FIFTEEN

Silently the men watched as Vin Tanner placed all of Buckís guns on the table outside of Nathanís clinic. Chris shut his eyes and looked away.

JD gulped, his hands unconsciously going to the guns that hung around his own waist. "But he... Why?" he murmured quietly, his brown eyes straying to the door where Buck lay unconscious and the gambler lay asleep. Josiah shrugged, he opened his mouth to say a few platitudes, but JD glared at him quietly asking, "Chris?"

The gunslinger leaned against the railing and looked at the young man. He was saved from answering by Vin. "No point questioning it, JD. Itís done.. all we can do now is be there for him"

JD nodded, silently stewing over Buckís recent actions. "I really think Chris should be in there."

Chrisís eyes snapped over to the former sheriff. "Whyíd you say that, JD?"

Jackson exited quietly, "Probably because youíre his oldest friend. Just because you donít know where his headís at donít mean you canít help him." Chris sighed and then with a shake of his head, he walked over to the door.

Vin grabbed his arm none to gently "Leave yer guns out here."

Chrisís eyes darkened at that and without a word he complied, handing them over to Vin who took them and placed them on the table so that they clanged quietly with Buckís own guns. Chris eyed them for a moment, before opening the door and quietly slipping into Nathanís quarters.

Vin shut the door after seeing Chris settle himself between the two beds that held the Southerner and the ladies man. Shifting his hat absently he turned to look at the other remaining men. "I reckon it's best that we donít go in there with our guns. Buck well, heíll just about do anything too-." He stopped before finishing the rest of his musings.

The fact that Buck had scared Tanner was apparent by the hard set of his face when he had ridden in just under an hour ago. They had started to question him about Buck, but Vin had just eyed them for a moment, then gestured for them to get Buck off the horse. Josiah had carried the slumped form of the ladies man too the clinic, where Nathan was keeping an eye on Ezra. Vin had slid from his horse looking at Chris and JD, saying simply. "He was real close." The men didnít have to stretch their minds too far to realise just exactly what Vin had been referring too.

JD sighed, fidgeting with the gun handles, glancing out over Four Corners he could see Mrs Travis on the boardwalk brushing away the dirt with an angry energy. His eyes snapped back towards the three other men, "I uhh donít think Ezra and Buck should be in the same room. I mean we donít know what happened out there and whatever happened caused them to...I donít know."

Vin nodded, his expression grave as he leaned against the door. "Yeah. Thatís sounds like a good idea, but where?"

Josiah coughed uncomfortably, feeling like Nathan did that some how they had caused things to spin out of control. "What about the Church? Or maybe even Chrisís ranch?"

Nathan nodded in agreement. "Could do, could do. Though Iíd liked to be able to keep an eye on them for a bit." His brown eyes darted away from the accusation he knew he would see in JDís and Vinís eyes. He felt like he had started this, but maybe Chris was right and it had started a long time ago. Either way he hoped that the two men lying inside could forgive his transgressions, as it was his heart was heavy with a regret that he knew would not go away.

"Then itís the Church. Buck or Ezra?" JD queried, curious to see which the healer would choose to keep close.

"Buck, Ezra canít really be moved too much."

"Neither can Buck, really." Vin countered thoughtfully. "How boutí puttingí Buck in your quarters?"

"Now I like that idea, brother," Josiah answered, clapping the tracker on the back.

SIXTEEN

JD sat playing with his knife, its soft thud as it landed in the wood seemed to echo around the landing. He couldnít imagine what had broken the gambler. He had been defeated when they had found him in Eagle Bend, but he had thought that they had proven to the gambler that he was part of them, but he seemed to be scared, almost frightened of them.

It scared JD, nothing seemed to phase the gambler, even in the most dangerous situation he was there with a cocky remark and his gun in hand, ready to defend them. He had courage more than he had ever seen. Ezra had conned a whole camp full of cowboys; no, the man had more guts than he should have. Yet, to see Ezra so unsure of them, as if everything that had ever defined him was gone, was terrifying.

Then there was Buck, happy Buck is what youíd call him today JD thought as he gazed up at the sky, the first few stars could be seen shining in the dusk that was settling over the town.

Wilmington had acted as if nothing had happened, he even laughed when they had said that they had taken his guns. He said it didnít matter, he was into love. He never once mentioned the gambler, his ramblings seemed to go on. He talked more than he had ever heard the man. Story after story, it was almost if he was afraid what might happen if he stopped.

JD breathed out heavily as he saw Vin step lightly onto the deck, he nodded at the tracker who handed him a coffee as he settled beside the man.

"How is he?" he drawled as he leaned back, stretching his legs.

