It was mid morning, the sky was a glorious blue, with a hint of haze on the horizon as, whistling a light tune, and politely tipping his hat in greeting to passersby, Ezra Standish made his way to the livery.

 

Things had been quiet – too quiet, his inner voice interjected – and Larabee had felt an afternoon patrol every other day was sufficient to patrol the town and surrounding area.

 

In fact, things had become so quiet, Chris had taken a few days to work on that shack he called his cabin, Vin had ridden out to spend time with Lucy, JD was visiting with Casey and Nathan and Josiah had made a trip out to the Indian village, leaving Buck and Ezra to keep a watchful eye on things in town.

 

Now, strangely feeling restricted in town, as if Vin Tanner had begun rubbing off on him in some way, the gambler felt the urge to take Chaucer out for a run. The gelding had been stalled and was as restless as his owner was.

 

Pulling the saddle cinch tight and checking the stirrups, Ezra fed the animal one of the peppermints his four-legged friend loved. A bright smile came to his handsome face and lit his emerald eyes at the sight greeting him as he led the horse from the livery.

 

Nica was approaching him, leading her pinto mare, the leggy foal running at her heels. The young woman twisted the hackamore reins in her fingers. "Is – it permitted for me to ride with you?" she questioned nervously.

 

Ezra nodded. "Of course it is and I would be delighted with your charming company."

 

He knew Larabee would probably kick his ass all the way back across the Mississippi if he was around, afraid Ezra would be putting Nica in danger by allowing her to accompany him, but things had been so quiet and since it wasn't a regularly scheduled patrol in the line of duty, he could always argue the two of them were simply taking a morning ride.

 

Assisting her onto the horse, he swung up into his own saddle. Touching heels to the bay, he reined out of town, Nica at his side.

 

*******

 

He drew rein and removing his hat, swiped the sweat from the inner band. Earlier it had been pleasant, but as the day progressed, the air had become muggy, and the heat and humidity just seemed to keep climbing.

 

He glanced at Nica who sat her horse quietly beside him. Resting his forearms on the saddle horn he questioned, "Mrs. Potter is treating you well?"

 

The Indian woman nodded as she smoothed the mare's mane with her long fingers. "I like her and the children," she admitted.

 

Like Mary Travis or Nettie Wells, Mrs. Potter had the courage and inner strength to stand by her convictions, never letting others dictate her actions. Taken by Nica's plight, unconcerned with her heritage, the older woman had approached Ezra. Realizing the gambler had acted on impulse and out of necessity without time to think of the girl's future, she had offered to take the girl into her home until other more suitable arrangements could be made.

 

A quick learner and wanting to help the kind storekeeper, Nica had begun to help in the Mercantile, sweeping, dusting, helping stock the shelves until several townsfolk, still fueled by Guy Royal's ranting, had raised a ruckus about her kind. Not wanting the young woman hurt by the unkind remarks, Mrs. Potter had asked her to look after the children.

 

Ezra would never forget overhearing the storekeeper telling her more outspoken customers they were welcome to take their business elsewhere, but while in her store they would treat others with respect and keep their bigoted opinions to themselves. The gambler's already high estimation of the older woman had doubled.

 

Nica had taken to the Potter children like a duck to water. Not much more than a child herself, what she lacked in formal education, she made up for with a quick wit, ready smile, and helpful nature. Her bright spirit and exuberance more than kept the children happily occupied while Mrs. Potter tended to the store's time-consuming business. After breakfast each morning, the three of them tackled the household chores, the Indian woman finding a way to make even the most mundane chores fun. In the afternoon, she taught the boy and girl games the children from her village played, let them teach her their games, told them stories and gave riding lessons.

 

The other children in town adored her and envied the Potter children. With each passing day, the other children’s parents came to discover she wasn't the enemy. While she wasn’t welcomed with open arms, she was begrudgingly accepted and an uneasy truce had settled over the town.

 

Of an evening, before taking his turn at patrolling the town, Ezra made it a point to stop and see the young woman, sometimes escorting her to dinner, sometimes just walking, and listening as she told him of her day. However, most nights they passed in quiet enjoyment of each other’s company seated on Mrs. Potter's porch swing.

 

The torch Ezra carried, which had been lit the moment he'd looked into those enormous dark eyes of hers, continued to flare. And the more time spent with the quiet young woman, the brighter that flame grew and the deeper he fell.

 

He was no stranger to women, having had his fair share, but the ones who had truly touched his heart were rare. LiPong, Janine and now this special woman no one seemed to want, but him.

 

Since bringing her to Four Corners, he had given her predicament much thought.

 

In LiPong's situation, it had been a simple solution of giving the young Chinese girl the necessary funds for her to return to her family. Her departure had torn away a piece of his heart and while he knew it was what was best for her, at her leaving, Ezra had reinforced the wall around his heart two fold.

 

With Nica, it wasn't a matter of money for there was no amount which could return her to her people. She could return to her father's village or choose to live in Chanu's, but because of her blood and circumstances, it would be as an outcast, living on the outskirts, looked down upon, treated worse then some of the natives’ captives. They simply did not want her and the residents of Four Corners weren't much better.

 

There was literally no place for her… other than in his heart.

 

Nica had come to Four Corners because of him. Because he had asked her to come with him. He had offered to protect her and help her build a new life and that's exactly what he intended to do.... Somehow.

 

"Vin says Lucy will come to town soon." Her quiet words broke into his thoughts.

 

He nodded. "I believe he did. There is a dance Sunday night." Ezra ducked his head, suddenly shy as a schoolboy as he stammered, "W-would you like to go?"

 

Her dark eyes sparkled. "It would please me.... If you take me."

 

"But of course!" Her expression brought a happy smile to the gambler's face. Thinking about it, he couldn't recall ever smiling as much before this beautiful creature came into his life.

 

They urged their horses on and rode side by side in companionable silence, Ezra surreptitiously glancing at her out of the corner of his eye. He enjoyed just looking at her, happy just to be with her.

 

She frowned and suddenly reined up. Nica raised her eyes and looked skyward, pointing to the roiling clouds building on the horizon. "Storm.”

 

Ezra laughed. "You sounds like Mister Tanner," he joked.

 

"He knows to read the clouds, too?" she questioned, looking at him. "Do you?"

 

His laughter grew. "Little one, I can read the cards and men's faces when they sit at my table, but this…" he waved a hand at the land surrounding them, "alas, I only know what I've picked up on the trail and what Mister Tanner has attempted to teach me."

 

"He is a wise man," she remarked. "He knows the ways of The People."

 

"He lived with them before he came here," he commented, just to keep her talking, enjoying the odd cadence of her speech.

 

"Where…where did you live, Ol' Ez, before you came here?"

 

Ezra shifted in the saddle, "Well, quite a few places. Many places. I don't even remember the names."

 

She frowned, studying him. "They were not important enough to you to remember?"

 

He stared at her face. "Nothin' was important… until I came here," he confessed.

 

"You are … happy… here?"

 

He nodded, never surer of anything in his life. "I've never been happier," he admitted quietly, realizing he had never expressed that sentiment to anyone before. But something about the young woman drew truthfulness out of him.

 

He had thought he could tell Janine anything and had had his heart ripped apart, but with Nica, he knew he could admit anything. He could tell her his darkest secrets and know she wouldn't judge or think any less of him. In addition, he knew Nica wouldn't use what he said against him.

 

A sudden down pouring of rain cut the conversation short and they raced for the shelter of the near by rocks to wait out the storm.

