Webmaster Note: This fic was previously posted on another website and was moved to blackraptor in June of 2004.
Thanks to NotTasha for all her help with this story.
Buck Wilmington looked up at the rippled, gray clouds that seemed to hang just inches above his head. His breaths came out in frosty billows as his eyes lowered to gaze upon a land that normally breathed with colors of red, burnt umber and sage green but now lay desolate and snow covered. Cold penetrated the whole length of his body as he sat miserably in the snow. He shifted on the cold ground, trying to bring feeling back to his numb backside. Buck closed his eyes as the wind gusted, scooping up crystals of snow and throwing them into his face.
"Ah Geeze, I'm freezing my ass off," Buck griped as his mind returned to the present situation. He fired a shot, and quickly drew back as a barrage of gunfire answered his rather unfocused assault. Buck leaned against the boulder he was using for protection, feeling the cold hardness of the rock through his coat.
"Well, if you'd hit somethin' we'd be out of here by now," JD glibly replied through chattering teeth as he fumbled with cold fingers to reload his Colts. He couldn't remember it ever being this cold, not even back east.
"Who the hell robs a bank in the dead of winter?" Buck angrily asked.
"Robbers who want to get away," Josiah replied. "They probably thought only fools would chase after them with a coming snowstorm." Josiah rose up and fired a shot.
JD and Buck glared sardonically at the ex-preacher, not disagreeing with the man but taking offense at his insinuation. Josiah just smiled and wiped the snow from his beard.
Four outlaws had decided that this would be the most opportune time to rob the Four Corners bank, anticipating that the looming snowstorm would give most lawmen second thoughts; unfortunately for them, the seven gunslingers who protected Four Corners were not like most lawmen.
"We could use a little fire and brimstone 'bout now, preacher," Buck quipped as he tried to rub feeling back into his legs.
"Sorry, brother, but I think hell just froze over."
"Is Chris and Vin in position yet?" JD interrupted.
Josiah stretched out on his stomach and peeked around the rock. He spotted Chris moving stealthily around the perimeter, trying to get behind the outlaws. He hoped that the gunslinger's dark attire wouldn't make him an easy target. The four outlaws had chosen an excellent stronghold atop a rocky outcropping in the middle of an open expanse. Josiah caught sight of Nathan several yards behind Chris. The plan was a simple one: Buck, Josiah and JD were to keep the outlaws busy, as Chris and Vin made their way around to each side of their stronghold. Nathan and Ezra were following the two respectively, covering their backs. They would have the outlaws trapped in a crossfire, hopefully convincing them to surrender. Josiah sat up and leaned against the rock. "Chris is almost in position. I can't see Vin."
"Hey!" Buck called out to the outlaws. "How 'bout giving yourselves up. We'll put you in a nice warm jail cell."
Bullets started to fly, ricocheting off the nearby rocks and trees. Buck and the others ducked under the onslaught. 'That's right, use up your ammo you idiots,' Buck thought. The cold was causing everyone to act impulsively and was starting to really piss him off.
"Apparently they didn't like your proposal, brother Buck," Josiah chuckled.
"This is fucking ridiculous." Buck wrapped an arm around his stomach. "I could be warm and snuggled in the arms of a beautiful woman but instead I'm freezing my ass off. Someone's gonna pay for this."
JD grinned, even freezing and getting shot at, Buck's mind never wandered far from women. Maybe the ladies man's anger and desire would help to keep him warm.
Josiah glanced over at his two companions; those two could keep warm with their prankish camaraderie. Josiah found his thoughts focusing on Ezra. He knew the southerner didn't take kindly to the harsh weather, but he also knew that the stubborn gambler wouldn't fold to mother nature. The impious preacher thought it ironic that he had come to care for a man who lived on the greed and distrust of others. Nonetheless, Josiah Sanchez had come to care for the wily cardshark, and believed he knew the true man, a man that hid behind a wall of arrogance and self-assuredness. Ezra hid a wounded heart under a hardened shell. He wondered if any of the others had seen through the conman's ruse. Josiah had traveled a long road through a troubled life, knowing very little good or peace. Nathan and the other gunslingers' friendship had centered him, showed him that there was still good in the world. He hoped to return the favor and enlighten the cynical gambler.
