by Mitzi

Vin slid off of his horse and continued silently on foot. He was determined to take the man alive. They had determined earlier that something had happened at this site, an explosion and the fact that Ezra had returned there. Now someone else had returned. Vin would take delight in making this one tell them what had happened so that Ezra wouldn't have to relive it all in the telling. They would know what had happened, what he had seen and then they would help the southerner through the memories.

Tanner hefted his mare's leg and appreciated it's comfortable familiarity. Yes, he would take the man alive. That's why he was using all of his skill as a hunter of man to approach him. But that didn't mean that he wouldn't hurt him if given the excuse. Or maybe even if he wasn't given it.

The man was on the opposite side of the saddleless horse. He was kneeling, looking for something. Vin could see most of the lean body from under the horse.

The bounty hunter inside him knew he hadn't made a sound and yet, with twenty yards still separating them, he saw the back and shoulders tense. The man stood up. How the hell did he know?

The man came around the rust colored gelding's neck, ready to do battle. Instinctively in the first split second, Tanner's eyes had gone to the hands. No weapons. Then the holster that was right there. It was empty. So how could this man still have the familiar feel of danger? By the end of that first second, the tracker had met the eyes that were already staring at him with an unreadable quality.

The blonde hair, darker than usual and greasy with dirt and sweat and abuse hung in his eyes. The tense restrained anger, the need to do something, to take some course of action was readable in the body language.

"Chris?" Tanner slid the mare's leg into its holster and moved forward. Larabee limped to meet him.

"You all right?" The dark gunslinger asked. The tracker lowered his head to let his hat hide the emotions and a relieved smile. He'd almost forgotten his fall from the roof. "Little achy all over. Think my body took that fall all equal like."

"Hard head took its share." There was a hint of amusement in the relief.

"I never felt better in my life," the tracker added. And Larabee knew it was because they were together. "You?" Vin asked finally, nodding at the ripped pants and bloody bandage.

"Nothin' that won't heal."

"Hell's fire, Larabee, you've had us thinkin' ..." Tanner dropped his head to again to hide the emotion behind his hat.

"Payback's a bitch." The words came at the same time the younger man felt the cool, calloused hand around his neck. <All this and Larabee'd been worried about me?> The comfort he felt in this man's presence couldn't be put into words. Maybe that's why they needed so few between them. Hope surged again in the fact that Chris was making light of the situation. Already things weren't so bad after all.

+ + + + + + +

Vin Tanner couldn't hold back the smile as he rode back into camp with Chris Larabee at his side. He felt whole again. Everything would be made right.

Nathan felt like he was dreaming as he heard the two horses approach and looked up defensively. He saw Vin and Chris riding side by side as it should be. He stood at the same time as Josiah did. Nathan glanced quickly at his best friend to be sure he was seeing this too. Sanchez seemed lighter and taller. And the look on his face, as he suddenly believed in miracles, told him all he needed to know. Josiah moved to meet the two men half way. Nathan stayed close to the gambler.

When he got close enough, the big man put his hands on their leader's shoulders and held him at arm's length and just ... looked at him. Chris wore an embarassed smirk at the attention and the open thankfulness for his safety he saw on this big, soul-damaged man's face.

"It's good to see you, Chris," Josiah finally found his voice.

"You, too, Josiah," Larabee stated sincerely. Then he sidestepped the older man with a comradely pat on his arm when his eyes locked onto the unconscious southerner. He limped across the camp.

"Nathan." Their leader tore his eyes away from the wounded man long enough for the healer to know he was glad to see him.

"I need to look at that leg," was the response. Sometimes offering his healing skills was the only way Nathan knew to express all that he was feeling.

Larabee nodded. He understood. But he completely ignored his own condition and moved to kneel beside Standish. It was to the point he couldn't bend his injured leg, so he held it out to balance himself and reached over to feel the smaller man's fevered brow.

"What's wrong with him?"

