Such Bold and Bloody Causes

by Debra Hicks

"Come on, Ezra," Nathan urged. "We can still make Buckhorn by sundown."

His friend glanced up at him in complete disbelief. Ezra was sitting at what passed for a gambling table in the miners' camp, three boards pushed together on two sawhorses. Nathan watched Ezra's green eyes flick from him to the pile of nuggets and bags of gold dust resting in front of him.

Smiling, Ezra said, "Mister Jackson, since we are on holiday, I see no reason to hurry on to purchase supplies. I plan on spending at least a few more hours of my well deserved rest right here."

They had more or less been ordered out of town for a while. Things had been quiet and they had managed to drive their leader, Chris Larabee to distraction with one thing or another. The others, Buck, JD and Josiah, had decided that a hunting trip was in order. There had been general shock when Ezra had announced his intent to come along - until he had mentioned the miners up in the mountains starving for, as he put it, "civilized entertainment." Josiah had laughed at his five-card version of entertainment. Right now the southerner's trip was proving to be a profitable one as he was winning heavily.

Nathan fought away his smile. He knew the others, and Ezra, were waiting for him to lecture the man on the evil of gambling, on his lack of moral character and taking advantage of the miners. The truth was that he had never objected to Ezra's gambling, at least not since he had become convinced that the man wasn't cheating. It was a perfectly acceptable way to spend time.

"Reckon we all got a way to relax," he said, enjoying the shock on Ezra's face.

"Can any of you gentlemen tell me if there is a saloon in Buckhorn?" Josiah asked into the stunned silence caused by Nathan's words.

There was a long pause before one of the miners answered with the slightest bit of hesitation in his tone. "Yeah, there's a saloon, couple of stores and a bath house."

Before Nathan could address the hesitation, JD asked, "Bath? With warm water?"

The healer had to smile at the wistful tone in their young sheriff's voice. JD was fast learning the difference between winter in Boston and winter in the wilds of New Mexico. He still remembered his own shock when he'd fled from the warmth and slavery of Alabama.

"Why don't you catch up with us tomorrow?" Nathan suggested to Ezra. "You oughta have cleaned out these poor fellows by then."

Nathan's words caused two of the men to turn and look at the black healer. He smiled pleasantly back, ignoring the glare Ezra gave him. Just because he didn't see the harm in the game didn't mean he couldn't josh Ezra.

When the men turned to stare more closely at the dapper gambler, Ezra only smiled. "An excellent suggestion, Mister Jackson. I'm certain that I can provide these good gentlemen with fair evenings entertainment to break up their long hours."

"Be careful on these trails, Ezra," Josiah reminded him.

Giving the other three men a slight tip of his head, Ezra answered their concern and turned back to his cards.

+ + + + + + +

"Should we take a little break, gentlemen?" Ezra ventured. "I find myself in need of some sustenance."

The leader of the group, a man named Rodgers, smiled at him. "If that means you're hungry, I think the rest of us can go along with that."

Realizing besides the makeshift bar, there didn't seem to be any place offering food, Ezra scratched idly at his neck. "Is there a place a traveler might heat up a can of stew?"

Rodgers smiled at him. "Come on to my place. My wife should have something cooked up by now."

The invitation surprised him. "You have your wife here?"

"We all do," another man volunteered.

They started escorting him out the door. "We've been settled in here for a few months now," Rodgers continued. "Most of us sent for our families 'fore summer."

Coming out into the bitter cold, Ezra was touched with a slight feeling of guilt over taking the men's money. He had assumed that only the miners themselves would dare the hardships here. While he was sure Nathan would never believe him, he had been careful to spread the losses around, not winning a huge amount off any one man. No one had seemed very upset over their losses. In Ezra's experience that meant they could afford the game. He had been truthful when he told Nathan that he felt the men probably considered this a well-earned evenings entertainment.

Still, it never hurt to be careful. He had no desire to cause anyone undue hardship. "I would assume then that your claims are being fruitful."

"Oh yeah," Rodgers assured him. "We're doing pretty good."

"If we live long enough to spend it."

Ezra stopped, turning toward the fourth man following. He was younger than the other men, probably only a little older than JD, though his lined face proved his harder life. Rodgers had also come to a stop and for just an instant Ezra saw anger in the man's blue eyes. It faded quickly though and Rodgers gently shook the other man's arm.

"Now, Schmidt, there's no need to start in on our trouble in front of Mister Standish here. He's only here to play poker, not listen to us whine."

Schmidt started to speak, finally nodded. "Okay, Carl. I'll save it for the judge next week."

"Judge Travis?" Ezra questioned.

There was a sudden drop in the temperature around him. All four men stepped closer, eyeing him with suspicion. "What do you know about Judge Travis?" Rodgers asked.

Warily, Ezra said, "I work for the honorable Judge."

A glance of disbelief went around the small circle. Finally, Rodgers said, "Let's get in before we all freeze."

+ + + + + + +

The meal had been hearty and filling, the conversation sobering. Ezra leaned back in his chair, pushing his plate to the side. "My heartfelt appreciation for that meal, Missus Rodgers. I've not had finer fare since I left Kansas City."

The women smiled at him. "Thank you, Mister Standish, though I have a feeling you probably say that any time a woman feeds you."

He didn't correct her, enjoying the teasing as much as the meal. Turning back to the man sharing the table, he addressed their concerns. "Gentlemen, it would seem to me that you have nothing to worry about. Everything you have told me would confirm your being the legal owners of this land. I know that Judge Travis is a scrupulously fair individual. He will listen to Mister Reagan's claim but will find by the legal documents."

Rodgers nodded wisely. "We believe that. What we're worried about is Reagan trying to drive us out before the judge has a chance to rule."

"If we leave the land voluntarily, he has a right to file a second claim," Bill offered.

"That's why our credit at the store in town is no good now," Barton, the oldest of the group explained.

Ezra sighed as he listened. All he'd wanted was a quiet night of poker. A rueful smile touched his lips though he hid it well. It seemed since joining the group he ended up helping whether he wanted to or not. Knowing already where the conversation was going, Ezra cut to the chase.

"Gentlemen, since you are worried about Mister Reagan turning to violence in order to establish his claim, and since the good judge is due in only ten days, I don't think it would be a problem for myself and my three companions to stay until he arrives."

Smiles broke out on everyone's faces and Mrs. Rodgers laid a hand on her husband's shoulder. Before anyone could say anything, Ezra qualified that with, "I do think we should inform the judge of what we plan and I will have to ride to get the others."

Several expressions fell. Bill said, "The nearest telegram is in Buckhorn but the operator is sure to report back to Reagan."

Ezra smiled. "If we can ascertain the location of the telegraph line, I'm sure we can bypass the need for an operator."

+ + + + + + +

Ezra burrowed a little deeper into the blankets with a slight smile. They had found a suitable telegraph line within a few miles of the valley. Sending the telegraph, using his Colt and derringer as base and key, had been an enjoyable little breach of the law for a good reason. Upon their return to camp the miners had granted him the use of the gaming tent for the night. The others retired at the early hour of midnight. The meager heat put out by the potbellied stove did little to ward off the below freezing temperature driving him to bed only a few hours later. While he had been known to sleep through shootouts in town, the unfamiliar noises of a dawn forest pulled him awake.

His stomach growled and he wondered if his credit as a lawman would stand him to breakfast. A wave of sound hit him and he straightened up, keeping the blanket around him. The dogs in camp were starting to bark in earnest. A cold having nothing to do with the season settled around him. He grabbed his boots. Pounding hooves now sounded through the valley, joined by shouts of panic.

The first shot shattered the other noises as he reached the tent flap. A group of fifteen men were just emerging from the trees at the side of the river clearing, the shifting dawn light gave a strangely soft look to the killers. The cows and goats in the open field became their first victims. Ezra turned to get a better idea of the situation only to see a few of the miners running toward the riders from their tent homes. Ezra waved them back.

"No! No!" He grabbed Rodgers as the other man ran toward him. "We have to hold them back while the women and children make for the woods!"

Whether it was the logic in the order or some need to have the gambler-turned-lawman lead, Ezra didn't know, but Rodgers stopped. Ezra's hand tightened on his arm. "Is there someplace they can hide?"

"Old mine-shaft."

"Get anyone with a gun in behind those water breaks," Ezra said calmly.