"Where's Ezra?" Josiah abruptly asked.
"Him and Vin were 'bout halfway round last time I saw 'im," JD replied, getting off another shot.
Buck pulled his scarf tighter around his neck, trying to stop the icy fingers from running down his back. "We ain't gonna be able to stay out here much longer," he exclaimed.
The low hanging clouds masked the descending sun. Buck pulled out his pocket watch and stared at the face. He brought the timepiece to his ear and shook it. The clock hands had frozen in place. Buck swore as he shoved the motionless timepiece back into his coat pocket.
"Well, those robbers have better cover than we do, but they have to be feelin' the cold," Josiah pointed out. He had no desire to wait out the outlaws, but he knew that Chris would not return to town without the stolen money. Something would have to give, and soon.
"Well, we'll be sendin' them to hell soon enough, so they won't have to worry 'bout it too much longer," Buck said.
Ezra watched as Vin nimbly clambered up snow-covered rocks to make his way around the outskirts of the robber's shelter. From the ground, Ezra cautiously followed the agile tracker as he moved from one jutting scrub tree, or bush to the next. Ezra held his breath as Vin leapt over a small crevice to land on another boulder, his foot slipping, but the experienced outdoorsman quickly recovered and scrambled to cover. Ezra released his breath and looked over his shoulder to make sure they hadn't drawn any undesirable attention. Vin continued over the rocks, seemingly oblivious to the weather conditions, and earning the southerner's amicable envy.
When Vin dropped out of sight Ezra brought his gloved hands up to this face to try and warm his wind burned cheeks. He took a moment to make sure that Vin or himself hadn't been spotted. Buck, JD, Josiah and the deteriorating weather were doing a good job of keeping the miscreants busy. The wind gusted and Ezra turned his face away from the stinging snow. His feet were numb, and even though he wore a heavy buckskin coat, he could still feel the icy wind cut through him. Whatever made him come north? Sure, the weather was pleasant enough in the spring and summer, but winter lasted a long time in the high country. A desert of snow and ice that stole your strength and burned your skin like any desert of sun and sand. He had even heard tell of men going blind and hallucinating after being in the cold too long. Lord, he hated winter.
Ezra scanned the small open space that he would have to cross to get behind the outlaws and protect Vin's back. He took note of the robber's position. Damn, he would be directly in their line of fire until he reached the far rocks. Ezra worried on his bottom lip as he tried to think of another option but he was running out of time. He had to get to the other side if they were to end this skirmish and get back to the warmth of town. He also couldn't leave Vin alone and unprotected. Lord, this concern for others sure made life difficult and dangerous. Ezra again eyed the flat, featureless area in front of him, noting anything that might trip him up. Vin had taken the high ground, which Ezra had thought foolish at first. Now, looking at the open space that he had to traverse, and which seemed to widen with each passing minute, he wasn't so sure.
Ezra looked over his shoulder, catching sight of JD. Keeping himself behind some scrub and out of sight of the outlaws, he waved, trying to attract the young gunslinger's attention.
JD caught movement out of the corner of his eye and glanced over to see Ezra signaling him. He watched as the gambler indicated that he needed help. JD smiled, it had been Vin's idea to develop a rudimentary sign language for just such an occasion. "Buck, Josiah, Ezra needs some cover fire," JD exclaimed.
"Well it's about time those two did something," Buck said, re-loading both his guns.
Buck, Josiah and JD began simultaneously firing at the robber's hide out. Ezra inhaled and dashed out from his cover. He zigzagged across the open area, keeping his eyes on the protection of several rocks. Bullets began to dance around his feet and over his head as he dove for safety.
Ezra sailed over the rocks and then, unexpectedly, the snow covered ground gave way to a thinly frozen water hole. Ezra's body crashed through the thin ice. The shock of the icy water squeezed the breath from his lungs and froze the cry of shock in his throat.