 

Shouting above the thunder and rain, Nica pointed to a cave she spotted among the boulders and shrubbery, reining her horse in that direction.

 

The entrance was wide enough to accommodate the horses and Ezra shooed Nica further inside as he quickly hitched the horses to a downed log he dragged half way inside and loosened Chaucer's cinch, double-checking the tied reins. He didn't want to take the chance of being stranded afoot if the weather frightened the horses into bolting.

 

Shaking the wetness from his hat, his emerald gaze sweeping about for stray pieces of wood they could use to start a fire, and finding none, he crossed the distance to where the young woman had settled on the sandy floor, attempting to wring the wetness from her hair. Shedding his coat and draping it over a rock outcropping, he sat down beside her, smiling as she shook her hair, slinging water drops in all directions.

 

It struck him Maude would be appalled. This was not the type of woman she intended for her son to become involved with. There was such a natural way about the native girl. He couldn't help but remember how some of the proper ladies his mother had attempted to fix him up with would pop their fancy umbrellas at the falling of evening dew. He absently shook his head, glad that was all behind him now.

 

Funny, but he had no doubt it wouldn't take long for the beautiful young woman's sweet nature to completely win over his mother. After a few days with the native girl, Maude Standish would be convinced her son wasn't good enough for this child of nature... And as always, she would be right.

 

The southerner once more focused on the woman at his side to discover she was unabashedly staring at him as she loosened her braid to let the air dry her hair.

 

Tilting his head, running fingers through his own damp hair, he softly continued the vein of their earlier interrupted conversation. "And you, Miss Nica, are you happy here?"

 

Giving his question serious thought, she ducked her head, busying herself with untangling a knot in her long hair. He honestly did not think she was going to answer, then, as thunder rumbled outside, nearly drowning out her words, she nodded. "Yes, Ol' Ez, I am happiest here."

 

He frowned slightly, puzzled over her wording. "Have you not been happy elsewhere?" he asked softly.

 

The movement of her fingers stilled, but she did not look at him. "Do you know the ways of The People?"

 

He shrugged. "Mister Tanner has explained a little to me."

 

"About me?" she inquired, her voice quivering.

 

He had no wish to hurt Nica, but could find no reason not to be honest and, in truth, found himself unable and unwilling to lie to her. "Yes, little one, I asked him about your …. circumstances."

 

She did not know the word, but understood his tone. Pushing to her feet, she moved away from him.

 

Ezra gained his feet, but didn't step closer, afraid of frightening her. "If I have offended or embarrassed you in some way, I apologize. I didn't mean…."

 

Nica shook her head, wrapping her arms about herself as if to keep her courage from escaping as she turned to finally face him, her eyes shimmering brightly. "Your words do not offend me, Ol' Ez," she was quick to assure him. She took a deep breath and stood straighter. "I know what Vin must have told you. He lived with The People and knows our ways. He is a friend to Chanu, but he does not know all…."

 

She drew in a deep breath and looked out at the driving rain, knowing the only escape was to rush out into it, which she did not wish to do. Ol' Ez deserved to know her truth. He had been nothing but kind to her and had asked nothing, demanded nothing of her. Something deep inside her wanted this gentle man to know.

 

"I never knew my mother's people, other than the traders who came to the village and even then, only at a distance. In my heart, I was one of The People. My father always treated me as a beloved daughter and showed no difference in my white blood. Most of our tribe did the same, but there were those in the village…." She swallowed hard, her voice lowering. "Those in the village who made things difficult for me. It did not matter I was the daughter of a brave chief who had counted coup against our enemies many times. I was outcast, alone. Some in the village went out of their way to abuse me, but I kept my silence, not wanting to show weakness by running to my father to protect me. And some took great delight in always telling me each day no brave would have me… that my father would receive no ponies for me. And after a fashion, I-I-I …accepted that…."

 

Ezra stepped closer as her quiet words were nearly inaudible in the storm's rumblings. He silently watched as she pet the filly, the horse calming under her soothing touch, waiting mutely for her to continue. He could imagine what she had suffered and still did. He wanted so desperately to gather Nica in his arms and tell her she would never be alone again, but her next words stopped any actions, afraid if he moved, she would fall silent.

 

"I had no say in my father's decision when Tantu asked for my hand. A squaw is obedient and does what she is told. And I felt pleased at my father's acceptance. I could hold my head high with pride. The others were wrong and I was wanted. I would live in the village of my father's brother where I had spent many happy seasons. I stupidly believed I was to be Tantu's mate, the mother of many fine braves." Her shoulders slumped, her gaze locking on the floor between her feet. "Instead, he –he traded me…." Her head came up as Ezra moved a step closer, her eyes shining brightly with unshed tears, "….traded me for whiskey, saying he would never dishonor his family or taint his blood by lying with me. He said all I was good for was a ration of the white man's rotgut and a lame packhorse… "

 

Ezra's breath caught and his heart clenched at the sad aching hurt in the woman's plaintive words. All he wanted was to gather her in the shelter of his arms and soothe away all the hurt and pain she had suffered in her young life.

 

Instead, he gave her the only thing he could: the truth.

 

His voice soft, he stood, quietly willing to reveal a part of him he had never shared with anyone…. Not even Li Pong or Janine. "I grew up alone, too. And I don't think I knew what happiness was until I came here," he admitted, somewhat amazed that he could open himself so freely to this woman. "I've done things I'm not proud of… things I can never take back or alter. I was raised to cheat, lie and use people to get what I wanted and believed that was the way of things.”

 

He sighed softly, a gentle smile tilting his lips as he continued, "And then I stopped here. My only intentions were to con money enough from the locals to stake my move to bigger and better things. Instead… instead I encountered Mister Larabee and his motley little group of do-gooders. And they asked me to join them in the saving of the Indian village.” There was a touch of awe in his voice. "I'd never been asked anything before…except maybe to get my ass outta town before the sun rose…" his expression became thoughtful. "It was a strange feeling… being asked to help these selfless men. I don't know, Nica, maybe I thought if I went with them, their goodness, their selflessness would rub off on me. Truth is, it was most likely the possibility of finding gold that swayed my decision. However, I went with them and when the going got rough, I ran out on them. I ran out on them," he repeated quietly. "That was my way, my life, how it had always been. But I went back… They were good men, and I couldn't leave them there to die without doing something to try and save them."

 

"You are a brave man, Ol' Ez."

 

The gambler shook his head in denial of her words. "I wasn't trying to be brave. I just didn't want them to suffer because they were trying to do something right and good and noble... or because they had mistakenly put their trust in someone like me. And Larabee gave me a second chance." He laughed softly. "An honorable man like that gave me a second chance. I never knew how badly I wanted one until he offered it…. And I've stayed. I earned my pardon from the Judge and I still stayed because… because it feels right to be here. For the first time in my life, I belong somewhere. I have friends… good men whom I'd die for, but, of course, I'd never tell them that," a small smile touched his lips, "and a home where I am accepted…" His smile widened as he amended, "Well, sometimes, I am, but it's enough to be wanted... Even if I'm only wanted by six other misfits. It's what I have always sought after… maybe what I was looking for all my life…. Therefore, I know you can find what you are searching for. I hope you can find that here... with us... With me... but if not, I know you will find your place in this world... The place where you belong."

 

She crossed the cave floor, moving away from him and reached out to stroke the foal's soft nose as it gently snuffed her hand.

 

Nica turned to stare at him, her dark eyes wounded. How could she tell this man, that other than her father and uncle, he was the first person who had treated her respect? That wasn't quite true. Vin and the others were kind to her, treated her as if she belonged, but it wasn't the same.

