by Mitzi

Chris Larabee, gun at ready, followed behind the others as they made their way to the jail. Josiah covered their progress over the saloon's bat wing doors.

Larabee had caught up with the group by the time they stepped up on the boardwalk at the jail and was able to get between Red and the door. He turned to face the man, "That's far enough." He laid his own surprisingly gentle hand on the boy's arm for support.

"I ain't leavin' the kid with the likes of you."

"If you want that hand tended to you'll stay outside. If my man's going to be in the cell with him and the door open, I'm not takin' any chances."

The boy was barely conscious, and was in no way aware of all that was going on around him. Nathan joined Larabee at the door. "Hand's a powerful touchy place to take a bullet. I need to tend him as fast as I can."

"You do right by him."

Nathan nodded and there was enough sincerity in his expression for the foreman to back off.

+ + + + + + +

JD and Buck, Mike already locked in cell, each grabbed a long rifle and were headed back outside the door. They would be ready when the ranch hands descended on them.

Nathan, backed up by Vin and Chris, edged past them to get inside with his patient.


"Yeah, kid."


Wilmington knew what the boy had seen. Already six men were all but running down the street toward the jail. Jason Miller, in the front, had murder in his eye. His presence was enough like that of Chris Larabee that JD felt the palms of his hands turn sweaty. He positioned his bowler tighter on his head to unobtrusively dry them.

"What happened?" Miller demanded of his foreman as he arrived. Red stood between Jason and Buck and JD's guns. It was this alone that kept the older Miller from charging for the door; repercussions be damned. He didn't even acknowledge Buck and JD at their posts.

"Stay calm and hear everything, Jase. Remember Kyte's in there being tended to by their doc."

"Tended by their ...! Tell me."

"They're protecting Standish in there."

"Ezra Standish?" The rancher made a reflexive move toward the closed door. Red placed a hand on his shoulder to stop him. The younger man brushed the hand away. The long bangs that hung in his face wafted like winter wheat. Even in the night his cold, focused eyes were pinpricks.

"I recognized him, was going to call him out. The others drew down on me. My gun never cleared leather. Mike and Kyte tried to cover me."

Buck took that statement like a blow. It had all happened so fast, could it have looked like that? JD didn't think how things looked; he knew how things had been. "That's a damn lie. They drew first."

Jason ignored JD. He again moved toward the door, his hand on the butt of his gun. Red moved to block the way; protect his boss from himself.

"I want to see my brother," Jason growled. And despite the clear history between the two, it was indisputable that he would go through his foreman if he crossed him.

Buck felt a sense of familiarity with the episode unveiling before him. He didn't understand why, but it made him feel uncomfortable and there was a tinge of sympathy for the number two man.

Before Buck could step in, a familiar voice from behind him, that matched Jason for frigidity, made the decision. "Leave your guns outside. No one else comes in. You got five minutes."

There was a space of time where everyone held their breath. Red used his physical form as a buffer between the men.

From experience, Buck knew his presence at Larabee's left while not a buffer, had a slight calming effect. When things went to hell, the gunslinger had a tendency to dodge right. With Buck positioned where he could move left, and knowing they would be able to take up each other's slack in those most important first seconds, the man in black was willing to meet the fierce golden eyes and let the lost soul behind them make the first move.

Finally Miller loosened his gunbelt and handed it to his foreman. He rotated his body so that he never broke eye contact with the leader of the seven as he made his way into the small jail.

With a slight nod Buck directed JD to go inside and followed; continuing their watch from within the walls of the suddenly small space.

Jason stopped with his back to the wall once he entered the building and took in his surroundings and the odds. Mike seemed frightened when he saw his boss enter. He almost looked like he was glad he had the cell bars to separate them.

The door to Kyte's cell was still open and Nathan was working on him. Chris and Vin moved to positions of advantage out of habit.

Buck was surprised to see that Nathan was tending to Kyte in the cell while Ezra still held only the cup towel that Inez had handed him to his head. The towel was soaked in blood. Even understanding that head wounds bled a lot, it worried the ladies' man. Jason Miller's angry voice brought Wilmington back to what was going on in the room.