Ezra gasped and sputtered as he broke the surface, his water-laden clothing trying to pull him back down. Ezra struggled to stay on the surface. He tried to stand, but his legs refused to cooperate as the cold water stole all the feeling from his limbs. Ezra started to panic when he couldn't feel the bottom. 'Alright, Standish, if you don't get your ass out of this you're a dead man.' This sudden horrifying thought so startled the gambler that Ezra stopped struggling. He calmed his breathing and felt his feet touch the bottom of the pool, the freezing water coming up to his chest. Ezra reached out his hand to feel the solid ground just inches away. He then began clawing at the snow-covered ground, trying to get a solid hold. He slowly inched his way up onto the frozen ground, his muscles shaking at the strain, his water-laden clothing fighting his every effort. He could feel the cold draining away his strength even as the water trickled off his body. His hands burned as he finally pulled himself out of his potential icy grave and laid his cheek on the snow, gasping for breath. Ezra raised his head at the sound of gunfire and his befuddled mind could only grab onto one thought, 'He had to help the others'. However, motor functions baulked and stuttered. His whole body shook as he slowly dragged himself across the frozen ground. His wet clothing intensified the cold wind that sliced through him like a knife, all the way to the bone. He concentrated on the relative shelter of the nearby rocks. Ezra struggled to stand and managed to stagger a few feet before muscles cramped, doubling him over. He collapsed in an unconscious heap no longer feeling the cold that was slowly stealing his life.
Vin stretched out atop the cold rock, looking down upon the four outlaws. He sighted down along his rifle, taking in account the increased wind and direction. Chris had told him to wait. They were going to try and take these men alive. Vin only hoped they hurried. He was used to harsh conditions but that didn't mean he enjoyed it. He flexed his hand to keep the blood circulating and looked below expecting to see Ezra. Vin frowned when he couldn't see the gambler and hoped Ezra had found a safe position among the rocks.
Chris had made his way to the backside of the outcropping. He couldn't see the outlaws, but he could hear the volley of shots they traded with his men. He wanted to take these men alive but as it grew colder, he was contemplating other alternatives. Chris caught sight of Vin atop the rocks and hoped that Ezra was also in position. He hated putting his men in danger but they had a job to do. Larabee knew the six men he worked with wouldn't fail him, a reality that always confounded him. He trusted these men with his life; even his mistrust of Ezra was diminishing, as he caught glimpses of the real man inside the one that annoyed the hell out of him. Chris smiled, knowing that Ezra wasn't fond of the cold. He would have to stay alert, knowing that the wily gambler would exact some sort of revenge in the future, and he'd probably have help. Seven unique and frustrating men had somehow formed into a cohesive team that slowly transformed into an extraordinary family.
Chris found an ideal spot amongst the rocks and pulled his gun, ready to end this conflict. He waved to Nathan that he was ready.
Pain coursed through his body as muscles went rigid. Ezra gasped and his eyes snapped open. He didn't know how long he had been unconscious. He still heard gunfire. 'Where was he?' His limbs felt heavy, but he pushed himself up and started to crawl. He managed to wedge himself between two rocks, hoping to block some of wind as he fought to stay awake. He could still feel his Colt nestled in his shoulder rig. He tried to undo his coat buttons to retrieve the weapon but his hands and fingers refused to cooperate.
'God he hurt!' He wanted to scream but even his throat seemed frozen. He leaned his head back and gazed up at the sky as lazy flakes began to fall like feathers from a split pillow-They were very beautiful. All Ezra could do was listen to the gunfire that was slowly diminishing.
"Damn, where the hell is Ez?" Buck asked. "Chris and Vin are in position." Buck looked around the boulder. They hadn't seen neither hide nor hair of the conman since he dove for cover. Buck had watched as Ezra dove for the rocks. He didn't think that Ez had been hit by any of the gunfire. The cold was hampering everyone's aim. A bad feeling settled into the pit of Buck's gut. He hoped it was just that he was freezing.
"Maybe Ez found a better position, where we can't see him," JD interjected, trying to convince himself that this was the case.
The shooting had ceased, and Buck hoped that the outlaws had frozen to death. He looked over at JD and Josiah. The ex-preacher's beard was white with snow and JD was actually turning blue. "JD, Josiah, cover me."
"Buck, what are you going...?" JD began. Buck didn't wait for JD to finish as he darted out from the safety of the rocks. "Damnit, Buck!" JD and Josiah quickly covered their impulsive friend's departure.