 

It was different with Ol' Ez. In the time she'd spent with him, she could almost let herself believe she meant something to him – and had value in his eyes. She frowned at his expression. His eyes had deepened in color and his brow was furrowed. It was almost as if her earlier words had caused him hurt. A strange feeling washed over her as she realized it was concern and caring which was reflected towards her...and something else... Fear.

 

She knew it was a fear she would turn away from him just as the people in her village had turned away from her. A tentative smile tugged at her lips as that realization sank in.

 

Seeing her expression change, Ezra took the steps necessary to close the distance between them. He stopped several paces from her and looked down into her face,

 

"Tantu was wrong, Miss Nica. If there's any justice in this world, someday he'll realize just how wrong he was and spend the rest of his days in regret. He was too blind to see that your father had given him a prize beyond measure." I-I-I…"

 

He had opened his fragile heart to her, willing to bare all his flaws and sins to this beautiful creature who had stolen his heart the moment she had looked up at him from the security of Tanner's arms.

 

He had given his tender heart and fragile soul that he had kept locked away for so long, jealously guarding it from entanglements since the incident with Janine. Now, those hurts were in the past and the future was right here, right now, staring up at him with dark shining eyes.

 

Seeing her gentle expression and what he hoped was love in her glowing eyes, he knew this woman was the keeper of his heart...  for now... for always. She had broken down all his defenses and touched him in a way no other woman ever had…

 

The silver-tongued gambler found himself at a loss for words as he stared into her eyes, flustered and embarrassed.

 

"Miss Nica… I – I.—"

 

She reached up and gently laid a slender finger against his lips as she nodded, her eyes dancing and her smile bright. "You honor me, Ol' Ez…."

 

Her simple admission stole the breath from him and gathering her gently in his arms, the tentative kiss he claimed deepened as Nica's arms slipped around his neck and the storm raged on beyond the cave.

 

*******

 

As it finally appeared the storm had passed over them, Ezra moved to the horses, wanting to escape the confines of the cave and the closeness of Nica.

 

He was always a gentleman and had once told her he would never force himself on her, but Nica stirred him like no other woman had and while she remained so close, he wasn't sure he would be able to resist temptation. Right now, the southerner wasn't willing to tempt fate or push her further than she was willing to go.

 

"All good things come to he who waits…,” he kept reminding himself as he tightened Chaucer's cinch. Nica deserved to be treated as respectfully as any other woman, regardless of his own desire. Gathering the pinto's reins, he led the animals outside.

 

Looking about, the sky overhead had a strange sickly green color to it and he frowned at the sight of a dark cloud hanging near by. It had a straight bottom edge and he could actually see daylight beyond it.

 

Nica came up beside him, turning her gaze skyward as well.

 

He looked around, feeling on edge, the hairs at the nape of his neck standing on end. Something wasn't right.... "It's quiet," he murmured, "too quiet…" Hadn't he thought that very thing this morning?

 

The horses suddenly began dancing nervously, tugging at the reins as without warning, hail pelted down, bouncing off the ground like the rubber ball in a child's game of Jacks..

 

Snorting with fear, the whites of their eyes showing brightly in the darkening weather, the animals struggled to free themselves, fighting to follow their instincts and flee. The mare neighed and reared, jerking the leathers from the gambler's grasp. Spinning with a loud snort of fear, the mare raced away, the foal on her heels.

 

The gambler spun around, "What the hell…?"

 

As the sky suddenly blackened, the sound was upon them, like a locomotive building up steam. Nica screamed in terror, Chaucer reared, fighting the reins in an attempt to dash after the mare as tree limbs, leaves, and dust began to swirl about them.

 

Shoving the young woman back inside the cave and dragging the resisting horse with him, the gambler moved them all to the rear wall, as the wind howled and heavy debris flew past the opening.

 

As the wind reached a crescendo, it seemed as if the very air was being sucked right out of the cave and Ezra, still clinging to Chaucer's reins, drew Nica close to him to protect her… It felt as if the very walls were going to collapse on them and it was hard to breathe…

 

Then, just as quickly, it was over. Ezra stepped away from her and attempted a reassuring smile. "Twister," he explained.

 

Nica nodded, making a circular motion with her hand. "It cleanses the earth and takes away that which is evil."

 

Ezra nodded, dropping a light kiss on her forehead. That made as much sense as anything he could think of. Leaving Chaucer with Nica, he moved to the cave mouth and looked outside. His green eyes widened in shocked disbelief.

 

The trees left standing in the storm's wake had been striped of leaves and where one was uprooted, the one next to it was undamaged. A wide strip of soil had been scoured away as the twister had torn along the ground, soil, grass and rocks ripped away as if some giant farmer had taken a plow and turned the earth.

 

Nica came up beside him, Chaucer docile beside her. She slipped a tiny hand into the gambler's. "The twisting winds did much damage," she pointed out, awed by the destruction as well.

 

"But it moved on." He eyed the sky, which was now showing patches of blue. "I think it is clearing off."

 

He had once heard that twisters trailed behind a main storm and hopefully, it appeared to be true. Shaking his head at the damage, he climbed into the saddle and taking her hand, smiled as Nica gracefully swung up on the horse behind him, comfortably locking her arms around his waist.

 

"We'll go find your mare." Giving her locked hands a tender pat, he reined the gelding in the direction the mare had escaped.

 

Curiosity getting the better of him, he rode to the top of the nearest ridge to survey the storm's damage from that higher point. His emerald eyes grew wide with shock.

 

The twister had stayed on the ground. He could plainly see the downed trees and destroyed earth as it had torn its path of destruction. Looking around, getting his bearings, his face suddenly paled as he realized exactly where he was. If the twister had stayed on the ground and not changed direction, it had been headed straight for Chris Larabee's place.

 

Sudden fear washed over him and without explaining to Nica, he spun the gelding and headed in that direction. Sensing his fear and urgency, Nica did not question his actions.

 

*******

 

Fear clenched at Ezra's heart as he topped the final rise and slowed Chaucer's frantic run. Against his better judgment, knowing any misstep could mean injuring the animal; they had raced along the storm's path of destruction, stunned into awed silence by the devastation wrought by nature.

 

The gambler had prayed with Chaucer's every pounding stride that they would see that the twister had changed directions or, better yet, had lifted into the heavens and his fear would have been for naught.

 

But it was evident that prayed for miracle had not happened.

 

If anything, it looked as if the storm had gained momentum and increased in severity as it had torn through the little valley leading up to Chris' cabin and plunged down the slope, uprooting trees, and scouring the ground.

 

Although Ezra knew Chris had chosen this spot for it adjacent meadows and hills, he realized now what a mistake that had been. The surrounding hills had served to channel the winds straight into the little valley owned by Larabee.

 

Now, reining up on the ridge, Ezra closed his eyes, unable to look even as he heard Nica's gasp of dismay. In his overwhelming concern for his friend, he had forgotten she was still with him.

 

Forcing open his eyes, waves of helplessness washed over him as he stared at the destruction.

 

Although he had often joked in lighthearted fun Larabee's cabin was little more than a shack, he knew it was the gunslinger's home. He was aware of the days Chris and Vin had spent working on the place, building fences and sheds. Buck and the others had often pitched in to create a haven of peace for the man who was so haunted by his memories. To his credit, in an attempt to overcome his past, Larabee had attempted to make a new start here….

 

Now it was gone…. All gone. Once again, the shootist had lost his home, not to a lunatic’s revenge, but to nature itself.

