To Prove a Worth

by KellyA

Disclaimer: Not mine, no infringement.

Rating: PG, violence

This story never would have been completed without the wonderful editing abilities of NotTasha. I hope you all enjoy it.

This story like all my stories is mostly Ezra with the others generously sprinkled in for good measure.

Part 1
Chris Larabee paused within the entrance to the saloon, allowing his eyes to adjust to the gloom. The dimly lit tavern offered a false sense of relief from the scorching heat of the mid-July day. The darkly clad lawman squeezed the hard wood of the bat-wing doors as his eyes scanned the open room, noting several men slouched over drinks, waiting for the coolness of night. Chris's suspicious gaze passed over the regulars and narrowed on three strangers crouched over a bottle of whiskey at a far table. He didn't like the look of them; unfortunately, he couldn't arrest someone because of a bad feeling. Spotting Buck and Vin at the bar, he stepped into the saloon, allowing the doors to flap shut. He shifted his gaze to the right to see Ezra sitting at his table playing a game of solitaire. The heat wave was stifling anyone's desire to play cards with the cardsharp.

A wave of quiet followed as Chris strode across the floor. He came alongside Buck who turned around and leaned his back against the bar. Vin turned to the side, picking up his beer. Buck took notice of his old friend's dolor mood and didn't think it had anything to do with the prevailing heat wave.

"What's wrong, hoss?" Buck asked.

Chris pulled a yellow piece of paper from his shirt pocket. He stared at the missive. "Got a message from Nate." Chris dropped the note on the bar and sighed heavily. Nathan, Josiah and JD had gone to a Kiowa village several miles north to check out some of the children who had become ill. "It's Harker's Fever."

Buck's face fell and Vin bowed his head. Ezra halted his play at the mention of the serious and potentially deadly disease. His thoughts went immediately to the children. He had gone to the village a couple weeks ago, passing out his cache of candy, much to Chaucer's dismay. He thought of the young brave named Chanto, who acted much older than his nine years. He had lost both his parents and was taking care of himself and younger sister. Ezra had surreptitiously left the young man supplies, placing them in Chanto's makeshift abode.

"Aww, hell," Buck moaned. He knew all about Harker's Fever. It had killed more of his fellow compatriots during the war than any bullets. "Damn, how did they get that?"

"Nate thinks the Army gave the Indians some infected blankets," the blond leader explained. "No, he doesn't think it was on purpose," Chris continued, seeing Vin stiffen. "The Army didn't realize the blankets were infected. Several soldiers have died at the fort where they came from after the blankets were distributed."

The long-haired tracker chewed the inside of his cheek not so sure the Army was innocent. There was no reason to harm the Kiowa tribe; they weren't on land that anybody would want, and they were peaceful, mostly old men, women, children and a few braves who hunted food for them.

"What's Nate gonna do?" Vin asked.

"The Army is sending medicine here first thing in the morning," Chris explained. "Nate wants someone to bring it out. The medicine ain't foolproof so he wants someone who's had the fever and survived."

"That's a pretty tall order, Chris," Vin replied. "I don't know anyone who survived." He had heard of whole tribes wiped out by the fever.

"There were a couple who did in my unit, but it messed up their brains," Buck added.

"We're going to have to scour the town and surrounding area and see if we can find someone," Chris exclaimed, not holding out much hope.

"That could take awhile," Buck added. "We don't have much time, that fever kills pretty fast."

The three regulators turned at the sound of Ezra's chair scraping the floor. The fancy dressed gambler slowly stood as he pocketed his cards. "Gentlemen, there is no need to comb or inconvenience the town. I will take the medicine."

Buck's jaw dropped and Chris stared at the cardsharp suspiciously.

Ezra ignored the looks of disbelief and suspicion. He knew he deserved them. He had let them down, twice. Ezra bowed his head and felt the twinge of regret once more eat at him. Everyone had been grateful to him for saving Mrs. Travis from the assassin's bullet. He had unintentionally saved the day again, but the reason he was at the right spot at the right time had come to light. He had been about to steal the money left from another assassin. He had every intention of riding out of town, and leaving the others to rectify the political commotion that had taken over the small town. He had been running out on them again, just like he did at the Seminole village, almost getting them killed. The other lawmen had remained amiable enough, but Ezra sensed the underlying current of distrust, especially from Nathan Jackson and Chris Larabee.

"And why would I let you do that?" Larabee asked, not hiding his mistrust. It was a hard two-day ride through some of the harshest territory. Why would the civilized southerner subject himself to that unless he had an ulterior motive?

Standish didn't know why he felt the need to do this. He'd never felt the desire or need to prove his reliability before. Since taking up service with the six other gunslingers he realized that he desperately wanted to be accepted and trusted. "My horse is the fastest," Ezra replied.

Vin and Buck both smirked in agreement.

Ezra grinned in knowing appreciation, and then cleared his throat to continue, "And I've had Harker's Fever and, as you can see, survived."

Buck's eyes widen at the declaration. Vin just thought it was one more thing they now knew about the guarded conman. Chris showed no outward sign of his astonishment. He was still trying to process the fact that the cultured conman was actually volunteering to be away from his feathered bed and the gaming tables.

The cardsharp straightened his jacket and remained outwardly composed, although inside his stomach was twisting in knots. Why was he putting himself in a position of trust? He allowed Chris's gaze to measure him.

The gunslinger's blue eyes darkened as he glared warily at the gambler, trying to detect an ulterior motive or any deceit under his placid demeanor and fancy clothes. Chris had been surprisingly grateful to the southerner for saving Mary Travis. Ezra had run out on them, twice, even though he did return on both occasions. Chris frowned. What if Ezra ran across a gold mine, or decided he could make a profit selling the medicine? How many Indians would die? He was not comfortable with this, but the cardsharp had made two good points, and they didn't have a lot of time. Ezra was good at hiding his true feelings, and his true self. Chris only hoped he was right in his recent thinking that the cardsharp was more than the arrogant charlatan he at times portrayed.

Chris pushed back his hat and released a long held breath, before reluctantly replying, "You leave as soon as the medicine arrives in the morning."

Standish nodded and picked up his hat. "I believe I'll go and prepare for tomorrow's sojourn."

Buck's eyes followed the red-clad back up the stairs. He was also still coming to grips that Ezra Standish had just volunteered. He liked the urbane gambler, he just wasn't sure he trusted him enough to risk a whole village.

"You think this is a good idea?" Buck quietly asked, turning around to face the bar.

"What choice do we got? " Chris replied, nodding at the bartender as a beer was placed in front of him. He downed the warm brew, hoping to wash away some of his doubt.

"Maybe one of us should go with him," Buck absently said, rolling his empty glass between his palms.

Chris chewed his bottom lip. "Nah, Nate doesn't want to risk anybody else and one man can travel faster and anyway..." Chris paused not sure what he wanted to say. "I think Ezra would take offense if we suggested it."

Vin nodded his agreement.

Buck peered over his shoulder at the top of the stairs then back at Chris. He hated what he was about to say, but the words needed to come out. "You know medicine can be worth a lot of money to some people. What if he runs out on us again?" Buck awkwardly exclaimed, chagrin flashing in his dark eyes as he bit his tongue.

"I'll hunt him down and kill him," Chris said matter-of-factly.

"Why is he doing this?" Buck asked.

"To prove something," Vin replied.


Vin shrugged his shoulders. "I doubt even Ezra knows."

Vin had heard the talk around town; outwardly the townspeople thanked the gambler for saving Mrs. Travis, behind his back they condemned him for trying to steal the money and ride out. Ezra made it hard for anyone to trust him; it was easier to keep people at arms length than to risk getting hurt. Ezra harbored a fragile heart that was crushed one too many times, and that he now fiercely protected. As much as the others didn't trust the southerner, Ezra didn't trust them either. Oh, he trusted the six lawmen to watch his back in a gunfight, but when it came to his heart, that was a whole 'nother matter.