Buck dodged and swerved as bullets whizzed around him, the outlaws must be freezing their aim was deplorable. Lord, he was sounding like Ezra. Buck thought he could almost hear Chris cursing his foolishness and threatening to kill him.
Buck smiled when he saw one of the outlaws fall. He followed the same route that Ezra had taken, but fortunately, he came around the back side. The shooting ceased. Buck cautiously climbed over the rocks. He absently took notice of the water hole. His guns poised and ready, Buck scanned the small enclosed area. The snow was coming down heavy, covering everything in a thick blanket of white. It had grown quiet, the snow muffling any sound, which did nothing to ease his growing dread. Buck stared bewildered for a moment when he saw the huddled form wedged between two rocks.
"Aw hell!" Buck exclaimed and rushed to Ezra's side. His eyes darted around as he knelt down, wondering if Ezra had been ambushed and shot. He reached out and touched the southerner's shoulder.
"Aww Ez, what have you gone and done?" Buck sadly exclaimed, as he holstered his gun. He looked back at the water hole then returned his gaze to the freezing gambler. Ezra's hair, jacket and pants were ice-covered.
"Ezra?" Buck called softly.
It was a moment before the dark, wet mop of hair slowly turned, and Buck could then see the pain and fear churning in his green eyes.
Buck quickly gathered the freezing man into his arms. Ezra's clothing was stiff and crunched as Buck squeezed him close. "Ez, can you hear me? C'mon pard, don't do this to me."
"B..u..u..ck," came a raspy southern drawl through clattering teeth. "So...c..cold." Ezra's teeth chattered so bad that Buck was afraid he'd break them.
"I know, pard, I know. Don't ya think it's a little early to be goin' swimmin'?" Buck softly chided.
Ezra tried to grin, but his face muscles felt strange and un- cooperative. Thoughts played through his head, he was freezing to death, yet he felt calm as Buck continued to hold and talk to him. He felt the warmth of friendship, even if it was just for a short time.
"Don't you worry none, ole Buck will get you out of here." Buck looked away. He didn't know what to do; they were at a standoff with the outlaws. He looked back down at Ezra's shivering form. He didn't think that he would last much longer. Ezra's face was almost as white as the snow and just as cold.
Ezra's eyes closed, taking away the only color on his face.
"No, Ez, you stay with me!" Buck shook the gambler, but Ezra remained unconscious.
Buck raised his head and yelled out, "CHRIS! WE HAVE TO END THIS, NOW!"
The other five lawmen heard the urgency in Buck's voice. Fear driven adrenaline ended any thoughts of taking the remaining robbers alive.
Vin zeroed in on the first outlaw and fired, watching as the man crumbled to the ground. 'Well, at least he's someplace warm,' Vin amusingly thought as he took aim on another of the outlaws. Chris fired at one of the outlaws who tried to move out from the rocks, watching as the man slid down the rock face.
The last outlaw looked wildly about and, seeing that he was alone, threw down his gun. He quickly threw up his hands and shouted, "I give up. Don't shoot!"
"Vin, keep 'im covered until Josiah and JD get 'im," Chris called out as he began to make his way down the rocks. His heart pounded in his chest speeding his descent as he wondered what caused the urgency in Buck's voice. He spotted Nathan jogging across the snow and watched as Josiah and JD grabbed the remaining outlaw and restrain him. He knew that Vin was up in the rocks, which left...Ezra. He couldn't remember the last time he had seen the southerner.
As soon as Josiah and JD had the outlaw in restraints, Vin scrambled back the way he had come. Damn, he knew something was wrong, but had he had attributed his feeling to the cold. Vin dropped down from the rocks to be met with Buck's gun.
"Easy, there, Buck!" Vin said holding up his hands. His blue eyes went wide when he noticed Ezra shivering violently in Buck's arms.
"He fell in that water hole," Buck grimly stated.
Vin looked at the water hole that was slowly icing over, then back at his friend. Ice crystals covered Ezra's brown hair like a macabre, glistening head-dress. Tremors coursed through the gambler's body, trying to generate and hold onto any warmth. His limbs remained rigid as frozen clothing encased him in a thin sheet of ice. Vin bit his lip and fear strangled his heart.
