by Mitzi

Josiah and Ezra both recognized why Wilmington sloughed off the assistance. Ezra bit his bottom lip and started to get to his feet. Josiah waved him back down and moved forward. He would handle this. Standish sat on the boulder instead of beside it. He was surprised how his muscles trembled at even that slight exertion.

Standish watched Josiah move forward to support Wilmington under the guise of a handshake and brotherly arm around his shoulders. The greeting was accepted with a casual, "Hey, Josiah." As if they'd just seen each other at breakfast and nothing interesting had happened since. Then he turned toward the horse. "Hey there, girl, hear you're not doing so good?" The gray shook her head in response to the familiar voice. For all the world it looked like she was answering her master.

Buck rubbed her nose, then inside and behind both ears and looked into her eyes. Then he slid a hand down toward Paladin's injured leg. He had most of his weight supported by the lame horse so he could lean over without falling to the ground. Josiah came to the horse's rescue and supported Buck as Nathan lifted the hoof for the mustached shootist to examine the damage. "She's got a good appetite," Josiah offered.

"Looks to be healing better than I could hope," Nathan added.

"I appreciate it, Nathan," Buck offered, sincerely but still with a distance between them.

"Vin and JD came up with the treatment. I only followed directions."

Buck nodded his appreciation to them all and continued to pet the mare. <Damn> He was getting tired.

Nathan knew both Chris and Buck were going to have to rest soon. At least that damn southerner was sitting down.

Finally the dark haired man who had more childhood in him than most ten year olds smiled as his eyes fell on the gambler. He wasn't sure how best to express his relief at seeing their friend safe. "I won't mention how loco it was to ride out with those men."

"I won't mention how crazy it was to leap into a snow-fed, raging river." Ezra deadpanned.

"I won't mention how stupid it is to drink half a river of bad water."

"I won't mention how insane it is to intentionally incur the wrath of Mr. Larabee." Ezra was enjoying this.

Chris was more than ready to rise to the bait. He was hurt and tired and hungry and sleepy. He wanted a drink and a smoke. "How 'bout you both ..."

"Enough!" Nathan interrupted before another word could be spoken. "You three are going back to camp. And I don't care if I have to let that horse lay down and cuddle up with Buck in his bedroll, you are all getting some rest!"

Buck's surprised laugh quickly turned into a raspy cough. Josiah and JD both moved to his side. Nathan took the few steps to grab the gambler. "I swear if there was ever a more stubborn, ornery lot ..." It was all Nathan got to say before a bullet slammed into the rock between Ezra and himself. Reflexively, he grabbed the smaller man and catapulted them both to safety behind the outcropping.

Jason Miller, murder in his eye, rode into the middle of Four Corner's regulators, followed by his kid brother and his men. They all had guns drawn and firing.

JD jumped in front of Buck. Then Vin was in front of them both and his mare's leg echoed across the prairie. "Get to cover." Josiah grabbed their gangly friend and dragged him behind the boulder.

Chris, gun already drawn and returning fire, grabbed Red by his collar and spun their prisoner behind the granite beside Buck. Then he grabbed JD long enough to meet his eyes and demand. "You stay here. Don't leave Buck." He didn't wait for acknowledgement before he scrambled behind a tree line to separate them and keep them from being one singular target. The adrenalin all but numbed any pain he had been feeling in his leg. Miller's men dismounted and sought cover themselves. Jason stayed on his horse and meticulously fired at any target that presented itself.

Vin rolled behind a small fallen tree, the only cover readily available. Miller's bullets bit pieces out from where Vin's head stayed low behind the wood. Then Miller was again slamming bullets into the cover that protected Ezra.

"Miller!" Chris stood and called to the man to attract the attack on himself and give his friend a reprieve. Jason obliged, as did two of his hired guns. Chris swung back behind the sycamore trees and listened to the bullets thud into the bark that protected his back.

Buck, without a gun, tried to look up and see where everyone was. JD shoved his head back down. "I got it. I got it." And he found a target in the person of one of Miller's men.