The crash of destruction followed them up as the sprinted into the only cover available. Rodgers ran passed the others, talking to several of the men and women, gesturing toward the hills behind them. Ezra had time to run back into the tent and grab his rifle before joining the line of men hiding behind the wooden supports. It occurred to him that this was not his fight; that he could easily outride the attacking men. He was not the hero type; he was not Chris or Vin. A bullet slammed into the wood next to him. He turned to fire.

The miners joined him, offering protection as the six women and dozen children moved stealthily into the woods. The horsemen had finished shooting up the livestock and were now turning their fire completely on the dozen men behind the barricade.

A bullet slammed into the wood next to him, driving splinters into his shoulder through the thick wool coat. He flinched but held his fire. There were eleven badly armed, badly shaken miners and himself, opposing fifteen gunhands. To his dismay he realized that it was up to him to take as many of the marauders down as possible. He only hoped the cover offered by the others would at least buy him more room to move.

He glanced around, seeing that the women were safe. Rising up, he fired three carefully placed shots, taking out one of the men and causing the other two to miss their shots.

"Bill, Harlan!" Ezra called, trying to be heard over the gunshots but not loud enough to carry to the attackers. "Slip away..."

"No!" Bill protested. "This is our fight..."

"You have to protect the women and children!" Ezra snapped, ducking as another bullet cut by very close.

"Go," Rodgers added his voice to the urgency.

"Now!" Ezra yelled. Once more he rose above the barricade and fired into the milling horsemen, wounding another one.

The two men slipped into the thankfully still dark forest. Vaguely, Ezra wondered whether Chris would be pleased with his fast planning or whether he had merely sent the innocents into a different spot to die. Anger took over his calm control. He was not going to let that happen. The horsemen had fallen back a little, surprised at the opposition. Ezra fumbled for more bullets, watched the other men do the same. Ezra looked up to see the tall, bearded leader spot their weakness at the same time as he did. If a few of the attackers made it across the creek, the miners would be caught in a crossfire.

"Damn," Ezra muttered.

"What now?" Bill demanded.

Ezra took a deep breath, trying to calm the shaking of his hands as he shoved the last of his reload into the rifle. "We have to get across the stream, hold them from the other side."

It was, Ezra realized, a desperate play, that meant running across open ground in front of mounted horsemen. It was their only hope, though. Once more he glanced into the woods, looking for a miracle tucked in the trees. Looking over at Rodgers, he saw the realization of their situation hit the other man. The miner went a little pale but nodded gamely.

Laying the rifle down, tightening his hand on the Remington, Ezra slipped the conversion free from the shoulder holster as well. There was a shout from the marauders. Ezra took a quick look over the meager barricade, picking out what he hoped was a survivable escape route.

Turning back, he tipped his hat to Rodgers. "Good luck, sir."

With shouts of anger, fear and hope, the eight men charged out, firing and running. Ezra saw one man go down, didn't know which one. He paused in the middle of the small stream, firing twice and taking down two of the charging men. A bullet slammed into his side, sending him sideways, bringing a startled yell of pain. Turning, he staggered toward the rocks that were his only hope. His legs flew out from under him as he took a second bullet. Rolling, trying to fight the pain, he brought his right hand gun up and killed the man riding down on him. He pushed up, only to be sent back down by a third shot. The pain was swallowing him now. He felt the fourth bullet burn into his side and had a quick thought for his six friends, then there was merciful darkness.

+ + + + + + +

"Strange telegram," Judge Travis commented, having read through it twice.

Chris smiled to himself. It was very obvious Ezra had sent it. He had seen the conman use the wire before. The tough part for Ezra was shortening the sentences enough to get them sent.

"So, when were you wanting to head out, Judge?" Chris asked.

The older man frowned. "I have a trial tomorrow in Eagle Bend but I see no reason we can't leave right after that. Figure a two day ride to the camp."

"If the weather holds up in the high country," Vin added, joining them.

"Yeah," Chris agreed. He looked at the long message again. It didn't sound desperate, though Ezra had suggested extra ammo and supplies. Still, something was nagging at him and he knew better than to ignore it. "Vin, I'll stick with the Judge, you go on and get up there. And be sure to 'arrange an adequate supply of ammunition to help hold off these miscreants'" he read from the telegram, shaking his head at the southerner's familiar wording.

Vin nodded and tipped his hat to the other two. "Never pays to underestimate miscreants."

As Vin headed down the sidewalk in front of the Clarion, Travis asked, "Trouble, Mister Larabee?"

"Ain't it always, Judge?"

Smiling, the judge turned toward the telegraph office. "I think I'll see what I can find out about Mister Reagan before we start our little journey."

Nathan dug into his eggs. He had been reluctant to come into the salon on his own, not wanting any trouble to spoil the cold morning but hunger and the smell of fresh bacon drew him inside. The barkeep had merely taken his order, not offering any comment. The breakfast was cheap and so far pretty good. The others would be sorry they overslept. With a smile, he admitted, or not. They had all managed a bath and a hard evening's drinking, so sleeping wasn't a bad proposition.

The doors in front of him swung open, allowing five unhappy, rough looking men to approach the bar. "Chase, whiskey, on the boss."

The barkeep filled five glasses. The men tossed back the first one, motioned for another. "Boss is gonna be riled," one of the men said. There were sounds of agreement all around. "We only got a few of them."

"Too bad about Ken, Smith and Asa," another one said.

"Yeah, who would have expected those miners to be so tough."

Without the slightest outward sign, Nathan's full attention now turned to the men.

"Hell, wasn't any of those damn tinpans," the first one said. "Was that bastard in the red jacket. He was the only one could shoot worth a damn."

A chill started along the back of Nathan's neck but he very carefully kept his eyes on his meal.

"Well, at least he ain't gonna be shooting next time. Boss'll still get that land sooner he'd expected."

Nathan took another bite of his breakfast, not tasting it. The men had another drink, then left without ever noticing him. Leaving the unfinished meal, Nathan tossed a coin to the barkeep and headed back to the boarding tent. He forced himself to walk slowly, unsure of who might be watching. Inside the single room, he checked for occupants other than the remaining regulators. Only his friends were still there.

Moving between the cots, he shook Josiah with one hand and Buck with the other. Levelly, he said, "We have to ride. Ezra's in trouble. Act normal and I'll explain later."

He repeated the procedure on JD.

Twenty minutes later, unnoticed they rode easily out of town. Only when the ridge was behind them did they kick their horses into a hard gallop.

+ + + + + + +

"Oh no," JD muttered softly.

"Sweet mother of god," Josiah added.

The carnage extended out to the edge of the valley, filling the area with the stench of death and the pall of smoke. Where the small tent encampment had been the day before there were still glowing ruins. Dead animals littered the snow- encrusted valley, the ground they lay on churned up in panic. In the midst of what was left of the camp Nathan could make out survivors moving through the destruction.

"We have to get down there!" JD yelled. He leaned forward to signal his horse and Buck grabbed him.

"JD! These people have just been through a fight. We charge down there and they're gonna shoot first and ask questions later."

Nathan urged his horse in front. "We go in slow, with our arms out until we get close enough that someone recognizes us."

Moving slowly they came across the valley floor. Nathan could see the miners moving closer to the rocks, rifles swinging to cover them. When they were within a few dozen yards, Nathan stood up in his stirrups. "The camp! We're friends of Ezra Standish. We were here..."

"Ride in," a voice called out.

Relaxing their stances, the four peacekeepers rode slowly into the ruins. Several fires were going, large enough to provide some warmth to the people huddled around them. The man who had called them came forward, limping heavily on his right leg using the meager support of a tree branch. He nodded as they came closer obviously recognizing them. Even through the smoke Nathan could see the sorrow in the man's expression.

"He's over here," Rodgers said quietly.

"He alive?" Nathan demanded, already reaching for his bag.

"For now."

They stepped down off their horses. There were three bodies wrapped in ripped tarps at the edge of the camp. Three cots had been moved up next to one of the fires. By two of the canvas cots women were talking quietly to the men in the beds. There was no one by the last cot. It was that fact that made the four men hurry through the survivors.

Ezra was lying on his side, covered by several blankets. He was so pale and still that for a moment Nathan feared they were too late. Nathan knelt next to him with Josiah crouching down behind the cot. Buck put his arm around JD as they crowded close but remained standing. Nathan was not sure if the move were to comfort JD or support himself if the healer were forced to confirm what he feared.

As the dark healer's hand touched the white throat, Ezra's eyes flickered open. The normally lively green eyes were dulled with pain and shock, looked almost gray in the bright winter sunlight. Nathan put a hand on Ezra's cheek.