Nathan suddenly appeared along with Josiah and JD who shoved the outlaw ahead of them. JD forced the robber down on the ground. He didn't think the man would try anything. Where would he go?
"Nate, you gotta help him," Buck pleaded, trying to hold the freezing man closer. Tears warmed Buck's face and glistened in his mustache.
"Dear Lord," Josiah muttered as he came up alongside Buck and Ezra.
JD stared gaping at his friend, he'd never seen a man almost frozen. Ezra didn't look real. JD recalled a sculpture of a man's head in a museum he once visited back east. The carving was smooth and porcelain white. He had been amazed at the detail thinking how life-like the sculpture appeared. Now, staring at Ezra's face he could only think how unnatural he appeared.
Nathan knelt down beside Buck and removed one of his gloves. He placed two fingers against the gambler's neck. He could barely feel the slow pulse that fought for every beat under his hand. He peeled back an eyelid to see the dilated pupil. Ezra's body quivered and shook with convulsions. Nathan bowed his head. Ezra was in the advanced stages of hypothermia. He wondered how long he had laid here, slowing freezing to death. Nate looked over his shoulder as Chris neared, his dark clothing seeming to coalesce out of the swirling snow.
"What the hell is going on?" Chris demanded.
"We have to get Ez to shelter, fast," Nathan said as he stood up to meet the blond leader.
Larabee stared down into Ezra's gray, waxy face. "Can he make it back to town?" They were at least an hour away, maybe more with night falling and the temperature dropping.
"No." The answer was blunt and certain. Nathan didn't think the gambler had fifteen minutes. He would never make it back to town.
"There might be an old mining shack over that ridge. It had a small stove," Vin eagerly informed them, pointing off toward the south. "At least, it was still standing last fall when I used it."
"That's Ezra's best chance," Nathan said.
"Okay, Josiah, take that piece of shit and the money back to town," Chris said, glaring at the subdued outlaw. The man shivered, but not from the falling temperature as much as from the icy glower of the gunslinger directed at him. He started wondering if he shouldn't take his chances with the coming snowstorm and make a break for it.
Josiah hesitated; he didn't want to leave Ezra, not like this. "Josiah, you're the best one to handle a team in this weather. I need you to bring a wagon so we can get Ezra home," Chris explained. He knew how the preacher felt about the gambler. If Ezra was going to die, it might be best if Josiah didn't have to witness it.
Josiah knelt down beside the man he almost considered a son. He removed his glove and laid a warm hand against Ezra's icy cheek. Ezra's eyes fluttered and he looked up into the warmth of Josiah's eyes. He wanted to assure the kindly preacher that everything would be fine but brain impulses were frozen and body parts refused to operate. He would sleep now and reassure Josiah later. The man was positively paternal in his affections.
Josiah closed his eyes and muttered a silent prayer, then stood and quickly strode away, grabbing the outlaw with barely a pause.
"We have to be careful moving him," Nathan explained. "He's so cold we could hurt him."
"I'll take him on my horse," Buck offered.
The five lawmen worked as one, collecting up the horses and easing Ezra up into the saddle with Buck.
The horses trudged through the snow, coaxed by their determined riders. Buck would constantly look down at his charge, still feeling the tremors that ran through Ezra's body. "Just hang on, pard."
"How's he doin', Buck?" Nathan asked.
"Not to good, Nate."
The five men pushed their horses harder.
When they crested the small rise the dark wood of the shack appeared. From a distance, it didn't look habitable, but as they drew near Vin was happy to see that the roof appeared intact and it still had all four walls--it was the best they could expect. Winter was merciless to most structures.
Vin and Buck carried Ezra's stiff body into the small shack. The single room barely accommodated the five men. JD had grabbed the only three bedrolls and spread one out on the floor. Ezra remained stiff as they laid him gently down, only the occasional shiver accosting his body.
"Get those clothes off him now!" Nathan said. The shack didn't keep the cold out, but it did hold off the icy wind. Chris started cleaning out the small stove, picking up a cast-iron frying pan that had been left on top. He looked at the food-encrusted pan for a moment then dropped it back on the stove.