Nathan, on the other end of the boulder, covering Ezra, saw one of his bullets stampede all of the horses except the one's staked out and the one Jason still had pirouetting near the fire.

Ezra saw a gun lying beside the man JD brought down. It was within ten feet of their cover. Before Nathan knew what was happening, Ezra crabbed his way to the gun, grabbed it and rolled to a new cover location beside the ex-bounty hunter. "Ezra you damn fool!" Nathan called, but he was helpless to pull the man back as a swarm of bullets forced him back beside Buck and JD.

Tanner never looked down or took his eyes from the conflict as he drawled, "Take a chance like that agin and I'll tan your hide to the saloon wall," Ezra smiled and looked for a target.

A shot from Standish flushed a second man and Vin took him down.

Buck and Red were both trying to see what was going on, and get sight of Kyte.

Kyte had nothing on his mind but working around the melee and getting to Red and getting him away from these men.

Vin raised his gun toward Jason. Kyte, seeing this, took a shot on the run that forced Tanner back to his meager cover.

Jason didn't know where his brother was. He was barely aware when a third man went down, this time to Chris Larabee's aim. With a primal scream, he spun out of his saddle. He put his horse between himself and every one but Larabee. Somewhere along the way, his hatred for Standish had gradually been displaced by this man. This man who protected the murderer. This man in whom he saw so much of himself. This man who fought to protect those with whom he had formed an alliance instead of fighting for revenge. Jason bet the son of a bitch knew where each of his men were, even now in the heat of battle. Jason himself hadn't even been able to keep up with his own brother. The

hate was all consuming. It went past any other emotion.

So, protected from the other men, Jason holstered his .45 and turned to meet Larabee's eyes. Larabee recognized everything that was this young man. The words he had heard from Ezra and Red and Buck had formed the image. Larabee had survived long enough and had friends strong enough to drag him through the totally self-destructive years and indiscriminate hatred. But Larabee understood all consuming hatred. And while he had learned to control it, to a limited degree in relation to his friends, this young man

was threatening those friends. And there would be no mercy.

Larabee stood with the fluid grace of a predator. He, too, holstered his weapon. At that moment his friends knew this was his battle alone. He had accepted the challenge. No

one was allowed to get in his way.

"Oh, God, no." Red saw what was happening. He tried to get to his feet.

Buck threw his entire body against the larger man to hold him in place.

And then it was over.

Jason drew first, and cleared leather, and got a shot off. But Larabee was faster, his aim more true. JD's mouth was open in stunned wonder. He had never seen the draw before. He'd heard about it as if it were a legend. He didn't know anyone could be as fast as Larabee had just shown himself. Buck closed his eyes, regretting the part of his friend that gave no quarter and asked none.

Jason's realization that he was dying and the death came almost simultaneously. He only had time to smile; at peace, at last, for the first time in years. Maybe that was it after all. He had hated this man, this Larabee, above the other, not because the older man shared his lost soul, but because the older man had pushed past it all. Jason hated Larabee, but somehow knew the dark gunfighter could give him this peace.

Buck held tightly to the foreman who still struggled to get to his fallen charge, his failure, his lost heart. Buck had just seen his worst nightmare played out in this man's life. Buck knew that this wasn't the time for words, that nothing would break through that mental anguish, but his hold became more comforting for all the strength he had to maintain to keep the man from doing everything in his power to follow that one in death.

"Nooooo!!" Red screamed suddenly and fought with renewed strength to get free. Wilmington didn't know he had closed his eyes, but he knew only a few seconds had passed. He followed the man's eyes and saw it.

Kyte had almost made it to his friend when his brother had fallen; was only a few feet from Red and Buck. This had him behind Larabee. He had his gun in his hand and it wavered up and down, between Chris's back and the ground. His eyes showed almost physical shock. They were more on his brother's body than his killer.

JD, drawn by the men's attention saw the same thing. "Chris!" He shouted, understanding nothing but that Chris had just killed the young man's brother, and that JD

himself would kill anyone who dared take any of his brothers away from him.

"Chris!" He screamed again. The tone of voice told Larabee all he needed

to know. There was another threat. The infamous gunslinger spun to

confront the danger.