Ezra smiled very slightly. It worried Nathan that he didn't seem to be in any pain; there was an almost dreamy quality to his smile.

"Nathan," Ezra breathed.

Rodgers stepped into their vision and Nathan looked up at him, his hand moving to Ezra's shoulder. "Why is he on his side?"

"He seemed to breathe better that way."

"Did you give him something? Morphine or laudanum?"

The man shook his head. "No, we don't have any of that. I wish to God we did."

Taking a deep breath, Nathan said, "Okay. Let's see what we got."

As he reached for the blanket, a woman suddenly appeared on the opposite side of the cot. "Are you a doctor? Please, my husband is hurt. He's bleeding bad. Can you help him?"

Patiently, Nathan said, "I'll get to everyone, ma'am, soon as I check my friend."

"Hurry, please, hurry," she pleaded.

Rodgers took her by the shoulders and eased her away. "The man will get to Jonathan real soon, Lizzy."

"Buck, JD, grab some of those bandages." Nathan started.

"Bandages... will be a waste," Ezra's soft voice cut through the crackle of fire and moans of the other wounded.

"Whose the healer here Ezra, me or you?" Nathan chided, worried even more by the surprisingly calm attitude.

Ezra said bluntly, "Seven, eight hits."

Ignoring the gasps from the men around him, Nathan managed to 'tsk' at the gambler. "Exaggerating again, you conman."

Taking the hint, Josiah lifted the blankets, easing them off the gambler's chest, leaving as much of his back covered against the cold as he could. Someone had stripped Ezra down, tried to wash off the blood. Nathan didn't move, could only stare in dismay and sorrow. He motioned and Josiah shifted the blanket further down, revealing even more wounds. Some were still bleeding, some had rags stuffed into the holes.

Nathan felt his eyes close tight, felt himself sag a little back. "Oh, God..."

It was an effort to regain his control, to force his eyes open, to met the fading emerald gaze of his friend. He managed to tighten his hand on Ezra's shoulder and find a very forced smile. "You're a mess."

Reaching for his bag, reality hit Nathan like a shotgun blast, making him come to his feet and stagger back. He barely had enough supplies to treat Ezra's wounds. It would leave nothing for the other men. Looking over his shoulder, he could see they were both awake and in pain, seriously hurt but.... With help they probably stood a good chance at surviving.

Memories choked him. He had stood helplessly in the field hospitals while the doctors had turned away from some wounded to help those they could save. Nathan had seen the pain in those doctors' faces, the blank stares in their eyes. And those patients had been strangers, had been one of hundreds brought in every day. This, this was Ezra, the conman who had not even wanted to ride him, the gambler who was now a brother. A hand touched his shoulder. Looking up into Josiah's kind face, he saw that the big preacher understood what he was facing.

"I can't help him..." he muttered softly.

"What?" Buck demanded in a harsh whisper. He had sunk to his knees next to their wounded friend. "Course you can..."

Nathan glanced at Ezra, saw the pain flickering over the handsome features. Shakily, wiping the tears out of his eyes, he turned to Buck. Calmly, he said, "Buck, I could use everything in this bag and... he's still... he won't..." He couldn't say the words. "I can use what I have and save those two men."

"And leave Ezra to die?" JD whispered in shock.

The tears would not be denied. "Ezra... God, JD, he's shot to pieces; seven gunshot wounds, four exit wounds, three bullets still in him. He's lost so much blood. He's in a chill and I got no way of getting him warmed up."

"Nathan," Buck called his attention in a broken voice. Forcing his eyes back to his two friends, he watched Buck's strong fingers stroke through Ezra's brown hair. "He's asking for you."

For a long series of heartbeats, Nathan was unable to move, not wanting to face the man he had just condemned to death. But the longing in the emerald eyes was not to be denied. Stepping closer, he sank down beside Ezra. To his surprise, Ezra grabbed his arm with desperation driven strength.

"Stop... them," Ezra begged.

Swallowing enough to find his voice, Nathan promised darkly, "We will."

Ezra gave up his fight to stay awake, slipping into darkness.

Nathan brought his hand up, held Ezra's hand in place as the slender fingers went limp. "Aw, damn, damn."

A strong arm was laid across his shoulders. "Go on, Nathan, help those two men. We'll stay with Ezra."

"No!" Buck snapped, anger coloring his expression. "We do not give up! Now, Nathan, while you're doctoring those two you tell us what we can do to help Ezra. We do not just give up!"

Nathan looked across at the dark- haired gunslinger. He swallowed, fought down the despair. "Alright. We give it our best." Reaching into this bag he pulled out a single bag of herbs. "Get him warm, that's the first thing. Get all the wounds cleaned and bandaged. Soon as I finish with these two, I'll get the other bullets out."

As Nathan turned, he heard JD ask hopelessly, "Where can we get him warm, Buck? There ain't nothing left."

Buck's confident voice carried back to him. "I got an idea on that."

"He saved us," Bill uttered as Nathan finished wrapping his shoulder.

Nathan looked down at the man. "Ezra?" He wasn't surprised exactly. Despite their rocky beginning he had come to realize the southerner could be foolishly brave. But Ezra also preferred following to leading. "What did he do?"

Bill went on to explain the battle. He finished by saying, "Three of us made the rocks on the hillside. I saw him go down. One of the riders..." he took a deep breath. " of the riders came up and just shot him again, right in the back. I figured for sure he was dead."

The admiration in the man's tone bolstered Nathan's spirits a little. "He's a tough little rooster. Seen him take on some a lot bigger."

"He gonna live?" Bill asked bluntly.

"I don't know," Nathan answered just as plainly.

"We're all praying for him."

Nathan patted the man's uninjured shoulder. "That will help."

+ + + + + + +

Gathering his courage at what he had to face, Nathan stood, looking back to where the others had gathered. In the hour that it had taken to treat the other two men, the others had salvaged part of a tarp and constructed a lean-to at the side of the encampment. A fire blazed in the center, adding its warmth to the frozen area. As he approached he was confused to see Ezra lying on the ground, resting on a section of tarp, and wrapped in several blankets

"Buck! Why the hell do you have him on the ground? I told you to get him warmed..."

"Sit!" Josiah ordered.

Further confused, Nathan did as told. He sat down as close to Ezra as he could, and felt the heat coming off the ground under him. "What?"

"Coals from the fire," Buck explained. Making a smoothing gesture with his hand, he said, "Dug a hole, filled it up, covered it up and lay him on top of it. Snug as a bug in a rug."

"He looks a little better, don't he?" JD said hopefully, though he refused to look at Nathan.

"A little," Nathan said, not believing it. "Has he been awake?"

"Sort of," JD said sadly. "Didn't seem to notice we were here but he did drink some water."

Nathan asked levelly, "How we doing on bandages? Boiled water?"

"We're ready when you are, Nathan," Buck said, no smile in his voice this time. "Folks brought us some sheets and we got 'em cut and boiled down for you."

Nathan nodded, laying his hand on Ezra's chest. The man's breathing and heartbeat were fast from the blood loss. Though the thick pad of blankets, Nathan could feel the heat that wasn't just from the banked coals. It had been at least seven hours since Ezra had been shot and already he was nursing a high fever. Nathan sighed. His friend probably wouldn't live through getting the lead out of him.

"We know which ones have no exit wounds," Josiah supplied. "Though it's a guess on whether everything stayed straight after it hit. We did get the bleeding stopped on the others."

"Okay, let's keep the blanket wherever I ain't working. JD, you see to that. Josiah, Buck, you keep him still."

Nathan stared down at the pale gambler. He wished he'd said so many things to the man before now. The only thing he could do now was offer a pray to join the other ones being sent up. He sincerely believed God was listening but he also knew too well that God decided which prayers to answer.

Running his hand through Ezra's brown hair, he said quietly, "You stay with us, Ezra. We'll get through this."

Nathan looked up as a cup of coffee was shoved into his hand, nodded his thanks to Buck. Behind them, the fires were being built up against the fast approaching night. The survivors had managed to salvage some tents, turning one into a communal sleeping area, another into a cook tent and one for the wounded men. Nathan realized that the group had probably lived that way upon their arrival. They had moved the two wounded men into the tent while the others had moved Ezra to a new bed of banked coals. Buck sat down on an upturned bucket that was serving as a table next to the unconscious gambler.

+ + + + + + +

"You did good, Nathan," Buck commented.