Vin believed there was a man worth knowing hiding behind that protective façade and he was glad that Chris was giving Ezra another chance to prove himself.

The three lawmen shared another beer and discussed the change in duties with Ezra and the others gone, they then headed out.

The three strangers that Chris had taken an immediate dislike to watched as the regulators walked out of the saloon.

Jake Monroe grinned, and downed the last of his beer, wiping his mouth on his sleeve. He was a lanky, middle-aged man who had given up on his farm and now scratched out a living doing whatever came his way. "Did you hear that?" Jake whispered across the table.

"Yeah, so what?" Pete Unger replied, leaning his slight frame back in his chair. His mousy brown hair hung over his eyes. Unger was a drifter who had run into Jake on the road. The two had realized they had a lot in common.

Jake rolled his eyes at his partner's ignorance. "That medicine would be worth a fortune," he explained.

"Medicine? You're kiddin' me, right," Pete exclaimed, his outburst of disbelief garnering some unwanted attention from several patrons.

Jake glared at his cohort. "Why don't you just go and tell Larabee that we're wanted men."

Pete slumped down in his chair and lowered his voice, "Sorry, but shouldn't we be robbing a stagecoach or something? Ain't no money in medicine."

"You don't know nothing," Jake exclaimed. "We'll make a mint off of it. There's folks who'll pay big money for it."

A third man who sat across from Jake scratched at a scraggly black beard. He was heavyset, weighing more than both his associates. He went by the name Swan and had a cruel look and demeanor that Jake and Pete thought would come in handy.

Swan's dark hooded eyes seemed to sink deeper into their sockets as his brow furrowed. "How much you think?"

"Not sure," Jake replied, "but if Harker's Fever spreads any town will pay top dollar."

Swan's face glowed with malicious intent.

"It sounds like there's only going to be one lawman watching it," Pete added. "It'll be easy."

Swan smiled, showing a mouth full of rotten teeth. "I like easy."

"We could ambush him near Devil's rock," Jake said, as he began devising a plan. They could find a town close to the Fort that feared the disease or maybe even had the sickness that would help to raise the fee. People would pay anything to save their skins.

"What if'n that gambler fellow won't give up the medicine?" Pete abruptly asked.

Jake rolled his eyes at Pete's naiveté. "Don't matter. We'll take it from him, alive or dead," Jake chuckled.

"I like dead," Swan added with a smile.

Part 2

Larabee walked into the livery to find Ezra saddling his horse. He had been mildly astonished when he went to the gambler's room to find that Ezra had already left. The southerner was not one to rise with the sun. At least Standish seemed to be taking this serious.

"Here's the medicine." Chris handed Ezra two pint-size brown bottles.

Ezra tenderly took hold of the valuable bottles. Wrapping them in cloth, he settled them into his saddlebags.

"Buck, Vin and I will follow a day behind in a wagon," Chris exclaimed. "A day should give Nate enough time to give out the medicine, start getting things under control. 'S'pect them villagers are going to need some supplies."

Ezra smiled. "As our esteemed healer is very efficient. I expect you're right. Mr. Jackson most assuredly will have burned everything." Ezra fidgeted a moment before stopping himself. He turned and checked his saddle's cinch, trying to dispel or hide his unease. He loathed that this man could garner such emotions from him, yet he respected Chris Larabee more than anyone and that was a feeling he rather enjoyed. "Mr. Jackson should have the epidemic well in hand by the time you and the others arrive," Ezra off-handedly replied, without facing the darkly clad gunslinger. "If not, we'll leave a sign for you outside the village, letting you know it's not yet safe to enter."

There was a current of uneasiness between the two men. No one had ever made the southerner feel so uncomfortable or unsure before, and he often wondered why Larabee had this affect on him, or why he stayed and endured it. A snort from Chaucer disturbed the sudden quiet that had descended.

A faint smile tickled the corners of Chris's mouth as he watched Ezra fuss over his gear. Ezra hid it well, but stalwart gunslinger had come to know the gambler a little bit and could see that he was uncomfortable. Good, maybe that would keep him in-line. Larabee thought of threatening Standish with imminent death should he fail, but Chris saw something in the man that changed his mind. Ezra appeared determined. Chris tried to soften the look of mistrust in his face.

Standish swore under his breath and brusquely stopped fussing over his horse. Chris crossed his arms over his chest, hiding his amusement over the cardsharp's sudden break from his normally imperturbable attitude.

Ezra turned to face the blond leader. "Mr. Larabee, I know you don't have a lot of faith in me and I've given you little reason to trust me," Ezra said ruefully. His face grew serious. "But, I promise you, on my life, this medicine will arrive at the village."

Chris took a deep breath then exhaled slowly, not sure how to accept such a fervent declaration.

Ezra wasn't sure how to read the look in Chris's blue eyes. He expected to see mistrust in the stalwart's gunslinger's face, but instead he thought he saw a glint of admiration

Chris's eyes narrowed and a half smile came to his lips. He grabbed a canteen that was hanging on a nearby post and tossed it to the cardsharp. "Better take an extra one. You ain't gonna find much water out there." Chris whirled on his heel and walked out of the stable.

Part 3

Ezra kept his horse at a steady and easy gait. It wouldn't do to wear the animal out or risk injury. They were on their second day of travel but still had a long way to go. The quiet of the desert surrounded him and his thoughts began to drift. He knew Larabee had been reluctant to allow him to do this. His gut twisted as he recalled the look in Buck Wilmington's eyes. He hadn't been aware that the fun-loving cowboy harbored some dark thoughts about him. Ezra had made a living reading people, but sometimes that ability left him cold. When had he started to care what these men thought? He felt a need to prove himself, to show the six other lawmen that he was worthy of their trust and friendship. Ezra nudged his horse into a quicker gait, feeling a sudden urgency.

The bullet whizzed by his head and ricocheted off a nearby rock. Ezra pulled up his horse, startled. He whirled around searching for his assailants. He zeroed in on three horses charging down on him. Ezra spurred his horse to the right spotting sanctuary in the rocks, praying that he makes it. He squeaked between two boulders his legs rubbing against the protecting rocks. He kept his head down expecting a bullet to find him.

"Damnit, Pete, you shoulda waited 'til we got closer," Jake yelled as he pulled up his horse. "You can't hit the side of a saloon even if you're inside," Jake growled. Damn, the gambler had managed to get to cover, making their job harder.

"Sorry, Jake, I thought I had 'im," Pete countered. He wanted to be the one to get the fancy dressed gambler. He knew Jake and Swan thought him incompetent and he worried that eventually they'd leave him in the dust. He just had to prove himself to them.

"C'mon let's flush him out and git this over with," Swan growled as he dismounted, pulling his rifle out of its scabbard. The three bandits split up and went for cover.

Ezra pulled up his horse and leapt to the ground quickly taking cover behind some rocks and scrub. He searched for the attackers and tried to discern their whereabouts. He checked his revolver, putting it back in his shoulder holster and removed his Colt. He wasn't sure how long he could hold these men off and began to think that maybe he should just make a break for it and hope for the best. He didn't like the odds. Ezra looked over at his saddlebags that held the precious medicine, and the stakes were just too high. He needed a better plan.

"Hey, mister, come on out. We want to talk to ya," Jake yelled.

Ezra rolled his eyes. "Gentlemen," Ezra called back. "I'm on a mission of mercy." He hoped the men might have some semblance of conscious and were only after money. Lord, his mother would drop dead from shock if she knew what he was saying.

"Yeah, we know all about your mission, Reb. We want the medicine," Jake hollered. He had figured out Ezra's position and gave hand signals to Swan to circle around the outcropping.