JD shrugged, a sad smile crossing his face "About the same, he has taken to playing solitaire though so thatís an improvement" he stated as he saw Mary come up the stairs with some food.

"I thought heíd might like something to eat" she said, smiling tiredly at the men as they rose to their feet at her approach.

"Iím sure he would appreciate that, Mrs Travis" Tanner murmured as he followed her inside.

They both paused as they look at the gambler, he sat in the corner of the room head resting on his knees. He didnít acknowledge their presence. The tracker gently guided her back out of the room.

"Let him be, Mrs Travis" he stated quietly as he led her to the stairs. The blond woman didnít say anything, she smiled tightly up at the man before leaving the landing.

"He canít go on like this" Dunne murmured, shaking his head at he kicked at some dirt on the wooden floor.

The bounty hunter let out a heavy sigh "I know, three days he ainít started talking, and the way Buckís acting..," he stopped as he rested his hands on his gun-belt leaning against the railing.

The smaller man joined him looking out on the town "I donít think itís helping him the way Nathan keeps running in and out" Tanner reflected, seeing the questioning gaze of the younger man, he sighed.

"I made a living hunting man, and every time Nateís there Ezra seems to see something, and shuts down a little more" he said softly.

JD nodded his head as he followed "And Nathan didnít visit him today because heís visiting Mrs Paterson, and he started playing cards"

They both fell silent as they wondered how they could mend this broken man. "Iíll talk to him" Vin said softly, his blue eyes darkening as he gazed at the younger man.

+ + + + + + +

Larabee sipped his drink as the resident ladies man entertained the rowdy saloon with another tale of his exploits. One look at the lovely Mexican told him what she thought of this story. Chris sighed, Wilmington was certainly working damn hard to push everyone away.

Josiah had worked solidly on the church for the past three days, whenever anyone asked him why, he would respond "Penance". There were other ways he could carry that, perhaps facing what had caused it.

Pushing his way outside into the cool night he stared up into the night sky. He would be damned if he listened to another story. Lighting up his cheroot he sank down on the free seat. He knew Buck, and he knew that the man was working damn hard so he didnít spend anytime alone with him, because then he might have to face what had caused him to consider doing something so drastic. Chris had seen that look in Buckís eyes, the same look he had seen in his own face for so long. Then there was Ezra, something was eating away at the man. Decision made, he now needed some of that Ďherbal drinkí of the healers. Smiling wickedly, if Buck didnít want to talk to him, heíd just damn well make him.

SEVENTEEN

Larabeeís spurs clanged heavily on the old wooden steps and Tannerís voice greeted him before he was in view "Hey Cowboy, thought youíd have headed back to your cabin by now"

He smiled seeing the large grin on the tracker and kidís face, these two were up to something.

"Nope, canít go till I get someone ready to come with me" he drawled, settling into the free chair, blowing smoke out as he grinned at the frown of confusion on the young manís face.

"What you talking about, Chris?" JD asked, resting his hands on his gun-belt as he gazed steadily at his leader.

"I think Larabee here is fixing to take Buck with him" Vin said sardonically, a smirk crossing his face. He had known that the man was getting annoyed with the stories from the scoundrel.

"Youíd be right" Chris nodded as he grinned at his two men.

JD look downright shocked as he spluttered "How? He ainít gonna go with you willing" .

Tanner chuckled then, seeing the devilish gleam in his friendís eyes "I donít think heís planning on that kid, if he was he wouldnít be here".

Dawning understanding washed over the small manís face, as he flicked his brown hair from his face. "You mean you're gonna" JD waved a hand in the direction of the clinic as he stared at the man who was openly laughing now.

"Yeah JD, Iím gonna" he said as he rose to his feet chuckling as he walked inside to the clinic to get the concoction.

"But he canít... I mean... What if..," JD stuttered looking back at the tracker who stood laughing at him.

"I reckon I think he is, kid" Vin chortled as he shook his head, his blue eyes dancing as settled into his watch.

+ + + + + + +

Sanchez stared at the man before him, his mouth pulled into a large wide grin as he burst out laughing. "Well brother Larabee, I will certainly help you with that" he clapped the man on the shoulder, as he followed him out of the church towards the saloon.

Entering into the dusty place one could easily hear the ladies man telling another yarn. Inez eyed them warily as the two gunslingers approached her. "Senorita could you put this in Buckís next drink? Tell him he either has a coffee or youíll throw him out" Larabee drawled handing over the small bottle.

Inez studied the small bottle looking up into the senors faces "Sister, we believe it's time to help a friend" Sanchez said softly his eyes on Buck.

Nodding her head, she smiled brightly at the two men "About time, if I hear another story from that man, itíd be too soon." With a swish of her hips she was gone.