"Did I?" Nathan questioned lowly. "I got nothing left to fight the fever. Used all the whiskey, nothing to stop any infection. Nothing for the pain, which is enough to kill him on its own." All his doubts came back to the surface. "God, Buck, I can't believe I didn't help him. JD hates me for what I did."

"No, he don't," Buck assured him. "He don't understand it right now, but he will."

Nathan looked over at Buck. "I still... I don't even know if that other fellow is gonna make it."

"Nathan," Buck said softly. "Second guessing ain't gonna do no one no good. If Ezra and that miner have any chance at all it's cause of you."

As much as he wanted to believe he'd done the right thing, all Nathan could see at that moment was Ezra's too pale face, tinged with fever.

"He never moved. All that cutting and he never moved."

"Nathan?" Buck asked quietly. "What else?"

Finally, the other question that held his heart had to be voiced. "Buck, do you think I gave up on him cause... cause we didn't always get along? If'n it had been one of the rest of ya'll do you..."

"No," Buck said sharply. "I think you did what you had to do."

Nathan shook his head, staring into his cup. "I ain't...."

A large, strong hand gripped his elbow, urged him up. Nathan followed the wordless command blindly, finding himself facing Josiah. "Come on, Nathan, its time you got some rest."

"Josiah, I need to keep an eye on Ezra."

"We'll take turns," Buck supplied.

Seeing the logic in that arrangement, Nathan nodded. "Okay, but you come get me if... well, if anything. And I need to check on the other two before bunking down."

Josiah nodded, then jerked his head toward Ezra. "Is there anything more we can do?"

"See if any of the folks have some honey or sugar. Mix it up with some water and try to get as much as you can down him." Nathan shook his head. "And keep praying."

"Already doing that," Josiah said.

"Fore ya'll leave, there's something we need to think about soon," Buck said.

Nathan frowned. "Those hired guns are gonna be back."

"Yep, probably not tomorrow," Buck observed. "Ezra put a hurtin' on 'em. Day after though. They may bring more men, may not. They weren't expecting Ezra but now they think he's dead."

"Something else they ain't excepting," Josiah said with a surprisingly feral grin. "Us."

+ + + + + + +

"Mister Larabee."

Chris turned from where he was checking the supplies he was loading onto his horse. Judge Travis was holding a telegram. "This just came in from the claims office in Monterey. Mister Reagan has filled on that particular piece of land as of yesterday. He claims it's been abandoned by the original claimants."

The unease in Chris' gut tightened. "Means he's sent men against them already."

"That would be my summation as well," the judge admitted.

Chris looked up into the man's hard blue eyes. "I can make the camp in under three days if I leave right now."

"I think it might be time to wire the governor." Travis considered thoughtfully. "I don't like the idea of riding into a war with only seven men."

"We done it before," Chris said with a tight smile.

"Nevertheless," Travis continued. "I think I'll postpone that trail in Eagle Bend, leave tomorrow and proceed to Fort Summer. It will put me a three - four days behind you but when I arrive, it will be with plenty of help."

Seeing the logic in the idea, Chris nodded. With a quick handshake, he swung up into the saddle, worry tightening his jaw. Five of his men were now in the middle of a shooting war that they had not been expecting with Vin about to ride blindly into it. Chris kicked his horse into a trot, damning Ezra for underplaying the danger and desperately hoping none of them paid for it.

+ + + + + + +

When Vin came into the south end of the valley, he knew something had happened. The encampment that was spread out below him was not a thriving little mining area, it was a group of survivors trying to rebuild. He could see a few men and women moving around, heard the sound of hammering and sawing. Automatically, he searched for some sign of his friends. Josiah's voice boomed out somewhere. Vin nudged his horse, and caught the glimmer of metal to his left.

He hit the ground as the shot rang out, scooted sideways into the trees and brought up his weapon. A figure was crouched just at the line of trees. Vin moved, bringing his gun into line.

"Damnit! I told you to lookout - not shoot at people!"

Vin stopped moving, knowing that voice. "Buck?"

"Vin? That you, pard?"

Still on the cold ground, Vin cautiously stuck his head up. "Hell, yes, it's me!"

Buck and a younger man stepped into the clear. Vin stood up slowly, holstering his mare's leg. The bigger gunslinger came to a stop directly in front of Vin and slapped him heartily on the arm.

"Damn, I'm glad to see you! What are you doing here?"

"Dodging lead," Vin said shortly, brushing the dirt off his shoulder.

The man next to Buck looked a little sheepish. "I'm sorry about that, mister. After what happened and all, when Buck here told me to watch this pass..."

Buck cut off the rambling apology by slapping the man hard on the back. "Schmidt here's learned his lesson though." To emphasize it, Buck poked his chest at each word. "Make sure you know who you're shooting at."

"What happened here, Buck? We got Ezra's telegram about the judge coming sooner and us riding along but he didn't say nothing about a war." A chill settled in Vin's chest at the look that came into Buck's eyes at the mention of Ezra. "Ezra?"

"Come on, Vin," Buck said quietly. "Hans, get on back up there and be more careful this time."

Vin picked up the reins to his horse and started down the narrow valley. "Buck?"

A deep sigh answered him before Buck said, "He's been shot up real bad, Vin."

It took a minute to sink in, a couple of heartbeats to become reality. The sorrow that laced Buck's words nearly stopped Vin in his tracks. It couldn't be as bad as that. Swallowing hard, he asked, "What's Nathan say?"

Vin caught another strange look go over Buck's face. "He don't hold out much hope."

"Damn," Vin uttered quietly. He couldn't say anything else, afraid his voice would break.

Buck led them down the hill toward the lean-to. When they came around the last stand of trees they both staggered to a stop. Under the flimsy protection Vin could see Josiah and JD doing their best to hold down a convulsing Ezra.

"Oh dear Lord," Buck whispered reverently.

Nathan was next to JD, holding Ezra's head. Vin could see the wooden spoon they had forced between Ezra's teeth to stop him from swallowing his tongue. For a moment Vin thought he could feel the fever burning through his friend even from feet away. He moved closer, startled not only by the gambler's weakening thrashing but also by the pale features highlighted by the near glow of fever.

Memories flashed into his mind of another fever victim. Surging forward, he shoved JD aside and grabbed Ezra's legs and whipped the blanket off. He gasped at the multitude of bandages covering the solid body but kept moving.

"Josiah, get his shoulders," he commanded.

"Vin?" Nathan questioned. "What the hell do you think you're doing?"

Vin met Nathan's dark worried gaze. "Trust me, Nathan. I know something that will help."

Holding tight against the tremors ripping through Ezra's body, Vin led the way while Josiah struggled along with him. The others followed quietly behind, not sure what else to do. They reached the shallow river and Vin waded in up to his hips, laid Ezra's legs into the icy water.

"Hold him up just another minute, Josiah."

Josiah nodded, seeing what Vin was trying. Vin came up and replaced Josiah, awkwardly holding Ezra as he sat down with the smaller man in his lap. He drew a quick, sharp breath as the chilly water soaked him as high as his chest. The body in his arms continued to jerk for another minute then in a single breath went limp. Vin heard the small gasp of fear from the others, felt the shock go through his heart at the thought that Ezra had died in his arms. Fearfully, he reached up and pressed his fingers to Ezra's throat. A light, fast beat came through the too hot skin.

"He's alive," Vin said softly.

"Vin, I don't see where giving both of you pneumonia is gonna help," Nathan pleaded, kneeling on the bank as close as he could.

"Saw a medicine man do this once to a little girl with scarlet fever." He looked up into the healer's concerned eyes. "Did it on and off for two days. She lived, Nathan."

Nathan's gaze dropped away, his hand reaching out and touching Ezra's shoulder. "I reckon it's more than I can do for him."

With that, he stood up and walked away. Vin watched, confused by the guilt and hopelessness in Nathan's voice. The man was not usually the kind to give up, to let death defeat him so easily. His gaze switched to the others.

Buck only sighed, throwing an arm around JD. "Come on, JD, let's go setup some more coals for Ezra."

As they headed back to the shelter, Josiah took the position that Nathan had held. "How long's he need to stay in here?"

Vin frowned. "Seems like that little gal was in only a little bit at a time."

"Good, or you will end up with pneumonia."

Shivering already, Vin said, "Soon as I get out Josiah, you better tell me what the hell happened here."

+ + + + + + +

"Stopping 'em ain't gonna help less'n we do something about Reagan," Vin observed quietly.