Vin and Buck struggled to remove Ezra's ice covered clothes. They finally had to resort to using Vin's knife as Ezra's limbs were to stiff to maneuver. Even with the knife, it was hard getting through the frozen material. They used the warmth of their hands to separate the frozen material from Ezra's skin. When Buck touched Ezra's skin, his first thought was that he was touching a corpse, left in an ice house. Buck startled when Ezra shivered. The last two blankets were laid on top of him.
"Vin, Buck, I need wood for a fire. We have to get him warm," Nathan said as he knelt down beside the gambler.
"Where are we going to find fire wood in a blizzard?" Buck asked his eyes never straying from his frozen friend. Ezra still trembled but it seemed to be easing.
"We'll find some," Vin confidently answered as he grabbed Buck by the arm and dragged him out the door. The tracker knew if they didn't find wood soon they would be burying their friend come spring.
Chris watched his friends leave; if anyone could find wood in a snowstorm, it would be Vin.
The wind intensified with the coming night, it whistled through the cracks in the cabin and rattled the weathered boards. The small shack wasn't meant to last or be used during a snowstorm. JD glanced up at the roof wondering how much snow it could handle.
Nathan tucked the inadequate coverings around Ezra's body, stood up, and walked over to Chris.
"How is he?" Chris asked.
"If we don't get him warm soon..." Nathan bowed his head, knowing there was nothing more he could do. Chris rested a hand on the healer's shoulder.
"You're doing all you can under the circumstances," Chris said.
JD glanced over at Ezra's still form. "Hey, Nate, he's not shakin' anymore that's good ain't it?"
Nathan rushed to the gambler's side and laid a hand aside his neck. He couldn't feel a pulse and just as he was about ready to give up, he felt a slight beat under his finger. That was it, Ezra was as good as dead.
Nathan hung his head, surprised at the sudden tear that ran down his face. "No, JD." Nathan raised his head and looked into the young sheriff's hopeful face. "He's freezing, his body is shutin' down."
"Aww hell!" Chris murmured, shucking out of his duster and beginning to unbutton his shirt. "JD, strip!"
"What?" JD's eyes widened as his mouth fell open.
"Get your clothes off, boy! You want Ezra to freeze to death?" Chris kicked off his boots. "We have to warm him up and skin to skin is the best way."
JD took a second, then started taking off his clothes down to his drawers. The two exposed men danced on the cold floor and then quickly scrambled under the blankets, stretching out on either side of Ezra's frozen form. Nathan laid their discarded clothes and jackets on top for added warmth. Chris threw an arm over Ezra's chest and nestled as close as he could, allowing his body's warmth to encompass the frozen man. Chris was not going to watch one of his men freeze to death without doing something. Ezra was on his back and completely oblivious to the two warm bodies nestling up beside him. This was a matter of life or death--modesty be damned.
JD shivered when his warm skin connected with the other side of Ezra's glacial body, and he pulled back. "Lord, he's like ice," JD remarked, having to force himself to come back in contact with the gambler's cold skin. He pressed his bare chest up against Ezra's arm and rested his arm across the man's stomach.
"C'mon Ez, stay with us," Chris whispered into the conman's ear as he pressed his warm body against the freezing gambler. He watched Ezra's face for any sign of life, right now he would welcome outright indignation from the genteel southerner for the discomfiting arrangement.
JD smiled faintly. He never thought that Chris cared for the smart-aleck cardshark. The two were always at odds, butting heads like domineering rams. They were a family, but it always seemed like Ezra floated on the fringes, and he thought that Ezra and Chris wanted it that way, but now he wasn't so sure.
Chris laid his hand over Ezra's heart, counting the sluggish beats. He was as surprised as anyone at the depth of feeling that flooded his very soul. The thought of losing the enigmatic cardshark tore a hole in his heart.
"Stay with us, Ez," Chris repeated. "Wouldn't..." Chris's voice caught in his throat. "We'd miss that smart-ass mouth of yours, and you know I don't have an ounce of tact. What would we do without ya?"