"I don't know," Nathan repeated the words and remembered JD's reaction to them.

"Buck's got the same thing," Chris muttered worriedly.

Jackson's eyes cut from Ezra to Chris then up to Josiah, again trying to confirm through his friend that he wasn't imagining what he just heard. "Buck's alive, too?" Nathan whispered. He got his answer when he saw Vin, standing over them, beaming a huge smile.

Chris's expression was slightly apologetic. Vin had told him they had been beside themselves fearing the worst. Then he had been distracted by Ezra's condition. "He was too sick to move. And worried that Miller's gang was out looking for Ezra. I had to ..." He left it at a shrug. To say the mere words that 'he had left his friend' didn't do his percieved sin enough justice. "Ezra," he barked, to change the subject. Vin had told him Nathan was concerned that the other man hadn't awakened. "Ezra, wake up."

And for some reason that voice broke through the exhaustion and illness. Ezra had known he needed to be awake, to do something or ask some specific question. That voice, demanding he find the strength to do what had to be done, and somehow promising the answers he needed, had the tired eyes fluttering to open.

"Come on, Ezra, that's a boy." A second voice, warm, comfortable, familiar, but not expected to be with the first. The combination gave rise to even more of those damnable questions and his stubborn streak kicked in to get the answers. He opened his eyes and squinted. "Mr. Tanner?"

"Welcome back," the tracker smiled.

Nathan reached over to check the gambler's fever and was surprised when he jerked away like a skittish colt. "Take it easy, Ezra. You're safe with friends." And the healer continued the move to put his hand on the other man's brow. If he noticed how hooded the still glassy eyes were, he put it off to the illness. Josiah propped the smaller man up to offer him water. "I think he's coolin' off. Wish I knew what I was tryin' to treat."

"You said Buck's sick, too?" Josiah asked near Ezra's ear.

"Buck?" Ezra asked, he was almost panting with the effort.

"Are you feeling okay, Chris? Did they eat any thing you didn't?" He glanced at the gray, discarded shirt. "Drink any bad water?"

"Buck and Ezra fell in some stagnant backwater when the dynamite went off," Chris offered quickly. "Swallowed half that pool before they dragged themselves out." This fit too closely to what Josiah was asking. It had to mean something.

"I've seen it before. In India with my father. Bad water made people sick. It could kill them."

"The smell alone could have proven fatal," Ezra couldn't help adding that information.

"Yeah, yeah. I've seen it before, too." Nathan's mind was going over his medicines now that the clues had been put together. "I can ease the nausea, maybe the pain, but it's mostly got to run its course."

"Mr. Larabee," Ezra was tiring, but worked to get the words out. "Mr. Wilmington?"

"We're going after him now," he assured his ailing friend. "All you have to do is rest and get better." Larabee laid his calloused hand against the gambler's cheek to check the fever for himself. Somehow that touch and that tone of voice, as rare as they were, as soothing as a lullaby, told the outcast more about the depth of their leader's concern and devotion than any words that could be spoken between this kind of men. And as much as the smaller man wanted to stay awake and get his questions answered, to help, he was lulled into a peaceful, healing sleep.

Chris's green eyes met Vin's blue ones as he remembered something else. "Where's JD?"

+ + + + + + +

Nathan hadn't been happy about it. He had tried to demand that Larabee let him treat that leg. Chris refused and further infuriated the healer by insisting that he go alone to reassure JD. He left the dark man muttering something about when he had to amputate the leg he was going to do it just below the neck.

Larabee tried to hide a small smirk brought on by Nathan's fussing. No reason to infuriate their healer even more. Any humor left his face when he found JD.

The young man was completely focused on Buck's horse. He couldn't hear the words, but the boy was offering a constant soothing dialogue to the mare as he brushed her and checked for swelling on her injured hoof. He was absorbed with what he was doing and seemed okay. That was until Chris put a comforting hand on his shoulder. The boy put his forehead against the horse. It was as if he could handle the emotions alone, but as soon as someone was there to help him, he couldn't keep up the front any longer. "JD?"