 

The magnificent cottonwood, which had shaded the cabin, was uprooted; the cabin – or what had been a cabin before the storm had imploded it – was crushed to splintered timber beneath its heavy limbs. The outbuildings were gone as if they had never been sweated and toiled over. Although a section was missing, its companion rails hanging in mid air, the corral fence remained.

 

Under normal circumstances, Ezra might have spent time contemplating the ferocity of nature, amazed at how it was such a storm could rip an enormous tree from the ground as easily as if were a blade of grass and yet leave a tiny sapling beside it unharmed. How could it toss boulders about like mere pebbles, dig trenches as wide as rivers, and not disturb the petals of a rose?

 

Glancing around, in the distance he saw the few head of cattle owned by the gunslinger grazing on the undisturbed meadow grass. There was no sign of the black stallion, the packhorse or the breeding mare Chris had just purchased. Perhaps Larabee had ridden back to town before the storm struck.

 

That thought was vanquished as he cautiously guided Chaucer down the slope, through the uprooted trees and rode up to the fence. Larabee's saddle, undisturbed, was still draped over the top rail.

 

Swinging his leg over Chaucer's neck, Ezra dropped to the ground, stumbling over the scattered debris. Choking on a sob, fearing what he might find, he ran for the splintered remains of the structure, unaware Nica took the time to carefully hitch the gelding to the corral fence before hurrying after him.

 

On the worn path that led to the cabin's front door -- or what had been Chris' front door -- or rather what had been the peacekeeper’s cabin, Ezra's footsteps faltered and slowed to a halt. There was nothing, only splintered wood and a few stones from the fireplace left standing. Astonishingly, a pot of blooming flowers stood untouched in their wooden bucket, the colorful blossoms swaying gracefully in the breeze not a foot away from the devastation.

 

Shocked, the southerner turned in a slow circle, surveying the damage. The splintered wood of the house was mixed with the bits and pieces recognizable as dishes, clothing, and furniture. However, to his relief he saw nothing, which resembled a human form.

 

Nica quietly moved up beside him and he stared down at her, shaking his head. "He's here… I can –" He trailed off. How could he explain to her that he somehow felt the gunslinger's nearness? He never believed in such things before, but the overwhelming sense was too intense to be ignored.

 

"We look," Nica stated firmly, setting off with determined steps, her dark eyes sweeping over the area, stopping, and stooping down to search amongst the wreckage for anyplace a person – or a body -- could be. Ezra felt a surge of gratitude for the young woman's calm direct approach. She didn't question or ridicule something he himself couldn't explain... or understand.

 

Swallowing his own fear of what they might find, he swiped his hand across his face and headed in the opposite direction from Nica. He knew families on the prairies used their root cellars as storm shelters, but Larabee had no such area. The gambler had often heard the old timers say a person should always go to the lowest spot they could find when a twister approached. Surely, Larabee would know to do that.

 

The lowest place here was on the other side of the meadow. Moving quickly toward the depression, he stopped, lifting lumber and rubble out of the way, searching, looking, hoping….

 

A morbid thought surfaced. What if the twister's winds had borne Larabee's body away? It could be anywhere…. If it had, there would be no telling where ---

 

"Ol' Ez!"

 

The loud calling of his name attracted his attention and he spun around. Nica was motioning for him and, dodging the downed trees and debris, he raced across the meadow to her.

 

Panting as he drew closer, he saw the shape of a person buried under the thick limbs of the uprooted trees, which had protected and acted as a windbreak for the far corral, the one Chris planned to use for breaking the horses he wanted to raise. One glance at the mud covered black shirt and he knew she had found Larabee.

 

Scrambling over the limbs, ignoring the branches and twigs that caught at his clothes and scratched his hands, Ezra struggled to reach the gunslinger.

 

"Mister Larabee!" He choked out the words, then more frantically, "Chris!"

 

Fearing his weight on the branches would cause more injury to his friend, the gambler stopped when he was within arm’s length of Larabee. He reached out, maneuvering his hand through he limbs and leaves, his fingers hesitating just inches from the man – afraid he would find his friend cold and lifeless as marble. Closing his eyes, saying a quick prayer to Josiah's God and Nica's, too, he stretched out his hand further, gently feeling for a pulse in the man's neck.

 

His own heart stopped and then jumped at the weak pulse of life he could feel beating beneath his fingertips. He turned to Nica with a relieved smile as he sagged back on his heels. "He's alive."

 

Her smile was bright. "I am glad," she admitted, knowing how much Ol' Ez respected and admired the man who had given him his second chance at life. However, she had not known how strong the gambler's feelings were until she had witnessed his head long rush earlier.

 

She knew this man – along with Vin – was Ezra's best friend whether Larabee realized it or not and she was glad the gentle man she loved had friends such as this.

 

Yet, as she looked closer, her smile of happiness faded. Larabee was pinned under the limbs. Ezra had had trouble getting close enough to touch the man and the two of them certainly couldn't lift the tree. She eyed the horse tied to the fence. They could use him to pull the tree, but there was a chance the movement would shift the trunk, causing it to roll over on the trapped man.

 

"How do we free him?" she questioned quietly, drawing Ezra's attention to that predicament.

 

Ezra began attempting to snap the branches out of the way, but the green limbs simply flexed in his grasp and refused to break. "We need a saw… or an ax."

 

Nica nodded and hurried away, wondering where she would find such an item in all the tangled mass of destruction. She silently berated herself for leaving her belt knife at the house. She knew wearing it upset and frightened the people in town she left it under the bedding she used at Mrs. Potter's house.

 

Ezra reached out, attempting to reassure Larabee he was not alone and to set his own mind at ease that the man was still alive. He knew they needed to free Chris, but…. He frowned. There was no way of knowing if Chris had been running for cover or if the storm had carried him and dropped him here. Either way, the man could have internal or spinal injuries. He needed Nathan here to make that medical assessment.

 

Feeling useless, needing to do something to free his trapped friend Ezra stood, and, gripping branches with one hand, he stomped hard enough to break the smaller limbs, tossing them aside in anger and frustration. Fortune had been on the gunslinger's side as he was pinned under the upper branches. Any lower or closer to the trunk where the branches were thicker and the heavier wood most likely would have crushed him.

 

Nica came hurrying back, a small double ax she found in the rubble in her hand. The handle was cracked, but giving her a grateful smile, Ezra grabbed it and began hacking at the limbs, doing remarkably well for a man who claimed he never 'engaged in menial labor.'

 

Working at his side, Nica mimicked Ezra's early actions, using her slight weight to break the small branches.

 

By the time he had hacked away the branches covering and surrounding Chris, allowing him enough room to kneel next to Larabee, Ezra's clothes were soaked with sweat, his hands bloody and blistered from the damaged ax handle, but he was aware of nothing except the fact Chris was no longer trapped.

 

"Mister Larabee? Chris…" He spoke the man's name, but received no response. He looked at Nica, helplessness reflected in his look.

 

Turning back, he grasped Larabee's muddied shoulder, but Nica grabbed his arm, staying his action. "No!"

 

Startled the southerner turned to look up at her, an angry retort on his lips. However, she shook her head, explaining, "You should not move him…"

 

Ezra gulped, his face flushing as her quiet caution sank in. He knew an injured person should not be moved. Nathan would nail him to the wall and he would never forgive himself if he caused serious or permanent injury to Larabee.