"You've killed your last man over a cheatin' card game," the feral young man growled as he took a step toward Ezra. The gambler straightened from where he had been slouched against the wall.

Vin glided between them. "I thought you wanted to check on your brother," he drawled.

One brother's eyes slid over to where the other's were waiting for him. The one was accusatory, the other apologetic. "You alright?" Kyte nodded. "We'll talk when I get you out of here." Kyte nodded again, not enthusiastic over the promise; or was it a threat?

"We'll wire the judge," Chris stated.

Jason ignored him. "You're a dead man, Standish. If I have to kill every lawman in this place; if I have to take down this whole town, you'll be dead and my brother comes out of that cell." Then he was gone.

Jason brushed past Josiah as the older man entered the jail.

Josiah read people like others read books. His studies had, surprisingly, taught him more about Man who creates, molds and enforces controls on institutions like religion than it had taught him about religion itself.

With the innocence of childhood Josiah had questioned how one God could have so many contradictory theologies saying they knew how He wanted to be worshipped. With the insight of the rebelliousness brought on by puberty, he determined that it was Man trying to leave a legacy that dictated to others how to worship. That had led to a study of mankind and how they thought, how they interacted, how they manipulated.

Until recently, until he met these six other men, the defrocked priest's critique of his fellow man had led him to willingly choose the life of a virtual hermit. He put all of that study and experience and testing of his own theories into trying to figure out this most recent confrontation. Then he saw Jason Miller's body language as he passed. With that, he grabbed another rifle and quickly positioned himself alongside Buck and JD to guard the door.

A part of the gentle Goliath's mind that watched the shadows was drawn to the dry smoke from the small street fires and the moist fog. The vapors occupied the same space, much like the two groups of men co-existed in the town. Still the differences, still the similarities couldn't be denied. For now there was balance between the two. A temporary balance.

"What about Ezra?" Josiah heard Buck ask.

"I'll have to tweezer some glass out, clean him up. You can start if you want. This boy could lose the use of his hand if I don't get something done." There was more iciness in the voice than he wanted to allow. The facts, as stated, might be true, but ...

"He tried to kill a friend of yours, Nathan," Buck offered in response to the tone of voice

"He tried to kill a gambler and a con man who probably tried to swindled his family out of that ranch."

JD was stunned by the statement and involuntarily switched his eyes from guarding the street to the situation inside. He was trying to determine if he had misunderstood.

The hurt in Ezra's eyes at the accusation touched Buck who came to his defense. "You don't know that."

"I know the boy has two dead brothers over a card game and he blames Ezra."

"Nathan ..." Buck's voice was getting low, much like Chris's at his most lethal.

"Of course you'd think he has a side. You're as hedonistic as he is." The word was not one he would regularly use. He spit it out as if he had learned it as a curse. "A piece of ass and a good time is all you care about." Buck, without moving, still gave the impression that he had been sucker punched.

"Nathan," Vin responded as if the name came unbidden from his throat.

"Leave it, Tanner," Larabee bit. "If Buck would stay out of other people's business, he wouldn't have to listen to things he didn't want to hear."

"My guess, Mr. Larabee, is that if he had stayed out of your business, you'd be dead by now." Ezra wasn't willing to defend himself, but neither was he willing to let the other man take the brunt of the attack.

"Sorry. I didn't mean that." Nathan sounded sincere as he addressed Buck.

"The thought had to come from somewhere," Buck answered roughly. He had never had cross words with Nathan, always supported him. Didn't that mean anything? He still thought that?

Chris wouldn't meet Buck's eyes. So Wilmington turned back to stare out the window at the darkness. The corners of his eyes tensed up, the laugh lines turning to stress lines, as he fought to shut down on any emotions. He wouldn't look back in the room.

Vin stared at the dark clad leader. He respected the man, trusted his judgement in most things, was proud to call him friend. But how could this man see Nathan's side so clearly and Buck's not at all?

And why had the verbal attacks suddenly swung from Ezra to Buck? Well, Vin knew the answer to that one. He'd seen it too many times before. But only recently had he come to recognize it for what it was. Buck would deflect Chris's anger to himself and away from those who weren't used to it.