It took a moment for the voice to register. JD spun around so fast he almost lost his balance and found himself resting against the mare. "Chris?" He touched the man's black sleeve as if making sure he wasn't a ghost. "You're alive!"

Chris nodded. "Nathan says you're doing a good job with Buck's horse." The kid was about to lose it. He was trying to be brave in front of his hero. "What say you leave Paladin here long enough to go with us and bring Buck back to help?"

That took some time to sink in and then a little more time for JD to dare to believe what he'd heard. "Buck's alive?" The young man asked in a whisper, his dark bangs in his eyes, his voice shaking, almost backing away from the man in front of him.

The hardened gunfighter gave the boy a small smile and nodded. He watched the youngster try to be strong and unemotional, as if that's what he had learned was the way men should act. To hell with that, Larabee thought to himself and pulled the youngest of their group to him in a tight hug. The boy was grateful and fell into the comfort and thankfully took some of that offered strength to fortify himself.

+ + + + + + +

JD was like a magpie as he followed Larabee back into camp. He was hyperactive in his relief and enthusiasm and even more talkative than usual. " ... but we found your guns and Buck's hat - we've got them here ...And then your coat. I'll get them. I better make sure Buck knows his hat's in one piece. We were worried. There were ...." He was never going to speak of those graves again so he changed his own subject. "But Vin said that Ezra said that he would never bet against you and Buck together. And he said - Vin I mean - said throwing Ezra in the mix, well, he wasn't going to give up on you. It was harder, I think, wondering what had happened more than if we'd just known. Especially now that Vin was right. I guess if ... Ezra! You're awake! How you feeling?" JD ran ahead of their leader.

Nathan, Josiah and Vin had been hiding their smiles and occupying themselves by saddling the horses. They knew the nonstop chatter would be driving Chris to distraction. Oh well, it was good to teach him patience. Josiah placed Buck's saddle on the red appaloosa for Chris.

Josiah had known there would be no keeping Vin back. He needed to ride with Larabee almost as much as he had to go see for himself that Buck was safe and bring back their missing friend. He also had no doubt that the leg wound that was slowly weakening the tall gunfighter wasn't going to hold him back from this task. Nathan needed to go to check on Buck's injuries.

If there had been any way to keep JD in camp, Josiah would have taken it. The boy would take too many risks to keep everyone safe now that he was this close to having them all back. But he knew the boy wouldn't stay. So he was saddling the young sheriff's horse so they could leave as soon as possible.

Josiah would stay with Ezra, keep him warm and on a healing path, and protect him to the point of killing every one of Miller's remaining men if they happened on the camp.

Just as his thoughts wandered back to the southerner, he heard JD call out to Ezra and turned with the others. "Ezra, what the hell are you doing up?" He bellowed as he hurried to support the gambler who was standing, but on very shaky legs.

"Mr. Larabee ... made mention of ... a rescue attempt," the smaller man responded. He accepted the support Sanchez offered, a sure sign that he was still weak and sick.

"I didn't mention 'attemptin'' nothin'," Larabee responded gruffly, already getting back to his old self. "And you ain't goin'."

Ezra was too tired to hide the hurt in his eyes. Why had they come after him, saved him, if they still felt like that? And what had that been earlier with Chris? He'd seemed concerned. Riding out and putting all this behind him was not the first thought he had wanted to filter back into his plans when he awoke. But it sounded good right now. "Perhaps," he began, and had to fight to get each word out, "we can discuss exactly when ... I am good enough ... to ride... with you ... and at what times ... I am merely a gambler and ... a cheat ... not to be ... trusted ..."

"Ezra," Larabee tried to interrupt as he moved toward the man who was quickly losing his battle to remain standing. Josiah almost stepped in on his younger friend's behalf, but the look their leader threw him kept him silent. He wouldn't hesitate to stand up against the man when he felt it was called for, but there was something more in this glance than the usual anger. It had the big preacher's curiosity up so he would wait.