 

He sank down, vacillating, knowing that the older man needed medical assistance, but he was unwilling to leave his friend lying here alone in the mud. Finally swallowing hard, he abruptly pushed to his feet. He turned to speak to Nica, "Stay …"

 

But the young woman was no longer beside him. Glancing about, he saw her running across the meadow to where Chaucer was hitched. Loosing the reins and mounting up, she urged the animal through the debris, back to where Ezra stood.

 

Opening his mouth to thank her, his expression altered as she vaulted to the ground and turned to loosen the cinch, dropping his saddle and gear on the ground at his feet.

 

"Nica, what are you doing?" he demanded, grabbing her arm.

 

With a small smile, she lifted his free hand and placed a light kiss on the mangled palm. "Stay with your friend. I will bring back the healer." Brushing her lips against his cheek, she vaulted up on Chaucer's bare back and the animal, normally vicious with strangers, accepted her weight. "I will return soon."

 

"Wait!" Ezra grabbed the reins, stopping her departure. "Nathan might not be back in town yet." She said nothing as he rested a hand on her leg. "He was going to Chanu's village."

 

He saw the determination in her eyes as she glanced at Larabee before meeting his emerald gaze.

 

"I will bring back healer Nathan." Spinning the horse, she drummed her heels into his sides and dashed off headed in the direction of Four Corners.

 

Ezra stood staring after her, emotions washing over him: surprise, fear, disbelief, worry, gratitude… The young woman seemed to constantly amaze him. Watching as she disappeared over the slope, he picked up the bedroll and canteen, returning to Larabee's side.

 

*******

 

Ezra sat in the mud and damp beside the unconscious man. Larabee hadn't moved or uttered a sound since being found. The gambler was well aware it was not a good sign, but he feared moving the man, afraid he might cause irreparable damage.

 

Folding his jacket, he had gently placed it under Chris' head and covered the gunman with the blankets from his bedroll.

 

A deep laceration on Larabee’s forehead had been revealed when, using his handkerchief and water from the canteen, Ezra had carefully cleaned the mud and blood from as much of Larabee's pale face as possible without turning him over. The gambler prayed that was the worst of the man's injuries, but even without Nathan's medical knowledge, he was certain that was another prayer that wouldn't be answered.

 

Afraid Chris would awaken and try to move, Ezra had gently placed a few of the lighter branches he'd cut away on top of the shootist, hoping if the older man did awaken, he would think he was still trapped, then hurried to the well.

 

Refilling his canteen and freeing the filled oaken water bucket from the pulley rope, returned to Larabee's side.

 

Digging in his pocket, Ezra withdrew his watch, checked the time, sighed, and returned it. Only ten minutes had passed since he had last checked it. Nica had been gone nearly an hour and he knew it was over an hour's ride to town. It would take her that long, and probably longer, to return. He cast a look at the sky, hoping it would remain light enough upon their return for Nathan to tend the injured man.

 

Assuring himself Larabee was still breathing and as comfortable as he could make him, considering the circumstances, the southerner pushed to his feet and, constantly glancing at the prone gunslinger for any sign of returning consciousness, stumbled through the debris strewn yard, gathering wood for a fire. He hoped it would dry out enough to use for he knew Chris needed to be kept warm and they would need a campfire for light as well as heating water for Nathan's ministrations.

 

Piling the gathered wood nearby, Ezra found himself drawn back to Larabee's side. Wiping the mud from his hands, he settled down beside the injured man and sat staring at the gunman’s pale features.

 

Ezra was no fool and he had never deluded himself into thinking he belonged on the same level as Chris Larabee. Or any of the other five men for that matter. Now, a small quiet self-conscious chuckle escaped the con man's lips.

 

"Well, Mister Larabee, here we are. The gunman and the gambler. Not exactly how I planned to spend my afternoon and I'm certain, not your first choice either, being stuck here with the likes of me…." He smoothed down a wrinkle in the blanket covering the older man's chest and sat back, his expression thoughtful.

 

What if Chris never awoke? What if he were more seriously injured than he believed? What if Nathan were too late to help? What if…? The troubling thoughts tumbled thought his mind and he blinked away the wetness, which suddenly burned his eyes. What if Chris never knew…?

 

Looking about furtively, as if to be certain no one else was in ear shot and could overhear his words, Ezra cleared his throat. Fiddling with the torn edge of his cuff, he coughed self-consciously then snorted aloud. It wasn't as if anyone was going to hear him….

 

He squared his shoulders and spoke, his words soft, "You have to live, Chris. We all need you. Young Mister Dunne, well...you're his hero. And Mary, she's had her heart broken by losing one man. She doesn't need that to befall her again. Young Billy thinks the world and all of you, and Nathan and Josiah; they need your strength and guidance. It would kill Buck and Vin… " he hesitated and whispering, added, "and me."

 

He paused for a moment, the words caught in his throat at the thought of this valiant man dying. "I-I-I need you, Chris… to keep me honest and to bestow on me the example of what honesty and courage truly are. Of what I might someday become if I only try harder….

 

"I never – I never thanked you," he began, and faltered, but as Chris remained silent, he found a bit more courage to go on, "I never thanked you for giving me a second chance... and a third... and fourth… Hell, for giving me more chances than I ever deserved... I never thanked you for believing in me when I didn't even believe in myself. I know Vin... and Josiah probably had a lot to do with it, but whether it was their advice or not... You gave me the time and space to find my own place and for that, I will truly be eternally grateful."

 

He bit his lower lip, blinking back tears, continuing to worry with the ragged cuff as he spoke again, his voice soft. "I respect you, Chris, more than anyone I've ever known. Your honesty, your fairness, and the way you face life head on. You might not have won the war - yet - but you continue to win the battles with the demons that plague you. You don't surrender or take the easy way out. I guess... I guess what I am saying is if someone like you had been around before -- I might have turned out better than I am. I know I ain't much, but I respect you, Chris and you are someone I am so very proud to know. I just hope maybe - some day - you might feel proud to have known me…."

 

Ezra stared at the man's still face and then, leaning his forehead against his upraised knees, Ezra Standish began to pray, not for luck with the cards, not for more money, not for himself, but for the man he was so proud to call friend.

 

*******

 

The long afternoon dragged on and Ezra paced by the uprooted trees. Needing a release for the building frustration, he'd found himself working to clean up the mess in the immediate area, the wood pile growing large enough for a bonfire that would last for days.

 

Nica should have been back with Nathan earlier. Unless…

 

He hadn't given it a thought, but what if the twister had struck Four Corners? What if Nathan was needed there to tend the injured? What if Nathan himself had been injured? That thought brought to mind all the people he cared about...Buck, Inez, Molly, JD, Emma, Billy, Casey, the Potters, Nettie, and Mary... He hadn't realized just how many people he had actually let penetrate the walls he had erected around himself.

 

Damn! He angrily slung the tree limb in his hand as far as he could. He couldn't deal with this! It hurt too much. Why hadn't he listened to his mother? Why hadn't he moved on when he had the chance?

 

A million thoughts, all of them dire, vied for the gambler's attention as time slowly dragged on…

 

The sun was beginning its slide toward the horizon when he saw motion on the far slope. Horses! He pushed to his feet, a smile of welcome and overwhelming relief coming to his lips.

 

It faded as the animals came nearer. They were rider less! And as they came close enough for him to recognize, his heart lurched in his chest.

 

There was Larabee's big black, the blood bay mare, and the chestnut gelding the gunman used as a packhorse. The latter was limping. His gaze jumped to the other animals. A pinto… Nica's mare and her foal had obviously followed the big black. He saw a bloody smear on the mare's rump where she had been injured in her wild flight from the cave. Another horse trailed them. A dark bay with a white strip down his face.

