Such Bold and Bloody Causes

by Debra Hicks

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"... the deadly lead buzzed around him like a mass of angry hornets."

Nathan stepped into the cave, smiling despite everything at the enthusiasm in the youthful voice as JD read to Ezra. The sheriff stopped as he entered, closing his book with a touch of defiance. The others, Nathan included, kidded JD constantly about his reading of the dime novels. One day Nathan swore he was going to buy the kid a couple of real books.

Taking off his slicker, Nathan squatted down next to his patient. Stripping off his gloves, he put his hand to Ezra's cheek.

"Fever's down," Nathan commented. "That's good."

"Yeah," JD agreed. With a shiver, he said, "Guess it's my turn to get out yonder and freeze my ass."

Nathan nodded distractedly, still staring at Ezra. JD stood and started slipping into his slicker. As he pulled on the fur-lined gloves, he asked quietly, "Is he gonna get well, Nathan?"

"I don't know, JD," Nathan admitted.

"What if...." JD nodded toward the too still gambler. "What if he stays this way?"

Nathan looked up at JD, knowing he was about to kill a little more of the fading innocence in those dark brown eyes. "He cain't live long like this JD, too much to go wrong, body starts to whither away."

Despite JD's flinch at that image, Nathan knew the boy had no idea of how bad it would be for their friend to die by very slow degrees. He looked at Ezra again, at the pale face and slightly rising chest. JD had not lived through the war, had not watched bodies rot alive despite all the washing and moving all the bearers could do. Tears at those memories filled Nathan's eyes and he snapped them shut.

A hand touched his shoulder. He straightened, wiping his sleeve across his eyes, sniffling. "Damn, weather must -"

"Nathan," JD said softly, "there's nothing wrong with being sad over a friend being hurt."

Looking up over his shoulder, Nathan was struck by the wisdom in the same eyes that held so much innocence. "Thanks, JD."

As the younger man stepped toward the door, Nathan eased the layer of blankets off Ezra's chest, intending the check the wounds. The moved covering revealed a deck of cards under the gambler's limp right hand. There was an embarrassed shuffle behind him and Nathan turned to find JD looking a little sheepish.

Shrugging, he said, "I thought it might help, you know, feeling something familiar in his hand."

Nathan looked back at the pasteboard cards, ran his finger along the edge of Ezra's cards. "Cain't hurt," he said softly.

JD remained where he was, took a deep breath and looked up at Nathan. "I'm sorry about getting mad, Nathan. I.... I don't think I would want to have made that decision."

"Thanks, JD," Nathan said through the wave of guilt that once more hit him.

With a quick nod, JD flipped the blanket they had tacked over the entrance up and started into the dim daylight -

A shot echoed through the small valley, followed immediately by screams of fear. Nathan and JD both drew, going to the entrance. JD carefully tugged the iced blanket open a fraction just as a second shot rang out. Both the lawmen jumped back even though there was no sign of a bullet coming near their safety hole.

Buck's voice now reached them. "Get down! Get down!"

Nathan peered carefully out. Buck was crouched behind a boulder a couple of dozen feet from them, two of the miner's wives pushed down in front of him. Several of the miners were tucked behind various protections. Near the cook tent, he could see Vin and Josiah, guns out, scanning the hillside to the south of the camp. A flash of black showed Chris moving toward the threat on the snowy hill. For the moment, at least, everyone seemed to be all right. Another shot exploded in the quiet, was followed by the smack of a bullet next to Vin's leg. The gunman was on top of the rise, almost directly above the small mine entrance.

"JD," Nathan said quietly. "I don't think the bastard can see us. Maybe if we hug along that little bank to the south."

Nervousness entered JD's eyes but he nodded. "On the next shot," he said firmly. Then he added, "What about Ezra?"

Looking back over his shoulder, Nathan said sharply, "Sooner we kill that damn sniper, sooner I can take care of him."

JD's eyes widened at his tone but he nodded his understanding of it and Nathan's orders. They watched as another volley forced Chris to roll behind a boulder, just at the base of the hill. The sheriff led the way out with Nathan following close behind. They jogged along the narrow trace between the base of the rise and the open space near the river. When they had gone a hundred feet down, Nathan tapped JD's arm, bringing him to a stop.

A shot rang out behind them, followed by a litany of curses from Buck. Nathan didn't turn, only offering a short prayer that his friend's words came from anger and not injury. JD looked briefly over Nathan's shoulder before turning all his attention to the task before them.

"Too high," JD complained when he realized he couldn't see over the rocks.

Nathan propped back against the icy rock, pushed one knee out at an angle. JD gave him a quick nod. "Be careful," he warned as JD stepped on his thigh, using it to ease over the edge.

"Damn, JD," Nathan grunted. "You're heavier than you look."

Dropping back down just as another volley of shots rang out, JD said, "He's almost directly above us, about forty feet up." Looking meaningfully at Nathan, he said, "He's in behind some rocks, can't get a clear shot from here. And there's not a lot of cover between here and there."

Glancing around, Nathan realized that the firing from the men in the valley had decreased, obviously they were in a standoff. Gesturing with his gun, he motioned JD further down the rise. They continued another twenty yards down the narrow trail, to a small gap that would allow them access to the top. The firing above them stopped and a new sense of urgency touched Nathan. He was worried that the sniper would make a break for it, trying to get back and report that more than two men were protecting the camp.

Nathan motioned to his leg again. JD popped up, came back down. "I can see him for here but I'm not sure about the shot."

The admission that he was not willing to take the shot was a sign of how much JD had grown. Nathan bit his lip, looking down the trail, knowing that time was running out, someone would be hit soon or the man would know it was hopeless and make a break for it.

"How far to the nearest rocks?" Nathan asked.

Looking confused, JD answered, "About fifty.... You ain't thinking of making -"

"I'm thinking on drawing him 'round so's you can shoot him," Nathan snapped.

"No!" JD said. "Besides getting yourself killed, you're the only one that can help Ezra. Anyone goes over this rise, it's me."

"You're the better shot," Nathan explained with more patience than he felt.

"And you're the doctor!"

Deciding he'd had enough of the argument, Nathan drew his gun, shouldered JD aside and scrambled over the rise. He heard JD curse behind him then sound vanished as he jumped over a log, sprinting toward the rocks. A bullet sent a shower of dead leaves and slush up his legs; another scored a pine as he sprinted by. The next one would have him. A single shot echoed through the hills just as Nathan dove for cover into an ancient pile of tumbled boulders. An almost eerie stillness settled over the area.

It lasted for a few seconds before Nathan cautiously raised his head. A few feet away he could see the sniper's body thrown back among the trees. Glancing back the way he had come he saw JD give him a nervous smile. Still being careful, Nathan made his way to the body, kicked the rifle away and knelt. Two bullet holes decorated the man's dark gray shirt. Frowning, Nathan glanced around, trying to see where the second bullet had come from. A few dozen yards away Schmidt stood up, staring at the scene with wide eyes.

Below Nathan could see people hesitantly coming out of hiding, lead by Chris and Vin. He waved to confirm the kill, then considered starting for the young miner, since he looked to be on his way into shock. But Rodgers ran up from the trees, took the rifle from the man's slack grip and led him away. Nathan hesitated, still ready to start after the man but Vin and Chris came up at the moment. Vin knelt beside the dead man. Nathan let thought of Schmidt go, though he would check with Rodgers later.

"I thought you said no one would get up that ridge?!" Chris snapped at the lean tracker, startling Nathan back to the scene.

"Didn't think they could!" Vin returned with just as much heat.

"Nathan," Chris ordered, "go check and see if there's anyone down below."

Not wanting to anger his leader anymore than he already was, Nathan nevertheless shook his head. "Send JD, I need to get back to Ezra."

"I got it," JD yelled, already heading for the top of the rise.

"Stay down!" Chris yelled.

Just before Nathan could start down the rise, Vin stood up, holding a piece of paper. Without a word, he handed it to Chris. The anger had faded slightly from Chris' expression but he managed to give Vin a glare before taking the note. Nathan was almost amused by the way Vin ignored Chris' anger.

Chris gave a low whistle. "Five hundred dollars to the man who kills the two outsiders currently holed up with the miners," he read.

"Damn, cowboy," Vin muttered. "We keep this up and you'll worth much as me pretty soon."

"That means a lot to me, Vin," Chris said sarcastically.