Ezra wasn't being stopped. "... But we will not ... set those ...parameters ... until I have ... gone after my ...friend." For one who usually hid so much, when he wanted to, he could put a hell of a lot into his tone of voice. He made it clear now that despite all the doubts he harbored right now about these men, he was equally certain that Buck Wilmington was a friend.

Larabee invaded the smaller man's personal space, met his eyes, but didn't speak. Ezra didn't back down. He waited. "I don't like many people." The degree of understatement in that comment reflected on the faces of all the men listening, but none so much as Standish, who gave a sarcastic smirk. "If we ride together, we're friends. Wouldn't be, otherwise. Not Judge Travis, not Buck, or Vin or you makes me ride with someone I don't trust. No matter what. No matter how much I say the wrong thing. No matter how much you drive me nuts." Chris let his glare bore into Standish so that the truth of his words was unmistakable and permanent.

Ezra couldn't believe that the trust of one man could mean so much to him. He couldn't process the emotions and thoughts. It would take some time. Chris could tell Ezra wasn't used to this kind of faith. He understood. Strong, gentler emotions were equally as difficult for him. So he decided to let the Southerner off the hook. "Let's figured how it's all Buck's fault, anyway, letting me get away with being such a jackass for so long and not calling me on it."

Ezra smiled thankfully. This one knew he was struggling with this turn of events and the new emotions they triggered. It wasn't a full smile, not the one that showed his mischievous dimples and gold tooth, he was too tired. But it was a sincere smile and not a sardonic smirk. "Perhaps I shall ... have to ... educate Mr. Wilmington ... on pointing those traits ... out to you more ...clearly."

"I have no doubt," Chris smiled back. Then he turned serious. "But, Ezra, you can't ride with us this time. You're too sick. You're the one they're looking for. They might hesitate to cause as much trouble if they don't see you but ... I don't want to have to answer to Buck if ..."

He stopped as Ezra's legs finally gave out. The dark gunslinger reached out quickly and helped Josiah lower him to the ground. His wounded leg was continuing to stiffen up and he had to place it awkwardly. "Why didn't you just say so?" Ezra responded, finally acknowledging he didn't have the strength to travel. But now what he did have was a new confidence that Chris Larabee would go to hell and back to rescue any of them and a new found security that allowed him to stop fighting the darkness and drift back to sleep.

"It's a bit like the influenza, food poisoning and the worst hangover you can imagine," Josiah explained, apparently from personal experience. "He's through the worst of it."

Vin moved forward to help Larabee lever himself up, disadvantaged as he was by his injured leg. "Don't suppose I could use any of that same argument to get you to stay here?" He drawled as he nodded at his friend's bandaged calf.

Larabee walked toward the horses as if he hadn't even heard. But Vin saw the expression and read it, <Ezra don't owe Buck as much as I do.> So the Texan followed and mounted as well, vowing to himself that he would keep everyone safe, having been give the second chance to do so.

+ + + + + + +

"Don't seem right. Don't make sense," JD muttered as he paced back and forth behind Vin and Nathan. The tracker and the healer, patience and gentleness, were prone behind one of the granite outcroppings that were common to the area. They allowed the youngster to work off his nervous energy, as long as he stayed far enough back as to not attract attention.

The older men watched the camp below them. Buck was hunched over and still leaning against a boulder, similar to the ones they hid behind. Apparently no one had returned to the camp. The only other man present was the one called Red. He was doing something near the fire. They seemed to be in a heated conversation, but the voices didn't reach to the rise.

"I mean," the sheriff continued as he hunched down beside Nathan in frustration, "I understand if you don't trust me to sneak around behind and protect Buck, but Vin could have ... or you ...I mean, Chris is hurt and he's got to be moving slow and ..."