"Sir, there are sick children who desperately need this medicine," Ezra explained, feeling that it wouldn't make any difference.

"Yeah, yeah, so what? They're only injuns. Ain't no one going to miss 'em," Jake replied. "We can put that medicine to better use."

Ezra's hand shook with rage and he clenched his teeth. How could someone be so callous? Think Ezra, how can you get out of this. He'd realized that only one of the bandits had been talking, and he began to scour the area. He spotted one of the men trying to creep closer. Ezra raised his gun, waited, and then fired.

Pete's eyes went wide as the bullet sunk into his chest. He blinked and looked over at Jake before he fell face first into the dust.

"Damnit," Jake Monroe swore when he saw Pete fall. He knew the young man would end up dead sooner or later, but he had taken a certain likin' to the idiot. "You sonofabitch!" Jake screamed out at Ezra.

Ezra smiled, the odds were improving.

Jake wiped a hand down his dirty face. It wasn't supposed to be this hard. He had to keep the lawman busy and give Swan a chance to sneak up on him. He looked over at Petey. Oh well, with only two men left there'd be more money for him, that put a smile on Jake's face.

"Mister, it's too blasted hot to be playin' these games. Why don't you just leave the medicine and we'll let you ride on out of here," Jake yelled out.

"Give me a moment to think on your offer," Ezra replied. "If I don't deliver this medicine, it might not matter that you let me live."

Ezra didn't believe the two remaining robbers would let him live, but they could wait him out. He looked over his shoulder at the two canteens and saddlebags. He pushed off from the rocks and made his way over to his horse. He pulled the two bottles of medicine out of his saddlebags and picked up one of the canteens.

Lord, he was thirsty. When had he gotten so dry? He took a long drink. He then poured the rest into a depression in the rocks and allowed Chaucer a chance to drink.

Ezra filled the now empty canteen with the medicine. He then took up the second canteen and poured the water into the empty medicine bottles. He wiped the bottles dry and placed them back into the saddlebags. Ezra stopped and listened. It was too quiet; he was running out of time. He quickly grabbed the canteen filled with the medicine and returned to his previous position by the rocks. He wedged the canteen into a crack in the rocks and covered it with sand and brush. The last canteen still held a little water, and he hooked it over his shoulder. He moved away from the secreted canteen and looked over the outcropping, hoping to see his attackers.

Ezra turned his head at the sound of rocks scattering under foot. He only had time to catch a glimpse of a rifle butt coming toward his head, then blackness.

Part 4

Buck stood in the back of the wagon taking inventory of the supplies. He looked up as Vin came out of the Mercantile with a bag of flour and sugar.

"That should about do it," Buck said as Vin placed the supplies inside the wagon.

"Should be enough to take care of 'em for awhile," Vin commented. The three remaining lawmen had busied themselves, getting ready for the ride out to the village. Each man hoped that the epidemic would be under control. They were worried about the Indians and about their friends. Buck had remained tight-lipped about his fear for JD.

Vin leaned up against the wagon. It was still terribly hot. He looked out across the arid landscape. His brow furrowed into a frown as his gut tightened with a sudden knot of fear.

"What's wrong, Vin?" Buck asked as he jumped down from the wagon.

"Don't know. Something..." Vin shook his head, trying to dislodge the dark feeling. "We need to git going." Vin turned and headed toward the jailhouse to get Chris.

Buck looked out over the desert. He didn't have the intuition that Vin had, but even he got a bad feeling.

Part 5

Ezra slowly regained consciousness, feeling someone tugging at his clothing.

"Did you search everywhere?" A gruff voice commanded.

Ezra tried to open his eyes, but the harsh sun wouldn't allow it. He heard and felt the sand and grit beneath him and tried to roll over.

"Hey, fancy pants, where's your stash?" Swan growled as he turned out the fancy purple coat.

Ezra managed to open one eye and turned his head to the side. He saw Chaucer tied by three other horses. His saddlebags lay on the ground a few feet away.

Jake crouched down in front of the semi-conscious conman, holding one of the brown medicine bottles like a prize. "Why would you want to die for those heathens?" Jake curiously asked, his malicious grin widening to reveal missing teeth and potent breath.

Ezra licked his lips and replied, "Sir, they're more worthy of my death than you'll ever be."

Jake snorted, thinking that Swan had hit him too hard. The man was obviously out of his head. He stood and glared down at the vulnerable man at his feet. He always enjoyed this perspective, having complete control over someone was such a rush. He thought of Petey. They hadn't exactly been best of friends, but Pete had been someone he could trust and that was a rare find. Jake pulled back his leg then swung it into the prone man's side.

Ezra gasped as air was forced from his lungs. He curled up as Jake's leg struck again and again not allowing his lungs a chance to take in any air. Swan smiled as he watched Jake administer a couple more kicks. He angrily threw down the purple jacket. "Damn, there ain't no money here!"

Jake stopped his abuse and stepped back.

Ezra's head swam from lack of oxygen and tears streamed down his cheeks. "Sorry, musta...left my other jacket," he hoarsely quipped.

Swan reached down and pulled the smart-ass gambler to his feet. "You think you're clever, fancy man?" Swan growled. He was a good head taller than Ezra, and outweighed him by at least a hundred pounds. Standish glared into the bigger man's face, seeing the ugly scar that ran down the side of his face almost taking off the man's ear. Greasy skin glistened under the hot sun and Swan licked at fat lips.

"I don't like you," Swan said unpleasantly.

Ezra guffawed and turned his face away from the smell of whiskey and cheap cigars. "Well sir, the feeling is definitely mutual."

Swan drove his fist into Ezra's stomach, doubling him over, but the bigger man kept a grip and yanked him back up. Ezra tried to focus, seeing Swan's wicked grin through a watery gaze. "This is for Petey," Swan snarled with a slash to Ezra's side, delivered by steel. Hot and cold pain spread across Ezra's body, stealing the light from behind his eyes. Swan released his hold and grinned as the gambler crumbled to the ground. The desert sand drank in the red fluid that poured from Ezra's side.

"Hey, Swan, c'mon let's go. We got what we came for. Leave 'im for the buzzards," Jake snapped. He looked up into the cloudless sky. "He won't last a day out here."

Ezra managed to open his eyes. He lifted his head slightly and watched the two men walking away, noticing his saddlebags draped over Swan's shoulder. He let his head fall back to the ground.

Part 6

"C'mon Sandy, Herschel, pick up the pace," Buck cajoled the two draft horses, pulling the wagon of supplies. They were a half-day out, and Buck was already tired and restless. His worry was growing for a young greenhorn gunslinger who had unwittingly gotten under his skin. He was worried about Nathan and Josiah, too. He remembered what Harker's Fever did to the men in his unit back during the war. Their fevers would get so high they'd run screaming, out of their minds then just drop dead. Buck shook the thoughts away and slapped the reins on the dawdling horses.

Chris and Vin rode alongside the wagon; keeping lookout for any bandits who thought their supply wagon would be easy pickings. Chris was also worried about his men. Nathan, Josiah and JD were caught in the midst of an epidemic along with a whole village. He knew this land was harsh and unforgiving, but since he'd fallen into this group of six rather unique individuals, the land didn't feel as ruthless or disheartening. He'd been robbed of his life with his wife and child, but granted a new one. Larabee smiled as he thought of the six men he was unexpectedly attached to. They all meant something to him in one way or another, even a rather exasperating gambler. Chris glanced over at the long-haired tracker. The two men relished the familiarity they shared. Chris couldn't explain it; it was like they had known each other all their lives. Vin seemed to accept this without qualms. He thought of JD and Buck's brotherly relationship, and Nate and Josiah's camaraderie. Chris's eyes came together as his brow furrowed. Where did Ezra fit?