Buck didn't give it much rational thought. He propelled himself from his position and did what he couldn't allow Red to do. He hit Kyte at an angle that put his own body between Larabee and the boy and then plunged them both to the ground and out of the line of fire. Kyte never tried to pull his trigger. JD and Ezra watched, horrified. Vin and Nathan instinctively moved that direction.

Larabee's instincts were to kill, to destroy the menace. Nothing could break through that - except the realization that one second he had been aiming at the danger and now he was aiming at Buck's back. He didn't know why, or how, but that was unacceptable. He couldn't stop his finger from completing the trigger pull. But he was able to raise his arm enough that the shot went harmlessly over their heads.

Larabee was standing, trembling at the nearness of what had almost happened. His gun was at his side. He was aware that Buck was rocking that boy. And when Red came and took the lanky gunman's place, he saw Nathan cut the ropes that had bound his hands.

Vin helped Buck stand up and move away to give the other two privacy in their grief. By that time Larabee could move again. He had reholstered his gun and moved toward the others.

Buck knew it was coming, like Texas thunderstorms rolling in over the plains dark and threatening. But it was worth it. Larabee's roundhouse punch would have decked him if he'd been healthy. As it was it spun him almost completely around before he hit the ground. No sooner had he met the dirt and registered the new pain in his back, than calloused hands pulled him up again by his collar. The straw-like blonde hair was in Larabee's eyes and he was furious. "You can't save everybody. Most ain't worth it. None's worth you gettin' yourself killed," he hissed, shoved himself away from his friend and waited for the excuse.

Buck smiled, that wide, sincere grin that was infectious to almost everyone else. "Been thinkin'. I'm pretty sure, no, no I'm real sure. It was that other fella's bullet what killed Trevor Daniels back at the saloon. This boy didn't do more than break a beer mug." No one could infuriate Chris Larabee like this man. He opened his mouth several times, closed it again several times. From the corner of his eye, he noticed that JD was slowly moving in between Buck and himself. The little whelp was prepared to take him on in defense of the obstinate, maddening, quixotic partner who just continued to grin at him now. Finally the infamous gunfighter stalked away.

But JD was angry as much as his hero and out of the same fear. He would defend the man from Larabee, but was not above a verbal attack of his own. "What was that, Buck? That was stupid. You'd just seen how fast Chris is." He looked for more words. "What kind of patience has he had to keep from killing you all these years?"

"I dodge a lot." Buck tried to keep the smile up, but slowly began to sink to his knees. Nathan and Vin moved in quickly to gentle the fall. But JD pushed between Vin and the other man whose endurance had been used up. His anger evaporated and was distilled into its true essences of worry, concern and love. "Oh God, oh God, Buck I'm so sorry, I was worried, I've been having to think you were dead, and then you could have been all over again, and I ... I... I ... didn't mean ... I'm so sorry."

Buck had never considered any different. He put his big hand on the boy's head and ruffled the wild hair. He didn't think he had to say anything. He couldn't, he was too tired. He closed his eyes for a moment.

But JD needed spoken forgiveness this time. How could he have said angry things

to Buck, Buck of all people, when he had just heard it from Chris and was so sick? "I'm sorry, I'm so sorry."

Buck started to respond but Nathan spoke first. "It's all right, JD," Nathan offered gently. "We all say things when we're mad. And we make them sound worse than they are. What we forget to do is say all the things that are so special about our friends when we're not mad. The things we admire in them, like being able to see the good in a man, even in this kinda situation." The tone in the healer's voice caused the rogue to force his eyes open despite his deep desire to rest and forget things for a while. "Buck, there are so many things you do that make me proud to be your friend, I should tell you more often. And I'm proud you'll let me be your friend." The black man's brown eyes met the midnight blue eyes of his tall, dark-haired friend. By willpower he demanded the man to realize this was an apology for earlier, hurtful words.

"Nathan, I ..." Buck didn't know what to say.

"Ain't nothin' you need to say, Buck. You do it with your actions."