"JD," Vin answered matter-of-factly, "Ain't you or me who thinks we left Buck behind when we should have stayed."

JD stared. That wasn't true, Chris hadn't left Buck, but if Chris felt that way ... he plopped down beside the older men and tried to wait as patiently as they were.

+ + + + + + +

Larabee had insisted that someone work around near the water, nearer Buck before the others rode into the camp. Someone needed to be there to cover their partner in case all hell broke loose.

He knew Buck was still at least as sickly as Ezra. The big man was leaning against the rock despite his obvious weakness. Buck wouldn't lie down when he was ailing or injured, not if he was conscious or had any strength to prop himself up. He still didn't even like to find himself on the cot in Nathan's clinic. When he was sick or hurt, he didn't want to be in a vulnerable position. It was something from his childhood. Chris had never asked, and suspected he didn't want to know.

Larabee wondered in passing if his oldest friend would rest once Nathan was tending him. He hoped so, but it was surprisingly easy to lose the lanky gunfighter's trust. Once Buck felt that trust had been betrayed or he got the impression he had misplaced it, the gentle gunfighter was slow to trust again. Which, when Chris thought about it, increased his sense of wonder that Buck's faith in him, often tested, had never wavered.

Larabee was almost in position, now, behind the boulder, between the camp and the water. His leg was stiffening up and he couldn't completely ignore the throbbing pain. A little closer and he could rest. He could hear parts of the conversation between Buck and Red. "You can't save both of them," Buck was insisting. "And if the older one plays this out against Chris Larabee, he's going up against himself in more ways than one. And he'll die."

"So what am I supposed to do? Tell him revenge is useless? That he needs to find other things to live for?" Chris heard the words, then Red's voice lowered. He missed part of the conversation until the voice was raised again. "Don't you think I've tried?"

Chris was closer to his friend now and heard the response. "You can't tell him what he don't want to hear. And that kind of loss, of family ..."

"What the hell do you know about it?"

There was a pause before Wilmington answered quietly, "I know you've done a hell of a job saving even one of those boys. Trying to save one, you'd have to be a hell of a man to get through to him. Trying to keep two alive and showin' 'em how to look forward to life again, and making the boy see what you're saying ..."

"I came so close to leavin', to givin' up on them so many times ..."

"But you didn't. And you got through to the kid. I can see it. You're a better man than me. A better man than most I've met."

Larabee was having to keep his head down as he crabbed his way into position. He couldn't risk being spotted. He had his gun. As good as his word, JD had kept it for him, even cleaned it. But he didn't want Buck, unarmed, in the crossfire. He was closer now. The conversation was clearer and it made Larabee singularly uncomfortable though he didn't want to think on why.

"What else could I have done?" Red asked defensively.

"You've done a hell of a job. You never had a chance of savin' two of them. The only thing I know for sure is that you grab onto the young 'un. You remember he cared enough about you to listen and see what you were sayin'. Hold on to the one you can save."

With a flash of insight that sent a shiver down his spine, Larabee wondered if this was why Buck had recently been migrating toward Ezra and, of course, JD, instead of his old friend. Had Buck finally given up on their friendship? His time to dwell on it was cut short as the other man's voice was raised again.

"That's bullshit, mister. And I ain't buyin' it. None of it." The tone of voice was anger stoked by denial. Larabee recognized it well. It was a dangerous combination and drew Chris's eyes to the scene.

The disillusioned shootist's blood froze in his veins. The big gray bearded man was behind Buck with his damn Bowie knife positioned at his back. "NO!" Tore from his throat and he lunged across the boulder, taking the bigger man at the shoulders and tackling him to the ground.

Buck worked his way around to see what was causing the disturbance behind him. He saw Chris Larabee beating on Red as if he was taking out all of his pent up frustration on the man. But Red was savvy and a survivor. He reached down and grabbed Larabee's calf so that his thumb bit deep into the wound there. With a stifled curse, the notorious gunfighter rolled off the man and away from the pain. "Chris, don't," Buck's voice came from somewhere.