"Least he isn't gonna get back to tell Reagan how many of us there are," Vin remarked.

"Don't be too sure," JD remarked suddenly as he came back. He held out a rope, a pulley and some odd looking metal loops. Chris took the items. "This is how he got over the rise. But there was a rider hauling a horse behind him, headed off into the distance."

"With him being below," Vin said, "he may not know anything 'cept that his man got killed."

Nathan watched Chris stare thoughtfully at the rough hemp in his hands. "We'd better ready for more than we figured. Have everyone not on guard meet me in the cook tent."

As the others moved through the still shaken miners, Nathan and Chris walked to the cave. Chris went to the fire to grab the warm coffeepot, while Nathan returned to his patient. Ezra's eyes were closed again and Nathan automatically knelt and wrapped his fingers around Ezra's narrow wrist. Nathan stared at his friend's pale face without really seeing him.

"I'm sorry, Ezra," Nathan whispered. "I ain't done nothing..."

"You've kept him alive."

Nathan jumped at Chris' voice, but refused to look back over at the leader he would follow anywhere. "Buck figured out how to warm him; Vin got the fever down. And if he don't get no better? How we gonna stand watching him die like... like they did in the war, wasting to nothing, sores going bad."

There was the sound of leather and cloth as Chris came over, sat down next to them, staring into his coffee. "I won't let that happen."

It was said with such conviction, such finality that Nathan looked over at Chris. The green eyes were filled with contradiction - hard with determination, soft with compassion. Nathan swallowed; knowing instantly what Chris was talking about. He was suddenly filled with just as much contradiction. Part of him rebelled at the idea of treating a human being like a lame horse to simply be put out of misery. Yet, another part of him couldn't help but feel relief over the exact same reason.

"Don't give up on him yet, Nathan," Chris said solemnly. "He made it through the cold and the fever. He's tough enough to make it out of the darkness too."

Nathan shook his head. "If I had saved something to help the fever..."

"Stop it!" Chris' voice was low, yet the words cut over the wind driving against the blanketed entrance.

Jumping a little at the tone, Nathan once more met the shadowed eyes of his leader.

"Quit feeling sorry for yourself over what you had to do," Chris ordered. "Put all that worry to figuring out what else we can do to help Ezra."

The words were level, almost conversational, but there was impatient steel under them. Nathan blinked, swallowed. Chris' gaze held him in place for a long minute, forcing him to look away. He heard the other man move back into the cold wind and rain.

The guilt Nathan had been living with for a week took a different turn, became worse. Despite getting water down Ezra, despite the lowering fever, despite the gambler's brave struggle to live -Nathan had indeed been waiting for him to die. And the truly ironic point was that the other men were holding on to hope because Nathan was there, because he had kept Ezra alive this long.

He looked toward Ezra, and for the first time, really wondered at the man's survival, at the strength it must have taken to hold on through those first long, agonizing hours. Had Ezra held on knowing they would come back? Had he fought so hard just to see his friends once more or in the hope of help? Turning, Nathan laid several more logs onto the fire, filling the rocky enclave with light and heat.

Ezra was still cold due to the blood loss and the chill that had settled on him. Despite the warm ground and warm blankets, Nathan was worried about his lungs. Forcing his worry aside, Nathan thought of all the cures he'd seen for things like pneumonia, from the herb healers on the plantation to the doctors he'd watched in the field hospitals during the war. Sparks flew up from the logs, snapping in the cold air, causing the shadows to shift along Ezra's pale face. Memories of another treatment came to mind, one at the Seminole reservation, one that had taken place in a steam-filled sweatlodge.

"Okay then," Nathan said firmly. "Me and you gonna get through this, Ezra. Reckon if we can take on a army every few months, this ain't gonna be nothing to worry about. Hell, just us being friends is something of a miracle."

He stepped out to find Josiah.

Vin took a deep breath, bracing himself for entering the small cave. He wasn't sure if he could take seeing Ezra much longer. He also wasn't sure when the gambler had become such a friend. Vin's relationship with Chris had been defined and bonded in a single shared glance. With the others, it had been a slow thing, most especially with the solitary southerner. Now, though, they were more than friends and a shiver of dread and sorrow went through Vin every time he took his turn holding and talking to the unconscious man.

Flipping back the blanket covering, he was surprised at the wave of heat that surged out into the cold. It was not so amazing once he stepped inside. There were six miners huddled around the fire with Chris and Buck. That wasn't what attracted Vin's attention though. In the far back corner, there was a blanket tented over a combination rocks and broken tent poles. Josiah was sitting next to the odd enclosure. Ezra's legs extended out of the gray blanket.

Chris nodded acknowledgment as Vin walked passed the huddled group to Josiah and Ezra. "What's Nathan come up with now?"

Josiah gave a nod toward the makeshift tent. "Steam, good for the lungs and warm."

To illustrate, Josiah lifted the blanket, showed him a few rocks sitting near the edge. Josiah turned a small can over them, closed the covering as the steam rose. Vin nodded, he'd once been on the receiving end of having to hold his head over a steaming kettle to get over what his aunt had said was pleurisy. All he remembered was breathing easier.

"Better tell me what to do," Vin said.

"Been enough," Nathan's voice cut in. Vin looked up, waited for him to continue. "We'll stop for now. Want you to hold him up though, keep talking to him, try to wake him."

Vin and Josiah exchanged surprised looks. "Thought you said he'd come around -"

"This is Ezra, we're talking 'bout," Nathan said with a forced smile. "Reckon we're gonna have to badger his sorry ass into waking up."

Despite the fake cheerfulness, it still brought a smile from Vin and a nod of agreement from Josiah.

"Boy does like to sleep," Vin drawled.

They removed the light blanket, laying it aside for later. Nathan leaned in and checked Ezra's breathing. Vin saw the slightest bit of hope come into the healer's dark eyes. After Nathan moved away, Josiah helped Vin get comfortable with Ezra in his arms. Before Josiah headed off though, he slipped a few cards into Ezra's pale hand. Vin looked questioningly up at Josiah.

"It was JD's idea," Josiah admitted with a shrug. "Seemed to think it might help."

Vin didn't comment, merely moving to settle the limp body into his arms. Across the five feet of warm space, Chris was outlining the plan for the next day. As Vin maneuvered himself behind Ezra, he heard Rodgers start to argue.

"We can shoot," Rodgers insisted.

Chris just glanced up from under his hat. "Didn't say you couldn't, just need to figure out from where."

The miner waited, obviously expecting to be dismissed from the real fight. Vin was almost expecting the same thing. While Chris had let the Seminoles help defend their village, lately, with the town, he had become more obsessive about it being their job and no one else's. Turning away from the discussion for a minute, Vin settled back against the saddle they were using as a rest. He pulled Ezra up against his chest, legs on either side of Ezra's and arms around his chest.

"How you doing there, Ezra?" Vin said quietly. "Reckon it's my turn to try talking you awake. Not sure why they wanted me to do this since I ain't got any good stories to tell you."

"I want you and your men in the rocks lining the river," Chris said.

Vin quit talking to his patient for a minute, letting his hand move over Ezra's arm, rubbing, trying to let him know he was there. His attention turned to the men at the fire. Rodgers started to protest Chris' assignment of their position, only to be cut off by Chris' raised hand.

"We can't get all of them before they'll make the rocks," Chris explained patiently. "We need them to be stopped by your fire long enough for us to pick off the rest of them."

The logic of the situation stopped Rodgers' protest. Chris asked, "How many charges of nitro can you make?"

Rodgers ran his hand through his thinning brown hair. "Depends on how big you want the explosions."

Chris looked over at Vin.

Vin shrugged. "Bunch of small ones will hurt 'em more, scatter them better." He pulled the blanket a little tighter around him and Ezra. "Got one problem though. I'm gonna need some kind of markers."

"Crossed sticks?" Buck asked, frowning.

"Lots of sticks on that field," Vin observed.

"We need something easy for Vin to see," Josiah said almost to himself, "but small enough that a man on horseback wouldn't notice."

There was a moment of silence as everyone considered the problem.

Ezra's hand shifted out from under Vin's and the tracker moved to catch it. Vin wrapped his hand around both narrow wrists, holding them at Ezra's waist. The slightest tug of muscle moved under his other hand - and a jolt of shock went through Vin.

"Ezra?" Vin asked faintly, afraid to believe what was happening.

