EIGHT

Buck fiddled with the reins of his horse, trying to ignore the sinking feeling in his stomach. He didnít realise that Ezra was there until he took the reins from him. "Mr Wilmington," he said quietly. "Care to come with me."

Buck stroked his horseís neck for a moment then realized that it was an order. "Alright," he agreed softly. He watched the Southerner tie the horse to the railing then followed the man over to a spare and hidden table. "What are you doing here, Ezra?" Buck asked, turning the bottle in his hands. He went to pour it and realized that his hands were shaking.

"Looking for you, Buck," Ezra answered dryly, noting the haunted and pallid look of the other man.

"What for? I ainít no use to anybody," Buck retorted darkly, his eyes closing as memories swamped him.

"Buck," Ezra said gently. His green eyes were reflecting a compassion for the other man.

"You canít say that. You helped me remember? You helped JD, Chris."

"Oh yeah. Look where that got them huh," Buck answered fiercely. His hand slamming down on the table so that it jumped with the impact. "Chrisís family died because of me. JD nearly got killed because of me. Chris is dead because of me. You-"

"What?" Ezra said, startled. "Chris is not dead, Buck. Knocked out, yes. Has a bit of a headache, indeed. But definitely, absolutely not dead."

"Really?" Buck paused contemplating for a moment. He didnít dare hope that Chris might be alive. Yet even if he was it didnít matter, they were all better off without him. He had learnt his lesson now. No good. Never was. Never could be.

"Yes? What about me, Mr Wilmington?" Ezra responded flatly, gently tapping the table with his cup to bring the older manís attention back to him. "What did you do to me?"

"I.. uh" Buck stuttered, rubbing a hand through his hair "I left you in Four Corners with your mother." He saw the Southerner flinch at the mention of Maude and internally he groaned. "Sorry, Ezra. Told ya I just hurt everyone. Donít know how anyone can put up with me." Standing, he was brought back abruptly to his seat by a strong grip on his forearm.

"Youíre not going anywhere," Ezra growled, his eyes flashing angrily.

Buck winced at the grip and the pain in Ezraís eyes.

"You told me not to run. You told me we were family, that we needed each other as friends do," Ezra said softly, his accent humming on every word. Buck tried to withdraw physically from the declaration, his eyes darting about the room furiously. "Did you lie to me?"

The words hung in the air between them. Buckís eyes flashed in anger. Leaning forward,

he nodded. "Yeah, I did. You donít need me, Ezra. You never did. Just ask the others. Theyíll tell you that I lied to you."

Ezraís grip on his forearm relaxed in shock and hurt. Buck had lied to him. "I shouldíve known," he spat out venomously at the ladies man. "You bastard. I shouldíve known someone like you would lie to me."

Buck's eyes widened then narrowed. Standing he walked away leaving the angry Southerner at the table. Ezraís words echoed in his head. - Someone like you. How often had he heard that?

Ezra was right, he shouldíve known not to trust a bastard like him. He was no good. A bastard. With a shake of his head, he untied his horse and rode out of Purgatory. He thought he saw birds flying in the distance, he only hoped that they were crows.

NINE

Ezra sat staring at the vacant chair, he couldnít believe it ĎBuck had lied, just like his mother. He wasnít needed for a con maybe. Oh yes he was good at that, had been his whole life, hadnít he? He tried to stop the spinning of his thoughts, trying to keep a hold of his anger, yet it was disappearing, for as he stared at the empty chair all he could think was that he was not needed, never had been.

Standing, he made his way to his horse. Ignoring the jibes of the other patrons at his attire, he rode out of the town. He paused staring at the direction that Four Corners lay, he had believed that maybe just maybe these men would help him through it.

He felt physically sick, his heart ached and his stomach burned. He had no one again, he wasnít part of their family, never had been. He knew he was beginning to shake, and he couldnít stop it. He wasnít aware of how long he sat astride his horse that plodded along towards Four Corners without conscious direction.

Time didnít have any meaning, nothing did. He had never belonged, never been loved or needed. His stomach rolled at the thought, and he slid from his horse unsteady as he emptied the contents of his last meal. Rising to his feet, he didnít see the two horses heading towards him, he didnít see anything but the pain of the past. How could he have missed it? His mother had conned him. Was he so easy a mark that Buck had conned him as well? He was a fool. Maybe everyone would be better off without him.

He heard the thunder of horses and then he was staring into the very concerned and angry expressions of the tracker and the young sheriff. He wanted to speak, but nothing would pass his lips.