Part 7

Ezra gradually pulled himself to his hands and knees, congratulating himself on this accomplishment. His body ached and he couldn't remember ever feeling so weak. He sat back on his knees and hissed as he lifted his shirt to reveal the deep gash on his side. The wound still bled, and he pressed his hand to it. Pain flared throughout his body, and he dropped forward, resting his forehead on the ground. He couldn't seem to hold onto a thought for more than a minute as pain screamed from behind his eyes. It was several minutes until the throbbing subsided enough so that he could open his eyes and raise his head. Everything was a blur of bright light. He reached out and felt the hard warmth of a boulder. He clawed his way up onto his feet the effort bringing a sheen of sweat to his face.

Ezra gasped for breath as he leaned against the rock, holding his side, the blood oozing through his fingers. His stomach cramped and a dizzying rush to his head overcame him. He closed his eyes and gritted his teeth, willing himself not to get sick. He slowly opened his eyes and gazed pointlessly for his horse, knowing it was long gone. The whole desert seemed to swim around him, making him nauseous. 'Okay, Ezra, pull it together,' he murmured. He pushed off the rock and started walking back toward Four Corners. Something caused Ezra to stop. He glanced down and picked up a canteen. He tipped it over his mouth savoring the remaining few drops, then dropped it to the ground. A flash of memory that tried to skirt his reach had him turning back toward the large rock outcropping.

Ezra uncovered the canteen and shook it, reassured at the sound of the sloshing medicine. He looked up at the overhanging sun and, for a moment, wished the canteen was filled with water. He clasped it close to his chest and looked out over the desolate desert. One thought planted itself in his muddled brain, getting the medicine to the village.

Part 8

Buck pulled up the wagon when he saw Nathan coming out to meet them. The tall healer looked gaunt and tired, but a huge smile split his face. Nathan stopped within a few yards of the wagon.

"Damn, I'm sure happy to see ya, what took you so long I thought you were going to send someone sooner," Nathan exclaimed. The smiled dropped from his face at his friends' bewildered looks. Nate and Josiah had reckoned that Chris probably couldn't find anyone to deliver the medicine since he had not received word for the past three days. "You all have the medicine, right?"

"No, Nate, we sent Ezra with it three days ago," Chris explained.

"Ezra? You sent Ezra with the medicine?" The three lawmen heard the disbelief in the healer's voice and watched as he shook his head. "He never made it here, Chris," Nathan clarified. What was Larabee thinking, sending that money-grubbing conman on such a life-saving mission. There must have been a good reason. Nathan bowed his head, not wanting the others to see the sadness fall across his face. He raised it to meet Chris's concerned countenance. It always amazed Jackson that the hardened gunslinger could, at times, reveal a softhearted side, not that Nathan would ever point that out. He doubted that any of Larabee's adversaries would believe it.

"It's bad. I can't let you in." Nathan's tone was grim, his expression equally so.

"Damn," Chris breathed. What had he done? He should have delivered the medicine himself, but he had wanted to give Ezra the chance.

Nathan swallowed hard and stared sadly back at his three friends his dark eyes lingering a little longer on Buck before stating, "Chris...JD's sick."

Buck's heart skipped a beat. His worse fear realized. "No," he breathed.

"We're coming in, Nate!" Chris yelled out. Buck snapped the reins and moved the team forward. Nathan stepped aside and followed as his friends passed. He hoped he wasn't going to have to watch all his friends die.

Part 9

"one, two, three,, two, three, four," Ezra counted cadence, but he knew the tempo was slowing. He kept his head down, looking at the sandy soil and occasional rock and shrub. It was too disheartening to look out at the vast distance he still had to cover. His mind told him he couldn't possibly make it, but his heart beat in time with his steps, urging him on. His face was bright red and he was grateful that at least the miscreants let him keep his shirt, he only wished he had his hat. He hoped that Chaucer was able to eventually extricate himself from those reprobates. Ezra smiled at the thought of the two outlaws chasing after his horse and Chaucer prancing away. His horse would head back to Four Corners, but there wouldn't be anyone there. He was on his own. He had to get closer so that, even if he didn't make it, maybe they would find his body and the medicine...closer.

His side throbbed with every step, but he ignored it. He knew the wound was still bleeding, and he pressed harder on the wound, trying to stem the flow, but he continued to march. He would not let the six lawmen down again. Hell, he survived a fever that killed so many. He felt light-headed and empty. Unable to concentrate, he had no options but to follow his thoughts as they drifted back. He was a young lieutenant, and his unit was holding a Union regiment at bay along the Georgia border. The fighting had been fierce for a week then three men got sick. Commander Rossner was preparing to send the men to the rear, away from the fighting. Rossner changed his mind when two more became ill and one died. The Commander knew he couldn't risk spreading this illness through the whole Confederate Army. Ezra remembered the bodies being dumped in large pits without even the dignity of a decent grave marker. So many died, some he even considered friends.

Ezra surmised that the Union regiment suffered from the same affliction, as the fighting had all but ceased. Harker's Fever, named after the first man who had died, had called an unofficial ceasefire. When Commander Rossner came down with the fever, and died, many men fled, carrying the disease with them. When Ezra came down with it there was hardly anyone able to aid the ones who were sick. Ezra remembered suffering alone. He remembered his fear of dieing alone, a fear that had never left him. Ezra and two others were the only ones to walk away on that dreary October day. The three men walked past the bodies of soldiers, the blue and gray of their filthy uniforms their only shroud. Death harbored no prejudice, Yank or Reb they all died the same. The three men only wondered why they had survived as they trudged wearily away from the desolation.

Ezra gazed up at the slowly descending sun. He would not allow it to happen again. He squeezed the canteen tight to his chest and lengthened his strides.

Part 10

The three regulators were shocked at the sight of the once vibrant village that was now draped in death. Chris and the others could hear weeping from several tents. A middle-age man wandered across the compound until Josiah intercepted and guided him back toward a pallet near the fire.

Josiah looked up and forced a grim smile. He walked over to the wagon as Buck and the others dismounted.

"Brothers, I hope you bring good tidings," the ex-preacher tiredly asked, draping his heavy arms over the wagon.

"Sorry, Josiah, we don't have the medicine," Vin explained climbing into the back of the wagon to start unloading.

"Where's JD?" Buck abruptly asked.

Josiah nodded toward a tent a few yards away. Buck ran toward the small tent, set up against a tree in the middle of the compound. Josiah watched Buck race toward the tent, his heart breaking for the gregarious cowboy. He knew how Buck felt about the young man. He turned to find Chris scrutinizing him.

"You look like hell, Josiah."

The ex-preacher forced a smile. "I'll admit I've been better, but I'm better than most."

Chris wasn't so sure about that. Josiah looked like he could fall over at any minute.

"So what happened? I thought someone was bringing medicine," Josiah asked.

Chris exhaled and removed his hat rubbing the rim. He knew how Josiah felt about Ezra; he was like the son he always wanted.

"We sent Ezra with it three days ago," Chris stated.

Josiah frowned and his shoulders slumped. The big man turned and walked away.

+ + + + + + +

Buck stopped within the small opening and took a shuddering breath. JD lay on a small pallet, his hair matted to his very pale skull. His eyes were closed and sunken. A light linen sheet was pulled up to his bare chest. Buck watched the chest rise and fall in quick shallow breaths. He pulled off his hat and moved quietly into the small enclosure.

JD felt his friend's presence, but it was so hard to stay awake. He forced his eyes open, wanting to see the man who was like a brother to him.

Buck knelt down as JD opened his eyes and gave a weak smile. "Buck."

"Yeah, kid, it's good ole Buck. What'cha gone and done?" Buck's voice cracked with emotion and he cleared his throat. He picked up the rag that lay in a small bowl of water and gently wiped JD's brow.

"Sorry," JD whispered. His eyes blazed with the fever within. "Didn't think I'd catch it."