This time something hard brushed against his hand. Vin shifted to look down at Ezra - down into the jade green eyes of his friend. Ezra blinked hazily up at him before his eyes drifted shut again.

A grin broke out across Vin's face at the same time as he shouted, "Nathan!"

"Vin?" Chris asked from across the fire, having noticed his movements.

"He was awake!" Vin explained happily. "And it was Ezra looking back at me."

He could see the doubt pass through Chris' expression. Ezra had slumped back into darkness, giving no sign that he had ever awakened. Vin just continued to smile.

"Vin," Buck ventured carefully. "Are you...."

As Nathan came through the entrance, the tracker flipped the blanket off and held up his hand. Several cards rested just barely between his fingers.

"Markers," Vin explained happily. "Ezra knew what we needed."

Nathan stared at the simple, colored pasteboard. He sat down next to Vin, glancing up at the lean Texan then back down to the pale Southerner in his arms. Ezra was as still and unresponsive has he had been for seven days now. Behind him Chris, Buck and Josiah leaned in, waiting to see what his opinion was.

"Nathan," Vin said with complete conviction. "He woke up. He heard what we were saying. He understood it. He looked at me and he tried to give me the cards."

There was no denying the joy in Vin's blue eyes. Very slowly, Nathan felt a similar smile drift across his lips. "Damn," was all he could think to say.

"Yes!" Buck yelled, startling everyone as the shout bounced off the walls. "I gotta tell JD."

"Buck!" Nathan tried to stop him but the rascal was already gone.

Chris was more cautious. "What do you think, Nathan?"

There were times when he hated that question. For now all he could do was lean closer, lay a hand to the side of Ezra's neck. Nathan tilted his head a little. The flesh under his hand was warm but not hot, Ezra's chest rising steadily and deeply. Nothing seemed to have changed since he had last checked his friend only an hour before.... Yet....

Nathan was not sure how he knew, but something was different. He tried to offer an explanation, tried to say that the change didn't mean Ezra was out of danger. All those thoughts caught in his throat. Blinking hard, he forced two simple words out of his tight throat. "He's sleeping."

From behind him he heard what he thought was almost of sob of relief from Josiah and a couple of hard swallows from their hard-as-nails leader. He looked over his shoulder at the other two, but they refused to meet his gaze, staring at the rocky ground instead. Nathan felt the tears threatening his own composure and understood their embarrassment. Vin only continued to smile, unconcerned with the tears filling his eyes.

+ + + + + + +

Dawn came slowly, fighting its way through the low hanging clouds, through the cold and mist. When the light did come, Nathan blinked at it in weary surprise. He had relieved Chris from tending Ezra at nearly two in the morning, now light was slipping over the chilly countryside -and there had been no more movement from the man held safe in his arms. New doubt had started creeping into Nathan's thoughts as the night had moved along. He would have to relinquish his position soon, letting Mrs. Rodgers take over as the miners and lawmen prepared to take on Reagan's men.

Reaching across, he picked up the cup of honey water he had been easing down Ezra all night. "Wish you'd wake up here, Ezra," Nathan said softly, shifting Ezra up into his arms.

He brought the cup up, and Ezra's head rolled toward it. Nathan nearly dropped the cup. Tilting Ezra's face toward him, he asked, "Ezra?"

It was several minutes and a dozen attempts before the green eyes flickered open. Ezra stared up at him. As the night before, Nathan couldn't find his voice. For a week, he had thought never to see those green eyes filled with awareness. Now that Ezra was awake, he didn't know what to do.

"Ezra?" He questioned, still unsure of what the gambler understood.

Ezra blinked hazily. After a minute, Nathan felt the hand under his shift slightly. Holding it down, Nathan said quietly, "Do you understand me, Ezra?"

There was another few seconds before Ezra nodded almost imperceptibly. Nathan barely controlled his joy at the soft nod. "Drink this."

The wounded man took the whole cup of water and part of another, which pleased Nathan. A touch of worry crept through him at Ezra's silence. What if the fever had caused something unexpected? Ezra could hear but could he talk?

"Ezra," Nathan said lightly, "I never thought I'd say this, but can you please say something."

He was rewarded with a grimace and the soft, slurred word, "'urts."

"You were shot up pretty good." Nathan reached for the bottle of laudanum he had sat nearby. "Vin got ya some laud..."

With a quiet sigh, Ezra dozed off again. Nathan gave a small sigh himself. It would be better if Ezra could sleep through the pain without the opiate. He pulled the man close, hugging him very gently, fighting off the tears, wondering vaguely at when the gambler had become so important to all of them. How had he come to care for the southerner that wouldn't ride with him at first?

"Nathan?" Josiah asked quietly from the door.

Taking a deep breath to get his composure back, Nathan eased Ezra back to the raised blankets. He looked up into concern in Josiah's expression. Nathan wasn't sure whom it was for, so he smiled in answer. That seemed to relieve his friend.

"Vin just signaled from the ridge," Josiah said. "Looks like Chris was right, they brought more men this time."

Misses Rodgers slipped through the gap between Josiah and the rock wall, came over and sat down next to Nathan.

"How many more?" Nathan said.

Josiah gave him a wide smile. "Well, it ain't quite as bad as the Seminole fight."

"Aw, hell," Nathan muttered quietly before grabbing his guns.

He turned back to Misses Rodgers. "Ma'am, keep him quiet and covered, and make sure he gets plenty of water if he wakes."

The older woman was pale at the thought of the coming fight but nodded firmly, eyes strong with determination. To Nathan's surprise, she pulled an old single shot pistol from her apron. "No one hurts him again," she promised. "God's blessing on you."

Nathan returned her firm nod and followed Josiah in to the cold.

+ + + + + + +

Chris watched the riders come into the valley head, stopping at just the edge of the meadow. There were two lines of a dozen riders each. A quick glance across the open space showed him the small red card markers, carefully banked so that only the front was visible to Vin. A check of everyone's position proved to Chris that they were as ready as they were going to be. Josiah and Nathan were settling into a nook, carefully hidden down at creek level; JD was fifty yards down creek from them; Buck was on the small rise on the opposite side of the meadow, acting as the second man the riders would be expecting. But their surprise, Vin, was guarding them from the heights behind the river, waiting for his best chance to open up with the explosives. In among the rock lined river, were the miners, holding old weapons, scared but determined.

The tension built for long half- dozen minutes, then a single rider came forward. Chris cursed, tossing away the cheroot held tight between his teeth. If the rider came too far forward he might see or even trip one of the explosives. Sprinting, he vaulted bareback onto one of the miner's horses, ignoring Buck's yell of warning. Whirling around, he galloped toward the rider.

As he came closer he recognized the man from town, the one who had started the confrontation. He jerked the heavy horse to a halt, stared hard at the other rider.

"What do you want?" He demanded.

The man gave him a cold smile. "Wanted to see if it was true you were up here. Couldn't see a reason for Chris Larabee to be protecting a bunch of tinpans."

"Maybe I don't need a reason expect for not liking you," Chris quipped with a hard smile of his own.

The hired gun ignored the remark, though his smile faded. "Boss says I'm to be polite, ask if you and your friend want to leave while you can."

"Well, now, that's real nice of your boss," Chris said, watching the man's hope for an easy fight increase. "But I don't like him any more than I like you and I ain't even met him. This valley ain't his and it ain't gonna be his."

"Mister Reagan says he's willing to pay you for your trouble," the man sneered, obviously hating the idea of paying Chris off.

"I'm done talking," Chris said flatly.

They continued to glare at each other then the man broke off, jerking his horse around and sprinting back toward the line. Chris remained, watching carefully. Knowing his back was well guarded; he spun the old horse and trotted calmly back to his line. He dismounted, once more checking the men.

They waited. Chris' thoughts flickered to Ezra, to how much the situation reminded him of the Seminole village. When he had first seen the injured gambler, he had been surprised at the sense of loss that had swept like a cold wind through him. It had taken a lot for him to admit that he would miss Ezra if he didn't make it though this.

In eerie response to Chris' unspoken thoughts, Rodgers pointed to the one who had come forward. "That's the one." When Chris glanced sideways at him, he said, "He's the one that shot your friend in the back."

Chris' growl of hatred was covered by the crack of a rifle, the single sound ending any thought but fighting.