 

Shock struck the gambler like a physical blow. Peso… Vin Tanner's horse! If Peso was here, then Vin was here. He had to be. The horse wasn't wearing a saddle so Tanner hadn't been riding when the storm struck.

 

That thought sank in and Ezra spun in a frantic circle, his terror widened eyes scanning the surrounding area. Tanner – he hadn't given him a thought for the tracker was suppose to be at Lucy Garth's! However, he knew it wouldn't be out of the ordinary for the younger man to stop by Chris' to see if the older man needed help...or just to pass the time of day.

 

Frantically raking his trembling hand through his hair, the gambler glanced at Larabee. The man still hadn't moved and there was no way he was going to get any information from him.

 

"Damn!" He swore, his frenzied gaze jumping from the unconscious man to the scattered debris surrounding them. Was Vin out there somewhere, injured like Larabee, unable to move or call for help? Ezra scrubbed his hand over his face.

 

"Mister Tanner! Vin?"

 

There was no answer, only the lonely whicker from Peso as if he, too, were calling for his master.

 

*******

 

Releasing a minute portion of his growing frustration, Standish hurled another piece of wood onto the ever-growing pile, glancing once more to the man laying motionless a few feet away.

 

After years of relying on his sharp mind and quick wit, using his speed and skill with a gun only when his silver tongued ability with words failed, Ezra was now confronted with a problem in which those talents held no solution.

 

He couldn't gamble, talk or even shoot his way out of this predicament. There was no way to stack the deck in his favor, no enemy to strike down with a well placed bullet and, while he'd tried all afternoon to strike a bargain with the powers that be, none of the Gods he'd heard of seemed to be willing to deal with a man of his caliber.

 

The gambler wouldn't lay odds on which was worse, his fear and concern for his friends nor would he wager on his success in helping either man. While he'd done everything he dared for Chris, until Nathan arrived, he didn't even know where Vin was -- or if he was even alive.

 

The afternoon faded, giving way to evening, and tearing pages from Jock Steele's latest dime novel, a gift he'd picked up for JD on his last trip to Eagle Bend, Ezra kindled the strategically placed fire, hoping to keep Larabee warm without taking a chance on a wind borne spark setting the remains of the tree ablaze.

 

Standish pulled the watch from his pocket for the hundredth time, checking the watch’s face and hands in the blazing firelight. His brow creased with worry, the tension bringing on the beginnings of a headache.

 

Nica should have returned by now. Had danger befallen her also? Was she also lying injured and needing his help? Was it possible she'd ridden into the path of the storm once more? He'd heard that severe storms often spawned more than one tornado or that while it seemed a tornado had dissipated, it often reappeared elsewhere without warning. Had her desire to help him and his friends put her in danger?

 

A storm of worry such as he had never known before swept over him as he paced by the campfire, his emerald gaze jumping once more to where Larabee lay, illuminated by the soft glow of the flames.

 

"Damn you, Chris Larabee! Get your sorry ass up!" the gambler shouted. "You've gotten even for every aggravation... every indiscretion on my part... every time I've pushed you to the point of insanity, so you can stop layin' in the mud and muck. Ya can get up now and clean yerself off..." The words trailed off as Ezra swiped at the tears that escaped down his cheeks.

 

Damnit! It wasn't fair! He wasn't prepared to handle this! He hadn't been raised to care about other people. He had been taught to protect only himself. To rely only on himself and never let anyone close.

 

How was it he'd let these men penetrate the barriers he'd erected? How had they managed to wipe away a lifetime of his mother’s training in such a short time? It was because of them he found himself doing things he wouldn't normally consider feasible. It was because of them he found himself caught up in other people's lives. It was because of them the dam that held his emotions in check -- allowing him to do whatever was necessary to accomplish his goals – and his goals had always revolved around money before -- had suddenly began to leak.

 

It was because of their influence he hadn't been able to ignore the feelings which had welled up inside him when he'd looked into Nica’s frightened, defiant dark eyes. It was because of them, he'd given in to the emotion – love, he’d come to realize -- that filled his heart each time he thought of the tiny native woman with her inner strength and independence which rivaled that of his six friends.

 

Standish raked a hand through his hair in agitation. "This is entirely your fault, Larabee! You and that damn Texan...and... And those others! Why couldn't you have minded your own damn business that day in the saloon? Why didn't you see me for what I am? Why didn't you just let me walk out of that damn saloon and keep going? If you hadn't asked me to join you…. If you hadn't mentioned that damn gold! Why the hell didn't ya just listen to Nathan? I know he had to have had objections about me – honest ones! Damnit, you should have listened….” Ezra paced the length of Larabee's still form, ranting at the unconscious man. "He sees me. He's not blinded by sentimentality or some misguided idea that I'm a good person. Why the hell couldn't you listen to him? If you had, I wouldn't be in this mess right now... I wouldn't be scared to death I'm gonna to have to sit here feeling utterly helpless and watch you die! I wouldn't be terrified I was gonna lose... ev-everything... Damn you, Chris Larabee and damn Vin Tanner. Why the hell didn't he just go to Lucy's like he said? Why the hell didn't you go with him...?" He trailed off, dropping to his knees in the mud, exhausted.

 

The southerner laid a trembling hand over the gunslinger's unmoving one. "It's gonna all right, Chris. Soon as Nathan gets here, I promise I'll go find Vin. I’ll find him. I promise you. Everything's gonna be fine." He sat for a long while in silence, staring at the gunman’s still face.

 

Ezra finally pushed to his feet and adding more wood to the fire, moved toward the corral, his eyes scanning the ridge for any sign of movement. However, the only movement came from the horses in the corral.

 

Earlier, with one eye on Larabee, constantly listening for any sound from the injured shootist, Ezra passed the afternoon, mending the damaged corral fence, using the rope from Larabee's saddle to tie the damaged pieces of wood in place before herding the stock inside.

 

Their injuries seemed superficial, but he'd ripped the extra shirt he always carried in his saddlebags, soaking the strips in cold water before binding Peso's swollen leg and used the rest of the material to clean the jagged cut on Nica's mare. He'd filled the water trough and rationed out grain he had found near the destroyed cabin.

 

Limping toward him as Ezra paused by the corral fence, Peso thrust his nose in the gambler's chest, giving him a hard shove as if urging the human to go in search of Vin.

 

"If you could only talk, my friend." The southerner stroked the horse's long nose. "I'll find him... Give ya my word.... Soon as I can."

 

Ezra spent several minutes soothing the faithful horse, his anxious gaze on the ridge, silently praying to see Nica and Nathan riding toward him, before at last moving back to kneel by Larabee's side once more. Checking the gunslinger's pulse, hoping the seemingly stronger heartbeat wasn't just his imagination; he moved to tuck the blanket tighter around Larabee.

 

The southerner's green eyes widened as he saw the gunman's right hand move. Blinking rapidly, hoping it wasn't wishful thinking on his part, Ezra focused on the man's hand, his heart beginning to race as Larabee's long fingers flexed and curled, the tips scraping the earth. Bending closer, fully intent on the unconscious man, he stared at Larabee’s face…

 

“Ezra!”

 

He jumped, his heart leaping into his throat at the sharp call, staring wide eyed at the shootist before he realized it wasn't Larabee who had shouted his name.

 

He jerked upright, drawing his gun and spun about to see horses coming through the growing darkness. Standish realized a sigh of relief as he watched the riders draw near, recognizing Nica, Nathan, and Josiah.

 

The healer dismounted, throwing his horse’s reins at Josiah, and hurried towards Larabee, his medical bag in hand.