"There ain't nuthin' to be sorry 'bout. You're going to lick this, ain't no doubt."

"Sure." JD barely had any strength to even speak. "The others?"

"Are fine," Buck lied. "We'll have that medicine soon. You just hang on, you hear?"

JD smiled and the pair lapsed into a reflective silence, and Buck soon realized that his friend had drifted off to sleep. He pulled the sheet up on JD's chest and sat back. Buck feared Harker's Fever, but he feared losing JD more.

Buck looked over his shoulder as Chris and Vin slipped inside. Chris stepped up behind his oldest and dearest friend. "He's strong, Buck, he'll make it."

Buck pulled his lips tight and gave Chris a curt nod. He looked back down at the young easterner remembering their first meeting and how he took an almost brotherly interest in the young man. Buck had had a loving mother and was well cared for. He was an only child and living in a bordello diminished his chances of meeting other children. He was lonely most of the time. JD filled a void that had never been filled growing up.

Chris and Vin stood silently over their friends and comrades. They were seven men who had faced and triumphanted over unbelievable odds. Would their family be torn asunder now by an enemy they could not fathom or confront? Chris clenched his jaw and something tightened inside. The seven were not meant to go out like this.

Part 11

"No! No! Get up! Damnit! Get up!" Ezra screamed at himself, pounding the ground with his fist. He had left a meandering trail and was now crawling across the sand on his hands and knees. He stopped and settled back on his knees the canteen hanging about his neck. He ignored his bleeding wound. He no longer had the strength to stand, his body too weak from dehydration. He had failed, failed them all, but what else did he expect. He always failed, oh not at cards, but at everything else. He looked out over the desert that was going to claim him. He didn't know how far he'd come or how much further he had to go. He thought of the children, of Chanto and his little sister. A fresh surge of emotion rushed through him. He had been so close to proving his worth, something he'd never believed he could do or desired. It was being taken from him. He grew angry and that anger lent him strength. He pushed himself off the ground and with lurching, faltering steps pushed on. All he was aware of was the pain in his body, and the blackness that was encroaching ever further upon his vision and then, after what seemed like a deplorably short time, exhaustion and blood loss combined to pull him down. His anger and determination drained away until there was only a small voice inside him railing against the injustice of Fate. The last of his strength withered and the world around him turned black and stayed that way for a long time.

Part 12

Vin kicked at a stone as he emptied a pan of water into the dust. He saw Nathan stretched out by the fire. He hoped the healer got some sleep. He didn't think Nathan could last much longer the way he was going. They had only arrived this morning, but it felt like like an eternity. Death had a way of slowing time, of making people's suffering eternal. Vin looked over at the small tent where he knew Buck was still holding vigil over JD. Lord, if that boy died, it would destroy the devoted cowboy. Vin had seen Josiah heading up to the top of the hill, maybe to pray probably to curse. They were doing everything they could, which wasn't much, and they all felt useless. They could only try to make the sick ones as comfortable as possible, and give the ones who past a decent burial. One brave did recover, and that gave everyone some measure of hope until a child succumbed. Every day someone fell ill and it was getting hard for Nathan to keep up. Vin noticed the soft red glow of a cheroot by a partially built fence.

"What'cha thinkin, cowboy?" Vin quietly asked as he sidled up next to the blond leader. Chris had collected firewood and water all day, remaining reclusive with his thoughts.

"Something's happened to him," Chris quietly replied. The thought had crossed his mind that Ezra might have run out on them again, but that thought was quickly squelched. He had learned a lot about the conman, probably more than Ezra would have believed or feel comfortable with.

Vin looked out onto the dark as if he could pierce its inky covered secrets. It had taken awhile for Chris to finally consider the urbane southerner a part of their eclectic family. Ezra seemed to go out of his way not to fit in, and keep everyone at a distance. He seemed to take special delight in provoking murderous intentions in Larabee. Vin supposed it was Ezra's way; he'd been taught to trust in only himself and no one else. He didn't know how to handle being surrounded by people who cared about him. Vin believed that the enigmatic cardsharp had been hurt one too many times. The six regulators had caught glimpses beneath Ezra's portrayal of self-interest and unconcern. Ezra would be shocked at this discovery, or would he? Maybe unconsciously Ezra was allowing these men an insight into his soul. No one wanted to be alone forever.

Nathan stepped up to the two gunslingers, stretching out weary muscles. He breathed in deep the coolness of the night. It was quiet in the village, which wasn't a good thing. "If we don't get some medicine soon..." Nathan paused and clasped callused hands together, draping them over a rail. "We're going to lose most of these people by the end of the week." He glanced over at the small tent that housed JD. When they had come to the village, they hadn't known the extent of the sickness. A soldier had come to the village and informed Nathan about the epidemic at the Fort and the fact that they had given the Indians several blankets. Nathan was mildly surprised by the admission, but his view of the world had changed in recent months, he was a little less jaded. Six men had made him realize that not everyone was out to kill anyone who was different.

"What about JD?" Vin quietly asked.

Nathan released an audible breath, grateful for the dark to hide sudden watery eyes. He choked on his response, "I don't think he'll make it without the medicine."

Silence descended upon the three men, cloaking their sorrow. The loss of JD would be the loss of their innocence. Nate didn't want to tell Chris that he thought Josiah was also sick and just hiding the fact.

"Nate, we need to go look for Ez," Chris said.

Nathan scrutinized the dark shapes of the gunslingers. "If'n you don't show any symptoms by mornin', I guess it'll be alright. Just don't get near anyone or go into any towns." He really didn't know why some got the disease and others didn't.

Nathan had been angry at first, but when he thought about it, he knew that Ezra would never run out on them and especially not at the expense of children. He had been surprised when Vin told him that Ezra had volunteered, and grinned when Josiah puffed out his chest like a proud papa.

Nathan looked out into the night, knowing the desert could be merciless. "Find him and bring him home," Nathan said, his voice giving away his belief that Ezra was dead.

Chris dropped his cheroot on the ground snuffing it out with his boot heel.

Part 13

Larabee stepped into the lantern lit tent. His heart broke at the sight of his oldest and dearest friend bent over a man who'd only just stepped out of adolescence. Chris recognized an all too familiar look in Buck's face. One that he used to see reflected in the mirror after the death of his wife and son. Chris couldn't bare the thought of Buck going through that pain, an ache that never really went away.

JD was very pale and Chris couldn't tell if he was breathing.

"He won't wake up," Buck sadly said. "I don't even know if he can hear me." Buck looked up at Chris with eyes that were blank, the life-loving glint snuffed out. Chris stepped up alongside JD's bed and rested a hand on the boy's chest thankful that he still breathed. It was times like these when he wished he had sent the youth back to Boston.

"Come morning, Vin and I are going to look for Ez and the medicine," Chris exclaimed.

Buck inhaled, held it, then slowly released it. "You think he's out there somewhere?"

"If he is, we'll find him," Chris replied. "You hold on to JD, Buck. Don't let him go."

Buck pursed his lips and clenched his jaw. "Never, pard. You just find Ezra and bring him home, ole JD and me we'll be waitin' right here fer ya."

Chris touched the brim of his hat with two fingers and walked out of the tent. He saw Vin stretched out by the fire trying to catch some sleep. He knew he should do the same, but he also knew that sleep wouldn't find him. Chris went over to tend the horses and maybe siphon off some of his restless energy. It was going to be a long night.

Part 14

The following morning, Buck poked his head out of the tent to watch Chris and Vin mount up. He glanced over his shoulder at JD, who had begun to grow restless as his fever increased. He knew that JD was dying and there was nothing he could do about it. He was also worried about Ezra and wondered what had happened to the enigmatic cardsharp. He wondered how they all would survive if they lost two of their own. They had become a family, not through blood, but through a camaraderie that had grown into something more. A connection that bonded them together with something none of them understood, but were coming to gladly accept.