+ + + + + + +

Vin nearly smiled as the riders came across the open field. Ezra sometimes kidded him about liking simple things but sometimes simple was the best answer - like now. He waited; knowing it would be best for Buck and Chris to open first. A second later the heavy boom of rifles filled the air as his two friends fired. The first riders passed the hidden explosives.

Bringing the rifle to his cheek, he took careful aim at the barely visible card. "For Ezra, you bastards." He squeezed the trigger.

Two horses screamed in fear and pain, falling, one rider dead before he hit the ground, the other crawling a few feet through the slush before laying still. Vin barely noted this before targeting another card. Two more of the attackers went down, blood adding splashes of red to the gray and white snow.

The first of the riders reached the rocks. "Now!" Chris yelled, barely understandable over the dim of gunfire

+ + + + + + +

The miners opened fire with everything they had from old single shot revolvers to new Winchesters. The riders kept coming, obviously thinking they were through the worst of it, still charging confidently forward. Vin now shifted to the charges closer to the river, igniting three in rapid succession. At the same time the remainder of the seven opened up. The explosions threw dirt, snow and rocks into the air, slammed riders and horses to the ground. The shots that took out more of their number were lost in the detonation of the nitro.

The confidence and forward movement vanished. The riders were now facing a solid wall of gunfire, many of their number already dead or wounded. Vin could see their courage lag. Two riders turned, starting back for the trail, only to have their horses fall under another explosion he set off. The riders staggered to their feet, looking for help as their mounts limped off. Vin turned his attention to the ones still shooting, letting the wounded get away as best they could.

The leader who had challenged Chris was in front now, gun raised in between taking shots at the men carefully hidden in the rocks. "Get your asses back here!" he screamed.

Vin aimed. A single shot blew the man's gun out of his hand. There was a string of hot curses as he turned and galloped after his retreating men. Fighting away a smile, Vin set off two more blasts just as the men passed them, urging them on their way. The group that had started with two dozen now retreated leaving three dead behind and carrying six wounded. A few half- hearted shots chased them into the heavy trees on the other side of the clearing.

There was a silence, then cheers and yells started echoing through the valley as the miners stood up to celebrate their victory. Vin started to stand, and stopped.

"Stay down! Stay down!" Chris yelled over the noise.

Shots rang out of the trees that lined the clearing. There was a strangled cry from someone below him. Vin brought his rifle up. "They're coming again!"

The attackers were not stupid. This time they wove their way on foot through the trees, ducking and firing. Across the open meadow Vin watched Buck move up higher. Opposite the big ladies' man, Vin could see Chris moving lower, which puzzled him. The miners were firing again, taking shots they had no hope of hitting. The lawmen were patient, guns ready but silent, waiting for the enemy to get closer. Vin shouldered his rifle again - and started the second round by taking down a man moving toward Josiah's position.

In the rocks, JD popped up, twin guns blazing. Buck's rifle signaled his attack. Crouched, running low, Josiah and Nathan moved away from the middle, toward the side of the rocks, directly in the path of the men trying to come around them. Both of them took shots, were rewarded with yells of pain. Vin's attention turned to the shadowy figures in the trees. During the first attack he had offered a rough form of mercy; hitting the nitro after they rode by, shooting the gun from their leader's hand. This time there was no leniency. He aimed for the hat showing around a tree and watched the man die. The next target was slightly off, sending the man screaming in pain to the forest floor. The third one went immediately, messily silent.

Before he could sight on a fourth, three of the men, still on horseback, charged out of the trees close to the river, heading toward the poorly armed, badly shaken miners. Vin swung the rifle up -and Chris materialized out of the trees directly in front of the three men. The black-clad gunman stood there arm straight out, his gun an extension of his hand. Bullets scattered snow and leaves at his feet. Larabee never wavered.

"Goddamn, Larabee," Vin muttered as he shot one of the men. Before he could even start to aim again the other two were down, taken out by Chris' deadly determination. "Think you're god damn made of steel," Vin continued to complain as he moved to a better location.

Below him a man fell to JD's guns. One went down in front of Rodgers, another to Buck.

And the rest turned for the trail, retreating, picking up their wounded, ignoring their dead. They disappeared into the dark trees as the snow and mud muffled the horses hoof beats. Within minutes they were gone. Vin sighed at the stupidity of the situation. A third of the attackers lay dead in the snow, another third had been riding double or slumped over in their saddles. Dead horses littered the valley. Bill and JD were already moving after the horses limped off toward the woods.

"Vin! Buck!" Chris yelled. "Josiah!"

Vin's rifle came up immediately, scanning for the attack. Below him, Chris was motioned toward the camp. Not sure what was going on, Vin scrambled down the steep slope, sending small avalanches of snow in front of him.

"Saddle up," Chris ordered.

Rodgers turned away from watching the trail the riders had disappeared down. "What are you doing? Rodgers asked.

"I got the same question their, pard," Vin said as he came to stand next to Chris. He could see the confusion in the others' expressions as well.

"They're a wounded animal now, Vin," Chris said tightly. "We follow them and finish this."

"Whoa there, Chris," Buck cut in. "I'd like to kill those bastards as much as you but riding after them... Travis is bring the army..."

"We made this mistake at the Seminole camp," Chris said over his shoulder as he stalked toward his horse. "I ain't making it again."

Vin came to a stop, watched Chris grab his saddle. Buck had halted a few feet further on, obviously unsure of what to do. They both had good points, Vin realized. Judge Travis might be on his way with troops but there was no way to tell when they would get there. The trick with the nitro had worked this time, next time the men would be ready. With a quick nod to himself, he took a step up next to Buck.

The dark blue eyes connected with his -and they moved to follow Chris.

Nathan watched them mount, torn between wanting to go with them and knowing he was needed here. One of the miners was grazed while another sported a knee hit by splintered rock from a too-close ricochet. And there was still Ezra....

Chris reined in his black mare. "Be careful. There's only a few of you to keep an eye on things here. Make sure you guard that ridge."

"We'll be careful," Nathan confirmed. "Gonna have one of the miners pick up what's left of Vin's secret weapon, might come in handy if'n someone does come over that ridge."

The black clad gunslinger smiled grimly, approving of Nathan's thinking. "We'll be back."

Rodgers stepped forward, old gun in hand. "They'll head for Reagan's place. It's the only fork off the trail to Buckhorn."

"Be careful," JD said from behind Nathan.

Buck grinned at him. "Always am, kid."

Vin merely tipped his hat to the men on the ground while Josiah gave a wide, toothy grin, obviously more than ready to finish it. They took off after Chris. As they rode off, Nathan's own grim smile reflected that of Chris'. They were four against fourteen, but he knew which ones he would put his money on.

"What do we do with the bodies?" Rodgers asked.

Nathan looked across the bloody clearing. "Grounds too froze to bury them. Best pile them over near that overhang, throw some rocks over 'em to keep the wolves away."

JD joined them. Nathan looked over at the young man, wondering if he was upset over not being called to join the group riding hell bent after the retreating gunmen. When the dark brown eyes met his though there was a large measure of understanding, an equal amount of determination and the same touch of worry that Nathan was feeling.

The young sheriff emptied the cylinder of his gun and calmly started to reload. "Those boys are gonna have hell to pay," he said confidently.

Patting JD's shoulder, Nathan nodded. "Have the ladies gather some water and bandages. I'm going to check on Ezra then tend the miners."

He came into the warm cave to find Misses Rodgers tucking the blanket tighter around Ezra. "He hasn't woke."

"He will. I been pouring the laudanum down him heavy," he lied.

That seemed to satisfy the miner's wife as she merely patted Ezra's arm before standing. "I'll get you some food, Mister Jackson."

"I'd 'ppreciate it ma'am."

As she moved off, Nathan knelt next to Ezra. It had been nearly twelve hours since the man had been awake, since he'd take the last water. "Ezra," he said quietly, "you can't die on me now, not after I done give 'em all hope.... Not after I done planned on how I'm gonna apologize to you."

+ + + + + + +

"Looks like we found 'em," Vin said sarcastically.

Chris merely glared at him, though to his right he heard Buck snicker a little and saw Josiah smile from Vin's left. They were crouched on a rise overlooking the Reagan Mine. After exiting the valley, they had been careful to stay far enough behind the attackers to not scare them off or let them know they were being followed. Now, with the last of the sunlight fading, they were looking down on the huge mine, acres of water-and-dynamite-carved mountainside.