 

Hitching the horses to the top rail, Josiah assisted Nica from Chaucer and, carrying the saddlebags and bedrolls, quickly moved to the fire.

 

Nathan brushed by Ezra and settled down in the cleared area beside Larabee.

 

“He been like this the whole time?” he demanded to know as he ran gentle hands over the gunman’s legs and arms, checking for fractures.

 

Ezra nodded. “Yes. But, he moved his hand just as you called out.” He hesitated. “I – I was unsure if he should be moved…” He trailed off, hoping that explained Larabee still lying in the mud and damp.

 

Nathan spared him a quick look and nod. “Ya did the right thing, Ezra.” He turned back to Chris and as much as he hated to, Ezra moved away to give him more room.

 

With a quick glance at Nica, who was using the last rays of light to check her mare, the gambler approached Josiah. "I was beginning to think no one was coming. What took you so long?"

 

“We’s still out at the village. Your little lady had to come looking for us,” Josiah rumbled, as he began mixing the herbs for Nathan's healing tea. "Had ta stop in town so Nathan could refill his bag. Figured we'd better bring some extra supplies."

 

“The village... The town… everybody… everything’s okay?” Ezra found himself holding his breath awaiting the big man’s answer.

 

"Village suffered a little damage, but nothin' that can't be easily repaired." Josiah nodded. “Few roofs and fences in town need fixin', but storm just seemed to hit strongest out here – far as we can tell.” He stared at the familiar horse by the fence and frowned. “Ain’t that Peso?”

 

Ezra nodded his face somber and his eyes bleak. “He came back with Chris’ horses. I don’t know if Mister Tanner was here or --" he admitted quietly, pushing to his feet and moving to lift his saddle.

 

"Whoa, where the hell ya think yer goin'?" The ex-priest grabbed the gambler's arm, pulling him to a stop as he started for Chaucer with his gear.

 

"I have to find Vin. I couldn't leave Chris alone before, but now --”

 

Josiah forced a smile and clapped his shoulder. “I’m sure Brother Vin is fine."

 

"But..." Ezra's emerald gaze traveled from where Nathan had eased the gunslinger onto his back to Peso still standing at the corral fence. "You're here now and I... promised..."

 

"It's too dark to look now, Ezra..." Sensing the younger man's resistance, the large man gently tugged the saddle from Standish's hands, setting it aside. "We’ll start looking first light,” he promised, then nodding towards the corral, he quietly added, “You had best check on Miss Nica.”

 

"She must be exhausted. I..." Ezra frowned, his expression puzzled. “Why?”

 

Josiah’s face darkened. “There were some folks out at the village that weren’t none too happy to see her there. There was an altercation --”

 

“Altercation?’ Ezra repeated. Whether it was worry or weariness, it seemed to be taking his brain longer to process information.

 

Josiah nodded. “Seems several of them went out of their way to make sure she wasn’t welcome, and wasn’t about to stay. Some of 'em even blamed her for the storm... said it was bad medicine and all her fault…” He trailed off as Ezra spun on his heel and hurried across the yard to the corral.

 

Slipping between the fence rails, the gambler approached the young woman who was stroking the young filly’s neck. “Nica?”

 

She continued stroking the animal’s neck, without turning to look at him. “Nica…” he called her name again, “are you all right?”

 

She nodded, but still did not turn to face him.

 

“I was worried about you when you were slow to return,” he admitted quietly, stepping closer. "I was afraid you'd been hurt."

 

“It took more time. I am sorry to cause you worry.”

 

“You rode out to the village.” It was not a question, but nonetheless she nodded.

 

“It was where the healer Nathan was. I could not return without him.”

 

“Josiah said there was a problem…” She shrugged at his words and he added, “He said you were not welcomed there.”

 

“I did not expect to be,” she admitted, attempting to shrug it off. “I brought the healer.”

 

“Yes, you did and for that I thank you.” He reached out and lightly grasped her arm, but she flinched and refused to look at him.

 

She resisted as he gently turned her toward the fire.

 

"Sonuvabitch!" He was unable to suppress the gasp of dismay. Long bloody streaks marred her cheek and several dark bruises were forming along her jaw line.

 

The young woman stepped back, her gaze locked on the dirt at her feet.

 

“Nica….” Placing his fingers lightly under her chin, he forced her to look at him.

 

She straightened. “It is nothing.”

 

"This is not nothing." He shook his head, his fingertips lightly tracing the bruise. “Why...?” He didn’t have to ask the who.

 

“You had need of the healer."

 

"I meant why did they do this?"

 

Nica shrugged. "Why is not important---"

 

"It is to me," the gambler stated softly. "You did nothing to provoke this. I don't understand why they would do something like this to someone so...beautiful... Why did Chanu let this happen?"

 

"Chief Chanu was injured in the storm and it was only a few of The People. Some of the people believed Tantu's story that I ran away from him and... gave myself willingly to those men... When he saw me, he said the spirits were angry I was trying to return. He said they sent the twisting wind to punish me… and them, for letting me in the village." She placed a palm against his cheek, her eyes imploring him to understand. "You needed Healer Nathan. I promised you I would bring him back. I would not go back on my word, no matter what it cost me. Their words and their blows were nothing. I know what this man Larabee means to you, Ol’ Ez. “ She gave him a tiny smile. “I would gladly do it again.”

 

Ezra was suddenly overwhelmed by the young woman’s quiet admission. Awed speechless by the lengths this young woman was willing to go for him, the con man pulled her into his arms, dropped a light kiss on the top of her head as she leaned against his chest.

 

*******

 

His arm tucked securely around Nica's waist, content in the safety his arms offered, the young woman walked beside him as Ezra steered her towards the fire.

 

Josiah looked up without a word and held out two cups of coffee, which they gratefully accepted. Ezra realized it had been a long time since either of them had eaten and the coffee hit the spot.

 

She sat silently, her eyes shining brightly, a small smile on her lips as, setting his cup aside; he tore a strip from the tail of his shirt and tenderly cleaned the cuts marring her cheek.

 

"Healer Nathan fixed Chanu. He will fix Larabee, too," she murmured quietly, wishing she could wipe the worry from Ol’ Ez’s emerald eyes.

 

Nearby, Josiah suppressed a chuckle at the words Nica chose to reassure the southerner.

 

"I'm sure you're right." Ezra forced a smile, his eyes scanning the darkness. Chris had help now, but what about Vin? Was Tanner lying somewhere out in the night, hurt and alone? Was he conscious, in pain and frightened? Or was he lying unconscious in the mud, unaware of the storm of worry he had stirred in his southern friend? That friend had promised to find the sharpshooter, but Josiah was right. Searching in the black of night would be futile and could lead to further disaster.

 

"Try to get some sleep." Settling Nica onto one of the extra bedrolls Josiah had brought with them from town, brushing her lips in a gentle kiss, the southerner left the young woman in Josiah's care and crossed to where Nathan still examined Larabee.

 

Ezra hesitated, squatting on his heels beside the tree trunk. "How … how is he, Mister Jackson?"

 

"He is fine.." the gunslinger growled, looking past Nathan, giving the gambler a much put upon expression as he shoved the healer's hands aside and attempted to sit up.

 

Nathan nodded agreement with the man’s self-diagnosis. "He's got a lot of bruises and is gonna be stiff and sore for a few days, but other than that cut on his head and a swollen ankle which is probably just a sprain since he can move it without screamin', I couldn't find any serious damage."