Larabee's old time friend would say he understood that the gunfighter didn't mean the things he said at times like these. But did he? What had Buck just said to Nathan? <The thought had to come from somewhere?> And Vin could tell that while Buck had convinced himself he could ignore biting statements from the one, he was not prepared, had not conditioned himself, to ward off the attacks of the others.

Well, if Buck's oldest friend wouldn't stand up for him ..."Don't look for me to go along with you in all things, Cowboy. 'Specially people. You'll be disappointed," Vin almost whispered.

"When I think on Cyrus Poplar and Ella Gaines, I find comfort in that." Josiah could hit below the belt when he wanted to. He had been infuriated by the look on Ezra's face as the verbal attack turned from him but at the expense of the one man who would regularly defend him and stand by him. He was angry at himself because he hadn't been the first to come to the gambler's defense. He was angry at Larabee for never cutting the southerner any slack. And he was angry at Nathan for seeing every bad, hurtful and painful part of his past in the southerner.

Even as he said the inflammatory words, the ex-priest knew most of his anger was building toward Nathan. But he hesitated. Somehow he couldn't use words against Nathan. As strong as their friendship was, it had never been tested by direct, verbal confrontation. He wasn't willing to force the issue now.

Besides, he had seen how Chris used words against Buck and Ezra without even realizing the effects. Josiah wanted to make sure his anger was never cut of that same cloth. He would wait, and think and figure what he thought was going on before he said too much. As much as he felt for the rogue and the conman, he wasn't sure he was willing to risk the friendship he shared with Nathan.

"I don't expect anything ..." Chris was biting out, his eyes directed the statement at both men.

At this Buck bowed his head a fraction. The profile he gave to the room as he kept watch hinted at a sad smirk.

But JD, by facing his best friend, left his face open to the room. His expression mirrored the older man's briefly as if he was trying on the cynical smirk, sad brow and too old eyes, to see what they meant or felt like. Then the expression became his own again. And it was full of worry and wishing he knew what to say.

"You got something to say, Buck?" Chris demanded. He knew if the two of them could go at it he could let off all the anger and Buck would know the words didn't mean anything.

Strangely, Buck didn't respond. And only Ezra saw why. It was in the shoulders held too straight, fighting the slouch of defeat. It was in the eyes that weren't focused, to avoid showing the hurt. It was the salty sting behind your eyes; the vise-like grip that threatened to stop your heart. It was the lonely realization that, while these men would stand beside you in a gunfight, there was a big question as to whether they would never stand beside you against each other.

Ezra wasn't sure what quicksilver thought process had led Buck from Nathan's attack to this realization, but Ezra knew the look as well as he knew his own reflection in the mirror; in his own heart, because he had fought to hide the same emotions since the day they had banded together. And God, it hurt.

"It's too much in here." After a pause, Buck added, as if to clarify the statement, "Light. Messes up my night vision. I'm gonna keep watch from outside." He opened the door and JD made to follow him. "You stay put." It was a harsh order like it would be foolish for the boy to make himself a target out of doors and it would be foolish for him to be with Buck right now. JD froze at the tone, but it didn't look like he was going to take the advice.

"Gentlemen, I thought the antagonists were outside." <Not in here> was the clear implication. This was his battle. Ezra thought bitterly. So why did these internal skirmishes keep going on around him like he wasn't even present? He never asked for support from any of these men. And now he knew he didn't want it.

Ezra's head was spinning. He had never had anyone defend him before. Oh, his mother had probably occasionally taken monetary revenge on people who slighted her 'Darling Baby Boy', but he never knew about it. And she kept the money. Now, would the expense for protecting him be that these six men would be at odds with each other?

"Buck, I didn't ..." Nathan tried again as he moved to tend to Ezra. It was almost a conciliatory action directed to make amends with Buck. Then, still as an appeasing gesture, he turned to Ezra, "No offense, Ezra, but whatever you've been tryin' to do here in this town, and I'll give that you seem to try to be changing, it don't erase your past."