Vin whistled as he looked around the destroyed area. "Kind of a mess, ain't it?"

"Almost as bad as the coal mines back home," Buck remarked.

Chris ignored the banter, staring intently down at the target. "Three on the gate," he remarked.

"Another two on the opposite ridge," Josiah said.

"Too many to go through the front door," Buck stated, looking hesitantly over at Chris.

As he spoke, Vin had taken out his spyglass to closer study the area. "Don't see any on this side or roaming around. Reckon he don't expect anyone to try to coming over the cliff."

"That's cause a mountain goat couldn't get down this cliff," Buck observed.

"But a man with the proper equipment could," Josiah said confidently.

The ex-preacher moved carefully away from the eighty-foot drop that loomed below them. The other three exchanged confused looks. A minute later, Josiah reappeared, holding the tackle and rope that had gotten the sniper up to their stronghold.

"You know how to use this stuff, Josiah?" Chris questioned.

"And what the hell made you bring it?" Buck asked in amazement.

Josiah gestured behind him. "I've seen these kind of mines before, knew there would be drops, just thought these might come in handy. As for knowing how," Josiah smiled. "I've climbed a few mountains. Besides, it's much easier getting down than up."

"Yeah," Vin said, "that's what worries me."

"Don't worry on it, Vin," Chris said. "Cause you're staying up here. Anyone comes out of that main office - shoot them."

Buck looked down the cliff. "And what are we gonna be doing?"

With a feral grin, Chris reached in to his pocket and carefully lit a cheroot. "We're going to be paying a visit to that dynamite shed."

"Damn," Buck said in admiration. "I had hoped for a few bangs for the holiday, but this ain't exactly what I had in mind."

"Josiah," Chris ordered. "Get us down there."

They moved to directly opposite the well-lit office. Vin looked at the other three. "You boys be careful. Ain't none of you angels to be flying down that cliff."

Dropping to his hands and knees, he crawled as close to the edge as he could, carefully hidden in the snowy shadows.

The others moved further down the ridge, finally coming to an area where a crevice, cut into the mountain, would give enough cover for them to come down in relative obscurity. Josiah tied the tackle off to a tree, well away from the unstable bank. Motioning to Buck, he slipped the loop he had tied over the bigger man's head and shoulders, passed his waist.

"You go any lower and we're gonna need a real preacher," Buck quipped.

Giving him a glare, Josiah said, "You gotta sit on the rope, keep it just under your cheeks."

Buck let out a long-suffering sigh, took the rope from Josiah and adjusted it to where he had been instructed. "Got it."

"All you have to do is stay in that loop and hold on," Josiah said. Buck reached up and took a death grip on the rough, thick rope. "If you swing toward the rocks, don't kick hard, just a little tap will keep you away and keep the rocks from falling."

"I'll cover you on the way down," Chris assured him. "When you get to the bottom, take cover and wait for us."

Taking a deep breath and blowing it out, Buck nodded, "Let's get it done."

Controlling his fear for his friend, Chris helped keep the rope straight while Josiah fed the rope through the pulley. To avoid detection, he and Buck then crawled to the edge. Chris held onto Buck's shoulders as he slipped over the crumbling ground. Slowly, the big gunslinger eased off and started his descent.

While Chris trusted Josiah to know what he was talking about, it was still nerve wracking watching his oldest friend dangling far above the discarded boulders. Another part of him was surprised at how quickly and easily it seemed before Buck touched bottom, slipping out of the rope and disappearing into the rocks.

The unease now turned inward as Chris realized he was the next to try the trick. Josiah hauled up the rope in silence, then handed it to Chris.

"How are you gonna get down?" Chris wondered, having noticed Josiah using his weight to feed out the rope for Buck.

"Tie it off different," Josiah said calmly. "Called rapelling. I'm not the best at it, but I can get down."

Chris snaked to the edge, looked back instead of down. "Be careful."

Josiah touched his hat. "You too."

It took a minute to work up his courage to let go of the ledge but he saw Josiah standing tall and firm in the trees, and knew the ex-priest would not let him fall. With a whoosh of breath, Chris let go and found himself almost floating down. The feeling was not unpleasant and Chris relaxed a little. The cliff loomed too close and he kicked off. The world suddenly spun around him and he nearly yelped in surprise. Chris' shoulder brushed hard against the crumbling rocks, sending a cascade of stones down the cliff. He rotated again before grabbing the rock with one hand, the sharp stone scraping his palm, bringing a muffled curse. He was still descending, Josiah not being able to see his predicament. When next he swung in, he tapped the rock gently with his boot, just enough to bounce off. A minute later, he couldn't remember ever being so pleased to sink into ankle deep snow.

Jerking out of the rope, he gave it a sharp tug and it was immediately pulled skyward. Chris slipped into the shadows where he'd last seen Buck. Through the shadows and mustache, Chris could see that his less than graceful descent had been noted.

"Kinda looked like a top there, pard," Buck joked. "Guess you just ain't got the natural grace of some of us."

Chris only glared at him before un- holstering his gun and turning his attention back to the cliff. They watched in amazement as Josiah came down with surprising speed and an impressive agility for someone his size. When he joined them in the boulders, he was grinning.

"I'd forgotten how much fun that is," he said.

Chris held his opinion about that. Gesturing with the gun, he said, "Go."

They moved without any hint of trouble to the small shed set as far into the corner of the mine as possible. Large red letters, TNT was printed on all sides. Chris was surprised there was no lock on the door but merely wrote it up to Reagan's obvious arrogance.

"Chris," Buck asked as he started inside, "I hate to ask this but do you have a plan or do I just grab as much as I can?"

With a quick nod, Chris said, "Yeah, I got a plan. Get five sticks for each of you, then hang some on the door of this shed."

Looking at him suspiciously, Buck asked, "Why?"

"Vin'll know what to do with it."

Buck looked thoughtful for a minute, then followed Chris' orders, emerging a few minutes later with the sticks. "I really hate this stuff, you know."

"You'd hate not taking care of these guys more," Josiah observed, taking the dynamite being offered.

"Damn straight," Buck said harshly, all joking gone.

"The bastard leading this afternoon is mine," Chris said in a quiet deadly tone. Neither man questioned it. "Let's go."

"In the front I suppose," Buck said.

Chris grinned at him, lighting a new smoke and sticking it in his mouth.

Vin had watched the strange, dancing descent of the other three through the spyglass, admiring Buck and Josiah's grace and grimacing when Chris had started spinning. He had lost them to the shadows for a while before spotting them at the explosives shed. Through the moonlit darkness, he watched as Buck loaded them all with dynamite before hanging six sticks on the outside of the shed. Vin understood immediately what was expected of him.

Turning his spyglass on the office, he could see several men moving around inside, though not as many has had escaped the fight at the encampment, which meant there were more than miners in the outlying shacks. That thought made him frown. While he had no problem killing the hired guns, he didn't want to hit anyone just because they were working for the wrong man. Thinking on it, he realized that it would only be the gunmen firing at him. If the miners had any sense, they would either run like hell when the shooting started or stay in the shacks out of the line of fire.

All thoughts of anything other than protecting his friends took over as he watched them approach the main office. He raised his rifle, carefully judging the distance to the dynamite. It was an easy shot. Chris walked boldly into the moonlight and up to the front of the steps. At the same time as Vin cursed Chris' boldness, he had to admire the man's style.

+ + + + + + +

Chris waved Buck and Josiah to the sides, motioning them down in the inky darkness at each end of the porch. He slipped the hammer guard off his Colt before walking calmly up the steps -and kicking in the door.

Four men whirled toward him, two going for their guns. They were dead before they crashed onto the oak floor. The remaining two froze; staring in fear at the angel of death that stood in the doorway. Chris came into the room, gun held out before him.

Directly in front of him was a large, ornately carved cherry wood desk. Seated in a cowhide chair next to him was an older man, gray-haired with a large curling mustache and mutton chop sideburns. Reynolds, the one who had shot Ezra in the back, glared with open hatred at him, though Chris noted it was well tempered with fear. The same could not be said for the man in the chair. Reagan seemed put out, as if discovering something in his whiskey glass.

"Mister Reagan," Chris said pleasantly. "You and I need to talk."

"Mister Larabee." Reagan crossed his arms over his chest, sighing. "You, sir, have caused me no end of trouble."