 

"Probably landed on his head. And we know that's the hardest part of him," Ezra remarked, garnering another glare from the gunman. He ignored it. "Mister Larabee, was Mister---?"

 

The sound of an approaching horse, beating a rapid tattoo in the quiet night drew his attention away from the gunman. Nathan and Josiah had both gained their feet, hands resting on their gun butts as the running horse drew nearer.

 

"Ezra! J'siah!" The familiar Texas drawl rolled across the meadow as the rider drew reins and threw himself from the saddle. "Nathan!" If the cautious men had needed any further proof, Peso suddenly snorted and whickered a loud welcome from the corral.

 

"Mister Tanner?" Ezra actually sagged back against the tree, all the events of the day finally catching up to him. "Is that you?" he half flustered, not quite trusting his eyes as, leaping from the horse, the lean sharpshooter hurried towards them.

 

"Ya blind, Ezra? A'course it's me! How's Chris?" He turned anxious eyes to his friend.

 

"Mister Jackson says he is going to be fine." Ezra shook his head, staring at he younger man. "Don't take this the wrong way, sir, but what -- where have you been? Peso's in---"

 

Looking over Nathan's shoulder and seeing Chris staring back at him with an exasperated expression, the worry, and tension seemed to visibly flow out of the young tracker and he, too, slouched against the tree trunk. "Got back ta town and Buck told me what happened. Him and JD weren't none too happy y'all made 'em stay b’hind."

 

"Somebody needed to watch over the town," Nathan remarked, glancing at Vin, the tracker easily reading the true reason in his dark eyes. They hadn't known Chris' condition and wanted to spare Buck the agony of arriving too late to help the man he'd stood by so many years. Vin, himself, had promised the womanizer if it didn't look like Larabee was going to be all right, he would ride back to town and fetch Wilmington immediately.

 

"Figured less'n Chris here," he hooked a thumb towards the injured man, "told ya what happened ya might be worryin' findin' ol' Peso here and me gone.”

 

"And exactly what did happen, Mister Tanner?"

 

"Peso picked up a stone on the way ta Lucy's so I swung by here. Yosemite was trailing a coupla horses back he'd bought over in Eagle Bend and he lent me one so's I could leave Peso here.”

 

Josiah had wandered over and questioned, "There any damage out Miss Lucy's way?"

 

Vin shook his head, accepting the cup of coffee the big man offered with a nod of thanks. "Nope. Nothin' worth mentionin'. This place sure looks ta have taken the worst of it.” He winked at Josiah, "Looks like that storm just had it in for ol' Chris."

 

"Perhaps," the preacher rumbled, "someone was tryin' to get his attention."

 

"Fat chance of that," Vin muttered, gulping his coffee. He eyed Ezra, seeing the relief in the other man’s green eyes as he continued to stare at the sharpshooter, assuring himself the Texan was unharmed. "Sorry 'bout the mix up."

 

"We were concerned for your well being, Mister Tanner," Ezra admitted as Nica moved over and slipped her arm about his waist.

 

"You's worried 'bout me?" Tanner’s blue eyes bored into him.

 

Ezra suddenly uncomfortable with having revealed too much, added, "No, actually I was concerned about recouping those funds you still owe me for that loan to Miz Nettie."

 

Vin stared at him a moment longer, snorted in skepticism and moved to reassure himself further as to Chris' condition as the healer and ex-priest helped the gunslinger to his feet and assisted him closer to the fire.

 

Finally satisfied that the tracker was indeed safe and everyone had survived, the gambler's adrenaline rush slowed and fatigue began to settle over him. Leaning wearily against the tree’s solid trunk, he watched as Nathan fussed over the gunslinger, settling him on one of the bedrolls and wrapping a blanket around his shoulders.

 

Ezra saw a look of sadness drift over the older man's face as Chris looked at the devastation visible in the fire light.

 

"There is nothing which cannot be replaced, Mister Larabee," the gambler murmured quietly. "Except your life."

 

Chris nodded. "Guess yer right. Course I might have to draft some friends to help," he waved his hand, "and don't look so worried, Ezra. I know you don't do menial labor."

 

Nathan, Josiah, and Vin laughed at the good natured remark.

 

"Damn, Ezra, what the hell happened?" Nathan snagged the gambler's wrist as the con man reached for the cup of coffee he'd abandoned earlier.

 

"I-I..." Attempting to free his hand from the healer's strong grasp, the southerner struggled for an explanation as the others stared in shock at the mangled bloody blistered skin of the gambler’s palms.

 

"Don't matter how it happened," Larabee stated, his quick glance taking in the debris-cleared space in the immediate area. "What matters is now Nathan can pick on somebody besides me." The comment earning him a scathing look from the gambler as he leaned back with a thoughtful expression on his face.

 

When the healer had finished cleaning the cardsharp's hands, coating them with salve and wrapping them in bandages, Chris continued to stare at the exhausted gambler. Now that the con man had settled down in the firelight, the worry and lines of tension were clearly visible. A pang of regret raced through Larabee, knowing he had been the cause of that concern.

 

"Ezra?"

 

"Yes, Mister Larabee?"

 

"I know this ain't how you planned on spendin' your afternoon…."

 

Ezra's green eyes widened at the words and he nearly dropped the cup of coffee. Had he not uttered those very words earlier? Certainly, Larabee had not heard him!

 

Chris ignored his startled look to nod at Nica. "Now if I's up to it, I'd kick your ass for takin' the young lady with ya on a patrol," he smiled at Nica, who had pushed to her feet to refill their cups. "Don't mean ya no offense, Nica, but ya coulda been in a lot of danger if he'd run into trouble --"

 

"If I ran into trouble, Mister Larabee? What exactly would you call a tornado?"

 

The sharpshooter chuckled at the gambler’s indignant expression. "Least it weren't shootin' at ya, Ezra." Giving the con man a small wink, he moved to turn his borrowed horse into the corral as Nathan and Josiah busied themselves spreading bedrolls.

 

"Lookin' around I'd say a tornado was trouble," the gunslinger conceded, his tone softening. "Thanks, Nica... You, too, Ezra."

 

"You are certainly welcome, Mister Larabee. I am just sorry about all this…" he waved a bandaged hand at the destruction.

 

"Ain't nothing that can't be rebuilt." Chris admitted, his gaze staying on the gambler. "All it takes is a few friends pitchin' in…"

 

Ezra nodded wearily. It had been a long day and the lure of the bedrolls by the fire was inviting. "I reckon so. Now if you'll excuse me, I'm going to turn in--" he started to push to his feet.

 

"Ezra?"

 

The gambler paused, looking over his shoulder at the gunman. "All it takes is friends," Chris repeated quietly. "I'm proud to know you, Ezra -- .but I'm prouder still to call you friend."

 

The gambler's green eyes widened once more and he swallowed around the lump in his throat as the gunman gave him an enigmatic smile. The con man's own lips lifted, his dimples flashing as he stood a little straighter, as with a nod to the older man, crossed the few steps to the bedroll Nica had spread next to hers.

 

A random thought surfaced as he settled on the blankets. Maude had always preached at him and drilled into him all he needed was money – and lots of it – and he could weather any storm that life threw at him. Now, thanks to these men, he knew all it took to face life’s storms was friends – and love. It was something his mother would never be able to comprehend.

 

A relaxed smile of contentment graced the southerner's handsome face as he wearily let his gaze drift over each of his friends, feeling Nica rest a gentle hand on his as he took a moment to thank the Gods he had been given that knowledge. And with a deep satisfaction and inner warmth, he drifted off to sleep.

 

THE END