"Don't worry, Bucklin," Vin exclaimed. "We'll find Ez and the medicine."

Buck forced a half-smile of confidence. He quickly turned his back before that smile could leave his face. He slipped back inside the ten to continue his vigil at the young gunslinger's bedside. He would not let JD die alone.

"Here take this." Nathan handed Chris a small leather-wrapped package. "It's bandages and some laudanum. Knowing that fool southerner, you might need it."

Chris gave the healer a tight-lipped smile. At least Nathan hadn't given up completely. Chris glanced over at the campfire, seeing Josiah stirring a pot of soup. "How's he doing?"

Nathan shook his head. "I know he's sick. I just don't know what's keepin' him going. Maybe he'll beat it."

'Maybe that God of his hasn't totally abandoned him,' Vin thought. The perceptive tracker believed that faith was giving Josiah the strength to continue. Vin hoped that if they found Ezra dead that faith didn't die along with the big man.

"We'll be back soon," Chris said.

"If you don't find the medicine in another day. It won't matter," Nathan exclaimed.

+ + + + + + +

Vin and Chris backtracked their trail and then followed a route they thought that Ezra might take. It was late morning when the two regulators came upon the circling buzzards. The two men spurred their horses into a gallop, both fearful of what they might find.

Vin was the first to recognize the prone body, a white bulge on the sand. Both lawmen jumped from their horses and raced to their friend's side. Vin laid two fingers aside the conman's throat grateful to feel a pulse. He gently turned the southerner over wincing at the sun burnt face. Chris looked around, not seeing Ezra's horse or the saddlebags. His heart sank, knowing that the medicine was gone.

"Ezra! Ezra!"

Somebody was shaking him. He didn't want to wake, but he had no choice. He slowly rose to the surface of consciousness. Hovering above him was the worried visage of Vin. At first, he thought it some apparition, but then the pain awoke and he knew he was still among the living.

Vin smiled, but the gesture seemed forced. His eyes betrayed the fact that something was worrying him. Ezra wondered what it could be. He then wondered why he felt so weak. A rattling groan of pain escaped his throat vanquishing Vin's concerned smile.

Vin gently took Ezra by the shoulders and lifted him, placing a canteen of water to his lips. He wasn't prepared for Ezra's reaction.

"No, no, can't..." Ezra screamed and threw his arms up over his face. He couldn't give in to thirst. He couldn't drink the medicine. The medicine was for people who mattered.

Vin looked across Ezra's body at Chris, his fear and concern plainly showing on his face. Chris rested a hand on Ezra's arm for comfort as much as to hold him down.

"Okay, Ez, easy. Take it easy," Vin soothed and allowed the southerner to fall back in his arms.

Ezra fell back gasping for breath. Chris stared at the blood covering Ezra's side and legs. He narrowed his eyes, figuring that there was a terrible wound under that stained clothing. He didn't want to remove the shirt afraid it would start the wound to bleeding. Judging by the amount of blood on his clothing, Ezra didn't have much left in him. The gambler's fair skin looked like parchment, and he couldn't seem to focus on anything.

"Let's get this canteen off ya," Vin said as he tried to lift the strap over Ezra's head. He thought the canteen was empty and just something the southerner had been holding onto for hope. The conman's eyes went wide as he felt the water container being lifted away. He suddenly found the strength to wrap his arms around the canteen.

"Noooo," Ezra croaked. Vin looked over at Chris, seeing the worry in his blue eyes. Had their friend lost his mind?

"Okay, Ez, you can keep it. Just settle down," Chris said, laying a hand on the wounded man's shoulders. It wasn't worth aggravating him. Ezra appeared to calm down as he held the canteen close. "Ez, what happened?"

Ezra's brow furrowed, and he stared hard at Chris, seemingly surprised to see him. "Ambushed...two men..." he managed to gasp, then slid into unconsciousness.

"Shit, wonder how long he's been walking," Vin exclaimed. He had seen the tortured trail Ezra had laid. He held his friend a little tighter.

"There's nothing we can do," Chris sadly exclaimed. "Let's get him back to Nathan." At least they could try to save one of their band.

Part 15

Vin and Chris slowly rode into the village with Ezra slumped in front of Chris. The conman had barely been conscious throughout the trek back.

"Nathan!" Chris yelled as he handed his wounded burden down to Josiah. The ex-preacher gently laid Ezra down, cradling his head to his chest. He could feel the heat emanating from the gambler.

"Damn, what happened to him?" Nathan asked.

"Found him out in the desert like this," Vin explained.

"Two men ambushed him and took the medicine," Chris added.

Nathan's heart broke as he laid a hand on Ezra's chest feeling the weak beating of his heart. The healer's head dropped.

"Do something!" Vin beseeched. "He wouldn't drink any water."

Nate's head snapped up. He was watching a whole village die, unable to do a thing about it. He looked down at Ezra, whose skin was dry and pasty. Nate wasn't sure he could save the southerner.

Josiah focused teary eyes on the healer. He knew his friend was disheartened. Nate was watching people he knew die unable to stop it. He felt useless and a fraud. Josiah knew that Nathan was doubting his medical abilities.

"Nate, do what you can," Josiah softly said.

Nathan straightened, he would not give up, and he wouldn't let Ezra give up either. "Get him in the stream!" Nate abruptly commanded. "We have to cool him down." He knew that the shock would either save or kill Standish.

Josiah smiled and allowed Vin to grab under Ezra's arms, as Chris took up his legs. They carried the limp form to the shallow stream and gently placed him into the soothing water. Ezra's body stiffened, then seemed to relax as the gentle current flowed over his burnt skin and buffeted his limp arms. Vin sat in the streambed and held Ezra's head and shoulders up. Nathan cupped his hands and poured a little water over the southerner's head. Ezra's head lolled to one side and he licked his lips as the cool water trickled over his abused skin. Dust from his hair ran small dirty rivulets of water down his cheeks. The water loosened Ezra's shirt away from his skin. Nathan ground his teeth at the ugly, dirt filled wound. He made to remove the canteen and flinched when Ezra's green eyes flashed open.

Standish was only dimly aware of the attention he was receiving, until he felt someone trying to take the canteen. Had the bandits come back for it? Had they discovered his ruse? Ezra began to thrash as he gripped the canteen tighter.

"Easy, Ez, you're safe," Nathan soothed, not understanding the gambler's sudden agitation.

Ezra's eyes blazed with fever and fear as he released a strangled cry. "Nooooooo!"

"He wouldn't let us take it either," Vin exclaimed as he tightened his hold on the combative man.

"Well, I have to git it out of the way," Nathan explained.

Buck appeared at the bank after hearing the commotion. His heart lifted slightly upon seeing Ezra, but his joy was short lived as he took in the gambler's beaten body. He looked over at Chris. The blond leader shook his head in answer to Buck's silent question. Buck swallowed a sudden lump, and his knees grew weak. He slowly eased down to the ground.

"C'mon, Ez, let go," Nathan coaxed. With Vin's help the two managed to pull the canteen away and toss it onto the bank.

Ezra's struggles abruptly ceased. "Nooo, I failed...I'm sorry, so sorry." The southerner's voice was nothing more than a whisper, and he fell limp in Vin's arms.

Chris clenched his fist and frowned at the sorrow he heard. They all knew it wasn't Ezra's fault, and if he survived Chris hoped they could convince the man of that.

Nathan cut away what was left of Ezra's linen shirt and went to work on the knife wound grateful that it didn't appear too have injured anything important inside. But Ezra had lost a lot of blood, and shock and dehydration was the biggest threat. "I'm going to need to clean and stitch this up."

Vin looked up as Josiah knelt down on the bank prepared to help Nathan. The big man didn't look too good, but there was a spark of life in his eyes at seeing the southerner alive.