"Buck?" JD questioned, seeing the pale expression of the gambler, and not liking the way Ezraís eyes roamed over them. Standish flinched at the word as if the young man had struck him. Vin shared a worried gaze with JD.. something was very wrong, Ezra looked defeated.

Ezraís last remaining hope of belonging to their family faded, they were more concerned with Buck, and suddenly he was afraid they would be mad at what he did, riding after Buck. What had happened? He wanted it all to stop, the thoughts, the pain. Pressing a hand to his forehead he stared at them. Ezra felt his legs buckle as he fell to the ground. He didnít hear the concern in their voices, only the anger. He shut his eyes as he tried to fold in on himself. All he wanted was for them to just leave him. Everyone did, why did they have to give him the home and companionship he longed for, and then take it away.

"Leave me" he whispered desperately "Buck...heís going.." he stopped as Vin swore violently as he moved to go to his horse.

Vin quickly mounted his horse "Take him back to Nathan, JD" he said firmly, his blues roaming over the landscape. "Iíll find Buck" he met the concerned gaze of JD who nodded quickly. Ezra hadnít looked up at them, his hat hiding his face. Vin was torn between helping Ezra or helping Buck. He nodded at JD and kicked his horse into a canter as he headed towards Purgatory.

JD watched him go before turning to the Southerner. "Ezra?" he said softly as he if was talking to a frightened child. Standish didnít respond. "Ezra, Iím taking you back to Four Corners, OK?" he gently touched the other mans shoulder.

Standish looked at him then, and there was a look of such resignation in it that JD frowned in surprise. "It will be okay Ezra, youíll see" he said firmly, then added as he saw the Southerner look to where Vin had departed. "He will find Buck, donít worry, heíll be okay" he stated, surprised when Ezra just nodded and turned to his horse.

Dunne watched the Southerner mount. "You okay, Ezra?" he asked softly as he led them back on the trail back to town.

Standish just stared at him blankly as if the words hadnít even registered, his green eyes were starting to look slightly glazed. Dunne swallowed hard, he would be relieved when he got the other man to Nathan.

+ + + + + + +

Buck sat beside his horse as it munched on the dry grass. Occasionally the horse nudged him gently with his head as if trying to bring the man out of his dark meandering.

He felt the heat of the sun on the back of his neck and it warmed him a little. But he still felt cold. Cold and alone. As it should be. Slowly he pulled out the gun and placed it on the ground staring at it, then at the quiet surroundings of the canyon. No one would find him here, they wouldnít want too.

TEN

Chris tapped his foot impatiently on the bed. He had been sitting on the bed under Nathanís watchful gaze ever since JD and Vin had gone hunting. Nathan had ordered Chris to return to his clinic so that he could just observe him for awhile. Chris hadnít disagreed because he had been feeling a bit tired and off. Josiah had gone back to the Church to pray as he said. Both Chris and Nathan knew that he was praying for forgiveness for his part in this god-awful mess.

How long would they have to wait? It was taking too long for them to return. Logically Chris knew that he was being unreasonable, but right now he didnít care. He was worried about his two friends. They were family and he would be damned if he was gonna let them destroy that - both of them.

Nathan glared at him before returning to his rolling of clean bandages. Chris watched him work for a moment. Noting the jerky movements of the black man. "Whatís wrong, Nathan?" Chris asked quietly.

Nathan turned around abruptly. "This is all my fault"

"Canít dispute you there," Chris responded dryly. "But this," he waved a hand in the air for emphasis, "This, Nathan Iíd say it began a long time ago before you had even met Ezra. You know Nathan, Iíve known Buck twelve years, but at the moment I just canít figure out..í

"Where his head is at," Nathan finished, sitting in the chair beside the bed Chris was sitting on. "Gotta feeling itís big. Otherwise he wouldnít run off like he did."

"Yeah," Chris agreed quietly with that, his green eyes shadowed. "You know, Buckís never spoken to anyone about his childhood. I mean, really talked about it."

"Neither have I," Nathan countered calmly, turning his head to look out the window of the main strip of Four Corners. "People donít like to talk about things that are painful."

His mind returning to his days as a slave. He could almost feel the cotton of his shirt brushing against the scars on his back, and he shifted uncomfortably.

+ + + + + + +

Buck fingered his Colt SAA. It felt so smooth in some parts and rough where the walnut grips were. The sun had slowly begun to move past its high point and it was easing off on its intensity. He saw all of them there like apparitions.

Sarah and Adam.

His mama.