Wilmington, who could only make it to his hands and knees, was trying to get to the two combatants, when suddenly the camp was filled with horses. At first he was worried that it was Miller riding back in, then he saw Nathan pulling Chris off of his victim and back so that he could look at that leg. Vin and JD had their guns on Red. "No," Buck ordered. "Don't shoot."

"He was coming after you with a knife, damn it, Buck!"

"Somebody's got to see to his back! You cold cocked me and ran out before I could ..." Chris was struggling against Nathan to get back to the fight; infuriated by the implication that leaving his friend was self-serving or endangered the other man. Red stood up in anticipation of another attack despite the guns on him.

"Stop it!" Buck roared, and then fell to his elbows, his strength used up.

"Nathan?" Relief and worry vied with each other in JD's voice. He kept his gun on their prisoner, but immediately moved to kneel beside his best friend. He put a comforting hand on Buck's back and tried to lean down enough to see the man's eyes.

Vin took command. "Stay put," he ordered Larabee with a voice that wouldn't be ignored. "Nathan, see to Buck. JD, cover this one. Stay put, Chris. I mean it."

Despite the warning in the voice, Chris moved. But he went to Buck instead of trying again for Miller's man.

Tanner tied Red's hands in front of him and seated him near enough that keeping watch on him still allowed the tracker to keep account of Nathan's prognosis for Buck. JD's usefulness would be questionable until he knew more about their friend's condition.

Buck recoiled when Nathan reached out to check his fever. "It's okay, Buck, it's just me," Nathan whispered comfortingly. But even with that recognition, Buck continued to pull away until he couldn't get any further because Chris was holding him in place. Nathan was sorrowed by the realization that Buck knew whom he was moving away from. Like Ezra had. And the skittish action reminded him starkly of Buck's mare when she flinched, as Vin's finger had first run across that mesquite thorn. Such a small wound

on the outside, barely visible. And barely noticeable. But deep and potentially life threatening if it weren't tended quickly and precisely. "C'mon, Buck, lie down and let me look at your back."

Buck hesitated and Chris sighed. So there were bridges to be rebuilt. "Hey," He said gently to his old friend, "you stubborn cuss, lean over here and let Nathan help you." Tiredly, Buck rested against Chris's shoulder and let Nathan lift his shirt for a first look at his back and arm. Larabee took the opportunity to put his head back against the cool boulder and close his eyes. Maybe he could rest for a moment. He knew where they all were now.

"He's right," Nathan said, referring to Red's earlier statement as he looked at the swollen and infected pellet wounds. "There's shot still here that's gotta come out."

That confirmation seemed to remind Buck that the other man was in their midst. "You okay?"

Suddenly Larabee realized that Buck liked this man. He cracked one eyelid to look down at his oldest friend. "Buck, you'd make friends with the Devil himself." The smile that was shot at him in reply clearly insinuated that Buck sometimes thought that he may have done exactly that the day he started riding with Chris Larabee. And the small smile that he got in return, mostly from the gunslinger's eyes, you had to look for it on his lips, acknowledged he'd asked for that response.

"Hey, Kid, you're awful quiet." The ladies' man turned tired eyes to his youngest friend.

JD knew he had what Buck called a goofy look on his face. But here was his best friend, Nathan making sure he'd get well, Chris taking care of him the way Buck himself so often tended to JD, and Vin standing there watching over them. He couldn't put it into words.

JD glanced over at Tanner. He was met with a big grin and a sparkle in those blue eyes. Vin understood what JD was feeling.

"Ezra!" The lanky scoundrel took in his surroundings. Two were missing. "Josiah?" Buck abruptly turned back to Chris and tried to rise. Both Larabee and Nathan moved to grab him and calm him back down.

"Safe," Nathan reassured him.

"Where are they?"

"Buck, settle down. We've got a camp ..."