"Looks like someone beat on him," Nathan added, probing the bruises that dotted Ezra's torso. He lifted an eyelid. "Definitely has a concussion." Nathan felt around Ezra's skull feeling the knot on the side of his head.

Buck eyed the discarded canteen dispassionately then slowly reached over and picked it up, surprised at the weight. He shook it and frowned upon hearing the liquid slosh inside. "Damn, there's still water in here," Buck announced. "Why didn't he drink it?"

"Probably out of his head," Nathan said as he and Vin moved Ezra onto the bank where Chris had spread out a blanket. "Looks like someone whacked him good."

Josiah's brow furrowed, and he stood up. He stepped over to where Buck was sitting. "Buck, let me see that canteen."

Buck handed Josiah the canteen and watched as the preacher opened it. He tentatively smelled the contents and then stuck a long finger inside. He pulled it out, sucked on it and a broad grin split his long face.

"Nathan, it's the medicine," Josiah happily exclaimed.

Nathan's head turned sharply and his mouth fell open. "What?" He jumped up and took hold of the canteen to verify Josiah's surprising declaration. He could hardly contain the broad grin on his face. "Sonofabitch." Nathan looked down at Ezra his eyes shining with disbelief and admiration.

Buck whooped and jumped to his own feet taking the ex-preacher in a bear hug. "I always knew that slick bastard would cheat to win!" Buck yelled out.

A true grin broke across Vin's face and he brushed stray hairs off of Ezra's forehead.

Everyone stared down at their friend with renewed respect. Chris would never doubt the man again. Buck couldn't wipe the smile off his face or stop the tears from forming in his eyes. JD had a chance; they all had a chance, thanks to Ezra.

Nathan's mind whirled as renewed confidence surged through his veins. "Okay, Josiah, Buck, start doling out the medicine. Mix three tablespoons in a cup of water for the more serious cases and two for the ones that aren't as bad."

Josiah pressed his lips together and took the time to glance skyward. "And Josiah," Nathan started, breaking the man from his reverie. "You take some of that medicine, too." The ex-preacher chortled at his old friend.

"Don't worry none, Nate, I'll make sure he does," Buck said as he headed toward JD's tent with Josiah following behind.

"Damn, how did he...?" Chris murmured.

"I don't know, but we better work fast if we're going to get a chance to find out," Nathan exclaimed. He knew the medicine wouldn't save everyone, but at least the village would have a fighting chance. Now he had to give Ezra the same chance. "I need some oak and chestnut bark boiled up, and some salve for his skin. We need to get him under some shade," Nathan instructed.

"There's an empty tent over there," Vin exclaimed.

Chris rested a hand on Ezra's head feeling the heat. The gambler moaned and his head turned to the side. "You hang in there, you hear me Standish. Don't you dare die on me."

Part 16

Nathan cleaned and stitched up the knife wound then spent the rest of the day spoon-feeding Ezra water and medicine to get his fever down. They had stripped the gambler down to his shorts and laid a damp sheet on top of him, hoping to cool him down. Nathan could tell that Ezra's temperature was dangerously high, and he worried about what it would do to his friend's mind.

Josiah and Buck spent all day administering medicine to everyone who could take it. The young ones started to improve by nightfall, and even JD began to rally slightly, lifting away the fear of death.

Nathan nodded as Chris entered the tent. The gunslinger stared down at Ezra's pale form.

"Is he going to make it?" Chris asked. The gambler looked dead and Chris narrowed his eyes to detect even the faintest hint of life. His blood boiled at what Ezra had been put through, and he silently promised the cardsharp revenge.

Nathan scratched the back of his head and pressed his lips together for a moment. "If I can get his fever down and if he hasn't lost to much blood, maybe. He's holding his own right now and that's a good sign."

"Vin and I are going after the men who did this," Chris explained.

Nate smiled allowing himself a moment of guilty pleasure at the thought of what Larabee and Tanner would do to the men responsible for almost destroying a whole village and for harming one of their own.

Part 17

Vin and Chris sat upon their horses just outside a small developing town. They had followed an easy trail only a couple miles from where they suspected that Ezra was ambushed. Vin rested his arm across his saddle horn. "Guessin' they weren't too worried 'bout being followed," Vin casually remarked.

Chris's eyes narrowed and he nudged his horse forward. He wouldn't of cared how far the men had gone. He would have chased them to hell and back.

The town was about the size of Four Corners. There was a hotel, saloon and a Mercantile, and the two gunslingers even past a sign foretelling of a coming bank. Chris and Vin pulled up in front of the jailhouse hoping that the sheriff would be of some help.

Sheriff Leebow jumped up when the door opened and Chris and Vin stepped inside. He wasn't use to visitors. He swallowed hard as he eyed the two hard-edged men. He hoped they weren't bringing more trouble.

"Ah, what can I do fer ya?" Leebow stammered, trying to regain some composure. He'd only been on the job three months, and while most of the time it was quiet he was only use to locking up the occasional drunk or petty thief.

Larabee eyed the nervous sheriff who was about his age with graying hair. Chris tried to relax his stance. He knew he scared people sometimes.

"I'm Chris Larabee the law out of Four Corners." Chris refrained from introducing Vin; the sheriff didn't appear to take any notice.

Leebow's eyes widened at the renowned name. The sheriff practically fell over himself as he came around the desk wiping his hands down his shirt. "Yes, sir, Mister Larabee I've heard all about you." The Sheriff extend his hand toward Chris. "I'm Sheriff Leebow. What can I do for you?"

Chris accepted the friendly handshake. He caught Vin's pleased smile out of the corner of his eye. Larabee ignored the Sheriff's palpable admiration. "Been tracking a couple of varmints. Followed their trail here, seen anyone new recently?"

The Sheriff's eyes lit up and he smiled. "Well, yes, I have a couple of men in my jail right now."

"What they do?" Chris asked.

"They tried to sell the Doc some medicine only it turned out to be water."

Chris and Vin exchanged knowing glances.

"Don't quite know what to do with 'em," Leebow continued. "It ain't illegal to sell water, but they were trying to pass it off as medicine."

"We think they're the same men who ambushed one of my lawmen," Chris explained.

The sheriff's eyes lit up at the thought of actually catching two real desperadoes. He grabbed the keys out of the desk drawer and led the two gunslingers to the back room.

Chris and Vin eyed the two men inside the small cell.

Jake stood up and glared. "What the hell you lookin' at?" He was still angry at being caught by some small-town sheriff. Swan and Jake had stopped at the first town they came across, happy that the middle-aged doctor was eager to buy the medicine. The doc had heard about the outbreak at the Army Fort and although no one had come down with Harker's Fever he wanted to be prepared. The doc hadn't asked any questions, and the two outlaws thought they were home free. They watched as the doc checked the medicine and were taken completely off guard when he pulled a gun. Who'd figure that a doctor would even have a gun. They were even more surprised to discover that the medicine was just plain water.

"Heard you was trying to sell the doc some water," Chris calmly growled, but his eyes bu

ned dark and some of Jake's bravado withered.

"Yeah, but it weren't our fault. We was tricked by some four-flusher in a fancy suit," Jake explained. "We thought it was medicine." Jake believed this was a valid explanation being that it was true. He smiled, hoping the buzzards were picking at the man's bones this very moment.

"And what happened to this four-flusher?" Vin ground out, squeezing the hilt of his knife that stuck in his belt.

Jake looked over his shoulder at Swan who remained slouched on the cot. He returned his gaze with a confident smile pasted on his face. "Don't know, after he sold us the medicine he just rode on."

"Is that so?" Chris said, his hands squeezing the butts of his guns.

"Yeah, that's so," Swan growled. "What the hell you got to do with it anyway?"

Chris ignored the large man and turned to the sheriff. "We'll be taking them with us."