+ + + + + + +

Buck watched his old friend warily, he was sitting drinking with Sanchez, but there was something in Chrisís eyes that told the ladies man to be wary of him. He looked at the coffee Inez slammed down in front of him, her hands rested on her hips as she said politely but a prickly cactus bush would have been nicer. "Senor, you drink that, or I will have Mr Larabee throw you in the jail" with that she was gone.

Wilmington watched her go, no way was he spending a time in a confined area with Chris. The man was determined to find out what was wrong with him. And he was just as determined that he wouldnít. He paused as he swallowed what the lady called coffee in two large gulps. "That was vile, Inez while olí Nathan donít have concoctions that are half as bad as that" he drawled wiping his mouth.

The look the Mexican lady threw at him was enough to send those sitting around him into guffaws of laughter.

He grinned, but his heart wasnít in it, raising his glass he toasted his new round of friends. He paused in the middle of a sip, as a man walked by. "You hear about Mr Standish..."

Buck tried to focus on which man said it, but his body suddenly felt too heavy, and he rose to his feet swaying slightly. He bumped into a non-moving figure and he pushed at it, but it didnít move. "Easy there, Brother" a large voice boomed in his ears. Looking up he stared into the smiling face of the preacher as the whole world went dark.

EIGHTEEN

The tracker watched the three men ride out. He couldnít help the small chuckle as he watched Sanchez steady the ladies man in his saddle. That man was bound and determined to fall from the preacherís firm hold. He nodded at Larabee as he rode by. Now it was their turn to solve whatever ailed the Southerner.

Turning, he made his way inside the clinic, he saw JD sitting beside the gambler. His head rested on the Southerner's shoulder, as he snored lightly. Ezra raised his head as he looked at the tracker. The expression was unreadable, but Vin could see some of the old Ezra staring back at him. The two men slowly raised the kid up , and laid him on the cot. JD didnít move much other than to mumble sleepily at the two of them before settling down again.

Vin grinned at the gambler who gave a small smile back. JD could make anyone smile.

"Poker?" Vin queried, knowing that the gambler didnít want to be left alone.

Standish shook his head slightly as he said gruffly, "Whisky..," he winced as his throat protested. Tanner nodded, pulling out a bottle as he set two cups down.

Vin eyed the Southerner as he sipped at the bitter liquid.

"Whatís going on, Ezra" he asked softly, Standish didnít respond but his eyes flickered but it was as if the man had reached his limit.

"I canít do it alone anymore" Ezra admitted softly, his words laced with such anguish that the bounty hunter couldnít help but see the manís pain.

"You were never alone to do it anyway," he countered softly, tipping his hat off to enable him to study the gambler more openly.

"Wasnít I?" Ezra murmured "My own moth..." he broke off shaking his head as he stared at his hands. "Maude" he corrected himself softly, "Used me for a con...my whole life has been about seeing a con, spotting one... I just didnít believe that I was in one..," he said brokenly, his head rested on his hands.

"You think she was conning you" Tanner asked quietly as he poured himself another drink.

"What else am I to believe, Mr Tanner?" came the weary reply.

"Well, seems to me, you could use them skills of yours to look at your situation," he stated, watching the other man closely.

A hiccup of a laugh as the Southerner pushed himself unsteadily to his feet.

"My situation... MY SITUATION!" he drawled angrily as he paced back and forth in front of the tracker. "Mr Tanner, my whole life has been a lie, and the one person I believed loved me, doesnít, it was a con..." he drawled "Tell me how am I supposed to deal with that!" he fumed angrily, as stormy green eyes met blue.

"I ainít saying itís easy, All Iím saying is try an look at it objectively..." he said smoothly never taking his eyes of the man. But seeing that JD had woken up.

"Well, we can help you deal with it, your family, Ezra" Dunne also responded.

Standish burst out laughing then, a loud laugh that tinged on hysteria as he shook his head, before dropping it to stare at the floor.

"Look at it objectively, Mr Tanner please, this is my life we are referring too here, as for family WHAT GOD DAMN FAMILY!" he finished his voice getting louder as he began to pace again.

"You saying weíre not?" Dunne asked watching the erratic pacing.

"Precisely Mr Dunne, why it's pretty funny really, con man taken by a con by his supposed mother" he murmured as he ran hands through his hair.

"So you donít think that maybe that act in the church was a performance?" Vin drawled seeing the man flinch.

"No! but I donít trust my skills on reading that situation anymore than I trust my skills on reading another," he snapped furiously as he turned away from the two men. "Why I didnít even spot Mr Wilmingtonís..." he stopped his harsh breathing suddenly filling the silence of the room. As he whispered softly into it "Looks like I am an easy mark".