The rascal looked up and saw that Josiah had helped Ezra into their circle. Ezra had a satisfied look on his face. Josiah wore a peaceful smile. Nathan was apologizing. Apologizing when he didn't have to, to Buck's way of thinking, and the gunfighter was taken aback by the realization. "Thank you," he said sincerely, and for so much. Nathan smiled at the forgiveness.

Chris had heard it all, with Vin standing a comfortable mainstay at his side. He had almost interrupted. He knew that Buck was afraid of this kind of attention, of direct assurances of loyalty and friendship or, God forbid, love. He had heard words like that too many times from the men who visited his mother and the other women at the brothel. The words had come far too easily to those men and meant nothing. The men were gone in the morning at best. At worst they had beat the women or hurt them in ways a boy might not understand. Buck liked it better when he had to look for affection or allegiance and see it in the actions of the men and, to a lesser degree, the women around him. He had learned from his mother and her friends that women could say they cared and mean it. Sadly, Chris realized, what Buck had taught himself over the years is that even proven brotherhood can easily be taken away.

Understanding these things after Buck drunkenly explained this theory on life, Chris had thought he was doing the man a favor by never saying in words that they were friends. Until he realized that people like Kestrel were saying things and manipulating actions. Then Chris saw the appreciation on Buck's face when he thought he could believe Nathan's words. Buck might believe his surprisingly cynical theory, but he didn't want to believe it. Chris would have to remember that.

+ + + + + + +

Things had settled. All the fight had gone out of Miller's men once their leader fell. Chris Larabee strode past where Nathan Jackson was tending to the wounded men of the Rockin' J Ranch. He came across Standish at the edge of camp.

"Mr. Larabee," The southerner acknowledged him without ever looking around.

"They'll be hell to pay when Nathan notices you're not resting up," the gunfighter observed around the thin cigar clenched between his teeth.

"I thought it best for me to keep a low profile in deference to the young man's loss."

A silence followed between them, heavy, but not uncomfortable.

"Hell of a couple of days," Larabee stated.

"Is there something on your mind, Mr. Larabee?" Ezra knew that this one wasn't much for small talk.

The silence stretched out again, but finally, there was a reply. "Buck ever talk to you about things Kestrel might have said?"

"Might have said?" The gambler questioned, but quickly cut the accusatory sarcasm out of his voice when he saw the concern in the dark clad man's eyes. "Some. Not enough to erase the doubts that son-of-a-bitch seeded I suspect."

"He ain't said nothin' to me."

"Perhaps he thought you wouldn't understand?" That was an unkind suggestion and Ezra was surprisingly sorry it was the first thing that came to his mind and he tried to reword it into a gentler form. "More likely he doesn't want to burden you."

"He's supposed to 'burden me'." There was an unreadable quality in the man's voice and Standish fought to identify it. "I'm supposed to stand at his side when there's trouble. I'm the one he's supposed to share a drink with when that trouble's gone," he sounded genuinely confused.

"Perhaps you should speak with him?"

"How do I explain I think someone else is standing where I'm supposed to stand? How'm I supposed to explain all that to a man?"

Ezra Standish turned for the first time to meet the other man's eyes in sincere disbelief. "Two words, Mr. Larabee. Vin Tanner." He let it sink in and then turned back to scan the prairie as Larabee was doing. "I think that Mr. Wilmington may have more than a passing acquaintance with the questioning of one's place at a friend's side."

<I'll be the son-of-a-bitch> Ezra thought to himself. <Larabee's never seen the comparison> He could tell by the expressionless look on the gunfighter's face that the pieces had fallen together for the first time. <He had really thought he and Buck were the same, and Mr. Tanner was simply a new cipher in the equation>

Larabee blew a smoke ring and let it evaporate. Still he said nothing.

"Mr. Larabee?"

"Maybe I should talk to him."

"An interesting concept." The handsome smile and sparkle in his eyes took the sting out of the statement.

The taciturn gunslinger took the statement as it was intended and raised a corner of his mouth in response. Still there was more silence than words between them. That silence might be comfortable for Vin Tanner, but Standish was a conversationalist. "Do you anticipate this conversation to be conducted in private?"