He was cold and surprised by that fact. Shaking his head, he told himself he was going to have to spend more time out. He was getting too soft from the town living. A glance at the unconscious gambler reminded him that he was also getting too close to these men. It hurt to see the other man so close to dying.

Sometimes Vin would note the differences between Chris and Ezra while resting. While Chris could look relaxed, he still gave an air of menace, a feeling of power contained just below the surface. Ezra was never completely still; even when sitting relaxed, he would play with his hat, his cards. It was as if he were afraid staying still would give him too much time to think.

"Till Chris and the judge get here, I don't know anything else we can do," Josiah observed.

"Just make sure those bastards don't hurt anyone else," Buck said with a low cold tone that Vin had rarely heard from the easygoing man.

Rodgers limped slowly over and joined them, squatting down next to the big fire they had going at the edge of the lean-to. "We're almost finished with those ditches," he said tiredly.

It would be dark soon and the miners had spent most of the day setting up the hidden defenses, many the same style as the seven had used at the Seminole village. There was no time to rig nets but carefully hidden trip lines would accomplish the same thing. Small ditches dug across the valley floor would break up the charge as they broke up the horse's stride. Vin had been worried about the mountain ridge behind them but after spending an hour or so riding the ridge he was convinced that it was too difficult to get over.

"Um..." Rodgers started. "We may have another problem."

Vin, Buck and Josiah looked up at him. It was Josiah who chuckled softly. "Ezra's near dead; we're out- numbered and outgunned, and it's gonna snow. What else could go wrong?"

Rodgers stared down in to the fire. "The men have been talking about leaving."

Even through the growing dark Vin could see the anger in Buck's eyes. "How can you even think like that! You leave now and you've lost everything. Two of your men and Ezra didn't pay for you to just slink away like some kicked dogs."

The ladies man came to his feet, getting ready to let loose when Josiah's hand stopped him. Patiently, Josiah asked, "What has you thinking like this?"

Picking up on Buck's anger, Rodgers came to his feet, nearly tipping over on his bad leg. "Look around! We have a storm moving in and no shelter. We had enough supplies to last us four months and what's left will be gone in a week! It's a week's ride to Higgins Point for more..."

"What's wrong with Buckhorn?" Vin asked innocently.

His quiet question brought a deep sigh from everyone around him. "Store won't sell to the miners," Josiah answered.

With a little shrug, Vin said, "Ain't anyone in town seen me. I'll go get a load."

"They'll wonder about why you're buying so much," Buck observed.

"Money talks," Josiah observed.

"He's right," Rodgers added. "Cletus, the store owner, he was willing to sell but knew he'd get burned out if he did. He might consider that Mister Tanner is buying for us but since no one knows him he might get away with it."

"I don't like it," JD said as he stepped into the small circle. He and Nathan had come in from their patrol, two of the miners replacing them.

Nathan walked by, going to Ezra. Silence claimed the group as they watched him kneel beside the wounded man. Vin knew they were very close to losing the enigmatic gambler. The fever was still too high and he had not regained consciousness since the morning before. Through the cold Nathan's sigh was easy to hear.

Shaking himself away from the drowning feeling of loss, Vin returned to the conversation. "Rodgers, do ya'll have the gold to buy this stuff?"

Looking slightly offended, Rodgers said, "Hell yeah, got plenty of dust."

"Alright then," Vin decided. "Get me a list. I'll go at first light."

"I don't like the idea of you going in alone," Buck said bluntly.

"Cain't be helped, Bucklin," Vin said. "They seen all ya'll."

+ + + + + + +

Nathan came back and squatted down next to the fire, pouring himself a cup of coffee. He refused to look at the others, finding a strange sort of solace in the fire's eager flames. He waited for the questions, for the words of encouragement from Buck, for the pat on the back from Josiah. The grim look in his eyes and his silence must have answered the questions for them. Looking up, he saw the truth hit the others.

JD cleared his throat twice before he asked, "Ain't there something we can do?"

Trying to lose himself in the fire again, Nathan said, "Not less'n you can get water down an unconscious man."

Rodgers cursed under his breath softly. Nathan glanced over, not surprised at the sorrow he saw in the miner's eyes. Nathan wished the southerner could have been conscious long enough to know how much what he did had meant to these men.

"Water?" JD asked in slight confusion.

Josiah put a hand on the young man's shoulder. "Ezra's lost a lot of blood. That and the fever are going to let him get dehydrated faster than normal."

"And without water..." Buck started.

"He won't make it more'n another day." Nathan spoke so softly that for a moment he wasn't sure he'd said it aloud.

He could feel the tears that single sentence started. Silence reigned as the rest of them took a minute to accept this. There was nothing he could say to make the reality less harsh. Once more he wondered at his too easy acceptance of Ezra's impeding death. Why hadn't he at least saved something more to help him?

"Can't we get a little bit down him at a time?" JD asked desperately.

"Won't go down," Nathan said. "End up choking on it."

There was nothing else to say and nothing else that Nathan wanted to hear. Carrying his cup of coffee, he walked toward where four of the miners were working on blowing a rock out of the path and giving them better access to the riverbed. He sat down on a cold stone, trying to let the labor in front of him distract him from the thoughts that keep running circles in his head. Dusk was closing in on the small valley, turning the sky a wild red that was reflected in the blue-white waters of the small river. Vin had predicted a storm in the next few days. Against Nathan's wishes the thought intruded that they would have to chop a grave in the frozen ground.

"Damn!" Hating himself for thinking that, he tossed his coffee away.

The men looked over at him in sympathy before returning to the work. Absently Nathan watched one of the men thread a thin rubber tube down through a crevice in the rock. When that was done, he waved behind him and another miner, Bill, Nathan thought walked carefully forward, firmly holding a long glass syringe in his hand. A slight shiver of fear went through Nathan as he realized the slender glass was loaded with nitro. The small drama in front of him now held his attention. Bill put the end of the glass into the rubber tube and very, very slowly pushed down the plunger. The liquid slipped down the twisted tube - and Nathan came to his feet.

"Rodgers!" He called out.

The other man joined him from the fire. A wild idea was growing in Nathan's mind. Pointing toward the boulder, he said, "That rubber tube, you got another one?"

"Yeah, we don't use that many round here...."

Nathan grabbed the man's arm. "Get me a piece, 'bout thirty inches worth then boil it down good."

Looking puzzled Rodgers nevertheless sensed the urgency in Nathan's voice and hopped determinedly off. "Be right back."

It was only as he followed Rodgers' progress that Nathan realized that Josiah had come up behind them. "Nathan?"

"I've got an idea," Nathan said quickly, heading back toward the fire just the rumble of a small explosion turned the boulder to gravel.

Ten long minutes went by while Nathan paced the small area, looking frequently toward the cook tent. Everyone had asked him what was going on but he had waved them all off, afraid to voice what he was about to try. Rodgers came back, holding a tube wrapped in a section of clean rag. Nathan took it, waving it to cool it down. He looked from the thin tube to the man dying near the fire, hope flaring in his heart despite everything.

It was Josiah who ventured a guess at what Nathan was thinking. "You're going to try running that down Ezra's throat?"

The others looked, startled.

"If I can get it passed his windpipe, we could trickle water down it without choking him," Nathan explained.

JD pulled his coat a little tighter as the wind whistled through the trees around them. "I don't understand. Why won't he choke on the tube?"

"It'll be past where it would cause a problem and as long as he's out he won't gag," Nathan said, excitement and more hope creeping into his voice. "It ougthta work."

"You gonna need that fire higher to see by," Vin observed levelly, yet Nathan could hear his own hope reflected in Vin's voice.

JD, finally given something he could do, yelled, "I'll do it!"

Buck smiled fondly as the sheriff sprinted to the lean-to. Looking down at Nathan, he asked, "You really think this'll work?"

Looking over his shoulder at Ezra's pale, still form under the mound of blankets, Nathan blinked, reality overtaking the hope. Shaking his head, he admitted, "I don't know. Fever's still scary high."

"But it gives him a chance," Josiah's deep voice reminded him.

Running the rubber through his hands, he took out his knife and carefully tried to round the end as much as possible. "Buck, see if you can get some butter or lard, something to ease this down."

A few minutes later all the men, including Rodgers, were standing, sitting or kneeling near the critically wounded gambler. Nathan reached for Ezra's shoulder, stopped and stared down at him, fear of what he might be trying gripping him like the cold around them.