The boys of his childhood.

Ezra.

All of them were calling him a bastard.

Dropping the gun, he put his hands to his head and cried. He just wished all of it would stop. The images of his past circled on him and he couldnít hear anything else. Reaching out blindly he grabbed his gun. His blue eyes haunted.

ELEVEN

Vin dismounted. Looking at the ground carefully, he saw the horseís track weaving along the pathway. He frowned. He hoped that the horse was injured. If so he could only wonder at what state of mind Buck was in. Then there was Ezra; he had been riding for over an hour, worried sick about that damn Southerner. Ezra had looked shattered.

It scared Vin because he had thought the other man was on his way to recovery.

Stooping down, he saw a mark that could only be Buckís footsteps. He knew that track well enough, had followed it on many occasions. Turning back to his mount, the horse jerked away from his touch as Vin heard a sound that he had dreaded. A gun shot. Buck was out here alone. This was the only way into the canyon and the only way out which meant.. Vin grabbed his horse and mounted quickly. Flicking the reins he urged the horse into a gallop. He had to find him alive. He just had to.

+ + + + + + + + + + +

Josiah kneeled, his heart was heavy and his knees ached, but he clenched his hands against the pain. It didnít matter, it was nothing more than he deserved. He considered briefly whether he should wear the hair tunic as a penance, but dismissed it. He had scoffed at his own father for that practice, no. He may wear the heavy weight of his sins around his neck but he wouldnít commit the same mistakes as his father.

He gazed around the church; he could still see the scene from yesterday. He wondered if he would ever forget it, the hurt on Maudeís face, then the pain of betrayal and anguish on the young Southernerís. No, this church could possible never hold the sanctuary for the resident sinner that he had hoped.

He knew that Standish had taken to the missionary road, and he knew that the smooth talking man had a charisma that many preachers would sell their soul for. Yet, Standish had just smiled his dimpled grin as he had tried to change the gamblerís belief. No, life hadnít been the kindest to him along the way, and he had become to believe that it was purely a game of chance, and religion had no place in it.

It was the opium for the masses. The words had been said to shock, but he had surprised the gambler by laughing, and he remembered the green eyes swinging to pin his blue ones. "That is the secret of God, brother" and he had left, leaving the Southerner to ponder those words.

Yet, here he knelt, praying to God for a sign of forgiveness that maybe things would be fine for his friends. He sighed heavily as the wind blew the door open, pulling him from his contemplation. Perhaps, he would be better served in fixing the roof; it would be a distraction and a penance. He walked out the door pausing to gaze at the two horses ponying into town. His eyesight wasnít the best from being in the darkened church, and he squinted in the glare.

"Josiah!"

Sanchez frowned, his heart sinking as he saw that it was JD and Ezra.

The young man pulled the horses to a halt in front of him, and he walked the remaining way, coming to stand by the chestnut gelding that stood docile under its rider, as if sensing his mood. "Ezra?" he said softly resting his hand on the leg of the man. JD came to stand next to him.

"He wonít answer Josiah, I need to get him to Nathanís" he said worriedly as he went to lead the horses, but the gambler swayed, his green eyes staring at them for a minute before he fell. Sanchez quickly grabbed the manís arms pulling him down from the horse. Angry blue eyes swung to the hazel brown ones of the younger man who tied the horses out the front of the church as they hurriedly made their way to the clinic.

"What happened?" he ordered, breathing hard under the unconscious weight of the man.

Dunne didnít answer, just ran ahead of him as he called for Nathan, leaving the preacher to hurry after him. His penance had just increased.

TWELVE

Mary twisted her blond hair through her thumb and forefinger as she stared impatiently at the blond man who sat drinking whisky out the front of the saloon. "Mr Larabee, donít you think with your-" Mary paused, licking her lips as she fought the way her stomach twisted at the thought of this man injured, she cleared her throat nervously when blue eyes flicked over to her before returning to their silent vigil. "With your wound that you should be resting, why Mr Jackson said youÖ" she stopped as she saw Chris suddenly rise to his feet slightly unsteady as he reached forward gripping her arm tightly as he stood staring out into the street. "Mr Larabee!" she cried and she knew that tomorrow she would wear a bruise on her arm as she steadied the gunslinger with her free hand.

"Go get Nathan, Now" he ordered harshly his eyes sliding to her and registering the pinched look of pain she wore, he quickly released her. Stepping to the railing as he moved away.

"Mr Larabee!" Mary began again, refusing to hold her arm lest he think he had hurt her badly.