Chris and Nathan, in an attempt to calm their friend and force him to relax, were unintentionally confrontational. Buck, no different from the others, balked at being manhandled into compliance, even by friends, even for his own good.

Vin hunkered down in front of them and put his hand on Wilmington's shoulder with a light touch. It drew the gunfighter's eyes to the ex-bounty hunter. "What say we all get back up to high ground? Make sure Josiah and Ezra ain't drivin' one the other loco?" The younger man smiled gently. "Then you'll let Nathan take care of you? We'll even tie Ole Chris down - get his leg tended proper." Tanner knew Larabee's health was a hole card to play to influence Buck.

Once the decision and control was given back to him, their wounded partner conceded to go along with the group.

Vin kept a reassuring arm around Wilmington's shoulders after he helped him stand. Nathan helped Larabee to his feet in deference to the swelling and darkly bruised leg. <Damn> Larabee chided himself. <Damn> He had just been recalling that the stubborn so-and-so fought being forced to do anything, especially in a weakened condition. If he was smart enough to figure those things out, why wasn't he smart enough to play to them like Vin did? But he was thinking about it now, wasn't he? There was something within him changing, possibly coming back to life.

The somber gunfighter pulled his thoughts back to the present to see that Jackson was giving the tracker one last scowl. Clearly he would prefer to start the treatment right away. Tanner's smile reflected amusement at the healer's annoyance.

But Tanner felt uncomfortable and it showed in his eyes. They were still separated. At least now it was more by distance than confrontation among themselves, but Miller's men, what was left of them, were still united in action and word. The tracker wanted his people together.

Nathan Jackson couldn't read all of that in the tension of the former bounty hunter, but what he did see was intense enough for him to give in to the move.

+ + + + + + +

Josiah had the sleeve off of Buck's mare's injured hoof again, letting it dry out. He sat back on his haunches and waited patiently. The puncture looked healthy. It was up to the big gray now to work past the remembered pain, put some weight on it and discover the pain had lessened.

The Preacher's son slid a side glance to the slight man nearby. Ezra had insisted they keep up the protocol they'd established to treat Pal. It needed to be done and it kept them distracted at least a little from their absent friends. So as long as they were together and Josiah could protect the other man if a threat arose, he was glad they had something to pass the time. Josiah had built a fire. On the surface it had been to heat more water for the magnesium sulfate. But he was glad to see the younger man had inched closer to it.

He saw similarities between the horse and the erstwhile loner. They both would have to test their wounds, physical and emotional before they would realize they were healing. Standish's eyes were focused on the horse. It was almost as if he were trying to will it to get better. But a closer look showed that he was focused on other thoughts beyond the moment.

"Mr. Sanchez," The southerner finally spoke. His voice held an unfamiliar quality. "Could you possibly explain a dichotomy to me? Even if you or I should not appreciate the answers?"

"I think I could do that, Ezra."

"Why are you here?"

Josiah was surprised by the question and wasn't quite sure what he was being asked. Ezra, adept at reading expressions, knew what was going through the older man's mind. He hurried to explain himself. Otherwise, he might lose his nerve to hear the answer. "I don't mean to downplay my appreciation of your timely assistance. However, the popular reaction to the accusations these men made against me last night left me with the distinct impression that our esteemed leader and associates might actually prefer to assist Mr. Miller in putting put the noose around my neck."

Josiah couldn't help but laugh, a full, rolling laugh. Ezra clearly wasn't expecting that response. "Mr. Sanchez ..."

"I'm ... I'm sorry ... Ezra ... you, it's just that you seemed so serious."

"I'm questioning my position in this alliance. I find that serious. You find it amusing?"

"Oh, the trials and tribulations of the only child."

"Sir, you have taken leave of your senses."

"You don't have the frame of reference you need to understand siblings. They are unmerciful in knowing and pointing out the shortcomings of their brothers and sisters. The older brother is probably the worst and focuses on the more rebellious of the family to keep them in line. But if anyone else so much as looks cross-eyed at the others, the older brother will stake the culprit out on a red ant bed."

