. Dunne," Ezra stated confidently. "Especially, since I am well acquainted with the person in question. Gentlemen, I understand from Mr. Tanner you were upset because you had plans when I approached you for help a few days ago."

 

"Only thing I's pissed off 'bout is cause ya didn't ask me," Vin admitted with a lopsided grin.

 

"Didn't ask me either," Chris pointed out.

 

"Mr. Tanner, you were helping Miz Nettie and with the rest of us busy, you, Mr. Larabee were needed to watch over our charming town," the southerner patiently explained.

 

"Well ain't none of us got plans now, Ezra," Buck quietly stated, “iffen yer still in need of that help.”

 

"Thank you, Mr. Wilmington, but it appears that during my incapacitation you have succeeded in accomplishing the favor I intended to request. That is, you assisted me in making the needed repairs on this place for the new owner." Ezra turned his attention to the woman at his side. "Miss Nica, I have been giving a great deal of consideration to your current circumstances and future prospects and thinks I have found the perfect solution."

 

The others exchanged excited glances, wondering if they were about to witness the gambler's marriage proposal.

 

"After watching the way you were able to help when Mr. Reynold's stallion came up lame, I spoke with Mr. Tanner, Yosemite and several others. I understand from Yosemite that you also have a unique way of breaking a horse to ride without breaking their spirit. I firmly believe you could make quite a handsome living treating the horses and other livestock in the territory." Ezra pulled a paper from the inside pocket of the jacket Tanner had brought him. "Therefore, this place now belongs to you."

 

Nica stared at the paper he pressed into her hand, "I do not understand." She shook her head, frowning.

 

"That piece of paper which I will entrust Mr. Dunne to keep in the jail safe, means this land now belongs to you. This is your new home, Nica. If you want it to be." Ezra's smile widened at the wonder reflected in her dark eyes. "As I'm not quite up to riding yet, I would appreciate it if you gentleman would escort Miss Nica about so that she may fully survey her property."

 

"Be my pleasure," Buck offered, holding out a hand to help Nica to her feet.

 

"Ezra, I think this is a really nice gesture, but-" Nathan began.

 

"Mr. Jackson, I understand your skepticism, but let me assure everyone; this is nothing more than a proper business arrangement. I provided Miss Nica with a home and in return I will take a small percentage -- an extremely small percentage, I might add --of any profits gained from her work." The gambler kept his poker face firmly in place, hiding the fact the joy he'd felt only a moment before had been so swiftly crushed under the weight of the healer's suspicions.

 

He knew rumors were bound to run rampant, spread by the those in town who didn't like him, his ways or Nica, and he seriously hoped that those rumors wouldn't harm the young woman who held his heart, but the fact Nathan had immediately found his actions suspect,  cut into his soul more than he wanted to admit.

 

"Actually, Ezra, I was gonna suggest ya might wanna put your name on that deed, too, as a sorta legal precaution. Some people, like Guy Royal, won't appreciate an Indian ownin' property he wants. Hate to say it, but he's bound to raise a fuss the minute he hears Miss Nica is gonna live here."

 

"He's right, son," Josiah agreed. "Royal doesn't have a tendency to do things legal, but someone else might try ta use the court system ta take what, thanks to your generosity, rightfully belongs to Miss Nica."

 

"Might wanna talk ta the judge about anything else ya can do to insure no one can take it away from her. Hate ta say it, but lots of folks don't recognize Indian's rights to own land in these parts." Larabee suggested.

 

"An excellent suggestion," the gambler relaxed, gracing the healer with a brilliant smile. "Thank you, Nathan. I...I never gave that a thought. I shall see to it post haste."

 

"First, you'll get yer butt in there and take a nap while the rest of the fellas show Nica around," Nathan ordered. "Reckon, the two of you can talk about your plans this evenin'."

 

"Hey, Ezra, can I ask ya somethin'?"

 

"Of course, Mr. Dunne."

 

"We found window pane glass in with the supplies, but didn't see no broke windows anywhere--"

 

"Just an idea I need to speak with Mr. Sanchez about," the gambler explained, realizing he hadn't satisfied the young sheriff's curiosity. "Actually Mr. Riker kept the place in remarkably good shape."

 

He pushed to his feet, willing to accede to Nathan's wishes. Taking Nica's hand, he stepped away from the others, lowering his voice. "My dear, I realize this may seem strange to you and it certainly isn't like being with your people -- your family, but if you will permit me to pass on a bit of knowledge I have recently acquired. All it takes to really make a home is friends."

 

Her eyes bright with unshed tears of happiness, Nica placed a soft kiss on his cheek. Glancing back at the emerald-eyed con man as she followed the others to the barn, her own eyes glowed with unspoken love as she saw his smile of contentment as Ezra let Nathan assist him into the house.

 

*******

 

Waving to the two men as Ezra and Josiah rode away into the darkness, Nica entered the small house -- her house, -- she realized with a unfamiliar sense of belonging, carefully placing the bar across the door as Ezra had repeatedly instructed.

 

She'd moved into her new home three weeks prior, the seven men accompanied by Mary, Mrs. Potter, Nettie Wells and half the town arriving the next day with prepared food and little house warming gifts. She had been somewhat overwhelmed by their warm welcome and their offers of best wishes.

 

Thanks to Larabee and the others, word had passed and several of the neighboring ranchers had already approached her and three horses now occupied the stalls in the barn. She would begin working with them in the morning.

 

She still found herself amazed that the man she loved thought enough of her to give her a fine home, asking nothing of her in return.

 

A smile tugged at her lips as she moved to the bedroom. Still unused to having a wooden roof over her head, Nica had spent the first few nights at the homestead sleeping in the shelter of the nearby trees, under the blanket of stars.

 

Ezra had said nothing at finding her sleeping outside, but she thought she saw the disapproval in his emerald eyes. She knew he worried for her safety for, unlike in town, there was no one to protect her out here.

 

Her smile brightened as, blowing out the lamp, Nica climbed into the bed. The smile softened and she thought her heart would burst with the deep rush of love for Ol' Ez.

 

There, in the roof above her was a window made of the panes of glass JD had remarked upon. Ezra and Josiah had installed them that afternoon, giving her a clear view of the night sky.

 

With a soft sigh, she drifted off to sleep, the twinkling stars watching over her, a constant reminder of Ezra's love.

 

THE END