Chris looked over Ezra's body to see JD smiling at him. The harden gunslinger felt a rush of heat and flashed a tight smile at the young gunslinger. Any other time, this would have been the most embarrassing situation he'd ever been in--and he'd been in a few compromising positions during his life, at the moment, none came to mind.
"Don't worry, JD, he'll be fine. Ezra's too stubborn to die." Chris found that he had to say something to assuage the awkwardness of the situation.
Nathan knelt down beside the three men, a grin held back by the seriousness of the circumstances. He checked Ezra's pulse and the muscles in his jaw eased, allowing a smile to grow. "He's holding his own, now if Buck and Vin get back here with some fire wood he might have a chance."
Ezra's mind started to thaw and his first sensation was that of warmth and human skin. He tried to ascertain where the feeling was coming from, but the best he could come up with was when he was a child being comforted by a caring relative, it was such a rare feeling that he was totally captivated by it then and now. His Aunt May was a kindly woman and from time to time, he was fortunate enough to be left in her care. She was the only person he could recall that gave him the affection and love he so desperately craved. He could still feel her arms around him and smell the sweet lavender perfume that she always wore. The images melted and changed into six stalwart men, men who had given him self-respect and a home.
"Ez, you hold on, you hear me." Chris curtly whispered.
The shack door flew open, inviting a cold gale of wind into the room. Chris and JD gripped Ezra tight and ducked under the blankets to hide from the sudden blast of cold air.
Buck and Vin moved inside, their arms laden with wood. Nathan quickly moved to shut the door as Vin dumped his load of wood near the stove. Buck stood stock-still in the middle of the room his eyes wide and an expression that was hard to clarify on his face.
Vin stepped up beside Buck and held his lips in a firm straight line at the sight of Chris and JD snuggled up close to Ezra. He glanced over at Buck seeing the explosion of laughter that was just fighting to come out.
Nathan started shoving wood into the stove not wanting to be caught in between Buck's childish humor and Chris's solemnity.
"Well, well, lookey at this. Damn, boy, I didn't know you and Chris went that way," Buck teased, a shit-eatin' grin taking over his whole face.
"Hey we're just tryin' to warm him up," JD defended, acute embarrassment coloring his face. Lord, he'd never hear the end of this.
Buck dumped his load of firewood. He knew what Chris and JD were doing, he would have done the same, but this was just too good to pass up.
"Well, I'm an open-minded person and if you all want a little privacy I'm sure we could come back later," Buck said, grasping Vin's shoulder. Tanner was fighting not to laugh and Buck wasn't making it easy.
Chris's bare arm came out from under the blanket, his gun in hand and pointed directly at Buck. "Not another word, Wilmington!"
Buck clamped his mouth shut but the juvenile smile remained. He hadn't been worried, Chris didn't even have his finger on the trigger. Vin had to wonder where Chris had kept his gun; he sure wasn't wearing his holster.
"You have anything to say?" Chris glared at the silent tracker as he pulled his arm back under the blanket.
"Nope, just hope Ez don't find out about this or he'll shoot you both," Vin said and quickly turned away.
"Get that fire goin', will ya?," Chris said. He was starting to feel uncomfortable. He didn't want Ezra waking up and having to explain how they were trying to save his life.
Nathan was blowing gently to entice the flames in the small stove. "Where'd you find dry wood?"
"There was a mine near here and plenty of wood inside," Vin replied.
Chris and JD freed themselves from the blankets and quickly dressed as the small room heated up from the fire and bodies. Nathan began heating up some water. He had left the frying pan on the stove to get hot, hoping to use it as a make-shift warming pan.
"Turn Ezra over onto his stomach," Nathan said.
Chris and Buck gently turned the gambler over as Nathan brought the heated skillet over.
"What are you doing, Nate?" JD asked slipping on his boots as he watched the healer move the skillet steadily up and down Ezra's blanket-covered spine.
"Since I don't have any hot water bottles or a warming pan, this should work," Nathan explained. "We need to warm him up slowly."
"Is he going to be alright?" Buck asked. Ezra still looked deathly pale, but at least he didn't resemble a frozen corpse anymore.
"Well, his chances have improved," Nathan replied. "So long as his body didn't get too cold he should come around soon."