"This is crazy," he muttered. "I can't..."

"Yes, you can," Josiah urged.

Taking several deep breaths, Nathan gave both himself and Josiah a strong nod. "Ease him up, Vin, let his head tip back to your shoulder."

Buck and JD lifted Ezra carefully up by each arm, then rested him against Vin's chest. Buck took a firm grip on Ezra's chin to hold his head still.

"Damn, he's hotter'n a firecracker," Buck whispered.

Ignoring the comment, Nathan slipped his hand behind Ezra's head, slowly moving him so that his mouth fell open. Putting two fingers into Ezra's mouth to hold down his tongue, Nathan eased the tube down his throat. For a few inches everything went fine, then the movement stopped. Forcing himself to be calm, Nathan shifted Ezra's head back a little more. It didn't help.

"Buck, move your hand back to mine," Nathan requested softly. "Hold him steady."

Nathan's hand came around to Ezra's throat, very carefully massaged the pale flesh. "Come on, Ezra, swallow for me." Applying a little more pressure to the tube. There was a little give and Ezra reacted, jerking. Nathan pulled the tube back at little. "Damn."

"Nathan?" Vin pleaded softly.

"Hit his windpipe," Nathan said with a sigh. With his thumb on Ezra's Adams apple, Nathan tried again. "Come on, Ezra, we can do this."

It was another few agonizing long minutes before the others heard, and Nathan felt, Ezra swallow, the tube sliding easily deeper. Nathan gave a whoosh of relief. He looked up at the others and actually smiled a little. "It's in. We're gonna have to sit with him, pump the water, make sure he don't choke if... when he comes to."

"I'll take it first," Vin volunteered.

"Not if you're going into town," Josiah cut him off. "You'll need to sleep."

Vin started to argue, but knew Josiah was making sense. Seeing his friend's distress at not being able to help Nathan said, "You can help me get him settled, Vin. Josiah, I need a good quantity of that honey water. Put it in a pan to warm."

JD eased Ezra's head back to Vin's shoulder, letting his teeth close loosely over the tube. Nathan noticed the distressed look on his face, the way his hand stroked Ezra's temple. "JD?"

Shaking his head, the sheriff said, "Looks... painful... wrong."

"It ain't hurtin' him," Nathan assured him. "But I can see what you mean."

The others moved quietly away, letting Rodgers lead them to the communal dining tent. Turning towards Vin, Nathan said, "Okay, Vin, let's get him kinda propped up. One of the saddles should do it. I'm going to keep a hold on this tube, all that trouble, don't want it comin' loose now."

Vin moved away, grabbed his saddle and arranged it behind Ezra. Ezra was cocooned tightly in his blankets so Vin didn't bother adding another. Together they lowered Ezra back to the warm bed, tucking the blankets around him.

"How long you think we can kid him about getting tucked in?" Vin tried to joke.

Forcing a smile, Nathan said, "Till he pulls one on us I reckon."

Nathan felt the wind pick up around him and envied the gambler his warmth. A touch of worry hit the healer. While the rest had been welcomed in one of the tents, the one who had been sitting with Ezra during the night had suffered through two bone-chilling nights. Tonight it would be worse, and worse still by tomorrow. If Vin was correct, there would be snow on the ground by two days end.

"We're gonna have to move him," Nathan said suddenly.

Vin looked up at him. "Why?"

"Ain't so much for him but who's with him," Nathan explained. "It's gonna be too cold out here tonight and tomorrow for 'em."

Thoughtfully, Vin said, "Mine shaft might be the best place. Have to figure out someway to heat up the ground under him."

"Soon as the others are done we'll go take a look," Nathan said.

"You boys want to tell me what the hell is going on first?"

Nathan and Vin whirled as one, guns out and ready, shots stopped only by the honed reflexes that recognized the voice.

"Damn, Chris! That's a good why to get killed," Nathan snapped.

Chris stepped out of the dark, not bothering to apologize, all his attention going to the man on the ground. His stomach clenched, knowing too well the signs of death nearby. Vin and Nathan holstered their weapons, each seeing the sorrow that passed over Chris' expression.

"Chris!" Buck yelled as he rejoined them. "Where the hell did you come from?"

"After Vin left, Judge Travis found out that Reagan had already filed a desertion claim on this spot," Chris explained levelly. "Figured that meant he was ready to try something. I came on ahead while the judge is trying the legal ways, and bringing some army boys with him."

"How'd you get here so quick?" Vin wondered. "I only left town three days ago."

"Left the day after," Chris said, feeling every mile of the long ride. "Rode hard."

"It shows, cowboy," Vin said quietly. "You gonna sit down or fall down."

Taking the hint Chris slipped to the ground, taking the cup of coffee being offered by Buck but his eyes stayed on Ezra. A few seconds later Josiah and JD joined them. JD looked at him in surprise. Josiah shook his head and smiled. He sat a large pot of water next to the fire. In his other hand he was carrying a honey pot.

"Glad you could make it, Chris," Josiah said.

"Thought you might need me," Chris said levelly.

Buck grinned. "Oh hell, Chris, we got this just about tied up. You could have saved yourself a long ride."

"How the heck did you get in without anyone seeing you?" JD wondered. Buck swatted him. JD rolled his eyes. "Oh yeah."

"Judge Travis was going to swing through Fort Summer and get us some reinforcements," Chris supplied.

"Weather's gonna slow 'em down," Vin supplied. "That side of the mountain, snow's gonna be heavier."

Silence claimed the group for a minute before Nathan broke it by saying, "All ya'll go get some food."

"Nathan," Buck said, suddenly serious, "we need to know this is gonna work."

Not sure what the other men were referring to, Chris remained silent, waiting to see what was going on. Nathan glanced at each of his friends, then took one of the large metal cups that was resting near the fire and filled the glass syringe with the mixture of honey and warm water.

"Okay, let's see if'n one man can do this," he said.

Chris' eyes narrowed at the tube sticking obscenely from Ezra's pale lips. Nathan moved in behind the gambler, lifting him gently to rest against his chest. Taking the cup of water, Nathan filled the glass tube, connected it to the rubber and carefully squeezed the life-giving fluid into the injured man. Everyone held their breaths, though none of them knew what they were expecting. Nothing happened. Nathan filled the syringe again and again, slowly and steadily emptying the cup. When he held the cup out to Josiah for a refill, Chris saw the slightest touch of light in the healer's dark eyes.

"Fever's still high," Vin observed. "We oughta soak him down again."

"Let's set up that mine for him, then we'll chill him down and move him," Nathan said.

"This is good, though, right, Nathan?" JD pleaded softly.

Nathan looked over at Chris and the leader saw his hesitation to say anything encouraging. One look at the limp gambler was enough to show Chris that there was reason behind his reluctance. Finally, Nathan broke the gaze and looked up at JD.

"If he wakes up tomorrow, it'd be a good sign," Nathan said lowly.

"Boys," Josiah said, taking the matter in hand. "I suggest we all go get some food, bring some back for Chris here and then move Ezra to his new abode."

Looking up, Chris nodded his thanks to Josiah. The big preacher had known that he would want to talk to Nathan alone.

Vin stood, stretching. "Reckon I'd better get to bed soon, got a long, lonely ride tomorrow."

"Not alone," Chris didn't know where Vin was going but he knew it wasn't going to be solo.

Vin didn't offer any argument, he merely gave Chris a quick tip of his hat and headed after the others. Chris waited until he was out of hearing before he turned his attention back to the healer.

"Truth, Nathan," he said levelly.

The dark eyes met his and Chris saw fear there, and something else. Guilt? He frowned.

"What I told JD is the truth, Chris. If he comes to, if we get his fever down, if..." Nathan took a breath. "Chris, there's something I didn't tell the others." When Chris looked up, Nathan was filling the syringe again, looking sadly down at Ezra. "He's had this fever near five days now, high enough to cause fits."

Nathan looked questionably up at Chris and the gunslinger knew what he was saying. He had seen men suffer through fevers like this; had seen the ones that were never the same, the ones that trembled when they walked, babbled instead of talking, stared into a distance only they could see. Chris frowned. The body might survive, but Ezra would be gone.

"Something else I ain't spoke of, one of the miners said they shot him in the back, after he was down." Nathan's voice carried all of his fury and frustration.

The idea that a man would shoot another after he was down was nothing new to Chris; the pain over the fact that it was Ezra was surprising. Chris knew what Nathan was experiencing, could feel his own anger rising. He finally allowed himself to put a hand on Ezra's leg. The heat seared him through the blanket.