"Oh, hell, Ezra, only if I expect to get two words out on the subject before Buck bolts for the door."

"Then I suggest you have plenty of time to 'ponder' on what you want to say." There was a questioning, slightly threatening look on Larabee's face until Ezra explained, "Mr. Wilmington is not going to be alone in the foreseeable future. I suspect it is going to take nothing less than amputation to remove young Mr. Dunne from our friend's side."

Chris did smile at that. "I suspect you're right."

"Perhaps, Mr. Larabee, we would both do well to start defining ourselves more by the friends we keep rather than the distance we keep from them."

"You been thinkin' on it, too?"

"Painfully so."

There was silence again. Both men were deep in thought. Larabee didn't leave. He contemplated the horizon but his mind was elsewhere. Standish waited, unsure of what was coming. He could sense that all the conversation had been a preamble to something else. Was their leader going to ask him to leave?

Finally the taller man spoke. It was hesitant, almost embarrassed, most out of character for the man in black. "Back in town. The gunshots. I thought you and Buck were dead ..." Ezra turned to face the deadly gunfighter who paused, but finally continued, "... I ain't felt that way since ..." The words hurt as much as the memory. "... since Sarah and Adam died." Now Ezra saw only a lonely, lost widower. "I guess I thought if I could convince everyone I didn't care enough to hurt that way again, it'd be a fact."

"There's no need to explain ..."

"Yeah, there is. Because I did convince you and the others. It didn't change that I cared. Not a lick. I only made things worse."

"I would have to concede to pushing certain issues ... testing how much you would tolerate as it were."

"Didn't have to push too hard, huh?"

"On the contrary. I continually found myself forcing the boundaries. Possibly to the extreme. I kept expecting the worst; perhaps lost perspective that at some point I didn't need to test you and the others anymore." The silence stretched between them until Ezra continued, "For example, I told young Mr. Dunne the truth about Miller's brothers. One I killed in defense of the saloon manager. The other was hanged. I had no designs on their property legally or illegally."

"I believe you."

"I know - knew you would. If my pride had allowed me to tell you instead of allowing your doubt to fester, this situation would almost certainly not have evolved as it did."

"Maybe we let too many "doubts fester" for you to react any other way."

The silence stretched again. Standish wondered how the other man could feel comfortable with these lapses. He almost jumped when he finally heard the low voice again, "Don't reckon this means we'll stop buttin' heads."

"Indeed not." The emphasis in Ezra's voice hinted that he enjoyed many of the elements of their baiting each other. "But perhaps we have reached an understanding. Especially if it means we can avoid any more of these maudlin conversations."

"Oh, hell yeah!" Larabee agreed enthusiastically. They both smiled, suddenly realizing that one thing they had in common was how uncomfortable they were with this sort of intimate, honest, soul-searching conversation.

When the quiet started to grow again Standish refused to allow it and spoke congenially, "Thinking on it, Mr. Larabee, I shall try to find the opportunity to distract Mr. Dunne so you can speak with Mr. Wilmington." Chris could tell that the thought of him having to endure this same conversation with Buck amused the gambler to no end. He threw the shorter man a knowing smirk that assured him that the ulterior motive was not missed.

"Come back to camp. I ain't answerin' to Nathan for you," Larabee threw back without missing a beat. The healer and the conman were due for a talk as well. Chris was determined it would occur. Standish read all of that in his leader's tone of voice. The gunslinger wrapped a big, callused hand around the gambler's neck and steered him toward the fire.

+ + + + + + +

Most of the cowboys were mounted. Kyte was with them, keeping his distance from the Four Corners peacekeepers. The big foreman fumbled with the rigging on his horse before, with a determined stride, he made his way over to the men around the campfire.

Buck worked himself to his feet with JD's help. Out of respect, he wanted to be on his feet when he said goodbye to this man.

Nathan, Josiah and Vin stood back to let Buck have this moment with the other man. They sensed the connection between the two even if they didn't understand it. JD walked up to Red right along side of his friend.