"Me?" Chris asked, sounding vaguely amused. "Just cause I stopped you from killing a bunch of innocent folks and taking their land, you think I'm causing you trouble?"

Shouts now sounded from outside. Reagan smiled back, tilting his head toward the door. "I would imagine those will be my men."

Vin's rifle sounded through the darkness, three shoots in close order. Chris' smile grew. "I would imagine that'd be my friend."

Anger touched Reagan's eyes, thinned his mouth. "What do you want?"

"First," Chris drawled, "I want all these boys to put down their guns."

"We ain't going to do that," Reynolds said.

Cocking the hammer of his gun back, Chris said quietly, "Then you ain't getting paid, cause your boss is gonna be dead."

The shooting from outside had slowed, turning into sniping. Since Buck and Josiah still hadn't come in or started the serious fireworks, he took it to mean things were about to get real noisy.

"Mister Reagan, you, me and this snake to your left are going to town where we're gonna wait for Judge Travis and the army -"

The shooting grew heavier outside. The four men in front of him, looked anxiously toward the door, hoping for help. Chris never turned, never moved, trusting the other three to protect his back. The first explosion shook the small building, screams following the echoes into the dark.

The man to his left broke. "Mister, I ain't shot no one, I just -"

"Get out," Chris ordered lowly. The man pitched his gun to the floor, and the man next to him did the same. They ran out with their hands raised, yelling that they gave up.

"You think you can hold off twenty men with what, three, four of you?" Reagan sneered.

The shooting outside picked up, but no one came near the door. "Yeah, I do," Chris replied casually.

+ + + + + + +

More men poured out of the two bunkhouses, most, as Vin had hoped running down the wide road that led out of the manmade canyon. It would be a long walk to Buckhorn but it was better then staying. He fired half a dozen shots, not aiming as much as holding the men in place while the miners escaped. Another half-dozen gunhands were starting out of the second bunkhouse.

From the front of the office, he could see the returning fire from Buck and Josiah, had heard and seen the results of the first stick of dynamite thrown by Buck. A few straggling miners moved by, making Vin lose sight of his targets for a minute. He came up on one knee to sight better - and felt the tug of a too-close bullet. The next two shots took men down.

With a smile, Vin shifted his sighting and found the dangling dynamite. "See you in hell boys."

The explosion rocked the area, echoed through the maimed mountainside, bringing down large boulders that added to the chaos of noise and smoke. One side of the closest bunkhouse vanished under the cloud of resulting debris. For a long time nothing stirred except for the dust. Then men once more started out of the buildings, covered with fine dust, hands up, many staggering. Vin ignored them, turning back to the fight at the office.

The huge explosion rattled the windows, staggering Chris a little. "'Course, I'd say you're down a few hands now."

Reagan's assured demeanor faded a little. Reynolds only continued to stare at Chris. "Mighty brave man with a loose, cocked gun," he sneered.

The hatred that Chris held for the man now turned to cold disgust. He gestured toward the still seated Reagan. "Do I look stupid to you? I draw on you and your boss shoots me."

"Don't be stupid, Reynolds," Reagan hissed. "This is no time to -"

"This ain't about working for you no more, Mister Reagan. This is between me and Larabee."

Chris didn't even bother looking at Reagan, merely ordered, "Stand up, drop your coat and move away."

Despite keeping his eyes on Reynolds, he saw Reagan twitch. "I'm not armed."

"Then get the hell out of the way," Chris snarled.

He watched the heavyset man struggle to his feet, fanning out his coat so that Chris could see his hips were bare. Chris knew this was no guarantee that the man was unarmed but right now all he wanted to do was kill Reynolds. The image of Ezra when he'd first seen him, the helplessness in Nathan's eyes all came back to him, narrowing his vision down to the taller man in front of him. Even the gunfire he could here outside died away. He slipped his gun back into the holster.

Reynolds started moving around the desk. Chris watched him, hands loose at his sides. "Remember that gambler?" He said quietly.

Reynolds stopped, hands coming off his belt to hang by his sides. The look the man gave him was filled with a killing lust that Chris was more than familiar with. "Damn interfering bastard -"

"Heard you shot him in the back?" Chris said blandly.

"Got what he deserve-"

"He's a friend of mine." Chris kept his voice low and level, but all the anger he had felt that first moment when he had seen Ezra filter into his tone. Fear now overrode the killing lust in Reynolds eyes. He moved --

Chris' hand flashed down - and Reynolds was thrown back by Chris' bullet, his gun still in leather. There was a straggled curse from Reagan as blood splattered his expensive suit. Reynolds slid down the wall, eyes still locked with Chris', unbelieving that he was dead.

"Damn gambler...." He cursed, blood running down his chin. With a cough that sprayed blood across his chin, he fell sideways.

A savage sense of satisfaction swept down Chris' chest. He turned his attention to the last man standing in the room. Reagan was staring at Reynolds with open disgust. When he switched his gaze to Chris, there was fear and a certain amount of resolve.

"You have gotten your revenge, Mister Larabee, now let's talk about your price."

Lips curling in sneer, Chris said, "You just ain't--"

The wall behind him blew in. Chris cried out as something slammed into his back, slicing pain racing down his arm. The motion and pain sent his gun sailing toward Reynolds' body. He staggered forward, trying to reach it before Reagan, but another explosion rocked the office, sending him to the floor. Chris pushed himself to his knees -and found himself eye-level with the business end of his own gun.

"Get up," Reagan snarled.

Clamping a hand over the fast bleeding wound, Chris struggled to his feet. The explosion that had knocked him down had been too close to the building for Buck or Josiah to have done it deliberately. While he prayed that the others were okay, he took comfort in the fact that none of Reagan's men had come into the room. They stood for a minute, both hearing the gunfight outside dying down.

+ + + + + + +

Vin sighed in relief when he saw the gunslinger who had been calling Chris out thrown back out of his sight. He had recognized the man as the one who had led the attack that afternoon but he didn't understand Chris' determination to be the one who took care of him.

Buck stood up, lit stick of dynamite in his hand. Across the wagon rutted road, two of Reagan's men moved to get a shot. Vin sent one to hell and one back down into the rocks and snow.

Something happened. He never saw exactly what - but it was not hard to miss the results. Part of the porch, the front wall and all of the windows in the office exploded, sending shrapnel into the cold night air. Vin flinched, then turned his attention to finding his three friends. To one side, he could see Buck lying next to the side of the office. The tall, ladies' man was moving slowly, seemed to be trying to get his body to work. Josiah was on the other end, still shooting; taking shots at the dwindling opposition.

Inside, through the shattered window, things had gone completely wrong. As Vin watched, Chris climbed painfully to his feet. Just barely in his vision, Vin could see that someone was holding a gun on his friend. He didn't know if it was Reagan or if there might have been other gunhands in the room that he hadn't been able to see. Either way, Chris was in serious trouble.

Vin sprinted closer to the edge of the cliff, dropped down on his stomach, bringing the rifle up. There was no shot from any angle he could find. "Damnit!"

+ + + + + + +

The shooting had stopped.

Chris said, "Sounds like we aren't going to be alone much longer."

"Turn around. We're going outside, Mister Larabee." Cocking the gun, Reagan said, "I would advise you to warn your men that one move from them and you die."

Without acknowledging the threat, Chris turned toward the door. He felt Reagan come up very close behind him. The blood was flowing through his fingers as they moved carefully over the wreckage of the office wall.

Reagan ordered, "Stop. Tell them to move where I can see them."

Chris almost smiled. "Buck, Josiah, step into the light."

There was a couple of minute's silence, then Josiah spoke from the darkness, "Buck's down, Chris."

Grinding his teeth together to fight the fear that statement started, Chris started to say something when the gun was shoved hard into his ribs. "Bring him out!" Reagan shouted.

Josiah walked through the light spilling out front, disappearing off to the side. There was a soft scramble to their left and a minute later; Josiah staggered back into the light, holding Buck up with an arm around his waist and Buck's arm over his shoulder. Chris took a deep breath. There was blood running down Buck's pale face. His old friend was conscious but it was obvious that he was not aware of them.

"Drop your guns," Reagan said. "Put him down, then go bring up two horses."

Josiah's gaze swept briefly over Chris. The nod Chris gave him was almost too small to see but Josiah eased Buck down to the ground, dropped his side arm, then once more vanished into the dark.