Before he could think of anything to say, Nathan said, "Bullets mostly missed anything important. There was one in his lung, caused some damage by bleeding, that's why his breathing is still bad. He near bled to death 'fore we got here, then the cold took hold of him."

Chris studied the gambler, the man looking sadly small next to Nathan's wide chest. "He's tough enough to keep up with us and take all the shit I give him," Chris said firmly. "He's tough enough to get through this."

+ + + + + + +

"What's wrong with Nathan?" Chris said as he brought his horse up closer to the wagon.

Vin sighed. He had wondered how long it would be before Chris asked the question that he had asked of the others. "Long story, cowboy."

"Long ride to tell it in," Chris returned.

In a quiet level voice, Vin repeated what Josiah and Buck had told him about the decision that fate had forced on Nathan. Chris offered no comment when he finished.

They rode on for another twenty minutes before Chris said, "Must have been rough on him."

"He's doubting himself over it," Vin said quietly.

"Can't says I blame him," Chris admitted.

Vin looked up at him sharply. "You think he should of done different?"

"No," Chris said. "I'm just hoping he did the right thing for the right reason."

It was all Vin could do not to shake his head. They sometimes accused Ezra of not trusting people but Vin knew Chris was actually the worst of them for it. It had been nearly six months before he had let Ezra take solo patrols, figuring him to just ignore any trouble or run off at the first chance. It had been Chris who wondered about Josiah during a recent string of murders in town. Now, even through he agreed that Nathan had done the right thing, like Nathan, he wondered at the reason.

"Man's a healer," Vin said calmly. "Reckon he thought about it."

He let it go at that, using the distraction of checking the weather to chance the conversation. "Better move a little faster we wanna be back 'fore the snow hits."

Two hours later they came out of the general store each carrying the first armload of supplies. Behind them the storekeeper brought out a load and sat it on the boardwalk. As Vin sat the first of the crates in the buckboard, he noticed Chris straighten and look across the street. Keeping his attention on his packing, Vin glanced up, seeing five men standing in front of the single saloon on the opposite side of the street. He turned, walking by Chris to pick up another load.

"What you thinking, cowboy?" he asked lowly.

Chris turned with him. "I'm thinking that Ezra needs to be getting home."

Vin glanced up. There were only five of them. He smiled, about the same odds as the first time he and Chris had fought together. "You thinking on doing something stupid?"

"Nah." With a returning smile, he said, "Bold, never stupid."

"Bold, huh?" Vin ventured. "Sounds like something JD would be proud of."

Chris' blue eyes connected with Vin's. "We should probably finish packing. Might have to make a quick exit."

Vin chuckled, and turned back to the store.

When they came out on the next trip the five men were sitting around the wagon. Vin couldn't help but smirk. It looked like Chris would get his wish to cut down their odds without even having to make the first move. Deferring to the older man, Vin merely started laying things in the wagon.

"Morning, boys," he said as he sat down the case of beans.

He might as well have been talking to himself as all their opponents seemed to be concentrating on Chris. Finally, the one nearest the horses said, "You buying a lot of stock for just two."

Vin loaded another box. "Big eaters."

"Where you taking all this stuff?" another one asked.

"Why you need to know?" Chris finally broke his silence.

The first man gave him a wide friendly smile. "Can be dangerous up in those mountains this time of year, just thought we'd give you some warning."

Vin watched the ice, controlled so far, enter Chris' eyes, watched in amusement as the other man drew back a little. Then Chris smiled and Vin knew things were about to get interesting. Chris shifted, pushing his coat away from his own gun. Vin slipped the hammer loop off his mare's leg but waited.

"Like you warned those miners?" Chris said lowly. "Like you warned their families? Or that gambler?"

There was a flicker of reaction, but no overt moves. Chris and the leader of the others remained staring at each other. It was Vin who took a step backward, giving himself more spread with his gun. At the same time he decided to play his favorite card.

"Now, Larabee," he said calmly. "These fellows might not be the ones who caused all that ruckus."

The name was all it took. Three of the men immediately moved back, leaving only the two who had spoken, and those two looked shook up. Vin knew Chris would give him hell over his little gambit but fear was a strong equalizer. For the moment, Chris only gave the two men another smile.

"You tell Reagan that the miners are staying and there are more than just helpless families up there now."

Still the men didn't move. Finally, Vin broke the silence. "You two gonna stand there starin' and twitchin' or you gonna do something with those guns."

Hatred joined the nervous looks, and one man's hand crept toward his gun, only to have it stopped by his companion. "Not here, Reynolds."

There was another minute stand off before Chris simply turned around and walked back into the store, trusting Vin to guard his back. Vin smiled pleasantly at the other men, then backed into store after Chris.

When they came out ten minutes later the men were gone but three different ones watched them from the saloon. It took another couple of loads to fill the wagon. By the last load, they were alone on the street.

"Reckon they'll try something on the road?" Vin questioned.

Chris shook his head. "They ain't the types to think for themselves. Probably have to talk to the bossman first. We won't have any trouble on the way back."

"You know, I could a stirred up trouble on my own and saved you a ride." Vin chuckled again. "Hell, whole point of me coming was to sidestep this sorta thing."

Chris gave him a cold smile. "More fun this way."

+ + + + + + +

True to Chris' prediction, they rode back to the camp unmolested.

There were cheers from the small crowd as Vin and Chris brought the wagon to a halt in front of the cook tent. Nathan came forward, eagerly looking to the two men climbing down off the cold buckboard.

Vin gave him a quick smile, reached under hard wood seat and withdrew a small wooden box. "Got a case of whiskey, some more silk thread and this."

The healer opened the case carefully and grinned at the two bottles nestled in cotton. "Laudanum!"

The joy in Nathan's eyes made Vin ask the question he'd been thinking of most of the way back. "How's Ezra?"

The joy vanished like a match blown out. "Fever's down a mite."

That was all the healer said as he clutched the bottles of painkiller and headed for the tent where the other two wounded men were. Vin sighed as he watched him go. A hand landed on his shoulder. He turned to find Buck smiling sadly at him.

"Come on, Vin," Buck urged. "Let's get this stuff unloaded."

"Mister Tanner and Mister Larabee need to get some food first," Missus Rodgers said sharply. "The rest of us will unload the wagon."

"Ma'am," Vin said cautiously, "that's a fine idea, but I think I'd better be handling this box."

Feeling Chris' stare, Vin reached under the wagon seat once more and carefully pulled out another box, roughly the same size as the first one. Printed clearly on the side was the word "Explosive."

"What the hell is that?" Chris demanded as he took an involuntary step back.

Vin gave him a sly smile. "Just a little evener. Nitro." Buck now joined Chris in easing away. None of the miners moved. "Figure we'll lay some of this out in the clearing, shoot it as they come in."

"Do you know what you're doing with that stuff?" Buck demanded.

"Nah," Vin admitted. Nodding toward Rogers, he added, "But they do."

After a minute Chris returned Vin's wry look. "You could have told me about this."

"Just didn't want you worrying none," Vin said cheerfully as he handed the box to Schmidt.

+ + + + + + +

Nathan shook his head, not at all surprised by Chris' reactions in town. JD on the other hand looked completely confused that the man had deliberately caused trouble.

"I thought..." JD trailed off as everyone else chuckled softly.

"JD," Buck started, "sometimes the best way to kill a snake is just to grab its tail."

"And sometimes that can get you bit," Vin said with a touch of sarcasm.

"I take it, Chris, that you had a method in your seeming madness?"

Josiah wondered.

Chris calmly swallowed the last of the whiskey, stared at the canvas walls with a smile. "Yeah," he drawled slowly.

"Plan?" Josiah repeated to Chris.

"Nothing fancy," Chris replied with a feral smile. "They know there are two of us. If two men shoot at them from the trees near the entrance then they won't be looking for more to shoot when they get close to the camp."

Buck smiled, nudged JD who was looking blank. "Two of us drive them toward the camp and when they hit that open field - "

"Vin and his nitro take over," Josiah finished.

"Don't know 'bout you boys," Vin said, "but I'm hungry enough to eat Ezra's cooking."

"I think Missus Rodgers can do better than that," Buck picked up, seeing, as Vin had that Nathan wanted them to do something besides worry.

+ + + + + + +

"How is he?" Chris asked as he moved to sit down next to the fire going in the small tunnel.