"Indeed it does not, Mr. Jackson." Ezra pulled away from the dark healer's touch. "And if to receive your ministrations to my wound, I must listen to your contempt, I will assure you that in 'my past' I have been more than capable of taking care of my own injuries."

Nathan seemed stunned that the stubborn man would rather let his wounds go unattended than listen to a few harsh truths.

If the man could not or would not defend himself, didn't that mean he realized he was guilty? Or wasn't he good enough for the Rebel to refute? If the southerner would speak they could debate the issues and Nathan could prove his side to the others; to himself. So what was it? Could the conman truly think he had a legitimate position in this ...

Nathan was jolted when he remembered that someone had recently tried to gun down his southern friend in cold blood. And how worried he had been for that friend until the danger had passed? So when had he, himself forgotten that?

Suddenly he was angry at the entire situation. As if feeding of off Larabee's influence, Nathan's own guilt and remorse presented themselves as anger. "Fine. I'm not needed here. I had plans to spend time at the village. I don't see any reason here to change those plans." He threw the bloodied rag to the floor and started toward the door.

No one said anything. If he chose to ride out in these circumstances, no one could say anything.

"Might take a swing by the Daniels' spread." Josiah reached out and grabbed his oldest friend's arm and met his eyes. "Tell the Missus someone she loves won't be comin' home," Josiah rumbled. And there was a hint of anger in his voice. "Might get used to having to tell people that."

Nathan knew what the Preacher was saying in his nebulous way. <We're outnumbered. If there's trouble we'll need your gun. Your help.>

Not tonight, Nathan argued to himself. He needed to clear his head. He was determined to fool himself into believing that Jason Miller had made his play for the night.

Nathan didn't like the ugly things coming from his mouth tonight; didn't trust himself in these moods to hold his tongue. So without another word he pulled away from Josiah and opened the door to leave.

"Ezra, go get cleaned up. Then you can sit with your prisoners," Larabee ordered.

<My prisoners?> Probably nothing could have brought Ezra out of his own dark thoughts except the cutting words of this man that he admired, unsurprisingly placing the blame on him.

Ezra met the other's green eyes with his usual ambiguous smirk. There were no tells as to the bitterness and anger and disappointment that swirled behind the gambler's eyes. He wasn't sure yet how they would settle within his soul. He was sure they would settle this time, though.

He would not take these accusations for the duration of this role as law enforcer. He would not let himself be set up as the devil who caused the undoing of this group.

"I'll keep guard duty with you, Pard." Buck had heard the order through the door that Nathan still held open.

"No." The blunt response from Chris surprised them. "You and Josiah stay here now." Chris's order would brook no defiance and he reinforced it with his eyes as he met those of Wilmington. "I'll relieve you and take the night watch with Ezra when he gets back. Vin and JD can take over in the morning."

"Would it matter if I preferred to take Mr. Wilmington up on his offer of partnership?"

"I would prefer to have at least one responsible person on each shift!" Larabee barked back. What he had meant is that he wanted one person on each shift who would react with their minds not their hearts. He didn't know how to say it that way.

Nathan registered how easy it was to leave him out of the equation; how easy it was to become odd man out in a group of seven. Especially if you had expressed your opinions and they weren't popular with the ringleaders. Nathan turned and was gone.

JD was crushed by what he perceived as an attack on his ability to be a valuable part of this group.

Ezra simply stared at the man as if he had made a comment on the weather. Ezra didn't feel up to standing against that anger. He had never been very successful getting through this level of Larabee's defenses.

The leader of the regulators was angry that the group was at odds. He was angry that he didn't know how to fix it, like he didn't know how to fix the words that had just come out so wrong. So he would get angry at what he had identified as the source.

Buck's smile was as good as a poker face. You could never tell what was behind it.

Josiah didn't hide anything. He looked sad and worried.

Chris saw something surprising in the tracker's eyes; something he couldn't quite recognize and didn't want to analyze and didn't want to answer to. The dangerous gunslinger strode across the floor and disappeared into the fog. With a deep breath and sympathetic look to Ezra, the tracker left as well, but, surprisingly, he went the opposite direction from his friend.