"Two men?" Reagan questioned. "You came in with only two men?"

"How many you got left, Reagan? Ain't the quantity, it's the quality." He almost laughed at that, since it sounded like something Ezra would have said.

"How much did they pay you, Mister Larabee?" Reagan asked. "Those claims must be paying out more than I thought, if they could afford you and your gang."

Chris didn't bother to answer, knowing that Reagan would never accept that his involvement was only because of a trick of fate. Chris wondered if it had been a good trick or not. Ezra had nearly died and now Nathan doubted himself; Buck was wounded.

"Can I check my man?" Chris asked.

"No," Reagan snapped. "Just stand still until those horses get here."

"Then what?"

"You and I are going to leave."

Chris chuckled. "Are you going to try to tell me you're going to let me go afterwards?"

"No," Reagan said. "I'm going to kill you as soon as we're away. Think of it this way, your two men get to stay alive."

The sound of hooves on frozen ground drew their attention as Josiah appeared out of the night leading two geldings, a bay and an appaloosa. He tied them to the hitching post in front of the office. Josiah then stepped to Buck and dragged him back. Reagan immediately prodded Chris with the gun.

Still holding his arm, Chris moved forward. Reagan stayed carefully behind him as they came down the debris-covered steps. When Chris stepped onto the churned up ground, Reagan moved around, keeping him between Josiah and himself -

One shot rang out. Reagan's head snapped around, blood showering the back of Chris' coat as Vin's bullet killed him. Vin's shot had been perfect, just as Chris had known it would be. Chris looked at Reagan with contempt. His only thought, after once more remembering Ezra, was that Reagan had gotten off easy.

"Better let me get that tied off," Josiah said as he stepped forward, indicating Chris' bleeding arm.

Nodding, Chris moved the few feet to where Buck was laying flat on his back. He sank down beside his friend while Josiah went to look for something to use as a bandage.

The big gunslinger smiled drunkenly up at him. "Hidy, pard," he slurred.

"You okay, Buck?"

Buck whistled, raising a hand to his head. "What happened? Must have been a hell of a party."

Before he could reply Josiah said from inside the office, "Hell of a party is about right."

Leaning in to check the long cut on Buck's temple, Chris sighed. It wasn't bad, Buck had only been rattled a little. Chris waved up to Vin, knowing he would be worried.

"'Bout damn time!" Floated down to them.

"Hey, Chris?"

Chris leaned back against the hitching rail as Josiah sat down next to him. "Yeah, Buck?" he answered as he held out his arm, trying not to flinch as the ex- preacher started to wrap over the shirt.

"Is the ground moving?"

"No," Chris said. "Pretty soon though we'll be moving your sorry ass home."

"Good," Buck said as he closed his eyes. "Home would be good. Not moving ground would be good too."

Closing his own eyes, Chris said, "Yeah, home would be good."

"They're coming!"

Vin waved at the sentry that was shouting from the head of the trail. It would have been hard to miss their coming, Vin mused, hauling the noisy wagon up the trail as they were. He knew the others were probably worried. They had not dared travel at night, so after getting Chris and Buck doctored up, they had moved into one of the bunkhouses. Some of the miners had cautiously come back, only to find themselves unemployed. The men had decided to wait for Judge Travis, see they could purchase the mine or talk to whoever ended up with it.

+ + + + + + +

Vin had taken a wagon and team from the livery, both for Buck and soon for Ezra. As they came into the encampment, Vin could see JD and Nathan rushing toward them, worry in their expressions.

"Buck!?" JD sprinted by them, followed closely by Nathan.

"Not so damn loud," Buck complained from the back of the back of the wagon.

Hearing Buck sounding almost normal, Nathan stopped next to Vin as he climbed down off the cold wagon. "What happened?"

"Buck kinda had his tintype shattered. Now, he's just grumpy," Vin answered. Chris dismounted next to him, having refused the wagon ride. "Chris got hisself cut pretty good, might want to wrestle him down and take a look."

"JD, just get out of the way." Buck was trying to get off the wagon and JD was trying to help, only making matters worse.

Josiah, along with several of the women, moved to untangle them. Buck leaned on the nearest lady, waving the others away. Vin smiled at that, though he grimaced at the hastily wrapped bandage around Chris' arm.

"Get over to the cook tent, Chris. I'll get this stubborn skirt chaser down then --" Nathan said.

"Ezra?" Vin and Chris asked together.

Nathan's joy at them getting back alive turned more guarded. The dark eyes connected with Vin's. "He ain't woke up since yesterday."

Vin took a sharp breath, then felt Chris' hand on his shoulder. "Guess we'd better go wake his ass up then," Chris said firmly.

Nathan led the way, motioning for Josiah and JD to haul Buck up to the cook tent. They walked into the warm cave to find Misses Rodgers sitting there talking quietly to a still sleeping Ezra.

"Everyone's waiting for you, Mister Standish," she said, smiling warmly at him. "Gentlemen, I'm sure you could all use some food."

"Sure could, my stomach's thinking my throat's been cut," Vin said with fake cheerfulness. Chris moved on by him, sitting down next to Ezra while Nathan started toward the fire and the pot of warm water.

As Missus Rodgers left, Vin took a deep breath. He had thought it was over, had thought when they got back Ezra would be awake and smiling at them. But....

"'Bout time you woke up there, Ezra."

Chris' words brought Vin and Nathan spinning around. Vin stepped closer, meeting Ezra's green eyes. The gambler smiled at him before turning his hazy gaze to Chris. Vin glanced sideways at Chris, watching a wide smile fill Chris' face.

"You done good, Ezra," Chris said simply.

Once more Vin found himself watching Ezra's eyes, knowing he was too groggy and weak to affect his usual mask of indifference. Ezra managed a half-smile, though the green eyes glittered with pride.

"Thanks... " Ezra whispered. "Shots?"

Vin glanced at Nathan. "Must have heard part of the fight yesterday."

Patting Ezra's shoulder, Vin explained, "Bastards came again. We got the best of 'em. That card trick you showed me worked real well."

Ezra blinked hazily at him, struggling to understand the words. Vin was not sure he remembered the cards. "Okay?"

"We chased the bastards down," Chris assured him with a feral smile. "Won't be bothering no one."

"Get some of this down him," Nathan said, handing them both water and laudanum.

Chris lifted Ezra up and Vin helped him take two glasses of water. When he reached back to Nathan for a third, Vin could see the guilt mixed with the relief. While he could help Ezra mend from the bullets there was very little he could do for Nathan. That was only something Ezra could help with.

"I'm gonna see to Buck," their healer said, taking the pot of water with him.

Vin exchanged a quick look with Chris, who only shrugged. Vin eased some of the strong painkiller down Ezra.

"Nathan?" Ezra questioned, having sensed or seen that something was wrong.

Even crawling back from the grave the man was too sharp. "Nothing," Vin said. "It's all over."

That brought another smile from the Ezra. "Home?"

"Real soon, Ezra," Chris promised. "Real soon."

+ + + + + + +

Very carefully, Ezra stretched his right arm, flexing the fingers. It was one of the few parts of his body he could currently move without pain. Right now, that didn't bother him too much. He was alive. He had saved lives. The miners had not only replaced his winnings from the first night but had insisted that any reward money from Reagan's hired guns go to him. And today they were heading home. Everything would be wonderful - if he could just figure out what was wrong with Nathan.

Looking over at his present nurse, he said, "Vin?"


"What's wrong with Mister Jackson?"

After three weeks, he was finally able to carry on a conversation, if only for a little while, and could sit propped up for a while each day. Unfortunately, JD, Buck and Chris had headed back before he was recovered enough to persuade one of them to tell him what was going on. He had asked Josiah. Josiah had only told him to ask Nathan. Now, he watched as Vin flinched and looked away.

"Reckon you'd better ask Nathan that," Vin repeated Josiah's advice.

As Vin helped him take some more broth, Ezra reviewed what he had observed. At first, he had thought maybe Nathan was upset about him getting the reward money, but since the ex-slave had been there when the miners had happily promised it to him, he had decided that wasn't it. Next he had considered that perhaps he had said something while delirious. While many of his opinions on things had changed recently, there were still old memories and old words that might have surfaced.

When Nathan had tended him during the night though, Ezra had gotten the feeling more of unease than dislike or anger.