"Fine by me," Leebow replied. A shudder went down the sheriff's spine when he glanced over at the lawman. Larabee's expression was that of an approaching thunderstorm, with all the fury churning inside.

Leebow pulled two pairs of handcuffs from the wall and went to unlock the cell. Vin's rifle came up and covered the two men. Chris went inside the cell with the sheriff and handcuffed Jake and Swan's hands behind their backs.

"What the hell is going on? We told ya we didn't know it was water," Jake vehemently explained. He yelped as Chris pulled up on his handcuffs.

"Yeah, you should be searching for that sidewinder, scum-sucking, conman," Swan exclaimed. "No tellin' how many times he's gone and swindled folks."

The butt of Vin's rifle slammed into Swan's gut doubling the big man over. Swan sputtered and spit as he gasp for breath.

"That conman is our friend," Vin bit out. "Found him crawling across the desert with his gut sliced." Vin grabbed hold of Swan and forced the big man up. "You know, I like to play with knives too," Vin menacingly growled, allowing a merciless smile to crease his face. Swan noticeably paled under the tracker's threat and his eyes darted around the small room searching for a means to escape.

Jake's eyes widened in disbelief, and he broke out in a cold sweat. "Ah, look, we didn't mean no harm. We didn't mean to hurt him we just wanted the medicine."

"Shut up!" Chris growled. "We're taking you to Four Corners to stand trial for the attempted murder of a peace officer and murder of several Indians."

"What? We didn't kill no injuns!" Jake exclaimed. 'Damn they should have listened to Pete and just robbed a stagecoach.'

"Probably could have saved more of them people if'n we had the medicine sooner," Vin explained.

Chris stepped up close. "And if there's any justice in this world I'll be the one pulling the lever on the gallows."

Jake's heart threatened to burst from his chest and he swallowed convulsively under Larabee's deadly gaze. The sheriff decided that his services were no longer required and slipped out of the room. He didn't think Jake and Swan would live very long.

Chris pulled his gun and shoved it into Jake's side. "If you behave you might get there alive, but for me I don't care if we drag your sorry butts all the way to town."

Vin and Chris forced the two men to walk most of the way to Four Corners only giving them enough water to keep them on their feet. By the time the foursome reached the outskirts of town, Jake and Swan were practically crawling, unable to walk on blistered feet. The two outlaws couldn't wait to enter the cooling confines and protecting bars of the jailhouse.

Part 18

Ezra scrunched up his face and tried to make out the sounds that had suddenly popped into his head. He felt so weak and couldn't understand why.

"Hey, Ez. C'mon pard, wake up," Buck cajoled.

Ezra recognized Buck's voice. He felt a cool rag swipe across his brow and tried to force his eyes open.

Buck stood and pushed open the flap of the tent to yell out. "Hey, Nate, I think he's waking up."

Nathan quickly entered the tent and kneeled down next to the gambler resting a hand on Ezra's forehead. He was relieved by the coolness of his skin. "It's about time. Get me a glass of water."

Josiah entered with a smile on his relaxed face.

Buck poured a glass of water from a nearby pitcher and handed it to the healer. They had all been forcing water down Ezra whenever it appeared that he was waking up. Over the last three days the gambler only regained consciousness for a short time then would lapse back into a deathlike sleep, scaring the hell out of everyone. The village medicine man had chanted all night. Several of the women had helped Nathan keep Ezra cool and force medicine down his throat. No one wanted to think that the man who had saved the village might die.

Nathan was determined this time to bring Ezra back. He snaked an arm behind the conman's shoulder and raised him up. "Git up, Ez." He tried to sound threatening, like Chris, hoping it would force the gambler to put more effort in waking. Nathan placed the glass of water to Ezra's lips and smiled when Ezra sipped the life-giving fluid. He slowly eased Ezra back down onto the pallet. Ezra winced as Nathan lifted the bandage to check his wound.

Buck smiled when he saw Ezra's green gaze upon them. "Welcome back, pard."

Ezra's brow furrowed then his eyes widened as a rush of memory assaulted him. He tried to sit up only to feel Nathan's hand on his chest.

"Whoa, what do you think you're doing," Nate exclaimed.

"The medicine...the children..." Ezra gasped fighting to sit up, Nathan's hand being more than sufficient to hold him down. Ezra's sun-burnt skin stretched tight and his wound pulled. Pain surged through his body causing his face to go white.

"Damnit, Ezra, don't do that!" Buck yelled, his heart jumping into his throat as Ezra fell back gasping, trying to siphon off the burning pain.

"Take it easy. Everything is fine," Nate soothed, grabbing a damp rag and wiping the sweat from Ezra's forehead.

Ezra turned his face away, his sea-green eyes filling with tears. "No, I lost the medicine. I failed everyone."

Buck stepped back and threw the tent flap aside. "Does this look like ya failed?"

Ezra slowly turned his head and peered out past the entranceway. He smiled when he saw Chanto and his sister playing with several other children. The young brave stopped and returned the gambler's grin. Ezra's brow furrowed, he couldn't remember what had happened, but he released a breath of remorse that he had been holding for too long.

"How?" Ezra whispered.

"We're hoping you'll be able to tell us later," Nathan said.

JD gingerly entered the tent. He was still weak but he was now moving on his own, much to his relief.

"JD? What the hell do you think you're doing?" Buck reprimanded. He pulled a chair around and grabbed the young gunslinger by the arm helping him to sit.

"Buck I'm fine stop mollycoddling me!" JD snapped, but there was no anger in his words, and he gave his friend a weak smile. "Ez, gosh it's good to see you awake."

Ezra frowned at the young gunslinger's condition.

"He had the fever, Ez," Buck stated, noticing Ezra's bewilderment.

"Then it is good to see you too, Mr. Dunne."

"Wouldn't have made it without you, Ez," JD solemnly added. "You saved the whole village."

The look of gratitude in JD's eyes sparked a feeling of warmth that filled a void in Ezra's heart, one that had been too long empty. A pleasant smile graced the corners of the gambler's lips.

Ezra frowned as he tried to remember what had transpired and how he had ended up the hero.

"Don't worry it'll come back to you," Nathan assured. "You took quite a knock on the head on top of heat stroke and dehydration. I'm just glad you can remember your name."

Chris and Vin appeared at the entranceway amongst the chuckles of their friends.

"Ez!" Vin greeted happy to see his friend alive and coherent. "We got them two who ambushed you."

"My horse?" Ezra blurted out.

"He was at the stables when we got there," Vin assured. "Musta got away from those two on his own."

Ezra visibly relaxed. "He's a very resourceful animal."

"Not unlike his owner," Chris remarked with a smile. "Funny thing, those two bushwhackers thought they were selling medicine, instead it turned out to be plain water."

"Aw yes, I believe I do recall some slight of hand," Ezra smiled. "I'm glad my ruse worked."

Chris stepped by the others and squatted down beside the southerner. "Ez, you took a mighty big risk walking across the desert without water. I believe I'm speaking for everyone when I say 'you did good and I'm glad you're a part of us.'"

Ezra took a deep breath, growing uncomfortable under the praise, but enjoying it nonetheless. "Mr. Larabee, I told you that medicine would arrive and a Standish never goes back on his word."

Chris smiled and squeezed Ezra's shoulder.

"Alright, everyone out, Ez still needs to rest," Nathan exclaimed. "Buck, take JD back to his tent, before he falls over."

"Ah geeze, Nate, I'm fine," JD Protested as Buck took hold of his arm and began to lead him out of the tent.

"Maybe someone could get a wagon so we could go home tomorrow," Nathan suggested.

Ezra closed his eyes, listening to the affable banter between his friends. He had proven his worth to these extraordinary men. He now felt worthy of being part of their vanguard for justice, and the magnificent bond they all shared. They were a family now and forever.



NOTE: Harker's Fever was made up to fit the story.