Chris glanced around. He had wondered why the entire group didn't take shelter in the solid mountain hole but upon entrance had the question answered. An old collapse had turned the long tunnel into a small fifteen by twenty room. While the place was big enough to allow a few folks protection for a short duration, it would not allow for much in a long run.

Josiah looked up from the book he was reading aloud. To his left Ezra was partially propped up on several blankets, covered with several more. In the dim firelight Chris could see the slight sheen of sweat on Ezra's too pale face.

With a sigh, Josiah answered his question. "He's alive and that's more than we had hoped for."

Sinking down next to Ezra, Chris flinched at the rubber tube. "Looks wrong."

"JD said the same thing," Josiah told him.

Silence claimed the small cave, then Chris said thoughtfully, "He's a hard man to know."

"Did his actions surprise you?" Josiah asked.

Chris looked up at the ex- preacher, recognizing the tone from childhood churches. His attention turned back to Ezra. A slight smile touched his mouth as he remembered the look of shock and confusion on Ezra's face when Chris had told him never to run out again. At the time Chris figured the shock for him not just shooting the man but later he realized it was that Ezra was bewildered a being granted a second chance. Chris admitted he still didn't understand completely what that must have meant to Ezra or why the dapper southerner stayed with them.

"No." Chris admitted, "I'm not surprised."

The ice-blue eyes connected with his and the bigger man smiled. "Maybe Ezra isn't as hard to get to know as you think."

"Or maybe, he don't know either," Chris chuckled.

There was a shift of air near the entrance and Chris waited for Vin to join them. The lean tracker sat down next to him, wordlessly handed over a plate of beans and bacon.

"Figured you might want to stretch your legs a mite, Josiah," Vin explained. "Get some food."

Coming to his feet, Josiah ducked a little to get his hat on. Tightening the chin leather against the building wind, he nodded toward Ezra. "He'll need more water in half hour or so."

Chris nodded quietly. "I'll get it."

Around a mouthful of food, Vin said, "I'll get it. You're gonna get some sleep."

"Ride was just as long for you," Chris argued.

"Yeah," Vin agreed. "But I slept, the night fore last. You rode it."

"Gentlemen," Josiah cut in. "There are plenty of shifts to go around."

Finding themselves chastised like children stopped both of them. Finally, Chris nodded to both Vin and Josiah. "Okay, I'll get some sleep right after I finish."

Vin shifted in behind the limp body, pulled Ezra up against his chest. He told himself it was just his imagination that Ezra was lighter. A little voice called him a liar. Many years before he had watched his mother die from a fever, catching it and dying in less than three days. Ezra had been shot six days before, soon there would be nothing...

Without thinking, Vin tightened his hold on the shorter man. "You just keep holding on there, Ezra," Vin whispered. "I'd miss the times when you and that damn red coat are the only color in town."

Across the small cave, Chris shifted, rolling over to face Vin. Vin went quiet, not wanting to wake his light-sleeping friend. He reached for the cup of warm honey water. Part of him wondered if trying to keep the gambler alive like this was a good idea. Were they only prolonging his suffering? Vin frowned, refusing to give into that thinking. He would fight to keep Ezra alive as long as Nathan thought there might be a slight chance.

The cup was barely in Vin's hand when Ezra convulsed hard against him, slamming him back into the wall. Vin gave a startled yelp and Chris was at his side instantly.

"Damn!" Vin reached to hold the wounded man down. "Thought this was...."

Over his own panicked voice, Vin heard the gasp of fear and pain, watched as Ezra's hand came up to claw at his throat.

"He's choking!" Chris snapped. He turned and sprinted into the cold and dark. "Nathan!"

Ezra's struggles were getting more frantic, burning energy Vin knew he didn't have to waste. "Easy, Ezra. Relax. Nathan'll be here..."

The thrashing continued, if anything gaining in intensity.

"Aw, damn," Vin muttered.

Holding Ezra tight against him with an arm over his chest, Vin reached for the rubber tube. If his friend was going to die in his arms, it wasn't going to be struggling for breath. With a slight prayer that he was doing the right thing, he jerked the tube out. Vin flinched at the dark string of blood that followed it out of Ezra's throat.

Vin held his breath, held Ezra. Blood edge out of the corner of Ezra's mouth and terror grabbed Vin. "Oh, God, Ezra," he whispered, wiping shakily at the dark liquid. "Hang on, pard. Don't want to have killed ya."

Nathan sprinted in, dropped down next to them. "Vin?"

Guilt swamping him, Vin admitted, "I took it out, Nathan. He was hurting, choking. I didn't want him...."

Ezra reared back in his arms, taking a hard deep breath.

"Ezra?" Nathan pleaded. "Come on now. I need you to wake up."

The jade green eyes flashed open so suddenly that Nathan leaned back a little. A wide smile split Vin's face, transferred to Nathan's. "Howdy there, Ezra," Vin said hoarsely. "Glad..."

He stopped as the smile on Nathan's face faded. The dark healer leaned closer, patted Ezra's cheek. "Ezra? Ezra?"

There was no response to either the voice or the touch. Vin moved his hand up, stroked through the gambler's dark brown hair. Softly, he pleaded, "Come on, Ezra, answer the man."

Cold silence. Ezra's gaze stayed on the unfeeling stones above him. The empty look scared Vin as much as the frantic movement had earlier. He turned his own eyes up to Nathan, begging for some reassurance. Nathan sighed, looking down, the movement giving Vin his answer.


Both men looked up to find Chris standing just inside the entrance. The others were grouped around behind him, worry very obvious by the nervous movements Vin heard more than saw. The wind was picking up, flakes of white ice already being blown around. Nathan ignored Chris' question.

"Hold him steady, Vin," he ordered.

Nathan reached for the cup of now cold water that Vin had been about to give Ezra. Seeing what he was trying, Vin pulled Ezra up straighter in his arms. The green eyes never flickered but when Nathan eased the water through Ezra's pale lips the man swallowed, taking the whole cup. The fearful look on Nathan's face turned more thoughtful.

Chris and the others crowded into the small space. This time it was Josiah who asked the question. "How is he?"

"I didn't hurt him, did I, Nathan?" Vin asked quietly.

"No," Nathan said quickly. "No, you did right, Vin. Him thrashing 'round wouldn't'a done him no good."

"What's wrong, Nathan?" JD spoke from the furthest nook of the little room, pulling the blanket tighter. "Can't he hear us?"

Vin didn't miss the look that passed between Chris and Nathan, wondered at the flicker of sorrow that went through Chris' eyes. Once more instead of answering, Nathan pulled one of his knives from his boot, lifted Ezra's hand, turned it over and touched the sharp point to Ezra's finger. Ezra's hand jerked but there was no reaction in the dulled green eyes. Nathan sighed.

"May be he just ain't really awake yet," Buck offered hopefully.

"Yeah," JD grabbed at the slim chance. "Being sick that long, just gonna take a while."

Chris knelt next to him. "What do we do, Nathan?"

"Same as we been doing, getting water down him, maybe some broth now." He paused then added, "Talking to him might do some good."

"What about the blood?" Vin asked, once more wiping away a small tickle from Ezra's pale lips though he noted that it was slowing.

"Putting that tube down him probably rubbed his throat. The honey and water will help. Put a drop or two of that whiskey in the next cup."

"Ain't no need to keep holding him, Vin," Buck said, moving to lower their friend.

"I got him," Vin said quietly. "Figured he might know I'm here."

"Ya'll get on back to bed," Nathan said firmly. "Reagan's men'll probably be here just..."

"Not today," Vin cut him off. When everyone looked at him he offered a smile. "They might be plenty riled at Larabee here but storm'll be here soon."

"How long and how bad?" Josiah asked.

"Day of snow and rain," Vin predicted. "Reckon they'll be on us day after."

"Travis won't be traveling in this either," Chris realized. "Dawn, we'll finish getting ready."

The others nodded, heading back into the worsening weather, huddling deeper into their coats. Chris stayed a minute, staring at the gambler.

"Chris?" In one word Vin asked what had gone between the gunslinger and the healer.

To Vin's surprise Chris rested a hand on Ezra's arm. "Fever. Nathan's worried about it... boiling his brain."

The words caused Vin to flinch but he wasn't surprised; he had suspected the cause of Ezra's non- reaction. "Might not come around," he surmised.

"We'll have to convince him then," Chris said firmly.

Vin smiled at that. "Reckon ordering him'll do it?"

Chris gamely returned the smile. "Can't hurt to try."