"NOW MARY" he said firmly, ignoring her he made his way into the busy main street, and she paused her eyes following his. There was an almost frightening desperate edge to the manís voice, and it sent a shiver up her spine. Following his focus she felt bile rise in her throat, for their was Josiah bearing the weight of the unconscious gambler as JD ran ahead off him. He nodded at them as he past them by his dodging the people as he split a path towards the clinic.

Mary watched as Chris fell into step with the preacher, his hand resting briefly on the light brown hair, his eyes met hers for a second as they passed the saloon, and Mary felt her throat tighten in grief, her heart aching for the men. She prayed that nothing happened to the con man, for she didnít know what Chris would do. He had lost one family, he couldnít lose another member. Chris nodded briefly in recognition of her silent support. Yet, she felt guilty as her first thought had been for the handsome blond leader, while Ezra lay a small, hurt child in the large preacherís arms.

The weight of knowledge kept her silent, as the predictions of what could have happened echoed around her. The man must have finally reached his limit, she thought sadly. The Southern gentleman had always seemed so invincible and strong. More than Chris, resilient. For she had met his mother, and he had survived despite the terrible truth that she had concealed. No, Ezra deserved to have friends, for no one deserved to be treated so unfairly.

Mary made her way towards the clinic ignoring the disapproving glare of the more conservative townsfolk. He needed a friend, she ignored the small voice that told her she was only walking that way to be with Chris.

Yet, as she walked into the clinic and saw Standish curled into a foetal position on the small cot in the corner of the room, her heart broke, and any remaining misgivings or judgments she had made towards this man were washed away in the reality of his pain.

Ignoring the surprised looks of the healer, and the three other men as Mary sat down on the floor her dress pooling around her as she rested her hand on the head that lay hidden by the hands of the man.

She petted him gently, talking softly as she had to Billy in the midst of his nightmares. Standish seemed to relax from its tense position, as his breathing shifted into sleep.

Mary looked up then, unaware of the tears streaming down her face, as she rose to her feet ignoring the offered hand of the preacher. Stumbling out of the room, she braced her hand against the wall as she tried to hold back the tears.

She felt strong hands touch her shoulders and she didnít need to look to know who it was. She felt the strong arms wrap around her as the blond man held her as she wept for the gamblerís pain. Holding her and whispering to her as she had done with Ezra.

She wasnít aware of when the tears ceased but it felt nice to be held, and she let her eyes slide shut as they sat on the deck in the fading sun.

THIRTEEN

JD Dunne leaned back against the window frame as he studied the still form of the gambler. He had regained consciousness briefly before Mary had arrived. His vivid green eyes normally so full of life, and dancing with mischief, were dull, he had not acknowledged their presence.

His eyes had drifted over the preacher and healer before he turned away, crawling onto the small cot in the corner of the room. It was odd, but as he curled even tighter in on himself. JD felt his heart stop, he had never seen anything like it. The Southerner looked defeated and trapped and was seeking the only refuge he could find, retreating.

He rubbed his jaw tiredly as he looked over at the other two occupants in the room. Nathan was looking through a heavy book, his brow furrowed as he studied the words. Josiah sat on the bed, his head resting in his hands as he gazed at the sleeping man.

"Why do you think he wanted the cot?" JD asked softly as he rested his hands on his guns.

Jackson looked up briefly, his eyes sliding to the gambler "Maybe a lot of reasons" he stated his eyes dark with sorrow.

Dunne rolled his eyes in frustration as he looked at the preacher.

Sanchez sighed heavily as his deep voice rumbled in his chest as he spoke. "He probably wanted to be safe, perhaps it is what he is used to, maybe it was Ö" he trailed off as he shook his head in frustration.

JD took a deep breath as he looked back and forth between the two men. He felt for them, he did, but he felt angry right now. He was tense with worry for the con man and for Buck. He chewed on his lip as he tried to get control of his emotions.

"I seen this in the warÖ" Nathan spoke, his eyes darting away from the young man as he saw the anger in the normally so calm and excited hazel eyes.

He continued quickly as he stared back at the book in front of him "Men just shutting down, seen too much. Body can only take so much pain, even the mind can be like thatÖ heís been through a lot lately, maybe this was the last straw, his body just reacting to it all, shutting down in order to deal with what he heard".

Sanchez nodded, clearing his throat "I seen that as well, brother. But Iíd say heís hiding and heís hiding in his mindÖshock" he stated as he tapped his thigh lightly with his hands. "Iíve been there, and helped many men out of that after the war" his blue eyes were unfocused as they remembered a secret pain.