The object of his concern came in at that minute, spilling bright sunshine through the cave's entrance. Ezra squinted. "Sorry, Ezra...."

"Quite all right, Nathan," Ezra said, hoping to put his friend at ease enough to ask him what was wrong. "If you don't mind pulling it open a little, it has gotten very gloomy in here."

"Yeah, sure," Nathan agreed quickly.

"Ya want some more, Ezra?" Vin asked.

"No, thank you." He smiled at his friend, once more letting himself enjoy the fact that everyone had survived the war intact.

Vin stood, sat the bowl down on a rock before moving past Nathan into the daylight. A minute later Nathan was fussing over him, checking already checked bandages, checking his fever, making sure he wasn't getting a bed sore. Ezra endured it all in impatient silence. It was undignified and painful but if it would help him get better sooner, he would put up with it.

Nathan leaned back with a satisfied nod. "Looks good. Gonna have to wrap you up and make sure we get enough laudanum down you for the trip."

"I will agree to the administering during what I know will be a rather arduous journey but once we arrive in Four Corners...."

"I know," Nathan agreed. "No more unless "absolutely necessary.""

Ezra was suddenly worried that maybe his insistence about the painkiller was part of the problem. "It is not that I don't trust your very capable healing skills, Mister Jackson but -"

He didn't get any further as Nathan suddenly jumped up. "I'd better go get -"

"Nathan," Ezra said as firmly as he could. "Tell me what I have done to offend you, sir."

Nathan spun around, eyes wide. "What? Offend me? No, Ezra, you ain't done nothing -"

"Then kindly tell me what the problem is," Ezra requested, yawning.

"You get some sleep. We can talk 'bout -"

"I will sleep better knowing the truth of whatever it is that is obviously bothering you."

For another instant, Ezra thought Nathan would refuse. He looked everywhere in the room except at him, as if seeking an escape route. Finally, just as Ezra was about to absolve him of answering, Nathan came back and sat down.

"How much you remember about the day after you got shot? The day we came in?" Nathan asked without looking at him.

For an instant Ezra thought of not answering, thought of telling Nathan he didn't remember anything. The truth was he didn't remember much and what he did remember scared him, was full of pain and cold.

"I... I remember you being there," Ezra said, refusing to give voice to how much he had been warmed by his friends' presence. "You helped me." He stopped at the look of absolute misery on Nathan's face.

"Aw, damn," Nathan muttered. For another few heartbeats, he stared at the dirt covered cave floor, and then he looked up directly into Ezra's eyes. "There was three of ya shot. I only had enough supplies to help two..." his voice caught, head dropping. Ezra could see the tears starting down his cheeks.

"I used... Ezra," Nathan sighed. "I used my supplies to save the two miners cause I thought you was gonna die."

Ezra stared at the bowed head, at the slumped shoulders. The revelation left him shocked. Vaguely, he supposed he should have been angry but all he felt was sadness. Somehow, somewhere in the year they had been together, Ezra had thought he and Nathan had reached an understanding, had become friends. To find out that Nathan valued two strangers over him hurt as much as the healing wounds.

He closed his eyes, turned to face the wall, trying to come to terms with what had happened, with why Nathan would abandon him.

"I am truly sorry, Ezra. I.... you was so bad off.... I just.... I gave up."

He heard the thick emotions in Nathan's voice, the regret, sorrow and confusion, but at that minute, he couldn't face him. "Please leave," Ezra pleaded.

There was the soft tread of boots on rock; the light blinked for a minute as the big man passed through the entrance, then Ezra was alone.

He realized that it was the first time he had been alone since that day.

Ezra forced himself back to that horribly long wait for the others. He remembered the miners trying to help, stopping the bleeding, keeping him warm. Waiting for him to die. He had been waiting for the same thing. Through the pain had been only one thought - seeing the others before he died.

That memory stopped him. Why was that? Had he been waiting to tell the others what happened for revenge? Had he hoped that, maybe, Nathan could relieve the pain enough to let him die in peace? Nathan had come but had given up on him, had believed him to be dying. Nathan had helped the others first.

But Ezra had thought he was dying, had even told Nathan that bandages would be a waste. Nathan might have helped the other two first, but he had spent the rest of his time saving Ezra. Ezra had given up; but the others, Nathan included, had not given up on him. The presence of the others - Nathan's gentle insistent touch, Vin's quiet words, Buck's demands, JD's reading and even Chris' silent vigil - had reached through the darkness and refused to let him go. Ezra's eyes snapped open. He was alive - due to tremendous and innovative effort from Nathan and sheer stubbornness from the others.

"Damn," Ezra muttered.

Rolling to his side, he yelped at the sudden pain of movement - and instantly Nathan was kneeling next to him. "Easy, Ezra, you ain't up to --"

Ezra grabbed Nathan's arm, jerked himself closer. "You did nothing wrong."

Nathan's muscles tightened and Ezra knew that if he hadn't been afraid of harming him, the healer would have jerked away. As it was, he gripped Ezra's shoulders pushed him firmly back down. Ezra watched, forming his arguments carefully.

"Mister Jackson," Ezra said. "Do you think you made a wrong decision? Do you believe that helping me first might have lead to a different outcome?"

Easing away, Nathan leaned back. "I don't know," he finally admitted.

"You were faced with an appalling choice. You made the only decision possible given the circumstances," Ezra explained.

"Ezra, I oughtn't have given up...."

"Nathan," Ezra cut in, filling his words with quiet pleading. "You never gave up. If Vin and Buck helped save me, it was only under your direction. "

Nathan wouldn't meet his eyes. "I turned away...."

"Only long enough to care for others." Ezra frowned, not sure Nathan was listening to him.

Shaking his head, Nathan said, "I was thinkin' I might've given up cause... cause we ain't always gotten on."

"If I had the energy, Mister Jackson, I would laugh at that." He put his hand on Nathan's arm. "You would not do that."

"How can you be so sure?" Nathan whispered, obviously, desperately wanting to believe him.

"Because I know you, Nathan," Ezra answered simply.

Ezra watched the tears come into Nathan's eyes. Grabbing Nathan's large hand, he held on tight. It was the last straw and Nathan was suddenly crying softly in what Ezra knew was a combination exhaustion and relief.

It seemed like forever before Nathan started wiping his eyes, sniffing slightly. "I'm sorry, Ezra. Got no reason to cry like a baby."

Before Ezra could answer, a large yawn hit, barely covered by his unencumbered hand. That was all it took. Nathan was instantly back being their healer, moving to tuck the blankets around Ezra. Ezra managed to give him a glare before blinking, trying to fight off the sleep.

"I expect that this slight nap I am going to engage in will not hinder our departure for home," he insisted.

"We'll see," Nathan hedged.

"Mister Jackson, my bed awaits," Ezra said, words starting to slur.

"Go to sleep, Ezra," Nathan countered.

Ezra cursed silently as he yawned again. "Only a few minutes, then we can be off."

"Go to sleep, Ezra, I'll be right here."

"I know you will be, Nathan." Ezra forced his eyes to stay open just a little longer, watched a soft smile touch Nathan's face.

Blinking away the last of his tears, Nathan sighed. Much of what Ezra had said was the same as what the others had been trying to tell him for weeks but hearing it from Ezra, knowing the man didn't blame him, made the words seem new and right. Nathan felt the tension leave his shoulders, suddenly felt like really smiling for the first time since Ezra had awakened. He gave Ezra's shoulder a quick squeeze.

"Thanks, Ezra."

"Nathan?" Vin asked from behind him.

He smiled. "He's okay. Just sleeping."

Vin came over and sat down next to them. "Reckon he's gonna do that a lot."

"Best thing for him, next to winning money," Nathan said.

"He does both real well. Guess we're all good at what we do," Vin said, looking purposely at Nathan.

Nathan gave him a crooked smile. "Ya'll ain't got to lecture me no more. I get it."

"What happened?"

Nathan gave a little snort, knowing he couldn't hide anything from the sharp Texan. "Just had a little talk about things with the old card-slick."

"Ezra get you straightened out?" Vin asked, moving to help pack the last of the their supplies.

Giving him a quick glance, Nathan nodded. "Yeah, made me hear what ya'll been telling me all along."

"That you did what was right," Vin clarified.

"No," Nathan said, pleased by Vin's look of surprise. "That it was more than just me that saved him - it was all of us."

The End