"Mr. Sanchez," Ezra, disgustedly repeated his original phrasing, "could you possibly explain a non-sequitur to me? Even if you or I should not appreciate the answers? What the hell does family have to do with Chris Larabee disparaging me at every damn turn?"

Josiah only laughed harder. "Does he let any else do it? Think about it."

Josiah was highly satisfied with the "what just happened here" expression on his young friend's face. He had his own little secret agenda - to see how many times he could dumbfound the smooth southerner. Each time seemed to chip away at those walls erected around fragile emotions so many years ago.

Any more conversation was interrupted by the sound of horses entering the camp. Josiah's gun was up and down in the same movement as he recognized the incoming riders as his lost flock.

The elder of the Magnificent Seven recognized the prisoner as the one who had cared for that young Kyte Miller. Red rode in the lead, alone on the appaloosa. Vin followed. Larabee rode double with the tracker. Buck rode double with the young sheriff.

Sanchez smiled. It would be first frost before their youngest let the scoundrel out of his sight. That had some visuals popping into Josiah's head - Buck trying to get time alone for al his reasons, JD walking in on the older man at inopportune moments, Buck chasing the boy down in retaliation. The bear-like Preacher's son was already smiling in anticipation. He truly enjoyed the vitality and the disruptions these men could inflict on the town's existence. Not just Buck and JD, but all of the ones he'd chosen to throw in with.

Nathan, riding where he could keep an eye on both injured men, was off his horse as soon as they came to a stop. He hurried over to Buck. The gangly shootist was able to get off the horse on his own, but still too weak to keep on his feet without help.

Josiah watched the scene unfold. He couldn't hear the others yet. But he didn't need words. Nathan was able to slide a supporting shoulder under Wilmington's left arm. Mainly because that one was too busy to noticed. He was in a lively argument with JD. The young man would no doubt be sniping about the other not waiting for help. Or he was on him about being so sick or so weak or so stubborn, or worrying them. The older man would be trying to reassure his friend and bypass all the attention. It made him

uncomfortable. Unless it came from a woman.

Tanner threw his leg over the saddle horn to hop down and offered Chris what support he would take in getting off the horse. Not much, Josiah observed as Chris threw his good friend a glare and insisted he hold his own weight. If that one didn't stop pushing himself he would wind up worse off than the other two. When Chris craned his neck around to check on Wilmington, Tanner simply smiled and put a supportive arm around Chris's waist, completely ignoring the response.

<Oops, oops, oops> Josiah thought to himself humorously. He glanced over to see if Ezra was watching. He was. And he was reading the same thing with a highly amused twinkle in his eye: Buck Wilmington must have just been told about the mare being injured and clearly intended to head that way. Nathan, long suffering when it came to the stubborn streak these men shared, was against it. Whatever was being said between the scoundrel and the healer, caused their leader to lower his head, as if counting to ten. Tanner was still smiling. When their leader spoke, Jackson threw his hands up in disgust. Wilmington fought to keep any gloating out of his expression. Josiah's wide grin reflected on the gambler's face. They were anticipating the healer's reaction when he discovered his other patient was already with the horse.

On the way to the string of horses, Buck realized Nathan was supporting him. He didn't need help. Especially from Nathan right now. He hadn't had time to think too much on the words that had passed between them in town. Until he did, he didn't want to be any more obligated than he had to. And he didn't want Nathan's help if it was offered because the ex-slave thought he was obligated to offer it.

So as not to be obvious about his thoughts, the tall gunfighter disentangled himself from both men supporting him. He headed forward on his own. JD was confused and frustrated at the show of independence. Buck damn well wouldn't let him get away with that if positions were reversed. Nathan had sensed that the moment his help was recognized, it created tension. Again he regretted the words he couldn't take back.


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