"What can we do?" JD asked, frustration and anger could be detected in his voice, but he made no move to apologize for it.

Sanchez shrugged his broad shoulders, sagging as he replied "Nothing, just be there, sit and wait"

Dunne frowned at the words, running a hand over his black hair as he placed his bowler hat down on his head. "Damn" he muttered as he exited the room.

FOURTEEN

A wind of dust trailed after Vin as he thundered into the canyon. He could still hear the reverberations of the gun shot as he rode. His heart thumped furiously as he urged his mount on. The tracker paused as he saw the shadow of a figure leaning against a large rock twenty feet from him.

The manís hands lay limp beside him, one holding the colt, the other holding a lone bottle of whisky. Vin didnít know what he had expected to find, but he couldnít stop the clench of his gut as his eyes took in the still unmoving figure. He reined in his horse and in a swift move dismounted, patting the gelding on the nose before carefully walking towards his friend. Vin let out an audible sigh of relief when he saw Buckís hand clench around the gun. Buck was alive. "Buck? That you, pard?" He called softly, not wishing to surprise the man when he was so obviously distressed. Buck didnít answer just picked up the gun and held it closer to his chest.

Vin ducked his head, wondering on how to approach his friend. He hesitated, torn between confronting him point blank or treating him like an injured stray animal that heíd often come across in his days as a buffalo hunter. Scratching his chin, he walked over to the edge of the canyon. "Some purdy spot ya got here, Buckley," Vin said easily, sensing that he had the other manís attention and squatted down looking at the view. "You know down in Texas there sure are some purdy spots. Used to go campiní just to see it at dawn. You ever see this place at sunrise?" He asked turning his head to glance at his friend. What he saw disturbed him.

Buck was staring not at the horizon, but rather the gun he held in his hand. There were evidence of tears on his cheeks, the man looked like hell. Vin turned back to the horizon again, his mind working furiously. Vin started, turning back when he heard the other man talking softly.

"Ya gotta go now, Vin. Ainít no use being round meÖ drag you down like I did Chris,

Ezra."

Vinís eyes narrowed in confusion trying to assess the mental state of his friend. "Drag me down. I doubt that could ever happen, Buck. Hell, Chris wouldnít be here now if it wasnít for you."

Buck staggered to his feet at the words and Vin tensed uneasily, cursing himself for saying the wrong thing.

"Thatís right" Buck agreed sullenly, his face contorting in grief. "Chris wouldnít be here. But he is because of me Sarah and Adam-" He turned away from Vin as tears slowly rolled down his face. "Sooner or later everybody I am around dies- Iím no good. No good," he whispered to himself brokenly. Holding the gun it wavered in his hands as he moved it closer to himself he lifted it up slightly.

"Easy now, settle down, Buckley" Vin said trying to stop the older man from doing anything rash.

Buck turned back and stared at the tracker for a long silent minute. Vin held the ladies manís eyes and he felt the depth of sorrow from Buck hit him like a bullet.

"Go away, Vin go back to the town, it needs you," he ordered.

"I ainít leavingí without you," Vin responded.

Buck scowled at him, his face dark, raising his Colt he pointed it towards Vin. "Yes you are Vin. Now git!"

Vin held up his hands in a gesture of peace, noting how the weapon trembled in the manís grasp. "Alright Iím goiní. Got any message you need me to tell the fellaís?"

Buck shook his head furiously. "No..No. Just tell Ezra heís right, I am a lying bastard. Always was."

Vin nodded, his mind working furiously. "Be seeing ya, Buck." He turned and walked away.

Buck watched him go for a moment, then looked over the horizon. "No Vin, you wonít," his voice carrying clearly to the tracker as he moved around the bend. Slowly he kissed the Colt and raised it up, cocking the gun, and for an instant it wavered before he fired it uselessly in the air.

ĎShit," Vin muttered already moving, pulling out his gun he whacked the taller man on the head. "Sorry, Buck," he said softly, removing the gun from the ladies manís now limp hand. "Time to take you back. Ya gotta a lot of people worried about you." Hurling the man onto his back, he gently checked the head wound and was pleased to see that the cut wasnít too deep.

It took Vin another thirty minutes to dress the wound and then manage to lift the man onto his horseís back. He was sweating heavily at the end of it. Mounting his gelding he looked over at the slumped form of his friend. Sighing, he shook his head. "Come on Buck, letís take ya home."

CONTINUE

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