Red saw what the other men were doing, keeping their distance, giving them this moment. He noticed the youngster, about Kyte's age, was oblivious; thinking only that his friend wouldn't be alone with these men. And the tall, friendly gunfighter didn't seem to question that the boy was within his place to be here.

Red had wondered how this man seemed to read his soul and his darkest as well as his proudest moments. The young man didn't satisfy all the questions, but a few answers slipped into place.

Buck extended his hand to the ruddy complexed foreman. "God speed, Pard," Buck said softly. "You take care of that boy."

"I'll keep him busy. If I can get him to talk, I think he'll be better."

Buck suspected the older man was staying strong for the boy; was forcing himself to hold it together. "Let him know you're hurtin', too. Let him help you. Let him know you need him." There was an awkward silence, as if the statement said too much about both of them.

The gambler and the gunslinger returning to camp supplied an appreciated distraction. Ezra Standish stopped back with the others. Chris Larabee strode up to stand by Wilmington as if, like the boy, he had the right and it wouldn't be an intrusion. The rest of the pieces slipped into place for Red.

Larabee offered his hand first this time, and met Red's in a warm handshake. "Sorry how things had to turn out."

"You fought for all the right reasons. Family. Friends. Care," he raised his voice enough to include all of the seven in the statement. "Jason fought out of hate. He's at peace now. And Kyte will heal. I'm glad if it had to happen that it was warmer feelings what won, not all that hate."

The big foreman made a point of walking over and shaking Ezra's hand. "I'm sorry for everything," Ezra nodded. No hard feelings.

Red turned back to Buck. "Sometimes it takes someone from the outside looking in to show us what we've got. What we stand to lose. Thanks." The others listened to the words closely.

Red touched his hat brim in a salute, turned and mounted his horse. He and Kyte rode out followed by the others. They led all of their horses except the one they'd given Buck to ride until Paladin was well.

The Seven stood staggered about the campfire as the others rode away without a backward glance.

Nathan worked through the emotions of the moment first, shook his head and headed toward Buck to harass him into lying down and resting. Ezra noticed this and whispered something quickly to Josiah. The words had the big man intercepting the healer before he reached his target.

Next the gambler tossed some words to Vin in a low voice. The tracker smiled at being part of the scheme and moseyed over to JD. Almost immediately he was steering the young sheriff toward the campfire with some new teachings.

Larabee sensed the goings-on behind him and turned for a look. Josiah and Nathan were watching him. Vin caught his eye over JD's head and gave him a half grin.

Standish raised his eyebrows in mock innocence, nodded his head a fraction in Buck's direction and touched the brim of his hat with two fingers. Good to his mischievous word the gambler had manipulated the situation for Chris to "have a talk" with his oldest friend.

The discomfort that surrounded their leader delighted Standish to no end. He knew Larabee wanted to set things straight with Wilmington, but God, those words came hard.

"I think, Mr. Sanchez," Ezra drawled, "Should we ever look up the word 'penance' in the dictionary, the definition will be a man like Chris Larabee being forced to express his emotions.

"Amen, brother, amen."

Buck was still watching Red and Kyte's party ride out of sight. Larabee touched his arm. It seemed to pull the rogue out of a dream state. The smile he threw his friend turned up the edges of his mustache. He started toward the string of horses to check on his mare. Chris fell in beside him.

Larabee got some satisfaction in the fact that he could already hear Ezra and Nathan's voices raised in a heated dispute over rest, changing bandages and being forced to drink some "witch's brew".

+ + + + + + +

JD's leg was jiggling. Josiah stoked the campfire, glanced at the spiraling smoke and was glad to see the warm heat source had survived the fog.

Nathan sharpened the last of his knives. Only the way Vin's eyes flickered one way then the other hinted at his nervousness. Ezra snapped his pocket watch closed. Three minutes since the last time he checked; over four hours since their missing partners had walked off together.

Ezra had just opened his watch again when Nathan spoke, "Ain't got a lick a' sense, bein' up and around hurt like they are. I'm goin' to find 'em and make 'em rest."