+ + + + + + +

Ezra responded to the soft rap at his door as if it were a dare. He didn't want to face whoever was there but, by damn, they wouldn't see him back down.

He pulled the door open with just that conviction and was surprised to see JD move backwards half a step in response. When the silence seemed to drag itself out to an abusive length, Standish finally asked, "Is there something I can do for you, Mr. Dunne?"

"I've been lookin' for you. The bath house...Around...You know." The younger man was playing with his hat in both hands. He watched his own hands move around the brim as if using them to avoid eye contact.

"I thought it would be in everyone's best interest to take care of my personal hygiene in my own room."

"Damn it, Ezra, those men could have come back to the saloon. You would have had to walk right through them to get here."

"They weren't. I didn't," he responded bluntly.

As the silence between the two grew again, it gave way to the sounds from the saloon below. Standish noticed the bar didn't sound so crowded now. But it did sound like everyone had forgotten the tragedy that occurred earlier.

The gambler finished buttoning his frilled white shirt, even the cuffs. Still the silence hung there, but the boy gave no sign as to why he had knocked. "Perhaps we can continue this titillating conversation inside? While I proceed to dress?"

"Sure." The sarcasm was lost on the boy. As usual. And that the boy didn't hear sarcasm, but took the invitation at face value was one of the things that endeared him to the gambler.

Ezra was putting on his vest when he realized the boy's eyes were focused on the bloody shirt and jacket tossed haphazardly in a corner. "Mr. Dunne?" He waited until the big brown eyes met his. "Why are you here?"

"To make sure you're okay." His voice sounded like he was surprised his friend had to ask that question. "Oh, and Nathan gave me this on his way out of town." The boy produced a smallish amber bottle that until then had been hidden by his derby. "He says you gotta clean those cuts with that or worry about them gettin' infected." He shoved it forward.

Ezra took the bottle and stared at it as if trying to divine some answers there.

"Ezra?" The voice was smaller now. The tone had the older man looking up in curiosity. "What happened with that fella's brothers?" Then he rushed out the next words, "I - I ain't thinkin' you done anything wrong. I just wondered ..."

"An infinitely fair question, Mr. Dunne." In truth he was proud of the young man for asking. "That lad's oldest brother was cheating at cards," he began as he absently placed the bottle on the dresser and reached for his jacket. "I wasn't participating in the game. I knew the man to be well off in the community. And his family was using the size of their ranch to undermine the other ranchers. Surprisingly, it went against my sensitivities that he was cheating money from neighbors he was already cheating of their water rights and livelihood."

He stopped in putting on his coat, and the story, to defend what could possibly be seen as hypocrisy. "Mother and I were always careful. The people we duped always met their fate through greed, not desperation."

JD smiled, unhesitatingly accepting the distinction. Ezra sighed. The boy was too trusting. No, that wasn't really true. It was simply that when the youngster trusted, he did so implicitly and he trusted Ezra. The gambler made a mental note to ask JD why later. But for now he didn't want to confuse or embarrass him. Besides he was anxious to get the story out and over with.

"I pointed out to the manager of the establishment what was occurring at the table. He watched, saw for himself and called the rancher on his illicit practices. I had gone about my business in other parts of the saloon. The rancher went for his gun. He killed the other player and was turning the gun on the manager when I shot him. I was put in the unenviable position of being forced to defend the manager, a man I barely knew. The other brother present at the time, seeking revenge, shot the manager and myself as we knelt over the fallen men. The manager died. The brother was hanged for the murder." Even JD could tell there was much more to the painful memories. But he wouldn't push for details.

"Gosh, Ezra, why didn't you just say so?"

"No one asked."

"I'm sorry."

The sincerity touched the older man. He wasn't used to the feeling. "You asked, JD," he smiled gratefully. And he realized it did make a difference. Buck, Josiah and even Vin, who seemed to take his side in this most recent confrontation, sided with him right or wrong. The youngest of the group had asked, heard the facts, and judged him innocent based on the details. It made a difference.