Chris and JD stood off to the side shivering, feeling the cold drafts that wafted through the room. Neither one had any intention of retrieving their coats from their thawing friend.
"As soon as it gets a little warmer in here you two need to put your coats back on," Nathan grumbled at the two gunslingers. "I don't need anyone else gettin' sick."
The wind ceased with the coming of dawn. The lawmen moaned as they stretched out cramped muscles and tried to revive their depleted bodies. Nathan had seen Ezra stir earlier and was preparing some warm water and sugar. Chris sat up on his elbows and watched as the healer moved up alongside the gambler.
Ezra shivered and a groan managed to get past his raw throat.
"Ez, can you hear me. Wake up," Nathan cajoled, patting him lightly on the cheek.
Ezra's green eyes fluttered, then opened. His face was still pale, but his body temperature had risen and Nathan no longer thought he was in danger of freezing. He still wasn't sure how they were going to get him out of here. He had to be kept warm.
"Here, you need to drink this, it'll help warm you up." Chris moved up to Ezra's head and gently raised the conman up as Nathan placed the cup of warm sugar water to his lips.
"What happened?" Ezra wheezed as Chris laid him back down.
"You fell into a watering hole, almost froze to death," Buck replied from across the room.
"Luckily Vin knew about this shack," Nathan added.
Ezra's eyes darted around the small confines. "Not exactly the Ritz."
Ezra's brow furrowed and he arched his back slightly, reaching his arm underneath. He pulled out one of JD's Colts and held it up. "Why is Mr. Dunne's weapon secreted beside me?"
JD's eyes went wide, like Chris, he had kept one of his guns close, but he had forgot about it when Buck and Vin had come in. The young gunslinger quickly grabbed the weapon. "Ah...sorry, Ez."
Images of a dream--or what he thought was a dreamflashed through his head: The feel of warm skin the comfort of human contact. Ezra looked toward Buck, Nathan and Vin who were struggling to hold back their laughter, Buck's face was turning red from the effort. Larabee's head was bowed and a hand covered his face, and JD looked like he was going to die from acute embarrassment.
'Good Lord,' Ezra mouthed.
JD pulled his hat down low hearing the snickers and the stifled guffaws. He then tilted his head toward the door, a strange sound floating to his ears in-between Buck's chuckles.
"Hey, everyone shut up, I think I hear bells," JD suddenly announced, grateful for the disruption. The others went suddenly silent and listened.
"I hear it too," Vin said.
Chris, Buck, JD and Vin stepped outside and smiled at the sight of Josiah coming up the trail in a sleigh pulled by two horses. Several small silver bells danced from the frame. The sleigh was piled high with hay and blankets.
Josiah pulled up the horses and smiled when he noticed the lingering humor on his friends' faces. "How is he?"
"He's doing okay," Chris replied.
"You look like Santa Claus," JD blurted out.
Josiah smiled at the idea that he could resemble the jolly old elf in any way. "And I bring good tidings."
"Where'd you get the sleigh?" JD asked, admiring the intricate designs carved into the side.
"The Miller's graciously offered it. I figure we can wrap Ezra up and get home," Josiah explained as he climbed down from the seat and grabbed several blankets.
"That's that best idea I've heard all day," Buck answered.
The five men entered the shack to see Nathan forcing down more of his medicinal concoction. Josiah rested the pile of extra blankets near the stove to warm them. He then knelt down beside the gambler.
"Good to see you thawed out, brother."
"Thank you, Mr. Sanchez. It is good to feel all my extremities." Ezra flexed an arm, which Nathan quickly forced back under the blankets.
"I need someone to collect up some good size rocks that we can heat up," Nathan exclaimed. "He ain't leaving unless he stays good and warm."
Buck rolled his eyes and laughed. "C'mon pard." He nudged Vin in the side. "Let's see how good you are at finding rocks under three feet of snow."
Chris and JD placed a couple of the warmed blankets on top of the gambler. Nathan laid his hand on Ezra's forehead. "How you feelin'?"
"Warm, Mr. Jackson, very warm." Ezra smiled. He felt the warmth of friendship and it melted even more of his cynical heart. He knew from this day forward none of them would ever be left out in the cold.