<Finally.> Standish exhaled as he stood up. <A reason to go check on those two wayward menaces to tranquility. And such a legitimate reason. What took us so long to come up with it.> He was headed toward the string of horses even before the thoughts completely formed. Tanner was already ahead of him. The others followed close behind.

+ + + + + + +

"Where are they?" JD asked as he and the others came upon the horses. No one was around. No one else said anything.

Tanner ambled back toward the creek, following the trail so easily that he looked like he was merely on a stroll.

+ + + + + + +

When the search party came to the small glade, they weren't sure what they were seeing. More exactly they knew what they were seeing, but couldn't make sense of it. Buck's mare was grazing on tender young grass. They were by the creek. Chris and Buck had again migrated to the water when the danger was passed. Then things got a little bizarre.

Chris Larabee had found a shelf of granite about four feet below the water. It created shallows that were heated by the sun and a natural bench. The gunfighter was reclining back on his elbows, pleasantly drunk, and covered in the warm water up to mid chest. He held a partially drained whiskey bottle in his fist. He was wearing his hat pulled low over his eyes, a bolo tie ... and nothing else. An already empty bottle of red eye lay atop the rest of his clothes that were scattered behind him on the grass.

Wilmington, in contrast, had cleaned up as if going to a Saturday night social. He was wearing a starched white shirt, buttoned at the neck, a sting tie and his best black Levi's. He was leaning against a century old sycamore. He had an almost empty bottle of whiskey beside him along with his saddlebags and a little bouquet of wild flowers. Josiah suspected that the clothes and alcohol had come from those saddlebags. He had made a fishing pole out of a limb and some string and was intent on watching the twig that passed as his bobber.

There was an old, comfortable peace between the two men. It only confused their newer partners.

"Fishing for compliments, Mr. Wilmington?" Ezra finally broke the silence. He made reference to his friend's Sunday-go-to-meeting attire and tried to sound indifferent instead of curious.

"Shhhhh. Mermaids," Buck responded, overly, drunkenly emphasizing the need for silence.

"Mermaids?" JD squeaked.

Ezra didn't miss a beat. "Any luck?"

"Not a nibble."

Josiah could see an amused smirk barely peeking out from under Chris's hat. The elder of the seven suspected that these two were going to be a handful if they had worked their way back around to the relationship they shared when they were merely two rowdy, reckless saddle tramps. And they would be Pied Pipers leading the others into their rascality. He waited to see what they were up to.

"What'd'ya use for bait?" Vin asked seriously.

With a flick of his wrist, Buck pulled in his line and caught the "bait" in his hand. Then he tossed it to Ezra. "I'd get this checked if I were you. Mermaids can tell a fake a mile off."

Ezra found himself holding his own ring. The red stone winked at him in the sunlight. He had to look down to confirm the jewelry was missing from his finger. He couldn't believe someone had removed it from his person. "Mr. Wilmington, I'm appalled."

"Yeah, I know. But Chris said I had to use it. Said he wasn't gonna listen to Nathan's bitchin' - seein' as I'd have to get wet and all - if I used our regular bait.."

"Which is, pray tell?" The words were out of the smooth talking southerner's mouth even before he realized he might not want to know the answer.

The ladies' man seemed to try to decide how to answer, but there was a mischievous sparkle in his eye that said he'd been waiting for the question. Then, with a nod toward Larabee's nude body, he finally offered, "Body parts."

Ezra blinked very slowly then blinked again as if trying to bring an image into focus ... or erase one.

Josiah plopped down on the grass laughing. He watched Vin walk over to Larabee. The smirk still barely concealed by the battered black hat said the gunslinger'd heard every word. He even raised his whiskey bottle up to Tanner just as his friend got within reach of it. Tanner sat down and started on the bottle. Buck was telling JD some tall tale about the difference between fresh water mermaids and salt water mermaids. Nathan was telling Ezra to stop taking his clothes off because he was too sick to get back in the water so soon and Ezra was responding that he would match his "bait" to Larabee's any day.

Sanchez laughed harder. The fog was lifting. He could feel the sun, peeking through the clouds, heating his face and decided that it gave him the same feeling of warmth as being here beside his friends.

The End

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