By this time the gambler had his vest, coat and gunbelt settled exactly as he preferred. He tested his derringer to be sure it was unencumbered by his sleeve and reset it. He put a hand on the door to open it for them to leave.

"Wait, you have to take care of those cuts." JD grabbed the forgotten bottle from the dresser and held it out. Ezra glanced in the mirror, studied the cuts again and finally took the disinfectant. JD grabbed a hand towel and pushed it toward Ezra encouragingly.

+ + + + + + +

Vin stared out at the stars, which were barely affected by the low street fires, but partially obscured by the fog that seemed to be getting stronger; heavier in the night. He felt Chris walk up behind him.

"You have the air of a man thinkin' on makin' a move," the gunslinger spoke through teeth clenched tightly around a thin cigar.

"I've killed men, Chris. I've taken men in for bounty like a rancher'd pay for coyotes."

Larabee waited to see where this was going. "I'm wanted for murder."

"You were framed."

"For Eli Joe. Think on the kind of man I must be, the things I've done." There was a silence before he continued. "Why do you judge Ezra and not me?"

"You've been judged, we've all been judged."

"The day a part of my past rides into town you don't like, will you be there to cover my back? Will Nathan?"

"You shouldn't even have to ask that." The question made Larabee surprisingly angry.

"Neither should Ezra," Vin said sadly. He was so much like Ezra, wanting to be judged by who he was now, who he was trying to become, not who he had been. Thank God the part of his past hadn't caught up with him that would open the pages of his life as they had the gambler's.

Nathan would be no more accepting of him. He was sure of it. And it didn't seem fair that, because he and Larabee were so alike, and the deaths they had caused were in a similar vein, that the gunman was more tolerant of them. The tracker was confident they had both caused more deaths than their southern partner, and probably, on too many occasions, with less provocation.

"You've got used to pushin' people away, Chris. Do you even know you're doin' it anymore?" The former bounty hunter waited, but he could tell his best friend wasn't going to answer. "You need to figure out if you really want 'em leavin' and how you'll feel when they're gone. Nathan needs to think on it, too." The thought crossed his mind that he might lose his friend by saying things the man didn't want to hear. But he had the feeling he would lose the man he respected and admired and cared for more than he thought was possible if he allowed the man to make the mistake of pushing the others away.

No, Vin didn't want to say any more. He didn't like situations where he had to think so carefully about what he was about to say. The facts, the importance of a thing should let the words come natural and just be there. But then, it'd been a long time since he'd had this much to lose. Maybe that was the answer - to talk about himself instead of the others. "Ain't never had anyone to push away. Always lost everyone". He could feel Larabee's eyes on him and the sympathy there. He didn't want that. So talking about himself wouldn't work. He forced himself to nudge forward with a more personal observation regarding his moody friend. "You push Ezra too hard, he's gonna bolt."

The tracker continued to stare toward the free spaces beyond town as Larabee puffed on the small cigar and ignored him. "Buck's still thinkin' to leave the minute he thinks that's what's best for you."

"Has he said something to you?" At last, a reaction from the gunfighter.

"Not the question. Question is why he hasn't said anything to you."

For the first time Tanner's succinct conversation irritated the other man. "Are we talkin' about you or Ezra or Buck?" Larabee snarled because the one-sided conversation was making him uncomfortable.

"Figure we're talkin' about you, Cowboy."

Larabee wanted to ask his friend what he knew; what he had seen. Why was Buck always walking away lately? Why did Ezra defy him? But he didn't, as if not giving voice to the fact that he cared would keep him from losing anything he cared about.

The silence lingered between them. The comfort level in the silence that was between them dissipated much more quickly than usual. Larabee wasn't going to be able to come up with an answer.

The tracker breathed a deep sigh. "I'm takin' up a post." He nodded toward the roof of an abandoned building between them and the saloon where he planned to keep watch. "Don't rightly think this is over."

Chris watched the frontiersman's moves as he gracefully made his way across the street. Chris couldn't help but wonder what his friend thought wasn't over. He hoped it was the trouble with the outsiders ... not something more personal. But he didn't ask.


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