He made to leave the small room, but Tanner blocked the door, his mareís leg resting in his arms. "You ainít leaving again"

Standish spun away, couldnít they just leave him alone? His mind reeled from their presence. It did seem like they cared.

"We do care, Ezra" Dunne voiced, the gambler started he hadnít realized that he had spoken aloud.

"Why donít you believe us?" The tracker asked from his position in the doorway.

"Why?" he muttered as he reached unsteadily for his shot of whiskey.

"Yeah damn it. Why are you trying to shut us out? Weíre here to help Ezra, thatís what family does!" JD snapped angrily, tired of the gamblerís attempts to dodge the issue.

"Because Iím not a part of the family," Ezra whispered heavily, "Mr Wilmington made it quite clear, that he lied to me at Eagle Bend..," he continued heavily. "Why canít I seemÖ" he shook his head. His bewildered eyes met the two other menís.

"What are you talking about?" Vin demanded harshly. The gambler shrunk back from the bounty hunter as he leaned against the wall.

"He told me that he lied when he said I shouldnít run... that we were family, but he lied. You donít need me. Buck explained that if I asked, you would reassure me that he spoke the truth," Standish stated his eyes staring intently at the roof, as one hand rested on his stomach as if he was in physical pain. "He said he lied, that everything he said then was a lie, that no one needs me. I am not, nor ever was, part of your family," he whispered.

Two shocked gasps met his words as Dunne said firmly. "It ainít true, he is hurting about something, an he just lashed out. you're family Ezra, never doubt that".

Tanner shook his head. "What did he say exactly?" He knew that Ezra prided himself on remembering detail, he knew that the man wouldnít fail him now. For he knew that Buckís words held the key into solving Standishís problem.

+ + + + + + +

"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."

+ + + + + + +

Vin stared silently at the gambler as his words hung heavy in the air. "I see," he drawled.

"Do you?" Ezra shot back angrily, beginning to pace once more. Vin rose intercepting the agitated man.

"Yeah I do," he answered, grabbing the man as he attempted to pass him and continue his pacing. Ezra shied back a little but bumped into JD. The two men held the Southerner who scowled at them, as they forced him to sit down. "And so would you, if you used your skills."

"I am sorry?" Ezra said confusion lacing his strong features. He was about to continue speaking when Vin and JD silenced him with a look. Ezra leaned back in his chair and closed his eyes, his mind replaying the words that Buck had said to him. ĎThat I lied to you.í

"My God" Ezra whispered quietly, "Mr Wilmington was only referring to himself."

"Thatís right" JD confirmed, his brown eyes wide with sincerity. "You are a part of our family even you donít think so... no matter what Buck said."

"JDís right," Vin agreed, tapping the Southerner on the thigh before seating himself down opposite Ezra. "You are family. And Buck, well what he said, I ainít saying he was right, but heís in a world of hurt right now... "

"He didnít try..." Ezra said, horrified that a man that seemed so strong would attempt such a thing.

"Yeah, he was real close," Vin returned shortly, standing abruptly and moving over to the window, trying to block the image of Buck in that canyon.

"Sweet Lord... I probably didnít help," Ezra said his voice full of self-recrimination.

"Why do you say that, Ezra?" JD questioned gently.

"I called him a bastard," Ezra said slowly, "As bad as what he said to me, what I said to him was worse."

"Nah, I think you both gave as good as you got," Vin said ruefully, his blue eyes twinkling for a second, before darkening as they regarded Standish whose head was bowed with guilt. "Ezra!" He snapped.

"Yes, Mr Tanner."

"You are family, we didnít lie to you about that."

JD nodded vigorously, his brown hair bopping up and down with each movement of his head. "Yeah, come on Ezra. We wouldnít do this for just anybody..." Ezra raised an eyebrow clearly conveying his response. JD smiled impishly, "Okay, we try and help everyone, but Ezra, nothing that ever happens around here would change the fact that I consider you a brother, never had any before I came here." His voice trailed off as his eyes glistened and embarrassed, he rubbed his eyes.

"Thank you, JD," Ezra said softly, he leaned forward and rubbed the young manís shoulders. "Thank you," he whispered. "I never had any brotherís either before I came here..." Green eyes darkened with unshed tears. "Maybe I do now."

Vin smiled and walking over, slapped the two men on their shoulders. "At least you see that now. None of what happened is your fault."

Ezra looked up at him and smiled weakly. "Perhaps, Mr Tanner. Letís go to the Saloon. I believe Inez needs her manager back.."

The two men grinned widely following the Southerner down to the Saloon, whom had regained some of his sense of self. Yet, both men knew that the issue of Maude was still unresolved, but maybe the gambler really was on the road to recovery.

CONTINUE

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